Overlanding on a shoestring (or by the last thread of your underpants)

‘How on earth do you travel on such a low budget?’ must be the single, most recurring question Chris and I get on the road. I guess it’s almost mind-boggling to hear that the amount of money we each need for a whole YEAR on the road (€6,000 or about AUD8,500) is what most are willing to spend on a short one-week holiday.

I’ll start off by saying that it’s not like our most fervent life mission is to live cheaply, not at all; it’s just that this kind of lifestyle is not really synonymous with affluence. The two are actually mutually exclusive. If you want to travel comfortably then you’re going to have to earn big bucks, if you want to earn big bucks then you’re going to have to work more and travel less. Considering the fact we want to travel more then we’re going to have to work less. Hence the limited budget.

You with me?

As much as we would looooove to travel in a little more comfort, we just can’t. We don’t have trust funds, nor sponsorship nor do we have a substantial amount of savings to burn; quite possibly because we have been doing ‘this’ for the good part of a decade 🙂

Anyway, when all is said and done, our challenge (one which we gladly accepted) was to ride our motorbikes from Germany to Australia, spending only €500 a month each in the process. How on earth do we do this?? Well…best you read on and find out!

1)     What we can do with just €500 a month

First of all I’ll quickly tell you how we came up with our €500/month budget. Due to our extensive experience (mine as a tour guide and Chris as an independent traveller), we determined that €16 a day was a realistic budget to set for a long-haul trip. This, by the way, should work in almost all continents. As the ‘tour guide’ part of the duo (because it’s the one thing I did for years) I know that I can feed us for about €5 a day each. Not talking gourmet restaurant meals here, just your average, run of the mill eggs on toast for brekkie, couple of sandwiches for lunch and a big plate of pasta for dinner. Snacks and non-alcoholic drinks included.

With a bit of patience I can prepare some wicked camp meals :)

With a bit of patience I can prepare some wicked camp meals. This was Easter lunch somewhere along the Croatian coast, in 2013

Chris, being the ‘driver/mechanic’ part of the duo told me we’d each need, on average, €2 a day on petrol, as long as we kept to a maximum of 1,000kms a month. He did this by working out the average petrol price when considering the 20-odd countries we’d be travelling through (€1/litre), testing and retesting our bikes’ petrol consumption (b/w 5-6 litres/100kms) and deciding that 1,000km in a month would make for a slow and enjoyable trip .

This brings us to €7 a day each for petrol and basic food.

The balance of €9 a day is budgeted according to the following:

Ciggies (or a beer or whatever):                  €3

Medical Insurance:                                         €1

Vehicle ins/tax:                                               €0.20

Accommodation                                             €1.40

(staying in a campsite 7 nights a month)

*Extras:                                                            €3,40

*Extras can be anything ranging from entry fees to archaeological sites, to spare parts, motor oil, occasional restaurant meals, bottle of wines etc etc. Basically, we play it by ear. In Greece, where we are at the moment, we can have some fantastic meals out for the price of a self-made sandwich, so we are indulging; something we could not have done in Italy for example. This is also the country where we’ve spent nearly 100 €s in sightseeing in just two weeks, but because we hadn’t spent this in Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo or Montenegro, this too was fine.

As long as our bikes don’t suffer from any major breakdowns, these ‘extras’ will also cover all accidentals along the way.

A broken regulator is one of only 3-4 parts on bike which can't be fixed and must be replaced. Mine broke within a month of starting the trip: $100 gone...d'oh!

A broken regulator is one of only 3-4 parts on bike which can’t be fixed and must be replaced. Mine broke within a month of starting the trip: $100 gone…d’oh!

Once one realizes the amount needed each month, there are only two options to consider: 1) have this in savings or 2) earn it along the way. We’re actually doing a little bit of both and, so far, all seems to be working out as planned. Fingers crossed!

2)     We know that the slower we travel…the less we spend

The number one rule of budget travelling with your own vehicle is to slow the heck down. Petrol and Visa costs are the two biggest money-zappers of overlanding, so the slower you cover the kilometres and cross the countries, the more your monthly budget will decrease. I’ll give you an example: your average Europe to Oz overlander will need to cover approximately 40,000 kms and cross about 20-odd countries. The expense for petrol and Visas alone should be about 2,500 €s. Now the choice here is spending that money over 6 months (about the minimum required time) or spending it over 3 years.

We decide, of course, to stretch the trip so that our petrol/visa daily budget is just 2-3 €s a day, not 14. This, of course, is decided on a country to country basis, depending on the price of petrol. In countries like Italy, Greece and Turkey, where we’re almost hitting the 1.80-2 E per litre mark, we take it even slower. Once we get to Kazakhstan, where the petrol is 53 cents a litre, we can go nuts riding around in a flurry!

By and large, however, covering an average of 1,000km a month will keep us to our budget. Inshallah.

Travel slowly! Not only will you get a much deeper appreciation of the places you visit...you'll also spend much less.

Travel slowly! Not only will you get a much deeper appreciation of the places you visit…you’ll also spend much less. We got lost exploring the Peloponnese in Greece. Superb!

When contemplating a longer trip, you cannot include food and accommodation in your budgeting, because these are expenses we all need to live on, no matter where we are or what we’re doing.

To be honest, travelling is (obviously) cheaper than staying put, as you’d never be able to rent an apartment anywhere for 42 €s a month or, if you could, you probably wouldn’t want to live in it 😉

3)     We didn’t spend too much (time and money) on preparations

There’s always this overwhelming desire to prepare for all of life’s eventualities and buy far more than you’ll ever need before you even set off for a long-haul trip. We once met a German couple who spent two years of their lives and over $20,000 to build their dream Unimog kick-ass camper. While their camper was indeed ‘kick-ass’ (think home-made curtains, fridge, lovely paintwork etc etc) by the time we met them in Egypt they had been on the road for less than a year and were rushing home because they were about to run out of money. The Unimog is a petrol guzzler at the best of times and, even though they were living on boiled potatoes, they still couldn’t stretch the little money they had left. That’s just nuts. Had the spent just $5,000 on a good-enough camper they could have stayed on the road at least another two years in Africa.

Chris and I spent just $1,000 each to get our bikes up and running and an equal amount on ‘gear’. The only spare parts we have with us are things we are expecting to break (chain, spare filters, levers, brake pads etc) the rest we will source out when need arises. You can’t possibly plan for everything, so best you leave your money in the bank and deal with purchases as they arise.

All I own fits into two  motorbike boxes and one incredibly gorgeous red bag!

All I own fits into two motorbike boxes and one incredibly gorgeous red bag!

4)     We bush it as much as possible

Bush camping (ie. finding a nice safe public nook where you can put up your tent for the night) is one of the best ways to save cash when overlanding. In some countries this is truly difficult (Italy) while in others it is not only possible but extremely rewarding (anywhere in the Balkans). Not paying to pitch a tent in a campsite is a great way to save money and something Chris and I choose to do about 3 weeks out of 4 if we can…and not just because of our budget.

Finding a secluded and utterly romantic spot by a river, a lake or in a forest is fun, relaxing, intimate and simply divine. We head to a campsite every few days to shower & recharge and also for about a week every month so that we can work. In summer, the sea, lakes and rivers act as our daily shower and then we only pay for a site when we need to work.

Bushcamping is not just cheap...it's priceless

Bushcamping is not just cheap…it’s priceless. We took 5 days to cross the Upper Caucauses in northern Georgia…impossible to do without camping!

5)     We left no debt behind

Attempt a trip like this with minimal savings/earning potential and a mortgage/bank loan to pay off at home and you’re just asking for trouble. Travelling should be fun and relatively stress free…spend most of your time worrying about the debt that’s waiting for you at home (or worse still, accumulating) and your journey ain’t gonna be much fun. My one major piece of advice if you’re ever contemplating taking a long-haul trip is to wait, budget, pay off and then leave. This is of course, unless you can budget in whatever monthly repayments you may need to make.

Chris and I own only the motorbikes we ride, and the personal belongings which are stored in them. Our house is portable, foldable and (most of the time) waterproof and, whilst I admit that this can sometime cause me bouts of panic (trust me, no-one is totally immune to the societal pressures to hoard, own or secure something), it is also the most freedom-ensuring aspect of our lives and one of the things I love most. We don’t own and we don’t owe…we just are.

When all you own is a tent, the world becomes your back yard

When all you own is a tent, the world becomes your back yard. Pieria Beach in north-east Greece was ‘home’ for a month.

6)     We travel together because we LOVE to, but when you double up travelling gets cheaper

Contemplating taking off on a trans-continental trip? You’re not alone! At any given time, there are about 15,000 vehicles which are crossing either North to South America, Africa to €pe or €pe to Australia. If you want to decrease your expenses the best thing you can do is buddy up with someone. Camping costs are mostly per pitch not per person and, if wanting to go by camper, doubling up means sharing those all too dreaded petrol costs.

7)     We keep it basic

When I tell people that I’m travelling with 3 T-shirts, 3 pairs of undies and 3 pairs of socks, they tend to do that disgusted-heart-attack-inducing face I just love so much. I actually started the trip with 5 of each (after a severe bout of heavy negotiations with my packing-guru) but soon realized that because I don’t like to drag around dirty clothes in my bag, I tend to wash and re-wear almost daily and live on a 3-pair rotation of everything.

I (almost) never buy anything extra, I only ever replace something that’s kaput or worn out.

Bosnia & Greece: 2 countries=one outfit. It's like magic!

Bosnia & Greece: 2 countries=one outfit. It’s like magic!

There is nothing even remotely resembling ‘shopping’ in my life, not the retail therapy kind I used to blow hundreds of dollars on in my previous life. Can I be honest here? Sure, I don’t have neither the room nor the budget to buy (whatever) but fact is when I was back in Sydney a couple of years ago, holding my massive garage sale to get rid of all my worldly belongings, I COULD NOT BELIEVE the amount of shoes, designer bags and clothes I’d collected over the years. Who on earth needs 25 pairs of black heels?????? If I think of how many years of travel were stored in my wardrobe during my 20s, it makes wanna cry.

Anywho…don’t panic at the thought of not buying pretty shoes, or make-up or lovely girly clothes whilst you’re on a long journey. Get on the road for just a few weeks and you’ll soon not even think about it. Seriously. My most recent splurge was on a gorgeous €7 bright red sarong, which I convinced my packing-guru I most absolutely 100% needed. It doubles as a towel, a pretty beach dress, a headscarf for Muslim countries and how is one supposed to sunbake on a beach without it anyway??? Plus…the red matches my helmet.

I won!

8)     We go with the flow…

Our everyday expenses will certainly decrease the further we are from Europe; as soon as petrol and food prices drop, we’ll be able to opt for hostels instead of campsites and restaurants instead of camp-stove meals. Having said this however, one must always remember that the moment ‘life’ gets cheaper, ‘travel’ becomes more expensive. In Europe, we don’t need Visas between countries and we don’t need to take ferries but in Asia we will need to, so at the end of the day we still can’t veer far off our budget. Eg. A packet of ciggies in Europe is about €3, when we hit Asia they will go down to €1 and the €2 balance will go towards Visas.

Now, don’t go thinking that we sit there every day counting our pennies! After 9 months on the road, we can confidently say that our instincts are quite spot on. When we have a particularly cheap week we’ll do something special, when we’ve spent more than we should have we take it easy the next week. So far…so good.

And now to the million dollar questions which inevitably follows this low-down…

Could it be done even cheaper?

The straight-up answer is YES, definitely, yet the more detailed answer would be:

a)      Only marginally cheaper if you have a vehicle (think NO campsites at all and only 2-minute noodle meals for lunch and dinner every day)

b)      Infinitely cheaper if you’re on foot

Stories of young adventurers completing a world-trip after leaving home with just 20 bucks in their pocket are not that rare. We’ve actually met a few. Between the hitchhiking, the picking of fruits, the making of jewellery and everything else in between, these guys manage to live and travel on very little money indeed. The one thing they all have in common, however, is that they must, more often than not, rely on the hospitality and generosity of others. Whilst these are two things which you are bound to encounter along the way, having to rely on it must be quite the challenge.

So, you see…we’re not all that crazy are we?

…and last but not least:

Would we do it differently even if we had, for argument’s sake, unlimited cash flow?

Not on your life!

Chris and I really love to travel by motorbike and not just because it is the cheapest way to do this trip with your own wheels. Moreover, the bikes we have are ideal because they are old and sort of decrepit.  Both Pixie and Puck are of ’96 vintage which means there are but a few electronic components; 99% of the time we can fix problems ourselves with the use of a spanner, a hammer (sometimes both) and a spare part we either have or can source out. If we were doing this with brand new BMW1200GS’ and we were to break down, our only option would be to freight the highly-computerized bike back to the factory in Germany where they’d need to hook it up to a computer to find the fault, they’d fix it and they’d ship it back. Sorry, but I wouldn’t do this even if I were a millionaire.

When it comes to shopping for new stuff, the fact that we travel with limited luggage space means buying new things would not be possible even if we could afford it, to be honest.

As I said before, we really love to bush camp so even if we had plenty of dough we’d still only opt for paid accommodation one week a month. We also love feasting from street food stalls all over the world and get easily bored in fancy restaurants, so while I’m sure we’d eat out a little more often, it still would not make for a major difference and, whilst we absolutely go nuts whenever we can score a hotel room, we soon start missing being woken up by the birds and the sun rising above our tent so nope, we wouldn’t splurge too much on that either!

The one thing which would change, at least for me personally, would be more emotional than material. There are so many times when we are in a gorgeous place and think ‘wow, my mum would love this place!’ or ‘my brother and his family would get such a kick out of this place!’, so yes, there are times when I wish I could just give my family a paid vacation to wherever I happen to be. I would also love to, say, skip a month of winter travel to fly to Oz and see friends. Being able to see my loved ones more often would be the only big change I’d make to this trip.

We may be travelling by the last thread of our underpants…but truth is we’d do this with no pants at all.

 

Update, May 2005: check out our trip stats after 960 days!!

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2 Responses to Overlanding on a shoestring (or by the last thread of your underpants)

  1. Steveanaki says:

    Another insightful article, Laura. Interesting to see how you break down your budget. What sort of work have you managed to pick up along the way?

    • Thanks Steve, thought some people might find the logistical side of the trip interesting as well.
      I’m actually the main travel guide contributor for http://wornluggage.com/ and http://www.holiday-velvet.com/. I deliver a set of travel guides each month, which helps keep me on the road :)) I have recently scored some casual writing work, mostly for people who want to polish up their travel e-books or who need to build up a healthy destination guide section for their travel portal sites. Great fun work!! PS. haven’t given up on the book-publishing either :)) Cheers to you and Mandy

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