Sunday, January 6, 2008

How to plan a backpacking trip #1: Inspiration and saving money

You've spent the last half hour staring at the map and you're ready to go! Unfortunately a backpacking trip requires a little bit more pre-trip planning. In this article you will learn how to get inspired (if you aren't already) and start saving money.

For some people, backpacking through Europe is a once in a lifetime experience. For others, it's a regular summer activity. No matter which of these groups you will eventually fall into, planning a backpacking trip for the first time can be daunting, especially if you are planning on traveling alone. I've been there and I've learned from my mistakes, and you can too!

This advice is presented in a step-by-step order, but a lot of these steps will overlap as you are doing them, especially as your trip gets nearer.

The first thing you need is inspiration. Probably you got the idea for a trip of your own when you heard someone you know talking about their trip and showing off their envy-inspiring pictures, or reading a book like Bill Bryson's Neither Here Nor There (that did it for me). Suddenly traveling around the world seemed like something you not only want to, but MUST do.

Or maybe you are just thinking about it and you're asking yourself whether you really do want to backpack. In that case the answer is yes, you just don't know it yet. Start by picking up a copy of Bryson or another travel anthology. Browse some travel websites and read other travelers' stories and advice. Even if you're not planning on taking a tour, look at tour descriptions of destinations and activities. Watch the Travel channel. Buy a guidebook and open it up to a random page. Tack a map on the wall and stare at it. Pretty soon, if not instantly, you will start to feel that wanderlust bubble inside you. Now you're ready to start planning.

The second thing you need to do is start saving money. Travel can be cheap and fun and easy but it's not free and there are lots of initial costs, especially if it's your first big trip. You'll need a plane ticket, a rail pass, a backpack and gear. This may sound intimidating but it IS doable if you are determined.

There are tons of ways to save money and lots of advice to be had. Here is what works best for me:

First, get a job. Obviously, you have to have some sort of income before you can start hording away for your Eurail pass. Put your paycheck into a special travel fund bank account that's separate form your daily expenses. That way you'll think twice about dipping into your trip fund for a night out.

Which is related to the second point. Every time you take out your wallet, ask yourself: "Do I want this or do I want to go to Europe?" If someone held an ice cream cone in one hand and an airplane ticket in the other and asked me which one I wanted, you can be pretty sure which one I'd take. After all, it's not like an ice cream and a plane ticket cost the same. But it's hard to remember that all those little expenses add up and eat away at money that can be used for your trip. So try this, for example: when you are standing at the ATM of the bank which holds your travel fund, before you withdraw $40 ask yourself, "do I want to have a night out now or do I want to have one in Madrid?" I think you know the answer.

By cutting back on your expenses, you really can fund your trip! Try making your lunch instead of buying it, taking turns making dinner with your friends instead of eating out, watching a movie at home instead of going to the cinema, and getting books from the library or websites like Bookmooch instead of buying them (this is a real problem for me!).

If you do have a problem with shopping, pretend you are in a war and you have to save precious materials for the war effort. (I know this is nerdy but it works!) Read Slavenka Draculic's How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (get it from the library) to see how people used to get by on so little when there was nothing available. You will realize how much of the stuff you buy you don't actually need. Keep in mind that you can buy a new shirt now or you can buy one in Paris. But you'll never get there if you keep buying new shirts!

Thirdly, do you have a big occasion coming up which means you will be receiving lots of money or gifts? If you are graduating, send out announcements and hopefully your relatives will be so proud that you have obtained a degree, they will send you nice checks that can go into your trip fund bank account instead of being spent on things like iPods.

Fortunately, graduations are also seen as big milestones, and a point in life at which is might be appropriate to do something that might otherwise be somewhat questionable, such as spending three months in Eastern Europe. Of course, you and I both know that spending three months in Eastern Europe is an entirely normal and healthy way to spend your time and money. ;-) But not everyone sees it that way. If you are lucky enough to be graduating, people will probably forgive what might otherwise be considered an unwise choice. So take advantage of that! One the other hand, maybe you are lucky and you have friends and family who are entirely supportive of your travel dream. In that case be sure you blast your plans loud and clear and they will be more than willing to help.

It's likely that you'll have a birthday and/or Christmas in between when you start planning your trip and when you finally take off. You should take advantage of these holidays to help you prepare for your trip. You don't have to ask for plain cash, although that's great too. Instead you can put on your wish list things you'll need for your trip that you don't already have (look for one of my next articles on the ultimate backpacker's packing list). An REI gift certificate is always welcomed by a travel enthusiast and will be particularly useful for the first-time traveler. You can drop subtle hints that guidebooks make great presents. If one of your gift givers is feeling particularly generous, or if a couple of them team up, you might even be able to score a backpack, Eurail pass, or plane ticket!

Now that you are longing for gelato and the church bells of St Mark's, and your travel fund is growing fast enough to pay for these things, you are ready to move onto the next step. Look for my next article on how to plan a backpacking trip: deciding on a destination for your trip.

Note: I was originally posting these articles on Associated Content but I got bored of them constantly rejecting my original and brilliant articles so here they are. If you really like it, however, you can head on over there and rate it for me!

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