Backpacker Comforts: When To Save & When To Splurge
The traditional notion of a backpacker has changed drastically over the years. Once upon a time, backpackers were people that took a chicken bus for a twelve-hour journey from one place to the next. They carried only the most basic, non-tech essentials and lived on a shoestring budget, favouring the cheapest of cheap accommodation. Nowadays, it’s a very different story for most.
Thanks to the ever-growing rise of backpacking as a travel style, hostels, transport companies, and tour providers offer a myriad of ways for backpackers to make the journey more comfortable, yet still affordable for those of us needing to stretch a modest budget over many months.
Now, I’m certainly not a high-maintenance backpacker. I love the freedom it gives me to scrap all use of makeup, abandon beauty items like hair dryers and straighteners and just be comfortable with how I naturally look. However, there are two things that I value when I’m on the road, and these are comfort and cleanliness.
I’m the type of backpacker that wants to get the best quality accommodation for the lowest price, rather than settle for the cheapest regardless of reviews. I’ll take the twelve-hour bus journey over a flight that’s double the price, but I’m going to take the best class of bus because air-con equals life.
I can already hear the protests of those reading this article and thinking the way I like to travel is inauthentic, or “not real backpacking”, as I’ve been condescendingly told in the past. You know the type, the backpackers that go out of their way to tell you that they do travel on chicken buses and therefore immerse themselves in the local culture in a way you so clearly don’t 🙄. If you’re one of these people, I’ll kindly direct you to another blog post I’ve written – how not to be a travel snob.
In my opinion, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting small luxuries whilst exploring countries that have you feeling overwhelmed and exhausted (in all the right ways).
Having said that, if you’re a long-term nomad like me, you still need to watch those pennies and save where possible to ensure you don’t have to face a backpacker’s worst nightmare; flying home early with an empty bank account.
So, what follows is a list of my own preferences and recommendations for when to splurge that little bit extra and make your travels more comfortable, and when to keep those purse strings tightly drawn.
To splurge or save on the following travel necessities? That is the question.
Transport – splurge on VIP for long/overnight journeys
As I said earlier, I’ll pretty much always favour a long bus journey over a flight where possible, as the price difference between the two is usually huge. However, I won’t just splurge on travelling on the first-class bus service. If there’s the option, I’ll also splurge just a little bit extra (I’m talking £10/$13 extra) to travel in the limited ticket VIP section.
What do you get in VIP? Firstly, your seat will be large, leather and will completely recline. It’s an absolute lifesaver if you struggle sleeping in transit! As well as this, you’re fed and watered by an attendant, which means less money spent stocking up on snacks beforehand, and you’ll get a television screen of your very own. An upgrade to VIP for me has always meant the promise of a decent night’s sleep on overnight buses, meaning when I arrive in a new destination I’m feeling fresh and ready to go.
Accommodation – save with a private room if there are two of you
Unless you’re a solo traveller, you’re able to save a good amount of cash by booking a private room instead of a dorm bed. It sounds absurd because surely the option of bunking up in a room of ten other people should always be the cheapest option, right? Not if you book through booking.com rather than a dedicated hostel-booking site (like Hostelworld).
A site like booking.com will always charge you per room, whereas hostel-booking sites charge per person, for dorms and private rooms. The thing is, most of the time the same hostel is available on both, so always shop around and see if this is the case for you!
Alcohol – save by limiting your alcoholic drinks
OK, this is a controversial one, I know. You might be a complete party person that travels just to find the best hotspots for all-night drinks, in which case perhaps this recommendation won’t sit well with you. Honestly, alcohol can cripple a backpacker budget, especially in continents like Europe and Oceania.
Given the choice between dining out every evening, or prioritising drinks and cooking supermarket food at my hostel, I’ll always take the former. Not because I’m some foodie traveller that has to dine at the top restaurants. It’s because the experience of tasting local cuisine is part and parcel of travelling for me, particularly from independently owned places. Plus, I bloody love food and I cannot handle hangovers any more…
Food – splurge on trying everything
It could be street food or a quaint family restaurant with rave reviews, but if it has a great selection of local tasty treats to try, I never hold back! See the point above, where I recommend saving money by choosing water over alcohol, and then I’m free to select the most expensive item on the menu or go to town with multiple dishes.
Some of my favourite countries are top of the list because of my food experiences there; nachos and fajitas in Mexico, steak in Argentina, empanadas in Chile… damn, I wish I wasn’t writing this post at lunchtime.
Tours – only splurge for safety or an improved experience
Knowing whether to splurge or save on tours to famous landmarks or heritage sites comes down to two things:
- Could you do this tour by yourself with a guidebook and get just as much out of it?
- Could choosing the cheaper tour operators put you in danger?
If the answer to question one is yes, don’t even bother with the tour and just put in a little extra effort to make your own arrangements, like finding public transport that can take you there for a fraction of the cost.
With question two, a more expensive tour doesn’t always mean better. The best way to judge the quality and value is to research reviews online first. If opting for the cheapest means you could be at risk of an unreliable or even dangerous experience, saving a few pennies just simply isn’t worth it.
For example, many of the tour companies that operate trips to Salar De Uyuni, in Bolivia, have horrendous online reviews. There are stories of drunk drivers, broken down vehicles, and accidents as a result. After lots of online research and seeking recommendations from backpacker friends, I opted to pay more and go with a more reputable tour company called Red Planet for my own trip to the salt flats. The result was a hassle-free day with a great tour guide and perfect vehicle.
Travel insurance – splurge for the best protection and peace of mind
Finding the best travel insurer is one of the least fun tasks that come with backpacking. There are so many options, and reviewing policy documents is enough to put anyone to sleep (unless you’re in law, in which case this probably isn’t an issue for you!)
I can’t stress enough though, how important it is to cover yourself for all of the activities you’re likely to take part in, even if that means paying a bit more up front.
We often don’t see the value in travel insurance because we rarely have to use it, but when the time comes that you do, having a brilliant policy that can take all of the stress and financial worry away is priceless.
I experienced this first-hand whilst backpacking Thailand, where I was admitted to a Thai clinic with a stomach bug and severe dehydration. At a time where I was so weak I could barely move, all my partner had to do was supply the clinic with a handy travel card issued by our insurer, Virgin Money Travel Insurance, and the clinic took care of the rest – no questions asked. The policy wasn’t the cheapest I found, but it had a great level of cover and positive online reviews.
So my backpacking friend, though you’re on the road and living out of a single bag for the foreseeable future, that doesn’t automatically mean you must scrimp so much you end up resenting the actual travel part of travelling. When you need it, pay the extra to get those creature comforts, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re not being a ‘real backpacker’ by doing so.
Which comforts are most important to you whilst backpacking? Let me know in the comments below, and if you liked this post please consider sharing it 😊