Tuesday, 15 February 2011

1. Planning and preparation

In an empty waiting room at the Vietnamese Embassy in Madrid

The glib answer, of course, is that it’s there and I have never before done a complete circuit of the planet. Apart from anything, there’s a two-month gap in my diary at a time of year when it’s too cold to be in England and I have done all I need to do for now in Spain.
United Airlines' HQ in Madrid. Just two folk!

So March and April will be spent circumnavigating the globe, 30,000 miles, 16 hops and 9 countries.

Having established the principle, even sourcing the airline ticket is not as easy as you may think.

For a start, round the world ticketing is hugely complex, with more rules than you could ever imagine. You need to find a specialist travel agency or a really switched on airline reservations department to guide you through the process.

But don’t expect the practical to be as easy as the theory.

One recommended solution is to choose to go with one of the two main airline alliances; One World, whose 12 members includes BA, Cathay Pacific and Qantas, and Star Alliance, with 27 airlines such as Lufthansa, Thai, United and Air New Zealand.

Even having done that, you’ll find that destinations in your initial plan can’t be included for one reason or another; in my case two early casualties were Doha in Qatar and Buenos Aires in Argentina. Unexpected additions included Ho Chi Minh City and Melbourne.

There’s no doubt that being in a capital city is the place you need to be to make the challenge easier. So I bit the bullet and spent two days in Madrid traipsing the streets smoothing the way.

A couple of anecdotes from that; discovering that the only place to get a ticket endorsement for United Airlines is not where the airline’s website tells you it is and having to be persistent when a promised visa was not ‘now going to be ready till tomorrow’ the day after my passport was needed to fly home!

Most people’s first question is ‘How much does it cost?’. The trite answer to that is ‘How long is a piece of string?’

But for a complete circuit of the planet in economy, you’ll have to budget around €2500 and a little over double that if you want to treat yourself to a real trip of a lifetime in business class. Taxes and charges will add hundreds of euros on top.

These days, there’s not a lot of point going the whole hog and doing it in First; many airlines have scrapped the ultimate luxury in mid-air.

Having confirmed the ticket, then the fun really starts. What visas do you need? In my case, as a full UK passport holder, permission to enter Australia and the United States could be done from the comfort of my own computer.

Both India and Vietnam needed formal applications to be sent off, which normally necessitates being without your passport for around two weeks. So you need to factor the time for that into the timetable.

Visas are a complex issue where the rules can change at short notice: even the advice given by the Embassies’ own websites can contradict the reality.

It can also be costly. I have shelled out around €200 for visas – even the United States has introduced a fee.

What about health requirements? Make sure you go and see your doctor, dentist and optician well in advance to make sure that you are in tip top condition. Depending where you are going, you’ll need to get some inoculations.

My portable medical kit will include a couple of sterile syringes and needles (now a requirement for foreign correspondents) in case of needing any jabs in third-world countries, loperamide to sort out the inevitable tummy troubles and some rehydration powder. Plus a really good protection against mosquitoes.

Such a trip is not to be taken lightly.

Then there is accommodation to book, airport transfers, sourcing foreign currency and more besides. It would be fair to say that for my forthcoming two-month long trip, I have spent almost the same length of time making the necessary arrangements.

Often I have had to be up at the crack of dawn to speak to someone in the Antipodes; conversely, late at night to communicate with the US west coast.

Some people, especially students, just set off with their ticket and backpack and sort themselves out when they get to each destination.

I am certain I could have achieved my detailed trip plan without the internet; people who haven’t yet embraced the internet will, I feel, struggle to get the up to date detail that is needed.

So that’s the theory of a round the world trip.

I’ll be reporting on the practical in the weeks ahead.