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Tips for Backpackers: Travelling Around

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

Here are a few tips that can help things to run more smoothly, or help you to avoid 'worst case scenarios'. Don't be put off by the implied list of things that can go wrong; the worst that's likely to happen is you get ripped off for a few pounds on the taxi fare from the airport. There are few problems that can't be solved by the judicious application of cash and adequate insurance.

Most of this information can apply to all kinds of traveller. However, it's written with adventurous backpackers in mind, especially those who are planning to travel alone or in a small group for several months in developing countries (eg in Africa, South-east Asia, India, Latin America, and so on) rather than developed nations such as Australia, Europe, the US or Canada. It's also assumed that money is much tighter than time. The two are often a compromise: fast travel involves more spending, whereas scrimping and saving often means slowing down or staying put.

Please also note that, although parts of this article are a catalogue of things that could go wrong, this shouldn't dissuade you from travelling. Most of these items are for convenience, and things are unlikely to go wrong anyway. In fact, there's little in here that you won't figure out for yourself fairly quickly. But by knowing in advance you can save yourself time, money and frustration. Most people find the rewards of travelling more than make up for the hassles.

You'll also find that there are as many ways to travel as there are travellers. This list consists of tips, not rules. If you can think of a better way to do something, or if you think some of these are an unnecessary hassle, adjust or ignore them to suit yourself.

On Arrival: Airports and Stations

  • Anywhere where travellers congregate (eg developing nation airports, bus or train stations, and sometimes border-posts), you'll find touts (or, more accurately, 'hordes of touts') waiting to take you to a hotel, change money, book tours, sell you drugs etc. Many of these people are taxi-drivers. While they deserve some sympathy (anyone who hangs around an airport at 10pm on New Year's Eve is clearly either dedicated or desperate), they can make your life a real pain. Other than walking straight through them with a chorus of 'No, no thanks, no', the only known way to get rid of them is to accept a lift from one (which kind of prevents you from avoiding them). Claiming to already have a hotel booking usually results in claims that said hotel is closed/full/terrible. These claims can be ignored; none of these people keep track of hotel bookings. Be aware also that any hotel they take you to will be expensive, since (a) expensive hotels pay better commission1 and (b) the hotel will make back that commission in your room price.

  • It's never a good idea to book a tour at 3am.

    Leaving the airport can be the hardest part of a journey. Aside from the scrum of touts, you're unlikely to know where the buses run from, and taxi drivers will invariably charge far more for a ride from the airport than to it, even for locals.

    Should you change a lot of money now, or will you get a better rate in town? If you end up taking a taxi, you may not know where the hotel you end up at is. How far is the airport from the town? What's a fair fare? Planes tend to arrive at odd times of night with poorly rested passengers. Having the energy to resist the touts is a real skill. There are almost invariably cheap buses to the city centre — if you can find them. Determination and good humour are the keys here.

  • Learning to pronounce place names correctly can be a real lifesaver when buying tickets, particularly if you're somewhere that uses an alphabet you can't read or write, such as Thailand. Listen closely to how the locals pronounce words, and remember that in some languages tone is important. In others, vowels are more significant that consonants, or the stress may be in unusual places. Stressing your words correctly can prevent them from stressing you!

  • Beware of taxi-drivers who carefully negotiate a price with you in advance, then deny having any change after the journey, forcing you to pay with a high-value note, effectively leaving a tip that's larger than the fare! The best way around this is to check they have change before getting in. Show them the note you intend to pay with. Look as if you'll get another taxi if they don't have change. You'll often find that suddenly their cousin owns a fruit stall just next door and can provide change, or some such. The threat of losing custom can be a tremendous boost to initiative.

    This isn't the same as a driver asking for part of their fare in advance to pay for petrol. This is quite common, especially on a long journey, as they may be unable to afford to keep their tank full.

  • Learn to sleep on buses. Yes, learn! Everyone thinks they can't before they try it, but almost anyone can. Surprisingly, after a few 18-hour trips, you'll start to get the hang of it. A jacket or jumper wedged between the seat and window can make a good cushion. If you can get two seats to yourself (without an armrest between them), there are several positions you can curl into to sleep. This gives the further advantage that you can move a little, preventing stiff joints.

  • Many developing world buses have very little legroom. If you're 6ft (2m) tall, be warned that if the person in front of you reclines their seat you'll be unable to sit straight. This leads to painful stiffness within minutes and can be torturous over hours.

    Avoid the back of the bus, especially battered buses on poor roads, as this position exaggerates every bump in the road.

Security While Travelling

  • It's impossible to be totally theft-proof. But it is possible to be sufficiently difficult to steal from that thieves will tend to wait for an easier target. Basically, stay alert and don't display your valuables or carry them with you more than you need to. Again, bus stations are a favourite haunt of thieves, since they know you'll have all your valuables with you, and may be tired and less alert. Don't take your eyes off your bag for a moment! Always put all your valuables in your hand luggage. If you sit down, wrap your hand-luggage strap around your ankle, or rest your chair on it.

  • Unless you take to walking through slums and/or wearing a Rolex, you're very unlikely to be a victim of violent crime. Take the same precautions you would at home and try not to look like a rich tourist.

  • It can be useful to buy a padlock for your bag, if only for peace of mind. If you do, make sure it actually prevents your bag from being opened. Many cheap padlocks can be popped open simply by pulling hard on them. Worse, if your bag is flexible, it may be possible to pull the zip open without removing the padlock at all (pull at 90 degrees to the zip). In these cases, putting a conspicuous padlock on your bag merely advertises the fact that it contains something valuable. Even if the padlock works, it won't prevent the whole bag from being stolen.

  • On the other hand, it's nearly impossible for a thief to steal, or steal from, your bag while you're in physical contact with it. Carry it, rest your chair on it or keep a foot on one of the straps at all times.

  • On the whole, though, you're more at risk from cons than violent crime. Think before parting with any money.

1It's common practice for hotels (and sometimes souvenir shops) to pay a commission to a taxi-driver who brings them a customer, particularly in big cities or touristy areas where competition is intense.

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