Today I want to introduce you to a travel style that dominates almost all of my trips overseas.
While I’ve always considered myself both a backpacker and budget traveller, I’ve also been a very slow traveller.
In five years of full time travel, I’ve only visited 30+ countries. That might sound like a lot, but I know people that have done more than that in six months. In fact, some tours in Europe take you through 15 countries in 30 days. It’s crazy.
Slow Travel is the opposite. Instead of whizzing through different cities, you just pick one or two. Then you settle down in that city, maybe for a month, maybe for three, maybe for the whole year. You find a place to stay, make friends, find your favourite bars and restaurants, buy a subway card. It’s like you’re an expat, only with a few less strings and a little more freedom.
Why Slow Travel?
Travel can be about a lot more than just sightseeing and taking photos and having a few drinks with some new friends at the hostel. All that stuff is awesome, but what if you want to go deeper?
You need time. Three or four days, a week, that’s not enough. If you want to pull back all the layers of a place, you need time for that connection to grow. Think about your relationship to your own hometown. How long did it take you to find all the coolest restaurants, meet people, build friendships and relationships, find the fastest way to walk home, meet the owner of your favourite bar, join different classes and events, settle into your neighbourhood and become a part of the community? Many months. Probably years. Maybe you’re still doing those things today. A connection to a place simply cannot be built in a matter of days.
Even mundane things like daily commutes, grocery shopping, and going to the gym will teach you so much about a city and its culture. Things you will never experience on a short two or three day trip.
How do you choose where to go?
It’s totally up to you, of course. I generally base my choices around three things:
I chase the summer. I think it will be a long time before I spend a winter in New Zealand again.
I choose a place where the rent is <$500 per month, if possible. And food and transport must be cheap also. I try to aim for a budget of between $1,000-$1,500 per month.
I try to spend time in places where I am an active student of the language. There are various languages I’m studying and finding a country where I can be immersed in one of them is important.
A few other things, like if there is surf, internet speed, if I have friends there, safety etc. are all things I think about, but they are minor considerations. I am generally open to travelling and living in any country, as long as it’s not a war zone or on the verge of a meltdown.
Where do you stay?
I’ve stayed in hostels for up to a month, but I generally try to find myself a small apartment. I’m a pretty simple guy, so I don’t need anything fancy – just a bathroom, kitchen, internet and a bed. Frills like air conditioning, hot water, television and a microwave are nice but not a requirement. It’s usually easy to find something like this for under $500 per month (sometimes a lot less). I use Airbnb a lot and bargain for a monthly rate, and also local rental websites (use Google), Facebook groups, and real estate agents. Also a good idea is to ask a few local friends for good websites to check once you hit the ground. I always forget to take photos, but here are some places I’ve stayed in before:
Cuzco – $180/month:
Krakow – $490/month:
Manila – $550/month:
What you see above are short-term rates (4-8 weeks). No leases were ever signed, no bonds were ever paid, no background checks were done, and most stays were between 1-2 months. All I did was show up with my backpack and hand over a wad of cash, and they gave me the keys. You pay a premium for this convenience.
If you do stay longer term (3-6 months+) you could expect another 20-40% off the rates above. You may get asked to sign papers and pay deposits like a normal tenant, but you should come off better off in the long run.
I have a post with my Airbnb process and also a referral link for a free $20 voucher you can grab here. As I said earlier, it also helps to talk to an agent when you land, and browse some local websites/newspapers or Craigslist.
What do you do for money?
The most obvious thing you can do is use your savings. I talk about this extensively in my free ebook.
The next most obvious option is to find a job! Jobs I see people picking up regularly are teaching English, taking zumba and yoga classes, bartending, or just any odd job you can find. If you have a terrible job at home, why not find a terrible job while you travel instead. It’ll be more fun, I promise. In most cases, your biggest hurdle will be getting a work visa, rather than the job itself.
If you have mobile skills, you can try your hand at freelancing. If you can create income flow before you arrive, you will be set from day one in your new home. I have an extensive guide on getting started in freelancing here.
Becoming even more popular these days is remote work, where you ask your boss if you can ‘work from home’ for a period of time. Whether or not they’re cool with ‘home’ being 3,000 miles away is another story. But this is the future – more and more big companies and making remote work standard practice today. If you’re up for it, try it. Here’s a short intro to the process.
Lastly, if you have a house or a long-term lease back home, trying renting or sub-leasing your apartment out on Airbnb while you travel. I know a lot of people doing this, including hosts I’ve been renting from. It works.
Lastly, I discuss many of these options and more, complete with resources, in my post The Practical Guide To Making Money While Travelling. Check it out.
What do you do all day?
I actually get asked this question a lot. What did you do for three whole months?!
Usually I go to a place with a goal in mind – learn a language or skill, or maybe I just have a shit ton of work to do and need to stay put for a while. Here’s a recap of some of my Slow Travel experiences:
Five weeks in Malaga, Spain to study Spanish. Stayed in the school dorms (2010).
Eight weeks in Moshi, Tanzania as a volunteer teacher. Stayed in a volunteer’s hostel (2011).
One month in Boracay, Philippines to learn martial arts. Stayed in a small hotel, negotiated long term rate (2013).
One month in Montpellier, France to learn French. Stayed in an Airbnb. (2015).
Six weeks in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania to self-study Swahili and work on my ebook. Stayed in a hotel, negotiated long term rate (2015).
One month in Kampala, Uganda to work on my ebook. Stayed in an Airbnb (2015).
Class photo, Tanzania, 2011.
Boxing class, Philippines, 2013.
Three months in Cuzco, Peru to study Spanish. Stayed in an apartment I found in the newspaper (2011).
Three months in Quito, Ecudaor to study salsa. Stayed in an Airbnb (2014).
Ten months in Shanghai, China to study Chinese. Stayed in student accommodation on scholarship (2012).
Six months in Manila, Philippines to build my freelance business and blog. Stayed in apartments I found online (2013).
Chinese class, Shanghai, 2012.
Between work, blogging, working out, sightseeing, studying the language as well as whatever other goals you’ve set for your stay, it’s pretty easy to stay busy. Sometimes you’ll find simple things like grocery shopping takes a few hours out of your day, since you can’t read or understand anything.
The key is to go in with a mission – what do you want to learn? When you leave, what new skills or knowledge would you like to take with you? This turns your “travels” into a goal-oriented experience, rather than just a holiday.
How do you make friends?
This is a question I get often, and the answer is pretty simple: You make friends overseas exactly the same way you make friends at home.
It’s actually easier overseas. As a foreigner people have a lot of questions for you and make an effort to make you feel welcome. I’ve had many people come up to me on the street and ask me where I’m from and what I’m doing, which of course, never happens in New Zealand.
As a new kid in town, you’re forced to put yourself out there and present yourself to the community. Like I said, this is no different to when you’re at home – you join the gym, go to classes, go to bars, attend events. Of course it is harder when you know absolutely nobody in town, but that’s a challenge you need to embrace. There was a time when you couldn’t pay me to go out to a bar or an event alone, but now I attend almost everything by myself. Few travellers would disagree that travel tests your social skills to the limit, but this is a blessing – it changes every aspect of your life for the better. As a lifetime introvert, this has been doubly true for me.
Some communities that are “easy-access” and you can join immediately are language exchanges, sports clubs, gyms (including yoga, boxing, crossfit and martial arts), pub crawls, Meetup, Couchsurfing, co-working spaces, any type of classes, expat bars. Of course you’ll meet many people in the natural course of your life too, such as your co-workers, flatmates, neighbours etc.
Do you need to quit your job?
The concept of Slow Travel is similar and in some ways complementary to the Mini Retirement, which I wrote about last month.
The difference is, Slow Travel relates purely to travel, regardless of what is happening in your career or life back home. Even if you don’t plan on leaving your job and only have four weeks to travel, you can still spend that Slow Travelling in a chosen city.
Back when I was an accountant, I took five weeks of extended leave and spent the entirety of it in Málaga, Spain, which turned out to be one of the most powerful experiences of my life. In fact, I credit it almost entirely for setting me on the journey I’m on today, and I didn’t need to quit my job to enjoy it.
Slow Travel is not so much about spending long periods of time in a place, but more about spending whatever time you do have to appreciate the daily, the normal, the routine – this will create the deep connection that so many travellers talk about – the type of experience that opens your mind to everything the city, and the world, has to offer.
Managing your Fomo
One of the biggest challenges with Slow Travel is the constant Fomo (fear of missing out). Instead of spending a month or two in Spain, you might want to try and do it all – partying in Barcelona, wining and dining in Paris, sunbathing in the south of France, eating pizza in Italy and skiing the Swiss Alps. That is a much sexier story, will get a lot more high fives and dropped jaws from your co-workers, and will triple the amount of likes you get on Instagram.
But the important thing to remember here is your ‘why’. Are you going travelling to take lots of great photos and have fun and come home with a sexy globetrotting story (which is fine), or are you going to invest your time and energy into new skills, languages, ideas, communities and a way of life? One is not better than the other, and in fact I encourage you to enjoy both modes of travel during your life, as I have.
But you do need to commit to one, and don’t let all the other what-ifs impede your experience. There are endless places on the planet to visit. You will never see them all, so it is pointless to let your mind constantly wander elsewhere and second-guess your choices. Choose the experience that you want and embrace it.
A word of warning
Slow Travel is tough.
You will suffer periods of loneliness, which is unavoidable. The plus side is you learn to enjoy the company of yourself, which will greatly curb your fear of loneliness for future trips. I’ve come to believe alone time is extremely important, both for periods of reflection, rest, and clarity of mind.
You will doubt yourself a lot. What the hell am I doing here? Almost every time I Slow Travel I second guess myself and get the urge to go home or go somewhere else after a few days. But if you stick it out, and take the time to create a home in your new city, the doubts will evaporate quickly. For me, this adjustment period is two weeks – I know if I can just get over the two weeks of settling in, everything will come right. And it does. There is so much to learn and enjoy in Slow Travel. Good things take time, as always.
Finally, it will be hard to say goodbye. This is a horrible feeling, and one that I don’t think I will ever get used to. When you make new friends, become enamoured with new places, start relationships, invest your time and emotions and life into a place and its people, it will never be easy to say goodbye. For some it gets easier, for some it gets harder, but it it never becomes easy. The only comfort is in knowing you can come back some day. This is one of the paradoxes of travel – such amazing experiences make us want to stay longer in our newfound homes, but they also inspire us to keep travelling. Our hearts are always pulled in both ways.
Ready to start travelling? My free e-book is a complete, 71-page guide to creating a life of travel. Click here for your free copy.
Awesome post, brother. I’ve spent time in Nepal (3 months) and Cambodia (4 months) both on working holidays. That is time I say to others that I “lived” there, instead of just “visiting” a place. Back to more traditional holidays of 1-2 weeks, those I think I am just passing through.
Good points on the FOMO. It IS a thing!!!
It’s absolutely a thing!
This is a really great piece! Thanks for taking the time to share these thoughts and strategies.