If you’re over the age of 30 (and thus not eligible for working holiday visas), and if you’re not interested in managing an online business while you travel, you might wonder how to make your full-time travel adventures financially sustainable.
Never fear! Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
I was chatting with Deborah Benbrook, who has been traveling full-time with her husband since early 2011, after taking almost 2 years to sell everything they owned. When they left the UK, they knew they had to stretch their money and would need to work, but they didn’t know where or when that would happen.
They’ve done an amazing job of finding work along the way as they’ve traveled. In this interview with Deborah, I discover just how they do it – right down to the nitty gritty of visas and how they get paid.
Nora: Let’s start with your first gig running a hostel in Chile. What happened?
Deborah: We had no idea where we were going once we landed in Santiago. A few people suggested Pucon – dubbed the Queenstown of Chile – white water rafting, climbing an active volcano etc. So we headed there.
We booked a hostel called El Refugio. We arrived after a night bus and we sat and had a cup of tea with the Dutch couple who were running the hostel on behalf of the owner. They’d been there for a year, but had received some sad news from home and were heading back the following week.
We didn’t have a flight out of South America for 11 months, so we were obviously in no rush to go anywhere. By the end of the first day there, we’d agreed to run the hostel from the following week.
Nora: Had you run hostels before?
Deborah: We had no prior experience and our Spanish was almost nonexistent! We survived 6 weeks and received great reviews on Trip Advisor, Hostelworld and Hostelbookers. Then we set off travelling again.
Nora: Lucky Break! Where did you go after that?
Deborah: We traveled south to Patagonia, then up through Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru, when we got an email from Peter (the guy who owned El Refugio) – he was opening a new hostel and wanted us to return to Pucon and run it for him. We returned to Pucon, but the deal fell through as he couldn’t secure the premises he wanted.
But when we arrived back in Pucon, we were offered 7 different jobs! After some negotiations, we took one of the offers and stayed 5 months.
Nora: What about logistics like visas?
Deborah: In Chile, we had a 90-day tourist visa which we received on arrival. We met so many people who worked with a tourist visa, and no one seemed to worry about it.
We thought we had a 3-month visa for Chile and cut it fine when we did a border run into Argentina. The Chilean visa was in fact for exactly 90 days, and we’d been there for 92 days. We were terrified once we realized whilst stood at the border, watching the guard count the days on a giant calendar.
They wouldn’t allow us to leave Chile, so we had to hitch a lift back to Pucon. The following week we had to travel to Temuco and face immigration.
Thankfully we had a friend who knew someone in the office, so we got away with a written warning. We left via the same border and were told if we tried to re-enter Chile at the same border, they would only ever give us 10 days. So we traveled south through Argentina and re-entered at a different border with out a hitch and walked away with another 90-day visa.
Nora: How did you get paid?
Deborah: Our first job in Chile, we got free accommodation (which wasn’t great), money for food (which wasn’t a lot) and commission on any excursions we sold (which we did very well at). We didn’t spend much for the 6 weeks and we walked away with a bit of money.
When we returned to Pucon and secured a job in another hostel, we negotiated hard and got paid a lot more money.
Nora: You found a neat strategy to hack your way into getting a working visa in New Zealand even though you were too old to qualify for a working holiday visa. How did you do it?
Deborah: A friend helped us find an orchard that was willing to give us a letter saying that they would employ us and then we applied for a waiver to our tourist visa which allowed us to work in the nut and fruit picking industry legally.
It was worded quite ambiguously – you could work for each company for 6 weeks for the length of your visa. We worked for the same company for 6 months…but on different contracts; we also extended our visa and stayed in New Zealand for 9 months in the end.
Nora: Okay, back to your blossoming hostel management career. What did you do when you first landed in Thailand?
Deborah: It’s weird how things fall into place. We arrived in Asia in November and my brother said he was coming to Thailand for 2 weeks. We met him on Koh Phangan.
When we arrived we just got chatting to the girl who ran the resort (on behalf of her ageing parents) we were staying at and it came out that we’d run hostels in the past. Next thing she was offering us work over the xmas and new year period.
It was slave labour to be honest, but we didn’t really spend anything over the expensive holiday period and it lead to more work.
Nora: How did it lead to more work?
Deborah: During that time, we met an English guy who was building 5-star apartments up the hill. Within minutes of meeting us, he’d offered us a job and here we are! We are planning on staying until November, maybe longer…why not?
Nora: What’s the visa situation?
Deborah: We went to Singapore to get work permits – all paid for by our employer as he wants us to be official.
Thailand is very strict about what a foreigner can and cannot do. We are only allowed to do certain jobs. If a Thai can do it, then we shouldn’t be…such as cleaning the pool, serving food etc.
Nora: How are you paid?
Deborah: We are being paid into our UK bank account and we also negotiated money for food, so we are managing to save money.
Tips on the Lifestyle
Nora: You mentioned to me that you’re learning new skills all the time – most recently it was how to maintain a swimming pool and keep free of biting bugs! What has been the hardest thing to wrap your head around while working on the road?
Deborah: I would say learning a new language whilst learning a new job has been the hardest thing.
Before we left the UK, we’d attended Spanish classes and some of what we’d learnt stuck, but being in a classroom is very different to speaking to the chap who we hired to take guests to the hot springs (who only spoke Chilean Spanish). It was a steep learning curve.
Nora: Do you earn any other money to sustain your travels?
Deborah: I am a travel and landscape photographer and I supply images to lots of stock libraries. The sales from these images have helped us whilst travelling. My brother built me a new site which is more orientated to making me money, with referral links –www.deborahbenbrook.com
Nora: What would you recommend to help other travelers find work along the way as you have done?
Deborah: We would say be yourself and just chat to people – honestly this is how we’ve managed to secure almost all of our work. Be open to any suggestions that come your way…you can always leave if it doesn’t work out.
In New Zealand, we were initially told that we couldn’t work without a working holiday visa as we were too old and neither of us had a skill that was listed on the skills shortage list. We didn’t take no for an answer, and dug deeper and made more phone calls. That’s when we found out about the waiver that we could apply for.
Nora: Thank you, Deborah, for this great interview. I’m really impressed with your resume from the road, and your courage to simultaneously tackle language, culture, and a new profession – and make a spectacular go of traveling full-time in a financially sustainable way. You are an inspiration!
Update 2015: I interviewed Deborah at greater length about her uncanny ability to land jobs along the way in my latest book: Working on the Road: The Unconventional Guide to Full-Time Freedom. Check it out!