I talk to countless people that want to travel long-term, the majority of them being (American) college students who are just months away from graduation. They usually ask about my RTW trip and then tell me how they’ve always thought about backpacking around Europe after graduation. Why is it always Europe?!
OK, I get it. South America can have significant language barriers, Africa’s infrastructure isn’t ideal for backpacking, etc. There are more ideal options for your first extended trip. Europe is great, but so many Americans overlook Asia–in particular, Southeast Asia. Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of the two most popular backpacking areas for a young first-time backpacker:
Unless you live in Hawaii, Europe is going to be significantly closer and easier to reach than Southeast Asia. Less connections, less time in a plane, less jet lag. But what about the cost? Surprisingly, they are about the same. I just checked Expedia for flights from Los Angeles to Bangkok in May (right after most graduations). 866 dollars round trip. For the same dates, New York to London is 951 dollars. Changing dates and cities will lead to different results, but the bottom line is that Asia is not significantly more expensive to get to; it just takes a little more time. As for Visas, Europe is a cinch for Americans (thank you Schengen Agreement). Most countries don’t require visas in advance. Asia can be just as easy, but some countries have more difficult processes and restrictions. For example, you can only stay in Thailand for two weeks if arriving by land (Hint: Take a puddle jumper and you can stay four weeks).
Europe is famous for its high-speed trains and efficient transportation network. Unfortunately, as a backpacker, you probably won’t be able to afford any of these high-speed trains. But it’s true, getting around Western Europe is a snap. With low-cost flight options like RyanAir and stupid cheap international buses (Student Agency Bus), you don’t even need trains. If you do want to go that route, the Eurail passes can be a good deal but you have to do your homework. While most of Europe is very easy to get around, it’s worth noting that some places in Eastern Europe can be much tougher. I got stuck in Croatia for over two days trying to get to Budapest (which was only three hours away by car). Many bus/train routes in Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia Herzegovina have been canceled or are seasonal.
Southeast Asia conjures up images of rickety motorcycle taxis zooming through traffic, and occasionally that’s accurate. However, the region also has ridiculously cheap airlines like Air Asia (I got a flight from Malaysia to Thailand for 44 dollars), a respectable train network, and efficient ferries. It’s dirt cheap to get around the region and you can often do combined ferry and bus journeys with one ticket. An added benefit of Southeast Asia is that it is incredibly inexpensive to rent a moped, giving you the freedom to explore on your own. With all of this being said, Europe does have an overall more modern and reliable transportation network, so despite the savings in Asia, Europe wins by a hair.
Different people like different weather, but in general, do you want to be in a swimsuit or a rain jacket? Europe is beautiful in the summer, but it can be rainy and winters are cold. Southeast Asia will make you sweat A LOT, but you’ll be rewarded with shorts year-round and lots of sun. You’ll see plenty of storms, especially in the monsoon season, but they generally pass quickly. One huge advantage of warm weather is that summer clothes take up a fraction of backpack space that winter clothes do.
Advantage: Southeast Asia
If you’re into history, Europe is the place to be. While many 20-somethings associate history with boring museums, there’s nothing like seeing the Berlin Wall or the Coliseum in person. Southeast Asia has plenty of interesting history too; Angkor Wat could top just about any historical building in Europe. But when it comes down to it, Europe can’t be beat.
Things to do:
Obviously there is a ton to do in both regions. The way I look at it is that Europe has a lot to see, Southeast Asia has a lot to do. If you want to visit lots of historical landmarks and see shows then Europe is ideal. If scuba diving and hanging out with elephants are more your style then go to Southeast Asia.
Advantage: Depends on your preference
Europe is legendary for its nightlife and rightfully so; the club scenes in Ibiza and Berlin are the best in the world. Bars and clubs stay open until sunrise. Not only that, but you can drink your weight in the best beer and wine that money can buy.
At the same time, Southeast Asia is wild. Full moon/half moon parties are no secret anymore, but when you arrive to Haad Rin for the first time, your mind will be blown. In addition, you can find Spain-caliber clubs in Singapore; Zouk is one of the top ten in the world. And the things you’ll see on Khao San Road in Bangkok will make Vegas seem like a nice wholesome town. Europe will meet your highest nightlife expectations; Southeast Asia will take your expectations and turn them upside down.
Advantage: Toss up
How do you compare a home-cooked Italian meal in Tuscany to the delicious hawker food in Singapore? You don’t. The food in both regions is amazing.
Advantage: Toss up
This seems cut and dried: Europe=expensive, Asia=cheap. Sure, London and Paris are some of the most expensive cities in the world. But you have to look at the whole picture. Budapest is very cheap and it gets better the further east you go. By the time you get to Serbia and Bulgaria, it’s cheaper than many Asian destinations. If you are leaning toward Europe, don’t forget about the East! On the flip side, many people don’t realize that Singapore is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Still, when averaged out, Europe just can’t match the seven dollar a night hostels and 25 cent beers of Southeast Asia. Your dollar goes further than in the Eurozone which means you can afford to travel longer.
Advantage: Southeast Asia
This really depends on where you are. In Western Europe, almost everyone will speak some English. In Singapore, English is one of the official languages. In Eastern Europe, English is less common but still widely spoken among younger generations. And many travelers are surprised to find out how common English is in Asia. Generally speaking, English speakers will have no problem getting around any major city or tourist destination in either area. However, if you go to a rural village in northern Myanmar or a small town in Eastern Croatia, you may find yourself doing lots of hand motions.
Advantage: Toss up
In my opinion, the best part about Europe is how small the countries are and how easy it is to jump between them. You can be at a bullfight and eating tapas in Madrid, and be listening to bagpipe music in the Scottish highlands the next day. Europe is like a variety pack of your favorite candy.
As for Southeast Asia, I love the complete shock of it all. As an American, going to Europe really isn’t that different from home. If you took a picture on a random street in New York, London, Berlin, and Barcelona, it would be hard to tell them apart. To be fair, you could do that in parts of Singapore or Kuala Lumpur too. But, you won’t find anything remotely similar to a wet market in Singapore’s Little India, flushing a toilet with a bucket in Laos, or cruising through Ha Long Bay on a junk boat in Vietnam. You become a sponge, absorbing every little detail of your surroundings. Europe is well within most Americans’ comfort zone. If you want a truly unique experience then throw yourself into Southeast Asia.
Advantage: Southeast Asia
The final tally comes to 3-3 with a bunch of ties. Call me indecisive, but they truly are neck and neck. It comes down to preference. If you haven’t noticed yet, I prefer Southeast Asia. For me, Europe starts to blend together. In my opinion, you can only see so many old buildings and drink at so many hole-in-the-wall bars before they lose their luster. Sometimes I have trouble trying to remember if I saw something in Zagreb or Vienna. At the end of the day, I like to do things. I find Southeast Asia to be much better for action based activities. Also, I enjoy how different Asia is from home and I love warm weather. With all of that being said, don’t let anyone ever tell you where to travel. If you want to go to Europe, then go. My aim for this post isn’t to tell people why they shouldn’t go to Europe, it’s to open people’s eyes to Southeast Asia. For Americans, backpacking often leads to snap associations with (Western) Europe. Hopefully this post is useful for anyone that is weighing all of their options. Happy planning!