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
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
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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We are hitchhiking from Europe to India and we didn´t prepare a shit – stick around to see if we can make it! You can cheer us on if you think we´ll get there, or laugh about us if we don´t.