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Your Passport to Free Travel: Exploring Funding Options and Debunking Myths

The world of travel funding opportunities is dizzying, full of inconsistent terminology and, for lack of a better word — simply convoluted. A sandstorm of funding jargon can make obtaining travel funding appear like a mirage on the horizon — tantalizing, yet only an illusion.

However, recognizing and naming the atmospheric conditions that create these illusions and understanding their definitions can be like rain capturing dust in the air, bringing it to settle on the ground. As the illusionary conditions fade with knowledge, shifting focus from the horizon reveals an oasis of funding opportunities present all along.

And now, for some jargon-clearing rain and more myth-dispelling wisdom from award-winning travel influencer and expert behind the travel and lifestyle brand Packs Light — Gabby Beckford.

Here is everything you will learn on this page:

Travel Grants, Scholarships, Fellowships — Defined Travel Fellowship Road Sign
Credit: Travel Fellowship Road Sign by Dakotastudios via Dreamstime

Travel Grants, Scholarships, Fellowships — Defined

The variety of funding types is one of the most confusing aspects of travel funding. Travel grants, scholarships, and fellowships are all just fancy ways of defining differences surrounding one concept — a grant. In our context, a grant means to bestow or formally transfer. Transfer what? Money. So it’s all just a fancy way to say free* money! 

But if you spent time in a high school economics course, you know there is no such thing as a free lunch. Any program that lets you travel for free will require some transaction, be it your time, presence, or work. A travel grant application is “work” in of itself. So, two things to remember about winning “free” travel funds are:

  1. Travel sponsorship is not an illusion because it requires some exchange.

  2. Never putting in the “work” of applying means you will never be “granted” funding.

Aside from that, here are some definitions to help determine your best travel funding opportunities. Travel funding terms have multiple connotations depending on the granting organization, the grant’s purpose, eligibility, geography, etc. Therefore, the definitions below are broadly defined.

Travel Grant: Typically need-based funds awarded by governments, corporations, universities or other foundations, societies, or conferences to individuals demonstrating a compelling reason for travel sponsorship related to the entity’s specific area of interest. 

Travel Scholarship: Largely merit-based funds awarded primarily (but not solely) by universities and other academic institutions to assist individuals (mainly students) with educational or service-based travel opportunities.

Travel Fellowship: Latent-based,outcome-tethered, long-term funds awarded to individuals in exchange for their commitment to an objective as stated by the grantor. I.e., grantors award funds based on “potential” to support a “fellow” while fulfilling job-like obligations tied to a specific endeavor, often requiring tangible results.

Travel Funding Opportunities Travel Funding Road Sign
Credit: Travel Funding Road Sign by Adonis1969 via Dreamstime

Travel Funding Opportunities

Due to the ambiguous terminology in the realm of travel funding, establishing a precise vocabulary for the diverse types of travel funding proves challenging. Nevertheless, Beckford has gone to extraordinary lengths to do just that and decode the puzzle of travel financial aid. Her site, Packs Light, is a resource hub for young travelers seeking to demystify travel funding opportunities.

I covered general travel grants, scholarships, and fellowships, but the world of travel funding is diverse and ever-changing. Beckford lists these additional types of whole or partial-funded travel opportunities:

  • Travel Conferences

  • International Cultural Exchange Programs

  • Internships Abroad

  • Training Programs Abroad

  • Travel Workshops

  • Travel Awards

  • International Leadership Programs

  • Summer Programs Abroad

  • Speaking Engagements with Travel Stipends

  • Travel Competitions

  • Creative and Entrepreneurial Prize Contests

  • Full or Part-Time Positions with Paid Travel

Furthermore, Beckford locates and lists ongoing prospects to fund your travels for most of the above-listed opportunities — which she collectively calls Paid Travel Opportunities (PTO) — on her PTO Dashboard.

Building on Bekford’s list, here are even more free travel opportunity examples. However, given the terminology ambiguity surrounding travel funding, many of these opportunities overlap with the ones already mentioned. 

  • Humanitarian Missions

  • Artist Residencies

  • Crowdfunding

  • Educational Tours

  • Faith-Based Missions

  • Journalism Assignments

  • Alum Funds

  • Influencer Collaborations

  • Medical Missions

  • Trade Shows and Expos

Now that you know there are at least 25 ways to find free travel, that unattainable metaphorical funding mirage on the horizon should be starting to look much closer, attainable, and very real.

Travel Funding Myths and Misconceptions Travel Grant Application Road Sign
Credit: Travel Grant Application Road Sign by Adonis1969 via Dreamstime

Travel Funding Myths and Misconceptions

The next challenge that often deters would-be grant recipients comes from a misguided belief. Specifically, questions of eligibility frequently halt their progress. Many people never question their preconceived notions about eligibility for travel-related grant funds. According to Beckford, one of the most common myths about winning travel scholarships, grants, and other program funding is that you must be a student. 

“I did the same as I had the same assumption for so long,” Beckford said. “The first thing that made me realize that you don’t have to be a student — and that there are funded travel opportunities for all ages — was when I graduated college. I started an engineering job, and I worked nine to five — very standard. Then, one day, I came across this online cultural exchange to South Korea, and I think the age cap was 30 years old.”

Beckford’s first thought was that the program must be for graduate students.

“It ended up being open, and it was sponsored by a cultural exchange company,” Beckford said. “Their goal was to get people to exchange foreign and South Korean cultures and promote goodwill amongst different nationalities. So, I looked into it, and the program had a scholarship, and I was like, ‘Okay, they are telling me I can kind of study abroad.’ It was a one-week-long program, and there is a scholarship to do it: completely paid-for flights, hotels, activities and food.”

Although skeptical, Beckford applied anyway, won, and found the program legitimate.

“I was 24 years old, and I had been working full-time for a year at that point,” Beckford said. “And I don’t think anyone else was a student; it was a range of people from 18 to 32. There was a mom of two who was there on scholarship as well.”

Beckford studied abroad in college, but once she found non-student travel funding opportunities, her horizons began to expand.

“Soon after that, I found a travel contest for an outdoor adventure magazine, and they’re like, ‘Hey, we’ll take you to Fiji for ten days,’” Beckford said. “I was like, ‘Okay, well, I already know insane things can happen, so I might as well apply to that.’ And I won that too. 

To some, it could seem like Beckford is just lucky or applying to everything she finds, but Beckford recommends combining hard work with smart work.

“Blindly applying to everything you find is probably not a good use of time,” Beckford said. “It’s a numbers game balanced with being really intentional with your application. It’s really all storytelling. Why should you go? Why should you take this trip?”

Beckford said a great way to get started looking for paid travel opportunities (PTO) is on her site, Packs Light.

“I have a whole dashboard that is just list-upon-list that we update every single week with new ones that we find — different ways to travel professionally, just for fun or school,” Beckford said. “There are just so many opportunities out there.”

Travel Cost Myths and Misconceptions Low Cost Travel Road Sign
Credit: Low Cost Travel Road Sign by Adonis1969 via Dreamstime

Travel Cost Myths and Misconceptions

One of the most common misconceptions about travel is that it’s far too expensive for many people. To Beckford, this is also a travel myth.

“Myth, with a little asterisk next to it,” Beckford said. “Whenever you travel, you should have some money. I don’t think it’s the amount of money most people think; you don’t need to have thousands of dollars. I think you should always have enough money to get yourself home, basically, at all times. But there are a lot of ways to travel for free through scholarships, funded conferences, internships, and cultural exchanges.”

Beckford also recommends looking into volunteer exchange programs, especially if you are not a student. These programs are frequently open to anyone who thirsts for travel and making a difference.

“Travel to Thailand and teach English, or go to Australia and work on a farm,” Beckford said. “There are so many experiences like that where people or organizations just want your time, information, knowledge, or work. They’ll give you free accommodation, food, or a place [to sleep]. I see so many people who work at hostels… They put a few hours in; they get accommodation. 

Beckford advises keeping an open mind to opportunities and not assuming every program is only for students. 

“If you really want to do it, it’s out there, but you have to go make it happen for yourself,” Beckford said.

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