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Last October, I began the greatest adventure of my life: a solo bucket list trip through Central and South America. I had no set plan or time frame except to check three major places off my bucket list: Patagonia, the salt flats in Bolivia, and Cuba.
Since 2008, I have been on the road non-stop working mostly as a freelance photographer. I’ve visited 43 countries and lived in five. Long-term travel seemed overwhelming until I learned how to prepare properly.
Here are a few tips about how to prepare for your own long-term trip:
Cost of Travel
The biggest myth about traveling is that it’s expensive. Asia, aside from Japan and Singapore, is traditionally very cheap. Australia isn’t cheap, but Europe is more affordable since the euro has dropped. Flip through guidebooks on your destination to get an idea about the cost of the three biggest travel expenses: transport, accommodation, and food. Gathering a little information will guide you through setting the appropriate trip budget and savings goal.
Visa costs and requirements are listed on the U.S. Department of State’s website. Many visas are available on arrival while others are required in advance. Several places in South America, including Argentina and Bolivia, charge Americans a reciprocity fee to enter.
Be aware that prices can triple during high seasons and holidays. Rates drop in low season, but monsoon rain, sporadic transport, and business closures can cause trouble. Shoulder seasons are often best to avoid crowds and high prices.
Bucket list activities will likely be a large portion of your travel budget. For example, Inca Trail permits sell out six months or more in advance. The Peruvian government only allows a limited amount of non-transferable permits. Plan accordingly with both your money and time!
Health & Safety
Visit a travel doctor about vaccination requirements and stock up on medication for traveler’s diarrhea. Be sure to pack probiotics that don’t require refrigeration.
Read up on the history of your destination. Follow any recent or potential political/military conflicts closely. Avoid traveling during elections as most businesses close and riots are possible.
Check the U.S. State Department’s website for travel warnings and sign up for their Safe Traveler Enrollment Program for email updates. Talk with other travelers and review guidebooks for specific travel concerns (solo women travelers, taxi hijackings, etc.).
There are endless options to work abroad, but some require a little preparation. Dave’s ESL Café is a great resource for teaching English. Check out Wwoof.net and Workaway.info for work exchange opportunities for free room and board. Working Holiday Visas are options in Australia and New Zealand for Americans under 30.
The moment you start to talk about your trip, it transforms from a daydream into reality. Once you’ve set the departure date and spread the news, it also boosts your courage levels. Plus, it’s a great way to get your friends involved and make plans to meet up for a portion of your trip!
Find the Time
I quit several jobs over the past eight years to both travel and work abroad. During my adventures, I met people with a variety of careers—doctors, lawyers, teachers, and bartenders—who did the same. Always be honest about why you are leaving. There’s a good chance your boss will be jealous of your trip!
If you plan to change jobs, take advantage of any large gaps of time to travel. Post-graduation trips are also common. Consider freelancing from overseas. I still continue the majority of my freelance work abroad.
The easiest way to save money while traveling is to avoid ATM fees and international transaction fees. I have a Charles Schwab Investor Checking Account, which does not charge ATM fees or international transaction fees. ATM fees charged by other banks are refunded monthly. Capital One does not charge international transaction fees on any of their credit cards. Many rewards cards are starting to do the same.
Most U.S. health insurance policies offer limited coverage abroad. Invest in a good travel medical insurance plan that covers emergency evacuations, adventure sports, short visits to your home country, and end-of-trip home coverage. If you have a serious preexisting condition, research your options thoroughly. Some policies will cover an “unexpected occurrence” of these conditions.
Consider a policy or additional insurance that also includes trip delays, lost luggage, and electronics. I insure my camera gear through State Farm’s Personal Articles policy. Be aware that most policies will not cover smart phones.
Hit the gym and cut the caffeine. Traveling can be physically exhausting. Carrying a 30-plus pound backpack around airports, city streets, and hiking trails for months will take a toll on your body. Six months before my recent trip, I focused mostly on strengthening my upper body since my lower body was fairly strong from being an avid runner.
Before my first big trip in 2008, my caffeine addiction was causing havoc on my health, with horrible withdrawal headaches and pain from dehydrated muscles. I didn’t want caffeine to control my mood while traveling so I weaned myself off six months prior.
Keep in Touch
Distance doesn’t have to affect your relationships or love for sports. My closest friends live on three different continents. I talk to them regularly through various apps like Skype and WhatsApp. I share my adventures with friends and family through regular updates on Instagram and posts on my travel blog. When I’m lucky enough to have fast internet, I stream football and baseball games.
Send postcards. Everyone loves real mail. Set reminders for birthdays. If you can’t find stamps, use the Postagram app to send a postcard with your travel photos!
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Think like a Buddhist and rid yourself of attachment to your possessions. It’s better to invest in experiences than things. Ebay is always great for selling collectable items like my childhood Hard Rock Café shot glass collection, which sat in boxes at my parents’ house for years. It sold instantly and covered the cost of the first week of my trip! Consignment shops are great outlets to sell clothes, housewares and art. Donate everything else to charities.
Set a deadline three months before your trip. After this deadline, you can’t buy anything that isn’t for your trip.
You should have NO bills while you travel. That’s right—none! Cut off your Pandora, Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc. Sell, rent, or have a friend list your house/apartment on Airbnb for a small commission. Sell your car or rent it to Relayrides.com or Flightcar.com. Several cell phone carriers will allow you to suspend your service without billing or for a small fee. For student loans, save enough money to cover payments for the entire duration of your trip plus an additional two months after you return.
The movie Fight Club was right: The things you own, own you.
Pack one week’s worth of clothes and do laundry often. It’s that simple. Trust me, your back will thank you.
Here is a short list of my top five essentials to pack from eight years of wandering the globe:
1. Quality Rain Gear
Invest in a quality raincoat with zippered underarm vents for hot conditions. It also serves as a top layer for insulation in cold weather and helps with wind.
The headlamp is the single greatest invention after the burrito.
3. Stainless Steel Water Bottle and Water Filter
Save the environment and your health by investing in a stainless steel water bottle and chemical-free water filter. I use a Klean Kateen water bottle and a Sawyer Mini Water Filter. Both are great for your bank account and pack easily.
4. Dr. Bonner’s Soap
Dr. Bonner’s is organic, biodegradable, and smells great. Use it as body wash, dish soap, and laundry detergent.
5. Quick-Drying Towel or Sarong
A small quick-drying hand towel will dry your entire body. Sarongs are great multipurpose items; they are a towel, dress, skirt, blanket, and mop all in one!
Additional Packing Tips:
Consider the cost of renting camping gear versus the burden of carrying your own gear for the duration of your trip.
Make sure all electronic chargers are dual-voltage. Don’t forget plug adapters.
To avoid over packing, don’t wait until the last minute. Start a few days before you leave. Then, go back and eliminate items. Make sure the majority of clothing matches to maximize options.
Pack for one season. I packed mostly for summer on my trip and spent $20 on a llama sweater with matching gloves and socks when I got to colder weather in Bolivia.
Don’t forget a good paperback travel book for long bus rides. When your Kindle battery dies, you’ll thank me. I recommend anything by Pico Iyer or Paul Theroux.
All photos by Anna Mazurek.
For more on travel planning, check out 5 Steps for Planning the Unplanned Trip.
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