March 29, 2009

Recipe for a Round-the-World Trip

[Editor's note: Next week, we will be doing a special joint Q&A post. Please email us or respond in the comments below with any burning questions you'd like to ask (about the trip, or about whatever you want). If you don't, Zhou will be very sad and Kevin will have to make up the questions himself, which would make Zhou apprehensive AND sad.]

The short version:
1. Save money
2. Figure out where you want to go
3. Research tickets
4. Buy tickets
5. Research and buy gear
6. Quit job
7. Get shots
8. Get visas
9. Get married (optional)
10. Pack and leave

The long version:
1. Save money
There's an analyst in my group who keeps a spreadsheet, which he updates every day, of how much money he's spent and how many calories he's eaten. He called me over earlier this year and showed me the (unholy!) amount of money he spent in 2008 that made up his "going out" pie piece. Let's just say it wasn't more than I had paid in rent all year, but it was definitely in the same zip code. Luckily for us, Kevin and I are giant nerds boring people pretty happy people who are easily amused by a sub-par movie or a rousing game of Scrabble (I can't believe I just used the word "rousing" to describe a board game). Anyway, we're fortunate to have been able to save enough money to be able to go on this trip. Granted, we have been eating a lot of ramen lately. Just kidding, Mom! We have eaten a vegetable or two. Below is a nice graph (complete in Wachovia standard colors) that Kevin made of our budget. The reason the South America piece is so big is because we're planning on doing the Galapagos Islands (not cheap) and a stay in the Amazon rainforest (also not cheap). Also, here's a nifty calculator that I used to help come up with our budgets per country.

2. Figure out where you want to go
This one was a bit tricky. With the help of this book, Kevin and I made a list of countries we wanted to visit and put them into four tiers: must go, would like to go, would go if on the way, and wouldn't go to even if you paid us (Kevin: like the forest with the big rats in "The Princess Bride" or Pittsburgh). We then made places we might never get a chance to go to again (like Easter Island) a higher priority than more accessible places (like Europe), and in that I think we succeeded. The main exception: Antarctica is still a maybe. (Kevin says if his ESPN bracket wins the country, we can go! Unfortunately, this does not look likely.) We also tried to avoid rainy seasons and really cold or hot weather. Alas, even with me at the helm of the planning boat, things can't be perfect. We're skipping at least one of our "must go" places, and we're going to Japan in January and Egypt in July.

3. Research tickets
There are lots and lots of other people who advocate buying your plane tickets as you go - and I can understand that. Sort of. But as we aren't going that route, I'll go ahead and let them talk about the merits of "spontaneity" and "flexibility" (not that there's anything wrong with being spontaneous, it's just that the closest I can manage to come to that is "planned spontaneity"). We chose to buy round-the-world (RTW) tickets instead of buying as we go. There are a few different airline alliances you can buy a RTW ticket from. We chose OneWorld (Star Alliance is the biggest; you can read about them and others here), mainly because they offer a ticket based on continents visited, rather than miles traveled, and they have a fairly expansive network. All other RTW tickets (that I know of) price their tickets by miles traveled, which can make it difficult to zigzag between the northern and southern hemispheres and stay within your mileage restriction. With the routes Kevin and I were thinking of, it made a lot more sense to buy a 5-continent ticket from OneWorld instead, skipping North America (they don't fly to Antarctica).

The way the ticket works is this: you plan a route, using the cities that your particular airline alliance flies to (this means we'll be on a LOT of buses in South America. And Southeast Asia. And Africa). You are limited to 16 stops, four stops max per continent. You must cross the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans exactly once each. I don't see what other way there is to go around the world, but for whatever reason that's listed as one of the rules. There are lots of other rules, but you get the idea. The good thing about the RTW ticket is that you can leave all your flight dates (except the first) open-ended (see, planned spontaneity in action!), so if you decide to stay somewhere a bit longer than you first intended, you just call up American Airlines and ask them to put you on a flight later that week or later that month, no charge. But you can't make changes to the cities you're flying to or change your first date without paying a fee.

4. Buy tickets.
We decided to buy our RTW tickets starting in London (in conjunction with a one-way ticket to London) because it cut out a continent, which saved us money - and, for whatever reason, the tickets are cheaper if you buy your ticket in the UK ($2,500ish, depending on the exchange rate, from the UK v. $4,590 from the US for the 5-continent ticket). I don't know why the price discrepancy exists, but I'm sure I'll figure it out after grad school. I believe it has something to do with elasticity of demand. On second thought, maybe not. Anyway. The actual process of buying the tickets turned out to be a lot more difficult than I originally thought, until I figured out one important thing: not all of the ticketing agents know all of the rules. So if one disagrees with you and tries to tell you that you "have to fly American on one of these flights, or you can't book it with us" or that you "have to call British Airways, since they're the carrier of your first leg " or that you "have to pay the higher fare of the UK and US fares," don't listen. Just thank them politely, hang up, wait two minutes and call back. Trust me on this one. I finally figured this out after a few hours on hold and some, shall we say, "spirited debate" with various ticketing agents. Our RTW tickets ended up costing a little less than $3,000 each, including taxes and fees, which I think is pretty stellar (book your own tickets here).

There's an embarrassing story to be told here about one of us carelessly booking the tickets with the incorrect first date, and having to call and get the first date changed, which was a $250 fee per ticket... Luckily, the exchange rate had fluctuated so that when they re-priced our tickets, we ended up getting a refund. So everything ended up being ok. I won't tell you who stupidly didn't triple check the date before booking the tickets, but I will tell you the other person was extremely gracious about it and didn't even blame or make fun of her. I mean them.

5. Research and buy gear
Kevin has already mentioned some of the gear that we've bought for our trip, so I won't get in to much detail here. Our goal is to be able to carry everything on the plane with us. This self-imposed restriction means we will be wearing the exact same outfits in every single picture. I know this will seem sketchy and Photoshop-y, but I promise we really are going! We are modeling our packing list based on these two lists. Our most recent purchase was two headlamps, one of which I tried on yesterday - very stylish and practical, all in one headpiece. I'm really not clear as to how I lived without one before. It makes me want to go spelunking.

6. Quit job
This clearly doesn't apply to you if your job is to travel around the world and dance awkwardly. Or if this is your job. As for the rest of you, I don't have any specific advice as to how to go about quitting your job (Kevin and I are both on 2-year contracts), but these girls do.

7. Get shots.
[Kevin wants me to specify here that the shots we are referring to are the kind where they stick a needle in your arm. What other kind of shots are there?] We went to a travel clinic for ours, and they were really helpful. All you have to do is tell them where you're going, and they tell you what you need (we took their word for it). We ended up with seven shots in three sore arms. We also got malaria pills and pills for what some people euphemistically refer to as Delhi belly or Montezuma's revenge. I've read that some community health clinics offer immunizations at cost, so if you know what you need, that would also be a good place to go.

8. Get visas
[Kevin wanted to insert a joke here about American Express not being everywhere you want to be, but I nixed that idea.] Getting visas is another one of those little things you have to do that ends up being more complicated than you think. Different countries have different requirements, which seem to be constantly changing. Because our trip is so long and visas usually have a shelf life of a half year or less, we will be getting a few beforehand and a few along the way. Funnily enough, I still don't know what a visa actually looks like. I used to think it was a stamp in your passport, but after reading more about them, I think they're actually pieces of paper. I imagine them as those certificates they give you in elementary school for completing D.A.R.E. Remember, just say no!

9. Get married (optional)
Getting married gives you the perfect excuse to take a RTW trip (it's our honeymoon!), but that's not the reason we're doing it, right Kev?

10. Pack and leave
Five months and 12 days until we leave!!!

[Don't forget to submit questions for next week's post!]

Puzzles for Postcards (list of winners):
Today we have a new kind of puzzle. It is called "Better Chargers" (or "Letter Changers"). To solve the puzzle, change one letter in each word to come up with a well-known phrase. [Remember, we are not sending out postcards anymore until the trip starts, but the person who gets the most puzzles correct by September will get to write a guest post on whatever they want! Is that enough encouragement?]

Today's Yummy Better Charger:
Get they bat cage!
East is pig.

Scrabble Games: 36 (full log)
Zhou WPLB: 20; 363; 401; SOLVInG
Kevin WPLB: 16; 364; 390; DEnIZEN, DONATER


  1. So you really are flying to 16 different cities on 5 continents for less than 3000 bucks? Do you even realize how ridiculous that is?!

    Also, Kevin, you need to stop getting your ass kicked in Scrabble.

  2. Oh, and...

    Let them eat cake!
    Easy as pie.

  3. Been thru all of what you detailed, including almost wearing the same outfit (grey North Face fleece) in every shot.

    If OneWorld does not charge to change dates that is great. I also did a round the world (RTW) ticket but just used the lowest price carrier. Some did not charge any fee for changes, so did.

  4. Questions to answer:

    Does Kevin ever get to be little spoon during the journey?

    Are their any personal goals to be met along the trip (like Kevin eating a certain number of new foods or Zhou somehow growing an inch?)

    Have you already planned having any strange daily or locale rituals?

    What is the average air speed velocity of an unladen swallow? (European swallow)

    Are you (Zhou) going to be okay with not showering every day? (just accept it if you haven't already)

    Is Kevin going to be okay with Zhou not showering every day?

    Is Kevin going to be okay with Zhou not shaving her legs as often?

    Will you save me a bit of currency from Nepal?

    What animal are you most excited to see on the safari?

    and finally...
    Are you nervous about not knowing any of the languages of the countries you're visiting?

  5. If all of a sudden your passports were revoked because 'someone' said you should be on a no-fly list, what would you do instead? Big US road trip? Appalachian Trail? Hike across Jersey?

    Where are you most worried about survival?

    Where are you most worried about not wanting to leave?

    What happens if you lose a Scrabble tile?

    Are you going to send trinkets home in the mail or carry them? Any souveniers (sp?) you have picked out or planned already?

    Why are you so cute?

  6. I know this is kind of late...but...COULD I GET THAT EXCEL SHEET?? not yours, but your co-workers? Cuz it's awesome.