Backpacking has really made me want to help other people see the world. I could open a hostel, but that would require me to actually enjoy the company of others. I could be a tour guide, but I hate people too much. I could become a bus driver, but that requires driving and also people. I could become a travel agent, but I hate desk jobs and customers. I could sign-up to host couch surfers but, what with all the aforementioned hatred of people I have in my heart, I would probably end up charged with someone’s murder.
I think the best thing I can offer other backpackers, or those planning to do some budget travel, is some comprehensive advice. That way no one dies. Before we left for our six-month trip I had a hard time finding a lot of very basic information about backpacking. Every time I searched for something like “backpacking six months europe america”, Google would ask “Did you mean: That’s totally fucking impossible you complete idiot. Give up your lame dreams already”. Our trip has been crazy, wonderful, challenging, inspiring, life-changing, best-thing-I’ve-ever-done-incredible and totally possible. And I want you to have the same. Hence, I give you:
A BACKPACKER’S GUIDE TO BACKPACKING FOR ANYONE WHO HAS EVER WONDERED HOW TO ACTUALLY BACKPACK LIKE A REAL BACKPACKER
Our trip: We flew out of Sydney on July 4, 2010 and will return on January 10, 2011.
Our route for the first four months looked a little like this: Sydney – Bangkok – Koh Samui – Bangkok – London – Brighton – Cambridge – London – Bath – Rotterdam – Amsterdam – Berlin – Dresden – Berlin – Warsaw – Gdansk -Krakow – Vienna – Salzburg – Zagreb – Pula – Zadar – Split – Dubrovnik – Sarajevo – Split – Budapest – Kecskemét – Cluj – Brasov – Sofia – Veliko Tarnovo – Sofia – Thessaloniki – Delphi – Athens – Rome – Florence – Venice – Milan – Paris – Tours – Paris – London – Barcelona – Madrid.
Riding a bike in the drizzle in the countryside near Tours, France.
After Madrid we flew to New York in November, where we stayed for a week before we got in a car with a couple of friends and drove across the states, staying in the following places: Philadelphia – Washington DC – Roanoke, Virginia – Asheville, North Carolina – Charleston, South Carolina – Atlanta, Georgia – Gatlinburg, Tennessee – Nashville – Memphis – Little Rock, Arkansas – Tulsa, Oklahoma – Oklahoma City – Amarillo, Texas – Albuquerque, New Mexico – Holbrook, Arizona – Flagstaff, Arizona – Las Vegas – Los Angeles.
After three nights in Los Angeles we flew to San Francisco, where we are right now.
Welcome to Texas, baby!
Budget: Basically, I had been putting away money each week since working as a check-out chick at Big W throughout uni (I graduated in 2007). When I got a job in Sydney I tried to put away about $200-250 every fortnight. I was able to save so much money by doing things like op-shopping for clothes and homewares, only drinking beer or wine when I went out, making my own lunches for work, cooking at home, avoiding taking taxis anywhere and never really buying myself anything new. Even so, I was still able to do things like go out to dinner most weekends, go to the movies, buy the odd book and the occasional piece of clothing that didn’t belong to someone’s dead aunt.
I opened a high interest savings account and put my savings and any other money I ever got – including birthday and Christmas money and tax returns – straight in there and watched the figure slowly grow. J-man did much the same with his money and we worked towards contributing the same amount to the trip.
By the time July rolled around we had enough money to spend at least $200 a day for a 188-day trip. We also saved up a nest egg to come home to, which was beefed up by money various family members gave us for our wedding to go towards new furniture upon our return. Yep, you did the maths right – we could have bought a house made of gold instead of going overseas. But who wants a lump of metal when you could be eating baklava in Bosnia? Or riding a bicycle through 50 kilometres of French countryside in the autumn? Or devouring the most amazing red velvet cake in a deserted playground in Madrid? Or exploring Brooklyn flea markets? Or peering into the Grand Canyon? Or getting your vows renewed by Elvis in Las Vegas? NOONE.
At first we weren’t sure whether $200 a day was enough. But, it was more than enough in most places. In fact, the way we travelled probably isn’t everyone’s idea of backpacking – we slept in a bed every night, ate every day and bought ourselves little treats every now and then.
In western Europe $AUD200 a day was enough to get the two of us:
- Accomodation in a hostel dorm room
- Entry into a museum or attraction, or both
- Dinner at a cheap restaurant with drinks
To try and keep under budget in places like Germany, France and Italy, we tried to book hostels that provided breakfast, we would buy our lunch (usually fruit and nuts) from supermarkets and we would refill a drink bottle with tap water. The only countries that made it impossible to stick to our budget every day were France and Austria, where the economy is based on the exchange of newborns and kidneys for goods and services.
In places like Croatia, Bosnia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece $AUD200 was enough to get us:
- Accomodation in a hostel or budget hotel
- A sickly sweet bakery breakfast
- A cafe lunch
- Entrance into at least two or three attractions
- Dinner at a cheap restaurant with drinks
- The occasional movie
In eastern Europe we were able to actively stay well below our daily budget, which we did in an effort to “save up” for more expensive countries and our US road trip. We probably spent less than half of our budget on an average day, but we were still able to do absolutely everything we wanted to do and had a bunch of fun on the cheap.
Cliffside in Bulgaria.
Thanks to our brave efforts in eastern Europe, and trying desperately to stick to our daily limit everywhere else, our budget for the US became almost $300 a day.
We booked our road trip through Auto Tours USA and prepaid for our hire car and all our accommodation. That amount averaged out at $185 per day for 28 days. We then had enough money to allow ourselves $AUD100 a day for everything else.
That 100 clams (keeping in mind the US dollar was almost parity) was always enough to pay for:
- Entrance into museums, attractions or national parks
- Dinner with drinks
It helped that we had two friends with us for half of the road trip, which meant we could split the costs three ways (yep, marriage morphed J-man and I into one superbeing).
My basic budget travel tips:
- Choose hostels/hotels that provide you with everything you need. There are a lot of amazing places around the world that have internet, breakfast and touristy activities included in the price.
- If you are staying in a place that doesn’t provide any food, head straight for the supermarket for cereal, milk and bread to save on expensive cafe or bakery breakfasts.
- Buy easy-to-carry lunch food and snacks, like fruit, nuts and biscuits, from supermarkets.
- Walk everywhere – so many major capitals are very walkable and it really is the best way to see and experience a city.
- Drink tap water where it is safe.
- Buy alcohol from liquor shops and supermarkets, rather than downing a million expensive drinks at bars.
- Hotels in the US almost always have bar fridges in the rooms and ice machines, so we bought ourselves an esky to keep milk and other perishable groceries for our breakfasts and lunches.
Before you go: I am an anal freak. Yep, you heard it here first, I am extremely organised and hate being ill-prepared for anything. So I was really worried about how our trip would turn out without a whole lot of pre-planning. But the only things you really need to organise are your flights, travel insurance, any required visas (the Smart Traveller website is really comprehensive, but suggests you contact embassies before you leave), credit cards and/or travel money and your first few nights of accomodation.
Tickets: We did the easiest thing and went to Flight Centre. We lucked out and found ourselves working with a really cool, young woman who helped us find cheap flights, so we didn’t shop around and check prices with other travel agents. We ended up buying round-the-world tickets that were part of a Lufthansa promotion, which was super cheap and great.
Weird tour bus we saw in Croatia. Hmm, enticing!
Packing: After six months, I can safely say I definitely packed the right amount of stuff and the right type of stuff. J-man packed way too much stuff and had to send a lot back to his mum, who emailed to ask him if he wanted it washed, ironed and returned to him. Teehee!
A few days before we left, I bought a 65-litre Black Wolf backpack. It was super handy because it unzips almost all the way around, making it easy to find things, and also has a removable day pack. The girl who sold me the bag gave me the best packing advice: to pack with the bag extensions zipped up and only to unzip them well into the trip.
Trunks full of junk in Venice
This is what I packed:
- Three summer dresses, which could easily be rolled up
- A pair of shorts
- Two singlets
- A pair of jeans
- Three light jumpers
- Basic toiletries
- A travel towel (I got this as a farewell present and it was super useful in hostels where towels weren’t provided)
- Thongs (as in shoes – also useful in hostel showers)
- About 25 pairs of undies, in anticipation of rarely being able to do washing
All I really had to buy overseas were a pair of Converse, a t-shirt, lots of socks, cheap wool gloves and a big winter coat that I found for $AUD10 at a Romanian op-shop. Even in the northern hemisphere winter, light jumpers, jeans, a scarf, gloves and the heavy coat have been enough to keep me warm (we left Europe in November and stuck to the southern states in the US, so it’s not a good indication of what it might be like in deep winter or in scary, blizzard-prone areas).
Travel books: We schlepped the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget all over the place. It gave pretty good advice on budgets, accommodation, transport, eating and nightlife. It was also really user-friendly and gave tips for travelling “off the beaten track” and suggested a lot of quirky sights and destinations. We didn’t use it religiously and found it led us astray a couple of times (it told us The Hague was a bit lame, but we found it to be awesome, and directed us to go to Kecskemét, which was a bit of a hole) but it was really useful for quickly finding out essential, basic information about a place and how best to get there. Also, we went to a few smaller places that didn’t have hostels and the book always had great suggestions for budget hotels or guesthouses that couldn’t be found online.
Europe rail passes: We researched the benefits of buying rail passes (Eurail is the option for non-EU citizens) for a while before we left, but didn’t end up getting them. Firstly, it didn’t seem like there was a good option for a trip as long as ours. Secondly, we wanted to be really flexible with our trip and it didn’t look like we could do that with a rail pass. Thirdly, we didn’t want to part with that much money when we didn’t have a concrete itinerary. As it turns out we made the right decision because we spent the majority of our Europe trip in the east, where all forms of transport are incredibly cheap and train trips are about a third of the cost of similar trips in western Europe. So it wasn’t for us, but I reckon it’s worth investigating if you’re planning to do a shorter trip in the more expensive parts of Europe.
Watching election coverage in Krakow at an internet cafe, where THEY LET YOU DRINK BEER.
Travel cashola: The Australian consumer website Choice was a really great resource for comparing different types of travel money. We ended up using the ANZ travel card, and loading one card up with Euros and one with US dollars. It’s hard to know how beneficial that ended up being because you get the conversion at the bank rate and other fees apply. Also the Australian dollar almost matched the US dollar during our trip and we cursed having bought dollars when it was around the 88 cent mark. For the majority of transactions we used the Wizard Clear Advantage credit card, which doesn’t have any international transaction fees and we just kept it in the black to avoid interest. But it wasn’t a dream run with that card – they changed their name towards the end of our trip, sent us a new card to an Australian address and suddenly deactivated the card we’d been using, just as we were about to pay for our hire car return fee. Thumbs down, dudes. J-man and I also have debit cards with our banks, which we kept as a backup.
Overlords of Florence.
Getting it on: All the way through Europe, J-man and I totally travelled on the fly. We had a rough idea of where we wanted to go, but would often only make solid plans about three days before, or a week at very most. We even changed the entire route of our trip about a month in, after realising it would be incredibly expensive and annoying to travel in western Europe during the peak season (umm, no shit Sherlock). So about once a week we sat down in front of a computer and figured out where to go next, how to get there and where to stay.
For accommodation our first stop was always Hostelbookers or Hostelworld. We had more luck finding things on Hostelbookers, which we thought was a bit more user-friendly and cheaper (no booking fee, you just have to pay a 10 per cent non-refundable deposit). Each site lists hostels by their ratings and reviews, which are given by other travellers. The ratings system was spot on – without fail, the hostels rated in the 90s and high 80s were always amazing places. There were only a few places – Kecskemét, Delphi, Thessaloniki and Venice – that didn’t really have hostels, so we stayed in little budget hotels that we found online or in our travel book.
The hideous Parthenon.
Organising transport was always a little harder, but you can get just about everywhere from just about anywhere in Europe if you look hard enough. For trips in western Europe, you can go online to book trains, buses and planes (we only ever found cheap fares with Easyjet, though other people suggested Ryanair and Wizz airlines, as well as Kayak to compare prices). One of our favourite websites for figuring out how to travel by train in Europe was The Man in Seat 61, which gives you tips on buying tickets online, in advance and links to transport and ticketing websites. In eastern Europe you almost always have to go to a train or bus station to see timetables and buy tickets. I found talking to someone was better in these countries anyway, because the little that could be found online was often outdated or just some loser guesstimating on a travel forum. Croatia, which is an amazing place, BTW, is one of the few countries we went to that had limited train connections. It does, however, have the most efficient and well-organised bus system we experienced.
The US was a different kind of trip for us because it was planned, booked and paid for well before we got there (we actually organised it from Sarajevo over a cup of tea, while I ate peanut butter from the jar). Even though we totally loved the way we travelled in Europe, we figured we’d be over winging it by the time we got to the states. After researching Amtrak, Greyhound and talking to other travellers, we realised early on that travelling in the USA is near impossible without a car. Most US cities (except New York, Washington and San Francisco) have pretty pathetic public transport systems and are very spread out, so walking often isn’t an option. Although we booked our US trip through a company, it would be very easy to wing a road trip in the US. Budget hotels like Red Roof Inns and Best Westerns, which often have free wifi and breakfast, are a dime a dozen and we had a very smooth, trouble-free experience hiring a car through Hertz. There are also about 12 zillion websites and travel books that outline American road trip itineraries. Also, a GPS is totally necessary because US roads can be freakin’ labyrinths.
Other general tips:
Waiting for a cinnamon roll at the Route 66 cafe in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.
- To preserve your budget and sanity, head east during European summer and save your western adventures for autumn and winter. We rarely had trouble finding accommodation and were never anywhere (even Paris) where the crowds were overwhelming. I am sure we made the right decision to do it that way, no matter how beautiful western Europe would have been in the summer. We didn’t have to wait to get into the Louvre, the Sistine Chapel, the Acropolis or any other major tourist attraction, really. Plus, a drizzly Paris was beyond romantic and I’m glad I didn’t have to share it with 50 billion sweaty jerks.
- Learning basic greetings and manners in each country is invaluable. If you can say “hello”, “thank you” and “goodbye”, you will have a much easier time and locals are far more willing to help you if they see you are trying. That myth that French people totally hate you if you don’t speak French? Not true. We just tried our best with the basics and we had a wonderful time and were showered with macarons. Also, we had a lot of fun saying “shizer!” and “nine” and “ich libre dich” to some German gals we met in Hungary. I think they probably hated us.
- Do some overnight travelling if you feel comfortable with it, because it saves a bunch on accommodation. Night trains can be quite fun and are reasonably comfortable, while overnight buses are kind of arduous but you feel smug and accomplished when you disembark alive.
- If you’re travelling as a pair, it’s worth shopping around for accommodation. Sometimes a budget hotel room can be cheaper than two beds in a hostel dorm. Plus, it’s a lot sexier.
- If you’re thinking about travelling alone, you’re awesome and brave and I applaud you. It’s worth looking out for hostels with common rooms, so you can meet people, and places that offer pick-ups from stations or airports. A lot of girls I met who were travelling alone felt safer catching buses and would ask around the hostel to see who was thinking of going to the same place, so they had company.
- Think about bringing a laptop or iPhone or whatever. Wifi is absolutely everywhere and J-man’s beloved iPhone saved us from certain death many times, like when we arrived in Warsaw late at night and got lost in that big, scary, humid, concrete city of misery. Also, a lot of hostels have free wifi but will charge you for using their computers.
- Use Skype. We didn’t have a mobile number in Europe so it was incredibly useful on several occasions. We bought a bit of Skype credit too, so we could call home every so often for cheap.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for advice – it’s not cheating. This sounds obvious but sometimes the people who can give you the best tips on what to do, where to go and how to get there are the people behind the desk at the hotel or hostel. Locals know all about train timetables, bus routes, laundromats, the best bars and restaurants and they actually want you to have a good time in their city/town.
- Ignore the naysayers. Weirdly, the most common topic of conversation at hostels is travel horror stories. We were told we were going to be murdered on night trains, robbed to death in Barcelona and that Athens is hell on earth. Night trains were completely fine, we didn’t get robbed in Barcelona and Athens was amazing. Anywhere where kebabs are sold with hot chips inside is not my definition of hell.
- Backpacking is hard work. Sometimes you sleep in gross beds, you hear people having sex all the time, you wear the same old clothes, you eat weird food, you get sick, you share showers with people you wouldn’t share a bus seat with, your bags just get heavier and dudes? You have to pretend to be interested in churches. Sometimes you need to ignore the budget and treat yourself. Go and see a movie, eat a decent meal or find yourself a comfy bed.
Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to compile a bunch of top five lists of my favourite places, foods and travel moments, so y’all know where to get the world’s best raspberry tart. Hoorah!
Feel free to comment if you reckon I’ve left out any important travel tips.