How to Make Money as You Travel – Vanlife Edition
last updated: Aug 30, 2023
There has never been a better time in all of history to make money as you travel.
This is great news for those of us who do not want to be pinned down to one place – but how to actually make it work is not always so simple. This article aims to show you how to make money as you travel and to inspire you to believe that you can do it.
Firstly, why listen to me?
Firstly, I have been making money fully remotely for the past eight years. This has been a combination of freelance work, content creation, selling products (physical and digital), and sponsorships. Over this time, this business has seen gross revenues of well over $1m dollars. This is, of course, sadly, not all profit – but it has allowed me to build a good financial foundation – all while I lived my dream of travelling the world rock climbing.
Secondly, I have been doing my own business projects for eighteen years. This has involved SaaS businesses (media monitoring and data analysis), I have invented/patented and sold medical products, built a global scuba diving travel guide, an education start-up, an ad-tech start-up (that failed). I have manufactured and distributed a sport-training product, run a branding and marketing agency, and sold tens of thousands of how-to e-products related to van conversions or renovating houses. In between all of this, I also did a couple of years at a larger company doing international strategy (like a real job).
So, I can claim to know something about ‘the hustle’ of making money from nothing—and especially making money while I travel. The second part—making money while living the dream—has become a bit of a passion of mine.
I love it and I love seeing other people being successful at it too.
A trip with no end!
When I left city life to hit the road without knowing when it was going to end – it was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. I had saved a bunch of money – enough for a few years of frugal travel – but I had no idea where it would end up or for how long I would go. What I did know, was that in some way, I wanted to make my travel sustainable. Not in the environmental sense (although that is good too) but importantly, I wanted travel to be financially sustainable.
I wanted to be free. Free to be anywhere I wanted – but still to make enough money to have a decent quality of life and save for the future.
“How can I make money while I travel?” is the go-to question that people ask as they yearn for a life like this – a life filled with adventure and new experiences. I was no different and, since leaving the city and my job in July 2015, I have learned a lot about making money on the road. So here is my knowledge, for you, for free.
If you are a budding vanlifer – or wannabe long-term traveller – this article is for you. I will outline exactly how I – or many of my friends – pay for their life of adventure and therefore, how you can do it too. I will also outline how to approach changing your life in this way – so that you have the best chance for success.
In fact, the approach is the most important part of all of this. This is what your success or failure will depend on. A good, well-planned, methodical, approach will result in the best possible chance that your travel becomes a never-ending dream life.
This is what I want for you!
Making Money As You Travel – A Five-Step Plan
So, you have set your intention, you want to get the hell out of there and hit the road. You want to see the world, immerse yourself in wild places, meet amazing people and simply, have the absolute best frikkin time of your life. That is great – but first, it is well worth doing some preparation – it takes time to switch careers, build up new revenue sources, or start a small business.
My advice to you, is to do one (ideally both) of these two things:
- Build up a runway – savings that buy you time to figure things out
- Start before you leave – make a start while in the safety of your existing work
Note: A runway, in my mind, should be an absolute minimum of six months, but ideally a year or more. This means you need to save enough money to travel full-time – without earning anything – for this period of time. Now this runway can be a lot shorter if you start building a revenue channel before you leave.
This brings us neatly to the first step.
1. Work out a realistic budget
How much does travel cost for you? Now, if you are living in a van, travelling slowly – say you spend one month in an area to climb, ski, surf or hike before moving on – and you cook most of your meals in the van and camp for free – then your monthly expenses might be as low as a few hundred dollars (or euros).
If however, you spend time in cities, take international flights, use hostels, campsites, and restaurants – then your monthly costs may not be so different from the cost of paying rent and living in a city. Of course, if you use hotels and restaurants all the time, then you are going to need to earn a lot of money to pay for your lifestyle.
In a way, it doesn’t matter how expensive your travel lifestyle is, the most important thing is to be realistic about it. If you have a realistic understanding of what your travel life will cost then you know how much you need to earn.
Let’s break this down into four different cost bands:
- Budget vanlifer: <$500/month*
- Pricey vanlife/backpacker: $1200/month
- Holidaymaker: $3000/month
- Mr. fancy pants: $5000/month+
*If you are in the US, health insurance is more of an issue, factor this in!
Clearly, it is a lot easier to earn $500 a month than it is $5000. You can earn $500 a month by doing a bit of work a day or two a week, whereas earning thousands requires either a proper job, high-value freelance work, or setting up a small business.
Not only that, but if you want to have a one-year runway – the budget vanlifer just needs to save $6000, whereas Mr. fancy pants needs to save $60,000! Ouch!
Personally, I would start by living the cheapest travel life I can cope with, then as I build up my ability to make money, I would let my lifestyle scale with my earnings. Well actually, I would keep my life cheap and save a ton of cash and invest it for the future.
I would also like to note, that when it comes to travel, less is more (to a point). The more you spend on hotels, the more disconnected you become from people who are like you – travelling full time. If you spend time in fancy hotels, you will be hanging out with older holidaymakers or business travellers. This does not mean it can’t be fun, but it will be a different experience. If you stay in hostels (even if you get a private room) instantly, you will be hanging out with a bunch of strangers and creating bonds that may turn into travel buddies. If you are travelling in a van, staying at boondocking locations, very quickly you will be hanging out with people who have made similar choices—and who are more likely to have interests in similar things, and again they may become your road trip friends.
“But owning a van is expensive! You didn’t factor that in!” I hear you point out!You can also join my free online training about how to make Vanlife Zero-Cost
Actually, owning a van and travelling in it for years, has not only been free for me, but it has been really profitable! Read this article if you want to know how to make van ownership cost you nothing.
Online Training Status: ACTIVE TODAY
So, now we have thought about money and how much we need, now let’s think about how to make it.
2. Work out the sort of work you would be happy doing while you travel
We all have different skills, abilities and preferences. Some of us have a mind that works perfectly for computer programming (not me) and some of us are super creative and can do design work or writing (more up my street), while others are not interested in this kind of abstract computer work and much prefer to work with people, or with their hands.
There is no point in building up a new ‘travel’ career if you totally hate the work you do. In this case, you would be better off saving money at a job you like for half a year, then travelling the other half. So, the first place to start is to look at your skills and preferences and try and see the opportunities to make money that are either location independent, or can be done hands-on while you travel.
The key types of work are as follows:
- Technical – e.g. coding, SEO, Ad-management, technical support, CAD, technical research.
- Creative – e.g. content creation, designer, copywriter, illustrator, artist, video/audio/photo editing, AI handling/curation
- Service-based – e.g. language teaching, accounting, bookkeeping, consulting, virtual trainer/physio, telehealth.
- Administrative – e.g. virtual PA, outsourced admin tasks
- Hands-on work – e.g. bar work, hospitality industry, massage, hairdressing, labouring, building/electrics/plumbing.
These different areas require different skills in order to be able to operate in each different market. Most technical work requires significant training and/or experience to be able to deliver work on a freelance basis. Creative work requires the development of our skills, for some areas, it may take years of work, and in others can be figured out to a ‘good enough‘ standard with a few weeks of learning. Service-based work can be skilled – or it can be something that many people can pick up as they go along, for example; sometimes language teachers only need to know the language they teach. Administrative work can sometimes be done by anyone, but because of this, it can be competitive and sometimes poorly paid (massively depending on the client level). Hands-on work can be highly skilled work – or something that can be picked up very quickly, but it is done in person.
Ask yourself these four questions:
- What sort of work will fulfil me?
- What sort of capabilities do I have – or could I have with some effort?
- How long will it take to develop the experience I need to access work in my area of interest?
- How exactly do I get from A to B? (A) being you now and (B) you making your travel budget.
Now you might already have five years’ experience in design, programming or something else that can quickly be turned into well-paid remote work. That is awesome! You just need to figure out how to get a client or two that will cover your travel costs! Needless to say, this won’t be so hard if you only need to make $500 a month!
If, however, you want to ‘break in’ to a new career that requires skills and experience, then it is well worth starting this journey before you travel if at all possible.
Here are a few real-life examples for your inspiration:
My friend James (became technical). For years, he spent a few months a year working two jobs – labouring and bar work, making as much money as possible, so that for the rest of the year he could travel in a van and go climbing. Then, after a few years of this, he took a programming course. He took on a few clients, and then shifted his focus into doing SEO work. Fast forward a few years, and he has built up a small business that brings in tens of thousands a month.
My friend Chrissy (hands-on). She is a ‘hands-on’ sort of person and finds a way to live a nomadic existence that has enabled her to avoid suffering a winter for the past decade. She lives in a van for 9 months, during which she does a few months working in a restaurant over summer in her home country – she loves this work – and that buys her enough time to travel the rest of the year. However, she finds ways to make money while she travels too. The last time I saw her, in Thailand, she was managing a small resort of jungle beach-huts. Another year she was working as a chef in Asia, or doing a few evenings a week at a bar near where she was vanlifing. Chrissy is able to do work she enjoys, spends most of the year travelling, and saves money for the future.
Myself (content creator). I primarily make money from content creation. I started making videos a year before I left the city where I was working. Admittedly, this was not quite how I thought I would make money, but building up some experience was actually really useful. It also helped that I had years of running my own businesses and doing random projects. Thanks to this background, in my first two years of travel, I was able to cover 50% of my costs just by doing small amounts of freelance design or consulting work for old clients and contacts I had from London. Just by doing this, my there-year run-way became six! Then, when my YouTube channel started to kick off, I was able to leverage it and turn it into a small business—with a small team working with me—delivering sustainable travel money for us all! After seven years I bought a house in a place that I used to travel to in my van, I totally renovated it, and now live mortgage-free. It makes a great base for further travel.
3. Think in an entrepreneurial way
The reality is that, if you want to succeed in an unconventional life, then this unconventional thinking must expand into your work. Thinking more like an entrepreneur, and being flexible with how you approach work – i.e. outside of just getting ‘a stable job’ – will help you find the opportunities that work for you.
For hands-on work, this might be finding part-time or seasonal work that suits your schedule, or it might be hustling a little and picking up odd jobs, or casual work as you go.
For work that is less ‘hands-on’ (and assuming you do not simply get remote 9-5 job) you therefore must become some sort of sort of online freelancer/self-employed person. This means you need to find clients, you need to manage those clients, and you are, in effect, running your own small business.
Below is the best advice I can give for starting almost any sort of freelance business:
You must understand the typical freelancer journey. This is what I have been through and what many of my friends have been through:
- To begin with, it will be hard to see where it can go.
- To begin with, your jobs for clients will probably not be high paid or great.
- You will, however, eventually reach a point where you have too much work – you increase your prices, ditch rubbish clients, and act with more confidence – which gets you more work.
- Later, you look back at when you started, and you will think “if only I knew where this was going.. I would have started earlier and done xyz differently!”
Many people get disheartened at stages 1 and 2 and give up, but this is a mistake because they have done all the suffering and are so close to the point where they can start to make more money in less time.
To go from nothing to a nice little business requires methodical marketing. Carefully look at your competition, an study how they communicate and mimic the best of them. ‘Build up’ what you have done, who you have worked for, and your successes – to give potential customers more confidence. It is about improving how you sell yourself and improving your conversion rates.
If you knuckle down and get through ‘the suck’ stage.. then you will find yourself dealing with better clients, doing better work, and making more money than you could have imagined during Stage 1. See the first two stages are your apprenticeship – once you have passed through it – you will find success.
4. Don’t forget to actually work as you travel!
Not actually working is the biggest reason why people fail to make things work as they travel.
Imagine, you have saved up a runway, you have converted a van, and now you are ON THE ROAD. The dream has come true, you are living on the edge of a beach, in the mountains. You can surf every day, hike beautiful trails, and hang out with new friends in the evening – having a beer and cooking beautiful food in the kitchen you built. Also… you don’t have to make money for a year!
If your aim is to make travel financially sustainable, letting that thought last creep into your head and make itself comfortable is to also guarantee failure.
It can be hard to force yourself to shut the van door, ignore the fun people, and get work done in these conditions.
So, if this is you, keep these things in mind:
- This life can go on forever (or, as long as you want it to) if you just do a few hours of focused work a day, or a few days of work a week.
- Routines and daily actions will get you there. Make a routine and stick to it. For example; get up at 8am, I work until 12. Get a ‘daily kill list’ done and then enjoy the rest of the day guilt-free. In the evening, before bed, prepare the ‘kill list’ for the next day.
- Stop seeing it as a holiday, this is now your life. Internalise that “I do this X days per week”. Communicate it to your travel friends so they understand not to disturb you.
- You are not a baby. If you want to achieve something the only person who will get it done is you – by working.
If you create and maintain a routine, like the one described in Point 2, you can get a vast amount done.
For sure, some days you may have to work more, but in the early days of client acquisition and getting things going, mostly you need to put consistent time and effort in – even when few rewards are coming out.
To make it work – always be methodical and consistent
For freelancers: Apply for jobs, reach out to potential clients, X per day, X per week, X per month. Track your reach-outs, calls and conversions and realise that everything in business is a numbers & optimisation game. Play the game until you win.
Once you have customers, over time, increase your prices as you get better and richer clients. This will allow you to do less work for more money – and when you arrive at this point, you have ‘made it’.
For content creators: it is no different, you have to create content, on the regular – and see what works and what doesn’t. If you do not have your own style – mimic the best – you will learn a lot and will eventually make something that becomes yours.
5. Find a mentor
This is a great way to help you get from A to B.
Find someone who has done it before and who does not mind giving you a bit of advice and/or tough love. This does not have to be Richard Branson – or some other famous billionaire – just someone who has found success doing something like what you want to do. People like to help other people – so long as it doesn’t tread on their toes too much. Just don’t waste their time, or expect that they will ‘make you’ do it. First, get started, then seek mentorship – no one wants to give time to mentoring a dreamer who has not even bothered to do the basic work of getting started.
You may find this person out on the road, on the internet – forums and such, or via social media – but most likely, you will find them through the act of actually doing your business and the network this inevitably provides. Ideally, it is done out of kindness, but perhaps you pay them for some focused advice or a monthly call. This can be money very well spent.
One of the big advantages of mentorship is that you get to believe that it is possible. Your mentor will hold the sort of absolute confidence that ‘it can be done because I did it’ which will help motivate you to get through the difficult starting period. They can also help you avoid the big common mistakes of your area of work – e.g. under charging, or selling yourself incorrectly, which can save months of unnecessary struggle.
Working As You Travel – You Can Do It!
Today really is the best day in all of history to start working as you travel.
The pandemic, which was totally rubbish for travel itself, has opened the floodgates for working remotely. Customers of all stripes are totally used to, and fully accept, working with someone they never actually meet. When I started in business this was practically unthinkable. Video calls were pretty bad and there was just an expectation that, if I am going to deliver a service for your business, we will have at least a few face-to-face meetings.
How amazing is the world we live in today?
We can have clients anywhere in the world. I run a course on how to convert a van with clients that I support all over the world. I have a YouTube channel that delivers content – and sells products – to millions of people throughout every continent. My wife is doing a biotech start-up from a house in the mountains, working with a lab in the UK, and investors from the US.
To summarise, this article on making money as you travel, I really want to imbue into you that YOU CAN DO IT. Yes, you will have to actually work, you will have to think a little differently, and it may involve a little bit of suffering.. but I can promise that it will be worth it.
You can live a free life.
You can work a few days a week (or a month) and have more time for actually experiencing your life.
You can explore the corners of this goddamn beautiful planet without going broke. Thousands of people, probably millions of people, are doing this right now. You can absolutely be one of those people.
I know it is true because I have done it and I have seen my friends do it, so for this reason – although I don’t know you – I do believe in you.
Good luck & enjoy the ride!
P.S. If you found this useful, please share it with a friend who might too. You never know, you may help change their life!
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