A month or so into any good trip, you begin to forget what it’s like back home. You get to break out of old routines, spend more time learning about yourself, and really start to live in the moment. It can feel as if you’re creating an entirely new life out there.
But most people never get to experience any of that, because most vacations are only about a week long. After all, travel is expensive, and who can take a month (or more) off work at a time?
Well, we’re pretty sure we cracked the code.
Over the past decade, we’ve toured North America for 45 days straight, taken 6 months off to live in Hawaii, visited every National Park in the US on a 7-month road trip, and had tons of other adventures. We did it all on middle-class, 5-figure salaries — without some big windfall or inheritance — while saving for retirement.
Two things have been absolutely crucial each time: keeping our travel costs low (which we’ll talk about first), and getting enough financial leverage over our employers to take months off work (let’s save that for the end).
Cheap Travel: A Real-Life Example with Numbers
Just a few weeks ago, we came home from a 51-day, 9,325-mile (15,000 km) road trip across the United States. It cost us a grand total of $3,679. Yes, that’s for the entire 7+ weeks, for two people, combined.
Let’s break it down and put the unbelievable affordability of this vacation in context: A $3,679 price tag means that we spent $505 per week in total, which is $72 per day, or just $36 per day, per person. Here’s where that money went:
You might notice a gigantic missing category in the chart above: lodging. That’s because we spent exactly $0 on hotels and Airbnbs by sleeping in the back of our Nissan NV200 camper van at 100% free campsites. To travel more frugally, this is the highest-impact category you can cut from your budget. You might even find that it makes you explore more and have some extra fun, too.
Owning a camper van comes with its own costs, of course. Included in the “van” category are both vehicle depreciation* and maintenance. Our van lost value as we put miles on it, and this trip was long enough that we actually needed an oil change and a new air filter along the way. But that stuff would be true of any vehicle, and since our camper van is our only vehicle, none of these costs are “extra” for us. We basically just get unlimited free lodging along with our daily driver, no strings attached!
If you’re not into #vanlife, don’t lose hope though. We’ve also achieved low travel lodging costs in the past by renting an apartment long-term in an exotic location and even just sleeping in the back of a regular car. Traditional tent camping is a super cheap option, too.
One of the biggest expenses of our adventure was gas, and that’s mainly because we wanted to get out west from our starting location in Florida. The average price of gas we paid on this trip was around $3.40 per gallon ($0.90 / L). Luckily, our van is pretty fuel-efficient compared to RVs — it gets nearly 26 MPG (9.1 L / 100 km).
Another huge spending category was food. Between dining out and groceries, over a third of our budget was dedicated to it. Since our van doesn’t have a kitchen, cooking is a little inconvenient. Sometimes we’d use a small propane burner (affiliate link) to heat up food on the side of the road, or make use of a gas station microwave, or just make an old-fashioned PB&J — but a lot of the time, we ate out.
Along the way, we got to try some interesting local restaurants and vegan hotspots we’d heard about online, which is always fun. When eating at big chain places like Carl’s Jr. or Chipotle, we made use of menu hacks to keep costs lower. And on this trip, we tried a new experiment of bringing a small cooler along, which allowed us to avoid a daily Starbucks purchase by storing our own cold brew coffee and soymilk in the van. It worked pretty well!
The “other” category included a bunch of random small stuff. We picked up new sleeping bags, Lauren bought some makeup, and I needed a new pair of shoes. It also included the national gym membership that we use for unlimited showers on the road.
Besides that, the “other” category also covered all of our entertainment expenses, which were pretty minimal since most of our fun came in the form of photography, hiking, swimming, stargazing, talking, and laughing — all free.
Another of our favorite forms of entertainment is making new friends. It’s one that we sometimes have to remind ourselves to do, but it pays off every time. Making friends is normally free, but we bought tickets to a weekend-long event on this trip that helped us make a whole bunch of new friends all at once. One of them even ended up inviting us on his podcast!
We also used a handy gaming event locator to help us find a bunch of Magic: The Gathering tournaments to play in across different cities along the way. Playing tabletop games is one of our go-to methods of meeting new people anywhere we go.
A few of our other entertainment expenses included a concert in Colorado, admission into some hot springs, and a guided tour of Lewis & Clark Caverns in Montana — totally worth the splurges.
Altogether, we got a ridiculous amount of value out of $36 per day, per person.
It’s worth noting that we treated this particular trip like a vacation. We maintained our residence in Florida, so we still had to pay our normal bills back home while we were away, too — things we’d have to pay for whether we were traveling or not.
But sometimes when we travel for even longer (like 6 or 7 months at a time), we get rid of our “home base” altogether, or rent it out for income. If you’re interested in a fully nomadic lifestyle like that, here’s what this same 51-day sample period would have cost all-in:
Extrapolating from this, the all-in cost of traveling 365 days a year (assuming we sold our home) would come to around $35k per year for two people, or ~$17k per year, per person. In other words, we could travel full-time for dramatically less money than the average, middle-class American family spends to stay in one place!
The biggest cost added here is insurance, namely high-deductible health insurance and liability-only car insurance. The “other” category also now includes our cell phone bills. These are “lifestyle” costs that we didn’t count in the previous analysis of our road trip as a traditional “vacation.” Just something to think about if you’re thinking about legit living on the road and want to estimate your total annual expenses.
The Financial Prep for a Really Long Trip
Based on the numbers above, you could take the trip we just got back from with only a few thousand bucks saved up and no income. That’s really empowering! But before you spend it all on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, consider this:
If you’re the type of person who can have a great time camping in National Forests, cooking outdoors on a propane stove, and hiking for entertainment — then you’re probably the type of person who can live a happy life back home on very little money, too. By keeping low living expenses while working full-time for a bit, you can actually save a lot more money than you need for your trip, way faster than you think.
Our advice is actually to save way more money than you need before taking a long adventure like one of ours. In fact, right before taking our 6-month honeymoon in 2015, we socked away over $100,000 — even though the trip itself cost nowhere near that amount. And now (2021), we have enough stashed to travel for decades if we want to.
See, throughout our careers, we were actually planning for a very early retirement — and because of that plan, we were accumulating tons of money incidentally. In the past, our long trips were just fun breaks from burnout along the way to our larger goal.
We never let our jobs keep us from extended exploration — and you shouldn’t either.
How to Get Months Off Work for Travel (Without Asking Permission)
If you have a full-time job, saving a bunch of money before traveling means you’ll be able to do it regardless of your employer’s opinion of the idea.
Think about it: With a few years’ worth of savings in the bank, the prospect of quitting your job altogether becomes way less scary. When you return from your trip, you’ll still have plenty of cash to live off of until you find work again. It’s really liberating.
More importantly though, quitting your job isn’t even necessary most of the time! Simply being financially prepared to quit gives you a huge amount of leverage to get the time off that you want. Imagine politely telling your boss that you’ll be going away for a couple of months, but you’re happy to come back to work afterward if they’ll hold your position for you.
You don’t have to ask permission to leave, because leaving without permission is actually a viable option. That puts you in a position of strength at the negotiating table. Your employer can only say “no” to your sabbatical request if they’re willing to lose you altogether. And even if they do — you’re financially ready for it.
Here’s another idea: Instead of asking for a full sabbatical, you can offer to do a portion of your job remotely as part of your negotiation strategy. We’ve successfully done that a few times in the past. It’s a great way to avoid spending down your savings while you travel, if you don’t mind working part-time.
Don’t Tap into Your Savings Along the Way
Your money represents time and energy spent at work that you’ll never get back. So you should try to “break even” on your trip if you can — conserving that hard-earned money rather than burning your stash of cash. A great way to accomplish that is to generate some income while you’re on the road. Here are four ways we’ve done it ourselves:
- Instead of quitting your job outright to travel, try negotiating some amount of remote work with your employer until you return.
- If your boss doesn’t like that idea, you can always quit your job and do some part-time freelance work on your own. We’ve actually found that part-time work can pay more than a full-time job!
- Rent out your home while you’re away. For trips lasting just a month or two, consider short-term rentals (e.g. Airbnb). On longer trips, try finding someone to sign a lease for the full duration (we did this on our 7-month trek to every US National Park).
- Depending on the size of your portfolio, consider that the income from passive investments can automatically compensate for some (or all) of the cost of your trip — just make sure you take a long-term perspective on this and fully understand the short-term risks.
Since our extended trips are engineered to be cheap, we’ve always found that a very small amount of work (like, 5-10 hours per week) can pay for them entirely! That’s allowed us to explore as much as we want, without even touching the money we’d been saving toward early retirement.
Long-term travel doesn’t have to be a lofty goal reserved for some hypothetical “golden years” near the end of your life. These types of trips can become a repeatable, financially sustainable part of your lifestyle.
So get out there and have some fun! You don’t have to choose between financial responsibility and enjoying your youth.
Interested in how long-term travel fits into a larger financial plan? Taking a big break from full-time work to go on an adventure like this is Step 4 of our Financial Roadmap — check it out!
* To calculate our vehicle depreciation, we took the Kelley Blue Book “private party” value of our van before the trip, and subtracted its value after the trip (with over 9,325 more miles on it).