I love to search through all types of travel websites and for many years the theme on these websites has always been backpacking or low-budget traveling. The idea, of course, is to help inspire people to travel with just a backpack across the globe. And on most of these websites backpacking is shown to be glamorous but in reality it’s overrated! Here is why.
Backpacking means little cash
If you’re backpacking you most likely have very little money to travel. Whenever I’ve backpacked I always worried about how much money I have left and how much money I need to get me through the entire trek. Honestly it’s not glamorous and it’s not fun to worry about how much money you have when you should be enjoying your travels. Also worrying about money leads to fights among co-travelers. For most people it’s a panic feeling because you’re already out of your comfort zone and far away from someone who could help you if you’re in a jam.
You have to budget for food, hotels, and any activities you want to do. Why go all the way to a country only to have to sacrifice some really important activities? I like to know that I have enough cash before I even go. I take into account that there will be an unexpected activity that I will splurge on so I cushion myself with enough cash so I don’t stress. I want to know the general price of basics and how much are excursions. So there must be tons of research and planning before.
Backpacking is tough work
Yeah backpacking is actually pretty tough. I carried a backpack all the way to Nepal and it will be the last time I do because of how exhausting it was to carry a backpack. It’s annoying to look out for a bag that basically holds all of my life valuables for the entire trip. It also means having to watch who you are hitting with your bag and to always make sure no one is stealing from you.
Oh then the walking! There is always a lot of walking and I can bet that if you’re backpacking you will be walking even more. I guess the benefit is that you will be stronger but wearing a backpack all day will start to hurt, especially your back. Also for some reason backpacking is even worse when it’s hot.
Backpacking equals loss of fashion
One thing I noticed while backpacking is that backpackers generally look pretty rough with how they dress. The backpacker look is not something I find tasteful and so the last time I tried to backpack I made sure to pack some decent clothing that at least looked acceptable. I wore boots because tennis shoes scream tourist, American and made sure to never wear gym clothes.
But because you only have a backpack it’s hard to carry clothing that actually looks decent and won’t wrinkle. One idea that works was to have clothing that mix and match and are interchangeable. Luckily I was in the Himalayas and I didn’t run into too many people so looking my absolute best wasn’t a priority.
And many will disagree but I want to look my best if I’m walking through places like Paris or London. I don’t want to scream American or feel under dressed when the locals are wearing nice clothing. I refuse to feel out-of-place or look out-of-place. And I know that when I have a slob outfit with a huge backpack it cries tourist and backpacker. Many locals would find the backpacking look to be distasteful too and will resent you.
Backpacker budget eating
Those words sound horrible. I don’t want to sacrifice healthy eating habits to eat poorly just because I want to save money. Some cities are specifically all about good food and you need money to buy good food. This should not be something you cut from your travels. I could even argue that by eating well your trip will go much smoother because you will be more relaxed and more focused. No grumpiness!
Sometimes there are countries where food is really cheap but if you’re backpacking through Europe, you won’t typically find a cheap meal unless you shop at a grocery store. It’s a real shame to fly all the way to Europe to eat okay food when Europe has some really good eats. And restaurants can be pricey but it’s important to save up so you can eat a decent meal. Many countries do have some sort of street food that are usually reasonable but it’s hard to depend on street food everywhere you go. Know how much money you will need, plan and spend accordingly.
It’s hard to go on excursions
Sometimes you just have to pay to do expensive excursions. That’s just how it is. And yes many people scrounge and pay all of their money towards these excursions but then you have to worry about your money lasting for the entire trip. Some of the top excursions I’ve done were because I’ve looked them up online and specifically told myself “I don’t care how much it is, I’m doing it!” And usually a backpacker can’t make that decision because they are constantly budgeting and wondering how much they need for the entire trip. It’s stressful!
Hostels, Couchsurfing, AirBNB
I’ve stayed in my share of hostels and it’s not glamorous… at all. And I’ve stayed in pretty decent hostels. The bed sheets are always old, food is always sub par and there is alway that one thing that you have no idea what it is. I’ve heard some pretty horrible stories with people staying in hostels like getting mugged, loud neighbors or even people shitting their bed!? (I heard this is what happen to Nomadic Matt). I also don’t want to sleep with 12 other strangers. I mean would you normally do this at home?
Couchsurfing is another risk and something I’ve never done nor want to try. The thing is, your safety could be at risk or it may be very uncomfortable. Lesson I’ve learned from my friends and other backpackers is that couch-surfing is than ideal and sometimes really shitty.
Websites like AirBNB could be a good option or it could be a disaster. It is cheaper than a hotel but still more expensive than hostels. Also you’re staying at someones’ random home or apartment. More than likely all will be fine but it could still be awkward.
Worst possible scenario would be staying on the streets of a city or sleep at an airport to save money. I’ve done the latter but some of my friends have actually camped out on a beach or in park. This is a humbling experience and something I will never do again. I would rather pay for a hotel and come back the next morning well rested.
Backpackers tend to only talk to… other backpackers
This ties in with the authenticity many backpackers say they want while backpacking but in reality many just end up speaking to other backpackers instead of locals. The point of traveling is to immerse yourself with the locals and be part of the culture. It can be distracting if you’re in a backpacking atmosphere and the only people you constantly see are at the hostels. This could happen to all types of travelers but wearing a huge backpack is a neon sign to other backpackers that you’re a backpacker as well. There is nothing wrong with meeting other people from other countries besides the one you’re in but if you’re looking for authenticity it’s best to engage with the locals as well.
Backpacking does NOT make you more free
Many people believe that if they go to India or some 3rd world religious Asian country and float around, that suddenly you’re more free. Problem is that there are several things that need to still be taken care of back at home or while backpacking. Honestly the hippie days are long gone and just because you have little money and are floating around India, etc, doesn’t mean you can escape life back at home.
What could help is to understand the country you’re traveling to and realize that you’re a foreigner in a foreign land. Most people there wouldn’t understand why you’re backpacking in the first place because most wouldn’t even get to backpack through another country. Some host countries may not like the behavior or approve of backpackers. This should be taken into account if backpacking. Respect the people you’re visiting and don’t pretend to be anything you’re not. If you can afford a plane ticket to a foreign country, you’re not broke and you still need to pay a decent amount to be on your travels.
Backpacking isn’t the road less traveled
Many backpackers like to travel the road “less traveled” and go to places that many mainstream tourists don’t go to. Really there is no such thing because backpackers are not the first to discover anything. More than likely that route has already been traveled and most likely decently traveled if a backpacker can get there. Many people are looking to experience something new and authentic but the truth is that places are constantly changing so everybody who travels is experiencing something authentic. Well new to them at the very least.
What should really be focused on is enjoying any experience whether people perceive it as authentic or not. The reality is that all experiences are authentic because you’re experiencing them. Traditional customs in almost every country are becoming harder to see because the world has become more modern. This is neither good or bad, just is what it is. Enjoy the experience you are in because that is your experience and nobody can have the same one. Now that is exciting!
There is No Glamour to Backpacking
You have a heavy bag that you constantly keep track of.
You have to constantly wear clothes that are less than fashionable, which is not fun if you’re traveling through cities like Paris. It makes you feel like an outsider and you definitely will look like one.
With such a heavy backpack you always have to watch from hitting people or hitting objects when you move around.
You probably have little money to spend freely because you’re backpacking, so you’re constantly stressing over money.
You will probably be staying in a hostel, couch-surfing or at best staying at someone’s place; it’s not that fun.
There is lots of walking, awkward situations, sleepy days, restless nights, other strange backpackers and general stress.
Authenticity is also overhyped from other backpackers and really everybody’s travel experience is authentic. If you’re experiencing it, it’s authentic.
Traditional customs can be observed but it may never be like it was long ago and that’s ok.
So what’s a better approach?
Save money or have constant money flowing to you. Make sure you budget for all the things that you want to do on your trip. For example excursions, food, hotels, and souvenirs all need to be taken into account as just part of the basics. Do your research before you travel and know what kind of prices you will be paying. Switzerland does not have the same prices as Japan or France or Thailand. If you can’t afford it… wait to go there until you have enough! This is the right approach because you want to be happy through your travels. Traveling shouldn’t be worrying about money.
And plan! Plan your travels, keep good contacts back at home and have a budget. Stick to your budget. If you have plans and backup plans you’re going to know what to do when you’re in a jam. And you will get into a jam as any experienced traveler would tell you. My advice is to lose a heavy backpack that is typically constraining, screams tourist and generally annoying. It’s a good idea to bring as little as possible and immerse yourself in the culture once you arrive.
Backpacking is still very popular and will be for a long time but it’s definitely not glamorous and very few people actually prefer this type of traveling. Better advice would be to save up your money and enjoy your trip without the backpack.