Solo travel: Tips for quitting your job and traveling full-time
Advice from a woman who does.
Who doesn’t want to travel full time, especially after two years of a pandemic?
But most of us ultimately don’t.
Or we backpack for a gap year.
But giving up everything – our jobs, our homes and our cities?
Most of us don’t.
Heather Markel did it in January 2018. And though she questioned her decision a few weeks later, she never looked back.
She has traveled – solo – to over 25 countries so far.
She now makes a living from business coaching and freelance travel writing. She also begins teaching others how to plan and budget for full-time travel.
We caught up with her in New York, where she was visiting family, to find out more.
The following is an edited version of that conversation.
Where do you usually stay while traveling?
This always varies as different countries have different prices and options available. So I’ve stayed in hostels, I’ve stayed in Airbnbs, I’ve stayed in boutique hotels, I have Marriott points, so I get free stays. I also do house sitting.
When you first decided to travel full-time, what surprised you the most?
I discovered that traveling full time is so much cheaper than a fixed life. The budget, I thought it would only last three to six months, ended up lasting over two years.
And it was, for me, also the first time that I felt my heart sing. It was a big wow.
I was in a life for so long, where I wasn’t so enthusiastic about my life. And then to be in the one where I was, almost every day, so excited or so challenged.
I learn so much more about myself.
What are some of the things you discovered about yourself?
I’m much more resourceful than I imagined. And that there were certain parts of myself that I didn’t like and rather than running away from them – especially one or two big things – I confronted them head-on. And that was, I think, brave for me.
What if you got sick somewhere?
I mean, look, there are so many “what if” questions we could ask that would easily keep us from going on an adventure. And especially if we are solo. Why don’t you ask these same questions about your daily life, because the questions about fear are just as relevant on a daily basis, but we believe that because we are comfortable where we are, it is not a problem.
So one thing is that it’s actually possible to be comfortable in another place. And I think one of my big lessons as well is how I was trained to be so independent and do it all myself. And it’s very humiliating to ask other people for help. If you get sick, you will need to ask someone for help. And so I would say, that’s what you do.
I certainly travel with a small medicine kit for travelers’ diarrhea and altitude sickness.
We can’t ignore that women are targets on a global scale – at home or wherever you go. What are some tips for staying safe that we might not think you do?
The first thing I do when I check in, wherever I am, is ask the host two questions. First, is there an area of town that I should avoid at all costs because it is considered unsafe? And can I walk home alone in the evening? If the person has to think about the answer to that last question, I guess the answer is no, it’s not sure.
And I don’t drink to places by myself.
If I eat alone, you know, and I can have a glass of wine, but I wouldn’t go out with a stranger.
I wouldn’t go to a club or a bar alone and I wouldn’t drink alone.
And, also, because different cultures have very different dating standards, and also because women are treated so differently in different countries. Basically, I don’t accept invitations from men at night unless I might be in love with them, because that’s just not worth the question.
I also take safety devices with me when I travel. I have like an alarm that I can also hang up.
If I’m in a place that should be of concern, I like to have a travel buddy, i.e. a friend that I can tell I’m going here tomorrow, and I check, you know, I should get there That much. And I’ll let you know when I get there. And that way someone knows where I’m supposed to go and that I need to check in, and if I don’t check in, they should probably be worried.
You left a corporate life with a daily work schedule. How do you manage your time now?
It’s funny because we’re so conditioned that we have to have a schedule because we’ve always been programmed.
Part of the full-time journey, and one of the hardest parts, is letting go of all the thoughts and belief systems you’ve been conditioned to in corporate life. And so there’s a lot of forgiveness and compassion and a lot of frustration.
Some days I do nothing, other days I go to the cafe and write. Another day, I could take a ride. If I stay somewhere long enough, usually I meet someone and we have dinner or lunch or coffee or something. I like getting to know the culture.
I try to stay flexible to stay more than two nights and then walk around town. Because a lot of the beauty of full time travel is just not having a schedule and you can find a strange place to eat because you were only on foot and had no no idea where you are.
So many people finish their jobs and then retire and have to figure out their schedule. What you’re doing is like a window into that, isn’t it?
Yes. Is this the battle between what we’re supposed to do? And who do we want to be?
So it’s doing versus being. You have to redefine yourself by who you are and who you want to be.
Are you compassionate? Are you a fool? Are you happy? You are sad, aren’t you? So all of this is work in itself. This takes lots of time. And because you’ve let go of structure, you go very deep within yourself and get in touch with those parts of yourself that you just can’t, when your day is so firmly structured.
I read where you said people should be sure they are running towards something and not far from something if they choose to travel full time. Can you expand?
I realized that I was leaving my job in order to find happiness and meaning, not to run away from a job that I felt, “Oh, I have a terrible boss or I have awful co-workers.” It’s the feeling of running towards something rather than running away from it, because if it’s just about getting away from anything you don’t like, you’re going to recreate it somehow. another one.
If you’re the type of person who just wants to run away and not face these things, then you’re just going to have a very difficult journey.
What are your key tips for knowing if you can afford to leave a steady job and travel?
I have an entire ebook on this, but one is about setting a realistic travel budget. You have to take some time to figure out what style of travel you like, whether it’s an RV or five star hotels, you have to be realistic.
The number one reason people say they can’t afford to travel full time is because the only trip they take is on vacation. And on vacation, it’s an escape, and you deserve that spa and that champagne and lobster dinner, and after a week, you’ve blown like three grand, but that’s okay, because you have a job to go back to.
It’s also worth practicing to live on less because when you travel, the less money you spend, the longer you can travel. Think of all the different ways to save money so you can keep traveling for as long as you want.
The Canadian dollar will do quite well in a place like Asia.
In Vietnam, my food costs me $3 a day.
What have you learned about people or humanity through your travels?
The first is that the people of a country are not the government of a country.
The average people you’ll meet – I mean, at least that’s my experience – are wonderful, teach you so much about their culture, and are so welcoming.
I actually think traveling full time is essential for us to reduce the barriers that we have, and the judgments, and I mean, even the racism.
The first time I was in Southern Africa, in Cape Town, I remember walking around and thinking and realizing that I was the only white person here. And then I thought how many networking events have I been to in New York or business meetings, work rooms, and conferences where there was an Asian person or a black person in the room? Oh, that’s how they must feel.
So to be put in situations that cause you to question your own behavior and your own thoughts is wonderful, and I think it will create a lot more compassion and connection for humanity.
You’ve been on the road through COVID-19. What advice would you give to travelers to navigate there?
I had this weird experience where I was in New Zealand for two years and it was very strict protocols. I got used to it and felt really safe. And then when I went to Australia, I got into the habit of checking in with my phone, showing a vaccination card to go anywhere, including the pharmacy. Singapore was the same — over there, even in the subway, they said, don’t talk. And I thought, well, that’s a little harsh. And then I realized it was because when you talk, you get saliva droplets, and they want to reduce that and I was like, genius.
So that’s what I was used to.
And then I came to New York, which for me was like hellfire. Lots of people wore masks, but I wasn’t asked for a vaccination card anywhere I didn’t have to register and there was no contact tracing. And then I had to go to Florida because my mom is there, and it was just free for everyone.
So I was more afraid to come back to the United States than to travel!
Countries are easing restrictions. So I think you need to go to the airline and government websites before you travel. Understand what their protocol is, and you must follow it, if you don’t like their protocol, don’t go to this country.
What is your next destination?
I really want to go back to Africa. But I think my plan is to go to France afterwards to visit one of the host families I lived with when I was 16. And maybe I’ll do a little tour of Europe.
For more tips from Markel: She runs a Facebook page: Full Time Travelers And Nomads.
His book is How To Afford Full-Time Travel. or for its two-week training program, head to Money For Travel Bootcamp.