In 1988, as an 18 year old, I bought a one-way flight to Southern Portugal. I had been living in England. My plan was to ride my bike back to the U.K. I had a paltry $400, clearly an inadequate sum for the trip. But I was dumb enough to think I was loaded. Fortunately, I met gracious people along the 1,600-mile journey. They offered places to stay and meals to eat. I never asked for help. I didn’t think I needed it. Fortunately my face must have said I was friendly, famished and foolish.
Whether they call it a Gap Year or a journey to “find themselves” many young people take a break after high school or midway through college to pursue an international adventure. I see them carrying backpacks, riding bikes, hopping trains and flying in planes. And I always wonder the same thing: “How are they pulling this off?” Is a parent back home footing the bill? Did they scrape together paper route money, coupled with cash from a part-time job?
I’ll see a kid in dreadlocks, chilling out on one of Thailand’s beaches. He’s a Bohemian living off a mystical source of income. I start a casual conversation before getting to the inevitable question—the one that makes my wife cringe every time she hears it. “So…how are you financing this eight month long trip?” Plenty of evasive answers emerge, long before he sheepishly admits he’s living off his mom or dad’s credit card.
So does it take a rich mommy and daddy for a kid to travel the world today? Not necessarily. People have always found creative ways to pursue their dreams, often without paying for them. Sir Ernest Shackleton wanted to journey to Antarctica one hundred years ago and take his motley crew across the ice from end to end. Without filial funding, he asked multi-millionaire James Caird for a £50 donation (less than $100). Instead Caird shelled out £24,000, equivalent to $1.5 million today, with no strings attached.
Social media and groupfunding sites fulfill much the same function today. Last week, my wife and I were traveling in Spain, cycling the Camino de Santiago on our tandem. Much to her chagrin, I geared up for the inevitable question after meeting a couple of sisters from New York. They were college students, hiking the Camino (which takes a full four weeks). Afterward, they hope to trip around Europe on an unlimited (yet to be paid for) rail pass. “You haven’t heard of Indiegogo?” asked Ali, the elder of the two.
Sir Ernest Shackleton would have loved it. Those raising money for a venture of any kind post their requests to the groupfunding site and hope for donations via Paypal. Recipients offer gifts in return. Ali and her sister Mariesha send a thank you on facebook for $5 donations; postcards to those donating $50; and handwritten letters and a photograph of the two in front of a European landmark for $100.
Accommodation is cheap for the sisters on the Camino. Hostels are everywhere. Those walking the trail pay roughly $10 per night.
But what about young people venturing into London, Madrid, Tokyo, Rome or Paris? Many don’t pay for a place to stay. Using another form of social media, couchsurfing.com, they sleep at the homes of likeminded people. They’re much like free, self-regulated bed & breakfasts. Hosts and guests alike receive reviews. Those building strong references tell the world they’re trustworthy.
Wanting to check it out, my wife and I joined earlier this year. While living in Singapore (a ludicrously expensive city for anyone on a shoestring) we hosted young IT workers from Finland, some journalists from Russia and a couple of medical students from Argentina.
Young people honing their communication skills online with polite requests are those most successful when soliciting free accommodation. Hosts and guests can pick and choose, accepting only those they feel comfortable with.
If you’re considering whether to let your son or daughter take such a trip, I highly recommend it. They might learn more about people, places and money than they ever could at college.
But for best results, don’t give them your Visa.
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller Millionaire Teacher and Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas