An Interview with Fellow Travellers Michelle & Nikki of Cheeky Passports

We love hearing what others have to say! Michelle & Nikki are two experienced travellers, whom both stepped over 60 countries along the time they’ve been travelling. These two awesome people run the blog Cheeky Passports, which even the name itself gives you an idea of how jolly and humble they are! The most interesting blogs we found ourselves were those about visiting tribal areas such as the Baliem Valley in Indonesia.

Enough chit chat, let’s see what they had to say!

Okay, let’s start with a short introduction. Who are Michelle and Nikki?

Michelle – We had both been travelling for a while before we met very randomly 9 years ago. In fact, Nikki’s ‘flirting’ consisted of trying to impress me by telling me stories about a recent trip to Argentina*, before he asked whether I had ever travelled outside of Europe. I answered “would you like to hear about Tibet or about Easter Island?” and that’s pretty much how we started dating!

*Nikki’s note – …and succeeding at it since she was melting away to every word I uttered!

Eventually, after having travelled together for around 5 years, we started making plans (actually I did because Nikki doesn’t make plans) for travelling full-time in a sustainable manner, i.e. that we would work whilst we travel. Nikki is an engineer and I’m a pharmacist, and we both found ways of switching to remote working in our respective fields as we travelled.

Why ‘Cheeky Passports’?

We had actually come up with about 200 different names at some point, but we couldn’t agree on any. In desperation, we asked our friends for tips, and one of our friends suggested Cheeky Passports. It was the only name which we both liked immediately, especially considering it matched our character since at times we can both be rather cheeky especially with each other! It has connections with our close friends too. The name was suggested by one, and the logo designed by another! So Cheeky Passports it was!

Cheeky Passports
Credits | Cheeky Passports

How did the current pandemic affect your travels?

Michelle – Unfortunately, CoVid-19 completely screwed up our travel plans this year.

I was due to fly out to Egypt on my way to Socotra, Yemen, on the 15th March and only made the decision to not go that same week, after evaluating the spread of CoVid. It was a good decision since the flight I had to take to Socotra was eventually cancelled. Nikki was due to meet me in Egypt after my Socotra trip, and our plan was to head to Turkmenistan after exploring Egypt, which of course we both had to cancel. We were thinking of stopping by Sudan* on our way back to Malta.

*Nikki’s note: SHE was planning on going to Sudan, I was planning to dive my way along the Egyptian coast!

In Summer, I had planned a trip to Mongolia with some friends*, and I was looking at going to North Korea right after, probably followed by some of China, but of course, that has been cancelled as well now. Hopefully, we will resume our travel plans once it has become safer to do so!

*Nikki’s note: … which meant that I would get a free reign over the fridge in that same period! … and that is how CoVid screwed up my freedom too!

A brief about your full-time travelling experience.

Michelle – I had been thinking about long-term travel for quite a while before I finally managed to convince Nikki to join me, and then started planning it out. We both wanted to work whilst travelling, because the idea was to turn full-time travel into our lifestyle, rather than travelling for a defined time period, or until our money ran out. In the meantime, we also made sure we had enough savings to see us through for a while, in case job options didn’t quite work out.

We decided to travel on a restricted budget, but one which we would be comfortable with at the same time. We always look for budget accommodation which is clean and includes attached private bathrooms (we’re no longer keen on sharing bathrooms), and tend to eat at very local, affordable places, usually without menus or a choice of food. Luckily, we both enjoy eating almost everything, since we’re often very surprised by what’s presented!

(Nikki’s note: It’s the quantity of food we disagree upon, not the type usually!)

For long-term travel, we set a limit of about €30 per person/day which we found very manageable, although there were times when we spent more, and other times we spent less. However, we also decided that we would not miss out on more ‘expensive’ activities, even if they cost more than our planned budget, unless of course, they were so prohibitively expensive that we wouldn’t normally afford them. This has worked out pretty well for us!

Cheeky Passports
Credits | Cheeky Passports

We initially hoped that this lifestyle would work out and that we would be doing this for a long time.  Sadly, one year into our travels Nikki’s father passed away unexpectedly whilst we were in Sri Lanka, so obviously that prompted our quick return to Malta. Although eventually we did set off to travel long-term again, 6 months into our travels at that point, we realised that our situation had changed, and that we had too many commitments in Malta to be able to travel without holding a base.

So, we decided on setting up home in Malta whilst retaining our more flexible work options to be able to take trips from here, whenever we wanted to and for how long we wanted to, obviously anyway depending on any work commitments.

I have visited 62 countries and Nikki 60, not all during the long-term travel period of course. I had already travelled to quite a few countries in Asia, so I was visiting some destinations for the second, sometimes third time.

Cheeky Passports
Credits | Cheeky Passports

We started off our long-term travels in the Philippines, which in hind-sight was not a great idea, firstly because we found it to be more expensive than other places in SE Asia, so we started wondering if this was going to work financially for us, and also because Nikki started to get frustrated with some aspects of the country after a couple of weeks, up to the point that we weren’t sure whether he would continue travelling.

That all changed once we arrived in the following destination Kuala Lumpur, where he fell in love with the city and relaxed. From then on, it was all much smoother because he decided that whatever happens, we could go back to Kuala Lumpur!

We have always been fascinated with destinations which are more remote and less-explored, and this fascination only grew as we travelled long-term. Although we do also explore the more popular parts of a country, we are far more motivated to go to the remote and sometimes tribal areas, which are all too often very challenging to get to!

We do not exclude the possibility of eventually taking up full-time travels once again!

A Vacation and Long-term Travelling* – Would you consider it as the same thing?

Absolutely not! In our case, we were working during our long-term travels, so this had become more of a lifestyle for us, rather than ‘a period away from home’, vacation or otherwise.

There were actually times when we took a vacation from travelling!

We would just rent out a comfortable room with some amenities, and spend a couple of weeks there ‘resting’ and eating to our heart’s content, usually after some weeks travelling in remote areas where 16-hour bus or boat rides, and eating the same thing over and over again, are the norm! These short breaks really helped us regain enthusiasm to continue travelling at times when it got tiring.

*Nikki’s note: the best way to piss Michelle off is to ask her about her two-year ‘holiday’.

What would be the most valuable lesson learnt during travelling?

We have both been traveling for over 20 years, so our travel experiences have really moulded our perspectives about almost everything today. I think we have both learnt to take nothing for granted, and to realise that things can change rapidly from one day to another, so flexibility in life is key.

There were so many instances in our travels where we swiftly had to change plans, and that has taught us to expect changes as well as challenges, and to tackle them whenever they present themselves. So, for example, although having to put our travel plans aside during CoVid was annoying, we both managed to evaluate our options and adapt quickly to the situation.

Hitchhiking, interacting and spending the night with locals, etc. Would you consider such things dangerous? What’s your advice?

In our experience this is not dangerous at all, although it would be wise to trust your instincts and turn away from situations that don’t feel right. Although we’ve done both in the past, we now prefer to be in control of our transportation, public or otherwise, and accommodation, for many reasons, among which are convenience and expectation.

Cheeky Passports
Credits | Cheeky Passports

For example, if we are travelling long-term and have work commitments, local people will rarely understand the concept, and feel offended that we do not want to spend time with them, if/when they are hosting us. It sometimes gets very difficult to explain that we are not on holiday, and that we need to work.

Another aspect that makes us slightly uncomfortable is that many times our hosts want to pay for everything we do during our stay, which is customary in some countries, and most of the time, they simply do not afford it. This creates an awkward situation, seeing that it is often considered culturally offensive to offer them monetary compensation, even if for expenses they are making on our behalf.

At this point in our travels, we have become more assertive, and as much as we love interacting with locals, we try to avoid ‘host/guest’ situations, preferring to meet and interact with locals without obligations or commitments.

Another aspect is that local people often have a very different idea of what our expectations are. For example, there were cases, where we would tell our hosts that we would like to go to a local place, eat local food and meet their friends and we end up at the local burger joint, because their expectation is that foreigners like western food, and do not really want local. They are proud of being able to take us to a western-style places and modern shopping malls, and embarrassed of their more traditional places, which is the exact opposite of what we want to experience!

Which of the countries you visited would you mostly want to return back to? Why?

Both of us really want to explore more of Indonesia, although we spent four months there already, but the country is so diverse and there’s so much to see and do, that it deserves a lot of time!

Iran is a second country that we want to spend more time in, especially some places to the east and west of the country, which are more off the beaten track! We both felt that there is something really special about Iran, and we don’t often agree much about destinations!

Cheeky Passports
Credits | Cheeky Passports

Michelle loves India, so any trip there is most welcome, even if she’s been twice, spending a total of 6 months, whilst Nikki considers Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia his ‘go to’ city* – we’ve stopped there 5 times in a span 2 years!

*Nikki’s Note: KL = Love

5 things you ALWAYS search about before visiting a country.

Michelle usually handles the research and Nikki the more practical aspects like applying for visas. The first two points that we always research, usually in tandem, are the ease of obtaining a visa, and whether the destination is particularly appealing to us.

Nikki will go about preparing documents for a visa, whilst Michelle will check out off the beaten track possibilities, and how to get to them.

Other than that, we check out the dress code (for example, a compulsory hijab in some areas) and the expected weather*, and if we’re travelling long-term, we ensure that we have the right things to wear. We also check the cost of accommodation and transport, so that we have a good idea of what we are expected to spend, before we even get there.

*Nikki’s Note: By far we prefer the warmer places, although Antarctica is in our plans!

Importantly, we also check whether there are any events happening in the country. For example, when we were in Cambodia, an obvious following destination would have been Vietnam, which Nikki was looking forward to, not only because of the destination, itself but also because it would be his last ‘check’ on the SE Asian country list.

Just as we were buying the flight ticket, we realised that we would be landing on the first day of Tet (Vietnamese New Year) and that the country would be at a standstill for almost 2 weeks, so we quickly changed plans and bought a ticket to the Maldives instead!

Can you share any ways which:

Helped you reduce the costs along the way

Much as we do not like over-spending, we normally just look at sticking to our budget, preferring a certain degree of flexibility over lower-cost options.

Of course, we definitely consider cheaper flight options, or other means of transportation departing on a different day, unless the change would make a significant difference to whatever we were planning on doing.

Many booking platforms, have cheaper non-refundable options which can be a great source of saving money if you are willing to compromise flexibility, whilst renting out accommodation or bikes, for longer periods is usually more economical too.

Night buses are sometimes cheaper than day buses, and also replace a night’s accommodation, so that’s a good travel hack for those looking at reducing costs.

Local eateries are usually way cheaper than restaurants and have more authentic and tasty food, as long as you’re ok with not totally being sure of what you’re eating!

Helped you financially sustain your full-time travels

Our full-travels were fully sustained by working remotely in our respective fields. Of course, we do not work full-time when we travel full-time, but rather work in ‘phases’ or short assignments, where we would earn enough to sustain the following part of our travels. We do have some passive income from the blog, but it does not play a significant part in sustaining our lifestyles, whilst other sources also include travel-writing assignments.

Have you got any plans post COVID-19?

So, so many!!  We hope to resume our travels a soon as it is safe to do so. A large part of our lifestyle revolves around travel, so we can’t wait to get back to it! Perhaps we will get back to planning the destinations we were forced to skip this year, or perhaps we will go elsewhere – we love having the flexibility of changing plans! Let’s make it safe first!

Finally,… what’s the advice you would give to someone who is thinking about going on a long-term travel adventure?

BE FLEXIBLE!! We believe there is nothing more important than that! At the same time be persistent in what you want to achieve, and what your long-term goals are, because it is easy to start feeling that long-term travel might be unsustainable after all.

If you travel rapidly, take frequent breaks to rest, so that you do not lose the enthusiasm for travel or adventure. Long-term travel is a different experience for each and every one of us, and there is ultimately no right way of doing it, but eventually, each individual can find the path to travelling in a manner that makes the most sense to them!

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