After half a lifetime of travelling the world on my own terms, this is the personal advice I would give to any first time backpacker or anyone thinking of setting off on their own round the world adventure, because it is the exact advice I wish I had when I started my own gap year for the first time.
I give a lot of practical tips and advice on these pages on how to backpack and travel the world independently, how to deal with the hows and whys of taking a gap year.
But in all the emails people write and questions that I get asked, people always have the same common worries and the same common questions. I see so many first time travellers follow the same patterns and make the same rookie mistakes.
There is so much more to planning a backpacking trip than simply walking you through the logistics of how to do it. It doesn’t matter whether you are planning a year long RTW gap year or a short snap year to Thailand or Peru, you have to do more than be able to organise your tickets and insurance, you need to develop the right mindset too.
So on top of all the practical logistical advice, here is some of the advice I give to all first time backpackers and those dreaming of independent travel for the first time, and the same tips I wish someone had told me before I started my own backpacking adventures.
Plan to be flexible.
This is quite simple really, if there is one inevitability on the road it is that plans will change. You will reach a particular place – often in my case a laid back town or an island – fall in love with it and find you don’t want to leave, you will find you hate a particular town or city and decide to leave sooner, you will be sidetracked by an experience that you just can’t pass up or you will meet other backpackers who will tell you of an amazing place you never even considered.
It will happen.
The longer you travel for, the more likely your set in stone plans will just evaporate. There will even be times when you are simply tired and need to recharge your batteries, and you can’t do that on the spur of the moment if your tight, set in stone itinerary says you have to be half way across the country in a few hours. Remember, you will want to see and do so many things when you are on your travels, and there is nothing wrong with that, but there is nothing wrong with just taking a day to relax by a pool, read a book in a hammock or simply relax either.
So don’t make one of the simplest mistakes so many others do and plan every aspect of your trip down to the last detail. Sure, having a rough plan, a vague route in mind is a good idea, a necessity even, but leave a lot of room for some flexibility and spontaneity in there too. The more rigid your plans, the more stressed your trip will be and the more you may miss out on.
Don’t try to fit too much in.
This is one of the most fundamental mistakes most first time backpackers make, trying to cram too many countries into a tight schedule or too many things into a tight itinerary. I can understand the urge to want to see as much as possible in the relatively little time you have, but it is a mistake. Two days here, three days there, one day somewhere else, it doesn’t work in the long run. You will get burnt out very quickly and you will end up missing more than you see.
It isn’t possible to see a country in a few days or a week and move on to the next one, not if you actually want to see any of the country anyway, and likewise it just isn’t possible to do everything there is to do on a very short trip. It is much better to see one or two countries really well than it is to see a small glimpse of half a dozen, so allocate enough travel time for the countries and places you want to visit.
Just slow down, try and spend more time in one place, get beyond the superficial and really discover some of the country you are visiting.
You will meet awesome people.
One thing many first time solo travellers worry about is whether they will be able to meet other travellers or if they will spend the entire trip feeling lonely.
You don’t have to worry, seriously.
You will meet so many other amazing backpackers on your trip, both solo and otherwise, and you will make a lot of great friends. One thing I will add though is make sure you find ways to keep in touch. I started travelling long before smartphones, social media and even Facebook was a thing, so it was a lot harder for me back then (and there are a lot of great people I have lost touch with since), but now everyone just connects on social media so you have no excuse!
You don’t have to book everything in advance!
There are essentially two reasons for this. The first has been covered above, plans change and it is best to be flexible, but there is another more practical reason too.
There are times when pre booking is a good idea, if you are arriving in a new country for the first time you may want a few days just to relax and acclimatise for example, you may be arriving in the middle of the night, in which case pre booking is a good idea from a safety point of view. You may be planning to travel during a particular festival or holiday, the Mardi Gras in New Orleans or the full moon parties of Koh Panghan for example, where accommodation can fill up quickly. In these instances pre booking is common sense and not difficult to do.
However the vast majority of the time it is much easier and often much cheaper to just turn up and look for a place once you arrive. You also often find much, much better places that way simply by checking a few rooms out, I know I have anyway. I have lost track of the amount of times I have had a few places in mind from research on various online sites or guidebooks, only to find much better ones next door or down the road. Often some of the best and cheapest places to stay don’t have much – if any – online presence, and of those hostels, guesthouses or hotels that do you may find the reality of the room you booked very different from what was advertised online.
The same is true for everything else too, you don’t need to pre book every single activity or every single transport option in advance. You remember that first point about flexibility? It isn’t independent travel if you are following a rigid, inflexible plan! It is easy to get train or bus tickets as and when you need them, it is easy to walk up and get a course, a trek, an activity or anything else you want to do when and if you want to do it!
The guidebook isn’t the bible!
The bible is a common euphemism for a guidebook, usually a specific popular brand of guidebook. It describes the phenomena of a string of independent travellers worshipping at the altar of it’s pages and all turning up at the same guesthouses, eating at the same places, traipsing the same walking tours and doing the same activities, all because that is what is explicitly written down in their guidebook.
Now don’t get me wrong, guidebooks are very useful things, and they are a general necessity on the road whether you still use the old print versions or the increasingly common better versions known as travel blogs. You still need that basic level of researched understanding of the places you are visiting after all; where to go, what to do, the address of the train station or nearest embassy and so much more.
Guidebooks still do have a use.
However they are not the be all and end all that many first time backpackers think they are.
There are so many areas where traditional guidebooks are now next to useless and completely unable to keep up with social media, modern comparison or review websites or the personal touches from travel blogs and personal websites. Accommodation listings and prices being just two of them. They are often so out of date by the time they are in print that they bear little resemblance to what the reality is, not to mention that many of them suffer from the curse of LP (where the second they are mentioned in a famous guidebook prices double and standards drop).
Yes they are useful for getting a general idea of accommodation options and giving you an idea of where you want to stay, but don’t take the guidebooks as gospel. Yes that hostel or guesthouse may sound fantastic in the guidebook, but what about the dozen or so guesthouses around that one that aren’t mentioned in the guidebook? They are all often much cheaper and better, you just have to put the guidebook down and explore a little.
And that is the trick here, guidebooks are excellent sources of information, but you don’t have to slavishly follow every word. Keep in mind that there is much more not mentioned than there is, so put the book down once in a while and explore on your own terms.
You don’t need so much stuff!
Like most people I packed way too much stuff on my first backpacking trip. Extra clothes, extra books (there were no kindles or fancy eReader smartphones back then!) extra medication, extra pretty much everything in fact just in case I needed them. I didn’t.
The longer you travel the less you learn to travel with, it is just a simple fact. You find that you can buy or replenish almost anything you need as you travel and a weekly trip to a local laundry is enough to keep people from avoiding you like a foul smelling plague.
Pack light, you’ll thank me for it!
Calm down and relax!
Backpacking doesn’t have to be stressful, it doesn’t have to be full of worry and panic. In fact it shouldn’t be! Your gap year or snap year will be one of the best experiences of your life, so just take a moment, breath, and bloody enjoy the experience! That goes for the planning stages too. Yes you may have things to sort out, visas to organise, plane tickets to buy, but so what? They are easily done, and once they are you can start thinking of all the amazing things you want to see and do instead of stressing over every single detail!
Remember, backpacking is not hard, it is not difficult and it is not dangerous.
Thousands of people travel the world every single day, and they have been doing so for tens of thousands of years before the first aeroplane or package tour was invented! Peoples tolerance for risk is becoming practically nonexistent now and the travel industry has become so pervasive even in the independent travel world that people think they can’t just get up and go, that they can’t just explore the world on their own terms without some sort of planned itinerary holding their hands. They can. You can! So get out there and do it!
Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.