Written by Fidgit
Having traveled internationally since I was four and, on this venture alone, in and out of South America three times, you would think I have the routine down. Largely, I do, though some lessons have been and continue to be learned the hard way. Here’s hoping these tips make it easier for you.
Before you Go
Register with STEP– If you are an American citizen traveling abroad, I urge you to register upcoming travels with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.
Best case scenario, all it means is you receive emails about flag raising ceremonies at the embassy (usually in the capital) of the country where you are traveling. They also issue alerts if an area you are traveling to is experiencing unrest, whether natural or social. For example, when we were in Santiago, Chile during the student protests, these alerts helped us navigate the city while droves of college students threw desks in the streets and were maced by police.
When I notified the site of our intent of traveling through Colombia, I immediately received a notice with the Departments where guerrilla activity was highest.
Worst case scenario, if you are stuck in an area of unrest, the State Department already has your information, knows who to contact, and if they make extraction efforts, finding you is much easier and faster.
Added to this, make it a point to know the closest embassies to where you are traveling. I have this information in an online document which is shared to my Emergency Contact. Which leads us to the next point:
Have an Emergency Contact – A person who knows your travel plans, has the list of embassies, a photo copy of your passport, and with whom you have discussed emergency plans.
Talking through a system of how to alert family and in what order can save many people who love you a lot of stress, and not only in case of an emergency. For example, when I went off grid for a few weeks in Chile, my family knew who to reach out to, she knew how to reach me, and we were able to allay rising concerns on the home-front which I had not even considered. These practices, while crucial in emergency situations, can also make non-emergency situations less stressful for everyone.
Have Traveler’s Insurance- These insurance plans cover everything from lost luggage to hospital transport and coverage. Having repatriation coverage is important to me in this journey. If something happens to me, I don’t just want something which gets me to the nearest hospital (read the fine print!), but which will get my body all the way home. I use Squaremouth when considering my options.
Have a ticket exiting the country- If you are one of us who are lucky enough to face open-ended travel, before boarding a flight you will have to provide documentation showing your intent to leave the country within the time allotted to a tourist visa.
In Chile and Argentina, we could only be in one country or the other for 90 day stretches (1 day in the neighboring country qualified for the time to reset). Bolivia was more restrictive and still charges repatriation fees. In Peru, 183 day stretches are allowed. Know how long you can stay before you go, and, before you fly, be prepared to show the gate agent a ticket proving you plan to leave the country. If I come across salty and repetitive on this issue, it is because we were barred from our initial flight to Peru this season, because saying, “we are going to walk out,” was not satisfactory to the JetBlue staff. It meant an extra day of expenses in the U.S., and when we came back for the flight the next day with the “proper documentation,” no one asked to check it.
While this policy is applied inconsistently, it is better to be prepared. Whether this means buying a cheap-o bus ticket out of the county, or a fully refundable plane ticket on a credit card, just do it. We have never been asked for this information except by airport staff; they demand it on the premise that a border guard for the county of your arrival may ask for it and not let you in without it.
Things you want On Your Phone
WiFi can be unreliable in many of the more remote regions of the world. Seeking out a place which would afford us connectivity was one of the significant headaches of coming into towns. When walking into town, I would turn on my phone and WiFi and use it like a homing beacon when determining where to stop for a night. That said, you will want your phone apps set up before traveling. Here are a few we find helpful:
WhatsApp- Owned by FaceBook, this is what the rest of the world uses in place of texting. You can send voice recordings, pictures, and texts to anyone else who has WhatsApp, and when connectivity is iffy, this will be what gets through.
Wallet- The first time I overdrew a bank account was as a student at Oxford. The currency exchange rate had shifted without my knowing, and trying to resolve a bank issue just before the era of online banking was a nightmare for a broke college student.
On this trek I have relied primarily on an app called “Wallet” (both on Android and i-phone), It appealed to me because it was free, and I could track different accounts, a number of currencies, and several spending categories.
Things that Should Wait Until You are Abroad
The impulse to feel totally prepared before traveling is a valid one, but know there are some things which are significantly cheaper and easier to take care of abroad rather than in the U.S. These are a few:
Get your phone unlocked- If you are one of these genius sorts who can do it themselves (like Ben, who gave me the i-Phone 6 I have this year. Thanks Bolin clan!), or if your carrier will do it conveniently and for free, go ahead and unlock your phone before you head abroad. Otherwise, you can relatively easily, cheaply, and quickly get it unlocked at a shop in any large city.
Buy an international chip- we have found the option to buy a chip and a recarga is surprisingly prevalent and simple in a South American village.
A town may not have a grocery store, but you can bet you will find a tiny one room shop with the emblematic little green or blue insignia over the door, and they will recharge your card. It involves them dialing in your number, and voila, you have more connection. This relieves a lot of the “do you have WiFi” stress we lived with for the first two years of arriving to towns. It is also a great way to get accidentally nickle and dime-d as, in Peru at least, it is about $3 USD per week of coverage, but most of the options have limitless WhatsApp and a lot of Facebook.
Purchase Medications- You will all be shocked to hear that the USA is not the best avenue for affordable medications.
Before we began this hike, I got a doctor’s appointment (~$150 USD), so he would write prescriptions that I could go pay another $45 for. After two years of walking, I have learned that in most of the rest of the world, medications like Cipro are easily and cheaply available without prescription.
Another example: I looked at getting the first in the series of Rabies vaccines (my understanding is, having this preemptively extends the 24 hour period you would normally have upon being bit to seek treatment to 48 hours) but in the U.S. I was told this shot would cost $10,000. When Justin of the Skywalkers al Sur was bitten he received the whole course of vaccines for free as he walked through Peru and Ecuador.
This list is by no means exhaustive and comes from a U.S. citizen’s perspective. Let’s hear YOUR insights on how to set up for successful international travel?
Do your homework and travel far and wise, my friends!