I could also title this page – the FAQ of long-haul travel! It seems that although the world is full of guide books and other tourist information the most common asked questions on travel forums boil down to “how do I start?” “how do I get from A to B” “How will I find a safe/comfortable/affordable place to stay when I get there?”
These days its seems that even the travel books aimed at the budget market are more and more about the sites and restaurants and a few recommended hotels and less and less about the skills which will produce the answers for you anyway and maybe mean that you don’t buy a travel guide for absolutely every destination?
- how to organize your itinerary – or should you have one?
- what should I take and how big a bag do I need ?
- will they take credit cards in Myanmar, or how should I manage my money (and no they don’t)
- are postcards the best way to stay in contact
Route Planning or do I really need a cunning plan?
I used to quite literally make it up as I went along – but I must admit these days with the enormous amount of information available I do have a bit more of an idea of where I’m aiming to get to. That said I have now, not once, but twice failed to get to Petra – once from Egypt I ran out of time and once from Syria I ran out of time, maybe third time lucky! If you have a must-see on your list it might be better to schedule it early rather than later in your trip!
An itinerary is a bit like a set of goals and objectives so loved by the management gurus and financial planners – you won’t get there unless you plan to get there is the mantra. Alternatively you may end up somewhere you had no idea existed if you go with the flow. Some happy medium is probably the way to go – plan for the must sees – if you will be devastated to leave Paris without climbing the Eiffel Tower don’t leave it until the last minute in case you are laid low by the French wine or an unexpected Parisian holiday. However scheduling morning/afternoon/evening will probably leave you exhausted frustrated and somewhat disappointed.
If you have no idea what you want to see or where you want to go you will probably probably won’t get there! On the other extreme if you have everything planned down to morning/afternoon/evening events you will at best be exhausted if you achieve the itinerary, and probably miss some special places which weren’t on the list.
For a 3 week trip
- Book flights at start / end.
- Restrict yourself to one country.
- Book accommodation for arrival city and possibly you departure city too.
- Book key tours – for example I wanted to do a particular cruise on Haiphong Bay in northern Vietnam so we booked that over the internet before we left home.
- Block out days in key destinations – but leave actual transport connections until you get there – hopefully on a short trip you aren’t covering too large an area.
- If you do have some things you want to do or specific places to stay and then it may be worth booking them either before you leave or on the road.
- Maybe 80% of the trip would be set and 20% would evolve along the way.
For a 3 month holiday
- Book flights at start /end.
- Focus on one region e.g. South East Asia or one large country e.g. Australia
- Book accommodation for arrival city.
- Have an approximately weekly idea of where to go and what to see.
- Probably have a list of must sees, and might sees.
- * I would consider a chill out time at some point probably towards the end of the trip. Although your envious friends and colleagues will think 3 months is a long term trip – its actually only 12 weeks and that time can disappear very quickly. Spend 3 months moving on every day or 2 and by the end of it you will be tired and burnt out.
For a long-term adventure 12 months or more
- Consider carefully whether its worth buying return tickets or whether the flexibility of buying tickets along the way will probably save you money and definitely give you more freedom.
- Contrary to popular belief its not possible to see the world in 12 months! Ideally I would focus on three regions e.g. Australia, SE Asia, Europe or South America, Australia, India.
- Long term travel is often more dictated by funds rather than time. If you have a eight month trip planned at a certain daily budget but you consistently overspend that budget by 50% what’s going to give the budget or the time frame? This is something deciding in advance and agreeing with you travel companions if an, too.
- Give your self a chance to get into the rhythm of travel. Your initial few weeks may involve finding your feet in a new country, possibly buying a vehicle or learning the ropes of travelling in that country or region, finding out what the real costs of travel are there.
- If you start feeling burnt out, chill out! Hang on a beach, or go upmarket and spend a bit more on a nice hotel.
Should I book all my accommodation or should I book a couple of days in advance or should I book when I get there. To me one of my big hates of organized travel is that I don’t know how I would know how long I was going to stay somewhere before I get there. Like the rest of life there is no absolute answers to this one.
When to book a bed
- When you are flying long-haul and arriving late – or even early. you will never get a bargain because you will tired and probably culture-shocked – book something on the internet via a hotel or hostel site.
- When you plan to be in Sevilla for Easter or Sydney for New Year’s Eve – if you know a festival is on and you are going to see it then you might as well book the accommodation which is going to be difficult.
- If you have special requirements (disabled access, children) or a desire to stay at a particular hotel.
- When the government requires you to e.g. Russia, Belarus
When not to book accommodations
- If none of the above apply you don’t need to book!
I’ve used RatesToGo one of the big hotel consolidator to book accommodation a few days prior to arrival (which is when you tend to get the better deals). The only downside is that they do charge you when you book.
What to take
One of the most commonly asked questions on traveler’s forums -how do I pack for a 12 month trip? It is fair to say that everyone who has traveled, plus most who haven’t, have at least one opinion on this topic. I do too – so here are my thoughts:
- you can buy almost everything almost everywhere if you really really need it.
- almost nothing is essential .
- you will end up carrying your possessions more often than you think.
Please check out my personal packing list for a classic backpacking trip. One of the common misconceptions is that if you need a 50l bag for 3 months you obviously need an 80l one for 12 months. The climate has a much bigger affect on what you need to take than how long you are going for.
What to take it in
Unless you are doing a road trip which involves driving your own vehicle from your front door you are probably going to be limited to 20kg of international flight allowance per person. Unless you are taking specialist gear for diving skiing etc 20kg should be way too much to take. If in doubt find a pack – load it with 20kg and walk around your home town for several hours. Using the packing list suggested above my bag is usually less than 10kg even including 4-5 books. Even with a bag weighing under 10kg and not planning on doing much walking I find I always come home with tidy arm muscles.
I use a backpack of 35 litres or 45l at the most. In addition I will take a foldaway nylon day pack which folding away to nothing is still strong enough to carry a litre of water, guide books and other junk we seem to need to carry everyday. I also carry a small shoulder bag which has multiple pockets and will fit my camera in what does not look like a camera bag.
Money on the Road
The days of buying your air tickets and the using all the rest of your savings buying travellers cheques and US$ cash have long gone. Pretty much travel in most of the world means ATMs and credit cards. Anywhere that doesn’t you will see lots of warnings in the relevant guide books – they are the exception not the norm anymore.
The details vary between countries but basically you need :
- to be aware of the charges (hidden and visible) for withdrawing cash from both your debit card and your credit card. Read here the the best options for New Zealanders
- secure internet banking – preferably using a token not just a password
- be aware of how to safely bank on-line, alternatively make sure you have the telephone banking number to dial from overseas and use that.
- remember that if your credit or debit card is cancelled all cards on that account will be useless – make sure you have at least one card which accesses a different account.
- credit cards can be useful for large purchases and guaranteeing rental cars and accommodation even if you don’t use the card for the purchase. They are essential for buying many budget airline tickets. If you are cannot qualify for a credit card, or don’t want the temptation, debit cards which operate as pre-paid Visa cards are now available in some countries.
- let both your bank and credit card company know that you will be travelling and that your spending patterns will change – you don’t want them helpfully freezing your account because of unexpected activity in Buenos Aires!
- set up an automatic bill payment to pay your credit card in total on the last day the payment is due. As a bonus card rewards such as cash back or air miles can be a nice extra. This ploy doesn’t work well in most of the world where bargaining is the order of the day – if you can use plastic at all you will end up paying significantly more than the cash price. Double check what conversion rate % is being added to credit card purchases too, these may or may not out weight ATM fees.
- don’t rely entirely on plastic – a few hundred US dollars cash can still be useful anywhere and essential in less-developed countries. Make sure the notes are clean, not ripped or written on and not too worn. This can be a little bit of a pain if your home country is far from the US – but its worth having a gentle argument in your own language and home town than having a border official on the Laos/Cambodian border refuse your tatty $20 note which also happens to be your last!
- travellers cheques are becoming more and more difficult to cash – I’ve even been asked to show the receipts to cash the cheques!
Staying in Touch
Well I used to send a letter every week or so to Mum and ring home for Christmas and her birthday. Times have changed more than anything else is the ease and price of global communications. I must admit I quite like being able to disappear from my regular world so I am not entirely convinced that I wish to be able to text and call everyday, it is however very useful not having to book long-distance calls at the central post office a day in advance and then pay $5/minute!
Establish a web-based email account. The default choice used to be Microsoft’s hotmail. However there are better options out there such as gmail by Google and Yahoo Mail are solutions. set. Look for a provider which will allow you enough space, where you can easily manage contact’s details (addresses and phone numbers are useful as well as email) . Google will even provide calendars and word processing facilities all for the same price i.e. free.
You need to talk to your mobile provider to establish whether your phone will roam and what those calls are going to cost you. You can safely assume that it won’ t be cheap though. If you intend to use your phone a lot and if you are going to be one country for a while it will always be cheaper buy a local phone or a local SIM card. On arrival in Australia I bought a little flip-top pre-paid mobile for A$50 including $10 worth of calls.
Blogs are the electronic equivalent of your trusty journal. They have the advantage that you allow your friends (or the entire world), read your blog as you go along. There are heaps of sites which provide either generic blgos : the best known is probably google’s blogger. Alternatively you can go with one of the specialist travel-orientated blog sites such as BootsnAll or Travelpod. One of the great advantages of blogs is that you can combine your diary with your photos – as you go along your travels. As someone who has boxes of photos at home I know I never get around to sorting my photos out once I get home!
Photo sharing sites
You can add photos to your blog or you may choose to use a specialist web-based photo site such as Picasa Web Albums or flickr. Just remember you want a reasonably fast connection speed to bulk upload photos – even at low resolution (size). You are not likely to get this in most developing countries.