This is a step by step guide to fulfilling your big travel dreams. If you’ve ever wanted to go on a several month long backpacking trip around the world or across a continent and spend less than you would living at home, then you’re in the right place.
I’ve travelled a great deal in the last five years. I've spent 18 months living abroad in Sydney, where I quit a high paying job to travel around Southeast Asia for six months on $6000. I found I loved backpacking so much I decided to do it all over again for six months in South America for $8000 the following year.
But there was one time when I had no idea what I was doing, or if travel was even the right decision for me. I didn’t know where to start! I had no idea how much money I’d need or which countries were easiest to travel in, how long to spend in each country, or if the decision to travel solo as a female was the right one for me. I was completely lost.
Over the space of a couple of years I found all the info I needed to make it happen, either gathered from several different websites or I picked it up myself through trial and error.
So here’s a breakdown of everything I’ve learned from long term travelling to help you do the same.
Deciding where to go
I’m going to start right at the beginning here. Planning a long trip abroad can feel overwhelming, which is why travel agents are still making money in the age of the internet.
For me, deciding where to go is the fun bit, it’s the time to let the brain run wild with all your travel fantasies, so grab a piece of paper and a pen, and write down every country you’ve always wanted to visit.
Where to find cheap flights
With more budget airliners than ever, it doesn't have to cost the earth to travel, but it pays to search around a bit. I've always got an eye on Secret Flying for the latest deals or error fares, and I fly to the parts of the world that nearest.
Another way to find the cheapest flights for you is to go to Skyscanner and type in ‘flexible’ under the destination column. Under departure date click ‘whole month’ and then ‘cheapest month’. This will give you an idea of some of the best value flights for your nearest international airport.
Cheap travel locations
There’s a reason why there are so many more backpackers in Southeast Asia than other parts of the globe, not only is it pretty easy to travel for under $35 a day (which includes a night in a dorm bed, 3 meals, activities and transport), the region also has great weather, a well set up tourist infrastructure and is an absolutely stunning part of the world.
Some route options are:
Three months in South Asia: Nepal, India, Sri Lanka
Three months in Central America: Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama (you could continue down to South America)
Three months in Eastern/Central Europe: Any combination of Turkey, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Hungary, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Croatia, Latvia and Slovakia.
All of these destinations can be travelled on $1000 a month (you’d be surprised at how far your money stretches). They’re all pretty solid destinations on the backpacker trail, easy to get around and get to, with plenty of other travellers to meet and of course, are amazing parts of the world to see.
Logistics: Round the World, One way, or Return tickets
When you have an inkling of a plan (it doesn’t have to be set in stone!) step back and consider the logistics. If the places you want to visit are all in Asia, for example, it would make sense to just buy a one-way ticket and then buy the return ticket when you’re ready to go home. You’d be surprised at how often you make friends with someone going in a different direction, and having that freedom to go where the wind takes you makes for the best trips!
Word of warning however, airline staff may bar your entry to the plane without evidence of onward travel or return ticket. Boarding for Singapore, I had to show the train ticket I had booked for Malaysia to get on the plane, and for Chile, I just needed to show a credit card to prove I had the funds for onward travel. A nuisance, but that’s the way it is.
Another other option is to buy a Round The World (RTW) flight ticket. The most economic tickets look something like: US to New Zealand/Australia to Thailand to Europe and back to the US and can cost $2000 and up. You can use the ticket over the space of a year and also fly into one city and then out of another nearby city. So you may want to spend one month in New Zealand, six months in Southeast Asia, three months in Europe and then home again. If there was another country you really wanted to visit, say Japan, you could buy a return flight from Bangkok for $300 go for a couple of weeks and then continue on with your trip. Although this can eat into your precious travel funds when you could catch a $15 bus across the border to Cambodia and it would be just as memorable as Japan. This can be an expensive way to travel however, depending on the stops of the RTW. A month in New Zealand for example, would cost as much as three months in Southeast Asia.
How can you travel on $1000 per month, really?
It seems impossible doesn’t it? Just $35 to buy three meals for a day, a bed for the night, a bus ticket to the next town AND entertainment for the day.
First off, budget travel/backpacking isn’t going to be like the trips we took with mum and dad, you’ll be staying in a dorm room with 7 other travellers at $8-10 a night (but often enough around $4-6) and it’s a fantastic way to make friends with backpackers from all other parts of the world, and essential for anyone travelling solo.
Hostels are in good shape these days with free Wi-Fi, fresh bed sheets and sometimes free breakfasts, I usually book my hostels on Hostel World.
Second, the meals you’ll be eating will be street food, sold at stalls and markets at most of the destinations listed above. Pad Thai in Thailand for example sells at around $2 a bowl at a street side stall to be cooked in front of you, however, if you walked into a flash restaurant aimed at vacationers, you’d be charged $10 for the exact same quality of dish.
So, if we’re careful we’ve spent less than $20 at this point and we’ve knocked off the essentials. For inter-city travel the best option is almost always the bus. In Ecuador, we took overnight bus trips between cities for $10, so not only did we get from A to B, but we got a free night’s accommodation out of it too, but you won’t be travelling between cities every day, anyway.
Getting around the cities you’re in cheaply is always a challenge, no matter where you are. In Asia, you’ll be taking tuk tuks to get around by negotiating a good price (usually half whatever the driver quotes), in South America it’ll be public buses and in Europe, usually the Metro Subway. Either way, you’ll be looking a couple of dollars a day.
The rest of the money $5-10 goes onto your entertainment. As a backpacker you’ll be enjoying your travels as cheap as possible, be that a day at the beach, on a hiking trail, renting a scooter or a bicycle, wandering the local markets, or just chilling at a local bar with a $0.50 beer in hand, the options are almost endless.
The above budget applies almost exclusively to the countries listed in the itinerary’s above. For a bigger idea of which countries make the best budget travel locations, check out Price of Travel. Also note that you’ll spend $1000 a month once you arrive, there are other costs such as the flights, insurance, a backpack, vaccinations, and a $1000 emergency backup money. All up, probably tack on another $3000.
How many countries to visit?
If you’re anything like me, you’ll want to go everywhere in a short space of time. But the more countries you try to see in a short space of time, the more shallow your experience, the more tired you’ll feel and the more money you’ll lose. To fully experience each place, you’ll need to allow 2-6 weeks in each country depending on geographical size, so 3-5 days for each city or town you’d like to see. As a rule of thumb, allow 4 weeks to explore a country and move on when you're ready.
When to go
Give yourself at least a year to prepare for a long trip. It takes time to wrap your head around making such a big decision, it gives your family time to adjust to the idea of you setting off into the world, and unless you have the funds already put aside to travel, you’re going to need to save money for your trip.
So with this in mind, you want to choose a month start your trip. Exact dates can come later, but for now you’ll need an idea of how long you have to save the money needed. Start with looking at the best time weather wise to travel to your first country with a quick search on Google. High season will see lots of other tourists and escalated prices of almost everything, but will have the best weather. Low seasons are usually far too hot or too cold but with the lowest prices. Shoulder seasons are my personal favourite time to visit for the best of both worlds.
Setting a date early will help you keep on track with your budgeting, some people make plans with no date and then never actually go ahead with their trip. It also gives you something to look forward to.
The hard part: how to save the money to travel
Now take how much money you need to save, and divide it by the number of weeks until you fly out, that will give you the amount you need to save per week to make this trip happen. If you need to add some more time on to make it feasible, do so, you’ll travel eventually, I promise.
I decided to travel across South America just seven months prior to leaving. In that time, my partner Jack and I scraped together $12 000 by living frugally. I lived on 10kg bags of rice and seasonal vegetables, quit alcohol almost entirely and Jack sold his car to cycle to work. We had no Netflix, gym memberships, Spotify, or dinners out. After a while it became easy to forfeit, knowing that that $10 lunch out now, could be three delicious meals in Peru later that year. We also did a fair bit overtime whenever we could, sacrificing our social life, but that’s the trade-off for saving a large sum of money in that amount of time.
It’ll be hard at first, I guarantee it. For a while you’ll feel like you’re always saying no to invitations of nights out. You’ll feel like you’re doing all this work for no reward, just for a number on an ATM screen. But keep with it as best you can, adjust your budget if you need to and don’t leave until you have enough money behind you.
But be creative with how you make money, sell the things you don’t need, if you have a useful skill like a second language, advertise online to teach part time. Every dollar counts.
Making money abroad
First I want to say that the number of people who make a full time income while travelling the world are few and far between. There is no secret and it’s not easy. But there are ways big and small to keep your bank balance topped up.
Many backpackers choose to do a working holiday visa halfway through their trip (a one to two year working visa available to those under 30 years old) and is a great way to thoroughly explore a particular country or region while earning a regular income, especially in expensive countries like New Zealand or Australia.
For everywhere else, many hostels offer free board in exchange for manning the desk for a couple of hours a day. More of a way to stay on the road longer, than to actually fund travels.
To travel with a friend, boy/girlfriend, family or solo?
The cost of travel varies slightly depending on who you’re travelling with. Sometimes it can be slightly cheaper to travel with someone and share tuk tuk and accommodation costs.
Take careful consideration of who you’re travelling with, are they your friend boy/girlfriend, sibling or parent? Have they travelled before? Are they prepared to save the money and travel on a budget? Or are they swept up with your plans and the idea of travelling more than the actuality of it. Plans to travel with them may fall through, it happens all the time. People get promotions, fall in love, or get scared and pull out and you might be facing travel alone.
Of course, I love solo travel. It’s a chance to test your mettle, grow and challenge yourself in unfamiliar environments. You do the things you want, go where you like, without the consideration of someone else. It’s a time in your life to be selfish and trust me, there will be fewer opportunities as you get older. Staying in hostels makes it easy to meet other travellers, many who are also solo and looking to make friends.
But there will also be times when you wish you had a solid travel partner, someone you know well who can help support you when you get lost, sick or tired.
Telling friends and family that you’re going to travel
Six months before you depart is a good time to tell friends and family that you’re going to travel long term. There’s a chance that they may not take the news well, they may be worried for you, they may just be surprised. Answer their questions the best you can to put them at ease, show them blogs of others who have done the same travels and then just give them time, especially if they disagree with your decision. People are usually afraid of what they don’t know, and the media certainly doesn’t help the public’s perception of the greater world. Information is key here.
What happens when you come home?
Deciding what you plan to do when you get back is very important. Are you quitting job/taking sabbatical? Going to University? Have a solid plan for when you get back because it’s a difficult adjustment and reverse culture shock is real. What are you doing with your stuff? Selling? Storing? Are you renting out your house? Are you moving back in with your family upon return while you find your feet?
The big ‘to do’ list
So now you’ve planned your trip, you know where you’re going and with whom. You’re six months away from flying out so the next couple of months is the time to start booking everything.
Keep an eye on flight prices and book your flight online in the next three months. Use search engines to find flights (like Skyscanner) and book through the airline website for the best price.
Use Wiki to find the visa requirements for your destinations. Some nations may require you organise an eVisa online prior to arrival, other countries let you buy the visa stamp at the border/airports. Many more will let you in for 30 days or so visa free. Make sure your passport is valid for six months past the leaving date of final country, otherwise you may be denied entry.
Book insurance. This is a MUST, if you have an accident, this will pay your medical fees (and we all do stupid things while backpacking) or if you die, will pay to return your body to your family – without your parents having to sell their house to do so. I always go through World Nomads.
Get a couple of credit or debit Visa or MasterCards to access your cash. One of each preferably, in case you find yourself in a small town, whose only working ATM accepts the credit card you don’t have. I’ve been in that situation and it sucks. It also helps if you have one of the cards stolen, you can easily cancel it and continue to travel with the other card. Otherwise you would need to hang around in one place for a few weeks while your bank mails you a new card (without access to your money). It’s a pain, so don’t let it happen to you. On that note, bring $500 in USD as emergency cash, as it’s the most easily exchangeable currency the world over. Stash it in your bag in a different place to your credit cards keep it until you need it.
Get your vaccinations, go see the dentist, and notify your bank that you’ll be travelling so they don’t temporarily block your cards for suspicious activity.
Buy a backpack. How to choose a backpack with so many options? If you’re going to warm climates only, for around 3-4 months of travel, I would pick a 35 litre backpack. You can carry on board airlines and it’ll save your back. For six months plus within a range of climates, go up to 65L. A good backpack will cost a couple hundred dollars (I’ve been using mine for nearly 10 years) so they’re worth the investment. Don’t buy online, always buy in store at your nearest hiking/camping outfitters so you can try them on and test them out for buying. Always get a front zipping (not top zipping) so you don’t have to take all your clothes out to access the ones at the bottom of your bag.
Get these things sorted so you won’t feel overwhelmed trying to get everything done before your trip and you can spend your last few weeks saying goodbye and celebrating with friends.
Preparing yourself mentally for the trip
The last month before flying out. You’re going to be feeling nervous one minute excitement the next. Am I making the right decision? Is it too late to back out? Or, Can I add (exotic location) to my trip? Do I have enough money or time to do that too? Sometimes yo-yoing between the two states of mind. But embrace it, it’s part of making a big decision like this. Still umming and ahhing? Read this
Now is also the time to hand in your resignation at work.
By the way, will you document your travels? You could create an Instagram following to inspire others, or create a scrapbook with all your ticket stubs, doodles and messages from the people you meet. You could start a blog like this one.
Pack your bags
With 48 hours to go, it’s time to pack. I always use online lists specific to the regions I’m visiting, so I won’t worry about putting a list here. However, I have a few words of advice. Bring old clothes, when they wear out throw them away and buy local clothing.
Forget convertible pants, you know those zip at the knee pants that are both shorts and trousers, they’re unnecessary and you probably won’t wear them in the end.
Don’t buy a money belt, nothing screams ‘tourist’ like seeing money bulges under shirts.
You may have read advice about brings sleeping bag liners to protect against dorm beds. Nah, don’t bother. Hostels aren’t the festering cesspools of filth that they were in days of yonder and the sheets are changed after each guest.
Slash-proof bag nets are unnecessary; a simple coded padlock works well enough.
Only bring hiking boots if you know you really want to do a lot of hiking and not on the off chance that you may. If you do decide to do a bit of hiking, a pair of comfy sneakers will do fine.
Bring enough tampons and contraceptive for the whole time you’re away. Sometimes you can’t find the same quality in developing nations.
Don’t bring a mosquito net or a sleeping bag unless you know you’ll need it for camping. Most hostels provide mozzie nets anyway.
Staying sane on the road
It’s okay to cry, no really. It’s going to be scary, you’re going to feel wildly out of place and everything will be very slightly different to what you know at home. You will get homesick and it’ll probably stay with you for the first two weeks off and on. But after those first couple of weeks you’re going to love it and four weeks or four months or four years will not be enough time to travel to all the places you want to see.
You’ll meet people with some really interesting views on life, living lives in countries vastly different to your own. Every day will be new and exciting, you’ll do things you never thought you would have the guts to do. It’ll be one of the wildest adventures of your life. So use this guide, and get planning!
A recap of the websites I use for travel
Budgets: price of travel website
Overland travel: seat61 for train timetables
Time to visit: Lonely Planet
Extra: I highly recommend checking out your library for a copy of Lonely Planet’s Big Trip. A book I read thoroughly before travelling.
Click to pin it to your travel board!