My love of travel was instilled by my mother who, as a child, often envisioned living and working in Africa when she grew up. She shared those dreams with me, and even though she never made it across the great waters, she traveled throughout the U.S., many times with me in tow.
It wasn’t until I was 38 that I realized I could do more than take vacations; I could be a traveler. While visiting Paris that year, I met a fascinating man at a dinner party who had made international travel a way of life. He was a fashion and travel photographer and photojournalist. Looking at his passport was orgasmic! I counted 43 stamps to Africa alone! He had arranged his life so that he spent on average two months working and two months traveling. That encounter ultimately transformed me.
Shortly after returning home, I started a travel fund. I knew I would have to be creative and persistent (since I wasn’t particularly lucky or rich). I converted my two-car garage into a one-bedroom apartment and faithfully deposited the rent I received into a special account. And I consulted a financial planner who helped me rethink my attitudes about saving, spending and investing. Eventually I was able to semi-retire for two years. During that time, I took a seven-month solo adventure through eight countries in Central and Southern Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia. I returned with my spirit rejuvenated and the borders of my inner and outer world greatly expanded.
Perhaps the biggest surprise about traveling internationally was to discover that in many parts of the world it is an asset to be a black woman, unlike in North America, where it is often a liability. When I am abroad, I am usually afforded a level of respect and appreciation that I do not get in my own country. It’s when I travel that I am told I’m attractive, courageous and smart.
So often, when women hear that I have taken a trip around the world by myself, they tell that me they could never do it — because it would cost too much, be too complicated to figure out, too scary… It’s not any of those things, especially if you plan and prioritize appropriately. Here’s how I did it.
Laying the Groundwork
I began the journey a full year before my departure, when I announced my vision to friends and neighbors at my annual New Year’s party. During a ritual, each of us shared an important goal. To make our goals more real, we pretended that we had already accomplished or received the thing we wanted. We discussed how it felt, acted it out, made it come alive. A few days later, I pinned a big map of the world to the wall next to my desk. I even bought earrings, fashioned like globes, and wore them to keep me thinking and talking about my trip.
I joined a local travel club — international travelers who met bimonthly in members’ homes to share slides and talk about the regions they visited. We also went around the room for a “check-in period” to give each of us a chance to talk about our travel plans and ask questions. It was encouraging to learn that these women who had traveled solo around the world were just regular folks, not necessarily rich or brilliant, but ordinary people who had chosen to make travel a priority in their lives.
Five months before I left, I decided which countries I wanted to visit. I solicited the names of travel agents/services from other travelers and combed the travel sections of the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times for airfare bargains. I also called each of the major airlines for price quotes. After extensive comparison shopping, I could not find a price below $4,000, which was more than I wanted to spend. So I was forced to streamline my trip, finally settling on visiting several U.S. cities, flying to France, traveling by train to and through Switzerland and Italy, by boat to Greece and several Greek Islands, and flying to Egypt, Thailand, Singapore, Bali, and Indonesia.
I ultimately used a ticket brokerage firm that specialized in round the world (RTW) packages. Depending on your flexibility, you can expect to spend somewhere between $2,500 and $3,500 for a RTW package these days. Those packages let you choose from about 40 to 60 cities but rarely include the less-traveled routes to the South Pacific, the Caribbean, or the hearts of Africa and South America without extra charges. They also generally require travel in one continuous direction, which must be completed within six months to a year. One caution: if you buy your ticket from a “bucket shop” or consolidator, do your homework to make sure they’re legitimate (try to talk with some other clients, for one) and pay by credit card so you can stop payment if your tickets don’t materialize.
Doing the Details
Once I settled on a route, I started getting in touch with friends and friends of friends in my destinations, as well as contacts I made through cultural exchange and homestay organizations. In places where I didn’t have a homestay or personal recommendations, I relied on guidebooks. I did not make hotel reservations in advance because I didn’t want to be tied down to specific dates and I also wanted to see the places before I agreed to stay there. It really helped to read at least two different guidebooks for each major destination, but since they are cumbersome to carry, I consolidated by writing notes from one into the other — or I just tore out the parts I wanted. I mailed books for later destinations to myself via an American Express office or a friend in the preceding country. Sometimes you can also find the books you want in used bookshops, or trade with travelers going in the opposite direction.
Three months before my departure, I made sure all of my travel documents were in order. I renewed my passport, having learned the hard way on a previous trip that several countries do not permit entry with a “soon to expire” (within six months) passport. Dealing with your passport and visa paperwork early allows you to avoid paying hefty charges to speed the process if you’re doing it last minute.
Two months prior to departure, I contacted my local health department’s immunization division for information about required medications or precautions for each of the countries I planned to visit. I took malaria pills with me just in case but followed Bill Dalton’s advice in The Indonesia Handbook and never took them as a preventive measure for fear of getting sick unnecessarily.
I consulted Consumer Reports for the best companies to use for travel insurance and settled on Travel Guard International, Inc. I purchased their deluxe plan, which cost me $243 and included insurance for trip cancellation, $5,000 for medical insurance, $500 for lost baggage, and $50,000 for life insurance. (These days, a standard plan for a trip like I took runs about $250 and deluxe is about $500). Another good choice is Travelers’ Emergency Network (TEN).
My no-frills trip cost about $6,000, including transportation, in 1992. My out-of-pocket expenses varied from $500-$1,000 a month (which would be about $700-$1,500 a month today). Europe was five to 10 times more expensive than Africa and Asia. Many people have told me that traveling with a partner would have cost less (because you can split the costs of lodging), but of course traveling with a partner can also cost more because you are less likely to be invited to stay in someone’s home.
I took $500 worth of French francs (since that was my first foreign stop), an American Express card, a debit card, and a MasterCard. I wish I had taken a supply of U.S. dollars in ones and fives because many non-European people like to do business in dollars and give much better prices when they see U.S. cash. I discovered it’s cheaper and easier to use my debit card to get cash than to hassle with traveler’s checks (you get the best exchange rate and are charged a low transaction fee). I found MasterCard was the most widely accepted credit card.
I asked a trusted friend to handle my finances while I was gone (it’s also possible to use a bonded bookkeeper or financial manager), and I prepared detailed instructions for her. I had a rubber stamp made so she could endorse and deposit my incoming checks.
I set up an automatic payment system to cover the minimum payment due on my MasterCard each month. I also made arrangements so that my MasterCard would pick up possible overdrafts on my checking account. I paid off all my other bills with the exception of my mortgage, for which I wrote out checks to have the person handling my finances mail monthly. I took several personal checks to mail back to cover unexpected expenses that arose at home.
I gave my friend an itinerary with contact names, set up a phone messaging service and registered with the American Embassy in many of the countries I visited for more than a week.
Since I couldn’t find a friend to rent my house, I placed a listing with the local university’s faculty housing office. They located an instructor who needed a place to live for the length of time I was going to be gone. (I reduced the rent to offset pet-care duties.)
I set up an apartment-sharing agreement instead of a strict sublease, to protect myself in case I needed to return home in an emergency. I prepared detailed house and pet-care instructions, which included a chart of daily, weekly, and monthly activities, and put it up on the refrigerator door. I also left a list of repair people to call just in case, as well as a list of all the things in a state of disrepair.
I prepaid my water bill to create a substantial credit on my account so no payments would need to be made during my absence. I transferred the phone, gas, and electric service into the housesitter’s name. Since that meant I no longer had a phone line, I had no access to my long-distance privileges, so I acquired a nonsubscriber long-distance calling card.
I moved all of my personal belongings to a secure off-site location and hired a housekeeper and a lawn maintenance person on a biweekly basis to help with the upkeep of the house and yard.
I groomed my dog and stocked an ample supply of food, medicine, and flea combatants. I registered my credit card number with my veterinarian so that the caretaker could take him for help without worrying about bills.
I loaned my car to a friend in exchange for her paying the cost of my insurance and maintaining the car on an established schedule. Our written agreement also included information regarding what to do in case of vandalism, an accident, or necessary repair.
I considered finding a travel partner but felt that it would be hard to find someone with the time, money, and interests similar to mine.
On the road, I met local people and fellow travelers, hooked up with friends, contacted friends of friends, and checked in with the members of my international hospitality exchange club.
I was never bored or lonely. If I found myself stuck in a train station or airport, there were almost always interesting folks to talk with. I always kept a book, a journal, my needlepoint kit, cassette tape player, and a small travel game to entertain myself if company was unavailable or undesired.
Traveling alone led to some very intense personal encounters. Many people feel safe sharing their innermost secrets with strangers they figure they may never meet again. I was continually amazed with the deep connections and openness I experienced with other travelers and locals during my seven-month sojourn.
So while I ventured out into my odyssey solo, I was never alone for long.
Go Girl! Globetrotter Elaine Lee divulges her round-the-world escape plan.
by Elaine Lee