The best ways to travel the world for free

The U.S. Travel Association predicts that Americans leave 429 million paid vacation days unused every year.

Some people rule out travel because they are stressed about leaving work behind. Others forgo a break because they feel like it’s not in their budget.

But alas, there is a way to solve both of these problems. If you know where to look, there are dozens of programs around the world that connect travelers with opportunities to work while traveling. Payment either comes in the form of money or in accommodations, but either way, it’s a budget-friendly way to see the world.

If traveling is something you’ve always wanted to do, there’s no reason why it can’t be a reality. Read these stories of real people who found a way to finance their travel by working on the road.

Teach english

Karissa Johnson, 30, enjoyed her HR job in Nebraska, but she couldn’t shake the nagging desire to travel abroad. In 2011, she found herself on a site called ESL Café, a resource for people looking to teach English around the world. After posting her resume, it didn’t take long for offers to start rolling in.

Johnson’s first foray into teaching English abroad took her to Hangzhou, China, where she spent 18 months teaching. While she had to pay for her flight there, the program reimbursed her for the cost after six months. Her payment (about $1,200 a month) was considerably less than the salary she made in her U.S. job, but her housing costs were covered, so Johnson was able to live comfortably while still having enough money to explore the city and immerse herself in a new culture.

“The ticket of teaching is what got me access to the rest of the world,” Johnson told Yahoo Finance. “You don’t have an excuse not to see the world, unless you’re just not interested.”

While Johnson was certified in teaching English as a Second Language, that’s not a requirement for teaching English abroad. “Certifications get you better pay and more options, but for so many countries you just have to be a native English speaker,” she said.

After taking a month to backpack around Southeast Asia, Johnson set her eyes on another teaching opportunity in Saudi Arabia. “I was up for adventure, and I wanted to be in a place that was drastically different than where I had just been."

The program in Saudi Arabia paid for her flight to the capital city of Riyadh, her housing, and transportation to and from local markets. She would teach for four to five hours a day at Princess Nora University, and spent the rest of the time exploring the city. “I was making more than $3,400 a month, and with no expenses, I was able to save a lot of money.”

With those savings Johnson traveled to Kenya, Germany, England and Italy during school breaks. With her wanderlust in full swing, she kept traveling, and completed her goal of visiting all 7 continents by age 30. “After traveling, many employers saw my new life experiences as a bonus,” she said. “It’s all in how you market yourself.”

Work for your keep

Kevin Powers arrived in Lima, Peru in 2014, hoping to find a place to teach English as he did in China. But he didn’t find the right fit.

At his hostel, some other travelers told him about a website called Workaway, which matches travelers looking to volunteer in other countries with hosts who provide them with food and accommodations. He signed up that day.

Powers, 32, ventured up to Huanchaco, Peru, and spent four months working and living in a hostel. In addition to checking in travelers, he would work in the restaurant -- even learning how to make Peruvian food.

“I worked 5-7 hours, five days a week, and in return I had a place to stay, food to eat, and there was always a surfboard and wetsuit I could use,” he told Yahoo Finance. “In my free time I could travel around and visit other places, like Machu Picchu.”

Workaway connects people in more than 155 countries, providing an opportunity to volunteer your time to divert the cost of travel expenses. For example, there’s currently a family in Belgium looking for someone to come and work on their farm. In exchange, you’ll get three meals a day, a place to sleep, and a bike to use. A hostel in Antigua is currently looking for someone to help out around the property. In exchange, you get a place to sleep, meals, discounted shuttles and laundry, and an ocean view.

For Powers, getting to experience another country without having to pay for lodging or meals allowed him to travel in a way he never thought possible. “If you wait until you have money, you’ll never go,” he said.

Exchange skills

In 2011, Andrew Dawson was 29, in between jobs and burnt out.

“I felt uninspired, and physically and emotionally exhausted. I needed a real trip,” he said.

His friend was headed to Senegal to visit family, so Dawson, who lived in New York City, tagged along, thinking he would be gone for 3 weeks. He ended up staying in West Africa for 6 months.

Initially, Dawson stayed with his friend’s mother, who ran a small B&B-like operation. But after his friend left, Dawson used his history in advertising and brand strategy to work out a unique arrangement with her.

“She didn’t really want to charge me for staying with her, so instead of money, I sat her down and we went through her books,” he said. “I did all of the math and told her what to charge in order to make money. We came up with a business plan.”

As Dawson made new friends and traveled around Senegal, he used his business acumen to strike money-saving arrangements. He took lessons at the local surfing school, and quickly befriended the instructors. Soon, he was helping them out with odds and ends, and in return, they would let him use surfboards and wetsuits for free.

Similarly, Dawson met a fellow motorcycle enthusiast who gave tours to locals. They became fast friends, with Dawson giving the man advice on his business model in return for free motorcycle rides.

“I was able to get a good grasp on French and I really immersed myself in the culture,” he said. “I helped local business owners improve their operations, and they helped me navigate a new landscape.”

Work on sabbatical

Of course, Dawson’s experience wouldn’t be easy for most travelers. But there are other ways to use your skills while traveling -- working sabbaticals. has a list of companies that currently have sabbatical programs, and some, like American Express, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Nike, pay employees a regular salary during their time off.

Meanwhile, some new startups aim to change the way people work and travel. Sabbatical plans to establish co-working locations complete with wi-fi and conference rooms in idyllic spots around the world. Their first space will launch this August in Puerto Rico, with the hope that companies will pay for their employees get out of the office for two weeks, stay in an exotic location, and unwind while working remotely.

“It’s a 21st century solution for a workforce of people who are unable to separate work from life,” says co-founder Craig Mason. “Curiosity for travel is a common undertone for the millennial workforce, so if you can find a way to pair that with a productive environment, then it’s a win-win.”

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