One of the #RTW98 series of posts looking back on the ‘round the world trip that inspired the creation of TripTuner 20 years ago. It’s a story of personal growth and change, with impressions of fascinating places and people around the globe. If you’ve ever considered extended travel, taking a sabbatical or gap year or just wondered what it may be like, this is for you.
If you had an entire year to travel anywhere around the world, where would you go?
It’s a wonderfully tantalizing question. Try it out on yourself or a friend. Usually, people will reel off a few bucket list destinations or experiences dreamed up over time: see the Grand Canyon, climb Kilimanjaro, search for the Komodo dragon. Me? I’d like to snorkel with whale sharks in the Seychelles.
Dig deeper and you’ll sense a person’s appetite for adventure, their passions and a glimpse of their worldview – very helpful in today’s polarized society. I love exploring new places, so it was easy to create a wish list for my jaunt around the globe. The more foreign, exotic and different they sounded, the better. Kelimutu? Cool. Ouagadougou? Sign me up.
Whenever a place caught my attention, I scribbled a star in a pocket-sized Hammond world atlas I kept with me at all times. With the flip of a page I could jump to anywhere in the world, wherever I was: on my lunch break, before going to sleep or waiting for a flight.
NARROWING THE OPTIONS
Destination inspiration and info came from late-night forays into the stacks of guidebooks, magazine clippings and maps that turned my home office into a travel war room. Potential paths were traced, erased and re-drawn in color-coded dry erase markers on a laminated Mercator projection map.
Trying on different themes like the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World” helped narrow down the list. Only one of the seven – the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt – still existed. So I added some “Natural Wonders” like South America’s Iguassu Falls, Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Rough itineraries emerged as I learned more about each place and what it was really like to travel around the world. I couldn’t just “Google it” — this was way before Tripadvisor and the advent of online travel.
Fortunately, a few friends had done it before. David suggested traveling in a westerly direction to mitigate jet lag. Courtney pointed out that I could pack light by routing my journey according to the seasons – seeking the Southern Hemisphere summer during the U.S. winter months and vice versa.
My travel writing teacher and author L. Peat O’Neill prepared me for the trade-offs of extended hard-core, off the beaten path travel. It would take weeks, even months to traverse South America, Africa or Asia without flying. But flying would quickly deplete my limited funds. To circle the globe in a year, I had to allow for long, uncomfortable bus rides. Something I would grow used to, then abhor as the year progressed.
After a few months I “narrowed” my wish list to some 75 places around the world. Giddy with excitement, I took the list to a travel agent, Anita. She quickly set me straight. Scanning my hand-written list, she shook her head and stopped multiple times to chide “there’s no airport there.” Which to me meant, “you can’t go there.” I was crushed.
It was mostly true. To this day, many of the world’s spectacular locations like Polignano a Mare, Italy are not found on major travel web sites. Mainly, it’s due to economics. Not enough demand.
As a result, many fabulous destinations are excluded from the Global Distribution Systems (GDS) that most travel agents and web sites still rely upon for presenting destination options. My frustration with this reality inspired a core pillar of TripTuner’s value proposition — the ability to show any destination of the world, period.
Sensing my dismay, Anita suggested some of the RTW (round-the-world) itineraries sold by airfare consolidators. But none came close to my ambitious plan. Many were regional in focus, like a Circle The Pacific fare. Others were a random assortment of big city routes (New York – London – Bangkok – Sydney – LA) that were a far cry from my eccentric itinerary. No single airline could do it, either.
To my delight, Anita found an RTW business class ticket with the Star Alliance (which includes United, Lufthansa, Thai and others) for about US$5,800 – a great deal, even then (check here for current offers). Given my ever-changing itinerary, it’s no surprise that I bought it just 11 days before my departure.
A travel agent is still a a great resource for booking a complex trip, but nowadays there are helpful online tools like AirTreks that map out actual segments and quote pricing on RTW itineraries. Before you buy though, remember you can accrue upwards of 35,000 miles for a single RTW ticket – with potentially significant bonuses when booked with an airline or other credit card.
The Star Alliance ticket best matched my patchwork wish list of destinations. Its flexibility was pretty amazing compared to today’s nonrefundable fares and stiff change fees. For no fee I extended my hang in Buenos Aires after a mutual friend introduced me to Doug, who let me crash in his plush apartment. Months later in Africa, a border skirmish forced me to scratch a Lufthansa flight from Asmara, Eritrea, which I changed to Cairo, Egypt for just $75.
My final itinerary included 8 major stops across 5 continents over 11 months. Heeding Courtney’s advice, my first flight in February from Washington DC took me to Sao Paulo and South America’s summer warmth. Jet lag was minimal because it flew directly south.
Like many RTW tickets, I couldn’t backtrack. From South America the only onward intercontinental option was a nonstop Varig flight from Sao Paulo to Johannesburg, South Africa. So I had to ditch the idea of traveling in a westerly direction to avoid jet lag.
Pro tip: stay loose – your plans will change, whether you like it or not.
South African Airways was not yet part of the Star Alliance, so I had to rely on local carriers to cover immense distances within Africa: Air Namibia to Windhoek; Air Botswana to Maun; Air Zimbabwe to Victoria Falls and on to Lake Kariba. Ethiopian Airlines from Addis Ababa to Abidjan and back. Egyptian Airlines and its cattle boarding system (no seat or boarding group numbers) got me to Cairo. In between there were buses that drag-raced on two-lane roads, Cessna flights into the bush, elephant-dodging pontoon boats and dugout mokoro canoes. Hey, it’s all about the journey, right?
The Star Alliance ticket kicked back in with the Cairo to Frankfurt flight and a brief culture-shock stop in Europe before heading to Delhi, Bangkok and Bali. After maxing out my visa over 2 wonderful months in Indonesia, it was on to Sydney, then Auckland and back to DC via LA.
With the most important logistical task checked off, my mind returned to the emotional reality of leaving Ingrid. Paradoxically, I’d fallen in love with her while simultaneously planning a year long trip. That’s a long time to be apart, and surely we’d both change during my absence.
We couldn’t control or foresee what would happen. The unspoken reality was that it would likely be the end of us – we had no delusions about that. But deep down we both knew I had to do this trip, to pursue this incredible dream.
For our relationship, it was a journey into the unknown. The odds of us staying together weren’t great, but we were committed to finding a way to make it work. It was a parallel analogy to the individual journey I was taking.
Thousands of miles would separate us. But virtually, spiritually, we were together. Even more paradoxically, knowing that gave me the confidence to go. As my friend Neil once counseled, “the deeper the roots, the wider the branches.”
We took a metaphorical deep breath, held hands and leapt.
But not without a little insurance…in addition to my ticket, I bought her a round-trip to Sao Paulo for a rendezvous 6 weeks into my trip.
For the time being, another emotional hurdle was cleared. Turning to more practical concerns, I wondered: how the hell do you pack for an 11-month trip around the world?