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.
The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing
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
Not everyone gets the chance to travel with a parent while both parties are pretty much in their prime. My father and I were lucky enough to have this opportunity on a recent 12-day Crystal cruise from New York City to Reykjavik, during which we shared a stateroom. We finished the cruise with a closer bond between us and a greater understanding of who the other is as an adult.
But we also discovered a lot about how — and how NOT — to travel as a parent/adult child combo.
Here are four lessons we learned during our 12 days:
1. Decide bathroom etiquette on day one. A frantic “no, no, no” from my dad at two in the morning when I almost walked in on him in the loo was the kick in the pants we needed to come up with a plan. It can be as simple as knocking on the door.
2. Pre-empt assumptions before they start. You may not mind if strangers assume the relationship between you and your parent or child is something else, but my father and I found it uncomfortable. We learned quickly to introduce ourselves as father and daughter to avoid any awkwardness.
18 Ways to Keep the Peace with Your Travel Companion
3. Keep your opinions to yourself. Though this works both ways, the lesson was most prominent for my dad. “Your daughter [or son] is an adult,” he says. “She doesn’t need or want you to treat her like a child or have you offer your opinion on most issues of daily living.” So if you think your child is eating something they shouldn’t or should be wearing a sweater because you’re cold, keep those thoughts to yourself.
4. Make time for yourselves. Traveling together for more than a day or two can feel like a lot, whether you’re sharing a room or not. To make sure you each get enough “me” time, do a few things separately. You don’t both have to do the same tour or go to the same museum. Spending half a day apart makes the coming back together again at dinner that much more fun as you share what you each did.
Poll: What does your travel companion do to annoy you?
– written by Dori Saltzman
I love animals, and I love travel. Combine the two, and I’m all smiles. Whether it’s volunteer work, taking a tour or finding a new pet, there are lots of ways to involve yourself with different species while you travel close to home. Below is a list of five examples. Feel free to add your own in the comments, too.
Sea Turtle Release
This annual occurrence — generally late-June through mid-August — at Padre Island National Seashore in Corpus Christi, Texas, allows spectators to watch as groups of newly hatched baby sea turtles are gently nudged toward the sea by park officials. Anywhere from 15 to 25 releases per year are open to the public.
Florida is a great place to catch a glimpse of manatees in the wild. A perfect spot to see them is at Lee County Manatee Park in Fort Myers, Florida. Just remember: they’re wild animals, so don’t touch them as you enjoy the views of them swimming around in front of you.
Hermit Crab Adoption
If you’re in the market for a low-maintenance pet, stop by Jenkinson’s Pier in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, and purchase some hermit crabs. Be sure to buy at least two, as they’re social animals who thrive in groups. Keep in mind, though, that they aren’t throw-away pets, and they do require a small level of care.
In Your Face: 9 Up-Close Animal Encounters
Miniature Horse Rehabilitation
Volunteer at the Triple H Miniature Horse Rescue in Mandan, North Dakota, where abused and unwanted miniature horses are brought to live or be rehabilitated for adoption.
Cow-Milking on a Working Dairy Farm
Try your hand at milking a cow, and interact with goats at Hinchley’s Dairy Farm in Cambridge, Wisconsin, which offers tours three times a day from April through October.
– written by Ashley Kosciolek
You have the list — maybe in your head, maybe written down — of all the places you’ve traveled to. Maybe you even have a map marked off somewhere, with little pushpins or computerized dots peppering the globe. You fly frequently and far, your passport has more stamps than the post office, and your international snow globe collection is reaching insurable proportions. But what some globetrotters and island-hoppers don’t realize is that there are miles between the distances you traverse and the experiences that shape you as a global citizen. The following are five signs you may be traveling more like a pedometer than a cultural sponge.
You visit a new place just to check it off a list.
I am guilty of this, though to be fair, the itinerary was not my own. My trip of a lifetime onboard a world cruise with Semester at Sea was fantastically jam-packed with datelines and diversity, but overwhelming in the sheer number of countries and cultures I had to digest over a limited period of time. While I don’t regret the experience, I still feel like I would need to go back to many of the places we docked to say I truly know what it’s like to visit there. Traveling to new places is an opportunity to immerse. This isn’t the Travel Channel; don’t get to know a place for an hour and then reach for the remote. Once you step foot on the soil of a new frontier, many would say it’s fair game to cross it off the omnipresent list. What would be better is to have a story to tell about that time you stopped in a local Tuscan market to buy groceries for a picnic lunch, but didn’t speak a lick of Italian, so you asked for Saltines, got sardines, but struck up a conversation with someone else in line and now they visit you every summer. Okay, sort of a romanticized version of experiential travel, but better than just getting back on the tour bus.
You never stray from familiar destinations.
You vacation two, three times a year, but it’s always to that resort you like in Mexico, where, like a Telemundo version of “Cheers,” everyone knows your name in a Spanish accent. While favorite locales are a good standby for getaways in a pinch, you can’t rack up too much travel cred if your only world view extends just south of the border … or along the same chain of islands. Travel should stretch the coordinates of comfort, and leave you exposed and vulnerable — but in that “It’s Christmas morning and I don’t know what is under the tree yet” sort of way. Venturing into the relative unknown is a spectacular way to accumulate those once-in-a-lifetime moments that can only be seized when you’re not seeking them. I would never have seen the sunrise on the beaches of India or ridden on the back of a moped in Vietnam if I didn’t throw a little caution to the wind and let curiosity outweigh fear.
16 Signs You’re Addicted to Travel
You expect the comforts of home … abroad.
While the “Americanization” of many cultures has led to expectations of Coca-Cola, Big Macs and a side of English in any corner of the world (and many times you will find them, believe me), creature comforts and familiarity should come as a surprise in a foreign land, not as an assumption. I can always forgive first-time travelers for some misgivings about varying international standards in sanitation, service and local cuisine. But if you’re asking for an exotic adventure to the Far East, don’t act blindsided when — gasp — people actually do eat all the things you’ve heard rumors about and, well, it’s not weird to them. Apart from culinary delicacies, many cultures don’t even partake in meals until what most Americans could consider bedtime. Harsh though it may seem, my best advice for anyone looking for all the conveniences or hair gels of home while traveling abroad is: Stay home.
You view your adventure from a bubble.
Most of your panoramas include a snoozing elderly man — not because he’s asleep on a stoop in a charming old Mediterranean village, but because most of your sightseeing has been through a tour bus window and he is sitting two rows in front. Don’t get me wrong — organized tours can be a great way to gain access to sites and information that would be difficult to arrange on your own. However, if the only people you speak to during your trip are your guide and your buddies on the bus, you’re missing out on a key aspect of the travel experience: the locals. More and more tour companies are infusing local interactions into their activities, including village visits and even meals in local homes. Or you can go off wandering on your own — befriend a shop owner or a student who speaks English if you’re a bit lost in translation. My best experiences abroad continue to be those made possible by the people indigenous to that area.
You refuse to change.
If you drink to have a good time, try a traditional caipirinha in Brazil, but don’t get so drunk that you forget what beach the bartender recommended. If you like to stay connected, create an Instagram or Vine of the Angkor Wat temple, but don’t stay so locked to a screen that you forget to look around and miss that awesome Cambodian monkey stealing a camera. Researchers say that the best time to quit smoking is while you’re on vacation because your habits and routine change so drastically that you’re essentially distracted. Embrace a change of pace during travel. Some are forced upon you — jet lag and time zone changes are unavoidable — but the “When in Rome” mentality is not for naught when traveling. New places are the ultimate atmosphere for trying new things and for imagining yourself apart from the items that typically comprise our every day. If you can’t let loose on the other side of the world, then what are you traveling for?
4 Tourists We DON’T Want to Travel With
– written by Brittany Chrusciel
A big blue tour bus that could probably hold some 60 people waited outside the pier for us — all five of us. We were three passengers off of a Crystal cruise ship, one crew member and one “host.” While other passengers headed off for a tour of Halifax, we were all here with a different goal in mind.
We were all volunteers for the line’s You Care, We Care voluntourism excursion to the Feed Nova Scotia food distribution center in Halifax. Feed Nova Scotia is a private charity that helps hungry people throughout the province by collecting and distributing food to more than 150 member food banks and meal programs.
Our job at the food bank was to unpack boxes full of food and household items, sorting them and repackaging them by category. Once we had a full box of a sorted item, like a box of grains or a box of condiments, we had to weigh it, label it and then put it on a pallet for shipping.
The Art of Slow Travel
Most of the boxes were heavy and dusty, and I ended up on the “wrong” side of the sorting table. My job was to lift the boxes onto the table. I was, after all, the youngest volunteer. I then unpacked the boxes, while our guide and Margie, another cruise passenger from Tennessee, sorted the items into their appropriate categories.
As we sorted, I was shocked to discover how much junk food (sorted as “snack” food) was donated. In the two hours we were there, we unpacked and repacked more soda, chocolate bars (Lindt chocolate!) and other varied snack items than any other category. I don’t think we ever filled a single canned meat box or dairy box, but the hungry people of Nova Scotia certainly won’t be wanting for Coke.
We didn’t talk too much as we worked, other than to consult on whether a six-pack of peaches was real fruit or a snack item (fruit if no added sugar; snack, otherwise), or which box olive oil should go into (baking, not condiments). But later, as we waited, hot and sweaty, for our bus to take us back to Crystal Symphony, I asked Margie and her husband Phil why they had decided to volunteer.
“We didn’t really like any of the other excursions,” Phil said. “But, back home, we believe strongly in giving back to our community.”
To them, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to try out one of these options. On previous Crystal cruises, they’d seen the voluntourism offerings but never tried them. (Editor’s Note: Crystal offers a free voluntourism excursion on almost every sailing.)
Would he do it again? “No promises,” Phil said. It would depend on what the other excursion offerings were.
As for me, after two hours of lifting heavy boxes, standing around a sorting table and going through hundreds of food and household items, my lower back ached and my hands were filthy. I was ready to return to the ship. We were thanked enthusiastically for our time and though I was never going to get to see the end result of my work, I left feeling I had at least done a little something for someone else.
Until I did this excursion, I had never really considered volunteering some of my time while vacationing. If I’ve got five or seven days in a destination, giving up three hours really isn’t a big deal. Though I had come to the food bank through the cruise line, I am sure any tourist visiting Halifax who offered to donate some time would be welcomed warmly.
I am equally sure that every city has an abundance of nonprofit organizations that could use an extra pair of hands for a few hours. And the next time I travel somewhere for five days or longer, I’m going to look into it. That’s a promise.
–written by Dori Saltzman
As Senior Editor of IndependentTraveler.com, I’ve lost count of how many thousands of words I’ve written about how to travel more efficiently and intelligently. Many of those articles have been advice on how to pack — like tips for squeezing everything into a carry-on no matter how long the trip, and recognizing the signs of four common packing problems. So you’d think by now I’d be a perfect packer.
On a recent trip to Toronto, I forgot to pack not one, not two, but five things that I typically bring when I travel. While I managed to remember the absolute essentials — passport, medications, underwear — a couple of the items I forgot were pretty important. Like, oh, toothpaste. I also left without pajamas to sleep in, gum to equalize ear pressure during takeoff, a black tank top (without which one of my other shirts was unwearable) and a plastic bag for dirty clothes.
Fortunately, it wasn’t too hard to replace most of these items. My hotel came through with a dental kit, I borrowed a T-shirt to sleep in from a friend and I picked up a pack of gum (in a plastic bag, no less) at the airport. But I couldn’t remember the last time I’d packed so poorly — and done so by ignoring so much of my own advice. In the spirit of learning from my own careless mistakes, here’s what I’ll do better next time:
Start packing a few days before the trip. I never remember everything I need to put on my packing list the first time I write it out; starting a few days early lets me add additional items as I think of them. For my Toronto trip, I was so busy in the days leading up to the trip that I simply threw everything into a bag the night before I left. That was strike one.
Quiz: What’s Your Packing Personality?
Recycle packing lists from past trips. Let’s face it — most of what we pack is the same for every trip. So why reinvent the wheel each time? I often dig up old packing lists and adapt them for whatever trip I’m currently taking (shameless plug: it’s easy to do that if you save a copy of our interactive packing list). Had I done this for Toronto, there’s no way I’d have forgotten such basics as PJ’s and chewing gum. Strike two.
Restock your toiletry bag each time you get home. I grabbed the same quart-size bag of liquids and gels that I’d used on my previous trip, not realizing that I’d run out of toothpaste and failed to put another tube in. And that’s why I ended up brushing solely with water my first night in Toronto. Strike three.
The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing
Which travel mistakes have you made, even though you should’ve known better?
– written by Sarah Schlichter
Every so often you see a travel article about people who think babies and kids should be banned from air travel or moved to a separate section of a plane. These curmudgeonly business travelers assert their right to a library-silent, no-wails-allowed flight. They outline a mile-long list of grievances from squirmy infants grabbing their iPads and magazines to kindergarteners kicking the backs of their seats. As if the disappearance of people under 12 — make that 18 — would make flying so much more pleasant.
To everyone who has shot daggers at the bedraggled parents with the crying baby, daring them to even think of sitting in their row, I’d like to present the view from the other side. As a travel professional, who has flown many times with my son in his two years of life, including a solo cross-country flight without Daddy, I have learned many new things about flying since I became part of the diaper set. Here are some tidbits I’ve gleaned that might make you think differently about flying with babies onboard.
Families need to travel. I spend 40 hours a week writing/editing/talking about travel. I would be a hypocrite if I suddenly stopped flying just because I had a kid. My family lives across the country, I love to explore new places, and I want my son to be exposed to a variety of people and cultures. I’m not going to do that solely within road trip distance — and nor are many other families.
You can predict where babies will sit. Smart parents choose seats in two locations on a plane — the back of a domestic flight and the bulkhead on international flights. While most travelers avoid the back of the plane, parents flock there for easy bathroom access and extra time to hunt for dropped pacifiers while everyone else deplanes. International travelers book bulkheads because this is where the in-flight bassinets hook up so babies can sleep on long-haul itineraries. Kids will be scattered throughout airplanes, for sure, but avoid these two areas or you’ll really be in the baby zone.
10 Reasons Every Plane Should Have a Family Zone
Babies will not scream the whole flight. Except in rare cases of illness or colic, babies do not scream nonstop for an entire five-hour flight. They’re most likely to cry while you’re still on the ground, likely because parents are delaying their next meal until the airplane takes off because nursing or sucking on a bottle helps with the pressure change. Once the airplane levels off, it actually becomes baby heaven — white noise plus vibration is the magic combination that makes most children sleepy.
It’s toddlers you really have to worry about. Babies can be soothed and older kids understand threats (and the power of in-flight movies and video games), but if you’re going to fear anyone, be afraid of toddlers. They’re willful, mobile and vocal, and do not respond to logical arguments. And they love to throw things.
Don’t blame the parents. At least, don’t blame them until you see them ignoring disruptive children. Most moms and dads I know freak out about being “that family” on a flight, so they come prepared with new toys, stickers, coloring books and toddler apps to distract young ones, and they’ll start shushing the instant a disgruntled peep emerges from their child. I’ve even heard of parents handing out goodie bags and drink coupons to their neighbors on long flights. So please don’t judge sight unseen.
Airlines don’t make it easier for families. Airlines might roll out the red carpet for their super-duper-elite fliers, but kids don’t have expense accounts. Many carriers will not guarantee families seats together in advance, seating 3-year-olds with strangers while Mom is two rows back. Frazzled parents are left to beg the gate reps or flight attendants to facilitate swaps. (Please move if you’re asked. If you think flying with kids is bad, try sitting next to a preschooler who is half a plane away from her parents.) Also, not all airlines let families with small children board first. We are really trying not to bump into you as we drag kids and carry-ons down narrow aisles, and don’t mean for our children to be in your face as we quickly stow our bags, but there’s nothing we can do about our Group Four boarding placement.
Kids are curious. You may think it’s annoying that my son is staring at you over the back of the seat, but he’s likely fascinated with your beard or your colorful shirt or your electronics. Babies love to stare; they’re not trying to be rude. If you’re feeling friendly, engage a kid who finds you fascinating — peekaboo is a winner every time. It will buy a harried parent a moment of peace, and you’re guaranteeing no screams for at least two minutes.
The Hue and Cry Over Babies Onboard
Kids are just acting their age — please act yours. Little kids aren’t miniature adults. Their growing brains can’t understand the need to sit still and be quiet in public. They learn by being curious and exploring their environment, and don’t understand why certain things and people are off limits. And, depending on their age, the only way they know to express themselves is by crying. You, on the other hand, are old enough to hold down a job and book your own plane tickets. You should be mature enough not to throw a tantrum when your seatmate isn’t to your liking, to understand that a kid being a kid is not the parents’ fault, and to realize that making someone else feel bad will not make you feel better or improve your flight. So grow up. I’ve been more bothered by adults’ B.O., rude manners, snoring and incessant attempts at conversation than any baby’s vocalizations — and you don’t see me trying to get those people kicked off my flight.
– written by Erica Silverstein
My greatest weakness as a travel professional? I can’t sleep on planes.
If you’re like me, then you know the feeling of dread that washes over you when you realize that nothing stands between you and an incredible trip to Europe (Asia, South America, etc.) but 12 hours of red-eye misery, cramped in coach class, a hard, unyielding armrest digging into your hips, head banging against the windowshade, legs going numb as you try to contort yourself in the one miracle position that will bring on sleep. And you almost don’t go.
But if you love travel as much as I do, you suck it up and go. In a desperate attempt to make long-haul flights more bearable and find a miracle cure for the sleepless flight, I took four travel pillows with me on a recent trip from San Francisco to Germany and the Netherlands. I chose products that seemed unusual or intriguing. Here’s how they ranked. (Spoiler alert: I barely slept a wink.)
Kuhi Comfort Travel Pillow
The Pillow: The Kuhi Comfort Travel Pillow is not your standard-shaped neck pillow. It’s made of two soft cylindrical balls, attached by a strap. The selling point is that you can use it multiple ways. Turn it one way and the curved part is by your neck; flip it around and the flat part is against you. Straighten the strap and you can tuck one end over your shoulder and cuddle the other, put it behind you for back support and place it in your lap to rest a book.
The Flight: I was pretty excited about this one — the design is original and the materials feel high-end. To my disappointment, the fit is just off. The strap is too short and the balls are (ahem) too big. When the pillow was around my neck, I felt surrounded by material. Trying alternate positions didn’t work — the pillow is too bulky for good back support and too short to sling across your body. The final blow: Because the pillow isn’t inflatable, you have to carry it around in its little stuff sack, which attaches nicely to the handle of your rollaboard but dangles awkwardly if you’re carrying a backpack or other bag.
Final Verdict: I wanted to love it, but I just couldn’t make it work.
10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight
Cabeau Evolution Pillow
The Pillow: The Evolution Pillow is an enhanced version of the standard, plush (non-inflatable) neck pillow. It’s made of memory foam and has raised side supports to cradle your neck — or you can wear the pillow backwards to support your chin. It even has a pocket for your MP3 player. It comes with a travel case and memory-foam earplugs.
The Flight: I was the least excited about the Evolution Pillow, but it was actually really comfortable. I used this one while dozing on an early-morning flight, and I did appreciate the extra head support, the soft material and the absence of the inflatable-pillow plastic smell. However, I would like to see a step-by-step video of how the designers scrunched the pillow down to a quarter of its size and fit it into the stuff sack. I couldn’t even get the entire pillow into the bag, so I couldn’t use the Velcro straps to attach it and it just dangled awkwardly, threatening to fall out.
Final Verdict: Until someone can show me how to make this pillow travel-friendly, I’m sticking with my blow-up model. (Editor’s Note: Cabeau recently offered us the following instructions for packing the pillow.)
EZ Sleep Travel Pillow
The Pillow: Imagine a miniature version of an inflatable pool mat that you could stand up like a wall between airplane seats, attached by a Velcro strap around the arm rest. What you see in your mind is the EZ Sleep Travel Pillow. The concept is to create a support structure for you to lean against as you catch some in-flight Z’s, so your body isn’t flopping about like a rag doll.
The Flight: It hit me in the airport — if I have the aisle seat and someone else has the window, I may be too embarrassed to set this inflatable wall up. It’s big and it encroaches into shared territory. Luckily for me, I had two seats to myself. The pillow does not seem as sturdy as the claim — if I really fell asleep on it, I don’t believe it would hold my weight without collapsing onto my seatmate. What it was great for was putting against the armrest or the window to create a soft surface to lean against — preventing hard metal and plastic plane parts from bruising my body as I tossed and turned.
Final Verdict: If you and a family member are sharing adjoining seats, by all means, set this pillow up. Otherwise, it might not be worth packing the EZ Sleep to use in conjunction with another pillow for your head or neck.
Top Tips for Sleeping on Planes
Travelrest Travel Pillow
The Pillow: Here’s a new one — an inflatable pillow shaped like a banana, or possibly an apostrophe. It’s larger on the top, so you can rest your head, and then tapers into a slight curve (this part slings across your body). A long string at the bottom lets you attach the two ends to secure the pillow around you or your airplane seat.
The Flight: This pillow was hands down my favorite. I contorted my body into all sorts of positions trying to sleep across two airplane seats, and whether I was sitting up or half-lying down, the pillow cradled my head and gave me something to wrap my arms around so they didn’t just dangle uselessly. The only downside was the plasticky smell that plagues all inflatable travel pillows, though perhaps that would go away after a few uses.
Final Verdict: While it didn’t help me sleep, the Travelrest pillow made my attempts more comfortable. I’m keeping this one and will definitely use it again.
Do you want to win one of these travel pillows? We’re giving away the Kuhi Comfort Travel Pillow and the Cabeau Evolution Pillow (both gently used). Just leave a comment below and let us know which pillow you’d prefer by 11:59 p.m. ET on June 9, 2013. We’ll choose a winner for each pillow at random. The contest is open to residents of the 50 United States and the District of Columbia. For the full contest rules, click here.
– written by Erica Silverstein
Amsterdam has a lot going for it — like the Anne Frank House, boat rides along its storied canals, the Van Gogh Museum and cycling amongst the tulips (or green fields in less glamorous seasons than spring).
Visiting these places via a guide or a pre-arranged tour can certainly offer insights you might not otherwise get, but as an independent-minded traveler, I find usually them slow-moving, frustrating and — okay, I’ll say it — sometimes quite dry. So it was a big surprise to me that on my last visit to Amsterdam, a guided tour led to the best day I’ve ever had in that city.
Our Favorite Spots to Stay in Amsterdam
I’ve always been fascinated by the houseboats on Amsterdam’s canals, but the closest I’d ever gotten to visiting one was the city’s Houseboat Museum. And while I appreciated the history I learned there, the experience didn’t give me a true feel for life in Holland today. I found that instead on a walking tour offered by Van Aemstel Productions, which enabled me and other visitors not only to go inside local homes but also to meet their residents.
The locals were as interesting as their houses. One was a children’s book writer, another a television producer, a third a retired tour guide. One revealed the unique challenges of living in a houseboat — like the limited space; the patio that, while adorable, is visible to every tourist walking by; and the need to move out completely every few years so the boat can be brought into dry dock for hull inspection.
Another local welcomed us into his narrow 17th-century canal house, gamely maneuvering his broken leg up a set of ladder-steep steps to his top-floor apartment. Once there, he gave us impromptu concert on a harpsichord (on which he’d painted a gorgeous seafaring vista). Like the houseboat resident, he was willing to put up with a more challenging lifestyle in order to live in an atmosphere that was special, unique and central to the character of his city.
Van Aemstel Productions, it turns out, specializes in the kind of guided tours meant to give travelers insights into contemporary life, not just history. Perhaps on my next trip there I’ll check out its tour of the Red Light District, led by a former cop who walked that beat.
8 Tours for People Who Don’t Like Tours
That tours could offer more than just history lessons was a revelation to me, and since then my antenna has been attuned to experiences in other cities that offer a sense of what’s real there. In San Francisco, for instance, Vayable.com offers a chance to learn about the city’s homeless issues via a tour with a gent who, indeed, is homeless; you can also forage for your own seafood with a local fisherman. Visitors to Buenos Aires might initially put a tango lesson or a visit to Eva Peron’s mausoleum on the top of their sightseeing lists, but personally, I love the sound of Vayable’s “In the footsteps of dictators” experience, which traces the city’s dark history. (Learn more about Vayable in Tourist No More: Three Secrets for Traveling Like a Local.)
I’ve become a guided tour convert — how about you? Share your favorite guided tours below!
– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown
You’re in a new city and you have the near-unavoidable checklist of sights to see and things to do. Let’s review here: Museums, national parks, historic sites, art installations, so-and-so says this is the home of the world’s best wiener schnitzel — the list could seemingly go on forever.
And while many attractions are simply a case of beholding them (it’s free to stare at the Eiffel Tower but not to climb), entrance fees and related costs add up over the course of a vacation.
So what destination is available in just about every city you’ll visit, is a great porthole into local culture, offers spectacular people-watching as well as potentially free Internet access (handy in a foreign land) and is always free to visit? Libraries! I’m not just talking about Washington D.C.‘s Library of Congress (on many actual to-do lists), but any community building for book loan. You probably grew up visiting your own, from time to time, and never even considered it as a tourist attraction. Admittedly, that’s because some libraries are a tad more impressive than others — not in what they stand for, but perhaps how they stand (picture a repurposed industrial complex in Germany shaped like a Tetris block and filled with books).
Flavorwire recently put together a slideshow of 15 standout libraries from around the world — including one in Denmark featuring a giant mouth that recites poetry aloud, as well as reading nooks resembling birdcages in an eco-retreat at a Thai resort.
Editor’s Note: Slides one and nine represent private, home libraries and while awe-inspiring, are not recommended for your next sightseeing list!
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While attending college in Poughkeepsie, NY, I was drawn to study in the library of my friend’s alma mater, Vassar College — not for the millions of pages at hand, lying dormant in their many tomes, but for the Gothic architecture: the marble touches, hidden staircases and stained glass windows. This didn’t improve my grades as much as fuel my wandering imagination, and solidify my appreciation of libraries that appear as grand and mysterious as the knowledge within.
If the library you find doesn’t resemble a cathedral or a giraffe, don’t fret. The volumes you find abroad may not always be in your native tongue, but the communal library experience is guaranteed to be shared. Libraries are often used as a space for community announcements and events, so take advantage of tapping right into the source — find a bulletin board or events calendar (if you can read it) to get a pulse on the area.
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What’s the best library you ever visited at home or abroad? Share your experiences in the comments below!
– written by Brittany Chrusciel