How To Travel For Free

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Me and Jack, the newborn calf!

After 28 months of traveling, I finally came home to sunny southern California to spend Christmas with my family. I had missed the last two!

Before my tearful return, I was galavanting around New Zealand, Australia, and Southeast Asia, hiking, hitchhiking, volunteering, renting motorbikes, and making friends.

In the following, click on the blue links to see other related blog posts or articles I’ve written.


BUT HOW DID YOU PAY FOR IT?

It all started when I was 17 and my dad took me to Argentina as a high school graduation gift. Keep in mind my dad travels solo to Europe every other year to backpack in the Pyrenees. For 6 weeks we stayed in youth hostels where I met dozens of travelers from all over the world.

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While the scenery of Iguazu Falls was inspiring, the most life-changing realization was that I could do this by myself, whenever I wanted.

I started college knowing that I wanted to travel afterwards, so I knew I would have to save money. During university I had 2 jobs, one as a writing tutor and the other as an usher at the school theater. Every summer I worked at Fun in the Sun, an educational program for low-income kids in my hometown. I helped my group of Latino teenagers start their own blog, and we were even featured in the local paper!

At Santa Cruz I played ultimate frisbee and wrote and drew comics for the school paper, City on a Hill Press. My final year I drew graphic novellas and worked as the Art Director of the Leviathan, the Jewish Journal. Finally, I graduated early in 3 years instead of 4 to save money.

After graduation I completed an intensive Teaching English as a Foreign Language course at my local city college, and got my TEFL certificate. Thanks to all my hard work and planning  I had some savings, and was ready to hit the road.


WAIT WAIT WAIT. I Still Don’t Get It.

I can hear the protests of my 20-year old alter-ego: “I need to go to graduate school. I need to start my real life! I need to grow up.”

Now I’m 25, and I am still arguing with myself. Mostly, though, I realize that I want to adventure and explore while I’m young and healthy. I want to travel while I still can, before I have a family and a mortgage to look after.

More than anything I wanted to travel after college, for 2 to 5 years. So I booked a one-way ticket to New Zealand. Luckily I had a place to stay at my ex-boyfriend’s parents place. His dad is a civil engineer and was building a tunnel in Auckland, so we had a sweet house to live in Devonport right by the beach.

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After bumming around for a while, we rented a car for two weeks – ROAD TRIP! – and drove around the Coromandel, East Cape, down to Gisbourne, and up through Rotorua. A great trip, but quite expensive – we paid about $300 each for the car, plus about $300 each for gas. We usually slept in the car or in the orange emergency tube tent my dad had given me, but food was also a big expense…

Anyway, we realized that we couldn’t afford to continue this style of travel if we were in it for the long haul, and waking up in the damp tent with ducks quacking at us was beginning to lose its appeal. What about volunteering for free accommodation? My friend Joy from high school told me about WWOOFing, Willing Workers on Organic Farms. I had also heard about HelpX, so I found a place for us to volunteer.

We took a bus to Kerikeri, a small northern town in New Zealand, to volunteer at a youth hostel. We cleaned for about 3 hours a day in exchange for our accommodation. While it wasn’t ideal, I learned a lot and met a lot of fun people. At the time I didn’t find cleaning fun, and found myself asking “What am I doing here?” Even in moments of doubt, though, synchronicity prevailed: I met a French family building a sustainable farm who were avid ultimate frisbee players!

Then I fell into my first job at a kiwifruit packhouse. For $13.50/hour (I think?) I gently fondled and sorted kiwifruit for 8 hours a day.

After that James and I started hitchhiking, which changed everything. Now we were spontaneous and free, relying on luck and generosity to get around! On our very first ride ever, a couple with their teenage daughter in the backseat picked us up. Turns out they had a dairy farm in Dargaville, and they invited us to stay if we ever passed through their town. I got their number and called them a few weeks later, and we stayed with them for a few nights!

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Their daughter was in the circus – so we were invited to a circus party, where the best unicyclists in New Zealand were showing off their tricks. I even got to try fire hula hooping!

After we established that hitchhiking was our preferred mode of transportation, we started relying on website HelpX.net. HelpX – short for Help eXchange – is similar to WWOOFing in that you volunteer 3-6 hours per day in exchange for food and accommodation. It’s essentially travel for free, and you get to learn new skills and work with the locals. Also, there are usually other volunteers there, and its always fun to meet travelers from all over the world.

It’s my favorite way to travel that I’ve discovered so far, and I’ve written several articles on it. One was for startbackpacking.com, and the other was published in print in a Vietnamese magazine and also for the website wondergressive.com.

When I stay in hotels or even hostels, oftentimes I feel like I’m looking through a thick layer of glass: there’s an invisible barrier between me and wherever I’m visiting. But when I volunteer, I destroy this disconnect and become part of the community.

MY BEST VOLUNTEER EXPERIENCES

  1. The dairy farm in Edendale, New Zealand. A tiny town, a tiny dairy farm with only 100 cows. The owner Grahm knew each cow by name just by looking at the cow’s butt.

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 2. A family farm in Riverton, at the bottom of the South Island. We actually met them hitchhiking and they invited us to stay with them. For the few weeks I lived there, I felt like a real farmer; I learned how to milk a goat and chop firewood. I also went on an epic road trip with them!

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3. Near Port Pirie, South Australia, there is a tiny pocket of the Wirrabarra Forest which miraculously is the perfect climate for stone fruit. James and I stayed at Taralee Orchard for 2 weeks, picking, cutting, and packaging biodynamic fruit for fancy health food stores.  This farm was especially fun because there were 7 other volunteers: me and James, 3 Japanese friends in their 20’s, and a Swiss German couple in their 70’s! You can volunteer at any age, and they are living proof.

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4. In Asia, I spontaneously volunteered as an English Teacher in Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, just by meeting random people who ran a school. In Bali, though, I went through the website helpx. This situation was unique because for the first time they contacted me to ask for help. James and I had rented a scooter for $2/day for a month. We were exploring aimlessly when I got the email at a tiny internet cafe.

We puttputted over to Tianyar, a little town in the north, and lived with an American expat couple and taught english to teenagers who wanted to work on cruise ships. The American couple Aaron and Lindsay also started a cashew factory. After running a successful kickstarter campaign they used the profits to start up a preschool and doctors office for their employees and the other villagers.

MORE TIPS TO TRAVEL CHEAPLY

Another awesome tool for frugal travel is couchsurfing, a website that connects travelers with hosts who are willing to let someone crash on their couch or in their guest rooms.Through the website, I’ve surfed with freegans and college kids in Australia and with anarchists and animal lovers in Malaysia. Many times I find places to stay just through random connections – ask your friends if they know anyone!

 You can also try car relocations to get around on the cheap in western countries.

Also, get your working holiday visa and work along the way! You can do this in Australia, New Zealand, and possibly Canada. But you have to do it before you turn 30!

Finally, doing simple budgeting, such as calculating how much you spend per day, can help a lot. It’s just a numbers game. Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, I averaged at about $20/day, and in Bali it was even cheaper because I was volunteering most of the time. Malaysia and Taiwan was more like $30/day, and New Zealand and Australia is too hard to calculate because I was working at the same time.

But anyway, you can do this too, if you want to! Ultimately, I found that traveling is cheaper than living in one place. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions. 

Thanks for reading!

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Early morning in Sapa, Vietnam by my hotel window

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10 thoughts on “How To Travel For Free

  1. Amber! It’s Roberta from home. Your mom’s friend.
    You are having such an adventure. Love your photos.
    Happy New Year!

  2. Hi Amber. This is Annie from Yoga Class. I love your blog site! You will like my niece Cassie and her husband Britton’s site Lifetransplanet.com, too. You are all kindred souls. I will be checking your travels regularly! And hi to Bernie and Kevin from Larry and Annie from the \’hood.

  3. Great website! I am a tenant at your folks place in SB, your Mom was telling me all about your wonderful adventures! Once you’ve been bit by the travel bug, there is no going back. 🙂 Look forward to meeting you someday and hearing more of your travel stories. Be well!

    -Natalie

  4. Hey Amber! Its Mairead from yoga… great blog! I promised that I would leave some tips on where to go in China.. we went to Hangzhou/Yellow Mountains/Nanjing.. the Yellow Mountains were really awesome and Nanjing was a pretty nice city. Then we went onto Yunnan (after a 39hour train journey!) and that was a really cool- Dali, Lijiang, Tiger Leaping Gorge- just really laid back towns and Tiger Leaping Gorge was such an amazing trek, and it doesnt attract busloads of tourists which is a welcome relief in China! Then we went back to the Guilin area and went to Xing Ping which is really cool too! There’s just too much to see in China and it’s sooo big.. Schezuan is supposed to be pretty cool but we didnt make it there! There are some great hostels though and always ask the guys in the hostel to write down the name and address of the place your going so you can ask people for help! Also the cities can be pretty intense so we kept to the more rural areas. Email me know if you have any other questions and have a blast!!
    Mairead

  5. Hey amber,
    I’m travelling to Bali November later this year, and would love to do some volunteering while I’m here. One reason is to keep the cost of living really low and the other to immerse myself in a different culture and community spirit.
    Do you know of any volunteering places you could recommended. I have been looking online and I have signed up to work away, but would love to find one
    through word of mouth and positive experiences if possible
    Any help would be greatly received
    My email rlpollock@hotmail.co.uk if it’s best to contact me in this way.
    Many thanks
    Becca

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