You’ve made your decision, marked your map, counted your pennies and balled your socks—you’re ready to hit the road, right? Well, almost. Here are a few last-minute tips to note before setting out to escape from quicksand in a remote jungle or be cast as an extra in a Bollywood film or scream, “I AM ALIVE!!!!!” into the blazing sunset… or whatever your version of taking on the world may be.
Show me the money
I often wonder whether banks and credit card companies assume you are informing them of your travel plans simply to share the exciting news of your adventure, as they rarely seem to apply this knowledge in a practical sense—like by not freezing your account due to overseas activity. The following conversation actually occurred while I was on a somewhat busted payphone in a dubious border town clutching my cumbersomely enormous backpack in 37-degree weather:
Me: “My A.T.M. card isn’t working.”
Bank representative: “We froze it because we saw somebody was trying to use it in Mexico.”
“That somebody was me—I called you last week and told you I’d be here.”
“Ah, yes, I can see that in a note on your account.”
“Is there anything you can do so this doesn’t happen again?”
“Well, I can make a second note saying to refer to the first note…”
Consider opening a joint account with one of your parents, a sibling or someone else you trust so if a problem arises they can deal with it from home (as opposed to you attempting to tackle it via payphones while negotiating the time difference).
Better safe than sorry
No matter where you’re going, it is crucial to take out health insurance before you leave, as accidents do happen—be they rented motorbike crashes, fire twirling mishaps or severe jellyfish stings. Which reminds me: peeing on a jellyfish sting will not alleviate the agony but it will bemuse the locals who do not have that particular old wives’ tale in their culture.
Most health insurance plans are comparable in price but it is worth shopping around.
If a malady does befall you, be sure to contact the insurance company before you visit the doctor (whenever possible), and take photos of all of your receipts for your records. Plans need to be purchased prior to leaving your country of residence, although they can be extended while you’re away. Coverage should begin one day before you depart and end a few days after you return to compensate for potential delays or rescheduled flights. Most backpackers do not find cancellation or luggage insurance necessary, but that is of course your judgement call.
A spoonful of sugar
Contrary to popular belief, some hospitals in developing nations such as India or Thailand offer spectacular care.
A friend of mine underwent elective shoulder surgery in Mumbai and was afterwards presented with a DVD of the operation as a quirky if not somewhat graphic memento. Additionally, certain medications such as antibiotics can often be purchased over the counter at an affordable rate. That said, it is worth taking precautionary measures before you leave home.
From hepatitis B to Japanese encephalitis, there is a near-infinite list of travelers’ vaccines you can get.
If you don’t want to wind up feeling like a human voodoo doll— a potentially impoverished human voodoo doll, depending on your health plan—then weigh your options prudently. Most doctors recommend hepatitis A and tetanus shots as a minimum, and some countries require proof of a yellow fever vaccination upon entry. Beyond that, it’s up to you.
On the whole, the majority of backpackers do not opt for rabies shots as those can be acquired relatively easily—though by no means painlessly—should you be bitten by an animal. It needn’t be said that, regardless of how much the whimpering street puppy reminds you of your darling pooch Scrambles back home, don’t touch it. Or feed it. Or even look at it. On that note, if you do find yourself menaced by street dogs, your best defense is to stand your ground and throw rocks at them—or pretend to throw rocks if you don’t have any, as most strays are familiar with the picking-up-and-tossing motion and will take cover. I have wandered many a darkened road with my keys clenched in one fist for the muggers and a rock in the other for the canines. Of course, in a moment of panic, I am just as likely to hurl my keys at the mugger and attempt to poke the canine with the rock, but I digress.
Both sides of the malaria pills debate have fair points.
Malaria is treatable if caught early, and some people do suffer adverse reactions to the preventative medications; however, if you are traipsing off into the jungle where it will be difficult for you to seek medical attention if necessary, the meds may be something to consider. Furthermore, even though a country is listed as a malarial risk, the danger might be concentrated to one specific area, so do your research.
Altitude pills are another grey area, although I personally would recommend keeping a few on hand if you are traveling to a higher elevation because they may be a challenge to obtain once you are in a remote area. Altitude sickness can strike anyone regardless of their overall health and wellbeing, and the effects can be slightly lessened by drinking plenty of water and (if you’re in the Andes) chewing coca leaves.
Before you snap one final selfie of you wearing your backpack in your parents’ foyer en route to the airport, think about whether there is any theme or shtick that would make your trip even more special. For instance, perhaps you have a mascot (a small stuffed animal or figurine of sentimental value) that you would like to photograph at various destinations, or maybe you and your travel buddy want to stage ninja fighting pictures throughout the journey. Maybe you want to make a conscious effort to minimize your tech time and therefore elect to abandon your laptop and mobile at home, communicating instead via postcards and letters. Or maybe, in the vein of pre-Facebook days, you want to sojourn with a scrapbook that your new friends can sign along the way.
Take time to ponder what would add another layer to your upcoming adventure. After all, RTW trips are so chaotic and charged that even a small ritual can bring with it a sense of groundedness.
A year (or six months, or whatever) spent traveling around the world will most likely be the most memorable occasion of your life. It won’t all be glorious—you will be sleep-deprived and overwhelmed and possibly spending more time in bathrooms that you would like—but it is such challenges and grittiness that make the incredible parts sparkle. If you take away from this series just one nugget of advice, I hope it’s “you will only get out what you put in,” and that that will inspire you to wholly commit yourself to your adventure, and truly make it the trip of a lifetime.