“Backpacking Europe” used to refer solely to travel with an oversized canvas sack strapped across your shoulders, with nights spent in a youth hostel bunk bed. Today, “backpacking” is more of a mindset than an actual act, says James Feess, author of the book “The Savvy Backpacker’s Europe on a Budget.”
Originally from the U.S. Midwest, James and his wife Susan have spent time living in Paris and traveling throughout Europe. Their website The Savvy Backpacker offers advice for independent travelers who literally backpack across Europe and those who apply a backpacker mentality to travel comfortably yet budget-consciously.
We recently chatted with James and Susan, who are now in New York City.
IndependentTraveler.com: Is there an age limit on backpacking?
James and Susan Feess: No way! We’ve seen backpackers of all ages. The last time we were staying in a hostel in London we met a 70-something Australian man who was traveling around Europe for multiple months.
IT: Why do you think most people outgrow the backpacker mindset?
JF & SF: It’s no secret that most backpackers tend to be young and broke, so they do everything as cheaply as possible. It’s natural for people to upgrade their travel styles as they get older, start earning more money and get accustomed to a better standard of living. However, a lot of people maintain the backpacker mindset regardless of income level or age.
IT: You’re now in your early 30s. How has the mindset changed for you both since you first started backpacking?
JF & SF: We find now that we focus on value and not cost — and that’s a big difference. For example, you can take a bus across Europe very cheaply. However, it takes much longer than the train. So it really isn’t a great value because it’s costing you time, which is more valuable than money. Now we take the train whenever we travel because the extra cost is a good value. The same principle applies to food, lodging, entertainment, [almost] everything.
IT: What are some of the non-monetary benefits to traveling like a backpacker?
JF & SF: Traveling on a budget helps get you closer to living like local. Staying in a five-star hotel and eating at high-end restaurants is about as far away from local living as you can get because most locals don’t do that. However, budget travelers have to stay in more modest accommodation and eat where the locals eat because that’s the best value and cheapest option. Personally, we prefer renting a modest apartment. This gives you an instant connection to a neighborhood.
IT: Do you travel like a backpacker 100 percent of the time? Any indulgences you want to confess?
JF & SF: We try sticking to our backpacker roots but we do “splurge” a bit more these days. Back when we were in our early 20s we would try surviving on as little food as possible, but now we have a nicer meal once or twice. Sometimes we’ll go really crazy and buy the $11 bottle of wine instead of the $6 bottle!
Having a little more money does open new doors to better experience a culture. For example, we’ve taken a few cooking classes in France, and this is a great hands-on way to experience the culture that we couldn’t afford on a backpacker’s budget. Another possibility: specialized walking tours. They can get a little expensive, but they give you so much information that you’d never know otherwise.
IT: Tell us about some of your favorite places you’ve visited over the last year.
JF & SF: While it isn’t Europe, we actually just got back from traveling to Cape Town, South Africa. It was an amazing trip and we were able to “live it up” since everything is really cheap there. It was probably our most luxurious trip. For example, we got a really nice steak meal for $15 and alcohol was only $3 to $4 in a restaurant. We ended up staying nearly two weeks.
IT: Aside from occasional trips elsewhere, you tend to focus on Europe. Are there any spots in Europe you haven’t visited but want to?
JF & SF: We still haven’t visited Iceland. It’s at the top of our list. Unfortunately, Iceland isn’t cheap. So we’ll keep saving until we have enough. We want to spend a lot more time in Italy and Spain. And Croatia. And Berlin in the summer.
Tourism doesn’t simply have to benefit the person soaking in the sun; it can also do good for the people and places you visit. Malia Everette has spent her career blending the two together, designing pleasurable, socially responsible travel experiences to Cuba, Nicaragua, Myanmar and other destinations. She founded the San Francisco-based organization Altruvistas, which, in additional to providing tours, also works to educate others in the travel industry about the benefits of socially responsible travel, funds fellowships, and provides grants and loans to communities looking to improve lives through tourism.
IndependentTraveler.com: What made you choose this career?
Malia Everette: In the late 1980s, I had two journeys that changed my life’s path. The first was to Guatemala and Belize during times of civil war and human rights atrocities in indigenous communities. The second was to North Africa, Egypt, Israel and Palestine. The experiences altered my understanding of the world.
IT: Why should travelers pay attention to being socially responsible?
ME: Frankly, if one cares about people and the planet, purchasing a tourism product based on values is absolutely an ethical mandate. Sustainable tourism helps sustain livelihoods, support local communities, and conserve the world’s natural and cultural heritage. I know that responsible tourism is a powerful tool in poverty reduction.
IT: What are some of the key attributes that a traveler should look for in a destination?
ME: Regardless of the what and where and how, you can finesse your impact by being engaged and informed as a consumer. Call a hotel, a tour operator, a transport company, and ask questions. Ask who owns the hotel. Is it locally owned? If so, more of your tourism dollars can benefit the local economy. If it’s, say, a foreign-owned ecolodge, ask about stewardship practices. Do they give back or profit share to the local community? Do they employ the locals?
When you eat out, choose a locally owned place, not an international chain. If you want to buy gifts to bring home, consider visiting local cooperatives, artist studios and fair trade organizations. This way your gift buying is also supporting the local economy.
IT: You encourage people to choose socially responsible travel instead of “sun and fun” vacations. If someone does take a more typical vacation, are there things can they do to be socially responsible during that trip?
ME: I think all of us need holidays, and having some “fun in the sun” is a good thing. We can be travelers and also tourists. Even going to a place with tons of coastal and resort tourism, one can again try to find a locally owned beach property. Don’t be afraid to go into town and find out where the locals eat and shop. Little acts go a long way.
IT: Which global destinations strike the best balance between contributing to the betterment of the community and being desirable to a traveler?
ME: I am constantly pleased to see new community-based tourism initiatives in Cambodia, Vietnam, India and Peru. I see all the amazing restoration happening in Havana every month when I visit and know that tourism receipts are doing good. Many visitors don’t know where the tourism dollars go, yet large amounts are reinvested back into restoration and local social services. I was also impressed by Rwanda’s management of mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park.
IT: You’ve traveled extensively with your two sons. Where did you first introduce them to the idea of responsible tourism?
ME: My sons are now 15 and 16. I started traveling with them when they were babies and as a single mom. I think my sons “got it” when they were about 8 and 9, when we were visiting a fair trade coffee cooperative in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. They played with the local kids and stayed at the farms. The contrast of life, the joy of community and the contrast of material wealth they got.
IT: Was it hard to travel as a single mom?
ME: I have found that traveling as a mother has been incredible. People in the service sectors are so accommodating and generous, though it might have been strange to see me with a backpack with one baby in front and one toddler on the back!
IT: What are some of your favorite travel destinations?
ME: I love so many places, but I find myself in three places frequently. First, I am in Cuba about nine or 10 times a year. I love it, the cultural resilience and the vitality of the people are ever compelling and connective. Second, I relish my annual visits back home to Hawaii, to be in nature, on the beach, eating poi, and just being home. I also feel called to the Amazon every few years. I usually go to the Sarayaku nation in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The community and the jungle are inspiring, connective and restorative. Plus, I so respect their struggle to maintain their land and way of life [in the face of] petroleum exploitation.
IT: Where haven’t you been that you’d really like to visit?
ME: I hope I have the longevity and health to enjoy many more adventures. On my short list: Bhutan, Borneo, Dominica and Papua New Guinea.
Stefanie Payne and Jonathan Irish quit their jobs, rented out their condo, found temporary digs for their cats and will head out next week on an adventure years in the making.
Starting on New Year’s Day, the two Washington D.C. residents will spend a year visiting every national park in the United States. They selected 2016 for their trip partially because it’s the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.
As Payne, a 36-year-old writer, and Irish, 41, a photographer, finished packing up their home, we caught up with the couple to hear more about the journey ahead.
Independent Traveler.com: Why did you decide to do this road trip?
Jonathan Irish: Stefanie and I both grew up loving the great outdoors, and especially the beautiful nature in our U.S. national parks. The special celebration of the centennial of the National Park Service, along with our love of nature, inspired us to commit to spending the entire year adventuring and photographing in every one of the 59 parks. We can’t think of a better way to spend a year.
IT: Was it scary to quit your jobs?
JI: While we appreciate the stability that a regular job provides, every once in a while it is good to shake things up, to see life in a different way. As hard as it was to leave jobs at organizations we love [Payne worked at NASA and Irish at the National Geographic Society], we both felt the pull to do our own project.
IT: Where do you go first?
Stefanie Payne: We’ll start in the southeastern United States, where there are five parks — three in Florida, one in the U.S. Virgin Islands and one in South Carolina. We are going to reveal our route as we go, to keep an element of surprise.
IT: How will you be traveling?
JI: We will be traveling in an SUV towing an Airstream travel trailer. We chose the Airstream for two reasons. First, there’s a certain nostalgia we associate with Airstream trailers that is similar to the nostalgia we feel for the national parks. It felt like the right way to do it! From a more practical standpoint, we needed to have a home office on the road. The Airstream provided us with that ability to have a consistent place to work and rest.
We are calling this a road trip, and we will drive to every park where we can in fact take the car and Airstream. But there are some parks on islands — American Samoa, Hawaii and the Virgin Islands — where we will have to fly and rent a vehicle.
IT: Which parks are you most looking forward to seeing?
SP: I am so excited for Katmai in Alaska! Growing up in Washington state, the annual salmon run is a big part of the culture in terms of Native American history and the ecology of the region. To see its end with grizzlies catching them in the river, and to get that iconic shot, will be for me a strong personal connection.
JI: I too am excited for Alaska, and in particular some of the remote parks that a lot of visitors don’t get to, like Gates of the Arctic. I love photographing the Southwest, so am very excited for more time there. The bigger parks, like Yosemite and Yellowstone, are always amazing and so to spend some good time in them is a dream. And I am excited for the unknown, the unexpected experiences that we can’t foresee that blow us away.
SP: I also think there will be a lot of beauty found in parks that I didn’t know existed until we started researching this project.
JI: I think the road trip in itself — the trials and tribulations of living in small quarters and driving throughout the entire U.S. — will be really fun and interesting too.
IT: What kinds of activities do you plan to do in the parks?
SP: Jon and I love to hike and kayak, so there will be a lot of that year-round. And we got some new stand-up paddleboards, which neither of us have ever tried and can’t wait to learn.
JI: We’ve chosen to see and experience the Grand Canyon via rafting, which has always been on our to-do list. We will kayak and camp in the Everglades, hike in just about every park and of course, take lots of photos.
IT: What has been the most difficult part of the planning?
JI: For me, it’s been the million little details that we must be on top of. We’ve been in D.C. for seven or eight years now, and in that time we’ve become quite entrenched in so many ways. I don’t think one can fully understand or see how entrenched they are until they try to pick up and leave. From finding a temporary home for our cats, to renting the condo, cutting the cable bill, packing up, getting new health insurance and a million other details, it’s incredibly hard to make a major move like this.
SP: Planning for this project has been a balancing act like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It’s an enormous amount of change to endure during a short period of time.
IT: What’s on your must-pack list, and what are some of the creature comforts of home you won’t be able to bring along?
SP: Must pack: Outdoor gear, awesome hiking boots, books, camera gear. We’ll bring maps and obviously use iPhone maps and apps.
JI: I am packing my camera gear very carefully, as I want to be prepared for everything. We are also making sure we have the camping and backpacking gear we need in order to dig as deep into the parks as we want to. Besides a great coffee maker, I can do without most other things!
SP: We can’t imagine not having our cats with us all the time, but it’s just not that kind of trip.
IT: Can we check in with you in a few months and see how the trip is going?
SP: So much is going to happen all the time and we are so excited to share our story this year. The story will unfold on our website and Facebook page.
Since giving up his apartment in April 2014 to spend all of his time traveling, Schlappig now flies around 400,000 miles a year, nearly all of it in first or business class. If that weren’t amazing enough, he only pays for a small fraction of his flights out of pocket. Instead, he relies on airline miles and credit card points.
How does Schlappig — a 25-year-old travel consultant and blogger who runs the website One Mile at a Time — do it? And can ordinary people like us capitalize on credit card points and miles, even if we can’t make such a task our full-time jobs?
We caught up with Schlappig via email while he was in flight between London and Los Angeles to ask.
IndependentTraveler.com: Must you be a frequent traveler to be able to take advantage of mileage or points programs?
Ben Schlappig: Absolutely not! In the U.S. nowadays, more than half of miles are issued through non-flying means. Mileage programs have really gone from “frequent flier programs” to “frequent buyer programs,” as the possibilities for earnings miles are endless. You can earn miles through credit card spending, online shopping portals, car rentals and more.
IT: Is it better to spend credit card points on free airfare or free hotel stays?
BS: The loyalty program landscape for both airlines and hotels has changed considerably, especially over the past couple of years. Ultimately there are pros and cons to both airline and hotel credit cards. Which type of card makes more sense for you depends on what you value most out of your travels.
What I recommend doing is accruing points in a “transferrable” points currency (such as American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou and Starwood Preferred Guest), which allows you to transfer points to either airline or hotel transfer partners. This way you have a lot more flexibility with your points.
IT: Most people hoard their points, saving them up for a special occasion. Why is that a bad strategy?
BS: I have an “earn and burn” philosophy towards miles. That’s because miles devalue over time, as the number of miles needed for a given ticket creeps up. “Saving” miles long-term would be the equivalent of keeping cash in a checking account not accruing interest for decades on end. The best thing you can redeem your miles for is memorable travel experiences, and you’re generally best off doing that sooner rather than later.
IT: Do you tend to use airline miles more for free tickets or for upgrades?
BS: In general I try to redeem my miles for award tickets in international first and business class. These are the awards that tend to have the most value to me, given that the tickets would be disproportionately expensive if paying cash.
For example, if you’re redeeming American miles for travel to Asia, a business-class ticket costs less than two times as much as an economy ticket. However, if you were to pay cash, that ticket could cost five to 10 times as much.
IT: How much you’ve spent on travel in a year? And what’s the estimated the value of your free travel?
BS: Over half of my travel has been using miles and points. Given that many international first-class tickets retail for $25,000 or more roundtrip, I’d estimate the travel I’ve taken this year has probably retailed for somewhere around a million dollars. I spend a tiny, tiny fraction of that.
IT: What were some of your favorite destinations you’ve visited in 2015?
BS: This has been a great year for travel for me, and I have a hard time picking just a few. I’d say Egypt, the Maldives and Austria rank up there.
IT: Where haven’t you been yet that you really want to visit?
BS: I have a bit of an island obsession at the moment, as it’s not something I’ve focused much on previously. I’d love to visit Fiji, Mauritius, the Seychelles and Tahiti.
IT: The wanderlusters among us have been salivating recently at the exploits of frequent traveler Sam Huang, who scored a five-continent, first-class trip on Emirates Airlines for very little money by finding a (now-closed) loophole. Were you as jealous as we were?
BS: Every couple of months there seems to be a story that goes viral about someone redeeming miles for an incredible international first-class experience. Rather than the loophole as such, what I ultimately take away from these situations is that the general public really has no sense of how easy it can be to redeem miles for some amazing products. Most people never get to experience these products because they assume they could never afford them. But with miles it’s much more feasible than they think.
Chris Chesak is the executive director of the Family Travel Association, a new coalition that aims to simplify the sometimes dizzying complexities of planning a family trip, among other goals. Chesak has more than two decades of experience in the travel industry, including stints with the Adventure Travel Trade Association, the American Hiking Society and the American Alpine Club. As the father of two school-age daughters, he has now turned his career to focus on family vacations.
IndependentTraveler.com: Many grandparents talk of wanting to spend their money with their grandchildren, rather than leaving it all to them. Is this a trend you are seeing? Chris Chesak: There is an overall trend within our population of people starting to shift their vision of personal wealth away from the acquisition of inanimate things to more experience-based wealth. Instead of purchasing more and more “stuff,” people are valuing experiences. And as older generations are entering the wealth distribution phase of their lives, they are using their wealth to facilitate creation of deep, lasting memories rather than just a larger pile of money to leave to the kids when the grandparents pass on.
IT: Have you ever traveled with grandparents? CC: Just this summer I had the amazing opportunity to travel to China with my wife, 8- and 10-year-old daughters, and mother-in-law. What an incredible thrill to stand on the Great Wall of China. But standing on that icon with your kids and their grandmother? Absolutely amazing! And while we were able to take a gondola to about mid-mountain, we still had to then climb 299 steps to get to the wall itself. What a great achievement for our little girls and their grandmom to be able to do that, and do it together!
IT: Which destinations would you suggest for independent travel for family groups?
CC: My wife and I are outdoors people and there is so much for families locally with state parks, Forest Service land and national parks. We recently went to Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky and had a brilliant (and literally “cool”) time exploring the caves. Cities like Boston and Washington D.C. are iconic destinations with a wealth of museums and history for kids and adults alike, but also great lodging and food and shopping. For the adventurous, there is always big, beautiful Alaska. Quebec is excellent and readily accessible from the U.S. but a very European experience. For the more adventurous, I’d suggest Iceland and Namibia.
IT: What tips do you have for an independent multigenerational group to ensure a successful trip?
CC: Independent travel offers the greatest amount of flexibility and spontaneity, often at the best possible price. However, it does take quite a bit more time to research and plan. I would certainly do as much research as possible, leveraging some of the great family travel blogs out there like WanderingPod.com, MyFamilyTravels.com and CiaoBambino.com. (Editor’s Note: Our sister site, Family Vacation Critic, is another useful site to check out.) Also, the destination’s own websites can be great resources. Visit Costa Rica has a good example of this, with an entire page devoted to family travel. VisitMaine.com has some great search options for family travel too.
I will say, while I love independent travel, booking family travel with a small, independent tour operator can come in very handy, while still providing a true, authentic experience for small groups. We planned a trip to the interior of Costa Rica through JourneysInternational.com, which has been running family trips for more than 30 years and is family owned. The itinerary was perfectly balanced, with just enough activities to keep us all engaged, but also with the perfect amount of down time for naps, reading books and playing in the pool.
IT: How do you balance the travel needs and interests of younger generations with older ones? In other words, how to keep peace, so that, say, the teens get their screen time yet the grandparents get real face time too?
CC: During the trip, the key thing you need to do is respect the pace of your itinerary. You can’t run your grandparents or smaller children ragged with an aggressive, “let’s see it all” itinerary. While we generally like to limit time spent on devices with our kids, when we are in transit or in a hotel room, the kids can use the devices as much as they like. I will say that for long-haul flights, devices like iPads and the seatback entertainment systems are a godsend. Teens can be a bit more of a challenge, as they tend to be more aloof and get bored more easily. But the beauty of multi-generational travel is that it naturally brings about face time, forcing it actually. When you are stuck on a train or bus, there’s so much to watch, talk about, etc. that it naturally breaks down barriers and brings people together around their shared experience.
IT: Where are you and your family planning to go next?
CC: We’re looking at Panama for early 2016 and starting to plan a trip to South Africa too. I can’t wait to take my girls on safari — it will blow their little minds!
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.