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Common Tread

How can you afford to travel the world on a motorcycle?

Sep 20, 2021

If there is one single question I’ve heard more than any other, it’s "How is it possible for these round-the-world riders to take off for months and years at a time without having to work?"

Are they all independently wealthy? Does Instagram give them free money for being an influencer? Do they have trust funds? Pensions? Or some other income stream that’s unobtainable to most average people?

How do you budget for long-term travel?

While some riders do have retirement or rental properties or other guaranteed income they can count on each month, and I’m sure there are a lucky handful who make a few coins as influencers, if you’re not in a place in life to have that kind of set up, long-term travel is still completely attainable. Though I’m going to forewarn you: There will be sacrifices.

Using my own life as an example, I didn’t have any of those things either. I grew up with a single mom, four siblings, and an absent drug addict father in a rundown part of Los Angeles. I couldn’t afford to go to college, so I went straight into working after high school with a job testing video games, where I barely made more than minimum wage. I worked long hours and pinched and saved every penny I could, then a decade later, I was living on my own with a motorcycle in my shared garage and had worked my way up to a $55,000-a-year salary.

motorcycle travel in remote area
There are definitely times when I yearn for the comforts of home and routine, but those things will always be there when I return. Whenever that may be. Photo by Tiffani Burkett.

It might not sound like a baller job to most, certainly not in Los Angeles, but from my point of reference, I was making more than I had ever known, so I was able to put thousands away in the bank at a rate of a few hundred dollars each month. I never took on any debt, I bought old vehicles that I could buy outright, and I didn’t drink or party or go out to eat. Needless to say, because of my upbringing, budgeting was an obsessive part of my life. I always had to choose between the things I wanted and the things I needed.

In my case, racing or riding my motorcycle just about always won out over a lavish vacation, the newest gadgets, the fanciest cars, or the most organic produce. So when I lost that job, and I was staring at a map and my Yamaha FZ-07, it became my chance of a lifetime to, well, blow my savings on a trip of a lifetime.

And that’s it. That’s my secret. No debt and saving money. Crazy, right? But that’s about as complicated as it gets.

My first trip, I had about $30,000 saved over a decade’s time. That took me, and eventually a partner, to 49 states of the United States, 32 states in Mexico, three provinces of Canada and down to the bottom of Panama and back over about two years.

To live on the road full-time, I gave up having my own apartment and I came back at the end of my savings, scrambling for work and living out of my tent until I could get an apartment again. It was extremely stressful, sure, but it was a worthwhile trade. That’s one of those sacrifices that you have to be ready to handle.

Then I did it again. I flew to Asia for several months and blew my savings. Then I came back and I did it yet again. I had to get comfortable with flying without a safety net and just trusting that it would always work out. As long-term travelers, we function on a lot of hope and serendipity, so I simply believed in myself enough to know that I’ll be able to make something work when the going gets tough.

Every couple of years, I have to stop and get a normal job again and save money to keep moving, but once I’d left everything behind once, it became incredibly easy to quit jobs and take off into the sunset the second and third time. Travel changes your relationship with the American Dream and your relationship with the value of your time.

motorcycle and camp site
I have a huge number of photos of camp sites, for a good reason. It's an easy way to make your travel funds take you further. Photo by Tiffani Burkett.

Working on the road?

I’m a fan of the go-all-in-with-no-plan approach, but sometimes you can also pick up work while you travel. Obviously, I’m a writer. I’ve written and recorded several books now, both nonfiction and fiction, and my book sales have helped ease the financial burden of life on the road. I also write freelance for magazines, which brings in small income streams here and there. I wasn’t really a writer before I left on my first trip, but I started to find I really loved it over the course of my travels.

So what’s something you might enjoy that you could do on the road? My partner has picked up odd jobs turning a wrench. I’ve known others who have stopped to help with harvests or used websites like Workaway or AuPair, where you trade labor for free lodging and sometimes a small wage. If you’re lucky enough to be a full-time digital nomad with a conventional job that lets you work remotely, there’s no reason you can’t hole up in one place during the week, then save your travelling and exploring for weekends.

working on repairing a motorcycle
Learning to work on your own bike is a great way to save money, instead of having to pay a mechanic. Photo by David "Hollywood" Hayward.

So what does it cost on the road?

There are some expenses you can’t avoid. Fuel, for example, costs what it costs. I’ve paid everywhere from $2 a gallon to $8. Fortunately, motorcycles are mostly fuel-efficient, so on a 200-mile day, I’m usually spending around $30 in fuel for my FZ-07. Food varies by country, but eating out at a restaurant can cost anywhere from $5 to $20. Picking up simple staples like noodles and spinach and a canned sauce at the grocery store will often be closer to the $5-to-$10 range. I also travel with a handful of seasonings to spice up meals so they don’t get too boring.

For lodging, if I can camp for free using BLM land or National Forests when I'm in the United States, that’s my go-to. If, for whatever reason, it’s not a good idea to camp (say in foreign countries or if the weather is too bad or if I’m just really desperate for a shower), depending on the country, the cheapest hotels or hostels range anywhere from $10 to $80 per night.

Fortunately, my bike is fairly low maintenance, but I always make sure to have money set aside for consumable parts, like sprockets or tires.

Realistically, total costs might average $50 to $100 a day, depending on lodging.

motorcycle-powered food cart on the street
When travelling abroad, street food can be a great way to ward off hunger for a low cost. And sometimes the "food trucks" are really motorcycle-powered. Photo by Tiffani Burkett.

Travel slowly

When I took off on my first trip, I was always on the move. Wake up with the sun, ride 300 to 400 miles, set up camp, repeat. I’d take a day for hiking or tourist things here and there, but it wasn’t exactly relaxing.

By about month 10, though, the packing up and moving every single day thing started to take a toll on my mental health, and I found myself wanting to take more breaks, stay in one place a little longer, get to know some of these new people beyond the small talk of introductions, and experience each destination a little more. If you’re not always moving, you’re not buying gas every single day. If you have a hostel with a kitchen, you can save a little on cooking for yourself. If you have a person willing to let you stay with them for free for a bit (Bunk-a-Biker can be a good resource), you can use some of that money you saved for the tourist things that you always wanted to do.

Tiffani at Mayan ruins
It’s not financially sustainable to act like a tourist all the time, but the longer I live on the road, the more important it becomes to indulge myself a little, even if it means breaking the budget occasionally. Photo by David "Hollywood" Hayward.

It’s constant give and take, but at least for me, I want to live on tight budgets without giving up everything. There’s a fine balance between being frugal and still enjoying yourself, and it’s easy to get so caught up in saving money that you forget that this trip is about more than just existing in different places in a blur of camp sites and new faces. I definitely splurged a whole month’s budget on learning to scuba dive in Belize, for example. But what’s the point of going to places you’ve never been if you don’t get to do the things that make them special?

Whatever your circumstances are, if travelling the world on a motorcycle is something you really and truly want, you’ll find a way to make it work. It’s not for the faint of heart, and it’s rarely easy, but the extra work you put in to affording it will make it that much more fulfilling.