Q&A with Audrey & Harry Lesner
The Budget Savvy Travelers, globetrotter extraordinaires from Willowbrook
Let's start out with one of your best travel experiences.
One of our most joyous, memorable experiences was landing on Antarctica. Getting there is no easy feat! We had a lot of anxiety about crossing the turbulent waters of the infamous Drake Passage, which is the body of water separating South America and Antarctica. Visiting Antarctica is unlike anything anywhere else on the planet. There’s very few places left where one can feel like a true explorer. Antarctica conjures up that spirit because it is so isolated.
Do you tend to favor off-the-beaten track destinations?
We enjoy getting out of our comfort zone, which is really quite easy. We recently got back from Taiwan where we visited Taroko Gorge. We walked Zhuilu Old Trail, a 6.2 km hike. As avid hikers, this was one of the best we‘ve ever done. We spent the day trekking in awe-inspiring scenery, crossing suspension bridges and getting an adrenaline rush from walking the narrow paths along the 1,500-ft sheer cliff drops. We’re really open to trying new activities, but we still haven’t overcome the fear of skydiving and bungee jumping. Someday we’ll work up the nerve!
We also love to visit the hot spots in a city, even if they are touristy, although we tend to be extremely leery of anything drawing large crowds or lines. But some of our best moments have seemed to occur when we get off the beaten path either by accident or on purpose. When we come across a great local restaurant or a secluded place to watch a sunset, we walk away feeling like we’ve discovered something new.
Some of our best travel days are totally spontaneous. We head out without a guidebook or a pre-planned itinerary and just see where the day takes us. On the flipside, we were caught in a nasty hurricane leaving Deception Island off the coast of Antarctica. The waves were enormous and nauseating! We put our footage up on YouTube — BBC Earth came across it and we learned that it is going to be featured on “The World’s Deadliest Weather.”
Who are a few of the most interesting people you have met?
Once you sit down and talk to people, you find out that many of them have an interesting story to tell. For us, it’s been a pretty wild ride. We’ve met people from all walks of life. It varies widely! We’ve met the mistress of one of Australia’s richest men, expedition leaders, passionate small business owners, and just the most down-to-earth, everyday people who have welcomed us into their homes and treated us like family.
One of the easiest ways for us to meet people while traveling is through Airbnb. It really is remarkable how many great people we’ve connected with that are truly interested in sharing their hometowns with us for free. We’ve had numerous hosts pick us up from the train station, give us a tour of their city, generously gifted us a bottle of local wine, or even shared with us their favorite home baked goods. They do it all for the reason of wanting to proudly share their love of their city with a traveler.
Has the traveling life altered your worldview in any way?
One observation we’ve made is that our lives can be as simple or as complicated as we decide. We’ve witnessed so many people who have essentially nothing, living much happier lives than others who are living in abundance. Especially in the USA, people spend more money than they actually have, racking up debt to pay for things that they don’t really need, but they think it’ll make them happy. It’s a horrible cycle that leads people to give up their financial freedom and the ability to live their dreams. We could literally fill up an entire book about this topic.
If we were going to narrow it down to the one thing that really changed our lives, it would be minimalism. It sounds so cliché, but the more stuff you own, the more your stuff owns you.
Any negative experiences to share?
We once stayed at a hostel in Punta del Este, Uruguay. We arrived after a long bus ride — it was filthy, full of men sitting around smoking, drinking and playing loud reggae music. We reserved a private room at around $50 per night, which was a lot. The bedding was covered in mold and the communal smoking area was right outside our screened bedroom door! That same night we went out for dinner and Audrey was served raw chicken. It was just overall a bad day
Have you ever felt at risk of danger?
Thank goodness, no. We try not to be out late at night. After conversations with fellow travelers, we noticed that there is a strong correlation between naivety and stumbling into dangerous situations. For example, Buenos Aires is a city where many travelers get mugged or robbed for their wallets, cameras or phones. They let their guard down when traveling to these international cities, when they are by far the most dangerous places to visit. We’ve heard horror stories of travelers not using common sense — walking alone after midnight, or simply venturing into neighborhoods that may not be safe.
How much research do you carry out before deciding on a destination?
For our first round-the-world trip, we hung an old map up on the wall and dotted it with stickers. We ranked 20 places we wanted to see, then stood back and thought, “Wow, this is crazy! It will take us forever to visit all of these places. I can’t believe we’re actually doing this.” Part of the fun was seeing how we each ranked our top spots. We both had some real shockers. We still haven’t visited all the places that we initially chose, and we added some that never made that first cut. Looking back, this exercise helped us know which locations were important to us as a couple — and it helped us build a rough itinerary and route.
Do you still plan your trips in detail or do you go with the flow?
We initially planned out the first three months of travel almost to the hour. We knew where we were going, where we were staying, how we were getting there, and what we wanted to see and do. We weren’t just planners, we were over-planners. Now, we may just plan a day or two ahead of time. This gives us the freedom to stay longer or move on, depending on how much fun we’re having. With time and experience under our belts, we’ve gained the confidence to add more flexibility to our lifestyle. There’s a great comfort in knowing that if you’re put into a bad situation, you’re not stuck in it. You can just move on.
You saved for two years for that first trip. How are you paying for your current travels?
We continue to spend our savings. Once you get rid of the mortgage, the cars and all of the other bills, it’s actually quite affordable to live almost anywhere in the world for approximately $25 a day per person. Eventually, we will have to start generating some sort of income though.
Are you able to get to know the people as well as take in the sights?
We try to book our accommodations outside tourist areas — they’re typically the most expensive places to stay or eat. Because of this, we’re automatically “living like locals.” We shop at local grocery stores. We eat at the local restaurants. We watch the day go by from our balcony or through our window, essentially learning the rhythm of the neighborhood.
How long do you stay in one place?
It really depends on how much passion we have for a place and on the cost of living there. We try to spend less than $100 per day (for both of us). We stayed for 40 nights in the Cook Islands and spent approximately $150 per day. We were willing to spend a little more there because it was a dream destination. We also visited Norway, which is ridiculously expensive. We were there for only four nights and spent $1,309! We keep track of every penny we spend and detail it all out on our blog.
Any tips for traveling on a budget?
Lower your expectations! A lot of Americans like all-inclusive resorts. It’s really not unheard for a couple to spend $5,000 for a one week vacation in Mexico. Taking public transportation, renting an apartment and cooking your own meals would make that trip last a month or more! Oh, and we’ve traveled the world without a cell phone! In fact, we’ve never even owned a smart phone! If you want to quickly cut costs, get rid of the phone.
Do you travel light and what are the essentials when it comes to packing??
By our standards? No. But by most people’s standards, we travel very light. We each have a backpack and then one smaller bag for a day pack. When you carry as few items as we do, nearly everything is essential. Believe it or not, we still have nearly all the same items we set off with. When something needs to be replaced, we replace it. The key to traveling light is layering. We’ve gone from Antarctica to the South Pacific all in one backpack.
When it comes to essentials, it’s all about a pair of jeans and solid colored shirt. Throw in a comfortable pair of shoes and you’re pretty much capable of going anywhere. If you’re in the mindset that traveling the world is a fashion show, you’re in for a big surprise. Unless, you’re fabulously rich, you’ll run out of money really quickly. We also benefit from the realization that in reality, no one is paying that close attention to our wardrobe anyway. Additionally, the longer we’re traveling, the more current fashion doesn’t seem to make sense.
What do your friends and family make of your lifestyle?
To be honest, we don’t get a lot of support. Most family and friends just want it over with. They’re hoping we return to Chicago soon and get jobs. They want us to fall back into their routine of life. The traditional American dream says that we should graduate college, buy a car and a house, start a family, visit Disney World, work toward retirement . . . and then die. We’ve had a number of people in our lives pass away far too young. The realization that life is short definitely influenced our decision to travel. We quit our jobs, sold our stuff, said our goodbyes and left on the journey of a lifetime!
Do you ever feel you are losing out by not putting down roots?
We feel the exact opposite. By laying down roots, we would feel permanently vested in an area and it would take away the freedom and flexibility of our lifestyle. If we’re not comfortable where we are, we can up and leave, no strings attached. Where others may see a home as a place to call their own, we see an enormous amount of dollar bills, responsibilities and wasted time. There’s a lawn to mow, appliances to replace and constant maintenance. Right now, we’re enjoying the freedom of putting the burden of property ownership on someone else while we stay in short-term rentals.
The greatest sacrifice we’ve made is not being able to spend time with our family and friends back in Chicago. We have young nieces and nephews and we’re missing out on a lot of their milestones. It can sometimes be hard, but we’re hoping when they get older they’ll understand. We don’t regret any of the decisions we’ve made.
How does a traveling lifestyle affect your relationship with each other?
Before our first trip, we went to a few meetings in Chicago with a group called Meet, Plan, Go where a couple who had just returned from their own round-the-world trip spoke candidly about some of the obstacles they faced. One of their biggest challenges was being with each other 24 hours a day. Honestly though, we really enjoy each other’s companionship. Traveling has brought us much closer and our marriage has blossomed because of it. Part of the beauty of having all this time is being able to spend it with your significant other. Even with all the amazing experiences we’ve treasured over the last two and a half years, the biggest gift was the time to spend with one another.
Do you see a time when you’ll give up travel and settle back in the ‘burbs?
We’ve been working to travel since the moment we got married. We’ve been having too much fun exploring the world to even think of slowing down our crazy pace. At this point, we don’t feel like there’s anything missing in our relationship. We do feel though, that if we ever want to bring children into our lives, we’d be open to adoption or foster care.
You never know where you’re going to end up or what the future holds. This is why we’ve adopted the philosophy of living life to its fullest. If we’d had a crystal ball that showed us living for a year in the former Yugoslavia with nearly three years of continuous travel under our belt, we never would’ve believed it.
Beaches, cities or wide-open spaces?
Audrey’s all about the mountains and Harry’s all about beaches. When we find a mix of both, it’s our paradise.
Camera or video?
Video. It truly captures more of the moment.
Absolute must-haves for serious travelers?
Duct tape and super glue.
Places most worth a second trip?
Antarctica, Patagonia, Japan and the Cook Islands.
If you decided to live overseas, where would you choose?
We feel a great connection with Eastern Europe. The cost of living, people and cultures are amazing and align with our values.
Comforts of home you miss most on the road?
Giordano’s stuffed pizza for Audrey and thin crust for Harry!
Best way to follow your travels?
Come along for the ride with us at www.thebudgetsavvytravelers.com!