Would-be travelers can read on for tips on what to expect and a few handy hints on dealing with the downsides while you’re away.
1. The toilets
It will come as little surprise that this sits at the top of the list. For many people, the lavatory situation is one of the biggest downsides of traveling as you say goodbye to sweet smelling bathrooms, moisturizing soap, fluffy hand towels, and locking doors in favor of an all out ban on flushing paper down the pan and smells that are guaranteed to burn a memory in your mind forever.
My worst experience: The door-less, wall-less squats in China were a cultural difference that required a lot of getting used to, but the overused, under-cleaned toilets on the Inca Trail get the prize for worst ever.
Solution: Since not going isn’t really an option, the best solution is to be prepared. Always pack your own toilet paper, have hand sanitizer gel at the ready, and learn to breathe through your mouth, or try some Tiger Balm around your nose, mortician-style. You’ll be a pro at copping a squat without getting your jeans dirty before you know it.
When you’re bedding down in a dorm, the likelihood of there being at least one all-night snorer is close to inevitable. Most people don’t feel comfortable prodding and screeching, “STOP SNORING!” at a complete stranger, which can make for some very sleepless nights.
My worst experience: A snorer in a 4-bed dorm that was so loud he sounded like he was shifting furniture. The small room made it worse and even my super-strength earplugs couldn’t block it out. Awake until 4am for two nights harboring murderous thoughts, I finally prodded and screeched to no avail. The third night I left.
Solution: Most of the time earplugs work. When/if they don’t work, you can always resort to an alcohol-induced deep sleep. If all else fails, move hostels or room; it isn’t worth ruining your days with tiredness.
3. Mosquito bites
Mosquito bites can itch like nothing on earth. Unless you packed thermals and headed into the winter wilderness, our biting foes will have accompanied you for at least part of your trip, and if you’re in a malaria hotspot, the issue turns from one of discomfort to health risk.
My worst experience: Realizing that repellent doesn’t always work as I watched a mosquito boldly bite into me, drinking in the mist of Deet like it was a pre-dinner cocktail.
Solution: Mosquito repellant works most of the time, malaria pills, a mosquito net (if, unlike me, you have the skills to fix one over a bunk), and willpower not to scratch. Put Tiger Balm or tea tree oil on your bites to soothe them.
Check out our resources on malaria meds for your trip
4. Dealing with new stuff all the time
Having every day throw up a new scenario can be exhausting. Scoring a bed every night, finding your way around new towns, figuring out the public transport, and sourcing safe(ish) spots to eat can feel like a full time job. Yes, it is more fun than most 9 to 5’s, but travel fatigue can take over when you’ve been on the road for a while.
My worst experience: Getting travel burnout in month nine. I lost all interest in doing new stuff and even contemplated a flight home.
Solution: Slow down! Stay still for a while. Find a nice hostel, ideally with a hammock or nearby beach, and rest your weary traveler mind and soul. You’ll find you recharge quicker than you think. It took me less than two weeks to get my travel zest back.
5. Packing every few days
Seeing the world means moving around a lot, and with that comes the constant chore of having to pack. If you’re the type who can unravel their entire backpack contents within three minutes, the problem is even greater.
My worst experience: Pretty much every time I left packing to the last minute, which was quite a lot. Goodbye bikini, favorite cardigan, raincoat…packing quickly often means forgetting stuff.
The solution: Pack things into the same place each time, and after a while you’ll pack on autopilot. Packing cubes or plastic bags can help – one for clothes, one for underwear, another for beach gear, etc. By the end of my trip I had packing down to 10 minutes, even with my stuff scattered everywhere.
6. Missing friends and family
Homesickness can strike at any time, and short of hopping on the first plane home, it can feel like there is very little you can do about it. Craving the comfort and familiarity of your loved ones is natural when everything is new. Add in a few missed birthdays and holidays like Thanksgiving, and the homesickness can feel even more acute.
My worst experience: Facing the prospect of Christmas without my family. I did hop on a plane to surprise a family member who’d been sick and don’t regret it, but I was lucky enough to have airmiles that it didn’t eat into my travel budget and booked a return flight which guaranteed that I would complete my trip.
Solution: Keep in contact. Skype can bridge a huge gap; email and Facebook can also keep you close. Remember that you’re not away forever and try to get out and about. With new friends in tow and sights to see, you should get over homesickness quite quickly.
7. Playing the ATM lottery
We take for granted the fact that if we have funds in our bank account, we can get access to them, but the truth is quite different when you’re regularly moving towns and countries. Coupled with unreliable ATMs, the prospect of getting your hands on the local currency can feel like a daily gamble.
My worst experience: Being stuck in Chile after losing two ATM cards (both to my own stupidity) and having my final card sucked into a faulty ATM. I had $6 in cash, which was less than a bus ticket out of town. After a wave of panic, tears, and a desperate call home, I miraculously got the card back when the machine was emptied.
Solution: Tell your bank where you’re going so they don’t shut off your funds, keep a spare card for emergencies, stored separately from the others, and always have a back-up fund in dollars available, which can usually be exchanged to get you out of a hole. Worst case scenario– have a friend or family Western Union you some cash.
8. Constantly sweating
On most trips you’re likely to encounter some heat. If you’re not used to it, it can be both exhausting, and let’s be honest, a little distressing when you start to sweat from parts of your body you didn’t know had glands.
My worst experience: India. As well as a constantly salted hairline and bead of sweat on my top lip (attractive), dressing modestly is important. Adding an extra layer of heat, even with the most lightweight clothes, makes for some unattractive damp patches.
Solution: Good deodorant, drink lots of water, take at least two showers a day (short ones, of course), and wear light-colored clothes for fewer sweat patches (or patterned clothes to disguise those sweat patches). It’s also important not to get addicted to air-conditioning, which makes it harder to acclimatize to the heat and can make you sick if they haven’t cleaned the filters in the last few years.
9. Not being understood
When you travel in a country where English isn’t commonly spoken and you don’t know the local lingo, your interactions can suddenly be reduced to those of a two-year old. You desperately want to communicate and explore the rich knowledge of the people around you, but all you can manage is to say hello and order a coffee. Yawn.
My worst experience: Mistakenly ordering breakfast at 8pm in a bar in Madrid because I didn’t understand the menu and was too self-conscious to check my phrasebook in public. Eggs and beer aren’t too bad together, but the strange looks were devastating.
Solution: Get a good phrasebook, take some lessons, and practice every day.
10. Forever saying goodbye
Making new friends is more than half of the experience of traveling, and the unique circumstances of indie travel sees people bonding much quicker than in every day life. However, the sad inevitability is that sooner rather than later you will have to part ways. At the time it can feel like you’re saying goodbye to your best friend in the world.
My worst experience: Meeting five other solo travelers in my hostel in Bangkok. Within hours we were sharing our deepest travel secrets over too many Chang beers. I can’t remember any of their names, I don’t have their contact details, and I will probably never see any of them again, but for that one night, we partied like we’d known each other a lifetime. The next day we were all in a different town. It was sad to move on, but I have a great memory.
Solution: Love it or hate it, Facebook is one of the best ways to keep in contact with people you meet on the road. You may not want to send long, flowery emails a year down the track but it’s nice to keep your old travel comrades posted on what you’re doing. Also, have faith in the well-trodden backpacker trail. There’s always a chance you’ll bump into old friends a few towns (or countries) later.
11. Checking for bed bugs
It’s not uncommon to fall foul of these biting blighters when you travel. Having little confidence in the only space that you have to call your own (at least for the night) can suck even the brightest spirit out of you, literally, but checking for bedbugs is a part of life on the road.
My worst experience: Convincing my dad, who had come to visit me, to stay in his first ever hostel only to have to diagnose his apparent mosquito bites as, in fact, bed bugs. Fortunately, he was happy to be treated with beer.
Solution: Know what you’re looking for and get hostel advice from other travelers – they’re unlikely to send you to a bed-bug-ridden pad. If the inevitable does happen, get the hostel to take responsibility for getting your bag and clothes fumigated. You don’t want bugs hitching a ride on your trip.
12. Getting stomach sickness
Getting a bout of stomach sickness can become part of the routine of travel. For me it seemed to happen every time I switched countries. Strange foods, lower sanitary standards, and being in contact with lots of new people can quickly bring on a bad stomach. It’s not something to look forward to in any location, but even less welcome when squat toilets or an 18-hour bus journey lie ahead.
The worst of the worst: Where do I start – being trapped on a toilet-less bus journey from Bolivia to Chile; the 48 hours that wiped me out in Chiang Mai; what seemed like every day in India…the list goes on. The good news, I now have the stomach of a goat.
Solution: Hand sanitizer gel and a stock of toilet paper are essential as are rehydration salts. When you get sick, try to stick to safer, packaged foods (crackers and Coca-Cola worked for me), and get to a pharmacy if your problems persist.
13. Being alone
My worst experience: Being on my own and sick in Mexico. I was too ill to socialize and had to stay in a private room (sweating off a fever wasn’t an approved dorm-based activity). Having to get my own food and fend for myself felt incredibly lonely and isolating and was amplified by the fact I was sick, a time when we’re all at a natural low. On the plus side, I felt super-social once I recovered.
Solution: Keep some perspective – it’s easy to think you’ll never meet another person for the rest of your trip, but you will, and probably in the next town. Use your alone time to finish that book (reading or writing!), catch up on sleep (if you’re sick), or see the sights (if you’re bored). Head to the hangouts listed in a guidebook like Lonely Planet, you’re bound to meet other travelers and if things are simply too lonely, move town, life’s too short.
14. Lugging your bag around
I was in love with my pretty lilac and grey backpack when I first started out, but quick enough many people find that carrying their home is actually quite a hassle. From stopping thieves to dealing with its sheer weight, you wouldn’t be wrong to think that backpacking would be much more fun without the backpack.
My worst experience: By the last months of my trip I was packing three bags – backpack (no longer pretty lilac, just grey), a daypack, and a non-essential yet very pretty girly bag that I seem genetically programmed to want to carry. My backpack was stuffed to the limit and all those one-off purchases had accumulated out of proportion. Praise to my family and friends who came to visit with half packed bags and unburdened my load.
Solution: Pack light, pack light, pack light. Anything more than a 65-liter pack is going to kill you, especially if you’re not a seasoned backpacker/camper/hiker. More weight makes it more likely you’ll stay in places for longer too, because you won’t want to pick up your bag. For true light packing, buy a backpack that can be carried on and don’t buy another – you can’t overpack when your one and only bag isn’t big enough!
15. Having the same conversation over and over
Where are you from? How long have you been traveling? How long have you got left? Where have you been? Where are you going? Where was your favorite place? And, if you’re still chatting after answering all of those: what’s your name again?
When every conversation starts with these basic questions, it can get a bit tedious, especially when you meet a string of new people and have to repeat your travel lowdown time and again. Then there’s the trick of trying to remember everyone else’s story.
My worst experience: The further into my trip, the worse these conversations became. The list of places I’d visited grew longer, it became harder to choose a favorite place, and the amount of time I had left traveling grew shorter and shorter and it kind of stressed me out to talk about it.
Solution: Give yourself a reality check. Would you rather be answering questions like: what do you do for a living, what’s the subject of your thesis, what’s your five year plan, and what do you think of the economic situation at some sort of networking event? Suddenly listing your best beach for the 46th time doesn’t seem so bad.
Travel can be one of life’s best experiences, but home is great too.
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