As I prepare for my latest voyage, the packing checklist looks a lot like the usual, at least on the surface. New shoes? Absolutely. A few new items of clothing? Why not. A camera, raincoat and Kindle are also among the staples I lug around from one trip to the next.
But this is no “normal” voyage. On this trip — my first-ever soft adventure cruise — I’m traveling on International Expeditions’ 31-passenger La Estrella Amazonica down the Peruvian Amazon, one of the most remote and exotic sections of this mighty river. And while pictures make the line’s new Amazonica ship look quite comfortable (nice touch: balconies with every cabin!), the places we’ll be visiting in the jungle might not be so forgiving.
My past cruise experience has focused on mainstream, luxury and European river lines, so for this otherworldly adventure I turned to International Expeditions’ recommended packing list.
Among the items: “strong” insect repellent, insect-bite relief products, baby wipes, hand sanitizer, tissue packs (for off-the-ship toilets), sunburn relief, and medication for diarrhea, altitude sickness and motion sickness. I also visited a doctor for a prescription for malaria pills, just in case, and to make sure my hepatitis A shot was up to date.
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As far as clothes go, a wide-brimmed straw hat came “highly recommended” (it’s actually kind of cute). I splurged on Skechers walking shoes and some not-so-flattering khaki cargo pants from L.L.Bean that I’m told will be a godsend (because they dry quickly). To avoid attracting insects, clothing in dark shades is highly discouraged — a challenge right there since my urban travel wardrobe revolves around black … everything. A forage to the back of my closet yielded treasures like white, linen, long-sleeved blouses (turns out I had three that were virtually identical!).
The niftiest tip on the list? On this cruise, a seven-night roundtrip from Peru‘s Iquitos, we will visit a local school, and passengers are encouraged to pick up supplies to donate. Tucked into my pile are Crayola markers, a box of pens, folders and notebooks.
The packing part of this adventure isn’t over yet. Even as I head to the airport for my flight to Lima, where I’ll meet up with fellow passengers before heading to the boat, I’m keenly aware of the one item I’ve failed to procure. Turns out piranhas, purring monkeys and bizarre puss caterpillars are not to be feared; the real predator on the Peruvian Amazon is the mighty skeeter, due to dengue fever (which doesn’t have a vaccine). Super-strong insect repellent is nowhere to be found in central New Jersey right now, where freezing temperatures mean there’s not a mosquito in sight and shops aren’t currently stocking the stuff.
I also failed to buy the recommended tube socks, which protect ankles from chiggers — but I’m not too worried. To this inveterate travel shopper, it’s just one more excuse to prowl around Lima’s shops before our group heads to the boat.
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– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown
Travel writer Bill Bryson has made a career out of examining the follies and foibles of different countries and regions, including Australia, the Appalachian Trail, his home state of Iowa and his adopted country of Britain. Few authors have as much insight into how tourists behave as he does.
Chris Gray Faust, Destinations Editor at our sister site Cruise Critic, caught up with Bryson last month on a cruise aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. During their one-hour interview (read part 1 here), Bryson discussed his travel pet peeves — including the phrase “bucket list” — and how you can get the most out of a trip to even the most well-documented cities.
IT: After a fairly normal 1950s childhood in the Midwest, did you ever expect that you’d spend much of your life traveling?
Bill Bryson: Not at all. But I grew up with a really powerful urge to see the world, and the thing I remember very clearly is looking at National Geographic when I was a kid. My dad always had a subscription.
Now, the classic thing for little boys to do is look at the bare-breasted ladies in Africa or Tahiti, but what I was looking at was France and Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Everywhere in the world looked so attractive and exotic. I just wanted to go off and see the world.
IT: Are certain places still on your bucket list?
BB: I don’t like using that term “bucket list” as I get closer and closer to being in bucket territory. But no, there are a lot of places that I’ve never been where I’d like to go, and there are a lot of places that I’ve never been with my wife where I’d like to take her, and then there are a lot of places that I would like to go and possibly write about. But they aren’t all the same places.
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IT: What is your biggest pet peeve when you look at other travelers?
BB: There are so many people who are so obsessed with their job and their career that — no matter where you send them — they seem unable to enjoy the experience of travel. I think that’s a great shame, not only because travel makes you a better person but because it also makes you better at whatever business you do.
I know a man whose business took him all over the world but especially Sydney. And every time he’d go to Sydney from America, he’d stay at an airport hotel and meet his Australian colleagues at the airport hotel, and as soon as he possibly could he’d fly out again. He’d never seen Sydney Harbour! I don’t care how ambitious I was or how tied to my job I was, if you sent me to Sydney, at the minimum, I’m going to have a day to enjoy the experience.
IT: How do you think the Internet and smartphones have changed the way that we travel?
BB: People are so busy reporting their experiences that they aren’t actually having the experiences. I don’t travel with a cell phone in America because my cell phone from England doesn’t work in America. It drives my publishers crazy that they can’t phone me! I tell them, pretend it’s 1995 again and you don’t have a cell phone. They want instant access. So many people email you and expect an answer within minutes. You don’t have that entitlement to expect me to respond immediately.
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IT: What else have you noticed about how travel has changed?
BB: There is so much more of it happening now. Just a year or so ago, I went to the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. It was out of season, but [the bridge] was so full of human beings you couldn’t walk across it. It was physically impossible without fighting crowds. It’s a shame that there are so many people who are trying to have the same few experiences.
IT: So how can a traveler who wants to have a unique experience do so?
A: Well, if you just go another 200 yards, you can have it all to yourself. [My wife and I] walk away from Trafalgar Square or Place d’Concorde. We usually end up going to some residential area or some park or follow the river. Then you very quickly shed all the tourists.
If you want to experience Paris or Rome or London in an authentic way, it’s still really easy to do. Go where people live, not where the tourists hang out. Walking is the way to get a full three-dimensional experience where all your senses kick in. You’ve got the smells and the sights and the wind in your face.
– interview conducted by Chris Gray Faust
You know you’ve got it bad when all you want to do is run up to the nearest stranger and ask her for a hug. While I never actually did that, back in 2004, after six weeks traveling in New Zealand alone and about to start another five weeks solo in Australia, I was desperate for some human contact.
I’d never given it much thought before, but humans are by nature social creatures. We crave not just human interaction, but physical touch as well. And I’m not talking in-the-bedroom touch; I’m simply referring to the everyday casual brush of the arm, hand touches, half hugs and such, which we typically get from close friends and family. Take this away from us, and we start to feel lonely and cut off.
This leaves solo travelers in a bit of a bind. Try touching a stranger on the shoulder, and I bet you that person startles. Brush past a person and you’re bound to get a dirty look. So how do you get even a tiny bit of much-needed physical contact?
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Shake Hands: Handshakes are the easiest way to ensure yourself physical contact because they are socially acceptable in most countries and you can offer your hand to most people you meet. There’s rarely much warmth in a handshake — but if you’ve gone two or three weeks without touching anyone, you’ll be surprised at how good it feels.
Ask Someone to Dance: While this may not be possible everywhere you go, there are certain countries where dancing is an important part of their evenings. In Ireland and Scotland, for example, ceilidhs are a popular forum for Celtic music and dancing, and the locals are always up for dancing with someone new.
The Arm Touch: This one’s probably easier for men, who are generally comfortable clapping another guy on the arm when saying hello, even if it’s just the hotel doorman. My tricky tactic: gently bump someone “by accident” in a store or a line, then place my hand on their arm to steady them, while I apologize. It may sound silly, but it works.
Risk a Hug: Slightly less problematic for women, hugs are the ultimate casual physical touch, but usually require at least a little familiarity with the person you’re hugging. Not so easy when you’re traveling, but it can be done. If you’re staying in a bed and breakfast, give your host a quick hug in the evening to say thank you for all she (or he) has done for you. On a tour or cruise, make friends and offer half-hugs in the evening. If you’re a really comfortable hugger, wear a “Free Hugs” T-shirt out and about. Someone will take you up on the offer!
Have you ever noticed you’re missing physical touch when traveling alone? How have you handled it?
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– written by Dori Saltzman
Imagine how many insights travelers to the United States would glean about the American character if they visited during our Independence Day celebrations on July 4.
They’d pick up some of our essential values, such as patriotism (flying of flags), love for family and community (reunions, BBQs, hometown parades), distrust for institutional authority (setting off fireworks, both legal and illegal) and occasional stupidity (ER visits because of the aforementioned fireworks). Not to mention all of those sales (pursuit of happiness?).
Of course, we’re not the only country that celebrates an Independence Day. So when I found out that I’d be traveling in Mexico over its holiday (held on September 16 — not Cinco de Mayo as many people think), I saw it as a chance to dive a bit deeper into our southern neighbor’s national psyche.
My trip to Merida, a colonial city in Yucatan that’s popular with expats, also reminded me that visiting countries during their holidays can require a few schedule (and attitude) adjustments. Here are some tips I picked up.
Read up. Before you go, it helps to learn about the country’s history. A bit of research taught me that Mexico’s struggle for freedom from Spain was just as arduous — if not more so — as our break with Britain. For one thing, the war lasted 11 years, from 1810 to 1821, compared to our eight. And Spain had been in control of the colony since 1521, establishing dominance for nearly 300 years (talk about fighting the power).
The centerpiece of Mexican Independence Day is called the Grito de Dolores, a symbolic re-creation of the beginning of the revolution. It’s broadcast nationwide from Dolores, the small town in central Mexico where it all began. On the night of September 15, crowds gather in city public squares throughout Mexico to ring bells and watch fireworks. Having a little knowledge about the first Grito, issued as a call to arms by a Roman Catholic priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, made the event more special for me.
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Expect crowds — and closures. I arrived in Cancun on September 14, the Saturday before the holiday. The airport was even more packed than usual, with Mexicans arriving from overseas to celebrate the holiday at home or taking advantage of the three-day weekend to go on short trips outside the country.
Once I arrived in Merida, I learned that some attractions I’d planned on visiting, such as the Noche Mexicana, a folk festival usually held on Saturday evenings, would not be taking place. Some roads were also closed to through traffic, which meant taking a cab to the Plaza Grande was out of the question (luckily, it was a short walk from my hotel).
Tip generously. Not everyone has Independence Day off, of course. Because of the increased crowds, the day was business as usual — and then some — for people who work in the hospitality industry. If you know that you are keeping your driver, tour operator or server from being with their families on their national holiday, it’s a nice gesture to make your tip a little more special. After all, wouldn’t you want visitors to the States to do the same?
Take part. After checking with my concierge to make sure it was safe, I headed out to the Independence Day festivities around 10 p.m. Sunday night. The streets were packed with revelers, mostly families, and the restaurants on the Plaza Grande were full. After grabbing a mango sherbet at Sorbeteria Colon, which has been serving sweet treats since 1907, I positioned myself on a bench to people watch (the giggling teenagers with the fake moustaches — a tribute to the bushy revolutionaries — were particularly entertaining).
I didn’t have long to wait. After the Grito at 11 p.m., the crowd erupted into cheers. “Vivan los heroes que nos dieron patria!” the chant started, before naming some of the country’s founding fathers. “Viva nuestra independencia! Viva Mexico! Viva!“
At the end of the third “Viva Mexico,” fireworks shot into the sky. The national anthem started to play, and the people around me started singing. I found myself moved by their obvious love for their country, and realized that patriotism — as opposed to its more sinister cousin, nationalism — is a beautiful thing to watch, regardless of your passport.
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– written by Chris Gray Faust
Next year I’m going to Liverpool, England, for a friend’s wedding. My husband and I plan on staying five or six days with my friend and then venturing out for three to six days. Though I’ve been to London, I’ve never ventured outside the British capital.
Inspiration for trip ideas has been easy to come by. While looking for a few really cool experiences in the Liverpool area, I checked out IndependentTraveler.com’s 13 Best England Experiences and have already added the Magical Mystery Tour to our list of things to do.
But I need more than just ideas for things to do and places to see. I need to figure out how to plan my trip as inexpensively as possible.
So how am I preparing?
I plan to consult a long list of resources, ranging from the official Liverpool and England tourism websites to asking various British friends. And, of course, I’m checking out the advice we’ve compiled here at IndependentTraveler.com. Between the various articles on money, packing, international travel and more, I’ve already started putting together a list of must-dos.
For instance, one of the best ways to save money on a trip to England, where their currency is stronger than ours, is to get the best exchange rate that I can. In Buying Foreign Currency: Get More Bang for Your Buck, Mark Rowlands, sales director at currency provider Covent Garden FX, advises shopping around before leaving home. Additionally, he says to prepare ahead of time by checking the money market. I shouldn’t trust suppliers to tell me what the current rates are; instead, I should pre-check them myself with a website like XE.com.
“You can’t buy from a wholesaler, but knowledge is power. If your supplier is adding 5 percent — which is not unusual — walk away.”
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Furthermore, once I’m in England and need more currency I know to stick as much as possible with credit cards and ATM withdrawals, thanks to Get the Best Exchange Rate.
Another area we might be able to save money is transportation. Do we rent a car or do we stick to mass transit?
If we rent a car, Traveler’s Ed author Ed Hewitt recommends looking at smaller rental car players, like Europcar, and not just sticking to the big names. In Car Rental Secrets We Bet You Don’t Know, he also advises using an aggregator like Priceline to find the best price:
“As I have written numerous times in different contexts over the past 15 years, the best place to get a great rental car price is Priceline. It posts prices for the majority of rental car companies.”
On the other hand, if we stick with mass transit, we’ll have to hit the rails, at the very least to get from wherever we land (Manchester, hopefully) to Liverpool and back again. According to Getting Around England: Flights, Trains and More, we’ll need to check out Virgin Trains, which offers a range of inter-city routes, like London or Manchester to Liverpool.
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If you’ve got any suggestions for me, please stop by my Liverpool and Surrounding Areas thread on the IndependentTraveler.com’s members’ forum.
– written by Dori Saltzman
We all know you can learn a lot about a person from his work desk, her reading list or even their medicine cabinet. But can you apply similar rules to a country and its people?
Sure. Just check out the extensive frozen food aisles in most U.S. supermarkets, and you’ll quickly realize how much most Americans love to save time by relying on easy, convenient, premade food. So what can supermarkets tell you about people in other countries?
Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor-in-Chief of Cruise Critic and frequent contributor to IndependentTraveler.com, was surprised to learn that not all Italians spend hours making pasta by hand.
“The vast array of premade pasta at a Tuscany co-op certainly disabused us of the notion that all Italian hand-make theirs,” she wrote on IndependentTraveler.com’s Facebook page.
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I discovered that Romanians are not above making fun of their vampiric association when I found a potato chip dipping sauce called “Let’s Dip Dracula.”
When we asked our readers on Facebook what they’ve learned about a country on their foreign supermarket forays, people were quick to chime in.
Sheila of Sheila’s Travel Page had a similar epiphany to Brown’s. “I assumed that everywhere tropical used fresh squeezed juice, but in the grocery store there was a whole aisle of Tetra Pak juice. People living in the tropics don’t have time to squeeze juice, just like me!”
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And Tamara M. Goldstein wrote that visiting supermarkets abroad reminds her that most people in the world don’t have huge refrigerators. “In the USA we have so many sizes of one product; however, in most European countries there is one, maybe two sizes of a product,” she wrote. “They don’t have gigantic refrigerators like we have nor do they have walls filled with cupboards.”
Do you visit supermarkets in the countries you visit? What have you noticed?
– written by Dori Saltzman
Last Thursday I returned from my first trip to Alaska. Everything from the views to the food was fantastic. But part of what made my trip so enjoyable was that I was ready for just about anything, because I had read up on what I needed and had brought three specific must-pack items.
Layers: Having read many articles on how to prepare, I still struggled to find outfits that were suitable for both warm and cold weather without grossly overpacking. What I finally settled on were two pairs of jeans, several short- and long-sleeved shirts, a sweatshirt, a light jacket and a fleece jacket, with a pair of gloves and a headband to keep my ears warm. I kept an umbrella and poncho handy, too. “They” aren’t kidding when they say the weather can change at the drop of a hat. In Juneau, it was rainy and chilly, but not cold. In Skagway, it was cloudy and in the 40′s. In Ketchikan (which gets 13 feet of rain per year), it was sunny and in the 70′s.
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Proper Footwear: After my clothes, I tossed plenty of socks and three pairs of sturdy shoes into my suitcase, factoring in one pair for wet weather (waterproofed hiking boots), one pair for cold weather (sheepskin boots) and one pair for regular weather (sneakers or tennis shoes). Boy, were my feet happy.
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The Best Camera You Can Beg, Borrow or Buy: Sure, certain things in Alaska are overrated. (You can see similar mountains in several other places.) But you’ll want to snap some once-in-a-lifetime shots of what’s not so common elsewhere: grizzlies, dog-sled teams, Tlingit totems and, of course, glaciers, just to name a few. Most standard smartphones these days come with cameras that will do the trick just fine (and often better than any mainstream digital camera), so if you don’t own one, look into upgrading or borrowing one from a friend. You won’t regret it.
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– written by Ashley Kosciolek
For a few weeks now, I’ve spent nearly every evening knee-deep in plans for an upcoming trip to Seattle. I’ve booked a hotel, drooled over potential restaurant menus, and made a list of must-visit museums, bookstores and parks. But while my excitement is building, there’s one aspect of the trip that makes me a little nervous: riding public buses.
It’s an embarrassing admission to make, especially for someone who has traveled across four continents and writes about travel for a living. I am generally unfazed by airports and can handle the world’s subways and trains with aplomb, but city buses are somehow just … different. There’s no fixed endpoint or neatly labeled station to mark where I’m supposed to get off; instead I hover at the edge of my seat, watching the unfamiliar streets sliding by, glancing surreptitiously at my map to try to figure out where I am and when to signal the driver for my stop. No matter how many times I do it, I still get stressed out.
I usually find myself throwing myself on the mercy of the bus driver or a fellow passenger to help me get off at the right place. As an introvert, I’m intimidated by that too — especially overseas when there’s a language barrier in the mix! But luckily, it almost always works. Relying on the kindness of strangers, no matter how shy I am about doing it, has rarely led me astray in my travels.
In a very small way, riding public buses enables me to do something many of us want to do when we travel: step out of our comfort zone. Travel isn’t really travel to me without a little frisson of nerves mixed in with excitement and anticipation. After all, if we’re not stretching ourselves somehow, we may as well stay home.
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How do you step out of your own comfort zone when you travel?
– written by Sarah Schlichter
In 5 Signs You’re Not a True Traveler, I declared that you should travel to experience new things, and that you shouldn’t always take the same vacations again and again. While I stand behind the notion that resort vacations alone aren’t traveling in the truest sense of the word, everyone should have one of those special places that take us away but make us feel at home, all at once.
Call it a weekend getaway, or call it the Griswold Family Summer Vacation — a good ol’ stand-by vacation spot, by any other name, is just as sweet.
When I was a child, my parents would wake me up in the pitch-darkness before dawn to jump into the car (in full pajama regalia, clutching stuffed compatriots) and head to Montauk, Long Island. We did this every summer, which was a tradition that I later found out my father had started in his mid-20′s. With a sense of legacy, and miles of beaches, village shopping centers, farmer’s markets, winding roads and harborside restaurants, there wasn’t any element that “got old.”
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In college I moved to Poughkeepsie, New York, and within a short time I was initiated into the cult of leaf-praising, harvest-loving, pumpkin latte-drinking and apple-picking worshippers of fall. The Hudson Valley came alive during the autumn months, and I was intoxicated by the bucolic rolling hills, small-town festivals and flavors that marked the season.
It’s because of four years spent roaming the grounds of the Vanderbilt Mansion and strolling the streets of Rhinebeck that I became a fan of New York’s Hudson Valley for life. In that time I learned important distinctions of the area — most notably, do not confuse Dutchess County for “upstate” … it’s not the same thing!
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Every October, like clockwork, some inner leaves rustle and I’m drawn back to the familiar world of my old stomping grounds. What some people remember most about their time away at college is the parties or the sorority pals. But for me, that period of my life offered a lifelong gift: the opportunity to know a place and to revisit it with new eyes every time the autumn wind blows and the Valley comes calling.
Where’s your home-away hideaway? Is there a place that you visit continually and couldn’t imagine never seeing again? Post yours in the comments.
– written by Brittany Chrusciel
The last time I packed for a long trip, size did matter. I had to stuff as much as I could into one suitcase. Thankfully, it was a big suitcase. But this was a 12-day cruise, and I had to pack for a variety of weather and occasions — including formal night. That meant I needed to have as much room as possible at the top of the suitcase so my dresses wouldn’t crease.
Enter these nifty elastic bands called rollnbands, which you can use to wrap rolled pieces of clothing together to make more room. They were very helpful for compressing my T-shirts, workout clothing and PJ’s into a small space, leaving more room to pile in my folded items. (For those more organized than me, you could also use the bands to roll each day’s outfits together, so that all you have to do is grab a bundle before getting dressed in the morning.)
Fearing wrinkles, I didn’t feel comfortable trying to wrap my “nicer” items with the bands. That didn’t matter though, as the extra space provided by the tightly packed rolled items was more than enough to put my folded pieces on top. The larger bands proved more useful than the small ones, as a large band could wrap three to four items and a small band only wrapped two.
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I didn’t find rollnbands to be as helpful to me as packing cubes, which are more appropriate for clothing that’s easily wrinkled. But they work great for packing mushable items into a tight space in order to make room for clothing that needs a bit more room.
A pack of rollnbands comes with five small and five large bands and retails for $19.95.
Want to try them for yourself? We’re giving away a few of our gently used rollnbands. To win, just leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on August 15, 2013. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the rollnbands. 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. Reader Linda Conner has won the rollnbands. Stay tuned for further giveaways!
– written by Dori Saltzman