Think you need a lot of money to travel the world? Michael Wigge has proven that you don’t. In fact, he travelled for five months—all the way from Berlin to Antarctica—for free. While his unorthodox methods may not be for everyone, the fact that he succeeded in travelling, eating, and sleeping without spending a penny for over 40,000 kilometres shows that thinking outside the box can make any travel dream happen.
Wigge is a 35-year-old German broadcaster and comedian who specializes in travel and entertainment. He’s known for quirky Hollywood celebrity interviews and crazy stunts, such as paying a visit to the Queen of England dressed as Henry VIII. With a passion for travel, he set himself a seemingly absurd challenge: to make it all the way from Germany to Antarctica without spending a cent.
In 2009, it took him 150 days to succeed in this quest, and he’s released a self-published book called How to Travel the World for Free: I Did It, and You Can Do It, Too! While on the road, he documented his travels with video, and the resulting five-part TV series was aired on PBS in the U.S. (Canadians can watch episodes online or buy the DVD or the book from Wigge’s website, at howtotraveltheworldforfree.com/.)
So how exactly did he do it? Visiting Vancouver in July while on a break from a U.S. book tour—in L.A. he bantered with Jay Leno and guest Katy Perry on The Tonight Show—Wigge sat down with the Georgia Straight to explain.
First, Wigge clarified the terms of the challenge: while he set out with absolutely no cash, he did have credit cards (which he never used) as emergency backup. And while he managed not to pay for food, lodging, transportation, or sightseeing, at times he traded his services for cash, which he then used on items he couldn’t barter for, such as air tickets. “I didn’t spend anything that I didn’t raise,” he said, noting that over the course of the trip he earned about $1,000.
“I didn’t want to do this by begging,” Wigge said. “It was important not to just open my hand and say ‘Just give me.’ ” He noted that especially in poor countries like Belize, it would be “morally not cool” to be asking people who had less than him for freebies. That said, he did find South Americans to be very welcoming, but he concentrated on hitting up tourists, expats, and prearranged personal contacts for help.
Elsewhere, free travel was all about working his story. Wigge relied on his outgoing, humorous personality—coupled with six months of advance planning and sheer persistence—to convince people to help him make his dream come true. In terms of transportation, he arranged to cross the Atlantic from Belgium on a container ship; he earned his passage from Argentina to Antarctica working on a luxury tourist cruise. Hitchhiking took him through much of Europe and the Americas. (He admits that he did occasionally “sneak through a few things”, for example evading train conductors in Germany.)
For accommodation, he worked his personal networks before the trip, and while on the road he used his netbook and free Wi-Fi to connect to the CouchSurfing website, where he could find locals who would open their homes for a night. He travelled with a tent and spent a few nights on the street. Overall, he stayed in hotels only about 10 of the nights, for which he bartered his labour. (Las Vegas was the toughest place to find a bed; he asked over 100 establishments.)
In order to find food, he relied on a variety of strategies, such as Dumpster diving and approaching businesses to ask for something small, such as an apple, in exchange for providing a service like dishwashing or sweeping. To give his story legitimacy, he pulled out a map of his route that explained his goal of reaching the end of the world without spending a penny.
“I laminated it before I left. Laminating helps so much!” he declared. “People read it and they were like, ‘Okay!’ ” Wigge said that at shops and restaurants, four out of five people gave him something, often more than he had asked for.
Sometimes, he just got creative. “Whenever I was really in a troubled situation, I offered a service,” he explained. In San Francisco, he armed himself with a couple of pillows, made a sign, and stood on the street offering pillow fights for $1. He had 300 takers, earning enough money to cover his airfare to Costa Rica. In Santa Monica, he offered to rub sunscreen on people’s backs; in Buenos Aires, he told funny stories with a hand puppet. “My approach was, ‘Let me entertain you.’ ” In Panama, he convinced the German ambassador to hire him as a butler, and in Peru he worked as a porter in order to be able to see Machu Picchu.
While most budget travellers won’t want to imitate Wigge’s more outrageous tactics, he does encourage people to consider bartering, especially if they have a practical skill—such as his video-editing—that they can offer locals. “It’s a completely alternative approach to paying money,” he said.
Now that his adventure is over, Wigge is no longer compelled to travel for free. But he did come home from the experience with more than just an untouched bank account. “People are so generous and helpful,” he reports. “The news we see is just a collection of negative stories. The world is a much better place than people assume.”