A mangled copy of Lonely Planet’s book Europe On A Shoestring sits on my shelf of most-treasured books. I love travel books because they let you in on the little-knowns; the pizzeria tucked away where you can get a huge pie for $5 and the hostel around the corner with the free breakfasts.
Recently, I was reflecting on all of the major travel adventures I have had in my life and realized that they were all done “on a shoestring.” Four major trips have taken me across the globe, and I didn’t pay full price for a single one of them.
I hope you can tear a chapter out of my book, A Mechanic’s Guide To Traveling The World For Free (just kidding, it’s just this post, not a whole book). I’ll let you in on each trip and explain how I traveled to Uganda, Nepal, Spain and England without busting my budget.
Around The World Trip #1
When: Age 15
Fundraising is one of my least favorite methods of getting enough funds to travel, but it’s a widely used strategy for a reason. As a sophomore in high school, I didn’t exactly have two grand to drop on a service trip to Uganda.
We planned to build a dormitory for a school for disabled youth. We would stay for two weeks, passing brick after brick down a line of volunteers, learning to lay them in concrete, and then spend the nights chasing frogs, bats, and cockroaches out of our room.
To raise money, I hand-wrote letters to relatives to tell them about the project and the funds I needed. Many people say they would prefer to give to their friends, family, and community who are on the ground doing service work as opposed to a faceless charity. It looked like the letters and garage sale wouldn’t be enough to cover the trip when a surprise donation from a generous uncle hit the target.
Uganda took me completely out of my frantic-feeling high school environment. I learned how to haggle at the market and just enough Lugisu to have the once-shy women holding their sides laughing at my pronunciation.
It was also the first time I learned about non-profits, including one called Engineers Without Borders. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be an engineer yet, but I was intrigued to learn that some people can make service work their full-time job.
When: Age 19
How: Volunteering with a Non-Profit
In college, one of the first extra-curricular programs I sought out was Engineers Without Borders. It had been 2 years since my trip to Uganda, and I wanted to find out if doing service work as an engineer could be a viable career path.
We spent our meetings writing grant proposals, drafting AutoCAD drawings of the water sources, and sitting in on presentations from volunteers who had gone on previous work trips. In order to be selected, you had to be picked as one of the top four contributors. There was a lot of work to do to get the project underway, but in exchange, the entire trip was paid for by Engineers Without Borders, which included the flight, transport, accommodations, and food.
Spoiler alert! I was picked as one of the people to go on a summer trip. We worked for two months collecting data to generate topographical maps of all of the water sites in the area, allowing us to plan how to build protection around water sources for the next work trip.
My days in Nepal went like this: wake up for morning tea and Nepali lessons, eat a breakfast of dal bhat, walk over the hills and through the village to get to work, survey a site, have a snack, write up all of our data, have some more tea, and then adventure in the afternoons.
Want to get involved?
Professionals of all types are involved in EWB, engineers or not. If you are interested in volunteering, check to find opportunities in your area.
My favorite aspect of Engineers Without Borders was the fact that we were not ‘saviors’, we were helpers. The community decided the project, came up with the funds, and worked alongside us.
Actually, that might be my second favorite aspect. My first favorite aspect is the fact that I now have the recipe to make chiya (Nepali tea) whenever I want!
When: Age 20
How: College Exchange Program
I knew I wanted to study abroad while at University, although the strict curriculum of mechanical engineering made it difficult to work out the logistics. With the regimented schedule in place, I was the only one to go in my group of engineering friends.
Luckily, I had enough AP credits from high school to allow me to squeeze in a semester abroad, but only with some extra paperwork.
A helpful counselor helped me navigate credit trickeries that allowed me to substitute Anatomia y Phisiologia for Physics 3. I also had to prove that my circuits, materials, and aerospace classes were at the same difficulty level at my home college.
The program itself was an exchange, so I paid my regular tuition, and someone at the Spanish university paid theirs, and we switched places. My rent was €250 per month for a room in a shared apartment. I was just a 10-minute walk from the school, and a 40-minute train ride into the city center.
My main expense was the flight, which I paid for using the money I earned as a research assistant during the school year. My second largest expense was going out for churros y chocolate.
Around The World Trip #4
When: Age 24
How: Work Project
My boss told me about a new program at the company meant to identify and train leaders. In order to be considered, you needed a recommendation and you had to submit a lengthy application.
I submitted my application, but I hadn’t heard anything for a couple months. I had completely forgotten about it when suddenly a meeting showed up on my calendar: a one-on-one with the CTO.
For the program, we were sorted into teams of 4-5 people, each of us from a different office from the U.S. to Finland to India. My team was told we would have to go to England to meet the stakeholders. When I asked how long we should stay, our boss said however long we wanted. My coworkers stayed for two weeks. I ended up staying for two months.
Through the connections I made at that office, I was later offered a 6-month project working out of the U.K. I gratefully took them up on the offer, excited to live in another country for a while.
Work covered the expenses of the flights, accommodations, and transport to-and-from the office. If you work for a multinational company, definitely check to see if there are opportunities to work out of different offices.
Opportunities to travel are out there, and they don’t have to be that expensive. Whether you leverage connections with local non-profits, your school, or your work, there are ways to travel the world without paying an exorbitant sum.
It might not be easy, whether you have to finagle a complicated schedule, work overtime to prove your value to a project, or just figure out logistics. However, every single opportunity for me has been worth the extra effort. Instead of draining my bank account, each of these four trips has made me a richer person.
What about you?
Where did you travel on a shoestring budget?
Are there non-profits in your area to volunteer with?
Did you travel abroad in school?
Let me know in the comments below!