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1. Tell us about yourself and sum up your travels for us.
Hello world! My name is Maria and I was born in Mexico, but I’ve called New York City home for 25 years. Being an immigrant in the USA shaped my travel experiences from the beginning. I remember vividly going through travel magazines when I was younger but being torn inside because I knew my immigration status wouldn’t allow me to travel anywhere outside of New York. I even kept a plastic piggy bank since the age of 13, where I would save my allowance for my dream trips!
In April of 2011, when I was 20 and still in college, I finally got my green card – it was like getting the golden ticket in a Willy Wonka chocolate bar. My first trip was that summer to Mexico to visit family I hadn’t seen in 19 years. That Fall, I met a guy through friends who was going to eastern Europe that Christmas and was looking for people to join him. I begged my parents to go, and reluctantly they let me go with the savings I had in my piggy bank. That’s when my travel bug was born! A few years later, I’ve been to 38 countries, over 200 cities, on five continents and even lived in some countries for months on end!
2. How have you funded your travels?
I told you guys about my beloved piggy bank growing up – I think it’s always been symbol of how good I am at saving and prioritizing travel above all other hobbies. I’ve always been working, since I was 15, whether it be for a fashion photographer, a celebrity, or dog walking or interning at MTV. I’ve always been a hustler. So, my financial travel journey has definitely depended on what point I’ve been in life. For example, while in college, I took every opportunity to travel after my green card came. I would travel in between semesters, on holiday breaks, and I even took a summer-long internship in India. I paid for all of these by saving, saving, and more saving. I even applied for scholarships my college offered so that I could get reimbursed.
It had been my plan for many months prior to travel the world for a year once I graduated college and before I started working full-time. At this point I had saved up $18,000 throughout the years. Amazing what a little piggy-bank-habit could do huh? I traveled around for a bit, living in some of the most beautiful cities for months, and when I came back home I still had some money left over (more on that a little later!).
Life after college has also proven to be different. I was lucky enough that my job allowed me to work remotely and also gives me the opportunity to travel a bit for it. I work in the fashion industry. So yes – fashion involves traveling to some of the “prettiest cities” in the world but I’m a backpacker at heart so I can always appreciate an adrenaline-packed “grungy” trip to mountains or kicking back at a hostel to meet other backpackers. I guess I’ve just been really lucky with my traveling path in life where I continue to be put in scenarios that allow me to travel while still allowing me to build a “normal working life” at home. My most asked-question from friends and family back home is always – how on earth do you get to travel so much?!
3. Tell us about your budget.
Budgeting is my middle name. Literally. OK, maybe not literally but it is the bread and butter of all of my travels! I don’t think all of my travels would’ve been possible without budgeting. Most of my trips I travel solo so it’s quite easy to maintain my budget. But I always have friends or family join me mid-trip because they want to “escape their corporate lives”. In these special situations is when let my budget opens up a bit because I know it won’t be for more than a week.
I do travel with my boyfriend sometimes (he’s in finance but is also a backpacker at heart) and I think doing things in two’s always makes for a cheaper experience with certain deals. For example, Airbnb can be cheaper for two people sometimes than getting a hostel, and not to mention more privacy and cleanliness.
One of my golden rules is to ALWAYS write down my expenses on my phone in the Notes section. I break everything down by day and input the amounts as soon as I have purchased anything. I have symbols that remind me when I paid for cash and when I paid with credit card. I specify how much cash I’ve converted at a money exchange place and at what rate. I also carry around a specific folder to maintain all of my receipts when I can get them (can’t get a receipt for a street food for example, but you have the record in your Notes to match the purchase).
I think also budgeting according to the place is crucial. For example, perhaps I could get away with eating out for $2 in Thailand, but that budget would never work for France. It’s always possible to stay on budget even in places that are thought to be expensive. You just have to have patience to look for deals. For example, in France, for 6 euros, I would get a tasty hearty sandwich, a dessert, and a drink from a local patisserie. I didn’t even find those kinds of deals in Costa Rica, which would be deemed a “cheaper country to visit” by most people.
And it’s always important to remember that not every day will be the same. Some days I’ll literally spend less than $10 a day, and other days I’ll spend $100. I don’t buy souvenirs for family or friends, luckily I have a group of loved ones that rather hear about my stories than receive their millionth key chain. In some countries though where I know I’ve fallen in love with a souvenir, I won’t deprive myself of that little “splurge” (think, a $8 third-eye ornament from Turkey, or a $12 hand-carved wooden map of Africa from South Africa).
4. What have you learned about money since hitting the road?
Never say no to a good experience. That’s been my golden rule. When you travel long-term it’s easy to get into the notion of doing things cheaply and forcibly missing out on amazing experiences because you believe your budget “isn’t cut out for it”. This could not be more wrong. You know the old saying “money comes and goes but memories are forever”? I learned that the hard way. My boyfriend is always there to remind me of this when I begin to focus too much on my budget rather than splurging a little on an experience that he knows I’ll regret not doing.
After traveling to such an array of different places that all require such different budgets from each other, I’ve learned that money should NEVER be the excuse of why you don’t grab your passport and just GO somewhere. I have friends who will spend $1,500 on a weekend drinking trip from New York to Miami but would never hop on a plane abroad because they say it’s “too expensive”. False, false, FALSE! There are so many flight deals online these days that it’s impossible to not have an amazing time internationally on a budget. I’ve spent the same amount of money on week-long or 2-week trips to Central America or to Paris! I love Miami but for the same price, I’d rather go somewhere international if you ask me!
Lastly, there are certain experiences that will be worth every penny. Don’t forget to remind yourself that you might not be in this destination ever again, so don’t cheat yourself. For example, I was recently in Reunion Island off the southeast coast of Africa. Food had been relatively cheap throughout our time there (~$20 for the both of us, daily). THE must-do thing on the island was to take a helicopter ride to see everything from above. Prices were in the $400’s p/p for 30 minutes. We wanted to do it so badly, but we knew something with that price tag was WAY out of our budget. We sat down and did our research one night and happened to find an HOUR-long private ULM flight for $190! We knew we would not be coming back to that part of the world for a very long time, so we decided to treat ourselves. And it was the best thing we ever did that entire trip. See what I mean? Where there’s a will, there’s a way. We still managed to see the island from up above, but we did it on our terms. All it took was a little extra research, some phone calls, and some determination. There are certain experiences that you won’t be able to recreate in other places, so just go for it when your gut is kicking you to go!
5. What's your top tip for someone trying to figure out how to make long-term travel financially possible?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help! One of the biggest reasons why I’ve continued to travel for so long without spending so much is because I wasn’t afraid to reach out to friends of friends of friends. I live in New York City. It is literally the biggest culture hub of all time. This has helped me immensely. Whenever I’ve traveled anywhere, I ask my parents or friends if they know anyone in said country who would be willing to spare a couch or even if just to catch up over some drinks. It always works. I also end up finding out that I have family living all over the world! Not only do they provide me with a lovely bed and company, but they also help me save a ton of money on meals because they’re so excited to have someone over for dinner – a meal they would’ve cooked regardless of me being there.
I’ve learned how kind people really are in this process. There are people who have opened their homes to me without asking for a dime in return. I’ve stayed with people who were friends of friends or family of friends – people I had never met before the trip, but still welcomed me with open arms. I have even asked friendly next-door neighbors of mine if they knew anyone who wouldn’t mind a companion for a few days in the country I would be traveling to.
Or in places that I’ve lived long-term like France, obviously I couldn’t expect to get free stay for three months at a time. But through my network, I’ve found an empty apartment (of friend of a friend of a friend of my dad’s) that I go back to every time for only $15 a night!!! Not even a good hostel is that cheap!! Networking works miracles I tell you!
6. If someone wanted to follow in your footsteps, are there any online resources you’d recommend?
The beginning to a great planned out trip always begins with flights. That’s what I always start for trip research.
Scott’s Cheap Flights – His newsletter has been a great resource of getting information on when and where to go for cheap. You can choose what region of the world you’d like to receive flight notifications for, and voila: you can be flying to most places across the glove for $300-$600 (on noteworthy airlines for flights that would normally cost $800+!!!!)
Google Flights – An amazing resource that literally gives you an idea based on a calendar of when flights will be the cheapest. Being flexible on your travels is always helpful. For example, if you’re set on going to Italy, you can go to Italy and GF gives you concrete numbers of cheapest times to go (you don’t always have to compromise the season in which you go, which a lot of bloggers will tell you to do).
Momondo – I only use Momondo once after I’ve toyed around with GF for a bit and have gotten some insight on specific travel times through SCF’s newsletter.
Once I’ve narrowed down a destination, that’s when researching the meat of the trip begins! For that, I use Instagram, Google, different blogs, etc. I will spend hours just on this. Because I do like to visit a lot of off-the-beaten-path places. I’ll cross reference multiple websites at once, etc.
PS. Make sure you research money exchange places before arriving! Trust me, it will save you so much time and money!
7. What's some of your favorite travel gear that enables you to do what you do?
Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card – It is my savior. My holy bible! It has saved me a ton of headaches with international rates and all the nonsense that comes with other credit cards. I’ve never been charged a dime for any international purchase, plus its Visa so it’s widely accepted everywhere.
A good portable charger – When you’re out all day using your phone for pictures or for Wi-Fi, your battery will lose its juice so quickly. My portable charger has been so essential to not worrying if my phone or camera will make it all day.
A compact “important documents” pouch – I’ve had mine for a little under five years. There are things out there like a Running Buddy or a Buddy Pouch which most people would prefer, but I just found a small flat pouch in a local store for $5. I keep my passport in there and any cash I bring from home. I keep it inside of my pants very discretely at all times when I travel. Once I get to my destination, I leave it wherever I’m staying.
A mobile phone mini tripod - I always pack one of these! It has saved me in all of my solo trips when I'm nowhere near people to ask anyone for a photo.
And of course, a camera! – No need to explain this, I think every traveling soul has their preference with cameras. I don’t have a crazy fancy DSLR camera yet I managed to find one that’s compact, the zoom is out of this world, and fits just my needs. I get compliments all the time from professional photographers! It’s a SONY DSC-HX50V model.
I have a lot of other “musts” but they’re more catered to who I am as a traveler, they might not be important for everyone else!
8. Where can people follow your travels?
Funny thing is that as much as I’ve traveled, I’m still pretty new with documenting all of my adventures. For years, I had friends tell me to start a blog or start an Instagram or anything that would document my stories and tips. But I never thought I was that big of a travel player to partake in any of these social media platforms! Finally, I decided to start just for giggles, and the welcome from all other travels has been so refreshing. So many people have messaged me asking me for specific travel tips to something they saw on my Instagram. The community that you can build on Instagram of friends and fellow travel mates is so enriching! So, although I just have one platform for now to share my travels, I’m sure I’ll start something else soon!