If you travel as much as I do on your own, and on a budget of any semblance, you’ve likely stayed at a hostel or two (or you know, ten ;)).
While I may have saw charm in the communal aspect of hostels in my 20s, entering my 30s, not so much.
Thankfully, pod hostels have risen to fame.
Most of the time, when I’m travelling, I look for boutique hotels or Airbnbs.
If I’m going the Airbnb route, I prefer private rooms in homes hosts own, or staying in a holiday home hosts aren’t using, versus Airbnb listings that are clearly instances of hosts buying up property just to rent it out to holiday-goers. Because you know, rising cost of living, housing crises, gentrification, and such.
Back to pod hostels.
Until I travelled full-time for a year, I’d never stayed in a pod hostel, but when planning last minute stays in cities that’d be considered expensive on the global stage- Amsterdam and Singapore, for instance, I had to get creative with lodging.
Originating in Japan, capsule hotels have come a long way since they were first created for businessmen. Back in the 70s, capsule hotels were popular with businessmen who missed their train home, or wanted to save money while travelling for work.
With how much they have to offer, it was only a matter of time until pod hostels (or capsule hotels) became popular with travellers as well. Cheaper than a traditional hotel and often more central, and available than Airbnbs, pod hostels blend privacy with shared space.
The room may just be a bed, and sometimes a small space for desk or storage, but there’s usually a door or blackout curtain, which means privacy. As an introvert, I love capsule hotels because they offer a place for me to escape, while travelling on a budget, but still make it easy for me to connect with others in common areas.
Just like hotels and Airbnbs, every pod hostel is different.
The two that I’ve stayed at, in Singapore and Amsterdam, both offered suite-style rooms, meaning, a bed, plus a bit of extra space.
In Singapore, I spent a few nights at the The Pod Capsule Hotel. Initially, I chose the pod hotel because it was right in the middle of one of my favorite neighborhoods- Kampong Glam.
For about €35-40 a night, I stayed in a suite room, which offered a bit more privacy (and security) through keycard access. In my space, I had a reading light, power socket, small workspace, duvet and pillows, as well as clean bathroom towels. Bathrooms and showers were shared, but cleaned often. And, the front common room offered a coffee machine, fridge, communal table, and individual call booths.
The only thing I didn’t love?
The rooms weren’t fully soundproof- there was a slot at the top to allow air conditioning flow to circulate, which also meant conversations travelled from suite to suite.
But, for the price and location, it was unbeatable.
Another pod hostel I’ve loved and would gladly return to?
Futuristic in nature, this pod hotel is on the edge of the Jordaan – perfect location – with access to several tram lines. It’s right next to Foodhallen, one of the city’s trendiest eateries, and has plenty of coffee shops, grocery stores and restaurants in its vicinity.
Entering CityHub, you’ll find a plush common room with a serve yourself bar – everything, including room access – is connected by a digital wrist band.
Beyond the lobby, you’ll scan your wrist band to access to pods. Walking into a long hallway topped with a skylight, you’ll see rows of double-stacked L-shaped pods.
In each pod, you have a huge (king) sized bed, plus enough space to store bags and get dressed.
The beds are seriously comfortable, and are bigger than you may expect- I had no issues sitting up in bed and doing a bit of work on my laptop. The pod was seriously so comfortable, at times, I questioned leaving for the winter cold. Every pod features air conditioning, Bluetooth speakers, and lighting that changes color on demand.
Bathrooms are shared, and split by toilet room and showers. In the shower area, you’ll find fantastic amenities- towels, shampoo, conditioner, hair dryers, even bathrobes.
One of the best parts of staying at CityHub?
Every guest is given a personal hotspot. There’s high-speed WiFi throughout CityHub, but the hotspot really comes in handy when out, exploring Amsterdam- especially since free WiFi in cafes and restaurants isn’t as readily available as other worldwide cities.
Everything in CityHub is sleek. Preferences in your room are controlled by an app, which also gives you access to a digital concierge, who can help recommend things to do, or places to eat.
When I stayed in mid-December, I paid about ~€50-55 a night, which is a steal for being so central in Amsterdam.
Some may turn their noses up at pod hostels, and I get the hesitation- if you’re on vacation, do you really want to stay in cramped quarters with strangers?
But, if you’re like me, and see most trips as an adventure, you won’t mind the trade-offs of a small space and shared bathroom for prime location and affordability. To me, pod hostels combine the things I loved most about a traditional hostel- the other travellers- with a nicer place to sleep and more privacy.
Would you ever stay in a pod hostel while travelling?
On my first trip to Europe, I was 19 years old- a freshman in college- and visiting London as part of a guided spring break trip. That was the trip I truly fell in love with travel, and even more so- Europe.
My second time on the continent was under a similar circumstance- a guided spring break trip to visit Rome and Naples in Italy.
Although I wouldn’t return to Europe for several years after visiting Italy, my third time in Europe, I re-visited London, and then ventured to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam- all on my own.
Fast forward a few more solo Europe trips, jaunt to Oktoberfest, and eventual move to London for work. Over time, I’ve worked my way around the continent, and loved every place I’ve had the luxury of visiting.
In fact, part of the reason I moved to Dublin? To be back in Europe full-time.
Travel may be paused at the moment, with COVID, but if you’re dreaming about a trip to Europe in the future, these are 10 cities that would be perfect for any first-time trip.
I’m planning future posts with route suggestions, and specific tips to planning your first time in Europe, but the overarching advice I’d give is- don’t try to do too much.
One of the best things about Europe is how inter-connected all the countries are, and how easy it is to hop from one place to another. But, on any trip that’s ~10 days or so, I wouldn’t recommend visiting more than one region or combination of three cities.
Even three cities is a lot for that amount of time- don’t forget to factor in travel time, and recovery from jet lag you may experience at the start of your trip.
And, by the way, I visited most of these places on my own- so, if you’re pondering a solo female adventure, go for it. Any of these 10 cities would be perfect for a solo exploration.
10 Cities, Perfect for a First Time Trip to Europe
London, United Kingdom
Every time I visit London, I find it more beautiful and interesting. Full of iconic buildings and historic landmarks, there’s a timeless, yet energetic, vibe.
My first trip to London was part of a college program, we spent ~2 weeks exploring the city’s highlights and took a few day trips to Windsor and Hampton Court to experience England’s history firsthand. After that trip, I was hooked, returning for a few more visits before moving to London for work.
Even after three years of living in London, I feel like there’s so much I could see and do on subsequent returns. Like any major city, there’s no shortage of ways to fill your time.
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Favorite thing to do: Many of London’s museums are free and absolutely worth visiting, but whenever I lived in London and people came to visit, there were two places I always took them to- the pub, and to a high tea. The British are known for afternoon tea, so having tea at a fancy hotel or restaurant can be a good way to indulge on your vacation. My favorite spots, all of which it’s smart to make a reservation at ahead of your visit: The Sketch, Mad Hatters Afternoon Tea at The Sanderson Hotel, Fortnum and Mason, and One Aldwych’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory themed tea
Favorite places to eat:
Dinerama: Popular food / drinking mall (free before 7 pm, don’t miss the tofu bao)
Dishoom: Excellent Indian
Homeslice: Slice pizza
Poppy’s: Great fish & chips
Pistachio + Pickle: The absolute best cheese toasties
Favorite places for coffee:
Monmouth Coffee Company: In my opinion, the best coffee in London. Monmouth is my go-to for at-home cold brew beans, and a flat white or latte on the go
Ozone Coffee Roasters: A touch of ‘coffee snob’ vibes, but the flat whites are good enough, it’s worth it.
Grind (multiple locations): Love a place that’s versatile, Grind excels at breakfast (don’t miss the sweet potato cakes or flat white), and does excellent espresso martinis in the evening
The Attendant: Housed in a former Victorian Toilet (from the 1800s), grabbing a brew here feels special
Host Cafe: A church turned coffee shop, this cafe is inside an ornate Gothic church. An independent cafe, it’s run by the Moot community with the goal of opening up the church to the public
Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Tower Bridge, often mistakenly called London Bridge, is one of London’s most iconic landmarks, infamous because of its drawbridge effect. Nearby Tower Bridge, the Tower of London is a must-visit on your first trip. Founded in 1066, the castle was used as a prison for many years. Despite the Tower’s grim reputation as a place of torture, it was also a powerful fortress. And, across the river from the Tower of London is Borough Market, a food market with specialities from around the world. All around quintessential London.
Oh, Amsterdam. A city that captured my heart the first time I visited, and has lured me back many times since then.
A city on canals, Amsterdam is easy explored by foot, boat or bike. With delicious eateries, charming boutiques, and incredible museums, there’s no shortage of things to do in the capital of the Netherlands.
Favorite thing to do: Wander the Jordaan, it’s quintessential Amsterdam- arguably the city’s most charming neighborhood. The Jordaan doesn’t have any major sights, it’s more so a place where you stumble across things. For a bird’s eye view of the Jordaan (and more of the city), head to the Westerkerk. For ~€7, you can join a guide-led tour to the top for incredible views of the city and its many canals
Favorite places to eat:
Pancake Bakery: Best poffertjes (mini pancakes) in the city
Pluk: Great brunch in the heart of the Jordaan
SLA: The move for healthy salads and juices
Reypenaer Proeflokaal: Pop in to sample their incredible cheeses
Little Collins: Great flat white + ace brunch, Aussie style
Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Yes, the Anne Frank Huis is a must see. But, my favorite museum in the city is the Van Gogh Museum- it’s a place I could return to time after time. It’s hard not to love seeing Van Gogh’s famous works. And as a big impressionistic art fan, a trip to the Van Gogh Museum was at the top of my to-do list, and although I may be biased, I can’t say enough good things about it
Before visiting Paris for the first time, I’d heard it was a beautiful city, full of life. Ornate buildings, cute bistros, an abundance of exquisite food, and history present on every corner were enough to convince me it was worth a visit during an autumn trip to Europe years ago.
I’ll be the first to admit Paris can be tough for first time visitors, especially if you aren’t fluent in French.
Paris is a city that seems to evoke a strong reaction from most travelers – they either love it or hate it. After five days there, I left with good memories, but wasn’t over the moon about the city. It wasn’t until my third or fourth trip that I really started to fall in love with the City of Light.
Favorite thing to do: As tempting as it may be to try and see everything Paris has to offer, plan some unplanned time. Some of my favorite memories are from strolling through different parts of the city, wandering down side streets as we wished- including, an impromptu sunset picnic along the Seine. One sight not to miss: Saint-Chapelle. It’s a tiny chapel made almost entirely out of stained glass. If there isn’t a line of people outside waiting to get it, you can find it tucked away among the Conciergerie
Favorite places to eat:
Frenchie Wine Bar: Adjacent to Frenchie, its low-key wine bar outpost serving up phenom eats is a must-visit. Go early, as in before they open for your best shot of getting a seat at a communal table
Breizh Cafe: Proper crepes, don’t skip trying both savoury and sweet crepes
L’As du Falafel: Some of the best falafel I’ve ever had. And, coming it at €6 for a wrap packed with cabbage, slaw, tomatoes, cucumber, eggplant, falafel and tahini, it’s a good, cheap eat
Ble Sucre: Best croissants in Paris
Du Pain et des Idees: The pastry escargots are unreal
Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Versailles, without question. The palace is stunning, it’s literally opulence upon opulence with mirrored halls, intricate ceilings, and gold details everywhere. There’s more to see at the Palace than the main chateau. The gardens are expansive- you could easily spend a few hours wandering them and the canals.
Edinburgh is a gorgeous city, full of history and charm. With cobbled streets, medieval stone buildings, pubs tucked below street level on every other corner, and some seriously good cocktail bars, you’re pretty much guaranteed a good time.
Favorite thing to do: Wander the cobbled streets of the historic Stockbridge neighborhood. It’s a stunning part of town, so many great shops, bars and restaurants that represent the culture of Scotland. And, while you’re wandering, don’t miss roaming the Royal Mile in Old Town
Favorite place to eat:
The Scran & Scallie: The ultimate Scottish pub, excellent fish and chips, and fantastic sticky toffee pudding
Lovecrumbs: Can’t miss Scottish cake
Hula: Healthy breakfast in the heart of Old Town
El Cartel: The absolute best tacos I’ve had outside of the US
Everyone told me I’d love Lisbon, and they were right.
Steep hills, colourful facades, delicious, creamy egg tarts, excellent wine, an endless array of beautiful doors and sunshine reflecting off the water.
In only a few days, it became one of my favourite cities in Europe. Once a gateway city for explorers to discover new lands and things across the world, Lisbon is now a vibrant coastal city.
Favorite thing to do: Explore some of Lisbon’s best and most historic neighborhood- three I loved: Alfama, Baixa, Barrio Alto. Along with exploring don’t miss some of the city’s endless overlooks- Lisbon is built on seven hills, which means there are plenty of panoramic viewpoints
Favorite places to eat:
Taberna da Rua das Flores: Reservations are a must here, it’s cosy and the menu changes routinely but oh so good
Time Out Market Lisboa: Is this food market over-hyped and touristy? Sure. But, there’s also excellent food and so much variety – loved the croquettes, pizza, burgers, egg tarts, sangria and patatas bravas
Manteigaria: This is a can’t miss. The egg custard tarts are incredible- by far, the best I’ve had in Lisbon (and beyond)
Coyo Taco: Everything we had was great- the tacos, churros, margaritas, esquites and ensaladas
Landeau Chocolate: Go here for the chocolate cake, it’s epic
By the Wine – José Maria da Fonseca: We ended up here every night we were in Lisbon, some nights for a quick drink and others for hours of lingering over glasses of wine and cheese trays
Favorite places for coffee:
Copenhagen Coffee Lab: Hailed as the best third wave coffee in Lisbon, the flat whites are great and there’s a cute park next door
Hello, Kristof: Cute little cafe with locally roasted beans
The Mill: Excellent Aus brunch, but also great coffee smoothies
Fabrica Coffee Roasters: Best place for cold brew in Lisbon
Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Sintra, an hour from Lisbon, one of Portugal’s most visited spots, for good reason. Some of the area’s history can be traced back to early civilisation- think: the Romans. If you’re only got one day in Sintra, as I did, don’t miss Pena Palace and the Moorish Castle
Seemingly overnight, Barcelona became one of my favorite cities in the world.
Barcelona, a city with incredible architecture, golden beaches and an infectious energy.
Even though it’s part of Spain’s mainland, Barcelona is the capital of the Catalonia region, an autonomous region that’s proud of their distinctive culture and history. Incredible architecture (oh, Gaudi), golden beaches, delicious tapas, vibrant nightlife, fresh fruit juices, and winding alleys. It’s the perfect Euro-getaway.
Favorite thing to do: A Spanish wine tasting sunset sail- At the time of booking, I didn’t know I’d be joining a French bachelor party (they’d booked the other spots on the trip), and was a little apprehensive when I found out they’d be my fellow patrons, but ended up having a great time. Over the course of four hours, we tried four local wines and cavas, and munched on locally produced snacks (Iberian ham, garlic olives, manchego and cheddar cheeses, and sausages). Watching the sun set over the city with a glass of rose in hand was pretty much literal perfection.
Paco Meralgo: Absolutely beautiful restaurant for seafood tapas and cava
Favorite place for coffee:
Granja Petitbo: Classic Spanish breakfast
Satan’s: Great cold brew
Nomad: Classic hipster cafe
Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Sagrada Familia: Gaudi dedicated over 40 years of his life to the cathedral. It’s a truly incredible place- without question, the most impressive cathedral I’ve been to in Europe.
Colorful houses, cobblestone streets, great food and cocktails, incredible ice cream, wonderful people, and Scandinavian functionalism at every turn. I knew I’d love Copenhagen before I even set foot in Denmark.
It’s a place designed to explore on foot or bike, with every street offering something to smile at. If this sounds too good to be true, I’ll admit- it’s hard to describe the magic of this city.
While wandering Copenhagen over the course of a long weekend, I kept thinking, “This place is so great.”
Before my trip, I read the Danes have achieved a quality and vibrancy of life that’s often missing in America. During my visit, not a single person asked me what I do, and it’s not because they didn’t care- it’s because we had other things to discuss. No one walks down the street with phones in hand, or checks them while at dinner or drinks. After living in New York for so many years, all of this was jarring. But, it shouldn’t be. And so, I’m grateful for the Danes- for reminding me what matters.
Favorite thing to do: Wander the city- it’s a gorgeous place to explore, and visit Tivoli Gardens. Built right in the middle of the city, you feel like you’re walking into a parallel universe when you enter the world’s oldest amusement park. Said to have influenced Walt Disney World, Tivoli is a fun place to wander or go on rides
Favorite places to eat:
Mother: Awesome sourdough-crust pizzas, and plenty of seating, indoors and outdoors
Baest: Fantastic pizza, the dough is next level. This place also turns out a mean negroni, and I mean, what could be better than excellent pizza and a good drink?
Osterberg: Delicious ice cream. You may be thinking, ‘ice cream in Denmark, really?’, but trust me- this place is not to be missed
Meyers Bageri: Y’all know I love my pastries. Ended up here three times, the kanelsnurrer were that good
Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Louisiana Museum of Art- Awesome modern art (LOVE anywhere with a permanent Yayoi collection & special Picasso exhibition) in a perfect location. Making it as much fun outside as inside, the museum sits on a bluff filled with sculptures, which overlooks the strait between Denmark and Sweden. Easily one of my favorite museums in the world.
On my first visit to Germany, I didn’t have too many expectations. That’s not to say I didn’t think I’d like it, but it didn’t rank as high as other European countries on my travel list.
After a few days in Berlin and Munich though, I found myself asking why Germany wasn’t higher on my travel list. Munich, especially, is the perfect mix of historic, yet progressive. It’s a charming city, and easy to get around by bus, train or foot.
As Germany’s third largest city, Munich is known for its world famous Oktoberfest. And while Oktoberfest did bring me to Munich for the first time, I returned the following year for the city’s Christmas markets, and can’t wait to return again.
Favorite thing to do: Like any European city, there’s no shortage of gorgeous churches to admire. St. Peter’s is a Roman Catholic Church done in Gothic style. It’s just as impressive on the inside as it is outside, and at the top. And when you’re done up top, spend some time wandering the heart of the city, the Marienplatz below. It’s been the main square of Munich for over 850 years. Home to many iconic buildings and sights, it’s easy to spend a few hours exploring the area
Favorite places to eat:
super danke!: Ace fresh juices
Livingroom: Cute cafe with great vegetarian options
Hofbräuhaus: Touristy? Yes, but a must-visit on a first time trip for an extra large pint and spaetzle
Favorite place for coffee: Man vs. Machine is the city’s best spot for brews
Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): The former royal palace of the House of Wittelsbach, the Residenz is incredible. Detail and design in each room are simply out of this world
Bonus: If you have the means, make it a priority to get to Munich once in your life for Oktoberfest. It’s one of the most incredible gifts I’ve given myself, and I sincerely hope to have the ability to return one day.
Dublin is one of those cities that’s perfect for a long weekend trip, or as part of a week long road-trip through the Emerald Isle.
As Ireland’s capital, it’s a town filled with culture, beauty and history. Even though it’s much bigger than other Irish cities, I’ve had no problem getting around by foot or hopping on a local bus.
Favorite thing to do: One of my favourite parts of visiting Dublin is wandering streets at leisure, popping in and out of shops, admiring pubs with overflowing hanging flower baskets, and listening to live music in the alleyways. The Temple Bar neighbourhood and downtown area are easy to walk, even if you’re short on time. As you’re wandering, pop into a pub and listen to traditional Irish music
Favorite place to eat: Elephant & Castle is great for sandwiches + chips on an afternoon out, and Osteria Lucio is fantastic Italian in the docklands
Favorite place for coffee: 3fe & Hatch and Sons are both fantastic
Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Tour a local distillery to sample Irish whiskies. My particular favorite place? Teeling Distillery. Learning about the history of Irish whisky, touring their working distillery, and sampling three of their varieties was an excellent way to spend an hour. Teeling’s is also Dublin’s first city-centre distillery in over 125 years- Jameson’s distillery isn’t operational.
There’s no place in the world like Venice, it’s an unreal city.
With the most picturesque streets and houses you can imagine, you’ll be treated to gorgeous views every moment you’re in Venice. It’s a city built in another time, when access to water meant access to money.
Favorite thing to do: Stroll the Grand Canal, watching the gondolas and boats go back and forth on the canals was one of my favorite ways to pass the time. For a quieter vibe, head to the Dorsoduro neighborhood- it’s less busy than the main San Marco
Al Remer: Sunset drinks overlooking the Grand Canal
Favorite place for coffee: Loved having espresso at the city’s tiny sidewalk cafes, none of which I can recall the name of- which, is partially why I loved them, they’re nondescript, local and wonderful
Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Piazza San Marco, in entirety. Don’t miss heading to the top of the bell tower for aerial views of the city and its canals
When I set off in 2019 to backpack for an undetermined amount of time, I figured I’d be gone a few months- at most.
Even though I’d booked a one-way flight, I knew how long I’d be able to travel would depend on how well I did working from the road. And, while I figured I’d love having the freedom of being able to bounce around from place to place, I knew that privilege and luxury wouldn’t come without its challenges.
I’d done plenty of weekend trips and even two weeklong trips solo before, but never months at a time.
In the end, I travelled non-stop for a year before deciding to take a job offer to move to Ireland and work for a tech company (for a slew of personal and professional reasons, as well as the desire to see more of Europe).
And while I may have a permanent residence at the moment, I fully expect I’ll live the nomadic life again one day. The next time around though, I’ll have the benefit of knowing everything I learned my first time out.
The entirety of what people don’t tell you about being a digital nomad is a topic for another post (coming soon!). More relatable, is the process of planning a backpacking trip of any length.
Whether you’re on the road for 3, 6, 9, 12 months or over a year, these planning tips will help set you up to get the most out of your time travelling.
15 Must Knows for Planning Your First Backpacking Trip
Decide whether you’re going to live off savings or earn on the road
Once I decided I’d do a combination of both- saving enough to serve as a cushion to get me started, and with a plan to work two jobs from the road- the rest of planning for my trip fell into place.
With WiFi infrastructure improving around the world, especially in Southeast Asia and Europe, earning while travelling made sense for me.
As part of my plan, I knew I’d earmark a few weeks- sometimes months- at a time throughout the year to just travel, as I did in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka and India. Those parts of my trip were faster paced- I moved around more because my days were just spent sightseeing or relaxing.
When I was working, I tried to spend at minimum 1-2 weeks in each place to ensure I had time to work and experience the destination without feeling too frazzled.
In the end, I still burned out. When I relocated to Ireland at the end of March in the midst of a global pandemic, I felt grateful.
Grateful for the opportunity to move abroad again, to have a job during a time of mass uncertainty, and for somewhere safe to rest and recover from a non-stop year of adventures.
When it comes to deciding whether you can work from the road, think outside the box. Working for yourself affords a ton of flexibility traditional roles don’t offer.
Ten years working in digital advertising prepared me to make the transition to a digital consultant, and as a back-up (big believer in diversified income), I started teaching English online with VIPKid.
Whether you learn to code, become a virtual assistant or scour the boards of freelancing sites to see where your skills could be applicable, chances are you can earn money on the road doing something you already know how to do, or can learn how to do.
Sell your belongings and save to travel
Once you’ve decided you’re going to do it- to travel on an extended trip or without a set return date- it’s time to work on selling everything you own, and saving money to travel.
There are loads of things you can do, some of which are habit adjustments, to help save money over time. Although my decision to travel firmed up months before my trip, I’d been saving for a ‘bigger trip’ for over a year.
Get intentional with your budgeting and saving. Even if you don’t have a concrete goal, as I didn’t when I first started saving, having the ambition to travel for an extended period of time was all the motivation I needed.
Decide where you want to go, and check the weather
When I decided to travel without a return date, I debated destination(s) for a while- should I stay in Europe and make my way around countries I’d never visited? Venture to South America or backpack Southeast Asia?
All places I’d long hoped to experience.
SE Asia won out in the end for a few reasons- the timing was right, I’d be visiting at the edge of the high season in many countries like Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Indonesia.
The biggest deciding factor in me choosing to backpack SE Asia over further explorations in Europe?
I knew I’d be able to stay in poshtels or Airbnbs, plus eat out, experience cities, and treat myself to a few splurges for a fraction of what it’d cost to do so in Europe.
While South America intrigued me, everything I’d read suggested SE Asia had better backpacker infrastructure, more ‘digital nomad’ havens, and overall, a more affordable cost of living.
Plus, SE Asia meant other nearby continents and countries- Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka, Turkey- could be a part of my trip.
And so, the trip planning began.
The first thing I did in my planning?
Google’d dry/wet seasons and started mapping out an initial country route accordingly. Be sure to look up burning seasons, as well. In northern Thailand and parts of Indonesia, I struggled with asthma flare-ups.
Resist the urge to plan too much up front
Heading into my trip, I’d planned the first ~six weeks, accounting for quick passes through Singapore and Kuala Lumpar, before spending several weeks in Thailand, and then visiting Cambodia and Laos.
I knew I wanted to make it to Vietnam, as well as Indonesia and a few other places, but didn’t plan anything beyond my first couple of weeks.
I’m so glad I didn’t.
Being able to learn from what went well and what I would have done differently in my first few stops allowed me to plan a more relaxed venture around Vietnam, and opened up the question of living in Indonesia for a few months.
Not planning too far in advance also meant I was able to make an impulse decision to see Taiwan and South Korea, as well as Penang in the first few months of my trip. And, later in the year, it meant I was able to take a month off work to travel Sri Lanka and India- something I could have never envisioned doing when I first set off.
At times, especially in Thailand and Laos, I wished I had a more flexible itinerary- more time in some places, less time in others. But, the luxury of having flights and accommodation booked in advance those first couple of weeks allowed me to get used to traveling full-time.
Don’t pack too much- seriously, you don’t need much to live
Backpacking for over a year, I couldn’t even remember what I left in storage in London.
Truthfully, it wasn’t that much- a few boxes and suitcases. But, when you live out of a backpack, you learn just how little you actually need.
In backpacker hot spots, I was stunned at the number of 80L bags (sup, Koh Tao). So big, so heavy, and presumably, filled with so much stuff.
I backpacked with a 55L Osprey bag, which ended up being the perfect size to fit everything I needed.
For instance, a menstrual cup or period underwear to avoid having to find tampons or pads in places they may not be readily (or cheaply) available.
And, I started using shampoo and conditioner bars to reduce my plastic impact overall, but only having to worry about packing two small bars made a world of difference in saving space.
One of the most important bits? A water filtration system.
I travel with a LifeStraw when I’m going to be in countries where the water isn’t potable. Over time, it’s much cheaper than buying plastic, and ions better for the planet.
Look up visa requirements and bring spare passport photos
No, you don’t need to arrange all your visas before you travel. But, be sure to check requirements before you set off.
Some require you submit a certain length of time before you arrive (India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Australia), others are easier to get on arrival (Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam), and other countries allow visa-free entry for a set amount of time (Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey, New Zealand, Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala). All of this, of course, depends on your country of citizenship.
Most countries will require at least 6 months validity from your entry date, so make sure your passport is good for years to come.
Whenever you’re applying for a visa-on-arrival, some countries will require you submit a passport-sized photo of yourself. Instead of running around each destination, trying to find a place that does passport sized photos, print a bunch before you travel and carry them with you in a water-proof pouch.
One final note here, take note of countries that require proof of onward travel. Several times, I was asked to show proof of it.
If your trip is flexible, and you haven’t booked your next stop, either buy a placeholder flight from onwardtravel.com for a few bucks, or book a refundable flight with Expedia (usually available to cancel within 24 hours of purchase), and then cancel as soon as you’ve been granted entrance.
Consult with your doctor on whether vaccines are recommended
Ultimately, whether you decide to get jabs is a personal decision.
I was vaccinated as a child, and believe in getting them proactively when they’re recommended as part of travel.
Because I planned on visiting well known destinations, my doctor and I decided I didn’t need preventative treatment for rabies, malaria, or Japanese encephalitis.
This is where having a general sense of the countries and cities you want to visit will be helpful in allowing you to make informed choices. Plus, depending on where you’re heading, some places will require certain vaccines to enter (e.g. proof of a Yellow Fever vaccination in African countries).
Decide on a daily budget before you hit the road
As basic as this may seem, since I’d planned to work while travelling, I didn’t need to worry about living on a shoestring budget.
I had a monthly budget range, and for the most part stuck to it.
About half way into my trip, I started using TrailWallet, an app that I’d recommend to anyone traveling on a budget- for short trips or longer ones.
Using the app helped me put a daily (but comfortable) budget in place, and actually made it easier for me to splurge on experiences (for instance, a glacier helicopter flight!) and a few nights at luxury hotels, knowing I’d planned for the expense and understood how it fit into my monthly plan.
I’ll make this simple: If you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel.
When I started travelling, I was insured with World Nomads. About half way through my trip, I switched to SafetyWing.
Initial medical deductions may be a bit higher, but the coverage is much better (in my opinion), and a fraction of the cost of World Nomads. Research whoever you decide to go with for insurance- read blog and news reviews, try to find people of varying opinions.
You’ll want to know how fast they handle claims, whether their customer service is reachable, and what exactly their policies cover.
There are loads of blogs that compare long-term travel policies in depth, making it easy for you to do a comprehensive review.
I was fortunate to not have any major incidents while travelling, but having coverage for smaller mishaps- a dental infection, a severe asthma flare-up (which required multiple medications and chest x-rays), a couple of sinus infections, and quick treatment for an allergic reaction meant I never had to worry about seeking out the care I needed.
Always carry cash, specifically USD
Wherever you are in SE Asia, you’ll find locals- especially local police- love bribes.
Having a tough time at a land crossing, or get pulled over for some random reason while driving a scooter?
Paying a small fee (sometimes as low as $10-20 USD) may get you off the hook, and let you keep rolling.
I usually carry $5-15 USD with me at all times, in small bills, and have another $50-150 in my wallet that I keep locked in my luggage. The small bills part is key- if I was pulled over while driving, for example, just to check documentation, being able to offer two $5 bills would sometimes help smooth things over.
Also worth noting, some visa on arrival fees also require USD (Cambodia, Laos), so having a stash handy before you set off helps you avoid ATM transaction fees whenever you need USD, urgently.
Lock your luggage at all times
I bring one for each bag, as well as a spare in case I lose a lock.
It never hurts to lock your luggage, even if you have a private room and think your bag will be ‘safe’- lock it.
When you’re backpacking and your whole life is in a single bag, and it’s not easy to fly home and fix or replace things (as you would after a normal holiday), it makes sense to be extra cautious.
Download apps to help you travel
I’ll be forever grateful I’ve had the marvel of technology at my fingertips to use while travelling.
I’ll admit I do enjoy a random wander, and exploring a place without an agenda, but there’s no denying how easy technology has made travel.
Apps in particular have changed the travel game for me.
Whether it’s saving offline directions, translating words in another language, or checking currency conversions, apps have given me confidence to explore places I’ve never been on my own, knowing I have a world of information at my fingertips.
Some of my go-to travel apps, like Google Translate, Skype, WhatsApp, Foursquare, Google, Google Maps and XE Currency make an appearance on nearly every trip, but traversing SE Asia, I found myself downloading a few more apps to help guide my explorations.
SIMs with good data plans are pretty cheap country to country in SE Asia, and easy to top up.
You’ll spend exponentially more on an international data plan or using a wireless hotspot, like TEP.
I’m all for going off the grid, but being able to quickly Google a question or translation, or look up the nearest pharmacy when you’re in dire need makes a local SIM worth it every time.
Also, while WiFi infrastructure is improving, in some countries and areas, it’s glitchy, which makes having a back-up method of looking things up or being able to get in touch with people ideal.
Share your travel plans with friends/family
Years ago, I used to register every trip with the US State Department.
Now, I don’t bother going through that process unless I’m going somewhere there’s been recent conflict, or I plan on staying in a country for several months by proxy of living there.
However, I do make sure multiple people know where I am, where I’m staying and where I’m planning to head next.
And, whenever, I reach a new destination, I WhatsApp those people to let them know I’ve arrived and checked in.
This way, a group of people know where I am and when they last heard from me. In addition to this being a smart, simple safety measure, it also helps in the event there’s news near/in the country I’m visiting. A few times, I’ve had friends alert me to weather disasters, or country-specific news faster than I’ve seen it while in the country.
Have you ever backpacked or traveled for an extended period of time? What advice would you give to those planning a trip?
India, a land of energy, spirituality, colour, detailed architecture and love.
When most people envision India, they dream of elephants and tigers, colorful saris, prayer ceremonies on the banks of the Ganges, buildings and palaces with the most incredible details, steaming hot chai tea, and slow moving cows.
Planning my trip to Asia, I hadn’t planned on visiting India.
It’s not that I wasn’t keen to go, but my top concerns were internet strength (for working) and the experience of going alone.
However, working more over the summer and early fall than I planned, meant I had a bit more budget cushioning than I’d expected to have rounding out 2019.
And so, leaving Indonesia at the end of October, I started thinking about where I could spend November, before heading to Europe in early December to take care of a few things in London en route to being Stateside for the holidays.
Visiting Sri Lanka was of huge interest to me, and just so happened to be ‘on the way back’ (in a general direction sense sort of way) to Europe.
And there, looming next to Sri Lanka, was India. A country I really wanted to visit but felt overwhelmed at the notion of trying to plan a trip through.
Thanks to Instagram though, and the power of e-friends who also took on the challenge of traveling India as solo female travellers, I felt empowered to take on the trip.
Their experiences inspired me, and made me feel better about committing to visit for three weeks.
As it would turn out, I had nothing to worry about. Never once during my travels in India did I feel unsafe or threatened.
Sure, I felt uncomfortable a lot, but that’s part of the reason why I travel- to see and experience new things, that push me outside my comfort zone.
When planning my trip, after I’d decided where to go (which, was one of the hardest parts), I tried to get a sense of budget expectations.
India is the kind of place that can be incredibly cheap or ridiculously expensive, depending on your travel style
Because I’d earned a bit more than I’d projected over the summer, and wanted to work a bit while in major cities in India, I wasn’t interested in a bottom of the budget, backpacker experience.
Although, kudos to anyone backpacking India on less than $400 USD monthly (which seemed to be the general, low-tier backpacker cost consensus).
Whenever I searched for advice about backpacking India, and more specifically, solo travel budget examples, I could only find two things- cheap as chips or high end splurge.
Lower end estimations ranged from $10-15 USD daily, and were calculated on sharing dorms at a hostel, taking buses or the lowest train class everywhere, and eating street food.
On the higher end, calculations ran upwards of over $100 USD daily, and included luxe hotel rooms, private drivers, plentiful tours, and nice dining experiences.
There wasn’t much for moderate travellers, or flashpackers as I’d deem myself, which made setting budget expectations a bit difficult initially.
What’s more, I didn’t find much about spend variation for different cities in Northern India, where I’d be visiting.
I didn’t meticulously track every expense while I travelled India, but after two and a half weeks traveling Jaipur, Jodphur, Jaisalmer, Amritsar, Delhi and Agra, I have a much better sense of what a comfortable, budget venture to India costs.
What to Expect Traveling India on a Budget, but Not as a Backpacker
Looking at hotels and hostels, I was torn what to book.
On sites like Agoda and Booking.com, I found some good hotel deals, but staying at a hostel appealed more to me because I knew I’d be able to chat with other travelers.
However, because I wanted to work (video conferencing), I needed decent WiFi and some privacy.
Private rooms at hostels.
I wasn’t too fussed that my rooms have en-suites, but it worked out that booking private rooms with my own bathroom was only $5-8 more per night than sharing the same toilets as everyone else in the hostel, so it was what I opted for in each place.
Choosing a hostel in each city was actually the easy part.
In Agra, Joey’s came highly recommended for their proximity to the East gate of the Taj Mahal- only a 3 minute walk. At $26 USD a night, I considered it a bargain to have close of access to such a historic site.
Everywhere else (sans Amritsar), I stayed in a hostel brand I’d heard nothing but rave reviews about- Moustache.
Their staff is familiar with foreigner needs, questions and interests and well prepped to help with just about anything from getting a SIM to recommending places to eat or drink, or how to get to the next place in your India travels. Each location I visited also offered a variety of walking tours, which was a nice way to meet people from the hostel and see the place I was visiting.
Their Delhi location was my favourite- there were always people in the common areas, which made for a real community vibe.
Being so well known, and a bit upscale for India hostels doesn’t come super cheap though. Generally, I paid between $25-35 per night for private rooms with en-suites at Moustache locations.
And, in Amritsar, I booked a hostel close to the Golden Temple that had great reviews for only $15 USD a night. It wasn’t nearly as nice (read: clean) as the rooms I stayed in at Moustache, but it was a safe place for me to sleep.
One note on booking hostels in India, be careful when reading reviews. Some hostels pay people to write glowing reviews when the reality is far from what they describe.
Moustache came personally recommended, as a hostel brand, from others I knew who had travelled India, so I felt comfortable staying there without much research.
Getting Around India
One of the biggest challenges budget travelers in India face is getting from place to place. India is a vast country, and sometimes, travel distances are absolutely massive.
Chatting with friends who had visited, many hired a private driver to get city to city. To hire a driver this way, rates are based on distance and can average $30-40 for 3-4 hours, or $60 and up for longer distances.
Other friends said they’d hired a driver to escort them throughout their entire time in India, showing them around sights as well. Rates for this kind of experience vary as well, based on where you’re going, what you’re asking of the driver, etc. but I’ve heard anything between $60-100+ USD per day.
The upside to traveling either of those ways?
It’s comfortable and eliminates a lot of logistics you’ll have to otherwise manage.
You miss so much. When you travel by tuk tuk, train, bus or even walking place to place when feasible, you see and experience a lot more. Sometimes those experiences may not always be pleasant (hectic train stations), but you leave feeling like you’ve really explored India.
My recommendation for getting around India?
Take plans for vast distances: I flew twice, in India. The first time was from Jaisalmer to Amritsar, a journey which could take several days otherwise. The second time, I thought trains were sold out from Amritsar to Delhi, but it turned out to be a website glitch. Unfortunately, by the time I’d learned this, I’d already paid for a flight.
India has a few budget airlines- Spicejet, Air India, Vistara, Tiger Airways and Indiego, which makes it pretty easy to find deals in relation to domestic travel in other countries around the world.
I flew Spicejet, Indigo and Vistara, and had no complaints with any of them. In actuality, I was surprised by the service- on domestic flights, the cost to add checked luggage was minimal, and onboard the plane, full meals and drinks were served.
From Jaisalmer to Amritsar, I paid $35, and from Amritsar to Delhi, I paid $55. Not the cheapest way to get around, but also not a bad option for covering long distances in a relatively short amount of time.
And, I’ve heard some airlines, like SpiceJet, have travel passes if you’re going to be flying all around India.
A final note, always check the airlines for recent safety ratings. I usually use GoogleNews to help me scan press coverage over the past few months whenever I fly an airline I’m not familiar with.
Take trains for shorter journeys:
Travelling by train has never been easier for foreigners in India.
Prior, you had to reserve tickets using an Indian debit card, which meant foreigners had to go to full-service agencies ($$$) or small shop owners and hope a last minute seat was available.
Now, you can use booking agent, 12GoAsia, which charges a minimal fee to reserve tickets for you.
The only thing to note? You must reserve in advance- like, weeks in advance for the best chance of getting the train you want and seating type.
I waited too long to book (1.5 weeks before my trip), and was bummed to discover I had to rearrange some plans because trains I’d initially looked at schedules for and planned to take were sold out.
I took trains from Jaipur to Jodphur, Jodphur to Jaisalmer, and Delhi to Agra return.
On shorter journeys, I sat in CC ac class, which is essentially padded seats in air-conditioned cars. Think: Scruffier, British trains.
And, on longer journeys, I booked 2AC class, which is best for a balance between cost and comfort. In 2AC, there are only two beds stacked, so you have room to sit up fully, stretch, etc. Cars are also typically cleaner than 3AC class.
That said, I wouldn’t be against booking 3AC class. It’s usually a bit cheaper than 2AC because beds are stacked three in a row, which means it’s a bit tighter. There’s still air-conditioning though, so you should be comfortable for the journey.
There’s also 1AC class and non-air conditioned sleeper cars. 1AC is the nicest class, but I didn’t consider it because the compartments lock, which is a safety concern for me as a solo female traveler. I’ve heard the non a/c classes are mostly locals, and while they may be alright for travel in pairs, they’re generally not advised for solo female travelers.
When you book trains, you’ll have the option of shorter or longer journeys, usually. Should go without saying the most direct route is always the most expensive, but not by much.
I always booked the quickest trains since the cost savings weren’t worth the additional journey time to me.
Short distance tickets were usually $8-10 USD each way, with 12GoAsia’s booking fee.
And, longer distance tickets were usually $12-16 one way, with 12GoAsia’s booking fee.
I didn’t take buses or hire a private driver while in India because the former usually took too long to get place to place on my tight schedule, and the latter was cost prohibitive.
Getting Around Cities
In smaller cities, like Jaisalmer, Jodphur, Amritsar and Agra, I walked most places.
Because I had an Indian SIM, I was able to to user Ola (Indian rideshare app) and Uber to get around Jaipur, Amritsar, Delhi and Agra.
Each city has buses, and Delhi has a modern metro system, but being short on time, ridesharing meant I could quickly and easily get to the places I wanted to see.
Using rideshare services in India will vary city to city- all have private cars, some also have tuk tuks, rickshaws or motorbikes as options as well.
As with using rideshare services anywhere, make sure the driver’s photo / plate number matches before you get in.
Several times, I refused to get in tuk tuks where the plate didn’t match, even if the driver showed me proof of my booking on his phone. For my own safety, it was important to me the details were the same as their rideshare profile.
Overall though, I found rideshares an effective way to avoid haggling and fare scams at major train stations and airports. It also added a layer of safety for me as a solo female traveller, knowing my journey was being tracked, and I could share it (as in Uber) with a friend or family member.
There were a few instances where I did take a tuk tuk or rickshaw though.
When possible, I asked my hostel staff to help me understand how much the ride should cost, based on where I was going.
Generally, I ended up taking 40-50% off the first estimate the drivers gave me- they were that inflated.
I get it- I’m a prime target for mark-up as a white, female solo traveler. But, that doesn’t mean I should be taken advantage of.
If you’re wondering about tip for taxi, tuk uk or rickshaw drivers, no need. They won’t expect it, it’s factored into the rate.
I spent a bit more here than most people will, and than what’s necessary because of my food allergies.
Being allergic to cashew nuts and knowing how prevalent they are in Indian food, especially vegetarian dishes, I took no chances and only ate at cafes or restaurants where someone on staff spoke English.
I did this because, I needed to be able to communicate the severity of my food allergy, and have them give directions to the kitchen.
There were a few street food items I tried- lassis, jalebi, juices, naan- things I knew were safe. But, for the most part, I avoided curries or sauces if I couldn’t be certain they were nut free.
Even eating at cafes, on average, I spent under $5 USD per meal- sometimes only $2-3 USD.
Zomato was a favorite app in cities (Jaipur, Jodphur, Amritsar, Delhi) for ordering food on nights when I needed to work. And, using it meant I didn’t need to walk around by myself at night in search of food.
The best part of the app, in my opinion? It offers chai tea delivery. For under $1 USD, I could have a cup of chai delivered, or for under $2 USD, I could have an entire box (5-6 cups) delivered.
Talk about a delicious score.
Taking Local Tours
A few times in my trip, I was interested in joining a walking tour.
Googling options usually turned up overpriced, huge tours- which, I wasn’t interested in because of my budget, but also because I prefer more intimate, group experiences.
My advice here?
Join a hostel’s walking tour- most will let you join, even if you’re not staying there, and you can bet they’ll be more reasonably priced than anything you find online because of their clientele.
In Jodhpur, I went on a 3 hour walking tour of the city at sunset, which was fantastic, and cost less than $4 USD.
And in Amritsar, I went with a small, single service provider operated food tour a friend had recommended than the bigger alternatives. For under $10 USD, I got a private walking tour of the city, including 6 food stops.
My guide was a local, so at all the places we stopped, he knew the staff. This meant they let us peek into the kitchens, or went out of their way to service us.
My other advice here would be to do more generic tours- like an Indian food tour- in smaller cities.
In Delhi, I looked up the cost of a food tour, and although it was ~1-2 hours longer than the one I took, it was also nearly 5x the price at $50 USD per person.
Getting a SIM
While getting a SIM in India isn’t necessarily expensive, it can be a nightmare to navigate.
To help counteract terrorism concerns, the Indian government requires all foreigners go through a rather complex process to get a SIM- you have to show your original passport, and provide a photocopy of passport, photocopy of your Indian visa, your local Indian address, your home address, a passport photo, and a local reference name and phone number. Once your paperwork is processed (usually several hours after you leave the store), the telcom provider will call your reference.
The tricky part? They only call once, so if your reference doesn’t pick up, your application is denied and you have to start the process over. Even if it ends up being processed, it often takes a half day to a day for your SIM to work.
Another reason I stayed at Moustache hostel in Jaipur?
I’d messaged their staff ahead of my visit, and asked if they’d be able to assist in helping me get a SIM.
Like a few other hostels, they have deals with the local service providers (like AirTel) to quickly get guests SIM cards.
The process was painless and my SIM worked immediately.
There are ATMs in major cities, but options will be limited in more remote places. And, the few options there are will charge a withdrawal fee.
To help mitigate paying fees, I only took out cash three times while in India- when I first arrived, in Amritsar mid-way through my trip, and in Delhi when I realized I was running a bit short and would need more to cover me until I left.