When Tony & I initially set out on this trip, we thought we’d be gone for the standard 1 year, maybe 18 months if we were lucky. But we’ve now been traveling long enough that when people we meet along the way ask us how long we’ve been on the road we actually have to stop and really think about it. I was astounded when I did just this last week and realized that we’ve now been traveling for over 15 months! Best of all, we’re still going strong and have no plans to stop any time soon.
Of course, it hasn’t been smooth sailing the entire time we’ve been out here; as is to be expected, we’ve hit bumps in the road. Some of them were unavoidable, but others we certainly look back on and grimace at the naiveté and ignorance that led to them. Still, at the end of the day, it’s all part of the adventure and the mistakes we’ve made have only served to make us better, more enlightened travelers. Also, we haven’t been running around out here like complete nincompoops—though it’s easy to beat ourselves up about our blunders, there are a few important things that we’ve definitely done right on this journey.
So, to celebrate 15 months of continuous travel, I put together a list confessing ten of our mistakes, and praising five choices we’re so glad we made.
First up, The Bad
1. Unrealistic Itinerary
Like many long-term travelers, we spent years planning our journey. The more we read, the more excited we became and we may have gotten a bit carried away. Having never really traveled on this scale before, we assumed that we’d not only be able to sustain a break-neck travel pace in which we squeezed in over 30 countries in 1.5 years, but that we’d actually enjoy it. Veteran travelers told us to slow down, but we thought we knew better. We didn’t, of course, but it didn’t take us long to realize that part of the beauty of this trip is that it affords us the time to really slow down and get to know countries in a way that most week-long vacationers simply can’t. Just two months into our trip, we threw out our slavish itinerary and just started going where we wanted, trying to spend no less than a month in every country we visited. It’s been 15 months and we’ve “only” been to 13 countries, but we both feel we have a far deeper insight into these places than our original whirlwind itinerary would have allowed. That means more to us than simply being able to boast about a higher number of stamps in our passports.
2. Pre-booking Accommodation
If you’ve never traveled for more than two or three weeks, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to plan everything down to the minute before you’ve even left home. We certainly did this for Japan where we pre-booked all of our lodging a few months before departing. The result was a jam-packed 4 weeks that left us utterly exhausted and gave us no wiggle room: even if we liked a place and wanted to spend more time exploring, reservations in our next city tugged us onward.
Another problem with pre-booking is that you never know what you’re going to get—photos can be very misleading here in Asia, and nothing is more disappointing than splashing out a little extra for a nice hotel only to find it is anything but. We’ve found it’s far safer for us to pick out lodging in person so we can know exactly what we’re getting for our money. Additionally, in the land where prices are always flexible you’ll often get better deals (even compared to discount booking sites) in person and can routinely negotiate even better rates if you are planning to stay for more than a handful of days. For these reasons, we rarely pre-book hotels anymore. Also, when we do book ahead, we generally only do so once we’ve decided we want to move on from our current location and will only pre-book one or two nights, that way if we picked a dud, it’s easy to move on.
3. Thinking EVERYTHING Would Be Cheaper In Asia
We started our trip in Asia because we knew that traveling here would be kindest on our savings. In many cases this has turned out to be true, particularly when it comes to food, lodging and transport. But in other areas, Asia can be shockingly expensive. If you are waif thin or content with clothing that falls apart the first time you wash it, you can certainly restock your wardrobe for very little, but as a lady with curves, I have a hard time finding clothing that fits me and Tony has gotten tired of shirts that fall apart when he sneezes. However, whenever we have been tempted by brand name clothing, we have been shocked to see that prices are generally far higher than what we would pay back home (when was the last time you spent $40 on a t-shirt from the Gap?). Same goes for electronics—we thought that since most electronics are manufactured here that we would be inundated with cheap gadgets… but once again, if you want to get real gear, you will pay a premium for it, definitely far more than we would back in the U.S.
4. No Electronics Insurance
Which brings me to my next point: although we got travel health insurance before leaving, we weren’t able to find insurance to cover our expensive electronics. Given that we are careful with our stuff and never seemed to experience issues back home, we figured we would be ok and maybe only have to replace one or two things (and foolishly thought it would be cheap to do so). Instead we have had the WORST luck with electronics since leaving, having had three (!) cameras break due to various mishaps, our e-reader mysteriously developed a crack in its screen, our phone glitched out for the entire week we were in Shanghai and we thought we’d have to replace it (though it mysteriously mended itself once we left the city), and at one point our MacBook Air stopped accepting a charge because of a faulty logic board (thankfully this problem was covered under our International Apple Care Warranty, which ran out exactly 1 week after the problem was fixed!). All told, we’ve probably had close to $2000 worth of damages and all things we have chosen to replace have had to come out of our travel fund. Having things break is already frustrating, but know that replacing them is also going to cut your traveling a little bit shorter is heartbreaking. We still haven’t found a plan that covers long-term travelers, so if you know of one, please let us know!
5. Thinking an iPad was an Acceptable Laptop Substitute
One last gripe about electronics: We left on our trip with a MacBook Air so that Tony could work on photography and design projects, and an iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard so that I could write. While the keyboard helped a lot, the simple fact of the matter is that the functionality on an iPad (especially a 1st gen one) is really limited and multi-tasking is an exercise in frustration. Accessing WordPress is so bad that it’s effectively not possible to blog, and even simply surfing the web was more pain than pleasure. In the end, our iPad gets used as an eReader and as a game console and that’s about it. If we weren’t blogging as intensively as we do, we could probably get by with one laptop, but I really believe that if you’re a blogging couple who is approaching this seriously, then you need one laptop per person. While in Cambodia, we dipped into our travel fund once more and picked me up an 11” MacBook Air and have rarely regretted the decision.
6. Being Stupidly Stubborn About Money
After saving for years, we certainly have been very careful about how we spend our money and are always looking for the best deal. But sometimes in Asia, where haggling is a way of life, it’s easy to lose perspective and get bent out of shape or make our lives infinitely more difficult than they need to be all in the service of saving a few bucks. From flights that land or depart at inhuman hours, or taking the local transport and adding hours to our journey, sometimes we have made choices that look like they will be budget savers only to find ourselves re-evaluating what the real costs were. On a few occasions we haven’t even saved money (for instance, if your flight leaves at an insane time, you might not be able to use public transport to reach the airport so the cab fare wipes out any savings), and in other cases we made ourselves miserable only to be a little bit richer for it at the end of the day. We’ve certainly learned that sometimes our happiness is worth it to pay a little bit more. The goal in taking this trip wasn’t to see the world for as cheaply as possible but to enjoy ourselves, so if we come in under budget but have had a wretched time, it’s hard to consider that a win.
7. Night Trains
Continuing from the point above, night trains seem like a budget traveler’s dream as they bundle your transportation and lodging costs into one. In reality, we have found night trains to be more of a nightmare than anything else. Rather than being gently rocked to sleep by the swaying of the train, we have wound up bumped and jostled so much that sleeping is impossible. I’ve never gotten a good night’s sleep on any of the night trains we’ve taken, even when we have beds and I’ve taken a sleeping pill, so inevitably we wind up at our destination the next morning feeling cranky and groggy and less than enthused to explore. Now we try to avoid night trains at all costs because the poor sleep they provide us just isn’t worth it.
8. Hostels are Fine, but Dorms? Not So Much.
Because we started our trip in a few expensive countries (specifically Japan & Hong Kong), we tried to stick to our budget by staying in dormitories rather than splashing out for private rooms in hostels or going to hotels. With the exception of trains, I can pretty much sleep anywhere (true story: I once fell asleep on the back of a motorcycle!) and when I do sleep, I sleep like the dead, so I the dorms didn’t really bother me all that much, even though it was annoying when people would get drunk and fall off their bunks or come crashing in at 3 am and turn on all the lights. Tony never took to it, but during the early days of our trip, we reasoned that we didn’t want to spend our time in hostel dorms, we wanted to get out there and explore! But then, we got sick and spent days in a 9-person dorm in Hong Kong and that was hell, no matter how you sliced it. And the longer we’ve traveled, the more we have come to realize we need our down time and value our privacy. Thankfully most of Asia is cheap enough that we haven’t needed to stay in dorms: the last time we tried it was in Thailand where beds were $2/night. Still, we took one look at the place we were supposed to stay and immediately turned around and went hunting for a bungalow. It wound up being 10 times the cost, but was so worth it. We haven’t been in a dorm since, and it’s hard to get excited about ever going back to them.
9. Stocking up on Malaria Pills
Like good little travelers, we got a bunch of recommended vaccinations before heading off on our travels, but we were always confused about what to do about Malaria. We read so much conflicting advice that in the end we just decided to stock up on some pills before I graduated and have them “just in case”. Well, I have no idea what that case would be because 15 months in, we have yet to take a single pill, despite having traveled through the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
I’m not a doctor—ok, actually I am, but not a medical one—so I’m not going to sit here and tell you that if you’re traveling to Asia that you shouldn’t take Malaria pills. I’m just saying that we haven’t and so far have not suffered as a result. It seems like Dengue Fever is more of an issue in this part of the world, and there’s currently no preventative medication for that; the only prevention is not to get bit by mosquitos. That’s also the only real sure-fire way to avoid Malaria, and that seems to have worked for us. If I were traveling to other parts of the world, taking some kind of malaria meds would be non-optional, but why we stocked up on hundreds of these pills for this trip, I can’t say. Especially because if we really wanted them, we could get them for far cheaper here in Asia. Bug spray seems to be working just fine and without all the icky side effects.
10. Packing Too Much
My main pack is only 45L, Tony’s is only 50L. You wouldn’t think with such relatively small packs that we’d have the space to pack too much, but as they say, where there’s a will, there’s a way! I know this is a common pitfall that every long-term traveler falls into, and we were no exception. Rather than packing for the immediate adventure we were embarking on, we tried to pack for every eventuality with the result we’ve toted around unused Malaria meds for over a year, had fleeces with us when visiting Japan during its absolute hottest month and didn’t whip them out until nearly 5 months later, brought bushwhacking sun hats even though we spend most of our time in cities, and sundry other items that were largely unnecessary. Though certain items are more expensive in Asia than we anticipated, it is generally true that if you really need something (like cold weather gear, medicine, etc.,) then you can buy it here, too.
There are a few exceptions to this, such as sunscreen: it’s available but since the locals don’t use it and this is considered a “tourist only commodity” it’s REALLY expensive here. Also, finding deodorant that doesn’t have skin-whitening properties (a topic for another post, I think) can also be tricky, and if you’re a lady, sometimes feminine hygiene products can be comically pricey. So we probably would have been better of tossing an extra stick of deodorant and a bottle of sunscreen in our bags than a compass and several pairs of socks when we lived in sandals for months, but there you have it.
And now for The Good
1. Signing up for CouchSurfing
I’ve raved about our CouchSurfing experiences on multiple occasions on the site before (check out this post on our first time Surfing in Japan, or this one about the incredible people we met in Taiwan if you need a refresher), so I’ll try to keep this brief and simply say that the somewhat cavalier decision we made to sign up for this service before leaving on our trip was one of the best choices we made. It’s with real embarrassment that I remember that we initially signed up as a way to save money on accommodation, because although it is certainly true that Surfing has helped our money go farther, the experiences we’ve had through the program have truly proven invaluable. We’ve been so lucky that everyone we’ve met has been so welcoming and hospitable, and there is something so gratifying about leaving a country with new friends and a whole host of deeply enriching experiences you would never have discovered on your own. Without CouchSurfing, our trip would be far less fun and meaningful than it has turned out to be.
2. REALLY Knowing How to Ride Motorbikes (& Being Properly Licensed)
Before leaving, Tony & I were well-versed in the singular pleasure that traveling by motorcycle brings us, but we didn’t fully appreciate our ability to confidently and competently ride until we reached Asia. Here, motorcycles are the de facto mode of transport, and being able to take off on our own bike has allowed us the freedom to travel at our own pace (without dealing with price-gouging touts) and explore parts of countries that many tourists skip right by or simply can’t reach on their own. Of course, many travelers arrive in Asia without ever having ridden before and promptly hop right on a bike, but the number of tourists involved in motorcycle accidents or fatalities is so shocking that I personally think this is one of the dumbest things a traveler can do. While it’s not difficult to ride a motorcycle, they are dangerous, in large part because of how unpredictable roads can be particularly in combination with the notoriously lethal Asian road rules. To be truthful, although I spent nearly a year riding a scooter in Nashville before our trip and took a full-blown riding course to boot, I leave most of the driving up to Tony and ride pillion instead, except in the most serene locations—Tony has been riding motorcycles since he was 10, and so he really has the breadth of experience and knowledge to ride safely. Moreover, he has bona fide motorcycle endorsement on his U.S. and international driver’s license, which means that should the worst happen, our health insurance will actually cover us. We have ridden motorcycles in over 50% of the countries we have visited, so it’s clear that if given a choice, we prefer to travel by motorcycle! But it wouldn’t be nearly so fun (or so safe, all things considered) if we hadn’t arrived prepared.
3. Learning to SCUBA Dive
Another thing both Tony & I have spoken about effusively already, but one major change since embarking on this trip is that we can now call ourselves divers, and we are so happy for that. Not only do we simply enjoy the pleasure of floating weightlessly beneath the surface of the waves, gazing on vistas and creatures of unparalleled beauty, and witnessing surges of mindboggling diversity, but as divers, a huge swath of the world is now open for us to explore that was once blocked to us. Moreover, our love of diving has motivated us to visit destinations we previously dismissed, such as Borneo and Indonesia, and we continually find ourselves adding new countries at an alarming rate in our quest to find and dive the best underwater paradises the world has to offer. Because of diving, we find ourselves traveling to more adventurous places, and our interest in environmental conservation has skyrocketed as well. It’s also been a venue through which we’ve met many wonderful people who share our passion for the underwater world and who we’ve enjoyed spending time with, laughing and learning, during our surface intervals and beyond. Pretty much, diving has given us the world, and our love of diving is taking us to more of the world than we ever could have dreamed of!
4. No RTW Ticket
I am sure that there are certain travelers for whom getting an RTW ticket where all their major flights are pre-booked straight from the start makes at least some sense. In particular, if you know you only have 12 months and are interested in hopping across multiple continents, then it’s not a terrible idea (though with all the budget airlines in operation now, I’m still not sure if it really will save you money). However, for those targeting their trip on one part of the world or who have an open-ended journey and want a true taste of freedom, it only makes sense to buy tickets to match. We knew pretty quickly that RTW tickets weren’t congruent with the kind of trip we wanted to take—sure we had a pretty intense itinerary at the start where we attempted to guess how long we would spend in each country, but we always left ourselves open to the possibility that things might change. And, of course, they did. Within 1 month of setting out, we deviated from our original itinerary by spending 9 days in Hong Kong rather than 3, and then a month later, we did so even more significantly when we flew to the Philippines, a country we hadn’t even really planned on visiting. From then on, we’ve followed cheap flights and personal whims and have never been happier. Despite our plans to conquer Asia & Europe in less than 2 years, we’ve yet to make it out of Asia! A RTW ticket wouldn’t have supported a journey of this length and given all the changes we’ve made along the way, I know we would have been miserable feeling we had to stick to a schedule we planned out before we really had a chance to figure out what kind of trip we really wanted to take.
5. Starting 20 Years Hence
Not to end on too sappy a note, but from our initial conception of what this blog would be (a way to share stories with friend and keep our families from worrying we were lying dead in a ditch somewhere and a good souvenir of this adventure, maybe providing a few useful tips to fellow travelers), I know neither of us really anticipated what this site would become. We definitely didn’t envision the blood, sweat and tears that would go into developing and building this site, and there have been days we rued our decision to start this venture, but overall, the fruits of our time and energy have been more than worth it. We both love having a place to funnel our creative energies, and the support we have received from readers has been truly astounding. It has been so rewarding to watch our community grow and to have created a space where we can interact with so many wonderful people across the globe. One unexpected benefit to the site is that it has allowed us to make contact with many people we’ve since met while traveling and now consider real-life friends. Even traveling as a couple, it’s easy to feel lonely when you’re far removed from friends and your social support, but I know that one of the reasons we have almost never felt isolated is because of all of you who have reached out to us through comments, email, or on Facebook and Twitter. So a big thank you from the both of us, because this journey of ours wouldn’t be nearly so fun or satisfying if we didn’t get to share it with all of you!
Obviously we’ve made more than 10 mistakes (and done more than 5 things right, for that matter!) during the past 15 months, and I’ve no doubt that there will be more to come in the months that follow (though hopefully no repeats!). We may not be proud of every decision we’ve made since setting out, but we both know that all the choices we’ve made—both good and bad—have gotten us this far and have made the trip what it is.
Now it’s your turn: Have you made any of these mistakes while traveling? What’s the best decision you’ve ever made on your own trip? Any other advice or words of wisdom you’d like to impart? Share all your thoughts & feelings down in the comments!