“There is nothing I love more than traveling to a place where I know nobody, and where everything will be a surprise, and then writing about it.”
–Ariel Levy, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” The New Yorker, November 18, 2013
As travelers, we often find ourselves talking to friends and strangers alike at parties, at work, wherever, about travel and how to do it right. We evangelize for travel, extolling its opportunities and benefits. We often go on at length about the magic of our favorite places, the addictive high that comes from filling up a passport book, and the thrill of crossing a new border and making new connections. We also find ourselves giving out advice on all matters travel, from where to find the cheapest airline tickets to where to stay and when to go. You know you do this.
But normally it’s one-on-one counseling, spreading the gospel of good travel one conversation at a time. In almost any social situation I would meet many would-be travelers are looking for a better option than shelling out a fortune to join a big-bus corporate tour with an itinerary geared toward hitting the owner’s favorite tourist traps. I was always stuck by people’s desire for useful tips for shaping their own experience and, more importantly, the need for an infusion of “Hey, I can do this!” confidence.
After thousands of private conversations, I also realized that the most efficient way to share what I knew with those who were interested was to teach.
Next week at a local Seattle-area library I’ll be giving the first of several ninety-minute “Travel Talks” I plan to give this year. The seminar-style presentations, which I call “Traveling The Best of Europe Independently & On A Budget” will be free, presented at assorted libraries in the Seattle metro area.
This marks the tenth year I’ve been doing them, having originally started in my hometown of Chicago. I tackle the question about how to travel independently in Europe (since that happens to be my specialty), how to plan it, and what to do when you’re there.
I wish more experienced travelers, wherever in the world they happen to hang their rucksack, would occasionally give up a Saturday afternoon to teach these sorts of classes. Not only is there a deep need for the info but there’s plenty of reward in it for the speaker. Some have asked why I bother doing these talks when it’s basically giving me time and advice for free. My answer: Sharing my hard-won tips on budgeting, itinerary-crafting, and other how-to essentials is a joy. Many of the people who attend these classes have an ideal trip in their minds and have had it for most of their life, but have lacked the skills or confidence to go on their own. And seeing their eyes light up when they realize they can take control of their own travel dreams and plan their own adventure is profoundly rewarding.
Moreover, it’s a public service. More than just the mere nuts-and-bolts information of planning a trip on a tight budget, arming curious people with the info and inspiration to broaden their horizons is a good thing for them and for their country. They will likely return from their adventure with not only experiences they will cherish, but a better perspective on their world as well.
So, if you’re inclined to spread your knowledge and love of whatever destination you adore, please consider offering a ninety-minute “how to travel independently & on a budget to…” presentation at a local library or school. Any guidebook will have a chapter on the basics, but it’s a presenter’s confidence and palpable love for the subject that can inspire someone to finally book that plane ticket. Let them learn from your trial-and-error. Impart your wisdom and fill the room with your enthusiasm for the amazing places you’re talking about. You might just motivate a wannabe adventurer to take the trip of their dreams and change their life, and that is time well spent. Go forth and spread the gospel.
Whenever anyone asks me why I still travel on a shoestring at the ripe old age of 38, I usually tell them about the time I learned how to play the bagpipes in Havana.
Granted, I could probably relate a more typical story about the joys of budget travel – some tidy parable of money saved and experiences gained – but when I mention learning the bagpipes in Cuba it sounds like I’m going to tell a joke, and people like jokes.
The thing is, there’s no punch line. My encounter with Cuban bagpipers wasn’t memorable for its mere quirkiness – it was memorable because it illustrates how travelling on the cheap can offer you windows into a culture that go beyond the caricatured stereotype of what a place is supposed to be like.
The travel caricature of Havana, of course, is an elegantly aged vision of cigars and classic cars, son and salsa, communist slogans and café con leche. To actualise this vision, many upscale tourists head for the $120-a-night Hotel Nacional, a classic, mafia-era facility that features $8 mojitos and a lovely terrace looking out over the Malecón and the Straits of Florida. Unfortunately, most Cubans don’t have access to the Hotel Nacional, and – as is the case with luxury hotels in many parts of the world – it tends to create a travel experience based more on the idea of how the city should be than how the city is.
I spent my nights in Cuba just up the street from the Hotel Nacional, shelling out just $15 a night to sleep at a casa particulare homestay in Havana’s leafy Vedado district. I couldn’t see the Malecón from my bedroom, nor could I order room-service rum cocktails, but I did get to take part in the day-to-day home routine of my Cuban hosts. In the mornings I would have coffee with them and practise my Spanish; in the evenings we’d watch the state-run TV station, trying to spot bits of real news through the haze of official propaganda. My host family cheerfully introduced me to various friends and neighbours, and within a few days my little social network had offered me access to underground poetry readings, pickup baseball games, and – on one fateful afternoon – a bagpipe performance at the Asturian Federation in central Havana.
When I befriended those hipster kids and began to learn how to play the gaita (an Asturian bagpipe with a single drone pipe), I discovered a side of Havana that was as authentically (if not stereotypically) a part of Cuba as baseball and rumba. Like the tourists in the Hotel Nacional, I still had plenty of access to son, cigars and salsa – but I also got to see a side of Havana that revealed the complexity of the city and its subcultures.
I’m not saying that you have to hang out with bagpipers if you really want to experience Havana; I’m just noting how spending less money has a way of paying off in original and memorable experiences.
And shoestring travel is not just for long trips. Last summer, I travelled to the Czech Republic with my parents. We could have easily splurged on expensive hotels and guided tours during our time in Prague, but instead we bought a three-day tram-pass and checked into a hostel in the city’s suburban Vinohrady district. Even though my parents are in their 60s, the youthful backpackers staying at the hostel treated them as one of their own, and offered travel advice on topics ranging from tourist destinations to experimental theatre to where one can sample the city’s best absinthe. We ended up spending three days exploring various corners of the city on foot and by public transport. We stumbled across standard sights like Stare Mesto and the Charles bridge, of course, but we also happened upon children’s school-jazz performances and a Czech Corvette-club rally. We admired the art nouveau styling of the Mayor’s Hall, but we also marvelled at the casual art nouveau detailing in suburban post offices and pizza parlours. When we stopped into a random pub and used improvised hand signals to order Plzensky Prazdroj and knedliky, we felt as if we were the very first outsiders to discover the joys of Czech beer and dumplings.
If it sounds to you like I’m an ageing backpacker who never quite grew out of his shoestring ways, you’d be exactly right. In many ways, my travel sensibilities have grown out of a journey I took 10 years ago, when I quit my job as an English teacher and took a journey across Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. I probably had enough money saved up to invest in a three-month trip. As it turned out, I learned ways to stretch my travel budget into a life-enriching 30-month sojourn – and in all those months of travel, my day-to-day costs were significantly cheaper than day-to-day life would have cost me back in the United States.
The secret to my extraordinary thrift was neither secret nor extraordinary: like many generations of backpackers and shoestring travellers before me, I was able to make my modest savings last by slowing down and forgoing a few comforts as I travelled. Instead of luxury hotels, I slept in clean, basic hotels, hostels and guesthouses. Instead of dining at fancy restaurants, I ate food from street vendors and local cafeterias. Occasionally, I travelled on foot, slept out under the stars, and dined for free at the stubborn insistence of local hosts. In what eventually amounted to over two years of travel, my lodging averaged out to just under $5 a night, my meals cost well under $1 a plate, and my total expenses rarely exceeded $1,000 a month. Instead of investing my travel budget in luxuries and amenities, I invested it in more travel time – and it never failed to pay off in amazing experiences.
Perhaps my favourite budget destination in the world is Bangkok. The city may be chaotic, traffic-snarled and incomprehensible, but it never fails to amaze me. Over the years I’ve found lodging in countless corners of the city – from the $4 backpacker dives of Khao San Road (which has gentrified a lot since my first visit in 1999) to the posh, five-star environs of the storied Mandarin Oriental Hotel. My favourite place to crash is the Atlanta Hotel, a curious little $15-a-night gem (complete with a courtyard swimming pool and an art-deco lobby) off on Sukhumvit Road. To the untrained eye, Sukhumvit Road could pass for a westernised strip of air-conditioned shopping malls and office buildings, but the area wears its globalisation in a distinctively Thai way. Sure, there are McDonalds and Starbuck franchises for those who choose to dine there, but there are also street vendors serving paad thai, fresh pineapple and grilled scorpion on a stick for pennies a serving.
It’s been almost eight years now since I finished that extended stint of vagabonding, but the experience is still very much a part of me. In financial terms, I have the resources to sleep in five-star hotels and eat in expensive international restaurants, but I’ve found I rarely choose such luxurious options. Given a choice between a $400-a-night hotel and an $18-a-night flophouse in Hong Kong, I tend to opt for the latter. Faced with the prospect of an all-inclusive dinner buffet in a Santo Domingo casino, I invariably find myself wandering outside to sample food from street vendors.
Ultimately, the charm of budget travel has always been less about saving money than making the most of my time on the road. Travelling cheaply has forced me to be engaged and creative, rather than to throw money at my holidays and hope for the best. Freed from a rigid, expense-laden itinerary, I’m more likely to be spontaneous, embrace serendipity and enjoy each moment of my journey.
This notion of spending less and experiencing more holds true regardless of economic conditions, but in a time of global recession it makes even more urgent sense – not just for holidays, but for life in general.
This story originally published by The Guardian, February 7, 2009
Hometown: San Francisco, CA
Quote: “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” — Miriam Beard
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.
|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
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.
This tightly compacted city holds some of Cambodia’s best food and most tragic history. Without knowing its past of civil war and genocide, you would think Cambodians and Phnom Penhers in particular were just really friendly people. Once you learn their history and realize that everyone you see was affected by the notorious Khmer Rouge in the 1970s in one way or another, then you know they’re more than just friendly; they’re admirable. Visiting Phnom Penh is easy if you’re already in Southeast Asia. Cambodia can be overlooked and a lot of visitors only see Siem Reap in the north to visit the temples of Angkor Wat then move on, but Phnom Penh is the heart of the country and merits a visit all its own.
“Once globalization and development have homogenized and sanitized the world – quite often for the best – it will no longer be possible for even the most self-indulgent and romantic among us to maintain the illusion that what we are doing is anything other than not-particularly-glorified tourism. If all the classic elements of backpacker stories have gradually become clichés, we might as well pause to acknowledge that they were surprisingly fun clichés while they lasted. And if we now insist that all these clichés fetishize a certain impossible notion of authenticity, while coming dangerously close to essentializing foreign countries as premodern, we should also pause to confess that we enjoyed them anyway.”
–Nicholas Danforth, World travel can be all about timing, San Francisco Chronicle, September 20, 2012
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
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.
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:
(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.
Capetown, in the Republic of South Africa, is a beautiful city. Filled with natural beauty, a booming waterfront and access to all things penguin, Capetown quickly draws you in. Whether you’re looking to hike Table Mountain, shop at local markets, cavort with Boulder Beach’s penguin colonies or take in a history lesson of Africa’s Apartheid, Capetown is a special city.
Not everything about travel is happy. Those who have visited concentration camps in Europe, walked through gravesites of Cambodian genocide or listened to survivor’s stories after some of history’s most gruesome atrocities know first hand that travel often yields tears, rips off rose-coloured glasses and forces its visitors to see the world through different eyes. Robben Island is well worth the visit. For anyone into world schooling or choosing other alternative educational strategies, this visit is one for the history books.
Remnants of South Africa’s checkered past are palpable throughout many parts of the country. In the mid-twentieth century, South Africa was ripe with Apartheid. Backed by earlier beliefs of racism, Apartheid’s practices made segregation, law. Apartheid forcibly separated people while providing those in power with a platform to punish those vehemently opposed to it. Nelson Mandela had been active in civil actions, protests and movements from his youth. Later, he became a campaign leader and spokesperson for a civil disobedience campaign against injustice, persecution and racism. He was imprisoned on Robben Island for his actions and beliefs, yet, in 1994, became the Republic of South Africa’s first democratically elected president.
A day on Robben Island is rather telling of the times of Apartheid. Although not uplifting, it’s an experience necessary to continue to share the story and teachings of South Africa’s history to be sure it is not again repeated. Depending on the season, it’s best to make a booking ahead of time. The ferry from the Nelson Mandela terminal at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront takes guests out to the island. After watching a short twenty-five minute video, guests disembark and board awaiting busses. “Driven by freedom’ and ‘We’re on this journey together’ cover the sides of the vehicles already denoting the positive energy, determination and struggle guests are about to see.
Originally designed as a Leper Colony, the island was used to house political prisoners of the anti-Apartheid movement over a period of time in South Africa’s history. Narrating as the bus moves, a guide describes the houses and buildings of those who helped to start the anti-government movement, such as Robert Sebukwe. The era’s injustices are palpable. Focusing on the narrator’s words, the passengers quietly focus as the bus traverses the seaside coastline of this island that housed pain, struggle, strength, wisdom and endless fortitude. Exiting the bus after the forty-five minute journey, guests are laughed at since they actually paid for an opportunity to be ‘sent to prison’. Although understandable, it is quite ironic.
Former political prisoners are guides for the walking portion of the tour. My guide was Glen. Having been housed in Robben Island, his sentence was cut short at the official end of Apartheid. Through struggle and triumph, Glen chose to return to the island after he was released. He and his family are today part of the one hundred-person community still living on the island. Regaling us with stories of his life and what prisoners were forced to do, we followed him throughout the prison. It wasn’t easy. In front of us was Mandela’s tiny cell. We even took a trip to the lime quarry where Mandela and others were forced to work for long hours over the course of many days. While using one infinitesimal cave for learning, teaching, shade and bathroom purposes, they struggled through the tragic times.
As we walked, we felt them right beside us. This is one of those solemn places to stop and take a look around. Here, staring inhumanity in the face, they prevailed. Here we learn from history and continue to share their stories with others to remember, to endure and to continue their work. Here where others saw strife, Mandela saw triumph. Here where others saw detainment, Mandela saw vision and a chance to teach. Here, where others saw despair, Mandela saw hope.
As there was often discussion taking place in the prison, Mandela renamed it, the ‘university’. We learned how prisoners got news, which was or wasn’t allowed to meet with a priest and about Mandela’s garden. Mandela’s garden was his sacred spot. Buried deep in the ground was Mandela’s manuscript. Piece by piece, through hollowed out heels in shoes and sliced pages in photo albums, courageous individuals risked inhumane punishment to bring Mandela’s message to the world. Bold choices and great risks were taken by many – all daring to dream for a brighter future and a more equal South Africa. Mandela’s strength is a lesson to us all.
Robben Island is definitely worth the visit. With its natural surrounding beauty, history of all kinds and struggle for people’s rights, Capetown’s Robben Island is a lesson in just one visit. Exuding indomitable spirit, perseverance, dedication to a cause and conviction beyond measure, Mandela continues to teach all visitors through his continued journey.
For more of Stacey’s musings of life and travel, check out her website.
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.
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.
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
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.