You're finally going for the trip you have been planning for as long as you can remember. You are excited, but a bit apprehensive about how it is going to turn out. Let me tell you from my experiences of the first day in 12 countries that the words of John Galsworthy, "Beginnings are always messy,” hold true when it comes to travelling.
The first days are usually difficult because you have stepped out of your comfort zone and are in a place you know nothing about. You wouldn't know the local language or the value of their currency. Even if you know the value of their currency, when asked for higher price, you won't be able to bargain in the language they understand. You might not have the internet to search for answers on Google or if you are in China, you will not have Google at all. Situations like these will end up being a buzz kill for your dream trip.
If you are the kind of traveller I am, perhaps you just book a ticket and let the journey unfold. The thrill of spontaneity is incredible, but if you do a little planning ahead, you will not only save yourself from several mental troubles, but also a lot of money. I am the laziest of planners when it comes to travelling, but I make sure I begin a trip well.
I found out my travel costs reduced significantly after I started applying the following game plan to my first day in any foreign country.
Here are my learnings from the several mistakes I made to help you avoid them:
1. Choose to stay in a hostel, instead of a hotel. And pack light, always
I prefer to stay in hostels instead of hotels, as it is the best option when you are travelling solo. Not only does it reduce the cost of stay by a wide margin, but you also meet so many people who are on the same journey as you and get a chance to learn so much. I have also observed that the location of hostels is often close to main attractions. Also please do not worry about luxury, you are going to spend most of your time outside anyway.
Homestays and Airbnbs are cheaper than hostels at some places. Like this amazing place, I found in Ninh Binh, Vietnam, Chezbeo Homestay. I got a private shack with a lake view for Rs 500.
When you are comfortable in the new place and just want to relax you can settle for a private room. You can always visit a hostel when you want to meet new people from around the world . Most of the hostels have an eatery at least if not a bar where you can meet fellow travellers.
Please pack light as you can switch places in a blink. Overpacking will reduce your speed significantly and will also cost you more as travelling in public transport becomes difficult with heavy luggage so you will end up taking cabs which are comparatively very costly.
2. Book an accommodation for not more than two days and note down the address in your diary
I never book a room for more than two days at a place I know nothing about. This helps as I get an address to go to from the airport and an option to change location if I do not find it interesting enough. Also, this is where you will talk to people and understand the place and learn about the travel routes they are following to decide how you want to go ahead. Note down the address in your diary because your phone might run out of battery and a hard copy is always a good idea.
3. You do not need to carry a large amount of cash when you travel abroad
You can withdraw money from your international debit card against a nominal transaction fee at ATMs. If you do not have an international debit card you can go for a prepaid travel card, as it gets activated within a day. But do not forget to carry little emergency money in dollars, as it is easily exchangeable and also carry cash for visa fees if you are travelling to countries with visa on arrival.
4. Never fall for the "pay as much as you want" trap. Always decide on a price beforehand
No matter how uninterested in money a person may seem, always decide on a price beforehand. I have run into situations where I did not ask or agree on a price and was asked for way too much later. This happened when I took a moto taxi in Ho Chi Minh City that began with a "pay as much as you want". After the ride, the person took out a laminated piece of paper demanding 250000 Vietnamese Dong instead of 20000 Vietnamese Dong that I expected.
5. Avoid using the airport taxi service and use public transport if your hostel is too far from the airport
This is where I end up wasting most of my money on the first day. I used airport taxis earlier but found out it was way costlier than public transport options available. Now, I use Uber or the likes of it in the country I am in and use airport WiFi to book the cab. If none of that is available, I take a taxi from outside the airport. Like that time in Bali when I took airport cab to Kuta for 200000 Indonesian Rupiah (Rs960) which would cost 30000 Indonesian Rupiah (Rs145) on Go-Jek moto taxi. These little things matter when you are on a long backpacking trip .
6. Avoid buying a sim card from the airport. Buy it from a 7/11 or a similar supermarket
Backpacking is all about living the local way. So after I reach the hostel/hotel, I ask locals what sim has the best connectivity and buy it from the supermart as the prices are fixed and there will be no need to bargain. There might be some exceptions to this, like in the tourist area of Kuta in Bali, where sim cards were more expensive in supermarts. In this case, talk to the people in your hostel/hotel reception, they will be able to help you.
7. Make sure you eat at local restaurants serving the authentic food of the region
Food has an important place in defining the culture of a country. Make sure you spend your days exploring all indigenous delights available to the palate. And for the time you are missing home, I promise you there will be an Indian restaurant right around the corner. Our food is famous that way.
This list can go on forever, as people will never fail to surprise you. You are going to experience and learn so much on your trip, both about the place and yourself. Even though I try hard to not mess up my first day, I somehow can't avoid it. Do not worry about it too much because that's where the stories come from. Though the initial days are rough, they are also the best. It is like a game to figure out how things are done in that country. I hope you have the time of your life on your trip and come back with several stories and hacks of your own.
Did you ever mess up the first day of your backpacking trip? What did you learn from it? Let me know in comments section below or share your story here.
You never know who you will end up inspiring. Happy travelling!