There’s a marine biologist in Sicily named Emilio who is as fond of studying sea creatures as he is of cooking them. His house is in a seaside village called Torretta Granitola, and when he’s not crunching numbers in the lab, he’s in the kitchen, whipping up dishes with the fish he catches and with ingredients from local farms.
Wild asparagus omelets. Fava beans and artichokes cooked in a clay pot. Fresh sheep cheese and croutons made of locally made rye bread.
Dinner at Emilio’s sounds like a dream.
Now, thanks to a new website called My Italian Friends, you can pull up a chair at Emilio’s patio dining table and spend three hours savoring one of his home-cooked meals. Or you can book a spot in a home restaurant in a different Italian city — Rome, Milan and Perugia among them.
My Italian Friends is the perfect solution for travelers who get weary of dining in restaurants for every meal. The website allows you to reserve a meal in a local Italian home, viewing the menu, location and background of the home cook before you book. The website also lists cooking classes, if you prefer to learn to hand-roll your own pasta rather than have it served to you, and foodie tours, such as an escorted visit to Florence’s main market.
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The site only recently launched, yet already has dozen of listings. They are widely distributed throughout Italy, and the hosts seem welcoming and intent on providing good food and good conversation. They list sample menus, but you can make requests (and note allergies or dietary restrictions) when you book.
Some hosts provide additional services, such as rides to and from public transport and walking tours of the area.
The website offers a range of experiences and range of prices. We spotted a pasta dinner in Rome for 18 euros (about $20.50 USD), and a truffle-hunting expedition in the medieval town of Gubbio with an expert guide named Danilo and his trusty dog for 172 euros ($196 — includes lunch and a guided tour). The four-course meal at Emilio’s house, including wine, is 29 euros per person ($33). Some home cooks provide discounts on select dates.
To learn about other websites offering meals in local homes, see Beyond Restaurants: Eight Ways to Savor a Local Food Scene.
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— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
If you’ve got a fixed vacation budget but no strong feelings about where you want to go, a new booking site could provide the perfect combination of low prices and inspiration. It’s called Wherefor.
You start by entering your hotel and flight budget, the number of travelers, your travel dates and departure city. Then hit “Search Destinations” and see all the places you can afford to go.
I tested it out with a $2,000 budget for two people departing from Philadelphia for a week in May. Even with a relatively modest budget, I ended up with trip possibilities on three continents, including Europe (Moscow) and South America (Quito and Rio de Janeiro), as well as numerous North American options.
Test One: Moscow, Russia
Wherefor presented me with a total price of $1,944.57 for flights and hotel for two people. Most of that budget was for airfare: $1,672.24 for an outgoing flight on Delta and a return on Air France. It’s a decent price for two people — but with a stopover, the trip home would take more than 28 hours. No thanks! Fortunately, you can click on “other flights” to see more options at higher price points, though this might cause you to exceed your initial spending limit.
The site also suggested a budget hotel, the Alekseevsky, at an average price of $46.80 a night. As with flights, you can also browse other, more expensive lodging options. When you’re ready to book, you can buy the flights, the hotel or both. The site currently offers travelers the chance to spread their trip payments over 12 months with 0 percent interest.
Test Two: Quito, Ecuador
In Quito, cheaper airfares (just $769 for two people) allowed enough wiggle room in my budget for a moderately priced hotel, the Mercure Hotel Alameda ($97 a night). Again, the suggested flight wasn’t exactly appealing, with a 21-hour layover on the outgoing leg; nor was there a way to filter the other flight results by number of stopovers or total travel time.
If price is more important to you than schedule, Wherefor’s itineraries are very competitive. For the cities I checked, the fares and hotel rates were sometimes (but not always) lower than those on Kayak.com. As with any booking site, you should comparison shop before you pull out your credit card.
One important note: Wherefor’s estimated flight cost includes taxes and fees, but the nightly hotel rate doesn’t. You may find that adding those in on the booking screen actually takes you above your projected budget.
Wherefor has advanced search options that allow you to specify a minimum hotel level (budget, standard or luxury), filter your results to certain regions or tailor your trip by interest (such as beaches, “famous for food” or family-friendly). You can also enter a city or airport if you know where you want to go. A filter I hope they’ll add in the future: trips with nonstop flights.
Overall, Wherefor is an intriguing option for travelers seeking inspiration or trying to figure out how far their budget will take them. Would you give it a try?
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— written by Sarah Schlichter
Vintage travel posters remind us of a time when travel was glamorous — and they make for some really attractive artwork for your home or office.
Retro posters have made frequent appearances in the marketplace over the past few months, perhaps partly inspired by this year’s 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service.
In the 1930s and ’40s, the U.S. Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project commissioned artists to create works of art as a way to put them back to work after the Great Depression. The effort included a series of posters promoting U.S. National Parks that have been so popular over the years that modern artists have created replicas. You can purchase prints on various websites, including Ranger Doug’s Enterprises and AllPosters.com.
Meanwhile, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory teamed up with professional designers to keep people dreaming of visiting far-off planets in the future. They created a series of retro-inspired travel posters to 14 different planets, including Jupiter and the extrasolar planet of Kepler 16b. The posters are available to download and print for free on NASA’s website.
If you’d like to decorate your home with posters of places that only exist in the pages of books or on film, there are a number of new artworks available. Artist Steve Thomas created stylistic posters of destinations that were included in the horror fiction writings of 20th-century author H.P. Lovecraft.
And the Etsy store Magic Mushroom Paper Company sells a trio of Star Wars-inspired travel posters, plus ones from “Doctor Who” and the Harry Potter books, among others.
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— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
If you’re looking for a vacation that goes beyond lying on a beach or seeing an area’s most famous sights, a trip with a new cruise line dedicated to voluntourism might be right for you.
Fathom, owned by Carnival Corporation, is dedicated to “impact travel” — with activities designed to connect travelers with local communities where they can make a difference. For example, you might spend a day teaching English, crafting clay water filters or working in a women’s chocolate cooperative. The Fathom team works with established local NGOs to identify areas of need and figure out how travelers can contribute in a way that will build projects that eventually are self-sustaining.
I recently had the chance to try out some of these activities on a trip to the Dominican Republic hosted by Fathom. My first stop was RePapel, where about a dozen women work together to produce recycled paper that they then turn into business cards, postcards and other sellable products. Recycling is not yet common in the Dominican Republic, so in addition to providing stable jobs for local women, RePapel is part of a broader initiative to raise awareness of environmental issues. Fathom volunteers help in several stages of the recycling process, including tearing the source paper into strips (white paper must be separated from paper with any type of ink on it), mixing the pulp with water and rolling new sheets flat.
Another day I helped distribute clay water filters to families in a rural village that does not currently have reliable and safe drinking water. My last activity of the trip was teaching basic English phrases (“Hello. How are you? I’m good!”) to adults. Each excursion gave us a chance to interact with the local people, though those of us who spoke at least conversational Spanish had more meaningful exchanges. (Interpreters are always available, but they can’t attend to the entire group at all times.)
I discovered that it’s essential to be realistic about your motives for taking a voluntourism trip and the individual impact you are likely to have. No single traveler will be able to swoop in and make a massive difference in a local community in just a few days, and you might feel that no sooner have you learned a new skill than it’s time to leave. Also, not every moment of each Fathom activity is dedicated to direct impact; parts of the excursions are designed for learning and cultural exchange rather than strict volunteer work.
My limited individual impact felt disappointing at times, but it’s useful to think of your personal experience as a small part of a bigger picture. Sure, maybe I only helped produce a few dozen sheets of paper during my time at RePapel, but Fathom’s initial investment in the project (and ongoing labor support in the form of travelers like me) allowed the workshop to get off the ground in the first place — and will hopefully enable it to develop to a point where it won’t need Fathom at all anymore.
Fathom’s ship, Adonia, carries 704 passengers and will debut April 10 with three weeklong sailings from Miami to the Dominican Republic, followed by a cruise from Miami to Cuba on May 1. The ship will then alternate between the two countries from week to week.
In the Dominican Republic, you can do as much or as little volunteer work as you want — so you could combine a morning harvesting coffee beans with an afternoon relaxing on the ship or going ziplining.
Because of the governmental restrictions on what Americans can do when they visit Cuba, Fathom’s itinerary there will be more regimented and have a greater focus on learning and cultural exchange than on volunteering.
Fathom cruises to the Dominican Republic start at $974 per person, while Cuba itineraries start at $1,800.
Would you consider a Fathom cruise?
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— written by Sarah Schlichter
Photos are the best souvenir you can bring home from a trip, in my opinion. There are countless resources online to help you take better travel photos, including some excellent articles on our website. (Shameless plug for my favorites: 19 Tips for Better Travel Photos and 12 Things You Don’t Photograph — But Should.)
Here are five new photography resources online:
Beyond the Selfie Stick: A New Angle on Travel Photography: If you’re tired of taking selfies, you can now hire a professional photographer to accompany you on vacation and take magazine-like photos of you. Skift reports on two such companies: Flytographer, which connects travelers with local photographers in 160 cities, and El Camino, a tour company that includes the services of a pro photographer in your vacation package. (Check out our post about Flytographer.)
How to Hashtag Your Photos on Instagram: Want to maximize the number of people who see your travel photography on Instagram? Make sure you’re using the right hashtags, advises Stephanie Rosenbloom of the New York Times. For example, if you photograph a gorgeous tree, don’t just mark your photo #tree; use #treelovers.
Wanderlust Photo of the Year Competition: Looking at professional photographers’ images can be intimidating — but seeing the winning shots from Wanderlust travel magazine’s 2016 amateur photo contest invokes pride. Among the top shooters in the wildlife, landscape, people and icon categories are a police officer, an accountant, a schoolteacher and a minster.
The Natural Photographer: This new site from photographer and nature tour guide Court Whelan of the adventure travel company Natural Habitat Adventures focuses on capturing images of animals and nature. Whelan knows the types of shots travelers like to get — close-ups of cool critters, silhouettes against sunsets, wide-angle landscapes that make your Facebook friends jealous. The site also includes basics on using camera settings, composing shots and choosing equipment.
Getting Started in Travel Photography: The website PetaPixel published this great primer last week by photographer Viktor Elizarov, who gives solid advice on starting out small and growing your skills. You don’t need to book a pricey trip to Southeast Asia to find great subjects for your first foray in travel photography, he advises. You can start in your own neighborhood.
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— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
Ever dreamed about taking a trip to Afghanistan? How about Pakistan, Chechnya or Somalia? For travelers with a lust for adventure and a high tolerance for risk, there’s a company that will take you to these and many other seemingly dangerous places.
Untamed Borders was founded in 2006 by Kausar Hussain and James Wilcox, two adventure guides who met in the mountains of Afghanistan. Their mission is to offer “unparalleled access to some of the world’s most interesting and inaccessible places,” according to the company’s website.
Itineraries include an annual “Melons & Grapes — Grand Afghan Tour,” a two-week trip that combines a few days in Kabul with time in remote rural areas and ancient cities; a weeklong journey called “Chechnya, Dagestan and Russia’s Deep South,” which stops in the UNESCO World Heritage City of Derbent, a fortified Persian hill town; and a 16-day exploration of the tribal states in northeastern India. More active adventures are also available, including horse trekking in Tajikistan, glacier trekking in Pakistan and even running a marathon in Afghanistan.
The group size is always small — no more than 12 people, and often fewer — both for safety reasons and to keep the trips flexible. The company can also arrange custom trips for journalists, climbers, skiers, photographers or independent travelers interested in certain areas.
Of course, the big question is: Just how safe are these trips? The FAQ section on the company’s website notes that certain parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan are significantly more dangerous than others, and the trips are deliberately planned in the safer areas. In an article on CNN, the company notes that months of planning go into each trip, including plenty of brainstorming for worst-case scenarios.
The company relies on government warnings as well as first-hand info from local guides and contacts living in each country. On some trips, groups travel not only with guides but also with a security detail. All itineraries are subject to change if the situation on the ground becomes unstable, and guests must have travel insurance that covers them in the country they’re visiting. (Note: This may be difficult to find, but Untamed Borders can recommend a few specialty insurers.)
Such remote adventures don’t come cheap. Organized group trips start at 1,600 GBP per person (about $2,300 USD as of this writing), which includes accommodations, transportation, guides and breakfast. Travelers are responsible for flights, visas, insurance and other meals. If you’re traveling solo, you won’t need to pay a single supplement, but you will be expected to share a room with someone else in the group.
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Would you consider a trip with Untamed Borders?
While Libryia Jones was obtaining a master’s degree, she explored the idea of doing an overseas internship in China. After reviewing the program’s requirements, she quickly realized she didn’t qualify because she had a child. Other programs she looked into had the same rule.
“I thought, ‘Why should it be not for me just because I’m a mom?'” said Jones, an information technology project manager in Atlanta, Georgia.
Jones knew she wasn’t the only person who wanted to live abroad but felt held back for one reason or another — so she decided to do something about it through a new start-up venture called My Wander Year.
From a pool of applicants, Jones and her team will select a group of 30 to 50 people who will live overseas for a year starting this August, basing themselves in Prague, Czech Republic, for the first three months. They then will move to Chiang Mai, Thailand, for three months, followed by Cape Town, South Africa, and Panama City, Panama.
The Wander Year team will arrange for flights, lodging in a condo or small inn, a SIM card for a smartphone and group office space for participants who will work remotely. The group will have occasional meetings and excursions, but what participants do with the rest of their time is totally up to them. Some people may have the option of continuing their existing job from abroad. Others may take classes or simply enjoy living in a different city.
The initial application requirements are basic: You must be 21 years or older, have been to another country at least once in your life and speak English. And yes, participants may have kids (though the children must be over the age of 8 to apply). There are a few essay questions and an interview involved, and selected participants will undergo a background check.
“We are looking for people who can articulate a real desire to grow through this experience and who intend to contribute to this community,” Jones said in an interview. “We want to invite cool people who we would love to spend a year with.”
The cost to participate for the year is $2,000 per month, with an initial fee of $3,000. A spouse or child can be added on for an additional cost.
Jones preferred not to reveal how many applications she has received thus far, only saying that they’ve gotten “well over the number of slots available.” Applications are still being accepted on the My Wander Year website. The application fee is $25.
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— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
What does travel look like without sightseeing? Fortunately for blind or visually impaired travelers, there’s a tour company out there to help them — and sighted travelers — find out.
Traveleyes, founded in 2004 by a blind man who loves to travel, offers small-group trips to a wide array of destinations around the world, including Australia, Morocco, Italy, Bulgaria and Peru. What makes the company special is that the trips pair blind travelers with sighted companions who serve as guides, describing the scenes in front of them and assisting them with navigation through restaurants and shops. In exchange, sighted travelers save up to 50 percent off the cost of the trip and get the satisfaction of helping their new friends discover the world.
To make the experience as rich as possible for everyone, itineraries emphasize multisensory activities such as learning the tango in Argentina, riding a camel in Morocco and tasting wine in Rome. This isn’t just for the benefit of blind travelers. On the Traveleyes website, the company notes that this is a benefit for sighted travelers as well: “Seeing is only part of the experience. As a sighted traveller, you’ll be guided on how to explore the world through all of your other senses. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ve been missing out on.”
No experience is necessary for sighted travelers — the company provides pre-trip information as well as training on the first day to help you learn how to guide. Blind and sighted travelers will be partnered with different companions each day throughout the trip so everyone can get to know each other.
Rates for sighted travelers start at just $283 per person, while rates for blind travelers start at $552 per person. Rates do not include flights or transfers unless you’re traveling from the U.K.
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Would you try a trip with Traveleyes?
— written by Sarah Schlichter
Layaway programs seem like such a retro way to pay for something — I remember going with my mom to pick out new bedroom furniture at a discount department store in the 80s, then going back a few months later to pick them up.
Layaway all but disappeared as a shopping option in the early 1990s, then started making a small resurgence during our most recent economic downturn. Today, layaway programs are available from select travel companies: Sears Vacations, Disney and Gate 1 Travel all offer pay-in-pieces programs to help you budget for a vacation.
The latest layaway venture for travelers? A startup called Airfordable that allows you to pay for airplane tickets on an installment plan.
It works like this: You send a screenshot of a flight you want to book to Airfordable, along with a nonrefundable deposit of a third of the fare, and the company purchases the ticket for you. The team at Airfordable then sets you up with a payment plan. As long as you submit all your payments in full before your flight date, you’re good to fly.
“Airfordable’s layaway plans for air travel [reiterate] that memories are priceless and global enrichment is key in becoming a well-rounded person,” company founder Ama Marfo wrote on the Airfordable blog. Marfo shared the story of how she, as a college student, couldn’t travel home to Ghana during the holidays because she couldn’t afford the air ticket costs all at once. That’s what motivated her to start this venture.
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Sounds like a nice option for those on a tight budget or those with high-interest credit cards who can’t pay off the cost of a ticket right away. But there are a few catches: Airfordable charges a 20 percent fee on top of the ticket price, and your desired flight cannot cost more than $2,000.
Would you try Airfordable?
— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
If you’re looking for a lightweight carry-on that you could also bring on a hike or take to the gym, consider the new High Sierra 22″ Duffel Backpack. As the name suggests, you can wear it on your back or carry it over your shoulder, making it a versatile option for various types of trips. The bag retails for $89.99.
We took the bag on a couple of quick holiday trips to test out its features — and here’s what we found.
It’s got plenty of compartments: Two side-loading compartments are ideal for stowing shoes separately from clothes, and you can tuck your phone or glasses case into the fleece-lined front pocket. An internal mesh pocket can hold dirty laundry. One caveat: It can be awkward to pack around items in the side compartments, which jut into the main section of the bag.
You can carry it multiple ways: You can grab the bag via sturdy handles on either side, or use the two straps on top to wear it as a backpack. You can also Velcro the top straps together to put the bag over your shoulder.
It’s lightweight and easy to stow: The bag weighs less than two pounds and, because it doesn’t have wheels or a rigid internal structure, is easy to stuff into the overhead compartment of a plane.
It’s water-resistant: When we poured water on the outside of the bag, the liquid immediately beaded up and ran off the side. The bag isn’t fully waterproof, so if you’re in a downpour it’ll eventually soak through, but your stuff should be protected well enough in light rain.
It could use a longer shoulder strap: The company suggests that you can combine the grab handles into a single cross-body shoulder strap, but they’re not quite long enough to make this comfortable, especially for taller and/or larger travelers. A longer clip-on shoulder strap would have been a nice touch.
It doesn’t have wheels: If you’ve stuffed the bag full, it could get heavy during long treks between airport terminals. (Note that High Sierra offers a number of wheeled duffel bags and backpacks if you’re seeking those alternatives.)
It might be too big to carry on: The bag measures 22 x 14 x 12 inches, which exceeds some airlines’ carry-on restrictions. (American Airlines, for instance, limits carry-ons to a total of 45 inches, or 22 x 14 x 9.) That said, because the bag is so soft and flexible, you could easily squeeze it into the airline’s sizer if it’s not completely full.
There’s only one color: The bag is a new product and so far is only available in black with bright yellow-green trim.
Want to give this bag a try? We’re giving away our gently used black High Sierra 22″ Duffel Backpack! Just leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday, January 25, 2016. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the bag. This giveaway is open only to residents of the lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.
Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Susan David. Congratulations!
We received a free sample of this bag from High Sierra for the purpose of reviewing it and giving it away to a reader. All products are accepted with the understanding that we will review them in a way that honestly reflects our experience — good, bad or indifferent.
— written by Sarah Schlichter