Quitting one's job to travel the world: costs and opportunity costs

Traveling the world doesn't have to cost a whole lot. With a few key items—a bike, a tent, a stove, a water filter—expenses can be reduced to little more than a sack of groceries each week. Transportation comes free (at least overland), lodging can (usually) be had for nothing, cheap food can be transformed into delicious (or at the very least, edible) meals, and a nearby river or spigot can soothe thirsty lips. Of course, the occasional comfort is nice too—a cheap meal out, a warm, dry bed on a cold, rainy night, or the unavoidable cost of boats and ferries and planes and visas to get from one landmass to the next. Finding a happy medium between inexpensive and enjoyable can be tough, but a good budget can help.

What kind of budget? The Next Challenge's Long Distance Cycle Journeys database has collected spending data from over 300 cyclists biking a collective 5,000,000 kilometers around the world, and here's how much those travelers ended up needing:

  • The mean monthly cost for a 6,000-mile-plus bike trip was $674.
  • There's a bit of variance in the data (some spending as little as $68 per month as some as much as $5,084 per month), so the median monthly cost is actually more statistically useful. That's $520 per month.
  • The average monthly cost for a pair of cyclists was somewhere between $550 and $780, or $225 and $390 per person.

It's still too early to say where we'll fall on this spending curve. My trips to Morocco and across Pennsylvania and Maryland fell well below it (scaled averages of about $500/month and $217/month, respectively), while the month Lauren and I spent in Iceland ballooned way above it (though Iceland is every expensive, we ate out a lot, and we were both coming back to salaried jobs). For our trip around the world, we're hoping to fall somewhere at or below the median, getting by on a total budget of under $7,200 per year, with another $3,000 stashed away for unexpected flights, mechanical issues, and any health problems that arise. We'll be favoring regions where that money will go further, meaning more time in southeast Asia, for instance, and maybe less time (if any) in western Europe.

Cooking on the cheap in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

Cooking on the cheap in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

Camping on the cheap in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

Camping on the cheap in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

We'll be writing a lot more about our spending just as soon as we actually set off. For now we're saving and squirreling away as much as we can, hoping to stay on the road for as long as we can (and, of course, as long as we want to). We should note that the numbers above (our budget and the spending data) only include expenses from the first day of travel onwards, not the very pricey flights and bikes and gear that will make our trip possible (probably about $10,000 altogether, with most items gradually accumulated over a number of years).

It also doesn't include opportunity cost.

We're super-fortunate to be able to afford all this: the bikes, the plane tickets, the fancy(ish) equipment and the cash that will keep us going once we hit the road next summer. We both hold down stable, well-paying jobs, and that makes it possible to save up enough money to travel the world—albeit on the cheap—for a year or more.

It also makes it terrifying. If I'm not working, I don't have a whole lot to lose by loading up my bike and setting out toward the horizon. The choice is about how to spend my day, not how much my day is worth. But we are working, getting paid enough to live comfortably and to still put some money away, and leaving on a bike trip around the world also means leaving that: leaving the comfort and the predictability of those paychecks. The choice isn't just about how we spend our days, but how much our days are now worth.

When Lauren and I quit our jobs to bike around the world, we will soon assume what economists call an opportunity costthe loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen. Put another way, if I don't quit my job and I just keep going to work next summer, my Mondays and my Tuesdays and my Wednesdays and my Thursdays will each be worth several hundred dollars (after taxes, but before student loan bills and rent checks and a few other expenses I'd admittedly forego on the road)—the majority of which I could stick in my pocket and save for later.

But if I do quit my job and bike the world, not only am I going to be incurring an actual deficit each day (spending more than I'm making), but I'm going to be foregoing a whole lot of money as an alternative. Being stranded somewhere for a week while waiting for a visa or replacement hub may not feel so bad if you can't really be doing much else, but the knowledge that I could be making over a thousand dollars that week by just showing up to work back home (and, to some extent, actually working) is a little unnerving.

Opportunity cost isn't just about dollars or cents. A few months ago I was talking to an acquaintance in Washington, DC, a place where status and prestige and power and influence are arguably more important than monetary wealth. He works as a diplomat in East Africa, and I mentioned that we'd soon be biking through that region. Visibly enthusiastic by the prospect, he peppered me with questions about the trip, about when we'd be leaving and how we'd found the time. "I'd be so afraid," he said. But not afraid of biking, he followed up, nor of biking in East Africa with lions and whatever. He'd be afraid of the opportunity cost of putting his career on hold.

I can empathize. I made the intentional decision to prioritize my life-life over my work-life pretty early on in my adulthood, but there's still a small bit of ego that gnaws away inside me, reminding me that as Lauren and I slowly drift along the dusty corners of the developing world, my friends and peers and colleagues will all be working hard, securing promotions, collecting fancy titles, and assembling glamorous portfolios back here in DC. I'll return—somewhere and at some point, maybe—being no "farther along" in my "career" than I am right now.

That's scary, but I think I'm okay with it.

Because here's the thing: opportunity cost works both ways. Inertia is a choice, and inertia has a loss of potential gain, too. Every week I spend on the road may mean (a lot) less money in my bank account and fewer bullets on my résumé, but every week I spend tucked away in an office, staring at a computer, doing roughly the same thing I've done for the past seven years— that's foregoing a whole lot. It's foregoing my health: my physical health, my mental health, my emotional and spiritual health. It's foregoing a worldly education and a worldly adventure; it's giving up the privilege to forget what day of the week it is or what date of the month it is. It's giving up my fundamental freedom: the freedom to be anywhere I want in the world, to stop viewing days where nothing is produced or tangibly earned as "wasted" days, to just sit somewhere and exist without worrying how long I have until I really have to be moving along. Inertia is the choice to forego stories to tell the grandkids; it's the decision that the great big planet and its great mass of people aren't really worth seeing when it comes down to dollars and cents. And most importantly, it's the prioritization of money (a renewable resource) over time (a nonrenewable one).

And put that way, a bike ride around the world can actually be pretty cheap.

Skaftafell National Park, Iceland, on a Thursday afternoon.

Skaftafell National Park, Iceland, on a Thursday afternoon.