After hearing about Bitcoin back in 2012, he had since founded a Bitcoin coworking space but there were too few Bitcoin companies to keep it afloat. He was also active in the Bitcoin forums and had written a Python library for Bitcoin.
But one thought nagged at him. Back when he first heard about Bitcoin, he immediately thought that, if this were truly a “world currency” — one that could be used regardless of what country you were in — someday people should be able to make round-the-world trips using it.
“I thought maybe it would be 10 to 15 years from [then],” he says, but as it turned out, he packed up his bags and embarked on that voyage within two years — on January 12, 2015.
Since then, Weis has been to 27 countries and 50 cities, spending — according to the rules he established — only bitcoin.
His three stipulations were:
- No banks. And that meant no Western Union, no money exchanges, no converting USD to euros, no euros to yen.
- Bitcoin first. He had to use Bitcoin whenever possible.
- Cash only for bitcoin. Recognizing that there would be times when he would need local currency, he allowed himself to do peer-to-peer exchanges of bitcoin for cash. And that led to some fun adventures.
During his bitcoin-funded trip, the cryptocurrency underwent a maturation. Undoubtedly, things looked bleak when Weis embarked on his trip. For more than a year, the price had been falling after surpassing $1,000 at the end of 2013. In fact, his journey began around the nadir, two days before the price briefly slipped under $200. But over the next year and a half, as Weis visited both Bitcoin-accessible countries like the United States and less Bitcoin-enabled ones like Cuba, the currency steadily regained its footing.
It began to shed its reputation as the currency of choice for drug dealers and other criminals. Its technology was embraced by the likes of Goldman Sachs, Nasdaq and Visa. It weathered some political infighting that made headlines but ultimately did not drive the new technology, which was being compared to the internet in its significance, off its course.
And just as Weis’s trip was coming to a close, the community was anticipating a special event, one set to happen roughly every four years until about 2140. The currency’s unique monetary policy decrees that there will only ever be 21 million bitcoins, and the amount of new bitcoins (which are released every 10 minutes) would drop by half every four years.
So, as the community awaited Bitcoin’s second “halving,” the man who had spent the previous 18 months traveling the world spending only this digital currency returned to Berlin, just in time to attend, on Saturday, a Bitcoin halving party.
Here’s how Weis, 28, survived, what insights he has about Bitcoin and what he learned about the nature of money. (The interview has been edited and condensed.)
How did you pay for the basics?
To eat, I went to restaurants listed on Coinmap [a map of businesses that accept bitcoin as payment] even if they were far away. In terms of lodging, I did everything from couch surfing to five star hotels. I paid for all the flights and hotels with Bitcoin. If the hotel didn’t accept Bitcoin directly, I used Expedia, and for the flights, I used CheapAir. I would like to thank these two companies because they helped me a lot.
I’d also like to thank the rest of the Bitcoin community. Without all these Bitcoiners in all these countries, it would not have been possible to do the trip. I did not have a bank account or credit card. Eighty percent of the people I traded with were already Bitcoiners. I found them on Local Bitcoins [a web directory for those who want to meet up in person to exchange local currency for bitcoin].
For people who didn’t own Bitcoin yet, I told them about it and then they had to get some and we traded that Bitcoin for cash.
Was it hard to convince people to open a Bitcoin wallet?
Most people were interested once I explained some details. It’s crazy how many people don’t trust banks anymore. Also, I was a living example that even though bitcoin is a “virtual” currency, I could do a “real” world tour. But most people don’t see Bitcoin as a real alternative yet.
What did you most often have to use cash for?
As a deposit for hotels for incidentals because I didn’t own a credit card. But my cash usage ranged from 80% to 20% depending on the country — in North America, my cash usage was low. In Asia, it was high. South America was in the middle.
What were some interesting connections you made through other Bitcoiners?
The only way I was able to get to Cuba was through a guy advertising that he wanted to buy bitcoin in Cuba. At first I thought it was a joke, but he said, it’s true, I want to get some bitcoin but nobody on this island has any. I asked him, Can I come by and you get me from the airport and I give you some bitcoin and we can trade? And he said, Yes, and you can also stay at my house for a week. So I was able to go to Cuba. But I didn’t find any bitcoin businesses there.
I tipped my guide a few bitcoins after my tour — I set him up with a Blockchain.info wallet and tipped him — but the biggest problem for Bitcoin in Cuba is that it’s pretty much unheard of for private homes to have an Internet connection. The few people who do have internet have it via weird channels. You can buy a wifi card for $2 for an hour, but then the first thing you do, obviously, is chat with your family, not research Bitcoin. And also the socialist wage in Cuba is less than $25 a month, so you cannot buy too many hours of internet with that money.
Cuba (Courtesy Felix Weis)
Previously, in Switzerland, I had met with the CEO Bitcoin Suisse, who gave me a paper wallet [a wallet containing the keys to one’s Bitcoins that cannot be hacked, infected by malware or subject to a hardware crash]. Later, the guy in Cuba asked me how to make a paper wallet, so I handed that over to him. I gave a paper wallet from one of the most capitalistic countries in the world to one of the most socialist countries in the world.
How did you start your trip?
In the beginning, I didn’t know how I would pay for stuff and if I would actually find places that accepted Bitcoin, so I had almost 200 euros in cash. For transportation, I bought an Interrail pass to ride the train.
Did you buy it in euros?
No, I bought the ticket with All4BTC.com where you can put an Amazon link or any other link and they will buy it for you and you pay them in Bitcoin — so you can buy anything online that you would buy with a credit card but you pay in Bitcoin.
Where did you go?
The first stop was Prague, where SatoshiLabs, which produces the Trezor wallet [a hardware device built specifically to store bitcoins], is based. I wanted to get a Trezor to safeguard my newly bought Bitcoin, and I wanted to buy it in person to make sure it wasn’t tampered with in the mail.
I put all my savings into Bitcoin, which I don’t recommend anybody doing.
Map of the 50 cities Felix Weis visited on his round-the-world Bitcoin-only trip
How much was that?
It was enough to do a one-year world trip without working. I wanted, at the end, to write a book titled Around the World in 80 Bitcoins — I’m semi-joking. During my travels, the Bitcoin price went up [from ~$200 to $640], so it’s hard to know for sure how much I spent.
Was the Trezor the main way you stored your Bitcoin?
I kept my bulk savings in the Trezor and used a mobile wallet for daily expenditures. I would send money from the Trezor to my mobile wallet as needed. I tried a variety of wallets but mostly used Android Bitcoin Wallet, Mycelium and Copay.
What would you have done if you had lost your Trezor?
With some technical know-how it’s possible to restore the private key without the Trezor hardware. It’s complicated but that would have been my backup plan.
Did you meet a lot of Bitcoin startups on your trip?
I interviewed Bitcoin startups all around the world, to get their perspective, like on where do they see Bitcoin in 10 years, but I haven’t published that material — I’m a programmer, not a blogger. People kept telling me, You have to write a blog, but my blog died after one month. It was so much work.
This trip definitely wasn’t an all-inclusive vacation. I had to do all this research — finding places that would accept Bitcoin, meeting with these Bitcoiners, figuring out where to get cash.
I went to 50 cities. While I know now that it’s possible to travel around the world with Bitcoin, it’s definitely not convenient. When I came home at the end of the day, I wasn’t in the mood to write a blog article.
How much time every day or week did you spend doing the research necessary to travel using Bitcoin?
Before I go to a country, the research can take a day, or an afternoon at least. The original plan was 21 countries in 365 days, but I was only at 17 after one year because I was always a bit scared to go to the next country. Once I was in a country, I knew where to buy stuff with Bitcoin, where to find other Bitcoienrs, how to get some cash — all that was settled. But each time I went to a new country, especially if they use a new currency, there were always so many uncertainties.
Once you arrive at the airport or at the train station, how do actually you find someone who wants to trade? Some airports have Bitcoin ATMs, but I think there’s a business model to do more, because after airport security, when people have money leftover, they usually spend it on stupid stuff like perfume. But what if they could put that money into a Bitcoin machine and take that money with them into another country? Then they could use a Bitcoin ATM to take the money out again. They would basically keep their money in the cloud.
How did you decide on each destination?
I didn’t go to any city that didn’t list a single business on Coinmap or Local Bitcoins. I needed some connection to the Bitcoin community.
When I heard about Grexit — even though I had just been in Greece and had moved on to Turkey and Ukraine — I thought, I have to go back. There, the banks were closed for [three weeks] and people were only allowed to withdraw 60 euros. International wire transfers were banned and people didn’t know — are we going to Grexit? Are we going to go back to drachma? Will we get a 30% haircut on our money?
Bitcoin ATMs were not bound by the rule to withdraw only 60 euros, so we showed people how to withdraw 120 euros. There was a Greek Bitcoin exchange, so you could wire your money from your Greek bank account, buy Bitcoins on the exchange and then withdraw that money from the Bitcoin ATM.
One woman who was fed up with the situation in Greece had decided to move to the Czech Republic and used Bitcoin to transfer her savings there.
While in Greece, I printed some flyers to inform people about Bitcoin and to advertise an upcoming Bitcoin Meetup. I also created a Bitcoin QR code [which enables someone to send you Bitcoin] and put it on a huge sign and we went around with that and got some media attention. We received gifts of more than one Bitcoin at this address, which I then donated to Athens’ newly founded Bitcoin Meetup group.
What was another of the more significant destinations?
I celebrated my anniversary of traveling for one year on the Yap Islands [between the Philippines and Guam]. These people used, for many centuries, pretty much the largest money in the world. Even though this money is completely analog, it has a lot of similarities to Bitcoin and blockchain [the technology behind Bitcoin].
Traditional Yapese money (Courtesy of Felix Weis)
The stones are not produced on the island. They’re made from a special limestone that exists only on Palau, more than 200 miles away. The chiefs of Yap went to Palau and didn’t want to return to their wives empty-handed, so they started bringing these stones, and it became the currency of the island. They wanted to get bigger and bigger stones there, but if your stones were too big, your boat could sink. So it was dangerous to transfer these across the ocean with your small boat.
They were obviously scarce and valuable so you had all these properties that money has — but they were not fungible. So when the owner changed, they didn’t move the stones. They kept them in the same place, and broadcast, through the whole island, This stone is now owned by this person. So, just like in Bitcoin, the transaction was broadcast to the whole network. If you have bitcoins in your phone, they’re not actually in your phone. You have private keys that sign the transaction to move bitcoin to another person but the bitcoins themselves exist only on the blockchain. That was how the Yapese used these stones.
When colonial forces arrived, the Germans wanted to trade with these people but they only had gold and silver, and the Yapese were not into these small rocks. The Germans said, We have these huge ships and can transfer any size of stone for you. At the beginning, the chiefs said, That’s a cool idea, but then there were so many stones, there was inflation. The stones weren’t worth anything anymore. So I thought it was an interesting analogy, first to Bitcoin, and then to the inflation of fiat currency.
Speaking of inflation, you also went to Venezuela, which the IMF predicts will see 500% inflation this year.
I always read about inflation in history and economic books, but I never saw it with my own eyes. I decided to go there even though it’s kind of risky [a recent study concluded it has the highest homicide rate in the world]. Some Bitcoiners there — Giovanni and his son Anderson — heard about my time in Cuba and reached out to me. To get cash, I sent them some Bitcoin and they came back with bags of cash that represented only $100.
$100 in Bolivars (Courtesy of Felix Weis)
The 100 Venezuelan bolivar bill is the biggest bill they have. They wanted to have a strong currency like the U.S. dollar, so the biggest bill is 100. Four years ago 100 bolivar used to be $30. Now it’s $0.10 [not according to the official, government rate, but on the black market]. For two pizzas, I paid 10,000 bolivar — $10 — and it took me one-and-a-half minutes to count the money.
A Venezuelan grocery has mostly empty shelves (Courtesy of Felix Weis)
There, I also met some Ethereum miners [Ethereum is a network similar to Bitcoin, and miners maintain the network for the chance to be awarded new ether, the cryptocurrency of Ethereum]. One of the socialist benefits in Venezuela is that electricity is cheap — they don’t pay the market price. These miners had 1-2 Bitcoin ASIC miners [machines that maintain the Ethereum network and can generate money in the form of ether] on the floor in their homes, not in a big warehouse like we’ve seen of mining machines in China. A lot of miners that are unprofitable in other countries because they pay market price for electricity want to sell their old machines, but nobody except Venezuelans buys them. Since they don’t pay any electricity, they can still make money from them.
Weis with a Venezuelan cryptocurrency miner (Courtesy of Felix Weis)
Everyone there wants to get hard currency but without tourists and foreign companies, there are no physical dollars in the country. Between each other, people trade bitcoins, because bitcoins don’t lose value and are more stable than their own currency and it is the only way to wire money internationally to their families — though, usually, it’s the other way around. For everything where I wasn’t able to pay in bitcoin directly, Anderson and his dad paid for me and at the end I paid them back in bitcoin.
Where did you have the easiest time?
The easiest was when I was in the U.S. In San Francisco, there were so many hostels and restaurants accepting Bitcoin. It was almost too easy. And then with Gyft, you can use buy gift cards with Bitcoin and use the gift cards.
For me, the question was, Do we need banks? People always say Bitcoin is for banking the unbanked, for the six billion without a bank account, but I think it would be interesting to unbank the rest of us.
At what moment were you most tempted to cheat?
In Romania, in the beginning. I had booked the hotel through Expedia and was supposed to meet this local bitcoin guy to trade for cash but he didn’t show up. I couldn’t find any other person to trade with, so I had no cash. I could only eat the hotel breakfast. I stole some apples from there, but other than that I had no money to eat. Those two days were some of the worst.
Then he showed up and said there was some incident in the family and he was so sorry. He bought me dinner and we did the trade. I found out later that, in Romania, there is a Groupon-like site and the owner is a huge fan of bitcoin. So then I bought vouchers with bitcoin and went out to eat with the vouchers.
What did your trip teach you about how Bitcoin might develop over the next few years?
There are a lot of different uses for it. When I was in the Philippines and Hong Kong, people use it to send money to their families with Coins.ph, and Rebit.ph. In Venezuela, they use it to hedge against inflation and to profit from cheap electricity. In San Francisco, I met people interested in the technology. In New York City, in February, people were mostly interested in the speculative aspect of Bitcoin because it was gaining so much in value then. And in Austin, libertarians felt the state was robbing them and was evil and they could protect themselves with Bitcoin. The uses varied, but in the end, that’s not surprising. Bitcoin is just money.
What did you learn about the nature of money?
Anything can be money. The people on Yap define these stones to be money. The fungibility and liquidity of the government-issued money or paper bills or credit cards we use every day are so much higher than Bitcoin, but anything could be money as long as the basic properties are met.
If you take an objective look at Bitcoin, these properties are already met. The fact that I was able to use it in these 27 countries — in every one, I did at least one bitcoin trade or bought something with bitcoin or used it in another way — showed me it’s already a global currency.