Are you considering making the greatest of all leaps? Setting aside career and the typical life to hit the road? It’s a daunting task and you may not know where to begin. Based on the number of travel blogs out there dedicated to this, you would think it’s rocket science. Guess what? It’s not.
You’ve decided to drop everything and travel the world. Your friends call you daring, insane, and remind you that you have two cats. You do a quick search to see if there’s anyone else out there like you and what you find is unbelievable. There is a massive community of young people, senior citizens, married couples, or folks ticking off their bucket list items who have dropped everything to circle the globe.
And guess what? They’re all blogging about it. Many even write extremely interesting* articles containing lists of everything you need to know, where to go, and what to bring. Did you want to know the Top 5 Mexican Restaurants in Tibet, maybe the 3 Things People Forget to Bring to the Beach, or how about the 10 Ways to Blow off Steam if You’re Traveling with your Spouse?
For f**k’s sake.
Maybe it’s just me, but what ever happened to exploration? Why do you want all the answers? Isn’t the point to have an adventure? Do a little research, buy gear that won’t break on you, and hit the road. Stop over thinking it and do it.
Plan (but don’t over-plan) Your Itinerary
Angkor Wat, Great Pyramids of Giza, Taj Mahal, Stonehenge, the Great Wall of China, Great Barrier Reef, Victoria Falls, Macchu Picchu, and the list goes on and on. Are you feeling overwhelmed yet? It’s time to relax, because this is actually the easiest part of your trip. That’s right, I said easy and I mean it.
The first step is to write down the major highlights you want to see. I’ll wait…OK, got that list ready? Now cut it in half. Yes, HALF. Stay with me, I’m going somewhere with this. Once you have this smaller list, put all the major points on a map.
Now connect these dots in a logical order. Avoid backtracking as much as possible. You don’t want to fly from Australia to South America and then to China. It doesn’t make sense and your transportation costs (measured in both time and money) will skyrocket.
Now that you have these lines drawn, start filling in the blanks. What other places from your larger list fall in between the major destinations? Now you’re adding items back to your list, but in a logical and thoughtful way. You’ll save both money and time and you will witness firsthand the subtle changes between regions and cultures.
Most importantly, don’t feel wedded to your itinerary. You’re going to meet other travelers and they will have recommendations on things to see or to avoid. You should plan on making last-minute changes to your itinerary, so don’t freak out. Run with it and have fun. Plus, you may end up meeting someone (or some people) that you want to travel with for a while.
Finally, think about the weather. Is there any season you want to avoid? It’s not too difficult to plan your trip so you’re in a pair of shorts for your entire trip. Or perhaps you want to cozy up in a sweater and jacket for most of the trip (although you can’t avoid the tropics if you want to see everything). It takes a little effort, but it’s possible.
That’s it! I have no recommendations on places to see except to see what you want. Take your time, don’t feel rushed. If you have less than three months, perhaps narrow your list and focus on one region. I would recommend at least six months if you would like to make it all the way round the world.
Money, money, money!
What’s your monthly budget? Everyone is different according to both their current income and savings, preferred destinations, and the quality of food and hotel they prefer. Most of us, as working professionals, probably have a little extra money than the young backpacker right out of college. I would say $1,500 to $2,000 if you’re on a budget staying in mostly hostels or very affordable hotels. Can you survive on less than that? Absolutely and this is a personal decision based on the factors listed above.
Of course you can go the opposite direction and spend a lot of money. I would shy away from this or only splurge when you feel a nice break is necessary. The more money you spend, the more isolated you are from other travelers and locals. This means you’re meeting fewer new friends and your overall experience is a more solitary one as most travelers can’t afford 5-star accommodations everywhere they go.
Second, don’t forget about your bank account. Find a bank that has $0 in foreign transaction fees and offers a good currency exchange rate. It’s important that your bank has a great smartphone app to carry out transactions, check balances, and get customer support if necessary. I recommend Simple for those living in the United States. It’s an amazing bank, they have a great app, no foreign transaction fees, and they offer great customer service. An ATM in Honduras took my $300 once and Simple made sure it was refunded to me. I highly recommend them (and they’re not even paying me to say that!).
First things first, you need to check out the traveling classic Vagabonding by Rolf Potts. If you’re only going to read one book, this should be it. Heck, even if you’re not much of a reader, you need to pick this one up. It’s inspirational, informative, and not filled with the excess fluff you read online. It also gives you a few tips on how to be a “traveler” versus a “tourist.” It should absolutely be the first book you read.
Second, pick up a copy of The Rough Guide to First-Time Around the World. It will give you plenty of pointers on how to save money on airfare, healthcare, money, and other helpful bits of information.
Besides these two books, you’ll eventually need country or region-specific guidebooks. Typically, I would recommend purchasing a physical copy of the book so you can highlight to-do items, dog-ear pages, and make notes. However, guidebooks are heavy and take up considerable space in your luggage or backpack. To save yourself the trouble, a round the world trip is the only time I would recommend buying the e-book versions of guidebooks. You may read my full list of recommended guidebooks here.
Non-fiction and fiction books with your destination as the story’s setting are always fun to read too while you’re traveling. For example, if you’re going to Southeast Asia, here are some ideas. I also wrote a terrible review of a great novel, Shōgun, that is set in Japan. You may read that review here.
Take it slow
This is a trip of a lifetime. Will it blow by you in a whirlwind of sights, sounds, and smells that you barely remember? There is so much to see and do and the urge to rush, particularly if yours is a shorter trip, will be almost too much to resist.
You need to slow it down. Take a moment to enjoy where you’re at and the incredible opportunity that’s in front of you to experience something very few have the privilege to do.
If you’re enjoying your time in a place, stay there for an extra day, two days, or even a week. Toss out the old you that thinks about schedules and deadlines (unless you’re going to miss your ride!).
Up, Up, and Away!
In the spirit slowing down, this concept applies to transportation options too. Should you catch a 2-hour plane trip for $50 or a 10-hour train trip for $30? Go for that train ride every time! Nothing beats an overnight train for an authentic sense of travel. Boat trips, like traveling down the Mekong in Laos, are also memorable experiences that stay with you long after your trip has ended.
Backpacks, backpacks, backpacks. Leave your traditional suitcase at home. You’re going to be running to catch trains, hiking or camping, and walking down unknown streets in a foreign city trying to find a hotel because you didn’t book ahead. What about wheeled luggage? Sounds great until you’re carrying it over your head as you balance on a plank of wood getting off a boat.
The only question is will you buy a full-size backpack or something that’s carry-on? This choice is entirely up to you and should be based on your expected itinerary. Will you be visiting cold places where you need extra clothing? Then a full-size backpack is probably essential. If you plan your trip so that it’s always summer or tropical when you visit, you can get away with something smaller as you’ll only need a bathing suit and lightweight casual clothes.
Your bag should also be fairly weather-resistant. Check out bags made with Cordura® versus thin polyester or other fabrics. It is very resistant to the elements, especially at 1000D thickness. I bring two bags with me; the first is a larger bag and the second is a smaller backpack. I use the Topo Designs Klettersack as my small bag and the Saddleback Waterbag as my larger carry-on (for trips of a month or less). The Waterbag is not ideal for extremely long trips due to its weight. I will list a few more appropriate recommendations below.
The other major factor is price and I wouldn’t skimp here. You get what you pay for and the last thing you need is an uncomfortable bag or one that breaks.
I’m very partial to having both my bags with me, so I opt for carry-on size bags. One larger bag that has my clothes and other heavier items and the second is a smaller traditional-sized backpack. Of course you can check the larger bag too if you don’t feel like lugging it around the airport all the time. However, having the option to carry it on the plane with you gives you the guarantee the airlines will never lose your luggage. It also guarantees you won’t over-pack and be burdened with a massive bag.
I recommend trying out the bags in the store to make sure they are large enough for your clothing and items, especially if you have lots of cold weather clothes. If you believe these bags are too small for your needs, check out backpacks that are specifically designed for travel versus hiking backpacks. Hiking packs load from the top which is incredibly inconvenient. This means you’ll need to pack and unpack your bag every time you need to get to something that’s not on top. Travel packs unzip from the sides or front like a traditional suitcase. You have access to your entire bag all the time and you’ll appreciate the convenience as you move from place to place.
The choice for your smaller backpacks is endless, but buy something sturdy. I love Topo bags, but there are more affordable options. Unlike the larger carry-on bag, I don’t feel you need my recommendations as there are plenty of options that will fit your specific needs and budget. Keep in mind water resistance and quality of build and you’ll do fine.
Yes, you need a camera! If you’re not that into taking pictures, then a nice smartphone like the iPhone 6s or newest Samsung Galaxy will do just fine. If you’ve got an older phone and don’t plan on upgrading, perhaps you need a new phone or simply buy a camera.
If you enjoy photography or would like better pictures than your phone can provide, check out the Sony RX100V. Remember that weight matters and carrying around a large dSLR camera may be a burden.
Laptops, Tablets, and E-Readers
Do you really need a laptop? That depends. Will you be working or blogging? How about using editing software for your photos and videos? You can pay a couple of bucks in most places to get on a computer at a cafe if you want to blog. Your smartphone may also have all the photo and editing tools you need. It’s up to you to assess your needs and decide if you want to carry a laptop with you. If you do bring a laptop, I recommend something light like the MacBook Air (the 11.6 inch model is ideal for world travel) or the PC equivalent.
For tablets, I recommend the Kindle Fire HD 8. It’s considerably less expensive than the iPad Mini and has all the same features. You may read my review here. I couldn’t survive without watching movies on long train or plane rides and you’re going to be doing a lot of that. Plus there will be rainy days or days where you just want to relax. A tablet will be a lifesaver. Of course you can watch movies on your laptop too. Do you need both? Only you can answer that.
I love reading on the beach, which is difficult with a tablet due to the sunlight. Plus carrying around a lot of books is impossible, so don’t even try. Pick up a Kindle Paperwhite; it’s what I use and I highly recommend it. You could also purchase the Kindle Voyage or the traditional Kindle depending on your budget or preferences. If money is no object, you could also buy the recently announced Kindle Oasis. If you’re only getting an e-reader to read guidebooks, use a tablet instead as it doubles as a movie-player.
Remember weight matters and only bring what you can’t live without. If that means choosing one of these, assess your needs and choose wisely. You could use your smartphone for everything, but the small screen may get on your nerves and your battery will need frequent charging.
What to Wear
I’m not your mother, so I don’t feel the need to tell you what to wear. I’m also not going to belittle your intelligence by saying you need your ski jacket if you’re going skiing and your bathing suit if you’re going swimming.
I will only give one piece of advice and it’s a recurring theme throughout this article. Weight matters. Clothes are the heaviest part of your bag and you need to pack smart. You have two options.
First, buy clothes as you need them according to the weather. If you need a jacket, buy a jacket. A new bikini? Done. When it’s time to move on and you don’t need that item anymore, get rid of it. Sure, you could keep it, but why? It’s weighing you down and may prevent you from picking up something truly worth keeping later (that awesome souvenir or memento of your trip). This sounds easy enough, but keep in mind the local clothing options may not be ideal, in terms of fashion, sizes available, and their overall quality.
Second, you can plan your itinerary to avoid cold weather. Due to the southern and northern hemispheres having opposite seasons and the equatorial countries always being warm, you could pack summer clothes and be good for the entire trip. Shorts and t-shirts weigh far less than jeans, sweaters, and jackets.
Regardless of the option you choose, it will be almost impossible to avoid the rainy season. Don’t let the rain deter you. I’ve been to Thailand, Laos, the Philippines, and Indonesia during the rainy season and had a great time. Sure, it’s ideal to avoid the rain as much as possible, but there are some destinations that are better (green lush jungle, incredible waterfalls, and raging rivers), more affordable, and less crowded during the rainy season.
There is no wrong answer here. Do what you want, pack light, and pack smart.
Do You Need Travel Insurance?
The short answer is yes, you absolutely need travel insurance. Most travel insurance plans will cover you for loss of luggage, theft, and most importantly for health and illness issues. I know two people who have spent anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks in foreign hospitals. One was due to injury and the other was mosquito-borne illness.
If your electronics are stolen, you need compensation. If your luggage falls off the side of a boat and is lost in the ocean, you’ll need cash to purchase new clothes. And, knock on wood, you may need to be evacuated to another country in the event of serious illness or injury.
Wrap it up
I know what you’re thinking, “That was a long article!” and you’re right. However, it’s all you need to get started. Don’t be lured by over-planning and obsessing over the most minute details. Ignore the lists of what you need to see and bring. Make your own lists; see what you want and bring only what you need.
Exploring the unknown is the only path to authentic travel, both in a literal sense and whatever metaphysical transformation you may be hoping to achieve.
Have a wonderful trip! Always remember that life is best lived Outside the Cube.
*that’s a lie, they are not interesting.
Outside the Cube’s photos are © and may not be used without permission. All other photos used in accordance with the Creative Commons License and the copyright belongs to the photographer. (1) Cover photo by Kate Ter Haar. (2) “Traveler” by Dheri Fikriyanto. (5) “Maeklong Railway” by M. Louis. (7) Camera photo by Dave Dugdale. (9) “Cold travelers” by Seth Sawyers. (10) “Chiang Mai” by Andrea Schaffer.