Globetrotting on a Shoestring

Apr 1, 2003
Outside Magazine

Canada's Moraine Lake, in Banff National Park—a good destination for a first journey abroad

I need to travel, for CHEAP. I have never traveled outside of the country before. Do you have any suggestions on where I should go, and how I should go about doing it? What should I do first?

— Luke Novak, Auburn, Washington

Adventure Adviser:

Never left the country? Oh man, are you in for a shock! I can only begin to guess the circumstances that have finally brought your passion to explore the world to a boil. Lost your job? Suffered a break-up? Turned 18? Just figured it was now or never? No matter your reason—all of the above have cast many a soul back on the road time and time again, especially the Aussies—I'm thrilled to be of help, since I'm confident there are many people out there in your boat. You want to travel, but you're not sure what to expect. Your question could be the subject of a book, but I'll give you what I can in one internet page. So, first thing's first: I can't give you help on where you should go. A few places do come to mind, however, in terms of where you shouldn't go. They're obvious: The Middle East, most of Africa, central Asia (because they're dangerous to the uninitiated), and Equatorial Guinea (namely because I can't think of anything to do there). If you've never (really?) left the country, you have two easy options: Canada and Mexico. One thing you'll learn quickly: everyone speaks hand gestures. So even if you don't know how to ask for a meal, you can always point. Canadians particularly enjoy this as it reassures them that we Americans do in fact know that Canada is another country.

So figure out where you want to go. Talk to friends who've been places. Read Outside.

Second, you don't need a passport if you're driving to Canada or Mexico, though if you're flying in, you do need one. But you should have a passport anyway since it'll make you feel important and cool. Visit the Passport Services website ( to find out more about getting one. Expect to pay $85 plus fees for the mug shots you'll need. It takes several weeks to complete the process, so do it early.

Next, answer this question: How much time do I have and how uncomfortable am I willing to be? The travel-money continuum works something like this: The more time you have and the higher your threshold for pain, the cheaper you can go. For example, my brother and I once rode the bus from Lima to Cuzco, Peru, which cost only about $10. Unfortunately, it took us 25 horrific hours and involved a 12-hour push with no pee breaks that caused the unfortunate lad sitting in front of us to soil himself. His mess somehow got all over my brother, who later broke a tooth eating a cheap pizza that came with unpitted olives. If we had had only a week in Peru and a higher budget, we would have splurged for the flight to Cuzco, giving us more time to hike around and find a better place to eat. It's a juggling act. You'll figure it out.

There's a good book out on the market called The Frugal Globetrotter, by Bruce Northam ($17, Fulcrum, 1996). Bruce is THE master of finding cheap ways into anything. (A fake press pass does wonders, he says). The book breaks down how to search for travel bargains, everything from finding cheap airfare to weighing the costs of a train pass. Give that a good read and you'll have a few tricks up your sleeve.

Here are just a few things that you should expect on your first trip out of country. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these truths are self-evident:

You're an American. Everyone else will know this by your shorts and the way you say "What up, G?" The world doesn't work the way you think it does, so relax and enjoy the ride. The bus will eventually come.

Don't talk politics. It's an endgame that will have you losing friends instead of making them. Bring only what you can fit into one small backpack—the kind you can carry on a plane—and nothing more. It's less you'll have to keep track of, especially when running from customs agents in Nepal.

Everyone the world over wants the same things: To eat, feed a family, have a safe place to sleep, and enjoy the company of friends. That means you can safely eat where they eat (look for the food stands where everyone takes lunch; skip restaurants that cater to tourists as they don't expect you to come back). It also means that most people don't want trouble and aren't out to rip you off. Still, carry your money, tickets, and that brand new passport of yours in a belly wallet that sits snug against your skin.

Finally, expect to be shocked, confused, and overwhelmed at having the world as you know it become drastically different and hard to navigate. But don't worry, that headache will go away. It will fade as soon as you figure out the bus schedule, find the juiciest papaya you've ever had, see the sunrise over Mayan temples, or catch a smile from a crazy lady in the market who has no teeth. Suddenly you'll realize the world really isn't so big after all.

Planning a trip of your own? [ask the AA]

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