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Women & Money: Uju Okafor Has Mastered Travelling On A Budget

Women & Money is a monthly PiggyVest series that explores the relationship between real Nigerian women and money. This series sheds light on money, career and business from a female perspective.

For this month’s episode of Women & Money, we spoke to Uju Okafor, a 26-year-old medical student. In this interview with PiggyVest, she talks about juggling medical school, her job as a virtual assistant and her love for travelling. A preacher of budget travel, she shares how her wanderlust burgeoned into a travel concierge business.

What was your relationship with money growing up?

We were an average-income family. We had our own house and went to private schools. The one thing I remember, though, is that my mum was frugal with money. She would only spend on necessities and it bugged me. 

I wouldn’t say my dad was a spendthrift, but he was a more generous spender. And he tried to provide for our wants. 

Did that affect the way you see money now?

My financial habits resemble my dad’s. I don’t mind spending my last card on something I want. I use target savings to save money for what I want and spend it when it’s complete. This means I’m not always liquid, but at least I’m satisfied. 

But I advise people not to be like me because I’m quite confident in my resourcefulness. I have many skills that earn me money. 

Why did you become a travel concierge?

I’ve always loved travelling. My dad, also an avid traveller, influenced this passion. I recall how he would entertain guests at his restaurant with his stories. He would tell them about their cities or villages and the landmarks there. I loved the joy and kinship it elicited from strangers. 

I started travelling as a child, but only to states where I had relatives. Then, when I got into uni, I started going to other states. 

What was your first international trip? 

My first international trip was in 2021 for a tech event in Dubai. The event organisers were meant to plan my trip, but there was a travel restriction due to COVID and the agent, who was resident in Dubai, had no idea how to remedy the situation. So it was up to me. 

I did my research and found out I could travel from Cotonou. I live in Anambra, and at the time, we didn’t have an airport, so I boarded a bus to Enugu to catch a flight to Lagos. My options to get to the Seme border were ferry or car, and as a thrill seeker, I wanted to experience the ferry ride. When I reached the ferry terminal, it was closed for the day, but I was directed to a park where I boarded a car to the Seme border. 

The car was supposed to take me to the border, but at Badagry, the driver handed us over to an immigration agent instead. This was because, technically, the land borders were still closed. The agent drove us to the border, where our documents were vetted and stamped. I paid the fee and we were allowed to cross over into Cotonou. 

Now, Benin is a French-speaking country, so after I paid the officer his fee, he handed me over to a translator who helped me communicate with other people. I wanted to stay by the beach, so I found a hotel that fit my specifications, got my COVID test done, and quarantined for a few days before leaving for Dubai. 

At the time, I hadn’t learnt how to book international flights from outside Nigeria. So, the day before my trip, I had to look for a travel agency to help me book my flight. It was really expensive, and I knew with more research, I could have gotten better prices. 

So, this kickstarted your travel concierge business.

Yes. As ecstatic as I was to have been to two countries on my first international trip, I was more interested in travelling with the least money. Travelling to Benin Republic opened my eyes to the potential of travelling around Africa. 

After I returned, I started my research. I looked for cheap deals and compared prices from travel agencies against online deals. Soon enough, I could find the cheapest prices myself and started offering those services to people.

What does a travel concierge do?

A travel concierge is someone who handles every aspect of the travel. From deciding on where to go, to booking flights, planning an itinerary and so forth. My journey started with booking flights for a fee. Then I started travelling more and applying for visas. I learnt a lot from speaking to travel agencies and learning from my mistakes. 

I became adept at it and started offering it as a service too — booking flights, hotels, visa applications, recommending places, budget travelling, the whole nine. 

What does travelling on a budget look like for you?

After Dubai, I continually visited the Benin Republic. It was an easy getaway for me. But my next official international trip was to East Africa. I planned to fly into Kenya and out of Rwanda, with a road trip in between. My visa gave me access to Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda. And all my flights cost  ₦210k.

Ah. No be juju be that?

[Laughs.] It was quite a budget! I researched and found a website, Worldpackers, that helps you get free room and board in exchange for volunteering. Some places might require you to pay a stipend for feeding, but not always. 

I found an NGO in Mombasa, and I got to work with kids. I helped with their publicity, marketing, and social media and even got a certificate for my help. The downside to this was that the NGO was located far from any tourist locations, and it didn’t allow me the flexibility to explore, and I had to ferry from the mainland to the island to see the sights. 

I enjoyed the ferry rides, but it was a hassle and I needed to explore more. I only stayed the four days I promised and used the money I saved to get a place on the mainland. 

How did you find accommodation?

I used the local marketplaces. The apartments there were cheaper than Airbnb, and I got a lovely studio apartment 10 minutes from the beach for about $16 a night. I asked for a discount, and since I would be staying for a couple of days, it was slashed to $14.

Asking questions while travelling on a budget is very important because that’s how you find the people willing to help. After my stay in Kenya, I took the train from Mombasa to Nairobi. I’d booked a really awesome apartment not too far from the airport because I’d never been to Nairobi before, and I didn’t want a replay of what happened in Mombasa, where I was far from the main city. But I realised the places I wanted to see were in Kilimani, and taking Bolt rides was becoming too expensive for me, so I moved. After bargaining on the local marketplace, I got a good deal for $15/night. 

The tourist sites, like the Safari, had different prices for locals and foreigners. Luckily, I’m African, so I could pass for Kenyan, and I made a few friends who did the talking, and I paid 10 times less than I would’ve if I had come alone. From Kenya, I left for Kampala by bus. This cost around $20. And I’m glad because the views were incredible! I even saw the Great Rift Valley.

Quite an experience!

Uganda was fun as I had some Ugandan friends I met at a FAMSA conference in Ibadan years back. My friend picked me up from the airport and took me to a hotel. Out of many crappy ones, I saw a decent, but old hotel for $15 a night. We explored the UNESCO site, visited Lake Victoria, and ate great meals. I didn’t stay long in Kampala before heading to Kigali, by road as usual.

You’re brave sha!

It helped that it was a pretty safe area. I will not recommend travelling by road every time. I asked questions and found a park with a luxurious bus going into Kigali. It was a 10-hour drive that only cost $70.

I used this time to find a guest inn. Interestingly, I found a discount and also had a promo code. By the time I layered on different discounts, the room went from $30 to $8 per night. And it was a nice and central area.

Teach me your ways, Sensei.

It does take a lot of patience. In Kigali, I saved money by going around with bikes. There was a bit of a language struggle, but I survived. Plus, the bikes had helmets that made them relatively safe. 

My hack for curtailing expenses is to find two to three places to go at once. Then, check the best prices to see if I can afford them. It also helped that I had a remote job as a virtual assistant, so I had money coming in every week. So, I had the privilege of splurging sometimes; I always went to the best restaurants. 

Another hack is looking for alternatives to flying. This year, I went to Tanzania from Kenya by road. On reaching Dar es Salaam, I opted to ferry — instead of fly — to Zanzibar. Flights go for about $70 to $80, and I spent $40 on a business class seat. 

How do you raise the money to fund your trips?

Work and target savings o. I ensure I’m actively generating income because there are bills to pay. I’m a virtual executive assistant for a company, and I also work virtually in other similar roles. I also make money as a travel concierge and have built my skills as a product manager. I am actively seeking roles.

Only you! Where do you find the time to do all these as a medical student?

To be honest, I don’t have the time. I make the time and sometimes ignore school. 

What does financial freedom mean to you?

I want to be stupendously wealthy. Not because of the money in my account but for the options that wealth brings. I want to be able to do whatever I want — travel anywhere in the world. Too tired? I can book a trip to the Maldives.

How are you working towards this goal?

I save, but I’m also big on investing. Not just cash, by the way. I see investing in myself as the greatest investment possible. I take courses and infuse money into my businesses. No knowledge is a waste; a skill learnt in one area can be applied in a different line of work.

Nice. Could you share some tips for travelling on a budget?

Flexibility finds you the best deals. I tell my clients all the time. You can’t be on a tight budget and still have a tight schedule. You also have to be open-minded about your destination, because the cheapest flights might not be to the country at the top of your list. My thing is to “search everywhere” on Skyscanner and it shows you the prices of flights to different countries in increasing order. From there, you can plan a trip around the cheapest flights you find. 

Doing research will save you more money. I lost some money on my last trip. My itinerary was from Rwanda to Zambia to Tanzania to Ethiopia, and then back home. I believed I could get an Ethiopian e-visa, so I applied early, booked my flight, and enjoyed my vacation. When I noticed the visa pending status had lasted for some time, I started trying to reach them, to no avail. The day I was meant to travel came and on arriving at the airport, I was told they weren’t issuing visas to Nigerian passport holders.

I was mad because there was no information on the website, and they kept accepting applications and payments. I spent $150 to reroute my flight. So, as much as possible, ask questions. Find out from people who have gone through the same process as you. 

Be open to unusual experiences. The Instagram aesthetic is expensive. I had to opt for the Safari walk in Nairobi because the cars were too expensive. I spent less than $10 instead of $60. Then, always look out for deals. On my trip to Zanzibar, I wanted the Instagram, beachside aesthetic, so I found a stunning $110 resort for $30. I was sad when I found out that the deal was for one night only. But I kept my eye out on the website for another deal. Luckily, before it was time to check out, I saw another deal for another one of the hotel’s facilities on the same beach strip. This facility was even better, as my room was right in front of the beach. And it was only $22. 

What would you say are the benefits of having a travel concierge?

Travel concierges are for everyone, especially first-time travellers. It helps to have someone who knows the terrain, to tell you what to look out for, and mistakes to avoid. I recommend places I’ve been to because I have a lived-in experience. As much as I enjoy travelling, I’m also working, checking out the best spots to visit. My first trip to Dubai wouldn’t have been as expensive if I had somebody like me to plan it.

For experienced travellers who don’t like to stress and just want to enjoy their vacation, you need a travel concierge. I can provide you with support, find items or services you may need, places to change money, and the hottest clubs. 

Finally, we help you determine what works best for you: your personality, preferences, and budget. 

What would you like aspiring travel concierges to know about the job?

It could get expensive, especially when planning a trip to a place you’ve never been. You’ll spend more than you expected in the planning and research, thinking you’ll get your money back. But sometimes you just have to bear the extra costs.

Secondly, applying for visas can get very tricky. You could do everything right and still get a rejection. I had two clients: one was a first-time traveller and the other travelled frequently. The first-time traveller had their visa approved and the latter was denied. 

It’s more common with Nigerian passports, but your clients would still blame you for it. One time, my client’s travel date passed without a visa approval. They decided to try again, and because of my sympathetic heart, I offered to help them reapply for them without taking a service fee the second time. 

Their takeaway was, “Does this mean you overcharged me the first time?” My move to reduce their burden came back to bite me in the ass. So, you must be prepared to know how to mitigate circumstances of this sort.

This has been eye-opening. What next for Uju?

I’m working on a project for digital nomads. It will be an 18-month-long trip and we will be touring 10 countries. We’ll spend up to a month in some countries and close to 3 months in others. So we’ll be pretty much living in these cities — work during the week and tour at night and on the weekends. It’s still a work in progress anyway. 

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