We've all either done it or dreamt of doing it. Grab a backpack and whatever money we can scrape together and head out into the open world.
Aside from the dead-giveaway backpack, it's difficult to define what a backpacker is. But having done my fair share of backpacking (across Europe and South America), I know that most of us have a few things in common:
A Desire To TravelWho'd be backpacking if they didn't enjoy travel? Whether it's a keen interest in discovering what makes each country unique or just a chronic case of wanderlust, a love of travel unites us.
A Limited BudgetAs a backpacker you want to experience the most amazing places and cultures for the longest possible time. That generally means keeping the purse-strings tight and avoiding unnecessary expenses.
A Craving For FreedomThis is the one attribute that, in my opinion, clearly separates a backpacker from a regular tourist. We want to feel free to get up and go anytime we please, while still being covered for those worst-case scenarios.
But a desire to travel and that trademark craving for freedom often seem dwarfed compared to that other backpacker attribute - a limited budget.
Back in the sixties you may have been able to get around by hitchhiking, working odd jobs on the sly and busking for change. You could try to pull that off nowadays, but the only place that's likely to get you is into trouble.
Today's backpacker is a somewhat different breed. Most of us work full-time and have limited vacations. We generally aren't content to spend those precious days off eating something out of a soup kitchen bowl, or our holiday nights sleeping in city parks. Things like comfortable hotel stays and restaurant meals have become an important part of the backpacking experience.
So is it possible to satisfy our love for travel on a tight budget? It's difficult, but not impossible. Here are a few practical ideas, from one backpacker to another, that you can use to make each dollar take you further:
Save Up Miles
I would recommend you use a card that lets you earn rewards on all your purchases, as you can then earn rewards just by paying the rent, buying groceries, gas, paying recurring bills as well as on your other spending.
Ride Sleeper Trains
Sure, bus tickets run a lot cheaper, but they can be an expensive bargain. Just check out the look on any budget traveler's face when you mention a long bus ride. Unless you are narcoleptic, you will probably find it impossible to get a decent sleep on a bus. So you will have to pay for a hotel or youth hostel stay when you get where you are going.
A sleeper wagon is like a bus and hotel rolled into one. You get a good night's rest and get where you want to go at the same time. You don't lose time traveling and in most cases, you arrive smack in the middle of the city you want to visit. When you look at it that way, it offers a real bargain compared to taking the bus or renting a car. If you book in advance (this can usually be done online), you can get very decent prices on overnight train rides. Most European railways run overnight trains between major cities.
For example, Deutsche Bahn (German railways) offers couchette cars on their City Night Line (Munich - Venice, Amsterdam - Zurich, Cologne - Prague and many more routes). Women can request a women-only cabin. International tickets start at €60 (around $67), and you'll have a tough time finding a bus trip plus a place to stay for that money anywhere in western Europe.
But you aren't limited to Europe. Many railways in Asia, South America and Africa offer overnight sleeper cars which, though sometimes a bit quaint, offer good value for money. The Shosholoza Meyl railway in South Africa, for example, offers secure tourist class overnight sleeper trains (complete with dining car and 2-berth cabins) between Cape Town and Johannesburg (870 miles) for just 630 Rand, which is only around $50 these days.
Book (Way) Ahead Of Time
However you decide to travel, you will almost always save money by booking far in advance. Doing this also ensures that you get the travel arrangements that suit you best.
Flights are an obvious candidate for early booking, but trains and buses sometimes offer even higher relative savings to early bookers. The same thing goes for hotels or youth hostels, tours, and even some restaurants.
Today we have the privilege of being able to book a lot of the basics online. Using the right credit card to pay for your travel bookings can help you get even more savings.
Skip The ATM Fees
If you stick to major cities and spend mostly at big tourist restaurants and big supermarkets. then you can save a lot of money by using a no-foreign-transaction-fee credit card to pay for purchases.
But as a backpacker you will probably want to get off the tourist path, and that is where you will usually need cash. Of course you don't want to carry cash for your entire trip around with you, and changing dollars to foreign currency can be an expensive affair. So most of us use our card to withdraw local currency from ATMs as we go. This tends to work out a bit cheaper than cash exchange offices, but still will cost you around $5 every time you make a withdrawal. Many ATMs limit withdrawals to as little as $100, so those withdrawal fees can be a killer.
One way to avoid this fee is by only using ATMs from your bank's partners. The Global ATM Alliance is an example of an international ATM network. If you have an account at Bank of America, you can withdraw money using your ATM card or debit card at ATMs from these banks without paying international ATM access fees (some other fees may still apply, depending on the bank):
1. Deutsche Bank (common in Germany, but also found in Spain, Poland, Portugal, Belgium and India).
2. Barclays (common in the United Kingdom (England), but you can find ATMs in France, Spain, Portugal, Pakistan, Gibraltar, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, and other countries in Africa).
3. BNP Paribas (common in France, though you will find ATMs in other countries).
4. Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (Italy).
5. Scotiabank (Canada, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Guyana, and the Caribbean).
6. Westpac (Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, Tonga, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu and Cook Islands).
7. ABSA (widely available in South Africa, but also found in other African countries).
8. BNP Paribas Ukrsybbank (Ukraine).
Check if your bank is part of a similar ATM network and try to stick to ATMs from banks in that network to avoid paying international ATM access fees.
The further your money goes, the longer you can enjoy traveling the world. Of course these are just a few tricks learned from many summers spent backpacking. You probably have a bag of tricks of your own which you can share in the comments below.