Ask A Traveler: Alison Lao
RTW 2016/7, Travel Tips
With the departure date of my 1st ever Around The World (RTW) Trip just a mere months away, I wanted to tap into the collective hive mind of some my most traveled friends to get some key insights and wisdom on life, sanity and survival on the road. For the complete series of interviews, please click here.
EVERYONE, MEET ALISON. ALISON, MEET EVERYONE.
Alison hails from the lone star state in the USA and is fresh off a 30 country, 8 month career break around the world. As soon as I decided that I wanted to start picking my friends’ brains about long term travel, she was the first that came to mind! Without further adieu, here’s my interview with Alison who shared some great nuggets of travel advice.
The thing I’m most concerned about is packing. What was the thing you packed that you didn’t use at all and wished you didn’t bring with you?
Interesting one. I bought a camp towel that I was very excited about, but it sucked. I ended up just renting towels from the hostel most of the time. You’ll spend a few extra dollars renting towels each time but it’s much more convenient and takes up less space.
What kind of bag did you bring? Backpack? Rollerboard?
I had a carry-on size suitcase and a good sized backpack. I was hoping to use the suitcase as just a carry-on but it was usually overweight and I ended up checking it in most of the time.
“…the only time I got a local SIM was in Vietnam because I was there for 30 days and it cost me a whopping US$13 for 30 days of service!”
Did you think T-Mobile’s free worldwide roaming for US subscribers was worth it? I’ve used it abroad and it’s incredibly slow. Did you also try and get local SIM cards to use?
I loved T-Mobile’s service. Maybe I just got used to the slower speeds. I did get LTE in a few places such as Beijing and London. It was also good in Singapore and fine in Malaysia. I used it so much, especially for maps and the occasional phone call. It was so annoying when my travel companions always had to run and get a SIM at the airport every time. However, the only time I got a local SIM was in Vietnam because I was there for 30 days and it cost me a whopping US$13 for 30 days of service!!
How did you go about budgeting for your trip? Did you have a per day, or per country budget?
I’m not an extreme budgeter by any means. I just had a per day number to know how much I went over/under. This involved taking my overall budget and dividing by the 8 months of my trip. I ended up going way under and slashing my budget halfway. In the end, I settled for somewhere around US$100/day. On the road, I met lots of people who were doing it more in the US$50/day range. Overall, I spent about US$20,000 including flights, although I did pay for some with airline miles/points. What was helpful was opening a separate bank account for my travel funds and keeping my “other” money separate. From there, I watched my travel money go down, down, down.
Did you try and make extra money on the road working under the table?
Nope. I know some people will work at the hostel but I just wanted to enjoy myself.
How did you plan your day?
I didn’t really. I planned my first destination (New Zealand) really hard, but then just went with the flow from there. Hostels and people you meet on the road will have great recommendations for the area you’re in or are going to. Also, what helped me was traveling with friends who are really invested and do a lot of the planning! Personally, I found it more helpful to actually be in the country and then research all the things I wanted to do and see. After a while, it seemed to make more sense that way with a better frame of reference.
What is the thing you packed that was most useful?
External battery pack with 4 full charges for my iPhone. It was great for long train/bus rides but also good because I would leave it charging at the hostel while I was out, and then charge my phone with it under my pillow while I slept.
“If you’re going to places with very different climates, I suggest just pack for the first half then buy what you need for the other.”
What did you do for footwear?
I brought 3 pairs of shoes. A pair of Nikes, sandals, and either Toms or boots depending on weather. I wish I took a before and after picture of the Nikes. 8 months of almost everyday wear is rough. Hiking boots would’ve been nice sometimes, but they are so heavy and bulky. If you’re going to places with very different climates, I suggest just pack for the first half then buy what you need for the other. It was a pain to carry stuff that I didn’t need till much later in my trip.
What is your jacket situation?
Nico: I have a North Face rain jacket. I love it because it is light and fairly warm. I’m also hoping my body fat will help me here. Haha.
Right, that is sort of what I had too. The one I have is tri-climate and there is a layer that zips in/out. Ha! Body fat is indeed a good jacket!
Come to think of it, plan on getting an umbrella also. Something as light as possible obviously. A rain jacket is nice but there’s no substitute for a real umbrella. I ended up getting a cheap one from H&M that is really small and light.
I get paranoid about clean water and someone suggested I buy a hand water purifier. Did you have ever problems with access to clean water?
No problems, whatsoever. The places where you can’t drink tap water will usually have bottled water in abundance. I had my camelbak bottle but I wish I had one of those soft bottles, seems less bulky
“It was exciting to go somewhere where the food wasn’t too enticing which made cooking a viable option. The meals I cooked were mostly spaghetti, with ramen occasionally.”
What was one way you unexpectedly found to save you money? I know you had a house sitting gig in Singapore that saved you money on accommodation.
Yes, that house sitting opportunity was a major help when I was in Singapore. Other than that, nothing else really comes to mind. To be honest, I didn’t really skimp at all. I guess the few meals I cooked saved me money. It was exciting to go somewhere where the food wasn’t too enticing which made cooking a viable option. The meals I cooked were mostly spaghetti, with ramen occasionally. The food in New Zealand, where I started, was not all that special. I had a few good meals of steak and lamb, but otherwise I would have been happy cooking more often and saving my cash for places with much better food like Paris. On the other hand, Vietnam is crazy cheap. You probably could not spend a lot of money there even if you tried.
Did you book your accommodation the entire time you were in a city or did you hop from place to place?
Usually the entire time. Constantly moving is a pain. On occasion, there were times when I didn’t like the place so I would move, or if I wanted to experience another part of town and it made more sense to stay in the area also. Fortunately, almost all hostels will let you cancel your booking with 24 hours notice.
Did you ever feel like you needed your space and get a hotel or private room?
Yes, quite often actually. I’m used to living alone and staying in a hostel was a big change. A few times here and there, I would get a private room mostly to spread my stuff out and to have my own shower. I did not do this very often as it can get very expensive. Luckily, I had my own place in Vietnam! I was there for a month and I rented a room with an attached bath in a private residence for US$135/month! This was in Hue which is a more rural part of Vietnam. It worked out great as my home base to then branch out to neighboring cities on the weekends.
Making friends down under!
Making friends down under!
How did you handle laundry and how many changes of clothes did you bring?
I love laundry so much. It will become one of the best feelings on the road. In Asia, people will do your laundry for super cheap. In Europe, I strategically spaced out my AirBnB rentals so I would have a washer in between hostel stays. I packed a fair amount of clothes but still did laundry every 7 to 10 days because it is so much easier to pack everything clean. It all worked out well for me as I was usually traveling with someone in Europe and AirBnB can be similar in price to a hostel after you split the costs. I have a funny story for you. I know a girl who traveled with only four pairs of underwear. FOUR!!! She said she hand washed them when she showered. It took a while to wrap my brain around it. Why skimp on underwear since it doesn’t take up much room?
“Trips like these turn into one big blur and the pictures will help jog a lot of memories.”
What is something you wish you had but never procured whilst traveling?
I sort of wish I had a GoPro for its waterproof picture taking capabilities. I’m pretty lazy with my photography so I made do with my iPhone. When it is all said and done, you will be thankful for having lots of pictures. Trips like these turn into one big blur and the pictures will help jog a lot of memories.
Walk me through the few days before and after landing at a new place. How did you settle in and find your bearings?
Firstly, always star your hostel (or where you’re staying) on Google Maps. This helps when there is a bad connection and the map doesn’t load, but the star will always be there for you to make your way to. After I landed, I always went straight to the hostel to take off my heavy backpack. Sometimes, I would arrive before check-in time which meant I couldn’t make my way to my room but I still could put my bag down and store it. Next, I usually chat up anyone I can find in the hostel, get some recommendations and then see if anyone else wants to go explore or grab food.
Were you concerned about your safety at certain times?
Not really. Then again, I played it pretty safe. The only times I felt unsafe, I was being dumb.
“You will figure it out and get creative with your communication. My English was getting pretty bad after 4 months in Asia, often speaking using just keywords. I had to ramp my English language skills back up when I arrived in Europe!”
How did you go about bridging the language gap?
It was rough at times, especially as an Asian American in Asia who does not speak another language other than English. With that said, I was having so much fun that it did not really matter. You will figure it out and get creative with your communication. My English was getting pretty bad after 4 months in Asia, often speaking using just keywords. I had to ramp my English language skills back up when I arrived in Europe!
Now that I think about it, Vietnam was rough. I was with a friend who could speak the language almost the entire time. One night she got a headache and didn’t join for me dinner, leaving me to my own devices. I almost went hungry that night! In this particular situation, I recommend going to places with pictures or where the food is sitting out. This was not much of a problem in the bigger cities like Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, but I spent most of my time in Hue which, as I mentioned earlier, is quite rural.
In general, the younger generation knows at least SOME English and I usually approached them if I needed some sort of help. The language gap is frustrating, but not the end of the world. If someone heard you speaking in English, they’ll get it and try to speak back in English as well, but sometimes that makes you a target for getting ripped off. Back to my experience in Vietnam, you can get a coconut for 5,000 Dong (US$0.25), but I saw a foreigner being charged 50,000 Dong (only US$2 but still a 10x markup). When I was buying something, I usually didn’t speak till after I paid for the item to not give myself away.
How much cash did you carry?
I’m so bad with cash. Basically, as little as possible! Places like Vietnam was very cash-heavy. If I remember right, I would pull out enough for a week or two but leave most of it where I was staying. I lose cash so easily and am admittedly quite irresponsible. This is why I tried using my credit card as much as possible! Before I left, I opened a Charles Schwab Bank Investor Checking Account that had free International ATM withdrawals which helped a great deal!
Thanks so much, Alison! Lastly, as a way to cap off her amazing journey, she created this inspirational video titled “Running Around The World 2015”.