It took 1,458 flights and 1,117 buses and trains for Drew Binsky to reach his goal of traveling to every country in the world.
And he did it in less than a decade.
CNBC spoke with Binsky nine hours after he touched down in his last country — Saudi Arabia — about how he financed his 10-year travel spree.
Visiting every country in the world
According to your tally, you’ve been to 197 countries. How do you define “country?”
You’re hitting me with a hard one right away. It’s very political. The U.N. has 193 recognized sovereign states. I add four to that — Kosovo, Palestine, Taiwan and Vatican. Some of these are observer states of the U.N., and they are also the four most recognized of all the unrecognized “countries.” I think I’m like the 250th person to visit every country.
Is there a name for this group?
The “every country” club. It’s a small community, and I’m friends with maybe 20 of them. There’s a lot of drama. It’s like: “You actually haven’t been to North Korea because you only went to the border of South Korea.” I don’t get involved in all that.
You’re planning to stay in Saudi Arabia for two weeks. What’s the average amount of time you spent in each country?
The average is about a week. There are about 10 countries that I spent more than three months in, and I spent more than six months in Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand, South Korea and Czech Republic.
But some of them — Luxembourg, Monaco, Liechtenstein, and there’s a couple of countries in the middle of South Africa — you can go in and do everything you want to do in 24 hours. In the future, I plan to stay a minimum of two weeks because you can really soak it in.
How do you organize your visits?
It might be shocking to hear this, but my plan is to have no plan. I really like to be spontaneous. The best moments in life happen when you step out of your comfort zone and you don’t know what’s going to happen next.
I have a unique way of traveling in that I rely on my social media followers and local friends. They pick me up, and they show me their country. Most of the time I arrive in a country I don’t know where I’m sleeping that night.
So planning isn’t too hard?
Getting visas is the single biggest challenge. I’m very fortunate to have visited 160 countries without needing a visa. But the 40 visas that I needed — Iran, Turkmenistan, North Korea, South Sudan, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria — they’re hard for political reasons.
Which countries did you save for the end?
I handpicked my last six countries because I’m shooting a docuseries, and I wanted the last six to be different. So we did Ghana, Ecuador, Venezuela, Palau, Jamaica and Saudi Arabia.
Traveling during the pandemic
How did the pandemic affect your plans?
I had six countries left in March 2020, which I planned to visit in a twelve-week span. Here we are 18 months later, and I finally finished.
I’ve had about 80 Q-tips shoved up my nose over the last 18 months. But I did manage to visit 20 countries: Mexico because they were the only country open in June 2020, then Egypt, Afghanistan — pre-Taliban takeover — Iraq, Dubai, Turkey, Tanzania and Dominican Republic. It’s been a battle but one that’s been fun to fight.
To confirm, you visited 20 countries during the pandemic?
Yes, which is crazy — fourteen were revisits, plus my final six countries.
Did you get Covid along the way?
I did. I haven’t publicly talked about it. I picked it up in Iraq, and then in Afghanistan I realized that I couldn’t taste or smell. I tested negative in Iraq, but they barely put the Q-tip in my nose — it was like a fake test. I wasn’t super sick, but I stayed in my hotel for seven nights, which was pretty miserable. But I didn’t want to infect anyone.
Earning money on the road
What are your major sources of income?
I started out teaching English in Korea. I made $2,000 a month, and housing was free. I was 22 years old, so it was awesome at the time.
Then I got a head start on Snapchat in 2015, and I got sponsored by a bunch of brands. I got paid $5,000 to go the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro to make Snapchat stories. For a whole year I was making a living off Snapchat. I made $30,000, which is a lot when you’re a budget backpacker.
My first 300 videos, I didn’t make a penny.Drew BinskyTravel blogger
I was also using my travel blog to reduce travel costs by working with hostels and budget airlines. Then I started making videos in 2017. My first 300 videos, I didn’t make a penny. It was pretty slow.
While I was living in Bangkok, I made a video about this guy who makes these really good burgers. You pay whatever you want — there’s no price. That video got like 7 million views. I’ll never forget when I looked at the earnings, and it said $10,000. I was like ‘Holy crap!’ It was five hours of work.
Well, it turned out that was the most I made from any video in the next 18 months. Still, it was a sign that you can make a lot of money through ads on Facebook.
Then I started posting on YouTube, which now makes between $20,000-40,000 a month. On a really good month, it could be more. Facebook is similar.
This sounds like a lot of money, and it is a lot of money. But now I have a team of about 23 people, so I’m paying a lot of salaries.
Do you have other sources of income?
That’s only ad revenue. I charge brands that I work with between $15,000 to $30,000 per video. Then there’s my merchandise, which is not really that profitable. It’s more for growing the community. I also sell travel hacking courses for $150 a pop. There’s a lot of different revenue streams.
Do you meticulously record your travel costs?
No, I don’t nickel and dime myself. It kind of ruins the fun. I’m still pretty frugal. I’m not going to spend money on first-class tickets unless I have points. I still eat street food, and I still sleep in modest hotels. Even if I make 10 times the amount that I make now, I don’t need to be flashy.
Is any of your travel comped?
I come out of pocket and pay for almost everything, except with tourism boards — they cover everything. Usually when I work with a hotel, I do a paid sponsorship. If a hotel offers me a really nice room for two nights, I’d rather just pay for it and not have to post about it.
The ups and downs of travel blogging
What’s one memory that you’ll never forget?
It’s probably spending 24 hours with the pygmy tribe in the Central African Republic. They are genetically the shortest human beings in the world. I had to fly into the capital of Bangui, take an eight-hour taxi ride into the middle of nowhere and walk through the forest for two hours.
We found a local guide on the way. They told me not only had they never seen a white person, but they had also never seen a non-pygmy. They had never left their tribe to go out into the city.
How about a memory you’d love to forget?
Food poisoning. Probably the worst I’ve had is in Yemen. I’ve had for poisoning about 30 times. I got really sick in Iran and India too. But I’m also eating stuff that I know is risky. At the end of the day, you just lose 10 pounds and move on.
We’re making a really cool docuseries about visiting every country. I’ve got a book coming and an NFT project, which I’m really excited about. I’m building meetups in different cities around the world. But I don’t want to lose the core of going out there and meeting people and inspiring people to travel.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.