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You’ve read about them in the You Won’t Believe It! section of Pick Me Up magazine (if such section exists…). You’ve seen them sat by the side of the road, a battered old piece of cardboard in one hand with their thumb shoved out to entice any old car – with or without serial killer at the wheel – to stop. And you know what? You’ve probably met one at some point if you’ve ever found yourself staying at a hostel with questionable safety and/or hygiene.
So who exactly am I talking about? Those elusive creatures, They-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the ones who have broken free of the anchor-like constraints of modern-day life, otherwise known as the unicorns of the travel world*… the people who travel for free. Without spending any money.
*They’re definitely not called that, I made it up.
You may not even know such jammy b%@#$!s exist if you haven’t yet been fortunate enough to experience one in the wild, but I promise they do! They’re out there in their hundreds, maybe even thousands. I met one at the Great Wall of China, one in L.A. of all places, two in Nepal and I can barely believe I’m writing this but five in Colombia. Apparently, that’s where they all congregate in July of every year – specifically at the Urban Buddha Hostel in Medellín (which is a very nice hostel with a very nice garden wall which you should totes check out if you’re in the area).
Travelling the world for free is possible
Now, you’re either sat there practically licking the screen at the prospect of finding out how to travel the world for free, or you’ve got one eyebrow raised, hand on hip, looking at me like you’re going to ask to speak to the manager. Because of course, it’s not possible to travel without any money.
The thing is…it is definitely 100% possible to travel the world for free if you know how to do it. But it’s so much hard work and, oftentimes, not even worth it for the sake of saving £3 on a budget dorm room and bragging rights. Travelling the world for free (or with a very extreme budget) can be stressful, worrisome and will for sure make you grey by the end of your trip. But it’s also exciting and exhilarating and all the other ex- adjectives you can find on Thesaurus.com.
Here’s where I confess that I haven’t ever travelled the world for free. Not in its entirety, anyway. But that’s not to say I don’t know how as, over the last 7 years of hopping from country to country, I’ve gone for periods of weeks to months at a time spending barely any money. And actually, I’ve only ever had a maximum of £3,000 in my bank account when I’ve set off for a trip, the longest lasting 9 months. That’s £333.33 a month, or around £11 per day.
Am I the ultimate cheapskate, or just very clever with money? You decide.
So if you’re interested in travelling the world for free, read on for 15 tips on doing just that!
How to find free accommodation
Right off the bat, let me just say that CouchSurfing is about more than scoring a free sofa for the night. It’s about an exchange. A cultural exchange, and exchange of knowledge and an exchange of stories. If you plan on using it just to find somewhere to lay your hat with no interest in getting to know your host then please, don’t even bother as it’s not right for you.
The whole point of CouchSurfing is for travellers to make use of (not take advantage of) the hospitality of strangers (most of whom are definitely not murderers) who open up their homes/spare room/couch/floor space to somebody visiting the area for a short space of time. Aside from being a fantastic and safe way to save money on accommodation, it’s a great place to meet locals and make lifelong friends.
Make use of the friends you already have
One of the bonuses of travelling is making friends with people from all over the world, meaning there’ll always be someone somewhere willing to offer you their spare room or sofa for the night. Even without travelling, I have a lot of Indian friends from when I worked in an Indian restaurant here in Cardiff. When I travelled to India back in April, I reached out to a few and asked if they wanted to meet up while I was there. What happened next was 30 days of unimaginable fun in the Indian sun (je suis un poet) without having to spend a single penny on accommodation. They and their families opened their homes and their lives to me and stuffed me with the most delicious food in the process. Of course, the whole reason I reached out in the first place was not to save money, rather to meet with friends and see the country through local eyes, but it turns out a lot can be said for Indian hospitality. The kindness of strangers is one thing, but the kindness of people you actually know is something entirely different!
Housesitting & Petsitting
If you like animals and plants then this is definitely an option for you! Housesitting is when somebody else goes on a trip or on holiday, and they don’t want to go through the hassle of tying up their life back home for the sake of a few weeks. They don’t want to stick their dog in a kennel, they don’t trust their neighbour with their plants and, most importantly, they don’t want to leave their homes as an empty magnet for burglars. Sites like Trusted Housesitters are a safe place for homeowners to find willing and able sitters to basically just live in their house for a few days/weeks/months, water their plants and keep their animals alive. It sounds too good to be true, right? Well, it’s not. It’s a real thing, and if you’re a trustworthy person who can keep a cactus alive and isn’t allergic to animals, then housesitting could be your key to travelling the world for free.
Offer a work exchange
Two of the people I met in Colombia who were travelling the world for free were actually working in the hostel I stayed at. One of them was just travelling Colombia and Ecuador, the other was aiming for the whole of South America and then on to Central America.
And how were they doing it? In exchange for free board and lodge, they were offering their services at various hostels in and around the cities they were visiting. One of them – let’s call him Rodrigo because I can’t remember his actual name – had been on-the-go for 8 months when I met him and was offering anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks free labour in exchange for a place to stay. The other, German, was in it more long-term – he was spending 3 months in one hostel before moving on to another for 3 months, back to the first for 3, and then on to a new one for 3.
They were both in it independently, randomly showing up at hostels and offering their services, but if you’re not so keen on putting yourself out there Workaway is a fab alternative. You don’t have to limit yourself to working the graveyard shift at a hostel, though. In the past I’ve actually earned myself a few free drinks or breakfasts by offering to correct the translation errors in leaflets/menus etc. at hostels and restaurants. Just think of what you’re good at, and there’s bound to be a way you can turn it into something other people could use.
Looking for more budget travel tips? Check out this article:
31 Realistic Ways You Can Save Money to Travel
Work on a farm with WWOOF (or another similar organisation)
A super popular choice among backpackers in Australia and New Zealand, WWOOF works in a similar way to CouchSurfing, in that it is reliant on the hospitality of its hosts and willingness of its participants. It’s another form of work exchange, except specific to the agricultural industry. You offer a few hours of your day doing actual hard graft on farms and food-growing places (is there another word for farm I can use here?!) in exchange for room and board.
Alternatively, if you’re on a Working Holiday Visa in certain countries, you’d have the opportunity to work in exchange for room, board and a little stipend on top of that.
Volunteer doing something else
If farming isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other volunteer options that may be more up your street, and they’re scattered all over the world. If you are looking to volunteer somewhere, whatever you do please try not to fall into the voluntourism trap. Don’t work with children unless you can give them the long-term commitment they deserve, don’t play the White Martyr going in to save all the poor hungry people, and don’t do it for yourself. If you choose to volunteer, it needs to be for the right reasons. Be ethical in your choices, and if you’re not sure what is considered ethical in volunteering, Tourism Concern UK has a few good options to get you going.
The only problem with camping for serious budget travellers is the fact that you often have to pay for the privilege of pitching your tent. With wild camping (or free camping, depends who’s talking) you avoid that whole inconvenience by camping in all the spots that aren’t really designated camping spots. We’re talking mountains, fields, random spots by the side of the road…anywhere you can find with soft enough ground to hammer a nail into. There are some countries or regions that have an outright ban on wild camping, but others are a lot more accommodating. In Scotland, for example, on unenclosed land, it’s practically a free-for-all. As long as you research local rules and regulations before pitching your tent, and follow any signs you should be good to go.
Sleep on the roof or in the garden
Okay, so this one will only really work in certain countries and climates, and a lot of people will look at you like you’re absolutely crazy for suggesting it but in some countries (specifically the Middle East and parts of Asia) there’s this weird thing where, if an accommodation is fully booked or it’s off-season, they might just let you sleep on the roof if you ask nicely. It’s not always for free, but if they do ask you to pay it’ll be a pittance compared to paying for an actual bed. I’ve only actually done this once, in Jordan, and I’ve also slept in a hammock in the garden twice in Colombia, but I’ve heard lots of stories from other travellers, so the option is out there if you get lucky.
How to get around for free
This is by far the most common option for getting from A to B while spending as few pennies as possible, but one fewer and fewer people are using. That’s probably because a lot of people think the age-old practice of hitch-hiking is synonymous with getting a tattoo across your forehead that reads “Please kidnap me, dismember my body and bury me in a desert somewhere, thanks“. The reality is that hitch-hiking can be a totally harmless, fun and unique way to get around, all while meeting interesting people along the way. I’ve only intentionally hitch-hiked in one country, that being Venezuela, but have unintentionally found myself in strangers’ cars in several other countries. You know the drill… a scary looking guy in a red car with blacked out windows slows down next to you and says “Hey, want a ride?” and you forget your inhibitions and hop right in. Okay, so not quite how it happened but look, I’m still alive! Although hitch-hiking is discouraged in most countries, it’s a perfectly viable option to travel the world without any money, so long as you take the necessary precautions and don’t be a dick about it.
Blablacar and car-sharing
This is a bit of a cheat, as it’s not completely free, but Blablacar is basically just hitch-hiking for those who want to be able to sleep at night, safe in the knowledge they won’t be unknowingly getting in a car with a murderer. Drivers who are planning to make a certain journey can put a little ad-type thing on the website including when they’re leaving, how many spare seats they have and how much it’ll cost, and people who want to make the same journey but don’t quite fancy public transport can buy themselves a seat. As far as I’m aware drivers need to have their ID verified, so you’re safe from mass murderers and people who want to wear your skin.
Another option for car sharing is using relevant Facebook groups to find people making the same journey. I’m currently a member of Backpacking NZ on Facebook, and there are constantly posts popping up from people saying they’re planning to drive from Wellington to Auckland or vice versa (and lots of other routes, obviously). All most of them ask is for a contribution for gas money, and a lot of them don’t even ask for that.
Get on the saddle
Not for everyone BUT I have a friend of a friend of a Facebook friend who planned to travel all the way around the world on a bike. Not a big scary Harley motorbike, but your average little blue pushbike with tassels on the back and a little bell to let you know he was coming. He actually made it to Central Asia before he suffered an injury and had to head back, but last I heard he was planning to fly out to Central Asia and pick up where he left off. He was cycling by day, pitching his tent by night, and a lot of people he met along the way were so inspired by his journey that they offered him food, drinks and often even a warm bed for the night! So if you’re up for doing something wild and crazy, and aren’t too shabby on two wheels, why not give it a go, eh?!
Travel hacking and making use of air miles
So, I have no idea how travel hacking works. I’ve tried and tried and tried to understand but I just don’t! Aside from that, it definitely wouldn’t work for me because a) most travel hacking is reserved for you lucky US-based fellas out there and b) my credit rating is so shit the best credit card I can ever hope for is my nice little Tesco Mastercard, forget AMEX.
There are loads of great articles out there to dig your teeth into if you are looking to utilise your credit cards and loyalty cards in the best way to travel, but my favourite geared towards UK people is this 4-part series by Indiana Jo on Travel Hacking in the UK.
Work & travel
By far the best, easiest and most financially stable way to see the world for free is by working and travelling. A step beyond a work exchange and WWOOF, working and travelling is where you legally work an actual paid job in a country, and travel in your spare time. For UK citizens there are a lot of countries where we can work!
Working Holiday Visa
Aside from the whole of the EU, where we can just work as normal (for now!), the following countries offer Working Holiday Visas for under-30s:
- New Zealand
There are a few hoops you have to jump through before being awarded a Working Holiday Visa, and the rules differ from country to country, but the main one is that you have to have at least some money in the bank, to begin with. I’m not sure about the others, but for New Zealand, you need at least $350NZD in the bank for every month you plan to stay there plus either a ticket out of the country, or enough money to buy one. Not exactly a free way to see the world, but you don’t need much to get you going.
Teach English as a Foreign Language
TEFL is a surprisingly lucrative career path, especially in parts of Asia where they bizarrely don’t even need you to have a formal TEFL qualification before they trust you to mould their children’s minds into something new!
There are certain countries that are a lot more picky in what they look for in an EFL teacher, and rightly so! But if you’re looking for a way to see some of the world for free while doing something worthwhile and earning (and saving!) money at the same time, teaching English as a foreign language could be the way to go.
Like WWOOFing, being an au pair is definitely not for everyone. If you hate children and can’t tell the difference between the Teletubbies and Peppa Pig, don’t even bother reading any further (that’s a joke, you’ve made it this far so you may as well make it to the end of the post ya know?!).
I’ve personally looked into becoming an au pair several times over the past few years, but the one requirement that always seems to crop up on the most appealing jobs is the one that needs you to have a valid driving licence. Which I do not have, and can’t see myself having any time soon *sob*. If you like the idea of being an au pair in some far-flung country, Au Pair World is a great place to start and is the only site I turn to every time I’m in the middle of an “I want to be an au pair” quarter-life crisis.
What NOT to do when travelling the world for free
Now we’ve touched all bases on how to travel the world for free (or with very little money in the case of Blablacar), let’s quickly go over what not to do in an attempt to travel the world with no money.
- Don’t use places of worship as an excuse to get your next meal. Gurduwaras, mosques, temples – visit if you’re actually interested in opening your eyes and learning about a different culture and religion, but don’t just go there to fill your face and swan off.
- Don’t beg. Do I really need to expand on this? If you choose to leave the safety and relative financial stability of your own country and home with no money, that is your decision. The whole begpacking culture leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
- Stay away from soup kitchens and food banks. Most of you will be sat there asking yourself ‘do travellers really do that?’ and unfortunately the sad reality is that yes, some do. It’s very, very rare but it does happen and is kind of disgusting. Poverty isn’t a game.
- Don’t illegally stow away on the back of a bus/truck/train. Not worth it, you might fall off and die.
- Don’t use people for free food/drinks. With the whole dating app on-the-go kind of reality we’re living in now, it’s easy to meet somebody for one night only, take advantage of all they have to offer and leave them the next day as if nothing ever happened. That’s just a bit shitty, to be honest.
If you do plan to try and travel the world with as little money as possible before you head off just do me a favour and take a step back to acknowledge your own privilege. If you’re sat there with a British/German/American [delete as appropriate] passport thinking how great it’s going to be when you do a Jackie Chan and navigate the whole entire world in 80 days with just $2 and an old battered journal to your name, hold up and take a breath.
As I mentioned earlier on, poverty is not a game. If you intend to travel the world with no money for the sake of travelling the world with no money, what is the point? If you plan on heading into local markets in South America, bargaining the price of a bunch of bananas down to less than a penny just because you can, then you deserve your humanship to be revoked.
If, however, you plan on travelling the world as cheaply as possible so you can continue to see the world for as long as possible without shitting on other people’s heads and making them feel like crap then please, go ahead and we can certainly be friends.
Travelling the world, no matter how you do it or how much you spend on it, is about the experiences you have, the places you see and the people you meet. It’s not about doing it so you have a great story about how you played peasant for a year to tell your fellow public schoolboys back at the pub in Upper-Class England when you get home.
And with that being said, if you have any other tips about traveling the world for as cheap as possible without shitting on other people, I’m all ears!