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How to Travel Around the World on an ESL Teacher's Salary

source:Teach English in china time:2018-10-09 16:27:22 read:224

by Jonathan Hoey 

My name is Jonathan and I'm a teacher and HR representative for Echo Education. Some of you may already have met me, indeed there's a strong possibility I interviewed you before reading this. I've lived in Hangzhou, China, since 2015. Before joining Echo I was a head teacher for Webi International and before that, I lived in a small beach hut on the island of Koh Samui in Thailand. I left the United Kingdom in 2013. I've now visited nearly 70 countries... And here I'm going to tell you how I did it... so you can do it too!

We have different motivations for becoming an ESL teacher. Some people genuinely have an academic desire for betterment and others are purely financially driven. Some teachers I've spoken to have very balanced reasons and then others who simply state they have "nothing better to do"! One factor which figures highly among the driving forces which send us here is the thirst for travel and new experience. It's very rare you meet an ESL teacher, particularly a young teacher, who has little or no interest in travel.

You only need 3 things to travel:
1. Passport
2. The willingness to step out your comfort zone
3. Some money
Hopefully, you already have (1) and you're very close to achieving (2) ... now we need to make sure you have (3).
ESL teaching can be profitable, very profitable in fact. But be cautious of the Youtube videos where you see "How I became an ESL Millionaire" and "Retired Before 35 from ESL teaching". What the videos forget to tell you is they're generating most their income by the sensationalist videos themselves. There are several internet savvy stars who are former ESL teachers who've done very well for themselves. Indeed, there are one or two who have not only traveled to every single country on earth but who've made a lot of money in doing so. Their income was not generated by teaching though, rather the sponsorship they received once they started to generate media attention. However, it is very possible to genuinely travel extensively overseas on an ESL teacher's salary IF you manage your money and time accordingly. I'm proof of that, I don't have a flashy blog nor Youtube channel but I've done enough traveling to be considered "experienced".

Money
Let's get straight to the point. How do you make enough money to travel abroad from teaching jobs?
1. Don't teach in Thailand
I love Thailand, it's still my favorite country by a long way. I miss it deeply... but living and working in Thailand is very different from backpacking or being pampered on a 5* holiday. You will never earn enough financial resource in Thailand which will catapult you out of Thailand. It's very difficult to earn enough to save. Average ESL salaries are only £600 ($840) per month... yes £600 per month. Now the payoff for teaching in Thailand is that you get to live in Thailand but your scope to travel further afield becomes limited. I personally know ESL teachers who've been "stuck" in Thailand for 10 or 15 years. Some are still happy, others not so much. Your only chance to fiscally entrench yourself in Thailand is to find a good job in Bangkok or at a renowned international school in a tourist area... other than that, life can be great but financially challenging. The reason why I highlight Thailand immediately is that it is the most popular destination to start an ESL career. People are drawn to the country and most of the world's best TEFL courses are operated from the country and heavily advertised online. I did my TEFL in Thailand, which I don't regret. What I do regret is staying there after and trying to eek out a living from teaching when there were much better options elsewhere.

2. South America
Now I've never taught in South America but it's part of my travels and I've met enough teachers to get a good insight. South America is expensive and ESL teaching isn't rewarded as it should be. Argentina, Chile, Peru, even Mexico are fairly lax regarding work permits. You can effectively teach on a tourist visa or buy a work permit. Salaries at most will reach $1000 per month but the cost of living is far higher than in Asia. ESL teaching in South America is viewed really like a short-term option to facilitate bouncing from one country to the next. Usually, it's part of a 6-month tour. The industry often attracts teachers on more of a language exchange environment rather than a well-paid position... basically 'I teach you Spanish, you teach me English for free!' There are exceptions to this like Ecuador and Nicaragua who I believe now have large government-funded programmes to attract ESL teachers. Also, again, the international schools will always pay a good salary but they look for seasoned teachers with quantified qualifications.

3. Europe
Spain, in particular, has a well-established ESL industry. Salaries are modest against a relatively high cost of living depending on which area you live and work. Eastern Europe and Russia have an established but selective ESL market. Most English teachers who teach in Europe are considered more career-minded teachers who hold directly related teaching qualifications. Also, the context of this guide is about earning potential to travel... the truth is, if you live in the UK, travel into Europe isn't expensive, irrespective of your job. Europe is a small place. Once you leave Europe you'll understand how spectacularly small and divided it.

4. Turkey and the Middle East
Now, these places are seriously viable options when it comes to earning potential. Turkey has a large ESL market and it's relatively well paid. However, I understand government funding has now been cut and they wish to reduce English on the schooling curriculum and instead focus on Arabic. I think this is verified by a large number of ESL teachers in Turkey leaving and coming to China. In general, Turkey appears to be an unstable environment to live and work with genuine security concerns. Saudi Arabia has long been considered the honey pot for ESL teaching. Qatar, UAE, and Kuwait also. Salaries can be tax-free and it's not unheard of for teachers to walk away with $40,000 to $70,00 in their pocket after a year contract. However.. money is really the only upside here with the downsides being plentiful. Positions are limited with recruiters looking for teachers with 3 or more years of experience. Saudi Arabia is often full of unscrupulous employment contracts where teachers failed to get paid at the end of their tenure. The living and working environments are basically compounds where all you'll do is teach, eat, sleep. There is little to no social life and you MUST adhere to local customs. Some teachers have had genuinely positive experiences. Teaching for one or two years here has set up some teachers for life. If the Middle East is an option which attracts you, you should thoroughly research everything and give it plenty of consideration.

5. Africa, Pacific Islands
I won't pretend to know a great deal about the ESL set up in Africa. From the teachers I've met, there's usually two types of position. First is a volunteer position whereby remuneration is virtually nil with only your living expenses covered. The second is working either with a heavily funded NGO or a government programme through the likes of the British Council. These positions are limited but can be very very well paid.

6. Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar
The ESL dynamic in these countries is changing dramatically. Largely because of the change in visa regulations in China. In Cambodia, you don't need a degree nor experience to become an ESL teacher, Actually, you don't need anything really. You effectively buy your work permit. Salaries will usually top out at $800 -$1000 per month. There are plenty of volunteer positions also. The salaries are likely to decrease as unqualified teachers from China flood the market. Myanmar can have some very attractive positions at British Council backed schools. Myanmar is currently a sought-after destination but positions are limited and there is still widespread poverty and unrest in many regions. Vietnam is a large base for ESL teaching and you can make good money in Vietnam. Up to $2000 per month. The visa process is more relaxed than other countries and you can enjoy a great lifestyle at little expense. Many teachers adore their life teaching in Vietnam and you can save and earn aiding further travel. However, the salaries are about to decrease dramatically. Again this is because of the ESL market in China. Non-natives can no longer get a work permit to teach English in China. As a result, the estimated 25,000 teachers leaving China this year are heading to Vietnam, flooding the market and driving salaries down. This salary decline is likely to continue and many fear the glory days of high salary - low cost living in Vietnam are over. Teachers are already reporting a 50% decrease in their salaries since April 2017.

7. Japan and Korea
Here are the two stalwart countries of ESL teaching. Both these countries have been revered for many years as the places to go to earn big bucks for an ESL teacher. Both countries offer professional high salaries with an amazingly high standard of living. Japan, in particular, has always been a dream destination. Korea now appears to be hitting a wall. The market is essentially flooded with too many overly qualified teachers. Pay isn't increasing in comparison to local inflation. It's very very difficult for a new entry-level teacher to find a job in Korea now. It's a small country and now supply is outstripping demand devaluing the ESL market. We've had an awful lot of applicants leaving South Korea for China this year so we can see the market is adjusting. Japan, on the other hand, is very protectionist. Many teachers stay for a long time and you rarely see positions advertised. It's genuinely difficult to get a job in the county. Those that do are rewarded with a good salary but the living environment can be insanely expensive and claustrophobic.

8. China
So this leaves us the biggest ESL market on the planet. I'm sure some of you have already researched salary grades and living costs city to city. China is now considered to have surpassed Korea and Japan in earning potential when you factor in the cost of living. Within China, you must evaluate the cost of living depending in which city you settle. Beijing and Shanghai will have much higher salaries but your rent and general outgoings will be much higher than a smaller city like Chengdu or Suzhou. Depending on your entry level salary, China has vast earning potential. Your first year, even your first 2 years may be viewed as an investment. Most teachers earn the larger salaries in China after their second year when they've networked sufficiently. I'm not going to go into specifics but in general, an ESL teacher in China should easily save $400-500 per month in their first year. Into your third year, most teachers are disappointed unless they are saving $1000 plus per month. So once you have the financial resources in place... travel becomes a serious option...
ESL Teacher's Salary
Plan your travel
The secret to traveling is a good coherent plan. This will save time and money... remember TIME IS MONEY. If you're not earning... you're spending. Travelling is a constant of weighing up only two factors:
1. How much money you have
2. How much time you got
Let's look at your time. Public schools and training centers vary in their holiday allowance and time. For now, I will concentrate on the timetable available for Public school teachers. Ok, so the downside is when you have a holiday, so do many other people and it inflates the cost of traveling. This is the same as North America and Europe... but there are ways around it.

Holidays time-table Public Schools
Every weekend off 1 week in October February (Chinese new year) one-month Assorted public holidays (usually single day holidays not conducive to travel) Summer Holidays (the whole of July and August).
This is actually a huge amount of time. Planning and booking well ahead will save even more money. Remember investing additional hours of overtime or private tuition will increase your funds considerably.

Flights
These are the costliest when it comes to travel during Chinese New Year. `(I will give you some tips about what airlines to use below) They can hike-up around 200% if you're late booking. This can also be the case not only for flights but trains. There's generally a single bit of advice experienced teachers issue for Chinese New year.... either stay at home or leave the country. Traveling in China can be nauseating during this time as it's so busy with crowds heading to all the tourist spots you'd like to go to. Personally, I've used the Chinese New Year as a way to leave China. The good thing about CNY is it's only celebrated in China and Vietnam. So once you're out of the zone the standard cost of hotels and additional flights etc are not inflated. Thailand can be busier than usual over CNY due to the influx of Chinese tour groups.

Weekends
If you want to travel in China, October and July are options. But personally, I've done most my traveling to China at weekends. The planes are cheap and the trains are very fast. Yes I know it's a lot to take in and often cramming everything into a single weekend in Beijing isn't fun. For me, I valued my time in the holidays outside China higher so I traveled internally in short spurts. It is 100% possible to fly to Beijing or take the train to Nanjing for the weekend from Shanghai or Hangzhou. Even a weekend flight to Chengdu is possible. The flights are cheap... around $100 return. So far I've managed short weekend trips from Hangzhou to Guilin, Xi'an, Shanghai, Nanjing, Beijing, Guangzhou, Ningbo, Wenzhou, Wuhan, Shenzhen. and other cities. You need to plan well ahead and research where you want to go. Yes, it's tiring and you'll likely arrive back late Sunday night and you'll be in school early Monday, but it is possible and for me, it freed the actual holidays for wider travel into Asia so it was worth it.

Not only is internal travel possible for weekends but also international travel. If you're lucky your school schedule may have an early finish Friday or a late start Monday. This kind of luck can be important. From the east coast of China from Hangzhou airport, Shanghai, Ningbo and, in the South, Guangzhou... there are many outbound flights to nearby international cities. Hong Kong and Macau can easily be done in a weekend. They are great cities but to be honest two or three days at a time is all you need. Remember HK and Macau are classed as foreign destinations and you will have your passport stamped on entry and exit. The same goes for Taiwan, I've flown Friday night and returned Monday morning. Two or three nights in a hostel and return flights for around $200. Yes it's exhausting and ideally you'd like longer but it ticks it off without disturbing your long holidays and what's important about this is that your long holidays are better spent in the cheaper countries of South East Asia, That's why I've even done Tokyo, Osaka, and Seoul in South Korea for a three day weekend. It doesn't damage your long-term budget too much. A weekend in Tokyo will still cost you $300 - $400 including flights but imagine spending a month there!! On the flip side, a month in India or Myanmar will cost you $500. So if travel is important to you and you want to see as much of the world as possible... use your weekends to do so. It's tiring but it's worth it.


In summary, weekends:
Travel mainland China
East coast high-speed train, around $10 -$50 return to major cities. 
Hangzhou - Shanghai 50 minutes $10 
Hangzhou to Beijing - Return flights $100-120; Hotel $20 per night; Attractions $30; Food $20

International destinations for weekend / short breaks
Tokyo
Seoul
Macau
Hong Kong
Jeju Island
Okinawa
Cheapest airlines Spring. ch.cn and AirAsia.
Use Ctrip website or Skyscanner. However, the cheapest airline in China is SPRING.cn. They don't appear on price comparison websites in English. They have local flights from $1 and international flights from $5 plus taxes

February and Summer Holidays
This is your largest bulk of downtime. I personally believe this is the best chance to take extended travel across Asia. The two most important destinations in Asia are Bangkok and Kuala Lumper. These are travel hubs. Once you get to these places you can journey anywhere from Iran to New Zealand ... most importantly you can do it cheaply through AirAsia. It's not the world's most comfortable airline but it's possibly the cheapest. I've flown from Hangzhou to Sydney return before for $250, incredibly cheap. South East Asian countries are cheaper so your money will go a long way. Three weeks through Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia will likely set you back $800-1000 including all your flights and sleeping arrangements. It depends on your desired level of comfort. A good itinerary would be to start in Bangkok and travel overland to Siem Reap in Cambodia. After, take a short flight to Vietnam and enjoy either Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi before returning back to China. It's easily done in 3 weeks and it won't kill your finances.

The Philippines is also another option. Flights are incredibly cheap to any of the various Filipino cities from Shanghai. Often only $100 return. The weather in February is beautiful and the beaches and sea are among the best and bluest I've seen.
Your summer holidays can give you a whole two months to travel. Some teachers return back to their home countries. I actually think the summer holidays can be used to travel further afield to the southern hemisphere as it's not overly expensive this time of year. The problem is, it's winter and you'll need to pack warm clothing. I've traveled as far as Fiji and Tonga from China before. A return flight from Hangzhou cost me under $400 via New Zealand.
If you are returning back home for the summer holidays remember flights back to China may prove expensive as it's the school holidays. Especially from the UK in August. A tip I have is to fly to another European country first before taking a long haul flight back out to Asia. I use Norwegian Air in August. I usually take a cheap flight from the UK to Oslo (around £30) then check out and back into another flight from Oslo to Bangkok for £150. This saves me around £200 every time and once I was even upgraded to business class for free!!!

Happy travels...

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