How This Frugal Traveler Paid Off $12K in a Year and Visited 7 Countries

Photo credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Ly

When 30-year-old Jennifer Ly graduated from UCLA in 2009, she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. After being jobless for a year she decided to take a teaching gig in Seoul, South Korea.

“To be honest, I just really needed a job, and didn’t do too much research,” laughs Ly. “In retrospect, it was kind of dangerous that I just took it, and recommend people to really do their research and ask as many questions as possible.”

How to pay off student debt in a year

Photo credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Ly

Photo credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Ly

Ly enjoyed a guaranteed minimum of 35 hours per week of work at $25 an hour, paid $500 a month to rent a studio, and lived frugally. As a result, she was able to pay off all of her student debt, $12,000 in federal loans, within her first year.

“A big part of why I decided to teach abroad was to pay off my student loans, so I made sure to sock away $1,000 a month to send back home,” says Ly. “When you live abroad, since you’re in a new and unfamiliar country, it’s easy to forget why you went there in the first place. So if you want to save money, you need to make it a priority.”

After teaching in Seoul for two years, Ly wanted to see more of the world. She joined the Peace Corps. “I wanted to continue traveling, and not pay for my plane ticket,” says Ly. “And the Peace Corps will finance your airfare for at least one way.”

She was placed on an assignment in the Philippines, where she worked with teachers to develop an English curriculum. Ly extended her initial two-year commitment to three. When her time with the Peace Corps ended in the fall of 2015, she wanted to travel even more before she headed home to Los Angeles.

How to see 7 countries on a shoestring budget

When Ly exited the Peace Corps, she decided to use the readjustment allowance of about $7,500 to travel. Plus the Peace Corps would foot the bill for one more trip – back home or to another country. “I’ve always wanted to take some time for myself to travel, and figured this was my chance,” explains Ly. “If I went straight home I would’ve had more money, but I also knew I probably won’t have this opportunity again.”

From October to December of 2015 she traveled to a total of seven countries for about $5,000.

Here’s where Ly went, what she did and how much she spent. She also shares her frugal travel tips!

Country #1: Bali

Photo credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Ly

Photo credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Ly

  • Cities visited: Kuta, Ubud
  • Time spent: 10 days
  • Airfare from Manila to Kuta: $60
  • Lodging: $100
  • Food: $300

Sights and eats: A self-described foodie, Ly splurged and spent a bit more than usual on food. She also took a cooking class, visited the gorgeous temples, and went on several mountain hikes.

Tips: Ly highly recommends travel insurance, which is inexpensive and can cover lost or stolen baggage, and lodging in the case of a delayed flight. Ly also made Malaysia her travel hub, as it was inexpensive to travel from Malaysia to other countries.

Country #2: Australia

  • Cities visited: Melbourne, Sydney
  • Time spent: 10 days
  • Airfare: $460 ($60 from Kuta to Malaysia; $300 roundtrip from Malaysia to Sydney; $100 roundtrip from Sydney to Melbourne)
  • Lodging and food: $0 (she stayed with cousins, who insisted on paying for everything)

Sights and eats: Weekend markets, football games, the Victoria Market in Sydney, and Melbourne’s coffee scene is amazing.

Tips: Staying with friends and family will save you lots of dough.

Country #3: England

Photo credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Ly

Photo credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Ly

  • Cities visited: London
  • Time spent: 10 days
  • Airfare, roundtrip from Malaysia to London: $750
  • Train fare (Oyster card): $10
  • Lodging: $0 (she stayed with a friend)
  • Food: $300

Sights and eats: “I wanted to try many new things as I could on the cheap: English tea, kabobs, sausage rolls. I also visited many of the free museums, such as the British Museum, Museum of London, and the Tate.”

Tips: Shop for food and cook as much as possible.

Country #4: Malaysia

Photo credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Ly

Photo credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Ly

  • Cities visited: Kuala Lumpur, George Town Penang
  • Time spent: 10 days
  • Airfare from Malaysia to Thailand: $45
  • Train fare from Kuala Lumpur to George Town Penang: $20
  • Lodging: $20
  • Food: $100
  • Massages: $20

Sights and eats: “Food was so cheap in Malaysia,” says Ly. She spent most of her time shopping, getting massages and checking out markets that are known for food. George Town also offered some cool street art and unique architecture.

Tips: Take full advantage of what a country is best known for and is inexpensive. For instance, since Malaysia is known for its cheap, high-quality massages, Ly got a massage almost daily.

Country #5: Thailand

Photo credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Ly

Photo credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Ly

  • Cities visited: Bangkok
  • Time spent: 10 days
  • Bus fare from George Town Penang to Bangkok: $40
  • Lodging: $100
  • Food: $200

Sights and eats: Ly enjoyed massages, temples, and the elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai.

Tips: Ly stayed at a Peace Corps hostel, which was very affordable. Avid travelers themselves, Peace Corps volunteers are a great network for travel tips. For instance, while it’s really cheap to travel by bus or train in Asia, they don’t always run on time and can sell out quickly on holidays. Road travel is also slow, so opt to travel this way only if you have the time to do so.

Country #6: Japan

Photo credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Ly

Photo credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Ly

  • Cities visited: Tokyo, Kyoto
  • Time spent: 10 days
  • Airfare from Bangkok to Tokyo: $180
  • Lodging: $200
  • Food: $350

Sights and eats: Ly met up with her brother and cousin in Japan, and they had no problem finding cheap, decent meals at affordable prices. Most meals cost $10 to $15, and no tipping is necessary.

Tips: Look for free walking tours offered by Japanese locals. Be sure to book a month beforehand.

Country #7: Vietnam

  • Cities visited: Saigon, Hanoi, Halong Bay, Sapa
  • Time spent: 15 days
  • Airfare, roundtrip from Tokyo to Saigon: $240
  • Lodging: $0 (she stayed with relatives)
  • Food: $200

Sights and eats: Tours of both North and South Vietnam.

Tips: Like in many other countries, if you need reliable phone or internet service, buy a SIM card from a local provider (you can get one at the airport upon arrival).

Final flight home from Japan to California: $500

Transportation$2,305
Lodging$420
Food$1,450
Massages, other entertainment and miscellaneous expenses$825
TOTAL$5,000

Ly treated herself to some good eats and touristy leisure activities every so often, but traveled simply. She feels like she did everything she wanted to do.

“I structured my days with having just one thing I wanted to do, and focused on making it happen,” she says. “You shouldn’t feel compelled to model your trip after anyone else’s. Just do what you can afford, and what interests you.” Also, Travel exhaustion is real. “Take a day off and do absolutely nothing if you are feeling worn out from traveling,” says Ly.

After being out of the country for five years, Ly didn’t come back a different person, but feels that certain beliefs were reaffirmed. “It just showed that I had the confidence to do this.”

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Published January 6, 2017
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