Interview - world traveler Jenna Bennett
Jenna Bennett had a plan - to travel the world for a year – or until she ran out of funds. Budgeting for a mere $50/day, she saved up and left America on her 30th birthday. A year and a half and 35 countries later, Jenna continues to galavant around the world in search of new cultures, food, and friends. Sporting bouncy curls, a wide smile, and a laugh you can hear in the other room, Jenna's warm and carefree personality always shines through. Her joie de vivre is palpable - it's no wonder she's always at ease and makes friends wherever she goes ! Her blog - jennalogic, is both informative and colloquial, filled with everything from historical finds to silly selfies. Holed up in Amsterdam with a bottle of wine on a rainy night, she sat down with me for an online chat about what led her on this journey, how she continues to fund it, and what she and the rest of us can learn about ourselves through the magic of travel !
So you left america on your 30th birthday to travel the world. What inspired you to go on this journey ?
Well, I looked around at all my friends and saw that they were either married, married with multiple kids, or losing their minds in LA trying to date and just pay the rent. I was one of those LA people and didn't want to be. So, I set a goal to travel the world after my 30th. The goal was one year or until my money ran out - I made it about 49 weeks.
49 weeks is a long time ! How did you save up the funds for a year abroad ?
My job allows me a very flexible lifestyle. I worked in hotels in Beverly Hills roughly from 2006-2011 and then became a consultant for hotels where I am able to live at the hotels I am currently working for. So, I got rid of my apartment which meant no rent and no bills ! It's pretty easy to save when you eliminate those things.
I remember thinking at the time that it sounded awesome to save on rent and utilities, but you basically had no home base for over a year ! Did you ever miss cooking in your kitchen or having your wardrobe full of clothes ?
I miss cooking the most ! Anytime a colleague invites me over for a home cooked meal, I get really excited. And when I work I basically have a uniform of a black skirt and three different blazers I rotate with different shirts and deal with it. I do miss shoes though. I am obsessed with shoes ! But as soon as I made the decision to travel, I knew it was all going to be worth it.
Right, you understood your sacrifice was going towards something awesome ! Once you were abroad, how did you budget your funds then ?
My idea was to spend $50/day for hostels and food and activities. From all the blogs I read and researched, they said that was a good daily average to spend. I started in Europe with my parents for a few weeks, so my average spend was $0. But, after they left me in Switzerland I quickly realized how little $50 could be in certain countries ! I quickly left Switzerland and went to Germany where my dollar went a lot further. However, that doesn't mean that once I spent $50, I was done for the day. Traveling is about eating the local food and trying the local beverages and exploring local sites. So if I wanted to go to an opera or a museum and eat a delicious meal, I would spend the money. There were others days where I would only pay for accommodation and maybe a few dollars on groceries. The choice to stay in hostels instead of hotels is what allowed me to last so long. In countries like Serbia and Romania I paid as little as $9/night whereas in London I paid about $35/night. It all evens out.
I hear a lot of people say “Oh, I don’t have the money to travel,” but I think you’re a great example that if it’s really important to you - and you budget correctly - you can make it happen !
People choose to spend $5/day on Starbucks. If you made coffee at home instead and saved that you would have over $1,800. It is just making your dream a reality with little changes to your everyday life no matter what the dream is.
Are there certain websites you like to find good deals on airfare and buses ?
Skyscanner has been my savior. For example, I knew I needed to get to Ecuador from San Francisco but didn't really mind what route I took. I found an amazing deal to Bogota and then another amazing deal to Ecuador from there. It ended up being about $250 ! As long as you have the patience and the time Skyscanner is great for flights. For trains and buses I use rome2rio which at least shows me what I can expect to pay. Also, sometimes just traveling on a Tuesday instead of Wednesday or something like that changes prices drastically. When you have all the time in the world, the only other thing you need is patience.
What countries / continents has this journey taken you on so far ? Is “where you go next” super planned out, or do you sometimes wing it ?
I managed to make it to Europe, Indonesia and South America thus far covering about 35 countries. The Indonesia trip was very spur of the moment to meet friends from Uni that were heading there from Hong Kong and China ! Other times I would plan a route and generally stick to it. But, the longer I travel the more spontaneous it has become as I am more confident with the ability to move around at random. Planning is just not for me any longer and I love it!
Sounds like you're usually pretty footloose, but I know you did spent a good amount of time in Rome. Tell me about your time there !
When I decided to start this journey I had no idea what to expect. I found a volunteer organization called goeco.com that has opportunities around the world to work with animals, children, the environment or in hospitality. I signed up to volunteer at a hostel in Rome for 6 weeks and in exchange for the $350 fee, I received free accommodation, food and booze ! But I was required to "work" 30 hours/ week. My job was to walk people to their room at The Yellow (the hostel I worked at) because it was so large and in different buildings that it was necessary. It took my love for meeting and learning about people and combined it into the ideal job ! However, 6 weeks is a long time in one city and with the Schengen restrictions of only a 90 day visa, that ate up a lot of my time.
What have your favorite places been so far and what else is on your bucket list ?
That is such a hard question ! But if I have to answer I would say I loved Bali, Dubrovnik, Bruges, Barcelona, Valparaiso, Chile and Buenos Aires. Costa Rica has always been my favorite country but I haven't been back there in over 10 years.
As for the bucket list, I want to travel the world. There is nowhere that I wouldn't want to go unless it was incredibly unsafe at the moment. But the world is ever changing and 15 years ago I couldn't have gone to Bosnia or Albania and felt very safe and when I went, it was amazing ! In the near future I'm aiming for finishing off South America and all of Central America and doing Sri Lanka and the surrounding countries. The thing with wanderlust though is that it will never end.
That's right ! You came back to the States after a year, worked to make more money for a few months and took off again ! Is that the plan – work to travel ?
That's the plan for now until I find where I feel home is. And when I find that place I want to open my own hostel. I figured I've stayed in enough and work in hotels as my actual profession, I should be able to run a successful hostel. The ultimate plan is just to make myself happy and continue to travel and figure out a lifestyle that allows me to do that.
I can’t recall - were you an “experienced” traveler before this journey ? Did you travel with your family growing up, or was it something you’d always wanted to do and finally jumped at the opportunity ?
My mom let me go to Spain for spring break my freshman year of high school and that sparked my interest. For high school graduation I went to Paris and I was hooked from there. From that point on if I didn't leave the country every year I felt like something was missing. I had never done a trip longer than a month and even that trip was a program in Costa Rica so I wasn't on my own.
This was one of the scariest things I have ever done. I remember being at the train station in Geneva saying goodbye to my mom. She walked to her platform and I walked to mine and in that moment I thought to myself, "what the hell am I doing? I speak English and bad Spanish and I want to galavant around the world?" It was a total gut check moment.
OK, so you had this gut check moment and were like “ahh what am i doing ?” and now you don’t want to come back ! Do you think you'll ever fulfill your mom's dream and come home to the States ?
I got over that moment when I checked into my first hostel and met my first fellow backpacker who I have now seen a few other times while traveling. I don't think the States is where I see myself permanently any longer. I'm not sure I see myself permanently anywhere to tell you the truth. Now that I have this true love and addiction for travel, all I want to do is continue to do it. My mom would love me to be home but she would love me to pursue my dream even more. She's good like that.
Sounds like your family has been super supportive about yout travels.
Yes, my family was incredibly supportive! Like I said before, I started the trip with my parents and then 6 months in my mom met me again in Europe and then a few months later my parents met me in South America. They also let me move my clothes and a few of the possessions I held onto back into the house. All of my friends were supportive too even if they thought I was a little crazy. But they know me so a little crazy isn't unexpected. Social media has allowed me to stay in touch with people and the support keeps coming.
What kind of people do you meet on your travels ? Do you feel like there’s a sense of community among other world travelers ?
I meet a lot of Aussies - they're everywhere ! But really since I stay at hostels I meet a lot of younger people on a gap year and then a few people like me who have just decided to leave it all behind. Everyone is a backpacker and everyone just wants to make friends. I've gone to dinner with people I don't even know the names of but I know their life story. It's like sharing the common experience of traveling instantly bonds you and there is no need for the norm of social conformity. You are instant friends that you feel like you have known for years and some you will never see or hear from again but you have this amazing memory with them. I think a lot of traveling is about the people you meet. It's an amazing feeling to just belong to a community of travelers.
Sounds like you've had some amazing journeys and met some great people the last year and a half. Ever had any scary experiences ? I know for a lot of women it can be daunting to travel alone. Any bits of advice in that regard ?
Traveling alone for a male or female can be scary. But in cities where I didn't feel 100% safe I made the choice to not go out alone at night and put myself in a scary situation. We lived in the ghetto of LA while at USC and I was probably in scarier situations there than I ever have been while traveling. Something could happen anytime and anywhere. I can't live my life in fear because then I would never go anywhere. But it's all about not putting yourself in the position for something to happen.
With that being said, I've seen people get pick pocketed and been at hostels where people have come home and said they were robbed with a knife. I think traveling at 31 makes a big difference for my "street smarts."
OK, logistically speaking - how much are you traveling with on your shoulders ? How do you pack so light ?
On the first trip I completely overpacked. My bag was about 17kgs (just over 34 pounds) and after a few weeks it was down to about 15kgs. I couldn't do it. On this trip though my bag is 11kgs and I went to REI and bought a new backpack that is custom fit to my body. It has made all the difference ! It's all about packing things you can wear multiple ways and multiple times and not worrying about being in the same outfit in pictures. I have a smaller backpack that I carry my computer in along with books and an extra outfit just in case my luggage is ever lost.
Tell me about your blog - “jennalogic” ! You’re a great writer - it’s so easy to read and the pictures are so fun ! It's a great mix of food, architecture, history, and silly selfies with the people you meet along the way !
I started it as a way to catalog my travels so that I remembered them. It's easy to forget the name of a restaurant or a church or a play. I also started it so my mom always could keep up with me and know that I was okay. But like anything online, I have some random and loyal followers because they like it. Now I have some travel business cards with the blog on it and if people want to read it and look at the pictures, then that's awesome. But in 30 years I will basically have a diary of my travels and that's what I wanted. For me, if no one reads it or if 5000 people read it, it's all the same to me. Truly though, with Facebook and Instagram and my blog, I have met people around the world because of something I've posted or that they have posted. I love that!
One of the things I notice you post a ton about is graffiti art ! What draws you to it and where have you seen some great pieces ?
Oh gosh. I truly love graffiti. I think it's really an under appreciated art form. I really like the street art aspect and I think it's such a wonderful expression of what is going on at the moment. For example the Berlin Wall had a tag that just said "Freedom to Greece" about two weeks after the referendum. That speaks to the public while it's still in their consciousness rather than waiting for it to come to fruition in a gallery. And it's just so personal. Berlin, Buenos Aires and Valparaiso were all amazing places for the street art!!!
You've obviously fallen in love with travel. What do you think it teaches us about ourselves ? What have you learned about yourself ?
Well, I think it's really different for everyone. I do often get asked if I'm running away from something and I think that's a misconception of traveling. I think traveling teaches you how to step out of your comfort zone and try a new food or speak a new language or get lost in a city and figure it out.
Personally I have learned to open my mind and be at peace with wherever I am and with whatever I am doing. I find that in the States people are so stressed and for what ? Often times a thankless job with little appreciation. I have taken my travel zen into my job and it made everything so much better. I think I've also learned just how to be my best self. I'm not worried about the latest fashion or what people think of me from the outside because we are all here to soul search in one way or another and so it's easy to look past the physical and just be honest.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to make travel happen but isn't sure how to go about it or if they can ?
I would honestly say just do it. There are so many excuses not to do it. Rent. Relationships. Friends. Family. A job. But they will all be there in one way or another when you get back. And if not now, then when?
Do you EVER miss home ? Or get frustrated with being away for so long ?
Home is a fluid place for me now. Since I got rid of the apartment and sold my car and moved back to my parents, home isn't where I was the 13 years before I left. I don't exactly miss it but I miss the ability to just call up my friends and meet for dinner. But for me, as cliche as it sounds, home is where the heart is and my home is wherever I am at the moment.
In all your travels the last couple years, ever had any amazing moments where you just thought “this is what I’m meant to be doing, this is happiness” ?
Actually it was a very random moment when I was in Maresias, Brazil and almost no one spoke English ! It's a place that is a big destination for Brazilians but not really tourists. I was walking along the beach at sunset and not really paying attention and a huge wave completely pummeled me. Instead of getting mad or frustrated or annoyed I was completely elated. I threw off everything (except my bathing suit) and splashed around in the waves until the sun was gone. In that moment I was without worries or cares and just very happy with my life. And to me, that's what it's all about.