Four years ago, then-newlyweds Katie Diederichs and Ben Zweber quit their full-time jobs, loaded up a backpack each and boarded a cheap flight to Colombia. Their plan was to spend three months backpacking throughout South America, but even now, their adventure has yet to really end. Katie and Ben have spent the last several years traveling across the world, and though they realize the nomadic life might not be for everyone, they’re confident that affordable—and, more importantly, sustainable—adventures are possible, even on a tight budget.
Both Katie and Ben are Minnesota natives—she grew up in Minnetonka, and he originally hails from Plymouth. High school sweethearts, they dated throughout college and studied abroad together in Florence, Italy—which quickly proved to be a life-changing experience. It was their first time out of the country, but it certainly wouldn’t be their last.
“I know it sounds super cliché, but I got bit by the travel bug, and I just couldn’t get the idea out of my head,” says Katie. During their study abroad program, she and Ben traveled to eight different countries, and they’ve been hooked on overseas adventures ever since.
After college, Ben took a job as an engineer and Katie taught high school English with Teach for America before working as a graphic designer. Though they enjoyed their jobs, they still longed for the out-of-the-ordinary experiences traveling had made possible.
Katie’s Favorite Places
Most interesting culture: Colombia
Best food: Italy and Vietnam
Best beaches:The Philippines
Friendliest people: Myanmar
Keep up with Katie and Ben’s adventures on their website and on social media.
“When I was teaching, every vacation that I had, I would try to travel somewhere, but I always kind of itched for something longer than just the typical two weeks off,” Katie says. That’s where the South American backpacking trip came in. After pinching pennies to save up enough money, they set off for Colombia. Once they were actually there, they realized they didn’t want it to be just another vacation but instead their new normal.
“While we were on that trip, we started brainstorming ways that we could make it more long term,” Katie says. They certainly succeeded. Throughout the last four years, she and Ben have journeyed all around the world—literally. They taught English in South Korea, spent an entire year traveling to different countries and lived out of a campervan while exploring the western U.S. Though they return to Minn. often to visit family and friends, they consider themselves full-time travelers and always seem to be calling a new country home. That, they say, has helped them learn not only about themselves but also the world at large.
“Traveling has taught us so much more about the world than we could have ever learned from books or movies,” Ben says. “For instance, you can read about the Yugoslavian war, but traveling to that region allowed us to talk to people who lived through it. Traveling allows you to meet new people every day and to get to know a perspective outside of your own.”
With so many expenses to consider, traveling typically isn’t cheap, and like many young adults, Katie and Ben have student loan debt. Money is far from being no object. However, they’ve found a way to prevent money from holding them back. Even while on the road (or a train or a plane), they work. The couple’s main source of income is their travel blog, but Ben also teaches English via Skype to students in China, and Katie is a freelance writer. Although they do treat themselves to the occasional splurge, they aim to live as simply as possible and, while traveling, manage to do so on $70 or less a day.
However budget conscious they are, Katie and Ben work even harder to ensure their travels are likewise ethical and responsible. Sustainable tourism is integral to their traveling philosophy. Though the term encompasses a wide range of things—everything from supporting local economies to minimizing one’s ecological footprint—Katie says that for them, it ultimately comes to ensuring their travels help rather than harm a place and the people who call it home.
“If I had to define what [sustainable tourism] is in one sentence, it would be tourism bringing more positive change to a place than negative change,” says Katie. While it is a constant learning process—she and Ben don’t claim to be perfect—there’s nothing wrong with starting small. “At home, a lot of people go to farmers markets or support local artists or recycle …. When you’re traveling, it’s easy to forget about that stuff, but I think it’s almost more important. When we’re traveling, we’re a visitor in someone else’s home, and it’s only respectful to try to not leave it in a worse state than you found it,” she explains.
Last December, Katie took a once-in-a-lifetime trip of her own in the name of sustainable tourism. In 2017 the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) launched the Travelers’ Competition from the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development to celebrate. Out of 2,400 applicants, Katie was the lucky winner.
“I still feel really honored that I was selected,” Katie says. “The prize was an amazing prize—I was flown to five different countries, and each of those countries was selected because they’re doing something interesting in the world of sustainable travel.”
Colombia, the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, the United Arab Emirates, Germany and Switzerland were the stops on Katie’s itinerary. In each place, she met with different organizations to learn about their unique efforts towards making the tourism industry more environmentally friendly and socially conscious.
“The biggest thing that I learned is that [sustainability] really does mean something different in each place,” Katie says. “In Colombia, their focus was on allowing the locals to really benefit from tourism and making sure that the money isn’t going to big corporations, whereas in Germany, their focus is making sure that hotels are creating less waste and transportation is leaving a smaller carbon footprint.”
Now that her trip with the UNWTO has passed, Katie is back to exploring the world with Ben. No matter where they go, they say they’re always grateful for the opportunities to see beautiful places, meet new people and learn along the way.
“As a tourist, you have a big impact. If you’re supporting companies that are doing good things, the competition will see that, and eventually, things will start changing. But, if we continue to support companies that aren’t paying employees fairly or that are polluting, things won’t change, and those companies that are working really hard to make sure they’re doing it right won’t be able to compete,” says Katie. “As tourists, our decisions mean a lot, and I think that’s a responsibility that we shouldn’t take lightly.”
“Sometimes it can feel like the world is very divided, but traveling has taught me that people are more alike than we are different,” Ben says. “We all have the same basic needs, and at our core we are the same—whether we come from Minnetonka or Colombia or a small village in Laos.”