My two years around the world- how I prepared

Once I made the decision to finally go on my long-awaited solo trip around the world, the planning began.  But just making the decision to go was not enough, I had to commit myself financially so I wouldn’t back out of it, kind of like making a deposit.  After doing some thinking to come up with the “right” flight date and visiting a few of the bargain travel websites to find the cheapest airfare, I bought a one-way ticket to Bali.  This was my commitment and I felt I could no longer back out.  The ticket was non-refundable or transferable and it only cost me US$400.  The next thing was to get organized and put everything I had to get done down on paper so I began to make lists.  I used a software called Numbers on my Mac; which is the equivalent of Excel on a PC and began to transfer my lists to spreadsheets.  Yea I know this is nerdy but it really helped me to visualize everything so that I knew exactly where I stood on my progress.  Just blame my “geekiness” on my logistics background.
I began with creating a list of the tasks that I needed to complete before I could get on that airplane to Bali.  I own a condo in LA; which I wanted to keep as an investment property and rent out while away.  Even if I wanted to sell it, the market prices were at a low and I had almost no equity.  I wanted to make my place “rentable”, there wasn’t much to fix but I needed to remove the asbestos from the ceiling and repaint the walls.  I found contractors to do all the work through friends who recommended good companies at reasonable prices.  I decided to move all of my furniture and belongings into storage to make it easier for the workers.  The next step was to contact a property management company to take care of finding a good tenant and rent the place on my behalf.  They would also be in charge of the property maintenance and collecting rent while I was away.  It took the manager a couple of months to find a tenant with a good credit history and background, during that time I lived with only the essentials in my condo- an inflatable mattress, some kitchen stuff to cook, my clothes, personal hygiene items, and my electronics.  I have never needed much to feel happy so it wasn’t hard to be in an almost empty apartment.  This gave me good practice in living like a minimalist; which is how I would live during my trip.  At the time I was six months away from my flight date.
I wanted to avoid signing a short-term lease anywhere and paying a lot of money on deposits and rent so once my condo was rented, I found a furnished room in a big house near my place of work.  I also ended up selling my car since the place was only a few blocks from work and I could just walk.  I had two really nice roommates in the house but I just wasn’t used to living with roommates again so after two months I decided I needed my own space and rented a furnished studio through Craigslist.   The new place was a few miles away from work so I had to start taking the bus.  This was again good practice for my trip since I would only use public transport during my travels.  The next important step was to decide when and how I would quit my job.  I wanted to make sure that I gave my boss and my team sufficient notice so my desk, sort of speak, would continue to run smoothly after my departure.  Most importantly I wanted to leave the company in good terms in case I wanted to ask for my old job back upon my return.  I am a big believer of never closing any doors, you never know where life may take you.  The point is that the big decision of packing up your life and leaving everything behind to go travel will take some good preparation.  A list can definitely help you get organized and it will seem daunting (or not) depending on how complicated your life is and how many responsibilities you have.   Regardless, just remember that every journey begins with that first step.  You start marking things off your “to do” list one at a time, until one day everything gets completed and you can get on that airplane.
The next list was more fun to prepare than the previous one.  I listed all of the countries that I wanted to see on my trip.  At the beginning I planned to travel for one year and I figured that on average I would spend one month in each country.  But I was also aware of the big possibility that I would stay longer in some countries than in others.  All that I was very clear on was that I didn’t want to keep an exact itinerary, I just wanted to go with the flow and do as I pleased so I just made a “high-level” itinerary of the places that were a must-see for me.  Once I listed these countries, I added a few columns to the right on the spreadsheet for different things that I had to research for each- required vaccines, visas, time of stay allowed on the visa, required number of clean pages on the passport, required number of months before passport expiration, and any costs associated to these.  I also made a list of cities, towns, landmarks, or things that I had to see/do in each place, in other words, the bucket-list items.  For example, I would not leave China until I camped on the Great Wall, or Vietnam until I visited one of its many magnificent cave systems, or Morocco until I spent the night in the Sahara, etc.
A super important part was the actual research on how to travel the world on a budget.  I wanted to learn from other people that had real experience with independent long-term travel.  I wanted to get inspired by their stories, and get their expertise on how to prepare well for such a trip.  Even with my extensive prior travel experience, I was sure they could give me tips on things that I hadn’t even thought about.  After all, I had never been out there for an entire year!  I read various travel blogs, some of my favorites were, and  I visited bookstores where I spent hours browsing through travel books and I even bought the Lonely Planet guides on some of the big places that I would visit-  India, Nepal, and China.  At the end, the most inspiring stories and tips came from a podcast called Vagabonding by Rolf Potts.  I listened to a different part everyday on my way to work.  I repeated different chapters as needed.  Whenever fear started to creep in and I thought I was crazy for leaving everything to go travel, I could always count on Rolf to bring me back.  He was extremely inspiring and gave awesome tips and offered tons of interviews with other travelers.  This kept me going for a few months while I saved and prepared for the trip, and most importantly gave me the courage to quit my job when I finally did.
How much money did I actually need for a trip around the world?!  I knew two things for sure, that I needed my money to last me at least for an entire year, and that I would NOT work while traveling.  I had to think about the type of traveler that I wanted to be as well.  I have never been much of a shopper or into luxurious things so I knew that I was good with traveling “budget”.  I would stay in hotels, hostels, airbnb and was willing to couch-surf once in a while to keep costs down.  Obviously the cheaper you can go on accommodation, the more money you will have for other things.  As far as food, I wanted to eat like the locals so I would eat street food as much as possible.  I was willing to save in accommodation and food as long as I never compromised on my safety or my health.  And most important I would not stop doing the things that I always dreamt of doing, whatever the cost.  I knew that somehow I could find ways to compensate later and keep it all in balance.  After my research I learned that if I kept a low budget, I would be able to survive on US$20-$50 per day in most parts of the world.  This was at least true for Central and South-east Asia, the areas where I would spend a lot of my time.  As you can imagine, places like the US, Japan, Australia, and Western Europe would take more money but I knew that I would not spend a ton of time (or any time) in those places.  I decided that I could travel comfortably with a daily budget of US$50, but of course being the careful person that I am, I ended up saving enough to have US$60 per day.  This would cover accommodation, food, transport, personal items, and needed guided tours.  I also ended up putting US$5,000 aside to cover any expensive flights, just in case I flew long distances.  This served as a cushion if I didn’t fly much.
After coming up with my travel budget, the next thing to do was to figure out how much money I would need to cover expenses at home, while away.  Unfortunately the rent price that I was charging my tenants would not cover all of my property expenses.  The market was competitive and I had to match a rather low rental price of other similar condos in the area.  I had to continue to pay my home owners insurance, earthquake insurance and my storage fee, all out of pocket.  I also had to budget enough savings to survive for at least three months upon my return home.
Once I came up with a total of ALL the money I needed to save and saw how much I actually had in the bank, I was able to calculate the difference – the GAP.  At that point I only had a few months to save in order to close the gap and get on that airplane.  I was fortunate to have a good job that paid well; which allowed me to save a good chunk of money on a monthly basis.  I was also counting on the refund that I would get that year based on the property tax and interest deductions that I could get after filing my taxes.  I was already saving money on gas since I had sold my car and on rent since I had moved out of my condo.  And my mortgage and home owner association fees were covered by my tenants.  So how to close this GAP?!  In order to save more money, I had to watch any additional expenses which forced me to change a few habits.  I started to cook more at home instead of eating out.  Every time I wanted to buy something material, I would ask myself if it would serve me on my trip, if not, then I wouldn’t buy it.  I had to cut down on my entertainment expenses, I would do free or cheap activities like hiking, renting movies at home instead of going to the movies, visiting friends and cooking instead of going to restaurants, etc.  One can always find ways to keep monthly expenses down.  Do you really need another pair of shoes?  Can you do without the gym membership that you don’t use much anyway and go hiking instead, or do some work-out videos online?  Can you stop going to Starbucks everyday and make coffee at home or at the office?  Can you cancel your Spotify membership and just listen to Pandora?  Can you cancel your cable/satellite service and just find what you need on Youtube?   there are many ways…
I had yet another spreadsheet where I figured out my monthly expenses and kept track of everything I spent money on.  I had formulas that calculated how much money I needed to save in order to close the budget gap before the date of my flight.  If you don’t care too much for your furniture and material belongings you can always sell them.  I thought I would only travel for a year so I decided that storage was the best option for me since I wanted to keep my furniture and other belongings.
At the end (after my trip), I discovered that traveling around the world was cheaper than I had expected.  On average I spent US$40 per day.  This and the fact that I received another nice tax refund while I was away, allowed me to extend my trip to two years.  In retrospect I wish I would have sold all my stuff.  I ended up spending more money on storage than what my furniture was worth… Live & Learn!
I watched my money while I traveled closely so I would not run out by surprise.  I knew how much I wanted to spend each month and would try my hardest not to go over it.  I kept a record (on another spreadsheet) of all of my expenses during the trip categorized by type.  At the end of every month I knew exactly what I had spent on transport, on food, on meals, on accommodation, on tours, on visas, on personal items, etc.  After three months I could notice trends of where most of my money was going and make adjustments as needed to stay on budget.  I also wanted to make sure that I never compromised doing the things that were important to me.  After all I was not out there to save money but to see and enjoy the places and activities that were on my “bucket list”.  The experiences were always priorities so I would lower the accommodation and food prices as needed to avoid missing out on any fun activity.  There was NO way I would miss out on getting my scuba diving certification, my trek to Everest basecamp, my camping on the Great Wall, riding camels in the Sahara, or caving in Vietnam.
After the first year of travel I created a pie chart of all my expenses to see where I had ended the year.  Unfortunately my small pack was stolen with all of my electronics inside, including my external drive and I lost of all my nerdy work.  Fortunately a friend of mine introduced me to one of his friends who is still traveling around the world and who happened to keep spreadsheets like me.  It turns out our travel habits were very similar and my budget was pretty close to hers.  She ended up spending a total of US$18,000 in one year.  I spent US$19,000 (not counting expenses at home).   Here is a piechart showing the breakdown of money spent by category:
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The category of “miscellaneous” included things like band-aids, deodorant, toothpaste, etc.   The “self care” included spa visits (yes, these are important!), haircuts, cooking classes, etc.  The “sightseeing” included guided tours and group expeditions with outfitters.
I always kept a total of US$500 in cash on me at all times in a special travel belt with hidden pockets that I bought on Amazon.  This would cover me in case of an emergency- if I couldn’t find an ATM that worked, if all banks were closed, if I was robbed of my bank/credit cards, or if I had to pay for a visa in US dollars, etc.  I never touched this money unless I absolutely had to.  In my fourteenth month of traveling I was robbed in Cambodia, I lost my main ATM card and had to use my emergency cash while my sister mailed me the replacement from the US.
I always kept two ATM cards, one for regular use to take money out in the local currency, and the other as a back-up.  Before leaving the US I opened a Charles Schwab account online and linked it to my regular bank account.  Charles Schwab was a great choice- They don’t charge any annual fees, there is no minimum to maintain, and there are no ATM fees.   They also reimburse any fees charged by other banks in any country around the world.  I just took money out wherever, whenever and at the end of the month I would get reimbursed for all foreign ATM fees.  You can make transfers from your regular bank account to your Charles Schwab easily on any smart device.  I also had two credit cards, one VISA and one Mastercard, neither charged foreign fees and offered rewards as cash back and travel points (why would you get any other type?!).  I only used these when I booked a hotel in advance online (which happened maybe three times), or if I paid for an expensive tour.  Most budget hotels and hostels will ask you to pay in cash in the local currency, some will take credit cards, obviously depends on where you are traveling in the world.  I kept three different bank accounts at home, one with Bank of America which I always used to pay my bills from home (condo insurance, storage, etc).  The money was withdrawn automatically every month so I just had to make sure I kept enough money there to cover a few months at a time.  The other was a savings account with Capital One 360; which offered a better savings interest rate than others.  This is where I kept all of my savings.  I set up an automatic monthly transfer from this savings account into my Charles Schwab, the third account from which I withdrew money to travel.  In this account, I only kept enough money for two months at a time.  This was to make sure that I never had all my money in one place in case someone got a hold of my ATM card and pin, or someone forced me to withdraw money, etc.  I am a bit paranoid about these things, blame it on the Colombian upbringing.
This is one of the most important decisions to make before traveling anywhere.  How much did I want to log around with me around the world?  how much weight could my body handle while I walked rapidly through airports, hopped on tuk tuk’s, got into crowded buses, etc.  I definitely knew that a backpack would be best but I didn’t necessarily want to take my big pack that I use for backpacking in the mountains.  Even though my Gregory offers good back support and lots of little compartments for easy access, I didn’t want to take a 60 liter pack.  I decided to buy something smaller, with less cubic capacity, that I could just lay anywhere and open up from the top for quick access to my things.  I also wanted it to be easy to carry and throw around, and without many straps.  I opted for the 46 liter Osprey Porter Travel Backpack after a traveler that I’d met at the airport (on a prior trip) let me try it on.  It was exactly what I was looking for.  I ended up packing 22 pounds worth of a few light travel/hiking pants, some shirts, a jacket, socks, underwear, a sweater, a pair of hiking boots, and a pair of flip flops.  Traveling around the world implies changing climates and activities so I had to be very flexible and take things that would be useful in any situation.  I couldn’t possibly fit gear for all seasons inside this small pack so I would just buy things as I went.  You can find anything anywhere in the world and there are always options for cheaper clothes in the local flea markets.
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I also traveled with a shoulder bag in which I carried about 15 pounds worth of electronics and some personal items.  This included a MacBook Pro laptop to write on my blog, edit photos and videos, skype with my family and watch movies.  My Canon Rebel camera to take photos, my Gopro for videos, a WD Passport external drive to back up everything (I kept this one inside the bigger Osprey), a Samsung phone, and an Ipad.  I ended up using my Ipad for reading and to navigate through cities using the app  This app was fantastic and it worked everywhere except for China where every place seemed to be off by about a couple of blocks.   I definitely had too many things with me and the weight of this bag could have been easily reduced by taking out at least the Ipad and perhaps even the phone since I never used it anywhere.  A lot of travelers get zim cards to have access to the internet at all times but I just used the free WiFi at the hotels and restaurants.  After a few months, the shoulder bag started giving me some back pain so I eventually changed it for a small backpack.  I carried the Osprey pack on my back and the small pack on my chest which kept me well balanced while walking.  I would recommend packing as light and comfortable as possible.  There is absolutely no need to take everything when you can find most things anywhere in the world and usually for a lot cheaper than you can get them in the US.  This is specially true for SE Asia, Central Asia and most places in Latin America.
As previously mentioned I researched all of the vaccines that I would need to travel safely to the different countries that I wanted to visit.  Luckily I had already gotten a lot of them through my previous years of travel so I only had to get a couple of boosters before leaving.  You can go to any travel clinic and they will not only give you the list of what you need for any country, but also administer them right then and there (if in stock).  This may cost anywhere from US$100 to US$500 depending on your destinations.  If you are going to Africa the bill can be quite high.  While on the road I always carried a simple first aid kit which contained some critical medicines for pain like Ibuprofen and stomach issues like Imodium and Alkaseltzer.  I also bought a travel diarrhea kit; which I would strongly recommend having on you at all times.  It included Loperamide and Ciprofloxacin; which saved me when I contracted bacteria from badly prepared food in Indonesia, Nepal, India and Bolivia.  The most important thing that you cannot be frugal with is travel insurance.  You need one that will take care of all expenses in case of any accident while on your trip.  I paid around $1000 for full coverage for a year from  Accidents, illnesses happen and you may need to use it, specially if you need to be repatriated or have a family member come take care of you in another country while you recover in a hospital.  I actually ended up making two claims, one for the robbery in Cambodia, and another for some x-rays, shots, and doctor visits in Colombia.  Both of these were paid.
This long article is just to give you an idea of all the things I did to prepare for my trip. There are a ton of resources out there that will help you prepare for a solo trip anywhere.  Here are links to some of my favorite websites; which have inspired me with great stories, tips, and much more:
Here is the link to another great travel blog by my friend Alejandro whom I met in Indonesia at the beginning of my trip.  He is currently on his fourth year of his round-the-world trip:
Here is the link to the full article from where I borrowed the pie chart.  This was written by Andrea, the other nerdy girl 😉 that keeps spreadsheets and is currently on her second year of her trip:
Thanks for reading!  How did you prepare for your long-term trip?  anything I missed that worked well for you?  Feel free to leave some comments here and/or share on other social media.
Cheers and Happy Travels!


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