Disclaimer: All opinions are my own. I was not paid to do this article. A few people asked me to write about my trip. I am happy to do it and share personal experiences.

tl;dr version - Try to complete part one if limited on time or attention. Part two is long and deeply personal.

23 countries, 51 cities, 31,600 miles, 6 months, 7000 photos, and $14,000 later. I traveled the world and I can now look back and say I did it my way.

PART ONE:

My route.[1]

Thumbtacks. Thumbtacks.

What I packed.[2]

My backpack.

My luggage.

Crazy moments.

At one residence, I got kicked out because I refused to inhabit while nude. In Prague, a scammer duped me into giving him change for an identical, but different country’s currency which carried no value. I was shortchanged $100. The Paris terrorist attacks happened a week after I left. A fellow backpacker I met along the way had all of his electronics and identifications stolen during his hostel stay, which ended his trip early.

How much did it cost?

I could only account for $12,600 of expenses from my bank account. The real total cost was probably between $13,000 and $14,000. See my detailed bank statement below.

Finances.[3]

Major Cities Compared.[4]

Optimizing for Good Weather.[5]

Wikipedia: Visa Requirements for United States Citizens.[6]

How did I discover things to do?

Wikipedia: List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.[7]

I used TripAdvisor. Googling, “TripAdvisor Top 10 Things To Do In (given city)” is a good place to start for finding activities[8]. The TripAdvisor results are filtered showing highest rated activities first. The Traveler’s Choice award, certificate of excellence, and number of reviews tend to be good indicators of quality as well. Many of the TripAdvisor “Things To Do” results are also UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The internet, blogs, travel sites, and UNESCO are certainly reliable sources. However, talking to locals, hosts, and fellow travelers is equally beneficial for discovering activities.

*Edit: 01/13/2017 - Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the Hidden Wonders of the World - Joshua Foer

*Edit: 01/23/2017 - How to organize your first day in a new city when you are traveling - Tyler Cowen

How did I get around?

I flew. I discovered flights using Google Flights[9]. I rode the bus with Megabus and Meinfernbus[10]. I used rideshare with BlaBlaCar and Uber[11]. I considered a 3-month Eurostar train pass, but I decided against it[12].

How did I find accommodation?

I always checked these 5 sites before I booked a stay in a new city: HostelBookers, HostelWorld, Booking.com, Airbnb, and Couchsurfing.org (free)[13].

Insurance, Identification, and Immunization Must-haves.

International travelers insurance is a comprehensive package covering medical & dental expenses, flight or trip cancellations for any reason, lost luggage, lost identification or theft, and car rental collision coverage. I recommend GEICO.

It is a good idea to obtain an international driver’s license issued by AAA prior to traveling abroad. This can be used for international driving and car rentals. Without it, international police might may not be lenient.

Obtain duplicates of a passport, United States driver’s license, school identification, social security card, international travelers insurance proof, debit card, credit card, and any other critical cards or documents prior to the trip. Keep one set in a backpack and another elsewhere[14]. For example, in a concealed fanny pack. In the event one set is lost, there is a backup. It helps to avoid missing flights, unwanted examinations, and other bad things. This concept holds true for electronics too. A backup dummy mobile phone, in case a smartphone is lost. Or a tablet, in case a laptop is lost.

Immunizations are required or recommended in certain countries prior to travel. For example, India recommends the malaria and Japanese Encephalitis vaccinations. Research and check for each country prior to travel.

My 205 best photos.

Instagram photos of my trip.

4-minute video of my travels around the world.[15]

PART TWO:

Why did I do the trip?

I had 2 simple motivations. I wanted to learn more about how the world works and I wanted to understand people different than me.

Growing up, experiencing college, and doing internships, I was often surprised to learn how the biggest forces in life went unquestioned. Previously, I assumed conformity was always the best strategy. Sometimes it was not. I wondered if traveling could reveal broader ways in which our world is broken. With a clear mind, I could acquire an outsider’s perspective and judge things objectively. I could self-educate, become self-reliant, and have fun doing it. In short, my travel experiences would help me think clearly about life’s biggest questions and begin formulating solutions to real-world problems.

Second, throughout my life, my relationships with different racial cultures has been extremely special. It is a humbling experience to live as a local. Prior to the trip, I was excited to further my understanding of different cultures and perspectives.

A few critical things logistically enabled me to take a trip around the world. Temporarily living in San Francisco, California was a major step towards opening my mind. My parents and family played a role in the coordination of my trip. I had no commitments. No job, no schooling, and no spouse or children to care for. I had an open calendar and a motivation to explore.

My trip was spontaneous. I booked my flight to Europe 1 month before departing. While traveling, I rarely planned further than 1 week ahead.

DIFFICULT THINGS

I was scared on my trip. I was worried about safety, money, food, and if I would ever make it home. A few times, I questioned why I was even traveling. Why did I come across the world to be with people I do not understand, to inhabit shitty living conditions, to eat food I dislike, to be alone, and to burn money? Am I insane? Looking back, the questions are trivial, but at the time I worried a lot.

A few times, I experienced mental fatigue. I took 3, 4, or sometimes 7-day breaks to rejuvenate[16]. Without them, I would of been disfunctional. If I found myself in a state of constant activity, I would interrupt it immediately. The reset button was an effective thing.

Once or twice, I caught myself dreading my own trip. It was hell. I can remember waking up and immediately perceiving the day as too difficult and hopeless. With that attitude, the trip got exponentially worse over time. It was draining mentally and physically. Fuck that mindset.

I was homesick occasionally. I wanted to be in the United States where I felt comfortable. Where I would be close to and under the protection of my family. Where people looked like me and spoke like me. I wanted to have my own room again. I wanted access to a car. I wanted to have a work routine. I wanted to eat normal American food. I wanted the easy life again.

Language was the most overwhelming factor traveling from city to city each week. With no previous knowledge, I struggled communicating. Locals who can speak both the native language and English can be extremely helpful. They are liaisons who can help operationally. They can also facilitate learning. Try to get their contact information. If there is trouble, call them, and have them mediate a tough situation.

SOME THOUGHTS

I traveled alone. There are downsides, but the upsides included freedom, mobility, and decisiveness. If I was lonely, I could always opt to make a friend at the hostel. I never had to endure an argument with a travel companion. If I wanted to go to a particular restaurant or point of interest, I always got my way. I only had to worry about my own personal needs and issues. If I made a mistake or a bad travel decision, I could only blame myself. With a travel companion, it was unlikely I could fit 5+ activities into one day given limited time and money. But, I did it on a few occasions.

A unique experience.[17]

I copied everyone else’s travel plans in the beginning of my trip. Their itineraries were usually average, thus my experience was average. I wanted my trip to be unique. I thought I would try listening to my own travel desires instead of others. My trip was much interesting in the latter case. From then on, I continued listening respectfully to other opinions and factored it into my decisions. But, the weight of my own travel desires often outweighed others.

Understanding and appreciating things.

I was a voracious reader on my trip. I used my smartphone frequently to look things up on Google and Wikipedia. I was always consuming information about historical places, points of interest, reading pamphlets and magazines, listening to audio tours, and anything I could find[18]. It added to the depth of the experience. It was probably the biggest joy on my trip.

Avoiding bad outcomes.

I always assumed I was being targeted as outsider. I tried not to attract unwanted attention. I thought if I was careless with how I presented myself it was likely I would get myself into trouble, accidentally offend a local, get kidnapped, or even worse go to prison. Watching how the locals present themselves is a really good start towards blending in. For example, Germans prefer silence on trains. When I boarded a German train, within the first 5 minutes it became so obvious to me talking aloud was a terrible idea. I think most bad outcomes are reasonably preventable with careful attention to detail and not acting like a douchebag.

People staring is not always a bad sign. Except when they look really angry. But, most of the time I think they are trying to understand us because we are different. Whenever I got bumped into though, I was skeptical. It could have been a pickpocket. I was on high alert if someone was trailing me or walking straight at me. Paying attention and showing strangers an awareness was a good deterrent for bad outcomes. Exhibiting cluelessness is dangerous. I was scared, helpless, and clueless many times during my trip but I refused to show it externally. I always slept with my backpack because my IDs, electronics, and valuables were stashed in it. I never trusted the lockers they offered me because they could be broken into or previously tampered with. Every person I met I assumed untrustworthy[19].

It is not easy, but integrating with the locals is a really healthy and safe thing to do. In some places, being a foreigner or a Westerner is the minimum criteria needed to be targeted. Integrating with the locals is an opportunity to discourage the foreigner label.

Safety.

In general, I think most Westerner’s who have not traveled believe the rest of the world is more dangerous. The rest of the world is dangerous in certain aspects, but overall I would argue the rest of the world is safer than our country. Components of this false perception might be psychological. For example, we feel safer in environments we are used to and comfortable in[20]. The rest of the world is unknown to us, so it could be assumed unsafe. Our beliefs about of the rest of the world are distorted by the media and what we see on TV. The Kardashian’s are about as appropriate of an indicator of the average American life as a foreign terrorist attack is of the safety of the world. Statistically, gun deaths are far lower outside the United States. In America, our culture is extremely competitive and psychologically intense. I think this is probably one of the main factors contributing to our statistically violent country. The rest of the world approaches life with a more laid back mentality, which probably results in less violence.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Traveling the world was probably the broadest challenge I faced in my life so far. I can not downplay the amount of time, work, and luck it took to complete without a major disaster. But, the experiences I took away make those troubles insignificant. Thinking about the infinite size of our physical world, the permanence of the human condition, the profound psychological benefits of having fun, the fragile structure of life, and a spiritual existence is continuously fulfilling. My travel experiences are forever a secret shared between the world and I.

RANDOM TIPS

I tried to take hard cover books on the trip. It was a terrible idea. Using eBooks is best.

Some museums in Europe are free after 5pm if you are under 25-years old. Ask. A student ID works everywhere in Europe for big discounts.

Use a Virtual Private Network abroad. Login with the US servers. It tricks the internet into thinking you are located in the United States. Without it, Netflix will not work. Foreign ads will be annoying. Certain websites and applications will not be accessible like normal in the United States.

The 24-hour clock or Military Time is common abroad. It is a superior system of time to the 12-hour clock. The metric system is universally accepted abroad and is a superior system of measurement to the United States’ Imperial system.

Mobile internet can be difficult to obtain abroad. United States telecommunication companies generally do not offer cheap global packages. But, T-Mobile’s Simple Choice international plan has coverage in 140+ countries around the world at a fair price. I always had access to 3G data speeds on this plan. 4G speeds are extremely rare abroad. The alternative option is to sign up with a new carrier in each individual country. Not recommended.

Add fellow travelers on Facebook and social media. Stay in contact. I found following their trips was a good resource to learn. To find fellow American travelers, join Facebook American Expatriate groups in every country. They often post meetups to attend.

I communicated with my family and friends using FaceTime and Skype for free audio or video communication. Any similar free VoIP (voice over IP) is sufficient. I used WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger for free text messaging.

Apps I used.

  • Best Hidden Gem - Slovenia
  • An Unexpectedly Beautiful City - Prague
  • Best Weather & People - Spain
  • Best History & Food - Italy

If you want to contribute to this article, liked it, or found errors, email me at mitch(dot)mclaughlin1(at)gmail(dot)com.

Notes

[1] My trip started with the 11-hour flight from San Francisco to Munich. It continued on tracing points A-J, A-J, A-C, and so on. The blue lines indicate ground transportation. Black lines indicate air travel. The trip ends with the flight from Tokyo to Chicago. Pictures of my flight and train tickets. Pictures of my bus tickets. This map was created using Google My Maps.

[2] Equipment I wish I had for the trip: a Canon DSLR and a drone. In my suitcase, I packed roughly 2-weeks of clothes. Comprised, mostly of shorts, t-shirts, socks, and underwear. I packed one pair of clothes for cold weather, one pair of formal clothes, 2 pairs of shoes, and one pair of sandals. Rolling my clothes saved me space.

[3] I estimated the trip would cost $12,000. So, I overspent slightly. I started with $15,000. I returned home with less than $1000 in my bank account. ATM and currency fees are inevitable. $250 in fees is nominal for a $12,000 budget. I ignored credit card data when calculating total trip cost because my credit account was functioning as a subsidiary of my debit account.

[4] A common question I received was, “How many days do I need to explore (given city)?” I answered this question with the ‘Days Needed’ column.

[5] Red indicates extremely hot or cold temperatures, excessive precipitation, humidity, low number of sunlight hours per day, and or pollution. Green indicates mild or warm temperatures, dry, clear skies, clean air, and many hours of sunlight per day.

This chart is optimized for mild and sunny weather. If snow or any abnormal weather is the goal the chart is inappropriate.

Some destinations shut down seasonally. I wanted to visit Switzerland in November. But, the Alps shutdown November to February due to heavy snow. I made a planning mistake.

Remember, the seasons in the southern hemisphere are opposite of the northern hemisphere caused by the tilt and orbit of the Earth.

Seasons of the southern hemisphere:

  • Summer: December to February.
  • Autumn: March to May.
  • Winter: June to August.
  • Spring: September to November.

[6] A great resource for understanding entry into ANY foreign territory. Occasions I used it on my trip:

  • Entry into the European Union (Schengen Area) - 90 day limit.
  • Entry into India - 30 day Indian eVisa required. Sample eVisa. Must submit application at least 4 days before the flight departs for India. Must have a friend’s address in India to be permitted in prior to the flight.
  • Entry into China - mainland China requires a valid Visa prior to the trip. No visa is required for Hong Kong and Macau.

[7] A powerful collection of the most extraordinary places on Earth.

[8] Walking tours are especially great. The tour guide acts as a protector. I learned new things and I had the ability to meet new friends in my tour groups. Walking and learning is stimulating. A good 2-hour tour costs roughly $10-15. Specifically, I recommend Paris Walks and London Walks.

[9] Google Flights is a simple and easy tool to find the best flights.

How to navigate Google Flights:

  1. Enter starting point and destination point (click the plus sign to add nearby airports).
  2. If the dates are flexible, click the calendar and browse month-to-month to find the best prices.
  3. If the location is flexible, click the map and browse area-to-area to find the best prices.

If a traveler is time and location flexible, extremely cheap flights are common. If a traveler is flexible in one or the other, but not both, cheap flights are less common.

Best Budget Airline Brands:

  • United States - Spirit Airlines
  • Europe - Norwegian Air, RyanAir, EasyJet
  • Asia - Asean Air, AirAsia, HK Express (Hong Kong), Peach Airlines (Korea and Japan)
  • India - SpiceJet, Air India, Indigo Air

RyanAir flights in Europe are usually under €100 regionally. The best example was my round-trip flight from Barcelona to Ibiza for €20.

[10] Megabus is a quality, low-cost charter bus service from city to city. It functions similarly in the United States. Route availability mostly covers Western Europe. Meinfernbus is Europe’s version of Megabus. Similar in quality, price, and destinations. Route availability covers Western and Central Europe. I always booked overnight bus rides. Instead of sleeping at a hostel, I slept on the bus so my accommodation and transportation expense was the cost of my bus ticket.

[11] BlaBlaCar is similar to Uber. A ride comparable in distance from San Francisco to Los Angeles (8 hours) would only cost €30 in Europe with BlaBlaCar. I would use BlaBlaCar if it were in the United States.

Best Ridesharing Options:

  • Europe - BlaBlaCar, Uber.
  • Middle East - Uber.
  • India - Uber (cheap, $1 for 10 minute ride), GrabTaxi, and Ryde.
  • China - Uber & Didi.
  • South Korea & Japan - Uber.

[12] I did not want to solely rely on trains to get from place to place in Europe. I would have felt constrained as the Eurostar pass only works for certain routes and regions in Europe. Also, the Eurostar pass does not give you high speed rail access as sometimes advertised. A mix of flights, buses, ridesharing, and trains gave me total flexibility.

[13] Navigating these sites is straight-forward. Enter location and dates. I sorted the results by price low to high.

Look for hostels that are centrally located with access to public transit. Public transit provides the most options for access to points of interest. Trains, subways, and metros are particularly convenient because they have signs in English.

Look for great communities when it comes to hostels. The small hostels offer one-on-one attention from the staff and it is easy to make close friends. The big hostels function like factories and might feel unauthentic.

Exceptional Hostels I Stayed At:

  • Fifth Hostel, Budapest, Hungary
  • Gracia City Hostel, Barcelona, Spain
  • Madpackers Hostel, Delhi, India

[14] Electronic versions are sufficient too. Most countries are technologically behind the West, so hard copies are preferred.

[15] Filmed with a GoPro Hero 4 Black and a GoPro Hero 4 Session. Edited in iMovie. Music credits: Phoebe Ryan - Mine (Win & Woo Remix) and Matoma & Nelsaan - Free Fallin (Tropical Mojito Remix).

[16] On rest days, I would lay in bed, watch TV or movies, and eat food. In a typical week, I did 3 days of intense exploring, tourism, and eating out, per 4 days of rest. Also, it was not financially sustainable for me to being doing activities 7 days a week.

[17] At tourist attractions like museums, palaces, and parks, I would often venture off the normal path. Sometimes I would not find anything of value, but sometimes I would find a gem. I would sit there for hours and appreciate it.

[18] A nice unintended side effect of consuming lots of information is the ability to retrieve and explain any moment of the trip later on.

[19] I am not saying everyone is in fact not worthy of my trust. Many people abroad are kind and trustworthy. But, trusting someone and being wrong was the difference between the survival and death of my trip.

[20] After about 7 days, I was generally confident and safe in any new environment while abroad. It took less and less time to reach this same threshold of comfort in a new city as I accumulated experience.

Thanks to Suzanne Nguyen for reading drafts of this. And to Boonsri Dickinson Srinivasan for watching edits of the video.

UPDATE (06-22-2016): Related to the metric system. “Why The Metric System Matters” and “Why The Metric System Hasn’t Failed In The U.S.