Here it is: the ultimate guide to your first time backpacking.
I travelled the world for three years on the cheap, I went to some super cheap countries to keep the costs down, living as frugally as possible, and then I blew the budget on the more expensive ones when times were good. I worked as a travel writer and blogger as I travelled but still, I wanted to keep going for as long as possible so did everything I could as cheaply as possible
I spent less money per month travelling well in Asia, than I did living in a shared house in Southsea, England, on my return. Travel can be cheap, once you’re out there. Promise.
Backpacker’s Guide to Budget Travelling for Beginners
I wanted to put together this budget guide to travelling for beginners to pass on all the knowledge I’ve picked up along the way. I’ve been all over the world (still haven’t made it to South America though!).
My first budget backpacking trip was actually to New York and LA, of all places, when I was 18. My high school bezza and I spent a fortune.
Since then though, I’ve learned all the backpacking tips I’m about to reveal, and I can definitely say I’m not a beginner backpacker any more.
Where to go backpacking as a beginner
As a beginner traveller on a budget you need to think cheap, and safe.
Thailand, Vietnam, Prague, Guatemala, India, Bolivia, Bangladesh and Peru, Mexico and Indonesia are all good for first time backpackers.
But don’t discount the other places, these are just the most common.
When you look at current ‘cheap places to go’ lists, be wary, thanks to popularity and currency rates it’s not as cheap for us Brits to travel as it once was. Also, only you know your spending. I definitely started out as a cheap as possible kind of girl, but now I know that if the occasion calls for it I will spend a lot on food and drink which means some places soon add up, such as the USA, where I backpacked for three months.
If it’s your first time backpacking, think about going away from the main cities and into the second and third cities, or even better, the countryside.
Much of my travels have been in cities, and while it’s definitely not a regret, I think it would’ve been great to have explored nature more. Maybe that’s as I’ve got older?
The National Parks in the USA are amazing and you can camp, for example. I cycled through Vietnam and stayed in homestays in the little villages – super cheap and you get to meet the lovely locals that aren’t angry, busy city dwellers.
Budget travelling tips for beginners
Stay in the same country for longer
A lot of my travels were spent fortnight by fortnight going to different countries, by plane. This is a very expensive way of travelling. If you want to travel on a budget go overland, just pick a few destinations near each other and travel using local transport. This saves a lot of planning, time and money.
Use initiatives like Workaway and WOOFing
When I went travelling round Europe for four months – in all the expensive places – Workaway helped me to be able to stay away for longer. I painted villas in Spain, helped on a farm in the Czech Republic and picked olives in Italy. I had a great time.
Always go local
Booking activities and accommodation is always cheaper when you’re there at the destination. Trains and planes are worth researching and booking in advance, sometimes, but you should always get your accommodation and activities there.
This means locals get your money, instead of overpriced and heavily marketed Western companies, and you get the best deal. You can always haggle.
Haggle when you can
If it’s your first time backpacking you might be nervous to haggle, but you need to become confident in bargaining down if you want the best prices and to be able to backpack for longer.
In Africa, the Middle East, South America and Asia haggling is expected, it’s not rude. It’s quite a thing to get your head round but you need to do it. I just think of the price I’d be happy to pay and offer that. Remember, they won’t sell it to you if they’re not making money on it, so don’t feel like you’ve ripped you off, they’ll be more likely to do it to you.
Think about tours
If you’re backpacking alone for the first time, tours can save money, depending on where you go. Tours are also a good way to make friends. Sign up to newsletters and keep an eye on special events that might offer 241 deals and get a friend involved. I’ve had some really good times on tours, interspersed with by solo backpacking.
Having someone else plan where I need to be and what I need to be doing has meant that I can sit back and relax and just enjoy the destination. It’s also provided a ready made group of friends when I’ve needed it too.
Travel with a friend
I didn’t do much of this in my three years of backpacking, but travelling in a twosome or threesome could save you money. It means you get to split all the taxi fares, and if you’re travelling in Asia for example you can share private rooms rather than staying in hostels.
I mean, it could be a false economy as you’ll probably encourage each other to eat and drink more, but whatever. Twice the people, twice the fun.
READ MORE: Loneliness and Solo Travel
Money advice for backpackers
If it’s your first time backpacking you really need to sort your finances before you go. Banks can charge a huge amount for withdrawing and converting, taking a significant amount off your budget.
When I was in Japan they wouldn’t accept my Natwest card and I kept withdrawing on my credit card which ended up costing over £500. What a crazy waste of money.
The best card I’ve found is the Nationwide Flex Plus account which charges pennies to convert and withdraw and gives me travel insurance (I’ve claimed successfully for two phones I’ve lost) and a whole heap of other stuff. I’d recommend looking into that.
You can also look at the money cards – I’ve seen a few other travel bloggers recommending Starling and Monzo. I’ve just started with Monzo for my current account, and I also have a Tandem credit card too. It gives you good currency conversions and can be used all over the world. I also really like the fact it texts you straight away once you’ve bought something.
Know your currencies
When you arrive in a destination it’s easy to get ripped off if you’re not 100% sure of the exchange rates. Download the XE app now and load in all the currencies for your trip as it can calculate offline, but it needs to know what currencies it’s doing it in online. Never arrive in a destination with no idea what the currency conversion is.
Keep an eye on your cash
Also, have some cash in reserve, especially if you’re backpacking solo for the first time. I always travel with a $50 bill tucked in my make up purse for emergencies.
Make sure your cards work
If you’re a long term reader of the blog you’ll have heard this story before, but I arrived in Guatemala alone, all proud of myself that I’d spent all my pesos in Mexico. I had NO money. And then none of my bank cards would work in the ATMs. None of them.
I would’ve been screwed if I hadn’t met this really lovely couple called Pedro and Mel, on the bus. They looked after me and by the end of the day offered to take money out for me on their account if I transferred via PayPal.
They saved me.
How to make money travelling
There are loads of ways to make money as a backpacker.
If it’s your first time backpacking and you want to make a bit of money I’d strongly recommend starting off with a project, like teaching English, to make friends, get used to a new country, make some money and just have some sort of constant when you’re travelling.
Working as a camp counselor
My first time backpacking, and travelling for a long time was to work at summer camp in the USA. Honestly, best summer of my life. It was hard work, for not much pay, but as a simple village girl from the Midlands who went to Cornwall and Yorkshire on her holidays, I’d never even met an Irish person before let alone Australian, South African and well, I had met one American before.
My summer as a camp counselor absolutely opened my eyes. I met all these people from all over the world who were really passionate about travel.
The summer before I’d worked all summer in an office and then blew it on holidays to Kavos and Ibiza I knew I didn’t want to do that again. So I signed up.
That was the start of all of this. This travelling. We were probably earning a dollar an hour but we were in the Catskills Mountains in Upstate New York, we went to New York and Niagara Falls on days off, I loved hanging out with the kids and we got free bed and board. It was brilliant.
The next year I went back and then spent the autumn travelling round Australia hanging out with all my friends from the first year at camp.
You can make some serious money in Japan and China teaching English as a backpacker.
In Australia the Working Holiday visa is super popular. Pick fruit to extend how long you can stay there for.
Work as a ski instructor
Go to Canada – although unless you’re already an expert learning how to do it can be expensive.
Gumtree.com, elance.com and odesk.com where you can pick up work in web design, programming, illustration, writing and marketing, if you have the skills.
You could set up as a hair dresser or masseuse, although be careful not to take local business away from communities.
Sign up for Bollywood in India.
Keep an eye on hostel notice boards, they often have call outs for cleaners, marketing help, front of house staff.
Teach your skill
Any good at yoga, guitar, photography etc? Set yourself up to teach other backpackers.
Take a look at flytography, istockphotos, SmugMug and set yourself up as a travelling photographer.
Extreme sports instructor
Media in the Middle East
What gear to buy for backpacking
Unless you’re going to some crazy far off destination there’s not much specialist gear you’ll need to go backpacking.
You do need a good backpack, that’s definitely something to invest in. You might need to carry it for long distances, stand in queues with it on for ages and you definitely want it to be easy to use and pack. I’d advise actually going into a shop and talking to a specialist about what would fit your height and back.
One of the biggest mistakes first time backpackers make is to take way too much.
I went to Japan in January and had so much stuff because of the cold it was ridiculously tough to lift the backpack even off the floor. Don’t do this to yourself.
If you’re going to Asia most backpackers just hang out in shorts and tshirts, possibly even the same ones for the whole trip. Then you just need some flipflops, some trainers, your swimmers and a rain jacket, and a hoody. Honestly, that’s it. If you’re a bit of a newbie backpacker chances are you’re not going off the grid so anything you need can be bought there. Although, if you’re anything taller than 5ft 6 and more than a size 10 for girls you might find it difficult to buy stuff in Asian shops. You’ll be fine with the knock off sportswear though.
If you’re going to the cheapo places I mentioned earlier you don’t need any specialist gear at all.
Take your phone, camera, chargers, adaptors, a pillowcase – some of the places I’ve stayed in I’m not entirely sure they wash the covers – also great for overnight trains and buses and you can stuff it with your other clothes and make a pillow.
Best accommodation for backpackers
As I say, book locally when you can, but if walking from hostel to hostel isn’t your idea of fun then my favourite sites are HostelWorld.com and booking.com. HostelWorld has a good selection, and most of the places on booking.com have a free cancellation policy – perfect if you’re not totally set in your plans. I took them up on this so many times when I was travelling.
What you can do is book a few nights in a destination and then as you get to know it and the areas around move to somewhere cheaper and better as you learn about them.
I’ve had some brilliant times in hostels, and some pretty shit ones too. Snorers, lies on their profiles, horrible owners, dirty bed sheets, crappy WiFi – I’ve seen it all. When I was travelling I wouldn’t book more than two nights because I didn’t trust I’d want to stay that long anywhere.
This dissatisfaction with my accommodation usually stemmed from always booking the cheapest, and when it comes to backpackers accommodation, you get what you pay for.
You can look at Airbnbs but again, if you’re going by yourself and backpacking alone you probably want the cheapest which means it won’t be very good. You either need to lower your standards or raise your prices.
I still really like hostels but you just need to choose them wisely. There are a whole load of luxury hostels out there that are basically boutique hotels but you share a room.
You probably also want to look at the facilities of the hostel. If they have a shared space or garden they might be more social, although being social can be even more difficult now as everyone just looks at their phone.
Things to look for in a hostel if it’s your first time backpacking
- Social space
- Not the metal beds, go for wooden or those with curtains
- Read the reviews (Wifi)
- I never book dorms over 4 unless I really have to
- Always book a girls room, boys smell and snore, more
- Set your stuff out ready for bed when you go out
- Take two toothbrushes
- Check location, could spend more on getting to where you want to be
One of my all-time favourite backpacking experiences was on the Gili Islands. I just happened to be checking into my hostel at the same time as three others, who were all in my room, and we made friends super quickly. We hung out for the next week on Gili T and had a great time. We then travelled on to Lombok together and got a shared house for a while.
The people you meet can really make a trip, and the best way to meet them is in a hostel, even if you get a private room.
Safety as a solo traveller for your first time backpacking
When I was travelling solo I made a spreadsheet of each hotel and hostel I was staying at. It was just a shared Google Sheet that I gave my dad access to and I would’ve had it anyway, to keep on top of where I was staying and when. This is how I chose to keep track and keep my parents updated as to where I was, but I’m sure there will be an app out there somewhere that helps to do that.
– Don’t tell people where you live if they’re not in your hostel.
– Travel is a time to go wild and express yourself and push your boundaries but you also need to think, would I do this at home? Trusting strangers, getting in cars, staying in rooms with people – you need to keep your wits about you.
– You also need to look after your stuff. You’ll be travelling to countries where people are a lot poorer than you, and if you’re flashing your riches and wares things can go wrong. Know where your things are at all times. Use the safety deposit boxes in your rooms.
– Drinking is a good way to make friends and it’s definitely going to happen while you travel but just try and do it with a little class and don’t risk your safety and dignity.
– One of the most important tips in this beginner travel guide is not to get too drunk when there’s no definite friend to look after you. I always remember being in Kos in Greece and my contact lenses were killing me, so I asked the people I was with, and had known for three days, not to leave without me as I couldn’t see properly. I’ll admit, I went slightly awol, but I was definitely still in the little bar we were in… and they left without me.
– People do things like that, maybe they just went AWOL too, but I know if that was friends from home and I’d specifically asked that they wouldn’t leave without me, they definitely wouldn’t. I was fine, got home ok, but it just hurt that they did that. Be careful who you trust, even with the little things.
– If it feels super sketchy it probably is. A little bit sketchy is natural – it’s a different vibe and location of course it will be out of your comfort zone but if anything feels really wrong, don’t risk it.
– Research travel companies before you use them – their safety records, their promise to the environment, and just what other backpackers have thought when they’ve travelled with them.
– Backpacking accidents are rare, which is why they get reported, but they do happen and it’s important to learn from other backpackers’ mistakes.
– You’ve got to look after yourself, especially if it’s your first time backpacking.
Culture shock when you’re backpacking
Learning about different cultures is all part of what makes your first time backpacking so interesting. You’re probably going to see a lot of things you don’t agree with – treatment of women, children, animals especially.
The way communities are set up around the world is fascinating. Religious beliefs, status beliefs, community hierarchies… The things is, you’re popping in to learn about how other people do life, not to tell people that your way is the right way.
Your way of doing things is one way, established from a lifetime of testing your morals, beliefs and way of life. It’s not necessarily the right way. Sometimes you won’t believe people the way people actually live, or think, around the world but it’s not ever your place to tell them they’re doing it wrong.
Observe the culture, discuss it, and if you’re that bothered stick around and learn more. Just do not ever wade in and try and change things.
Sickness when you’re backpacking
I get ill everywhere – one of the worst I’ve ever been was from a number one Trip Advisor rated chicken place in Nashville. Gawd I was rough.
I was backpacking solo in Guatemala and had such a fever I was hallucinating, by myself.
I’ve had tooth surgery in Belize.
I had Delhi Belly for two weeks in India (great weight loss), and on one journey had to get the taxi driver to pull over so I could beg someone in a village we were passing through to use their toilet. Said toilet ended up being a hole in the ground, in the lounge. Mortifying for both of us.
Recently in Malawi I couldn’t eat anything without pooing it out 20 minutes later, for TEN days.
I’ve been sick on the plane from South Africa, almost shit myself on the plane home from Costa Rica, and on the way back from Cuba.
I projectile vomited in the street in Gambia.
I was so ill on a train in Taiwan that when I went back to use the toilet again it had been cordoned off with police tape.
I regularly lose my voice when I go out too much, or at festivals.
Sickness is what happens when you get germs you can’t deal with, and when you’re backpacking for the first time there’ll be a lot of those about.
Always look up the vaccinations for the countries you’re planning on visiting so you know that whatever sickness you feel isn’t something more sinister.
Sharing your backpacking trip
It’s so easy to keep in touch with home now, almost too easy. Don’t be tempted to share your every waking moment on social media, keep some of it for yourself or you’ll have no stories to tell when you come home.
I know that’s rich coming from a travel blogger who literally shares her breakfast with whoever will listen, but try to stay off social media and go offline for a while when you’re backpacking the world.
Travelling is meant to be a different experience away from home. If you just spend your time scrolling Facebook in the same way and hanging out with Westerners in Western bars it’s going to feel pretty much the same. What did you work so hard to save up for the flight for?
My parents, family and friends really enjoy my Facebook updates and it’s kind of a check in to let people know I’m safe. But I try to have at least a few days on my travels away from social media.
One of my favourite travel experiences was when I went sailing in the Philippines. For 5 days we sailed between the islands of Palawan, El Nido and Coron and no one had WiFi, or even signal, everyone was fully attentive and we were all best mates by the end.
First time backpacking
If you’re off backpacking for the first time, don’t be scared. This is going to be a wonderful experience, whether it feels like it at the time or not.
I backpacked the world solo for three years so it can’t be that bad / scary / lonely. I’ve got loads more advice for backpackers on this blog so if you’re worried about being lonely backpacking, or how to eat when you’re travelling solo, or even what it’s actually like travelling solo, take a look at the linked posts, and just let me know if you have any questions.
Backpacking is like all the best things in life. There’s no time quite as exciting as your first time, so enjoy!