10 Reasons to Go Flashpacking the Next Time You Travel
What’s the best way to pack for a year on the road?
Okay, so it’s a trick question. Unless you’re off to tag penguins at a base in Antarctica, there’s simply no need — or even a good reason — to pack for a year.
Eight months ago, my wife Lindsie and I pooled our savings, quit our jobs, rented out our condo, and set off to spend a year traveling the world. But a year’s worth of gear would be impossibly heavy; a year isn’t a vacation, it’s an expedition. So rather than plan (and pack) for all contingencies, we’re flashpacking.
As a flashpacker, you take along a few more tech tools, a few more dollars — and a lot less stuff. (Travel writer Kathleen Krisslip defines flashpacking as “backpacking with bucks and toys,” which is a pretty concise way to sum it up.) In practice, that means no camping gear or sleeping bags (with the exception of a good Victorinox. No clothing that you’re not definitely planning to wear within the next few weeks. No enormous suitcases and oversized backpacks that you have to sit on to zip up.
As a starting point, think laptop, cell phone, camera, good-quality gear locks, basic clothes, and some cards and cash. And that’s about it. Maybe an iron-on badge for your bag.
Sound scary? It’s not. After eight months as a flashpacker, I wouldn’t travel any other way.
Here are ten reasons you should consider approaching your next trip in gloriously lightweight flashpacker style:
1. Luggage is heavy. Anywhere you travel, you’ll find people who packed way too much — they’re the ones standing in the train station looking exhausted and surrounded by bags.
Our trip started in Thailand, so we packed swimsuits and flip-flops. No coats. No boots. No bulky sweaters. We knew we wouldn’t need warm clothes until we’d passed through Southeast Asia — so why lug them through all those airports and hotel lobbies and beachfront bungalows? You won’t be wearing a sweater when eating at a restaurant like this one:
I didn’t even pack a razor; turns out they’re plenty cheap in Bangkok. The day before our flight to Australia, I picked up a toasty hooded sweatshirt (again, in Bangkok) for five bucks.
2. Shopping is fun. If you’ve got everything you need, what’s to do but go out for meals and do tourist stuff? Shopping for shampoo in Siem Reap or a dress shirt in Kuala Lumpur can be one of the most memorable and entertaining experiences you’ll have on the road. (Though I do advise you to avoid shaking hands with any Thai tailors standing in front of their shops; it can take hours — or an inked deal — before they’ll release your numb fingers from their surprisingly vice-like grip.)
While shopping for jeans deep in the maze of an open-air mall in Singapore, Lindsie and I spotted a hairdressing school and decided to give it a try. (Neither of us had had a cut for about three months.) We spent about an hour and a half getting haircuts from the giggling students, then chatting with the owner as he fed us delicious samples of different local fruits. An unforgettable experience for a few bucks, and the haircuts turned out surprisingly well, even if they took forever.
3. Toys are fun. Even though flashpackers pack light, a few lightweight tech toys are central to the experience — meaning a good computer and cell are more than worth the extra weight.
Lindsie and I both write, and I do some online work, so we both opted to bring our MacBook laptops. Even though there are lighter options out there like the Asus Eee PC, I honestly can’t imagine how I’d fare without my usual software (Dreamweaver, Photoshop, the usual MS baloney) and a big fat 120GB drive.
In my case, the computer lets me do some writing, editing, and other online work that brings in a few bucks… but that’s just the start of it. Our photo gallery hit 10,000 this month and will probably double before we get home, and I can store and edit at least most of the shots we’ve taken on the laptop (though we have burned DVD backups and sent them home as well).
Plus we can email, tweet, blog, and use Skype to send cheap texts and make worldwide calls for pennies a minute. And I can keep a few websites backed up offline, then put together new pages and sites to upload as required. As they say at Mastercard: priceless. And the best part is that we can do it all from a cafe in Montmartre if we want to.
Along with the laptops, we’ve got a few good-quality cable locks, a 2GB Sandisk USB memory stick (for backups and computer-to-computer transfers), two cameras (a little Olympus and a big honking Nikon D80), and my phone, which doubles (or I guess quintuples) as an MP3 player, radio, alarm clock, and backup-backup camera.
4. Plans change. One of the great things about flashpacking is that you can research and book pretty much any form of transport and accommodation — from pretty much anywhere. That means if Ryanair offers a $0 sale on flights from Frankfurt to Madrid, you can change your travel plans to incorporate a little more tapas and Picasso. And you can research and book it from the hotel bar. Which we did.
We took advantage of Cambodia’s monsoon season to book tickets for five separate train rides through France — and find free and low-cost accommodations through The Couchsurfing Project and Owners Direct — all from our bed in a little seaside bungalow. (Tip: If your French is up to it, or if you don’t mind spending lots of time on Google Translate, you can book French rail tickets for WAY less than Eurail charges on SNCF.)
5. You change. What seemed like a great destination idea six months ago might start feeling a little stale before you even get there… if, say, you’re sick of beaches and looking for something more cultural. Or if you’re sick of culture and ready to party. Or if you’re hung over and looking for someplace quiet.
Flashpacking means leaving without an itinerary, or at least without a full one. Not only does this let you change your plans to reflect your changing moods and tastes as the journey progresses; it also lets you take advantage of any serendipitous discoveries you make along the way.
For example, after learning that some family friends from London were traveling and leaving their flat empty, we changed our plans midstream. A few emails later, we had free (and beautiful) accommodations for a week in London. (Thanks again, Joan and Paul!)
6. Traveling light doesn’t mean leaving EVERYTHING behind. If you do any kind of work that’s based on creativity and communication (as opposed to, say, a labor job), you can probably bring a little of it along with you. This might mean using skills you’ve picked up on the job to consult or freelance — even if you’re just helping friends back home with a few side projects.
While on this trip, I’ve edited two new travel anthologies, kept a travel blog, published an eBook, launched a few new business blogs for friends, redesigned a website, and even coordinated a major marketing launch for a client’s business by email. I’m not getting rich (I wish!), but I’m keeping up the momentum and doing work that interests me — and I do most of it from hotel rooms an hour or two at a time after spending the day exploring a new city. If I make some money for tapas and drinks doing it, so much the better.
Bringing a laptop lets you get some work done — plus it lets you spend rainy evenings writing long emails to friends back home, designing a web page for your dream business, drafting the first chapter of your novel, editing raw footage into a trailer for your next film, or pretty much whatever else you fancy. It keeps you in touch and gives you the tools and storage to keep up the momentum on whatever projects matter to you.
7. Packing light lets you splurge on heavy stuff that MATTERS. In our case, that’s a Nikon D80 with a couple of lenses. It’s not lightweight by any stretch of the imagination, and probably weighs as much as a few dozen of those ultra-thin phones with Zeiss lenses and decent zoom. But there’s just no substitute when you’re in position for that one great shot.
(Yes, those are fried crickets, and yes, Cambodians love them.)
Packing light also means you can stuff a few bottles of French wine or some Balinese sculptures into your pack without worrying that it’ll bump you over a discount airline’s weight allowance — which we’ve found can be as low as 15 kilos (Ryanair).
8. People miss you. International cell calls are deadly expensive. Payphones can be scarce, complicated, and expensive even if you’re using a calling card. And while Internet cafes are great (and plentiful), they can be crowded, dirty, expensive, and like payphones, difficult to find.
And all these problems are sorry excuses for falling out of touch with the people who matter to you.
For keeping connected with friends, family, and work contacts, I love the convenience of having a laptop along with me. I can write a few dozen messages on Apple Mail at my leisure, then connect for a few minutes at a wifi hotspot to send them all and download my new email. When I’ve got a bit longer, I can Skype my mom at her farmhouse in rural British Columbia or use Adium, a great multi-client chat tool, to see if anyone’s available to chat on Windows, Google, AOL, or other chat networks.
9. There is downtime. Sometimes there’s no choice but to wait somewhere — in reception, in your hostel lobby, in an airport lounge. You can either twiddle your thumbs and read a magazine, or you can geek out and fire up the laptop.
For my downtime reading material, I use Google Reader, along with Gears, which lets me download up to a thousand new posts on my favorite blogs so I can read them at leisure when there’s nothing more interesting to do.
10. Flashpacking gets better every year. More hostels and hotels are catering to the flashpacker market than ever before, with free wifi connections getting easier to find all the time. Lindsie and I have found brilliant hangouts in the most unlikely places — like the Blue Pumpkin Bakery in Siem Reap, Cambodia, with its free wifi, delicious breakfasts, and all-white, ultramodern Clockwork Orange-style lounge.
For better or worse, western culture is creeping into every corner of the global village. That means you can find the comforts of home at your destination, or better, you can try out the locals’ comforts of home instead. Don’t worry if you didn’t pack your flip-flops — if you need some, they’re out there.
More about flashpacking: Flashpacking Wiki Travel Guide on Travellerspoint.com.