Monday, May 12, 2008

Backpacking 101

I was thinking of writing this sometime back but never really got down to it... But after a friend asked me when I was going for my next trip and that he'd like to tag along, I thought I might as well. So here we go... A Dummies Guide to Backpacking... by a dummy!!

First of all, backpacking is not really that difficult as some may think. To me, I suppose backpacking is defined as cheap travel. And it basically means... well... backpacking... You chuck everything into your backpack including the kitchen sink... And God bless the porter who helps you carry that up Everest/ Mount Kinabalu.

Anyway, for the simple fact that you will be carrying that ton of stuff you are carrying, well... best tip I can offer is travel light. Trust me, I have tried walking around downtown Madrid with my backpack strapped on... It's not fun...

Anyway, backpacking is fun... it's an adventure... Freedom at it's finest - you go where you want to go, you do what you want to do, you sit where you wanna... ok... forget the last 2... You have to consider local customs before you do something in a foreign country... But anyway.. let's get down to it...

Step 1: Planning Your Budget

Know where you want to go. Know how much you have to spend. This is critical otherwise you'll find yourself sleeping in toilets (I'm not kidding... I have friends who did this...) or on park benches (which is not advisable even if you are a guy)... Remember American Werewolf in Paris?? Never know what's lurking out there... :-) Basically, you start with a destination. This is pretty simple cos' South East Asia (SEA) is quite cheap to travel on a shoestring. Once you have decided, go look around for cheap airfares. With Air Asia, land travel is not necessarily cheaper anymore. For example, zero air fare is a common feature nowadays and when I went to Vietnam in 2007, I paid only RM 238 on fuel surcharges and airport taxes... The fare was zero.

Next, the best guide you can get is Lonely Planet & the Internet. For example, try keying-in 'tourist destinations in Hanoi' in Google or Yahoo. You will get hundreds & thousands of results... Lonely Planet is very good... Why? Listings of accommodations according to your budget. This will give you a good idea of how much you need to spend on accommodation. Try to get an idea (from friends who have been there or even doing a search on Google) on how much meals cost at your destination. But a good guideline is about USD5 for each meal... This is for SEA.

Basically, after Step 1, you want to know how much you would have spent on necessities. Based on my scenario, this would have come to about slightly over RM600 for a 10-day trip inclusive of return flight & meals. Accommodation can vary. Again, factor that in based on research that you have made before hand and work within that budget. And whatever remains of that from your initial budget of let's say (RM1,000) is for your domestic travelling, land travel and so on. Depending on your research, you can get a better estimate because a lot of details are in Lonely Planet so make use of it.

Tips: Ask friends, Lonely Planet, Internet

Step 2: Planning Your Itinerary

Be practical. If you want to travel throughout Vietnam in 10-days... What you want is Superman to ferry you around... so don't try to achieve too much and most importantly, work within your budget. Think about your objective... Do you have specific places you would like to visit? Do you want to see a little bit of everything or do you want to see everything in a specific destination. For example, if you want to travel from Hanoi to Central Vietnam, unless you want to dish out several hundreds more for domestic air travel you'll be wasting time cos' a bus ride from Hanoi to let's say Danang/ Hue will take you easily 16 hours. You will have to factor the travelling time into your schedule so let's say you take 10 days off, you will lose about 2 days just for travelling...

Anyway, know the country you are visiting. Look at the map. Again, do some research on the distances and the kind of transportations available to you. In most cases, Lonely Planet will let you know how to get from one place to another and the cost and duration as well.

When you already have a list of places you want to go, group them according to localities. From there, you can cover all the places in one locale before moving to another locale. This is plain common sense. I sometimes consider where I will be leaving for home from and I plan in such a way that I cover that area last because I can relax and rest and just laze around.

A good way to travel is to travel at night but this depends on where you are going to. in some parts of the globe night travel can be dangerous due to bandits and so on. But on the good side of things, you can't do much so why not travel at night. In other words, get a night train or bus and just sleep on the bus. You depart at night and by the time you arrive, it's early in the morning. You have saved one day of travelling... and most importantly, lodging for the night. I have done this in Europe, Thailand & also Vietnam and it's something that I swear by.

Tips: Travel at night (consider the safety), group your travel sites by locales.

Step 3: Travel Documents

Travel documents. Most important document will be your passport. Make copies of all your documents and credit cards and leave them with a friend/ relative so in case you lose them (touch wood), you can get a copy easily.

Find out travel requirements. Some countries require visas or travel permits. This is important if you want to step out of the airport in the case of long stopovers. For example, if you fly from Kuala Lumpur to let's say Sweden and you have a 5 hour transit in Tokyo. Surely you don't want to stay in the transit hall cos' that's what you will be doing if you don't have proper travel documents. In other words, even if you are not travelling in Tokyo but you would like to look around/ even step out of customs, you need a visa (if it is required).

Step 4: Packing

Two very simple principles of backpacking... What you bring, you have to carry and what you need, you will have to carry. To put it simply, carry only what you need. Most of us would like to have a change of clothes everyday or even twice a day but this would be impossible unless you wanna backpack with 2 - 3 luggage cases. So don't pack your entire wardrobe in to your back, otherwise you will definitely be paying a visit to the chiropractor once you return... if your spine doesn't give way in between. Travel light!! Most of us will buy t-shirts as souvenirs... so bring less... you can buy when you are at your destination... You have to consider not just what you bring but also what you will buy. Unless you are so disciplined and will not buy anything... Nope... I didn't think so...

Check this site out ----> The Backpacking Site

Ultimately, things you need will differ depending on where you go. A camping trip will be different from a sightseeing trip. A trip to Antarctica will be different from a trip to South Africa so know where you are going and find out what you need...

Tips: Travel light, carry what you need, make copies of important documents and leave them with loved ones

Step 5: Money

Check out the current conversion rates. is a good site to consider. If you need extra cash at your destination, you may want to consider withdrawing from ATMs that have the CIRRUS logo. It's possibly cheaper than money changers. As well, for safety considerations, you might want to consider traveller's cheques if you travel abroad and bring large sums of money.

I have also found it useful to wear concealed pouches especially in certain parts of Europe. In countries like Italy, Spain, Belgium, France and so on, pickpockets are rampant. Never, never, never take this lightly. In Spain alone, I came across 2 attempts. Once in Barcelona and once in Madrid. So be very careful in enclosed and packed places. Again, be aware of your surroundings and don't go to dark alleys on your own. Keep your cash in concealed pouches so they can't be taken easily.

Tips: Concealed Pouches, Travellers Cheques, CIRRUS.

There's definitely a lot more to backpacking than what I've got here but this would give you a very good start. Give The Backpacking Site a visit. And most importantly, enjoy yourself.

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