How Much Does it Cost to Travel the World?

How Much Does it Cost to Travel the World? 1
A couple in Malmo, Sweden. Paul Shoul photo.

A couple did it, and here’s how much it cost them

By Kelly Westhoff

A dong note
Americans touring Vietnam experience a favorable exchange rate, making travel there very affordable. This 2,000 dong note left as a temple offering was worth $.13 when we traveled the country in 2006.

Soon after we got married, my husband and I quit our jobs and hit the road. We traveled through eight countries in six months – Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar.

We dubbed our trip, “Kelly & Quang’s Global Roam.” Since returning home, we’ve discovered that family, friends, and curious acquaintances ask the same questions again and again. Money questions always top the list for around the world travel.

How much did it cost?

We figure, on average, we spent US $3,000 per person per month that we were away. Some months we spent more and some months less. This monthly dollar amount covered:

*hotel rooms
*daily food and bottled water
*personal needs (shampoo, soap)
*hours at Internet cafes and international phone calls home
*museum entrances, day tours, movie passes
*guidebooks and books for pleasure
*daily transportation (subway, bus and taxi fares)
*cross-country transportation (ferry boats, long-distance bus tickets, some shorter, intercontinental plane trips)

We also spent money pre-trip. We purchased some of our international plane tickets months before leaving home. We paid for traveler’s health insurance before we left. We also bought two backpacks, good shoes, some clothes, and other supplies.

Since we decided not to sell our home while we were away, we consciously planned ahead and made sure we had enough money in our account to cover not only our travel needs but mortgage payments and utility bills back home as well.

Street venddors in Bangkok
Street vendors in Bangkok

Some travelers avoid street food because they fear unsanitary conditions. Others love it because it is prevalent, cheap, fresh, delicious and piping hot.

We also wanted to make sure that we wouldn’t be completely destitute when we finally did come home so we tried to squirrel away a little extra on top of it all.

How did we save the money?

When we got married, we were 31 years-old. Not old, but not just starting out. We didn’t have kids or pets. We both owned a home. My house was put on the market. I made a profit and we kept the money, but we also added to it.

To make more money for the trip, we worked hard. Before leaving, I worked three jobs and my husband put in about 60 hours a week, too.

We looked at our lifestyle and figured out ways to save money. We traded in a nice car with a hefty monthly payment for an older car that we bought straight up with cash. Plus, the older car earned us a refund in car insurance.

We lived without cable. We canceled the home phone and just used cell phones. We had a garage sale, made good money and got rid of lots of stuff. I went through our closets and took clothes we never wore to a consignment store. We ate at home more than we ate out. We avoided malls.

Just before we left on the trip, we made sure to switch our car insurance to storage mode. We canceled garbage service. Quang called the city and had the water shut off to our house. We set the furnace on low.

dry cleaning tags
Dry cleaning tags

We picked up our clothes from one cleaning service and found pieces of blue yarn strung through all our tags. We figured this was to keep our order separate from all the others. The blue strings lingered for the rest of the trip.

How did we access money while on the road?

We didn’t pack one traveler’s check. We used our instant cash cards. ATM machines are prevalent worldwide. There were times that we headed off the beaten path and spent a week in various small towns. We planned ahead and withdrew more money before heading down those roads.

We preferred to deal in local currencies instead of dollars. We also preferred to deal in cash. In the U.S., it’s illegal to charge a customer more because he or she pays with a credit card. Not so in other countries. While Visa or American Express was accepted in many places, we avoided charging tabs. When we did, we asked if there was a surcharge for using credit.

Because our bank placed a daily limit on how much cash we could withdraw per day, sometimes we had to think out a big purchase like plane tickets. On several occasions, we withdrew money two days in a row so that we could have enough cash in hand buy airfare or pay for an expensive tour.

Before we left home, we called our bank and credit card companies and told them we would be traveling. We named countries we planned to visit so there was a record we planned to be there. We didn’t want to find ourselves in Cambodia with canceled cards due to suspicious activity.

How did we pay bills while on the road?

Because we tried to pay for most things with cash, we didn’t worry about big credit card bills coming due while we were away. The bills we knew we had to pay were accumulating back home (mortgage, heating, homeowners insurance).

hostel room
hostel room

This hostel room in southern Chile was typical of the places we stayed. Rooms were often small but cozy with shared bathrooms down the hall. Even though we were married, we often got rooms with separate beds. These rooms were usually cheaper, plus we found that many of the double beds dipped dramatically in the middle.

We set up every account we could on automatic withdrawal. This eliminated paper bills coming through the mail in exchange for email notices we could access anywhere with an Internet connection. It took a few months to work all kinks out of the system, so my suggestion is to start on this task four months ahead of any departure date.

For random bills that would come due while we were away, we left a trusted family member back home with blank checks.

Since coming home, people have asked if we ever worried that the computers we were using in Internet cafes were tracking our keystrokes and stealing usernames and account passwords. Honestly, the thought never crossed our minds. Perhaps it was naïve of us to blindly trust all those communal Internet café computers, but we have never had any problems.

If our shower had a shower curtain we felt like we were staying in luxury. Too often, a typical hostel bathroom included a shower head strung up on the wall of the bathroom. Water sprayed everywhere and ran down a drain in the floor

Could we have done the trip for less?

Yes. We often felt our biggest cost were those monthly mortgage bills we were paying back home. We could have used that money on the road, but where would we live when we came home? We briefly looked into renting our home while we were away, but didn’t do it. There were, however, some ways we could have cut costs along the way.

We could have washed our own clothes.

We had planned to wash clothes in our hotel room sinks and hang them up to dry over showers. We did that once. Instead, we ended up hauling our clothes into a local washing service. Our clothes smelled clean, sometimes our underwear had been ironed, and our money was always going to local women who were running their own small businesses. We felt good about that.

We could have eaten at fewer restaurants.

Throughout Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile, many of the hostels we stayed in had communal kitchens. Grocery stores were always easy to find. We passed many fun evenings in hostel kitchens talking with other travelers while cooking up fried rice, fish, pasta or chicken.

In Mexico, we carried jars of peanut butter and jelly around in our pack and for days on end and ate sandwiches for lunch. We’d pick up a bag of chips on the street, a couple of bananas or a pouch of cashews to go with the sandwiches and it was an instant meal.

We bought yogurt and fruit in groceries and ate those for breakfast instead of spending money on restaurant scrambled eggs. We sought out hostels that included a small continental breakfast with the room charge and had communal kitchens, but we could have used those kitchens more than we did.

Horseback riding in South America
Horseback riding in South America

We chose some expensive tours like horseback riding and walking with penguins, but other tour options were cheaper.

In Southeast Asia, communal hostel kitchens fell by the wayside. It just wasn’t something that was available. Instead, street food was prevalent and cheap. Often, Quang would order up a bowl of street soup or porridge. I’d get a street baguette sandwich and that would be a meal.

And it would cost us all of two dollars. If we had eaten like this every day, we could have saved money. We chose to head to restaurants, which charged more.

We could have slept in cheaper hotels.

There were only a couple times we felt like we were staying at bottom-of-the-barrel places. There were several times when we consciously paid more for a hotel room than what qualifies as “budget”.

There were nights in a $70 cabana by the sea in Vietnam. There were $50 nights in a high, Chilean mountain valley. There was a night at a spendy airport hotel in Mexico City. In all of those places, we could have sought out cheaper options. We were either being lazy or deciding to treat ourselves.

We could have gone on fewer or cheaper tours.

We chose to go on some expensive tours – horseback riding through a Mexican canyon, walking with penguins, tromping on a glacier, a three-day cruise through the Chilean fjords, a four-day excursion into the mountains of southern Chile, a private driver in Myanmar. There were other tour options that were cheaper. We chose these.

Kelly and Quang with a python
Kelly and Quang with a python

We could have flown less and taken the bus more.

In Southeast Asia, we did lots of flying. Land routes would have been cheaper, yet they also would have taken more time given the less-than-modern road conditions.

However, that’s not to say it can’t be done. We met plenty of fellow travelers that had gone from Laos to Vietnam, from Vietnam to Cambodia, and from Cambodia to Thailand by bus. It can be done. And it’s cheaper than flying.

We could have purchased around-the-world tickets.

We chose not to go with around-the-world tickets for two reasons: We knew where we wanted to go and our continents weren’t in a row. When calculating the cost of an around-the-world ticket, agents start to figure in how many miles you are flying. Going from North America to the bottom of South America to Asia was a big distance.

The agents I spoke with suggested several other routes that would have been cheaper, but we held firm to our plan and that made the cost of our around-the-world ticket climb.

If you are willing to go with the flow, you can buy pre-packaged around-the-world tickets that are cheaper. For example, North America to Asia to the Middle East to Europe to North America takes you in a logical circle path and therefore is a cheaper package.

The key to buying the tickets, however, is to do your research. Talk to many different agents and don’t buy anything on a whim.

We could have chosen cheaper countries to visit.

We spent 35 days in Chile and it was the most expensive country we visited. Less time in Chile would have meant more dollars to spend somewhere else. We spent a month in central Mexico and felt we really got our money’s worth. But we couldn’t beat Southeast Asia for cheap.

When we started the trip, our original plan had been to spend two months in Europe. We dumped that plan. Current exchange rates mean we would have gotten less for our buck in Rome or Paris or Amsterdam. Besides, we figured, Europe’s not going anywhere. We can go later.

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