Planning and Packing Right: A Conversation with the Savvy Backpacker

July 28, 2014
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Sometimes the hardest part of traveling happens even before setting out on your trip–planning and packing. Sure, these are not exactly as fun as seeing the world, but doing them right is vital if you want to have fulfilling travels. The Savvy Backpacker, a popular blog run by an American couple named, Susan and James, address these issues in great detail, giving readers easy-to-follow guidelines and making all of these tasks a lot easier.

I got in touch with Susan to learn more about her past travels and what being a backpacker means to her.

Rachel Sales: I understand that not only did you and James live in France for a while, but that you studied abroad in France during college. How did France first become one of your passions? What attracts you to living there?

Susan: I did study abroad during college (Strasbourg, France and Quebec, Canada)! I also taught English at a high school in northern France for 7 months. I started learning French in middle school because I wanted to visit Paris, and I’ve loved it ever since. I took my first trip to Paris when I was 16 and I’ve constantly been finding ways to come back. There’s something about the French language and culture that I just can’t get enough of.

When I was a teacher I spent a lot of time traveling around France, and while I absolutely love Paris, there are so many amazing regions to discover. I love that every place has a unique specialty (usually food!) and history. We’ve recently moved to Virginia so my husband can finish his Masters degree and we both miss living in Paris so much. We’re definitely plotting our return!

Rachel: In your perspective, how does backpacking differ from other types of traveling?

Susan: To me backpacking is a no-frills way to travel. You need to be prepared to pack light because you’re going to have a rough time if you can’t carry all your stuff up a few flights of stairs. That means sometimes swapping style for practicality.

Most backpackers are forced to seek out the cheaper restaurants and less “touristy” things. However, these are usually the places that locals frequent so I view it as a good thing.

But backpacking also connects you directly to other travelers — especially if you stay in hostels. It’s great getting to know people, albeit briefly, from all across the globe. That is something you normally don’t get to do when you stay in hotels or rental apartments.

Rachel: It seems like you and James are expert backpacking trip planners. Before you set out on a new adventure, do you plan everything ahead of time? What, if anything, do you leave unplanned?

Susan: It really depends on the type of trip we’re taking but in general we only plan the major things like transportation — especially if it’s an extended backpacking trip. We can save quite a bit of money by booking a few weeks ahead. However, depending on how much time we have when traveling, we’ll also leave our destinations a bit up in the air. It’s nice to be able to stay a day longer or leave a day earlier, depending on how much we like the city.

As far as day-to-day planning is concerned we don’t do a huge amount of planning. We’ll spend a little time seeing the kind of things we’d like to see/do but that just serves as a rough guideline. Part of the fun is being spontaneous.

Sometimes we’ll hop online and jot down a few restaurant options that are near where we plan to visit but we’ll often get tips from hostel workers.

Rachel: What has been one of the greatest challenges you’ve encountered during your travelers? What has been one of the greatest highlights?

Susan: One of the greatest challenges we’ve encountered is the weather! We were trying to get from Bruges to Amsterdam when a snowstorm hit western Europe. We were able to make it to Brussels, but all other trains were canceled. The most frustrating part? There wasn’t even snow on the ground! We found a hostel for the night and headed back to the train station the next day. We changed trains about 5 times, but we ultimately made it to Amsterdam about a day and a half late.

On a related note, one other challenge is that things will go wrong. You can’t avoid it but you can control how you react. You’ve got to be able to go with the flow or you’re going to get stressed out.

One of the greatest highlights has been meeting new people. I couch-surfed for two weeks in southern France and met the most wonderful and interesting people. James backpacked by himself for an entire month and really enjoyed all the people he was able to meet while going from hostel to hostel.

Rachel: What travel items do you always take on a backpacking trip?

Susan: This might sound weird…but travel toilet paper is a must! I also always make sure to pack sunscreen, copies of my passport, comfy walking shoes, extra socks, a water bottle, and an umbrella. I like to pack a variety of clothes that can be paired up together, including a cardigan, even in the summer. You never know what the weather in Europe is going to be like!

Rachel: What sort of preparations should women travelers specifically make before heading on a backpacking trip?

Susan: Know what areas are not great to be in at night.  Get an idea of the layout of the city before you arrive. Always look like you know exactly where you’re going, even if you don’t.  If you’re traveling alone, it’s best not to arrive super late at night. Finding your hostel will be much easier if it’s still daylight. Ignore strangers who talk to you on public transit/on the street. This might seem mean, but it’s better to have safety over courtesy. Make friends at your hostel instead.

Savvy Backpacker Susan comes prepared for her travels
Savvy Backpacker Susan comes prepared for her travels.

Rachel: How do you and your husband share responsibilities when preparing for your travels, and once on the road? How are your travel styles similar/different?

Susan: James is great at researching, so we’ll usually discuss some destination ideas, and he’ll do his magic figuring out when to go and how to get there. Once we’re on the road, I’m the organizer. I make sure we have our tickets/travel info and that we leave on time. I am a HUGE planner, but James has taught me how to go with a the flow and plan a little less.

Rachel: Please feel free to add anything else you’d like to share with the Pink Pangea community.

Susan: My best advice: go! We see a lot of people who have trouble deciding if they should go and if they can afford it. You absolutely will not regret spending money on traveling. Also, try all of the food. It might seem scary/weird, but you never know, you might like it. At the very least you’ll be able to say you ate snails in Paris.


Planning and Packing Right: A Conversation with the Savvy Backpacker top photo by Unsplash. 

About Rachel Sales

Rachel Sales is a co-founder of Pink Pangea.

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