Traveling the World for a Year (And on Less Than $40,000)

One year ago, Mark and Britnee Johnston were a pretty normal couple, living lives very much like the rest of


Britnee kayaks in Halong Bay, Vietnam.  MARK JOHNSTON/OneWorldOneYear.com

One year ago, Mark and Britnee Johnston were a pretty normal couple, living lives very much like the rest of us: married, working mid-level jobs for a couple years, doing a few fun things on the weekends. Mark was the photo editor at the Provo Daily Herald and Britnee was the communications director at a nonprofit. In May 2014, they put in their last days at their respective jobs and got on a plane to Tokyo, for a year traveling all over the world.

They didn’t win the lottery, don’t have rich parents or a trust fund, don’t have an advance on a book, and aren’t sponsored by a luggage company or airline. They saved all the money they could for two years to finance the trip, socking away $40,000 month-by-month starting just after their wedding in June 2012. A little less than two years later, they bought one-way tickets to Tokyo. From their website One World One Year and their Instagram account /oneworldoneyear, it looks like it’s been an amazing honeymoon.

1. When did this idea start forming between you guys? Do you remember when you put the first few dollars in the bank?

The idea of a year-long trip came about after a short visit to Vietnam in October of 2011. We spent our pitiful two-week annual vacation rushing from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi while meeting many backpackers who were out for months at a time. Many of them were from Europe and Australia with far more vacation time than us in America, or they had more lenient bosses who allowed extended unpaid leave for travel. We returned home feeling somewhat unsatisfied with our rushed trip, realizing it would take more than a lifetime to visit as much of the world as we wanted to see with only two weeks vacation a year. So after our wedding in June the following year, we put the first few dollars in the bank to save for a much longer holiday.

2. For most people, saving $20,000 apiece for something like this seems completely out of reach. Did you guys have any secret tricks to help you sock away all that money?

We had a few thousand dollars in savings when we married but used that to pay off our car loans and some credit card debt right away, so starting from scratch made it that much harder. Every month we put aside $1,000 each-that was about half of our paychecks-which was difficult at first as we cut back on eating out and impulse buys; tuna fish sandwiches replaced lunches out with coworkers and weekend hikes replaced other costly activities. However, soon our way of thinking changed and each time we were tempted with a purchase-say a $40 shirt-we would consider what that money would buy us on our travels-four nights in a hostel in Nepal. Then it all got much easier.

Having set a specific goal and watching our savings steadily grow each month proved to be very motivating. Immediately transferring the money to a savings account each pay day made it less tempting to spend it elsewhere, and obviously reading about and dreaming about travel was good motivation to leave the money be. Some months we had unexpected costs that interfered-car repairs-but we would make up for it later.

Britnee treks the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal.

Britnee treks the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal.

3. What did your employers say when you told them why you were quitting your jobs? How did that go?

We were both greeted with great support and enthusiasm from bosses and coworkers. Maybe because like us, they’d also fantasized about leaving work for such a reason. Britnee had often talked about her desire to travel in the office and her boss once said, “The only way I’d let you quit would be if you went to go travel.” That made it easier for Britnee to walk into her office one day to announce that she’d bought a one-way ticket to Tokyo.

When I put in my notice at the newspaper my publisher visited me at my desk and feigned anger about the news. Then she whispered her support for “quitting for the best possible reason.”

4. Can you share your itinerary so far?

Our itinerary has been very extensive so it’s easiest just to list the locations and approximate duration of each visit: Japan, two weeks; China, one month; the Trans-Mongolian Railway that included a five-day stop in Mongolia and 22 days exploring Russia; many quick stops throughout Europe over two months including Finland, Norway, Belgium, Austria, the Netherlands, Germany, England, Scotland, France, Spain, Italy and Greece; Turkey, one week; Nepal, two months; Thailand, two months; Cambodia, two weeks; Vietnam, one month; Australia, three days; New Zealand, six days. Now we’re in Chile for a month and we’ll cross through Bolivia and Peru before flying home.

5. What’s been the biggest surprise?

Before we left we had a chance to chat with some fellow travelers who had recently concluded their own extended trip abroad. With all we talked about, Britnee and I were most surprised when they told us how difficult it would be to keep going at times. We were under the naive impression that once we quit work and flew to Japan it would all be fun and games for a year. Then after a couple of months on the go we were realized how exhausting extended travel was, especially with our busy itinerary covering so much ground. A few times we’ve dreamed of throwing in the towel and returning to the familiarities of home, but pushing through has been well worth it…no matter how much we might miss In-N-Out Burger while in Asia.

Mark and Britnee, Torres del Paine.

Mark and Britnee, Torres del Paine.

6. A lot of people, hearing this idea, would think it’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip, something you do once, and then you always talk about and remember, maybe tell your kids about that one big year you had traveling the world. Maybe it’s too early to say, but do you two think this is the huge travel year you’re going to do once, or has this year given even more of an itch to travel the world?

This has been an amazing trip and we realize just how lucky we are to have traveled the world at this stage in our life. Yet, it’s definitely not too early to say that this will be the only huge travel year we’ll have…at least as budget travelers. Doing so much in so little time-and keeping it under budget-has forced us to make sacrifices and not live as comfortably as we’d often like. The desire to travel is still there, maybe stronger than ever, only in the future we will be more willing to splurge during a much shorter vacation.

7. Could you share your packing lists from the start of the trip?

In the months leading up to our departure our packing lists changed constantly as we desperately tried to narrow them down to fit carry-on luggage only. This worked for Britnee, but at 6’5″ with size 13 feet, I never managed to stuff my larger clothing and shoes into that small of a bag. Still, by the time we left we had both managed to fit everything into backpacks under 55 liters.

Throughout our travels we’ve rid ourselves of some items and swapped others out, all the while trying to keep our loads light enough to carry on our backs. A couple of times we’ve had to stock up on new gear for the new environment we’d be living in. In Nepal we bought gear in Kathmandu for the month of trekking we did there: sleeping bags, trekking poles, additional warm clothing and a SteriPen. Then in Thailand we were on a beach for two months and had to shop for swimsuits, beach towels, and snorkels.

If you’re interested in every single item, here’s a pair of links to what we each packed at the start of our journey and we’ll be updating them with what we returned home with.

Britnee’s Packing List

Mark’s Packing List

Oia on the island of Santorini, Greece.

Oia on the island of Santorini, Greece.

8. What are some things you started the trip with that you’ve since gotten rid of?

We think we packed pretty light for a year but still ended up sending stuff home or leaving some of it behind along the way. This included a door stopper wedge, sleeping bag liners, various clothing, heavy sandals and cell phones. All of the items we bought in Kathmandu for trekking we ended up selling back in Pokhara-except the SteriPen-and we’ve since rid ourselves of my beach towel and Britnee’s snorkel.

9. What’s the one item or piece of gear you absolutely don’t think you could have survived without during this whole year?

Britnee: Nearly every hostel and hotel room we’ve occupied has had no stopper in their sink. So in the name of clean laundry and smelling fresh we carried our own rubber sink stopper that we could always count on. This saved us money and kept us less stinky along the way.

Mark: The obvious answer: a camera. I worked as a photojournalist before leaving Utah and couldn’t imagine a trip such as this without a great camera. Only I wish it weighed less!

I would add that Britnee’s iPad has made all of this so much easier. With it we can walk up to a ticket counter or hostel reception and show our reservation details, use Google Maps while in an unfamiliar city, screenshot directions and translate languages on the spot.

10. Has there been any point-travel snafu, intestinal illness, weird situation-where you, together or individually, wanted to quit and just go home?

We had just returned to Pokhara from trekking the Annapurna Circuit when we contracted giardiasis and spent almost two weeks in our hotel room suffering the symptoms…together. I won’t get into details but it was a rather miserable time, especially because each of us had been dreaming of stuffing our faces at the many delicious restaurants in Pokhara post-trek. Yet, by the time we were healed up the first thing we did was go trekking again to Annapurna Base Camp and the misery of the previous fortnight was quickly forgotten. With so many great distractions in the world, it’s hard to stay down for long.

11. How do you define adventure?

We think adventure is stepping outside one’s own personal comfort zone, so an adventure for some could possibly be a walk in the park for others. As it turns out for us, buying a one-way ticket, quitting jobs, leaving the comforts of home, eating strange foods, sleeping next to strange people, riding scary buses, going to Russia, trekking over mountains, waving at the Pope and circumnavigating the world is quite adventurous.


Photos by Mark Johnston/OneWorldOneYear

 

Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor to Adventure Journal. Follow him at his blog, Semi-Rad.
Showing 5 comments
  • Jeremy
    Reply

    Saving for this kind of trip is totally doable if you don’t have things like a mortgage, car or kids to pay for.

    I took six months off work last year to travel, having put aside 20% of my salary for two years in preparation. I set it up so that the 20% was automatically deducted from my bank each pay period, so I didn’t even have to think about it. In doing so, the total I saved for my trip was equivalent to I’d been earning (and living on) for any six-month period whilst saving.

    When I got back, I started saving again and will be off again for six months next year. Thankfully my employer is supportive of these types of extended leaves.

  • Jay Long
    Reply

    Awesome story; awesome people. The giardiasis sounds a little disturbing, but all in all, the trek seems amazing.

  • Gareth Griffiths
    Reply

    Standard issue saving. No morgage, no kids, no wedding. We did the same but 10 months overland with our own vehicle from the UK to Australia on the same budget… including shipping! Its easy when you cut the crap out of your life

  • Rocky
    Reply

    Way to go! I love it when people don’t just talk about adventure but do it! Your lives will forever be changed. Enjoy!

  • Dean
    Reply

    Wow.But you can actually do it cheaper than that and still do whatever they’re doing like trekking, climbing and eating out. We’re traveling at the moment and our budget is 50grand for 3 years. All i’m saying is this possible to do on a string without being a cheapskate.

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