Backpacking vs. living abroad: Which one is for you?

Backpacking vs living abroad

So you’ve managed to forge yourself a six-month career break, or perhaps you’re just coming out of school.  You’ve either saved up a ton of money or you plan to do so.  If you’re reading this then you already know you’re going to spend this time and money on the road.  But with so many options to choose from you haven’t made your mind up exactly what to do yet.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways you can “do” travel.  You can pick a region and travel to as many places as possible with the money you have, living out of a backpack for several months.  Or you can choose just one country that you have a special affinity for and live there for the duration of your trip.  The latter might seem less exciting from a distance.  After all, you’ll likely end up working, which was the thing you were hoping to escape.  And why see one country when you can see nine?

There’s no doubt that backpacking offers life-changing travel experiences.  But the power of choosing a country and really integrating with their culture should not be underestimated.  In this blog I’ll take you through some of the factors you should consider if you’re undecided between these two methods of travel.


Cost vs. comfort

On the surface, it might seem like backpacking is a more expensive way to do things because of the costs associated with traveling from place to place.  However, this is not necessarily the case.  Many blogs will show you how you can backpack South America for $1,000 a month or less.  If you stick to cheap hostels and bus travel your money will actually go a long way and you’ll be able to stay on the road for just as long.  To live in Buenos Aires for a month, for example, you can expect to pay up to $1,000 just on rent.  So that helps to put it into perspective.

The trade-off, of course, is that your quality of life will be lower while backpacking.  You’ll end up sleeping in some shady establishments just to make your cash go further.  You’ll have little to no privacy.  The fact that you have to carry everything with you at all times is tiring and leaves you feeling like you have no personal retreat.  Roughing it is all part of the experience though and you certainly won’t be alone.  So if you know really don’t care where you sleep or eat and you’re prepared for the intensity of the experience, you might decide that backpacking is more your thing.


Culture and variety

If you’re a “bucket lister” your heart is probably set on going everywhere in the world.  Backpacking helps you to tick off those items faster.  In 6 months, you could do almost every country in Latin America and return with tales of Machu Picchu, Iguazu Falls and the finest arepas.  This might be your only shot to travel extensively for a while, maybe even ever.  So if you really want to experience all of these places, it might seem a better use of time.

That said, you’re always on the periphery when you’re backpacking.  Because you don’t spend much time in any given place, your understanding of the culture is less developed.  You’ll probably spend most of your time with fellow Americans, Brits or Australians.  The activities you do will be geared towards tourists.  In this respect, as romantic as backpacking seems, you’re still on the outside looking in.  You’re getting a mere snapshot of life in these countries without actually living it yourself.

When you spend time living in a country, you feel more connected to the locals and you do more of the things they do.  You soon feel “accepted” by them, which is a powerful feeling.  You can’t really achieve this as a backpacker because, to the locals, you’re always just a tourist with a dollar sign above your head.


Learning a language

If you’re backpacking in South America you’ll certainly get opportunities to speak Spanish (or Portuguese).  You’ll return more fluent in the language.  However, you will not be immersed in the language.  You’ll probably spend most of your time speaking English with other travelers.  Even hostel staff will speak English with you, because hosting travelers has become their life.  Most of your Spanish will be used to ask for directions, advice, and making small-talk with the locals.

When you live in a city like Lima, Medellin or Quito for an extended period of time, you are going to be immersed in Spanish.  You’ll have to negotiate situations on your own that you never would have come across while backpacking, such as renting apartments or helping someone jump-start their car.  Your friends are more likely to be native speakers.  You might be dating too, which will motivate you to learn Spanish faster.



You’ll earn more friends backpacking than you would living abroad.  In fact, you’ll make so many friends you won’t be able to remember all of them once you’re back.  The beauty of backpacking is that you’ll meet so many people from all over the world and you’ll probably connect with some of them like a house on fire.  After all, they’re here for the same reasons as you and they probably live on the same values.  The rate at which you can strike up a connection with someone while traveling is almost frightening, because you’re doing things that are exciting and unprecedented for the both of you and you might have to go through very intense experiences without knowing each other well.

Still, you’re going to have to get used to saying goodbye.  The friends you make on the road will be off on their path with a moment’s notice, and you very well might never see them again.  If you’re stationed in one city, on the other hand, you can strike up longer-lasting and more profound friendships.  And these people are more likely to continue enriching your life long after you’ve moved on.



You certainly can work while backpacking, and many people do.  Usually they’ll pick up odd jobs in hostels or on farms.  If you’re living the digital nomad life and have your laptop with you, you can also continue writing or doing design work for clients.  However, you might go days without WiFi.  And when you finally get it you might find it’s too patchy to do your work.  You certainly can’t rely on working as a backpacker, whereas when you’re living in one spot you can commit to more deadlines and the result is that you’ll be earning more.

If you’re a little older and you’re concerned about the impact a travel break could have on your career, you might decide that living abroad is better for you.  This way you can keep your career rolling from your new spot.  And when you’re looking for your next job, it’ll be easier to spin in your favour.


So, are you a bucket-lister or would you prefer to live a new life for a while?  Both backpacking and living abroad are enriching and extremely fun ways to spend an interlude in your life.  Which one you choose depends on your personality, your desires and your goals.



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