How to Travel for a Year: The Ultimate Road Map to a Solo RTW Trip
What does it take to travel for a year? Embarking on a RTW trip isn’t like your average vacation. You can’t book all your transportation and accommodations in advance. You need to consider things like how to stay healthy on the road, and you can’t even pack everything you’ll need while you’re traveling — you’ll have to restock toiletries and broken or lost items as you go. This list will break down every step you need to take to plan a solo RTW trip from establishing a budget to the final touches you need to put your life on hold.
A note about COVID-19: The nature of a RTW trip is that it visits several destinations, so I don’t recommend taking one while we remain at the height of the pandemic. (In fact, this is still a bad time for any international travel.) This can however be a good time to start planning a RTW trip, as it will likely take you at least a year to make your plans and save up the money. Bear in mind that conditions vary from place to place, and can change on short notice, so flexibility in your plans is paramount.
Table of Contents
RTW Travel Prep: 9 to 12 Months in Advance
Set a date
If you’re waiting for the “perfect” time to go, you’ll always be waiting. Be realistic about your capabilities, but give yourself a hard deadline.
Read more: Setting a date was one of three key things that helped me take the plunge and commit to taking my year-long solo RTW trip.
Create a trip budget and savings plan
Figure out how much money you can save each month and give yourself a rough estimate for your total savings goal. Things like frequent flier miles, working on the road and selling assets can bring down the amount you’ll need to have saved by your departure date.
Read more: See how I saved over $500 a month for my travels and what I spent on my year-long RTW trip.
Start gathering resources and meeting other travelers
One of the biggest turning points for my RTW trip plans was attending a Meet Plan Go conference. Meeting other people who have taken this kind of journey or have similar goals will keep you motivated.
Read more: My top resources for planning a RTW trip.
Sign up for a travel credit card
Only if you can use credit responsibly, of course! My favorites are the Barclaycard World Elite MasterCard and Citi AAdvantage. Do this early in your savings process so you can spend as much time as possible racking up miles.
Do some soul searching
What’s your motivation for taking this trip? What are your travel values? Is there a purpose to your trip? What do you want to learn from this trip? Go ahead and start your travel journal now — planning and preparing is part of the journey in long term travel.
Read more: In the early days of planning my trip, I created a travel manifesto and chose three skills I wanted to earn while traveling.
6 to 9 Months in Advance
Tell your friends and family
The more people you tell, the more accountable you’ll feel toward achieving your goal. This also gives you plenty of time to reassure anxious parents.
Read more: I was very lucky to have the people in my life support my travel dreams. But the effect a solo RTW trip can have on family and work is a big hurdle for would-be long term travelers.
Decide what to do for income on the road
Do you want to take on freelance writing, design or consulting projects? Do you want to start a travel blog and monetize it? Are you willing to pick up odd jobs in your destinations? Thinking about ways to supplement your income on the road will help stretch your savings and keep you traveling as long as possible.
Read more: See how I planned to make money on the road.
Start planning your itinerary
Pick the handful of most important things you want to see and do on your trip and start painting the broad strokes of your RTW itinerary. Over the next few months, you should research your options for flights and overland travel.
Read more: I started planning my itinerary by choosing my must-do bucket list activities. Then I planned my RTW flights and looked into my overland travel options. See my complete RTW itinerary here.
Start looking into the visa requirements of your potential destinations. If there are visas you need to apply for from your home country, you’ll want to know now so you can start the process or take that country off your itinerary. You should also find out each country’s COVID-19 testing, vaccination and quarantine requirements, and bear in mind that these may change over time. The CDC has a helpful map of each country’s COVID risk and advises travelers avoid destinations with moderate or high risk. This may change radically, for better or for worse, over time.
Read more: Check out my own RTW visa process here.
Give a loved one power of attorney
In a worst case scenario, you might need legal or financial help back home. Consider giving a parent or someone else you trust power of attorney.
4 to 6 Months in Advance
Make sure your passport is up to date
You don’t just need to worry about the expiration date. Make sure you have enough blank pages to hold the stamps and visas from your destinations.
Stock up on passport photos
Whether your passport needs renewing or not, you will often need copies of your passport photo to attach to visa applications. Order or print some now.
Consult a doctor about your healthcare needs
Find out what immunizations you need and what prescription medications you might take with you. It’s recommended to do this at the 6 month mark because if you are not already vaccinated for Hepatitis A, you will need two shots administered at least 6 months apart.
Read more: Learn about what immunizations you need for a RTW trip.
Buy travel insurance
Insurance should be among your first major purchases. Make sure you’re covered for healthcare, trip interruption or cancellation, and any valuable gear like cameras or laptops you may be carrying. I use World Nomads.
Apply for Global Entry and TSA Pre-Check
This will be especially useful if you are flying in and out of the United States regularly, including connecting flights. Global Entry grants you expedited processing at Customs and Border Patrol, while TSA Pre-Check gives you access to a shorter and faster airport security line.
Decide what to do with your house or apartment
If you own your home, you’ll need to decide whether to sell it or rent it out while you’re gone. If you are renting, decide whether you are going to break your lease, fulfill your lease and not renew it, or sublet your apartment during your RTW trip.
Make a hometown bucket list
Enjoy what your hometown has to offer while you can, and set aside plenty of time with friends and family before you leave.
Read more: See my own hometown bucket list for Charlottesville.
Book guided tours
Some tours and destinations require permits and it’s best to arrange these in advance, particularly for very popular tourist attractions like the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
Read more: Learn why I’m not sorry I book guided tours, even on a RTW trip.
Finalize your itinerary
Your itinerary will probably change some while you’re on the road – that’s part of the beauty of long term travel. But it’s still a good idea to have a plan in place. Decide not just what countries you’ll be visiting, but which cities. Have an idea of how you’ll get from place to place, and how often you’ll be in transit. And, of course, keep track of what you’d like to see and do, and how much you plan to spend each day.
3 Months in Advance
Book your first flight
You don’t need to book all your flights in advance. (In fact, it’s better if you don’t.) But you will need to book your first flight.
Register for absentee voting
Are you traveling during an election year? Find out the process for absentee voting, whether it entails going to your local city hall to cast an early vote, or mailing a ballot in from overseas. If it’s the latter, you may want to ensure you’re settled in one destination for a while around election time, so you have an address where you can receive the ballot.
Set up auto billing
Make sure any bills you’ll still have during travel, like your phone payment, don’t get missed.
Read more: Learn more about how to manage finances while traveling.
Purchase gear and do a packing test run
Stock up on any special travel gear you need and run a packing trial. You’ll be packing lots of things you might not normally take on vacation, like a travel towel and laundry supplies. It’s also very easy to have too much stuff on your original packing list. Try things out. Make sure you have room for everything, you know how you want to organize your pack, and that your pack is a comfortable size and weight for you to carry.
Read more: See my complete solo RTW trip packing list.
Start selling assets
You may be tempted to wait until the last minute, but learn from my mistakes. I wish I had sold my things sooner. As great as it sounds to do one big yard sale right before you go, this doesn’t take into account any plan for what happens to the stuff that doesn’t get sold. Give yourself plenty of time to find new homes for anything you don’t want to hang on to during your trip.
2 Months in Advance
If you’re selling your home or giving up your lease, call any service providers for things like electricity, gas and internet and let them know when they can turn off your service and stop billing you.
Get an international phone plan
Make sure your phone is unlocked and you’ll be able to use it in most or all of your destination countries.
As with flights, you don’t need to book everything in advance. But if you’re traveling in very popular destinations, during peak season, or during holidays or festivals, accommodations may get snatched up quickly. (As a solo female traveler, I also prefer knowing where I’m going to stay when I arrive.) Book at least the first couple nights of your trip in advance.
Read more: Find out how I chose what kinds of accommodations to book for my RTW trip.
Learn some travel skills
Study a foreign language – it could be the language of the first country you plan to visit, or a language you’ll be using frequently during your trip, like Spanish if you plan to spend lots of time in South America. If you don’t already know how to cook, start learning some easy recipes you can recreate in a hostel kitchen. Try doing a small load of laundry by hand.
1 Month in Advance
Purchase any last minute gear
Some supplies like toiletries and batteries are best stocked closer to your date of departure. Bear in mind, that you’ll be restocking these types of items throughout your trip. You don’t need to pack an entire year’s supply.
Stock up on medications
You should have already spoken to a doctor about what medications you’ll need for travel. Now is the time to fill those prescriptions and pack a small first aid kit.
Get an international drivers license
If you plan to rent a car and drive during your trip, make sure you have the proper credentials to do so.
Give notice at work
Whether you find the prospect exciting or terrifying, the time has come to let your employer know you’re leaving. I don’t recommend working until the day of your departure. Give yourself at least a week to move out of your house or apartment, spend time with loved ones and generally prepare.
Update your resume
Travel doesn’t have to tank your career, but you do need to be mindful of how to present your career break to potential future employers. Take care of this now by updating your resume so you don’t have to worry about it when you get back.
Read more: Figure out what sorts of skills travel develops that can boost your resume.
Make a plan for your return
I know, what a downer right? You should be getting excited for your travels and looking toward the bright future, not thinking about what it will be like when it’s all over. But trust me, if you don’t want to worry about what happens after your trip now, you definitely won’t want to think about it when you’re out enjoying adventures. Have some money set aside in your budget to cover your return home. You should have at least a rough idea of how you’ll find a new place to live and what you’d like to do for work after your trip. I failed at this step so hard. I succumbed to the temptation to leave things open ended and while things worked out okay, I have often wondered if I would have ended up in an even better position had I planned beyond my year of travel upfront.
2 Weeks in Advance
Scan travel documents
I don’t recommend carrying around physical copies of your passport or credit cards. (If your bag got stolen, the copies would just be gone too.) Keep digital copies for yourself, and leave physical copies, along with your insurance policy, with a trusted friend or family member. If you already gave someone power of attorney, they’re a natural person to have this kind of information.
Finalize packing list
Do another packing test run now that you have all your toiletries and medicine. Make any final adjustments.
Get foreign currency
Even if you have a credit card with no foreign transaction fees (and you should), you should travel with cash too. Cash can be better for small local businesses and there are many places that don’t widely accept credit cards. (Even Japan, if you can believe it!) Before leaving, order enough currency to get through at least a few days in your first destination. You should also keep an emergency stash of US dollars, but for safety, don’t keep it all in one place.
Notify banks of travel dates
Nobody wants to be caught off guard by a hold on your card. You will only be able to submit up to 60 to 90 days of travel at once, so make sure you do this regularly throughout your trip.
1 Week in Advance
Have a going away party
Hangovers and jet lag do not mix, so don’t leave your going away party until the night before your departure. Hold it at least a couple days before.
Put your stuff in storage
Have a plan for what to do with anything you don’t sell. I was lucky and had friends and family willing to each keep a few boxes for me. You may need to rent a storage unit and include the cost in your travel expenses.
Set up entertainment
Download any movies, music or books you’ll want for your first flight. I especially like to use the Pocket app to download blog posts about my next destination for offline reading, so I can review them on airplane mode.
Put a hold on your mail
Or forward it to the address of the friend or relative acting as your power of attorney.
Get a COVID-19 test
The CDC recommends getting tested with a viral test 1 to 3 days before any international or domestic travel. Make sure you have any documentation you need to confirm negative tests and vaccinations as required by your destination, and have a clear plan for getting tested regularly throughout your trip.
Confirm your flight
Keep an eye on flight status a day or two in advance of your departure.
Don’t leave packing until the last minute. Do as much as you can at least two days before your leave. For any last minute items, like your toothbrush or your phone charger, tape a list on a brightly colored piece of paper to your front door so you don’t forget them.
Charge your batteries
Speaking of phone chargers, don’t risk being left with a dead battery. Charge all your devices the night before your first flight.