Gap Year, Backpacking, and World Travel
Some links are only applicable to nationals/residents of particular countries.
- Online trip planning and research tools (leaves this page)
- Useful sign-ups, memberships, cards, and permits:
- Research your destination
- Gap Year Training Courses
- Finding travel companions (leaves this page)
- Accommodation +expand
- About hostels and hostelling
- Accommodation for FREE (leaves this page)
- Review of 7 well known Hostel Booking Sites (leaves page)
- Search & compare hotel prices offered by the major booking sites and hotel chains (opens in new window)
- Transport +expand
(all links leave this page)
This article is for independent travellers on a budget. Some information and links are only applicable to specific nationalities.
Before You Go (1) - Essential/Useful memberships, cards, and permits
Travel insurance + the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC)
- you should obtain travel insurance that at least covers medical treatment and repatriation;
- residents of the European Economic Area (EEA) should also obtain an EHIC card (free to residents of many EEA countries).
Ensure the policy provides the cover you need. See our article on travel insurance.
Travel Insurance Websites
Residents of any country:
1. WorldNomads offers insurance to residents of 150 countries, and is recommended by Lonely Planet.
2. STAtravel For residents of US, UK & Australia. It may provide cover unavailable elsewhere e.g. I am not aware of any US Travel Insurance comparison site offering cover for longer than 6 months.
US and Canadian residents:
SquareMouth a travel insurance price comparison site recommended by the travel media. Note: limited to cover of 6 months or less.
Free and cheap International Telephone Calls
International calls from mobile phones are notoriously expensive. Skype allows you to talk for free to other Skype users; so make sure you, and your friends and family all get a free Skype Account.
Skype also allows you to cheaply call mobile phones and land lines across the world. You can pay per minute (prices) for cents/pence or choose a monthly subscription (including "unlimited" packages) to call numbers in your home country or across the whole of Europe.
Note: Skype requires an Internet connection. I first used Skype in 2005 on a gap-year. I didn't take a phone (not a recommendation for others!) just my laptop with Skype installed. I could usually find free WIFI, on rare occasions I had to pay to connect my laptop at an internet cafe.
Our travel tools page includes a WIFI hotspot locator that lists both free/public and paid WIFI. Remember that both Internet Cafes, and WIFI hotspots are potentially insecure (keyloggers, eavesdropping etc) - research this on Google and ensure you internet device and connections are properly protected.
International Driving Permit (IDP)
If you wish to drive abroad - many countries require an IDP in addition to your driving license. Our useful travel links includes a section on the IDP.
Hostelling International (HI) Membership
You may sometimes find that the only available accommodation is at an HI hostel. If you are not an HI member, you may have to take out temporary membership involving you in additional form filling and payment. Other HI hostels give member discounts.
I have found it simpler and cheaper to become a member before I travel. You can obtain membership through your countries Youth Hostel Association. Membership may also provide other benefits, UK YHA includes travel, tourist attraction, and High Street retailer discounts. I used my card to get discount on travel gear from Millets and other retailers.
Hostelling International is run by the International Youth Hostel Federation and its member YH Associations around the world. It is a not for profit organisation.
HI has set standards for comfort, cleanliness, and security which all its hostels are expected to meet. You may find better quality, value and fun hostels on your travels, but you can be pretty confident that an HI hostel is not going to be a flea pit.
International Student Identity Card (ISIC)
International Youth Travel and International Teacher Identity Cards (IYTC/ITIC)
The IYTC is for people under 26, and the ITIC is for full time teaching professionals. I've no knowledge of it; but you can find more information at ISIC.org.
Before You Go (2) - Health:
Make sure you have a dental check-up and dental work done before you go.
Check vaccination and malaria information for any country on our travel planning tools page - but still obtain advice from a Doctor. Courses of vaccines may have to be given over an extended period, and vaccines/antimalarials may not provide any protection until weeks after first taken:- so discuss with your Doctor months before your travels.
Before You Go (3) - Research:
Our Travel Research Page includes many useful tools, including Travel Information & vaccination advice by country, US/UK/Ca/Oz Government travel
news feeds, flight, hotel & hostel price comparison/search tools; dialling code, timezone, currency converters etc.
This useful links page covers everything from ATM finders to Yacht Crewing information.
Obtain up to date information on the countries you are visiting
Even the latest edition of a guidebook can be out of date by the time you buy it. For example: you cannot enter Cuba without approved travel insurance, your "new" guidebook may have been published before this requirement was announced.
Always check travel advice issued by your government for the country you are visiting. This advice should be up to date. Information provided covers topics ranging from entry requirements, to problems you might experience, and crime.
We think the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) issue the best general advice. UK FCO or US Gov advice (depending on your location) can be displayed via our travel research dashboard. Link for Australian Gov Advice.
For the reason given above, ensure you buy the latest edition.
If buying online list your search results in "Publication Date" order. Many stores, including Amazon, sell "new" older editions as well as the latest.
As a backpacker, I like Lonely Planet publications; but check reviews as authors vary from book to book. Plug: the Amazon guidebook links (top left of this page) should make it quick and easy to find the guidebook you require.
Travel Safety Training Courses
Much of the information provided by these courses can be found on the net, but would take weeks to find and absorb; and you would still miss information covered by the training. Reputable courses involve demonstrations, role play, practical exercises, and are taken by experienced travellers who can answer your specific questions. I would guess I benefited from: advice on food and drink hygiene; packing items I wouldn't have considered that proved useful; role play (yes I have been taken off a train to debate the validity of my visa with border guards whose favourite phrase was "Beeg money").Course Cost? in the UK £100 upwards. (not much in terms of your overall budget)
How long? typically a day course.
Why? Check the links below to see what you will learn.
If you are a student it may give your parents peace of mind and reduce their "nagging". It will demonstrate that you are preparing properly (or at least enable you to answer their questions with authority!).
If you are the parent of a traveller, it will ease your worries.
The company I did my training with now specialise in corporate travel. However a quick google (do your own research to assess their suitability and quality) listed the following for the UK:
Staying in Hostels:
About hostels and hostelling
Not only somwhere to stay, but a backpacker meeting place. Your accommodation is cheap, and by sharing a dormitory you're more likely to get to know people than staying in your own room in an hotel or B & B. You get to share ideas and experiences and make new friends and travel buddies of all nationalities. I've ended up meeting people and travelling through three countries with them.
Accommodation in hostels can range from private rooms, to very large bunk bed dormitories which can be single or mixed sex (the booking sites will tell you). Most, but not all offer either lockers or secure luggage storage. Many have internet computers, WIFI, free city maps etc.
Quite a few hostels offer or can arrange cheap or unusual tours. For example some hostels in Riga, Latvia offer Bob Sled runs down the former USSR's Olympic track. This was started by the Argonaut Hostel (now under new name and owner?), but I was lucky enough to go on a trial run with Frank, of Friendly Fun Franks Backpackers Hostel in 2005 when he also investigated setting up tours with the run owner. Blog - Latvia
Downside: some Hostels can be flea pits (HI Hostels have set minimum standards for those under their badge - see section on HI Membership above, but I've never found them to be the most fun Hostels). However, Hostel Booking sites (see below) should have tons of reviews for the hostels they list giving you an idea of what to expect. Most Hostels I stayed in did not have curfews so you can be woken up at 4a.m. by late arrivals unpacking, or drunk party goers trying to sneak quietly into a pitch black room and falling over someone else's baggage. Security: I have probably spent a year staying in hostels and I can only recollect one person telling me they had anything stolen. However, when you share a room with strangers there is always a risk of theft so make sure you lock all valuables up.Tip: you may not need it, but take a padlock with you for lockers.
About Hostel Booking Sites(written20 Jan 2011 - last updated 16 March 2012 [to remove Quotebanana insurance]))
As a backpacker you will want to use a booking site that:
- has a large database of hostels with plenty of reviews (accommodation can be scarce at certain times of year or during a major event - so a large selection is essential).
- provides maps, to see where the hostels are in relation to your arrival point (railway/coach station) and town centre.
- allows sorting by price or review rating to save wading through the pages of hostels that can be listed for some cities.
- offers the lowest price
Our review and test of 7 well known hostel booking sites looks at this wish list and other factors.
In our view the best site was Hostelbookers. Easy to use and search, with large selection of Hostels with plenty of reviews; crucially it did not apply a service charge, and so it is usually cheaper than the runner-up Hostelworld.com. It is also the only site to display Google Streetview (when available) as well as maps. Having experience of trying to find hostels in strange cities, I know how useful a mental picture of the street location can be. We only ever partner with companies we believe in and have affiliated with Hostelbookers for the reasons above.