Category Archives: Travel Planning

24 Hour Airplane Trip With A Toddler

In what can only be a cruel twist of fate, I opened my family’s upcoming airline reservation to India to discover to my utter dismay that one leg was MISSING from the ticket! I thought we had dream prices for our family of three (with her own seat for our 22 month old), but turns out it was just a dream and a 16 hour leg was missing from the reservation. This revelation was followed by frantic calls to the airlines, the travel agent, hefty cancellation fees and a new, much more expensive booking where our daughter would be a lap infant or more appropriately, lap toddler!

24 hour plane journey with a toddler

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Managing Money When Traveling Long Term

After all the dreaming and planning of a dream trip, it comes to the point when you’re dealing with nitty gritty details. How will eat? How will we spend? Where will we do our laundry? Managing your money on the road is an unglamorous but totally necessary part of long term travel. In the event of theft, it helps to know that your bank will do everything to make your life easier.
We had a joint account with Charles Schwab, which has a great international debit card where all ATM fees are reimbursed – not all banks do this and we really appreciated this benefit. We used our Schwab ATM card in nearly every city, town and village in South America and faced absolutely NO issues. No ATM fees means that we could withdraw money in small quantities without worry of losing it.

The card was once swallowed by an ATM machine in Yurimaguas, Peru and we had to go to the bank the next morning to retrieve it. It was swallowed again in Uyuni, Bolivia and we did not get it back. Schwab froze the card for us, but we were still able to use mine. We maintained a small running balance in our checking account so that if our card were ever to be misused, our other accounts remain untouched. I carried a back up debit card from a credit union and we used this card when we paid for a tour and maxed out ATM transactions.

Our credit card of choice was Capital One Venture One with its zero international transaction fees. We used this on a few occasions. We kept an account of what we spent daily, but we did not have a budget. We knew roughly how much we were prepared to spend on each category in each country and as long as we were under that limit, we did not worry about it.

Travel Logistics – Packing List

In an earlier post, I wrote about the backpacks we took with us on this trip. We’ve often been asked how we packed for four months. Packing for four months is really no different from packing from 1 month or for 10 months. You’re likely to get really bored with your clothes, but hey! what are shops for? I went shopping in Santiago and picked up a few things when I got really bored of what I was wearing.

Instead of a his and her packing list, I am going to write this list by category. We were still packing up our house until the previous day, so we really didn’t have a lot of time to pack our bags well.


  • 13″ Macbook Pro
  • 10″ Samsung Android tablet
  • Portable hard drives – 2
  • Pen drives – 2
  • DSLR – Nikon D7000 with two lenses (18-200) and a super wide angle lens
  • Canon S95 compact camera
  • Kindle – 2, one for each


Unless you work on the road or do heavy photo/video editing for a living, an MBP or apple laptop is not worth taking. As you know, most of the items above where stolen and we know a friend whose MBP was stolen too. If I had to re-do this trip, I’d take a used laptop or a chromebook. The heavy duty photo editing can wait until we return from our trip! Canon S95 is a superb travel camera – crisp images, normal looks, compact size – many pictures on this blog were taken using an S95.


Since our travels would take us across the length of South America, we had several climate zones to pack for. It was cold in Bogota, but warm in rest of Colombia. Most of the Andes was cold and then warm jungle weather in the Amazon. But this combination worked mostly well:
  • Convertible pants
  • Cotton pants that convert into capris (light weight pants for him) -2
  • Travel skirt (Niru)
  • Shorts
  • t-shirts (4-6, including a quick dry one for hiking)
  • Tops – 2 (Niru)
  • Lightweight long innerwear – top and bottom [super useful]
  • Rain jacket
  • Rain pants
  • Fleece layer
  • Pajamas – at least 1 each – Niru found a cool one in the Otavalo market in Ecuador. Backpackers are often spotted wearing these. They are striped and really loose drawstring pants.
  • Underwear – for about a week
  • Scarves
  • Cold weather – gloves, cap, socks, sock liners
  • Socks – 3 pairs
  • Cap
  • Sarong – very useful
  • Travel towel – one each


Laundry services are everywhere. This is one indulgence we did not compromise on. We only washed something if it was really needed – we often gave our clothes for laundry. They came freshly washed and folded.


Hiking boots – vasque ankle length (Niru found them too heavy, but a really great pair otherwise)
Keen Newport sandals – loved them dearly. I had been wearing these for a couple of years and just took them on the trip. Wore them in a lot of places including day hikes.
Flip flops – Only Swami
Notes: If I were only traveling South East Asia, I would only carry a pair of Newport Keen sandals and flip flops. I used Swami’s flip flops to use hostel bathrooms.


Headlamps – very useful
Notebook – 1 each
Sleeping sack – we initially had this, but mailed it back
Cooking kit – brought this, but sent back
First aid kit – brought a crazy big version, but stripped it down on the road
Toiletry kit – Very basic version that we could easily replenish on the road
Mosquito repellant
Water proof matches

We packed too much!

The essence of backpacking is flexibility and agility. We realized somewhere along the way that we were losing that. I was finding it difficult to walk at high altitudes with a heavy pack and decided that I’d rather do without the things I am carrying. We first went to our cousin’s house in Los Angeles before we started on our trip. Just that one small flight led us to shedding a few things at his place. A month later, we did another purge in Quito, where we shipped a few more things to my cousin (and spent a 100 bucks doing so!). We also had all the souvenirs we bought at the Otavalo market that we did not want to carry around.
The important lesson to remember is that the world is far more connected than we realize. Everything is available everywhere. South American cities are modern and carry most modern essentials. My advice to travelers is to go to a sporting store like REI or Decathlon and get things like winter layers, hidden wallets etc and then just pack whatever is at home. Carry very less and buy what you need along the way- your back will thank you.

Protecting Against Loss During Long Term Travel (and What Travel Insurance to buy)

I wrote about getting robbed in Calama, Chile here and here. A recent comment from a reader reminded me to write this post about how to protect yourself from theft.

In a nutshell, its nearly impossible to make your travel 100% theft-proof. But you can plan so that its nothing more than an unfortunate inconvenience.

I may be the most careful, paranoid person in the world, but someone out there is smarter and is making a living out of stealing. That guy is hard to beat, unfortunately. Swami and I went through a period of retrospection during those countless bus rides immediately after the theft, where we’d keep telling each other “Never again will I do this….” or “Next time, lets not forget to scan that document…”. I wanted to compile some of those lessons learned here, for when you need them, you really really need them.

Here are some tips to ensure that if a theft does occur, you get back on track quickly.

Buy Travel Insurance

Like I said before, we are incredibly glad we got trip insurance. There are plenty of companies and plans out there to choose from, but we purchased ours from worldnomads. They ended up being great to deal with and covered our losses up to the limits specified in the policy, just as they promised. The insurance we bought covered the following:

  • Things we lost – laptop, DSLR camera, lenses, tablet, other electronic accessories
  • Trip interruption – food and hotel costs for the days it to took to recover our travel documents, eg. passport, green card etc.
  • Airfare – one of us had to reschedule our flights, so the insurance covered some part of the cancelled fare/new fare.
  • Documents – passport application fees and Transportation letter fees
Keep policy number and phone number very handy!

Keep online copies of all important documents

When you lose a passport or green card, embassies will require a lot of documentation to replace them. Its best to have them handy on portable hard drives and/or online storage. Here are things to have VERY handy:
  • Passport – copy of ALL pages. Not just front or back page. We had only the front and back page and could not prove to the US embassy on what date we left the country last. We also had to prove to the Chilean police when we entered the country. We also lost all our visa stamps!
  • Other ID’s – drivers license, voter ID, student ID etc. Secondary IDs are sometimes asked.
  • Financial documents – bank and credit card statements. Easy to get online, but you may not have a fast internet connection to accomplish all your online needs. I was planning to use my credit card statement to show I was at LA airport on a given date to prove my residence in the US, as supporting documentation.
  • Visas of resident country – In our case scanned copy of US green card. We had green cards, but we also had all our green card application documents on online storage. Very useful.
  • Entry/Exit stamps – When traveling abroad, whenever your passport is stamped, please take a picture with your smartphone/tablet/camera and email to yourself. You will thank yourself later. We wish we did this with our Colombia entry stamps as the US embassy asked for this.
  • Other travel and identification documents – vaccinations, yellow fever certificate (required for Bolivia), copies of tickets, important receipts etc. Marriage certificate if you are married.
  • BOARDING PASS – most important! Boarding pass stubs are very important documents to store until you are done with your trip. Just a clear picture with a smartphone will do. The US embassy wanted either this or our entry/exit stamps. We had neither and had to frantically figure out other ways to prove our exit dates.

Portable hard drives in different bags

Swami did a very clever thing by getting us each a portable hard drive and backing them up regularly. By doing this, we only lost about a week’s worth of pictures on our DSLR, as our laptop was lost too. Thankfully our compact camera preserved our memories from Torres Del Paine. I highly recommend carrying portable hard drives and/or pen drives placed in different bags with some backup data.

Keep a handy list of information in your travel notebook

Dont have a travel notebook? Its better to start one and keep things like 
  • frequent flyer numbers, 
  • membership numbers and 
  • coded passport numbers etc. 
  • Numbers to your credit card and debit card institution. Our stolen backpack had a bunch of cards that had to be cancelled and we didnt have access to these numbers.
  • Insurance policy number and their phone number

Cheaper and fewer gadgets

We love technology and went overboard on the expensive toys we carried. A macbook pro, a very good Nikon DSLR and a wide angle lens, a tablet, a compact camera…the list goes on. Next time I travel, I will exclusively be using a netbook or a used old laptop just for this purpose. The MBP was meant for storing large amounts of data and video/photo editing which doesnt happen as often as one would like. Infact, I am still updating the blog a year after we completed, so the MBP was not mandatory at all! I am no travel blogger or full time writer. My blog and picture editing can wait until I return from the trip. 

Protecting in layers

Some things are very painful to lose. Passports and documents like green cards. Our passport was really easy to get, but the green card process is much much more complex. And its just a card which we could have protected easily. We have a hidden wallet, but we did not use it at that time. Having fewer critical things to protect is easier than watching a heavy backpack with gadgets. I didnt lose my hand bag and I could have kept the passports in it! You dont need one of those weird wallets, but just make sure that what needs maximum protection is lightweight and close to the body.

Carry less

A lot of what we lost was unnecessary for the purpose of travel. We simply got carried away. If we had lighter, fewer packs (one big pack, one small pack, etc), caring is much easier. You lose less, cant really refute that!

If you have had a similar experience, I’d be really eager to hear about your lessons learned.

Protect your data

  • Password protect all devices. 
  • Encode all important documentation in a folder preferably. 
  • Change all email passwords and bank passwords immediately
  • Sign up for a service that tracks devices/automatically purges information (or just bring a chromebook!)

Bolivia Visa for Indian Citizens (from Santiago, Chile) AND Visa on Arrival for Indian Citizens

Indian citizens/ passport holders will be pleasantly surprised to discover that Bolivia is a very easy country to enter. If you are an Indian passport holder like us, you will know the pain of independent travel which is taken for granted by other backpackers. I hope that this post will encourage you to visit the beautiful country of Bolivia.  The next time we travel to South America, we will definitely visit Bolivia, if only to endorse their hassle free visa policy.
Bolivia has visa on arrival for a fee (please verify the latest fee by calling La Paz airport) AND offers a FREE visa at its consulates world wide.
We obtained our Bolivia visa at the embassy in Santiago, Chile not once but TWICE. Once before our passports were stolen and once more with our new passports. On both occasions, our experience at the Bolivian embassy was quick, pleasant and smooth.

Documents Required

Documents produced during our first visit:

·         Completed application form
·         Copy of yellow fever certificate
·         Copy of most recent bank statement
·         Cost = Free!! (remember, Americans pay $140)
·         Overall time taken: 20 minutes
·         Questions asked: None
This was the most incredibly hassle free visa experience in our life. I couldn’t believe my eyes when the consul guy just proceeded to stamp my passport within minutes of producing our document, and with a smile. We were told that extension is possible in Bolivia and is easy to do.

Losing the visa and getting it again

Unfortunately, fate would soon have its way with us and we would end up using our most important belongings in Calama, Chile. We had to return to Santiago to receive a new passport from the Indian embassy. So we went to the Bolivian embassy once again. This time, we told the consul officer about our loss and were greeted with disbelief. He pointed us to a young Bolivian lady present there and said to us “It will take her two months to get a new passport if she loses hers. You guys are lucky.”
We were able to provide most of our documents, except the yellow fever certificate, which was also stolen. These guys were awesome though – they patiently dug through their records and found our previous visa and made us several copies of our yellow fever certificates.

Bolivia Visa on Arrival at the border (overland between San Pedro de Atacama and Uyuni) – a different experience

Bolivia does offer visa on arrival for Indians, but for a fee. If you are landing at La Paz airport, this is a great option. But if you are overlanding, getting it from a consulate is really easy and preferable any day.
I traveled with an Indian guy from Chile to Bolivia near San Pedro de Atacama. So I wanted to write about his visa on arrival experience to enter Bolivia. I already had a Bolivia visa from Santiago, so my case was very straight forward.
This person was only going to Bolivia on a four day guided tour and was returning to Chile at the end of it, so this experience may not apply to everyone. We all booked the tour in San Pedro and I was going to continue to stay in Bolivia. All the tour operators in San Pedro will tell you that you can get visa at the border and show you a chart that says how much the visa costs. According to the chart, it costs $30 for us. So, at the border, this Indian guy was told that they cannot issue the visa there and that he would have to get it at Uyuni (the nearest city to the border). They did not stamp his passport. At Uyuni, he goes to the Migracion office and asks them for visa. They say that he can pay the fee and they only give him a stamped tourist card for 4 days. They don’t stamp his passport. They take the $30 and there is absolutely no receipt for it. At the end of four days, they let him get out without another stamp. We all think that this is a quick way to make an undocumented $30 and that this has happened before. Spanish was a big problem here and no one spoke English, so I guess if he insisted and knew how to, he would have had a proper visa on his passport at the border or at Uyuni. This border is nothing more than a small shed in the middle of nowhere, so I am not surprised that they did not have the facilities to issue a visa.
So yes, Bolivia VOA at border is definitely possible. However,
  • Please be sure you get your passport & your tourist card (a little form you fill out at the entrance) stamped and a receipt for your fee. Be persistent!
  • We have been asked elsewhere in Bolivia by Migracion people to show our passports (they do random checks in hotels) and they look for all these stamps.
  • Write out some important statements in Spanish to use at the border (important)
  • If you are part of a tour group, ensure you communicate this to your tour guide at the destination. They will be an important resource in helping you with communication.

How much does backpacking in South America cost for a couple?

Whenever the topic of long term travel comes up, a lot of people are curious about how much it costs. Long term travel has the reputation of being really expensive, versus say, living at one place for the same duration of time. However, we found out that compared to living at one place, paying rent and utilities and eating out, its not that much more expensive. It could even cost the same or less, depending on your lifestyle! The big difference, however, is the fact that you are earning a steady income while at home and unless you are a really talented writer or one of those people with really flexible remote consulting jobs, your income on the road takes a hit.
I thought I’d dispel some myths about how long term travel is not so far reaching after all, by sharing some real numbers about how much our four-month-south-america trip actually cost. Here is a high level overview:
We spent $13952 for 133 days of travel.
I have dissected the cost in a couple of different ways below and all figures are for two people and in USD in the year 2011-2012.
Cost By Category
Airfares (both to and fro and within South America) – 2,947
Food (includes groceries) – 2,143
Trip insurance (the best money we ever spent)  – 756
Post-Loss – replacement passports, replacement American visas, new airfares as we had to reschedule old flights – 1,575
Miscellaneous – 437
Shopping – 347
Sightseeing – (also includes the cost for 14 nights of stay due to various trips and treks) – 1,637
Stay – (Does not include stays incorporated as a part of multi day trips with stay-included fares) – 1,974
Transportation (non-plane and includes several overnight buses and one overnight train) – 1,747
Visas – 390
Grand Total – 13,952
If we hadn’t lost our backpack in Calama, Chile, we would have saved at least $1575. We also lot a lost more in sheer value of goods lost. This cost is only for TRIP INTERRUPTION, which is the extra amount we spent only for identification documents and rescheduled air fares. I am not even counting the money spent in food and shelter or transportation to two different embassies.
Cost By Country (ONLY includes categories: food, miscellaneous, shopping, sightseeing, stay and transportation)
Bolivia – 693 in 24 days @ $29/day
Chile – 2,703 in 30 days @ $90/day
Colombia – 1,630 in 26 days @ $63/day
Ecuador – 1,183 in 22 days @ $54/day
Peru – 1,886 in 31days @ $61/day
Total for basic travel expenses – 8095 in 133 days @ $61/day
Lowest Hotel rate per night – $4 for a very clean lake view basic room on the shores of Isla Del Sol, Bolivia
Highest hotel rate per night – $81 at La Casa De Mireya in San Pedro De Atacama, Chile
Average hotel rate per night – $21
Average hotel rate per night if we didn’t stay in Chile – $17
Number of ATM withdrawals – 49
Amount in ATM fees – $78 (all refunded back to us thanks to an excellent debit card)
Since we lost our stuff our morale was a bit on the lower side and we were really busy collecting documentation for replacing our belongings, we were less diligent about tracking our expenses in Bolivia. Even if I padded my expenses in Bolivia by a generous 10%, the cost per day will still only go up to ~ $33/day and thats for two people.

How did we travel?

These numbers dont mean a lot unless they impart some sense of how we travel. For lodging, we usually chose hostels or small family run guesthouses. In expensive cities, we went with bunk beds and while mostly we had private rooms. In Bolivia and Peru, we almost always had a private room with a private/shared bathroom.

We cooked a lot at hostels, got groceries such as bread, fruit, vegetables, rice and pasta. However, whenever we spotted a vegetarian restaurant, we had at least one meal there. We heavily favored Hare Krishna restaurants in the cities for their reasonably priced, vegan friendly, set lunches. In Bolivia, we ate a lot at markets as you could coffee, bread, juice and api (corn meal porridge) at really low prices.

Transportation – almost always public buses/metros and collectivos. We took taxis when we had to go to bus stand or airport to go to a different city. Long distance buses were mostly semi cama or sometimes cama (fully reclined seats).

Sightseeing – apart from the jungle trips and treks, we mostly organized our own tours. We took public buses to places of attraction and did our own ‘sightseeing’. However, sometimes we’d book a tour from the hostel if its convenient and includes transport and fees.

Travel Logistics – Backpacks and Luggage

Months before, no years before, our adventure commenced, I obsessed over what to take with us – we bought our backpacks 3 years before we actually left. We ended up using it quite well by taking it with us everywhere we went. However, the reality is that our views and perspectives change so much over a period of time, I have decided that what pack to take and what to put in it are not worth agonizing over.

When we first selected our backpacks, we endlessly thought and considered between a hiking backpack (top loading) and a travel backpack (front loading). After hours of research, we finally bought the Eagle Creek Explorer LT (Men and Women’s) at the price of $250 each. These packs are no longer produced, but they last to this day and are extremely practical and worth the money.

Somewhere along the way, we started enjoying multi day hikes as well and got ourselves hiking backpacks too, so we had a choice in what we could take with us on our trip.

Niru’s main backpack – Eagle Creek Explorer LT Women’s version; 50 Litres. Front loading travel pack. No longer under production. Comes with matching 15L day pack, which I did not take, much to my regret.
Niru’s other bag – Ebags Piazza day bag. I also carry a foldable REI day pack in my bag. This is a great bag and is very useful for just around town. Can hold a small water bottle, a note book, a kindle and other essentials.
Swami’s main backpack – Gregory Z55 top loading hiking backpack
Swami is also carrying an REI daypack and a small camera bag.

Hiking Backpack vs Travel Backpack while travel backpacking

You may agonize over this endlessly, but in reality, it will not matter what you take. It needs to be something that is comfortable to carry with wide hip belts and good quality shoulder belts. Travel backpacks are easier to pack, but with packing cubes organization is much easier. Hiking packs can take more things than a travel pack – as you tend to stuff more into them and they end up being heavier. They are also easier when your trip involves a multi day trek and you need to carry camping equipment. I carried a travel backpack and Swami carried a hiking backpack – neither of us regret our choice even though we did city travel and multi day hikes.

Daypack – what worked and what didn’t

We made some not so great choices in this department. Swami’s daypack + camera bag combo did not work for all the gadgets he was carrying (gadgets – a topic by itself). The camera bag shoulder strap dug into his shoulders and did not work well with his main pack. In Colombia we ended up getting another big day pack, which eventually got stolen.
I too found the REI day pack very difficult to pack and take on day trips. If I had to do this differently, I would just take the day pack that came with my eagle creek. Somewhere under 20 litres with pockets for small stuff and one big pocket for big stuff will work really well, especially when the day pack is the stand along luggage (for example: Inca Jungle Trek, where we only took a day pack).

Packing Cubes and other accessories

Packing cubes ROCK! These are our favorite travel accessories. We find the small size and long size ones to be very useful to stuff inside backpacks. I also carried one medium size packing cube in my backpack.

Size of Backpack

We saw a lot of folks carrying enormous backpacks. Ours was one of the smaller ones out there and was often remarked for its size. I found 50 litres to be quite big as I could carry quite a few things in it and found the weight bothersome. In Quito, we shipped quite a few things home and donated some of our clothes too. I found that I could easily have managed with a 40-45 litre backpack and a 15-20 litre daypack.

Where to stay in South America

We loved most of the hostels we stayed in South America. I added a page with a list of hostels we stayed in.

Our prerequisites:

  • clean beds and bathrooms
  • wifi
  • kitchen to cook meals
  • not a party hostel with teenagers and early 20 somethings
We would choose a dorm room or a private room depending on the price. In big cities, we tended to go towards dorm rooms (4-bed dorms), while in countries like Peru and Bolivia, we almost entirely stayed in private rooms.

You can find the list of hotels/hostels here.

Losing all our belongings – Part 1

The blog posts are not in chronological order of events. We have completed our four month journey and I am now catching up on posts and updates. Please review the tags and categories for location specific information. Thanks!

It was Swami’s birthday and we just got off a 22 hour bus journey from Santiago to Calama, Chile. We were really tired from the long journey and our day pack was incredibly heavy (mistake #1). People were trickling out of the bus and getting ready to get on with their day, having reached their destination. We placed all our packs (our big packs and day packs) on the ground and stood right next to it (mistake #2) and took turns guarding our packs, while we used the facilities and made enquiries about our next bus to San Pedro de Atacama.

At some point we realized that we were missing one of our day packs – with our most important day pack. Panic ensued and after about 30 minutes of frenzied activity trying to locate the pack, we had to conclude that the pack was lost to us. Along with it went our laptop, SLR, passports, green cards and a bunch of other belongings. We called the police and they arrived in 30 minutes and gave us a ride to the police station in their pickup. We kept thinking how riding on the caged back of a police pick up truck was one experience we could do without on our travels. Upon reaching the police station, what did we find? Another backpacking couple sitting rather forlorn, having lost the same stuff we lost.

We ended up spending a few hours in the police station, observing life in a Chilean police station. We shared Swami’s birthday cake with the cops for which one happily quipped “you got some mean birthday present!”. The cops were really friendly, trying to get us comfortable, offered us some juice to drink. One cop even got his computer so that we could use the internet on it to communicate using google translate. Google translate was invaluable in helping us overcome language barriers when dealing with the Police.

Luckily, we had travel insurance (we’ll shortly be able to tell you about how good it is and if we can recommend it, as I am sure we’re in a position to pass that judgement — UPDATE: our insurance rocked!). Losing our things was a big blow to us. One thing we were fortunate about was that we had a smart phone and we had our wallets. So we had debit cards, credit cards, access to cash and Driver’s license to prove identification.

It’s finally happening!

For at least three years now, we’ve been telling our friends that we’ll go on our RTW (round the world) trip. We were surely going on our journey, but it felt so far away at times. For the longest time, we really didn’t have a concrete idea on when we would actually do it.

Sometime around August 2011, things started falling in place. We zeroed in on a quarter, and then a month, and then a week and finally a date. About two weeks ago, we finally bought our tickets.

We are heading to Colombia on December 4th from Los Angeles. As we cross things off our checklist, reality is sinking in slowly but surely.

In the past 2 weeks, we’ve made the following rather drastic moves:

  • Informed our respective workplaces of our intention to quit
  • Notified our landlord
  • Bought our air tickets to Bogota, Colombia. (buying a one way ticket would make it more dramatic, but consulates wont like it, so we got a return ticket)
  • Started consolidating our finances to a more travel-friendly account
  • Obtained credit cards that dont charge a foreign transaction fee
  • And going crazy with visa runs
In the next 25 days, we have: friends to say bye to, a house to vacate, belongings to purge, valuables to store and visas to get.
Busy, busy!