On the RoadThe earliest book that I can remember reading was a children’s encyclopaedia which had a very basic map of the world. I pored over that map, dreaming about the amazing and exotic people who must live in all of these incredible places. Even as a very young child I was filled with the desire to travel in order to meet these people and see for myself what the rest of the world was like. Once I finally left New Zealand, each new country I went to only fed my travel addiction. Over four years of working and travelling overseas I racked up 50-odd countries and four continents.
Not everything about travel is great. Spewing your ring out in a dingy Khao San Road backpackers quickly loses its romance, as do 18-hour bus rides on third world roads. But the rewards are huge, and unless you’re a truly heartless bastard you’ll come back changed by the people you’ve met and the sights you’ve seen.
The following information is pretty widely available on the internet, but is also loosely based on my own experiences and stories swapped with other backpackers on the road. If you’re looking for more info, head to www.travelindependent.info. She’s a great wee website packed full of useful guidance.
Where to go?This is either the hardest or the easiest question. If you’ve always wanted to see the canals of Venice and can’t think of anything more fantastic, then you’re set. If, on the other hand, you’re more in love with the idea of adventure and travel generally and can’t decide amongst the ridiculously plentiful options where exactly you want to go first, then you’re going to have to make some choices.
There are two restrictions to keep in mind: cost and time. If you had unlimited money and unlimited time, then you could go everywhere that your heart desired. But the reality for most of us is that we have perhaps a few months before we’re due back at uni, or at that grad job, and will be funding our trips with the limited coin that we managed not to piss away during semester. Here is a really rough breakdown of the different parts of the world you could target.
Asia:Asia has become a fun park for young Western backpackers. It’s cheap ($15 — 20USD a day will keep you very comfortable outside of the big resort areas of Southern Thailand), and it has such an extensive backpacker infrastructure that you’ll never be without a place to stay or further from your next destination than an easy bus trip.
On top of that, there is the opportunity to engage in several different types of travel at the same time. You can go crazy at the full moon parties down in Koh Samui, ride elephants up near Chiang Mai, volunteer to save endangered bats in Laos, visit the memorials to the Khmer Rouge victims in Phnom Penh, and crawl through the Viet Cong’s tunnels, all in a nice tidy six-week timeframe.
Europe:Europe is great for so many reasons. It’s overflowing with historical sights, it’s packed full of dozens and dozens of different languages and cultures, and there is an endless supply of festivals and events that you can skip your way between. That said, it is expensive. Probably worse than North America when you consider the extra you’ll want to spend on getting good authentic local cuisine. Sharing costs, expect to spend €40 plus/day, and more whenever you move between places, so you can quickly find yourself staring at €100/day. It’s at this point that a tour becomes a tempting prospect. You get your food, accommodation, and transport organised for you, and usually a half-decent guide to tell you about the places you’re visiting. If you want to see as much of Europe as quickly as you can a 24-day trip will get you to the best of the best, then if you want you can backtrack and spend some more time at your favourites.
Africa:I have spent limited to no time in Africa and Latin America, so full recognition to the friends/travel blogs/guide books that helped me bang these sections together.
From a travel perspective, Africa is easily broken down into the North, East, South, and West. For the sake of convenience, let’s deal with the North as part of the Middle East. Let’s also presume that unless you’re a nek-level backpacker you’ll be avoiding the pretty dodgy and unsafe West African region (war, Islamist terrorism etc). So really, the options are East and South.
South Africa is a logical starting point and an underrated backpacking spot. Tours, or even better a hop-on-hop-off backpacker bus, are a great, cheap option. You’re not wimping out on the real travel experience, simply making things work — the risk of riding around on South African public transport with a backpack and a wallet full of cash just isn’t worth taking. Either that or hire a camper, but now you’re talking some serious dollars. DO NOT walk around with your money belt or your pack.
The rest of southern Africa is safer crime-wise than South Africa, and there is still plenty to see and do. If you’re not heading anywhere else you’re going to want to go on a safari, but expect to spend $120 — 150USD a day.
For my money, East Africa is where it’s at. Ethiopia is underrated and cheap ($20USD a day); Kenya’s safaris are cheaper ($100 — $125USD per day) and arguably better than anywhere else; Uganda is as friendly as anywhere you’ll find, and there are gorillas — yes, gorillas (though expect to spend about $500 USD to see them in the wild for an hour). Add the lakes and Mt Kilimanjaro of Tanzania, and you’re onto a winner.
Latin America:Do not be fooled. Latin America is huge, and has this mountain range you might have heard of running through it. Oh, and a really big river named after an online bookstore. The point is, don’t bite off more than you can chew. You’re really dealing with at least three distinct areas: Central America, the more developed Westernised south (Brazil, Argentina, Chile), and the “less developed” (read: Westernised) Amazon basin/Incan countries like Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia.
Top tip: A little bit of Spanish goes a long way (except in Brazil of course, where they will politely tell you to fuck off in Portuguese). Even really basic words will make your life a lot easier. Generally visas and borders are easy, but there are certainly some areas where you want to take a bit more care than usual. Getting robbed, as in having every single thing you own taken, is not uncommon if you’re going off the beaten path. Accept that it’s going to happen and plan how you’ll deal with it. If it doesn’t happen, bonus.
The Big Three of Latin America would have to be the Iguassu Falls (border of Brazil and Argentina), the Inca trail (Peru), and the Amazon river (lots of places). When you have to put cities like Rio outside of the top three, you know you’re onto a winner. Flights in and out aren’t cheap, and your daily spend can get up to around $50USD. But for most people, it’s an unbeatable experience.
The Middle East:Bombs! And terrorists! Terrorists with great big bombs! But not really. The Middle East is roughly as safe as anywhere else in the world, and while some hot spots like Syria should probably be avoided at the moment, you’re really not going to run into any serious trouble, and generally the level of crime is lower than in Africa or Asia (probably due to the very serious punishments for minor crimes).
Most of the Middle East is Muslim, and they are generally very hospitable hosts. Sure, they may not be keen on America’s foreign policy, but they’re hardly going to blame all Westerners for that. You can expect the average person to know a lot more about the state of affairs in the world than you could in any Western country.
Turkey is a real highlight — taking the ferry across Istanbul harbour to watch the sun set on Europe is pretty cool. Israel and even Palestine are great spots to travel through, and really very safe though undoubtedly more expensive than other countries (for Israel you’re looking at $45USD a day, for everywhere else, around $30USD). It’s important to remember that Israel is usually best done last, as some states still won’t let you in if you have an Israeli passport stamp...
Iran is supposed to have the friendliest people in the world, while Egypt has, you know, those pyramid things. If you’re a bit cautious about Middle Eastern travel, try out Turkey first. If you feel comfortable, just keep going.
Other stuff to keep in mind
Cash MoneyTravel is expensive, with the biggest outlay for Kiwis those initial flights to get off these little islands and all the way to another hemisphere. Round the world airfares can be very good value, and with the ability to travel overland through some sections and then pick up the flights again they’re a great option. The only restriction is that most of them require your trip to be completed within 12 months (some are now up to 18). So they’re not ideal if you’re doing a seriously long trip.
You’ll often get told to buy an ISIC card, but truth is they’re pretty useless. The only decent discount you get is at the Louvre, but they can get you good discounts on flights. If you need it for the flight discount, get it and take it with you just in case. Your Otago ID will not be accepted anywhere, so don’t bother taking it.
Do not carry cash. Obviously, you’ll need to carry a couple of day’s worth, maybe even as much as a week’s, but do not set out with bundles of notes, and don’t fuck around with travellers’ cheques. Search around for a good credit card with a low fee for international transactions, and load up a bank travel card with the currency you’re going to use the most. Then keep all of these in different places. That way, if/when you get robbed you’ve lost a piece of plastic instead of, well, everything. Save the international contact number for your card provider along with your card numbers in your email account, so if you do get mugged all you need to do is access your email to be able to cancel the card and organise getting a new one.
Travel insurance is 100% essential but is simultaneously one of the biggest rip-offs in the travel industry. The commission on insurance is 40%, so make sure to barter if you are buying it from a travel agent. If you’re buying flights or a tour from them as well you can definitely get the cost down by as much as 25%.
That said, you don’t want to cheap out on insurance. If you tear yourself up overseas, medical care and evacuation back to NZ can cost upwards of $250,000. As one poor Kiwi found out recently in Thailand, most insurance policies don’t cover you to ride a motorbike, either as the driver or passenger. Motorbikes are a common method of transport around Asia, so you probably want a policy that will cover you for this.
Pack light. The old adage “lay out everything that you’re planning on taking, then halve it and take twice as much money” is basically true. Having too much stuff is a nightmare, and being able to walk lightly and easily down to the train or bus station is fantastic. Do you really need serious tramping boots if you’re really just going for a few light treks? Do you really need a sleeping bag if you’re going through Asia in summer? Do you really need a second pair of jeans? I’ll admit that I travel very, very light. If my bag weighs more than 6kg, something’s got to go. That said, I usually stick to more tropical climes (even then, always have a good fleece, aircon can get cranked so high on some buses/trains that you’d think you were back in your second year flat in July).
Take a good pair of waking shoes or cross trainers and a pair of jandals. Only take two pairs of socks, and wash them then dry them out at the end of each day that you use them. Be careful about doing too much walking in your jandals, you can blow out your arches.
The number one rule with packing is that basically every single thing that you may decide you need once you’re out there can be bought on the road.
Solo? Or teams?It really depends what you want out of your trip. If you’re off to a tropical paradise to sit on the beach and suck back buckets of gin and juice, then sure, take as many of your friends as possible. But if you’re heading off the beaten track and want to find out something about foreign cultures, or yourself for that matter, then travelling solo can have some big benefits.
I would suggest that the number one rule is that just because you’re mates with someone doesn’t necessarily mean that you two will be good travel companions. Similar to getting along with your flatties or your significant other, how you deal with money, tidiness, adherence to the plan, and arguments are the traits where you want your personalities to line up. If you’re an easy-with-your-money free spirit who is quite happy to change plans at the last minute, don’t head off with an introverted, money-conscious guy who spent six months planning out the itinerary to the nth degree.