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Backpackers' secrets: Top tips for cheap travel

Adopt the mindset of a backpacker and improve your travel savvy. From packing light to finding affordable food and accommodations, backpackers truly know how to travel.
Adopt the mindset of a backpacker and improve your travel savvy. From packing light to finding affordable food and accommodations, backpackers truly know how to travel. Robert Wielaard / AP file
/ Source: Independent Traveler

Imagine a backpacker and you might envision an unanchored youth with well-worn jeans and limitless endurance. But backpacking is about much more than gap-year students and gritty hostels. Backpacking is about adventure and independence — and it's one of the cheapest ways to take a trip, which is why older travelers, travelers on a budget, and even those who prefer private bathrooms and upscale cuisine shouldn't snub the ways of the wily backpacker.

Adopt the mindset of a backpacker and improve your travel savvy. In an uncertain economic environment, the lessons backpackers can teach us about traveling on the cheap are positively priceless. From packing an ultra-light bag (you can rub your six-pound pack in the noses of nickel-and-diming airlines) to finding affordable food and accommodations, backpackers truly know how to travel.

Lesson No. 1: Consider a hostel
As a well-ripened adult, you may fear that your presence in a hostel would be like that of a wrinkly prune in a basket of fresh apples. But if you dread the thought of sharing a bunk bed with a pack of rowdy gap-year youths, you'll be happy to learn that hostels are not just for the young. Older travelers are increasingly booking stays at hostels as international hotel rates rise, and they're finding private rooms and bathrooms, clean beds, and no-reservations-needed accommodations in hostels around the world.

By definition, a hostel offers rugged dormitory-style digs. But as hostels have gained popularity over the years, trendy hostel operators have stretched the definition of hostel to include private suites, fancy food, fashionable decor, swimming pools and even maid service! Some examples include the Oasis Backpacker's Mansion in Lisbon, which offers laundry service, free Internet and gourmet dinners, and Oops! Hostel in Paris, which has stylish modern interiors designed by a renowned graphic decorator.

The trick to snagging a swanky hostel is to know before you go. Check out, or another reputable hotel review site to get a feel for your prospective hostel —because while some hostels resemble trendy boutique hotels with plenty of privacy, others are like the traditional youth hostels of yore, with 10 bodies to a dorm and crowded communal bathrooms.

Lesson No. 2: Use your feet
Backpacking typically requires a great deal of strength and endurance. But if you're not the type to scale mountains or swim across the English Channel, planning a series of walking trips is an accessible way to challenge yourself. As with any physical endeavor, after you've pushed your limits and come out on top, you'll experience a major confidence boost.

Intersperse train or car travel with long walks — you'll get a close and personal view of your location. National parks, medieval cities and scenic coastlines are best experienced on foot. And we probably don't have to mention that walking is the cheapest type of transportation (running's pretty affordable too, but what's the rush?).

If planning's not your forte, book a vacation package that includes walking tours. Elderhostel is a company that offers vacation packages for seniors. You'll find many active packages that include extensive hiking or biking on the Elderhostel Web site. For more ideas, see Walking Tours and Trips.

But before you go walking around the world, make sure you're in shape. Start walking a few months before your trip to get used to the longer distances, and if you have any health conditions, check with your doctor before you embark on a trip that may be physically strenuous. Get good shoes — and don't overlook our next lesson ...

Lesson No. 3: Pack light
To travel like a backpacker, you'll have to pack like a backpacker. Walking long distances is nearly impossible with a rolling suitcase and a bulky carry-on bag. By lightening your load, you'll also avoid those pesky extra baggage fees many airlines are charging for checked luggage.

So how do backpackers spend months traveling the world with only a few pounds of gear on their backs? They pack multi-function items (like pants that turn into shorts and shampoo/conditioner combo bottles), carry a light backpack specifically built to hold more and weigh less, and pack breathable, airy clothes that add little heft to their bags. Get your own backpacking equipment at your nearest travel goods store. One of our favorite travel suppliers is Magellan's.

If you're visiting a major city, research the locations of laundromats. Many hostels and hotels have in-house laundry facilities, too. For an even cheaper alternative, pack portable packets of detergent, wash your clothes in a sink and hang them to dry at night.

For more packing help, see Packing Tips and What Not to Pack.

Lesson No. 4: Go to the grocery store
Packing light is important not only to escape from staggering checked-bag fees, but also so that you will have room in your bag for food. Backpackers seek out eclectic food carts, fresh produce markets and local bakeries.

Especially in European destinations, where fancy restaurants are expensive and authentic local food can be purchased at affordable prices, getting your food from a local grocer is a great idea. Grab a fresh baguette and some Brie in Paris, bring them to the Tuileries Garden for an outdoor lunch, and you've got an authentic Parisian meal with the one of the best views in town.

Lesson No. 5: Shake up your itinerary
Change your itinerary a little. Or a lot. The affordability and flexibility of backpacking allow for lengthy and flexible getaways. Imagine booking a roundtrip flight with no set return date — you can explore your destination at your leisure and return when it feels right. While most of us don't have that sort of unlimited travel time, we can still embrace some spontaneity. Backpackers don't typically chart a detailed itinerary that includes a minute-by-minute overview of their daily activities, and they love changing plans at the last minute. But that doesn't mean that they're against careful planning.

Before your trip, plan for flexibility. Keep your ears open for first-hand recommendations from locals and other travelers — and be ready to mix up your travel schedule if need be. Book a room at a hostel, but bring contact information for other area hostels or B&B's as well. If you're going to a particular city, research nearby destinations that interest you, and make a note of lodging, food and transportation options in the area. When you carry everything you need on your back and are prepared to go where the wind takes you, why not leave room for some spontaneous sightseeing?

Lesson No. 6: Go it alone
Travel buffs who don't have companions to explore the world with or who would prefer to trek independently should take a page from the backpackers' book. The ethos of backpacking is about personal exploration and freedom; it's a mindset that doesn't require a supportive companion to hold your hand.

Are you worried that you can't share your experiences with anyone else on a solo trip? Think again — backpackers know that they can connect with fellow travelers and locals along the way. Travel solo like a backpacker and you may just make a few friends you wouldn't have met if you weren't going it alone.

You'll easily meet other travelers at hostels and at bed and breakfasts, both of which often encourage activities and interaction among their guests. For example, Hostel Inn, a chain of hostels located in South America, offers tango lessons, Spanish classes, city tours and more with accommodations at select locations. Unlike most hotels, hostels typically have common areas where chess games, Scrabble, Ping-Pong or lengthy conversations with other travelers take place. Even if you happen to be the oldest one in the room, don't look at your fellow guests as immature travelers with whom you have nothing in common. You have plenty in common — including your desire to save money, your keen sense of adventure, your capable storytelling abilities and, of course, your love of travel.

For more information on solo travel, read Single Travel: Tips for Going Solo.