How We Can Travel Sustainably on a Limited Budget
Today, we’re hearing from Kendal, who is a very young travel addict and a member of the DC chapter of The Nomadic Network. From the age of 16, she was hooked on travel and has creatively funded trips to countries around the world many never make it to. Her can-do attitude and how she’s made her life so internationally entrenched at only 23 years old is inspiring! Travel guidebooks are her textbooks, and travel blogs are her leisure reading. Kendal runs the sustainable and zero-waste travel blog Getaway Girl, which educates and empowers women to wander without waste.
What was the trip that had you bitten by the travel bug?
When I was 16 years old, I studied abroad for one year in Germany with Rotary International’s youth exchange program. Although my family had taken a handful of domestic vacations and a couple of cruises before, we never considered ourselves travelers. Yet, I felt the desire to be in motion.
It was terrifying to board my first international flight alone, but it also felt completely right! I’ll never forget that empowering feeling of taking off for the first time on my own.
Germany hooked me on travel for life! I lived with three host families, attended public school, learned German, and traveled around Europe.
Is there a creative way that you fund your trips?
I aim to pay for as little of my travel as possible, and I budget for the rest. How do I do this? Scholarships, fellowships, part-time work on the road, and following Nomadic Matt’s budget travel advice!
Rotary International’s youth exchange program is absolutely free, since it’s managed by a nonprofit. This includes the application process, cultural training, monthly events, host placement, and more! Rotary even gives their exchange students a monthly stipend to help cover fun activities in the community.
I only had to pay for my flights to and from Germany and my Europe group tour. Since the latter was hosted by Rotary, which has connections and receives discounts all over the world, it was affordable.
In college, I was awarded a scholarship from my university and its partners to study abroad in Russia. The program and fees were completely paid for. I received a stipend, which helped cover my food and travel expenses. I only paid $1,000 out-of-pocket for the entire trip, and most of that was for my flights.
Most recently, I taught English in Belarus with the US State Department’s Fulbright program. The program paid for a domestic trip for a teacher training, as well as a stipend to cover living, travel, and language-learning expenses abroad. I basically got paid to take private Russian lessons!
For each of these funded trips, I maximized my travels and money as much as possible by visiting countries nearby and staying in hostels or Couchsurfing.
What was life like in Germany? What did you learn about yourself while you were living there?
I lived in a community with fewer than 30,000 people spread across two towns and a few nearby villages. It was definitely a small town: everyone knew someone who knew someone else. For example, it only took a day for me to sign up for horseback riding lessons with one of the best instructors in the region, because my host family knew another family whose daughter rode horses!
What was most shocking about living in small-town Germany was how big the world felt, even in a small town. I grew up in a typical American suburban town. Both my parents worked full-time, and it wasn’t safe to walk or bike far, so I got used to entertaining myself within our neighborhood.
In Germany, I had a bike to get around, access to the local bus for further distances, and a train for intercity travel. I asked my host parents if I could visit friends in another town or go to another city, and off I went!
This ability to travel at a young age  quickly taught me independence and responsibility. I learned how to navigate roads, buses, and trains alone, which has given me the confidence to figure it out everywhere else in the world, even now that I’m older. Oh, and it taught me early on how to manage my alcohol, since I still had to ride home on a bike at the end of the night!
When you were studying in Russia, what was your school life like? Where did you travel to while living there?
I studied at Saint Peter the Great University in St. Petersburg as part of the international department in a program specifically for English speakers, so I was surrounded by a lot of Americans.
I studied Russian for eight hours a week with my intermediate group, which was mostly in Russian, but sometimes grammar concepts were explained in English. Additionally, I took two courses about Russian politics and contemporary history, both of which were in English. It wasn’t a full-immersion program, but I still had a wonderful experience!
Every weekend I would explore St. Petersburg or the surrounding towns and villages. During our spring break, I visited Moscow, Kazan, and Volgograd. I rode a 20-hour train between Volgograd and Kazan and spoke only in Russian with my coupe (train car) neighbors! It was incredible practice for my Russian and gave me great insight into a different region and Russian culture.
I traveled as much as I could while in Russia, but mostly focused on exploring St. Petersburg since I was living there. Plus, I had a Russian student discount card that allowed me into many world-renowned museums, such as the Hermitage, for free. I wanted to take advantage of that as much as I could, since international student cards don’t work in Russia!
What did you have the most trouble with? What was the easiest to pick up in Russia?
The hardest part of Russia was finding language partners to practice Russian with. Historically, accents are viewed somewhat negatively in Russian culture. Coupled with my imperfect Russian, [my accent would cause] many Russians to wave off my attempts to speak Russian. To this day I struggle to find Russian-speaking partners.
But as they say, Russians are cold on the outside and warm on the inside. Once you befriend a Russian, they’re your friend for life! It just takes work to get to that point.
The easiest part of Russia was the slowed-down pace of life. A typical day involved classes, exercise, and walking around the city or sitting in a café with friends. It was a simple lifestyle that focused on relationships.
As someone who is very focused on productivity, I learned to feel equally as rewarded by and proud of something intangible, such as friendship, as I feel with my work productivity.
How did you choose to live in Belarus? What was that like?
Since I spoke some Russian, I met the Fulbright program’s qualifications to teach in Belarus. My interest in post-Soviet culture and WWII history are what most attracted me to the country, though.
Many people don’t know this, but Belarus (which was then part of the Soviet Union) actually suffered some of the most damage of any country in the war — 30% of the population died and 80% of villages and towns were destroyed. After living and studying WWII in the United States, Germany, and Russia, I felt like I needed to understand Belarus’s experience to really understand the war.
Belarus was one of the hardest, yet most rewarding, places I’ve lived. The only people who spoke English in my city of 250,000 were my students and my colleagues. While I was working hard to improve my Russian, there were instances where the actual system was completely different — such as visiting the doctor or bank — when I really wished I could at least speak English [with someone]. It’s one thing to not speak the language, but it’s a whole new obstacle to deal with a system unlike any other.
What was the aspect of life in Belarus that you fell most in love with? How was it teaching English there?
If it weren’t for the locals who sort of adopted me and helped me, my experience in Belarus wouldn’t have been as enjoyable as it was. Their generosity and resiliency inspired me. Many Belarusians are poor, and their currency doesn’t allow them much freedom abroad, so they make do with what they have.
Even in the harsh winters, they find ways to feel connected with each other in simple ways and contribute to their communities. Relationships are the most important thing to them. Even without a lot to give, they showered each other and me with acts of service and kindness.
I’m grateful to have had a teacher from China as my neighbor and close friend while living in Belarus. We supported each other a lot and, as a team, we could navigate every new and uncomfortable situation we encountered. I miss her dearly and we still chat often.
My life in Belarus was filled with a lot of ups and downs, and some days I wondered why the heck I was there, but my students made the experience absolutely worth it. Their dedication to the English language, and curiosity about the world, was a beautiful thing to contribute to.
Whenever I felt like I wasn’t helping anyone, I’d notice a student self-correct their English grammar or share something new they learned about the English-speaking world. The entire experience was rewarding.
What brought you to Hawaii for your birthday?
I was visiting a friend who I had met four years earlier on a funded two-week Europe adventure tour. We instantly clicked on that adventure and had stayed in touch. (A lot of my travels are visiting friends from around the world, because it’s another cheap way to travel and a fun way to experience a destination through a local’s eyes.)
It had been several years since we had seen each other, and I was craving some sun and sand, so I instantly booked the cheap flight and told her I was coming! Thankfully she wasn’t on her own adventure, and we could scuba dive and adventure together. The dive was my first outside of my certification!
A lot of my budget travel lessons I learned from Nomadic Matt’s blog and book! In fact, both helped me book that round-trip flight from Washington, DC, to Hawaii for only $350 to celebrate my 21st birthday!
What is the most surprising thing you learned while on the road?
My father had scuba dived in Hawaii a decade earlier and repeatedly told me how remarkable and vibrant the marine life was. I had a much different experience at the same dive spots a decade later.
For most of my life, I heard about climate change and bleached coral. It always seemed so distant, not an issue to worry about today. Diving in Hawaii made me realize that climate change is happening now, and I was part of the issue!
After that, I had many discussions with my friend and other locals about sustainable travel and how travelers are impacting Hawaii’s beauty. It was surprising — and disappointing — to learn, but it gave me a lot more purpose in my travels and redefined my travel style.
What is your travel style?
I am still a budget traveler, but I do it as sustainably and zero-waste as possible! It’s really not that hard, because a lot of habits of budget travel — such as staying in hostels or taking the bus — are inherently sustainable!
Now I focus on being more intentional with my sustainable travel style and constantly strive to be better for the local economy, environment, and culture.
What are some ways we can travel more sustainably? Can you give us some tips?
The secret to sustainable travel and sustainable living is to ask yourself before any decision: how can I do this better?
It’s difficult, especially for travelers, to develop the habit of questioning every decision when we’re used to spontaneous decision-making. But asking yourself “how can I do this better?” before every decision — booking a hotel, ordering a meal, buying a souvenir, or even before grabbing for a plastic fork — is honestly the #1 way to make your travels more sustainable and educate yourself about sustainability.
There’s always a better way; you just have to figure out what that is.
Instead of booking a hotel-chain and supporting a billionaire, stay at a guesthouse and support a local family. Instead of ordering a shark fin soup or cheeseburger, ask if there’s an equally tasty and more sustainable alternative available. Before buying a mass-produced postcard, buy one from a local artist. Bring a reusable fork instead of using plastic ones.
When you’re unsure if there’s a better way, ask Google. I like to search using terms such as “eco-friendly,” “green,” “sustainable,” and “compostable.” You could try “sustainable souvenirs in Iceland” or “eco-friendly hotels in South Africa.”
There are so many components to sustainable travel — the environment, the economy, local culture and people, and more — that it’s difficult for anyone to do it all. Instead of aiming for perfection, I encourage every traveler to make one intentional eco-friendly decision every day.
Eat plant-based foods one day, bring reusable cutlery on your trip, and ride the train instead of flying as often as possible. Soon, many of these things will become a habit, and you can adopt more sustainable practices into your travels.
Do one thing today, and do one more tomorrow. Constantly aim to be better, but never aim for perfection.
What does it mean to be zero-waste when it comes to traveling?
Zero-waste travel means reducing your waste as much as possible in order to decrease your impact as a traveler on the local environment, economy, and community.
Zero-waste is commonly affiliated with plastic waste, but it can also include energy, water, food, and other types of waste. That’s a lot of waste to be conscientious about, so it’s important to aim for where the most impact can be made.
Each country’s and city’s environmental issues differ. I encourage all travelers to research what environmental issues are most pressing in the areas they’re visiting so that they can focus on that area of zero-waste and have the biggest impact.
Plastic is an issue everywhere, though. When people talk about the plastic crisis, they often point to the overuse of single-use plastics. This is certainly true, but the plastic crisis is also caused by the unpreparedness of waste infrastructure systems for the mass demand for plastic.
Bali is often cited as the perfect example of the plastic crisis, but the beaches there weren’t completely littered with plastic in the ’90s, even though single-use plastic was around. As more tourists come, so does more trash. More plastic goggles lost in the ocean, more plastic straws in coconuts, and more lighters floating in streams.
Many of the places we love weren’t prepared for the mass increase of tourists or the plastic accompanying them and therefore didn’t have the waste infrastructure system to properly handle the influx of tourist trash.
Once a new system is implemented, it takes a mass education campaign for locals and tourists to understand how to properly use the system. Even then, people don’t follow the rules.
I encourage travelers to learn about the environmental problems facing the areas they’re visiting and how they positively contribute to the community. Many tourism boards now offer sustainability information, including dos and don’ts.
Do you have some favorite spots you’d like to highlight from your travels? Eco-friendly places? Companies doing good sustainability-wise?
Hostels and Couchsurfing are some of the most eco-friendly accommodations, so if you love those options, then I encourage you to add “sustainable” to the list of reasons why!
If you enjoy hotels, check out the websites Book Different and Ecobnb for eco-friendly accommodation options.
Switzerland and New Zealand always impress me with their sustainable innovation. There are also many other countries doing incredible things for the sustainability movement, so it’s hard to pick!
That said, it’s still possible to be unsustainable in a sustainable destination, but I believe Switzerland and New Zealand are implementing a lot of great systemic policies to make sustainable travel the norm.
I love visiting zero-waste stores around the world to see what products are offered and to talk to local zero-wasters. They usually know the most sustainable places to visit, have local sustainability insights, and know of some cool events. Definitely ask Google where some zero-waste stores are next time you’re visiting a new place!
What’s it like to be at home now during this pandemic?
When the world was shutting down, I was living in my ’50s-style studio apartment in a small town in Belarus as a Fulbright teacher. Things seemed relatively safe in Belarus, because not many people leave Belarus and not many people visit it either. Plus, my remote town was far from big cities and the international airport. I wasn’t exactly living in a traveler hot spot!
Fulbright sent us a letter in mid-March stating that we could elect to return to the States or stay in our host countries. Life continued as normal in Belarus, so I elected to stay. One week later, Fulbright stated everyone must return to the US and would not return to our host countries.
The program was over. In less than 72 hours, I packed up my life, said goodbye to my colleagues and students, closed my apartment contract, and departed the country.
Now I’m living in my parent’s guest bedroom, where I haven’t lived for five years. It feels strange to be “home,” because my parent’s house doesn’t quite feel like home anymore. So much has changed in my hometown, and I have to relearn its identity and blend it with my own changed identity.
Similarly, Belarus wasn’t quite “home” either. I loved my time there, but waiting out a pandemic in a rural Belarusian town with no English-speaking doctors and a studio apartment without a balcony would not have been ideal.
Belarus has become a global example of what not to do during a pandemic, so I’m grateful to be home. There’s still a level of grief for all the travel plans lost, lessons never taught, and friends I couldn’t properly say goodbye to. I’m safe, but they’re not, and that’s heartbreaking.
Thankfully, traveling has taught me resiliency. I know this, too, will pass. Thanks to technology, I can frequently check on my friends, colleagues, and students. I’m also learning to be grateful for the stillness. It’s rare as an adult to have so much time with parents, so I’m reminding myself that it’s a blessing to have this time with them.
What’s in store for your future travels? Can you tell us a travel goal of yours?
Previously, my goal was to have visited as many countries as years old. Well, I made it to my 23rd country (Moldova for a wine run!) before my 23rd birthday, woo!
Now I’m setting my sights bigger. In 2024, I plan to quit my job and travel the world for three years as adventurously, sustainably, and zero-waste as possible. This means hitchhiking on sailboats, cycling across Africa, horseback riding across Mongolia, and more adventures I’ve had on my bucket list for ages.
My end goal out of this trip around the world is to make the travel industry more sustainable for all travelers by doing the hard work on my journey.
Until then, I plan on saving as much money as possible. Once it’s safe again, I’ll explore more domestic US destinations. My next international destinations will probably be Israel, Egypt, and Oman!
Kendal runs the sustainable and zero-waste travel blog Getaway Girl, which educates and empowers women to wander without waste. You can connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.
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