One of the first big questions everyone asks themselves when making a trip: to plan or not to plan?
Some older backpackers might say that the best way to travel is to simply put a backpack on your back and go out into the world without a destination.
This type of “plan” might seem to be much more relaxed, without the hassle or stress of having to keep to a schedule. However, in some ways minimal or no planning can actually be even more stressful, something I found out when I didn’t plan ahead and had to try to find accommodation in Jerusalem during the week of Easter and Passover.
What I’ve found is that, although the idea of having total flexibility with your trip and just going where you please is appealing to many, the less you plan, the more money you will spend. This is especially true when you are short on time. While it is up to you to decide how you want to go about planning, I’m with the group who believes that good preparation and organization are the best ways to get the most out of your trip for the lowest cost. If you don’t do that, you won’t be able to find the best airline tickets or check what means of transportation are available to compare prices. You also won’t be able to estimate to any degree of accuracy how much the entire trip will actually cost you and, if you don’t read up on the places you are going to visit, you might miss some tourist attraction or other activity that you would have enjoyed but didn’t know existed.
Plus, at least for me, planning is one of my favorite parts of every trip. I really enjoy reading about different places and imagining myself there just a few months from now…. Sometimes, I get so excited about trip planning in reading about the activities, tourist attractions, culture, history, and accommodation options, that I plan trips just for fun, even if I don’t plan on actually doing them in the newer future but I can already imagine how amazing the would be.
As some military generals’ say, “hard training, easy battle.” In a more peaceful context, we can bring this concept to the world of traveling. The longer you take to prepare and plan your trip, the less hassle and more fun you will have during your adventures!
And, I can assure you, trip planning is much more fun (and useful) than watching TV!!
How much money do I need to save for a backpacking trip??
I will not go into numbers because it depends on a multitude of factors specific to each traveler. Roughly, how much you will spend each day depends on where you are traveling to, what activities you will do, food, the kind of accommodation you choose, how long you will spend in each place (the more you change cities, the more you will spend on transportation), the plane tickets, and the travel insurance.
What you can do is “plan” a possible trip to a particular region, add up all the potential costs, and see if it fits your budget. If you follow all the menu items in the “The Art of Backpacking“, you will get closer to the real value. Start your travel project following the items below.
If you check out my three classifications for country cost below, I give a rough, personal estimate of how much I spend per month when traveling there. Keep in mind that this is a really rough estimate that I base of my personal travel style which may be significantly more (if you stay in nicer places, eat out more, etc.) or significantly less (if you Couchsurf, hitchhike, dumpster-dive, etc.) than the amount that you might spend yourself. So, please don’t be mad at me if you run out of money. I base these numbers off of staying in what is normally a middle to low price hostel or accommodation (without Couchsurfing) I can find, taking the cheapest transportation possible (without hitchhiking), cooking in the hostel as much as I can, and occasionally spending more to see attractions or do certain activities that I am really interested in.
To begin planning your trip, take a look at the following Qs and As:
How do I choose the region I will visit?
Obviously, you can backpack in South America for a fraction of the cost of traveling in Scandinavia. So, if you are building your trip around your budget, you can…
…. consider the following as quite cheap (personally, I spend roughly $1,000 USD/month while traveling in these places) but remember that sometimes you will spend a lot of money to get there:
- South America (excluding parts of Brazil, Argentina, and Chile)
- Central America (with the exception of the Caribbean islands)
- Eastern Europe (especially countries which are outside of the EU (though still gorgeous) like Serbia, Montenegro, and Ukraine)
- Most of Africa (although, I would only recommend this for the experienced traveler)
- Some Middle Eastern and Arabic countries that are not major oil producers (just watch out for Arab Spring countries)
- Central Asia (all of those “-stan” countries)
- Southeast Asia (the backpacker’s mecca after Europe and Australia)
…consider the following as quite expensive (personally, I spend roughly $1,800 USD while traveling in these places)
- United States
- Western Europe
- Oceania (mainly Australia with the mining “boom”)
- South Korea
- Middle Eastern countries not associated with oil
…consider the following as painfully expensive (personally, I spend roughly $2,500 USD while traveling in these places):
JapanIf you read my article about Japan, you know why I took it off from this list.
- Some exotic islands around the world
- Some countries in the Middle East (mainly major oil producers like UAE)
- ..and Bhutan… if you can get there
Just keep in mind that, usually, the more expensive a country is, the more tourist infrastructure you will find and the easier it’ll be to travel in… which brings me to my next point…
How comfortable you are with traveling
If this is your first backpacking trip, I wouldn’t recommend you try to tackle someplace like Bolivia or India where traveling can be quite difficult. Instead, I’d recommend that you “test the waters” in a place like Australia or Western Europe first. If you are on a budget but would also like to travel in a “comfortable” place, I’d recommend central Europe; countries like The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland are modern, lovely, and won’t leave you broke!
Where I would like to visit
That’s pretty obvious, if your dream is to know Machu Picchu, go to Peru. If you want to know the Eiffel Tower, go to Paris.
If you can get a cheap flight somewhere
Sometimes you find a ticket on sale during low season or some promotion for miles for a place that you weren’t even thinking of going to. Since I believe that there is no bad trip if the price is good, I will happily go anywhere! Sometimes, I think this is the best way to decide where to go on your trip.
I’ll talk more about plane tickets on my page about how to save on flights.
What type of trip you are looking for
There are several types of trips that can be made by a backpacker. In general, people who want more choose culture go to Europe, shopping, United States, adventure can be everywhere and South America, Africa, Oceania and Southeast Asia are big attractions. In the United States as well you can have a lot of adventure if you leave the traditional Florida / New York duet.
If you have a friend who wants to go to the same place as me or if I’m visiting someone there
It is always difficult to find good travel companions who want to do the same itinerary and have the same free time as you. Not to mention someone who likes the same activities, etc… Once I did a 1 month trip with a great friend, it went well but we had our disagreements and I think that if the trip was a little longer, things would start to get “uncomfortable”. Personally I’ve traveled a lot with friends and by myself. Usually, I always try to go with a friend but by no means I skip a trip if I do not find someone to go with me because I’m sure I will meet a lot of people during my trip and that eventually I will end up traveling together with the people I just meet. And for me, one of the major reasons for traveling is to meet other people and learn about their culture. Quite a lot of times I end up traveling with people I just meet and this become a unique experience but if it does not work out you can travel solo whenever you want.
If the amount of time you have to travel is worth to go for a certain region
Sounds confusing but I’ll explain. If you have 1 month to travel I do not believe going to Aruba is the best option, it is a small island and you end up wasting all that time there. It would be better to go to Europe for example. Same thing if you have only 5 days of vacation and you go from US to Australia. The actual traveling time will be too short if compared with time and money you will spend on the flight.
Rationalization of the countries that I visit
Well, my travel system is to fly to a certain region and from there use ground transportation as much as possible, going from town to town (which I will choose later) without skipping countries (assuming I have time to do this), especially because I would like to visit as many countries as possible since I believe that every country has something interesting to show.
For example: Instead of going straight from Spain to France, you should take a look at Andorra. Actually, a lot of people do not even know that this country exists but it is in the middle of the Pyrenees and is beautiful. Another example is going from Switzerland to Austria. Take a stop in Liechtenstein, a micro kingdom in the middle of the Alps which is widely used as a tax haven….it is a fairy tale country in the middle of Europe and yes, it exists and is absolutely worth visiting.
Tip about Visas:
Everyone knows how annoying the process of obtaining a visa can be. So try to find out ahead of time which countries you will need a visa for depending on your citizenship. Or, although you might not need a visa depending on where you from, find out how long you can stay in an area either visa-free or with your visa… like in the Schengen Zone in Europe.
To find out which countries require visas from you, no matter which passport you have, there is a very convenient site http://www.visahq.com that I always use. You just need to put in your citizenship and which country you are visiting. It will give you a result saying if you need a tourist visa or not. If you need the visa, in a lot of cases this website will help you on how to acquire this visa. Otherwise, just check the website from the countries’ local consulate of the country your are visiting.
Once I’ve decided where to go, how do I decide what cities and attractions to visit in each country?
Now we are assuming that you have already defined the region where you are going to travel and the duration of this trip. I use the sum of several features to define the itinerary within a country or a region with many countries.
- Blog ‘s (like mine );
- Number of hostels (you’ll see why this is important later on).
Well, in fact, my blog is not about what places to visit in certain countries. It also speaks very little about countries, cities or specific regions except for the Tricky Treks part of my blog which is more about getting from a certain place to another, when this route is a bit complicated or out of the beaten track. It is more of a general travel site that caters to any traveler and to anywhere in the world, however, more focused on backpackers. But there are Blogs that are specific by region, country or even cities with complete itineraries, made by people who often lived there and know in depth about the best tips. Just google “travel blog about _______”.
One of the easiest and most reliable methods to use to decide which places to visit in a country is through a travel guide. There are many out there to choose from based on the needs of your trip, ranging from individual countries (like Spain) to entire regions (like The Balkans) or entire continents (like South America).
You can sometimes download them on your computer but many prefer to have a physical book with them to read on trains, in line, etc. Unfortunately, lugging around a big guidebook can be quite heavy. You can either order the guidebooks online or purchase them in the bookstore. Just pay attention to the year of the guide. While the older guides tend to be a bit cheaper (or can even be found in a library), just remember that things like prices and timetables might not be accurate.
Here are some examples of the most popular guides:
– Rough Guides: http://www.roughguides.com/
– Let’s Go: http://www.letsgo.com/
– Frommers: http://www.frommers.com/
– Fodors: You can buy online directly at http://www.fodors.com/ with FREE shipping and handling.
This one is fairly straightforward. Your friend traveled through Bolivia and had a great time. Ask him or her what their itinerary was and adjust it to fit your time constraints and personal tastes. Sometimes, you might meet people along the road that can help you with this.
http://wikitravel.org/en/Main_Page Wikitravel is my favorite method to set where and what I will visit in a certain country, city or region. It gives you all the important information about the country that will help you decide if you really want to visit this place and what you should do and see . It also gives you other interesting information such as:
- Other destinations;
- How to get there (plane, bus, train, boat);
- Local transport to get around;
- About the local language;
- What you must visit (to create a perfect itinerary);
- What activities to do;
- Sleeping (may be outdated, check out my page about accommodation);
- If you want to study;
- If you want to work;
- Security concerns;
- Health concerns;
- Respect (or, in other words, how not to offend the locals).
At the same time I read Wikitravel I have a Google map for the country open (https://maps.google.com/) so I can see on the map where are the places I will visit and therefore be able to streamline my itinerary. I see where the city I’m getting into the country is and where the next stop is and so on, avoiding doing zigzag. So the idea is to try to make a journey in a rational way, as a square or circle, not to make zigzags and spend more on transportation. Here is an example of a trip I made long ago. And how she could have been taken from the least efficient way.
The presence of accessible transportation “from and to” is important too, because there’s no point in going to a city and then you can’t get out of there for your next destination at the day and time you planned because there was no transportation available.
Organized Tours and Itineraries
While perhaps you don’t want to go on an organized tour yourself, just doing a quick Google search of “tours + name of country” will give you some ideas of potential itineraries. You can even be more specific about time. If you only have a week in Poland, for example, you can Google “one week tours in Poland” or “one week Poland itinerary” to see the sort of places that these tours go on to find places that might be of interest for you to go to yourself.
Here are some of the best Organized Tour Companies:
For those that want to explore the world but don’t want to do it independently or prefer the comfort of an organized tour, Intrepid is perfect for you. They offer around 800 itineraries all over the world where you’ll travel in a small group with lots of adventure and minimal frills.
G Adventures is the biggest company for small group travel in the world. Like Intrepid, it also focuses on adventure travel for a relatively low cost. Take a look at their hundreds of itineraries to see if anything captures your interest.
Contiki is a company that organizes tours for groups of 18-35 years old. And let’s be honest here. If you’ve traveled with Contiki before or you have a friend that has, you already know their reputation. With Contiki, it’s not uncommon that your day of visiting tourist attractions in Europe or Australia will end in a night of partying and drinking. It’s not for no reason that some people call it Sextiki. Don’t take my word for it, just search online. This doesn’t mean that if you’re a couple that wants to explore the world and go with Contiki, you won’t have a good time. But if you are single and besides traveling also want to meet people from other countries and party a lot, Contiki will be the ideal travel company for you.
*There’s nothing wrong with group tours, just remember that you can almost definitely travel more cheaply if you do it yourself. Be sure to check out all of my links around the site to see how you can travel in the cheapest way possible. You can also read my page about what activities to do on your trip if you’re going independently.
Number of hostels by city
This is a feature that I use at the beginning of planning a trip to get an idea of what places in one country could be visited and then do a more complete research. There is a very interesting feature on Hostelworld which basically puts all the available hostels in a country within your map, so you know which towns have backpacker accommodation, thus facilitating the construction of your itinerary.
- Click in the link above. It will give a list of several countries by continent;
- Find the one you want, such as Ecuador in South America;
- It will show the map below.
In the example below I caught Ecuador http://www.hostelworld.com/Hostels/Equador.
Here you can see all of the cities that have hostels in Ecuador and by clicking on any city you will be able to see how many hostels that city has.
Even if I’ve never read anything about a country, I can usually tell where the most popular places to go are simply by looking at the number of hostels. If there are 8 hostels in Montañita in a country like Ecuador, that’s because it should be a relatively interesting place. On the other hand, if you find a city in Spain where there is only one hostel, it might be because there’s not much to see or do. After all, Spain is one of the countries that attracts the most tourists in the world so if you find a city with a single hostel it might be for people who are just plain lost. Although, sometimes, places like this are the best type of places… especially if you’re looking to get off the beaten track.
While this is by no means a fool proof method, it is a good way to find out where other travelers go and therefore not miss anything interesting that is most likely found in a city with a lot of hostels. Although, of course, just because others find something interesting does not mean that you will…. it comes down to personal preference in the end.
But how can I organize my itinerary??
A lot of people simply take notes on a piece of paper, calendar, or in notebook. Personally, I prefer to make a file on my computer. If you travel with your computer you’ll always have the file with you. Otherwise, I email it to myself and open it when I need to.
Although I look like some kind of a spreadsheet freak, I like to use Excel to organize everything in my life, including planning my trips. If you do not have Excel (which can be expensive), you can download and install OpenOffice for free here: http://www.openoffice.org/
I start by making a rough itinerary, figuring out the order of the places I will be going, and putting 2-3 days in each city (although, some people prefer to travel more slowly than this… it’s a personal preference) plus leave 10% to 15 % of the total days of my trip free. This way, I’ll have the freedom to stay in a place longer if I like it or my itinerary won’t be ruined if I miss a bus.
Here’s an example of a spreadsheet for a trip I did in Europe:
I like to use colors to highlight weekends, flights, meetings with friends, or any other notes.
While there are many ways of organizing this, here’s my process:
- I mark the day of the week, date, country, city, and extra notes in the columns going from left to right;
- I write down the city that I plan to sleep in. That is, if on 09/05/2012 I spend all day in Mostar, Bosnia but I plan to sleep in Split, Croatia, I put down Split. If I’ll be sleeping on a night train, I put down TRAIN;
- Although this is my “final” itinerary, like I mentioned before, I like to keep a few days off in the middle so I can alter my plans and stay longer in a place or potentially add in another city. Meaning, just because I say I will be in Warsaw on May 25th, I could perhaps arrive earlier or later depending on what happens. Basically, while the dates of this are flexible, the order of the locations usually is not (after all, I usually try to plan the order of the locations in the most practical way possible);
- If I have flights, I mark them in green so I don’t forgot about them. So, even if I completely change my travel plans, I know that on the June 16th I have to be in Helsinki, Finland to catch a flight. Therefore, I’ll make sure that no matter how I change my itinerary I will make sure I can still catch this flight;
- As mentioned above, I try to plan my itinerary in the most streamlined way possible. If you put these cities on the map you will see that they almost follow a line from South to North and then from East to West with only slight variations. In other words, I don’t keep going back and forth unnecessarily.
At the end there are variations that are beyond the standard of a reasonable itinerary because I needed to suit particular event. I left Iceland, crossed all Europe to go to Ukraine because there was the UEFA Euro Cup 2012 and I had to meet some friends there. Then I flew from Ukraine to Italy because I found a cheap flight to go that way and because my flight to Brazil left from Milan. In short, the presence of events with specific dates, visiting friends and low cost flight tickets to alternative airports are my main reasons for me to change an itinerary from a rational format to a more erratic one.
Once I’ve decided what cities to go to and have my itinerary done, how do I decide what to do in a city??
About planning the activities you will do in a given city, besides searching Blogs, Guides, Wikitravel and other information sources that I have already mentioned above, you can take a look at my page What activities to do during your trip where I give general tips that work for most cities in the world.
For other steps of planning a trip like How to prepare your backpack, Travel insurance, money, food, accommodation and everything else, just go to the site main menu, click on The Art of Backpacking and all information options for you to plan a great trip will appear.
- If you are going to be traveling for a long time (like several months or more), add in some extra free days. You’d be surprised how exhausting traveling can be and occasionally it’s nice to have a day to just recharge, relax, or take care of anything that you might need to take care of (like that laundry or that email to your mom that you’ve been putting off for a month);
- Be aware of the distance between the places that you will be traveling. Sometimes, the distance between two cities that you want to go to will be long enough that you will have to take up a whole day to get there. If you aren’t prepared for this or don’t factor these “transportation days” into your itinerary, you may end having to skip something else on your itinerary to squeeze the bus ride in;
- Don’t be afraid to travel at your own pace. While some people like to try to hit up as many countries and cities as they possibly can in a trip, others like to take it more slowly and really get to know a fewer number of places. Travel as it suites you.
Adventure with the organization is always the best deal!!
Well, this page is the first step of many in The Art of Backpacking that will help you plan your trip. I hope you enjoyed it, learned something new and that I inspired you to travel the world with a backpack on your back. Comment, criticize, help me improve the site so that others also have always the best information possible. Write me if you have any doubts or something is unclear that I will try to answer it as best as I can. Do not worry, you do not need to identify yourself or put your email. And that’s it for now……
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