Backpacking is considered by many Australians as a rite-of-passage into the world. Like all travellers, backpackers are not immune to risks. Indeed, risks to backpackers are particularly acute due to their low budget and ‘off the beaten track’ approach.
Planning your trip
- Do your research: there’s a wealth of information on travel websites, blogs and social media relevant to backpackers. No matter how adventurous your intended travel, chances are someone has done it before and shared their experience online. Always check sources and references and do not assume them to be authoritative as laws and destinations, particularly in the developing world, are rapidly evolving.
- Due to the nature of backpacking, ensure you have all relevant visas and requisite travel documents before you depart. Even countries that share a border can impose vastly different entry requirements on Australian travellers, so check the embassy, high commission or consulate of the country you plan to visit.
- Check with your bank about the best ATM card options for travellers – many major banks offer debit/credit cards with lower ATM fees and exchange rate surcharges than their standard cards. Carry an emergency reserve of cash in a major international currency (US$, €) that will tide you over in the event your card is lost or stolen.
- Take out the most comprehensive travel insurance. Even if you don’t intend on undertaking any risky activity, chances are the opportunity to white-water raft, hop on a scooter or bungee jump will tempt you. Make sure you’re covered for all the countries you intend to visit and for the broadest possible range of activity.
- If you intend to take your phone with you, check with your local provider about what the rates will be for data roaming and international call costs. It may be a better option to consider purchasing a local prepaid SIM card from the country you intend to visit.
- Be realistic about how much you need to take with you. Bear in mind that whatever you take, you will need to be able to carry and you’re likely to accrue many items while travelling.
- Leave an itinerary – no matter how basic – with someone at home, and plan to keep in regular contact.
- Scan or photocopy your passport and other vital documents, such as your travel insurance policy, driver’s license and any tickets, and leave them with someone who you can contact quickly in an emergency.
- Register your travels on Smartraveller and subscribe to the travel advisories for the countries that you intend to visit.
Make sensible travel choices
Cheap transport options abound the world over but can pose significant risks to the ill-informed backpacker:
- arrange transfers to/from your arrival point as unlicensed or illegal operators often congregate at transport hubs;
- use only officially-licensed and reputable transport companies;
- when travelling alone with a driver, act as if someone is expecting you and will raise an alarm if you don’t arrive – you might like to make a phone call or mention in passing to your driver that your boss, colleague or partner is waiting for you at your destination;
- sit in the back seat when travelling with a driver and avoid train carriages/compartments in which you are the sole occupant;
- where possible, sit with your belongings within arm’s length as backpacks can be easily stolen from an unsecured car boot, bus luggage compartment or ends of a train carriage; and
- do not hitchhike.
Staying in budget accommodation can be an experience in itself and a great way to meet other backpackers on your journey, but keep in mind the following tips to ensure your safety:
- as often as possible, try to book accommodation prior to arrival, especially if you’re due to arrive at your destination at night so as to avoid walking through unknown streets in the dark;
- if travelling alone, try to avoid accommodation in isolated areas by checking online reviews and Google maps as to the location – a little extra money for a more centralised location goes a long way;
- if staying in dorm accommodation, make sure you specify whether you would like to be placed in a single-sex or mixed room;
- if you judge that your accommodation is secure and provides a safe to which only you have access, lock your valuables in the safe;
- unless locked in a safe, avoid keeping all your valuables in the one location and ensure you keep copies of your passport;
- where possible, avoid taking a room on the ground floor as these are the most prone to break-in;
- take note of any emergency exits and emergency contingency plans to ensure you are ready to react in the event of an emergency as evacuation procedures and building standards are often less rigorous overseas than in Australia;
- where possible, avoid sharing accommodation with strangers or people you have just met, particularly if you are travelling alone. Staying in someone’s house (including arrangements to rent a spare room or couch) can leave you especially vulnerable. Offers of free accommodation are almost always too good to be true; and
- ask staff to write down the address and contact information of your accommodation in the local language.
- Do not drink to excess or take drugs that might make you more vulnerable or impair your decision making. You should be aware that some countries, particularly those with a considerable number of backpackers travelling to them or transiting through, have drugs laws that seem harsh by Australian standards, with penalties that can include imprisonment or the death penalty.
- Never leave your drink unattended or in the care of a stranger or new friend as drink-spiking is common around the world.
- Be careful about the information you share when out in public – keep your accommodation details and whether you are travelling alone to yourself.
- As in Australia, avoid walking alone after dark or in isolated areas.
- Be aware of cultural standards. For example, in some cultures, women shaking hands with men is unacceptable and simple, inadvertent gestures such as making eye contact with a man or sitting in the front seat of a taxi can be misinterpreted as a sexual advance.
- If you are visiting new friends, make sure you have independent control over your travel options.
Staying health conscious
- Recognise your limits, particularly as backpacking often entails more adventure and less downtime than what you may be used to. Understand that excessive partying can impair judgment and have longer-term consequences than just a hangover.
- In some countries, supplies of contraceptives, including condoms, can be unreliable or unavailable, so it may be best to purchase in advance.
- If you are travelling alone and become ill, get to a health facility quickly as your capacity to do so may diminish with time.
- Be aware that the risk of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, is much higher in some countries than in Australia.