January 22, 2015

What travel hacking isn’t

While I already have quite a few posts about what travel hacking is, I think ultra-beginners to the topic can benefit from hearing about it in a context of what it ISN’T as well. Because to be honest, the media has picked up on bits and pieces of the travel hacking hobby and…as is often the case with the media…twisted it into the most sensationalist version possible.

For instance my husband and I were approached by a TV scout once and it was painfully obvious that he wanted the travel hacking of days past. He wanted us to have stories of digging through airport trash-cans for ticket stubs we could turn in for miles.

Well that’s (mostly) not how it works anymore.

So in case you too have heard bits and pieces about travel hacking from the media, let me clarify what it isn’t.

 

1.) Travel hacking is not illegal.

If you’ve heard about the unfortunate situation Aktarer Zaman is now dealing with because of a computer program he was using to help people book “throw away tickets” that would make their trips cheaper, this point may seem a bit confusing.

But let’s be clear about the fact that there is a difference between breaking a law and breaking terms and conditions of a program/product or service. Technically the strategy Zaman was using on a large scale was against United’s terms and conditions. (Article II, Item 31 includes “throwaway ticketing” in the definition of “prohibited practices.) So that means United absolutely has a problem with what he is doing and can absolutely attempt to sue him if they wish.

But Zaman’s “throwaway ticket strategy” is one thing. Basic travel hacking is another.

Most travel hacking practices are NOT in violation of terms and conditions and are instead simply designed to take full advantage of existing benefits. For instance getting a credit card with a mileage bonus even if you aren’t otherwise interested in the card. This is the most common travel hacking strategy for earning miles and is neither against terms and conditions nor illegal. It’s simply intentional.

But aside from the debate of whether or not these practices are or are not against terms and conditions, travel hacking strategies are not against the law. It is not illegal to collect and use points, even if you do so obsessively. It is not illegal to do what you want with your own credit, applying for or canceling cards as you wish.

 

2.) Travel hacking did indeed inspire the pudding-cup part of “Punch Drunk Love”, but it’s hardly ever that interesting anymore.

Once upon a time “Healthy Choice” decided to give away a certain amount of miles for various products if you mailed in the labels. A man who the travel-hacker community calls “Pudding Guy” discovered the cheapest item included in the promotion was a 25 cent pudding cup so he went all out and bought over a million miles’ worth of pudding cups. You can read more about his incredible story on his wikipedia page and of course, you can catch the reference in Adam Sandler’s Punch Drunk Love.

His is not the only amusing story about mileage enthusiasts buying pallets of food they didn’t intend on eating because of mileage promotions, but I don’t expect many more for current or future enthusiasts.

Why? That’s just not the trend of marketing these days for products outside of the credit-card world. More and more mileage earning opportunities are appearing in credit-card bonuses and spending rather than other markets.

Perhaps a new movie will come out including a scene inspired by obsessive credit-card collection, but I doubt it will seem as entertaining as the obsessive collection of pudding cups.

 

3.) Travel hacking isn’t the “extreme couponing” of travel because not everyone can do it.

Many people have compared travel-hacking to extreme couponing, but the truth is there is one very important difference between travel hacking and extreme couponing. Not just anyone can be a travel hacker.

The core strategies of travel hacking are accumulating miles via credit cards. This means you need to have a good credit score to get anywhere in this hobby. Sure, there are few strategies that don’t require a good credit score, but the bulk of travel-hacking comes down to collecting rewards credit-cards. And these are the kinds of credit cards that will require good credit.

Not to mention it is significantly more difficult for non-US residents to pursue travel-hacking. Again, this has to do with the trends we see in various marketing strategies as well as the credit-card culture of various countries. Europe for instance just does not have the same kind of credit-card culture that we do in the US.

 

4.) Travel hacking isn’t backpacking.

If you’re earning hotel points in addition to frequent flyer miles, you will find yourself staying in fewer and fewer hostels. Why? Because they’re honestly not as cheap as the free luxury hotel you could get by using hotel-points.

Ironic as it is, it’s true. We spent over a week at the InterContinental Fiji for free using points.

Now, sometimes I kind of miss the social aspect of hostel-life. It certainly serves a purpose other than just budget. But when I want a free place to stay, the luxury hotel is where I’ll be.

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Maybe this article doesn’t spell out exactly what travel-hacking is, but hopefully if you thought you knew what it was, this article has helped to clarify some of the common misconceptions.

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Category: General, On The Road, Vagabonding Life

January 15, 2015

Do short trips have their own value?

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We long-term travelers sometimes get caught up in the length of a trip. We advocate taking a year to backpack, using a summer break to explore the far corners of the earth, and digging into a new culture for longer than the average winter break from school. There is a reason we do this- long-term travel has limitless benefits. But what about the shorter trip? The weekend getaway, the week spent across the border, the brief vacation between longer journeys? We forget sometimes that these shorter trips have benefits as well.

Brief trips can be windows into what we want to see next. For some, shorter trips are like dipping their toes in the water to see what they can do, what they can handle. For others, shorter trips can be a respite from the day to day- even if the day to day is being experienced on the road. As any long-term traveler knows, traveling quickly resembles any other “normal” life in many ways. Bills still have to be paid, planning must be done, visas need to be obtained or renewed, hostel rooms must be cleaned, dentists may need to be visited. Of course there are long walks on beaches, spectacular sunsets, unbelievable meals, personal growth on many levels, and conversations with locals that go on for hours but long-term travel is not always glamorous and for many it’s just… life!

So why do we turn our collective noses up when others describe shorter trips? After all, more than one of us has visited a hot spring in Guatemala to “get away” for the weekend and many of us have taken advantage of a visa run across the border to enjoy a brief “vacation” of sorts. If even we, the never-conform-travel-until-we-drop tribe, need a brief change of scenery every now and then, why do we deny the same need in those who live the “normal” life?

There is no denying the benefits of long-term travel and I am admittedly one of “those people” who thinks everyone should take a genuinely long trip at least once in their lives, thinks every education should include a major travel component before it is considered “completed”, and believes that exploring unfamiliar countries, corners, cultures, and cuisines is best done in a deep manner without regard or how many stamps have been collected. I believe in long-term travel as much as the next traveler. But I also recognize the regenerative nature of the short trip.

I am currently writing in Fort Myers, Florida. It is not exactly my idea of a dream destination but it is warm and sunny none the less. We will only be here for a few short days- hardly long-term travel. Previous to this, my husband and I traded our constant journeying to spend one year, somewhat cooped up in upstate NY, homeschooling two lovely young people. The experience of co-creating individualized educations for two unique individuals is wonderful. Right now, it also happens to be hard work in a cold area of the world. The snow hits our tiny area and we can’t even get out of the driveway. My wanderlust is screaming from within on most days. There is so much I love about how we spend our days and yet… there is so very much I need a break from. So, we packed up the car and drove all the way down to Florida to visit family, get re-accqauinted with Vitamin D, and, most importantly, to enjoy a change of scenery. Do I wish I were in Thailand, snorkeling by day and enjoying a coconut by night? Do I wish I were planning our next visa run, getting ready to cross another border? Sometimes. But for now, a day spent on the beach, searching for shells, is enough to recharge these batteries.

Sometimes I think there is a belief that if you can’t get away for months at a time that it “isn’t worth it”.  I wonder what “it” is because sometimes a short trip can lift spirits, bring already existent perspective into focus, and make life seem exciting again. All of those “its” are certainly worth something!

How many of us can think back to our first weekend in NYC, our first week spent on the beach in Costa Rica, our first three week cross-country trip with family, our first weekend camping trip, our first class trip to France? Even those short trips were enough to get us excited about exploring and planted the very first seeds of wanderlust. Digging deep into a foreign land and culture is beyond amazing but, in truth, feeling that wonderful sense of freedom as you drive coast to coast, in a borrowed car, within the boundaries of your own home country can be pretty amazing as well.

Life is truly a journey. It cannot really be broken up into segments of experiences as it all flows together and creates the one unique path we are traveling. Short or long, any travel is a part of shaping our experience of the world. Next time your cousin tells you he is headed to Mexico for a week, fight the urge to tell him it “isn’t worth it” unless he can go for longer. Instead, smile, wish him well, and take joy in knowing that he will soon experience a break from his own “norm”- a break that just might expand any number of things for him. If you can muster that, than maybe you can cross your fingers that his wanderlust will grow ;) If it doesn’t, at least you know you might have a buddy for those mini-breaks you’ll inevitably need from your own long-term journeys!

 

What do you think? Do short trips have their own value?

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Category: General, On The Road

January 13, 2015

What the frugal foodie eats in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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.

Chiang Mai Food

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!

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Category: Asia, Food and Drink, General

January 4, 2015

Top 5 travel apps to stay organized on the road

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It’s hard to be organized constantly.

It’s hard when you’re at home. It’s more difficult when you’re on the road, trying to remember where exactly you put that super-important sticky note with the really-super-important booking confirmation number for your hotel.

Thankfully there’s an app for your troubles. I rounded up the top five travel apps I regularly use to stay organized, both on the road and at home.

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1. Evernote

iOS // Android // Free

Imagine if your brain could immediately access every website, memory or note you ever encountered. Imagine if you eliminated your wagging Post-It notes, your notebooks crammed with places to see, scribbled recommendations passed along by friends, or the couple last night at the table next to you.

Imagine if you could search those notes by a single word. Or organize them according to a simple yet effective filing system.

Welcome to Evernote: a virtual library of your must-sees and must-dos nicely organized in one place.

Install the app on your phone that automatically syncs to the website. Should something indescribable happen to your phone, panic not. Your entire precious database is secure and easily accessible via the Internet.

Save pages from the web, forward special emails, input notes, capture thoughts and pictures, record voice memos and share all your goodies with friends with a click of the button.

Evernote is my favorite. He keeps my mind organized and clutter-free while planning my greatest adventures.

I used this bad boy to plan multi-city trips, plot our route through Europe, and dream up new adventures. I also use it daily to record recommendations on what to see and where to stay on my next trip.

It serves as my highly organized personal assistant who even prods me to complete my daily to-do list. So I can never forget to check into a flight again.

dropbox2. Dropbox

iOS // Android // Free for 2GB

Call it your personal CYA plan. Call it your never-forget-a-document-again plan. Call it your ultimate back-up plan. Call it your storage in the cloud.

Call it what you want, but Dropbox is vital to life on the road. You can access your whole library of files from your smartphone or the slow computer at the Internet cafe down the street. Back up your photos from your iPhone into Dropbox for a complete database of hundreds of sunsets you’ve seen around the world.

Or keep writing, page by page, at the novel you’ve been dreaming of while clacking over train tracks in Siberia. It even saves former drafts of the same document so you can pull that sentence from five drafts ago back to life.

Dropbox holds your music, photos, videos, and files while you explore the world. It’s all organized by folders and as many sub-folders as your little heart desires. And if you drop your phone or computer in a lake or off a helicopter, no big deal. Your virtual world is still safe.

tripit3. TripIt

iOS // Android // Free

Finally, an app that organizes all your convoluted, brilliantly messy flight plans into a nice, neat pile that actually makes sense. And that others — like your grandparents — can understand. It’s a master itinerary, with all your plans, in one place.

My favorite part is the notifications that kindly tell you of gate changes at the airport. (It’s unbelievably empowering to arrive at the airport already knowing your new gate when the airport’s computers haven’t updated yet.) And it reminds you of when to check in for flights.

It’s easy to use. Simply forward your confirmation emails for flights, car rentals, transportation, hotels to plans@tripit.com. The app automatically organizes your plans. When you step off the plane, it gives you directions to your hotel from your current location.

The TripIt Pro version ($4.09/mo) gives you a slew of other helpful, awesome features like syncing plans with your calendar, real-time flight alerts, and finding out when a better seat is available. I use the free version, but have had a couple chances to try out the Pro thanks to TripIt’s generosity in allowing users to limited-time access.

trip advisor4. TripAdvisor City Guides

iOS // Android // Free

TripAdvisor lets you see how other travelers rate attractions, hotels, and more. But you already knew that.

The better part of TripAdvisor is their maps and City Guides. You can see a map of the city’s transportation system, star favorite places, and navigate your way back to the hostel, even if it’s your first night in the new city.

Use the “point me there” feature to get oriented in the correct direction — very useful if you’re like me, twirling on a sidewalk, trying to figure out which direction is correct. Or ask the app to give you directions to your destination.

My favorite part is reading other travelers’ advice and recommendations. You can quickly get a flavor for the highly touristy areas of a city, so you can skim through them on your way to the meatier, juicier aspects where the locals live.

Best part? It works completely offline.

wifi finder5. Wi-Fi Finder

iOS // Android // Free

A database of hundreds of spots offering free WiFi around the world.

This app has gotten me out of a pickle once or twice while trying to decipher transit maps in Dublin and when exactly the next bus comes when no timetable is posted.

It’s not always perfect, but it sure helps when you need WiFi and no Starbucks’ free WiFi is in sight.

Laura blogs at Waiting to Be Read where she dishes about awesome books to read, what actors work best as main characters, and why thinking is a dying sport.

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Category: Travel Tech

January 3, 2015

What’s in a name? On pronouncing difficult country names

Laos

When I traveled through Southeast Asia some years ago, I was amazed by the number of fellow backpackers who ridiculed me whenever I pronounced the “s” in Laos. Apparently, I was supposed to pronounce it “Lao,” just like locals do.

The thing is, those same “s”-dropping travelers never insisted on calling Bangkok by its proper name (“Krung Thep Maha Nakhon”) when they were in Thailand — and when they recalled journeys to East Asia, they mentioned Japan and Korea, not “Nihon-koku” and “Daehan Minguk”. But Laos was “Lao,” and anyone with the temerity to pronounce the “s” ran the risk of being branded a travel-greenhorn in the backpacker haunts of Vang Vieng and Muang Sing.

Oddly enough, Laos seems to be the only place where backpackers are rigid fundamentalists when it comes to nation-state pronunciation. Rarely do you find such tenacious commitment to cultural-linguistic accuracy in the travel cliques of Misr (Egypt), Shqipërisë (Albania), or Suomi (Finland). (One possible exception might be Latin America, where otherwise normal patter among English-speaking travelers is frequently offset with trilled r’s and h-sounding g’s when mentioning places like Honduras and Argentina.)

What makes Laos an exception? Since the Westernized pronunciation is just one consonant away from the local pronunciation, my guess is lazy opportunism among backpackers hoping to showcase their cultural knowledge. Whereas referring to Morocco as “al-Maghrebia” or Greenland as “Kalaallit Nunaat” would make you seem like a jackass show-off to fellow travelers, calling Laos “Lao” allows you to avoid confusing your compatriots while still insinuating that you’ve been in-country long enough to pronounce the place as locals do. Hence, in the goofy realm of backpacker pecking order (where displays of cultural expertise reign supreme, yet all pretensions must be subtle), Laos-pronunciation is the perfect shorthand for distinguishing salty wanderers from newbies.Interestingly, Laos provides a good example for how complicated things can get when dissecting the names of nation-states. The “s” in Laos, for example, dates back to the late 1800’s, when a number of largely autonomous, mainly Lao-speaking kingdoms (including Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champasak) were united under French colonial rule. The “s” was silent in French pronunciation, and only came into spoken use when Anglophones intoned it according to their own rules (much as we do when pronouncing “Paris”). Perhaps the most famous mispronunciation of “Laos” came in 1962, when President Kennedy called the nation “Lay-oss” — reportedly out of apprehension that the American people would resist sending military aid to a country that sounded like the singular of “lice.”

Though it could be easy to write off the “s” in Laos as an insidious remnant of Western imperialism, place-names in Europe are similarly indicative of bygone intrusions. When a Cardiff-born traveler refers to himself as “Welsh,” he is actually using a Germanic word that means “foreigner” (as opposed to the Celtic word for Welsh, “Cymry,” which means “compatriot”). Similarly, the official Laotian name for Laos — “Meuang Lao” — probably sounds a tad strange to the 31% of native-born citizens (including the Hmong, Dao, and Khmu) who are not ethnically Lao.

British historian Norman Davies has noted that place-names aren’t necessarily a fixed concept. “They change over time,” he wrote in his 1996 book Europe: A History. “And they vary according to the language and the perspective of the people who use them. They are the intellectual property of their users, and as such have caused endless conflicts. They can be the object of propaganda, of tendentious wrangling, of rigid censorship, even of wars. In reality, where several variants exist, one cannot speak of correct or incorrect forms.”

This in mind, I’ve decided I won’t worry too much about the “correct” way to pronounce Laos. Outside of backpacker circles, I’ve found that native Laotians don’t mind when I pronounce the “s” in Laos — just like citizens of ” Ellīnikī́ Dīmokratía” understand when I make reference to “Greece,” and residents of “Al Mamlaka al Urduniya al Hashemiyah” don’t scold me for calling their country “Jordan.” Were I conversing in Lao or Greek or Arabic this might be a different matter — but host cultures tend to understand that non-fluent outsiders have their own names for things. When I’m asked by local people to use local pronunciations (or when it makes communication easier) I’m happy to drop my Westernized vocabulary for something more culturally correct. This is, in fact, a normal part of the travel-education process.

I suppose it’s also part of the travel process to foist that linguistic correctness on other travelers, but this can sometimes get obnoxious. Just as rose by any other name would smell as sweet, Laos will remain of terrific place to travel, regardless of whether or not you pronounce the “s” in the company of your fellow backpackers.

 

Originally published on Gadling 10/07/2011

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Category: Languages and Culture

January 1, 2015

Reverse culture shock and how to deal with it

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Everyone talks about culture shock. Heaps of books have been written about how to plan for it and websites dedicated to slowly transitioning into a culture where you perhaps don’t speak the language or aren’t used to the food or traditions. You spend months planning your big travels unaware of how completely changed you’ll be upon your return (if you choose to return, of course). Your adventure is more than accommodations, reservations, and experiences. It may depend on where, how and for how long, but regardless, travel changes a person. New perspectives happen, minds open, character flourishes and life as you know it begins to take on a new shape…. then your journey ends and you must return home. This is the part no one talks about.

After our first around the world trip, I came back looking exactly the same on the outside, yet on the inside I was completely changed. It was my first truly extended journey outside of the United States and I was given the chance to travel and interact with so many people from various cultures. After this trip I liked new foods, had different taste in clothing, used new vocabulary words, wrote the date differently and was already looking to change my circumstances at home to embrace more of a travel existence. The invisible changes were even stronger, yet I was the only one who knew about them. How do you fit back into the box everyone wants you to return to when there’s no way you can do so any longer? It’s hard to manage putting your new self back into that old life-you’re just not the same person anymore.

Now I know this difficulty has a name…reverse culture shock! Stepping back into that old life of yours and finding it hard, you’re not alone. Countless travelers experience this each year. You now view things very differently. Your world has been broadened, your senses sharpened, your mind blown wide open and your enlarged perspective on life is far greater than what it once was. Your reactions to day-to-day circumstances and situations are different and those around you who were not part of your journey are confused. Why are you acting differently? Why are your answers to simple questions vastly divergent from what they once were? Why are things so different?

You’re not alone in your struggles and you can’t fight the changes. Travelers the world over face this each time when returning home, while for some, the changes are even more drastic that they choose a greater travel existence over that ‘before travel home’. Searching out other travelers where you live who feel the same will help. What I can tell you is that it will get better and easier. Have patience with yourself; with time you will figure it all out. You’ll find your true self and where you now fit into your life ‘before travel’. You’ll begin to realize what and who you want in your life and cultivate new relationships that fit the ‘new you’. You will find a way to either work the new you into your old life or change your circumstances to create a new one. Life post travel will be different than that of pre-travel. The new you will find a way. Take a deep breath, keep pushing through, embrace the changes and know that since travel changed you…there’s no going back.

 

For more of Stacey’s musings, check out her writings on her blog.

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Category: Languages and Culture

December 18, 2014

Pros and Cons of Off-Peak Europe Travel

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.

 

PROS:

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.

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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.

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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.

 

CONS:

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.


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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.

 

Conclusion

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.

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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.

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Category: Europe, Images from the road

December 14, 2014

Traditional Christmas in Europe

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.

Christmas in Munich

Christmas in Munich

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.

Notre Dame at Christmas

Notre Dame at Christmas

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.

 

 

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Category: Europe, Notes from the collective travel mind, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Field Reports

December 7, 2014

A gift guide: top 10 gifts for travel-lovers

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Christmas is right around the corner. But what do you get someone who loves travel’s intangible thrill, feeling of a plane taking flight, or adventuring into distant worlds and getting to know themselves deeper?

How do you shop for someone like that?

Answer: you give them gifts to further their travels. Or remove some pesky hurdle in their travel. The greatest gift you can give is to aid them in their travel quest.

To help you, here’s a gift guide of the top ten gifts for travel-lovers:

1. Moleskine journal

An old classic as nothing beats scribbling thoughts in its blank pages while you bounce along the road, staring out the window in search for the perfect word. Its hardy leather cover lasts miles. Eight years and counting, I haven’t had a single page rip out of mine yet. My favorite part — other than how the journal’s edges wear attractively dog-eared — is the pocket flap in the back cover. Perfect for stashing train ticket stubs, receipts, other papers to document your travels.

Where to buy: Amazon

2. Grayl Quest filter

Until you’re stuck on the side of the road, thirsty, in hot sun, you hardly realize the value of water. Never go without fresh drinking water again, wherever you are in the world. In under 15 seconds, you get freshly filtered water. Thanks to the easy-drinking built-in mug, you can drink up right away. Fill, press, repeat, enjoy.

Where to buy: Grayl.com

3. FlyLow Vixen jacket

Light, sexy, and waterproof, this jacket takes London and Moscow’s roughest storms and keeps punching. Originally built for the ski slopes, it has thoughtful design features like three inner pockets on the women’s jacket (compared to a measly none on other jackets), waterproof zippers, and an oversize hood for Boston’s worst storms.

Did I mention it’s lightweight, has armpit vents for regulating your temperature, and folds up into a discrete sleep-able pillow when necessary? She’s everyone’s best friend.

Where to buy: FlyLowGear.com

4. A good book

Some may say a Kindle Fire is better than a book. But I’d argue that a book greatly outweighs a Kindle’s flimsy fight.

A book never requires re-charging, runs out of batteries, dies when you drop it in water. When you’re sitting in the airport, waiting for a delayed flight, a book holds your hand and keeps you company. And when your relationship is finished on the last page, you can make a new friend by passing the book on. A book is truly the gift that never stops giving, especially when that book lingers with you long after the last word.

How to pick a good book: check out GoodReads.com — their reviewers are excellent and have amazing suggestions. Or ask someone in your life what they’re reading and do a quick Google search on the title. The next teacher you stumble across, ask them. Teachers have disturbingly impeccable reading taste.

5. White noise machine

Sleep is vital to good travel. If you can’t sleep, it can throw off your entire mood. Help your vagabonder rest up with a white noise machine. It drowns out ambient noises and soothes you to sleep.

Look for a model that is travel-friendly: small size, uncomplicated, with different plugs to suit country’s outlets. My white noise machine has saved me many restless nights on the road. It’s the first thing I pack in preparation for a trip.

What to buy: Marsona Travel Sound Conditioner

6. Timbuk2 classic messenger bag

Handsome, sturdy, waterproof are three of my favorite words about a bag. The Timbuk2 messenger bag embodies all three.

Small enough to be called a flight carry-on, it comes with a cross-chest strap to prevent the awkward around the waist flop that happen to even the best messenger bags. It has a myriad of pockets, a handy side Napoleon pocket, padded internal laptop slash pocket, and padded shoulder strap.

I’ve used my Timbuk2 to go to Alaska for six days, bike to work, carry gear (and beverages) to football games, and on long weekend camping trips. Thanks to awesome heavy-duty fabric that never gives up a rip, it still looks brand new. And if it does succumb, a lifetime warranty has you covered.

Where to buy: Timbuk2

7. Noise canceling headphones

Sometimes you need a break from the world you set out to experience. This is when noise cancelling headphones will save your sanity.

Noise-cancelling is different than noise isolating. Noise cancelling headphones use technology to block out ambient noise, whereas noise isolating headphones create a seal around your ear (think of padded headphones) to block noise. I haven’t had a chance to try out noise cancelling headphones, but I’d opt for lightweight, compact, and comfortable while still producing excellent sound. According to Amazon reviewers, Audio Technica Noise Cancelling Headphones rated highly on value, size, and sound production.

Where to buy: Amazon

8. Superb quality sunglasses

See your destination clearly with sexy sunglasses.

Look for sturdy construction so they won’t snap the moment you leave the country, UV-protection to protect your eyes, and larger frames to shield the delicate skin around your eyes (i.e. where wrinkles show up first). Get polarized sunglasses to take you easily from land to sea.

I’ve had my Oakley Inmate polarized glasses for four years and they’ve held up well under many miles of travels. A few scratches on the lenses are unavoidable, but I haven’t had any cracking or breaking of the frame. Plus, they came with a one-year warranty with excellent customer service.

Where to buy: Oakley.com

9. City pass (or equivalent) for destination

Opt for thoughtful with this gift and buy your traveler a pass so they can cut to the front of the line at museums, historic cites, and cool attractions in their destination city.

Many cites in the United States have a CityPass allowing you entrance to about six attractions at a significant discount off normal ticket price. As a side perk, you can usually jump to the front of the line. I’ve done Boston and Seattle’s CityPasses and both were well-worth the cost.

However, Paris’ Museum Pass was one of the best I’ve seen: one-time payment gives you free access (and queue jumping abilities!) to over 60 museums and monuments in a certain allotment of time. Perhaps one of the best choices I’ve made was buy that little credit-card-sized pass in the time it saved me in just waiting in lines.

Where to buy: CityPass and Paris Museum Pass

10. GoPro Hero +3

Tougher than a square linebacker, this compact camera is ready to take on the world — and record your adventures while you jump off mountains, dive into lakes, jostle down rocky trails.

About the size of Post-It notes but far meatier, the camera is encased in a waterproof shell. It comes with a dual-purpose clip that attaches to a variety of mounts like chest strap, handlebar or helmet mount. This little guy hangs in the bottom of your bag until you need him to record your white-knuckle, heart pounding adventure in high def, fish-eye video that unbelievably captures your elation. And when you need him, he’s quick to respond and takes amazing photos.

Where to buy: Amazon

Splurge: DSLR camera

Photography extends your travel long after you return home. Hang pictures of your adventures on your walls, breathe in the imaginary Swiss Alps air, and lose yourself in memories.

But that only helps if your photos are clear enough to recognize your subject. DSLR cameras are a god-send to remedy that issue. I do not have a DSLR camera yet (my iPhone takes stunningly good pictures), but cost and size are two important factors. You need something small so you don’t feel like you’re a traveling movie set, and not blow the bank on a camera. Also, I want a camera quick to catch those fleeting moments. Based on my research, Canon EOS Rebel T2i and Nikon D3100 (or D3300) are two very popular options for their smaller price tags and heft.

Laura Lopuch writes at Waiting to Be Read where she gives you the best books to read, which books to avoid, and why deep thoughts are vital to your health.

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Category: Travel Gear

December 6, 2014

In the Hall of the Baby Jesuses

SUMMER 07 PARIS PRAGUE 139The first time I was in Paris, I went to the Louvre and — like a million other tourists before me — headed straight for the Mona Lisa.

Since the famous French museum houses one of the most extensive art collections in the world, I’ll admit that making a beeline for a painting I’d already seen on countless refrigerator magnets and coffee mugs was a wholly unimaginative act. In tourist terms, hurrying through hallways of miscellaneous masterpieces to seek out the Mona Lisa was kind of like picking one harried celebrity from a crowd of a thousand interesting people and bugging her with questions I could have answered by reading a gossip magazine.

Apparently aware of this compulsion for artistic celebrity-worship, Louvre officials had plastered the gallery walls with signs directing impatient tourists to the Mona Lisa, and I soon fell into step with crowds of Japanese, European and North American tourists eager for a glimpse of Da Vinci’s famous portrait.

Anyone who’s been to the Louvre, of course, will know that I was setting myself up for an anticlimax. The Mona Lisa was there all right — looking exactly like she was supposed to look — yet this was somehow disappointing. Standing there, staring at her familiar, coy smile, it occurred to me that I had no good reason why I wanted to see her so badly in the first place.

Moreover, once I’d left the Mona Lisa gallery and moved on to other parts of the Louvre, I discovered just how ignorant I was in the ways of art history. Surrounded by thousands of vaguely familiar-looking paintings and sculptures, I realized I had no clue as to how I could meaningfully approach the rest of the museum.

Fortunately, before I could fall into touristic despair, I was saved by the Baby Jesus.

I don’t mean to imply here that I had some sort of spiritual epiphany in the Louvre. Rather, having noted the strange abundance of Madonna-and-Child paintings in the museum’s halls, I resolved to explore the Louvre by seeking out every Baby Jesus in the building.

Silly as this may sound, it was actually a fascinating way to ponder the idiosyncrasies of world-class art. Each Baby Jesus in the Louvre, it seemed, had his own, distinct preoccupations and personality. Botticelli’s Baby Jesus, for example, looked like he was about to vomit after having eaten most of an apple; Giovanni Bolfraffio’s Baby Jesus looked stoned. Ambrosius Benson’s Baby Jesus resembled his mother — girlish with crimped hair and a fistful of grapes — while Barend van Orley’s chubby Baby Jesus looked like a miniature version of NFL analyst John Madden. Francesco Gessi’s pale, goth-like Baby Jesus was passed out in Mary’s lap, looking haggard and middle-aged; Barnaba da Modena’s balding, doe-eyed Baby Jesus was nonchalantly shoving Mary’s teat into his mouth. Lorenzo di Credi’s Baby Jesus had jowls, his hair in a Mohawk as he gave a blessing to Saint Julien; Mariotto Albertinelli’s Baby Jesus coolly flashed a peace sign at Saint Jerome.

Moving through galleries full of European art, these Baby Jesuses hinted at the diversity of human experience behind their creation, and ultimately redeemed my trip to the Louvre. What had initially been a huge and daunting museum was now a place of light-hearted fascination.

I’m sure I’m not the first person who lapsed into fancy when faced with a museum full of human erudition and accomplishment. To this day, I’m still never quite sure what I’m supposed to do, exactly, when I visit museums. Sure, there’s much to be learned in these cultural trophy-cases, and visiting them is a time-honored travel activity — but I often find them lacking in charm and surprise and discovery. For me, an afternoon spent eyeing pretty girls in the Jardin des Tuileries has always carried as much or more promise than squinting at baroque maidens in a place like the Louvre.

Part of the problem, I think, is that museums are becoming harder to appreciate in an age of competing information. Back in the early 19th century, when many of the world’s classic museums were founded, exhibiting relics, fossils and artwork was a way for urban populations to make sense of the world and celebrate the accomplishments of renaissance and exploration. Now that these items of beauty and genius can readily be accessed in digital form, however (where they compete for screen-time with special-interest porn and YouTube parodies), their power can be diluted by the time we see them in display cases and on gallery walls.

In this way, museums are emblematic of the travel experience in general. In 1964, media critic Marshall McLuhan wrote that, within an information society, “the world itself becomes a sort of museum of objects that have already been encountered in some other medium.” More than forty years later, that “museum of objects” has been catalogued in ways that even McLuhan could never have imagined — this means that seeing Baby Jesuses where you had expected Mona Lisas might well be a worthwhile strategy outside of museums as well.

In the purely metaphorical sense, of course.

Tip sheet: How to get the most out of museums on the road.
1) Know how to approach big museums.

Having just confessed to my own bemusement in the presence big museums, I do have a few suggestions. Many national museums are so extensive that it’s impossible to experience them meaningfully in a single visit. Thus, study up a little before you go, and isolate yourself to one wing or hall of the museum. Make yourself an expert-in-training on, say, one period of Chinese history, or one phase of Dutch art. Don’t just watch the exhibits; watch how people react to them. Be an extrovert, and engage your fellow museum patrons on the meanings and significance of the displays.

If studying up beforehand seems too deliberate for your tastes, approach a big museum as if it were a highlight-reel of history or culture. Walk through the museum slowly and steadily, front to back, noting what grabs your attention. After the initial walk-though, go back to the area that interested you the most and spend some time there. Take notes, and read up on your new discoveries when you get home.

2) Make the most of small museums.

Small community museums can be found in all corners of the world, and they offer a fascinating example of how local people balance the relationship between themselves and the rest of the world. Because their exhibits are humble and anonymous compared to the likes of the Louvre, there is no set of expectations, and no tyranny declaring that you must favor one relic or piece of art over another. Much of the time, this better enables you to see things for what they are (instead of what they are supposed to represent). The secret to exploring these small museums is their curators (and their regulars), who are invariably knowledgeable and a tad eccentric. Take an interest and ask lots of questions, because these local experts will have plenty to share.

3) Let the world be your museum.

If the world itself has become a museum of objects, treat it with the same attention and curiosity you would a formal gallery. As tourist scholar Lucy L. Lippard has noted, a shopping mall, a thrift store, or even a junkyard can be as revelatory in a faraway place as a gallery full of relics. Similarly, daily life in a given neighborhood off the tourist trail is just as likely to reveal the nuances of a given culture as is an official exhibit. Wherever you go as you travel, allow yourself to wander, ponder, and ask questions. Odds are, you’ll come home with a deeper appreciation of a place than if you were just breezing from one tourist attraction to another.

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on Nov. 6, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Europe, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice
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