So, you decided to go for it and now find yourself asking ‘where the hell do I begin to plan it?!’
We were ‘planning’ our trip for nearly a year and a half before we left, but to be honest, we didn’t tackle the paperwork in earnest until about three months before departure due largely to the fact that on an overland trip you can’t apply for your paperwork too far in advance.
Some people advocate an incredibly detailed amount of planning (some people seem to love planning more than the trip!) be done a long time in advance, but it’s not, in our humble opinions, strictly necessary. Regardless of how much you plan in advance, the last few months before departure, when you begin applying for and collecting your documentation, are going to be a bit of nightmare as everything seems to happen at the same time!!
We’re glad that we at least looked into what was required early on, so the ‘research’ side of things was covered and we were familiar with the terms and requirements. There are some great books, websites and travel blogs that we read and found invaluable (see our links page for those we really liked) but we hope the following information about what we did, why and when helps.
At a bare minimum you’ll need to consider the following when planning your trip:
Unless you are mechanically savvy, it’s highly recommended that you develop a basic mechanical knowledge base before departure. James did an evening motorcycle mechanics course at a local college which taught him the essentials and the know-how to service the bikes plus, perhaps just as importantly, gave him the confidence to take bits off the bike when dealing with potential problems.
Once we’d worked out our (very) rough route, the next step was to look at the visa situation and some countries seem to have very strict requirements (that at times make you wonder whether it can possibly be worth it!) The first problem we had was that overland travellers seem to ‘fall in between the cracks’ when it comes to visas as it’s generally assumed that you’ll be flying into an airport. Although it’s easier generally to have all your visas before leaving, the simple fact is that given your slow pace, the chances are that your visa for a country may well have expired before you even reach it! It’s worth trying to get the visas for countries nearer the start of your journey at home and then have a ‘plan’ to pick up others enroute (again there are great sources of advice on our links page).
Carnet de Passage en Douane:
Also known simply as a ‘Carnet’, this document is, depending on your route, absolutely essential. Effectively it’s a temporary import/export document for your vehicle that guarantees that you won’t try to sell your bike in any country that’s signed up to the scheme. The carnet needs to be stamped in and out of every relevant country (failure to do this correctly can see you sent back across the country to do it properly!). The cost and value of your carnet depends on 2 factors – the vehicles you’re using and the countries you intend to visit. Each country requires a different level of deposit so the value of yours will be based on the country with the highest level – the highest in the world is Egypt at 800%! Thus a cheaper vehicle means a cheaper Carnet – a serious consideration when choosing your vehicle! If your chin has just hit the floor and all dreams of your trip evaporated in an instant, don’t worry, you’re not expected to have this kind of money! There are two options available:
1) A bank guarantee – your bank guarantees the money against savings/assets etc. In the short term, this is the cheaper option as you pay basic admin fees to the bank and for the carnet itself.
2) An insurance policy – taking out a policy against based on the calculated carnet deposit. Slightly more expensive in the short term but protects you from a huge pay out should the worst come to the worst.
We agreed our valuation for our two bikes with the RAC (look in free-ads for the lowest valuations of your vehicle) and calculated the carnet cost by combining the value of the two bikes and multiplying by 500% (Iran and Pakistan had the highest deposit requirements on our route). We looked into the bank guarantee option, which at first was appealing with its lower initial outlays. However, in the end we were put off by ambiguity surrounding what would happen should one or both of the bikes get stolen/written off – it’s something of a grey area and we didn’t want to take the risk. We chose the insurance option which is fairly straightforward as it requires you to pay an insurance premium (half of which you get back upon your return) with a specialist company via the RAC together with the carnet cost itself. The advantage with this is that both bikes are covered individually and the risk to you in the event of a claim is minimised.
Each country has a designated agent who you’ll need to contact to organise your Carnet, in the UK it’s the RAC and their resident expert who you’ll deal with is Paul Gowan. Paul is very knowledgeable and is happy to advise or help with any issues you may have (and trust us, you will!) and prefers you to call with queries, as his answers invariably lead to more questions! His details can be found on our links page. Nb. Carnets are not required in the Americas.
Finding an insurance company that is prepared to cover you whilst riding a motorcycle through some of the worlds more ‘colourful’ countries can be something of a challenge. There a few specialist companies out there that claim to be able to cover you but we found there were often catches that made them unsuitable for us. Don’t underestimate how important it is to read the small print – a ‘situation’ in the middle of Pakistan or anywhere else for that matter is not the time to find out that you’re not covered by your policy. We made sure to ring up and ask questions specific to our trip; from experience the main ones to consider when you have found a policy that offers all the services you want are:
- does the policy cover you if a motorcycle is the ‘main’ form of transport? We came across a couple that supposedly would cover our trip including use of motorcycles but found this detail in the small print.
- are there limitations as to what countries your policy will cover you in? Many companies in the UK use the general Foreign Office advisory list of countries deemed dangerous as their point of reference and void any countries that make the list. A quick look at this list will quickly eliminate most of the countries you are thinking of travelling through! However there are companies who’s cover is based on the Foreign Office list of regions as opposed to countries as a whole which is far more specific and most of the time will mean you’re covered.
- Are there limitations regarding altitude? A strange one this, but again something we came across. Some policies limit the altitude you can ride at to around 3-4000 metres, which is fine if you’re riding in the Alps but is not practical if you’re planning to ride in the Andes or Himalayas where there are roads that reach an altitude of 6000 metres!!!
We opted for a policy with Navigator Travel Insurance which ticked all the boxes. We did have to upgrade our cover to some sort of ‘Sports Adventure’ package to cover us at altitude but it didn’t really make too much difference to our premium. See our links page for details.
Given how much your insurance premium costs at home you won’t be surprised to hear that trying to get an insurance quote for an overland trip will most likely be met with either howls of laughter or stunned silence. If somebody does say they’ll cover you the chances are they haven’t quite understood what you are asking for.
A quick check of the small print on your insurance policy will indicate which countries you are covered in – EU residents will normally be covered within the EU and Switzerland but obviously policies vary. Once out of the EU or the area covered by your policy you tend to have 2 options:
You can simply buy a local insurance policy to cover you for the period you intend to stay in the country. This is easy to do and almost always you will find a stall or office at the border. Some countries will insist you buy it and will only let you in once you present them with a certificate and others let you through without mentioning it, in which case you have to find the office and buy it yourself.
Another option, which is available for use in those country members signed up to the scheme is to buy or carry a Green Card. (see below)
The Green Card is something that seems to cause a lot of confusion not just amongst those planning a trip, but insurance companies themselves. A Green Card is, unsurprisingly a green card that provides you with liability insurance within the borders of any country signed up to the scheme. So if you have a green card you can ride to countries and are not required to buy insurance at the border. It’s important to note that your vehicle is not covered in the event of an accident of theft, but the person you were involved in a incident with,(regardless of fault) is covered and your liability is met. It’s a really useful thing to carry but can be a complete pain to acquire if you’re in the UK. We tried on several occasions to obtain one from our insurer (our policy in the UK only covered us in the EU & Switzerland) and we were consistently advised that we didn’t need them anymore as their policies acted in place of the Green Card – it even stated this on the bottom of the policy document. This is completely wrong and if you try rolling up to any border outside the EU and presenting your policy document you will asked for a Green Card and nothing you say to them will alter this fact. They’ll simply tell you to buy local insurance. Other overlanders or bikers we’ve met (mostly EU citizens) at borders have tended to have Green Cards, in fact the Germans we’ve met told us they automatically get Green Cards when taking out a policy. A lot of travellers have, in the past gone through Germany and bought Green Cards from ADAC (Germany’s Road Recovery service) but recent reports suggest the ADAC now only sell to German residents.
We have had to buy our insurance at the borders (make a point of doing it even if the local officials don’t demand it as you may well be asked for it if pulled over by the police, at a checkpoint or in the event of an accident). You can find a breakdown of costs and requirements for each of the countries we’ve visited on the ‘Country Requirements’ page. In retrospect we’d have switched our insurance to a company that would provide a Green Card and used that policy in the UK knowing it would cover us for part of the trip. The only major insurance company in the UK that seems to offer Green Cards (that we’re aware of) is Carol Nash but there may be others.
Letter of Invitation (LOI):
A letter of invitation or LOI is something you may well come across when applying for your visas, particularly those to some of the more ‘irregular’ countries on your trip. An LOI is basically a letter written by someone in the country you wish to visit, usually a citizen or permanent resident, stating that they know you, can vouch for you, that your stated reason for visiting is genuine, and even taking financial responsibility. The letter is normally required to be notarised so you can’t simply have a friend of a friend write one for you. If applying for your visas in your home countries most countries will not require an LOI (although some still do and use this letter as part of their decision on whether to grant your visa request or not), but when applying on the road an LOI is more likely to be requested. Many tour companies specialising in particular regions can provide LOI’s for a fee (approx US$40 per LOI), as can your national Embassy in the country (UK Embassies charge for this service). We expected to have to provide LOI’s for our visa applications to some of the central Asian countries (Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan) but applying in Istanbul, we were never asked for one, so it would seem requirements vary from Consulate to Consulate.
International Driving Permit (IDP):
An IDP is a simple booklet that allows you to operate a vehicle in another country. It is not a driving license itself but acts as an internationally recognised multi-language document that supports your actual driving license issued in your country of origin. For some countries an IDP is mandatory so it’s really something worth having. We were told it would take 10 days to receive ours through either the AA or RAC (they could do it quicker for an increased fee) but, actually you can just walk into any main Post Office in the UK with your full license, proof of address and a passport and they will issue you it 5 minutes (and if memory serves, for a smaller fee!). IDP’s are valid for one year from the date of issue.
A fairly obvious one this, but a trip to the travel nurse at your local medical centre with a list of countries to be visited and your vaccination history will reveal the number of jabs you’re going to need. Try and do this about a month or so before you leave as some courses of treatment will require you to return for a second or third visit over a 2-3 week period. Also, bear in mind that some, such as Yellow fever are mandatory in some countries and failure to produce your yellow fever certificate could result in you getting refused entry to a country. The bill for your jabs can get surprisingly expensive so be sure to budget realistically for this!
Before departure, we went on a motorcycle specific first aid course run by St John’s Ambulance. It provided basic knowledge on general first aid and how to deal with injuries common to motorcyclists. Fortunately we haven’t had to call on these skills for ourselves, but we have been able to offer assistance to causalities we’ve come across on the road.
Knowing where to even begin when you sit down to try and plan a route for an overland trip can be pretty daunting, particularly as you’ll have probably read about how much advance planning you need to do in various books and on websites like ours, so we can only really advise you on how we have (or haven’t) done it. Some people it would seem, really get into their planning and can tell you exactly what they’ll be doing on any given day. We’re the polar opposite, and believe that, other than specific instances such as applying to drive in China, you really don’t need to plan that far ahead at all. We had a VERY rough route in mind and simply read up to check on each countries requirements, listed half a dozen things or places we wanted to see and that was about it. We don’t really have a time constraint (just a budget constraint!) but if you do have a time limit that will be a major factor in any planning you do. To give you an idea, at the time of our departure we had arranged our China crossing and only had 2 visas in our passport (Pakistan & China), the rest we intended to get on the road as given that we were open to changing our route and schedule we couldn’t, with any accuracy, have predicted to the nearest fortnight/month when we would be entering or exiting an given country. Our only deadline was a fixed date that we had to be at the Kyrgyzstan-China border as we were meeting other overlanders there in order to share the cost of the insanely expensive fees required for entering China. To give you idea of how ‘flexible’ or open to change we are, it took us 7 weeks to reach Istanbul from London (we only travel on small roads and our route meanders as we find things of interest) – we imagined we’d be there in 2-3 weeks! All other visas we’ve picked up or are going to pick up enroute.
One thing worth considering regardless of your schedule is how realistic your estimated/planned daily mileage will be. We know of people who have planned and ridden regular 500+ mile days – something we personally would not recommend. Our biggest day on the trip to date is 250 miles (400km) and that was more than enough! Generally we ride about 150 miles (240km) per day, which allows us reasonable time in the saddle and time to stop see things we want to see etc, but there are plenty of days when we cover half this distance. Also, bear in mind that whilst, your map might indicate a route having a certain distance (from which you calculate/estimate your journey time), it will not give you any indication of the state of the road. As you head further into countries without poor road systems your daily distances with reduce drastically.
Border crossings are also something to bear in mind as, again, once you leave the western world the bureaucracy and other nonsense increases and with it, the time taken to get through. We find it best to plan a day or so ahead when a border looms and try to spend the night close to the border so we can get there early and give ourselves as much leeway as possible to complete the required paperwork and get clear on the other side. See our Country Info page for details about our border crossings to date.
Registering your vehicle whilst away:
The subject of how to register your vehicle whilst you are away would seem to an obvious one, but like so many things government related, common sense doesn’t really apply. I can’t speak for other countries (you’ll have to consult your local auto club, but in the UK the problem you’ll have is this: you have taken your vehicle out of the country and as far as the government are concerned there are only 3 possible status’ your vehicle can have which are as follows:
- It’s on the road in the UK, so must be taxed, insured and have an MOT certificate.
- It’s declared off the road in the UK, in which case it cannot be used on roads and a SORN declaration must be completed.
- It’s been permanently exported abroad, in which case you have to provide your new permanent address overseas so the government pass your details over to the authorities in your new country.
Clearly this provides a problem for the overland traveller who may well be away for over 12 months and are not going to be able to bring their vehicle ‘home’ for an MOT or tax renewal, and has no permanent overseas address as they are not exporting their vehicle. Any attempt you might make to do the ‘right thing’ and try to explain to the authorities that as an overlander you fall between the cracks and that none of the options apply are met with a ‘computer says no’ type response – they simply can’t conceive of the possibility that you might be away for that long on a trip.
Realistically this complete lack of understanding on the part of the government leaves you with only one option – don’t tell them! Simply wait until you’re out of Europe, then send a SORN declaration to the DVLA, let your insurance run out and when months or years later, you plan your return apply in advance for your new tax disc, buy fresh insurance and book an MOT test for the day your bike arrives in the UK and when you pick it up at the airport or port stop for your MOT test on the way home. Not technically legal, but given that you (despite your best efforts) have no other options open to you, it’s the only way to ensure that you are always riding on UK roads legally. Not that that’s what we’ve done….
Paperwork to carry:
As a bare minimum, it’s advisable to take the following: both parts of your driving licence (we’ve yet to be asked for the paper section); an International Driving Permit (we’ve yet to be asked for it); your vehicle registration documents – V5 in the UK (it’s always referred to as your ‘bike passport’); a valid passport; travel insurance certificates; vaccination booklet; Green card (if you have one); spare passport photos; colour photo copies of all documents; Carnet de Passages (if required).
It’s also really useful to have a letter from your employer on headed paper stating that you are employed or have a job to go back to (doesn’t matter if it’s true or not!) This may be requested at some borders or when applying for certain visas. Some visa applications (Turkmenistan for one) also require copies of your bank statement.