When I first became interested in traveling, airfare and accommodations were the two most daunting expenses. Both such expenses can add up quite quickly. For example, these days $420 may not seem like enough to pay for airfare and accommodations for two people visiting the Middle East. But when you are willing to combine a few “travel-hacking” strategies to make it happen, it’s absolutely possible to do a trip like this.
Perhaps the best way to tell you how is simply to lay out the exact costs my husband and I had for airfare and accommodations for our recent trip to Oman.
Now, I’m not assuming that Oman is a particularly popular travel destination. It’s simply an example of a recent trip for which we utilized enough of our travel-hacking strategies to keep the travel-related costs below $500. With a bit of adaptation, you could apply these strategies to a variety of travel destinations.
We flew from DC to Oman (with a layover in Amsterdam) in economy class and returned from Oman on the same route a week later. Excluding nights spent on the plane in transit, we spent 6 nights in Oman.
Firstly, let’s tackle the issue of airfare:
Expense: $420 roundtrip for 2 people
(You may notice that this now accounts for the entire “airfare and accommodations” costs. I’ll explain that in a bit…)
Strategy: Mistake Fares
Mistake fares are not the kind of flight deals you can count on if you have a very specific destination in mind. But if you are the kind of person who is curious about a variety of destinations, mistake fares are great.
Just as their name implies, these are simply airfare prices that have come about because of some kind of error in how the price was programmed. These rates disappear as soon as the booking sites who’ve made the errors recognize and fix them, so you have to make your decision about booking quickly. To learn more about how to find these accidental sales, see this post about how to find mistake fares.
Now let’s take a look at how we covered 6 nights of accommodations in Oman:
Strategy: Hotel points and credit card annual fees
Night 1 and 2: 44,000 Club Carlson points for 2 nights at the Park Inn Muscat + $75 annual fee for the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card
I’ll elaborate on the Club Carlson strategy just a bit but the basic strategy revolves around benefits of the program’s Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card, a card with a $75 annual fee.
The first benefit that comes into play is the sign-up bonus. This card currently offers 50,000 points after you make your first purchase and another 35,000 points if you spend $2,500 on the card within your first 90 days.
The second benefit that comes into play is a perk that card-holder’s get when making award bookings. If you redeem your points for a stay of 2 nights or more, the last night of the stay is automatically free. Of course as you can see here, we booked two nights, effectively getting a buy one get one free price in points.
(Please remember that your credit score is a valuable thing to manage cautiously, and therefore using credit card strategies safely depends on your ability to make on-time payments and avoid keeping a high balance on your cards.)
Night 3 and 4: 44,000 club Carlson points for 2 nights at the Radisson Blu Muscat
This of course utilized the same Club Carlson strategy described above.
Night 5: 1 Category 4 certificate for 1 night at the Grand Hyatt Muscat + $75 annual fee for keeping the Hyatt credit card beyond the first year
This strategy, again, requires the Hyatt credit card, a card that has no introductory fee, but a $75 annual fee each year you keep the card.
I’ve listed the expense as 1 Category 4 certificate because that’s what we used, but the card really offers two different strategies. One strategy factors in an annual fee charge (as was the case for us) and one does not. It just depends on where you’re at in your credit-card history.
You could for instance use one of the sign-up bonus certificates instead. The sign-up bonus for this card is 2 certificates for use at any property if you spend $1,000 on the card in the first 3 months of opening your account. Then, each anniversary you will earn 1 category 4 certificate, eligible for use at properties designated as “category 4.”
Night 6: 1 free-night-credit at the InterContinental Muscat
This strategy actually does not involve the InterContinental credit card. Instead, it involves an annual promotion offered by InterContinental Hotel Group. The promotion changes each time it’s released, but the version of the promotion we used for this stay was called the “Into the Nights” promotion. (The current version is slightly different and is called “Set Your Sights.” )
Basically the promotion gave each participant a few “challenges”. For instance one might be “book a night using our app.” And another might be “stay 4 nights”. Not only did participants win points for completing a goal, they won even more points once they completed a pre-set number of those goals. For instance some people received challenges that required them to complete 7 out of 8 goals. Others, 4 out of 5. It was a targeted promotion that varied per participant.
During the “Into the Nights’ promotion, some people were invited to choose either 50,000 points or 2 free-night-credits as one of their rewards. We chose the free-night-credits.
As you can see, travel-hacking requires a blend of strategies. In this case, we saw some amazing and beautiful things in Oman without worrying about crippling costs. Some of it was luck
Many people head to southern Thailand for beaches, islands, and the relaxed vibe of coastal life. Ao Nang is a bit more relaxed than larger cities like Phuket but still has a vibrant tourist draw and is an easy jumping-off point for many activities like rock climbing, island tours, beach lounging, hiking, and diving.
Cost of living:
If you’re trying to save cash and are settling down for a while, a monthly rental can be found here for about 9,000 baht if you’re willing to stay a few kilometers away from the main beach area. Doing this will save you cash and the restaurants and shops get cheaper as you move farther from the beach. A scooter rental will cost you 250 baht per day or only 3,000 baht per month. If you were to eat all three meals a day at restaurants, your daily food allowance would need to be between 350-500 baht per person. However, stocking up on groceries and eating breakfast and/or lunch at home can save some cash and drop your daily food costs down to 150-250 baht per day. Prices at restaurants can more than triple when you get to the main beach strip and the quality of food isn’t any better. Sometimes you have to give in and spend 200 baht on that piña colada so you can watch the sunset at a beachside bar.
Traveling slowly with my husband across Southeast Asia has been a great way to leave our jobs and lives in Canada behind to explore the world on a small budget. It also means we spend a lot of time together. Every meal, every walk, every bus ride to a new city, is together. Where once we saw each other only in the evenings and on weekends, we now see each other all the time. Where we once had schedules and habitual activities alone, there was now a much more shared and aligned schedule. This is fine, really, but we don’t always agree that something is worth our time or energy. Sometimes we need to split off and spend some time apart.
When we were living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I felt the need to take our scooter to some neighboring towns to see other temples, other roads, other food stalls. This little adventure interested only me so I took off down the highway with the scooter and left the husband behind to revel in his alone time with his fantasy football activities. I put a single earbud in, had Google maps speak directions to me and put on some music. I immediately got lost on a small residential road due to my inability to grasp the distance of 200 metres and turned too soon. I almost ran over a chicken that was literally crossing the road (why it was crossing the road is beyond us all.) Once back on the highway, I decided to trust the navigator voice and made my way south on Highway 106 to Lamphun. The drive passed under towering rubber trees that lined the road and went in and out of clouds of incense and smoke from barbecued pork. Each rotund tree had an orange swatch of fabric tied to it, indicating it was blessed by monks, therefore protecting it from logging. The roots had overgrown past the road and were pushing up the pavement along the edges. I took it slow and drove only as fast as I wanted with Blood Orange’s Chamakay setting the mood.
I stopped at a couple of different wats (temples) in Lamphun: Wat Phra That Hariphunchai and Wat Kukut respectively. The first was almost deserted compared to the wats I had visited in Chiang Mai. No more than four tourists and about five or so Buddhist monks were wandering the grounds. This was a much more peaceful way to visit a wat than pushed around in a throng of tourists, constantly moving and talking over each other. Little bells blew around in the wind and broke the silence with soft tinkling sounds like wind chimes. Wat Kukut was completely deserted. The only human I saw was a Thai man who came into the front gates briefly to release a small bird from a tiny wicker cage and then leave. I had a great opportunity to take my time and photograph every small detail that fascinated me: small wooden elephants casting long shadows, tiny figurines placed in flower pots and along walls, standing Buddhas along the walls of the chedis, catching just the right amount of light on my lens.
On the way back to Chiang Mai, I waited at a stoplight and saw a small girl staring at me from the car beside me. She shyly opened her window and waved. I waved back from my scooter with a big smile and saw the delight in her face right as the light turned and I sped off up the rubber tree highway, Kanye West’s Bad News taking me home.
Had my husband been with me, this day trip would have looked quite different. On the back of our scooter I would have been navigator, looking at my phone and directing rather than driving at my own pace, stopping whenever I wanted, and taking my time in the deserted wats. I probably wouldn’t have had my headphones in. Sometimes it’s nice to have a soundtrack of my favorite music to accompany an experience. It was nice to have a day that was my own with my own agenda. If we had been on a short two-week vacation, we would have been rushing to maximize our time and fit as many activities into our schedule as possible. A day trip to Lamphun wouldn’t have been considered when there are flashier attractions nearby that we would both enjoy. It’s a healthy exercise to spend time alone and be forced to rely on your own strengths and spend time with your thoughts as you travel. Growing up as an only child, this was standard. Spending time alone used to come so naturally to me. Since being married, I can sometimes forget the way my brain works and thinks differently alone. While it is an incredible journey my husband and I have taken on together, having a solo adventure here and there has enriched the overall experience.
To read more about Maryanne’s travel adventures check out Unknown Home.
Cost per day?
We camped at the Big 4 campsite which was a fantastic campsite, but you can pay through the nose in peak season. We paid $40 a night but were reasonably central. There are various other sites but if you want to enjoy a drink or just a short stroll into town then you could find yourself too far out to walk. The campsite also had great kitchen and BBQ facilities, so cooking was cheap, however part of the appeal of Port Lincoln is its various bars and restaurants, as well as its entertainment. I would say $100 a day would get you a great day out.
Describe a typical day?
Port Lincoln is beautiful and needs to be explored, so I put on my running boots and ventured out. The local council seem to have invested a lot of money in taking care of its water front. The agriculture is well maintained from the great pines to the grassy lawns, everything feels fresh and alive. The great weather gave a fantastic glow to the area and the aroma of fresh sea air allowed you to grasp what makes this town truly fantastic. Rolling hills stretch up to the skies and made for a good run which gave astonishing views of the town. Unintentionally I found myself lost, however that was half the joy. I didn’t need an excuse to explore further and found myself running the beach track back to the campsite.
Catching up with my better half, we decided to make our way out to the various viewpoints that look over Port Lincoln. The walking trail was quiet, which was a great opportunity to take in the beauty of the town below. It’s not a long walk but is worth it for a romantic stroll. We took many pictures to capture these beautiful moments.
Time to undo all my hard work, we strolled into town for afternoon lunch. A pub on the local green served chicken parmagana with unlimited salad bar which we washed down with a beer. We sat out on the terrace looking out on the green. The lawns of the town centre were busy with various families, tourists, and locals gathered eating picnics and ice creams. The mood was joyous as we sat and watched the world go by. A small funfair was in town so rides lined the waterfront, the sounds of laughter and excited screams filled the air.
Well fed, we took a look round the various shops. Like most Australian seaside towns the shops would sell merchandise that would let you know just how great they thought their town was. Every other shop would sell various t-shirts, fridge magnets, bumper stickers etc. tagged with Port Lincoln insignia – we bought a sticker for the camper and strolled back to the lawns. Treating ourselves to an ice cream we sat on the grass and lapped up the sun.
Stopping by the local butchers it was time to grab some burgers and sausages and head back to the campsite. We watched the sun go down by the pool. The Big 4 put on a film each night through its outside cinema. We sat back and enjoyed a BBQ and a film. The night was mild and various holiday makers sat around the pool and BBQ area eating and drinking. So we night capped with a glass of wine before retiring to bed.
What did you like? Dislike?
I couldn’t find anything I didn’t like, if anything there is little in the way of tours but this wasn’t an issue, the appeal is the town itself. However, there are various activities to enjoy. I loved the great atmosphere and the friendly service we came to find. The great couple that ran the campsite were lovely and had a lot of time for guests. It was obvious they had invested a lot of time in bringing up the standard of the site. The town was beautiful.
Describe an interesting conversation?
The couple that ran the campsite had settled some years ago after leaving England in order to tour Australia. A spontaneous decision had led them to turn their whole life around and eventually to run this campsite. He had been a lorry driver that was struck off and out of work, with little else to lose they had decided they would to take the risk to move to the southern hemisphere and neither have ever looked back. It was inspiring as you could clearly see their happiness shine through and above all you could see they were a truly happy couple. It just goes to show you can find happiness if your willing to take a risk for it.
Sydney for New Year!!!!
Stroll past the dozens of stalls serving food to the fascinated tourists excitedly pointing at giant, steaming woks of noodles, dried sticks of skewered insects and whirring blenders filled with local fruits, and you’ll find the experience to be an exquisite assault on the senses. Bright lights above each stall harshly illuminate the menus, which are rarely also in English. If the menu can even be seen through the steam and smoke from the never-ending cooking, the blended smells will only confound customers looking for something recognizable for dinner.
Although the intense variety of culinary choices attracts some foreigners to Thailand, many more are drawn by the comparatively low cost of living. Begin always by knowing what the currency conversion rate is so you can have a strong understanding of what prices really are. One Canadian dollar works out to about thirty Thai baht, but I wouldn’t get too hung up on being precise; Thailand ends up being so cheap that it’s not worth counting pennies over it.
Chiang Mai is a city that is always in motion, yet retains the slow, old-world charm that Bangkok seems to have long ago left behind. The centre of Thailand’s second-biggest city is a grouping of several blocks consisting mostly of old temples, schools, and residences, and shaped almost as a perfect square. Protecting the old city is its moat that symbolically keeps modernity from encroaching too far inside. The food, however, hasn’t been able to maintain the same degree of separation from the influences of the new millennium and the globalization that increased tourism brings.
For the traveller looking for something delicious and different from the norm, Chiang Mai not only offers reliable favourites, such as the ubiquitous Pad Thai and green curries, but lesser-known meals such as Khao Soi and Som Tam salad can be sampled for about a dollar. International dishes are very easy to locate, as one can find a bacon burger or cheese pizza being served beside someone else grilling an entire squid over a barrel fire.
The way to really travel and eat cheaply is to seek out the food stalls and put aside any unfounded lingering fears over the possibility of food poisoning. Cooks take great pride in serving tourists something authentic, clean, memorable, and probably a little spicier than expected. It can all be done without making a significant dent in anyone’s wallet.
Typically, a cheap walking-street dinner is done by visiting several carts that sell a few bites of some sort of tasty local dish. A meal might start with a light appetizer, perhaps a fried spring roll, sliced curry sausage, or a piece of grilled chicken on a skewer. Patrons jostle for the vendor’s attention, and those clutching exact change will find their order quickly filled. My large elbows are a blessing in times of hunger, and my stomach thanks them for their unwieldy size as they help keep my position at the front of the queue. I’m not a monster, I’m just hungry.
In Chiang Mai, it’s crucial to try the regional dishes that are nearly impossible to find back home, and that includes Khao Soi. With neither pictures nor translation for one to point to, the cook will only need to shout its name and everyone will know what to expect. Served in a bowl, it is a wonderful lightly spiced chicken curry sauce poured over fried yellow noodles, topped with pickled vegetables, often accompanied by a stewed chicken drumstick. The server directs customers to sit at a nearby folding table and it is lined with locals working their way through their own bowls. One serving could fill the void in most travellers’ stomachs, yet I must remind myself to avoid the compulsion to order a second bowl, for Khao Soi is oily, and there remain far too many other things to try.
A voracious appetite might need a plate of Som Tam to fill the cracks at this point. It’s a papaya-based salad that is tossed with sweet and spicy ingredients, mixed with a clay mortar and pestle only at the moment it is ordered. Although sublimely refreshing, Som Tam can set one’s mouth ablaze if proper care is not taken as to the level of hot pepper added; it has the potential to create a serious need to guzzle a gallon of ice water or beer. Speaking of beer, the cheapest brand of lager is Chang, followed by Leo, Tiger, and Singha. None is particularly remarkable in terms of quality, but I am not one to complain about cold beer after spicy food.
Dessert is acceptable, no matter how full the last three dishes have made anyone feel. On the off-chance that fried dough with sweet milk seems too heavy, there is always the Thai classic: ancient ice cream. Ancient ice cream surprises most with its rectangular shape, and that it is served on a stick. Made with coconut milk and ice, individual portions are cut from large slabs, and can be eaten as is, or inside a piece of bread. With no dearth of flavours from which to choose, the usual suspects such as vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry are common favourites. While coffee, caramel, and coconut are some of the more subtle flavours, the few brave will try durian, matcha, or maybe red bean. The alternative to ice cream is roti, a flattened piece of soft dough, which can then be filled with bananas, chocolate, egg, or any sweet fruits, then fried gently on a large pan. It is wrapped up in itself, chopped into bite-sized morsels, and never runs more than a buck fifty.
The reaction inside my body at this point of dinner is overwhelming. It is not from excessive spice, nor is it something possibly undercooked that my stomach is trying to digest. The feeling is one of incredulity at how much time I’ve wasted in life not eating this amazing cuisine. It is appreciation for the opportunity to travel just to appease the foodie nature of the heart. It is a sense of smug satisfaction at having spent only four dollars on stuffing my belly so completely that I feel like giving away the rest of my budgeted money. It is contentment. Chiang Mai is accessible to the world, and it is a place of deep exploration for the lovers of food. It can be pursued and discovered again and again in every meal eaten.
Tony Hajdu writes more over at Unknown Home. Head over there and bookmark it!
If you’re like my husband and I, you can’t help but do a little bit of research or at least some Google-Image searching when you’re about to embark on a trip you’re particularly excited about.
For instance we spent New Years Eve in Budapest, Hungary this year and made sure to get a hotel right on the river (using our IHG rewards points for a free room with an incredible view.) This was, we believed, where the New Years Eve fireworks would go off.
Why did we think this?
Because that’s where the St. Stephen’s Day fireworks had been the year before on August 20th.
That fireworks show had been so impressive, so long, and so extravagant that we expected to be in for a treat. What we saw instead was an entirely different experience, yet not without its own…explosive qualities.
First let me share a bit about St. Stephen’s Day.
St. Stephen’s Day is essentially Hungary’s independence day, celebrating not only the foundation of the Hungarian state, but also Stephen, the first king of the kingdom of Hungary.
Much like the United States’ independence day, Hungary celebrates this day with a huge fireworks display in the capital city. Unlike any fireworks show I’ve seen in the States however, this show is a 45 minute explosion of non-stop fireworks, bursting forth from the famous Chain Bridge and casting vibrant reflections on the surface of the Danube.
When my husband and I accidentally happened upon this holiday and thus, the fireworks show last year, we could not believe the extravagance. It is still on my list of 5 most serendipitous travel moments we’ve ever had.
Now I’ll spend just a moment detailing New Years Eve in Budapest
When the concierge at the InterContinental Budapest told us that there were no official events to speak of in Budapest New Years Eve, we were quite skeptical. Our skepticism was enhanced by the fact that tourists were beginning to crowd along the river, as if to catch a glimpse of another huge fireworks show.
Perhaps they too had done a quick Google-Image search of “new year’s eve Budapest” as we had.
Besides…since when has the internet been an infallible resource for FACTS?
Instead of the glorious and extravagant display of impeccably choreographed fireworks, we found the streets littered with spontaneous explosions. Venders paced along open courtyards, store-fronts, and sidewalks selling fireworks to tourists and locals alike. And once purchased, for this night alone, the fireworks could be detonated just about anywhere.
We watched fireworks shoot off with lopsided angles, sometimes straight into the crowd that circled the open square. We watched debris cast off from the firework’s cartridge fall down into the crowds. The haphazard explosions of amateur fireworks exploded literally right in front of our faces and I wondered to myself why I wasn’t hearing a constant noise of ambulances.
It was thrilling. But also, in a way, quite harrowing. The videos I snapped on my phone look just like scenes from a war film.
We spent most of the last hour of 2014 standing observing these sporadic explosions from a safe distance back where we could see both the fits and spurts of the courtyard and the subdued anticipation of the tourists along the river.
Nothing much happened over the river that night. Just a few explosions could be seen of other amateur fireworks displays in other open courtyards across the river. Just as sporadic. Just as haphazard. And from the distance across the river, quite small.
I suppose the moral of this story in my mind, is to remember that Google-Image search is indeed fallible.
While not everyone grew up in a traditional family structure, this article can apply to anyone who has a loving relationship with a family member who was part of your upbringing. For me, that was my parents, but I recognize that some people were raised by foster families, the parents of your childhood friends, aunts, uncles, grandparents, or siblings. This article still applies no matter who was an integral part of your childhood or who you consider a parent or family.
Growing up, my family took a lot of camping trips. We could never afford to take trips outside of North America, so we stuck close to home in the mountains and forests of the Pacific Northwest. Traveling together as a family was such an important part of my upbringing since it taught me a lot about living simply and enjoying each other’s company as well as the world around me.
As adults, we carry these memories and values with us, shaping us as travelers, friends, spouses, and lovers. We have our own travel stories that range from road trips with friends, camping trips with spouses, and solo long-term trips abroad that redefine travel for the rest of our lives. However, there is something to be said about coming home and re-experiencing time with our loved ones. Traveling with our families, as adults, kicks this up a notch in a really special way.
Your parents can still pass on travel wisdom
You may be well-traveled by now, having taken your own adventures, maybe even becoming an expert in the art of travel. You may have surpassed anything your parents may have done when they were younger. You’re the travel expert in your family. This doesn’t mean that you have nothing left to learn from your parents. Taking a trip with a parent as an adult allows your parent to get back into their own travel groove. They’re not tasked with caring for you like they were when you were a kid and this lets them shine in an area they may know well.
This last summer, my cousin was coming back to California and I hadn’t seen her in twenty-one years. A family reunion was organized, so my dad and I decided to make it into a camping road trip and stop at many of the national parks on the round-trip trek from Vancouver. I was reminded how good at camping my dad really is. He had packed things that I never would have thought to pack, and those things ended up being small comforts and luxuries that I really appreciated. He even brought small pieces of sample carpet to put in front of our tent doors to help us brush our feet off when getting in and out of the tent. They were all particularly useful things that I’d incorporate into my next car-camping trip.
Exiting your context
You likely know your parents in a particular context. You see them in their home for holiday meals, you go out for dinner at your favorite Mexican place, or they come over to help you with your taxes. These places and situations have become so familiar that each interaction is usually quite similar to the one before it. The familiarity is comforting and your relationship can become strengthened by this. One thing that may surprise you is that once you exit this context by traveling, you may not recognize your parent or you may see sides of them that have been tucked away for years. Traveling with my dad reminded me that once upon a time, he was a young man who did exciting things. He shared memories of camping with his uncle in the 60’s, setting off firecrackers from the roof, and encountering bears in the woods. These stories didn’t always have a context at home, but in Yosemite Valley, memories came flooding back and I was there to hear about them.
Creating new memories
If you have had the chance as an adult to travel with your parents, the memories you share will be held dear to you. The snapshots and stories from those experiences stand out in your mind from the rest you had as a child, and your parents will feel the same way. They have an opportunity to spend time with their children in a new and exciting way and they’ll cherish that as well. I not only have the memories of the familiarity and the usual but the memories of an incredible two-week road trip through three states and six state and national parks. I have the wonderful memory of my dad and my husband trying to see who could keep their feet in a freezing river the longest, contorting their faces in pain as I watched and laughed.
My dad was capable of camping, hiking, and driving for days on end, but not all parents are. Travel can still happen in many different ways. For example, a week in Hawaii at a resort, a cruise through Europe along the winding Danube, or, for the more adventurous, even a camel trek through the deserts of India. The possibilities are endless and the memories are waiting to be made!
To read more about Maryanne’s travel adventures check out Unknown Home.
Just behind the video-projection screen in the basement of the Cass ‘N’ Rock sports bar in Pusan, Korea, there hangs a large red flag that reads: “If the South Would’ve Won, We Would’ve Had it Made.”
Never mind that this is a Confederate battle flag. Never mind that this slogan is written in English. Never mind that the flag also bears the visage of Hank Williams Jr.
At the Cass ‘N’ Rock — where Korean university students gather to drink beer, eat dried squid and watch soccer games on the big-screen TV — the South in question has nothing to do with Robert E. Lee, King Cotton or the Heart of Dixie. At this South Korean sports bar, the Stars and Bars banner is a quirky, sorrowful symbol of a different war — one that began 48 years ago, killed more than 2 million Koreans and resolved nothing.
For those keeping score at home, this war is technically not over: 250 miles north of the Cass ‘N’ Rock, upwards of a million troops are locked in a 45-year-old standoff between North Korean and United Nations Command forces along the most militarized border in the world.
Holding true to the absurdities of Cold War-era nomenclature, this border is called the Demilitarized Zone.
It’s just after 8 in the morning, and I am taking a USO bus north from Seoul to the DMZ. This trip is not as sensitive and dangerous as it sounds: Approximately 70,000 people took the trip last year, including President Clinton. In the seat next to me, a 50ish woman from Virginia is entranced by the empty yellow countryside that surrounds us. She’s been staying in the urban madness of Seoul for four days, and she says she never knew that the Korean landscape could look so quiet.
But the landscape is not as empty as it appears at first glance. Gaze long at these roadside foothills and you can just make out trenches and camouflage netting, infantry soldiers and artillery. A mere 40 road miles separate Seoul from the entrenched front rank of a million-man North Korean army, and every inch of the space in between has been groomed to defending South Korea’s capital from attack. As we near the DMZ, the military presence becomes more obvious: razor-wire fences on the Imjin River, anti-tank barricades framing the highway, medieval-looking iron-spiked barrels gracing the asphalt.
The Virginian asks me if I’ve ever been scared, living and working in Korea for the past two years. I tell her that Korea is a strange place where gruesome traffic deaths are an hourly occurrence, rival sects of Buddhist monks get into public fistfights and department store buildings collapse because the local building inspectors live off bribes. If anything, I tell her, I am scared of getting run over by a delivery truck or smashed by a poorly installed I-beam. The threat of war is a forgettable annoyance that I think about only when a civil defense drill halts my bus when I am late for work, or when my middle-age landlady tells me how she learned to throw hand grenades in her high school gym class.
What I don’t tell her is this: If the North were to launch an all-out surprise attack on Seoul this evening, we’d stand about a 50-50 chance of living through the first hour. That’s a statistic I don’t dwell on much.
The paper I have just signed my name to reads:
“The visit to the Joint
Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and the
possibility of death as a direct result of enemy action.”
The 50 or so other people in the Camp Bonifas briefing room have all signed the same disclaimer, and a gangly, bespectacled U.S. Army specialist is handing out the green U.N. Command visitor’s badges that will allow us to proceed a few hundred meters farther up the road and enter the DMZ.
Despite the grim warning, no tourist has ever died while visiting the Joint Security Area. The U.N. Command troops haven’t always been so lucky. Since 1953, more than 50 American and 500 South Korean soldiers have died as a result of North Korean hostilities along the DMZ. Camp Bonifas itself is named for a U.S. Army captain who was summarily axed to death by North Korean soldiers while leading a tree trimming detail in the JSA in 1976.
The lights go down in the briefing hall, and Spc. Vance begins showing us slides. The DMZ is 2,000 meters wide, he tells us, and stretches the entire length of the Korean peninsula. Minefields, anti-tank barriers and razor-wire fences installed by U.N. Command troops stretch from coast to coast to defend from a North Korean attack. Our tour group will soon enter the truce village of Panmunjom, the only official crossing point along the DMZ. Over the years, Panmunjom has gained notoriety as an exchange zone for prisoners, a meeting place for the Military Armistice Commission and — most recently — a crossing-point for 1,001 head of cattle donated to North Korea by a wealthy South Korean businessman.
Spc. Vance’s lecture touches on the history of the Korean War, but sidesteps the more embarrassing American details. For instance, we don’t learn that in 1945 a Europe-based U.S. Army colonel studied a National Geographic wall map for just 30 minutes before choosing to divide Korea into Soviet and American occupation zones along the 38th Parallel. We don’t learn that right-wing thugs appointed by the U.S.
Army Military Government in Korea slaughtered as many as 30,000 people during a leftist insurrection on Cheju Island in 1948. We don’t learn how the June 1950 North Korean invasion of the South was inadvertently green-lighted when U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson forgot to include South Korea within the U.S. defense perimeter during a speech to the National Press Club six months earlier. We do learn, however, that there are no toilets for tourists in the DMZ. Once the lights come back on, we all take our turn in the Camp Bonifas facilities before loading onto the bus and entering no man’s land.
I am now standing in North Korea, and the industrial-strength disinfectant odor reminds me of a similarly brief visit I made to the porn-theater peep booths in Times Square several years ago. Across a conference table from me, the rest of my tour group stands in South Korea. They will all eventually get their chance to rotate into North Korean territory and take a few pictures. Spc. Vance explains how this Military Armistice Commission conference room precisely straddles the demarcation line that separates the two Koreas. The Virginia woman and I swap cameras and take each other’s picture standing next to the tough-looking South Korean guards at the far end of the room. This is probably as far as any of us will ever venture into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The North Korea that stretches beyond this conference room has long been the weirdest, most isolated country in the world. Press releases from the official DPRK news agency often come off sounding like bad vaudeville jokes:
Question: How does North Korea solve its famine problems?
Answer: By publicly executing its Minister of Agriculture.
Don’t bother cueing the snare drum. This actually happened in 1997 — the same year that North Korea’s squatty, rotund “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il supposedly shot 38-under-par (including five holes-in-one) the first time he ever played golf.
North Korea’s propaganda is outdone only by its military provocations, which over the years have included two assassination attempts on South Korean presidents, four large-scale invasion tunnels burrowed under the DMZ and countless small border skirmishes, kidnappings and commando invasions.
The most publicized incursion of recent years came in 1996, when a spy submarine from the North ran aground on South Korea’s east coast, resulting in a massive manhunt and fierce gun battles in the mountains of Kangwon Province. After this incident, the North Korean government issued a rare apology, promising that such a thing would never happen again. Last June, it happened again, in nearly the same location.
On this particular day, the North’s provocation of choice concerns an enormous underground construction site near the North Korean area of Kumchang. Government officials in Pyongyang insist the facility will be used for purely civilian purposes, but American officials are convinced it’s a nuclear weapons plant. Pyongyang is demanding a $300 million payment before it will allow inspectors onto the site.
If North Korea is indeed developing nuclear weapons, it will be in violation of the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework, when Pyongyang pledged to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for two light-water nuclear reactors and interim fuel from the United States. But North Korea’s main bargaining chip has always been its seeming willingness to start a war that would kill tens of thousands of people and devastate the Korean peninsula. Amid tensions prior to the 1994 compromise, the U.S. nearly initiated the evacuation of 80,000 American civilians from South Korea. Whether the current impasse will require similar gestures remains to be seen.
At this moment, nuclear tensions are secondary to flashing cameras, as the last few members of my tour group pose for snapshots with the South Korean guards. After 10 minutes in the far end of the Military Armistice Commission building, this blue-walled slab of the communist North has begun to lose its novelty. I feel like the South Korean guards could just as well be wearing Donald Duck suits. Spc. Vance, I notice, is glancing at his watch.
U.N.C. Checkpoint Five offers us fresh air and a good view of the Bridge of No Return, where more than 12,000 prisoners of war were swapped in 1953. Despite its ominous name, the Bridge of No Return looks downright bucolic. Were it not for the huge white North Korean propaganda signs erected Hollywood-style on the hills across the demarcation line, one might readily mistake the entire Joint Security Area for a Lutheran Youth Fellowship summer camp in rural Missouri.
Large white birds preen in the tall grass down the hill from the Checkpoint Five observation deck. Recent wildlife surveys have confirmed the existence of 146 species of rare animals and plants in the DMZ, including Siberian herons, kestrels, white-naped cranes and black-faced spoonbills. The untouched two-kilometer swath that separates North from South is the most pristine piece of property in this entire land, where population pressure has endangered 18 percent of all native vertebrate species. Foxes, roe deer, black swans, quail and pheasant thrive in the dense foliage. All animals large enough to set off a land mine, on the other hand, haven’t lived in the DMZ in decades.
This day is so foggy you can just barely make out the location of Taesong-dong, South Korea’s “Freedom Village” in the DMZ. Here, a handful of farmers make their living under strict regulations to be home from the fields by nightfall. The North’s DMZ village, called Kijong-dong, is uninhabited, and used primarily to blast propaganda and patriotic music at the South. At this moment, the loudspeakers of Kijong-dong are blaring what I assume are slogans praising Kim Jong-Il, but sound indistinguishable from the garbled entree clarifications one might hear at a Burger King drive-through window.
Spc. Vance tells us that the South Korean flag at Taesong-dong weighs 300 pounds and is hoisted on a 100-meter pole. Not to be outdone, the North Koreans have erected a 600-pound flag on a 160-meter pole at Kijong-dong. Someone makes the obligatory Freudian analogy and, as if on cue, the loudspeakers of Kijong-dong switch over to communist opera music so boisterous that it sounds like the score to a Monty Python movie.
For a moment, I slip into reverie at the absurdity of this grassy stretch of ground. The mood here seems downright extraterrestrial. Inspired, I ask Spc. Vance if we’re allowed to dance to the communist opera music. There is an awkward moment before he realizes that I’m joking. It’s the first time I’ve seen fear in his eyes since the tour began.
The tourist circuit of the Korean DMZ ends at the Monastery, a combination beer hall/gift shop at Camp Bonifas. In keeping with the rest of the DMZ, the Monastery is appropriately weird: One corner houses a shrine to the victims of the 1976 Panmunjom Ax Murder Incident, another houses a bar and a third corner sports a perfume counter. In the course of 20 paces, one can buy Amore skin cream, quaff a Budweiser and peruse grainy black-and-white surveillance photographs of Capt. Arthur G. Bonifas and Lt. Mark T. Barrett getting hacked to death by a swarm of North Korean soldiers. T-shirts come in three colors. Visa and MasterCard are accepted.
Longing for one last look at the DMZ before we head back to Seoul, I duck out of the Monastery and walk out past the tour bus. I turn around and around in the road, but I have forgotten which way North Korea is. It’s so quiet here, the only sound is the scrape of my footsteps.
I stop for a moment and reach into my bag for the DMZ commemorative key chain I got at the Monastery. I bought it in a moment of impulse, thinking perhaps there will come a day when I can shake my head and chuckle at the idea that this place ever existed.
Originally published on Feb. 3, 1999 by Salon.com
American Airlines has some great off-peak prices for award tickets to Europe. Rather than the usual price of 60,000 miles, during off-peak a roundtrip ticket would only cost 40,000 miles. And you can get that amount of miles simply by getting the AAdvantage credit card’s 50,000 mile bonus. (Learn more about these off-peak prices here.)
So when is “off-peak” for Europe?
According to American Airlines, off-peak for Europe is anytime between October 15 and May 15. Other airlines may have different off-peak dates. But basically off-peak exists during the colder, winter months. (US Airway’s off-peak dates for Europe are extremely narrow- only January 15-February 28.)
For this post, we’re going to consider the more generous off-peak dates and take a look at the pros and cons of traveling Europe during winter.
1.) Christmas Markets
The month of December is an absolutely charming time to be in Europe because of the vast number of cities that set up “Christmas Markets” in their main squares. Imagine the quaint and decorative architecture of days gone by, set aglow with festive lights and market stalls selling baked goods, hot spiced wine and bratwurst. It’s as if people are fighting back against the gloom of an early sunset.
Each Christmas Market is a little bit different. In Verona, Italy you may find dried meats. In Villach, Austria you’ll find plenty of bratwurst and glühwein; in Brussels, waffles and in Prague, traditional rolled pastries called Trdelnik.
2.) Snow in the Alps
The Alps take on a different feel when covered in snow. Even if snow has not yet made it to the ground below, when the peaks are dusted and white, it feels like the Alps are all the more striking. Not to mention Ski enthusiasts can explore the Alps best when they’re covered in snow.
3.) A (slight) decrease in tourism
“Local tourism” is still pretty big during the Christmas season when Christmas Markets decorate the city. But otherwise you may notice slightly cheaper hotel rates and slightly thinner crowds. Certainly, as mentioned in the first paragraph, you tend to at least see slightly cheaper airfare.
1.) European winters produce gray and sometimes foggy skies
My first trip to Europe was during the summer years ago. But since then, most of my European travel has been during the winter time. This time around I finally decided that it is not just a coincidence that most days are sun-less. In beautiful Bled, Slovenia there was always either fog or clouds creating a thick veil over the steep mountains behind the lake. Rather than the striking photos of peaks reflected in the lake’s waters and towering above the local castle…I have some misty photos that barely even permit a sighting of the island on the lake.
2.) Sometimes tourism is too slow
While reduced levels of tourism can be nice in hot-spots like Prague and Venice, for more off-the-beaten-path destinations like Bled, Slovenia or Bercthesgaden, Germany, you may find that half the town is closed down. This means half the number of choices for hotels and very few options for dining as well. And restaurants that DO stay open likely have sporadic hours.
3.) Extremely short days
Europe is Northerly enough that the hours of daylight are quite minimal during the winter months. In Prague in December for example, the sun sets at 4 pm and it’s pretty much totally dark by 4:30pm. According to timeanddate.com Prague has 8 hours and 11 minutes of daylight on this day, December 9th. Compare that to Boston’s 9 hours and 11 minutes.
We made the mistake of sleeping in today and by the time we squared away a bit of online work and lunch, we only had two hours of daylight in which to site-see.
Europe is beautiful. Just walking around ancient little cobble-stoned streets and soaking up the feeling of being somewhere timeless and historical is all I need for my Europe tours. And in that case, I really don’t mind doing this meandering whilst wrapped in coats and scarves. Especially when there’s an ample supply of hot spiced wine or hot cocoa to sip as I walk.
But for lovers of photography, it can be quite frustrating. Unlike anywhere else we’ve been, my husband and I sometimes wait until the sun sets to take our photos. We switch to a lens that works best in low-lighting and take advantage of all the golden lights of evening. We prefer this to giant opaquely gray skies that dull the photo.
Of the many things Europe does well, it’s the continent’s magnificent Christmas festivities that can charm this cynical traveler every time. From Scotland to Switzerland an extraordinary spirit of festivity, connecting this generations to others long since passed, can be felt in the wintertime air. The traditions of the season are still strong in this thoroughly modern part of the world, where bustling Christmas markets fill the main square of big cities and bucolic, half-timbered villages alike. In the cathedrals, choirs singing the great medieval Christmas hymns fill the cavernous spaces with angelic harmonies, their melodies carried to the rafters on frosty puffs of breath.
One of the most interesting aspects of Europe is the subtle variations to each country’s celebratory traditions. I find them fascinating. Here’s a sampling of those variations from three different cultures: The German, French and English traditions.
Germany, despite being a progressive powerhouse not known for sentimentality, is actually one of the most magical places to experience the season. Old traditions die hard and Germany reaches far into its medieval past to embrace and celebrate the season. From the Bavaria to the Baltic, from the Black Forrest to Berlin, its people break out the gingerbread recipes, the carols, and the colors of the season.
Performances of the Nutcracker are to be found in theatres across the country, while well-built manger scenes adorn the cobbled public spaces of both the Catholic South and Protestant North.
Sprawling Christkindle Markets fill the squares of communities across the country, bursting with music and food and seasonal décor. Traditional favorites such as gingerbread and sweet prune-and-fig candies are served at stalls under a kaleidoscope of Christmas colors. It’s not unusual for a small chorus to be serenading bundled-up shoppers and sightseers with classic Germanic carols.
But the singing of carols is especially beloved and ingrained in the Christmastime traditions of England. In fact, they’ve been a staple of the holiday in England since at least the sixteenth century, as many of the country’s Christmas traditions are. The great cathedrals of Salisbury, Westminster, etc. hold spellbinding choral events by candlelight and colorful outdoor Christmas markets buzz with activity.
Do you like your Christmas tree? Thank England, where the tradition of the Christmas tree originated. The custom originated when pagan-era Druids decorated their places of worship with evergreen trees in the dead of winter, which to them represented life that could not be extinguished despite the cold and the dark. The later Christians appreciated this symbolism, as it reminded them of Christ’s promise of eternal life, and adopted the custom.
The holiday dishes are of course a pivotal aspect of any celebration, and the diversity in food served on the big day is one of the widely most varying customs of Europe’s Christmas celebration. In England the regulars like turkey and veggies are served, but desert is the real treat: The all-important Christmas pudding, a fruity desert usually made with figs and brandy, and mincemeat pies, both fixtures since the sixteenth century.
Another particularly English tradition also includes the wearing of a colorful paper crown—everyone is a king or queen at Christmas. Needless to say there is tea involved on this wintry day as well, often at 6pm on Christmas to warm the soul.
France revels in its ancient cultural traditions as it celebrates the Noel with that classically French combination of style and joy. Gift giving is less emphasized than gathering and celebrating simple rituals with family and friends—and sharing a fine meal with good wine, of course.
Paris, the City of Light, celebrates in a less ostentatious way than big US cities, but its neighborhoods often host popular Christmas markets that are as festive as any.
In the countryside, where the culture of any people really resides and thrives, the traditions are stronger and richer. The warm tones of local choirs singing medieval carols can be heard emanating from candle-lit, thirteenth-century churches. Many families will attend the midnight Mass and return home to enjoy le réveillon, or the “wake-up!” meal.
And that meal is fantastic. Being France, the food is an integral part of the celebration—in fact it’s the culinary high point of the year for many. Delicacies like foie gras, oysters and escargots are popular aperitifs, while the entrée tends to be more straight-forward dishes like goose (popular in Alsace) and turkey (more popular in Burgundy). Meat (including ham and duck) is paired with a good red wine and served with the ever-popular chestnut stuffing, a French favorite for generations. Chubby truffles are another beloved feature of most dinners.
While the use of the actual Yule log has diminished somewhat, the French make a traditional Yule log-shaped cake called the buche de Noel. It’s a sugary delight of chocolate and chestnuts.
After the Mass and le réveillon, the children put their shoes in front of the fireplace hoping that Pere Noel (Father Christmas) will fill them with candy, nuts, fruit and gifts. As the kids drift off to sleep, the adults sit up late, hang goodies from the tree and polish off the Yule log. Before they turn in for the night, a softly burning candle is are left on the table in case the Virgin Mary passes by, a long-standing custom of this Catholic country.