I’VE BEEN fortunate to fill the last eleven years of my life with travels and adventures: day trips, weeks away, months abroad, and even years wandering the world. I have traveled with my family, with friends, my husband, and now with my baby.
It took me several months of frustration and dissatisfaction to come to terms with the idea that full-time traveling is more about learning, planning, and actively engaging with the changing environment than just visiting and checking places off my ever-growing want list. In the first months of my travels, I felt disappointed about how I was facing my new life, especially the correlation between how much money I was spending and how much I was getting out of it. So, I decided to focus on how to spend my time and money more wisely.
I would like to share with you some of the lessons I have picked up along the way:
1. I stopped buying souvenirs. I now buy local products and if possible consume them in situ.
Souvenirs would lose their charm as soon as I put them on a shelf or on the fridge door. They have always failed to transport me to the many places they represent.
I realized that if I buy something I like and turn it into an active part of the experience in that place, it becomes something memorable. And if I really want to take a piece of that precious thing, I’ll simply write about it with as much detail as possible. Besides, the souvenirs I can afford as a traveler with a tight budget are often made in a country other than the one I am visiting, so now I make sure that what I get is made locally, and in this way, I support local manufacturers.
On my last trip to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, I felt tempted to buy a beautiful panoramic photograph of Ipanema beach. I saw the picture in every souvenir shop I visited, and I convinced myself that it could be a good reminder of how much I liked the beach in that city. But, I realized that it was a generic picture that could be easily found on the internet and that I could look for it whenever I felt like contemplating it again.
So, instead, I decided to save my money and spend part of it on a delicious açaí bowl prepared by locals. I ate it on Ipanema beach while I fully took in my surroundings — fine sand sticking on my toes, the sound of the waves mixed with the offers of fruit salad and queijo coalho shouted out by vendors, and how the sunset sky turned into a faded pink that mingled with the sea.
2. I stopped trying to visit every spot on my travel apps, and I started to wander more.
One day, I found myself rushing across the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, USA, trying to finish my visit as soon as possible so I could also check out another museum on Independence Ave. before its closing time. I remember speeding across the different rooms of the building, only stopping for a few seconds at the popular exhibits, and then racing on.
At the end of the day, I felt drained, and could hardly remember what I had seen in each of the museums. I did not want to spend another day like that, so I asked myself whether I was visiting all these places because I really wanted to do so, or just because my travel app told me they were must-see spots.
It took me a while to accept that science museums may bore me, or that I may not be so fond of spending my holidays doing endless queues to see an attraction. Now I understand that it is OK if I don’t visit the must-sees; nobody will complain about this (not even my travel app!), and that sometimes I enjoy and learn much more with a cup of coffee or glass of wine observing what is going on around me, or visiting local shops, or just wandering around.
3. I stopped wasting money on poor-quality gear.
I got tired of throwing away luggage, clothes, and shoes that wore out too quickly or because they were made of low-quality materials. I used to think that if I saved on this stuff, I could count on a bigger budget for my travels. However, I failed to realize that I would always end up spending more money on gear because I had to buy things twice — and also waste a lot of time looking for replacements in unfamiliar places.
For instance, my days walking the Inca Trail to get to Machu Picchu would have been much more comfortable if I had worn proper trekking shoes. Or I could have spent more time wandering the streets of Berlin, instead of wasting it and overshooting my budget on a replacement backpack, which was almost useless after the first month of my six-month-trip around the world.
4. I stopped waiting for ‘opening hours’ to visit a city.
During the month I spent in Chiang Mai, I had to wake up really early to get to the village where I was working as a volunteer. I walked along nearly empty streets and took public transportation with people who were going to their jobs or children who were heading to school. I was able to see the city while it was getting ready to face the rest of the day. I would walk past temples with not even one person posing at their front, wander the fresh produce market packed with locals who were buying cooking ingredients, and come across monks on their alms rounds, and people waiting for them. I often felt that I was leaving one Chiang Mai in the morning, and returning to another in the afternoon. It seemed magical.
Since then, whenever I arrive in a new city, I make sure to spend at least one morning wandering around its streets while it is still waking up to a new day. In this way, I get a full-impression idea of what it is like to live in it, and at the same time I can indulge myself and walk on empty streets and contemplate favorite spots without getting my view blocked by vendors or the crowds. Bonus point? I often get the freshest products from markets and bakeries.
5. I stopped buying unhealthy food and started to cook.
In the beginning of my trips, food was secondary to me. I just wanted to eat anything that was easy, cheap, and already made so I could continue with my visit. I would grab a sandwich, burger, kebab or slice of pizza without paying much attention to anything but its price. If it was cheap, it was made for me.
I cannot remember eating anything but tasteless sandwiches in Paris or kebabs followed by stomachaches in Dubai. These habits were not much of a problem when my trips were short because I would soon return home and start to eat healthier again. However, when I began to travel for longer periods of time, this way of eating took its toll on me. I began to feel low on energy and gained weight. So, I understood that if I wanted to lead a life as a traveler, I had to look after myself and be cautious with what I consumed to stay as fit as possible.
I started to look for healthier alternatives to junk food that would suit my budget. It was easy in places like Thailand or Vietnam, where street food is delicious and affordable, but it was too expensive in Switzerland. So, if buying ready-made meals is not an option for me, and I have a kitchen where I am staying, I budget part of my time to cook. Spending time next to a stove is not what I like the most, but I feel so much better when I eat healthily that it is totally worth the effort. I also make it more enjoyable by buying in local markets and trying to add some new ingredients to my recipes. In this way, I get the opportunity to challenge my taste buds with new flavors and textures, get fresh ingredients, and save money that I can spend on a good restaurant when I do not have access to a kitchen or I feel too lazy to prepare my own meal.