I posted a shot on Instragram a few days ago of a recent trip to Peru (April/May 2013), and I had a lot of responses asking to post about how I travel so much and tips on how to do it. The most common question I get asked is “How do you afford it all?” Travel is one of my favorite topics so I am more than happy to share my ‘secrets’!
My travel diary at a glance is as follows:
Besides vacations with family and friends to Mexico, I had never been out of the country until I was 21 years old. I am now 28 and have been to 31 countries in total. I was always obsessed with traveling. Ever since I was 13, I would get National Geographic Adventure along with my Vogue in the mail every month. I would devour it, keeping every issue and planning all of my fantasy trips to places like Antarctica and Mt. Everest, and the Amazon Jungle. It didn’t matter where it was, I wanted to go. I am still very much like this. The world fascinates me, and I want to explore all of it.
This desire can be quite hard to realize without a pilot’s license or a trust fund I was told, of which I have neither. Undaunted, I made a deal with my father that if I graduated one semester early from college, I could study abroad. So I did, leaving ASU in 3.5 years so that during my time there, I could go with my best friend to Europe for a summer and study in Paris. While we were there, we stayed 2 months after our courses were over to backpack through France, Spain, Italy and Greece.
It was amazing. I was hooked. A whole new culture had been opened up to me.
No, Im not referring to the French culture, which I had become so fond of, or the Spanish or Italian cultures. I am referring to the international culture of backpacking. Here in the States, it is common to hear tales of adventures while backpacking through Europe. It has come to be known as a rite of passage for a fortunate few after college. However, this culture extends well beyond Europe and well beyond the trust fund babies of America. It is much more widely known by non-Americans than Americans. It is not sketchy. You don’t have to sleep in tents or outside train stations (unless, of course, you want to).
Backpackers are generally 19-28 year old young adults from all around the world. There are always exceptions to this rule, and no age to too old to travel this way. The average trip length is about 4 months, oftentimes extending to a year or more. It is very common to do a trip like this alone, and because of this, people are incredibly open and welcoming. Making a lifelong friend in a day is about as common as asking to borrow some sunscreen. And about as easy too.
For me, once I realized that this culture of people existed, that I wasn’t alone in having the desire to explore but with a limited bank account, the whole world opened up. Nothing was off limits anymore.
I have been on 5 backpacking trips in my life. The longest being 3.5 months and the shortest 2 weeks (which I am not sure actually qualifies as anything but a really rough vacation). Here are a few things I have learned along the way:
It is not as expensive as you think. Although, it can be terribly hard to accurately budget for a trip like this. Just to give you an idea, I think I spent roughly $10,000 on my 3.5 month long trip though 6 countries and I did everything I wanted to do. This includes all plane tickets, lodging, meals, excursions, sailing trips, shopping, you name it. I even got PADI open water scuba certified during this time and in this budget.
This comes out to an average of $2,857 per month. However, I sublet my apartment, so I wasn’t paying rent at the time. Just think about how much you spend every week going out to dinner, to the bars, and shopping on average. So $2,857 isn’t really all that much. Also, take into account 1 month of this was in Australia, which is a very expensive country to backpack. I remember taking a $21 tequila shot at some bar there. Crazy!! If I had stayed in Asia, which is where the first half of the trip was, I bet I could have done the whole thing for $6,500, probably even less.
To budget, you really need to do your research, as it varies so widely from region to region. For example, the average hostel price in Sydney, Australia is $35 USD per night for a bed in a dorm room while the average price in Vang Vieng, Laos is $6 USD per night for a private room. If you are staying for 3 months, the difference between $6 and $35 per night is going to make a huge difference. Also, factor in the price of everything you buy. A sandwich is Vang Vieng is also much less expensive than a sandwich in Sydney.
The hardest thing to find is the time. The more time you have, the more bang for your buck you get. The biggest expense is almost always the plane ticket from the States and back. The in between part won’t cost you that much if you pick an inexpensive destination. So if you have 6 months free, go for 6 months. Why not?
Checklist to get started:
1. Pick your destination area. If you are planning to go for a while, you can just pick the general region, and then find the cheapest airport to fly into.
For example, if you really want to go to Laos, you probably don’t want to fly in there. More likely, it is less expensive to fly to Bangkok, and then slowly make your way to Laos from there.
2. Buy a travel book of where you are going and read it. Lonely Planet has great ones. You can also go to your local book store and browse through the travel section (this is sometimes how I pick my next destination). Also, Lonely Planet has a great travel forum on their website that I have found to be a great resource when planning a trip or picking a destination.
2. Don’t plan ahead. At least, I never have. Instead, I find it much more convenient and fun to plan as I go. You want to have a general outline of the places you want to visit, and a general timeframe (probably at least the date and place of your flight returning back home) but don’t get so caught up in sticking to any plan exactly. The more flexible you allow yourself to be, the more you can capitalize on unique opportunities that may come up. Hey who knows, you might meet a cute English boy you want to travel with for a few more days? This actually happens much more often than you may think. **(My great friend and accomplice on my Peru/Bolivia trip, Lily, is now living in Australia with a very handsome British boy we met our second day in Bolivia. They are already planning the wedding as well as planning on backpacking around the world for the next year or so before settling down in Prague. How cool is that?!)
3. PACK LIGHT. Backpacking does not mean that you are camping out, rather it means you are sleeping in hostels and have all of your belongings in a backpack. (Tip: Do not bring a rolling suitcase, you WILL be laughed at!) Bring a camping backpack – those really big ones, not the type you carry to school. Pack as light as possible. You will be buying clothes along the way, plus, re-wearing the clothes you have all the time. 3 t-shirts, 2 pairs of pants, 1 sweatshirt. You get the idea. Basically, pack as light as you can, and then take 2/3 out. Now you are set. And whatever you do, do not start with more than can fit in one backpack. You will be acquiring things along the way, and nothing is more annoying than carrying around a Bolivian tribal mask that takes up half your backpack for 5 weeks only for it to break in the last 2 days because you don’t have enough room…trust me.
4. Book hostels online a couple of days before you arrive. When booking hostels, I generally use Hostelbookers.com or Hostelworld.com. Make sure you write down the address of where you are staying. Internet access isn’t always available! You can do this a couple of nights in advance. When you get to one destination, figure out how long you want to stay, then book the next location accordingly. People at the hostels are very well versed at travel information, bus schedules or anything you need to get from one place to another. If you are visiting a place for a special event like Pamplona, Spain for running with the bulls, then book well in advance and ignore the don’t plan ahead rule. Hostels do sell out.
5. Read about where you are going before you go. If you don’t read before you go, you don’t appreciate where you are and you don’t connect with the place as well as if you did. Also, talk to locals, not just fellow backpackers. Always be aware of what is happening around you. And keep a journal! I promise, you will want this later.
Those are my tips on how to travel. I hope it was useful. If you have any questions at all, as I am sure I didn’t cover nearly everything…there is SO much to say, please leave me any questions in the comments and I will be happy to answer the best I can.