Today, I’m interviewing Megan of Mapping Megan.
She’s an Australian journalist who has been travelling and blogging around the world for the last 7 years. Her husband Mike is an American travel photographer, and together they have made the world their home.
What I love about her story is how much she has sacrificed to afford travel, at one point even taking on two full-time jobs and a full-time study load! Megan is all about determination and hard work.
You said you got the travel bug in 2007 when you took a gap year after high school. How did you pay for the trip?
I paid for the trip entirely myself.
During my final year of high school, I worked 40 hours a week after school at McDonald’s to save up enough money for my gap year. I would pull 12-hour days on the weekends and normally be at work from 5 p.m. to midnight on school nights. Somehow I still passed school with good enough grades to get into university!
I honestly don’t remember how much money I took to England. I think it was $3,000 — not a lot of money at a time when the Australian dollar was worth 30 cents to the British pound.
I worked in the UK as a gap student for the 12 months I was there. This is a hugely popular way for Australians to spend their gap year. You’re basically a teacher’s assistant in a boarding school and help out with everything a teacher’s aid would. We did administration shifts, helped run PE lessons, chaperoned after-school activities and helped out in the boarding houses after hours.
We were given free meals and board, as well as £100 a week. We put that small income towards European adventures during our 17 weeks of holidays! Well, we were 18-year-olds in a foreign country, so the money we didn’t spend on alcohol and nights out we put towards European travel!
You studied full time for 5 years after the gap year and managed to visit 32 countries in that time. How did you accomplish that?
I took up every single opportunity to travel — for a university student, this meant volunteering and studying abroad. I accomplished it with incredibly hard work and determination. I recently wrote a post entitled “How I Afford to Travel”, which is about how I saved for my trips while passing university at the same time.
Basically, after I returned from my gap year, I wasn’t happy accepting that reality meant I couldn’t travel anymore. I realized pretty quickly that one job wasn’t covering my travel expenses, so I got another. Before I knew it, I was working two full-time jobs while also studying full time.
I was working 16- to 20-hour days. I would wake up at 5 a.m. for a 6 a.m. shift managing at McDonald’s, head to uni for two hours in the middle of the day, and then start an eight-hour shift working hotel reception at 3 p.m. I would stop for an hour on my way home to catch up with friends, then spend an hour on the phone with my partner Mike to keep our long-distance relationship alive. If I didn’t need to catch up on study, I would fall asleep around 1 a.m. and wake up again at 5 a.m. to repeat the whole process!
Passing on an opportunity to travel wasn’t an option. Working harder was! It was hectic, but once your body gets into a certain routine you start to think it’s normal.
You traveled for months at a time. Beyond the finances, how did you have time for work, study and travel during your student years?
I would say incredible organization; however, my mother and husband would probably disagree! Honestly, it was determination again. I knew the life I wanted to lead and I knew what I had to do to make that life possible.
I was incredibly efficient and knew how to maximize my time – I would complete university assessments on quiet overnight shifts at the hotel or at McDonald’s and wouldn’t travel anywhere without my day planner! I made sure I got everything done and wouldn’t sleep until I had done so!
After the wedding, you moved to the U.S. Was there a discussion with Mike about whether you should live in Australia instead? Was this decision related to travel (eg. because flights are cheaper from the U.S., many destinations you want to visit are nearer, etc.) or was it something else?
We have decided we will eventually end up in Australia; however, it all came down to Mike owning a house in the U.S. I was still living with my parents in Australia so it was an easy choice!
Knowing that we will eventually settle in Australia, we want to spend a few years based in the U.S., kind of like a gap year before the next chapter in our lives! Also, by the time we head back to Australia, I should have my U.S. citizenship – not a horrible thing to have!
Right now we’re enjoying life and enjoying being married, and taking advantage of being on this side of the world while we can. As you mentioned, flights to and from the US are a lot cheaper for the majority of the world!
How often do you travel now that you’ve graduated and moved to another country?
Because of restrictions with U.S. Immigration, we haven’t left the United States this year. However, the U.S. is a pretty big playground! We travel around Florida on weekends and days off (between the Florida Keys, Miami and the Everglades, we’re not complaining!), and recently took two weeks off for a road trip from Florida to Washington DC.
What do you do for a living now and how do you save up for travel? Do you earn money while traveling as well?
We are both making a living in hospitality; I’m cocktail waitressing. And because we don’t eat out and live minimally, we have managed to save quite a lot of money for travel. For instance, we share one car, which might be a slight inconvenience, but means we’ve saved an enormous amount of money this year.
To earn money while traveling would be a dream, and I hope to one day achieve that through my blog.
You have a law degree. Do you plan to work in the legal profession?
If I can make a living from my travel writing within the next 3 years before we move back to Australia, I won’t pursue a legal career. I’m more in love with the concept of travel as a lifestyle than I am with a career. I would be happy to work in hospitality for the rest of my life if it meant I could constantly travel.
If I went into law, I would aim to become a barrister, meaning I could set my own hours and accept or reject cases around my travel plans. Other options I was considering after graduating were to sign up for volunteer placements around the world with various NGOs.
There are so many opportunities for travel, it doesn’t really matter which career you have. Where there is a will, there is always a way!
You have also volunteered abroad. Any tips on finding opportunities to volunteer abroad?
Over the last 5 years, I have volunteered in Costa Rica, Sweden, Switzerland, Kenya, Tanzania, the Solomon Islands and throughout Australia. Volunteering abroad is an experience I would highly recommend!
A lot of my experiences were paid placements; however, you can find free or low cost placements relatively easily through websites such as HelpX or Workaway. You pay around $20 for a 1- or 2-year subscription and then flick through the worldwide opportunities and email the placements directly!
Free placements are generally work exchange programs, so you offer your time in exchange for free room and board. Some places might ask for a minimal donation towards food costs. Projects can range from working on organic farm, to buzzing city hostels, animal shelters, community living projects, and almost anything else you can think of!
How do you keep your travel expenses low?
We hardly ever eat out, even when traveling, which saves a LOT of money. We spend on experiences, but skimp on ‘things’. We will happily pay $500 to sky-dive over the Swiss Alps, but I won’t step foot in H&M or a souvenir store unless I’m buying a postcard to send home! We’re quite happy now collecting memories and photographs during our travels as opposed to objects and things.
Did you ever run into money problems when you travel?
I travel with emergency credit cards so that I will never find myself in a situation I can’t get out of. After my gap year in 2007, I came home with $6,000 worth of debt; however, I had that paid off within 6 months. At the beginning of 2012, I was in $20,000 worth of travel-related debt; however, I had it all paid off by the end of the year.
My thought process until now had always been to “spend now, pay it off later” until I realized how much money I was losing in interest!
That’s a lot of debt to have, but I always had full-time employment waiting for me once I came home from each trip and never spent what I knew I couldn’t pay off.
Do you take advantage of frequent flyer miles?
I do, they’re a godsend!
I have frequent flyer accounts set up with a number of international airlines; however, being Australian, I mainly fly Qantas to maximize my frequent flyer points. I also have my Australian credit cards linked to my account to earn points on every purchase.
We are also starting to “travel hack” more actively, which is signing up for new credit cards or clubs that offer free rewards points with airlines in exchange for membership. The amount of free travel we have managed through points is truly surreal!
(If you want to start collecting miles, check out this post: Travel Hacking Basics: 4 Easy Steps to Travel for Free.)
How do you prepare yourself financially for retirement and how do you balance that with your travels?
Our aim is to slowly work towards saving $200,000 for retirement. Each year, half of our savings goes towards that goal and the other half to travel. We have set financial goals for each year, and then anything over and above that goes into the travel fund. It may be many years before we reach this; however, it’s good to know your number and have set goals.
(End of interview)
If you enjoyed this interview, say hi to Megan at Mapping Megan — an up-and-coming travel blog with tips and advice on travelling, volunteering, living, working and holidaying abroad.