Posted by: ghostdawg2 | June 18, 2009

Backpacking Trips Aren’t Just For College Kids Anymore – It’s A Great Budget Way To Travel by Robert Downes / May 31st 2009

GettyBackpacking is a great way to travel light and save money. Above, trekkers follow the coast of Costa Rica.

With the economy in recession, it’s a good time for Americans to consider a low-cost, gypsy way of seeing the world that has enthralled Europeans and Australians for decades.


You’ll find thousands of backpackers throughout Central America, Asia, Africa and India with not much more in their rucksacks than a spirit of adventure.

I know whereof I speak, having spent five months backpacking solo around the world in 2007. My trip involved cycle camping across Europe and backpacking on through Egypt, India and Southeast Asia. The journey is chronicled in my book, “Planet Backpacker” (, which was written on the fly in 100 Internet cafes on my way around the world.

Surprisingly, I met few American backpackers in developing countries such as India, Vietnam and Malaysia, despite the fact that there were thousands of other Westerners lounging on the beaches of Asia.

Low-cost logic

In fact, few Americans seem to understand the basics of international backpacking as it is understood by budget travelers from Europe or Australia. Many Americans equate backpacking as a “back-country” experience, like camping out in the Rockies and dining on gorp.

So, let’s start with semantics: Overseas, backpacking is a style of budget travel that relies on local transportation along with lodgings in hostels, pensiones or low-cost hotels where the locals stay.

You don’t have to travel in the Third World to take advantage of bargains. Even pricey destinations such as Tokyo can prove affordable, once you learn the ropes.

Puerto Vallarta offers a good example that many Americans may be familiar with: You can stay with your fellow gringos in the tourist ghetto of luxury hotels far to the north of town, and never see much of the local culture, or you can catch a bus to the Zona Rosa in the heart of downtown and stay at a hotel that caters to Mexican tourists and businessmen. The second option is available at a fraction of the cost and offers a more authentic and culturally interesting visit.

Veterans affairs

Increasingly, backpacking appeals to older travelers who still have fond memories of bumming around Europe during their college years.

As far back as 2000, The Times of London was reporting that the median age of backpacking travelers was creeping up as more middle-aged professionals and retirees found time on their hands and a yen for travel. I met a surprising number of older professionals on my way around the world. Lawyers, investment bankers, several physicians and a gourmet chef – with ages ranging from the 30s through the 60s – who abandoned their careers for six months or a year. I turned 55 in the nirvanic splendor of Palolem Beach in the state of Goa, India – a pretty cool way to feel young again.

Speaking of growing older, you might be surprised to learn that many hostels welcome visitors of all ages these days. For instance, I shared a hostel dinner with a crowd of British cyclists in their 60s and 70s in England‘s Pennine Mountains.

You’ll also find that many hostels offer small rooms at relatively expensive prices for couples. On a trip to Japan, my wife and I stayed in Tokyo’s temple-filled Asakusa district for $58 per night. True, our room wasn’t much bigger than the interior of a Volkswagen, but we counted ourselves lucky not to be spending $500 per night at the hotels seen from our window.

But can families and backpacking mix? Sure. On a bus ride through Nicaragua, I met a Danish police officer who was traveling across Central America with his wife and three children. “This is our chance to show our children the world,” he said. “We teach them their school lessons each day and they’re also learning Spanish. They love it.”

Joining the bargain scene

Backpacking offers a world of sensations at a discount. Like spending less than $10 for a dinner of sweet and sour prawns, ginger rice and garlic naan at a beach in Goa with a view of the smoldering sun going down on the Indian Ocean. Or paying $13 for a room with a view of the sea in Malaysia, with a dove cooing outside your window each morning.

Oh yeah, and lots of good times, camaraderie, sights and adventures, too. Snoozing on the top bunk in a second-class “hard sleeper” train in India with a Bengal family for bunk mates. Riding donkeys to the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, or elephants in the hills above Chiang Mai, Thailand. We backpackers know, because we’ve been there, done that.

Global web of support

The international backpacking scene has grown up in terms of services over the past decade. With an estimated 100,000 backpackers traveling the planet at any given moment, a tourist infrastructure has evolved that offers a go-anywhere network of services.

There are thousands of travel offices on street corners across Asia, for instance, which can book anything from an elephant safari to a three-day trip to Cambodia or Laos in a matter of minutes.

There also has been an explosion in go-along backpacking travel services, such as Intrepid Travel (, based in Australia, or GAP Adventures ( in Canada. Both offer small-group adventures at remarkably low rates, considering the fees include in-country transportation and lodgings. You pay for meals, which tend to be shared events with your fellow travelers.

Typically, a group leader shepherds an average of 10 backpackers through situations you’d never hope to encounter in a traditional tour – like bouncing around on the back of a cyclo taxi in Hue, Vietnam, for instance, or trekking on camels through the Sahara.

Single travelers are common on Intrepid outings, and women tend to outnumber men. You travel on local buses, enjoy home visits with native people, and generally see 10 times as much for one-tenth the price.

Of course, backpacking can have its downside, like finding out that your partners on a park bench are homeless druggies, or plucking ticks off your partner after a long hike through the jungle. Or getting lost in Mumbai at night, without a clue to your hotel’s direction in a city of 20 million. These, too, I have “enjoyed.”

So backpacking is not always comfortable or convenient. At times, my wife and I have found ourselves sleeping on the decks of ships, or up all night on a rocking train, stuck for hours on chicken buses and hopelessly lost in cities ranging from London to Osaka.

But those are the memories you love, aren’t they? And one of our favorite perennial memories is coming home with the knowledge that we’ve spent half as much on a backpacking vacation compared to the rooster tail of cash you leave in your wake on a traditional trip.

Robert Downes is the author of “Planet Backpacker: Across Europe on a Mountain Bike & Backpacking on Through Egypt, India & Southeast Asia – Around the World” (The Wandering Press, 2009).


Where to stay: has more than 20,000 hostels, guest-houses and budget hotels online, ready for easy booking and discounts for members.

Need company? Check out for scores of escorted trips with kindred spirits.

Online advice: The Web offers your heart’s desire for backpacking advice on sites such as, and
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