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How to Go on a Long Trip Without Going Broke

Susan Johnston Taylor

Most Americans make do with limited vacation time each year. Workers entitled to paid time off took an average of 16 vacation days in 2013, leaving nearly five days unused, according to a report by Oxford Economics last year.

For those bit by the travel bug, a few weeks each year just isn't enough time to find where the locals go and really explore new places. Blogs and social media accounts of long-term travelers like Tara and Mike Shubbuck, the husband and wife team between TwoTravelaholics.com, show readers the alternative.

The Shubbucks, 29 and 34, respectively, left their full-time jobs in the District of Columbia to travel in 26 countries over 14 months in 2012 and 2013. They recently self-published a book called "Create Your Escape: A Practical Guide for Planning Long-Term Travel."

They aren't the only ones with a wanderlust that can't be satisfied in a few weeks per year. "There are a lot of Gen Y people especially who are realizing that a lot of real wealth is experimental," points out Chris Alberta, president of Alberta Enterprises, a wealth management firm based in Brighton, Michigan. "Do I want to take pictures of the volcano when I'm 70 or go climb the volcano when I'm 35?"

Getting time off work for long-term travel is one hurdle (and likely fodder for a separate article). Paying for extended travel is another. U.S. News talked to the Shubbucks and others about how to make this work financially.

Minimize expenses before you leave. The Shubbucks already had been putting money aside for the future, but about a year and a half before they left, the couple got more serious about saving for their trip. Downsizing from a one-bedroom apartment to an efficiency unit saved about $600 a month. They also kept each other accountable about discretionary spending. "Do we want it, or do we really need it?" Tara Shubbuck asked. "Can we take this with us on our trip?"

That's not to say everyone plans that far in advance. In May 2012, Stephen Ewashkiw, 43, and his wife Jane Mountain, also 43, had the idea to bike through Europe and Asia and left their home in Los Angeles in March 2013 for a trip that took nearly two years. They blog about adventure travel at MyFiveAcres.com.

Sell your possessions. Both couples sold most of their possessions to subsidize their trip and avoid pricey storage units. "Books we sold on Amazon, furniture through Craigslist or within our apartment building," Tara Shubbuck says. "What we couldn't sell we donated or gave away to friends. We have a few suitcases of things that we stored in my uncle's attic."

Ewashkiw and Mountain paid a friend below market rate to store a few items in part of the friend's basement, and the money will pad the friend's 2-year-old daughter's college fund. The couple also sold their Los Angeles home and both cars, which heavily subsidized their trip. They also had a going away party where guests could help themselves to whatever items they hadn't stored with the friend or sold. "You don't want to pay $1,000 a year for storage when you could use that to live for two months on your bike trip," Ewashkiw says.

Choose your destinations wisely. Exchange rates and costs of living can vary from country to country and dramatically impact how far your dollar goes. The Shubbucks found that while Iceland was expensive, traveling and daily living in Africa and Asia was a lot more cost-effective. They also planned the order of destinations strategically. "When we arranged the trip, we tried to make it an endless summer so we didn't have to pack as much," Mike Shubbuck says. Starting in Iceland and moving south allowed them to wear summer clothing year-round.

Ewashkiw and Mountain mostly camped and cooked their own meals in Europe, which minimized their costs. "The nice thing about traveling by bicycle is you're not paying for tour guides or transportation," he says. "You just have to pay for your food and your entry to any tourist things you want to go see." Meals often consisted of muesli, one-pot pastas or chili and sandwiches prepared on the road. Once they arrived in Asia, they stayed in hotels or hostels, which tend to be cheaper than in Europe.

Consider working part of the time. Ewashkiw landed teaching gigs at yoga studios along their cycling route. However, picking up extra cash through odd jobs won't work for everyone. Depending on the rules of the country you're visiting, you may not be legally allowed to work without a work visa (Ewashkiw has dual citizenship with the U.K., so that wasn't an issue for him). Cleaning toilets or bartending may not be part of your ideal vacation, either.

But if your work is portable (perhaps you freelance or work for a company with a generous telecommuting policy), that's another option. "What I have seen with a few of my friends is being able to work so remotely that they literally could take their laptop to Dubai for a month," Alberta says. "They can hit their sales numbers and that money gets direct deposited to their account." In that case, you may need to work odd hours to communicate with clients or colleagues during their business hours, but if it means being able to travel for longer, that sacrifice may be worthwhile.

Be careful with credit cards. Avoiding debt before and after the trip and having a cash cushion when they returned home was important to the Shubbucks. However, they did use a travel rewards credit card that they paid off every month and used the rewards to cover part of their bill. "You could do cash back or apply your points toward any travel-related expenses -- so hotels, subway tickets, airfare, that kind of thing," Tara Shubbuck says. "We got a couple thousand dollars back based on those reimbursements."

Tempting as it might be to rack up credit card debt and pay it off once you return home (YOLO), Alberta cautions against this. "You might be able to pull that off once, but if you tried to pull that off systematically you'd be in deep trouble," he says. Plus, if you're not returning home to a job, it may be tough to predict how long it will take to land a new one.

The Shubbucks didn't have a house or kids when they left on their trip, but they say it's still possible to make the trip of your dreams happen under other circumstances. "If travel is something you're interested in doing, you can start at any point," Mike Shubbuck says. "You shouldn't look at your house or your car or your job as holding you back from doing something. You see certain things as anchors keeping you to where you are, but if you start planning for a trip like this, you can make it a reality."

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