Q&A: How to travel the world without paying a penny

Courtesy G. Michael Schneider

Meet the man who swears almost anyone can travel all over the world "on the other guy's dime."

G. Michael Schneider has taught computer science at the university level for more than 30 years. Through the years he has also figured out ways to take more than a dozen extended vacations at no personal cost in places such as Bhutan, Mongolia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Turkey.

How does Schneider do it? By arranging temporary overseas work assignments, in which the employer picks up the tab at least for housing and transportation. Schneider calls these gigs "working vacations," and often, they're more rewarding and eye-opening than a standard vacation.

Schneider also says that there's often no need to have a Ph.D. or expertise in finance or engineering to arrange a great working vacation. In the Q&A; below, and in his new book On the Other Guy's Dime: A Professional's Guide to Traveling Without Paying, Schneider describes his many overseas adventures and offers plenty of advice for travelers seeking similar working vacations.

Do you have some helpful hints for someone planning his or her first working vacation?

Schneider: Open your mind (and your atlas) to some less well-known places where your skills will still be in demand but the competition will be far less intense. It is a mistake to apply only to popular tourist spots such as England, France, or Italy. Positions there can be hard to obtain and when an opportunity does open up you will compete for it against a large number of world-class scholars and experts. The end result is often disappointment and the assumption that a working vacation is out of your reach.

My last three working vacations were to Bhutan, Mongolia and Nepal, and all three experiences were immensely rewarding. Plus, the primary reason for a working vacation is to have a transformative social, cultural, and professional experience.

While you would certainly have fun in London or Paris, a working vacation there will probably not change your life. Six months in the Buddhist nation of Bhutan, three months on the steppes of Mongolia, or a summer in the mountains of Nepal will open your eyes and mind to new societies, cultures and religions.

What are some professions that are surprisingly in-demand overseas?

Schneider: The biggest surprise is the enormous range of professions in great demand. I think it would be easier to produce a list of those not needed. Many people think you must be a computer jockey, physician, engineer, or finance expert to work overseas. That is absolutely not true. For example, in Bhutan I spent time with a professional golf course designer from Kansas designing and building their first 18-hole layout. In Mongolia I met a radio/TV broadcaster from New York helping to establish a national news network. In Kuala Lumpur I met a musician training the Malaysia Symphony Orchestra and nurturing young conductors to lead the group in the future. In Mauritius my wife was hired to write a report evaluating the current state of the country’s pre-school programs.

Don't let your field of interest deter you from considering a short-term posting. If you are good at what you do, there is almost certainly an overseas institution that will need your skills and be willing to pay you to work with them.

Beyond work/career issues, what are the most common difficulties inherent in going abroad for a prolonged period of time?

Schneider: Without a doubt the single biggest difficulty is overcoming your fears and worries about leaving home and moving, even temporarily, to a strange new locale. I had serious and nagging doubts when I received my first offer of a short-term teaching job. I conjured up dozens of reasons why this foolish idea could never work. What about the house? The kids? My bowling team? Fortunately, my wife, who is far more adventuresome than me, had a comeback for each of these illogical fears and convinced me to give it a try. I haven't looked back since. Overcoming these doubts is the main reason why I wrote my book. I wanted to demonstrate to prospective working vacationers that with just a little it of helpful information and guidance, a short-term post is not difficult to plan and pull ff. It's something you will never regret.

For you personally, what's the most annoying or frustrating part of leaving home for a while?

Schneider: This may sound silly, but it is our garden! My wife loves to plant large tracts of corn, tomatoes, peppers and other succulent eatables even when she knows we might be going away. My working vacations often take place during our summer break in June, July and August. That's exactly when many of these crops are harvested. I can't begin to tell you how many times we have received email from our renters thanking us for the delicious sweet corn or snap peas they just had for dinner. When you consider that this minor irritation is the most frustrating part of leaving home, you begin to realize how easy it is to take a working vacation.

In all your years of traveling abroad, what are a few of the expenses that were unexpectedly covered by your employers?

Schneider: The first expense my employers have been quite willing to provide is an air ticket that included an extra stopover, either on the way there or back, even if it added a small amount to the cost. I have done this quite often since it is an excellent way to convert a free ticket from home to destination into a free "two-fer." For example, on the way to Zimbabwe we added three days in Lisbon and six days in Cape Town at no extra cost.

When we traveled to Mauritius we stopped in Kenya on the way there and India on the return. On the way to Australia we spent five days lazing on the beaches of Fiji. Our trip to Mongolia included an 11-day vacation in China. All these stopovers were included in the free ticket provided to me as part of my job.

Another pleasant surprise was the excellent housing provided by my hosts. In Turkey we lived in a beautiful two-story colonial home on five acres. In Nepal we lived in a four-bedroom home with four servants. In Bhutan we were provided with a lovely two-bedroom apartment with spectacular mountain views. While not all accommodations were that nice, most were quite luxurious and either fully or partially subsidized by the school as part of my teaching contract.

What was your favorite working vacation, and why?

Schneider: This is the most common question I get and I often give the “cop out” response that I’ve loved them all. But I’ll fill you in on the secret now. My favorite working vacation was my three-month teaching post at Royal Thimphu College in Thimphu, Bhutan. Of all my working vacations this one came closest to fulfilling every single reason why my wife and I love to live and work overseas and experience new places, new ideas, and new cultures.

Bhutan is the most non-Western country we have lived in and we have been in some truly off the beaten path places including Borneo, Mongolia, Mauritius and Zimbabwe. Bhutan was closed to westerners until the mid-1970s, and today it is still a place that reveres its historical Buddhist past while trying to bring itself into the 21st century. It is a fascinating and strange mix of old and new. For example, people wearing the ancient garb of gho and kira while enjoying a latte at one of the many downtown coffee shops. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Bhutan and the many friends I made.

If you'd been paying your own way, what would have been your most expensive trip overseas?

Schneider: Bhutan, since the country charges tourists $250 per day to visit. As an employee I was exempt from that charge. Since I lived there for 90 days, by working rather than touring I saved at least $22,500 not even counting airfare.

I want to add that while traveling "on the other guy's dime" is a wonderful side effect of a working vacation, it is certainly not the only reason to consider one.

There are two other reasons of equal importance. The first is intellectual renewal. I don't care how much you love your work. When you do the same things day in, day out, year after year, a sense of repetitiveness and staleness can set in. A working vacation where you use your skills in new and different ways (not to mention wildly new and different places) can refresh your soul and bring a renewed sense of pleasure to your workplace. It is an adventure that adds excitement to what may not be a very exciting life right now.

The second reason is cultural immersion. When you live in a community for a few months you have time to make friends, meet neighbors, attend social, cultural and religious events, and participate in local activities. You learn about a culture not by observing it from a distance but by becoming part of it. For many of us, that is a far more exciting way to travel than baking on a beach or visiting yet another impressionist museum.


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