It seems everyone has a story to tell or advice to give about a friend who travelled or something they did
(often long-ago when the world was very different place).
The stories are typically embellished or dramatic – otherwise they wouldn't be worth telling.
The world gets confused into one. Tails of essential impossible visas, cockroaches, contagious disease or lack of services
in one part of the world gets spread to another. However, the truth is that today during a trip around
the backpacking heart lands of Southeast Asia, Latin America, Australia or Europe you are not going to be in much
danger of Ebola, lack of banks, hardened rebel groups, squalid accommodation, impossible visas or
(with a realistic budget) really much outside your comfort-zone. For the most travel has got easier
and easier over the last decade with huge changes in the last five years driven by the Internet.
So many 'advice' blogs, Internet forums and casual chat of those you meet in totally disregard these facts. Moreover many parts of Asia or the Americas are now just as advanced/civilised – if not more so – that the West. It is all very difficult to know what is fact and fiction. What to believe and what to ignore? With so much to take on board and so much trepidation when you may have have never travelled before it is no wonder that so much money and time is spent and wasted on jabs, pills, visas, insurance and general 'worry'.
The world is a very different place and there is no one size fits all approach. We try and cater (and encourage) those heading to more exotic (less visited) destinations, but recognise that 95% of travelers head to a few very well trodden destinations/regions. Read, understand, gain confidence and moreover pay for what you actually needed before you go, not what a message of worry tries and sells you.
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:
Insurance (an expensive minefield),
Buying a plane ticket (RTW or regular)
Lastly, volunteering and 'voluntourism'.
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, start coving you immediately for pre-trip problems and you need to spend a little time reading small print and making sure you don't overpay.
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 before you get anything back. Cheaper policies are fine for the important health aspect, but don't expect to have your US$500 camera/laptop, a dive or any previous medical condition covered. Conversely even on more expensive policies, don't expect your US$1,000 camera/laptop/phone to be fully covered unless you have made special measures for it.
One recommended and well-known insurance company is Columbus (sorry no USA), but new companies are always coming onto the scene like the excellent Globelink or Atlas. Globelink is great value. Overall the market is competitive with many providers trying to under-cut others, however sadly too few compare policies.
One such newer start-up that comes well recommended from several e-mailed comments and personal experience is World Nomads. You see them frequently mentioned in travel sites/blogs, as they pay commission, but 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 honesty (after years of comparison) that their terms and rates are also favourable for the level of cover they provide (which is high). All of the mentioned companies provide excellent and comprehensive coverage in all four of the main areas, but this does make the 'better' ones the most expensive. Having total coverage is great and gives an excellent safety net should the worse happen, but if you just can't afford it go for more basis coverage (items 1 and 2) with low or no theft insurance. Basic is better than none!
Effectively you will be looking for cover in four main areas. Some essential, some less so. The more 'security' you want the more you pay. They are:
medical cover if you are sick when you are away (if you already have private medical insurance check as in some cases there maybe a basic coverage under this).
emergency evacuation in event of a natural disaster or for repatriation if you are seriously sick or die - essential if heading to a more unstable poorer region.
cancellation insurance - this covers you for costs (such as flight/hotel) that you can't use in case of sickness or a delay. This is not expensive and will ensure that if the day before your flight you have a doctors note you don't lose the whole cost of a flight you can't make. Well worth it.
loss and/or theft insurance, this is where insurance gets expensive and is full of loop holes. If you want to save money skip or minimise this and don't take anything you will cry about if stolen. Note that often cash, electronics and high value items are typically not covered (or significantly limited). Also check as this may be included to some extent on a household insurance policy.
Ultimately if you want to make the best choice 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. 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. That said, if in doubt and want full
coverage go with
Another thing to look out for is that geographic regions may vary the price and terms; with most policies that exclude 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 often 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 camera 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 pretty much always 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.
The most important thing is to take your policy
details away with you or know where to find the documents on-line. 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 note of anything you
buy for your trip that you might want to claim for and keep the purchases 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
Never assume all costs (replacement/medical) will be covered.
Reclaiming 100% of the cost of any lost these days is less and less likely, especially on cheaper policies. As the industry became more competitive, insurance companies have really tightened up over the past years and a claim is now almost impossible unless you have followed their guidelines to the letter which normally means dealing with serious red tape in the country of any incident. Check what you can claim for on your household insurance and don't do anything silly like travelling against medical advice. Also don't forget extensions for expensive items and dangerous activities such as diving, rafting and climbing.
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. Some card companies/insurance companies cover fraudulent use, some don't.
We like World Nomads because they are backed by specialist insurers and give global assistance, you can extend on-line and they cover a range of adventure sports/activities, plus give support to a community development project.
We also like Globelink and thank them for offering a 10% discount code (AFF10GTI). For those wanting something a bit cheaper they come highly recommended although don't provide for North Americans.
Get a direct quote and more information on the insurance resources page.
Remember an insurance policy will cover you not just for your trip, but also for what happens before it (so don't put off making a booking). In most cases flights and accommodation bookings are non-refundable. If you get sick or are subject to any other circumstances that means you can't fly on the date/time you booked, most airlines will say 'not our problem'. Speaking with firsthand experience, having a policy in place to get the money back for the lost ticket is worth every cent/penny if only to avoid the physiological pain of money lost through no fault of your own.
Flight tickets and options come in many different guises. From open-jaw, to epic round-the-world tickets and just plain vanilla. We try to explore them all here and dispel many of the myths regarding getting a cheap flight, starting with - for those lucky enough to consider - round-the-world flights. We have added some rough prices as guides, obviously these change all the time and we quote in GBP as a rough guide (but it is easy to convert in Google to your own currency or check the flight price yourself on-line).
Many longer-term 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 (in North or South America) and if you break this
mould, you pay for it. However, miles for miles, on a convectional
structure these are often the best value tickets. (If you aren't interested in making
a RTW trip,
skip to this section for advice on the
many other options available.)
The most popular types of tickets you can get (there are others) are based around the major airline alliances. There is no such thing as a round-the-world airline, it is type of travel most airlines are not commercially interested in providing. These alliances are also useful to know booking regular flights and collecting miles) - see respective websites to plan where you can stop are:
Star Alliance - the biggest (Adria Airways, Aegean Airlines, Air Canada, Air China, Air India 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) is based on miles.
a round the
world ticket and Circle Pacific ticket. Recent members
South African and Ethiopian really open Africa to round
the worlders. TAM (Brazilian) jumped to One World in 2014 and is now
merged with LAN Chile (oneworld)
so not the best option for getting to South America.
oneworld (Air Berlin, American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, LAN, TAM, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Royal Jordanian, S7 Airlines and Sri Lankan Airlines). Straightforward continent-based fare oneworld Explorer or a more versatile distance-based fare Global Explorer.
This is often the ticket to get for a trip including South America, since LAN Chile and TAM (Brazilian) (now known collectively as LATAM Chile) are members it has an excellent South American network and can get you to Easter Island as a stop off. The Explorer ticket is often the best value ticket on the market and is based upon the number of continents (continents defined by the airline, not in strict geographical terms) you choose to visit or pass through.
No round-the-world ticket will cover budget airlines like Air Asia, Ryan Air, EasyJet or Southwest Airlines - which will normally be cheaper for smaller regional jumps.
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).
offer various plans based on
maximum miles/km with a limited (3-15) stops. They also offer Go packages for various
continents (Africa, Europe, Asia) and large countries (USA/Canada, Mexico, Russia, China) so if you want to greatly extend your ticket to get around a region you can.
And finally The Great Escapade (Air New Zealand, Singapore Airlines and Virgin Atlantic). The Great Escapade is mileage based (29,000 miles, one Atlantic crossing, one Pacific crossing allowed) with unlimited stopovers (except in New Zealand) and the option to buy up to 4,500 miles more. Note Emirates (in partnership with Air Tahiti Nui also offer round the world options.
South America is not included and South Africa is the only African stop. But if that's not a problem for you and you want a basic ticketing.
Please confirm all of this with a travel agent. Things change quickly in this industry especially with the chaos the coronavirus caused on air travel.
Typically if you tell an agent like STA Travel where you want to go they will find you the best/cheapest option
and will have plenty of
Or you can experiment on the web with what comes our cheaper/better for you.
Worth knowing and little known is that some RTW tickets don't require you to book all flights before departing and can offer extra flexibility to book as you go (although this can get more expensive).
All of the above RTW options are valid for one year and
date changes are free or with a small charge. Changing destinations en route
(if possible) will incur a larger charge - if you do this with oneworld
it can actually extend your ticket from that point (but that 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.
Date changes are normally free or pretty cheap.
Many feel secure in planning a grand route and knowing a schedule in advance. This structure can help and you can make changes.
They normally work out cheaper and from major [high competition] hubs are bargains especially if on a simple Oz and back route in the low season.
In most cases you are limited to 12 months to complete your travels.
You are going to have to plan your route and lock yourself into it before you go. Route changes on the road will cost you.
Best to have Australia/Europe as a focus (or departure point) of your trip.
You will need to take some one-way local flights anyway and often back track for your next leg.
Limited to major hubs, you will have to take internal flights to get to the likes of Nepal, Vietnam (without back-tracking) and notably across the Darien Gap (South to Central America).
No need to plan in advance without information you'll discover while on the road.
Gain a huge sense of freedom - the major growth in regional budget airlines opens so many doors.
Better if doing more interesting routes with lots of over-landing (recommended).
The main disadvantage is not always having an onward ticket - which can pick you up a little bureaucratic hassle by not being able to prove onward travel, see below. In practice, it's more an annoyance than a hindrance.
The cost of this type of DIY ticket will be more than RTW deals you can find.
Requires more time, planning and greater flexibility.
It's fairly hard to price your ticket sitting at home as current ticket prices can only really be gauged accurately when you are in the region travelling.
You can sometimes have a nasty surprise on the price of a flight if you hit a peak season or a route not being discounted. Major airlines sometimes price one-way flights the same or more expensively than return flights.
Example of a RTW ticket from London using One World: (all prices are approximate/indicative and depend on season - airfares have jumped up a lot post Covid and FX rates change all the time)
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 Jordan/Egypt).
Total cost: around £2000 (€2300/US$1800
- prices are indicative, airfares have jumped up a lot post Covid
and FX rates change all the time).
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 £1,000 (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. P
Remember oneworld price by continent and many example fares are shown on their website.
Example of a RTW ticket from London using singles: (all prices are approximate/indicative and depend on season - airfares have jumped up a lot post Covid and FX rates change all the time)
Destinations are suggestions, huge scope exists.
Based on October departures -
London - Athens £70 (easy on the internet, could also
fly to Rome); (surface - jumping over Syria) Cairo/Tel Aviv - Mumbai £160 (easy);
(surface) Kathmandu/Calcutta - Bangkok £150-200 (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 £400-500 (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.
RTW tickets can be bought in Bangkok for okay prices and are an excellent way of continuing your trip. Regional South East Asian flights are however cheap and easy (see links) and connecting from Singapore or Bali to Darwin is great value. Oz to NZ is easy enough, but getting on to South America is pricey and a flight via LA or heading south on an epic overland trip is the most effective means.
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.); Las Vegas/Atlanta - Lima £400-500 (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 and a print out that looks like a booking.); (surface) Rio/Sao Paulo - London £500-£700
(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 the European summer and avoid all travel
during peak holiday periods.
Total: around £2000-2250 (€2600/US$2600+ - this prices about the same starting and finishing in New York/Sydney) to as little as £1750. See RTW alternatives below.
Worth noting is you'll probably pick up a little
bureaucratic hassle from not having return tickets which can
be quite frustrating. Most countries say they require travellers to have a
return or onward ticket before letting them in, but only a few rigorously
enforce this (normally small tropical islands - Caribbean/Pacific). If you are flying to an island nation and check-in at the counter you need to be prepared as this is typically enforced with
Ultimately you can run into problems in three places. When buying a one-way ticket from a local travel agent (buying over the Internet is never a problem and at the airline office directly is less of a problem), at immigrate on entry, but most frequently when checking-in. It's generally travel agencies and check-in staff that give you grief about booking returns (see example). Don't let them panic you - just have some paperwork ready. It is extremely uncommon to have onward travel checked unless flying to an island nation (Pacific or Caribbean) and if you do, fabricating a story, showing your funds and a credit card may smooth your passage. However in extreme cases (again island nations) where if you don't have a way to prove a means to exit, 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 edit an old booking or create a flight confirmation (e-ticket) to show it returning or creating a letter showing you are meeting a yacht/cruise. Check-in staff are clueless and just (at best) follow written protocols or (at worse) trying to get you to buy another ticket with the same airline. As long as your booking looks real enough (actual flight) it will be fine. They won't ever actually check if the booking is confirmed, nor does it actually matter if it is. Just don't over stay the actual number of days stamped in your passport on entry!
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 -unless an island nation) are never a problem).
Away from Round the Word (RTW) travel and tickets:
Remember not all trips have to be RTW or extended duration trips. Few have the luxury of time for this kind of travel.
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. Whatever you have time and resource for. Better to walk around a room than remain seated - no matter how far/long you go.
Getting a good deal and the cheapest flight possible normally means picking up a promotional fair or special offer - this means booking early (two to six months before departing (some consider 50-60 days as best) is prevailing wisdom). While it's lovely to believe you can leave it to the last moment and snap up a bargain hours/days/weeks before you leave, this is just not the reality. Equally there are no longer ‘best’ days or dates to book tickets, this was an anomaly that long past. Generally speaking there are two basic types of fares: published/standard fares which are an airlines 'list price' for set numbers of seats at each price tier and unpublished and/or promotional fares.
If you are a full time student, teacher or under 26 (in some cases 30),
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 (as an example) London - México City - OVERLAND - Panama - London with
American Airlines off-season for around £450 with a $25 date change charge.
At age 26 the same ticket would cost 25% more with a date change four times inflated. STA and other agencies specialise in these discounted fares. Under 26 is also the magic age for many discounted rail (particularly European) and flight passes. For those lucky enough to be under 26 what better reason is there to travel before you are no longer!
Unpublished fares are sold by consolidators (travel agents,
some flight booking 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!
It is amazing how cheap you can fly when nobody else wants to and how expensive flights get when demand is high.
Timing your journey carefully is essential, especially on long flights. Fares will probably go up sharply on July 1st and cheap flights over holiday period (such as Christmas) just don't happen (although travelling a little earlier or just after Christmas gives considerable savings: you can find more reasonable prices in the window between Christmas day and New Year's Eve if you book far ahead and certainly when you fly on Christmas day and New Year's Eve themselves). Likewise going anywhere in August will be expensive. Be as flexible as possible with your dates.
Flying on the wrong week or even 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 Tuesday (reputably cheapest) to Thursday, Saturday is the dearest. Find a flight booking site that shows you a matrix of +/- up to five days so you can compare prices if you can be flexible. Better still look at the whole month!
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 (more about charter flights later) which depend on you being incredibly flexible, (flexible like coming back the very next week or going to package holiday type destinations). Sadly airlines rather let seat go empty than debase established pricing structures - especially the established national carriers.
Hidden city flights have had tonnes of
press and it is worth mentioning what they are, although they are not of
great use to travellers. Effectively you find a flight to somewhere you
don't want to go with a stop-off somewhere you do want to go at a price
cheaper than the direct flight to the place you wanted to go. Obviously this
only works if you have no check-in bag and one-way. If you need to travel to
a hub destination you have the best chance of finding such a deal, although
searching is something of an art.
It is actually pretty easy to find a cheaper ticket on most routes, it just means increasing the number of stop-overs and time of lay-overs. Everyone will price their own time and comfort differently and the smarter will be able to make long-stop overs work to their advantage by actually getting out of the airport and seeing something.
Different country versions of the same site give different prices: FACT (although it is rare).
Non-direct flights are almost always cheaper: FACT
Return flights after sometimes cheaper than singles: FACT (but two singles can sometimes be cheaper than a return!)
You can buy some economy tickets and ‘upgrade’ for a small fee: FICTION
The cheapest tickets are always non-changeable/refundable: FACT
You need to stay over a Saturday night for the best price: FACT
Many (often long and inconvenient) stops/times make tickets cheaper: FACT
Booking last moment gets the best price: FICTION (60-180 days is best)
There is a specific day when tickets will always be cheapest: FICTION (it will vary on airline and demand)
Breaking-up up a long route on separate [cheap] tickets: FACT
Long-haul and short-haul departure tax can be significantly different in places (e.g. the UK), booking a short-haul to connect to a long-haul can make a decent saving: FACT
There are specific weekdays airlines release the cheapest times: FICTION
Business class can sometimes be cheaper than economy: FICTION (well very rarely on short haul)
Clearing your browser history makes flights cheaper: FICTION (at least no evidence points to it currently)
Collecting airline reward points is the secret to free/cheap travel: FICTION (only if you are booking expensive [business class] tickets and can be super flexible/opportunist with your points can you even get any significant benefit). Don’t believe the website that try and sell you ‘the secret’.
* Trust us – we have booked taken close to 100 flights for the last few years.
The cheapest flights
are 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. When your time is not money, you'll get the lowest prices. 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 they 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 or East Timor from outside the region. In most cases, there will
be no cheap direct flights and a ticket with a major carrier 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. a major hub like Hong Kong, Tel Aviv or Bangkok with lots of passengers/competition. 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 fare and rarely 50% of round-trip prices. Always check crazy high single ticket prices with a dummy return during a mid-week a few months later, even when you don’t intend to use the return, since there are sometimes bizarrely cheaper. Charter flights, 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. If travelling with a one-way ticket (especially to an island nation) always check-in on line or have some proof (false/real reservation) of departure within visa period - as airline check-in staff think they must be gate-keepers and may refuse to check you in.
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. This type of
tickets works in two ways. The first, most common is with the same airline,
e.g. 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.
Locating these flights (the one-way type) is tricky as internet searches are generally not geared up for finding them. A knowledgeable travel agent is the biggest help (normally they will try and sell you a package with the same airline or alliance airlines - since they know they cover that route and it's easiest for them to look up). Return flights are almost always better value. The best tip is to find a cheap airline (i.e. Gulf state carrier or developing nation's national carrier) and find which destinations they serve within the region you are looking at, then search sites like Google Flights, Kayak or Opodo on the multi-stop search option for these destinations - trying as many combinations of dates as you can.
It's not really appropriate to recommend physical places to buy tickets, only to say that the general feeling is some bad experiences with the call centre type agencies and good experiences/advice with student agencies like STA and web only based discounters like Opodo. You might experience searching around for flights on one site and getting results of say US$1000 and seeing only one airline. Then upon searching the next day or a different site the following day, finding totally different ticket at a totally different price. It all depends on the tickets released and the agencies relationships/coverage with airlines. With phoning around it all depend on who you get on the end of the phone or in the agency and how rushed/knowledgeable they are. Either way shop around!
Better still, do all the work yourself on the web.
The tools to find the best flights on the Internet keep getting better and better. The pros have long preferred ITA Matrix and although you can’t actually book tickets (you are referred to a travel agent) you could find some very creative options and cheaper flights with long stop-over that are useful. It can show you prices per mile, has one of better calendars showing cheapest days to fly and a great coloured time-bar display for complex routing. Google Flights has recently stolen the lead from Kayak (although along with skyscanner.net it is still one of our favourite tools) and using the same basis as ITA Matrix (which it owns) has similar functionality/results, but more user-friendly. Any site (as these) that can send you alerts when prices drop below certain levels or when promotional seats become available are great.
searches on the web, don’t be put off if the first prices you get
back are high. Book around 2 to 6 months early (take advantage of limited promotional fares)
be flexible with your dates (avoid Friday/Saturday/Sunday,
stay over at least one weekend and keep trying different options) and try searching
destinations/dates served by cheaper airlines such as Qatar Air and
routes that perhaps aren't direct but you can make the connection easily
yourself (see budget flights, right).
Kayak Buzz (UK,
DE) comes recommended for finding the cheapest way to any given
region. If you are under 26 or a full time student, always try STA or a similar young person's discounter.
All this takes time, but is your best bet for finding low prices. Promotional fares, flights originating in London (or other major hubs) or non-direct flights on lesser known airlines or new low-cost start-ups, individually or in a combination, will normally give the best deal. Remember away from the big international carriers there are many airlines that operate regionally that these guys can't sell tickets for. Equally always bear in mind that logic generally doesn't apply to ticket pricing and a route from say London to Entebbe via Amsterdam can come out cheaper than direct Amsterdam - Entebbe (even those the distance is less and there is no connection). If you are super flexible, there are now plenty of sites that seek out promotional fairs and the crazy cheap (with often crazy layover) fares. The results are mixed and unfortunately these are USA focused - so not so great for anyone living elsewhere. Examples would be airfarewatchdog.com or the flight deal (on Twitter).
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.
These are useful to look into especially if you want a cheap short independent break, although prices are never that wonderful unless you are leaving at very short notice (cheap last minute fights to Goa or Cancun are particularly famous) and in low season. If travelling from the UK, take a look at www.charterflights.co.uk for some ideas about prices and destinations. If you are looking to head to West Africa, charter flights will probably be one of your cheapest options. See the excellent www.point-afrique.com for schedules (all flights fly in and out of Paris to Francophone West African nations; site en Français).
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.
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'.
A cheap return flight to say India could let you take in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Malaysia in a big easy to book (see Sri Lanka summary) loop, for a much better price than if booked in one block with major carriers and with all the flexibility of booking 'as you go'. For full details on which airlines fly which region see the links section and for more information on getting around by air including a budget airline low-down by region see 'moving around' in the 'On the Road' section.
Equally it is worth noting that there are some start-up low cost carriers flying international routes (generally out of Scandinavia and Australia) with Asia and North America being a focus - pricing is per flight, not return (perfect) and using these and their best promotional fares, you could perhaps piece together a very basic RTW flight (although it should be noted many of these new - low cost- start-ups (Zoom/Oasis/AirAisa X) have not lasted long and few are left of their nature). JetStar and Norwegian Air Shuttle are about the only current long-haul budget operators. Skyscanner is quite useful for hunting some of these budget airline flights out.
How much money do I need?
Well that really
depends on where you go, what standards you are used 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 $ alone symbol please assume it is a US$. Roughly at present the USD trades at around 1.25 per GBP and the EUR 1 per USD, but these are floating rates and change all the time. The USD has been getter stronger and stronger (buys more) for a while now (happy days for USD earners and holders) and after the disaster of Brexit the GBP lost plenty of value. Travelling on the pound is not the luxury it once was!
Exchange rates fluctuate all the time and do make a big difference to costs and how we perceive them, with it often the case that historic strength or weakness in a currency serves as a physiological anchor in what we consider to be 'cheap' or 'expensive' - so be mindful. You can see real time exchange rates and trends by clicking here, but the - very rough - rules of thumb are easy to convert USD costs given: to GBP knock off a third; to EUR and Swiss Franc one to one; to AUD/CAD roughly add a third.
Average costs per day including everything you are likely to do (transport, food, accommodation, important trips, etc):
general - (Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, China) US$30-50,
cheap - (India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Indochina) US$25-40,
expensive - HK, Eastern China, South Korea, Singapore) US$40-70,
(v. expensive - Japan) US$50-100 (inc. rail pass)
Australia and New Zealand
US$50-70 (NZ little cheaper)
Melanesia and Polynesia
US$50-70 (more in Hawaii and most remote islands)
Central America (cheap - Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras) US$30-50,
Central America (general - México (expensive transportation), Belize (most expensive), Costa Rica) US$35-55,
South America (general - Brazil (most expensive), Peru, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela) US$35-50,
South America (cheap - Bolivia, Ecuador) US$30-40,
North America (hard to generalise) US$50-80 - New York, San Fran and a few others, expect more.
Caribbean US$50-100 (no island hopping, varies dramatically)
Western Europe (capitals expensive, more with transportation) US$50-100 - Norway and Switzerland double that,
Eastern Europe US$40-60
West Africa (costs vary enormously between countries like Ghana (very cheap), and CFA/ECO (ex-French) countries) US$30-60,
East Africa (general - Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda) US$30-60 (excluding tours and safaris - allow US$150-200 per day for safaris),
Southern Africa (cheap - Malawi, Mozambique (Northern areas more expensive), Zimbabwe) US$25-40,
Southern Africa (general - South Africa, Namibia) US$35-45 (excluding tours and safaris),
North Africa (general - Egypt (cheapest), Morocco, Tunisia) US$30-50
US$30-50 (Israel US$50-80, Iran US$35), Gulf States US$50-100 (lack of budget accommodation)
The 'how much will it cost?' question is a bit like 'how long is a piece of string?'
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.
In reality it is better to over-estimate since some 'must-do' activities will set you back quite considerably. Saving a bit longer at home rather than having to forfeit treats like a fan in your room, a beer at sunset or more/other amazing experiences makes a lot of sense. It's important to remember that while you can live for next to nothing, you probably won't, and when undertaking a long trip even in a destination that's cheap to live and travel in, you'll probably find that backpacking is not as cheap as is commonly believed or presented on part of the Internet.
Just to keep things in perspective: after you have looked at this section and probably moaned after finding a calculator - take a look at 'the value of your money' bit in the on the road section.
A rough guide (click for actual):
US$35 = €35 / £30 / AU$52;
US$45 = €45 / £40 / AU$67;
US$50 = €50 / £44 / AU$74;
These rates are updated often, but change daily. The trend to date is of an appreciating USD against most currencies (getting stronger -thus buys more USD) and a depreciating GBP, Eur and preety much everything else.
After years of strengthening many emerging market currencies are now weakened (against major currencies) - thus cheaper travel if you are spending US dollars! If you are traveling on the British Pound then.. sad face.
Please note that exchange rate factors can and do make a really significant difference in how 'affordable' a trip can be. Travelling on a strong currency somewhere with a weak one is bliss, the converse is painful. So the strength of your home (spending) currency will have a considerable effect on how cheap you can travel.
So what's the bottom line?
Well it's cheap to travel, but not free. You will see plenty of web sites quoting much lower figures and yes you can save here and there (doing yourself no favours), but ultimately they are not showing the full cost of travel and actually enjoying/experiencing a place. Be warned.
In short and on average, bank on at least US$35/GB£28/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 travelling/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 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 $16/€17, 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 costs 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'. Typical travel as in travelling like locals where locals would commonly travel. Just like raising your living standard (e.g. having AC in your room or having a decent coffee) 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, (take for example the Wakhan Valley off the Pamir Highway, South Omo or most of Africa's national parks) 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 25-33% 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, as a 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 used to at home and thus what they can readily accept while on the road. For example, someone with a regular middle income and used to living in a comfortable place of their own will be far more averse 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 instant noodles. Habits such as a coffee-shop coffee in the morning or taking a taxi rather than struggling with a map and a walk/bus-ride are hard to break. What comes naturally to someone at one stage of their life seems tough at another. Therefore if you are someone [often older] who is used 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 refuges!
It is also worth noting that as a foreigner you
will occasionally 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.
If you're after western quality, you pretty much always (apart from a few exceptions, normally due to undervalued currencies) pay western prices, or more - even in the cheapest of destinations (services maybe cheap, but internationally tradable goods won't be and especially if affected by tariffs, taxes and tricky logistics). It's also often the case, that big cities of normally very affordable countries (Mumbai and Shanghai spring to mind) can be quite expensive, particularly when it comes to accommodation and that the increases in energy/fuel costs over the past few years will eat into a budget.
Just don't cut yourself short - that's why everything above is kind of rounded up and hey it is always nice to have money left for another trip or to do the things you really want, like $600 Kathmandu to Lhasa and back or $1,000 Galapagos islands or $150 Nile cruise or $100+ a day for an East African Safari. It is certainly true that especially when it comes to paying for more expensive transport to get to those 'special' places. Spending a 'little more' can really make a difference to an overall travel experience.
Those travelling alone and not able/willing to take advantage of shared accommodation (hostel dorm beds) and (some) transport will spend roughly 25-33% more than the costs quoted here unless making other sacrifices to compensate. Equally if you are travelling a little bit slower - less places same amount of time you will be able to make decent savings, with the reverse being true especially when it comes to flights and taxis/express tickets. ....and remember the above per day costs are on top of all the other considerations mentioned on this pages such as jabs, visas, flights, & insurance - which make a big dent in your funds before you even leave.
Clearly a 'per day' idea of how much money you might need is important in planning a trip, particularly a long one, but ultimately it is a difficult (read pointless) exercise. Perhaps it is better to state you can get by on US$1500-2000 per month anywhere, but how much you have left will depend on how you apply (or want to apply) the best travel money saving tip out there: when in Rome!
That is: ...when in Europe: buy food at the supermarket, and cook it yourself or eat in a park; ...when in South East Asia: don't worry and try some street food; ...when in Japan: discover cheap fast foods and izakayas; ...when getting around: use public transport and so on. So many costs can be directly related to how much time/effort you spend in tracking down the best deals or adapting to local circumstances. Laziness is expensive!
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:
1) You'll need to forget about Australia, Japan, Western Europe, North America or any other developed country with strong currencies - equally it's advisable to steer clear of capitals/big cities and keep more in the wild away from major urban centres.
2) Covering long distances is a major expense, so you'll need to limit your sphere and forget about travelling in comfort, that's not to say even on an okay budget you'll be in much comfort, but you'll have to get use to sometimes extremely uncomfortable, long, slow, bumpy journeys.
3) It does really depend on where you are, and sure sometimes it's dirt cheap, but a heavy night out in bars rarely is - alcohol is something you need to cut out or at least minimise.
4) Learn some lingo, you'll need to get the hang of services locals use like short-hop public transport.
5) Like walking and the outdoors - it's free and will fill your time, other main tourist sights are unlikely to be free. Angkor Wat, Taj Mahal, Inca Trail, Forbidden City and the like you'll need to admire from a distance or skip
6) Forget about private rooms and private bathrooms, you'll be looking for shared dormitory style rooms in hostels or doss houses patronised by locals. These are generally fine if you are male, but in more extreme case not for women; good security, a shower or much sleep are not always included in the price. If you move up a level to very basic private rooms then no bathroom or hot water are a must to keep the price down. You'll need to make the most of couchsurfing.
7) Slow it down, travel slower. Take your time. Many think about how much they want to see and if fall short of funds rush around to cut daily costs. See less and come back later.
8) and finally: a basic diet, it's easy to eat cheap, only you'll need to stick with it long term and stay away from restaurants catering to tourist and all your favourite foods back home. You'll need to eat from street stalls, basic restaurants and produce bought from market vendors. The order of the day will be rice, noodles, basic breads, bananas, or potatoes; all of which will fill you up very cheaply, but needs discipline to stick with.
Of course to a severe degree, none of the above is actually recommended and if you travel it is important to make sure you have enough money to ensure your safety and well-being (at whatever level you feel comfortable with).
What we think is expensive or not and
views on money/budgets so often cloud our trips. Something will cost what it costs. If you are in Monaco and want a beer on Casino Square you are just going to have to accept the price, but these prices have a great effect on travel,
not just how long and what someone on a limited budget can see and do, but how they
feel about a place and how much they enjoy their time there. Those on a shorter trip won't feel this effect as greatly as the overall per day cost
of the trip will be higher, but those travelling for longer or with unrealistic expectations of lower prices will, and the effect can
greatly cloud experiences (regardless of overall resources).
How we decide if somewhere is expensive or not typically depends on how we evaluate prices against where we call home, a neighbouring country or where we just came from - and typically we
benchmark the prices of things we have bought in all of them, such a beer -
remembering that one on Casino Square [which will be many times more
expensive than our local bar (forgetting
conveniently about the view)].
It is funny how visitors starting a trip in Singapore compare experiences and enjoyment about their visit compared to someone who has been elsewhere in SE Asia previous to arriving. Equally
speaking where travellers can't find something similar to benchmark a cost, they spend small fortunes
often without grumbling and
normally continue to moan about small costs regardless of circumstances (e.g., Inca trail, Gorilla trek permit,
jungle or dive trip).
You probably get it by now that we are not rational creatures and there is little we can do about it, but the biggest lessons are to be learnt when it comes to budgeting your trip and the day to day spend. Understanding that time is money and saving unnecessary travel time or hardship by spending more is worthwhile and that - again - something costs what it costs, comparing one part of the world with another really is fruitless. If it is too expensive abroad does not mean you need to skip it when away or feel bad for splashing out (just budget correctly). If you would consider it an unnecessary luxury at home it probably is when you are away. And lastly look for good value on everything you do/buy, if you need to cut costs, saving $15 on a bus from the airport rather than a taxi is the same as saving $15 on the flight that cost $500 that got you there. If you are looking to keep costs to a minimum, stay away from countries with strong currencies, rich cities and surround yourself as much as possible by those (locals and travellers) on a similar budget to yours. Almost everyone feels poor on Monaco's Casino Square!
We have added this logo to the greatest offending countries in the summary section.
It's a sorry fact, but most countries after an economic or similar crisis will become cheaper - that is pretty much any developing country after the coronavirus crisis. A smart way to travel much cheaper (as long as it is safe to visit). It is also important to be wary of budgets quoted on travel blogs that are not current. Movements in currencies can make a big difference. Many currencies depreciated significantly against the dollar - and other hard currencies - in 2020.
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 85 nations. Or for the most detailed information, a country guidebook or planning guide is recommended.
You could also try (with a pinch of salt) another resource to get an idea of daily costs and record: budgetyourtrip.com. This site is also a good guide, it breaks down a 18 month trip into total spent per country and categories.
Ultimately the core element that will define your daily spend is whether you are a saver (naturally frugal) or a spender (someone who finds it hard to resist temptation) and how much comfort you are used to in your daily life.
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?
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 all at your own risk.
The best way to get money almost anywhere
is out of an ATM using a debit card (MasterCard
Cirrus or Visa Plus) to draw from your bank account or with a pre-loaded travel card. 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
Okay in some countries outside of big towns you're not going to find plentiful ATMs, but you will almost certainly find them in larger cities - all over the world - that you will use as transport hubs and always in capital cities. There are very few exceptions to this, with every country covered on this site (Iran aside) and practically every country in the world having at least a handful of international ATMs, with new sites coming into use everyday. Worth noting is that much of the information posted on the internet about where has an ATM and where does not, is out-dated and false. You can check exactly where you can get money from on either Visa, Amex or Mastercard's website. It is worth telling your bank where you are going if exotic, depending on the bank you can get your card blocked on first/high use.
Generally you will be charged a fee by your bank for making withdrawals abroad: about 2% (normally set within a minimum and maximum) or with a credit card around 2-3% (+ about a $2-3 access charge). You will also often be charged again by the machine you are making the withdrawal from ($1-5). It is hard to avoid this apart from to find your bank abroad, but you can do a lot to cut overall fees by paying small account fees for accounts that offer foreign withdrawals without charge. In the USA Charles Schwab will reimburse all your ATM fees worldwide (open a Brokerage Account along with the Checking Account to make the account free). In Australia Citibank visa debit Plus is the best option and Westpac let you make fee-free withdrawals from their ATM 'alliance list'. In Switzerland with a Post Finance plus account and in the UK with Nationwide you can get free withdrawals (and travel insurance) for £10/Chf12 a month or Monzo will do free for fist 200 quid. It can be worth paying for such a service and it is certainly worth comparing a few commission rates and/or service fees for overseas withdrawals - it pays to shop around and check before heading off (especially if going for a while). You need to hunt around and check current deals and see if it is worth paying an account fee to have cheaper withdrawal while away. Also hunt around, low and no cost ATMs can often be found if you hunt around and do some research. It is always cheaper to use a debit card that a credit card to withdraw money, although you can find deals that give reduced rates.
Any recommendations of Canadian, Kiwi and Irish banks that don't charge commission or have good rates are very welcome. This link has details for USA and Canadian users, but does have some mis-information and fails to recognise the various account by the same bank.
If you don't have such a bank card or fees are too high for your liking (as they often are in Australia/USA) then an option is a travel money cards such as Visa Travel Money or an OzForex card, which works pretty much in the same way as a bank card only you don't need a bank account. You preload cards with cash before use. There are many options but with hidden fees abound, so using the best of the bank ATM card deals is normally cheaper.
ATM fees can really add up and if you are wise (being careful with the cash) you will make fewer larger transactions than many smaller ones.
Fees comprise of 4 parts:
1) the fee your bank makes - this is where you can seek out the lowest cost and find zero fee ATMs on alliances or account deals. 2) the fee the withdrawing ATM makes - there is nothing you can do about this. In some countries they are zero in others a few US$, up to maybe five. 3) the commission spread, i.e. the difference between the spot exchange rate and the exchange rate you get. So if the spread is 3% you will pay 3% over the market. Cash exchange will have a similar spread (normally higher) and travel cards have some of the lowest spreads. 4) Hidden fees. For travel cash cards these are often loading fees of 1-2% or issuing cost.
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.
It's a good idea to make sure you know what the exchange rate is before you reach a country, preventing you getting ripped off and generally letting you know how much the room you are checking into or taxi you hail is costing. This exchange rate can be found on the Internet with ease and noted before you leave. The FX Cheat Sheet is a great tool. It's wise to calculate costs with plus a few % to reflect normal tourist rates.
When changing money always re-count and check your money carefully. Small private exchange booths, that are common in most cities, will normally give better rates than banks. Changing on the street is only worthwhile in a few situations: see the guidebook of the country you are in and/or talk to locals. In the event of a black market exchange rate, changing where you are staying, at a travel agent or other established business is the best bet.
Travellers cheques are, as you will no doubt know, a safer option compared to cash, but with a number of drawbacks. Firstly they are pretty prehistoric these days with travel money cards replacing them. Secondly the commission required to buy and sell them and thirdly 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. The irony is where it's easy to cash cheques you are going to find numerous international ATMs (and vice versa). Any international brand of travellers cheques will be fine (Visa or American Express). 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 a bargain. You'll normally find offices in remote locations, even where there is no bank.
really are everywhere in major cities and always have an English language
option. Not all ATMs you find abroad can access international networks,
but this varies widely from country to country. For example, in Pakistan
you will find tonnes of ATMs, but only a few international ones in each
big city, as opposed to India or Sri Lanka where you can't walk 500metres
in many a town centre without finding one.
look for the Visa Plus or Cirrus symbol you see on your card. Generally
speaking ATMs work on both networks, but this is not always the case
and every now and then you find Cirrus or Visa Plus only machines. Therefore,
if on a long trip it is handy to have (say your partner's card or credit
card) on an alternative network as a back-up. If you had to pick only
one, go with Visa Plus which is more common in Latin America and West
Africa. And remember when somewhere exotic never panic if your chosen
ATM does not work, simply find another [bank/provider] and try again.
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 common sense 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 to change hard currency [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 and some cash or even 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. If you just take one, go with Visa. 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 makes sense to be in credit. Paying more money onto your card before leaving home, setting up a standing order or paying yourself online whilst away is prudent.
With 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$/€uro or a regional 'hard' currency, remember that you may
find it hard exchanging in business centres.
Certainly when buying a lot of travellers cheques or taking cash to start off, if you can help it there is little
point changing your money twice paying commission each time.
Euros are a fine currency to take to any major city worldwide. If heading anywhere in Europe (including the far eastern Europe and the Balkans) or West Africa, forget US$ and go with Euros. Everywhere else 'undeveloped' US$ are the currency of choice. Green backs are always accepted with open arms even in places like Iran or Cuba (although it is cheaper to change euros).
Changing money from a hard currency rarely is a problem and Euro or US$ can often be used to pay for larger value items which are commonly priced as such. Don't forget to keep an emergency stash (say a $100 or €100 bill) which you should keep separate from your main money supply. It's also worth taking a few lower value - US$10/20 bills (make sure all clean and crisp and not the old style) for unforeseen situations.
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 one of the easiest
way to get burnt whilst abroad, especially if doing so on the street. Two things to be aware of:
Firstly, your original money being returned to you as a fake or lower domination note when the deal is voided by the changer. If you are worried you could make a note of serial numbers of larger bills before you pass them over to make sure you get back the original. When you are handed back your money, do not return theirs until (no matter how much they try to fluster you) you establish that the carefully folded $100 bill is not a $1 bill - it's easily done (and normally when changing on the black market).
The second thing to be wary of is a successful change when the money you receive is no longer bank recognised or carefully folded to deceive. Only change money on the street where you can see it is day-to-day practice of locals and not in large amounts. Private exchange booths are your best bet to change money and always easy enough to find along with banks. Changing cash is on the whole the easiest thing to do whilst away. If you get dollars or euros back from a change place, hold it to the light and look for the silver strip.
Do make sure dollar/euro notes are in a brand newish condition (no tears). Don't take old designs of notes. 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 possibility 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.
Many a traveller goes to a clinic and says they're going to somewhere like Brazil or Thailand (or equally mainstream), the nurse types 'Thailand' into a computer (experience suggests not all health professionals have first-hand experience or knowledge of travel health or pragmatism) and next thing they know they have a bill for $100s, a painful arm, 10s of expensive pills and coverage for some very bizarre diseases of which the risk of are small compared to others.
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 big subject.
A word to the wise... the following information is taken from various sources, some medical, some not, most third party. No one connected with this site is a doctor and therefore the information in this section should be taken with that consideration in mind. However, this is a good place to start and is evidence of how we have slowly unravelled the mystery of travel health and especially Malaria medication.
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 - or probably life). 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 only (unless you go to private clinic), at a cost of about €80 (£60), 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.
What you probably don't actually need:
Cholera, Meningitis and
Japanese B Encephalitis are in many opinions not 100%
necessary for most trips considering, typical destinations, the cost/number of injections and rarity. They makes a lot more sense to have
if those heading to West Africa for a year, volunteering in a
disaster zone or dealing with animals rather than when heading to South East Asia, hanging out on a beach, walking around Angkor Wat or taking an Elephant ride in Chang Mai.
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. Since HRIG is not cheap
or easily found if off the beaten track it is recommended if
really disappearing off into the wilderness. 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) This is sometimes included with Hep A (which is important) anyway. Cholera is a risk where there has been flooding or a natural
disaster, typically food and water hygiene precautions are normally enough to prevent infection.
Japanese Encephalitis is rare and found in pigs and birds, the jab would be required if you are living and working with animals (pigs) in South East Asia, the Pacific islands or the Far East.
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 varied 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, not smoking and wearing factor 50 sun block.
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 Malarone at great cost. Most of the time, in hindsight,
it seems and is unnecessary. It is important to note where in [any country] you will
be as often high risk malaria is centred on small/fringe
(jungle/forest) areas rather than cities or the whole country.
Different preventative drugs can and are recommended in various parts of the world due to prevalence and resistance [to normally -quine based drugs], but there are essentially five core malaria prophylaxis: Atovaquone/Proguanil (Malarone), Chloroquine, Doxycycline, Mefloquine (Lariam) and Primaquine. Typically you will be recommended Malarone unless travelling over 90 days.
All have pros and cons, but with some treatments pros come at high costs or other side effects. The cheaper and more generic choices are Chloroquine [which is often combined with Proguanil] and Doxycycline. These both can be started only a few days before needed and need to be taken for 4 weeks after you have left an 'at risk' area (so to cover yourself for 1 day would need a 4 week + 1 day course). They are typically taken daily. Doxycycline is the typical go to drug for backpackers as it is the cheapest and available at low cost in larger Asia and African cities (obviously buy from a reputable looking pharmacy and get advice on usage / side effects - Boots (a UK based pharmacy chain) in Bangkok price (6months worth) at about US$60).
With a reputation for causing vivid dreams Mefloquine (Lariam/Vibramycin) is a taken only weekly (but needs to be started 2 weeks before and 4 after). Despite the reputation not everyone reacts badly, but there are now pockets of Mefloquine resistant-malaria and more modern drugs are now normally recommended. The final options are typically the better and most frequently recommended, but most expensive.
Primaquine and Malarone/Malanil (Atovaquone/Proguanil) are both daily and need only be taken for 7 days after risk. Malarone is suitable for children and well tolerated with side effects uncommon. It can't be taken for more than 90 days, which is just as well as it is pretty [read: very] expensive. Primaquine like Doxycycline is easy to find over the counter abroad cheaply in less developed countries, but like Doxycycline has a reputation of causing upset stomachs.
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 birth.
So in what areas am I at risk from Malaria?
The blanket answer is that a 'risk' exists in almost all countries
in Asia (below Mongolia/Kazakhstan), Africa and Latin America with the
notable exceptions of Libya, Chile, Tunisia and Uruguay. If you want
to see 'the map' take a look at the somewhat paranoid
CDC Malaria page. However, this 'risk' really does vary and to colour
an entire country red due to a sometimes localised and seasonal risk
is kind of missing the mark. Whereas a serious risk may exist in a pocket
of a country (say Thailand), there are many, many other regions where
very little or no risk exists. So research carefully.
Take for example Nepal; Katmandu and a normal trekking circuit poses no risk from malaria, but due to a risk in the lower lying parts of the country the whole country often gets a warning. The same can be said for Latin America outside of the Amazon basin, which is often bypassed by travellers or visited for only a few days.
Travel to rural areas always involves more potential exposure to malaria than in the larger cities. For example, the capital cities of the Manila, Bangkok and Colombo are essentially malaria-free. However, as noted, malaria is present in many other places (especially rural areas) of these countries. By contrast in West Africa, Ghana and Nigeria have malaria throughout the entire country. However, the risk will always be lower in the larger cities where independent travellers tend to focus their travels since these act as the main transport hubs.
Of the 3500 types of mosquito (20 more are discovered every year) only a few carry killer diseases such as Malaria. The female (it would have to be!) Anopheles malarial mosquito bites mainly between 2300 and 0400 at night. This is when it is particularly important not to get bitten. Also worth mentioning is the Aedes mosquito (spreading dengue and yellow fever) bites during the day. Both feed at ground level so cover up your ankles with a little repellent. No Malaria medication protects you 100%, and the best thing you can and should always do is not get bitten, which is a different topic.
It is really
worth mentioning that there is a ton of misinformation floating
around on the net and among backpackers on the road.
Malarone is expensive so buy only for where you really need and consider alternatives if on a budget.
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), South Africa or Asia) you might meet several travellers who
have contracted malaria even when taking prophylaxis, 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 long-term 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 Lariam 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 will be harder to find. Quinine is normally available to, but is not recommended. For the record a spot check in Kampala, Dar es Salaam and Bangkok in found with ease (over the counter) Mefloquine (x 4, priced around US$10-15) and Doxycycline (x 10, priced US$1-3).
The main five anti-malarials are all 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 - it also increases photosensitivity so sun block up. 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.
Again: it is quite
possible to visit a country with a malarial risk and never get anywhere
near that risk area (Cambodia, Bolivia, Thailand, South Africa, Iran,
Namibia, China, Burma, Nepal - there are loads of them!).
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.
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.
For the record, travellers can't acquire effective resistance to malaria and if anyone knows of a homeopathic cure, please let us [and the medical profession] know. It is personal choice what you do but, especially in East/West Africa not using a prophylactic drug when in a high risk areas for long periods is risking your life in a manner both unnecessarily (the drugs are cheap in Africa/Asia) and foolishly. Pills aside the most important thing is to always sleep under a treated net when in high risk regions.
See the CDC malaria pages 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 in some regions (Africa or parts of Asia), but if travelling in a
less visited part of the world, you can end up stranded for days
waiting for them (normally over weekends) and even have to back-track
if your planning is off or your visa is wrong/expired. Other visas, in fact most times on the tourist
circuit, visas can
be effortlessly hassle free, being not required, or just a simple free stamp
at the border.
In the countries that are most commonly visited by independent travellers, visas are available on the border, online or upon arrival at a main airport for free or a fee - no advance planning is needed (although you may need to fill in an e-visa application before you travel). More and more countries (i.e. Laos, Myanmar 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 city with much less fuss and [often] 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. You might also 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 and situations are always
changing (e.g. many countries are moving to the e-visa
system and in general countries (notably in South East and Central Asia
and Eastern Europe) have/are relaxing previously tight and expensive visa
Currently the most difficult visas to obtain are those for Russia, a few former members of the Soviet Republic (e.g. Belarus, Turkmenistan), strict Islamic countries (e.g. Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia) countries isolated from the west (e.g. North Korea, DRC, Angola, Eritrea). To obtain these visas an invitation letter (LOI) or voucher of sorts is normally required (this can be provided by a hotel, friend in the country, travel agent or tour) as well as a whole load of red tape. If you have no means to get these, transit visas can sometimes be obtained for a fee and with a valid visa for a neighbouring country.
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. Be wary of festivals that bring everything to a halt and unexplained rejections or transit/shorter visas being issued when a full one was requested. Patience really is needed to deal with a lot of pointless bureaucracy in some places. Luckily this seems to be in decline (apart from the former Soviet Republics and West Africa) as governments discover the potential of tourism and the world becomes more open.
Lastly, do yourself a favour and don't put down 'photographer', 'journalist', 'author' or anything similar on a visa application.
Internet newsgroups/forums 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.
When a visa is not a visa?
There are plenty of visas
required around the world which are available, on arrival, for a fee. There are no checks on your personal records, other than your passport
being scanned (and
perhaps a photo required or form completed), you just stump up the cold hard cash. These are most
common in Southern and East Africa, but also in parts of Asia. Just hand over your
hard currency (not unsubstantial
amounts in some cases) and get your 'visa' sticker. So this is really a
visitor/tourist tax and governments should have the balls to call it such. Many
'visa systems' seem to do nothing, but raise funds for a network of foreign embassies or provide an opportunity for embassy staff to get their own back on the
citizens of countries that make visits for their nationals so difficult/costly
(yes West Africa we are talking about you!). Equally you may come across
entry fee' which are charges/arrival taxes levied in response to the amount
same amount charged for a national of the country you are visiting to visit
yours. Bolivia and Paraguay are good examples where Australians and
Americans (inter alios) still pay a
steep fee on arrival.
The rise of the e-visa:
An e-visa is really a pre-approval and pre-payment for a visa on arrival. It cuts the time you need to wait for your visa at the airport/border and removes the need for spot payment (and carrying money for). It also allows governments to check if they actually want you in their country without you needing to send your passport off or deal with an embassy. The USA was probably the first such scheme in response to terrorist attacks (note entry to the USA is visa free for most nationals of rich nations, but an 'admin' fee is charged). In recent years Sri Lanka, Nepal, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan - all of which previously let you pay for a visa on arrival have moved to the system. In 2014 the previous tourist and international outcast, Myanmar, also moved to the system and more will no doubt follow (come on West Africa). Procedures are normally simple, with a form - and sometimes photo - submitted electronically. You pay with a credit card and get an answer pretty soon. Some countries still let you get a visa on arrival if you have forgotten to apply electronically, but others like the USA are notoriously strict about the requirement.
Where you don't have free passage, can't get a visa on
arrival or an e-visa system is not in place, then 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, 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. 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 slightly more problems and costs. South Africans and other similar 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:
Asia: 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, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, China (in places) and Cambodia) have started offering visas for
a [sometimes big, sometimes small] fee when you arrive. This facility may however only exist
if you fly in or enter at a major crossing and may be for a short
stay only. Almost everyone will need
a visa before arrival for entry to India, Pakistan or Bangladesh.
Independent travellers cannot visit North Korea or Bhutan. A tour must be booked - this is technically the same for travel in Tibet and Turkmenistan.
Central Asia, is always a pain and as with Russia, letters of invitation (LOI) are sometimes required, but the region has really opened up with Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan now visa free. Without using an agency or other method to get a LOI, visa applications are tricky to impossible (for Turkmenistan you need a pre-booked tour or the 3 to 5-day transit option/lottery). With the LOI, sometimes you can collect on arrival (airport). Tajikistan and Uzbekistan has now moved to a simple e-visa process you need to apply/pay for on-line 5days before travel. For good reason at last research no visas were being issued for touristic purposes for Afghanistan. If on a tight schedule an embassy at home (or nearest to you, as some countries have few worldwide embassies) is the safest bet. From Western China (if using the KKH) the nearest issuing embassy is Beijing - a hell of a backtrack.
Africa: (see North Africa
right) 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, Burundi,
Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya,
Zambia) or in a neighbouring country's embassy for more off-the-beaten-track
destinations (Eritrea - one of the hardest these days, Sudan). Some visas such as
Ethiopia may be available upon arrival at the airport,
but not on the border and others may only be available on arrival if there is no embassy in your home nation - such is
the case with Mozambique. Worth noting that Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda can be
visited on one multi-entry/country East African visa (saving multiple visa costs).
African island nations are
all visa free (apart from
Comoros which will sell you one on arrival).
West Africa is a difficult place for visas and visa fees are expensive. Unless you are African you'll need a pricy visa for almost all countries (only Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal and The Gambia are visa free, although Guinea-Bissau and Togo (kind of) let you collect on arrival) - so much for encouraging much need tourism. However, you can pick these up as you travel with relative ease. They go for about US$20-100 a pop. Some are issued on the border, many are not and take 24-72hours in a neighbouring country (note a Ghana visa in Côte d'Ivoire can be problematic). With poor diplomatic representation abroad, even finding an embassy in your home country can be tricky and requests for documents to apply are sometimes crazy. So get only the easy ones, fly in and get the rest as you go. There is one combo visa available for this region (Visa Entente) it is valid for Burkina, Togo, Benin, Niger, and the Ivory Coast.
Even a visa for Nigeria or Cameroon, both of which have a reputation for being difficult to obtain on the road is possible without too much fuss somewhere like Ghana. The real standout however is Angola, for which even a transit visa is real challenge and is currently one of Africa's most needlessly most painful. It is typical that many Central and West African countries (especially if apply in your home country) will require an invitation letter from a government ministry (such as DGM in Congo) which you will be required to buy (spread the money around). Many countries where few tourist tread (like DRC, Republic Congo, Angola and Equatorial Guinea), but with mineral or oil wealth don't really understand the concept of a 'tourist' visa and the visa process seems to be set up to extract as much money from those applying (normally business travelers or expat workers) as possible.
Comment: If you ever get frustrated by the delays and mounting costs of visas, take a look at how much a national of the country you are trying to visit would pay for his/her visa to your home country. According to a consultancy called Henley & Partners, Britons actually face the fewest visa restrictions of all being able to visit 166 countries without one, other rich countries like Germany, Japan, USA, Canada are not far behind. Only 38 countries will let a Chinese citizen in visa free and for those from war-torn countries it is much worse. So despite the costs many of us have it pretty good. Ref
are visa hassle free for most. Visas are normally always free on the border.
'Normally' depends on where you come from and what your country charges the
corresponding country for a visa. Known a reciprocity fees, these come and go, but mainly affect Americas,
Australians and Canadians in Brazil and Paraguay (and just Australians in Chile and Yanks in Bolivia). These
reciprocity fees can be significant amounts of money and really add
up and make country hopping pricey.
Central America is free of most visa hassle.
Europe is visa free for most developed nations with the exceptions of a few ex-USSR countries.
Western Europe is visa hassle free for most can crisscross Europe at leisure.
Belarus , Europe is now visa free for most. Some like Albania require on the border fees (just a fee really). Moldavia, Belarus, Serbia 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 (Baltics, Poland & Bulgaria now don't).
Azerbaijan and Russia will require a
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. For Azerbaijan the process is quite easy with new online system.
and the Pacific: You need a visa for Australia that is
electronically stamped in your passport (e-visa). The cost will vary depending on the type, but for a simple tourist visa it is a small fee (about 20AUD) -
apply on-line. New Zealand and most of the rest of the Pacific is visa free
(the cost is getting there!) with the major exception of Nauru.
Middle East and North Africa: Within the Gulf States and North Africa visas 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 the current conflict. An Iranian visa (for non- US, UK, Canada) easy on arrival. For Brits, Yanks and Canucks, it is best achieved with an 'authorisation code' letter. For an easier ride, it's best to contact an agency such as Key2persia and get them to send a visa authorisation code to your embassy of choice. For more details see the Iran summary.
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 the security situation allows. If you still run into red-tape some agencies can provide a guide rather than a tour. Still Libya is tough to get a visa for (even with regime change) without a pre-booked tour and not that safe currently.
Worth mentioning here is that for all Middle Eastern and North African countries (except Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Qatar, Oman, Morocco, Mauritania, and Tunisia) you must have no evidence of a trip to Israel in your passport - see Israel country summary for details on avoiding that stamp you don't want. The same is true for Trump era travel restrictions on various countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, North Korea etc.) which mean that if you are say a EU/UK citizen and you visit one of these countries, you are no longer eligible for an ESTA to visit the USA and have to go through a visa application process (which is much pricier, though it does last up to 10 years). Usually not an issue, but it can be a hassle as it is not as quick/easy as applying for an ESTA.
The rest, apart from Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq (outside of Kurdistan, which is easy on arrival) - which are almost impossible unless you are a Muslim or aid worker - are normally easy enough. However, visas can be complicated for nations like Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti where tourists rarely stray.
You will need to book a tour or a guide to get a tourist visa for Bhutan, Turkmenistan (although transit without guide is possible), North Korea and Libya.
For more specific country by country information have a look at the excellent Project Visa.
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 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 targeting 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.
Also see avoiding theft in the on the road section.
To generalise, follow these three rules for general safety:
Make sure you have clothes with secure pockets or means carry your cash/docs (this is as simple as a fastened pocket close to your body) and keep everything well organised - only take out what you need for the day.
Don't flash cash around or leave your smart phone or tablet unattended. Don't carry something that looks like a handbag.
Separate your cash and cards in two places. Don't keep everything in one place or on your person. Have a back-up in case of a problem and regularly sync/backup photos to the Cloud.
Remember the vast amount of crime happens at night (after the sun has set). 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 this 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 significantly 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.
Remember, if it is safe to visit somewhere as a group, it is alone. This section talks
not about safety, okay it is slightly less safe to be alone, but not
by much and your behaviour governs this to the most part. It addresses the
bigger concern, a sense of isolation that does at times affect lone
travellers use to being around someone during daily life.
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 Korean travellers than with westerners). Pick an easy country to start with (say, Singapore or New Zealand) and one where you speak the local language (social interaction with locals really helps) 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, chatting with locals 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 significant conversation with anyone which can certainly get you down. Finally luck plays a big part with who you meet - you might meet some great people to travel with in a remote destination (interesting people are found in interesting places) 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. If you really can't handle the idea of being alone, you might be in bad company.
For single women the question of whether to go solo is of course, a much more difficult question. Certainly it's worth thinking more 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 harmless, derived from the fact that a lot of males (South Asians in particular) have 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.
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 fewer 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.
For those contemplating travelling alone just remember the advice above: alone is always better than not at all. What's more, it beats the pants off taking a totally organised tour and more often than not it opens doors to the very best experiences travel has to offer. Let's not forget there can also be many negative issues when travelling with friends, partners or relatives!
When 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 or film stars, it will endear you to the locals (well the male half at least).
Comment: 'I did an 18 month world trip in 2011-2012 and, until now, had yet to find a site so in sync with my take on travel. Wish I had found you before I left. By the way, I turned 60 while on my trip, so anyone thinking this kind of travel is just for the young, should think again.'
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
(unless they are sitting on a kindle).
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 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 for literally everything you would need to know on the subject and some top advice.
Just remember when you start down the road of travel photography that far too many sacrifice their perfect experiences in the present when travelling for an imperfect view/experience in the future. It is an easy trap to fall into in our modern world that something has not really happened unless it has been photographed or recorded. Enjoy your trip and time, record moments (good and bad) for memories - not weighted down by heavy equipment, seeing the world only through a lens tainting the primary experience for a film or a photo that becomes reality instead!
See the where to go section
for some tips and ideas, or any of the titles recommended in the 'planning
books' section of the site.
Another very useful resource for answering specific questions in the planning stage are travel newsgroups such as reddit /r/travel or Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree.
Or have a look at what others are doing and what is possible on our key global travel routes map. We plan to add many more of these type of maps going forward.
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 1USD billion. 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 phenomenon 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' (perhaps to offset the guilt of travel). 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 there 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 essentially 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 which 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 let's not forget schemes such as VSO and the 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 a page"