Flying: The Basic Options

Flights, at least intercontinental ones, are pretty essential when it comes to a round the world trip (unless you’ve got a ton of time and reeeaally like the open ocean). And yet, arranging them can get complicated in a hurry. This is only made worse by the fact that a “round the world” trip is by nature not a round trip, but a long series of one-way trips. As anyone used to flying knows, this is not conducive to being cheap. But fortunately, a number of budget consolidators, and even the airlines themselves, offer “round the world” tickets at reasonable rates.

These tickets generally have a lot of restrictions, but are also quite flexible, if that makes any sense. You have mileage limits, time limits, minimum stops, maximum stops, no backtracking, and surely more depending on the specific type, class or plan you choose. But you can also change dates quite easily, though changing destinations may cost you a tidy little fee. We’ve started sifting through some of these plans and looking for what makes the most sense for us. The major problem is that vague information is pretty easy to get, but specific information about actual fares and comparisons are very difficult.

Our first option is one that isn’t likely to be useful to too many people. We have managed to pile up a lot of frequent flier miles on Continental (the one “plus” of all those years in Houston … as if it can make up for the rest). They have an option where you can redeem your miles (a whole 140,000 of them) for one round the world ticket. But all is not rosy. As anyone who has tried redeeming miles for anything, it’s not as simple as it sounds. There’s all kinds of restrictions on available seats, and it gets exponentially more difficult when they have to coordinate with other airlines about this. Then throw in their further restrictions that all travel be completed within one year of issuing the ticket, meaning we would have to wait until almost immediately before leaving to even book our ticket. Also, the ticket itself is quite restricted, with a maximum of six destinations. So it’s our first option because it’s cheapest, but it’s pretty clearly not the easiest and/or best. We’ll update you about our experiences with the system as we go.

The cream of the crop as far as airline alliances go seems to be the round the world ticket from Star Alliance. United and US Airways the American carriers of Star Alliance. I’ve flown both of them and have never been a fan of either, but here’s why they’re good for RTW trips. You can venture to up to 15 cities, there are different tiers of mileage and class (and therefore price) to fit your trip, you can change dates at will (though changing cities will still cost you). As importantly, they have the largest network of flights, and are one of the few that has direct flights between Africa and South America, something we would prefer to do (though their coverage in South America is apparently weak). There’s still that little matter of cost, since they’re not the cheapest. We will be trying to get actual quotes for our trip and see how they compare. If only we had the foresight to get United miles instead of Continental, as these tickets are also available with miles, but alas, we do not have a spare 200,000 United miles.

Another good option we still need to consult is STA travel. If you can believe it, I’m still technically a student so this works for us. They’re very well known and very used to doing these kinds of tickets, and surely could sit down with us and hammer out something that would get us to all those places we want to go.

The remaining options delve into the network of consolidators. And as far as this is concerned, right now, your guess is as good as mine. I found a cool tool at Airtreks that lets you interactively pick your route, but I haven’t exactly been blown away by their rates. We may also consider not purchasing a traditional RTW ticket as we are doing fairly specific traveling. Especially with the rise of local low cost carriers, it may be worth simply purchasing tickets between our big destinations, say US to Bangkok, Bangkok to India, India to Africa, Africa to South America, and done. In between flights we could purchase on location.

As you can see, this not quite a sorted out part of our trip. But the point is the process. We’re here now, we’ll see where we are in a few weeks/months. Hopefully we’ll have these tickets before we leave.

Planning Southeast Asia

Remember when Theresa wrote up a details about all the countries in Africa we wanted to go to? Well around that time I was supposed to do my analysis of Southeast Asia in much the same way. And in typical Jeff fashion, here it is, three weeks late. In my defense, one of those weeks was in Sweden while the other was in San Diego. Throw in a weekend in Richmond, and here we are.

But tales of my procrastination and lack of organization are not why you are here. So having finally finished my leisurely 700 page read “Southeast Asia on a shoestring,” here’s the long list of places we’re most interested in going.

Cambodia: It’s definitive draw (justifiably so) are the Temples of Angkor, the most famous of which is Angkor Wat. The whole country seems dotted with these Khmer temples about a millenia old. It’s probably not the coolest thing about me, but one thing I do love about traveling is the history lessons, and Cambodia seems to have them in spades. I’m sure Theresa will humor me. It’s more recent past with the Khmer Rouge is intensely sobering, though they are arguably more important history lessons. Memorials to those lost are also required visits.

Indonesia: We may be better off going by islands rather than nations because of all the islands in Indonesia, only Borneo, comprised of three nations, and Papua, comprised of two, particularly interest us. The more well known islands of Java, Bali and Sumatra seem overcrowded, touristy, and indistinct, respectively. Anyway, we love the natural beauty, rural setting and tribal dominance that exist on Borneo and Papua, not to mention Orang Utans, pygmy elephants and rhinos to see.

Laos: It seems to be the laid back country in the region, which sounds like a welcome change after Cambodian temples and Bangkok, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City. Though I’m sure we’ll both relax comfortably in the charming French colonial city of Luang Prabang, I’m excited about spelunking at Vang Vieng and looking for the Irrawaddy dolphins at Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands).

Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur and it’s incredibly diverse experiences is an obvious spot to hit, but we’re really intrigued by a lot of the other options on the peninsula: trekking between villages and tea plantations in the Cameron highlands, riding a train along the jungle railway, jungle camping in Taman Negara National Park. This doesn’t even include half of Malaysia that is on Borneo (already discussed under Indonesia), with more spelunking, 4000 meter tall Mt Kinabalu to hike, and did I mention pygmy elephants?

Philippines: There are three things drawing us to the Philippines, all of them in the water. The first is the islands around Cebu, connected with a dizzying array of ferries. The second are the Calamian islands, beautiful, laid back, with some amazing diving among WWII shipwrecks (see more about diving with Thailand). The third is swimming with whale sharks in Donsol, which has got to be ridiculously cool, I mean, they’re 50 feet long!

Singapore: I don’t have much to say here besides we know we will be going there. Since we know we’ll go there, I haven’t looked so hard into what exactly we’ll do there. That will come when we start to think about how much time we’ll want to spend there. Just another victim of procrastination …

Thailand: We’ll get the obvious out of the way again, because Bangkok will probably be our first stop on the whole trip (by default … we’ll probably fly in there). It does have an absolute ton of culture and history to offer in one chaotic, slightly dirty package (which sounds a lot like Cairo to us … and we loved Cairo). There’s a lot more to do though, the beautiful and crazy resort town of Phuket, the dive mecca of Ko Tao (where we intend to get PADI certified), elephant rides and treks to hill tribe villages near Chiang Mai, and the ancient cities of Ayuthaya and Sukhothai. Thailand has a great travel reputation for a reason.

Vietnam: Finally, there’s the country that conjures up all kinds of imagery to Americans. To be frank, we’re fascinated by the country, it’s beauty and it’s hardship. Hanoi houses Vietnamese and communist history in a French colonial wrapper, while Ho Chi Minh City reveals the hardship in the War Museum, the Cu Chi tunnels and Reunification Palace. In between lie beauty at the archipelago at Halong Bay, the ruins of Hoi An and the highlands of Dalat.

So that pretty much sums up where we want to go in Southeast Asia. The one that hurts to leave off is Burma, as it seemed like a fascinating place. But as we have earlier describe, we don’t feel right about going there and supporting the current regime, especially when the democratically elected leader under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi, has requested foreigners not to visit the country. Additional countries we won’t be traveling to include East Timor, since it is not particularly stable, and Brunei, since it’s on Borneo with Malaysia and Indonesia, countries we have more interest in visiting.

So anyway, all things considered, we’ve now finished the easy part (at least with Africa and Southeast Asia). The hard part is figuring out where we can actually go on our budget and time frame. There’s were the real parsing begins. And just like in Theresa’s Africa post, there’s a lot of overlap … beaches and islands and jungles and trekking, with a few large cities thrown in. Though to be fair, I don’t really get tired of those things.

Planning the Africa Leg of the Trip

I’ve finally finished my perusal of Lonely Planet’s Africa on a Shoestring, which I was using to get an idea of places worth visiting. Actually, I’ve been done for a while, but I was holding out on posting, hoping Jeff would finish the Asia guidebook and we could also post about that region. Unfortunately, Jeff has been swamped with work as he tries to get everything done in time to graduate with his PhD early next summer, so Asia will have to wait a bit.

Anyhow, on to Africa. While others might think of South Pacific islands, in my mind Africa is the definition of exotic. It’s a place so entirely different from my “ordinary.” As we’ve talked about this trip and slowly begun to turn it into reality, Africa has always been my goal, the one place I most wanted to go. I’m pulled to this continent by its stunning natural beauty, its awesome wildlife, and its unique culture. I think I could spend our entire year here, so narrowing places down was hard, and there is still much decision making to do. There will certainly be some wonderful places that end up on the cutting room floor.

So why don’t I then begin with the places that we will not be going.

West Africa: Because Africa is such an enormous place, we had to first narrow possible destinations down by location, and when it came to East versus West, East won. The Serengeti, Victoria Falls, and Mt. Kilimanjaro just held too much sway. Perhaps on RTW Take 2, we’ll do West Africa.

Countries We’ve Already Been To: So that’s only Egypt. Africa is very much a land of unknowns to us. If Egypt is at all a taste of the continent, we’ll both be very happy. I don’t think either Jeff or I would have any resistance to going back, but this trip is about the places we haven’t been, not the ones, no matter how cool, that we’ve already experienced.

Unsafe Spots: Yes, life is about taking risks, but not unnecessary ones. So we will be avoiding Sudan, Congo (Zaire), Burundi, Somalia, and Angola.

And now for the exciting part, the countries that interest us. Yes, I know this is way too much, but for this go-round, I was being open to the possibilities, noting everything that captured my imagination.

Rwanda: I can see the radars going off already. For most of us, our defining image of Rwanda is that of the merciless civil war that pitted Hutus against Tutsis and led to what can only be called genocide. However, the country has moved on from the atrocities of 1994, and it is now a safe place to visit. Highlights of Rwanda are the Parc National Nyungwe Forest, where you can see chimpanzees in the wild, and Parc National des Volcans, where you can go on gorilla treks and explore the volcano.

Uganda: Like Rwanda, Uganda has the gorilla thing going on. We’ll obviously only go see them once (it’s not cheap!), but where, I’m not yet certain. The bad news with the Uganda gorillas is that they live in an area right near the border of Congo and sometimes cross over, which then means you are out of luck, since you can’t follow into Congo (and don’t really want to). Also, apparently, Uganda is the more popular destination, making it harder to get a spot on a trek. Other cool things in Uganda include Queen Elizabeth National Park–which was wildlife walks and drives and has hippos(!), Ssese Islands–a lovely beach area, and Jinja–the source of the Nile and a hot spot for whitewater rafting.

Tanzania: If there’s one country that really has it going on, Tanzania might be it. You’ve got Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater, Mt. Kilimanjaro, and Zanzibar. So crazy wildlife, amazing mountain trekking, and great beaches and scuba diving. There’s also the Usambara Mountains, which are known as “Africa’s Switzerland,” and are great for hiking. What’s not to love?

Kenya: Often thought of as the traditional land of the safari, Kenya is home to the Masai Mara, famous for the annual wildebeest migration, and Tsavo National Park. Tsavo just happens to be the name of the lion that resided at the Louisville Zoo when I worked there (and may have been the lion that was thought to have escaped one Halloween although it turned out he was just doing a very good job of hiding). Interesting trivia, huh? Kenya also offers an opportunity to mountain bike at Lake Naivasha and & Hell’s Gate National Park. Seriously, a park named Hell’s Gate, how can you not want to see that?

Ethiopa: This isn’t your mother’s Ethiopia, no longer the image associated with the “There’s starving children in Africa” ploy to get you to eat your vegetables. These days there is plenty of injera to go around, t hough I can’t say that I’m much of a fan of this spongy bread. But I am intrigued by the city of Addis Ababa and it’s markets, the ancient sites of Aksum, and the rock churches of Lalibela.

Madagascar: I don’t know about you but I associate Madagascar with lemurs, and I think it would be awesome, although potentially deafening, to be in a forest full of lemurs. From my days at the LZ, I can recall the piercing noise just a few of those creatures could make. It was insane. The Parc National de Ranomafana is the place to spot some of these endangered critters. For great hiking and waterfall exploring, there’s Parc National de I’Isalo, and for swimming with the whales and sharks (eek), there’s the lovely waterfront town of Ifaty. Main problem here is that Madagascar is pretty darn far away from the mainland and not so easy or cheap to access.

Mozambique: Africa with some Latin flavor thanks to its Portuguese colonizers. The diving is good at Bazaruto Archipelago National Park, and the dhow trips around the Querimba Archipelago sound enticing. But I’m not completely sold yet.

Zambia: Sharing Victoria Falls with Zimbabwe, Zambia is an adventure lover’s paradise. There’s gorge swinging, microlight flights, white water rafting, riverboarding…

Zimbabwe: This country offers up the same Victoria Falls adventures as Zambia, but also has a few other things peaking my interest. The canoe safaris at Mana Pools National Park sound pretty cool and the hiking at Chimanimani sounds top-notch. The issue here though is whether I want, through my tourist dollars, to support the out-of-control President Robert Mugabe.

Botswana: You know those cool National Geographic pictures of rivers just teeming with hippos, so many that it seems you could walk across the water on their backs, that’s Botswana, specifically the Okavango Delta. Want to explore that in a dugout canoe? Yeah, me too. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that’s going to happen. Botswana is expensive, the land of luxury safaris, and fancy resorts. So most likely, unless we win the lottery prior to this trip, Botswana will be a no-go.

Namibia: German is one of the languages officially spoken here, so I think that means that I better go. It might just be the only place on this trip where I could put my language skills and college degree to work. And it’s a happening country, so it’s worth a visit with sandboarding in Swakopmund, wildlife watching in Etosha National Park, and red sand dunes exploring in Namib-Naukluft Park. The only trick here is that it’s not an easy country to get around, but I think I’m willing to work a little harder for this one.

South Africa: There’s lots going on in this popular African destination. Just in Cape Town alone, you can revisit history at Robben Island, get a peek at penguins on Cape Peninsula National Park, and take a hike up Table Mountain. Then you’ve got the Winelands, the coastal town of Cintsa which is like a summer camp for grownups, the ancient rainforests of Hogsback, and Kruger National Park, where I’m psyched about the exciting and affordable walking safaris.

Wow, that’s a lot. Africa just oozes excitement. There are so many unique things to see and do. But if you’ve actually read through all of my descriptions, you’ll have noticed that there is also a fair bit of overlap with the main themes of safaris and adventure sports. Obviously, we’re not going to do the same activities over and over while just simply switching countries. We have to narrow things down, figure out what’s best, where we can get the most bang for our buck, and what places really capture the authenticity and awesomeness that we’re looking for. This isn’t the Amazing Race (they’ve rejected me twice, damn it), so we’d like to actually spend time in the countries we ultimately end up choosing to see, not just breeze through, checking off sites. The planning is underway, but there’s still a lot to do.

Taking the Time to Travel

In the November/December issue of National Geographic Traveler, an article addresses what they have deemed “Vacation-Deficit Disorder,” referencing a recent study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research called No-Vacation Nation. The article focuses on both the sad state of paid vacation available to most U.S. workers and the fact that many Americans don’t use the few vacation days they are given.

Among countries with advanced economies, the United States is the only country that does not mandate vacation days. Throughout Europe, companies are required to give employees anywhere from 20 (Belgium, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, the United Kingdom…) to 30 (France) vacation days each year. Even workaholic Japan stipulates 10 vacation days each year. No wonder Americans are so poorly traveled in comparison to the rest of the world. A two-week European vacation or a trip to Australia isn’t going to fly for the majority of working Americans.

So, how, I can hear people, asking is it possible to take an entire year out to travel? Well, as I see it, there are a few options. First, if you have a job that you like, check with your higher-ups to see if they’d be willing to give you a leave-of-absence or a sabbatical. This will give you the freedom to travel with the security of a job to come back to. Unfortunately, I must say, that the likelihood of your job allowing this is slim. But, as my momma always told me, the worst they can do is say no.

Second, if you’re still a young’un, consider taking your first year out of college to travel, or even put off college for a year to travel right out of high school. In the United Kingdom and Australia this is a common practice, referred to as a gap year. One problem might be that having never been employed, you’re unlikely to have much money. The good news is that as a young person you’re likely to need less money. You haven’t yet got used to the luxuries that older people find hard to give up. And you can always do odd-jobs as you go to bolster the bank account. Though this idea is still a bit radical in the U.S., it’s starting to catch on, meaning that universities and employers are beginning to look at it as a positive experience, not just a year of goofing off.

Third, you can say the heck with the job and give your notice. That, effectively, is what we’re doing. Or, more precisely, what I will be doing. Jeff is completing his PhD, so in some ways, he falls more under option two (although thankfully he is making money). I, having moved here with the stipulation that we’d leave D.C. once the PhD was in hand, would be quitting my current job regardless, so in many ways this is a natural break for us. But instead of moving to a new place and getting new jobs, we’re going to move to a lot of places and have no jobs. Obviously, a good choice.

In some ways, that’s a little scary. What in the heck are we going to do when we get back? We’re not 18 year olds who can just head on to school, we’re not retired folks who have no plans to go back to work, and we’re not beloved employees of a company dying to take us back upon our return. But you know what, I’m not too concerned. We’re both intelligent, hardworking, talented people (in my humble opinion, of course). We have education, and we have experience. We’ll find something. And if I have to work some weird jobs while I find a good position, well, that’s okay. I once pulled garbage bags full of maggots (see job at the Louisville Zoo). I can handle anything.

There’s never a perfect time. But there are plenty of good times, and in my opinion, it’s about priorities. This is what we want to do. There probably won’t be a better time to do it. So, hey, that’s it, we’re doing it. I’m not going to miss the rat race. Would you?

(And, yes, I know that the other question on everyone’s mind is how in the heck can we afford this. We will be addressing that in a future post, and while rumor has it that it’s not polite to talk about money, I’m going to do it.)

In Praise of the Internet (and Guidebooks)

Not that the internet doesn’t get enough praise, but spare me a few moments to make my case. Last weekend, when we were back in Seattle for a friend’s wedding, we got to talking about my parents adventures in Africa in the 1970’s. They had headed there as part of a travel tour that would take them from Morocco to South Africa in the span of three months with adventures galore. As the trip began, it became clear that all was not as advertised, their tour guide had never made this trip before and a number of their reservations, such as Land Rovers, were not as certain as previously thought. After three months they were not even one-quarter of the way. It wasn’t that they got duped or anything: the tour guide was a friend of a friend and had decent intentions, he just wasn’t prepared for what he had recruited people for. Fortunately, my parents were resourceful enough to put together their own adventure from then on, and to this day this trip is a source of some of their best memories. But here is what I kept thinking listening to the stories:

How did they not know more going into it? There are lots of other lessons to glean from my parents trip, like the value of resourcefulness, the lifelong friends you make along the way, how to handle emergency situations. Many of which I’m sure will be covered much more in depth on this blog in the future as we plan, but I’m not going to focus on that now.

Instead, I’m going to quickly mention the reasons that quickly came to me … among other things, they didn’t have any internet, guidebooks weren’t as ubiquitous. The access to information was not nearly as instantaneous. The first thing I would do today if I was thinking about booking a tour would be to fully vet them online, googling and looking for online reviews, opinions and experiences. Alternatively, I would’ve dug through a guidebook from the library looking for recommendations of tours or which places I would want to go. And, in fact, that is what we have spent the better part of our preparatory time doing: research.

These mediums are not without their downsides, the internet makes misinformation just as accessible and guidebooks can help create an almost insular travel culture, but they provide an unprecedented ease and convenience to access information. So with that, I would like to offer a simple thank you to those things that make preparations for this trip much easier. I do hope (and fully believe), however, that we will have just as many opportunities to test our resourcefulness and make our own lifelong friends along the way.

To-Do #1

So while that list below looks intimidating, there are a lot of things that will be pretty easy to take care of. By far the biggest and most complicated item is #1: Where to go … and when to go there. I mean, “round the world” is just a little too vague. With that in mind, I’m going to quickly outline how we are trying to figure that out.

To start with, we are in the “information gathering” process right now. This means I have my nose stuck in a guidebook to all of Southeast Asia, and Theresa is buried waist deep in an Africa guidebook. We are finding all of our “can’t miss” places, when to go there, how to get there and how long to stay there. None of these things are simple to coordinate … there are endless combinations and logistical problems. When we finish, we’ll trade (and do South America). Then we’ll combine notes and do the best we can making the things we *have* to see the loose framework to the trip.

But a lot of the uniqueness of a trip like this happens in the in between times (or so we think), when you’re not necessarily on a safari or taking in Angkor Wat. Like meeting locals or fellow travelers with secrets to share, wandering through a local market, or otherwise getting to know a culture beyond the backpacker’s hotel. The advice my parents gave me the other night was, “make sure you don’t plan too much, leave lots of time for the spontaneous things.”

Point taken. I mean, Egypt was an amazing trip at a whirlwind pace, but a lot of the magic of it came from the “non-sites” (and believe me, the sites were astounding): the day we decided that it was just too hot so we drank in the hotel pool all day, singing along with our taxi driver, being told we didn’t speak English properly, the foul smelling juice stands that somehow sold miraculously good juice. It’s not necessarily what you seek out but what you run into.

Anyway, with that in mind, we want to be careful not to plan too much. This is difficult for us; even on our honeymoon we overbooked. But we want this trip to be about more than just checking sights off our 1000 places to see, we want to delve into cultures and understand the people. Besides, there’s no way we could handle our usual traveling pace for an entire year, so this will help us come back still married.

The Giant List of To-Dos (With Theresa It’s Never Get Up and Go)

1. Determine where we want to go: the must-sees along with the if we have time I’d like to sees. Make the hard choices about places that just don’t make the cut.

2. Figure out flights. Is a round-the-world ticket the best option or are one-ways better? Can we use our frequent flyer miles? Do we just want to book the big inter-continental flights or are there some intra-continental legs we also want to have set in stone?

3. Investigate the visa situation for countries we plan to visit. Do we need to get any in advance or can we get them at the border?

4. Make a packing list. Whittle down the packing list…and then do it again. Purchase anything we need but don’t have.

5. Determine what vaccinations we need and get them.

6. Arrange to get any necessary medicines: malaria pills, a generic antibiotic, contacts & supplies for a year, a years-worth of any prescriptions we have.

7. Secure travel and medical insurance. Make sure the insurance covers adventure activities and care within the U.S. should we have to return here for medical care.

8. Find a home for all our belongings. Sell or get rid of what we don’t need/want. See if anyone wants to be a foster parent to any of our stuff. Get a storage unit for whatever remains. Move out.

9. Assign someone power of attorney.

10. Figure out the best way to access money and handle credit card payments, etc. Make sure all companies are aware of our plans and don’t cancel our access to our money just when we most need it. Be sure someone we trust has access to our accounts should it be necessary.

11. Make copies of all important documents. Scan and email copies to ourselves and leave with trusted contact at home.

12. Sign up for a Skype account and make everyone aware of the details so we can stay in touch.

13. Get many, many multiples of passport-size photos made for visas, etc.

14. Set up a flickr account for photo sharing.

15. Get Theresa a plain silver band to wear in leiu of her actual wedding band.

16. Get student IDs if possible.

17. Figure out what to do about taxes while we’re gone.

So, all you savvy travelers out there, what’s missing?