I must admit that this is of my most selfish articles so far. This article was written mostly to check for myself what I still needed to do for my third big trip around the world (start date: 2 September 2015). Up to now I never really used any explicit checklists, but I thought it would be nice to write it all down so that I can share it with you as well.
Before you can scroll down, one of the key lessons of this article should be to realise that different decisions have to be made in different moments in time. Planning consists of making decisions on long-term, mid-term and short-term perspectives. In this article I have tried to describe these different phases.
While there are some that just leave home and travel the world, in fact for most of us planning a big trip starts years ahead. This is especially true if you are a student, or have a busy career.
If I look back myself on the times when I started my first steps towards travelling the world, usually the planning started between 2 and 3 years in advance. Why? Because saving enough money takes time and figuring out what you are saving up for too. In this first planning phase you do not need to know any of the details of your trip yet. Instead, you first need to address some of the major aspects. Here are the first steps:
Save up money
Saving enough money is key because it will allow you to have a wider range of choices for your travel plans. Having a lot of money on the bank doesn’t mean you will have to spent it all, but it’s always nice to have a backup too.
So I am already hearing you ask me: ‘How much should I save up?’. Don’t worry about that now, we’re still years ahead. The only thing that matters at this point is to start saving as much as possible.
- Get a job
- Travelling comes with sacrifice, find a job where you can earn decent money and work long days.
- An extra bonus is if you find a job that doesn’t feel like a job. The more fun on the job, the more you can work and the more you can earn without hating your life.
- Cut unnecessary spending
- Do you really need that new flatscreen TV, or the latest iPhone? Try to create priorities that you feel comfortable with.
- Do you really need to do ALL of your grocery shopping at the most expensive supermarket in town? Why not try the cheaper shops usually found in multi-cultural neighbourhoods?
- It might also be better to buy things like toothpaste and deodorant only when they are on promotion, these items typically have no expiry date.
- Why not also eat what’s on promotion? Diverse diet guaranteed!
- Compare your house rent with those of your peers. Are you not living somewhere too expensive?
- Watch out with contracts
- Don’t sign an expensive 2-year (domestic) phone contract if you plan to spend half of this time abroad.
- Don’t get yourself into housing contracts that will prevent you from going away for longer periods.
Choose the length of your trip
This is the first indication for the amount of money you will need to save up. Are you taking a 2-month break, or is it more serious and are you thinking about a much longer travel period? For this, you will need to reflect on a few things:
- Career – What are your ideas or plans about your professional career? How does going away for an extended period affect it?
- Dreams – Do you have any dreams, things that got stuck in your mind ever since you were a child? Taking a long break from life back home is usually the right time to start fulfilling these dreams.
- Must-visits – Are there any places you definitely want to see before you die? How much time would it take to visit all these places? Are they close to each other or in different continents?
Choose a date
You probably know best when is the time to leave for a big trip. Myself I have always planned mine after studies. Being a student in that perspective is a huge benefit because things are pretty predictable (if you are committed to hard work).
If you already have a job, don’t worry because I know about many people who just quit and left. Having kids though makes things a lot more complicated, even though I also know that there are complete families travelling the world.
As time goes by you will get a better idea about the potential money you can save up. You will also roughly know for how long and when you can start your trip, so it’s time for the next steps:
Choose a goal or purpose
Ask yourself why you want to travel. Are you looking for the freedom you never felt before, or do you want to learn more about different cultures around the world? There can be many different reasons why people travel so I will leave that aside.
If you know about the why, then you can define a goal or purpose of the trip. Some (common) examples are: to hitchhike to the coldest city on Earth during winter, to visit all the Stans of Central Asia, or for example to travel literally around the world like I did myself. Without a goal, chances are you will get stranded in a place you like too much and never leave.
It’s time to get down to business. Try to develop cool ideas about your upcoming trip. Some of the things I use to get inspired:
- Youtube – One of my biggest sources of inspiration, the options of things to watch are endless. I mostly watch documentaries.
- Google Earth/Maps – I spent countless hours investigating our planet, zooming in on different regions in the world and wondering how it must be like to travel around there.
- Other travellers – Start talking to travelling friends about the places they like. Also you can follow some travel blogs you like.
- Facebook groups– There are a lot of online communities you can join for more travel inspiration. They can be very specific of nature, for example hitchhiking communities or specific regions like South America.
- Instagram – Especially helpful if you are keen on visiting buildings, temples, nature, etc. Instagram is full of some of the most beautiful photos in the world that can serve as inspiration for your next trip.
- Magazines – Check out some quality magazines (e.g. National Geographic) to learn what is out there.
- News – Are there any developments in the world you want to see with your own eyes?
This is by far the trickiest part of the entire planning process. Researching routes is when your brain is put to work, trying to figure out how all the destinations can be linked together taking into account at least the following aspects:
- Seasons – For mountainous areas it might not be wise to go there during winter, unless you are ready to face -30 degrees Celsius (e.g. Central Asia, Nepal). Countries around the equator usually have very specific cyclones seasons that restrict your travel freedom (Ethiopia, India, Hong Kong, just to name a few).
- Visas – Getting visas can be a pain and often needs careful planning. Especially travelling the Stans in Central Asia, China and some countries in Africa. South America in general is free of visas though.
- Border crossings – Sometimes neighbouring countries only have one public border-crossing, which is crucial to know about if you are planning overland travel. Also when travelling through conflict zones (there are more than you would think!), sometimes border crossings get closed without notice.
- Flight connections – It takes experience to know which global flight routes are common and therefore cheap. Getting from South America to Africa for example is often much cheaper when going via Europe, for example Portugal or Spain. Spend some time trying out different things by combining results from Skyscanner, Google flights, help on Twitter, websites of large airline companies like Turkish Airlines or Qatar Airways, etc. Get creative!
- Money – It usually makes no sense for your budget to backtrack. You don’t want to go back to places you have already been when you are trying to minimise transportation costs. Try to follow a certain logical path (like a circle or so), perhaps by applying some nearest-neighbour tactics.
Even though flying seems an obvious choice, many choose to travel much more overland. It might be slower but in general it is a lot cheaper and you will have much more options. As a bonus travelling overland also makes you experience the country much more than simply flying between (capital) cities.
Researching bus routes is usually a bit more tricky since they are usually found on domestic websites (or not at all). But with the help of wikitravel.org, Lonely Planet’s online forum, local friends and travel communities on Facebook you will often get your first glimpse on what’s available and what’s not. Don’t book anything yet though!
If you are considering to fly somewhere, now is the time to buy the ticket to your first destination. It’s time to finally commit that you are actually going on a trip around the world. Prices are usually not cheaper if you book it longer than 3 months in advance, and less than a month you will often see prices going up again. There are lots of online sources about strategies to book with the best price, so I am going to refrain from going into that topic. The two most important lessons I would like to share with you are:
- Be flexible with your dates and perhaps also destinations – it can save a lot of money.
- Make screenshots of flight prices well before the time you actually want to buy a ticket. This way you have a small historic archive in which you can see how prices have gone up and down over time. With this, you know when you can strike a good deal and when not.
- Phone contract – Find out if you can lower your monthly phone bills during the time you will be abroad. Perhaps you can down-grade your contract to the bare minimum, just so you can keep your phone number. Myself, I cancelled my contract and switched to a prepaid card and transferred my phone number to this one. Extra benefit is that you can’t make any expensive mistakes with data roaming or accidental phone calls in your pocket, the maximum damage will just be the credit on your card.
- Banking – Look at if you are with the right bank that provides the lowest international costs. Compare the costs of money withdrawal abroad, credit card charges and the possibility for online banking. I changed my account years ago, which saved me about €250 on one specific (7-month) trip.
- Travel insurance – Get a travel insurance that suits you. Know what your needs are (especially insuring the value of your belongings, hospital costs), and compare different providers. Also important is to see for how many days abroad your insurance will cover you. By default the length is not sufficient for a larger trip so read the small letters and upgrade if needed!
- Periodic bills – Get a clear overview of the periodic bills you pay, so that you can find out in the next weeks if they can be suspended or not.
- Sell the things you (will) never use – Look around in your house and sell all the things you didn’t touch in years, or things you actually can go without. It will boost your budget a bit more but also help others with cheap second-hand gear and it will tidy up your house.
Health & Safety
- Passport – Make sure your passport is still valid for a good period, especially when you will travel without a definite end. Also keep in mind that many countries will require your passport to still be valid for 3 months when you enter the country.
- Visas – If you need visas get them now, unless you can get them in countries neighbouring your destination because they are usually more quickly processed and easier and cheaper to get. Some visas will become valid from the moment you get them, so don’t get these too far in advance if you want to maximise the days you are allowed in the country.
- Contact lenses – If you are using contact lenses, revise your options: dailies, month lenses, glasses. If you carry dailies, know that it will take up a fair bit of space in your backpack. Plan a visit to the optician to get advise.
- Vaccinations – If you still need to get vaccinations, get them now since some of them (like Rabies and Hepatitis A/B) need several injections before you’re safe. The time between injections can be several weeks. Discuss your travel plans thoroughly with a travel doctor.
You need a good backpack when you’re travelling for an extended period, so take your time searching for one. Typically backpacks are long-term investments, keep that in mind when spending money on them.
- Large backpack – Your large backpack is probably the most important item in your whole travels. Go out to a shop and try on different ones, pay special attention to comfort! Myself I now travel with a backpack of 50 litres, most others will want to go larger though I don’t advise it. Don’t forget to get a rain cover too (usually included)!
- Day backpack – Another vital piece of gear. Decide whether you will bring a laptop and/or DSLR with you, it may affect your range of options. Myself I have different backpacks that I can choose from. On long trips my day backpack is usually a special camera bag with space for a laptop or tablet, but only limited space for miscellaneous items. Try to keep day backpacks as small as possible, if not you will regret it one day.
Start booking accommodation for the first 1-3 nights in the city where you will start your trip. Don’t book anything else because you still want to keep your flexibility at this point. I prefer hostels with a common room since there you can gather lots of advise from other travellers.
For the rest of your trip you can also start looking into the options listed below. When needed, already sign up for an account and start building an attractive profile before you start travelling.
- Couchsurfing – The best way to get the local experience, as you will stay at someone’s house without paying for it. It’s my personal favourite.
- Booking.com/Hostelworld.com – Use the combination of these two sites to see the most up-to-date information about which hostels there are in a specific city. I particularly like the reviews that users post on these sites.
- Wikitravel.org – Use this website to get a first idea about the place you are visiting. Information about accommodation though is usually unreliable: outdated and incomplete.
- Airbnb.com – Never used it myself, but it seems a good alternative for couples, specifically in large cities where double rooms are expensive to book.
- Photos of family – Put some photos of your family on your phone or tablet. It’s an excellent way to break the ice with some locals. Often in Islamic countries people will ask you about your family a lot of times.
- Backups – Put digital copies of your most important documents on a cloud, or email them to yourself. Examples: passport scans, travel insurance policy, scanned passport photos.
- Blog – If you are thinking about staying in contact with your family and friends, sign up for a (free) travel blog website. There are different options: wordpress.com, blogger, tumblr, but also for example travelpod.com (which I used myself some years ago).
- Offline apps – Download the apps you need for travelling. An overview of some essential ones you can find here.
- Skype – Create a Skype account and put some money on it (approx. €10). You will perhaps need it if you need to make phone calls, for example to reach your couchsurfing host or to call with your bank to fix any problems.
- Hard drive – If you don’t have any yet, consider buying a hard drive so that you can backup your (original) photos during your travel.
- Contact lenses – Order extra contact lenses if you need them, delivery usually takes some time so don’t wait too long.
- Dentist – Visit the dentist for the last time, since you won’t be able to go there for some time.
- Vouchers – If you still have some vouchers laying around, spend them now because they might become invalid during your travels.
- Mail – If you have moved to another address, make sure all the mail will be delivered to your new post address. Check if government institutions are informed too.
- Banking – Check if your bank card is activated for use outside your country/continent. If not, change your settings.
- Copies – Print some copies of your passport(photos) and keep them in your large backpack. Trust me, there will come a time when you need it.
Forgetting to nail these last bits can make or break your start of the journey. Pay close attention:
- Phone/tablet – Save some relevant wikipedia/wikitravel pages and other interesting stuff offline on your phone or tablet (use Instapaper). Also download all the maps you will need in the first few days. Make sure your device has ample memory, clean it up before you go.
- Backup money – Put €50/$50 backup money in your large backpack, separate from your wallet (which you should keep in your small backpack).
- Public transport – Have a look to see how you can get from the airport or bus station to your accommodation by public transport so you don’t need to take an expensive taxi.
- Couchsurfing – If you are couchsurfing, send a message to your host to say everything is okay and you will see him soon! Agree upon a clear meeting spot, look it up before you go.
- Common scams – Read up on common scams, and travel safety tips. I wrote a comprehensive article about them, find it here.
So now it’s time to pack your bag, and say goodbye to your family and friends. Perhaps you can throw a big goodbye party!
READ MORE: What I Pack for My Trips around the World