A Few Tips About RTW Planning: Part 1

Note: all of the photos in this post are from my recent visit to Yosemite. Over the course of two days, I had written a tremendous, witty, picture-studded account of the Yosemite trip, but apparently hadn’t checked that I was still logged into WordPress. So.. I lost everything. Out of frustration, I wrote this piece instead, but rest assured, there are plenty of other Yosemite photos to be had when I rewrite that post.

How are you doing this?

I get this question a lot. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure that I have an accurate answer. Considering I haven’t even left yet, there’s very little concrete advice I can give in terms of realistically actualizing one’s plans. But I have two college degrees in bullshitting (plus a lifetime of travel, I guess), so I have fortified myself on the potentially false belief that I know what I’m talking about. My first piece of (take-with-a-grain-of-salt) advice would be,

1. If you want to make it happen, it’ll happen.

In other words: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” –  a motto I’ve found myself repeating ad nauseum recently. Of course, I don’t know if this will prove to be exactly true over the course of my trip (will I be able to survive on only $7,000 for more than a year? Unlikely, though it appears I’m going to try), but a history of moderate success and a practical sense of what’s feasible have made me think that this isn’t such a bad perspective to take.

Story time! Over a year ago, my best friend Nusha and I were in my kitchen, looking at a Doctors Without Borders map that I had adhered to the wall in hopes that my hideous geography skills would be improved/ actually manifest after repeated casual glances in that general direction (that’s how osmosis works, right?). After a ten-year-old schooled me in international capitals, I had developed a crippling fear of maps, political discussion, and intelligent people overall – a problem when you’re a political science major at Berkeley, home to one of the top political science departments in the world (fun fact: Berkeley’s graduate PS program is #6 in the nation!). We poured over the map for some time, pointing out places we’d like to visit, and soon had created a list of about 30 countries that the two of us vowed we would explore together.

About two months later, Nusha dropped out of this plan in favor of a “real job” (pfft). Undeterred, I deepened my gypsy desires. That summer, I set off to Cambridge, which served as my European travel hub. I visited six countries, four of which were completely new to me (Scotland, Poland, Norway, and the Netherlands). I realized that traveling doesn’t have to be stressful, difficult, or meticulously planned out – a strict contrast to my experience with past family-organized vacations. You just have to decide where you want to go and figure out how to get there.

2. There’s really not much to it, once you know where to look.

All you really need is a friend (or a CouchSurfing host or reputable hostel), a bag of some sort, and a plane/train/automobile ticket. For some countries, you also need visas and travel immunizations, but even those aren’t a headache to receive if you plan enough in advance. Kayak, SkyScanner, and Momondo make researching and booking cheap plane tickets simple, and an independent bank account (plus a job to funnel money into it beforehand) makes evaluating one’s financial health a snap.

Yes, it can be expensive, but time is money – instead of lurking some sexy (wo)man meat on Facebook, spend a few hours each week researching a place or region you’d like to visit, and take note of inexpensive alternatives for transport, food, and shelter. The time you spent doing this will save hundreds, even thousands, down the line. If you’re like me, travel research can become addicting, fueling the fire to get out and explore (ironically, because I spend so much time on the computer, I have become quite a homebody – but being out and about in this area for four years grants me a modicum of leniency, right?). If you’re looking for a volunteer/teach/intern/study abroad program in any country in the world, I recommend checking out Go Overseas. If you’re less defined about your plans, but want information on a ton of travel-related subjects, check out Boots’n’All. In fact, Boots’n’All has a RTW (Round-the-World) travel section, so if you’re interested in trips like mine, that’d be a good place to find more information. Matador Network is another big name that covers broader topics regarding international culture and travel, and Lonely Planet is the revered cornerstone of the legitimate travel authority movement.

3. Figure out what you need and what you need to do.

I overplan. As a rule. It’s a facet of my personality and it’s something I don’t really mind, particularly as I’ve spent a majority of this summer doing absolutely nothing else that I told myself I’d do (exercise every day, read a hundred books, learn how to code, leave my house without external motivation…). But you don’t need to overplan to be intelligent about preparing for a RTW trip (or any trip, for that matter).

Here are a few things that I’ve done to get ready:

  • Made a Google Doc with multiple tabs: one for the itinerary, one for a checklist of things to do before leaving, one for things to pack (loosely separated by climate/region, also includes links to other people’s packing lists for reference), one for expenses (to answer questions of “how are you affording this?” in retrospect), and one for miscellaneous important information (including flight details, frequent flier numbers, contact information for embassies and friends, etc). I’m a huge fan of Google Docs because information saves automatically and is accessible from any computer.
  • Within the itinerary, filled out the following for each country on the list: Country / Tentative Dates / Continent / Cities / Imagined Route / Method / Estimated Transportation Cost / Notes / People for Reference / Companions / Contact Information / Days Spent (Approx.) / Visas? (If so, received?) /  Immunizations? (If so, received?) / Currency / Exchange Rate / Seasonal Information / Things to Do / Travel Warnings / Program Information (if necessary) / Estimated Budget.
  • Checked with friends to see when they’re in town and when they’re free to host me. Explored alternatives, like HelpX, in countries where I don’t know anyone and would prefer a cultural immersion (and a free meal and place to stay) to staying in hostels and partying all the time (presumably – though knowing me, I’d be more likely to spend the mornings trying and failing to galvanize hungover dorm-mates into action).
  • Broke the trip into regions – Europe (part 1), Morocco, South India, South East Asia, North India/ Nepal/ Bhutan, Middle East, South Africa, Europe (part 2). Determined how long to spend in one region and when during the year would be best (balancing weather concerns with avoiding peak tourist seasons)
  • Talked to other travelers.

4. Check early and check often.

I researched my bag for months, so I knew the average size, cost, and quality of an ideal pack, especially one for a petite woman with a history of backpack-inflicted back pain. I finally splurged a few weeks ago when I saw the Gregory Deva on Eastern Mountain Sports for $255, a beautiful $65 reduction that capitalized on two overlapping sales and free shipping. I also had a list of other items that I needed to buy – a travel towel, a rain cover, a money belt (just to be safe), a sterilizing pen (jury’s still out on this) – and kept my eye on various stores’ summer sales to compare prices. I also basically live in REI, so it helps get a feel for quality products and necessary items.

I probably don’t need to remind anyone to be vigilant when buying plane tickets. Though the ideal time to purchase a ticket – be it plane, bus, ferry, or Eurail – fluctuates based on the locations, the season, and the frequency of travel between the two points, I find that plane tickets are best bought two months in advance. This reduces the headache of juggling several sites and options in the month before departure, especially since I don’t know that the Tuesday afternoon (“cheapest tickets”) method works anymore and there’s no tried and true guarantee that prices will dip in the future.

For instance, I just bought my ticket from Seattle to New York for September 7. Like an idiot, I arrive in the middle of the night, so I’m hoping my friend will come meet me at the airport – or better yet, that someone in New York actually owns a car and would like to pick me up. (Generally, I’d advise arriving during the day, both for safety and for the increased likelihood that public transport will be available.) I’m planning on purchasing my New York to London ticket for the following week, but I’ve waited, since repeated observation has shown that the entire week has stayed at a low $399 for quite some time. Of course, I don’t want to tempt fate too much. But I’m gambling that I might be able to find an Icelandair ticket that either gives me a short layover closer to my intended departure, or a longer layover later in the day such that I could visit the Blue Lagoon for more than three hours (the first is more likely).

5. Learn things about Frequent Flier Miles.

…Eh, I have no advice in this regard. I too am quite confused as to what is the perfect hacker method for racking up frequent flier miles. However, I recommend (when possible) booking flights through airlines that are in one of the three major alliances – Star Alliance, OneWorld, and SkyTeam. RyanAir and WizzAir might get you somewhere cheaply (though possibly not on time, and possibly with a nose bleed, and possibly without your things), but oftentimes you can find competitively priced tickets with small airlines that belong to a major alliance, which might be nominally more expensive but will save you money by way of redeemable points in the future.

My ticket to New York is with JetBlue, whose only partners include American Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, and Emirates. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a wash, though my thinking at the time was that Emirates might come in handy later when I fly around the Middle East and India, and that the cheaper US Airways ticket didn’t seem worth the bad airline reviews. If I did it again, I might have sprung for a $10-more-expensive American Airlines, Delta, or United ticket.. but you live and you learn and you pass these lessons onto other people via a blog that no one reads so the secret stays hidden forever.

Cool. Well. Thanks for reading this far, guys! I hope that these tips have helped motivate you to travel, or at least have demystified the aura that this voyage is a lot crazier than it (to a certain extent) is. I’ll continue to add more as I learn more myself, but if you have any questions or suggestions, I’d love to answer and incorporate them into the next edition of this post.