In these tough economic times it pays to cut back on costs, including travel costs, but does that mean travel has to be put off until the economic up-turn? Not necessarily. Backpacking is a way of seeing the world for less money and in a more adventurous way than luxury travel. I've done my fair share of backpacking, and some luxury travel too. I wouldn't say either one is 'better' than the other but they are very different experiences.
What is backpacking?
What really sets backpacking apart from other types of travel is not actually the type of baggage you choose to stow your gear in. It's to do with how you travel, where you stay and the attitude you carry with you.
Yes, backpackers tend to carry a backpack. They tend to stay in backpackers' hostels and use backpacker transport, which means trains, buses, and their own two feet. They take advantage of backpacker rates and deals. All this leads to cheaper travel, and often a more authentic travel experience.
Typically young, fit student types on long-haul, solo, round the world trips. Less typically, but equally successfully, couples, families, groups of friends and individuals from widely differing age groups, backgrounds and fitness levels.
The Youth Hostel Association, which has over 4,000 member hostels in 60 countries, offers individual, group and family memberships. You can visit their international site at www.hihostels.com and search hostels in different countries and by different categories such as group hostels and family hostels.
Typical backpacking accommodation.
There are backpacker hostels all over the world. Some belong to a larger association, and some are truly independent. Prices are cheap and standards vary. Typical accommodation is in dorm style rooms, with communal bathroom and kitchen facilities. Dorms may have anything from four to twenty (or even more) beds. Some hostels have co-ed dorms, while some are segregated into male and female. Some hostels offer single, double and family rooms. Always call ahead to check, and make reservations in busy seasons. Hostels often fill up quicker than hotels and motels.
The atmosphere at the average backpackers' hostel is incredibly friendly, light hearted and inclusive. Everyone congregates in the kitchen to cook, eat and trade travelers' tales and useful information on the region you're traveling in. Kitchens are usually well equipped with cooking and eating utensils. You will be expected to clear up after yourself. There will be a communal fridge and shelves for storing food. Some hostels will have a store, and most tend to be conveniently situated with most amenities within walking distance. You can usually store valuables in a safe at reception. You will need your own towel, toiletries and sleeping bag.
I've stayed in a lot of hostels in several countries and rarely found them to be anything other than clean, well-run and safe. In fact I've had way more problems with dirt, bad management and security issues in cheap hotels and motels.
How much will I spend (or more importantly save) by backpacking?
Let's take a specific country - New Zealand, which is a great country for beginner backpackers. A bed in a dorm at the YHA hostel in Rotorua, currently costs NZ$29 (about US$18.30). I've stayed there. It's clean and comfy with small, single-sex dorms. A room for one at the nearby Sudima Hotel costs NZ$185 (about US$117) a night.
A Magic Travel Pass will currently cost you about NZ$570 (about US$360). I've used this service and found it safe, reliable and convenient. It's basically a backpacker bus company that does a route of the whole country and you can hop on and off as you want, spending as long as you like at each destination. The bus drops you right at the door of selected hostels, and the pass is valid for up to 12 months. The cost of a compact rental car in New Zealand for six months - over $4,000 (around US$2,525) plus fuel!
The real advantage of backpacking is not the money you'll save, but the way you'll travel and the people you'll meet. To get a real feel for what backpacking is all about, visit these websites.