A few years ago, I sent my 21-year-old son off to backpack to travel abroad through Thailand and India for seven weeks on his way to a semester abroad. I’m the consummate trip planner; he is not. Today’s Millennials are adventurers with a strong sense of wanderlust who want to see the world. As more parents find themselves in my position of sending their children into the unknown, I’d like to share a list of my tips and ideas. Before his trip, I interviewed several backpackers to get their thoughts on must-haves, wish-they-hads and leave-behinds.
1. I mentioned that I’m a planner so I’m also a slave to my lists. And this one was massive! My desk looked like a scene from “A Beautiful Mind” with sticky notes and pages ripped out of the REI catalog taped to my office wall. But in the end, my obsessive research and trip planning paid off in the end and I sent him off on his travel adventure and semester abroad.
2. The concept of packing took on a life of its own. Trying to cram eight weeks worth of clothing, not to mention “momsentials” (essentials as determined by mom), into a manageable backpack proved to be akin to an iron-man. For example, my research showed that most hostels don’t provide blankets and since he’d be in India during the cold season, I had to find a packable travel blanket and pillow to ensure his comfort, not to mention a towel. Packing cubes proved to be a godsend. I strongly suggest you take a test drive and pack a few weeks early so you can add, adjust and discard as needed.
3. Communication was one of my biggest concerns since he’d be traveling alone and in remote areas. One backpacker I interviewed suggested getting a SIM card to cover calling and data. I opted for the One Sim Card that I could reload from the U.S. I bought him an extended cell phone battery (can you believe Indian trains don’t have charging stations?) and encouraged him to seek out hostels that had free wifi.
4. I got him a backup of a backup of his credit card. This proved to be one of my best decisions as he lost his credit card the first weekend he arrived. It turned out he was in a remote location along the beach in Phuket where no one took a credit card and fortunately, I had selected a backup card that also allowed for ATM withdrawals. The lesson here is ensure that all bases are cover. Plan for the worst. I got that 2am phone call that his ATM pin didn’t work and he needed money to find a place to stay. The bank was closed (whatever happened to 24-hour banking) and he couldn’t find an internet cafe to reset it remotely. Fortunately, I was able to manage it all online from my computer and designate a new PIN for him. It was a sleepless night to say the least. Bottom line: cover all bases. In hindsight, a few travelers checks or a secret stash of cash might have been a good idea for his semester abroad.
5. Every parents biggest concern is going to be safety. I handed this over to his dad, a former FBI agent. He gave him the multi-faceted ‘talk’. Trust no one. Lock your backpack to your hostel bed post when you leave. Keep your head up and out of your phone. And the most obvious, pay attention to your surroundings. I gave him the, “If I don’t hear from you in 48 hours, I’m calling the Embassy” lecture.
6. Since he was planning to spend a few weeks in remote India, getting sick was a big concern. This is another of those “take no chances” aspects of international solo travel. I’m one of those paranoid-I’ll-get-sick-when-traveling travelers so we made not one, but two trips to the travel clinic. Malaria pills? Check? Antibiotics? Check. Activated charcoal for food poisoning? Check. Tetanus shot? Check. Travel clinics can be expensive but I found them to be overly thorough in their exam and extremely helpful in their recommendations. I also loaded him down with hand sanitizers and bacterial wipes (when he found himself overpacked, those were the first things to go).
Being an overly obsessive (dare I say, helicopter) Mom and seasoned traveler, I could go on and on about preparing your kid for a trip such as this. My greatest advice is to do your research. Read as much as you can. Talk to as many people as you can. Visit outdoor stores. Read trip reports. Again, plan for the best but expect the worst.
It proved to be an experience that will be a highlight of his life. You can watch his video compilation here: Video.