When it comes to heading out on an adventure, people tend to go about it one of two ways: They either fly by the seat of their pants, or they micromanage every detail. The truth is that planning a spontaneous adventure is possible and doesn’t require any insanity.
While neither option is inherently wrong, they both have their drawbacks. On one extreme, you spend all of your time planning your next steps and very little time actually enjoying the moment. At the other extreme, you find yourself wandering aimlessly around a foreign land, not knowing where to go and missing out on must-see attractions.
The best option is to combine the two: Plan ahead just enough to have a general idea of your path, but leave room for flexibility and adjustments. This is a backpacker’s mentality, and in my opinion, it’s the absolute best way to travel the globe.
Think Like a Backpacker
People assume that traveling like a backpacker is something reserved for college kids on summer break. But when it comes to injecting a bit of structured spontaneity into a trip, it can be useful no matter who you are.
A backpacker’s mentality goes beyond spontaneity, though; it’s also a great way to travel light and travel safely. Many lovely destinations get a bad rap for being dangerous, violent places where Americans will surely get kidnapped. When I announced that I was going to Colombia, for instance, everyone I told declared that it was unsafe drug territory, and they feared for my life.
These great places are only as dangerous as you make them. If you go around wearing a three-carat diamond, carrying a fancy handbag, or otherwise flaunting your wealth, you’re making yourself a prime target for crime. But when you travel like a backpacker, all you really have to worry about is petty crime.
Check your ego, and leave your gaudy accessories at home. When you’re dressed down, everyone in these supposedly dangerous places will assume that you’re a budget traveler. Harassing you would be a waste of time.
After adopting the right mentality, here are seven additional steps you should take to enjoy a spontaneous getaway:
1. Only book major transportation ahead of time.
When planning a recent trip throughout Africa, I knew there were specific places I wanted to see, but I didn’t book any transportation or lodging at those places until I arrived on the continent. Having an idea of my path kept me on track, but not having a rigid timeframe allowed for flexibility. If I ended up loving a certain city, I knew I’d have the ability to extend my stay and not feel bound to a specific schedule.
2. Research the money situation.
What are your exchange options? Will you be needing mostly cash, or are credit cards a viable option where you’re going? Consider bringing a money belt — it looks like a typical belt, but it has a zippered pocket hidden inside of it.
3. Don’t over-pack.
You probably only need to pack seven days’ worth of clothes. Plan where you’ll do laundry ahead of time, and save money by using a local laundromat rather than a hotel service. If worse comes to worst, you can always buy more clothes while you’re there.
4. Abandon cheap things.
When I traveled to Colombia, I brought a cheap blow-up paddleboard to use on the Amazon and the Caribbean. Instead of lugging the wet and dirty thing home with me, I left it behind for someone else to use. Identify inexpensive things you can leave behind to make your travels even easier.
5. Make copies of everything.
Make sure you have duplicates of your license, passport, ID card, and anything else important. Carry both digital and paper versions of them. I travel with two wallets — one has my license and a credit card, and the other contains my backup ID and a second credit card. I keep the backups hidden in a suitcase pocket.
6. Use backpacker buses.
Backpacker buses are a relatively new form of transportation that cost next to nothing to ride. You don’t even need to be a backpacker to ride them. Look into whether your destinations have these great buses.
7. Talk to other travelers.
Don’t simply ask about where you currently are; ask them about where they’ve been. Pick their brains and take their advice. They may suggest somewhere amazing that’s totally off the beaten path.
In the end, thinking like a backpacker and keeping your plans loose will take you to the most exciting, unpredictable, and memorable places while keeping you safe and saving you money.
It’s all about flexibility: The more wiggle room you can work into your trip, the more opportunity you’ll have for adventure.