Travelling on a budget: Why backpacking now is much better than it used to be

Budget airlines. That's all. That's the only thing you have to consider when you're weighing up whether the backpackers of today have things better, or worse, than the backpackers of 20 years ago, or 30 years ago, or even 40.

Because you could easily make the case that it's not as good now. You could say there's social media, which has turned backpacking into a global competition in which everyone is always watching and judging and you never have any sort of privacy or anonymity.

You could say that when everything has already been reviewed on multiple websites, across TripAdvisor and HostelWorld and even Google, there's no more thrill of surprise. You could mention that global tourism is saturated. You could claim kids just aren't adventurous any more, that they're not social any more, that they're not fun any more, that they're not even big drinkers any more.

You could say all of those things. But to me it comes back to those budget airlines. Modern-day backpackers have access to budget airlines, to cheap flights pretty much anywhere in the world. And that puts them ahead.

Consider it. I started backpacking 20 years ago, when there was no Tiger, no Scoot, no Ryanair, no AirAsia. I had to save huge amounts of money to get anywhere interesting. I spent two years saving for flights for my first trip away.

You don't have to do that now. You could get to Thailand or Vietnam for a week's salary. You could get to Europe if you scrimped for a couple of months.

That blows the travel game wide open. All of a sudden the whole world is available to you. All you have to do is commit the time and save the cash and you're on your way, exploring the world, living the backpacking dream.

I often think about this idea of who had things better. There's a trap that's easy to fall into, the same way it is with music or sport or any other cultural touchstone, to believe that things were better back in your day, to reminisce about the greatness of the past and ignore the beauty of the present.

Yes, in some ways it was definitely better to be a backpacker back in the day. You could just disappear if you wanted to. You could go anywhere and be anyone and check back in with the occasional  handwritten letter.


You'd sit around hostel social areas and everyone would talk to each other. Talk! You'd ask other travellers for advice – where have you been, where did you stay, what was it like – rather than just searching for it on Google. You'd take a punt on a destination, just show up and see how you go, rather than having everything locked in in advance.

You'd keep a private journal instead of writing a public blog. You'd barely take photos of anything; you just wouldn't care about photography at all. You'd see travel as the search for experience rather than as a quest for content.

But some things are better now, undeniably.

Hostels are better. Have you been in a modern-day hostel? They're clean and beautiful and thoughtfully designed. They have USB charging points on the bunk beds. They have en suite bathrooms that don't require shower thongs. And they have these things because everyone is reviewing them, constantly, and they need good ratings.

Tours are better. There's a wider range of options available, those that go past the standard boozy 10-days-10-countries whip-arounds of old. Tours have a social conscience now. They have themes. They provoke ideas.

There's also far more possibility for independent travel now. It used to be that you'd do a tour because you didn't know much about the place you were visiting, you wanted to get a feel for it before setting out on your own. Now, you can do all of your research from home, or from the bus on your way to work, or anywhere, really, and then go it alone.

You might also scoff at the connectedness of modern backpackers, at the fact everyone's spending more time conversing with screens than with each other, but those social networks come in handy. You don't just part ways with new friends and forget them now – you meet up with them again in 12 months, or a few years, or whenever you realise you're about to randomly cross paths.

Modern backpackers get to  travel to so many new destinations as well. As the number of travellers worldwide has increased, so has infrastructure, opening up the possibility of visiting places that would once have been thought of as for the hardcore only. Now you can go to Guatemala and Laos, to Morocco and Romania, and barely consider yourself adventurous at all.

And how will you get there? You'll fly. On a budget airline, most probably. With a fare that makes the destination accessible to all.

Some things might have changed for the worse in the backpacking world, but I'll take those cheap flights and that accessibility over just about anything.

Do you think modern-day backpackers have it better or worse? Do you wish you were just starting out now? Or would you prefer the backpacking style of your day?



See also: Cheapskates and sleazebags: The 10 people you'll meet in every backpackers

See also: Twenty-one things you'll only understand if you travelled before 2005

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