“A year from today, you may wish you had started now”– Karen Lamb
Much like writing this blog post, the hardest part of travelling is knowing where to start, but two mimosas later and I’m ready.
With shaky steps, I have just started my first solo trip around America and I wanted to share my planning process (with some edits, because I did NOT do it right), in the hope that it might help someone else hoping to take that leap and go see the world.
I’ve structured everything into a timeline format to give you a rough idea about when to start certain planning stages, but please take it with a pinch of salt- everyone should move at their own pace, after all.
Here we go (I warn you, it’s long one)
1 year before your trip:
1. Find Your Motivation
The most important first step is figuring out your motivation, why do you want to travel? This may seem like a fairly obvious step, but it’s going to determine how you go about the rest of your planning process. For instance, if you’re hoping to embark on a year long, luxury holiday- your trip might need a slightly larger budget than mine and your destinations are most likely going to be different. If, like me, you’re hoping to expand your horizons and experience new cultures then there are going to be a few more steps in your planning process.
As a solo traveller, my motivation was a mixture of wanting to experience the world but also wanting to prove to myself that I was capable of branching out on my own and not getting myself killed in the process. This affected the rest of my planning because I needed to choose destinations that provided me with that cultural experience without compromising my safety. Which leads me to my next point…
2. Where do you want to go and when?
The second step is deciding roughly where you want to go and when you want to go there. If you’re looking for warmer climates in the winter, the general rule of thumb is to target countries that are closer to the equator such as: South America, Africa, South East Asia and Australia, but equally I would avoid these countries in the summer months if you struggle in extreme heat. If you feel like hitting the slopes, then places like Canada, North America and Russia are a good bet pretty much all year round. Where you choose to go is a completely personal decision and should be based on what you want to get from your trip. Your locations don’t need to be set in stone but bare in mind that certain festivals and events only occur once a year and some forward thinking might be needed if you don’t want to miss them. For example, ‘La Tomatina’ (the tomato throwing festival in Bunol, Spain) takes place on Wednesday 28th August next year and accommodation in that tiny town gets booked up fast. Therefore, certain dates of your trip will need to be set in stone and pre booked if you wish to attend any seasonal festivals such as this.
I decided I wanted to spend a year exploring the West Coast of America, Central America, South America (specifically Brazil and Argentina), Mexico, Hawaii and Canada. Fortunately, Central and South America are good for low budget travellers as they have excellent transport systems for a really low price and plenty of volunteering opportunities that come with free or low cost accommodation. North and Central America were going to be a bit more of a problem financially as these areas have notoriously high living costs and lovely hostels that reflect that in their prices. In order to explore these locations in the way I wanted to, I needed money…
3. Time to start saving money
The final thing you need to start thinking about this far in advance is if and how you’re going to save money. I say ‘if’ because some people choose to work as they travel to support themselves or volunteer in exchange for lodgings and food. If you do choose to save up enough to cover your trip, work out how much you need to save and the number of months between now and when you would like to depart. This should leave you with how much you need to save a month and there are several ways to lower your outgoings each month to make it easier to achieve this (blog post on this to come later).
I decided to save for as much of my trip as I could and then work as I travelled to cover the rest. As soon as I graduated university, I was lucky enough to move back home and save the majority of my wages from my job over summer, which left me with a grand total of £4500. It sounds like a lot of money but I realised quite quickly that it wasn’t enough to travel for a year without any sort of income and I decided to continue working as I travel. The visa I have does not allow me to work on US soil, so I now work online earning about $200 a week to supplement my savings (blog post to come on becoming a Digital Nomad). I will also be volunteering in Central and South America, which is an excellent way to give back to the community, gain experience and board for free.
4 months before your trip:
4. Finalise your locations
Once you’ve started saving, it’s time to finalise your locations in order to work out what travel injections and visas you’re going to need.
5. Apply for visas
You don’t necessarily need to apply for your visas 4 months before your trip but it’s good to have a cushion in case the consulate is particularly busy at the time of year you are applying. This is because countries such as the US require you to interview at the Embassy after you submit your application and slots can fill up fast. That being said, if you don’t plan on staying in the US for more than 90 days and you’re eligible, it’s worth using the visa waiver ESTA programme. Visas can be quite expensive and the ESTA programme saves money and time at border control. I have limited knowledge on the Visas needed for other countries, but if you want to work as you travel, it’s extremely important that you apply for the correct visa. Penalties for working illegally can be anything from immediate deportation and banning from reentry, to imprisonment. Visit Visa Central for a comprehensive list of the visa requirements for popular travel destinations.
Work visas for the US are almost impossible to come by without a sponsorship from an employer, so it may be worth considering another location if you need to work or become a Digital Nomad like myself. I had to wait a month for an interview at the embassy in London and only had my visa granted and delivered to my collection point a month before my departure. It is important to note that they take your passport to stamp your visa in, so if you have a holiday booked before your trip that requires your passport- get your visa sorted plenty of time in advance or wait until your return.
Get those travel vaccinations
Whatever you do, do not leave your travel vaccinations to the last minute like I did, no matter how terrified you are of needles. Most doctor’s surgeries have a designated travel nurse that require you to book in for a consultation before the vaccinations can even be booked in. Vaccinations are also extremely expensive so it is worth finding out what you need in enough time to handle the expense. Visit this page for a comprehensive list of the vaccinations needed for the most common travel destinations. Certain courses of injections extend over 6 or 10 weeks and when you factor in the availability of appointments, this process could take well over 3 months.
My travel vaccinations cost a total of £220 for immunity against four life threatening diseases, common to Central and South America. As it was, I had to opt out of the rabies vaccination because I no longer had enough time to complete the course or the £160 that it costs for all three injections. Please don’t be like me, organise your vaccinations in advance and protect yourself from rabid dogs. All jokes aside, the rabies vaccination can buy you an extra 24 hours on top of the 72 hour window you have to seek medical help, which is vital considering it takes an average of 3 days for a person to access the life saving medication. In the eventuality that you have left your vaccinations to the last minute, book in to see a travel specialist at Boots, as they have the ability to put you on the fast-track vaccination course.
3 months before your trip:
Make sure you’re covered
Purchase your travel insurance before you book your flights and you’ll be covered for flight or trip cancellations, purchase it after and you won’t be. Last minute flight cancellations are often a travellers biggest unexpected cost, so it is important to make sure you’re covered. If you’re travelling for a long period of time, you’re going to want backpackers insurance which comes at a much greater cost than single trip or annual cover. Give yourself the time to shop around and make sure to check providers that don’t appear on comparison websites. It is important to balance low cost insurance with a good Defacto rating; there isn’t much point in taking out cheap insurance if they don’t answer the phone in an emergency. If you’re going to be taking part in certain activities while you travel, such as sky diving or winter sports, it’s also important to make sure those activities are included in your premium. In the eventuality that you break your leg in a skiing accident and try to claim the medical bills on insurance that didn’t include winter sports cover, you’re not going to see a penny. If you have a credit card, be sure to check that it doesn’t already come with some kind of travel insurance before you pay out for more.
After looking at insurance quote after insurance quote, I eventually settled on cover with Direct Line. They don’t appear on any comparison sites but they quoted me £300 for a year’s cover and they had a 4* rating on Defacto with good customer reviews. The premium included cover on all of the activities I planned on taking part in while I travel and a low excess in the eventuality of a claim.
Book your flights
It’s time to book your flights! If you have some flexibility around your departure date, set up a google alert and book your flight when the price is at its lowest. Before you book, research the airline provider and make sure to book a chartered flight. Chartered flights run at the same time on the same day every week and it ensures that the airline is using one of its own fleet, instead of a leased plane from another budget airline that just has your chosen airline’s staff on board. This minimises the risk of being stuck on a terrible plane with uncomfortable seats and no leg room. Once you’re asked to select your seat, you can save money by waiting to be assigned a seat or use TripAdvisors Seat Guru app to select the best seat or at least avoid the worst.
I highly recommend flying with Norwegian Airlines for a long distance, low budget flight. My flight from London Gatwick to Seattle was on one of the new Dreamliners for £215, once I opted out of the in-flight meal and seat reservation. The entire plane had mood lighting designed to reduce jet lag and each seat had it’s own TV with new films and the ability to order food and drink from your seat.
6 weeks before your trip:
This one’s for the girls
It’s time to think about contraception, particularly if you’re going on a long trip (6 months to 1 year). If you’re on the pill, you need to get enough prescribed for the entire time you’re travelling, or risk running out and being unable to get more. For an alternative, consider methods such as the coil or implant that can last up to 10 years and have a much lower risk of human error (forgetting to take a pill), making them a far more effective method while you travel. If you do opt to change your contraception method, make sure you give it plenty of time to settle down before you set off on your travels as the side effects can be pretty intense in the first few weeks. This may not seem like a particularly important step but I hear hostels aren’t exactly baby friendly.
I opted for the ‘Jaydess’ coil and it was one of the best decisions I made. The procedure was painful but the gas and air was fun and now I don’t have to worry about taking a pill every day. This particular coil only has a small amount of hormone on it which means that I haven’t had any side effects other than some cramping, but this varies from person to person so be sure to consult your doctor.
Get a full MOT
Speaking of your doctor, make sure to get any ailments checked that you’ve been putting off and stock up on any prescribed medication (within reason). You might be about to go up to a year without free and easy access to a doctor, so save yourself time and money by taking advantage of the healthcare at home. The same goes for the dentist, make sure you get a full check up so that you can keep an eye on any underlying issues or cavities while you travel.
My wisdom teeth have been coming through for a while and I should’ve had them checked out before I left to make sure everything was okay. I made the mistake of assuming it would be fine and ended up spending the first two weeks of my travels in pain because a wisdom tooth was cutting into my cheek. Learn from my mistakes and get your wisdom teeth checked out if they’ve started coming through, to make sure they aren’t partially impacted or coming through at an angle.
3 weeks before your trip:
Get your ducks in a row
Everything is getting very real at this point and it’s going to start sinking in that you’re not going to see your family and friends for a while. Be sure to start thinking about how you’ll keep in touch. Will you FaceTime everyone regularly or just post on social media occasionally to keep everyone updated? Will you start a blog or vlog? If you want to send postcards, consider apps that will send them for you for next to nothing. It can save time and you can even personalise them with your own photos.
Unfortunately, you also need to organise the boring stuff like back up copies of your passport and travel insurance documents in case you lose anything. You’ll also need to change up foreign currency or consider options such as cash cards, debit cards or travellers cheques. If you do change up money, keep the receipts in case your money is stolen and you need proof of purchase for your insurance provider. Notify your bank of your itinerary so that they don’t freeze your account when activity looks suspicious and it might be an idea to let the people closest to you know where you should be as well.
It’s also time to start thinking about where you’re going to sleep for the first few nights and book your accommodation. There are plenty of options that range in price from free (family and friends, Couch Surfers) to cheap (hostels, Air b n b, motels) to more expensive (hotels, guest houses). It’s personal preference as to how cheap or expensive you’re willing to go, but just be aware that not booking anything can lead to a pretty stressful first night when you land.
(Side note: the above photo is an actual hostel in Turkey, don’t mind if I do)
1 week before your trip:
Pack it all in
In the hope that you’ve been buying or borrowing the things you need for your trip over the past few weeks, it’s time to start packing it all. If you’re going to be on the road a lot, it’s worth considering a backpack for your luggage (around 60 litres for women and 80 litres for men) or even fitting everything into a carry on to save time and money at the airport (I will do a separate post on what to pack for a year’s backpacking trip).
The day before your trip:
Take the time to check in online to save time at the airport, especially if you chose not to select your seat at booking. Make sure you’ve packed everything you need in your hand luggage for your flight and include anything extra you might need if your flight is long haul (separate post to come on essentials for a long haul flight)
You’re all set!
You’ve dreamed, planned, prepared and now it’s finally here. This was just a rough overview of the process I go through when planning a big trip and I will be following this post with many more that cover some of these steps in more detail.
I hope this post was useful for you, whether you’re dreaming about your next big trip or just about to set off and I can’t wait to hear all about your adventures.
“A goal without a plan is just a wish”- Antoine de Saint-Exupery