Getting ready for a long-term trip, whether it be around the world or just a month abroad, requires quite a lot of advanced planning. Most people don’t realize how much advance planning is required to bring everything together at the right time. Heck, I didn’t know until I started.
As I look back on the last month before our departure, I realize that things didn’t go exactly as planned. Some things took much longer than anticipated and other things just didn’t get done and will have to be dealt with on the road. I think it would have been wonderful to have had some sort of timeline to help with my time management, but until I actually started working on the tasks, I didn’t know how long things would take. And I couldn’t find that sort of information on the Internet since everyone’s situation is different.
Here’s the timeline based on our hindsight that I wish I would have had, outlining what we needed to do and when. It might be helpful in planning your own journey.
4 to 6 years before our trip
We start saving! In hindsight, this is probably one of the few things we did for our trip at the right time. We aren’t independently wealthy, nor did we come into a large sum of money, so saving for our trip required enough time combined with diligence and dedication.
Sheri and I knew we wanted to do this nearly 9 years ago and we opened an online savings account about 6 years ago specifically to save for this trip. Because of our kid-free lifestyle, we knew we could live off one of our incomes and save the other, however, saving was made harder after I became unemployed and Sheri was the only one bringing in money. We did the best we could, and every time we had a little bit of extra cash, we put it into our trip fund. But with only one income, we knew it would take longer to reach our goals. And, yes, I am constantly reminded of who is funding this trip. Of course, we often had to tap into this account for emergencies, but we repaid whatever was borrowed, knowing it would take that much longer. Soon after the Pixar movie, UP, came out, we realized we didn’t want to become Carl and Ellie in that film.
Initially, our savings goal included our airfare, house payments, and all the equipment and electronics. We also had an idea of the style of travel that we could comfortably undertake. We didn’t need luxurious accommodations or gourmet meals, but we did expect a certain level of comfort for most of our trip: a bed most nights, hot and cold running water, air conditioning in tropical climates, heat in cold climates, access to groceries or restaurants that wouldn’t make us sick. We also planned to have the occasional splurge and do a few things that would require more than our daily allowance.
Our savings goals changed and we actually had enough to go when: 1) Sheri had enough airline award miles to offset most of the airfare costs; 2) we decided to rent our house to offset the mortgage, and, 3) we bought all the electronics and equipment while Sheri was still employed, without dipping into our trip savings. These changes allowed us to devote more of our savings to the actual day to day expenses of travel, which meant we finally had enough.
2 to 3 years
We start to pick our destinations and begin to compile a list. Ideally, 2 to 3 years would give me lots of time to thoroughly study all of our destinations. Ideally, I would read travel magazines and blogs; watch travel shows; talk with people who have been to some of these places. I would find out what there is to see and do. When is the best time to go? When is the weather the best? When is it crowded? Is there an off-season when some things are closed? In an ideal world, I would do lots of research to see if these are truly places we want to visit. If so, I would try to get an idea of the costs of each place and of specific tours, while keeping in mind that inflation may increase the cost 5-10% per year. If it was still affordable, it would put it on our list. That would be my best intentions.
In reality, I have a map on the wall that I stick pins into for all the places we want to visit. To date, I only have 10 placed pinned. These were picked because I saw photos of them online, read about it in a magazine, or saw a show on television about it. I didn’t do nearly enough research and I soon ran out of time. To end up with a list of 60 countries from a map that only had 10 pins required a leap of faith that we would figure it out as we went along.
1.5 to 2 years
We start purging the non-essentials. You know what I’m talking about; all those things that we’ve kept, no longer need, and haven’t used in ages. Ideally we would have undertaken this task early on and continually until we finally leave. In reality, we only got rid of unused items for the last 8 months and we will probably still be purging stuff when we return.
Most people can benefit from a large-scale purge of their belongings, and, for us, the initial task seemed daunting, but afterward it gave us an incredibly liberating feeling. To get us into the right state of mind, I read a book called, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo. While parts of it might make me question the author’s mental state—talking to clothes isn’t normal and rolling socks a specific way is a bit OCD—most of it made us look at our belongings in a different light, making it easier for us to divest ourselves of stuff. But we didn’t just donate everything. Anything that was valuable on the resale market was sold on eBay and the proceeds went to funding our trip.
Since we are using airline award miles for our flights, we needed to start booking them now. We actually were close to the ideal timeline for this task. Award seats are scarce and fill up quickly, especially on the more popular routes. We became aware of the limitations on Around-the-World fares when we tried to book them. As it turned out, we couldn’t use them, as I discussed in my post, Around-the-world award fares, and why they many not work for you. At 11 months, we were only be able to book our initial flights. I had to set alarms for our other flights as soon as they are within 331 days of departure. Some of our flight reservations will need to be made on the road.
6 to 9 months
We start to get our finances in order. Since we didn’t already have a true chip and pin credit card, we started the process of getting one about 5 months ago. It may seem early, but the process was fairly time consuming. We also made sure all of our eggs aren’t in one basket. We have our money distributed to different bank accounts to make it harder to have all our cash stolen in an express kidnapping. We went even further by having a “phantom” account that doesn’t have an ATM card associated with it. Our other accounts are linked to it so that a transfer can be initiated only from the phantom account to put money into our other accounts. To ensure secrecy, we don’t bookmark the account on our phone or laptop.
Start our vaccinations now. Some vaccines, such as Hepatitis B, require a series of shots spread out over several months. Luckily, we already had part of this series from previous travel vaccinations. However, since our yellow WHO vaccination card was stolen, we needed a new one and that required getting all our vaccinations again. At 2 months out, we probably would have started too late if we didn’t already have most of them done before.
4 to 6 months
Start applying for visas for those countries requiring them before arrival. Many countries make it especially difficult to obtain a visa—China and Russia come to mind—and starting the process well in advance of our departure would have saved a lot of stress now. How far in advance we needed to apply depended on when the visa goes into effect and how long it’s valid. We didn’t want to apply for a visa that is only valid for 6 months from when it’s issued to a country that we won’t be visiting for 8 months. We’re now finding that some visas will need to be obtained while we’re on the road. We had to be sure there will be a consulate or embassy for the country we need a visa in one of the other countries we’ll be visiting beforehand and allow enough time in our schedule for processing our documents. That means we won’t be able to leave the country since we won’t have our passports.
Many of the countries requiring visas before arrival needed to have our original passport to affix the visa. That meant sending our passports to their consulate or embassy. Using 2-3 day delivery both ways, and allowing 5 to 7 days for processing, meant we could only get 2 to 3 visas a month. Others accepted a copy of the information page, and many now have e-visas that can be obtained online. Many countries with visa requirements need to see proof that we have a tour or accommodations arranged as well as onward flights or other transportation. They want to know that we aren’t planning on staying.
Now is also a good time to start booking tours and accommodations, especially for popular destinations. Our plans for Kilimanjaro are nearly 7 months away, but group climbs are already filling up. If we’re going somewhere for a particular festival or annual event, we try to book accommodations 11 months in advance. I find that’s usually how far in advance most places can make reservations.
Book short flights on local airlines that won’t use award points or mileage. Booking this far in advance might preclude some spontaneity, but if the routes we’re flying are during a low season or it isn’t popular, we can wait until 1 month to 3 weeks before the travel date to book our flights. Not all airlines tier their fares based on how far in advance we purchase, so buying earlier may not always save money. I usually do a quick check online to see if a flight in 3 weeks time is significantly more expensive than a flight in 6 months, and determine if advanced booking is worth the commitment in our schedule.
2 to 3 months
Get a mailbox account for our postal mail. We chose Traveling Mailbox. Our account will receive our mail, scan the envelopes, and allow me to choose which pieces to open and scan the contents. Depending on how much mail we receive, we could sign up for various plans that allow a certain number of pieces mail to be scanned each month. We can request specific pieces be forwarded to another address, and can even have checks deposited into a specified bank account.
Also around this time, we started switching our credit card and bank accounts to paperless billing. This will help reduce the amount of postal mail we receive. Doing so earlier gave us a chance to work out any kinks in the procedures we’ll use to pay our bills. We also started opting out of all of that junk mail to further reduce the mail we get.
We bought our new electronics—cameras, laptop, and tablet. These extra months gave us an opportunity to use our new devices and familiarize ourselves with how they work before having to use it overseas, when we aren’t carrying the manuals and don’t always have easy access to the Internet for documentation.
Create our packing list and start gearing up. I find that getting the right luggage, clothing, and electronic accessories is a time consuming process of buying, testing and often returning items. We gave ourselves plenty of time to do the research and find items that offer the best fit, comfort and functionality.
30 to 45 days
Rent a storage space and pack our belongings. Since we rented our home while we’re traveling, we needed to store our belongings. However, since we’re renting our house fully furnished, we could get a much smaller space. Despite all the purging, we are left with a lot of things—through many years of traveling and a lifetime of accumulation—so we rented a 10’ x 12’ storage space and prepared the space and our belongings for long-term storage. The space isn’t climate controlled, so we had to protect our belongs from temperature extremes, humidity and mildew. More on this in a separate post. While it may seem like it’s too far in advance, we greatly underestimated the time it would take to pack our stuff. Having the storage space available earlier allows more time to organize things efficiently and store more in less space.
Switch cellular provider. We had AT&T as our cellular provider, and while they provided great coverage and fast service, they were expensive and didn’t have a good overseas plan. We switched to T-Mobile because they recently added both Canada and Mexico to their coverage areas and nearly 140 countries with no roaming charges and unlimited data and texts. The catch: you can only use your service overseas for 3 months, so we’ll see what happens. The extend our time, we are alternating who is using their phone on wireless.
Clean our house, take photos, and list it for rent. Here’s a good reason to get the storage space early. Decluttering our house of most of our personal items made the house appear more spacious and inviting. Since I have taken real estate photos professionally, I had the necessary equipment to make the house look its best. I tried to highlight the best features and most used rooms of the house. I posted to craigslist and Zillow’s Postlets, which crossposts to about a dozen other sites.
Rent a wine storage locker. We are lucky to live in a small town near top wine producing regions, so having a local wine storage facility just down the street was handy when we were trying to figure out where to store our wines. With nearly 400 bottles in our cellar, we couldn’t afford any more than a 24 case unit for our long-term purchases, which means we will need to drink more wine before we leave.
10 to 30 days
Travel insurance Since most health insurance under the ACA won’t cover us overseas, we felt it was a good idea to get a separate policy for emergencies while we travel. What we went on to find out was that since we would be out of the country for more than 330 days, we are also exempt from any penalties (taxes) for not having ACA coverage. That was a huge relief for our 2016 tax return.
e-Visas. Many countries that require a visa now have the ability to apply and receive an e-Visa online before your arrival to the country. Australia and India are two of the places that have e-Visas and we waited until about a week before our arrival to apply for and receive our Australian visa. I had to make a list of the countries that have e-Visas, determine how far in advance I needed them, and set up reminders for me to get these in time for our arrival.
File a change of address with the post office. I ended up waiting until 3 days before we left to do this, but I don’t recommend waiting until the last minute.
Cancel or transfer utilities and other services. Make sure the companies have your new address in case you have a refund coming.