When you’re backpacking it’s inevitable that things won’t go exactly to plan. Try as you might you just cannot plan for every eventuality. Travelling can throw you into unexpected and stressful situations that can cost a lot of money to get out of and leave you feeling shaken and out of your comfort zone. Learning how to prepare for and handle these situations will save a lot of stress, countless arguments with your travel companions, and hopefully a lot of cash!
We’ve had a series of hiccups in our 2 years of backpacking, with a lot of these happening at the same time. Our way of dealing with these has changed as we’ve travelled. We’ve learned a lot about ‘crisis management on the road’ and it’s helped enormously when something goes wrong. I thought I would share a few things we’ve learned and also let any first time backpackers out there know how to prepare for things going wrong while you’re away! I don’t want this post to scare anyone out of travelling, after all we’re still going and we still love to travel to new places and head off the beaten track. It’s just good to be prepared in case anything does happen!
So before I do, let me share what has gone wrong so far on this trip! I was hospitalised for a week in Taiwan with a severe kidney infection, Tim broke his arm in Japan (backpacking with a broken arm is logistically challenging to say the least), we were robbed by the police on a night train in India, Tim went into anaphylactic shock on a street in an isolated town in Japan, hotels were cancelled on arrival at midnight in new cities, and trains were late & flights were delayed setting off a chain reaction of booking changes and lost deposits. (The last few things seem a lot less serious than the first ones, but they still can be stressful, and expensive, situations to get out of).
One big thing we’ve learned is that rather than get anxious about something going wrong, it’s better to be prepared so that you can keep a cool head and handle things with as little stress as possible. We wing it a lot when we travel, and most times we don’t know where we’re going to be or stay the next day, but there are certain things we have learned not to wing it with and that’s our health, safety and money! Incorporate these steps into your travel preparations and habits so that you can stay safe and not let hiccups turn into a stressful situation or a fight with your travel companion.
Take out travel insurance
I can’t recommended this enough! It’s saved us thousands of pounds so far and took the pressure off when we were ill. There’s a lot of competition in the travel insurance market these days which means insurance can be super cheap and save you a ton of money if anything goes wrong. Take a little time to properly research the insurance package you’re getting and make sure that any activities you want to take part in are covered. If you’re visiting multiple countries it’s best to opt for backpackers insurance as it will cover multiple trips and activities while being more cost effective than booking individual policies for different countries. I recommend using World Nomads for their backpacker cover. Our policy paid for itself within a few months and we will never travel without insurance any more now that we’ve seen how easily you can get sick or injured while you travel.
Get your vaccinations
The NHS travel website is a great resource for finding out what vaccinations you need for the countries you’re going to and the areas in you will need to take malaria tablets. Some vaccinations need be administered up to 3 months before you travel so it’s best to look at this as early as you can. We’ve always gotten the ‘required’ vaccinations for a country but not the ones that are listed as optional.
Bring a well stocked First Aid Kit
You don’t need to go overboard with this as the chances are that you wont need to use this often, so unless you’re doing a lot off adventure sports or are prone to injury a basic kit will do. Antiseptic wipes, plasters, bandages, paracetamol, ibuprofen and a thermometer are must haves for the kit, plus some water purification tablets if you’re planning to do some camping. One space saving tip I’ve got is not to be tempted to bring a 6 month / years supply of painkillers and malaria tablets. You can buy all of this on the road and replenish your kit as you need.
If you have serious allergies or a medical condition then always keep your medication / EpiPens with you
This might seem like a no brainer but the amount of people we have met in Asia with shellfish or nut allergies that don’t carry an Epi-Pen is mind boggling. Tim has given away extra pens at points just to keep people safe. A good habit to have is to find out the nearest hospital to where you are once you arrive in a new city. When you’re on wifi in the airport just ‘star’ it on Google and you can always find it if you’re offline. Things like this seemed like overkill before we left but when we were standing on a street in Japan with no one around us, no internet, no phone and Tim was going into anaphylactic shock I realised that we weren’t prepared enough for this situation. It was just the kindness strangers that didn’t understand us but wanted to help that got us an ambulance and Tim treatment.
Make refundable hotel bookings where you can
Booking.com is great for these, you usually don’t have to pay upfront and most hotels have a policy of free cancellation up to 24 hours before your stay (check this when you’re booking). When you’re backpacking your plans can change quickly, maybe through cancelled flights, adverse weather, or just liking a place so much that you’re not ready to move yet. Being able to cancel your accommodation without losing money will give you the freedom of choosing your route, but with the security of knowing where you are going to sleep if your itinerary doesn’t change.
Read about the local scams in places you go to
We have never been caught up in a big tourist scam so far, but many tourists fall for common and locally known scams like the Japanese tea scam. I wouldn’t be too worried about this or research it obsessively but it’s always good to have a little google and be aware of ways in which you may be taken advantage of in a new country. A quick search online will bring up anything you need to be aware of.
Find the best nearest hospital
So when I say find the nearest hospital, do find the ‘best nearest hospital’ and not just the closest one to you. When I was sick in Taiwan I needed to go to A&E so we headed to the closest one, big mistake – the hospital was old, dirty and no-one there spoke English which made it difficult to know what the diagnosis was and what drugs I was being given. The prescriptions and bills were in Taiwanese and we relied on Google Translate and a translator from the Taiwanese embassy in Dublin to talk to the doctors. It was only on leaving the hospital that I realised that just 15 minutes further away was an international hospital that was cleaner and had English speaking doctors. I’ve definitely learned my lesson here!
Sometimes if you’re being robbed, it’s better to cooperate
This advice is just for travelling in Asia, crime is very different in places like South America and we still haven’t been there so I’m not sure of the best way to handle it.
We were on a night train in India and the journey had just started so we hadn’t locked the door of our cabin. Two police officers came into the cabin, locked the door behind them, closed the curtain over the door and demanded in broken English we pay them a ‘fine’. This is common in India and usually paying a small amount will get you out of the situation much quicker than arguing. The police asked for £4000 (!!) and after a bit of back and forth they accepted £40 and then left.
If you end up in this situation calmly offer a little bit of money and say you’re backpacking, you don’t have much cash and this is all you can give. Then you can do a sort of reverse haggle, upping the price a little until you can reach a price that they’re happy with. We travelled by train many times after this and we never had any other issues, so don’t let this turn you off train travel – just be careful, lock your doors, and stay calm if the situation does arise. All they want is a little money, don’t argue back too much as you don’t want to get kicked off the train in the middle of nowhere.
Back up your data
When you’re on the road you’re much more likely to experience a device failure, loss or theft than if you are at home. Insurance can replace lost phones and laptops, but I can’t replace your precious data and holiday photos. Back up your phone regularly to iCloud and use Google photos to sync your photos as you take them. Bring a hard drive to back up your laptop, or use an online backup service if you don’t have one.
I hope I’ve managed to give a clear idea of ways to make your trip as safe and stress free as possible, whilst also not scaring you off the idea of travel 🙂 Things can go wrong whether you stay home or you explore the world, so it’s important not to get too caught up in worrying about the risks. Just be prepared and you can handle any situation that’s thrown at you! It’s often said that travel helps you to grow as a person and it’s not just the good bits that do this, it’s also the bad bits. You learn how much sh*t you can handle and how strong of a person you really are! A wise friend just told us that sometimes a bad experience will give you a good story to tell in the future!
I hope you found this helpful and that these steps will make it easier to handle a stressful situation in future. Do you have any other pieces of advice to give to fellow travellers?
Happy and safe travels!