Before we headed off backpacking we had so many questions, when to book accommodation, how to keep everything safe and how to manage our money. Despite being so excited for a dream to finally come true, all these amazing places we would be heading out to see and the experiences we would be having… yet backpacking and travelling long term is a completely different experience than shorter trips and holidays. We naturally had doubts, worries and questions we never seemed to be able to find an answer for. So after a few months on the road the advice we got seemed to be true… you’ll figure it all out along the way, and we did! But I know many people who allow these doubts and questions to stop them heading out there, so we decided to do a Backpacking FAQ to help those in need of those burning questions and the reassurance they need to hopefully take the plunge!
NOTE: There is no hard and fast rules when it comes to backpacking, each situation is different and part of the fun is figuring it all out. But this is meant as a bit of a guide and some friendly advice from our experiences.
When do I book accommodation
Again, of course, there is no universal rule but generally speaking we would say to book as late as you can get away with. Depending on the type of place you are going to you want to book most often the night or two before or even turn up in the city and find a place on the day. But do consider if you are heading to a tiny town with only one hostel or arriving late at night, in those occasions I would maybe book a couple of days earlier or make sure you turn up with a place booked.
We made the mistake early on of booking too far ahead which meant our plans weren’t as flexible as they should have been and our experience suffered as a result. It can be hard to have that sort of insecurity at first but the more you do it the more it becomes second nature and the idea of being so open and free is exactly what backpacking is all about!
Backpacking is all about removing yourself from the everyday constraints of normal life and being free to explore the world as openly as you can. One of the most liberating things is being able to stay an extra night or two in a city you just fell in love with or move on at the drop of a hat if you hate somewhere. To follow a tip of about an amazing place to visit off your route or join a group of amazing people you met on a spontaneous adventure.
We usually book online using HostelWorld, agoda or Booking.com which often offers free cancellations. You can also always check direct with the hostel themselves as often they still have rooms or beds available when they are showing as full on booking sites, you can also sometimes get a better rate or not have to place a deposit. Also turning up at the last minute can result in good rates as often they just want to fill a room which likely would go empty. Also don’t overlook guest houses, homestays and AirBnB as sometimes you can get better rates in some locations as well as a much more enriching experience staying with locals or in more unique surroundings.
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How to I organise transport?
Again I stressing about transport shouldn’t put you off travelling in a region. A prime example of this Albania. There is virtually no information available online and booking before travelling is all but impossible. We really have no idea how we could get around the country and many people told us it was impossible. I even spoke to a guy who avoided the country entirely because he couldn’t book anything online!!! Crazy! Why miss out on such an amazing place when this is all part of the adventure!
Again our general advice would be to book as late as you can, otherwise once again you only end up limiting your options and narrowing your opportunity for spontaneity. We usually check online ahead to see what the options are and how fast the buses or trains fill up, or when arriving in a city we inquire at the station as to to timetables, prices and availability. In most large cities and towns buses and trains to other major places are frequent and can be taken last minute. We found with around 80% of the countries we travelled in through Europe that we could just turn up and get on the next on and if not we could just stay another night and get the next one. Speaking to locals is also a great way to book the fastest and cheapest transport. We ended up on a coach from Kiev to Warsaw as a result of a worker at the hostel telling us about a local service we couldn’t find ourselves online and she phoned them up and got us a seat!
Also be sure to check if you buy tickets before or onboard, or if you have to validate tickets you bought from the station as you do in Italy. This could save a lot of hassle!!
We recently wrote about night buses: How to survive a night bus
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What is it like staying in dorms?
Staying in dorm rooms does take a little getting used to to be honest. People make noises, get up in the night and come in late. But we have never had any real horror stories (though we’ve been in a couple of dodgy places!!) but if you pick your hostel wisely then more often that not everyone else in the dorm wants the same thing as you… a good nights sleep and to keep their stuff safe!
There is some dorm etiquette you should bear in mind and tips that will make your life easier. Bringing earplugs and an eye mask will make your nights a little easier. Coming into the room at a reasonable hour or getting your stuff ready to get straight into bed if you get in late or your gear ready if you are leaving early will be appreciated by your room mates. Also bring along some flip flops for the shared bathrooms!
But really, sharing a dorm is nothing to be worried or scared about. Try to speak to your room mates and get to know people, staying in the same room as them is a great way to socialise. Hostels for us have become somewhere we actually enjoy more than hotels as they give us the chance to meet new people. Don’t be put off and make sure to give it a chance, not every hostel is the same and the cheapest is often not the best. Avoid party hostels and make sure to read the reviews as well as keeping your stuff safe.
Will my stuff be safe?
Keeping your stuff safe is a big worry for many especially if you are carrying cameras, laptops and tablets. But there are simple steps you can take to make sure your stuff is as safe as it can be whilst also not allowing it to consume your thoughts to the point of ruining your trip. Make sure you keep your wits about you keep your valuables together and safe, keep your stuff in a locker and never leave them unattended. You can also use a metal wire cable to add an extra level of security inside your locker or when leaving your bags in storage and definitely when you are on transport. Be vigilant with your passport and wallet and always keep your bags and pocked zipped up and even put a padlock on your backpack or wear it on your front.
You do hear of people getting things stolen and people being pick pocketed or conned for sure. But it isn’t an everyday thing and most people have no incidents. If you be aware of your things, those around you and just make sure to lock up your valuables then you will likely be ok. It isn’t something that should stop you and if you can leave as many of the valuables at home!
You should also keep a photocopy of your passports, visas, insurance policies and a note of important information and contact numbers/ important documents. We also keep a passport scan on our laptop and backed up on the cloud so we can have access to it whenever we can get internet.
We recently wrote a post all about keeping your gear safe: Keep your stuff safe whilst backpacking
What is it like being away from home for so long?
It is strange for sure, most of us are used to seeing our family and friends everyday and so going for months or even years without that takes some getting used to. We generally don’t get to homesick but we do miss our dog back home and some days it can be really quite hard and emotional. You will have days where you miss home and those you love, but keeping in contact and making sure they are well looked after and loved (in terms of your pets) puts your mind at ease for sure.
You do get used to life on the road though and things become more normal, being in different rooms, beds and cities, constantly surrounded by new people and often no familiar faces. You have to give yourself chance to adapt and also allow yourself to have a bad day here and there! Everyone is different, but despite how hard it was to leave in many ways we actually found after we settled in it wasn’t half as strange or upsetting as we expected! But travelling as a couple or with a good friend also helps.
How do I keep my affairs in order back home?
If you are going to be away from home for an extended period it is wise to put things in place to make sure you interests are kept safe and also that you family has access to certain things in order to help you with that. The more you can organise and sort out before you set off the better for your piece of mind whilst travelling and also for your general enjoyment. We are lucky in the fact that my parents are very willing to give us a hand and we trust them with our affairs and as such we put them in charge of looking after our house when we left. We also gave them access to some of our accounts too and kept copies of important information such as insurance, copies of our passports etc with them.
One of the most challenging things for us whilst travelling is having our house back home. We decided that we would rent it out but that does take time. When we left it was unoccupied and despite having our parents to look out for it they do live in a different town. For many people leaving the house for extended periods of time, especially if you are only away on a shorter break and plan on leaving it full of all you gear, is a worry. Investing in a good burglar alarm system is the perfect way to ensure peace of mind whilst away from home.
Will I make friends backpacking?
You will if you allow yourself too!! Travelling, hostels and the backpacking routes/ scenes are ideal to make new friends, meet a whole world of different people and socialise. But you have to put yourself out there and make an effort. Stay in dorms, hang out in the communal areas and eat with other travellers. Strike up conversations and seek out advice.
Meeting new people and heading off on the unexpected adventures that often comes along with that is one of the the best parts of travelling!! But make sure you set off as you mean to go on and get socialising straight away!! Starting off on a popular route is also a good place to start especially if you are travelling solo or going on a tour or two.
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How much should I plan?
Planning ahead is important to make sure you make the most of your time, having a rough route is a good idea so you know which direction you are travelling in, which main city to head to first and have an idea of the things you really want to see in that region. Having an idea of the countries you want to visit is also good for arranging visas and vaccinations.
You should however allow room in your plans for things to change, for spontaneity and a change of route. Again, backpacking is all about exploring without limits and planning too much and having too much of a timescale will only stress you out and limit your options. The magic of long term travel is being able to discover new things you never knew existed and follow your heart.
Plan a rough route and jot down your “must do” things and just head off and see where you end up!
How do I budget
Budgeting can be hard, you should set yourself a monthly budget and then break it down into weeks and days. Sometimes it can be hard to stick to your daily budget when you have days travelling or paying for your accommodation or big experiences. It is generally easier to budget the longer you are in a place as you can control certain expenses. We found it easier to work out a weekly budget to stick to and then work out a daily budget for each week based on what we had already paid for accommodation and transport if that makes sense.
Walk whenever you can, hitch hike, couchsurf, cook your own food, search out the free things to do or free days for the museums and realise that to stick to a budget you might have to take the long uncomfortable train and stay in dorms! So all you can to keep those costs down so that you can afford the big things that come your way. No point eating like a king every nights and sleeping in luxury when those once in a lifetime experiences comes your way and you can’t afford it. Make your budget work for your priorities.
How should I organise my bank?
Whatever you do don’t keep all your money in one pot and really don’t be stupid enough the withdraw it all and carry it around (I have actually met people who did this!!!). What we do it keep the bulk of our money is a savings account that has no card attached to it and can’t be easily accessed. We then transfer over our monthly budget into a Starling account for general everyday use, this incurs no charges for use abroad for withdrawals or card payments. This means that only our monthly budget is the only thing that is accessible if someone got our cards. We have another account to use in emergencies too and also have two cards for each account incase we loose one. We withdraw little and often of local currency and try to use cash machines/ ATM’s inside banks or airports if possible. We also keep the emergency numbers for our banks handy. The benefit too with Starling is that you can block your card with a press of a button on the app and then un block it if you find it again! Apps and online banking are essential to managing your money when you are on the move!
How do I contact home?
Contacting home is important but it is also something that could cost a lot of money. Forget using your mobile phone in the conventional way!! Switch off roaming and get on WIFI and use free services such as Skype. It is easy to set up, make sure you give your parents a run through before you go if they are as useless as mine when it comes to technology. You can use skype on your phone, tablet and laptop or even a communal computer in a hostel or internet cafe. Watsapp is also another great way to keep in contact with home using just WIFI.
How do I keep my memories safe?
Backpacking for months on end means you will end up with a tonne of photos and unlike at home where you can make sure they are easily backed up you might feel like they are a little exposed on the road. So what we do is to make sure we regularly move our photos from our memory cards on our cameras and on to pen drives/ memory sticks. These are much more reliable than external hard drives which are prone to breaking when you are moving around a lot. They are also a lot more compact and lighter. We also use Dropbox to back all our files up in the cloud, this adds another level of safety too but also requires a decent internet connection. It also means we can access our files from other computers and our phones too if we need to as well as backing up from other devices.
How much should I pack
Pack your bag once and then removed half of the crap you have rammed in there! You should try and pack as lightly as possible and really consider each and every item you put in there. How often will you need it? is it really essential? You only really need a few days worth of clothing and realistically you will probably want to pick bits up along the way, so leave some room!! Make up, hair dryers all that stuff, leave it at home!! Backpacking is living more simply and realising how much unnecessary baggage we carry with us in our daily lives. Strip back and you will thank yourself for it later on when you have to trek for miles with all your gear!! Also do a test run, walk around the block a few times and see how it all feels! Also, don’t pack in loads of toiletries, they are heavy and bulky and you can buy them anywhere!
We also highly recommend using packing cubes, these make organising all your stuff so much easier and helps you make the most of the room you have too.
How do I wash my clothes?
We took around 4 or 5 days worth of clothes with us that seemed to grow as we went along! One worry is how you will be able to wash your clothes and how much that gets in the way!! You kind of need to think of backpacking as different to a holiday and rather a little more like everyday life at times. The same with the budgeting really, you can’t go out and have a fancy meal every night light you would on holiday and you also need to have days where you take a break, relax and do things like cooking and washing!!
Most hostels have washing machines so it shouldn’t be a worry, if anything this is again where hotels often fall down as they are far less likely to offer this service. Usually there is a small fee or you need to provide your own washing powder, if not then we found launderettes/ laundromats still quite a common sight around the less developed nations. If all else fails then you can always hand wash, bring with you some string to use as a washing line and hope its a bloody warm day!
Should I get travel insurance
Of course!! Travel insurance is a big outlay but even more so than ever you should take it out when backpacking and travelling long term. You just never know what might happen and when you are away for long periods of time, in less developed countries and also often doing more risky things you are much more likely to need it. Also make sure to check when you do things like canyoning, climbing, rafting or any other activity, or renting bikes etc that your insurance covers them and makes sure to take our specific backpackers insurance. You can always get additional cover for extra activities even that cover you for just a day. There are always horror stories of medical bills into the hundreds of thousands because a backpackers has forgone insurance. This is not the place to cut back!
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What should we do about vaccines
Again, just like your travel insurance getting your jabs should be something you take seriously. But I would also advice you to do some through research to what exactly you need and where you will be going. Some vaccines are ridiculously expensive but you should always first check out which ones you are entitled to for free. In the UK we can get most of the routine ones on the NHS. You can get Diphtheria, Polio and Tetanus, Hep B and Typhoid for free at your local doctors in the UK, if you are lucky you can also sometimes get Hep A as a combined shot and get that free too, as we did. Just make sure to leave enough time for you appointments as many people don’t realise some of them require a course over several weeks.
However, it’s not always hard and fast when it comes to vaccines. There is a difference between ones you need and ones you are recommended. Japanese encephalitis for example costs a fortune and is only really needed if you are spending months on farms in the middle of nowhere, but of course, travel clinics will want you to get it so they can get your money! Malaria tablets are also very expensive and it might surprise you to check out the maps on “Fit for Travel” that it is often only in certain areas of a country you might be visiting…and you might choose to avoid that area completely. You should try as much as you can to know the areas you will be heading too. Also bear in mind some countries do require vaccines for your visa or often to have had a Yellow fever jab if you have travelled through a country where it exists. Also be sure to shop around too, travel clinics and pharmacies don’t always charge the same!
YOU WILL FIGURE IT OUT!!
The best piece of advice however would be to just get out there and go for it. We are all nervous and unsure at first no matter how much we want to do it, part of what makes backpacking so exciting is how different it is to what we are used to. But go easy on yourself and trust your instincts, you will figure it out as you go along and wonder what all the fuss was about. Give yourself time to bed in, book your first hostels and transport if you want, even a tour so you can meet people and have some initial guidance. There are no rules to how you should do everything and how you should feel. Don’t be too strict on yourself straight away if you need to stay in a private room or two, then thats ok! If you need to break up a long trip and head home for a bit, that’s ok too! Backpacking is amazing because it is all about being free to travel the way you want and to jump in head first and come up swimming! Making mistakes, spontaneous adventures, being unsure is why we choose to do this when other people go on package holidays.
Don’t allow your doubts to stop this dream and to limit your life. Most things that are worth doing are scary!
Do you have any advice for backpackers?
Hey, you’ve got your Travel Insurance sorted haven’t you?
Travelling and especially backpacking is a wild adventure, but make sure you are covered just incase something goes wrong, which if you’re living it up to the fullest it’s always a possibility!
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