Trip Planning

TRIP PLANNING

Maybe you’re seriously considering a big trip abroad with your family, or maybe you’re just curious about what planning would entail IF you were seriously considering a big trip abroad.  Here’s a snapshot of what we did to prepare and dislodge.  We included the companies we used, but we are not endorsing them – just sharing what we chose.  Your situation may lend itself to doing less than we did.  May the force be with you.

BANKING FREQUENT FLIER MILES

We accrued enough frequent flier miles to purchase all 5 plane tickets to SE Asia.  At full price, these tickets can cost up to $2,000/piece. Ours were practically free.  Before we decided to take the trip, we had enough miles for 2 tickets.  In 9 months, we accumulated miles for 3 more round trip tickets by opening credit cards that offered big bonus mile incentives.  Some cards required us to spend a certain amount in order to bank the bonus miles, and some didn’t.  Even when there was a purchase requirement, it wasn’t a huge amount – about as much as we’d normally spend on food in a month – so we were careful to use the right card for a certain amount of time.  Once the miles were in our frequent flier accounts, we’d pay off or transfer the balance and cancel the card.  The cards we opened had small annual fees, but we closed them before the annual fee was due.  We opened and closed several cards in both our names consecutively. This is legit!  Our credit rating was high before we did this, and it’s still high.  I know that credit card “games” aren’t for everyone. For us, it was the only way to afford these flights.

  1. Be on the lookout for good bonus mile offers and open the card by the deadline date.
  2. Use the card for your regular monthly expenses until you’ve purchased the minimum amount required to get the miles (if it has a minimum).
  3. Confirm that the miles show up in your account.
  4. Pay the balance or transfer to a preferred card you use with a lower interest rate.
  5. Close the card.
  6. Repeat as necessary.

We found these sites useful: http://thepointsguy.com/ and http://www.flyertalk.com/

BOOKING : Using frequent flier miles to book flights isn’t as simple as booking when you pay full price.  There are a certain number of miles seats on each flight, and once they’re filled up, you can’t use your miles on that flight.  It’s best to know EVERYTHING about how many seats are available on each flight you want – including each leg, because a one-way trip across the globe can involve several flights on several airlines – BEFORE you make the call to book.  It’s also best to have information on alternative flights ready before you book, too.  Don’t expect airline customer service to walk you through this – they won’t.  We signed up for British Airways frequent flier program and used their site to check award availability for US Airways and American Airlines award flights.  Check the internet for similar ideas for your particular frequent flier program.

property/stuff

We only lived in our house in Center City, Philadelphia for a little over a year when the vision of going abroad lit up our skies.  We made a WordPress site for the house, posted on Sabbatical Homes, and were lucky to find great family who wanted to rent the house and use the furniture.  The next step was to purge.  I went through every closet, every drawer, every box, and gave away most, sold some.  We have one car, Sylvester – an old minivan.  We had nowhere to put him.  We considered selling him, but decided to leave him on the street, and thankfully, my awesome sister runs him around the block once in a while to keep his juices flowing.

passports

We applied for passports at the post office, and it took three weeks for them to arrive in the mail.  The whole family needed to go at once because both parents need to sign the applications in person.  We suggest getting more than the required # of passport photos when you get your pictures taken.  As we have been getting visas and extensions along the way, it would have been helpful to get more passport pictures in the beginning.  US Passport Information

visas

We decided to start in Bali and Thailand, with their friendly people and fairly well-developed infrastructure.  We checked the embassy websites (Thailand Embassy) and expat forums (Thaivisa) to see visa requirements.  Bali has a 30 day Visa on Arrival that can be extended for 30 additional days; you can also get a 60 day tourist visa.  For Thailand, we got a triple-entry tourist visa, which can conceivably last for 9 months with extensions.  If you plan to stay in a country longer than the entry visa allows, it’s best to get the longer-term visa before you leave home. To get a visa before you leave home, you have to apply by mail or in person at the country’s embassy.  This process can take several weeks by mail (it’s much shorter in person), and you’ll have to send in your passports.  Since we live a few hours drive from Washington D.C., we did it in person. Also, immigration officials can be picky, so it’s best to do lots of research and call before you send in your materials or apply in person.  The Thailand officials wanted to see plane ticket emails and an itinerary, as well as copies of many documents.

There are daily fines for overstays.  Be sure to check your dates when you book flights so you’re leaving before your visa expires.  If you want to stay longer than your visa allows, you can often (depends on country) extend your stay by doing a “visa run” – you leave the country for a very short time, come right back, and get a renewed visa on arrival.

Travel health

Insurance: We have met families who opted not to have health insurance while they are traveling.  It’s a personal decision, since healthcare in some countries is cheap enough for out-of-pocket payment.  We were not comfortable with that, so we got travel health insurance in case of a big health issue/emergency.   We use AA Insurance in Thailand, which we found on Thaivisa.  It was $40/person per month.  We read what people posted about various healthcare companies and this is the one we chose, but, we haven’t needed to make a claim (thankfully!) so we can’t speak from direct experience with them on the road.  It appears that travel insurance will pay for hospitalization directly, but for other charges, you have to send in a claim.  We have gone to the doctor once for a skin issue in Ubud, Bali (about $45 including medicine), and once to the Negara, Bali public hospital for a foot xray and partial cast (about $50 for Xray, consult, and cast).  Another widely used company is World Nomads.

Vaccinations: Centers For Disease Control is a place to start for information on vaccinations and other health-related recommendations for travel.  We also visited a travel health clinic for a consultation.  How much or how little you do to prepare/prevent is a personal decision.  We didn’t do everything that was recommended.  We chose what made sense to us and what we could afford, as vaccinations for travel often isn’t covered by insurance.

Medicines: Medicines and drug store items take up a lot of weight and space in your luggage.  You can get most of what you need as you need it on the road unless you’re traveling to far-off, remote places.  If there’s a prescription medicine you must have, bring plenty of it with you.

computers/phones

To communicate and do work, we have several “devices.”  In order to ensure that we can access the sites we need and manage our finances more safely, Tom set up a Virtual Private Network.  This basically makes your computer less “open” while on public wifi, and it makes your computer appear that it’s in the US, so that you can access any sites.  We have unlocked iPhones.  We buy local sim cards wherever we go, which appears to be cheaper than an international plan.  We parked our US cell phone numbers, so that we’ll have the same numbers when we return.  Family and friends back home can’t call or text us using our parked cell numbers, but there’s an option to receive voicemail messages. To talk to people at home, we Facetime.  The only phone calls we make are local.  We get new local numbers whenever we get a sim card. We also use 1password, to keep our login information secure and convenient.

banking

We planned to set up local bank accounts where we are, but we haven’t needed to.  It appears that our PNC Interest Checking account is not charging overseas ATM fees.  There are ATM’s in most places we go.  Local restaurants and small hotels don’t accept credit cards, and when we rent a house for a month at a time or more, we pay cash.  Capital One credit cards generally don’t charge foreign transaction fees.  Check with your bank and credit card companies for any fees related to overseas use.

packing

LESS IS MORE!  We started with two large backpacks (Osprey), three daypacks, three small suitcases, a guitar, a violin, and a stroller.  We have since dropped the three suitcases and their contents.  Everywhere we go, we leave stuff behind.  We’ve dropped medicines, shoes, travel carseats (because car safety is a losing battle here anyway), books, clothes, and more.  The climate here is either hot or hotter with a chance of rain.  If I can wear it in a city, on the beach, and to bed, then I keep it.  The electronics have come in handy, though they do weigh us down.  We brought a laptop, an ipad, an itouch, an ipod, 2 kindles, and a camera.  The various cords, adapters, travel power strip, chargers and headphones are a bit of a headache, but have been necessary for us.  The kids each brought one small toy.  Not once has anyone complained that they don’t have toys to play with.

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