How to plan a backpacking trip through Asia

One of the comments that I get frequently when I tell about my trips is that people would love to do the same, but they have no clue how to book a trip like that. It can seem quite daunting to go to Asia for an x amount of weeks whereby you have to arrange everything yourself. I personally am the person that prefers to have more or less a plan beforehand, but I know many people that plan as they go. It depends on the person you are, and also what you want to see.

But let’s start with the basics, whichever option suits you better, certain things need to be arranged from home. The most notably being of course your flight. So you have decided you want to go to Asia, but where should you fly to? If you look into long-haul flights you will soon realize that there are a few airports that are mainly used for flights to and from Europe: Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Denpasar (Bali) and several airports in China. However, the most commonly arrival airport in Asia is Bangkok. Because most airlines fly on Bangkok you tend to find the best prices and deals for Asia for Bangkok. Check my article on how to find a ticket to see which websites could help you finding a ticket.

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Mabul, Borneo

As a general rule it can be said that long-haul tickets such as Bangkok are cheapest the earlier you book them. Additional savings can be made if you fly outside the main season (Christmas, July and August) with a ticket price of around 650 euros. In the main season add 200-300 euros.  Both times when I went to Asia I booked my ticket for the summer around February/March. It is definitely worth it to look around Europe a bit, since there can be massive price differences between countries (for example Amsterdam and Dusseldorf).

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Chiang Mai, Thailand

For me the most exiting moment is actually booking my ticket; I always get nervous when I hoover with my finger over my mouse to press “purchase”. Once you have booked your ticket there is no way back and the actual fun and planning can start. I am a slight nerd when it comes to this, but I prefer setting up a quick excel sheet with the actual arrival and departure date. This provides me with a good overview of the actual amount of days that I have. A common mistake made by many backpackers is to squeeze too much into a holiday. A lot of people forget that traveling actually takes a lot of time, waiting for transport, and transport that is usually slower than that we are used too.

So once I have my excel sheet with arrival and departure day I start looking around to see what places I would like to visit. I make use of websites, books, tv programs, blogs etc. and I make a long list of all things that look interesting to me. Once I have this massive list I start to see if there are some places which makes for easy combining (Kuala Lumpur and Singapore can be combined easy; Singapore and Seoul slightly less….

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Mabul, Borneo

Once you have a list of places that looks more or less reasonable (depending of course on how much time you have) there are two options: seeing how you can combine these cities either by bus or train. This has the advantage that you see a lot and meet local people, but it can take a very long time. If you are pressed with time, or you prefer a quick travel, there are many airlines connecting most destinations in Asia. My favorite airline is Air Asia, it is reliable airline with good planes, an extensive network and very affordable prices. There are tons of local airlines around, but quality can be shaky. So if Air asia doesn’t fly to your intended destination other reliable airlines are Fireflyz, Jetstar and Thai Airways.

By checking transport connections you might realize that some places don’t connect that easy  and your itinerary needs to be adjusted. Event hough you might not book the transportation right now, it is worth taking it into account when you create your ideal route. If you base your route more or less on this you can save yourself so much time once you are actually on the road and make it to all your places on the list. 

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Mabul, Borneo

Once I have figured this out I more or less “plan” by trip in excel, so that I have a good overview of all the places I intend to visit and if I have enough time in each city. Again, you don’t need to book everything, but it might be useful if you for example want to do something which needs a permit (see how to get your diving certificate abroad. Because I had looked into my planning and made reservations two months in advance, I was able to get one of 8 permit to dive in Sipadan, a nature reserve between Borneo and the Philippines.

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Railay Beach, Thailand

Once I have a good overview of my ideal route and dates I decide if I actually already need to pre-book items such as flights, hotels, or the above mentioned diving. I thing I can recommend everybody is to book at least a hotel for when you arrive. I arrived a few years ago in Bucharest without having booked a hotel, and it turned out the entire city was sold out, and experience I don’t want to have again….

The final step in my process once I have made my planning for my trip is just to sit back and have all the pre-fun of a holiday; getting my travel guides and read up on all my destination.

I realize that this might be too much planning for a lot of people. If you are planning to take a 6 month trip this system is not feasible. However, if you only have three weeks making a planning ahead might be a good idea to make sure you see everything you want to see. 

Do

  • Look for your return ticket far ahead; try to fly before or after the high season, and be flexible with your departure airport.
  • Try to come up with as many places you want to see before plotting your ultimate trip . Based on your ideal list you can see which route makes most sense.
  • Take enough time in each destination and take into account that traveling in Asia always takes more time then you expect.
  • Decide if there are certain items you really don’t want to miss and book these already beforehand.
  • Book a hotel for your first night after you land
  • But most of all enjoy your trip!

Don’t

  • try to put too much in one trip, it is meant to be a holiday! You can always come back
  • Try to save money by using a very local shady airline
  • Book your entire trip before hand, some room for flexibility and spontaneity is needed
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Ko Phangan, Thailand
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