Here's what you need to give consideration to before you go backpacking and suggestions of how to deal with it - listed in this order:
It goes without saying that you'll need insurance,
but it's not something you should be sorting at the last minute as policies
vary significantly and you need to spend a while reading all the small print.
There are hundreds of travel insurance companies. Just Google the words and
you'll find thousands of results. However, not all are equal in price nor policy.
For example, check if cash and indeed any of your valuables are covered - which
they are often not on cheap policies - and how much the excess is that you may
need to pay. Cheaper policies are fine for the important health aspect, but
don't expect to have your US$500 camera, a dive or any previous medical condition
covered. Conversely even on more expensive policies, don't expect your US$1000
camera to be fully covered unless you have made special measures for it. If
you are interested the key features you should be looking for in a policy, they
are listed in a separate insurance page for one recommended company
here, but all the
following examples provide an excellent level of cover.
One recommended and well-known insurance company is Columbus (sorry no USA), but new companies are always coming onto the scene (e.g. the excellent Globe Link or Atlas) and the market is competitive with one trying to under cut the other. One such newer start-up that comes well recommended from several e-mailed comments and personal experience is World Nomads. They claim to be set up with backpackers in mind. You can do things like extend policies indefinitely and/or make claims online whilst still on the road. They offer a money back guarantee, cover the likes of surfing, diving, trekking and bikes (which many don't as standard) and you can buy from any country in the world. All this is useful and makes them worth checking out. It can be said in honestly (after years of comparison) that their terms and rates are also favourable for level. However, ultimately you need to shop around yourself and at the very least compare the terms of the companies recommended on this page. It is important to mention that the internet is fully of bold claims and misinformation regarding travel insurance as many websites (including at times this one) take a small referral commission for policies booked via them - be warned/wise. With all policies make sure you read the small print and compare a few providers. No company is perfect and competitive terms often come with loop-holes and coverage black-spots. As with car or household insurance any provider will try their hardest not to payout or limit the amount in the event of a claim.
Another thing to look out for is that geographic regions may vary the price and terms; with most policies that excludes North America or cover just Europe (inc. Israel, the Caucasus, and North Africa) being cheaper. More details on World Nomads, variations in regional coverage and small print on the insurance page. Be warned that starting a new policy for another geographic region is often not possible during your trip (i.e. having a cheap European policy and then travelling into Africa/Asia). Only a few companies can give you cover on-line while you are away (i.e. allow you to insure yourself for extra lengths of time if you don't know how long your trip will be when you first take out the policy). Multi-trip year long policies limit the length of your trip to 30 or 60 days (although 90 days can be found), making them fairly useless for many longer term trips.
Good insurance with loads of coverage is normally quite expensive: again the cheaper policies will not cover personal possessions, only medical costs (and with plenty of exceptions). If you do have one or a number of valuable items, such as a top-of-the-line DSLR and lens(es), it can make more sense to not even try to have them covered on normal travel insurance and instead go for a specialist (camera) insurer, often with better terms and prices. The same can be said for a specialist car-hire insurance policy (should you be using rental car(s)), that will normally work out cheaper than the one offered by the car hire firm and cover you for the excess in case of a problem with your hire car.
Making a claim
The most important thing is to take your policy
details away with you. If anything goes wrong on your trip do everything
by the book, including contacting the company immediately (they will
give you a hotline number). In addition make a list of anything you
buy for your trip and keep the receipts. The same goes for ATM slips
and currency conversion receipts while you are away. In most cases no
receipt means no claim. Remember there is no substitution for
suitable precautions against petty crime. Read them
If you would
like a quote directly through this site and for details of the key features
you should be looking for in a policy, then see the
Lost credit/bank cards
For those who worry or just want a little bit of extra peace of mind, a credit card protection policy such as the one provided by CPP (and loads of other companies), is a good idea. For about US$30 a year you register all your credit and bank card details with them. Then if lost, you can make one free call (they pay reverse charges) to cancel all your cards or whichever ones you have lost and automatically order replacements. If you are the victim of theft it is vital that you cancel the cards you have lost immediately and have all the relevant numbers at hand to do so.
Most travellers set off on a round the world trip
(RTW) with just that ticket. What round the world really means is Australia/Europe
(depending on where you start) and back with stop-offs and if you break this
mould, you pay for it. (If you aren't interested in making such a trip,
skip to this section for advice on the
many other options available.)
Here are the most popular types of tickets you can get (there are others) based around the major airline alliances - see respective websites to plan where you can stop:
The first is Star Alliance (Adria
Airways, Aegean Airlines, Air Canada, Air China, Air New Zealand, ANA
Asiana, Austrian, Avianca, Brussels Airlines, Copa Airlines, Croatia
Airlines, Egypt Air, Ethiopian Airlines, EVA Air, LOT, Lufthansa, Scandinavian
Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways,
Swiss, TAP, THAI, Turkish Airlines and United) whose members
have really increased over the years, is based on miles. They offer
a round the
world ticket and Circle Pacific ticket. Other recent members
South African and Ethiopian really open Africa to round
the worlders. TAM (Brazilian) jumped to One World in 2014.
A third option is the SkyTeam Alliance
(Aeroflot, Aerolíneas Argentinas, Aeromexico, Air Europa,
Air France, Alitalia, China Airlines, China Eastern, China Southern,
Czech Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Garuda Indonesia , Kenya Airways, KLM,
Korean Air, Middle East Airlines, Saudia, TAROM, Vietnam Airlines
and Xiamen Airlines).
All of the above RTW options are valued for one year and date changes are free or with a small charge. Changing destinations en route (if possible) will incur a larger charge - believe if you do this with One World it can actually extend your ticket from that point (but policy seems to vary office to office). All of these tickets are excellent value for money if you utilise them properly. Cheap or not, such tickets are not the only way to go. Many setting off on a RTW trip are increasingly shunning RTW tickets so as to have more flexibility and not be limited to a year trip. It is hotly debated as to whether buying tickets as you go, or buying one RTW ticket is best.
Example of a RTW ticket from London using One World: (all prices are approximate and depend on season)
London - Tel Aviv or Dubai - Mumbai - Bangkok (surface) Singapore - Sydney - Auckland - Santiago (surface) Rio - London. See how it is necessary to on the whole stick to major hubs. Say you want to see Nepal from India, that means you have to head all the way back to Mumbai (Bombay) for your next leg - when in fact it would be easier just to fly yourself to Bangkok from Kathmandu. The same goes with exploring the Middle East from Tel Aviv (you have to back track and miss out Syria/Lebanon due to your Israeli passport stamp).
Total cost: £1400 (€1550/US$2300).
This ticket would be much cheaper if you just focused on Asia, Australia
and the USA (skipping S.America/Africa) and is when it becomes too good
a deal to miss - sometimes less than £800 (originating in Europe in
low season). In this case the price is greatly increased by including
South America; the same is true when including Africa.
Example of a RTW ticket from London using singles: (all prices are approximate and depend greatly on seasons)
Destinations are suggestions, huge scope exists.
London - Athens £80 (easy on the internet, could also
fly to Rome); (surface) Cairo - Mumbai £180 (easy);
(surface) Kathmandu/Calcutta - Bangkok £100-200 (very
easy, but cheap flights fill up at the end of the trekking season, this
flight would be cheaper out from India or Bangladesh); Bangkok/Hong
Kong - Los Angeles £300 (or overland to Bali where you can
pick up a budget flight to Australia and fly to LA from Sydney - however
many RTWers would like to travel on to NZ and then Chile.
If heading for the USA buying a return ticket might
be wise and you will probably be able to have a third of the price refunded
to your credit card for not using the return bit.); LA/
Las Vegas - Lima £200-300 (like most countries Peru makes noises
about requiring a return ticket, but here as in most developing countries
there is rarely a problem on a one way ticket, especially if you have
a credit card.); (surface) Rio - London £400-£750!
(getting home from somewhere like South America will always be expensive
and you would be better to finish your trip in North America. Buenos
Aires or Sao Paulo to Madrid/Milan or similar will be a bit cheaper.
Much cheaper will be a flight from Quito or Bogotá (£250) to Spain.
With this flight and all of them you might need to book a few weeks
in advance and not during European summer and avoid all travel
during peak holiday periods.
Worth noting is you'll probably pick up a little
steam from not having return tickets which can
be quite frustrating. It may even be that you do have a return ticket, but not
from the immediate country you wish to fly into. If you are having problems
buying a single ticket try the airline office direct or better still use their
website to book online. It's generally travel agencies and check-in staff that
give you grief about booking returns (see
example). Don't let them panic you. It is extremely uncommon to have onward
travel checked and if you do, fabricating a story, showing your funds and a
credit card will smooth your passage. The one major exception is the
Caribbean, where if you don't have a way to prove
a means to exit most countries you enter, you run a real chance of having to
buy a exiting plane ticket on the spot (even if you plan to leave by ferry/cruise).
In this case forge a flight confirmation or letter showing you are meeting a
Remember no one important (immigration) cares if you have an onward ticket - only that you don't overstay a visa. You'll need patience at times particularly when crossing borders via airports (land crossing never a problem).
» Away from Round the Word (RTW) travel and tickets:
Remember not all trips have to be RTW trips.
Regional or bi-regional trips for a few months are much more practical,
cheaper and just as good (if not better). It's the feelings
of more than a few, that a year is too long to travel for unless working
en route, and that a few weeks or one, two, three, four month individual
trips are more profitable and practical.
Young person's discounts
If you are a full time student or under
26 , you may not realise it but you are already getting a great
deal as these tickets are heavily discounted. Not only is the price
reduced, but so are restrictions on tickets. At age 25 and 11 months
you could fly London - México City - OVERLAND - Panama - London with
American Airlines off-season for £425 with a $25 date change charge.
Unpublished fares are sold by consolidators (travel agents)
rather than airlines and are often lower priced. Promotional fares are normally
the best deal, but you need to book very early and get in quick. This means
signing on airlines websites to get e-mail notifications of offers when they
are released. The cheapest seat normally equates to planning far ahead, being
flexible on dates/routes and getting in there early before all the cheap tickets
are snapped up!
Timing your journey carefully is essential, especially on long flights. Fares will probably go up sharply on July 1st and cheap Christmas flights just don't happen (although travelling a little earlier or just after Christmas gives considerable savings: you can find okay prices in the window between Christmas day and New Year's Eve if you book far ahead). Likewise going anywhere in August will be expensive. Be as flexible as possible with your dates. Flying on the wrong day of the week can put an extra hundred bucks on the ticket price. Weekend travel is normally more expensive for long flights. The fare tariff applies to the date of the outbound flight and the tariffs change on the first day of the month or in the peak season in the middle of the month. If you were planning to depart in the last few days of the month, check to see if the fares drop the following month. In the peak season the reverse applies - going a week earlier may save you a good deal. Most flights are generally cheaper Monday to Thursday.
Remember a cheaper priced ticket is often endorsed non-refundable and non-transferable. Most cut price tickets can have the return date changed for a fee but only after the outward journey has been completed. Not all cheap price tickets have the same restrictions so it is important to read the terms and conditions of the ticket and understand what you are buying. You could spend your life waiting for the ultra wonderful deals you hear about, which are normally a few special offer seats or charter flight seats which depend on you being incredibly flexible, (flexible like coming back the very next week or going to package holiday type destinations). More about charter flights later.
The cheapest flights are also normally the least convenient - non-direct (e.g. Europe to Asia routed through Gulf States), long connection times, out of or to major hubs and with less well-known airlines. A third option for travel to some destinations is low cost, no frill airlines (aka. budget airlines). As a general rule, tickets are only available from the airline in question and you won't get too far from your home country unless making a few precarious connections, but can be useful to get to or from a major hub to make cheaper long-haul flight. For example, say want to visit somewhere like the Philippines. In most cases, there will be no cheap direct flights and a ticket is going to be pretty expensive. However, picking up a good deal from a major hub, to say Hong Kong/Singapore (which is a regular and competitive route) and adding a low cost carrier flight at one (or both) end(s), could save you hundreds of Euros/Francs/Dollars/etc.. You have to be willing to spend more time travelling, but sometimes (not always) the savings can be too great to ignore, especially if you want to get to a less visited country and are flying to or from a region with a good cheap budget airline network. More about budget flights later.
If you do have the time and flexibility, buying a one way ticket and then travelling as far as you like (taking cheap regional flights when you can't use or have had enough of buses/trains) is an excellent idea (as discussed above). If you do this make sure you will end up in a good place to fly home from, e.g. Hong Kong, Tel Aviv or Bangkok and not somewhere like Latin America where it will cost you a fortune to get anywhere but America - the same goes with most of Africa. Good value one-way tickets are a difficult thing to arrange away from budget airlines. They can often be the same price as a full fair and rarely 50%. Charter flights (with the exception of to The Gambia), are very rarely one-way. When you can find well priced one-way tickets this opens up the most useful type of ticket... the open jaw.
An open-jaw ticket as you probably know is flying into
one destination and out of another. This of course has huge advantages
in saving back-tracking and allowing you to see more. These type of
tickets work in two ways. The first, most common is with the same airline,
i.e. Delta for Central America, BA/Qatar for Asia or KLM for Africa.
The second way is when one-way tickets are available at the right price
and you simply just strap two good fares (different airlines - normally
code sharing) together.
are almost always return, returning normally 7 or 14 days after
arrival and always from the same place. Charter flights generally fly
from destinations in Europe to other European destinations. Long haul
charter destinations are: Kenya, Cancún, The Gambia (good value and
unusually on offer one-way), Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Thailand
(Islands), Sri Lanka, Goa, the Caribbean (sometimes Cuba) and sometimes
Brazil, UAE and Canada.
Internal, regional and budget flights
Don't think for a second that your initial ticket
need be the main focus of your trip: with a boom in budget airline networks
flying regionally, making a big round trip is really quite easy. Just
remember that flights are always cheapest in their originating country.
Most agents and internet search engines can't sell tickets for smaller
cheap regional carriers and only offer tickets from (expensive) larger
carriers. This can make planning quite frustrating, but unless on a
really tight schedule, visiting during a national holiday period (e.g.
Christmas, Easter, New Year), don't feel pressured into booking before
you go via an agency in your home country if you can't do so on the
airlines site or haven't time when travelling to 'play it by ear'.
How much money do I need? Well that really
depends on where you go, what standards you are use to, where you stay,
how you get around, what you eat/drink, what you buy/see and current exchange
rate factors. The answer given here is based on pretty much a shoestring budget,
but far from back-breaking or really roughing it (a little bit extra makes a
lot of difference). You can probably greatly reduce these figures if you don't
drink, travel long distances or do tours/expensive activities. Used to a great
measure are mine and other common experiences, which may not match yours.
Apologies to non Americans, reference is mainly made in USD$. Despite widespread stories of its demise, the USD$ is still however the de facto currency abroad - in fact at last count 66 countries have currencies linked to the US$ (either by a fixed or semi-fixed peg or direct use of the US$ - by-the-way it's ~26 for the Euro. Anywhere on this site you see a $ symbol please assume it is a US$. Roughly at present the USD trades at around 1.5 per GBP and 1.4 per EUR, but these are floating rates and change all the time. If you are using GB£, travelling just got much more expensive. If you are luck enough to have AUD, JYP or CHF... happy days!
You can see real time exchange rates by clicking here, but the - very rough - rules of thumb are easy to convert USD costs given: to GBP/EUR, knock off a third; to Swiss Franc knock off 10-20%; to CAD/AUD roughly knock off 10%.
Average costs per day including everything you are likely to do (transport, food, accommodation, important trips, etc):
The 'how much will it cost?' question is
a bit like 'how long is a piece of string?' So assumptions
are made based on typical backpacker experiences in a wide range of
destinations. If anything, costs are over-estimated. Very few travellers
really watch every cent to a pedantic degree - especially with prices
in less developed countries being such a bargain.
Please note that
exchange rate factors can and do make a significant difference in how
'affordable' a trip can be. Traveling on a strong currency
somewhere with a weak one is bliss, the converse is often very painful.
So the strength of your home (spending) currency will have a considerable
effect on how cheap you can travel.
In short and on average, bank on at least US$40/GB£25/EU€30
(plus or minus 20%) per day. This averages itself out and will allow for activities
and long distance travel (i.e. the odd internal flight, entry fees,
trains tickets, etc.). However, in more developed countries and big/capital
cities, the reality is often you need more like US$50 to $70 per day if you
are actively traveling/sightseeing. It depends on so many things. For example
trekking in Nepal, or lying on a beach in Goa or Thailand, you can probably
spend as little as US$15-25 (€10-17) a day, but you need to add (for trekking
for example): the hire of equipment/guide, the park entry and maybe a flight
to get there/away. For Goa a breakdown might look like this: 500Rps for a beach
hut/room, 500Rps for three good meals, 100Rps for water and another 100Rps for
a couple of beers or other. Total - 1200INR about $20/€15, but where does this
allow for transport or anything else? It's worth remembering that India, like
many other Asian (think China)/Eastern Europe countries are rapidly developing
with an emerging middle class pushing inflation and general living cost to new
Remember it is of course extremely cheap to 'live' in the developing world (at its typical standard of living quality), however it might not be at a level of quality near to what you might be used to or able to accept - of course travel should not be an endurance test. Travel (as in getting around and to places) on the other hand is not necessarily cheap if not 'typical travel', that is travelling like locals where locals would commonly travel. Just like raising your living standard (e.g. having AC in your room), getting to places off the beaten track (like national parks) where locals would not frequent and where you find very limited or no public transport can get very expensive even in the most tin-pot, cheap country (unless of course there are enough travellers to support a 'local cheap tour industry'). Take Africa for example, much of the continent lives on less than US$600 per year and as a traveller you can live on next to nothing too, however if you want a bed in the middle of the bush or to get to wildlife in its natural habitat your US$600 would last less than a week if not a day or two at worst. The same goes crossing remote mountain areas by land, (such as the Pamir highway) where hiring a 4x4 for +US$100s becomes the only option.
More to the point, in most developing countries where it is possible to spend very little, cumulatively you won't be doing yourself any favours if you don't make sure you keep yourself well rested and properly fed. Unfortunately it's true that to an extent the cheaper you travel the more hassle your trip will be and the longer you will spend getting around. If you do have the option to save a bit longer or shorten your trip in order to add 33-50% to the above average per day amounts you will not only be joining a greatly increasing group of slightly more wealthy (by that it's meant not slumming it) independent travellers, but will likely have a more pleasant and enjoyable trip getting to see much more, while still benefiting from the many fantastic experiences travelling on the cheap offers. And if you don't spend it all, bonus you have cash for another trip!
A further and frequently overlooked variable of how much someone will spend whilst travelling relates to what 'standards' they are use to at home and thus what they can readily accept while on the road. For example, someone with a regular middle income and use to living in a comfortable place of their own will be far more adverse to the low quality/standards and - occasional hardship - you'll come across on a lower budget and particularly in developing countries, compared to a student living in shared accommodation and on noodles. Habits such as a coffee-shop coffee in the morning or taking a taxi rather than struggling with a map plus a walk/bus-ride are hard to break. What comes naturally to someone at one stage of their life seems very tough at another. Therefore if you are someone [often older] who is use to a middle-class [disposable money in the bank] way-of-life, please allow yourself slightly more than the above guidelines as you'll probably find it impossible to skip those sunset cocktails and air-conditioned refuses!
It is also worth noting that as a foreigner you
will often find yourself penalised by double-tier prices (such as museum
entry, non-local currency priced air tickets and generally higher asked
day-to-day prices). In addition it is unlikely that on a long or round-the-world
trip, you will spend all your time in ultra-cheap countries and will
want to visit treasures in more expensive nations: western Europe, Australia
or North America being the perfect examples.
But I need to travel cheaper!
If you look for long enough on the net you'll likely
find plenty of testament from those who claim they travel or travelled
on around half the above suggested average
budget. When and for how long they maintain it or how much they got
to see/do it's hard to know, but of course it is possible to get by
on a really tight budget. So here in a nutshell (without recommending
any) are 7 secrets (realities is a better description) of travel
on the really cheap:
» For more detailed daily average costs please refer to the country summary section on this site, where suggested basic daily budgets are listed for over 75 nations. Or for the most detailed information, a country guidebook or planning guide is recommended.
As you have no doubt established you are going to need
a fair supply of money to cover your trip. In which form and how to take these
funds can pose something of a dilemma. Cash is, of course, king all over the
world, but do you really want to take all your funds in cash or even travellers
Obviously taking large amounts of cash is a risky strategy and it's best that the cash you set off with from home be - give or take - no more than enough for your first week. Whatever cash you do take, in whatever form it should be well hidden including, not to be overlooked, an emergency back-up cash stash. Find out what you are insured for and remember it's probably at your own risk.
The best way to get money almost anywhere
is through an ATM, either with a MasterCard
Cirrus or Visa Plus card - that is using your
bank or credit card from home to draw out of your home account. This
offers numerous pros such as getting favourable daily exchange rates,
running no risk of being ripped off, having the security of a PIN code,
keeping track of your rates and balance on-line and having the option
to specify exactly how much money you want to change. There are even
occasions where you can pull dual currencies out of machines (local
Money on arrival
You will normally find an ATM at the airport if
arriving at a major international one, but just in case you don't or
the ATM is empty, always carry some hard currency cash. The same goes
for borders where there are rarely ATMs, but nearly always change places
or money changers for some 'see-you-over' cash until you reach a bigger
city with better rates.
Traveller's cheques are, as you will no doubt know, a safer option compared to cash, but with a number of drawbacks. Firstly the commission required to buy and sell them and secondly that in some places they can be somewhat of a pain to change restricting you to bank opening times and long drawn out procedures. This is not always the case, but can often be when you need the cash the most and are in a hurry. Nevertheless, if on a long trip in countries you aren't familiar with, it's wise to have a few travellers cheques as back up to your ATM card. The irony is where it's easy to cash cheques you are going to find numerous international ATMs (and vice verse). Any international brand of travellers cheques will be fine (Visa or American Express). It's worth knowing that commission can be minimised if buying from an Amex centre (1%) and selling at one, if you can find it, abroad (0%). Don't forget to carry your purchase record/receipt with you - you may need it to cash your cheques and very importantly keep it in a safe place away from your cheques and make a note of the claim phone number(s) and cheque number(s) in case of theft. Travellers cheques do have a place where ATMs can't be found and as a good backup, but can also be costly and a pain - a pain in less developed countries not so much in developed ones - ATM use - if possible - is generally much more practical and the way to go.
Of course keep your cash, debit and credit cards separate to reduce the risk of losing access to all funds, but disasters do happen or you just run out of money. Money wires, such as those from Western Union then save the day. There are many ways to send cash - best to check online and give the details to a friend or family back home. They charge fees, but paying $20 to get an emergency $200 to the middle of nowhere within minutes is bargain. You'll normally find offices in remote locations, even where there is no bank.
Okay, one word of warning regarding ATM withdrawals. 98%
of the time the above is absolutely true, but for the other 2% there are situations
out of your control such as empty or out of order machines or many other eventualities.
So commonsense says don't rely totally on your ATM card. If you take a look
at the country summaries section you will be able
to get a good gauge, country by country, of the best way to handle your money.
There are also rare cases when due to artificial exchange controls (e.g.
Venezuela, Argentina or Zimbabwe pre-dollarisation) using an ATM will get you
a terrible (official rate) and you need case to change [on the black market].
Overall, the best general strategy to get at your money is always a combination of methods and back ups (i.e. have a debit (ATM) card, credit card, some cash and some travellers cheques - with the latter being for emergencies). And finally on the subject of cards - it's recommended that you do not carry your card (ATM or credit) around with you at all times if you can help it. For various reasons, it's best kept in your main bag unless you are using it.
Credit cards are useful, but much more so in developed countries. In less developed countries they can be used for larger purchases (e.g. a flight or Scuba course), but will normally have commission added to the total. However, they can be used to obtain cash advances in most banks world-wide (always with a commission - not the best value way to obtain funds, but extremely useful to fall back on when having ATM problems) and from ATMs. For all uses MasterCard or Visa are your best bet. Remember to consider your bills piling up at home with interest being charged and the fact if you are using them to draw money, it make sense to be in credit. Paying more money onto your card before leaving home, setting up a standing order or asking your folks to pay your bill or doing it yourself online whilst away is prudent.
With both traveller's cheques and cash don't get
hung up on taking all US$ if your home currency is 'hard' (€uro, ¥en,
GB£, CHF, AU$ etc.) except in Latin America where the dollar
rules and in other very less developed or untouristy countries and outside
big cities or right off the beaten track. Although when not carrying
US$/€uro or a regional 'hard' currency, remember that you may be resisted
to changing in business centres. Certainly when buying a lot of traveller's
cheques or taking cash to start off, if you can help it there is little
point changing your money twice paying commission each time.
Money changing tricks
Be warned about old style dollar bills which won't
be welcomed and other money changing tricks you might come across when
changing in shady circumstances. Money changing tricks are the easiest
way to get burnt whilst abroad. Two things to be aware of:
Do make sure dollar/euro notes are in a brand newish condition (no tears). It does happen that less than mint condition or old style high value notes will be unwanted. Always fully cover your PIN number when using an ATM - card skimming is a possiblity anywhere.
If you are heading somewhere exotic and
developing you will of course need to head down to a clinic and get
a variety of jabs before disappearing. Most of the important
ones will be boosters of shots you probably had as a child. There are
several others, but it is worth thinking twice about being sold on having
the 'whole package' - it all depends on where you are going and how
you feel about the risk.
Nevertheless, it is important to warn against the
foolhardy approach and 'I'll take the risk' attitude you might find
travellers on the road with (normally regarding Malaria). You'll also
note things have tried to be kept as simple and concise as possible
tackling a very big subject.
So what jabs do I need? You typically need for developing world travel regardless of what country you are visiting the following shots: Typhoid (3 years - also available as a pill), Meningitis (A+C), Diphtheria (10 years), Hepatitis A (two doses, 10 years - or immunoglobulin that will last for 3-6 months)), Polio (10 years), Tetanus (10 years) and if you are heading to parts of South America or Africa then Yellow fever (10 years). It's only fair to warn you, you're going to feel a little groggy after some of these shots.
» Within the UK and other EU countries with a national/socialised health service, for the immunizations listed above, you will typically be charged for Yellow Fever and Hepatitis A only, at a cost of about €90 (£85), with Hep A/Typhoid and Diphtheria/Tetanus/Polio being typically free - this will of course vary from country to country (in places like Ireland or Switzerland, it is unlikely you will get anything free!). Walk in clinics are good for those in a hurry, but will charge considerably more.
» Within the USA and other countries without a government funded health service the cost of your shots will be quite substantial in some cases and are rarely covered on medical insurance (you might find Tetanus included). The following charges are typical for the United States: Typhoid - $75, Polio Booster - $50, Hep A & B - $200 (per shot 2/3 needed), Yellow Fever - $100, Meno Meningitis -$130 & Rabies - $200 (per shot, 3 needed). In the States you usually have to go to special travel doctors to get the shots, as most doctors and clinic's don't carry them.
Hepatitis B and
Japanese B Encephalitis are in many opinions (all non-medical) not 100%
necessary considering the cost/number of injections and rarity. The rabies jab
for instance may not give full protection and thus you would always need boosters
(two) after a possible exposure, so the vaccine extends the time you have to
get the boosters and makes post possible exposure treatments much easier (without
the vaccine you would need five shots of
Human rabies immunoglobulin (HRIG) around the wound; note HRIG is not cheap
or easily found if off the beaten track). So whereas it is technically not essential,
there is an argument for not totally disregarding it if you feel you might be
in danger during a trip. Hep B is perhaps only advisable if you plan to be sexually
active (especially male gay sex), as it is an STI (but, for the record, can
be contracted in other instances such as passed on during medical or dental
treatment with inadequately sterilisation).
Whereas it would be nice to be vaccinated against 'everything', some vaccinations provide protection from infections that have a diminishing risk depending on where you are going and what you are doing. Plus in many cases can be quite costly. However you'd be foolish to discount anything by reading this alone and professional advice can make sure you make 100% informed choices, although medical professionals will of course almost always advise total protection in the same way they would always advise alcohol in moderation and wearing sun block.
As for malaria... a quick guide to prevention when travelling
for malaria, there's little point getting too into
the subject as it's a minefield. The thing is, you ask a doctor and
no matter where you are going you seem to get a doomsday scenario and
prescribed Lariam or similar at great cost. Most of the time, in hindsight,
it seems and is unnecessary. It is important to note where you will
be in any country as often high risk malaria is centred on small/fringe
(jungle/forest) areas rather than cities or the whole country.
It needs to be emphasised that any medication listed
in this section is vastly superior to not taking anything, and hoping
for the best. Some Malaria strains are deadly and kill fast (90% of
malaria deaths are children under the age of five, mainly in sub-Saharan
Africa) - especially when you haven't been exposed to malaria since
On an African trip (where most of this information applies mainly
to - don't take it as seriously if visiting South America (outside the Amazon
interior), Southern Africa or Asia) you might meet several travellers who
have contracted malaria even when taking prophylaxis such as Larium, which goes
a long way to illustrate the importance of covering up and not getting
bitten. Individuals normally
recovered with no problems (after some time out) and in a few cases, were not
even aware that they were infected until taking a malaria test (prick on the
finger blood test available cheaply in sub-Saharan Africa). Even taking malaria
tablets meticulously and doing everything possible to avoid being bitten, it
is possible to get a strain resistant to prophylactic drugs. Untreated malaria
is very dangerous, but responds well to prompt treatment.
Once infected, malaria can 'live in your system for a while until it decides to attack' as one overland truck driver put it 'when my body is down - normally when I have a hangover!' It is not preferable to attempt self-diagnosis (as tests are easily and cheaply available in East/West Africa and if you have a fever get tested soon). While travelling in Africa perhaps the most sensible precaution you can take on top of avoiding bites is to purchase on your arrival 'Arinate' (Artesunate 100mg) or similar. This comes in a kit of six pills available from any pharmacy, priced at about US$5. At any sign of a fever (symptoms can take a week or more to show - unfortunately your weekly Larium can knock them continually on the head) and if medical advice is unavailable, you can start self treatment. Still aim to get tested as soon as possible: you may have typhoid. Having such treatment available not only allows for peace of mind, but is useful should you enter a risk area when it is not practical to take prophylactics, i.e. you are only there for a few days (Etosha NP, Kruger NP, jungle areas of South America being good examples).
Remember, it's always a little dangerous to assume that your choice of malaria prophylaxis is available in the country you'll be visiting, but most third-world countries stock at least chloroquine and normally doxycycline (certainly the major cities of Africa and Asia do), but Malarone can be harder to find. Quinine is normally available to, but is not recommended. For the record a spot check in Kampala in 2014 found with ease (over the counter) Mefloquine (x 4, priced US$11) and Doxycycline (x 10, priced US$1).
he main five anti-malarials are easily absorbed provided you don't have any stomach problem like diarrhoea/vomiting. Since compliance is always an issue, Mefloquine is easier because it is only taken once a week and has a long half life. They should be taken with a full glass of water and with food. Additionally, Doxycycline is irritating so after taking it, one should maintain an upright position (don't go to sleep) for an hour to decrease the chance that it will reflux back up. Just to mention, Doxycycline is one of the drugs used to treat traveller's diarrhoea (and acne), so using it daily to protect against malaria will also help to prevent traveller's diarrhoea... or so the theory goes. This is because it is an anti-biotic - this also means that if you are on the contraceptive pill then you will have to take extra precautions during sex. Lastly, taking the medications faithfully and not stopping until 4 weeks (1 in the case of Malarone) after exiting the malarial zone is incredibly important and cannot be over emphasised.
Keep in mind that many of the reported problems
with Mefloquine occur at dosages used for the treatment of active malaria,
and not the prevention of malaria. The treatment dosage is 1250mg once,
which is 5 times the weekly prophylactic dosage! This is where a lot
of the Mefloquine confusions and scary rumours originate.
Why bother going to all this hassle/cost?
Once in a while, you will meet travellers who refuse
to take prophylactics, either because they want to acquire resistance
to malaria or else because they believe there is a homeopathic cure
for this killer disease. Unfortunately (especially in Africa), they
think they are being very clever.
As a footnote, many feel the focus on Malaria is misdirected, Dengue fever is common in regions such as SE Asia (its geographic spread is similar to that of malaria). The carrying mosquitoes of Dengue live indoors and bite during the day, when most are least vigilant. Dengue can be every bit as dangerous as malaria. However there's no need for paranoia - a quick squirt of repellent on the ankles or covering up is a simple, easy and effective measure. In contrast to malaria, which is more common in rural areas, it is larger cities that present the greater risk from Dengue fever.
See the 1000 travel tips malaria page for much more information (exact risk country) and please don't worry too much. Also see information on mosquitoes in the what to pack section and general travellers health problems in the on the road section. There are also many excellent traveller health sites in the links section.
Visas can be a pain - not only can their costs really add
up (Indochina, Central Asia or Africa), but you can end up stranded for days
waiting for them (normally over weekends) and even have to back-track for days
if your planning is off or your visa is wrong/expired. Other times visas can
be effortlessly hassle free, being not required or just a simple free stamp
at the border (Latin America or Southern Africa).
Generally speaking, in countries that are most commonly visited by backpackers, visas are available on the border or on arrival at a main airport for free or a fee - no advance planning is needed. More and more countries (i.e. Laos and Cambodia) are taking measures to make visas easier in order to encourage tourism. In other cases visas are available in a neighbouring country's major cities with much less fuss and cost than in your home nation. Therefore visas - if you have the time - are best picked up en route as you travel with the exception of specific countries outlined later. As well as this method being easier, cheaper and more convenient, you run no danger of your visa(s) expiring before you get to use them. Also you may find that smaller nations are not represented in your home country. Of course, pick up the visa (if required) for the first country of your trip in your home nation.
Always try to obtain up-to-date visa information,
which can be hard to come across unless on the ground in the area. Guidebooks
and websites are often out of date (i.e. the requirement to
state exit and entry points for a Vietnam visa changed in the early
'00s, but is still commonly referenced) and other situations are always
changing (e.g. Serbia only recently started issuing visas on
the border and Bulgarian/Romania have relaxed tight and expensive visa
A word to the wise
Remember when picking up visas en route to be flexible
- things don't always go the way you expect and you certainly can't
go anywhere you want, when you want. Visas maybe available next day
in many embassies, but if you apply on Friday, you won't be able to
pick it up for three days. In addition be very wary of festivals that
bring everything to a halt and unexplained rejections or transit/shorter
visas being issued when a full one was requested.
Internet newsgroups and your national travel advisory website
are both good resources to ask questions and get answers. The only major problem
scenario that comes to mind when travelling and picking up visas en route, -
as is normally possible - is heading into China through the Karakoram highway
and then into Central Asia. These visas are only available in Beijing or Islamabad
which is a long de-tour or double back.
It's normally easier when en route to get an agency to deal with your visa for a small commission that saves you the taxi fares to and from the embassy. The use of these services can range from laziness to essential, when a recommendation or invitation letter is required. Whenever applying for a visa think about whether it is worth paying a little extra for the flexibility of a double entry visa , say for Syria (pop into Lebanon), Ghana (pop into Togo), India (pop into Nepal), or Nepal (pop into Tibet) to name a few popular examples. You'll save time and money in the long run. Upon getting your visa, check how many days you have (you may not get what you asked for), if there are any limitations, whether it can be extended (especially if transit) and whether all details are correct (all t's crossed and i's dotted) before you leave the agency or embassy - mistakes do happen. It is worth having a supply of passport photos to hand for visas and extensions (many need two or three photos). Below is a rough summary of major regions, but for a more detailed overview the Rough Guide: First-time series is recommended.
All information is based roughly on experiences of an EU passport holder. North Americans will have similar experiences. Australians, Kiwis, Israelis, Japanese and Koreans will run into more problems. South Africans and other nationalities will run into a load of problems. Here is a quick guide to regions (see country summaries for focused advice) - bracketed examples are not comprehensive lists and paragraphs are only rough guides for developed nation passport holders:
: Only more developed nations issue free visas on arrival (Japan, S.
Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines and Singapore). Generally visas
are best obtained in a major city in a neighbouring country, most effectively
Bangkok, Delhi or Hong Kong for China. More and more nations (Nepal,
Laos, Sri Lanka and Cambodia) have started offering visas for
a fee when you arrive. This facility may however only exist
if you fly in or enter at a major crossing. Almost everyone will need
a visa before arrival for entry to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
» Australia and the Pacific : You do need a visa for Australia that is electronically stamped in your passport. This is generally free from the Australian embassy in your home country or about $US10 at a travel agent. If you wait until you are abroad, in say Bangkok, it will be more expensive. NZ and most of the rest of the Pacific is visa free in order to encourage tourism.
: (see North Africa left) Visa requirements vary dramatically for different
passport holders. Generally visas are required for countries in
East Africa , however these are normally obtained at
the border (have $$ ready) with limited hassles (Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya,
Zambia) or in a neighbouring country's embassy for more off-the-beaten-track
destinations (Mozambique, Ethiopia).
» The Americas are visa hassle free for most (Australians and Kiwis have a few problems in South America). Visas are almost always free on the border and for a nice long period. Do check, there are some funny scenarios - for example: some EU countries may need a visa for Bolivia and US/Australian citizens will in some case have to pay a fee. For US citizens things are tightening up in Latin America with this reciprocity tax/fee causing visa costs to really mount up for USA citizens (see comment) not just in Brazil, but in many other of the regions countries (Bolivia/Chile), making country hopping expensive. Central America is free of most visa hassle.
» Europe is visa fee for most developed nations with the exceptions of a few ex-USSR countries.
Western Europe is visa hassle free for most and with Serbia finally dropping their visa requirement, most can crisscross Europe at leisure.
Eastern Europe is now visa free for most. Some like Albania require on the border fees. Moldavia and the Ukraine have recently dropped visa requirements for most (EU, Swiss, Japan, USA/Canada) and the EU has extended to include the likes of Romania and Bulgaria, but with some Eastern European countries Ozzies, Kiwis and Yanks will require a visa (Baltic's, Poland & Bulgaria now don't).
Azerbaijan, Belarus and Russia will require expensive and sometimes difficult visas (a letter of invitation will be required issued by an agency that makes you a real (or in the case of Russia, usually 'theoretical') hotel booking.
Middle East and North Africa: Within the Gulf
States and North Africa visa are normally easy or not
required. The key exceptions are Saudi Arabia (very tricky if not
transit or for religious reasons), Iran, and Libya plus Syria due to
current and previous conflicts. An Iranian
visa is best achieved with an 'authorisation code' letter. For an easier
ride, it's best to contact an agency such as
and get them to send a visa authorisation code to your embassy of choice.
Many travellers settle for a transit visa (5 days), however they can
no longer be extended. For more details see the
Syria is another tricky one - when the country is
safe to visit - the rule is unless you have no Syrian consulate or
embassy in your home nation you'll technically need to get your visa
in your home country or you may need an expensive letter of
recommendation from your national embassy. Traditionally Libyan authorities will
not granted a visa without a tour, but there are
tour agencies who will get you a visa, having to meet you at the
airport/border (forget the embassies or the lottery with the Tunis consulate).
Despite widely reported information to the contrary, independent travel
is possible in the country (at least along the coast). If you still
run into red-tape some agencies can provide a guide rather than a tour.
Still Libya is very tough to get a visa for (even with regime change)
without a pre-booked tour.
more specific country by country information have a look at the excellent
If you have heard differently or know different to any of the above then it may need up dating - please let us know.
You can worry a lot about safety without it doing any good.
Better spend your energies understanding what the real risks are and
the dynamics of where you are going rather than getting paranoid, as many unfortunately
do. All you really need to do is to check your government's advisory website
- the UK foreign
advisory is pretty sensible, with limited scare mongering (although its
got quite a bit worse recently), unlike the
Find out the areas you really should stay away from or take special care in,
what the latest scams and dangers are and generally stay in touch with the news
in volatile areas like the Middle East.
All good guidebooks have sections on staying safe, the latest scams and how to deal with them in their respective country. Going back on what was said in the beginning, maybe you should stay a little paranoid, since then you'll be on your guard and safer for it. However, put in perspective, there is nothing to generally worry about. The biggest risk you'll probably take whilst away is something you seem to do more often than anything else - getting on a bus or in a car. For this and many other reasons lip-services to terrorism won't be given here, since the reality behind the headlines and constant media focus is to most independent travellers in 99% of the world is there are much bigger issues to be concerned about. As an example, between road traffic accidents (six out of ten road deaths worldwide actually happen in just 12 countries*), malaria and smoking (responsible for one in ten adult deaths worldwide*) - terrorists, rebel guerrillas and other 'boogiemen' look like pussycats!
As for crime, this is one of the most difficult things to write about in context on this website. Dwelling on the subject must inevitably fuel paranoia in first-time travellers, yet glossing over it can only place inexperienced travellers at greater risk of being robbed. Simplistically, you need to recognise two things. The first is that Asian and African (and to a lesser extent Latin American) society is inherently far more law-abiding than our own. The second is that thieves will be present on your trip, as they are everywhere, and often target westerners, who are not only reliably wealthy relative to locals, but who also are very easy to spot.
A degree of discrimination and caution is appropriate
when you travel, but only a degree. Bear in mind that people with a
criminal intent make up a tiny fraction of 1% of the population, so
that an attitude of indiscriminate paranoia, wherever you are, can only
divert your attention away from genuinely suspicious characters. Experience
suggests that the vast majority of crimes against tourists occur in
one of a few specific places and/or in reasonably predictable circumstances.
To generalise, follow these three rules for general safety: 1) Make sure you have clothes with secure pockets or means carry your cash/docs and keep everything well organised - only take out what you need for the day. 2) Be extra aware in large cities, bus and train stations, especially those with a reputation: treat anyone who tries to talk to you or distract you as suspicious. 3) Remember the vast amount of crime happens at night. Don't stray too far, get too drunk/stoned and return via taxi if necessary.
Although the advice here is essentially 'don't worry and
just do it', it's not fair to gloss over the subject in such a manner as it's
enormously difficult to give an accurate picture of the experience of travelling
alone, since it can vary enormously and is almost always filled with highs and
lows. There are a number of factors to take into consideration, from luck to
the time of year and most importantly destination and personality.
Nonetheless, honestly speaking the best advice to those who are worried about being alone abroad or feel not having anyone to go with is preventing them from travelling is to remember that travelling alone is far, far better than not travelling at all and that there are many lone travellers, both male and female, all over the world right now (certainly it is seemingly a much more popular option with Japanese and Korea travellers than with westerners). Pick an easy country to start with (say, Singapore or New Zealand) and go. It will be the best thing you ever do - consider it the advantage it can be and not the disadvantage many see it as. The thing is you won't be alone all the time as making friends and teaming up with people is often easy. You will, when alone, meet and talk to far more people than if with a partner and especially locals, who are much more likely to invite you into their lives.
The flip side is not every day is great: you will undoubtedly find yourself in a situation where things don't go so fantastically and not having someone to share those frustrations with or to lend a helping hand can be a little depressing. Getting sick whilst travelling is the perfect example. You will also have days when you won't have a conversation with anyone which can certainly get you down. Finally luck plays a big part of who you meet - you might meet some great people to travel with in a remote destination and then on hitting a backpacker hub like Thailand find yourself isolated despite hordes of other travellers (or the opposite can happen). Signing up for local day tours is a great way to meet people, as is approaching others to share taxis from airports, bus or train stations. Both are easy to do and in the case of the latter very handy since this is when you feel your most alone. In developed countries, staying in hostels and using shared transport aimed at backpackers puts you in touch with a lot of people. To many this advice is unnecessary as they may well be confident in themselves and well travelled, although that's not everyone. It does take courage to head off alone, but you won't be the only one and if you have doubt as to just how you will fare at least find out. Most of the world is yours to explore and not, as the media would have us believe, some big bad dangerous entity that will eat you alive the moment you step off the plane.
For single women the question of whether to go solo is of course, a much more of a difficult question. Certainly it's worth thinking carefully about travelling without previous experience alone in places like Northern India or Arab/Muslim countries, since men can give you somewhat more attention than you require. Lone females do sometimes attract such attention and it can be frustrating, annoying and at its worst, quite scary, although a lot of it is fairly harmlessly derived from the fact that a lot of males (South Asians in particular) have fairly warped ideas about women. It can't be totally prevented, any more than it can be in your home country, but it can be minimised with general common-sense such as dressing conservatively, having a more planned route with a few advanced bookings and being assertive when required. What is nice to know is that in many, many destinations women won't get any hassle and where such hassle can occur you will find women only queues and seating areas on trains and buses, and that you are generally looked after by locals who often take you under their wing. If heading off as a lone female you probably don't need to be told, but all the advice about staying safe on this site needs following to the tenth degree, particularly that about walking in secluded areas after dark. All this said, lone female travellers are not uncommon and such a venture is quite manageable and far, far from being unnecessarily dangerous given the correct attitude.
Several readers have recommended an e-book titled The Art of Solo Travel - The guide for solo women travel. Published by indie travel media it is extremely well put together with a beautiful layout. The information presented is similar to what is on this site (although coming from a much smaller bases of reference countries), but the whole document is written by a women whom has travelled alone with such considerations in mind. It costs about US$13, if you are interested you can have a look at the site and all the promotional details here.
Travelling alone, whether male or female you are
going to have to be generally more on your guard (read
this). In less travelled countries (like Central Asia or West Africa)
unless you are outgoing, travelling alone can be miserable with fewer
creature comforts, possible language barriers and less travellers to
meet. To summarise: your feelings regarding the outcome of your trip
are probably going to be mixed. Guaranteed will be some great experiences
and a sense of fulfilment and confidence, but you are probably going
to also recall a day or two when you were down in the dumps... all in
all you're going to remember the good bits.
travelling to a new country it's useful to learn who the country's leading
football players, movie stars or cricketers are. It's a great way to
start a conversation in any bar and if you have some knowledge of their
sporting stars, it will endear you to the locals.
» All the above advice also applies to older travellers. Don't be put off - again just like couples and single travellers there are many older travellers enjoying life in exotic places around the world. Age is no major hindrance to independent travel on a budget and it is easy to make friends and to pay a little bit extra for luxury when required.
heading off on a long multi-country trip, it's worth knowing that you really
don't need to take a guidebook from home for every country you intend to visit.
The cost and weight is just unnecessary: guides (okay sometimes not the latest
update or small print run editions for out-of-the-way countries) are normally
readily available on the way if you look hard enough in regional and traveller
As for using guidebooks in the planning stage of a trip, the standard 'do this - go there' country guides (such as Lonely Planet or Rough Guide) are little help with too much detail. The best book to read before heading to Asia is 'Asia Overland' from Trailfinders - this is one of the best (if a little out-of-date) travel resource around (see details of it here and of a newer South East Asia version). Rough Guide's First-Time series are practical, down to earth and well written with many anecdotes. They have one for every region and also a RTW version - these are the best planning books. The Lonely Planet: Read This First books are again good, but now out of print (due to be replaced?). Both series can be overviewed and seen in more detail by clicking here.
Check out the recommended books pages and country summaries pages for the best guidebooks recommended for each country and where/if you can pick them up on the way. Please also look at the in-depth guidebook exposé in the on the road section. You may want to make photocopies of city maps before you go: easier than taking the whole book out into town every time.
Another point is many are very surprised at the number of good guidebooks in their local library: these can be used for research or for photocopying sections.
Where to go and what to see - the planning stage
Where do you start? See camera details and advice in the what to pack section. In addition, there are many good links to sites dedicated to this subject in the links section. For that reason this huge area is being left somewhat empty, since it is worthy of a whole site itself. Recommended however is the great LP published book (pictured right) for literally everything you would need to know on the subject and some top advice.
where to go section
for some tips and ideas, or any of the titles recommended in the 'planning
books' section of the site.
It's not easy talking about volunteering and particularly
to say anything bad about it. After all the notion of helping out and giving
your time to those less fortunate than you is commendable. Nevertheless that's
a romantic notion that does not reflect the majority of volunteering opportunities
offered to gap year and other travellers by businesses in the developed world.
'Voluntourism' has grown exponentially in the past decade and is a
booming business. Ten years back, companies offering volunteering opportunities
abroad were few and far between. Today there are over 70 such companies in the
UK alone, with the industry's estimated worth being over 800GBP million. From
teaching to working with pigmy elephants there's a company that can sell you
the opportunity to volunteer abroad.
For the most part the industry is focused around gap yearers between 18-24, new to travel wanting to go abroad, but unsure how to do so and a little apprehensive at the uncertainly and perceived danger of independent travel, and of course those who want to help out and 'give something to the world'. One such company and a major player is 'i-to-i', just to illustrate how much of a business this industry has become it's worth knowing that 'i-to-i' is owned by 'First Choice Holidays' one of the major package holiday operates in Europe (parent group is TUI and owns other brands such as Thomson). Take a look at their and other glossy sites (easily found through high-priced Google ads) with promise of 'learning a skill', 'life changing travel', 'meaningful train tours' and prices topping several thousand Euros/Dollars.
The industry has developed, driven by a demand from individuals to do volunteering work on various projects, be it working with children, building a well or rescuing turtles in whatever location. This demand has translated into supply by commercially driving companies to find/create these opportunities. What is so wrong with this picture is the reverse should be true. When a project has a need, it is matched to an individual, not the other way around. So competitive has this demand for projects become there are examples of companies (with reference to i-to-i in Sri Lanka) requesting projects to sign exclusivity contracts agreeing they will only take their volunteers.
The whole phenomena starts with a would be volunteer/traveller seeing things as: 'I want to help out, I want to make a contribution, I want to travel in a way that is worthwhile'. There are just too many 'I' there, when in fact the whole notion of volunteering is not about you at all. Many of these 'opportunities' are offered short term with even weekend volunteering being available. This is perhaps the most damaging, consider teaching for three weeks in Africa, when a school term is three months which would be a minimum - aside from the fact that although giving your time is an admirable thing, many of these schools would be in greater need of books and even desks compared to the time of someone with no teacher training when teacher shortages are never normally a problem. Unfortunately doing nothing is sometimes better than doing something (see good article).
So the word to the wise is tread with extreme care, what are your motivations? Why are you paying large sums to volunteer? Where is the money going? How come the company is spending a lot on advertising? Should I not take the money I would have spent on my flight and donate to a specific project or at least fund raise at home? The slicker the site, the more glossy the opportunity (collecting turtle eggs anyone?) the more you need to be aware. Let's be fair most of those volunteering do so for largely selfish reasons and unless you are careful you can find yourself in a situation doing more harm than good. Consider the fact their is no shortage of those desperate for work in the third world and in a worst case scenario you can find yourself substituting local jobs to a degree. Equally many opportunities alone can isolate you from the country you are visiting and do not allow the wider experience an independent traveller (conscious of his means of travel, making donations or helping at specific points) might experience.
As a final note, the above is only something for consideration. A backlash and a word of warning to how what is essential a good thing has been cynically exploited by a newly created industry. There are loads of worthwhile opportunities available and tonnes for free or non-profit making ones with you can contact directly - of which there are some links to on this site in the links section and can easily be found with some savvy web searching and questions. Aside from this lets not forget schemes such as VSO and Peace Corp of which function in a totally different manner.
If there is anything else you would like details on, feel is omitted or would like to add yourself, then please get in touch.
"The world is a book, and those who do not travel, read only