Browsing Posts in Long-term travel

Tim Leffel Ecuador

December is shaping up to be a record traffic month for this cheap travel blog, a mere 11 years after I launched it. More than 50,000 readers a month land here normally, which is more readers than a lot of magazines I’ve written for, so it’s a safe bet a lot of you are first-time readers.

This is not, however, one of those blogs that screams, “Look at me and all the cool places I’m going!” I don’t think I’ve ever posted a selfie on here and half the time I don’t even write about where I’m traveling until weeks or months later. Heck, those Panama photos I put up a couple weeks ago were from April of 2013. Instead, this is a blog about the cheapest places to travel in the world, the cheapest places to live, and how to get the most out of your traveling budget. I share what I know and what I’ve learned so you can do more for less.

But I should probably get a bit personal now and then to explain who I am to the new people. Especially since the last time I did so, in this 7 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Me post, was more than two years ago. Since then I’ve moved back to Mexico, put out another book, published 17 more issues of Perceptive Travel, reviewed 100+ travel gear items, and traveled to a bunch more places.

That tells you a good bit about what I do for a living, but I’m also still a freelance writer for a lot of publications that aren’t mine, plus I get quoted in the media a lot as a bargain travel and destinations expert. On that page I linked to there you can hear interviews on pocasts like The Week in Travel, the Daily Travel Podcast, and Overseas Property Insider. Next week I’m recording ones for The Suitcase Entrepreneur and The Budget Minded Traveler.

Tim Leffel Bolivia

This blog is very conversational and casual, but I’ve won dozens of awards for my more crafted prose, from all three major annual award programs in the USA. As editor at Perceptive Travel, I’ve also commissioned a few dozen more stories that have won best travel writing awards.

I currently live in Guanajuato, Mexico, where I bumble along in Spanish, run occasional street food tours, and work out of a house I own. My wife is more fluent and my daughter takes subjects like history, math, and science in her adopted second language. We travel within Mexico on school breaks and we’ve probably been to more Mexican states together than U.S. ones at this point. Here’s a shot from Puebla outside the lucha libre arena.

Leffels Puebla

I like adventure travel, exploring offbeat places, and finding great bargains. I’m not a country counter: I’d rather spend a week or two in one place or return to the same country to get to know it better than to fly through a bunch just to check off boxes.

mezcal OaxacaI like trying local food and drinking local hooch. But I do miss the vast array of microbrews you can get in the land of my birth. As with coffee and wine, the country that used to be a laggard when I was a kid is now on top in many respects. (The USA doesn’t like to be outdone when it comes to consumer choice.)

I’ve never owned a fancy car, or had a massive house, or felt like I had to go get the latest iSucker gadget the week it came out. Instead I’ve collected a huge treasure of great experiences. If you’d like to do the same, you can sign up for the RSS feed, follow me on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+), or get the Cheap Living Abroad newletter.

Adios for now.

Happiness of Pursuit bookOr maybe there’s a better question to decide whether The Happiness of Pursuit will resonate with you. Are you a compulsive person?

This is the latest book from Chris Guillebeau, the author of The Art of Non-Conformity and The $100 Start-up. I breezed through both of those books and have recommended them to a lot of people on this blog and in workshops or lectures I’ve done. I have to admit this one was tougher for me to get motivated to finish though. That’s probably not a reflection on the book but rather a reflection on me. I’m either not driven enough or not bats%!t crazy enough to relate to many of the subjects and their pursuits.

I’m certainly familiar enough with the kind of “drop it all and pursue a goal with an unguided focus” quest since it’s so prevalent in the writing world. As editor of Perceptive Travel, it seems each week I get a few queries and a few book review pitches from someone biking across Africa, circling the globe on a motorcycle, hiking across the USA, and on it goes. (I’ve often joked that I’m going to do a story on biking all the way across Luxembourg. No support van!) Half the time the pitch is accompanied by a Kickstarter campaign beg to fund it. You can’t blame them though: if they can just add an “After my divorce…” beginning to it, there’s a good chance they’ll end up with a bestseller and a movie deal.

Most of these people profiled aren’t opportunists doing it for money though. Sure, there are high-profile cases you may have heard of, like 16-year-old Laura Dekker who sailed around the world solo (after suing the Dutch government that tried to prevent her from going). There’s Miranda Gibson, who lived in a tree in Tasmania to protest illegal logging. Plus Jia Jiang, who practiced “rejection therapy” for 100 days and posted all the no encounters on YouTube. And of course there’s Chris himself, who completed his goal of visiting every country in the world a few years back. But the goal wasn’t publicity or riches. They just had an itch they had to scratch. A really big itch.

Chris Guillebeau

The media loves these stories of course, from narrative travel stories in magazines where the writer is on some kind of quest to the wacky ones the cable news channels love to run at the end of the half hour as either a feel-good triumph story or for light comedy. The quickest way to get on TV is to take on something that seems either wacky or impossible.

The producers would certainly drool over some of the stories in this book. There’s the guy who decided he just has to take and publish a million photos to reach his goal. There’s a woman who felt compelled to spot every species of bird on the planet. One man decided he wasn’t going to go anywhere he couldn’t walk to (what’s wrong with a bike?) and then when that wasn’t radical enough, he stopped talking too—for 17 years. Another decided that his calling was to read the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica in one year. Yes, there’s a chapter called “Self-Reliance” because, well, can you just imagine the conversations they were having with their significant other? In many cases there wasn’t one because, well, there’s this quest you see and…

In the end though, this is a book about setting a goal, overcoming adversity, and doing what many people think is either nuts or impossible. So even if you’re not one cut out for knitting 10,000 crochet hats (Robyn Devine) or running 250 marathons in one year (Martin Parnell), this book might provide the tips and inspiration you need to do something more modest. Like eating vegetables every day for a year. Or putting $500 a month into a savings account. Or maybe drinking every microbrew made in Chris’ home city of Portland. Hmmm, I might be psyched enough to at least get started on that last one…

There are some nice food-for-thought tidbits in here, like “Dissatisfaction + Big Idea + Willingness to Take Action = New Adventure.” And “Easy projects aren’t quests, they’re holidays from real life.”

I also like how he looks at the perceived danger in relation to the outcome. If someone succeeds in a big crazy goal, he or she is called “brave, courageous, confident.” If something bad happens and someone gets hurt or killed, the words change to “stupid, risky, naive, arrogant.”

If you have it in you to pursue some crazy, audacious quest you can’t get out of your mind, there are plenty of tips here on funding, planning, and what happens when you’re done. It’s an entertaining read and the author really did a lot of legwork tracking down subjects and getting their why and how stories. Follow this link to get it in hardcover, Kindle version, or audio book at Amazon.

moving abroad

Definitely not Kansas

The early reviews I’ve gotten so far on A Better Life for Half the Price echo something I heard a lot when I put out Travel Writing 2.0. In essence, “Don’t expect a lot of sugar-coating.”

I like sugar. I probably eat too much of it. But I try not to spoon any onto the information I’m giving out, especially when someone could be making big life decisions based on what I’m telling them.

cheap living abroadLife is like a box of chocolates as Forest would say, but part of the appeal of escaping your boring predictable life and moving somewhere completely new is, you get a much bigger box. You get a huge variety of surprises on a regular basis instead of one or two a month at home. (Ooooh, a new TV series with my favorite actor! Look at that, a new Chipotle at our strip mall!)

Thailand is not Nicaragua and Bulgaria is not Mexico, but here are a few commonalities expatriates or location independent nomads run into when they move from the familiar to the new.

Upsides to Moving to a Developing Country

You spend far less on living expenses and have more disposable income.

The costs of restaurants, clubs, and entertainment shows are lower so you can enjoy them all more often.

Domestic help is drastically cheaper, so you can afford a maid, tutor, gardener, frequent taxi rides, or a weekly masseuse.

The weather will probably be better—unless you already live somewhere warm and sunny.

You’ll probably be healthier, due to less stress, cheaper healthy food, and lower medical bills. Most non-U.S./Canadian cities are also more pedestrian friendly, so you’ll probably walk more.

You’re not deluged with the constant negative and bickering non-news that the 24-hour cable channels dish out every day.

Your life will get much more interesting. Every day you’re hit with new and different stimulation of all five senses, and you’re regularly meeting new people who aren’t like you.

USA beer selection

Portland, not Pokhara


Downsides to Leaving Your Rich Country Home

You won’t be able to buy 24 types of mustard and 48 kinds of beer in a local supermarket.

You will not have the breadth of clothing or cosmetics shopping variety you have in a typical first world city.

You will pay more for electronics than you do in the USA unless you move to China.

You may not have the lightning fast internet service you’ve gotten used to.

You may have to communicate in a different language.

You may have to put up with more garbage, more graffiti, more paperwork, lazier bureaucrats, corrupt policemen, and sewage systems where you can’t flush the toilet paper.

You may not be able to drink the water from the tap.

You will probably miss some things about home that feel like a part of you, such as:

– The greenness, the mountains, the changing seasons, or the colors of changing leaves.
– A lush garden full of plants you know and recognize.
– Your local friends and community.
– Your favorite grocery store, the local bar, your regular restaurant.
– 248 channels of TV in English plus a DVR with a terrabyte of storage.

overcoming obstacles abroad

Are You a Good Hurdler?

In the end, no matter how many things you have in one column and how many things you have in the other, a lot of it comes down to attitude. Are you someone who wants an interesting life and thrives on adventure? Or are you someone who prefers routines and predictability? Can you deal well with uncertainty and a need for patience? Or do you get flustered when things move too slowly for your tastes and when everything is not prim and neat?

Most things worth doing in life require some work, and the overcoming of obstacles. Staying put and doing nothing is the easy choice, of course. Making a big move requires some commitment and a willingness to meet new challenges.

That attitude can be influenced, of course, by finances. If you spend most of your time figuring out how to reduce your tax bill and where you’re going to dock a larger yacht, you are probably just fine staying where you are. If you have trouble finding enough cash to pay the bills each month though and never seem to get ahead, cutting your expenses in half could have a life-changing impact on your future.

If you’re in the latter camp, follow this link.


The word “expatriate” can mean a lot of different things depending on who it is applied to. I’ve been at the Travel Bloggers Exchange (TBEX Europe) conference in Athens the past few days and have met loads of people who are not living in their home country. A Brazilian living in Paris, lots of Americans and Brits living in Greece, an American woman married to a Moroccan living in Marrakesh, and an Australian using Lisbon as a base. In many cases these people are digital nomads and could be living anywhere, but in others they are where they are because of someone important in their life. Here are a few categories that can have a big impact on where you end up and what your life is like.

The Family Abroad

I did an article for The Vacation Gals that came out last week on living abroad for less as a family. There are plenty of families doing this, on every continent, but it’s not always as easy as for a single person. Start first with what you’ll do about education, think about how you’ll deal with language options, and narrow the potential list down to places where you’re going to feel both safe and stimulated.

The Digital Nomad

If you’re working from a laptop and can travel light, you can live the digital nomad life and not be all that concerned about pesky visa rules and long-term housing options. One of the hosts of the Tropical MBA podcast estimated he could live anywhere in the world for $2,500 a month or less if he just took out a few outliers off the list, like Tokyo and Zurich. Just find an apartment (or long-term hotel rental) with decent internet, eat like a local would eat. and shop where they do for groceries. When you hit the tourist visa limit of two, three, or six months that’s in place locally, pack up the bag and go.

The Retiree

If you’re putting the old life in storage and moving abroad to retire, your key factors are probably going to be a bit different. You want a place where you can stretch your fixed income/savings—a place where you can easily get a better life for half the price. You also have to be more concerned about health care though, probably picking a place that’s not more than a few hours from a major hospital or medical facility. You’ll likely want warm or spring-like as opposed to a place requiring a parka and a snow shovel. You’ll find plenty of great candidates in this book.

luxury real estate Panama City

The Overseas Employee

Often a person living abroad is doing it for job reasons, either because they took an opportunity abroad or their spouse did. Often this is a beautiful thing because it means a higher standard of living from getting a good salary in a country where it goes a long way. There may even be a housing allowance built into the deal. For this situation you don’t have many decisions under your control, so you’re mainly going to go with the flow. If you have a choice in where you’ll be posted or choose to apply for jobs, however, you’ll get much more of an advantage out of it living in a place where you can easily afford a maid, gardener, driver, masseuse, and tutor than you will scraping by in London or Oslo.

The Business Builder

If you’re an entrepreneur trying to build a location independent business, cost is going to be a big factor. So it community too though, unless you’re fine having just virtual support and no physical support. If you do want a local tech labor pool and people or your kind to collaborate with, that can have a big impact on your choice of location. Great cities for this right now include Saigon, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Cebu City, Medellin, Buenos Aires, Panama City, Berlin, and (not as cheap) Santiago. There are pockets of people elsewhere too of course, and if you start looking at where those tribes hang out online, you’ll see lots of other locations popping up.

The Tagalong Spouse

Many people end up as expatriated because of love—or a least companionship. A Canadian woman with a Mexican husband, an American man with an Argentine wife, a Kiwi woman with a Czech husband, a German man with a Thai wife. Often it’s better for both parties to live in the cheaper country where one side of the family is than to try to go through years of paperwork on the more difficult and expensive side of that equation. It’s often better for the current or eventual kids as well, with a bigger local support system. I profiled a few couples and families in my book that are in this situation, from India to Portugal to Cambodia. In this case the place is usually the choice of A or B, but choose the living situation carefully if you want to retain a bit of the privacy you’re used to!

The Escapee

Many expats fit the stereotype of the escapee, someone trying to get away from a situation they found too painful or too boring to keep enduring. Divorcees and life crisis types fall into this category, as do overworked execs who barely escaped a nervous breakdown. If this is you at you’re at the end of your rope, go somewhere temporarily where you can take a deep breath. Often people in this situation aren’t thinking clearly and they stop in the first place they land and call it their new home. A year or two later, they’re disgruntled again because it wasn’t really a good match in the clear light of later.

For guidance on the best places to live for a good price and what to consider when moving, see the Cheap Living Abroad site for package options.


Latin America budget travel

I started traveling a lot in Latin America after I had a child and needed to hit the ground running when returning from a trip. With two continents only varying by a few hours for time zones, staying in this hemisphere has obvious advantages if you’re American or Canadian. You also only have to wrestle with one language for most of it except for Brazil, which you should probably avoid anyway. (See tip #2.)

Much of the region is a great value too. If you’re on a low budget and want to maximize what you have to spend, here’s how to do it right.

1) Pick the Right Destination(s)

This is going to have a bigger impact than anything else on this list, so I’m putting it first. Saving $100 by flying to Costa Rica instead of Nicaragua is going to be offset by much higher prices once you get there, for nearly everything. Most countries from Mexico on down fit into one of three tiers: very cheap, not too painful, and Ouch! Read The World’s Cheapest Destinations for details, but that bottom rung includes Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, and Peru, though that last one depends a lot on when you go and where you go. Lately Argentina has dropped into the very cheap category again, but only if you’re bringing in lots of cash. Mexico is borderline cheap too, depending on where you go within the country. Panama is not too bad once you get out of the capital.

2) Avoid Brazil

This is the most expensive country in Latin America by far, the expense compounded by the fact that hotel supply has not nearly kept up with demand. Add long distances, high taxes, and a reciprocal visa fee, and this is one to save for later when you’re loaded.

lunch Nicaragua

This was $3…

3) Make Lunch the Big Meal

If you’re going to eat one restaurant meal a day, make it lunch. A “meal of the day” goes by different names in different places, but it usually means a multi-course sit-down meal for somewhere between $2 and $6, sometimes including a drink. It’ll be filling and reasonably nutritious and can sometimes be downright great. If you want the very cheapest version, then…

4) Head to the Market

I think it’s safe to say that any Latin American town with more than 1,500 people or so in it has some kind of local market that has food stalls. This is where you’ll sit next to local workers and chow down for the equivalent of a few dollars. You’ll probably find a set meal here, but also you can order whatever the local cheap and filling food happens to be: big sandwiches, stuffed tortilla variations, rice & beans, stews, or whatever else is popular locally. While you’re there you can stock up on fresh fruit and other staples that will load you down for a few bucks.

market lunch

5) Drink What’s Local

Look around at what most everyone else is drinking in a bar and that’s probably what you’ll be ordering too if you’re on a budget. That means tequila or mezcal in Mexico, wine in Argentina, rum in hot countries, and whatever the local beer is everywhere. The one place you can throw this aside is Panama, where anything you want will be a bargain because it’s a duty-free zone. Bolivian beer

The opposite is Ecuador, where only rum and local beer are anywhere close to affordable. On the non-alcoholic side it’ll be fruit juice (or fruit juice mixed with water), cold jamaica tea, or coca tea perhaps. Don’t assume that if you’re in a coffee-producing country though that the coffee will automatically be good or cheap. The best beans often get exported, so you have to seek out a real coffee shop to avoid the drek.

6) Don’t Book All Your Hotels in Advance

Yes, I know it’s oh so easy and comforting to just pull up HostelBookers or Trivago and reserve places to stay all along your route, but it’s often a bad idea financially. A huge percentage of hotels in Latin America are not listed through any booking agency (they don’t want to pay the fat commissions) and some low-budget ones still don’t have a web page or working e-mail address. Unless you’re flying through the region in a blur, which is a bad idea (see the next tip), you’re usually better off looking around after you arrive. Or at least for night two onward. You can actually see the room this way and you have the power to negotiate for a better price or a better room.

7) Take Your Time

If you look at how far it is from Lima to Cusco or Buenos Aires to Salta, you should figure out quickly that it’s going to take you quite a while to get from point A to B. Even when distances look short on a map, however, that doesn’t mean you’re going to get there quickly on the roads you have to travel on. If you’re going to spend 36 hours in transit, it’s pretty silly to then turn around and go somewhere else just 48 hours later. Take your dream itinerary and cut it in half: fewer places, but twice as much time in them. Your wallet will thank you and you’ll have a much richer experience.

8) Learn Some Spanish

Now that we’ve skipped Brazil, that means you can get by with Spanish or English everywhere except the Suriname countries and remote villages in the Andes or Amazon. Since Spanish is so useful in such a vast territory though, don’t assume you’ll be able to muddle through in English like you can in Southeast Asia or Europe. Learning the basics will save you money and make your travels less frustrating.

I went from zero to bumbling with the Pimsleur course and still use it now and then—I’m on Level 4 to help my intermediate fluency along. I especially like using it on a solo car trip because it’s audio only, now in app form. Hit play and let it rip. I’ve tried a fair number of podcasts for the same reason. I sometimes us SpanishDict, Spanish Verbs, Hola Flashcards, DuoLingo, and a few others on the apps side. And of course a good old-school phrase book is one of the best learning tools out there—for less than $10.

local airline

9) Check the Transportation Competition

There’s no cut and dry advice on how to get from place to place in Latin America. In Mexico the buses are really comfortable, but they’re not all that cheap now and prices are pretty uniform between companies for specific classes of service. Sometimes it can be less money to fly on a promotional fare on an airline like Interjet or Volaris for long distances and you’ll save a day or two of travel. Same for Avianca within Colombia. In Argentina, however, flight prices are a total rip-off and in Peru you’ll pay two or three times as much as the locals do for most airlines. Both those countries have several competing long-haul bus companies though, so it pays to do some research and shop around.

10) Book Adventure Excursions Locally

This is a no-brainer for most backpackers, but unless you’re trying to book something with limited permits, like the Inca Trail in Peru, you’ll nearly always be better off waiting until arrival before booking an adventure tour. Ask around for who’s good and find out what’s worth doing from people who just went. This is true for rafting, trekking, biking, or just touring outlying villages. I’ve heard of several people getting half-price Galapagos trips by just flying to Baltra and finding an open cabin to fill.

costa rica rafting

11) Hit Big Cities on a Sunday

I did a whole blog post on why Sunday is a great day to be in a capital city. Free museums, closed-off streets, and outdoor music performances are common on Sundays in Latin America.

12) Don’t Skip the Culture

When you’re in Europe, you have to be really picky about which cultural attractions are really worth splurging on. I can’t remember ever paying more than $8 to enter a museum anywhere in Latin America and more often it’s a dollar or two. Live music and dance performances are often 1/5 what they would be for a comparable show in the USA, Canada, or Europe. Take advantage of it!

For more, check out these Transitions Abroad articles I wrote a while back on getting to Guatemala from Mexico and in South America.