Today, we of the M-Network are doing a series on holidaying (vacationing, apparently to Yanks). Frugal tips, ideas, experiences, personal accounts…everything. Check out the other M-Network blogs for more.
Backpacking in this context isn’t particularly about camping, but travelling (or touring) round multiple destinations in the same continent making heavy use of public transport, especially trains and long distance buses. Most people carry all their needs round with them in a backpack rather than a suitcase, hence the name. It’s commonly undertaken by younger people in their late teens to twenties, but age is no barrier, and I’ve met all sorts of people on this type of trips, from children to retirees.
It’s really my sort of travel, it’s not the only sort that I do, but it’s the stuff that I’m most confident in. It makes a great budget holiday or vacation – the countries of Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand are some of the more expensive destinations for a vacation, and yet they all have pretty extensive networks of accomodation for budget travellers and good enough public transport links that you can get from place to place pretty easily.
before you go
Well, you need to decide on a destination, and do some forward planning. Find out what there is to do in each place, whether there are any adventure sports, cultural highlights, nightlife hotspots or unspoilt beaches that you want to enjoy. Knowing roughly where you want to go and what you want to do will help you suss out the best combinations of transport and give you a better idea of where to splash out and where to cut back.
Think about how much money you’ve got available, and the length of trip you’d like. All developed countries are expensive, but some are more expensive than others. I normally allow the equivalent of US $50 – $70 per day, plus travel for the basics but that’s not a generous budget, and in particular alcohol will set you back more. London, Paris, Scandinavia and New York are all more expensive. NZ, parts of Australia, Eastern Europe, and middle America are cheaper options. It’s better to have a shorter trip, than run out of money.
Backpacking is all about frugality and taking the more *adventurous* option. This means that you’ll be wanting to use public transport a lot, so pack light. If you’re going to one North America, Europe, Australia or New Zealand you will be able to buy anything you might conceivably need there, so don’t take too much and see if you can manage without. You will be able to wash your clothes so you can wear things more than once – I didn’t realise this the first time I went travelling.
You shouldn’t need to take special precautions with your health, but make sure that you have good enough travel insurance including health insurance. Whether or not your destination enjoys socialised medicine, it probably doesn’t apply to visiting travellers (major exception is EU citizens travelling in the EU get an EHIC card). This means that you’ll want to be covered for hospital stays, and possible repatriation. If you plan to do any adventurous sports (bungee jumping for example) make sure your insurance covers them.
It’s also a good idea to have your tickets and luggage insured so you aren’t out of pocket if something goes wrong – especially as many of the good backpackers tickets are non-refundable.
Almost certainly, the most important thing to take with you is your passport and any necessary visas. In general, it’s seems to be cheaper to get a passport well in advance of your trip as there’s generally an extra charge for an expedited service. If you’re travelling outside your own continent, it’s advisable to have a passport whose validity extends more than 6 months after you get back.
With the rise of the web and online travel information, you might not want to get a guidebook. I usually do because it gives me something to read, they’re more helpful in non-English speaking areas, and are great if you are a less confident traveller. The best include:
- Rough Guide – my personal favourite
- Lonely Planet – everyone and their dog has one of these
- Let’s Go – haven’t used them myself, but reputed to be very good
You can often pick travel books up second hand as you travel and some hostels have copies in their mini-libraries.
Travelling to another continent means getting a flight if you’re on a budget. Cheap tickets are first come, first served. From either the Australasia, or North America to Europe, it’s normally cheaper to get an intercontinental flight to London, Paris, Frankfurt or Amsterdam than any other destination. However, if you live in an area with a large European ex-pat community you can sometimes get a good deal to other destinations.
Travelling from Europe to Australasia, Perth is usually the cheapest destination, but it’s a long way from everywhere else. Otherwise it’s Sydney or Melbourne. Travelling from Europe to North America, the cheapest flights are generally to New York, followed by Toronto, Boston, Washington DC or Orlando. On the west coast Los Angeles normally has the lowest prices. From North America to Australasia, Sydney or Melbourne will usually be the lowest cost, and in the other direction it’s probably going to be Los Angeles.
Once you’re in your chosen continent you’ll need to get around. Aside from hiring a car, for which you need a group to be economical, you’ll be looking at trains, buses, boats or planes. You can save money on accommodation by travelling overnight. This is *an experience*. It’s most comfortable on a train or boat, and least comfortable on a bus.
This is my favoured choice. If you want a pass that will let you go to many different destinations, in Europe you’ll want an Interail (European residents, €160-€600) or Eurail (non-European residents, US $580-$1280) pass. If you’re not going to do that much rail travel, it might well be cheaper to just buy ticket as you go. Either way, allow a good morning to get a reservation every time you want to make an international train journey. The train network in Europe is extensive, and this is an exceptionally good way to get around.
In North America, there’s Amtrak and ViaRail. Their passes range from US $150 for a week in California to $1000 for up to a months in both Canada and the USA. Without a pass you definitely need to book in advance to get cheap tickets. The train network in both Canada and the US is stronger in the east than the west, but some of the coast to coast trips are amazingly scenic. Can be a good way to get around, especially between major cities.
In Australia and New Zealand the rail network is more limited. What there is is amazingly scenic, but it doesn’t go nearly everywhere. Rail New Zealand has passes from NZ $280-$380 and Rail Australia has passes from AUS $130-$1330.
The single best resource for international rail travel is the man in seat 61. Overnight travel can either be in a sleeper bunk – comfortable, or a seat – less so.
It is with considerable experience that I can say that long distance buses are not as comfortable as trains. On the plus siude they get you to more places, especially in North America and Australia. For reasonably short distances (say up to 12 hours) in all continents they can be good value if you turn up and buy on the day or a couple of days in advance. It is cheaper to buy tickets in much further in advance, but can be more difficult outside the country. You can also get passes in all continents, which tend to be excellent value if you want to do a lot of travelling, prices are similar to train passes.
In Europe, the main bus company is Eurolines, in North America it’s Greyhound or Greyhound Canada. I think there’s a theme going on here because in Australia it’s Greyhound Australia. In NZ it’s Intercity.
Alternative bus companies exist which cater specifically for backpackers. All things considered, costs are broadly similar to those of the more mainstream companies – they may be a little more expensive, but you get more for your money than getting from A to B. Companies include:
- Magic bus – NZ
- Kiwi Experience – NZ
- Stray Travel – NZ
- Oz Experience – Australia
- Busabout – Europe
- Moose Travel Network – Canada
- Green Tortoise – USA
My top tips if you’re travelling overnight by bus, consider packing a pillow, learn to sleep sitting up, and in the US, if you are near the Mexican border keep your passport/ID in your hand luggage, not with all the bags underneath.
So a Mediterranean cruise probably isn’t in your budget but there are great backpacker trips by boat in each continent. Classic examples are Greek island hopping, sailing the Whitsundays and the Alaskan Marine Highway. Research will give you more ideas.
Just not as much fun, and in developed countries, it hardly counts as intrepid travel. Nevertheless flights can be useful in your backpacker’s trip especially to cover long distance. You can get an airpass from various airlines, or (booked well in advance) use budget airlines. Budget airline fares start from under US $10, airpasses are typically a few hundred US dollars.
- Air Canada – air passes
- AirTran – budget airline
- CanJet – budget airline
- Jet Blue – budget airline
- SouthWest – budget airline
- Spirit – budget airline
In Australia and New Zealand there’s:
- Qantas – air passes
- Air New Zealand – air passes
- JetStar – budget airline
- Virgin Blue – budget airline
In Europe try:
Within the some of the most expensive countries on the planet, by far the most effective place to stay is a hostel. Here you can get a bed for the night (often, but not always a bunk bed), a hot shower, meet other travellers and get the latest lowdown, find a place to do your laundry, cook, catch up on email and generally have a good time. Typical prices are from US $15-$45 per night, depending on location and facilities.
You could join your Hostelling International affiliate to save money on *official* hostels, or you could go for an independent hostel instead. I’ve stayed in both, and there often isn’t a lot to choose between them. Independent hostels are more likely to be laid back, particularly in cities, but that isn’t always the case. Official youth hostels are more likely to be quiet, but again the depends on the individual hostel. Good sitse for picking and booking hostels are Hostel World and HostelBookers.
In any cases, key things to remember about hostels are that sleeping bags should not be allowed or used (or there will be problems with bedbugs), you might have to pay extra for sheets if you haven’t got a sleepsheet, you need to bring a towel, but also it’s better to have flip flips (jandals/thongs), take a lock for your bag.
Some places have co-ed dorms, some have single sex, and some have a mixture – if it matters ask before you book. You usually have to pay to use internet terminals, but wifi is more likely to be free. Which reminds me, in busy periods book in advance, at least a couple of days, or be prepared to be very flexible with your next destination.
Some of the most interesting hostels include:
- The Pink Palace – Cofu, Greece (infamous Greek island party place)
- Hostel Celica – Ljubljana, Slovenia (former prison, now art gallery and hostel)
- Gershwin Hotel – New York, USA (coolest hostel in one of the coolest cities)
- Aquapackers – Anchorage, NZ (converted boats off the beach in Abel Tasman Park)
food and drink
This is where you’ve got the most scope for cutting costs. Good tips include:
- eat more earlier on in the day (especially in Australia, New Zealand, Britain and North America where breakfasts are often big)
- use the self-catering facilities at your hostel if you can
- eat local food, especially ethnic food e.g. Turkish food in Germany, Indian food in England, Mexican in the US, and Lebanese in Australia
- pick the vegetarian option – I’ve always found it cheaper
- picnic lunches with good produce are cheap and delicious – particularly useful tip in Europe
- fast food might not be nutritious, but it is cheap – use sparingly
- drink less alcohol
- drink local beer, wine or spirits rather than what you’re used to at home – when in Rome,…
If you’ve been backpacking, leave your own tips below.
- frugal travel accomodation: the joys of hostelling
- 21 resources for budget travel
- the train is better than the plane