How we travel|
I'm not going to claim to be a travel expert - I think there are folks who have ventured for longer in far more challenging environments than we have, but after spending a year on the road I'd say we've learnt a fair few things about how to travel. We've refined our approaches with experience, and I decided it would be a good idea to write down my thoughts on the subject. I've titled it "how we travel", because I'm sure everyone has a different style with different priorities, likes and dislikes, and so you may well not agree with everything I write here, but perhaps a couple of tips may be of use for your next overseas adventure. Here goes.
Travelling with tech
This was the first lengthy trip we traveled with a laptop, and I'll never go back. In the last few years the new class of cheap, ultra-light netbooks has really taken off and they're perfect for travelers - not too valuable you're afraid of loosing it, and often weighing just over a kilogram.
Having our own computer was incredibly useful. I'd say around 90% of accommodations we stayed at provided wi-fi; sometimes only in the lobby and occasionally you had to pay extra for it, but even in the most remote parts of Morocco or Vietnam it was available. Aside from provided valuable access to email, facebook, and newspapers it can be incredibly useful for getting train or bus timetables, booking flights and accommodation, checking out opening hours of sights or bike rental, etc.. Even more useful is having Skype loaded on the machine; with SkypeOut credit you can call hotels, friends, and family for a few cents per minute which is super useful.
Our computer was also our television. When you're travelling for a while, at the end of the day you're often pretty tired and all you want to do is collapse and watch some television. So we loaded the netbook with TV shows; mostly downloaded AVIs of shows that we owned on DVD but had intentionally not yet watched.
Beside the netbook, our other beloved travel companion was the Kindle. Folks at my work at Bing kindly gave me one as a farewell gift and it was incredibly useful - instead of Michelle and I carrying a novel around each, the Kindle weighed just 250 grams. Plus, getting the latest Dan Brown book, or any particular novel for that matter, in a non-English speaking country can be difficult. With the Kindle we could buy new books through the Amazon website and load them onto the device whenever we wanted.
Noise cancelling headphones are fantastic, especially for flights and noisy buses and trains. Michelle and I traveled with a pair of Sony brand stick-in-your-ear types that I find are quite good at blocking out the noise even when they're not turned on. With a handy little headphone double adapter we used these guys all the time for watching TV on the netbook together, even in our hotel room, since the quality exceeded that of the laptop's speakers. We also traveled with an MP3 player each, and used the headphones for them.
Of course our other important piece of technology was our beloved Lumix-ZS3 digital camera. I'm always impressed by the quality of photos taken by SLR cameras, but I just don't find them practical for travelling due to their weight and bulk. So we went for the best compact camera we could find. Besides having a great zoom and taking nice pictures, and camera also takes hi-definition video and so we embarked on the project of creating a video diary of our travels, which I really enjoyed doing and I think really shows our adventure better than static photos alone would have. Having a regular camera that takes video is great - somehow a camcorder looks more obtrusive and touristy than a camera, plus there was no need to carry an extra device. We loaded Sony Vegas video editing software onto the netbook - it was the best product I could find that would run on such a low-powered machine with a small screen. Most of the footage we took was short, typically between 4 and 10 seconds. We would compile it using Sony Vegas, download free music from Amazon to add a fun soundtrack, then upload the result to YouTube for inclusion in our website.
One thing that I worried about when travelling was losing all our video and photos; even passports can be replaced but your photos will be lost forever. I wanted an arrangement where, even if somebody broke into our hotel room and took our luggage, we wouldn't lose all those pictures and footage. Michelle wore a money belt, so we purchased extra SD memory cards and she carried these around with a backup copy of our photos securely tucked away. When we visited Australia or met up with my parents in Poland we gave them a backup copy, allowing us to reuse the memory cards. By the end Michelle was carrying 80GB of SD cards in her money belt. We also purchased a portable hard disk in China and made backups to that, including a complete image of the netbooks hard disk in case it crashed and needed to be restored.
What we took
We gave a lot of thought to packing for this trip. Here was my logic - carrying something like a tube of toothpaste that weighs 100 grams for a year is somewhat like carrying an extra 5kg for a week, so we really wanted to think carefully about what we needed for the trip and minimize our luggage. Plus we'd learnt from previous trips that travelling light makes a big difference; there's nothing less fun than dragging a heavy suitcase up and down stairs and along cobbled streets on a hot sweaty day as you try and find your way to your hotel. If you travel lighter it's easier to move accommodation, which can mean faster, shorter hops between destinations, fewer day trips, and more efficient travel - so more time for seeing sights!
We traveled with about 10kg of luggage each. It involved a few sacrifices that not everyone would want to make, but we pulled it off. First tip for keeping the weight down is this - make sure your bags themselves don't weight too much. I put together an Excel spreadsheet and weighed everything we were thinking of taking, and was pretty surprised to see that the heaviest items by far were the bags themselves! Those hard frame roller bags (or "trolly-dollies") are the worst and usually weigh 4 to 5 kilograms - there goes most of the weight budget. Much lighter are duffle-style roller bags. We ended up settling on backpacks, which still weigh around 1.5 kilograms after we removed the attached daypack. I even went as far as cutting off unnecessary straps to reduce their weight. Due to a problem with arthritis in my left foot I switched to a small roller duffle bag (small enough to fit in hand luggage) about 6 months into our travels. This worked quite well because I could put items in our daypack and wear this whilst pulling along the small roller bag, instead of stuffing our day pack into one of the larger backpacks. The daypack could be kept handy with food, drink, the netbook, etc. whilst riding a train or bus.
We also invested in a good quality, lightweight daypack; in my experience most backpacks are bigger and heavier than you typically need, but small backpacks often don't fit you as well (especially for me with a long torso). The ideal packs we found were hydro packs (with an extra pocket for a bladder style water supply) since they're light, skinny and tall. Plus the hydro pocket can be handy :)
We took enough clothing to last about eight or nine days before getting them washed. Some folks travel lighter by carrying fewer clothes and hand washing them in the hotel room, but we've found the laundromat approach is more time efficient, plus hand washing is never quite as effective.
A few other nifty little things we took included:
We used two caches to further reduce weight; we posted ahead two packages that mainly contained medical stuff like Michelle's contact lenses to save us carrying around a full year's supply. One cache was posted to Melbourne, which we collected 4 months into our travels, and the other was sent to Germany, which we collected about 7 months in.
- A small plastic camping spork, great for eatting snacks such as yogurt on the go.
- A calico bag, which is be handy for shopping trips or for those occasional days when our single backpack wasn't large enough for everything we needed (for example, lots of extra layers on the day we visited Jungfraujoch or the ice caves).
- A multi-region power adapter that has moving components to let you adapt any style power point in the world to another.
- ATM bank cards for two different banks on different networks (Cirrus and Plus) as well as $100 cash in case the ATM networks go down (happened to us once last time we travelled in Turkey, and we panicked!)
- A few meters of cord. This was handy for making make-shift clothes lines, or stringing up a blank over the hotel window where the blinds were terrible.
Where we traveled
With the exception of Morocco, we spent all of our time in Europe and Asia. If I was to do it all over again, I might be inclined to do a bit more Asia and a bit less Europe. We also hoped to visit Egypt and Jordan but the timing with the seasons didn't work out.
There were two major considerations when we put together our itinerary; minimizing travel time and carbon footprint, and maximizing good weather. In my opinion, the weather can completely change your travel experience and impression of a destination, especially if you're more interested in outdoor aspects of travel such as bike riding, architecture, or festivals. Often folks from Australia, where the weather never gets really cold, don't appreciate just how day-and-night the northern hemisphere can be in summer versus winter. In Europe, there are a lot of festivals going on in summer. On the other hand, places like Thailand or Vietnam are already warm enough in winter and can be even more unpleasant in summer. So for our travels, given we had the luxury of a year to plan to maximize the seasons, we started in Amsterdam in September and travelled south getting fantastic weather along the way to Morocco. In January and February we focused on southern Asia, where it's always too hot. March and April were spent in China and Japan - this was the coldest part of our trip, partly due to unseasonably cool weather. Then in May we travelled back to Europe, first visiting Croatia and Montenegro whilst the weather was still warming, then venturing further north as summer arrived.
Some folks have asked why we didn't visit South America this trip, and it's a fair question. I did a fair bit of research and concluded, rightly or wrongly, that getting around that part of the world is pretty time consuming, involving either flights or long bus trips, which are pretty much our least favourite forms of transport. In Europe, and less so in Asia, there's a lot to see and often good transport so you can get a lot of bang for your buck (or sights for your time in this case). Plus many of the great, unique sights in the world that we were keen to see, such as the Eiffel Tower, Mont St Michel, the Great Wall of China, the Terracotta Army, Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal and the Swiss alps to name a few, were mostly located in Europe or Asia. South America certainly has the advantage of being a cheap destination, and I'd love to visit Cuzco, Machu Picchu and Rio De Janeiro one day. Many say that the Americas are great for their natural sights, but I believe there's just as much natural wonder in Asia or Europe - amazing volcanoes, waterfalls, canyons, mountains and beaches - that can sometimes be overshadowed by the cultural wonders of the region.
I love Lonely Planet guidebooks. Michelle and I have bought around 40 of these books together, and they're my favourite travel guide for independent travelers such as us. I reckon they're worth every cent and more - just one good hotel or restaurant recommendation, nugget of knowledge of the best or cheapest way to get from city A to city B, or fantastic suggested site and they've paid for themselves. We're also pretty religious about getting the latest edition - there's nothing worse than rocking up to visit some temple or museum to discover its opening hours have changed or it's shut down.
We visited 23 countries and carrying around 23 Lonely Planets wasn't really going to be an option (by the way, they weigh roughly between 400 and 800 grams each). We typically bought a guidebook for the next country a few days beforehand. This lead to a fun, yet challenging task - finding an English LP for the next country in whatever country we were currently travelling in. Imaging trying to find the India LP in Hanoi, the China LP in Mumbai, or the Japan LP in Shanghai. With some hunting we pretty much always succeeded (although in Hanoi we were only able to acquire a dodgy photocopied India LP). Another great option when we were only visiting a city or two in a country (such as Dresden in Germany or Brugge in Brussels) was to buy individual digital chapters from lonelyplanet.com, which typically cost only a few dollars (and they're cheaper if you have a US credit card!).
The large LP books, such as for countries like China or India, are pretty heavy things and lugging one around all day isn't ideal. So we took to the practice or mutilating our LPs. We had three strategies depending on how many pages we needed. The first involved slicing out individual pages with a pocket knife, which was handy because you could put them in your pocket. The second involved slicing entire chunks of the book off; this works well although you need to be carefully to cut in the right place to avoid pages falling apart. Finally, if we only needed access to a handful of pages, we sometimes simply took photos of them to read on the camera.
After we left a country and had finished with a guidebook, we sadly had to get rid of it. If it wasn't too mutilated, we typically left the book on the bookshelf of some hotel we were staying at.
Accommodation and transportation
During the first few months of our travels we typically booked our accommodation a day or two in advance. As I mentioned previously, Skype on our netbook was handy for calling up to book places to stay. However as our travels went on we changed our approach and more and more often we would rock up to cities and check out places to stay. This has one major advantage - you can ask to take a look at the room before you commit. Many travelers can't stand dirty rooms, but my main concern is that the room will be quiet. Traffic noise drives me a bit nuts when I'm trying to fall asleep and in some countries, such as Vietnam with its plethora of motorbikes, the traffic can be loud. Many hotels have rear facing rooms, so a good strategy is to rock up without a reservation, ask for a room at the back, and move on if there's none available. You can also sometimes get better rates by turning up without a booking, and also discover newer or less well known hotels (not listed in the guidebook) that are often better value. Our typical approach would be to head to an area of town known to have a cluster of hotels, then split up and check out one each. Of course the drawback of rocking up is the fear that everything will be full and you'll have to sleep in the street! This never happened to us, although in a few cases it would have if we hadn't made a reservation. You can usually tell when there might be a problem finding a room; typically this might happen on a weekend in a very popular destination with limited options or when there's a festival on in town. Sometimes we would call a couple of hotels a day or two before arriving and ask if they had availability; if most places are full then it's worth booking otherwise just turn up.
One nice thing about our travels this time is we had a higher budget, so instead of staying in hostels and one-star hotels we typically stayed in two- or three-star places. In Ireland we enjoyed staying at B&Bs which were great value at around 60 euro per night including brekkie. One approach that we found works well when travelling by car was to stay in places between towns rather than in the towns themselves, which were typically better value. For example in Croatia we would spend the day in Split then drive down the coast and stop at a random hotel located in a small village. In Asia, where the quality of the hotels can vary a lot, I would often check out the reviews of options on tripadvisor.com, which is a pretty useful resource.
The types of transport we used varied a fair bit between Europe and Asia. In Europe we travelled a lot by train and it's certainly my favourite mode of transport; you can relax, eat food, read, listen to music, plug in and use the laptop, use the restroom, and just stare out as the scenery goes by. In some places, such as Switzerland or Vietnam, the view out the window makes travelling by train a fun day of sightseeing. High speed trains, such as the TGV in France or the Shinkansen in Japan, are pretty impressive however as a casual traveler they're not my favourite; they're often expensive, whizz by too quickly to really enjoy the scenery, and there motion makes reading or using the laptop a somewhat queasy experience for me. Train travel in India was a cultural experience, yet reasonably comfortable with cheap 1st, 2nd and 3rd class seats. The trouble is that Indian trains fill up fast, and it can often be difficult to get the train and class you want. Plus the trains make multi-day journeys across the country often resulting in lengthy delays by the time they reach you. Fortunately this didn't happen to us, although we do recall an announcement for a train delayed by 9 hours once. We also had trouble securing train seats in Vietnam and china. In contrast, several times we easy booked flights for the next day between cities Asia.
The nice thing about train travel in Europe is you rarely have to book in advance; just rock up and buy a ticket then board. An essential tool for this is a credit card with a chip and PIN number, which is often required for use with ticket vending machines. We used a rail pass in Japan which, by my calculations, saved us a bit of money. We didn't use a Eurail pass, and in my opinion they're overrated. If you're travelling long distances with short stops in northern European countries then it can save you money, but in southern and eastern European nations such as Italy, Greece, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Spain, or Portugal train tickets aren't as expensive.
In Asia we took more short distance flights, especially in China where land travel is pretty time consuming. Figuring out how to get from some random city to another by some combination of flights and other forms of transport can pretty trick, both in Asia but also in Europe, and that has been part of my motivation to work on the rome2rio startup. In Europe especially there are so many budget carriers and different airports all densely located that, when combined with rail travel, there's often a few different ways to get between two cities.
One great thing about travelling in Asia is the cheap taxis. A 20 minute ride across town will often cost a few dollars. Often the cost is not much more than the price of petrol, and probably less than the cost of driving your car back home when you factor in maintenance, depreciation, insurance, and rego. Taxis are especially nice in places like Bangkok or other large cities where there is a well regulated, metered fleet of cabs which take the negotiation pain out of the journey. Often, though, you need to negotiate a fare. Here are a couple of great tips that I've discovered through experience:
A couple of times in Asia we hired a car for an extended journey, and again this can be very good value. Both times we arranged this through our hotel. In India we hired a driver from Johdpur to take us to a temple, about four hours drive away, and we spent the night in a nearby hotel. The next day he drove us to an impressive but difficult to reach fort, where we spent a few hours, before driving us on to Udaipur where he dropped us off at our hotel late in the afternoon. The whole journey, including his return trip and his accommodation for the night near the temple, cost us something liked $100.
- You'll get to a reasonably price faster if you start the negotiation. Instead of asking "how much to go to 'Foo'?", propose a price; "200 rupees to go to 'Foo'?" If you know roughly how much it should cost, this demonstrates that to the driver and he won't try charging you double or triple.
- Try to avoid taxis that are hanging around, waiting for naive, tourist passengers at airports, train stations, or near touristy sights. These guys seem to exist all over the world, and they make up for lost income from hanging around by over charging unsuspecting tourists. Dodgy meters, inflated quotes, or putting the meter on night/weekend/return rate are all common tricks. Here's my most reliable tip for getting a taxi in any developing country; hail it off the street. A random vehicle driving by and hailed by you is much less likely to rip you off, at least that's been my experience.
It's been a couple of months now since we finished our travels. We've quickly settled back into our lives in Melbourne and often reminisce our year of travel. It was a once in a lifetime experience. Maybe one day if we're really fortunate we'll make it a twice in a lifetime experience... :)