Sunday, May 1, 2016

Traveling Abroad for Months as Working Adults

Camel Ride in Dubai

Author's Note

In 2015 my wife and I traveled abroad for 4 months.  In that time we visited 18 countries - some in Europe, some in the Middle East, and some in Asia.  It was an incredible experience that we hope to repeat soon in different countries.  The cool thing is that we're just a young middle class couple outside of Chicago, IL, USA.  We are far from wealthy.  This article details how we determined that such a trip would be possible for us, and how we went about planning it. Hopefully this convinces others that they are capable of doing such a trip too!

For a more in-depth breakdown of what specific apps, websites, and companies we used, you can see a thorough explanation at our friend Peggy's blog.

The Desire to Travel

My wife and I both studied abroad in college.  She spent months in in various countries, and I spent a year in Mexico.  It's an exhilarating experience to live in a different country especially if the new lifestyle deviates from your lifestyle back home.  The fun is magnified when you have enough time to fully embrace the culture abroad by making friends, studying, and even working.

Paris, France

We faced a dilemma after graduating college and getting married - how do you recapture the experience of living in a foreign country for more than a week or two?  We both work 9 to 5's with 3 weeks of vacation time.  We also own a home.  At best this means we could spend a few weeks per year abroad if we didn't travel anywhere else all year or take time off for holidays.  

Not to be dissuaded, we did some research to see what a long trip abroad would look like given our "grown-up" jobs and mortgage to pay.  We looked up airfare and hotel prices online, did some math to figure out how much money we'd need to have, and aligned the trip schedule with festivals and events.  Some conclusions we came to:
  1. All of the information and tools we would need to book such a trip were available online.
  2. Many other people had done similar trips before.
  3. Summer is an awesome time to go to Europe - lots of events to see!
  4. We would have to save for months, but it would not be prohibitively expensive.
  5. It was completely and totally doable.
How exciting!  We could travel for a long period of time again, just like in college.  We could meet new people, try new food, see new sights, get lost in iconic cities.

Grand Place, Brussels

Once we concluded that our trip was possible, we started putting our ducks in a row. 


Swiss army guards outside St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City

For most people work is the biggest hurdle to overcome - but you do have options.  You are a valued employee at your job and your company likely doesn't want you to leave, so a good boss will try to accommodate your desire to travel.  I will cover some options that you may or may not be able to leverage.

Remote Work
Remote work can be awesome.  You work from anywhere in the world and still contribute as if you were in office.  Unfortunately not all work places allow this, but it is worth asking.  This is especially useful if you are travelling to a time-zone where you can still work during normal office hours back home.  The best benefit of this is that you still get paid while travelling! (Side note - countries in Europe and Asia tend to have better internet connection speeds than here in the good ol' US of A).

Leave of Absence (LOA)
Almost all companies have a policy in place for leave of absence.  LOA is basically you taking a break from work with the understanding that your job will still be there when you return.  You do not get paid during your time off work, but you do not lose your job either.

Prague, Czech Republic

Quitting your Job
For some, quitting a job is not possible.  For others, this is ideal (who hasn't dream of quitting their job to travel the world?).  This depends entirely on your circumstances, your ability (or desire) to get a new job when you return, and your plans for after you return from the trip.

What we did
For me - I asked my boss what he could do to accommodate my trip and if working remotely was an option.  I found it very productive to talk through my trip with him very early in the process.  Ultimately we agreed to 8 weeks remote working, 2 weeks of vacation time, and 6 weeks of leave of absence time.  This totaled 16 weeks, or about 4 months of travel.

For my wife - she was not so lucky.  Remote working was not an option, so she took a leave of absence with no guarantee of her job being there upon return (company policy).   Her job was filled while abroad, and she had to find a new company upon return.  This was hard (she had an awesome team), but a decision we chose to make and would do again.


Istanbul, Turkey

This is another big hurdle - your house or apartment represents a huge financial commitment. Here are some ways to approach the problem.

Eat the cost
Ouch.  In this approach you simply pay your mortgage/rent while abroad.  This quickly works against you and sets a time limit on your trip.

Rent it out
This is a little more palatable than eating the cost, but involves more work. Also, it is only useful if you are comfortable having others live in your house and if you can coordinate with someone to help manage your property while gone (who will take care of that broken furnace?  Not the tenants!).  This option makes more sense if you will be gone for a long enough period of time to find tenants - most won't want to leave after just a 2 month lease.

Sell the house / Let the lease expire
Go big or go home, right?  Sell the house, quit your job, and live in a different country!  Depending on your situation, this might make sense.  Maybe you were looking to move anyway and can put your stuff in storage for a few months while travelling.  Or maybe you have no particular attachment to your apartment.  Either way, this is definitely the cheapest option.

What we did
We simply paid our mortgage while abroad.  It sucked... but our trip was too short to really consider other alternatives, especially since we knew we would be 'resuming' our normal lives once the trip ended.  One consideration is that your utility bills basically drop to nothing, and you can cancel services (TV, internet) while abroad.  Also - don't forget to change your auto insurance policy to reflect that you don't have active drivers!


Gold ATM in Dubai

Everyone is in a different financial situation, and most think they could never afford a trip like this.  It's unfortunate but understandable.  A trip like this requires you to leave your comfort zone.  Whether you can afford a trip is ultimately an assessment you'll have to make for yourself.  Here are some things to consider:

You control how expensive it is
This is simple, but very important.  This is your trip.  A month-long trip to only one country while you still work remotely is totally fine if that's what you want. It would only cost you airfare plus a month's rent in an apartment. As a counter to the ambitious trip we took, my wife and I contemplate this type of trip from time to time.

Airfare Costs
With little legwork you can quickly estimate your airfare budget.  Google Flights is awesome tool for finding low fares.  It suggests the lowest price dates for certain flights, which we used heavily when deciding what days to travel in between countries.  Also - we really liked Ryainair, a budget airline in Europe.  We routinely booked flights for $75 per person in between popular European cities.  Watch our for Ryanair's luggage fees, though!

Lodging Costs
Our golden rule of lodging was to estimate $100/night for hotels and $50/night for apartments.  We used a combination of AirBnB and AirBnb was better for finding long-term homes (we rented an apartment in Madrid for 2 months), and was a better experience and price when we were only in town for a couple of days.

Taj Mahal, India

Food is a necessity, but it can be much cheaper than what you typically pay at home.  This is especially true if you are travelling outside of Europe or the US.   And - if you are staying in one place for a long time, you can shop locally and cook food yourself! (On a side note - I strongly encourage you to try to cook a local favorite yourself)

Mint tea at our Riad in Morocco

Uber has a presence in most major cities, and makes getting around so much easier.  No more fumbling for local currency.  No more miscommunication about your destination.  No more taxi drivers hiking up your fare just because you're a tourist.  It is a God-send when travelling inside a city.

Or you can ride an elephant.

Elephant in Jaipur, India

What we did
My wife and I are not rich.  We're 20-something year-olds a few years removed from college.  We worked really hard to plan every detail of our trip ourselves and to keep costs down.  At the end of it all?  We paid a total of $10,000 per person for a comfortable 4 month trip to 18 countries.  That's everything. Flights.  Housing.  Excursions.  Visas.  Ground Transportation.  Everything. $10,000 per person for 4 months of aggressive travel.

One huge way to save money is to not travel to so many different countries but rather spend a lot of time in one country, visiting different cities there.  You can certainly shorten your trip or spend less on amenities to save money.  Everyone has a different expectation from a trip like this, so you'll want to budget with your comfort level in mind.  Are you comfortable in hostels all the time?  Then your lodging, and total trip cost, will be much lower than ours.  Are you willing to cook meals yourself or eat street food instead of restaurants?  That'll keep costs down.

Phones and Internet

Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland

We lucked out here.  We have a T-Mobile family plan that we signed up for simply because it was the cheapest at the time.  The cool thing is that T-Mobile had totally free internet (3g) and text in 18 of the 18 countries we visited as part of our plan.  We had Facebook and texts available to us the entire trip!

If you're not so lucky to have a provider that gives you free coverage while abroad, you should start by contacting them to see what they do offer.  It may be as simple as swapping out a SIM card in your phone so that it works abroad. Otherwise you may have to purchase a dedicated phone for the country you will be in, but options exist that are quite cheap.

If you are planning on working remotely while abroad, you may be surprised by how much better your internet connection is at your new location.  Europe and Asia's broadband companies commonly offer much stronger internet connections at much lower prices.  Even the tourist SIM cards outperform our wired internet connections. Ugh... come on, Comcast.

Running of the Bulls, Pamplona, Spain

Trip Planning

The most common question we hear is 'Did you plan this entire trip yourselves?'.  The answer is yes.  We booked every flight and hotel ourselves. We researched every city and what activities to do ourselves.  We arranged for transportation wherever needed.  Literally everything that you need to arrange a multi-month trip abroad is online and available to you.

We used Google Sheets heavily to help keep our costs and details organized. We had budget spreadsheets, money spent spreadsheets, upcoming flights spreadsheets, etc.  We began planning the trip about 6 months before departue, and kept planning it until about a month before returning.  It is a non-stop process.

Globe Theater, London, England

In Conclusion

My hope is that someone reads this article and considers making a trip abroad. It is not too late simply because you have gotten married, or purchased a home already, or have a steady job.  To be honest, my wife and I plan to take a trip like this with kids (once we have them) in the future.  At least, when they're old enough to appreciate it but still young enough to be receptive to what the rest of the world has to offer them.  The world has a lot to offer us if we go out and see it.

Extra Credit - Our Trip Details

Countries We Visited - Spain, Ireland, England, Portugal, France, Morocco, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Czech Republic, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, India, Israel, Palestine, Jordan.

Total (approximate) cost per person: $10,000

Time: 16 weeks

Notable sites/events: Running of the Bulls, a bull fight, La Tomatina, Shakespearean play at Globe Theater, Eiffel Tower at night, Turkish Bath in Morocco, Burj Khalifa, 1 year wedding anniversary on shore in Istanbul, Taj Mahal, Petra, Jerusalem.

Markets in Marrakesh, Morocco