Advice before I fly the coop for a year?
October 7, 2009 8:02 PM   Subscribe

I (26/male) am leaving Los Angeles in January for at least one year of backpacking solo around Australia, NZ, SE Asia, and possibly some other places! Other than enjoying my remaining time before I leave (going to favorite restaurants, hanging with friends, etc.), what pre-trip activities should I be thinking about, and what preparations should I be making (especially while I have good insurance)? What do you wish someone had told you before you left for a trip of this length and scope?

This is me! I have a few months left before I take off and start my working holiday visa in Australia. Obviously I'm heading to a first-world country to begin, and should be able to buy plenty of things that I may want while I'm over there.

I did my research and bought a great backpack, and plan on packing lighter than I ever have before. I've been trading in some of my must-have things (camera, laptop, etc.) for smaller and lighter versions. I'm planning on keeping my website updated with my past/future/current whereabouts, and posting blog entries, pics and video as the opportunity presents itself. I'm considering printing up some Moo MiniCards to pass out to people I meet, to make it easier for them to track me down. And I may get one of those recently announced Amazon Kindles with international downloads, instead of my usual approach of lugging around a small library.

In addition, I have about 10 more weeks of good medical/dental insurance from my current job, which I'll be leaving just before Christmas. I'm planning on getting a physical, and asking about immunizations for some of the less developed countries I may end up visiting. Beyond that, I'm not sure if there's anything I should be taking advantage of while I have the chance. Once my coverage runs out I'll have travel insurance with emergency health coverage, but nothing as nice or comprehensive as I have now.

For the past two months I've been aiming to get rid of 3-5 pieces of personal property each week, either by selling, giving or throwing things away. I'll be selling my car before I leave, and anything remaining will go into a small storage unit. Then I'll be living out of my backpack. Crazy.

I'll probably do occasional freelance programming work (old clients and new) to keep some money rolling in while I'm away, so I'm looking into gadgets/software that'd make my computing life easier... I've seen some external USB WiFi antennas that have received excellent reviews.

Any advice relevant to my specific situation would be appreciated, or any tips that are applicable in general. Thanks so much!
posted by adamk to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I've done this twice, you're about to have an amazing experience that will change your life. As for the doctor, how much does that usually set you back with insurance? I have found that its cheaper to get a comprehensive physical (including labs) from the best hospital in Bangkok than to pay for the stuff that your insurance didn't cover. I paid $70 back in 2005, but back then I would have paid way more than that in co-pays and extra lab fees etc. in the Us with decent insurance. Of course, that depends on your insurance.

I went in and got a root canal done before I lost my insurance. Talk to your doctors and tell them and see what they say. I told my dentist that if there were things that he was waiting on we should do them before I left.

As long as we're talking insurance have you realized that most travel policies don't count as continuous coverage? That means when you come back to the US you may have trouble getting an individual policy and will not have pre-existing conditions covered? I could see no way around this with the policies I had. When I got back I tried to get an individual policy I got a lot of flack in the interview about the countries I'd been to (I hadn't even been to Africa by them yet!) and they called up all my travel prescriptions automatically (cipro, doxy) even though I hadn't listed them.

I'm not sure what would have helped me to know back then. Perhaps don't travel so fast. Get a nice hotel or meal every once in a while. Do you have someone to handle your money and mail back home? No matter what I told my banks before I left I routinely got frantic emails from my mom telling me that my bank had, once again, put a hold on my card. You might not have as much trouble since you're going to more well-traveled places.

I am always over prepared about this sort of thing though and carry a credit card and two ATM/debit cards (one MC and one Visa) from different banks. The places you're going sound like you won't have trouble but I had trouble in Africa since Visa was really all that was accepted. Then my Visa card was suspended and cancelled and I had to get a new card FedEx-ed to me in Madagascar since they will only send replacement cards to Us addresses. Good thing I had the Mastercard and a bunch of traveler's checks since the fastest service took a week.

Try to write at least one sentence in a journal or calendar every day to remember what you did. If you're going to do a blog make sure you post. I often put off making the big posts about cool parts of my trip thinking I would finally sit down and save out the pictures or write the long story up and it just kept getting pushed off. Your readers will want to read a post even if its a few sentences about some funny character you saw on the subway. In fact I've found people want to read shorter blog posts. They also like videos almost as much as photos.
posted by Bunglegirl at 10:29 PM on October 7, 2009

You sound pretty organised. And these days, with email and electronic banking and all that, lots of things that used to be a pain are no longer.

Speaking of electronic banking - do you have a couple of ways to access money? Like a debit card and a credit card (and maybe another one)? Have you checked the expiry dates on them to see if they will run out while you are away? Check other stuff like your drivers licence, that will be a pain/impossible to renew while away.

I had my credit card cancelled while I was away (some website compromised my details). Yes, the bank could send me an emergency card, BUT it couldn't do cash advances or withdrawals, nor could it be used to pay for anything in my home country which meant I couldn't use it to easily pay for some bills at home while still away. To reissue a 'real' card, they would only send it to my home address and not to another address overseas. I had it reissued and sent to home (which was registered as my parents address), who then forwarded it. So think carefully about where you want to redirect all your mail to while gone.

If you take any medication, work out now how you are going to secure an adequate supply to take with you / how you will arrange to get it while away. Tip - you will not be able to fill an overseas prescription once away! If you wear glasses, take your prescription for those.

On a slightly grim note - it might be a nice time now to visit with any elderly relatives you have.. just in case.
posted by AnnaRat at 10:30 PM on October 7, 2009

Get some duct tape. Tear out the cardboard inner, and flatten it under some books so it slips into any old spot in your bag. This can be used to repair shoes, pants, shirts, and bags, to make a bookmark, to hold a broken dinner tray together on an 8 hour bus ride, to cover a huge hole in a shower door, to secure a secret money stash to the inside of a pocket, to cover up a ridiculously bright light on the back of the seat in front of you on the bus, and so on.

Get some alligator straps. You know, they have the little hinge latch at the end that lets you tighten them up, then loosen them immediately when required. I tried finding a picture but google just gives me watches. You should be able to find them at outdoor stores. You can use these to suspend camp showers from trees, to tether bags to trolleys, to tie your bag to your foot when you're asleep so you get woken up when someone tries to steal it, to tie your bike to the back of a pick-up in Cambodia when you need a ride, to tie your fancy new fire twirling stick to your bag, to make an impromptu splint, to compress your sleeping bag further, to hold your rickety hostel bed together, and so on.

Everything else, every plan and all that- that's just there to reassure you things will be okay. But when they go wrong (and they will), you'll have duct tape and alligator straps. There's nothing that will happen to you that you won't be able to handle with time, money, or the two items above. Planning ahead won't change that.
posted by twirlypen at 10:39 PM on October 7, 2009

SE asia is also a region with a rather wide range of modernisation. On one end of the spectrum you have Singapore, which is about as modern as you can get, and on the other you have Cambodia which isn't. So ... do some country-specific research before you go and plan accordingly.

... though I don't think I need to tell you to plan, to be honest. You seem pretty well prepared already. You're gonna have a fantastic year. :D
posted by Xany at 11:28 PM on October 7, 2009

seconding all Bungie and Anna said. I lived in SE Asia for 8 years. I'd add:
-shoes. If you wear over a size 6, bring a few pairs. Sox are cheap, but don't trust the sizes.
-shopping. Have someone at home you can completely trust to buy what you need and send it where you need it. I suffered more than I had to, due to a lot of 'well, if he really needed it, he'd fly 22 hours and get it here...' If you need something, you need it. Nuff said.
-zippered leather money belt. NOT the pouchy kind. A normal belt with a zipper running down it. Very hard to spot.
Have a good time. You might not come back (that is, you might love it and fall in love and stay). Accept that before you go.
posted by flowerofhighrank at 12:33 AM on October 8, 2009

Great to hear your trip is happening!

I worry that you'll have too much electronic stuff though, even with your freelancing; at the very least, try to wrap up your freelance stuff when you're in Australia and NZ so you're not looking for a great connection on the side of a volcano or something. Traveling around southeast Asia is safe, but often you've got to worry more about your fellow hostel guests than the locals, and the standards of cleanliness and rain tolerance will test your toys. If you must, bring a netbook with a crapload of PDFed stories and books replacing your Kindle, and a bit of extra memory for your photos (though every big city, even in regional Indonesia, for example, has a photo shop or even a machine that can put your photos onto a CD from your memory card). If you can pare it down to one, sell your netbook in Australia and just bring a camera on your future travels. The time I spent on the internet in Indonesia was so small (less than two hours a week) and internet speeds were so slow (uploading photos to a blog would have taken hours [admittedly this is less of a problem in places like Malaysia and Singapore]) that I preferred to update people at home with letters, on paper. I even did little sketches to accompany the letters of where I'd been or what I'd eaten, and some of them still grace the walls of my friends, which is much cooler than any e-mail or blog post.

Keep in mind also that there are English-language bookshops in pretty much every big city you'll be visiting in Asia and everywhere in Australia and NZ. Trade with fellow travelers, or just pre-Google for "english books [bali]" and add these addresses to a paper list, or just ask around to see if there are any shops that carry things. You'll find a lot of classics, management books, and English-language learning materials. Even in a place like Chiang Mai, Thailand, there are over ten bookshops which carry English stuff.

Health care in the developing world is almost universally very, very cheap for foreigners with money and rather expensive for locals. In all my travels, I've carried trip insurance, but have never sought to claim my expenses back as they were always far below the deductible. Standards across SE Asia are good in bigger cities for normal ailments, but in places like Laos or Cambodia, you'll need to be very careful about what you eat and drink, especially water. In Bandung, Indonesia, where I lived for a year, appointments with a great doctor who spoke English were about $5, prescriptions about $1.

Get a local SIM card everywhere you go. Pick up a cheap used low-model-number Nokia when you get to Australia or NZ, then just do prepaid and e-mail the relevant people the number when you change countries; the non-newness of the phone is directly proportional to the likelihood of it not being stolen later. SIMs are often valid for quite a while, so popping them in and out when you zip between countries is possible. This will be cheaper than any international roaming plan, given the length of your trip.

Finally, accept that you will simply not be pinging the radar as much in your friends' minds. Your mom will still want to know what you're up to, more because she's stoked that you're doing this awesome thing than because she's trying to meddle, so keep her posted with itineraries, phone numbers, etc. But be realistic about blog posts and e-mail updates; you won't really have ten hours a week to write and post photos when you're trying to get the train to Surabaya or get up early the next day to scale Bromo.

Selamat jalan!
posted by mdonley at 12:36 AM on October 8, 2009

Finishing up a year of backpacking myself right now. Flying home in 12 days.

Don't bother with the kindle. As someone else noted you will find english books everywhere around the planet. It's just another expensive toy to get stolen (speaking as someone traveling with a DSLR and netbook).

Bring two ATM cards if possible.

Get immunizations for SE Asia and decide on whether or not you want malaria meds (an often heated topic of debate). If your insurance doesn't cover any of it just get it all done in Bangkok for cheap.

You've already dealt with the packing light thing.

That's it. Travel advice before a trip like this is a bit like sexual advice for a virgin - it doesn't amount to much in practice.

You'll have fun. I've had so much myself that after 11.5 months I'm looking forward to going home and sitting at a desk at work for a year to digest what just happened.
posted by MillMan at 2:22 AM on October 8, 2009

Also, I have been to AU and SE Asia on this trip. Here are some pics if you like:
posted by MillMan at 2:29 AM on October 8, 2009

As an American expat living in Australia, who has also done the "leave for a year and travel around thing" (although it was Africa in my case) here are some things I learned:

1. Make sure you visit anyone who is close to you that you reasonably can before you leave. You're going to have an awesome time, but you'll also go through periods of really missing home, and having more recent memories of those people will really help. Plus, it's a good time and excuse to reconnect.

2. If you like Mexican food, eat a lot of it. That's one thing that they don't do well in Australia.

3. Health-insurance wise, I have found the Australian system to be very good. I'm not even on Medicare, but the overseas visitors cover is not too expensive and quite comprehensive I recently spent a full week in the hospital and nearly all of it was covered, without nearly the hassle you would get from American insurance. Some examples are here and here.

4. You can buy pretty much everything you need in Australia. Seconding the point about books - they are slightly more expensive here but not bad. Don't overpack.

5. If you arrive in February it will be really the height of summer, when it is hottest. Be prepared, cos it can get REALLY hot, so it will be a bit of a shock coming from winter in the states. (As a point of reference, those horrible wildfires last year were in February, after a string of 110F+ days). Bring lots of sunscreen.

6. Don't make jokes about convicts. They generally don't go over well. :)

You'll have a great time!
posted by forza at 2:46 AM on October 8, 2009

The only thing I wish someone had told me was this:

Take twice as much time as you think you'll need.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:29 AM on October 8, 2009

Familiarize yourself with what an ATM card skimming apparatus looks like, and be very wary of any machine you use...
posted by thewalrus at 5:46 AM on October 8, 2009

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