Three months into the trip and I have been asked several times how I planned my trip, so here is my three month review and guide to planning.
A few points first…
Everybody has their own preferences and their own approaches to planning. Some people buy a ticket to somewhere and decide to see where the wind takes them. Some people prefer detailed itineraries at all stages.
There is no one right way to do this.
There is only the way that works for you.
This post is about what works for me.
I resigned from a very good job to follow my dream of travelling for a year. I did not want to waste this time or this opportunity by not knowing where I was going.
Plus, I enjoy planning trips as much as I enjoy going on trips.
I also wanted to have a rough idea for how much this was going to cost me and pre booking accommodation and travel gave me a budget. Paying in advance also meant I wasn’t forking out on the road. Psychologically, it feels nice to be having a “free” day out.
Where to go:
I knew I wanted to mostly travel through Southeast Asia and I also wanted to fulfill a lifetime ambition of travelling on the Trans Siberian Express.
First step, work out the best route according to the weather each month.
This meant Russia in September, China in October and New Zealand in November… but then I discovered that it is possible to travel by train all the way from Manchester, UK to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
I decided to do that, though it does knock the preferred climate visiting out of sync. I was taken by the idea of travelling all of that way by land.
I may regret that decision when I get to Australia in January.
How to go:
I read a number of travel blogs and guides about other people’s experiences. What to pack, what to take, how to arrange transport.
As far as travel arrangement this is my “go to guy”, the Man in Seat 61. The website includes links to tried, tested and trustworthy booking sites.
I disagree with his verdict on the comfort of Vietnamese trains but otherwise his sainthood is assured.
As far as packing goes… there were two pieces of advice that resonated.
1. Only pack what you can run up at escalator with at the airport.
2. With the right type of travel knickers, you only need one pair to travel the world with.
While I was highly entertained by that idea I wasn’t convinced so I’ve brought four pairs.
Breaking this down into specific sections by order of challenge/difficulty, here we go:
I have a 40 litre Osprey Farpoint rucksack. I’ve been on two flights (HCMC to Auckland, transitting at Singapore) with it so yes, it is cabin sized and yes, it is accepted by airline staff as cabin-sized.
I’m travelling in hot countries though occasionally it can get cold and it can rain so the message here is layers and waterproofs.
The coldest part of the trip was the first month through Siberia in September. I brought a hoodie and a fleece. I ditched the fleece in China as no longer necessary and was adding to the weight I was carrying – this had been the intention.
I packed seven Tshirts and two long sleeved tops along with a pair of leggings, two pairs of cropped trousers, one pair of travel jeans and three dresses. This was supplemented with four scarves and undies… four pairs of knickers, three sports bras and six pairs of socks.
This might seem like a lot but I like variety and changes in what I wear on a daily basis. It makes me feel good.
Three of the Tshirts are silk, two are cotton and everything else (apart from the scarves) is travel-tech, i.e. lightweight and fast drying fibres that can be hand washed.
I live in the UK so I relied on Rohan for my kit.
For weatherproofing, this lot can all be layered and I also have a sun hat (widebrimmed and sun protection), a rain hat (which makes me look like Vera, Northeastern English detective and I’ve been told to keep my mouth shut because having been born in Durham, I sound like her) a Rab waterproof coat and a pair of waterproof trousers.
Footwear… walking sandals, walking shoes, converse trainers, flipflops and dressier sandals.
I’m a big fan of multiple footwear. When your feet are aching at the end of a long day walking, just changing shoes can bring comfort without deciding to stay in and miss the evening.
Why the dressy sandals?
One aspect of my trip is afternoon tea in very nice hotels. Reasonable footwear avoids the likelihood of entry refusal.
So far, EVERYTHING has been used. Nothing has been superfluous.
The biggest (though nicest) problem was deterring people from buying me gifts or useful items. I did not have room for some of the stuff that people wanted to send me away with.
My advice would be to show people what a 40 litre rucksack looks like because I’m pretty sure people think it is bigger than it is. A couple of friends were very surprised when they saw what I was carrying.
The first part of the trip I booked was the Trans Siberian Railway tickets. You cannot buy one and hop on and off. You buy separate tickets for each stage of the journey.
I wanted to travel from Moscow to Beijing, via Vladimir, Yekaterinburg, Tyumen, Irkutsk, Ulan-ude and Ulaanbaatar.
Fortunately, there is an excellent company called Real Russia whose website allows you to build your journey and they do the bookings for you.
The next element was thinking about the visas. I needed four just for this one month: Belarus, Russia, Mongolia and China.
I looked at the separate requirements and considered arranging them all myself, after all there is a Chinese Visa Application Centre in Manchester (my home town). I’m reasonably intelligent and capable.
Then I looked at how much Real Russia would charge me to deal with all of the posting between the different embassies and decided that life is short – I’ll get someone else to deal with this.
I still had to complete the paperwork which is six hours of my life I’m not getting back any time soon.
Some of the requirements were fairly convoluted – your post high school education history, the occupations of your family (your whole family or your immediate family?) and having completed this ‘A’ level in my personal history, I did find myself wondering what China and Russia were planning to do with this insight.
Both Russia and China wanted accommodation and transport confirmations – where was I going, where was I staying.
So I booked accommodation through Hostelworldand Booking.com.
Real Russia provided the evidence for transport in Russia and I contacted China Highlights to arrange my Chinese trains.
Tickets for trains in China don’t go on sale until 30 days before you travel. Using China Highlights as a booking agent meant that I had proof that the tickets would be booked which would appease the visa requirements.
Jason at China Highlights would prove himself to be an absolute star as he arranged my exit journey to Vietnam and chased my hotel in Nnaning over where they had misplaced my ticket.
The train ticket from Warsaw to Moscow (through Belarus to appease the requirements on that visa) also had to be booked. Agnieska at Polrail was very helpful in humorously helping me book my ticket.
Many travellers, once they have their visas, then cancel and rearrange their trips afterwards. I got my visas, one month before I set off. I was certain about where I wanted to go.
Plus, I firmly believe that if I play the system, I will be the one traveller out of everyone who does this to get caught. Even if I wouldn’t be caught, I just don’t need the anxiety of wondering if I would be.
Real Russia were superb in arranging tickets.
They were also very helpful in answering any questions I had though I was very frustrated when they misplaced paperwork that I had already sent through twice and didn’t compile the complete set of hotel reservations when I went to the Chinese Visa Application Centre. This resulted in a dash to Ryman’s the stationer for extra printing.
All four visas were arranged.
The fifth visa I needed at this stage was for Vietnam. They offer an e-visa now… but at the time of booking not for land crossings, or at least not for the border crossing I was using so I had to do the traditional more expensive option by sending my paperwork to the Vietnamese embassy in London.
It was very straightforward. I actually got this one before getting the other four as I wouldn’t have the others back in time to make the Vietnamese arrangements before I left.
Other Transport and Arrangements:
Having to book almost everything for the Russian and Chinese visa paperwork, I rather got into the flow of making arrangements.
I booked the trains and bus I needed to get from Manchester to Warsaw.
In the UK, National Rail is (in my view) the moat straightforward way to book trains – it is the central site for all of the rail companies’ timetables and then you go direct to their websites to book tickets. Ideally, this needs to be done 12 weeks before you travel.
You can also use it to see if your train is running on time, cancelled or if there is industrial action.
That got me to London.
For Vietnam, I used 12Go Asia and they have arranged buses and trains for me. If you get a Lamans booking, it will be good. I’ve not been too impressed with the others.
I’m planning to use these for the next leg of the journey.
Flights have been found via Google.
Three Month Review and Learning
The main question is: has this worked for me?
The answer is, yes it has.
Everything so far has worked smoothly. Using central agents increases costs but when bookings go missing, as they sometimes do, it is helpful to have someone else arguing your case.
Has this planning and lack of flexibility caused problems?
99% no, because everywhere I have been is where I wanted to go. I made conscious decisions when planning about where I did and didn’t want to go.
1% yes because five days in Ho Chi Minh City were too many. I discovered that hot, sticky, muggy, humid, noisy cities don’t work for me. So, I’m going to reduce the time planned in Bangkok and Siem Reap.
While I have booked accommodation, each has a cancellation option, thank you, Hostelworld. I haven’t yet booked the transport.
What has been great is not having to worry about where to go next. I already know. I have a structure. That’s not the same as having a detailed daily itinerary, which I don’t.
I have a list of ideas for each place – some of these are my must-see and I’d be disappointed if I left without seeing them, others are simply ideas.
I’ve mostly stayed in hostels. There have been two or three hotels when I couldn’t find a hostel or didn’t like the look of those on offer.
For the most part I started off in private rooms but lately I’ve been sharing and to be honest, that has been fine.
I don’t want to stay in a party hostel with a bunch of drunk 18 year olds. So, I don’t. You can spot them by the photographs – does it look like a party hostel?
To be fair, not every 18 year old wants to stay in a party hostel with a bunch of drunk 18 year olds either.
As long as the room and the bathroom is clean, I’m happy.
And the million dollar question… is it possible to live out of a 40 litre rucksack?
Yes, it really is. I genuinely haven’t had a moment of wishing I had brought x.
What has it cost?
- Accommodation for three months £1224
- Transport for three months (Manchester to HCMC) £1620
- Trips £1358
- Day to day expenses £1292
- Visas £590
- Vaccinations £641
- Insurance £691
That’s not bad but, obviously, New Zealand (where I am) and Australia (where I go next) are where my budget goes to die. However, knowing this, I paid a lot up front – particularly for transport and trips.