The Dubious Ethics of Travelling Cheap: Is Budget Travel Selfish?

Young, broke and full of dreams – travelling around a foreign land with little more than a hole in a pocket.

I’ve been a budget traveller for my whole backpacking career. It has been wonderful understanding that you don’t, in fact, need to be rich in order to travel – by staying in hostels, cooking for myself and doing free tours, I’ve managed to save a lot and keep going to all these wondrous places that definitely have made an envious troll on Instagram question whether I have a sugar daddy.

Nope. Saved all the money myself, spent it sparsely.

Budget travel gives more people the chance to see the world – but is it always good?

Camino de Santiago

The first time I realised the potential problem with budget travel

When I was preparing to walk Camino de Santiago, one of the biggest issues I needed to take into account was money. I had a couple of thousand saved: not enough to airlift me out of a ravine but enough to pay for a hotel room and a steak in a pinch. But as a freelancer, my month-to-month salary is always TBA, and knowing this I wanted to be able to walk the Camino as cheaply as possible.

You wouldn’t think that travelling on a budget affects anyone else than you and your own comfort; but sometimes it does.

As I planned my budget, I took to a Camino-specific Facebook group to ask them for advice. This was a whole different demographic than the one I usually deal with when I travel. Many travellers I meet are young, in their 20s or early 30s, staying in hostels and eating street food or cooking their meals to save a penny, people who’ve quit their jobs to travel the world for a year or students on a holiday.

But the people in this group were different. Most of them were older, most coming to Spain on a holiday break from their job, most of them having planned the trip and saved for it for months or even years.

I asked how much I should be paying for donativos. (Donativos are donation-based hiker’s hostels that have sometimes – WRONGLY – been dubbed free since they don’t have fixed rates but you pay what you can.) I didn’t want to be shortchanging these establishments that for many represent the very soul of the Camino.

But many saw this as a great opportunity to lecture anyone who might be reading about the importance of paying and how some donativos had been forced to turn into private, paying accommodations because some pilgrims treated them like free hotels or only left a few euros in the donation bin.

I wrote about this in an Instagram caption back in February, stating:

Almost every post that’s looking for tips on how to walk as cheaply as possible is met with varying degrees of backlash: from suggesting that they should walk a shorter distance to afford it, to discouraging them from doing it at all.

I partly understand their point. Walking the camino on an extreme budget can result to the walkers taking advantage of the system – e.g. staying for free in “donativos” that operate in donation basis – but at the same time, the trail should welcome everyone. Not just those who have saved the whole year for this one holiday but also to those who are travelling long term, are students or have low incomes; in general, to people who do need to save money.’

The comments on that picture seemed to largely agree with me: there is nothing wrong with “roughing it” – as long as your trip is still self-funded, you’re not taking advantage of anyone else and locals still get their fair share.

 (Wondering how to actually walk on a low budget? Read my Camino budget guide here.)

 

Albergues on the Camino

“You’re giving us all a bad name”

Camino de Santiago might be a bad example to give if we want to pose the question: Is budget travel selfish? After all, the Camino is a pilgrimage whose principles are rooted in helping others along and making the route accessible for even those with less money. What rings true for the Camino, might not apply to regular backpackers.

(Of course we might question if this principle still applies as less and less religious or spiritual pilgrims walk the way and more “regular travellers” like me decide to walk the Camino.)

Back in 2014, I read an article called “I hate backpackers” and wrote about it on my Finnish-speaking university blog. While the author of the blog post guarantees that he doesn’t really hate backpackers, he does say that the stereotype of an elephant-pant wearing, funny-smelling, pseudo-spiritual hippie on a gap year is an easy target. Why?

“But backpackers are by definition among the planet’s most fortunate people. Unlike most everyone else, they are able to spend a good portion of the most productive and physically fit bits of their lives knocking around the world and doing inordinate quantities of shrooms.”

For all my backpacking trips, I have always run into the same stereotype: of a rich kid on a gap year finding themselves. I say “rich” in a relative sense. I wouldn’t call myself rich: I grew up middle class and I currently have only about three thousand euros in savings. But compared to a grandma in Bangladesh that makes about 50 euros per week collecting plastic? Hell yeah I’m rich.

When I started backpacking seven years ago, the pain points of backpacker cheapness were mostly centred around practices of haggling. Haggling is popular especially in South East Asian countries – in fact, it’s encouraged. But many cheap backpackers eventually find themselves haggling over fifty cents for some meaningless knick-knack while blowing ten dollars for drinks in the evening.

See, ya’ll giving all of us a bad name.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

The cheap backpacker of the past

Katie from Two Wandering Soles wrote about the same thing a few years ago: ‘On one hand, being a traveler – no matter how tight of a budget you stick to – means you have disposable income of some sort. In other words, all travelers are privileged–.

On the other hand, she reminds that most Western travellers do get ripped off in cheaper countries. On local markets, you might pay a 500% markup for a souvenir compared to a local; in some countries, such as India, charging more for foreigners to enter temples and palaces is literally a written rule. Knowing this, haggling does seem reasonable.

‘I think one of the biggest thing we as travelers need to remember is that we are visitors in another country. Remember that wherever you are, people deserve to be paid a fair wage for their labor. Before your travels, do some research and find out what is a fair price to pay for a service and use that knowledge to barter respectfully,’ Katie concludes.

Of course cheapskating mostly affects backpackers’ own comfort. Sleeping in the worst hostels to save a euro. Eating noodles for dinner every night. Washing underwear by hand in the bathroom sink to avoid the 2 dollar wash fee. These are things that mostly inconvenience backpackers themselves and make our parents roll their eyes: ‘Well, I guess when you’re young…’

The stereotypical shoestring backpacker used to be obnoxious enough as it was. (I surely have been one of them.) But as travel has become more accessible with decreased flight prices, better transportation infrastructure and the pure attitude of CAN and WILL, more people are travelling now than ever. And somehow people started thinking that instead of a luxury, travel is something everyone has a right to do.

Cue begpackers.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

What begpacking is

Begpacking comes from combining begging with backpackers.

Begpackers are backpackers that rely on other people to fund their travels. You’ll find them sitting on the street with a cardboard sign saying “Help me travel the world!” or “For my world trip 🙂 “, sometimes selling photos from their travels, hand-made jewellery or hugs.

You could also call it begpacking when someone makes a GoFundMe account to gather money for their trip. You know, instead of getting a job and saving.

(Some might say that influencers travelling the world and trying to stay in hotels and eat in restaurants for exposure fall into the category of luxury begpacking, but that’s a whole another discussion.)

Begpacking is unfortunately becoming more prevalent, with countries like Thailand and Indonesia planning to screen travellers entering their countries more scrutinously which in turn might make it harder for bona fide travellers to enter. Some governments have said that they will start sending begpackers to their respective embassies to find the help they need, if they need help at all.

These begpackers are reportedly almost without exception white Westerners, hailing from countries like Russia, Ukraine, Australia and the UK.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Why begpacking is bad

Begpackers are taking money away from locals that need it more than foreigners do. Sure, you could argue that you are not obligated to donate to them. However, because they are foreigners, both travellers and locals are more inclined to give money to them than to local beggars – they often think that if you’re a wealthy Westerner but have somehow ended up begging on the street, you must be in REAL trouble.

They’re not only taking money away from other beggars. Monthly salaries in these countries are often so low that by accepting donations from locals in countries like Vietnam or Thailand, they might be putting a whole local family in dire straits.

Strangely, begbackers seem to be most prevalent in developing countries that are already extremely cheap for foreign travellers – I’ve seen them in Tbilisi, Georgia too, where a bed in a hostel costs about 3 euros per night and a full meal about 4-5 euros. There is NO EXCUSE to be begging in a country as cheap as that.

The other side of the story

Some might argue that the colour of your skin and your foreigner’s status doesn’t mean that you have funds. Many of these begpackers are Ukranian and Russian, coming from countries that restrict their citizens’ opportunities to travel and providing relatively poor wages. For them, travel might have seemed like an unobtainable dream before coming up with this scheme.

Travel is the new cool. When you see everyone doing it, it’s only natural that you want to participate. So I do have a hint of empathy towards these people.

However, travel has never been a right – it is the ultimate privilege.

Travelling, whether you’re vacationing at a resort or backpacking through a mountain range, is not a necessity for life. Food is. Clean water is. Shelter is. And many people in the countries that these begpackers are most prevalent in have none of those things.

Hanoi, Vietnam

The grey areas that I’ve wondered about…

Does busking and selling goods on the streets count?

The problem with earning money on the streets of a foreign country, whether you’re begging or selling goods, is still that it is inherently illegal: you’re working in a country where you don’t have the right to work.

I’ve heard some say that it’s “not as bad” if you’re providing some sort of value instead of just blatantly asking for money. Maybe. But most begbackers are still selling trinkets similar to those that locals are selling, again taking money from those that actually need it.

I’m a little on the fence about busking. I’d say, if you’ve got the necessary permits, go for it. But maybe do this in wealthier countries; I met a lot of people making a nice side income on busking in Australia.

What do you think, are busking and selling things as bad as plain begging?

Bangkok, Thailand

Does hitchhiking count?

I’ve sometimes seen hitchhiking bundled up with the rest of this fuckery. This, of course, puts me in an awkward position since I’m an avid advocate for hitchhiking.

However, I don’t think hitchhiking can be lumped up in the same category as begging for travel funds. When someone picks you up on the road, you’re not taking anything away from anyone, and you’re not asking the driver to go out of their way to help you. Most of the time it’s a win-win situation: I get a ride to wherever I’m going, and the driver has some company. Many people who pick me up have also done hitchhiking before themselves, and by stopping for me they are paying back good karma.

I’ve also heard some people suggest that you should at least chip in for gas. In my opinion you don’t; but of course this is just me. In a lot of countries that I’ve hitchhiked in, the culture is based on hospitality and the drivers wouldn’t even accept my coins. In Albania and Kosovo, drivers would buy me snacks at gas stations and not allow me to even pay for their coffee on rest stops.

Do you disagree? Come fight me in the comments.

Views over Tbilisi, Georgia

If you’d like to read more about the begpacking phenomenon and see some photos of people actually doing it, click through these links:

The Tea: Begpacking To Travel by Fidel (Ohio 2 Ohayo)

People In Asia Are Sick Of Western ‘Begpackers’ Asking Locals To Fund Their Travels For Them by Li Nefas (Bored Panda)

Millennial backpackers are begging for money from locals in Southeast Asia by Ivan De Luce (Business Insider)

Bali Will Send Begpackers Back To Their Embassies at 9gag

Bangkok, Thailand is a backpacker favourite

How to travel the world ethically as cheaply as possible

Travelling with no money is a no-go. However, you don’t have to be rich to travel the world – you just have to be financially savvy.

Travelling on a budget is often adventurous and fun, and just because your mum doesn’t understand it, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it.

If you’ve working with a low budget, your first stage of travel planning should consider the destination. For example, South East Asia, Central and South America and Eastern Europe are very budget-friendly destinations to visit. While the flight might be expensive, booking it is worth it if you’re planning to vacay for a few weeks since your costs on the other end will be very low.

There are also many options for prolonging your trip cheaply – Couchsurfing, Workaway, house sitting etc.

On the other hand, you could just look into travelling for a shorter time.

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

“Tourist dollars”

Your Western money can have a big effect on local communities. Jane Harkness, who grew up on a touristic island, wrote this for Medium: ‘Tourist dollars put a down payment on my parent’s house, and then they paid the mortgage. Tourist dollars started my college fund, and later, they helped me contribute. Tourist dollars put food on the table and clothes on my back and paid the electric bill.’ 

In less wealthy countries, well – your money is much needed. By buying local souvenirs, eating in small restaurants – not chains! – and taking tours with local operators (versus taking tours with expatriates or foreign companies), you’re pouring money directly into an economy that needs tourism to grow.

Even in more affluent destinations like Western European cities or Australia, you can always direct your money to help small businesses, charity shops and organisations – all operators that might be getting pushed aside to make space for another McDonald’s.

So if you want to be an ethical budget traveller, don’t forget to leave some money behind.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Budget travel is fun, adventurous and allows more people access to this wonderful world – but check your privilege. If you find yourself haggling over fifty cents with a local vendor, you might be heading down the wrong path.

Please don’t go travelling if you don’t have enough money for it.

 

Any thoughts? Are you a budget traveller? Do you think budget travel can be selfish?

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