So you’ve got the dream and the right mindset. Now you need to start on the nitty-gritty of making your dream into a reality. Here are some things to consider.
We got our passports in order. Don’t put it off. Do it now! They last five to ten years so you will use them. Always leave lots of time for this as there is always glitches and it is never as straightforward as it seems. If you are a dual citizen, consider the pros and cons of getting passports for both countries. It could save you a lot in visa fees.
We checked visa requirements and felt we did not need to pre-arrange any at this point. We felt we could sort out other visas along the way. In our experience getting visas overseas for future destinations can often be easier and cheaper than getting them in Australia. Obviously you may need them pre-arranged for the first country you visit. Many countries do not require Australians to buy a visa, if they are tourists and staying less than 30 days.
Make a stack of passport photos, and scan your Birth Certificate. Scan it all. Email it to yourself, copy it to Dropbox, stick it on a USB drive. It weighs (nearly) nothing and can save you heaps of time, and time is money on the road.
Sadly it is true for English speakers that you can get by with a combination of English and body language, everywhere. This makes you lazy and we are ashamed that over our year away we didn’t learn much of any language. It is a great opportunity for all and will be one of the major goals on our next long trip.
It is always useful and respectful to learn a little about a country’s history, manners, cultural norms and majority religions before entering a country. It is best to do this just before you arrive in a country so that the information is current and fresh. Observe the locals and if needed ask questions when appropriate. It will open doors and the locals will appreciate it.
Accept there are some things you will not understand such as why did the bus terminate half-way through its route. Sometimes there will be no English speakers and you may never understand why. In these cases, follow the locals and go with the flow.
We can be just as confusing to others. Down here in Oz we say “see you later” even if we won’t???
Some background knowledge is also really interesting and increases your enjoyment and understanding of the place. Just as you would like others to respect the culture and religion of your country, please treat others with the same respect. We were appalled to see so many travellers completely ignoring places of silence, simple dress codes, wearing a scarf or removal of shoes, etc. It is no great strain on you but means a great deal to the local people.
Of course, you wouldn’t conform to more extreme cultural norms but at the same time, remember that you are a passing accepted friend and sometimes it is about not offending your host. Sometimes it isn’t the right time or place to voice your views or make your point. Sometimes it is just not about you.
We all tried hard to learn and use the basic words of the main country’s language such as hello, please, thank-you and goodbye. For our kids we found this was best done whilst in the country where they could practice. We tried to teach them to introduce themselves and say their age in the country’s language. Next it is fun to learn some common expressions. This is easy because you hear it everywhere. For instance we love the phrase for “Let’s go” in Hindi – “Chello” and post trip we are still using it. This was a great icebreaker and we are astonished that post-trip our boys do remember quite a few words.
The boys are all learning Mandarin at their regular school, so we tried a little whenever we met a Mandarin speaker or demonstrated their skills for practice. We felt it was better they focused on their Mandarin than undertook another language during their travels.
In this tech-savy world consider travel apps. As we both had smart phones, the possibilities are endless and you can tailor it to your personal needs. On trip we used social communication apps such as; Tango, Whatsapp, Viber, WeChat (this was to keep in touch with new friends from China as they only have limited permissions). Maybe practice using these for a while before you set off.
We used Travel Money app early on, when travelling with Grandma, this is fantastic for keeping track of expenses for later splitting costs or for your own records. We had the Geocaching app for Geocaching. Of course Google maps and Google Translate are priceless. XE is easy for currency conversion.
We had a tablet and laptop with us for most of our trip. So we found some sites such as Tripadvisor, Couchsurfing, travel forums, WordPress, Outlook, etc were just easier to view and use as full sites. Let’s face it some phone apps are just not very useful.
We have always found it cheaper to use our current phones and buy SIM cards as we go then email our contact number back home. We generally use free wifi as it is usually easy to find or included with accommodation. In Asia it is often better and cheaper to buy a SIM at an established shop or a post office than off the street, it also gives you somewhere to go back to or someone to set it up for you on the spot.
(Please read our disclaimer. Consider your individual circumstances and risk factors seriously before making any health decisions. We were all healthy individuals with no major pre-existing conditions. Our health decisions may have been different had our circumstances been different).
Be aware the costs of travel vaccines can be huge, especially for a family. Also vaccines often need to be taken over a long length of time. So get this process rolling as soon as possible. We got our standard travel vaccinations up to date. We found the cheapest way to do this was to get prescriptions from a local GP, buy the vaccines at a discount chemist (in our case Chemist Warehouse), after ordering over the phone, then inject at your GP usually with a nurse. We modified our Private Health Cover to encompass these costs. We planned to have any less standard shots overseas to reduce the huge costs, in our case these were shots for Rabies and Japanese Encephalitis. Read our posts about these shots – Week 1, Week 2 and Week 6 which mention our experience. These methods saved us a huge amount.
In our experience, many people overseas go to their chemist(/pharmacy/drug store) for minor ailments, rather than the doctor. We found pharmacists to be helpful and knowledgable. We did have a few doctors visits, though we are not great believers of medicating unless absolutely necessary and carried a first aid kit with us at all times. Luckily we did not encounter any major health problems. Over the course of our trip there were coughs, colds, headaches, car sickness, minor food poisoning, nausea, diarrhoea, vomiting, two ear aches, minor cuts, bites and one sprained ankle. Nothing that we wouldn’t have encountered over a year at home.
Often prescription medicines in Australia can be bought over the counter in Asia. We bought antibiotic ear drops in Laos – usually medication is cheaper including name brands. Doctor or hospital visits costs for minor treatment may be less than your travel insurance excess. It is a common myth that health care is always substandard overseas, but you do need to educate yourself and use your common sense. For example if you have a rabies vaccine injection and the vaccine has not been refrigerated, then you risk it not being effective. If you have a major injury, you will probably need to get to a major town or city for treatment. With children in your care you always need to be aware and have a back-up plan. You need to go to a doctor who understands your language well, even if it means paying more or going further afield. Please value your health.
Buy Air Tickets
We bought the cheapest return ticket to Asia, in our case via Tiger Airways. We bought the outward ticket several months before our departure. We bought the return on the day we left in a last-minute decision which preserved our right to free travel insurance.
Buying a ticket is a big step in making the dream become a reality. It gives you a date to work towards and “puts your money where your mouth is”. So as soon as you can grind down some dates, book the flight out.
Our first stop was Singapore. We would have only bought a one way ticket but we chose a return based on Graham’s allocated return to work date and because it qualified us for six months free family travel insurance through our credit card company. Personally we were happy with this free insurance which we felt equated to a fair degree of cover, that is not the cheapest policy or the most expensive.
Now you have the basics in place, you need to assess your current situation and make a short, practical, doable list on what you can realistically achieve before the go. There will always be more preparation you can do but you need to set a deadline and work towards it, then walk away. We may examine these items in more detail later but our list went something like this.
Everyone’s finances are different and everyone’s situation is different. If you are contemplating a dream trip you need to do so responsibly, especially if you have dependents. Basically you need to make sure to “put your house in order” before you make the first step.
Graham had already negotiated a years leave with his employer. This was no small task and was finalised over a couple of years due to changes in administration, dates, position, etc. He agreed to complete and finalise certain projects, use his long service leave and regular accrued leave, plus take the rest of the year as unpaid leave. This meant he would return to a secured position.
Luckily we have always been great savers and are financially savvy. You must remember that life mostly consists of everyday life: when you have a family, it is not worth sacrificing your everyday happiness long-term for some short-term life in the sun. We are passionate about travelling but personally are great believers of living within our means. We believe that no matter what your situation (excluding those below the poverty line), it is not about how much money you have but how you manage it. So you need to get your finances in order if you don’t want this dream trip to impact negatively on your home life. (If your interested, how we achieved this state, will be the subject of a future post).
So even though we consider ourselves a pretty average family and live on a single part-time income, we managed our dream year away. We believe many other families can do so too but it does involve some sacrifice. No-one can have everything. You have to prioritise.
We had a minimal mortgage (we felt it was beneficial to keep our mortgage going rather than pay it off due to free general banking and redraw options, etc), no other personal debts, a near neutral investment property and a reasonable amount of savings. We planned to rent our home. This rental income would cover any bills, expenses we continued to accrue in Australia. So we just needed enough to travel (i.e. move, tour, essentials, eat, sleep and have fun).
Our plan to travel Asia then Europe was also designed to stretch our budget – generally what we saved in Asia we would probably spend in Europe.
Graham had long service leave due of three months, some accrued leave plus some annual leave. So we would have some income for the first six months. If we needed more or an emergency arose, we had savings and the ability to redraw our mortgage. If we needed we could also work whilst away, as we had done on previous trips.
We personally did not draw up a detailed budget – which does not mean you shouldn’t. We knew ourselves and had travelled before. We were generally aware of travel costs and are confident that our finances would stand up to the expenses of our trip. We knew that we were great at budgeting and moderate in our wants. Truthfully, we felt we were taking no huge risks and felt that this trip would not effect our everyday life on our return. We knew the priceless value of an adventure together and prioritised this value over any possible reduction in income over this period. The cost of travel should be seen as an investment in the experience you take home, and carry with you forever.
We warn people that when travelling on a budget gap year you need to be budget conscious but you shouldn’t watch every penny. We don’t believe in always saving as much as you can. You need to make an educated decision not just based on dollar values. Sometimes you will pay more than you should have. Sometimes you will be handed a bargain. Sometimes you will splurge on a worthwhile experience and it will be worth every cent.
We took less than $100 Aussie cash with us but no foreign currency. We had several cards with us including one which was fee free for foreign transactions. We used this most of the time. As back-up we use our regular credit card by putting the balance in the positive, so when we withdraw we only pay one transaction fee and the conversion charge. We withdrew cash on arrival in the country’s currency through an ATM.
Watch your accounts. Find a safe place to access the internet, and log in to your internet banking. Change your passwords.
Using your cards in foreign places means they’re often vulnerable to skimming and scamming. It’s a fact of modern life – it happened to us back home, and happened on our trip. Fortunately our banks were responsive to any suspicious transactions (and there were one or two) and we were able to negotiate the process of stopping them or the cards. A long wait on the phone to the bank – set up a Skype account and buy a little Skype credit. It’ll save you stuffing around when you need to make that call.
Having three children and valuing their education meant thinking about how we keep up their education during their time away. We advised their government school a few months ahead. As we live in the school catchment area we were assured a place on their return. Luckily we are blessed with three clever boys and their teachers thought they would be OK even with no schooling for the year. Many people on the internet, especially travelling families, advocate world schooling – no ‘formal’ education during travel. Others home school. We in Australia are lucky enough to have a third, unique alternative of enrolment in the School of Isolated and Distance Education (SIDES).
We have no doubt that world schooling is of great benefit to children, perhaps of greater benefit than traditional education. We would be sure our boys got a good measure of this. But we also believe that the formal system is totally different from world or life schooling. So since we wanted our children to continue this mainstream system and are great advocates of our public school, we also wanted them to continue their traditional schooling. After all, they would come back to it. We chose not to home school for this year as we felt that with travelling, volunteering, etc it was too much to take on. So we chose a compromise in distance education through SIDES. It would mean the boys would remain enrolled in an Australian public school during their time away and each have an allocated teacher supervising their academic curriculum and assessment. We would act as their tutors and help execute the set programs.
When assessing your home for de-cluttering, be realistic. With six months to go you aren’t going to be able to sort through everything in fine detail, leave that for when you get back. Just start finding things you won’t use again and put them in a different spot, start with bulky items. Put them all in tubs you can easily stack into the car.
Since we were going to rent our home out, we investigated storage options. What we found is that this was a hugely expensive option. We had friends who had access to a farm and could buy a secondhand shipping container to place on it. This is a great idea if you have that option.
We read about a family who had just boxed all their stuff into one room of their house and locked it. They then rented the house. We felt this was more feasible for us as we already had a spare junk room so it was off to the hardware store for a few extra locks. We decided to rent the house furnished, so we would need to store less. We did move a few things to Grandma’s – mostly all the things we still needed to live before leaving i.e. clothes, linen, toiletries, bikes and toys. This would be useful on our return to have easy access to our everyday things.
But we still had too much stuff the bane of modern living, so we had to get rid of a substantial amount. This as a good way of letting go emotionally of our loved baby things, an educational opportunity for the boys and a way to make a little cash. We had tried a joint garage sale in the past that had not been very successful, so we opted for a car-park market (or boot sale).
Our policy was to get as much stuff as possible into our two cars plus folding trestle table and tarps. We would sell what we could, give away some and the rest would go directly to a charity shop. None of it was coming home.
So two market days later, we were four car-loads lighter. The boys had held their own stall of their toys and overall it had been an enjoyable experience.
This need not be a part of everyone’s plan but it was part of ours. We were planning to rent our home and our kitchen and bathroom were in need of updating. We mostly did the kitchen ourselves and the bathroom was done through a plumber. It was a basic budget renovations but the results exceeded our expectations and increased the house’s rental value.
Of course there are all the basics (including what to take, which is a whole other post). Give copies of all your travel documents and travel addresses to someone you trust. Also email a copy to yourself. Secure your valuables, cancel subscriptions, advise billers and change postal address if needed, cut off services you don’t need, make sure all your insurance is relevant and up to date ie if renting change to Landlord insurance. Say your good-byes (we recommend a fun get together with loved ones – why not?). Clean, tidy and pack light – there’s not much you need that you can’t buy, make, or do without.
So then it’s just a matter of getting on that plane. Live the dream.