How I improved my life – and those of others – by traveling without money

by Jakob Horvat, December 2nd 2016, Portimão / Portugal
Having a tight budget is a chance to get deeper in touch with the world and its people. For that reason we dedicated ourselves to an extra–challenge: to make it from Lisbon to the south of Portugal in three days without spending a single cent. That opened the door to a world that was not accessible from my comfort zone. The less money I spent, the more I depended on strangers and learned about myself. That made me curious to see how far I could go. Here is an uncommon guide to an unconventional style of traveling.

This article was also published in Elephant Journal.

Lisbon. Tuesday, Nov. 29th: Shortly after hiding our credit cards deep in the backpacks. At least we had some bottles of beer left in the suitcase.

The sun was just about to set and the moist autumn air reflected the last sunbeams of the day into a picturesque orange sky. I was dancing on the highway-on-ramp that leads hundreds of drivers out of Lisbon and home from work. My fingers clasped a cardboard that said „South“, my goal was to attract the attention of the few who were willing to take two strangers into their cars. As the orange slowly gave way to a dark blue, the night air became perceptibly cooler. People who passed in their cars looked at us, both amused and skeptical. And all I hoped was that one of them would soon have mercy with us and give us a ride. Shortly before dusk had turned into night, we got picked up by Henrique, an agricultural student from Palmela. This is a small and charming town thirty kilometers away from Lisbon. A town I didn’t even know existed one hour before. Henrique let us out in the centre and as we walked through the narrow and steep streets, we saw a guy leaning casually outside a bar. Martin and me glanced at each other, rather clueless how to ask a stranger for a place to sleep. „So we have this crazy project“, was our spontaneous way to open the conversation. „Well, that’s a good start“, he responded. Gabriel offered us his house right away and even gave us the keys.

The kindness of this stranger, who turned into a friend as the hours of the night dragged on, amazed me. It taught me two important lessons:

1. Let go of stereotypes

When we do and stop being strangers and open up to the world, the world opens up towards us. Potentially everybody on the street can be our supporter. To greet people randomly, to ask them for directions or simply how they are doing are great ways to break the ice and turn the key that opens a door to the unexpected. We never know what lies behind until we walk through.

2. When I expect nothing, everything is possible

Easier said than done, letting go of expectations helps a lot when traveling without money. When we started in Lisbon we didn’t know how far we would make it that day, neither where we would end up sleeping nor what we would have for dinner. If we would have dinner. I found that this was an effective exercise to let go of any expectations and embrace what comes along.

Martin, Henrique – our “guardian angel” during our stay in Palmela – and I

After Martin and I found shelter, we were hungry

Palmela isn’t that vibrant kind of city that has restaurants on every corner. There was merely one café. We gave fate a chance. How to do this? Asking if we can get food for free? That might sound a bit weird to most people who run cafés, right? Hence our first question was: „Do you need help in the kitchen?“ We were serious. Rui, the owner of the café, didn’t look like he believed us and answered slightly skeptical: „Not at the moment.“ I explained to him what our project was and he brought us two massive chicken wings in an aluminum tray. Even quicker than if we would have ordered it. My experience was that people in general have a helping gene and can be surprisingly kind to strangers – it’s all a matter of trust. How we treat them and which feelings we give them is crucial. Not all of them look like potential supporters at first sight, but they can open up quickly once they feel some good vibes.

Karma is no bitch

Working as a journalist for the Austrian television earns me a good living. Thanks to life, I have never been in the urgent need of begging for money, food or shelter. This experiment was a whole new experience for me. Referring to my moral standards, it feels ethically wrong to ask for free food and places to sleep, when I’m financially able to afford it. Easy to feel guilty, right? I think it’s time to change the perspective. If we prepare our Karma beforehand, this whole attempt becomes an inspiring game of giving and receiving rather than a desperate project of trial and error. I started at home by signing up on and offered dozens of travelers a place to sleep. Donating money or inviting strangers for drinks also works pretty well. What goes around comes around and it feels incredibly awesome when it’s our turn to receive.

How to give it back?

Martin and I woke up late on day two in Palmela. Instead of hitting the road we worked on our computers and overlooked the time. It was late afternoon when we packed our backpacks and ourselves in five layers of warm winter wardrobe. Hitchhiking at night is advanced stuff – we usually avoided it. This time it seemed we couldn’t and we prepared ourselves mentally for the worst case scenario: being stuck out there on the cold roadside. Henrique, who gave us a ride on the first day, offered his help a second time. He invited us to his home. His father cooked traditional Portuguese dinner and served delicious red wine. The evening ended with a glass of whisky and deep conversations in front of the fireplace. We spent our second night in Palmela. When we said goodbye the next day, Henrique touched my heart. „It’s nothing special I did. But you guys treated me so well that I wanted to return the favor. So I am caring about you.“ „Thank you“, he even said to us when we left.

The following days I thought a lot about Henrique’s words. We were the ones who had to be grateful. Why him? I realized something essential: We returned the favor as we were interested in Henrique’s issues and those of his family. We tried to understand them, to be open to new cultures and concepts of living and that obviously left a sustainable impression. Maybe I was able to contribute that one inspiring thought to a topic, to donate that one concrete idea to their minds, and that has made all the difference. We never know where these ideas might lead them. This can be so much more powerful and valuable than money – and can be experienced in its purest way when traveling without.


Traveling without money is not predictable. It can happen that you get lost or stuck in a remote place. Take it easy! The interesting thing about comfort zones is: they expand. As long as you keep challenging your boundaries you will find yourself in a playground growing bigger and bigger. What you were scared of before suddenly feels easy and playful. Congratulations, buddy, you have grown big time!

After you managed to handle whatever had come your way, despite all difficulties, you realize one powerful insight: that you are capable of making it anywhere and handle anything that comes along. Needless to explain what a massive boost of confidence that is.

But I want to be honest with you guys. There is a massive downside. Traveling without money can be exhausting. You make yourself vulnerable and rely on others. Learning so much about yourself in such a short period of time is overwhelming and intense. And after these three days I’m very much looking forward to kiss my credit card and treat myself to a cosy bed, delicious dinner and a fancy Gin Tonic with cucumber.

The travel-without-money-challenge
First day: Lisbon – Palmela (Gabriel’s bed)
Second day: Palmela (Henrique’s bed)
Third day: Aljezur (Amezigh Hostel)


Money spent in three days
Accomodation: 0 Euro
Transportation: 0 Euro
Drinks, food and pleasure: 0 Euro

Offer your couch, stay at others for free and make friends all around the world
The hitchhikers guide to hitchhiking the world

A well researched article about the technical aspects of traveling without money

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