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Monday, May 3, 2010

Biting the Bullet

Some odd but essential items (click to enlarge) : The motion-sensitive combination cable lock (1),
alcohol stove(5),
12 V DC > 240V AC inverter with surge protector (7), and water pump with bacterial filter (8),
with smart Ni-MH battery charger (4), laptop (9), external USB backup drive (10), video and digital cameras (2,3),
LED-incandescent head-torches (6), tri-band cell phones on global roaming (11) and a Swiss army knife (12). .

Here are some booking details and notes on some of the natty things we take that help make an intrepid travel amazing race more enjoyable and less hideous kinky.

Booking your Life Away

The whole operation began when I casually went on to the One World site and found I could book an itinerary through South and Central America and on through the US and Europe, returning through Asia without having to route first to the US and back down to Chile to get there as seemed to be the case with other syndicates. I then wandered down to the city Quantas office to see if I could pay in New Zealand to avoid a huge internet VISA purchase, and before I knew it had a confirmed round the world booking.

Having been able to book our confirmed flights and not having to pay to get our tickets for a couple of months, we finally went in this week and threw away a cool US $3500 each on a One World 16 stop over round the world ticket with Quantas. Thanks to a computer error, which failed to include the highly contentious open jaw mileage (they try to count distances and charge you for the miles you don't actually fly with them but do overland journeys or buy tickets on other carriers) it was $250 less each than they claimed it should be, after guaranteeing us no price changes except for taxes. The standard price would have been ($3000 US + $763 taxes).

We also spent a hectic weekend researching and internet booking a series of links in the open jaws, which could have left us stranded if we didn't have confirmed link connections. Before we started we set up an internet debit card and transferred only the required funds in advance to it so we don't inadvertently find a Trojan or botnet virus has stolen our credit card details and thousands of dollars of credit limit out of our platinum VISA card that gives us 90 days of free travel insurance. This was a really good way to go, as many of the websites are in differing countries with weird systems and it worked like a charm instantaneously every time, including at least sending confirmation e-tickets with confirmation codes.

We found flights out of Ecuador to Panama were very expensive ($450 US inc each) partly because there is no surface transport by land or sea between South and Central America because of the notorious Darien Gap, so decided to travel overland to Cali in Colombia, where the fares are ($238 inc COPA). We booked an Air Asia return flight Singapore to Bali ($151 US inc). We booked a Spanair flight Seville to Barcelona (E64 inc) which was a fraction of the train price, and scored a cheap flight Agean from Crete to Istanbul with a stopover in Athens (E98 inc).

The main exception was internal flights in Chile where we are heading further south and need to fly. The cheaper carrier Sky air currently doesn't accept foreign credit cards on the internet, so after having a long conversation with an operator checking our details in English letter by letter and the booking e-mail failing to arrive, so we flagged it until a couple of weeks before leaving, and only last night finally managed to make an e-mail booking followed by a phone call in the middle of the night to give our card details and secure the bookings at a good price. We also decided not to book a flight to hop over Honduras because the COPA bookings are quite expensive and the cheaper promo fares can't be adjusted if you find your overland takes longer than you thought, so we'll decide when we get to Managua whether to fly, or bus through Honduras.

We also arranged rental cars for Ireland, Italy and Jordan with no down payment except VISA details for Ireland and Italy for a $40 no show. Budget has given the simplest and apparently cheapest and most straightforward deals overall, although Avis does also have an office at the King Hussein (Allenby) bridge, which could facilitate travel to Israel.

We also booked on three Greek ferries, linking from Brindisi to Igoumenitsa and then on to Patra, with a later link from Piraeus to Heraclion in Crete. This was a chaotic nightmare. The shipping lines change their schedules and leave old ones on the internet and there are some particularly bad internet booking sites which don't give you the schedules but demand your VISA details and personal details before even looking up a schedule. After days of searching we booked through Paleologos Forth system which did book the ferries and has since sent details of contacting the shipping companies with our booking numbers. But beware, you have to claim your ticket 2 hours in advance for Italy to Greece and 1 hour in Greece or they may give your place to someone waiting at the terminal! And today there are riots in Athens and a general strike paralyzing all transport. The free-falling Euros we bought a bit soon have already lost nearly $1000.

One of the insane ferry booking forms which doesn't tell you the schedule or whether there are berths
available, but expects you to enter all your financial details in one huge hit first! Don't use it!

We have also spent the last month and a half researching the trip details and scanning sections of a mix of Lonely Planet, Rough and Footprint guides (which are great for concise travel routes borders and transport) for the sections of countries we are passing through (it being impossible to take 24 heavy guide books with us).

We managed to find a series of passes through the Andes between Chile and Argentina which might be open at the beginning of winter if we are lucky so we can do a loop of both countries as well as counting out a hectic overland through Central America with an options to hop Honduras by air if we can't keep the pace overland.

Technologies for Intrepid Travel

We are now gathering our high tech equipment including video, cameras and laptop. We always carry Ni-MH battery smart charger which will quickly top up individually discharged batteries, including our three battery head torches, and a 12 volt to 240 volt inverter, along with universal in-out multiplugs. This means we can charge all our electronic gear either when we are in a car or a hotel. When I went down the Amazon I also took a small solar panel and 12 V motor bike battery, so I could recharge the laptop and video camera in the wild.

One really natty thing we got for only $11 US was an electronic motion sensitive combination cable lock which can be threaded through more than one piece of baggage and shrieks at 110 dB if your baggage is disturbed or the cable is cut and can be hung over hotel door knobs as well, or even used as a personal alarm in the street, so its harder to rob you in the night! We also carry a ceramic water filter which I have successfully used in the Amazon and a small brass stove weighing only 114 gm which has no moving parts and cooks beautifully on methylated spirits or isopropyl alcohol.

We will be carrying a laptop with most of our travel guides and language courses, which we will also use for storing photos and blogging at internet cafes via ethernet. We are taking a spare external USB drive with a backup operating system, so if one disc dies we can still function, and will have backups of critical information on DVD.

We will take a pair of sim-card cell phones with global roaming (Vodafone), set so neither the phone nor the sim cards can be accessed without a password if they are stolen. (Make sure you know your PUK code before attempting to set your phone! They will often demand it for the first set.) These should be active in all 24 countries. We need to have tri-band models with at least 900, 1800 and 1900 to access all the countries. This means we can both text home and one another if we are in different places in the same area. Rates are falling steeply, so by the time we go, texts may cost only $10 a megabyte.

This worked out great in our 10 country Asia overland except that we lost one phone (without password protection) passing from Nepal to Tibet which, was a huge hassle until I managed to phone home from a local sweet shop in the first town in Tibet and cancel the account. Be careful though, because we have heard of people who downloaded a single internet movie and lost something like $50,000 US.

We also carry a pretty full array of medicines. We'll vaccinate for swine and ordinary flu, have a booster for typhoid, carry two kinds of antibiotics, one active against staph (e.g. augmentin and erythromycin), immodium for diarrhea, doxycycline for malaria, as the South American variety is chloroquine resistant (which also helps protect against casual gastric and other infections as its a tetracycline bacteriostatic antibiotic), tamiflu, viagra, as well as topical antibiotics and antifungals and a first-aid kit. Then you have strong DEET for mosquitoes, and we'll pick up a can of fly tox when we arrive to avoid getting bitten by the notorious necrotic Chilean brown recluse spider which infests 90% of human lodgings.

Geodesic tent is a mosquito net with a covering fly sheet (not shown) ideal for the tropics

We are going to have to take both winter and tropical clothing and carry a small tent to camp in Europe all the way through Latin America, where it can serve as a mosquito net, as it is a tropical tent with all fine netting windows except for the fly sheet. So we will have layers of clothing that are light, but can be put together for snowy cold but stand alone for tropical conditions. Trousers with lots of pockets including sewn in money and passport pouches hard to access from the inside, so we can carry some cash to get us out of a tight spot in a remote place. Poly-propaline inners and light shower proof outers with ponchos and compact umbrellas. An old frame pack dating back to 1976 and a new 90 ltr soft bag with a separate trolley which can haul everything in the towns and which fits down the pack frame. Day packs with lots of pockets for the sensitive stuff, including some very hard to get to secure internal pouches.

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