The Big Trip... By Bikes?

I wrote three years ago that Kristin and I had made a handshake agreement about seriously, honestly, beginning the process of planning and saving for a trip around the world. A mid-life gap year, if you will. The plan was rather humble at first, at least as far as these round-the-world (RTW) trips tend to go. We'd beg for sabbaticals from work, lease our house, sell one of our cars. And we'd head off on a ferry to Alaska, then train and plane our way eastward around the world. At least that was the initial plan the morning after that talk when I posted this.

The plan has grown since then. Three years have passed since we promised each other that we would not allow our years to bleed into one another in an endless series of indistinguishable workweeks. Three years and rarely has a week gone by that we haven't talked about the trip; nary a day that I hadn't daydreamed about it, or a night spent researching and planning our route. We're still several years away, but much progress has been made towards making our shared dream a reality. Since the online journals and blogs of those who've gone before us have proven to be an invaluable source of inspiration and information, I want to dedicate this page to our own efforts and plans in hopes that it may provide a small amount of assistance to those curious enough to read this entry.


The How and the When
The plan, as it stands, has transformed. A funny thing has happened this year: we've fallen cleats-over-helmet in love with bicycle touring and have shifted our thoughts and dreams to a lengthy multi-year trip around the world by bicycle. If I get my way, we'll not leave the surface of the earth and will find a way across all oceans and seas by cargo ship, cruise ship, or ferry. If we have to work for our passage, so be it. I can think of no greater way to travel slowly--and independently--than by bicycle. And no better way to truly absorb the size of this rock called Earth than by eschewing the shortcuts that air transit affords.

I'm the first to admit that my second-hand experience in extended bicycle touring far exceeds any I've done. Kristin and I completed two 3-day tours in 2010, one in the San Juan Islands and another around Mt. Rainier, and we're smitten. We are in the process of building up proper touring bicycles this winter in preparation for a 10-day, 450-mile tour around the Olympic Peninsula next summer, starting from our driveway. That should give us a good feel for whether or not we are cut out for this, but even that's not going to be enough. Ten days is a far cry from three years. Though others have embarked on a RTW trip by bicycle with even less experience than we already have, our plan is to tackle the pacific coast route, from Vancouver to Tijuana, during the fall of 2013 as a proper shakedown tour to see if we--and our gear--are truly ready for the rigors of extended bike touring. If so, we'll blast off in early spring of 2014*.

*The issue of when is a sensitive subject. For starters, we need enough time to save. Though we plan to sell our house before leaving (along with the vast majority of our belongings), that money is to be set aside for our return. More importantly is the health of our dog and family. We always knew we would not take the trip so long as our dogs were alive. Never did we think that day would come so soon, but we did lose our male dog, Kimo, to a brain tumor this summer. Annana will be turning 12 in 2011 and is quite healthy. We hope to have her with us for as long as possible and I can think of no greater reason to delay the trip to 2015 or beyond than her living a long and healthy life. The other issue is family. We won't leave if any immediate family members are seriously ill or dying. Enough said.

The Why
If nothing else, this trip is about freedom. Not the politicized, sloganized freedom, but true freedom. The freedom that comes with waking up each morning to a totally new day and asking yourself, "where do you want to go today?" And being able to answer any way you dream. No office to go to. No lawn to mow. No bills to pay. No reservations. The bicycle helps make this a reality and has added a wonderful dimension to my research and planning, though we fully expect to zig when our original plans call for a zag. The only limitations will be those stemming from the stars & stripes that adorn our passports. In all honesty, the where doesn't even interest me nearly as much as the who. My goal in this trip isn't to check off a list of places to see before I die, but rather to meet our neighbors around the world. I want to see how the rest of the world lives. To eat their food; to drink their drink. To try and see the world through their eyes and, should they ask, to help them see it through an American's.

Of course, only a fool would embark on such a trip without any plan at all, and contrary to common belief, I am no fool. Not to mention I love maps and research far too much to forego this wonderful aspect of the journey. So, without further ado, allow me to gaze at the string and the pushpins on the world map in my office and tell you the general plan, as it stands now, subject to change a thousand times.

The Where
Our plan as currently envisioned (and very much subject to change as necessary) is to begin in Seattle in April of 2014 and head east across the northern states to Minnesota then turn left and follow the coast of Lake Superior up into Ontario then onward into Quebec before turning south towards New Jersey to spend a week or two with family. From there, we'll cross the Atlantic to the UK and bike north to south from northern Scotland down to London and cross the North Sea on a ferry to Denmark. Once on mainland Europe, we'll follow the coast of the North Sea southwestward through Germany, The Netherlands, and Belgium into France with the goal being to tour the Iberian Peninsula in a counter-clockwise loop and cross into Morocco by October.

Our foray into Morocco isn't just to "tag" the African continent, but to visit one of the places I'm most interested in seeing. After a loop in Morocco, hopefully before the snows bury the high passes of the Atlas Mountains, we'll cross the Strait of Gibraltar back into Spain and hug the coast of the Mediterranean as we journey back through southern France and into Italy. We'll make our way down the western coast of Italy before crossing the heel of the boot and sailing over to Greece. We'll likely head as far south in Greece and Turkey as we can get and take a month or two to let winter's bite pass. Our goal is to use one of these sites to arrange a work-stay. We very much want to take a side-trip into Syria and possibly Jordan before crossing back through Turkey to the north and into Georgia.

Here is where things get tricky. We want to bicycle that mysterious network of roads once known as the Silk Road. There's a number of ways to do so, but only a couple are likely for American nationals. The details will be worked out, but we'll likely avoid Armenia by looping through Georgia into Azerbaijan. From there, we'll take a ferry across the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan and make our way eastward through the "'Stans" and into China. We'll be giving Afhanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan a wide berth and aim to cross into China along its border with Kyrgyzstan.

We'll make our way eastward across China from the northwestern corner towards Vietnam in the southeast, keeping a steady eye to the Tibetan Plateau for possible passage to Lhasa. I'm not saying it's something we'll definitely do, but I found a guy who helps arrange permits and planning for self-guided bicycle trips from Lhasa to Kathmandu. Just saying, that's all. Once in Vietnam, we'll make our way south to Cambodia, Thailand, and down to Malaysia and Singapore.

From there? We'll just have to see, won't we? We fully intend to tour the eastern coast of Australia and to outstay our welcome in New Zealand, but Bali, Indonesia, and Micronesia/Oceania will also be calling. The biggest hurdle that I see as of now is finding a ship-based way across the South Pacific to South America. Ideally, we'll be able to find a freighter that is going from Australia (or Singapore or China, if necessary) to Argentina or Chile. Once in South America, we intend to spend a month or two at an immersive language school before beginning the long journey home along the west coast of South America.

It's exhausting to even put into words, but this is the route traced in string on my map. It's the route in my dreams. The towns and streets will work themselves out. We'll take what the weather gives us. We'll be leaves in a playful breeze, carried away in fits and starts with the only true direction being ahead.

The Cost
Money. No amount of daydreamy ideology can get around the fact that this is going to cost a tidy sum of money to pull off. Conversations about money are usually taboo in public forums, but I'll admit that finding out how much others have spent on RTW trips (and how they saved for it) was one of the first things I began researching three years ago. And fortunately there were plenty of people willing to share their expenses down to the penny. And because it was so helpful to us, I don't mind sharing our own savings goals and spending plan.

We began saving for the trip in October 2007 with a plan to put $200 per month into an ING savings account. We stuck to a strict schedule of increasing this amount by $50 every 6 months to give us time to pay off our cars and a student loan and to, fortunately, take advantage of any pay raises we received along the way. Our deposit in October 2010 was $500. We also use a Bank of America "Keep the Change" plan which rounds up to the nearest dollar on all of our debit transactions and dumps the change into a savings account. We're able to transfer an extra $200 out of this account and into our RTW savings account every 6 to 8 months or so. Yeah, we use our debit cards a lot.

The ING Orange Savings account was pulling in about 4% interest the first 18 months or so, as were the CDs we rotated the money in and out of every 9 months. This, we figured, would bring us to roughly $35,000 by the fall of 2013, but then the market tanked. The savings account is now only getting 1.1%. Fortunately, I made some smart stock purchases as the economy bounced back and came out ahead. I was a little risky with the money, but it panned out. Now we try to keep much of the money in cash, some trusty stocks, and put the rest in a mutual fund designed for folks planning to retire inside of 5 years. We're obviously not retiring, but the principal is the same: we want modest growth and income with minimal risk.

So how much are we aiming for? And what about the cost of the bikes and the gear? We've decided to separate out the cost of touring bikes and gear from the trip savings and pay for all of that stuff by selling things we no longer use. Ebay, Craigslist, and a garage sale have netted us more than enough to build up a Salsa Fargo for me and we have a couple other things to unload this winter to pay for Kristin's Salsa Vaya. Tubus racks and Arkel panniers will round out the gear purchases for now.

Our initial goal of $35k (plus the money from the sale of one or two cars) was based on a one-year sightseeing trip around the world by plane and train. We've seen estimates that traveling by bicycle can cost an average of $23USD for a couple per day if you cook your own meals, camp a lot, and use sites like Warmshowers to stay for free. We plan to do all of that, yet we also know we like to splurge. We want that nice hotel every now and then. We also know we'll want to eat out more often, hit the cafes in the morning on occasion, and certainly sample the world's great beers and spirits. We don't want to do this if it means having to pinch pennies every day. Our plan is to save a minimum of $45,000 for the trip, but also get as close to $60,000 as possible. We've tracked our expenses very carefully on recent trips and feel that an average of $60/day for the two of us is a reasonable goal that would allow for occasional splurging or high-priced activities (naturally, we'll spend a lot more in some countries than others). Not to mention that $60k would allow us to go 1,000 days at $60/day. And something about that makes me smile. The trip accounts have roughly $16,500 in them as of October 2010. We have a ways to go, but we're on our way.

4 comments:

krisw6164 said...

Makes me tired and super excited just reading about it. :) Can't believe it has been 3 years already.

Criscipline said...

I'm glad you wrote all this down for others to read. Your blog needs a donate now button. haha

Outstanding. Best of luck with the rest of the planning! I Particularly enjoyed the "why".

Friedel said...

All I have to say is, good luck! You can do it. And if we can help at all, just let us know. Happy to answer any questions we can.

Doug Walsh said...

Thanks Friedel. TravellingTwo has been a huge source of information for us, and we just loved listening to your podcasts. Sorry you ended up seeing this blog halfway through it's reconstruction. Should be more interesting in two weeks. Thanks!