Every now and then someone will ask me to give them some tips on backpacking, but I don’t remember all the things I’d like to tell them at once – so I thought I’d create a blog post for it instead, which I’ll add to as I think of other things. Let me know if you think of anything I haven’t!
If you’re planning on staying at hostels, use Hostelbookers or Hostelworld to look up hostel reviews; generally anything rated >85% will be okay but you can also read the reviews to see whether the hostel suits you – people tend to write about it being really clean, or having a party vibe, or being quiet, so you can get a better idea of what the place is going to be like beyond it’s facilities. When you’re booking though, always compare the Hostelworld/Hostelbooker prices to the hostel’s own website – it’s usually cheaper off their own website, and they may have special deals that throw in free meals or discounted days as well so it’s worth spending an extra 30 seconds to check. It also pays to go to the reviews page, CTRL+F ‘beg bugs’ and avoid like the plague any place that has had a recent infestation.
Couchsurfing is more fun to do in remote/unusual places, where you can really experience a different way of life. In a big city, your host will often be busy during the day, which means you have to be able to amuse yourself and be okay with being alone most of the day – if you can handle that, then sweet, but Iprefer to stay at hostels in big cities and couchsurf in small ones. It’s really important to have a complete profile and as many friends as references as possible on Couchsurfing, because it makes you look like a safe person to have visit, and will increase your chances of being accepted. When you’re sending a Couchsurfing request, remember to write really compelling messages to your hosts, not just ‘I’ll be in your city on these dates, can I stay with you?’ – it’s meant to be a two way thing, so you have to give them a good reason to want to have you over (eg. offer to cook them dinner, teach them how to play an instrument etc).
AirBnB is great but you have to pay a deposit as soon as you try to book, before you know whether the host is actually willing or able to have you over – which means you can only try booking with one person at a time, and have to wait 24 hours for them to reply before you can try with someone else. The best way to organise accommodation on AirBnB is, firstly, to have a complete profile, as with Couchsurfing, and secondly, to send messages to your potential hosts before you try to make a booking, so that you know who’s actually available and so that, if they are planning on rejecting you, you can address their reasons for doing so.
When looking for a good place to eat out, go by word of mouth recommendations. Trip Advisor is not fantastic because there’s a whole industry around creating good profiles, and once a place gets popular on Trip Advisor, the quality sometimes slips because they’re too busy. Word of mouth recommendations are far more reliable.
If you are eating out, and doing so with a group of people, carry lots of small change with you – it makes it a lot easier to split a bill.
Carry a lunch box and spoon/fork/spork. That way, if you cook and have leftovers, you can use them as lunch the next day, or if you’ve got a long train journey, you can precook/buy food and bring it along with you.
If you’re planning on cooking, take some key staples with you – I go for curry powder and stock powder, various permutations and combinations of which can make almost anything taste good. Salt, sugar and pepper are also really important but you can usually find these at any hostel, and in the worst case, you can pinch some sachets from a fast food place.
It also helps to carry freezer bags in case you open something up and can’t finish it all in one go. I use them to make little packages of nuts for me to nibble on throughout the day, and to keep leftover cheese in.
Travelling Between Places:
Check Rome2Rio or GoEuro, both of which will tell you all the possible travel options for getting between two places, although the prices they show aren’t completely reliable. They’ll give you an approximate idea of price though, and will tell you about all the possible routes and the times they’d all take.
It’s always better to prebuy tickets if you can, because sometimes they’ll just sell out, and even if they don’t, they become more expensive over time. Having said that, I rarely do this because I like the freedom of being able to spontaneously make/change plans at the last moment.
If you don’t want to prebook, your trains are going to be super expensive in a lot of countries (then again, they’re also very cheap in some – like Morocco). If you’re in Europe, getting a Eurail pass is super useful if you’re in this boat, but it only makes sense if you’re visiting, like, 6 cities in 3 countries. You get to choose how many ‘travel days’ you want – that’s days on which you have unlimited train travel – and in how many countries (but there’s set amounts of these). Then you don’t need to pay anything more for local trains, and you just have to pay for reservations on high speed and sleeper trains. My Eurail pass cost $250, and the value of some of my single travel days, had I not used the pass, came to way over that. As you can imagine, this is especially valuable if you have to catch a few connecting trains, as you don’t have to pay any more with a Eurail pass, whereas even if you prebooked, you’d have to pay for each individual train.
Trains may be more expensive, but some airports (especially for Ryanair) are really out of the way and expensive to get to, while major train stations are always in the city center, don’t have luggage restrictions, and require far less waiting time, so if you’re planning on catching a flight, make sure you add in the costs of luggage and of getting to/from the airport. If you are going to book a flight, check Skyscanner to compare what days/airports/times are the cheapest.
Buses are cheaper than trains and planes, but take way longer most of the time. If you have a long way to travel, try to break it up by getting a bus to a midpoint, spending a night there, and then going the rest of the way on another bus.
If you can’t find a train/plane/bus going where you need to go, try BlaBlaCar or Carpooling.UK and rideshare instead. Or you can hitchhike – I have very little experience doing that, but the idea is that you try to get a ride from main roads in/out of cities, and try to look pleasant and unthreatening while you’re doing it. I prefer ridesharing because hitchiking is more unpredictable, and I feel awkward just freeloading.
My favourite packing strategy is to pack bags inside of bags. I have one bag for clothes, one for underwear, one for socks – so it’s really easy to find what I need. I take out the bags when I arrive at each new destination so that I don’t have to go rummaging loudly through my rucksack, and because they’re smaller bags, it’s also really neat and my things don’t end up all over the floor – and they’re very easy to repack.
If you know you’re going to have a big night, take out whatever you’re going to need after it in the afternoon so that you don’t wake everyone up or have trouble finding it late at night.
If you’re leaving, shower the night before so your towel is dry and doesn’t end up sitting damp inside your bag, stinking everything up. I love microfibre towels because they’re so tiny and easy to dry – they’re about $80 at Kathmandu, or $4 at Kmart (I got mine from Kmart) and I carry 2 with me so that I can use the other for the beach or pool or whatever, and I always have a clean towel even if one’s in the wash or dirty.
Don’t be one of those ignorant people who assumes everyone else in the world can speak English. If you’re going to another country that doesn’t speak your lanuage, don’t freak out because you can use hand gestures and body language to communicate a lot, but you should also make an effort to learn at least just a few key phrases. I usually get the following:
– Thank You
– You’re Welcome
– No Thanks
– Yes Please
– How do I get to (address)?
– Where can I find (item)?
– How much is that?
– What is that?
– How are you?
– I’m good
– I don’t speak (whatever language)
– Can you speak English?
If you’re searching for something specific, use Google Translate to figure out what that thing is called in the local language.
At the hostel
If you want to cook see if you can get others to pitch in, both with their money and their time. It makes it cheaper and a lot more fun when a group of people cook together rather than all doing it individually.
When selecting a room, I always go for bigger rooms with ensuites rather than smaller rooms with shared bathroom – but that’s because I really like being able to leave my toothbrush and soap in the bathroom, and I’ve found that ensuites are usually a lot nicer than the big shared bathrooms, which sometimes look like what I imagine prison bathrooms would look like.
If you’re travelling for a long time, you’ll start to get sick of answering the same questions “Where are you from? Where have you been? How long are you travelling? Where are you going after this?” Don’t be the boring person who just asks those questions. I’m not saying don’t ask them at all, because those are useful things to know, but first, try to think of more interesting things to ask people, like about the scarf they’re wearing or the book they’re reading or if they saw anything really cool today. Then you can weave those other questions into the conversation, at appropriate points.
Talk to EVERYONE – hostel staff, waiters, bar staff, travel agents, baristas. I’ve made so many good friends like that, and it’s an easy way to meet locals.
Your Phone is Your Friend:
Google map everything. I ‘favourite’ every place I’m planning on seeing, so that I know how far it is between places, and how long it’ll take me to get between them. And so that I know the directions – while only the map can be cached offline, I just screenshot the directions so I can look them up later if I need to.
Trip It is another great app that keeps track of all your flights, trains, buses, accommodation and tickets. Every time you book anything and you get a confirmation email, it gets added to your itinerary, and you can manually add things in as well. The best part is that it keeps track of things like check in/out times and terminal and seat numbers, so it makes it so much easier to be organised.
Useful Things To Carry With You:
Carry speakers with you and everyone will love you for it, plus it means you get to control the music.
Always carry a lock, as a lot of hostels won’t provide you with one.
If you’re a girl, carry a delicates bag for your bras to stop the hooks from tearing everything else apart.
PawPaw Ointment is the best – you can use it as a lip balm, but it’s also good for burns and bites and has about a million other uses.
A good set of earbud headphones aren’t just great for listening to music, but the noise cancelling ones are also the best way to deal with snoring. Your other option if people in your room are snoring is to try to make a really loud noise to wake them all up, and then hope that you fall asleep before they start snoring again.
Get a multiport charger so that you can charge all of your electronics at once, or if there’s only one electrical socket in the room, so that more than one person can be charging their things at once.
Other Miscellaneous Bits Of Advice:
If you’re travelling for a while, get $0 excess travel insurance, and try to stick with the same company who do your health insurance. On my last trip I had a $250 excess and lost so much but because each thing was worth less than $250, I couldn’t get any money back. My brother, however, got a $0 excess, lost lots of things, and got everything back really easily – it really helped that he was with our usual health fund too, as they were so much more obliging and willing to help than the company I’d used.
Put in the effort to dispute charges on your credit card if incorrectly charged – it’s really easy to do, and it may take a while for them to get back to you but you don’t have to do anything while you wait, and then at the end you’ve got back all the money that you had incorrectly taken from you.
If you’re travelling for a long time, know your clothes sizes because you’ll have to go shopping – you’ll be surprised at just how quickly your clothes get worn out and end up threadbare.