[Update 7/23/06 — I promised when I got back I would update this to fit with what I learned. So here we go… everything added post-trip is in red. I updated a few things again in 2014.]
When I started planning for this trip I had no idea the volume of research it would entail. Every website of helpful information that I found led to ten more things I knew nothing about. Digging for information on travel insurance would accidentally lead me to investigate world phones which would then point me toward… you know how the internet goes. And goes and goes. The process was something akin to trying to pull one thread out of the world’s largest ball of yarn. It was one of those searches that brings to mind the old saying that knowing what you don’t know is more important than what you know.
With that in mind I started compiling links and outlining general topics based on my research. Eventually I decided that I would write it all down. Partly as a resource for you my dear traveler, but also partly so I wouldn’t forget anything.
Naturally I can’t cover everything in detail, but I thought I could cover the basics as I’ve encountered them. A lot of folks have written very helpful pages for would-be round-the-world travelers, but many links on those sites were out of date or pointed to products and services that were no longer available. Hopefully potential travelers will find this page helpful. I’ll be updating it as time goes on and things become more or less relevant to me. This is really more of a resource than it is a review, but where appropriate I’ll offer my opinions. Just keep in mind that this page is meant as an overview and where possible I have added external links to other resources that go into more detail.
Guides, Flights, and General Planning Suggestions
It wasn’t long into my search that I ran across Edward Hasbrouck. Type “round the world trip” into Google and his name will pop up on the first page. Overwhelmed and tired of chasing down links that generated 404 errors, I decided to head to the bookstore and see if his book might be helpful. Hasbrouck’s The Practical Nomad proved very helpful and so I bought it (online of course). This book is great for getting started. If you’ve long had a dim inkling that you might someday want to go around the world, this book will inspire you to get off the couch and start planning. It has tons of practical information for planning your trip, even tips on how to afford it. Hasbrouck will walk you through how to get deals, what to bring, what not to bring, how to travel, what to be concerned about, what you don’t need to worry about, where/how to get visas, etc etc etc. Hasbrouck has a website with a few of the chapters available. The Practical Nomad quickly became an indispensable reference.
Once you have an idea of how you’re going to pull this off, the next step is figuring out where you want to go. Once you know where you want to go, it’s time to buy guidebooks. Do yourself a favor and head down to the actual bookstore. You can buy it online later if it’s cheaper, but look guidebooks over carefully before actually purchasing any.
When searching for a good guidebook at you local bookseller, first look at each publisher’s guide to your hometown or some place you have a local’s knowledge of. See how the guide’s description of your hometown and suggestions for what to do, what to see, where to stay etc, matches the reality of what you know. Of course a guidebook can’t give you a local’s knowledge of a place, but seeing how a publisher treats something familiar helps to give you some idea of how they’re treating unfamiliar places. This isn’t gospel by any means. No guidebook series has the same quality for every location. It may be that they cover your town really well and suck when it comes to Nepal. Or the opposite could be true as well. The quality depends on the authors and there are usually different authors for each location covered. Take my suggestion as a hint, not the final word. Believe me the guidebook section at Borders can be overwhelming, this tip might make it seem more manageable. [Note that it helps if your hometown is a major city, I grew up in and around Los Angeles.] Keep in mind that the turnaround time on a guidebook is roughly two years, so when you buy one the information is already two years out of date.
For my trip I ended up with a mix of Lonely Planet Guides, Rough Guides, and Let’s Go Guides. They all have their strength and weaknesses, but all three are targeting budget travelers like me. They also all have websites (linked above). The sites themselves aren’t that great, but each one has a forum section. If you devote the time necessary to wade through them, you can find tons of information from people that have been to your destination recently — in some cases you’ll hear from people that are there right now. This is the best source for more up-to-date information than a guidebook can offer (especially for areas effected by the tsunami early this year).
I’d also like to say that a guidebook is great and it can help you plan, but don’t plan too much. The more flexible you are the better your experience is going to be. Also, consider that the travelers you meet on the road are akin to kiosks of information, always listen to what others recommend. At the same time if you don’t plan at all you’re going to be overwhelmed and lost. Find a happy medium. Get an idea of what guidebooks suggest, check the online forums to see what others think and be open to the whims that strike you on the road.
I stand by all that, but I’ll add a few things. All guidebooks suck at something so don’t expect much. If it has good restaurant listings, its maps will suck and so on. Generally speaking I’d say skip the Lonely Planet Guides. Everyone you meet will have one you can glance at or borrow for a night (of course if everyone thinks that way…). The best deal I had with guidebooks was traveling with Matt and Debi. Matt had the Rough Guide to Southeast Asia which covered everything and Debi and I had individual country guides from Lonely Planet. The combination of the two gave us a nice cross referencing ability. Each had things the other didn’t and we just combined the info. And I really think that’s the best approach. When I leave for Central America in a few months I’ll be toting the Rough Guide to Central America and first cute British girl with a Lonely Planet Guide will be my new best friend. Hopefully.
Before you buy plane tickets for any trip I strongly suggest you read the airline section of The Practical Nomad. Airplane tickets were always a mystery to me and finding a good deal is something like conjuring spirits with voodoo. Hasbrouck’s detailed explanation of the in and outs of how ticket prices work took much of the mystery out of the process. It helped me make sense of the pricing structures and see how to navigate through the terribly confusing waters of the airline industry.
After reading the aforementioned chapter I shopped around a lot for air tickets. Tons of online and offline research. Calling travel agents, scouring airline websites, wading through price aggregator websites, talking with recent travelers on message boards, you name it, I researched it. I ended up going with AirTreks for my plane tickets. They were extremely helpful in the planning of this trip and offered many suggestions for itineraries. They also put up with me continually postponing my payment. I never felt pressured or that I was being sold on something. If you qualify, STA Travel may be able get you a better deal, but in terms of service and price for non-students I highly recommend AirTreks.
I stand by this as well. It sucks to get locked into flights way ahead of time, but the more you buy from home the cheaper it will be. I flew from Los Angeles to Paris, on to Dubai, on to Cochin, on to Kathmandu and finally to Bangkok for $1200. Coming home cost me $2000+ and I only stopped twice. Buy ahead.
That said I also suggest flying less. If I had it to do over again I would go from Delhi to Kathmandu by bus. Not that there’s anything wrong with flying, it just isn’t as fun. Some the best experiences I had traveling were horrendous road trips. Suffering is bonding. Learn to love it.
Check the CDC’s guidelines for the areas you’re going to visit and budget quite a bit of time and money for vaccinations. Hepatitis B for instance requires six months between shots to get full immunity. You get your first shot, wait a month and get another. Then six months after the first you get a third. Hep A is similar. None of my vaccinations have made me sick yet, though I do still have a couple to get. Beware that these are not cheap. Generally the cheapest place to get them is through county or city clinics. Check with your insurance to see if they’ll cover them, if not, try your local public health service.
If you need malaria pills be prepared to fork over some serious dough. I need malaria pills for roughly 300 days. That’s 300 pills. It’s roughly $40 for 12 pills here in the US. You do the math. I bought 60 pills in Tijuana and am planning to pick up the rest in India. India never signed the international drug copyright act so they make generic drugs using the same recipes as American companies, but sell them at prices the third world can afford. India is an exception though, its medicine is very advanced. You may or may not be able to get Malaria pills in the places you are visiting.
Okay here we’ve entered total shit land. Get the basics, measles, mumps rubella, hep A and B and screw the rest of it. Unless you can get it for free. Then load up, hey why not. As for malaria pills… I took them for about a month (Malarone) and then just kind of stopped. Malaria just isn’t that big of a deal most places. If you’re going to get something it’s probably going to be Dengue and there’s no vaccine for that anyway. Bring about ten Malarone pills. If you do get malaria you can pop like four at a time for two days and supposedly that’ll knock it out. And no that isn’t a traveller’s myth it’s actually printed on the literature you get when you pick up your proscription. On the whole I wouldn’t worry about it too much, you’re much much more likely to hurt yourself in an automobile or motorcycle accident than you are to catch malaria. If you do think you have malaria get your ass to the nearest real hospital around. If you’re in Southeast Asia, that means Bangkok, not, for instance, The Australian Medical Clinic in Vientiane.
Passports and Visas
Get a US passport now before they put the RDIF chips in them. Head the post office for more details. It takes about two months to get one so plan ahead.. Too Late. Generally speaking most countries require you to have a passport that is good for at least six months beyond the dates of your intended travel. If you already have a passport, check to make sure that it doesn’t expire anytime soon.
Visas are much more complicated. Check the procedures for the country you intend to visit. It’s called Google. But be careful, there is generally no need to pay anyone to do this for you. Find the actual embassy’s website for each country and get the forms yourself. And don’t be an asshole. Remember that the country doesn’t have to give you a visa. Make sure you fill out all the proper forms and find out if the visa is a stamped visa (in which case you have to send off your passport with your application) or a separate piece of paper (in which case you can usually just send a copy of you passport). Be a little wary of what you put on your visa forms. Atheists are often viewed with suspicion even more so than a Christian in a Muslim country. I put down that I’m Christian and my occupation is listed as chef, which seemed less controversial than writer.
Again time and money are issues here. Take care of this as soon as you can.
Well. Yeah I agree with that. It really depends where you’re headed. For India you need one ahead of time. Thailand you just get a stamp at the airport. You can get a visa for just about anywhere in Southeast Asia from any old guesthouse in Bangkok. It does take a few days. And god forbid you try to get anything remotely official during Chinese New Year.
I don’t have medical insurance. For whatever reason this doesn’t bother me all that much when I’m in the United States (I’m willing to concede that this makes me an idiot). However, for the purposes of traveling I decided to get some insurance. Among the things you want to look for in the realm of medical coverage are, basic medical coverage, evacuation coverage (flying you home where necessary), emergency reunion (bringing a loved one to where you are) and my personal favorite, accidental death or dismemberment. In addition to medical coverage, the policy I purchased covers things like unexpected interruptions to travel (i.e. someone at home dies or needs you to return) and luggage lost in flight.
Above and beyond medical coverage you will probably want some standard travel insurance to cover you in the event your luggage is lost or stolen, the airline you’re flying on goes out of business or a war breaks out in you destination country. It’s even possible to insure high-end electronic equipment. In some cases these sorts of things are bundled with medical coverage in a package deal. For instance the policy I purchased covers everything I’ve listed so far except for the high-end electronic stuff and the cancellation of air tickets.
As with any insurance plan the cost is going to reflect how much stuff is covered. I looked at four different companies and all had similar coverage and prices. One thing to keep in mind is that these companies don’t cover many things. For instance injury due to terrorism is generally not covered or costs extra. Injury due to what insurance companies call “high risk” activity are generally not covered at all. This high-risk category can contain many things that you and I would not generally consider high risk. Examples include rock climbing, scuba diving, and mountain trekking, none of which would be high risk from my point of view. And that doesn’t mean you can’t do these things, just don’t expect to get covered when the reef shark bites your arm off.
The other thing to bear in mind is that most of these policies require that you pay for things upfront and then file a claim and they will reimburse you when it’s approved. In other words the hospital in the country that is treating you is probably going to want payment. There isn’t going to be the whole list your insurer and we’ll bill them process you may be accustomed to in the United States.
I have two recommendations. First off the company I ended up buying insurance from is IMGlobal. You can download a sample policy from the website. I almost went with world nomads insurance and they seemed like a good choice, but they are an Australian company and though they say they have US offices I could never find a phone number for them.
Yeah the insurance thing sucks. It costs a bunch of money, but don’t be an idiot get some.
Travel Equipment - what I’m bringing
Osprey Transporter 60
Despite the fact that I’ve done a good bit of traveling, I’ve never had a decent travel bag. I alternated between a full size backpacking pack and a beat up old duffle bag I got for free when worked at The North Face. The backpack is great, but covered in straps and buckles, which are at the mercy of baggage handlers. The duffle bag is also nice, but only has a shoulder strap. I decided this trip merited special luggage. After much online research a few trips to REI, I settled on the Osprey Transporter 60. So far I’ve taken the bag on a week-long sailing trip and a two-week drive down the east coast. Having lived out of it for a total of three weeks I am very happy with my purchase. The Transporter has shoulder straps and a hip belt, both of which are comfortable under a moderate load. These straps then tuck away when you’d like to carry it as a handbag. There are also eye-holes for shoulder straps. The back of the Transporter is half inch foam padding which helps protect sensitive gear from injury. I should mention that the Transporter doesn’t have wheels. Where I’m going there aren’t really surfaces on which wheels would be practical, but if you’re more a first world traveler, you might want to look at something that has wheels.
Okay, well. The osprey was a uh, mixed bag. Sorry. But yes I liked it because it’s one giant cavern, no pockets to dig through. The suspension could be better, but the foam padded side saved my stuff a couple of times (Generally, when traveling by bus or truck, your bag will end up on top. Some strapping young lad will then cinch it down with rope. Usually by putting the full weight of his body on the rope and then tying it off. The effect on you bag is something like a cheese cutter. The foam helps.
I’ve since purchased a very nice bag, the Voyage 65 from Eagle Creek. It’s easily the best travel pack I’ve owned, highly recommended.
Sweetwater Purifier System
Most people seem to go for bottled water when traveling in third world countries. There are two reasons this is stupid: price and ecological impact. Water in most the places I’m visiting/have visited is expensive. And the bottled water in foreign countries is not Aquafina. Most other countries do not have the regulations on bottled water that we in the West do, you may well be drinking tap water. Most of it is probably fine and I’ll likely buy a few myself, but it’s not fail-safe. More disturbing is the ecological impact. Constantly buying and disposing of water bottles has a tremendous ecological impact on the areas you visit. It increases the burden on a country’s landfills, ends up on the street, in the river and floating in the ocean. Don’t be an America idiot, bring your own water filter. I chose the MSR Sweetwater filter with chlorine drops to kill viruses. I used to work for The North Face and when I decided to get a water filter this was the one I remembered. It’s also the best. If you do research on this stuff keep in mind that there are water filters and water purifiers. If you’re going abroad, you want a purifier.
Much as I would like to say I used the filter. I didn’t. It won’t be coming next time, though I stand by the reasoning for it.
ALL NEW SECTION - stuff you don’t need
Mostly what I learned traveling is you don’t need much. A pair of pants a pair of shorts, swim suit. Two shirts. Don’t bother with t-shirts, just buy some when you’re there. 3 pair underwear. 3 pairs of socks. Sandals or flip flops. Shoes. That’s it. The best thing I brought was my Choco sandals. Pretty much lived in them and they have no wear to speak off (this is still true in 2014). My shoes, as noted elsewhere wore through the soles completely.
First Aid Kit. — Bring a few Band Aids (plasters if you happen to be from any part of once massive Commonwealth of Great Britain). Maybe so gauze. Aleve comes in handy when it’s only 50 cents for 650 ml of beer. Everything else is a waste. If you hurt yourself get to real hospital.
A sewing kit is handy. Actually Lifehacker has a link to an article that puts together a little survival kit that fits in an Altoids tin, which would be handy. Next time I go my first aide kit and survival kit will all fit in an Altoids tin.
A List by an Amateur. Yes this was a list compiled by an industrious young woman whose identity shall be protected. But don’t laugh because you would bring this crap too. So, to help you out, I’ve done a bit of editing.
- Address book with important phone numbers. Upload to net.
- Insurance ? health/travel
- Money ? card, converter, money belt, TCs, cash
- Pencils, Pens
- Tickets and itinerary (airline, train, bus etc.)
Fleece Hat Leggings
- Light jacket
TrousersNot plural, just one. Sandals, shower shoes ShortsNot plural, just one. SkirtsNot plural, just one.
Anti-bacterial cream/wash Comb Cotton buds Dental floss Deodorant Earplugs Face wash Hair products (gel, spray etc.) Lip balm Blusher Mirror Moisturizer (face and body) Razors Shampoo and Conditioner Shaving Cream Shower Gel Sunscreen and After sun cream Tampons Toilet bag Toilet paper w. core out Toothbrush Toothpaste
First Aid Kit
- Band aids
- Insect and/or mosquito repellent
Iodine Paracetemol, Tylenol etc. Pepper spray
- Replacement salts
Vitamin pills Infection cream/Hydrocoritsone
Address Labels laminated Batteries
Bottled water Cards Camera, film and batteriesSpare flash cards or memory for digital camera
- Diary (where I come from we call this a notebook. I prefer the very popular Moleskine variety.
- Duct Tape - okay but for the love of god not the whole roll. wrap some around something else you’re bringing. Actually you probably don’t need it, but you’re talking to someone who held a radiator together for two months with duct tape and coat hanger. Seriously.
Electrical adapter and plug converter Fishing Line Flashlight Guidebooks International Student Identification Card Laundry detergent Matches - storm Mobile phone or SIM card
- Passport Photos
Phone for Skype
- Photocopies of important documents in case they are stolen
Pillowcase to stuff with clothes Plastic bags
- Recharger for electrical items
- Sewing Kit ? needle, thread, safety pins
Sleeping bag Swiss Army knife Towels
- MP3 player
- Ziplock bags
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, hey, wait, some of that stuff is handy… like an electrical adapter and converter. And yeah, you’re right. You might want to buy that. Or course I bought a nice one in the states and it blew up in India. Then I bought one for 200 baht ($5) at a black market electronics market in Bangkok that lasted for five more months and it’s still going strong in 2014. So you know… do what you feel is best.
And now a word about technological gadgets. I can now say, without jinxing anything, that you were wrong Todd. Wrong wrong wrong. My laptop will not disappear the first ten minutes I’m in India. In fact it won’t disappear at all. In fact i’ll leave it unattended on trains, buses, trucks, restaurants, shoddy guesthouses and all manner of other stupid places and it will never be stolen. In fact I worry more about it being stolen from the coffeehouse when I use the restroom than I ever did in Southeast Asia. [Historical note: in 2005 traveling with a laptop was a rarity.]