No, you can not travel for “free”. Here is why.

I am sorry for the click-bait in the title, but this topic has been bubbling inside of my mind like a nauseating potion. The point has come where I can´t shut up about it anymore.

In the age of cheap airlines and online visa applications, it seems that every budget travel blog that respects itself must answer the omnipresent “How to travel the world for free” question with some smartass insights.

Yet, here I am with this ugly assertion: you can not travel for free.

It is simply not possible.

Oh, yes, I have met people who travel without money but they don´t travel for free either.

I will elaborate.

(Why) Is it (not) possible to travel for free?

Not that I want to be mean to you, but the answer is no.

Why? Because physics!

Nothing in the universe happens without a reason. Okay, maybe you are someone like Einstein and you are going to blast me on this one, but that´s what the law of action – reaction teaches us – if you want something, you have to spend a certain amount of energy in order to get it. I don´t want to get any more technical (hey, I studied at the Faculty of Philosophy, after all!) but look at it this way; those “free” berries you picked up in the forest? Guess what you worked for it – you had to search and bend and all that. That couch you slept on? You probably had to send a request from your app. Maybe it was easy, but you still had to do something.

why you can not travel for free
Physics in action.

Whatever, if I don´t need money…

Fuck off, Girl Astray, what do you know? …I hear your thoughts!  I will pretend I am some kind of a guru (which I am not, but I do wear a white shirt right now!) and I will tell you sort of a koan story. (I feel smartass too now!)

I met a Russian couple recently who has been traveling for over half a year without using money. This has been their voluntary decision – they claim not to need money as they hitchhike instead of taking planes and ask for free food wherever they happen to be. This is a brave decision, as you can imagine, but after a few days spent with them, something started to bug me about their ways. I will come back to this in later part of this article so don´t stop reading just yet, ´kay?

Read more: I said I loved traveling alone and I lied.

As for me, I and my husband hitchhike too and we accept food and shelter when offered. We also use couchsurfing and carry a sleeping bag, a tent and a hammock in order to have as much freedom+independence as possible.

Although I haven´t experienced an empty wallet on my own skin, my husband has been traveling as a bum in Laos a few years ago and while he values this time as a useful life lesson, it is not something he is eager to repeat.

We have been on the road since September 2016 and we have done our best to spend as little as possible. But it was not for free. This is where…

budget travel

…comes into play.

When you travel on a budget, what you usually do to minimize your expenses, is use other people´s resources instead. (That escalated quickly, right?)

A cynic inside of me considers it a form of opportunism, while in order to feel better about myself I prefer to classify it as sharing – after all, I have received travelers in my home too when I had the chance! I am also guilty for saying (and repeating!) that “The road provides for those who walk on it” but really, it is not the road and less so the universe or God who provides for you, it is rather another fellow human being. (Unless you live off berries and roots in the woods and in that case it is the nature who provides you with food. But you still have to work for it.)

Explore more: Ghost village of Kayaköy, Turkey

When it comes to it, I valued the good company of my more or less adventurous international guests over all and was only happy when I could feed them and give them a place to sleep (and a washing machine) for a few days. (And sometimes,just sometimes, I was pissed off with them for downloading stuff on my computer while I was at work.) I suppose (hope) our hosts feel the same. Except for that downloading faux pas, ugh.

But at the same time, I feel that the travelers get all the crème de la crème of praise while the reality is…a little…different.

why you can not travel for free - a travel essay by www.girlastray.com
This Turkish woman picked us up when we were walking in the street and invited us to stay at her home.

Everyday warriors

From my point of view, those of us who live the travel fairy tale, who struggle on the road, piling one adventure on another as if it were dragon heads…yeah, me and probably you and a bunch of others…get all that praise just a tiny little bit undeservedly.

The true heros are the people who receive us in their homes and share what they have with us. They do the hard job; get up every morning, work, walk the same way one day after another for years, buy cars and houses and couches we eventually sleep on, with money that we didn´t contribute to in any way. If you are the person who opens their home to adventurers, then I want to tell you – you are doing the more difficult thing.

It seems the easiest thing for me to do to skip all of this and run away – hitchhiking (no expensive planes and buses), couchsurfing (no pricey hotel rooms) and getting invited to eat just because we are strangers or look shabby. (Yummy food!)

People have taken countless selfies with us, happy to have us in their kebab shop or living room or what not – but we didn´t really do anything so special to deserve it, or did we? Without people who are part of “the system”, who work, pay taxes, buy cars and homes…we wouldn´t get any far.

Spending the $$ of someone else

Traveling gets glorified as an extraordinary lifestyle choice, but really, if everyone decided to travel, who would there be left to feed the hungry pilgrim?

Back to my money-refusing couple example (I know that is what you want to know all along!), I was angry with them. (Full disclosure: we had an open conflict including me jumping on my feet and screaming “Don´t you dare speaking to my husband like this!” Well.)(Listen, I don´t raise my eyebrows at you for loosing your cool either!)  The problem with these people was that they were insufferably smug. Not only they rely on others to provide for them, but they also look at everyone else from above. They consider their lifestyle “the right way” to live, you know, money is evil and blah blah. (We heard it all before. From someone who says eating meat blocks energy, but devours a whole Nutella jar for breakfast. Keep going, enlighten me more, please! All of my energy is clearly fucked up because I don´t see any sense in it.)

Get a sneak peak: 5 weirdest places I have slept at while traveling

But instead of paying with their own money…what else do they do than just pay with money of someone else?

Even if they go and collect leftover fruits and veggies from the marketplace, there still had to be some farmer in the first place who put a lot of effort into growing the garden, bringing the food to the village and spending hours standing in the cold trying to sell it.

So, ultimately, if you travel for “free”, what you really do is:

  • Sleep in a house somebody worked to rent/build/buy with money
  • Eat food someone else bought with money
  • Shower in the water somebody pays bills for with money
  • Probably use electricity to charge your gadgets…and guess what you have to do in order to have electricity in your house?
  • Get rides from people who buy gas with money and bingo, you’ve guessed it – cars don´t grow on trees either

So, yep, that´s it. Opportunism.

why you can not travel for free - a travel essay by www.girlastray.com
I shamelessly admit this cat is here only because it looks funny.

An opportunist traveler´s ethic

Yes, yes, I don´t like that word either perhaps because it is essentially what I do myself. On the road, my work opportunities are limited although I do try and get a little online job done here and there. I don´t know how about you, but I definitely don´t enjoy feeling like a scumbag, exploiting the soft – hearted souls willing to help the poor.

But I daily do the pragmatic decision – if I don´t have to pay, I don´t. Or, I don´t pay with money.

You see, there are ways to reciprocate even when you don´t want to (or can´t afford to) hand over the coin.

When staying at someone´s home, we mostly offer to cook for them. Even if we don´t, we clean up, wash dishes and help with whatever goes on in the house. We also carry some wooden jewelry that my husband makes that we gift to people who help us. It is not much, but it is what we have – two hands and a good will. (There is a pile of dirty dishes right next to me as I am writing this. Guess what I´m gonna do next.)

I don´t count “being a good companion” into the list of ways to reciprocate because anyone can do that for free – literally.

No free travel, right

To sum it up, nobody travels for free. Whether you exchange some amount of work (time+energy) for a shelter and food, or you have someone to vouch for you, volunteering their time+energy (which = money) for the sake of your comfort, every occurrence in the universe has roots in energy spent.

I am not saying you are an asshole for doing that – in fact, I believe it has nothing to do with your character. I have met kind people and mean people alike traveling the same way. Personally, receiving so many favors from strangers was (and is) an extremely humbling, yet at the same time inspiring, experience – I want to be that person one day!

What I aim to say is that when we say we travel for free, we forget about those who silently paid the bill of our meal, asking nothing in return. Let´s not forget their share in our story – we wouldn’t get very far if everyone would quit their job to travel the world, would we?

Are you a budget traveler? What are your ways to reciprocate people who help you on the road? Share your experience in the comments below!

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Stray story seeker. Hungry hitchhiker. Wannabe polyglot. Aspiring travel writer. Currently bumming around in Turkey.
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56 Comments

  1. I honestly never thought of it this way! I have never really stayed in someone’s home abroad or done the no money thing (voluntarily anyway 😂) but I never thought about it from this perspective before! Great post 🙂

  2. This is so true! I hate the condisending writing of people telling how I travel the world for free and you could do it tooooooo! Obviously not! Nothing is for free and someone is always paying for things in some way. Be it with time or labor or money. I do believe there is one thing for free when you travel and that the sun, rising and setting. This is a saying here: nothing comes for free except the sunrise. Excellent piece Karin.

    • Yes and the funny thing is that when you look at the profiles, most of the people whether host or are hosted, but there are few who do both. It´s a little strange. My profile is like that too, actually, because all the guests we received were through my husbands profile – but it is a strange pattern and I feel I really need to give back more. I love staying with locals because that is what the whole travel experience is about for me – but it is not about getting something for “free”. Thank you for commenting!

  3. I totally agree with this! That’s why I became a digital nomad – it’s the most rewarding way to travel and probably the cheapest! You can’t experience a city unless you really immerse yourself in it, like the locals who actually work there 🙂

    • Yeah, I am trying to do the same. I dread the situation when I would really be fully dependent on other people! At the same time, there are always ways to work in exchange for food and shelter which is also a good way of saving money and staying in a place for a longer time.

  4. I couldn’t agree with you more. I live in a developing country. A developing country with a VERY deep sense of hospitality. People with only enough food for that day will willingly open their doors to hungry strangers. I find it fucking gross when travelers from relatively better developed economies collect all these experiences at the expense of others, without leaving behind a momento or a little cash. Especially when we’ve got an international migrant crisis happening in Europe – where people are fleeing war and literally have no cash for their travels are being rejected or kept in inhuman conditions.

    Gah!!

    Thanks for writing this – I love your scathing attitude toward traveling parasites!!

    • I had exactly this in mind when writing. The poorest people usually give the most – they give everything! And I really agree with your point about people rejecting the refugees (and being horrible to Muslims in general), I get so angry when I think of it. I met quite a few Syrians here in Turkey and all of them were working and not asking for anything. We have this idea that immigrants (and now I mean all of them, also people from my country) who go to Western Europe just want to suck the system, but 99,99% of people just want to get a job and stand up on their feet.

  5. Thank you for this article. It reminded me of a time I used to host travelers in Cape Town through Couch surfing and this lady from Argentina who supposedly was staying for 3 nights, started booking her bus tour pick-ups from my place for the next 2 weeks. I wouldn´t have had a problem if she had asked me before hand to stay longer and didn´t eat all my Nutella 😉 Anyways it´s a good reflexion on what we can do to contribute more to people´s lives when they open their door to us.

    • Oh my, that´s just plainly rude! I once had two Argentinians stay for two weeks (which totally wasn´t a problem for me, we had a spare bedroom and bathroom and I was out working all the time anyway) – they really needed to stay somewhere and I was happy to help them (they were making money with juggling and stuff at the cross sections), however their dog was driving me nuts. On the other hand, they were really nice people, cleaned and cooked and all that – I still have them on Facebook 🙂 Then we had a crazy Venezolano who ran away from the country and was poor af so of course we tried to help him, but he was a hopeless case. He didn´t know even how to peel potatoes, cook, anything, so Bogota was rough to him. He used to steal coins from our change box and invented a lot of stories about all he can do – well, it makes for a funny anecdote at least 🙂 Every person is a world of their own.

  6. I never feel right when I get offered something for free. I feel like I should give back. You are so right – taking things for granted and accepting without giving anything in return is selfish and spoiled way of behaviour. Nobody owes us anything

  7. I’ve been celebrating your writing during the read. A HUGE thank you for writing the truth!
    I really can’t stand all these “Hey, I’m cool, I travel for free, look at meeeeee!”-Bloggers anymore!
    I’m not a backpacker, I’m not a full time-Blogger. As a person who travels on own costs (yes, I pay for my trips, shame on me) and likes to share my stories and pictures with others, I’m really fed up with this mentality of wanting everything but for free.
    I’m lucky to sometimes publish my articles in travel magazines, so this is my highlight – writing travel stories for normal people of all ages, and I love if I can inspire them to discover the beauty of our planet. And most of them have jobs, family, pets… They can’t hitchhike without money through Asia for month, they just have a few weeks for vacation and want to make the best out of it. I’m one of them.
    I don’t want unknown people to pay for my chance of having a good time. I don’t want to take without giving. I want to learn about different countries and cultures, but I don’t want to do it on the costs of people who are only to kind to refuse me a meal, a bed or a ride.

    • Exactly, most of people have jobs and obligations. I took my time off to travel (have been on the road for five months) and I am very grateful that we can hitchhike and that people help us, however, I feel like sometimes bloggers turn in into their own success story, like “I am so cool because I do it for free”. Well, I think rather the people who help us out are cool for doing it! Also I don´t like to ask for things that are not being offered; in my own culture (and many others) we always offer food and alcohol to visitors (and they are expected to accept it), but it is not so everywhere – and I think to take it for granted is just plainly rude.

  8. Yes, yes, yes, yes!!! This is what I’ve been secretly thinking all along.. nothing is here for free, you know. It’s wonderful that you want to travel for free, but it usually means that somebody else is paying for you to still do things, and that’s not okay. I am settled for now and am really happy to receive CSers out of the goodness of my heart, but this attitude sometimes makes me reconsider..

  9. This added so much perspective to the whole digital nomad career for me! I’ve never actually thought of it this way so thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this topic. And I have to say I absolutely agree with you! I guess it all comes down to the old adage – “There is no such thing as a free meal!”

  10. Great post!
    I always feel bad when I cannot (because I can’t afford it) support the local economy which lives off tourists. I hike and camp in my own tent pretty often, but I also spend money wherever I go. I can’t even think of living off other people! My social anxiety wouldn’t let me 😉

    I hope a lot of people read it and think on it 🙂

  11. One of the best articles I’ve read in a while. Mostly because I’ve learned something new, you saved another perspective (actually the right one). Love you wrote that will be nice people to pay gratitude, do something in return to the kindness of working people making possible their dream. Actually I bet many didn’t even looked this way till now!

  12. Haha I was like all the way down “and the Russian couple???” 😀 Loved your article. And I got some new travel inspiration here; got curious about your blog and how you are travelling. Looking forward to read more stuff from your site 🙂

    • Yeeey, thank you, Nana! Just yesterday somebody very close to me told me like “nobody gives a shit about your personal details, like wtf about your arguments with the Russians” so I am really happy about your comment 😀 I try to publish a new article every week, next should be some stuff about Palermo, naked hiking, hitchhiking in Turkey and such so I hope you will find something of interest there 🙂

  13. I LOVE THIS POST! At first, I was definitely thrown off by the title, because as travel bloggers, we WANT to be able to travel for free. One of your points really hit home for me, and it was that sometimes when we travel what we consider “free” is really the generosity of someone else. We spend other people’s money, all to “travel on a budget”. I’ve tried to explain to so many of my friends that traveling free isn’t the end goal – but it’s hard to get that across when the idea is so lucrative. Thank you for sharing! I’m pinning this!!

    • As you say, so many times people can´t see past the money! Of course, bloggers who try to get into business want the “free” stuff but in reality there is a ton of work behind that too, as many have pointed out. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts! 🙂

  14. this is so on point! i love your writing style btw, very honest and no bullshit 🙂

    I agree totally – while it is possible to travel without spending a lot of your own money, you ARE using resources someone else worked for… while I always appreciate the favours someone does for me and try to reciprocate, I would also be happy to see more people acting kind and generous not only towards travellers that avoid using money by choice, but also towards people in their own communities who just don’t have the right circumstances and really can’t afford a lot of material things…

    and also kudos for calling out all the new-age shit about how anyone can just get up and travel the world if only they want it enough… so not true 🙂

    • Thank you for reading, Ana! Your comment rings true. Sometimes we really treat foreigners better than the people we see in bad conditions everyday. And sometimes we don´t care about either of them. The crucial point for me is the community – it´s really simple, it starts at knowing your neighbors. From there, you can go further…

  15. Jessica

    My sister and I were just talking about this today! Particularly in how it relates to voluntourism. I see posts constantly asking “where can I go and volunteer where I don’t have to pay for room or board and don’t have to work that much?” It all comes across as very entitled to me. Travel costs money. It either costs you money or it costs someone else money on your behalf. Very little, if anything, in life is free. Part of being a good person, in my opinion, is taking responsibility for yourself and working as hard as you can to make your own dreams a reality

    • Ugh, I am not into voluntourism at all. I find it really weird. On one side, there are people who want free food and accom as you say, on the other side there are agencies that charge you hundreds or even thousands of dollars to go work which I find unfair as well. I prefer to get in touch with people directly and make a deal with them if we click as people. Personally, I think work is worth a reward – it is better if some jobs are done by professionals than by voluntourists who sometimes do more harm than good, such as orphanages and so on.
      I have once participated in a voluntary project where we paid a fee (it was very expensive for me at the time but I got it as a birthday present from my then boyfriend), brought our equipment and camped and worked in an archaeological site. It was a great experience and the project had no other funding than the fees, but even the boss of it said that he´d rather have people who come and just work, even if they can´t afford to pay. I guess there are different ways to look at it, maybe I will go and do some voluntary work at some point – I am sure one´s vision of these things changes greatly with more experience. But I wouldn´t want to go through an agency at all.

  16. Interesting read. I am not a trusting person so I don’t participate in couch surfing or hitchhiking, but I have often spent the night on the coach of a friend. I try to thank them with practical gifts they need or dinner & drinks out. In turn I have hosted a few people in my cramped little NYC places and sometimes I have very thankful guests and other times they have just been a nuisance. I hope that people put more thought into their “free travel” and find appropriate ways to thank their hosts even if it is just a card or tidying up the kitchen

  17. It’s not very common here to coachsurf, at least in the South of Italy where I live, but we have a fold out couch for every one of our friends from abroad who feel like spending a few days with us. They reciprocate, so when we want to, we know we can visit. Yet sometimes we also had our problems with this or that wife of a friend… for reasons much similar to yours, probably! It happens 🙁

  18. Hey lady, I agree with you, and I don’t. Those people, those freeloaders you mention, I would happily disembowel with a spoon. But sometime, just sometimes, travel does get free because nice people like ME want to take in couchsurfers and help them out. I want to pick up a hitch hiker because I can, it will keep them safe and it will cost me nothing extra. Travel for free does happen, it’s cool, but for people to expect it to happen day after day like the world owes it to them….idiots. We pay our way and have done for 4 years because I hate feeling indebted to anyone, it destroys my experience. I also want to stay in that nice hippy guest house and eat out 3 times a day rather than scrounging a floor and a bowl of rice. So no, I don’t/won’t do it, but some of us do like to help people and that’s when travel gets free. Also, I would consider exchanging work for food and board as free. Some people enjoy that lifestyle, let them do it. We need our volunteers here in the village and if they’re happy to work 5 hours a day, their travel is most certainly free as in free from cash. We all work every day. I’m a mum, I cook clean wash…everything. I charge nothing I give labour freely and ask nothing in return. And sometimes I like to extend that love of humanity to individuals not in my family. So yeah, share the love, it CAN be free.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Alyson! The travel experience is great as it is because of people like you who voluntarily decide to help people out, be it couchsurfers or hitchhikers. As you say, people can (and do) travel without or with very little money and it is perfectly okay – after all, I am one of them! What I aim to say is that I strongly dislike when people behave like they are entitled to get something for free – while actually, those “free” things cost others (like you) time, effort and energy, although maybe not money. Again, thank you for reading and joining the discussion! 🙂

  19. That’s a great way to think about “free travelling”. We claim to travel for free but we definitely know and see that it’s only because others and because other’s money.
    On our road we hitchhike, use couchsurfing, dumpster diving and we see the amount of work all those people they are helping us out into helping us. We try to reciprocate this by helping our hosts: we clean dishes, help with cooking, make shopping for them, give them advices and share our knowledge.
    We also busk on our road: we give balloon animals and people can willingly give us.money for it.
    Nothing comes for free and we know it. Yet we’re still going to claim that we travel for free as we’re not spending any money. Although we should probably write a post about it in order to show that we do notice that it’s only because of other’s hard work.
    Thank you for this article!

    • There is “free” and free and it´s a difference 😉 In my book, if you work for it and reciprocate properly, it´s fine. I don´t attack people who say they travel for free – it´s a way of saying and ain´t nobody got time to explain every single word they use – but I try to point at the differences there are between people and how they behave with the others. Thank you for your comment! I´m sure you can offer an interesting point of view in your article 🙂

  20. My only experience in any “free” kind of stay was actually Greece, when our landlord kicked us out 2 days before our flight (and that’s on a couple months rent agreement!!!) and we stayed with a lovely lady who rented out a room to one of our friends. She didn’t ask for any money, we didn’t offer any (just cuddling her cat nonstop 🙂 ) and it all turned out ok in the end.

    • What?! What a mean guy, but what a sweet lady! Actually, the woman on the photo in this post had a similar experience in Greece – she and her friend weren´t able to find any vacancies in the town they were at and somebody brought them to their empty apartment and let them stay for 10 days – without any money in return! She told us she always tries to help out other travelers because of how other people helped her… <3 Greeks must be a really hospitable nation too!

  21. I loved reading this: such an insightful and thought-provoking piece! I’ve been thinking about this whole ‘traveling for free’ thing too lately and you’re totally right: you never ‘travel’ for free but simply end up benefiting from someone else’s generosity that they’ve had to cough up the money for!

  22. Interesting read. We certainly did not travel for fee but did manage to get it down to £22.50 per day each on average. Workaway / Help X type programmes help keep costs down. Cheap airlines are never flipping cheap! They often get in a stupid o’clock and then you need to hire a car to get out / wait on public transport / book an airport hotel. Argh! Can you tell we are planning for April?…

    • 22 is a great average! Of course, depends where you go…did you try Workaway or Help X? I don´ have an experience with those so far…
      Oh, and those cheap flights, haha, yes, I usually end up sleeping at the airport for a few hours…where are you headed in April?

  23. I’ve been thinking about this a lot even though I’ve never travelled for “free” myself yet (although I loved couchsurfing in Italy). I’ve been dreaming of hitchhiking through Europe (and beyond?) though and that’s where these thoughts have come into play. First of all, I feel uncomfortable being dependent on others and then often it’s those who have the least who give the most (I don’t personally know any reach people sharing their homes, picking up hitchhikers etc. even they exist but I think they’re more of a rarity). It was a good read!
    I also hate these “Get free accommodation / flights” whatever post because you KNOW it’s just clickbait and there’s ALWAYS a catch. Like “we got it for free using X million points that we happened to have for airline Y or hotel chain Z”. Erhm, that’s not really helpful, is it? :’D
    But what I’m trying to say is, I hate feeling like a free rider but the adventure aspect appeals to me. Then again, I’d also feel slightly bad doing it knowing I’d have the money for emergencies (because not everyone has and not everyone would, including me most likely), would risk it out there without any backup plan). Like is it right from someone who’s fairly well off to go out there and live off of others money? Hmm… I mean you might be broke yourself after quitting a job or whatever but I guess you get the point since you’re on your hitchhiking journey!
    But yeah, I’m still hoping to do this one day but definitely would try to give as much back as possible!

    • First of all, thank you for stopping by and writing your opinion! I know exactly how you feel. I do have a little bit saved up, but not much – I try to sustain myself by working a bit online. As you say, poor people are usually the most sharing – although I did get picked up by a Mercedes or hosted by a real estate agent too 😉 I don´t do it as much because of money, but more because I just find staying in hotels and taking buses boring – you always know what will happen that way…I like to get surprised, so I hitchhike, couchsurf…but I try to avoid people having to spend extra money because of me, I rather buy food for them and feel that I contributed a little bit that way…it´s tricky!
      But it definitely shouldn´t feel like you can´t hitchhike just because you have some money in your bank account – after all, it´s up to the people to decide if they pick you up or host you – if they want to give, it´s ok to accept…
      But hey, I´m equally annoyed by those tips like “use your credit card points to get xyz for free”, I mean, how is that for free if you got the points spending a ton of money with the card anyway? 😀 That stuff doesn´t even exist where I come from! The only reason why I have a credit card is because I got a miraculously cheap travel insurance with it years ago…

  24. Pingback: Walkabout Store » Positive Experiences Traveling in Muslim Countries

  25. That’s really interesting! I actually expected you to be writing about why travel bloggers aren’t really traveling for free, as they expend time rather than cash. The principal is essentially the same – someone somewhere is paying for everything with currency, whether that currency is their time, their energy or their money.

    • Oh, I didn´t really talk about the travel blogger thing – other articles have been written about that already, haven´t they 😉 Of course, we always trade our time for everything we get and then the question is if the value of what we get is worth it for us. Thank you for reading, I´m glad you enjoyed it!

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