How to plan a backpacking trip

As my post on backpacking travel tips proved so popular, I thought I’d share the process I go through when planning a trip.

Dhulikhel, Nepal
Enjoying a rather nice rock in Nepal

I don’t really have a checklist as such but it occurred to me that I do follow a set routine when planning a trip and there’s actually quite a lot of  research involved. Although I’m certain my friends think I just choose a country and hop on a plane! But it’s not really that simple.

Step One. Inspiration for the next destination

So at the moment I’m vaguely planning for winter 2019. Those of you who read my blog often (and welcome to any new readers) will know that I work in the summers and travel for a few months every winter.

I’m 39 years old this year and this has been my life since I graduated from university in 2001. I did try to work a whole year round once – and failed miserably. I was so miserable I set myself a twelve months, twelve different countries challenge (while working full-time) to have something to look forward to each month.

Anyway, people always ask me how I decide where to go next – what’s my inspiration? Well, I’ll go anywhere as long as I haven’t been there before and generally I get my inspiration from random places, like an article in a magazine I pick up from a coffee shop table or a country a traveller I met last year mentioned.

This winter I’ve vaguely decided on two separate trips – West Africa (inspired from a post on Facebook mentioning San Tome and Principe, a country I’d never heard of) and Mongolia (a trip my friend Paula and I have been half-planning for about three years now).

Step two. Checking the cost of flights

This is usually the biggest expense and always important to check the cost of. Usually I’ll happily pay around £500 return and anything over this makes me think twice. I try to decide whether I’ll get good value for money if I spend a lot (is the destination itself very cheap?) or whether there’s a cheaper way to get there.

For example, I really wanted to visit the Maldives a few years back and I discovered that the cheapest flight was via Sri Lanka. So I promptly booked a return ticket to Sri Lanka, then a local flight to the Maldives. I had a fun month travelling Sri Lanka, then hopped over to the Maldives for my final week.

Step three. Travel budget

So, once I’ve vaguely decided on a destination, the next step is to check I can afford it. I used to always work on an in-country budget of around £500 per month but I’ve noticed over the last few years this has been harder and harder to stick to. Oh no, have I become a ‘flashpacker’??!

There’s no point going if I can’t afford to travel there. At this point, I’ll check out some blogs of backpackers who have been there before, look up accommodation options and prices and check I can travel around on public transport.

Step four. Maximise border crossings

Of course I never want to just visit one country in the winter, I want to visit at least three! When planning Mongolia, although Paula can only join me for two weeks I’ll be going for much longer.  So I began by looking at which countries are next door that I can go to.

That search quickly led me to the Trans-Siberia Express and so my trip has now turned into a two week train journey from St Petersburg across Russia and maybe Belarus, on to Beijing, where I’ll meet Paula (she’s flying in from New Zealand). After exploring Beijing we’ll do an onward flight to UlanBatuur. Lovely – three countries, one trip.

Step five. Visas

Passport and visa, backpacking
So many immigration stamps!

Deep sigh here. I tend to forget all about visas. There’s the great example of me booking flights and planning a whole winter in India. Two weeks before I left a friend asked me whether the visa was easy to get. Visa? What visa? Cue me frantically posting my passport off to the Indian embassy in London, to receive it back two days before my flight. Phew.

But yes, the checklist should definitely include checking visa requirements. Luckily, being a UK citizen I tend to get a month or more free in most countries but for the Russia trip I shall need to arrange visas in advance and there’ll be visa fees to pay, which I need to take into account.

Step six. Medicals jabs

Another sigh. I’m pretty much vaccinated against everything now but it’s still worth checking the recommendations for the destination country. Some countries won’t let you in without proof of certain vaccinations. For example, Japanese encephalitis and yellow fever.

On this note as well, I always check for mosquito presence. How prevalent are they? Are there areas to avoid? Do I need to take anti malarial tablets? Sometimes it might just be a certain part of a country (the interior or a swampy area) that has a malaria risk, so I can choose to avoid this area yet still visit the country.

Step seven. Severe weather

With todays drastic climate change environment, it’s important to check weather warnings for the country. You probably don’t want to be in the Caribbean during hurricane season or the Philippines in typhoon season. But also check seasonal temperatures – in hot countries there will be a cooler season that might be better for travelling. We’re not always used to stifling hot temperatures and it can really impact your enjoyment of backpacking if you’re always seeking shade or being unable to do a day hike because you’re worried about sunstroke.

Step eight. Backpacker Trail

It’s worth checking whether your destination of choice is a typical backpacker trail or whether its considered ‘off the beaten path’. I tend to go wherever I fancy and not worry about that so much.

But it can be more difficult to travel if there’s no established backpacker trail, a lot more expensive, hard to find any company… It depends what matters to you.

Step nine. Security concerns

I do always check the British Foreign Office website to make sure I’ll be insured and what the current security situation is. If the FCO recommends against travel to the country often your travel insurance will be null and void. It’d be typical if I broke my leg tripping in a pothole and found out my insurance was invalid!

Security is also important. For example, I’m keen to visit West Africa this winter and I did lots of research on backpacking Ghana, with side trips to neighbouring countries. Everything I read said how safe it is, then I saw a disturbing news report about two Canadian girls being kidnapped outside their hotel.  I might have to have a rethink. There’s plenty of other countries still to visit!

Step ten. Gut feeling

After all this research I’ll still end up going with wherever appeals the most. My flash of inspiration generally leads to an instant decision, then the research is just to back up my choice!

Auckland, New Zealand
Even the rain can’t get me down

At this point my friends are right – I do simply hop on the plane to my chosen destination then figure everything else out when I arrive. There’s definitely a point at which you need to stop researching and just get on with travelling!

 

 

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