Doccuments

One Month to Go

We have officially hit the “One Month Left” mark on our round the world trip. It is amazing how fast the whole thing has gone! It seems like we only just began except that we have seen and experienced so much. It is hard to believe we have a whole month more left to see and do. Now that we have been on the road for a while, whenever we meet people or even talk to friends and family back home, we get many of the same questions. We thought we’d address some of those here for all of you. Here are some of our Frequently Asked Questions:

Lovely Wellington

1. What has been your favorite place?

This is a toughy. Favorite for what reason? The people? The food? Favorite as a place I’d like to visit again or as in a place I could see myself living? If you have been reading lately, then you know that Dubrovnik, Croatia certainly gets top billing when it comes to scenery. And if you’ve spoken to us, you know that Hanoi, Vietnam is a strong contender due to its vibrant nature and the ways it is vastly different from our own lives back home. However, if we had to choose and overall favorite, a place where we could see ourselves living, that has delicious food and beer, a place with friendly locals: Copenhagen, Denmark (with Wellington, New Zealand a close second). A surprise, right? It is an all around cool city and we wish we could have spent a little more time there. (I could go for one of those delicious hotdogs right now!) Although after a few days in Munich, it could easily fit the same bill. The truth is, there are just so many great places out there, it is hard to choose!

2. Have you been able to stick to your budget?

Absolutely. And not at all. It really depends on the region and the day. When we began our trip, we sat down and created a budget for each region we would be visiting. We have a daily budget and a separate one for nightly accommodations and transportation. We spent a lot of time on this, but really it was all a best guess. We came in under budget for our time in New Zealand and slightly over budget for our time in Japan. Not too bad. We were basically right on budget for Southeast Asia and the Cruise. Then we got to Europe. We found in Europe we easily stayed on budget with accommodations (we allowed $65/night), but our daily budget ($70/day) often was not enough and we found ourselves going over our allotted budget each day (I know this sounds like a lot, but keep in mind it is for 2 people and includes everything from museum tickets to pay toilets). This was especially true when we were with our friends both in Budapest and Dubrovnik. For them, they are on short vacation and they have a different mentality towards spending. Looking back, we should have budgeted more for these sections and thought of them more like a vacation from our trip. We allowed ourselves more for the UK ($90/night, $120/day) and hope we might be able to make some of the overage back while we’re here. The most important thing is that we are very conscious of our spending. I write down everything we purchase in my phone and then transfer it into a notebook where we can tally up the totals. This consciousness is very helpful and much advised for anyone on a trip like this because it is amazing how fast the spending adds up.

Brooke in Hong Kong

3. Are you still having fun or are you ready to go home?

We are definitely still having fun and enjoying every single day. However, now that we are one month away from going home, we have started thinking about real life just a little bit more. Not too much, just a bit. There is a lot we miss about home like cooking for ourselves each night and having access to all of our things–clothes, pillows, my hair straightener. We also look forward to being in one place for longer than three days. And oh, a guaranteed good bed and shower each day! But man, there is so much to see and do everywhere we go, how could we not have fun? Each day brings new surprises and we are looking forward to savoring every bit of the last month. But when we get on that plane to head back to the States in November, we’ll be ready.

Hanging out in Belgrade

4. Have you gotten sick of one another?

Before leaving, my dad kept joking that he only hoped Phil and I would come back married. Of course, he was exaggerating, but not too much. Another friend wondered if we were worried about spending so much time together to the point where we might get sick of each other. Because so many people voiced similar concerns, we planned on having one day a week where we spent the day apart. We are happy to be travelling around the world, but it certainly isn’t worth risking our relationship. Surprisingly (or maybe not), we haven’t really needed these planned days apart. We haven’t gotten sick of each other yet. Sure, there are times of frustration and we take 20 minutes to go our own way and meet back up. But generally, that is enough. We really like hanging out with each other and are interested in a lot of the same things. We are so happy with how it has worked out and think it definitely bodes well for our future.

The doors are quite big in Kyoto, Japan

5. What else do you have left?

After sharing all the things we have done already, people always want to know what is left to do. So, we are currently in Glasgow, Scotland where we will be for a few days. After this, we head to Edinburgh then a tour of the Highlands. We will say goodbye to this part of the world and fly south to our final destination: Argentina. Arriving in Buenos Aires, we will spend almost 3 weeks travelling around Argentina and perhaps even make a visit to Chile. Then, on November 14 we arrive back in Cincinnati, Ohio to the warm hugs and kisses of family and friends.

Hopefully, this has answered some questions you may have been having, or at least given you some interesting insight into how we feel about the trip. If there are any other questions, just ask. We are more than happy to share. Now, I must go explore Glasgow! Perhaps a dram of whiskey to get me started!

–Brooke

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Categories: Budget, Doccuments, Exploring, Family, Finances, Homesick, Random Thoughts, Reflections, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Trains in Japan

JR Line TainAfter five days in Japan, we’ve noticed a million examples of how things are slightly different here. From the insanely loud Pachinko parlors that resemble slot machines on crack to the ubiquitous bowing. But the one that strikes us over and over is that train travel in Japan is both astounding and outstanding. The traveling Kollineisers have been continually in awe of this vast and extensive rail network that runs smoother than seems possible. In fact, aside from the power of our own two feet, train rides have been our sole mode of transport since arriving. I really, really wanted to avoid throwing up this tired cliched mantra, but it is unavoidable: the trains in United States look like a half-hearted joke when compared to those we’ve seen here. (And yeah, probably Europe too, but we haven’t made it quite that far yet).

Before arriving, we purchased the seven-day Japan Rail Pass (the JR Pass) that must be purchased outside of Japan in advance of arrival. At around $350 per person, that pass wasn’t cheap, but it has already paid for itself twice over. It has been easy to use and one of the best purchases made to date. In fact, short of subway rides, it is the only transportation cost we’ve incurred. And to be candid, it helps that I love trains. I always have.

Phil has no clue where the hell he's goingWe’ve had a chance to ride the regional rail, Subways in Kyoto and Tokyo and even the Shinkansen (aka the famed “bullet train”). Our first experience was on the regional rail – the line of trains that connect city to city in and around Tokyo and continues through the rest of Japan. It starts with a never ending rail map that seems to have infinite possibilities and infinite stops. It took some time and patience, but with the help of some stop names in English, we were able to decode the rail map sufficiently. I’d rather not mention that this was a map that included only PART of the Tokyo system, but I’ll include that admission for the sake of accuracy. So far, we haven’t had to wait on a train for more than, say, seven minutes at most. At first, we chalked it up to some solid train luck, but the reality is that they just always seem to be pulling into the station. All of the train schedules – and even all of the seemless connections from line to line – are planned to such a methodical timetable that it would make the most dedicated clockmaker cry like a baby.

On all the trains we’ve ridden, people line up directly behind the space on the platform where the doors will open. Polite and organized. (Keep in mind, we haven’t been on the subway during rush hour which sounds like it could be much different.) While everyone has a mobile device in their hands, everyone avoids talking on their cell phones. My absolute favorite part is that each train line has their own unique, fun jingle that plays when the train doors are about to close. No boring chimes here, more like friendly little tunes that sound like you just hit the jackpot on a slot machine. And with so many trains, you end up having not just express service, but some crazy, multi-station skipping service called “Rapid Super Express” service. On top of all that, the trains are all remarkably clean. It’s possible we’ve just been riding at the right times, but we’ve seen no graffiti and no trash.

Directions are so clear!Brooke and I spent the last six years riding the NYC Subway just about every day, so we were interested in comparing the two underground labyrinths. To start, each car ends with a giant glass door that allows you to see into the next car. When everyone is seated, you can literally see from one end of the train to the other which makes for a more exposed experience. We’ve also seen doors and sometimes full walls that are on the station platform. They line up with the train doors and, in theory, prevent a rush hour passenger from falling onto the tracks. Finally and probably more importantly, each station has a designation like “N5” or “A10” (letter for the line, number for the stop) and a sign indicating which direction the train on these track will go and what the previous and next stop will be. Genius! That already saved us going in the wrong direction before we even got on our first train! Thanks, Japan!

Ticket Machines are a little trickier when they are in JapaneseSimilarly, the stations have maps indicating the time in minutes to the future stations on the line. Seriously, these are such simple, amazing ideas that Brooke and I need to import ASAP. In the stations, we’ve even managed to see a few women (and a handful of men) wearing traditional Kimono outfits. We’ve seen signs that during rush hour times, there are trains that are “Women Only.” Pretty sure that one is to dissuade the icky gropers. As if that weren’t enough, each station on the regional rail (JR lines) have a nice set of shops and in some cases giant malls attached to the buildings.

I am a train riding giant!For the nerd in me, It has been a giant thrill learning and mastering a complicated new train system, exploring the trains themselves, and discussing complicated routes with Brooke. Talk about getting some insight. I became dangerous when I finally scored a quality map. It’s been my new best friend. However, we should point out that there is no 24 hour rail service in Japan. We haven’t found any trains that run much past midnight. I guess NYC’s 24-hour subway scores a win in that category. Well, that and you have a more intriguing set of smells on American subways. Overall, it is a simply amazing system. Sensational! But beyond all of that, the single most impressive thing is that Brooke and I haven’t gotten on the wrong train once yet. Trust us, it hasn’t been for lack of trying. Give it time.

-Phil

PS – We’ll do a full write up of the Shinkansen in a few days!

Categories: Doccuments, Japan, Tokyo, Trains, Transportation | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Our Map

We recently discovered a great online tool called the Great Circle Mapper that allows travelers to document their flights on any itinerary by creating custom maps. The site also has a bundle of other fun maps to view and play with. Just for shiggles, we plugged in all of our flight info on the mapping program. After entering LAX-CAN-AKL-AKL-CAN-NRT-SIN-CDG-CPH-VIE-OTP-STR-AMS-GLA-LHR-ATL-EZE-ATL (whew!) here is what we found:

Flight of our RTW Trip

Flight Map for Europe Part of our RTW Trip

We booked this itinerary months ago, yet it still makes our jaws drop a little: Fourteen different international flights on five airlines covering 48,500 miles. Many of these stops (Amsterdam, Paris, Vienna and twice in Guangzhou) are just brief layovers on the way to final destinations. And, to be fair, a good chunk of the path includes portions of the journey that we’re taking over land. For example, Bucharest to Stuttgart will all be via car/train/bus over a few weeks. But still… great gravy on a platter, that’s a lot of miles! This map has given us some perspective for the scale of this trip.

Here are our three longest flights:

Los Angeles to Guangzhou= 7231 Miles (coming up Monday night!)

Singapore to Paris = 6,667 Miles

Guangzhou to Auckland (and back!) = 5,769 Miles

Man, that’s a lot of inflight movies and packs of peanuts. Our relatives in Canada surprised us with another type of map. They presented us with this low-tech but incredibly thoughtful travel map when we visited Manitoulin Island earlier this week. Ah, the benefits of marrying of into a family of teachers.

Another Map

Finally, on our last few hours in the Eastern Time Zone, we found this pleasant surprise in our inbox this morning: Silver Medallion upgrades to first class on our Cross Country “Flight 0” out to LAX from MSP tomorrow night. Since this flight was not part of our International Ticket, this is a nice treat. The complimentary upgrades that we get from time to time on domestic flights are, hands down, the best perk of the annual-earned Silver Medallion status on Delta. We rock the upgrade about 40% of the time. Not a shabby way to start a trip.
-Phil

Living the good life. Another Baileys on the rocks, please!

Categories: Doccuments, Flights, Transportation, Trip Prep | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The China and Russia Tourist Visas

The other day, I wrote about the process of securing tourist visas for all of the countries we’re visiting on our trip.  As I mentioned, there were only two visas that required a bit of effort: China and Russia.

We found that the process to secure a Chinese visa requires painstaking detail and precise planning. First off, it should be noted that the Chinese consulate might very well be the least convenient government type building in New York City. While most consulates and embassies are located in cozy brownstones on the Upper East Side or in nice offices adjacent to the United Nations, China has built an imposing fortress at 42nd Street and 12th Avenue. If you’re unfamiliar with Manhattan, that address is close to exactly nothing. And I made the trip out there three times.

Alas, that was just the first of a dozen small hassles that we encountered when applying for a China Tourist Visa. First, the hours of operation listed on the website are wrong. (That’s one wasted trip to the desolate west, west side). Second, it is not clear online exactly which form is needed. And the forms themselves are confusing. For the record, it is the four-page intense questionnaire called “V.2011A”. The forms are known to provide such perplexity that an enterprising team has set up a van just outside the consulate to assist/charge wayward potential visitors. Finally, building security will only let you enter after you show you have all the right documents in hand. We suggest you arrive early because the wait can be up to 90 minutes during busy times.

Once you wind your way to the DMV like window, the staff is curt but incredibly efficient. They expect all paperwork to be ready and they don’t seem to like questions. At one point, the official pointed out that I had not listed where I was staying in China. When I tried to explain that we haven’t scheduled a place to stay yet (“Figuring it out as we go! What fun! Right?”), I was told to come back when the form had an address where were staying. Thank Cupertino for the iPhone, because I was able to look up the address to the Guangzhou Hilton, make a reservation and keep my place in line (avoiding a fourth trip). After a five day processing period during which they kept our passports, our application was reviewed and accepted. Conveniently, you can drop off applications/pick up visas for several people if needed.

Each visa is good for 90 days and is valid for a year from the date of issue (so, in theory, we have till June 2013 to start our visit). Total cost? $140 per person. Ooof! It is all going to be worth it when we step off the plane in Guangzhou and into China! Again, living in New York worked to our advantage because we found if you can’t apply in person at a regional consulate, you must use a private service to secure the visa which comes with a significant additional charge.

The Russia visa was the one visa that just never ended up materializing. It turns out that, loosely translated, Visa means “Bureaucratic Red Tape” in Russian. We’ve learned that wrapping your fingers around a Russia Tourist Visa is trickier that a David Blaine illusion. You must have a sponsor in the form of an authorized hosting Russian traveling agency before you can even apply. And that’s apparently just the beginning of the needed paperwork.

If you’re booking a trip to Russia knowing where and when you’ll be staying (or if you’re part of a tour), this isn’t terribly overwhelming. But if you are flying by the ole seat of your pants, the visa process is enough to make you go cross-eyed. We’ve heard stories of corruption, bribes, and hassles. The more we learned about what we needed, the more complicated it seemed. Lucky for us, we’re visiting St. Petersburg as part of a Norwegian Cruise that offers a variety of Shore Excursions. We were a bit hesitant to book one since that’s not the preferred way we hope to explore new nations, but it appears to be our best and simplest bet for getting ashore.  The cruise line has a blanket visa that covers all passengers…but only for these tours. So, we’ll see a great chunk of St. Petersburg, but unfortunately we probably won’t have any adventurous exploring here.

Our one piece of advice based on our experience with the China, Russia or even Vietnam visa is to research, read and prepare well in advance of a trip to any country that you haven’t visited before. And don’t be afraid if the process seems a touch shady; every country seems to have their own way of doing things. A little knowledge and prep goes a long way to making sure you’re going to get into the countries you want to visit.

-Phil

Categories: Customs, Destinations, Doccuments, New Zealand, Packing, Permits, Transportation, Trip Prep, Visas | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Securing Visas for our Trip

Truth be told, there are only a few things that one must do before embarking on a Round The World trip. Don’t misunderstand: there are boatloads of tasks that one probably should do to ensure an easier, lower-drama journey with minimal hassles. But one mandatory need that should be set before showing up at the airport is making sure that Visa and Entry Documents are all set.

Handy Visa GuideBy our math, our itinerary is sending us to at least twenty-three separate countries. We wanted to avoid any surprises and make sure we’re set lllllooong before arriving at customs. Lots of research ensued. The State Department has a handy, easy to navigate, up-to-date website that clearly lists the policies for Americans visiting just about every nation. We were delighted to find that the vast majority of countries we’re visiting have a similar policy: No advance paperwork or fee required for a 90 day tourist visa issued upon entry with a valid US Passport. Since we’re not planning on working or spending anywhere near 90 days in any one nation, this makes it easy breezy.

As with all things, there are a few exceptions. In remote and geographically isolated New Zealand, we’re told that officials often check that you have a round-trip or onward ticket (i.e. – a way to leave once your visa expires). They also check to see if you have funds to cover your time in New Zealand. Both Argentina and Chile have recently adopted a fee that reciprocates US Policy. In short, every American has to pay a $130 “Entry Fee” (not a Visa fee) as a sort of equalizing measure for what the United States government charges their citizens to enter America. Note that this Entry Fee is only collected at major International Airports. Sneaky, Sneaky. Therefore savvy tourists could enter through bordering countries.  Lastly, we learned that you seem to need passport sized photos for just about everything. Get a bunch because agency after agency keeps requesting them. Update:  just found out that it looks like the fee has gone up to $160. Joy.

In the end, there were only three countries that required us to secure Visas in advance of our visit: Vietnam, China and Russia.

Securing the Vietnam visa was a simple and intriguing process. We visited the Vietnamese Consulate in New York City which is right across the street from the United Nations in a non-descript office with other foreign government offices. Once in the office, we were directed to fill out some long forms that asked us to explain (in great detail) the nature of our visit.  They took our pictures, took our money (cash only), and told us they would have the Visas ready in a week. At first, they asked us to leave our passports behind, but we pushed back on that request a bit without a problem. In the end, the staff might have been a bit cold and not exactly helpful if you’re seeking any tourist info, but they got the job done efficiently and easily.  One week later, we picked up the visas and had them stapled into our passport. Total cost: $160 for both of us. In retrospect, we’re glad that we were physically in New York City and able to deal with the staff face-to-face. We are pretty sure that made things much easier.

The Russia and China Visa process were far more complicated but also a lot more interesting. They are deserving of their own blog posts that will be coming later this week.

We’re looking forward to having well-used passports stamped with the colors of the rainbow by the time we arrive home in November.

-Phil

Categories: Customs, Doccuments, Packing, Permits, Trip Prep | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

International Driver’s License

Among the numerous “important documents” that we’ve amassed for our trip, the easiest to secure was the International Driving Permit. Fancy sounding, yes? The permit sounds more impressive than it actually is. I’d love to weave a fancy tale about how getting the license required me to meet up with a strict driving instructor named Sven who insisted I demonstrate International driving technique inside a 1992 stick shift Yugo. The truth is that it was a simple fifteen minute visit to AAA.

International Driver's Permit 2012

First, some background on what the International Driving Permit is. The permit works in conjunction with a valid US driver’s license but cannot be used for driving in the United States alone. The signed & stamped permit contains a number of pages in a number of languages that basically say the same thing: “The owner of this permit is legally certified to drive in his/her country and therefore should be allowed to drive in yours.” Since a car rental office in Ulaanbaatar likely can’t tell a US license from a library card, this gives us some legitimate street cred. The permit is widely recognized and good in over 150 countries.

The permit is good for a year from a start date of the owner’s choosing. The fee is a mere $15.00 and the application process is simple; all you need is a passport photo and your current license.  The permit is about the size of a passport, so a bit too big for the wallet but it is light and folds easily.

There are a few ways to secure the permit in the states, but a visit to a local AAA office is likely the easiest.  I stopped at the only AAA office in New York City a few weeks back. Although my AAA membership apparently expired last year, they were happy to assist. Oddly enough, almost everyone else in the office was also getting the same permit.  It is also odd that there is just one true AAA office in New York City, but that’s neither here nor there.

We’ve gotten some feedback regarding how much we’ll actually need the permit. Some have said that many places will probably just rent to us with our trusty New York state license.  But we subscribe to the better safe than sorry policy. Plus, this can serve as one more Picture ID as needed. We should be all set. Now we just need to get “Life is a Highway” on our iPhone so we can jam as we steer our Yugo down the Romanian Highway.

-Phil

Categories: Doccuments, Driving, Packing, Permits, Transportation, Trip Prep | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

International Teacher Identification Card

Some of you may remember AIESEC from when you were in college—this was the organization where all of your friends who love to drink would host (party with) the foreign students who were studying at your university.  They also went on a lot of awesome trips abroad—again, mostly as an excuse to drink beer from many different countries.  Lucky for us, not only does being a student garner these benefits, so does being a teacher.

Okay, so it isn’t quite the same as in college.  For our RTW trip, I have procured an International Teacher Identity Card (ITIC).  The ITIC the grown up version of the ISIC and the similar AIESEC .  In order to get this card, I had to go to STA Travel, prove that I am currently a full time teacher (I failed to tell them that I was quitting my job for my travels), and pay a measly $25.00.  After a couple of weeks, voila!  My card was in the mail.

Teacher Discount Card for World Travel!

Of course the important question is:  What is the point of getting the card?  Well, it actually offers a number of benefits:

  1. It is proof that I am a teacher and in many places around the world, they actually respect and revere this profession, therefore offering a wide array of discounts and opportunities.  Many museums and major tourist attractions offer educator discounts and there are even occasional discounts on transportation.  Since we’re traveling on a budget, we’ll take any discounts we can get!
  2. It can be used as a pre-paid MasterCard.  We aren’t planning on using it in this way because we have other ways of accessing our money. But we could load money onto this card and access it easily from any ATM or use it like a credit card.
  3. The ITIC offers a very small amount of travel insurance that comes along with having the card.  It is not our primary source for travel insurance, but it offers some nice supplementary coverage.
  4. It is yet another form of photo identification that could be used in place of something else.  For example, if we rent bikes in Copenhagen and have to leave ID behind to ensure we return the bicycles, we could leave this rather than our driver’s license or passport. The thought of leaving those makes me a bit nervous.

Visiting the classroom in RTWReally though, what I’m hoping this card will help me do is to talk my way into different schools around the world.  It will be proof that I am a teacher and make me seem like less of a weirdo when I go barging into some middle school in New Zealand asking if I can observe a class or talk to some of their teachers (after all, New Zealand is ranked #2 in the world for reading scores…I could learn so much).  I am so excited by the prospect of seeing other schools and meeting other educators.  We will be visiting my cousin Gaye, who has been teaching middle school in Japan for the past 30 years.  Her first day of school is while we are there. Sure, she teaches at an American Air Base, but still: how cool to see their beginning-of-the-year routines.  Hopefully my ITIC card will help me get my foot in the door!

-Brooke

Categories: Budget, Discounts, Doccuments, New Zealand, Packing, Teaching, Trip Prep | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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