Travel Planning

travel planning on a map

How to Plan a Backpacking Trip

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If you dont know where you are going, any road will lead you there – Unknown

Travel planning can help or hurt you, depending on how deep down the rabbit hole you go. The best way to break travel plans is to make them in the first place! This is true because you will most likely meet people along the way or see things that make you want to change your itinerary entirely.

Try not to make the mistake of setting a strict timeline; instead, focus on a loose plan to help you get the most out of your trip. Research only the important things like festivals, weather, and visa requirements so that you will have some idea of what to expect. Don’t over research yourself into preconceived ideals. Travel is very subjective. Just because a travel writer says a place “deserves a miss” or “doesn’t merit an overnight” isn’t always true!

Extreme flexibility to adapt to the unknowns of the road beats extreme preparation any day.

Where to Start Planning?

The only two things that you have to know for sure to begin your trip: what country you want to start with and when you want to go. Everything else done for travel planning is simply a bonus.

When choosing your destinations, keep these things in mind:

  • Seasonal Weather:  Many tropical areas can have months of continuous monsoon rain. Forget getting a tan or enjoying trekking if you visit during the wet seasons, although accommodation prices will be rock bottom and there may be less tourists. Discounts come more easily during the monsoon season, but so do mosquitoes, mudslides, and transportation delays. The “shoulder” seasons are ideal: go during the month before and after busy season for the best of both worlds.
  • Budget Considerations: You will get way more bang for your buck in regions such as Southeast Asia, Africa, India, and South America. You’ll obviously spend a lot more in Australia, New Zealand, North America, and Europe.
  • Time of Year: Other than weather considerations, you may want to plan your travel around big festivals. Imagine arriving in a country, just missing a historic festival by days, but still paying the high prices imposed because of the visitors that were drawn to the festival. You’ll miss the fun and be stuck with the crowded mess.
  • Political Climate: The mainstream media seems to play up the dangers of traveling abroad, particularly for Americans. In reality, there are very few places that are too dangerous to travel provided that you use some common sense. Most news channels would rather keep you at home, safely on the couch, the watch the crap they broadcast!
  • Language: Don’t let the local language — no matter how difficult — be a deterrent to visiting a country. English, of varying quality, is spoken almost everywhere that there are tourists. Learning the local language is a nice way to enhance your trip, however, doing so is not a requirement to visit. You can fumble and point your way through most situations, anyway. Do not worry about studying too much before the trip; you will learn a language exponentially faster once you arrive. Just jump in!

Tip: Once you’ve decided where to travel, consider downloading the Google map for the area (See the directions in Google Maps). You can adjust the size. It’s a large download, but you’ll be able to access it offline or with slow connections while abroad. Alternatively, try using maps.me for navigating new towns and places.

Planning a Backpacking Trip with Guide Books

Once you have an idea of where you want to start your journey, go buy only the guidebook for your first destination. Alternatively, sit in the bookstore and look up what you need to know. Books are too heavy and expensive to carry more than one destination’s worth. Besides, you can trade with other travelers that have just come from your next country or buy used ones locally. Or just forget carrying around paper and bring your guide with you in the form of a smartphone — but have offline information available in case you’re in the boonies.

With the amount of free information on sites such as WikiTravel.com, buying a guide book is optional anyway.

  • Lonely Planet is the most popular guidebook series for budget travelers — love it or hate it. They’re great, but not when used as a bible.
  • If you buy one of the gigantic consolidated versions like Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, consider tearing out countries that you do not plan to visit. Removing unimportant pages will conserve precious space and weight in your backpack. Paper is heavy!
  • Do not get guidebook-itus when planning travel — don’t make the guide book your new bible. Believe it or not, but there are places to eat, stay, and visit that are not covered in the guide books. In fact, you can almost count on the top-pick places listed for accommodation to be full during the busy seasons.
  • Watch out for the “Lonely Planet effect.” The LP Effect is a theory that suggests too many backpackers are using the same guidebook, so all the places listed with excellent reviews near the top of each section become saturated with business. With so much good business coming in no matter what, the actual quality of service declines at these places because they no longer have to try so hard. The staff becomes overworked, often without a pay increase and no tips. Sometimes this is true, so trust your own judgment about a place; listen to other travelers that have stayed there. The positive side of the LP Effect is that if you are looking to meet other backpackers, you’ll know where to go to find the party. 🙂

Travel Planning Advice From Travelers

Go brave the wrath of the angry people in Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forums, or better yet, connect with the friendly folks at Portland-based Boots-n-all travel. The forums on the site are awesome, and they have full-time travel planners to help if you need.

Remember that everyone travels in their own style. What you consider a bonus adventure might be someone else’s hellish nightmare if they are expecting more luxury and less insects on the road than you. Take things that people tell you with a grain of salt, as people tend to filter memories through one or two specific events that happened when they were there. If someone raves on about how great a destination is, ask a few questions: it may be that the place is a dung heap but they fell in love with a local there.

To Travel Solo or Together?

You will need to decide from the start if you are going to travel alone or with a friend from home. Needless to say, this decision will radically change the overall experience of your trip. Many first-time backpackers — especially female travelers — feel more comfortable if they have a familiar face from home tagging along. The truth is that you never have to be alone; other solo travelers are always available and frequently team up together.

If you do decide to travel with someone from home, build some solo time into your plans. Separate for a while to avoid getting on each other’s nerves, then converge somewhere for a grand reunion.

Here are a handful of things to think about when travel planning:

  • Local Customs: Learn how not to offend someone accidentally. Etiquette and customs differ between Buddhists, Muslims, etc. If you’re starting in Thailand, go read about Thailand etiquette.
  • Currency Exchange Rate:. Know the current exchange rate before you hit the ground. No need for a service or app: here are some ways to check exchange rates on Google:
    • Search by name “1 US dollar in Thai baht”
    • Search by code “1 EUR in THB”
    • If you don’t have a clue “1 USD in Indonesian currency”
  • Book Your First Night: Consider booking your very first night at your first destination. You will probably be exhausted after the international flight, and having a room provides good peace of mind that you don’t have more “work” to do after landing. Plus, you may need a real address to provide airport taxi drivers. Only book one or two nights, then shop around in the morning for something better/cheaper. I use hotels.com because they give one free night for every 10 stays — the freebies add up on a long trip!

Be a Wanderer!

If you have less time abroad, then plan more; otherwise, try to resist the urge to over plan. When travel planning, strive to just stay flexible, keep your eyes and mind open for new experiences and opportunities, and let the road take you where it takes you. Try to “just say yes” without too many what-ifs when presented with opportunities to do something new.

Go to Step 3: Visas for Travel

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