Forget the weeklong family vacation; it seems parents and their children are hitting the road for months at a time, across borders and thousands of miles, in a new wave of family travel that seeks to educate through global experiences.
This morning I came across a story on Yahoo Travel about a 10-year-old girl who blogs about her worldly experiences, having visited more than 30 countries in her first decade on this planet. Tatum Oxenreider and her two brothers live a migratory life with their parents, who work remotely (you can say that again) for a nonprofit organization while chronicling their journeys on their website, “The Art of Simple Travel.” Tsh, Tatum’s mother and an author of books on travel and simplicity, believes that the world is the best teacher possible.
Thinking about the Oxenreiders reminded me of another family: the Kirkbys. Stars of “Big Crazy Family Adventure” on the Travel Channel, this family of four — with two young sons, ages 7 and 4 — documented their travels across 13,000 miles from British Columbia to the Himalayas without taking a single airplane. While there’s an expected amount of groaning from the kids, who tire of some more tedious parts of travel — such as hikes intended to acclimate them to an increase in altitude — for the most part, the family remains upbeat and embraces every chance they can to introduce their young ones to a new cultural experience (including the crunchy scorpions both boys ate with gusto in China).
Out of curiosity I searched online for families traveling the world — and there are plenty. Meet the Nomadic Family, a clan of five from Israel who offer insight and tips from their journeys wandering the world for three years, as well as the decision they made to stop traveling and how that transition back to home life has been. Other families are doing it without tracking the trek via a blog or website. Last year the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler wrote an editorial piece on the Maurers, a family of four (children, ages 15 and 12) traveling from Southeast Asia to Nepal to Europe on $150 a day. Over 10 months, some of the challenges and lessons they faced were strange and difficult. For example, the father and daughter — adopted from Korea — could not walk alone together in Thailand, as they would be often misconstrued as a couple. The parents also faced harsh criticism from home for having their children out of school for a year, despite unconventional home schooling along the way.
And then there’s our own story of a couple who hit the open road (and skies and rivers…) with their three young sons to explore South and Central America. In the interview, the DeSas discuss challenges like traveling through airports while keeping hands free to hold on to the kids, or not being able to find foods they crave in a new place on a tight budget. However, the lack of chocolate chip cookies is more than made up for with experiences like making their own chocolate from scratch in Ecuador.
I don’t yet have a family of my own, so I can’t speak to whether I would bring children on such a long trip, but I know I certainly would’ve enjoyed it as a child myself. Would you embark on a trip around the world with your family? Tell us in the comments.
Wendy Perrin is one of the world’s leading travel experts, known to many readers as a longtime columnist and consumer news director for Conde Nast Traveler. These days she serves as the Travel Advocate for our parent company, TripAdvisor, and maintains her own travel site at WendyPerrin.com. We sat down with Wendy to ask her about some of the key lessons she’s learned over her decades of working in travel — and to find out which destinations are still on her bucket list.
IndependentTraveler.com: What’s the most common mistake you see travelers make when planning a trip?
Wendy Perrin: Failing to take into account the lay of the land, distances between places and other local logistics. They end up wasting a lot of time at their destination, and missing important experiences and hidden gems, because of inefficiency, timing mistakes, waits and lines they could have bypassed, hassles they could have avoided. I don’t see any booking engine or app solving this problem. And it’s the reason why I created my WOW List. Travelers can experience twice as much in half the time if they book their trip through one of my WOW List travel fixers. They know the ins and outs of their destination and get you the access and perks you didn’t realize you’d need. Once you’ve planned a trip with one — and have experienced how they get you to the right place at the right time on the right day of the week, introduce you to people you could never meet on your own and make the lines disappear — you never want to take another trip without one.
IT: Can you share one or two of the most memorable experiences such experts have arranged for your own trips?
WP: I could share a hundred. But one such experience was when I got inside the secret Renaissance passageway in Florence, Italy, that runs from the Uffizi Gallery across the Ponte Vecchio to the Pitti Palace. It’s called the Vasari Corridor, and it was built by the Medicis so they could walk between their workplace and residence invisibly, spying on their subjects from on high. The passageway houses the world’s largest collection of self-portraits by artists, and also provides some of Florence’s best views, but that’s not even what makes it so cool. The thrill is how it makes Florence’s history and secrecy come to life in such a visceral way. As the passageway winds this way and that, growing narrower and darker and more rough-hewn, it feels like you’re walking back in time. Alone in the tunnel with your guide, peering down into the shops on the bridge, into hotel rooms on the river, even into the church balcony that the Medicis used, you feel the power that the Medicis must have felt. Seeing without being seen, you get to be a spy like them.
Another memorable experience happened in southeastern Turkey, where one of my Trusted Travel Experts arranged access to Rumkale (Turkish for “Roman castle”), an ancient fortress that sits on an outcrop some 500 feet above the Euphrates. The fortress has not been restored: There are no paths or railings or tickets, much less guards or postcard vendors. There’s simply nobody there. You have a Roman ruin all to yourself (including the 230-foot-deep well where, local legend has it, Narcissus saw his reflection in the water, fell in love with it, reached in to grab it and fell down the well to his death). The view from Rumkale is spectacular in every direction: The fortress is surrounded almost entirely by water, and across the river, carved into the cliffs, are hundreds of caves. Someday some hotel entrepreneur is going to turn those caves into glass-walled river-view suites. And that was the thrill: Seeing an ancient site before it gets developed. I’ve clambered around my share of Roman ruins — including gems like Baalbek in Lebanon and Palmyra in Syria — but Rumkale is the ultimate.
IT: What’s one travel lesson that’s taken you a long time to learn?
WP: Take off your watch.
IT: Can you share your funniest travel moment?
WP: Well, it wasn’t funny at the time, but it was the transcontinental flight when both children threw up on my husband, one after the other. That lovely episode yielded one of my carry-on-luggage tips for parents: Don’t just pack a change of clothing for your kid — pack one for yourself too.
IT: After decades of traveling, which destinations or experiences are still on your bucket list?
WP: Well, my bucket list starts with any place I haven’t been. That includes Oman, Uzbekistan, French Polynesia, Nova Scotia, Mount Rushmore and a slew of islands worldwide, from Gozo to Vanuatu to Zanzibar. And then my bucket list continues with every place I’ve already been to but not with my kids … yet. They would love New Zealand, the Galapagos Islands, Jordan, Newfoundland, Zion National Park…. Funny thing about my bucket list: The more of it I do, the longer it gets. The more places I go, the more I realize there is to experience there, and the more I want to go back and do what I missed the first time, or do it with certain people who weren’t there the first time.
IT: If you could only use one app on your next trip, which would you choose?
WP: I use TripAdvisor a lot on business trips, but when my goal is to immerse myself in a foreign culture, my preference is to use no apps at all and instead get the info by asking the locals.
IT: What advice would you give travelers who may not have a luxury budget but want to upgrade their trip in meaningful ways?
WP: Choose a destination where the exchange rate works in your favor. Go in shoulder season (that window of time between high and low seasons, when rates have dropped yet conditions are good for the activities you have in mind). Get a credit card that makes flying more tolerable by giving you lounge access, free luggage, express security lanes, priority boarding, extra legroom, whatever you can get. Grab breakfast outside the hotel at a bakery or coffee shop where the locals hang (unless breakfast is included in the room rate). Have picnics in pretty locales with provisions you buy at colorful local markets. And climb steps: Often there are two ways to get to the top of a site (whether it’s an ancient fortress, a church cupola with a view or the Eiffel Tower), and often you have a choice between an elevator and the stairs. Usually the elevator costs more, has a line and is not as atmospheric as the steps. Plus you get exercise — which means you needn’t splurge on a hotel with a gym.
— interview conducted by Sarah Schlichter
Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc.
This week’s brainteaser is a Friday Word Puzzle. We’ll give you a category and the first letters of five countries that fall into that category, and you fill in the rest. Keep in mind that there may be more than one possible response for each letter. For examples, check out this blog post.
Ready to give it a try? Here’s this week’s challenge:
Enter your list of countries in the comments below. You have until Monday, July 13, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday morning we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.
Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Ryan, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Check out the winning entry below.
With the Greek economy in flux, travelers with upcoming trips to Greece have been wondering: How should we prepare for travel to Athens and the islands during the Greek financial crisis?
I’m going ahead with my own planned cruise on Azamara Journey later this month that centers on Turkey and Greece, including port stops in Volos, Hydra, Skiathos, Mykonos, Santorini and Athens. Unless we hear otherwise from Azamara, my travel partner and I will hedge our bets against the currency upheaval by adhering to the following tips — which can also help travelers planning a land-based journey.
Bring euros: Usually we rely on ATMs overseas when we travel, as our bank doesn’t charge us foreign transaction fees. But with news reports noting some ATMs are out of money, we’ll be prudent and come prepared.
Contact bank in advance: Since we’re not stopping in the Eurozone before our flight, this means we’ll have to get some money in advance from our U.S. bank; we might end up taking a bit of a hit on currency conversion fees. That said, the Euro is $1.10 against the dollar right now — almost a record low. In the end, the fees are a small price to pay for peace of mind.
Haggle with cab drivers: Our itinerary has a few Greek islands where we’re fine with last-minute plans. If cash is king and we have enough of it, we suspect that Greek taxi drivers might be willing to drop prices for short day trips.
Watch out for pickpockets: It’s a sad fact that crime goes up in times of financial instability. We’ll be doubly sure that our purses and wallets are secure when we’re out and about. We’ll also limit the amount of cash we bring with us on shore and leave important documents back on the ship. (We recommend the same if you’re staying in a hotel.)
Prebook (and prepay) some excursions: Financial instability means that some vendors do one of two things: Jack up their prices to compensate for a low euro or ask for cash payments. For those must-see tours — we’ve got our eye on the gorgeous monasteries of Meteora — we’ll make sure we’re working with a reputable company that takes credit cards and pay in advance. To be really safe, cruisers should book through their ship, in case the line changes port stops.
Keep up with the news: A financial crisis often brings accompanying strikes and demonstrations. We’ve signed up for the State Department’s STEP program, which sends you email alerts when situations change, and we’ll check newspapers daily. This is not the time to unplug.
Wait to book hotels: Many tourists have already canceled their trips to Athens because of the Greek financial crisis, which means the hotels will be hurting for business. We predict that hotel rates will go down significantly in the next few weeks, which means we might be able to snap up a room in a hotel that’s otherwise out of our price range (hello, Parthenon view). We also want to make sure that the area we’ll be staying in is safe and free of demonstrations.
Don’t panic: This is not the first time we’ve been to countries where things were less than stable. From demonstrations in Egypt, Thailand and Easter Island to erupting volcanoes in Iceland, incidents have cropped up frequently on work trips and vacations — and it’s always turned out fine in the end. We predict that the Greeks we meet on this trip will be happy to see tourists and do their best to make sure they have satisfying vacations, despite the Greek financial crisis.
It’s not Airbnb: Money does not change hands. It’s not Couchsurfing: Accommodations are more formal and include an actual bed. But it’s also not HomeExchange: You can simultaneously trade places with another traveler, but you don’t have to. Enter Nightswapping (formerly known as Cosmopolit Home), the latest in “living like a local” — and, if you don’t care to pay, hosting like a local too.
The new company, based in France, aims to foster a sense of community and kinship while conveniently avoiding the legal issues Airbnb has faced from local authorities and housing regulations. The idea is this: When you host travelers from around the world — either in an extra room while you’re there or in a space they have to themselves — you’ll earn credits known as travel capital. In turn, you can use those credits as free nights at other host locations around the world (the website says there are more than 10,000 in more than 160 countries). According to the site’s terms and conditions, a member (someone agreeing to host as well as travel) will receive a credit of seven nights at registration, so he or she can start traveling right away. This gesture is not considered a gift but an advance — the member is still expected to host in return.
Although the site claims to be free, guests must pay a $9.90 “connection fee” to confirm a nightswap. This fee goes to the company, not the host.
Don’t feel comfortable sharing your space? Nightswapping offers an equivalent nightly rate for each location you may be interested in, ranging from 7 to 49 euros. How does the site bypass the “room for sale” legal gray area? Hosts never actually receive money, even if the room is paid for — just travel capital, or nights. Nightswapping absorbs the payment (for your convenience, of course). Locations vary, but are generally broken down into Europe and “exotic destinations” (which include North America); it seems there are far more hosts in Europe than anywhere else.
The best hosts in each region are highlighted, and ratings are shown at the top of the lister’s profile. We like the thorough profiles, which offer size and dimensions; comfort, condition and a description of the interior design; a carousel of photos; a map detailing relative location; a photo of your host with some basic information including age and languages spoken; and the last time someone stayed at the property.
According to the site, “Nights have a different value depending on the standard of the accommodation you wish to stay at.” Rated 1 through 7, your home’s value is calculated based on an algorithm taking size, comfort level, location and other factors into account. Once rated, you can see what your hosted nights will translate into during your own stay abroad. Seven nights in an accommodation rated “Standard 3″ equals four nights in a “Standard 5″ accommodation, or 10 nights in a “Standard 2″ accommodation.
In theory, the idea of fostering continent-crossing friendships with little to no monetary burden seems very Kumbaya. But while Nightswapping bypasses some of the legal issues faced by other similar services, the question of personal safety remains, especially for solo travelers or hosts. Nightswapping uses a similar social media vetting system for its hosts as Airbnb and suggests checking your personal home insurance and liability policies before hosting a guest. It also gives hosts the option to deny guest requests. Nightswapping recently announced that each stay will be covered by insurance worth up to 450,000 euros (approximately $488,663 USD), while Airbnb offers a million dollar host guarantee for every booking (with some limitations). It all comes down to your personal comfort level.
Yesterday was International Kissing Day, which got us thinking about some of the world’s most romantic and pucker-producing places. Check out the list of our top picks below — and let us know your additions in the comments!
Paris, France: This one’s a given. Whether you’re strolling hand-in-hand down the Champs Elysees, cuddling up at night to watch the Eiffel Tower’s twinkling lights or staring into each other’s eyes over lunch and macarons at a hole-in-the-wall cafe, Paris practically screams smoochworthiness.
Samana, Dominican Republic: An off-season trip to a resort in this cheerful town in the DR can be a great experience, particularly because the crowds are thinner (or, in some places, virtually nonexistent). That means you’ll be able to snag more alone time with the one who matters most. Sleep in, find a secluded beach or watch whales breach from your private balcony — which, by the way, is a great place to pucker up.
New York, New York: Ironically, there’s nothing quite like the hustle and bustle of the city that never sleeps to make you and your significant other feel like you’re the only two people in the universe. Jog through Manhattan’s Central Park, experience the craft beer scene in Brooklyn or meander down lesser-known side streets to find a divey pizza joint you can call your own.
Bora Bora, French Polynesia: Imagine waking up next to your sweetie in your very own hut in the middle of crystal-clear turquoise waters. Even if thatched roofs, colorful fish and open-air sleeping arrangements aren’t your thing, we’re sure the relative seclusion won’t hurt your chances of snagging a peck … or 50.
Venice, Italy: How can you resist a kiss in a city full of historical palaces, playful Carnevale masks and romantic gondola rides along peaceful, winding canals? Have dinner canal-side, and just try to stave off the feeling of la dolce vita that’s sure to follow.
Savannah, Georgia: As if unique shops, restaurants full of atmosphere and stunning architecture aren’t enough, Savannah has a colorful history that includes plenty of rumored ghosts and spirits. Sign up for a nighttime ghost walk, which will force you to keep your loved one close. Then prepare to plant one on him (or her) — or have one planted on you.
Cologne, Germany: We dare you to find a holiday (Valentine’s Day excluded) that sparks more warm, fuzzy feelings than Christmas. The perfect way to spend some holiday time with your snookums is at one of Germany’s many Christmas markets — and Cologne’s is one of the biggest and best. When you’re done snogging between sips of gluhwein and bites of gingerbread, you can venture to the city’s well-known love lock bridge to further profess your feelings.
Datong, China: Supported by stilts on the side of a mountain, the Hengshan Hanging Temple appears to be “hanging” — hence its name. Explore the roughly 40 rooms that make up this impressive monastery, which dates back more than 1,400 years. The remarkable warren of passageways is great to experience with your partner, especially so you have someone’s hand to hold if you’re afraid of heights! (Note: Out of respect you may want to hold off on locking lips until you’ve left the monastery.)
This Friday’s challenge is a photo of an unidentified place somewhere in the world. Can you tell us where the photo was taken? Leave your guess in the comments below — and check back on Tuesday to see if you were right!
Hint: Operating in the Tasman Sea in the early 20th century and used as a hospital ship during WWI, this vessel is now wrecked on which island off the eastern Queensland coast?
Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, July 6, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday morning we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com prize. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.
Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Bea Dahlen, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Fraser Island, Australia. Bea has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.
Few travelers are as passionate about Italy as Kathy McCabe, who’s spent more than a decade as the publisher of a newsletter and website called Dream of Italy, dedicated to discovering every corner of the Boot. Starting this year you can also catch her Italian explorations on TV as part of a new series on PBS, also called “Dream of Italy.” You can find the schedule and watch full episodes online at her website.
We reached out to McCabe to find out her favorite immersive experiences in Italy, her advice for first-timers and more info about her new series.
IndependentTraveler.com: Why is Italy so eternally appealing to many travelers?
Kathy McCabe: Italy has everything — ancient cities, stunning beaches, warm people, the best food in the world, 60 percent of the world’s art. I’m not sure of another country that offers as much as Italy, but maybe I am partial!
IT: What can viewers expect from your new “Dream of Italy” TV series on PBS?
KM: Viewers can expect a different side of Italy from the usual tourist attractions — authentic is a word that seems overused these days, but I think it is one of the best words to describe the people we meet and experiences we have in the show.
We feature real Italians living their passions, from a goat farmer in Italy who makes goat cheese to an artist in Rome who teaches the ancient art of mosaics. One of my favorite segments features the Tuscan cowboys of the Maremma — there are only a few of them left. (Check out this clip in the video below.) I’m proud that not only are we giving viewers great travel ideas, but we are preserving Italian culture for future generations.
IT: Which region of Italy would you say is most overlooked, and why should travelers check it out?
KM: One of my favorite less-visited regions is Puglia — the region of Italy on the heel, facing Greece — though it is really becoming more popular. We even devoted an entire episode of the TV series to Puglia. Puglia has 500 miles of stunning coastline: beautiful empty beaches and fortified harbors. The olive trees in the region are gargantuan and dot the landscape. You will also see trulli, small white stone huts. And the people, like all Italians, are warm and welcoming.
IT: What are your favorite immersive/hands-on experiences in Italy?
KM: I love taking cooking classes in Italy, and these are accessible to every traveler (in the Dream of Italy print newsletter, we devoted two full issues to Italy’s best cooking schools). You can easily fit a half-day cooking class into a trip, and it’s a great way to learn about the culture through food and to interact with locals.
Another great experience is enjoying a dinner in a local home through Home Food. The hosts go through a rigorous selection process and speak English.
IT: What one piece of advice would you give travelers planning their first visit to Italy?
KM: As hard as it is, don’t over-plan or try to do too much. I have been to Italy more than 35 times and I still haven’t seen every region. Pick a few places to focus on, and be sure to leave time for serendipity!
IT: Outside of Italy, what are your other favorite travel destinations?
KM: Most of my travels are to Italy, but when I have the chance to travel somewhere else, I have found it hard to tear myself away from Europe. (I guess I made a good choice in college when I majored in European studies.) France was my first love — one summer in college, I studied in the exquisite towns of Annecy and Talloires in the Alps. Ireland is another favorite European destination. The people are so warm, just like the Italians.