How to plan for a looong trip?
September 10, 2007 5:41 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone have suggestions for how to plan for a long trip abroad? Current plan is to travel for 6-12 months next year, starting in Thailand, heading north and then west to Berlin. I'd love advice on what's most important to plan or research in advance.

My employer lets people that have been around long enough take extended unpaid leave. I won't know the available budget until some time in December, but should be able to manage at least six months. Planning to put everything I own in storage, head out and stay out as long as I can afford.

Departure date is up to me; right now thinking early February.

Tentatively: a couple weeks in Thailand hanging out, one month rebuilding tsunami-affected areas, a couple more weeks hanging out. Then north to China (somehow!), and west overland from there, loosely following the Silk Road, eventually hitting Berlin.

The scale and foolishness of the venture are exciting but have sort of paralyzed my researching-planning abilities. Would love recommendations on things like:

(1) what's most important to know in advance

(2) how to balance between super in-depth planning along an exact route (that will change anyway) and more shallow planning for a wider area

(3) researching / planning schemes ... I'm about to create some massive spreadsheet based around a preliminary itinerary. It'll record stuff like where I'll go, what would be cool to see, potential ways to get to the next waypoint, estimated budget, known friends of friends in the area, etc... would appreciate tips from those who've done that before (or who used a completely different method.)

(4) any other advice helpful for the early planning stages

posted by lbergstr to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I recommend both often: Read Vagabonding by Rolf Potts, and watch the documentary, A Map For Saturday.
posted by nitsuj at 5:47 PM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: First: Know thy visa requirements for each country you shall visit.

Second: Review thy health insurance.
Because you will be traveling for an extended amount of time, get traveler's health insurance or make sure your current provider will cover you outside the country.

Also, excellent tip: Scan you passport and birth certificate and email them to yourself. That way if you lose both the original document and your photocopy you still have it digitally.

Budget for a sizeable emergency fund in case you get sick, lost, hurt or need to bail at a moment's notice.

Lastly, this sounds like a kick-ass trip. Go to the bookstore, read some guides and get excited. You're going to have a great time.
posted by heatherbeth at 6:05 PM on September 10, 2007

It sounds like you're going to be backpacking it, but in your post it's unclear. If so, get a sturdy metal-frame backpack, but one that's lightweight.

Pack light. Take a minimum of everything, especially clothes, as those can be bought wherever you are and it's fun to go native anyway. That thick Lonely Planet China guide? Just take the pages you'll need and ditch the rest. You can probably find a used copy at some Bangkok/Shanghai bookstore. Even when you pack everything and test it out, you'll think "That's not so heavy!", but backpacks have a way of getting heavier as the hours go by and your energy decreases. Even reducing a few pounds can make a big difference. I've seen some backpackers actually drag around rolling suitcases, which actually isn't a bad idea.

You can spend a good deal of time in Thailand (the south has the hot and the beaches, the north, the jungle and trekking), Cambodia (Ankgor Wat, a must see), Vietnam, and Laos. What to do is up to you, but you can spend a lifetime in SE Asia and not see everything. If you're going to China, I heard that Hanoi is a good place to catch a train into China, so that might be a good departure place from SE Asia.
posted by zardoz at 6:16 PM on September 10, 2007

If you plan on taking a camera, learn how to use it now.
Pick up an extra battery and extra memory for it, and sort out how store the overflow - ftping them back to a server or something.

Guidebook quality is variable - X may be great on country a, bad on country b. Y may be great on b, bad on a. Read the reviews.

I would guess personal accounts and online journals/blogs are a great resource; googling "backpack silk road"
brought up a dozen.
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:38 PM on September 10, 2007

This reminds me of a similar journey that I found at random on the internet when looking for photos of Mongolia. I emailed them about the trip and they were very nice and answered questions I had about budget, etc. The site:

Hope your journey goes well!
posted by occidental at 7:14 PM on September 10, 2007

Best answer: I haven't spent more than a few weeks at a time, but normally I figure out where I want to go in general and then look at the local transportation options to see how to get about, and this in turn determines much of my itinerary. Since you have time, you may want to look into boats (if you can swim) and trains. Maybe you can head up from Singapore through Thailand to the "silk" and trans-Siberian railways. Know that things often take longer in Asia, and travel times can easily be double what locals tell you they are. This is perfectly normal, and especially to be anticipated with a language barrier slowing you down, so I would recommend against planning anything down to the half-hour.

Even if you're not backpacking it, pack as lightly as possible. You will be glad. However, I will warn that if you plan to buy clothing, be prepared to have it custom tailored if you are taller or wider than the average Asian (sometimes there's on-the-spot tailoring, sometimes it takes a couple of days for refits).

Consider any recommended shots for your target destinations early (if you have them, you will need to do so at least a couple weeks before you leave town) and grab a few packs of oral rehydration salts for the road. Depending on your experience and constitution, you may be very glad you brought them in the first few weeks (you won't want to be hunting for meds right then). For your first aid kit (I carry one a little smaller than this), take a bit of any medications you commonly use, such a small pack of cough drops, benadryl, aspirin, or antibiotic ointment. I have found that OTC drugs in Asia are generally more potent than I'm used to (if they work), and there isn't always someone around who can explain to you which meds are which.

And bring a list of addresses with you so that you can send postcards. (Hey, send us postcards!)
posted by zennie at 7:49 PM on September 10, 2007

Best answer: Reiterating a point made above: travel insurance, travel insurance, travel insurance!

And not just insurance -- travel insurance with evacuation/repatriation/extraction coverage! I cannot stress this enough. It's not very expensive in the grand scheme of things, and in the unlikely event that you nearly die in some godforsaken wasteland the money spent will seem like small potatoes.

Seriously. Medical evacuation is so expensive it'll make your head spin and leave your relatives wondering if perhaps they should simply have you killed in order to spare them the expense and hassle.

I know a lovely young woman who is now brain-damaged and utterly dependent on others. She's sadly still aware enough to know she used to be smart. Medical evacuation, without question, would have saved her -- the infection that ruined her brain took days to develop, and could have been defeated pretty easily with the kind of competent care she didn't have enough on-the-spot money to afford.

...I want to make it clear I'm not anti-travel, or anti-risk. I've been many places and done terribly dangerous things. But if you have loved ones, pay the money and get some decent insurance.

Rant over.
posted by aramaic at 7:55 PM on September 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: On a different subject, hence the new post: consider whether there's anyone you trust enough to establish a limited power-of-attorney with.

A P.O.A. makes a lot of finance-related issues much, much easier. They can legally sign forms for you, submit assorted paperwork, and generally help keep your legal affairs in order.

Of course, you have to trust them utterly -- but when you suddenly find you have 2 days to exercise some stock options or they'll vanish, and you're in the middle of rural Myanmar, someone with a P.O.A. is fantastically handy (as you might guess, I'm speaking from experience).

You'll probably need a lawyer to draw up the paperwork, but it shouldn't cost much.
posted by aramaic at 8:00 PM on September 10, 2007

Add to that the fact that use of most of the Internet is illegal in Burma and not so hot in China either. There are ways around that, but still....

aramaic makes good points. In Asia you often have to pay for medical care in advance or provide a substantial cash deposit, even in emergency situations. And some places are on a pure cash economy, meaning you will need cash and opportunities to obtain it from an account are few and far between.
posted by zennie at 8:19 PM on September 10, 2007

Visas, Visas, Visas.

If you are embarking on a long journey like that a lot of the visas you will need, especially the Chinese one, will need to be ordered in advance. I'm not altogether sure what the visa requirements for China are but I'm almost certainly sure that they do not give out Visas on arrival. At least they didn't not in 2003 when I had a fleeting notion of crossing into china from Laos. You may be able to sort out most of your visas for south east Asia in Bangkok, in fact there are travel agents who will get all of them for you for a fee.

So research the visa situations for each country you intend to pass through. It might be worth formulating a specific itinerary and sticking to it as closely as possible, however that cramps the looseness of a trip such as you are planning.

Whatever you end up doing enjoy yourself...
posted by gergtreble at 8:41 PM on September 10, 2007

our own metafiltrian pal succa has just embarked on a very similar trip & is keeping a journal here. you might email him if you have questions.
posted by judith at 9:12 PM on September 10, 2007

Response by poster: nitsuj, the book + movie look like the perfect way to get myself psyched enough to dive into preparing for the trip. Awesome.

Yes, planning to backpack - I have an old internal-frame pack, not too large, but that'll force me to pack light. On the packing light front - the reason I might bring whole guidebooks, rather than ripping out sections, is because I expect my itinerary to be pretty flexible.

Was planning on buying disposable cameras every once in a while and mailing the film home.

Needless to say, advice about visas, insurance and power of attorney is excellent and timely. I could have easily used "best answer" everywhere. Thanks all.
posted by lbergstr at 9:20 PM on September 10, 2007

And yes, on the visas: some places are easy and free/cheap, other places, not so much. A Thai visa is very cheap (free?) and is merely a stamp you get at the airport. For Vietnam it takes a few days to process, so I spent some extra time in Penomh Pehn. In Laos, I had a 8 hour layover and they wanted something like $80 US for just an afternoon jaunt in Vientienne.

I've heard comparisons of China and India, and while I've never been to mainland China, I've been to India and the trains can be a real headache. Once you arrive in a place, buy your departure ticket while still at the station. It kind of obliges you to a timeframe and kills some of the spontenaiety, but if I could go back in time to my India trip, that's one thing I would absolutely do differently. It will save you time and hassle.

Also, in China, don't expect anyone to be able to speak English outside of the big cites like Shanghai and Beijing. Bring a good Chinese language guide. SE Asia is different, as there are lots of English speakers along the tourist trail.
posted by zardoz at 9:27 PM on September 10, 2007

Best answer: I went the opposite way, from London to Hong Kong (where I am now) via the Trans Mongolian. I spent the majority of my time in China. I have memorized my passport number after writing it down 40 times in the past four months.

There's a lot of little things that you have to learn, like how to go through a crowd of people who are going to some international tennis contest ("Billets! Tickets! Better Seat!") while walking to the Mongolian embassy in Paris with an application form that says you are a "Programmeur des ordinateurs." If you're not prone to worry, you'll learn along the way. Some things are worth spending the extra money on -- like visas to Russia.

I believe a Chinese visa is easy to get Hanoi, and they're good for three months from the date the visa is issued. Then you're on a train to Nanning, and from there anywhere else in China.

Guide books (like the lonely plant) will be hard to come by, especially if you're heading into China from Vietnam or Thailand. The Lonely Planet is banned in China for some inscrutable reason. Source one out before you enter China; it's rather indispensable for things like buying train tickets and getting a general layout of the country.

To get train tickets, I usually write "上海 9月19日硬卧。" (Shanghai, Sept. 19, hard sleeper) on a piece of paper and that seems to work. Chances are, they will not understand pinyin and you won't be able to speak well enough to be understood. If they say something that starts with "Bu" or "May-o", the tickets aren't available. If they take your money, the tickets are yours. You can also buy at ticket agents, look for the "火车“ ("HuoChe") characters.

You have to learn some characters and basic phrases if you're doing this on the cheap without a English speaking guide.

I went to every single large bookstore in Chengdu (a city of 10 million people) looking for a lost Mandarin-English phrasebook, and there wasn't anything available.

The internet is far from useless in China, don't worry about that. It's more of a minor annoyance (little things like no flickr).
posted by sleslie at 10:13 PM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Join Divers Alert Network for $100000 emergency evacuation insurance. The way I understand it: You don't have to be a diver, it doesn't have to be a diving accident. I used them on a SE Asia trip, I think it cost $25 USD for the membership.

Ah, here we go:

24-Hour DAN TravelAssist
As a DAN Member, you automatically receive DAN TravelAssist and up to $100,000 of evacuation assistance coverage. Effective for both diving and non-diving injuries, this benefit is provided by MedAire, a world leader in emergency evacuation services. Your evacuation coverage begins when you are traveling at least 50 miles/80 km from home and call DAN TravelAssist to arrange your evacuation.

Of course, do a little searching to see what people's experiences have been with this service.
posted by user92371 at 11:07 PM on September 10, 2007

zardoz: Travelling without schedule on trains in India => IndRail passes.

Plane travel is fast becoming cheap, though; flew some 700-odd km sometime back for INR 500. (I got _very lucky_; ymmv)

lbergstr: Here's my list for backpacking:-
a) A good guidebook (Lonely Planet for Gap travels, for example)
b) Travel insurance. (My insurance plan allows me to get repatriated to my home-base)
c) Electronic copies of all your documents
d) A clear list of phone numbers, important numbers (passport #, IC #, visa # etc), folks to contact etc as a draft email saved in my Gmail account.
e) A towel.

But your question wasn't about _packing_ for a backpacking trip; it was about _planning_. Here's how you'd want to do it in South East Asia:-

a) Avoid Thailand's south. Anything south of Phuket / Surat Thani is, well, wouldn't say never, but risky.

b) If you can, consider flying in to Phuket and working your way to the north. I found that the most convenient way to see the country. Then again, if you have a few months to kill, should be okay to fly into BKK , go south, and then come back to BKK again.

c) The girls at Soi Bangla in Phuket aren't who you think they are. Not that there's anything wrong with it - I've had wonderful conversations with some of them - but just sayin'.

d) If you can, stay somewhere near Siam Square or further north in BKK. Khao San Road is a backpacker ghetto.

e) Get an e-visa for Cambodia. The border crossing at Poipet is, well, not the best of places to hang out.

f) Spend _at least_ three days in Siem Reap. Do get a good guidebook for Angkor Thom, and don't miss an apsara performance after a hard day's trek.

g) Phnom Penh - Laos is kinda off-the-beaten-track, but there are decent backpacker facilities at Strung Treng and Kratchie. If you do go there, don't miss the dolphins at Kratchie.

h) Do note, however, that you might be better off going to Ho Chi Minh City directly from Phnom Penh, instead of de-tour-ing into Laos. There's a weekly (?) train from Ho Chi Minh City to Beijing that is apparently well-recommended. (Haven't taken it).

i) Consider signing up for Hospitality Club or CouchSurfer.

You might have already seen this page.

Best of luck!
posted by the cydonian at 6:21 AM on September 11, 2007

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