Chapter 1: Travel myth versus reality
Travelling often seems so easy, doesn’t it?
When you look at travel content online or in magazines, you might think travelling is always a piece of cake.
Bloggers seem to dart effortlessly from one continent to the next, here today and in Borneo tomorrow. Women on Instagram with flouncy hats—always touching the brim, facing away from the camera—have spontaneous champagne picnics in magical locations. On YouTube, 15-hour flights become 15-second sizzle reels, followed by sick drone shots of famous locations and inspirational taglines like #MakeItCount or #LifeIsShort.
That’s all great and wonderful. But there’s just one thing: real travel isn’t always as painless or effortless as all the glossy images might make you believe.
If you’ve decided you want to travel then you’ll surely quickly realize this. Once you get into the nitty-gritty details of the logistics and trip planning, chances are you’ll soon scratch your head and think, ‘Wait… how am I actually going to do all this?’ It’s a side of travel that people don’t usually tell you about.
Take it from me: I’ve travelled far and wide, and while I’ve gained so many incredible, unbelievable, I’ll-be-telling-my-grandchildren-one-day experiences, it’s not all just a walk in the park.
Sometimes I’ve sat there at 3 a.m. with all my travel guides out and 20 browser tabs open, pulling my hair out because I just couldn’t figure out where to go next or how to get there. (Those inspirational travel videos? Yeah, they never show you this part.)
Once on the road, I’ve had to learn some of the lessons the hard way. Sure, there were plenty of mountaintop sunrises, stunning landscapes, and wonderful people met, but there were also plenty of unpleasantries along the way.
I once got stranded with a broken car on a mountain pass in Guatemala at night. I got robbed in broad daylight in Rio de Janeiro. My debit card got swiped and cloned in Honduras and nearly $4,000 disappeared from my account (I got it back months later). At an airport in Australia, my taxi drove off with my luggage still in the trunk, and when I ran after it with my arms flailing it triggered the airport’s terror alert. (I had apparently caused a few heart attacks in the control room, but the police were very nice and helped me reunite with my luggage later.)
In Indonesia, I once spent the night in a pay-by-the-hour ‘love hotel’ thinking it was just a regular hotel. That was just a little awkward, as I was probably the only guest actually trying to get some sleep that night. I lost my smartphone in the jungles of Laos, got scammed a dozen times in Vietnam, and developed a nasty ear infection in Thailand for which a village doctor inexplicably gave me a jab in my butt (why didn’t he notice me frantically pointing at my ears?!).
But you know what? That’s what I love so much about travel. It’s the little doubts, challenges, and stresses along the way that also lead to incredible feelings of anticipation, joy, and accomplishment. Like yin and yang, one cannot exist without the other.
Real travel is about so much more than collecting selfies at the usual tourist locations. It’s about having the guts to go on an adventure. It’s about putting in the effort to get the eventual reward.
But at the same time, I also want to tell you that things are not as scary or complicated as they may seem. A little preparation goes a long way. And with the right knowledge and mindset, you’ll be so much less fazed when something does go wrong (as it inevitably always does).
I wrote this book precisely to help you with this. I’ll be your friendly guide through the whole process of preparing for your trip — and I’ll give you a wealth of tips and tricks you can use when you’re finally on the road.
You’ll probably get the most out of this book if you’re wishing to jump into the deep end of travel, as some of the advice and stories relate specifically to going on, say, a backpacking trip lasting many months, a year-long travel sabbatical, or an epic round-the-world adventure.
But many readers have also told me they’ve used this guide for planning shorter trips of several weeks, or perhaps to places further away than they had been before. If that’s you, then welcome aboard, too! While some parts of this book may be less applicable to you (e.g., I doubt you’ll be quitting your job or moving all your stuff into storage), I’m certain you’ll find the general advice very useful. I encourage you to still read the parts dealing specifically with long-term travel; maybe it will inspire a future trip.
In any case, we’ll be focusing here mostly on backpacker-style travel. To me this means travelling light (often with a backpack and not with five suitcases), travelling independently (not taking a tour but following your own route), and often travelling on a budget as well.
Not everyone who travels in this way might call themselves a backpacker. Plenty of round-the-world travellers or digital nomads would not use this label, for instance. Some prefer the term independent traveller. In any case, it’s hopefully clear what sort of travelling I mean: DIY-style and experience-seeking, not going on a packaged tour or cruise.
If it sounds like this might be your kind of style—and if you have a thirst for adventure—then read on.
Getting over the hump
While this book is titled Travel the World Without Worries, that doesn’t mean you have to be a total nervous wreck with severe hodophobia (fear of travel) to be reading this.
Some people do have legit anxiety issues around travel. A few travel bloggers out there even deal specifically with overcoming chronic anxiety or panic attacks. To be clear, that’s not quite what this book is about. Although, who knows, maybe it will help with this too.
More likely, you just have some minor nerves somewhere at the back of your mind. Maybe you’re thinking, ‘Wait, am I planning this the right way? Do I have enough money for this trip? Did I pack everything I need?’
Or perhaps your mind already wanders to when you’ll get there: What if no one speaks my language? What if I get robbed? And, umm, how bad could dengue fever be really? (Um, yeah… better not look this up.)
I know those little nerves all too well; I had them too before I first set off to strange lands and still had them for many trips after. That’s why my first aim is to put your mind at ease by going through all the practical aspects of travel in a step-by-step way. We’ll look at trip planning, packing, the financial aspects, booking flights and accommodation, and many other practical issues.
Along the way, you might read a thing or two that is already common sense to you, depending on your travel experience. But you’ll probably also be reminded of a few important things that you hadn’t thought of yet. The goal is simply to ensure you’ve thought about everything before you set off, so that you can put as many of those little nerves to rest as possible.
Of course, preparing for a trip is not just about ticking boxes on a checklist. Some aspects are quite personal—about how you, as a person (or a couple), will do this.
That’s precisely why this is a book and not just a to-do list. I’ll be sharing some personal anecdotes and cautionary tales throughout, telling you how I (and my travel friends) tackled some of the gnarly personal challenges of travelling, such as dealing with language barriers, travelling solo, or all the ups and downs of being on the road.
But whatever the challenges, I always believe that having the right attitude is key to getting the most out of your travels. If you approach things with the right spirit, things will become so much more fun. Almost as if by magic, you’ll find more unique experiences appearing on your path. But just as an open mind will make you a better traveller, I also believe that certain mental blocks can keep you from travelling as far and wide as you might truly want to.
So before we can talk about anything else, we must talk about… The Hump!!! (Queue ominous music, thunder and lightning, etc.)
Let me explain this through the magic of badly drawn stick figures:
Right, so maybe you find yourself in the same position as our little stickman here: waaaay at the beginning on this silly metaphorical graph.
Many people never get over this first hump, forever doomed to never travel.
Could there be legitimate reasons for not travelling? Of course. But quite often it’s merely mental blocks that keep people from getting over the hump and following their travel dreams.
They might wrongly assume that travel must be ridiculously expensive, or that it’s impossible to find the time, or that it’s too late in life to go on an adventure. Or they might just be too scared to get out of their comfort zone.
If you’re at this stage now then ooh boy, we’ve got some work to do! Just kidding. I think we can loosen up some of those mental blocks in the chapters to come. Much more is often possible than you might at first assume.
But let’s say that you’ve already gotten over that first hump: you’ve become inspired to go on a big adventure or to travel somewhere totally new. You’ve started researching some potential trips, and maybe even find yourself daydreaming about travelling in exotic places every day.
Well, beware, for there is another terrible hump:
You see, once you go from the daydreaming phase to the practical phase, you’ll surely reach what we might call, in technical terms, the ‘oh shit’ moment.
This is a classic moment. I’m sure every traveller has had it.
Suddenly you realize there’s so much more involved than you at first thought. You might start second-guessing the idealized images from your daydreaming and wonder what awful things could happen instead. And perhaps you begin to feel overwhelmed by this whole endeavour you’ve set yourself up for.
Now, believe me that this is just another hurdle to overcome. If you can get past this second hump, you’ll be in good shape. Rest assured, we’ll discuss a ton of tips in this book that will help you get past this point.
Think you’re done with the humps now? Nope! Not quite yet.
Just before you’re about to depart, you’ll probably still experience one final moment of doubt. This is, once again, a normal part of setting off to parts unknown. Someone once told me the Swedish language even has a specific word for it: resfeber. It translates roughly as ‘the tangled feelings of fear and excitement before a journey begins’.
The good news is that you can learn to love the resfeber. It’s simply part of doing something new and exciting. You just need to push through it.
Once you’re on the road, you still might not quite know what you’re doing at first. In unfamiliar places, things might not work exactly the way you’re used to. But you’ll soon get the hang of things, and then you’ll find yourself going down a wonderful rollercoaster ride of fun.
Those pesky humps? It turns out they just had a chain track on them pulling you slowly to the top, only to release you with maximum kinetic energy. Wheeeeee!
At this point, you can finally stop thinking so much. Before you know it, you’re watching moonrises over Andean deserts, waking up to the whoops of gibbons in mist-shrouded rainforests, taking old sleeper trains that make you feel like you’re on the Orient Express, or singing karaoke with new friends in some odd corner of this beautiful world.
Okay, to tell you the truth, it’s not always just a fun rollercoaster all the way down. Every now and then, there can still be unexpected twists and weird centrifugal forces to deal with—and we’ll talk about these later.
But these are roughly the key phases of travel: the inspiration phase, the pre-trip planning, then life on the road, and finally coming back home. This book follows these phases in order, though the chapters are also mostly self-contained so that you can jump around to find specific answers if you’d like.
You’ll feel the humps most intensely when you’re planning a long trip, as shit will be significantly more real. But you’ll probably also recognize them before a shorter trip—or when going somewhere far away that you’ve never been before.
How I got hooked on travelling
Since we’ll be spending the rest of this book together, I thought I should tell you a bit about who I am. So, let me introduce myself.
Hi! My name is Marek, and I’m a huge travel addict. Don’t worry, I won’t dive into my whole life story here — we’ve got far more important things to do — but let me tell you briefly how I got into travelling, just so you know where I’m coming from.
It all started a long time ago: I took my first long-distance and solo trip at age 17, way back in the year 2000 (whoa, I’m old!). This was a super big deal for me, as I was going to a whole other continent for the first time; I’m from the Netherlands and was flying all the way to California. I had scraped together the funds by working in a hospital kitchen and writing video game reviews online — and had been looking forward to the trip for over a year (my parents wouldn’t let me go while I was still 16).
I met up with a few online friends in LA first, but then I was mostly travelling by myself. It was the scariest thing I ever did; for the first 48 hours I barely slept at all, had to throw up twice, and seeing a police raid across the street from my hostel in West Hollywood (note: not as glamorous as actual Hollywood) put me seriously on edge. But as scary and weird as it was to be somewhere half a globe away, I soon realized things were actually fine, and I learned that I could more or less manage in a faraway place. Phew!
I went on a few other trips after that, like road tripping through Eastern Europe and going back to the US several times. But it was probably years later, in 2009, that I well and truly caught the travel bug.
At the time I was working in London for a video game publisher, which sent me to Tokyo for some meetings at their head office. Of course, I jumped at the chance to travel all the way to Asia on the company’s dime. Following my meetings, I added a few extra days to explore the city by myself. And it was in getting to know Japan for the first time that Pandora’s box got truly opened for me.
Tokyo was equal parts delightful and confusing: the bright lights, the tiny ramen shops that seat only a literal handful of customers, the waves of pedestrians crossing at one of the world’s busiest intersections in Shibuya, the taxis that all somehow still look like they’re from the 1980s, the occasionally bizarre food (I was served whole sea urchins at a sushi bar), and the toilets that have about 20 different buttons on them — everything was just fascinating and everything felt like a mini-adventure.
I tried best as I could to navigate Tokyo’s soup sandwich of a metro system but got delightfully lost. I went to the top floor of a hotel in Shinjuku and sat in the same chair as Bill Murray in the film Lost in Translation. Later, I met some awesome locals at an expat bar (among them a charming girl from France) and inexplicably found myself at the album launch party of a Japanese reggae band.
It was a pretty crazy trip. And it was probably Japan’s otherworldliness that awoke something inside me: a burning desire to see much more of the world.
When I later lost my job in London due to corporate restructuring, I immediately thought about travelling. I felt frustrated with my career, having lost four jobs in a row due to things entirely outside of my control (and having zero finished projects to show for it). I desperately needed to recharge and clear my mind, so I bought a backpack and a ticket to Thailand. The plan was that I’d maybe travel there for a month or two, then brush up my CV, put some feelers out to a few companies, and then continue my regular life.
But that didn’t happen. Instead I met some awesome people in northern Thailand who invited me to come along to Laos. I spontaneously crossed the border with them, not having read a single thing about this country. I loved everything about Laos —and then I just couldn’t stop. I went on to explore Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and a whole list of other countries. What I thought would be at most two months of travel became nearly a year.
(In case you’re wondering how I funded all of this, it definitely helped that I already had some savings and redundancy money to work with. But there are many creative ways to fund your travels, which will be the main topic of Chapter 3.)
Following this initial Asia sojourn I went home briefly, but it took hardly any time for me to get back in the game. I received a message from a travelling friend asking if I had any interest in joining him to pick up a car he’d bought in Honduras and drive it to northern Mexico, where he and his girlfriend were planning to house-sit for a few months.
Of course I said, ‘Sure!’
I arrived in my high spirits in a small town in Honduras where we were to pick up the car from repairs. What my friend hadn’t told me was that he’d bought a 1983 Subaru that was on its very last legs. When we asked the mechanic if the car might make it all the way to northern Mexico, he looked away and replied with an unconvincing “si… puede?”. Somehow, I knew this trip wasn’t going to be easy.
And so we had a hilarious adventure with a shitty old car that broke down about 37 and a half times. We never quite made it to the finish line; when the entire gearbox collapsed through the floor about six hours from our final destination, we took this as our cue to finally give up and we sold the car for scrap to a man in the street.
But at least we had a great time trying. We visited places many tourists don’t go, met a ton of car mechanics, played pool with a mariachi band, saw ancient Mayan temples, had margaritas on the beach, and even got to sneak into the opulent abandoned palace of a notoriously crooked Mexican police chief.
Again, I just couldn’t stop. After concluding this road trip, I spent a year backpacking from northern Mexico all the way down to Argentina, in some parts with friends but mostly solo. My original plan of two months in Thailand turned into two years of nearly continuous travel.
I’ve been travelling ever since and have now visited over 60 countries on six continents. Along the way, I learned a ton about the art of travelling and met countless wanderers from all walks of life all over the globe.
These days, I feel like you could pretty much air-drop me into any country and I could probably just figure things out. Travel has made me more confident and curious. But I also still remember what it was like when I took that first trip to LA at age 17, or later when I nervously got off that plane in Bangkok on my first Asia backpacking trip with no idea of what would await me.
Having lived in the Netherlands and the UK, and then nomadically for several years, I’m now based in sunny Lisbon, Portugal. From there I travel for part of the year while sharing my latest adventures on Indie Traveller.
What’s new in this third edition
I wrote this book’s first edition while I was based for a month on a tropical island in Indonesia a few years ago. Realizing how much I had learned about travelling on a budget and for an extended time, I wanted to put these lessons into a short e-book that maybe others could benefit from.
As with other things I’ve done, it all got a bit out of hand. I wrote a full-length print edition instead, spending many months and some sleepless nights putting it all together. Since I had no way of promoting the book, I figured I’d start a blog—it’s what became Indie Traveller, which is now my full-time job. So it goes.
This third edition is an extensive update and rewrite. While some fundamental truths about travelling don’t change, some of the practical aspects do, and I wanted to make sure this latest edition reflects this.
Since this is the third edition, the anecdotes sprinkled throughout now come from various stages of my travel life. Some parts are based on backpacking in my 20s, while others are based on travelling in my 30s (I’m 35 now).
Other things might be a bit of a mish-mash too. You’ll probably find various currencies and measurements used. I’m Dutch, speak English with an American accent, once lived in the UK, set up my company in Estonia, but now call Portugal my home. I typically use US dollars when I travel but have used British pounds or euros at home. I know, it’s a hot mess, but this is what happens when you become a world nomad. Hopefully, you won’t mind a few inconsistencies, as the book is intended for anyone from any country.
(If you ever need to convert any units or currencies, you can simply use Google. For example, try typing ‘100 dollars in euro’ and you will get the answer straight away.)
I’ve included in this book all the lessons I’ve learned, as well as many insights shared by travellers that I’ve been fortunate to meet. By the end, you should be able to hit the ground running and travel with confidence. While you will no doubt still feel that mix of fear and excitement when you get off the plane and set forth into the unknown, you can also feel assured that you’ll have thought of everything.