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How Perpetual Travelers Make Money

How to live a life of travel.

The following is a correspondent question for Michael Robert Powell about how he has made the money to travel during his 22+ year journey across planet earth.

“From reading The Candy Trail it is obvious that you know how to make the most out of spending money, but what have been your strategies for making money over your 22 years of travel? What forms of work have you tried? Which have proved most beneficial? Most interesting? Most challenging?”

You’re right; I spend well. I want to enjoy life, and live intensely.

While spending money is a pleasure that most of us can enjoy, my travel life is no exception – but rather than accumulating assets I funnel my cash into life experiences that I crave.

MRP in a Blackhawk helicopter in East Timor, 2000

This can often mean expensive travels. Like to Antarctica, Galapagos, Easter Island or a slow boat down the Niger River to Timbuktu; or more average experiences like steak and beer when the mood demands; or a flash hotel together with 3 women for the night.

But at the same time I am a backpacker (since 1988) and live out of a backpack, still. And mostly, I enjoy simple meals and use local guest-houses and whatever transportation to generally travel on between $20-50+ per day. Yet I will never miss a great travel experience to save money. For me, life is about ‘the now’ and everything I want to do and see is simply following my dreams.

Anyway, so where does my cash come from? (Sorry, no great advice here; but here’s my story).

Well, apart from selling weapons to terrorists, sex-slaves to the US and narcotics to the world … the reality is that I am a man of less exciting employment avenues. And in stark contrast to my travels, my employment history is bland.

I have never had a permanent job, ever.

Teaching English in China. Photo by MRP.

But since 1998, I have relied heavily on teaching English as my main source of income (in England, Bahrain, Indonesia, Korea, China …).

Before that I did a holiday job as a warehouse man in Marks & Spencer’s in Edinburgh and then office & research work in London (for The Good Food Guide @ Consumers Association) in my very early travel days. I also tried working on a moshav in Israel when broke, picking tomatoes – don’t even consider it; I was fired after 12 days – and later I did some random freelance newspaper travel writing in the 90s.

However, English teaching is still the best for me as a carefree, drifting traveler and also allows me time to be an artist.

I now sell occasional travel videos, digital art and travel photography [ 4 of my images are @ the Museum of World Culture in Sweden in the exhibition – Destination X ] and this money-source is something that I want to head further into … at this stage it remains a hobby until I bother marketing myself.

HOWEVER, my most exciting, fulfilling and lucrative job was an “International Instructor” with the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces in East Timor between 2000-2002, during the upheaval for independence from Indonesia.

UN military East Timor, 2000. Photo by MRP.

I was in the field, conducting courses – mostly intense English language for East Timorese interpreters so they could communicate better with international military and police within the UN mission; living amid the locals in post-war situations, flying about in helicopters, moving districts every 6 weeks for 2 years across East Timor (amid international travel holidays every 12 weeks). Life-changing times for me.

A long, crazy story … (worth a book) but I arrived as a broke illegal traveler and later left with over $100,000 saved and so I shot off to South America for about 2 years of pure travel and partying and then all over the place including Mongolia, Russia & Yemen. I blew it all within 5 years of travel; but no regrets.

Am presently teaching English teaching in China (3+ days a week) and looking towards meandering across the “Stans” soon as my wanderings continue …

As for work – no real challenges; and travel, too easy. Life is fun.

Filed under: Make Money for Travel, Perpetual Travel, Work

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17 comments… add one

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  • David William March 28, 2011, 4:30 pm

    This is something I want to tap into. I am planning to chronicle my long term travels and income situation as thoroughly as possible. It is tough but I want to really hack out a lifestyle that a bit of money coming in can sustain me.

    Great article. Thanks!

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    • the candy trail ... | Michael Robert Powell March 28, 2011, 7:53 pm

      To “hack out a lifestyle that a bit of money coming in can sustain me” yeah, it’s not that easy as many work options are limited (usually by language barriers or visa rules) when on the road.

      Short-term contract English teaching – insane, as it can be sometimes, solves alot of these issues.

      Other obvious jobs that you can park-up/travel/live abroad for awhile include: work in medical fields, journalism, aid/UN agencies. But all are more ex-pat, career-focused travel endeavors.

      Short-term casual options include hostel work (only in some countries), fruit picking, busking, sales of images and stories via the web (but for now this remains mostly geared towards info-mericalism for the travel mainstream).

      Hope you find a path, suited to your direction …

      Regards – MRP

      Link Reply
    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com March 29, 2011, 9:06 am

      I agree completely, it is tough to hack out a living on the road. The money gained from work given is often 10X less in the traveling context. As far as income is concerned, the more sedentary you are the better. But there are ways to make a living while traveling at a reasonable pace, some suggestions are outlined in the Independent Travel Work series. A good plan is needed, and the ability to communicate in the local languages of the places you are is absolutely pertinent if looking for work there. If making money from a website is your plan — not a bad option as it is possible — the road is very long and time consuming and the money, ultimately, pretty slight. But it seems as if you know the deal already, the more money you save the less you need to make — but working on the road is not that bad either. As MRP suggests, teaching English is a great way to really get into the places you travel to, make friends, get to know what is going on under the covers, AND make money.

      Have fun with this, and let us know how everything goes.

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  • Rich March 30, 2011, 12:09 am

    I like traveling and making money as much as this guy does, but one day he is going to wake up old and broke. The park across the street where I used to live in Ogden had half a dozen folks in it who fit the same description the last time I checked. I now teach in the Emirates and live right next to Oman. I get to go back over the border and learn the Arabic language from “Friends of mine” who have subsistence farms only about an hour away from me. One cannot make friends on the road unless they are traveling together.

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  • the candy trail ... | Michael Robert Powell April 2, 2011, 3:43 am

    “Old & Broke” – who knows if I’ll get to old age? Could die tomorrow. I live for today. But if I have an old age – then there will be many great travel memories to revisit – over bottles of wine in the park, with my mates 🙂

    PS: Why live in fear of the future? Besides: I just may end up old & … RICH

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  • g April 4, 2011, 12:32 am

    Grasshoppers vs Ants…. grasshoppers play all day & have lots of fun during summer but freeze and starve to death during winter. Ants never quit working all summer but are snug as a bug in their underground colony which is filled with food by wintertime. Now if you can love your work then you have the best of both.

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  • Bob L April 4, 2011, 8:29 am

    The grasshopper and the ant story does not work anymore. Now the Gov’t just taxes the ant more since he has so much and gives it to the “poor” grasshopper 8^)

    I certainly don’t have any problem with someone playing and ignoring their future. They may get lucky, or not. Sew what you reep and all that. My only gripe is when I see someone who could have, but has never contributed anything to the “collective” in taxes, or whatever and has never prepared for their own future, yet expects gov’t handouts when they are doing bad because of lack of planning plus a bit of bad luck.

    It does not seem like Mr. Powell falls under this category at the moment. Sounds like he expects “nothing from nobody”, which is a good thing.

    There are many people right now that are on the public dole, never having contributed, and never, in their early years, thinking they would ever accept help from the Gov’t. Things change, and sometimes bad luck arrives unexpectedly.

    Of course, I have also seen people work tons of hours all their lives preparing for retirement, putting off all kinds of things they wanted to do, and then dying right after retirement before they could do any of those things.

    Life is not an exact science…………

    Bob L

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    • the candy trail ... | Michael Robert Powell April 10, 2011, 5:15 am

      Agreed Bob. I am asking for nothing from anyone and am presently working in China for the next stage. And every trip I’ve done has been from my earnings.

      The point was that I spent all that money cos they were the places I really wanted to see and I have no desire to ever own stuff (beyond a laptop and a camera, cos I love art / photography).

      g: I am not a down-and-out: I still own a large piece of vacant land on the north-east coast of Brazil, so that will be sold also, to travel. (So, I can afford a coffin)

      Bob L – EXACTLY: : “I have also seen people work tons of hours all their lives preparing for retirement, putting off all kinds of things they wanted to do, and then dying right after retirement before they could do any of those things”. – As was my friend’s Dad’s case.

      My notion of life is about fun, adventure, personal freedom and space – not being a societal drone. Life is about the quality of years not the quantity of years.

      the candy trail … a grasshopper across the planet, since 1988

      PS: I am from New Zealand, so I can not comment on the state of the USA, as I have still avoided traveling there …

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      • G April 10, 2011, 1:13 pm

        Sorry MRP, I really didn’t mean to direct my comment at you. Only to point out that there are interesting philosophical differences b/w people when it comes to working and saving. While I believe my bias is obvious, I wholeheartedly agree with Wade when he asserts that world needs all types… grasshoppers and ants. To thine own self be true. G.
        p.s. the land deal in brazil sounds like a wise speculative move. brazil in my opinion is a bigger success story than china or india.

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        • the candy trail ... | Michael Robert Powell April 11, 2011, 6:34 am

          G: No worries … Yeah, Brazil … booming like a number of economies now. I bought the land in 2003, for the price of a laptop …it’s a very surreal location – set amid giant sand dunes, palms, ocean and lake wilderness of a protected, coastal national park. Maybe a good place for an old broke traveler to chill, one day ?

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          • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com April 11, 2011, 9:50 am

            As per previous comments, maybe you could build a long term traveler retirement home on the land — it would at least keep them out of London parks haha.

            No really, it would be real cool to have a network of longer term stay rest houses all around the world that are run by travelers.

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  • G April 4, 2011, 12:02 pm

    yes, the government’s tax policy does seem a little perverse doesn’t it. Pay grasshoppers in the form of earned income credit, subsidized housing, medicaid etc. While the “greedy” ant is seeing half his earnings siphoned off by the state. Such is life, but sign me up for a flat tax rate if that ever becomes political reality.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com April 7, 2011, 3:48 pm

      Success in the USA is financially punishable through higher taxes and all of that, which seems contrary to the country’s ideology. But the ants and grasshoppers are not two mutually exclusive entities, and they both need each other to survive. The ants must financially assist the grasshoppers and the grasshoppers will continue to work for the ants and give money back to them by buying large screen TVs, expensive trucks, and all kinds of other shit on credit. Perhaps the grasshoppers wither and die in the winter after a summer of blowing all their money buying the ant’s toys. Give money to the poor and they will funnel it right back to the rich. The poor are often poor for a reason, and it has very little to do with opportunity in the USA. A simplification, for sure, but shows that this entire mess of insects are interconnected.

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  • Baron April 19, 2011, 3:23 pm

    @ Rich,

    You crack me up! I’m in Ogden now and not a wino in sight, neather downtown or by the library. Maybe they great me?

    However, I grew up in this town and know exactly what your talking about.

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  • abayd July 18, 2011, 1:10 pm

    I always read about teaching English being a way to grease the wheel when travelling, and how there’s always a gig somewhere if you’re willing to settle.

    My personal experience though, for whatever reason, is I’m always given the run-around. They act like they’re going to hire me, have me teach a practicum, and then have me keep coming back and calling and following up, still acting like we’re about to become a family or something, just to fizzle away on me.

    I wonder why that is.

    It always winds up with me going home to Brooklyn dissapointed and broke, and then getting the itch to travel again and winding up out 6000 miles away somewhere following leads and promises.

    I got myself a BA in English and a TESOL, but nothing changed.

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard July 18, 2011, 4:08 pm

      What color is your skin?

      If you are not white it will be more difficult to land good paying English teaching jobs abroad. This is sad, but, in many cases, true. It is still possible — there are tons of black, Hispanic, “other” Americans from other racial identities teaching abroad — but it seems to be much more difficult to find solid employment.

      Many employers seem to want Americans who look like they belong on the Friends TV show, and if you don’t look like this they are more hesitant to hire you. Sorry to be so blunt about this, but these are my observations. I also don’t fit the “Friends” look — I am a white guy but I have tattoos all over my hands, fingers, arms, and neck, a long beard, and a shaved head, and, although I can get jobs teaching English abroad is is vastly more difficult.

      There is this estranged idea of what an “American” should look like around the world, and this is no more obvious than at many English teaching institutes. If you are not clean cut, white, and speak English with a standard Yankee accent, it will be vastly more difficult to get employed in this type of work. If you are black the employers tend to think that you are going to teach the students to speak English like Chris Rock, if you are Hispanic they will likewise act like you are going to give them a Hispanic accent . . . . But, what is worse, is not really the impressions of the school, but what they think the students are going to think of you. So even if you prove that you speak English like a standard, American honky they may not hire you because the students may not want you as their teacher. As English teaching is a highly competitive business in many places, the schools are sometimes real dicks about this.

      Don’t know if this fits your case, but figured I would share some rather blunt observations that others may be more hesitant to state.

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  • abayd July 18, 2011, 1:12 pm

    It ussually boils down to my never having “worked”, so I have no chances back home, and never having taught, so they leave me hanging overseas.

    Now that I’ve carved this life for myself and I’m in my early 30s, there is no choice EXCEPT to keep pushing for something overseas, if only somebody would give me a chance.

    I’m in Asia as I type, after another month-long experience of being strung along.

    Adive/feedback would be appreciated.

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