Since I first snuck off as a teenager to work as a beer model (long story) in Vietnam, I’ve been lucky enough to travel widely across many different continents, often on my own, often with nothing more than a backpack. I’ve driven across Australia, worked in Asia, and learnt Spanish in South America. I’ve swum with whale sharks off the coast of Mexico and spent eight days at sea sailing from Panama to Colombia through deserted Caribbean islands, which was incredible, even if there were no life jackets and I spent most of those eight days terrified.
For me, backpacking is an amazing privilege. Yes, it does require some financial outlay, but it’s not impossible to save enough to go away for a few months. Yes, you do need to fork out for flights and spending money, but I’ve been able to work in most of the places that I’ve visited when I've got there. Think of it as the most fun education you’ll ever receive. Travelling teaches you about the world, about the connections you make with strangers, about learning to be alone, and about faking it as an independent grown-up until you become the real thing. It’s a beautiful thing to fling yourself out into the world like paint flicked at a canvas, and see where you end up.
When you travel a lot, you learn to recognise the types of people you meet – the frat boys, the middle-aged hippies, the teenage girls on their gap years, and you come across the permanent travellers a lot. They’re jaded, stuck, can’t seem to move on. One Russian girl I met in Colombia had been travelling for nine years, and no longer had a life at home to go back to. She was occupying a hostel half-life, where everyone was coming and going and nothing was really real anymore. But I could relate. It’s easy to see why people stick with this lifestyle as best they can; why go home to a 9-5 when the whole world’s out there for you to see?
I always knew eventually I’d have to come home and get back to the daily grind, though. I didn’t have a rich ex-boyfriend back home in Russia sending me monthly cash sums, and besides, I’d worked too hard at uni to pack it all in and become a beach bum. Weirdly, I didn’t actually miss my friends and family that much when I was away, but after five months travelling alone through South America, I was ready to go home. After I got here, however, and had settled into a full-time job, I soon realised that I'd caught the travel bug, and searched for a way to incorporate my love of travelling into my regular existence.
The first thing you need to do if you want to be a part-time backpacker is assess how many days you have to work with
Here's the first thing I learnt, and it's a simple one: If you want to be a part-time backpacker, start by assessing how many days you have to work with. There’s no point spending mad money on expensive flights if you’re only going to be out there for a week. Ask your employers how many days off you can take in a row – and negotiate (they’re often more flexible than you think). Once you know how many days leave you can take, look at a calendar. Really, there are only two good times of year to do a mini-backpacking trip. Easter, and Christmas (bank holidays).
After you’ve booked your time off work, you can start planning your destination. 23 days (effectively 21 days, when you subtract a day each side for travel) is a good amount of time. Any less than 20 days, and you’re going to be exhausted from moving around too much, and any more than 30 days and your employers may forget who you are. When you’re backpacking with limited time, it’s a good idea to go somewhere where the time difference won’t fuck you up too much. I went to India: five and a half hours ahead of the UK, so no chronic jet lag: ditto Colombia, which is five hours behind.
I once made the mistake of booking the absolute cheapest flights I could find, ignoring the overlays that were clearly stated. Your time is precious, and wasting a whole day sitting in an airport waiting for a connecting flight is stupid and frustrating. Get direct flights wherever possible, and if you’re going to make like me and head straight back to the office after a 19-hour long-haul (emotional, but doable), you’ll prefer to be on a nicer carrier (Cathay; Singapore; Emirates).
Here’s how you work out your route: Pick a part of a country, and stick to it. Some mini-backpacking trips I have done that have worked well were: Kerala (hop over to the Andaman Islands as well if you’ve got cash to burn and want to pretend you’re in Jurassic Park), the Caribbean coast of Colombia (take me back), and Palawan and Bohol Islands in the Philippines (they were way more beautiful than Thailand ). I backpacked through all of these places in three week periods, and it worked well – in the Philippines you need to get internal flights but they’re pretty cheap, and in Colombia and Kerala you can bus it.
Unfortunately, for the purposes of short trips, you quickly learn you're going to have to be the dickhead with an itinerary. You know those dudes you meet in hostels with white guy dreads and baggy pantaloons? You know how they always say, “It’s all about the journey, just see where you end up”? Well they don’t have jobs. You don’t have time to faff around in shitty border towns because they have really strong weed – you need to keep moving.
When you’re moving around a lot, you do not want to bring a shit ton of stuff
Plan your journeys carefully and book your accommodation in advance. Fly into one city, travel towards the direction of the city you’re going to fly out of, and stop at five to six places along the way. Factor in one to two nights for cities (city sightseeing gets boring anyway), and four to five nights for beach places so you can kick back and chill for a while. This is my formula, and I'd strongly recommend it. Some people prefer to take things at a slower pace, and immerse themselves in a culture over a week or two. For me, it was simply about taking in as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Which brings me onto my final piece of advice...
When you’re moving around a lot, you do not want to bring a shit ton of stuff. You’re not going for that long, and you don’t need it. You’re going to be staying in backpacker hostels where no one minds too much what you're wearing. You're going to wreck stuff and throw stuff out. You're going to buy new, questionable items of clothing that you'll regret later. Bring a bare minimum, and just practical stuff. Make sure you’re sorted for everything you truly need in advance, so when you’re out there you can just get on with things. Useful stuff to bring: a waterproof bag, a head torch, silk sleeping bag liner (for when the hostel sheets look icky), a decent padlock, a travel towel. And maybe a selfie stick, if you're into that.
This might sound like a lot of faff, and you may be thinking here, “I’m happy with my self-catered apartment in Croatia for a week”. And that’s cool. But, if you follow through with my backpacking plan, there will come a moment a few days into your trip which will make it all seem worthwhile. You’ll be on a beach with sand in your hair, and sand in your bikini bottoms, and you’ll ask yourself: what day is it? You won’t know the answer. You’ll just be somewhere beautiful, with no concept of time or responsibilities or stress or mobile phone reception, seeing the world.