November 19, 2010

Credit cards without foreign-exchange fees

A stack of credit cards

Credit cards. Photo: Andres Rueda / Flickr Creative Commons

They’re the bane of long-term vagabonders: those irritating fees for foreign currencies and doing transactions while abroad. Hitting up an ATM or paying with a credit card can trigger charges you may not have expected. This can smear the memory of a great trip.

The New York Times Bucks blog had a post about 3 Credit Cards without Transaction Fees. For more great tips, check out the reader comments to see what other people recommend.

Capital One was a lightning rod in the comment thread. Some praised the company, others complained about them. TD bank was new to me, since they’re a Canadian company.

The suggestion that really came out of left field was the Pentagon Federal Credit Union. It never even occurred to me that non-military people would be eligible for membership. Apparently, you can join a nonprofit troop support group for US$15, then become a member of the Pentagon credit union. However, being affiliated with the military might clash with some people’s beliefs.

In a past article, I remember readers saying Charles Schwab offers debit cards with no ATM fees, and that it will refund any foreign ATM fees that are charged. Can anyone confirm this? The downside is that they’re a brokerage firm, so they don’t have the wide network of branches that other banks have.

I’d also love to hear from our readers about this. Have you developed any great strategies for beating the fees? Please share your tips and tricks in the comments.

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Category: Expat Life, Money Management, Travel News

November 12, 2010

Will companies sponsor vagabonding?

Jamie, a volunteer in Uganda

Jamie, a volunteer at Sanyu Babies' Home in Uganda. Photo: Dylan Walters / Flickr Creative Commons

“You’ll be entitled to take a sabbatical abroad at company expense.”  That would be music to the ears of any vagabonder looking for work. One of the big factors holding people back from travel is the worry about finding employment upon their return. However, it would be nice to have the security of returning to your job after a stint abroad.

The Economist reported about how IBM sends employees overseas to do volunteering: Big-Hearted Blue. The company proudly bills its program as “the corporate version of the Peace Corps.”

Naturally, IBM doesn’t exactly do all this purely out of kindness. Cooperation with local-level governments can lead to future contracts for the company. There’s the cost benefit as well: ” . . .it’s a lot cheaper than a traditional international assignment,” said one executive. Putting up a busy manager in a tent in Africa would be a bargain compared to a $10,000-a-month serviced apartment in Hong Kong.

On the bright side, employees seem to favor the program. It’s relatively rare for major corporations to allow people to leave work for volunteering. As for continuing to pay full salary and travel expenses, that’s near impossible to find in an employer. Getting the chance to make a difference is icing on the cake.

Near the end, the article mentions that other firms are following in IBM’s footsteps, such as FedEx and Novartis. Maybe even more companies will embark on volunteer initiatives in the future.

How do you feel about this?  Should companies leave the aid work to NGOs? Or is it a great deal for vagabonders? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Category: Notes from the collective travel mind, Travel News, Volunteering Abroad

October 29, 2010

A budget travel pioneer speaks out

Barnacles hostel in Ireland

A backpacker walks up to Barnacles hostel in Ireland. Photo: Barnacles Hostels / Flickr Creative Commons

Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine travel without digital cameras, Facebook, and iPods.  The New York Times was lucky to interview one of the original Frugral Travelers, John Wilcock:

A budget travel pioneer on a time when $5 a day was real (frugal) money

Wilcock has credentials that would make any aspiring writer mad with envy: he wrote some of the first guidebooks for Arthur Frommer, co-founded The Village Voice, and started up Interview magazine with Andy Warhol.

What stood out most to me was Wilcock’s reliable method of research: talking to people. Although websites like TripAdvisor and Yelp can serve that function these days, it’s essentially the same thing.  Word-of-mouth is the best way to find the hidden gems of a place.

The fascinating part was where he talked about the forerunners of websites we take for granted now.  In the interview, Wilcock described The Travel Directory, a project in the 1960s where people could sign up to offer spare rooms to travelers. This was CouchSurfing, decades before that website was even founded. Again, an old traveler’s practice that found its way online.

A refreshing change of tone was how Wilcock didn’t romanticize the past.  Certainly, we all know someone who criticizes anything new, but he doesn’t fall into that camp at all.  In particular, Wilcock actually criticized some of the ways travel writing was handled back when he worked for The Times.

How has travel changed since you first started?  Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Category: Notes from the collective travel mind, Travel News

October 15, 2010

When students go global

Mongolian students using netbooks

Students in Mongolia using donated netbooks. Photo: One Laptop per Child / Flickr Creative Commons

The rising fortunes of the emerging economies and the lowering of barriers have given students a whole world of educational opportunities. Governments are investing in improving facilities at home. Meanwhile, students impatient to get ahead are already applying to overseas schools in droves, as this TechCrunch article explains: The Global Education Race.

Studying abroad is becoming a realistic option for more and more people. To be fair, there are still hurdles to overcome, such as immigration, financial aid, and academic recognition for courses taken abroad. On a positive note, increasing incomes and greater international integration are helping to close the gap.

Both host countries and the students’ countries will benefit from exposure to new cultures. Such interactions will lead to a more diverse food scene, at least. On a more practical level, cash-strapped universities are already welcoming these kids and the tuition money they bring. Foreigners often pay more than residents.

In any case, more interactions should lead to better understanding across borders. The classroom is a safe space to discuss issues, learn new things, and settle differences. So there is a “peace dividend” to be had.

Have you studied abroad? Do you see more foreign students where you live? Please share your stories in the comments.

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Category: Notes from the collective travel mind, Travel News, Youth Travel

September 17, 2010

Five “trouble spots” that are okay to visit

Sitting Buddha in a temple in Chiang Mai. Photo: Christian Haugen / Flickr Creative Commons

Sitting Buddha in a temple in Chiang Mai. Photo: Christian Haugen / Flickr Creative Commons

As usual, the media is full of stories of disasters rocking foreign countries.  For a good status report, check out this CNNMoney article: 5 tourist spots in turmoil.

Savvy travelers are cashing in on the deep discounts being offered by travel providers.  I know an American expat in Thailand who’s been booking Air Asia flights like crazy to take advantage of cheap flights to Chiang Mai and the Thai islands.

South Korea has been in the news due to having a submarine allegedly destroyed by North Korea. Lately, the rumbles are fading and it’s back to normal.

Have you ever traveled to a country that was in crisis?  Did you go during the problems, or just immediately afterwards? Please share your experiences and tips on staying safe.

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Category: Notes from the collective travel mind, Travel Bargains, Travel News

August 5, 2010

2010 UNESCO World Heritage sites announced

This past week, the 34th session of the World Heritage Committee met in Brasília, Brazil to discuss the additions and changes to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

A total of 21 new sites have been inscribed, including 15 cultural and 5 natural properties. Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, and Tajikistan are the newest members of the list of UNESCO countries. Some cultural highlights are;

The new natural properties added are;

The more sobering list that the Committee maintains is the World Heritage in Danger, those sites for whom armed conflict and war, earthquakes and other natural disasters, pollution, poaching, uncontrolled urbanization and unchecked tourist development threaten their existence. Four sites were added to this solemn list;

Thankfully, because of significant efforts made by Ecuador in addressing the threats posed by invasive species, unbridled tourism and over-fishing, the Galapagos Islands have been removed from the list.

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Category: Travel News

June 25, 2010

Guidebooks go mobile

iPhone running Google Maps. Photo: Marcin Wichary / Flickr Creative Commons

iPhone running Google Maps. Photo: Marcin Wichary / Flickr Creative Commons

Looks like the guidebooks are heading for the really small screen: mobile devices. With the soaring popularity of the iPhone and other smartphones, guidebook publishers are moving to take advantage of new platforms, as this AP article describes: Guidebooks adapt to mobile download era.

However, they are running into a common problem in the tech world: compatibility. Mobile networks may not offer the same availability of apps from country to country. The cost of roaming is also a major dealbreaker, which can cause sudden spikes in phone costs.

The guidebooks may also be playing catch-up to popular websites like WikiTravel, VirtualTourist, and others that already offer similar information online. Will guidebooks on mobiles find an audience?  Or are they doomed to be left behind?

Do you prefer to get your information from the printed page or an electronic screen? Or how do you mix the two?  Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Category: Travel Guidebooks, Travel News, Travel Tech

June 18, 2010

Asia’s Internet goes to warp speed

100 Yen netbooks in Japan. Photo: Steve Nagata / Flickr Creative Commons

100 Yen netbooks (w/ 2-year contract) in Japan. Photo: Steve Nagata / Flickr Creative Commons

Blazing-fast Internet has become commonplace in Asia. Japan and South Korea frequently rank as the most wired countries in the world.  Singapore is looking to boost its broadband infrastructure too, according to this NY Times article: Singapore gets wired for speed.

John, an Australian expat friend of mine, just moved into a new apartment near Tokyo. When John got Internet installed, he settled for a 200 megabit per second connection. There was a waiting list for the 1 gigabit (1,000 megabits) connection, he explained.

How much does it cost?  According to the article, one company in Singapore plans to sell 100 mbps connections for SGD$21 (US$15) per month. In Hong Kong, a 1 gigabit connection costs HKD$200 (US$26) per month.  Meanwhile, my local ISP provider in the states offers a “high speed” 8 mbps connection for a whopping US$50 per month.

For a good case study of how a country builds such an Internet infrastructure, check out this CNN article: Why Internet connections are fastest in South Korea. A lot of ideas get discussed, such as whether the private sector or government should lead the way, the role of competition, etc.

There is a downside to having fast, cheap Internet, however. Some people might succumb to the temptation to spend too much of their lives online and become antisocial. Another NY Times article highlights an extreme case: South Korea expands aid for Internet addiction. In a less serious fashion, as more backpackers bring along laptops and netbooks, they could spend more time surfing the web than seeing the country they’re in.

To broaden the scope beyond broadband, have you ever encountered better infrastructure abroad than at home? For example, some of my American friends envy Europe’s trains and Asia’s airports. Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Category: Asia, Travel News, Travel Tech

June 4, 2010

Technology helps uncover ancient city

Caracol, BelizeThe next time you’re in a forest, imagine a building hiding in the earth just steps away from where you’re walking.

According to National Geographic, a 2009 survey using Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) equipment revealed images of an ancient Mayan city stretching over 68 square miles in western Belize. Presented at the recent International Symposium on Archaeometry, in just four days, the airborne lasers showed thousands of structures, 11 roads and thousands of agricultural terraces previously unknown to researchers.

Anthropologists Arlen and Diane Chase, directors of the University of Central Florida Caracol Archaeological Project, have been working in the area for years but have seen only a small fraction of the ruins. The funding for the 2009 LiDAR survey came from NASA, and the survey itself was performed by the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping.

This survey, along with the recent news that scientists have found more than 200 earthworks in Brazil’s upper Amazon basin with the aid of Google Earth images, lets us see the broad reach of these ancient settlements. Even though they’re far from ready for travelers to see firsthand, it gives us a clearer picture of just how much the natural world can hide the past.

Have you given some of your travel time to help an archaeological project? Would you? Where?

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Category: Central America, Travel News

May 28, 2010

The “Frugal Traveler” bids farewell

Matt Gross in Paris. Photo: New York Times

Matt Gross in Paris. Photo: New York Times

One of my favorite columns is “The Frugal Traveler,” written by Matt Gross for the the New York Times.  He gives his final swan song in this piece:

Three things I’ve learned about frugal travel

It’s a great retrospective of his career as a travel writer. While I haven’t always agreed with his definition of “frugal,” I always found Gross to have an engaging narrative voice and that curious nature that all vagabonders have.

I definitely agree with his lesson that “friends are worth more than dollars.”  There have been so many times when I’ve gone on a trip excited to see new places.  Yet afterwards, it’s the people that I remember. He sums this up well:

“Meeting these people, hearing their stories and participating, if only for a few hours, in their lives have been the high points of my travels, and the prospect of encountering more fascinating individuals is what has kept me continually excited about being on the road.”

Like a true traveler, what’s first and foremost on his mind is where he hasn’t been yet. He gives big clues on where his future destinations might be.  Budget Travel magazine says that he’s also heading to the small screen, in this report: Saying ciao to Matt Gross.

By the way, if you Google “Matt Gross,” the very first result is Vagablogging’s own interview with him. Check it out for more fun tidbits about how he got started as a travel writer.

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Category: Travel News, Travel Writing
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