How to travel the world on a budget and plan the journey of a lifetime.
Travelling independently has offered me the opportunity to break away from an increasingly urbanised society, experience a different way of life and connect with nature again. I love to travel and experience new cultures. I’ve travelled extensively and planned several BIG adventures - all on a shoestring.
In this post, I provide ideas and inspiration for different ways of travelling the world independently and explain how a little bit of planning can make your budget stretch and save you time for enjoying life on the road.
I then share my system that breaks down the planning process considerably, so you can manage any initial overwhelm and spend your time and money better.
1. Deciding how you travel. Ideas and Inspiration
"A little bit of research will help you decide the type of travel that’s right for you."
There is so much more to travelling than landing somewhere exotic and hopping from one country to another. You might decide to take part in conservation work along the way, fundraise or challenge yourself by travelling solo or hiking, biking or paddle-boarding.
So my initial advice would be to take some time first to think about what you want to gain from the experience.
Look to others for inspiration
Check out my post about adventurers, explorers and communities that inspire adventurous living. These communities offer opportunities for you to connect, ask questions and chat with people who have had all sorts of travelling and adventure experience.
You may be able to find sponsorship or funding if you decide to challenge yourself or fundraise. You could cut down considerably on travel and accommodation costs if you choose to travel by land and pitch up a tent.
Here are some excellent questions to consider when you're at the beginning stages of travel planning:
Where in the world would you most like to travel to and why?
Would you like to travel alone, in a group or with someone you know?
What outdoor activities do you love taking part in? Hiking, cycling, climbing, swimming, kayaking? I'm no expert in any of these areas, but I love all of them. I always try and weave these ways of getting about into my trips. You save a lot of money travelling by land.
Are there any causes you feel passionately about? As a beginner cyclist, you might consider a challenge? You could cycle a long distance to raise money for your cause, or simply to achieve something for yourself.
What are your comfort levels? Could you sleep in a tent occasionally? Would you be comfortable sharing rooms?
2. Why a little bit of research and forward planning is important
"As a bare minimum, It’s essential to understand the geography, politics, culture and etiquette of the location you’re travelling to."
There are plenty of examples of people just jumping on a plane and making their way through whatever situations arise and having an adventure of a lifetime. That’s wonderful! But for me personally (being on a tight budget, with limited time and all), that’s pretty high risk.
Knowledge is crucial.
As a bare minimum, It’s essential to understand the geography, politics, culture and etiquette of the location you’re travelling to. Be mindful that you are in someone else’s home, not a playground. Always check Foreign Travel Advice for any country or region you are travelling to.
Just having a little background knowledge helps me feel more confident and less vulnerable – especially in remote areas.
The way we travel is changing.
The internet has revolutionised everything about travel - from how we get to our destination, to where we stay, to how we rate where we stay. All the information we need to explore the world independently or otherwise is accessible at the touch of a button. Never before have we been so curious or so adventurous. In 1990 439.5 million overseas trips were made by travellers around the world. In 2017 1.32 billion trips (United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).
Everyone is doing it, and if you want to travel somewhere, even if it’s off the beaten track, chances are someone else will be going there too. Wifi is available everywhere, and hostels, hotels, cabanas get booked up through sites such as Hostel World and Booking.com. Finding somewhere to stay is always possible, but finding somewhere decent and affordable last minute may be challenging, especially in popular destinations.
So if I want to be somewhere (for an expedition or tour, or just to have a base to relax for a while), then I research accommodation options ahead and book in advance.
The rest I comfortably leave up to chance. I also travel with a tent, which makes finding a nightly base a heck of a lot easier – but again, depends on what you're comfortable with.
I don’t want to miss the boat
Some places are hard to access. Depending on the season you may be unable to physically reach it, or it may be so popular you need to book weeks, if not months in advance. It might put you off altogether.
If one place sings to me (e.g. a remote jungle lodge; the Galapagos; Gorilla Trekking) I book it and then plan the rest of my travel around it.
3. Working out costs
"I travel independently and have a certain amount of money that has to see me through. There are no emergency funds."
My average monthly travel tends to cost £1000, excluding flights (between the low to mid-range bracket). I travel a lot by land, eat locally and mix up accommodation with camping, budget hostels and a couple of lovely home-stays/retreats. What tends to drive the cost up are the activities (safaris, guided excursions, hiring costs). I'm sure I could survive on half that budget on just living costs alone.
I travel independently and have a certain amount of money that has to see me through. There are no emergency funds. My time is also limited because at some point I have to go back to work (such is my current lifestyle). I also rent, so when I return, I have to have some extra money put aside for deposits and starting up again.
Other things to consider before travelling is the cost of adventure gear - clothes, luggage, tech (which I will cover in another blog soon).
If I'm travelling for a long time and the trip is 'build it yourself', I compare the flight prices offered by specialist travel agencies (such as STA, Intrepid Traveller etc) with Skyscanner. Sometimes an agent will find a better flight path or have a deal on with a particular airline. Sometimes they don't so I book with the airline direct.
In my experience, flights are at their very cheapest and start appearing 11 months ahead. If you have the money, then you can afford to be more flexible and buy tickets closer to the time.
Honestly, there's no best time to book flights. My advice would be to work out what you think you can afford and book your flights when they come close to that price.
Money aside, having an itinerary of flights highlights your exit strategy. In immigration, you'll be expected to show your intentions of travel, and not having future travel or return flights booked could lead to being detained and questioned at airports. I was always asked for my exit strategy.
Important tip - always book using a credit card that's covered by a decent insurer (I use American Express who is covered by AXA). Also, always buy your travel insurance as soon as you book your flights.
"Investigate land-based travel - coach, bus, train, tuk-tuk, bicycle, taxi, horse, kayak, foot. The journey may turn out to be the adventure, rather than the destination itself."
Through research, I may discover that I can travel across countries by land, and subsequently reduce my carbon footprint and save money.
Skipping on flights and travelling by land also allows you time and flexibility (visa permitting) to change your travel plans last minute without incurring costs.
So investigate land-based travel - coach, bus, train, tuk-tuk, bicycle, taxi, horse, kayak, foot. The journey may turn out to be the adventure, rather than the destination itself. In South America, I travelled all of Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador by land.
Hostel World and Booking.com are good for getting a gauge of the average price of a bed. Don't rule out the possibility of staying somewhere for free. Check out couch surfing, trusted house sitters and home-stays in the region. Most hostels I've stayed in have excellent facilities and private rooms, and couch surfing doesn't necessarily mean staying on someone's couch. People offer up their spare rooms, a little like Air B&B - but for free!
A meal and a beer
Numbeo is a handy site for checking the cost of living in a country, detailing everything from accommodation to supermarket food.
Guidebooks are good for giving you an idea of local transport costs. Fellow travellers also detail this kind of information in blogs.
Activities and adventure costs
Very important! Don't forget to factor these in.
4. My 4-Step System to Planning a World Trip
When I planned my first world trip, the whole process soon became very overwhelming. I, therefore, developed a system to break it down and make planning a whole lot easier.
The Skeleton Planning System
I allow a few weeks of solid research for each country and follow what I call the Skeleton Planning System:
BONES: Guidebooks, rough itineraries, maps, routes, timings
MUSCLE: Internet, Google, community sites, local tourist agencies, blogs
SKIN: Allocate your time, make a spreadsheet, agencies, booking
MAKE-UP: Friends and friends of friends – recommendations
Following a 4-step system like this helps me to approach travel planning in stages, so I don’t feel overwhelmed.
STEP 1: BONES
Firstly, I look at what inspires me and decide where I want to go and what I want to see and experience. I buy a guidebook and start reading. Reading familiarises me with the geography, the things I can do and gives me an idea of how much time I might want to spend in a place. I recommend Lonely Planet and BRADT Guides for global travel and Time Out for major cities.
Mapping your route
As I read, I make notes in a journal and mark in the book the places that appeal and visualise a route. I read the book from start to finish (skimming through parts, i.e., hotels, restaurants and bars).
How long can I travel in a country? Consider your Visa requirements.
Where should I start and end? Usually determined by the seasons, climate and events.
Once I figure out my start and endpoint, I look in more detail about the time I want to spend in each place.
I mark a town/place with the number 5 (for 5 days) if that’s how long I think I’d like to spend there.
I total it all up and figure that’s how long I would like to spend in that country.
Can I get from A to B as easily as I think? Or maybe A-E makes more sense because of the seasons. There's little point flying into A first if everything there is closed because of Monsoon.
I might realise I’ve over-egged it. The total may come to 120 days, and my visa will only allow me 60 days of travel, so I go back and think holistically “OK, where can I chop and change this? Maybe I’ll skip that mountain; after all, I’m hiking 2 others.”
It’s not concrete, and I know when I go away that the plan will more than likely change. I might decide to spend twice as long in a particular area or scrap another place altogether, or go hike all those mountains, after all.
But if I want to get a rough idea of budget, I need to have an idea of how long I may want to spend in each country. By reading, I’m also getting crucial information and a feel for the geography, culture and etiquette.
These are my BONES to planning.
STEP 2: MUSCLE
I Google the areas I’ve marked and see what comes up – personal blogs, community sites. I don’t overdo it and ruin the surprise element (honestly, no amount of blog hunting and preparation can prepare you for the reality of travel). Still, it is incredibly useful to get some backup knowledge.
Guidebooks are out of date as soon as they’re published. You might also find inspiration from people who have travelled differently, or adventure cycled or kayaked a region. A guidebook is unlikely to have that kind of information.
Reading about other people’s experiences may also give you the confidence to try something new. You might learn about a volunteering programme or a conservation project which may change the nature of your trip entirely.
Checking with the foreign office Gov.UK for foreign travel advice is also essential reading!
Internet research adds MUSCLE to my planning.
STEP 3: SKIN
Allocate time/money, make a spreadsheet, agencies, booking.
This is when I start to make things real and get logistical. I put my spreadsheet hat on just to make sure I can afford the travel I want to do. A spreadsheet is just my preferred way of visualising something practically.
I map out a loose itinerary. I add a column for dates, location, accommodation, travel, activity and food and drink costs. I then make space for the days I intend to travel and calculate at the bottom how much things will roughly cost.
The point is not to be exact. I just pluck out figures based on what I’ve read. An itinerary like this helps me to identify where I can make the cuts if I need to further down the line.
Visiting a travel agency who specialise in world travel.
Once I know how much time I think I should spend in a country, I visit an agency, and book flights - as soon as it’s possible to do so (anywhere between 6 to 11 months ahead).
My go-to are budget-friendly STA Travel. Booking with them gets me money off travel insurance and other perks. I also only have to put down £45 deposit for each flight (the rest is payable 3 months ahead of travel). STA also offer MultiFlex passes, allowing you to change a scheduled flight date without paying fees. Ideal if you want to extend your stay in a particular country.
Agents can take away a lot of the headache. My agent suggested much better flight paths for me than what I found on the internet. Skyscanner will give you a great gauge on price. Still, the cheapest airline might not necessarily be the most reliable or safe. I sometimes book direct with the airline if the agency can't match the price,. You just have to weigh it up. Agents want to earn commission after all. So just do what feels right for you. I mix it up.
STEP 4: MAKE-UP
Friends and friends of friends – recommendations
I’m surprised how many people I know who have been to places I travel to and who have family and friends who live in the countries I am visiting. Facebook is great for putting your feelers out, as are community groups (my favourite being: The Yes Tribe). Staying with people through association means you not only get free or cheaper accommodation, but it is also a chance to experience life like a local and connect with people.
Adventure, entertainment, nature and wildlife are all elements that contribute to a fantastic travelling experience. However, it will always be the people you meet along the way that make your trip memorable!
Never be afraid to ask and connect with the lovely people around you.
This is the final icing on the cake to trip planning – the MAKE-UP.
Take a look at my Advice Page for small and big adventure inspiration. I keep this page updated with useful guides, resources and insider tips, designed to help you get outdoors and make life memorable.