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Legitimate Ways to Travel If You Are Young and Can't Afford It

When it comes to travel, young people may face a battle of priorities between getting ahead in life and exploring new horizons, one in which the urgency to focus on education or become financially stable usually emerges victorious. But what about methods of travel that actually fulfill those priorities or pay for themselves? At least a few such options exist, and the good news is they're especially tailored to young people.

One of the things that has surprised me about traveling and living abroad is just how many other people from different economic positions and lifestyles are doing it as well, often on a short-term basis through work or study programs. In my experience, online information about these programs is sometimes more intimidating than the reality on the ground, so here's a rundown of some of the most popular methods I see young people use to travel, based on my own observations and discussions with others.

Language study scholarships

Young foreign student and Taiwanese man on a mountain overlooking Taipei.
Local Taiwanese chatting with a foreign student from Slovakia who came to study Mandarin in Taipei, Taiwan.

Scholarships for studying various subjects abroad are one way to get a taste of another country without sacrificing your education, but the competition is usually brutal and the stipend may not be worth much. However, some countries have government-sponsored language learning scholarships that range from a few weeks to one year and are generally easier to be selected for (but certainly not guaranteed). Some, like the Turkish Summer School from Turkey, cover all costs for the program, even meals and flights to and from the country.

Others, like the Huayu Enrichment Scholarship to study Mandarin Chinese in Taiwan, grant a monthly stipend that is intended to cover a modest lifestyle during the duration of the program. In the case of this particular program, the amount is a little over $800 USD, which, relative to the lower cost of living, is actually enough to survive on, and on par with the starting salary for some graduates. I've met numerous foreign students in Taiwan who were awarded the Huayu Scholarship, so in my experience (glaring anecdote warning!) it seems to be awarded to a lot of people.

The U.S. Department of State sponsors the Critical Language Scholarship Program for U.S. citizens, which covers nearly all travel costs and expenses associated with the program for more than a dozen languages. Depending on the language you apply for, you may not be required to have any previous study experience, or you may need to already have 1 to 2 years for more difficult languages.

These are just a few of the language learning scholarships out there, and there's a lot more like them if you search around. I don't recommend studying a language just to gain a travel opportunity, but if you have a genuine interest or it supports your career plans, then studying the language in its native environment is an excellent way to see another part of the world and potentially take advantage of some nice scholarship benefits.

Teaching English

English is in demand around the world as a second language, and arguably nowhere more so than in Asia. Parents often persuade force their kids to study English in the hopes that they will later be able to land a higher paying career (or read the Roads and Ridges website). Depending on the country and teaching experience level, English teachers can make $1,500 to $4,000 USD a month, sometimes tax-free. There are even cases where airfare and housing is covered as well.

So how do you get started? Well, if, like me, you have read some things before about teaching English because you wanted to fulfill your childhood dream of living abroad, then you may have got the impression that it requires qualifications like a degree, teaching experience, and a TEFL certificate. However, contradictory claims online may lead you to question if all of those requirements are necessary. Surely a teacher should be qualified though, right? I mean, have you seen the grammar of YouTube commenters these days? You wouldn't trust half...two thirds...the vast majority...99% of them to teach you English, would you!?

While traveling Asia, I was surprised and confused to again and again meet English teachers who held neither degree nor certificate, much less prior experience. This was sometimes even the case in countries that supposedly require a degree. In reality, it seems the requirements of an English teacher for many schools are:

  • Do you have a white face?
  • Is English your native language?

Yes and yes? Great! When can you start?

Here's the real deal: Officially, yes, many governments do require that you have a degree, usually a 4-year bachelor's degree from an accredited university. However, it is not required to teach English. It is required to secure a work visa in order to legally teach English. The degree can be in absolutely any field, it doesn't matter as long as it's accredited. It can and does happen that people obtain work visas by using online degrees that aren't accredited or fake digital degrees, or simply accept work under the radar. This is dangerous because if you're caught you could be fined and banned from re-entering the country for years. On rare occasions I've met people without a university education who managed to get sponsored for a work visa in a country that requires a degree, but they had many years of teaching experience and probably a lot of luck and charisma on their side.

One legitimate possibility that can sometimes skirt the degree requirement for a work visa is to get a working holiday visa instead. There are different limitations for a working holiday visa (more on this below), so whether you're allowed to accept teaching jobs will vary with the particular working holiday visa agreement for each country.

There are also some governments that simply do not require a degree to obtain a work visa, such as Spain, Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil, Cambodia, and Russia to name just a handful. You still need a work visa or a working holiday visa in order to legally teach English though. No exceptions.

There's another reason you might be asked to produce a degree, and that's expectations from the school you're applying to teach at. Schools are pressured by parents who believe that even a degree from a random field of study will somehow make an English teacher more professional. However, in the case of Asia, there is more demand than supply for native English speaking teachers, so the preference for a degree is not a hard-sticking rule for all schools. That said, while it's true that landing an English teaching job is relatively easy for someone who is motivated and presents themself professionally, a degree and teaching experience can potentially increase your pay.

One more possible requirement is TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification. It's usually required by schools in China, although not always enforced. Throughout the rest of Asia it's not a necessity. It could, however, increase your pay. In much of Europe, where English teachers are abundant, it's a requirement. South America also generally asks for a TEFL certificate.

Unless you want to teach English in a wealthy part of Europe, where competition is higher and a course with hands-on classroom time can be advantageous, a cheap online TEFL course will suffice. Regardless of whether it is required, certification can help you learn how to teach effectively if you lack previous teaching experience. Kids' futures rely on your ability to make learning fun, engaging, and practical. They deserve an effectual teacher who won't waste their time. It doesn't have to take substantial financial investment to learn to teach, there's many free or low-cost resources and training courses available.

As for the white face part, discrimination is indeed a reality, but don't let it discourage you if you're a person of color. It's often a product of ignorance in highly homogeneous countries, not necessarily racism. In a place like Japan for example, most parents who enroll their child in an English language school don't speak the language themselves and have no means of judging a teacher's ability. Their preconceived idea of an English teacher simply boils down to a white face. This puts pressure on the school to find a white English teacher to boost their image. If you are dark-skinned or, perish the thought...Asian, you may have to broaden your search area if you don't have any luck with the most centrally located schools. Schools located further from a city center will generally be more agreeable. And don't forget that big smiles and enthusiasm for the job count for a lot in an interview!

Working holiday visa

Some countries make agreements with each other to offer working holiday visas to young people for the purpose of encouraging travel and cultural exchange. The visa allows you to seek work while experiencing life and travel in the host country. Typically there's a minimum age requirement of 18 and a maximum age limit ranging from 25 to 35 depending on the agreement. You may or may not be required to have a degree or be enrolled in a higher education institution. You'll be required to show proof of sufficient funds for your initial stay while seeking work. Additionally, you may be required to have health or travel insurance. I wrote a guide about how to choose cheap travel insurance that makes this an easy requirement to meet.

The typical range of stay for a working holiday visa is up to 12 months, although some may allow an additional 12 months if certain conditions are met. There may be limitations on the type of work you are allowed to accept and for how long. For example, some working holiday visas allow you to teach English, while others require that you have a work visa for any teaching position.

Your passport will determine what options are available to you. Some countries have working holiday visa agreements with dozens of other countries, but some have only several, and others have none at all. Research what agreements are available to your particular passport or visit the government website of the country you're interested in for more information.

The working holiday visa is one of the most popular travel methods I see young people use, and acceptance seems to be very high as long as you meet the requirements. It's a great way to cover your financial needs while still having plenty of time for exploring a different culture.

Work exchange

A work exchange is an arrangement in which help is exchanged for lodging and sometimes food. You won't be paid for your work, but it's a means of travel that won't break the bank and you can possibly learn some new skills along the way. The type of work ranges from farming to home renovation, hostel services, sailing a boat, cleaning, pet sitting, cooking, and just about anything else you can apply the name "work" to. Common work hours are three to several hours a day with a couple days off. Any more than that and you're probably not getting a very good deal. The duration of the exchange rests on the length of time you choose to make yourself available or on the availability of the work.

There are a few websites that specialize in facilitating these exchanges. Workaway offers a two year membership account for $29 USD (or $38 for a couples account) and it seems to feature the largest number of exchanges. Helpx offers a two year membership for €20 (about $25 USD), or alternatively a free but limited basic account. There's also Hippohelp, which is newer but free to join.

Although a work exchange is unpaid, it still runs the risk of being labeled as a job by immigration, so it's safer to refer to it as a homestay. Anything with the word "work" in it is an immediate red flag. It's a bit of a gray area like WWOOFing, which technically shouldn't require a work visa, but may come down to how a country decides to interpret it.

Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links, which means, at no additional cost to you, I may receive a commission for sign-ups or sales. I stand by the recommendations (and criticisms) I make, and refuse to promote a service if my experience with it is negative.