5 Questions Everyone Asks About Backpacking for a Year

Go backpacking for a year and you’re bound to get a lot of questions afterward. Among them, there are five questions that come up again and again. Moreover, as travelers we often react as though the answers are obvious. I thought it’d be useful to answer these questions and also to try doing so in a way that helps us as travelers more patiently and clearly communicate our experiences. Certainly the answers vary by person and location, but the generalities stand.

Here are the five questions people most often ask, in no particular order:

How do you communicate with people?

If you’re traveling for a year, you’ll likely visit more countries than languages you speak. Naturally, folks want to know how we talk to people, and there are few basic insights that many travelers quickly pick up.

First, English works 90% of the time. Gone are the days when you happen upon a place that has never seen a foreigner before, never heard of Beyoncé, or never encountered a lick of English. That’s not to say they don’t exist, but they’re rare. Even in remote places, if the little old lady hosting you doesn’t speak English her grandson probably does.

Second, hand gestures go a long way. Obviously there’s no universal sign language, but the essentials are pretty well understood and it’s not rocket science. For example:

  • “Thank you” – A hand placed over the heart.
  • “Leaving” or “Going” – Pointing your arm fully extended away from the person.
  • “Staying” – Pointing to the ground with your palm.
  • “Sleep” – Hands folded under head.
  • “Money” or “Price” – Rubbing the thumb and forefinger together.
  • “Eat” – Cupping hand and raising it to mouth.
  • “Good” – Thumbs-up.
  • “Time” – Pointing to wrist.

Third, pick up a few words in each language. Whether you use a guide or learn them on the fly, some key phrases–like bathroom or taxi–are invaluable, and place names (with proper pronunciation) are essential.

Finally, equally important is remembering what not to do. A few tips include:

  • Talk less. When people don’t understand a language, saying more words just puts additional noise between you and them. You need all their attention on the few words or gestures you share. The rest is noise, so be quiet.
  • Keep your statements simple. Give up on the complex questions (“Does the vegetarian option have fish?”) and resign yourself to simple exchanges (“Meat?”).
  • If you use words, use simple words. (Try “bad” rather than “inconvenient.”)
  • Use correct grammar. Don’t unnecessarily confuse people with baby-talk. If they know any English, then they probably heard it used with correct grammar. So stick to what they know. Grammar doesn’t confuse people, big words do.

How do you get around?

Travelers often seem baffled by this question, but folks who haven’t backpacked are understandably confused. For example, those of us who talk about traveling “overland” are often assumed to be walking only, or possibly hitchhiking. Alternatively, it’s often assumed that we rely only on trains, presumably because trains are associated with our romantic ideas about travel.

The truth is usually a combination of these, and more. Most backpackers use whatever is available. Much of the developing world is poorly outfitted with rail or highway infrastructure, so the most common form of travel may be private taxis shared by multiple people or publicly operated minibuses (i.e. vans). Most trips involve flying, and hitchhiking isn’t unusual either. In more developed economies, western-style busing is very common and trains may be in play too. Strictly walking, driving, or biking is usually the domain a relative few who build trips around this particular form of transportation.

Don’t you get homesick?

I used to, but not anymore. The first backpacking trip I ever took was a three-week jaunt through Western Europe at Christmastime, and yes I was homesick. Two years later I parted with my girlfriend for five weeks in Europe and again I was homesick. Since then, it has never happened again.

As a beginner traveler, my experience was that homesickness came in ebbs and flows. Week one you’re on top of the world, week two you’re mopey, and by week three you’re on top again. It’s sort of like reacting to getting dumped—you just learn to acclimate to the fluctuations and focus on the net upward trajectory.

At some point, I think most long-term travelers fully embrace the road. In other words, you finish your trip just wishing you could keep traveling. Or at least that’s my experience.

How much does it cost?

This is a tough question, and there’s no simple answer. The short answer is: It depends. Travel expenses depend upon your lifestyle (hotels or hostels), your destination (England or India), your pace of travel (hitching or flying), the season (peak- or off-season), and more. So if you want to have a practical conversation about travel costs, you have to start by articulating some assumptions about where, when, and how you plan to travel.

After that, you can start breaking down costs. I split variable costs–daily travel expenses–into five categories: Transportation, Accommodation, Food, Activities, and Other. (Activities refers to museum tickets, guides, entrances fees, etc.). Fixed costs should also be considered, like the initial round-trip airline ticket, visa paperwork, and other pre-trip costs like travel insurance.

At the end of the day, what folks really want is a way to predict the cost of a trip they might take, so I use these figures to estimate a per diem (usually $20 to $80). Since I usually spend at least a couple weeks in each country, I multiple this into a weekly figure that can be used for planning. For example, China recently cost me $40 per day while Kyrgyzstan was $30 per day, so a month in China was roughly $280 and Kyrgyzstan $210. If my trip will be 12 weeks long, I multiple these values by the number of weeks in each country. This also allows me to distribute my weeks in a way that matches my budget (i.e. the cost is flexible).

I’m currently collecting data on my Central Asia expenses, but in the meantime this recent data on 18 months travel in 28 countries will give you a picture of the process.

What’s your favorite place?

Some people can pick favorites, but I can’t. Certainly we all prefer some places to others, but conversations about favorites are usually subject to qualifications and revisions. (I like to think this is because the more places we travel the more we appreciate diversity, but who knows.)

My solution is to go with a Top 5 (or Top 10, whatever). That’s not because it’s easy to pick just five, but this reduces the jockeying at the top while still getting at the spirit of the question. To that end, I’ll offer my own Top 5 Favorite Places (in no particular order, of course). They are:

  • France: Elegant food and wine, great outdoors, and charming storybook towns.
  • Romania: The Carpathians., almost as beautiful and spooky as the local culture.
  • Turkey: From Istanbul to Urfa, a wealth of natural and cultural diversity.
  • Sri Lanka: Perfect beaches, ancient cities, and Buddhist and Hindu culture.
  • Myanmar (Burma): Lungis, monsoons, parasols, saffron robes, temples, and fascinating politics.

Ask far as other questions, some runner-up include: What do you each day for a year? Don’t you get bored of sightseeing? How do you afford it? And what’s it like traveling alone as a woman? If you have other burning questions, let me know. I’m happy to take a shot at them.

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