elephants and zebras at waterhole Etosha

Last Updated on August 16, 2019 by Michael

The second most popular question we get about how to travel for a year has been: How do you decide where to go? (We’ll tell you the most common question later.) Trip planning is different for everybody but here’s how we did it.

We knew there were certain sites that were “must sees.” Our top five were: the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat, Sydney Harbour, Petra and wild game in Africa. On top of that there were a few destinations that we definitely wanted to include in an around-the-world itinerary: Paris, Buenos Aires, Dubai, Hong Kong and Jerusalem.

travel for a year Sydney Harbour

We originally hoped to go to Tokyo, but when we were planning the trip in early 2011 Japan was feeling the aftershocks of their earthquake. Things were still a bit unsettled there, so we decided to postpone Japan for another time.

We also had a few other criteria:

1)      Weather – We didn’t want to be anyplace during their winter. Packing for a temperate climate is easier, plus we just didn’t want to be cold.

2)      Geography – We wanted to hit 6 continents. Antarctica would be left out for this go around. It’s too expensive, plus see the previous comment about cold.

3)      We were going to North Korea for the Mass Games which only occur in August/September so we had to work around that.

Our planning bible was National Geographic’s 100 Countries, 5,000 Ideas: Where to Go, When to Go, What to See, What to Do . It provides an overview and photos of each country along with information on the best time to visit for weather, etc.

travel for a year Bayon Temple Angkor Wat

Along the way we came across an issue which severely impacted our planning: the Schengen Agreement. The what agreement? This obscure little treaty limits how long travelers can visit most of continental Europe to 90 days within a 180-day period. We didn’t know about this when the trip started, but later on it severely limited our options when we were in Europe.

Combining the must-see sites, destinations and criteria gave us a sort of framework to wrap the trip around. When we left America we had the first two months planned. September would be spent in China and North Korea, followed by a month-long flat rental in Sydney. Beyond that we had no idea where we were going.

travel for a year Dubai harbor

Initially we thought we would always have the next two months planned out, but that notion quickly fell by the wayside. As we got deeper into the trip we became more adept at planning and more used to being flexible. We often didn’t know two days ahead of time what country we would be in next. But that unknowing became part of the fun.

We had decided against buying a round-the-world airline ticket, so we had more flexibility. However, airfare was part of our planning equation since we were always buying one-way tickets. In Australia we couldn’t explore as much of the country as we wanted since flights were ridiculously expensive. In Southeast Asia it was the opposite, there we found low-cost carriers that allowed us to hop around quite cheaply.

Vietnam Airlines duct tape

Okay, so maybe some of the planes were held together by duct tape but we were assured they were safe. 

A major source of destinations that popped up during the trip was recommendations from other travelers we met along the way. Namibia and Turkey were not on the radar for us when we started out. But so many people gushed about them that we added them to our list. We’re glad we did, as they became two of our most enjoyable places.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Abu Dhabi

Yes, that’s Larissa as we toured the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Michael was petrified of breaking the PDA rule, hence his “no hands” pose.  

Our favorite trip planning tools

We brought with us an inflatable globe and a fold-out map of the world. They became two of our essential trip-planning tools. We’d sit for hours poring over them to pick our next destination. It’s incredibly fun to plan without any time constraints. That only became an issue towards the end of the trip when we had set up a date by which we had to return.

map round the world trip planning

The trusty map displays the end result of all our planning.

At some point we realized it’s not like this is the last trip of our lives, so we don’t have to see everything on this go around. That realization made planning easier. Overall it worked out pretty well. While we didn’t enjoy every place that we went, we had a pretty good batting average. It’s helpful to start out with some idea of where you want to go, but make sure to be flexible along the way.

Oh, and the most popular question we get? “What was your favorite place?” There were so many so we still haven’t figured out an answer for that one.

What would be some of your “must sees” on an around the world trip?