- Mariel Townsend is a freelance consultant, content writer, and traveller.
- After years of working in finance making a six-figure salary, she felt burnt out and uninspired, and decided to take time off to travel around Latin America.
- Instead of a traditional vacation, Townsend set a strict budget for herself, and even found ways to make money remotely while she travelled.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Everyone has that friend who seems to always be jet setting around the world. As that girl, people often tell me, “You’re so lucky! I could never afford to do what you’re doing!”
But the secret most remote freelancers won’t tell you is that travelling and working online can be done for less than the average cost of a vacation ($US1,979, according to a 2019 study by Bankrate). With a little research and planning, you can travel the world and get a taste of local culture all without sacrificing your financial security.
So how do you do it?
My story is a pretty typical one. I was working at a bank in the US making a six-figure salary, but was unhappy with my work, stressed out, and unsatisfied with my two weeks of vacation each year.
After returning from a vacation to Costa Rica, I thought, why can’t I lounge on the beach and practice Spanish full time? I decided to make it a reality and spent the next 18 months visiting 15 countries across Latin America and Europe, all on a budget of $US1,500 a month.
Here’s how I did it:
Set a budget and have some emergency savings
I had $US15,000 in my savings when I started travelling, which was great to fall back on if I had an unexpected expense. It also gave me peace of mind as I looked for new work, allowing me to be choosy about which gigs I accepted.
I also planned to spend my time in countries that were relatively affordable. One of my favourite sites, Nomad List, allows you to search for locations by average cost of living. For example, I lived in Salta, Argentina ($US700 a month), Lima, Peru ($US1,200 a month), and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico ($US1,500 a month).
Find remote work
The more you travel, the more you will want to keep travelling. Finding a remote job is a great way to keep the funds flowing. It’s best to consider your options before you quit your full-time gig.
I had a background in cybersecurity, but wanted a change of pace. I love learning languages, so I decided to teach English online.
The requirements are relatively simple – most companies require you to have a Bachelor’s degree, be a native speaker, and have some prior experience with students, whether it be teaching, volunteering, or mentoring – and it’s possible to start generating income quickly.
I worked primarily for VIPKID teaching English online to Chinese children, and after a few months I was making $US1,500 a month working 20 hours a week, enough to keep me going without dipping into my savings.
Turn your passion into a new income stream
There are a lot of other ways to turn your passion into a remote income stream. I also pursued freelancing work, and found a copy writing gig with Creatives On Call, where I also currently work creating content for cybersecurity training online. Other sites like Upwork provide freelance opportunities in everything from coding to travel writing. There are also Facebook groups you can join (one of my favourites is Digital Nomad Girls Community), where other travellers post about their experiences and advertise remote gigs.
With any remote job, a key requirement is fast internet access. There are coworking spaces, such as Selina, available in most countries that provide high-speed internet from $US5 a day to $US150 a month. Working from your accommodation is also a possibility.
Stay in budget accommodations
The average cost per night of a hotel in the US is about $US131, but if you’re travelling in a more affordable part of the world, it’s possible to keep your costs much lower – I recommend aiming for $US500 a month. I rented a room on the best surf beach in Mexico for less than $US300 a month. Hostels are also a great budget option, especially if you want to meet other travellers.
Wherever I stay, I ask hosts to do an internet speed test. For most remote work involving video conferencing, it’s advisable to have 10 mbps download, 2 mbps upload, and under 100 ping. For jobs that require less intensive bandwidth, lower speeds are doable.
Keep your transportation costs low
I stretch my funds further by keeping transportation costs low. Searching sites like Kayak and using their flexible dates filter allows me to find the cheapest fares. With Google Flights, you can enter a starting point and view a map of global destinations and their associated prices, helping you to get the biggest bang for your buck.
Another site, Rome2rio, allows you to compare travel methods between destinations and pick the cheapest option. I opted for an eight-hour bus ride between Mendoza, Argentina and Santiago, Chile and paid $US12, compared to a $US220 flight.
When travelling locally, public transport is a fraction of the cost of a taxi. For example, a colectivo to the beach in Puerto Escondido, Mexico costs $US0.45, whereas a taxi costs $US13. Google Maps has public transport maps for most destinations, and Moovit also provides bus routes in many places.
Invent your own sightseeing experiences
When it comes to sightseeing, I try to skip most organised tours. With a little research on Culture Trip or a similar travel site, you can get to most destinations on your own for much less.
One exception may be when going to an extremely remote location, or visiting multiple sights in one day. In this case, a tour might be worth the cost. GetYourGuide provides a variety of options which include reviews from other travellers, and Airbnb also offers great experiences run by locals. One of my favourite tours was a hike to the hidden waterfalls in Puerto Vallarta for less than $US30.
Learn the language
One of the best ways to save money while travelling is to speak the local language. Companies like International Travel and Study Institute provide classes with locals in person and online – I took a class with a friendly Guatemalan woman for $US10 an hour.
Once you’re abroad, don’t be afraid to try! Most locals will be happy to practice with you, and speaking the language will save you money. For example, if you speak a little Spanish, you can easily go to a market where the locals eat and order a meal for $US5, versus about $US25 in a restaurant that caters to tourists.
Why it’s worth it
By using the strategies I’ve shared here, I was able to travel abroad for a year and a half, became fully immersed in the culture of seven Latin American countries (and some European ones as well), and made lifelong friends from all around the world along the way. I visited the Mayan ruins, kayaked in secluded nature reserves, ate Mexican mole sauce, Argentinian empanadas, and Uruguayan chivito, and sampled mezcal, malbec, and aguardiente.
Not only did I travel on a budget, but I managed to earn and even save money as well. My Spanish improved drastically, and I learned to be more flexible, adaptable, and resilient than I ever had been before. I especially grew to more deeply appreciate the cultures and perspectives of different countries. With careful planning, courage, and a little bit of luck, you can begin your budget travel journey, too.
Mariel Townsend is a freelance consultant and content writer. She spent over five years in traditional corporate roles working in data analytics and cybersecurity policy and strategy for consulting firms, the Federal government, and financial institutions. She now develops elearning content for cybersecurity professionals, with a focus on diversity and inclusion in tech. In her free time, she enjoys improving her Spanish, connecting with new friends around the globe, travelling, and writing. Connect with her on Instagram and LinkedIn.
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