Some people spend months or years planning their big trip. These are usually more the “quitting my job and spending a year traveling the world” types. My preparation went more like saying I was thinking about doing it, saying I was going to do it, buying a guidebook, then buying my plane ticket a day before I took off for a week and half in California and New York, where I obviously did little in the way of planning. For me, planning has been mostly baby steps and procrastination. But it’s worth noting the things I did (or intended to do) to get ready for this trip.

Shots, pills and general health

Lucky for me, I had been in South America a few years ago and my trip to the travel clinic mostly confirmed that pretty much all my shots were up to date. My typhoid was expired but, being the needle hater I am, I opted for the slightly more involved but also longer lasting typhoid pills. Of course, I still found myself loaded down with pills, pills, pills. Malarone for malaria. (For treatment only – 14 pills vs. what, 99 for preventative?! I knew I wasn’t going to be in a lot of high risk areas anyways.) Cipro for traveler’s diarrhea, Diamox for altitude sickness. Then of course pills for pains, headaches, migraines, cold/flu, allergies, and on and on. Deet, sunscreen, anti-itch cream. I nicely assembled a small pharmacy that I grudgingly carried in the bottom of my bag, just in case.

Insurance

This is a biggie. In case you get blinded or dismembered, it’s good to have someone to help you out with those outrageous medical bills. It’s also good to have someone who’ll cover you if find yourself in need of an emergency evacuation, fall deathly ill, or are writhing with pain in need of a root canal (been there, done that…luckily it was in Thailand where, while miserable, it is a pretty cheap deal). If you’re lucky, they might even help you if your stuff is stolen, you need to cancel your trip to visit a sick relative at home, etc. I, of course, agonized over the array of options before finally settling on the constantly recommended World Nomads, less than a week before my departure.

Added note: I was lucky enough to never have to use my travel insurance, and I know it can be a bit excruciating paying so much for something you think you’ll never have to use (especially when you’re on a budget and the insurance alone can end up being 10% of your spending!), but I can now give one very good example of why it’s worth it. Hiking in Kings Canyon (in the Australian Outback, near Uluru) we came across a woman who had fallen and broken her hip. High up in the canyon, the only way to get her out safely was by emergency helicopter airlift. Beyond that, we were in the middle of nowhere. She’d need the Royal Flying Doctors to come and fly her away to a far off hospital. The cost (of just the emergency evacuation)? $20,000. That’s a time when you’re definitely going to be happy for travel insurance!

Research

I went very back and forth in how motivated I was to do research for this trip. I had two guide books, Lonely Planet‘s South America on a Shoestring and Rough Guide‘s South America on a Budget (brand new edition compared to LP’s older one, but generally far less informative in my opinion). Through scouring the Thorn Tree forum, reading travel sites, and having a general idea already of what I wanted to see and do, I knew more or less the countries I wanted to focus on and read through the corresponding chapters of my guidebooks. When I was into it I would underline and copy down notes on what I was interested in, other times I just scanned through the pages. All in all, I was able to plot out a general itinerary, leaving plenty of room to fill in the gaps and discover some places outside the pages of a guidebook. I still think guidebooks are valuable resources to have (guidelines on tipping, how to get from here to there, key phrases, price ranges, cultural facts, etc.), and I like to rip out the chapters of the countries I’m visiting so I don’t have to lug heavy books around.

Learning the language

I studied Spanish in high school and would say I was pretty good at it (always better at reading and writing than speaking and listening, though). I also took a semester of it my freshman year of college and was told I had great potential and should consider it as a major or minor. Of course, I ignored that I went on to study a year of Italian and spend a semester in Florence. You might think that Italian is similar enough to aid you in retaining your Spanish, but in reality it’s similar enough to totally throw you off and make you unsure what language what words belong in. My plan was to spend the summer studying Spanish intensively. Well, that never happened. I listened to 10-20 minutes of Spanish language learning CDs or podcasts once every 3-4 weeks and spent one especially motivated week reading through a “Teach Yourself Spanish” book for 30-45 minutes each day. It is what it is. Instead I let it to the hope that I would be immersed in the language enough for the three months I was there that most of what I used to know would come back to me and enable me to build up my confidence and skills in speaking the language. Did it? Well, sorta. I wouldn’t say I got anywhere near fluent, but I did get better. Especially after a couple beers. And then I went home and forgot it all again. Such is life.

Packing

In general, I am a pretty good packer and can easily pack much less than many others I know. But as far as packing for backpacking, the longest I previously ever had to pack for at once was a month and a half. Not that there’s really much difference when it comes down to durations of 6 weeks or 13 weeks. Once you get over a couple weeks of traveling, you’re just going to be reusing the same stuff or buying new things along the way. Still, it was a bit worrying, especially when considering the huge variances in temperatures and environments I would be encountering — well below freezing temperatures in the Andes and altiplano versus high temperatures and humidity in the jungle and other areas. I basically tried to list and gather all the things I thought I needed, perused packing lists online for ideas of things I might be forgetting, and then it was a matter of getting what I didn’t have, laying everything out and picking and choosing what I really needed and didn’t need. This is a topic worthy of attention, so I devoted a whole article to Tips on Packing.

Making a backup plan

A lot of people say don’t bring anything with you that you couldn’t stand to lose. I should warn you now that this will be a bit of a rant/digression. I have lost (or had stolen) tons of things on the road. Nice travel adapters and towels, flip flops, guidebooks, my beloved Kathmandu fleece jacket, two digital cameras*, an ipod, my cherished Claddagh ring. (Which I lost my third day in New Zealand and actually somehow found again, despite all the searching I’d done after its loss, on my last day in the country — on the floor, in the airport, where it must have somehow mysteriously fallen out of my bag…weird moment.) They’re lost to early mornings getting ready and packing in the dark in a hostel dorm room, to forgetfulness or lack of caution and attention when out for dinner or dancing, and, unfortunately, to determined thieves.

While I lament some more than others (anyone who knew me knew about my despair over my lost Kathmandu fleece that I literally wore every day in the NZ and Aussie winter), the thing I was most upset about was something I could have done more to preserve: my photos. During a month-long trip through southern Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, I had two digital cameras stolen within two weeks. The first was mostly my fault, my purse was stolen when I wasn’t keeping a careful enough eye on it (I, however, did receive the purse, along with my wallet and IDs — sans camera and money — in the mail at my Thai university a week later). The second was a masterful theft; despite my caution and sleeping with my purse as a pillow on a night bus to Jakarta, someone still managed to steal my camera and ipod, as well as those of my two traveling companions, and replace them with bottles of juice of a similar weight and size so we wouldn’t notice. Obviously it was a well-planned scheme.

Personal stories aside, I do have a point. For me, my pictures are one of my most treasured prizes from my journeys. They help sustain and ignite my memories and always bring a smile to my face. So losing pictures from some of my favorite places and best times was a really tough loss that I’m still a little bitter about. That’s why you need a backup plan. If your pictures (or something else) are just as treasured to you, make a strong effort to protect them.

On my South America trip, I took a number of precautions. I kept all my photos on my netbook, as well as saved on a USB stick, which I kept on my person in my money belt at all times (and by all times I mean basically when I was traveling on a bus or something and couldn’t keep it locked up somewhere safe). I also did my best to upload all my favorite and most important photos to an online storage site (I used adrive, which was free but incredibly slow uploading photos; if you have a paid flickr membership, that may be better) where I could store them at original size and quality and download to my computer at home upon returning. This also meant making time to upload my pictures as often as possible, especially after exceptionally good days with lots of pictures. Again, I’m sure this seems overboard to many people, but it’s something I’m passionate about and have thought about a great deal! I promise I’m not overly paranoid, but perhaps a little jaded and therefore ridiculously motivated to guard my photos. (Of course, I should have kept up this paranoia on all my trips, no matter how short or seemingly safe, since I then would have my photos from Jordan.) Anyways, I don’t mean to say that you should be constantly worrying, but do take care and extra effort to protect anything you may take along that is of special importance to you. (And of course take care and protect yourself!)

Oh, and I know money belts seem dorky, but here’s my opinion: don’t get the around the neck kind. It looks stupid and someone can still cut the neck holder part. And I never, ever understood why so many people wore them outside their clothing. Not only do you look even stupider, but you’re basically begging to be robbed. Personally, I use the actual money belt (meaning worn around the hips/waist), which isn’t visible at all under jeans. I pretty much only wear it when I’m traveling between places and only keep my passport, extra/emergency money, credit cards (if I won’t need them), and USB in it. No need to have to reach into it and draw any attention to it while you’re wearing it. You’re all good!

Hitting the road!

Overall, planning can be as big or small a part of your trip as you want. Some people are happier to just take off with a one way flight and minimal preparation. Others prefer to have every detail catered to and every minute planned. With a little practice and experience, it’s easy to find your own methods and philosophy and to figure out what parts are most important to you. Once you’re out on the road, you’ll be glad for a little pre-planning, but for the most part you’ll find that all bets are off anyway. Things can never be exactly what you expect. New problems or detours, ideas or opportunities, are always popping up, and that’s what makes travel so adventurous, exciting and fun!

*UPDATE: Make that THREE digital cameras stolen. On a week-long vacation to Jordan with my boyfriend, I let my guard down (the danger of traveling with a companion!) and had my camera (and entire purse) stolen on our last day, right before we left for the airport. We also hadn’t brought laptops or used any internet cafes or anything on our vacation so my pictures weren’t backed up anywhere. I didn’t take my own advice and despairing lost incredible photos of us exploring Petra, frolicking in the desert, and floating around in the Dead Sea. A tragedy, but also a really crazy and interesting story, as this was my first experience having my passport stolen.