Awhile back, I wrote a short post on how we went about planning our trip. Since all the information had to be condensed into one tiny tidbit of a post, I left out some of the details that those of you who are planning your own trip might actually like to know. So here it is, Zhou’s official step by step guide to planning your own RTW trip!
Planning a Route – How Kevin and I figured out where we wanted to go and how to get there
Buying RTW Tickets – How we decided which tickets to buy (OneWorld) and how to get the best deal on them
Money Matters – Information on budgeting and the best credit/ATM cards for traveling
Visas – Getting them can be a pain
Shots and Health Insurance – Staying healthy on the road
Staying in Touch – Ways to keep in touch on the cheap
Miscellaneous – All those other little things that sneak up on you when planning a RTW trip
I’ve heard of people planning vacations by throwing darts on a map. While that’s a great idea for those of you who are adventurous enough to do that, I’m really more of a planner. I just like to know what’s going to happen next. I also can’t stand cliffhangers, which is why I watch a lot of TV marathons. Anyway.
In planning our route, what Kevin and I first did was go through a big book of countries (The Travel Book by Lonely Planet) and write down a list of all of the countries we wanted to visit. I think we ended up with at least 40 or 50. Obviously that was too many for an 10.5 month trip, so we had to trim the list down. To do that, we basically grouped the countries into three tiers – must go, would like to go, and would go if it’s cheap and on the way. Then, we started to plan out different itineraries, keeping in mind what the weather would be like in each country, how expensive each place would be, if we had any friends or family we could bum off of in that area and the likelihood that we would ever visit that particular region again (eg. Europe would be a lower priority because it’s relatively easy to get to).
We started out by deciding to go from west to east, starting in London (because the tickets were cheaper starting there vs. anywhere in North America, more on that in the tickets section). Then the order would be Africa, Asia, Australia & New Zealand, South America, and finally, Europe. This way, we would hit almost all of our countries at a warm time (important when you have to carry all of your clothes). From there, we basically anchored our trip on the following things: 1) a safari through Africa, ending in any city that would have flights to lots of other cities 2) trekking the Himalayas in Nepal 3) spending a month in Australia and New Zealand 4) going to Patagonia, and 5) seeing the Great Pyramids.
After we had those major points, filling in the areas around it was much easier. For that, we mostly used OneWorld’s booking tool, which was really helpful. We ended up making several different itineraries before we finally decided on the one we booked. Patience is key here.
When you start planning a trip like this, it can be really overwhelming to try and make an itinerary out of the thousands of places floating around in your head. I think the easiest way to make sense of it is just to start writing things down (or typing things out) and starting with four or five places as building blocks. Then you can start filling in the areas around those places – the key here is to be patient and let your itinerary be a bit fluid. It probably took us a solid three weeks of working on the itinerary before finally booking it.
There are lots and lots of other people who advocate buying your plane tickets as you go – and I can understand that. Sort of. But as we aren’t going that route, I’ll go ahead and let them talk about the merits of “spontaneity” and “flexibility” (not that there’s anything wrong with being spontaneous, it’s just that the closest I can manage to come to that is “planned spontaneity”). In this section, I’ll only relate our experience, which was buying a RTW ticket from OneWorld alliance.
We chose to buy round-the-world (RTW) tickets instead of buying as we go or buying open-jaw tickets. There are a few different airline alliances you can buy a RTW ticket from. We chose OneWorld (Star Alliance is the biggest; you can read about them and others here) mainly because they offer a ticket based on continents visited, rather than miles traveled, and they have a fairly expansive network. All other RTW tickets (that I know of) price their tickets by miles traveled, which can make it difficult to zigzag between the northern and southern hemispheres and stay within your mileage restriction. For example, you can buy a Star Alliance RTW ticket with 29,000 miles, 34,000 miles or 39,000 miles. Just to give a reference, the circumference of the earth is a little under 25,000 miles. With the routes Kevin and I were thinking of, it made a lot more sense (and it was cheaper as well) to buy a 5-continent ticket (they also sell 4-continent and 6-continent tickets) from OneWorld instead, skipping North America (they don’t fly to Antarctica).
The way our ticket works is this: you plan a route, using the cities that your particular airline alliance flies to. You are limited to 16 stops, four stops max per continent. You must cross the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans exactly once each. I don’t see what other way there is to go around the world, but for whatever reason that’s listed as one of the rules. There are lots of other rules, but you get the idea. The good thing about the RTW ticket is that you can leave all your flight dates (except the first) open-ended, so (theoretically) if you decide to stay somewhere a bit longer than you first intended, you just call up American Airlines and ask them to put you on a flight later that week or later that month, no charge. In practice, this can be easy or difficult, depending on what particular flight you’re trying to change. I would advise that when you book your ticket, you go ahead and give them some dates, just so you have something. As we learned when trying to change the dates for our flight from Hong Kong to Kathmandu and back, some flights really do get booked up 6 months in advance. Another one that booked up quickly was the leg from Auckland to Chile. So just make sure you don’t wait until the last minute to get the dates for your flights!
We decided to buy our RTW tickets starting in London (in conjunction with a one-way ticket to London) because it cut out a continent, which saved us money – and, for whatever reason, the tickets are cheaper if you buy your ticket in the UK ($2,500ish, depending on the exchange rate, from the UK v. $4,590 from the US for the 5-continent ticket). So depending on where you’re from, it may or may not make sense to actually start your RTW ticket in your home country. I’ve also heard that the tickets are relatively cheap if you buy them from Australia.
The actual process of buying the tickets turned out to be a lot more difficult than I originally thought, until I figured out one important thing: not all of the ticketing agents know all of the rules and some of the ticketing agents make up rules. So if one disagrees with you and tries to tell you that you “have to fly American on one of these flights, or you can’t book it with us” or that you “have to call British Airways, since they’re the carrier of your first leg ” or that you “have to pay the higher fare of the UK and US fares,” don’t listen. Just thank them politely, hang up, wait two minutes and call back. Trust me on this one. I finally figured this out after a few hours on hold and some, shall we say, “spirited debate” with various ticketing agents.
Also, I stumbled across a very helpful message board on flyer talk that goes into far more detail than I have here. I think I actually read through the entire forum, though not all at once.
There are three main things to talk about when it comes to planning a RTW trip and money: saving, budgeting, and spending. Althugh I guess that really applies to anything involving money, huh? Anyway.
Saving money can be hard, especially when it’s such a large amount. Since we were lucky enough to work in an industry that pays well and we have no real obligations (no mortgage or kids or student loans), I won’t say too much about the actual process of saving money, though Kevin does give some ideas in the last section of this post. Instead, I’ll just say this: would you rather drink fewer coffees each week and save that money for beer and noodles in Tokyo or have your Starbucks? Obviously I’m simplifying, but the thing is, if you really want to save for it, you can. It just might take awhile.
Budgeting is a much trickier subject, depending on what kind of lifestyle you want to be living on the road. Kevin and I will be splurging mostly on activities – like the safari through Africa, paragliding (me) and skydiving (him) in New Zealand and snorkeling in Thailand. For us, we’d rather stay in a cheap hostel and eat our meals on the street market and be able to DO a lot of activities instead of staying in four star hotels and eating at nice restaurants every day. (Though that does sound nice, I would totally do it if we had unlimited money.) So if our plan sounds like yours, then I have three links for you. The first is from a site that I referenced more than any other site while planning this trip. It has country breakdowns with budgeting numbers for each country. The second was the venerable Lonely Planet, which also has numbers per country. The third was this site, although I believe it takes a lot of its numbers from the first site. When the sites gave me different numbers, I usually took the higher of the two, just to be safe. Outside of planning the daily expenses, you also have to consider any extra transportation costs outside your RTW ticket (we’ve estimated about $5,000 of other plane rides and major train rides) and money for gear, shots and visas (another estimated $5,000 for the two of us).
So really, the question of how much money you need is an intensely personal one, but if you’d like to see our budget spreadsheet, just email and ask, we’d be glad to send it over. Also, after this trip is over, we’ll try and post a breakdown of how much we spent and what we spent it on.
This section isn’t exactly on spending per se, it’s more about how to take your money with you when you go on your trip. Most people agree that traveler’s checks these days are almost useless, especially with so many more ATMs available. We’ll be taking a combination of US Dollars, ATM cards and credit cards.
For ATM cards, the Visa network is more prevalent worldwide, though you certainly will find places that only take MasterCard. We will be taking a Visa ATM card linked to a Capital One Money Market and an HSBC MasterCardATM card linked to an HSBC Online Payment Account. We actually opened up accounts for the express purpose of using them while traveling. Since Capital One and HSBC don’t charge foreign transaction fees at all and HSBC reimburses you for three third-party ATM fees a month, our ATM fees should be minimal.
For credit cards, we’ll be using (again) Capital One, because they don’t charge any foreign transaction fees AND they refund you the 1% fee that Visa charges.
Though I think Capital One has the best policy for international credit card use, there are better ATM cards that we, sadly, are not eligible for. Some credit unions are extremely generous in refunding third-party ATM fees. Check out this table to see if you’re eligible for a better card.
Here’s the important thing to know about getting your visas:
THEY REALLY MEAN WHAT THEY SAY ON THE WEBSITE.
I guess this might seem self-explanatory, but I totally dropped the ball on this one and didn’t read carefully enough through the consulate websites. I figured it would be simple – just show up, give them your passport and pick up your visa (and passport) later in the day. NO NO NO NO NO. THIS IS NOT HOW IT WORKS. (You can read about how educational (i.e. awful) our experiences were here, here and here.)
Different countries have different rules. Read them. All of them. This is especially confusing when you’re trying to get more than one. Some places only take cash, some will take only money orders and some will even take credit cards. Some of them require you to fill out a form online, some don’t. Some have a mail-in service, some don’t. For instance, to get a visa for China, you HAVE to have someone drop off the application and then pick it up. You can’t mail it in or even have it mailed back to you. All I can tell you is don’t make the same mistake I did and think that you can get three visas in two days. It might be possible with careful planning and requesting a rush order (which costs extra, of course), but it’s probably not something you really want to do.
Also, don’t forget your visa photos. They’re basically the same as passport photos (2″ x 2″), and you can print some out for free at epassportphoto.com. We did this for our second set and saved ourselves $20. The instructions are foolproof, because even WE were able to take our pictures, size them and print them out successfully.
Getting your shots is probably one of the easier things on the to-do list of planning a trip around the world. Well, it’s easy as long as you’re not deathly afraid of needles and would lie about when you got your last Tetanus booster because you’d rather risk getting Tetanus than get the booster shot. Luckily, neither Kevin nor I have phobias that include getting shots, though I have a long list of things I’m frightened of, near the top of which is “looking over the railing in the mall.” Don’t make fun.
Anyway, it’s a relatively easy thing because you don’t necessarily need to do a whole lot of research if you don’t want to. What we did was probably the easiest, though not the cheapest, way of doing things. We looked up our nearest travel clinic (we used Passport Health, but there are others), made an appointment, filled out all the paperwork, including a list of all the regions/countries we were visiting, and the nurse gave us the requisite shots and prescriptions.
If you’re only visiting a few areas or if you’re not visiting any high risk areas (think Africa and part of Asia), it might be better to look up what shots you need (you can go to the WHO website or to the country’s tourism website) and get them at your local community health clinic, where they only charge the cost of the shot.
As for health insurance, GET SOME. There seem to be lots and lots of relatively cheap options for travelers from other countries (like the UK and Australia) for travel health insurance, but not so many for those of us from the US. And most global health insurance policies will cover you everywhere EXCEPT the US, that’s how notoriously difficult-to-navigate our healthcare system is. Anyway. Health insurance is one of those things we really didn’t want to skimp on, so even though we looked at cheaper options, we signed on with World Nomads, which was recommended by Lonely Planet, among others. It’s going to cost us about $1000 for the two of us for the amount of time we’ll be gone.
I didn’t originally really want to make this its own section, but I think with all the choices out there for ways to keep in touch with those back home that it deserves its own section.
For us, we’re staying pretty simple. This blog, e-mail, and Skype (on the laptop) are all we’re using. There are other options too, like unlocking a cell phone that takes SIM cards and buying SIM cards in different countries as you go. You can apparently get some phones (like the Blackberry World) unlocked for free if you call your service provider and tell them you’re going to be traveling internationally and want to take your phone. There are also a lot of websites that will send you an unlock code for about $20 or so. Phone cards (we have a couple of free ones we got with our International Youth Cards) are another option.
For those of you who would like to be reachable at the same number all the time and, like us, aren’t lucky enough to be able to use Google Voice yet (darn you, Google and your cool software!), the Frugal Traveler from the New York Times wrote this excellent article about how to do so, on the (relative) cheap. It’s some combination of Skype and SIM cards and the iPhone, but basically I think the way it works is people call your Skype number, which you have automatically forwarded to the number of your local SIM card.
[Update 8.19.2009: The Frugal Traveler just posted a new article recommending Voxox.]
Blogging is a really good way of letting your family and friends know about all the fun you’re having, but you avoid having to send out those mass e-mails, and people can check in whenever they feel like it. For us, it’ll be a really great way to help us remember all the cool experiences we’ll have on the trip.
This is sort of a catch-all section that I’m dumping everything I think is important but doesn’t necessarily deserve its own section. Things like…
Frequent Flier Miles (or is it Flyer?)
A trip like the one we’re taking can easily earn you lots and lots of frequent flier miles. The trick is figuring out which program will give you the most miles for your trip. There’s a whole art to this frequent flier thing, and Flyertalk is devoted to people who obsess over how to max out their miles, but we didn’t go quite that far. We just wanted to know which airline in the Oneworld Alliance would give us the most miles. So I made a spreadsheet. (No, she didn’t! Oh yes, yes I did.) The funky thing about different progams is that they don’t always give you the same number of miles depending on which airline you fly. For example: if you use Asia Miles (Cathay’s program), you only get 50% of the miles you fly on Qantas, but you get 100% of the miles you fly on LAN. I know, makes no sense to me either. So in the end, we figured out that Asia Miles will give us the most miles from our trip and plan on using those miles to get a one-way ticket back from London next summer.
What To Do About Your Obligations
If you have kids, you should probably take them with you unless they go to boarding school or you’re willing to pay a ton of money for therapy later on. Pets, you can probably leave with a good friend. A VERY good friend. For us, this part is easy, because we don’t own a house, and neither of us has a lot of stuff. We do each have one car, which we’re leaving in our respective parents’ garages. But this does bring up a good point for those of you with mortgages, pets, motorcycles, furniture, etc. You have to do something with it. Find someone to rent your place for a year, sell your house and put your belongings in storage, or just get rid of it all. This might pose a problem when you come back and want that DVD player back, but anyway, the point is, it’s something you do need to think about.
Things You Might Want to Cancel
Your cell phone plan. Your subscription to People Magazine. Your current health insurance. Your car insurance. Your Netflix subscription.
Register With the Embassies of the Countries You’re Visiting
This way, if something comes up (think a huge protest or a typhoon), they’ll email you about it.
Taking Your Important Documents With You
We’re using a nifty little (free!) program called ZumoDrive, which is a small cloud storage system. Basically, you can upload documents from your computer to an online storage system, and then if you have the app on your iPhone or iTouch, it will sync your iTouch and download everything you have on ZumoDrive onto your iPod. Things we have on there: copies of our passports, a copy of our health insurance policy, copies of our plane tickets, our safari vouchers, etc. If you don’t have an iPhone or iTouch, I would still recommend that you keep your important documents on some sort of online storage (even just e-mail them to yourself) and also have hard copies that are stored somewhere separate from your actual passport and important papers. Also, have your credit card and debit card customer service numbers stored somewhere safe in case you need to call and have your cards canceled.
International Student (or Youth) Cards
Since neither Kevin nor I is technically a student, we couldn’t get international student cards, but we COULD get international youth cards from the same people. A lot of the comments I read said that in order to really get your money’s worth from the card (they’re $25), you have to visit Britain, Egypt, or Machu Picchu. Luckily, we’re going to all three, so hopefully among them we can save ourselves at least $25.
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