TRAVEL SERIES: The Backpacker/Student

H O S T E L   C U L T U R E

...aka, "You only live once, bra."

It's one o'clock in the morning. I am in a 12-bed dorm room in Barcelona, for which I paid a whopping 45 euros (the price of a single night in high summer)...sick, with a fever. I am trying to sleep and, more importantly, trying not to start another coughing fit that might wake the other girl in the room...who is also sick and trying to sleep in the sweltering heat, with about as little success.

Suddenly, a door bursts open and a tall, dark 20-something saunters in, throwing the lights on, talking and laughing loudly with another 20-something just outside the door, beer in hand. I pretend to be asleep. He stops when he sees me in bed, then suddenly rushes over, whips my covers off and starts shaking me & yelling.

"Hey, hey! Wake up! Wake up! You're in f*cking Barcelona!!! You can't sleep! It's only 1am--you only live once! Come party with us!" 

He has an accent I can't quite place. He smells like beer & cologne. He means well, in a drunk sort of way. I try to explain to him that I'm sick. He tells me it doesn't matter--he's sick too. Beer makes it better. I decide to let him know I'm 33 and I need my sleep now, like the old lady I am. He is taken aback for a moment at my age, then decides it doesn't matter. I won't budge. Eventually, resignedly, he nods, apologizes and says he understands. He disappears. After a minute, only his head reappears on the other side of the door frame.

"You sure?"

"Yep. But thanks. Maybe tomorrow, if I'm feeling better." (I'm checking out tomorrow).

This seems to satisfy. He looks at the other girl & inquires if she wants to party. She clears her nose and says she’ll be ready in a second. In a rush of sound, the door to the patio down the hall bursts open and a whole gaggle of 20-somethings blasting Reggaeton walk in. The girls are all in tiny shorts, skirts and heels, curls bouncing, perfume and hairspray drenching the hall; the guys in jeans and sweaty T-shirts, well-greased hair, in clouds of cologne and deodorant, cigarettes, cheap beer and sangria. Many of them are American. Some of them are not. One of the Americans summons my wake-up call man and he rejoins the gaggle, heading down the stairway to go to a rave or something, being hosted by the hostel at a neighboring night club.

I have to pee.

I climb down off the ladder to retrieve my blanket. On the way to the restroom, I hear the two German girls in the 4-bed female dorm next door, muttering about how hot it is and how rude the others are. Unlike the gaggle, they are here specifically to visit the architectural wonders of Barcelona and to go hiking. They will be moving onto Grenada, Sevilla, Ronda and Malaga before they head home. They keep to a tight schedule--bed at 10pm, up at 7am to get the most in for the day--though they seem very relaxed about it.

They've made friends with the French girl who sleeps in the bunk above one of them, and she is now re-routing her trip to join them for part of their journey. They are all on summer holiday. They shut their door, which had been open to try to circulate what stale, humid air there is. They came prepared with a fan. (I have noticed that they seem prepared for everything). All three have Deuter bags, filled to the brim but perfectly organized with camping gear, toiletries, clothes for all occasions, their own neck pillows for sleeping on the bus and locks for their lockers. 

 

Welcome to Hostel Culture! (The native habitat of the Backpacker/Student).

Whether you (and your partner or friends, as this category seems more often to exist in pairs or groups than in solo travel) are looking to walk the Camino de Santiago, trek in the French Alps, ride bikes along the coast of Italy or spend your summer break partying on the beaches of Spain, you will fit nicely into this category. 

 

2.) THE BACKPACKER (or student)

 

WHO AM I? 

The second type of traveler in our series is the Backpacker/Student. These travelers tend to be more queued into the social and/or exploratory aspects of travel. They aren’t looking for 5-star hotels; they want to spend their money on adventures or partying, over luxury.  They can travel anywhere from a few weeks to six months or even a year, depending on their savings.

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If you are interested in trekking through the alps, having a couple (or a lot) of good beers in a city, seeing the nightlife, following some trails, etc. and you don’t mind sharing a room with one other person...(or twenty) to stretch your money a bit farther, you are probably one of the many Backpacker/Students. Maybe you want to learn a bit of the language or see some out-of-the-way places. Or maybe you have a month of holiday before school starts & you want to spend it in a foreign country, hanging out with other travelers, going out for drinks & dancing the night away until school starts again. Great!

Here’s what you need to know...

 

 

REALITY CHECK

Backpacker/Students will still need a budget that's about as large (or even a bit larger) than your typical Tourist. Often you will spend just as much as any tourist, the difference is--because you don’t mind roughing it a bit--your money has the potential to go a lot farther and last a whole lot longer. You will be putting your money towards adventures, not luxury hotels and because of this, your horizons may open up to you in new and unexpected ways. Now, there’s still a level of comfort you will want (and you have to decide what that is), but this sort of travel is easily achievable, depending on your savings and what you hope to get out of your travels. Want to know how much you will need?

Well...then you need first to ask yourself some questions:

 - How long do I wish to travel?

- How many people am I willing to travel with? 

- Where am I willing to sleep?

- How many people (including strangers) am I willing to share a room with? 

- Am I interested in more ‘exotic’ countries and cultures? Or do I secretly long to experience some of the more frequented (and therefore expensive) places the world has to offer? 

- Lastly, what is the purpose of my travel? Outdoor adventures? City nightlife? Language practice? Good food? 

Answers to these questions will dictate how you go about setting up your travels and will tell you how much you need to plan in advance and how much money you will need to have in the bank. (One of the main things that separates a Backpacker/Student from our third category, the Constant Traveler/Vagabond is that, while there may be some flexibility, the former still has a general schedule they stick to because they have a finite amount of money and an end date of some kind...inevitably, the day will come when you return home. How long you make your travels last depends greatly on what you are willing to sacrifice).

 

ADVICE

1.) Say goodbye to privacy.

 Know that you will probably stay in hostels/albergues/auberges de jeunesse--different names for shared sleeping quarters(Staying in B&Bs is still an option but will drain your finances faster than you can blink). Hostels are usually much cheaper...however......it is good to note that even the price of hostels has steeply increased over the last 10-15 years. This is because more & more people are learning to travel in this way.

(Ex. the cheapest hostel room in Barcelona that I could find in August—again, high tourist season—was more than $45/night to share a 12-bed, mixed-gender dorm room, and that was lucky. However, the cheapest hostel I stayed in on the route of the Camino de Santiago was a mere 5 euros for a 5-person room....it was falling apart and I was traveling in freezing-cold February, not to mention the price was catered to Pilgrims....nonetheless, cheaper rates are out there. Timing, location and connections are everything).

When you stay at a hostel, you often have options for double, 4-bed, 6-bed, 8-bed or as many as 20-bed dorm rooms. You get the idea. Sometimes there will be female specific dorms, usually for an extra cost.

(NOTE:  To women who travel alone, I have only been hassled in a way I felt threatening ONCE in a mixed-gender dorm room...and that was in Amsterdam, where everyone around me at the time was on drugs. Turned out the poor guy had been slipped some Ecstacy and--after I moved to a different bed across the room--proceeded to climb up and down the bunk bed for the next three hours. Then again, as you may have noticed, I have a high-tolerance for bullshit and am often left alone because of my sheer size and occasional 'you can go f*ck yourself' attitude when I need it. However, while I am no longer in any way nervous to sleep in a mixed-gender dorm room, I will occasionally pay the extra money to book an all-female dorm, simply for the peace of mind that I will be surrounded only by women. Sometimes, after a long stretch on the road, there's a feeling of safety and peace that can accompany being surrounded by your own gender, real or imagined...not to mention you are more likely, in my experience, to connect with other solo female travelers. This can lead to advice, lovely connections, and sometimes new friends or travel partners. Food for thought).

As you might have guessed, the more people you are willing to put up with, the cheaper your stay will be--not to mention hostels will often bump you up to rooms with fewer guests when they are empty, at no extra charge. (Win!) It behooves you to book ahead, but not always...sometimes going straight to a hostel and bypassing all the online fees can lead to surprises. (More on that later, when we discuss tricks for finding cheap accommodation).

However, when we talk about sharing a room, this leads me to...

 

2.) Find a travel-buddy. More often then not, I find people in this category traveling in pairs...or more. Safety is one reason, but by no means the only one. When you are willing to share your journey with a friend, everything becomes vastly less expensive. Instead of going out, why not go to the store together & cook a joint-meal? If you do feel like a break from the hostel scene & there are two of you, suddenly you have someone to cut the cost of a room (aka. your 40 euro private room in a B&B suddenly became 20 euros each--the same cost as that bed in a 12-bed dorm back at the hostel). The downside may be that you sacrifice a bit of freedom and introspection. The upsides, however, can be many.

  "Caught Between Light & Shadow" -  The Alhambra (Granada, SP)

"Caught Between Light & Shadow" - The Alhambra (Granada, SP)

3.) To hell with Summer.  As with the last post on traveling as a Tourist, I highly suggest NOT traveling in the summer. It will be crowded, hot, smelly and in my experience, you will need 2-3x the amount of money you will need the rest of the year. If you are on your summer vacation from school, I get it. You don't have an option. But if that is the case, maybe look at traveling to...

4.) Uncharted territories! 

Again, as with the Tourist, I cannot stress enough the plusses of exploring countries that are not ‘popular’ destinations. Make sure they are not on your country's red-list of places to avoid, but perhaps are not as ‘cultivated’ or ‘comfortable’ as the ones you have heard of. Take risks. Have fun. Challenge your perceptions. Be safe, but not care-full. Go to South America....but remember it will be winter. Go to small towns, rather than big cities. Find a national park! Climb a mountain! 

 

5.) Learn to camp.  You are likely to spend most of your money--no matter how you travel--on accommodation and transportation than on any other part of your trip. Try to change that. Learn to think outside the box (though, again, even camping has started to become as expensive as some hostels...do your research).

 

6.) Transportation. Learn to walk (no, really...I'm serious). Hitchhike (more on this, later). Take buses instead of planes or trains. Know that EVERYONE rides on trains...especially tourists. Yes, they are beautiful. Yes, they are magical. But one train ride could cost sometimes as much as 5-10 bus rides, depending on where you are going and when (again, we will cover this later when we look at Transportation in depth). If you have the extra time and don't mind a bit of discomfort, choose the kinds of transportation that you would take were you at home. Heck, try making your entire 3-month adventure about riding a bike through Italy, camping out under the stars, and spend all the money you are saving on decadent food and gorgeous new clothes for your return home!

 

  "God's House." -  (Malaga, Spain)

"God's House." - (Malaga, Spain)

7.) Don't. Move. Again, as with the last post, I cannot stress this enough...

Take your time. Try staying in one place for the duration of your stay. When we are focused on taking in as many things as possible, we all too easily miss the true depth of a place and its' people.

(Ex. I was fortunate enough--by happy circumstance--to stay with a friend of a friend in a town on Lake Garda in Italy. It was absolutely stunning. Lake Garda happens to be a place that many Swiss, German and French tourists go to spend their holidays. It is gorgeous, but relatively unknown to the travelers from America who are only interested in going from nearby Milan to Verona or Venice...all of which I ended up visiting, but none of which could compare, in many ways, to the tranquil simplicity and beauty I found wandering Lake Garda). 

Instead of running from place to place, play loose with your agenda. Focus on one region or one country; find a town to base from and then explore the entire area from there. Become social. Meet the locals. You may discover festivals happening that only they know about. You might get to uncover a hidden waterfall that all the tourists miss when they are taking pictures in the city center...you never know.  


Again, know that—depending on where you choose to go, where you choose to sleep and how you choose to get there—these days, you will probably still want to have a budget of $2-3k per month for this type of travel (as opposed to $2-3k or more for 10 days of travel…not including airfare, if you are a tourist). However...with a bit of flexibility, embracing of the hostel culture lifestyle and making friends to share meals with, I believe it can be done for as little as $1.5k per month (perhaps even including airfare), depending on where you go....and, in the end, isn't that less than many in the U.S. end up spending in general every month?

'Til next post, when we take a look at the third type of adventurer...the Constant traveler/Vagabond.

 

Magic & adventures to all of you, at home or abroad.

Be safe, but never care-full.

~ Genevieve