Sunday, January 4, 2015

FAQ of Long-Term Travel

So we've done our trip, returned home, gotten jobs, settled in completely, and not finished writing our blog. We know, it's just tough to finish once life in the home world starts up again. Seems creative writing has a bit less convenient place in this life!

But, we have had various friends contact us to ask about long trips they want to do, and the nuggets of advice or wisdom we may be able to offer. So here's our answers, in your basic FAQ format. And if you are going on a trip like ours, and want some advice, just ask (and we'll update this post)! We love to share our hard-earned knowledge (well, only some of it was hard-earned. Some of it we got from other travelers who went before!).

What did you wish you had brought that you didn't? What do you have that is indispensable? What do you wish you had? What do you wish you left behind?
We wrote a Packing List after our first 100 days of travel that, in retrospect, is still quite accurate. Pepto bismol pills and a scarf/pashmina/wrap are still indespensible. There is nothing I wish I had and couldn't buy (and for considerably less money than I could have bought it in the states - the only caveats here are the pepto pills, neosporin, and tech gadgets). The other caveat is if you are going straight to the outback...otherwise, you can buy things you need anywhere there is a concentration of local people!

For leaving behind, we sent a lot of stuff home (or left it for hotel cleaning staff and other locals who might want it), including makeup, a travel hair dryer, Cory's sleep sack, beach clothes once we hit Europe in the fall, and my point-and-shoot camera (we kept one iphone and one fancy camera).

What location was the best surprise?
China, hands down. Cory wanted to hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge and I had no interest in what I assumed would be a smoggy, unappealing country. Boy was I wrong! There is so much to see and do across the country, China is filled with incredibly friendly people who want to practice English, share their food and heritage and were very welcoming to us (in addition to often being in awe that we were able to travel without speaking Mandarin). And the west side of the country is budget friendly. So if you feel as I did, lower your guard, open our eyes, skip the big bus tour and explore China on your own...oh, and climb their holy mountains. Puts the awe back in awesome :)

Did you get burned out with long term travel? If so, how did you remedy that?
Yes, definitely. Many days are not glorious, filled with long bouts of travel (because on a super budget, if a short flight is $100 but a 15 hour bus is $5, you're going to need to learn to love the bus). And you need to take the time to plan your next stops, which can be especially difficult when you're new to the area. But you'll get a lot of time you didn't anticipate because you don't have to go to work or commute, which gives back more time than we thought we'd have.

Our remedy for burnout was to get out of whatever city we were in for a "weekend" (which could be any few days of a week really) in the countryside, or to allow ourselves to be in an incredible place and spend the day watching netflix inside.  It helps to give yourself permission not to be "on" all the time, for months.

How much did your trip cost overall and how did you save the money?
All in, we spent $35,500 for 8 months of travel (including everything we purchased in preparation, not including the value of family and friends who put us up along the way), which comes down to just under $3,000 per month. As it happens, that's a lot less than our life in San Diego cost us before we left. Sure, we had to save all those dollars ahead of time because we weren't bringing any in while we were gone, but there was no rent, utility bills, gas and car expenses, and all the other expenses that go along with life at home. Our year was much less expensive than if we had stayed home!

How we saved was another question all together! Our savings started in October of 2011 and we left April of 2013. When we started saving, we had two well paying jobs and no consumer debt. We were living in a less expensive apartment than we could "afford", we had two paid-off cars over 10 years old, and every time we went to buy something non-essential, we would say "would I rather have this or a day in Vietnam?". Vietnam usually won :) And when we left, we had an influx of money by cashing out our excess vacation time when we left our jobs, we sold one of our cars and many of our belongings (and to support us, many of our generous friends and family purchased our things or gave us gifts as they could). Of course, once we got home, we only had one car and had already spent the money from selling the other one, but after a year of travel, we find we don't need as much stuff, and in fact we don't need two cars living in San Francisco. So now we're a one car, one scooter family, and happier for it. But it's not likely we would have made that decision without the trip to help us.

Lastly, and on a technical level, we tracked our spending and saving ahead of the trip using Mint, and cannot recommend it highly enough! Once on the trip, we became a cash based economy and used a really fabulous excel spreadsheet I made to track all our purchases daily, and keep track of how much money we had left. If you send me an email, I'm happy to send you the template.

How did you access your cash as you traveled?
Most of the world had pretty easy ATM access, with some specifics. Some countries (Vietnam) don't allow you to take much money out each day so you stop frequently, some countries (Cambodia) only give out $100 bills even though you can't easily spend that much money in that country, and some (China) had a lot of ATMs we couldn't access (every time we passed a Bank of China ATM, we withdrew some more!). And when you get to Turkey, make sure you have $25 cash US each, or they won't let you in until they decide to walk you through customs to visit the ATM.  You figure it out as you go via trial and error.

The biggest issue here was having a bank account with free ATM withdrawals globally. Our credit union, the San Francisco Firefighter Credit Union gives us free ATM withdrawals, and pays us back for whatever the ATM/local bank charges, and I've heard Charles Schwab has a similar deal. SFFCU also gave us a credit card with no international transaction fees (most cards cost 3% per transaction!) which was a life/budget saver.

Do you ever wish you had a local phone (or do you have one?)  Did you use email primarily to keep up with family, or Skype, or something else? Can you find the information you need and do the planning you need online through the iPad? Is it hard to find wifi?
Skype is great - we brought a computer and iPad on our trip, both of which can Skype to either communicate with family and friends or be able to buy Skype credit and for 8 cents per minute you can call any phone in the world (Skype to Skype is free). The only caveat is that you need wifi, which we found plentiful around Asia certainly. We had a local phone in Thailand for the first week and not at all for the following 6 months, and it was just fine. You learn to be somewhere when you say you will, because you can’t just call your partner to change plans. If you agree to meet in front of a building at 3:00 you need to be there because you can't call your partner to change plans last minute. I think this is probably a good return to basic respect, from before we all had cell phones and could change plans on people to suit your own convenience. I would happily go without a phone again (and this is coming from someone who was an iPhone junkie before the trip!)