When you spend your life as a vagabond, we imagine it can be pretty tempting to pinch pennies at every turn. But Jessica Korteman and Hai Huynh, the husband-and-wife team behind Notes of Nomads, say that when they think an experience is worth it, they have no problem splurging.
The couple has spent the last several years traveling the globe and skipping to new destinations whenever the urge strikes them. And while they are always mindful of ways to save money, they’re not misers.
Travel is about gaining new experiences and insights, Jessica told us recently, so they don’t see any point in traveling to places and not experiencing what they want to experience just because it costs money. They prioritize and sacrifice things that don’t mean so much or don’t add as much to their experience – staying in dorms or taking the local bus everywhere for as long as necessary if it means they can pay to get to a remote dream destination and everything that entails.
“That’s exactly how we felt about our week-long trek in the Himalayas, where it was necessary to hire a local guide, cook and ‘pony men’ for the horses,” Jessica says. “As an experience we still talk about to this day, we’d say it was worth every last rupee!”
Here, Jessica shares more about her and Hai’s adventures and offers tips for saving money while maximizing your experience. Read on:
Tell us about Notes of Nomads…when and why did you start your site?
We started blogging in the summer of 2011 in response to the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters in Japan of March of the same year. We were living in Tokyo at the time and felt like there was a huge discrepancy between some of the fear-mongering going on in the Western media and the general downplaying of the situation by the Japanese media. We wanted a medium to share information from the ground in a more balanced way, and to share our volunteering stories from the affected areas and ways people could get involved in a really tangible way.
We then started posting more about our other travels in Japan and across the globe, and today Notes of Nomads is a collection of experiences from almost 50 countries and, more importantly, a resource for independent travelers who want to create their own unique travel memories.
What was the first place you remember visiting that ignited your passion for travel?
Funnily enough, it was probably not traveling anywhere when we were younger that ignited our passion for travel. I grew up in a small Australian country town where international travel felt quite inaccessible at the time. As for Hai, he hadn’t thought about leaving Australia growing up, since it was the country his family had immigrated to and chosen to settle in. So when we finally had our own means to see the world, the passion and excitement for new places was already well and truly established because it was something we hadn’t had the chance to do before and had come to yearn.
What’s been one of the most memorable/life-changing/interesting travel experiences you’ve had to date? What set it apart?
Riding half-wild horses for four days across the Mongolian countryside last summer. We found it’s one thing to ride a pony in a fair ground and another thing entirely to be thrown on the back of an only moderately trained equine you’ve never met and head up into the mountains, through rivers and descending into gorges. It was challenging, to say the least, but boy, what an experience! There is probably nothing more freeing than being on the back of a galloping horse with the wind in your hair and seeing nothing but open countryside and rolling hills. We’ll remember those days forever.
If/when you decide to settle down somewhere in the world, where do you think you’d choose to live at this moment? What do you love about that place?
Tokyo, for sure. We lived there for four years and can easily see ourselves moving back there in the future. We love that it’s both comfortable and challenging at the same time. One of the biggest reasons we chose to move there initially was because of the cultural and language differences. We are constantly learning new things, and life is never dull in a city of 33 million people with countless events and festivals.
Where are you in the world right now? What have been the highlights of this destination?
We are currently in Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia. In our usual nomadic style, we made the decision to come just a few days before, so we hadn’t done a lot of research beforehand and honestly didn’t know what to expect.
We have been pleasantly surprised (we say surprised only because we didn’t have any expectations) to find an incredibly beautiful and relaxed city. It’s the kind of place you can easily while away a few hours at a riverside café and walk wherever you need to go in just a few minutes.
The highlight, though, has really been the people. The locals are so friendly and warm, and they are very happy to converse in English. Not that this is a prerequisite of us liking a city – in fact, we love immersing ourselves in foreign languages – but it does make it very easy for us to get around and learn about the city from a local perspective very quickly.
Perhaps the highlight after today will be the famous Ljubljana cake we intend on devouring! 😉
How do you fund your full-time travel lifestyle?
A combination of savings from our time working in Japan and income generation through our blog and associated activities – for example, freelance writing, brand partnerships and advertising.
What are some of your go-to methods for saving money on…
By eating locally whenever possible. When we’re in parts of town that are quite touristy, we try venturing down smaller side streets to find better deals. Often just walking a couple of streets back from spots often frequented by tourists, you can find more options catering to a more local crowd and price tag. And we don’t shy away from street food either!
We also like to chat and engage with local people, and they are usually the best resource for pointing us in the direction of the best affordable eats.
As we mostly stay in local homes, we usually have access to a kitchen and can self-cater. That’s a huge cost-saver, and we often learn great tips about how to cook locally available ingredients (usually the cheapest option) from our hosts.
We mostly try to utilize public transportation. As we are on the road full time, we tend to travel a little more slowly, so staying in the one city for a week or two is not unusual. In these cases, we look for weekly transport cards or other discount passes to save on costs.
When we need to take a taxi or tuk tuk, we try to share the costs by asking other travelers if they are headed in the same direction and then splitting the fare. Sometimes we even split the renting of a car with other travelers or pay a small fee to participate in car-sharing services. We have also been known to hitchhike on occasion.
We mostly rent rooms or entire apartments from locals through services like Airbnb. We are also avid house and pet sitters, meaning we look after people’s homes and pets while they are on vacation, and in return, we stay for free. Other times we work with accommodation partners as well as get hosted by great friends we have met along the way.
We use comparative sites to check on flight fares across a range of airlines and to get a sense of the airlines that fly to the destination. However, we then also check the airline sites directly, as we have found that booking directly can sometimes be cheaper.
We also don’t necessarily go with the cheapest available option. We assess a whole range of factors like baggage costs, taxes and where the destination airport is in reference to where we want to go. A budget airline may not work out so cheap once you factor in added baggage costs and that expensive taxi from that airport far from the city center. We also keep our bags at a maximum of 15kg so that when we do need to pay for baggage, it’s in the cheapest bracket.
What has been the most difficult part of living as a nomad? What’s been the most surprising aspect?
As digital nomads, the most difficult part is work/life/travel balance. It can be a struggle getting work done and building a business while constantly moving, as well as trying to maximize your time in a place by experiencing as much of it as possible. That said, we love what we do and wouldn’t want to be doing anything else!
The most surprising aspect has been how comfortable we’ve become in unfamiliar places. We now feel completely at ease to jump on a plane or train to somewhere we’ve never been before, without accommodation or arrangements and often to a place with a language that neither of us speak, and just work things out when we get there. That’s been an unexpected but amazing advantage to the amount of travel we’ve done and something that helps us in all aspects of our lives; there’s very little that can rattle us now.
Name one travel experience/destination/event that you think everyone should add to their bucket list – something that had a profound impact on how you look at the world and your own life?
This is SUCH a difficult question! Haha
We love homestays and can’t recommend them enough for gaining really special insights into a country and culture. It’s not only about where you travel but how you travel, and there’s no better way to start to understand how a place and its people tick than by actually staying with them.
One of our most memorable homestays was in the mountains of Sapa in Vietnam, where we stayed with a Black Hmong family for a week, cooking with them over an open fire, bathing in waterfalls and tending the fields. They didn’t have much and their house was a basic mud hut, but they were all so happy and enjoyed the simple pleasures in life. We can’t tell you how many hilarious nights we had with the grandmother and an older family friend who would always make sure they had a fresh bottle of locally distilled liquor every night from the one store in the village, and who would then proceed to make up their own drinking games!
It’s one of those experiences that makes you really reflect on the consumerist side of our culture and what’s important in life.
We’re not recommending drinking copious amounts of alcohol (!), but the philosophy of making the most of what you have when you have it and to collect life experiences rather than material things is something that has echoed throughout our travel life and we have taken to every destination since.