'We're innately frugal': The couple travelling the world indefinitely on less than $40 a day

Travel News from Stuff - 15-05-2023 stuff.co.nz
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For Mandy Halse and Lee Green, a chance encounter in the Himalayas on Valentine’s Day 1996 led to a life of international travel on the cheap.

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Originally from Whangārei, Mandy was planning a trip to Birmingham in the UK to visit an old friend when a travel agent suggested she break up the journey with stopovers in Nepal and India.

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Eager for another solo backpacking adventure after a stint in Southeast Asia, Mandy booked a ticket to Kathmandu, planning to tackle the fabled 160-230km Annapurna Circuit, one of the oldest trekking trails in the Himalayas, before heading overland to New Delhi and flying to the UK from there.

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She and a British friend were relaxing with fellow hikers in a trailside teahouse when Lee and his mate Murray walked in, and the group invited the new arrivals – English mailmen on an intrepid career break – to join them.

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Mandy and Lee got on from the get go, but it wasn’t until heavy snow blocked their path through the 5416-metre-high Thorong La pass, prompting most of the group to fly back that sparks really began to fly.

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Retracing their footsteps with Murray and Mandy’s British friend Kirsty, they quickly realised how much they had in common. Chief among their shared traits: an overwhelming appetite for travel, and innate distaste for spending money.

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After extending their stay in Nepal, Mandy and Lee spent six weeks in India together before heading to the UK – conveniently (or perhaps serendipitously), the friend Mandy had arranged to stay with lived just over 30km from Lee’s hometown of Coventry.

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“Twenty-six years later we’re still going strong,” Lee says from the off-grid Northland hut they are now staying at.

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“Twenty-seven years,” Mandy interjects.

“I’m losing count,” Lee concedes.

Over the next couple of decades, the couple, who married in New Zealand in 2001, interspersed months, and sometimes years, of hard work in the three countries they consider home – New Zealand, the UK and Australia – with long stints overseas.

When they were in work mode, they kept costs down by cycling everywhere, taking their lunch to work, and buying second-hand clothes, feeling the sacrifices were worth making to see their travel fund grow.

“We’re both innately frugal,” Mandy says. “It doesn’t matter how much you earn, it’s how much you save. Lee didn’t earn very much at all but he saved 50% of what he earnt, whereas I know of people who earnt a lot of money and spent it all.”

By 2009, they’d saved enough to head away for two-and-a-half years.

“When we first lived in Australia, we wanted to save a certain amount of money – I think it was $15,000 each,” Mandy says. “So Lee drew up a graph and I think we gave ourselves a year to do it. And then we did it in like six months. In Perth. So we said “let’s stay longer”. We stayed a year and a half in total, and it really bolstered the travel fund.”

Staying in budget accommodation and spending as little as they could (they now aim to get by on no more than $40 each a day), the couple made their way through South America and Southeast Asia before returning to Europe and joining an “epic” expedition through Africa on an Oasis Overland truck.

Mandy says their decision not to have children, along with their innate frugality, has made it easier to travel for long periods. While she sometimes worries their reluctance to spend causes them to miss out on some amazing experiences, Lee said they’re not completely averse to shelling out for things that mean a lot to them.

“When we travelled to Africa for 10 months, I went to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda and I took a light flight over Victoria Falls, and we went on quite a few safaris. So we pick and choose when we treat ourselves to the special things we really want to do.”

By the time their two-and-a-half year odyssey, which also saw them visit Eastern Europe, was at an end, they were so exhausted they never wanted to travel again.

“I said to everyone “that’s it. We’re sick of travelling. I just want to buy a house and settle in Perth and never travel again”,” Mandy said. “That lasted six months and we got itchy feet. We ended up staying in Perth for five-and-a-half-years. Then we were like “oh my days, we need to travel”.”

Aged 46 and 47 at the time, they worked out they’d saved enough to retire on and continue travelling indefinitely, helped partly by having lived in shared accommodation.

“Everyone called us tight or stingy, so they were all really surprised when we retired in our forties,” Mandy says. “But we could do it because we didn’t have the brand-new cars. We didn’t have the fancy clothes.”

Selling almost everything they owned, they set off on their ‘grand tour of the Eurasian continent’ in 2018, catching the Trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Vladivostok in far eastern Russia, and slowly making their way back to Europe via China and the Silk Road.

For Lee, the Trans-Siberian Railway journey was a standout experience.

“Most people wouldn't go in winter, but we decided to, and it was amazing to see the landscape of Siberia,” he says.

A highlight was walking across the metres-thick ice covering Lake Baikal, the oldest, largest and deepest lake in the world.

“It was -30 degrees outside, but it was just an amazing, surreal experience.”

As time has worn on, the couple have slowed down their travels, preferring to explore places in depth before moving on. They recently spent two years in Portugal, getting by on just $15 a day each thanks to their frugal ways and house sitting gigs they found online. A part-time job at a Lisbon hostel found through Workaway, a site which enables travellers to work in exchange for accommodation, also helped them out.

“We worked for like four hours each per day, and got free accommodation and free breakfast,” Mandy says. “It was brilliant.”

House sitting also enables them to recharge their batteries for their next round of travelling.

“It can be tiring being on the road all the time,” Lee says. “It’s like time at home for a short period because you're in a routine taking the dog for a walk and that kind of thing.”

Eager to return to New Zealand after four years away, the couple researched airfares on flight comparison sites (I Want That Flight and I Know The Pilot are among their favourites), eventually settling on a route with budget carriers which saw them make numerous stopovers over three months.

“We flew from the UK to Romania, where I got my teeth fixed,” Mandy says. “Then we flew to Abu Dhabi and Kuwait and travelled overland to Bahrain. Then we went to Thailand and New Zealand. It ended up being the same price as a one-way ticket.”

“A little bit cheaper I think,” Lee says. “We didn’t want to do a long-distance journey in one go, so we split it up into sections and saw a bit of the world along the way.”

The couple Couchsurfed their way through the Middle East, using the website to find accommodation they didn’t have to pay for in Dubai, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

“It’s not free accommodation – it’s a cultural experience,” Mandy says. “So you have to be prepared. You go there and spend time with your hosts, and they take you where they want to take you. It was brilliant.”

For Mandy, the hospitality they encountered in the Middle East was a highlight of their recent travels. A prime example came when they were eating out with their Couchsurfing host in Kuwait and a stranger approached and began chatting with their host in Arabic.

“And then our host says “This gentleman has just paid for our breakfast because he wanted to welcome you to Kuwait”. We see countries like Kuwait and we think of 1990 and the (Iraqi) invasion and the (Gulf) war, and that it might be dangerous. But it was amazing.”

Arriving in New Zealand earlier this year, Mandy says they couldn’t believe how expensive things were, saying they can’t afford to eat out at all as “even a pie is $5”.

Sticking to their daily budget of $40 each, they’ve stock up on tinned food at the Why Knot outlet store in Auckland’s East Tāmaki, and use the Gaspy app to find the cheapest fuel prices.

After more than three decades of travel together, the couple have visited more than 110 countries, and hope they have another 20 to 30 years of travels ahead. They haven’t decided where they will settle down when the time comes, but Perth and New Zealand are both options.

In the meantime though, they are enjoying being able to inspire others to travel on a shoestring through their and its companion and , with Mandy saying travel is their “way of life”.

“I love experiencing different cultures and lifestyles, and realising how people can be so different and yet so similar,” Mandy says.

Lee, meanwhile, says he loves the way travel reveals the truth about places often misrepresented in Western media.

“You discover incredible new things, and that people are typically very nice and friendly and welcoming. It’s just heartwarming to see that we do live in a wonderful world. That it’s not quite as grim as it looks on TV.”

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