It took Drew Binsky 1,458 flights and 1,117 buses and trains to reach his goal of traveling to every country in the world.
And he did that in less than a decade.
CNBC spoke to Binsky nine hours after he landed in his last country, Saudi Arabia, about how he financed his 10-year journey.
Visit any country in the world
By your count, you’ve been to 197 countries. How do you define “country?”
You hit me right away with a hard one. It’s very political. The UN has 193 recognized sovereign states. I’ll add four: Kosovo, Palestine, Taiwan and Vatican City. Some of these are UN observer states, and they are also the four most recognized of all unrecognized “countries.” I think I am the 250th to visit each country.
Is there a name for this group?
The club “every country”. It’s a small community and I’m friends with maybe 20 of them. There is a lot of drama. Like, “You haven’t actually been to North Korea because you’ve only been to the border with South Korea.” I don’t get involved in any of that.
You plan to stay in Saudi Arabia for two weeks. What is the average time you spent in each country?
The average is about a week. There are about 10 countries where I have spent more than three months, and I have spent more than six months in Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea and the Czech Republic.
But with some – Luxembourg, Monaco, Liechtenstein and a few countries in the middle of South Africa – you can do anything you want to do within 24 hours. In the future I plan to stay at least two weeks because you can really enjoy it.
How do you organize your visits?
It may be shocking to hear this, but my plan is not to have a plan. I like to be spontaneous. The best moments in life happen when you step out of your comfort zone and don’t know what’s going to happen.
I have a unique way of traveling because I depend on my social media followers and local friends. They pick me up and show me their country. Usually I arrive in a country where I do not know where I will sleep that night.
So planning isn’t that hard?
Getting visas is the biggest challenge. I am lucky enough to have visited 160 countries without needing a visa. But the 40 visas I needed – Iran, Turkmenistan, North Korea, South Sudan, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria – are difficult for political reasons.
Which countries have you saved for the end?
I picked 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 has the pandemic affected your plans?
I had six countries left in March 2020, which I planned to visit in twelve weeks. Here we are 18 months later and I’m finally done.
I’ve stuck about 80 cotton swabs up my nose in the last 18 months. But I managed 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 the Dominican Republic. It was a battle, but one that was fun to fight.
To confirm, have you visited 20 countries during the pandemic?
Yeah, which is crazy – fourteen were revisits, plus my last six countries.
Did you catch Covid on the way?
I did. I haven’t talked about it publicly. I picked it up in Iraq, and then I realized in Afghanistan that I couldn’t taste or smell. I tested negative in Iraq but they barely put the swab 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.
Earn money on the go
What are your main sources of income?
I started teaching English in Korea. I was making $2,000 a month and housing was free. I was 22 years old, so it was great at that time.
Then I got a head start on Snapchat in 2015 and got sponsored by a number of brands. I was paid $5,000 to go to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro to create Snapchat stories. For a whole year I made my living with Snapchat. I made $30,000 which is a lot if you are a budget backpacker.
I also used my travel blog to reduce travel costs by partnering with hostels and budget airlines. Then in 2017 I started making videos. I didn’t make a cent for my first 300 videos. It was pretty slow.
When I lived in Bangkok I made a video about this guy making these really good burgers. You pay what you want – there is no price. That video got about 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 turns out that over the next 18 months, I made the most money from a video. Still, it was a sign that you can make a lot of money with ads on Facebook.
Then I started posting to YouTube, which now brings in between $20,000 and 40,000 per month. On a really good month it could be more. Facebook is similar.
This sounds like a lot of money, and it is lots of money. But now I have a team of about 23 people, so I pay a lot of salaries.
Do you have other sources of income?
That’s just ad revenue. I charge brands I work with between $15,000 and $30,000 per video. Then there is my merchandise, which is not so profitable. It’s more about growing the community. I also sell travel hacking courses for $150 each. There are many different income streams.
Do you accurately record your travel expenses?
No, I’m not giving myself a cent. It spoils the fun a bit. I’m still quite frugal. I’m not going to spend money on first class tickets unless I have points. I still eat street food and still sleep in modest hotels. Even if I make 10 times as much as I make now, I don’t have to be showy.
Has one of your trips been reimbursed?
I get out of my pocket and pay for almost everything except at tourism offices – 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 anything about it.
The ups and downs of travel blogging
What is a memory you will never forget?
It probably spends 24 hours with the pygmy tribe in the Central African Republic. They are genetically the shortest people in the world. I had to fly to the capital Bangui, take an eight hour taxi ride to the middle of nowhere and walk through the forest for two hours.
Along the way we met a local guide. They told me that not only had they never seen a white person, but they had never seen a non-pygmy. They had never left their tribe to enter the city.
How about a memory you’d like to forget?
Food poisoning. Probably the worst I’ve had is in Yemen. I’ve been poisoned about 30 times. I also got very sick in Iran and India. But I also eat things that I know are risky. At the end of the day, you just lose 10 pounds and move on.
We’re making a really cool docuseries about visiting each country. There’s a book coming up and an NFT project that I’m really excited about. I organize meetings in different cities around the world. But I don’t want to lose the core of getting out there and meeting people and inspiring people to travel.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.