It takes money, not a magic wand, to get into this place

How can you afford to travel so long?

That’s a question familiar to anyone who has packed their bag and taken off for months, a year, two years…or more. In the eyes of most infrequent travelers, who only view travel through the lens of a short vacation, it’s an expensive endeavor. You save up all year or you put a fortune on your credit card that takes a year to pay off. So how can you do that for so long?

It’s a very different type of travel, of course, and a different mindset.

Three nights in Orlando equals _____ elsewhere.

I just took my wife and daughter to Universal Studios theme parks in Orlando. We could drive there from where I live now, so let’s take airfare out of the equation and just look at ground costs. I actually got three nights in a very nice hotel for free from winning first prize in a travel writing contest earlier this year. So I paid half this much, but the rate below is what most other guests staying there were paying. Here’s a 3-day tally of the damage (and we spent less on souvenirs and sodas than your typical visitor):

$780  –  Swan & Dolphin hotel 3 nights

$331 – 2-day park pass to Universal Studios & Islands of Adventure (with AAA discount), 3 people

$352 – meals at theme park and hotel

$ 30  –  parking at theme park, 2 days

$ 33 – parking at hotel, 3 days

$ 55 – souvenirs, locker charge, gas, tips, other misc. (No $100 Harry Potter robe purchased)

Grand Total – $1581 for 3 days

So, what do you think a backpacking family of three could do with $1,581? That would cover two weeks to a month in a whole lot of The World’s Cheapest Destinations. Or it could be a darn great week living it up in some of the “honorable mentions” even, like Mexico or Panama.

It’s a different kind of comfort and stimulation, which is part of the equation in long-term travel. But just taking what a typical family spends on the theme park tickets, overpriced meals, and parking for the day would cover a whole lot of thrilling adventure activities in a place like Guatemala, Ecuador, or Vietnam.

One last note: these theme parks are jam-packed every weekend and school holiday with families laying out this kind of money. Recession or not, people are obviously willing to pay a lot—and wait in line a lot—for a few minutes of artificial thrills.

Did we have fun? Absolutely. I love amusement parks and my daughter was overjoyed.

But go travel long-term in cheap destinations and you can make those thrills last much longer. (Well, unless you go to Petra…)