Anje Knorr is lying wide awake in a narrow bunk bed in a hostel in Uruguay and is plagued by some nagging questions.
Do I really have to stay in a place where there’s disco music next door, water is dripping from the ceiling and getting some sleep is impossible?
Then the 33-year-old is struck by an alarming thought: maybe I’m getting too old for backpacking.
Knorr isn’t an isolated case. Judging by a number of travel commentators who monitor trends and offer advice and services, many backpack travellers are starting to grow weary of bumpy 10-hour rides in some junk heap of a bus followed by a night in a stuffy and stale-smelling group dormitory.
There’s even a name for this group of disaffected backpackers. They’re “flashpackers” and they represent a new trend, or at least variation on, the backpacking way of travel.
One thing that distinguishes them is that they have a bit more of a budget, and they want a bit more comfort.
They still travel with a backpack, but they allow themselves a few luxuries – for example, a domestic flight instead of a long bus ride, a restaurant instead of a street stall, a nice single room instead of a dormitory.
“We will gladly spend more if we have the feeling that it’s worth it,” says Swiss travel blogger Simon Zyrd.
The flashpacker isn’t just changing their style way of travel, but also what they take with them along.
Traditionally backpackers are minimalist in clothing, the philosophy being less is more. But Zyrd, for example, will take along an extra shirt – and more technical equipment.
“We have a smartphone along, an expensive camera and in some cases, even a laptop.”
He adds that flashpackers aren’t cheapskates when it comes to spending abroad.
Many backpackers insist on never paying more for a meal or for a bus ride than the locals but Zyrd dismisses this attitude.
When a European, he argues, spends several hundred euros for a flight to some exotic destination, it then is “egoistic and totally dumb” to try to bargain down a few cents on the price of a mango that some poor local beach vendor is trying to sell.
Another distinguishing characteristic of flashpackers, Knorr believes, is they won’t – or can’t – get into the business of one-upmanship that you’ll see with backpackers.
On the travel blog Happybackpacker.de, she notes how backpackers tend to brag about how far away they have got from the conventional beaten path and seeing who has been on the road the longest.
This sort of competitive thinking is just dumb, Knorr thinks. Flashpackers usually have more money than time at their disposal, since many of them, after all, are job-holders.
But, flashpackers still like to think of themselves as individualists rather than package travellers. They may have a bit more money and enjoy more comforts, but that doesn’t mean they want to be considered part of the mass tourism crowd, Zyrd says.
“We book flights and hotels while on the move, we plan day-to-day and we’ll throw out a plan at the drop of a hat in order to pursue some spontaneous idea,” he says of his own travel behaviour. In this regard, flashpackers and backpackers are similar creatures.
It can also be argued, says travel blogger Florian Bluemm, that flashpackers can travel in their own style in many countries because, thanks to globalisation, these places have undergone a lot of modernisation over the past 20 years.
“Places that in past times only the hardcore backpackers could travel to, today people can go to and with all kinds of expectations,” Bluemm wrote on his blog Flocutus.de. He regards himself as a classic “budget packer” – one who saves wherever he can.
But the question remains for many whether granting yourself more comfort means giving up the authenticity of your travelling experience.
Low-budget backpackers tend to get to know a country and its people better, because they have more contact with locals than do package travellers, Florian Bluemm says.
He says low-budget travellers are entitled to feel happy with themselves. Slower, more difficult travelling is a more sustainable style of travel – socially, economically and ecologically.