Writer Gayle Forman answered your travel questions on Tuesday, March 29 at noon ET
When journalist Gayle Forman took off to spend a year gallivanting around the world with her husband, Nick, she figured she knew all the tricks. After all, she'd been traveling since she was seven years old. But it turns out that circling the globe for 12 months requires a set of skills that you can't learn in a guidebook.
In "Mr. & Mrs. Globetrotter", Forman shared a dozen secret tricks from the road and today she answers your pressing world-travel questions.
Gayle will answered your travel questions Tuesday, March 29, at 12pm EST.
In 2002, award-winning journalist Gayle Forman took a year off to travel around the world with her husband. While on the road, she communed with among others, Tongan transvestites, Bollywood starlets and out-of-work Amsterdam prostitutes and wrote about her adventures in the forthcoming book "You Can't Get There From Here: A Year on the Fringes of a Shrinking World," which is out in April. She has written for a number of publications, including the New York Times Magazine, Travel& Leisure, Elle, Glamour and Seventeen. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.
Gayle Forman: Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for joining me on this chat. I'm Gayle Forman. I went traveling around the world with my husband for a year, hanging out with strange subcultures in the far corners of the world. My book about that adventure, You Can't Get There From Here: A Year on the Fringes of a Shrinking World is out now. When I'm not traveling, I love to help other people plan their trips. In my next life, I'm going to be a travel agent. So this chat is an hour of heaven for me, so much vicarious wandering. I'm going to get through as many questions as I can (so forgive the typos). So ask away&
Anonymous: So how much did you end up spending over the year? For Americans, taking a year off seems like a wonderful if not daunting task in terms of 'lost wealth'.
Gayle Forman: This is a popular question so I'll start with this one. Nick and I traveled fairly well-clean, AC hotels, restaurant meals-for about $30,000 for a year, including airfare, visas etc for both of us. It can be done for much less or much more. We met people who had been gone more than a year on under $10k. It depends where you go and how long you stay in one place. Much of Asia is very cheap. Central America and South America are also full of bargains. Africa can be pricey and Europe, especially Western Europe, very expensive. If you want a luxury trip, well the sky's the limit. Fifty dollars a day will do you quite nicely in many Asian countries, but in Europe that will hardly pay for a day's meals if you are eating in restaurants. Short answer is you can do a trip like this on a few bucks a day--staying in youth hostels, eating street food--and go up from there.
Manhattan, KS: I would like to travel around the world with my wife to visit friends in nearly 40 different countries whom I met in Manhattan. What is the most economical as well as safe way to travel between countries on a continent?
Gayle Forman: I could go on and on with the how-tos. But I'm assuming most of you don't plan on staying with this chat for hours. The short answer is that there are many ways to skin this cat. There are a couple of books on the subject-Practical Nomad is the most exhaustive. You can also check on my new web site (http://www.gayleforman.com/). There's a section called Plan Your Trip, complete with a lengthy article offering all kinds of nuts-and-bolts tips on planning a trip. It includes a section on locomotion that covers how to get from A to B, info on health, documents, etc. All the stuff I wish someone had told me when I was planning my trip.
Clearwater, FL: Can you tell us 3 places that you'd describe as "do not miss" that are not typically listed as tourist destinations. Thanks.
Gayle Forman: I see someone else asked my favorite places, so I'll combine your two questions.
My favorite places were the locales that surprised me. I loved Uzbekistan-Samarkand and Bukhara were amazing ancient cities and I had the best meal of the entire trip in Samarkand (for three bucks!). I also adored Malawi and think it will eventually become a big tourist draw in Africa. My absolute favorite place was probably India simply because it is so all encompassing. We were there two months, during which I acted in a Bollywood musical, went on a meditation retreat and made friends who I will know the rest of my life. It could be insanely maddening at times, but that's just the flip side of a culture (or cultures) so vibrant. We flew in and out of India on our way to Central Asia and as the Air Uzbekistan flight returned to Delhi, I caught sight of a turbaned Sikh guy guiding the plane to the gate and I just felt this sense of joy to be back. Of course, it was just for six hours; we flew on to Africa later that day.
Baltimore, MD: Any comments or feelings about visiting Croatia this year?
Gayle Forman: There's a film festival in Croatia in June. I'd love to check that out. I haven't been to Croatia since before the Balkan Wars, but the islands of the Adriatic coast were simply gorgeous.
Clearwater, FL: How much of your trip was carefully planned and how much just evolved as you went from place to place?
Gayle Forman: Again, I see a bunch of questions on this, so pardon my consolidation of this question and another couple:
We decided where we wanted to go, more or less, and bought a skeleton ticket (LA-Tonga-New Zealand-Hong Kong, then overland to Thailand-India-Kenya). If I had to do it over again, I would have just bought the beginning portion of our tickets (to New Zealand or Hong Kong) and booked the rest as we went. It would have made better sense if we'd gone to SE Asia after New Zealand, and then worked our way up to China, across to Kazakhstan and then to India. We ended up zigging and zagging a lot.
As for hotels, I booked a place in Tonga, our first stop, and we left there a few days later. After that, I never booked in advance. We always managed to find places, most often really great places.
The one caveat on this one is if you're going somewhere wildly popular (Paris) during a high or shoulder season. You can usually find last-minute places but you'll have far fewer options.
We got too many visas before we left and ending wasting money on them. If you're going to be in big cities, you can get visas as you go.
Some of our favorite places (Malawi, Uzbekistan) were last-minute destinations. We literally jumped off a train in the middle of Tanzania (one that was supposed to take us to Zambia) because we wanted to go to Malawi.
The serendipity can be the best part.
Simsbury, CT: After finding out about the recent breakouts of the bird flu in Asia, I'm wondering if there are any precautions or vaccines that I need to take to prevent contraction? I plan on travelling to Taipei, Taiwan in the near future; I'm also a vegetarian.
I wouldn't be too worried about avian flu. Exotic new diseases make good fodder for cable TV but in reality your risk of contracting avian flu or Ebola virus (or even SARS) is tiny, nothing like your risk of getting hurt in, say, a car crash. Sorry.
As for vaccines, the International Society for Travel Medicine (http://www.istm.org/) offers guidelines for what vaccines you'll need. So does the CDC (www.cdc.gov/travel). I'm pretty sure that you won't need anything for a trip to Taipei, a very modern metropolis.
Long Island, NY: What is the difference between a passport and a visa?
Gayle Forman: A passport is a little booklet that proves your identity as a citizen of a certain country. You need a passport to travel outside of the US. A visa is essentially an entry permit into a certain country. Different countries require visas from different nationalities (go to www.travisa.com for specifics). Many countries do not require a visa from US citizens. You must usually pay for a visa and it is stamped or glued into your passport. They make nice souvenirs.
Lakeland, FL: I'm traveling to Rome May 6th. Do you have an idea/feeling where the dollar v. Euro might be? Thanks.
Gayle Forman: The weak dollar is definitely a drag for travelers. The current exchange rate is about 1 euro=$1.29. My experience, however, was that Italy was not nearly as bad as some other European countries. For instance in the Netherlands, it seems as though many establishments used the changeover to the euro as an excuse to jack up prices. Such that a cup of coffee that once cost 3 Dutch guilders (about a dollar fifty back in the day) now cost 3 euro. This tended to happen in countries where the value of the former currency and the euro were close (Germany, Netherlands). Wasn't such an issue in Italy. But anyone traveling to a euro country with greenbacks will feel the sting.
Miami, FL: We'd like to travel to South Africa in October this year to see Cape Town, the Garden Route, and the wine country but have heard conflicting reports about the safety and security of Americans traveling there. Do you recommend going? Is it "safe?"
Gayle Forman: I'm going to use your question to address the safety issue.
I traveled around South Africa on my own, with my husband and with my parents without incident. Cape Town and the Garden Route are generally thought to be safer than Johannesburg, a villifed city that I really like.
S. Africa does have crime issues and many countries have safety concerns, but I tend to feel that they often get over-hyped and that a good amount of common sense, awareness of your surroundings, cultural sensitivity can go a long way to keeping you safe.
For what it's worth, we traveled for a year and I spent at least two months of that time on my own. The only time I was a victim to a crime was in Rome. Some very clever pickpockets got me on the bus.
Royal Oak, MI: I was wondering how many foreign countries you have visited, and where your book is being sold.
Gayle Forman: We visited about 20 on that trip. I think I've been to about 40 overall. I'm not in the 100 club, travelers who've been to more than 100 countries. My book is on sale at the usual places: Barnes&Noble, Amazon etc.
Anonymous: I am a female Navy vet who plans to travel to Turkey next year. I am going with a Turkish friend and her two small girls. Her husband is American. Even her husband has commented on the trip regarding security. How safe are Americans in Turkey? She says they love us, I have reservation because of traveling in the Mideast while in the Navy.
Gayle Forman: Turkey is one of my favorite places I have ever visited--maybe because I went there on my honeymoom. I really would not be concerned about how the Turks will treat you. My overall experience was that everyone was welcoming and warm and loved Americans, and their tourist dollars, if not their government. There is certainly some animosity in the Middle East over the war in Iraq but Turkey has such a strong tourism industry that really, most people really want you to be there. The bombings in Istanbul a few years back-thought to be al Qaeda-upset Turks as much as anyone. Use the same caution and common sense and cultural sensitivity you would anywhere, but by all means go.
Verona, NJ: My husband & I are planning a 6 to 12 month round the world escapade to celebrate his imminent retirement (we did an 8 month round the world 25 years ago but we were younger and that was then). We plan to sell our house and so will have no U.S. address. What's best for mail? My sister offered to let us use her address--she would have to either take care of it or send it on to us or we could pay a service like USABox.com to forward mail? Or is there another way? At least paying bills and managing a checking account on the internet will be great (though we'd still need an address for those accounts). For some reason, this worries me more than the travel itself. How did you arrange your mail for a year?
Gayle Forman: We had our mail forwarded to family, gave power of attorney to certain relatives and authorized them to access our various bank and credit card accounts. We set up automatic bill pay whenever possible and then family members did the rest. As for mail, aside from bills there wasn't much of it as most people knew we were gone for the year. If you already have credit cards etc. you won't need an address of your own to keep them, just somewhere where you can be contacted. A PO Box would also work but you'd have to have someone you trust check it for you so it seems easier to just forward your mail to a trusted friend or relative. If your sister is responsible, I'd take her up on her offer.
Chicago, IL: I will be traveling to Beijing and Shanghai, China this July. I was wondering if you had any suggestions for other locations, either in China or by China, that I could visit as well.
Gayle Forman: I adored Lijang, in Yunnan province. And Beijing should not be missed.
Los Angeles, CA: I think that you stated that you spent about $30,000 for a year for both you and your husband. For a single person (one person) do you think that you could half that amount ($15,000.00)? Maybe 2/3 ($20,000.00)?
Gayle Forman: Hotels were sometimes a flat room rate, sometimes priced per person. I would think you could definitely do it for 20,000, as long as you stay out of Europe. We spent six weeks in Europe, staying with friends much of the time, and I'd say we spent at least $100 a day when we were paying for hotels.
Carbondale, CO: What's the best way to get things going? It's hard to imagine taking a year off at once, how do you start the process?
Gayle Forman: The hardest thing about taking a year off is deciding that you can do it. It really is a huge leap of faith, to decide that you can leave your job/home/dog/family etc.
That was the hardest part. Seriously.
NYC, NY: So overall, besides having the luxury of writing a book, you think that traveling the world for a year or two is a positive experience? For some reason I have a longing to quit my job (bound in Times SQ is not fun) and go from Istanbul to Beijing back to Moscow.
Gayle Forman: It was an extraordinarily positive experience. Travel changes you. That's why we love it.
That said, it was also really difficult at times. I have always found that I get tired of traveling after about 3-4 months and I definitely hit some walls. And the truth of it is that traveling together is hard on a marriage. You are constantly grappling with unfamiliar places, cultures, languages, etc. You get tired of being the (lost) stranger in a strange land. Nick and I fought pretty intensely at times. I thought it meant we were doomed. But then I talked to other couples who traveled together and they all said that traveling had tested--and usually solidified--their relationships. It did for ours.
Even when it's difficult, travel is always a positive experience.
Cerritos, CA: Hi Gayle, Did you ever feel threatened or really nervous in any particular situation?
Gayle Forman: Yes, whenever I had to drive somewhere with an insane taxi driver or bus driver. It was the only time I was scared.
Once on an overcrowded minibus in Tanzania (20 of us in a van built for 12) we clung for our lives as the driver careened around bends at ridiculous speeds. Every so often he slowed down to check out a bus that had flipped over on the side of the road, and then revved back up. I was very happy to reach our destination.
Atlanta, GA: Is there any place you regret going to? Is there any place you regret not going to? Thank you.
Gayle Forman: Nick and I both regret not going to Laos. As we traveled, other travelers would ask us where we'd been and we'd say "Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand..." and they'd ask, "Not Laos? It was our favorite."
Anonymous: Hi Gayle,
What did you do for insurance on your trip? Did you get traveler's insurance? (Just for evacuation emergencies?)
Gayle Forman: We bought travel health insurance, which is different from trip insurance (that covers cancelled flights, lost baggage, etc.)
It is quite reasonable, as low as $500 a year. Ours was more like $1200 a year for each of us, and included evacuation insurance. Again, I have an article on my web site that gives URLs of various insurance carriers.
Helena, MT: How does an opportunity to travel and make money at the same time come about if one isn't a journalist? I'm a social worker and have a huge interest in travelling and travel journalism but I haven't ever written anything for any publication. My question is did you come up with the book idea yourself and then go or did a publisher approach you with the idea before the trip because you are a journalist?
Gayle Forman: I did not sell my book until after we got back. And I did not write very many articles on the road, either. We saved all our money before we left--two years of serious belt tightening. And we did not make a lot. My husband is a a librarian and freelance journalism--not so glamorous as you might think.
Nevis, West Indies: What was the most exciting portion of your adventure?
Gayle Forman: My favorite thing about travel is that wonderful moment, that alchemy, when the man at the tea shop remembers your name and suddenly, you connect, you belong.
For me travel is all about those connections, and creating those bonds was my favorite part of the trip.
Clearwater, FL: New Zealand is high on my dream list. Would you suggest a minimum of a month to see its many pretty parts? Are the car rentals/campers reasonably priced?
Gayle Forman: I would choose one island, North or South, and rent a campervan. New Zealanders are big on campervanning and there are lots of great campgrounds. If you go high season, be sure to rent a van well ahead of time.
Hoboken, NJ: How did you handle the packing issue? I'm sure you traveled through every season & climate, yet you must have had to maintain a manageable amount of luggage.
Gayle Forman: The first part of our trip, we followed the summer, except for a few freezing weeks in Beijing. I mostly bought clothes as I went and then sent them home when I was done with them. We had our winter clothes shipped to us before we went to Europe in winter.
We also did not use backpacks. We had two bags, the Beast and Beastette. The Beastette was a rolling bag that converted into a backpack. All our clothes went in that. The Beast was a hardshell rolling case--yes, a hardshell case. We had a computer and lots of tickets and cash and the Beast locked and when locked to something stationary was our traveling safe.
When we cruised around a country, we would often leave the Beast in storage and make do with Beastette. We left Beast in an attic in Amsterdam. Beastette is still with us.
Plano, TX: Gayle, My friends and I (three in all) are planning a three-week trip to Europe this summer. Ireland, England, Amsterdam, France and Italy are the countries we'd like to visit. We will be staying in backpacking hostels throughout our journey. My questions are:
1. Do you think we are biting off more than we can chew as far as the number of countries to visit in the given time period?
2. What are some general tips for saving money?
Gayle Forman: It's a big mouthful. But then again, with the proliferation of cheap airlines (Ryanair and Easyjet) that allow you to fly from say London to Nice for as little as 10 euro, you might be able to do it. BTW, I recommend flying around Europe as opposed to training because it is so much cheaper now (if you book early enough).
As for saving money, stay in hostels, don't eat in restaurants, get food from grocery stores, etc.
If you are going to hit all these countries, my advice would be to pick one place in each one and stay there. Experience Italy in Rome, France in Marseille...Otherwise you'll just get to know the transportation system.
Los Angeles, CA: How difficult was it for you to reestablish your life after the year off? How long did it take you to find a job? How much money did you have put away to live on until you found a job?
Gayle Forman: I'm a freelance writer so I went right back to it. Nick got his job back--and health insurance--right away. So that part wasn't so hard. Also, we built money into our savings so we'd have a cushion when we got back (I can't help it; I'm an accountant's daughter.)
But re-entering regular life after such a momentous year away took a bit of adjusting. Then again, it was such a joy to see our friends and family, to sleep in our own bed, to get coffee without getting dressed and to not be lost anymore. The weekend we got back, we went to brunch at one of our favorite places and as we left, I jokingly said to Nick, "OK, so let's pull out our map and figure out where to go next..." And laughed with relief.
Ocala, FL: Which countries are the bargains for travel this year?
Gayle Forman: Next on my agenda is Mexico. It's a huge bargain, and right next door and I feel like I've taken it for granted for far too long. There's more to Mexico than Cancun and I want to go exploring there and Central America.
Gayle Forman: Alas, I see that my hour is up.
Thank you for all of your fantastic questions. I hope I could be somewhat helpful. I'm sitting here with a smile on my face thinking about all the places to go to...