By Heledd Jones
In 2009, I went backpacking solo around SE Asia and Australia for six months. I’ve also been fortunate enough to enjoy some other long-haul holidays and breaks to Cuba, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Costa Rica and the States. As I’ve changed from backpacking newbie to seasoned traveller, I’ve learned a few things that’ve transformed my outlook and made my trips even better as a knock-on effect…
Below, I list the seven mistakes backpackers tend to make on their first time away – and how you can avoid them in the name of better travels…
Mistake #1: Sticking to a set route
I learned instead: Follow people, not the places
When I was backpacking alone, I had a rough idea of the route I wanted to take. I was lucky to have very few deadlines so I just went with the flow – if I liked somewhere and/or met some good company, I stayed there. If I didn’t like a place, or the people, I moved on.
When I got to Siem Reap, my plan was to spend a few days there before heading to the Cambodian coast. However, I met a large group of solo travellers in the Garden Village guesthouse and we bonded so well that the majority of us changed our plans so that we could all go to Koh Chang together before heading to the Full moon party in Koh Pangan.
Despite me already having been to Thailand including a full moon party, I had an absolute blast and made friends for life. I might never know what the Cambodian coast looks like, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have had such fun with such a great group of people so lesson learnt: follow the people, not the places!
The ‘Koh Chang’ crew
Mistake #2: Hanging on to your inhibitions
I learned instead: Just say ‘yes’ – accept invitations
Similarly to the first point; when you’re travelling solo, it’s a great chance to do things you wouldn’t normally do, lose your inhibitions and again, go with the flow.* So when I was waiting to check-in at a small guesthouse in Ninh Binh (in the early hours of the morning after a long bus journey) a girl called Jen rocked up and suggested sharing a room to save money and then hiring a motorbike in the morning. I said ‘yes’ and a week of great fun followed including exploring the carsts of Northern Vietnam and getting totally lost trying to find the illusive ‘chicken village’ on the moped.
Another invite we both accepted was attending a wedding party while we were in Ninh Binh – what a special experience – one invite follows another!
Jen, me and the bike and beautiful Northern Vietnam
The Vietnamese wedding party!
A similar thing happened when I was in Southern Laos, planning to head straight to Phnom Penh. I met Paul and Jenny who were heading to a place I’d never heard of in rural Cambodia – Ban Lung, who invited me and a few others along with them for the ride. Again, another amazing experience where I got to hang out with the locals a lot more than usual.
*It goes without saying to obviously keep your wits about you, don’t accept invites for anything that could place you in danger!
Mistake #3: Getting angry when things go wrong
I learned instead: Go with the flow
As already mentioned, go with the flow – I lost track of the amount of times I spent the day waiting between stops on long bus journeys across Thailand and Laos in random roadside cafes, or booked a ‘VIP’ bus but got a cramped minibus with no space or aircon, or the journey would take twice as long as advertised! Most of the time I just tried to soak these up as cultural differences that you should relish – whereas lots of fellow travellers would get irate with the poor driver or travel agent!
Relish these moments – when you get back to the Western world full of rules and process, you will look back to those days and wish your life was a bit more haphazard and free!
Our view for 3 hours – waiting at the Laos/Cambodia border crossing for a bus
Mistake #4: Chasing the ‘best’ season
I learned instead: Travel off-peak
I spent much of my 2009 trip travelling off-peak, probably the only downside was hitting quite a few ‘rainy seasons’ but the main plus points were:
- Greater choice of accommodation and fewer places fully booked-up
- More choice means lower prices (and more haggling power!)
- Fewer people around means you can find some really special places and have them to yourself
This works at the flashpacking end as well as budget accommodation. In September 2011, my other half and I went to Sri Lanka for a few weeks travelling (off-peak, during rainy season) and we were able to stay in the 5-star Fortress Hotel for about £100 per night including an upgraded ocean-view, split-level room and dinner! (Normal cost about £500 per night!)
Mistake #5: Getting into a travel snob mindset
I learned instead: Don’t avoid/write-off tourist destinations
When in Siem Reap, there were a couple of legendary guys who (shock, horror!) weren’t going to THE temples as they were ‘too touristy’.
Likewise, people I met in Hanoi were avoiding Halong Bay for the same reason. Halong Bay was one of the highlights of my trip; I was with friends from home at the time, we’d met some great people on the boat and spent the evening playing cards and drinking-games on deck. I fell asleep on deck as our cheap (non-AC) room was too warm, and I woke up to one of the most amazing sunrises. The other boats were all scattered far away from each other so it definitely didn’t feel too touristy – I would have kicked myself if I had missed that, it was amazing. I guess it depends who you’re with and what you make of such situations!
My sunrise at Halong Bay
Mistake #6: Finding insurance too boring to bother with
I learned instead: Get covered
I’ve never really given much thought to travel insurance. Despite me now working in the industry, I still hadn’t bought a policy and relied on the free policy I got with my bank account. This was fine until I actually had to make a claim for £700 for an extra three nights incurred in New York (as a result of coinciding a weekend break there with the arrival of Superstorm Sandy!)
Unfortunately, my ‘free’ insurance only paid out a maximum of £150 for cancellations, so I was left very much out of pocket and so I will always make sure I’m covered in future for everything from the value of my backpack to the costs of cancellations etc.
View of Manhattan from the Empire State Building – half of it still in darkness, post-Superstorm Sandy
Saks, NYC, getting ready for Sandy
Mistake #7: Not preparing for the worst
I learned instead: Keep your belongings safe (copy of passport etc)
On my first trip to Australia, I shared a dorm and on my return from a night out, the reception – and therefore access to a safe – was closed so I went to sleep with my handbag clutched into me. I awoke to find that some [insert expletive] had gone into my sleeping bag during the night and stolen it from my drunken clutches! This was in the days before electronic passports and online banking so cue lots of phone calls home to get a copy of my birth certificate faxed across, and some cash wired via Western Union!
My life was in that handbag – passport, phone, debit cards (luckily no cash) – and I guess my lesson learnt here was to split the risk; I should have separated my cards, kept a photocopy of my passport etc.
What travel mistakes have you learned from? Tell us below…
Author bio: Heledd Jones backpacked and blogged around South East Asia and Australia, has since visited Sri Lanka, Dubai and now Costa Rica, but spends most of her time working in the Confused.com marketing team to fund her travels!
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- Tips for Women Travelling Alone
Thanks to Jim from backpackersplace.com the top image from his excellent website.