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Backpacker's Guide: Pre-Travel

What you need to know and do before you go ...

Why backpack?

For every holidaymaker buying a package, for every self-confessed tourist, there may lurk a potential backpacker trying to get out. For the backpacker, it is a sense of adventure, freedom and exploration rather than a simple holiday, a chance to get to know the world rather than be a tourist in it.

Backpacking has increasingly become a way to describe a longer-term excursion overseas, defined by an independence of spirit, a flexibility of planning, and spontaneous decisions about where to go next.

You might also recognise these qualities in what is commonly called a gap year – so called because it occupies the natural "gap" between the end of school and the beginning of university or other form of higher education.

Over time, however, this may have become too narrow a definition, since people of all ages are now taking gap years to go backpacking around the world – certainly this includes the young student, but also takes in those more mature individuals simply in search of a career break, senior citizens (affectionately known as "golden gappers") and even whole families.

In other words, age is no obstacle and this guide is written with just that in mind. The urge to know the world through the freedom of independent travel recognises few barriers when it comes to age – but there are certain considerations that may be helpfully taken into account in anyone's preparation for the backpacking trip of a lifetime.

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Although you do not need to be super fit in order to enjoy any backpacking venture, it clearly makes sense to be aware of your state of health, to know your own limitations, and to plan and act accordingly – trekking through the Himalayas might be perfectly reasonable for some backpackers but rather less so for others.

In other words, a routine check-up with your GP – when you are able to explain where you are going and for how long – may be all that you need. Between you, it may also be possible to determine what jabs you are likely to need.

Further advice on the vaccinations you are likely to need may be found on the NHS website, which suggests that your needs are likely to be determined by such factors as:

  • not only which country, but in some cases the particular area in that country, you might be visiting;
  • the season in which you are travelling – the health considerations may be different during the rainy season, for example, than the dry;
  • whether you plan to be visiting and staying in largely rural areas or in built-up urban areas;
  • what you intend to be doing whilst you are there – particularly if you plan on staying in or working in the countryside, for example;
  • how long you plan to stay abroad; and
  • how old you are and your general state of health.

You may also wish to check out MASTA, which also details what vaccinations are needed.

In discussion with your GP, you may also determine what medication you need to take on a regular basis, including whilst you are away, and ask your doctor to prescribe accordingly.

Bear in mind that some medicines – even commonly prescribed or over the counter medicines that may be freely obtained in the UK – may be illegal to use or import into some of the countries you may be visiting. It may be prudent to contact the embassies of those countries you intend to visit about the use of your medication in their country before you set off on your travels.

Satisfied that there is no barrier to your taking and using any properly prescribed medicine in the countries you are preparing to visit, any medicines need to be packed in your hand baggage and not the checked-in baggage you are taking.

In addition to any prescribed medication, it is also important to pack a first aid kit containing those items likely to help you meet minor emergencies, scrapes and upsets in those parts of the world in which you are travelling.

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Safety and visas

It may sound like a statement of the obvious, but many things are likely to be quite different in the countries you are visiting than they are at home – that may be one of your main reasons for choosing to backpack after all.

Many of those differences may be welcome and all part of your voyage of discovery and appreciation – some, however, may leave you vulnerable and exposed to danger. Those dangers may range anywhere from an increased incidence of street crime to major risks of civil disturbance and even war.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) issues regular travel advice notices on a country by country basis, with warnings that range from aspects of general security in the country concerned to notices advising against all forms of travel unless absolutely necessary.

The website also gives advice on how to contact British consular officials in the event of an emergency, your rights to assistance and who to contact if you need help when you are overseas. Bear in mind, however, that not in every country you may be visiting does Britain maintain permanent representation.

The same resource may also be used for determining which of the countries you are likely to be visiting also require British visitors to hold a visa. In order to obtain a visa you may need to apply in person at the embassy, commission or other overseas mission of the country concerned. Be aware that it might not be possible to obtain your visa at the point of entry and that the country or countries concerned might or might not maintain such overseas representation in Britain. In other words, you may need to allow plenty of time for the whole process of obtaining the necessary visa or visas before you leave the UK.

The decision whether or not to grant you a visa is entirely up to the country or countries concerned and may not be a matter for the British authorities.

Remember, too, that there are several different types of British passport and that some holders may require a visa to visit particular countries whilst others may not.

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Set a budget

From the comfort of your home it might appear difficult to estimate how much your gap year or backpacking spree is going to cost and how much you are likely to be spending on a daily basis. Difficult or not, however, the better you are able to budget in advance, the more likely you are to have the cash to do the things you want to do, get to the places you want to visit and stay blissfully free of the need to worry about money all of the time.

Where in the world you are planning to visit and just what you hope to do when you get there are likely to be the principal factors determining a daily budget. As a very rough guide, you might find it helpful to look at an estimate compiled by the website Backpackers where 10 backpackers were asked to detail their daily spending on such items as accommodation, food, drinks, public transport, washing, activities and other essentials. The grand total comes to £30 a day – although you may want to vary your own expected budget under each of the headings of expenditure.

Estimates for the cost of the average gap year are also given by Gap Advice, which reckons on £3,000 to £4,000 for youngsters; £6,000 to £7,000 for those taking a career break; and £5,000 for "golden gappers".

At least a certain amount of local currency is likely to be needed as soon as you arrive at your destination, but you probably want to avoid carrying too much in cash.

Fortunately the worldwide network of cash machines means that you are likely to be able to use your debit and or credit card. They are only going to work, however, as long as they are still within their expiry dates – so remember to check their validity before you set off.

It may be a good idea to keep two bank cards with you and reserve one for use only in emergencies. One or both of these might be a pre-paid card that you – or your family back home – are able to top up as you go along.

There may be an almost inevitable temptation to overspend on your daily budget and only then realise that you still need to get home. Rather than simply hope and pray that you have enough money to buy your flight back to the UK from any remaining funds, therefore, you might consider it sensible to have a return ticket (suitably flexible to meet your needs) or money you have specifically earmarked to buy one.

You might want to take note that some countries might refuse your entry unless you are able to show a return ticket or proof of your being able to buy one.

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It is no accident that the government's own advice to backpackers kicks off with an insistence on arranging appropriate travel insurance.

It is worth bearing in mind, however, that many standard forms of travel insurance may not provide the cover you need. Backpackers insurance is something of a specialist form of insurance and one that you may wish to entrust to a specialist insurer such as ourselves at Bengo Travel. Some indication of what makes backpackers insurance a specialist product might be illustrated by elements of the cover we arrange:

  • for backpackers who may be on an especially tight budget, there is a basic level of cover that nevertheless maintains an essential element of emergency medical insurance;
  • still travelling light and with an eye on the budget you have available, you might be interested in a mid-range level of cover; and
  • if you are looking for complete peace of mind, you may prefer the comprehensive level of cover offered by our Optimum policies;
  • backpackers typically like to be able to come and go as they please, varying the length of their travelling to the mood of the moment;
  • where standard travel insurance policies are typically limited to a maximum of 90 days overseas, we are able to offer cover for periods of up to 18 months;
  • young at heart and adventurous backpackers might also be more inclined than other travellers to engage in more extreme forms of sport, so a policy which covers such activities is also likely to be important;
  • for those backpackers who may be working their passage by taking on casual employment in bars, hotels and restaurants, or even in light labouring jobs, insurance cover for these activities is also likely to be welcome; and
  • if you do happen to have overlooked your need for insurance and left it to somewhat the last minute, our online application process and immediate issue of the policy documents you need may provide the solution.

Insurance, in other words, might be seen as less of a hindrance to your gap year plans and more as a way of enabling you to do more and with greater peace of mind during your travels.

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Get the right backpack

It might not be all that defines you as a backpacker, but getting the right backpack may make all the difference between:

  • travelling with all that you need in one easy to manage bundle; or
  • discovering that an over-stuffed piece of luggage weighs you down, obstructing your every move.

The solution you may be aiming for in other words is the backpack that is neither too big nor too small, neither too light nor too cumbersome.

As with many wise counsels, of course, the right size is likely to depend on a whole host of considerations, such as the places you intend to visit, how you are going to be travelling, and not least of all your own personal preferences.

Considerations you might want to keep in mind include:

  • a backpack that is already filled when you set off may leave little room for things you buy and mementos you want to keep when you return home;
  • the more compact your backpack, the less likely you are to wrestle with it when clambering aboard packed buses, getting into tuk tuks, hailing a mototaxi or boarding a ferry;
  • an oversized backpack may simply end up encouraging you take more than you really need.

The watchwords on this score, therefore, are likely to be "travel light" – the seasoned backpacker is likely to agree.

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What to take

You've chosen your backpack, you are determined to travel as light as your circumstances allow, and you have a fair idea of the places you intend to visit – so what do you take with you?

Once again, there is unlikely to be any definitive answer that suits every individual – a lot depends on where you are going, how long you intend to be there and the activities you are likely to engage in.

There are any number of websites with checklists of the more essential items – Start Backpacking and Packeu are just two examples – which have the interests of those wanting to travel light at heart.

There is probably very little surprise in the type of advice given, most of which centres on the need to keep things to the minimum. Clothing, for example, might be restricted to the classic principle of "wear one, wash one" – constantly rotating the clothes you wear through frequent washing under the tap.

Most also caution against the use of heavy hiking boots – unless you intend to do serious hill or mountain climbing – since these are heavy to pack and are unlikely to be required for most forms of travelling.

Another general principle to bear in mind is that anything you pack may be stolen, lost or broken along the way – the less you take of any significant value, therefore, the less you may have to lose.

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A gap year or the time spent backpacking offers an opportunity to see the world from a unique angle. There need be no pre-set itinerary, no timetable to follow and no hours to keep – just the freedom of the open road and it is up to you alone to create your own adventures. So are you now all set?

What are the essential lessons that might be taken from a guide such as this?

There are a large number of things you might usefully do before you go, if your travels are to go smoothly, safe and more or less trouble-free. The more time and effort you are able to put into planning your gap year, the more successful it is likely to be.

A pre-travel health check, for example, may prevent your being laid low along the way; visas obtained well before your departure; safety issues – especially in some of the world's hotspots – taken into consideration; a budget drawn up; insurance arranged; and decisions made about what to take and the backpack you intend to put it in.

However comprehensive a guide to backpacking nothing may absolutely ensure the success of your adventure – but it may help you to avoid the more obvious or painful pitfalls. The central principle is likely to be careful planning and an open mind to travel at least a part of the world and perhaps experience it like no one before.

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