Some of you may be familiar with Nomadic Matt – a well-known travel blogger whose philosophy is that traveling is for everyone, and it’s possible to travel the world for $50 per day. However, although his website is a must-read for aspiring young explorers, my own experience shows that with Semester at Sea it’s totally possible to travel under $50 per day.
I’ll tell you more: my roommate on FA’13 voyage had $40 for each port. No, there’s no mistake – not per day, per port. To make SAS happen, she worked four jobs, fundraised and saved as much as she could. And she was onboard, with very little cash for the whole 4-months duration of the trip.
Although it’s not something that should stop you from traveling, I would still suggest not going extreme. If you don’t have $50 per day planned for the whole two or four-months trip (even if you’re not planning to spend it all) and you’re not a senior, you might consider going next semester or next year, taking your time to accumulate more money. Because trust me when I say: you can travel the world with very little money in your pocket, but it’s not as much fun. There always will be SAS people to make you company, but imagine walking down the streets of Antwerp, Belgium, and smelling that delicious chocolate from the nearby stores – without a chance to buy it! Or going to Ghana and not making it to the rainforest treetop canopy park (like me). Or being unable to do a safari in South Africa (like me). It’s not the end of the world – but my travel principle is simple: yes, this world is small, and you might return to these places and do these things next time. But don’t count on it. Times change, places change, and political regimes change. Who can tell when you’ll be able to visit Cuba on your own if you’re an American? We did, and a few months later the laws were toughened. I applied to SAS less than six months before the trip and simply didn’t have enough time to save more money; otherwise I would.
So, before signing up for SAS, do your maths. Will you be able to make enough money before the trip to make your experience full?
Let’s count the costs first.
Fall and spring semesters cost starting approximately $24.000. Applying early – preferably a year in advance – gets you that price, and not $27-28K that late applicants have to pay. Economy cabins go away as hot pies. That money covers your tuition, room, board and insurance. Now let’s look at your personal costs.
I set off for my journey with $2300 on my bank account and $1000 on my shipboard account. I still had some money left when I disembarked. But boy did I wish I had extra $500-1000 to be able to do more!
To begin with, aside from your trip savings, plan to have extra $1000, or better $1500 on your bank account. That is for the fuel surcharges that may apply. But don’t expect them not to. I did, and that was a bad idea; thankfully, I had my deposit transferred to my shipboard account after I got the presidential scholarship. The fuel surcharges for a 4-months semester can cost you up to $900. On our voyage it was $750. Fuel prices go up from time to time, so SAS cannot know in advance. They charge your card once a month with all your shipboard purchases, including the fuel. Having some money to spend onboard besides the fuel is a nice thing as well: I had $250 available after I subtracted the fuel costs, and that was enough for me – I bought some merchandise, snacks and other stuff. But we were charged a few times for unexpected costs. So gotta be prepared!
So, let’s say $1500 for the ship life. Things you may spend your money on: snacks (although I’d suggest stocking up in ports – you can bring anything that’s sealed and can’t spoil over a course of time, including chocolate, small juice packs and soda cans); meals from deck 7 bar – sometimes you just can’t bear the dining hall food anymore, so it works; laundry (although – why spend $6 per bag if you can just wash stuff in the sink? I never needed laundry services!), wellness center – nice massages, though I wouldn’t cut my hair there – you can do it cheaper in port; medical clinic and drunk tank. Now mind that SAS insurance does not cover the ship’s doctor! The examination is free, but anything else is to be paid for. So stock up with meds – the regular stuff: anti-flu, anti-diarrhea, anti-allergy (if you have any), bandages, vitamins etc. And, unless you’ve got money to spare, don’t get drunk tanked! Meaning, if you’re too drunk to walk through the gangway straight, stay in a hostel or drink a few glasses of water and walk around until your head clears. Getting drunk tanked not only costs you money for the separate room, but also gives you points, and, from what I recall, 10 points – and you’re out with no refund, one drunk tank getting you about 6.
When calculating a budget for my trip, I only counted the in-port days, ship days being covered with that extra $1000 I had. I had exactly $50 per day, this sum increasing and decreasing during the voyage. Get a notepad or some useful smartphone app, if you have one – writing down your every expense is your main job aside from studying. Your goal must be not to spend all $50, but go under that sum – isn’t it nice to have some extra money in the end to spend on something awesome or even bring home?
Now, depending on how much money you’ve got planned, it’s up to you whether you want to eat on the ship while in port or not. I mostly had big SAS breakfasts, however, by the end of the trip I was really sick of ship food, so I started having brunches in the city. Dining onboard may not be so fun – the dinner is from 6:00 to 7:30 pm, and it might break your day. So finding cheap places to dine was my priority. Do your research before you arrive, check Yelp and Foursquare. Always aim for non-touristy spots – getting off the main square or street might save you a good deal of money. Street food might be an option, especially if you see the locals eat it. Make sure to use hand sanitizer and have some medicine in case your stomach gets upset. A quick tip: stuff fried on palm tree oil might have that effect. Palm tree oil is super heavy and very unhealthy. Read about the country’s cooking traditions in advance to avoid accidents.
Use public transport instead of taxis – except for when there isn’t any. But usually in such areas taxis are cheap when shared – like in Morocco, Ghana or Brazil. And in places like Europe you can walk. Walk as much as you can. It saves you money, keeps you fit, and lets you see what others won’t. Bring some snacks and a water bottle, and off you go!
If you’re overlanding (traveling via ground between SAS ports) or just want to get off the ship, don’t waste your money on hotels and hostels. Use Couchsurfing! It’s free and it’s fun – sometimes your hosts can show you around and give some useful tips. Of course you don’t always plan things, but I highly recommend making some plans in advance, especially in developing countries. If you think it’s easy to move around in Ghana, well, it’s a very big mistake that might cost you a lot of nerve cells.
Use local trains instead of speed trains, when you can. Try ride sharing services like Blablacar, where you only pay for fuel. Or hitchhiking, only remember taking all necessary precautions and using your head.
Sign up for free walking tours or get in touch with the local Couchsurfing community. There’ll always be folks willing to show you around. If you’re a museum geek, many cities offer museum passes and city cards that can save you a good deal of money. Getting an ISIC card, especially for non-US students, can get you discounts in many places. If you’re a smartphone owner, download offline city and metro maps for the locations you’re going to never be tempted to use your cellphone data. In fact, put your phone in an airplane mode and leave it that way. You can Skype your family and friends while in port and SAS e-mail is free onboard. Besides, airplane mode saves you battery.
Exchange rates vary from month to month, but in general I don’t see any necessity in exchanging all currencies at home. Bringing a few hundred-dollar and hundred-euro bills will be enough. You can always use ATMs, though cash is a must as a precaution. Say, in Buenos Aires my Russian MasterCard got declined by all banks, and it turned out exchanging dollar cash was better anyway. And, say, Cuba gives a terrible rate for dollars, while euros work. But in general, if you keep off airports and tourist spots, you can always get a decent rate.
Speaking of tourist spots: don’t go there for souvenirs! A magnet in the center of Lisbon will cost you thrice as much as in some little shop in one of the sidewalks. A bottle of sangria at a fancy farmer’s market in Barcelona goes up to €30, while you can get some good one in a regular supermarket for only €2.
Bargain where it’s common. In any country, always bargain at flea markets and crafts markets and vintage stores. Don’t be shy to bargain – it’s your hard-earned money, after all! Start with cutting the price in half and then work your way up to the sum you’re willing to pay. In countries like Morocco or Ghana, don’t be afraid to start walking away if the salesperson won’t give you the price you want. Sometimes it makes them quickly change their mind, and if not – no souvenir is worth overpaying for!
Speaking about shopping – choose your battles. Shopping in Europe won’t save you money, whereas shopping in developing countries can be a sweet deal. I bought beautiful bikinis and dresses in Brazil, an alpaca sweater in Argentina, and a pair of nice shirts in Morocco. The best deal was still Ghana – if you sew, you can just stock with ridiculously cheap fabric, or even order a custom dress, shirt or pants starting from $15.
Shopping for snacks is also an art. In Europe, Germany offers the greatest variety and value (and chocolate chocolate marzipans chocolate). In Morocco I bought nuts and dates – after bargaining a good deal, I got three packages for the price of one. In Ghana I fell in love with fried plantains – they’re cheap and nutritious, and you can get a huge bag for $1-2. South African Waterfront mall offers everything from all corners of the world, and it’s great for some exclusive snacks like chocolate Pringles. Argentina had just too much stuff, so I didn’t have to shop in Brazil. Brought home tons of mate (it’s so cheap) and it sits in my drawer because I’m just not in the mate mood… Dulce de leche didn’t last long, though! And Cuba had nothing. I was almost out of snacks and miserable. But, good thing is that I didn’t have to fit the remaining snacks in my suitcase.
Self-discipline is important. Before spending money on something, just ask yourself: «Do I need it or do I just want it?» And if you just want it, act in accordance with your savings. Will it make it over $50 for that day?
Oh, by the way, bring your water bottle (and magnets) if you don’t want to pay for SAS ones.
Fun things like camel tracks, safaris, bungee jumping, paragliding, shark cage diving, trips to the wilderness and skydiving will most certainly set you $70-300 back. Semester at Sea field programs are always nicely organized with lunches included but, for me, very expensive. The only two I did were in Cuba, and they were under $20. I also hate group tours as a thing, preferring to explore on my own or with a friend or two. Experience shows that you can do almost any SAS trip twice cheaper on your own or even for free (like service trips, though mind transportation costs). But you have to plan in advance – and understand the risks! Check reviews about a company before booking with them. Also, Amazon riverboat tours in Brazil turn out cheaper only if you book your flights to Manaus far in advance. Finding a camel trek in Morocco online and negotiating a group price will save you a great deal. But you don’t really need to plan to hike in Glendalough, Ireland or climb Lion’s Head in Cape Town. The lesson is – do your research on each port before you embark. Although it might be interesting to dive into the complete unknown, you won’t have as much time in port as it’s necessary to find the deals you want. And always estimate the time your adventure will take – it’s a bad idea to plan big trips for the last day, as the ship usually leaves the port at 8 pm (and you have to be onboard at 6).
To draw the line, I’d say having $4000-5000 to take on your trip can make it a richer (yeah, the irony) experience. But don’t get discouraged if you can’t have that money. The example of my roommate who traveled on $40 per port proves that nothing is impossible. You can have a wonderful time for close to no money in your pocket, but even if you’re not planning to spend it, it’s still good to have some extra – you never know. It’s easier to view the world as your classroom and enjoy the ride if you don’t have to freak out every day and get tense at your friend’s offer to have a quick snack. A telecommute job might be helpful – I didn’t have that $2300 straight away, but getting paid $300 per month for my translation job was what made the SAS trip possible. Whatever you can do via email or during port stays, find it and do it.
And, most importantly – carpe viam, or, without excess Latin, enjoy the Road!