Independent travel, for many people, is more than just a hobby or a holiday activity – it’s a fundamentally life-changing experience. Whether it’s taking a gap year, heading off on a mid-20s career break or even taking off round the world once you’ve retired, travelling independently gives you a chance to take some time out from “normal” life, see the world differently and enjoy some incredible experiences.
Not only that, it can be an incredible learning experience, teaching you not just about different parts of the planet, but also a lot about yourself.And that’s not the only benefit of travelling either – see our article “why do we travel?” for a fuller examination.
If you’re thinking of heading off travelling (and for the distinction between “travelling” and “taking a holiday” see below) then this handy guide should tell you a few things that you need to know to start your thought process. Think of it as a beginner travel planner. Something to help you move from dreaming about travelling to actually doing it.
What is Independent Travel?
Taken literally, independent travel means any trip that you organise by yourself – booking your own accommodation, transport and itinerary as opposed to going somewhere as part of a holiday package.
What it usually means is the kind of trip that involves travelling on a shoe-string, staying in hostels and prioritising experiences over luxury. Essentially, being less of a tourist and more of a traveller.
Traveller vs. Tourist – The Key Differences
This might seem like a silly distinction, but the two words do signify a difference in approach.
The word tourist usually implies someone who’s visiting a specific destination only for a short holiday before leaving to return to their everyday existence afterwards. It also carries the unfortunate connotation of someone who’s just there to look at things rather than become emotionally involved in anyway.
People who define themselves as travellers tend to be on the road for longer, with less of a fixed agenda in terms of destinations or timings. The length of their trip means they often don’t have an everyday existence they’re returning to.
“Travelling is about the journey, being a tourist is just about seeing the sights.”
They’re more likely to stay in a place for longer, perhaps working there and even settling eventually. The definition for traveller places more emphasis on the journey rather than the pleasure gained from reaching the destination.
Or to simplify even further…
- Travelling is about the journey (both physical and spiritual).
- Touristing is about visiting particular destinations and attractions.
Where Are the Best Places in the World for Independent Travel?
They say the world is your oyster and in many ways it is. But realistically, your choice of destination is likely to be decided by a few factors. It’s worth weighing the following four questions up carefully so that you really get the most out of independent travel.
What do you want to do?
It might seem an obvious question, but it’s usually the best one to start with. What kind of experience are you looking for from travelling? Do you want to meet like-minded fellow-travellers? Do you want the possibility of staying and working abroad for a while? In that case (for English speakers especially) somewhere like Australia, could be a great option.
If you’re all about surfing, climbing or other sports you’ll want to make sure you go somewhere where you can do some everyday – New Zealand or Canada perhaps. If you’re looking to get further off the beaten track, you may want to look into places like Columbia in South America, or Malawi in Africa.
Don’t force a “fit”, that isn’t going to work. That won’t be fun for anyone. If for example, affordable beer is a priority…look it up beforehand.
How much time do you have?
Obviously there’s little point planning a trip to Fiji if you’ve only got a week’s holiday. You’ll spend all your time getting there and have very little time to enjoy it.
Perhaps less obviously, it’s well worth working out the travel times between your intended destinations in advance and ensuring you’ve left plenty of time to actually enjoy them when you get there.
“We’d recommend a ratio of at least two down days for every day spent travelling…”
Google maps can be a useful tool for this but depending on where you are in the world a good guidebook, like those produced by Lonely Planet or Rough Guides, may give you a more realistic indication of journey times.
We’d recommend a ratio of at least two down days for every day spent travelling, or else it will feel like you’ve spent your entire time in busses trains or behind the wheel.
How much money do you have?
Once you’ve worked out the sort of experiences you want to have and planned out a realistic route for your time frame (even if it’s subject to change) it’s time to think money.
This is probably the single biggest constraint on any plans you may have and it’s worth working out a rough budget before you head off. Again, a decent guidebook will help you do this.
“It’s perfectly possible to get a hostel bed in Bangkok for less than £6 a night, but the equivalent in New York will cost more like £35.”
If you’re looking to make your money stretch a long way, heading to less-developed countries that have well-established backpacker routes is usually the way to go.
Thailand, Cambodia and Laos are popular, as are the more well-established destinations in India like Goa.
Travelling in North America or Australasia is comparatively more expensive. While it’s perfectly possible to get a hostel bed in Bangkok for less than £6 a night, the equivalent in New York will cost more like £35.
Perhaps counter-intuitively travelling in Africa tends to be pricier too because transport routes for independent travellers are less well established.
Is your preferred destination safe?
It may sound like the kind of question your mum would ask, but nothing will ruin your dream trip quicker than being robbed, beaten up or worse. Check the Foreign Office travel advice any destination you’re thinking of visiting for up to date information on the security situation and common risks.
If it’s your first time travelling independently, it’s best to start off in a popular destination where you’ll be able to pick fellow travellers’ brains before heading off by yourself.
And of course travelling alone, while it can be great fun, comes with its own set of risks, particularly for women travelling solo.
You can never completely eliminate risk obviously but doing your research properly and of course equipping yourself with the right kind of travel insurance will help make your trip way more enjoyable.
Should You Travel?
Should you take a gap year? Should you go on that career break? Should you head off after retirement? The simple answer is “yes.”
Travelling opens your mind to new possibilities, it helps you to empathise with the world around you, it will give you memories to last a lifetime, and it can be really, really, really fun. Yes, it might wipe out your savings but nobody really wants to be the richest person in the graveyard. Life is for living, and travelling is the ultimate expression of that idea.