Each New Year brings with it a welcome refresh, and the excitement of new experiences, relationships, and destinations. Will you be traveling to new vistas this year? We know there’s lots to think about when planning a long trip abroad – passports, visas, finances, gear, health, and just plain traveling all the time – especially when backpacking on a budget. The lightness of your pack is freeing, adding more weight to each item brought along, while you collect stories and insights throughout the journey to carry back with you.
This is the first of two articles sharing some of the tips, tricks and hacks we learned along the way through research, mistakes, and experience during our travels in South East Asia. Here we’ll cover planning your trip, transportation, accommodations, and health and wellness.
BEFORE YOUR TRIP
Passports & Visas: Make sure your passport is up to date well in advance of your trip. Express passport renewal services exist but they’re more costly. Find more information on getting or updating a U.S. passport here.
Some countries require Visas for any length of stay, while others may allow you to visit for anywhere from 1 – 3 months before requiring a Visa. You can determine what countries require Visas by visiting their embassy websites. We used the Department of State website which lists a ton of relevant information by country, including Visa requirements, vaccinations, travel advisories and other tips.
Onward Ticketing: If like us, you’re vision of long-term travel is one of freedom and openness without having every destination pre-planned, you should know that you will often be expected to have an onward ticket when entering any foreign country. We learned this in the wee hours of the morning at Boston International Airport on our way to Indonesia. Eager to get to Bali and expecting to decide where we’d travel next from there, we discovered that we would not be able to board our plane without proof of our onward destination. This applies to anyone flying internationally with a one-way ticket. For the airlines, your onward ticket is proof that you won’t be staying in a country beyond the time allowed, which is often 30 days. We booked a flight from Bali to Phuket, Thailand, on the spot for just under a month after we would arrive in Indonesia. Crisis averted. Thus armed with the knowledge that we would always be at risk without an onward ticket, but still not wanting to pre-plan our entire trip, we discovered an onward ticketing website that offers a solution to this problem. The site allows users to rent onward tickets for $10 with their names on them to use as proof for the airlines. We used it once or twice, and always with success.
Choosing Your Gear: This was one of the most agonizing decisions we made leading up to our trip, but the amount of research put in more than paid off. We both chose Osprey backpacks: the Farpoint 40 for Nikki and the Porter 46 for Chadley. Those numbers correspond to the volume of each bag, measured in liters. We brought packing cubes to condense our belongings and organize our packs, and day pack Osprey bags for everyday living (these bags are super light and fold up into a neat little ball for easy packing when not in use). Nikki also brought a cross body purse, Chadley brought a Martin Backpacker guitar, and both of us took along sealable waterproof bags, just in case. They came in handy.
Pack Light: Less is more, especially in a hot region! Not only will schlepping too much stuff cost you at the airport (see below), but you’ll want to have room to take some special trinkets home with you, including new threads. We saw lots of folks dragging rolling suitcases in the most unlikely places, and even met a backpacking couple with a huge rolling suitcase they called their souvenir bag. You really only need to pack enough clothes for a week or so. (Soap isn’t that hard to find) Ultimately, it’s good to remember whatever you bring with you is what you have to carry, and lift into the overhead bin.
Your Baggage Weight Matters: We tried to take our bags with us as ‘carry-on’ every time, and usually we were successful. Once however, we had to pay nearly $100 (more than the plane ticket) to have 2 backpacks checked at the last second, because they weighed too much. While we were used to baggage size requirements in the US, in Asia there are also strict weight limits. As your travels go on your bags tend to get heavier. Go to your airline’s website to find out their weight requirements and check your bag online in advance if needed, it’s much cheaper. However if you are able to travel with only carry-on sized bags, you can reduce costs, and more importantly the risk of being separated from your bags.
International Driver’s License: It’s good to look into this if you plan to drive a car or even a motorbike abroad. Getting caught without a valid license by local police could cost you precious time and money you’d rather spend elsewhere. We drove motorbikes without the license and didn’t have any problems, but we were advised by locals to avoid police ‘traps’ on a few occasions.
Expect Chaos at Airport Taxi Stands: The moment you leave an international airport pretty much anywhere, you will likely be bombarded by taxi drivers wanting to give you a lift. This can be overwhelming if you’re not expecting it. If you are expecting it, it’s much easier to hold your ground, choose the right transport for you, and get the price you can afford. Be confident and take your time. Don’t let anyone rush you into a decision. Extra tip: Look up the standard cab rates in the city you’re traveling to before you get there. If you forget to do that, this information is often in the back of your in flight magazine.
Search Multiple Booking Sites for Accommodations: There are often different deals at different times for many hotels and hostels across platforms. We used Agoda, Orbitz, HostelWorld, and AirBNB primarily. And check the hotel website you’re interested in, too. Technology changes, but the concept of perusing multiple websites for the best deals will remain.
Where to Stay: We typically stayed in hotels, hostels, and occasionally AirBNB’s that cost between $15 and $25 a night, with a preference for $15 - $20/night. In South East Asia this was most often achievable. We looked for the following in a place to stay: breakfast included, private room with ensuite bathroom, walking distance to attractions yet outside of the hustle and bustle of ‘town,’ WiFi, and a pool if not near the beach. Note: Staying in the shared room at a hostel will run you much less than a private room anywhere, and can be as little as $5 - $10 per night. This is a great way to stretch your funds while meeting lots of new people at the same time.
HEALTH & WELLNESS
The Dreaded D: Bali Belly, Montezuma’s Revenge, traveler’s diarrhea, whatever you call it – nobody wants it, but almost everyone gets it. Pack activated charcoal and/or clay tablets for a gentle remedy. This always worked for us. That said, if your condition persists, take something stronger and consider heading to the doctor.
Avoid Raw and Uncooked Veggies: Unless you know your salad greens were washed in purified water, that super looking health salad might be setting you up for a day or several in your hotel bathroom in some countries. When in doubt, opt for cooked meals.
Drinking Water: In some countries its best not to drink the tap water without boiling it first to avoid illness. If this is the case, you can take further precautions by not opening your mouth in the shower, and brushing your teeth with filtered water. Pro Tip: Most countries with water sanitation issues use filtered ice, but if you’re unsure whether the ice in your drink is clean, just ask.
Motion Sickness: We're not into pharmaceuticals, but if you’re prone to motion sickness, pack some Dramamine. Rule of thumb, if you hear from other travelers that the route ahead is nauseating – believe it. Nobody wants to be the one person barfing on public transportation all the way to your next destination. Trust us. Additional things that help – Fishermans Mints can calm the stomach, but they are not a solve all.
First Aid: It’s always good to pack a first aid kit, especially if you’re planning on some adventurous hikes. Here’s what was in ours (italics indicate those items we actually used during our travels): band aids, tweezers, alcohol wipes, antibiotics, anti yeast medication, Dramamine, activated charcoal, goldenseal/Echinacea pills, probiotics, melatonin, turmeric pills, solar powered battery charger, hydration pills, anti-diarrheal medication, heavy duty insect repellent, organic insect repellent, feminine products, and sunscreen. These last two items can run you a pretty penny depending on the country, so you might opt to bring them with you.
Vaccines: Depending on where you’re traveling, you may face some mandatory vaccinations. A quick look at the US CDC website per country will help you determine this, along with all the recommended vaccines, which can seem like a long and scary list. Other than what’s mandatory (nothing for where we traveled in South East Asia) the rest of the recommended vaccines are really a personal choice. We opted with two of the plethora of options available - Hepatitis A and Typhoid - and got our shots at Passport Health, which is available in most major cities internationally.
Good to Know: We paid out of pocket because our health insurance would not cover any of the recommended vaccines. If you have great health coverage and it won’t cost you an arm and a leg to get yours at your primary care doctor, obviously opt for that. Passport Health was a good service with kind and knowledgeable staff. We went in Boston, MA, just 24 hours before our flight. Also note, some vaccines require multiple doses over a period of several weeks or months. Do your research in advance so you know what’s required. Regarding insect borne illness – yes, the threat of malaria, and other mosquito born diseases is scary, but unless you’re going to be in the deep jungle trekking for weeks this is probably not a huge issue for you. We bought heavy insect repellent, but never used it and regretted bringing it along. Passport Health gave us a comprehensive booklet with detailed worldwide health information, including what seasons would be worse for certain diseases, as well as the regions affected. All this said – to each their own. Please remember we are not doctors and this is not medical advice.
ENJOY YOUR TRIP!
Long-term backpacking is wondrous, life changing, and often a once in a lifetime experience. While traveling on a budget can be challenging, the experiences you’ll have will far outweigh the difficulties. In the next article we’ll share our tips on budgeting and finances, insurance, identity theft, technology, equipment, and adjusting to long-term travel.
Where are you going this year? Let us know in the comments!