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Want to quit your job and travel full-time? This woman did

Tips from a woman who does it.

Who doesn't want to travel full-time, especially after two years of the pandemic? 

But most of us ultimately don't do it. 

We vacation. 

Or we backpack for a gap year. 

But give it all up — our jobs, homes and towns? 

Most of us don't. 

Heather Markel did, back in January of 2018. And while she questioned her decision a few weeks in, since then, she has never looked back. 

She has travelled — solo — to more than 25 countries so far. 

She now makes a living from business coaching and freelance travel writing. She's also beginning to teach other people how to prepare and budget for full-time travel. 

We caught up with her in New York, where she was visiting family, to find out more. 

What follows is an edited version of that conversation. 

Where do you stay generally, while you travel? 

It always varies because different countries have different price points and available options. So I have stayed in hostels, I've stayed in Airbnbs, I've stayed in boutique hotels, I have Marriott points, so I get free stays. I also do house sitting.

When you first decided to travel full-time, what surprised you most? 

I found out that travelling full-time is so much less expensive than a fixed life. The budget I thought would only last three to six months ended up lasting over two years.

And it was, for me, also the first time I felt my heart sing. That was a big wow. 

I had been in a life for so long, where I wasn't that excited about my life. And then to be in one where I was, most days, so excited or so challenged. 

I'm getting to know so much more about myself.

What are some of the things you did find out about yourself? 

I am a lot more resourceful than I ever imagined. And that there were some parts of myself I did not like and rather than running away from them — especially one or two big things — I confronted them head-on. And that was, I think, brave for me.

What if you get sick somewhere? 

I mean, look, there are so many 'what if' questions we could ask that would easily keep us from the adventure. And especially if we are solo. Why don't you ask those same questions about your daily life, because the fear questions are just as relevant every day, but we think because we're comfortable where we are, it's not an issue.

So, one thing is, it's actually possible to find yourself comfortable in another place. And I think one of my big lessons too, was how I have been trained to be so independent and do everything myself. And it's very humbling to ask other people for help. If you get sick, you're going to have to ask someone for help. And so I'd say, that's what you do.

I certainly travel with a little kit of drugs for traveller's diarrhea and altitude sickness.

We can't ignore that women are targets globally — at home, or wherever you go. What are some tips for staying safe that we might not think about that you do?

The first thing I do when I check-in, wherever I am, is ask the host two questions. One, is there any area of town I should avoid at all costs because it's considered dangerous? And is it safe for me to walk home alone at night? If the person has to think about the answer to the latter question, I assume the answer is no, it's not safe.

And I don't drink at places by myself.

If I'm eating by myself, you know, and I might have a glass of wine, but I wouldn't go out with a stranger. 

I wouldn't go to a club or bar by myself and drink by myself.

And, also, because different cultures have very different dating standards — and also women are treated so differently in different countries — I basically don’t accept invitations from men at night, unless I’m possibly romantically interested in them, because it’s just not worth the question.

I do carry some security devices with me when I travel, too. I have an alarm that I can hang as well. 

If I'm in a place that is somewhere to be concerned about, I like to have a travel buddy, meaning a friend who I can say I’m going here tomorrow and I should arrive at this point. And I’ll let you know when I get there. And that way, somebody knows where I’m supposed to go and that I should check in, and if I don’t check in that they should probably be concerned.

You left a corporate life with a work-a-day schedule. How do you manage your time now? 

It's funny because we get so conditioned that we have to have a schedule because we've always been scheduled.

Part of full-time travel, and one of the hardest parts, is letting go of all the thoughts and belief systems that you've been conditioned to in corporate life. And so there's a lot of forgiveness and compassion and a lot of frustration.

There are some days I do nothing, there's other days I go to the cafe and do my writing. Another day, I might do a tour. If I'm staying somewhere long enough, usually I'll meet somebody and we'll have dinner or lunch or coffee or something. I like to get to know the culture. 

I try to remain flexible to stay more than two nights and then just walk around the town. Because a lot of the richness of travelling full time is just not having a schedule and that you can find some weird place to eat because you were just on foot and have no idea where you are. 

So many folks finish work and then retire and have to figure out their schedule. What you are doing is like a window into that, isn't it? 

Yes. It’s the battle between what are we supposed to do and who do we want to be.

So it's doing versus being. You have to redefine yourself by who you are and who you want to be.

Are you being compassionate? Are you being a jerk? Are you being happy? Are you being sad, right? So all of that is work in itself. That takes a long time. And because you've let go of the structure, you go very deep into yourself, and, and get in touch with these parts of yourself that you just can't, when your day is structured so firmly.

I read where you said folks should be sure they are running to something and not away from something if they choose full-time travel. Can you expand on that? 

I realized I was quitting my job for the purpose of finding happiness and meaning, not running away from a job that I felt, "Oh, I have a terrible boss or I have awful colleagues.” It's the feeling of running towards something rather than running away from it, because if it is just about getting away from everything you don't like, you're going to recreate that somehow.

If you're the type of person that just wants to run away from it and not confront those things, then you're just gonna have a very difficult journey.

What are some of your key tips for knowing if you can afford to quit a stable job and travel? 

I have a whole ebook on that, but one is setting a realistic travel budget. You have got to take some time to figure out the style of travel you enjoy, whether that's an RV, whether that's, you know, five-star hotels — you need to be realistic.

The prime reason people say they can't afford to travel full-time is because the only travel they do is on vacation. And on vacation, it's an escape, and you deserve that spa and that champagne and lobster dinner, and by the time a week has gone by you've blown through like three grand, but it's not a big deal, because you have a job to go back to.

It's also worthwhile to practice living on less because when you travel, the less money you spend, the longer you can travel. Think about all the different ways that you can save money to keep travelling as long as you want.

The Canadian dollar is going to do fairly well in a place like Asia.

In Vietnam, my food cost me $3 a day. 

What have you learned about people or humanity through your travels? 

One is that the people of a country are not the government of a country. 

The average people that you will meet — I mean, at least it's been my experience — are wonderful, will teach you so much about their culture and are so welcoming.

I actually think travelling full-time is essential for us to cut down the barriers that we have, and the judgments, and I mean, even racism. 

The first time I was in southern Africa, in Cape Town, I remember walking around and thinking and realizing I am the only white person here. And then I thought of how many networking events have I been to in New York or work functions, workrooms and conferences where there was one Asian person or one Black person in the room. Oh, this is what they must feel like. 

So being put in situations that cause you to question your own, you know, behaviour and your own thoughts are wonderful, and I think will create a lot more compassion and connection for humanity.

You have been on the road through COVID-19. What is your advice for travellers about navigating that? 

I've had that weird experience where I was in New Zealand for two years and it was very strict protocols. I got used to it and felt really safe. And then when I went to Australia, I got used to checking in/checking out with my phone, showing a vaccination card to go anywhere, including the pharmacy. Singapore was the same —there, even in the subway, they said, do not speak. And I thought, well, that's kind of harsh. And then I realized, it was because when you speak, you have droplets of saliva, and they want to cut that down and I was like, genius. 

So that is what I was used to. 

And then I came to New York, which for me was like hellfire. A lot of people were wearing masks, but, I didn't get asked for a vaccination card anywhere. I didn't have to check in and there was no contact tracing. And then I had to go to Florida because my mom's there, and that was just free for all. 

So, I was more scared coming back to the U.S. than I was travelling!

Countries are relaxing the restrictions. So I think you need to go to the airline and the government websites before you travel. Understand what their protocol is, and you need to abide by it, if you don't like their protocol, don't go to that country.

Where do you plan to head next? 

I really want to get back to Africa. But I think my plan is to go to France next to visit one of the host families I lived with when I was 16. And I may bop around Europe a bit.

For more of Markel's tips: She runs a Facebook page: Full Time Travelers And Nomads.

Her book is How To Afford Full-Time Travel.  or for her two-week training program, go to Money For Travel Bootcamp.