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“Travel May Seem Impossible, But It’s Not”: On the Road with Susan Shain

This is a travel hacking case study. (Read others or nominate yourself.)

One of Susan’s many freelance gigs is “Travel Coach”—which involves helping people see the possibilities of incorporating travel into their life. We asked her to share more.

Tell us about yourself.

Since 2008, I’ve been working seasonal jobs, then exploring the world during the off season, using travel hacking to get the most bang for my buck. During my trips, I work as a travel blogger and digital strategist— and I’m passionate about cheerleading people to discover how they can incorporate travel into their life.

Also, I just attended my first WDS this year. It was amazing!

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What inspired you to encourage other people to travel?

My parents were a huge inspiration for my own adventures.  In the 60’s, my dad spent months backpacking through Europe and North Africa, while my mom was doing the same thing through Iran, Afghanistan, and India. (Pretty cool, right?) I wanted to do something similar, so when I was 19, went with a small group of students from the University of Michigan to Tanzania and Kenya. We lived with host families, taught English, and did basic HIV/AIDS outreach.

That trip changed me. Life in Tanzania was radically different than life in the states. I lived in a two-room house with a family of five wonderful people from a rural Tanzanian village.

Days were spent walking to the community center to teach, and at night I’d help with cooking and chores (though I never got very good at milking the cow). We slept all together on the floor, where I shared a blanket with my three-year-old host sister, and showering, well—it was not at all like bathing back home.

Though the students also had more traditional traveling experiences while in Africa—going on safari, getting drunk with the Masai, and sailing to a remote island—the time spent with my host family had the most profound impact on me.

Travel is transformative; in all of its challenges, it is gratitude-inducing and mind-opening. I want anyone who wants to feel empowered to have an experience like this, so much of my personal work is devoted to demonstrating ways to make travel possible on my blog.

Prioritizing travel over the rest of your life doesn’t come naturally to many people. Any suggestions on getting started?

Let me start with a story: Despite having never traveled abroad before, two of my best friends decided to quit their jobs and volunteer in Nicaragua with me. It wasn’t an easy decision, trading in steady paychecks and comfort for screaming niños and culture shock. They loved it. Now, they’re using their experiences to help mold their next steps; one is in school for social work, and the other is working at an elementary school.

For a multitude of reasons, travel may seem impossible to you right now, but it’s not. You just have to want it badly enough to make it a priority in your life. It is a hard choice (a really hard one!) to do so, but if you know your life won’t be complete without it, it’s time to make it happen. I’m not promising your travels will turn out as perfectly as the story I just shared—but I do promise this: you will learn something, and you will grow, from your experience. So why not give it a shot?

How did you earn the Frequent Flyer Miles for your trips?

I actually now travel full time… no seasonal work for me anymore. A year out from my chosen launch date, I started diligently collecting points and miles from every program I got a tip on (which I took from AONC and other sources on the interwebs). 99% of my miles come from credit card bonuses, and within one year had an aggregate of over one million miles and points among the various airline and hotel programs. I consider this my “intercontinental” travel fund.

Within continents, I use cash on low-cost air carriers or overland transportation options. The funds for this were part of a three-pronged approach to travel: selling all household items and automobiles, existing savings, and supplementary income from freelance projects and coaching.

How do you pay for your travels?

I’ve paid for my travel in all sorts of “crazy” (it’s a relative term) ways. Waitressing, art modeling, liquor repping, and teaching English in Korea.

This is the lifestyle I preach on my blog—because who doesn’t want to work in beautiful places AND travel?

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The great debate: aisle or window?

Window! (For gazing/sleeping.)

Have you learned anything from your time abroad?

You don’t need a lot to be happy.

Two winters ago, I volunteered at an elementary school in Nicaragua for several months. The kids had next to nothing, but they were some of the most joy-filled youngsters I’ve ever met. And the same goes for many of their parents. I’m not saying happiness is easy—it’s not. But it is something you can find no matter your situation; you just have to work at it.

Have you met any fun or interesting people on the road?

One memorable man was Don Chepe, who lived in a tiny coffee village in the mountains of Colombia. He looked like an ancient Colombian cowboy, and he owned a tejo hall (tejo is a Colombian game where you throw lead balls at gunpowder, in hopes they’ll blow up.Seriously. And it’s super fun!).

My friends and I had no idea what we were doing, so Don Chepe took us under his wing and played with us all night, laughing and exploding things. For him, it was probably just another night, but for us, it became a cherished memory. He taught me that it is so easy to make a difference in someone’s life—all you have to do is try.

Best travel tips. Go:

1. Get a fee-free debit and/or credit card.

My Charles Schwab debit card actually refunds me for fees charged by out-of-network ATMs!

2. Take some time to get lost.

Grab a business card with the name of your hotel, enough money for a taxi home, and your camera — then just start walking. Do it during the day, of course, and turn around if a neighborhood starts looking rough. But by walking without a map or purpose, you’ll be able to discover so many things you otherwise wouldn’t have.

3. If you’re traveling with a friend or partner, have a code word to let them know when you’re exhausted/fed-up/starving/incapable of making a decision.

It’s a quick way to indicate they should just choose the restaurant or book the bus ticket or whatever. Trust me; you’ll prevent a lot of dumb arguments that way!

Where are you headed next?

I’m going to New Zealand and Bali (with a short stop in Singapore) in the fall. My flight’s on a United award ticket: 80K miles round-trip in coach, plus $95 in taxes. Two places I’ve always wanted to go. I’m so stoked!

Follow Susan’s journey on her blog,  Travel Junkette or via Twitter @TravlJunkette.

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