Numbers

OK, enough already. You’ve endured three posts of me yammering on about what travel is ‘about’ – you just want to know where I went and how much it cost, right? I mean, start the party dude!

Let’s start with the air tickets. I bought mine from an outfit called AirTreks that have been arranging these sort of crazy adventures for thirty years. They search for the cheapest carriers on budget routes and assemble a ticket for you out of non-refundable, one-way tickets. You’ll fly on some great carriers like Virgin Atlantic and Japan Airlines, and a few you’ve never heard of like Malaysian Airlines or Air India, depending on where you go. My itinerary years ago cost $1400, so I was surprised to learn that there are a couple round-the-world (RTW) options that are still selling for under $2000. The trip they are currently offering that is most similar to the one I took is called The Nomad, but you don’t have to take a pre-selected route. You can use the interactive map to choose which cities you’d like to see, and they will price out the exact one you chose, suggest another that would be very similar but a bit cheaper, and a third that maximizes out the path you’ve chosen. You really only need a city in each major region, as local travel between cities will probably be a lot cheaper by bus or train (the exception being Europe).

Since I booked my ticket, the major air alliances have got in on the RTW game as well, and it looks like Star Alliance has tickets starting around $3000, with One World offering a couple of different options at varying prices. While the prices may be slightly higher than AirTreks – and the websites not as user-friendly – I would imagine these tickets, issued on a single membership card number, would be more flexible if you needed to change your plans mid-trip. Tim Ferris of Four Hour Work Week fame has some of the best advice I’ve seen on buying RTW tickets from the major airlines – check it out before you buy.

You will need to do some major research before you plunk down such a big chunk of change. I like the fact that AirTreks will show you both a bare-bones option and a maxed out one based on your input. But it is going to take a lot of research on your part to get a good deal on your overall trip. Think about your destinations – are they currently safe? What is the currency conversion for that country? For example, I’d usually tell people to make a connection through Bangkok instead of Singapore, because it’s cheaper and more exotic. But you might not feel comfortable with the level of political unrest there at the moment. Personally, I feel there’s just enough unrest there to make the currency cheap for the traveler, but not so much that there’s any real chance of getting hurt. On the other hand, I went to Egypt on my trip, but I wouldn’t feel at all comfortable going there today. At the moment, the currency in Turkey is down about 30% – making it my pick for a safer, more affordable experience in the Muslim world. Don’t just pick out places on a map that sound cool – they might be a lot more dangerous and or expensive than you realize. If you’re not much of a trip planner, this will be the dull part for you.

Actually, if I were doing the trip today, I probably wouldn’t even buy an RTW. I’d buy a one-way ticket to the closest exotic place near my home, see what I could see there, then make the decision about where I wanted to go next after that. Once you’re ‘in country’ you find that prices to the next location are a lot cheaper than what you could book them for when you were back home, and that there are often other options besides flying from one place to another. Going by train or boat allows you to see and feel a lot more of the local ambiance, and saves a heck of a lot of money. For example, it is possible to cross the whole of Asia without ever booking a flight. Island nations like Japan and Indonesia have tons of ferries running international routes, and larger, inland countries like China and India have massive rail networks that can connect you to pretty much anywhere you want to go. Flying from Beijing to Hong Kong currently costs about 2000 RMB, a little over $300 US, while the overnight express train fare is less than half that amount.

As you are putting your trip together, I’d suggest going to the bookstore or library and looking through the Lonely Planet series of travel guides. I have found that they are usually a pretty reliable guide to finding the cheapest accommodation in any given place. Don’t be a cheap skate – pay to download a few of them onto your Kindle once you decide where you are for sure going. You won’t want to stay at the very cheapest option every time, but minimizing your accommodation expenses will go a long way towards minimizing the cost of your trip – which will allow you to keep traveling longer. And you will be amazed – dumbfounded – at how nice a room five bucks will buy you in some countries. Obviously, you’ll spend a lot less in places you’ve never heard of, while hotel rooms in famous cities like Paris and Tokyo will set you back at least as much as what you might pay in a big city back at home. In Tokyo, you can stay at a ryokan for a few days for around $50 US a night, but if you want to stay for a month, you can find a room at a gaijin house for under a grand. In Bangkok, a grand will buy you two months in a flash rooftop condo in the business district – or a year’s rent in the apartment I lived in my first year there. You’ll want to splash for a bit of comfort from time to time, but remember that it’s adventure you’re looking for, not pillow-top mattresses and shrimp cocktails. Overall, I would estimate that accommodation will average $500 a month if you don’t spend all of your time in Japan and Europe.

Out of the big three, food costs on your trip are the hardest to predict. Are you a big eater? Gotta have your KFC? Wouldn’t dream of eating local food cooked on the street? Well, not only are your food costs going to be relatively high, you’ll also miss out on much of the joy of traveling to other cultures. Your goal here is to stay where the locals would stay, travel the way the locals travel, and eat the way the locals eat. Not only do you save a ton of money this way, but, more importantly, you get a much more authentic experience. If you can eat like the locals, you might be able to survive on $20 a day in the expensive cities, and thrive on $10 in the cheaper areas you visit. I could eat well on $5 in southeast Asia, perhaps as low as $2 in India. An added plus for most of us Americans is that it is pretty difficult not to lose weight on this kind of trip. Junk food is ubiquitous at home, but in most other places around the world, fresh fruit and small portions of noodles or curries are much easier to find, and much easier on the wallet.

It’s a lot of information for one post, but I’ll be describing my travels country by country in subsequent posts, so I’ll be able to give a bit more detail. If I were forced to give you a ball park number for all costs involved – well, I would say you’ll spend no more on a 6-month trip than what you would probably spend just staying at home that same six months, and possibly a good deal less. Of course, you won’t be receiving any income, so you’ll be living off of your savings.

But what would you rather be doing right now – heading to the office, grabbing lunch at McDonald’s, coming home late to catch a show or two on Netflix? Or hiking limestone cliffs to a find a hidden teal-green swimming hole, grilling a fresh fish in the sand for lunch, ending the day with the view of a tropical beach?

Follow me – I’ll show you how to do the latter.

Check out my political-economic-religious musings at my other blog, americansecularist.

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