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Tips for Backpackers: Avoiding Pitfalls

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Tips for Backpackers
Part 1: Planning and Packing | Part 2: Travelling Around | Part 3: Avoiding Pitfalls

First-time 'travellers' may find arrival in a foreign country daunting. And then there are all the possible pitfalls involved in living for several months within a foreign culture where you may not speak the language. Here are a few tips that can help things to run more smoothly, or help you to avoid 'worst case scenarios'.

Avoiding Pitfalls

  • You'll get lost. Repeatedly. Guidebook maps are notoriously inaccurate. The secret is to be able to find your way without resorting to the expensive and often frustrating last resort of a taxi-ride. With a little practice, you can work out which way you're facing by using the Sun. Small compasses are worth taking on your trip.

  • If all else fails, and you're in a town or city, jump in a taxi1. Beware, though, that developing world taxi-drivers often speak no English and may not know more than the very basics of their home-town. They may expect you to give them directions! Pointing on a map or even giving the name of the street you want may not help. In this case, opt for some major landmark near your destination or the district you need, and either walk or point from there.

  • A GPS system is an expensive toy, but useful if you can afford it. Essentially a sat-nav system without the inbuilt map, even the most basic models will be able to tell you your location (in the form of a grid reference) and heading, plus your altitude, speed and the directions and distances to any points you've programmed in, either from grid references or by visiting them.

We're not in Kansas Any More: Dealing With the Developing World

  • Don't drink the water. This means buying bottled water (usually fairly cheap), which in turn means remembering to leave enough space in your bag for a 1 - 1.5 litre bottle. These are invariably designed to be the most inconvenient shape possible for stuffing into an already crammed rucksack.

    It's usually possible to tell where tap water is potable from the price of bottled water. If you're paying several pounds per litre, bottled water is obviously a luxury.

  • Alternatively, you could use bromine or iodine tablets or, even better, drops. Get used to this sanitised water by drinking it for a couple of weeks at home first and you'll avoid niggling belly problems when you're away. Other options include water filters, which can be made of a variety of materials and pass water on immersion, filtering out most parasites and microorganisms (but not usually viruses). If you're travelling on the cheap, saving money on water is a real boon.

  • Much of the fun of budget travelling comes from unexpected sources. For example, trying to use local transport to get to some of the less well-known Egyptian temples might be more interesting than the temples themselves. Third-class may be full of locals who are eager to talk to you, while first is full of rich US tourists who ignore you. Besides, your best stories are likely to come from the times when things didn't go to plan — although you might not think so when the bus with all your luggage and money drives off, leaving you and all the other passengers stranded after dark in the Andes.

  • There are places where it's simply not possible or practical to go by public transport, so you'll occasionally need to book a tour. Every tour is different, but there are a few key points to consider. Is food included? How many people will there be? Are you guaranteed a seat2? Are meals included? If so, what are they like? Do they include meat? How long will the tour last? Does the guide speak English3? If relevant, is insurance included?

    Start with the assumption that the tour agency will cut corners wherever possible if you don't force it to be specific in advance. There may not be the trade description laws you're used to. And, even if there are tourist police, it's probably not worth the hassle of contacting them4.

    In any event, it's almost always worth shopping around to compare prices and itineraries. You'll often find that only one or two companies run the tour, although several sell tickets. Bear in mind too that 'three days, two nights' usually means the first and third days are taken up with travelling and give you only a few hours to do whatever it is you're paying for.

  • Another point that can be strange for Westerners to grasp is that in many developing nations there may not be enough change to go around. A shopkeeper may have real difficulty breaking a note worth just $5 or $10. People may constantly ask if you have the right change to pay for something, while all the money you change at banks will come in high-value notes. In certain parts of India, people even scrape a living by selling change! This lack of change can be very frustrating, and there's no simple answer except to hoard it. Expensive 'Western' shops are more likely (but not certain) to have change.

  • Haggle: hotel rooms, tour rates, (unmetered) taxi fares, souvenirs — almost anything can be negotiated, depending on the country you're in. The etiquette and art of haggling is well outside the scope of this article, but a polite 'Is that your best price?' will rarely cause offence. If you learn nothing else in the local language, a few polite greetings and replies and knowing the numbers can inspire goodwill and cause the price to tumble. Hostility or anger, on the other hand, can lead to expensive products. Smile, laugh and take your time. Haggling is a social interaction, not an argument over every last penny.

    Sadly, this often jars with Western attitudes. Perhaps the simplest method is to decide in advance how much you want to pay, name that price, and stick to it. Another method is to shuttle back and forth between two people selling the same thing, effectively involving them in a bidding war against each other. If you're buying something that locals buy (ie fruit, not souvenirs), there'll be a 'right' price, and if you know it you should get it.

    Ironically, haggling is usually more acceptable in cheap hotels and markets than expensive places or touristy shops. If a price isn't displayed, it's open to negotiation!

Female Backpackers

The tendrils of sexual equality haven't yet reached all corners of the globe. In some parts of the world, women — particularly blonde women — can still expect reactions ranging from curiosity to lust. Although this is more likely to be an irritation than a danger, it's worth being aware of.

Particular hotspots seem to include Africa, Latin America5 and the Middle East, especially rural areas. There's no easy solution. Tour groups (such as 'overland' trucks) can shield you from the worst of it, but at the expense of isolating you from other interactions with locals.

It may be helpful to realise that attitudes to Western women are often coloured by the cheap Hollywood films that are popular throughout the developing world. Arab 'romantics' in particular are easily disabused of the idea that all Western women regularly sleep with strangers by a loud (and preferably embarrassingly public) objection in their native tongue.

Overall, it's unfortunately advisable for women travellers to be more aware of these issues. But the solutions are as numerous as the problems. Travelling as a pair or in a small group can both reduce the problem and increase your confidence.

Unlucky for Some: Being Prepared for Disaster

Gather together all your important paperwork — cash, traveller's cheques, plane tickets, bank cards6, passport, and so on, and go through them, working out what you'd have to do if you lost them, individually or in combinations. Stolen passport — where's your embassy? Traveller's cheques — do you have a note of the numbers, or even scanned copies7? Plane tickets — will the airline have a computer record of your booking? Knowing you could cope if the worst were to happen can give you peace of mind.

Bits and Bobs

Every traveller will give you a different list of essential little things to take. By obeying all of them, you'd never be able to lift your bag! Remember also that most things will be available in most places (if you can find the right shop). If the strut tears out of your bag, there are few places on Earth where you won't be able to find a needle and thread for sale.

  • One of the most useful things to take with you is a supply of carrier bags or bin bags. These can be used to keep clothing dry if it rains, waterproof electrical equipment, protect books or keep your dirty laundry separate. They're also easy to replace if a laundrette doesn't return them.

Some of the less obvious useful items might include:

  • An enamel mug (so you can buy drinks from shops rather than restaurants)
  • A spoon (so you can buy food from shops)
  • A towel — always know where it is!
  • A sleeping bag8
  • A needle and thread (for holes in jeans, shoes, bags etc)
  • Lip balm (don't skip this if you're going anywhere near a desert — and note that chapped lips may be a symptom of vitamin B deficiency)
  • A money-belt (preferably worn under the clothes when carrying your passport or large quantities of cash)
  • A padlock (but check it can't be pulled open and that it does keep your bag closed
  • A medical kit, including sterile needles, because there are hospitals out there that don't have any9
  • A pen (almost always needed on international flights outside Europe)
  • A photocopy of your passport
  • A prescription for your glasses, if you wear them (you can't replace them without one)
  • Sunscreen and a hat
  • Plastic film canisters are very useful, and can usually be obtained for free at photo places if you ask nicely. Use them as a waterproof container to store medications, vitamin supplements, matches, a sewing kit, a little salt...
  • Perhaps most important of all: a blank notebook to keep a journal

You will of course end up eating in restaurants for the most part, as you'll rarely have access to a kitchen. But bear in mind that, after accommodation and tickets, food is likely to be your biggest expense. Buying a little bread and jam from a shop for breakfast (you'll need a knife), or taking lunch from a street-side snack vendor can slash your food budget  — and the less you spend each day, the longer you can stay away.

For the Really Hardcore Traveller

Scrimp and save everywhere you can once you're out there. You might want to ease yourself into this — don't feel obliged to check into the cheapest, scummiest hotel you can find on your first night away from home. But organising your own breakfast and lunch can slash your daily budget almost in half, compared with eating out three times a day, and thus nearly double the length of time you can spend away. Other corner-cutting options include not ordering a drink with your meal and eating the cheapest possible meal six days a week, with the occasional weekly splurge to remain human.

And Finally...

You're here to enjoy yourself. It's a big old world, so if you find that you qren't having a good time — for instance, if you get bored of lying on a beach — go somewhere else!

Tens of thousands of people go backpacking each year, most of them on quite a tight budget, and the vast majority enjoy themselves. By following or ignoring these tips to suit yourself, you should be able to leave the less adventurous on the beach and venture off the beaten track, enjoying the freedom of self-reliance. Whether you're into the challenge of budget backpacking or simply trying to eke out your budget for as long as possible, each of these tips should provide you with a means to save money, thus prolonging your travels. Conversely, if any of them sound like too much hassle, most can be replaced by the judicious use of cash.

Happy travels!

1If all else fails and you're not in a town or city, you're in trouble. This is heading towards wilderness survival, and rather beyond the scope of this Entry. 2Also a useful question to ask when buying bus or train tickets.3Assuming you don't speak the local language.4Although the threat has been known to work wonders...5It isn't a coincidence that the word 'macho' comes from Spanish. 6Not technically paperwork, I realise.7Perhaps on an email to your Hotmail account where they can't get lost. 8Either a nice warm one or a thin, light one — the eternal travellers' dilemma 9But be careful: carrying needles around isn't such a good idea if you get searched by the police. You can get sealed packs clearly marked 'for emergency medical use only'. These are far better than a couple wedged into your first aid kit. Note also that a selection of sizes may be desirable.

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