It's November 2016, and Donald Trump has just been voted in as the President of the United States of America.
Sorry. I realise that's an unpleasant way to start a post.
As Zev and I watched the news, we knew we had a decision to make. Would we continue with our plan to move to the US (Zev's original home country)? Or would we shelve that move for a time when things in the United States might be a little more... welcoming?
We started brainstorming. What did we want to do with the next 5 years of our lives? One thing topped both of our lists: travel. We realised that it was time for us to hit the road again. We had a blast on our honeymoon, and we knew we could achieve even more the second time around.
So we started planning. We had a chat about the places we wanted to cross off the bucket list in the near future: Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Central and South America... Now I have to say, this is yet another place where Zev and I have different approaches, and different skill sets. Generally speaking, I do the at-home trip research, and Zev does the on-ground trip research. Which means that the bulk of the pre-trip work is my domain, while Zev chimes in with the occasional, "Yes, dear. Sounds great, dear". But once we're on the road, his work begins - he's the transport coordinator and accommodation booker. When it comes to day-to-day activities, we work together to decide what we want to do. It works for us so that we're both contributing, and both get to do the parts that we enjoy. And we don't kill each other. Win-win.
One thing to note before we crack on: before you start, figure out what is stopping you from doing exactly what you want. Is it money? Start by setting a budget, and go from there. Is it time? Set a time frame, and create a trip that fits within in. The steps below are in the order that I complete them, but hey, I'm no expert! Do what you want people.
Where do I begin? Here are my steps for planning long term travel.
1. Research: where to go
Maybe before you even decide that you're going, you know where you want to go. Maybe it's the holiday you've been planning in your head for years. Or maybe you have absolutely no idea where to start. Fear not, the first step is the same regardless!
My first stop is the library, where I get out all the travel guides I can on any destination I think I might like the sound of. My favourites are Lonely Planet, and Rough Guides. They've served me well over the years, are updated frequently, and give a good overview of the destinations for a range of budgets. That said, there are a wealth of guide books on the market. Spend some time figuring out what which one suits you. A word of note when using library guidebooks (or, in fact, any printed guidebooks): they may not have the latest edition, or things may have changed since the book was printed. While it's unlikely that the Taj Mahal has moved, things like visa information, opening hours, and pricing for accommodation and attractions may have changed - so by all means use it as a guide (HA!), but don't treat it as the gospel.
Which brings me to my next long term travel planning resource: the internet. Once I have a better idea of the general places I'd like to see, I hit the web. If you're here, I'm sure you have favourite travel bloggers who have a myriad of tips, tricks, must sees, and must dos for anywhere you're planning on going. Some of our favourites include:
The Drifter Collective
Girl vs Globe
Alex in Wanderland
That should be enough to get you started! I also use Pinterest, which is a treasure trove of "Top 10 things to do in X" posts.
I usually identify a country, look at the top things to see or do there, google some suggested itineraries... Get creative, and search for what interests you. Zev and I both love hiking, so we'll often look up the best hikes in places we're going. We also both play the best sport in the world, Ultimate Frisbee, so we look up tournaments in the area.
This research not only gives you a better idea of where you want to go and what you want to do, it's also a great way to get inspired. This will help you make your dream trip a reality! Honestly, this is my favourite part of planning. At this point, the world is your oyster, and you can go wherever and do whatever you want!
2. Decide when to go, or more importantly, when not to go
With long term travel, this can be a bit of a pickle. You can't be everywhere at the 'right' time (depending on how long you plan on travelling of course!). You can, however, make sure you're not anywhere at the 'wrong' time. As a disclaimer, Zev and I don't really follow this rule. We just turn up, and hope for the best. On one occasion, we rocked up to do a boat tour of Tonle Sap during the dry season, so they weren't operating - oops!! That did, however, lead to a pretty awesome day spent cycling around the Cambodian countryside on a different tour. We spent a fair portion of our time in South East Asia in the rain. Not the end of the world. That said, if you have identified things that are important to you in step 1, make sure you're arriving at the right time to make it happen.
If you're travelling on a budget, look for the shoulder season to make your dollar last. In the peak season, you may get the very best of the weather, but you're also going to get the largest crowds and the highest prices. In the low season, you may get the worst of the weather, and lots of places might be closed.
3. Put it all together: make an itinerary
"Now hang on Sam!", I hear you cry. "I thought you were all about spontaneity, and flying by the seat of your pants!" Yes, I am. But I still think you need to have some idea of where you're going to go. This is the point where we start tacking together the places we want to visit. By the time we're finished here, we have a list of places in an order that makes geographical sense. Ta-da! Itinerary!
4. The scary bit: budget
Yikes. Now that you have a rough itinerary, you can figure out roughly how much you'll need to have before you hit the road.
Look at your itinerary, and figure out how long you think you'll be in each country. Top tip: always budget more time than you think you'll need. Maybe you'll get somewhere and fall in love (either with it, or with another human - you do you). You'll blink, and three days will become three weeks. Maybe you'll miss the bus to your next destination, and the next one isn't for a few days. Or maybe flights will be so expensive that you'll have to take a side trip to a different country. Either way, it's better to assume you'll take more time. When we headed off on our honeymoon, we planned to spend three months in South East Asia. By the end of month three, we'd only made our way through two countries, and were nowhere near done.
No one wants to be packing up and moving every other night . You'll get burnt out, and you'll spend more money the faster you travel. Slow and steady wins the race!
Once you have an idea of how long you'll be in each country, you can figure out a rough daily estimate for costs. This is where your guidebooks and web research skills will come in handy again. This daily cost will vary hugely depending on how you travel, but be honest with yourself. Will you really spend every day sleeping in shared dorm rooms with no air conditioning, eating nothing but crackers? Be realistic. We usually research a mid-range budget, and then take the higher figure if there's a range. You'll never be upset that you budgeted too much for a trip, but you'll definitely regret it if you run out of money after two weeks.
Once you've done this for all the countries or regions that you're planning to visit, it's time to add in your 'big ticket items'. Your average daily budget is just that - an average. If you're planning on hiking to Macchu Pichu, or climbing Mt Kinabalu, you'll need to add that to your budget.
And now you're done, right? That big, scary number is all you need to hit the road? Not so fast. Now it's time to add in the things that you might not think about.
This is probably going to be your largest pre-departure expense, so do your research carefully. There are loads of posts around by people who know far more than I do about the best way to get cheap flights, get air miles, or book round the world tickets - so many that we're not even going to bother writing about it. Last time Zev and I left, we had two one-way tickets to Bangkok, and nothing else. Imagine our surprise when we got to the airport and were nearly not allowed on our flight because we didn't have proof of onward travel! Make sure you know what the airlines require before you book, and check for hidden fees like baggage. Our method is to book a one way ticket to our destination, then book a fully flexible onward flight that we just keep changing as the trip goes on. On our next trip, we'll be doing this via STA Travel NZ's multi-flex pass.
Visas are really important, and can also be really costly. Take a look at the countries on your list, and look up their visa requirements. We've used Project Visa in the past and found them really good - the website seems to be updated regularly. They also have links to the embassies where you should be able to find up to date information.
First stop: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Here, you can search by country to see a list of the recommended vaccinations, and any other health alerts related to the countries you're planning on visiting. Also be aware that some vaccines need to be given in a course, which can take some time to complete, so get on to this sooner rather than later. While it's up to you whether you get most of these vaccinations (it's unlikely you'd ever be asked for proof of vaccination, with the exception of yellow fever if you're travelling from a country with a known risk of yellow fever), as a nurse, I strongly suggest that you get the recommended vaccines. Yes, I KNOW they're expensive. There are many ways to save money for travelling, but skimping on your health should not be one of them. A week in hospital (or worse) with a vaccine-preventable illness is likely to cost more, both financially and physically, than the vaccine.
This is another big one. Zev and I always use (and love) World Nomads. Thankfully, we've never had to claim anything, but they come with an outstanding reputation, and cover a number of activities that many other insurers don't. Regardless of who you choose, read your policy carefully. Make sure that both you and your stuff will be protected in the event of something going wrong while you're away. And if you're planning on doing anything super adventurous (like base jumping into an active volcano - I know, not a thing), and it's not explicitly mentioned in your coverage, it pays to check with your insurer whether you're covered.
Any extra 'stuff' you might need
This point might be a little controversial, but for me, gear is one of the things I love most about travelling. Now I'm all about minimalism and travelling light, but high quality gear that I love is important to me. You might have everything you need to pack up your bag and hit the road tomorrow, in which case, GREAT! But if there are any other things you need to get before you go (like a passport, or a bag, or a good pair of walking shoes), don't underestimate how this adds up. You don't want to be eating into your travel money before you've even left!
Once you've done all of that, guess what?? You've got your basic budget! Now, add 10%. I know, I know - this number is getting huge. But you DO NOT want to be halfway around the world with no money, and no way of getting home.
What to do if you don't have the money you need?
Basically, you have 2 choices: change your trip, or change your money situation. Either cull your itinerary to fit your budget, or wait longer to leave so you have more time to save money. This is where my earlier point about deciding what your limiting factor is comes in. If have to go in December because that's when your office is closed for six weeks, then massage your itinerary to fit your budget. But if this is the trip you want to do, and you don't have time as a constraint, wait longer and save more.
Of course another option is to figure out how to make money on the road, or cut costs. Don't forget to look into things like Couchsurfing, Wooffing, Work Away and other programmes to save some cash while you're travelling (but don't forget that if you're saving money, it's important to give back in other ways). Or if you can, earn some money while you're away. Find out if your job will let you work remotely, looking into working holiday visas if that's what you're into, or look into online freelance work.
5. Start saving
This is BY FAR the least fun bit. I'm not going to bore you with the details of how to save money - you know how to do it. Spend less than you earn, don't buy shit you don't need etc etc. Start by getting rid of all your debt, then cut your expenses to the bare minimum. This would probably be a good time to start looking into airline reward credit cards too.
During the saving period, it's really important to keep yourself motivated to save. While you're slogging away at work and saying no to nights out, it can be really hard to keep on track. We like to keep motivated by tracking our savings (nothing is more exciting than seeing the amount in your savings account continuing to grow!). We also set a budget for fun - so we still get to go out and enjoy ourselves, we just have to be more choosy about what we agree to do. We have more potluck dinner parties and fewer dinners out with friends, more camping trips and fewer weekends in hired holiday houses.
Do what you need to do to keep your goal in mind. Print pictures of your destinations, and plaster them everywhere. Read books set in your destination. Watch some foreign films. Get some language books out of the library and brush up on the local language. Now that you have the daily budget of the places you're going, think of things in numbers of days: "Do I want a dinner out at a restaurant, or two days in Peru?".
We've planned and saved, now what??
Once you've done all your planning, and have saved enough to make your dreams a reality, where do you go from there? For Zev and me, that's basically it. We book our flights, get our vaccinations and insurance, and hit the road! The rest of the logistics, we take care of once we're away.
Hopefully, by this point you feel like you've got a handle on how to start turning your dream trip into a reality. This is what works for us, but different methods will suit different people, so spend some time figuring out what works for you.
Comment below if you think there's anything we've missed, or if you have any other great advice for people who are just starting out with planning their big trip!
Lots of love,
S & Z
Note: this post contains affiliate links. That means that we may make a small commission on purchases you make through one of our links, without any extra cost to you. Rest assured though, we would never recommend something we didn't truly believe in, or use ourselves.