I have been travelling the world for over 20 years and have gained a lot of travel experience in that time. Thaat doesn’t mean I didn’t make my fair share of travel mistakes when I set out on my first gap year though, and after half a lifetime of travelling the world on my own terms this is the personal advice I would give to 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 very first gap year.
I give a lot of practical tips and advice on these pages on how to backpack and travel the world independently, how to plan your trip and 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 plan an itinerary or book a flight. 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 island, town or city, fall in love with it and find you don’t want to leave. Or on the other side of that coin you will find you hate a particular town or city and decide to leave a lot sooner than you planned. You will be sidetracked by an experience that you just can’t pass up, a few steaamy days with that hot backpacker you just met or you will meet other backpackers who will tell you of an amazing place you never even considered and you will want to check it out for yourself.
Plans will change. 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 sites and attractions 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 just isn’t possible to see an entire 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.
The best thing you can do is first of all allocate enough travel time for the countries and places you want to visit, that means at absolute bare minimum a month in each country, and minimise the amount of destinations on your list so have more time to explore the ones that are left.
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 So Many Amazing 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. You’ll meet people in hostel dorms, common rooms, transport hubs, maybe even the odd bar or two. It is even very common for backpackers to team up for a few days travel together, either for a little company or to share costs on a trek or accomodation. If you are travelling solo, you will never be short of company if you want it.
You Don’t Have To Book Everything In Advance.
If there has been one big change in the backpacking world over the last twenty years it has been the shift from getting (often outdated) advice from guidebooks and then doing your own thing to the over reliance on just organising things on your smartphone and using aggregate sites to pre book everything before you arrive. In many ways it has made things a lot easier, but in others backpackers are missing out on a lot if this is all they do.
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 that weren’t on any of the agregate sites. 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 are online you may find the reality of the room you booked very different from what was advertised.
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 same is true for accomodation too. Go and explore, don’t plan a package holiday!
The Guidebook Isn’t The Bible!
I’m not so sure this piece of advice is as relevant as it used to be as nowhere near as many travellers rely on traditional guidebooks as they used to. I suppose now you can substitute travel blogs and review or aggregate sites for guidebooks, but the principle is generally the same.
The bible is a common euphemism for a guidebook, usually a specific popular brand of guidebook (not mentioning any names), and when I first started travelling over 20 years ago every backpacker rocked up to a brand new country with one of these books in their hands.
The moniker of ‘the bible’ 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 rely on the advice of travel bloggers. 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. Does anyone remember the famous curse of LP (where the second a hostel or guesthouse is mentioned in that famous guidebook prices double and standards drop).
Even review and aggregate sites, although much more able to give accurate and up to date info on pricing and addresses for example, will never give a complete picture of what a destination is like and will often be based on skewed and biased opinion even more so than guidebooks used to be.
Yes they are all 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, or review sites or aggregate sites or blogs for that matter, as gospel. Use them all as a base for inspiration, advice and tips, but then go and explore on your own terms, find your own way, make your own adventures!
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.
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, especially toiletries and basic medications, and a weekly trip to a local laundry is enough to keep people from avoiding you like a foul smelling plague.
Remember, there is a common trend amongst experienced backpackers that end up with almost all of us travelling carry on only most of the time for a reason.
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!
There is one universal truth in independent travel, once you are on the road you will wonder what you ever worried about in the first place!
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!
Independent travel is easier than people think. You can use certain tools and pre booking sites to your advantage from time to time but you don’t have to be a slave to them. Organised treks can be useful and they can be a responsible way to see and do certain things, but you don’t have to use them for everything. You can see the world on your own terms.
So get out there and do it!
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