Planning Long Term Travel Part I: Preparation

We had come to a fork in the road.

After returning to the US in September 2014, Perry and I had settled in St. Louis, Missouri, and those first few months proved to be a fairly difficult re-integration.  After nearly three years in the UK, we had fallen in love with the country.  We had made great friends, learned the nuances of British English and even enjoyed the dulcet tones of the King’s Cross station announcer.  Personally, we were fulfilled, but professionally, we were struggling. 

My job, which had brought us to England, was not going very well.  Changes in the organization and conflicts with my manager had created a stressful existence- and nearly a year of trying different approaches had not improved the situation.  Perry had completed an MBA (top of his class!), but had not landed a job after nearly eight months of pavement pounding.  We had severely underestimated how much of a hurdle the visa would present in his job search.

It was not a sustainable situation and we knew we would have to leave.  As we landed in St. Louis for my new job, we both felt a bit demoralized and American culture suddenly felt incredibly alien.  I remember driving around gazing upon countless strip malls and fast food chains feeling slightly nauseous. 

Things eventually perked up.  Perry quickly scored a great consultancy job at the Federal Reserve Bank and I settled into my new marketing role.  We made a few friends and started to enjoy some of St. Louis’ cultural amenities, including Forest Park and Cardinal baseball.

Six months later, we still felt off.  We had a comfortable lifestyle and good jobs, but something just wasn’t right.  Longing for my days as an expat, I cheered myself writing stories about those experiences.  Both Perry and I reminisced about the good times, and vowed to do it again, someday.

Then, in April 2015, Perry encouraged me to listen to an episode of the Tim Ferriss Show podcast entitled, ‘How to Earn Your Freedom’ which consisted of two chapters from Rolf Potts’ revolutionary travel book, Vagabonding.

I listened to it during a long drive and remember being completely entranced by what I was hearing.  I savored every word of it like some kind of proverbial chicken soup for the soul. 

I remember exclaiming ‘Yes!’ every time he said something that resonated with me.    I must have yelled a dozen times.  Here it was- the thing we were yearned for, but couldn’t yet articulate.  A different kind of life we didn’t realize existed- the long-term traveler.

 The joy of YES

The joy of YES

When I got home, we discussed the possibility of our own long-term travel.  As we talked, we would give each other these incredulous looks of ‘How have we not considered this before?’

By the end of the night, we said ‘yes’ to travel, but still had to figure out how to get on the road.

The initial exhilaration lasted for nearly a month and those first weeks were a rush of planning, but as I mentioned before, not the itinerary building kind.

We had a lot of questions to answer.  We had the ‘who’ and ‘why’, but ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ stood in front of our travel dreams like NFL linebackers.

Where do you start when giving up your old life and beginning a new one?  What about our stuff?   What about our homes?  How long would we be gone?  How much money do we need?  Where would that money come from?  Where would we go?  When would we go?  What type of travelers were we?  What would we bring? 

Whoa.

While we tackled them one at a time, we learned these decisions are not sequential.  What you decide to do with your stuff, identifying what type of traveler you are, where you will go and how much to save are inextricably linked.  But for ease, I’ve broken them down individually as we approached them. 

 

The Right Stuff

With people that are a bit more established (ahem, older), this can be a really difficult step.  There are many reasons that young people embark on long-term travel more often than older people, and I’m convinced dealing with ‘stuff’ is one of the bigger deal breakers. 

Our first thought was to rent a storage locker, which seemed like a safe and reasonable thing to do.  Then, we started costing it out.  The average 10’x20’ locker (3 rooms) runs between $100-$150 per month with a 10’x30’ going for $200+.  Spending $2400 to store ‘stuff’ gave us pause and we decided to re-evaluate our relationship with it.  

Having lived internationally and done a bit of travel, we felt confident we would be on the road long enough to justify selling everything.  I was on board with this, and for the most part, didn’t mourn items as they departed.  Well, except for the kitchen table, where I’ve spent most of my time writing and planning this trip.  While selling the table felt like a betrayal, most of the purging felt great, as though every item I separated from made space for a new experience.

We eventually sold most everything (save for 20 totes of personal items) over the course of a year, in stages.  Our initial sell-off included one car and enough furniture and clothing, that we could downsize from a large two-bedroom plus office, to a small one-bedroom apartment.

Perry and I each owned homes in Minnesota that we had been renting out- something we were forced to do when we moved to the UK, owing to the housing market crash.  By this time, however, things had improved and we were anxious to unburden ourselves completely, so we aimed to sell both before we left.   So far, I have been successful, but Perry’s will take a bit longer.

Dealing with your home is another big step, and many long-term travelers will rent out their place, just as we did when we became expats, as a bit of a safety net.  Selling your home can be scary.  Our culture teaches us this is a responsible investment (it can be if you don't move around very much!) and to some, there is a stigma attached to renting.  I understand that the feeling of being ‘homeless’ on paper might be overwhelming if you have been working long and hard to achieve ownership. 

But keeping your home and renting your place isn’t all rainbows and unicorns.  While I admit, I’ve had mostly positive experiences renting out my condo, the trade-off is a whole lot of risk.   You still assume all the financial responsibility- repairs, taxes, assessments, etc.  Hopefully, the rent will be enough to cover all your expenses, but in my experience, that wasn't always the case.  Plus, there is the matter of your time.  Even if you hire a management company, there is still a time commitment in the way of communications over decisions.  It isn’t a completely carefree situation.  

In my opinion, there is little upside, other than having a safety net of somewhere to return, provided the lease is up at that time!   Yes, your home might end up being the perfect place after all, OR you might discover another spot in the world that feels even more ‘like home.’ 

In our situation, we had had enough of the home ownership game, and deciding to sell was an important step in freeing ourselves for extended travel. 

 

Show Me the Money

I have a confession.  This section was the most difficult for me to write, as discussing money and providing real numbers felt awkward and uncomfortable.  However, I was inspired by the many travel blogs out there that provide complete honesty and transparency on this subject.  When you first start looking into long-term travel, the matter of money is crucially important- you just want to know 'how much do I REALLY need?'

Well, you do need some money, but definitely not as much as you think.  With the mindset that this is travel and not a vacation, it's pretty shocking just how inexpensive it can be.  You don't live at home like a vacation at an all-inclusive resort, and living long-term on the road is no different.

We read many articles to get to the root of 'how much', and there were some brutally honest conversations about how realistically frugal we could be.   One example of this:  my 40-something self ‘needs’ a decent bed, and as such, we won't be sleeping in hostel dorm rooms (a private room, sure!).   We will need to pay a bit more to get a good nights sleep, but that’s not to say it will be luxurious.  And while I like fine food, I also know how to cook, so the trade off for a better bed might be to spend less money by mostly cooking ourselves.  We had many more talks just like this to help determine what 'type' of travelers we would be.

Perry has me beat on both counts- perfectly ok with budget accommodation AND not much of a foodie, he is made for economy travel!  Mainly for my benefit, we agreed to be more miserly with accommodation in countries known for food and the opposite in the others.  After much debate, we agreed to a minimum of one year and set a travel budget of $100 a day, recognizing we will exceed this in expensive Western European countries and come under it in Southeast Asia.  We have confidence it will balance out in the end, as we have been practicing budgeting and economy living for many months leading up to the trip.

In addition, we are planning on reducing accommodation costs by doing a bit of housesitting and volunteering along the way.  We are listed on Trusted Housesitters, a pet and house sitting service, and I completed two pet sits here in the US as practice for the road.  We’ve also signed up for a few volunteering opportunities, such as the olive harvest in Italy (wwoof.net), a language immersion camp in Spain (diverbo.com) and teaching English to migrant children in Romania and China (globeaware.org), which provide room and board in exchange for volunteer labor.

I can’t stress how important it is to be honest about your travel style and your budget. I took great inspiration from budget traveler blogs and learned many ‘hacks’ that will no doubt save us money.  However, I know I am not in my 20’s and not likely to stick to a bare bones travel budget.  It was worth it to save for longer and have the funds to travel with bit more comfort, however, let me be clear we are far from a luxury travel budget!   Traveling as a couple, we expect to have enough economies of scale when it comes to accommodation and food, especially renting apartments and cooking most of our meals, such that we feel that $100 is realistic. 

We will soon find out.  Stay tuned…

Once we set our travel number, a budget was developed.  With current savings, we calculated it would take us 9 months to save what we needed to travel, plus a 50% cushion, plus enough money to set up a household in the US if/when we return.

The first thing we did was look at our biggest spending areas to see where we could cut back.  By downsizing to a smaller apartment and selling one of our cars, we saved $1200 per month.  We also cut cable and eating out (including my Starbucks habit), which netted us another $600 per month. 

Additionally, we recorded every expenditure (as a list on the refrigerator—for maximum visibility/shame) and reconciled it with the budget every month.  I was surprised at how much of a deterrent this was against spending.  Having a budget meeting with Perry made me think twice about frivolous spending and shopping trips to the mall out of boredom.  It felt like it would be taking money directly out of the travel budget.  ‘Do I want (insert thing of the moment here) or another two days on the road?’

While this may sound depressing, to us, it truly felt great to cut back.  Controlling your destiny, financially and otherwise, is empowering, and living frugally was a minor short-term sacrifice that both enabled and primed us for long-term travel. 

 

Where Do We Go From Here?

After the less-than-fun planning around stuff and money, now we were in my wheelhouse! We agreed to focus on Europe first, as there is so much we haven’t seen, and frankly, feel most confident in tackling.   After a few months getting our travel legs, SE Asia, NE Asia and Australia/New Zealand are next on the agenda. 

SE Asia is a popular long-term traveler destination, owing to a combination of great weather and low costs.  While this certainly appeals to us, another reason is its proximity to China, Tibet and Mongolia, which are even more exciting and exotic destinations to us.  For me, I’m interested in the history of China while Perry has been studying Mandarin and sleeping in a Mongolian yurt happens to be on his bucket list.

I was in my research element, reading every article and long-term travel blog I could get my hands on.  Scanning AirBnB apartments became my new obsession.  I signed up for travel podcasts (Extra Pack of Peanuts and Zero to Travel are among my favorites!) for destination inspiration.

As I’ve mentioned before, Perry is my planning opposite.  A decidedly ‘let it unfold as it will’ type-traveler, even he got in on the act.   I came home one evening to find a poster size map on the dining room table, complete with pins and thread outlining our travels by season.

After a few months, we started to have a bit of planning burn out.  We initially built a structured schedule of countries by month (as managing the ins and outs of the Schengen area requirements/limits was a practical concern that we didn’t want to lose sight of), but decided to allow for more flexibility so we could say ‘yes’ to opportunities that presented themselves on the road.  Of course, there are trade offs in using this approach, mainly higher costs, but agreed we would prefer a ‘slow and savor’ vs. ‘hard and fast’ travel mindset.

 

Pack Your Case

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit how much time and energy I’ve invested in the matter of ‘what to bring’.  To me, the idea of wearing the same clothes day in and day out meant that every piece counted and needed to be perfect.  Normally, I like this kind of challenge, but my rigid requirements made for frustrating shopping.

  • Wrinkle free
  • Performance material
  • Machine wash/dry
  • Dark color
  • Not bulky (rolls up tight)
  • Looks chic

Wardrobe selection caused a great deal of consternation, until one day I listened to podcast featuring a man who has been a long-term traveler for over eight years.  When the interviewer asked him about what he packs, I turned up the volume with great interest, even though guys’ needs differ from that of the ladies.  His answer was ‘Honestly, most rookie travelers spend way too much time and money on this, searching for quick dry materials and the perfect pieces.  Just throw some clothes in a bag and go.’

Gulp.  No one was in the room with me, but I looked away and blushed.

I’d like to say I took this to heart, but I didn’t.  While his advice helped take my anxiety down a notch, I subscribe to the philosophy of ‘look good, feel good’ and my perfect clothing search continued literally until the last week before the trip.  I made purchases from a variety of mainstream and travel clothing specialists.

We had planned our travel itinerary to avoid very hot and very cold weather in search of what I call ‘perpetual spring’, so we would not need heavy winter clothing.  I built my wardrobe around black and gray solids, with a pop of red in my scarf and a pair of animal print flats for pattern.    Knowing how much of an issue this can be for female travelers, I will detail my entire wardrobe and sources in a future post!

Then, there was the matter of toiletries and makeup.  I had certainly streamlined my routine over the past year, but there was still too much bulk.  Perry and I made a list of the things we each used and agreed to consolidate common items such as face cleanser, SPF 30 moisturizer and toothpaste, which helped a little.  I kept assessing and tossing until I had pared everything down into one small Ziploc bag for makeup and one for toiletries. 

Now that I had my clothing and toiletries game down, what would house them?  I had learned to pack a small case for a week of work travel during my days in the UK thanks to EasyJet, however, the idea of packing for a year was a bit intimidating.  I googled long-term travel packing lists and watched countless YouTube videos on various packing techniques, and while I picked up a few tips, I never found someone who matched my age and style completely.

We made a few early packing lists to help us make a decision on what size backpack to choose.  I pulled that list out the other day and laughed as the folly of it!  5 pairs of pants, 15 shirts, 2 dresses, 4 pairs of shoes, 15 pairs of underwear, 2 coats… it goes on and on.  This was the result of a lot of ‘well, what if we do this…’  talk that made my list so ridiculous, I would need 100 liter pack and a mule to make it work!

In the end, we purchased Tortuga 44 liter backpacks and packing cubes, primarily because a 44 liter is the maximum carry-on size.  On the final decision of what to carry, I will only say ‘choose wisely’ and know that you will fill whatever you pick. 

While I’m happy with the decision now, initially, I had reservations about the idea of a backpack vs. a suitcase.  I’m not pretending to be a gap year backpacker (and don’t want to look like one!), but previous experience dragging a rolling suitcase down stairs and cobblestone streets was decidedly more unappealing.  After seeing how sleek and streamlined the Tortuga was, Perry and I deciding to give it a try during a vacation in the UK. 

I was confident I had packed light… until I had to walk a mile from the train station to our hotel.  Drenched in sweat and shoulders throbbing, I knew I had to reassess my packing plan when we returned home. 

Bit by bit, I edited down until I had one week’s worth of clothing and minimal toiletries.  I will be washing clothes frequently, but now have a pack that won’t kill me. 

 

Planning Postscript

One final note on the planning process.  Be mindful of Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands to fill the available time.   While time is needed to save money, you don’t need a year to decide what to do with your stuff and to get your ‘affairs in order’.  It’s a bit like a wedding.  A flurry of initial planning, only to wait until those final two weeks of last minute details- selling items, securing travel insurance, getting a mail service, etc.  If money was in order, you could probably give yourself a month and make it work.