How do you prepare for a cycling trip around the world? Freelance writer and cycling enthusiast Zoe Ashbridge shares how she transitioned from an office job to a freelance writer during a mega cycling trip around the world. We chat about how travel by bike is different from regular travel, what are challenges along the way and tips to take note when planning for such a trip. We also discuss how to kickstart your freelance journey on Upwork and the mentality to go after the life you want.
- 04:10: What led to the world cycle adventure
- 06:40: Adopting a “Just do it” mindset
- 08:00: Planning the cycling route and equipment
- 11:55: Travel plans can change
- 13:30: Some continents are easier for cyclists
- 16:15: Planning with the seasons
- 19:35: Getting fit with cycling
- 23:15: A different travel experience by bike
- 29:55: Interacting and communicating with locals
- 32:10: Tips for planning a cycle trip
- 35:32: A memorable story from travel
- 40:30: Budgeting and how to save up for a trip
- 45:20: Getting into freelance writing while traveling
- 47:10: Handing work during travels
- 51:47: The freelancing landscape
- 59:50: Tips to get started on freelancing platform
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The following is an extremely summarized version extracted from the transcript of the full conversation. I strongly recommend listening to the podcast for all the valuable insights. You will also hear more detailed and contextualized stories from the guest(s), as well as pointers from me in a two-way conversation.
Please give an introduction of yourself.
My name is Zoe, and I am a freelance writer. Last year, or even the year before, I left my house in England, and I cycled to Vietnam with my boyfriend. We rode about 13,000 miles over a year, roughly 20,000 kilometers. We were planning to cycle around the world, but the pandemic stopped that from happening. I think we were nine days over a year on the road; we got the next plane home. I had started to explore remote working and dabbling in writing blog posts for people. I had never really felt like remoting working was accessible to me. Still, I have learned since that it was, and it’s accessible to a lot of other people as well.
What was the initial route planned?
The initial route was to leave England and then cycle a complete circumnavigation around the world, and then come back to England, all by bicycle. It was a mega trip, but I hardly did any planning because my work was fantastic, and they did the whole lot. I followed obediently. The plan was to go south to Singapore, Australia, South Australia, and New Zealand from Vietnam. Then the goal was to go across the USA, Portugal, Spain, France and then back home to England.
What got you into cycling, and why did you choose cycling as a way to travel the world?
I always cycled before I met my boyfriend, Stewart. I would go out on my own. I have a terrible sense of direction; the fact that I’ve cycled to Vietnam is quite laughable if you know me very well. I would never be able to do anything like that on my own. I was a reasonably keen road cyclist, wasn’t particularly fast, but enjoyed getting on my bike and outdoors. Maybe a few years after cycling on my own, I was just at work, and the people I worked for employed a new developer. I met him, and we ended up getting involved romantically, and he cycled too. A month into our relationship, he said he was planning on quitting his job, and he asked me to leave mine and cycle around the world. I said, let’s do it, and then six months later, we both quit our jobs. They were terrific about it, supportive, and we are still on excellent terms. I never went back to freelancing.
What is your mindset when taking the leap of faith to quit your job and go cycle around the world?
I think I’m just not scared about taking risks. I think about calculated risks. I’m willing to think about what is the worst that could happen? I knew I would probably come back alive. If we broke up, I could get a plane home. Quitting your job can feel quite scary, but there are other jobs out there, especially if you’re willing to do anything. When I came back from the trip, I didn’t have a job, but I was happy to work in a supermarket and earn minimum wage for a while. I enjoyed it. So although it feels risky, I think it will just alter my life course for a little bit, but I don’t see anything wrong happening.
Did you have to plan a detailed cycling route, or did you just go with the flow?
A mix of the two. When my boyfriend planned the route, he planned the whole route strategically, turn by turn, the entire 24,000 miles, which took a long time. I have prepared a 100-mile walk previously, and it took me 10 hours. He wanted to have that management of the trip. When we got over there, we found that you don’t have to plan. The exceptions would be places like Kazakhstan and a little bit of Azerbaijan. We would have to prepare parts of that trip because we needed to know how much water we needed to carry and how much food we needed to take on our bikes. We had to have enough water on our bicycles to last for two days so that we could cycle through the desert.
Do you carry around camping equipment?
We have pannier bags on our bicycles, and they hold camping equipment and first aid. We had our laptops; we had enough room for food and sleeping bags to be ultimately self-sufficient on the bikes. In the built-up areas, like England and France, most of Europe, my bike was approximately 35 kilos and Stuart’s probably 40. Then when we went to the desert, we carried water and extra food; my bike was 40 kilos, and Stuart’s was pushing towards 50 kilos. By the time you get to Kazakhstan, you’re fit; you’ve been cycling a hefty bike for six, seven months. So you don’t have to worry about that extra weight because you can do it.
How long was the whole journey supposed to be when you planned it?
I think we said 18 months. When we went from England to Italy, we knew it would take longer than 18 months. Even within those two countries, we knew that was a bit ambitious. So we added six months on and then reduced our daily budget to ensure that we could do that.
Was the delay due to the route or because you spontaneously decided to spend longer time in certain places?
It was a mixture of the two, to be honest. We weren’t quite making our goal of 65 miles a day, 100 kilometers a day, so that was one reason. The second reason was, we booked our accommodation for the first eight days in advance, and Stuart got injured on the way because we were too ambitious with the miles. We had to take a day off to rest his ankles, and then sometimes, when you’re in a charming place, we wanted to stay for two days. You never know where you’re going to end up when you’re traveling, especially like this.
Are there specific continents that you found to be tougher to cycle?
In terms of food or somewhere to stay, you can always get to something. You’re never that far away from buying food or a town person, which makes it easier but of course more expensive. You’ll probably exceed your daily budget in Europe, compared to Asia. Central Asia was complex; you can’t get any break from the sun, you need to carry all your food in your bike, so your bikes heavy. But then, it is boiling and humid in South Asia, which I was not used to and I’m dreading going back into that.
Are you planning on continuing where you left off when travel recovers?
I don’t know when it will be because we need countries to be open and need many to open. We don’t want to fly out to have to come back. I’m more a little bit worried about winter and how we can handle the winter. We’re just taking it day by day and enjoying what we’ve got now; building careers and stuff.
Did you plan your trip based on the seasons?
Yeah, we had a plan, and it didn’t work out. We were so excited that we were never going to see winter again. It didn’t happen. We hit China in October, which was the start of their winter. In winter, when the roads are icy, they don’t grit them like in England. It was like an ice rink, there were times where we would be walking or skidding, and we were so cold. I was wearing five layers of my clothing, including an oversized fat jacket, and we were still cold. The snow made parts of the trip hard to enjoy because we were so cold.
Do you cycle through bad weather?
It’s up to you if you want to cycle through the rain. In Slovenia, it was rainy, which is unusual for their season. People would make about us bring the British weather with us. It’s usually beautiful and hot. It rained for days on end, but we cycled through it. The only time that weather caused a real problem in the desert because it’s so flat. If you’ve got a headwind when it’s flat, you’ve just got a headwind all day because you’re moving in one direction. There was an excellent app called Windy, which I think is for surfers initially to gauge waves; we use this Windy app, and if there was a headwind, we didn’t go on the bike. Instead, we got a hotel to wait for the wind to get better because it’s just exhausting to push your bike into a headwind all day.
Did you have to do any specific training before the trip?
We are pretty fit anyway, so our fitness was good enough. I could have cycled 100 miles, 100 kilometers in a day without any problems. Cycling with weight was utterly new. I didn’t do much weight training at all before the trip. You don’t have to be that fit because you only have to be able to get somewhere. All you’ve got to do is move forward every single day. It’s a question of time as opposed to fitness.
Where did you sleep during your travels?
We stayed in accommodation quite a lot; we did some camping. We meet some tourists who were riding on a $5 a day budget. They would eat whatever they could find and camp every night. They smelt terrible. We would joke that we are pretty posh cycle tourists. We probably did 70% hotels and 30% camping, something like that, maybe less camping, that’s how I enjoyed it.
When you travel the world by cycling, is there a specific goal or certain things you want to see?
I think it’s a balance of both. We wanted to cycle around the world; that didn’t happen, but it was important. It probably was a priority over everything else; we’re going to cycle an unbroken circle around the world within two years. But I think when you cycle tour, your perception of travel changes because you’re not hitting up the big cities, all the places where everyone goes. I’m not throwing shade at other travelers, but when you cycle, the journey of getting from A to B is what you’re doing, opposed to the destination of the place. You see places in a way that you wouldn’t see them if you flew out somewhere and landed in the city center, which has had all the money poured into it. You can see all the bits around that and village life. We cycled through Georgia one day, and we started in someone’s house because there wasn’t a hotel available. We had these minor interactions with the owners that were special. The people make it, opposed to the places. There’s so much to see on a bike, and you’re immersed in nature.
Did you find the rural communities more hospitable and friendly?
I find that city people tend to be busier and don’t have the time; I think they’re rude. There’s so much hustle and bustle, and they’re going somewhere themselves. The hospitality in smaller towns and villages is just excellent. I always joke that if we hadn’t said no to people in Turkey, we would still be in Turkey now; people are incredibly hospitable there.
Did you have any concerns about the dangers of cycling or camping?
When we left, I wasn’t that worried about people, but I’m also not naive enough to think there would be no danger. We didn’t experience a single negative interaction with anyone in a year. When you’re cycling, you pass a lot of people as well. I think it’s nice to travel in that way because you are pretty vulnerable. At one point, we nearly ran out of water, but someone happened to be driving that same road in a van, and they stopped and gave us some. We were in the middle of the desert in Uzbekistan, and we couldn’t find anywhere suitable to put a tent up. We stopped at a random café and asked for a hotel, but there wasn’t one; he invited us to stay in a room for free, and he fed us.
When you’re so vulnerable, you have to reach out to people for help, and people do deliver when you need them. I think it restores a lot of faith in humanity. People can be pretty quick to see the world as an evil place, but actually, the world’s a great place. At some point, we are going to get stung by someone, but that’s fine. I’ll take that one in 50 interactions because the other 49 are great.
What do you wish you had known before your trip that you would like to share with new travelers planning their first trip?
We planned pretty well, to be fair, and we were ridiculous about it. I weighed everything, all my clothes. I wouldn’t do that again. I would say to people; you’ve got to live in these clothes, or whatever it is for a year. So take it if you want it because you’ll be OK with them. People carry hefty bikes, and they’re fine; they take them up mountains and get fit. You’re not racing either. When your day job is to cycle, it’s all you’ve got to do. It doesn’t matter if it takes you 12 hours.
I would say I wish I would have relaxed about wait just a little bit and take more time. The second thing would be, don’t panic about how far you can travel or will you do it in time because you well. On a good day, on a flat road with a tailwind, you’ll do those miles to catch up with the days where you had a tough day, and you couldn’t do it. It just works out. It’s fine. Once you start, you embrace the adventurous nature of any given day. It might not go to plan, but we certainly scrapped the plan over time and just went with it. Go with someone you can spend 24/7 with, and don’t overcomplicate it. It’s not that difficult. You need to eat, need somewhere to sleep, and fix your bike if it goes wrong. Thank goodness Stewart can do that because I can’t. But that’s it, eat, sleep and a bike that you can repair.
What is the most memorable story from your trip?
It’s not the most upbeat story, it has a cheerful ending, but it was pretty scary at the time. In Azerbaijan, British citizens with a British passport have eight days completely free. You can enter the country and leave in eight days. We had a plan to cycle through Azerbaijan in five days. If you’re going to be there between eight days to 1830 days, you can still stay, but you have to register your hotels. We thought we were going to be there for five days. Two weeks later, we were still there; we were both unwell. We were so sick we were we might have to go home and go to the hospital. It was just a nightmare. We got better, and we got to the Caspian seas; we’re going across it by ferry from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan, and we met some other tourists at the ferry port. We had our passports taken off us by immigration, and they couldn’t speak English. We stood watching the ferry, knowing that iut only comes every four days and doesn’t follow a schedule. To cut a long story short, we were left waiting for a long time; then, a friendly border guard helped us. He brought the passports back, and we had to sign a contract in Azerbaijani; I couldn’t read it. Everyone on the ferry had to wait for us. It was so embarrassing. We were fortunate that the border guard helped us out and solved our problem. We went to Kazakhstan.
Was there a target savings amount that you set before you travel?
I think we just saved what we did; we saved so hard, we saved every penny we possibly could, I didn’t buy anything. We didn’t buy new clothes for anything, but it completely changed my mentality on things like fashion. We ate the cheapest food we could find in the supermarket; we would buy all the reduced stuff, even if we hated the meal. We looked at the amount of money that we had, minus the expenses of the bikes, and then divided money by days. When we realize it’s going to take longer, we looked at the budget again and divided it by 18 months to see how much our daily rate was, and we tried to stick with it, so that’s how we managed.
It was about Forty pounds a day on average, which is quite a lot for some travelers. To be honest, it was a high budget; actually, people do it a lot cheaper than what we did.
Which side hustles did you find takes little time or goes well with your job or your travels?
I’ve got a job, and I’m saving more money by freelancing. Before the trip, I didn’t even know about freelancing; I didn’t know it was a thing. I didn’t think it was lucrative. I didn’t think I could do it. I figured only the luckiest people in the world get to do; that’s honestly what I thought. So alongside my full-time job, I did food delivery on a bicycle. It was good training because I was carrying something on my back cycling, and it tends to be quite an intense cycling because you’ve got someone’s hot food; you want to get out there pretty fast. It’s like interval training. I think one of the quickest ways to save money is to cut back on your expenditure, rather than trying to work yourself into the ground because if you cut back on your bills, cut back on your food, cut back on luxury items, you’ll be surprised.
While we were on the trip, the plan was not to work. Maybe it was nine months in, and we didn’t need money, but I wondered if I could write blogs and make money. I decided to sign up for Upwork; I wasn’t expecting to do anything particularly lucrative with it. I just thought, wouldn’t it be nice to earn some money while I write a blog, and that’s all I wanted. Traveling allowed me to do something with no pressure to start writing blogs at $10.
How did you incorporate writing into your cycling days?
It was hard, to be honest, it was difficult as well because it wasn’t part of the plan. I was adding in another layer of something to do. Cycling is an eight to 10 hour work day. Then when you get back to the hotel, you eat and go to sleep. Whereas now I was getting back late eating and then working. It wasn’t hard work. It wasn’t overly strenuous. But some nights I would be typing blogs being super, super tired, thinking I don’t know if this is a good idea. Stuart stuck to the plan, but I’m glad I did it. I did find I can love sales as well, so when I knew that I had a blog to write, I would write with so much power because I was excited to get back to that hotel and make $10.
Did you experience internet issues?
In Vietnam, the internet is incredible, but the internet and websites aren’t as available in China. We did some hotels with Wi-Fi, and it’s not that difficult to plan around that.
Did you have to book your accommodation in advance, or did you walk in?
It was always on the day; you never really know what will happen on a bike ride. We would usually turn up in the city or town village and look at booking.com. We would go directly to the hotel rather than bool it with booking.com. Sometimes you can save a little bit doing that. If we went into cities, we would plan because we want to be near the tourist attractions.
Are you exploring any further freelancing options?
I have my accounts making about $10 on Upwork per blog, which sometimes will take me two hours. I felt empowered being freelance, and I loved it. I’m involved with making sales as well; I find that gives me a real boost. It didn’t take long for it to kick off for me. When I got home, I asked for my old job back, but I didn’t get a job there because of the pandemic. I went to work in the local supermarket, and I was doing online shopping for deliveries; I did that for 12 weeks. Then I quit as I was comfortably making money on Upwork. It’s all about reviews on Upwork, start cheap and get five-star reviews, get happy clients. It’s amazing. I think there’s a lot of work out there if you’re willing to put the hours in and build up your portfolio. I started in a pandemic and rocketed in my career.
I think quality is the key; that’s why I did well as well. Provide your client with something a little bit extra, so they’re pleased because they’ve just had something for free effectively. When you’ve been freelancing a while, you can factor that into your price and do it for a rate you’re happy with; then, they’ve had this added value. It’s not that difficult to be part of the top 10% of freelancers.
How do you find the competition of freelancing from developing countries who will work for less?
I think there’s enough space for everyone and I think it’s about your target client. My target client wants to work with a native English speaker, so I’m not worried because they can share the clients that I didn’t want to work with. I don’t want to be paid $10 for a blog anymore; I like the ones that will pay me $70 for the blog. I’m completely unfazed by it. I’m happy to see anyone go freelancing.
What tips do you have for someone who wants to start freelancing?
I would say, have a low rate, and niching out is good. When you are on a freelancing platform, you need to make sure you can provide the best piece of work. I would never apply for technical writing or medical writing because I know out there there is someone better than me at that. But if it was travel writing, I think I could stand out against the people who apply. It doesn’t mean I’ll get it. Still, I’ve probably got a good chance if it’s writing about bicycles; that was my first ever blog riding bikes to Vietnam. Unleashing is essential; some people do freelancing platforms, and they apply for everything. I think it’s a fair argument; as a freelancer, you will attract a low-quality client if you set a low budget. That hasn’t been my experience. You can look at the client’s profile and see the types of reviews that people have left them, and they’ve left the freelancer. If all of those reviews are respectable, the chances are you’re going to have a good experience. I would say to try a few different platforms. I started on Upwork, it went well, but it didn’t deter me from making a Fiverr account. Don’t get demoralized and roll with the punches.
How much time do you spend between your workload and finding new clients?
I’m not sure how much time I spend, but I probably do look at the job board every day. I’m a little bit lucky, and I’ve got four long-term clients. It takes a while to get to that point, especially for blog writers; generally, I’ll write a blog, and the contract ends. I wouldn’t spend ages on that; just look in the morning, look in the afternoon, then only apply when it’s relevant. So maybe an hour a day if you’ve got a contract that moves quite fast, and it’s going to be over soon.
How do you determine when to raise your prices?
I think I’m pretty intuitive; I used to work in sales, I’m pretty good at sales. If you need a guide, I think, as I said, go low. If you get to a point where you’re busy higher your prices; the minute I’m busy, my prices go up. And then I can always bring them down again if I lose those clients and need to get work fast. You can get the top-rated status as well; I can’t remember how you get that. Once you’ve got that top-rated Upwork, start recommending you to jobs, so you come with a bit more gravatar, you look like you’re a seasoned freelancer.
What preparations are you taking so you can continue writing when cycling? (e.g. Are you tweaking your journey in terms of your travel speed or time to factoring in remote working?)
I love freelancing too much not to do it now. I genuinely love it; I find it fulfilling and motivating; it makes me happy. I’m not looking to quit my job again and be unemployed. So the very open plan will be to fit it into my travels somehow. It may well be pretty tricky because we had fewer visa restrictions during the first half of the trip. And the second half of the trip, we’ve got visa restrictions. Australia, for example, is a vast country. We’ve got to get through it in three months, and I’m not expecting great Wi-Fi, so there are going to be areas that might be pretty tricky to work on. But I’ll figure it out; I’ll be open and honest with my clients and explain my situation. I see it more as a lifestyle thing, the second trip, and maybe we will stop in a country sometimes and have a few months there, which we didn’t do on the first trip.
What services are you offering current?
I have scaled from content writing because I had a digital marketing background. I find it quite hard just to write content without that kind of SEO slant. So I developed pretty quickly into SEO consultancies. I work with VC and b2b businesses and help them create content and a content architecture strategy that will rank on Google. That’s what I’m doing these days.