Changing Your Travel Style

Backpackers on Khao San ThailandWhenever anyone asks me what kind of traveler I am, I always say I’m a backpacker. It’s what I’ve been doing since I left home in 2006. I stay in hostels, live in dorms, stay with backpackers, travel with them, eat cheap, travel cheap, and do it all with my big trusty backpack. In many ways, I’m a budget traveler but overall, I consider myself of the backpacker mindset.

Yet things are changing. Maybe it’s age. Maybe it’s income. Whatever it is I feel that my travel style is slowly changing and that the worst part of it is that I know it. I’ve already upgraded myself to flashpacker. You know – one of those travelers who has a little more means, a lot more fancy electronics, and isn’t always looking for the cheapest place to stay or eat.

When I first started traveling, I always went for the cheapest option. Big dorms. Eating in hostels. Buses. Hitching. Overnight trains. Constant haggling. Street food. Stealing extra breakfast rolls. Now, I go for smaller dorms, I don’t mind flying, and I don’t like traveling to countries in order to cook pasta in a hostel. (I eat out. A lot.)

I’m not the 21 year old gap year kid on a finite budget. When most backpackers head off around the world, they have a limited budget. They saved up a certain amount of money and when that is spent, the trip is over. However, for me, I make my money via this website so I don’t have that constraint. Money is constantly flowing because I work and travel at the same time.

This has led to a certain upscaling in my travels and, frankly, I’m not sure I like it. I like being the vagabond backpacking traveler. I find it’s a more organic way to see the world and a better way to interact with the locals and get to know the local culture. My travel philosophy is to live like a local. The closer you can live to how the locals do, the more understanding of their culture you can have.

a luxury swimming poolHowever, the more you upscale your travels, the more you lose that local pulse. It’s hard to experience local life flying from resort to resort. Sitting in some fancy restaurant or taking private buses around a country disconnects you from much of the local population. You are seeing but not experiencing. Yet I find myself upscaling more and more. After so many years of travel, I just want some creature comforts. Part of me (especially the frugal part) is always searching for the cheapest place to stay but when I find it and stay there, I find myself unhappy and unable to sleep. I just can’t do the cheap bed anymore.

Maybe some of it has to do with the fact that I’ve been living in Asia for a while and this area of the world feels more like home than a place I travel. Yet even when I go away, I feel like I’m moving away from my roots. I want more than I did in the past.

I don’t like it. It makes me wonder – what moves a person away from their original travel style? Age? Income? Relationships? A combination of them all? Can you still be the vagabond you were when you were younger? If you do change, can you change back? Or should we just accept this as another part of life? Can we simply live a modified backpacker lifestyle or will there be a point where I forgo hostels and places like Khao San Road forever?

I don’t have a good answer to any of these questions.

You are only as old as you feel. And I don’t feel old. I enjoy hanging out with the college aged backpackers – they keep me young. But as I get older and I can afford to do more things and eat at better places, I want more creature comforts. That moves me away from my old backpacker lifestyle and I’m not sure I want to give that travel style up just yet.

I see my travel style changing in front of me every day but I’m not sure how to stop the rising tide.

  1. I definitely understand where you are coming from. I feel I have gotten a little too lazy with material comforts and more upscale travel. While I love the great breakfast buffets, security and cleanliness of higher end hotels, I do miss the rougher and more real travel of my younger and single days. It would be nice to have a more back-to-basics travel approach. Hopefully, my wife and I will start that again next year.

    However, I wish air travel still retained more of the class and sophistication of earlier days. People used to get dressed up to travel on a plane. It was something special with great food and great service. Now you are bound to sit next to someone who hasn’t showered in a few days, eat various food substitutes and have a grandma flight attendant who can’t be bothered to smile.

    I want to connect with the locals, but I would like to do it with a little style.

  2. Maybe it’s because we’re married, in our mid-30s (i.e., older than a lot of backpackers) or also working as we travel, but we find ourselves in a similar situation. We’re still traveling on a budget, but we prefer local guest houses to hostels (and avoid dorms), street food/local restaurants to cooking in a hostel kitchen and spend our free time outside the lobby/restaurant of our guest house.

    Just because you are moving on from your backpacker roots doesn’t mean you can’t keep the same travel philosophy – to interact with locals and learn about their culture. That’s more a state of mind than where you spend the night and how you eat. We’ve seen many backpackers who don’t interact with locals other than the hostel employees and barely leave the hostel for days.

    I think you can stay true to your travel philosophy even if your travel style has changed. It’s OK to enjoy that private or A/C room.

    • I agree with you Audrey and that’s what I thought when I read your post too Matt. Everything has to evolve – you can’t stay static forever and, for you, that means you’re making more money and can afford more. It doesn’t have to mean that your travel philosophy has to change (although it might too as time goes by). You don’t have to be living in dorms and eating canned spagetti for days on end in order to be a ‘traveler’….do you?

  3. I think it’s an age thing. I’m 37 and used to stay in the most basic places but now Ineed more comfort. I still travel with a backpacker mindset and eat in local restaurants. My latest post is about staying in a five star place and how weird it is if you normally stay in guesthouses.

  4. Diana

    I was wondering what are your tips for getting started and starting to plan travelling? I really want to make a big europe trip but I’m finding it difficult on how to grab a hold of the reigns in starting it.

  5. You know you have a good point. You do kind of lose the local feel when you travel a bit higher scale. However, I bet you’re also still adjusting to the change. For me, the change is hard to get used. I was traveling around in Central America looking for places that were a buck for the room. And if I overpaid, I was pissed off. Now, I’m over that. Just the memory of some of those places.
    For instance, where ants attacked me from all sides all night long.
    Or the time I slept in a shack on the beach covered with sand from head to toe, for the experience. I don’t know, maybe I’m getting old, but I’ve adjusted for the mid range hotels and find that I get the local immersion when I still eat at the local eateries and shops.

    Everything takes time to sink in, but you can still totally hang out and do what you do, but at least the stress of money isn’t there anymore!

  6. some of us don’t have the option for the cheapest travel. as a person with several disabilities, i have never experienced backpacking, walking places, hostels, and the like because they are just not accessible. i often wish i could travel more, and get into the grit of things. however, there are ways of traveling and living authentically abroad. you just have to try a bit harder. it also costs more, to travel when you have disabilities. c’est la vie!

  7. I am the same, but I find it is worth the extra money paying a bit more for a nice hotel with free wifi. You can get more work done and make more money to cover your costs. Flying is also only a little more expensive these days than train/roads and ferrries if you book in advance.

  8. Lucas

    Dude, make the money but take the regular buses anyway! Just because you can afford more doesn’t mean you need to actually spend it. I found sometimes when traveling with other people I spend more (I’m also 28 and work online), but there’s nothing like “becoming a local” and walking around places. That said, in a way I do feel the same thing you’re writing here…

  9. Ian

    I know what you mean. I went from a minimal-means backpacker to a flashpacker just because I went from single to in a relationship… and while I was willing to spend nights in $20 dorms eating cans of beans if it meant I got to take that elephant trek the next day, my girlfriend was not quite as willing… pffft. High maintenance women.

    Theres no reason you can enjoy the spoils of your entrapanuerialism (sp?) and enjoy swanky hotels as well as getting amongst the locals. Just don’t spend all your time lounging around the resort pool. Instead get that bus into the village with the other backpackers. And of course, to associate with backpackers, just find the nearest ex-pat bar.

  10. A similar thing has happened to us – we used to always stay in dorms, now we’ll choose a private room. But it doesn’t take anything away from the experience – we’re still doing the same stuff, just with a better night’s sleep.

    There are so many ways to travel, from super-budget to luxury, just enjoy the style you’re in at the moment, since they all have value.

  11. Everyone approaches travel this differently.

    My 2 cents: I’ve been on the road over 20 years – since 1988, over 100 mostly, non-western countries – and am now 42 and still moving … nothing’s changed. I am still a backpacker ( who always had a Nikon SLR (and laptops, since 1994 ) and still has lots of kit cos it’s hobby ) – and now, I still travel as I always have, spending freely as I wish … and when the money goes, make more, then continue …. Why limit the freedom of travel ? ; that’s the dumb thing about budget travel, curtailing an experience cos of budget … (just avoid the tourist route and things aren’t too expensive).

    Mostly I stay at local guesthouses and cheap hotels (never dorms, they suck, and I’m a light sleeper), visit a range of eateries and eat well, drink beer and indulge in bars with locals, often, whenever, hitch-hike when necessary – including across Africa, Iraq, south America, or use other local transport.

    Basically, money and age doesn’t have to be a change factor; mix up the experiences and if you really get off the beaten track then you will not have a choice of where to sleep or what to eat: it will all be basic; cheap, local.

    Lastly, avoid spending too much time in the expensive, sanitized modern world (EG: Europe, North America, Australasia …) .

  12. Sacha Pilgrim

    I completely agree with John in saying “I want to connect with the locals, but I would like to do it in style”. Travel for me is discovering a place through local food and unique individuals- I have done very little backpacking but it’s not because I don’t like the idea of it. I work on cruise ships so a good percent of my travel is done on repeat short-term visits to a city or town. I may see a place ten times over a period of a few months but I never have more than 5 hours at a time in a place.

    When I am not working I also spend a lot of time travelling. I am from Canada, my boyfriend is from England and well.. we both like to see new places. He doesn’t enjoy the idea of hostels so we tend to stay in nice hotels but we love trying new food and indulging in exotic wines so this ensures that we get to blend with the local people.

    I feel that on any budget and no matter what your style of travel you can still interact with the locals the way you would if backpacking- the only difference is you get a cozier bed at night :)

    PS Please note my website is under construction and will be fully functional later this week.

    • I think staying in fancy hotels disconnects you from the local population. You are in some big hotel with people attending to you in big rooms with a big lobby. It’s all impersonal.

      I don’t think everyone needs to stay in hostels but I would take a small bed and breakfast or small independent guesthouse that are owned by individuals who are the locals and can give you more of a story about the place over a nice hotel. Nice hotels in my mind bring up visions of Marriots and that sort of makes me shudder

      • Sacha Pilgrim

        Yeah I agree that B&B’s are much better.

        A lot of my travel is done while I am working on a cruise ship and what’s great is that there are over 60 nationalities of people working onboard at a time. Often I met people onboard the ship from a certain area and then I further explore their country with them. It’s nice because I (we) can stay in a hotel or B&B (satisfying my boyfriend ) and still get stories from the locals.

        I definitely want to do some more backpacking as I have only backpacked in the Netherlands. When I get the chance to explore more of Asia I plan to mix up my accommodations, staying in high end hotels, hostels and with friends.

        Nice article!

      • Not all nice hotels are chain hotels! Nor are they all impersonal. I’ve stayed in a handful of nice hotels in France that were local, unique hotels. One was a castle, one had its own wine production and tasting cellar, etc. These are real experiences that are cool and authentic AND in a nice setting.

  13. I’ve noticed this change in myself as well – while I still approach my trips with a budget backpacker mindset, in recent years I’ve been more willing to “opportunistically splurge” – for example on air travel instead of other means, or on one night in a more comfortable hotel if I’ve just come off a stretch of hostel stays.

    But Matt, as long as you feel you are getting the value and experiences you want from a trip, I don’t think you should feel discouraged or guilty based on the means employed to do so…travel is such an individually subjective experience, no fellow traveler can prove that occasional or even permanent “flashpackitude” is any better or worse than traveling old-school (shoestring) style.

    Good article!

  14. I say its both age and money… I know this because even when I was still doing my residency when I was in my 20s like you because of money issues I was more than happy to spend less on accommodation but once you start having it you feel you don’t have to be uncomfortable.. I travel now for both work and leisure… It’s funny when I am traveling for work I want those cookie cut hotels something like the courtyard which is a favorite of mine… It’s my first search because I know exactly how they work and it’s where you can tell your colleagues where to meet its easy for them to remember and it gives a certain image… But when I am traveling for leisure I try as much as I can to run away from those hotels and look for something more authentic that is run by a family not by a corporate (mostly they are 2- 3 star hotels or pansions) and safety is another issue for me I am a female sometime solo traveler. I am in my 30s and I can never stay in a hostel. It has to be a room with a privet bath period. When I have less money I look for pansion still with privet bath .

  15. Monna

    An interesting post, Matt. I think my travel style has not changed much in the 20 years that I have been travelling and then living as an expat. We stay in moderately priced hotels or bed and breakfats or pensiones… not hostels. (I was never a backpacker. I was already over backpacking when I was born.) We do our best to figure out where the good food is… where the locals eat. We always spend some time sitting at cafes, talking, reading, and writing. We never rush around doing one zillion things over three days because we do not enjoy travelling at warp speed. The best way to describe the way we travel is that we are trying to live in that place… even if it is just for a long weekend.

    Sorry you are feeling a little disconnected. I do believe that you can have a few more comforts and still feel deeply connected to place and to the people who live there.

  16. I totally saw myself and my own changing travel style in this post. I used to be 20 and fine with big dorms, cheap meals, etc. Heck, that stuff was even part of the charm of traveling! But a few stays in swank French hotels later and I don’t know if I can ever go back. It’s frustrating: I crave the down and dirty style of backpacking, but I like my comforts. And really, can’t you experience the local culture in a variety of ways? There isn’t one kind of local, or one kind of local life. There are many. Some you see when backpacking, some you see when staying at places locals stay. There were never French people in French hostels, but the nice hotels are chock full of them.

  17. Interesting and though-provoking article based on the repsonses.

    I suspect it is an equal mix of age and finances. I don’t agree that you have to stay in a hostel to get the local vibe – quite the opposite. In my experience, hostels never had locals staying at them but rather long term backpackers from various OTHER place (not a local experience at all and often not in a convenient part of town). Most cities have great economical and central homestays, B&Bs, little pensions etc that I think more greatly enhances your local experiences and where you are far more likely to meet people from the same country. It has scored me invites to eat with them or join with them for a time as they proceed on their travels. I have found over the last 20 years (or more – I’m in my 40s now) that I have got much better at really experiencing local places and cultures. Being better off, I can eat more of the local food (and not bread and cheese in a hostel kitchen) but it doesn’t stop me using local public transport, sitting in parks, walking the towns, chatting to people, popping into museums or whatever takes my fancy.

    To use your example, Bangkok is got far more depth and culture than anything you can find on Khao San Rd (where I stayed the first time I visited). I’ve been to Bangkok 15 or 20 times now over the years in many guises from work, to stopever to holiday visit and this street is designed for backpacker visitors and hides much of what Bangkok is about. I suggest people stay elsewhere, by all means visit Khao San Rd it if they want some cheap eats or an evening of backpacker good times, but not if they want to unmask and experience the true beating heart of Bangkok.

  18. So Matt,
    as your travel style changes….and because you rely on the internet as a revenue stream…and looking back at your “essential items for a flashpacker” post I’m really wondering how you keep all of your gadgets from getting stolen.

    Are you finding lockers in hostels or do you just lug your stuff with you?

  19. Oh, Matt. Cheaping out is not always the best way to connect with locals. I’m notoriously cheap, don’t get me wrong, and I’m a HUGE advocate of dining local, but who’s sleeping in those dorm beds and hostels? Our low end hotel in Bangkok filled up with local/traveling businessmen and women, the place we stayed in Hanoi the same thing happened and if they happened to have local hookers with them, well, uh, that was a weird scene to observe but no less local for us being in a hostel. If you rent an apartment and decide you’re going to do your own cooking, you’re off to the supermarket more often, if you take public transit, if if if … I’ve done the aggressively low rent track and I don’t miss it, not one bit. And because I sleep well, unbothered by snoring bunkmates or partying drunks stumbling in late, I’m way more open when I step out of my digs into the street.

    Just sayin’. But disagreement aside, I think the idea of style is interesting. And you betcha, my style has changed.

  20. Totally agree.

    Me & the missus took a 6 week trip and stayed in top-end hotels. We felt isolated from the action, for example our hotel in Bangkok was 20 mins in a tuk-tuk from Khao San Road.

    In August we’re going back on the road and will be doing it properly. Perhaps not staying in dorms but I think ‘flashpacker’ sums it up nicely! I’ve only just come across this post having bought my DSLR 9 days ago!

    (not 100% sure on the body products though, a bar of soap is really all that’s needed!) :)


  21. Anne

    I think it’s gotta be income. My husband and I have been married 2 1/2 years, we’re both 28 years old and last month we went traveling and still stayed in a 24 bed dorm with all the recent graduates on their Euro Trips. The difference from how we travel now and earlier on in our relationship is, we had nice cameras with us, a mini camcorder, etc. to record our travels better. I kind of wish I had a digicam back when I was studying abroad in Europe when I was 18 instead of my 35mm camera with blurry photos. Sigh.

    Maybe your traveling style has modified, but your mindset is the same. My husband and I have more money now so instead of cooking inside our hostel, we like to ask the locals what type of cuisines they like to eat and we’ll go there. That also gives us a taste of local culture.

    Oh and when we travel with his parents, they are all about 5-star everything and fine dining, but when we travel alone we go right back to dirty and rugged with our backpacks. So you can definitely go back to backpacking if you wanted.

    P.S. Love your site

  22. Who says you have to travel in just one way?

    Although I am older and probably have a bit more money than some people here, I’ve never forgotten my backpacker roots. I love that lifestyle, but no longer want to travel on the cheap all the time.

    Sleep is a lot more important now. I really need a comfortable and private place after a long flight.

    But, from then on, it’s often a mix of guesthouses, university dorms, hotels, and hostels. For someone like me who doesn’t drink, there’s no better place to meet people than hostels.

  23. Forest

    I think it’s natural to move upward a bit. I too started out in large dorms, but have upgraded a bit. When I’ve traveled with girlfriends, we’ll usually stay in a cheaper hotel, or a 2 person room in a hostel. It’s still cost effective, but you do miss out on the friendships that come from hostel living. As long as you still shop where the locals shop, and eat where the locals eat, you’re getting a MUCH better experience than many travelers. At least you aren’t staying in 5 star hotels and not eating at huge chain restaurants!

  24. I don’t think it’s age per say, nor income, but rather the travel experience you accumulate and how it affects you. Obvious you might be sick of budget travel after backpacking around Thailand for four years, whether this happens at age 18 or 27. I’m kind of going through the same shift myself; unlike you, I don’t have greater income or more years under my belt, but I still don’t like the direction I’m headed. Maybe the solution is just to try budget travel in a completely different area. I’m through with that in Asia and New Zealand… on to Africa?

  25. And I find myself going in the opposite direction to you, oddly. At 63 in 2010 I stayed in a hostel for the first time, albeit in a private room. Last year, at 64, my income having dropped some more, I stayed in a dorm for the first time. Honestly, neither were the interesting experiences I expected them to be, although I was surprised not to be the only person over 50, or even 60 in fact. Having now done the gamut I think, from a grotty hostel in England to the Gritti Palace in Venice and much in between, given my druthers I would take a good B and B (or the equivalent in whatever country – farmhouse accommodation perhaps) or a small hotel to really get to know folk and for friendliness, and just as comfy as the big hotels, although couchsurfing with a good host has to be the best.

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