Would you welcome a traveler you’ve never met to come sleep on your couch for free? If you would, you’re not alone; CouchSurfing.com, a website devoted to connecting travelers with local hosts, has a network of some 12 million members, including Jamie Matczak.
Matczak lives with her chocolate lab in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and has been a Couchsurfing host for three years. She’s hosted guests from Hawaii, France, Denmark, Germany, Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Texas, Wisconsin and South Korea. “I look at it as a fellowship type of exchange,” says Matczak. “I am providing a room in exchange for a new friendship!”
We chatted with Matczak by email about why she’s chosen to host, whether she’s had any safety issues and how welcoming strangers into her home has changed the way she travels.
IndependentTraveler.com: What made you decide to start hosting?
Jamie Matczak: I had stayed with families on a trip to Australia and New Zealand in 2011 and was looking for a similar experience on a solo trip to Spain in 2012. I discovered the Couchsurfing site and loved the idea of offering travelers (surfers) a couch/room as they are traveling. I signed up, and even though I didn’t use it for my trip to Spain, I began to receive requests as a host. I had previously hosted women from France through a different program and enjoyed the experience.
IT.com: What are the biggest benefits of hosting?
JM: The biggest benefit is getting to know someone new, possibly someone from another country. As a traveler who has been to more than 30 countries, I enjoy hearing about life and cultures in other places. I want to have conversations and learn, and that occurs with all of my guests. I also like the opportunity to show some highlights of my city, Green Bay. Surfers arrive at my house as strangers but leave as friends.
IT.com: As a woman who lives alone, have you ever had any safety concerns about hosting strangers? How do you protect yourself?
JM: The site has verification checks, so you know if people are legit. Every profile also has a references area, so I can read what other hosts have said about a potential surfer. I typically don’t accept guests who don’t have any references, or if I feel something seems “off.” I tell friends or family when a surfer is arriving, just as a back-up. So far, I have not had any bad or unsafe experiences. I choose to believe that people on the site are using it for something positive.
IT.com: Why host people for free instead of charging a nightly fee with a service such as Airbnb?
JM: I have considered using a site such as Airbnb where a fee is charged, but I don’t think that would fit with my busier lifestyle. With Couchsurfing, I don’t feel as bad if I have to decline a request or turn off “hosting” if needed. Also, I think if I charged a fee, I would feel under more pressure for my home to be spotless and perfect. Most Couchsurfers are happy to have a bed and are easygoing if my home doesn’t look perfect. And it’s really not about the money. With Airbnb, I might gain more in my pocketbook, but not necessarily gain a richer experience.
IT.com: Who’s the most memorable guest you’ve ever had?
JM: EVERY guest has been memorable in their own way. As a few examples, I hosted two friends from Australia who were driving to all 50 states. I met two women from Wisconsin who were in Green Bay to volunteer for the weekend. I hosted a young woman from France who was studying for the semester at our local university, and when she arrived, her campus apartment was not available. In January, a father and son from Germany stayed with me because the father took his son to a Packers game as a high school graduation gift. Most recently, I hosted a young man from Korea who is walking across North America.
IT.com: Are you still in touch with folks you’ve hosted? Have you ever slept on their couches in return?
JM: Yes! Most of them are on Facebook, so that is a great way to stay in touch. I have not visited any of my guests, but I hope to in the future. I have tentative plans to visit the family of the German father and son, as well as a former surfer who is now in Taiwan.
IT.com: Has hosting people changed the way you travel? If so, how?
JM: Definitely. I lot of people ask me what I “get” out of hosting. It’s not just a new friendship, but I also feel like, as a solo traveler, I have been really fortunate on my trips. People have loaned me a cell phone to use or offered me rides when I’ve been lost. Of course, you have to be cautious and careful when traveling alone, especially as a female. But hosting people has made me more aware that most people in this world are good and want to do good things. They want to be helpful to other travelers, just as I do.
In December we introduced you to a couple who quit their jobs, loaded their possessions into an Airstream travel trailer and set off to visit every national park in the United States. Stefanie Payne and Jonathan Irish are now halfway through their all-American adventure, capturing it in real time on their Facebook page and sharing more in-depth stories and photography on their website, The Greatest American Road Trip.
Their current location: Zion National Park. We checked in with them to see how the trip is going.
Independent Traveler: Six months on the road, and you both still sound so upbeat and enthusiastic! How are you faring?
Jonathan Irish: Personally, I feel as though we are living an exclamation point. Everything seems to be punctuated with the extreme. We are so tired from the constant moving, so energized by the beauty of the parks, so grateful for the opportunity to see these beautiful places, so humbled that we are touching so many people with memories from their own park experiences as well as inspiration to get out and keep exploring. It’s everything all at once. It is definitely the best year of our lives.
Stefanie Payne: It seems like an obvious answer, but we are having the best year. We’re enjoying every minute … even when it’s tiring. To be truthful, this is a really hard project in a lot of ways. Keeping up with producing and editing content is literally a round-the-clock job. And some days you just don’t want to hike eight miles up a mountain! But the desire to make the most of this opportunity and create meaningful content that people (and we) enjoy fuels us in a way that makes fatigue fall away.
IT: Tell us about some of your favorite moments so far.
SP: Some of the highlights for me have been the big hikes — the Subway at Zion, Grand Canyon Rim to Rim, a hike to the ancient Bristlecone Pines in Great Basin, Nevada.
JI: I love the early morning photo explorations, when the rest of the world is sleeping and the world is just coming to life. During these outings, I always find myself in beautiful locations, walking in the woods or in the mountains, the sun just starting to rise.
I also love the big hikes we’ve been doing, where we’ve challenged ourselves. The Subway hike in Zion, the Rim to Rim in Grand Canyon, the Panorama Trail in Yosemite. These are great memories for me.
IT: What has been the hardest part of this trip — something you didn’t expect to be challenging?
SP: Just keeping up with editing. That is the monster on this project. We put out a thorough snapshot from each park, I feel, but there is so much we’re creating that we simply don’t have time to work through. For every photo, memory, idea, there seem to be 100 more unshared and unsaid.
JI: I second Stef’s answer. It’s one thing to travel to the parks, but another to put out great content that people will want to come back to. It takes a lot of creative energy, which is very hard to keep at a high level all the time. Luckily, the nature in the parks renews us every time we feel drained.
IT: And what was easier than expected?
SP: The task of finding and making a great experience in every park. Somehow, we always seem to manage to capture a park in a way we’re satisfied with.
IT: We saw you on “Good Morning America” recently and caught a glimpse of the inside of the Airstream trailer. Is it hard living in such a small space?
SP: We’ve been living in a small space together for many years so we didn’t expect it to be difficult. But it is helping us to improve how we communicate. Any bickering has to be pushed through pretty quickly. There just isn’t time to not get along. And we’re both pretty happy.
JI: Being a full-time RVer has been easier than I expected. We love our Airstream and have gotten very used to living in it. In many ways, it is bigger than a lot of NYC apartments! And we love the fact that we are mobile. I could get used to this RVing life!
IT: What have you learned about yourself from embarking on this road trip?
JI: This kind of trip tests one’s resolve and energy. We’ve found that we always have more of both than we thought, which has been really satisfying.
SP: We have more energy in ourselves than we might think. The trick is to apply it to something you love doing, surrounded by those whom you love doing it with.
Nadine Sykora is one of the most popular travel video bloggers on YouTube, with more than a quarter-million people subscribing to her channel. Known online as “Hey Nadine,” the spunky and fearless 28-year-old Canadian takes a refreshing approach to her videos, documenting excellent adventures and being upfront for the camera when things don’t go so right. She spends almost half the year on the road.
IndependentTraveler.com: Are you surprised by your success on YouTube?
Nadine Sykora: Success is a tricky word. It depends on your definition. I don’t say I’m surprised since I’ve worked years and years to get to where I am. I say I’m proud of what I’ve achieved and happy with where I am.
IT: How did you catch the travel bug?
NS: I’ve been traveling since 2010 when after I graduated university, before getting a “real job.” I decided to move overseas on a working holiday to New Zealand for one year. During that time, I worked part-time and did short trips around New Zealand, China, Bali, Malaysia and Singapore. Ever since then I was hooked — the excitement of new things, new places. The full-on travel bug!
IT: You’re a lot more honest in your videos and blogs than a lot of travelers. If things don’t go well, you’re perfectly willing to say so, even admitting, as you did in one blog a few years ago, to emotionally breaking down after your equipment was stolen. Why did you decide to take such an honest approach?
NS: I think it’s important to show all aspects of travel. The good, the bad, the silly and the ugly. Because it’s all those experiences combined that give those fully enriched travel experiences. Scrolling through Instagram, it’s easy to [think] that travel is just beautiful locations and perfect selfie moments, but honestly it’s so much more than that. So I like to show that.
IT: How do you make a living when you’re not traveling?
NS: I’m actually home a surprising amount, as I’ve started to space out my trips a bit more as I get into my sixth year of travel. I spend the time at home editing content, pitching new ideas and projects, and doing a bunch of odd jobs for work like writing or working on video projects.
IT: What are your most recent favorite destinations? And care to admit the places you probably won’t ever go back to?
NS: My most recent favorite is definitely Patagonia (see video below). It’s just simply so spectacular there! So many picture-perfect locations. I don’t really have any places I wouldn’t go back to, simply because each time you visit a place, you have new experiences. So to me it’s not just the places I visit, but the experiences I have.
IT: Where are would you like to go where you haven’t been to yet?
NS: India and Ireland. They are my top places for sure.
IT: And where are you going next?
NS: No idea! Maybe Mexico, maybe Asia again. The world is my oyster.
“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.