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Around the World in Four Easy Lessons

By Maryann Haggerty
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 13, 2009

We did laundry in Honolulu, Hong Kong and Madrid.

Oh, and in a bathtub in Bali.

This summer, my husband and I, both well past backpacker age, traveled around the world in 29 days. That's an average of less than four days in each of the eight countries we visited. It was exhilarating, exhausting and, of course, the trip of a lifetime.

I could drone on about the splendor of the Taj Mahal at dawn, the sensory assault of Tokyo's Shinjuku district at night and the welcoming off-hours ambiance of that dim little heavy-metal bar in Barcelona. But don't worry. I know what you really want to know: How did we plan this? And what did we pack?

We learned a notebook's worth of lessons: Fly east to west, don't take a trip like this unless your marriage is strong and, perhaps most important, yes, it's possible to travel around the world even when, like most Americans', your vacation time is scarce.

Lesson No. 1: When planning, remember: It's your trip.

Not surprisingly, we cooked up the idea of traveling around the world over a pitcher of beer.

Late last year, we were trying to agree on a really spectacular vacation to commemorate, among other things, a milestone birthday. Southeast Asia? The European Grand Tour? As we sat in our corner bar, we kept adding possibilities, making things more and more complicated, until my husband brought up the big one: Why not around the world?

Yeah, sure. Who has the time for that? Or the money?

Nonetheless, I began reading books and trawling Web sites. There is an accepted template for what's called RTW travel. You must do it slowly -- say, at least six months or a year. You must get off the beaten path, disdaining all those things that regular tourists are there to see, such as renowned museums or the Great Pyramids. You should probably carry a backpack, stay in the cheapest place in town and wash your clothes in the sink.

And you absolutely, positively must go to Thailand.

This didn't work for us. We had jobs we couldn't leave for long. And we didn't see the appeal in sharing cold-water showers in a $10-a-night hostel.

But . . . we could take four weeks. And we actually did have quite a bit of cash saved. If you traveled for a month instead of six months, the hotels could at least have private baths with hot showers. We mapped out dream routes and must-do's until we convinced ourselves that with some tight scheduling we could pull it off. There wouldn't be time to immerse ourselves in any culture for too long or to get too far off the beaten path.

But guess what? We're city people. We wanted to see the skyscrapers of Hong Kong and the masterpieces of the Prado. Call us shallow, but we wanted to see the Taj Mahal.

To buy an RTW ticket, you can work through consolidators, those travel agencies that buy the tiny newspaper ads with the teeny print. Some have established Web operations aimed at independent travelers. You can book prearranged group tours, and even spectacularly expensive RTW cruises.

The international airline alliances -- Oneworld, Star Alliance and SkyTeam -- also sell RTW tickets, each with its own complex rules. I talked with the consolidators, but I also fiddled, sometimes for hours, with the cool Web scheduling tools that Oneworld and Star Alliance provide.

And sometime in March, we had it pinned down: an 11-flight, culture-clash-filled itinerary, stopping only in places new to both of us. There were beaches in Hawaii and Bali, ancient wonders in Egypt and Jordan, city stays in Tokyo and Hong Kong. We jammed in the Taj Mahal and left almost a week for Spain. We actually stretched it a hair beyond four weeks -- that one extra day made the Delhi-to-Amman connection work, at least on paper. And somehow, we did it without a stay in Thailand.

Lesson No. 2: Packing is important, but don't worry -- they'll sell you stuff.

You can buy anything in Hong Kong. Good, because my husband was threatening to burn the denim skirt that I had worn every day for more than a week in Asia.

I liked the skirt. It had plenty of pockets for lugging cameras, maps and more on our long walks. And as temperatures day after day stayed closer to 100 degrees than 90, it was more comfortable than jeans.

With temperatures forecast to keep climbing as we visited India, Jordan and Egypt, jeans were a bad idea. But at least in the Muslim countries, my short skirt wasn't recommended.

What I needed were adventure pants, those super-lightweight synthetic-fabric cargo pants, wrinkle-proof, sun-proof, with pockets inside zippered pockets. Just like the ones that had served me so well on past bird-watching trips in Latin America. In fact, just like the ones in my closet at home.

When we planned this trip, we agreed to do it all with carry-on luggage. Aside from those pesky checked-baggage fees, we didn't want to mess with lost luggage on a schedule that could have us leaving a country before our bags arrived. That meant we each carried a 22-inch wheeled bag, plus a day-bag-size backpack. Some travel gurus sniff at wheeled bags. But our backs are no longer up to lugging duffel bags, and those wheels come in handy if you're spending more time in the corridors of international airports than you are running for a bus along an unpaved African road.

We each kept the weight of our combined bags somewhat under 30 pounds, and that passed muster on each of the five airlines we flew. That meant no dress shoes (wear the sneakers, pack the sandals), one light sweater, a rain jacket, summer-weight clothes and underwear for eight days. The gol' darned TSA bag -- three-ounce bottles of shampoo and all the other liquids in a one-quart zip-lock -- went in the day bag, along with other toiletries, cameras, electronics, airplane reading matter, valuable paperwork and one full change of those clean clothes, just in case.

Forget taking just two sets of clothes and washing one out in the sink each night. A T-shirt might dry overnight in the Jordanian desert, but even the flimsiest of undies is still going to be damp when it rains for days on end in Tokyo. So we hunted down wash-ops along the way. Swanky resorts hide their laundry facilities from the guests and charge outrageously for each piece. But the kind of moderately priced small hotels that cater to middle-class families have guest laundries or nearby laundromats that meet tourist needs. For instance, while the clothes tumbled in the coin-operated dryer in Madrid, we ducked out for tapas and a beer. By trip's end, we had presentable clothes for the final flight, but every other stitch was filthy, so we'd done something right.

No matter how carefully you pack, though, you're going to bring something extra -- perhaps one too many pairs of jeans -- and you're going to forget something -- perhaps a pair of adventure pants.

However, you can buy anything in Hong Kong. A store on Nathan Road had several racks of women's adventure pants, but one big catch: They were all sized for tiny Asian women. In the States, I'm a medium. Here, a medium was barely making it up over my knees.

But remember, you can buy anything in Hong Kong. The saleswoman disappeared into the storeroom a few times before she finally brought out the pants that I wore every day until we reached Europe -- the perfect color, the perfect pockets.

And the perfect size: an XXL.

Lesson No. 3: Technology is great, but you need paper.

At 3:30 a.m., the heavily armed guard at the New Delhi airport departures terminal was in no mood to learn about e-tickets.

I can't imagine that the idea was new to him, living as he does in a nation synonymous with high-tech. But he acted as though it was. The helpful hotel concierge who had accompanied us to the airport showed him our passports and explained over and over that we didn't have paper plane tickets, just electronic ones. That wasn't enough. The guard wanted a ticket.

It was time for the red folder.

Before we left the States, I printed out every hotel confirmation e-mail, every driver's phone number, every set of directions to shuttle buses and train stations. I scanned our passports, sent the images to Gmail and printed out extra copies. I printed at least a half-dozen copies of our airline itinerary as it appeared on the American Airlines Web site. And I put all those many sheets of paper, arranged in chronological order, in a red paper folder, the kind you buy a grade-school kid for 69 cents. It lived in the outside pocket of my little backpack.

With a flourish, I pulled out a copy of the itinerary, with our names, the date, everything. This document was no more official than any other printout in my folder, but the guard examined it closely and decided that we had a right to be where we were supposed to be.

We could not have planned this trip without the Internet. But technology isn't infallible, so you need backups. We approached that in a number of ways, some more successful than others.

For instance, books are heavy. To lighten our burden of thinly sliced trees, we loaded dozens of books, mostly freebie classics, onto a Kindle (for my husband) and an iPod Touch (for me). But you're not allowed to use either of these 21st-century marvels during takeoff and landing. They're not so hot poolside, either. So we agreed that we could each take one old-fashioned paperback that we would throw out when we finished. I think we each cheated and took two. But at least we got rid of some of the paper.

We had less luck with guidebooks. To cut that weight, we downloaded PDFs of relevant Lonely Planet chapters and stored them on the iPod. We packed just a few teeny-tiny paperback city guides, the kind that really do fit into a back pocket, and bought more along the way.

It turns out that reading long PDFs on an iPod screen is almost as difficult as deciphering detailed city maps on that same screen. And the Cairo guidebook we were able to find in Egypt wasn't much help with the Arabic signs in the subway system, and even less help when we got lost walking around the Zamalek neighborhood on a morning so hot and smoggy you couldn't see the banks of the Nile. At that point, I longed for a paper Lonely Planet.

Lesson No. 4: Even when things don't go according to plan, it can be cool.

Once we finally got past that guard at the airport in Delhi, I was ready to leave India. The Taj Mahal was breathtaking, but temperatures for two days had been flirting with an outrageously hot 45 degrees Celsius (I didn't want to do the math -- it comes to 113 degrees Fahrenheit) and Indian traffic had left my nerves raw. Also, it was not quite 4 a.m.

Unfortunately, the plane we were supposed to take to Jordan was canceled. I'll skip the dramatics and get to the point: This is why we bought travel insurance. It meant that we didn't have to pay for our extra day in Delhi. If the delay had run into another day, it would have covered that, too. After a nap back at our hotel, I hit the international phone lines to cancel what I had been assured was our charming little hotel in Amman -- the one recommended by a friend who used to live there. We arranged instead to have a driver pick us up at the Amman airport the next day and go directly to Petra, the ancient city of jaw-dropping red-rock ruins that was our main reason for the Jordan stop. I regret losing that day in Jordan, but at least we didn't lose any unbudgeted money.

Many long-term travelers keep their plans loose, in good part to keep costs down. They don't book rooms until they arrive at their destination; they haggle with drivers on the spot; they keep their flight plans as flexible as the airlines allow. When I have plenty of time, I'll do the same.

But four weeks was all we had, so we made all our reservations ahead, via the Internet, except for a few hotel nights in Bali and Barcelona. We studied up on airport-to-city public transit, or we arranged for drivers to meet our flights. I'm sure finding local rooms and local buses might have been cheaper, but it wasn't worth it to me.

To keep ourselves oriented, we filled our notebooks in advance with salient facts about each destination: language, time zones and more. My husband printed one little spreadsheet that was an anchor as we hopped among countries with vastly different customs (how much to tip?), currencies (About 100 to the dollar, like in Japan? Or about 10,000, like in Indonesia?) and latitudes (sunset was 7:56 p.m. in Cairo; the next night in Madrid, it was 9:46 p.m.)

And because of the travel insurance, the 24-hour flight delay wasn't a crisis. We spent the time in our air-conditioned hotel, eating Indian food, sitting by the pool, checking e-mail and decompressing, something that definitely hadn't been on the carefully arranged schedule for that day.

Maryann Haggerty is a former Washington Post writer and editor. Her blog from this trip is at http://tinyurl.com/rtw29. She will join the Travel Talk chat Monday at 2 p.m. on http://www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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