After three months on the road, I can’t recommend backpacking enough. If you’re thinking about doing a trip of your own, though, you might be running up against roadblocks. Let’s look at the most common objections and see why they aren’t as bad as they seem:
1. “I want to start my career.”
This excuse, in my opinion, is simply not valid. Unless you’re entering the NFL or just got offered the lead on Broadway, you aren’t aging out of your career at 22. For example, one of my favorite authors, Brené Brown, didn’t finish college until she was nearly 30 (she was busy bartending in Europe, among other ventures). She’s now published eight books, has two podcasts with millions of listeners, and has one of the most viewed TED talks of all time.
I also say this as someone who is postponing my career. And while I’ll enter “the scene” in New York technically behind my peers, guess what? Other people down the road will enter behind me. And the cycle will continue. Being “behind” is an extremely relative concept.
If you’re in college, and you want to travel, I beg you, just wait to start your job. Work during school, save money, and take a trip.
It comes down to the fact that you will have the rest of your life to work. If you can find a single person who, at age 50+, will say “I wish I worked more,” I’ll give you free tickets to every magic show I do for the rest of my life. I’m not saying you should slack off. I’m not saying work can’t be enjoyable. I happen to be very excited to start my career. But I am saying that the pains of the hedonic treadmill are pretty easy to avoid when you’re not on it in the first place.
Work will always be waiting for you. The world might not be. Take a lesson from COVID and get out while you can.
2. “I can’t take that much time off work.”
This is much trickier. Most companies won’t give you more than two weeks off at a time, and in my opinion, you should backpack for at least six weeks. You want enough time to really immerse yourself in a place without worrying about going home. It’s better when your schedule is flexible, when you can extend your stay somewhere you like and eliminate a stop you don’t. So, I’m saying six weeks is the minimum for a more traditional backpacking trip. But most companies don’t offer six weeks off. You now have a few options:
The first is trying to negotiate a six (or more) week vacation. But because I have no experience in that department, I can’t give you advice. I do recommend The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss, though, which has several exact templates for how to do this.
Option two is scary, but maybe not as bad as it sounds: quit your job. Again, I need to acknowledge that I didn’t do this. I’m going to work for myself, so I had the privilege of doing this trip without anyone’s approval. But I asked my friend Taylor, who quit his job, went back to school, and delayed working to travel, to talk about his experience. It's worth noting that Taylor is from San Francisco and is going to work in consulting (which is traditionally not a flexible career), and he got his job despite his months on the road. Here are his words, unedited:
“Going from the working world to backpacking, you get to experience and appreciate true freedom. There’s no schedules, no deadlines, and most importantly nothing that you have to do and nowhere that you have to be (besides back home when your money runs out of course). It’s scary and oftentimes quite logistically complicated to put your career and life on hold to “just go travel” but through it you gain a set of experiences and opportunities for self reflection that no amount of time working can replicate. If you’re on the fence, take the leap! It’s a decision you’ll never regret.”
You can always make more money, you cannot make more time.
It’s also important to say, there’s no judgment if you immediately got a job or went to grad school out of college. Maybe you landed your dream job or got into your top choice school. Maybe you’ve always wanted to move to New York. Maybe, after dealing with COVID, you simply wanted some stability in your life, and traveling is anything but stable. Traveling is not the only option, and your choices are not for me to criticize.
I’m simply trying to dissuade you from using “I’ll never get a job again” as an excuse not to travel. As a thought experiment, if you met someone who took time off and traveled, would you judge them? I hope not.
3. “It’s too much money.”
First of all, traveling is a privilege. 150%. But if you are lucky enough to have that privilege (which essentially means you have a few thousand dollars saved), then you should use it!
I’m not talking about a Europe trip, which is one of the worst things you can do for your bank account (I know because I tried). I’m talking about taking a trip to northern Thailand where you can get a meal for 3 people for $6. I know because I tried that as well, several times.
It’s time for some simple math: Let’s say you, like many college students, moved to a big city once you graduated, such as New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, or Austin. You are likely paying $1000+ per month just in rent, and that is before food and other living expenses.
When I talk to backpackers, the generally accepted math for Southeast Asian traveling is $1000-$1200 per month, total. That includes food, housing, transportation, and excursions. If you’re living in a major American city, you could sublet your apartment and essentially be paid to travel.
More specifically, an expensive hostel in Southeast Asia is $10-$12 a night. Many are in the single digits. If you pay $1200 per month in rent, you’re paying $38 a night. Just sayin’.
Of course, flights are another story, but there are several ways around this too! If you live in the States (I was shocked to find out this does not really exist outside the U.S.) you can get credit card points for free. If you aren’t doing this, you’re literally turning down free money.
For example, every month, my friend David and I rent a theater in New York City to produce a magic show (grab tickets here!). It costs $800, which we make back by selling tickets. We never lose $800, but we must spend it every month. So, I put that on my travel credit card (which, again, you can get for free), and every month, I get points and get reimbursed. It is free money.
That alone won’t get me a round trip international flight, but after a few months of saving, it absolutely will. This is especially true if you’re willing to take bad flights, sit in bad seats, and make connections. I know many people who take flights with twelve+ hour connections, and just use it as an excuse to see a new city. And if you’re traveling for more than six weeks, then you have the time to take longer flights and deal with jetlag.
While you probably aren’t renting a theater, can you negotiate with your landlord to pay rent on your credit card? What about buying groceries? Or gas. You can get yourself a free international ticket with a few months of spending on things you already buy.
Again, this won’t apply to everyone, traveling is still a privilege. But if you are in a privileged position, and you chose your destination correctly, you can likely travel for cheaper than you are currently living, and I am not exaggerating. I’ve gotten by on $40-$50 a day in Asia (that’s an average that includes flights), and often much, much less.
4. “It’s not safe for women to travel alone.”
As a man, this is a nearly impossible argument for me to tackle, which is why I’ve recruited my female friends to offer their opinions. The consensus is that while it is unquestionably more dangerous for female solo travelers, it should in no way dissuade you from going.
This is a direct quote from my friend Swiss friend Anna, who backpacked for a month through Thailand:
“I think for most women, the primary reason for not traveling solo is the thought of going from one dangerous situation to the next…until they think of it not only as a possibility, but an inevitable component to their travels.
However, as a 23-year-old woman solo traveling for the first time, I never felt endangered or scared. Of course, I didn't take unnecessary risks, but I still went out, I went to bars, and went on adventures. I just trusted in humanity and the people surrounding me. And I can for sure say I had the best time while doing so!”
That is, admittedly, a pretty carefree approach, so here’s my friend Quinty (from the Netherlands), who was slightly more conservative:
“I never felt scared while traveling through Thailand and Vietnam. But I also think it depends on the country you are going to. I would not go to a country that’s unfriendly to women, like Colombia, alone.”
Finally, I asked Jess, who is British and traveling with her friend Kate, to talk about her experience traveling in a duo. It’s worth reading in full:
“Traveling solo, especially if you’re a woman, can be a very daunting experience. However, since going for a little over two months with my friend Kate, we have found that most hostels, travel companies and locals are extremely helpful and accommodating.
Collectively, Kate and I have wound up in scenarios where we are glad to have one another. Nonetheless, these moments are in the minority and we have, for the most part, felt safe. Having the option to travel with a companion is something I am grateful for, but it is so easy to make friends, despite traveling as a pair. It is arguably even easier to make friends traveling solo as the majority of people are in the same position!
Plenty of hostels have given us warnings in advance if we were staying in a slightly unsafe area. For example, in Ho Chi Minh, the staff warned us to keep our belongings safe and be a little more cautious. Also, in the majority of hostels we have stayed in, there has been a female only dorm option, thus eradicating the potential anxiety about sharing with random men. This is also a super easy way to communicate with other women and make friends!
Also, most male travelers are aware of the potential dangers women could come across. Thus when you form friendships, most of the time they will make sure you get home safe or even step in if you look particularly uncomfortable.
It is normal to be apprehensive but there are plenty of measures encouraging women’s safety, my advice would be trust your gut and even if you have to pay a little extra for your safety, it will always be worth it.”
I’m grateful to Anna, Quinty, and Jess for sharing their experiences. It comes down to the fact that backpackers are about 50% female, so I would not let being female stop you from going, even if you do, unfortunately, have to put in a bit more effort.
If you want to learn more, let me know, and I will put you in touch with my female friends so you can get their perspective.
So you think you can dance?
If you want to convince yourself not to travel, it’s going to be very easy. But if this is something you want, you can and should make it happen.
I’m always here as a resource, as are the dozens of people I’ve met who would be more than happy to tell you about their adventures island hopping in Thailand, or trekking in Nepal, or scuba diving in Bali, all on a slim budget. You can have the trip of a lifetime. You’ve just gotta go for it.