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Our Nomadic Interviews series aims to show you that a life of permanent travel is possible. So far we’ve heard about the world’s best food from Uncornered Market and how to learn a language in three months from Benny Lewis. This month Wandering Earl shares his advice for making a living on the road and travelling on a budget: he has been travelling for an incredible 11 years!
1) How long have you been travelling and where have you been?
I’ve now been traveling for almost 11 straight years. My travels have involved a combination of backpacking as well as living and working overseas, and my adventures so far have taken me all over Europe, Asia, the Americas, the Middle East and Australia.
2) Did you plan to travel for so long? What made you stay on the road?
My original plan was to take a 3-month trip to Southeast Asia after graduating from university back in 1999. The idea was simply for me to buy some time before entering the real world.
And then, six days after that first trip began, I found myself celebrating the Millennium at the ancient temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. It was that night, as I looked around at the Buddhist monks, at the local families eager to celebrate with me, at the surreal jungle setting, at the unbelievable structures in front of me, that I realized how much the world had to offer in terms of an education. At that point, I understood that global exploration was going to play a much more significant role in my life than I had ever imagined previously and I began devising ways for me to continue travel indefinitely. So far it’s worked!
3) How do you fund your travels?
I’ve had a wide variety of income streams over the years. In the beginning, I taught English in places such as Thailand and India, with the goal of earning enough money to survive in those countries. I then had an opportunity to work on board a cruise ship and originally I planned to do this for one single four-month contract in order to save a little money. In the end, I spent 5 years working on board ships (over a nine year period), during which time I earned good money while enjoying a lifestyle that involved virtually zero expenses at all. As a result, I was able to stash away enough of my earnings to keep me traveling for quite a while.
After I left ‘ship life’ about two years ago, I’ve been earning a living through the sales of some eBooks I’ve written as well as through some investment opportunities that have come my way. I’m always working on new projects as well, some for fun and others that will hopefully generate some more income in the near future.
4) Tell us about your work on a cruise ship. As an independent traveller how did you find the experience of essentially being on a tour?
At first, it was quite difficult to live, work and socialize in such a confined environment after being used to the freedom of independent travel. However, I was lucky to end up working as a Tour Manager, responsible for the shore excursion program that ships offer their passengers in every port of call. This position basically required me to spend my free time either exploring the ports we visited or interacting with our local tour operators and ‘testing’ the tours they offered. So despite the long hours of work, I was able to participate in such activities as a private tour of the Vatican, a helicopter ride into an active volcano crater and mountain-biking through the Norwegian fjords, all of which I would not have been able to do as a normal traveler.
Of course, I did have to work for 4-6 months at a time without a full day off, but every month when my paycheck was deposited into my bank account, I couldn’t believe that I was getting paid to travel, build friendships with other crew members and network with interesting people in every country we visited.
5) You recommend teaching English, but privately rather than through a language school. Why do you prefer this way and how did you find clients?
When I was looking for a way to earn income in Thailand, private teaching seemed like a good idea for two reasons. First, I had no teaching experience whatsoever and so I assumed that a language school probably wouldn’t be too interested in hiring me. Second, teaching privately offered my students and I a degree of flexibility and creativity that a typical classroom setting generally lacked. By teaching students on my own, I was able to hold small classes in such places as beautiful parks, Buddhist temples and comfortable cafes and I was able to cater every session to whatever my students felt like learning that day.
If the temperature was unbearably hot (which happened often in Thailand), we’d all jump on our scooters and drive out to a waterfall or go to the cinema, all while practicing English in real life settings. The students loved not having to sit in a classroom and I loved being able to explore Thailand and build friendships with my students, all while earning some money on the side.
Of course, I earned less money than those teachers working in language schools but instead of it being a necessary job, my experience was more of a rewarding cultural education that I looked forward to every single day.
As for finding students, I simply created a couple dozen handwritten posters that read ‘Want to learn English from a native English speaker?’ and posted them all over the main university in Chiang Mai, the city in Thailand where I was living. Amazingly, I had over 20 students sign up for classes within the first few days, with more and more students joining each week after that.
6) I love your attitude that you don’t need huge amounts of money to travel. What is your advice for people who want to travel on a limited budget?
I definitely take the view that traveling doesn’t have to be expensive at all. There are so many regions of the world where $500 is more than enough money for one incredible month of travel! For example, places such as India, Southeast Asia and Central America are all destinations where even the most budget-conscious of travelers can travel in comfort. As an example, I currently spend $600 per month in total while living here in Mexico, in a nice apartment located one block from a white-sand beach. And on my yearly trips to India, I usually spend less than $1000 USD for a 2-month stay.
The key is to embrace your travel adventures as much as possible. Don’t be afraid to use local transportation to get from town to town, eat local foods, stay in cheap guesthouses and hostels and walk around the cities you visit instead of using taxis. And don’t worry about trying to cram as many expensive (think entrance fees!) tourist sights into your itinerary as possible. Explore the local markets instead, go hiking, talk to shop owners, visit religious and historical sights that are open to the public. These local interactions are what you’ll end up remembering the most and in the end, will help keep your spending to a minimum.
Also, the beauty of travel is that the sooner you get started, even if you have to begin on an extremely tight budget, the sooner you’ll be exposed to an entire world of new opportunities that you previously never even knew existed. There is no way of knowing where your life will end up once you begin your adventure, and if you become addicted to traveling, just as I have, you’ll discover ways to keep on going, no matter how much money is in your bank account.
7) You seem very good at finding cheap apartments to rent all over the world. How do you find them?
First, I never reserve an apartment before I arrive. I’ll normally take 1 or 2 days to walk all over town calling as many telephone numbers as possible that I find on “Apartment For Rent” signs. If I find an apartment that is above my price range, I’ll simply ask the owner/agent if they have any other apartments that may be cheaper. They almost always know of something available that is closer to my budget, but usually they avoid advertising these cheaper places.
Once I find an apartment that suits my needs, I then offer the owner 75% of the monthly rent that they’re asking for. In order to make this deal more enticing to them, I give them the right to kick me out of the apartment, with as little as 3 days notice, if they find anyone interested in renting the place for a longer term or for more money. It’s a win-win situation – the apartment doesn’t remain empty and I get a great place for a budget price. On occasion this offer is rejected, but not often. I’ve used this method three times in Mexico, in Thailand, Czech Republic and Argentina!
8 ) Tell us about some of your favourite places you have visited.
First and foremost, I’m an India addict! I simply can’t get enough of that country and I return each year for a much needed dose of the chaos and energy of the subcontinent. Every time my flight lands in Delhi or Mumbai, I honestly feel as if I’ve returned home as there is no place on Earth where I feel as comfortable.
And the diversity of people, religions, languages, architecture, landscape, traditions and food, ensures that every day I spend in India is life-changing, which is exactly the type of travel adventures I seek.
Of course, there are other countries that stick out in my mind as favorites for one reason or another, including Mexico, Croatia, Pakistan, Indonesia and Uruguay. Although, in the end, I would probably list every country I’ve been to as one of my favorites as there’s not one country that I’ve truly disliked. I’m honestly a happy traveler wherever I am, as long as I’m out of my comfort zone and learning something new about the world.
9) You are a beach fan, like us. Which destination has the best beaches?
Ha! I could talk all day about beaches! My favorite beach destinations so far have been Mexico (Caribbean coast), Thailand (the tiny island of Koh Mak), the island of Barbados (especially it’s pink sand beaches) and Hawaii (almost every beach is unreal!).
However, the most amazing beach I have ever stepped foot on is located on the tiny atoll of Tabuaeran, part of the Line Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The beach on this barely existent strip of land simply has to be seen in person to be believed! I was lucky enough to visit this island about 20 times while working on a small cruise ship based out of Hawaii…and if you can believe it, my job requirements during those visits involved ‘supervising’ the most beautiful beach on the planet!
10) Where are you heading to next? Do you think you’ll ever settle down in one place?
My next adventure will be to the Middle East. I’m planning to visit Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and hopefully, parts of Iraq. I’m aiming to start that adventure sometime within the next two months.
As for settling down, at this point, I honestly don’t see it happening any time in the near future. While I’ve definitely changed my travel style over the years, switching from constant backpacking to a much slower style where I stay for longer periods in each destination, I still have that burning desire to continue exploring the world and educating myself through first-hand experiences.
Perhaps this will change eventually, but until it does, I’ll still be moving around and living out of my backpack…
You can follow Earl’s travels at Wandering Earl or on Twitter. He has also written a detailed guide to How to Get a Job on Cruise Ships.
hate to be the buzzkill but you said you were doing this after you graduated…how did you pay off school bills and loans? I would love to do this but i have too many school loans to pay, any suggestions?
Hey Matt – I found a way to defer my student loans for two years by remaining outside of the US for a certain period of time each year. This allowed me to buy some time and after two years, I worked my first contract on board cruise ships which allowed me to start earning good money while having almost no expenses. So from this point, I began paying back my loans and about 7 years later, I had paid them all off.
I ended up working on ships for around five years (over a nine year period) and during the time I spent on ships, my only expense was pretty much my student loans. As a result, I could easily pay it off and still save money to fund my travels.
I hope this provides some useful information but if you ever have any further questions, please feel free to send me an email through the Contact Me page of my blog!
Thanks to everyone for your comments, and to Earl for a great interview and for responding to comments while we were off line in Bolivia!
Thanks for the inspiration Earl, your site was one of the first blogs I started reading when I decided to shake things up and start traveling.
I’m very encouraged to know that I can travel with a tight budget by taking the slow approach.
Hey Nick – I think it’s hard to believe that so much traveling can be done for so little money until we actually get out there and make it happen. And it’s wonderful to know that you’ll soon be out there traveling around yourself!
Awesome interview. Found Earl a while back and love the blog.
I’m currently in Cairo…. This city is nuts and I love it. Can’t wait to visit India some day soon I hope!
Hey Forest – Thanks so much for following my blog! And I think that if you like the chaos of Cairo then India will definitely be your kind of destination!
Glad you enjoyed it Forest. Egypt is definitely on our list. You’ll love India – it’s still our favourite place.