Embarking on a gap year or sabbatical to explore the world is the ultimate dream of the travel-obsessed. It’s a fantasy filled with adventure and discovery. Yet anyone who has pursued the dream knows the reality isn’t all champagne and sunsets.
Once fears of employment gaps, disappearing savings, and separation from family and friends are under control, then the challenge of actual travel begins. Let’s call it “red tape reality.”
The physical act of moving around the world is far from easy. Navigating a global path involves monitoring a sea of ever-changing rules and visa requirements and staying up-to-date on travel conditions.
American passports, which we sometimes take for granted, are our tickets to roam more freely than most. That is, as long as we follow the rules. So what are the rules?
Red Tape Ins & Outs
Gaining Global Access
U.S. passport holders can currently travel to 174 countries and territories with ease, either visa-free or by obtaining a visa on arrival (usually in the airport.) This places the U.S. in fourth position on the Visa Restrictions Index ranking freedom of travel.
For many countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, including China, a visa must be applied for and obtained in advance. A spontaneity-killer, visa applications often restrict access to approved areas and require detailed information of travel plans. Once in the country, travelers are subject to that government’s rules, making travel outside approved areas a risky proposition.
For most long-term travelers, visiting newly assessable countries is a jewel in the crown. No destination sparkles more brilliantly today than Cuba. With a specific license no longer required and direct flights available. U.S. citizens can plan trips based on one of twelve categories, including educational, professional, and religious activities. Visiting for “touristic purposes,” is still prohibited and detailed records must be kept for five years post travel.
Another new destination, Myanmar, (formerly known as Burma,) is open to visitors after sixty years. Travelers began to trickle in with the unveiling of a limited Visa application in 2011. Today visitors can receive an eVisa mere minutes after application. Entry and departure points are still strictly controlled while sections of the country remain off limits to tourists. Travelers should always carry a printed copy of the approved visa, especially outside the major tourist centers.
Although a rare occurrence, a country can temporarily waive visa requirements for specific high-profile events, as is the case in Brazil this summer. Americans visiting for the Olympics and Paralympics can enter visa-free until September 18.
Know Your Expiration
Many countries prohibit entry if your passport expires less than 90 days from arrival. Simple, right? Not so fast. Some countries assume you will stay through the full allotment of days allowed by the visa and tack on that time. While often subjective, airline and border agents have the right to deny you entry.
The U.S. State Department warns while passport expiration policies have long been in place for many countries, today rules are being more strictly enforced and recommends passports validity for at least six months beyond your return date.
When planning a long trip, there is no reason to wait. U.S. passports can be renewed at any time and take six to eight weeks to process. If you can prove urgent need, expedited service is available for an additional $60 in approximately half the time.
While in renewal-mode, here’s a secret: you can request a larger passport book—52 pages—for free simply by checking the “52 page” box at the top of the application.
You Don’t Have to Go Home, But You Can’t Stay Here
“Do you have proof of onward travel?” With that question many traveler dreams have been squashed. Most countries are happy to welcome you, and your wallet, as long as you do not intend to stay and risk becoming a drain on their economy.
Airlines are subject to hefty fines for allowing travelers to fly into a destination without proof of onward travel, prompting check-in agents to turn away passengers without necessary paperwork.
This presents a dilemma for travelers hoping to circumnavigate the globe. There are a few choices. A straight-forward option is to book “Around the World” flight segments. Industry leader AirTreks gives instant quotes using a clickable world map and issues all the needed paperwork to keep you moving forward.
If a pre-programmed route dulls the adventure, then consider purchasing tickets one leg in advance. As long as tickets can be issued electronically, tapping into discount airlines or international train, bus and ferry services should provide the needed proof. In most cases, the person at the gate is happy to pass you along to the next country or agent as long as you have some semblance of a ticket.
Navigating the Schengen Zone
What or where is Schengen The massive European zone created by the 1985 Schengen agreement aims to allow free movement of citizens as well as valid visitors within member states. Currently, 26 countries participate but rapid change is underway.
Recent terrorist attacks and record numbers of immigrant arrivals have resulted in several countries within the zone—including Austria, France, Germany and Sweden—temporarily re-introducing border controls in specific areas or for specified high-profile events. And, although the recent Brexit vote makes it seem otherwise, the UK is not part of Schengen.
What does this mean for U.S. travelers? Primarily that time spent within the zone is limited to 90 days within a 180-day period. You can hike the Camino in Spain, taste every wine of Bordeaux, then recuperate on a Greek isle, but you must do so within a three-month period.
Savvy travelers hoping to invest more time in the 26 country block learn to dance with the Schengen by hopping a cheap flight, train, or ferry to nearby lands not included in the zone—for instance, the Balkans or UK—for 90 days before jumping back in and resetting the clock.
Always on Alert
The desire to unplug from current events is often intertwined with the joy of traveling. However long-term travelers know it is vital to be aware of changing conditions around the world.
Keep track of significant developments by signing up for U.S. State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program or STEP. You will be notified when a travel alert is issued. Alerts are intended to make travelers aware of elevated terror threats, health epidemics, and potentially violent demonstrations.
When a travel “warning,” is issued, it means you should strongly consider not visiting a specific country or region because of civil war or increased terror attacks. Currently, 43 warnings or alerts are in effect.
Being enrolled in the program will also help facilitate communication with family and embassy assistance should the need arise. After all, sometimes the red tape is what holds us together.
Photo: hjl, CC-BY
Jess Simpson is a writer chasing a dream of slow travel in a fast world. She is currently discovering the beauty of Italy, one glass of wine at a time. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.