Saturday, June 1, 2013

How to Prepare to Travel Round the World

Although I know most people will probably never make such a crazy trip, I wanted to share how we prepared to travel around the world. Our trip took 6 months, and we spent about that much time planning for it before leaving home, so if you're inclined to plan like I am, there is plenty to do.

Start Saving
The very first thing we did when it occurred to us to travel in a major way was to start saving money. We got more serious about this as our planning became more concrete, but it's definitely the place to start. Before you know any other details, more money will always make your travel more convenient.

Proposing a trip
We started by thinking about, in an ideal world, all the places we'd like to travel, giving priority to locations we want to go now rather than later, either due to the location's potential to change or become less available, or our current interests and abilities. We made separate versions of this list on several different occasions, then reconciled them, choosing primarily the places that came up again and again. Both of us had full veto power, so we're only going to places we both want to be.

Taking reality into account
Next, we needed to narrow down that list and actually come up with a route we could take. Practical considerations might be different for each situation -- since the two of us have different passports, we wanted to keep organizing visas and vaccines as simple as possible, so we made a chart of requirements for all the countries on our list and reserved the more difficult ones for later trips.

Choosing how to travel
The next big step was to identify how we were going to get around the world, in an economical way. We discovered by Googling and reading blog posts like this one that the airline alliances offer a package deal round the world ticket (RTW), which we verified by pricing out the separate tickets is really a good deal. Since we're American Airlines AAdvantage members, we chose to look at the tickets offered by the OneWorld alliance, and since we wanted to do extensive traveling, decided on the OneWorld Explorer ticket, with more flights/distance and pricing based on the continents you visit. We realized that we're not restricted to travel only with this ticket; for the major flights it saved us a lot of money and we'll arrange smaller local trips separately. The rules are basically that you start and end in one place and all transcontinental flights continue in one direction, east or west. Then within each continent you can use 4 segments to fly to different cities, regardless of order. We noticed that the OneWorld Explorer 3 and 4 continent fares are really the best value since all Explorer tickets have a maximum of 16 total segments, and under the rules without the 16 segment cap you could fly 3 continents-15 segments, 4-20 segments, 5-25 segments, 6-30 segments, so you're maximizing the value of the ticket if you concentrate on fewer continents. Finally, be warned that OneWorld has redefined the continents so you'll need to throw your geography out the window!

To start making any firm plans, you have to take your budget into account. We made a spreadsheet of what we had saved and estimates of how much we could add each month until we planned to leave. Then we checked the cost of living in different areas of the world to approximate our average daily expenses, and used that cost plus the price of the RTW airline tickets to calculate a general idea of how long we could afford to travel without spending an emergency fund to start things up when we return, and without planning for any income while traveling -- while we always hope to make money from projects we do, we didn't want to depend on that while we're gone. We tried to be conservative with our estimates to take into account unexpected costs; we definitely didn't want to run out of money while on the trip.

Nailing down a route
There are two really helpful features of the OneWorld Explorer: a trip builder tool where you can play with routes and design your ticket, and a desk staffed by American Airlines agents specifically for RTW itineraries you can call and ask questions (even if you don't have American flights in your itinerary; we don't). There is also a forum on FlyerTalk, which, despite requiring you to learn some airline lingo, has a wealth of information on how to work the fare rules to your best advantage. It was through these resources that we decided to leave our home continent North America out of our OneWorld Explorer, and instead use miles from our AAdvantage credit card to fly to and from Buenos Aires. This gave us three advantages: two visits instead of one to see friends and family in Argentina and a convenient home base since we are now homeless, a less expensive fare by cutting out a continent, and a lower final price on the ticket because of advantageous taxes and exchange rate in Argentina. From there, we finalized the cities we would visit using the RTW fare based on the airports that fit within the ticket rules -- we can then make excursions from those stops. One tip before you start making a route: on a RTW ticket, there are no transfers. Every stop you make counts as a segment for the fare, so get out, even if it's just for one day, and explore that location! You'll end up with the nice bonus of not having to worry about any connections since all your flights are direct.

Did you mention being homeless??!
Yes, there are certainly sacrifices to be made when you choose to take more than a few weeks to travel. In our case, we chose to minimize/eliminate all our regular home business and expenses, and transfer almost all of our energy and budget to our travels. This meant giving up our apartment lease (or subleasing if you're allowed, or selling or renting out your home if you own), selling or donating all our large furniture and most of our things, leaving jobs that we enjoyed, and giving up activities and time with friends and family at home. In a more general sense, it is giving up all that is known and comfortable to experience something uncomfortable. It's definitely not for everyone, and you'll have to think carefully what you are willing to give up to make the most of your travels.

Minimum Viable Presence
In planning to travel, we also had to plan for being away from home. We made a checklist of our existing services and obligations, making sure to cancel subscriptions and otherwise wrap things up. Tougher to deal with were phone and postal mail connections. We have AT&T service and were told that if we canceled our plan we would lose our phone numbers. Not wanting to go through that, we're left paying $10 per line per month to maintain an inactive account -- this charge is extremely frustrating but I was not able to find a better option. Additionally, I created a Google Voice account in order to have an active phone number where messages left get sent to me as emails. For mail we discovered there are several providers of a mail receiving and processing service where you can view all your mail digitally and decide what to do with it from there. We chose Virtual Post Mail which has reasonable monthly fees for an address and mail scanning, and we can log in from anywhere to check our physical mail. The US Postal Service has started charging pretty steep rates for mail forwarding (they don't do that as part of the standard change of address anymore) so we decided to give everyone our new virtual address to avoid paying for that.

Getting Serious
At this point you're committed and the trip is taking shape. We had decided to move around pretty quickly, so we wanted to be somewhat prepared for each destination, thinking about how we would spend our time in each place and making loose estimates for the dates we might be there. We also wanted to confirm that our budgeting estimates were realistic given our actual plans. A list, as usual, was the solution! We listed each city we were planning to go to, found two accommodation options that we would actually be willing to stay in and a few of the main activities we might do, and noted all the prices. After doing this, we had enough information to confirm the cities we wanted to include and estimate how long we might stay in each one. We also made the call to take our time in Asia and rush through Europe given the big cost differences. Finally, using our date estimates I checked the average weather for that time of year in each location -- some might call it overzealous, but I wanted to minimize the possibility we'd end up suffering in heat or cold with our limited clothing options.

Packing, or better said, Unpacking
It might still be a while before you leave but there are many specialty travel items to check out ahead of time, and choosing what to pack and leave behind helped us think through many decisions we'd need to make about our trip. What climates and seasons to prepare for? City, beach, forest, mountain? Will there be any "dressing up"? How often to do laundry? What sort of health/medical issues to prepare for? Bringing along any hobbies, work or entertainment? The scale of luggage also plays a role in how you travel; if you check bags, you can bring more things and those pesky liquids, but you'll take longer at each airport and be more limited in how you can move around. We elected to stick to carry-on baggage that we could carry for reasonable walks around a city (so we could use public transportation). This meant checking the limits for the airlines we'd use, and choosing backpacks that fit within those limits, and were manageable for us to wear. We settled on two of these with 8-10 kilos each, plus a smaller daypack. More about packing in an upcoming post, but suffice it to say that it's the unpacking, or deciding just how much we could live without, that took most of our time.

Preparing for Takeoff
The last things we checked off our list were finding places for all our things (selling, giving away, storing), double-checking all our important documents such as passports and credit cards (make sure the expiration date is well after the end of the trip!) and scanning all of those to have a copy available in case of loss, visiting the doctor or a travel clinic to get any necessary vaccinations and medicines, purchasing travel medical insurance (we chose Atlas/HCCMIS), and last but not least, practicing for the trip by wearing our shoes, clothes and bags walking around where we live and using the products we planned to bring.

The planning was at times exhausting (although not exhaustive), but we definitely appreciated the investment once we were on the trip and had pretty smooth travels. Leave a comment if you have questions about our process and I'll be happy to share any information I have -- although my knowledge is limited to our own experience. Happy journeys!


  1. Which locations did you visit that you felt were most likely to change soon?

  2. Good question! Places that are deteriorating or may be cut off from the public, like Venice and Machu Picchu.