Nabila Ismail isn’t your average PharmD. She works for GoodRx by day, but she spends her time off the clock creating content, building an online travel community, expanding her brand Dose of Travel and getting lost in exotic locales worldwide. Having visited 42 countries, many of them solo, the 27-year-old is on a mission to bring her passion for wanderlust to South Asian travelers. Nabila’s amassed a combined Instagram and TikTok following of over 50k and provides tips and insights into seeing the world on a budget. She also recently started the South Asians Who Travel Facebook group, a space for brown folks to discuss all things representation and community in travel.
Brown Girl Mag contributor Brina Patel caught up with Nabila when she was in New York City, and here’s what Nabila had to say about her journey, the future of her brand and words of advice for those who want to add a dose of travel to their lives.
Patel: What initially sparked your wanderlust?
Ismail: The key memory I have is when I was a freshman in high school. I had a French student live with me for two weeks. My school offered this, and I was like, “Mom, Dad. We’re having a French student come live with us.” [Laughs] We got to host for two weeks, and then we got to live with them for two weeks. We went to a suburb right outside of Paris, and I was enamored. It was so cool, and my parents were so supportive of it. I was fortunate to have that one experience. I never thought it could happen again, or [that it could be] something I could frequently do.
Fast-forward to me constantly doing this. My best friend from high school was born and raised in Germany. Instead of going off to college as everyone else did, she took a gap year and became an au pair. I had no idea what that was. I thought it was really out there. Over winter break, I [visited] her and learned exactly what an au pair was. The summer after freshman year, I went off to be an au pair in Spain. And then I realized that [travel] was a whole culture and so many people were doing it. I never stopped.
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P: When did you begin to share more of your travel experiences on social media?
I: I had an Instagram and a blog on Bloggerspot — I don’t even think that exists anymore. [Laughs] I wanted to go to fashion school, so I used to post daily outfit pics. When I went to Spain solo, I started posting and talking about what I was doing, like “What is an au pair? How can I afford it?” It was also my way of telling my mom I was okay. I didn’t have a niche or a theme back then. I’d travel, then come back to school and post about that. It wasn’t until a few years after when I was like, “Oh, I’m onto something here.” People would ask, “What are you doing? How are you doing that?” So, it slowly turned into pharmacy and travel. Because nobody really talks about pharmacy, either. It became the Dose of Travel when I got accepted into pharmacy school my sophomore year of college.
P: Speaking of pharmacy school, that’s not an easy feat to accomplish. How were you able to balance studying and eventually your career, with travel?
I: I’m an oddball when it comes to this. I only achieve when I’m very busy and have different facets of my life catered to and things to look forward to. I like to have my hands on a lot of things, and that’s how I keep my motivation. School was one part — I made it clear that I was not going to make school my everything. I had 3 or 4 jobs when I was in school to afford travel. In summers, I took off to travel. I saw the end goal — “3 more months, and I’m out of here.” I also had a pharmacy internship to build my resumé, so I checked off those boxes. It was all part of a master plan.
[Read Related: A Quick how-to Guide on Traveling Solo in India as a Woman]
P: There is a misconception about travel being an expensive endeavor. I know you focus on budget travel and budget travel tips. What specific hacks do you use?
I: First, I will say that I know I’m privileged, in the sense that I have an American passport and can go to many places. My parents did pay for my rent [during school], so anything that I earned with those jobs was essentially disposable income.
I found the cheapest ways to possibly travel. I was willing to work, I was willing to learn, and I wanted to be in a local environment. I looked at work exchange opportunities, where they’d give me free housing — usually, housing and accommodation is the most expensive part of travel, after flights. I’d look for those opportunities to work 3-4 hours a day, get a place to stay, occasionally free food. And then my money, I would just need for visas, transportation, excursions. But my basics were covered. So if I was solo traveling, I knew I had a place to sleep and wasn’t scared.
I [also] found myself in positions to essentially barter. [Laughs] I was an au pair in Italy in a small town near Verona. My host dad took me to a winery, and the owner was like, “You’re American. You can speak fluent English. I’ve been trying to learn.” And I was like, “Yeah, I can help you.” He said, “Will you be my tutor? In exchange, I’ll take you around town, and we can explore. I’ll take you to my favorite places.” So, he would pick me up, and we would go to the lake, and I would just get a meal out of it. I met a local person, and I still talk to [him] to this day.
Another hack is I choose destinations based on flight prices. Although I have a bucket list of dream places, I don’t normally hit them right away. If I find a deal from Scott’s Cheap Flights, I’ll go to that random country and do my research. For example, I went to Ecuador. I flew on Christmas Eve, which is the most expensive time to fly, but I only had a week off from work, and I wasn’t wasting it. Ecuador was the cheapest place to fly that I hadn’t already been to. So, I was like, “I’m going to Ecuador!”
There are a bunch of scholarships out there that they don’t tell you about in school. I would also say differentiating between vacation versus travel. When you think of vacation, you think resorts are super expensive, a luxury. Whereas travel [is] a way of life, I was trying to extend it past a week or two.
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P: What visions do you have for the future of your brand, Dose of Travel?
I: I feel like a lot of the things that have happened have been by chance or have just come to me. Like when I started this whole Instagram, I just started posting. I love taking photos, and I love keeping track of my own memories. I was doing something out of the box, and even I couldn’t believe it. That’s where it started from, and that’s still the place where it’s at. It makes me feel good, and I genuinely enjoy it.
I didn’t even tailor my [content] to South Asians until I realized other people were like, “I’ve never seen a South Asian person traveling.” I didn’t see a lot of other people who looked like me and thought there was something to talk about there. I never talked about my background or who I was. It was mostly what I was seeing and experiencing until people started bringing it up.
That’s how the whole South Asian [Facebook] group got started. I hopped on a TikTok trend that went viral. It was a boyfriend application, but I wasn’t looking for a boyfriend. I was looking for a travel person who was also a brown girl. I had hundreds of comments like, “Me! I’m here! I wanna go!” And I was like, “Wait, what?” So, I created a Facebook group, and I kinda just let it do its thing. It grew to 950 [members] organically.
That eventually led to a group trip. I’m leading a trip of 14 people to Bali. Most of them are South Asian, and I imagine they are mostly from that group or TikTok. My business has taken off by itself and led me down this path. Ideally, I would love to amplify more South Asian travel creators, but also bring more diversity and representation to travel brands, like the brands I use or wear, or the airlines I work with. Their marketing collateral is not catered to be very diverse. And the people who work in the travel industry are not very diverse. I’d love to take the voices of what people who are following me are saying for people who like to travel, [I’d like] for them to find me and for me to find them.
Also, I definitely don’t want it to appear like I’m the only one who’s South Asian and traveling. It’s more of a call to find the ones that you don’t see. I just wrote an article for Fodor’s talking about 10 South Asian travel creators to be following. So, it was me, as a travel creator, talking about ten others that you should be following because they’re hard to find. I didn’t even know about them!
[Read Related: How I Shed my Collectivist Culture Mentality by Traveling Solo]
P: Of the 42 countries you’ve been to, which do you feel are the most underrated and misrepresented?
Ismail: Underrated, I can say the few countries I’ve been to in Africa — Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Tanzania and South Africa. I went in 2018, and there weren’t many travelers. It wasn’t packed like most of the destinations in Europe or Mexico. I went as a solo female backpacker, so I wasn’t staying at fancy resorts or safari camps. I was staying at hostels, and there were overall very minimal backpackers or solo travelers. People were shocked by the pictures I was posting, seeing the nice places and knowing what was out there. I have always said Africa is my favorite continent because it’s so untouched, and there’s so much to see.
Misrepresentation-wise, I feel like anywhere off the beaten path is deemed as a scary, dangerous place. I most recently went to El Salvador and everyone — even a couple of people from El Salvador—said, “Don’t go there. The homicide rate is so high.” I don’t doubt there are scary parts, but I find NYC to be scary. I’ve taken it that people will have their stereotypes, but I have to go for myself. Obviously, with due diligence — making sure I’m reading global advisories. But I’d say a lot of countries in South America have been deemed as unsafe, especially for a solo female.
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P: What tips would you give to aspiring South Asian solo female travelers?
I: Don’t worry about what people will think. A lot of times, people will be like, “I can’t go alone. People will think I don’t have friends. People will think that’s weird. I’ll get lonely.” I honestly never feel lonely as a solo traveler because you find yourself meeting so many people. Others come up to you more because it’s less intimidating since you’re not in a group.
If you are remotely interested in traveling or going alone, and you haven’t done it, but you keep ruminating on it. Just do it! I always say, to start, it’s a little bit of preparation and then just going for it. But you don’t know until you try it. Do it for you. You need passion, but also to cover your bases. If you wouldn’t do [something] at home, definitely don’t do it in a foreign place. Above all, do the work before going.
To stay up to date with Nabila’s adventures, and for tips and content on all things travel, follow Dose of Travel on Instagram or TikTok @doseoftravel. You can also join her Facebook group.
Photo courtesy of Nabila Ismail