Here’s a curious trivia tidbit from U.S. history: In 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams took leave from their Europe-based diplomatic duties and traveled to Stratford-upon-Avon to visit the home of William Shakespeare. Not much was recorded of the occasion, but one fact of their pilgrimage to the Bard’s birthplace stands out: At some point during the tour, the two American statesmen brandished pocketknives, carved a few slivers from a wooden chair alleged to have been Shakespeare’s, and spirited them home as souvenirs.
In retrospect, it’s easy to look back on this incident and conclude that — in terms of travel protocol, at least — Jefferson and Adams were complete knuckleheads. The thing is, I haven’t seen any evidence to prove that, as world-wandering travelers, our quest for souvenirs has become any more logical or dignified in the ensuing 220 years.
I mention this because I recently traveled to Key West, where a popular section of Duval Street is crowded with souvenir boutiques. In a certain sense, this stretch of Duval felt a tad anachronistic, since — in the age of eBay and similar online shopping venues — you don’t have to travel to a place like Key West to load up on painted seashells and exotic cigars. What struck me more, however, was not the items typically associated with Florida, but the bizarre overabundance of souvenir t-shirts, which said things like “Tell your boobs to stop staring at my eyes,” or “Farting is my way of saying I (heart) you.”
In one sense, it seems ridiculous that anyone would travel to Key West and buy a t-shirt that has nothing whatsoever to do with south Florida (“I’m not a bitch, I’m ‘Miss Bitch’ to you”). Still, bringing home a tacky keepsake from Key West can serve as a sort of travel credential — an existential referent that proves you went to south Florida and got drunk enough to exercise bad judgment. Similarly, for Jefferson and Adams, those Stratfordian wood-shavings were tangible proof that they had journeyed across England and touched a chair that had, presumably, once cradled Shakespeare’s butt.
Indeed, in most cases it would appear that souvenir hunting is not a meaningful examination of place so much as it is a litmus test of our own whims and preconceptions as travelers. In Egypt, for example, generations of tourists have obsessively sought relics that remind them of the Pharaonic landscape they’ve seen in books and movies. Hence, all the major Egyptian tourist sites do a steady trade in fake papyrus, Great Pyramid paperweights, and alabaster Nefertiti statues — none of which would be found in the home of any self-respecting Egyptian. Similarly, in Calcutta’s New Market, an unspoken caste system exists between Indian shoppers and souvenir-seeking tourists. The travelers instinctively gravitate into boutiques that sell carved elephant figurines and decorative jars of saffron, while the Indians shop for rubber bathmats, stainless steel pans, and digital calculators. The implication here, of course, is that buying an electric blender might be more representative of day-to-day Calcutta life than buying Kashmiri silk (though, admittedly, a blender would not look as good in your living room).
Although it may be tempting to blame this discrepancy on modern misconceptions, the tourist quest for souvenirs has always been somewhat skewed. In ancient Anatolia, locals hawked supposed Trojan War relics to credulous Greek travelers, and excavations in Italy have suggested that ancient Romans had a penchant for cheap glass vials painted with pictures of contemporary tourist attractions (none of these have been proven to be snow-globes, to my knowledge, but it’s easy to draw a parallel). In medieval times, Christian pilgrims wandering the Holy Land proved to be among the most gullible relic-hunters in human history, as they carted home enough crowns of thorns, Holy Grails, and apostle-femurs to stock a macabre, New Testament-themed WalMart.
If any world culture deserves mention for its souvenir idiosyncrasies, however, it is the Japanese, who have long considered the giving of gifts to be an essential social ritual. Since taking a leisured journey carries a cultural sense of shame at leaving one’s home duties, Japanese travelers reflexively seek out omiyage — small gifts that will be presented as an act of respect to the family members and coworkers they left behind. So common is this practice that some Japanese airports stock souvenirs from around the world in an effort to save travelers the hassle of finding them in their actual destinations. Hence, a given Japanese girl’s bedroom might feature a Mickey Mouse clock, a miniature Eiffel Tower, and a carved Balinese frog mask — each of which represent her father’s past trips to Florida, Paris, and Indonesia, and all which were purchased at Narita Airport.
In pointing out the global-historical foibles of souvenir-seekers, I don’t mean to position myself above the madness. Like so many tourists before me, I, too, have been known to display weakness in the face of Peruvian weavings, Latvian amber, and Korean lacquer-ware.
I’ve found, however, that bringing these items home and putting them on display has taught me an interesting lesson. Whenever I stroll into my office and gaze at my Mongolian masks and Syrian worry-beads, I find that they don’t evoke my Asian travel memories quite so effectively as the beat-up, navy-blue “Bruin Track & Field” t-shirt I wore in both countries.
Strange as this may seem, it makes perfect sense: When I bought the masks and the worry-beads, I was shopping — but when I wore the t-shirt I was hiking across the steppes beyond Ulan Bator, or exploring the mountaintop monasteries outside of Damascus.
Indeed, as novelist Anatole France once noted, I’d wager that “it is good to collect things, but it is better to go on walks.”
In Stratford-upon-Avon, at least, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams might have done well to heed this advice.
Souvenir boutiques will be found in abundance in any major tourist area, but that doesn’t mean you must confine your souvenir-hunt to specialty shops. Any token of your trip — from restaurant placemats, to pressed leaves, to local candy — can serve as a personal keepsake. If seeking gifts for loved ones at home, check department stores and supermarkets before you hit the souvenir shop — odds are you’ll find something cheaper (and just as authentic) in these types of places.
2) Save souvenir shopping until the end of the journey.
Let a souvenir be a souvenir — a keepsake of experience — and don’t go off shopping for knickknacks before you’ve had some real travel adventures. Not only will this give you a social context for your destination before you start commemorating it with collectables, but it will also save you the hassle of dragging this newfound loot around with you as your journey progresses. An added bonus is that, as a shopper, you will have a better sense for the price and quality of your souvenirs once you’ve traveled and made some comparisons.
3) The experience is more important than the keepsake.
In the end, shopping anywhere is still just shopping. Don’t let the hunt for souvenirs get in the way of amazing travel experiences.
Most people are somewhat familiar with the concept of collecting frequent flier miles. My husband and I have built our whole travel strategy around frequent flier miles in fact, but there’s another travel reward currency with huge benefits once you understand how it works.
Bank points. Specifically I’m referring to “American Express Membership Rewards” and “Chase Ultimate Rewards.”
First lets go over what these points are and how to earn them. Then, we’ll take a look at why they’re beneficial to have around.
What are Amex points and Chase points?
When you see an airline card that earns miles, you know that the airline has partnered with a bank to have a credit card that earns towards their own frequent flier program. However, the banks ant in on the loyalty program system too. So, like many other banks, American Express and Chase bank have both developed their own rewards system with credit cards that earn points towards that system.
These points are extremely versatile. You can redeem them for cash if you’d like, or surf through the list of other options, including both travel that can be booked directly with points, or travel that can be booked by transferring directly into a frequent flier or hotel program. The latter is greatly recommended over booking travel directly with your points, but we’ll discuss that in a bit.
How do you earn these points?
These points can be earned with American Express cards or Chase cards that aren’t partnered with some other program as mentioned above. For instance, American Express has partnered with the hotel group “Starwood” to create a credit card for their loyalty program. That card will not earn you Amex points, it will earn Starwood Preferred Guest Points. But the American Express Gold card and the American Express Gold card are both cards that are not partnered with a different program and will earn you Amex points.
Similarly, the Chase Freedom card, Chase Sapphire Preferred, and Chase Ink Bold or Ink Plus are all cards that will earn you Chase points rather than the points of a program they’ve partnered with.
Why these points are beneficial?
These points are beneficial purely for their ability to transfer to a variety of airline or hotel programs. Find a list of Chase transfer partners here. Also find a list of American Express transfer partners here. I’m going to emphasize that again: the benefit is in transferring. This is not to be confused with booking travel directly with your points, as you’ll get much less travel for your points that way. Think of it like purchasing something through a retailer versus wholesale.
Think about it. If you have American Airline miles, that means you can use those miles to fly with American Airlines or any of their alliance partners. That gives you quite a few options, yes, but if you have bank points, you can transfer your points to an array of airlines representing any alliance, or transfer them into a hotel program. This allows you to be very flexible based on your needs. For instance sometimes we’ll be arriving someplace with no plan for accommodations and no hotel points at our exposure. In that kind of situation, we could always transfer Amex points to Hilton points.
Or, as we approach our travel plans, we can compare prices between the different mileage programs and transfer our points only once we’ve decided whose mileage program offers the cheapest options to our travel destination. If we compare prices in points and see that United has the cheapest reward flight to Asia, then we can transfer our Chase points to United.
The main thing to remember is that your points need to be transferred into the mileage program (or hotel program) of your choice for you to get the best value, (rather than keeping them as Amex or Chase points and booking travel directly that way.) I know I’ve already said this, but it’s one of the easiest ways to get more value out of your earnings.
The steps for transferring are fairly simple.
American Express Membership Rewards Points transfer process:
1.) First sign into your American Express online account here.
2.) Click on “Rewards” at the top and then select “Use Points” on the drop-down.
3.) Click on the “Travel” tab.
4.) Select the “Transfer Points” option.
5.) There, you will see a “Hotels” tab and an “Airlines” tab. Select the one which applies and click on the icon of your transfer choice. From there, you will be prompted for the rest of the transfer.
Chase Ultimate Rewards Points transfer process:
1.) Sign into your Chase Ultimate Rewards account here.
Now…here’s where it gets a little complicated, so I strongly recommend reading my post on the intricacies of Chase. The basic thing to note here is that only certain Chase cards allow points-transfer as a benefit of the card. This means that even if you have a card that earns Chase points, you won’t be able to transfer them until you have one of the following cards: Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Ink Bold, or Chase Ink Plus.
2.) Provided you have one of the cards listed above, the transfer process is very simple. At the top of your account page you will see a “Point Transfer” tab.
3.) You will see two options, one for hotels and one for airlines. Just as with Amex points, you will see a display of icons. Select the one you want and follow the prompts.
So what are the recommended transfers?
With Amex pints we will usually transfer to one of the following: Air Canada, British Airways or ANA. We base this decision on availability as well as whose flights seem to produce the least amount of fuel surcharges.
With Chase points we almost always transfer to United miles. This is because United miles have pretty much no fuel surcharges. This means that your “free flight” won’t have a surprise $200 fee tacked onto it. Not to mention United’s mileage program offers fairly good award prices for economy and also allows one free stopover for any roundtrip, international award flight. We love United and thus, we love Chase points too.
Let’s recap the basic points:
1.) The bank points especially worth noting are American Express Membership Rewards points (Amex points) and Chase Ultimate Rewards points (Chase points.)
2.) Bank points are useful for allowing flexibility. You can earn knowing that you’ll later be able to transfer based on your travel needs.
3.) Transferring points will give you a better value than booking directly with your points, though your online account allows you to do either.
Again, for a more in-depth look at Chase points specifically (our favorite) I recommend checking out this post on getting to know Chase.
From the very beginning of our travel together, my husband and I have done all of our international flying with frequent-flier-miles. With Asia and Easter Island both on our itinerary for our first gap-year of travel, crossing the distances we had in mind would have seemed financially impossible for us without frequent flier miles.
Perhaps there’s a misconception out there that you must first pay for a significant amount of flying before you can accumulate enough frequent-flier-miles for a free international flight. That may be true when using the traditional approach to earning miles. But there is another strategy that has become quite popular for earning miles that requires no flying at all.
There are dozens of them. And of course, it can get quite confusing. So I’ve put together a list of 10 things to help you understand travel rewards cards, and therefore, use them to help you with your own travel goals.
1.) Not all cards advertised as “travel rewards cards” will earn you frequent flier miles.
There are basically four types of currencies you can earn with travel rewards cards: 1) frequent flier miles with a mileage program, 2) hotel points with a hotel rewards program, 3) points that can be transferred into frequent flier miles or hotel points, and 4) points that can be used to reimburse money you spend on travel.
The latter can be good for covering what frequent flier miles cannot, but won’t be as significant in earning you a free international flight.
2.) Just because a card is offering a bonus, it doesn’t mean it’s a good bonus.
All the major travel credit cards advertise mile or point bonuses. This is the main appeal in many cases however, it’s worthwhile to do some research when you see a card offering a bonus. For instance as mentioned above, there are various currencies in the travel rewards card world. Find out what an advertised bonus could realistically translate to in terms of travel.
Even once you have acquainted yourself with the bonus’ currency, it’s also good to know the difference between a good bonus and a weak bonus. At least when it comes to miles, hotel points, or points that can be transferred into miles, we generally tell people that 50,000 points is a good bonus.
3.) There are often requirements you must reach before you earn the bonus.
Occasionally a card will offer a bonus that you can receive as soon as you sign up or make your first purchase. But more often there is a spend-requirement you must reach first. Generally it’s set anywhere from $1,000-$10,000 spent within the first 3-6 months depending on the card.
Many cards offer bill-pay set-ups online to help you work towards that spend-requirement with your ordinary spending.
In the travel-hacking community however, it has become quite popular to use your credit card to purchase something that can easily be turned back into useable cash. Gift cards for example have paved the way for a cheap though admittedly complicated strategy for reaching spend requirements.
4.) Many cards also have an annual fee, though sometimes it’s waived for the first year.
It’s up to you how to handle this annual fee. Sometimes the card’s regular earnings from ordinary spending, annual gifts, or other card perks are enough for the annual fee to be worth it. That is up to you but you should understand that canceling a card after just a year can have an effect (albeit a fairly small one) on your credit score.
Your credit score takes your average length of history into account and having multiple 1-year accounts will lower that average. Because of this, we recommend having a few no annual fee cards that you will keep, even if you never use them. We also recommend that, if a person doesn’t feel they can keep up with the annual fee (or doesn’t wish to), they try having the card downgraded to a no-annual fee card after the first year.
5.) Collecting miles with credit-cards has a lot to do with credit score.
Most of the good travel cards require you to have at least a fair credit-score for approval. You can get a free credit score estimate with sites like Credit Sesame or Credit Karma. Technically they are just estimates, but they tend to be pretty close to accurate.
6.) Having multiple credit cards can actually improve your credit score.
Credit score works a little differently than many people may assume. It is less a measure of your financial status, and more a measure of your ability to be responsible with debt. It’s all about debt management really.
Therefore, the more cards you are responsible with, the higher your score will be. We have tested this and seen it to be true, as have many others.
Of course, the most important point here is that being responsible with multiple cards has a good effect. Being irresponsible with multiple cards could be very dangerous.
You can read more about what responsible credit card use is in our post about how credit score and travel-hacking work.
7.) Applying for cards too closely together will prevent you from getting approved.
Applying for one card today and another one tomorrow will make you look desperate and will prevent you from getting approved for a card, even if your credit score is great. If there are multiple rewards cards you’re interested in, wait at least 3 months between each application. Some suggest you don’t need to wait that long, but this is the safer strategy.
Credit cards are a huge part of the travel-hacking budget strategy and these 7 things will give you a place to start your research. Ultimately, the idea here is that rewards cards are helping you and that you’re in control of them, not the other way around. While trial and error is certainly a part of everything in life, especially when it comes to credit and credit cards, it’s good to be as informed as possible from the beginning.
Let’s face it: It’s summer and you’re broke. If you’ve somehow managed to make it to Europe and have some money for food and shelter, you might not have cash for much else. Trust me, I’ve been there. Everyone knows activities in places like London, for example, is pricey. But it’s important to know that there are several fun and interesting things to see and do that are completely free.
With that in mind, this is the first in a series focusing on free sights and activities in some of Europe’s best cities.
Taking the London example, here’s just a short list of free activities that give you a good taste of that amazing city:
-The National Gallery is free, although that may surprise many. Yes, one of the world’s great art museums—hosting works by world-renown masters—does not charge for entry.
-Piccadilly Circus, the gateway to the West End, is a colorful sea of people—especially when the sun goes down and the neon lights wash over the surroundings. Great people watching.
-The Changing of the Guard at the palace is always a sight to behold. The military pomp has been tradition for centuries, epitomizing military precision.
-Regent’s Park includes the city zoo and a wildlife garden. An oasis of leafy tranquility in the heart of the metropolis.
-There’s also St. James’s Park, ringed by some of London’s biggest landmarks (Buckingham Palace and Whitehall) featuring gorgeous greens and a soothing lake when the Tube and the crowds drive you mad.
-Speaking of great urban parks, no list would be complete without mention of Hyde Park. Lots of open air festivals and concerts are held here, especially in summer. Amble on over and enjoy.
-The Tate Modern (free except for certain special exhibitions) hosts a dazzling array of modern art, if you’re into that sort of thing.
-The rightfully revered British Museum is another world-class treasure trove of history that deserves your time. It’s a jaw-droppingly thorough survey of human civilization.
Of course, the best parts of travel, meeting the people and sampling the culture, are always free—but having a list of other free stuff to do certainly helps.
If you’re vagabonding in SEA and trying to get off the beaten track the Indonesian island of Sulawesi is a great place to do just that, especially during the low season of Dec. – Feb. There is a reasonably reliable network of bus service around the island but the roads are terrible and the rate of bus crashes seems (based on observation) higher than average for Asia. Not surprising, given the state of the roadways. If you can rent your own car, it’s a ticket to freedom on the island, but be prepared for people to be shocked that you’re driving yourself. Apparently everyone hires a driver or takes busses!
If you are looking for an excellent guide or arranger of further guides, Dodo Mursalim, in Makassar is your man. He’ll pick you up at the airport, deliver you at hellish hours, and even put you up in his house. He’s a wealth of information about Sulawesi and has uncanny connections all over the island. His email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Rantepao is in the heart of the region of Tana Toraja, which should not be missed. Plan to stay several days to a week, slow down, explore, and try to see a funeral. Nicholas Pabara is a fantastic guide, he asked me to share his phone number with fellow travelers: 082-192-183-677. Having a local to tell you the stories, explain the history and find the out of the way things that you won’t find on your own is priceless. You’ll definitely want him to help you place a bet at the cock fights!
Bira is at the eastern tip of the northern arm of Sulawesi. It’s got a pleasant tourist slum with cheap accommodation, but if you head out of the tourist district to Bara Beach there are six little bungalows for rent on a deserted beach that are a little slice of heaven. A boat can be arranged to the facing island where the diving is world class. This is the place to kick back and relax for a few days away from the hustle of Indonesian cities.
Samalona island is listed as an afternoon trip from Makassar in some of the guides. A better bet would be to head out for three or four days and stay in the home of one of the seven families (all inter-related) who live on the island. To get there, take a blue bus to Fort Rotterdam, cross the street to the waterfront and the boatmen will find you. There is no electricity (a generator will be turned on in the evening) no running water, no shower, and no hot water, but it’s a welcome respite from the bustle of Indonesian cities and the snorkeling is pretty good. You’ll find the islanders welcoming, generous, and their fresh from the ocean cooking worth staying an extra day for. If you have an instrument, bring it, music is welcome in the evenings. It costs about $20 USD a night for lodging and three square; can’t beat that.
It’s a well-worn practice the world over: customers and vendors talking price. CNNGo tackled this issue in a post titled How to bargain: the ultimate guide to scoring a deal in the markets of Asia.
Many of the tips will be familiar to experienced vagabonders: shop around, be polite, and be ready to walk away. What makes the article special is the little details about particular destinations. Some examples:
Have you negotiated over a purchase at a market? Please share your stories in the comments.
Loco2 launched not long ago. A site dedicated to train travel throughout Europe. I’ve exchanged emails with its founder, and “the team” has the vision of creating a source of online train booking “as easy as flight booking”—it appears to be well on its way. The site has a video short that explains how to find, book and share itinerary with friends. It also features a blog that covers things like watching the Tour de France by train, photography by Steve McCurry, and interviews with The Man in Seat61.
If you are not privy to that last mention; the man in Seat61 site was created by former railway engineer Mark Smith in 2001, and received many cudos in 2007 (including a blog post on this site.) That site alone is a plethora of information about world-wide train travel.
However, it doesn’t have the unique Engine Room forum which Loco2 has created to offer advice broken down easily by country with the latest information about areas. If you’re considering Europe by train; check into this site. If you’ve travelled the area recently and have suggestions, they are open to building a better, more useful community…
I’m not talking about toting Portuguese ceramics around Europe or filling your backpack with I Love (insert city name) t-shirts at every stop. I’m talking about small pieces that will always remind you of your time away from home. In many places, you can get a beautiful local print for less than what a mass produced picture would cost at a Linens ‘N Things.
Here are some rules I like to live by on the road:
1.) Even if you don’t buy, interacting with shopkeepers is a great way to glimpse into local life. Window shopping is free, and can lead to some hysterical experiences, seen here as Rolf explores a market in Morocco on his No Baggage Challenge.
2.) Research what kinds of things your destination has to offer. Know the price range for a Nepali cashmere scarf before hitting the streets, and also look into potential scams. Bangkok is known for luring tourists to faux gem stores, charging customers competitive prices for lookalike gems.
3.) Analyze the quality of the item in question. Not only do most local vendors not have return policies, but you’ll likely be onto a new city or even home before you notice it’s cheaply made or broken.
4.) Look for fair trade shops when purchasing handicrafts, which ensure that the artists earn fair wages and work in good conditions. Friends International shop in Phnom Penh is one of my favorite examples.
5.) Watch out for breakables…If you’re browsing the Czech glass shops of Prague, don’t stand too close…If you break, you buy.
6.) It’s fun to say “I got this in Laos!” But make sure you’re buying for the right reasons. Do you love what you see? Is it unique to the region? Is it something that’s truly worth carrying in a backpack until you return home?
If room in my backpack permits, here are my favorite things to look for abroad:
Postcards and stationary: These are great reminders of world travel, and can also be shared with others! Each postcard or letter sent means less “stuff” in your backpack.
Handcrafted jewelry: I look for something that is unique, wearable and won’t break the bank. One of my favorite things is a small silver bracelet from the Black Hmong woman who walked with me for 5 hours while trekking in Sapa, Vietnam.
Handwoven crafts: Travels in South America and Southeast Asia have brought me to incredible villages where handwoven products often take weeks to make and cost less than 10 dollars.
Artwork: most small prints can lay flat in a suitcase or fit between a book, and can then be framed at home.
What do you think? Have you fallen into the tourist trap of useless “stuff?” Where have you gotten your favorite souvenirs? Do you have any tips for other travelers who are interested in picking up a souvenir or two?
Many Vagablogging readers are familiar with Matt Kepnes, or Nomadic Matt. Kepnes’s website is packed full of information on travel deals, travel tips, travel guides, and loads of interesting travel tales suited to any genre. Now Kepnes has taken the next step and has published his own Ebook.
Kepnes’s book is a smooth read. Even over the details of dollars, budgets, and savings options, it never reads like a dry financial manual. Kepnes’s book documents specific dollar amounts for many elements of his travels. He starts with how to save money before you even hit the road by detailing the more advantageous international banking options and airline carriers.
Kapnes’s book isn’t just for the new traveler in the beginning stages of planning out their trip. There is a lot of useful information that, even after years of long-term stints on the road, I still haven’t quite been able to work out, like making air miles work for you, or all of the ropes and rules of upgrading to business class on those long flights. Sure, there are loads of details for beginning travelers, like how to pick the right backpack for the road or how to save for your trip before you depart. Though there is something for everyone in this book. Whether you’re a novice when it comes to air miles, or if you’re trying to decipher the endless web of ESL jobs or volunteer options abroad.
There is also a Destinations section in the book, where Kepnes offers readers a look at likely travel budgets for areas on nearly all continents of the globe. He even includes budgets for activities popular to a particular destination, like scuba diving in Southeast Asia. Kepnes also compiles a list of great hostels and budget guesthouses for various locations, along with discount coupons should you be in the area and decide check out one of the accommodations.
You can download a PDF format of the book from Kepnes’s website for US$14. The book is also available for your Kindle or Ipad.
Those vagabonders funding their travels by working abroad in Korea, or those simply traveling through the country, will be happy to hear of Air Asia’s new service to Korea. Korea has rested infuriatingly outside of the budget travel loop for quite some time. However, in November of last year, Air Asia began offering flights from Seoul to Kuala Lumpur for around US$300 round trip. This opens up a lot of options for travelers, as Kuala Lumpur is a major travel hub in Asia and it’s easy to book cheap continuing flights to just about everywhere from there. Over the last few months the Air Asia service has grown to include flights from the Korean capital to Bali and Jakarta in Indonesia. Finally, leaving Korea no longer means dropping an easy $1,000. Get out there and start taking advantage of these deals!