A row of tul-tuks parked in Bangkok

Traveling During an Economic Downturn

Many times throughout the history of humanity, the darkest hours were followed by triumph and rebuilding.

Traveling during an economic downturn is easier and more common than you may think.

If you were planning to quit your job to travel or start freelancing, don’t give up on the dream just yet!

In 2008 and 2009, I was traveling during the economic downturn later dubbed “The Great Recession.” As a vagabonding traveler, it affected me very little. I kept doing what I had been doing all along: living and writing. I continued to move around in beautiful places. My daily life didn’t change much at all. Only the headlines and negative chatter on social media served as reminders of the bad economy.

But because it was unprecedented in my experience up until then, I actually bought into what the naysayers and doom-spreaders were saying. The general sentiment was that you should “dig in” and cling onto stability. Having a job, even if it was one that you hated, was better than the alternative.

I began to worry a bit, not only for the financial well-being of friends and family, but also the travel industry as a whole. My websites such as vagabondinglife.com and startbackpacking.com were all about quitting a corporate job to go travel the world. If money was even scarcer than usual, surely people wouldn’t be traveling much, right?

Wrong.

As I was living and traveling in Southeast Asia those years, what I saw was actually the opposite. Counterintuitively, the number of long-term travelers and Rat Race escapees surged.

Many middle-class people had been made redundant (aka “laid off”) by big companies. These new travelers assumed jobs were scarce, so they headed out to do what they had wanted to do for a long time anyway. Many told me they put resumes in everywhere they could. But while waiting to hear back from companies, they figured they could live cheaper in Thailand than in Europe or the United States. Graduating students were in the same holding pattern. With hiring freezes in place at many companies, students figured this was a chance to take a gap year and travel the world.

The stock market had indeed taken a nasty hit, but not many “regular” people make their living from the stock market. Even the stock traders know how volatility can be very profitable, and downturns mean bargains. Nothing is more annoying to a trader than a stock that only moves flatly sideways. Retirees were perhaps in the worst position — many had to postpone retiring a few more years (maybe one more good argument for not waiting until your 60s to enjoy whatever makes you happy).

The Stock Market Myth

The stock market doesn’t affect your ability to live an extraordinary life.

All said and done, the 2009 dip in the market mainly hit CEOs and wealthy individuals who depend on share prices as part of their net worth. Even still, they weren’t exactly going hungry. This economic “pain” was rolled downhill in the form of cost-cutting measures such as laying off their middle-class employees. The remaining employees then often end up performing the duties of two employees.

In the end, the economy, and subsequently the stock market, swing — that’s just the nature of this strange animal we created to worship. There will be many more wild swings and a few “crashes” within your lifetime. Even when the stock market was hitting one record high after another, the COVID-19 pandemic immediately, within one month, put many millions of people on the ropes financially. A large number of people and small-business owners are unfortunately living month to month, no matter how high the indexes reach.

The stock market is based on human emotion and perception. It is subjective. Don’t believe the myth that a company’s stock price is a reliable indication of its profitability or well-being.

For instance, each time word of Steve Jobs’ declining health was leaked to the public, Apple stock took a hit. Sales were still superb, but the stock price fell. As a leader in its sector, this drag on Apple caused a ripple effect throughout tech stocks, and therefore the entire market. The directors at Apple even began misleading the public about Steve Jobs’ condition; every time his health slipped a bit more, they lost a lot of money because their shares declined.

A company can have an astronomical stock price despite never having earned a profit. A stock value is based on the public’s perception.

While I was working at IBM, the stock price kept hitting new highs. The directors received bonuses; meanwhile, guys such as myself were asked to buy our own educational books and business cards. The company wouldn’t, citing belt tightening as the reason. Cost-of-living raises were also eliminated. Meanwhile, my workload doubled. IBM was selling off divisions (printing, PCs, storage, and networking) while outsourcing as much as possible to India for cash. They never stopped purring into the ears of investors.

This disgusting behavior is what finally made me snap and escape from Corporate America for good in December 2005.

Sure, having a number to quantify how well things are going financially would be convenient, but the market is no indication of daily money concerns for people stuck in the Rat Race. Don’t base your decision to travel, live abroad, or pursue happiness on the fears of millionaires and billionaires. You’ll be fine, and they most certainly will be, too.

The stock market doesn’t affect your ability to live an extraordinary life. Downturns could potentially affect your retirement accounts but only in a negative way if you’re about to retire.

This is my perspective:

  1. I’m enjoying the things I would do during retirement right now. If I make it to that age, bonus!
  2. With dollar-cost averaging (something smart long-term investors do anyway instead of trying to time market swings), economic downturns work in your favor. You’re getting a discount on stocks that will rise again later. Although there are always economic fluctuations, the overall trend of the market is upward.

Of course I hope the market and economy thrive and we live in abundance happily ever after. But I would never let an economic downturn deter me from pursuing happiness.

The connection between our well-being and what goes on with the stock market is thinner than we are made to think.

Traveling During an Economic Downturn, Bad Idea?

Work-from-home opportunities will skyrocket after the pandemic ends. People who design a location-independent lifestyle for themselves get to decide where “home” actually is.

One of my favorite places to work in Bali.

The idea seems mad—walking away from a corporate job, or any job, while the economy creaks and groans in warning. As the ripples of COVID-19 continue to affect us for months and maybe years to come, isn’t any fragile grasp on stability to be cherished?

There is an easy answer: not if it doesn’t make you happy.

While spending part of 2019 in Bali, I noticed one new trend: There were more people living on the island while still maintaining regular jobs for remote companies. The idea that to travel indefinitely you need to be a self-employed entrepreneur (e.g., a blogger or influencer) is a myth.

Work-from-home opportunities will skyrocket after the pandemic ends. People who design a location-independent lifestyle for themselves get to decide where “home” actually is.

Last year I had a first date warn me ahead of time she would need to go to work at 9 p.m. At first I thought maybe it was just a setup for an escape hatch in case we didn’t click—after all, it was a first date.

But it turns out, she was indeed working for an office that opened at 9 a.m. EST. We were 12 hours ahead in Indonesia. Despite the inconvenient hours, she was quite content to still earn a New Yorker’s salary while enjoying life in a tropical place. The tuna-avocado poke bowls we enjoyed on the date cost $4 each instead of $20 as they would in NYC!

If your plan before the economic downturn was to escape the Rat Race, don’t wait for “better times” to make that happen. The right time may never come. You should, of course, wait to travel until it’s safe and legal to do so, but now is as good a time as any to get ready for your escape.

Travel and the Current COVID-19 Pandemic

Undoubtedly, many things will change after this pandemic, travel included. There is enough speculation and pandering already — no sense in my contributing more.

One thing I can say with certainty is that this isn’t the end of traveling and living abroad by any means. Bali and other beautiful islands aren’t going to sink. They’ll still need tourism just as airlines will still need passengers.

If anything, the digital-nomad movement will get its biggest boost ever as companies embrace remote work like never before. The technology and bandwidth are there. Employees and companies have been forced to adapt and learn. Many positions have already been made into work-from-home roles. No doubt, some of those people will be interested in escaping winter or moving to regions less affected by COVID-19.

I also believe the ethereal equilibrium tends to right itself. After being locked down for months and forced to enjoy simple pleasures (in my case, just one weekly trip to the grocery), people will be more ready to escape than before.

We’ve been reminded that life is precious and unpredictable — live it while you can.

Many times throughout the history of humanity, a darkest hour was followed by triumph and rebuilding. Us humans are pretty good at adapting and overcoming. I know we will this time, too.

One day, a young person will ask me how I spent my time during the historic 2020 pandemic. I don’t want my old-man answer to be only, “Why, Facebook rants and Netflix binges, my boy.”

No way.

Although this year didn’t exactly begin ideal by any definition, this “contraction” is the ideal time to prepare yourself. Get ready to rise from the ashes and reboot as a better version of yourself.

Escape.

Greg Rodgers traveling in Koh Lanta
Greg Rodgers escaped the Rat Race and Corporate America in 2006. Today, he’s a vagabonding writer and digital nomad.