Backpacking vs. Living Abroad: Which Do You Choose?

Updated March 23, 2016

So you want to live abroad and travel the world?

Well, are you a backpacker, or an expat? Or maybe like me, you’ve been a bit of both.

We all like to travel in different ways and to change it up sometimes, but thinking about my summer plans got me thinking; do I prefer travelling as a backpacker or an expat? Let the battle commence!

The best things about backpacking

Backpacking is traditionally seen as nomadic. Recently there’s been a big “quit your job, pack your bag and do a round the world trip” movement. It’s a great adventure, and it’s now easier than ever with so many resources out there about how to do it. But whether you go for one long trip, or take shorter backpacking stints like me, it’s a completely different way of travelling than living abroad and so it has very different benefits!

The freedom of backpacking

Backpacking is the freest I have ever felt. When you’re backpacking you don’t usually have any other cares in the world. Backpacking gives you the freedom to go where you want when you want. There doesn’t have to be any planning involved if you don’t want there to be and each day you wake up to is your own to do what you’d like. Unless you’ve decided to be a digital nomad and working on the road, which is kind of different again, then each day you wake up you’re free to do as you please.

backpacking versus living abroad

Make more friends backpacking

Backpacking solo didn’t used to be much of a thing, or maybe it just wasn’t talked about, but now you can find all sorts of solo travel guides specifically for backpackers. If you’ve ever been backpacking you know you can make your friends on the road. Backpacking is like joining this amazing club where you all have this shared community feeling and you make friends everywhere, in buses, train stations, dorms, restaurants, everywhere.

In your normal life if you started chatting to the person next to you on the bus into town you wouldn’t be drinking with them that night and spending almost every hour of the next 2 weeks with them. That would be weird. But when you’re backpacking making friends can be that easy

Visit more destinations

When you backpack you can see a lot. Whether you travel fast or slow, you’re usually jumping from place to place without any backtracking so you can see multiple countries and places in each country if you choose to. There are no restrictions, other than your own money and time. There’s no going home at the end of the weekend, or only fitting one or two places into your annual leave trip.

Budget backpacking

Backpacking can be a really cost-effective way to travel, depending on where you go of course. If you live the hostel life and take public transport everywhere then it can even be cheaper than staying at home since you have less ongoing expenses. Backpacking saves you money on all those return flights you normally have to book, and you can see much more of a country in one go.

backpacking versus living abroad

The downsides of backpacking

Backpacking can be tiring

On the other hand, backpacking has its drawbacks. Being constantly on the move can be tiring and some days you just get over travelling. You don’t want to go and see another bloody waterfall or stay in another dodgy bunk bed in a room full of other people. On those days if your budget allows it you can treat yourself, or you can stay a bit longer where you are, but the time on the road and lack of solid foundations can wear you down.

A lot of travellers I know are turning to slow travel to help this. Instead of trying to tick so many places off the list they are sticking to fewer places for longer in each one. This means more time on the road which you might not be able to do, and seeing less in that time which defeats one of the great benefits of backpacking!

Only skimming the surface of places and cultures

All this movement makes it harder to delve deeper into the culture of a place you’re visiting. You don’t spend long enough there to learn the language and customs, although you might pick some up. You don’t have a regular bar or cafe and you don’t get to know the place like a local, even if you try to have the best local experience you can. You might fall in love with one place while you’re there, but soon enough you’ll be on your way again, your spot replaced by other backpackers coming through.

backpacking versus living abroad

The same conversations over and over

Of course, it’s not a reason to not go travelling, but constantly meeting new people and having the same conversations can get old.

“Yes I’m from New Zealand, no I haven’t lived there in awhile, no I’m not working, I studied law at university, I’m moving to Scotland, I’ve been travelling for 2 months, I’m travelling for however many more, yes I’ve been to the the last place you were in and I missed that thing you’e telling me is the best thing about it.”

When I was travelling with a German friend in Canada we would each take a turn answering all the questions which worked brilliantly, until the other person was asked a direct question and had to speak, revealing a different accent and a whole new set of the same questions!

Saying goodbye all the time

Just because it’s easy to make friends backpacking doesn’t mean it’s easy to keep them. While some of the people you meet backpacking will be friends for life, unfortunately, a lot of the time you’ll never see them again. I like to try and take exception to this as much as possible, and I’ve seen many friends in different places later on, but it’s up to you to make it happen and sadly more often than not it doesn’t. When you backpack you have to get used to the goodbyes.

This is where expat life and living abroad comes in. As an expat you basically get to reverse all the downsides of being a backpacker.

backpacking versus living abroad

The best things about living abroad

What does living abroad mean? Living abroad means you have decided to move to one place, at least for a little while! It may mean you end up living in multiple countries, or maybe just one. Being an expat means you can get to know a place a lot more, to the point it can become a home. Spending longer in a place means more to time explore, find out its quirks and more about the culture. This is where you discover things that a backpacker would never have the chance to.

Deeper connections with friends

The connections you make with people are different when you move abroad. There is more time to get to know people and build lasting relationships. It can sometimes be more difficult but if you know how to make friends when you move abroad then you’ll find the friends you do make can really make it feel like home.

Living abroad means you have the opportunity to meet more people who will become lifelong friends. Hopefully you’re able to make friends with locals rather than just other expats or transient friendships with people passing through, and then if you leave you’ll have friends to visit later, plus you’ll really get to know a place!

Not spending all of your money

Living abroad means you don’t have to quit your job and then spend all your money on travelling. It gives you the chance to find work overseas and add to your work experience. Even if it’s not doing exactly what you’d like to be doing, working abroad can help you decide what you want to do or lead to different opportunities later.

If you’re moving abroad you can leave home with less money than you’d need for extended travelling, but make sure you learn from the experience of others how not to move abroad! Living abroad does mean work, but there are so many opportunities to work differently than you’d have to at home. I teach english in Spain for 12 hours a week and have enough to live on, something that would be impossible in New Zealand or Australia! It gives me the freedom to pursue other interests (like this blog!) and travel.

backpacking versus living abroad

Stability and adventures

Living abroad teaches you about choosing the adventure. When we travel we go out of our way to see things and explore in a way we never would at home. When we live abroad we usually we explore our new homes and surroundings like someone who is travelling, but with more time, and we constantly seek new adventures. It’s something we should do more when we’re at home, and living abroad shows us how to do it.

Living abroad gives you stability, but the opportunity to have new adventures at the same time. You can go off travelling and return again to the familiar, but it’s still different than home. You get the best of both worlds!

Understanding the culture of your new country

If you choose to live abroad in a place where your native language isn’t the first language then you have the time to try and learn it. You can get to know the little quirks about your new country and even things particular to your new city. It’s always different living somewhere than travelling there, and living abroad means you get to find that out! I learnt so much living in Spain that I never knew when I just travelled there.

backpacking versus living abroad

Living abroad is a challenge, but that makes it rewarding

Some people think that living abroad is scarier than backpacking, but I think you shouldn’t be afraid of living abroad or any kind of travelling! Living abroad means having to set up a whole new life somewhere, whereas backpacking means you can be on the move and it doesn’t matter if you don’t make friends and socialise in one place, there’s always another coming up soon.

There are some things I wish I’d known before I moved abroad. When you live abroad you have to face challenges like trying to make a new social group, bureaucracy in setting up your life with visas, bank accounts and accommodation, and often a language barrier that can wear you down some days. You wouldn’t be alone in wondering if you made a mistake in moving abroad at some point, but I would never say you should only travel to avoid these challenges because facing those is what makes living abroad so rewarding. When you go away from your new home and feel like you’re returning home when you go back there, you’re on your way.

The downsides of living abroad

Less freedom

On the other hand, living abroad can mean less freedom. You are usually still tied to some kind of work, so you’re not shunning the cubicle life for absolute freedom like a backpacker is. You still need to work to live and that means fittting travel around work. That’s why choosing which country to live abroad in is important because if you want to travel a lot you should try and move somewhere that it’s easy to do so!

Missing family and friends

You might miss your friends and family when you’re backpacking, but chances are you’re headed back there at some point and you’ll see them all again. Living abroad, especially if it’s on the other side of the world, means you miss out on a lot to do with your family and friends. Weddings, birthdays, new babies, most of it you won’t be there for and it genuinely sucks.

backpacking versus living abroad

You can’t see as much as when you’re backpacking

I lived in the United Kingdom for two years and I took countless weekend trips, but when I wasn’t working for a few months I was able to see the most in a short amount of time. I also spent less money since I didn’t have rent to pay at home and travelled cheaply!

Constantly travelling on weekends can have it’s drawbacks when you’re trying to integrate into a new place. You miss out on what’s happening in your new city and opportunities to make friends, but you also want to see what you can when you can!

So, backpacker or expat?

Overall I think the best option for me is a mix of backpacking and living abroad. Travelling before and after living abroad is a great way to get this mix. I love taking long trips to see a lot of one area, but then I like to settle and feel like I have a home and a base somewhere, and get to know another culture on a deeper level. If living abroad turns into becoming an expat who never goes home, then taking time off for some extended backpacking adventures will soon fix the itchy feet!

What do you think? Would you rather be a backpacker or an expat?

Want to make the move abroad but not sure how? Check out How To Choose a Country To Move To and Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Living Abroad!

Sonja x

P.S. If you liked it, pin it!

backpacker or expat

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18 Comments

  • Reply Carol Guttery March 24, 2016 at 1:16 am

    I’m more of a part time traveller. But I do have a bucket goal to live abroad for at least one year

    • Reply Migrating Miss March 24, 2016 at 9:29 am

      There are so many different travel options outside of this too! Any idea where you’d like to go? I can definitely recommend the living abroad experience (of course! haha) and I hope you make it 🙂

  • Reply Couplertw March 24, 2016 at 7:15 pm

    Great post! We are both backpackers and expats… Our goal is to combine them by taking months of backpacking between expat jobs 🙂

    • Reply Migrating Miss March 24, 2016 at 8:46 pm

      That’s a great way to do it! I’m pretty similar myself :). I think it’s the best of both worlds and you get all the benefits!

  • Reply Vyjay March 25, 2016 at 5:19 am

    Backpacking vs. Living Abroad – great post on pros and cons of both. I think a right mix of both with a balance sounds interesting. 🙂

    • Reply Migrating Miss March 26, 2016 at 9:58 am

      Thanks! I like trying to do both as well. Usually I move abroad, but if I can take a backpacking trip on the way or home, or take off at least a month during the year then it works really well. I think it’s important to find balance so you don’t get tired of backpacking or fall into too much routine living abroad!

  • Reply Annemarie March 25, 2016 at 6:23 pm

    Can totally relate to this! I have been backpacking for nearly 2 years now and especially the repeated conversations are an issue that nags me. But it’s a great way to see the world and not spend a fortune.

    • Reply Migrating Miss March 26, 2016 at 9:59 am

      Thanks Annemarie! It definitely is a great way to see a lot without spending too much. I envy you for doing it for so long, but also totally get the tiring part. I think it’s important to find a balance so you don’t burn out. Best of luck on your travels!

  • Reply Eva Casey March 26, 2016 at 2:20 am

    I’m relating SO much to the Backpacking points right now! I have been backpacking for almost 3 months, and everything you said is so spot on. I’m feeling a bit burnt out at the moment, so I’ve decided to stay for a bit in a pretty not exciting place in the highlands of Nicaragua. It’s nice to have the freedom to be able to just stop where I am and regroup. Answering the same questions again and again gets so annoying! I’ve actually started to pretend I’m Canadian because there’s SO many of them here in Nicaragua and no one knows the difference 😛 It’s a fun game! hahaha..I’ve never lived abroad, but am very eager to try it sometime!

    • Reply Migrating Miss March 26, 2016 at 10:04 am

      Thanks Eva! I’mg lad you’ve recognised the burnout and decided to just chill out a little bit. I think many of us feel the pressure to continue and then it can get worse! Sometimes places were there isn’t a lot are the best to do it as well. You never know what you’ll discover :). I loved being able to share a nationality and the questions with a friend when travelling, until we would get caught out! Hopefully you get the chance to live abroad sometime. It’s an entirely different experience but also awesome!

  • Reply Julie A March 26, 2016 at 7:38 pm

    Another vote for living abroad. I have been surprised to find that I’d almost rather stay home (except that I never do) rather than just travel through a place. If I don’t have time to become part of the new culture, I somehow just don’t enjoy skimming through it. But I know we all have our own styles. Loved this post!

    • Reply Migrating Miss March 28, 2016 at 9:31 pm

      Thanks! It sounds like you are firmly in the expat camp! I still love to go backpacking and see a lot in one go if I can, but I usually end up trying to see everything I can so I feel like I’ve been able to do a little more than skim the surface. Probably wishful thinking!

  • Reply Ben Zabulis December 31, 2016 at 11:46 am

    Why not do both Sonja ? Live abroad and backpack during holidays. I’ve done this whilst living in Hong Kong, only two or three hours to most popular Asian destinations. Of course you cannot travel for months on end but then you don’t have that need when already living somewhere exotic. Also, none of those terrible long haul flights – what’s not to like ?

    • Reply Migrating Miss December 31, 2016 at 8:31 pm

      Haha that’s exactly what I do! A bit of both :D. I think living abroad gives you the opportunity to backpack in different places, or do it on the way there or on the way to your next destination. It’s what I try to do anyhow! The perfect mix 🙂

  • Reply Ben Zabulis December 31, 2016 at 11:51 am

    PS: Oops, forgot to add, you’re right regarding the bit about getting to know a place better. When living abroad you make friends with the locals, learn the language and have less pressure to spend all day sightseeing. Some wise old soul once told me that in order to really get to know a place you have to stay there at least six months – I understand that now and I also agree with it !

    • Reply Migrating Miss December 31, 2016 at 8:32 pm

      I would agree with that too! It definitely takes time to really get to know a place, and it does help to be able to make local connections which also take time. I’d still encourage people to live abroad for as long as they can though, even if it means a few months in the summer or something!

  • Reply Agness of aTukTuk April 22, 2017 at 8:08 pm

    Both aspects have their pros and cons. Now, I chose to live abroad, but backpacking seem like an amazing idea, Sonja!

    • Reply Migrating Miss April 24, 2017 at 5:25 pm

      They sure do! I love both for different reasons. I live abroad mostly but the odd backpacking trip keeps things interesting 🙂

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