By Joshua Harper
Everyone loves to travel. You see spectacular places, meet amazing people, and make memories you’ll never forget. As it turns out though it’s a pretty expensive hobby to have. After an accumulated one year abroad spanning some twenty-one different countries I’ve learned a few things about traveling and how to do it right, but more importantly how to do it cheap. Being homeless for two weeks in Northern Europe and sleeping on beaches across Southern Europe are great character building experiences but my tips will help you avoid them.
Disclaimer: Backpacking is not vacationing. Anyone that’s ever properly backpacked knows you’re in it for the experiences and not the comfort.
1. Travel Light
If you go two weeks without touching something in your bag, take it to the nearest lake, river, or ocean and throw it in (please don’t actually do this). You’d be surprised how many people lug around a 62 liter backpack while also wearing another small backpack backwards. This is WAY too much. It’s a fact you’re going to be doing a healthy amount of walking during your trip so do your shoulders a favor and stick to a 42 liter backpack and one other small bag for easy access. If there’s no way you can fit everything you need with this setup then take less. You want to be prepared but don’t over do it. You probably don’t need the fifth snap back or more than 2 pairs of shoes and don’t take camping gear unless you think you’re actually going to camp. Remember you can always buy most anything you’ll need wherever you are. For those that still can’t make it work stop reading and go buy a suitcase. Here’s a list of a few useful items to take:
-Norwood mini LED flashlight
-REI Multitowel Quick Dry Towel
-Alpine Collapsable Spork
-Simple first aid kit
2. Airports=Cheap Hotels
You have a flight from Heathrow airport to Istanbul leaving at 7:30 AM. You could spend the night in an expensive hostel just to wake up at 3 AM and pay an exorbitant rate for a forty minute shuttle ride, or you could just sleep at the airport. You’ll save on transport, you won’t have to pay for a hostel, and let’s be honest you really wouldn’t have gotten much of a last night in with that 3 AM wake up call anyway. You can attempt the party all night, crash on the plane method but weigh the consequences, missing a two or three hundred euro flight when you’re already broke could be detrimental. Besides there’s nothing like getting drunk with your travel mates in an airport (Again I’m not officially advocating this). It may not be the most comfortable night but then again you’re backpacking not vacationing.
3. Exchanging Currency is for Rookies
Never…Ever…EVER bring all your money planning to exchange it upon arrival. Besides not wanting to carry that much cash you’ll get taken over the exchange rates offered by most banks. Travelers check are a thing of the past and prepaid cards are the worst of all because if they’re stolen and you’re having trouble reporting it, the process is difficult, you often can’t get the money back. They also have the added handicap of not being as wieldy as cash. Whenever travelling take two debit cards so you can incrementally withdraw local currency from ATM’s. Sure, most banks charge a withdrawal fee if you’re out of country, but it’s usually pretty comparable to the fee you pay for exchanging anyway. Also you only have to withdraw as much as you need so you won’t end up in Thailand with one hundred thousand Cambodian Riel. As a backup take a credit card and one or two hundred US dollars that should only be exchanged in case of an emergency. Oh, and it should go without saying but notify your bank that you’re leaving so your cards don’t get cancelled the first time a charge from Phnom Penh, Cambodia shows up.
4. Kindle for the Win
You might think you’ll be too busy trekking through jungles, taking in the culture, and meeting interesting people to read. You’re wrong. While you’ll do all those things the truth is there will also be endless hours of transit and more than one night where all you’ll want to do is curl up in bed and take it easy. Traveling is one of the best times to catch up on your reading because that’s just what you have, time. A thirty-six hour trans-mediterranean ferry provides a great opportunity to finally read Game of Thrones like you’ve been saying you want to do since season one. Most likely the one book you thought would get you through six weeks will be done in three days and you’ll be stuck deciding between the Hunger Games in Turkish or an an abandoned copy of Crime and Punishment to occupy the rest of your trip. Just bring a Kindle and have access to as many books as you want while taking up barely any space in your bag.
Don’t underestimate how much money you can save by negotiating and I don’t just mean over souvenirs in a market. Negotiate for everything from tour guides to renting rooms in a hostel. Maybe you hate it and think your chances of success are low but you’ll get better and find that more often than not people people would rather drop the price a few euros than see you walk away. Getting better at this process is essential to backpacking especially in certain countries like Morocco where everything is negotiable and simply saying “no” to vendors sometimes feels like it requires a business degree.
6. Live Together, Die Alone
If you’re traveling with friends for any extended period of time you’re going to get sick of each other eventually. If you travel alone you’ll get sick of the alternate personalities you make up to keep yourself company. Either way, other people are going to be your saving grace. Not only will you get to spend time with anyone other than who you’ve been stuck with for the past five weeks but you’ll save money too. Group rates are very real and it’s a lot harder for a hostel owner to say no to your negotiations when there are five rooms on the line instead of one. Most importantly traveling is all about meeting people and sharing your cultures and experiences. Dont be shy! Go make new friends and build that international network so you’ll have a couch to crash on no matter where you go.
7. Bread for Days
One of the best parts of visiting somewhere new is trying the food and restaurants know it so anything even remotely related to the local cuisine is going to be sky high expensive. You need to come to terms with the fact that every meal in Italy won’t be gourmet pasta or pizza. Allow yourself one nice meal a day and scrape by the rest of the time on freshly baked bread. It’s dirt cheap and made fresh every morning, so learn to love it. Oh, and don’t forget to eat fruit every few days. You don’t want scurvy.
8. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
You’ve probably heard that a Eurail pass is the best way to traverse Europe. This is definitely true if you know the exact countries you plan to visit and order the pass months before you leave. If you’re like me and travel more spontaneously (or anywhere other than Europe) you need to master the art of finding cheap transit. This might mean cramming shoulder to shoulder into a rickety bus, praying it doesn’t topple off a cliff as it chugs along winding roads through the Luang Prabang mountains in Laos. Your wallet will thank you and if you survive you’ll have a great story to tell. Talk to the locals and find out what they use to get from place to place because though it can be tough to find it’s almost always going to be cheaper. For example MeinFernbus is a bus company in Germany that offers rates at nearly one fourth the price of trains but can’t be easily found in a Google search.
9. Go With the Flow
Things are going to go wrong. That’s the nature of traveling so you need to be ready to pivot and make the best of a bad situation. If you’re island hopping in Greece there’s a decent chance you’ll stop somewhere for a day only to learn the ferry to the next island you want to visit doesn’t leave for a week. If this happens don’t get caught up trying to stick to your plan. Go with the flow and pick a new destination even if it’s only to connect somewhere else. Maybe you want to go North but you meet a cool group of backpackers heading East. Be flexible and don’t live or die by your plan so you don’t miss out on an unexpected, spontaneous adventure. If you planned to spend five days in Athens but feel like you’ve seen everything you wanted, talk to people and pivot, you might end up trekking to the clifftop monasteries in Meteora.
10. Timing and Planning
In essence this tip boils down to being knowledgeable about where you’re going and what’s happening while you’re there. A few friends and I planned a four week road trip through Morocco and upon arrival learned that Ramadan had just started. For those of you that don’t know, Ramadan is a month long holiday where members of the Islamic faith fast while the sun is up. We could eat but it made finding a meal during the day more difficult. Normally bustling streets looked like a ghost town during the day as everyone, not eating or drinking, took shelter inside to avoid the blistering heat. Where once we would have seen many backpackers we only met a handful for our first few weeks there. Although I enjoyed the cultural experience it was a very different trip than we had planned and it would have been tough to do alone and nearly impossible, or at least quite expensive, if we hadn’t rented a car. Don’t give up your spontaneity just do a little research before you leave. Trust me, you don’t want to miss a full moon party in the Thai Islands by a day because you booked your trip months in advance without ever looking into it.
Bonus Tip – Put the Camera Down
Pictures are a great way to remember the amazing experiences you’ve had while traveling. Despite this it’s important to remember you still need to live those experiences. With so many social media networks we spend a disproportionate amount of our lives being social online rather than in the real world. Take advantage of down time to send pictures and give updates but don’t try to instagram every photo you take as soon as you take it. Don’t view the world from behind the lens of a camera.