Dexter MI - July 15, 2010 (by Swiss)
Ok, so I lied. While I intended the last post I wrote to indeed be the last one of this series, it occured to us that it might be a good idea to summarize our "lessons learned" for folks who may want to consider to do a similar trip in the future. So below are some of our tips, although it's by no means a comprehensive list. Happy travels!
What to Pack?
Rule #1: The smaller your pack, the less you will bring. Pretty simple. So avoid buying too large of a pack, as you will end up finding a way to fill it. I had a 70 liter pack, Jason had a 90 liter pack, and we both could have done with smaller packs. To give a weight range, we've met travelers with luggage ranging from 8 to well over 20 kgs. My fully packed 70 liter pack weighed in around 12.5 kgs, Jason's fully loaded pack hovered around 18 kgs. Trust me, light is good. Also, a nice daypack is a must, especially if you stay at a seedy place and want to keep you valuables with you. We both used Northface hydro-packs (removing the bladder), and they were a perfect size.
Listed below are some items to consider.
Powerstrip - Many hostels rooms have limited power outlets. Bring a strip, which allows you to charge your electronics concurrently while avoiding the need for multiple power adapters. It can also serve as an extension cord.
Convertible pants - These are pants with a zipper around knee-level that allow you to remove the lower portion of the pants and thus convert them into shorts. Most outdoor stores will have them. They tend to be quick-drying and have multiple pockets. Look for a model with zippered pockets to stash your cash.
Exofficio Underwear - http://www.exofficio.com/ , these are awesome. 'Nuff said.
Small bottle of detergent - You will likely be doing some laundry in the sink/shower. A small bottle of laundry detergent will come in handy while taking up little space. It can be re-filled on the road as needed. Also consider bringing a universal drain plug.
Shampoo/Bodywash combo - Why carry two bottles if you can have all of it in one? Shampoo/Bodywash combo bottles rock. They are a bit harder to find on the road, so start with a big one if you can.
Torch/Flashlight - A no-brainer, but don't forget this. Power outages do occur, as do dark hostel rooms when you want to read a bit.
Small organizer for passports, SIM cards, cash, and other important documents. Nice to have it all in one place.
A couple of packs of tissues - use as TP, napkings, etc. Can buy cheaply on the road, so don't bring too many.
Passport photos - You will need them for some visas. They can easily be made in larger asian cities for a fraction of the US price, but it helps to have some on hand just in case.
Ear plugs - Snorers and loud buses are your enemy. If you know somebody who works in a manufacturing environment, ask them to score you a couple of packs. Ear plugs are a ripoff in stores.
Unlocked GSM phone - See communication section below for details
Microfiber towel - While nice in concept, we've found they start to smell after a while. And once they smell, you can't get the smell out. I mean, you can wash them, and they will smell fine, but after one use it's right back to that mouldy odor. Instead, bring a decent cotton towel. If it starts smelling, you can always toss it and buy a new one at very low cost. Trust me.
There are many ways to get around when on the road. We generally found that it's easiest to fly into and out of major hubs and figure out the smaller segments on the go.
Good, cheap airlines to consider: Jetstar (Asia), Spicejet (India), Webjet (Brazil)
In Brazil, you need a national ID to book flights online. We went to CVC, a Brazilian travel agency, to book our webjet flights. Their markup was almost nil; in fact, one of the fares they charged us was LESS than the online fare.
A popular way to travel in India is via trains. Cleartrip.com is a great site to book these ahead of time. And yes, they do fill up, so booking ahead is advisable. Some trains do have a "tourist quota", basically keep some last minute seats open for foreigners, if you ever happen to be in a pinch.
Traveling by bus in South America is definitely an experience. We've found buses in Argentina and Peru (Flores in particular) to be the nicest. However, keep airlines in mind: spending 18+ hours on a bus will get tiring no matter how comfy your seat is, and there are some very good flight deals out there.
If you're in New Zealand or Australia, a cheap way to get around is by doing car/camper relocations. www.standbycars.com is a great aggregate site for deals, although you can contact the rental agencies directly as well. The downside is that they do give you limited time to complete the relo, so it's not a very good option if you want to go exploring a bunch on the way to your destination.
Most countries we've visited run a GSM cell phone network (like ATT and T-Mobile in the US.) Bringing an unlocked GSM phone along is a great way to stay in touch. Unlocked phones (not tied to a carrier) can easily be found online. If you currently have ATT or T-mobile, request them to unlock your phone.
SIM cards in Asia are cheap. For instance, we both bought SIM cards in Vietnam for around 5 bucks and they lasted well over 3 weeks. Plus, incoming calls are free, so your family can easily call you over the internet using services like Skype. Having a phone is handy not just to stay in touch with the fam, but also for booking guesthouses and staying in touch with other travelers while you're on the road.
Skype is also very common, especially in heavily traveled areas. Set up an account to call your home country for cheap. Many internet cafes have skype software installed.
It's advisable to keep some US dollars (100 bucks or so) on hand for incidental costs, visas, and departure fees. If possible, try having some smaller bills as well (ones, fives, tens.) We found some ATMs in Cambodia, Bolivia, and Peru do dispense in US dollars if you need to re-build your stash.
Most towns we visited did have ATMs, though we didn't stray too far off the beaten path. Consult guide books and fellow travelers to find out what the ATM situation at your destination may be and bulk up on cash as needed.
Jason used an online Fidelity checking account to keep his cash, which worked very well for him. They re-imburse your ATM fees, a handy feature if you're traveling abroad. Fees do add up quickly, so this is a worthwhile consideration for long term travelers.
While we didn't use our credit cards that much, Capital One apparently offers a fee-free international credit card. Neither of us got one, but it's something to consider especially if traveling in developed areas.
Both of us signed up with HCC medical, which for around 400 bucks covered us in case something bad would happen. Luckily, injuries were only minor and we didn't have to use their services. There are sites out there comparing plans, so do your homework.
Yes, we're both geeks and brought netbooks with us. This was in part to allow for blog writing, as well as to back up/upload pictures (our total picture tally, btw, was around 11,000 pictures.) We used Asus eee 900/901 computers with solid state drives, and while slow, they did the trick. You would be surprised how much free wifi you can find around the world, so having a small computer on hand can be handy. This is especially true in hostels where people flock to the shared computers. It can also be handy for your Skype users out there.
An alternative to bringing a full computer is to bring an iPhone/iPod touch or wifi enabled smartphone. While not as versatile as a full computer (backing up pictures was a must feature for us), they can be very handy for checking email and using skype to call home. Again, you would be surprised how many wifi hotspots one can find.
Check prices, they can be expensive and hit us a bit of a hidden cost. South America in particular can be pricey for US citizens. If you are a dual citizen, consider bringing your other passport (I saved around 400 bucks in South America alone by using my Swiss passport.) The reason for this cost, btw, is because the US charges foreigners 135 bucks for a visa, so a bunch of countries are just returning the favor.
Oh, and if you plan on going to Argentina as a US citizen, try to avoid flying into Buenos Aires. While Argentina doesn't require a visa, they do charge an airport arrival/reciprocity fee for US citizens. How much is that fee? You guessed it, $135. Since we entered Argentina by land (near Puerto Iguazu), Jason didn't have to pay the fee. This may change in the future, of course. But something to consider :)
Lodging availability and quality range widely. We found that recos in guide books were hit or miss. In New Zealand, BBH publishes a great listing of hostels with, in our experience, very representative ratings. Also, if you plan to spend a bit of time there, consider getting a membership as it will pay for itself quite quickly.
The other most common site we used for booking hostels around the world is Hostelworld.com. See if you can score a gold membership as that will save you the $2 reservation fee when booking online.
My last tidbit is on guide books. Although we experiemented with a "Rough Guide" in China, we generally relied on Lonely Planets due to their information and layout. Besides the usual activity stuff, they are quite helpful in providing a basic map of your destination and usually have good info on bus/train routes with approximate fares. We did have the opportunity to exchange them along the way, and even got two of them gifted to us by fellow travelers. So don't buy all of them in advance unless you feel like lugging all that weight along.
An alternative to the LPs, for some destinations at least, was wikitravel.org. While a bit hit or miss in terms of content, there were numerous helpful articles for a variety of our destinations. Definitely worth taking a look, especially given the price (free.)
Safe and happy travels to all!
/Over and out :)