Five Things You Can Lose To Make Travel Easier

Five Things You Can Lose To Make Travel Easier

Note:  This post is part of my Living Overseas post series.

One of the questions I get asked a lot is what sort of things a person can do to make it easier to travel or lead a nomadic lifestyle.  My answer is usually that the biggest change you can make is in the way you think about your personal belongings.  To be a nomad, you must think like a nomad.  If you look at virtually any nomadic culture, you will see that they do not generally have much.  When you have to be able to carry your life around on a cart/camel/caravan, you learn to really pare down what you “need” in life.  I have a separate post coming soon about how I went from having 3 truckloads of belongings to 4 plastic bins of them, but I felt I should write about some of the bigger things that can really tie you down, that you should consider getting rid of if you are interested in leading a more nomadic lifestyle.  These are not easy, and they’re all things that society claims that we “need” in order to have a “good” life, so be prepared to do some reevaluating of your own values.  Anyway, here you go:

  • Vehicles. Admittedly, in most places in America, vehicles are a necessity if you want to be able to have a job/buy food/go anywhere.  My response to that is this: avoid those places.  There are plenty of places in the US that have good public transportation systems that aren’t astronomically expensive to live in like NYC, and you should be able to find somewhere that you can live without needing to own a vehicle.  The internet has made it easier than ever to be car-less; with services like Zip Car, you can now get a car on-demand if you want to head out on a weekend road trip.  Why to lose it: Between vehicle payments, insurance, maintenance, and property taxes, vehicles are expensive!  Not only that, but once you have one and have invested so much money in it, you’re likely to be loathe to get rid of it.  If you have a vehicle and want to spend an extended amount of time abroad, you will have to either find someone to look after it for you or you will have to sell it (most likely at a loss).  What to do instead: Live in a city with at least moderately decent public transportation (a good bus system will do).  Invest in a Zip Car membership and a bike.  If you absolutely must have a vehicle, look into getting a scooter or a small (250cc or below) motorcycle.  They don’t take up much space, are often eligible for free parking, are far cheaper than a car to both purchase and maintain, they get great gas mileage (even a larger motorcycle like our 750cc Ural gets around 30mpg, and a small bike or scooter may get over 100mpg), and they maintain their value much more than cars and are easier to sell.  Being “Car Free” does still cost you some money (a bike, a zip car membership, taxis, etc), but in the end it is far less than what a car would cost, and if you decide to move abroad, you don’t have to worry about having something expensive and complex to sell.  In not buying a car/vehicle, you’re effectively buying your freedom.
  • A House. One of the major causes of the current recession is the havoc that has been wreaked by a largely-unregulated lending industry, with particular blame on mortgage lenders.  Americans place a tremendous amount of self-worth on someday owning a nice house with a white picket fence and a swing in the front yard.  This is really just social conditioning.  People in most of the rest of the world do not feel the same drive to own their own housing that Americans do.  Even in Europe, it is not unusual (or stigmatized) for families to rent their housing well into their 40s, and in places like Asia, many folks never own their own place.  Why to lose it: Housing is one of the main assets that ties a person to a particular place.  Not only are houses expensive (maintenance, fees, taxes, mortgage), but they also have a sort of magnetism that ties their inhabitants to them.  Once you are settled in one place and are financially and emotionally committed to it, you are less likely to want to change your circumstances.  What to do instead: Apartments are great in that you are only committed to them for a limited period of time, and even if you need to break that contract, the cost is comparatively small.  Thanks to places like Craigslist, it is no longer difficult to find a wide variety of rooms, apartments or even houses to rent, and many of them can be surprisingly flexible about lease durations.  If you want to be really hardcore and plan on spending most of your time on the move, rent an indoor, climate-controlled storage facility (about $50/month) for the belongings you aren’t taking with you but you really want to keep (bedding, off-season clothes, etc) and rely on the kindness of friends, family, and couchsurfers.  Remember, home is where the heart is.
  • Debt/Credit Cards. One need only look at the wonderful blog Man VS. Debt to see what you can do when you don’t have debt hanging over your head.  For many, this will be the most difficult to get rid of, but it is also the item likely to cause the most profound change.  Society has managed to convince us that we need credit cards because we need to buy things we can’t afford in order to keep up with the Jones.  Why to lose it: If you don’t have debt payments to make, you only need to make enough money to survive, and that opens up a lot of options.  Also, the only person who benefits from debt is the credit card companies.  Period.  What to do instead: Stop caring about having stuff.  Some people advise you to think about whether or not most people in the rest of the world do without your purchase, but that’s a little too detached for me.  Instead, before you buy something, think about what you will do with it if you go abroad.  If it’s going to have to go into storage, think long and hard before you purchase it.  Also, don’t buy for the future; if it’s not something you are going to use now, you don’t really know if you need it, right? (Exceptions are off-season clothing that is on sale, etc.)  If you have a lot of student loans hanging over your head, look into programs abroad that will make payments for you while you are abroad – the Peace Corps is excellent about this – or find work while you’re overseas.  Another option is to sell your belongings, if you have them.  It’s stuff you’d probably have to put into storage anyway, so why not make some money off it instead?
  • Pets. I know that having fido or fluffy gives you something to look forward to at the end of the day, but pets are pretty much a no-go for nomads unless you have someone who stays back home to take care of them.  Believe me, I love animals – I’m a professional dog walker and I have had around 30 pets over the course of my life – but I also am acutely aware of the limitations they can place on your mobility.  Why to lose it: Unless you want to put your animal through the emotional trauma of being pawned off on your friends or relatives for extended periods of time, having a pet is not a good move for a frequent traveler, nor healthy for the animal.  What to do instead: Buy a plant (when pawned off on a friend, these become gifts, rather than burdens).  Become friends with the dogs at your local dog park.  Offer to pet sit for people.  Spend more time outside your home.
  • Contracts. In particular I am thinking of things like work-duration contracts (you agree to work for them for 1 year, etc) and things like cell phone contracts.  Contracts are the ultimate representation of restriction, but they hide this by often offering benefits (a guaranteed job, a cheaper phone, etc).  Why to lose it: By their very nature, contracts punish you for making your own decisions.  Want to leave your job early and work somewhere else?  Well, you’ve broken your contract and now lost a reference.  Want to get a different cell phone carrier before yours sucks?  It’s going to really cost you.  Contracts claim to help you, but in reality, there are generally very few benefits to signing anything that restricts your free will.  What do to instead: Find a job that does not require you to work for them and only them for a specified duration, or alternatively, offer to work for a reduced rate in exchange for not being bound to a piece of paper.  For things like services, find out if there is a “pay as you go” option as can often be found with cell phones.

As you can see, by choosing not to have these things, you are also choosing to reject large portions of the status quo.  You know what?  That’s okay.  Not everyone needs a house, car, spouse, two kids, desk job, and a golden retriever.  If the white picket fence isn’t your dream, then why bother picking up all the trappings?  Live your own vision, not someone else’s.  To do any less is to shortchange yourself at life.  Do you want that?  I doubt it.

In the interests of disclosure, here’s how I stack up against my own advice:

  • Vehicle: None, though I am on the title of our Ural sidecar motorcycle.  I am supremely lucky in that I am able to use Marc’s car without having it be a ball and chain around my own leg.  If I were not able to use Marc’s car, I would put more effort into getting our Ural running daily, or I would find a job that I could use public transportation to get to.
  • Housing: Marc and I live in an apartment now, but prior to this and prior to Korea, I lived for a year via the storage unit/couch method I described above.  I had minimal costs, I was able to visit people and places I had never seen before, and I got to know many of my friends far better than I had known them previously.  In an entire year, there were only a couple nights that I had to actually sleep in my truck, and it wasn’t the end of the world.
  • Debt: This is the #1 issue I still struggle with.  It took me years to finally learn that I didn’t need more stuff, and thankfully this lesson has largely stuck.  I still have a reasonable amount of credit card debt to pay off, but it was largely accrued while I did not have a job.  But, debt is by far the largest stone I carry, and it’s pretty much the only thing that prevents me from being able to get up and go work in low-paying countries like Vietnam and Mongolia.  I’d sell my belongings, but I already did that, two years ago, and I didn’t sell them, I gave them to charity.  The only two valuable things I own are also the two items I need to make a living: my computer and my camera equipment.
  • Pets: Marc and I have two cats, but I would not have gotten them if I were living alone.  Marc’s job does not permit him to travel with me (unfortunately), so I have a built-in pet sitter that the cats are already familiar with.
  • Contracts: My job is blessedly free of a contract, and I have a tendency to seek out work that is often temporary in nature (retail, waitressing, freelancing, etc).  In Korea, I did have to sign a one-year contract (breaking it means deportation), but that’s not unusual when working abroad, and I consider that to be an exception.  As for other contracts, the only binding thing I’ve signed in recent memory is my iPhone service from AT&T.  I would not be able to do my job without a GPS-enabled phone, and there are none available on a pay-as-you-go basis, so this is a sacrifice I had to make.  Thankfully, iPhones can be made to work in foreign countries, so it’s not a total loss.

2 Comments


  1. Nice post & timely series! Not only is traveling light & no debt important for an ultramobile lifestyle, it is greener and sooo freeing!

    We have been on our open ended world tour as a family, traveling non-stop since 2006… and 32 countries, 4 continents & over 175,000 miles (most overland) later, I can agree that simplicity is key!

    I suppose timing is everything though. Buying our home for a fantastic bargain ( & without a realtor) at the bottom of an up moving market and selling at the peak, certainly was good for us. I’ve seen travelers make mistakes on this home choice & wrote about it in my “How to do extended travel” post-

    http://soultravelers3.com/2008/06/how-to-do-exten.html

    I wouldn’t buy a house right now, but I don’t necessarily think owning any house ever necessarily has to be a bad thing or a “prevent traveling” thing. The Terhorsts have been permanent travelers for over 20 years, but built and own a home & land in rural Argentina that cost them almost nothing & is often closed down for at least half a year for their traveling. It’s more about making smart choices that serve you now & will also serve one’s future needs.

    I do agree 100% on the debt issue as I don’t believe in debt. Personally, I would not travel until I had all debt paid off and some fat savings in smart places. We have always believed in living large on little and living well under ones means. It gives peace of mind. You are right that traveling doesn’t cost much but maintaining things does!

    In Europe, it is easy to live even in rural area (which we prefer for prices, charm, authenticity, family friendly pace) without a car. We primarily use mass transit, walking and bicycles, but we really love our van sized motorhome that we live & travel in for 7 months of the year. It’s cheap, green, fun, comfy for a family & a great way to get to really know Europe & Europeans.

    So sometimes vehicles can enhance travel & keep prices down. We like it so much as a super frugal home/vehicle/storage unit that we’ve decided to just keep it until it dies (our usual way with vehicles). It’s mostly parked so doesn’t get that many miles considering how far we have gone (often long distances are done via ship).

    The couple who has done the most traveling in the world (soon to hit every country in the world & on their 25th year of non-stop travel) has done it all in one car – their Landrover!

    Yes, less is more for sure, but there are always exceptions! ;)

    Thanks for telling me about this post & happy holidays from Spain!

  2. You should see Up In The Air. Interesting take on life. Not that it is about traveling to be going somewhere, but traveling as opposed to being “home”.

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