4 Ways I Traveled The World For Free

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

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.

Two lines of people throwing bricks
Our brick tossing line in action

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.

Emma (short for Emmanuel) would hang out with us on our breaks.

Trip #2

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. 

We spent the summer collecting surveying data to make topographical maps of the region


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.

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!

I am pretty proud of this shot at Boudhanath temple in Kathmandu, not going to lie.

Trip #3

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.

I studied abroad in Madrid, but on breaks went to other cities like Sevilla, pictured here.

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

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.

For the first two months, I had a daily allowance for food. Once my coworkers left for home, I would go out to eat with my trusty Kindle.

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.

The quintessential small English town


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!

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  1. Great tips for thinking outside of the box if you truly want to travel. I always regretted not figuring out a way to travel while I was younger (college). I was simply under the assumption that I couldn’t afford the cost of travel or afford to take the time off of my college job.

    1. I was also surprised by how expats were making it work abroad by picking up jobs while they were over there! I met several English teachers. It’s understandable to feel like it’s out of the range of possibility but there are programs out there to support you. Have you figured out a way to travel now?

  2. You got me at “churros y chocolate.”. This is such a great combination and something I did went a bit crazy during the 4 months we spent in Mexico in 2018. Ok back to the core of your article as I’m already getting hungry 🙂

    I think traveling has as part of an exchange program (as a student) can be a wonderful way to discover a new country and a new culture + meet new friends along the way.

    I actually took such program when I was in college (the program I took in Europe was called Erasmus). Similar to your exchange, I only paid for the tuition fee of my home school. I picked the Trinity College of Dublin (in Ireland) and I had a blast for an entire school year. Since education in France is almost free (I believe I had to spend a couple hundreds bucks for some health care related stuff), it was an amazing win, as TCD wasn’t cheap. The country also gave us some money to help paid for the accommodation and expenses over there.

    My university wasn’t as picky to confirm that my classes were matching the curriculum I was supposed to follow if I would have stayed in France. This was a good thing, since my priority during that year was meeting new friends, sharing new experience and not so much studying as you might imagine. That being said, I managed to pick easy classes that earned me excellent grades while having one of the best school year of my lift that ended up giving me a passion for travel that I am now doing full time with my wife 🙂

    Overall, something that can be an excellent travel/life hack for people attending college. What do you think? Would you do it again?

    1. Yes all of my friends in Spain were on Erasmus! It’s awesome that you got some added bonus of money to pay for your accommodation and expenses as well.

      I would do it again in a heartbeat, especially if I didn’t have to take difficult engineering classes the entire time. My partner also studied abroad with a lighter workload but his classes were all in Spanish so he came away with better language proficiency and got to learn all about music of the ages, he did a whole subject on Flamenco!

  3. In our case I took extra time on trips that my job often asked me to travel. In my days in the USAF, that wasn’t possible, but I did travel a fair amount. In my corporate job, I was sent to France for a few days. My company allowed my wife to share my room, and for me to book a flight that kept me in France for 2 weeks extra as the cost of the flight was cheaper than if I traveled for the days for business reasons only. My wife and I took time off, and we traveled around France, using her hotel points (she travels a lot for work), and basically spending money on food and transportation. In her work travels, before our son was b9rn, she did that often. Even after him, I encourage her to take a day or two (now that he’s out of diapers) to enjoy wherever she goes. Its only a few days a year, so an extra day or two is no big deal.

    1. Extending work trips into weekends or maybe an extra week abroad is a great way to see new places. I think it’s great you encourage her to stay on and enjoy the place before heading back home.

  4. I work in healthcare and this helped me with volunteering abroad, rather like engineering helped you. . I worked with Medishare in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and then in Bhutan with Health Volunteers Overseas. Both are NGOs that do not charge much, if anything, for volunteering. I think it is a great way to travel and to give back. Basically you are donating your time and expertise. In return you get to immerse in the culture because you are working alongside local people and living with them. The Bhutan trip was for a month which is much longer than a is normally approved for a visa. I am starting to get itchy feet to go back!
    I love your pictures, especially the one of you high fiving the little boy in Uganda!

    1. I could definitely see how healthcare would be an amazing field for getting to travel internationally while also helping people in need.

  5. Completely in sync with your article. Graduated with a MechEng degree with a minor in Drama. After graduation, my family thought I would work with the national laboratory I had interned with. Instead I traveled to South Asia, used my CAD skills to partner in building a children’s home and became an English teacher, a short while later became the Drama instructor head at a local college (elementary school). I came back to the US to visit and was asked if I could help paint a food truck for a family friend (never let the creative skills die). The owner of the food truck was thankful for my assistance. She invited me for a paid trip to Hawaii to assist on another creative paint project. Over the years I have worked with different humanitarian and volunteer organizations overseas. I’ve been hosted in Puerto Rico, Dubai and Singapore by past students and connections. Recently I spent a year in the Netherlands doing community outreach and assisting in building a rehabilitation center in Germany. I have been asked when I will actually use my degree. I have a fear I wouldn’t know what to do in an office. I enjoy the people experiences and the travel so much. At any rate, thank you for your article. It stirred a reminder for me. Until the right job finds me or maybe I am creating my dream job, keep traveling and sharing.

    1. This is beyond cool. These projects sound phenomenal! Reach out if there is ever a project with an opening for another MechEng grad.

  6. Most of my traveling seems to be on a shoestring budget. My girlfriend and I did about a year of travel around the world in 2017-2018 (cheap countries, staying with friends/family), with all of our flights covered by air miles, staying in hostels or cheap Airbnbs when necessary, and managing our own ground travel (rented motorcycles or cheap cars). In order, after a 3 month van trip around the US: South Africa (20 days), Malawi (2 wks), Dubai (18hr layover to see the city), India (5 wks), New Zealand (2 wks), Philippines (10 days), Vietnam (4 wks), China (2 wks), Switzerland (1 wk), England (2 wks), Netherlands (5 days), France (2 wks). We spent about $15k each for the year I think.

    My favorite thing to do when traveling in certain countries, are Help Exchanges (helpx.net), where you work for food and accommodation for a while. You have to be a bit careful, read the reviews between the lines, and have some useful skills sometimes, but you can end up with some wonderful experiences and a really good base for exploring an area for a few weeks. Works best in Australia, NZ, and Western European countries in my experience.

    1. Your itinerary sounds amazing, and $15k for the whole year shows that it’s possible to travel without breaking the bank– sometimes it can be even less expensive than staying at home!

      Help exchanges sound great. I also have friends who housesit and so they also get accommodation for free. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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