Strategic vagabonding
July 5, 2012 7:45 PM   Subscribe

Another help-the-20-something-find-life-direction-question. Specific angle: international travel

Optional Special Snowflake Background

I graduated college in 2011 with a lib arts BA, for the past year I've been working in AmeriCorps but that will be coming to an end in September. At that point, I'll have around $4000 in savings and a few thousand in student loan debt.

I have been applying to jobs over the past month and haven't gotten too much response-- not that I've really been trying as hard as I could be but it is still discouraging. All of my jobs and internships and whatnot (a fairly considerable amount for someone my age) have been working with kids, which I like but is starting to feel like it might be a dead end career-wise. I'd be really happy working for an interesting nonprofit doing youth development, but am less enthusiastic about childcare. My work experience is a little of both of these, though lots of the first. (However, currently my job has turned into camp instructor to 15 obnoxious 5-6 year-olds-- herein lies the basis of my current career crisis!)

I'm also sort of in between places-- my family is in the midwest, I moved to the east coast a year ago for this job but the job prospects aren't particularly great here and there's nothing tying me here really, so I'm considering relocating back to the general region where my family is because I have missed being near to them. (My parents live in a tiny town with no jobs 100 miles away from anywhere I actually want to live so if I did relocate back to the midwest it would be more or less the same amount of work and commitment as it would be to move to anywhere else in the US, not just an easy boomerang back home.)

Actual Question

Anyway, between the career crisis, the dismal job market, the geographical limbo, and the $4000 burning a hole in my pocket, the idea of taking a year or so to travel somewhere and do something interesting is really starting to appeal to me.

I love travelling and have thought of teaching English somewhere but I feel like there are other options that would give me professional experience/skills/inspiration that are more personally interesting to me. I feel like if I did this right I could kick my intermediate Spanish up to near fluency, or get a bunch of experience in organic farming or some other random skill, or have the chance to learn from some really interesting development projects or just meet a lot of inspiring interesting people.

I'd have a budget of $3000 or so for this trip so as not to end up homeless when I get back. I figure that in Latin America or cheaper parts of Asia this will get me pretty far if I am creative about it-- finding longer-term housing and cooking for myself a lot or spending some of the time in situations that let me trade work for cheap or free room and board.

I am picturing staying up to 9 months depending on what I could swing budget-wise and spending the time in one or two places getting involved in organizations/projects and ideally being in some sort of language immersion situation.

I was thinking Latin America because I think having spanish proficiency would be a great skill, but I am open to other places.

So I'm looking for ideas of how to make this work, awesome projects/organizations you've heard of that I could get involved in, any stories of how you traveled in a way that was useful after you got home (beyond the ways in which travel can be amazing on a personal level), basically any ways that the great and helpful people of mefi can help me make this plan take shape.

In terms of skills-- I've got experience working with kids and teaching, doing volunteer management and working around nonprofits, and I have some experience with farming and construction. I've spent enough time in developing countries (specifically Peru and India) that I can take care of myself.

I know of wwoofing,, and helpx.
posted by geegollygosh to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Number one, if you have $4k and owe "a few thousand in student loan debt," is to pay off your loans in full. If you have the cash in hand, this is a no-brainer. It's not about saving a few percent in interest, it's about buying yourself capital-F-freedom to travel. No debt means that you can be sitting in a hostel in Ecuador, meet a cute Brazilian, and take him/her up on an offer to come and visit an uncle's coffee plantation for a few months, or take a cool low- or no-pay job offer somewhere. With the debt, you are going to have to figure out your payments, find a regular job, miserable things like that.

And yes, I know I'm telling you to delay your trip, to need to find one or two crappy jobs and save money all over again. But seriously, this will make your travel better, more relaxing, and more fun. (If you have sufficiently wealthy and supportive family that they are willing to make your loan payments while you are away, then I'd say hit the road ASAP, but otherwise clear out the debt before leaving.)
posted by Forktine at 7:57 PM on July 5, 2012 [7 favorites]

Second what Forktine said. Pay off everything first. Once you're at zero debt, you can do whatever you please, with no worries. Just stick it out for a few months until you can zero out your debt, then think about travel.
posted by deathpanels at 8:03 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm planning to make minimum payments while I am gone. I've paid off 7k of student loan debt in the last year. "Sticking it out for a few months" in my situation means finding a job and finding a new apartment because my job and my lease are coming to an end in August. I am absolutely in the 'pay your student loans off as fast as possible and enjoy the freedom' boat but I'd rather just make minimum payments for a year and then come back and focus on finding a job that I am excited about sticking with for a few years.
posted by geegollygosh at 8:10 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

So you're going to be using $4000 to support yourself while travelling and also make minimum payments on your student loan debt?

That sounds like a massive underbudget for 9 months of travel--or in fact, any more than one month of travel. I haven't been to the cheaper parts of Asia or Latin America, so I could be wrong here, but it sounds like very little. How much would your airfare be? What's left needs to cover ground transit, housing, and food for however long you'll be gone. It'll be great if you make money while you're there, and great if you can barter or get free housing, but you need to plan for the worst case scenario.

I went travelling for 9 months after graduating from uni. After paying for plane tickets, I had about $4000 left, and I had places to stay for free until I found work lined up in both the countries I travelled to. When I got home from the trip, I owed my parents another $4000--and I was just lucky that I was able to borrow from them. Stuff happens when you're travelling, and you wind up spending more than you plan. Jobs don't always show up when you want them to, or visa problems happen, or plane problems, or whatever.

Travelling is a great idea, but you neeeeeeed moooooore saaaaaavings!
posted by snorkmaiden at 9:15 PM on July 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

Maybe I am naive or maybe it is because I am older and was your age back in the 70s, but I say go for it. This is only a year that you are talking about. Live a little on the edge while you can. I don't regret any of the travel I did at your age, and yes , I put myself through college on scholarships and loans. Go on Lonely Planet and check out Central America- I have a friend who swears by Guatemala as cheap and interesting.

When you get back, think of the Peace Corps if you still have the itch. Many of my friends got into their career fields through it.
posted by Isadorady at 9:24 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

okay, so I'm not going to threadsit this I promise but.

minimum payments on my student loans are $50/month. I have $2000 of federal loans at a 3.4% interest rate (thank you Congress). My loans are just not a huge part of this picture. Let's put the loan issue aside.
posted by geegollygosh at 9:38 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you find a cheap flight somewhere and you're willing to couch surf and go cheap on food, I think you can totally do it. Agreed that the loans are not a factor in your case - you only live once.

Have you considered Africa? It won't help with the language proficiency angle, but if you're looking to just gain skills in the nonprofit field, you'll find some fantastic nonprofits looking to give you serious field experience but who cannot afford to pay much. Ideally find an organization that will cover your room and board, that is well established, that someone as an international intern/volunteer has vouched for. Your money will go far there. And it's a great jumping off point for seeing some of the most amazing things on Earth.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:47 PM on July 5, 2012

I agree with Isadorady -- go for it!

Network a lot before you go so you have people to rely on in your new location. Perhaps you can hook up a job at a hostel before you go; have some expat friends-of-friends to stay with, etc. If you went to a school that has a strong network, look up expat alumni and contact them before you go. Bon voyage!
posted by 3491again at 9:49 PM on July 5, 2012

So if you're saving $1000 for when you come back, and your loan payments are $50 per month, that leaves you with $2550 for 9 months. I'm not trying to be a downer, really, but no matter how cheap it is where you go, backup funds are important!

Totally, go travelling--but you need more savings first. I am only writing this because I really wish I had done things differently when I was in your position!
posted by snorkmaiden at 9:54 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

You could probably get close to 9 months on that budget in India with some creativity, but that's pushing it. Still, go for it. If you have to go home after 2, 3, or 6 months that'll still be a cool trip.
posted by MillMan at 10:21 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Why don't you work your way? If you go to (or any other au pair website or an au pair agency) you can get an aupair job in Europe somewhere. If Spanish is your thing you could look in Madrid or Barcelona. You'll have a unique value proposition as it will probably either be Americans in Spain or well-off Spanish family that wants their kids exposed to english for a while. The family should pay your ticket. Work for 6 months as an aupair, you'll get immersed in a culture, you can learn the local language - usually a language class is part of the deal (its supposed to be culturally broadening for the aupair), all your food and housing will be paid for. Then travel from there!

You haven't told us much about your interests but there are usually people who are keen for free interns, so as you do your aupairing you could apply for internships.
posted by zia at 11:01 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

I know a guy who spent a year teaching at a school in Nicaragua; his set up sounds like it might work for you, although he was in a mostly English-speaking part of Nicaragua. Memail me if you'd like more details!
posted by MadamM at 11:11 PM on July 5, 2012

If you're interested in volunteering with animals check out I'm not sure what the price is now, but in 2009 I think I paid about $US50 per week for food and lodging.

Of all Central American countries, I found Nicaragua to be the cheapest... I got by on about $US15 per day. I was watching my budget, but was staying in guesthouses and didn't cook for myself, so you could probably live even cheaper than this.
posted by peppermintfreddo at 11:51 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you have any athletic inclinations, try getting a job as a raft guide. There are a few (not many) outfits that take people with no previous guiding experience. It's a good way to support yourself abroad (though you're not going to save a whole lot), meet lots of interesting people, and play outside every day.

The downside is that it does not add very much to your CV except time spent abroad.
posted by cirgue at 2:26 AM on July 6, 2012

Hate to join the chorus, but unless something absolutely amazing comes along that you'd be foolish to pass up you absolutely need to pay off the loans first. Debt is debt, regardless what the interest rate is and is like an anchor around your neck.

Also, as our great overlord Murphy once said "that which can go wrong..."

I cannot stress enough what a potential burden the debt could become. It takes one broken limb, one petty theft of your cash, one emergency requiring you to fly home - to put a serious damper on your cash reserves. I've seen this happen to several friends over the years when I used to spend a lot of time overseas. Generous parents were the only thing saving them.
posted by tgrundke at 5:06 AM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I lived in Bali, Indonesia for a year. I have also traveled to other parts of Asia, and I lived in Panama for a few months.

I think you should absolutely go abroad. However, 4000 will NOT be enough for 9 months of travel. Check out and see if you can find something that will interest you. Or what about doing a study abroad? You may need to add on to your student loans to do this, but you can take the extra money and travel.
posted by emilynoa at 5:42 AM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think that your $4000 is a wonderful cushion. This will in NO WAY support you abroad, it is merely an emergency fund.

That said, work like crazy to find a job in an international destination. Teach English, be a Nanny, see if you can get on a Habitat for Humanity international site. See if you can be a GO at Club Med (does anyone even go there any more?)

Taking a year off to do amazing stuff shouldn't hurt your prospects in the job market at all, not with people you'd actually want to work with.

For heaven's sake, don't go abroad underfunded and run into trouble. Have a real plan!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:58 AM on July 6, 2012

$4K, as others have said, isn't enough to be getting on with. I recommend looking into being an au pair, perhaps in Spain or Portugal. Native English speakers are desirable for families who want to give their kid a head start on bilingual fluency.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:07 AM on July 6, 2012

I still think you should pay off the loan; that, to my eyes, is far more important than keeping $1000 in reserve for when you come home. But it's your choice, obviously. Having been-there-done-that, I'd go for flexibility over cash; not everyone would agree.

That said, I don't think your budget is crazy low, except for the travel to and fro. If you were able to find some work-for-housing deals at hostels, say, or even WWOOFing, I could see $3k stretching pretty far in a cheap country. But a roundtrip flight to and fro is going to decimate that budget -- maybe you have access to frequent flyer miles or something? Once you are there, I don't think you will have too much trouble finding jobs that at least cover your cost of living, but you'll still need cash for traveling, partying, and dong the fun things that make travel worthwhile.
posted by Forktine at 6:22 AM on July 6, 2012

I should add that southeastern Europe is still pretty cheap for travel. Try Bulgaria,Macedonia,Kosova and Albania. Not a lot of work available, but your money will stretch and people are extremely friendly.
I agree that your flight will be the big expense, which makes Central America a good option. But go for it !!
posted by Isadorady at 7:36 AM on July 6, 2012

My god... please ignore some of the people on this thread. I'm in/was a similar situation to you just this time last year. I got the travel bug/experience something different itch and went off to teach English in China. I saved around $1500 before going-- this covered my airfare and about 2 months to cushion myself while adjusting to life and a week trip to Taiwan.

I have loans as well-- a whopping $60/mo student loan payment which is just being deducted from my bank account each month. Stash the minimum payment amount and don't touch it! Ever!

I'd support the idea of doing WWOOFing or teaching English or volunteering. Something where you can live for free and eat free or at least on the cheap. Those on the thread are correct-- after airfare and such and emergency budget, etc things do happen and come up. I'd really support the option where you can make/save money while in the country just because it will help foot your bills and give you more comfort.

Good luck! Hope it all works out for you. Everyone told me before I went to do it all now because in a few years its not going to be the same and as easy. So go, fly away! haha
posted by melizabeth at 7:53 AM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I live in Mexico, which I suspect would be a cheap country for you to get to. There's an active couch surfing community here that can help you. You might join a couple of couch surfing discussions in communities that interest you and ask for help finding paid or volunteer work. To spend the whole 9 months here, you would need to leave after 6 months and re-enter to renew your tourist visa.

I've heard that there are informal situations teaching English or working as waitstaff in places that cater to English-speaking tourists or expats. This work would violate the terms of your tourist visa and might not give you the immersion experience you want. It would be better to get an official job from a place that would do the paperwork to make you legal. It might be easiest to do that once you're on the ground here.

If you don't work, the $3k won't last super long, even if you're mostly couch surfing and eating in the markets. If you subtract $500 for a plane ticket here and do minimal internal travel on second-class buses, you'd last for maybe four months(?) outside of Mexico City, less in the city.

You might consider Guadalajara, Mérida, San Cristóbal (though it might be overloaded with volunteers), Querétaro... I'd skip Cancún (blech) and the places that are having trouble, such as Michoacán and Monterrey. Mérida and San Cristóbal might be culturally more interesting because there's a clear indigenous influence. Oaxaca might be another option for the same reason.
posted by ceiba at 8:12 AM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

My friend and I traveled through Europe for several months 2 years ago and we did it for a few dollars a day. How? Couchsurfing, cooking our own meals, eating a lot of cheap bread and cheese, refilling our soap containers at public restrooms, accepting every offer of a free dinner from people we met along the way, and maintaining an attitude of prudent flexibility and shameless frugality when it came to transportation, lodging, and eating. Get a cheap netbook because that sucker saved us a ton of dough and made on-the-fly planning a breeze. Also check out and similar sights for work-for-lodging opportunities
posted by HotPatatta at 8:26 AM on July 6, 2012

Some people on this thread seem surprisingly unaware of how much less important it is to quickly pay off debt for which the interest rate is less than or near the inflation rate. I agree, it's psychologically great to not have any debt, but in terms of the actual financial logic of it, you don't have much of an argument there.

However, I do agree with the point made that good travel insurance that includes medical evacuation is a must. If going to any location in the developing world where motorcycles are a common form of public transit, please invest in a DOT approved full motorcycle helmet and use it every time. /public service announcement.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 1:43 PM on July 6, 2012

I guess I didn't make it clear enough in my sprawling, disorganized question that working in some capacity that covers my living expenses is definitely part of the plan! And I did say "up to 9 months depending on what I could swing budget-wise"... definitely aware that in some situations/places my budget wouldn't last anywhere near that long.

However, thanks to everyone for your answers, plenty of possibilities to think about/do further research into!
posted by geegollygosh at 12:02 PM on July 7, 2012

« Older Help me remix my wedding dress   |   Business in Boston Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.