Before We Left
If you have ever done any painting you quickly learn that it is all in the preparation. If you prepare things the way you should, the painting itself is (relatively) easy. But if you don’t, the painting is hell and will often result in lots of rework and assigning blame. Traveling, like painting, is also about preparation.
This becomes even more important if you are leaving the country, and even more important in our case because we had only a few reservations and not much of an itinerary.
There are two kinds of preparation that needs to be done to travel successfully. The first is what we have to do before we leave; the second is when we are on the road. What I’ll include here is what we did before we left, some of which makes it possible to do what we’ll need to do as we travel (which you’ll find here).
There are a lot of things that any traveler needs to do before a trip and there are lots of places to find those kinds of checklists. A great website, which I used extensively, is U.S. Passports & International Travel, which is a directory to all of the government travel resources, including a great Traveler Information Center, a Traveler’s Checklist, and one of my favorites, Get Help in an Emergency which is not only about emergencies, but also everything you need to know to travel to a country, including visa requirements.
Where to go (and how to get there)
Before we could do much, we had to decide where we were going and (to get some idea of the weather) when we were going there. While we won’t have what is normally thought of as an itinerary, we did need a list of the places we may travel to, and in what order (you can find out how we did that here), for a couple of reasons.
Some of the places we are going to require planning and itineraries far in advance, We booked tours and made reservations for some of those places before we left — Machu Picchu, Bhutan, and the Trans Siberian Railroad being three of them. It was especially important that we had everything nailed down for the Trans Siberian trip, which was leaving from Beijing, in order to get the Chinese and Russian visas we needed before we left.
Since we were planning to travel extensively by train in Europe, it was also easier to buy our first set of Eurail passes here in the U.S.
To save on airplane tickets or use frequent flier miles to travel long distances, we needed to book those flights far in advance. This did restrict our freedom to wander somewhat, but we realized we needed to be flexible about being flexible.
We also took a deep dive into the mysterious workings of Around the World Fares — a set of tickets with fixed destinations but a changeable schedule.
There are a couple of websites that do a good job of explaining your options for Around the World Fares and how to save on multi-leg fares — Free Report RTW Tickets from BootsnAll, and The In-Depth Guide to Buying an RTW Ticket from Nomadic Mike.
For the first leg of our trip (after much pain and suffering in understanding all the options and restrictions) we decided not to use an airline’s around the world ticket. Instead we used a booking service (AirTreks) that got us discounts on multi-leg fares. They did a great job for us when we originally booked our trip … and an even better job when we had to rebook and reschedule some flights.
Once we had decided how we were going to travel, and created our wisp of an itinerary, I thought we were home free. Boy, was I naive.
Once again I learned the universality of “God is in the details.”
It was pretty obvious we needed to be location independent. While we were going to sell our house, we weren’t exactly homeless; the problem was our “home” would move from week to week. Since we didn’t have many fixed reservations, we couldn’t count on mail being forwarded to us, and even when we did have a reservation, I wasn’t comfortable having mail forwarded from the U.S. to a hotel or apartment owner or rental agent in who-knows-where in the world.
So we needed to become paperless, which is actually what most companies would love for you to do anyway. We stopped paper billing for credit cards and paper statements from our banks, and planned to pay all of our bills online, avoiding the hassle of trying to navigate the postal systems of the countries we were visiting.
We set up an account at Charles Schwab bank, which enabled us to electronically transfer funds. We would use Schwab’s BillPay service for those times where a check was required.
But, as it turns out, we couldn’t become completely paperless. Some companies still send paper 1099s, for example, and the IRS also sends out paper notices. We would have a permanent U.S. address at our daughter’s home for those situations, and she would scan the document and email it to us. If you don’t have a sympathetic relative or friend, there are services you can use that will do that for you, but since I didn’t use them, I can’t say much about them.
Being in good health, we are not usually concerned with health issues. However when we decided to travel, we discovered there were some things we had to pay attention to. For example, some countries require foreign visitors to carry an International Certificate of Vaccination (aka Yellow Card) and I started to investigate what vaccinations we needed based on where we were going. And while there were many places that did not require vaccinations, we learned that didn’t mean we didn’t need them anyway.
I started with CDC’s Vaccines. Medicines. Advice. page, but soon realized that it made more sense to go to a Travel Medicine clinic, tell them where we were going, and get their recommendations. We made an appointment for three months before we left. Turns out we should have really done that much earlier, but it worked out anyway.
Linda and I had been blissfully ignorant about heath issues until we visited the clinic to see what vaccinations we would need. After the nurse spent time explaining the medical dangers we faced, we began to wonder if traveling was a good idea at all. (It began to feel like we were in the opening scene of a post-apocalyptic movie and maybe we needed some kind of self contained “Ebola grade” protective suit with filtered air and water.)
But our terror subsided and we got our vaccinations and about two inches of paper telling us everything about the diseases we were being vaccinated against. It turns out we still needed to be aware if we were at risk of malaria, because we needed to start taking the antimalarial drug before we got someplace with a significant risk of exposure. Even if we didn’t have to take the drugs, there were areas where we should be especially careful to protect ourselves from mosquito bites, both because of malaria and other diseases we were not vaccinated for. So be sure to take lots of your favorite mosquito repellent with you. The CDC has a good discussion here.
We were also given a yellow World Health Organization immunization record to take with us
If we do get seriously sick abroad, the CDC’s Getting Health Care Abroad page gives you some helpful advice. I also found an organization — IAMAT — that will connect you with an English speaking doctor.
We were given prescriptions to treat Travelers’ diarrhea and preventative medications for altitude sickness (although you shouldn’t use this to avoid having to go through the acclimatization process).
Well need to take a copy of our prescriptions with us as well. Sometimes (albeit rarely) you may be asked for them when you are entering a country. It will also help if you lose your medications abroad and need to see a doctor to get them refilled.
To be really safe, we will take a copy of our medical records. We are fortunate because our local clinic enables us to download all of our medical records and also create a wallet card with the important information.
While not a problem for us, if you have any food allergies, you should also carry a list of them in your destination country’s primary language (along with photos, if that makes sense).
Finally, we’ll take along a first aid kit with the usual stuff — bandages, insect sting relief, antiseptic wipes, and Neosporin. There is a good discussion of that here, again courtesy of the CDC.
We’ve traveled for years without doing any of this, albeit for only several weeks at a time and never to Asia. While it may sound like we are a couple of hypochondriacs (at least it does to me as I reread this), given where we are going and how long we will be in many of those places, we decided that for this trip, discretion is certainly the better part of valor.
Safety and Security
There’s a lot written on the Internet about security and staying safe, and you can do a Google search for tips on how to avoid danger. Rick Steves also does a good job explaining that here.
But the concern du jour these days is digital pickpocketing using RFID readers that can electronically sniff your wallet or purse for account information embedded in an RFID enabled credit card.
Until recently, U.S. credit cards didn’t have any chips in them, so that was only a problem in the rest of the world. That has changed and all of the credit cards we’ll be taking have chips embedded in them. The only thing is the chips in our cards are not RFID enabled (I called my credit card companies to verify this) so digital pickpocketing is not a problem.
What is RFID enabled is our passports, and according to our friends at the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, your passport has RF blocking material in the cover and a passport has to be physically opened before it can be read.
The other major conversation is about thieves slashing bags to remove your valuables, or even slashing bag straps to take your whole bag.
As Rick Steves points out, there are many things you can do to protect yourself, among them not carrying valuables in your bag, and not looking like a tourist.
But we had another issue. Since we would be staying in apartments without safes, we did get a slash-proof bag to put our computers in and secured it with a cable. It probably won’t deter a major break in, but at least it will protect against the grab and run.
Foreign Exchange and Credit Cards
Some credit card companies and banks will charge you a fee for foreign exchange transactions, and some don’t. Credit/Debit/ATM Cards and Foreign Exchange is one of the sites that explains this and it’s worth a read. We’ve actually been on top of that one for many years and only carry credit cards that do not charge a foreign currency transaction fee. Our bank (Charles Schwab bank) does not charge a foreign exchange fee, and what’s more reimburses us for all ATM transactions.
We aren’t planning to get Traveler’s Checks or foreign currency here in the U.S. before we leave. We’ll simply get cash at an ATM when we arrive in a country. (You should just make sure the ATM you find at an airport is a bank one, and not a bureau de change.) There are some countries that will take U.S. Dollars, and also rules about using U.S. Dollars in other countries. You can find all of that out by using Wikitravel and the U.S. State Department web page for that country.
One thing to be aware of: You may be offered the opportunity to have your credit card billed in your home currency. Don’t. The exchange rate will be very unfavorable and you may find all sorts of hidden fees even if it says “no fees.” Always insist on paying in local currency.
Before we left we contacted our bank and credit card companies to inform them of our travel plans.
In many countries, you may have the opportunity to have the Value Added Tax (VAT) refunded when you leave the country. Even if you aren’t going to claim a VAT refund, keeping your receipts will make filling out customs forms and proving your purchase prices easier. Since we aren’t planning to buy anything — one suitcases is one suitcase after all — I’ll leave it up to you to figure that out.
If you are traveling overseas, and depending on where you are going, there can be a lot of paperwork you need to do before you leave. You don’t want to end up in an airport someplace and told to go home because you don’t have a visa.
Obviously you need a passport, and some countries require at least six months of validity remaining on your passport to get a visa.
And that’s one thing we really paid attention to — whether we needed a visa to enter a country. The U.S. State Department web page for a country, which we used for information about what to do in an emergency, also provides a lot of other good information, including visa requirements. We also used Visa requirements for United States citizens.
Getting a visa is tedious at best, and for places like Russia and China it is painful. For that reason we used a visa expediting service (we used TravelDocs, but there are lots of these services and it is best to get a recommendation from a friend or travel agent). You need to start this process as soon as possible. Some visas you can get on entry to a country, so be sure to take some passport-sized photos. In some cases an on entry visa is an e-visa and requires a photo in electronic format. Be sure to create one and store it on whatever device you will be using to apply for the visa.
As I mentioned earlier, besides our visas and passport, we also took our International Certificate of Vaccination (aka Yellow Card).
We each got an International Driver’s permit, which is required to drive in some counties. The U.S. State Department’s Driving Abroad page explains what you need to know.
We also registered for a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Trusted Traveler Global Entry Program. This will allow us to avoid long immigration lines when we do come back to the U. S. as well as use the TSA PreCheck lane when we travel domestically. You have to apply and wait for an interview. In some areas of the country the wait is days or weeks, but here in the San Francisco Bay Area it is months, so start early.
Although not really necessary, you could also fill out a CBP customs declaration form 4457 to declare the electronics and any other valuables you are taking. It shows that you left with the items and you didn’t buy them on your trip, so you won’t have to pay duty when you return (original receipts work just as well).
The problem with travel insurance, I found, is that it is an umbrella term for three different kinds of insurance — medical, trip interruption and cancelation, and emergency evacuation, and many policies have some combination of the three, and others cover only one.
You’ll need to ask your medical insurance company if your policy covers emergency expenses abroad, and especially emergency evacuation (returning you to the United States for treatment if you become seriously ill). You will also need to find out how long the policy will cover you for. Our policy was only good for a few months abroad.
The CDC to the rescue again. Travel Insurance, Travel Health Insurance, & Medical Evacuation explains all of this. Rick Steves also does a good job on his Do I Need Travel Insurance? page.
After much investigation we decided to go with Travel Nomads, a company popular with many bloggers.
Back it all up
On the U.S. Department of State Traveler’s Checklist page, you’ll find advice on photocopying your travel documents. I made three photocopies of our:
- Passport ID pages
- Driver’s licenses
- International Driver’s permits
- Hotel confirmations with hotel contact information
- Tour confirmations
- Credit cards, front and back
- Airline tickets
- Medical Insurance Policy
- Travel Insurance Policy
- WHO Immunization Records
- A recent bank statement (can be helpful in resolving certain visa issues)
I scanned all of it into my computer and phone, and stored a copy in the cloud.
I downloaded all of our medical records and a wallet card to my computer and phone, and printed out a copy of the wallet card.
You might think this is overkill, and it might be for you. But we were going to be gone so long I wanted to make sure we were covered. I could imagine situations where only one of those copies could easily be available to us.
We have business cards with our Google Voice number and our email addresses. I wrote our children’s phone numbers on them as well, and put a card in each of our pieces of luggage.
I also made duplicates of our safe deposit keys and our storage locker lock combinations, gave them to our children, and made sure they had access to both.
What to take with us
Because of the way we planned to travel, what we were taking with us (suitcases, electronics, clothing) became very important. We needed to be really mobile, we were going to be in different climates, and we would need access to the Internet to decide where to go, how to get there, where to stay, and what to do once we got there.
The To Live on the Road page describes what we took based on what we thought were the requirements for the trip. I’ll be posting what we discovered along the way about how well we did that.