One of the many things that inspired us to go on our RTW trip was that Della’s parents, Peggy and Wayne, did a RTW trip of their own. They traveled for about 9 months in the years 1979-80. The trip was in many ways similar to ours; they visited Europe, Africa, and Asia. One of the things that has been really fun as they have met up with us a few times on our trip is discussing what is the same and what is different from when they traveled 35 years ago!
Their trip took them from Italy (where they visited Peggy’s father’s old home), to Eastern Africa, and finally to Southeast Asia. We decided to ask them some questions about their trip to see how it compares with traveling RTW now! Read their answers and our own and draw your own conclusions!
This is part 1 of this interview series. Stay tuned for part 2!
Before you left the US, how did you plan where you were going to go?
Peggy and Wayne (P&W): We planned to follow in the footsteps of a friend of Wayne’s who had done world travel. He wrote to Wayne with the details of what he was doing. What stuck in Wayne’s mind was that he said he had been gone for 11 months, had traveled overland by bus from London to India, had kept detailed records of his budget and had spent only $530. This overland route had become a somewhat standard backpacker’s route. We hoped to do that. We did a little planning using a single Lonely Planet guidebook for Asia Overland travel. Part of our planning was to attend a series of travel lectures sponsored by National Geographic. We also talked to people we knew in DC who had taken world trips. Both before and during the trip, much of our planning was based on word of mouth information from other travelers.
We also had been invited by our friend who was an Assistant to the ambassador in India to visit with for a while. We hoped to arrive there by Republic Day in January.
Della and Eric (D&E): We wrote a more expansive blog post about this awhile back, but in short: We talked to Wayne and Peggy about where they went, we read a lot of travel blogs to get inspiration, we checked out a lot of Lonely Planet (and other) guide books from our local library, and we did research on climates in each locale to figure out the best times to visit.
How did people react to your plans to travel?
P&W: People thought we were a little weird. Most of the people we knew in DC were on a professional path and they thought it was strange that anyone would risk the consequences of getting off that path. They thought the trip was less crazy in terms of a money perspective, but we would miss out on professional advancement.
Wayne had traveled a lot prior and had even gone to Israel for 7 months while in college. His parents, therefore, were accustomed to his wanderlust, but they always worried, especially his mother. His dad was confident he knew what to do. The typical advice his parents gave was “I know you know that you’re doing, but be careful!” Peggy’s parents, who rarely left New York, thought we were crazy, period. They had given up on understanding our choices, but never sought to influence to change our plans. In both cases, since we were already living far away from home, it wasn’t a huge change for them having us gone. Our parents ultimately were both supportive and helpful, especially because they both took on responsibility for managing affairs back in the US. Peggy’s parents even joined us for the beginning part of our trip in Italy!
D&E: We got a variety of reactions –some jealousy, some wondering how we could possibly afford it, and some just blown away at the thought of leaving home for so long. For the most part, people have seemed quite excited for us. We did write a blog post about why we chose to do this trip which addressed many of the questions and reactions we had received from people.
Not surprisingly, Peggy and Wayne were super supportive and excited for us. They were pleased that we were going to set out on such an adventure, but also started to understand some of the worry that their parents felt when they left. Eric’s parents were also supportive and made plans to meet us along the way. Peggy and Wayne have been very helpful from a logistics perspective in managing our affairs back home and they, as well as Della’s sister, have made it a priority to join us for parts of the trip as well.
What did you do with your possessions from home while abroad?
P&W: We owned a house in DC which we rented out to an existing roommate. We didn’t get rid of anything. We left the house furnished so most of our stuff stayed in place in the house. We did worry a lot about who would handle repairs on our very old house. Just before we left, it rained heavily and a skylight started leaking. We knew we couldn’t leave until we had it repaired. We were trying to clean the roof tar off some clothing using gasoline. Then in a rush we put the clothing in the washer and proceeded to cause a small explosion. Dealing with the consequences of that delayed our departure a couple of days (to New York which was an interim step prior to our international departure). A friend agreed to keep our cat, but only after he had been declawed. Gus didn’t talk to us for days after the operation. We owned two cars. We left one in New York and one in Colorado in the garage of the cabin.
D&E: We also rented out our house, but to a friend who wasn’t already living there. We were able to keep it partially furnished and leave the rest of our possessions in the house in the attic and basement. We asked Eric’s parents to take care of our cat while we were gone. Our two cars currently reside and Peggy and Wayne’s house.
How did you get your appropriate Visas?
P&W: We had to get all of our visas and information from consulates or embassies. We did that while we were in New York and it took almost a week of walking around the city to get it all done.
D&E: Most of the time, we are able to get our Visas on arrival. There have been a few that we had to apply for in advance. However, luckily, so far we have been able to get this quickly and easily online! We do think we will have to get our Vietnam visa in person before we go there.
What was in your pack? What kind of clothes did you pack?
P&W: We each had a large internal frame backpack. We had one big camera bag, and Peg’s pack had detachable zip pockets that we carried as day bags. We don’t remember exactly what we had in our packs. We know we took one down sleeping bag and made a light weight, quasi sleeping sheet that zipped on. If it was hot we put the sheet side up and if it was cold, we put the sheet down. Peggy had sandals and hiking boots, 2 pairs of pants, and a dress. She bought a great wraparound ankle length skirt in India. She loved skirts because they were cooler in the heat and also facilitated peeing somewhat more discretely out of doors in places where there were no facilities. Wayne brought jeans. He remembers that he bought his first GoreTex coat for the trip. It actually leaked like crazy. He went back to the store in DC a year later and returned it for a replacement! We remember buying replacement black cloth Chinese slippers in Hong Kong and some clothes in Sri Lanka (but those didn’t last).
We had repairs and medicine kits. We also made big zippered nylon bags to wrap around our big packs when we flew, in order to protect the straps. These turned out to be really useful because we were often able to establish a home base in some guest house in a country and then leave extra gear in those bags while we traveled to other places. We did this when we trekked in Nepal.
We had a coil to heat water in a cup. We also used Iodine to purify water. We started with pills but then used a dropper. We had a hell of a time communicating with pharmacists when we needed to replace the iodine. We had to treat the water pretty much everywhere we traveled, even for brushing our teeth.
We always remember spending days in New York packing and repacking our bags. We weighed everything! The problem was that no one item weighed very much, but put together they weighed an awful lot. We finally made our decisions, went to the airport, decided we were too heavy, shed stuff at the gate sending it back home with Peg’s parents. Then after travelling in Italy with Peg’s parents, we sent even more stuff home! Mostly we parted with some sweaters and fancier clothes that we figured we wouldn’t need after leaving Europe.
How did you buy plane tickets?
P&W: We considered buying an around the world plane ticket, but they were expensive and had confusing rules regarding stops and direction of travel. That posed a dilemma because back then one-way tickets generally sold at a large premium. We finally decided to buy our initial ticket from New York to Frankfurt from a travel consolidator for $175. You had to send him money via mail and then he met you at the airport with the actual ticket on the day of the flight.
Remember our original plan was to travel overland, mostly by bus, from Europe to India. Once we were in Italy we had to revise our entire travel plan. It was then that the Iranians took the American hostages. That foreclosed travel there and the Russians had recently invaded Afghanistan. So that wasn’t an option either. As a result, we ended up having to take many more flights than we originally anticipated. During our re-plan of the trip, the key was to find big cities with travel agents or flight consolidators who would bundle tickets at discounted prices. Athens and Bangkok were those cities. We spent a lot of time in Athens going between different agents trying to find routings that made sense. We decided at that point to buy blocks of tickets that took us to Egypt, Kenya, and then, India. We did the same thing in Bangkok, trying to figure out a route that would take us home. We had to choose between one that would take us through Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia or a route that would take us via Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Honolulu, and then home. We chose the latter.
When we booked these big chunks of tickets, we would have to carry the paper tickets all with us! It was as important as your passport and money. Sometimes people would even steal tickets. You didn’t need a picture ID to fly on tickets then. We also learned the hard way, that having a ticket didn’t necessarily mean we had a confirmed seat on a flight. From that point on, we checked flight codes very, very carefully.
We figured out our travel as we went from arrival in Bombay through to Bangkok. Mostly we traveled by train, bus, or boat. But some stretches required air travel. In India, we learned that there was a narrow window in which you could buy tickets. “Control” over ticketing would shift location depending on how much in advance you tried to get tickets. We tried to book a flight from Kathmandu to Calcutta a couple of months out. The ticket agent in Delhi, sent us to the main computer center on the other side of town for the airline. When we got to Kathmandu (still several weeks before the scheduled flight out) we stopped at the airline office to confirm the ticket. Not only did we not have a confirmed seat, it turned out there was no such flight. The man was actually mad at us for having a ticket! We had to explain that it was their system who had given it to us in the first place. He told us, “I didn’t do this! The computer people did this!” We were at an impasse until we were able to talk to the manager. He understood and told his underling to book us on a different flight. We waited a long time. It turned out that he was filling out a lot of paperwork to cancel the original flight. We always laugh when we remember the manager informing the underling “It is not necessary to cancel a ticket for a flight that does not exist!”
D&E: Buying plane tickets is easy! We buy them online of course. The only challenge is figuring out how to use miles to fly more cheaply. We worked hard to gain credit card “miles” so that we wouldn’t have to pay full price on any of our long plane rides. Thus far, we have succeeded! We flew from the US to Africa, South Africa to Europe, Turkey to home, and Denver to Bangkok all using miles. We search for the best deal using a lot of different airline search sites, but one of our favorites is Kayak.com.
While you were traveling, how did you figure out what to do within cities? How did you choose accommodations?
P&W: We carried the Asia Overland guidebook and that helped with some of the planning. We would visit the Tourist Information (TI) center and get a lot of information from them at the beginning. Peg read everything really carefully. Wayne relied more on talking to people, he asked everyone he met, whether it was the guy hawking his wares or other travelers, what to do and how to get there. We would also always try to find out what things should cost, so we knew how to approach bargaining. We also would stop by travel agents selling tours. That gave us an idea of what was worth seeing. If we could figure out how to do it on our own, we would. Other times, we might buy the mini-bus tour.
D&E: We access a lot of tools to figure out what to do in a city. We use our Lonely Planet guide books which we can carry a lot of thanks to Kindle Unlimited and our tablet. We use websites like tripadvisor to help us decide what to do. One of our biggest resources is other travelers- but instead of talking in person (we do sometimes of course!), we use travel blogs. There are so many travelers out there who share their experiences in blogs, and we use those a lot to figure out how to get places and decide what to do. For accommodation, we use Lonely Planet and travel blogs (and other travelers in person), but we also do extensive research online. We use sites like hostelworld, booking.com, and airbnb. In Asia, we have started to use agoda.com as well.
What kind of places did you stay?
P&W: Where we stayed varied by country. We didn’t stay in a lot of hostels and didn’t prefer them. Most hostels locked you out during the daytime hours. We usually stayed in guesthouses where we had our own room. We did stay in hostels in Japan and Bangkok. In India, we stayed in places where the Indian middle class might have stayed, or places that catered to the Peace Corps crowd. These guesthouses often had common area or associated restaurant.
In India and other places where we traveled by train, we would often book sleeper trains, thereby reducing our need to find lodging. We also enjoyed staying in government guest houses some of which were in the train stations themselves. These were holdovers from the days of the British Raj. In Japan, we also stayed with Servas hosts. This was an international peace through friendship organization. In general, Servas worked best for a trip highly planned and with long lead times. Staying with real people in real homes was a treat – really interesting and informative, but a bit exhausting.
D&E: For the most part we have stayed in hostels and guest houses. Every now and then we stay in a hotel. We have also stayed in several apartments using sites like Airbnb. Our favorite places have a communal vibe so we can meet other travelers to make connections and a kitchen so we can cook some of our own food.
How did you get around?
P&W: We took flights for large distances. In Egypt, India and Sri Lanka we took a lot of trains. They were great. We also took a lot of buses, although we liked them less well. Schedules and routes were much harder to figure out and they were always very crowded (with animals as well as people). Some of our best rides were on the roofs of the buses. Some transport was in the back of pickup trucks (that had wood seats along the edges) or in mini vans. The hard part about these was that even if they told you they were leaving at a given time, you usually had to wait for however long (sometimes hours) that it took for them to fill all their seats (and then some). Within cities, transport was often by bicycle rickshaw. There were still many rickshaws pulled by men, but we felt too big and heavy to want to ride these.
D&E: We’ve gotten around almost every way you can think of. Planes for big distances (and some small when we were in a rush). We’ve used a lot of buses and trains. Within cities, we are always happy if there is a subway or rail equivalent. We have even traveled by boat, horse cart, and electric bicycle! Occasionally we have used taxis as well.