Unless your job involves frequent travel, you probably don’t take more than a small handful of trips a year. Those of us blessed (cursed?) with wanderlust all know the inevitable restlessness that sets in when you’ve been in one place for too long — because let’s face it: the afterglow doesn’t last too long post-trip. Depending on the severity, here’s what I do when I get the itch.
When it’s rainy outside, I’m feeling sluggish or I’m stuck at my desk for hours and wishing I was somewhere else, I sometimes pore through photos from past trips or drool over online pictures of exotic places, wishing I were there. It’s usually a decent quick fix, but it can also leave me wanting to travel even more. If the latter happens, I …
2. Plan a Trip
Like most travelers, I have a mile-long bucket list of places I’m dying to visit. When photos alone won’t do the trick, I sit down and actually plan out what I’d like to do when I finally make my way to one of my dream destinations. It helps me to be realistic about how much it’ll cost, how many days I’ll need to see and do everything, and when I’ll be able to go.
3. Book a Trip
In more extreme cases, the only way to allay my withdrawal is to book a trip so I’ve got something to look forward to. Booking is the biggest hurdle to actually traveling, and once I’ve cleared it, it only gets better from there.
4. Pick Up and Go
This tactic is obviously easier to take if it involves a quick weekend trip to the beach or the mountains, but even a short getaway is a great way to reset my travel timer when I’m hit with a particularly strong bout of wanderlust. It’s also a nice excuse to explore new places close to home.
I returned last week from a trip to Havana, Cuba, where I discovered a country on the verge of potentially drastic changes. Since December, when President Obama announced his intention to begin normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba, it’s become easier for Americans to visit Cuba legally — and interest in travel to the Caribbean’s largest island has skyrocketed.
Fortunately, there are numerous tour operators offering opportunities to American travelers. I was part of a small group on a people-to-people itinerary arranged by New York-based smarTours. A spokesman for the company tells us that “online inquiries and phone calls have more than doubled since the historic announcement in December 2014, and we are almost sold out of spots for Cuba for 2015.”
With further political and economic maneuverings on the way, including the removal of Cuba from the U.S. state terrorism list, it’s clear that the country is on the brink of tremendous change (much of it welcomed by the Cuban people). If you’re one of the thousands of Americans planning a trip in the coming months to see the country as it is today, here are five things you need to know.
Bring plenty of cash.
MasterCard has said it will allow its credit cards to be used in Cuba, but that’s not a reality yet because the banking system simply isn’t in place. This means you can’t withdraw money from ATMs either — so you’ll want to bring more cash than you expect to spend during your trip to allow for emergencies. (As a guideline, Cuba isn’t a bargain for travelers the way Southeast Asia is, but it’s generally more affordable than traveling in the U.S. or Europe.)
If you can get a good exchange rate — or you have some left over from a previous trip — consider bringing euros, Canadian dollars or British pounds instead of U.S. dollars. When changing money from the greenback to the Cuban Convertible Peso (known locally as the CUC, which rhymes with “fluke”), you’ll have to pay an additional 10 percent fee that doesn’t apply to other currencies. The good news is that you don’t have to pay the fee when converting CUCs back to dollars at the end of your trip; if you turn in 40 CUCs, you’ll receive $40 in return.
And speaking of CUCs…
Keep an eye on your change.
The CUC is one of two currencies used in Cuba. The other one, the peso, is worth significantly less than the CUC, and the bills look similar. Someone in our group was given a three-peso note as change instead of a three-CUC note, which meant that she got only about 11 cents back instead of three dollars.
Prepare to be out of touch.
You won’t be able to call or text from an American phone in Cuba — though you can use Wi-Fi when it’s available. Internet is offered at some hotels, but it tends to be both slow and pricey. (I paid about $7 an hour at my hotel, Havana’s Melia Cohiba.)
Eat at paladares.
Cuba’s privately owned restaurants, known as paladares, tend to offer better food than those run by the government. Expect to see a lot of rice and beans, as well as fish, Caribbean lobster and ropa vieja (shredded flank steak). Vegetables and fruits vary based on what’s in season; due to the U.S. embargo, Cubans have trouble importing certain foods, so the menus won’t be as varied as those you might see back home.
Keep small change on hand.
If you want a photo with one of the colorfully costumed locals brandishing flowers or cigars in the major squares around Old Havana, prepare to hand over a CUC or two for the privilege. More importantly, you’ll also want to have anywhere from 25 cents to a CUC to give to the attendants at many bathrooms around the country. Yes, paying to pee can be annoying — and you won’t be barred from the restroom if you don’t offer a coin or two — but in a country that’s struggling economically, what seems like chump change to us can make a big difference to the locals.
We’re a little old-fashioned here at IndependentTraveler.com, but even we acknowledge that the selfie phenomenon isn’t going anywhere. We’ve even indulged once or twice while on our travels. But sometimes we’re struck dumb by the sheer audacity and, yes, stupidity of people who stop to take a selfie in the most downright rude, inconvenient and dangerous places.
Here are just a few places and situations we really don’t think mix well with selfies.
In (or even near!) an erupting volcano: Canadian adventurer George Kourounis was well equipped for the surrounding environment when he stopped to take a selfie as he descended into a boiling lava lake on Vanuatu. Dressed in an extreme heat-resistant hazmat suit, Kourounis survived his exploit, but that doesn’t mean others should follow suit.
On the edge of a cliff: Not all who take such selfie risks survive them. An Italian teenager died after falling while trying to take a selfie on a cliff high above jagged rocks in the seaside town of Taranto, Italy in June 2014. And in August 2014, a Polish couple visiting Portugal in August 2014 fell to their deaths when they ventured too near the edge of a beachside cliff.
With wild animals: Unless you’re a professional animal trainer working with a critter you’ve raised from infancy, we highly recommend skipping the selfie if you’re anywhere near a wild animal. Not only do you risk your life — as these two boys did when they decided to take selfies with a wild elephant, only to be trampled to death — but even if you survive, you may pay a high price for the stunt. A British man who snapped selfies of himself running away from bulls in Pamplona, Spain was fined $4,100 for his stupidity.
Near an object moving at high-speed: Yes, in the right light and with the right shutter speed a moving vehicle can make for a beautiful photograph, but that doesn’t mean you need to be in the pic. Getting too close to a moving train or car is never a good idea. Take this man from Oregon who was killed by an Amtrak train when he walked onto the tracks to pose for a selfie with the train in the background.
Stepping Past the Rope: Stepping over the rope inside a museum to get closer to a piece of art for a selfie isn’t going to kill you, but it certainly could get you into trouble. And it’s definitely going to anger other tourists for whom you’re ruining their view. Some museums, like Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, are putting the kibosh on selfies so that visitors can view art in peace. Most museums continue to allow visitors to snap selfies but have banned the selfie stick, saying it poses a threat to others and the art.
What do you think of the selfie phenomenon, and have you ever seen anyone taking a stupid or dangerous selfie?
Whether Uncle Sam reciprocated with a hefty refund this year, or you’re still scrambling to postmark the paperwork, tax season produces stress and savings funds alike. While most sites will advise what to spend your hard-earned refund on, we have a few travel-related fees you shouldn’t use your bonus bit of cash toward. A room with a balcony instead of just a window? Yes. Your airline’s $25 checked bag fee? Not so much. Budgeting for a dream vacation can be worth all of the withholdings, just don’t bother wasting your precious refund on the following travel fees.
If you plan on shopping abroad, don’t let laziness rob you of repayment. Many countries — mainly in the European Union — offer their own refunds of the Value Added Tax (VAT) that is levied on clothing, art and other souvenirs. This tax can range from 10 to 25 percent, so if you’re making purchases beyond a few postcards, it’s likely worth the additional effort to provide your passport, obtain the appropriate receipt while at the store and file it once at the airport. A few things to know before you go: Try not to use the items before claiming them — this may nullify the refund — and also be aware of the spending minimums in each country to qualify for compensation. Ireland requires no minimum purchase, so load up on as much — or as little — memorabilia from the Emerald Isle as you like and submit it for recompense.
This may seem like an obvious and overwrought fee to avoid, but don’t let the airlines break you down. Unless you’re headed on a safari and need pounds worth of gear, baggage fees can still be avoided because, well, they suck. Consider packing a lighter carry-on for the way over and bringing two bags home; for a domestic flight, ship your suitcase or additional items in advance (this may sound pricey, but consider your airline’s fees for overweight or additional baggage); or best of all, find an airline that still allows a free checked bag or two. Baggage fees are ever-changing and often vary by destination, so even if you fly with the same carrier routinely, it’s always smart to check current size restrictions and costs before you go.
Prepaying might seem like the mark of an organized, well-adjusted traveler — prepaid gratuities, prepaid hotel fare at a discount — but know when you’re saving time and when you’re losing money. Prepaying for gas when picking up a rental car is an expense that is only worth the cost if you’re short on time the morning of drop-off, or you’re confident that you’ll pull up to the rental agency in perfect unison with the gaslight. In this case, paying as you go and refueling on your own ensure that you’re only paying for what you’ve used — and no more.
Traveling independently is a fearless form of travel, so shouldn’t you be rewarded, not penalized, for doing so? Some tour operators and cruise lines don’t see it that way. Based on double occupancy prices, single travelers are often required to pay a premium for occupying a space set aside for two. This doesn’t have to be the case. Increasingly, cruise lines and travel companies are waiving these solo supplements and even going so far as to customize vacations and purpose-build cruise cabins for the solo traveler. Another cost-effective way to travel on your own and even get to know a travel companion is to share a room with another independent traveler — but this option depends on comfort level and availability.
Internet is reaching the dawn of a new Information Age — one where access is more of a right and less of a privilege. Because of its widespread availability in most of the developed world, Internet access is easier than ever to find for free. Find a hotel, a local cafe, a college campus or even a library where you can plug in or channel some free Wi-Fi. Along with obvious benefits such as checking museum opening hours or finding a great local restaurant, you can also use VoIP apps such as FaceTime to keep in touch with loved ones at home (depending on bandwidth, of course). Internet is still hard to come by in many parts of the world and vital enough to pay for if necessary, so know before you go.
Are you the type of traveler that roughs it on every trip, camping or sleeping in budget hotels and making all your own meals instead of shelling out for a fancy restaurant dinner? Or are you inclined to pamper yourself a little with a spa treatment or an airline upgrade?
That’s the question we asked our readers recently on Facebook — and as it turns out, most of our readers do occasionally feel the urge to splurge.
YN Leung is willing to pay extra for more comfort on longer international flights, although it’s not just about indulgence: “It’s health, not pampering, but I do upgrade on planes.” (We can’t argue with that, especially if you find it impossible to sleep in those ultra-narrow economy seats.)
Lavida Rei agrees: “A seat that I like on the plane is important.”
For Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief of our sister site, Cruise Critic, a hotel is the preferred place to treat oneself: “I’m very careful about choosing my hotel. Pampering to me is feeling safe, cozy, comfortable.”
The Digital Vagabond is also up for a little luxury, at least once in a while: “Sure, pampering is good to do periodically while on the road. Spending a little more for a high-end hotel or getting a massage — especially in countries where it’s only $15/hour. It’s all good!”
Meanwhile, Michael Cagle has upgraded his entire trip: “I have an Airstream. My days of roughing it are over.”
Johanna Kula brings up one common place to indulge: the dinner table. “Yummy food, wine, desserts … and if chocolate is involved … [of course], yes, chocolate!!!!!” she enthuses.
Mike DeSa is a travel journalist, husband, father to three rambunctious boys and former U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer. After nearly seven years of service and a combat deployment to Afghanistan, Mike and his family decided it was time to walk a different path. They left everything behind and are currently in the midst of a seven-country, seven-month trip across South and Central America. To keep up with his family’s travel around the Southern Hemisphere, you can follow them at #dclandromomania on Instagram and dclandromomania.blogspot.com.
Mike recently took time to answer a few questions about his trip for us from his current stopover in Cuenca, Ecuador.
IndependentTraveler.com: What were the most essential things you packed for this trip? Mike DeSa: The two items we’ve used the most are our waterproof, shockproof and compact-sized camera and our ruggedized laptop. As writers and people who love photography, we knew we needed to invest in a computer and camera that would endure the abuse of this trip. We also needed clothes for warm, humid weather as well as cold and possibly snowy climates. This necessitated several vented fishing shirts as well as zip-off pants that could easily be converted to shorts. Jackets with a waterproof outer shell and a zip-in fleece liner have been perfect for all the cooler climes we’ve encountered to date. Katie and I each have camping-style backpacks that allow our hands to remain free to hold onto the kids through busy bus terminals or airports. For a more detailed list on what we brought, read our Huffington Post blog post.
IT: What’s been the biggest challenge so far? MD: We assumed the biggest challenges would be mental, such as coping with homesickness. A month in, the biggest challenges have actually been physical, such as traveling on a budget — more specifically, the constraints of that budget to buy the food we crave and the unavailability of some ingredients. When we wanted a certain dish back home, we usually went to the local supermarket and picked up the ingredients, or ate out. Here we’ve found that we can’t always find any ingredient we want, especially in smaller towns, so it’s made whipping up a favorite dish like lasagna or chocolate chip cookies very difficult.
It must sound irrational that our biggest challenge so far during a seven-month, seven-country trek around the Southern Hemisphere with three kids is not having chocolate chip cookies on demand, but our love of food is a big part of our joy as a family.
IT: What has been your favorite moment with the boys so far? MD: Hands down our trip up the Napo River into the Amazon. We started with a long motorcanoe ride upriver; the low profile of the boat offered a unique perspective like that of gliding on top of the water and was perfect for spotting several different types of Amazonian birds along the way. When we arrived, our guide Gary (a native Ecuadorian) led us on a short walk through the jungle to meet a local woman, Martha, who provided us a demonstration on harvesting and cooking yuca as well as making some of the world’s finest chocolate.
Our favorite part of the tour was the making of chocolate from scratch. Gary cut a cacao pod right off the tree, and while he explained the history of the plant and the origins of its famous delicacy, we all chewed and sucked on the seeds, which tasted just like cotton candy. We then helped toast and peel the beans, and the boys got to drop them into the grinder. The product was fresh, 100 percent unsweetened chocolate! The look of joy and anticipation on the boys’ faces as they watched the paste slowly squeeze from the grinder was one we’ll always remember.
Martha then added a little fresh cane sugar and water, and the most gorgeous smell rose from the pan as we watched our favorite treat boil together before our eyes. Fresh bananas and strawberries accompanied the chocolate, and we all spent the next 30 minutes dipping, spreading and smearing chocolate everywhere. We highly recommend taking this trip with Michelle and Gary at La CasaBlanca if you’re ever in Tena.
IT: What’s the best way to fund this sort of long-term travel? MD: My wife and I saved as much as we could throughout my seven years in the Marine Corps, enough to fund this trip and search for a family investment. The best financial advice we can offer to a family looking at something like this is to start early, constantly evaluate what you’re spending money on and live within your means. Before we left, we did a great deal of research on the cost of living in different countries in South America and built a strict budget. We’ve made some minor tweaks to it since we’ve been here, but for the most part it’s been fairly accurate.
Once we hit a limit on meals out for the week or souvenirs for the month, that’s it — no more spending. Since our trip spans so many countries with varying costs of living, we had to find ways to save in preparation for the more expensive countries, such as living at a WWOOF operation or staying in a hostel. It may not always be the most comfortable living, but the experience of the trip makes the sacrifices well worth it.
IT: What can people who don’t travel with children learn from your trip? MD: Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something you love with the people you love. Children or not, create an adventure around something you’re passionate about. It could be a hunt for the best fish and chips in England, a treasured temples of the world quest or rescuing sea turtles in Honduras. We built our trip around a search for investment opportunities and tourism as well as our love of food. We brought our children because they mean everything to us and we wanted to teach them about the world they live in. Whatever your ideal adventure is, do it with the people you love, build it around your passion and remember that you’re never too old to learn new things.
After my first trip abroad many years ago, I spent hours sorting and crafting my photos into the ultimate scrapbook. I lovingly arranged my best shots into pleasing layouts, complete with captions, museum ticket stubs and the odd postcard or two. It was perfect for sharing with friends and family, and for leafing through whenever I wanted to remember the best moments of my trip.
A few years later I got a digital camera, and my scrapbooking habit went underground for a while — until I discovered Shutterfly. One of several websites that allow you to create photo books out of digital images, Shutterfly is perfect for travelers who’ve missed the experience of putting together a photo album or scrapbook after a trip.
I’ve now used Shutterfly for more than a dozen photo books. The process is almost endlessly customizable — you can browse hundreds of layouts, resize images, add captions, change the background and text color, and choose from a variety of cover types (including linen, leather and crushed silk). I love that I can fiddle with almost every aspect of a page, switching photos in and out and trying to figure out which shade of turquoise will make the best background to my underwater shots — but if you’d rather take a quicker route to the finish line, you can have the site auto-fill your photos in the order they were taken.
Shutterfly offers a “photo story” for iPad too, which allows you to add doodles or audio clips into the presentation.
The site has a number of competitors that produce similar high-quality, customizable photo books, including AdoramaPix, Blurb, Mixbook and Snapfish. It’s worth trying a few to compare not only prices but also book sizes, layout options, ease of use and overall quality of the finished product.
After a week in Florida for a travel conference, my return flight to the Northeast was pushed back by 24 hours due to a snowstorm. Spending an extra day in the sunny weather certainly wasn’t cause for complaint, so I embraced the delay by visiting family and making my way to Universal Studios. But somewhere in between was the stuff of nightmares.
The logistics of finding a same-day hotel are irritating enough, but trying to do it in a busy resort town like Orlando — during spring break, when everyone else has made arrangements months in advance — is even worse. The result? The top five hotels near Universal were all full when I called. Then I tried the HotelTonight app but was disappointed by what appeared to be unreasonably high prices and limited availability, so I figured I’d try the next town over. Tired, grumpy and hoping to offset the hundreds of dollars I’d spend the following day to drink butterbeer in the presence of other Harry Potter-obsessed Muggles, I Googled “cheap hotels near Altamonte Springs.” Big mistake.
I was surprised to find a line of cars waiting at the front entrance to the Days Inn when I arrived. Confused, I parked and grabbed my suitcase, figuring I’d head to the lobby to check in. What greeted me were two locked doors, a sign that read “Lobby doors locked after 9 p.m. Use intercom” and a line of annoyed people standing in front of what looked like a window from which you’d order ice cream after a round of mini-golf. It took nearly 40 minutes to check in and finally get my key.
Once in the room, my first order of business was to use the facilities. Or at least that was my intention until I turned on the light and sent a couple of roaches frantically scurrying away. I screamed, jumped three feet in the air and then made quick work of them with the sole of my shoe and some tissues. When my pulse returned to normal, I scoured the bathroom for any remaining stragglers and sat down to use the toilet — which I quickly discovered wasn’t attached to the floor. (In all fairness, someone had tried to fix it several times, as was evident from about two inches of caulking surrounding its base.)
The one mercy was that I didn’t spot any bed bugs — but mildew, more roaches, dirty sheets (which were inside-out and adorned with someone else’s hair), a slashed mattress and stained, threadbare towels had me on the phone for an hour, calling nine different area hotels with the hope of getting the heck out of there. No luck. Everything was full, and sweating to death in the car overnight wasn’t an option.
Ultimately, I left every single light on to scare off the roaches and dozed for a few minutes here and there, but it was the single worst night of sleep I’ve had in a long time. Possibly ever. As a frequent traveler, I’ve stayed in many hotels — everything from one-star to five-star — and I’ve never encountered a room so filthy. However, I have nobody to blame but myself … and perhaps the roaches that took up residence in the space I paid for.
At the time, I was proud of scoring a room for $120. Right now, what I’m not so proud of was my failure to consider anything but price. In fact, as someone who’s worked for a TripAdvisor company for quite some time, I’m downright ashamed.
Moral of the story: Always, always, always research. See what others have to say. If the price is abnormally low, there’s probably a reason. If a hotel has availability in a town where accommodations are otherwise booked solid, turn around and sprint in the other direction, no matter how desperate you are. It’s cliche, but you get what you pay for; don’t let an extra hundred dollars make the difference between loving and hating your vacation.
It seems that every industry these days, including travel, is scrambling to target Generation Y: the 20- and 30-somethings also referred to as millennials. Travel-booking giant Expedia is taking its own approach by appealing to curious, young would-be bookers with a new series of online-only videos featuring Jay (a nerdy character Elijah Wood might play but with a much more nasal voice who serves as the question moderator) and Stuart (color commentary provided by a Seth Rogen look-alike).
As a real-life millennial, I was forwarded the verge-of-trying-too-hard campaign (found in an article by GeekWire) by a coworker who was pretty sure my delicate millennial sensibilities would be offended by the heavy-handed duo with their own hashtag — #ExpediaInterns. In actuality, I thought it was smart — employ two slightly off-base stereotypes to elicit travel questions and concerns from a target demographic. Things like: “When is the best time to book a flight?” are answered in a live-to-serve way by intern Jay, while Stuart interrupts with nonsensical babble to lighten the matter-of-fact tone.
What my Gen X colleague found condescending, I found convenient — just tweet any queries to #ExpediaInterns and the carefully selected marketing team behind Jay and Stuart promise an answer and maybe even a video highlighting your inquisitive tweet. While she found that the tone suggested our questions weren’t being taken seriously, I felt the shtick was perfectly acceptable as long as the answers were accurate.
Perhaps I have been desensitized to Internet buffoonery through constant exposure day in and day out, but if I had the choice of a tutorial explaining algebra with a voiceover or a tutorial with a cat in a robe explaining algebra — well, you do the math. Regardless of whether your gimmick gets me to click, if you’re delivering quality advice and information, I’m all for the frivolous format.
Jay and Stuart are five videos strong so far, discussing topics like the best time to book, international travel, mixing and matching airlines and choosing a smaller airport (topics are air travel-heavy at the moment). To follow along, use #ExpediaInterns on Twitter or visit their website.
Forget strangers and selfies — hire a flytographer on your next trip and never worry about capturing yourself on location again. What’s a flytographer? More like who. Leading the newest travel trend, Flytographer.com connects you with professional photographers who are available to shoot your vacation as you would a wedding (or even a celebrity sighting). Just when you thought drones were the ultimate travel paparazzo…
Local photographers in more than 130 cities make it easy to connect with someone who is familiar with the best backdrops and locations, turning an average trip into something worth a glamorous (albeit candid) photo shoot. Whether it’s a special event, such as a proposal in Prague, or simply a family vacation in Cancun that you want to be sure to capture, it beats a clunky self-timer, an awkward exchange with a passerby or an uncomfortably tight selfie.
Travel blogger Johnny Jet even tried it out on a recent vacation with his wife in Hawaii.
The idea came from Nicole Smith, a Canadian woman who, after losing hundreds of travel photos due to underexposed old film, realized on a recent girls’ trip that asking a third friend to document the vacation wasn’t only a huge favor, it was a business model. A working mother of two, Smith now runs Flytographer.com full time, tapering off her hours at Microsoft, where she currently still works.
Prices for the experience range from $250, which buys you a 30-minute shoot in one location resulting in 15 photos, to $500 for a 90-minute session in two locations yielding 45 photos. A proposal photo shoot is a flat fee of $450.
What do you think — is a professional vacation photographer worth the splurge? Share in the comments.