Traveling without money might not be for everyone. And I totally get that! I to love my comfort zone. But often I hear people say: “I would love to travel but I don’t have enough money.” Well, here’s the good news, folks: you don’t need any. Not necessarily. As long as you are willing to dedicate yourself to the challenge, grow from it, use your social skills and improve them tenfold. Here is an uncommon guide to an unconventional style of traveling.
I’m sitting on a roundabout close to Palmela, Portugal, on the street with my laptop on my crossed legs and the sunshine on my face. Martin, my travel companion, is doing the hitchhiking work holding a cardboard. People passing in their cars look at us, both amused and skeptical. I see them smiling. We are hitchhiking from Austria to America, that’s our current mission. Two days ago we have agreed on an extra challenge: to make it from Lisbon to the south of Portugal in three days without spending a single Euro. It went pretty well.
1. Let go of expectations
When we started in Lisbon three days ago at 2 pm we didn’t know how far we will make it that day, neither where we would end up sleeping nor what we would have for dinner. That is, if we will have dinner. And suddenly everything is possible. I’ve found that this is an effective exercise to let go of any expectations and embrace what comes along. After we had given away our last coins to others in Lisbon we were picked up by Henrique, an agricultural student from Palmela. This is a small town thirty kilometers away from Lisbon featuring narrow and steep streets paved with cobblestones. A town I didn’t even know existed one hour before. “So we have this crazy project”, we said to a guy leaning outside of a bar. “Well, that’s a good start”, he responded. Gabriel was the second guy we asked for a place to stay. He offered us his house right away and even gave us the keys.
2. Find your personal worst case scenario
Try figuring out the worst scenario of our adventure: not finding a place to stay and having to sleep under the stars? Not eating for 24 hours? Decide what is the worst case you are willing to accept. And then think about what would cause you to break your commitment and pay for a hotel room or dinner. Make your own set of rules and stick to it whatever happens. Prepare for it mentally and then take it as it comes. See, what is in it for you. Even if it turns out to be hard, see the chances and try to learn from it. Because there is always something to learn.
3. Try new things
Martin and I discussed how we could reach our pre-determined hitchhiking spot in Lisbon without money. “Schwarzfahren” (riding on the public transportation, or trains without a ticket) was no option, we didn’t want to risk to get caught and then pay a fine. So we came up with three options: 1. asking the bus driver if we could go for free. That works on rare occasions. 2. Asking people to pay for our tickets, which is a bit cheesy. Or, 3. dance at the bus stop with a hat in front of us until we have some coins to pay for ourselves.
Check your options, even the crazy ones, then decide on one and give it a try. Repeat until you have reached your goal. That’s a quite efficient way of stepping out of your comfort zone. In our case I noticed that I still had four Euros on my public transport card which was enough for the two of us. Don’t make it harder than necessary.
4. Open up
Potentially everybody on the street can be your supporter. Either in the way of introducing you to a friend who knows a friend who knows a friend. Or by even offering you a place to sleep or inviting you in for a meal. That actually happens. So let go of stereotypes and don’t be a stranger. Greet people on the street, ask for directions, ask how they are doing just for the sake of getting in touch with them. See where it takes you.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask for support
My experience is that people in general have a helping gene. That depends on the country and hence the mentality, of course. But in general it’s a matter of trust. How you treat them and how you make them feel is crucial. Many people out there are willing to help. Not all of them will judge you at first sight, but often can open up very quickly once they feel comfortable with you.
6. Prepare your Karma
It’s easy to feel guilty, or as we call it in Austria, like a “Schnorrer”, when asking strangers for free food and places to sleep. It might feel ethically wrong to do that. Time to change the perspective. You don’t want to come across as a beggar who is desperately asking for money. But rather spread good vibes and see what happens. Start at home. Sign up on couchsurfing.org and offer travelers a place to sleep. Friends will visit from all around the world, you just don’t know them yet. Donate money, invite strangers for drinks. What goes around comes around and you’ll be surprised how good it feels now that it’s your turn to receive.
7. Offer your help
Our first question when we entered a café with the intention of securing dinner was not if we can get something to eat for free. Because that might sound a bit weird to most people who run cafés, right? Probably also to Rui, the owner of the small café in Palmela where we had given it a try. Our first question was: “Do you need help in the kitchen?” “Not at the moment”, he responded with a slightly skeptical look. I explained to him the scope of our project and he brought us two massive chicken wings in an aluminum tray. Even quicker then if we would have ordered it!
If you want to stay in a place for longer, offering your help in a hostel is also a good idea. Hostels usually have plenty of work to do and are often willing to trade food and accommodation for helping hands. That also worked for us surprisingly well even for only one night. After we got a ride from Palmela all the way to southern Portugal to a town called Aljezur we were prepared to ask people on the street for a place to sleep again. But there were no people on the street. And we were tired and hungry. Aljezur’s hostel has many free beds in the off-season, and when we offered to clean the kitchen we got checked in for free. We didn’t clean the kitchen though. We polished it.
8. Tell people about you
Make them curious. What I found is that a lot of people like adventures. Even if they wouldn’t go on one by themselves, they usually appreciate others who are doing so. Give them a chance to be part of your story. Learn more about ours here: www.thousandfirststeps.com
9. Give something back
Many values can not be measured in coins and notes. Try to return the favor by being interested in other people’s issues. Try to understand them and be open to new cultures and concepts of living. It happened a couple of times already that I was able to contribute an inspiring thought, a concrete idea or perspective to a topic – which all of a sudden made the other person smile brightly.
Because you have added value to the conversation by providing a new idea – you never know where this idea might lead them. This can be so much more powerful and valuable than money. Or as Henrique from Palmela put it after he had offered us a ride, a traditional Portuguese dinner and wine with his family, a place to sleep and breakfast twice: “It’s nothing special I did. But you guys treated me so well that I wanted to return the favor. So I am caring about you.” “Thank you”, he even said to us when we left. That touched me! “One day if I want to do what you guys are doing I would also like to have other people helping me, like giving me a ride or a place to sleep.” Well said, Henrique. Well said.
10. Make the world your playground
Traveling without money is not predictable. It can happen that you get lost or stuck in a remote place. Take it easy! The interesting thing about limited comfort zones is: they expand. As long as you keep challenging your boundaries you will find yourself in a playground growing bigger and bigger. What you were scared of before suddenly feels easy. playful. Congratulations, buddy, you have grown big time!
11. Grow bigger
After you managed to handle whatever had come your way, despite all difficulties, you realize one powerful insight: that you are capable of making it anywhere and can handle anything that comes your way. Needless to explain what a massive boost of confidence that is.
But I want to be honest with you guys. Of course there is a massive downside. Traveling without money can be exhausting. Learning so much about yourself in such a short period of time is overwhelming and intense. And after these three days I’m very much looking forward to kiss my credit card and treat myself to a cozy bed, delicious dinner and a fancy Gin Tonic with cucumber.
Offer your couch, stay at others for free and make friends all around the world:
The hitchhikers guide to hitchhiking the world:
A well researched article about the technical aspects of traveling without money: