Step One: Get up and GO!
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? You can’t get anywhere if you don’t move.
Despite the obvious necessity, so many people struggle with this first step.
I’ve heard every excuse. “I would love to do what you do,” they tell me, “but I don’t have the money.” Trust me folks, I’m not rich. I just budget.
“I will one day. I’m not ready.” Guess what? You will never be 100% ready. If you plan on waiting until the time is “right”, you are going to be waiting a long, long time. So stop offering up excuses like bad break-up lines, man up, and just do it!
Quit your job, buy a one-way ticket, and go alone if no one else will come. You’ll make friends everywhere you go, trust me — in fact, it is way easier to meet people when you are alone, because others see you as more approachable.
However, wherever, and with whomever you choose to go — the most important thing is that you stop delaying and just GO!
Step Two: Budget
Now it’s time to be realistic.
Saving money while abroad is extremely difficult and equally as important.
If you have a student or hostel card, it is considered ‘concession’ and often grants you a hearty discount—but it’s up to you to ask for it! Tours, stores, gyms, and even grocery stores around the world may offer these discounts.
Remember to inform your credit card company and bank that you will be traveling. There is nothing worse than being stuck in a foreign country all alone with no money to your name. It’s a good idea to take a bit of cash in each currency that you will need, so that you’re ready to cough up a bus or metro fare once you arrive.
The longer you are gone and the more places you go, the more it will cost. This is YOUR trip — what do you want to save on, and where do you want to splurge? Make sure that you have enough money to support yourself if you don’t want to work or for a rush flight home if the unexpected occurs. When it doubt, it is always more comforting to have a surplus saved up rather than a limited amount.
Step Three: Planes, Trains, and Endless Days
Transportation can drain a backpacker’s budget faster than Usain Bolt can sprint. In this modern age of high-speed wifi and countless internet cafes, there really is no excuse for paying more than necessary for transportation. Whenever I book flights, I always use www.kayak.com It is simple, effective, and almost always leads me to the cheapest flight. It’s a good idea to www.google.com an unheard of airline company to figure out exactly why their flights are so cheap, especially if you’re a bit nervous about flying.
I bused my way around New Zealand and Australia. The buses around Australia were slightly more expensive. I bused my way down the East Coast from Cairns to Brisbane with Premier. It was half the price of Greyhound travel.
For the rest of Australia, I was restricted to planes due to the sheer size of the country and my time limits.
Although booking online can be cheaper, it is often easiest to arrive in a place and search out the cheapest forms of transport. Hostel receptions and fellow backpackers are usually quick to share their positive and negative experiences with different companies—just remember to take everything that you hear with a grain of salt.
Step Four: Packing
What you bring with you can make or break your trip. It’s a difficult balance to find how much of what you need to bring with you.
For Australia, board shorts and tank tops get you far. If you're staying multiple seasons, you might want to consider packing a winter/summer parcel to mail to yourself later.
Remember: in any season, Australia is HOT. It receives more rain than tourists anticipate. I found myself in hiking sandals, denium short-shorts, and a baggy t-shirt nearly everyday from dawn to dusk.
Bring your favorites. Yes, they might get wrecked, but at least you’ll love wearing them. Bring clothing that can blend in to many different environments: church, in the morning, if you go; the beach in the afternoon, if one is available; hiking a mountain or shopping around town; all the way to the pub at night and back into your hostel bunk bed to sleep. Low-key clothing is easier to re-wear. This isn’t a fashion show, this is BACKPACKING, and no other backpacker is going to mock you for wearing the same shorts three days in a row. You’ll be moving on too fast for anyone to catch on that you haven’t changed your shirt in a month. There’s a magical contraption that can be found at some hostels to fix your backpacker smell. It’s called a washing machine, guys. Use it.
When it comes to packing, less is more. Your hairdryer and flat iron aren’t going to work with the voltage, so say screw it and go natural. Remember that the plug ins are different, so you will need an adaptor for all of your devices. Whatever you have, you have to carry - a strangely freeing situation.
You’ll want a mp3 player because there is lots of waiting around, and a camera, because there is lots to document. Speaking of documents, it’s a good idea to photocopy all of your identification and banking cards. I was informed of the airport in LA that I needed a visa to enter Australia. Luckily, a cheeky $20 and forty minutes later, I was the proud owner of an Australian tourist visa.
Here is my last list of little things that you will most likely forget to take because you are so used to having them on hand at home:
- flashlight, a lock, a roll of tape, specific medication, hand sanitizer, soap, a flashlight (so you don't wake up your roommates), an alarm clock, a good book, a small quick-dry towel, something decorated with your home-country's flag, a notebook (electronics die), a sturdy water bottle, a Tupperware container, and some photographs of home to show to your new international friends/remind yourself why you left.
There is no point in bringing your own sheets because most hostels won’t let you use them and all hostels will provide them.
Step Five: Hostels, Camping, and Getting Stuck in the Rain
Although hostels may appear daunting and dirty, they are actually fantastic places—providing you choose the right one. It all depends on what you want.
YHA or HI hostels are always a safe bet. Although they cost slightly more than independent hostels, they uphold a five-star world-wide standard. Personally, I found them rather lacking in character and culture.
If a hostel advertises that it is connected to a bar or pub, it is most likely a party hostel. For some backpackers, this is ideal. Unfortunately, most party hostels have strict rules about bringing personal liquor on site because they would prefer if you bought it from the bar. Party hostels can be a great time, but they also guarantee you a headache, if not a hangover. Probably not the best place to stay if you actually want to sleep.
I find almost all of my accommodation on www.hostelworld.com. I read a chunk of online reviews before making a choice. It’s important to remember that reviewers often comment on their EXPERIENCE (which is influenced by personal circumstance) rather than the PLACE itself.
I usually opt for a place that is mid-range in price, colorful in character, and fitted with a kitchen, free wifi, and 24-hour reception. Hostels have to pay a fee to booking websites, so the cheapest price can often be found through the hostel directly—though don’t hesitate to compare prices on several sites such as www.hostels.com. By emailing the hostel directly, I avoid paying a deposit or even giving my credit card number—allowing me to cancel without any possible fees up to the very last minute.
I have never attempted camping myself, though from what I hear it is a different experience from backpacking all together. I have, however, travelled through Tasmania with a herd of campervans. It was a wonderful journey through which I saved an immense amount of money (campervan= accommodation + food).
When travelling in the off-season, it’s important to contact hostels before hand to ensure that they will be open. In busy times, it’s likely that they will be full. However, if you are an extremely spontaneous person, you may find yourself jumping on a bus in the morning with absolutely no idea where you will be sleeping that night (as I did). Although this is a great, exciting way to live life and travel, you also risk ending up with no accommodation (as I did). If you are able to book a hostel, I suggest doing so. Most hostels will refund some (if not all) of your money if you decide to leave before your previously chosen departure date. On the other hand, you can almost always extend your stay if you find yourself somewhere that you simply can’t leave.
Step Six: Food
A huge part of culture is food. However, an overpriced restaurant is by no means the only way to experience the unique taste of a place. Finding meal ideas in a grocery store can reveal as much—if not more—than a pre-cooked joint. Cooking your own food is also a smart way to save coin. Most hostels have a kitchen with frying pans, plates, and everything you need to make a good meal. I often make a little extra and save it in the fridge overnight. When I head out in the morning, I take my leftovers for lunch.
The majority of hostels only have stove tops. Don’t expect good equipment or extra spices. If you’re lucky, some previous backpackers may have dumped some pasta, sauce, or cereal in the “Free Food” basket or shelf. It’s always a good idea to see what’s available before shopping. For example, do you need butter or oil to fry your vegetables? Can’t live without salt in your rice? Taking other traveller’s food is never a good way to make friends.
Step Seven: Keeping in Contact
Staying in contact with friends and family back home is not only pleasant, it is also extremely accessible. In most countries, free wifi can be found at countless cafes and bars. Internet cafes can be rather pricey, but the connection is usually the best. Skype, Facebook, email, and blogs are all great ways to stay close to the ones that you love while far away.
I wouldn’t recommend taking your own phone abroad unless it is unlocked and tri-band, in which case you can simply switch over the SIM card when you arrive in your new country. When choosing your mobile provider, be sure to indicate that you would like to go with the company that offers lowest international rates. But remember, when country-hopping, your provider may not work throughout your entire travels. I chose to purchase a pay-as-you-go phone in Australia because I would be staying within the country for a significant period of time (unfortunately, I had to buy a new phone and new SIM once I got to New Zealand). It’s a good idea to have some method of contacting your family in order to keep them up to date with where you are and where you are going in case something unplanned occurs.
You may prefer to purchase calling cards. This method of pay-phone usage can offer low call rates to specific countries. I choose to have my own cell phone on me at all times in case of emergencies. I also found a portable personal alarm to clip onto my purse at an outdoor store. When you’re on the other side of the world alone, the only one looking out for you is yourself, so it’s important to take precaution.
Step Eight: Tours, Adventures, and the Exciting Stuff
Free walking tours are a great way to get orientated in a new place. Hostel reception workers should be able to direct you to nearly anything that you want to find, see, or do. However, there’s a lot more to any place than the usual tourist hot-spots.
I choose to splurge on sight-seeing. I don’t know when I will return to the places I explore, so I want to take advantage of the time I have and live like it's my last chance.
For a more authentic experience, I do wwoofing. Wwoofing stands for Willing Workers on Organic Farms. It is a world-wide culture exchange where an individual or couple offers 4-6 hours of work on a farm in exchange for accommodation and food. As a wwoofer, you become part of a family for a certain length of time. I have had both positive and negative experiences wwoofing in Australia. I would definitely recommend wwoofing to anyone sick of living in hostels and keen to meet locals. It only costs $20 to sign up and your membership is good for a year. It is then up to you to leaf through different farm’s bios and contact the farms directly.
Step Nine: Beating the Backpacker Blues
When you head out to face the world, prepare to feel a mixture of emotions. You will experience fear, freedom, loneliness, adrenaline, and glee. There will be times when you can’t figure things out. You will most likely make a few mistakes. You will probably miss a bus or train or end up lost, confused, alone and stressed.
The first thing to do is take a deep breath and act rationally. You are the only one responsible for yourself while backpacking. This is a huge maturing process, and although it is difficult, it is good.
There were several times I felt extremely depressed while traveling. I felt lonely, insignificant, and small. I would lie in my hostel bed and wonder why I chose to travel when I hate it sometimes.
And then I would go outside, and everything would change.
The sun shines, the mountains scream, and everything is unbelievably beautiful because it is all so unfamiliar. Your experience while traveling depends on your attitude towards it and your ability to be rational when your emotions attempt to take control.
Rest on your new traveling buddies for support, but depend on yourself to make the most of your trip. You have been given an opportunity that most people only dream about.
One of the most difficult parts of traveling alone is suffering through a lack of physical comfort. When you make a friend somewhere, you will learn to hug them hard and appreciate the people who drift in and out of your life.
Don’t worry about what people back home might say about your trip: do what you want! If you want to spend five months sitting on the beach and staring at the ocean, do it. This is your vacation, your life—and you need to do whatever it is that will make you happy.
And remember, things could always be worse. One day you will look back on all of your misfortunes and laugh. Trust me. One day soon, it will be just another good story to tell.
Step Ten: Coming Home
To some, the prospect of leaving home is terrifying.
To me, going back is.
Upon returning to your “old, normal” life, surrounded by people you know and love, you will be confronted by one of two situations. First of all, you may realise that while you were gone, time did in fact move on. Friends have left, buildings have changed, and life has gone on without you. On the other hand, you may discover that everything back home is exactly the same as it was.
Except for you.
Traveling is a growing, learning, and changing experience. You will discover things about yourself, your life, and the entire world that you love and hate. You will confront your fears and conquer them. If you don’t, you’ve done it wrong.
It’s easy to slip back into your old routine and forget about your amazing adventure. No one really asks much beyond “How was it?” anyways. You might struggle to find your place within your old group of friends for a few weeks or months, but eventually regular habits will creep back and take over.
My challenge to backpackers coming home is not to mold back in, but to let yourselves stand out. You just experienced a crazy, life-changing, awe-inspiring event. Don’t push it so far away that you let yourself bounce back to whom you were. At the same time, don’t hold it so close that you push others out. It’s a difficult but important balance to achieve: keep and share everything that you have learned while being open to the future and dreaming of your next adventure. After all, a true backpacker is never finished exploring.
Related Travel guide
Travel Guide Australia, DK Eyewitness
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Australia is packed with color photographs, illustrations, and detailed maps that will help you discover Australia region-by-region, from the aboriginal sights of the Northern Territory to the wilderness of Tasmania.
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Travel tip shared by Alison's Adventures