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The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG Contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.
No great backpacking adventure is complete without a good dose of adrenaline. Luckily, every backpacker trail has a stop along the way that has earned its reputation as the local adventure sports hub (think: rock climbing, bungee jumping and paragliding). However, these destinations are notorious budget busters with an endless array of money pits. Of course, it’s still possible to experience a city’s iconic thrills without going completely broke. Just follow these guidelines, and you’ll be able to visit adventure capitals of the world without emptying your wallet.
Experience the Signature Adventure
You’re here. You shouldn’t walk away without at least one epic experience.
Adventure sports hubs are typically famous for a few specific activities, with tangential recreational options cropping up specifically to cash in on the adventure crowd.
So choose to do the one iconic activity a destination is best known for, especially if it’s something geologically unique to that region. This means canyoning the Chli Schliere in Interlaken, Switzerland, or rafting the mighty Zambezi River at Victoria Falls.
Paying several times your daily budget on one activity may be tough to swallow, so you need to make it count. It’s possible to make up the budget elsewhere, but give yourself a pass for this. You don’t want come back from Pokhara, Nepal without having gone parahawking, right? (Yes, paragliding with trained hawks is a real thing.)
Don’t Feel Obligated to Repeat Bucket List Items
Got your photo bungee jumping in Queenstown, New Zealand? Check. Did you see the Palm and World Islands while skydiving over Dubai? Check. While I highly recommend taking these leaps — especially if the thought scares you as much as it did me — taking that plunge a second time is rarely the same.
Unless you really, really enjoy these expensive activities, don’t feel compelled to do them again — especially if you’re monitoring your spend or saving to splurge on a single adventure.
Personally, I’ll go white water rafting anywhere that has a river worthy of it, but I’ve probably jumped out of all the airplanes I need to in my life.
Go on Free Adventures
Fortunately, the world’s most famous adventure spots are often exceptionally beautiful. Which means extraordinary — and free — hiking trails. Ask a hostel employee or manager to tell you the easiest and cheapest way to get to a trailhead, or check out the app what3words: a geocoding tool that can help you identify specific locations all around the planet.
My personal favorite hikes tend to lead to waterfalls, where a dip in the river or natural pool is well earned. Even better if there’s a rock ledge you can climb up to and jump off of. It’s best to follow a local’s lead though: You don’t want to land on a submerged rock.
Don’t Book Tours Through a Hostel
Normally, hostels are unbiased sources of budget-friendly information. But in some adventure towns, this can get skewed, as many tour operators give kickbacks to booking agents, so agents push you in the direction of a specific company or experience. The “down payment” is often their commission.
Check online reviews, and ask other backpackers for recommended tour operators. When you find one you like, inquire about a discount for booking direct — and at least be sure to compare prices before making arrangements with a hostel or hotel.
Skip the Gimmicks
In every adventure hub, there are vendors trying to piggyback off your adrenaline kick. With a mid-range price tag, you may not think much of it. Or you may see these as a cheap alternative to the signature adventure. Don’t do it.
Ropes courses and zip lines are cool, but unless you’re in a destination famous for these attractions, don’t shell out for a thrill you can find elsewhere (and at a better price). And as much fun as rolling down a hill inside a giant inflatable ball looks, a 30 second Zorb ride isn’t your best use of $30. Trust me.
Choose Cheaper Hubs
Expensive countries will have expensive adventures, and more affordable countries will have cheaper adventures. So if Switzerland isn’t in the budget, head to Bovec, Slovenia instead. And while Pucon, in Chile, might hold the South American adventure crown, prices in Banos, Ecuador are more friendly to budget travelers. We have plenty of adventure destinations within the US, too, but south of the border in Veracruz, Mexico, travelers can find plenty of thrills with much friendlier price tags.
Travelers should be cautious, however, as cheaper destinations do tend to be more lax on regulations and restrictions — and that’s not something you want to mess with where your well-being is concerned. However, there are plenty of legitimate and safe tour operators. Just do you research and pick an operator and activity that’s highly rated, even if it’s a few dollars more. Never follow the cheapest hawk into a random shop.
Mountain Bike riding down “Death Road” in Bolivia is a good example. You can find local outfits charging $50 while the highest rated shops charge more than $100, but a quality bike really can mean the difference between life and death. Dying on death road is no way to go.
The Bottom Line
Backpackers interested in traveling on a budget shouldn’t be discouraged from traveling to adventure destinations — or taking advantage of the signature sport. But there are plenty of ways to manage the experience so it doesn’t cost more than you can afford.
In addition to fee-free hikes, there are plenty of other activities that can cost nothing, but they do require experience to make them safe. Mountain biking, rock climbing and bouldering are all great examples of adventures that can be free with your own equipment, but if you’re a beginner, you’ll want to hire a guide.
Finally, don’t be afraid to chase that rush. With a highly-rated tour operator and your own common sense, you’ll be fine. Statistically speaking, you’re safer jumping off a bridge than you are riding to it in the back of a pickup.
If you’re looking to back that pack up and get some guidance, send your questions to email@example.com !
Feature photo courtesy of Ultimate Queenstown.
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