How Much Does it Cost to Live and Travel Abroad? The Earth Awaits Will Tell You
A search engine for long-term travellers, this site helps people find a destination that suits any budget and lifestyle.
Have you ever dreamed of living abroad? Of course you have. It’s safe to bet that most people have imagined relocating, or at very least spending an extended period of time somewhere other than home. Depending on the season, a beach might very well be included.
But making such spectacular life goals a reality usually falls apart when it comes to contemplating the dreary details. It’s one thing to say New York! Paris! Tokyo! It’s something else to actually figure out what rent, utilities and groceries would cost in the locale of your dreams.
The biggest problem when starting to investigate the logistics of a move or long-term sojourn is finding all of the necessary information in one place. That’s where The Earth Awaits comes in, a search engine designed to answer the question “What if we wanted to live abroad?”
The Earth Awaits is designed to help would-be travellers create custom budgets. By setting a budget, family size and deciding on a few other parameters, such as lifestyle (lean, modest, opulent), continent and tolerance for crime and pollution, the site will return results for places you didn’t even know you wanted to visit. In addition to providing budgeting benchmarks for things like rent, transit and groceries, it also offers insight on lifestyle and cultural conditions such as personal freedoms and how discriminatory various countries are.
The Earth Awaits
Created by Silicon Valley engineer and travel blogger Robert McNamara, the genesis for the site came from personal experiences. On his blog, Frugal Vagabond, he had written about how he and his wife (both still under 40) aspired to retire abroad on a budget. That meant finding unexpected places that could support the lifestyle they were looking for. This work dovetailed with a conversation he had with his father-in-law who expressed fear that he would never retire.
“He’s a smart man, but he’s approaching 70 years old and his only safety net in old age is a monthly Social Security cheque,” McNamara says. “I asked him how much he received every month, and was struck by the number of places that the modest amount would allow him to live in comfort, safety, and happiness abroad. When I came home that night, I began to work on the site. If my father-in-law didn’t know what options were available to him, I reasoned that there were thousands of other possible retirees, families looking for an adventure abroad, students hoping to study overseas, and adventurers who were similarly unaware.”
While planning for retirement is one way to use The Earth Awaits, McNamara says it’s useful for any stay of a month or more and is malleable to your own needs. “There are many cost of living sites on the internet, but none of the others attempt to take into account the individual's family size, housing needs, and specific lifestyle in estimating that cost of living. A family of five has very different needs than a solo backpacker, and The Earth Awaits aims to meet the budgeting needs of both,” he says.
The tool works two ways: you either start with a budget and see what options exist around the globe, or you target a specific location and figure out how much it would take to live or spend time there.
For instance, I have a dream of spending at least several months in France at one point in my nearish future. It’s a plan that’s been on simmer for a long time, largely because I don’t quite know where to focus my attention. Do I want the beach (can I afford it?) or is close to Paris better? A city or a quaint town? It’s very hard to narrow down. With The Earth Awaits I can enter a budget and see what comes back.
Flickr user: Henrik Berger Jørgensen
What does that look like? For my France query I chose a budget of $4,100 (all figures in Canadian dollars) with a modest lifestyle (making sure to incorporate my wine budget) and said I was looking for a one bedroom for my family of three in a city centre. I opted not to put constraints on pollution, but wanted nothing more than a moderate crime rate since I’d be travelling with a child. The site returned eight results: Aix-en-Provence, Rennes, Nantes, Grenoble, Toulouse, Lille, Montpellier, and Lyon, all of which had excellent quality of life measures. When I looked in to look into cost of living for a two bedroom place in the city centre, that list was reduced to Nantes and Rennes. So, to spend my summer in Aix (because, honestly, close to the sea is a necessity) I now know we’d have to squeeze into a small flat or I need to up my budget.
To test another scenario I imagined the need to move to Los Angeles for work. Cramping into a one bedroom place is fine for holiday but a three bedroom would be necessary for a permanent move. This exercise involved me repeatedly moving the budget slider higher and higher and yet higher still. In the end, to live a modest lifestyle in a three bed in the city I’d need over just shy of $8,000 a month, roughly $3,600 of which would go to rent. By contrast, to contemplate moving to Montreal, I’d only need about $4,400 a month total.
The budgeting tool also include things like the cost of dinners out, entertainment, and clothing, which users can tweak to their own personal tastes. Data for these results comes from about two dozen sources, primarily Numbeo for the cost of living data, UN reports, and the UN data website for statistical data such as population, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and more.
One unique feature of The Earth Awaits is its inclusion of freedom indicators, which give a snapshot of a country’s civil rights. McNamara says he added this feature after receiving feedback on how underrepresented groups have different experiences while travelling abroad.
Flickr user: European Parliament. Photo: Pietro Naj-Oleari
“When I first announced the site, I received an email from an African-American woman who shared her concerns travelling abroad as both a woman and a minority. She explained that she wanted to be able to enjoy sites such as mine, but felt that they ignored the experience of her and others like her,” says McNamara. “I was really affected by that email, and began to research how I could better serve these groups. Many of the data points on the Freedom tab for each city are a result of this research.”
The site reports data on LGBT rights (such as whether same sex relations, marriage, adoption, military service, and others are allowed or protected), women’s rights (UN equality ranking and abortion laws), race relations (based upon the World Values Survey), political rights, freedom of the press and internet, and government corruption.
Back to my France search. As a white woman I’ll have no problem with a summer in Aix-en-Provence, so long as I don’t mind neighbouring with fairly racially intolerant people. For someone else, like McNamara’s African-American user, the land of rosé might not be the most ideal fit, which could be an important factor in planning.
Another welcome feature is the element of surprise. While most people fixate on well-travelled destinations, McNamara says that when you parse out the information in different ways (such as budget-friendly over popular), real gems can be found.
Flickr user: Raul Lieberwirth
“[One] thing that struck me most was the relative high quality of life and low cost of some of Western Europe, particularly Spain and Portugal,” he says. “Once one gets out of Barcelona and Madrid, a nice life abroad is possible for two people for well under [US]$2,000. Braga, Portugal in particular combines a very high quality of life and a rock-bottom price.”
Mostly, McNamara hopes his site will help people realize that living or long-term stays abroad are within reach, because in his experience, integrating into places and cultures that are unfamiliar yields lifelong dividends.
“I have always loved travel, and my experience living in France for a year when I finished school is one that shaped the person I’ve become. I feel that travel, and living abroad in particular, gives one a sense that despite all our differences, people are fundamentally the same. You can appreciate and participate in the culture of someone who speaks a different language, eats different food, and practices a different religion, and still be struck by how similar we all are. If you’ve been welcomed when you were the outsider, it gives you a much more charitable perspective on others when you come home.”