Whether it’s due to the expense of traveling, being too busy to find the time, not having enough days off from work, or all of the above–it’s easy to deter oneself from exploring the world. But Elona Karafin, a 23-year-old philanthropist, is seeking to change the way we think about travel.
Currently living in New York and working as a financial analyst, Karafin was originally born in Ukraine and moved to the United States when she was 3 years old. At the age of 10, she was diagnosed with bone cancer and spent two years in treatment. Now healthy and thriving, Karafin says having cancer taught her one thing: make no excuses. So despite her desk job and her busy New York City lifestyle, Karafin spends her weekends traveling around the world and inspiring thousands on her blog, Elona the Explorer, to do the same.
“I want people to re-think the conventional way that traveling is thought about. You can travel somewhere very far for a short period of time and you can get a lot done. You can see a lot, you can feel a lot, and you can be immersed in local culture,” she said when I recently spoke with her. And the young explorer’s efforts to effect change don’t stop there. Karafin founded the charity, checkmatecancer.org, and has since raised over $115,000 for families in the United States and abroad who are battling cancer.
To learn more about Karafin’s travels, where she’s off to next and how she stays healthy while jet-setting, check out the entire interview below:
You note that you’re a “professional vacationer” on your Instagram page. What sparked your love of traveling?
That’s just my way to get people scrolling! I’ve been traveling since I was three, primarily to and from Ukraine, so I was certainly primed since back then. Then all of a sudden I became a grown up and I started working full time when I was 16 and basically never stopped since, even through college. I still traveled to Ukraine and my layovers would be in places like Paris and Amsterdam and I kept thinking of how badly I want to leave the airport. I decided that I had to make it happen, and I did.
Your travels are truly inspiring considering the places you’ve been, the amount of time you’ve spent there (mostly weekends) and the budget you’ve maintained. Perhaps you can expand on how you pull this off and why it’s important that young people realize traveling far on a budget is entirely possible? My goal isn’t to teach people to travel on a budget. Budget travel is such a vague concept because every single person has different financial responsibilities and priorities. I have never backpacked Southeast Asia and I never made a thousand bucks last throughout an entire month (or more) of traveling … but people do it, and major kudos to them. I want people to re-think the conventional way that traveling is thought about. You can travel somewhere very far for a short period of time and you can get a lot done. You can see a lot, you can feel a lot, and you can be immersed in local culture. Likewise, so many people are nervous about taking time off – most workplaces have a set number of days available. These days are yours to use. I am all about building relationships with managers and higher-ups – they are all humans, they understand that you have hobbies and priorities out of work: they will respect the latter if you work hard and respect the workplace. I want people to really ponder on whether or not they’ll be able to do something like this later in life? Can they really be sure? The answer is no – so if you can do it now, do it. And ultimately, I do want to help people get better deals on flights and other travel expenses. Will it make the trip a “budget” trip, I don’t know. Will it be cheaper than conventional travel sites ? Probably. (Here are the two websites I recommend if you’re looking for the best deal on flights: JetRadar and Skyscanner)
the hot tub series 🌞 A photo posted by Elona Karafin (@elonachka) on
Your charity, Checkmatecancer.org, has raised over $115,000 for families in the United States (and abroad) battling cancer—can you tell me more about your charity and what led you to start it? How has your own experience with cancer impacted your life and travels?
I am confident that it is my duty in life to give back to families that are going through testing times. Helping others and going out of my ways to provide any type of support is like second nature to me. I had bone cancer when I was 10 and there were so many amazing organizations that made me the happiest cancer patient in the world. I mean I went to Camp Simcha with other cancer patients and went on hot air balloon rides, shopping sprees, and trips without worrying about the fact that I am bald. The Make-A-Wish Foundation gave me a dog which was my lifelong dream. These organizations do this for thousands and thousands of kids. I’ve been there and I want to help others overcome everything that comes with the disease. I focus on providing financial help to underprivileged families who have kids with cancer – and I also do an annual toy drive to the NYU Pediatric Oncology Ward. Cancer taught me one important thing and that’s not to make excuses. Right now excuses are all I hear from others “theres not enough time”, “theres not enough money”, “maybe next year”. My mentality is quite the opposite. If there is a will there is a way and if I want to accomplish something, I will do everything towards that, no ifs and buts. So when it comes to things like travel – if I want to go somewhere, I will go.
A photo posted by Elona Karafin (@elonachka) on
Do you have any traveling tips?
Ah yes, there is an entire section for those on my blog, Elona the Explorer.
Do you remember the first trip you ever went on? How you felt? Any inkling that it would inspire your lifestyle?
I went back to Ukraine for the first time when I was five. I was actually traveling alone, meaning my parents handed me over to the flight attendant, she checked up on me a few times on the plane, and then she handed me over to my grandparents in Ukraine. I think the latter definitely created an internal sense of comfort with the idea of being alone especially on a long haul flight to a foreign country.
38°C inside … 38°F outside A photo posted by Elona Karafin (@elonachka) on
Where haven’t you been that you’d like to go?
Too many places to list; I really want to go on an African safari trip and I want to do volunteer trips with animals in Africa and Southeast Asia. Those have been on my radar for a while.
What’s your advice to someone who is afraid to travel alone?
You are never alone. There are some articles on my blog about traveling solo but the bottom line is that in today’s day and age with all the technology we have available like skype and facetime and etc, you can always avoid the feeling of being alone. Likewise, it’s always important to be in public places both for safety reasons and for the purposes of not feeling lonely. As long as you keep busy – you will never be lonely.
A photo posted by Elona Karafin (@elonachka) on
How has the influence of social media impacted your travels, how might it help others in their wanderlust?
I was inspired by many travelers through their social media networks. I mean, just last year I was idolizing one female travel blogger (Nicole Isaacs) who visited the most incredible places I have ever seen and really had her own brand and entrepreneurial spirit. I never thought that a year later I would be in the somewhat same shoes and in so many ways inspiring others to go out and do and see the same things that I am doing. The ultimate goal is to definitely help spark a little wanderlust in everyone who reads and follows my work.
Any tips on how to meet locals and learn about a culture when you don’t speak the language?
Touristy places are definitely the places where you are most likely to meet someone that speaks the same language that you do. I always talk to hotel staff or servers at restaurants. Those are the people that have the best insight to the local hot spots. It all depends on where you are honestly – I am big on safety so I often do a lot of preliminary research on my own before going to complete strangers. There are also a TON of Facebook groups available where you can find locals for meetups or ask questions in a forum – form. But again, safety is always priority.
What do you do to stay healthy while you’re traveling frequently?
I am really big on dining and fine dining especially. Therefore, my healthy lifestyle stays at home while I go away. I go to the gym regularly back at home and often while I travel … I maintain a fairly clean diet in between my tips so I use my travel time to cheat a little.
I think they like me 😏😁 * * * * * One of my top favorite beaches in the Virgin Islands is Coki Beach – it is arguably the best place to experience a very local vibe, local home cooked foods and unbelievable snorkeling without having to take any tours ! A photo posted by Elona Karafin (@elonachka) on
Where to next?!
Hard to answer because it literally could be anywhere in the world in as little as a week. I definitely want to go to the Philippines and Morocco in the near future but the way my travels are … I can be anywhere next weekend.