How to See the World on $20 a Day


(and all you have to do is lower your standards)

I spent most of last year in the antipodes. I flew from Colorado to New Zealand, and lived in NZ and Australia for nine months.

Including flights, food, lodging, transportation, and entertainment — including every penny — I spent $6000 US, which comes out to almost exactly $20 a day. If I were a professional travel guide, I would tell you that I lived like royalty, stayed in the nicest places, and traveled in comfort and style.


I did not.

And I wouldn’t have wanted to.

Comfort grows from the seed of familiarity. The noblest purpose of travel is to experience the unfamiliar. The nobility is there whether or not you decide you like each unfamiliar experience.

Travelling cheaply means going slower, rougher, and giving up the illusion of self-reliance.

So I’d like to sing a song in praise of travelling on the cheap; of avoiding hotels, skipping restaurants, and escaping tour buses. Travelling cheaply means going slower, rougher, and giving up the illusion of self-reliance. It means asking for help, sharing with strangers, and becoming a member of the global community — not just a spectator.

It’s too easy to paternally look at foreign people and places as though they were quant exhibits in a massive country-sized museum. A tight budget is a great way to force yourself to dive in.


Some ways I saved money:

  • Getting around: Hitchhiking. If you’re in a country where hitching is plausible, I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is the finest way to travel. If you want to meet lots of different kinds of people, hear all kinds of opinions, problems, and strange ideas, there’s no better way. It’s a great time to get a sense of how the natives think about tourists, too. Get advice on hitching at hostels and online; it will be different everywhere you go. The constants are: Keep clean. Be happy. Be patient, friendly, and aware. It’s OK to say ‘no thanks’ and wait for the next ride.

  • Finding a place to stay: Look into HelpX, WWOOFing, and other work-for-room-and-board schemes. It may take a little time to get used to the idea of working a few hours a day when you’re traveling, but HelpXing has led to some of the most rewarding things I’ve done while traveling. It meant I spend most of my time living with locals, seeing what they did to make their living, and getting their advice on what to do for play. I got to see the workings of an alluvial gold mine, an open-pit coal mine, an Asian imports store, a fish and chip shop, a hostel, an organic farm… I painted murals and planted crops and wrestled calves and plastered walls and laid brick. I saw so many things I would never have seen staying in hotels, and I tried so many things I never would have tried otherwise.

  • Food: know how to cook cheap meals for yourself. Learn to be OK with PBJ every day for a week; find bold ways of eating rice and beans over and over and over and… That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy local cuisine! If you’re living with the locals, you’ll be eating with the locals too. Don’t be a picky eater, and don’t say “no thanks” to local food unless you’ve got an actual allergy. “It looks gross” is a terrible reason to be unadventurous and impolite. (Be sure to do some research on your destination to decide if you want to worry about traveler’s diarrhea.)

  • Packing: Travel light. If you can manage to live out of a good, comfortable backpack, you’ll never have to worry too much about transportation. Lay out everything you’re carrying once in a while and for each item ask yourself: what would I do if I didn’t have this?

  • Planning: Don’t overplan. Taking advantage of last-minute opportunities is an amazing way to enjoy adventures that you couldn’t afford to book in advance. If you meet some new friends, and they invite you to join them on some hijink, say yes! I found myself whitewater rafting, spelunking, tramping, and learning new games.

  • False frugality: Don’t be afraid to spend money on once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Don’t waste money on fast food and 4 star hotels, but if you want to see a show, or ride in a helicopter, or learn to sea kayak, do it.


Make mistakes! Ask questions! Ask for help, for advice, for directions, for friendship! Pester the locals — politely!

The hardest thing is fighting foolish pride, the desire for comfort, and the fear of embarrassment — I’ve never managed to escape them; we must fight them daily. Think of yourself as a young child, and let the world teach you!

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