The Furious Panda Guide to Preparing for your RTW
So you are thinking of heading off for a round the world trip. Or at least a period of extended travel. Sounds like a pretty big decision. Lots of research and planning to be done. Where do you even start?
After being on a few long trips, I have collected a wealth of information, some learnt the hard way, that I would like to share with you.
Here’s my non-definitive list: 30 things you should do before you take that flight.
Plan your route
The first thing to do of course, is to plan the duration of your travel and the places you want to visit along the way. Some people know exactly when they need to be back home. Others figure it out along the way. I have also met travellers who carry on until their money runs out.
Personally, I have tried out the first two, a definite end date and one defined along the way. The most important thing to do though is to plan a general route, and assign how long you will be staying at one location. Estimates are fine at this juncture. For example: Two months in China, then three months in South-east Asia.
End product: A very rough travel itinerary.
Research, research, research – country quirks
Next you need to refine your route. And this involves quite a bit of research. Safety advisories, for example, means you may need to re-route your journey. Some mountain passes may be closed during winter. Roads to Tibet can get closed off during periods of unrest.
Some countries also have their own quirks. Having an Israel stamp on your passport means you will have difficulty going into certain countries. If you are travelling in the Caucasus, you need to go to Azerbaijan before Armenia, because having an Armenian stamp will deny you entry into Azerbaijan. Pre-trip research is required if you don’t want to miss out.
Research, research, research – visa requirements
Some countries have draconian visa requirements. You may need a Letter of Invitation from an inviting agency. Occasionally, you can only enter as part of a tour group. Some visas take ages to apply. If you intend to apply on the road, know where there are embassies or consulates, and which ones are more “lenient”.
Preparing your Letter of Invitation beforehand and obtaining visas from your home country (which is almost always easier) can reduce a lot of uncertainty – allowing you more travelling and less waiting.
Book the first flight in
After planning your route, have an idea which airport will be your point of entry. Then look at the available airlines that fly there. Bearing in mind that this site talks about budget travel, we are looking at cheap flights. Some advance planning is thus needed to book the best deals.
You do not have to plan out all subsequent flights, just that first one. Plans will change after all.
Use this handy table of budget airlines to plan your flight out of Singapore.
Plan your trip budget
Before you leave home, you need to sort out your finances. How much are you budgeting for your trip? How much is your planned daily expenditure?
Look back at the trip itinerary, try to estimate how much you will spend in each country. Some places will surely be more expensive and others will be cheaper. Average them out and you will end up with a daily/weekly/monthly budget.
Find a way to keep track of your expenses
For the last trip, my daily budget was 50 SGD (That’s around 40 USD, or 30 EUR). Some people keep track of their expenses in their notebooks. I keep a full-blown tracking spreadsheet. http://i0.wp.com/www.thefuriouspanda.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/expenses.jpg
No, I’m not insane. It is actually quite simple to keep track of your spending in so much detail. There are many budget tracking apps out there, but we RTW travellers want something that runs offline. Moneywise is the app I have been using. You record down your expenditure, and categorise it. This is added to a database which you can export out as a spreadsheet.
End product: Data, which you can use to plan your budget better
How are you going to get cash?
It is going to be a long trip, and you don’t want to be carry thousands of dollars in cold hard cash. So you need a way of getting cash along the way. The best way is through an International ATM.
You probably need two cards to cover all the networks. One for the Mastercard-Maestro-Cirrus network and another for the Visa-Plus network. Why these two? Because some countries may only have one network but not the other. Having an American Express or maybe a UnionPay card if you go to China could be useful, but not really necessary.
Get a bank that doesn’t charge interbank fees. I use a Citibank card (the one with the blue arrow). HSBC also has a pretty good global network. I try not to use my credit cards at the ATM to avoid charges.
Set up Internet Banking
Before you leave, make sure your bank’s Internet Banking has been properly set up. This allows you to get online and check your bank statements anytime, especially just after you have used a foreign ATM. You don’t want a shock when you get home and realise that someone has been phishing your card.
Also, Internet banking means bringing your bank security token with you, the one you use to log into your account securely. From experience, it takes some time to get one ready, so prepare early.
Have more than one bank account
For security, I would advise that you have a couple of accounts. What I did was to keep withdrawing money at the ATM from my Citibank current account. This account always has less than a 1000 SGD on it. When the money is depleted, I log on to my Internet banking, in the safety of my hostel room, and transfer money from a second account to my Citibank account.
That way, if my account was compromised, I would lose 1K, and not my entire trip budget.
Bring enough US Dollar notes
Not carrying too much cash is ideal, but sometimes you don’t have a choice. For example, due to ongoing Western sanctions, the local ATMs in Iran do not accept foreign cards. So you have to carry the entire duration of your stay’s worth of cash on you. Even countries that accept foreign cards can be problematic. I knew a guy in Tashkent who spent an entire day ping-ponging from one bank to another, trying to get a cash advance because all the ATMs rejected his card.
So it makes sense to have a supply of cash on you. Besides local currency, the US dollar is king in many places (and the Euro in Europe, of course). Have a supply of BRAND, NEW, CRISP dollar notes. Good luck trying to exchange your grimy, wrinkled dollars in places like Myanmar, Indonesia or Uzbekistan. They are worthless there.
I keep my notes double sealed, with padding in between individual notes. Bring large bills, and perhaps some small change because there are a few annoying visa offices out there that accept only payment in cash, in the exact amount.
Oh, and go buy a hidden money-belt to store your cash.
Sort out your scheduled payments
Back on the home front, you need to sort out your monthly payments before you leave. Like your car loans, mortages, insurance premiums and the like. Hold back payments, cancel subscriptions you don’t need, downgrade your phone plans. For whatever’s left, make sure there is someone managing them for you while you are away, or make sure it can run on auto-pilot, with you logging on once in a while to check your income statement.
Prepare your packing list
It is a good idea to list down all the things you are bringing with you for your RTW trip. Since you are not on a holiday and cannot wait till you are in the comfort of your own home, you will need to include items that facilitate day to day chores, like laundry and cooking.
Tip: Uncommon items that you will find useful only after being on the road long enough: Pegless clotheslines, universal kitchen sink plugs, an electric kettle (or at least a heating coil), little transparent resealable bags (buy 50 of these for 2 SGD at Daiso), combination locks, a rain cover that wraps around the entire backpack, mini-carabiners (bring a hundred, everyone seems to want one – you can trade them with locals for cookies.)
pack list sample
Bring the correct power plugs
This is important enough to deserve its own section. Each region has its own type of power plug and socket. (I recall seeing a better graphical link, if any of you readers know the link let me know).
Get a travel adaptor or converter, maybe one with surge protectors. A universal adaptor should cover all possible combinations. Good ones nowadays will even have a USB port.
At times though, getting a dedicated adaptor instead of a universal one has its advantages. The two pins of my universal adaptor have smaller diameters than the European two-pin sockets, and they keep falling off. That or the sockets are inside round recesses which my adaptor pins cannot reach. It pays to shop around a bit for the correct adaptor before leaving home.
“He who would travel happily must travel light.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
RTW newbies will inadvertently pack too many things, thinking that they might need them on the trip. They end up lugging around 10 extra kilos of clothing for six months. Clothing that they never wear.
How do you know how much to pack? Just pick enough clothing to last you a few days. Then half that. For me, I have three tops and three pairs of slacks. You can wear one set, wash one, and hang another out to dry. You are travelling after all, and no one will notice that you keep wearing the same thing over and over. Unless you post your photos onto Facebook.
striped blue polo photo
You will lose things, and clothes will wear out. Just replace them along the way. It is often cheaper and more appropriate to wear what the locals wear.
Don’t skimp on important pieces of clothing
One exception to the previous point: Get quality pieces for important bits of clothing. What do I mean by important? Shoes for example. Don’t bring along the oldest pair that you intend to throw away after the trip. You will regret that decision. Get something comfortable because you need to walk around in them all day.
Similarly, winter clothing, get some good winter wear, so you will not be miserable. Personally, I like comfy undergarments – like good quality quick drying underwear, and a comfortable base layer.
Organise the stuff you leave behind
Since you will be gone for a while, it is good to store your things properly. It makes it easier to ease back in when you return. I put all my worldly belongings in transparent plastic boxes. At this point, a good idea is to look around your home, do an assessment and get rid of all the things you don’t need. I can assure you that after living out of your backpack for a year, you will be able to live with less when you get back.
If you really do have a lot of belongings and intend to sell/rent out your home, one thing you can do is keep your stuff at a storage facility. They have storage units that fit in your budget, and using one is probably the cheapest, safest and most convenient way to lock away your valuables.
This ties in with packing. To avoid carrying too many things, go digital. Bring an e-reader or a similar device. You can store all your good reads prior to the trip. I love the feeling when you flip actual pages, but we are looking at practicality here.
Similarly, guidebooks are great, but they are also heavy, and useless once you have moved on to the next country. Go digital. Lonely Planet sells PDF versions by chapters on their website. Or just get on Wikivoyage or TripAdvisor.
It is the same for music. Prior to the trip, store all your music in your ipod/mp3 player/phone.
Find a way to stay connected
Some people say that you should switch off your devices when you travel and just enjoy the journey. Not me. I need my social media, and I like to keep abreast of the news.
Make sure there is an easy way to get connected. I carry both a smartphone and a laptop. Getting your own device means you get the PC to yourself and some privacy (you don’t want to do your Internet banking using the PC in the common area of the hostel!) Also, you can avoid viruses on your USB flash drives.
Set up VOiP protocols
You will probably want to keep in touch with loved ones back home, so installing Skype or something similar is a good idea. Don’t forget this also means bringing along a pair of microphone-enabled earphones.
For those with a little more cash, you might even want to carry an International Sim Card. I usually just buy a local sim card if I’m staying in a country for a month or more.
Find a way to access blocked sites
Some countries ban Facebook, Youtube and other ‘unsuitable’ websites, but this doesn’t mean you have to go cold turkey during your stay there. To prepare for your RTW, install software applications that circumvent the filters. Some examples are Freegate and Ultrasurf for the PC, and Orbot for your android smartphone.
Download your apps
Unless you plan to pay exorbitant roaming data charges (not what this site is about, sorry), you want to use apps on your smartphone that run offline. A combination of Dropbox, Evernote and Pocket allows me to access everything offline. A GPS enabled offline map app is also useful.
One useful way to keep track of all those flight itineraries and hotel/hostel bookings is to use TripIt. This organises all travel bookings in one place, by forwarding confirmation emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. The site will somehow sort out your email and add it to your itinerary.
Optional: Automate it
I will do a proper post and link it here. But in the meantime, something geeky you might want to do before you leave home is to start using IFTTT. If This Then That is a program that allows you to create recipes that fit the statement “If this, then that”. “This” is a trigger and “That” is a subsequent action the program executes.
Here are a couple that I use:
- Every time you are tagged in a photo on Facebook, it will be sent to Dropbox. – Useful when I meet fellow travellers and add them on FB. We take a few photos, and when I get tagged on FB, the photo automatically shows up in my Dropbox folder.
- Every time I send an email to TripIt, any attachments will be sent to Dropbox – TripIt I mentioned earlier, stores all your itineraries in one place. This recipe complements that and adds any attachments in one easy to find Dropbox folder.
There are many recipe possibilities. You can even make your own. Check it out.
Sync all your important documents in cloud storage
I use Dropbox extensively, but any other cloud storage provider works. That way I can access my files from both my smartphone and my laptop.
First scan all the important documents that you think you might need. Then put them into your Dropbox folder. Useful documents you might want to Dropbox:
- scan of your passport
- proof of employment
- blank visa application forms
- letters of invitation
passport size jpg photos of yourself
Get a letter stating proof of employment
This comes in useful when you need to apply for a visa. Some visa offices require proof of employment. This document is a lot easier to obtain while you are still employed and not when you have quit your job to go on your RTW trip. So do it beforehand, scan the letter and put it into your Dropbox.
Defer your NS
If you are Singaporean and male like me, you would have to report back to do your National Service annually. Last I checked, you can apply for an exit permit for a maximum of only one year. So if you go beyond a year, you need to have some sort of reason to defer your call-up and hope your unit S1 is very understanding. Try ‘education’ and pick up a course along the way. Put the documental proof into your Dropbox.
Get travel insurance
Getting travel insurance is useful for those unplanned situations. Delayed flights, lost baggage, getting robbed. All potential unlikely but possible scenarios. A good insurance policy should cover all bases.
It might be difficult to get one good one if you’re the sort who end up in ‘dangerous’ places like me. My policy didn’t cover me while I was in Sudan, for example.
Another thing to note is that, in Singapore at least, no travel insurance covers lengthy RTW trips. 90 days was the maximum I found. Using a dedicated travel insurance company like Global Nomads is an option.
Health & Hygiene
Get those vaccinations done
Getting yourself immunised can mean the difference between a great trip and having to cut short your RTW. Check with your local clinic to see the recommended vaccinations in the region of travel.
Get the vaccinations done early before your trip, because vaccine schedules require a few doses spread over time. Some vaccinations, like Yellow Fever, are mandatory if you are travelling from Yellow Fever endemic regions. You will be denied entry into these countries if you don’t have it. Bring along (and keep a copy in Dropbox) your vaccination card, showing the list of all vaccines.
If you are bringing anti-malarial pills, be aware that if you are travelling for a year, you might be bringing a bucketload of pills! Do some planning, maybe use them only on parts of the trip.
Maintaining a certain level of fitness prior to the trip is a good idea. Unless you are really disciplined, you will not have much time to exercise while on the road. You never know when a situation might call for some physical exertion. Like running after a moving bus with your backpack on. Or finding yourself in threatening situations. For the record, I went all out and picked up Krav Maga basics after getting mugged in Bujumbura.
Pack some dental floss
This might be off-kilter, but I recommend bringing floss, especially if you know you won’t be able to find it easily where you’re going. Dental hygiene is important. I learnt this the hard way after two root canal treatments, the cost of which is equivalent to 2 months of non-flossing travel in Africa.
That’s the end of the list. Hopefully, it will help you plan for that big trip.
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