Saturday, May 11, 2013

How to afford a 6-month globe-trotting sabbatical

"What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? It's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies."

-Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Dreaming of escaping the rat race to explore the remote jungles of Madagascar? Want to drop the 9-to-5 in favor of a pristine beach in the Seychelles? What about hiking through the mist-shrouded mountains of Bhutan instead of grinding through the morning commute? If only the pocket-book would allow it...

Light at the end of the tunnel...
As we were planning our round-the-world adventure (right now we're sipping macchiattos in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) our friends constantly asked, "How can you afford something like that?!" Luckily, the answer is, "Easily, if you make it a priority..."

This was a question we had struggled with when we started thinking about doing our trip. It seemed impossibly expensive to do an extended travel jaunt, especially as young professionals in our twenties. Wasn't globe-trotting restricted to the realm of trust-fund babies or the comfortably retired? This hung like a specter over our daydreams until we finally figured out how to solve the problem: with numbers...

Turns out that, if you do it right, traveling the world is a hell of a lot cheaper than daily life in the US. Drinks might cost $100 for a night of clubbing in San Francisco. That same $100 could cover a week's worth of top-notch local Thai food in Thailand. Of course, cost of living in Western Europe, Japan or Brazil is comparable to the US so you won't be able to leverage your purchasing power as much. That brings us to Lesson 1: choose your destinations carefully. Want a postcard worthy beach paradise? You might be thinking Fiji but the Philippines has beaches just as nice and is probably 70% cheaper. Want to climb some beautiful mountains? The Swiss Alps are picturesque but Nepal's Himalayas are absolutely epic and you'll probably spend 80% less. A great way to start is to do a Google search for phrases such as: "budget travel countries" or "cheapest countries to travel in." These long-term travel sites might come in handy as you research country costs:
The Annapurna range in Nepal
Okay. You've done some research and trimmed your list to countries that are a little more affordable. Now let's figure out how to pack in every activity in your 15 country list into a 6-month itinerary! Whoa there, wait a minute... Time for Lesson 2: take your time. International plane tickets are likely to be the single biggest line-item in your trip budget. Cost of living in Indonesia is insanely low but flying from San Francisco to Jakarta will drain your checking account like crazy. Instead of four countries per month why don't you spend six weeks really getting to know Sri Lanka (you can come join us while we do exactly that this July)? You'll save a ton on airfare and you'll actually get to experience the country, something you're guaranteed not to do on a whirlwind tour.

Great. Now you have your itinerary rationally planned out. You've researched the average costs in the countries you plan to visit and the activities you want to do. You've added up all the costs and although it's a good sized chunk of change, it is something you can definitely save up for. But then this lingering sense of doubt seizes your mind: not only will you be forgoing paychecks for the extent of your trip, you won't even have guaranteed income when you return home! Your job won't let you take a six-month leave of absence so you'll be forced to quit (or thrilled maybe). Then you're going to go blow all your money and with a return ticket to unemployment! There's no way this will ever happen. Unless... Lesson 3: build in a cushion.

The inevitable job search isn't an endgame, it's just part of the process of long-term travel. Seriously, you're obviously a smart person (you're reading this blog after all) so how long do you think it would take you to find a job if you gave it a truly concerted effort (i.e. 40 hours/week networking, etc.)? Three months? Four months? Remember, this doesn't have to be your dream job. We're just talking about making sure you have income flowing. Okay, so you're understandably a little paranoid, let's make it six months. Add up all your costs for six months of living without an income when you get back home. Now add that to the cost of your trip. Ta-dah! You now have the total cost of your adventure including your eventual job search, no more professional paranoia allowed.

Budget in minutes with our tool
Damn, these all sound like great ideas but it also sounds like a ton of work. Luckily for you, we built a financial planning tool for budgeting our trip. Even better, we're willing to share! Just download the Excel spreadsheet here and start playing around (click the 'down arrow' in the top left corner to download after the link opens). All you need to do is fill in the relevant details for your dream trip (all input cells are green). Then our model does some math on it and instantly spits out tons of useful info all customized for you: trip cost per person, cushion cost per person, average daily expense, number of months needed to save for the trip, etc. The first tab gives you an example so you can see how it works. The second tab has a blank version for you to fill in. Wow, how cool!

But wait! Should my daily cost of food in India be $6 or $7? What if there's an unexpected $20 airport tax in Nairobi? My budget is ruined and I'm heading for personal financial collapse! Calm down and pay attention to Lesson 4: don't pinch pennies. Nobody wants to spend their entire trip thinking about cash. When you're diving the Great Barrier Reef you want to look at the fish, not think about the Australian exchange rate. Make sure to be conservative in your estimates and then add a 20% buffer on top of that. That way once you're on your trip you'll be able to relax and have a good time with no nickel and diming.

Now you have everything mapped out. It's all fine and dandy and you plan to leave early next year, except... Well, you aren't meeting your savings goals because your new BMW's lease payments are too high, you're carrying a balance on your credit card and you don't want to skip those $100 happy hours. What to do? Lesson 5: don't be an idiot. What's most important to you? Friends, family, health, etc.? You should be able to achieve an enormously fulfilled and happy life without breaking the bank. If you like to spend money on a ton of useless crap that's absolutely fine with me. But don't you dare complain about not being able to afford a kick-ass sabbatical. Choose your priorities and stick to 'em.

It's a loooong flight to Madagascar
We found that the process of modelling out the finances for our trip was enormously useful. But not because our final spreadsheet was accurate. Only one thing is guaranteed: you're going to be dead wrong. Prices change in country, estimate are off in one way or another. You'll be in the ballpark but you're not going to be exact. No, the process was useful because it forced us to openly articulate and discuss our various financial doubts, worries and fears. A job search is stressful in the abstract but once you have to make numerical estimates about it's length it gets a lot less threatening. Remember that the deepest fear we all harbor is that of the unknown. It's much harder to worry about concrete numbers on a spreadsheet. By actualizing our abstract fears we finally banished them.

If you are thinking about a long-term travel adventure, ask yourself if you seriously want to do it. When you are absolutely sure that this is what you want, make a commitment to make it happen no matter what - when we decided to do our trip, we actually shook on it. Once you make that mental switch, you will be amazed at how things just seem to fall into place and the path to travel almost paves itself.

Choose your destinations carefully. Take your time. Build in a cushion. Don't pinch pennies. Don't be an idiot. If you keep these five things in mind you'll be swatting Madagascan mosquitoes in no time at all...

Co-posted on


  1. It's actually the only way to plan a trip. Using the Excel spreadsheet will give anybody who decided to use it, the best tool to grab the numbers ( File 'down arrow' in the top left corner to download after the link opens). Glad you guys used and run the numbers.I'm pretty sure that the sabbatical decision wasn't an easy one. But your are on it and pretty sure you'll learn more than anybody else who had been working and spending like crazies on our developed world.

    1. Couldn't agree more! I'm such a 'numbers person' that doing all the math really made this trip seem so real and possible. It's been almost 3 months and I couldn't recommend a sabbatical more; not only is it eyeopening but it really infuses your brain with a lot of creative thinking! And I'm not even making it up, apparently it's been scientifically proven:

      "Dec. 12, 2012 – Backpackers scored 50 percent better on a creativity test after spending four days in nature disconnected from electronic devices, according to a study by psychologists from the University of Utah and University of Kansas.

      “This is a way of showing that interacting with nature has real, measurable benefits to creative problem-solving that really hadn’t been formally demonstrated before,” says David Strayer, a co-author of the study and professor of psychology at the University of Utah."

  2. This is just fantastic Dre - bringing me back to Harrington's class!! Ha! Can't wait to hear more of your adventures. What is your actual trip timeline? If you all are still out in Asia in Nov / Dec I would love to meet up!


    1. Still my favorite class to this day!! Planning out the trip with the detailed budget has been very helpful and I highly recommend it as a trip planning exercise.

      We have one month in Indonesia (Sumatra) and then it's back to California for Burning Man at the end of August.
      Unfortunately we won't be in Asia in Nov / Dec but if YOU'RE in the Bay Area in September, I'd love to see you there. If not, we're off to Florida and Arizona in October!

  3. The Japanese landscape is untamed because mountains cover more than 45% of the entire nation. Japan TravelGuide, There are both dormant and active volcanoes, including Mount Fuji (Fuji-san), the tallest mountain in Japan at 12,388 feet (3,776 metres) above sea level.


Share your thoughts!