I’ve been a budget traveller for most of my adult life. Ten years ago when I first hit the road, I didn’t really wonder “Is budget travel ethical?”.
All I wanted at that time, as a young lad with a couple of hundred bucks in my sock and a battered tent protruding from my backpack, was to travel and sincerely experience the world. I didn’t have much money though, and that meant that sleeping rough, eating cheap, and being careful how I spent money was the obvious and logical choice.
However, travel itself has changed a lot over the last decade. These days, we place much greater scrutiny on certain practices of travel, particularly budget travel. Hence, today, friends, we’re going to explore this conundrum – Is budget travel ethical?”
Spoiler alert: Fuck yeah, it is!
Budget travel is amazing, ethical, and good for the world – in this post I’m going to explain EXACTLY why.
But, let’s get this out of the way nice and early – there is always a small group of douchebags ruining the fun for all the good humans. Yes, we’re going to talk about begpacking too. I don’t necessarily want to talk about begpacking, but it needs to be discussed because a lot of honest folks get mixed up in the debacle.
So, welcome to the wormhole, peeps. The ethics and excellence of budget backpacking: that’s what we’re discussing today.
Ultimately, budget travel is an amazing experience that gives more people the chance to see the world. It’s also an experience that will teach you to grow and better yourself. So let’s talk about how to do it RIGHT.
Budget Travel: What’s the Score?
Probably the most wide-spread myth about travelling is that you need to be rich to see the world. False! However, many folks still fall into the trap of believing this…
But I wanted to inspire MORE broke backpackers. I wanted to inspire more young and budding adventurers to grab their pack, lace their boots, and go live the life they’d always dreamt of – a life filled with amazing experiences that really don’t cost much at all.
Enter budget travel.
Travelling on a budget is adventurous. Limitations breed creativity: a lack of funds makes you carefully consider your transport, food, and accommodation options. It forces you to make wiser decisions:
“Perhaps, I don’t need to get absolutely shitfaced tonight… Maybe I could just take a nighttime stroll through town instead and snap some photos?”
Budget travel also results in a more authentic connection with local cultures. Critics may suggest that those who take the cheaper road are abusing their privilege, however, is travelling by way of 5-star resorts, tourist restaurants, and taxi drivers any more ethical?
Budget travellers, while bringing in less overall gross revenue, live local. They stay at the family-run guesthouse, eat at the steaming hole-in-the-wall eateries, and haggle their heart out with the tuk-tuk drivers (or just catch the bus). Budget travellers and backpackers are the tourists that ACTUALLY put money in the hands of local communities all the while actually making real cross-cultural connections with local people. If the only form of travel we considered ethical and acceptable was high-cost hedonism, we’d only ever end up with tourist destinations like the Maldives and Seychelles.
And that ain’t good for anybody.
Travelling is an unfathomably beautiful and rewarding experience that everyone deserves the chance to try. It’s an innate human urge to travel: it always has been. Since the dawn of time, human beings have felt a powerful urge to explore new horizons in search of treasure and conquest, love and opportunity, and novelty and surprise.
Budget travel is simply a way of experiencing this movement and the personal growth it provides in an accessible way. It’s something everyone should try at least once.
But choosing to travel cheap – just as choosing to live cheap – does not make you an asshole. But in both scenarios, there are ways to do it right and ways to do it terribly wrong.
The Superficial Concerns with Budget Travel
Backpackers are definitely some of the most blessed people in the whole world. You live a life of new horizons, new friends, and new experiences every day accompanied by the complete freedom of travel. Your world is your own.
Compared to the everyday lives of the people in some of ye ol’ backpacker favourites – for example, popular destinations in Southeast Asia like Thailand and Vietnam – the difference in our standards of living is staggering. It’s a sad but relative truth of the backpacking world that most backpackers indeed come from developed nations with much stronger economies, higher minimum wages, and better social services.
No wonder some folks might get a little annoyed when they hear just how cheaply we do all this. We fly into developing nations with a small sum of savings that could feed a local family for 3-6 months and spend it in 3-6 weeks of lying on the beach drinking beers. However, that’s only half the story.
Developing nations and the communities that comprise them need that money. Tourism – and, yes, even the el cheapo tourists – provide MASSIVE boons to a country’s economy. Just look at the far-reaching and devastating effects of the COVID-19 travel bans and lockdowns: the loss of tourism has been monumental, both for developed and developing nations.
Tourism isn’t some modern type of neo-imperialism. It’s not a bunch of colonialists walking into a place demanding to be fed, housed, and massaged for a pittance. Tourism is a transaction.
Two consenting parties agree on an exchange: compensation (usually, financial) in exchange for a service. Everybody benefits and, more importantly, everybody made their own choices. Local communites welcome tourists (even broke backpackers) because the money is good for them.
Yeah, we’ve all seen asshole tourists. Pricks riding the elephants in Sri Lanka or yelling at the laundromat madame for losing one of their socks. That’s just a necessary evil of the world: dipshits are everywhere, regardless of whether they’re on holiday or not. However, there’s something more insidious than run-of-the-mill jerks that have crept in over the last half-a-decade
Throughout the history of travelling, it is now more accessible than ever. Low-cost airlines and explosively developing tourist infrastructure makes it easier to travel and to travel cheaply. New backpackers can find tons of helpful advice and encouragement through blogs and social media. The more appealing the lifestyle becomes, the more people begin to hit the road with no money or awareness of their impact as a traveller.
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The Absolute Shitshow That is Begpacking
Before we get any further, let’s set the record straight: begpackers are fucking losers and ABSOLUTELY not backpackers. They’re not even travellers. They’re just wankers.
However, even using the term begpacker is a slippery slope because it is extremely sensationalistic. Begpacking is not a clearly defined term: it’s a clickbait-y headliner used by the media attempting to cash in on those deliciously lucrative woke points.
Yes, of course, budget backpackers try to cut costs. Usually, this involves ‘roughing it’ which only affects a backpacker’s own comfort levels. I’ve slept in forests and under bridges to save a night’s accommodation cost.
I’ve hitchhiked countless kilometres and volunteered my ass off just for a feed (had to do some dumpster diving occasionally). If something breaks, it’s not getting fixed unless I fix it, and washing underwear by hand in the sink to avoid laundromats becomes routine. (Either that or go commando.)
‘Roughing it’ is not begpacking. ‘Roughing it’ is simply choosing to live in a less materialistic fashion and engage with the world at a more sincere level. Budget backpacking is simply doing as Diogenes did thousands of years ago… just in a more fun way.
So instead of pointing fingers and playing the “white Milennials are the devil,” game, let’s instead define the playing field…
What is Begpacking?
Begpacking comes from combining the words “begging” and “backpacking”. Apparently, that’s what qualifies for journalism in the 21st-century.
To ME (remembering how loose this term is), a begpacker is a foreigner travelling in a country who begs – that’s it. That’s where the buck stops.
Busking is NOT begpacking: it’s busking. Street performance is one of the oldest professions on the planet possibly only rivalled by prostitution. It’s a profession that brings music, art, smiles, and joy to public spaces FOR FREE. We aren’t simply going to erase one of the oldest professions on the planet because a blogger in San Fran called it unethical to impress an e-girl on Twitter.
Similarly, selling goods as a street merchant is not begpacking. If someone wants to travel the world selling their handmade jewellery, art, photography, LSD, or even their goddamn OnlyFans pics, good on them.
Seriously – being a broke backpacker goes hand in hand with figuring out your skills, passions, and entrepreneurial talents. Being broke on the road encourages you to create opportunities for yourself and perhaps even start a new venture on the way!). This is an incredibly powerful part of the journey.
If you’re selling stuff on your travels, you can sell to locals or you can sell to tourists. You can sell at markets or on the beach – it doesn’t matter.
Sure, we can make arguments of how this potentially siphons money from local merchants. however, here’s the hard truth of the world: that’s how capitalism works.
The free market decides, and the free market is represented by the consumer; that rule is universal from the cheapest places to travel to the most expensive ones.
If a destination wants to crack down on these practices, they will. If people don’t care and are happy to let entrepreneurs of the street do their thing, then that’s what will happen.
But the hard line in the sand is when you literally start asking for a handout. It’s hard to believe, but it does happen. Either because they’re low on funds or low on moral decency, some people feel it’s acceptable to fly into a country where the average monthly salary is equal to the typical daily wage back home and start asking locals, or other backpackers, to aid their extravagant lifestyle.
Righto, begpackers… let’s do this.
A Message to the Actual Begpackers
Get a fucking job.
You’re not special, you’re not resourceful, and you’re certainly not a nomad. You’re a parasite.
I’m not even going to stand here and say how begpacking takes money away from actual beggars. Or how locals are more likely to give money to a begging foreigner simply because their foreign (whether it’s out of curiosity or genuine concern for their wellbeing). I’m not going to make these arguments because I simply can’t.
These aren’t empirical claims. I don’t have a wealth of concrete data to show you on the negative impacts of begpacking. However, I don’t need them. We can instead simply approach this topic from a philosophical standpoint.
You shouldn’t be begpacking because that’s a shit model for life and a great model for being a shitty person. If you really can’t see what’s wrong with abusing the economic disparity of the world and asking money from people who were never even given close to the same level of opportunity as you, then forget it. You’re a lost cause.
Take responsibility for yourself. Travelling is not a right: it’s a privilege. And with privilege comes responsibility. The responsibility to behave in a way that uses that privilege for good.
Or at the very least, to not use it to be an asshole.
A fulfilling life is built on making hard choices and striving to create a sense of self-worth through the work we do – for ourselves, our family, and for our communities. Begpacking is entirely self-serving: there is nothing symbiotic about the lifestyle.
Get out there and rough it like a real backpacker if you want to travel cheap. There are even ways to travel Europe cheaply. Sleep uncomfortably, eat questionably, and lay bricks for a tenner a day if that’s what it takes.
The planet is already carrying a lot of dead weight, and it’s already carrying a lot of people who truly need help. It doesn’t need more lazy tosspots occupying space and expecting other people to adult for them.
In short, grow the fuck up.
But shouldn’t everybody get to travel?
Yes, but also no. Budget travel should be accessible to those who earn it.
While the predominant truth is that most travellers are people from more privileged developed nations, that’s not the whole truth. I’ve met plenty of travellers from countries like India, Mauritius, Thailand, Malaysia, and a bunch more of the less economically stable countries.
Now while most of these travellers had middle-class roots (relative to the economics of their country), there’s also another common thread amongst them… Most of them had to work their asses off to travel.
And, even though it’s trendy to hate first-world Millennials these days, here’s the truth of most Western travellers. They still had to work their asses off to save to travel.
Travel is the ultimate privilege. It’s also the ultimate life experience. Something like that needs to be earned or it loses its magic. There’s no pride in winning a competition if your opponent throws the match.
Budget travelling is excellent. Learning to be more resourceful and savvy with your cash is fantastic. Learning to navigate and assimilate to foreign cultures, make new friends, and find your own way is one of the most rewarding experiences a person can have.
But being a ‘Broke Backpacker’ and being impoverished are two very different things. Role-playing poverty is simply disgusting when there are real beggars around who are struggling to even survive and certainly didn’t choose that life. A begpacker can quit their simulated poverty at any time – a true beggar can’t.
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How to Travel the World Cheaply AND Ethically
The revenue generated by tourism has a big effect on local communities. Some communities live, breathe, and die from this revenue. “Tourist dollars” are not evil; they’re a tool – the same as any other – that need to be wielded right.
In less wealthy countries, your money is much needed. By buying local souvenirs, eating in small, local restaurants (or street food eateries), and hiring local guides tours with local operators, you’re sending money directly into an economy that needs it.
Similarly, remember to have understanding and empathy for the local people of a destination. Particularly, the differences that divide you.
Haggling 50c off the price of a pipe from an Indian street merchant may feel badass, but then the question arises: who really needed that 50c more?
Or while there may be moral concerns with giving money to legitimate beggars (depending on the context), perhaps you could just share your meal with them instead? Or shout them a bowl of noodles.
Most developing nations are already so cheap to travel that there is no excuse to not spend some money. In many destinations with less tourist infrastructure – like Pakistan or Iran – budget travel might even be the only option. And ultimately, 99% of the locals in these regions will be ecstatic to see a budget backpacking adventurer roll into town.
Extending Your Travels the RIGHT Way – Tips and Tricks
If you’re working with a low budget, first you need to figure this out: how long can I travel for in a first-world country? Can I go longer in a cheaper country?
Backpacking South America, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe are very budget-friendly experiences with opportunities aplenty to prolong your trip ethically. There’s nothing unethical about visiting a developing nation. After all, they want you to visit.
The flight might seem expensive, but once you’re there – especially if you’re planning for a long-term venture – expenses are so low that it’s definitely worth it.
If you’re willing to be adventurous, you often don’t need much more than a passport, plane ticket, and 500 bucks. Here are some ideas to make your little money go miles:
- Volunteer work: There are plenty of volunteer organisations around the world that don’t require any other skills than a willingness to learn. These gigs come with free accommodation and, often, all meals are covered. Some great websites to get you started are Workaway, WWOOF, HelpX, and Worldpackers.
- Hostel work: Many hostels let you work the bar, prepare breakfast, clean, or do other little tasks in exchange for accommodation – you just have to rock up and ask!
- Get a job: Go full adult mode and just work and travel: travel jobs are wayyy more accessible than you might think and let you work from anywhere in the world. Travel AND make money at the same time? Kinda sounds like the dream to me!
- Couchsurfing: What a glorious opportunity to stay somewhere for FREE and meet cool local friends in the process! I’m a big fan of Couchsurfing and it’s been my favourite way of getting around for years.
- Housesitting: Another great way to score some home-style accommodation TOTALLY FREE is to sign up for a house-sitting gig or a house swap. Essentially, this means you watch someone’s house while they’re on holidays. Bonus points: You might get to pet sit some furry friends as well!
- Hitchhiking: Why pay for transportation when you could just travel for free? Hitchhiking is the most fun and adventurous way to meet some cool folks on the road. A tip for your driver or even just shouting them lunch – though not required – is always appreciated.
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The Final Word: Is Budget Travel Ethical?
Yeah, it is, without a shadow of the doubt. There is NOTHING unethical about choosing to travel cheaply and minimalistically. There is no invisible contract that says when you travel – irrespective of where you’re from – that you need to start shelling out cash like Scrooge McDuck after a few too many G&Ts.
Similarly, there’s no rule that says you can’t work as you travel and make money PROVIDED you’re not ripping anyone else off to do it. Working to make money to look after your own needs is just the way the world works no matter where you are in it. Working and travelling is the literal antithesis of begpacking.
However, budget travel – as with all forms of responsible travel – needs to be executed in a conscious and aware manner. You have to do it with humility and respect.
The simple rule? Leave a place better than it was when you arrived. If all you did was walk into town, make one shopkeep smile, and then leave again, well done. You’re a kickass backpacker.
Budget travel is ethical. In fact, from a place of 10+ goddamn years of experience in budget backpacking, it’s actually a much more authentic and wholesome way to travel. You’re not ripping off the locals; you’re living at (almost) the same level as the locals.
But don’t begpack. It’s slimy, it’s ugly, and it’s not travel. If you want to beg, stay in your hometown and do it.
I’ve never begged for anything on my travels. I’ve hitchhiked, I’ve couchsurfed, I’ve eaten at temples, and in all these cases, a willing and consenting adult chose to help me from the kindness of their heart. And in these cases, nine-times-outta-ten, I made a friend, not a critic. When I’m offered something, it’s usually a gift of kindness.
You’d be surprised how welcoming people are when you approach them with an open mind and a warm heart. And the kindness they show you? It’s one of the most special things you can receive on the road. Being given a reason to believe in the goodness of humanity is quite possibly the grounding cornerstone of travel itself.
Still, there’s a difference between being shown impromptu kindness and asking for cold hard cash. “Roughing it” means cutting corners on your comfort, not pinching pennies from people living in true poverty.
No one owes you a thing – take favours with gratitude but don’t expect them, and don’t put yourself in a position to abuse others’ kindness.
Budget travel rewards you back the most when you approach it with a humble attitude, a willingness to interact with others, the courage to ask for help when you truly need it, and an open heart to new cultures and experiences. The whole point of travelling cheaply is to throw you out of your comfort zone so you can learn and grow through hardship.
So don’t be a begpacker. Be a fucking badass.
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