Begpacking in Europe. Trying to reserve judgement, but…

In Camera Art Boutique Hotel - Rhodes
In Camera Art Boutique Hotel - Rhodes

Today – a sunny spring April day in Athens, 2017…I came across a controversial and, to me, distressing sight: two lads ‘begging’ for money to fund their onward travels.  They were ‘beg packers’ who were ‘begpacking’, in essence.

I’ve read about this phenomena (is it a recent one?) happening in Asia, and couldn’t really believe it: how would anyone have the gaul to ask total strangers to fund their travels?  It smacked of ‘privilege’ to me and the begpacking phrase came to light (a phrase I’d never really understood to be honest; but in this instance I understand it as a phrase to distinguish otherwise ‘affluent’ young people who run out of money on their travels and just want others to give them some so they can continue).
Forgive me if I am grossly oversimplifying it – and that’s why I admit I need to reserve judgement…until I experience begpacking in Athens, Greece.

What happened?

So, I was walking along the street in a busy tourist area and had experienced the ‘usual’ people begging; on the Metro offering me biro’s or tissues to buy (hey, at least they were offering me something to buy), young kids playing those annoying accordion things, the Greek equivalent of The Big Issue being sold (Sheida) – people doing something.

I round the corner of my destination, near the Acropolis, and there are two guys sitting on the floor on cardboard – relatively well dressed…at least, not in a way you would expect homeless people to dress.  (Feel free to cuss me out if you think I am using inappropriate language, but I am merely stating, in my own words, what happened).

They have a sign in front of them (my paparazzi skills weren’t so great, so I couldn’t get it in focus to much – sorry!) saying they have not enough money to buy tickets to go to Crete.

I was very saddened and slightly (ok, a lot) 😤 to see this in #Athens today: 2 young lads #begpacking It can’t be read very well (my skills as a paparazzi aren’t yet honed!), but their sign says they are wanting money to get ferry tickets to go to Crete. Just like anyone begging, occasionally I buy a cheese pie and some water for them, so I did for these guys to open up a conversation and to try to reserve my judgement. They told me they specifically wanted money 💰 to go to Crete (but still took my offering). I asked if they had been to their Embassy (assuming they may have had their things stolen). They said they just don’t have enough money to get them to Crete to continue their travels and want money to continue their travels. So: how do we all feel about this? I am trying to reserve judgement as I didn’t speak long to them and maybe there’s more to the story – but I feel kinda angry 😡, especially in a place where people are loosing their homes, go hungry. I feel it’s insensitive – or am I being too hard without knowing everything?

A post shared by Rebecca – Travel Writer (@beyondbex) on

I try to reserve my judgement when my mind is saying “beg packers!” so, as is my way sometimes, I go to a place and buy some biscuits and two bottles of water to take to them (I never give money to anyone begging – I prefer to give food).

I open up an (albeit short) dialogue.

“Here you go, have some water” (it’s taken with no thanks).
“You might want to thank me”

Them: “Thank you, but we’re looking for money to go Crete.”

(Slightly taken aback at the brazenness of them not at least appreciating what I’d given them – is that me expecting too much?): “OK, so if you haven’t the money, have you been to your Embassy for help?”

Them: “We don’t want to go home, we want to continue our travels.  The Embassy will just arrange for us to go home.  We want to go to Crete to travel.”

Did you try to look for casual work?

Them: “No no no”

By this point I was feeling too angry to continue speaking, so I walked away.

To be fair:

I didn’t stay to get the full story.

  • Maybe they’d been mugged and were not about to admit it to a stranger;
  • Maybe they were from a country where it’s hard to get a visa to travel…and running out of money was embarrassing for them so this was their only option;
  • It’s hard in Athens to find casual work;
  • Maybe once they got to Crete, they’d look for casual work.

But I never stayed to find out.  I was too incensed at the time.  It was only once I got home and simmered down that I tried to see both sides.

But with all the press about begpackers of late, I admit I can’t help but feel maybe they are just taking advantage and being incredibly insensitive.  To borrow a phrase from a friend:

There is a certain sense of entitlement and lack of sensitivity to be begging in the streets of a city where many of the residents are really struggling, and which is being flooded with people fleeing horrors we can’t begin to imagine, in order to fund the next leg of their holiday.
It also shows a considerable lack of insight or foresight. Surely anyone inclined to give to a beggar is more likely to give to someone in real need than a couple of healthy young lads wanting to continue their travels?

Am I being harsh? I am trying to sit on the fence, I really am – but this was my experience and I wish I’d stayed to talk longer to them.

What has your experience been of begpackers/begpacking? Are you a begpacker that wants to share your side of the story?
This Independent Newspaper article talks about why the journalist refuses to judge westerners busking to fund gap year travel, but these guys I experienced weren’t even busking…just begging.

Thoughts?  Here’s mine (below)!


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39 COMMENTS

  1. Working and saving to fund travel creates a sense of achievement. I’m shocked that people would beg from strangers for money to travel onwards. If they are skint they should be heading to find work.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Stuart. I have to say, they echo my own opinion, even though I am trying to reserve judgement. I find it particularly insensitive when there are people genuinely in need of help, have no food and only one set of clothes on their backs…not able to stay clean and travel like these guys.

  2. This really stirs up a lot of thoughts for me. What is the line between beg-packing and being enterprising? I’ve often heard people say that these ‘kids’ should work in a hostel or at a cafe for a few weeks (illegally? taking away a legitimate job from a local?) or they should hawk out a service (busking, cutting hair in their hostel, editing blog posts….) Is their begging hurting anyone if they’re just sitting there with a sign? Is it the best way to get money for Crete or the worst? I’m trying to think of it philosophically but they really just annoy me to no end.

    I’m a huge believer that people can travel longer, further, and more interestingly on a tiny budget than most people think possible. But I’m also against all of these articles that start with “How I travelled the world for free!” Even incredibly frugal situations require money, and regularly. Crashing with a friend requires bus tickets for that suburban commute and (if you’re not a monster) a small gift of flowers, wine, or a meal as thanks. The cheapest hostel dorm still costs money. Volunteering in exchange for room and board still comes with some expenses. You can travel with incredible frugality but it still has a cost and I think so many backpackers have never worked out the true cost of their travels from start to finish.

    • Very thought provoking Vanessa. I have to say, having tried to sit on the fence for this one, at the end of the day the sheer insensitivity of these actions are what does it for me.

  3. I think begging is so insensitive, especially in Asian countries where poverty is so rife. Even in Athens there’s a lot of poverty so it shocks me that you experienced it there too. There are so many sites where you can take on easy freelance jobs to fund travels…

    • Thanks Sarah. Yes, you summed it up. “There are so many sites where you can take on easy freelance jobs…” Perfectly phrased.

  4. Yikes! I think your original inkling about the two boys is right…It is simply insensitive. I guess I think if you are in this much a predicament where you can no longer afford to go ANYWHERE, you are in fact better off going to your embassy and on your way home.

    Best,
    Rebecca

    • I tend to agree – expect when I asked them if they’d been to their Embassy, they said they don’t want to because the Embassy would merely buy them a ticket to go home, and they don’t want to do that, they want to carry on travelling therefore they are begging to do so.
      So yes – in ‘my day’ (I sound old now – and am certainly not): if I didn’t have the money to go travelling and wanted to, I would work my butt off to save money to do so, not beg like a homeless person in another culture.
      It’s an awful thing to do – and smacks of privilege. And insensitivity to the local population.

  5. oh i saw this begpacking all over south east asia when i was traveling through the area in late 2016 and early 2017. it’s off putting and puts a bad rap on serious travelers. if you don’t have the money to travel, don’t beg –
    go work for it!

    • I tend to agree Jin. Without knowing the full story – I am really trying to reserve judgement, but it’s hard

    • That’s another interesting phenomena…yes: why would you want to fund someone else’s holiday? What do you get from it?

  6. Perhaps there is more to this story but they should really explain that to people if so. Especially in Greece, it is very inappropriate

  7. My feelings are pretty in line with yours, especially because I’ve worked with the homeless in my town and there are people out there who legitimately need help. These kids are just spoiled and want somebody to hand them entertainment.

    • Yes – it is really disheartening to see entitlement oozing from every pour – especially when homelessness, to various degrees, is rife in every country.

  8. I think what bothers me personally here is the entitlement mentality. I could see it being ok (for me) if they were trying to be true drifters, essentially releasing themselves to the compassion of humanity as a way of life, in the way of the mystics. Because this would come with a humility, they accept that if they get nothing, they will just have to manage, they would likely come to know the local homeless, probably informally help them out etc. essentially come to understand the life of those who are on the margins, or are refugees, by living like them, from country to country.

    But these are not like that at all from your description.

    I don’t know Europe very well, but I know two things about Greece from recent times. I know Greece has a lot of poor, because I remember something about EU bailouts to avoid bankruptcy, and I know Greece is the EU nation that does the most for refugees fleeing IS terrorists. I have a countryman (Malaysian) who decamped to Greece for a while to set up a food kitchen to help out so we know that Greek people seem quiet in the media about it but they took in a lot. And the refugees help the poor of Greece back – sharing their own food aid. I think in a country like this, unless you’re begpacking via entering into this paradigm (where you might actually learn something life-altering through your supposedly life-changing travel), I don’t know if it’s wrong but begpacking certainly seems in poor taste. It’s like the privileged class has taken even begging away from the poor now, after having taken security and jobs and social safety and healthcare….

  9. I think “begpacking” is ridiculous. Saddened that the idea made it’s way to Europe. Hopefully they have a good reason too! Thank you for sharing something that is so controversial right now.

    • I just really, really hope it’s not some ploy for a new reality TV show because I was really quite taken aback at how they didn’t seem to think they were doing anything wrong…and my thought was ‘Are they playing for a reaction?”
      Again, just to re-iterate that because my anger was mounting I didn’t stay around long enough to get their whole story…so in the interest of (trying) to be balanced and fair, maybe there was more to it.
      But from what little I garnered from them: they just wanted money to get a ferry ticket to go to Crete.

  10. I grew up in Manila and worked hard to become a lawyer in U.S. I don’t agree with this notion. If you are able to work, you should do that. I don’t see any reason for these guys not to make efforts to earn their living towards traveling. They just choose not to and that’s the issue.

    • I tend to agree – and I was really quite angry to see this…also to read about it in the press happening in Asia. It’s not OK to happen ANYWHERE in the world – there’s relative poverty everywhere.

  11. I really do think that they take away things that some locals need for survival! Taking others’ sympathy to advance their privilege is terrible. If something happened, I am sure the embassy will arrange for their travels back home. And it is not too difficult for travelers to get some cash jobs if they really need to, I’ve definitely done so.. This really bothers me 🙁

  12. It seems so much easier and more fulfilling Bex to create something helpful and get paid for it.

    I’d rather write and self-publish 126 eBooks and pay for stuff with those royalty payments – and I did that 😉 – than beg pack. But to each their own. Methinks we all have our own interesting journey here and I guess this is part of their experience. Sometimes, either folks just want to see what this feels like or they get such strong contrast (being disgusted with going broke and begging for money) that they get down to helping others, making money through the creations they offer and they leave poverty in the rear window.

    Ryan

    • Another interesting viewpoint Ryan – thank you. I still maintain that regardless of how much they want their own experience, they should get their experience not at the expense and insensitivity of those around them.

  13. Like you, I work hard not to judge and try to consider there may be circumstances of which I am not aware when I see something like this. Based on your interaction with these two young men, this simply appears to be a choice on their part. Like any other situation in life, you have to at least try to help yourself.

    It is also incredibly callous behavior in a country that has suffered economically for several years and many locals struggle day to day.

    Let’s face it though, obviously people are giving “begpackers” money, or the situation would seem to be growing. If there was no money in it, then we wouldn’t be reading about it seemingly becoming more commonplace.

    For us however, this post couldn’t be more timely.

    We were just discussing ditching our two year savings plan to just hit the road and see what happens. We ultimately decided spontaneity could come once we’ve met the savings plan and headed out. Our goal is to be build a foundation that will allow us to sustain long term travel.

    Thanks for posting on such an important subject. I hope that the behavior of responsible travelers brings a quick end to this kind of behavior.

    • Thanks so much for your comment Tina, and I’m really glad this resonated for and with you. You seem to have taken the responsible choice for your travels” you take responsibility for your actions and as you say, build a foundation for those travels.
      Yes, I cannot agree – nor repeat – enough about how callous I find this behaviour, especially – as you highlight – in a country where its own people are suffering. And actually, as I have said in other replied to people, I don’t really care which country people are beg packing in, there is relative poverty in every country, and it is incredibly insensitive.

      IF that is what they were doing. There is still a (naive?) part of me that wants to think that maybe they’re from a country that doesn’t allow work (from a visa standpoint) and they were wanting to not go back to their country…that there is more to their story than they briefly told me. But I really think I need to stop justifying their behaviour, especially when round the corner is located a ‘routinely’ homeless person who has been there for many months and goes to the local church for food.

  14. I’ve met some travelers who wanted to prove that you can travel without money. Although, from what I could see they still needed money, they just didn’t want to use their own. They tried it in Malaysia and also here in the Philippines. Well, here in the Philippines, they managed to go a long way (most Filipinos somehow have more sympathy towards Westerners than their own fellowmen unfortunately). For the most part, they sold some sort of bracelets, begged for leftovers but in order to hitch a hike to some islands, they told the coastguard that they were doing some sort of show like amazing race minus the camera.
    From your conversation with them I can’t help but conclude that they were really not down on their luck. The fact that they were not even grateful for the water you gave to them and insisted they wanted money.
    It’s quite disappointing, not to mention that around here in our country, they can get certainly get away with it.

    • Yes Lo,
      I’ve read about it in SE Asia, and I have to say that irrespective of which country or continent they do it in, I find it insulting and insensitive to local people.

  15. I’ve seen people begpack and have yet to grasp the whole concept. Yes, I love to travel, but I am more than happy to work for my expenses and I don’t get why other people should pay for my amusement…

  16. I’d like to say expecting people to give you money to travel is so ignorant and insensitive even more so when the country you are begging in’s people are struggling to make ends meet themselves. I’ve spent lots of time in Greece and the people there have been through so much with the economy and austerity measures that the audacity of these two is utterly baffling to me.

    My point is – if you can’t afford to travel, then you shouldn’t. For people like me, who bust their ass at a job they hate just to save money to travel, this is like a slap in the face. Sh*t, maybe I’m doing it all wrong! LOL (just kidding) but really, it IS a sense of achievement when you have saved your own money and supported yourself to achieve your goals. I can’t respect people like this who expect hand outs or think they are entitled.

    A ticket to Crete is about 40EU or so, sometimes even cheaper. If you can’t even afford that then what the hell are you doing traveling? And why should someone in a country where their neighbors could be starving give money to someone on the street who wants to travel rather than to their own people? Last time I was on an Aegean flight, after the snacks were served, the attendants made an announcement that anything we didn’t want to put in a bin they were coming around with so they could give the food to the poor in Athens. I mean, yes, it’s like that there and these “tourists” are begging for travel money?! The balls! In my opinion it is so disrespectful to the local people, no matter what country it takes place in.

    Another question – what exactly were they planning on doing when they got to Crete? Posting up and begging again?? I mean, really. Traveling is a privilege, these two should understand that and learn how to prepare a budget before going anywhere.

    (Sorry, but this got me a little heated 🙂 lol

    Is this “beg packing” phenomena a new generational thing or something?) I’ve never heard about it until your post…

    • Hi Jayde,

      Really astute observations here – well said.

      Well, I thought ‘beg packing’ was a new thing because I’d seen it more recently in the media…more predominantly in SE Asia. But then a woman on my Facebook page commented that when she travelled in the 60s, she worked as she travelled but she knew of people who begged from the local population to source their travels, so I guess it’s been going on for a while.

      • Thank you, Bex!

        Wow, that’s crazy! I can’t believe people actually consciously do this kind of thing. I’m like you where I’ll always offer food if I have it on me, to homeless people. One time a gypsy woman in Rome who was begging threw the food I offered her back in my face! lol But I would never offer money, either.

        I just think this travel philosophy of leaving home and expecting locals, or anyone, to fund your travels is just wrong. I like to to feel that when I travel, I have earned it by saving and paying my own way. Otherwise, where is the sense of accomplishment? 🙂

        • Agreed Jayde. You’ve raised some interesting points because I was still on the fence and trying to be ‘balanced’ and fair. Now I am thinking maybe I was trying to be TOO fair!

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