A Long-Term Travel Guide

Installment Two // The Research

Traveling and vacationing are not the same thing.

Traveling is a routine of work and play, of daily planning and decision-making, of adapting to unforeseen and unimaginable circumstances. It is committing to facing the unknown, all the time. You have to earn your keep with independent traveling, and that is part of why it’s good for you.

A lot of the work that lays before you is research — before you leave, and on a daily basis on the ground: when you arrive in a town and need to find the bus to Siem Reap in three days, or online researching whether to get your Vietnamese visa in Luang Prabang, or to wait until Phenom Penh. Or book a hostel. Hopefully you can find working wifi.

If you’re up for that kind of travel, and that is an important question, let’s start by switching your internal thought process from “What if” to “I’m considering…”

First, let’s get one thing out of the way. Go rummage through that drawer where your passport lives and make sure that it doesn’t expire before you would leave, and return. I’m just trying to save you the oh-shit moment. If you need one, that process can take about six weeks.

Now, let’s start with looking up an itinerary. It’s as simple as (fill in the blank place) (x amount of months) itinerary. Mine was “Southeast Asia 3 month itinerary.” Read the blogs and the forums.

You may find you don’t have enough money or time to go everywhere you want to go, or why it makes sense to start in one country and end in another. You’ll also develop a sense for routes and origin points, which helps with researching flights.

I did a three-month loop through Southeast Asia, about 2.5 weeks in each country: Northern Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Southern Thailand. I was on a relatively fast pace but chose places in each country where I thought I’d want to spend about five days, and spent two to three in the rest. I’d recommend it. That said, you can’t get to everything and shouldn’t try. Three months can sound like a long time, but I didn’t have the time to go to Myanmar or Malaysia or more of Indonesia, for instance. I will, one day.

Research weather and seasonal activities in the countries you’re considering. Know whether you’re going in monsoon season or a month of festivals. This is key. It will color your timing and your route.

Look up flights, and set a price alert (easy on Kayak.com) to update you over the course of the next few weeks in order to get a sense of the cost. Look for trusted international airlines; there are, indeed, a lot of scams. If you’re getting that creeping scammy feeling, search for the website name + scam and see what comes up. Read the reviews. It may not be worth the supposed savings.

As for flight destinations, there is a huge bonus to embarking upon a trip of this magnitude from a regional gateway city like Bangkok, because there are more resources available to travelers, including more people who speak English, as well as lots of other travelers to learn from when you land. Round-trip flights in and out of the same city also seem to be less expensive. If you choose the RT-flight option, that also sets your route as needing to begin and end in the same place.

Personally, I recommend booking a flight outbound and back. The one-way, book-when-I-run-out-of-money-slash-feel-like-it can surprise you with prices and make the return more emotional and tumultuous than pulling yourself out of a traveling pilgrimage already is. Plus, you can plan for your return.

Now, let’s start building your cost equation.

If you pick the right place, a lot of the expense is in the flights, but being there is relatively inexpensive; Southeast Asia and Central and South America are like that. Europe and Australia, for instance, are not.

A smattering of forums and guidebooks will help you estimate about how much money you’ll need per month. If you’re spending less than five days in each place, expect to be on the higher end, because moving around incurs transportation costs, which are often higher than housing. Some people choose just a very few places to stay, for a long time, and save a lot.

Travelers insurance is mandatory, and price increases with the length of time. (My traveler insurance was $295 through WorldNomads). Factor in equipment (depends on how much you need to buy) and immunizations/health preparations (I’ve seen this go up to $500 for people with varying health care plans). Visas could be up to another couple of hundred, and that information is easily findable online.

Flight price + health prep + equipment + visas + insurance + (amount per month x months) + return cushion = expenditures toward happiness

On the money making side of the equation, very few jobs will let you leave for a month or more. Quietly do your research to understand if this is the case for your employer. If you work part-time, maybe you can take a leave and return. My friend did. Another win-win opportunity to travel is a planned career transition. This is what I did, and am doing.

Ready to leave your job? It’s one of the easier times to take off.

Finally, purchase a travel book, even a used one to keep your investment low, and start reading it. It will really help with the specifics, and serve as a physical reminder of your dream.

While you’re deliberating, I’d recommend keeping your fledgling plans to yourself. There’s no need to publicize, to anyone really, until you’ve come to a conclusion, which is a significant one, and one that I’ll help you address next.

I’m posting one of these every Friday, until I’ve wrapped up the series.

Sapa, Vietnam // A view from the table at my guesthouse where I sat doing research for a couple of hours — me and my iPad, with advice from two other travelers at the guesthouse, setting up my Indonesia itinerary and booking hostels.
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