I turned 30 this year and realised something; I’ve been doing this whole travelling / solo travelling / backpacking thing for over 10 years. 10 years?!! Eek! And l can’t lie – I was pretty stupid at 18. I made lots of rookie backpacking mistakes and got myself into all sorts of predicaments and trouble that I could have avoided, and often made life unnecessarily hard for myself. Google wasn’t in my life back then!
Whilst I have few regrets about all my years of travel, there are a lot of things I’d do differently in retrospect. So I’ve put all my best thoughts and tips for new backpackers into this post to help you avoid the mistakes I made and have the best travelling experience possible – whether you’re going with friends, partner, or solo.
Tips for new backpackers:
If there’s only one piece of advice you take away from this post, let this be it!
That backpack will become the bane of your life if it’s heavy or too full. If you’re moving from hostel to hostel regularly, trying to fit everything in is just so tedious and time-consuming, and if you want to buy anything else forget about it!
Then if it’s too heavy… You dread taking it off your shoulders only to have to pick it back up minutes later. Your back aches within minutes of walking around and you can’t concentrate on what’s going on around you. I promise you that losing those extra pair of shorts, dresses, t-shirts, cosmetics, etc, is *totally* worth it for a backpack that’s light and manageable (and if you’re anything like me you end up just wearing the same 3 things anyway).
Plan, but not too much
Keep a note of all the names, numbers and addresses of the places you’re definitely staying at. I keep them in a travel diary/notebook as well, just in case my phone dies or something (and when I first started travelling no one had smart phones anyway!) Keep some print screens from google maps so you know where you’re going, too. I deeply regret not doing this; imagine me walking around Milan in 35 C heat for two hours… Or walking around Poland in the middle of the night. Not good, especially when you’re travelling solo!
But don’t think you’ve got to book everything in advance. Plans and ideas change – you might decide you love somewhere and want to stay longer, or don’t like somewhere and want to move on. Don’t be too regimented so that you can have some flexibility and freedom.
A good idea is to plan the first few weeks of your trip quite well, just so you can get used to backpacking and all the crazy/awesomeness it involves without having to worry about it, then gradually ease off and play it by ear more and more.
Pace yourself: don’t try to fit too much in
This might be one of the most common newbie backpacker mistakes. By spending just a day or two in each place you won’t get to know it properly, you’ll find out there’s a ton of cool stuff you’re not able to do, and ultimately you just end up wanting to go back. Give yourself a little bit more time to learn about and experience each destination.
And also, to be frank, it’s tiring. After 4 weeks of staying in the same place for only a night, from packing and unpacking every day, from finding your bus stop, train platform or airport, to then sitting on them for x amount of time (don’t underestimate how much time this all takes up!), you’ll feel like you’ve spent 4 weeks packing/unpacking and on transport more than anything else. Which leads to…
Don’t feel guilty for having some downtime
Give yourself a few spare days to just have a lay in, have a casual wander around, or find some cool secret spots. Or to just slouch around in your hostel watching stupid videos on youtube or skyping your friends and family. After weeks of being on the move, it’ll feel like the greatest treat anyone could give you. Then you’ll be totally re-energised and properly looking forward to the next adventure.
Budget wisely – i.e. for the long run
Try not to blow all your money in the first few weeks. Otherwise you may find yourself living on the breadline for the next few months, missing out in other places, or even getting an early ticket home. The little things add up when you’re backpacking – like eating out every night (especially in Europe!), buying drinks, going on guided tours or excursions. Public transport, independent travel, and hostel kitchens are your best friends as a backpacker!
A lot of hostels offer free accommodation in exchange for about 3 hours work a day (typically), then a lot of countries have help exchange programs that allow you to help with the hosts’ business/daily tasks for food and accommodation. They’re a great way of making your money last longer.
My other suggestion is to leave enough money in your account for a flight home should some sort of emergency happen. Knowing you can get home whenever you want or need to is a real reassurance/safety net.
Don’t leave your valuables out on show, especially if you’re in a shared room
No matter how nice your roommates might be you just never know. Then if it’s not your roommates it might be the cleaners or the random people that just end up in your dorm. I know someone who fell asleep holding their phone only to find it gone the next morning! My favourite bracelet got stolen after I wrapped it around the bed frame, despite being the last to sleep and the first to wake up. Hide/lock your valuables away.
Don’t keep all your money in one place and keep copies of your travel documents
Easily done, and a surefire way of avoiding a total catastrophe – ’nuff said.
You *will* make a whole bunch of friends
As a big solo traveller I know that worry well: loneliness. But whilst travelling you’ll be amazed at just how easy it is to meet people. Hostels are the place to go first of all. Beyond your roommates, I find the kitchen is the best place to meet people in a hostel; cook a huge amount of something then share the love!
Then when you’re out and about you’ll meet people. Perhaps on a tour or a group activity, or even just wandering around a gallery or museum. Don’t worry about it, get yourself out there and the friendships will come. At the start of the trips in my early days of travelling I’d worry that I wouldn’t meet anyone…The photos above are of the awesome people I’ve met in the last 10 years – some I’m still in touch with now.
Granted, there will be times when such opportunities just don’t come to you and you start to feel bad about it all. I can remember one time when I genuinely felt lonely – I was in a 10-bed dorm in Australia with a group of loud annoying idiots (they were British too, the very worst type who make you feel guilty about your nationality!). It was nasty and I hated staying there. But a few days later I moved on and met some awesome people in the next place I stayed at.
So I can’t say that it won’t ever happen, but if it does what I can say is that it’s only temporary and it’s nothing personal. If the worst comes to the worst, change rooms or even hostels, and enjoy your own company for a while.
Join travel communities!
There are loads of awesome travel groups online (especially on Facebook) who can give you so much advice, support and knowledge, and help you get the best out of your travels. I wish I’d known about them sooner. You can even make some travel buddies along the way. My favourites are: GoWonder Women Travel and Ultimate Travel Group
Leave your comfort zone
Travelling is all about new experiences and pushing your boundaries. Sometimes the best attitude to have is f**k it: try that strange thing on the menu that you can’t even pronounce (let alone know what it actually is), do something crazy like book yourself in for a skydive, join that random party with a bunch of strangers you met a few hours ago. And yes, whilst I did tell you to budget, and you definitely should, sometimes you just got to forget about money and follow your heart; these are the things that make travelling so damn awesome and will stay with you for the rest of your life.
Have an amazing time seeing the world! Don’t forget to drop me a comment below about your first time backpacking or any other bits of advice/questions you have!
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