First time travel fears – everything I wish I knew before I began backpacking

Some people were lucky enough to travel regularly as a child. They experienced travel in foreign language countries with someone to hold their hand. That wasn’t me.

At the tender age of 23 (yeah, I know) I put on a backpack and prepared to travel around Southeast Asia solo. It was a few years ago now, but I remember all those worries really well. I never voiced most of them because they seemed like silly questions and I didn’t want anybody to think I wasn’t ready to travel yet. Some questions I googled and found decent answers, but mostly I just needed to be put at ease; to have someone tell me that I could travel solo and I would be okay. So if that’s you, and you want to chat with someone who’s been there, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me, I remember what it was like to feel so anxious about doing something crazy like travelling the world on my OWN.

What if after I start my trip I find that I don’t like backpacking?

Budget travel is bloody hard. There’s no shame in deciding that long term backpacking is not for you, but give it a go for least at least a month. Everybody gets homesick, even those who travel often. In Southeast Asia it took me two weeks to change my mind from ‘this is the worst thing I’ve ever done’ to ‘this is the best decision I’ve ever made in my life’. If you’ve only just begun your trip and you already want to go home, try doing something familiar – for me it was a week lounging on a beach in Thailand to let my anxieties go.

How am I going to communicate if I only speak English?

English is the language of travel and a common second language, hotel staff and airline staff almost always speak it. Learning to speak English is an aspiration for many and in Southeast Asia students would approach me to practise their English. Before travelling to South America I spent a few months studying Spanish because I knew I would be spending half a year over there. When my language skills fail I fall back on miming what I want to say, people are clever and will usually put two and two together. I felt a little self-conscious at first but that soon disappears. In most guidebooks there is a language section to help you out as well.

How many countries should I see in X months?

My rule of thumb is one country, one month. From there I look at how many places within that country I want to see, and the geographical size to decide whether to cut back. Colombia is the only country I’ve visited where I’ve decided to stay six weeks, and just a month in Thailand also felt like too little. For smaller countries with fewer highlights (like Laos/Ecuador/Cambodia) 2-3 weeks was perfect. Remember, as much as it feels like you’ll never find time to travel later in life – you will – so don’t try and cram it all in this time.

What is travel burnout and how do I overcome it?

For me it’s when the idea of packing up my backpack, jumping on a bus, and looking for accommodation makes me feel more tired than excited. And I feel that way about every two weeks/third town I visit while backpacking. I remedy it with staying in one place for a week, finding favourite restaurants to return to each day, and exploring a city that becomes increasingly familiar – creating a routine basically. It isn’t long before I’m keen to do something new again.

I’ve never taken a flight anywhere by myself, how do I do it?

Forget Home Alone 2, you can’t get on the wrong plane. Check out Wikihow for a detailed step-by-step guide and know that many of the people around you haven’t actually set foot in that particular airport so they’re set up to be easy to navigate.

Give yourself plenty of time to get through the boarding process and if you get stuck just ask at one of the information desks, they’re there to help you.

How do I get between towns within a foreign country?

You’ve got a few options here. In most cases catching a bus will be the cheapest way. First find where the bus station is on the map – if its nearby, I recommend heading there the day before and buying a ticket (or day of if it’s a small town), if the station is way out of town you can either book online (in developed countries) or pop into a nearby tourist agency and buy a ticket there – they will charge a small amount for themselves, so I usually only do this in developing countries when the cost of a ticket is minimal anyway.

Will I need travel insurance?

Yes. Will it be a waste of money? You better hope it is.

What do I do if something goes drastically wrong while I’m abroad?

This is why you have travel insurance. If something has been stolen, get a police report (some cities have a tourist police for this reason), and then contact your insurer. If there has been an injury contact your insurer as soon as possible. It’s always wise to leave your family a copy of your insurance policy so that they can make a claim on your behalf if they need to. Your insurer may need further information, but it really depends on who you go with. I’ve only ever gone with World Nomads

Will I get lost?

Possibly but not seriously, but carry a map with you whenever you leave the hostel (ask for a free one at reception) or pull one out of a guidebook – the most useful part of carrying a guidebook is having a map as soon as you arrive in a new place.

How much money should I save for my trip?

This is tricky. I’ve done a little run through of my backpacking budget in Southeast Asia and South America, for elsewhere google is your answer. A handy guideline that I like to use is to search Hostelworld, choose a hostel you like and quadruple the cost of a bed for the night by 4. That will cover accommodation, food, transport and activities per day in that destination for the travel style you feel comfortable with, i.e. ultra-budget or flashpacker.

How do I access my funds while I’m abroad?

I have two credit cards and an emergency US$500 on a foreign currency card – should they all fail, I have US$500 in cash tucked away in my bag. All cards are hidden in different places within my luggage. I only ever withdraw the maximum amount I can from an ATM because of credit card charges of $5 a withdrawel (I can’t escape them in NZ) in developing countries the limit may only be $80 – in developed that may be a few hundred. I return to my accommodation and split the money up within my luggage. I only ever carry what I need for the day on my person – so it doesn’t matter if I lose (or get scammed out of) $20.

What will happen if I run out of money?

Don’t let your funds run so low that you can’t afford to get home but if you really get stuck your embassy will help you call home and organise some financial assistance. However, they will not give you money.

Will I be lonely?

Occasionally. There will be days when you are sick and there’s no one around who cares about you. There will be quiet towns with few other backpackers. Most days you will find that you just fall into a group of travellers, sometimes you have to approach people and start a conversation, other times you’ll walk into a dorm room and five minutes later you’ve been invited down to one of the nearby bars.

How do I cross an international land border?

So what you’ll need is an exit stamp from the country you’ve come from and then an entry stamp for the country you are going to. Fail to get either of these and you’re in the country illegally.

International busses will let you out at the immigration office of the country you’ve just come from, line up and get an exit stamped and then follow the crowds a few hundred metres to the immigration office of the country you are heading to, line up again, fill in a declaration form and get an entry stamp. You may have to pay for a visa, you may be required to provide a passport sized photo, you may have to apply for the visa from your own county so it’s important to google the visa requirements of each country you want to go to.

Some bus companies will take your passport in for you, and charge a $5 fee, you can say no and do it yourself, and sometimes the driver will complain and threaten to leave without you (he won’t), so it’s really up to you. If you’re unsure, ask another traveller.

I know it may seem a little scary – I cried on the plane to Singapore on my first solo trip. For two weeks after I arrived I felt horribly alone, suffered from culture shock and just missed my family and boyfriend like crazy. After some relaxation and familiarity on Thai Island Koh Tao (to make friends and get away from the kinds of dirty cities I’d never experienced in New Zealand) I began to feel this great joy and confidence boost of actually doing something like solo travel.

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The Travel Natural

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Hey, I'm Emma

Fuelled by wanderlust, curiosity and a little restlessness, a natural at budget travel, so naturally, a travel blogger. An experienced chef, a proud kiwi, and a burgeoning photographer. And my old friends reading and writing? We go way back.

All content is copyright of The Travel Natural and cannot be used, reproduced or manipulated without my express consent.

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