Me-go: Around-the-World


Around-the-world travel is not common in The U.S.A. and is a very novel idea to most people I talk to. I really enjoy talking to someone new who has never heard about my travels before. Not only have they not heard the details of my trip, or my often-repeated stores, but they have a sense of amazement on their faces. Usually, the first question I’m asked is “how is it possible?” After that a person may walk away or talk about something else until they get that same look on their faces and ask about shots or booking hotels. I also receive a lot of questions via this site. Other travelers planning their own trip ask very specific questions about a particular place or border crossing. Non-travelers ask more general questions about how I saved money or manage my career. Below are a few answers to me more common questions. Feel free to send me an email or comment on my blog if you have a question that isn’t answered somewhere on this site and I will reply when I find an internet connection on the road.

How can you afford to do this?
First of all, traveling can be a lot less expensive than you think, especially when you get out of Europe and North America. If I stayed at $150 a night rooms I wouldn’t be able to afford more than a short vacation. But I stay in hostels or inexpensive guest houses in most places and take public transportation. I have slept on a bunk bed in a room with 15 other people, on trains and in train stations. If I added Europe, Australia or The U.S.A. to my trip costs would increase dramatically.

How did you save so much money?
This isn’t so much a traveling question as a lifestyle and money management question. I’ve always had more money in the bank than my sibilings. My sister likes to attribute my “wealth” to a car accident settlement when I was a child in which I recieved $700—that the small amount of money somehow bankrolled me into a financial windfall. However, I like to think that what I did with the $700 is more important than the fact that I recieved it—I put it in the bank. And I continued putting birthday money and after school job money in the bank. I could have spent it, but I have always saved my money.

Of course, in the U.S.A. there are a lot of costs that all other industrialized nations don’t bear, like college and healthcare. I went to a state school which was paid for by my parents so I’m very lucky to have graduated college with no debt and to stay clear of any big purchases like a car or house. Sure, I would like a new Mini Cooper, but I would much rather put that money into a mutual fund and use it to travel. It’s all about choices and priorities. My priority for the past 6 years has been work and travel. I decided that the benefits of living in the city (not with my parents), having a new car and a dog were not worth the drawback of not traveling. Besides, my mom likes cooking me dinner and I like free food!

How much did your trip cost?
I spent roughly $10,000 during 6.5 months in Asia during Phase 1. A detailed breakdown per country and category is available in the financial section of this site. I tend to spend much more than average before I leave, usually on shoes and clothes. My Phase 1 clothes and shoes are worn out so I had to buy some new things for Phase 2—it really adds up.

How do you manage money on the road?
ATMs are a wonderful thing. Most countries have the type that accept international cards in the larger cities. The terminals have English as an option and your money comes out in the local currency. With some foresight it is easy to plan how much money I will need in a particular country and get it while I have ATM access. Some countries (like Cambodia and Laos) didn’t have international ATMs when I left. Laos happened to get one a few weeks before arrived. Countries like this usually have currencies tied to the U.S. dollar anyway and accept dollars as payment. If I buy a meal that costs $2.50 USD in Cambodia I can pay with two dollars and 2,000 riel (4,000r = $1), 10,000r or give a larger bill like $5 and get back $2 and 2,000r in change. Credit cards are not accepted many places aside from very expensive hotels in most poorer countries. I was able to use my credit card in Japan but the Vietnamese charge 3% commission to use credit so it didn’t always make sense to use it there. I also carry some amount of Amex traveler’s checks but rely on them for emergencies only because they do not get the most favorable exchange rate and usually incur a commission.

calendar cover
The cover of my pocket calendar

How did you keep such detailed records of your spending?
It’s easy, I write everything I spend down into a little calendar. As you can see below, it takes dedication, but I find it is a good way to remember what I did on any particular day as well.

What do you mean by Phase 1 and Phase 2?
I originally planned on doing one year-long around-the-world trip when I left Chicago in September, 2004. However, I came home halfway through to spend time with my family (you can read more about that in the about page on this site). I did technically travel all the way around-the-world because I flew home from Bangkok via Kuwait. However, it wasn’t my original RTW plan. Phase 2 is the continuation of my original trip, with a few countries added which I hadn’t originally planned on visiting.

What does RTW stand for?
It’s short for Around-the-World.

How do you book flights?
There are many ways to travel around-the-world, some people buy “RTW tickets” through an airline alliance, some buy RTW flights that are meerly a lot of linked one-way tickets, some people even bicycle or sail around-the-world. It takes some research to determine which method is best for you. Some methods are cheaper and more convienent (RTW Alliance tickets), but they require a fixed itinerary and a route through the major air hubs of the world. These tickets don’t allow for much sponteity and often require fees to change flight dates you have set a year in advance. They also require all travel to be completed in 365 days.

I’ve looked into all methods of travel (besides sailing—I hate water!) and determined that buying a one-way ticket to the appropriate starting point is best for me. Since I’m a planner, I usually talk to a travel agent in the U.S.A. first, just to get a quote on a RTW ticket. My routes never fit into the ‘major hub travel philosophy’ so usually I am presented with a string of one-way tickets. Most recently I was quoted $7,000 for 7 flights—I’m sure that I can average better than $1,000 per flight buying locally. If you plan to fly a simple route like London> Dehli> Bangkok> Sydney> NYC> London then a RT ticket might work out for you. If you are starting from The U.S.A. and heading East you may want to consider flying one-way to London and picking up the rest of your flights there, where much better fares are available.

I use STA Travel more times than not, they are one of the best agencies in The U.S.A. for student rate international flights. Even so, I always get quotes from at least three traditional travel agents, look online and find specialized travel agents in the appropriate ethnic area of Chicago (aka China Town for flights to China). Some have better or less restricted fares and some can offer cheaper fares on particular airlines—useful if you collect frequent flyer point as I do. If you would like to read about my hunt for flights to Asia from Chicago there are some interesting posts in my blog.

As for booking flights while abroad it’s not too hard. Travel agents want your money and, in most countries, will make it easy for you to book a flight. Flights outside of The U.S.A. can be booked closer to the flight date (the price doesn’t go down so drastically for advance bookings) and one-way flights are usually half the price of round-trip fares. In Vietnam I walked into Vietnam Airlines’ offices one day before flying. When I needed to book a flight home to Chicago from Bangkok I had my pick of high end travel agents, airline offices and smaller agencies. I went with a smaller agent who managed to get me a one-way ticket home through Kuwait for only $450. One-way travel does require you to take some time out of your trip to plan and find an agent, but it’s not nearly as much hassle or uncertain as you might think.

How do you book hotels?
I don’t. For the most part I show up in a town and either make my way to a hotel reccommended to me by another traveler, pick one out of a guidebook or follow one of the many touts that congergate at bus and train stations. The only time I worry about hotels and book in advance is when I am arriving on a flight late at night or during a popular festival or holiday. I booked my hostel bed in Mongolia 4 months in advance because I will be there during the Naadam Festival—which commemorates Mongolia’s 800th anniversary this year.

What are you bringing with you?
Less is more. Take a look at the packing section of this site for more details. Some people will be surprised at how many electronics I take and how few clothes. I have drastically reduced the amount of clothing I usually carry to accomidate my toys.

What brand backpack do you carry?
Many people ask about particular backpack styles. This is up to you and over the years I have developed strong preferences. I prefer top loading backpacks because they tend to be thinner and more compressable. I like the loackable zippers found in travel packs, but not the wide, squat shape that makes negotiating a crowd difficult. Packs can range in price from $75-300 and it’s up to you to determine what you really need. My first pack served me for almost 8 years and it was a no-name brand bought from a local sports store. I bought my current back pack (a REI Shining Star) because I wanted a smaller bag to discourage me from buying too many things. My old backpack was 4200cu / 69L and my new pack is 3200cu / 52L.

What camera/electronics do you use?
In Phase 1 I brought a Canon s60. It’s an old model now, and there are many models that are much smaller. I prefer it for it’s 28mm, somewhat wide angle lens and macro function. I brought two 512mb and one 32mb compact flash cards—only twice did I fill them completely.

I also brought an older 12″ Apple iBook laptop which weighs approximately 4lbs. and has a CD burner. My camera attaches with a USB card to download photos and I burn backups of my photos to CD and ship them home. Once the CDs arrive I delete the photos from my hard drive. I stuck a 256mb thumb drive into my bag as well, to carry files between computers if necesary.

My 2nd generation (ie. old) iPod came along and, although it’s battery capacity is greatly diminished, it provides a distraction on long bus rides.

Surge protectors don’t really work abroad, as they need a ground—which most plug converters don’t accomidate. This lesson came via a somewhat charred plug in Beijing. I brought a handful of plug converters, but my U.S. style plug worked everywhere in Asia that I went. European electronics will definately need plug converers for Asia though. All of my electronics had power sources which automatially converted voltage.

For a full packing list visit the packing section of this site.

What do you mean by “cartwheel photos”?
Back in 1997 when I was living in Newcastle, England, I started a tradition of taking photographs of myself doing a cartwheel in every town I visited. Because I travel alone and have to find someone else to take the photo this can take planning (not a skirt-wearing day!), location scouting and patience. I usually carry a cartwheel photo to show as an example when I can’t find anyone who speaks English. Most people who speak English as a second language even have trouble understanding what I want them to do—I guess cartwheel isn’t covered in most vocabulary lessons. Rather than hand over my expensive camera I usually carry a disposable camera for this very purpose. Over the years I’ve collected hundreds of cartwheel photos from North America, Europe, Scandanavia and South America.

What do you do for a living?
I am a graphic designer. After college I worked for the same design agency for six years. I’ve designed and produced a large number of annual reports and books but I do work on identity sytems, collateral and other projects as well. Inbetween Phase 1 and 2 I did not want to commit to a full time job, just to leave again soon. I worked on many freelance design projects, was an extra in two Hollywood films and babysat to earn money. I also attemded a college and managed to finish my certificate in fashion design, which I started about 4 years ago.

How did you make this site?
The blog portion of the site is run by Word Press content management software. The gallery is created with Photostack. The other pages are more or less hand coded with help from my friend Mike Mangi. My site is currently hosted by Dreamhost. During Phase 1 it was hosted by DSense, which also did a good job. The site has grown, which required me to switch hosts for additional space and features, not due to poor service.

Where did you find the maps on your site?
I “hand drew” the maps on this site in Adobe Illustrator myself. As a graphic designer, it’s easy for me and I even find it relaxing. There are many pre-made maps available online which well help you track your trip. Unfortunately, they aren’t as pretty as mine.

How do you access the internet on the road?
Most countries have plenty of internet cafes which allow you to connect via DSL, cable, modem or satellite for around $1 an hour.

Every country and city was different. Japan had plenty of internet shops and one of my hostels even had a wireless network. I expected China to be difficult because the country limits what can be accessed. However, I had no problem getting to any site I tried online. Vietnam was similar, with very fast connections in Saigon. Cambodia was a bit slower but I stumbled upon a cafe in Siam Reap offering free wireless access to customers. In northern Cambodia connections were closer to $3 an hour and via unreliable modems. Similarly, in Southern Laos, connections were upwards of $7 and hour and via a mobile phone dial-up connection. These prices are understandable as many of these towns don’t even have electricity. The rest of Laos had access but most were via slow satellite relays.

Thailand had the largest number of internet shops—keeping competition up and prices down. I had no problem finding a shop that allowed me to connect my laptop. Myanmar’s government control of the internet is surprisingly effective. All free email services (ie. Hotmail) are blocked. I was able to access my email at early on because the site had never been accessed from Myanmar before. However, after only one week the government had noticed the activity somehow and manually blocked my site.

I was able to directly connect my laptop via an ethernet cable at some point in most countries (Laos and Myanmar being the exceptions). However, there were many times when advertising my laptop would not have been wise or when the shop owner didn’t understand the technology and did not allow me to fiddle with their cables. When my laptop is connected it is easy to use my software to FTP files to the site.

What was the scariest thing that happened to you?
Travleing for such a long time period allows me to be very relaxed about most situations. Only in retrospect do I realize that my hotel room’s roof falling in on me in Phnom Penh, Cambodia should have been scary. The naked mastorbator in Damenglong, China was more humorous than threatening but it was the only town in which I was the only foreigner and no one spoke English. In all of my Mandarin lessons I did not learn how to say “Please put your clothes on.” Ultimately, I trust my instincts and keep myself out of dark alleys.

The things that scare me in the moment are traveling by bus or motorbike (drivers in Asia are insane!) and especially boat. One boat ride in particular—the border run on the Meking River from Stung Treng, Cambodia to Laos was on a fiberglass speed boat. It was so shallow that the 4 passengers were only inches from the water. The fact that the driver worre a motorcycle helmet and I didn’t even have a seat belt was a clue that I shouldn’t get too comfortable.

What do you do every day?
Every day is slightly different but usually involves some planning and a lot of walking. If I arrive in a new place I have to find a way to get to the area of town I want to stay in, get a place to stay, plan out what I want to see and how I’m going to get there, find a way to exchange or get money and ultimately find out how I’m going to get out of town and book any advance tickets I might need.

If I’m staying in a town for a while I get up, have breakfast and consult my map to decide which direction to walk. I spend a lot of time walking around residential areas, observing how the locals live. If I’m in a larger city I always go to the local grocery store or market—especially to look at the packaging and product design. I usually have at least one person a day ask to practice their English. I sit and draw, take photos and write in my journal throught the day. At some point I find something to eat for lunch and end up near my hotel for dinner. I sometimes write on my laptop at night or download photos. I do laundry in my hotel sink almost every other day and hang it to dry overnight. If I meet interesting people I may go out to dinner with them or hang out in a communal area—which is when I fall behind on my jornal and web site.

Aren’t you lonely by yourself?
No. But I’m the kind of person that is content to go to movies or concerts by myself when I’m not traveling. I find myself really interesting and can entertain myself most of the time. If you have trouble being alone at home then you will probably have the same problem traveling. But the truth is I’m rarely alone. In fact, between other travelers and locals wanting to practice English I’m usually wishing I could get more alone time to write or draw.

How much do you plan beforehand?
If I’m only traveling for a few weeks I usually plan my schedule down to the day. On a RTW trip I plan a general route and research approximately how many days I want to spend per country. The is subject to change, but it helps me figure out what season I’ll be in each area. I usually book a hotel room for my first destination, especially if flying in late in the day. I also research visas for the first half of my trip to determine if there will be any difficulties getting visas in any countries. I may get a visa in advance for one of my first few countries (China and Vietnam in Phase 1 and China and Uzbekistan in Phase 2) but try to get them on the road—which is usually cheaper and more convienent than mailing my passport to Washington D.C.