Many people have asked what we did to prepare for a trip around the world. Although we had been talking about taking the trip since April 2000 (right after we got married) and talked a lot about where we should go, and we definitely decided in September to do it, we did no real preparation until Nov-December 2000 for the January 2001 departure. Given our last minute preparation we felt quite overwhelmed! To give you some idea of the preparation effort and some of the challenges we faced, we have included just some of the tasks from our 175 item ‘to do’ list. It is non-trivial to ‘close up’ your home life and plan a new one for six months, but having wonderful family and friends in town sure helps.
We thought that our trip with our original 20+ countries over 6 months would be a travel agent’s dream. But we quickly found out that no travel agent wanted anything to do with our trip. They would not touch the round-the-world flight planning, because they said it was difficult and time consuming and there was not enough money in it to make it worth their while. Although travel agents were willing to work with us on ‘tours’ for specific destinations, they were scared off by our unwillingness to lock down a specific date and time for each destination months a head of time. We needed some flexibility -- to us it made no sense to lock ourselves into a 3 day Yangzte riverboat trip in China 4 months ahead of time, especially with no acceptable change/cancellation policy. We offered to give them about a month notice on our schedule while we were on the road, but they again decided we would require too much ongoing attention. I guess the travel industry has enough easy business to not bother with these types of journeys. So, we undertook the round-the-world flight planning ourselves, and locked down the first month+ in South America and East Africa so that we could use a travel agent to help.
So, we have locked down the South American Amazon Basin trip and the Andes and Mt Kilimanjaro treks, and the round the world plan flights into all the continents and among some of the countries we plan to visit. We will have to figure out the rest as we go. Since the round the world flights can be changed as often as we want, we do not really have to be anywhere anytime so we should have time to figure out and enjoy each destination (hopefully!) The only real issues will be the Mt. Everest base camp trek (in email contact with trustworthy guide to lock down availability) and China. China will not let you in the country without a clear itinerary for your entire stay in China. We first thought that we needed an itinerary in order to be granted the required entrance visa before landing in the country. Brazil does require a visa before landing in the country, but that is not the case everywhere. For example, we can land in Hong Kong (only) and get a 2 day visa and have the hotel secure a tourist visa – but we still need a set itinerary to get the tourist visa. We hope that a travel agent in Atlanta will be kind enough to set up what we talked about once we know the dates we will for sure be there (probably a month ahead of time).
Our family wouldn’t let us forget this one – the State Department puts out unrest warnings for Americans traveling/residing in other countries to protect them. There are actually 100’s of warnings in place most of the time, but mostly in countries we do not plan to visit. However, there are a few countries that we had to remove from the itinerary. An obvious risky destination was Israel. We really wanted to visit Jerusalem and the other historic areas, but with the current nightmare situation, it made no sense. The other more questionable area is Nepal (for the Mt. Everest trek). As late as December the State Department issued warnings of forced strikes and bombings. From a friend of a friend, we heard that the State Department called their emergency contact to see if they were still in the country to warn them to leave immediately (cannot be sure this is true). Since Everest is not until March-April, we can wait and see if the area is still an issue.
Once we narrowed our list of destinations to a reasonable number, we had to pick the order in which to visit them, or the direction to take around the world. Since our departure timeframe was pretty set, the direction would determine the time of year we would be at each destination. Our decision included factors such as weather in areas at different times of year (though for many destinations this one was a toss-up, no way to get right weather no matter which direction), available/reasonable flight patterns, key events in each area (though again, this was a toss-up), and other extenuating circumstances. Two extenuating circumstances ended up being the major factors. First, we decided that it would be better to do the most challenging (socially, health-wise, etc) areas first and end up somewhere we might want to extend our stay. Secondly, we did not want to end up last in malaria high-risk areas because you have to take potentially risky drugs for period after you leave the risk areas and we wanted to just get that out of the way (rather than carry that hassle back to the US). So we decided to go south (to South America) then east (Africa-India-Asia-Australia), ending up in Australia/New Zealand. Australia and New Zealand are supposed to be the easiest (culture, language, no major disease risk, etc) so we might decide to stay longer, assuming we are not worn out from traveling.
We knew that with all the destinations we had planned, we needed to do some careful planning on the flights. We had heard about round-the-world fares with airline partnerships that had flexibility and were reasonably priced, but had lots of rules/restrictions. We started with Delta since Dan is a Platinum Skymiles member and it made sense to accrue the tens of thousands of miles on a local airline. Of course Delta (and the others) wanted to work with a travel agent, not some novice travelers, but we had no other option. Actually, the travel agent who helped plan our honeymoon attempted to help with Delta’s round the world offering, but it seemed more trouble than it was worth – after multiple discussions and itinerary compromises, the back-and-forth logistics were getting us nowhere. The two major show stoppers with Delta’s round-the-world plan were: 1) they had almost no coverage in Asia and Africa – their partial coverage through Singapore Air ended in November 2000, so their plan was mostly Europe friendly; 2) they had a maximum distance of 36,500 miles which allowed for a pretty much direct route with a 3-4 stops, but not the 20+ countries we wanted to cover (we needed 2-3 times that mileage allotment).
Then we found British Airways round-the-world fare with the One World Alliance. Although accruing the miles on British Airways would not help much in the US, the One World Alliance included American Airlines (US/South America), LANChile (South America), Cathay Pacific (Asia), and Quantas (Australia) so we could cover many of our major countries with the one fare. British Airways, of course, preferred to work with a travel agent, but were willing to work with us if we did our homework. Donna, our British Airways RTW representative gave a quick scoop on the rules, and said call back when we had everything worked out! We spent many many hours on the OneWorld web site and the individual airline’s sites and found flights that covered most of our major destinations. One very hard part was that many flights outside the US are not daily flights, and when you looked for a flight between two destinations you had to put a specific date in (poor web site design!), so there were many ‘no flight available’ messages. We just had to try each day of the week to find out if a flight existed (since we did not really care the day we flew 4 months from then). We captured all the flight information and then worked with Donna to check availability/rules/etc.
We had decided that since we would be flying so many miles, we would shoot for first class plan. Although the RTW first class fare was a little more than twice as expensive as the RTW economy fare, it was only twice the cost of flying just the South American portion on flights outside the RTW plan. So it was very reasonable from that standpoint.
We could cover only about 2/3 of our required flights with the round-the-world plan, either because of plan restrictions (backtracking, limited countries/continent, etc.) or lack of flights by One World carriers. We used Travelocity and Expedia.com to fill some of the gaps for the first 5 weeks before we left (again, no travel agent help). However, we found out that almost no airline outside the US is using e-tickets yet, so we had to get the tickets mailed to us. We will have to purchase the rest at airports along the way. We realized the week before we left that we had not covered a couple crucial legs of the first 5 weeks, and had to get tickets FedX’d to us.
We took our first itinerary to the Emory TravelWell Clinic (next to Crawford Long Hospital in midtown) and they determined we needed to be vaccinated against nearly every known disease (that’s only a slight exaggeration!). Some of the shots were 3 steps over a specific period of time. The list includes: Hepatitis A and B, Yellow Fever, Polio, Tetanus/Diptheria, Rabies, Japanese Encephalitis (JE). The JE vaccine required that we carry around a bee sting kit in case we went into anaphylactic shock during the first 17 days after receiving the vaccine! Note that the average cost of each shot was well over $100, some were $300+.
TravelWell also equipped us with a small pharmacy for the trip: 85 malaria pills, 4 full doses (24 pills) of Cipro (antibiotic) and 40 Diamox/altitude sickness pills -- for each of us! We feel invincible – famous last words!
We wanted to travel as light as possible, but packing for 5 continents over 6 months with different seasons is a challenge. We knew we could buy things along the way, but we wanted to be sure we had the right clothing/equipment for the two maybe three treks we hoped to do: Andes, Kilimanjaro, and Mt Everest Base Camp. We were told by all the outdoor shops (REI, High Country, Galyans) to buy in layers and get the new synthetic non-cotton materials. So that meant buying all new clothes (flexible clothes that breathe, do not hold perspiration, wash easily, keep you comfortable in 85 degree equatorial desert and at the top of a 19,000 mountain with sub-zero wind chill). We are pretty sure that there is nothing in our luggage that we owned before November!
Since we were going to do multiple several day hikes, we needed the perfect boots. Since we also would be in tropical climates we knew we would die of heat with only boots, so we decided to bring boots and sandals – but only those two pairs of shoes. We knew we had to break in the boots so we bought those in early December, after trying on pretty much every pair at Galyan’s (they had the best selection). Fortunately, we both found great boots that are very comfortable and have not had a single blister in the breaking-in period. Sandals are not as easy as it sounds – they had to cover beach, hot hikes, and nice dinners in hot areas. So flip-flops or typical Teva’s wouldn’t do. Kristen found some decent Birkenstocks, and Dan found some Birkenstock-looking Teva’s.
We wanted to capture and publish pictures and details on the web as we traveled, so we needed to get the appropriate equipment. After lots of research Dan chose the Sony Vaio SR17K -- it runs Windows 2000 at 750Mhz, weighs only 2.98 pounds with battery, has 20G disk and 192M memory, and has estimated 3-5 hours battery time. We stayed with the Olympus 2020Z digital camera we used on our honeymoon. Dan bought a PCMCIA smart media adapter to make transferring pictures to the laptop much easier – it works great! We wanted to be sure to have a back-up plan for the laptop to protect against potential breakage/theft and loss of all our pictures. Dan decided on the Archos portable CDRW USB drive – it weighs only 18 ounces and worked great in all the pre-trip tests. Of course, once we departed, every time I connect it, the laptop reboots (still working on that one!).
Although we had talked about it a few times, we put off worrying about visa’s until one week before we left the country! Part of the reason we did not worry about it was because our first 5 weeks were being handled by travel agents. We figured they had it covered. Oops! On Friday December 29, 2000 we determined that we had to have a visa to fly through Brazil before we boarded the flight into the country. In a couple hours of web surfing and phone calls, we found someone in Washington who assured us he could get the Brazilian visa (and India while were at it) back to us before the next Friday, January 5 (we were leaving on Sunday, January 7). The big risk was that we had to mail him our passports, so if he did not get them back to us before we left we could not leave the country and our first two destinations would have to be skipped. I told him we were leaving on Friday January 5 to give us a one day contingency. On Thursday, January 4 our passports were still with the Brazilian consulate! After many frustrating calls to our “expediter”, on the Friday before we left (he decided not to take calls until 2PM on Friday) he finally confirmed that the passports and visas were with FedEX for Saturday delivery – cutting it very close! He did come through and we had the most restrictive visa’s in hand.
We struggled with the insurance issue. We had no idea how many insurable issues traveling introduces! From a health insurance standpoint, it was very difficult to get any information on what coverage we would have internationally under our COBRA coverage (since we both resigned from our jobs, we had to pay for our own plan). BlueCross/BlueShield would not answer any detailed questions about coverage because they saw Dan’s coverage as terminated on January 1 and did not have access to any COBRA documentation. They were not nice at all! So are still a little fuzzy on health coverage but we believe that we are covered to some degree (we sure hope so, since we have to pay COBRA plan costs for the entire time we are gone to ensure we have coverage when we get back). Dan printed out the International Claim forms and the list of ‘in-network’ hospitals in the countries we are hitting – hopefully none of this will be necessary.
We had heard about medical evacuation insurance that covered the one situation where you are hurt in a far away country with questionable medical facilities. They will fly to wherever you are and fly you back to the hospital of your choice (often one close to home) in an intensive care equipped airplane – your traveling partner also gets to ride with you. Although this case seems extreme, we sure would hate to get seriously ill or break a critical bone and get worse because of the bad medical aid. It seemed that MedJet was the original and best provider of this insurance, so we signed up with them over the web the night before we left.
Although our airline flights are completely flexible, we still felt we needed trip cancellation coverage for the Mt. Kilimanjaro trip – it costs $10K and since the 5 weeks before Kili we are hiking in the Andes and in Malaria infested areas, it made no sense to risk getting hurt or sick and being out that much money if one of us is unable to climb Kili. Dan found a couple plans on the web the night before we left the county and signed up for the one with the least ‘extra’ coverage.
Although the trip cancellation policy has some baggage protection (not enough to cover even the laptop), we had just bought many thousands of dollars of new clothing and technology that would not be covered. Dan could not find any individual policy that would cover that amount, but in discussions with one of the companies Dan found on the web (2 days before we left) he suggested checking with our homeowners insurance. Well, it turns out we are covered under multiple policies and even have expanded computer allowances – so this one was easy once we found that out.
Since we wanted to stay in touch during our trip and keep the web site up to date, we wanted to determine ahead of time how to get on the internet in all our destinations. Because Mindspring offered a Global Access Plan and Dan had a mindspring account, we signed up. Unfortunately, Mindspring customer database was down for the entire week before we left, so we could not double confirm that Dan was signed up, and they responded to no email questions (boy, have they gone to pot!). On Dan’s first attempt to connect in Santiago, Chile, he was rejected and had to use his MCI plan to dial into Altanta Mindspring. Hopefully, that will not continue or it will be an extremely expensive web site! Btw, the best connection Dan has been able to get is 16,800 bps.
Fortunately, Craig, long time friend of Kristen’s and Bailey’s, offered to take Bailey for the entire time we are gone (we think as a testing period to get his own dogJ). Unfortunately, Craig warned us a month before we left that he might be leaving Atlanta in the spring and likely could not take Bailey with him. That caused us a great deal of stress until a few weeks later he determined that he would stay in Atlanta and could take Bailey. What a good friend! It was a sad day for us dropping Bailey off at Craig’s, but we know she is in good hands.
We listed all the bills we get and had to figure out how to handle them while we are gone. We cancelled some services for which we got bills, prepaid others, set up autopay if amount was same/predictable, and asked Anne Marie (Dan’s sister) to look for some. We had wanted to make it all automatic but we could not be sure we had it all covered, so we had to have some manual assistance.
We also wanted to reduce the volume of mail to reduce waste and to reduce hassle for the person picking up the mail. We decided not to stop mail at the post office because we needed to get some of the bills, and they would only stop it for 30 days at a time. Because we get so many junk magazine/catalogs we decided to try to reduce those to have the greatest impact. Kristen collected a 3 foot high stack of magazines for just the October/November timeframe, and called each one requesting that they take us off their mailing lists. Most were nice about it but many said that it was out of their control -- we would get them through Christmas and if we did not order anything from them we would not get them anymore. The flood of magazines definitely diminished but Anne Marie was still amazed at how much crap we get.
We wanted to travel as light as possible, but with 2-3 three long treks we had to carry some critical items with us. We decided on one checked bag each and one carry-on each. We found out the week before we left that internal flights in Africa restrict passengers to 33 pounds of luggage and only allow soft-sided ‘duffel’ bags. So, our luggage decisions became much easier. On the first packing, we had our 2 duffles only half filled, with only toiletry/miscellaneous to add. By end they were 80% full because of boots (sandals for flights) and sleeping bags. Total weight was about 30 and 38 pounds – more than we hoped, but not bad for 6 months.
We have a condominium that some friends are staying in through February, so we had to decide/setup what to do once they moved out. We had thought about selling it a while back but it served as a good stable for friends in need. We sure did not want to leave it vacant for the entire time, though, so we worked to find a rental/management company to rent it for us. However, that became very difficult when we got into the arrangements details and penalties, so we decided to just sell it – although we did not have time to deal with any of it before we left. We left it in the very capable (and generous) hands of Anne Marie and Martha (our friend and real estate agent) to decide what to do. Worst case is it sits idle until we come back, and we charge the loss as a trip cost.
We decided that we had to have a going away party, both because we wanted to see all our friends before we left and because we had never hosted a party before at our house. That made for a very hectic last two weeks before we left, since half the time was spent planning/preparing for the party – not sure that was the best use of time! Fortunately we have good party-throwing friends and relatives who provided great direction and assistance.
We had to decide what to do with the four cars while we were gone. Two factors: 1) insurance is quite hefty on the cars, especially if we won’t be using them, and 2) it is not great to leave cars idle for 6 months. We decided to cut insurance to a minimum on all cars except the pick-up truck (so our friends and family could use it while we are gone). Keeping only comprehensive insurance protects us from damage while they are in the garage (e.g., fire, tornado, etc). On leaving them for 6 months, I talked to a couple of car dealers and they said to pump the tires up to 58 PSI and top off the gas tanks, and trickle charge or disconnect the batteries. They said best case is to move them at least a few inches each month so the tires do not get flat spots (we will see about that). Unfortunately, while I was over-inflating the tires my tire pump broke, so we had to depend on Anne Marie and Chris to do it sometime later.
Dan had hoped to stub out the web site design so that he could just enter the new information in as we went, but no such luck. He had grand illusions on a very cool web site but had no time to figure out how to do it. So, we will see how things go (it will not live up to expectations, but will probably suffice for the time being).
We wanted to be prepared for the worst and know where we could get medical care from facilities/doctors with whom we could communicate. We got a list of ‘covered’ (we think) hospitals from our the Blue Cross/Blue Shield web site – so at least we should be able to get assistance, whether or not it is in our language. Then we found through our travel clinic an international organization of English speaking doctors who will treat you on-call in their respective countries. The International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers, IAMAT, sent us a list of their doctors, which may or may not overlap with our ‘covered’ hospitals.
We initially planned to close up the house: clean out the refrigerator, turn off all the lights, lower the thermostat, cancel yard and maid service, cancel phone and cable, etc. However, it turned out that a friend and his family needed a place to stay for a few months while their house is being finished, so they moved in the week we left. They will close it up once they leave in March.
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