How to travel the world for free

Aeroplane window

I knew something was wrong as soon as I got to the gate for my connecting flight. I almost had to push my way through that arm-crossing, foot-stamping, throat-clearing crowd. Exhausted after my trek across the airport, I threw myself like an old overcoat onto the one remaining chair and prepared to wait.

Opposite me were a pair of backpackers. He, probably French from his accent, was incredibly thin. Forget the Paleo Diet and the Atkins Diet, the one diet that always works is the poverty diet. I imagined he lived off a bowl of noodles a day. Next to him, half asleep on his shoulder was his girlfriend. Korean I thought, from a quick shufti at her boarding pass. I always try to guess people’s nationality when I travel. It helps to pass the time.

The dreaded announcement came.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are very sorry to inform you that your flight to Tokyo Narita this morning is overbooked. We are looking for eight volunteers to take a later flight. There are other options available to you today and —”

The woman at the microphone stepped back and consulted with her colleagues before continuing. I never heard what she said next because the people next to me evidently couldn’t understand English and talked all over the final part of the announcement.

“Harrumph,” I thought to myself. “Who on earth is going to volunteer to get off the flight? There’s no way that I’m doing it.” Then I felt a cold drop of sweat gather at the back of my neck. “What if there are no volunteers? What if I get bumped off the flight?”

It was only then that I noticed that the French-Korean couple had jumped up and were chatting to the person who had made the announcement. After some ten minutes of wrangling, they came back to their seats, beaming with satisfaction. Happy? What did they have to be happy about?

I had to know.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but did you just –”

“Yeah,” said the girl, with a slight American accent. “We volunteered to go on the next flight.”

“We always do it,” grinned the guy. “It’s all part of the plan.”


The French guy pulled his massive backpack over his shoulders. It was only then that I noticed his Heisenberg T-shirt, probably not the best choice of clothing for someone about to cross various international borders. It was almost inviting some sort of intrusive body search.

“Sure,” said the girl. “We always do this. We’ve been travelling the world for, like, basically free for over a year.”

I frowned so much that I could feel my eyebrows moving together, like two hairy caterpillars duelling over a prime patch for a chrysalis.

“It works like this,” said the guy. “You buy your tickets on credit card right? So you don’t pay anything until the next month.”

“And you always buy your tickets at peak times,” continued the girl. “Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, all of that. The flights are always overbooked, so they ask for volunteers to change to another flight.”

“Who wants to change flights, hein?” continued the guy. “They need to give you a little incentive. A little bit of sweetener. So they give you back the cost of the flight.”

“Like today,” continued his girlfriend, “they’re offering €600 per person to change planes. That’s more than we paid for our tickets. So we’re flying to Japan for free. We do it all the time.”

“What if there’s no plane the same day?” I asked.

“They have to put you up in a hotel,” said the guy. “There’s always one next to the airport.”

“It’s so good!” said the girl, “after sleeping in youth hostels to have like a clean bathroom, your own room, no bunk beds, all at someone else’s expense.”

“You get a free meal too,” added her travelling companion, “and breakfast the next day.”

“That’s incredible,” I said.

“One person loses, another person wins,” shrugged the French guy. “Bon voyage!”

“Sayonara” waved the girl, and they were gone, laughing together like lottery winners. Soon all I could see of them were the sleeping rolls on top of their backpacks bumping like flotsam over the heads of the crowd.

19 responses to “How to travel the world for free

  1. Wonderful !!! I love it !!! 🙂
    Oh to have just a fraction of the nerve of these two intrepid travellers. 😀
    Bon voyage indeed. 🙂

  2. Ah clearing up the one airport mystery of why wait for the next plane. If I had enough money to go and sight see the evening I would happily go for the hotel option. I am surprised everybody is constantly on the move like international gypsies!

    • Why not? Some airports are very close to the city centre. You can easily see Lisbon whilst travelling through the airport in Portugal for example. Mind you, some airports are rather generous in describing their location: Barcelona Reus is one example – Reus is miles away from Barcelona. Or how about dear old London Stansted? Where’s the city centre? Uhm … a couple of hours away on the train.

  3. They sound like the embodiment of footloose and fancy-free so rare these days where every second needs to be accounted for. Sounds rather alluring to me – maybe one day.

  4. So F%^# amazing. I love this. Carefree…Lifestyle at its best. Funny how you shared about this in your post as I talk today about blogging and writing and feeling the way those folks feel about what they are doing. Total elation.

  5. I could have never thought this up on my own, tried it on my own or been gutsy enough to add on all the other perks they’re getting. However…..! I would totally befriend the person with the personality who could and would acheive such adventure. Sounds like the best year ever! I wonder if they have trouble looking anyone in the eye? I think I would… This was a fantastic story, Alastair. Sorta solidifies my opinion of the old notion: living vicariously through others is just as much fun as living life with them. It isn’t! No way it can be…

    • Living life vicariously is fun, isn’t it? Sometimes it;s even better. I always like reading about solo travellers and their adventures but I’ve travelled alone a few times and the one thing they never tell you is how boring it can be. Some things are best left to books.

  6. It’s a delightful story. Clever happy-go-lucky people who make you smile now that we live surrounded by bureaucrats.

  7. Great story.

    Sounds like a reasonable plan though not something I’d ever be able to do.

    For whatever reason it brought to mind a short story by Anthony Burgess, The Endless Voyager.

    • The Endless Traveller – I’m not familiar with that one, so I’ll seek it out. I loved A Dead Man in Deptford by Burgess, which as a poet, I’m sure you’d enjoy – all about the life of Christopher Marlowe.

      • It’s in a collection of short stories entitled The Devil’s Mode.

        Don’t know A Dead Man in Deptford but it sounds great so I’ve just ordered it for my e-reader.