Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to travel to some amazing places in the world. During those travels, as all of life is a learning experience, I have changed my approach to independent travel as a consequence of things that have gone wrong, gone right or simply required changing. Travelling requires a certain degree of adaptability and good humour as things will almost always stray from the path you had planned. In the end, use as much of what is outlined below as works for you and keep an open mind. Try to engage with local people and be prepared to have your pre-conceptions challenged and remember, you are an ambassador for your country.
Do Your Research
Some independent travellers I know advocated to me reading a guidebook on the flight over or waiting until I arrived to work out what I wanted to see. Quite apart from being really rather anal and impatient such that I could not possibly wait that long (breathless with anticipation as I would be) before beginning my research on a place I was about to go to, it seems ridiculous to me to waste your time at a place you probably have limited time at. Far better to waste your employer’s time dreaming about beaches, temples and white-water rafting beforehand.
As I have pointed out in relation to hillwalking and hiking, travelling light makes the whole process easier, more comfortable and allows you to go further and see more. Similar principles apply to backpacking and independent travel. Try to adhere to the dual-use policy of lightweight backpacking. Bear in mind that a lot of the essentials you require for daily life are not items you will need when travelling. For God’s sake, do not take a hair-dryer, please. You certainly do not need more than 2 pairs of shoes and you’ll be wearing one of those. Think carefully about what will be available when you get to your destination and what, if you are honest with yourself, you will actually need.
You can wash your clothes almost anywhere these days - most hotels and hostels in India, Nepal and South East Asia will wash your clothes overnight for a small fee. The quality of that washing will vary markedly and some will return to you dirtier than when you sent them. The washers will mark them to identify them (on the inside somewhere) so do not take your best designer tops (although, what you are doing travelling in those, I couldn’t say). Try taking quick-drying material rather than cotton which you’ll end up waiting months to dry properly.
Think about the weather and conditions of your destination and where you will be sleeping. Do not take a sleeping bag unless you have been specifically told that you’ll need one. It’ll be 1kg of bulk you’ll never unpack and, if it’s a down bag, it’ll get wet and be virtually useless unless properly dried. Most hostels will have bedding but will require a sheet sleeping bag (or a sleeping bag liner). Get a silk one - they’re lighter, more pleasant against the skin and breathe better than cotton. They keep you warmer in the cold and cooler in the warm. Drybags are a useful way to separate out your kit and keep it organised and they are relatively lightweight - Sea to Summit, Alpkit and Exped do a great range which are totally waterproof. Rucksacks are not waterproof - they have seams and zippers which will leak. If you have items that simply must stay dry then invest in these or a rucksack cover. Integral Designs do a very lightweight and effective cover, one of which comes in a very natty shade of luminous yellow.
Travel Insurance Travel Insurance
You must, must have travel insurance. It is non-negotiable and you should not ignore it. It’s so cheap these days for backpackers that it’s a no-brainer. Shop around and make sure it covers what you are going to be doing. Not all policies cover everything. Be more inclusive - you will end up trying things, perhaps in the heat of the moment, that you might not have thought you would. White-water rafting or kayaking, jet-boating, bungee-jumping, skiing, canyoning, horse-trekking - they’re all normally included but you must check.
We have, apart from one occasion, always got our visas at the border. Check to see if you can do this but one of my most amusing moments was watching the Cambodian officials at Phnom-Penh airport process and issue visas. I’ll say no more, lest I create some sort of international incident, but we’d have missed that rather beautiful moment (where, instead of paying the $20 required for the visas, we nearly entered Cambodia $40 better off) if our passports had already been so adorned. It also is often cheaper and does not involve queueing in your lunch hour at an embassy in your home country. The line at the Indian Embassy in London is something I pass most days and I have not once seen it contain less than a hundred people - despite Starbucks coffees, they all look miserable.
Bank Accounts and Finances
There are bank accounts which are specifically tailored to travel. You can draw money out of ATM’s all over the world but the cost of doing so varies from account to account. Some have commission, some have charges, some will offer curious and perplexing exchange rates that bear no resemblance to the actual exchange rate. Find one that suits your needs - at the time of writing there are some many products on offer that listing them is beyond the scope of this article (and I really do have better things to do than look at bank account packages for you). Find out what currency is most valuable in the country you are going to - in Cambodia, dollars were more useful than riel. That was the position, before the financial crash in 2009, in most south east Asian countries. In fact, every time we tried purchase anything from a loaf of bread to bottle of water (regardless of size) it was “one dollar”. Their concept of giving change is somewhat unconventional too...
This is one of the most important and fundamental matters that will impact on your travels. Choosing your accommodation will be a fun process in itself but remember these keys points:
- Never be afraid to say “no”. If you arrive at a hotel or hostel and you are unhappy with what faces you, if you are confident that you can head off and find other accommodation, then do so. In most regions, the place you are staying will not be the only one available. You need to be sleeping somewhere safe and secure. That said, you will be in a new place with new rules and you need to take account of local culture when assessing what faces you. Some places will be dirtier than you’re used to - that’s a poor reason for discarding a hotel or hostel as you may find yourself without any other options if that’s your main criterion, especially backpacking in poorer countries. Once, having phoned ahead, we found ourselves in Bangkok faced with a proprietor saying our room was not available and a room double the price was the only one available. It was clear that was not true so we left and, after about 30 minutes of walking the streets and checking other places, we found an acceptable hotel. I would add, it looked rather like a prison cell, but we slept alright in it once the guards had locked us in...
- Be aware that taxi drivers will not necessarily take you where you want to go or charge you what you think. Get a prince up front. In Hanoi, at the time of writing, some unscrupulous taxi drivers would take you to a completely different hotel or, somewhat more insidiously, to a hotel with the same name but with different rates and where they would get a commission. A room would then not be available unless you booked with them for various trips and excursions. Tales from some travellers painted the staff getting nasty if arrivals refused but you must treat these accounts with a modicum of circumspection and ask whether the way in which the westerners concerned reacted had some impact. That said, be alert.
- Book in advance if you can, especially on arrival into a new place. Spending the first night, after some time travelling, looking for accommodation is onerous. It is much better to book a place, for one night only, and then see what you can find in the local area that might be better once you know the lie of the land. Check for local events, however, as you may find that all hotels are booked due to national holidays or festivals. We rocked up to Phnom Penh in the middle of the Chinese New Year and, given there is a very large Chinese population in Phnom Penh, the roads were rammed and many hotels taken.
- Bear in mind you will be unlikely to be staying in your hotel or hostel for very much time - if you are, you’re completely missing the point of being there at all, I would respectfully suggest. You should be in Sharm el Sheikh. Some backpacker hostels offer excursions of all types and the guests of those hostels rarely stray outside the environs of the groups they meet within the hostel when they first arrive. It’s rather like a stag or hen party, progressing through the choice destinations like a tornado and without ever really seeing the real place they are in. There is no engagement with the locals (how can there be in an enormous group) and the bars and eateries visited are usually dominated by other such western groups. I’m all for getting acquainted with a new place through the auspices of a guided tour, but getting out on your own afterwards is far more rewarding. Thus, do not worry too much about your room - it’s a bed and little else.
- The advantage of most good backpacker hostels is that the staff work in the place you’re visiting and they will understand the public transport system, know up to date local issues and often be able to organise tickets to local monuments and so on. They are a resource to be used. They will have maps of the area and invaluable local knowledge. Good backpacker hostels will have facilities of use too - internet (if it works - I am astonished by how often internet access in hostels is advertised and how equally rarely it works), the washing of clothes and breakfast, for example.
- Sometimes, a bit of luxury is welcome and we often stay in cheap and, usually cheerful places 90% of the time and then, after a period, have a night in a nicer hotel. It allows us the chance to get our clothes washed properly, have a proper shower and a really good night’s sleep. Sometimes, you just need it! Conversely, sleep in airports before flights. It’s free, the facilities are normally very good (and clean) and you can get up later because you don’t need to travel to the airport in time to catch your flight. They are normally open 24hrs and I have, on the four occasions I have done so, never found anyone causing me a problem. There are quiet rooms and showers and you’ll be the first in the queue for breakfast!
Local Food, Drink and Culture
Try the local food. Drink in local bars. Avoid places dominated by westerners. Bear in mind however, we all have bacteria in our stomachs that have evolved in response to the food we eat and so, in another region, that bacteria simply might not immediately be able to cope with different food and you may experience the sadly notorious “Dehli Belly”. It gets better after a few days, never fear, but you'll be intimately acquainted with the waste disposal system of your chosen destination - a valuable, and oft underestimated insight... Respect local customs. If the recent publicity in relation to Dubai has passed you by, it is perhaps the best lesson on this point so I suggest you look it up. There is, however, a wider point. People do things differently all over the world and this is one of the reasons we travel - to experience it firsthand - it may be strange to you but do not, ever, sneer at it. If you do, find something else to spend your time doing rather than ruining the way people from other cultures deal with independent travellers for the rest of us. Western approaches to life have not proved utterly successful so I do not think we are in a position to criticise the rest of the world, frankly. Take public transport as much as possible. Until you’ve had a chicken sitting on your lap and a local farmer grinning toothily at you whilst jabbering away at you in a language you cannot being to fathom, you’re letting the best in life pass you by.
I must of course be careful what I say as guidebooks are a huge commercial business. I cannot, for obvious reasons, name any particular company nor is it fair to single out any one guidebook provider. What I do say is this - guidebooks are, in my own experience, very good but often out of date or simply wrong. On any view, they are opinion and should be approached with that in mind.
You will be assisted by maps, phone numbers (if they turn out to be right and you can work out the algebra of the author’s position on dialing codes), details of monuments, historical timelines and chronologies of the area, local information and so on but sometimes they just get it wrong. On one trip to South East Asia, we ended up throwing away our guidebook after it was wrong for the 10th time in as many days. Hotels and hostels are not always as, or where, they are described. Sometimes, the authors are genuine and have written accurately about a particular place but, by then, it is rammed full of other guidebook-wielding travellers. Sometimes, the authors have not even been to the places they are describing beyond a cursory examination from the reception area and I am saddened to read articles on the internet by former guidebook writers and members of staff that suggest this is, in fact, the case. I could not say either way but you will come to your own conclusions when you read the entries concerned and give a cursory thought to how much time it would take to stay at all the places listed in a guidebook.
Guidebooks are a useful starting point but they are often weighty tomes and you may find that they do not help as much as their weight on your back deserves. Learn about the places you are visiting but you can do that through a local guide when you are there. Lining the pockets of some elderly local who will then regale you with the prejudiced opinions of someone who cannot possibly have direct knowledge of what they are telling you about is one of life’s truly affirming moments. Visit monuments at strange hours - particularly in the early hours of the morning. You will see the monument at a time when tourists are not climbing all over it and also, when taking photographs of it, at a time when the light creates a photo you simply cannot achieve later in the day. There may even be concessions for entry. Treat them with respect - usually they are ancient and wondrous. They should remain that way. Often, millions of pounds have gone into restoring them.
The following list is a culmination of various flights home where I noted down, for future reference, mistakes I did not want to make again! Things I wish I had taken, things I took but did not use and things I did not know even existed. The best rucksack you can afford - see above.
- Mosquito net - lightweight, doesn’t take up much room and, in hot climates, they are essential to a good night’s sleep. In South East Asia, we used to watch the little blighters swarming around the net, safe in the knowledge that we were (relatively) safe. Note that the set-up is important as, if it drapes onto you, they can land on the net and bite through the netting (industriously vicious).
- Make sure your trousers have zipped pockets. In many trekking trousers, the pockets have clips to which wallets on lengths of cord can be attached - this gives you the ability to use it but, if your pocket is picked, it will make the process of removing your wallet harder. Have a chain with a padlock for your rucksack - if you’re sleeping on a train, for example, it will give you piece of mind. A determined thief will have your possessions away - what you are trying to do is to make it harder, take longer and therefore (hopefully) ensure he seeks an easier target. This advice on personal security should not paint a grim picture of independent travel but be realistic.
- Take a look at lightweight and technical hiking gear as a lot of it breathes better, wicks moisture away from your skin and packs down very small. You may find that physically travelling in these clothes (even if you do not use them all the time) will make your journey more comfortable. I would always have a wicking base layer with me (merino wool does not smell even after days so that’s worth looking at, but synthetic base layers dry quicker).
- Anti-bacterial gel - pea-sized drop, no water needed, kills 99.9% of germs and then evaporates. Enough said.
- Compact, lightweight, digital camera with a huge memory card. These days, a 16GB SD-HC card can be had for £20 or less online. Do not find yourself in the situation we found ourselves in, in Wellington (New Zealand), desperately trying to find a camera shop to download our photos onto DVD to free space on our camera. They will all be shut, the machine broken or staff at lunch and, even then, the process will take just long enough for you to miss your ferry (we didn’t, but it was close). Do not buy the most expensive camera you can afford - if you lose it, you’ll be heartbroken. If you are going to be looking at photos on a computer, a 7.1 megapixel really is, in my view, the most you’ll need unless you are going to get into some serious manipulation of the images when you get home.
- Notebook and pencil/pen. Jot down thoughts, addresses, email addresses, phone numbers, hotel/hostel booking references, internal flight details, train times - you get the picture. We actually cut out brochure pictures and glue them into a notebook and annotate them as it’s a great memory for us and our kids later that photographs you have taken simply cannot match.
- Pack of cards - you’ll use it, trust me. Play with locals, when your bus breaks down in Nepal, and you’ll get closer to the local culture around you than you could ever hope to be. We drank litres of chai tea over the hours we waited, had an amazing time, and when they refused to take any payment from us, it was immensely moving.
- Bin Liner - don’t spend money on a rucksack cover for air travel. Put it in a bin liner, tie it up and throw it away when you get to your destination. It reduces your pack weight and you will not care if it gets damaged. You can always pick up one or two more on your trip.
- iPod Touch or iPhone. I find music invaluable and you may too. Also, there is a huge amount of functionality available on these pieces of amazing equipment which I have detailed elsewhere - I would have one or the other on any trip I took but there is a cost element to that.
- Insect repellent - get the best you can, probably from the local area as they will have the best stuff for the bugs you’ll be encountering.
I am not suggesting that you should be tied to your plans, quite the reverse, but working out the shape of a city, how the public transport system works, what area is best to have a hotel or hostel so that you can see everything you want to will reduce your stress levels and give you the best chance to see and do what you want. Standing in front of a map of the metro in your chosen city, scratching your head trying to understand it (especially in a foreign language) is not a constructive use of your time nor is it much fun (particularly when some duplicitous Parisian tea-leaf dupes you into paying triple the price for a ticket and pocketing the profits). That said, simply getting on the metro and going wherever it takes you has the potential to place you in a district no one else would have visited and which might contain hidden gems but, if you’ve worked out how the system works in advance, you can at least get back from there when it inevitably deposits you in the world’s most gloriously boring suburb or South-Central LA.
Get yourself as lightweight and well-fitted a pack as possible. This is not a place to cut your costs and grab your aging uncle’s 20 year old, 3kg, Berghaus made of bulletproof cordura. The hip-belt (not waist belt - it rests on your hip) is one of the most important parts of a rucksack, especially when you get into the 60-70 litre range. The weight of the rucksack should be almost completely on the hip-belt, not your shoulders. The shoulder straps are largely for stability to stop the load rotating backwards, not for load-bearing. Thus, make sure that your rucksack hip-belt is comfortable. In my experience, the most comfortable pack I have ever come across is the Osprey Aether. Clinging to your back like a startled monkey (I’ve shamelessly plagiarised someone there, but cannot remember who - sorry), after 5 days of carrying it with a 10-11kg load for most of each day, I almost felt like I did not have it on my back. It became a part of me and was so comfortable I could hardly notice it. The hip-belt is heat-moulded to your hips which takes about 30 minutes so allow that time and purchase it from a place where you can do this - it really does make a huge difference. Cotswold Outdoors are particularly good. It costs about £110 and weighs less than 1.8kg which is extremely light for a pack of that type. Nowadays, Golite and Lightwave make very good lightweight rucksacks around 60 litres.
Take nothing that you could not stand to lose. Buy a cheap watch on eBay and use that. I’ve had one that’s been with me for three years, cost £10 and broke only recently.
Take traveller’s cheques - for two reasons. They are incredibly secure and replacements can be obtained easily. Also, one of the more entertaining experiences available to you is the process of haggling with money exchange bureaus for the best rate you can. They start high and will do everything they can to secure the best deal including offering you the hand of their first born in marriage, regardless of gender.
Secondly, hygiene standards in other regions may not be the same as those you are used to - you can obviate this by washing your hands (see anti-bacterial gel below) and being careful where you get your food from. Street food is often cooked in front of you and generally very safe, conversely and slightly perversely, repeatedly re-heated rice in restaurants can be an absolute nightmare. Observe whether food has been in the sun all day or under cover, for example. That said, sometimes a pizza or bowl of pasta, or a burger, is a welcome break and there’s nothing wrong with breaking up the monotony of Nepalese lentil Dahl or south east Asian curries with a bit of western food.
One of the most useful places to locate reviews of accommodation is through internet forums where users can review places themselves free of commercial constraints. Bear in mind that the internet is full of all sorts of people and you won’t know who is giving you the opinion you’re getting. Delving deep into the unknown is often part of the fun. As far as places to eat and drink, and to visit, are concerned - decide that for yourself when you get there! Take a look at a few rather than relying on guidebooks.