Interview with a Travel Expert: Nora Dunn

Ever fantasized about quitting your job and becoming a full-time traveler? Well, Nora Dunn did just that! Follow her journeys around the world and get tips on traveling on a budget by reading her blog, The Professional Hobo, and by checking out our interview with her below.

Your blog, The Professional Hobo, documents your life as a full-time traveler. What was the initial inspiration behind starting the site?

Back in 2006, when I sold everything I owned to travel full-time, the concept of monetization through blogs was virtually non-existent. In fact, I could hardly define what a blog was! But, I did know that it was this online thing I could use to document my travels – both for my own interest, and also as a way for family and friends to follow along as and when they wished.

At the time, I used a free blog through Blogspot and called it something else (“Life Happens”). But as I traveled across Canada from Toronto, people I met regularly asked me the standard North American question when you meet somebody new: “What do you do?”

I didn't have a good answer for this at the time, since I'd sold my financial planning practice, and hadn't yet adopted freelance writing as my next career. So, I replied in the form of an oxymoron intended to get a laugh: “I'm a Professional Hobo.” Well, people liked it, and it stuck! So in 2008, when I got my own domain and took blogging more seriously, The Professional Hobo it was.  

As you mentioned, you decided to become a ‘professional’ traveler, after selling your financial planning practice in Toronto and giving away your belongings. How has being a full-time traveler changed your view of travel? Do you think you’ll do it forever?

Before becoming a full-time traveler, I took fairly regular 1-2 week vacations that helped me escape the Canadian winter chill, but didn't exactly satisfy my thirst for immersive cultural exploration. Part of the reason I embraced full-time travel was because I really wanted the experience of living around the world rather than merely passing through it.

I don't know that my view of travel has changed since I started traveling per se, but I've certainly carved out my own style and preferences over the years. For example, I prefer to travel slowly, spending a few months in each destination and learning the subtleties of daily life and culture. This style/speed of travel also serves me well with my location-independent business as a freelance writer. Since my lifestyle isn't a vacation, I have to work along the way.

As for whether or not I'll do it forever, I used to cringe when asked “when are you going to settle down?” as if it was inevitable that I couldn't perpetually keep traveling (Hint: it's possible!). But after eight years of full-time travel, I must admit I was ready for a bit of a change, and as such I've now established a home base in Peru. I continue to travel for months every year, and even when at “home” in Peru, I feel like a traveler given that I'm living in such a vastly different country and culture to what I'm accustomed. But my travel style has indeed changed, and I'm in the process of redefining my lifestyle again; so will I travel forever? That's a tough question to answer. It depends on what you call “travel.”

Your journey over the past several years, across more than 30 countries and 5 continents, has been accomplished in what you call a totally ‘financially sustainable’ strategy. Can you elaborate on what that means?

In my full-time travels, I haven't had to dip into savings to pay for my life on the road – at all. In fact, most years I've earned more than I've spent. This is due to three factors:

  1. I earn money while I travel. There are a variety of ways to do this, but my main earning capacity of choice has been through freelance writing and blogging; something that can be done from anywhere in the world with a laptop and internet connection. (I've just released a massive – and I mean massive - resource to help you find different ways to make a living on the road, called Working on the Road: The Unconventional Guide to Full-Time Freedom).

  1. I've kept my travel expenses affordable (without sacrificing comfort or desires). Two of my main techniques for achieving this have been to get free accommodation and to use frequent flyer mile strategies (more on both of these elements later).

  1. I've traveled slowly. The faster you travel, the more you spend, and besides – I prefer the nuances of slow travel.

Thus, I've found that the cost of full-time travel has been considerably less than the cost of living in one place. And as long as I've spent within my earning capacity, my travels have been financially sustainable.  

What do you think are some important character traits budget-conscious professional travelers should have?

A key trait for the budget traveler should be an awareness of what one is spending. Personally, I track all my expenses; not only for the purposes of publishing them annually to demonstrate that full-time travel can be financially sustainable, but also so I'm aware of where my money is going and can tweak my spending as and if needed.

You’ve even found time to write a few books, including “How to Get Free Accommodation Around the World.” You mentioned that in 2011, you only spent $173 on accommodation for the entire year! What’s one secret to finding cheap or free lodgings?

As I carved out my own travel style and learned the ins and outs of full-time travel, I discovered all kinds of ways to get free accommodation around the world, including house-sitting, hospitality exchanges, volunteering, living on boats, and more. I put all this information together into a book so other travelers can follow in my footsteps without stumbling all the way up the learning curve (as I did).

A secret to finding free lodging? I don't know that there are any secrets to it, per se. It's simply a matter of knowing where to look. And there are dozens of online sites that connect travelers with free accommodation opportunities, which differ depending on what you're looking for.  

You write about getting some free accommodation by volunteering or house-sitting. How do you find these gigs?

In both cases, there are dozens of websites you can use to find free accommodation gigs. Over the years I've been a big fan of the Caretaker Gazette, which features both volunteer and house-sitting opportunities, and allows me to peruse opportunities around the world and choose accordingly, rather than choosing a destination first and then trying to find an accommodation gig there.

I'm also a huge fan of house-sitting, and two sites that have served me well are TrustedHousesitters and House Carers. But there are a lot of other sites out there, some of which might currently have a better ratio of house-sitters to homeowners (since there's often some stiff competition amongst house-sitters for jobs).

Even if you’re staying for free somewhere, you still have to consider the cost of living at your destination. How do you manage to keep your food costs low while still finding ways to indulge in the local cuisine?

The beauty of many free accommodation gigs is that you're already living locally, and often shopping and cooking locally as well. So, you save money by doing as the locals do and shopping and cooking for yourself, as well as meeting people who can show you the local haunts (which are inevitably cheaper than a tourist-laden restaurant). Some free accommodation volunteer gigs also include meals: bonus!

You also host a column called “Dear Nora” over at Credit Walk. One of your posts, “26 Things You Shouldn’t Travel With,” got us thinking...what is the one thing you always remember to pack that you can’t live without?

That I can't live without? Those are strong words; but I would say one thing that satisfies that definition is my laptop, which is my means to an income and thus fairly indispensable.  

You have a great fanbase on Twitter with over 12,000 (!) followers. Have you ever received help from your readers that helped you along in your travels (like finding a place to stay or eat)?

I don't use Twitter to nearly the extent that I know it's useful for in that sense. I know some travelers who have used Twitter for assistance in a variety of regards, including emergency assistance! For me, if I'm in trouble, the last thing I consider is opening my Twitter account, but there you have it.

But indeed, I've been contacted by readers who have offered up accommodation, travel suggestions, and I've met fellow travelers and colleagues on Twitter who have become good friends.  

For MyCareOne, you wrote “Fly for Free: 13 Frequent Flyer Mile Strategies.” What do you think is the most effective way to maximize your flyer miles?

I was always a passive collector of frequent flyer miles, but I became a more active one after participating in a US Airways promotional campaign in 2010 that involved strategic use of online shopping portals to gain mega bonus miles. In the end, I spent just over $1,000 to get enough miles for over $8,000 in business class flights around the world.

I found out about this campaign through the Travel Hacking Cartel, so I can say an effective way to maximize frequent flyer miles (and your time) is to use some of the many tools and resources available to help you find the perfect strategies for you.

You’ve literally been all around the world (from the Caribbean and Hawaii to Australia and Grenada). What destinations currently top your to-do list and why?

I don't tend to have a running list of places I “must” visit – I let my destinations choose me in the form of interesting opportunities. But, I'm currently on a trip that will take me to Costa Rica (among other places), which is ironic because Costa Rica was the first place I was going to visit 8 years ago when I started traveling, before I was sidetracked by another opportunity (and then another, and another). So I feel like my trip to Costa Rica is sort of like coming full circle in my travels...I'm finally getting there!  

Like this interview? Check out the rest of our Interview with an Expert series. Have a question for an expert or someone you want to see interviewed? Tweet your suggestions with #Experts to @CouponPal!

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