April 26, 2015

How to choose and use packing cubes

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I opened my backpack, reached a hand into its dark depths and frowned. It was going to take forever to find the black shirt I was looking for. The clock next to the bed said I had to leave in five minutes.

My hand fished, searching for the black shirt. It kept coming up grasping other clothing: a blue shirt, a cardigan, a black skirt.

Let’s just say I’m not the most organized of packers, and my backpack with its open-access top wasn’t helping.

Three minutes until I had to leave. I sighed. Only one option was left. But it was one I really didn’t want to take. It was one that would leave me in a worse place than where I was now: just missing a black shirt and hunting for it.

Two minutes until I had to leave.

I dumped the backpack’s contents onto my bed. Immediately half of the bed was covered. Of course, the black shirt I was hunting unfolded on top of the pile and winked at me. Quickly I put it on and surveyed the mess. Later I’d clean it up.

There had to be a better option than totally unpacking my bag anytime I needed a specific item. The savior is called packing cubes.

What are packing cubes

They are small bags constructed of fabric or mesh and adorned with zippers. You pack each one like a little suitcase, with similar items, or outfits to divide your cavernous bag into organized utopia.

A packing cube compresses your clothing, so you can fit more into your bag. The idea is to max your packing space while keeping it organized.

Also, in hard-sided suitcases, they keep your clothes folded nicely and wrinkle-free until you’re ready to wear them.

Types of packing cubes

Like travel bags, many varieties of packing cubes exist. Each one is constructed for a different, specific purpose.

Here are the types of packing cubes you can get:

REI's expandable packing cube

REI’s expandable packing cube

How to choose your packing cubes

Enter packing cubes into Google and you’re likely to be overwhelmed with options. Fear not, selecting packing cubes is as simple as deciding your priorities.

  1. Purpose: why are you buying this cube? Do you need to keep your wandering socks in one place? Or keep your shirts together? Your purpose will dictate the size and material of the cube you choose.
  2. Size: A cube can hold socks, underwear or shirts. It depends entirely on its size. I prefer the smaller bags as the larger ones can defeat the purpose of segregating your clothing.
  3. Budget: generally, the more lightweight the cube is, the more expensive it will be. If you need something that performs a bag’s main function (keeping certain items together), opt for cheaper. But if you’re looking to keep the weight out of your bag, be prepared to spend more.
  4. Color: if you’re using a hiking-style backpack, I’d suggest cubes in bright colors — not the standard black — to help find them in the murky depths of your bag.
  5. Examine your suitcase/backpack: how big is it? If it’s a messenger bag, pick smaller packing cubes to keep all the smaller items in one place (like socks or underwear) and skip cubes for larger items like shirts. If you have a large hiking-style backpack, consider packing cubes in a variety of sizes to max all your space.
  6. Sturdy: check out the seams, zippers and fabric that make the cube. You’ll be using them daily, putting them through stress, and cramming clothes into them. Look for well-constructed bags that feel well-made.

How to use packing cubes

So how do you use these little bags to make your life easier?

Return to your purpose in buying packing cubes.

Do you want to solve the lonely mess living inside your bag? Do you want to keep your clothes folded nicely, wrinkle-free while you pull other items out of your bag? Or do you just want to find socks when you need them?

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Here are a few tips on how to pack cubes:

I don’t normally use packing cubes, but I will start using them to keep my bag organized. Plus, I’ll never have to root around in my bag for that last clean pair of socks again.

Laura Lopuch blogs at Waiting To Be Read where you can find your next great book to read.

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Category: Travel Gear

April 18, 2015

You have now entered the Tourist Zone

sadhuA few years ago, after finishing a journey in the Indian Himalayas, I traveled to the desert state of Rajasthan and visited the Hindu holy-town of Pushkar. A scenic outpost of 13,000 residents, Pushkar was famous for its Brahma Temple, its serene lake, and its annual Camel Fair. Several travelers had recommended it to me as a mellow place to relax for a few days.

From the moment I arrived in Pushkar, however, something seemed strange about the little holy-town. As I walked along the shores of Pushkar Lake, a number of long-bearded, monk-like sadhus approached me and suggested I take their photo for the bargain price of 15 rupees; Brahmin priests kept hustling up and offering to take me through a puja ceremony for just 50 rupees. Having spent the previous two weeks in the sleepy villages of far-northern India, this lakeside hustle made me feel like I was in some bizarre new universe. Prior to Pushkar, no Indian had ever implied that there was a cash value to puja (a Hindu ablution ritual), and most of the sadhus I’d seen were more interested in piety and asceticism than photo opportunities.

The more I wandered the streets of Pushkar, the more I discovered this off-kilter synthesis of culture and commerce. In the bazaar, teenage Rajasthani girls relentlessly offered to dye my hands with henna (a ritual typically reserved for Hindu brides), and cheap paper flyers touted competing yoga academies. Perplexed, I retreated to a lakeside restaurant for a cup of tea. When the host offered me food, I asked him what kind of dishes he offered — thinking he might specialize in tandoori or thali or biryani.

“Oh, we serve Indian food,” he said. “But we also have Mexican food, Chinese food, Italian food, Greek food, and Israeli food.”

“But which food is your specialty?” I asked.

“We specialize in all those foods,” he replied with a cheerful wobble of the head. “Plus we have vegetarian hamburgers and banana pancakes. But we’re out of granola right now.”

Peering around at the other diners in the restaurant, I finally figured out what was going on: Pushkar was a Tourist Zone.

On the surface, of course, Pushkar didn’t seem much like a Tourist Zone: There were no glitzy hotels, no air-conditioned knickknack boutiques, no busloads of sunburned Germans and chubby Texans. Moreover, had you surveyed Pushkar’s visitors, you would have mainly found independent travelers — young wanderers from Europe and North America and Israel, who shunned guided tours and took a genuine interest in Hindu culture.

Still, despite the earnestness of its travelers, Pushkar was very much a Tourist Zone — place that had subtly shifted to cater to the needs of its visitors. Only instead of churning out the standard tourist products (postcards, audio tours, spa treatments), Pushkar had developed a makeshift economy in Hindu “authenticity” (exotically dressed sadhus, quick-fix puja rituals, high-turnover yoga ashrams). After several years of popularity on the backpacker circuit, the residents of Pushkar hadn’t gotten greedy; they’d merely become adept at packaging all of the Indian symbols and rituals that indie travelers found whimsically attractive (as well as a few choice Western amenities, like familiar-sounding food and Internet cafés).

As is the case with so many other traveler haunts around the world, the authentic culture of Pushkar had become difficult to discern from the culture that had been spontaneously adjusted to feed visitors’ notions of “authenticity”. And, in this way, it had become a Tourist Zone.

As independent travelers, of course, we like to assume that we’re above the workings of Tourist Zones. But, as the example of Pushkar illustrates, we have a way of creating our own, more organic tourist areas, whether we intend to or not. Look closely, and you’ll notice that some of the most colorful indie-traveler hangouts in the world — Panahajachel in Guatemala, Dali in China, Dahab in Egypt — have as much in common with each other as they do their host-cultures. Granted, these places retain their own geographical and cultural distinction, but each location shares a laid-back predilection for catering to the aesthetic and recreational needs of Western budget travelers.

Thus, keeping in mind that much of our time as travelers involves moving in and out of Tourist Zones, here are a few tips for making sense of things:

1) Learn to identify Tourist Zones

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a Tourist Zone, but it helps to know when you’re in one, as it will affect how you relate to people. Tourist Zones include airports, hotels, bus and train stations, major city centers, historical venues, pilgrimage sites, nature parks, national monuments, and anyplace where travelers congregate in large numbers — including sleepy backpacker hangouts.

2) Mind your manners

Though interaction with locals in Tourist Zones can often be impersonal and transaction-based, be sure to abide by the simple rules of courtesy. Even when dealing with pushy vendors and aggressive touts, a firm, courteous “no thanks” is always better than an angry rebuff.

3) Tourist Zones serve an economic purpose for the people who live there

In Tourist Zones, many locals will use friendship as a front to tout hotels or sell souvenirs. And, as annoying as this can be, remember that most locals will take a genuine interest in you, even as they try to sell you things. In this way, many of your interactions as you travel will be with folks who are offering a service — cab drivers, guesthouse clerks, shopkeepers. Thus, be aware that you occupy an economic dynamic wherever you go — and that there is no particular virtue in compulsively avoiding expenses (especially when many of those expenses are of direct benefit to local families).

4) Dare to travel outside of Tourist Zones

Invariably, the easiest way to get out of Tourist Zones and into a more authentic setting is to visit villages and neighborhoods that aren’t in any guidebooks or travel websites — places where other travelers never think to go. Normal safety precautions are in order, of course, but half the charm in travel is finding places where granola, pizza, and veggie burgers aren’t on the menu.

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on May 22, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Asia, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice

April 10, 2015

Pro’s and Con’s of Traveling Solo

Over the last decade, I have traveled with both, friends and tour groups; however, the majority of my travels have been solo.

Solo traveling is exciting. There is no greater buzz than standing in an airport preparing to board a plane to a far off country all by yourself. The thrill of adventure and the unknown is amplified when traveling solo.

However, like every mode of travel, it is a two-sided coin; it has its good and its bad. Here are some of the pro’s and con’s of traveling solo, and why I think everyone should try their hand at it at least once.

me backpacking

Pro – One of the biggest pro’s of traveling solo is the intense sense of freedom that is at your fingertips.

Do not like where you are at this very moment? If not, you simply book a ticket and leave.

Want to stay in a city longer? No, problem, you can!

Traveling solo means you call the shots.

You can go where you want, when you want. The thrill of the entire world being an open book ready to be explored is amazing.

Realizing, you get to navigate it as you see fit is indescribable. When you travel with tour groups or even with friends, you have to take into account what the entire group wants to do.

Sometimes it is frustrating to come so far to visit a country and still miss some of the sights and experiences on the top your list because the majority of your group wanted to move on.

Con – Traveling solo can sometimes be lonely. There is a lot of down time traveling such as waiting in airports, bus stations, trains.

When this happens it is easy to get lonely. You find yourself in a very busy but transit place and chances are there will be none one to talk to.

Sometimes while traveling you experience something that you wish you could share with someone.

For instance, there are times when you look at the sunset and wish someone was with you to enjoy it.

Pro – The sense of adventure of navigating the world is priceless. Traveling between and into foreign cities, wandering around a city where you can’t read the signs or speak the language, trying to find your bearings and locate the essentials can be extremely overwhelming.

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However, soon the unfamiliar become extremely comfortable and you feel a deep sense of accomplishment knowing that you are connected to this world on your own.

Con – The first couple weeks can be extremely difficult and some people who travel solo get homesick quick during this period.

The foreign seems too overwhelming and well…..foreign. I have met many people that couldn’t take it and headed home.

Pro- Traveling solo you meet many more people than what you normally do when traveling with people.

When traveling in groups, people tend to get clicklock. You meet a lot of people, but you tend to hang out with your group.

However, when you are alone other backpackers become like your family. I find myself much more outgoing and will talk to anyone for hours when traveling alone.

Con- When you are travel alone, you feel almost secluded. There is a lot of busi-ness surrounding you and sometimes you are even apart of it, but then everyone, including yourself goes a different way. Even returning home can make you feel almost secluded, as if no one understands the wonderful experiences you just had.

Pro - Traveling with friends strengthens your bond. You have a once in a lifetime experience together, figure out mistakes together, and immerse yourself in other cultures together.

You share a unique and precious memory and whenever you see one another again, you almost instantly pick up where you let off as if no time had past.

Traveling solo has it pros and cons, but I think it is a great experience as it opens up the world in unforgettable ways.

It has changed my life in many ways. I recommend solo travel for everyone at least once in a lifetime. Perhaps, it will lead to discovering a whole new world.

Stephen Schreck has an unquenchable wanderlust, and love of traveling. You can  read more on his travel blog or follow him on Facebook, or Instagram.

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Category: General, On The Road, Solo Travel

March 19, 2015

Especially the disasters are worth it

When I’m in the States, sitting on my parents’ couch in the normalcy of the world in which I grew up and my mind begins to wander, it wanders to a moment when my shoes were caked in dust and the Kenyan heat beat on my shoulders. A young Masai boy hung by our side as we leaned against our RAV 4, which sat awkwardly off-kilter in the ditch at the imbalance of a busted tire. The sun worked its way toward the horizon as our only ticking deadline.

On paper, that travel-story was about failure. The Toyota RAV 4, our 4WD vehicle of choice for our self-drive safari in the Masai Mara National Reserve had been a struggle. The pot-holes on the return journey to Nairobi had gotten the best of us not once, but twice, first taking out our tire and then taking out the spare twenty minutes later. We were stranded in the middle of nowhere for 4 hours while half our group hitch-hiked to the nearest town large enough to sell tires.

And when I remember that moment I have to smile to myself. I remember the feeling of half-cynical amusement at the situation we’d found ourselves in and the feeling of adventure in realizing how rugged the Kenyan roads were. All the portions of my attention were awake in that moment, not just for problem-solving, but for soaking in my surroundings. We stood around for hours amusing the curious Masai boy who’d come to see us play with our Go-Pro and pretend to beat-box. The bells of his herd of goats rang softly in the distance.

Kenya flat

Honestly, it’s the disasters that stick in my mind when I’m back in the safe and predictable life of “home”. And those memories don’t bring me exasperation or anxiety or relief. They make me smile. They remind me I’ve had the sorts of adventures that become good stories.

Museums and national monuments and even elephants standing on the roadside don’t quite make me feel that same way.

Why is that?

I’m only sifting through my own travel-stories, but here’s why I think the travel disasters are especially worth it and especially valuable.

1. Stories give us confidence in the value of our journey.

When you can come home and make everyone around the table gasp or snicker or shutter at the things you’ve seen, it validates the fact that you did indeed experience something memorable. “Wow, that is really something.” It doesn’t seem to matter what that “something” is. If you’ve experienced something, you’ve learned that much more about the world and yourself. Which leads me to the next point…

2. Unfamiliar, imperfect situations teach us something about ourselves.

Every time I make it through a new stress or imperfection, I’ve learned a bit more about what my limitations AREN’T. And it can be quite addicting learning how many things DON’T limit you that you thought might.

For example when we visited Easter Island we decided to camp. Wind howled and rain whipped the sides of our tent almost every night. (They were excellent tents so we were never cold nor wet.)  Even though the conditions weren’t ideal for camping, it was wonderful to teach myself that I do not need ideal conditions to sleep in a tent. (Not to mention I learned what a difference a quality tent makes!)

The disasters often teach us what we can endure, and that is an empowering thing to learn.

3. Unfamiliar, imperfect situations teach us about our destination.

It is amazing how insulated travel can be if you aren’t careful. If you book a tour that shows you all the highlights of a place, you may never know what the real heart and life of that place is. Take for example the alternative route to Machu Picchu. The popular train ride from Cusco to Machu Picchu is, no doubt, a fabulous way to see some beautiful scenery.

And it is less havoc and headache, no doubt, than taking a series of collectivos for two days until you reach the waste water treatment plant behind Machu Picchu where you either luck out on hitching a train or trek along the train tracks for two hours before reaching Aguas Calientes.

Drew Machu Picchu

Both options will show you some part of Peru. But the messier option will show you, in my opinion, a slightly more authentic spectrum. You’ll see the beautiful views from a spot squished between locals in the back-seat of a 25-year old van that smokes when you stop. You’ll see the bus driver hop off the bus at a little shack deep in the Andes, to bring his mother some clothes before taking off again up the winding mountainside.

 

All of the experiences I’ve referenced in this (rather personal) post were in some way uncomfortable.

And I love it that way. I learned something. I felt something. I saw something.

 

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Category: General, On The Road, Vagabonding Life

March 5, 2015

Rent vs hotel life

Have you ever taken a look at your utility bills and just wondered if you should ditch your lease, pick up some travel expenses and call it a wash?

Well, my husband and I are recording every single expense as we travel, just so that we can do an experiment of that nature.

I’ve picked a pretty average month to demonstrate what our costs have been with travel so that we can compare them to average monthly costs for our old stationary life. But first, here are some of the questions and anticipations we had going into the (now almost 2-year) experiment.

Are hotel points and frequent flier miles enough to buffer the cost of full-time accommodations?

Going into this experiment, we had a pretty advanced knowledge of frequent flier miles, and some familiarity with hotel points. But over the months of nomadic life, we’ve been able to refine our strategies for earning hotel points more and more.

Arguably the easiest way to earn hotel points is simply to sign up for a hotel’s credit card and receive the sign-up bonus. But one unexpected thing we’re learning is that hotel promotions are extremely valuable for nomads. Consider this: an ordinary traveler may or may not have stays coming up during a hotel’s promotion. If they do have a trip that happens to overlap with a hotel’s promotion, then they’ve lucked out and they can earn lots of points with their paid stays. But they’d have to ask themselves if those points outweighed the savings from simply picking a cheaper hotel.

With our nomadic lifestyle however, we ALWAYS are traveling. So we can always assume two things: firstly that we will need a place to stay during that promotion and secondly, that we will have a use for the points we earn later. We need to cover 365 nights and inevitably we’ll have to pay full price for some of those nights. So we might as well pay full price for hotels during promotions.

Can food be affordable without a kitchen around for cooking groceries?

Food is definitely expensive when you can’t lean on grocery-shopping and cooking at home. Even with certain strategies for keeping it as low as possible, like taking advantage of hotels that include meals or free breakfast, it’s very difficult to keep it as low as a stationary person’s food budget.

This puts even more pressure on keeping other expenses low.

 

So let’s see what the numbers were for April 2014 where we traveled in Indonesia, Singapore and mostly India. I will say, these are fairly low-cost destinations and this was one of our lesser expensive months, but it does indeed represent what anyone (with a good credit score) would be capable of replicating.

April Total $1,785
Tourist Attraction Total $32.58
Food & Beverage Total $407.26
Land Transit Total $272.91
Air Transit Total $675.79
Accommodation total $377.92 27,000 Club Carlson points
10,000 Hyatt points
11,000 SPG points
80,000 IHG points
1 Category 5 Marriott cert

Most of these points were acquired through credit-card bonuses.

How does this compare to a month living a stationary life?

Unfortunately when I was living a stationary life, we didn’t keep records of all of our expenses, so we’re going to need to do a little research and estimation for this part.

Tourist attraction total: $0 though perhaps a stationary life would have an “entertainment budget” instead. My husband and I mostly went out to eat with friends as our entertainment, so I’ll leave this calculation at $0.

Food & beverage total: According to information released by the USDA, the average expenses for a couple’s groceries (considering they eat “moderately”) in 2010 was as low as $347.50 and as high as $688.60 depending on how thrifty or unthrifty a couple is, but they set the moderate-leveled average at $550.60. Because we treated food and beverage as our main source of entertainment (instead of paying for movies or sports events,) let’s go with the more expensive amount as that seems closer to our normal tendency during stationary life.

Land transit total: Drew and I were fairly unique in that we have not owned a car throughout our marriage. We did spend maybe around $30 a month on public transit however, so that’s where we’ll set this number.

Air transit total: I guess this doesn’t really apply to the stationary-life budget.

Accommodation total: We shared our rent with a housemate but our portion of the rent alone came out to $900. But once you add all the utilities and internet, we’ll bring that up to $1150.

Total stationary budget (estimate): $1868.60

 

Conclusion

So there you have it. According to my best estimates, we spent $1868.60 on a stationary-life month. (This is considering that we are probably more frugal than the average person in that we didn’t own a car or television.) Then consider that it is possible to spend $1785 on a month spent in Indonesia, Singapore and India. That is $83.60 less.

Of course, not every month is as low as $1785. The truth is, we are still working hard to refine our strategies for nomadic travel using miles and points. Over all, I hope a look at these numbers can show that with some strategy, it really is possible to travel on a stationary budget.

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Category: General, Hostels/Hotels

March 1, 2015

Top 5 language translation apps

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You’re standing in a train station, staring at two signs. Back and forth your head swivels. Likely the words on these signs are the end destination points of the train line.

But they could be anything. The language printed on the signs is complete gibberish to your eyes. In fact, it doesn’t even look like a language — these swooping, artistic curves and flat-topped characters.

You take a deep breath and choose a sign based on gut instinct. Usually your gut guides you down the correct path, following unseen sign posts. But today — if you’re being completely honest with yourself — your gut didn’t make a decision. It was as flabbergasted as you at the sight of these foreign characters, so unlike words you could at least puzzle out.

Before this happens to you on your next trip, download a language translation app to translate those signs into meaning.

Here are the top five language translation apps:

1. Google Translate

(Free, Android Google Play, Apple Store)

The app that lets you do everything: read a foreign language, translate any text (even handwriting), and converse with another person as the app translates. This app translate instantly via text, phone or voice. It includes Word Lens: point your camera to a sign or text, the app translate it without an internet/data connection. Perfect for mastering those foreign transportation systems.

2. Waygo

(Free, Android Google Play, Apple Store)

The only app that gives you an instant visual translation of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean characters. Simply point and translate signs and food menus. No Internet connection needed. This app will smooth any hiccups in navigating a new transportation system.

3. iVoice Translator Pro

($0.99, Apple Store)

A personal, double-sided translation service that lets two people talking two different language to speak using the app. Speak into the app and it translates for you. It’s like having a personal, mini translator in your pocket.

4. iStone Travel Translation

(Free, Apple Store)

A simple app containing over 300 daily, common phrases in several languages. To get cool features like text to speech to hear the phrase, you have to purchase the paid version ($4.99).

5. myLanguage Free Translator

(Free, Apple Store)
An older translation app that has grown into a powerful translator thanks to a huge database of 59 languages. It’s free to download and, a rarity these days, it’s free of advertisements within the app. You can get voice translation, but in a separate app.

Bonus language translation app:

S Translator

(Free, only on Samsung Galaxy S5)

A preloaded app that translates text or speech for you. You can download language packs for differently regions of the world. An extensive section of the app has preset phrases commonly used, like where’s the bathroom? Only downside to this app is you need a data or Internet connection for it to work.

Laura Lopuch blogs at Waiting To Be Read where she helps you find your next favorite book… and explains why reading expands your mind.

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Category: Travel Gear

February 27, 2015

The challenges and rewards of long-term travel

 

If there is one thing about long-term travel that is underestimated, it is the challenges that come with it. Living indefinitely on the road is not always wonderful. Sometimes it requires choices that are painful and challenging. Do not get me wrong. I love long-term travel, but in all honesty it is not a lifestyle made for everyone.

I have talked to dozens of writers, travelers, and bloggers all over the world.

Many of these people love traveling equally if not more than me, but even so many have told me that long-term travel is not for them, and there is no shame in that fact.

However, for those of us that pursue this lifestyle, the rewards are great.  Let’s delve into some of the challenges and rewards that come from living on the road long-term.

Always starting over

I want to tread carefully here because I don’t want to discredit or insult the hundreds of friendships I have made while traveling. All of the friendships I have made are meaningful and unique. I have met up with some of these friends time and again in different countries. Some of the most meaningful relationships that have impacted my life in irreversible ways have been made while traveling. I cherish these deep friendships and always look forward to when the road brings us back together.

However, most relationships made while traveling are normally the product of random encounters or out of convenience. Unless you are staying in the same place for a long period of time, many of these friendships are brief, yet intense. Basically, bonds of friendship are formed quickly but before you know it, that person is on the other side of the planet and you have to start again.

Another aspect that is encountered while traveling long-term is growing apart from childhood friends. Staying in touch is difficult because of hectic routines and different time zones. Due to the brevity of on the road friendships and growing apart from your lifelong friends sometimes makes you feel completely alone. It can almost be overwhelming as if not a soul in the world truly knows or understands you.

Lack of privacy

Long-term travelers watch every penny they spend. This means that they are likely to be living in hostel dorm rooms and taking overnight buses.

Therefore, privacy is something that is rare and many times in order to be polite, you have to talk to people when you would just rather read a book, write in your journal, or close your eyes and take a nap.

It can be very frustrating when people turn on the lights at 3 A.M. or use your shoulder as a comfortable pillow on an overnight bus ride.

The reward of no privacy is that you meet interesting people from all over the world. You learn about different cultures and customs first hand and with vivid details. You are also forced to break out of your shell and talk to anyone about almost anything for hours.

Plus, waking up in a new place is an exhilarating feeling. One of my favorite travel quotes states “To awaken alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” – Freya Stark

Dating is practically impossible

There are many long-term travel couples out there; I am just not one of them. For me dating is something from the past. When you are constantly on the move, having a relationship is not just tough, it is practically impossible.

Honestly, I have ended great relationships with girls I really care about, and vice versa, because our lives were headed in different directions. I did not expect them to change their lives for me and I knew I could not change my life for them.

I’m not going to lie; there have been times where I have accomplished a goal, got to a destination I have dreamed about, or have been watching a sunset, and in the back of my mind I wished someone was there to share it with me.

This challenge varies from person to person, however, I know for me to accomplish the goals I have set, I need to be alone. The benefit is that I can focus on my goals, go where I want, and when I want.  Every new adventure, every foreign country, and every fulfilled dream leads me closer to my goals and vision.

Long-term travel is not easy. It is a lifestyle that demands as much as it gives.

For me the rewards out way the challenges. The simplicity and beauty of this life gives me fulfillment and peace. I never grow tired of seeing other countries, interacting with other cultures, and exploring this wonderful planet.

If it is a life-style that appeals to you, I urge you to take the leap.

Stephen Schreck has conquered the challenges of long-term traveler, and has experienced its grand rewards. You can follow his travels around the world on A Backpackers Tale.

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Category: General, On The Road, Vagabonding Life

February 25, 2015

Learning to cook Thai food in Krabi

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Traveling often implies a few things about food. In Thailand, for example, it’s assumed that visitors are interested in diversifying their palates and will order Thai iced tea, pad see ew or panang curry, eschewing plain old burgers and pizza. And so, it is a given that most meals will be eaten at a restaurant or a street cart. It makes sense that you’d opt for local fare to taste what the country grows, what they typically eat, and how deliciously they prepare their food. Sometimes, you walk away from your table at the end of the night and wonder how dishes like the ones you tried are even possible to make!

Could they have been delicately marinating that meat for days? Did they make all those thin noodles by hand? What spices could possibly have produced such an unusual and delectable flavour? These are questions I find myself asking (to nobody in particular) whenever I travel.

Another implication from travel is that you will not have an opportunity to cook anything yourself until you get back home. Hotels rarely have kitchens for guests to use, and when they do, the price is often out of reach for the average traveller. Quenching this desire to cook and answer any lingering questions about Thai food can be done by booking a very entertaining and inexpensive cooking class.

(more…)

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Category: Food and Drink

February 22, 2015

The Savannah of Travel Writing

During random social occasions it’s always with a pinch of pride and much more self-pity that I gulp down when I am introduced to new acquaintances as a “writer”. In fact, once my friends drop the “W word”, the person who until a moment ago was thinking “who’s this long-haired nerd standing in the way to the bar” always steps back with eyes and mouth open wide. It’s a moment of mutual awe, as if we were some sort of postmodern Adam and Eve discovering that, besides the proverbial red apple, there’s also sex.
“A writer?” circumstantial gulp, followed by a courteous “VERY pleased to meet you”, and there comes the name which, I’m afraid, I’m never too good at remembering the first time.

Writer. You don’t know what it means until you leave the trench of anonymity and jump out in a battlefield which is far scarier. A place where you must constantly reload your rifle with effective pitches, and shoot them as far and wide as you can, trying to aim straight at editors’ heads. But you only have one shot to impress.

Putting it in a world traveller perspective – my particular niche -, you become one of the poachers headed for an illegal safari hunt. Think of the animals as the assignments you must land: Once you see a running antelope, a very fast one, it’s a highbrow masthead. And it’s very hard to get for newbies, because we can’t shoot that fast. Elephant and rhinos, to the contrary, require much expertise. Subtle words, with a corollary of majestic headlines and impressive photographs. When you realize you just can’t, and that you are about to miss the rest of the game, you get back to crouching in the dust and trying your hand at scoring a wombat or two amidst the melee of other young hunter-writers. Literally, it’s a jungle out there.

Believe me: between us and the feeble connection of our timid handshake, your hand that trembles and numbs as it touches mine because you think I have reached some sort of demigod status, please remember that yours is the wrong perception of a profession. In truth, I’m a poor tiny cogwheel in a system, exactly like you, whatever job you do. My only luck is that I am my own boss; but this, think well, can also be the sharpest double-edged sword ever forged.

The real take-home points I wish to make here, besides the obvious “keep your feet on the ground”, is to follow your own voice and ideas. Write about what you know well, and do it in engaging ways which can interest even those who don’t have a minimal interest in what you try to say. And don’t be afraid of having original ideas… journalists call them “angles”. If you think of any geometrical figure, you will find many angles. This means, in practice, that any topic can be tackled from a variety of perspectives. Find the one that nobody, or just very few, have taken previously. Look at this column, for example: I started with a handshake, crossed into the Savannah as a metaphor to describe the publishing world, and have never given you any precise set of rules to follow. However, I am sure that thus far I have taken you by the end where I wanted to, and you have indeed learnt something.

Marco Ferrarese is the author of subcultural noir NAZI GORENG and a freelance travel and culture writer based in Southeast Asia, and metalpunk guitar slinger. He toured most hellholes of Europe and North America, met Kurt Cobain’s alleged murderer, and rode with truckdrivers from Singapore to his native Italy. He blogs at monkeyrockworld.com and you can follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.

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Category: Travel Writing

February 5, 2015

Trip Report: how we did Oman for $570 in airfare and accommodations for two

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.

Trip Details:

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.

Grand Mosque

 

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:

Expense: $150

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.

 

Conclusion:

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

 

 

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