We had a pass to get into our hotel’s breakfast room. But there was a mistake: Our breakfast pass actually belonged to a couple named Johnston and Shirley. I don’t know who Johnston and Shirley are, but their names were printed on the card.
When we checked with the hotel receptionist, he insisted that it was fine and that we should keep using the pass — so for the rest of the week, we were Johnston and Shirley.
We had fun imagining what Johnston and Shirley might say to each other while having breakfast. Johnston was pretty uptight, I remember, and was concerned with being a successful-looking “man’s man.” Shirley was a total airhead who lost interest in things quickly. I can’t help feeling that we were unfair to Johnston and Shirley. I think we pigeon-holed them.
We were in Barcelona, so we’d expected a classic Spanish breakfast — even though I didn’t know what that was. I’d pigeon-holed that too.
It wasn’t what I’d expected. The hotel pretended to make its own food, but every morning you could watch the waiter or the bar man making the trip across the road to the bakery to pick up fresh goods to serve.
Our Favorite Barcelona Hotels
The bakery was a small place run by an elderly Jewish couple. Every morning, they provided the hotel with delicate scones and muffins, savoury burekas (small, flaky puff-pastries that people could take to eat for their lunch if they wanted to), and bagels. Later, there was rich coffee cake and little rugelach, which tasted how the inside of Christmas Eve might taste.
The owners had migrated to Spain in the 1970′s, along with many thousands of other displaced people, from Argentina, where they faced political violence from the oppressive military junta that had taken control there.
The diaspora’s culture manifested itself in many ways, but for us, it manifested itself in breakfast.
We could only have found such unexpected delicacies by accident. We’d have been so busy looking to find “authentic” Spanish cuisine that we’d probably have missed the exceptional pastries that all the locals were eating.
I remember a Chinese restaurant in Amsterdam where a man piloted a smoking wok over a hob that looked like an upturned jet engine. It was one of those floating palaces in the harbor that had looked so much like massive tourist hulks that I’d been pretty happy to avoid them. I’d wanted to eat something Dutch — I was in Holland, after all — but our friends, who’d been living there for a couple of months already, had taken us here instead.
It was incredible! To think I’d almost missed out because I’d had a preconceived idea of what I ought to be eating in Holland. This was one of the best Chinese restaurants I’ve ever been to. Everyone who lives in Amsterdam knows about it and heads there to eat after work while the tourists are sipping Heinekens in Rembrandt Square.
There’s no such thing as a mono-culture, and setting out to experience only one facet of a country’s food, music or social life will never give a full or representative experience. So many things influence countries and cities, helping to make them what they are.
The next time I’m pigeon-holing, even if I’m pigeon-holing Johnston and Shirley, I’ll try to remember this. Maybe I’ll enjoy a place more for what it is than what I think it should be.
12 Delicious Destinations for Foodies
– written by Josh Thomas
How do you fulfill your travel dreams when home expenses, kids and other necessities get in the way?
Obviously, saving money throughout the year helps a little, but it’s been my experience that what I manage to save is never quite enough to cover the one or two big trips I like to take a year.
What I really need is a decently-sized, lump sum of money suddenly handed to me. I play the lottery but so far that hasn’t paid off. What I have been able to count on is my yearly tax refund. And while I’ve never gotten enough money back from the government to fund an entire trip, what I do get helps a lot.
Top 10 Stunning Spring Destinations
Apparently, I’m not the only travelholic eagerly awaiting her IRS refund in the mail. A recent survey of some 1,788 U.S. travelers found that a little over 40 percent (43.8) will use all or part of their tax refund to pay for their travel. More than a quarter (27.4 percent) said they’d use all of it.
Equally as many respondents said they’d use a little less half — or $1,000 to $1,499 — of their refund (assuming a $3,000 refund). Just over seventeen percent said they’d use $1,500 to $1,999, while 13.7 percent said they’d use $500 to $999.
The survey results come care of Travel Leaders Group, a massive travel agency company, so their customers aren’t entirely unbiased when it comes to travel. As an example, 94 percent of survey respondents have already taken or plan to take at least one leisure trip this year. Travel is not unimportant to them.
It’s so important, in fact, that 36.1 percent said they plan to take more leisure trips this year than last, and 39.7 percent said they will spend more on their leisure trips this year as well.
Travel Budget Calculator
What about you? Will you use any of your tax refund to fulfill your travel ambitions this year?
–written by Dori Saltzman
If I can offer you only one piece of advice for traveling to Seattle it would be this — dress in layers.
While never too cold or too warm, and, of course, famous for an almost daily drizzle, the weather in Seattle is nevertheless hard to predict, especially in late winter/early spring. And weather forecasts aren’t always helpful.
Prior to jetting off to Seattle for a recent four-night visit, I checked Weather.com to see what I should expect. Heavy rain storms and cool weather were predicted, so into the suitcase went several cold-weather items. But then my overpacking gene took over and, despite the ugly forecast, I threw a few warm-weather options in as well. Thank goodness I did.
As it turned out, three out of four days started out foggy and cold, but then turned warm and sunny, before ending crisp and cold again. Because I had thrown in some tees, a light sweater and a zip-up sweatshirt, I was able to put on and take off layers as needed.
The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing
Care for a second piece of Seattle travel advice? Rent a house or apartment.
I was in Seattle for a cousin’s bat mitzvah; with me and my husband were my parents, and my sister and her family, including my 3-year-old niece. We looked at hotels at first, but the cheapest rates we could find (in a decent hotel) started at about $140. That wasn’t bad, but the necessity of eating out would add to the cost. Then my dad looked on VRBO.com for short-term rentals. Prices, when split three ways, were slightly less than the per-night hotel rates, plus we would all be together and could cook meals in the house and share grocery expenses.
Not only did renting a house bring down the overall trip price, but we got a great location right on Green Lake, within a 20-minute drive of everywhere we wanted to go.
The last tidbit I picked up during my short stay in Seattle involves parking near Pike Place Market. If you’re planning to drive to the Market, try and wait until Sunday. Parking on 1st and 2nd Avenues is free that day, though you’ve got to get there pretty early to snag a spot. Otherwise, don’t park in a lot within three or four blocks. The first lot we pulled into on 2nd Avenue would have cost about $40. A lot just two blocks farther away, on the corner of 3rd Avenue, cost $12.
Our 6 Favorite Seattle Hotels
– written by Dori Saltzman
Before my recent trip to the Dominican Republic, I was warned by a number of colleagues, relatives and friends (including one who’s Dominican) that I should be careful. Not just “don’t drink the water” careful, but “wear no jewelry, don’t make eye contact and don’t even think about going outside at night” careful. The good news: I survived my trip safe and sound. But with so many dire warnings, I didn’t stop to consider some of the more practical (and less dangerous) issues I might encounter.
Rental Car Runaround
Scenario: Even though I’d reserved a rental car ahead of time for pickup at the airport, it still took an hour for the paperwork to go through — and I was the only customer.
Lesson: Because of differences in languages and processing methods, you should always leave extra time for things like this, especially in places with a slower pace of life.
Scenario: After the first time I stopped to refuel, the car wouldn’t start. I called the rental agency, who told me that the vehicle’s keyless entry safety feature was prohibiting the engine from turning over. I clicked a few buttons, and the car started right up.
Lesson: Ask if there’s anything specific you should know about the car before you leave the rental agency. Ask also for a phone number where you can reach someone if you have problems (and keep a phrasebook handy in case the person on the other end doesn’t speak your language).
The First 10 Minutes of Your Car Rental
Scenario: On the day I flew home, I tried to return the rental car an hour earlier than scheduled — but nobody was at the desk. I waited 20 minutes before calling the customer service number again. I was told that because I was an hour early, nobody would be there to take the key. I was instructed to hide it behind the computer at the rental counter.
Lesson: In other countries, not all businesses are open during what we would consider “normal” operating hours. This is especially true in locations that don’t see many tourists. Treat rental car reservations like doctor’s appointments: show up only at the times you specify for rental and return.
Scenario: While driving from the airport to my hotel, the GPS in my rental car kept screaming at me to “turn right” when no right turns were present, leaving me lost in Santo Domingo for two hours. I called my hotel’s front desk, and they were able to get me on the right path.
Lesson: Don’t rely entirely on technology when traveling. If possible, find and print directions to take with you in case your cell phone or GPS gets lost, breaks or dies along the way. And carry the phone number of someone at your destination in case you find yourself in a pinch.
3 C’s: Credit Cards, Currency and Cell Phones
Scenario: My credit card was denied when I tried to purchase snacks. I paid with cash and promptly called the company to discuss the problem. (I always call to alert my bank and my credit card company before traveling to avoid having my cards blocked when I need them most.) I was told that some card companies won’t allow transactions in certain locations if they’re considered “high-risk.”
Lesson: Sure, you know to tell your card company that you’ll be globetrotting, but it’s also a good idea to bone up on its policies regarding the specific places you’re visiting. Keep the company’s phone number handy and carry cash as a backup.
The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas
Scenario: On my last day, I made a wrong turn on the way to the airport. (Thanks again, GPS.) I found myself at a pesos-only tollbooth (having purposefully gotten rid of my remaining pesos immediately prior) and conjured up my high-school Spanish to ask if they’d accept U.S. dollars. When two heavily armed police came out of the booth, I took that as a firm “no.” But one officer did offer me 500 pesos — enough for the toll — in exchange for a $20 bill. He made a $10 profit on the deal, but you don’t refuse a man with a machine gun when he stands in the way of your flight back to civilization.
Lesson: Always carry enough local currency to get you through end of your trip. Airports usually offer exchange services, so don’t worry about having too much leftover cash.
Scenario: Although I added international texting and data coverage to my cell phone plan before embarking on this adventure, I turned down the international calling plan since I didn’t think I’d use it. But with all my hapless calls to the hotel, car rental agency and credit card company, I used quite a few minutes. At $2.95 a pop, I’m now facing a pretty nasty bill.
Lesson: Always, always say yes to a calling plan. If you run into trouble, phone calls are almost always your best means of finding help. Keep in mind, too, that if you’re traveling abroad, your phone will be roaming the second it connects to a network, even if you don’t make any calls. Because service can be spotty in some locations, ask your carrier about availability and consider purchasing a prepaid phone when you arrive at your destination.
International Cell Phone Guide
–written by Ashley Kosciolek
When it comes to international travel, getting the most for your money is a big deal. While we usually recommend withdrawing local currency from an ATM as soon as you arrive, there are certain times when it makes sense to purchase currency in advance.
Mark Rowlands, sales director at currency provider Covent Garden FX, explains that buying in advance allows travelers to shop around for the best rate and hedge against exchange rate fluctuations that might affect their buying power. Buying in advance can also give you peace of mind if you’re traveling to a place where ATM’s might not be prevalent, or if you’re concerned about your card being declined.
Below are Rowlands’ tips for getting the best deal when buying foreign currency.
1. Shop around — and shop online. This might sound obvious, but it’s amazing how many people assume their friendly travel agent or supermarket will look after them. Think about it: They are in business to make money, and you are a captive audience. Politely decline and go and surf the net. You can cover the whole marketplace from the comfort of your home.
2. Plan ahead. Don’t leave buying your currency until the last minute. When buying online, you need to allow enough time for your payment to go through, your identity to be confirmed and your currency to be delivered.
Get the Best Exchange Rate
3. Beware of “free delivery” offers. What really matters is how much currency arrives on your doorstep. What’s the point saving five bucks on delivery if it costs you $15 worth of currency? Look out for extra hidden charges, and try to find out how much you are paying in total and exactly how much currency you will receive. The benefits of a great exchange rate can be totally negated by commissions and handling fees.
4. Avoid Saturday delivery. There is often an extra charge to get money delivered on weekends. Some companies will deliver to your work address during the week, but make sure you have a secure place to keep your travel money safe.
5. Get together with friends. If you order your currency in bulk, you will have greater buying power. Even online bureaus are happy to negotiate for larger amounts. Call or send an e-mail asking for their best deal.
6. Ask for a price match. If you’ve found a better deal elsewhere, ask a company to match it.
7. Check the money market. Compare the deal you are offered to the market rate. Visit XE.com and look at how much profit margin has been added. You can’t buy from a wholesaler, but knowledge is power. If your supplier is adding 5 percent — which is not unusual — walk away.
8. Beware of the credit/debit card trap. The bureau will probably inform you it has a small charge for debit cards. This is quite reasonable with such tight margins. But very often that’s not the end of the story; most credit cards and many debit card providers will treat your transaction as a cash advance. Check the small print or call your provider. If someone tells you there is no additional charge, get that person’s name. Sign up for Internet banking and pay using a bank transfer to avoid hidden charges. The last thing you want is a 3 percent charge plus interest on your statement when you return from your vacation.
The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas
9. Don’t be fooled by buy-back “guarantees.” Read the small print: Is what you are getting really worth paying for? You might be better off shopping around for the best deal for unwanted currency when you get back home. Never assume you have to take your unwanted currency back to where you got it from. Take it home, cash it in and shop around for the best buy-back rates available.
– written by Mark Rowlands and Sarah Schlichter
Have you studied or volunteered abroad, or worked as an expat in a foreign country? In this week’s Friday Free-for-All, we want to hear about your experiences of living in a country outside your own. Your story could be used in a future IndependentTraveler.com article!
We’re looking for answers to the following questions:
1. Where did you live, and for how long?
2. How did you do it? (Examples: study abroad program, teaching English as a second language, Peace Corps, etc.)
3. What’s one piece of advice you’d give another traveler who wants to live in that country?
Leave your answers in the comments below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday, February 4, 2013. We’ll choose one commenter at random to win an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Be sure to include a valid e-mail address so we can notify you in case you win!
Living Abroad: 4 Ways to Make It Happen
– written by Sarah Schlichter
Maybe it was the first time you found yourself in a city where you couldn’t read a single street sign. Or your first experience of haggling in a busy public market. Or the moment a local proudly offered you a heaping plate of fried insects or boiled lamb’s head.
That feeling of disorientation is the subject of this week’s Friday Free-for-All. We want to hear about your first — or worst! — experience of culture shock while traveling. Where were you, and how did you get through it? Post your thoughts in the comments below.
If you need a little inspiration, check out this story about culture shock in Morocco from our own Traveler’s Ed: Culture Shock: Outside the Comfort Zone.
– written by Sarah Schlichter
In our last Friday Free-for-All of 2012, we’re looking ahead to the year 2013. Along with all those vows to quit smoking or lose weight, we bet you’ve got a few resolutions for the year in travel. Are you finally going to take that bucket list trip? Volunteer abroad? Visit at least two new countries? We want to hear about it.
My own 2013 resolution isn’t so much about where I travel but how. Namely, I want to quit sweating the small stuff. Stressing out over whether I’m going to make my connection in time isn’t going to make the plane fly faster — so I resolve to chill out and enjoy the ride.
Which Destinations Will You Visit in 2013?
IndependentTraveler.com News Editor Dori Saltzman says, “I resolve to take at least two three-day trips. I’d like to try to go to Pennsylvania Dutch country, the Berkshires or the Adirondacks. And I resolve to try at least one new food when I’m traveling (I’m a PICKY eater!).”
Now it’s your turn. What’s your travel resolution for 2013? Share it in the comments below!
Top Travel Trends for 2013
– written by Sarah Schlichter
For months I had been preparing for my eight-week trip to South America. As I bought new gear, I would toss it into my backpack without a second thought. It wasn’t until the morning of my flight that I dumped everything onto the living room floor — with less than six hours to determine what would make the final cut.
Space was at a premium because whatever I chose, I’d have to haul around on my back for two months. I’m typically a light packer, used to asking myself, “Is this necessary?” The items below answer that question with a resounding yes!
When you find yourself without electricity (Cabo Polonio, Uruguay), without street lights (San Pedro de Atacama, Chile) or simply in a situation where you want to be a considerate roommate (someone WILL be sleeping before you set out your toothbrush and pajamas), a headlamp is worth its weight in gold. Mine proved its worth by day three (of 60).
Hooded Silk Sleep Sack
My silk sleep sack, which folded up into itself and fit inside a quart-sized zip-top bag, felt luxurious … especially in hostels and budget hotels where the alternative was a sheet that was the texture of sandpaper. Bonus: In altitude, it provided me with extra warmth when the temperatures dropped.
Compression sacks are perfect for consolidating less-needed items; when I was in warm-weather locales, the sack eliminated the extra space taken up by my fleece and jeans.
iPod with Customized Playlists
I created a “sleep” playlist that served me well on overnight bus rides and when sharing rooms with snorers. To build up a little anticipation for your trip, you can create a playlist with popular and current music in your destination. When you return, you’ll have an instant souvenir with music you likely just heard on the road.
The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing
Go on, laugh. But don’t take TP for granted, even when you have to pay to use a toilet. In many parts of the world you’ll need to provide your own. (See Five Tips for Bathroom Preparedness.)
I was in an area known for mosquitos and I hadn’t taken any malaria meds. Upon checking into my hotel, I noticed there was a hole in the window screen. I whipped out the duct tape, covered the holes and hoped for the best. (For other uses, see Top 10 Travel Essentials You Can Find at Your Drug Store.)
Or as I call it, a cover-up, beach towel, pillow, pillowcase, sarong and blanket. Oh, and yes, a scarf.
Quick-Dry Travel Towel
This was a good alternative in spots where bath towels were the size of washcloths. It also proved useful at the beach. Bonus: Sunshine really speeds up the drying process.
Biore Cleansing Facial Cloths
After an overnight bus ride or just a few days sans shower, using one of these made all the difference. I will never travel without facial cloths again.
Thankfully I never used this, but it took up permanent residence in my daypack. It was at the ready if there was an abundance of stray dogs or if I was walking alone in the dark.
I never had to use it as such. Instead, it doubled as a change purse. Had I needed to hand it over, it was heavy enough to be believable, yet it didn’t hold enough to impact my travels.
Money Safety Tips for Travelers
Again, another multi-purpose item: a laundry bag, wet clothes bag, muddy shoe bag, beach bag, shopping bag, snack bag, trash bag … you name it.
And finally, don’t forget your sense of humor and patience.
– written by Lori Sussle
Travel-related gift guides for this year’s holiday season are, no question, a helpful way to get a bead on what’s fun and new for the travelers in your life. They’re also alarmingly efficient, especially those that you find online, because with a couple of clicks on the keyboard, you’ve bought and shipped. Marvelous.
But there’s a downside. These online gift guides are proving to be way too tempting for self-indulgence. Thanks to Cruise Critic, IndependentTraveler.com’s sister site, I’ve learned about Gin & Titonic, a ship and iceberg ice cube tray that describes its appeal as “watch the ship sink in your drink.” Price: a paltry $8.65. How could I not treat myself?
Holiday Travel Ideas and Advice
Over at the New York Times travel section, a pack of paper soaps for $5 (great for washing clothes on the road) is a brilliant idea — so brilliant I bought a stash.
And on Conde Nast Traveler’s “Daily Traveler,” the Rimowa Limbo Multiwheel hard-sided carry-on in midnight blue, boasting a breathtaking $875 price tag, would strain my budget — but boy, is it gorgeous.
The first item on CNN’s list grabbed me right off: an iPhone lens dial with three different lenses for $250. I’m thinking of it as an investment in my photo shooting ability (or lack thereof).
Perhaps there ought to be a guilt-relieving gift-buying ratio for the holiday season. What would you think is fair — say, after every five presents bought for someone else, we all deserve a little treat for ourselves?
It’s also only fair to say that the travel gift that got me most excited to give — to others! — is one I found right here on IndependentTraveler.com. (See 10 Unexpected Holiday Travel Gifts for the full list.) On Excitations.com, I can pick out fun tours, like kayaking in San Francisco Bay or feeding a big cat in Miami. Best of all? I can personalize each experience to meet the travel interests of my gift recipients.
Sure is a lot more fun than an Amazon gift card.
10 Tips for Holiday Travel
– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown