Before we set off travelling full time in November 2015 we had never stayed in a hostel dorm room, never carried all our possessions in a backpack and never slept on an overnight bus. We had no idea what to expect and it took us quite some time to find our 'travel groove'.
Having visited 13 countries in this past year we've settled into our own way of travelling that suits us both as a couple and as individuals. Whether you're planning on travelling as a couple or going solo, hopefully this will put your mind at ease inspire you to find your travel groove as well.
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Places we Stay
When we first began travelling we elected to stay in mixed dorm rooms in budget hostels that had good reviews. There were a few reasons for this; they were generally the cheapest form of accommodation throughout South America, they were super easy to book through Hostelworld (which we used exclusively) and we thought that's what backpacker travelling was all about.
As we moved on through China we continued to stay in mixed rooms in budget hostels because they were again the cheapest places to stay but also the best way of meeting other people, which can be tricky when travelling as a couple - but more about that later.
When we arrived in Japan we found that renting apartments through Airbnb for a week or more was the best way to keep accommodation costs down. We were really spoilt in Japan and portable wifi, a washing machine and often bicycles were included in the rent. Although it meant we didn't meet as many fellow travellers, we got used to the luxury that having our own private space afforded.
When it came time to move onto Thailand and Bangkok we found ourselves with a predicament whether to continue with private rooms or go back to dorm sleeping. Being the cheapest, we opted for the latter and immediately regretted it. After two nights of hardly any sleep due to sharing space with young party-goers and even an incident when of one them stroked my face as I slept (yes that happened!) we went back to private rooms again.
Luckily, throughout South East Asia we have actually found that a double private room often works out the same price or cheaper than 2 beds in a mixed dorm. We still stay in dorms occasionally if it's significantly cheaper but these days prefer a private room in a hostel with a good social space conducive to making friends.
How Long to Stay?
As newbie backpackers we fell foul of wanting to cram in as much travel as possible and would stay only a few nights before moving onto our next stop.
This soon caught up with us and became very tiring. We had little choice on our 5 month trip through South America as we had booked both the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and non-refundable flights out of the continent before we'd even arrived, so were always against the clock. It made balancing how long to stay in places against everywhere we wanted to see quite stressful and is not something we will do ever again if we can avoid it, or something I would personally recommend.
Our travel style is currently much more relaxed and we quite often spend up to two weeks in a particular place. We avoid planning ahead as much as possible, in favour of the excitement of spontaneity and the freedom to stay longer in places we love. Of course we generally have a loose idea of the parts of countries we'd like to see when we arrive but it's never more than that these days.
In fact most of the time we often don't decide that we are moving on until the day before. We also very much let recommendations from other travellers guide our 'where to next' choices. For us this typically leads to much more enriched experiences than planning a strict route based on guide book recommendations and also affords us the freedom to travel with new friends we make along the way if we fancy.
Despite being in our 30's, we are very much budget backpackers and always consciously opt for the cheaper forms of travel whether that be accommodation, transport or eating options. We prefer to spend less on these aspects of travel in order to afford us the budget for activities and experiences such as sand boarding, surfing, hiking & yoga retreats. This has always been the case and hasn't changed.
That being said we did stay in a ridiculously swank hotel in Beijing for our first wedding anniversary. It was so posh we even had a sink each! We of course had a fabulous time and definitely didn't regret forking out the extra for some luxury, but we have enjoyed stays just as much in budget hostels that cost a tenth of the price. It all depends on your priorities, there's no point forcing yourself to stay in an uncomfortable environment and hating it to save a couple of quid.
When it comes to eating options we tend not to scrimp on this in terms of variety or abundance. Luckily for us we have found that almost exclusively, the tastiest and cheapest food is to be found at street food stalls and local restaurants. So it's a win win for us.
I'd far rather be sat on a grubby plastic chair on a pavement, watching my food being prepared than pay the what I see as unnecessary dollar to sit on a clean wooden chair in a restaurant where I can't see the quality of produce prior to it being cooked, or whether someone's sneezed on it or dropped it on the floor in the kitchen in the back. And we've never been ill from anything we've eaten so far!
We are both meat eaters and not at all fussy when it comes to trying local delicacies such as BBQ frog or mixed meat dumplings and so it is relatively easy for us to find things we love. We have however met and eaten with many friends throughout our travels that either through preference, religious or specific dietary requirements have to be more particular and they still enjoy varied options. It's just something that takes a little more research or a few quid extra. We find the majority of places with western options tend to be pricier but we do sometimes splurge on the odd pizza or burger for comfort food.
Getting to somewhere on our own steam is generally our preferred option both due to lower costs and the freedom it allows. If we can rent a motorbike, leave when we want to and stop for breaks when we want to, we'll generally always choose this. However there are plenty of occasions where this has either just not been safe or been enhanced by having a tour guide with us.
Take trekking in Luang Namtha, Laos, for example, apart from chance of getting lost, the abundance of unexploded bombs littering the country make it a guided only experience. But then there are days out such as the Sticky Waterfalls and Grand Canyon in Chiang Mai, Thailand, that for us were better to explore independently because we hate feeling rushed and often half the fun for us is in finding places! In China we saved a ton of cash by opting to independently see the Great Wall and we also got to go to a relatively quieter area than where all the tour agencies go.
We also love a good walking tour and find these are the best why to get to know a big city. The emphasis here however is on "good" because we have been on some truly terrible ones. One we even left half way through, so we always make sure we do our research. These types of group excursions were particularly great in Colombia because we were shown where the no-go areas were for tourists in terms of crime, which is always good to know - not that there were many I might add.
Activities & Experiences
As I said above, this is what we'd rather spend money on with the savings we make staying in budget accommodation and eating at local places. The most expensive excursion we've done was hiking the Inca Trail to Macchi Picchu at just over £600 each. It was however worth every penny and where we discovered our love of hiking which is great because it keeps us fit and is often a free activity. We did lots of this in Japan & China.
We've had lots of first time experiences whilst travelling. Scuba diving and surfing in Colombia, sand boarding in Chile, caving in Vietnam, watching Japanese baseball and going to a Thai boxing match to name a few.
For us this are the kinds of things that enrich our travels and what we place a high priority on in terms of our budget. And the choice to travel on the cheapest overnight bus with temperamental air-con and having to pee in a bush in order to save on a nights accommodation is an easy one.
Travel with Others
Throughout our travels we've met so many like minded, seriously fantastic people and love that we now have friends all over the world. Sometimes you are just sharing a bus journey with someone and hit it off over a few hours of conversation. Other times you meet people that you make connections with who are staying in the same hostel and hang out over a few days. Then other times shared timescales and interests allow for you to travel together for a while and meet up in further destinations down the line.
For us the beauty is getting past the introduction phase of conversation. You know the, 'so how long have you been travelling for', 'what did you do at home', 'where have you been' bullshit. I shouldn't say bullshit because these types of questions are excellent ice breakers and a good way of gauging how much you have on common.
However for me, I far favour a deeper conversation than small talk because it gets very boring saying the same thing over and over again. We even got to a point where we nearly started making stuff up and creating alternative characters for ourselves, ha!
We also value the experience of travelling with others to learn about other cultures and break down any preconceptions we may have. Because of the diversity of travellers, you definitely don't have to be in a country to learn about it. The trouble for us is it invariably us ends up in another new place being added to our ever increasing wish list of places to travel to.
Travelling on our own is a new experience for us, but my week away at a yoga retreat in Siem Reap whilst J explored the southern Cambodian island of Koh Rhong Sanleom provided just that. After nearly 12 months of being by each others side every day, we had thought we were just one of those couples that don't need time apart. However we have realised that a constant interdependence isn't that healthy and that it's nice to miss each other and have different experiences and perspectives to talk about things from.
We even went full on cold turkey with no communication because we were both in places without wifi. And you know what, we loved it and will definitely be doing it again.
For me it really empowered me to figure things out on my own and realise that yeah, I can do this without getting lost or robbed. So if you're travelling as a couple we would really recommend going solo, even if only for a few days.
There's no right or wrong way to travel, everyone will always have their own preferences and needs. But what I would say is don't overthink or worry about it, just set off and figure it out as you go, as we have and still are doing. What are you waiting for? Find your travel groove!
Let us know any concerns you have about first time travel in the comments and we'll do our best to help! Seasoned traveller? Any tips to share about how you found your travel groove?