For those who haven’t travelled abroad, they usually have two basic misconceptions about foreign travel. First, they grossly overestimate the difficulty of it. The other misconception is that it is expensive. However, neither one of these assumptions are valid. This discussion leads to my perspective when defining a budget traveler, a term that would have three different definitions if you were to ask three different people.
With the advancement of technology in an increasingly globalizing world, traveling abroad has become easier than ever. In about 7 hours, I can go from New York City to London on a plane that has Wi-Fi capability, leather seats, and a collection of the latest Hollywood blockbusters. In addition, while countries in the developed world (i.e. United States, United Kingdom, Japan) have always been prime destinations for international travel, tourism has emerged as a competitive industry in many developing countries looking to diversify their economies. Even the most remote villages in Laos have one or two homestays looking for curious tourists to host. In addition to the informal economic emergence, many governments have established sophisticated tourism bureaus that have offices throughout the country providing everything from detailed country maps to language-specific guides. There is also the private sector as there are hundreds of companies offering specialized tours that take care of every detail from transportation to providing lunches to customers. It is now possible for someone who has never travelled abroad to go to a country like Honduras (which doesn’t exactly have a great reputation for attracting Western tourists) and not have to speak Spanish or use local public transportation.
The other misconception involves the cost of traveling abroad. The misconception regarding the cost comes from two sources. First, most people travel using their disposable income or money that they have saved up. Unless you are a full-time traveler, your financial responsibilities in your home country don’t stop just because you decided to take a two-week vacation to Cancun. On top of the $160 (per person) kayaking excursion, you still have to pay that month’s mortgage, cable bill, and car note. The other basis of misconception is HOW people travel. You may be the hardworking person at your job, but when you are on vacation you inherently become lazy. It is understandable given that most people are only given 2 weeks a year to decompress and get away. However, it is that laziness that in the end will hurt your wallet. Everyone from 5-star hotel chains to grassroot tour companies are waiting to take advantage of your laziness for their own financial gain. What is not mentioned in my above example is that trip to Honduras where you won’t have to speak Spanish or use public transportation could easily cost you hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars. Service is a premium industry and while you may be comfortable riding in an airconditioned shuttle across the country, know that you are most likely paying 1000% over the local price to do so. It is your own fault if you are breaking the bank to go on a two-week vacation.
This leads me into the main point of this post……. How do you define a budget traveler? The internet is full of bloggers (including myself) that readily define themselves as budget travelers. First, the word budget is a relative turn because we all come from different socio-economic backgrounds. A first-term university student traveling through Europe on holiday has a drastically different financial portfolio than a mid-career professional looking to spend a gap year in Central America. Many bloggers get so caught up in the financial aspect of being a budget traveler that they only appeal to the narrow base that matches their financial background. I define budget in a more practical sense, in that it means being controlled in your finances whether you have $1000 or $100,000 in your bank account. In fact, some of the riches people in the world have admitted to being extremely frugal. Being a budget traveler requires discipline. It is setting a financial limit and sticking within that boundary whether you are traveling for three weeks or three months. It DOES NOT mean you have to force yourself to stay in low-priced hostels or avoid doing any activity that cost money. That is not being a budget traveler, that is just being cheap. I’ve stayed in 5-star resorts despite being a self-professed budget traveler.
Being a budget traveler also requires hard work and intelligence on the travelers’ part. As pointed out above, travel agencies and tour companies make a living off of people’s laziness. I myself have used a travel agency and can attest to the fact that you pay a premium for the convenience (you can read the post here). You often literally must go the extra mile to stay within your budget. For example, sometimes you won’t find a good deal for a hotel on Booking.com and actually requires that you physically walk an area to find economical alternatives. It also involves intelligence to know what activities you need a guide and which ones you can do on your own. While guides may be required for longer hikes or dangerous excursion, do you really need to hire a tour operator to take you snorkeling at the beach? It is being able to make sensible decisions after conducting the appropriate research that makes a budget traveler stand out.
In conclusion, being a true budget traveler is not about being able to brag to your friend about saving X amount of dollars while traveling through X country. Rather, it is about being able to maximize your travel experience at minimum cost. This is achieved by knowing your financial limits, setting budget to that matches it, and staying within that boundary during your trip WHILE doing as much as possible to experience the culture of the country you are visiting.
A lot of people go to Costa Rica for three weeks and romanticize about what life would be like if they could drop all their responsibilities and travel the world. As someone who has experienced life on the road, there are somethings about long-term traveling that I didn’t realize until I was a few weeks in. This post is to highlight some of the highs and lows about life as a full-time traveler as well as give you a few things to think about if it is something you are considering.
You Save Money by Traveling Full-Time- A lot of people think traveling is expensive. It is…………. if you have rent, car payments, cable bill, and insurance to pay for as well. The truth is our vacations only seem expensive because we have other fiscal responsibilities. If you are a full-time traveler, odds are that you will move out of your home/apartment, sell your car, and cut off cable. When I was done preparing for my long-term trip, the only expenses I still had to worry about was my $110 per month cell phone bill, a $40 per month storage unit fee, and $30 every three months for a PO Box. I also sold my car for about $3000 and got $1200 from my apartment security deposit so I even had money going in my bank account when I left.
Traveling is Cheaper than Living in the United States- If you take western Europe out of the equation, staying in a standard hotel abroad is substantially cheaper than living in an apartment in the United States. Even during high season in the Caribbean, you won’t pay more than $35 USD a night for a hotel room. In most other countries you can easily find hotels at half that price. For the sake of argument, let’s say your hotel expenses average at $30 USD a night. 30 multiplied by 31 nights is $930 per month. Outside of the Dakotas, Oklahoma, and Idaho, you are not going to find an apartment for $900 per month that doesn’t require you to pay other bills such as electric, water, and cable. To compare, my studio apartment in San Diego was about $1800 excluding cable and electricity. When you factor in exchange rates, the cost of everyday living through activities such as eating and public transportation is extremely cheap compared to the United States.
ATM Fees will be the Bane of your Existence- Think you will be able to roll up to a rural village in Cambodia and whip out your Visa to pay for that $2 plate of rice and chicken……think again. You will always need to have a consistent amount of cash readily available for situations such as that. While in bigger cities and tourist locations you can often use your credit card, if you really want to live frugally then you will need to pay cash for most of your transactions. Luckily, most countries have joined the party in the 21st century and have ATM’s readily available in most places. However, if you end up staying with your US Bank (which is practical given that you won’t be settled in a specific country), they will make sure you pay every time you want to withdraw cash. I have Bank of America, and every time I went to Scotiabank (which is supposedly their international partner) I had to pay a $6 USD fee from them on top of a $8-10 international transaction fee from Bank of America. With fees that high, I learned quickly how to survive off of $200 USD a month.
Long-Term Travel Can get Boring- During their three-week vacation to Belize, people often partake in exciting activities such as scuba diving, whale watching, and guided tours through caves and ruins. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you won’t last long as a full-time traveler if you plan on spending $80-150 USD a day on such excursions. It’s good to treat yourself every once in a while, but the majority of your days will be spent living life as you would in the United States, just in different locations around the world. You can get by for a few days walking around a city or town after arrival, but most of your time will be either at a hotel or traveling to your next destination. Bringing a computer or smartphone will definitely help you get through downtime.
You Need to Have a Purpose-It has been scientifically proven that someone’s happiness is linked to their perceived purpose in life. For the first two months of your travels, you can get by on just “wanting to see the world”. However, as you get more worn down, you will eventually have to find the inner motivation to continue your journey. There are many people who find their purpose in developing a travel blog and recording their experiences to share with others. However, you can also participate in various volunteer projects. Many countries actually have projects that provide free hostel style lodging to participants thus killing two birds with one stone. Whatever your purpose is, make sure you find it quickly.
You need to Make Money- Ideally, if you are deciding to become a long-term traveler, you want to have AT LEAST 10k in your bank account and have a credit card with a limit for the same amount. You also don’t want to have any significant debt hanging over you such as student loans. Even if you follow that model, money will still drip out your bank account like a leaky faucet. Even expert budget travelers eventually face the prospect of obtaining an income. Many people think that they can start a travel blog and all their financial problems will be solved. Here’s your reality check. It often takes YEARS for a blogger to get a big enough following to entertain the prospect of financial gain and that’s if they make all the right marketing moves. You can’t count on your blog to put food on the table. Some people turn to volunteer tourism in that they don’t get paid per se, but they don’t have to pay for lodging and/or food by doing volunteer work which keeps money in their pocket. Depending on your skills and where you are, you may have to get pretty creative.
Immigration-While I prefer to stay somewhere no more than a month, sometime people find places they like so much that they want to stay for an extended period of time. If you do so, then make sure you have the appropriate stamp for your passport. For US citizens, the standard is a 90-day tourist stamp upon arrival in the country. To go to Vietnam, I had to pay for a single-entry visa through the Vietnamese embassy in the United States which I believe was valid for only 30-days. Know how long you can legally stay in a country and don’t overstay your visa. If you want to stay longer than 90 days in a specific country, a popular way of getting around the burearacy is to cross a land border to a neighboring country and come back after a certain amount of time has elapsed with a new stamp. In addition, activities such as working and studying have their own visa requirements. Make sure you know the visa requirement in the country that you are in.
Reintegration- Whether you return to the United States or become an ex-pat, you will eventually have to settle down somewhere when everything is said and done. If returning to the United States, it will be harder than you might expect to reintegrate. For example, you may have been a successful accountant before you left, but a 3-year gap in your resume will do you no favors when it comes to getting back in the workforce. Don’t wait until you are coming off the plane in Miami to start figuring out what you want to do now that you are back. I would say start developing a plan at least 3 months before you arrive back in the US.
Chances are that if you are an American reading this, unless you have extensive backpacking experience, you are unfamiliar with the concept of a hostel. Although, you can probably find them in some of the bigger west coast cities such as Seattle, Los Angeles, and Portland, they haven’t yet caught on here in the United States. However, they are extremely popular throughout Europe and can be found in virtually every country on the planet. Although I’m sure there is an official Webster definition, hostels are basically cheap communal houses that are meant to enhance the social experience in traveling. For someone planning to travel for a long period of time, hostels can be a practical economic alternative to staying in hotels. However, life in a hostel can be a culture shock if you are not used to it or you were an only child growing up. In the end, no matter how much money you saved during your trips, you can’t really call yourself a budget traveler if you’ve never stayed in a hostel. So, to prepare you for the rite of passage, this post is to give you an idea of how you can make your stay in a hostel as enjoyable as possible. Before I get into the list, I’ll tell you my story about how I stumbled upon a hostel. Being an American, I had never even heard of the word “hostel” prior to 2016. Whenever I travelled, I would always stay in mid-to-high level hotels. I always enjoyed the concepts of personal space and privacy even if I had to pay extra for them. That changed in December 2016 when I made my first trip to Guatemala.
During my trip to Belize in 2016, I decided to take the short trip across the border into Guatemala to see the Tikal Ruins. At this point in my life, I was nowhere close to as proficient in speaking Spanish as I am now. This was also back when I was still virtually “winging it” when it came to finding accommodation. After taking a shuttle bus from the Melchor border crossing to Flores. I was herded into a microbus with 6 Guatemalan men and a white European guy. The driver was talking extremely fast in Spanish, and I had trouble keeping up with what he was saying. After a 10-minute ride to Santa Elena, I was able to deduce that he was trying to get us to rent a room in his small hotel. Not really sure what to do, I left with the European as soon as the van stopped. He was going to Los Amigos Friends Hostel and told me it was really popular hangout for backpackers, I decided to follow him rather than mindlessly wonder around town at 8 o’clock at night. We arrived at the hostel and I was pleasantly surprised when the receptionist told me that they had a bed for 80 Quetzal ($11 USD). My excitement was tempered when I walked back and saw the girl in the bunk above my bed had dumped half her travel bag full of her dirty clothes on the floor right next to where I was to sleep. Thus, I had officially been introduced to hostel living. While Los Amigos turned out to be a great hostel, I did have to psychologically adjust to living with several other people in a close quartered environment. Now I regularly stay in hostels, and here are a few things I have done that have made my stays much more enjoyable.
Switch it Up- While hostels can be a fun and enjoyable experience, you need to make sure you get your “me time” in. Traveling can be stressful, and if you are always looking over your shoulder because you continue to share rooms with 8-10 people you don’t know, you won't ever have time to decompress. Most hostel offer an option for a private room at a reasonable price. Usually, if I’m staying at a hostel for more than 3 days, I will reserve the last few nights in a private room. This allows me to still save some money, but still keep my sanity.
Buy a Good Lock- Most stress that comes from living in a hostel comes from the fact that you have your only possessions in a foreign country in a room with 8-10 people you have never met. While most hostels provide lockers for small things (passport, money, credit cards), it is on the traveler to have the lock. By buying a good lock for your locker, and knowing that your most important possession are secure, does do a lot to relieve your stress.
Get Up Early……or Sleep Really Late- These are your two best options if you want to take a decent shower. Hostels have communal bathrooms that are shared among everyone in your dormitory. Some hostels have the same bathroom for everyone in the entire complex, even those staying in private quarters. These bathrooms generally have no more than 4 showers (if you’re lucky) for about 20 people. If you are one of those that likes to take a “princess shower” at exactly 8 AM every morning, then you will be in for a rude awakening. Generally, the busiest times for showering at hostels are between 7-9 right before the day excursions start picking people up. If I had a hike or activity planned, I would get up at 6:30 AM to shower. If I was staying in for the day, I made sure to sleep in until about 10 AM. That strategy has worked perfectly as I always seem to get a good shower in.
Download Movies and E-books on Your Computer- This will keep you from either having to go bar hopping every night to entertain yourself or turning in at 7 PM so you could sleep your boredom away. Even in the most remote countries, hostels generally have some sort of Wi-Fi connection. However, it wouldn’t even take me half a hand to count how many of them had a reliable and consistent Wi-Fi connection after 7 PM. If you are banking on being able to Facebook stalk or stream Netflix from your bunk on a Saturday night……think again. Many Wi-Fi signals in hostels tend to get overloaded with 15 people attempting to do that very thing making it practically impossible for anyone to do it. The Netflix App on my Android actually does have the capability to download episodes of various shows to watch offline which not only conserves my data usages but allows me to have an option for entertainment when I face such a predicament.
Be Social- Hostels are meant to enhance the social experience while traveling. However, if you are like me, you often won’t feel like investing the time and effort in getting to know people you will most likely never see again once you are headed to your next destination. However, being social DOES help make your hostel stay more enjoyable. Striking up a conversation with that guy or girl at the breakfast table could be the difference in spending your day going on a cool hike with a new group of people or confined to your bunk watching Netflix on your phone.
Don’t Drink at the Bar- Many people have miserable hostel experiences because while they paid $45 USD for a 3-night stay in the dorms, they lost half their travel budget buying $400 USD worth of alcohol during the all-day happy hour at the hostel bar. Most hostels overprice their drinks and food because they know people love convenience. That same vodka and tonic that is $14 USD at the hostel bar will be $8 USD at the bar two blocks down that is desperate for business. While it’s okay to buy a shot in order to break the ice and meet people in the hostels, once you’ve ESTABLISHED those relationships, get as far away from the hostel bar as possible.
Get out during the Day- The more you hangout in a hostel, the more it will feel like a prison. Hostels are not meant for comfort, they are meant to be a cheap place to lay your head at night. If you planned on being there during the day then you might as well pay a little more to stay at a hotel whose job it is to make your stay as comfortable as possible. While you may not have the budget to do costly excursions everyday of your trip, you should at least spend the day either exploring the town that you are in or going to somewhere close by and walking around there. By staying active during the day, you will also be too tired to worry about the quality of the hostel when you get back at night as you will be ready to go to sleep.
When spending a day at the beach, you are supposed to be able to relax and take in the sun and the breeze. However, if you have ever been to a beach outside your home country as a solo traveler, you may have been nervous and apprehensive. This is because, unlike going with a group, you are solely responsible for your belongings. There is no one with you that you can trust to watch your cell phone or money while take a dip in the ocean. For most people, there maybe a rational fear that some local kid will come and snatch your stuff as soon as you get out of arms reach of it. This causes them not to fully enjoy their beach experience. While it is always a possibility that something like that can happen to you, I have been to over 50 beaches around the world as a solo traveler and have yet had it happen to me. Here are a few things ways to lower your stress level and enjoy the beach as a solo traveler.
Take only what you can Afford to Lose- This is probably not the first thing that you want to read in a post like this, however, it is always a possibility that you will get your stuff stolen whether you are a solo traveler or traveling in a large group. By knowing your items are replaceable, it will increase your peace of mind. With that being said, you need to decide WHAT is actually worth taking on your beach trip. If the beach is 200 meters from your hotel, then do you really need to take your $400 iPhone?
Rent a Beach Chair- Most beaches (even “private” ones) have beach chairs that you can rent on the cheap either directly from an attendant or by buying a drink at a restaurant. This is probably the most surefire way that you can get an extra set of eyes on your stuff should you decide to go for a swim. It is usually bad for business if a tourist gets their stuff stolen while using their chairs. That doesn’t mean you should leave you wallet on the chair while you go throw back some cocktails at the bar, but this does give you some sense of security should you need to run off to the bathroom.
Get a Spot Close to the Ocean- Whenever I go to the beach, I make a beeline to the chair that’s closest to the ocean even if it costs me a little extra. This allows me a quick entry and exit into the ocean as well as the ability to have a clear view of my stuff while I swim. Even if I seeing questionable characters heading towards my chair, I can begin to make my way out of the water and be ready to confront them if necessary.
Put Your Stuff UNDER the chair- Many people leave their stuff either on or next to the beach chair or towel whenever they go into the water. As I learned as Military Police Officer, most crimes are committed out of opportunity and not necessity. A criminal is more likely to grab your stuff if they can make a quick escape. By putting my stuff under the chair, it requires them to bend down a dig it out, which may allow me to get the jump on them. If you don’t rent a beach chair, then look for something fairly heavy to put over your stuff (i.e. tree branch, garbage lid).
Wear Sunglasses while you Nap-If you plan on lounging out, make sure you have a pair of sunglasses. That way people can’t tell if you are sleeping unless they are right next to you. By not wearing sunglasses, it will be obvious whether or not you are sleeping which could attract unwanted attention. I even throw on my wireless headphones to give the impression that I am listening to music. While I have never actually taken a nap at the beach, I have been able to relax for hours on end.
Do not Sleep on your Stomach- If you are going to flip over for a back tan, then make sure you are able to stay awake. By falling asleep on your stomach, not only does it attract unwanted attention, but should someone snatch your stuff, you would be in no position to immediately chase after them even if you happen to wake up in time
Put Your Money in Your Shoes-Whenever I go to the beach, I either put some or all of my money inside the sole of my shoes. My shoes are so beaten up that I couldn't give them away. A thief will almost certainly assume that you keep your money in your bag and not your shoe. They usually only have time to grab one item and will always choose to grab your bag over the shoes.
Despite my extensive travel over the last few years, I didn’t leave the United States until I was 22 years old when I joined the US Army. My first recreational trip came when I was 24 and went to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup. Even though I had literally driven across the United States twice, there were a few things that I wish I had known prior to my first foreign trip. Here are a few of them;
Leave Your Ego on the Plane- This tends to be an issue with American travelers. I’ve seen a lot of people who think because they have an American passport, they can do whatever they want in a foreign country. When I was going through customs in Mexico, I even had to remind one of my fellow plane passengers that he wasn’t in the United States when he started cussing out the customs agents because they wanted him to fill out his declaration card out correctly. When you are in another country, almost no one cares that you are an American citizen, and the ones that do just want your money. In addition, you are subject to the laws of the country you are visiting, and your American passport will not help you should you find yourself in a sticky legal situation. If you don’t believe me, go watch the National Geographic series Locked Up Abroad.
Temper your Expectations- Even in more highly developed countries such as Brazil or South Korea, there are certain things that won’t match up to what you are used to if you are coming from the United States or Western Europe. For example, even in Brazil’s bigger cities, things practically came to a standstill after huge thunderstorms resulted in street flooding and power outages. In addition, unless you are staying in an international hotel chain (i.e. Hilton), then a “3-star hotel” in Thailand maybe equivalent to a 2-star (or worse) in the United States. If you go into a country expecting an experience that it can’t provide, then you will be miserable with disappointment your whole trip.
Bring Only What You Need- Whenever I traveled throughout the United States, I always packed a big suitcase full of clothes even if the trip was a few days. Very rarely did I wear more than three outfits in my entire suitcase. It didn’t take me long to realize that method of packing would not work for trips abroad. If you need an idea of some good items to pack, then check out my earlier blog post here. In general, American’s tend to overpack because they think they can only find certain items in the United States. However, the opposite is true, it is often easier and cheaper to get most items in developing countries than it is in the United States as people sell everything on street corners. You should also account for souvenirs that you may want to take back with you and have a little extra room in your backpack.
Respect the Culture- Sometimes you may find yourself in a country where they have traditions or customs that are drastically different from your home country. For example, when I was in Laos, a tour guide was telling me how men in a certain sect of society “proposed” to their wives in that they basically kidnapped and held her hostage for 3 days until she gave in and married him. In the United States, that would probably get you 10 years in a federal penitentiary. However, in their culture, it was perfectly normal. Another example is when I was in Costa Rica (a stable and peaceful country), I saw the police beat a drunk belligerent until he was nearly unconscious. Although these instances are drastically different from life in a liberal democracy, you must respect the fact that it may be the way of life in the country that you are visiting.
Travel for yourself, not other people- This point seems kind of ironic given that I have started a travel blog that I hope gets as much traffic as possible. However, when you are traveling, you need to take time and enjoy the places you visit. Many people (myself included) get so caught in taking pictures and posting statuses on social media about their trip that they don’t fully enjoy the experience. In my last trip to the Dominican Republic, I deactivated my Facebook Account and it was one of the most enjoyable trips I’ve had. Not only did I build this website, but I wasn’t constantly worried about “one-upping” myself in an attempt to show off my trip on Facebook. Remember who you are traveling for, because 85% of the people you are trying to impress on Instagram won’t even see your posts.
I’ve always considered myself to be a pretty smart person. I have three college degrees from accredited US institutions and led Soldiers as an officer in the United States Army. I always thought that I would be immune from the two-bit tourist scams that would be thrown at me whenever I travelled abroad. Unfortunately, I was ill prepared to deal with what I would face in Thailand.
To my detriment, I rarely do research before I travel to a country. Outside of the fact that I have borderline ADHD, I think going into a country knowing little about it not only lowers expectations but increases the excitement level. Had I done the appropriate research, I would have known Thailand was filled with sharks waiting to separate you from your hard-earned money. At the time of my trip, I was moving from Honolulu. I had decided to travel throughout the Indo China region of Southeast Asia while I waited for my stuff to be shipped across the Pacific Ocean. My first stop would be Thailand, specifically flying into Bangkok. My flight from Honolulu to Bangkok via Taiwan would take more than 16 hours. Despite the long flight and resulting jet lag, when I arrived into Bangkok at 1 PM, I was filled with adrenaline and not ready to settle down in my hotel room. I arrived at my hotel, Bangkok Centre Hotel, and checked into my room. After taking a quick shower, I decided that I wanted to at least walk around the immediate area and see what restaurants were around for dinner. As soon as I walked out of the hotel, I was approached by an elderly Thai gentleman who happened to speak perfect English. He asked me what sort of activities I was looking for. After declining his offer to provide me with local escorts, he showed me a book that had a map of all the temples in the immediate area, including the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. Intrigued, I asked for more information. He told me that for 350 Thai Baht ($7 USD) he could take me to a highly recommended tour place that would allow me to “see” all the temples from a Khlong boat. I accepted his offer and got in his “cab”, after literally driving in circles for 20 minutes we ended up at a dock. I got out the cab and he pointed to the pier. As soon as I started walking, he drove off.
I got to the pier where there was a family. I talked to the father, who spoke little English, and he informed me that his “company” provides tours to all the temples for $1500 Thai Baht ($46 USD). I ended up negotiating down to $1200 Thai Baht ($37 USD), which at the time I thought was a great deal. I got in the Khlong boat and realized I was the only customer. It was me, a young boy, and his grandmother. As we were going down the canal, I noticed we weren’t actually stopping at the temples. I asked the grandmother when we would be doing so, and she responded in broken English “you pay to see temples not go”. Unfortunately, I was on a boat in the middle of a canal when I realized I had been played. Less than two hours from arriving in Thailand, I had been swindled out of $50 USD. There was nothing I could do but to request to be dropped off at the closest temple (which happened to be Wat Pho). To make things worse, as I was walking up to the temple I noticed that the it actually cost $120 Thai Baht ($4 USD) to do the exact same tour that I just pay $1200 Thai Baht ($37 USD) for.
Losing the money wasn’t what upset me, because at the time, I had plenty of it to spend. It was the fact that I let myself be put in a position to be scammed. Fortunately, this experience has taught me to be more cognizant the motivations behind the people I interact with abroad. Regrettably, this has also caused me to be colder when dealing with the local population. I made the mistake of trying to do to much with too little rest. Had I been well rested, I would have probably seen the signs prior to getting on the boat. Another mistake is that I didn’t look up the exchange rate and the cost of similar activities. There is no way I would have paid the guy $1200 Thai Baht ($37 USD) if I had known that the actual tour cost $120 Thai Baht ($4 USD). Traveling is also about learning from your mistakes, and unfortunately, this was a costly mistake.
As someone that has always considered themselves to be a “budget” traveler, I used to think that sites like Orbitz and CheapOAir were a godsend. What is better than putting your desired location and date of flight and getting numerous results for relatively cheap flights? While it is hard to argue that quick booking sites are convenient, my experience in using one to travel to Guatemala in March 2017 show that they are not conducive to international travel.
In December 2016, I spent about a month in Belize. During that time, I crossed over into northern Guatemala and spent a few days in Flores touring the various national parks in the area such as Tikal and Yaxha. In March 2017, as the time was quickly approaching for my next trip, I decided to continue my trek down Central America beginning with the southern half of Guatemala. As I had been conditioned to use quick booking sites for booking my flights, I booked a cheapish round-trip flight from Los Angeles to Guatemala City through Orbitz that cost around $420 USD. Being that it was cheap, the flight times were as inconvenient as possible. My flight from Los Angeles would leave at 12 AM and arrive in Guadalajara, Mexico at about 5 AM. From Guadalajara, I would fly to Mexico City arriving at 9 AM. The final leg of my flight would be from Mexico City to Guatemala City in which I would arrive at 1 PM. The carrier for all three flights would be AeroMexico.
My travel date arrived, and I caught a Greyhound from San Diego to Los Angeles where I took the LAX Flyaway shuttle to Los Angeles International Airport from Union Station. I easily caught the flight to Guadalajara. Before I continue, I would like to point out that although I had been to Mexico before, I never had crossed the border by air. When I had arrived in Guadalajara, I was tired and disoriented. After waiting in line for about an hour I finally passed through Mexican customs. My passport was stamped, and I was given a tiny multicolored slip, which I didn’t know at the time, would be very significant to my departure from Mexico. I easily caught my connecting flight to Mexico City which I didn’t have to show my passport because it was a domestic flight. After arriving in Mexico City, I was so excited to continue my travels that I was at the departing gate about 2 hours before my flight to Guatemala City. Time passed quickly, and it was finally time to board. I walked up to the ticketing agent and showed her both my passport and boarding pass. As I was walking into the terminal connector, she stopped me and said “No puede abordar porque no veo su papel” (You can’t board because I don’t see your paper). She pulled me over to the side and showed me the same slip of paper that I had been given in Guadalajara. It turns out that unlike crossing the land border, the Mexican government requires all foreigners to have this “tourist card” prior to flying out of the country. Even though I had turned my backpack inside out, I couldn’t find the stamped card that I need to board the plane. I had about 20 minutes until my flight to Guatemala City was wheels up. Although I had no idea at the time of how significant missing my flight would be, I didn’t want any unnecessary delays in my travel. I sprinted across two terminals eventually arriving at a “help desk”. The lady ended up informing me that in order to get a new card. I would have to go to the customs office at the airport entrance and pay them about $500 Mexican Pesos ($25 USD) and come back airport through security. At that point, I accepted the fact that I would miss my flight.
What happened next is the point of this post. Even before going to secure my new tourist card, I wanted to try and get on the next flight out. I walked to the AeroMexico customer support office and when the next flight was and how much it would cost me to be on it. When the agent said $900, I originally thought she was referring to Mexican pesos as $45 USD is a normal flight change fee. However, I was completely shocked when she clarified that it would be $900 USD if I wanted to reschedule my flight. To make matters worse, I found out that because I missed the connecting flight to Guatemala City, my return flights to Los Angeles had been cancelled. This meant that even if I had caught a flight from another carrier to Guatemala City, I would still have to buy another return flight. The reasoning is that whenever you buy a roundtrip plane ticket via a quick booking site, you purchase the tickets as bundle (which give you a small discount). If you miss one flight, then the whole purchase is invalidated and the tickets are put back up for resale. I called my travel insurance company and found out that losing your tourist card isn’t a “covered” reason for reimbursement. Thus, I was stuck in Mexico.
Even though I went on to enjoy my time in Mexico (see the Mexico Travel Page), I learned the hard way that quick booking sites such as Hotwire and Orbitz can’t always be relied on. In instances of domestic US travel where you only need to take one or two planes to reach a destination, the likelihood of missing your flight is relatively low. However, international travel presents a unique challenge because you take three or four flights that sometimes cross three different boarders, thus the likely hood of missing one of your flight increases significantly. While you get a SMALL discount using these sites, I learned that it is not worth the risk of being stranded should something go wrong. From that point forward, I have booked directly through the airline carrier after conducting the requisite research. While they say time is money, sometimes taking the time to do a little extra research can save you a lot of money.
When I traveled through Southeast Asia in July 2016, I took the easy way out and booked a travel agency to handle all of my logistical needs. On the surface, it seemed sensible to pay extra money and not have to worry about scheduling flights and hotels while being able to cover multiple countries. Prior to the trip, I had been stalking the website of G Adventures, an Australian based travel company which sponsors everything from 2-day excursions in Sydney to 50-day treks through the entirety of South America. In what was a combination of inexperience and being impressed by their website, I booked a 32-day journey through the Indo China region of Southeast Asia. When you include the roundtrip plane ticket and required travel insurance, the total cost of the trip came out to be about $3600. Below is my review of G Adventures and insight on how traveling through a travel agency is different from traditional backpacking.
As a season backpacker, I decided to do a G Adventures "YOLO" trip through Southeast Asia that would allow me to see multiple sights without the worry of booking lodging and transportation......My thorough review is below.
PRICE-I paid about $3500 (incl. flights) for a 32 day trip. After experiencing the trip, I could have planned the same trip for $2000 cheaper by using a Lonely Planet guidebook. In addition, you will pay AT LEAST $600 more to eat and do optional activities that are not included. (1/5 stars)
LODGING- For the amount of money I paid and the cost of hotels in SE Asia, I felt cheated based on the quality of the places that we stayed. Out of 15 hotels, I would say 3 were "adequate". It was so bad that during the trip we went to some third-world village down the Mekong River and slept in some children's bed while they slept outside LOL. It was even weirder because the grandmother was sleeping in the closet who spent half the night moaning. Many of the places were dirty and cost under $12 a night. (1/5)
CEO-The guide was more worried about eating free food than actually guiding us. He was pretty shady as he kept pressuring people to eat his buddies restaurants every time we stopped in a city for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Given that we paid out of pocket, I thought it was pretty appalling and towards the end of the trip I myself broke away from the group to actually go sightseeing. I also thought the was unnecessary pressure to tip those who actually did guide and drive us around which makes me wonder if G Adventures was actually paying them. (2/5)
ITENIARY-The one good thing about this trip was that it covered ALOT of ground in that it went through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. I felt satisfied in that I saw and did a lot of fun things (mostly due to my own initiative). (3/5)
In conclusion, while G Adventures does an excellent job marketing, you can assume that you would save more than half the cost if you did the trip yourself. In addition, while I met SOME cool people, most of the people I traveled with were spoiled rich kids with a propensity for getting wasted (drunk). I can't understand for the life of me why you would pay so much money to go to a cool place like Hanoi Vietnam only to waste away in a bar. Whether it was the price, my fellow travelers, or the quality of service, G Adventures is not for me.
Don’t get me wrong, I love to travel. I love it so much that I do it multiple times a year and have dedicated much of my time, money, and effort to creating this website that is dedicated to my experience. However, there are certain things about travel that annoy me. While they haven’t gotten to the level of annoyance that I would consider finding a new hobby, I run into these issues everywhere I go.
Transportation- Public transportation has saved me a lot of money over the years. While it costs $2.25 to ride a city bus across downtown San Diego, it costs that amount to ride across the country in Guatemala. However, in the places that I have been, you won’t be able to have your cake and eat it too when dealing with transportation. Being cheap and comfortable are not mutually exclusive when dealing with public transportation abroad. For example, you will either be charged $30 USD to go 10 kms in the front seat of an air-conditional comfortable taxi which is what happened to me in Belize going from the airport to my hotel or you will pay $1 USD to go that same distance in a gua-gua in the Dominican Republic. However, in the case of the latter, your body will be contorted in positions that it has never experienced as you sit six people to a seat designed for three while three other people are hanging out the side of an open door. For what its worth, long distance travel is often cheap and comfortable, but you may only experience that a handful of times depending on how much you move around.
Public Beaches- Most of the places which I have traveled and lived have had a beach. The Caribbean specifically has some pretty nice public beaches that anyone can access without paying. Although the quality of the water doesn’t vary with regards to public vs private beaches the experiences can be drastically different. I view the public beach experience like having free YouTube account in that you are constantly clicking through ads in order to watch the videos that you want. However, with the paid YouTube Red subscription, you can enjoy your music videos in peace. Public beaches often have vendors roaming up and down the shores aggressively attempting to sell you everything from ceviche to massages. Sometimes the same vendors will actually approach you three to four times during a 30-minute time period. If you are alone, it is often hard to sleep or even go out for a swim knowing that these vultures are lurking about. Renting a beach chair can be relatively cheap depending on where you are (between $3-8) and often times the attendant will shoo away the vendors but that isn’t necessarily guaranteed.
Catcalls by Taxi Drivers-Many places outside the United States and Western Europe public transportation is extremely cheap and accessible. In fact, there aren’t even set prices and you can get really good deals if you happen to be great negotiator. However, the accessibility of taxi drivers can often be to your detriment as many are desperate for your business. So desperate, in fact, that you may get catcalled for a ride 5 or 6 times in a 2-block radius. In some countries, taxi or moto drivers may attempt to get your attention by blasting their horn which can be startling if the sound comes from behind you while walking down the street. You really have to walk a fine line in being always being aware of your surroundings and toning out the unnecessary noise.
Initial Arrival- No matter how much internet research you have done, you are at your most vulnerable when arriving at a unknown destination whether it is crossing through customs at the airport or getting off the bus in a new town. You are often disoriented and confused and susceptible to being taken advantage of. It is why most taxi companies at airports charge three times the regular rate to get you to your hotel. There are also opportunist taxi drivers who wait at bus stops waiting to pounce on susceptible tourists. You also see this occur in currency exchange stations. On my most recent trip to the Dominican Republic, the airport exchange rate was 40 Dominican Pesos to $1 USD while outside it was 49 Dominican Pesos to $1 USD. While there is no way to really know a place that you haven’t been, extensive research prior to arrival can help you figure out your different options and avoid losing too much money.
People’s Intentions- One thing that I have realized fairly early in my travels, are there are very few genuine nice people who are interested in knowing you as opposed to your wallet. Like it or not, many locals view tourists as targets, whether it is for legitimate purposes like coming to eat at their restaurants or for more nefarious purposes such a Gentleman’s Scams. This happened to me in Phenom Phen, Cambodia when I was approached by two friendly gentlemen for a chat in what ended up being a distraction while a third one sliced my day bag attempting to steal my money. Most of the time, the nicest locals that I’ve met were hotel workers or taxi drivers who have a financial stake invested in the outcome of our interactions. Even when I got trapped on the island in Korea, the hotel owners were the only one who would give me the time of day due to the expectation that I would stay at their hotel a few more nights. This bullet is not meant to disparage the local people in a given country as they are doing what they have to survive but to outline the reality when it comes to their motivations with interacting with you as a tourist.
When you travel to another country, there are some common-sense things you need to pack such as your passport and a toiletry bag for grooming. However, depending on the purpose of your trip there can be a lot of flexibility regarding other items on the packing list. Below are five things that I believe a recreational or adventure traveler should have prior to embarking on their journey;
A Quality Backpack- Unless you are taking a two-week family vacation to a 5-star resort in Puerto Vallarta there is no reason you should ever have to check luggage when traveling. For most budget travelers, a traditional suitcase has become a liability. First, most international airlines charge $40-80 extra per checked bag. Having a good backpack allows you to keep your valuables within arms’ reach and avoid paying those hefty airline fees. A good backpack will allow you carry 4 sets of clothes (shirts and shorts) along with an extra pair of shoes and have room to spare. You also want to make sure your backpack is made out of durable material. Nothing accelerates the wear and tear on a backpack like 3 weeks of traveling across a country using public transportation. I speak from experience as I have had to buy three different backpacks for my last three trips.
Smart Phone/Laptop- Some people will argue that having a smart phone or a laptop while traveling defeats the purpose of getting away from the chaos of everyday life. While certainly a valid argument, I never travel without at least my Android and two chargers. My smartphone allows me to take pictures and make videos during my trip without the risk of losing my $400 GoPro Camera. In addition, a smartphone is incredibly useful in looking up information whether it is hotels, exchange rates, maps. My specific model of phone even has a feature for “Wi-Fi calling” so anytime I connect to Wi-Fi I can make phone calls to where ever I want and for as long as I want without exhausting my data. As far as bringing my laptop on a trip, I do so if I plan on being gone longer than 3 weeks. Believe it or not, there can be a lot of downtime during traveling whether on long bus rides or in smaller towns with limited entertainment options. Having my laptop, allows me to do things like write a blog or watch Netflix in those instances. If you don’t have something to entertain yourself during a long trip, you are more likely to spend money on entertainment whether it is at the bar or a costly excursion.
Day Bag- While a backpack is the most important item, it can be argued that a day bag is a close second. The day bag is a bag where you can carry small things whether you decided to go on a hike or to a museum. Despite getting slashed by thieves in Cambodia, I still have the day bag that I paid $50 for almost 5 years ago. My day bag can easily hold a water bottle, my wireless headphones, and an extra shirt. There is also a nifty section on the top where I keep my cash. Coincidentally, because my cash was in that section, the thieves that slashed my bag were unable to steal it.
Lanyard- I didn’t realize the importance of a lanyard until I went to Costa Rica. Even upscale hotels still use traditional keys as opposed to key cards. Having a good lanyard, allows you to have your padlock key and/or hotel key all in one place. Having it around your neck eliminates the possible of your key falling out of your pocket or bag while out and about. The best thing is that you can easily find a lanyard for $3-5 USD even in tourist towns.
Travel Insurance- Unless you travel a lot, you probably haven’t thought about getting travel insurance for your trip. Not many people expect to break a leg during a hike or get salmonella from that beef kabab that they bought for $1 on the street. There is very little that your domestic health insurance provider can do for you if you get sent to the hospital abroad. Travel insurance is incredibly cheap (I paid $42 for mid-level coverage during my 30-day trip to the Dominican Republic) and will absolutely help you in a tight spot (i.e. missed flight, lost luggage, serious injury). Be sure to read the policy on how a specific company handles insurance claims and whether it is through direct payment or reimbursement.