Michal Alter has spent her career working on behalf of underserved communities. So when the Israel native and New York resident decided to launch a tourism operation two years ago, the needs of others were at the forefront of her mind.
The organization Alter cofounded, Visit.org, allows travelers to find and book authentic and impactful excursions in the U.S. and overseas. Visit.org carefully vets the organizations it works with to ensure that the activities make a social impact and that 100 percent of the fees a traveler pays for an activity is invested in the local community.
From her office in New York, Alter talked with us about this rapidly growing platform for what she called “social impact travel experiences.”
Independent Traveler: Why did you start this company?
Michal Alter: We launched Visit.org in 2015 in response to the travel industry’s immense potential to generate economic sustainability for local communities. The $7 trillion travel industry is the world’s top economic driver, yet only 5 percent of earnings are left in local hands. With this in mind, we created a platform that enables social ventures like nonprofits and other community-based enterprises to create and market mainstream tourism products that will finance their missions.
IT: How many different activities could a traveler book through Visit.org?
MA: As of March 2017, we have 545 exclusive experiences in 65 countries. We aim to reach more than 1,000 do-good partners by the end of the year.
IT: Why is it important for travelers to support local communities?
MA: When we do not support local communities, local cultures and natural resources get diluted. What makes the destination so unique and different from our own home towns then disappears. When travelers support local communities, they are leaving funds directly in the hands of the local hosts whose communities’ natural resources, labor, social fabrics and cultures are affected.
IT: What are some of the more unusual experiences someone could arrange through Visit.org?
MA: Some of my favorite experiences are in always inspiring Paris. The most unusual offers guests the chance to upcycle trash into artwork. Visitors repurpose waste into something beautiful as well as learn about the importance of responsible waste management.
In Cuzco, Peru, you can go to a potato park with a group that works to preserve local ancestral agricultural knowledge and celebrate the country’s unique potato heritage. There are 1,500 native types of potatoes grown in Peru!
IT: Can you tell me a little about the vetting process you go through before selecting the organizations you partner with?
MA: We focus on partnerships with locally operated grassroots organizations as they are the best equipped to serve their communities; they have vast knowledge and understanding of the issues. Our high-level vetting criteria includes confirming a measurable track record of significant impact on the local community and a commitment that 100 percent of hosts’ revenue from the experience will be invested into the local community. We then conduct extensive online research about potential organizations and use existing official databases of highly vetted nonprofits around the globe to identify new partners.
Once we’ve identified a new potential partner organization, we send someone from our global network of more than 200 “travel ambassadors” to visit the organizations in person. After the meeting, the ambassador fills out a detailed report.
IT: Your activities are not very expensive. Do people have a misperception that social impactful travel equals more expensive travel?
MA: There is definitely that misconception. It comes from the fact that a lot of what is marketed to consumers as “social impactful travel” is either an expensive and long-term volunteer tourism commitment, or a high-end, highly curated culturally immersive itinerary. This is where Visit.org’s innovation lies, as we make impactful travel experiences both affordable and easy to book.
IT: If a traveler is told that an excursion or activity will support the local community, what can he or she do to confirm that’s indeed the case?
MA: Travelers can check a provider’s website to see what type of company it is, review the mission statement, research what the vendor is incentivized by and see how revenue will be spent. Also, check customer reviews to see if past guests had meaningful experiences and look to see if the company has responsible travel certifications from such organizations as the Center for Responsible Travel, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and the International Ecotourism Society.
IT: What have been some of your most memorable culturally immersive experiences from your travels?
MA: I recently visited Al Hagal, an Israeli social enterprise that leads yearlong youth empowerment programs through surfing to underserved youth from around the country. I took my first wave-surfing lesson. Surfing the waves for the first time was a lot of fun, but much more powerful was getting to know the staff and youth, taking in the contagious passion with which the staff speaks about their youth program, and listening to stories of transformation from the program’s participants.
Have you ever considered bringing your dog with you on vacation — even when traveling overseas? Melissa Halliburton founded the website BringFido to make it easier for people to do just that. The site is a directory of pet-friendly hotels, vacation rentals, B&Bs and campgrounds all over the world; it also includes information on restaurants and attractions. We caught up with Halliburton to ask about her practical tips for traveling with dogs as well as find out where she and her own pet, Roxy, are headed next.
Independent Traveler: Other than companionship, what are the benefits of bringing your pet with you when you travel?
Melissa Haliburton: Traveling with your furry friend can be good for your health and possibly your pet’s health too. You and your four-legged companion will both get great exercise exploring new destinations on foot. And bringing Fido along on your adventure will eliminate any concerns about separation anxiety. Traveling with a dog may also help you make new friends in an unfamiliar destination. Take your pooch to a neighborhood park and mingle with local pet owners. Mentioning Fido’s travel adventures is always a great conversation starter. Finally, bringing your pet along on your journey may save you some money. Many hotels and vacation rentals welcome pets for no extra fee, saving you big bucks over expensive boarding options.
IT: There are plenty of horror stories about bringing pets on flights, particularly in the cargo hold (for animals too large to bring in the cabin). How can you decide whether it’s safe to fly with your pet?
MH: Before finalizing any travel plans, be sure to ask your veterinarian whether your pet is healthy enough to travel. Go over the full itinerary in the vet’s office and ask for his/her advice. Even if your pet is perfectly healthy, that doesn’t mean that she is safe to fly.
Reduce the risk of incidents by following a few basic tips: First, you should book nonstop flights whenever possible. Avoid destinations or connecting cities that may expose your pet to extreme temperatures while in cargo, on the tarmac or in the custody of the airlines. Second, anticipate delays and have a backup plan in case your original itinerary is impacted. Third, for your pet’s safety and your own peace of mind, invest in a pet tracker to monitor Fido’s whereabouts throughout your trip. Finally, don’t medicate your pet with tranquilizers, as these medicines can cause heart and respiratory issues. Instead, focus on making sure that Fido is comfortably fitted with an approved crate that is large enough for him to turn around and lie down inside.
IT: Which is a better bet for people traveling with a dog — a vacation rental or a hotel?
MH: Deciding between a vacation rental or hotel is generally a matter of personal choice, as both have pros and cons. But pet owners may want to consider their pet’s individual needs and personality when making their lodging decision. For the pampered pooch, an upscale hotel may be just the ticket. Some hotels offer amazing pet amenities like doggie dining menus and pet spa services. If your pooch prefers some off-leash time, a vacation home with a fenced backyard would make his holiday special. Regardless of the type of accommodation, always consider the location around the hotel or rental, as you’ll likely be going on late night or early morning walks with your pup.
IT: What advice would you offer people who want to bring their pet on an international vacation?
MH: Plan ahead. Depending on the destination, you will need to begin preparation weeks, if not months, prior to an international trip. Never book an international flight until you have double-checked that you pet can be safely accommodated and that your pet can satisfy all entry and exit requirements for pet transit.
IT: Which places are easiest for Americans to travel with a pet, and which are the most expensive and/or challenging?
MH: Traveling internationally with a pet is never as simple as paying a fee and setting off on your journey. No matter the destination, you’ll be completing paperwork, scheduling vet appointments and paying hefty sums to get your pet to your intended destination. But pet owners should be particularly cautious when it comes to travel in countries with strict quarantine requirements, such as Australia. Even domestic travel to Hawaii involves quarantine restrictions for your furry friend.
IT: What’s your favorite travel experience that you’ve had with your dog?
MH: We recently visited the town of Canals, Spain (near Valencia) with our Chihuahua-pug mix, Roxy, to participate in festivities celebrating Saint’s Day for San Antonio Abad. Each year in mid-January, locals and visitors gather for a three-day festival involving parades, a bonfire celebration and the Blessing of the Animals ceremony.
IT: Where are you and your dog headed next?
MH: We don’t have another international trip planned at the moment, but we’re likely to visit one or two Asian capitals sometime in the next year.
While renting an Airbnb property in 2015, Stefan Grant and a group of friends received a visit from a pair of police officers. The officers told him that neighbors had reported the house was being robbed, Grant said.
An innocent mistake or a case of discrimination? Grant and his friends, who are black, said they were certain it was the latter. Following the attention he received after a Twitter post about the incident went viral, Grant had an in-person meeting with Airbnb executives to talk about discrimination and how the company could better serve his community.
But Grant was not satisfied. He and a partner thus have decided to start their own short-term rental company, Noirbnb, which aims to provide welcoming and safe spaces for black travelers and for anyone who may have faced discrimination in the past.
Grant chatted with us about the company he’s soon to launch.
Independent Traveler: Where are you in terms of the company development?
Stefan Grant: We’re very close to our full launch. We have a few thousand properties so far, and more are signing up every day.
IT: Why is a service like this important for travelers?
SG: I think a service like Noirbnb is important because it understands and caters to the unique experiences of black travelers and other travelers of color. It also provides a space for accepting people of all walks of life to connect with each other and build awesome new relationships.
IT: Do you think the changes Airbnb implemented last year to make its service more “colorblind” have been effective?
SG: I don’t think they have been effective because we still see instances of rampant discrimination taking place on Airbnb all the time. I also don’t think that people should be “colorblind.” People should see people for who they are because our uniqueness is what makes the world a more beautiful place, and to blind ourselves to that is dismissive and counterproductive.
IT: Tell us a little about some of the property owners who have signed up so far.
SG: We have a variety of different properties, from large homes and villas to apartments, condos and even a boat. Many people who’ve signed up with us tell us they love our mission and what we’re setting out to do. Our hosts come in all facets, and it means the world to us that they want to be part of what we’re building at Noirbnb.
IT: What else will be different from your competitors?
SG: We have a few differentiators that we plan on rolling out that will separate us from our competitors. But we don’t want to give away too much of our “secret sauce” before we launch.
IT: Is your aim to attract black-owned properties or black-friendly properties? Or both?
SG: Our goal is to attract black-owned properties as well as black-friendly properties.
IT: Do you anticipate that other groups of people who face discrimination, such as gay travelers or travelers of other ethnic backgrounds, will be drawn to use your service too?
SG: We do anticipate that people of other ethnic backgrounds or members of the LGBT community will gravitate toward us because in many ways our experiences overlap and intersect. We also created Noirbnb for them because we want our platform to really be a diverse and welcoming community where people can feel free to be themselves.
IT: Once the site is up and running, where’s the first place that you want to book?
SG: Once the site is up and running, I think I’d like to visit Cuba, South Africa or London. Those places are so beautiful and culturally diverse. They’ve been calling me for a while.
Have you ever tried to tell the story of something exciting or funny that happened on vacation, but you fell flat? Don’t feel bad, says storytelling coach Esther Choy, the founder and president of the Leadership Story Lab in Chicago. It happens to all of us.
Taking a break during a family ski vacation in Park City, Utah, Choy coached us on how to be a better storyteller when sharing our own travel tales.
Independent Traveler: In general, do you think most people are good or bad at storytelling?
Esther Choy: Most people have wonderful stories buried in them. But there are a few things they can do to tell them better. What makes a novel a page-turner is that at every critical juncture of a plot, readers find out a bit more about the characters, and yet there is another cliffhanger. So the novel is intriguing their audiences.
You don’t need to handcuff yourself to recounting events as they unfolded per their chronological order. Telling stories involves an intriguing beginning, a riveting middle and a satisfying end. This three-act formula can generate an hour-plus-long story, or it can be a 30-second experience.
And you don’t have to be a superhero to tell great stories. Sure, if you’ve just climbed Kilimanjaro while hoisting your aging parents and barely walking toddler twins along, you’re a superhero. But a compelling tale can be as seemingly mundane as getting through a quarter of your reading list during a laid-back beach vacation. A great story relates the central theme of your story to a universality, a shared human experience.
IT: What other components make up a good travel tale?
EC: You have to balance indulgences with an experience your listeners can relate to. Of course, if you’ve discovered the best ramen in the world, by all means, share that. But if your tale is mostly about touting one indulgence after another, then you’re creating a “Facebook updates” experience for your audience. Yawn!
A good travel tale has a well-balanced mix of new, pleasurable discovery and universal experience. Let’s say that after discovering your favorite ramen restaurant in Honolulu, you went overboard and ate ramen every day for five days. Then you had indigestion and didn’t love the ramen place as much. As you wrapped up your tale, you reflected on how even a little bit of self-restraint could have perfected the whole experience. In this story, discovering the best ramen is the indulgence. Exercising more self-discipline in order to preserve a wonderful experience is the universality.
IT: Before you start telling a story, what should you think through to make sure the story is well received?
EC: Always keep your audience’s preference in mind. With an adventure story, some might be more intrigued by how you arrived at the best whitewater rafting part of the Grand Canyon. Some might wonder how you justified to your boss that taking a month off for this experience would make you a better employee.
No matter the preference, treat the storytelling more like a dialogue, implanting hooks for questions, rather than doling out one long monologue. In my upcoming book Let the Story Do the Work, I talk about how “aggressive listening” is a prerequisite for good storytelling. The main idea is that you want to incorporate what is important to your audience as you’re telling your stories.
IT: What should you do if you notice that your listener is losing interest?
EC: It’s important to pay attention to signs of waning interest. They’re smiling too long. They’ve stopped mirroring your body language. They’re looking toward the door or at their phones.
Cliffhangers help. And if you’re telling a travel story in an informal setting, know that your story doesn’t have to be a monologue. Take advantage of natural back-and-forth of dialogue to break things up. Ask a rhetorical question — “Guess what happened next?” And use humor to re-engage interest.
IT: Does it help to show visuals, such as photographs or souvenirs?
EC: Visuals can help, but be highly selective. A picture can speak a thousand words, but only if you’ve chosen a good one. For example, my husband and his friend are very advanced skiers. One day, they ventured to the peak of Red Pine Bowl in Park City. Once they summited, they saw a sign that said “You Can Die.”
As they shared their stories over dinner, all they said in the beginning was, “We HAVE to show you this sign.” And they refused to say anything else. This was highly effective because it left us wondering, what was that sign? Why wouldn’t they say anything else?
IT: Okay, you got us. What happened next?
EC: On a ski lift, my husband Bernhard and his friend Nik met a local skier who recommended that they hike up to the top because the view was worth it. It was already toward the end of their day and they were tired. But then they thought, what the heck? Just as they reached the top, though, they saw the sign.
At this point during our dinner, Bernhard and Nik paused. With a smirk, Bernhard said, “This sign got me thinking…” And then his voice trailed off. Nik chimed in, “I wondered what would happen if…” His voice trailed off too.
I have witnessed Nik promised his wife not to do any double black hills with a cliff or anything “too risky” on several occasions. His wife and I looked at each other, and waited for more in full anticipation.
“So we took a left, followed the trail and went back down.” And that was that!
As you can see, in this little story no one got hurt and no one died. No one even attempted any highly risky act. The only highlight was the sign. Although the sign was a bit dramatic in its messaging, there wasn’t any other dramatic element in the whole story. But Bernhard and Nik know their wives well. They made full use of anticipation, pauses and dialoguing to tell this fun tale.
In 2008, Sean P. Finelli left behind his Wall Street career to move to Rome, where he soon became a popular tour guide with the nickname “the Roman guy.” Finelli decided to direct his passion for Rome into a new tour company that would emphasize unique and immersive experiences across Italy. And thus The Roman Guy was born.
The company is run by Finelli and co-owner Brandon Shaw, who work with their team to offer a variety of city tours and trip planning services. We reached out to Finelli and Shaw to discover what advice they’d give first-time Italy travelers, which regions of the country don’t get enough love and which Italian foods visitors must try on their next trip.
IndependentTraveler.com: What are some of the most unique tours The Roman Guy offers in Italy?
Sean: The most unique tour must be our Colosseum Underground tour, which we’ve titled Colosseum Dungeons Tour. You get access to areas that nobody else has access to. Think about the 30,000 visitors that enter the building in the summer. Only about 300 get to visit the dungeons. That’s pretty unique, and people love it.
Brandon: Our E-bike Rome Tour is a strong second. Imagine beating the heat and covering three times as much of the city as a walking tour and not even breaking a sweat. We are super-passionate about green travel and have now created a way to not only see the whole city in three hours but also add zero carbon emission in doing it.
IT: Which region in Italy deserves a little more love? Why?
Sean: Most people would pick areas like Puglia or Sicily, but I’ll go with Lazio. Yes, Lazio. Everyone goes to Rome, the capital of the region, but after that people are gone. There are amazing nearby towns like Frascati, Marino, Castel Gandolfo and Tivoli, plus beaches like Sperlonga. You can enjoy sunset beach parties in Fregene or a relaxing and luxurious holiday in Ponza. Outside of Rome, Lazio is a locals’ paradise that outside visitors could really give a little bit more love.
Brandon: My pick would be Umbria, a region in central Italy. People rarely visit Umbria on their first trip to Italy. Umbria is usually discovered when people come back on their second or third trip and are looking for something new. I say come to Umbria during your first trip to Italy — you will not regret it. Within Umbria, you have some beautiful historic cities to explore like Orvieto, “dying cities” like Civita di Bagnoregio (which only has 17 official residents) and an amazing waterfall that makes you feel like you are in a South American rain forest. And all of this is within a two-hour drive of Rome!
IT: What advice would you give someone planning his or her first trip to Italy?
Sean: Be clear about what you want to get out of the trip. Remember that the more you “see” the less you’ll actually “see.” What I mean is that you need to stop and smell the Italian sunflowers. Don’t cram so much in just to cross it off the bucket list. Make time for sitting down, relaxing and chatting with the locals. Make time for three-hour lunches. I went to Puglia for 10 days with no itinerary and it was amazing. We stopped to jump off cliffs into the water, had amazing lunches and stopped in cool-looking towns. Italy has so much that you will alway find something else to do.
Brandon: Doing a good amount of research before your trip will go a long way in making your trip more memorable. Nobody wants to waste precious time waiting in lines, so purchase your tickets ahead of time and skip the lines. Buy your train tickets in advance so you don’t have the stress of trying to find a spot on a train last minute. Look into some restaurants that you might want to visit, so you don’t end up in the typical tourist traps. Or just use The Roman Guy and we’ll do all the heavy lifting for you!
IT: Are there places in Italy that you haven’t visited yet but would like to explore?
Sean: The Dolomites. Like most travelers, I am always intrigued by photography and the Dolomites appear to offer some great adventure tourism: this massive jagged mountain range popping up from the rolling hills. What’s not to love?
Brandon: Val d’Aosta. It’s the area on the border with France. I haven’t been there but have heard that the views are amazing, as you are so close to the French Alps. I am also an avid wine enthusiast, and Val d’Aosta is renowned for their excellent, crisp white wines that suit the northern climate perfectly.
IT: Beyond pizza, pasta and gelato, which dish should every Italy traveler try?
Sean: Isn’t that all Italy produces? I personally recommend fish. Italy is a peninsula with plenty of seafood. It’s hard to recommend a particular dish, but if you are within a short drive of the sea, eat seafood. People going to Rome often want carbonara and Amatriciana, but Rome is a seafood city. We’re 20 mins from saltwater accessible via the Tiber River. Rome’s speciality is salt-crusted sea bass. They say it dates back to Roman times.
Brandon: This is a tough question since the array of food in Italy is so diverse depending on the region. We’ve actually just recently created an interactive Italy food map to inspire foodies coming to Italy. Instead of eating something other than pasta, travelers should do some research, and they will discover that there are many kinds of pasta dishes that they have never heard of. A great example is my favorite Roman pasta dish: fettuccine in a tomato sauce used to make a delicacy with oxtail. It is so good it will bring tears to your eyes!
IT: Besides Italy, what are your favorite travel destinations?
Sean: It’s hard to say this out loud since I sell Italy, but Greece is my vacation spot. The problem with Italy for me is my mind is always at work. Italy is my office. Greece offers decent food and great views. I love the shabby roads and how Greece has maintained some authentic charm. I also love how much elevation you’ll find on the small islands. There is so much to do in Greece and so much to see. The Greeks are also extremely proud and eager to share their history.
Brandon: When not discovering new hidden gems in Italy, you will usually find me in the French Alps. The mountain air is invigorating and allows you to reset. We stay in little mountain villages where you get fresh milk from the cows that morning that is still warm, and fresh cheese that was just made as well. Staying in places like these allow you to change the tempo and just savor life more. I also love snowboarding so it’s perfect in the wintertime, because you can access the slopes directly from your log cabin.
Imagine Costa Rica, and you probably picture lush rain forests, smoking volcanos and exotic birds flitting through the trees. But while this image isn’t inaccurate, a local expert named Maricruz Pereira knows that there’s much more to this friendly Central American country.
Pereira is the general manager and co-owner of Unique Adventures, which specializes in customized experiences and tailor-made itineraries for visitors to Costa Rica. The company can arrange activities such as bird watching, kayaking, visiting a coffee plantation or learning to make tortillas.
We asked Pereira to reveal her favorite less-discovered spots in Costa Rica, offer advice for first-time visitors and more.
IndependentTraveler.com: Most people considering a trip to Costa Rica probably picture wildlife and natural beauty, but what interesting cultural experiences can travelers have there?
Maricruz Pereira: Even though Costa Rica is mostly known for its beautiful nature, I think our best asset is our people. Tourists will find that Costa Ricans are very proud of our country and love to share it with our visitors. The best cultural experience would be to hang out with the locals whenever possible. You can do this by going on a pub/beer crawl in San Jose, going to the local fiestas in any village, stopping in a farmers’ market and even joining a mejenga (impromptu soccer game) in the local plaza! Talk to the locals; ask questions; don’t be afraid to approach them. You will go back home with a nice tan and a bunch of new friends!
IT: What are your favorite places in Costa Rica, and why?
MP: There are so many places to love in Costa Rica! I enjoy the majesty of our several active volcanoes. Some of them, like the Poas and the Irazu, are safe and relatively easy to explore; you can walk right up to the rim of the crater and gaze inside. The beaches in the south Caribbean are wild and beautiful, with the lush forest coming all the way down to the beach, and the laid-back, colorful Caribbean culture that makes you slow down and enjoy the moment. They are perfect for relaxing and getting away from the crowds.
Of course, Corcovado National Park, which is my favorite rain forest, is so remote and secluded; it is a real adventure just getting there. And then you find yourself immersed in the rain forest, with the ocean at your feet, and the howler monkeys and scarlet macaws “singing” just a few meters away.
IT: What advice would you give first-time visitors before they come to Costa Rica?
MP: Different latitude, different attitude. Don’t plan on being locked up in an all-inclusive for several days in a row. As much as I like our beaches, Costa Rica has a different vibe to it. It’s not all about sun and sea (although that’s a nice part too), but about traveling around, going on our roads, seeing the sights, exploring. And if you are renting a car, ask for a GPS!
IT: Which part of Costa Rica is most overlooked, and why should travelers check it out?
MP: The area of Rio Celeste in the northern area is a jewel that is yet to be discovered. Inside Tenorio Volcano National Park there is this magnificent river and waterfall that are bright blue (hence the name Rio Celeste). It’s a moderately difficult hike within the forest with quite a few steep steps to get there, but the view and the energy of the area are worth it!
IT: What’s one food every traveler should try in Costa Rica?
MP: Chifrijo! It’s a delicious concoction of rice, beans, avocado, pico de gallo and small pieces of fried pork, served with toasted tortillas in a medium-sized bowl. Don’t be fooled by the small size. It’s a full meal!
IT: Outside of Costa Rica, what are your favorite travel destinations?
MP: I enjoy England very much. I have always loved everything related to its history and tradition. I especially like visiting the old, magical places like Stonehenge, Glastonbury, Avebury… I find all the tales and stories around these sites fascinating, and the scenery is just breathtaking!
Elia Locardi met his wife Naomi when they were teens in the Florida Keys. Today the Locardis have no home. They’re perpetual nomads, traipsing around the globe taking photos and videos, writing about their experiences and leading tours.
This March will mark the fifth consecutive year the 30-something couple has been on the road. They’re the subject of a new travel documentary by SmugMug Films, the video wing of the photo storage and sharing site SmugMug. The videos tell the behind-the-lens stories of some of its most interesting photographer users, and the Locardis certainly fit that bill. Check out the documentary below.
We caught up with the Locardis to learn more about five years with the world as their home.
Independent Traveler.com: Do you have a permanent home at all? An apartment? A mailbox?
Elia Locardi: The easiest answer is: “It’s complicated.” Selling nearly everything we owned, packing the remaining things into a five-foot-by-five-foot storage unit and leaving our permanent address behind in 2012, we relied on close friends to collect our mail for us and let us use their home address.
Naomi Locardi: To ease the burden on our friends, last year we set up an account with a family-owned shipping store in Central Florida. They now send, receive and hold shipments and mail for us, no matter how many months it takes for us to pick them up.
IT: When did the “travel bug” first hit you?
EL: We’ve always wanted to travel. It’s just that for most of our young adult lives, we focused so much on our work life and careers. In the process of trying to live the “American Dream,” we always dismissed world travel as something that we’d never be able to afford. My entire outlook on life changed during a trip to Italy in 2009, and we decided to make both photography and travel our highest priority.
NL: That trip to Italy was the first time I ever left the U.S., and when our plane took off for Rome, it was quite emotional for me. My entire life I had dreamed of visiting Italy, and that dream finally becoming a reality moved me to tears. That’s just one of the many reasons Italy means so much to us.
IT: How has technology made this choice of lifestyle possible? Do you think you could have done this 20 or 30 years ago, for instance?
EL: Traveling the world in the past would be much more intimate, and a lot of destinations would still be relatively untouched and pure. That being said, that very same intimacy was largely due to the lack of global communication. Remember, it wasn’t so long ago that we were using payphones and calling cards. Simple things like staying in contact with family was extremely difficult, so along with that intimacy with a place, you would have to also accept more isolation.
NL: These days we really tend to take technology for granted, especially when it comes to personal communication. Now, at any moment and no matter where I happen to be in the world, I can easily send a text or Facebook message to my mom and dad.
IT: What is the hardest thing about living permanently on the road?
NL: Simple things, like staying connected. Sometimes a reliable internet connection can be very hard to come by. Other than that, you’d be surprised how quickly you can adapt to this lifestyle.
EL: When you boil it down, it’s not home that you miss, it’s the feeling of home. And those feelings can be replicated no matter where you go.
IT: Traveling as a couple can’t be a bed of roses all the time! What advice do you have for other couples or groups to ensure they maintain peace and happiness on the road?
NL: When you travel full-time, you’re basically always together and most often you’re sharing a small hotel room or apartment. Since we also work together, it can be a challenge to give each other the space we may need. It really takes being able to communicate to each other when those times are and respecting one another’s varying needs.
EL: This type of lifestyle requires a strong relationship and the ability to be very courteous and understanding. If you want to travel perpetually long term, try to find ways you can both spend time together, and have revitalizing activities apart as well.
IT: Tell us about an interaction you had with a local that made a big impact on you and has stayed with you.
NL: During our time in Bhutan early last year, our guide helped arrange a photo shoot with a local woman who was a nomadic yak herder. We were photographing her in the morning as she went about gathering milk from the herd. After she finished, she ran along with the herd to guide them out to pasture, and I followed.
As we started back toward the rest of our team, she grabbed my hand and we walked hand in hand all the way back to her shelter. As we approached, they asked why we were holding hands, and I replied, “When a local Bhutanese woman grabs your hand, you don’t ask questions; you simply take her hand back and enjoy the moment.” It was a special moment, and a reminder of the beauty and kindness of the human spirit that unites us all.
IT: And now let’s talk destinations: What were the favorite places you visited in 2016?
EL: In Bhutan, it’s hard to describe how wonderful it is to be there. It’s unique to the world, and the people there are so genuinely kind that you can’t help but feel welcomed at every turn.
Greece stands out because we spent five weeks working on multiple projects there. We celebrated Naomi’s birthday with a candlelight dinner on the beach in Serifos, a gorgeous little island in the western Cyclades. After that much time living the Mediterranean island lifestyle, it was hard to leave!
NL: This is always one of the most difficult questions to answer! Every place has its wonderful aspects, and I seem to fall in love with just about everywhere we go in some way or another. It always comes back to the people in the end for me, though. Sharing trips to Bhutan, Japan, Italy, Greece and Iceland. We had the incredible pleasure of traveling with some truly wonderful people for several professional projects and also during some photo tours we were leading.
IT: Which destinations are you planning to visit in 2017?
EL: I’m looking forward to visiting northern India to photograph wild tigers and Patagonia in Chile to photograph the stunning landscapes.
NL: Aside from the ones that Elia mentioned, I’m also hoping to make it to Morocco, Cuba and Norway.
If your desired travel experience includes not spending a lot of money and being able to interact with locals, then Homestay.com is a lodging option you’ll want to consider. Launched in 2013, Dublin-based Homestay.com allows you to book a room in a local’s home in more than 150 countries. Hosts may take you on a tour of their city, cook you a meal or simply engage in breakfast conversation and provide touring advice. Rates are surprisingly low — much lower than booking a room in someone’s home through Airbnb, for example.
We chatted with Homestay.com CEO Alan Clarke about what to expect from a stay at one of the 50,000 host properties around the world.
IndependentTraveler.com: The social interaction and insider knowledge of a destination are obvious benefits of Homestay.com. What are some benefits that might not be apparent to a new user?
Alan Clarke: It’s a great budget alternative to hotels and less crowded than hostels — and you get your own private room, not a dorm. Breakfast is included in the price and often there are other perks too: Many hosts are happy to throw in a pick-up service from the airport, laundry service, shared dinners, storing of luggage, use of the kitchen or a bicycle and more.
IT: Who tends to use this type of lodging?
AC: Solo travelers account for more than 60 percent of the bookings. It’s ideal for anyone traveling alone who wants to stay with a local in their home and share a meal or hang out. It can help you to feel safer and more confident about going somewhere you’ve never been before.
People on holiday can enjoy a culturally immersive experience, while those traveling for business can return to a friendly face at the end of a busy day instead of an empty hotel room. And 40 percent of the guests booking on Homestay.com are students, many of whom need a home [away] from home for an extended period of time.
IT: Homestay costs are surprisingly affordable. With the advent of Airbnb, Sonder, VRBO and other sites, surely you could raise your rates. Why have you kept them so low?
AC: It’s up to the hosts to set their own prices. We help them to understand the need to be competitive and educate them on how to adjust their rates for seasonality or special events. However, for many of the hosts on Homestay.com it’s as much about the people they’ll meet as it is about the extra revenue they’ll earn.
IT: How do you ensure that people stay safe when using a homestay? Have you ever had safety incidents?
AC: We encourage hosts and guests to verify their ID when signing up. It’s not compulsory, but we do recommend it. We work with a third-party provider who independently verifies the validity of the IDs. Prior to setting our hosts live for bookings our team checks the listing to ensure its authenticity.
When a guest wants to book they have the opportunity to send messages back and forth to the host, allowing them to build trust and rapport prior to making a booking. We also offer a custom video chat as part of the booking process.
And we have a customer service team on hand seven days a week to help, should an issue arise. With thousands of guest reviews, 90 percent of them five star, I can assure you that we place customer satisfaction and safety at the top of our list of priorities.
IT: Tell us about one of the most interesting homestay experiences you’ve had.
AC: While travelling in Italy I stayed with an amazing host in Florence — really close to the Ponte Vecchio. She was a certified tour guide with a passion for traditional Tuscan cooking, so you can imagine how most of my days were spent!
IT: What do you look for in a host?
AC: I’m a pretty independent traveler so for me the host that best suits my needs is someone who will mostly leave me to my own devices but is also happy to share their tips and advice if I need it. Each guest and host is different in terms of the level of interaction they want from the experience. That’s why we encourage our guests and hosts to communicate as much as possible during and after the booking process.
IT: What are some of your favorite destinations around the world?
AC: I’ve been lucky to visit many amazing places: the Base Camp of Everest, Victoria Falls in Zambia, Zanzibar, Goa, the Great Wall in China, Copacabana, Golden Gate Park, Lake Baikal in Siberia, the pubs of London, the restaurants of Paris, the cafes of Melbourne.
I think what makes me most excited about any trip is the uniqueness that each destination has to offer, which for me is a combination of everything from culture to people to architecture and landscape. Perhaps two that stand out are Biarritz in France and Kerry in Ireland. Both are coastal, beautiful locations, with deep local culture and great food and people.
IT: And where are you going next?
AC: A Christmas market in Europe with my family — our first trip abroad with our first child. Very exciting!
From backpackers to retirees, more than 300,000 people a year travel through Europe by train, and it’s now possible to visit 28 different countries by train on a Eurail Global Pass. A lover of the rails herself, Silvia Fischer serves as sales and marketing manager for Eurail Group G.I.E. Fischer chatted with us about what’s new in Europe train travel and where she dreams of going.
IndependentTraveler.com: If a traveler hasn’t been on a European train in a few years, what will they find that’s new?
Silvia Fischer: One of the key differences is the quality and breadth of services, including high-speed train lines. In first class, seating is now more spacious, and many seats recline. Food is often served right to your seat, and in several countries you can charge your devices and connect to Wi-Fi straight from your seat.
With the Eurail Pass there have been plenty of improvements too, including the Children Travel for Free program that allows two children between 4 and 11 years old to travel for free with an adult Eurail Pass holder. This covers grandchildren as well.
Some other changes also include the addition of four new countries for Eurail — Poland, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro — and new passes like the Scandinavia Pass and the Greek Islands Pass.
IT: Eurail’s research shows that Central Europe is the most popular destination for travelers 50 years old and up. Why is that part of Europe trending?
SF: Countries like Germany and Switzerland will always be popular rail destinations due to the extensiveness of their networks. However, when people are coming back to Europe for a second, third or even fourth time, they are often looking for new experiences away from well-known hot spots. They are keen to explore areas that didn’t used to be as accessible, such as Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Croatia. It also helps that long-haul flights from the States are opening up to these countries too.
IT: You were recently in the U.S. What do you like about rail travel in the States, and what do you think could be improved?
SF: Similar to Europe, the U.S. offers some grand scenic journeys that can only be witnessed by rail — there’s nowhere else in the world where you can see the likes of the Grand Canyon from the comfort of your seat! On the flip side, passenger or commuter rail within the U.S. can be quite limited, and in many cases stations are only located within city limits of major hub cities. Coming from Europe, where there’s more than 10,000 stations accessible by passenger trains, I find the difference quite striking.
IT: What tips can you share to save money on rail travel in Europe?
SF: One of my top tips would be to book in advance before landing in Europe. One bonus of the booking period is that travelers can take advantage of promotional offers throughout the year and then travel up to 11 months later.
If you’re looking for a vacation that’s easier on the wallet, consider traveling within Eastern and Central Europe, or in the quieter months outside of the busy summer season.
IT: Which European routes are absolutely essential to reserve in advance?
SF: Due to popular demand, some high-speed, international and overnight trains in Europe require a reservation. That said, high-speed and international routes for countries popular with U.S. travelers like Germany and Austria don’t require a reservation. And in many cases there are alternative regional trains that passengers can opt for instead. The journey might be longer, but you skip having to make a reservation.
IT: What are your favorite tips for train travel?
SF: My number one piece of advice is to download the Rail Planner App. It’s a great tool that provides train timetables and tells you where connecting routes or reservations are necessary. The app is free and works offline.
If you’re in search of some quiet time, it’s quite common in Western Europe to find trains with “silent” carriages or cabins — no chitchat allowed! This is ideal for catching up on a book or sleep. And don’t forget to admire the views from the window!
IT: What are your personal favorite rail routes in Europe?
SF: That’s a tough choice! For the idyllic views in wine country, I’d say the Rhine Valley Line between Koblenz and Mainz in Germany. … For historic significance, it would have to be the Bernina Express between Chur in Switzerland and Tirano in Italy. This route follows two UNESCO World Heritage-listed lines, the Albula and the Bernina.
And for the uniqueness I would have to say the route between Hamburg in Germany and Copenhagen in Denmark. The train literally rolls onto a ferry to cross the sea.
IT: What train trip — anywhere in the world — is on your travel bucket list?
SF: Outside of Europe, the Seven Stars line on the island of Kyushu, Japan, is on my wish list. A relative newcomer — it only opened in 2013 — it’s a luxury sleeper train that travels around Japan’s southernmost main island with views of lush green landscapes and even volcanoes!
Within Europe it’s tricky to choose, but if time allows, my ultimate dream would be undertaking a single trip that encompassed all the 28 countries covered by the Eurail Pass. Now that would be an incredible European experience!
Matt Dimmer had just relocated to Los Angeles when his father, living in Michigan, was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Dimmer flew back and forth frequently, spending as much time with his dad as he could.
As he made the trips, Dimmer kept thinking about others who had loved ones with cancer. He was able to afford the flights to go see his dad, but what about those who couldn’t? It pained him to think about people in that situation.
Just before his father passed away, Dimmer launched a small nonprofit organization to collect frequent flier miles from donors and to use them to book flights for cancer patients and their family members. His nonprofit, The Extra Mile, is marking its fifth anniversary this year.
IndependentTraveler.com: Tell us how The Extra Mile works.
Matt Dimmer: The premise of The Extra Mile is pretty simple. We take donated air miles and money and give them to those who cannot afford to visit loved ones terminally ill with cancer. Currently we are cancer-specific, as that is what my dad passed away from and I wanted to stay true to the nature of my inspiration.
IT: Can you tell us about some of the people you’ve helped?
MD: We’ve helped several people connect with terminally ill loved ones just before losing that individual. We’ve brought people over from Europe to the United States. We flew a 15-year-old with a rare form of brain cancer and his family to an event that was on his bucket list. And we brought a sister to her deceased brother’s funeral so that she could have one last moment with him.
IT: How does someone donate?
MD: There are two ways to donate. You can donate money directly through our website, or you can donate your accrued frequent flier miles.
Donating air miles is a bit more complicated. Because of airlines’ policies, there are fees associated with giving air miles, and the fees raise on a scale depending on the number of miles you’re looking to donate.
Let’s say you wanted to give 3,500 miles. There’s likely a set fee for that ranging from $50 to $150. If the individual donating the miles is willing to pay the fee, that makes for the easiest transaction. Otherwise, depending on the fees and amount of donated dollars in our account, I’ll offer to cover the fee in exchange for the miles. This is a bit more of a process, but has happened a few times.
The cash donations are used mostly for purchasing tickets, but some funds go to paying for taxes on donated mile flights as well as minor operating costs for the organization.
IT: How many miles have you collected in the past five years?
MD: We’ve received hundreds of thousands of miles. They usually get spent as soon as we get them as there’s always an ongoing queue of people who have reached out.
IT: It can be difficult to secure a flight using miles. Do the airlines show more flexibility in helping your recipients?
MD: Unfortunately, not really. The airlines stick to their rules, regardless of the reason for the miles being used. The most flexibility I tend to experience is the airline agent on the other end of the phone giving me a bit more time to pull all the necessary pieces together on that call so I can complete the flight.
I recently started a Change.org petition to encourage airlines to waive or lower the fees for transferring miles to someone else. I got frustrated one day and wanted to set something else in motion that would potentially get the airline’s attention.
IT: What plans do you in mind for the next five years of The Extra Mile?
MD: Within the next five years I’d love to hit a major milestone, whether that’s amassing a team of volunteers, having a corporate partnership develop or making progress with at least one airline.
IT: Since The Extra Mile started, you’ve become a father yourself. How did becoming a father change your perspective on your cause?
MD: Fatherhood is amazing. And it adds another level to the nonprofit. I can now imagine myself in my dad’s position, and all the things that I’d like to share with my sons about the time we had together. It also gives my boys something to continue, something that does good after I’m gone — a legacy started by their dad, in honor of their grandfather, that they can carry on.