Preparing for a Round the World Trip
Type A readers – rejoice! This post is to reassure you that Type A personalities, to-do lists and spreadsheets have a place in round the world (RTW) travel.
We really didn’t know what to expect as we sold our house, packed up our things and set off on a trip around the world. We (okay, I) spent countless hours researching the best credit cards to get, how to travel on a budget and how to stay in touch with people at home. The hours of research, compilation of spreadsheets and to-do lists have mostly paid off.
Below are some nuggets of early RTW trip advice – both what we did well and what I wish we would have done.
11 tips for RTW preparation
1) Get your living situation squared away
We were lucky to sell our condo shortly after listing it and closed with five months to go before our departure. Selling so early allowed us to pack, sell and give away our things months before we were leaving, which enabled us to focus on the trip rather than what we would do with all our things. Even if you don’t have a house to sell, it’s wise to figure out what you’ll do with your physical space and things far in advance of leaving. You’ll find great relief in packing away as much as you can before your final days.
2) Take inventory of your resources
Cold hard cash isn’t the only way to pay for travel. Over the past few years, we had amassed a number of frequent flyer miles on airlines, points for hotel chains and reward points on credit cards. A tab on our planning spreadsheet included the number of airline, hotel and reward points we had. It also listed the points required for flights we anticipated needing, common hotel stays and anything else we could use points for. Being diligent in finding the best use of our points we’ve avoiding paying for: our hotel stay in Miami before flying to Thailand, a flight from Japan to New Zealand, a flight from New Zealand to Australia and a flight from Australia to London. A savings of close to $4,000! Our first two months of travel expenses are up on the blog.
3) Focus on your itinerary, but be flexible
We had a general understanding of the non-negotiable stops on our trip, but left (and are leaving) the rest up to whatever whim we decide to follow. It is helpful to know a general outline of where you may travel though as it dictates things like immunizations, visas and overall budget. The biggie here is immunizations, especially if there is a chance you’ll travel in or through countries where Yellow Fever is endemic. If you travel in or through those countries, you will need proof of the vaccination. We don’t know if we’ll visit a “Yellow Fever” country yet, but got the vaccination so it won’t prevent us from going. We also have found time and again that we’re appreciative of having flexibility with our travel plans, which allow us to decide where we want to go as we experience life on the road. Purchasing a RTW airline ticket would have made this more difficult. RTW tickets work for many people, but we think we made the right decision not buying them.
4) The password is…
Who doesn’t have 75 different passwords floating around? We had passwords for everything from our financial accounts to shopping sites and needed a way to access them on the road. We signed up for a free Last Pass account, which if we would have paid for it, would already be worth its weight in gold. I use it almost every day to retrieve a password or information on accounts. Invaluable resource, even for those who aren’t traveling.
5) Prepare your tax documents
Two weeks ago we filed our U.S. taxes online from our apartment in Cambodia and already have our refunds deposited in our account. Having scanned important documents and saved them in the “cloud” before we left had us only waiting on W-2s, which our family sent to us via email.
6) Don’t waste your precious dollars
A few months before leaving the States, we opened a checking account with Charles Schwab because Charles Schwab refunds any domestic or international ATM fee. This takes away two big stress triggers when traveling – you don’t have to wander around town trying to find the machine with the lowest ATM fee, and more importantly, you’re not wasting any money actually getting other money. In two months, we’ve saved $78 in ATM fees, which covers two days of living expenses for us in Cambodia.
7) Say “cheese”!
We spent way too many afternoons before we left getting passport pictures taken. We’d get two printed, then decide we needed two more. They’ve come in handy though as they’re often required for entry visas. It’s worth reviewing the visa requirements of the countries you may visit to get an idea of how many additional pictures you’ll need. If you are planning to do a visa run and extend your visa in any country, you often need another photo for the extension as well. Passport photos can be taken in other countries too so don’t stress too much about it. They can oftentimes be cheaper abroad than in the U.S. Also, check your passport to determine if you need additional pages. If you do, you’ll need to send your passport away for a few weeks so plan in advance.
8) Weigh yourself
Step on the scale by yourself and see what you weigh. Then pick up your travel bag (packed with what you think you’ll bring) and then step on the scale again. You might be surprised at how much your bag weighs and how uncomfortable it may be to lug around. Play around with your packing list and eliminate things that will be easy to pick up on the road if you really miss them. Also, look for travel bags that are light to begin with in order to save wasted weight. I’m traveling with the Tom Bihn Aeronaut and absolutely love how light it is. Believe me, every kilo or pound counts when you’re lugging your bag through 90 degree heat in Southeast Asia.
9) Get connected
As someone who is not a “phone person,” I usually dread the thought of calling someone or talking to anyone for an extended period of time. Being thousands of miles and continents away from friends and family though is a bit different. Before we left I purchased a Skype phone number, which gave us a U.S. number my family or friends can call and that we could use as a contact number with credit cards, accounts and any travel inquiries we make on the road. I also have it set up to forward to my local cell phone. Skype allowed us to be at my mom’s birthday dinner and apps like FaceTime make us feel like we’re still in the States.
10) Say hello, goodbye and thank you
On our flight to Thailand I listened five Thai language podcasts. When we arrived in Cambodia for our three-month assignment, we got a Khmer language tutor. Knowing some common words and phrases in the language of the countries you’re going to is absolutely worth the time and effort. Our few words of Thai and Khmer have bridged conversations with people we normally couldn’t communicate with. In Cambodia in particular, I’ve surprised a number of locals by knowing a few things in Khmer, often prompting them to ask surprisingly if I speak Khmer. To which I have to reply, “Khnom niyeay Khmer tij tij” (I speak Khmer a little bit). I’m a little more intimidated about learning Japanese before May, which reminds me to start searching the iTunes podcast section…
11) Actually print things out or write them down
The address and phone number to your hotel/hostel should be the first thing you can access in your bag when you arrive in your destination. In Asia, we’ve found it easiest to ask for directions in the native language emailed to us so we can give it to taxi or tuk tuk drivers. A phone number makes it easy for the driver to call the hotel to get real time directions. A print out of your itinerary is helpful as well when you are asked by airline staff and immigration agents about your travel plans to leave the country you’re entering.
3 other tips (we didn’t do) for RTW preparation
While most of these things are trivial and easy fixable while on the road, I wish we would have done them before beginning our trip.
1) Be prepared with back-ups
Okay, maybe you won’t slip on a rock while crossing a river and fall down with your camera in your hand. But, when I did the second week of our trip, I was in full panic mode. My camera battery mostly dried out, but was not functioning properly 100% of the time. Fortunately, we were traveling to a major city in Thailand next and I found a camera shop who sold my camera’s battery at a relatively decent price. I wish I would have thought to bring an extra battery anyway. Even if you don’t fall in a river, there are days when you’ll be taking so many pictures and videos that your battery will die before you can recharge it. Same goes for memory cards.
2) Learn the metric system (if you’re from the U.S.)
Since we’re expanding our scope of travel to include countries outside the U.S., Liberia and Burma, we’re at an absolute loss in knowing how far something is, how hot it is outside and how much something weighs. I still can’t do quick conversions in my head and the only way I know how far something is in kilometers is by evaluating it based on 10K or 5K races I have run. We still have no idea how far 500 meters is. Forget about knowing the temperature when someone tells us it is 25 degrees outside. Is that hot? Is it chilly? Who knows!
3) Relax about what to pack
I was stressed about the clothes and accessories to bring on our trip. Not having lived out of a suitcase for a year straight before, we had no idea what we would or wouldn’t want to wear while traveling. Our guesses were mostly right, but in the end, we could have purchased anything we needed when we arrived. In fact, you could leave for your trip with a few key essentials and just buy the rest when you get to your destination (provided you’re going to a cheaper country). Markets, especially in SE Asia, have everything from knock off North Face backpacks to belts. Arriving somewhere first also allows you to understand the local culture of dress in practical ways, not just from your guidebook tips. Stay tuned for an update on our packing list, which will be the subject of a future post.
What else are we missing?!
Resources to Help Prepare for Long Term Travel
There is a very rich online community of long-term travelers who have shared valuable resources on preparing for extended travel. Here are two places to get you started.