How does one take a trip around the world?  We have been asked variations of this question many times, and perhaps we have some helpful advice for anyone considering or planning a similar adventure.  We certainly don't have all of the answers, but we do have quite a bit of experience now that we are in the midst of our travels.  We have tried to cover most of the major considerations, but feel free to let us know if you have any specific questions that we don't cover here!

Itinerary:  Does not need to be set in stone and it can be more fun to be flexible. Be sure to consider both geography and weather.  First, make a list of destinations and then research the seasons.  Pay particular attention to rainy seasons.  We started in the southern hemisphere during the northern hemisphere's winter.  Then we traveled through tropical Southeast Asia during the dry (but hot) season.  We also traveled to Sri Lanka and India in the hot, dry season.  At the start of the northern hemisphere's summer we headed to Mongolia and Russia to take advantage of their relatively cooler weather.  Let yourself be guided by recommendations that you receive from other travelers. We probably would not have traveled to Sri Lanka were it not for a recommendation from a fellow traveler in Thailand.

Visas:  Well in advance of your travels make a list of every country that you may visit and look up the entry requirements at the State Department's helpful travel website.  Double check the information on the websites for each country's embassy in Washington.  Fortunately, many countries do not require visas for U.S. citizens or provide visas on arrival at customs and immigration (usually for a fee of $15 to $100 to be paid in USD).  But some countries have more restrictive requirements (for example, Brazil, China, India, Russia, and Vietnam), so you need to be on the ball here.  Figure out which countries require you to obtain a visa in advance and map out a game plan.  Consider whether you will need a single- or multi-entry visa, how long the visa will be valid (for example, Indian visas are valid for entry within six months), and how specific your entry and exit dates will be (for example, Vietnam issues visas valid for a limited 30-day window).  Some countries have special requirements, such as obtaining a "letter of invitation" for Russia.  If you are not able to get a certain visa in advance, it may be possible to do so at one of the country's diplomatic missions abroad.  We did so at the Russian consulate in Hong Kong.

Immunizations and vaccinations:  Vaccinations are available for quite a few nasty diseases that you could encounter along the way.  The immunizations don’t come cheap, but they do buy peace of mind.  They are much more pleasant than the diseases that they protect against.  The list of possible vaccines is long:  MMR, polio (including an adult booster), hep A and B, Td/Tdap, seasonal influenza, yellow fever, typhoid, meningococcal, rabies, and Japanese encephalitis.  Some, such as yellow fever, may be required to enter certain countries, or perhaps even more importantly, to enter other countries after visiting an endemic region.  Luckily we have a couple of doctor friends and family who gave us some good advice.  We were also able to get advice and all of the shots we needed at the travel clinic of our local health department.  Another good resource is the CDC's travelers' health website.  One huge consideration is malaria prophylaxis.  We have been in and out of malaria zones and have been taking doxycycline for a good chunk of our trip.  Other drugs (e.g., mefloquine and chloroquine) are available as well.  Each has its advantages and disadvantages. 

Insurance:  Most U.S. major medical plans do not cover non-emergency medical costs abroad or medical evacuation back to the U.S.  If you already have health insurance that you plan to keep through your trip, be sure to have a clear understanding of what costs will be covered.  It is easy to sprain an ankle (Sara three times) or cut a toe (David only once).  If your insurance only covers expenses incurred in the U.S., it would be wise to look into travel insurance that will cover you should you incur major costs abroad.  If you are like us and do not have a U.S. major medical plan, simply buying a travel insurance policy will not cover all of your risk.  Those policies generally exclude costs incurred back home in the States (i.e., once they get you home, they wash their hands of you).  Instead, you probably should consider major medical plans tailored to international travelers such as those offered by HTH Worldwide.  These plans provide catastrophic coverage (i.e., high deductible plans) at affordable rates and have other helpful travel health benefits such as overseas medical networks and emergency evacuation.

Budgeting:  Start saving early.  Costs vary widely by country, activities, and luxury.  Our trip could have been done more cheaply or we could have spent much, much more.  Anyone considering a long journey will need to do some serious budgeting.  Revisit the budget often before and during the trip so that you stay on course.  Also, before the trip be sure to set up electronic banking and online bill pay whenever possible.  You will need to be able to access and manage your accounts online. 

Cash:  We have found that most countries we have visited are still very much cash-based.  Credit cards are not nearly as widely accepted as they are back home.  Accessing cash from ATMs is best for the ease of access and the best exchange rates.  It is helpful to have more than one ATM card/account because there are daily withdrawal limits that you may exceed on occasion.  Be sure to check expiration dates on your cards before you go.  One more note: be sure to have an emergency supply of U.S. dollars with you.  We learned that lesson the hard way in Nepal.

Credit cards:  We did a lot of credit card research.  Paying by credit card where possible gives the best exchange rates, but the savings can be eaten up by foreign transaction fees.  We researched issuers and found three cards that do not assess foreign transaction fees: Citi Thank You Rewards, American Express Platinum, and any Capital One cards.  We went with the Citi Thank You Premier Visa card because it is accepted everywhere, has great travel benefits (including none of those pesky transaction fees), and has a low annual fee waived in the first year.  The AmEx card has a hefty annual fee ($450) in exchange for really good travel benefits.  The problem is that AmEx is not accepted widely in many countries overseas, so we don't recommend it as your go-to card.  As for the Capital One cards, they may be okay, but we have heard that they hide their foreign transaction fees in the form of 1-2% poorer exchange rates.  Of course, take our advice with a grain of salt, because credit cards deals change constantly and this may already be out of date.  It pays to do some research here.

Taxes:  If you plan to travel between January and April, it may be challenging to prepare your income tax return.  No fear!  It is easy to file a Form 4878 to obtain an automatic six-month extension of time to file your return.  Alternatively, you could lobby for the FairTax prior to your trip or take the Wesley Snipes approach to income taxes.  It looks like we will be home before the October 15th tax deadline in order to file our 2011 returns.

Packing:  How do you pack for a 10-month trip?  Ha!  This is worth its own separate tab.

Cameras:  We brought along two cameras on our trip and could not be happier with both of them.  Our “big camera” is a Canon EOS Rebel T2i with a great all-around 18-135 mm lens and an 8 GB memory card.  Our “little camera” is a waterproof, rugged Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS3, also with an 8 GB memory card.  One great thing about two cameras is that we usually each have one in case we want to snap a quick picture.  The Canon DSLR is our go-to camera because it takes the best quality photos.  But there are those times when you are out in the rain, snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef, or jumping off of a boat into the Mediterranean.  Those are the times when it is helpful to have a little waterproof point-and-shoot.  Our Panasonic also takes great sunset photos, records HD video, and fits easily in a pocket when we don’t want to lug around the big Canon.  Like credit cards, cameras are always changing so it pays to do some research.  Don’t just compare megapixels!  There are great websites (like this one) that try out cameras and compare photo quality in real-world tests.  We’ve been really happy with both of ours.

Computers and electronics:  We are carrying around one laptop, one iPad, two iPods, and two Kindles (great for reading and much lighter than books!).  That’s in addition to our cameras, of course.  We also have an external hard drive and a few USB flash drives.  We decided not to bring a GPS and have been able to get by just fine using maps and the handy compass on the Panasonic Lumix camera.  We also do not have smart phones.  Other than in New Zelanad and Australia we have found that wi-fi access is pretty much ubiquitous at this point, so not having 3G/4G hasn't hindered us too much.  The laptop and iPad allow us to both be on the internet at the same time.  We do most of our blogging through the laptop because that’s where we store photos and are able to access all of the features on Blogger. 

Online Backup:  David’s laptop hard drive failed in Australia.  We got the drive replaced in Singapore, but it was a lot of work to restore software and files.  Note: Keep your software product keys handy in your email account . . . another lesson learned the hard way.  Luckily we had anticipated the possibility of a drive failing and bought an online file backup service through Carbonite before we left.  We have found Carbonite effective and user-friendly, but upload speeds are very slow!  We are always behind backing up photos, so we found it necessary to buy an external hard drive to give us another level of security.  Our photos that have not been backed up on Carbonite are still at risk if all of our bags are stolen, but at least we are more protected against electronic failures.

Telephone:  No smart phones, but we do have an unlocked GSM telephone with us on the trip.  Where we anticipate needing to make local phone calls, we have purchased SIM cards for local calling (New Zealand, Australia, and Hong Kong).  These have generally been very affordable with rates just pennies per minute.  For international calling we have been able to use Skype.  We can only call when we have internet access, but wi-fi is everywhere these days.  Sara’s sister gave us a U.S. Skype phone number for Christmas that allows us to make unlimited calls to the U.S.  Thanks!  Also, Sara has used Google Hangouts a couple of times with great success.  VOIP is the way to go!  Another consideration is keeping your old phone number while traveling, which we have both done.  It is cheap and easy to “park” your phone number with your phone company so that you still have it when you get home.

Flights: We originally planned to buy an “around the world” airline ticket offered by one of the airline alliances, such as Skyteam or Star Alliance.  That was our plan until we actually looked into the tickets and realized how inflexible they are.  There are limits on total miles traveled (39,000 miles), total number of legs (14 legs), flight direction (don’t try to fly west and then back east), blackout dates (don’t try to fly around holidays), and ticket change fees (don’t try to change a flight date).  The most egregious limit counted overland miles in addition to miles flown toward the total mileage limit.  For instance, we arrived in Shanghai by air and then traveled by rail to St. Petersburg, where we flew to Istanbul.  The distance from our arrival in Shanghai to our departure from St. Petersburg would have counted toward our 39,000 mile limit even though we were not flying.  No thanks!  Instead we have found purchasing airfares to be very reasonable, so long as we plan more than a month in advance.  Four great websites for searching for the cheapest airfares are Hipmunk, Matrix ITA (a Google beta site – thanks Jay!), and  It is always worth double checking airline websites for low fares!  For smaller airports, check to see what airlines serve the airport just in case Hipmunk or similar websites don’t pull those fares.  In a few situations we have booked our own connecting flights on different airlines at much cheaper prices than if we had booked through Orbitz or other such websites.  We did this when booking from St. Petersburg to Istanbul.  Making our own way to Moscow and then booking a different airline to Istanbul saved us hundreds of dollars.  Although we have used Orbitz for some flights, several times they have displayed low-priced flights and then raised the price when we try to book -- very frustrating!  

Trains: So far we have taken a bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing and overnight trains in Thailand, Vietnam, India, China, Mongolia, and Russia (also here and here).  Most are really nice (India not so much, even in first class).  A big advantage is that overnight trains save nights in hotels.  We really liked the Thai train that had a big table that converted into bunk beds.  The Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Siberian trains were very comfortable as well, even in second class.  A really great website with tons of info on train travel is The Man in Seat Sixty-One.

Accommodation: Where to begin?  There are a ton of websites for finding hotels and hostels.  Three good ones are, Agoda (good in Asia),, and Airbnb (which we used for an apartment for two weeks in Hong Kong).  We also signed up for a membership with Hostelling International, which provides discounts at a lot of great hostels.  Priceline is a good place to look for hotels as well, but we have found their bidding function completely ineffective.  There is no single strategy that we have used for finding rooms.  Oftentimes we will look at Trip Advisor (see below) for highly-ranked options.  Other times we will look at the rankings on or other websites.  Sometimes we have have recommendations from people we meet along the way (once saving our bacon at Lake Taupo, NZ where there were no vacancies within 60 miles).  One time we decided to get the very cheapest room near the Christchurch airport on Expedia and ended up at the Racecourse Backpackers, our worst hostel of the trip – a monumental failure!  Where we have used agents to help us book legs of our trip or have traveled with a group, we have not needed to locate our own accommodation, saving a lot of time and effort.

Rental cars:  We have rented cars in New Zealand, Australia, and Turkey.  All three are easy countries for driving, even where they drive on the left.  We would not recommend driving in more developing countries like India and Southeast Asia.  Those roads can be crazy!  We  have used some big name rental car companies like Avis and other small local companies like Sixt.  We pick purely on the lowest price!  We always pay for our car on our Citi ThankYou Premier credit card, which has travel insurance even on our international rentals (we confirmed this with the credit card company before leaving home).

Travel guidebooks and websites: Even with the internet, travel guidebooks are still great.  It is very handy to be able to pull out a book and look at a map when you need one.  We have used Lonely Planet guides for the most part (some better than others, with New Zealand being the worst), and we had a Frommers in Southeast Asia that we liked a lot.  Rather than relying only on the books, we usually research our destinations on Trip Advisor.  It is impossible to understate what a great resource Trip Advisor is!  From hotels to restaurants to things to do, Trip Advisor has it all.  There are tons of real reviews from recent visitors that provide invaluable advice on sights not to miss and sights that can be skipped.  We have enjoyed the food so much along the way in large part thanks to Trip Advisor pointing us in the right direction!  One caution though – be sure to check who is doing the reviews.  If you see a lot of glowing reviews by users who have only made one post, steer clear.  The owner is probably spending more time on the internet than cooking.

Souvenirs: You want to buy them, but you can’t carry them all.  What to do?  Plan to send boxes home from time to time.  We have sent boxes from Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Hong Kong, and China.  So far, they have all made it home.  In Sri Lanka we made the mistake of sending our box by DHL.  Although our box made it home in two days (wow!) it was really expensive and totally unnecessary.  We have sent the rest of our boxes over land/sea, expecting them to take two to three months, and have been able to save a lot on postage.  This is important when we send things like a 20 pound wooden elephant from Thailand!

Safety and security:  So far we have not run into any safety problems on the trip.  The only thing we've had "stolen" is a pair of David's shorts at a laundry in Southeast Asia.  It is always a good idea to use common sense and to pay attention to your surroundings, especially at night.  For U.S. citizens, the Depatment of State website is an important resource to check for embassy notices, travel alerts, and threats to safety and security.  Also, we encourage travelers to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which allows you to enter information about your trip abroad so that the Department of State can better assist you in an emergency.

1 comment:

  1. Such great advice. Your experience is invaluable, and certainly a help for many others.
    Beautiful writing of reflection and experience. Love reading to keep up with y'all!