When I wrote “What If I’ve Hit My Peak?” for Matador, I know that I stepped on some toes because some people thought it was ridiculous to have such a fear at the age of 23. And maybe it is completely ridiculous. That essay got reposted on a site called Business Insider, and when a commenter told me about it, I couldn’t help but wander on over to check it out. Then I made the mistake of reading through some of the comments.
A few of them empathized with me; most of them lambasted me as a spoiled, rich white girl who had never worked a day in her life and was therefore depending on Mum and Dad to foot the bill. Some said that I was a loner, without any friends, and didn’t make connections to any places I’d been. Others raised the point that I’m selfish and should be helping others instead of myself. As I’m never one to back down when somebody assumes something incorrectly about me, I felt the need to provide some clarification.
I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I do not have a trust fund. I have a real job. I pay my own bills. I solemnly swear that I am not riding on my parents’ coattails and charging any swanky hotel nights to their credit card. My parents have never paid for a single travel venture, as they are unable and unwilling to. My background is thoroughly middle class; my dad is a security technician, and my mum stayed at home for much of my life. I am proud of my roots, and trust me, I recognize that I am extremely lucky when it comes to the amount that I travel.
Look, I get it. When you write about travel, it is hard to come off as anything but spoiled. Invariably, you veer into “first world problems” territory, and that is compounded when you are a.) a 20-something b.) white and c.) American. Many people assume that if you fit all three categories, you’re automatically a member of the financial elite. And some people are. It’s the nature of the thing.
I, however, am not. I recognize that I was better off during my childhood and teenage years than many, many people. I am not playing the martyr or saying that I work harder than anyone else. I certainly don’t think that traveling makes me a better person than anyone else. I am just tired of people assuming that I am a trust fund baby or depend on my parents and therefore am setting the record straight.
I got my first job the summer after eighth grade. It was at the produce farm a quarter mile from my house, and I worked there until the summer after I graduated from college in 2011. Then, I got my second job when I turned fifteen; it was at a local, family-owned golf course, and I worked there for eight straight springs, summers, and falls. (Incidentally, it was these two jobs that paid for my first trip to Europe when I was seventeen.) Days off were rare; during the summer, I took between one and three days of vacation, and when I was at university, I came home semi-regularly during the spring and fall to work. Then, I started doing private tutoring three days a week for local high school students in English and German. My best friend’s mother runs her own catering business, and I began helping out with that during the summer, usually between one and three weekends a month. Between all these, I usually worked anywhere between eight and eighteen hours a day, as the golf course opened around 6 a.m. on the weekend and catering jobs often ended after 11 p.m.
During those summers, I hated working so much. In hindsight, I love it, because it taught me the value of money and how to save it effectively, which is knowledge that I’ve used ever since. I know how far a dollar will get me because of those years.
At Washington & Jefferson, I worked at the library and wrote for the student newspaper. Eventually I became a copy editor my sophomore year and subsequently the managing editor my senior year. All paychecks went straight into my savings account to pay for school. In the summer, basically the only money I used for day-to-day practices were from my tips at the golf course.
I now am a teacher with the JET Programme, and the acceptance process for that involved an extremely in-depth paper application, interview, FBI background check, and lots of doctors’ appointments to verify my physical and mental stability. That lasted about six months. I had no connections within JET, so there was certainly no nepotism to help me out. Now I teach English at a high school in Aomori. I may not be helping to feed orphans or serving my country in the military, but I am teaching a foreign language. I certainly think that counts as helping or “giving back.”
As far as being a loner goes, I admit that I enjoy having time to myself. Many of my hobbies – reading, writing, running, yoga, hiking – aren’t necessarily group activities. But then some – like volleyball – are. I like to travel alone, because I don’t have to sacrifice seeing or experiencing something that’s a high priority for me in order to compromise for some else’s high priority. So be it if that makes me selfish. And I may not be a social butterfly, but I think being a traveler actually makes you more likely to make friends: in hostels, on trains, at concerts, on planes…For most of the countries I’ve visited, I have either had friends who lived there originally, or I have made friends during my time there. In the latter case, I still keep in touch with the majority of them. For example, I have friends in France, New Zealand, Hong Kong, England, Italy, and Ireland. I have host families in Germany and southern Japan. For so many of the places I’ve been, the reason the memories are so fantastic lies in the people with whom I experienced them.
Finally, lots of people asked how I’m able to travel so much when I’m only 23. Admittedly, a lot of my ability to travel stems from my situation; my cost of living is quite low, my salary in Japan is more than I could hope to make as a first-year teacher in America, and I have twenty days of paid leave a year. I know that for some people, it is truly inaccessible for any number of reasons, but for others, it’s not as impossible as it seems. You just have to be smart about it, as most of it lies in having common sense. This is only a rough, basic guide, but it’s a good start in my opinion.
- Save, save, and then save some more. That’s a no-brainer. When I’m at home, I skimp and save money however possible to save a few yen here and there. I’d prefer to bundle up when I sleep in my house, rather than blast the heat all night. I buy fruit that’s a bit battered and bruised when I go shopping, because it’s roughly half the price of the pristine stuff. It adds up. In Japan, five hundred yen coins are in circulation. Any time I get one back in change, I put it straight into a bank on my kitchen table. After a few months, the equivalent of a few hundred American dollars accumulates, and there’s a good chunk of my spending money when I travel.
- Prioritize. Admittedly, I do like to go shopping. However, whenever I do, I scour clearance racks and the sale sections. I recognize that my desire to travel is far greater than to have a nice, new dress that I don’t really need. (Plus, I’m too Western to fit into most Japanese clothes, so it’s not as tempting.) The same goes for going out to dinner. I limit myself to eating out once a month (usually at my favorite sushi restaurant), and that’s it. When I splurge, it’s on travel expenses, not on things I don’t need. This goes for freeing up time to travel, as well. I would much rather save my vacation days and use a good chunk of them all at once to take a longer trip, rather than take a day here and there simply because I don’t feel like going into work. Any time I use vacation, it’s usually tacked onto a longer weekend. Last Christmas, I used four days of leave, but because of the days that teachers in Japan get off (Dec. 29 – Jan. 3), I actually had eleven days of vacation.
- Do your research. I usually don’t travel at the season peaks, because I know that expenses are far higher then. Plane tickets tend to be more expensive on certain days of the week (both for purchasing them and on actual days of travel). If you do your research, get your timing right, and pay attention to trends, you start to see ways to save money, thus freeing up more funds. For example, discount airlines are readily accessible in Europe; when I lived in Cologne, I scored a flight to Mykonos in Greece for around fifteen euros with Germanwings because I paid attention to when prices were cheapest. When I’m in Europe and travel between Germany and France or Belgium, I always use the Thalys train. If you book early enough, the first class tickets are actually cheaper (and by up to €20 each way) than economy class. Comfort for a cheaper price – you can’t go wrong with that. Similarly, you can save money on many cities’ metro systems, like London’s. I was there for a week, and I paid around £30 for unlimited use of the Underground, rather than pay for each individual journey. I bounced all over London during that week, so it was by far the better bargain. When I travel around Japan, I usually use a site called Agoda to book my lodging; if I do it early enough, I get a 40% “early bird” discount.
- Follow the locals. You hear this piece of advice time and time again from travelers, and there’s a reason for that: it is one hundred percent true. Don’t buy souvenirs from the shady street vendors under the Eiffel Tower or around La Sagrada Familia. Don’t eat at restaurants right by train stations or in the touristy sections of a city. Get off the beaten path and pay attention to what the locals do; prices go down and authenticity goes up. If you see every local stopping at a specific vendor for one specific food, it’s probably cheap and it’s probably delicious. One of my favorite fellow travel bloggers went to Iceland. She was desperate to come home with a lopi, or a traditional Icelandic yoke knit top. Those tops can range upwards of two hundred dollars in standard souvenir shops…but she wandered around to smaller shops and bought a homemade one from a granny for about half the price.
- Make sacrifices. By this, I don’t just mean cutting out unnecessary expenses at home. It applies just as well on the road. When I travel, basically the only time I spend in a hotel/hostel room is when I sleep. Therefore, I don’t need much more than a door that locks and a horizontal surface that resembles a bed to keep me happy. I don’t mind staying in a tiny hostel room with three other strangers. Most hostels provide lockers in the rooms; invest in a heavy-duty lock and don’t leave your valuables in the room, and you should be pretty safe. Obviously, you probably shouldn’t stay at a hostel with cockroaches nesting in the shower drain and a door that doesn’t lock, though.
- Let down your guard. For many people, staying with a stranger when traveling is both terrifying and uncomfortable. But if you’re looking to cut costs and don’t mind sleeping on a couch or the floor, couchsurfing is the way to go. If you’re smart about it (As in, if you’re a young woman traveling alone, maybe you shouldn’t stay with a guy who lists partying/drinking as one of his primary activities and only wants women staying with them.), it can save you some major cash, while giving you a local’s perspective with which to navigate. When I was in Athens, my two friends and I stayed with an affable 30-something who had lived in the city his entire life. He knew some of the best places in Athens that we’d otherwise have never found (See entry number four!), and the cost was nonexistent. Many Americans have the mindset that when you travel, everyone is out to cheat you. Lower your guard, and you’ll find that isn’t the case at all.
Those tips might not work for everyone, but they’ve worked for me. It’s not my trust fund or my parents’ Amex paying for my travel. It’s me, myself, and I.