Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Travel advice for the independent traveller

Our travelling days are now behind us for this particular adventure, and a wonderful journey it was. New acquaintances whom I talk to about our travels are typically wowed by the scope of our journey and often want to listen to some advice about backpacking around the world, which is really nice.

Here are some lessons I have learnt whilst on the road. Some are just a bit of common sense, some are really a matter of understanding your own tastes and preferences, and some I learnt the hard way. They are most relevant to people travelling independently, on a budget, for the longer term.

If you don’t have enough money, don’t travel

Let’s confront the hard truth first. You need to pay for travel gear, travel vaccinations and travel insurance before you leave. Then, you need about $25 per day for every day you will be away and won’t be earning money after you step out from your front door. This is how much money you need to survive (i.e. basic food and a roof over your head) in many foreign countries. More money is better because then you can go on tours, travel faster and more comfortably, eat in restaurants, drink in bars...

Unless you are a lentil-eating hippy, be realistic about what creature comforts you can’t live without, and accept the fact that you will have to pay for them. Don’t be surprised if your money runs out faster than what you hoped for.

Having said this, do not be discouraged from travelling just because you don’t have quite as much money as you hoped you would have saved, either. It is worth accepting that if you are a native English speaker from a first world country you are (almost) automatically an immensely valuable person just about anywhere in the world. You can stop and work just about anywhere in the world- teaching English, working in a bar or a hostel, swabbing the deck of a millionaire’s yacht... Explore those possibilities. Once the bubble has burst and you are outside your comfort zone, you might be surprised about what is possible for you.

Teaching English in Turkey- my favourite weekday morning class

See four places in one country in one month

Think of one week like this: on day 1 you arrive at a destination dead tired, check into your hostel, break down your gear and have a look around your local environment. You eat and rest and maybe book your forward passage to your next destination. On day 2 you spend half a day researching and booking a tour of Whatever-It-Is-You-Came-Here-To-Gawk-At and the rest of the day extending your knowledge of the local area a bit. Maybe you visit a church or a market or some local sightseeing attraction. You will probably buy snacks and supplies. On days 3-5 you go on a three-day sightseeing tour/hike/kayak/dive trip/safari/bike ride/etc. On day 6 you are dead tired, so you sleep a lot and do your laundry. On day 7 you pack your gear for travel, start to inform yourself about how to navigate the environment at your next destination, and gear up to check out of your hostel and leave town. Repeat this process four times and you have filled a month of travel.

Argentina in one month- basically, one week in each of Mendoza, Bariloche, Buenos Aires and Iguazu

Don’t stress out about visas

It is worth knowing whether you need a visa to enter a country or not. It is also worth knowing if there are additional entry/exit taxes, reciprocity fees and other hidden catch charges for a country. Don’t worry too much about these things, though, just show up at the border. Border officials at border towns process visas much faster than people in capital cities because they have loads of practice at it. Sure, maybe you will show up at a border town without a visa and have to wait over the weekend until Monday to go to the Visa office and get one. You might meet the most interesting person you have ever met that weekend, in that border town. You are travelling. Relax, guy.

Travel slow

The best piece of advice you can read in any travel guidebook is the luxury of taking your time. The faster you travel the more it costs, the more exhausting it is, and the more unfit you become from all the sitting on transport you are doing. Don’t travel too fast if you can avoid it.

Buy the best gear you can afford

Paddy Pallin, Kathmandu, Mountain Equipment, Berghaus, Macpac, Osprey, whatever... Go to an adventure store and spend as much money as you need to in order to get the most comfortable backpack you can get. Ask for travel gear or adventure store vouchers for your birthday or Christmas presents before you leave. If you are travelling for a long time, small, lightweight, nigh-on-unbreakable gear becomes your best friend and when you are no longer in a first world country it can be difficult to get this kind of equipment. Spend a bit more before you leave and you won’t have to replace stuff with still expensive but inferior gear later.

Be ‘Johnny on the spot’

Sometimes booking ahead is essential. If you have your heart set on staying in a hotel in Rio at Carnaval or taking a spot on the Inca Trail hike, you must book ahead.

Sometimes booking ahead saves you money. Air travel is the classic example: if you can commit to being at a certain place at a certain time, booking a flight two or three months ahead can save you a lot of money.

Generally, though, you should only book ahead when you need to do so. There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, it is easy to stress out irrationally about whether you will make it to that fixed milestone on time and this can make it tricky to ‘live in the moment’ as much as you might like to. There is a tendency to trade off other opportunities because they conflict with your prior commitment.

Secondly, local opportunities to save money often exist that outweigh the savings advantage of prior planning. You may meet a group of people who want to do the same activity you want to do and you can all get a group discount. Tour operators who book tours by phone or online often have a spare seat or two on the tour bus/boat/train/etc, and sometimes you can get a very cheap deal by simply being in the right place at the right time and ready to go immediately.

Finally, be just a little bit sceptical when tour operators tell you that you can’t do something independently. Fundamentally, tour operators make their money by packaging together transport, food, accommodation and information services and charging a premium for them. Sometimes tour operators are loathe to tell you that yes, you can just hire the equipment without the guide, or show up at the dock and get on the same boat as the big tour is using by yourself. Be careful about what you book ahead, and look out for local opportunities.

Take three bags with you, but only fill two of them

I found that one main backpack (60L), a large day pack (35L) and a lightweight sportsbag (about 45L) is about right. The idea is to fill your main backpack,three-quarter fill your day pack (leaving room for disposables like snacks, drinks, tissues, etc) and leave the third bag empty, stored inside your main pack.

The versatility this provides you can be very useful. Inexpensive multi-day hiking tours, for example, may require you to carry your own gear as well as your own water and food. With three bags, you can store everything you do not need for the hike temporarily, filling both your sportsbag and daypack with around 70L of gear and stashing them at your hostel. When you are hiking, you will be carrying your sturdiest, most comfortable pack with no inessential gear and will have plenty of spare room for food, camping gear, abseiling equipment, bottles of rum or whatever else. Thinking about how you might reconfigure your gear for specific purposes applies equally to hikes, short boat tours, or any other round trips that last a few days where you don't want to lug your whole life around with you.

Map your time to the weather

Beach or seaside locations are best in summer. Ski destinations are best in winter. Just about everywhere else is best in Autumn or Spring, when the weather is neither too hot nor too cold for most folk. As a result, most travel guides recommend travelling to most destinations in Spring and Autumn to avoid weather extremes. When you are travelling for an extended period, you probably won’t be able to follow the weather around to experience an eternal springtime, but it is definitely a nice ideal, if you ask me!

When travelling, it is worth not only having a basic idea of your travel route and what the temperature will be like there, but what the rainfall will be like, too. I’m not suggesting that you should avoid going somewhere on account of a bit of bad weather, just that having an understanding of what the weather probabilities are will help you prepare for it. If you expected to go camping in the forest and the forecast is for wind and hail, it is best to know about it beforehand.

Fine and sunny, but rather cold

Go somewhere small

The world is an amazing place and just about everywhere in the world has something to offer. Keeping this in mind, some of the best travel experiences we had were in countries that were physically quite small but geographically or culturally diverse. Ecuador, Tunisia, Slovenia and Jordan are very different countries, but one thing they have in common is that there are lots of different things to do and there are very few transit hours between interesting different experiences. Small countries are less overwhelming, often friendlier, cost less to travel around, and leave you with more time at your destinations instead of between your destinations.

Tiny church on tiny island in tiny lake in tiny country- Bled, Slovenia

Avoid your countrymen

Large groups of Australians banding together are hugely annoying for other travellers. Come to think of it, so are large groups of Americans, Israelis, Brits… oh yes, especially the Brits

But seriously, you are travelling. Take the opportunity to expand your mind a little bit and meet as many people as you can that aren’t from your own country. Ok, you don’t have to actively avoid your countrymen, but do try to avoid making a tribal group out of yourselves. Doing this is extremely lame.

Get a new bank account

The easiest and usually the best way to access cash overseas is simply by taking local currency out of an ATM using a debit card. Most bank accounts charge pretty serious fees for letting you do this in addition to giving you a less than brilliant exchange rate. However, some banks offer specialised traveller bank accounts that charge minimal percentage fees on overseas currency conversions, and when you are travelling this is the fee that really matters. Minimize this fee, and you will maximise the amount of money you have to spend while overseas.

Access to local currency is one of the most important things in a traveller's life. Think about the predicament you will be in if your cards get stolen, or swallowed by a foreign ATM for some weird reason you can’t understand. Have a contingency plan for access to your money in case something goes wrong. A good solution is to authorize a trusted relative or friend as a signatory on your bank account before you leave so that they can wire you some of your own money- this may be better than trying to borrow money from people on the fly. Take a credit card as an emergency backup and keep it somewhere different to the rest of your valuables, not in your wallet or money belt.

Avoid the ‘big smoke’

Major cities, particularly capital cities, are often great tourist destinations with plenty of things to see and do. They are also often the most expensive, crowded and stressful places to spend your time and money. Minimize your time in the biggest cities and you will save money and often have a more relaxing travel experience. For my money, four days in a capital city and three days at the beach/mountains/forest that is two hours away from it beats a full week in the capital almost every time.

Get a netbook

The entire world is connected wirelessly to the internet, and so should you be. Hooked into a hostel wireless connection on your own netbook, iPad, or equivalent device you can book buses and tours online, research destinations, read the local newspaper and check what the weather will be like wherever you go. Of course, you can email your friends and relatives and link hundreds more sort-of friends to your facebook profile too, if you like. You will want to do many of these things anyway, and at an internet café you will pay by the half-hour for the privilege. If you have your own device, the wireless internet in your hostel will typically be free of charge.

There are lots more advantages to a netbook. You can write your diary and store all your digital photos. Functioning as an e-book reader, you can store travel guidebooks and novels to read on it and save plenty of space in your backpack. If you want to call home, Skype is a lot cheaper than using a copper line for international calls.

Some romantic folks think that being connected to the world while travelling will diminish the romance of their travel experience. I think this fear is based on the idea that your responsibilities and identity at home will follow you overseas via your inbox. My experience is that they don't. You change, your life changes, and your travels are no less special by the fact of being connected to the world. Your travels are less expensive and more convenient, but not less special.

Never commit to anything when you are tired

When you arrive at a new destination after a long bus ride/train ride/flight you are usually in a torpor of hunger and exhaustion. Shonky tour operators around the world know that zombie-like tourists will shell out obscene amounts of money to anyone who appears to want to help them get to a happy place. Knowing exactly where you are spending your first night in town and how you are going to get from the transit point to that place is not always possible, but it is always worth researching. Actively switch your brain on just before you arrive, and go straight to your accommodation and get settled. Shop around for a tour or a souvenir or whatever it is you think you need or want when you are well rested and well fed, never when you get off the bus.

Don't let people mail you things

If you are lucky enough to have supportive friends or family who miss you when you are overseas for a long time they may at some point be inclined to send you a 'care package' or a gift on your birthday or something. Perhaps you lost or broke some piece of gear you can't get locally and you want someone to send you a replacement.

Don't do it. If friends or family want to be nice, just tell them the brutal truth and get them to express their affection for you by putting cash money directly into your bank account. Many countries have very arbitrary customs regulations, and you won't know there is anything amiss until you get a letter from customs telling you someone sent you a jar of Vegemite via air mail and now you have to pay fifty bucks to clear it through customs, and you have to prove your identity to a skeptical customs official who wants proof of your local address in both Arabic and Uzbek.

Do something random

Some of the best travel experiences you can have occur when you are doing something random. The truth about travel and tourism is that you spend the vast majority of the time you are overseas staying in places that are there for international travellers, eating food prepared to appeal to international travellers and taking photographs of places and things that are specifically set up to be photographed by you, the international traveller. However, some of the more memorable experiences you can have happen when you simply sidestep the mainstream of tourist traffic a little. Remember, a block or two away from the busiest tourist pizza place is a small restaurant that isn't in any tourist guide and almost never sees a foreigner. Yes, maybe it is because the food just sucks. But once in a while, you can wander to somewhere random and you will not be lost- you may just find exactly what you were looking for when you shouldered your backpack in the first place.