Where New Grads Can Go Backpacking, Other Than in Europe


The dollar’s low and somebody’s losing out: college students. The American dollar is worth about half a British pound and a little more than half a Euro. Does this mean this year’s crop of recent college grads will go Eurail-less?

Not necessarily. Though student travel in Asia and South American has seen an “uptick,” says Amanda Webb, spokeswoman for STA Travel, “Europe is still our number one seller for summer. Students are finding alternative methods to make their money go further.”

One way to pinch your penny is to plan ahead. Five or ten years ago, “it was just go and explore along the way,” Webb says, but now students are booking their cheap hostels and boarder-crossing bus rides in advance, rather than leaving it to chance.

But if single-engine planes and hostels like Hostel (SNE) are too much for you, kiss Europe “auf weidersen” and try South America and Asia. We asked travel writer extraordinaire Jeff Koyen, as well as Lonely Planet’s staff, for the best places a young sprout can satisfy her wanderlust on the winning side of the exchange rate and for some wallet-friendly travel tips.

Who needs beaches in the South of France? Cambodia has its own coastline and big cities to boot. Angkor Wat is “heavily touristed for a reason,” says Koyen, because it’s a “stunning place,” he says. Phnom Penh, a “Wild West kind of city.” Both places are easy to get by on for $20 a day. You can find $1 meals and “a cheap but dirty room” for $5, Koyen suggests.

The Jasmine Lodge in Siem Reap is an "author's choice" in Lonely Planet’s Cambodia guide, says spokeswoman Rana Freedman. Siem Reap is the gateway to the temples of Angkor and it’s a center for the new wave of visitors passing through each year. The guesthouse costs $2-15. Lonely Planet’s guide calls the Lodge, “A great little guesthouse that goes the extra mile to ensure guests are well looked after; this place has a range of clean fan rooms and some smarter air-con options. The rooftop restaurant has a free pool table.”

To fly via China Airlines from L.A. to Phnom Penh (with one layover) on June 27th will be approximately $1,357.

Landlocked, mountainous and “made for young backpackers,” Laos is “the ultimate chill kind of place,” says Koyen. Young grads can go hiking or river rafting on the same type of $20 a day budget as Cambodia. So far, the country is unblemished by chain stores, he says.

Lonely Planet’s Laos guide suggests a homestay with a Laotian family, because the “‘real Laos’ is village life,” says Freedman. The guidebook says you’ll probably bathe in a stream (meaning, in public!), go squat outside for an outhouse, and eat sticky rice for most meals while sitting lotus-style on mats on the floor. Did we mention Lonely Planet says you’ll be sleeping under a mosquito net and that you should bring your own toilet paper?

To fly via Vietnam Air from L.A. to Vientiane, Laos (with two layovers) on June 27th will be approximately $2,349.

Although Myanmar is under military rule and was hit by a cyclone on May 3, Koyen calls this country one of his favorite places. “I’d go back in a minute,” he says, adding that he considered taking time off from work after the cyclone to volunteer and help.

Can one still travel to Myanmar, though? “I think it's fairly safe to say that much of the tourist services—taxis, guesthouses, buses—will be open soon if they're not already,” says Robert Reid, author of the Lonely Planet Myanmar guide. “And, locals will be happy to see visitors by the summer, I'm sure.”

Even before the cyclone, Myanmar was relatively untouched by tourists, so you’ll be free to enjoy thousands upon thousands of Buddhist pagodas scattered about the country by yourself, Koyen says. “I was there for a month and I saw five foreigners.”

There are no hostels in Myanmar, per se, but you can stay in a guesthouse inexpensively, advises Reid. “Family-run guesthouses are cheap—from $5 per person per night—and come with free giant breakfasts in most places. Private buses are pretty cheap, though fuel prices have sent some prices up in the past six months. If you eat at local curry shops, you can save a lot of money—in some towns that's pretty much all you have to choose from.

“In Mandalay, it's worth spending a bit more—maybe $12 per person—to stay with a family at the Peacock Lodge. In Bagan, go with Nyaung U, where you can get clean rooms for $5 and up. My favorite cheapie in Yangon is the tiny Haven Inn, which was still going strong when I was there a few months ago,” says Reid.
(At this time, MainStreet was unable to find flights to Rangoon, Myanmar’s largest city.)

“If people had their heart set on Spain, go to Argentina,” Koyen suggests. The South American country is an “awesome value” because the country is still recovering from a 2000 currency crash. However, it was a thoroughly modern city before the plunge, so it offers more modern amenities as well as a rich cultural history. Buenos Aires is like a bigger version of Barcelona, Koyen says, and it’s the place to be if you’re digging a European vibe.

Danny Palmeree, author of Lonely Planet's Argentina and Buenos Aires guides, says his favorite hostel is Hostel Carlos Gardel in the San Telmo neighborhood. “It's in a converted century-old house and absolutely beautiful. And the vibe is great.”

To fly via American Airlines (AMR) from L.A. to Buenos Aires with one layover on June 25th is $1,278.

Another alternative to Spain is Guatemala, which has beautiful colonial cities, like Antigua, that cozy up to volcanoes. The Central American country is as cheap as Laos, Koyen says, with $3 meals and the most expensive rooms in many small towns costing about $12 a night.

Freedman from Lonely Planet says she visited Guatemala last year and recommends students hire local guides in Nebaj and hike across the mountains to either Cocop or Acul. “This is a great way give back to this impoverished community as the money from your tour (about $10) not only pays the locals who run the tours but also goes towards community development projects,” she says. “Our guide was fantastic and it was one of the highlights of my trip.”

To fly via United Airlines (UAL) from L.A. to Guatemala City non-stop on June 25th is $712.

Travel Expert Jeff Koyen’s Thrifty Travel Tips:

Don’t Travel On A Credit Card.
A credit card might seem like your safest bet internationally, but you, my friend, are going backpacking and that means leaving behind the comforting bosom of American Express (AXP). But that little village in Guatemala may not take plastic, so bring cash and keep it in your small bag. If you must bring an ATM card with you, “sign on with a bank that won’t charge you international ATM fees,” advises Koyen. He has a friend who got screwed on international transactions.

Eat Local Food But Always Drink Bottled Water
“Talk to people, make friends and eat local food,” Koyen suggests. He eats “street meat,” like chicken on a stick, and says he only got sick from “street meat” once while in Pakistan. But don’t test your luck with local water; just bring Poland Spring in your bag and don’t waste your graduation money on a doctor’s visit.

Pack Light:
“Never pack anything you can live without!” Trust us—you’ll be lugging your bags up and down stairs, so leave your six pairs of shoes at home. Keep your valuables (passport, plane tickets, etc.) in a small bag that is with you at all times, says Koyen, and leave the insignificant stuff like tee shirts in a larger bag that you can be less cautious with.

Don’t Wait for the Next President to Fix the Economy
Go see the world! Koyen says, “Take the time now—there’s always time for work.”



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