A sabbatical story...

My Backpacker Sabbatical

A backpacking sabbatical slows you down and reveals the details, going deeper everywhere you go rather than barely landing in each place you visit.  As a 20-something between studies, I backpacked through Europe with a Eurail pass, but since then I’ve learnt that there are many other places around the world on offer for backpackers.

Everyone knows someone who has done a two week, ten country Europe tour. Their facebook page filled with selfies in front of Tower Bridge, a cute Amsterdam canal, Eiffel Tower, La Rambla, The Trevi Fountain, Charles Bridge and Brandenburg Gate. It’s almost as though travelers need to take this exhausting first initiation into travel, quickly regretting the shallow experience of packing so many places into such a short timeframe.

With cheaper and cheaper air travel and more of the world becoming accessible and safe for backpacking, there are many other travel options for a backpacking sabbatical.

My first trip to Europe was just that: three weeks, seven countries, over 4000 km. My well-traveled older brother and sister gave me endless unsolicited advice telling me not to do it. But I couldn’t heed their advice. I wanted to be the rabbit, not the tortoise. But along the way I kept meeting lots of backpackers who were taking their time, getting off the beaten trail, and telling wildly engaging stories about places I had never heard of.

By rail

In the 90s and early 2000s it seemed like half the student population of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US took a Eurail backpacking sabbatical around Europe. Some called it a ‘gap year’ — a year off between university school years, or time off between graduation and beginning work in the real world — some called it a semester abroad. Some had working holiday visas, available to under 30s, enabling them to work in certain countries while traveling. And some simply used up their life savings.

Europe was relatively cheap for travel before the euro took hold. An average hostel in western Europe cost around $8-12 for a dorm bed, and the most expensive one I stayed at cost $18. Not counting flights and the costs of a Eurail pass, you could easily live for $20-$30 / day if you didn’t eat out, and there were so many other backpackers on the same budget to share a baguette, pate and bottle of wine on a riverside bench for lunch. I even met one French backpacker in Greece who would find caves in the rocks to sleep in, to better stretch out his budget.

Off the beaten path

With cheaper and cheaper air travel and more of the world becoming accessible and safe for backpacking, there are many other travel options for a backpacking sabbatical.
Popular and affordable options include:

  • Southeast Asia — delicious food, friendly people, warm weather and stunning beaches
  • South America — lively music, dance, hiking / trekking, surfing, great range of temperatures
  • Eastern Europe — unpolished Europe, with a wide range of countries, landscapes, and temperatures
  • India — the subcontinent is seeing a huge increase in backpackers, from partygoers in Goa, to those seeking more soulful activities
  • Japan (less affordable) — lots of delicious cheap food, a different vibe on each island, and a peek into life in the future when you go to Osaka or Tokyo

Lesser known backpacking routes include:

  • Trans-Siberian Railway — a network of routes taking you from Moscow to Mongolia, North Korea or China
  • Southern Africa — South Africa has an excellent network of beautiful and affordable ‘backpackers’ (hostels), and there is a huge range of landscapes to see in the region, from deserts in Namibia, to Victoria Falls in Zambia and Zimbabwe
  • Morocco — excellent food, surfing, desert treks, mountain villages, and markets to furnish your apartment with all the exotic lamps, carpets and puffs
  • The Baltics — beautiful Art Nouveau architecture, confident Baroque buildings and Soviet apartment blocks, forests, lakes, dunes and beaches

Where’s the most surprising backpack route you’ve heard of?

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