How to travel around the world for a year

While my last post covered my previous year traveling, writing and programming, this article will go into the specifics of planning your own round the world trip, including flights, costs, activities and accommodation. I’ll show you how affordable traveling actually is, and how to plan your own adventure.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” - Mark Twain

I think it’s especially important for people to get out of the Silicon Valley echo chamber, to travel and get some perspective. Traveling opens your eyes to some of the real problems people face, and gives you the opportunity to come up with solutions to tackle those, rather than some of the more trivial ideas closer to home. You can’t fail to come away from traveling inspired with a fresh perspective and new ideas.

Stuck in Customs

Choosing where to go

Choosing where to go can be overwhelming at first, especially when you have no idea about the countries involved. I’d been to South Africa for three months the previous year, so I decided to start with some familiar territory to get into the rhythm of traveling.

For the subsequent countries, I visited Trey Ratcliff’s HDR photography blog, stuckincustoms.com. In fact all the photos in this post are taken by Trey. The guy has travelled the world and been to some incredible places. I simply went through the countries he crossed, and added the most beautiful ones to a list. Ultimately that list ended up as:

South Africa, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, NYC, SF, Costa Rica, Panama, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina.

My aim was to see as much as possible in that one year, and then revisit places properly in the future. If you don’t have as much time, I’d recommend focusing on an area, perhaps Asia. For example, for my next trip I’m planning to:

Start in Beijing. Take the train to Tibet. Go down to Nepal. Travel overland to India. Make my way down to Mumbai. Fly to South East Asia and travel through northern Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.

So in other words, where you want to go depends on your time, budget and inclination.

Stuck in Customs

Organizing flights

Round the world air tickets have made traveling a piece of cake compared to the hassle of the past. My grandpa had to fly with the Queen’s Messenger to Bhutan in a decrepit plane, which lost one of its engines half-way through the flight, and had to perform an emergency crash landing. To top it off, after the necessary repairs were made, he was asked to continue his journey in the same plane! How times have changed.

You can either book your flights individually, which gives you the maximum flexibility, or book them all at once with a round the world plane ticket; the cheaper option. I chose the latter, as the amount of flights I needed wasn’t going to make buying them separately economically viable.

Round the world ticket prices range from around ~$3k to ~$7.5k USD. I got 16 flights for about $7k, but it really depends on the time of year, the areas you’re flying to and where you start your journey. One good tip is to start and end your journey in a less affluent country, as ticket prices are usually much cheaper.

I used oneworld for my ticket, and I’m pretty happy with them. They’re a conglomerate of AA, BA, JA, CP and others, and offer a convenient online booking tool to plan your journey; no point giving commission to a travel-agent when you can plan it yourself. One advantage of oneworld is that they let you change the dates of your flights for free. Location changes aren’t free, so make sure you get those right the first time.

RTW tickets have a number of restrictions, which differ from airline to airline. Some of them limit the amount of miles you can fly, others the actual number of flights. Most only let you fly in and out of a continent once, and require you to fly in a general direction (i.e. always east). You have to spend a minimum of 2 weeks in each place, and most tickets expire after a year. The reason behind the limitations is that they don’t want people using them for commuting, so keep that in mind when buying them.

I advise you to use the round the intercontinental flights for the long continental flights, and then if necessary book short internal ones. Asia and South America are pretty easy to get around without having to take flights everywhere, whether it’s by the local buses, coaches, buying a car or hitch hiking. I definitely recommend you to restrict air travel as much as possible, and instead travel by land; you’ll see and experience much more.

Stuck in Customs

Packing

Pack as lightly as possible as you’ll need to carry everything you take with you on your back. This is especially important from a security standpoint too, as the more you take, the more you’ll have to keep an eye on.

I just bought a 90 liter rucksack off ebay, and stuffed one weeks clothing into it, a towel and my camera setup. In Malaysia I actually sent back my tripod and wet suit, they were too unwieldy and heavy to take any further. Anything you don’t take and find you need, you can buy locally. In fact, this minimalistic lifestyle has stuck with me, and is one of the things I most appreciate about traveling.

Budget & Accommodation

Accommodation is easy, especially when you travel through some of the cheaper places in Asia. I was on a bit of a budget, so generally ended up in hostels - except for the odd hotel in Asia and South America. Good hostels aren’t hard to find, especially when you can do a bit of research online. Hostel World is a good start, along with the Lonely Planet and Wikitravel. Some places are really well set up for travelers, like New Zealand, while it can be trickier in others, such as Hawaii and Japan.

Hostels are also a great way of meeting people and getting advice on where to go. You’ll always find interesting people; I’ve met semiconductor chip designers, professional divers and quantum encryption experts. I’ve met traveling companions and created friendships I’ll have for life. This is half the fun of traveling.

As for the total budget, I planned for about $15k for the whole year, for both accommodation and food. It turned out that number was about right, and I wasn’t living too cheaply either - eating out every night at local restaurants. It’s always a good idea to have a buffer in the bank though, for the peace of mind.

Stuck in Customs

Cash and Electronics

All the countries I went to had ready ATMs to hand, so getting cash wasn’t an issue. My card was cancelled three times though by my bank, suspecting fraudulent activity. I advise you inform your bank of your travel plans, so as not to run into this problem. Take out a few credit cards, and stash them in different places to be on the safe side. Even better, try to find cards that don’t charge your an international transaction charge, as this can quickly add up. A lot of places won’t accept cards, so you’ll need cash on hand.

I didn’t bother with a mobile phone for the entire year, instead just using an iPod touch and Skype. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds, and it’s actually a good feeling to disconnect and go. People can get in touch with you when you choose. If you do take a mobile, get an international plan and keep an eye on it - they can get stolen pretty easily.

I took a Nikon SLR and Macbook everywhere, as well as a bunch of other electronics. Frankly the world isn’t the wild west that some people seem to think it is, but you just have to use common sense and keep things close to hand. I may have just been lucky, but in my whole trip, I didn’t have a single thing stolen.

Plugs (sockets) are something to research too. Whilst most of Asia has similar plugs, you can get caught out from time to time. Likewise none of the plugs in Latin America are grounded, so three pronged US plugs won’t fit. Getting an international plug adapter is a good idea!

Wifi is available practically everywhere (Vietnam often has better internet than the US in my experience), and the only trouble I had finding it was some of the remotest parts of Africa. If you are going somewhere particularly remote then you might want to invest in a 3G dongle. Buying it locally is usually the cheapest option.

Stuck in Customs

Activities and Planning

Don’t, whatever you do, choose a package. I just booked the first two nights in the city I was flying into, and then took it from there. Sometimes I wouldn’t even do that, and just fly in. You have to leave room for spontaneity in your plans, don’t try and plan everything in minutia. Your plans will generally change anyway when you arrive and get advice from other travelers. Be flexible and adapt.

I personally didn’t use guide books, but the staple guide is the Lonely Planet. Buy these in the countries when you arrive. If you buy them locally, or in the airport you’ll overpay.

WikiTravel is a great resource, and one I used every day. However, the best resource is advice on the ground from fellow travelers and locals. I used to jot down all the great advice they gave in a little black notebook. And it doesn’t have to be advice about the country you’re currently in. I remember an Argentinian guy I met who drew a map of South America in my book, listing all the places he recommended in Peru and Chile.

Stuck in Customs

Companions

Companions are down to you. I personally prefer traveling alone, forcing you to meet more people and make friends along the way. If you do travel with people, make sure you’re good friends, as traveling for extended periods can get frustrating.

Visas

If you’re lucky enough to be an American or European citizen, then visas are not an issue. The only country that wouldn’t give me a visa at the border was Vietnam, and I just paid a guy at a Cambodian hostel to take my visa to the Vietnamese embassy and process it. It’s worth doing a bit of research on this in advance, but it usually isn’t a problem.

Health insurance

For health insurance I just used World Nomads. They’ve fairly competitive rates, and are one of the more dependable options.

That said, it’s often a case of staying lucky and not doing anything stupid. All the insurance in the world won’t help you if you have an emergency in a remote part of Africa.

Lifestyle

I’d usually stay in the same place for at least a few days, sometimes up to a week, before moving on. However, when you’re moving so much it’s sometimes nice to have a bit of grounding every now and again. Whenever I got this feeling I’d stop for a few weeks, and stay in one place. For example, I did this for two weeks in Ho Chi Minh, when I needed to make some progress on the book.

As for exercise, if I wasn’t surfing I usually ran along the beach for at least half an hour. Having more time you can dedicate to your health is one of the major benefits of traveling. After a few months of surfing and running every day I was the fittest I think I’ll ever be.

I found I needed some intellectual stimulus too, and writing the book was my way of achieving this. Without that I’d have to occupy my mind with other pursuits, such as reading and programming. It’s important to keep this intellectual balance in mind, especially when you’re traveling for an extended period.

When I finished the book, I started hacking on open source projects, and created Spine. In fact, the first version was written on a particularly long bus ride in New Zealand. It’s amazing how you can plug in the earphones, zone out the distractions and focus wherever you are.

Whenever I was traveling to a new city, I pinged the Ruby mailing lists a couple of days before hand to see if anyone was interested in meeting up. More often than not it worked out, and I had people to hang out and ask for advice. In Tokyo and Hong Kong I gave tech talks, whilst in Sydney and Cape Town I ate out with the local Ruby teams.

Programming communities can give you an immediate link and base in a new city, they’re an incredible resource.

Experience

Traveling round the world you will you see and experience more than you ever thought possible. You will eat like a king, from delicious fruits you’ve never heard of in Malaysia, to the best steak you’ve ever tasted in Argentina. You’ll climb mountains in New Zealand and hike down Canyons in Peru. You’ll surf incredible breaks in Costa Rica and party like there’s no tomorrow. You’ll meet some amazing people and have life changing experiences.

Quite simply, traveling the world will be one of the best decisions you’ll ever make.

Stuck in Customs

Total cost

So the net cost for the trip was about $22k. I paid for the vast majority of this with one month’s consultancy beforehand. That’s crazy when you think about it, one month’s consultancy in return for a year traveling. And I certainly didn’t hold back with the budget, I met a lot of people doing it for much cheaper. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

It’s also possible to turn this into a lifestyle by paying for it on the road. If you’re a programmer, you can definitely contract remotely, even if it’s only for part the year. Your clients don’t care where you are, only that you get the work done. The process for getting yourself into this position is the same as becoming a successful contractor. Practice and networking.

The only other thing to consider is that quite frankly, time is running out. The older you get, the more baggage you’ll get tied down with, and the harder it is to do something like this. You should be optimizing for experience in your life, rather than money.

Motivation consists of two things, increasing ‘want’ and increasing feasibility. In other words, to motivate you need to increase the desire for something, and increase the reality of attaining it. Hopefully I’ve done both with these posts. It’ll be great to see more programmers traveling.

Stuck in Customs

This is a repost of a post first published in December 2011.

 
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