Traveling is a learning experience. You meet different people, see new things, and work through new challenges. Your mind is stretched and your beliefs are challenged. There is one lesson in particular that kept reaffirming itself during my travels and still pops into my head frequently:
Outside of your little bubble in your little corner of planet Earth, nobody cares about your upbringing, your accomplishments, your social standing, or who you know…and that’s awesome.
We get so wrapped up in our own world, when the truth is that most of the things that occupy our thoughts are laughably insignificant. In college, students place a huge emphasis on what fraternity or sorority someone is in, what bars they go to, what clothes they wear, and who they know. People actually form an opinion of someone based on these superficial habits and traits.
Think I’m just talking about high school or college students? This misguided thinking only intensifies as we get older. We get caught up in job titles, which college our kids are going to attend, or who has the newest car on the cul-de-sac.
It’s engrained in our minds. How many times have you watched a movie and become completely caught up in the characters and their world? With movies, we either snap out of it when the lights come on, or the strong emotions fade as we reenter our own reality. But we don’t regularly escape our bubble and see the bigger picture. Travel, especially solo travel, provides this dose of perspective.
Nobody in Germany cares about what sorority you are in; they might not even know what greek life is. Your new friend in India doesn’t care that you know Cam Newton. Even if you explain that he is a famous athlete, they don’t care about American football just like you probably don’t care about Indian cricket players. A farmer in Papua New Guinea doesn’t care that you developed an app that syncs Outlook with your car’s bluetooth system. That doesn’t help him sell more coffee beans. As you struggle to express the importance of the things that are valued by people you would interact with at home, you’ll experience a sense of frustration. They just don’t get it. Even if it’s a good friend that shares your interests, trying to explain the joy of “tailgating” won’t ever do the experience justice.
The end result of all of this not-caring, is that you become free. You’re liberated from the societal norms that define you without your permission, you’re freed from doing what is expected, and barriers break down–nobody is out of your league. The only thing that defines you is what you do and say in that moment. Everything else is irrelevant. Isn’t that the way it should be?
You’ve done your research and you know exactly how much money you need to travel…now add 10-20% on top of that. Why? It doesn’t matter how well you budget, there will always be unforeseen budget breakdowns that you will encounter in your travels. Here are a few examples:
1.) Leftover cash when you leave a country
You can try to predict exactly how much cash you’ll need for your last ATM withdrawal but you’ll always end up with a few cents or a few dollars left over (at best). It’s not worth converting this small of an amount at a currency exchange, but this loose change adds up over time.
2.) No choice costs: only one bus left and it’s expensive
That low cost bus you planned on taking last week got canceled due to lack of demand. Now you have to take the standard fare option or pony up for the train. Unless you want to hitchhike, there’s nothing you can do.
3.) Your stuff breaks
You never expect your hard drive to crash, your camera lens to get sand in it, or your flip flops to rip. You can try to go on without the broken item, but if you brought it in the first place, you probably need it. Is saving 100 dollars on camera repairs worth losing all of the memories from the rest of your trip?
4.) You’re in a dangerous area and you need to get out fast
Your bus ran late and now you find yourself alone in a sketchy part of town after dark. You can try to walk it, but if you really feel unsafe then that ten dollar cab ride to your hostel is worth the peace of mind.
5.) Chaotic areas and quick decisions
You just waited fifteen minutes to get to the front of the pack at the best goulash stand in Hungary. There’s a mob of people behind you waiting to order and there’s no sign of any prices anywhere. There’s no time to ask what everything on the menu costs, so you order and pay whatever they tell you to pay. Then you hear the next guy order and you realize that the goulash soup is less than half the price of the goulash (plate). Whoops.
6.) No change for city buses
Even in America, I got burned several times from not having exact change on city buses. If it’s three dollars and all you have is a five, then your trip just became a lot more expensive.
7.) Baggage handling losses
Either that airport baggage handler stole the rain jacket out of that outer pocket in your backpack or the conveyor belt ate it. That situation may be avoidable, but sometimes an unscrupulous worker will decide he needs your stuff more than you do.
8.) When your host/friend wants to splurge
You just came half way around the world to see your foreign friend. He was even nice enough to take vacation days during your stay so you guys can hang out. Unfortunately, he has a real job and wants to escape for a few days so he booked lodging on the coast for both of you that costs three times what you would pay at a hostel. You can’t tell him “that’s too expensive!” He just used precious vacation days to see you.
9.) When your travel buddy has more expensive taste
You’re traveling with your best friend from home, but they have double the budget that you do. You’re both after the trip of a lifetime, and for them that means eating brunch at a nice cafe instead of buying a loaf of bread from the grocery store. Sometimes you can pass on the invitation or settle for the cheaper option, but inevitably you’re going to spend more money.
10.) When you and your friend are borrowing from each other
Maybe one of you has high foreign ATM fees so one person pays for the cash items while the other books the hostels with their credit card. Maybe your friend lost their wallet. Either way, as soon as you start borrowing from each other a few things happen:
-You completely lose track of how much money you’re spending. Paying for two sometimes and just yourself at other times makes your bank statements worthless.
-You round. Nobody wants to be that uptight friend about decimals, so you start rounding.
-You forget to record things. Every time you forget to record that tram ticket or candy bar, the lender/cash person loses money.
1. Most people don’t cheese as hard as Americans when taking pictures.
2. A lot of South Americans really don’t like that we call ourselves Americans instead of United Statians like they do in Spanish.
3. Your network is way bigger than you think.
4. New York and Los Angeles are where you go to make it. Miami is where you go after you’ve made it.
5. South Americans love the word “linda.”
6. You can get a totally wrong impression of someone if they are speaking to you in a language in which they aren’t fluent.
7. (Non-alcoholic) Drink sizes around the world are much smaller than in the US, with the exception of beer.
8. For good or bad, Americans don’t know the meaning of moderation.
9. Sometimes sitting down for a drink by yourself can change your attitude completely.
10. Many countries have a real catch-22 when it comes to currency. Their governments issue huge denominations (that you inevitably receive at ATMs) but nobody has change or is willing to accept the big bills.
11. Knowing what language to start a conversation in with a group of travelers is as hard as guessing someone’s age.
12. Many young people around the world truly believe the US government is evil and that 9/11 was an inside job.
13. Many people think that American food just consists of hamburgers and other fast food.
14. Tourists are highly susceptible to advertising messages because they have no loyalty to any local brands.
15. Air pollution is a serious problem.
16. Hitchhikers share a special bond that lasts a lifetime. A 65 year old that hitchhiked in his twenties will be more likely to pick up another hitcher than a 25 year old that has never hitchhiked.
17. Obesity isn’t just limited to the US. It is a growing global issue.
18. Solo travel sucks if you are only staying at each destination for a couple nights–too much small talk and too many casual acquaintances. You never form any real friendships.
19. Huge chain hostels suck for meeting people. So do empty ones.
20. Everyone thinks their country has the best coffee, pizza, and sunsets.
21. Situational awareness is an essential travel skill.
22. Everyone thinks the weather where they live is incredibly unpredictable.
23. Everyone thinks their new trend is only happening in their own country.
Ex. The emergence of Microbreweries or pay-by-weight frozen yogurt places.
24. People outside the US are extremely curious about fraternities and sororities in America.
25. Thai people either can’t come to a consensus or just don’t care about spelling in English.
Ex. Ko Pha Ngan, Koh Phangan, Ko Pha-Ngan
26. There is a severe shortage of trash cans in public places in Thailand.
27. American girls have an irrational love for Mac and Cheese. The rest of the world doesn’t get it.
28. Croatians expect you to be decisive when ordering at a restaurant. Don’t ask for recommendations.
29. The US is very cheap for the standard of living we enjoy.
30. Native English speakers are lucky to have the ability to travel almost anywhere without a significant language barrier.
31. Party hostel staff members are the star athletes and cheerleaders of the backpacking world.
32. Prague and Budapest are remarkably similar physically. They both have a river splitting the city down the middle, a castle on the west bank of the river, and lots of underground attractions (bunkers, caves, etc).
33. It rains a lot in Europe in the spring.
34. Germany has huge pillows.
35. American entertainment (music, movies, TV) is king.
36. Berlin clubs have the most bizarre entry rules in the world.
37. Bedding around the world varies a lot.
38. Pool (billiards) rules are different almost everywhere; you might even find five different sets of rules in the same town.
39. Europe has hardly any skyscrapers.
The myth that travel is inherently expensive is finally nearing extinction. Travel is within your reach. Many people have no idea how much money they are spending on rent, gas, and groceries just living their normal life. There are plenty of fantastic resources out there these days to help anyone budget for long-term travel (some links at the end of the post). With that being said, it’s always great to see the numbers. I remember when I was planning, I always wondered what people like me actually spent. People travel differently and therefore total costs vary tremendously, even among backpackers.
Below you’ll find all of the numbers behind my 105 day Round-the-World (RTW) trip. Posting a 110 row Excel spreadsheet in a viewer-friendly format is difficult, but if anyone wants the full file to reference, I’d be more than happy to send it to you (just leave a comment). For now, I’ll just post a screenshot below so you can see how I tracked my spending.
My trip took me through thirteen countries over the course of 105 days. In total, I spent $11,533. That averages out to $61.59 per day, not including airfare. My flights were a huge expense as I wanted to visit many different regions in just 3.5 months, therefore my ~15 flights came out to almost 5,000 dollars. As you can see, my five categories of spending (lodging, transportation, food, partying, and activities) all came out to be nearly equal. So, would your numbers be anything like mine? Maybe. My style was to travel relatively quickly (taking the absolute cheapest transportation options), do lots of activities, stay in budget accommodation, eat cheap local food, and party a good bit as well. My budget was clearly optimistic as my entire trip was about 1,500 dollars over budget. Many people, like Nomadic Matt, argue that you could average about 50 dollars a day. I agree. However, to accomplish that you would have to visit fewer destinations per trip (travel slower), cut out the scuba diving and bungee jumping, only party in a handful of destinations, and avoid expensive destinations. Sometimes you have to pull your head out of the clouds. I budgeted 60 dollars per day for Carnaval in Rio, but my hostel alone was 50 dollars a night (a good deal for that time of year). Likewise, if you want to scuba dive in Thailand, there is no way you’ll hit 30 dollars a day. Again, if you travel over a long period of time in each destination, your costs go down. This is because instead of doing every activity in two days, you spread your costs over four or five days. Also, any day you buy a train or bus ticket to the next city, you’ll probably be over budget as well (if you travel slower, you have less of these days).
Below I included some of my averages for specific destinations. Take it with a huge grain of salt. New Zealand is an extremely expensive place to go, so why was Dunedin one of my cheapest destinations? I stayed with a friend for free, ate food at his house or McDonald’s, did only free activities (surfing, etc.), and only partied one or two nights. Conversely, Thailand is a very cheap place to go, but I did a LOT. I went diving three days, I went to a Full Moon Party, I rented kayaks and mopeds, etc. If you just go to Thailand to sit on a beach and relax for a few days, you could get by on 25 dollars a day, no problem. Another example–I think Budapest is significantly cheaper than Prague, but I did a lot more activities and partying in Budapest so I spent a lot of money there. Don’t take these averages at face value!
Where I Could Have Saved:
Where I Did Well:
Budgeting for a RTW trip is a daunting task that involves lots of time and research. Hopefully this post is useful to anyone who is considering taking the plunge or has already begun to plan. If you have any questions about my specific numbers, I would be more than happy to answer them in the comments. If you would like some resources to help you start budgeting, I highly recommend these three below. Happy planning!
www.nomadicmatt.com (general budget travel advice)
Backpacker Index 2014 (estimated cost per day of over 100 cities around the world)
www.matadornetwork.com (a great travel publication with tons of budget-minded posts)
American travelers are all used to encountering stereotypes while abroad. We’re all fat, loud, gun-slinging, ignorant racists. Right? While many people choose to focus on the negative aspects of the USA, there are plenty of positive (or hilarious) generalizations that you may encounter abroad.
1. We smile a lot.
It’s true, Americans cheese way harder than many of our friends around the globe. While Thailand beat us to the title of “Land of Smiles,” many foreigners are confused by our perpetual happiness. While some criticize this habit as being disingenuous, it’s really just a cultural phenomenon. A smile is seen as polite and signals to its recipient that you are probably not going to shove them into a trashcan at any second. I’ve found the lack of smiling abroad to be confusing at times. Is this waiter about to spit in my food, or is he having a perfectly normal day? Nobody knows.
2. They’ll think you want Ketchup on everything.
Yes, Americans love Ketchup (no not “tomato sauce” or any other not-so-identical substitute). But just because we like the stuff doesn’t mean we want it on your delicious local cuisine! We love to eat…we come to Thailand for a good Pad Thai, not a ketchup covered butchering of a quality dish. True story: I ordered a Kebap in Austria…the cook asked me where I was from while preparing the döner deliciousness. After responding that I was American, he immediately looked up and asked if I would like ketchup on my Kebap. Not in a condescending way, he genuinely believed he was being helpful and that I would surely want ketchup.
3. We’re expected to be gods at drinking games.
Blame it on Hollywood–Animal House, Project X, Beerfest, etc. Sure, Americans love drinking games, but we also love football. Is every American good at football? No. If you don’t sink your first cup in a game of Beer Pong against some Brits, be prepared for the trash talking. America’s honor is resting on your shoulders, make us proud!
4. We tip extremely generously.
The US has a very different tipping culture than the rest of the world. Somewhere along the line, we decided it was OK to pay our waiters and waitresses next to nothing, but make an unwritten rule that you have to tip to make up the difference. Under standard circumstances, not leaving a tip (or even leaving a tip below 15%) is akin to shouting obscenities at a little old lady or knocking down a kid’s sandcastle at the beach…you just don’t do that. Because of this, we tend to overtip abroad (from either a lack of knowledge of local tipping practices or a compulsion to leave extra money based on our habits at home).
5. We REALLY love our country.
The rest of the world just doesn’t get why we fly American flags everywhere and wear the stars and stripes at any possible opportunity. Well, America is a great country with a lot going for it. We should be proud of that! But that’s not to say the US is perfect or that your country isn’t great too. I’ve found that most people have pride for their homeland, they just express it in different ways. Whether it’s food, traditions, flags, or songs, we all tend to cheer for the home team.
For inexperienced travelers, booking budget accommodation can be intimidating. With so many choices, how do you know which one to pick? This post will focus on hostels specifically, and hopefully help you choose the one that’s right for you.
A good place to start is Hostelworld.com (I have no affiliation with them). You can quickly and easily browse through almost every hostel in a particular city. In my opinion, there are four criteria that stand above the rest in terms of importance:
This is crucial and often overlooked. If you know the city, check the map and see if the hostel is in your preferred area. If you don’t know the city, Google a few attractions or points of interest and then see if the hostel falls anywhere near them. When all else fails, check their description and their reviews. Reviews will often say something like “Great location in the middle of downtown” or “In a quieter area, a fifteen minute walk to the city center.” Location is critical because you don’t want to spend your precious time walking, taking public transit, and asking for directions. In addition to that, the money you think you might be saving by staying outside the city center could very well be spent on additional transportation costs.
While drapes and color palettes might be important to some people, style here refers to the personality of the hostel. Do you want a quiet place to relax or do you want a party hostel where you can make tons of friends and drink in the lobby? Do you want an authentic local experience or the comforts of home? You can get a pretty good idea by looking at the hostel’s description, but again this is where reviews really come into play. You can quickly get an idea of what kind of people you’ll be staying with (hint: note the ages of each reviewer) and what the hostel is like based on a few good reviews. Style can totally change your perception of a city. I stayed in a quiet hostel outside the city center in Zagreb and found the city to be pretty quiet and unknown to most backpackers. When I switched to a social hostel in the city center, Zagreb turned into a lively European city where you can party and meet people from all over Europe.
This is where personal preference comes in. What are your must haves? Some common must-haves are:
If you just did laundry, you might not care about having a washing machine. Likewise, if you are in Thailand, who needs a hot shower? Sometimes you’ll have to read the reviews to find certain features. People will often comment on the number of outlets or may add that they loved how there were guitars available to play in the common area. The desirability of these amenities is completely dependent on your preferences and where you are at a given point in your trip—another reason booking far in advance is often not the best option.
I’ve already mentioned reviews twice, but that’s because they are so important. I wouldn’t stay in a hostel without at least 3-5 informative reviews. This is where you get an unbiased portrayal of the hostel, its staff, and everything in between. When browsing through reviews, I find it helpful to look for key words and phrases. If you’re looking for a party hostel, look for at least 3-5 reviews that have the words fun, wild, social, etc. If you are a solo traveler looking to make friends, look for phrases like “very lively and inviting common area” or “awesome nightly events.” In my opinion, reviews are the most important factor in choosing a hostel.
Notice that I didn’t list Price as one of these criteria. While travelers are often on a budget (myself included), I generally find that prices within a city don’t vary too much and usually that variance is well justified by better facilities or location. The price difference between a 15 dollar per night hostel and a 20 dollar per night hostel probably won’t make or break your trip’s budget, but the difference in your experience might make or break your time in that city.
After considering these four criteria, you should have a pretty good idea which hostel is right for you. If you’re still unsure, check out the hostel’s website. They often have more pictures, information on how to get there, etc. You can always email them too. Alternatively, use Google to search for something like “Best party hostel Budapest” and you may find articles by travel blogs with helpful reviews. Another great option is to ask friends or travel buddies who have been through the area for recommendations.
Now that you know where you want to stay, the rest is simply logistics. Do you need to book in advance? What if the hostel you want is full? What if you change your mind?
For most cities, you don’t need to book in advance. Many travelers like the freedom of not being locked in to a plan, and sometimes walk-in rates are slightly cheaper than the internet rates. However, from my experience, the dollar or two saved is not worth having your hostel of choice be full upon arrival. There will almost always be some hostel with availability, but it may not be anywhere near where you want to be. With Hostelworld, you only put down a small deposit so if you back out, you only lose a few dollars. You can also choose a flexible booking (just a few dollars extra) where you protect your deposit if you elect to change your plans. I find these options to be so good, that it is well worth booking a few days in advance and not having to worry about it.
In the majority of destinations, booking three days in advance is usually sufficient for the top hostels, but that’s not always the case. A few examples:
Keep in mind that certain festivals and holidays can greatly impact hostel availability. For a hostel in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval, you should book 6+ months in advance for a decent price and full selection. If you are going to Full Moon Party in Koh Phangan, book at least a week in advance. Even beyond that, sometimes festivals affect surrounding areas. Koh Tao and Koh Phi Phi are notoriously busy in the days before and after Full Moon Parties. New Years just about anywhere is extremely popular—You get the idea.
If your hostel of choice is completely full, you can always email them to ask if anyone has cancelled. More commonly, there may only be partial availability for your desired dates. If that’s the case, I’ve found that emailing the hostel and booking directly through them (versus on Hostelworld) is a great option. Most hostels are very helpful and accommodating and will find a solution, even if that means switching beds during your stay.
While seemingly daunting, booking hostels doesn’t have to be so bad. With proper research or an easygoing attitude, you should have no problem finding a great place to stay for your next trip.