Daily Archives: May 29, 2016

MARK & SARAH: DEFINITELY THE “MASTERS” NOW! GREY GAP YEAR – THE INSIDE STORY

Well we’re back! Back in good old England!  57,000 miles, 39 planes, lots of stats and more importantly, lots of memories.

We’ve been asked many questions during our Round the World Trip and indeed on our return.  Some by people interested in doing something similar, some by people keen to know what didn’t go well and some by people who were just plain (or should that be plane) nosey!

To-date the MASTERS site has been read in over 84 different countries with in excess of 15,000 separate viewings, not bad for a humble “personal” blog which was never designed to court a widespread following.

Down to Earth

Down to Earth

We learnt a hell of a lot, both in the planning of the trip and of course during our 264 days on the international road.  Indeed we thought long and hard about selling our inside story and all our tips and advice.  However, as the highest bidder was only £2.10 we decided in the spirit of generosity to simply share our knowledge in the hope that someone out there will find it useful – if you do, make our day and let us know by adding your comments at the end of the blog.

Ooh and for people who like a bit of emotion, read to the end and see what we really feel like having been back in the real world for a couple of weeks.

WITH THE BENEFIT OF EIGHT+ MONTHS EXPERIENCE TRAVELLING ON THE ROAD, IF YOU DID THIS AGAIN, WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY?

THREE MONTH BLOCKS:  In an ideal World (no pun intended), we would probably have broken our RTWT into 3 x 3 month blocks.  You can get blasé when constantly seeing new sites and places.  Top tourist sites, which would have been a big wow earlier in our trip didn’t always have the same effect towards the end, which was a real shame.  You’re nearly immune in your feelings, numb if you like or just plain weary.  All of this sounds really negative, but it is just a true statement of fact from somebody (Mark) who gets bored very easily.  That said, each country gave us hundreds of wows and what we did worked well for us overall.

NOTE: If we had had the time, then extra air fare costs would need to have been factored in which we estimate would have cost £25,000 more had we both simply visited each country/region for a standard holiday (two/three weeks) and then returned home to the UK each time.

TM

TM

LIMIT BACK TO BACK TRIPS: Whist we booked the majority of the tour independently, we did use a Tour Operator for certain legs.  China, Indo-China, Ecuador and across South America – see below for the pros and cons of using a third party to aid your travel plans.

We generally enjoyed the group travel experience, but due to time restraints and the dates when tours ran, it was not possible to build in a “break” between the end of our China trip and the start of the Indo-China tour and similarly the end of Ecuador and the beginning of our 45 day marathon from Peru to Brazil. A break would have given us breathing space, time to compartmentalise what we had seen and what we were about to experience. Plus we would not have compared people, guides and countries so forensically with a few well planned days of separation.  No major drama, but we will do it differently next time.  Gosh, did we really say “next time”?

LEAVE THE MOZZIE NETS AT HOME:  Most places that we needed mozzie nets had them.  Unless you are really travelling on a budget in dodgy hostels, then save the expense and weight of a decent mosquito net.  PS: Anybody want to buy two nets that were used just once?

That’s it!  We have racked our brains, but there is very little we would do differently.

WHAT WORKED WELL?

PRE-PLANNING:  Those 650 hours of pre-planning really paid off in so many ways.  But we have come to the conclusion that we are not the norm.  The vast majority of particularly young RTW travellers/back-packers would rock up and decide as they went.  Good luck we say, but here’s why you might want to follow our lead…

Hours spent planning in advance – This saved hundreds of hours planning on the road.  Why not use your time overseas to visit more sites or drink more at the bar rather than trying to work out where to go, how to get there and where to stay?

Save time and money – We saved thousands of £’s over other people who booked at last minute or as they went.  We got the cheapest hotels and without doubt made massive savings on air fares.  We were also able to negotiate with tour operators to hold their 2014 prices for 2016 plus get a further percentage off for giving them consolidated business.  Just because you are travelling does not mean that you should forget your commercial skills.  But if you like wasting time and money, go for it.  Everyone’s different.

SEASONS WET OR DRY, YOUR CHOICE: We spent many hours working out when the best time to visit a country would be in terms of sun rather than rain and hot rather than cold.  This was not as easy as you might at first think as you have to take in to consideration mountain ranges where the weather is completely different on one side, the top and then on the other-side.  Monsoon rain in one part of the country often means dry weather elsewhere.  And if you go to high altitude even if you are on the equator, be ready for some rain and cold temperatures at night.

I have to say we got it nearly exactly right.  Just 25 days of rain in 264.  But it still wrangles that we went all the way to Ayers Rock in Australia for 24 hours and it was cloudy and 17C.  The day before 45C, the day after 42C. Ah well…

Grey Gap Year

Grey Gap Year

WHAT ARE YOUR TOP TIPS FOR TRAVELLING AROUND THE WORLD?

  1. FACTOR IN BREAKS: Touched on above, but worth reiterating that travelling is not the same as a holiday!  Build in small breaks if you can so you can stay in one place and re-group after physical and mental exertion.
  2. DO IT NOW – GO ON GUT: This always worked for us.  Turning up for a flight over Mount Cook in New Zealand with five minutes to go.  Deciding to go zip-lining in Ecuador when the situation presented itself.  If your gut says do something, whatever that might be, go with your instincts, you will rarely be wrong or disappointed.
  3. GROUP TRAVEL – MORE PROS THAN CONS: We enjoyed travelling by ourselves, but also enjoyed travelling with groups where you could have a laugh, enjoy more meaningful conversations and let somebody else do all the planning and driving – which can be tiring.  That said, you have to be prepared as with any group to encounter people who you “struggle” to find any sort of common ground with.  Fine for a week or two, not the best situation if you have to bite your tongue for six weeks. That happened.
  4. ALWAYS HAVE YOUR CAMERA READY: Sounds an obvious one, but we soon learnt that you never quite knew when a photographic opportunity might present itself.  A dolphin pod in NZ, a child being carried by his mother in Peru.  A chance to shoot the Milky Way.  Our small Canon did an amazing job and we are so pleased we decided to stick with it rather than take a big camera with a big lens.
  5. ONLINE SEATS – GET SMART AND GET MORE ROOM: Be smart when booking airline seats.  Some airlines don’t charge for booking emergency exits.  If you are travelling as a couple, book seats at the back of the aircraft (statistically the safest in the event of a crash) and then book seats either side of a middle seat.  Invariably it does not get used and you get yourself much needed space.  And upgrades are indeed possible.  Thanks to British Airways we travelled back from Rio to London Heathrow in Club Class (Business Class) luxury.  We asked Flight Centre (who had booked our RTW flights) to “mention” on the final flight booking manifest that this was our “last” flight on our round the World journey and this prompted the upgrade.  It was superb and a great way to end our World adventures.  Thanks BA.
  6. FLYING TO CHINA FROM NEPAL? GET A FREE FLIGHT AROUND EVEREST: We booked a scenic flight around Everest BEFORE our night-time China South flight to Beijing was cancelled.  We were forced to re-book with Air China , which left 12 hours earlier, which gave us a free sightseeing tour of Everest from both sides – just 24 hours after we had PAID to see the World’s highest mountain!  Sods law in our case but how many people have seen Everest twice in two days?
  7. TAKE TWO LAPTOPS/COMPUTERS: You can of course operate on smart phones.  But we were so pleased that we took both a laptop and a tablet.  They both “wobbled” in terms of operating from time to time, but you can’t beat having a back-up if something goes wrong. I won’t insult your intelligence by stating the importance of backing up files and photos in to a cloud, on to an encrypted USB and of course onto a second back up computer. Woops, just did.
  8. SORT YOUR PHOTOS AND VIDEOS AS YOU GO: We took 40,000 photos, we kept 9,000. We religiously “culled” daily as we went and of course backed up our most precious files every day.
  9. CONSIDER HAVING A BLOG: We thoroughly enjoyed producing our MASTERS blog.  It was a great way to keep in-touch with family and friends.  But remember it takes time.  Typically our blogs each took seven hours to produce by the time we’d thought of an angle/theme, written the copy, chosen the photos, uploaded the files to the online software (WordPress) and then proofed/edited the finished article.
  10. HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOUR: You will experience a whole range of emotions.  Sadness, elation, you name it.  Keep a sense of humour and all will be well.
Crawler

Crawler

WHAT ESSENTIALS WOULD YOU ALWAYS CARRY IN YOUR BACK-PACK/BUM BAG?

DOOR STOPS:  Random I know, but a little tip I picked up from working in Russia 25 years ago.  A door stop is simple and buys you time if somebody is trying to get in to your room and the locks have failed.

DUCT TAPE:  A must have.  Used by us to repair bags, cover up rips in Mozzie nets and even to strap up a fellow traveller who had broken her arm in the middle of the Andes.

ROPE/CHAINS/LOCKS: Nothing to do with fetishes. Used to secure bags in overnight busses or keep hotel windows firmly secure. Remember there are some bad people out there.

CURRENCY CARDS:  We had two which we used in Australia and New Zealand. They were easy to use and gave us another route to access local currency without relying on debit or credit cards all the time.

TWO CREDIT AND TWO DEBIT CARDS:  You can never be too careful.  We saw what happened to people who came with just one and then had problems when they were lost, stolen or simply did not work.

INTERNATIONAL DRIVING LICENCE: Remember that not every country accepts a UK driving licence so apply for an International Driving License before you leave your home country.

95% DEET:  There are mixed medical views on using deet for prolonged periods.  We used 95% for a few months at a time and had no ill effects.  But our non-medical advice would be to use it unless you have side effects which by all accounts show pretty quickly after use.  The proof was in the pudding. Very few bites, no Dengue Fever and no Zika Virus caught in South America.

MAKE SURE YOUR WALLET AND BUM BAG IS SCAMMER PROOF:  We met people who had been victims of electronic scamming of credit and debit cards.  Our wallets and bum bags were made of scam proof material so bad people could not get up close and steal what was ours.  We also kept in close contact with banks by email so they could be alerted if suddenly our cards were being used in places not on our itinerary.  Finally, don’t forget to check your accounts online every few days.  Scamming in South America is rife. And finally, finally, just be sensible.

A few items to pack!

A few items to pack!

WHAT ARE THE HIDDEN COSTS OF TRAVELLING?

Now this is a good question and one we realised was a key one pretty soon into the planning of our trip.

There are many hidden costs!  For example, visas, insurance, vaccinations and clothes, which added close to £6,000 to our overall budget.

VISAS:  Can be expensive to get – India and China to name but two.  £650 was the final bill for the two of us.  Not a small amount to find if you haven’t budgeted for it.  Also check, check and double check if you need a visa.  One Canadian traveller we met forgot to get her Brazilian visa and incurred big costs getting one whilst in Bolivia.

INSURANCE:  We never needed it.  £1,100 pounds wasted.  No!  You cannot scrimp on insurance.  Use an insurer that specialises in long trips and also read the small print.  For example “trekking” above 2,500m is held to be much more of a risk than say skiing.  So check what you are buying as most policies offer a Bronze/Silver/Gold policy depending on the activities you plan to have a go at.

VACCINATIONS:  The National Health Service (NHS) was pretty good.  But they didn’t offer free vaccinations for say Hepatitis B or Rabies.  We had all the jabs available except Japanese Encephalitis and decided to go for the cheaper Malaria option of Doxycycline.  Again, we were lucky and had very little sickness.  But you can’t in our book play fast and loose with your health so get “jabbed” before you go.

CLOTHES/BAGS/EQUIPMENT:  We were sad arses and watched many You Tube videos on how to pack a back-pack and what to take.  We spent a small fortune – £3,000 – on bags, clothes and equipment.  The Osprey Backpack and Daypacks were excellent and the investment in high-end North Face kit again paid off.  We never once said “oh why did we not bring such and such…” and were proud of our ability to travel the World with no more than 13kg each, start to finish.

CONTINGENCY:  We had a 5% contingency built into our overall budget.  We did not need it and came back 9% under budget having done everything we wanted to do in terms of experiences/excursions etc.

Map it out

Map it out

HOW DID ALL THE FINANCIAL ARRANGEMENTS WORK OUT?

We could go on and on about this subject.  It is arguably the most important thing to consider.  We were anal and recorded every single penny we spent.  This is a very good discipline and ensures you know exactly what you are spending and where you sit financially at any one time.  Remember if, like us you travel with no income coming in, you have to be watchful and sensible.  So some words of MASTERS wisdom.

COUNTRY VARIANCE:  There are two big financial variances when travelling.  The first is the individual country cost eg India (cheap Asia) versus New Zealand (expensive First World). We organised our travel around India for five weeks through detailed research.  Three star hotels, all food – restaurants, excursions, six flights, bus and train travel.  The cost per day when this was all factored in was £79 a day for two people!  New Zealand however cost £150 per day for the two of us.  Car hire bumped up the price quite a bit but we stayed in 2/3* motels mainly so we could eat “in-house” to keep the costs down.  £200+ for the day would have been the price had we eaten out each night.

BANK ACCOUNTS:  We ran two current accounts whilst we were away and like any business needed to be aware of cash flow to ensure we had sufficient funds at any one account thereby maximising saving rates.  The biggest saver was using an N&P current account as they DO NOT charge for ATM cash withdrawal or payment when using Debit Cards overseas – so long as you either have a balance of £5,000 in the account or pay in £500 a month.  This worked fine with just one instance in China when the card did not allow us to withdraw cash and once in Chile.  The rest of the time, happy days.  Our back-up Barclays Current Account worked fine when N&P failed but we did get charged for the privilege!

CREDIT CARDS:  We rarely used them because of charges levied.  But we had a VISA and Mastercard just in case.  They were useful for online purchases because of their financial protection afforded and were always demanded by Car-Hire Companies for deposit authorisation purposes.

EXCHANGE RATES/HEDGING CURRENCY: You win some, you lose some.  We bought some US dollars when we could get 1.55 to the pound before we left, for “emergencies”.  Some currency rates went in our favour 10-20% in India and Malaysia from the time we booked until the time we arrived.  But we lost 10-15% by buying two lots of £5,000 in NZ and AUS currency by guessing that the £ had risen as high as it would, when it actually kept on going up!  That said, by the time we got there, that differential had fallen to more like 7%.  So you literally pays your money and you takes your choice.  In summary:

  • Take emergency US Dollars
  • Use ATMs
  • Take currency cards
  • Most importantly have two or three sources of available funds in case an ATM fails or you lose cash

PERSONA NON GRATA:  We resigned from our jobs to travel.  As soon as we did that, we “dropped off the radar” of financial institutions.  So getting new Bank Accounts is challenging.  And as for getting a credit card, forget it, even if you can prove you have money in the bank.  We also thought it easier – when asked – to put our status down as “retired”.  That way we weren’t asked any difficult questions by Immigration Officers.

Cost it out

Cost it out – where the photo on the card was taken

HOW DID YOU BOOK YOUR HOTELS AND WHAT DID YOU LEARN?

We did not want to do this trip in 5 star luxury.  Even if we could have afforded it, we wouldn’t have done it as we would have been too far removed from the people of the countries we visited.  We pitched it at a 2/3 star level.  All but one hotel/motel/bed and breakfast had private facilities.  95% had wifi.  Most gave us some sort of breakfast.

BOOKING.COM: Got to say as a consumer brand these guys are good.  Just not so sure that they should be getting on average 15% commission from small business owners!  That said, they are easy to use, offer a lot of flexibility and have a snazzy app which contains your booking details and offline maps.  We decided in the main not to approach individual hotels as this was time consuming and you would get sucked into individual booking contracts and having to reconfirm reservations etc.   But you could save a further 5-10% if you were prepared to enter into a detailed exchange of emails.  Instead we stuck with Booking.com.  The vast majority of our hotels were booked this way and we were not let down once.

BANTER EMAIL UPGRADES: Now this is worth doing.  Often, switched on hoteliers after they had received your reservation from Booking.com would then reconfirm directly back.  This is what we would do if we owned a hotel.  It shows interest and professionalism and in all cases where this happened we always had a good room/experience.  It also allowed US to enter in to email banter and develop a relationship via email which invariably lead to a room or apartment upgrade.  It was worth spending time doing this and it really did open doors when we got to our final destination, often a year after booking.

GROUP TRAVEL: We took four tours and it was good in the main to meet new people and for others to organise the experience.  Had we spent another 250 hours planning we could have booked the whole lot ourselves.  My fear of not being able to do a DIY trip in China was ill-founded as everything I saw was in English.  And despite my lack of Spanish, we could with a bit of effort ended up with a trip not dissimilar to the ones offered by the tour operator, G-Adventures, who I have to say in the main were good.  We would also have saved around £3-5k.

Celebrating at 5,000m with a little wee - a record for me except for flying

Not many outside toilets on our trip!

WHAT MONEY SAVING TIPS CAN YOU GIVE?

RTW AND PERSONAL FLIGHTS: We got the best of Worlds.  We booked a Round the World Ticket via Flight Centre (excellent service, IATA bonded for financial security and with an emergency helpline) and then booked ourselves cheap internal flight legs in India, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore.  This combination saved many £’s and was considerably cheaper than trying to book each leg separately.  Just one cancelled flight and no delays – not a bad return when booking 39 flights in total.

FLY OVERNIGHT: If you are on a real budget and don’t mind not sleeping and guaranteed aching joints, then book overnight flights and save the cost of a hotel.

CAR HIRE BOOK OUT OF TOWN: We booked 33 days of car hire in Australia for under £1,000 with East Coast Rentals and 37 days in New Zealand for £1,200 – both cars were Ford Focus size.  This, we thought was a good deal when comparing with the big rental boys.  We worked out that because these companies were “off airport” and you needed to have a shuttle transfer, you could get around 30% cheaper deals compared with major brands.  The cars were good in the main and it was worth a short journey to get a good rate.

HOTELIERS WITH BOOKING AGENCY CAPABILITY: We found that you could get some really good deals if the hotel booked local excursions/local tours – much better than we could get booking ourselves.  It also saved a lot of aggravation, so do look out for this service particularly in India and other parts of Asia.  Our houseboat in Kerala booked by Saj in Kovalam was a classic case in point.

MOTEL/APARTMENT COOKING FACILITIES & SPACE: You do get tired of eating out.  It becomes repetitive and expensive.  So booking apartments and motels in Australia and New Zealand gave us much more flexibility, helping to maximise budgets and often giving us two/three times the amount of space you would get in a hotel bedroom for the same cost.  A no-brainer for us.

SUPERMARKET FUEL DISCOUNT VOUCHERS: Every little helps says Mr Tesco and the same applies when travelling the World.  Most supermarkets in Australia and New Zealand give you a voucher off the cost of fuel.  And so ok, not hundreds of pounds, but enough for us to buy a meal or two on the money we saved.

COOL BAGS: A great way to carry perishables around in a hire car, including your lunchtime sarnies and you save a fortune into the bargain.  Picnics are the way forward.

FILL YOUR OWN WATER BOTTLES:  Again an Aussie and NZ wheeze as we could only safely drink water from the tap in these two countries.  Saved a fortune.

(SOME) STREET FOOD IS SAFE: And cheap and good – FACT.  You hear so many horror stories about people getting “Delhi-belly”, but if you are sensible, eat hot foods prepared in front of your eyes and eaten by locals then there is little problem  The food is really good and very cheap, especially in India and Malaysia.  Go on, you know you want to.

Yes I did eat them all!

Yes I did eat them all!

WHAT DID YOU DO TO KEEP IN TOUCH?

These days you have to be really out in the wild not to have wifi access.  We had wifi for most of the time except in the obvious places like the Amazon Jungle.

Skype, Whats App and Viber became our best friends and worked pretty well for much of the time.  Don’t forget to check with your phone provider and turn services off.  We dispensed with voice mail and data roaming because of cost and in fact rarely used the phone for voice traffic.

DID IT REALLY HAPPEN?

I’m writing (Mark) this final paragraph on an East Midlands train travelling from Nottingham to London, two and a half weeks after getting back to the UK.  And I got to say, it is as if our trip never happened!!

I’ve thrown myself in to an exciting project/contract at the University of Nottingham (UK) where I have been fortunate to land a great job for three months devising a sales and marketing strategy for the new £40 million sports centre that the University is building.  That Skype interview from Bolivia worked!

The fact is, we’ve both been busy and that we have concluded is the best way to get back into the real World.  As for what happens next, watch this space as this little trip around the World is just the start of our next journey – whatever that might be.  And will there will be more blogs in the future?  Maybe!

The end...

The end…

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