Packing

The Things We Carry

Main Serbian Train Depot

Historic Belgrade Train Station

Salutations from Budapest! As our travels enter October, Brooke and I are onto a new month and another new country. We landed in Hungary yesterday via an uneventful seven hour train ride from Belgrade to Budpaest. The easy going ride on the mostly-empty, mostly-modern train gave us time to visit the dining car and enjoy the passing scenery from giant windows (rural Hungary looks a lot like rural Indiana) during a comfortable ride. And at only 15 Euros a piece, riding the rails made for an inexpensive way to get north to Budapest. Speaking of the Euro, we find ourselves in yet another European country that is not using the Euro for its currency. How is this possible? Denmark, Finland, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and now Hungary – all of them Non-Euro. With 17 countries using the Euro, we must be defying some serious odds here. Ah well, the Hungarian Forint will be just another conversion rate to learn and another set of colorful bills with faces of unknown politicians and local heroes to master. I counted whilst on the train; this is our 11th different currency (not counting any stops from our Baltic Seas Cruise) since we began our trip in New Zealand. Fun financial fact: three of those nations (Singapore, Hong Kong, and New Zealand) also call their monetary standard the dollar.

Each time Brooke and I move from country to county, we attempt to inventory, pack and repack. As we’ve covered on the blog before, trying to determine exactly what and how much to pack was one of our most daunting challenges during our trip prep. We repeatedly heard the motto “pack half as much stuff as you think you’ll need and twice as much money as you think you’ll need.” Sure, this is easy enough if your grandfather’s name is JP Morgan. But all in all, we feel very good about what we are (and, just importantly, what we are not) lugging around the world with us. Although, early on, we realized that we probably did pack a few superfluous extras. Our deck of playing cards has seen the light of day twice so far. I brought along juggling balls because….sigh…I planned to learn how to juggle. Our days have been packed with exploring and learning, so I could probably have left those ridiculous multi-colored balls at home. But there are two handy, electronic gadgets that we use every day and have been essential in our travels: our iPhones and our digital camera. At this point in the trip, I couldn’t imagine getting by without both of them.

Everything we need for the trip in four bags…

First things first regarding the iPhone: we do not have any type of cell phone service or plan. Verizon and AT&T were understanding enough to put both of our plans on hold until we get back to the United States. We’re using the phones as WiFi devices only. The phone calls that we do make are through an exceptional app called Local Phone which connects over WiFi. Local Phone allows us to dial just about anywhere for mere cents per minute. It’s odd, but I haven’t sent a text message since late July (and hopefully no one has tried to send me one). But even just on WiFi, our little Apple gizmos have been a valuable part of our traveling arsenal. We usually have little trouble getting online and the phones have allowed us to book rooms through the Hotels.com and the Air B’nB app, read reviews, map our route, set an alarm, research next steps and check e-mails while just waiting at the bus station or relaxing at an outdoor cafe.

Needed surgery for the iPhoneThe iPhone has been particularly handy when things go slightly awry, like a cancelled hotel reservation, and we both can scramble to get things set right. Brooke tracks our budget at every turn using the notepad and I play Penguin Airborne. Plus, the iPhone makes a wonderful back up camera along with a couple hundred of our favorite songs. I did run into a mini-disaster that left me in a state of panic and dismay last week. When the new iPhone operating system was put out there to correspond with the release of the famed iPhone 5, I attempted to upgrade my phone. Along the way, my iPhone went kaput and I was in the dark for three days. Luckily, a helpful, patient clerk at the “iStyle” store in Sofia allowed us to connect to a Mac and helped me reinstall the new software. Thanks to the Cloud, I didn’t lose a thing. Huzzah for the Cloud! Huzzah!

Our digital camera has been the other key piece of equipment. A once in a life time trip justifies buying a new camera. The camera is incredibly important because it is the best thing we have to really document this trip. While browsing models at the always amazing B&H in NYC, we had to make the decision between a fancy, high-tech SLR camera and a point & shoot. In the end, we chose to go with a high-end, well reviewed point and shoot: The Cannon Power Shoot S100. I’ve already taken more photos than I can count and have only managed to drop it twice. While I would really dig a big,fancy camera with a collection of lenses, the truth is that I don’t know an F-Stop from the F-train. I would look impressive with my camera, but it would have been for naught. The pocket size of the Canon means that I almost always have it on me. Someone once told us the best camera for the shot is the one that you have on you at the time.

One of the best photos we’ve taken on this trip. In Japan using the low light setting.

The camera works exceptionally well, shoots outstanding digital video and has some nifty settings like Handheld Nightscene, Slow motion film, vivid setting and more. I do wish that I was a master of some of the more advanced functions on the manual settings so I could really get the most out of some photo opportunities. Like creating a silhouette of Brooke in front of a Japanese garden. or catching the low-light moon rise over the Bucharest train station. But, in any case, I’ve gotten some amazing photos out of it so far

Another small piece of technology that Brooke said I should add this to this list is a simple but important one: Our ATM card. Being able to withdrawal the local currency day and night has been a huge assist. Even in remote places, we haven’t had any trouble finding cash machines and, not surprisingly, ATMs are kind of the same the world over. It’s meant not worrying about banks, travelers checks and visits to exchange windows only when dealing in left over cash. It’s these small pieces of technology that makes taking this kind of trip in 2012 certainly a lot easier than taking it in 1962. And of course, we also have the last essential component: a large bag full of chargers and world-wide plug adapters! Certainly this trip would be possible without any gadgets or gizmos, but for the sake of ease and sanity, they are a “must-have” for us.

-Phil

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Categories: Cell Phones, Communication, Eastern Europe, Iphone Apps, Packing, Rail, Trains, Trip Prep, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Day(ton) One

Our trip is underway as we wake up in Hawthorne, Los Angeles at a hotel near the airport! We left the Mid-west yesterday with all of our gear for the next four months by our side. We made a final farewell phone call to our parents before we disconnect our cell phone service from our respective carriers later today. Soon, our iphones become regular ole WiFi devices. Now, we are double checking that we didn’t forget anything and re-discovering where we’ve packed everything. To our delight, we have tons of room left to spare. And our travel clothes are amazingly comfortable. Plus, not to brag, but I think we look pretty sharp.

Welcome to Dayton

Dayton International Airport

First two flights down and we’re hoping everything can be this easy. We showed up at the Dayton airport yesterday, thanked Orville and Wilbur for their aviation contributions, and boarded two seamless, enjoyable Delta flights heading west. But this part is easy. This part is fun and familiar. This part is almost predictable. Brooke and I are quite adept at riding in planes across the country. We’ve had some practice. It’s all relatively simple travel when you have GPS guiding you to the hotel, signs that are clearly marked, friendly  counter agents that speak English and Good Morning America on in the background while you enjoy a continental breakfast. The real thrill begins when we land in Auckland, turn to look at each other and say, “Now what?” followed by “What the hell time is it?” (And then “Where can Phil go to get that haircut he’s been putting off for three weeks?”)

Four Months of Travels in two suitcases each

Four Months of Travels in two suitcases each

We woke up this morning in the first of many, many hotel rooms. Everything was comfortable enough but the shower only gets a B-. I’m sure we’ll have better as we go and I’m sure we’ll have worse. With money now only in spend mode moving forward, we’ve  started watching our budget: Grabbing some plastic spoons and bananas from breakfast for the road, getting shaving cream from the clerk and gulping down cheap, bad coffee. On our to do list for today: Enjoy a day in L.A.and then head to the airport around 8:00 PM for a 14 hour flight!

-Phil

Our plane from MSP to LAX

Our plane from MSP to LAX

Our first travel obstacle!
Our first travel obstacle!

Categories: Flights, LA, New Zealand, Packing, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

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

Final Packing

A couple days before we left NYC, we made one last trip back to Paragon Sports at 867 Broadway just north of Union Square to pick up some final gear for the trip. We keep getting sucked back into the store like moths to a flame. Paragon keeps surprising us with an incredibly knowledgeable staff, impressive selection and price matching offers. Miles from Backpacks set me up with a nice Northface daypack to carry around and Zach from shoes helped me select my first pair of Tevas in years. Found out that they are actually pronounced “Tev (as in Bev)-as.” And Teva actually means “nature” in Hebrew. See? Full of knowledge. We can’t recommend Paragon enough. It’s a great place

Both Paragon and Eastern Mountain Sports have set us up with some versatile, good looking shirts, pants and shorts. Staples that are quick drying, wrinkle free and sweat wicking. The other night, we shopped until they closed down the store, checked off some final items on our list and gave the credit card even more action. Still waiting on my bank to give me a call and ask what exactly has been going on lately. We also stocked up on travel essentials: Ear plugs, clothes line and this Sea to Summit Dry Lite crazy towel. And the challenge from this pair of quick drying underwear? You’re on! Now we have jjjjjuuusssttt about everything we need.

6 Weeks and One Pair of Underwear?

Nevertheless, shopping has been a bit hard because we don’t know precisely what we need. We’ve been going on best advice and things we’ve read. Adding to our indecision, we caught European Travel Guru Rick Steves on TV the other night reflecting on his one itty-bitty backpack that he takes on every trip and that it is all anyone should ever need. That did a great job of making us fear that we’re packing too much. But the bottom line: we won’t know till we get halfway around the globe, which is half the fun yet half the stress as well.

Also what has made it a touch difficult is that, in general, I’m not that big on spending money on clothes. In a dream world, I would simply spend five minutes tossing everything I like into a suitcase and go. Including the ridiculous polyester shirt with dice on it that displeases my wife and that I actually do own. But then I would be unprepared and look like an idiot. It’s strange: I can spend $260 for two visas on a country that I’m visiting for five days, but balk at the same costs for some great clothes I’m going to wear for four months. Dumb. But, I’m coming around. Now that the final outfits are set, I’m kinda looking forward to wearing them from Singapore to Santiago. Just be patient when you see a lot of pictures of Brooke and I in similar looking outfits week after week. Hey, for all you know, we’re just standing in front a green screen every few days with a different background.

-Phil

Categories: Clothes, Packing, Trip Prep | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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