Ahhh those backpacking trips. Only you and your backpack (and maybe a partner), ready to go wherever your mood and desires take you. Pure freedom. And it’s true, once you have experienced this, it’s really hard to go back to conventional travel.
However, if backpacking can look very care-free on the outside, it doesn’t mean that such a trip shouldn’t be prepared. And that’s probably why you are on this page! I have been backpacking for more than 10 years now, many times in solo. It taught me a thing or two about how to plan for a backpacking trip or any independant trip, what things to pay attention to and what you can skip.
I am a big believer that a well prepared trip actually enables you to better enjoy this freedom during the trip, and keep a certain peace of mind. So what should you prepare exactly? What are the things you should pay special attention to? I will share here how I go about it.
The Destination: Safety, Scams & Health
Once you have decided which destination you want to explore, the fun begins. I know it can be cool to land in a new country without any idea or expectation and discover everything on the spot, but it is always very useful to do some research about the country you will be visiting.
One of the first things I research about is safety matters. Safe travel ensures a great experience, and I never skip this research. Nasty things do happen. And when you are on the other side of the planet far from everything and everyone you know, things can get complicated.
Every country or region of the world presents different types of dangers. Chances are that you will be facing dangers that don’t necessarily exist in your home country, and sometimes your home country’s dangers don’t even exist where you are going.
For example the Chinese tourists tend to have a lot of cash with them because theft and pickpocket danger is minimal in China. Then when they go to Europe, they are attacked. Westerners travelling to South America sometimes get in trouble with fake police officers, robbing all their cash or forcing them to take money at an ATM. This happens because in their home country, they usually can trust anyone showing a police badge.
There are many examples like these, and I think it is very important to read about them before leaving so you can be alert and immediately detect any dangerous situation. One way to do it is read the official recommendations from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of your country. They are often a little alarmist but it can give you a good overview of the kind of dangers you might find in your way.
The goal is not to scare yourself off, but to give yourself this local knowledge that will maximize your safety so you can focus on having a great time!
Along with potential safety issues, you want to read up about common scams. Getting scammed is not fun for anyone, but when you are backpacking, you are often travelling on a shoestring and a very bad scam can ruin your holiday budget.
Same thing for health, research about the general level of hygiene in the country, to what extent you can trust medical infrastructures, if it’s better to go to private clinic in case you get injured or fall sick, can you safely drink tap water or eat fruits, etc.
Now that you have read about all kinds of horrible things that could happen to you (and are still motivated to go), it’s time to prepare the trip itself.
There are two kinds of backpackers:
- Those who refuse to plan any itinerary and decide everything on the spot (often travelling for long periods of time)
- Those who like to make an approximate itinerary that they will follow, but allow themselves some flexibility.
Even if you belong to the first type, I believe that it is always good to at least have in mind a few itinerary options, even if you prefer to decide where to go once there. If it can help you, I wrote an article about 3 kinds of itineraries that I use and how I use them. Make sure you check out the Itineraries section of this site, to see if something there can be useful to you.
Research about the transports in the country you are going to, are they old, slow and unreliable? Are they fast and modern? When visiting a less developed country, it is always a good idea to add one or two buffer days in your itinerary (or more if you go for a long trip), because the transport timings are not always reliable.
As a rule, the longer your trip, the more you can afford not planning much, because you have a lot of time to search, make mistakes, miss your train, etc. On the other hand of course, the more you plan, the more effective your itinerary and the more time you have to visit more things. The choice is yours!
Booking or Not Booking
We are now touching something that can be a bit of a dilemma: how far should you go with the bookings? Should you just book everything for peace of mind, but make your trip less adventurous? Should you book nothing at all and run the risk of not finding the best options (or no option at all)? I personally like to do something in between.
Once you have done some research about your dream backpacking country, looked up some possible itineraries, you can go and book your plane tickets. So far, so good! But what about accommodation and local transport?
Concerning hotels, I see 4 options:
- Not book anything and find hotels on the spot. I have done that quite a lot in my early backpacking days, mostly in Latin America. I had 2-3 possible itineraries in my head and would decide according to my mood and local circumstances. As I arrived in a new city, I simply asked my taxi driver for a nice & cheap hostel – they always know a few. I never really had any problem with this way of travelling and it feels like “real” backpacking. However, you should pay attention to the following:
- This is easier in some countries than others. Do your research.
- Most of the time, taxi drivers take you to specific hotels where they receive a commission for bringing new customers. It doesn’t mean it was the best option for you.
- In very touristic areas, it can be challenging to find a good place to stay on the spot at the heart of the peak season, many will already be full.
Just book everything before leaving. I tend more and more to book most of my hotels before leaving, if my trip is not very long (like 2-3 weeks). If the trip is too short, I consider that I might waste too much time finding my way and I prefer to have a well planned itinerary to maximize my visiting time. And OK I admit it, I just LOVE planning trips and itineraries.
Book every hotel that you already know you will need. Let’s say you are going to Thailand. You have booked your flights so you know that in any case, you will arrive in Bangkok, and you will need a hotel room on that day. So why not book it before leaving? After a long and tiring flight, it’s nice to have a hotel room ready.
Let’s say that 10 days after you arrive you have a flight to Phuket. Same thing, you already know that you will need a hotel room in Phuket on that day, just book it. There is a high chance you will want to stay and explore the area right? Book two nights or three. For the rest of the trip, you can try finding you accommodation on the spot.
Book as you go. This is something I did in a recent 3-month trip across South East Asia and I was pleased with the experience. I think it is really the best way to coincide peace of mind and total freedom.
Before the trip, I would first book all the hotels I know I will need, as explained in the previous point. And then, as I am travelling and deciding where I am going, I would go online and book my next hotel or my few next hotels if the next few steps of my itinerary are decided.
Booking.com is my go-to website for hotel booking. They have a big selection of hotels wherever you want to go and I like that they constantly give you small discounts when you keep using them. It is also free to cancel a reservation most of the time, which can be useful if you change your mind!
Depending on how you chose to proceed with your hotels and depending on the country, it can also be a good idea to book some local transports in advance before leaving or as you go. If you are travelling to South East Asia, I highly recommend the 12Go Asia website to book bus or train tickets in advance, I find it really convenient and have used it many times.
That’s it! That’s how I go about planning my backpacking trips. It’s not always easy to decide whether giving priority to total freedom or careful planning, but I think the tips on this page will help you achieve both.
You get the peace of mind by being well prepared about the potential dangers, possible itineraries and having your hotel booked when you arrive. Trip after trip, you will find your ideal balance between the amount of planning and freedom. At the end of the day, what really matters is finding your own way of travelling and having a wonderful time!
The above links to Booking.com and 12Go Asia are affiliate links. If you make a reservation through these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you, helping me run and grow this website.
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