When I spoke to James Asquith, it sounded like he was walking, quickly, down a busy road. Several lifts were taken during the course of our conversation. I ask where he is right now. London. A rarity.
'Catching up' with James is no easy feat. CEO and founder of travel website Holiday Swap and a Guinness World Record holder, a quick scroll of James’s Instagram profile shows he isn’t someone who stays still for long enough to be caught up with.
While much of the world was at home for the start of 2021, James was celebrating his birthday in Dubai. Since then he’s been to Paris, Frankfurt and South Africa on business. We are just two weeks into the year.
An ‘education’ would probably be a better term for my chat with James. Just a couple of minutes into the call, it became apparent that this is an informed businessman with a clear vision and an insightful perspective that stretches beyond the realms of travel alone.
We talked about everything from his experiences as the youngest male to travel to every country in the world, to the conception of his business, Holiday Swap.
James Asquith, thanks for virtually joining me. You’re officially the youngest male to travel to every country in the world. Was that a life goal?
I can categorically say that it wasn’t a goal. The best way of looking at it is I got a bit carried away. It was only when I hit the 100 countries mark I even started to think it might be something I could feasibly do.
Prior to me actually going for it, I looked it up, I think the last guy was 37. I was 24 by the time I had reached every country. [James is 32 now].
But it took me six years. I did it on my own time. I wasn’t doing it to chase a record.
I’ve heard plenty of people toe-tapping the border of a country then moving on. That’s their prerogative, but it’s just not how I wanted to do it. I’m glad I did it in my own way, on my own terms.
Yeah, I don’t know how you’re supposed to come close to appreciating or absorbing a country if you’re doing it as fast as possible.
Exactly, and there’s the environmental impact of that too, taking so many flights in such a short timeframe.
Your whole process, then - your six-year window. What were the logistics? Were you consistently travelling for six years, or did you come home?
It all started in the summer after my first year of uni at London School of Economics. My best friends and I went to Southeast Asia and did some volunteering out there. We were building houses. We had no idea what we were doing of course, but we tried our best. It was my first proper travel experience.
Then I went back to uni for my second year. I was sitting in the first lecture of term and thinking about anywhere but where I was. And that was that: I closed my book, went to Heathrow Airport and - for lack of a better phrase - f***ed off for five months.
When I came back, I slept in the library for seven weeks to catch up on work. Like seriously, sleeping on a bean bag. I showered there. And then I did the same in third year.
After uni, I got a job as an investment banker. I was so lucky, I had a great boss who basically said look, James, just get it done. Obviously, in corporate jobs you don’t get much time off, but he let me take these extended trips so I could keep ticking off the countries.
So yeah, I worked it around uni and then my job. There were other factors to take into account - as a new grad who had racked up student debts, some countries were out of my budget. For example Sudan, where it costs about $1,500 just to enter the country once you’ve covered off entrance visas, exit visas. So I waited until I was earning more before I went to the places I knew were going to hit the bank account that bit harder.
And you were just 24 when you ‘completed the world’?
I was 24 and one hundred and something days I think? Now I’m 32, and I feel like I’m definitely better travelled now than I was then. [Guinness World Records confirms 24 years and 192 days].
Aside from the investment job you secured out of uni - how did you fund the trip?
My family don’t really come from anything. They are amazing, hard-working, they gave me and my sister everything we could have wanted - but we never really had any money growing up.
At 12, I started washing cars up and down my street, a fiver [£5] a go. That was the first time someone tried to hustle me, actually - they offered me a Creme Egg in payment, and I was like no, you pay £5.
I tried to give my mum the money I’d earned: £120. She refused and instead opened up a bank account for me. I became obsessed with seeing that number next to your name, and from then on, I did any odd job I could.
By the time I was fifteen I had three different jobs on the go. One of them was blowing up balloons in a shop for about £4 an hour. But everything I earned I saved. At 17 I set up an events business, which was really good money, and when I was 18 the ambition was to buy a house with what I’d accumulated.
I went into finance because I wanted to trade shares, and I invested all of my money into stock in the middle of the financial crisis in 2008. It came off - I made a good amount of money from it, but then I lost a lot of money, which was a great lesson for me.
After facing the loss, I had a little bit left and thought: instead of using this to buy a house, I’m going to use it to see the world.
My trip was totally self-made. I never took any sponsorship - I wanted to show people that it is possible to do it yourself.
Now you have your own business, Holiday Swap, which has been inspired by your travels. Where did the idea come from?
I enjoyed working in finance, but over the years it became a bit lethargic, a bit boring, and I wanted to incorporate travel into my working life as well as my personal one.
I knew it was doable. I just didn’t have a solid idea. I think a lot of people make the mistake, especially entrepreneurs, of wanting to be their own boss for the sake of it without having a really tenable idea.
It came to me when I least expected it. I was between jobs in finance, 2017, and I had to take garden leave as part of the move. I was away in Romania with my friend.
Whenever I’m away with friends they love telling people I’ve been to every country in the world, which of course triggers questions - what’s your favourite country, culture etc. I’m more than happy to answer because I think it’s important if you travel to be an ambassador for the cause.
London came up a lot. People always said, "I want to come to London, but it’s so expensive." I would say, well look, next time I come out here you can go and stay at mine in London.
I was on the flight back home when I had the lightbulb moment. Holiday Swap is a sharing economy platform that allows people to swap their homes and not pay for it.
Platforms like Airbnb aren’t what they once were for budgeters. Their prices have gone up, they’re expensive now. It used to be a case of renting out a spare room - now people are buying second properties to profit from it.
For us it was genuinely: create a platform to save people money - a dollar a night to swap your place, or you can subscribe for a year for 60 dollars. It’s a true shared economy. The press has called us the ‘travel Tinder,’ other people have compared us to ‘The Holiday’, you know the film with Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet?
It’s taken us three years to get to this point. We’re in 185 countries now. The growth process was huge.
Don’t get me wrong, there have been times I’ve slammed down my laptop like ‘screw this,’ but that lasts for all of 30 seconds before I sheepishly return and hope it’s not broken.
I’m so inspired by the concept of genuinely saving people money to travel, and making a platform I love.
It seems like a really sustainable model - financially, environmentally. Running a single, existing and otherwise empty flat in Barcelona, or a cottage in Switzerland is inevitably less wasteful than operating a whole hotel in central LA.
Oh, definitely. And the travel habits we’ve become accustomed to in the past 20 years are facing a dramatic upheaval following COVID-19.
What do you think is on the horizon?
The pandemic has hit hard. A lot of people are struggling - from a health-conscious perspective and a financial one. We’re on the brink of a huge recession. The attitude used to be: I’ll put it on a credit card and work overtime to pay it off. That option just isn’t there for a lot of people anymore.
But it doesn’t change the facts, people need to get out and do stuff. They need something to look forward to, and often it’s your summer holiday or your weekend away.
We’re seeing a renaissance in travel. Domestic and regional are on the rise. For example in the UK, the August bank holiday saw 14.8 million domestic trips taken. Pre-2020 it might have seemed like a boring option, but that’s nearly a quarter of the population opting to holiday at home.
I don’t think this will go away this year. I see things improving by the summer, but people are going to need some validation, whether it’s the vaccine or whatever, before travel comes back.
I’m not a scientist, but I am a statistician. So what I can speak about is that until 70-80% of people are vaccinated it’s going to take a while still. People don’t want to take the risk of being the other side of the world. We’ve seen how quickly it’s shut down - for example when the UK borders closed overnight in December.
I think people will take the chance next summer when they get it, but I don’t think they’ll be travelling far. Road trips will be the really popular one.
Absolutely - we recently talked about the upcoming travel trends for 2021, and getting outdoors, van life experiences, camping and glamping are set to be huge.
Right James, I’ve taken up enough of your time. A couple of quick-fire questions from your experience in travel. Number one: of the places you’ve visited, where do you think changed you the most?
Oh good question, let me think. Probably Egypt or Vietnam. Vietnam purely because that’s where I picked up the travel bug. And Egypt because that was my first solo trip, which I booked as soon as I got back from southeast Asia.
For me it was a huge culture shock as well, it was the first time I’d been to the Middle East, which culturally is so different from Europe and the UK.
Is there anywhere you wouldn’t go back to?
Ha, there’s a few of those. Yemen is one of them. Yemen was very difficult when I was there. I said I wouldn’t go back, but I did just over a year ago, trying to use my platform for some good. I don’t really do sponsored stuff, but I worked with UNICEF to try and deliver some supplies for the humanitarian crisis that was going on there.
It wasn’t nice. But I wanted to do something that would help people. I had to sleep with an AK-47 under my pillow for protection.
In Yemen, 80 per cent of people are on the brink of famine. There’s no embassy, there’s no media there. Media were reporting from Cairo or Dubai because they can’t be on the ground. So I thought I could show people what it’s like.
I sat with a mother who explained to me that the next day she would have to decide which of her children she would feed. That’s the reality. It was so difficult to see. But if I can do something that genuinely helps people with my platform, then I always will.
James it’s been so interesting speaking with you. Thanks so much for your time.
Holiday Swap is an award-winning global home exchange platform active in 185 countries. The aim is to provide people with access to affordable accommodation and new travel opportunities.
In 2021, Holiday Swap is focusing on connecting its 400,000+ users worldwide to start planning adventures and exchanges for when it is safe to travel again.