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.
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.
How would you like to crowdsource your next travel destination? That’s the premise of DropMeAnywhere.com, whose founder, Carole Rosenblat, puts each of her trips up to a reader vote to find out where she’ll go next. Recent stops have included India, Hungary and Germany. Up next: Who knows?
Rosenblat recently took some time between trips to answer a few questions for us about the hightlights — and challenges — of her project.
IndependentTraveler.com: How did you come up with the idea for Drop Me Anywhere? Carole Rosenblat: It happened sort of organically. I’d left my job at Disney Cruise Line the year before and vowed not to accept anything I wasn’t passionate about. I was on a Twitter travel chat and the question posed was, “If you had a travel TV show, what would it be called and what would it be about?” I’d never thought of this before, and my fingers just started typing, “Mine’s called ‘Drop Me Anywhere’ and it’s about unplanned travel!” The response was overwhelming. People began telling me that I should make a pilot video and try a Kickstarter campaign. While I’d done many on-camera interviews, writing is my comfort zone. … and in the end, I went with the current blog format.
IT: What’s been the most rewarding aspect of Drop Me Anywhere so far? CR: The support from friends and strangers alike has been overwhelming. I get emails from people I know and some I’ve never met telling me that I’m inspiring them to step outside their comfort zone and live their dreams. This inspires me to keep going.
Also, I’m not one to travel for monuments or to check countries off my list. I travel for the people. And the people I’ve met have made it worth it. My new friends in Germany, Mexico, St. John’s (Newfoundland), Ireland (the father of someone I met on the plane on the way to Limerick invited me to stay with them for a night and took me on a great tour of their town) and Hungary are among the highlights. I’ve met the most interesting people.
IT: What’s been the biggest challenge? CR: Money. That’s the obvious one. I did the project for a year while living in Arizona and traveling back and forth. It only allowed for four trips the first year, and I knew there was a book in this. So in December of last year I rented out my house, sold my car, sold and gave away my furniture and most of my clothes, and went location independent. I left on 12/13/14 (it seemed like a good number). Money is a constant concern, as I’ve given up so much to do this and am using my savings. I also consider this an international job search — this is truly building my skill set — and hope to find a great position somewhere in the world when I complete the travel part of this project within the next five to seven months.
IT: Have you had to make adjustments to the project as you’ve gone along? CR: I made a decision at the beginning of this that I would forgive myself for the mistakes I make as long as I learn from them. I’ve never done anything like this before (I don’t think anyone is doing anything like it). I’ve learned to pay an airport porter if my bags are heavy and possibly overweight, as they’ll sometimes help you avoid extra baggage fees. I’ve learned to research visa requirements before I put a country up for a vote. (The very first vote included Russia, which is difficult to do without a plan due to the visa requirements.)
I’ve also learned that my best experience tends to be when I stay in one area or city for a decent amount of time and don’t jump around. This way I see it well, and get to know the people better. Sometimes I even end up with a regular bar or restaurant.
IT: How do you decide on which locations to include in each vote — and are you secretly hoping for certain ones to win? CR: As mentioned above, I do check out the visa requirements. Now that I’m location independent, I try not to fly back and forth across the world, as it’s tough on my body and my wallet. I now list the vote to stay on a specific continent for a couple of votes before I throw in other options to move me around.
Yes, sometimes I secretly root for destinations. But it’s not up to me. And I feel that wherever the readers decide, that’s where I’m meant to be.
IT: What role does volunteering play in your trips, and how do you find these opportunities? CR: I’ve volunteered my whole life. My philanthropic site Rebel-with-a-Cause.org actually predates this project.
So far, I’ve helped raise money to preserve a historic building, worked at an organization that feeds the homeless with a restaurant-style model, played and read with kids at a library in Mexico (I spent five days with those kids — I fell in love with them), served on a film crew to promote Gay Pride Week in Limerick, Ireland (I volunteered with three drag queens), fed the hungry and homeless in Budapest, and taught English, math and science to refugee kids in Malaysia.
I find these opportunities by asking people I meet, as well as via Twitter and Facebook. I make it a priority.
IT: What’s one thing you’ve learned from Drop Me Anywhere that can benefit any traveler, even those of us who like to do a little more planning? CR: One thing? Gosh, I’ve learned so much. Okay, maybe two:
House-sitting is a great way to save money. In Berlin I was a cat-sitter for a very strange cat named Siegfried for two weeks while its owner, an Australian opera conductor, was out of town. I stayed in a lovely flat and could do laundry and cook for myself. I hope to pet-sit again through a house-sitting site I belong to. It’s a great way to save money and get a few furry cuddles here and there.
It’s not really a lesson for me, but it’s one I’m trying to teach people: your best vacations can be the unplanned ones. When you plan every day, you don’t get to wander, and you resist opportunities that present themselves because they weren’t in the plan. Throw the plan out the window and try something different. Few things are fatal.
Mike DeSa is a travel journalist, husband, father to three rambunctious boys and former U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer. After nearly seven years of service and a combat deployment to Afghanistan, Mike and his family decided it was time to walk a different path. They left everything behind and are currently in the midst of a seven-country, seven-month trip across South and Central America. To keep up with his family’s travel around the Southern Hemisphere, you can follow them at #dclandromomania on Instagram and dclandromomania.blogspot.com.
Mike recently took time to answer a few questions about his trip for us from his current stopover in Cuenca, Ecuador.
IndependentTraveler.com: What were the most essential things you packed for this trip? Mike DeSa: The two items we’ve used the most are our waterproof, shockproof and compact-sized camera and our ruggedized laptop. As writers and people who love photography, we knew we needed to invest in a computer and camera that would endure the abuse of this trip. We also needed clothes for warm, humid weather as well as cold and possibly snowy climates. This necessitated several vented fishing shirts as well as zip-off pants that could easily be converted to shorts. Jackets with a waterproof outer shell and a zip-in fleece liner have been perfect for all the cooler climes we’ve encountered to date. Katie and I each have camping-style backpacks that allow our hands to remain free to hold onto the kids through busy bus terminals or airports. For a more detailed list on what we brought, read our Huffington Post blog post.
IT: What’s been the biggest challenge so far? MD: We assumed the biggest challenges would be mental, such as coping with homesickness. A month in, the biggest challenges have actually been physical, such as traveling on a budget — more specifically, the constraints of that budget to buy the food we crave and the unavailability of some ingredients. When we wanted a certain dish back home, we usually went to the local supermarket and picked up the ingredients, or ate out. Here we’ve found that we can’t always find any ingredient we want, especially in smaller towns, so it’s made whipping up a favorite dish like lasagna or chocolate chip cookies very difficult.
It must sound irrational that our biggest challenge so far during a seven-month, seven-country trek around the Southern Hemisphere with three kids is not having chocolate chip cookies on demand, but our love of food is a big part of our joy as a family.
IT: What has been your favorite moment with the boys so far? MD: Hands down our trip up the Napo River into the Amazon. We started with a long motorcanoe ride upriver; the low profile of the boat offered a unique perspective like that of gliding on top of the water and was perfect for spotting several different types of Amazonian birds along the way. When we arrived, our guide Gary (a native Ecuadorian) led us on a short walk through the jungle to meet a local woman, Martha, who provided us a demonstration on harvesting and cooking yuca as well as making some of the world’s finest chocolate.
Our favorite part of the tour was the making of chocolate from scratch. Gary cut a cacao pod right off the tree, and while he explained the history of the plant and the origins of its famous delicacy, we all chewed and sucked on the seeds, which tasted just like cotton candy. We then helped toast and peel the beans, and the boys got to drop them into the grinder. The product was fresh, 100 percent unsweetened chocolate! The look of joy and anticipation on the boys’ faces as they watched the paste slowly squeeze from the grinder was one we’ll always remember.
Martha then added a little fresh cane sugar and water, and the most gorgeous smell rose from the pan as we watched our favorite treat boil together before our eyes. Fresh bananas and strawberries accompanied the chocolate, and we all spent the next 30 minutes dipping, spreading and smearing chocolate everywhere. We highly recommend taking this trip with Michelle and Gary at La CasaBlanca if you’re ever in Tena.
IT: What’s the best way to fund this sort of long-term travel? MD: My wife and I saved as much as we could throughout my seven years in the Marine Corps, enough to fund this trip and search for a family investment. The best financial advice we can offer to a family looking at something like this is to start early, constantly evaluate what you’re spending money on and live within your means. Before we left, we did a great deal of research on the cost of living in different countries in South America and built a strict budget. We’ve made some minor tweaks to it since we’ve been here, but for the most part it’s been fairly accurate.
Once we hit a limit on meals out for the week or souvenirs for the month, that’s it — no more spending. Since our trip spans so many countries with varying costs of living, we had to find ways to save in preparation for the more expensive countries, such as living at a WWOOF operation or staying in a hostel. It may not always be the most comfortable living, but the experience of the trip makes the sacrifices well worth it.
IT: What can people who don’t travel with children learn from your trip? MD: Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something you love with the people you love. Children or not, create an adventure around something you’re passionate about. It could be a hunt for the best fish and chips in England, a treasured temples of the world quest or rescuing sea turtles in Honduras. We built our trip around a search for investment opportunities and tourism as well as our love of food. We brought our children because they mean everything to us and we wanted to teach them about the world they live in. Whatever your ideal adventure is, do it with the people you love, build it around your passion and remember that you’re never too old to learn new things.
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.
Eleven years ago, a book called “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” became a runaway bestseller, inspiring millions of travelers to create their own must-visit lists. With the 1,200-page tome now in its second edition, we sat down with the author, Patricia Schultz, to talk about the difficulty of narrowing the world down to 1,000 places and to find out what’s still on her own bucket list.
IndependentTraveler.com: Have you visited every place in the book?
Patricia Schultz: No, I haven’t. If I was part of a typical travel guide team — let’s say Lonely Planet or Fodor’s — the answer would likely be different. But these “1,000 Places” books are written in the voice of one traveler … and there are only so many hours in my years!
IT: Were there any destinations or experiences you wanted to include but couldn’t? Why did you leave them out?
PS: With the “1,000 Places” revision (released in late 2011), I attempted to keep all my favorites from the original 2003 book while adding hundreds of new places I had discovered since then. That meant a complete reorganization, merging many places into a single entry at times to accommodate new information and destinations — 28 new countries! All while keeping the count at 1,000. But it’s laughable, really, to think that one could ever sit back and feel that no stone went unturned! That’s what keeps every traveler going. The intoxicating promise of something new and wonderful around the bend.
IT: How long would it realistically take to see everything in the book? (And how much money?)
PS: I’m afraid there is no easy answer for that. The book was not meant to be followed from cover to cover. I hope travelers discerningly pick and choose from this list of my favorites to add to their own wish lists. Does everyone want to see the fjords of Norway? The wine region of Chile? What if it is great art that inspires you — would you spend your time and money on an African safari? Time is short, [and] one needs to follow one’s own interests. What are the things and places that call you? Travel is a very personal thing.
IT: Some travelers may feel intimidated by the size of the book (or the size of the world!). Do you have any advice to help people feel inspired instead of overwhelmed?
PS: Most of us have “short lists.” Was there a film or book that inspired you? Has your family’s ancestry always fascinated you? Is ancient history your thing? Food? It is useless if you choose a destination simply because a friend has talked you into it or because you found a cheap flight. Follow your heart. Me? I wanted to go everywhere! So it was all good.
IT: The book has spawned a genre of sorts in travel — I can’t count how many lists I’ve seen of “places to visit before you’re 30” or “destinations to take your family before your kids grow up.” Did you have any sense of how influential the book would be when you were writing it?
PS: No! I just kept writing away, trying to make sense of this vast and magnificent world and its wonders large and small. My eye was on the book deadline (I was given one year to write it but in fact it took eight), not future sales. I wanted to do the job as best I could, and hoped that I would sell enough copies to make my publisher happy and to pay off my credit card debt. I fulfilled both those goals! We have over 25 translations around the world, and it spawned a sister title, “1,000 Places to See in the USA & Canada Before You Die.”
IT: What’s still on your own bucket list?
PS: There are many countries I have not yet visited … Fiji, Romania, Uganda, among others. And although I have visited massive countries like China, Russia and India, I don’t pretend to know them well. Then there are those perennial loves I could return to time and again — Paris, Rome, Hong Kong, Rio. I could go on. My bucket list has a bucket list!
Want to win your own copy of “1,000 Places to See Before You Die”? Leave a comment below and tell us what’s at the top of your own travel wish list! Leave your comment by 11:59 p.m. ET on July 27, 2014. We’ll pick one winner at random. 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. Congratulations to Jeanette A., who has won the book! Stay tuned for further opportunities to win.
I recently had the opportunity to meet “Jeopardy!” game show host and pop culture icon Alex Trebek at an event hosted by Lindblad Expeditions. A long-time fan of the show, I was encouraged not only by the fact that we both love trivia, but also by our shared passion for travel and, unexpectedly, movies.
In our interview, I asked whether someone so worldly (Trebek has traveled to both Antarctica and the Galapagos with Lindblad) could have anything left on his bucket list. His reply was strangely specific: “Iguazu Falls — that’s inland. The Amazon has always interested me because I’ve had this long desire to get to Manaus, for some reason, and Manaus is a fascinating city. It had the first opera house in South America, 200 years ago, and that’s on my bucket list. Lhasa, in Tibet, is also very much on my list, and I almost did it this past year with National Geographic. They had an around-the-world flight that was supposed to take us to Lhasa, but the Chinese government had closed Tibet, so they rerouted everybody to another place in China, which was fine.”
However, Trebek still has an interest in Asia: “I missed out two years ago — we sent our Clue Crew to Cambodia and Vietnam and Laos, and I didn’t get to Angkor Wat, which is on my bucket list also. Oddly enough, in South China — not far from Canton, I think — there are some beautiful places, accessible; you’ve seen them in travel magazines a lot — with the rocks coming out of the water — that’s someplace I would like to visit also.”
What’s Alex Trebek’s favorite place to visit? “Yorkshire, England. Emily Bronte country. The moors, yes, my wife and I have walked the moors; we picked heather on the moors. Top Withens supposedly might have been the inspiration for Wuthering Heights. My wife and I have a picture of ourselves in front of that building.”
Having read that Trebek and his family are expert packers (and that he actually enjoys flying), I had to ask if he could offer any advice for the everyday traveler. The answer was surprising: “If you can’t do a two-week vacation with one roll-on and a shoulder bag, you’re not a good traveler at all. I have a friend who went to Prague with his partner, and his partner overpacked (had six or seven sweaters and never wore four or five of them). I’m on a three-day trip, here in New York then on to Washington and back to Los Angeles, and I overpacked but [my bag is] still light.”
As a routine overpacker, I felt the bite of “not a good traveler” and had to raise my spirits with a lighter question. Knowing that Trebek is a fan of both travel and movies, I figured he might have a favorite travel movie on file. “I’m thinking a film called ‘Hurricane’ with Dorothy Lamour. There are others in more recent days, of course. ‘Indiana Jones’ films feature a lot of geography, and they show you the maps and where the plane is going on the map so you can keep track — and they all wind up fighting bad Germans.”
Travel writer Bill Bryson has made a career out of examining the follies and foibles of different countries and regions, including Australia, the Appalachian Trail, his home state of Iowa and his adopted country of Britain. Few authors have as much insight into how tourists behave as he does.
Chris Gray Faust, Destinations Editor at our sister site Cruise Critic, caught up with Bryson last month on a cruise aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. During their one-hour interview (read part 1 here), Bryson discussed his travel pet peeves — including the phrase “bucket list” — and how you can get the most out of a trip to even the most well-documented cities.
IT: After a fairly normal 1950s childhood in the Midwest, did you ever expect that you’d spend much of your life traveling?
Bill Bryson: Not at all. But I grew up with a really powerful urge to see the world, and the thing I remember very clearly is looking at National Geographic when I was a kid. My dad always had a subscription.
Now, the classic thing for little boys to do is look at the bare-breasted ladies in Africa or Tahiti, but what I was looking at was France and Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Everywhere in the world looked so attractive and exotic. I just wanted to go off and see the world.
IT: Are certain places still on your bucket list?
BB: I don’t like using that term “bucket list” as I get closer and closer to being in bucket territory. But no, there are a lot of places that I’ve never been where I’d like to go, and there are a lot of places that I’ve never been with my wife where I’d like to take her, and then there are a lot of places that I would like to go and possibly write about. But they aren’t all the same places.
IT: What is your biggest pet peeve when you look at other travelers?
BB: There are so many people who are so obsessed with their job and their career that — no matter where you send them — they seem unable to enjoy the experience of travel. I think that’s a great shame, not only because travel makes you a better person but because it also makes you better at whatever business you do.
I know a man whose business took him all over the world but especially Sydney. And every time he’d go to Sydney from America, he’d stay at an airport hotel and meet his Australian colleagues at the airport hotel, and as soon as he possibly could he’d fly out again. He’d never seen Sydney Harbour! I don’t care how ambitious I was or how tied to my job I was, if you sent me to Sydney, at the minimum, I’m going to have a day to enjoy the experience.
IT: How do you think the Internet and smartphones have changed the way that we travel?
BB: People are so busy reporting their experiences that they aren’t actually having the experiences. I don’t travel with a cell phone in America because my cell phone from England doesn’t work in America. It drives my publishers crazy that they can’t phone me! I tell them, pretend it’s 1995 again and you don’t have a cell phone. They want instant access. So many people email you and expect an answer within minutes. You don’t have that entitlement to expect me to respond immediately.
IT: What else have you noticed about how travel has changed?
BB: There is so much more of it happening now. Just a year or so ago, I went to the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. It was out of season, but [the bridge] was so full of human beings you couldn’t walk across it. It was physically impossible without fighting crowds. It’s a shame that there are so many people who are trying to have the same few experiences.
IT: So how can a traveler who wants to have a unique experience do so?
A: Well, if you just go another 200 yards, you can have it all to yourself. [My wife and I] walk away from Trafalgar Square or Place d’Concorde. We usually end up going to some residential area or some park or follow the river. Then you very quickly shed all the tourists.
If you want to experience Paris or Rome or London in an authentic way, it’s still really easy to do. Go where people live, not where the tourists hang out. Walking is the way to get a full three-dimensional experience where all your senses kick in. You’ve got the smells and the sights and the wind in your face.
We all take them — the posed pics in front of iconic structures and vistas. But how do we transform our travel photos into a narrative of our journey? To help us, we turned to Nikon professional photographer Ami Vitale, who tells intimate stories through her camera lens. We learned not only how she creates a connection with her subject, but also how we can forge our own bonds.
Vitale’s work has appeared in such publications as National Geographic, Time and Newsweek. She has won numerous awards, exhibited in museums and contributed to a collaborative book project. Based in Montana, Vitale is working on her first solo book of stories behind the images she’s taken.
IT: Many of your photographs are close-ups of people. Do you ask permission to take someone’s photograph before you do it? Many travelers feel shy doing this; how do you approach the conversation?
Ami Vitale: Always. I usually sit down and talk with people for a few minutes, hours or even days to make sure that they are comfortable with my being there. If I don’t speak the same language, I will make gestures first asking if it’s okay or I will ask if someone nearby can translate. I always invest time in the people I’m photographing. It’s more respectful, I learn more and it elevates the image from being just a snapshot to an image with a real story.
Recently I was in India during the Pushkar Camel Fair and I was photographing a girl named Subita. I was not the only one taking her pictures. Around us, there were hundreds of digital cameras, some cheap, many expensive, firing away.
I spent a couple of days with Subita and her family. At no time were we alone, and even when before dawn broke, we huddled around a fire, at least a half dozen people were looking at her only through their lenses. The only time any of them acknowledged me was to ask me a technical question, like what ISO would work best in the stingy light.
Later, Subita would tell me how de-humanizing the impact of eager tourists and their cameras were on her. Made her feel like an animal is how she put it to me. No one even said “namaste” or “hello” to her. Those who surrounded her were after only one thing — what they considered a great shot. It was a hunt; she was simply the prize.
The era of film had a lot to teach us photographers; about approaching people slowly, the importance of building trust, and crafting a story even as you fire the shutter. Limited by the number of shots, we waited to get deeper into the story before blowing our film. And we were not defined as much by one amazing, accidental image, but rather the tapestry of a great and complex story we could illuminate.
If some of the people who surrounded Subita had taken the time to spend even a few hours with her, learning a bit more about her life, they would have had a story and not just an image. There are of course huge advantages to using a digital camera. It can help you tell a story better, but the important thing to remember is that anyone can take a picture. It takes a good storyteller to be a great photographer.
IT: What’s a shot or a moment that most people miss with their travel photography?
AV: Instead of getting only posed photos with people looking directly into the camera, it is more revealing to get images that show something deeper about their culture and lives. It’s pretty simple. It only takes time and the willingness to speak with the people you want to photograph.
IT: If we could all just do one thing to make our travel photographs better, what would it be?
AV: Take more time in one place. Instead of zipping around to dozens of locations in one day, slow down, get to know the people and culture more deeply and the images will show that knowledge and trust.
IT: How does being a photographer change the way you travel?
AV: I don’t consider myself a traveler even though I’ve traveled to almost 85 countries. Instead, it’s about telling stories and learning about the people and places I visit. The experience is not about me but rather about the people who open their lives to me.
It’s a tough job if you are serious about it, and you have to be serious about it if you want to make a living at it. The truth is, very little “clicking” happens. That is about 10 percent of the job. The rest is sheer hard work: planning, researching, editing, negotiating and finding unique ways to tell stories. The trick is to get access to places that no one else can get to, and the secret to this is to know your subject better than anyone else.
So my advice to those who dream about this is to find a story close to you – maybe even in your backyard — and make it yours. You don’t need to travel abroad. What you do need to do, however, is tell a story better than anyone else can, using your own unique perspective. If you find your own story and show complete and utter dedication, then you will find a way to carve out a career.
Read more about Ami Vitale and see her galleries at Nikonusa.com
Award-winning artist, author and New York Times blogger Christoph Niemann recently turned his talents to the subject of travel, chronicling an uncomfortable transatlantic flight in his hilarious graphic blog, Abstract City. I asked Niemann, a veteran globetrotter who frequently flies between Berlin and New York, to tell us more about his thoughts on air travel.
IndependentTraveler.com: Your illustrations shine a humorous light on the petty annoyances of air travel. Do you think flying has gotten more irritating than it used to be?
Christoph Niemann: I hope that despite all the grievances I list in my blog, it is obvious that my main observation is how flying somehow turns us into self-pitying neurotics. As much as I dislike the boredom, the discomfort and the food, I still think it is amazing that I can hop on a plane and cross an ocean in a few hours for a few hundred dollars.
I am not sure that travel has gotten worse, but I am rather shocked and amazed that it hasn’t gotten any better. When you think of all the advancement in other areas (trains, cars, hotels), it is amazing that flying (at least in coach) hasn’t changed AT ALL. I don’t want to keep picking on Delta (the people who work for them are very nice), but they don’t even have seat-back monitors. How can I keep track of where we are if I am forced to watch “Pirates of the Caribbean” with the whole plane?
IT: On that note, do you ever fly first class?
CN: I think I have a secret sign on my forehead that says “DO NOT UPGRADE THIS MAN. EVER.”
I fly a lot and have a good number of miles on various cards. But they all seem conveniently expired or invalid on that particular day.
IT: What other elements of air travel do you find absurd?
CN: I could easily write a Russian-novel-length thesis about the Delta terminal at J.F.K. — from the ridiculous walk from the air-train to the terminal to the absurd check-in lines to the depressing disrepair of the whole facility. Then there’s of course the insanely terrifying flushing sound of an airplane toilet — though I wasn’t able to come up with a good metaphor for that.
IT: What inspired you to turn your talents to the subject of air travel?
CN: I am writing this on seat 12E on flight 97 from Berlin to EWR. My kneecaps are crumbling away, I have crumbs and stains all over my shirt and I can barely open my laptop at a 45-degree angle, which forces me to type vertically. This is all the inspiration I need.
IT: Does turning life into art help pass the time on a horrible flight, or does creativity flow best after you’ve made it home?
CN: I always try to get some work done on flights, and taking notes for the blog is certainly more enjoyable than studying the terrible ads for steakhouses and celebrity dentists in the in-flight magazine. But the real work happens back at the desk.
IT: Are there any destinations in particular that have inspired your work?
CN: The Berlin-New York flight is where I travel most often.
Just to end on a positive note: Berlin Tegel is my favorite airport! On a trip back from Switzerland last year it took me six (!) minutes from the wheels of the plane touching the tarmac to opening the door of the taxi.