I’ve been to around 25 or so countries, mostly in SE Asia and Europe. I do not consider myself a world traveler compared to most seasoned travelers, but I have seen more of the world than most people do their lifetime, so I cannot ignore my economic privilege, either.
I wanted to write this post to address economic privilege and economic struggle, because I find a lack of balance in this discussion online. I follow a lot of travel blogs, and I found that there is a two-sided story that is told. First, we have the “world travelers” and “backpackers” who boast “sell your crap, follow our dreams, and travel.” These individuals insist that one does not need to be rich to travel, and often are (understandably) hurt that others label them as rich (I’ll address this in a moment). The other side of the story derives from individuals who cannot travel – they have a house, significant debt in terms of a student loans and health insurance, and a low wages, and unfortunately, many travelers fail to acknowledge these real struggles of working class folks back home.
These two group both post online, and they perpetually speak past one another. The folks back home point out that they cannot afford to travel, but few travelers seem to listen. On the other hand, many of the working class individuals really do assume that the backpackers and world travel families are rich.
So, as one who has traveled around, I can say, most certainly, most – yes, most – people cannot afford travel, that there is economic privilege to travel, and we should recognized our privilege and not discredit the stories of working class families. But we do need to be careful to approach this carefully, because there are still travelers who are economically underprivileged and struggling.
Here is the untold story of backpackers and world travelers.
“Types of Travelers”
Since I have traveled and lived approach, I have met backpackers and traveler firsthand, both the rich, the in between, and the downright poor. The rich and in-between are often the ones we meet online – the ones who have blogs, write e-books, and have a social media presence, but the poor travelers exist in full force.
The first group of travelers is the “rich” travelers. These are people who either saved up a significant amount of money to travel the world for a year or so, or they have a steady location-independent middle-class or above income which pays for their location independent travelers. Properly speaking, these travelers are not really rich, as in rich-rich, but there is still economic privilege in their life, for instance, they are usually college educated, and often do have significant loans. Often these people are the bloggers. “My family lives of $25,000” a year, they say. “We don’t go to water parks in our travels. We do not have money for that.” Fair enough, they aren’t part of the rich class, but they are still economically privileged, since most people do not have the time to develop location independent skills or pay off their debt quickly.
The second group of travelers are the in-between. These people usually saved anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars to get themselves started. So again, there is some economic privilege to this; those with huge student loans, kids, and a house can’t easily save up $500-3000 to get out of debt. On the other hand, it is totally fascinating to meet travelers who got started on a month or twos living expenses, and so I do want to acknowledge that the economic sacrifice of these individuals. Here are some stories from those who started out as the “inbetween” travelers.
- Rachel and Greg Denning sold their wedding rings to get started travel with their (then) four kids (now six). Guys, they sold their wedding rings. They then moved abroad (different places – the attempt failed several times before it worked), lived in the middle of now where, in a tiny space, under mosquito nets trying to build income online ( yes, they left the USA without steady income). Today they make a middle class income.
- In SE Asia, I met this young woman my age, I’ll call her Amanda, who began her “round-the-word” travelers with a few thoughts. She traveled around by cheap buses, couch surfed, and months later still had ran out of money, and that’s when I met her. At that time, my car was in the shop, so I told her we would need to ride to the mountains by motorcycle. She did not tell me she did not know how to ride a bike — she put her life on line riding a bike she did not know how to ride hours away. We stopped for lunch; I paid for it, and she said, “OMG, how am I going to pay you or it.” I said, “your lunch was one dollar. I paid for it.” she couldn’t comprehend that I had enough disposable cash to pay $1 for her meal. When we got to a village at the top of the mountain, I told her we need to buy more gas; she said, “but it’s 10 cents a litre more here.” At one time, I lived in these mountains where we were ; I KNEW there were no other gas station, but she insisted (she who did not know how to ride a bike) that we could coast down the mountain with the engine off.
You can probably tell why these kind of travelers resist being called rich. Most people are not willing to write books under a mosquito net, live in comparatively poor living conditions, and save pennies while waiting for income to generate. Also, I am not saying that traveling in these conditions (especially the motorcycle story) was a good choice. I knew a traveler from New Zealand who died on a motorcycle in Thailand. But I am saying that these travelers do not want to be called rich for a reason.
The third kind of travelers are the truly the poor. These people have an income level that puts them way below poverty level; they are unemployed, want to be employed, and are fighting to survive. These people do not normally have blogs, and they are truly the “untold” story of travel. If you visit hostelworld or hostelbookers online, you might notice that there are “youth” hostels, for adults between the age of 18-35, and just “hostels,” for anyone. What is interesting about this is that if you read the “anyone hostels,” a few of the reviews of the reviews that say, “older men live here.” I once stayed in one of these, and I met people who actually looked hungry, not just hungry, but starved, like I could almost see their bones. These hostels have terrible facilitates as they are just $10 a night, and those who live there might be in charge of cleaning in exchange for living there. I am not saying this is the majority of hostels – most hostels are a bunch of young people sleeping in bunk bed. I am saying I’ve witnessed hostels that basically house otherwise homeless people.
Travel to Make Ends Meet
This point about the “poor” traveler brings me to my next point: some people, even the economic privileged ones, travel because they cannot find a way to make enough money in their home country. This is another untold story, but one I very much relate. Here are some examples.
- A young adult takes a job teaching English somewhere in Asia in order to pay off her student loans. Sometimes, we hear comments such as, “I’d never be able to pay of the debt in the USA,” or “I don’t like teaching, but I must pay off the debt.” Their friends back home call them privileged, but their friends don’t see them cry because they are lonely, and this is the only way they no to make ends meet.
- A young adult does initially start traveling because, OMG TRAVEL, but then time passes and he/she wants to return home, but he/she has no money to get home. I have met a lot of the in-between travelers who fall into this category at some point. “I had a job interview today,” a girl in London told me, “they offered me 35 pounds a day plus tips.” “Don’t take it,” others chipped in, “it’s not enough to live off of here.” “But I have no choice,” she said. I met a guy from Australia in a worse situation; no money, and not a EU resident, so he has to work under the table and is living a cheap hostels.
- Other travelers have no skills nor a resume to get a job back home. Young travelers usually make money in a few ways: restaurant and bar tending, working in the hostels, teaching English, tutoring in math, science or other languages, volunteering for a few dollars, or they do freelancing writing or computer programming or design online. Their income level is less than $1000 a month. Now consider the young adult who wants to return home. As she lives to survive, saving money while making $500 a month is difficult. Thus she will need to borrow money from someone back home for a plane ticket and deposit on housing. As she has no tangible work experience, and as she has no references from someone who speaks English, she will have difficulty even finding a job back home. Hence, she continues to travel around with almost no money.
- In the U.K., a lot of young adults from other EU countries, live in a hostels while they look for any tourist or hodgepodge jobs they can find. Often these individuals failed to earn a living wage back home, and had hopes that things would be different if they moved to Germany or the U.K.
“But You Don’t Have Children.”
One final comment about this. Many of these young travelers are told, “but you don’t have children; I do. That’s why you can travel, and I can’t.” I will grant that most families cannot travel, and it is also true that most travelers are couples or singles (although there are a growing number of “world school families” who are your travel equivalent of your quiverfull homeschool family; some of these families have 4 or more children and camp every night in the woods, because they cannot afford a campground). But my question is this: how many people asked these young travelers if they wish they had a house, a spouse, and children? People would be surprised at how many single travelers would answer “yes, I want a family and a house,” but they simply have no idea how to afford it.
I grew up in a homeschool environment where marriages are all but arranged, marriages before college are encouraged, birth control is discouraged, and women are pressured to have children. So yes, there is a certain kind of privilege that many single people have experienced. At the same time, there are millions of single adults around the world who wish they could afford a family but can’t, and some of these are individuals still working abroad or traveling. These people have stories too, and we should not discredit these.
Again, I know these stories are true, because I lived abroad. Google, “expat dating in X country” or “dating as a backpacker,” and you can find stories of those who wish they could have a family but are lost at what to do about it, usually because the dating demographics are disproportional overseas (many expats in Asia are single women, and single men often date local girls, but less expat women dating local men because of the patriarchal cultures), and also because they simple cannot afford a family. It’s really hard for one can afford a spouse and children, when one is constantly moving and making $800 a month teaching, tutoring, or freelancing.
Those Who cannot Afford to Travel
So far, I have defended, in a way, the travelers who say they are not rich. But now I want to take a moment to acknowledge that most people cannot afford to travel, and I find it really crappy that so many travelers who have an online presence seem unable to acknowledge that.
Frequently, travelers say, “I sold my wedding rings to travel” or “I sold all my belongings to pay off my debt” or “I converted my car to a veggie truck, and picked up oil from McDonalds to drive to central America” (true story). Yet, some of these very people fail to say that they are also college educated, or that they didn’t have health bills or $100,000 in student debt. It’s one thing to sell your house and pay of your mortgage; it’s another thing if you also have health bills or student debt.
While many single travelers wish they could afford children, and we need to acknowledge this, many families also cannot afford travel.
I wish both sides would acknowledge that whether it’s fate, personal choices, or one’s background, we all end on different paths that take us on different journeys, but usually both paths have hardships and difficulties.