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 ranges from $350 to $600.
What do you think — is a professional vacation photographer worth the splurge? Share in the comments.
All travel guides narrow down sprawling cityscapes into an organized list of things to do, but 200 pages later, the information can still be overwhelming to a newcomer. A startup called Indie Guides takes a different tack by not including major tourist attractions and not catering to everyone. Instead, it carefully selects 50 addresses for each of its mobile city guides.
We first learned about these artistically inclined travel guides from an article on CNTraveler.com that describe the write-ups as “worded in an easygoing style, as if you were reading a friend’s emailed list of recommendations.” And in fact, friends’ recommendations they are.
As musicians, the creators of the guides reached out to fellow artists around the world and elicited their very personal choices for things to do and see in Athens, Berlin, Istanbul, Madrid, Rotterdam and Paris, in categories such as culture, drink, eat, shopping and going out. The result is an eclectic mix of boutiques, hidden live music venues, art workshops and galleries that you may easily have walked past had you not known what was on the other side. On their site, the creators of the guide describe their picks as “subjective, yes, but informed, honest and passionate.”
Being musically minded, founder Anne Le Gal and friends have also crafted a streamable playlist for each location, based on the local music scene.
The app — for both iOS and Android devices — offers an offline map so you can travel with your recommendations regardless of Internet connection. Each guide costs $1.99, with the exception of Paris, which is free for the next six months. A guide to Tokyo is debuting in March, and Rome is set to launch in April.
Would you be interested in an Indie Guide? Which cities would you like to see guides for next?
This is the first post in our new Living Like a Local series, in which we interview expats about their experiences living abroad in destinations around the world.
Ben Lyons is a licensed Captain who has served throughout the world on the bridge of cruise ships and expedition vessels. He is currently CEO of EYOS Expeditions, which arranges luxury expeditions to remote and wild regions on superyachts. He is living in Istanbul for 18 months while his wife fulfills an overseas rotation for her job.
Q: What’s one thing most tourists don’t know about where you live? A: How diverse Turkey can be. It is a mix of cultures, ethnicities and religions. There are deeply conservative and religious neighborhoods, and yet only a few miles away you’ll encounter a scene as Western as any street in New York. Yet despite their varying backgrounds, they are all fiercely proud to be Turkish.
The holidays are finally over, and as the long, celebrationless weeks of winter stretch out across our immediate futures, we can reflect upon how stressful — or not — the holidays actually were. Orbitz makes this reflection easy with an eye-catching infographic based upon its 2013 holiday travel trends survey, dubbed a “best-practice guide to holiday travel stressors.” Orbitz found, among other things, that 71 percent of its readers actually found their trips not to be stressful at all.
In the planning stages of holiday travel, 29 percent of respondents said they were more stressed about planning a trip during the winter holiday season (Thanksgiving to New Year’s) than any other time of the year. But a majority — 58 percent — responded that the planning aspect did not stress them at all. (Sounds suspicious to me.) Women were 23 percent more likely to be stressed than men, and travelers aged 18 to 34 were, in general, more stressed than the over-35 crowd (I guess that’s why I’m the stressed one). Unsurprisingly, those with children at home were 19 percent more likely to be stressed than those without kids.
Based on survey responses from travelers who kept their cool, Orbitz suggests developing a trip schedule, booking things in advance and reading customer reviews to ease the planning process.
During travel, suggestions to reduce vacation stress include staying in a hotel for at least part of your trip (rather than with family) and penciling in some personal or down time, while others schedule endless activities to distract them during their time away.
Despite women experiencing more stress during the planning process, men were more likely to be stressed after a trip than women. Full-time employees were a whopping 82 percent more likely to worry about transitioning back to everyday life than those who are self-employed. Again, those with children seemed to be on edge at every part of a trip — they were 56 percent more likely to be stressed post-vacation than those without kids.
Transitioning “back to reality,” 37 percent of travelers responded that they were stressed and four percent felt “extremely stressed” regarding the transition. The good news? Nearly a third of travelers used the word “enjoyable” to describe their holiday trips.
So what are the keys to handling post-trip anxiety and post-travel blues? More than half keep up with home life while they’re away, 45 percent rarely (if at all) tell their office how to contact them while away and 44 percent never or rarely keep up to date with work while away.
How would you rate your travel stress this past holiday season? I solved it by not going anywhere!
Ditch the diet and make a plan to broaden your horizons by way of travel — near or far — in 2015 (it’s way more fun than eating your veggies). This is what some of the staff at The Independent Traveler, Inc. resolve to do in the new year:
“I would like to finally win a free vacation this year, all expenses paid!” — Blake Bullis, Web Application Manager
“No more long lines — I’m finally going to apply for the Global Entry and TSA PreCheck programs! If the fee saves me a single wait in the hideous JFK immigration line, it’ll be worth it.” — Sarah Schlichter, Senior Editor
“I plan to travel to Ukraine to visit family and take a weeklong vacation in Greece with my husband and friends.” — Masha Uretsky, Social Media Specialist
“My New Year’s resolution is not to travel more, but to travel better — more immersive experiences, more thoughtful planning, a better focus on quality and value. I want to eliminate the insanity of way too many last-minute decisions — whether in booking trips or being on them — that cost of peace of mind and cold hard cash.” — Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor-in-Chief
“I’m not a ‘resolutions’ guy, but I’m focusing my 2015 travel efforts on appreciating my own state (California) more: mountains, deserts and beaches. This also supports my objective of spending less time getting there and more time being there.” — Michael Maher, Digital Media Sales Manager (Western Region)
“World Cup or bust! I’ve wanted to attend a soccer World Cup for many years, and with the next men’s World Cups being held in Russia and Qatar, the chances of getting to one within the next eight years are slim to none. BUT the women’s World Cup for 2015 is being held in Canada! As soon as I realized that, I took the first steps toward achieving my dream, reserving my hotel room and buying my stadium pass to the Women’s World Cup games being held this June throughout Canada. It will likely be the only time I get to see a World Cup in person, plus I’ll be seeing Canada play, so I’m looking forward to the home crowd atmosphere.” — Dori Saltzman, Editor at Large
“I told myself I’m required to go two new places every year — they don’t have to be abroad. So for next year, I already have Nashville booked!” — Stephanie Moccio, Senior SEO Specialist
“My 2015 travel resolution is to do more weekend getaways! After an 11-day vacation this fall, we decided that we prefer only being gone for four to five days at a time. More weekend getaway means we can explore new places, as well as revisit favorites.” — Kimberly Coyne, Director of Sales
“My 2015 travel resolution is to do two things: get certified to scuba dive, so that I can eventually go with my aunt who is now an expert, and also to make a solidified list of places I want to visit during my lifetime. Of course, this list will be added to in future years, but a list that I can begin to tackle in 2015 sounds like a good plan to get me started!” — Hilarey Wojtowicz, Editorial Assistant, Family Vacation Critic
“If I could see at least one new place — whether it be domestic or international, city or small town — that’s always a goal on my list for the upcoming year.” — Brittany Chrusciel, Editorial Assistant
“Gone are the days of planning a week to a new country. This year, my resolution is to survive a short trip to Disney World with my toddler … that’s as adventurous as it’s getting!” — Amanda Hoy, Brand Marketing Manager
“In 2015, we resolve to do a family trip that’s not a cruise. We need to see what other travel options are out there. Maybe there are other family trips we’ll enjoy just as much as cruising?” — Cecilia Freeman, Assistant Community Manager
“My New Year’s travel resolution is to get on a river cruise. I’ve spent an awful lot of time on ocean ships — which I love — but all I hear about at the moment is river, river, river! So here’s hoping I can take a slow boat down the Danube in 2015.” — Adam Coulter, Senior Editor, Cruise Critic U.K.
“My travel resolution is to go on fewer cruises and take more land-based trips. My hope is that I’ll be able to strengthen our destinations coverage by immersing myself in the ports and their surrounding areas; it’s tough to do that if you’re only there for a few hours when a ship calls.” — Ashley Kosciolek, Copy Editor
“I haven’t decided what my resolution is yet — it might involve Europe, but I most definitely want to explore more local attractions. Too often, we overlook the amazing places in our own backyards.” — Amanda Geronikos, Associate Editor, Family Vacation Critic
This is part one of a two-part series about my experience with a “free vacation” offer. In this segment, I’ll outline how my friend and I “won” and what we had to endure to claim our “gift.” Check back for part two in 2015, when I’ll discuss if we were actually able to book a trip and, if so, how it went, if it’s worth the time and whether it’s really free.
We’ve all been there. You’re at a sporting event or a fair, and someone approaches you to “register for a chance to win a free vacation.” In my case, it was at a concert at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, and my friend, who’s had a bit of a rough year, was excited by the prospect.
As she filled in her name and contact information, I snatched one of the entry forms and read the fine print on the back. It was standard legal jargon, stating that Sundance Vacations, the company sponsoring the contest, would have the right to get in touch with entrants using any means provided. I figured it was just a ploy to generate email addresses and phone numbers, so I declined.
Fast forward two months. My friend received a phone call from someone at Sundance, telling her they had “good news” and asking her to call for more information. First she dialed me: “Are you sitting down?” she asked. “I never win ANYTHING, but we’re going on vacation!”
A phone call to the company confirmed that we would, in fact, have to sit through a presentation as a condition of acceptance. We assumed a sales pitch would follow, but we were told the whole process would have us in and out within an hour.
Slightly different from companies that offer timeshares, Sundance sells “wholesale vacations,” which it touts as discounted or overstock trips that are less expensive because 1) the company purchases vacations in bulk, and 2) it owns the properties that are available for booking. (I won’t even try to figure out why Sundance needs to “purchase” said vacations if it owns the properties, lest my head explode.)
During the initial presentation, an attractive and sharply dressed woman attempted to keep the attention of a dozen attendees through witty banter (“I’ll keep this short. I just ran a marathon yesterday, and my legs are killing me”), condescending comments (to a young and slightly disheveled couple with two children: “Surely you’ve never been to Disney World”) and the promise of a “suitcase” of affordable vacations from which we’d be able to draw over a period of several years after signing up and shelling out a modest monthly fee. She went on to explain a bit of math as she clicked through some PowerPoint slides.
I had just checked Facebook for the 17th time and was nearly dozing off in my chair when a team of sales representatives came bursting through the back door of the presentation room like an army of Stormtroopers. Each group of visitors was led through a hallway and into a giant room with tables, chairs and, oddly, beach balls — where thousands (literally, we saw the Polaroids everywhere) of customers before us were convinced to purchase vacation packages.
The woman in charge of giving us our first hard sell was actually nice and didn’t pressure us as much as we expected she might. Then her boss came over, asked if we were treated well and turned up the heat by offering us an even sweeter deal. He backed down after we gave him a firm “no” and told him that we had read nothing but negative reviews about the company online. He gave us a couple of weak excuses but eventually realized we weren’t going to budge.
Ninety minutes after our initial arrival, we were taken to meet with our final obstacle, a friendly older gentleman who further lowered the prices and even tossed in meal vouchers. Ultimately, we said no, and he grudgingly gave us the paperwork we needed to claim our four-day, three-night trip to our choice of Cancun, Montego Bay or San Juan.
Apparently we have 60 days to call a phone number (not toll-free), ask questions, gather information (we’d love to see photos of the resort options, as none were provided) and “register” to receive our “reservation deposit invoice.” After receiving it, we have 30 days to send it back with a deposit of $100 each, which is then applied to the imposed taxes and fees of anywhere from about $100 – $185. (Technically the trip is a gift, not a prize, so Sundance isn’t required to cover taxes and fees.) We’re told the deposit is refundable until actual reservations have been made. Stay tuned for part two, coming sometime in 2015, when I’ll tell you whether the trip actually happens.
I’ve never quite gotten the whole Seven Wonders of the World thing. Isn’t wonder-ful subjective? What others find awe inspiring, I sometimes find shrugworthy. The Christ the Redeemer statue, for instance, which in 2007 was named one of the Seven Wonders of the New World, stirs absolutely nothing in me. Conversely, places that have amazed me (Australia’s Uluru being one) others have found mildly interesting at best.