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Posted by Jessica on Mar 16, 2010
Planning Your RTW Trip: How to Know Where to Go

There are thousands of things you need to consider before you start a trip around the world. Which vaccinations to get, what backpacks to use, saving and budgeting approaches, and whether or not to buy travel insurance are just the tip of the iceberg.

But at the crux of it all – perhaps the iceberg itself – is where should you go on your trip? Where exactly is your iceberg located? And with so many places in the world to go, how do you know which places to pick?

Below are some of the approaches we took (unknowingly at the time) while planning our trip around the world.

As with any Travel Tip Tuesdays post, these tips come with a heavy dose of Your Mileage May Vary. Just because this is what worked for us, doesn't mean it's what will work for you. But at the least it might help get you started.

Tip #1: Cast a wide net

We planned for our trip around-the-world for about 1.5 years. (Funnily enough, that ended up being how long we traveled too.) I can promise you we did not spend 1.5 years knowing where we wanted to go. In fact, at least half that time was spent asking each other things like "Wait, which country are Iguazu Falls located in?" or "Is French Guiana in South America or Africa?" or "Are Guinea and New Guinea the same place?"

And you know what? That's okay. Even if you're incredibly well-read and well-educated, you're simply not going to know where every tourist sight, village, city – and yes, even country – is located throughout the world. This is your time to learn some more of it. This is when everything is possible.

So cast a wide net. Don't limit yourself to one country or even one region, not just yet. Just start reading. Everything. Check out catch-all books like 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. Do a Flickr search for waterfalls or deserts or whatever strikes your fancy and then click through to see where the photo was taken. Flip through some of the wonders of the world lists. Read as many travel blogs as you can.

And don't worry so much about where they're talking about or exactly where a photo was taken. Don't worry about keeping every place straight in your mind. If there's a sight that really moves you, then maybe make note of it. But otherwise, just read. Right now you're searching for inspiration not an itinerary.

Tip #2: Try a few places on for size

After we had spent a few months – yes, months – just Googling like mad, that's when we started checking out specific country guidebooks. At this point your search is getting a bit more targeted, but you still don't have to remember what part of Phnom Penh the cheap hostels are located in or what the price of a bus ticket from Buenos Aires to Puerto Madryn should be. You're trying to find out if a country feels like a possibility for you. As you read, make a note of any places or regions or countries that sound intriguing to you. But don't worry about researching the nitty gritty about that place just yet.

So pick, say, five countries to start with. Go ahead, just pick them. You're not locking them in at this point. There's nothing that says the first places you pick will be "the ones" for you. But you're never going to know that until you start somewhere. (I can't count the number of countries we decided to read about thinking maybe we'd want to visit, until we read a bit more about them and realized there wasn't really anything we wanted to see there.)

Once you've picked a few countries to start peeking at more intently, go to your local library and check out the guidebooks for them. (Or if you have a small library, see which guidebooks they have first and then start with whatever countries they have on their shelves.) We enjoy traveling with Lonely Planet, but we only learned that because we used all the guidebooks for reference in the beginning stages. Fodors, Rick Steves, Frommers, Rough Guide, Moon, Michelin, Let's Go, Eyewitness, Footprints: we flipped through them all. Every spare moment – at work, in the bathroom, before falling asleep, on the train – we read and read and then read some more. And when we got tired or frustrated or uninspired by one of the countries, we simply grabbed a different country. You should too.

If you're not ready to check out guidebooks yet, then keep searching online, but this time get a bit more targeted. Check out the Wikipedia pages for the first few countries you've chosen. Then read the WikiTravel pages. Do travel blog searches for the country. Check out online message boards like ThornTree or Bootsnall for traveler reports. And make sure to have a few grains of salt next to your laptop while reading online sources.

Note: This part of planning for a RTW trip can be overwhelming and overstimulating. If you definitely know you want to go on a round-the-world trip but absolutely no country is appealing to you anymore, that's okay. You're just burnt out. So take a break and then come back to it, and don't put as much pressure on yourself. Remember, there are no right or wrong places to go, there's only what feels like a good possible fit for you.

Tip #3: Choose your anchors

You've spent the last several months, maybe even a year, reading and researching what feels like every place in the world. Some days you have a list of 63 "must see" countries. Other days a few of the places you have no interest in seeing suddenly find themselves on your "must see" list. One day you realize you only want to travel in South America. The next day you're a bit scared of traveling to South America at all. And most days you won't realize that the world is much bigger than it sounds on paper.

In short, you have discovered there are more places in the world than you will be able to see. Try not to be discouraged by it.

So how do you whittle everything down? How do you take a list with 37 countries on it and make it manageable for a three month RTW trip? How the heck do you choose everywhere to go?

The simple answer: You don't. You don't choose everywhere to go, you choose just a few places. You choose your anchors for the trip.

Now choosing a few anchors doesn't mean you won't go everywhere else you want to go. You can have, say, five anchors and 17 countries for your 12 month trip. But having those five anchors will help guide you around the globe. They'll help you choose what your "must must sees" really are for this trip. They'll help you prioritize when the country you plan to go to next has a coup or there are no plane tickets available for the next month. They'll help you figure out when you have to cut something and when you can add a new place.

Think back over all the books you've read, all the images you've seen. Are there any experiences that have popped up time and time again? Is there any place where every time you see a photo of it you've thought, "Oh my gosh! That's amazing! Where is that place?!" Think about the places or the people, the history or the food, the experiences or the music that have moved you during your research. And really, truly moved you too. Not just in a "I want to go there! And there! And there! And there too!" sort of way. But the places and experiences that have moved you in a "I can't stop thinking about being there" sort of way.

Those are your anchors.

We had four anchors for our trip – hiking the trail to Machu Picchu, sailing to the Galapagos Islands, taking a hot air balloon over Cappadocia in Turkey, and exploring the temples of Angkor. We also had 22 countries we wanted to see in 12 months.

When we came home, we had traveled for 18 months and had completed all four anchors (albeit one took a slightly different form), but we had seen only 11 of the countries. (We'd also traveled to an additional country that had actually been on our "not interested" list when we left.) But not once have we found ourselves saying, "If only Bolivia hadn't nearly had a coup" or "If only we hadn't been too tired of traveling to tackle Vietnam too." Not once. As for the anchor we had to change – taking the train to Machu Picchu instead of hiking the trail – we've never regretted that either.

So pick your anchors, but remember you'll survive if they can't happen for some reason. They're guideposts, not requirements. And there can always be a next time.

Tip #4: Dive into the nitty gritty

You've been doing research, you've picked what feels like a manageable number of countries, you know your anchors. Now it's time to get into the nitty gritty. And nope, I'm still not talking about where the cheap hostels are located in Phnom Penh. Now we're talking about the rhythms and limitations of traveling.

Up until four months before we left for our trip, Tim and I thought we'd be going to Southeast Asia first. Everyone else did it. It was cheap. We were told it was easy to travel in. It seemed like a natural choice.

But then one day we mapped out the trip, month by month, according to how we thought it would play out. And we saw quite clearly that our route was going to land us in Europe during the high season and in South America during winter. Given our budget was not unlimited and we weren't packing winter clothes, this bore further thinking.

About two months before we left on our trip, we decided to push our departure back by one additional month. (I was getting wisdom teeth surgery.) Again we mapped the trip out, month by month, according to how we thought it would play out. And we'd still be hitting Europe during the high season and South America during the winter. But this time something occurred to us. This time we wondered how everything would look if we changed directions. In other words, what if we went to South America first?

A few months later, we landed in Buenos Aires.

By starting in South America at the time of year we began, the weather patterns worked in our favor. The high/low tourist seasons worked in our favor. As a result of both, airline prices and hostel prices worked in our favor too. And we were able to hit the "sweet spot" in many places (when the weather is nice but before/after all the tourists are there).

Granted, everything started to change once we were well into our trip. We stayed three months instead of two in Argentina. We had to spend more time in Turkey instead of Greece because of our budget. We traveled for 18 months instead of 12 months. And we discovered we like to travel very slowly. (None of these things, by the way, would we have changed for the world.) But by roughly mapping our trip out at the beginning based on weather patterns and tourist schedules, we stumbled across an itinerary that still worked for us even after our trip had changed.

So take a look at the countries you want to see and your anchors for the trip. Check out when it's winter or the height of the dry season. Don't forget about little things like monsoon season or hurricane season either. Even if you don't mind rain or heat, look into these things. Heading to remote parts of Central America during the height of rainy season will mean possible mud slides, which will mean possible road blockages, which will affect your travels. Finding yourself in Patagonia in winter without winter clothes isn't advisable. Remember that.

Start looking into how much plane tickets cost to New Zealand from the US and decide if you can swing that leg or not. See if it's cheaper if you fly from Thailand to New Zealand instead. Figure out how long you can spend in Europe based on your daily budget. Now double what you hope is a good daily budget for Europe and figure it out again.

Learn when the high tourist seasons are. Learn when out-of-season months are. Learn how these things will affect prices and availability of the things you're hoping to experience. Find out if there are any elections set to take place soon or huge sporting events, like the World Cup. Try to nail down at least a few of the major holidays and decide if you want to hit those or stay far away.

And then map it all out. Grab some paper, draw a rudimentary world map on it, and start marking it up. Question all your previous assumptions. And be okay with throwing it all out the window once you're on the road.

Tip #5: Pick a starting point

You've been excited, wiped out, confused, and exhilarated over these past several months. This is the part where all your researching pays off. This is the part – aside from actually starting the trip – that you've been waiting for. This is the part where your dream will begin to come true.

Now you get to pick where you'll begin your trip.

If you've kept what you've learned in mind, and if you've paid attention to airline prices too, you'll do just fine choosing the first stop on your trip. But even if you totally forgot that the Virgin de Guadalupe festival will be taking place when you land in Mexico City, don't worry. You'll still find a place to stay. You'll still have a great time. And now you'll get to see a festival that normally you might have steered clear of because you were so worried about finding lodging. You'll be okay. Trust me on that one.

We planned our RTW trip for about 18 months, but it wasn't until two months before we left that we picked our starting point. After considering seasons (weather and tourist) and ticket prices, we decided Buenos Aires, Argentina was the place for us. I don't think either of us were really drawn to Buenos Aires for any particular reason (other than a "it sounds like a cool city" sort of way). But we did have an impression that there were a wide variety of tourist attractions, loads of hostels, a good public transportation system, and all sorts of food we wanted to eat. We were probably swayed by the "Paris of South America" description as much as anything else. And we figured we'd have less chance of culture shock in Buenos Aires (compared to, say, Bangkok). So Buenos Aires it was. And for us, it was a perfect fit. (In fact, it remains one of our most favorite cities to this day.)

But remember you're just choosing the start of your trip. It doesn't have to be symbolic or significant. It doesn't have to "set the tone" for the many months of travel you'll have ahead of you. It doesn't have to be perfect. It's just a place to start.

And if you end up not liking your starting point? Don't worry about it. The beauty of traveling is that you get to go to the next place, and the next place, and the next place.

Tip #6: Keep an open mind

If you adhere to no other tip on this page, adhere to this one. Keep an open mind. Be open to not knowing every place you want to go and the day you want to get there. Be open to not going to every place you think you will go. Be open to not planning every country, every city, every village, every stop before your trip. And be open to not doing it during your trip either.

(I'd also like to suggest being open to buying your plane tickets as you go, instead of buying one of those round-the-world tickets. But that's a whole other post!)

And guess what? Most likely you won't be able to do everything or go everywhere you want to anyway. And that's okay. Make your peace with it now because it's going to come up while you're traveling too. Every time a local tells you about a little village you've never heard about, but you've already bought a ticket out of town. Every time fellow travelers you've just met suggest you follow them, but you come down with the stomach flu. You can't see it all.

But you know, that's one of the beautiful things about the world. We can't see it all. There is more beauty and more experiences than any one of us can have. And it helps to not see traveling as a "once in a lifetime" thing. There can always be a next time. There can always be another trip. Even another round-the-world trip. Surely if you're planning one right now you've already realized anything is possible, right?

So be open, stay open to possibilities.

And if you've gotten this far into planning and you're still unsure of where to go, throw a dart at a map and then get out there. Because although planning for traveling is fun, actually traveling is even better. So don't let a little thing like not knowing where to go get in your way.

If you enjoyed this story, you might also like these ones:

March 16, 2010 at 3:13pm
An additional note I want to include about weather while traveling:

There's a website called Weather2Travel.com which I just came across today…


Once you navigate a bit through the advertisements, it seems to have some potentially handy temperature/rainfall charts. Might be worth checking out while looking into Tip #4 above!

March 22, 2010 at 4:02am
Great tips. They work for the more local travel too. I make a triangle and fill in the grid from there. Three major themes and others to enhance. It's worked very well and we've had some surprise pleasures along the way.
Who knew taking the less traveled (and definately rural)route from Mt Rushmore in SD to bighorn sheep preserve near Dubois Wy would be so picturesque?
April 9, 2010 at 12:35pm
I like the sound of your approach, Janet! It gets you to some of the highlights, but still leaves room for moments of unexpected happiness. Good stuff! :)
April 27, 2010 at 8:11pm
Hi Guys,

First off we both my wife and I need to thank you guys for such an amazing website that really helped us with our planning for our RTW trip, all the way down to your top ten list. I found when planning our trip that we needed to get our toes wet first in each new place, and then decide one we arrived if we wanted to see more, or move on to a new place. While we just complete 17 countries in 6 months, having a home base for a few weeks should always be planned for as it is much much needed!

Thanks guys for the input, and I still love checking your blog out…we will get going back on ours now that we are more settled in our home life, trying to decide were our nose will lead us next!


May 10, 2010 at 6:48pm
Hi guys! :)

We're so thrilled our tips were helpful, and that you had such an awesome time on your trip. :)

We got hopelessly behind on your blog while you were traveling, and have a lot of catching up to do now… I'm looking through your photo album of Cappadocia right now – your photos are really beautiful!

We can't wait to hear where your noses do indeed lead you next! :)

August 12, 2010 at 10:14pm
I don't know how to thank you guys for this amazing site. I can't believe that after living on travel sites for the last 10 years I have only just discovered yours – the best one yet. Your advice is so thoughtful, and down to earth. My dad used to say "Wisdom is not a form of intelligence; it's a form of love" and I think that really shows through here – this site is clearly a wise labor of love. My RTW is still 3 years off due to situations beyond my control, but I just tell myself that means more time to save, and thus more time once I start to travel. I'm going to be soaking up every crumb of insight you guys have put in here. Thanks again – I'm so happy to have found you!
August 13, 2010 at 3:10pm
Hi Amanda!

Wow! Gosh, thank you so much for your kind words – I can't tell you how much your comment means to us. And we're thrilled to be able to help you plan for your trip! :)

(Your dad's quote is lovely! What a beautiful sentiment – I'll definitely be passing that along.)

You're definitely right – the three years until your trip just gives you that much more time to save, to brainstorm, and to research, all of which will only make for a longer, better trip. :)

Feel free to email us (or drop another comment) if you have any questions. We're happy to help out however we can!

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