There's more to planning a trip round the world than sticking pins in a map and connecting the dots. Some very practical considerations should shape your trip as well. The logistical side of long-term travel may seem like a chore that keeps you rooted at home when you'd rather already be roaming, but if you sort out these details first, you'll enjoy your travel a lot more.
Check that your passport will be valid for at least six months after your expected return date - most countries won't admit you without at least this buffer. Also look into whether one country in your itinerary bars entry to travellers with stamps from other countries - as some Arab countries do for travellers with Israeli stamps, for instance. If your country allows it, consider applying for a second passport, for greater flexibility.
Investigate what visas you need, and what you need to get them. This is perhaps the trickiest aspect of trip planning: many visas are good for only a few months after they're issued (that is, you must enter the country within a certain period), and some visas can only be acquired in your home country. Also make sure you have enough blank pages in your passport.
Look into vaccinations early in your planning. In some cases it can take weeks after the jab, or even months, before you're considered immune. Others, such as the vaccine for hepatitis A, require a follow-up booster shot some months after the first - decide whether you'll get these at home or on the road. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa require a yellow fever vaccination.
In addition to vaccines, get a regular medical checkup. If you have periodic tests done for anything, make sure they're sorted before you go. Or if you'll need them on the road, be sure to schedule time in a country with good medical facilities. In fact, you may even work health care into your itinerary - for example, getting your teeth cleaned in Bangkok costs only $20 at a state-of-the-art dentist's.
Once you have a rough idea of your travel dates and preferred stops, check prices for worldwide travel insurance. Coverage that includes no-questions-asked medical evacuation is essential for developing countries. Then read the fine print on possible policies. Are you covered for all the countries you want to visit? (Some policies deny coverage in war zones, which can be too broadly defined.) Will the policy cover the activities you want to do? World Nomads, our recommended insurance provider, offer coverage that ticks all the boxes for a big trip.
Will your gourmet tour put you in Paris in August - when many restaurants close? Will you be taking the ferry from Vladivostok to Japan in January, when the seas are roughest? Will your Egyptian desert safari coincide with Ramadan? Check out the best seasons for weather and for tourists (or lack thereof), and also check for the dates of any local or national holidays. If you're aiming at a destination specifically for an event, book your hotel well ahead of time, and buy any tickets you need.
If realistic, aim to pace your trip from cold climates to hot, so you can discard heavier clothing as you go.
Leave the cheaper destinations for last, in case you're strapped for cash. Or, conversely, schedule places where you might find temporary work for midway through your trip, to replenish funds.
Plan activities that require special gear early in your trip, so you can send the clunky hiking boots home when you're done. Or add these to the end of your itinerary, and be sure you have an idea where you'll pick the necessary items up from when you arrive.
Want to pick up a carpet in Turkey? Buy saris in India? Order a bespoke suit in Hong Kong? Have a loose plan for mailing goodies back home. And work these possible splurges - and the money for postage - into your budget.
This under-utilized service, with which you can receive mail directly at a city's main post office, can solve all sorts of long-term travel dilemmas, especially if you can't work out the seasonal kinks in your itinerary. You can mail warm clothes, extra medication or even new books to yourself in countries where you might need them. It's also fun to let friends and family know where they might send letters. Some places have very reliable poste restante; others, not so much. Some places will hold mail for months; others, only for a couple of weeks.
While it's tempting to hit as many spots as possible, make sure to pace yourself and vary your itinerary. Long weeks of hard bus seats and dodgy restaurant meals can take their toll. If you're headed somewhere with health risks, schedule in a "safe" place not long after, so you can recuperate in comfort if need be. Treat yourself to a beach break after a long string of cultural capitals.
Other pre-trip tips:
- Connections - Work all your social network connections to find friends wherever you're headed. Don't be shy - almost anyone is happy to show a visitor around town for a couple of hours. And if you really can't find any friends of friends, try websites like Couchsurfing or HospitalityClub to find locals who can show you around.
- Gifts - Stock up on small souvenirs from your home country or city, such as keychains or postcards. These make great gifts to hosts and curious children you'll meet along the way.
- Photos - As conversation-starters, have your favorite photos with you - your friends and family, your pet, your apartment. They're fine on your phone, or go old-school and carry a small album.
- Language - Brush up on whatever foreign language skills you have, and set about acquiring new ones early. It's a great way to get even more excited about your trip!