I’ve been backpacking in Australia for 4 days now, and it is definitely already shaping up to be an adventure. I’m not a backpacking expert yet by any means, but there are a few things that have really helped me so far, and a few things I’ve learned that I wish I had known before I left. Practice makes perfect, but if you’re thinking about embarking on a backpacking trip anytime soon, here are some crucial things to keep in mind!
1. Don’t lose it when everything goes wrong.
I felt like I did everything right when it came to preparing for my actual journey to Australia. I paid off my cell phone, and got out of my contract by proving to Sprint that I was moving out of their coverage area. I called and had them unlock my phone for international use so that I could put a new SIM card in it as soon as I arrived. I took two sweaters and a neck pillow on the plane so that I’d be comfortable. I brought protein bars in my carry on, but no liquids so going through security would be easier. I booked a 10 p.m. flight and intended to stay up and write for the first few hours, then sleep for a least eight, and wake up refreshed and ready for the day just before we landed at 8:30 am in Sydney. Turns out, none of my preparation saved me from what felt like a disastrous first day.
I had zero leg room on my 14 hour flight, which led to HUGE swollen ankles and calves (something I hadn’t even considered). When I did land in Sydney, I had a hard time navigating the airport, and my luggage was completely overwhelming. Instead of being hit with that moment of awe where you realize you’re in a different country, about to embark on an incredible adventure, I felt like I had made the biggest mistake of my life. I was completely alone, in a strange place, unable to talk to my family, and I had basically no idea where I was going. All of this was compounded by the fact that I was trying to haul around 90 pounds of stuff (I really can’t overstress how important it is not to over pack).
I wanted to get my phone situation sorted out before leaving the airport so I’d be able to use GPS or call an Uber, but when I went to purchase a new SIM card, my phone wouldn’t accept it. Apparently none of the six people I spoke to at Sprint remembered to tell be about a critical step to make sure my phone was actually unlocked, but I didn’t find that out until the next day. I called an Uber using the spotty Wi-Fi inside of the airport, rushed outside with my luggage cart to try to find the designated pick up area, ran around looking for the right car, only to finally flag down the driver and have him tell me that he cancelled my ride because he couldn’t call me…ha. Then of course I had no way to call Sprint to find out what the problem was and they refused to do anything to help when I had my boyfriend go to the store.
By that time I was tired, disoriented, and getting relatively hysterical standing outside of an airport McDonald’s (to use their Wi-Fi) trying to talk to my mom via Facebook calling when a really sweet Australian girl took pity on me and explained how to get to my hostel via train. Being terribly directionally challenged and as overwhelmed as I was, it took every bit of determination I could muster to get on a train instead of purchasing the next flight back to the U.S.
By the end of the day though, I had made a new friend, I had seen the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, watched an amazing fireworks display, gotten tipsy on cheap wine, eaten some good food, and mostly overcome my anxiety. The moral of the story is that when you’re traveling it’s easy to let the little things add up and make it seem like nothing at all could possibly go right again. Of course we want travelling to be a magical experience every time, but there are always going to be negative aspects. The trick is not to let them ruin anymore of your trip than they have to. I could have looked at every mishap as a sign that I wasn’t meant to be in Australia and turned around and gotten on a flight back home, but that would have ACTUALLY been the biggest mistake of my life.
2. Don’t expect the country you are visiting to be like your country.
Even if it’s subconscious, I think when we travel we still expect to find a lot of the comforts that we’re used to at home. We assume that there are universal standards for certain things like public behavior or customer service, and we project these expectations onto the places we go. Well, that’s the quickest way to set yourself up for disappointment. Instead of expecting people to act a certain way or businesses to operate like they do in your country, leave your assumptions at home. When something doesn’t go exactly like you’re used to, your reaction will either be neutral, or leave you pleasantly surprised. Both are far better than being “that tourist” raging at something that is completely normal to everyone else.
My experience with Oz so far is that businesses are a lot more laid back. Service here isn’t tip based like it is in the U.S., so servers and bartenders aren’t jumping to anticipate your every need. At the one real restaurant I’ve been out to, we ordered food at the bar, and when it was brought to us, my Canadian friend asked for ketchup and was told it was on a stand on the other side of a restaurant and he could go get it. At home, I know plenty of people who would write an angry review, want to speak to the manager, and refuse to leave a tip if they felt like they weren’t given the “service they deserved.” We’re used to being catered to because that’s the environment our restaurant industry has bred, but if you think about it, is it really a bad thing to have to get your own ketchup when you’re not paying 20% extra for your meal? No, and on the plus side, servers aren’t forced to compete for their livelihood.
Pro tip: If you do plan on eating out and you’re coming from anywhere other than a huge major city in the U.S., eating out is going to be far more expensive than you’re used to, but for now the conversion rate is in our favor, which is still saving me quite a bit of money.
3. Leave your delicate sensibilities at home.
Every morning I get dressed facing an open window with my back to 5 sleeping people in a room that is no more than 12 x 15 ft. that has one fan, no AC, and smells like sweaty feet (or at least it did when I got here, I’ve probably gone nose blind by now). I share a bathroom that has a perpetually open door, two tiny stalls and 3 tiny showers with I have no idea how many women, and there is exactly one private shower downstairs. I use private in the loosest sense of the word because it has a window that is partially removed from the frame and covered by a curtain so you can have full conversations with people smoking in the courtyard directly outside. I’m sure not every place will be quite so…open, but be prepared to become comfortable with being in close quarters with strangers. On the bright side, it’s a great way to get to know people pretty quickly!
4. Don’t completely neglect your routine.
Everyone has habits that are important to them. There are little things you do every day or every week that just make you feel like yourself. For some people it’s a cup of coffee every morning, for me it’s exercise. If I don’t work out for a few days I get depressed and have absolutely no energy… it feels like I’m just sitting around watching my body deteriorate. It’s the same thing with following a healthy diet. The worse I eat, the worse I feel and the less I want to work out until it just turns into this hideous revolving cycle that leads to me staying in bed all the day eating ice cream. Obviously it’s not conducive to living the travel lifestyle. Before I left I bought a set of resistance bands, and since I got here I’ve been making use of whatever space I can find outside to work out. I’ve indulged in a few Aussie treats, but I’ve been cooking most of my meals and sticking to the same foods I ate at home. In most aspects of life I’m comfortable with throwing caution to wind, fitness is just not one of them.
My point is that when you’re traveling, whether long term or short term, you don’t have to give up the things that keep you sane and make you the best version of you. It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement and the need to see and experience everything, but if you neglect yourself and your needs you’ll ultimately hurt your trip. So, slow down, work out, get a coffee, walk alone, read, watch Netflix, or check the news. Do what you need to do to keep being you while you travel so that you can fully enjoy and cherish every experience.
5. Go with the flow.
You don’t want to map out every second of every day because you never know what opportunities will present themselves. The full extent of my planning for my trip to Australia included my flight and where I am staying. I knew what time I’d arrive and I knew I could take either an Uber or a train to my hostel. I figured everything else would work itself out once I got here, and I was right! It’s good to do a little research about your destination, and have an idea of what places you’d like to see, but don’t create such a strict schedule for yourself that you have no room to adapt for the people you meet and places you didn’t know existed. A book or a website (or a blog) can only tell you what to look for, they can’t predict who or what you’ll encounter along the way. Put yourself in a position to be able to say yes when people ask to you go places or explore something you hadn’t thought about! I booked 11 nights for myself before I arrived, and I actually ended up having to wiggle my way out of my reservation four days early so that I can go to Melbourne with my new Canadian friend.
Believe it or not, procrastinating can actually SAVE you money. Booking activities and transportation ahead of time can add a lot of unnecessary expense considering you can visit many places by using public transportation and without taking a guided tour. For example, when I went to Mexico we took a public bus for about $4 to from Playa Del Carmen to Tulum, walked to the beach, took a boat ride for $25 to go snorkeling and see the ruins see the ruins from the back, and then paid a $15 entry fee to walk through the ruins by ourselves instead of booking an “all inclusive” tour for $180 a person. Additionally, my experience with these type of tours, both in Mexico and Australia has been that you’ll run into no refund policies, so if you do book ahead make sure you read the fine print!
I’ve been in Sydney for 4 days and I’ve seen a lot of the city just by taking trains, walking, asking questions and exploring with new friends. Just from talking to people who have been here longer than me or who live here I’ve learned which places are easy to get to on my own, and which ones are worth booking a tour for. I’ll share more as I visit them!
6. Make the first move.
I don’t mean in the sexual sense, although that’s great too, but don’t be afraid to approach people! Other travelers and residents are going to be your single greatest resource while traveling. Sure you may occasionally run into people who aren’t helpful or responsive at all but every tidbit of useful information to get from people around you can potentially save you from making a costly travel mistake. I’ve always had a difficult time approaching strangers, but being more outgoing has definitely helped since I’ve been here. I’ve spent almost no time alone, which has been a lifesaver considering I came by myself.
Beyond being great company, other travelers have fascinating stories. I’ve met people from Italy, Canada, Sweden, Chile, the U.S., Japan, Indonesia, Wales, England, and Germany, and they all have different reasons for being here and different plans for the future. It’s inspiring to be surrounded by so many people who love to see the world as much as I do, and it’s a constant motivator for me to keep going and not doubt my decision to start this journey.
7. Don’t take more than you can carry.
If there’s one thing I really truly messed up, it was my packing. I brought a 70L Osprey backpack, which I really love, and a small duffle bag. My thought process was that I needed to be prepared for when I actually settle somewhere and get a job, and I didn’t want to have to purchase any clothes while I was here because I know how much higher the cost of living is. However, I didn’t take into account how much moving around I’d want to do over the next few months, and I ended up with a bunch of stuff that I’d just end up hauling around and not using until who knows when. Before I leave for Melbourne on Saturday I’ll be downsizing considerably because the weight between the two bags is just too much to physically carry. I can roll my back pack and carry my duffle, but I didn’t have a single inch of free space in either bag, and getting from the airport to my hostel was a stressful messy hell of a time that resulted in me almost losing my lap top. So, hopefully you can learn from my mistake.
- Completely replace the phrase “it might come in handy” with “I need this for X.” Some things are absolutely necessary and will save you money and stress in the long run, but you don’t want to trade ease of travel for a bunch of ifs and maybes.
- Bring full size toiletries if you are going to check a bag. Yes these items add weight, but you’re not likely to find the products you need while traveling, and depending on where you go they could be insanely expensive. When I lived in Sweden, a regular Venus razor was $30 (don’t even get me started on feminine hygiene products), and in Australia I saw a small bottle of Garnier Fructis shampoo for $18. I’d rather be able to use exactly what I need than pay triple for products I won’t like, so I brought all of my absolutely necessary toiletries with me and when I run out I’ll have more sent to me.
- Bring any meds you take, as well as your favorite over the counter meds. In every country I’ve been to, OTC meds have been way more expensive, and most of them have different names than we’re used to. It’s easier to bring a few things that you know you’ll end up needing than trying to figure out what might work, or having to go to the doctor. For ladies, this definitely includes birth control! If a long term option isn’t for you, and your insurance will only cover one pack at a time (like mine), go to your local health department and buy a year’s worth. They base the price off of your income instead of going through insurance, so for me, 12 packs ended up costing about $60. I also brought Emergen-C, Theraflu, Aleve and Excedrine. After watching a guy in my room get sick and end up having to go to the hospital for a fever, I’m definitely glad I packed my own little insurance policy.
- Keep clothing simple! Pack casual, comfortable clothes that don’t wrinkle, and focus on necessity instead of variety. In other words, don’t be like me and pack four going out dresses and zero sweatshirts. There’s no “right” way to pack but use your best judgement. If you don’t wear it now, you probably won’t wear it while you’re traveling. Also, unless you’re planning on camping for weeks at a time, you’ll always have access to laundry facilities. There’s a washing machine in my hostel, and two Laundromats on the same block. Meanwhile, I packed 3 pairs of jeans knowing I only wash them every four or five wears anyway.
- You absolutely need a good pair of walking shoes, and a pair of flip flops (for the beach and the shower). Everything beyond that is completely up to you but ask yourself if the amount of use you’ll get out of a pair of shoes is worth the space they’ll take up. For my two pairs of heels…the answer is going to be a resounding no. Oops.
- Leave yourself a little space for the things you will inevitably buy. Of course we’re trying not to buy things we don’t need, but honestly, who’s going to see the world and not want to switch up their style a little bit. I’ve already completely fallen for the laid back hippy backpacker duds and realized I like my clothes far less than I thought I did.