A Classic Round the World Trip

Indie Flight Hacking

Part of what we love about indie travel is doing the abnormal.  Getting outside the box of the typical one and two week vacation.  In today’s article, we break down a RTW trip that hits up some of the most popular destinations for long-term travelers – South America, New Zealand, Southeast Asia, and India. 

Why you should take this trip

Pros

  • With the exception of New Zealand, every other region is extremely cheap to visit (<$35USD/day per person).
  • It gives travelers a wide variety of culture, food, and weather (though variety of weather can be looked at as both a positive and negative).
  • Outdoors? Check. Beaches? Check. Bustling cities? Check. Efficient overland travel? Check.
  • You want some of the best and most impressive sites in the world? How about Machu Pichhu, Iguazu Falls, Patagonia, the Salt Flats, Angkor Wat, Halong Bay, and the Taj Mahal?

Cons

  • If you don’t speak any Spanish, South America will be challenging (though taking language classes while there and fixing this problem is extremely easy if you’re up for it).
  • While much of the overland transportation is nice, comfortable, and efficient (Argentina, Peru, Chile, Thailand, New Zealand), others….not so much (Bolivia, Laos, Vietnam).
  • Weather can be tricky – balancing best times to go is difficult and takes lots of advance planning.  You most likely won’t be able to visit every destination at the ideal time.

Why this route?

When people start planning a RTW trip, choosing the route is typically the most difficult thing to do. The world is a huge place, and most people’s travel wish list is a mile long (and constantly growing).  So it’s necessary to prioritize and narrow down the regions to planned to travel in.


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This itinerary is a similar one to our RTW trip in 2008-2009. We didn’t have $100k to spend on our trip, so choosing budget friendly destinations was a necessity.  So we immediately eliminated Europe, and while parts of Africa are extremely cheap to travel in, we nixed that as well since activities like safaris and gorilla trekking – notoriously expensive activities – were what we wanted to do most in Africa.  So Africa would have to wait until a later date.

The world is a huge place, and most people’s travel wish list is a mile long (and constantly growing). So it’s necessary to prioritize and narrow down the regions to planned to travel in.

The next step was narrowing down what it was we wanted to see and do most.  Hiking to Machu Picchu, seeing Iguazu Falls, exploring Patagonia, visiting the Galapagos, seeing Angkor Wat and the Taj Mahal, and hanging out on some Thai beaches were tops on our list – they became the pillars of our RTW trip.  Looking at those destinations, it made sense to narrow the regions down to South America, Southeast Asia, and India.  So that became the backbone of our trip.  For us, we had enough to plan around while also leaving plenty of time in between our must-see  places and activities to have plenty of spontaneity.  We ultimately skipped the expensive Galapagos in favor of 5 weeks in New Zealand.

Unique to this route

The variety of scenery, landscape, people, and culture is really amazing from region to region and country to country. Hell, even the Spanish language varies wildly from country to country in South America. We were in Peru and Bolivia for two months before crossing over into Argentina, and we thought we had a good grasp on the language. But our first day in Argentina taught us otherwise. It was like having to re-learn Spanish.

Just in South America alone you can get a vast array of landscapes and scenery. From beaches in Colombia to jungles and mountains in Peru and Bolivia to glaciers in Argentina to big, concrete jungles in every country, South America really offers a lot. Then add in New Zealand, which speaks for itself when it comes to natural beauty, and the history of both Southeast Asia and India, and this trip really offers it all to travelers.

Appealing to

  • Solo travelers shouldn’t have a difficult time getting around any of these regions and meeting people. The tourist trail is well trodden pretty much everywhere on this itinerary.
  • This is great for couples as well, with cheap accommodations nearly everywhere (private rooms in hostels are prevalent on 99% of this trip).
  • Backpackers can get by on the cheap everywhere but New Zealand, and if that just isn’t in the budget for this particular trip, taking it out and just doing South America, Southeast Asia, and India would still be a kick-ass trip.
  • I’m not one to put a limit on what families can and can’t do as far as travel. Families can certainly make this trip happen; it will just take a lot of pre-planning (but what trip with kids doesn’t take pre-planning?)

RTW context

This probably wouldn’t be the best trip for a short amount of time. My wife and I did a variation of this trip in a year. Depending on what you want to see and where all you want to go will factor in to how much time you need. If you are going to hit up all four regions, I would think you’d need at least a month for each to make it worthwhile. But again, everyone travels differently, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone could get it done in a month or take several years. It’s all up to each individual person.

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The best part about this particular trip is that you don’t need to fly much. Get to South America, and as long as you have the time, you can travel overland pretty much everywhere, and for cheap. Same with New Zealand. Same with Southeast Asia. Same with India. If you have a bit more coin or are shorter on time, you can certainly add a flight in here and there to save on time.

The best part about this particular trip is that you don’t need to fly much.

Practical information

When to go/Weather

This is the tricky part about this particular trip. I’ll break it down by region first, then discuss when to go where.

South America: First, South America is huge, so trying to break down weather for the entire continent is rather difficult. Summer is December to February, fall from March to May, winter from June to August, and spring from September to November, generally speaking.  Generally speaking, peak tourist season around much of the continent is in the summer months of December to February.  You’ll have to pay attention to rainy seasons in parts of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Brazil as well.

To read more in depth information about weather in South America, check out the following links:

New Zealand: Depending on what you’re into, you can visit year-round. Summer months (December to February) are most popular, crowded, and pricey, but those months also have the sunniest, warmest weather. Shoulder seasons (spring and fall) are great times to visit as crowds and prices are down, but you my have to deal with colder, wetter weather some of the time. It’s certainly a risk. Winter can get cold, particularly in the South Island, but if you’re into skiing and/or snowboarding, this would be a great time to visit.

To read more in depth information about weather in New Zealand, check out the following link:

Southeast Asia:  Again, trying to summarize weather for an entire region can be a bit problematic, but by and large, the weather in SE Asia is limited to two seasons – wet and dry.  Most of the time it will rain daily during the rainy season, but those storms will be limited to an hour or two a day while the rest of the time it’s rather nice.  June through October (roughly) is the rainy season, and the hot season is March to May.  Peak tourist season is generally November to late March, with July and August seeing more tourists in some regions as well.

To read more in depth information about weather in Southeast Asia, check out the following links:

India: India is comparable to the US in terms of size, so the weather is going to vary from region to region. Generally speaking, there are three seasons in India – wet, cool, and hot. November to February is the time that sees the most tourists as it’s generally dry and pleasant. Summer can be brutally hot, while the monsoon season can see plenty of rain. But keep in mind that weather patterns vary wildly, as the Himalayas in the far north are going to see much different weather than the coasts or the far south. Pick and choose when to go based on where in India you are going.

To read more in depth information about weather in India, check out the following link:

What we did

When we did this trip, we started in South America in October.  There honestly wasn’t a formula that made us choose where to start.  We knew that we would be taking a risk weather-wise no matter where we started, so we were open to starting in either South America or Southeast Asia.  We had already decided to buy one-way tickets instead of a RTW ticket, so we were constantly checking flights.  One random night we came across super cheap flights to Lima, so we booked them, and suddenly our itinerary started to come together.

In Peru and Bolivia, October was the start of the rainy season, so it wasn’t overcrowded and the weather was a crapshoot. We were fortunate in that we didn’t see much rain. By the time we got south into Argentina, it was December and summertime. We visited Patagonia in January and February, which was the height of high season. Weather was generally good (for Patagonia) but crowds were big, which meant advance booking on both accommodations and transport was essential. We made it up to Colombia during March, which was also shoulder season. Lower crowds, lower prices, but the weather was hit or miss. Great some days and rainy others.

You really never know when it comes to weather, so while you always want to play the percentages, you never know what the weather gods will bring you.

We hit up New Zealand during the month of April, which again was shoulder season. Crowds and costs were down, but the weather was a factor much of the time. Overall, we were pleased with our decision, but rain and cold weather did cancel a few activities that we hoped to do.

We spent May to August in Southeast Asia, which is the supposed rainy season. It was honestly a non-factor most of the time. The weather wasn’t ideal (lack of blue sunny skies), but at no time did rain hinder our activities or where we wanted to go. It generally rained each day, but not for long, and it was often welcome with the heat.

We arrived in India in late August, the end of the rainy season. Weather was a factor in the north (near Rishikesh and on a trek in the Himalayas) yet not a factor at all in Rajasthan or Mumbai. By the time we arrived in Goa for the last 2 weeks of our trip, we hoped to relax and enjoy the end of the rainy season. Instead we got about 8 days of unprecedented rain (the vendors had already sold off all their umbrellas and rain gear since the wet season was over).

The lesson? You really never know when it comes to weather, so while you always want to play the percentages, you never know what the weather gods will bring you.

Sample Pricing

We searched this route through Indie (BootsnAll’s Global Trip Planner) and using the DIY method through Kayak. Keep in mind that if you do decide to do it yourself, you most likely won’t be booking all your tickets up front (one of the main bonuses for choosing DIY is to have an open itinerary – by booking all flights ahead, that would defeat the purpose).

  • Through Indie: from $4209 including taxes and fees
  • DIY through Kayak: $4337 including taxes and fees

Search notes

  • The dates we searched for this trip were October 16, 2013 through June 11, 2013.
  • Prices can and will vary depending on a variety of factors, including dates and when you actually book.

Which direction to go

Traveling east to west or vice versa really depends on a variety of factors, largely when you leave, how long you have for the trip, and what your weather preferences are. It’s going to be next to impossible to hit up each region during the ideal travel periods, so you’re going to have to sacrifice and take some risks.

For us, we started in Peru in October simply because we found a great deal on a flight.  In taking this route and schedule, we took the risk of traveling in SE Asia and India during the wet season, but this meant we could be in Argentina and Patagonia during the summer months. This also gave us the opportunity to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu during the beginning of the rainy season, which minimized the risk of getting rained on (though any hike in the mountains is going to bring the risk of rain). We felt pretty fortunate for how the weather broke for us, with the exception of the last two weeks in India.

Time zones

Chicago GMT -5; Lima GMT -5; Buenos Aires GMT – 3; El Calafate GMT -3; Santiago GMT – 3; Bogota GMT -5; Auckland GMT +12; Bangkok GMT +7; Delhi GMT +5:30; Mumbai GMT +5:30

Shots and visas

Consult your local embassy or consulate for visa information.

You may need shots depending on a variety of factors, including your immunization history, your medical history and which countries you plan on visiting in what order. Consult the CDC website and your doctor for vaccination information.

Learn more about travel immunizations and visas for long-term travel

Packing

Even though there are a wide variety of possible climates on this route, it’s still possible to pack rather light.  If you want to see exactly what both my wife and I brought on this exact trip, check out this article (which includes both links to the exact clothing we bought and a downloadable packing list):

A few notes on packing – Obviously packing for a trip like this is going to depend on personal preferences.  We both brought jeans despite the steadfast backpacking rule of not bringing jeans.  We wear them all the time at home; they are what we’re comfortable in, and we both wore them all the time throughout both S. America and New Zealand, then ditched them before heading to Asia.  As much as I despise zip-off pants and think they look ridiculous, they are practical, especially if you plan on hiking a lot, and I wore mine constantly.  Layers are your friend.  So are lightweight, moisture-wicking clothes.  Yes, it sucks that lightweight travel specific clothes are so expensive, but believe me, they are worth it.  I brought 5 shirts on my trip, which was in 2008-2009, and I still have and wear all 5 nearly 4 years later.

Layers are your friend.  So are lightweight, moisture wicking clothes.

Trip notes

5 must-sees in South America

  • Machu Picchu (Peru) - This classic Incan site is one of the most touristy places in the world, but that’s because it truly is one of the most magical, memorable places not only in South America, but the world
  • Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia) - The Salt Flats tour in Bolivia will make you feel like you’re on another planet.  Truly one of the most unique places on Earth.
  • Parque Nacional Tayrona (Colombia) - Tayrona is a tropical paradise located on the Caribbean coast of Colombia.  If you avoid high season, you can have any number of beaches all to yourself while sleeping in a hammock at night for about $5-10USD.
  • Iguazu Falls (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay) - If you’ve ever been to Niagara, that will seem like a drippy faucet compared to the monstrosity that is Iguazu, which straddles the borders of three different countries.
  • Patagonia (Argentina and Chile) - If you’re any kind of outdoor-lover, then visiting Patagonia should be on your bucket list.  There aren’t many more impressive landscapes that what you’ll find in the southern reaches of Argentina and Chile.

South America budget

On the cheap

If you’re traveling on a budget, South America is a great place to stretch your dollar. Some countries are cheaper than others (Bolivia is probably cheapest as backpackers can get by on about $20USD per day while Brazil is most expensive at closer to $50USD per day – all others fall somewhere in between). Budget travelers can find dorm beds for as low as $5USD in some countries with private rooms starting around $15-20USD. If you’re really watching your budget, you can get by for as low as $25 per day.

Mid-range

We were more mid-range travelers when we were in South America. We almost always stayed in private rooms, did pretty much everything we wanted from an activities standpoint, ate out when we wanted (but still cooked plenty of our own meals), and took two flights within the region. We averaged $44USD per day per person (in 2008-2009) and were pretty comfortable. Keep in mind we were in Patagonia during the height of high season, paid about $900USD for our Inca Trail hike, and also rented an apartment in Buenos Aires for a month.  On a mid-range budget, which will have you staying in private, ensuite rooms, eating meals out at least once a day, and taking part in pretty much any activity you want, you could get by on about $35-50USD/day.

To read more about about South America and to book rooms and trips, check out the following links:

5 ways to get your heart pumping in New Zealand

  • Bungee jumping- There are a multitude of places to take part in this adrenaline pumping activity that was born here, but Queensland is the most popular.
  • Skydiving- There aren’t many more dramatic landscapes to jump out of a plane over.
  • Ice Climbing- You know what’s cool? Glaciers. You know what’s even cooler? Ice climbing on glaciers.
  • White water rafting- Want to raft over the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world? You can do this right outside of Rotorua.
  • Zorbing – Another activity born in New Zealand, zorbing involves getting into a giant blown up ball and tumbling down a hill. You can do it either wet or dry.

New Zealand budget

On the cheap

Traveling around New Zealand on a backpackers budget can be difficult, but it can be done. There is plenty of opportunity for camping to offset accommodation and restaurant costs. Tourist buses are more affordable than renting a car or campervan. And if you limit your adventure activities, you can probably get by on $75USD per day.  In most places in New Zealand, you can get a dorm bed for around $15USD/day.  Keep food costs down by going to one of the many grocery stores and utilizing hostel/campground kitchens.

Mid-range

If you’d like to have your own wheels, sleep indoors most of the time, eat out at restaurants some of the time, enjoy the delicious wine available, and take part in some adventure activities, then plan on spending closer to $100-150USD per day. Keep in mind that prices do change with the seasons. Summer months are going to be more expensive than the shoulder seasons.

If you’d like to have your own wheels, sleep indoors most of the time, eat out at restaurants some of the time, enjoy the delicious wine available, and take part in some adventure activities, then plan on spending closer to $100-150USD per day.

To read more about about New Zealand and to book rooms and trips, check out the following links:

5 things to eat/drink in Southeast Asia

  • Any street food - If you like food, street food in particular, there aren’t many places in the world better. Wander around  Bangkok for amazing street meals for the equivalent of $1USD.
  • Pho - This Vietnamese specialty is a great way to start off your day.  This beef noodle soup is typically eaten for breakfast by the Vietnamese, and it can be found all over the country.  Best eaten on the street sitting on tiny plastic chairs and using the plethora of herbs and spices available.
  • Durian - This stinky fruit is a specialty of Southeast Asia.  If you’re walking around and catch a whiff of what smells like hot garbage, that’s durian.  Not for the feint of heart.
  • Fried bugs - Found all over the region, fried insects of all kinds are on offer.  Grab a bag for a snack and freak out your friends and family back home.  They really aren’t as bad as they look or sound.
  • Bia Hoi - You will see this phrase written on signs outside makeshift bars all over Vietnam.  It’s basically a home-brewed beer that is sold for about 25-30 cents.  A great way to break up your day of sight-seeing or get drunk for cheap.

Southeast Asia budget

On the cheap

Southeast Asia has been on the backpacking trail for decades, and one of the biggest reasons is because of the affordability.  The most hard-core backpackers claim that they can get by on $10-15USD per day, but if you actually want to see and do some things, plan on spending closer to $25USD.  Beds in dorms can be had for as low as $5USD (and even less in some areas).  Street food meals can cost about a dollar.  And buses and trains are plenty affordable .

Mid-range

If you plan on having a private room, the occasional air conditioned room, and some meals out in an actual restaurant here and there, you will probably spend closer to $35 per day.  This will also afford you the occasional flight with the region and flexibility of taking nicer overland transport from time to time.  We averaged about $20US/night for our accommodation, which always included a private room, mostly with air con, and some of the time with cable tv.  Even if you eat out, as long as you stick to regional food and don’t splurge on western restaurants very often, you can eat meals for $5-10USD.

To read more about about Southeast Asia and to book rooms and trips, check out the following links:

5 ways to deal with touts in India

  • Say “No!” - “No!” will most likely be your most-used word while in India.  Embrace it, say it loudly and confidently.
  • No eye contact - Whatever you do, don’t look the touts directly in the eyes.  While touts aren’t Medusa and you won’t turn to stone by looking them in eyes, sometimes that’s the better alternative.
  • Be clear, direct, and confident - Touts can smell a newbie or someone who has their guard down.  Unfortunately you have to be on your guard at all times if you want the hassles to be kept to a minimum.  So walk with an air of confidence and be direct and confident in your statements and answers.
  • Act like you’ve been there before - Lie.  When a cab or rickshaw driver, or shop owner asks if this is your first time in India, your answer should always be a confident, “No!”  Lie, act like you’ve been here many times before, and you’ll have a much less chance of being hassled to death.
  • Smile - While the previous tips may have scared you off, not all touts, shop-owners, and cab or rickshaw drivers are awful. Sometimes a big smile and the Indian head waggle can go a long way in being transformed from being looked at like a big dollar sign.

India budget

On the cheap

India is another one of those regions that can be done on a super low budget. Like Southeast Asia, the most bare-boned travelers can get by on $10-15USD per day, but if you want a bit of comfort, plan on spending closer to $20-25. Mumbai was surprisingly expensive, as budget accommodations are difficult to find, so keep that in mind when planning your trip.

Mid-range

If you prefer private rooms, restaurants, and the opportunity to sit in 1st or 2nd class on trains instead of 3rd or taking public buses everywhere, you’ll have to up your budget closer to $30-40USD per day. This will give you the opportunity to stay in some pretty nice places and not have to always rely on street food for your meals (though eating street food is highly encouraged no matter how high a budget you are traveling on).

To read more about about India and to book rooms and trips, check out the following links:

Have you visited any of these regions as part of a longer trip? Do you hope to? Comment below to share your stories or tell us what you’re looking forward to.

manifesto - value discovery over escape

Photo credits: Martin St-Amant, Alexander Klink, ruben i, all others courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.

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Leave a Comment

  • Cassidy Knotts said at 2013-07-22T12:37:45+0000: I noticed you're starting out traveling west. Is there some benefit to going this way vs. traveling east. Also, how does it work with booking your tickets. Do you pay an up front price for the number of stops you want to make or do you pay as you go?
  • Girc Survillo said at 2013-07-24T15:20:09+0000: shouldn't Chile fall into NZ 'expense category"?
  • Antonino Dominguez said at 2012-04-25T14:17:00+0000: Goog info. thank you!
  • Fabian Walker said at 2012-04-25T10:42:56+0000: Another informative resource for all things concerning "travel budget" is www.eardex.com. It works like a wiki for prices in all the towns and cities, regions and countries of the world.