I can’t believe my trip is almost over! I’ve been traveling for three months now, and I have learned a lot in the process. My goal with this post is to distill that experience into specific, useful advice, to help empower you all to go have an adventure of your own. Maybe I’ll even come meet you.
This is the number one thing I feel I’ve learned on this trip, so I’m going to put it first. Plan less, and plan in a way that is flexible.
I’m a planner by nature – I love the puzzle of doing research, figuring out how many days I need in this or that city, finding the most efficient route through a country, and sorting through all the permutations of planes, trains and automobiles. My instinct is to get everything lined up perfectly, just for the satisfaction of a job well done. Plus it’s exciting to research and daydream about a trip! The problem is, this approach leaves out two of the richest sources of information about a place: other travelers and your own experience.
Other travelers have up-to-the-minute information about what’s going on. Maybe something was unexpectedly incredible (Da Lat easy rider tour, audioguides for the genocide museums in Phnom Penh), or is unexpectedly closed (Railroad Street in Hanoi). Maybe some attraction was discovered by travel blogs 3 years ago, and now it’s overrun with tourists and they’ve quadrupled the price (Vietnam’s Golden Hands Bridge). Maybe they just had a great experience in some town that nobody’s heard of (Ko Ta Kiev). Maybe there’s a group forming to go do something interesting right now, and they invite you to join (Pai Canyon).
More important than any facts or stories about a place is the way you personally respond to it. Allowing your travel plans to adapt to what your heart tells you is essential for an enjoyable extended trip. Maybe you fall in love with a city and decide to extend your stay (Hoi An). Maybe you discover you love an activity way more than you expected, and you just have to do more (motorcycling through Vietnam). Either way, having too rigid of a schedule will leave you disappointed, stressed out or both as you try and fail to accommodate new things you’ve discovered.
The trick then is to plan enough in advance to put you at ease and to get excited, while leaving enough space to be flexible. Here are my concrete tips for traveling flexibly:
Before the trip
- 6 months to a year in advance: secure time off. Step up your saving. Daydream, and maybe do a little research. Pester your friends about joining you for a chunk of your trip.
- 2-ish months in advance: Research and book the coarse-grained details of your trip. This includes long international flights (better prices) and big anchor activities like the REI tour (likely to sell out). Make a list of countries you’d like to visit and check the visa requirements (Vietnam’s took forever). Figure out a rough budget. If friends are joining you, figure out where you’ll meet and make a rough plan of what you’ll do. Read travel blogs, take notes if that’s your thing, but don’t book anything yet. Maybe book a couple days in a hostel on either end of a big flight, but no more than that.
During the trip
- Make sure you have a plan for getting internet on the go. Connectivity is key for a flexible, seat-of-the-pants travel style. 4G coverage is better in Southeast Asia than it is in the States, but only if you’re equipped for it. T-mobile has international coverage baked into the plan, or you can buy a sim card or mobile hotspot at most airports.
- Book short flights no more than a week in advance, and ground transportation 2 days in advance. This is usually plenty of time to avoid sold out tickets, though there are exceptions. Holidays can wreak havoc here, and some routes (like the night train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai) consistently sell out early. Asking around at the hostel is your best bet for avoiding this.
- Only book two days at a hostel at a time, and don’t book more than a few days in advance. You can always extend your stay if you want more time. I never once had trouble with hostels being sold out.
- Book activities and tours through your hostel. They can usually book things the night before, and sometimes you’ll get a discount. Ask around in the common room to find out which ones are worth doing, and maybe to rustle up a posse to go with you.
- Keep track of useful resources: booking websites, blogs, even questions to ask other Backpackers. Having a list will make it easier next time.
You learn much more about a place by going there than you ever will by reading a travel blog or book, and no travel blog can tell you how you will respond to a place. Leave enough space in your plan to be flexible and follow leads and you will have a happier, more relaxing trip.
You may have noticed that the hostel came up several times in the previous section. That’s because your hostel is important! You’ll spend somewhere between 30-60% of your trip in the hostel, so hostel selection has an outsized impact on how much fun you have somewhere. While a good hostel will keep you well rested, well fed and in good company, a bad one will leave you cranky and lonely. But how to find the good ones?
First, know your hostel categories
- Party hostels are exactly what they sound like. The crowd tends to be young and drunk, and scheduling an early morning activity is a bold move. Party hostels can be fun and they’re usually very cheap, but they tend to be less comfortable and clean. The stoner hostel is a subtype of the party hostel adapted for remote, beautiful locations like islands and jungles. A key nugget of wisdom is that you can party at a party hostel without staying there – just turn up at happy hour and start mingling.
- Institutions are big, established, and efficient. Commonly found in big cities, they’re typified by huge dorms full of purpose-built sleeping capsules, solid dark materials, and soft ambient lighting. Though always clean and comfortable they can be a little soulless, and often lack the sorts of comfortable, intimate common areas that foster new friendships. Best chosen when you already have your plans in town figured out, or when in a city expensive enough that independent hostels can’t compete.
- Independents are all the rest. These are the mom and pop shops, the comfortable-yet-personable, the artsy, the niche. These are the places where the staff mingles with the guests, and everybody knows each other’s names. Maybe the hosts live on site, and their young children are constantly underfoot. Maybe half the staff are other backpackers, “volunteering” for a week or a month in exchange for room and board. Maybe there’s a campfire every evening, or the owner mans the rooftop bar from 10 to midnight and will share a joint with anyone who asks. The furniture in the common room is mismatched and well-loved, the dorms are 2 or 3 bunk beds crammed into a tiny room, and you have to turn on the water heater 10 minutes before you shower. As you can probably tell, there is a special place in my heart for these scrappy little independent hostels, and they are my first choice whenever possible. In my opinion they are the best at doing what a hostel is supposed to do: giving travelers a temporary place to call home.
I look for hostels using the booking.com app. It’s a solid piece of software, and I’ve been quite happy with the results – enough that I’ve switched over from hostelworld. Their review system asks a series of questions and then aggregates the answers into a rating, which I think is more useful than just asking for stars, so I usually pay attention to the number as a good starting point. Here’s what I look for when I investigate a candidate.
- Your three basics are clean, comfortable and secure. If any of those is missing, I’m out. Reviews are a great way to assess this.
- Common rooms are key. The common room is where you meet fellow travelers, strike up conversations, pick up leads and make friends. I usually use the hostel’s photographs to assess this. What you’re looking for is a cozy, well-lit space with communal tables and cheap alcohol. This forces people together, making that initial breaking of the ice easier. Avoid hostels where the common room is a full bar serving customers other than guests, this makes casual conversation much harder.
- Many of the best hostels will do a social happy hour – free beer 6:30-7 or something similar. This is a great way to get everyone together at the same time and facilitate conversation.
- Free breakfast is nice, and can also be a good opportunity to meet people.
Take hostel recommendations from other travelers with a grain of salt – their needs, preferences and budget may be very different than yours. Always do your research.
Many hostels have private rooms in addition to the dorms. These are a cost-effective way to get a little privacy for a few days while retaining access to the common room. This can be an excellent place to recover from a bad hostel experience, or to get over a stomach bug or the flu.
Hostel prices will vary wildly from country to country and even city to city. In Tokyo a typical hostel was $30/night, in Seoul $25, Singapore $20, Bangkok $12, small town Thailand $8, and Vietnam $6 (dang Vietnam was cheap). Within any city you’re likely to see a range of prices, with institutions the most expensive, independents in the middle, and party hostels the cheapest.
Money sucks. It’s the root of all evil, right? But it’s also important not to run out of, especially if you’re thinking about not working for a few months and need to get back home at the end of it. So make a cup of coffee, get out your favorite spreadsheet program, and make sure everything lines up.
In the interest of prior art, here is my budget for this trip. 3 months is about 100 days, which both makes the math easy and gives me some buffer.
- Roundtrip airfare between Seattle and Asia: $2000
- Transportation within Asia: $1500
- Lodging: $15/day, $1500 total
- Food + booze: $30/day, $3000 total
- Activities: $140/week, $2000 total
Since I’m way too lazy to itemize my transactions, these are approximate highball figures amortized over the whole trip. Note that this doesn’t cover expenses back home like rent, car payments, insurance, alimony, etc.
Not counting the REI tour (which hardly counts as backpacking), that works out to about $10k for 3 months. Not cheap, but not ridiculous. I also haven’t been pinching pennies – I’ll take a $125 flight over a $25 bus if it saves me 6 hours, I don’t shy away from expensive activities like canyoning or mountaineering, and I will always be willing to splurge on food (especially food tours). A serious budget traveler could probably shave another couple thousand off that number.
I would consider this good general life advice, but it’s especially important while backpacking. You will be carrying your entire life on your back. Make sure it fits.
Now, I’m not saying you’ll be carrying your full kit around with you all the time. I love hiking and even I have only had a few times where I yomped my loaded bag for more than a kilometer or two. But you’ll certainly carry it around airports, bus terminals and down the block when your cab drops you in the wrong place. Keep it easy to lift and you’ll thank yourself later.
I highly recommend a backpack over a roller bag. Broken sidewalks, escalators, and stepping up onto a bus are all difficult with a roller bag, but with a backpack you won’t think twice about it. I’m also a fan of using a bag that you can carry onto an airplane, because checked bags are expensive, slow and prone to getting lost. It’s so satisfying to step off the plane and saunter right past the crowds waiting at the baggage carousel.
Fully loaded without water, my 40 liter pack weighs about 10 kg (depending on how many snacks I’m carrying). This is a weight that’s comfortable to carry for a long time, and it’s also the cut off for carry-on luggage for many airlines.
So how do you get your weight down?
- Plan on doing laundry frequently. Laundry is easy to do out here – you just hand it to the hostel owner and pay $1-2 per kg, and it comes back crisply folded the next day. I typically do a load once a week.
- Find garments that can fill multiple roles. My pants are fancy synthetic quick-dry hiking pants, perfect for climbing a mountain or exploring a city, but they’re also darkly colored and fashionably cut enough that they sit comfortably under a button down shirt. My shorts double as swim trunks. My shoes are… well, you get the idea. Each of those covers for two or three garments, reducing the number I need to pack.
- Use layers to your advantage. The obvious place for this is clothing – a lightweight wool shirt and a fleece sweater can together do the work of a big puffy jacket, especially if they team up with a rain shell to cut the wind. But it applies to the luggage itself as well. I have a small soft backpack that fits easily inside my big bag; in the airport I combine them for easy carrying, but on the plane they come apart and the big bag sits in the overhead bin. Finding clever ways to mix and match your gear is almost part of the fun.
- Don’t be afraid to reuse things between washes. In a pinch, a quick rinse in the sink will work wonders. Besides, a certain level of grubbiness is expected of a backpacker!
Get Out of the City
I love cities. Seoul and Singapore were two of my favorite stops on this trip, and they can make excellent hubs for exploring an area. Cities are big and exciting, they have delicious cuisine and world-class entertainment, and they remind you that the world is getting smaller every day. Plus they’re usually way cheaper to fly into and out of.
But if cities remind us that the world is getting smaller, the countryside reminds us that it is still quite large. For a traveler, if you want to really see a place, to see sights and sounds and a way of life that is different than where you came from, it is essential to get out of the big cities. Small towns are where you get the best nature of course, but you’re also more likely to have an interesting cultural experience if you’re in a place where the locals are a little less multicultural. Find some interesting small town like Pai or Da Lat, then take trips out into the countryside.
Or even better, book a few nights at a homestay in some truly remote village. If you do a multi-day trek a village homestay is often included. If that’s not quite your jam I’ve heard that Facebook is the best way to find one on your own. It’s hard to find a more eye-opening experience than knocking back a glass of truly vile rice wine with a local and reminiscing about 5 years ago when the village didn’t have electricity yet.
Getting out of the city is a little more work, to be sure. Finding the right balance of planning in advance and winging it can be tricky. But in my opinion it’s totally worth it.
Ease Into It
Backpacking for an extended period is inconvenient. It’s logistically difficult. It’s a little scary. There’s a thousand good reasons not to, finances and career and pets and aging parents and a partner who’s not really interested in travel. And, not everyone likes extended travel. It would be frustrating to do all the work of putting your life on hold just to have a bad time once you’re there, especially if you can’t afford to come home early or have invested a big chunk of ego in the trip.
The thing is, backpacking doesn’t have to be an all or nothing experience. You can ease into it, try out portions and find what works for you.
Maybe you book two or three nights in a hostel as part of a larger vacation. Don’t plan those days too carefully, just show up in the common room and see what happens. Or maybe the next time you travel, challenge yourself to bring as small a bag as possible. You’d be surprised what you can get away without.
The next step is to backpack short-term. Yes, this is ok, and it’s still backpacking! Just because it’s not an epic months-long voyage doesn’t make it any less legit. 10 days or 2 weeks is small enough that if it doesn’t go well its not a big deal, and it’s much easier to put your life on hold for that amount of time. A short trip will build confidence, allowing you to get used to this different way of traveling and to start to see its benefits.
Then if you find you enjoy it and want to see more, you can start working on a bigger trip, confident that you know what you’re getting into.
And if you don’t find that lifestyle piquing your interest? That’s fine too. Traveling is a specific, expensive, time-consuming hobby, and if it doesn’t fit your lifestyle or its just not interesting to you, why force it?
Besides, someone has to stay home and read the travel blogs.