Philosophy and Resources. It all depends on your travel philosophy and resources. We are all different people and have our own plan. Below is my way of travel. It is not for everyone. But compare to your values and see how it will affect your pre-trip planning.
I am 63, retired (so have unlimited time lines), money is not an issue (so can do anything irrelevant of cost), am intent on seeing most everything in the world, may not have an unlimited number of years to do it (death could happen at any time), and so generally I try to travel quite efficiently. I don’t think I have time to return to many countries so try to see all that interests me in that one visit. I generally don’t take many days off from travel – it is more like work to me than a vacation.
I travel for about 6 months per year usually in the North American winter. So I pick a part of the world to visit each year and try to fit as many countries in as I can in that time frame. I never book a return flight home – that would restrict me too much.
So in ten years, I have been to 66 countries and have seen most of the Americas, Asia and New Zealand. I have a pretty good idea what my next five years will look like: Africa for 2 winters, Europe for 2 years and Australia for one winter.
Obviously, my philosophy and resulting travel is going to be different from someone who is 19 and on a gap year working where they go, or someone on a two-week holiday from work. But what I do will not vary much from younger travellers on a 1-2 year break from work or from the long-term traveller.
Where Do You Want to Go?
What do You Like to Do? I don’t enjoy lying on a beach. I don’t drink much and so don’t do much of the party scene. I don’t volunteer. I love to hike so visit many National Parks and mountains. I dive. I like history so Unesco World Heritage Sites are always a focus of most of my trips. It turns out that I go to all the same places as most other travellers.
Visas. Sometimes visa duration determines much of the above. With a limited time and flights required in and out, planning more of an itinerary is necessary. I rarely plan as much as I did for China because of the visa rules.
China is a classic example of a limited visa. With a double entry, 60-day visa and a required flight in and out, I thought it reasonable to see most of Eastern China in that time line by not taking many days off. China has 41 Unesco Heritage Sites, more than any other country. I bought a paper Lonely Planet, read it all highlighting what was interesting, and wrote out a rough itinerary. I use old National Geographic maps and I entered all my “places” with a red dot. I started my 6 months of travel in Russia in September, went to Mongolia and wanted to go to North Korea. As I was going to be in China from mid October to mid December, I wanted to see the colder north and western parts of Eastern China first, ending in Hong Kong. So I connected the dots with a highlighter. And I ended up doing pretty much all that I wanted. I didn’t backtrack and didn’t miss much.
But that is more planning than I have ever done before. Usually I don’t have much of a plan at all, other than the part of the world I want to see that year.
Formulate a General Travel Plan and itinerary. But generally, I leave home only with a general idea of what I want to do. I will make a hostel reservation only for the first few nights. I will get almost all of my ongoing visas on the road as some visas are date specific and I don’t want to be held to any time line. No transportation is booked. Limiting myself to any specific time line is not amenable to my travel style. Plans constantly change. I often get ideas from other travellers. I am a vagabonder.
While I always caution against planning your entire itinerary, it is essential to do some basic research about the area you plan to visit.
An excellent general reference for most everywhere in the world is www.travelindependet.info: highlights, climate, transportation, accommodation are all covered in a general way. Another great resource is the book, “The Tavelers Handbook” with much of the same information and more. One negative is that it is UK-based and of more value to Europeans.
But some countries are so large (Canada, USA, Australia, Europe) that it is difficult to generalize.
1. Where You Want to Go
2. What You Want to Do
For Canada, if you like to ski, come in February to April. If you like to hike, come in July to mid September – there will be snow in the mountains the rest of the time and trails are not accessible.
For the USA, if you want to hike and see the Colorado Plateau (highly recommended), that is mostly in southern Utah and northern Arizona, come in the spring and fall. Winter is cold and summers too hot.
Nepal is always gorgeous in October and November and then again in the spring.
3. The Weather. Do not discount weather in your planning.
If you are from cold places in the Northern Hemisphere and want to avoid winter, you want to be away from October to March.
Tropical countries have monsoons and while wet and dry seasons are less delineated with climate change, backpacking is more enjoyable when it is not raining most days. But tropical rains are usually in the afternoon and short-lived. I carry an umbrella and the rain dinn’t bother me much.
Avoid India from May to mid-September and it is too hot anyway.
The Philippines and Indonesia are hot and humid all year but have their monsoon from October to March. This is when I am traveling so I always have an umbrella. But Indonesia is big – it doesn’t rain much on Java in October and November nor on Bali from January to March, nor on Sumatra and Nusa Tengarra (Flores and Komodo) in October.
April is the hottest month in most of SE Asia.
Australia is big so plan where you want to go depending on seasons. The summer can be unbearably hot everywhere but obviously best in the south. Travel to the north in their winter.
4. Avoid the Tourists. The best times are usually shoulder seasons, on the cusp of the high or low periods. Prices are lower and while you might get some bad weather you’ll also avoid a good amount of the crowds.
5. The Culture. Part of what makes the world interesting is to explore a country through its cultures and customs. This custom deep dive can refer to table manners, tipping styles, clothing customs (think Muslim countries), or simply the ways that people say hello and goodbye.
Start with the web sites below and then filter by destination.
www.oh-i-see.com/blog – 20 quirky cultural do’s and don’ts from around the world.
www.globalbusinessleadership.com/gestures – gestures from around the world
www.cyborlink.com/default.htm – business etiquette
www.etiquettescholar.com – dining, restaurants and tipping
www.lwintessential.co.uk/resources/country-profiles.html – country custom guides
www.journeywoman.com/ccc/ – what to wear for women
www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/09/the-worlds-rudest-hand-gestures/245238/#slide2 – hand gestures you want to avoid with a slide show.
DECIDE WHAT TO PACK and Buy What You Need at Home
Somethings are easy to buy on the road (t-shirts), but much of what I bring would only be available in Western countries especially if you want the best, light-weight stuff.
Get a good backpack. Buy clothing that allows layering, is easily laundered and packs small.
What to Bring on my Travel page lists what I have found over my 10 years of travel to be the best gear. It also lists many ideas for women travellers, tech gear, exercise stuff and much else.
www.legalnomads/packingtipsandpackinglists – Has many packing lists from a wide variety of travellers.
Once you have decided where you want to go, look up your visa requirements. I prefer to get my visas on the road, but it can be very time-consuming and sometimes frustrating. Some visas are dated and I don’t want to be held to any time line. To get visas at home, if you live outside the capital of your country where all the embassies are, you must often use visa agencies that are very expensive. It is also very time-consuming.
Depending on your nationality, you will need visas in some countries, but might receive a visa waiver or visa on arrival in others. Since many countries require a visa ahead of time or one that cannot be obtained when you enter the country, it’s best to read up ahead of time about each country and its requirements.
For anyone: Use www.visamapper.com, www.iatatravelcenter.com/travelinformation.php or www. doyouneedvisa.com
For American citizens: http://travel.state.gov/content/visas/en.html
For Canadian citizens: www.travel.gc.ca/travel, but I find the info of little value. It simply says visa required – maybe it is a visa on arrival, maybe it must be applied for in your home country. At best, it is (like everything my government produces) of not much value.
Most country’s governments offer travel warnings. If you paid any attention to these, you wouldn’t go anywhere – they are overly cautious. Saying anything else might make them liable if something were to occur. And if you go to a country they have a warning on, it invalidates your travel insurance.
Everyone knows that there are certain countries in the world you would never go to: Syria, Libya, Yemen, all with civil wars, probably several that have high risk, most in Africa like Somalia, Eritrea, Mali and several sub-Saharan countries. Most of us would have that much common sense. But everywhere else is probably safe when done with common sense and caution.
1. Vaccinations: Yes, you need them. Not all of them, but some basics are important before you head to environments wholeheartedly different from the one your body is used to. Regardless of country, I’ve always made sure I had the following shots up to date: Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Meningitis, Yellow Fever, Tetanus booster, Typhoid/Diphtheria, MMR booster (measles, mumps and rubella) and Polio. There are others such as cholera, rabies, and Japanese encephalitis that are more subjective based on budget and destination, and your doctor will be able to help ascertain how necessary they are.
2. Travel insurance. You never know what can happen when traveling in foreign countries and while some countries are not expensive to find good medical care, others break the budget. Medical insurance is something that you hopefully won’t need on your travels, but if you do get sick, you’ll be relieved to have a policy to protect you.
Visit the Travel Insurance post on my Travel page.
3. First Aid Kit and Medications
PDF COPIES OF YOUR THINGS TO YOURSELF
PDF and email yourself (and archive) copies of your passport, your visas obtained in advance, photocopies of your credit cards (both sides) and any other documents you might need to show and/or potentially lose on the road.
LOOK AFTER YOUR SECURITY
1. Power of Attorney. It is often so much easier having someone at home to look after your affairs in emergencies.
2. Have a Will drawn up.
3. Get a VPN.
4. Have Inside Pockets sewn into all your pants.
5. If you are travelling in a country for more than a few days, register with your local embassy. Most consular services do include registration for citizens abroad, and it is very helpful in the event of emergency (or even natural disasters).
CONSIDER GETTING A GOOGLE VOICE NUMBER Consider getting a Google Voice number so you can receive emails of voicemail transcripts or texts left for you while you were on your travels. While not a failsafe method of communication (let’s just say their voice transcription technology needs a little work) it comforts me to have a number for my parents, bank or friends to reach me along the way.
BACK UP YOUR LAPTOP
If you are traveling with a laptop, consider backing up your photos and computer files online. It’s awful to lose all of your photos and if your computer and backups are stolen, you’re going to be very upset.
www.SmugMug.com for your photos, this have very reasonable storage plans and a great interface for building photo albums.