If your desired travel experience includes not spending a lot of money and being able to interact with locals, then Homestay.com is a lodging option you’ll want to consider. Launched in 2013, Dublin-based Homestay.com allows you to book a room in a local’s home in more than 150 countries. Hosts may take you on a tour of their city, cook you a meal or simply engage in breakfast conversation and provide touring advice. Rates are surprisingly low — much lower than booking a room in someone’s home through Airbnb, for example.
We chatted with Homestay.com CEO Alan Clarke about what to expect from a stay at one of the 50,000 host properties around the world.
IndependentTraveler.com: The social interaction and insider knowledge of a destination are obvious benefits of Homestay.com. What are some benefits that might not be apparent to a new user?
Alan Clarke: It’s a great budget alternative to hotels and less crowded than hostels — and you get your own private room, not a dorm. Breakfast is included in the price and often there are other perks too: Many hosts are happy to throw in a pick-up service from the airport, laundry service, shared dinners, storing of luggage, use of the kitchen or a bicycle and more.
IT: Who tends to use this type of lodging?
AC: Solo travelers account for more than 60 percent of the bookings. It’s ideal for anyone traveling alone who wants to stay with a local in their home and share a meal or hang out. It can help you to feel safer and more confident about going somewhere you’ve never been before.
People on holiday can enjoy a culturally immersive experience, while those traveling for business can return to a friendly face at the end of a busy day instead of an empty hotel room. And 40 percent of the guests booking on Homestay.com are students, many of whom need a home [away] from home for an extended period of time.
IT: Homestay costs are surprisingly affordable. With the advent of Airbnb, Sonder, VRBO and other sites, surely you could raise your rates. Why have you kept them so low?
AC: It’s up to the hosts to set their own prices. We help them to understand the need to be competitive and educate them on how to adjust their rates for seasonality or special events. However, for many of the hosts on Homestay.com it’s as much about the people they’ll meet as it is about the extra revenue they’ll earn.
IT: How do you ensure that people stay safe when using a homestay? Have you ever had safety incidents?
AC: We encourage hosts and guests to verify their ID when signing up. It’s not compulsory, but we do recommend it. We work with a third-party provider who independently verifies the validity of the IDs. Prior to setting our hosts live for bookings our team checks the listing to ensure its authenticity.
When a guest wants to book they have the opportunity to send messages back and forth to the host, allowing them to build trust and rapport prior to making a booking. We also offer a custom video chat as part of the booking process.
And we have a customer service team on hand seven days a week to help, should an issue arise. With thousands of guest reviews, 90 percent of them five star, I can assure you that we place customer satisfaction and safety at the top of our list of priorities.
IT: Tell us about one of the most interesting homestay experiences you’ve had.
AC: While travelling in Italy I stayed with an amazing host in Florence — really close to the Ponte Vecchio. She was a certified tour guide with a passion for traditional Tuscan cooking, so you can imagine how most of my days were spent!
IT: What do you look for in a host?
AC: I’m a pretty independent traveler so for me the host that best suits my needs is someone who will mostly leave me to my own devices but is also happy to share their tips and advice if I need it. Each guest and host is different in terms of the level of interaction they want from the experience. That’s why we encourage our guests and hosts to communicate as much as possible during and after the booking process.
IT: What are some of your favorite destinations around the world?
AC: I’ve been lucky to visit many amazing places: the Base Camp of Everest, Victoria Falls in Zambia, Zanzibar, Goa, the Great Wall in China, Copacabana, Golden Gate Park, Lake Baikal in Siberia, the pubs of London, the restaurants of Paris, the cafes of Melbourne.
I think what makes me most excited about any trip is the uniqueness that each destination has to offer, which for me is a combination of everything from culture to people to architecture and landscape. Perhaps two that stand out are Biarritz in France and Kerry in Ireland. Both are coastal, beautiful locations, with deep local culture and great food and people.
IT: And where are you going next?
AC: A Christmas market in Europe with my family — our first trip abroad with our first child. Very exciting!
From backpackers to retirees, more than 300,000 people a year travel through Europe by train, and it’s now possible to visit 28 different countries by train on a Eurail Global Pass. A lover of the rails herself, Silvia Fischer serves as sales and marketing manager for Eurail Group G.I.E. Fischer chatted with us about what’s new in Europe train travel and where she dreams of going.
IndependentTraveler.com: If a traveler hasn’t been on a European train in a few years, what will they find that’s new?
Silvia Fischer: One of the key differences is the quality and breadth of services, including high-speed train lines. In first class, seating is now more spacious, and many seats recline. Food is often served right to your seat, and in several countries you can charge your devices and connect to Wi-Fi straight from your seat.
With the Eurail Pass there have been plenty of improvements too, including the Children Travel for Free program that allows two children between 4 and 11 years old to travel for free with an adult Eurail Pass holder. This covers grandchildren as well.
Some other changes also include the addition of four new countries for Eurail — Poland, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro — and new passes like the Scandinavia Pass and the Greek Islands Pass.
IT: Eurail’s research shows that Central Europe is the most popular destination for travelers 50 years old and up. Why is that part of Europe trending?
SF: Countries like Germany and Switzerland will always be popular rail destinations due to the extensiveness of their networks. However, when people are coming back to Europe for a second, third or even fourth time, they are often looking for new experiences away from well-known hot spots. They are keen to explore areas that didn’t used to be as accessible, such as Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Croatia. It also helps that long-haul flights from the States are opening up to these countries too.
IT: You were recently in the U.S. What do you like about rail travel in the States, and what do you think could be improved?
SF: Similar to Europe, the U.S. offers some grand scenic journeys that can only be witnessed by rail — there’s nowhere else in the world where you can see the likes of the Grand Canyon from the comfort of your seat! On the flip side, passenger or commuter rail within the U.S. can be quite limited, and in many cases stations are only located within city limits of major hub cities. Coming from Europe, where there’s more than 10,000 stations accessible by passenger trains, I find the difference quite striking.
IT: What tips can you share to save money on rail travel in Europe?
SF: One of my top tips would be to book in advance before landing in Europe. One bonus of the booking period is that travelers can take advantage of promotional offers throughout the year and then travel up to 11 months later.
If you’re looking for a vacation that’s easier on the wallet, consider traveling within Eastern and Central Europe, or in the quieter months outside of the busy summer season.
IT: Which European routes are absolutely essential to reserve in advance?
SF: Due to popular demand, some high-speed, international and overnight trains in Europe require a reservation. That said, high-speed and international routes for countries popular with U.S. travelers like Germany and Austria don’t require a reservation. And in many cases there are alternative regional trains that passengers can opt for instead. The journey might be longer, but you skip having to make a reservation.
IT: What are your favorite tips for train travel?
SF: My number one piece of advice is to download the Rail Planner App. It’s a great tool that provides train timetables and tells you where connecting routes or reservations are necessary. The app is free and works offline.
If you’re in search of some quiet time, it’s quite common in Western Europe to find trains with “silent” carriages or cabins — no chitchat allowed! This is ideal for catching up on a book or sleep. And don’t forget to admire the views from the window!
IT: What are your personal favorite rail routes in Europe?
SF: That’s a tough choice! For the idyllic views in wine country, I’d say the Rhine Valley Line between Koblenz and Mainz in Germany. … For historic significance, it would have to be the Bernina Express between Chur in Switzerland and Tirano in Italy. This route follows two UNESCO World Heritage-listed lines, the Albula and the Bernina.
And for the uniqueness I would have to say the route between Hamburg in Germany and Copenhagen in Denmark. The train literally rolls onto a ferry to cross the sea.
IT: What train trip — anywhere in the world — is on your travel bucket list?
SF: Outside of Europe, the Seven Stars line on the island of Kyushu, Japan, is on my wish list. A relative newcomer — it only opened in 2013 — it’s a luxury sleeper train that travels around Japan’s southernmost main island with views of lush green landscapes and even volcanoes!
Within Europe it’s tricky to choose, but if time allows, my ultimate dream would be undertaking a single trip that encompassed all the 28 countries covered by the Eurail Pass. Now that would be an incredible European experience!
Matt Dimmer had just relocated to Los Angeles when his father, living in Michigan, was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Dimmer flew back and forth frequently, spending as much time with his dad as he could.
As he made the trips, Dimmer kept thinking about others who had loved ones with cancer. He was able to afford the flights to go see his dad, but what about those who couldn’t? It pained him to think about people in that situation.
Just before his father passed away, Dimmer launched a small nonprofit organization to collect frequent flier miles from donors and to use them to book flights for cancer patients and their family members. His nonprofit, The Extra Mile, is marking its fifth anniversary this year.
IndependentTraveler.com: Tell us how The Extra Mile works.
Matt Dimmer: The premise of The Extra Mile is pretty simple. We take donated air miles and money and give them to those who cannot afford to visit loved ones terminally ill with cancer. Currently we are cancer-specific, as that is what my dad passed away from and I wanted to stay true to the nature of my inspiration.
IT: Can you tell us about some of the people you’ve helped?
MD: We’ve helped several people connect with terminally ill loved ones just before losing that individual. We’ve brought people over from Europe to the United States. We flew a 15-year-old with a rare form of brain cancer and his family to an event that was on his bucket list. And we brought a sister to her deceased brother’s funeral so that she could have one last moment with him.
IT: How does someone donate?
MD: There are two ways to donate. You can donate money directly through our website, or you can donate your accrued frequent flier miles.
Donating air miles is a bit more complicated. Because of airlines’ policies, there are fees associated with giving air miles, and the fees raise on a scale depending on the number of miles you’re looking to donate.
Let’s say you wanted to give 3,500 miles. There’s likely a set fee for that ranging from $50 to $150. If the individual donating the miles is willing to pay the fee, that makes for the easiest transaction. Otherwise, depending on the fees and amount of donated dollars in our account, I’ll offer to cover the fee in exchange for the miles. This is a bit more of a process, but has happened a few times.
The cash donations are used mostly for purchasing tickets, but some funds go to paying for taxes on donated mile flights as well as minor operating costs for the organization.
IT: How many miles have you collected in the past five years?
MD: We’ve received hundreds of thousands of miles. They usually get spent as soon as we get them as there’s always an ongoing queue of people who have reached out.
IT: It can be difficult to secure a flight using miles. Do the airlines show more flexibility in helping your recipients?
MD: Unfortunately, not really. The airlines stick to their rules, regardless of the reason for the miles being used. The most flexibility I tend to experience is the airline agent on the other end of the phone giving me a bit more time to pull all the necessary pieces together on that call so I can complete the flight.
I recently started a Change.org petition to encourage airlines to waive or lower the fees for transferring miles to someone else. I got frustrated one day and wanted to set something else in motion that would potentially get the airline’s attention.
IT: What plans do you in mind for the next five years of The Extra Mile?
MD: Within the next five years I’d love to hit a major milestone, whether that’s amassing a team of volunteers, having a corporate partnership develop or making progress with at least one airline.
IT: Since The Extra Mile started, you’ve become a father yourself. How did becoming a father change your perspective on your cause?
MD: Fatherhood is amazing. And it adds another level to the nonprofit. I can now imagine myself in my dad’s position, and all the things that I’d like to share with my sons about the time we had together. It also gives my boys something to continue, something that does good after I’m gone — a legacy started by their dad, in honor of their grandfather, that they can carry on.
It’s summer. The majority of European workers are likely on vacation while American workers are toiling away at the office, warehouse or other workplace. This isn’t necessarily because Europeans get more time off on average than their American counterparts (although they do). Poll after poll shows that around half of all Americans don’t use all of their allotted vacation time.
Kanisa Baker has had enough. Americans must take vacation time, she says, for their sanity, for their health and for a fulfilling life. The 40-year-old from Maryland started Travel More Work Less, a website and online community that encourages people to use their vacation time. She knows firsthand how hard this is — but also why it’s so important.
IndependentTraveler.com: Why did you decide to make this your mission?
Kanisa Baker: I used to be self-employed and could take off as much time as I wanted. But when I took a job with another company, I found that I was barely using my vacation time to take any significant trips. After talking to friends and coworkers and doing research on American workers, I saw how many of us are not taking much-needed and deserved time off.
Some studies show that we are more likely to suffer from heart disease [if we don’t take] vacation — women especially. I started Travel More Work Less so that together we could identify real strategies to break from the routine and stresses of life and put more vacation days on the calendar.
IT: Why do you think Americans don’t use all of their vacation time?
KB: Because of a lack of planning. Many of us have an “autopilot” lifestyle, and planning a vacation can be a lot of work. You have to identify the location and the best time to go, search for the best price, figure out which activities are available, determine the best place to stay, etc. So many times we throw up our hands and either stick with our regular daily routine or just have a “staycation.”
There is choice and intention behind taking a vacation. If you don’t plan for a “real” vacation, you end up using your days off to stay home or visit family. Those options can be even more stressful than a day at work.
IT: Some people don’t use vacation time because they can’t afford to go away. What would you advise them to do?
KB: This is one of the top reasons holding people, myself included, back. The costs associated with life, work and stress get in the way. Travel then gets pushed to the bottom of the priority list. One useful piece of advice is to focus on small, daily and intentional [money-saving] habits like eating out less, letting go of the unused gym membership, or selling stuff that you don’t need, all to increase travel funds. Save that money instead in a vacation fund.
IT: What advice do you have for people who are worried about work piling up if they took time off?
KB: I wrote a guide about this exact topic, and one of the strategies I discuss is implementing a cross-training program within your company/organization. This could reduce the amount of work to come back to after a vacation.
IT: Is it okay for people to check email or do work while they’re away?
KB: Well, checking email on the beach is certainly better than checking it in the office. But being on vacation means it’s important to be in the present moment with your loved ones. Perhaps it’s best to vacation is spots where Wi-Fi is very limited!
IT: Do you think people would take more time off if employers gave their employees more vacation time?
KB: That’s a tough one. It really comes down to the person. Either you are someone that values and sees the importance of vacation time or you aren’t.
IT: Where do you like to travel on vacation?
KB: As I’ve gotten older, I found I get really antsy on long plane rides. So I’ve enjoyed exploring vacation spots closer to home like Canada, Central America and the Caribbean. My last vacation was to the Florida Keys and Mexico.
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.