Author: Aaron O'Sullivan

How to Travel for Free

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How To Travel For Free
North America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa

One of the eternal challenges facing any backpacker is budgeting for their travels. It always ends up like this.

Week Before Leaving

Decide on a firm budget of $30 a day to cover everything, leaving enough money to travel for six months without getting into debt.

Week One

Acknowledge that $30 a day was a misguided stab in the dark of financial planning. Increase the daily budget to a more realistic $50 a day, giving enough money to travel for four months without getting into too much debt.

Week Two
Adjust daily budget one final time to $70 a day, and accept the fact that you’ll be home in time for Christmas deeply in debt.

Week Three

Keep to daily budget of $70 a day, but agree with self that it doesn’t cover “special activities” like whitewater rafting.

Week Four

Expand definition of “special activities” to include accommodation and lunches.

Week Five

Three o’clock in the morning, in a pub, decide to scrap entirely the stupid notion of a budget, congratulate yourself on such a wise decision, get out the credit card and buy everyone a drink.

Month Three

Arrive home four months and three days early because you’ve completely run out of money and your bank cancelled your credit card.

It doesn’t need to be like that. Imagine if you got everything for free when you were travelling. You wouldn’t need a budget then, would you?

Don’t worry about how much money you’re spending while you’re away – don’t spend anything at all! It makes budgeting so much easier!

After six years of backpacking around the world, I’m prepared to share my considerable knowledge and expertise. You too can travel the world for free.

Want a Turkish rug? Why pay for it? Get it free! Fancy micro lighting over the Okavanga Delta but don’t fancy the price tag? Do it for free!

Here’s the great news. It’s simple to do. Almost one in two people reading this are already well on their way to NEVER AGAIN PAYING FOR ANYTHING WHEN THEY GO TRAVELING! I think you’ll agree that news as exciting as that deserves to be in CAPTIAL LETTERS!

This is kind of exciting, isn’t it? Here you are, maybe planning your next trip, and suddenly I’m about to tell you how you can see the world and not spend a cent. There’s no catch, you don’t need to send any money and you won’t be billed later.

You think I’m about to tell you to steal everything, don’t you? That would be silly. No, this advice is more sensible.

Be female. There it is. While I’ve never had a smack to the face for free, every girl I’ve ever met has a long list of free activities they have completed or are about to complete in the next 48 hours.

It was in Victoria Falls last year that I celebrated the 100th anniversary of the conversation “What I have got for free in the last week/month/country.” The actual list of free things changes, but each conversation follows the same basic format.

Me – “So, how was Botswana?”

Her – “It was really great. I went up in a micro-light plane and flew over the Okavango delta at sunset. It was amazing.”

“That sounds great, but I heard that micro-light flights are expensive.”

“Gee I really wouldn’t know. Me and the girls were in the bar where we were staying and I got talking to some guy who was a micro-light pilot. He was nice. He took me for a free flight the next day! It was soooooo cool.”

“It does sound cool.”

“Yeah, you should have been there. You could have gotten a free flight as well.”

“Ah, I don’t think so.”

“Why not? He gave me a free flight so I’m sure you would have gotten one to.”


What gets me about a conversation like that is I can’t think what type of guy makes a living flying micro-light planes in the Okavanga delta in Botswana and gives away free flights to 50% of all his potential customers. It’s not like he has a day job up there in the middle of the swamp and flies his plane for fun on the weekends. If you’ve hauled arse halfway around the world to make a living flying micro-lights, what are you doing sitting in the only bar in the only campground, giving away free flights to every girl that walks into the bar? I mean, what can the guy be thinking? I just worked it out.

Close cousin to “My list of free things I have gotten so far and can’t believe you haven’t” is, “What did you do today?” which goes something like this.

Her – “So, what did you do today?”

Me – “Got up, lazed around for a bit, went down into town. Had some low level harassment from a kid selling wooden elephants. Went to see Victoria Falls, wandered around, came back and here I am.”

“Sounds great! I went to Victoria Falls as well today. Did you see the “secret wishing well of the lost Zambian prince?”


“Oh. Did you see the hidden cave paintings of the ancient Kaloolo tribe?”


“Did they show you how you can walk behind the falls and sit on a ledge and watch the water cascade down in front of you? It was totally magical, don’t you think?”

“Didn’t know you could do that.”

“You didn’t have a very good guide then.”

“What guide? I didn’t see any guides. I bought a five-dollar map book, paid a 10-dollar entry fee and walked around on my own for half an hour.”

“That’s weird. When I went, there were about 20 guys to choose from, and they all offered to be my guide.”

“My photocopied guidebook was written in German and cost me $5.00. How much did a guide cost?”

“Free. I assumed they were included in the entry price for Victoria Falls.”

“How much did you pay for the entry fee?”

“Well, now that you mention it, entry was free as well. Gee that’s kind of cool when you think about it.”


Still need convincing? Perhaps the following day in Ephesus, Turkey, will seal the deal.

I arrived in Ephesus one afternoon on my own. I had said goodbye to my travelling companions in Gallipoli and was due to meet up with them later in my travels. I was sharing a room with two Australian girls, who had also arrived at the same time, and like me, knew absolutely no one else in Ephesus. (This is a very important point. If you are taking notes in the mistaken belief that this is a guide to getting things for free you should probably jot that down for future reference.)

Early the next morning I got up, said good-bye to the girls, made some vague plans to catch up with them that night, and went on my way to see the ruins that are the major tourist attraction in Ephesus.

About three hours later, most of which consisted of trying to get two sets of directions that corresponded to each other, standing on the side of dirt roads for busses that never arrived, and a deeply unpleasant encounter with a man with a goat, I made it to the site of the Ephesus ruins. After the ritualistic purchase of an over-priced bottle of water, I entered and had a pleasant couple of hours touring the ruins, trying, unsuccessfully, to tag onto the end of tour groups to hear what the guide was saying. From what I could gather, this used to be an ancient city (I could have worked that out myself) and I thought I heard something about ten-pin bowling, but apart from that, I’m still a bit unsure as to what Ephesus was all about.

As the majority of the day still stretched ahead and I had seen everything the ruins had to offer, I was pleased to notice in my guide book (helpfully printed in Japanese) that on the mountain-side behind the ruins was a bona-fide pilgrimage site, something called “The Grotto of the Seven Sleepers.” It’s not often one finds oneself close to such a site with a couple of hours to spare, so I thought I would make my own solo journey of discovery.

Anyone who has tried to read a map depicting a path up, down and around a mountain will know that it’s never very easy. Mountains tend to be three dimensional while maps seem determined to remain one dimensional sheets of paper.

Three long, hot, thirsty hours later, I had climbed the mountain. I had circled halfway around and I had come back down the mountain on the other side. Still, there was no sign of the Grotto of the Seven Sleepers. The closest thing I had come across was something that may have been a grotto, but which was more likely a ventilation shaft. What was more interesting was that here on the other side of the mountain, I could make out a tent-like structure with people eating, drinking and being merry. The only thing that stood between me and the tent was a chain-link fence. My choices were to keep searching the recently re-named mountain of despair for the Grotto of the Seven Sleepers and then climb up, around and down the mountain back to the ruins, or pay my homage to the holy ventilation shaft and hot-foot it over the fence and into the tent.

Thirty seconds later I was dragging my exhausted, dehydrated body into the tent. As far as I could tell, this tent was conveniently located in the middle of nowhere so I was mildly surprised to see, lounging on top of 300 to 400 cushions, sipping strawberry tea, smoking a Turkish sheesha and looking like the Queens of Sheba – the two girls from my room.

Their day had gone slightly different from mine. They walked out of the hostel and got stopped by a local on a motorbike. He asked where they were going. They were driven around Ephesus on a motorbike for the entire day. They went to the beach (I didn’t even know there was one). They were driven to the ruins and got a special dispensation to ride the motorcycle around the ruins so the girls wouldn’t work up a sweat (I might have made this bit up). Lunch was bought for them. They spent the afternoon lounging in a tent watching me climb over a fence.

There was trouble in paradise. The girls’ newest friend was now talking about things like “Where they would go for dinner,” and “What they would do tonight” which had not been part of the deal. And so it was time for what is officially known as “Operation Three’s Company.” You see, there is a way for guys to get stuff for free, and if you’re a guy who’s bothered to read this far, I’m going to tell you how.

What you need to do is be friends with a couple of girls, and get stuff for free by association. Don’t be fooled – this is an art form. If you appear too friendly, then locals will assume you’re the boyfriend of one of the girls and suddenly, no one wants to give them anything for free. For that reason, it never works if you try it with one girl. Of course, it doesn’t work with a group of more than two girls because they spend the day deciding which sarong goes with which pair of sandals and you never leave the hostel. Operation Three’s Company requires two other girls and a suitably ambiguous relationship. If you make the relationship too ambiguous, you become known as the “gay friend of the cute girls” which is a non de plume that haunts me to this day in South Africa.

The effect with “Three’s Company” is to lure the “giver of free things” into a false sense of security where he starts offering free stuff to the girls, and half-way through, realises that he is going to have to extend the offer to you as well, otherwise, there is no way they are going to accept.

The best example also happened in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. We were having a great afternoon sitting around a table by the pool drinking cocktails. With us was a local Zimbabwean big-game hunter. He took people out on safari and charged them. After a few drinks, he offered to take my friend, Kylie, on a safari for free. She accepted. His eyes then moved around the table until they alighted on Teresa. Would she also like to go on a free safari tomorrow? Of course she would. His eyes continued their journey of discovery around the table until they came upon me. Then he stopped. You could see him thinking.

“Don’t want to offer him a free safari. But he’s friends with Kylie and Teresa. Will they go on safari with me tomorrow if I don’t invite him? Probably not. Which is better – safari with two girls and one other guy, or no safari with no girls and no guy. Probably the first. I think he might be gay.”

One other rule if you’re playing “Three’s Company.” Don’t fall for one of the girls. You have a job to do – it’s to deflect the advances of the “giver of free stuff” who is always a bloke, and always wants to make out with one of the girls. By being sufficiently ambiguous about your relationship with the girls, you are supposed to leave the impression that you are perhaps the boyfriend of one of the girls (without making it clear which one). And if things progress and your local guide does make a pass, the passee can immediately pretend that you are her boyfriend, stopping the advance in its track. This can backfire if, when she starts pretending you’re her boyfriend, you start believing it, and make a pass back at her.

Back to the tent. It was time to deploy “Three’s Company.” Although I didn’t really know these girls, and we certainly hadn’t discussed strategy together, it was obvious they knew what they were doing. They realised that they were at that point in the day when he was inviting them out for dinner which meant they were about two stages away from where he was going to make a pass at one or both of them. They also knew this was something they didn’t want to happen.

As luck would have it, here was I climbing over a fence, back in their lives. Sufficiently ambiguous, would you not agree? While their guide tried his best to ignore me and map out the rest of the evening, they paid more attention to my day (which I now realised pretty much sucked). When he finally asked if they were ready to go and do the next free activity with him, he had no choice but to ask me if I would also like to join them.

Being the professional that I am, I accepted. You know what we did that afternoon? We went back to his farm and looked at his pigs. Years later, I can’t remember what those pigs looked like. I can’t tell you why a Muslim man in a Muslim country was keeping pigs in the first place. But I can tell you this. It was ABSOLUTELY FREE.

About the Author

Aaron O’Sullivan is a 31-year-old Australian who has been travelling through North America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa on and off for the last six years. Almost every adventure he has ever had, from $50 dollar haircuts in Egypt to acid burns in Turkey, can be attributed to a total lack of pre-planning and foresight. As he has not yet been killed, maimed or kidnapped, Aaron heartily recommends this style of travelling for young and old.


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