Bucket List: 225 Days of Vagabonding Through Asia, Europe and Australia
After daydreaming about vagabonding for three years, Solo traveler puts her plan into action
Philosophy professor and Miami socialite—Sabrina Jamil—does not do anything half-assed. So when I found out she was planning an eight-month trip around the world, I knew it would be filled with incredible experiences, curated accommodations and authentic connections with locals and newfound friends. This year and last, she traveled to 18 countries, starting with three months in Asia and a month in Australia and New Zealand. She spent the summer galavanting around Europe (as one does) and finding a window seat whenever possible.
It’s not every day that someone can seemingly drop everything and travel for 225 days. How the hell did you pull it off?
It all comes down to luck, timing, a bit of planning and amazing support from colleagues, friends and family, to be honest. I decided three years ago that I wanted to spend a year traveling the world. It took me about a year to figure out how to make it possible. During this process, I discovered that my employment contract makes certain allowances that aren’t common within the American workforce—essentially, it allowed me to work overtime for a year without taking the pay for it, and apply the worked time to a future portion of my contract. This ability to 'work now and get paid later' was essential to my plan.
After working that out, I had to figure out the personal side of things. I’m single and childfree, so those weren’t concerns. But I did have two cats, who have been my companions since I was in college, and I wasn’t sure how I could make this plan work without abandoning them. I actually talked to my therapist about it! He looked at me and said, 'When you are in your 70s, do you really want to tell people you could have traveled the world but didn’t because of your cats?' I realized that I could work out a caring situation for them while I was gone and they would be okay—I wasn’t abandoning them to the wild or anything. Fortunately, a good friend was willing to take them while I was away.
Did you have to give up your apartment and sell your stuff to help fund your trip?
Some people would just say ‘Sell it all! You don’t need it!’ That was definitely the advice of most of the travel blogs and books I read. Many people discussed a sense of freedom from getting rid of their stuff and realizing that material things are just not that important.
Truthfully, I’m not that person—I’ve always been a fan of the finer things in life, and I love my stuff. Another lucky solution presented itself here—good friends of mine happened to have unused storage space on their property, and they offered to allow me to use it for free! As a result, I was able to store most of my personal possessions—although I sold or gave away larger items like my couch and bedroom furniture.
I had to make some choices when it came to my apartment. Should try to finagle a sublet, which could potentially raise problems while I was away? Or see if I could find a friend to take over my place while I was gone? Ultimately, when my lease came up for renewal six months before my planned departure, I realized that the easiest solution was to give it up and move out when my lease ended. My parents live in the suburbs and had enough room for me. I hated the commute into the city, but it was great to have their support. Spending those last six months with them also helped me put some money away.
How did you approach budgeting for this hella expensive trip?
Even the most frugal person would agree that there is no cheap way to do such a trip. Even if you budget just $50 a day, that’s still over $11,000 to save. And I knew—right away—that I wasn’t gonna do this trip the cheap way. I wanted to enjoy myself, and that means recognizing the things I know I’m bound to spend money on, the kinds of activities I like to enjoy and the lifestyle I like to lead. So I guess you could say that my strategy was less on how to save my money, but on how to spend it in the best way possible.
How much did you budget to spend per day? And how did you arrive at that number?
While I think that there are a lot of merits to the ideas of people like Nomadic Matt, whose book is based on the $50 a day budget, I set my budget for a $150 per day.
I looked at what I spent most of day-to-day money on (shopping, drinking and eating) and reckoned that I’d end up spending about the same while traveling, on average. Similarly, I figured that the cost of accommodations would probably average out to something like my typical cost of living at home.
What were some ways you saved money before leaving for your trip?
I started by canceling my cable service, downgraded my internet service and selling stuff from my closet. I limited my restaurant and drinks budget, and made it a point to cook at home instead of ordering takeout. I also got into the habit of inviting friends over for drinks. I did this because 1) I wanted to enjoy the amazing view from my balcony while I still could and 2) my parents are Muslim, so I knew I couldn’t take the alcohol from my fully-stocked home bar with me when I moved in with them.
Though I managed to put a decent chunk away, it was less than my target, because I also took something like a pay cut. The overtime pay I was used to getting to fund my fun-in-the-sun Miami lifestyle was now being banked to cover the future portion of my contract, so I had less revenue coming in. This cut ensured I continued to have income throughout my travels. The downside was that it gave me less liquidity in my account when I left. To make up the difference, I took out a small personal loan, which I paid off using the income that came in while I was traveling.
In terms of saving money on my actual banking, I did a lot of research. One invaluable tip came from Nomadic Matt’s blog on avoiding ATM fees—I opened a Charles Schwab checking account and that saved me hundreds of dollars while withdrawing cash.
After reading up on travel credit cards, I opted for the American Express Platinum card. It’s not going to work for everyone, but it definitely worked for me. The Priority Pass lounge access was amazing for long travel days and since you get two guests, it was also good for traveling with friends. I could almost always count on the prices on American Express travel matching what I found on Skyscanner or Google Flights for commercial airlines, and I still got my bonus points when I booked on discount airlines as long as I booked with the airline directly.
Vagabonding involves a lot of getting from point A to point B. What advice do you have for finding cheap fares?
Flexibility with my plans allowed me to get super cheap flights, especially in the first half of my trip. Essentially, before I left the country, I created a list of all the places I wanted to go, knowing full well that I’d get to less than a third of them. But this allowed to keep my options open. I’d book one to two months at a time, usually two to three months before traveling. The Google Flights map made this really easy by showing me the cheapest flight to anywhere on the list. If it was cheaper to go to Melbourne than Perth, that meant I went to Melbourne instead of Perth. If it was cheaper to go to Thailand than Laos, I went to Thailand. And so on.
What were some unexpected moments that you had during your travels?
There were so many amazing, wild, liberating experiences to choose from. Here are just a few:
- Meeting Matthew Morrison from ‘Glee’ on a hiking trail in Hong Kong during my first week was really pretty cool.
- Getting to go to Glastonbury was a big highlight (my friend was performing, and invited me as her guest). I mean, there are music festivals, and then there’s Glastonbury.
- I remember catching a wave for the first time on Sydney's Bondi Beach when I took my first-ever surfing lesson, tumbling off the board at the shore, and just like sitting there in the sand laughing my ass off. It was a totally new sensation, and I loved it.
- Sitting in an onsen overlooking a river and at a mountain in Japan.
- Walking along Hadrian’s Wall in the U.K.
- Going to a straight up 90s-style rave in the middle of a Swedish forest.
- Finding a late-night dance party in a square front of a huge amazing Baroque church, only to discover it is a political rally where the politicians are on stage at midnight getting down to ‘Pon de Floor’ with drag queens.
- Getting into Berghain in Berlin is always a pleasure—and an experience that lasts days.
- Canyoning, for the first time, in Bali.
- Going to Centre Court at Wimbledon.
There also somber moments: standing at the A-Bomb dome in Hiroshima; visiting the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin; driving past the Grenfell Tower when I was in London; visiting a museum with a photography exhibit on the Korean War in Busan; and looking into North Korea via binoculars at the DMZ.
What was it like traveling solo and as a woman abroad? Did you ever find yourself at risk or uncomfortable?
There were definite moments of fear, but overall I was very fortunate to avoid trouble. I was never mugged or robbed, I was never attacked or threatened with harm, and I was never injured or sick. This, I credit totally to, like, the Gods of Travel. Their favorite offering is Planning and Research, which I was more than happy to serve up, but even that doesn’t guarantee their favor—as anyone who’s been mugged or pick-pocketed can attest.
Miami has probably trained me up to be pretty sharp about certain things such as watching my purse and other possessions, keeping an eye on my drink at the bar or club, making quick but reliable judgments about the strangers who I’m chatting with, paying attention to signals that show where it may not be the safest place to walk at night and how to get out of potentially scary situations. Most cities face the same kinds of problems and petty crime, so having a familiarity with how to handle these things helped me a lot when I encountered similar issues abroad.
What was it like traveling throughout so many different countries as a woman of color?
As a woman of color, it’s inevitable to experience the usual kind discriminatory treatment. It sort of sucks to say that, but there are certain things I’ve just gotten used to in my life—like people not listening to me when I say something, or assuming I don’t have enough money to afford something because of how I look, that kind of thing. The worst was a clearly racist European riad (traditional Moroccan house) owner who was not very nice to me and my friend (who is also a WOC). We were the only non-white people staying in the riad and didn’t have a good experience.
How did you find places to stay along the way?
I did a mix of Airbnb, hotels, hostels and homestays with some friends. In general, I preferred mid-price accommodations. I had enough money to allow a couple opportunities to really go luxe, which was always nice, but in general, I looked for Airbnb rentals in the lower-to-middle price range, depending on the area.
What are some tips you can share about finding the right accommodations?
The first step us to pick a neighborhood. With urban travel, the area of town can really influence the kind of experience you have. Where Airbnb neighborhood guides exist, they are a handy starting point. I love great views, so sometimes I would pick an Airbnb for its view, like this place I stayed in Haeundae Beach, Busan, South Korea. I love street art, so the neighborhood of Via Pigneto really called to me in Rome. I like places that are a little less finished or polished, and still have some quirk or charm to them, so this Airbnb in Palermo was perfect.
Other times, I looked for location. When I visit Berlin, I’ve got a favorite little area to stay. So I searched specifically for places in that area (which is tricky, since Berlin has really cracked down on Airbnb). Sometimes, I’d choose based on walkability. And sometimes I would choose a place just because it seemed really cool—like the Davie Bowie-themed apartment I rented in Tokyo.
Which resources did you use to find hotels?
Generally, I only stayed in hotels for one-off nights between major destinations or trips. For example, before leaving Australia, I had to fly from Melbourne to Sydney, spend the night, and then fly out. For that one night in Sydney, I decided to take advantage of my Fine Hotel & Resorts Collection benefits on my Platinum Card from American Express and stay at the Shangri-La Hotel, Sydney. The rooms are a bit pricey, but the perks are pretty great. For example, I got free breakfast and a sizable food and bar credit for dinner. I also got a free shoe shine for my trusty traveling boots, free early check-out and late check-in.
Similarly, for a one-night gap in Rome due a planning quirk, I stayed a night at the Rome Cavalieri Waldorf Astoria where I got a free room upgrade, breakfast, a bottle of Prosecco on arrival, and a spa credit that covered the cost of a light massage. There were my little splurges of luxury. My personal favorite 'one-night-stand' with a hotel was the Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh. I got upgraded to an amazing corner suite, a half bottle of Perrier-Jouet, a food and beverage credit that covered the cost of a delicious steak dinner, an amazing breakfast, and I happily restocked my toiletry kit with their Salvatore Ferragamo products that smell delicious.
When I was trying to be more economical for these one-night gaps (or in cities where the FHR collection was just outrageously expensive, like in London), I used HotelTonight. I got some really nice and very reasonably priced rooms from them in London, Vienna, and Budapest. The place I stayed in Budapest—Brody Apartments—was probably one of the best value stays for my whole trip.
If I needed a hotel for a longer stay—as I did in some places where Airbnbs aren’t common—I grudgingly used Booking.com. I say that because while I think I found the best deals for week long stays on that site, I also hate hate hate their interface.
Where I stayed in hostels, I sought private rooms. The best hostels were by far in Japan. Guesthouse Chura Cucule, where I stayed in Ishigaki, was amazing. Bondi Backpackers, where I stayed in Sydney, had an unbeatable location, and the rooms were nice, but the bathrooms were a bit dodgy. In both of those instances, I had a private room, which allowed me to be social when I wanted to in the common areas, but still get my solo time in when I needed it.
Knowing what you know now about traveling the world for the better part of a year, what would you do differently?
The first and foremost decision I had to make was how to divide up my time—should I spend more time in fewer destinations or vice versa? I read a lot of different opinions on this subject, but ended up going for more destinations with an average time frame of a week in each place. I chose the week timeline, because on my previous, shorter trips I found that worked for me. But looking back on it now, I do wish I had been able to stay a longer time in some of my destinations, and a week felt really short.
To be honest, I don’t think there is a right answer to this particular dilemma—my guess is if I had spent, say, a month each in eight different cities, I’d be saying right now, “I wish I had gone more places!’ But I know for sure next time I take an extended trip, I’ll do it the opposite way—more time in fewer places.
So where are you traveling to next? Lol.
I’m so happy to be home right now, but I’ve definitely got my mind on the next flight. I happened to drive past the airport the other day with my windows down, and the sound of an airplane taking off made me feel giddy! I’m still waiting to see how things settle with my return home and to my job, but I’d love to spend some time traveling in the U.S. now. The truth is that traveling, particularly in Europe, has given me a fresh set of lenses. I’m curious to see how my experiences abroad will affect my perception of places at home, especially my favorite U.S. cities like NYC, LA and New Orleans. Overall, I’m interested in the experience of ‘returning’ to places that have felt familiar or home-like to me in the past, to see how they feel now with a barrage of international experiences behind me.
To see more photos from Sabrina’s eight-month long vagabonding adventure, check out her Instagram where she’s working on a photography project called 225 (for the 225 days and nights she spent abroad). To hear all about her most hilarious travel moments, listen to the Comedians of the World podcast she did with frequent travel buddy and comedian Dana Alexander. ⬇️⬇️