“Backpacking Europe” used to refer solely to travel with an oversized canvas sack strapped across your shoulders, with nights spent in a youth hostel bunk bed. Today, “backpacking” is more of a mindset than an actual act, says James Feess, author of the book “The Savvy Backpacker’s Europe on a Budget.”
Originally from the U.S. Midwest, James and his wife Susan have spent time living in Paris and traveling throughout Europe. Their website The Savvy Backpacker offers advice for independent travelers who literally backpack across Europe and those who apply a backpacker mentality to travel comfortably yet budget-consciously.
We recently chatted with James and Susan, who are now in New York City.
IndependentTraveler.com: Is there an age limit on backpacking?
James and Susan Feess: No way! We’ve seen backpackers of all ages. The last time we were staying in a hostel in London we met a 70-something Australian man who was traveling around Europe for multiple months.
IT: Why do you think most people outgrow the backpacker mindset?
JF & SF: It’s no secret that most backpackers tend to be young and broke, so they do everything as cheaply as possible. It’s natural for people to upgrade their travel styles as they get older, start earning more money and get accustomed to a better standard of living. However, a lot of people maintain the backpacker mindset regardless of income level or age.
Top 25 Ways to Save on Europe Travel
IT: You’re now in your early 30s. How has the mindset changed for you both since you first started backpacking?
JF & SF: We find now that we focus on value and not cost — and that’s a big difference. For example, you can take a bus across Europe very cheaply. However, it takes much longer than the train. So it really isn’t a great value because it’s costing you time, which is more valuable than money. Now we take the train whenever we travel because the extra cost is a good value. The same principle applies to food, lodging, entertainment, [almost] everything.
IT: What are some of the non-monetary benefits to traveling like a backpacker?
JF & SF: Traveling on a budget helps get you closer to living like local. Staying in a five-star hotel and eating at high-end restaurants is about as far away from local living as you can get because most locals don’t do that. However, budget travelers have to stay in more modest accommodation and eat where the locals eat because that’s the best value and cheapest option. Personally, we prefer renting a modest apartment. This gives you an instant connection to a neighborhood.
IT: Do you travel like a backpacker 100 percent of the time? Any indulgences you want to confess?
JF & SF: We try sticking to our backpacker roots but we do “splurge” a bit more these days. Back when we were in our early 20s we would try surviving on as little food as possible, but now we have a nicer meal once or twice. Sometimes we’ll go really crazy and buy the $11 bottle of wine instead of the $6 bottle!
Having a little more money does open new doors to better experience a culture. For example, we’ve taken a few cooking classes in France, and this is a great hands-on way to experience the culture that we couldn’t afford on a backpacker’s budget. Another possibility: specialized walking tours. They can get a little expensive, but they give you so much information that you’d never know otherwise.
IT: Tell us about some of your favorite places you’ve visited over the last year.
JF & SF: While it isn’t Europe, we actually just got back from traveling to Cape Town, South Africa. It was an amazing trip and we were able to “live it up” since everything is really cheap there. It was probably our most luxurious trip. For example, we got a really nice steak meal for $15 and alcohol was only $3 to $4 in a restaurant. We ended up staying nearly two weeks.
IT: Aside from occasional trips elsewhere, you tend to focus on Europe. Are there any spots in Europe you haven’t visited but want to?
JF & SF: We still haven’t visited Iceland. It’s at the top of our list. Unfortunately, Iceland isn’t cheap. So we’ll keep saving until we have enough. We want to spend a lot more time in Italy and Spain. And Croatia. And Berlin in the summer.
Quiz: Which European City Are You?
Planning a Trip to Europe: Your 10-Step Guide
— interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
Passports are technically property of the government, but rarely are expired ones kept by any government official. So what should you do with an expired passport?
We’ve come up with five reasons why you should stash them, and three reasons to trash them.
First, the reasons to keep your expired passport in a safe place:
The passport may be expired, but some of the visas aren’t. Some countries issue single-entry visas that expire as soon as you depart. Others offer multiple-entry visas that could be valid for several years, well beyond when your passport expires. So if you travel to that country, you’ll need to bring your expired passport with your valid one.
You may need a record of your travels for a visa application. When applying for visas, some applications require you to detail all of the countries you’ve visited over the past five to 10 years. Larry Irving of Washington D.C., who travels frequently on business, encountered that recently on a visa application for Russia. “I can’t remember always, but the passport stamps help,” said Irving, who has visited more than 50 countries. He stores expired passports in a safe place in his office because having a record of his travels helps him complete the applications more efficiently.
How to Get a Visa
They make memories. Television news producer Yvette Michael has spent her career on the road. She’s attempted multiple times to write a travel journal to document her adventures. “But it really became too much work,” said Michael, who lives in New York, “so the passports double up as diaries!”
They inspire children. Lisa Bolton of Frederick, Maryland, gave her old passports to her son to play with. “It gave me an opportunity to talk to my kid about the wonders of traveling and experiencing cool stuff,” she said.
The expired passport still proves your citizenship. The U.S. State Department recommends on its website that you keep your passport because “it is considered proof of your U.S. citizenship.” As this USA Today article points out, there are many scenarios in which an expired passport cannot be used as a valid ID. But if you need proof of citizenship — such as to get a replacement if you lose your current passport — even an expired passport will suffice.
And now the reasons to trash your passport — or, more specifically, to shred it or turn it into something else:
An expired passport could lead to identity theft. Expired U.S. passports are punched with holes; other countries’ government officials alter them as well to void them. However, there are some clever thieves out there, and in the wrong hands, even an expired passport could be doctored into a fake ID for someone else.
They make cool art. With all the colors and stamp shapes, passport pages can make interesting art be used in craft projects. Pinterest user Becky Kemps deconstructed her passport and framed the pages. Artist Leonard Combier uses old passport pages as the medium for his art. Etsy seller The Nic of Time turns them into coasters. You could even put your passport on your Christmas tree.
They just add to clutter. Are you someone who keeps all your old tax returns dating back decades? If you have no good reason to keep old documents, then you should get rid of them. Not that keeping your passport makes you a hoarder, but if you’re not nostalgic about the passport, why bother keeping it?
10 Things You Don’t Know About Passports
— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
Our Airbnb hosts in Colorado Springs were health enthusiasts who had run marathons on multiple continents, had a refrigerator bursting with organic fruits and vegetables, woke up at 5:30 a.m. to meditate, and trained by jogging halfway up Pikes Peak every Thursday morning. A conversation with them was enough to motivate anyone to skip dessert and do a few extra push-ups — and yet one of them said they found us inspiring.
“I love that you spend this kind of quality time traveling together,” she told me and my mother. “It makes me want to call my daughter and see if she might want to travel with me.”
This year marks the 10th year my mom and I have taken a mother-daughter trip together, dating back to a long weekend in Boston in 2006. Since then we’ve walked on a glacier in Iceland, explored art museums in the Big Apple and gone on an “Anne of Green Gables” pilgrimage on Canada’s Prince Edward Island.
Like any mother and daughter, we don’t always get along perfectly. I love a plan; she wants to be spontaneous. When we’re lost, I check a map while she asks a local for directions. After dinner I’m ready to head back to our room to read and relax; meanwhile, she’s looking for the nearest live music venue. But over the years we’ve learned to deal with our inevitable conflicts by obeying the following tips:
Find what draws you together. Though our personalities may be opposite, we share a common love of art (Mom is the only travel companion I’ve ever had who’s just as happy to spend an entire day in one museum as I am). We also enjoy hiking and browsing indie bookstores. We avoid arguments by centering our trip on activities we’re both passionate about.
Compromise. You learned this one in kindergarten, and it applies to any journey with another person, not just mother-daughter trips. If Mom keeps us out late listening to blues music one night, we’ll make an early evening of it the next day so I can recharge. Letting one person make all the decisions leads only to resentment.
Embrace your relationship as adults. For mothers and daughters who no longer share the same home, it can be challenging — but rewarding — to leave behind the patterns of the daughter’s childhood and form a new relationship as equal adults. For us, this has meant me breaking the sometimes resentful habits of a prickly adolescent and Mom trying to be a little less over-protective.
Acknowledge that some things never change. On our flight home I was in the bathroom when the plane lurched into a sudden patch of turbulence. I stumbled out of the bathroom but couldn’t make it back to my seat because the flight attendants were hustling down the aisle with the drink cart. I ended up joining them in their jumpseats for a few minutes while we waited for the plane to settle; I knew my mom was probably worrying about me from her own seat a few rows up.
I was right. When I returned to my seat, Mom touched my arm with a sense of relief and affection any parent would recognize, no matter the age of their children. “I knew you were safe back there,” she said. “But I feel better having you with me, right here.”
Have you ever traveled with your mother or daughter?
How to Keep the Peace with Your Travel Companion
9 Ways to Make Travel Less Stressful
— written by Sarah Schlichter
I’m sure there are still plenty of people simply staring at their phones the whole time, or curled up on an uncomfortable bench trying to catch a snooze. But there are a lot more interesting things to do at airports these days during a long layover.
Learn CPR. Chicago O’Hare International is the latest airport to introduce free kiosks where you can learn CPR. The video arcade game-like tutorial shows you how to do hands-only CPR and practice on a rubber torso attached to the machine. Push hard and fast in the center of the chest to the beat of the Bee Gees song “Stayin’ Alive,” the tutorial advises.
And if you ask one University of Dayton student, the tutorial is time well spent. He learned CPR during a three-hour at Dallas/Fort Worth international. The lesson took 15 minutes, and he ended up saving the life of a fellow student two days later.
Take a free city tour. A number of airports offer free city tours to airline passengers with layovers, writes Jennifer Dombrowski of Luxe Adventure Traveler in 5 Things to Do at an Airport During a Layover. Tokyo Narita, Singapore Changi and even Salt Lake International Airport are among those offering free tours.
Icelandair launched a new program called Stopover Buddies this winter to pair up travelers with airline employees who take you skiing, ice skating, out for a spectacular meal, horseback riding or for a dip in a thermal pool, among other activities. The sky’s the limit, depending on how much time you have. The Stopover Buddies program concludes on April 30, but I hope they continue it again later this year.
Get sporty. As this Lonely Planet article details, you can go to the gym at Changi Airport in Singapore, ice skate at Seoul Incheon International, go surfing — actual surfing, not on the web – at Munich International or do yoga in a studio at Dallas/Fort Worth International.
Hang out in a first-class lounge. You don’t have to be a first-class ticketholder to pass your layover in an airline lounge. According to the website Sleeping in Airports, more than 190 airports around the world have 300 lounges that you can access by prepurchasing a pass. Or check with the airport information desk to ask about lounges that allow you to purchase access. For more information, see 7 Ways to Score Airport Lounge Access.
Be a foodie. So many airports have specialty or themed dining options that you could design your own eating tour. Travel Pulse suggests a Latin food tour at Miami International by sampling Cuban and Venezuelan dishes at various eateries. Likewise, you could go on a wine tasting tour. Two dozen U.S. airports have outposts of the winebar Vino Volo.
Rent a day room. I’ve hit the age now where trying to nap in an airport has zero appeal. So I love the concept behind Hotels by Day, in which hotels offer unsold rooms for day use at lower rates. There are a number of airport hotel options if your layover doesn’t afford enough time to travel into a city but you still want a chance to shower, take a nap or watch television.
9 Ways to Make the Most of Your Layover
Best Airports for Layovers
— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
If you love to travel, choosing a credit card that offers airline miles, hotel points or other such rewards is a natural fit. But a new study from personal finance site NerdWallet reveals that 83 percent of us apply for cards at the wrong time — and miss out on an average of nearly $200 in rewards.
According to the study, most credit card issuers offer sign-up bonuses once or twice a year, and these feature anywhere from 5,000 to 50,000 more points than you’d normally get as a new cardholder. If you miss the promotional bonuses, you’re sacrificing an average of 15,338 points, according to the study. At $1.16 per point or mile, on average, this is $177 in cash that you’re missing out on.
So when should you apply? NerdWallet found that most airline and general travel cards put out promotional offers in November, while hotel card offers peak in August. If you’re loyal to a particular issuer, keep an eye out for Chase promotions in August and November, Citi promotions in October and November and American Express promotions in August and September.
Given the data, it seems logical to wait to apply for a travel card until late summer or fall, when you can maximize the benefits, but NerdWallet offers one caveat. If you don’t already have a travel credit card, waiting for months to apply for one can cost you even in missed rewards, depending on your average monthly spending — so do the math before you decide.
NerdWallet recommends that you apply for a rewards card at least five months before your next trip. It typically takes a couple of weeks to receive the card and three months to earn the sign-up bonus, and then you’ll want to book your trip at least six weeks in advance for the best possible prices. (We’d recommend booking earlier than that for international trips. See Want the Lowest Fare? Here’s When to Book.)
Do you currently use a travel rewards card?
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Travel Budget Calculator: What Will Your Next Trip Cost?
— written by Sarah Schlichter
Tourism doesn’t simply have to benefit the person soaking in the sun; it can also do good for the people and places you visit. Malia Everette has spent her career blending the two together, designing pleasurable, socially responsible travel experiences to Cuba, Nicaragua, Myanmar and other destinations. She founded the San Francisco-based organization Altruvistas, which, in additional to providing tours, also works to educate others in the travel industry about the benefits of socially responsible travel, funds fellowships, and provides grants and loans to communities looking to improve lives through tourism.
IndependentTraveler.com: What made you choose this career?
Malia Everette: In the late 1980s, I had two journeys that changed my life’s path. The first was to Guatemala and Belize during times of civil war and human rights atrocities in indigenous communities. The second was to North Africa, Egypt, Israel and Palestine. The experiences altered my understanding of the world.
IT: Why should travelers pay attention to being socially responsible?
ME: Frankly, if one cares about people and the planet, purchasing a tourism product based on values is absolutely an ethical mandate. Sustainable tourism helps sustain livelihoods, support local communities, and conserve the world’s natural and cultural heritage. I know that responsible tourism is a powerful tool in poverty reduction.
IT: What are some of the key attributes that a traveler should look for in a destination?
ME: Regardless of the what and where and how, you can finesse your impact by being engaged and informed as a consumer. Call a hotel, a tour operator, a transport company, and ask questions. Ask who owns the hotel. Is it locally owned? If so, more of your tourism dollars can benefit the local economy. If it’s, say, a foreign-owned ecolodge, ask about stewardship practices. Do they give back or profit share to the local community? Do they employ the locals?
When you eat out, choose a locally owned place, not an international chain. If you want to buy gifts to bring home, consider visiting local cooperatives, artist studios and fair trade organizations. This way your gift buying is also supporting the local economy.
IT: You encourage people to choose socially responsible travel instead of “sun and fun” vacations. If someone does take a more typical vacation, are there things can they do to be socially responsible during that trip?
ME: I think all of us need holidays, and having some “fun in the sun” is a good thing. We can be travelers and also tourists. Even going to a place with tons of coastal and resort tourism, one can again try to find a locally owned beach property. Don’t be afraid to go into town and find out where the locals eat and shop. Little acts go a long way.
IT: Which global destinations strike the best balance between contributing to the betterment of the community and being desirable to a traveler?
ME: I am constantly pleased to see new community-based tourism initiatives in Cambodia, Vietnam, India and Peru. I see all the amazing restoration happening in Havana every month when I visit and know that tourism receipts are doing good. Many visitors don’t know where the tourism dollars go, yet large amounts are reinvested back into restoration and local social services. I was also impressed by Rwanda’s management of mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park.
IT: You’ve traveled extensively with your two sons. Where did you first introduce them to the idea of responsible tourism?
ME: My sons are now 15 and 16. I started traveling with them when they were babies and as a single mom. I think my sons “got it” when they were about 8 and 9, when we were visiting a fair trade coffee cooperative in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. They played with the local kids and stayed at the farms. The contrast of life, the joy of community and the contrast of material wealth they got.
IT: Was it hard to travel as a single mom?
ME: I have found that traveling as a mother has been incredible. People in the service sectors are so accommodating and generous, though it might have been strange to see me with a backpack with one baby in front and one toddler on the back!
IT: What are some of your favorite travel destinations?
ME: I love so many places, but I find myself in three places frequently. First, I am in Cuba about nine or 10 times a year. I love it, the cultural resilience and the vitality of the people are ever compelling and connective. Second, I relish my annual visits back home to Hawaii, to be in nature, on the beach, eating poi, and just being home. I also feel called to the Amazon every few years. I usually go to the Sarayaku nation in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The community and the jungle are inspiring, connective and restorative. Plus, I so respect their struggle to maintain their land and way of life [in the face of] petroleum exploitation.
IT: Where haven’t you been that you’d really like to visit?
ME: I hope I have the longevity and health to enjoy many more adventures. On my short list: Bhutan, Borneo, Dominica and Papua New Guinea.
Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Yes — and Here’s How
20 Ways to Blend In with the Locals
— interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
I’m always on the prowl for the best items to pack in the carry-on bag that stays under the seat in front of me during a long-haul flight. The coziest socks, the perfect snacks, the best neck pillow, the yoga pants with the most comfortable waistband, the best-tasting toothpaste in the smallest tube. It’s a bit of an obsession of mine — and one day in the hopefully-not-too-distant future, I will master my quest.
If you too are always seeking out new ideas of what to pack in your carry-on for a lengthy flight, these recent articles may also provide you with inspiration:
The Complete Guide to Faking Your Own Business-Class Upgrade: Just because you’re flying economy, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a first-class experience, writes Dan Frommer at Quartz. One of his genius tips: Bring a Thermos with you to the airport. Once you’ve cleared security, go to McDonald’s or another restaurant, and have an ice cream sundae made in the container. It’ll stay cold enough for you to enjoy after your in-flight dinner. He also packs hot sauce and noise-canceling headphones, and prepays for in-flight Internet access through Gogo to save money.
A Must-Have Travel Kit for Your Coziest Flight Ever: Why have I never thought to bring my own teabags on a flight? Zoe Eisenberg of Care2 recognizes that in-flight tea options are “bleak.” She also suggests bringing a scarf; according to Ayurvedic medicine, wearing a scarf can bolster your immune system by offering extra warmth around the neck — vital when you’re surrounded by sneezy travelers. (See also our tips for Avoiding the Airplane Cold.)
10 Smart Things to Pack in Your Carry-On: Most of the tips in this article from Mental Floss are pretty basic, but a few are items the typical traveler may not consider. One of my favorites: a collapsible water bottle that takes up little room in your bag.
For more on in-flight comfort, check out 9 Must-Dos Before a Long-Haul Flight and 10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight.
What do you always bring on a long flight?
— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
I recently stumbled across a website that lets you create a customized map highlighting all the countries you’ve visited. (You can try it yourself at Traveltip.org.) While I initially considered it merely a fun exercise, I found myself hesitating as I checked off a few of the options — could I really count Denmark if I’d only spent an overnight there between flights and didn’t actually get to see anything besides my hotel? (My answer: Nope.) But I did count Guatemala, which I visited on a day trip from Belize.
Everyone draws the line differently when deciding which countries to count — or not to count — on their own personal lists. In The Politics of Country Counting, Sam Wright Fairbanks of Map Happy offers several different criteria you might use, such as spending at least 24 hours, getting through customs or traveling to more than one city within the country.
And then, of course, there are places that may not technically be countries, such as Taiwan or Greenland — do you count those? What about Scotland vs. England vs. Northern Ireland, all part of the United Kingdom but different in culture and history? Map Happy points to a couple of travel clubs that address this by splitting the world into not only internationally recognized countries but also smaller geographical territories and areas. These include the Travelers’ Century Club — which considers places like Alaska, Hawaii, Prince Edward Island and the Isle of Man to be separate from their parent countries — and Most Traveled People, which slices the world into a whopping 875 regions you can visit. (You must become a member of the club to see the region list.)
No matter which standard you use, counting countries is a fun exercise, though I sometimes have to remind myself not to take it too seriously. While shooting for your 10th or 50th or 100th country can inspire you to plan new adventures, the world isn’t a checklist — and just because you’ve visited a particular country, it doesn’t mean that you’ve “done” that place in the sense that you’ve experienced everything it has to offer.
Of course, none of that will stop me from trying to fill in a few more spots on that Travelertip map.
Photos: 9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should
Bucket List Travel
How do you determine whether you’ve visited a country?
— 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.
12 Travel Photography Mistakes to Avoid
How to Back Up Photos When You Travel
— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
“Wow, none of this looks familiar at all,” I told my travel companion as we walked through downtown Oslo, Norway, on a recent trip. “I have no idea if I was ever in this neighborhood. No, wait — I think I remember that fountain!”
It had been 12 years since my first and only time in Oslo, a quick two-day stay in the midst of a longer European trip. My memories of the place had come down to a few hazy impressions — the striking cleanliness of the city, a few statues in Vigeland Park, the facade of the Royal Palace on a gray day. But when I returned to Oslo after so long away, I was surprised by how much it felt like I was visiting for the first time.
The same happened on a different trip to Barcelona, also after a dozen-year gap. Yes, the famous Gothic cathedral looked familiar, as did the bustling Rambla promenade, but it was the places between major landmarks that seemed to have slipped away over the years — the shops and squares and side streets, the connecting fabric of the city, the bits that fill the gaps between the highlights that we usually remember from a trip.
As I wandered like a wide-eyed newcomer around Barcelona, I thought back to a conversation I once had with a friend about how little we remember about the books we’ve read. “Have I even really read the book if I can only remember one good line or an important plot point?” she asked me. “What if all I can recall is that I liked a book, even if I don’t know why anymore?”
I discovered this year that the same goes for travel. Unless you visit a place regularly — the way you might reread a favorite book — only your most powerful memories of it seem to stand the test of time. Psychologist Daniel L. Schacter labeled this transience one of the “deadly sins of memory,” according to the PsyBlog.
So why do we spend thousands of dollars to travel when all that remains of a trip a few years later will be some pretty photos and a misty impression of a place (“So beautiful” or “Ugh, I got violently ill there!”)?
To me, the answer is that the memories I do retain from my travels are some of my most visceral and personal — my first sight of the Duomo in Florence (which literally took my breath away), the warm smile from a woman in Greenland in response to my halting attempt to say “thank you” in her language, the rosy color of the Moroccan sand dunes at sunrise. I don’t believe my most important travel memories will ever fade.
As for the rest, in many ways traveling is about living richly in the moment. Even if some of those moments may someday slip away, maybe it’s enough that we lived them at all.
Return Trips: Why the Second Time’s a Charm
Sharing Your Travel Photos and Experiences
— written by Sarah Schlichter