Almost nobody ever comes right out and asks us how we finance our round the world bicycle tour.
But something tells me that many of you are curious as to how we were able to quit our jobs and became full-time cycle nomads.
Well, here’s how we did it. In four easy steps.
#1 The essential first step: we maximized our incomes
As we all know, the more money being injected into our bank accounts each month, the more potential for savings.
In our case, increasing our income meant living outside our home countries and working for ourselves.
Had Eric stayed in France, slowly working his way up the career ladder, it is doubtful we would enjoy the financial freedom we have today.
As much as Eric loves France, he saw better career opportunities abroad.
Giving up an entry level post close to home, he hopped across the border to Germany, began work at an international organization and doubled his salary overnight. Eventually he went freelance, another smart economic move.
Freelance was also the direction I eventually went, training business people how to communicate in English and teaching language courses at the local university.
While freelancing came with certain risks (no guaranteed monthly paycheck or sick pay) and extra responsibilities (we had to arrange our own health insurance and retirement plans) the rewards of freelancing (higher salaries and more flexibility) far outweighed the drawbacks.
Of course you don’t need to move abroad and strike out as a freelancer to finance a bicycle tour around the world.
What you may need to do is reconsider your current employment situation and decide whether it allows you to meet your financial goals.
#2 We lived below our means and focused on the essential
Eric is naturally frugal and–while I enjoyed a few free-spending years in my youth–at heart, I’m a saver, too.
Which is great if you want to stop working before you hit 40 and begin a quest to cycle every country on the planet.
There’s lots of info out there on how to live simply and save for the future. Most of us, I’m convinced, can find ways to cut back on spending without enjoying life any less.
Karen and Michael Stefanyk of Two Wheeled Wanderers, for instance, decided to move in with his mother, completing cutting out the expense of housing. Americans Sheila and Kai of 2Cycle2gether, scaled back their lifestyle significantly and built themselves a tiny house for their return from travel.
For us, the key was to focus on our travel dreams.
After a year off backpacking through South America, we returned to Germany in 2003 with one goal: financial freedom.
At the time, we didn’t realize June 2006 would mark the beginning of our cycle touring careers. What we did know, however, was that after three years of living frugally, we would set off to explore the world. Indefinitely.
We were certain of this. There was no maybe, or we’ll see how things go.
We set ourselves a goal, and committed to it.
Then we set about saving—never losing sight of the adventures that lay ahead.
An extra job walking a neighbor’s dog meant one more night in a hotel each time I leashed up Fido. A Saturday night spent at home watching movies rather than dining out translated into an extra 3 days on the road. Moving into a comfortable 600 Euro ($850) a month apartment rather than a spacious 3-bedroom house with a garden meant an extra $1000 a month stashed away into the travel fund.
Money that could have gone into furniture (all giveaways), new clothes (ours were invariably second hand), transportation (we rode our bikes to work), restaurants (we cooked at home, mostly with ingredients purchased at discount supermarkets) and fancy vacations (we always backpacked) went into saving for our future.
During this three year period of focused economizing, we were able to put aside a fair amount of cash for the future. And we enjoyed life. Living simply in no way diminished our overall level of happiness.
#3 We generated a steady stream of income
If you’ve got a decent job and are the owner of a brand-new Prius or a $40,000 SUV, nobody asks you how you can possibly afford such a luxury. Nobody questions how you managed to buy a 4-bedroom house with a big yard in the suburbs. And if you fork over $3,000 (+ airfare) for a packaged week-long holiday in Bali nobody bats an eye.
That’s why I continue to be shocked at the reaction I get when I tell people that Eric and I are the owners of two small apartments.
People start looking at us like we’re some kind of wealthy land barons or evil property owners.
While many people choose to “sell everything” and set off on a round the world tour, we didn’t want to go that route.
Being in our mid-40’s, we’re well aware that retirement age isn’t far off in the future. We’ve planned for that, realizing that our future employment prospects may not be as bright as they once were.
We figured a steady stream of income would be the best way to go about sustainable travel. For us, that steady flow of cash into our bank account is rental income.
And that rental income is what now keeps us afloat as we cycle around the world. It’s not much. After taxes and expenses, we’re left with around $600 a month. Not a lot of money. But just enough money for us to cycle around the world without depleting our retirement savings.
#4 We found ways to minimize our expenses on the road
Everybody seems to want to know how much it costs to cycle around the world. That’s a little like asking how much it costs to rent a flat in London, go out to dinner in Paris or buy a head of cattle in Montana.
It all depends on what you want.
Just check out Travelling Two’s new series on what cycle touring costs and you’ll get a feel for the wide range of responses.
Those disinclined to camping, cooking and “roughing it” could find themselves shelling out $1,000-$2,000 a month per person for a no-holds-barred comfort tour.
Minimalists (think Biciclown) can get by on less than $10 a day (possibly $5) no matter if they’re touring in Japan or Jamaica.
While our style of touring definitely falls on the budget end of the spectrum, we’re hardly masochists on a Tour de Souffrance.
Smart ways to save
Let’s face it, cyclists really have only two things on which to spend money: Food and Accommodation.
If you’re out to cut costs, food–the touring cyclist’s fuel source–is clearly off limits. Sure, you can stick to street stalls and self-catering and forego all the treats that make life worth living, but it still won’t make much of a dent in your overall expenses.
It’s far more effective, we’ve found, to tackle the cost of accommodation.
In the beginning
When our tour began back in 2006, we paid for a place to sleep almost every single night. Some pretty awful places in fact. $15 for a crappy campsite on some jam-packed Spanish beach, $10 for a filthy hotel room next to a brothel in Burkina Faso, a whopping $50 for dorm beds in a Belgian hostel.
In retrospect, an absolute waste of money. Around $3,500 down the drain in the first twelve months of bicycle travel just for accommodation.
Know how much we spent on lodging during the previous 12 months of travel? $600
Not much. And that includes bike touring through relatively pricey places like Chile, Argentina, Taiwan, Malaysia and Canada.
Over the years, we’ve cut our accommodation costs to almost nothing. Here’s how we did it.
Perfecting the art of free camping
Once you start seriously searching for free places to pitch your tent, you’ll find that it’s really not that tricky.
Just in the past month, we’ve pitched our tent at Buddhist temples, mosques, police stations, and in the yard of random individuals. We’ve also been invited in to enjoy the night at a beach resort and in a comfortable air-conditioned room at the Highway Patrol in Thailand.
While free camping may feel awkward at first, I assure you it’s loads of fun (most of the time). Check out this article for ideas on where to look for a safe place to sleep for free and this article for more tips on free camping.
We got active in Hospitality Networks
Finding some random place to pitch your tent is perfect when you’re just passing through, but hardly practical when you want to hang around for a few days and visit a place.
While most of our fellow bicycle travelers say they are aware of these services, relatively few cyclists actually take advantage of the free hospitality.
I’m really not sure why.
The pros and cons of free hospitality
To date, we’ve stayed with over 200 hosts from various hospitality networks. In fact, I’m at the home of a couchsurfer this very moment.
Am I sleeping on the couch? Absolutely not.
We’re all set up with a private air-conditioned room with comfortable queen-sized bed and attached bath. This morning, we enjoyed a wonderful traditional Malaysian breakfast. Over a long conversation about the state of the country I devoured coconut-filled pancakes, sticky rice and seaweed porridge (quite tasty, actually).
Sure, it takes time to track down available hosts. And there are some constraints. If we’ve told someone we’ll be in Bangkok on Tuesday, we’ll have to push a little harder so we make it on time.
At times, we sit around making small-talk with our hosts when we’d much rather be washing away the grit and grime from a hard day’s ride, lunging into dinner and traipsing off to bed.
Naturally, we all click better with some people than others and it does take effort to get to know complete strangers.
But all in all, the rewards of hospitality networks far outweigh any negatives. They offer unmatched opportunities for cultural exchange and one of the easiest ways on earth to cut travel expenses.
Cutting expenses really boils down to deciding what you value. If you enjoy the comfort and company found at guesthouses and hostels, why torture yourself by wild camping? If you’re an enthusiastic foodie, by all means sample the best local cuisine. And if you’re a chocolate addict, go ahead and indulge in a little bar of imported Belgian ecstasy from time to time.
Just keep this in mind: financing a bicycle tour is a little like losing weight. If you want to slim down you can either exercise more or cut calories.
If you want to pay for a bicycle tour, you can either generate more income or cut costs.
Or– ideally–a little of both.
These are our 4 steps to affording a cycle tour around the world. As you can see, there’s nothing very mysterious about it.
I firmly believe that most people’s bicycle touring dreams are within grasp.
Of course, there will be risks attached. And you may have to give up some treasured sources of security along the way.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over these past six years, it’s that there’s something magical about bicycle touring. The very act of setting off into the great big world on a humble bicycle brings with it a state of grace. Once you begin pedaling, the universe is suddenly on your side everything seems to turn out right.
In the end, that is!
How do you finance your bicycle tour? Please share in the comments section below.
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