The first week you feel so proud of yourself for miraculously managing to fit 90% of your house into your bag, and you feel bad for those deprived backpackers carrying just a few belongings in small backpacks.
That’s cute. Week two? You’ll be cursing every time you have to look at your stupid bag once you realize that: a) you’ll end up wearing the same t-shirt every day, so why the hell you thought you needed to pack 16 shirts is beyond even you at this point, b) you don’t have a centimeter of room in which to fit a snack or a single tiny souvenir, and c) you struggle, embarrassed, for five minutes every time you try to lift your bag onto your back before you finally give up and need to ask a friend, doorman, bus attendant, taxi driver, or total stranger for help hoisting the beast up onto you.
(Meanwhile, please know that those ‘deprived’ travelers with small backpacks and few belongings are standing by, smirking, and getting great amusement out of the show…)
Trying to see 13 countries during a one-month trip is going to leave your head spinning. Being overly ambitious about how much ground you can cover on your first trip is a common mistake. If you move from place to place every day or two, it will feel as though all of your time is spent in transit, and all the places you see will most likely blur together.
Think quality of experience instead of quantity. You’re traveling to see new places, ideas, and cultures…not to check off to-do lists and anxiously collect as many passport stamps as possible so you can feel cool.
Things will go wrong. Count on it. The ‘VIP’ bus you bought tickets for in Peru ends up being a gutted minivan with no brakes, and you end up sitting next to a smelly man carrying a baby llama. The Laotian road is closed for some unknown reason and no one has a clue when it will re-open. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week. Your wallet gets stolen in Paris and you have no way to pay for your hostel or your next meal. You get your heart broken when the hot Brazilian’s spouse (who you didn’t know existed) walks in. You get malaria in Mozambique.
Good for you. You now have travel stories. Who the hell wants to hear about the time you went on a trip and everything went flawlessly? You know you’ll laugh about these things later. Do yourself and everyone around you a favor — get a head start and start laughing now. And don’t be an ungrateful bastard — remember, no matter what happens, to be thankful that you’re traveling and not somewhere in some soul-sucking cubicle job you hate.
Please refer back to point #3. Count on things going wrong. It’s all fun and games when it just means you miss a bus or something. But when you end up with broken bones on the side of the road and the ambulance won’t pick you up until you can prove that you can pay the huge hospital bill (which, let’s face it, you can’t), you’ll wish you had travel insurance. Just saying.
Experienced backpackers travel off peak season, knowing they’ll have a better choice of available accommodation, lower prices, more haggling power (meaning you can travel for longer on the little money you probably have), and fewer crowds to deal with.
Once you decide you’re going backpacking, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of it all. You’ll wander around outdoor shops eyeing expensive, massive first aid and sewing kits, down sleeping bags that cost more than your monthly rent at home, water purifiers, and loads of things that will most likely never, ever leave the deepest, darkest corners of your backpack.
Let’s get real…we all know your ass is more likely going to end up in a hostel or crashed on someone’s couch, that you’ll buy bottled water when you’re thirsty, and that owning a sewing kit does not magically mean you’ll know how to sew if something rips. Save your money and splurge on a nice hotel one night on the road — trust me, there will come a moment on the road when you consider a real bed and hot water as the only ‘survival’ necessity you need.
And not just because you’re poor and didn’t budget well. Experienced backpackers know that wallets get stolen. ATM machines eat debit cards. Traveler’s checks are not accepted in a lot of places — nor are credit cards, for that matter, once you get off the well-beaten tourist track. Have a backup source of money. And a backup to your backup.
Chatting with other backpackers on the road is fun, and you can meet some great people. Sometimes just being able to effortlessly speak with someone in a common language is refreshing. But many experienced backpackers know the worth of having real conversations and interactions with local people. If you wanted to hang out with a bunch of people that look like you and talk like you, you should have saved yourself a lot of money and effort and just stayed home. Learn. Connect. Grow. One of the best ways to do that on the road is to get out of your comfort zone and interact with locals.
When backpacking, there are more things you’ll spend money on than just accommodation and food. You thought you were smart and set up Couchsurfing throughout the trip — that’s great. What happens when you get into town and receive a message that something came up and you can’t be hosted that night? Or when you whip out the map and find that your ‘free’ place to crash can only be reached by a $50 cab ride?
If you lose your passport, do you have money to transport yourself to the nearest embassy? Did you budget for internet use in places that don’t have Wi-Fi? Do you have money for the things that you didn’t think would add up, but surprisingly do, such as buying bottled water every day? How about spare cash for possible extra baggage fees on your flight back? For visa fees? How about ATM surcharges, which in some countries are astonishingly high? Some of these things might seem nominal, but for the backpacker on a super tight budget, it could mean running out of money before the trip is done.
After months of preparation and route mapping, you formulated a travel plan, and dammit, you’re going to stick to it…even if that means you’ll miss out on other, better, spontaneous plans.
Experienced backpackers tune into the opportunities of the road and take full advantage — staying an extra weekend to go experience the wedding of the cousin of the person they met at the bar? Hell yeah, when else are they going to get invited to a traditional Mongolian wedding? Many of the most memorable travel moments are the ones that you could never in a million years have planned ahead of time — in time, you’ll learn to embrace them enthusiastically when they come up.