How to Travel Around the World for $20 a Day
It was just after college that I bought a $2,000 a ticket to travel around the world that allowed for stops in Central America, South America, New Zealand, Australia, South-East Asia, and India. There were 13 stops in total – with some ground travel, which allowed me to visit 20 countries. For example, I would land in Mexico City and travel by road to Panama for my next flight, passing through Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.
My travel-round-the-world budget
My starting budget to travel around the world was a tight $10 a day – not a lot, even back in 2003. But I was young, and so eager to see the world that everything seemed doable.
I saved the money upfront – I was not about to compete with other backpackers willing to work for a dollar an hour during my trip.
First, I made a budget by country, based on how much other travelers were reporting. I purposefully avoided Europe and the U.S., which were too expensive. I kept New Zealand and Australia, as my around-the-world flight had stopovers there, and visiting such remote destinations at a later time would cost me thousands. After crunching the numbers, I hiked my daily budget to $20 to travel around the world.
Living on a strict budget
I saved big on food and drink, eating bread and avocados for lunch, a couple of fruits for breakfast, and pasta for dinner. While most backpackers were spending late nights drinking beer in bars, I went to bed early so that I could see the world the next day.
I got tired of hostels pretty quickly after sleepless nights around snoring people or on the bunk bed on top of a couple who… you get the picture.
So I camped out as much as possible. Basic camping gear is cheap and easy to pack. It can make the difference between great travel and miserable nights. I tried to get to a city early in the morning to see it by day, and get back to my cheap suburban accommodation come nighttime.
Travel hacks to save money
A $5 to $10 dorm once or twice a week was my norm in South America. The rest of the time, I was camping or sleeping at train stations or airports. Even night buses were a way to save on a hotel.
I also hitchhiked a lot. In fact, I hitchhiked almost all the way from Mexico City down to Santiago in Chile. I remember one guy in Peru who thought I was so broke that he wanted to leave me money to keep going. I strongly refused, but I welcomed the free bed. Or couch. People let me pitch my tent on schoolyards in Ecuador. I slept inside a truck in Australia, and in a tool shed in Bolivia.
In New Zealand, I got a ride from somebody who had just done some fishing. He wanted to take me to a burger joint, fearing I wouldn’t like his catch. That was the best seafood dinner I’d ever had.
Every time, people would see the gringa and tell me they didn’t think I would be comfortable, but I was so happy to just have a roof over my head, I didn’t care how primitive it was. Oh, and free laundry! I would wash my clothes in their sink – I don’t think I paid for a single load of laundry all year. I had hiking shirts that dry overnight.
Things got complicated in Asia, where I didn’t speak the language, but most basic hotels were $2 or so a night, and you could eat street food for under a dollar. That is $5 a day for a roof and three meals, leaving $5 for transport and visits.
Picking and choosing the opportunity to splurge
I kept money for impressive sites like Angor Wat or Machu Picchu, skipping dusty museums and boring monuments. Traveling for 12 months is like having a giant meal every day. After a while, you don’t appreciate the food so much. So to keep your sense of wonder, you have to limit what you see and do.
Twelve years later, I remember the main sights, but only have vague memories of the many secondary places I visited. I do remember that I gave India a miss, though it was on my flight path. I had caught a bug in Southeast Asia, and was turning back – like Alexander the Great – with a possible stopover in Kolkata. When told that it would cost me $60 for a visa, I decided to sleep the night in the airport till it was time for my flight. While you are on a campaign to conquer the world on a budget, you have to be a tough general.