Backpackers are a funny lot. Despite the abundance of advice available now on how to take a gap year or travel around the world independently there are still the same groups of people making the same mistakes over and over. Here are the ten most common mistakes almost all first time backpackers make, and how you can avoid making them yourself.
I get it, you’re caught up in the excitement of your upcoming trip. You’ve planned it all out and all you want to do is get out there and enjoy the trip of a lifetime. The absolute last thing you want to think about is getting ill or having to deal with antimalarial tablets every day. That’s understandable, it really is. The big problem here is that travel health is an extremely important issue and if it is dealt with and prepared for as early as possible, is something you can then forget about to an extent and enjoy your travels. But most travellers don’t do this, they leave everything until the last minute and then panic that they don’t have the right vaccinations, no malaria protection and have no time to sort it all out before they leave which puts them at a higher risk.
Problem solved? Just get it all sorted early.
It really is that simple. It is recommended that you visit your GP, specialist nurse or travel clinic at least six to ten weeks before you plan to travel. I strongly recommend that you go a little sooner than that, especially if you are planning on travelling for more than a month and/or you need a series of vaccinations which may need to be timed weeks apart. If you will need anti malaria prophylaxis where you plan on going, then it is important to discuss with your GP or specialist nurse which medication is right for you, test for any allergies and in some cases begin taking the medication before you set off. This takes time too. Just get it all sorted early and then you can travel with peace of mind. Need to know more? Check out these sections and articles.
I still cannot believe that travellers do this, but the amount of first time backpackers – and let’s face it even experienced backpackers – who head off on the road with no insurance is just shocking. I get it, no one likes paying their hard earned money for what is essentially a piece of paper. I don’t either. But it is essential! It’s all fine and dandy until the shit hits the fan and you end up stuck with a medical bill the size of an average mortgage back home and your mum and dad have to sell their house to get you an aspirin!
Problem solved? Get insurance!
That’s it. No fancy tips or hacks here, just get the damn insurance! It’s important! Think of it as an essential cost alongside your flight costs.
This is cardinal sin number one. The advantages and disadvantages of packing light versus overpacking are as old as travel itself, and no one expects you to travel around the world for six months with nothing more than a change of underpants and your passport, but use a little bit of judgment. Like many first time backpackers rocking up to the hostel on Khao San Road, you’ve probably bought a pack that is far too big for you and have filled it with pretty much everything you own along with the entire contents of an outdoors survival shop, just in case. Well done, now you have to lug that thing round with you for six to twelve months like some aging, wheezing turtle on a mission to give themselves a permanent hunchbacked spine. Your pack will become an absolute burden if you need to walk anywhere with it, especially if you are in a tropical region where you will need to remain on very good terms with any shower you can find. You’ll struggle to keep your pack by you on any long distance transport, and those steep stairs you have to climb to get to your accommodation? Good luck!
Problem Solved? Pack (a little) lighter.
Now you don’t need to go to the other extreme either, there are some backpackers who travel with carry on only or less, like a packing ninja treating their gap year as an extreme sport. You don’t have to do that. Just get a pack that is the right size for you, and fill it with basic essentials and a few back up pairs of clothes. About half way full is reasonably comfortable. You can always replace things like toiletries, and you are certain to want to buy some T Shirts or scarves or whatever as you go along (cheap markets are a backpackers friend!) That way you will be able to fill the rest of the space up with cool souvenirs you pick up along the way too! Want to know more about what – and what not – to pack?
Ah you can always spot a first timer. The ones with a guide book in hand and an ultra packed, ultra tight itinerary. These are the backpackers who are planning to ‘do’ three countries in just two weeks, or try to fit in the entire South East Asian region plus China and Australia in just a month or two. It just isn’t going to happen. Sure, you can technically get a RTW ticket that will take in a hub airport in a dozen countries for a month or so, and you can technically spend a day or two in each capital city before bouncing off to your next destination but what is the point? You will spend the majority of your time in transit or waiting around in airports (and god forbid there is a delay that throws your entire plans out), and in your efforts to try and see everything you will miss out on seeing 99% of every country you visit!
Problem solved? Slow down!
Just slow down, relax, that is all it takes! Try and take at the very least one month minimum for any one country you visit, more if you can and certainly more for larger countries such as China, India or Mexico for example. Of course time constraints and costs will weigh in on this decision too, but in general the longer you spend in one country the more you will see of it and the better your experience will be. You will never see everything of course, but that is what other trips are for! And don’t forget you will want the occasional rest day too. You are only human after all, sometimes you just need a break from your break! The longer your trip is, the more of these you will want!
You have spent months planning your trip, week after week poring over every single aspect of your itinerary and fitting as much into it as you possibly can. You have every single minute of every single day accounted for, and you will stick to it if it kills you! Right? Aside from trying to fit too much into an itinerary this is one of the biggest cardinal sins all first time backpackers make. By sticking religiously to an ultra tight itinerary you will miss out on all the spontaneity that makes independent travel so amazing! Why would you do that?
Problem solved? Plan to be spontaneous.
Having plans for your gap year is great, of course there are certain things you will want to do and certain places you will want to visit, but plan a lot of free time around them too. Experienced travellers make as minimal a plan as possible that gives them plenty of flexibility to spend longer in a place they find they have fallen in love with, take a detour to spend a weekend on an island with that gorgeous backpacker they met on the overnight bus or explore a place they didn’t even know existed until those backpackers at their last hostel told them about it. Backpacking around the world is a truly great adventure, live it to the fullest and take every spontaneous opportunity that comes your way, don’t close yourself off to it with a rigid itinerary.
Most first time backpackers follow the backpacker crowds religiously, like herded sheep or lemmings on a suicide run. Back in the day when Lonely Planet was still considered the bible that basically meant anywhere that was mentioned in the book. If it was in lonely planet, everyone turned up there (and suddenly found that services had declined and prices had quadrupled at the very least thanks to the curse of LP). Nowadays the information sources may have shifted but the backpacker hotspots are still there, and like bees at a picnic you will find every first time, eager eyed, backpack hunched backpacker turning up there too.
Now don’t get me wrong, hanging out with other backpackers in your dorm is awesome, you really will meet some amazing people that way, and the places that most backpackers head to will be popular for a reason, that is why many are famous tourist/traveller must sees after all. Frankly no backpacking trip will be complete without these experiences, but the big mistake most first time travellers make is following this crowd religiously and doing and seeing nothing else. By doing this, most first time backpackers miss out on many of the experiences that experienced travellers crave.
Problem solved? Head (just slightly) off the beaten track.
There is no reason at all why you shouldn’t follow the backpacker crowds a little, stay in dorms filled with other travellers, visit the famous attractions, spend a night or two relaxing at a backpacker bar and making new friends, that’s all awesome and those famous attractions are after all famous for a reason. But just occasionally move away from that too. Stay in local guesthouses away from the backpacker hubs, make an effort to meet and chat with locals, take in a more cultural experience. Drag yourself out of your comfort zone. That is part of the reason you are travelling after all.
At some point many first time backpackers will run out of money, or at the very least burn through their funds quicker than they thought they would. It happens to so many I have lost count of the ones I have met. It will happen to you too. Backpackers who haven’t budgeted properly, accounted for all the ‘extra’ expenses on the road (little things like food, drink or actually doing stuff from time to time), or have just been hit with one too many common scams that have depleted their funds quicker than they thought, all end up running low on funds sooner than they expected.
Problem solved? Budget properly.
It sounds too simple?It is! This should go without saying really but proper budgeting is the be all and end all of how successful your trip is, but many first time backpackers forget that this doesn’t just mean having a big lump sum that should last you for the duration. What about all those extra expenses you didn’t expect? The taxi mafia alone will fleece you out of more than you think in many places, those extra deserts or snacks you just can’t resist, that extra souvenir, extra visa fees for unplanned side trips, baggage fees for when you are coming home, these all add up. Even buying basic bottled water every day soon adds up. Budgeting well means that you have a good daily budget that is slightly above what it should cost you for all your accommodation, food, drink and potential transport costs, you have separate funds to cover any activities or courses you may want to do on the road, and this includes unexpected side trips too, and emergency funds that will cover any unexpected costs such as emergency flights home or out of a destination in case of an emergency. After all that you should also have a second back up of credit cards that you can use for an emergency to get back home too. It seems basic, but so many people don’t plan ahead.
Sometimes it isn’t just about budgeting well either, even the best laid plans go belly up sometimes and occasionally things do go wrong too that may leave you stuck in a foreign country with no cash. Wallets and purses get lost or stolen, the ATM may chew your card up or your bank will block your card because they have an overzealous fraud team who assumes that no one ever travels outside of a two mile radius of their home. One of the biggest rookie mistakes is not being prepared for these eventualities.
Problem solved? Have back up plans for your back up plans.
Look, things just go wrong sometimes, it happens. The worst thing you can do is panic. The best thing you can do is know exactly how to get it sorted before it happens so you can deal with it if things do go wrong. Prepare beforehand by letting your banks know you will be travelling (do this in writing and in person), have an emergency stash of money just in case so you aren’t running short. Have all the international phone numbers of your bank written down in a notebook (just the phone numbers, no important information obviously!) so you can get in touch with them if needed. Know how to get in touch with local police and know where your embassy is for extreme situations. Preparation is everything.
All season sleeping bag for a six month jaunt around South East Asia? Check! Five man tent even though you’ll be getting your head down in hostels and guesthouses? Check! Survival knife that will probably get taken from you at airport security? Check! I don’t know what it is but something about an upcoming gap year gives all first time backpackers a bad case of survivalist fever, an acute illness that sends them on a completely unnecessary rampage down the aisles of every outdoor enthusiast shop they can find. The sales pitch of the shop assistant coupled with your own unfettered excitement about your upcoming trip will have you convinced that you will need every oversized first aid kit, emergency ration packs and entire packs of chlorine tablets. Just calm down. You don’t. You aren’t heading out alone into the Guatemalan jungle for six months, you are heading on a tour of countries with cosmopolitan cities, an extensive traveller infrastructure and free wifi for crying out loud!
Problem solved? Just relax.
There are a small number of specific things that are a great idea to buy before you leave, a sturdy backpack for one. But you really don’t need all that much else. It is really important to remember that unless you are really going right off the beaten track and beyond, and I’m literally talking the middle of the desert or jungle with no back up here, you won’t be that far away from nice, clean amenities for you to get your head down, wash your kit, replenish your stock of toiletries or medicine if you need it or surprise surprise, even get a good meal or two! Hostels, guesthouses, laundry services, restaurants, pharmacies, all of these and more are available in abundance in the absolute majority of places you will visit, and you will not have to look very far to find something you need. And all that money you saved on all that gear can be put to use extending your trip or splurging on a nice upgrade or activity!
Independent travel is easy, but it isn’t always perfect. Things do go wrong from time to time. You will find that the overnight bus you have booked isn’t in fact an ‘air con deluxe sleeper’, you will even find it is delayed by several hours while the driver has dinner in his family home he has just parked outside of! That hostel you really liked the look of will be full, things will break down, you may even get a little sick. That’s just the nature of things, but you can always spot a first time backpacker by how stressed out and angry they are getting when things go wrong.
Problem solved? Remember that these hiccups are your unique travel stories.
I have had plenty of things go wrong on the road. I’ve been in vehicle breakdowns in the middle of nowhere, had delays too numerous to count. I’ve caught dengue fever in India, been caught in a sandstorm in the Sahara, nearly drowned – twice – in Thailand, been lost in the jungles of Belize and nearly caused a riot in Delhi, amongst many other things too numerous to count. But you know what? These have become some of my favourite travel stories! It isn’t an adventure if everything goes smoothly so just take each experience as it comes and enjoy the fact that you are out there living life! After all, you could still be back home sat on a checkout counter or in a crappy office, right?
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