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The Practical Traveler Guide

Wanderlust


NEW YORK (MainStreet)—When Jules Verne wrote about circling the world in 180 days he was telling the story of a breathtaking adventure, and he was absolutely right. The chance to travel the world, whether for a month or six or more, is an incredible opportunity, one that more and more people are beginning to create for themselves. Once restricted only to gap-year backpackers and the wealthy, long-term travel is becoming increasingly popular among people who want to see more than the world can offer in only two weeks. As Americans, it’s also a way to get the most out of our increasingly expensive airfare, since seeing most of the world requires crossing an ocean.

The question is how do you make it work? Spending six months overseas is a huge leap of faith. It means coasting off of savings or finding a job overseas, not to mention hoping to still have a life on the other side. While some people are perfectly happy to wash up penniless on a beach in Indonesia, most of us would much rather get home without having to sell the car to make rent. Fortunately, as travel professionals around the world will tell you, these days it’s all not only possible but well within reach. With a few tips and some smart planning, you’ll be booking that trip of a lifetime before you know it.

1. Destination, Destination, Destination!


Pick your destinations with an eye to savings. It’s the first choice you’ll make, and can determine whether the trip happens or not. Although the capitals of Europe are clichés for a reason, going places like east Asia or South America will let you take advantage of thousand-to-one exchange rates and get a lot more value for that dollar. Of course, you have to balance this with actually having some fun on your trip too. As Matt Chua, author of the popular travel blog Living If, recommends:

“Southeast Asia and China are the best value for money destinations in the world. You can be amazed by sights, enjoy the world’s best food, and have Western comforts for way less than anywhere else. While people claim India is cheaper, it’s not the same; it’s cheap because you get less… The reality of long-term travel is that it’s a life of trade-offs. Sacrificing comfort may save you money, but also make your trip unbearable.”

The statistics back this up, with the Lonely Planet guidebooks estimating that in Thailand alone a day of travel can cost as little as $30 all in. Of course keep an eye on your travel visas. Overstaying your welcome is a common mistake and the fines, in almost any country, add up fast. Over the years I’ve paid far too much money to customs agents thanks to expired stamps in my passport and more than a little bit of corruption along the way.

2. Try the trains


American trains aren’t cheap. Our country is too large, our population is too spread out and our rail network just isn’t well developed compared to countries where it’s more practical. The fact is, getting from one part of America to another is almost always easiest on a plane and cheapest in a car. However according to Mark Smith, author of The Man in Seat 61, trains can be an incredibly cost effective and exciting way of seeing much of the rest of the world.

“In Southeast Asia and many parts of Africa you’ll find ultra-cheap trains that are an experience in themselves,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Remember the hidden costs of air travel: Train tickets or taxis to and from remote airports, baggage fees, booking fees. With airlines facing rising fuel costs, it may well be cheaper to take the train.”

Taking the train can also lead to unexpected and unique moments that have increasingly gone missing from the routine of air travel. They reflect the local culture, as Smith writes, and give passengers the chance to sit back with a glass of wine and simply enjoy the scenery. Besides, how else can you spend a night as I did, on a Romanian platform desperately trying to remember sophomore year Russian to tell a belligerent old woman, “I’m not taking your train?"

“I love snuggling down in bed, reading a good book by the glow of my berth light to the sound of steel wheel swishing on steel rail beneath me," Smith said. "And waking up in a new country! It’s an experience not to be missed.”

3. Don’t stop your financial planning once you’re overseas


So you’ve done the work, made the plans, saved every penny from a year’s worth of unordered lattes and it was all worth it. The trip has begun! That’s no reason to take your eye off the bottom line now. All too often travelers forget to stay smart about their money all the way through, not just while putting the pennies together. Once you’re overseas, lax discipline can turn three years’ worth of savings into three weeks’ worth of fun.

“We record every expense,” said Chua. “It seemed anal at first, but keeping track of expenses is what has allowed us to travel for nearly three years without working. Looking back at our spending daily allows us to reflect on our priorities (seeing the world), where we’ve made missteps (did we really need that much beer?), and lets us know if we’re on track or need to make adjustments to our plans.”

It’s an effective technique and one that I use myself. Of course, the downside to writing down your daily expenses is actually having to read them. A spreadsheet lets you feel proud of a week in Cambodia that only cost $40. Just keep the $100 scam that made it necessary tucked away under “Other.” And watch your bar tab.

4. Cut out the transportation middle men


On this all of the experts agree: money spent on middle men is money wasted.

“Always shop around and buy direct,” Chua said. “Fellow travelers often use tour companies to buy bus, train and plane tickets… don’t do that! Not only does a middleman such as a travel agent add a commission, often they only represent a handful of providers.”

Smith agreed, saying that “in Europe, the surprise is how cheap train travel can be if you ignore expensive railpasses and overseas resellers and book in advance, online, direct with the relevant train operator.”

With endless options to lose money on package deals and tourist prices this can be a tricky rule to follow, but invaluable if you make it work. The more popular the destination the worse it gets. Khao San Road in Bangkok, one of the most visited stretches in the world, is lined with travel agencies that all take advantage of newcomers who don’t know where the train station is. On a long trip you’ll be buying a lot of tickets, and those commissions will add up.

5. Look for work, but find it before you leave


While many people who see the world do so off of savings, another common option is to work as you go. Teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) is very popular and an excellent way to find funds as you make your way across the world. Bruce Jones, President and Founder of the International TEFL Academy in Chicago, highly recommends work as a way to find not only your money for travel but also to come home with.

“Half our students have never left the country,” he said. “The teaching is really the gateway to living out there… You live your local life, you travel there and it gives you a launching point to travel more and have some adventure.”

Programs like Jones’s TEFL Academy are an excellent way to find work on the front end, which is a crucial step that some people skip. More than once I’ve wandered into an dusty bar far from home to find a backpacker washed up behind the taps, working for money to buy his ticket home. Jobs are hard to find on the road, and if you leave assuming you’ll be the exception to the rule, it could be very easy to go broke while looking.

5. Look for work, but find it before you leave


While many people who see the world do so off of savings, another common option is to work as you go. Teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) is very popular, and an excellent way to find funds as you make your way across the world. Bruce Jones, President and Founder of the International TEFL Academy in Chicago, highly recommends work as a way to find not only your money for travel but also to come home with.

“Half our students have never left the country,” he said. “The teaching is really the gateway to living out there… You live your local life, you travel there and it gives you a launching point to travel more and have some adventure.”

Programs like Jones’s TEFL Academy are an excellent way to find work on the front end, which is a crucial step that some people skip. More than once I’ve wandered into an dusty bar far from home to find a backpacker washed up behind the taps, working for money to buy his ticket home. Jobs are hard to find on the road, and if you leave assuming you’ll be the exception to the rule it could be very easy to go broke while looking.

6. Plan your costs out day-by-day


The numbers on a big trip can look pretty scary, and one of the best ways to make them more manageable is to plan out a daily budget. That won’t mean hard and fast numbers, some countries will cost more, some less, but it will give you a sense of where the money needs to go. It will also help enforce discipline; knowing that yesterday went $15 over budget is much easier to correct than trying to make up $500 from last month.

“We left home on one-way tickets to Vietnam with no plans of where we’d go or when we’d return,” Chua said. “All we decided was that we wanted to spend less than $100/day all-in (travel insurance, flights, beer, etc). We figured that we needed to keep on-the-ground costs to $50/day average. Accepting that we’d spend more in some places (Australia, Japan, Argentine) we knew we needed to balance it with low-cost countries.”

Planning a daily budget can also give you a feel for which countries are most affordable. While you might have a good feeling about one city, or think another is out of reach, actually putting the numbers down on paper is a great way to know for sure. Sometimes the results might surprise you.

7. Hotels out, Guesthouses in


Along with trains, one aspect of travel that Americans tend to miss is cheap guesthouses and hostels. The infrastructure for them simply hasn’t caught on in the United States; although some hostels have popped up in markets like New York City and Philadelphia, for the most part the budget options in our country are roadside motels.

Not so overseas, however! Low cost hostels and guesthouses are a way of life in most of the rest of the world, and what they lack in luxuries such as room service, cable TV and privacy, they more than make up for in savings. Popular websites such as Hostelworld.com and Hostelbookers.com can help you find beds in Paris, Buenos Aires and Phnom Penh for a small fraction of what you would pay at a hotel.

The standards will be different, and you may have to share a bathroom or even a dorm room, but the price will be right, and sometimes that’s what matters.

8. Get on top of ATM fees


Three days ago my friends and I went to a small hamburger restaurant near my Chicago apartment. Their food was outstanding, but when the bill came I found myself in some trouble. The restaurant was cash only; not only did I have none on me, but it took several minutes to even remember my PIN number at the ATM. The fact is these days I almost never use cash when I’m in the United States, but you should expect the opposite overseas.

“The majority of the world is cash-only,” Chua says, “requiring travelers to use fee-laden ATM’s. [Using a bank that] refunds the fees levied by foreign banks, doesn’t charge a fee or foreign transaction fees [has] saved us roughly $1,000 a year.” Note to Editor – The actual quote from Matt Chua identified the bank he uses and recommends by name, however I thought it best to edit that out. I can return the quote to its original form if you prefer.

Many banks not only charge for using out-of-network ATMs, but also impose steep foreign transaction fees. When you combine it all together you can end up losing as much as $10-$15 per withdrawal. Before you leave, find a bank that reduces or waives those costs. It might not seem like much up front, but over time those savings add up and you’ll get the best exchange rates from the ATM.

9. Do your best to pack with a carry on


This may seem like standard advice in an era of shrinking cabin space and growing fees, but it bears repeating. That large bag can quickly become a money sink, and not just with check-in fees at airports. Having a large bag can mean money spent at baggage checks if you stop someplace for an afternoon. It can add surcharges to taxi cabs that want to compensate for weight. It can even mean money lost in tips to porters who rush to bus and boat storage compartments once you’ve reached a destination.

Of course large bags can also mean additional headaches at the airport. In this day of increasingly automated service, airport kiosks have become a traveler’s true best friend. One swipe of the credit card can turn what used to be an hour long wait into an effort free process. That is, unless you have to check your luggage. Then you’ll be stuck slugging through no matter what. Many times I’ve nearly missed my flight because of the lines at airport check-in, once only making it because security let me sprint through the metal detector and an airline held the gate.

Packing for the next six months in a carry on bag might seem daunting, but remember: you’re not actually packing six months’ worth of gear. You’ll buy new toiletries, trade in used books and wash your clothes as you go. Pack just one week’s worth of supplies that can be cleaned, replaced and refilled and the process will get much easier.

10. Manage your commitments back home


Heading overseas rarely means getting to cut ties with your old life, and one of the first things to plan before leaving is how you’re going to manage those financial commitments. Some issue are easy. Utilities can be turned off, credit cards can be rolled into your budget and travel insurance is relatively cheap online. Others are more complicated. Do you sublease your apartment or just bear the cost? How will you manage your taxes? An important issue that Jones says comes up often for people in his courses is how to manage student loans.

“We get this question all the time, how can I afford to really do it from the beginning,” Jones said. “The first thing is, what are my wants what are my needs?

Do I need to be paying off $500 a month to student loans? Okay well, you can defer that with student loan programs, or you can go to a country where you’re [working and] making this extra money. Those are your two choices. Choice number three is not going; choice number three’s not a great option.”

A final tip: suspend your cell phone plan. Most companies will do it, reducing payments to $10 per month and letting you keep your number.

11. Plan for your return in advance


Just like it’s a bad idea to wing it overseas, it’s equally poor planning to come home without a plan. Know how you’ll support yourself after the trip, whether it’s setting aside money, lining a job up or a specific plan for how you’ll find work to return to while away. Remember, nothing can spoil that trip of a lifetime like coming home to empty options, and after all, you’re already setting yourself up with some incredible ones just by going!

“Frankly, any boss that you interview with, the first thing they want to know about is when you lived abroad,” Jones says. “That employer, if he or she has ever been abroad, you’re in the club. If that employer has not been abroad, they admire that you had the cojones. If you can do that, you can do pretty much anything.”

Travel overseas makes you a more diverse, interesting person. It shows that you have the skill and motivation to make your goals a reality, and that’s the kind of thing that employers want to see. Play up your strengths, old and new, and you’ll turn that trip into opportunity.

Eric Reed is an experienced traveler who has visited and lived in well over two dozen countries. He blogs about mixing travel and career at www.wanderinglawyer.com.

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