Become a Better Traveller & Learn from these 7 Mistakes Backpackers Make

 15 things to never say to a backpacker

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!

koh chang crew

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!bikers

Jen, me and the bike and beautiful Northern Vietnam

wedding party

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!

halong bay

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

South Beach Hostel

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 marketing team to fund her travels!

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Thanks to Jim from the top image from his excellent website.

18 Responses to “Become a Better Traveller & Learn from these 7 Mistakes Backpackers Make”

  1. The number one mistake I see is carrying too much. Backpack bags encourage this. I generally travel with a single large (largest) carry-on bag with wheels and backpack straps. I always have space to spare without unzipping the expansion section until I am on my way home bearing gifts.

    There are two types of backpacking travel: 1) wilderness*, and 2)populated areas with stores. Most backpack travel today is of the second type.

    Further mistakes with packing for type 2:
    1) Packing what you can easily buy when and as needed.
    2) Packing too much clothing. (Underwear, swimsuit, pants and well worn tough shoes need to fit and may be hard to replace while on the road.)
    3) Not packing for emergencies: Needle, thread, glue, cord, emergency anti-diarrheal meds, ace wrap, a few large waterproof band-aids, an extra memory stick and camera battery.
    4) Not having paper and memory stick backup of critical documents
    5) Packing for wilderness travel when you are not going to do it.
    6) Not packing an LCD headlamp for reading on buses etc.

    *Even if you plan to rent the big things, wilderness travel still requires different packing. (A bigger emergency kit for one.) I have had mixed results with rental gear, so I prefer to do the wilderness part of my travel first. I buy and carry just what I need and dump it (sell or trade it off) before I return to civilization.

    good luck to all, bob

  2. good advice. just one observation- we always travelled with rucksacks but in India my husband ditched them and bought us roll on bags with wheels. much much easier to handle especially as they we’re carry on size but it did alter the fellow travellers who struck up conversations with us- obviously we weren’t in with the crowd anymore! interesting hey!!!!

  3. Great advice! Re: travelling out of season: I found an added big advantage that things are more relaxed and I’m more likely to make contacts with locals during the off peak times.
    Re: travel insurance, I still don’t bother with it. Had I bought travel insurance for all my trips it would have cost me a fortune, and I’m financial enough to cover any losses should they occur. The world is also getting safer on the whole, even though the media would like us to believe otherwise. Just have a look at statistics.

  4. As I see it, there two types of travellers/tourists. Ones that want to see and the ones that want to be seen. The luggage for the latter is beyond belief, indeed the most exciting part of their journey is getting the cases from A to B. And the types and colours of clothes, Black and/or Whites. Go with the stuff to reflect your mind.

  5. Handbags are a bad idea: bumbags are safer, and the best setup involves a money belt UNDER your clothes, and a bumbag visible with small amount of money and an old nonfunctioning card to surrender to muggers- the two-wallet system was suggested to me by a Sao Paulo native.

  6. @ Judy Kellett, that is actually a great advice! Ive luckily not been in the situation to be robbed during travels, but this advice will help to keep it that way. Its just genius!

  7. ‘Backpacking hints’ indeed, not sure how this squares with £100 p/n hotel in Sri Lanka and a horrendous £700 for three days in NY. More like the travels/travails of the ‘rich and famous

    As for the so called advice in mistake number 3, why does our intrepid backpacker try to justify shoddy service and downright ‘rip off’s’ as mere ‘cultural differences’ and not accept them for what they are. This bland acceptance as a whiff of western arrogance about it, as if these countries are in incapable of providing a professional service due to their ‘culture’

    Yes, the west is inundated with petty rules and regulations, but some such as functioning brakes, headlights that work and sticking to the speed limit are really worthwhile

  8. I agree with them all except #1 – If you follow the people, you will quite often end up just going to the most common places, and not seeing much at all. Sure it’s fun, and yes fun is part of travel, but it’s also good if you have places that you really want to see, to make sure you get there and see them…it’s very tempting to stay partying with a crowd, and it’s too easy to spend most of your holiday doing that.

    I would say, make a balance, follow the places, and the people and know when to break off from the people for the places.

  9. @ Frank Burton – ignoring travel insurance is a dangerous game. You might be able to cover your ‘losses’ but by that I presume you mean material possessions which you can much more cheaply cover through your household contents insurance anyway. The reason I take out travel insurance is for the medical cover. Break a leg anywhere – and not just in the States – and it will cost far more than you might think. Break a leg up a mountain and… I am pleased to say I have never had to claim but am very happy to have the security of knowing I am covered.

  10. Never, if possible use ATM (cashmachines) to take money out of your account. Always go INSIDE a bank to take out money of your account money, or change money. The risk of being scammed or otherwise NOT getting the money with cashmachines is just to big.
    You never have any prove for insurance that you not did get the money.
    And worse: most insurance policies will insure theft of cash-money. but not creditcard-fraud.

  11. I reckon it is good to be flexible and not book too far ahead. Learn the basic greetings, yes, no, thanks, please the local language because I find this instantly changes attitudes of the locals who are often treated as servants or second class by wealthy or, simply arrogant travellers. Smile and keep aware of your surroundings ( I would never get drunk in unfamiliar situations)and people who may be suspect. Respect cultural traditions such as wearing appropriate clothing in temples.

  12. I enjoyed a lot this article.
    However, I disagree about rule #1.
    If you stick with people I believe you will not enjoy the country. It will be like being in our own country but meeting new people.
    That rule might be interesting for those who are social and enjoy more people than visiting a new country.
    Personally I go with the flow of the places. I always get lost (somehow I find myself in a strange place that I can not find on maps) and I learn and get involve the that place more than I would learned if I didn’t go with the place.

    I’m a lonely traveler so I have my own rules:
    – never get drunk in a foreigner country while you are alone (specially if you are a girl, like me);
    – take some cash along with credits cards and split them in different pockets, wallets…
    – have more than one cellphone and register all important contacts in all cellphones like embassy, police stations, etc. And mark them on your map, just in case.
    – medications and aid-patch;
    – only drink water from bottles.

    And I always travel off high-season 🙂


  13. Another one of those been there, done that checklist traveler making many facebook friends.

  14. Some of these I agree with, some not so much (but they’ve already been discussed above).

    One thing to add: if you’re travelling alone and you’re going somewhere off the beaten path, try to account for variables ie, have a way to access the internet (even if it’s costly), know someone to call, bring a map with you and try to get down a few basic phrases, because if you get lost, you could end up with a huge problem!

    Once, just after I moved to Poland (ie before I had learned how to say anything other than “Do you speak English?”), I was meeting friends in a rural little village to go hiking. To get there, I had to take the train alone, and I got off at the train at the wrong stop (the names where very similar and I got off at the one NOT in the centre), around 23.30. It was the middle of nowhere, pitch-black, and I had no way of knowing how far I’d have to walk to get to the village, or how to ask for help if I saw anyone…it was terrifying!! Luckily, I called my friend who managed to find me a hostel and the owner drove around until he found me, but from now on, I always make a point to know exactly how to get to where I’m going and who to contact for help if something goes wrong. (and of course, double check which stop I need!)

  15. Hannah Paquette Reply

    pay attention to the day you’re moving about (ex. reduced transit schedules on Sundays, different holidays, daylight savings, etc…) it’s not a deal breaker but it can make things difficult

  16. My worst mistake was to go to a couchsurfer who called me after I left an open-request without asking for a link to his profile… Never do that especially when you’re a girl who doesn’t know boxing.

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