Ah, there’s nothing quite like the University of Life! Here are 35 pearls of backpacking wisdom I have picked up along the way – some silly, some serious, all true…
1) A little bit of organization gives a lot of peace of mind. I have a recurring nightmare before I fly where I completely feck up the entire trip because of some ridiculous oversight and end up on my knees outside Heathrow screaming, ‘Whyyyy?!’ to the heavens.
Give yourself plenty of time to get to the airport and remind yourself of the essentials – as long as you’ve got your bank card (and emergency spare is a good idea in case it gets sucked into a card machine on your first night in Bangkok), passport, visas and flight details, you could ultimately wing the rest.
2) Use luggage tags. Because sometimes peoples’ baggage goes missing. The good news is they can usually locate it and send it back. The bad news is it could end up in Kazakhstan, many miles away from where you actually need it, for up to a week before it gets returned. I always pack a few essential clothing items into my hand luggage just in case.
3) Have some local currency in small amounts on arrival. So much more convenient to buy a bottle of water or negotiate a taxi if you don’t have to wave around big bucks while looking for change.
4) Hiding money under the mattress is not an inspired hiding place. Particularly when you are travelling on a shoe-string in Honduras and realise you might be staying in a brothel. However, should you confront maid/madam who has robbed you, be grateful when they panic and miraculously ‘find’ said money on the floor by your feet (aka up their sleeve) and get the hell out of there before they send the heavies round.
5) You do not need a beach towel. A couple of sarongs do all that and more. Sarongs: Never use them at home, indispensable when abroad.
6) Travel out of peak season whenever possible. Places to stay can halve their prices and flights over peak season can be astronomical too. And, where possible, negotiate – I tend to try and agree a low price for a night and then follow up with haggling a further discount for a few.
7) Drinking every day is acceptable on holiday but not essential. When your holiday turns into months away you may believe you have developed a problem. Travelling can feel like one long festival of fun! Just remember your body needs vitamins too.
8) Eat cheap. A great way to cut costs when backpacking is to investigate local eating spots, night markets and street food vendors. You can get delicious, authentic food at a fraction of the price of bigger restaurants that are filled with tourists. Avoid eating and drinking around big attractions – you’ll feel like a sucker if you dine on Las Ramblas in Barcelona when there are so many cheaper and better spots in the alleys and lanes that lead away from it.
9) Probably don’t drink the water. Better safe than a terrible case of traveller’s belly right before an 8 hour bus ride.
10) Sometimes the drugs don’t work. Sometimes those over-the-counter remedies won’t be enough to cure your ailment and something like a fall off a bike or a bout of nasty food poisoning could end up costing incredible amounts of money that, let’s face it, you’ll have to spend. So don’t mess around; get travel insurance.
11) Sometimes the drugs do work. Don’t try a mushroom shake the night before a very important, early flight. You might think it’ll just be all pretty colours and giggles but sometimes you will forget your own name, you will forget what important thing you have to do in the morning and you will come dangerously close to turning your passport into a paper hat. Especially don’t do this in Laos. Or with a sister who comes out with such cheerful phrases mid-trip such as, ‘Hey, I wonder if this is what it’s like being dead?’
12) Write things down. Some people aren’t into the whole travel journal thing and that’s ok but do write down the names of the cool places you stayed in or places you loved and discovered along the way or you’ll forget so much when you get home.
13) Be smart with your phone. Get a local SIM card to cut costs for local communication or download Whatsapp or Viber to stay in touch through Wifi for free.
14) Keep a record of your cash and ATM charges. Just to ensure you don’t accidentally blow it all on speed and cheap hookers on the first night, lost in a haze of confusion over the exchange rate. Travellers cheques are so over – they generally don’t give as good value as a decent credit card and in some countries you’ll be hard pressed to find somewhere to exchange them.
15) Book a place to stay for the first night at least. Especially after a long haul flight – it makes such a difference to know you have a bed to sleep in and time to get your bearings before traipsing around with a heavy bag looking for somewhere suitable to rest your weary head.
16) Talk to bartenders. Some of my favourite people! And a font of local knowledge and resources.
17) Get a phrasebook. This is particularly applicable in Central or South America where you will encounter a lot of hard and fast Spanish and Portuguese and that phrasebook could help you avoid accidentally ordering tripe stew for lunch. And in countries where people speak English, a few local pleasantries are a lovely way to show some respect.
18) Get down with the maps. Some basic orienteering skills will go a long way. You can even pre-load Google Maps on your phone to use when you’re away from Wifi.
19) Be flexible. Plan a general route so you don’t accidentally end up in Koh Pha-Ngan for the whole 6 months of your Thailand adventure but give yourself the chance to discover new things and get sidetracked and wonderfully lost along the way.
20) Hand sanitizer is a pocket essential. Because bathrooms can be yucky.
21) A pack of cards is a pocket essential. Ideal for whiling away long journeys and maybe picking up some friends along the way. Unless you’re trying to do magic tricks. Then just watch potential new friends disappear in a puff of smoke.
22) Be aware. Just because you’re on holiday doesn’t mean you’re invincible – normal safety rules still apply. You’re abroad, you’re not dreaming. I should take this bit of advice more often.
23) Hide your valuables. Look poor – it’s safer! In riskier countries carry a small wallet with a couple of notes in just in case you get mugged and have a chance to give that away instead.
24) Charge your shit whenever possible. Don’t forget your adapters and investing in a battery pack could be a lifesaver.
25) On a long journey, buy snacks when you can. Who knows when you may get the chance again?
26) On a long journey, go to the toilet when you can. Who knows when you may get the chance again? And ALWAYS stock up on loo roll.
27) Beware the ‘extra fines’ at airports and border crossings. Unfortunately, sometimes official types and not-so-official types do try their luck and try to get unnecessary extra cash out of you for some implausible reason. Make sure you read up on potential scams beforehand.
It’s normal to get a bit flustered and stressed when faced with this sort of situation as you’ve seen a few episodes of Banged Up Abroad but if it happens, stay cool, stay calm, play dumb, pretend you’re a poor backpacker who has spent all their money (probably not far from the truth) and potentially shed a quiet tear about the children you need to get back home to.
28) Go with the flow. Be prepared for nothing to run on time. Be prepared for transport to leave late… except when it leaves early. Be prepared for hold ups, delays and all manner of spanners in the works. The sooner you accept these, the sooner you begin to enjoy being on the road and embrace the journey, not just the destination.
29) Take a small pharmacy. Become a legal drug mule with your own preferred brands as it can be a pain to find what you want when away. If nothing else pack your own tampons, condoms, bad belly medicine and seasick meds if you’re hitting the high seas.
30) Pack earplugs. In fact, this is one piece of advice I always forget to take and then mentally shake my fist at the rowdy streets outside my window.
31) There are a lot of hot people on the road. I don’t know if it’s the tan, the carefree existence or if hot people just like to travel. Probably the latter.
32) Haggle your heart out but don’t be a jerk. Remember it’s about getting a good price not the most rock bottom price. People got to make a living you know!
33) Travel will mend a broken heart. New experiences, new challenges and new faces are the ultimate distraction. Oh and as many miles as possible between you and your heartbreak is often a winner.
34) There’s rarely a ‘right time’ to travel. Sometimes you just have to take the plunge and book a ticket. You either do it or end up just talking about it.
35) That travelling is addictive. Once hooked, you’ll chase this particular dragon to the ends of the earth.
And so ends my 35 things I’d wish I’d known before I started backpacking… Got any more to add to my list?
Pics by Alex and Sophie except for Image 3 (money) via Steven Depolo