Decided to take an around-the-world (RTW) trip? Cheers to you!! Making that choice is just one step, albeit a big one, but now there’s plenty of work to do! The next step is to put together a plan so that you actually leave. We left in July of 2019, nearly two years after choosing to go on a RTW trip, but it doesn’t have to be that long! This post will help you create an exit strategy that minimize stress leading up to your trip and also while you’re gone. So pop a bottle and cheers to the adventures to come; then buckle down & learn how to prepare for a RTW trip!
There’s a lot of information here. Once you’ve read through it all, download this 1-page How to Prepare for a RTW Trip Check List to help get yourself prepared!
6 Months in Advance
It’s helpful to start getting an idea of any major destinations you want to hit at a specific time, such as for an event or holiday or season. These destinations can serve as milestones or bookends for your trip, plus the popular ones usually need to be reserved in advance for the best deals. Start to think about events you’ve dreamt of attending, and jot down their dates. Then you can go about stringing other destinations in between. Some specific examples in South America are:
- Carnival (late February): While Brazil has the most popular Carnival, there are many places in South America to celebrate it!
- Patagonia (November to March)
- Christmas & New Years
Patagonia Torres Del Paine Booking (May-June)
When Americans say they want to go to Patagonia, they are usually talking about going to Torres del Paine National Park, just outside of Puerto Natales, Chile. Summer, or high season, is when most people plan to go. And whether you plan to camp or stay in the refugios (think: glamping), you need to book your accommodations very early. Here’s when you need to book based on when you want to go:
- Shoulder season (November): Book by September.
- High season (December & January): Book when agencies open. There is no specific date. They open sometime between May-July.
- Shoulder season (February & March): Book by January.
A note on campsites: Booking campsites for Torres del Paine National Park is one of the most annoying things you’ll have to do. There are dozens of campsites and each is managed by one of three companies, so you need to patch together your route to make the reservations. We’re putting together a post on your trek options and how to book your campsites to ease the process!
Carnival Accommodations & Parade (August-October)
There are many places to celebrate Carnival in a memorable way! Rio is just one of them! If you know you are going to Rio de Janeiro for Carnival, it is best to book your accommodations and parade tickets 4-6 months in advance in order to get the best price and availability. We booked flights and accommodations about 2 months in advance, and our options were very limited.
Confirm your passport expiration date is at least 1 year beyond when you plan to return from your trip. You can be denied entry into a country if your passport is set to expire within 6 months of your date of entry.
Your passport can be renewed by mail. You will need to fill out a DS-82 Form and request an updated Passport Book (you do not need a new Passport Card). Once you fill out the form, you take it to the nearest Post Office that also takes passport photos (not all of them do). The process of going to the post office to get my picture taken and receive my updated passport costs ~$130 ($110 for the form + ~$20 for the photo and postage) and took approximately one month.
3 Months In Advance
Schedule an appointment with your doctor and advise them on your upcoming travel plans. *Do your homework and don’t expect your doctor to know what vaccines you will need for your trip.* Track down your vaccine card and check the CDC website before your appointment. For our trip starting July 2019, we needed:
- Hepatitis B Booster
- Japanese encephalitis (for Asia)
- Yellow Fever (not covered by insurance)
You can usually only get 2 vaccines per visit and some vaccines require multiple shots. Also, it is recommended that you wait at least 2 weeks between getting more vaccines. So if you need 5-6 shots, like we did, you’ll need 3 visits over a span of 1 month to get this done.
All our vaccines, save yellow fever, were reimbursed 100% by our insurance. The doctor’s office didn’t realize that our vaccines were covered, so we had to fight to get our money back. Whether you have a PPA or HDHP, it’s worth calling beforehand to save yourself from the painful aftermath of getting reimbursed.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, nor are we doctors, do your homework and get what you need.
It helps to be prepared. Ask your doctor for the following prescriptions when you get your vaccines:
Malaria pills are only needed when venturing into the malaria-infested areas, such as the Amazon. You should need more than a month’s supply. These pills are no joke. If you need to take them, be sure to do so on a full stomach. They are known to cause nausea, vomiting, and intense dreams.
Thankfully, we’ve never needed to use these, but it’s important to have them just in case. Luckily, we have been able to treat any stomach discomfort with Tums and Pepto.
Inventory Your Stuff
It’s time to come up with a plan for what you want to do with all your stuff. What do you want to save (either in a storage unit or at a relative’s house), sell, or donate. It’s helpful to start a donation pile and to start taking donation items to Goodwill or another donation center. Your future self will thank you!
Credit & Debit Cards
A good rule of thumb is to have 3 credit cards (with no foreign transaction fees!) and 2 debit cards (1 with no ATM fees worldwide). It may sound like a little much, especially if you have only one travel card that you prefer to use, but here’s why: for some unknown reason, your preferred card won’t work. It’ll happen. You should ALWAYS have a backup on your person. For the debit card, 1 on your person is enough. That brings you to 2 credit cards + 1 debit card on yourself at all times. The extra cards should be somewhere ELSE (like hidden and locked away in your bag), so in case anything happens to you, you have a spare set.
Research travel credit cards and apply for the best one while you still have an income. For us, it must have no foreign transaction fees and cashback perks (like 4% at travel & restaurants). Check that the cards you plan to bring won’t expire while you’re traveling.
AWESOME TRAVEL HACK: Apply for a debit card that has no ATM fees worldwide, like the Charles Schwab High Yield Investor Checking/Investing Account. This card saves us ~$75USD per month, and we don’t have to think about which ATM we go to. All ATM fees are reimbursed at the end of the month.
International Drivers Permit (Optional)
We had no desire to rent a car while in South America, so we didn’t seek one. If driving around is of interest to you, you need an International Drivers Permit (IDP). Provided you already have a drivers license, this is a rubber stamp. Expect the permit to cost about $20 and take about a month. US citizens can only get a valid permit from AAA or AATA. Of the two companies, AAA looks a lot easier to use.
1 Month in Advance
Health & Travel Insurance
This section only applies to Americans, since our European, Canadian and Australian friends (heck – just about everyone else) seem to have way better health insurance than we do.
Health insurance and travel insurance are not the same thing. If you live in the U.S. and have health insurance, it likely only applies to medical expenses within the United States. So unless you plan on flying back for any medical procedures, your current health insurance won’t be useful. Travel insurance covers emergency medical expenses from hospitals outside the country, emergency air-flight back to the US, and lost or stolen luggage / electronics.
Obviously, if you want health insurance while abroad, you should get travel insurance. Travel insurance costs upwards of $1,000 per person per year, and more if you’re into action sports (you adrenaline junkies). WorldNomads is the most popular company among travel blogs (likely because they get commission when someone signs up through their link). They will provided you with a free quote though.
If you think you found travel insurance for substantially lower than your WorldNomads quote, be skeptical. We thought we found a great deal through Allianz, but later found out that it was invalid for trip lengths over 45 days. Be sure to read the fine print!
As always, you must decide what’s best for you based on your health & risk tolerance.
Determine whether or not you need to buy a new phone. Both of our phones were provided by our companies. My company allowed me to keep my phone free of charge, while Michelle gave hers back and bought a new one. It might be a nice time for an upgrade if you plan to take a lot of pictures.
If you don’t want to send all your mail to your parents’ house, a travel/virtual mailbox is a good option. They scan your mail quickly and send everything to you via email. You also have the option to forward physical copies. We use a company called TravellingMailbox; it’s $15/month, and they have a great app!
If you’re like me, your phone is always giving you the “iPhone storage is almost full” warning. Now is a good time to do some spring cleaning. Go through old pictures, videos, apps, contacts, and podcasts and delete what you don’t need.
You can also upload plenty of your old photos and videos to GooglePhotos for free to help clear up some space.
Work Exchange Programs
There are many opportunities for work exchange programs abroad. WorkAway & HelpX are two of the largest platforms that help connect you to hosts abroad. The set-up is similar to AirBnB. Projects are diverse, ranging from forest conservation, to agriculture, to construction to working at a hostel. If you choose to do a work exchange, make sure to pick one with a lot of high reviews! We signed up with WorkAway; the annual membership cost is $44 for an individual account and $56 for a couples account.
1 Week in Advance
Unless you already use GoogleFi, your phone plan is not set up for a year of international travel. You will need to decide whether your want to pay monthly for a data plan or get local sim cards in each country you go.
If you want to have uninterrupted service, your best option is to sign up for GoogleFi. GoogleFi is Google’s international phone plan. You pay a flat monthly fee plus extra for how much data you use abroad. At the time of this post (March 2020), none of the major carriers in the US offered phone plans that cover a longterm international stay (not even T-Mobile).
Local SIM Cards
If you choose to go with SIM cards and don’t want to lose your old number, you should port your number to GoogleVoice. GoogleVoice is a free service that forwards texts and voicemails received by your old number, to your inbox/app. I receive texts and voicemails (a lot of spam voicemails) through the GoogleVoice app. I have used GoogleVoice for almost 8 month of traveling with no issues.
For our trip, Michelle gets a local SIM card in every new country for her phone, and I just use WiFi. There’s WiFi everywhere!
This is a short summary of a lot of research on phones, data plans and SIM cards for longterm international travel. If you want to read more check out our more detailed phone post!
Download More Apps
I downloaded way too many apps before starting our travels. Here are the ones I actually used (all apps below are free):
- Hostelworld: Best app for booking hostels
- Booking.com: Booking.com catches all accommodation options not on Hostelworld or AirBnB
- Western Union: Sometimes the exchange rate on Western Union is way better than the official exchange rate used by the ATM. It’s very useful for countries with volatile currencies such as Argentina.
- Maps.Me: Best app for hiking trails. It’s shocking how accurate it is. It’s like GoogleMaps for hiking trails.
- Duolingo: Best app for learning the grammar of a new language. To master a language you need to talk with locals.
- Whatsapp: Best app for texting/calling the US
- + any entertainment apps you use (Netflix, Spotify, Kindle) with plenty of offline content!
Any app that requires you to verify that you’re a US citizen, such as Western Union, is best downloaded in the States. It is surprisingly hard to convince these apps that you’re from the US, if you’re using WiFi in Colombia.
Government Travel Alerts
This one will make your parents very happy. Register your travels with the US Government through STEP – Smart Travel Enrollment Program. By signing up, you will receive all US government travel advisory notices for any country you plan to visit. In real life, the notices are great, but you’ll likely find out where not to go from travelers and locals before you get an email from the US government.
During your last week of work, talk to HR and confirm the address where your tax documents will be sent. I had mine sent to our travel mailbox without issue.
We wrote a longer post on How To Do Your Taxes During a Long Term Trip With No Income that you should bookmark for tax season.
Pack, Sell, & Donate
Pack, pack, pack, pack, pack! Remember this part always takes longer than expected! Good thing you got started about 3 months early, right??
Things You DON’T Need to Do in Advance To Prepare for a RTW Trip
Almost everywhere we went in South America besides Cartagena, Colombia, and Huaraz, Peru, had potable tap water. You should always confirm with your hostel/AirBnB that the water is safe to drink, but we’ve been drinking the tap water our entire trip in South America and have had no issues.
Full disclosure: We purchased a Steripen specifically for this trip, but it broke before we ver needed it. We’ve traveled for over 6+ months since then and have had to buy bottled water less than 10 times.
If you insist on buying a water filter, Steripen is a good option since it is so compact. We assume they don’t all break after 2 months.
RTW Trip Hostel/Accommodations
It’s a good idea to book your first couple days at hostel, however from then on your next “home” does not need to be booked more than 1-2 days in advance. Throughout our trip, there has never been an accommodation that we needed to book weeks in advance. The only exception was accommodations for the week of Carnival anywhere in Brazil; for the best options, book that 3-4 months in advance.
RTW Trip Transportation
In general, flights in South America do not need to be booked more than 2 weeks in advance. In fact, domestic flights can often be booked up to 2 days before your departure date without a spike in price. For flights between countries, book 1-2 weeks in advance. For flights to high-profile destinations or events such as the Galapagos, Easter Island or Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, book them ~2 months in advance.
It is best to book buses 1-2 days in advance either online or in person. There is no price spike for last minute booking and showing up at the last minute does work, but we have been surprised more than once by a bus being full.
Many multi-day hikes do not need to be booked in advance. Furthermore, the price you get in person is usually much better than what you see online. In South America, guided treks to Machu Picchu may be booked when you get to Cusco.
Even with the rest of Patagonia, outside of Torres del Paine National Park… You would think that having to book campsites at Torres del Paine National Park up to 6 months in advance, you would also need to book the other parts of Patagonia right?? Not true.
Accommodations, hikes, and transportation in Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales, Ushuaia, El Calafate and El Chalten in general do NOT need to be booked in advance. Unless you plan to be there the weeks of Christmas and New Years, you can book things a few days in advance.
There you have it, our post on How to Prepare for a RTW Trip! If you’re looking for more information on how to plan your travel route though South American, click here. Also, make sure to download the How to Prepare for a RTW Trip Checklist up top!
From us to you, happy adventuring!