Written by: Colin
Visas were by far the most challenging piece of planning for travel. We wish we’d started collecting these a year sooner instead of wasting time with Pokemon Go. Visas take a lot of precise planning, paperwork, and can get very expensive. We learned a lot of lessons in planning and tricks to help others out in the future. Another challenge is that countries are constantly changing their requirements. Reciprocity is the standard where if the US charges another country’s citizens to enter the US or has a lot of paperwork requirements, that country will do the same for American citizens. The era of Trump made visas even less predictable as countries mirror the travel limitations Trump enacts.
We collected visa requirement information for every country that’s reasonably safe to visit from the US State Department website and each country’s US embassy website. Be prepared for frustration and unclear requirements and translations. To acquire visas for these 160 countries, it would’ve costed us about $6,000 each for just the fees on the visas, not including any additional expedite fees, photos, and mailing costs. Many countries give you the option of acquiring a visa at the border or online. In this post though, we’ll focus on the countries that require you to get a visa in advance by mailing your passport to embassies or consulates. At the time of this post, about 40 countries require visas in advance with varied requirements for application time frames, paperwork, and itineraries. For those visas, you must send off your visa to an embassy or have someone personally walk in the passport. Those 40 countries account for $4,100 of the visa costs and most were in Central Asia and Africa. We rearranged our macro travel plans to give us more time to acquire visas and scaled back our expectations for what’s feasible or within the budget.
Get a Second US Passport
If you need more than 5 visas or are in a rush, get a second US passport as soon as possible. It’s not advertised or common but the US allows folks to get a second passport to help with visas and to strategically use certain passports in certain countries to avoid being blocked in the Middle East after visiting Israel. The second passport is only good for 2 years and costs the same as a standard passport renewal ($110 each). There are accurate instructions for the steps online. Google these and follow them precisely.
With a second passport, you can travel with one passport while the other is sent around to collect visas for your next continent. The tricky part is shipping around the world and making sure you use the right passport in the right order at border crossings to not freak out border patrol personnel. There are also clear guides on Google for how to do this.
Since it takes so long to collect visas for western African countries, we mapped out our plan to travel with our primary 10 year passport while the secondary passport collects visas for a year straight. We’ll coordinate shipping the passports internationally to family friends in Israel and then travel with the 2 passports thereafter. The additional benefit here is that even with passports with additional pages, we’re concerned about running out of space since many countries require 2 open pages for visas and additional space for stamps. Two passports with extra pages assuages this concern.
Itineraries for Visa Applications
Many countries require an itinerary with plane flights and some even require hotel information. If you are planning a long trip with multiple countries, you shouldn’t have flights booked and dates set in stone yet in order to give yourself some flexibility. This presents a big paperwork challenge for getting visas. You have a couple options for satisfying this paperwork requirement. First, I’ve read that it’s not necessary to actually book a flight and you can use screen shots of potential itineraries from Google Flights for instance but have not tried this because we don’t have the time to risk a visa rejection. Second, you can actually book the flight and get a real itinerary and ticket number and then cancel the flight for a refund. It’s now an FAA requirement that air travel passengers have the ability to cancel a flight within 24 hours of booking for a full refund. I’ve heard of friends using this rule to purchase a flight, use the real itinerary for paperwork, then cancel the flight within 24 hours for a full refund. This tactic requires a credit card with a large enough cap to float multiple expensive plane flights. If you don’t have the credit flexibility, there’s an industry that’s popped up to help. There are a few companies who take on the credit risk for a fee to the traveler. They book the flight and/or hotel so that you have a real ticket number and you pay them $5 to $10 for the service.
A few more miscellaneous tips:
Written by: Colin
Gauge how connected you want to be. You can get away with not even having a cell phone like our ancestors or you can have access to Netflix streaming all over the world. Choose where you want to be on that spectrum to start off on the right foot. T-Mobile, Google’s Project Fi, and an unlocked phone with a local SIM card are the 3 primary options.
T-Mobile has an impressive international presence with various plans for levels of data use and connectivity needs. At the time of this article, you could get their Cadillac international plan for $75 per month which gives you unlimited data and mobile hotspot capabilities to connect your other devices through your phone. This option is great if you plan to use a lot of data.
Project Fi is Google’s phone network that aims to keep your phone service as simple as possible. Their service bounces between carriers based on whichever one has better coverage in your location. Internationally, that means Google basically uses T-Mobile’s international network so availability by country is nearly identical. The cost model is simple at $25 per month per phone and $10 per gigabyte of data. The caveat is that you have to bring your own Google Nexus or Pixel phone. You aren’t locked into a plan and there are no odd billing practices or phone subsidies. This option is appealing for folks who use 2-3 GB of data each month.
Going local means you buy an unlocked phone and use local SIM cards in it. Each country or region you go to has different carriers and you can buy cards that are preloaded with a certain amount of data. When you run out, you can buy another card. It’s a pay as you go system but you have to sort out local carriers and cell plans as you travel. This will give you the most connectivity at a potentially lower cost but requires a lot of planning and coordination region to region. If you time your travels well, you can end your contract with a carrier like Verizon and have an unlocked phone at the end of your 2 year contract.
The big question is how necessary is your connectivity? $75 per month adds up and eats into your travel budget. If you don’t consume much data, then other options may fit better. You may even be able to get away with no cell service at all and just soak up free wifi in the areas you travel through.
Written by: Colin
Make money off your spending! Be deliberate about the credit cards you bring with you on your travels. Make sure you don’t have a card that charges international fees. Balance the card types so that you get 2% to 3% returns from your spending. There are countless blogs and entire companies dedicated to smart use of credit card points and benefits. My simple guidance here is to work the numbers. Apply your budget and gauge how much you realistically think you’ll be able to put on a credit card in far off places. Don’t be fooled by big perks and sign on bonuses but monster annual fees for a card you aren’t able to use as much. There’s a sweet spot for spending and perks and your spending patterns on a long term trip won’t be like the folks who can bounce through credit cards and earn free first class flights and hotel stays in 5 star resorts. My advice is to build up points in advance and keep it simple while on the road so that you can focus on bigger things.
After a lot of research, we ended up pairing the Chase Sapphire Reserve for all travel and dining expenses with USAA’s 1.5-2.5% cash back rewards card for everything else. This lets us both keep some credit history while getting better returns on all types of spending without too much headache of watching categories. At the time of this post, the Chase Sapphire was offering 100k points with a number of other outstanding travel benefits coupled with a hefty $450 annual fee. On the other hand, the USAA cash card had no fee and simple cash back returns with no foreign transaction fees which are less common for cash back cards.
Written by: Colin
Virtual Private Networks are essentially a security tool for anonymizing your connection to public internet by adding a layer of connection between your PC and the internet source you want to connect to. They’ve been around for years and are more commonplace in the business world but becoming more popular for wary consumers. For example, when you google “restaurants” while at home, you get a list of places within a few blocks of where you live. With a VPN enabled, you can choose which server you are connecting through around the world so googling “restaurants” could give you a list of places in Toronto if you’ve chosen a server in this city to connect through. The practical use for this service ranges from protection and security to convenience. Security-wise, when connecting to large public networks, a VPN stops other folks on the network from intercepting your data and gaining your personal information. VPNs also make it tough for folks to track you online, thus practically preventing the creepy tailored advertisements you see on your facebook feed after a little online shopping. One other benefit that’s gradually going away is that VPNs can help you get around censorship (China’s great firewall for instance) and geo-restrictions (Netflix content availability in different countries) but with questionable legality and ethics. Regardless of use, VPNs are a solid security tool for safer internet use while travelling.
For my VPN, I chose Keep Solid’s VPN Unlimited. I found a great deal on their lifetime service for 5 devices and snapped it up. VPN Unlimited is highly rated and had a bunch of solid reviews. So far, functionality has been smooth on both my PC and phone and they have handy apps to set preferences and select servers from across the world to connect through.
Written by: Colin
To keep your backpack locked up, there’s not many options out there. The one reasonable hit on Google is Pacsafe’s security web. After some research, we chose not to use these. Though it gives you a sense of security, it won’t keep out anyone with determination. Simple tools can snip the wires and the gaps between the webbing are large enough to fit your hand through. Even with this nifty contraption, if someone wants what you have in your backpack, they’re going to get it. The sense of security is valuable though if it allows you to enjoy yourself away from your bag. My concern is that having the large, noticeable, lock system draws more attention and let’s folks know that you have things that are worth locking up therefore making you a target. Using some caution, keeping a low profile, and keeping your bag dirty may be a better method. I’ll follow up though after we’ve put some miles into the book.
Sara & Colin
We are figuring out our travel as we go along, and we'd love to help you out with yours! If you want to read more of our travel thoughts, check out each of our personal blogs by clicking the images below.