HANDY HINTS FOR YOUR BIG OVERSEAS EXPERIENCE (OE)
WHY DO IT NOW
After thirty years of working solidly taking just normal holidays when we could, we decided it was time to break free, ignore the dire warnings of pundits about casting adrift from employment and finding ourselves washed up on the shores of listlessness and boredom, and take the plunge.
I’d turned 65, my wife Kerrie had completed a nine-month contract to replace someone on maternity leave, our youngest daughter had finished school and been accepted into university. Both our other daughters had left home and were forging ahead with their own lives. It was time to unhook from career, routine, mortgage and safety- and embrace a new challenge.
We sold our family home, put everything in storage and moved into our holiday house for a couple of months before heading off on our “Big Retirement OE”. For non-Kiwis that stands for Overseas Experience.
Normally this is done by twenty somethings – and indeed the last big OE Kerrie and I had done was thirty-three years ago when we resigned from our jobs in a bid to see the world before we got too old to experience it the way we wanted – up close and personal, not from a tour bus window. We were warned then that we would struggle to climb back onto the ladder of success, but we decided that adventure and the experiences it brings are more rewarding – and that in this life which we only get to have once, you need to unhitch and see it from another perspective, so you can reflect from a distance on who you are and what you want out of life.
That led us to living and working in England, getting to see and know relatives and friends much better, working for Granada TV (home of Coronation Street), a teaching job in Zimbabwe, hiking in Iceland, holidaying in the Channel Islands and Ireland, going to the Edinburgh Festival, seeing Scandinavia by Scanrail and travelling for four months through South America, from Rio de Janeiro to Machu Picchu and to the amazing Galapagos Islands.
We never regretted that decision. We frequently think back on what we did and how those experiences not only enriched our lives, but brought us closer together and gave us a suite of vivid memories that we share to this day. And it didn’t prevent us from getting jobs and having interesting careers when we got back.
The world is very different now of course, and we are somewhat different too. But the principle is the same – get out of your comfort zone, give yourself new challenges, new experiences and live with your nose to the wind and your eyes on the horizon – not virtually, from an armchair or stuck in front of a computer or TV monitor.
As with many things in life, the hardest part is making the decision; after that the problems are not so different to the ones you handle every day. I liken it to stepping out of the door from a house or job you know into a house or job that is new and unfamiliar. Initially, it’s strange and unnerving but you adapt, you develop confidence as you use your life skills to navigate your way around different surroundings and people and make sense of them. And in the end, you look back and go, “thank goodness, look at what we learnt, how we grew and developed new friends and skills from making the change”. It’s the same when you look back on an adventure: “Wow! – look at where we went and what we did, that was us!”. And you feel you’ve done so much more with your life, it’s a rich gourmet meal instead of plain old meat and two veg.
So, that’s by way of introduction.
We’d like to share our thoughts and observations from our Big OE, which we returned from in late September 2016.
If you’re a seasoned traveller, most of this will be common sense, but for some who’re taking their first steps as Big OE adventurers, there may be some handy hints that will help.
HAVE A PLAN
The first thing is – have a plan. It gives you a structure to work in and you’re not locked in, you can always modify it as you go. It’s obviously best if you start with an idea of where you want to go, what time of year (and why) and how long you want to travel.
In planning our trip, we had two main objectives – to see friends and family we’d been too busy or too far away to see very much over the years and to do things we’d dreamt of doing but never had the time or money to before.
So, it was a people and places trip. We could have made it just about places. But one thing we feel passionately about is other people – especially people we’ve known and cared about over our lifetimes. We wanted to re-affirm friendships and relationships, to reconnect in a deeper way than via skype or email, to actually spend time with people.
And we wanted to go to some places we’d never been to before, to explore them and experience them in a way that would leave a lasting impression.
We had both lived and worked for many years in Australia, and it’s Kerrie’s birthplace, So that was our number one destination – both to visit many friends and relatives and to see parts of the country we’d never been to – mainly the Northern Territory.
Kerrie had always wanted to spend time in Ireland – and we have friends who live in the west, on the Shannon river, close to some of Ireland’s most stunning scenery and ancient history and home to the Feakle Traditional Music Festival; so that was our second key destination.
We also wanted to challenge ourselves physically – by doing some serious hiking and some cycling – and we have a special love of France, its people, history, countryside and – of course – its food!
So, we picked the French Pyrenees for hiking…
…and the Loire valley for cycling.
Now we had our three principal countries we wanted to visit – Australia, Ireland and France and we had a reasonable idea of what we wanted to do. The next thing was to nail down some details, make some bookings and work out what we needed to take.
HANDY HINT BULLETS
- Have a purpose and a plan
- Use the time to re-establish and re-affirm friendships and relationships
- Do something you’ve never done before
- Go to places you’ve always wanted to visit – ensure there are some special ones
- Set yourself some difficult targets and challenges – surprise yourself ( and others) at what you are actually capable of doing ( you’ll never find out if you don’t leave your comfort zone and try).
TEST THE PLAN
Map out your trip roughly on a calendar, so you get a feel for time-frames in different places, how long you want to spend there and people you want to see or might stay with as well as travel times between locations. Do this before committing to bookings, as you will want to cost the trip out first. We had a trip budget and we knew we had to make our OE work for that amount. That meant we had to trim and modify some of our original ideas.
You may find, like us that you start with a grand idea – say, camper-vanning for a month, or more. Then you look at costs and distances – how much time you’ll be spending on the road versus visiting locations and people, having time for local tours, sight-seeing, events. And then revise your plan.
A good example is we knew we wanted to travel around Australia’s north end in a campervan – but we’d never done it before and so were somewhat naïve about what to expect. We did some research and luckily came across some advice from a traveller who commented that Australia’s outback is vast and often unchanging. In other words, you could be travelling for days in your expensive campervan soaking up time and money through an endlessly similar landscape, simply getting from one location to another. That’s fine if your dream journey is deliberately taking you through the Australian outback, crossing the Simpson, Gibson or Great Sandy deserts. But if you’re focused on specific destinations and the distances between them are vast, then it’s worth thinking twice about camper-vanning everywhere.
So, that felt like good advice to us and we changed our plan to spending just two weeks in the campervan, flying to Darwin, our starting point and then flying on to our next destination at the end. That proved to be good for us – we didn’t waste time driving, we got to see more places and we found that the campervan was quite restricted in terms of space. Two weeks was quite enough for us. It was great driving around Litchfield and Kakadu National Parks and visiting Alice Springs, then Ayers Rock (Uluru) and the Olgas (Kata tjuta), but another two weeks and we’d have gone stir crazy.
That was in a two berth van – which we thought would be fine – but it does mean you’ve got to take down and put together the bed every day as it goes where the living space and dining table sit. The cooking “area” is also the corridor between the living/sleeping section and the front compartment and is directly outside the toilet/bathroom.
So not much room for two people to work around each other. We talked with others on the road and they’d had the same problem – their advice, especially if you’re planning on spending a fair amount of time in the campervan was to get a bigger one – either a four berth, or even a six berth. Yes, it’s more expensive but you won’t trip over each other and it’s less likely that your wonderful trip of a lifetime ends up in strained silences or arguments!
We found it a good idea to have ‘tent-pole’ events or adventures and then build around them. Camper-vanning around the Northern Territory was one. Others were going to a traditional Irish music festival, visiting art galleries in Paris, hiking in the Pyrenees, driving through central France, cycling in the Loire Valley and seeing some French chateaux.
So, we focused on getting those researched and set up, because they were all pretty time specific and helped set the agenda for flights and train bookings. We made sure we were booked to arrive in Ireland in time for the music festival. Once we’d picked a hiking company (Mountainbug http://www.mountainbug.com/) and the walk we wanted to do in the Pyrenees, that locked us into specific dates to arrive and depart that region of France, ditto the cycling in the Loire (LoireLife, http://www.loirelifecycling.com/). Backing up from that, we could then lock in our Paris stay and commit to buying a Paris Pass as well as confirm travel to and from Paris and calculate how long we needed to hire a car for our drive through central France.
HANDY HINT BULLETS
- Plan your trip so it has structure – with some highlights pre-booked and pre-paid but leave room and time for the unscheduled, unplanned and unexpected.
- Build in some fun things – be they music festivals, hot air ballooning or cycling.
- Engage with some local culture – can be a food festival, a gallery, museum or regional event
- Do some research about where you’re going, look for interesting things to do, places to visit. But be prepared to use these as springboards for finding other things that are unexpected and different.
DIY BOOKINGS VERSUS USING A TRAVEL AGENT
Like most travellers today, we’d got used to booking pretty much everything ourselves for our holidays and had been convinced that that was the cheapest way to do things. However, our advice now is if you know a good travel agent, do check them out as an option. Here’s why.
Our trip was for three and a half months (exactly 100 days as it transpired) – across two continents and five countries. That’s a lot of flights, cars, hotels, trains etc. We started looking at doing everything ourselves, but we were both working and quickly became overwhelmed by the time it was taking to research everything and find the best deals. So, Kerrie wisely suggested I contact the travel agent used by my employer and who we knew (Brooker Travel, Dunedin, part of the Helloworld affiliate group). That turned out to be a stroke of genius. The first breakthrough was flights – always a major cost. We wanted to fly from Queenstown, New Zealand to Australia, do four internal flights within Australia, fly from Melbourne, Australia to Ireland, France to Singapore, Singapore to Auckland and then domestically Auckland back to Queenstown.
Our initial research with the domestic flights in Australia alone had looked worryingly expensive. But Stephanie, our wonderful agent found a special deal we knew nothing about. If we flew everywhere with Qantas and could pay within two weeks, we could do everything for slightly more than an international return ticket to Europe. Brilliant. We grabbed that – saving ourselves thousands of dollars. We then asked Stephanie if she could book our various car hire and campervan requirements – that was one campervan and two hire cars in Australia and one hire car in France. Again, Stephanie came up trumps – getting us good deals both on price and on that eternal bugbear – the insurance excess, which she got waived on three out of the four bookings – notably on the campervan hire. She also got the one way drop-off waived on our longest car-hire between Brisbane and Sydney. Being part of Helloworld, gave her the ability to leverage good deals and because of the group’s status and buying power, there were few if any arguments with the service providers (car hire firms /hotel etc) . The one occasion a company did query the deal, we simply referred them to the Helloworld paperwork and told them to check, and after calling their head office, they agreed it was all in order.
Without detailing everything she did for us, we got Stephanie to book us hotels, trains – the Eurostar from London to Paris as well as the TGV from Paris to Lourdes where she got us first class tickets for a couple of dollars more than second class on a special deal. Again, her inside knowledge paid off – including a great hotel in Paris (Odéon Hotel, http://odeonhotel.fr/) – where she checked out the room size against price, something we’d not considered
And also a great hotel in Singapore (Plaza ParkRoyal, https://www.parkroyalhotels.com/en/hotels-resorts/singapore/beach-road/stay/facilities.html#stay#facilities) which she could personally recommend and which turned out to be excellent.
So, all up we had a great experience using a travel agent and it saved us money and hassles. That’s not to say you can’t or shouldn’t book a big trip yourselves – especially if you’re travel savvy. But it does depend on how much time you have to spend doing it all yourself. We did, as I mentioned above research and book some tentpole events – we found doing that and co-ordinating our visits with friends and relatives time-consuming enough and it gave us control over the overall structure of the trip.
One interesting post script – we did book some accommodation ourselves, mostly hotels in Australia using one or other of the usual websites (Viator/Booking.com/Agoda/Wotif etc) with mixed results. Our Darwin hotel was fine for the price. Our Cairns hotel was clearly ageing and in need of an update, our room overlooked a building/renovation site. Our Townsville accommodation while handy was oversold (ie it looked and sounded much better online than in reality) and the supposedly great deal we got at a hotel/resort at Coffs Harbour on the NSW coast turned out to be quite misleading. The website told us that we were getting the last room at this great price. First of all, we turned up and found ourselves in a room with a connecting door and a noisy young family on the other side. We were told that the price we’d paid was the rack rate and had we called them direct, they’d have given us a better rate. And it didn’t sound like we’d got the last room available! We also read between the lines that people who book using the online booking sites don’t always get the best rooms, shall we say.
HANDY HINT BULLETS
- Don’t feel you have to book everything yourself – it can be time-consuming and stressful – and it’s not necessarily cheaper
- Check with a travel agent you know and trust about doing the legwork for you, they may be able to access deals you don’t know about and they can help you avoid the hassles of dealing with the fine print in car hire/transport and hotel bookings that will aggravate you while you’re travelling.
- Just how good and cheap are the Agoda/Viator/Booking.com deals?
- It is worth researching and booking specialist trips/tours/adventures yourselves
PACK AND PREP
When you’re prepping for a big trip, especially travelling to different regions with different climates and seasons and if you’re including adventure in your travel – it can be pretty daunting working out what to take – and more importantly, what to leave behind.
We’ve travelled extensively – and it was still a challenge! Everyone says – travel light, and it’s true. But being true doesn’t make it easy.
Here are some suggestions based on what worked for us and what we learnt from our trip.
We aimed for a maximum total weight of 30kgs each, allowing for 23KGs of check in baggage and 7KGs of carry on. However, we also knew we were likely to “collect” stuff on the way and we wanted to start as light as possible – so we actually left with closer to 25kgs each.
Picking what kind of bag to take can make a surprising difference. For a start, how big it is determines how much you can take. But the shape also matters. Doing research on campervans we came across a useful hint – most campervans have limited luggage space – since space is at a premium in a vehicle in which so much else has to pack away. The advice was to avoid taking a standard rectangular suitcase shaped bag, especially one that has a hard shell as you will likely have trouble manoeuvring it in and out of small spaces and stowing it – and that applies just as well to compact hire cars, European hotel lifts and staircases, or indeed in and out of friends’ homes.
With that in mind we looked around for something that was big enough to take what we needed but compact and flexible as well. We thought about getting decent sized backpacks but were concerned about how we’d go carrying them over distances together with the day packs we were also taking. What we found was a very handy combination of the two – it’s a Kathmandu Hybrid 70L Backpack Harness Wheeled Luggage Trolley.
It’s got wheels and an extendable handle to pull it along those endless airport corridors and through check-in halls; it’s got handles on three sides so you can lift it from any position and it has a zipped compartment which stows backpack straps so if you do find yourself somewhere like the London underground with no lifts or elevators – you can carry it like a backpack up staircases.
Unlike most conventional backpacks, it unzips around three of the four sides, so like a suitcase you can open it up flat on the ground and have access to the whole of the interior.
It’s a soft-shell bag in a lozenge shape – so we figured that this is what we needed for easy travel and stowage.
Dimensions: Length 79cm x Width 37cm x Height 37cm Fabric: Nylon 420D Honeycomb Ripstop, Nylon 840D Ballistic mat Weight: 3.65kg
What to take. We find making a list is a good way to start. It helps the selection process and allows you to plan and co-ordinate different needs for different destinations, as well as incorporate the lists of required or recommended clothing etc that are sent out by adventure travel companies. Get your master list right and it saves you hauling everything out of your closet and working out what you’d like to take in a random fashion. And you’re less likely to forget something essential!
Once you’ve got your list, then you can set everything out – on the bed or floor wherever suits you best. Try and be ruthless about how many pairs of socks/underwear/shoes you need. You’re better to pack layers than clothing suitable for every occasion.
In our case we were going to be starting in Northern Australia (hot and humid – camper-vanning, rugged terrain), Central desert region (cold, camper-vanning, rugged terrain) heading to Sydney and Melbourne (cooler, winter weather, city life), then Ireland (wet, outdoor activities, museums, pubs) and London (city life, outings, museums) then Paris in August (hot, city life, museums), the Pyrenees (hot but mountain weather – be prepared, hiking boots and clothing, daypack), cycling the Loire in September (could be hot, or cool and rainy, comfortable clothing for cycling for several days) and finally Singapore (hot and humid, eating and shopping). Plus of course, we wanted to go out at night, go to restaurants etc – there was Kerrie’s birthday dinner – so something that could pass for smart casual evening wear. Hmmm, this is complicated.
Personally, I found Kathmandu’s light weight clothing ideal. Their trousers and shirts can be rolled up tight, work well for general wear as well outdoors. And they don’t look too crumpled straight from the bag. Their “zip-off” hiking pants are quite useful as you can unzip the leggings to turn them into shorts. The other advantage of this clothing is that it dries quickly – on and off, always a consideration when travelling. You often have limited opportunities to do washing and need to be able to dry clothing overnight. Other outdoors companies have similar clothing – so this isn’t exclusive to Kathmandu.
These days, outdoors clothing wear is designed to look reasonably stylish, and can come in a variety of colours including the ever-useful grey and black. This means you can wear this stuff out hiking and with the darker colours get away with wearing it out in the evening as well. Just add a jacket and provided you’re not dining at a Michelin three-star restaurant, you’ll be fine – especially in these days of more casual attire.
For layers and warmth, we both picked merino – it’s lightweight, works effectively in different temperatures and conditions, is comfortable against the skin and can absorb moisture. It doesn’t dry as quickly but the idea is it doesn’t need to be washed as often!
We each took a waterproof jacket and a light-weight casual jacket.
I took two pairs of shoes – my hiking boots and a pair of all-purpose walking shoes that would cover city and country.
We also took our own walking poles – which conveniently fit snugly inside the hybrid backpack, in the centre along the metal spine. Just make sure the spike end is protected with a plastic cap.
If you’re taking your own sleeping bags, then the hybrid pack may not be big enough, unless you’re willing to tie it to the exterior. However, you can get a different model, the Terrane wheeled trolley, similar to the Hybrid which comes with a daypack that straps on giving an additional 18L capacity. The only drawback is it doesn’t have the extendable handle.
We just took a sleeping bag liner/inner sheet and a microfibre towel each for when we were hiking and staying in lodges.
Another useful item was a head torch, essential for when you’re rummaging in your bag for something at night or going to the bathroom in strange places.
We are very conscious of the dangers of UV radiation and always wear hats (an essential for protection in New Zealand or Australia). You can now get clothing and hats that are UV protective. We have found that US make, Sunday Afternoons’ hats are very good – light weight, with a broad brim, ventilation flaps and a UV 50 protection factor. Some also have a neck protecting flap at the back. We liked the adventure hats as well as compass hat for men and lotus for women.
We always pack a first aid kit – basics like bandages, plasters, antiseptic cream etc. If you take a pair of scissors, just remember to keep them in your check-in bag (I forgot on one flight and they were confiscated ).
For reading matter, we took a couple of current magazines and a book each – which we could “swap and drop”.
Another thing we’re very conscious of is security. We have a few simple rules: don’t take any valuable jewellery or watches; divide up passports, money, cards between you so if you get separated or one of you does get robbed, the other still has enough to keep you going; never put all your valuables (passports/ smartphones/documents/money/keys) in your day pack. We have heard so many stories and met people who’ve succumbed to the age-old trick of having their backpack cut or snatched while they’re distracted and lost everything. There’s nothing more disastrous or time-consuming when travelling. Best to wear a money belt or similar when out and about and if possible lock stuff in a safe during the day.
The other thing we do is have back-ups – so we scan all our key documents and cards and keep electronic copies. Of course, it’s important to make sure your digital devices are password protected as well.
HANDY HINT BULLETS
- Think carefully about what kind of baggage and clothing you’re going to need, pack lightly and remember you can always buy a spare pair of underwear, T shirt or some shampoo on the road. You don’t have to take everything with you!
- Use layers rather than separate ‘wardrobes’ to cater for different climates and seasons
- Try not to pack to your maximum allowed baggage weight – leave room for purchases
- Reduce your need for valuables to absolute minimum. Leave behind expensive jewellery/watches.
- Think about security while travelling, where will you carry valuables like passports/travel documents/phones/money?
- Don’t carry them around in a backpack and don’t keep them all together
- Have digital back-ups of key documents
KEEP A RECORD OF YOUR TRIP
We wanted to make sure we had a means of keeping our children and other family and friends posted on where we were and what we were doing as well have a record of this trip of a life-time.
It’s a matter of personal preference – but ours was to steer clear of social media. For us it’s too public and we wanted to own all our posts and photos for posterity and for other future uses.
So, we decided to set up a blog (where you’re reading this now). That way we could retain control over the content.
The essential devices were a laptop and a camera. These turned out to be the most expensive items in our kit. After researching the options, we went for a mixture of quality, weight and cost. We bought a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 tablet which served us very well. A good size for taking in your carry-on baggage and for working on in airports, planes and small hotel rooms. We went for the 128GB hard drive version with 12.3 inch screen which is fine if you don’t play games or stream videos. It has a USB port which means you can connect your camera and download images – allowing you to share photos and documents with friends/relatives you’re visiting, always handy and a nice gesture.
And of course, we were able to stay in touch with life back home.
For economy’s sake (and weight) we took one tablet between us and one camera, an entry level Canon DSLR which still produced excellent quality photos.
The result was a detailed record of our trip that amazes both us and our friends and family. There’s no way we would have remembered or retained such a wonderful written and visual memento if we hadn’t decided to keep a blog. It did require discipline and a surprising amount of time. We could have recorded fewer details and taken fewer photos but we are by training and inclination writers and photographers, so we wound up with a document of 40,000 words and a library of several thousand photos. That’s clearly too much for general consumption – hence this digested ‘handy hints’ post.
HANDY HINT BULLETS
- Research the kind of electronic devices to take – make sure they are lightweight and cost effective and you can download and store your photos on them
- Keep a record of your trip, a diary or a blog and take plenty of photos. So much detail gets lost!
- Take time to write down information about where you went, what you saw and funny or interesting comments/events
- Keep brochures and maps, and it helps to photograph signage and buy the occasional booklet for future reference
- You can always edit the material into different formats when you get back
- Take memory cards for your camera, nothing worse than running out of space half way through the day and having to remember what you backed up already before you delete!
- Take your camera battery charger
- Take adapters for the different countries
The most important things to remember are to enjoy yourself, to challenge yourself and to take every opportunity to engage with the world out there. One great piece of advice some friends gave us just before we left was – if you have a chance to do something unusual or special you hadn’t budgeted for – just do it. When are you ever going to be back?
One thing we would recommend is to be fit, do some training even if you’re not planning on hiking the Pyrenees.
We made sure that we went for a good walk every day for two months before hand, not necessarily hard or long walks (some were) but enough to ensure your everyday level of fitness is in good shape. Travelling can be hard work, physically and emotionally. Being fit helps you deal with the hassles, the lugging of baggage in and out of hotels/cars/airports and it gives you the confidence to tackle things you might be cautious about. All the scientific evidence points to a strong connection between physical fitness and mental well-being ( the Romans called it a healthy mind in a healthy body), so it helps with your attitude and ability to enjoy the adventure.
HANDY HINT BULLETS
- Be physically active – before and during the trip. Do some training before you go. While travelling, if there’s a choice, walk as much as possible rather than taking transport. Take the stairs instead of the escalator. You’ll stay stronger, achieve more and feel better.
- If you have the opportunity to do something unexpected and it costs money you hadn’t budgeted for, try and find a way to do it – remember the chances are you’ll never come back! And the experience will stay with you forever (whereas hopefully you’ll pay off the bill much sooner!)
- Challenge yourself, do things you’ve never done before – and have fun.
- This is your Big OE Retirement trip – make it special!