So, you’ve decided to go backpacking! Well, get excited. Because backpacking the world is an amazing and semi-affordable way to truly change your worldview.
Planning an epic trip can get a little overwhelming so I’m going to walk you through some of your first steps as you plan your first trip!
WHERE ARE YOU GOING?
This is the most important question as it affects literally every other item on this list: from the plane ride to what to pack for your destination. So choose wisely!
Start by narrowing it down to a continent. Obviously, Europe is the most popular for this type of travel and is very suitable due to the popularity of hostels, cheap airlines, and trains. This could also be a good choice for your first backpacking trip as most people speak at least a little English.
When deciding where you would like to go consider who you will be traveling with and what you want to get out of the trip.
If you are a solo traveler who has never traveled before but wants to get your foot into a lot of countries and cultures, then a longer backpacking excursion in Europe may be a good option, especially if you incorporate eastern European countries where the costs are lower and the trains are plentiful.
If you are traveling with a bigger group, which means more planning and more coordinating, simplicity is the name of the game. Stick to one or two countries but explore widely. This would be ideal in countries like Japan, Australia, or even Greece. Where there’s a lot to do and explore without the need to make sure that 11 people have all purchased a rail card for the same 3 days.
What are you willing to spend?
If you are traveling to a different continent, it is usually safe to put aside $1000 for airfare. That price is getting better everyday, new and cheaper airlines are popping up, but it’s still pretty pricey. If you spend under $1000, that’s fantastic. If you spend over…. sorry.
Don’t let the price of your flight force you to shorten your trip. Don’t say, “I spend half my budget on a flight I can only stay a week now”. Naahhhh, you spent a THOUSAND DOLLARS to get to wherever you’re going, so make it count!
My most expensive flight was to Japan and it put me out $1200, so I stayed for a month.
Different countries also have different daily costs to consider. Staying in London is way more expensive than staying in Peru or Ecuador however both are relatively cheap to fly into. Japan is expensive to get to but it’s cheap to stay in. Greece is expensive to get to and to stay in. France has cheap public transport but will kill you with food costs.
All of these should be factors you consider as you decide where to fly into and how long to stay.
PLANNING TO FLY
Once you have your destinations picked out it’s time to track down an appropriate flight. The best way to find a cheap flight is to be highly flexible. Flexible with your dates, with your times, and with your airports.
Sometimes the airport closest to you isn’t the cheapest internationally. Sometimes it’s even better to buy your international flight out of a major city like NYC and then buy a cheaper flight (through spirit or frontier) to get you there from your local airport.
When buying cheap flights from those bargain airlines (spirit, rayanair, etc) make sure you check your baggage allowance. A lot of cheap airlines are cheap because they charge you for baggage by weight. Buy in advance because buying baggage at the airport is sooooo much more expensive.
Let the cheapest flights decide your dates. Use the travel calendar option or on kayak there is a +/- 3 days option. Look in your ballpark of dates but edit for low prices. It’ll be worth it.
It’s also almost always cheaper to book a round trip flight. Which means that you will need to work your way back to your country of origin to fly home. Try to make this as painless as possible.
When we backpacked Northern Europe we went to Ireland then took a ferry to Wales then took a train to London before flying to Greece to do archaeological work. This was over the course of weeks. Then to get back to Dublin for our flight home we had to take the same flight, train, and ferry. Only we had to do it in 24 hours.
So make your travel cyclical if possible or prepare yourself for one hell of a travel day.
Since you are backpacking you will be staying in a backpackers true homeland, the hostel.
Picking a hostel is truly an art form. I agonize over hostel plans because they are sososososo important.
I use hostelworld.com personally, there are other hostel/hotel websites, I just like that one. Enter your city and your dates and a whole slew of available hostels will pop up. And here’s where the journey begins! Most websites will only let you organize by one criteria (which is stupid) so I usually do price low-high and then keep an eye on overall ratings.
I almost never pick a hostel under an 8 rating.
My choice usually ends up being a compromise of location, price, and overall rating.
Hostels are also not your only choice; the rise of airbnb has proven that cheap travel is not owned solely by hostelworld. Airbnb allows you to rent an apartment, house, or room owned by a private citizen looking to make some money.
I personally have only stayed a handful so far, and have really really enjoyed my experiences. I often travel with a somewhat larger 8 person group and we love to sit around and watch bad TV together when we aren’t wandering the streets. So, renting an apartment is often perfect for us because we get a private tv and kitchen.
Do be careful though. Watch for anything suspicious when picking your apartment.
Like seeing a super nice apartment for a really cheap price with zero reviews? Pretty sketch.
Create your account with this link and get $40 of your first booking :O
Trains are vital for backpacking. They get you from city to city and often country to country.
When I started traveling the hardest decisions I had to make were whether or not to buy my train tickets in advance or in person. And the answer I have discovered is….. it depends.
If you are traveling on a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto on a specific day at a specific time and not using a Japanese railcard. Maybe buy in advance.
Our ferry/train from Ireland to London was purchased in advance because we had hostels booked and a flight deadline to mind.
However, if you have more wiggle room or are traveling in Eastern Europe or South America, you may be able to be a little flexible.
I, a self proclaimed anxiety ridden worrier, rarely leave trains up to chance unless I’m taking the subway. But if you plan some time in London and decide today is a lovely day to hop a train to Paris, well, c’est la vie.
- Even if you are an hour early, find your train and quadruple check it’s the right one. And then check again.
- If you get motion sickness make sure you are sitting on a seat that faces the direction the train is moving. Otherwise you will get really really sick. Trust me :/
- Be kind with your baggage, everyone has suitcases and backpacks. Try not to hit people in the face while you look for seats and don’t move people’s stuff around on the luggage racks.
- If you are with friends try to find a table seat to sit at, chatting makes the time go faster.
- Most trains have outlets! And wifi for a charge 😛
Personally, I am morally against guided tours. I know that they can be great and whatever, but I steer clear of them. I don’t like to spend the extra money and I firmly believe any nonsense you can do with a guide you can do alone for free.
However, I do often go through tour guide itineraries for ideas of what to do! There’s a tour company in Peru that sells tickets for a week long bus tour that takes you through a couple cities and breaks up the very long (10 hour) bus ride from the capital city, Lima to the city at the base of Machu Picchu, Cusco. Now, I am certainly not going to spend $300 on a bus ticket and tour when the bus tickets themselves are only $1 an hour. However, I have used their itinerary to plan my own bus trip. Only I’m skipping the boring stuff!
Just don’t over-plan! For every country or city you go to have one or two MUST DO’s. Then, leave it up to chance and the advice of your hostel staff. Over-planning is the easiest way to end up upset and hungry on the streets of Paris because you skipped lunch to make it to your tour of Notre Dame.
When I was in Greece I was part of a group that was touring archaeological sites on the mainland before heading to do work on a cycladic island. We RAN from site to site and museum to museum. Though I saw a lot and loved every minute of it. There were a lot of times that I just wanted to crash in the middle of a museum. No one wants to sweep up the corpse of an American tourist.
Take yo’ time.
AND FINALLY PACKING
Packing for a long trip could take up two dozen blog posts so I’ll keep this brief.
Remember that just because you are going backpacking does not mean you are carrying one of those giant, expensive hiking backpacks. In fact, to me, nothing makes a novice traveler stand out more in a hostel or airport than a giant overpacked backpack that they are struggling to drag around.
Those bags are meant for people climbing Everest to fill with food and oxygen and like… ropes. Not for a college student to fill with leggings and lotion and drag to Asia.
Instead, a small suitcase does the job and forces you to seriously limit your packing. You can also buy them for like $3 at goodwill or salvation army. A small suitcase is also easy to keep under the weight limit of airlines if you are careful.
However, if you feel like taking your backpacking to the extreme, just pack one normal backpack as a carry-on. Remember to limit your liquids to what you can carry on a flight (4oz, and pre-pack them together in a little plastic bag for security). Most hostels have laundry facilities so do not feel like you need to pack a shirt for every day of the week. I have witnessed many people survive easily and happily for weeks abroad with a small backpack full of goodies.
These guidelines should provide you with a good solid foundation for a great first trip. Pair these with water and some killer food and you’ll be on your way.
Thanks for reading and let me know if you have any questions about planning your first trip!