Despite hearing glowing stories about visits to Myanmar (formerly called Burma) from friends, it was with some trepidation and a significant sense of adventure that I booked the ticket for my brother and I from Copenhagen to Myanmar’s former capital, Yangon (formerly Rangoon). Most articles about Myanmar right now either focus on the drug trade/Golden Triangle, armed conflict in several of the remote regions, or gush about the importance of, “visiting Myanmar before it’s ruined”.
Frankly, we didn’t know what to expect. Was it going to be dangerous? Was it going to be massively under-developed? Was there any tourist infrastructure at all? Would the visa process be a nightmare? Would we need armed guards to guide us around the country or military minders ala North Korea? Were food poisoning and feces stained walls surrounding filthy squattypotties lurking around every corner?
As usual, it was ignorant pigswill.
Myanmar is spectacular and the sooner you can visit the better. The people are wonderful. The tourist circle; Yangon to Bagan to Mandalay to Inle Lake and back to Yangon could not be safer. The food is decent. The culture is vibrant. The tourist infrastructure is rapidly evolving (perhaps too rapidly). Getting around isn’t difficult. It’s relatively affordable. The historical, natural and cultural beauty is spectacular.…
This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here. To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.
A quick introductory note – When I began authoring VirtualWayfarer in July of 2007 I never expected that I’d still be blogging on travel, adventures, study abroad and everything that goes with it nearly five years later. Over the years I’ve had a lot of questions and luckily my friends, network, and more than a few random strangers have gone well out of their way to answer those questions. While I still find myself asking questions on a regular basis I’ve found that I can also pay it forward as a resource for friends, my readers, and strangers alike. In an effort to share what I’ve learned from my various adventures I’ve launched Travel Question Wednesdays. I’ll be answering one reader-submitted question every week. You are all encouraged to submit, and all past questions will be archived and available as a resource for readers of this blog. I’m going to take a very open approach to the topics I’ll cover, so feel free to ask me just about anything , just keep it somewhat travel related.
This week’s travel question is from Elisa A. she asks,
Q. “Where and how easy it is to buy bus tickets?”
A. – The answer to this question will vary widely depending on which region you’re in. While bus travel is perhaps the most common and prolific form of public transportation out there it varies significantly from country to country. In some countries travel by bus can be on par with-if not more comfortable than flying first class with reclining seats, personal video screens, food and beverage service etc. (eg: my experience in Argentina). In others, such as my Guatemalan collectivo experience, you can find yourself with 24 people packed into a small van with a grown man sitting on your lap.
Typically the ease of looking up bus time tables and purchasing tickets tends to tie directly to how well organized the country you’re visiting is in general. If a country tends to have a fairly limited web presence you’ll find that booking and research is best done in-person. Conversely, if you’re in a country with a well established web presence, or which is being serviced by a major bus provider then you’ll likely find all the information you need online. Ultimately booking bus travel is typically fairly similar to booking rail travel, just slightly more difficult because a country is often serviced by numerous providers.
Depending on the bus line, tickets can often be bought online in advance, in person at a ticket office, or on the bus itself. Similar to rail and airfare price tends to vary based on demand, trip distance, and proximity to your departure date.
As a general word of caution; because bus travel tends to be less rigorously regulated than airfare and rail travel it is important to research the bus company you intend to use. When preparing for my upcoming trip to Zambia, I quickly learned that it was important to be extremely careful which bus companies I booked with, as drunk driving is fairly prolific and many of the bus lines have sub-par bus safety records. While this is far from common, it always pays to do a basic web search about the country and bus line you’re planning to travel with before booking your trip.
At this point in time I have not found an exhaustive list of bus lines by country. If any of my readers are aware of one I’d love to learn about it – please share it in a comment!
Elisa, thanks for a great question! To my readers – have a question of your own? ASK IT! Want to see previous questions? click here.
Upon my return to Buenos Airies I immediately backtracked from the Airport to the hostel I had stayed in previously. Located in the heart of the San Telmo District Tango Backpackers offered familiar/friendly staff, a good location, and excellent facilities. The girl on the front desk, a Bulgarian who had temporarily re-settled in BA, recognized me immediately and welcomed me back with a warm smile. I settled into my room, then set out to explore areas of the City I’d missed previously. It was Christmas day and the world famous Sunday San Telmo outdoor market was taking place near by.
After walking a few blocks to the northwest I stumbled onto the market, which shuts down the entire street and stretches at least a mile across the heart of the city. A narrow cobblestone street it’s lined on both sides with hawkers before eventually dead ending in the main square where the more traditional and established market vendors have their stands set up. There’s also an in-door area but more on that later.
The market is home to everything from small handwoven silver goods, to tango shows and gaucho (Argentinian cowboy) equipment and artifacts. It’s the embodiment of everything I love about outdoor markets, only missing one key element – the food! While you can find just about anything at one of the stands, apparently Buenos Aires has a law against streetside food vendors. As a result the only real food available along the market was fresh pressed orange juice.
Luckily, there’s an old turn of the century style wrought iron marketplace located just off the main square which serves as home to a number of great vegetable, fruit, and meat stands. Sandwiched between old antique shops, and an odd mixture of electric, perfume, and clothing stands they provided a chance for some fresh food. As you’ll note in the picture above, it’s not exactly the most airtight building, as the Pigeons made a strong showing and casually patrolled the space, not unlike local Police officers in their dark blue-gray uniforms.
The level of vibrant color constantly bombarding my senses in the market was absolutely delightful and a fun contrast to the more muted tones I’d grown accustomed to while in the southern part of the country.
It’s impossible to visit Buenos Aires without breathless mention of the Tango dancing, salivating praise for their steaks, and words of caution about the pickpocket scene. While I never had an issue with pickpockets, I was more conscientious than normal. The market isn’t just world famous for its size and antiques, it also has a reputation as a pick-pocket mecca. As I wound my way through the crowd I was always aware of my belongings, and regularly transferred my backpack from my back to my chest. Backpacks in particular are always an easy target and one we usually assume to be a bit safer than our pocket-based wallets.
The collection of People along the route is also a great mixture of characters. Some gorgeous…some colorful. All vibrant and full of life. Of the hawker’s wares some of my favorites included beautiful silver work done with hand woven silver wire often worked in beautiful patterns around polished gem stones and aged fossils. Some even included peacock and parrot feathers. Others created similar works of art but with a waxed, hemp like, multicolored type of thick string gator and jaguar teeth. One gentleman was selling beautiful leather maps, while another sold handcrafted leather bracers and bracelets. Some of the more cultural pieces – vintage Tango posters and the stands with Gaucho saddles, lassos, whips and spurs left me wishing I had the funds, space, and time to make a few purchases.
Starving and a bit frustrated by the lack of any quality food stands, I eventually found a small doorway into a tiny, steaming hole in the wall sandwiched behind two large vendor’s tables. The place boasted the standard open faced grill Argentinians are fond of with a smattering of meat thrown onto it. The place was dingy, the chef a rather hefty older man with sweat tracing its way down his face. Near the door two old men sat and motioned me in as they relaxed and read the paper. I dodged the young waitress as she barreled towards a nearby table balancing a load of plates, and pulled up a chair across from a group of federal police on Lunch break. Slightly intimidating, there were at least 10 when I arrived and over the course of the meal another 6 or so piled in and quickly gobbled up the remaining chairs and tables.
The thoughts you have in a situation like that are always interesting. On the one hand I took their presence as a positive sign that the food was good, and that I was in an extremely safe place. On the other side a little paranoia set in as I processed that with that large a gathering of officers, if anything was going to happen, it would probably be targeting them. If I had been in a place like Israel, or even more dangerous parts of Brazil or Argentina known for active terrorist/drug war attacks and bombings, I’d have probably been nervous enough to debate re-locating. As it was, I ordered the daily special and a coca cola, then settled in to read my book, watch the locals, and relax.
I spent the remainder of the day wandering through Plaza del Mayo, where a group of mothers of vanished political protestors have maintained a longstanding protest. Then wound my way through the districts streets somewhat randomly before striking back towards my hostel.
Once there, I set to the task of booking/exploring and researching the next major leg of my journey. It promised to be somewhat daunting and would be my first major introduction to long distance Argentinian Bus travel.
Stay tuned for a detailed break down of the experience, how to book it, and the costs associated with a RT ticket from Buenos Aires to Iguazu.
**Please be advised that an updated version of this list is available on VirtualWayfarer’s new sister site http://ultimatepackinglist.com. In addition to a more comprehensive list, the site features additional travel packing videos and a hostel/backpacking specific amazon shopping list.
The following is a comprehensive list of general travel advice specifically tailored to backpack/hostelers and the Euro zone. However, I believe no matter where you are traveling or what approach you will be taking, you’ll find a lot of good – and some unique information below.
Notify your bank & credit card company – Credit Card companies have a number of checks in place to help protect you from fraud. Unfortunately, these checks can be a real nightmare if you forget to notify your bank/CC company that you’ll be leaving the country. Make sure to call and notify them that you’ll be traveling. If they start seeing a lot of charges from a foreign location, they may put a hold on your card thinking it has been stolen. Make sure to provide dates you’ll be gone as well as the countries you expect to visit. There is nothing worse than trying to get a replacement credit card company while on the road.
Choose the right card – You’re going to pay a currency penalty no matter what you do. However, how much you end up paying can vary widely. Almost all credit cards charge a foreign transaction fee. These fees vary, but are often as much as 3%. What percentage they charge varies from card to card and from bank to bank. Make sure to find out which of your credit cards gives you the best deal. The same goes for bank ATMs and debit card use. Find out what the fee is, and what type of ATM’s are in your bank’s extended networks. Many travelers unwittingly spend $6+ on fees for every $100 in purchases or cash withdrawals they make. The FlyerGuide.com wiki offers one of the best breakdowns/easy to use charts i’ve found.
Currency Exchanges – I avoid these if at all possible. By using ATMs and following the advice I’ve outlined for reducing ATM fees I’m able to get the best currency exchange rate possible. Exchange booths are expensive and take a fee. They also tend to give outdated currency values. When you use an ATM to withdraw funds you will typically receive a better, more up to date, fairer exchange rate.
Travelers Checks and Money Transfers – Travelers checks are huge in the movies, and so are money transfers. In reality though, these two things are expensive and inconvenient. I typically use Visa/MasterCard credit cards/ATM cards while traveling and have never had an issue. Research the countries you’ll be visiting and figure out what cards are commonly used. In most cases credit cards or cash will be far more welcome than travelers checks.
Xeroxing important information – Few things are more inconvenient than losing or having your passport, important documents and/or credit cards stolen. Take the 5 minutes to copy the photo page of your passport, and both sides of your credit cards. Make two copies. One to stash in some obscure part of your backpack and one to leave with your stateside contact. Remember to keep a close eye on the xerox copies – they’re a great asset if you lose the originals, but can also be used to steal your identity if they get into the wrong hands.
Email yourself – If you have a web based e-mail platform, e-mailing yourself scans/copies of credit cards, important documents and passport info is a great alternative to the xeroxed copies outlined above. It’s easier to access, less likely to be compromised/stolen, and guaranteed to always be on hand.
Blog from the road – Do yourself, your friends, and your family a huge favor. Set up a blog before you leave. It’s free, easy and a great way to update friends and family. Sure, you can send a postcard out – but why not give them the chance to share your adventures with you? I highly recommend using WordPress – you can get a free, hosted WordPress blog at WordPress.com. In addition to saving you from writing 10-15 separate e-mails to friends and family, a trip blog creates a journal which you’ll be incredibly greatful for as you reminisce about your trip a year or two from now. Be descriptive and share your adventures – it’s a wonderful gift to friends, family and yourself. Internet cafes are common place on the road and the hour every day or two you’ll need to write an update can be a welcome rest period. Don’t know what to write? Check out some of my past travel posts from the road.
Resources – There are a lot of wonderful travel communities out there. It’s somewhat newer but TBEX or Travel Blog Exchange is a wonderful way of finding fantastic travel blogs and connecting with experienced travelers. If you’ve got a question or are looking for ideas – I highly recommend perusing their members lists. Need other sites or resources? Just let me know and I’ll be happy to point you in the right direction.
Vitamins – Yeah, yeah I know. It’s basic. However, it’s something commonly overlooked. When you’re traveling – especially if you’ve just started the trip, vitamin intake is a lifesaver. It’s not enough to just take your daily vitamin. Keep in mind that you’re exposed to a whole spread of new foods, new germs, and are temporarily drastically changing your lifestyle. During the first 3 days of any trip I double up on my multi-vitamins with a heavy focus on making sure I have a very high B vitamin intake. B vitamins are fantastic, they’ll give you more energy, improve your metabolism and help repair the added strain/damage your body is taking. I’m also a huge fan of anything with amino-acids in it. Especially if you’re doing a lot of foot-based touring. One great source is products like EmergenC. It has B vitamins, amino acids and a boatload of Vitamin C all in one hit. Sure they say it doesn’t work, but I call baloney. 2 or 3 of those a day and you’ll be doing yourself a huge favor.
Hydrate – Sure, drinking water is common advice…but it’s a pain so most people don’t do it. Big mistake – especially if you want to reduce jet lag. Sure, it’s difficult to know when your next bathroom break will be, but do yourself a favor – amp up your water intake and skip the soda/carbonated beverages for a few days. Taking your vitamins and staying hydrated will keep your body much healthier, improve recovery time, and increase the resilience of your immune system. Getting chapped lips or peeling cuticles? Drink more water – you’re dehydrated.
Timing is important – In my experience one major element that contributes to jet lag is that of mental adjustment. If you’re traveling trans Atlantic make sure to set your watch forward as soon as you board the plane. Use the 14 hour flight to adjust mentally instead of spending 14 hours in flux and then trying to adjust once you’ve arrived. Once you’re on that plane operate exclusively on destination time and try not to think about what time it is at your point of origin. It sounds silly, but it makes a huge difference.
Leave the suitcase at home – Even if you aren’t planning to “backpack” in the conventional sense of the word, ditch the suitcases and trade them in for a quality backpack. A suitcase with wheels is all well and good, but 8 out of 10 times those wheels will only be useful 5-10% of the time. A backpack is effective 100% of the time. It also encourages you to pack more effectively. Wearing the pack also gives you increased security but more on that later. There are cheap options out there, the blue pack in the video’s I’ve attached below was made by Outdoor Products, cost $45 and was purchased at Walmart.
Keep the straps in mind – The one downside to a backpack is the need to protect the shoulder straps, waist belt, and clips. A lot of newer backpacks have zip up covers which allow you to protect your straps when traveling by bus, plane or train. If yours doesn’t, you might consider purchasing a small, cheap duffel bag which you can roll up and strap to the outside of the backpack while traveling. This also makes securing your bag in hostels or hotels significantly easier.
Roll your clothing – Folding may be all well and good for a suitcase, but it’s terribly inefficient and can result in badly wrinkled clothing. A far better option is to tightly roll your clothing. It naturally eliminates a lot of the air which takes up spare space, allows for easier access to your clothing, and allows you to fit significantly more into the same space. Don’t just roll pants and shirts though! Make sure to roll it all, towels, jackets, boxers and sweaters!
Bulky items – Inevitably I find most people (myself included) lose a lot of space to 2 or 3 bulky items. Sometimes it’s unavoidable – let’s face it, jackets are big and puffy. However, usually at least one of the items isn’t actually necessary.
Towel time – Ditch the bulky bath towel. There’s only one way to go when traveling – microfiber travel towels. I’ve been using PackTowl Personal for years and love them. They dry quickly, are soft, are incredibly absorbent, and roll up to take virtually no space. To top it all off, you can get what you need for less than $20.
Pants and shirts – Take whatever you’ve packed and halve it. You don’t need to take a week’s worth of outfits with you. In fact, I can tell you right now you’ve over packed. If you are not 110% confident that you’ll need and wear the items you’re packing multiple times, don’t pack them. Have more than two pairs of pants? You shouldn’t. More than 4 t-shirts? Time to axe a few.
Power converters – It’s often a lot easier to get these once you reach your destination. However, don’t rule out picking up converter plugs before your trip if you know where you’re going.
Bags & shoelaces – Sure, you can get them at any time during your trip but I highly suggest throwing an old pair of shoelaces into your bag, a plastic shopping bag, and a few Ziplocs of differing sizes. Think of these as your traveler’s duct tape. You never know how or when they’ll come in handy. Example: While exploring the Scottish Isle of Skye we spent a day in nasty light rain and strong winds…not enough to keep us inside, but enough to damage any non-waterproof camera. Luckily I had a ziploc bag on hand and was able to create a waterproof case for the camera. The result? A bunch of amazing photos I would have otherwise completely missed out upon.
Super Glue – I’d suggest only purchasing this when needed to avoid having it explode in your bag. That said, Super Glue is phenomenal for quick on-the-road repairs. I’ve used it on multiple occasions to reinforce ripped seams on my backpack/bags/shoulder straps, on small cuts and as a quick way to make other general repairs.
Footwear – Two fundamental sets of footwear you’ll need for any trip. The first is a good pair of shoes walking/hiking shoes. I’ve been using Keen’s Men’s Targhee II for years because I love the fit, price and support. Make sure the shoe fits, can be worn in a variety of settings and is light enough for days spent exploring cobblestone streets but capable of slugging through rural highland mountains. Make sure to try them on in a store before you buy. Find one that works? I saved $30 by ordering the shoes off Amazon.
The second piece of footwear you shouldn’t be caught without is a pair of plastic shower thongs/sandals. Make these as cheap and light as possible. All you want is a basic, plastic $2 pair that dries fast. You do NOT want a nice pair of sandals and definitely should avoid sandals with leather.
Flip Video Camera – Recording your trip is always a challenge, especially as a hosteler/backpacker. You need something portable, affordable, but still high enough quality that the video is worthwhile. The new line of portable video cameras are great. In late 2008 I shot the two packing videos below with a first generation Flip Ultra. I liked the product so much that I’ve since upgraded to the Flip UltraHD Camcorder which records up to 2 hours, has better audio quality and shoots in HD. The cameras range in price, but the top of the line versions run right around $200. They’re the size of a cellphone and work beautifully for capturing video – most people think they are a cellphone.
Here are two videos from my last trip – a December voyage to Spain. The videos illustrate the rolled packing technique and provide a step by step walk through of things I took with me. Note: Despite going out of my way to pack light, I still over packed:
Not your parent’s hostels – The modern Euro hostel is totally different than what the movies and old stories have probably led you to believe. Most are clean, modern, and have fantastic amenities. In fact, it’s not uncommon for hostels to provide communal kitchens, en suite bathrooms, free/charge internet access and all sorts of organized events. Heck, believe it or not – a lot actually have on-site bars! Oh, and the whole…bring your own sheets or a sleeping bag…Not anymore! In fact, leave the sleeping bag and spare sheets at home. In order to prevent bed bugs and for health reasons mainstream hostels now provide linens and in most cases prohibit you from using your own. One thing to be prepared for (and personally I think it’s a huge asset) is mixed-sex dorm rooms. While almost all hostels provide female-only rooms, the vast majority offer rooms in a mixed gender dorm format.
Booking – Depending on what time of the year you’re traveling, you might want to book ahead. Regardless, you’ll want to do some research (no better way to avoid bad experiences and bedbugs). There are three fantastic resources for booking and research. The first (and largest) is hostelworld.com The site allows easy booking and has a huge database of user submitted reviews which are invaluable. Slightly smaller, but equally valuable is hostelbookers.com. A third and relatively newcomer to the hostel database/online booking industry is the industry travel site bootsnall.com. Keep in mind that it’s sometimes possible to get a discount rate by booking with the hostel directly, and that many hostels have an extra cache of beds available (so even if one of these sites isn’t showing availability – sometimes another will have access to vacant beds).
For those of you traveling in Europe – one word of caution about Hosteling International hostels. HI was one of the first major hosteling groups and still clings to the outdated hostel model. A lot of their hostels have lockouts, group showers, charge extra for linens and are dirty. They are most prevalent in Italy where hosteling outside of major tourist destinations can be tricky.
Lockouts – Most hostels have abandoned the lockout model, but you’ll still find some shoddy ones that have lockouts. When booking online always make sure to check if a hostel has lockouts before you book. The standard lockout process means that the hostel locks the front doors during the day and late at night. For example, a standard lockout would be from 10AM-4PM and from 11Pm to 6AM.
Basic Hostel Etiquette – There are basic rules. I’ll cover them in greater depth in a different post, but here are four main ones to keep in mind.
*Noise – you are sharing a room with a number of strangers. Be respectful. If you know you’ll be returning late in the evening, or leaving early in the morning make sure to pre-pack/unpack. Most hostels have 24/7 receptions. That means you’ll have the option of getting back at all hours of the night. Follow the golden rule.
*The light switch – after 11PM the lights stay off with few exceptions. Sure, you can turn them on, but unless the room is empty or your party makes up the sole occupants – do whatever you need to do in the dark. Same principle as with noise applies – have your stuff ready and easily accessible. If you slap the lights on at 3AM in a drunken stupor, you’re going to look like an idiot and make a lot of enemies very quickly.
*Clean up after yourself – hostels are usually staffed by other travelers. If you’re lucky enough to stay at one with a kitchen or common area, don’t leave a mess and then walk away. There’s no housecleaning and there’s no maid – that’s why you’re paying pennies on the dollar for the room. When you leave a mess, you’re punishing everyone else.
*Be friendly and inclusive – One of the best parts of hosteling is all of the people you meet. Don’t be bashful when it comes to reaching out to fellow travelers, and make an added effort to invite your fellow hostelers to tag along. Don’t worry, it’s not weird to ask a perfect stranger if they want to head over to the nearby market with you.
Internet Cafes – There was a time when taking a trip meant complete disconnect from the rest of the world. Of late, it’s become common for travelers to travel with laptops, mobile phones, and other similar peripherals leaving them connected in ways previously unimaginable. However, some of us enjoy a happy medium. If you’re planning on traveling and are worried about staying connected, but don’t want to take a laptop – don’t worry. Internet cafes are significantly more common in Europe than the U.S. and Canada. Rates are also typically very affordable (In Europe they range from 1-3 Euro an hour in most locations). Keep in mind, however, that the connection quality can vary widely. Also, it’s not uncommon to find internet cafes that are running specialized software which at times restrict the use of peripherals (Double check that you’ll be able to connect and access your camera before you settle in).
A locker lock – Security in hostels is fairly lax and can take some getting used to. That said, there’s seldom need to worry. Most hostels provide security lockers for your gear and/or valuables. The standard approach is to provide a locker (think back to your high school days). Lockers are typically associated with your bed and are present in the room. I’ve seen them in all different shapes and forms – from metal, to wood, to enclosed caged racks. One thing is always the same though: you provide your own lock should you decide to use one. For this reason it’s advisable to pick up a small but sturdy lock that will fit a wide variety of locker types. I used a small luggage lock and very rarely had any issues. Be mindful that larger, sturdier locks may not always fit. It’s also important to note, that some hostels also provide in- room, programmable safes. These are a luxury and convenience, but also a growing trend. Typically an electronic key card is provided when safes are available.
Don’t stand still – Know that annoying guy at the airport or on the subway that just won’t stand still? Sure, he won’t stop moving or pacing and it’s a bit annoying, but it’s also a fantastic way to avoid pick pockets. Train yourself to perpetually move, even if it’s as simple as shifting your weight from side to side. By randomly moving and not standing perfectly still, you’ll make yourself a more challenging target. Thieves and pickpockets will have to deal with a moving target, and risk bumping you – both of which increase the chances that you’ll be alerted to their presence. No need to pace, but a little minor motion can go a long way to helping discourage criminal fingers.
Abandon your back pockets – I love to wear jeans when I’m traveling and as a guy I’ve always got a wallet on me. Like most guys my wallet is usually in my back right pocket and fairly bulky. When I hit the road though it takes the place of my car keys in my front pocket, where I’ve trained myself to casually brush my hand on a regular basis. My back pockets? Reserved for things like maps, bulky papers, fliers, and random tickets. I like keeping my maps in my back pockets (folded) because it adds the appearance of bulk/a wallet without endangering valuables.
Photo & Video backup CDs – Any time I’m on an extended trip I’m always paranoid about losing my photos and videos. What if my camera gets stolen or the memory card dies? Most camera stories have digital development kiosks. For less than $10 and 15 minutes you can usually create a backup DVD with all of your photos on it. Or if you’re game to do a bit more work, you can usually save a few dollars by burning your own DVD at a local computer cafe. I suggest making backups every 4-700 photos. One thing to definitely keep in mind – don’t delete the photos after burning the backup. DVDs scratch fairly easily, especially while traveling. Keep the DVD as a backup – not – as a replacement. Hopefully you’ll never need it, but if you do – it sure beats losing your images, or the quality loss that occurs when you try and re-download photos you posted to Facebook.
Travel Cards – Websites like Facebook and Twitter have made keeping in touch with fellow travelers much easier. Add e-mail into the mix and you’ve got a pretty cool tool to keep in touch with the amazing people you meet during your trip. However, it’s often difficult to track each other down/get accurate contact information. I can’t tell you how many people I missed out on keeping in touch with because I couldn’t read their handwriting or the note I’d written on a random scrap of paper had gotten smeared. Consider creating travel cards – basically business cards – but to share with fellow travelers. You can get 250 business cards for 20 minutes and $20 or less through Staples or another similar service (cheaper options online). Things to include: Your name, blog url, twitter url, e-mail, website, and if you can shorten it – the link to your Facebook profile.
Airfare – There’s a lot more to getting a great rate than just booking in advance. I’ve found that airfare tends to spike about 30 days before the departure date. Also, conventional wisdom is to try and book on a Tuesday or Wednesday if at all possible – and in my experience this still holds true. If you’re flexible and looking for a great deal I suggest utilizing airfare search sites like Kayak.com. I’ve done very well by signing up for an account and running flexible date searches. Don’t stop there though, most people check once – then book. That’s a major oops (airfare typically fluctuates hundreds of dollars from day to day). If you’ve got time, set up several searches to airports in the area/region you want to explore and for different dates, then sign up for their (free) daily e-mail updates for each. Once a day you’ll receive an e-mail with the current airfare and the $ change from the previous day. Monitoring prices this way works well, but you need to be ready to book when you see a great deal.
Another thing to keep in mind is specials. Airlines are always operating specials of some sort or another. Usually these are only so-so deals, but with a little research and patience you can usually find a fantastic deal. Sites like TravelZoo.com and Airfarewatchdog.com typically provide a good summary of current airfare specials. It’s also important to note that you should not limit yourself to the airlines that immediately come to mind. A lot of travelers (especially North Americans) forget about the wealth of high quality foreign airlines. These airlines are almost always extremely safe, usually offer better service than domestic airlines and can be much cheaper.
Discount Airlines – Don’t forget your discount airlines. The quality is usually rough, and you’ve gotta do your research to make sure you don’t get stuck paying any number of random fees – but the price is usually right. If you can book a day or two ahead discount airlines like EasyJet and RyanAir are typically cheaper and faster than long distance train rides. Keep in mind they also lack the amazing cross country view that train and bus rides offer. If you’re flying with a discount airline read up ahead of time. They typically fly into secondary airports which can result in costly/timely commutes between the airport-actual city if you’re not prepared. For a complete list of budget airlines world wide check out whichbudget.com.
Rail – When available, travel by rail is an excellent option. It is scenic, relatively comfortable and in western Europe, typically drops you off in the heart of the old city. Faster and more comfortable than bus travel, rail travel is typically also somewhat more expensive. If you’re traveling to eastern Europe be aware that bus travel is probably a better option as countries like Greece and Croatia have poor rail infrastructure. When buying rail tickets you typically have 3 options. You can purchase online, in advance, or the day of. Online and advanced tickets are typically significantly cheaper. Also, most countries have regional trains that, while slower moving, are 2-3 times cheaper than the faster commuter trains. Once you purchase your ticket, be sure to validate it before getting on the train. In Italy, for example, tickets are good for several months. To assure that they can’t be used multiple times, you have to validate the ticket in the yellow machines readily available in the train station. If you are riding without a validated ticket, there are stiff fines.
Conventional travel wisdom is to use a rail pass – do your research. Rail passes are no longer as good a deal as they once were – many countries (eg: Italy) charge seat reservation fees which can cost more than a lone ticket would. That said, in countries like Germany where rail travel is significantly more expensive, a rail pass can save you a lot of money. Another must explore site is seat61.com which has a lot of general information for those considering rail travel.
Bus – Far from the most comfortable way to travel, buses are a cheaper and still pleasant option. It is not uncommon for long distance buses to have bathrooms and many are equipped with ceiling mounted T.V.s providing entertainment. If you’ve got extra time or are traveling in eastern European countries, bus travel is a fantastic option and will give you a great view of local villages and rural countrysides. The air conditioning can be a bit rough, but it’s also a great way to interact with and meet natives.
*Special thank you to Cody Paris for the ongoing suggestions and feedback he has contributed.
Have a question or tip of your own? Please post it in comment form below. Also, please note that I will be constantly adding to this list as new tips, tricks & information come to mind.
Leaving a place you’ve thoroughly enjoyed is always a bittersweet experience. On the one hand you have the knowledge that the next place will most likely be just as good and may even be better, on the other hand you have to acknowledge the end of a small portion of your adventure. As I waited for my train on the benches in the photo above I spent time thinking about how much fun I had in Cadiz. The people at the hostel and throughout the city had been wonderful, the food had been some of the best on the trip and time spent near the ocean always leaves me feeling wistful.
Eventually my train arrived and I scooped up my day pack. Fully laden I made my way to my seat, settled in and prepared for the 2 hour train ride to Dos Hermanas where I had a 2 hour rail layover before catching a train east to Granada. The view out the train windows was beautiful. It’s truly striking how the hands and presence of man has altered everything you see. Mile after mile the countryside was covered in a patchwork of beautifully manicured, freshly tilled fields…it feels more like a giant, expansive golf course made of brown and light green hues more than the rural Spanish countryside. It’s amazing to think of the landscape as it must have been thousands of years ago – covered by wild, natural forests, covered with rocks, moss and wild animals.
Dos Hermanas was a fun, albeit fairly industrial, city located about half way between Madrid and Cadiz. With 2 hours to kill I decided to set out into the city and explore a bit instead of sitting around at the train station watching the seconds drag by. With my large backpack on my back and my day pack strapped to my front, I wasn’t eager to walk for too long but did want to explore the city and hopefully a local tapas bar.
From the small square in front of the train station I made my way to the left down a series of quiet avenues which looked as though they probably cater in some capacity to tourists during summer. After passing a number of closed restaurants and pricey looking tapas bars, I eventually came to the main square with a small beautiful fountain and smaller Spanish cathedral. As I paused to rest I enjoyed architecture that reminded me heavily of Mexico.
Feeling as though I’d traveled about as far afield as I was comfortable doing, I picked a small side street that looked as though it paralleled the way I had come and started back towards the train station. Within a block I found a small hole in the wall with a large number of locals. To my delight they had a daily tapas list and hearty special. Before long I was sitting at the tapas bar with my bags leaning against my legs and a full spread laid out in front of me. A glass of Spanish Alhambra beer by my left hand, a small bowl of albondegas with fresh french fries, a bowl of chunks of torro in albondegas sauce and a pork loin sandwich on my right. Using the bread that came with it I quickly devoured all 3 plates soaking up the sauces and juice before downing the rest of my beer. Total cost of the meal? Just under 5 Euro.
With a full stomach and a large smile on my face I continued to the square in front of the train station where I paused to peruse several stands set up with various Moroccan and Middle Eastern items before making my way back inside and reading for a few minutes. As the time for my train grew closer I began trying to figure out which track my train would be arriving on. Unfortunately, the announcements were all in heavily accented Spanish, my ticket wasn’t marked and the station lacked the normal TV screens displaying the arrival track assigned to incoming trains. I asked a few individuals in broken Spanish and received answers that left me waiting for the train on Platform 1.
Much to my surprise and concern a train arrived at track 2 right at the time my ticket had listed – in a flushed rush I flew down the subterranean steps which led to track 2 and bolted up just in time to try and ask several of the passengers on the now nearly departing train. As I was about to board another train arrived back on Platform 1 and I realized I must be looking at the wrong train. With a gulp of air it was back down through the walkway and back up the other side where the security guard I had talked to earlier beckoned for me to hop on the train that had just arrived. Feeling rather dense and generally relieved I hopped on board, hoisted my backpack into the overhead shelf and collapsed into my seat relieved. Luckily the rest of the trip to Granada was uneventful!
I arrived in Granada sometime after dark. I don’t recall when exactly, though I think it was probably around 8PM. The air was significantly crisper than I had gotten use to in Cadiz but still refreshing. Bundled up I quickly fished my gloves out of my day pack, took a look at my directions and then *sighed*. The directions mentioned catching a bus straight out from the train station…unfortunately there wasn’t a bus stop to be found. In usual form I was without a guide book or map and just scratched my head, paused for a moment, took a deep breath and began walking down the large avenue that stretched up a small hill and connected the train station with a main cross street. By the time I reached the cross street I saw several bus stops and made my way over. After reading the text directions I’d printed out I figured out which side of the street I needed to be on and managed a decent idea of which bus lines to take.
After a 5 minute wait, the bus I needed pulled up. It was packed to the point that even standing room wasn’t really an option. Not in the mood to get pick-pocketed or accidentally kill someone with my backpack, I elected to wait for the next one. Another 5 minutes passed and running behind schedule, the 7 line showed up. I asked the somewhat unfriendly bus driver if the bus went to the stop I needed and got a gruff ‘no’. Apparently, it was his last run. With two strikes down I was pondering just trying to walk the 4 stops to where I needed to go but without a map or any clue where the bus line might turn I elected to wait and give it one last shot.
Ten minutes later another bus from another route arrived. Luckily, as with the others, this stopped at the stop I needed. Unlike the others it was nearly empty which made the trip nice and easy. A 5 minute ride later I was standing on the street corner glancing at my directions. In short order I found the street I needed and began heading up hill into the winding maze that is the old Moroccan Albayzin. Just as I was starting to get into the warren of small, shoulder-width streets I saw a sign for Oasis Backpackers hostel. The sign led me down a sequence of streets before eventually dumping me at the hostel’s front door. Relieved, but with a knot in my stomach, I headed inside.
I hadn’t quite gotten around to booking ahead when I left Cadiz and had arrived in Granada a bit later than anticipated. Tired and a little grumpy from the bus experience I got buzzed in and slightly out of breath asked about availability. The Swedish guy working the front desk was sympathetic but informed me that they were all booked up for the night. Only slightly put off I asked about the following 2 nights and quickly reserved them with the intention of returning the following day – Oasis had been highly recommended to me by several people, including my buddy Scott Dare who is an Australian I’d met on my previous trip to Europe. I’d also thoroughly enjoyed Oasis Granada’s sister hostel Oasis Seville and was eager to repeat the experience.
With my following 2 nights booked, I got a map and hostel recommendation for the night from the Swede working the front counter. Eager for a shower and a place to dump my bags I set off into the Albayzin. Unfortunately for me the hostel he had recommended was the Makuto Backpackers Hostel which is a great little hostel but located at the very top of the Albayzin. By the time I left Oasis it was easily 9:00PM – slightly worried about getting mugged in the maze of small, winding alleyways-that-were-streets I began my ascent. Legs pumping, out of breat, I followed the directions he had drawn on the rather clunky map he’d given me. As I made my way up the steep hillside I saw a backpacker walking ahead of me. As I gained on her, I realized she was a traveler and assumed she was looking for the same hostel. Eager to team up and sympathetic to how she must be feeling as she made her way through the deserted Albayzin at night, I called out to her and quickly asked if she was also seeking the Makuto. After a quick look of alarm she turned, took in my backpack and with a somewhat relieved look on her face introduced herself. She was a Slovenian girl who was biking across Spain.
Together we tackled the rest of the hill and after a few dead ends and wrong turns found the hostel. The hostel was a great little place with a small bar, hookah tent, kitchen, clean rooms, nice bathrooms and a TV room. If it had been somewhat busier I probably would have gladly stayed there for the rest of my time in Granada. We both got checked in and then went our separate ways. Tired I elected to settle for a quick shower and the 3rd and last quiet evening of the trip.
I unloaded my bags, made my bed and checked my e-mail before asking the receptionist for a good place nearby to eat. Her recommendation was a small place about a 5 minute walk away that she said was affordable and had great Couscous.
The place was a fun little hole-in-the-wall. Nothing spectacular but it smelled good and I was starving. I took a seat and placed my order. The owner spoke excellent English…French and Spanish as well. He made several recommendations which I followed. I failed to check the price as I normally do. 10 minutes later I had the meal (detailed in the video above) steaming in front of me. Lamb couscous, a delicious broth soup and a soda left me hankering to dive right in. The food was good if somewhat bland but did a wonderful job warming me up. I finished up, got the bill and after a slight grumble to myself prepared to make my way back to the hostel. Total cost of the meal was about 15 Euro – which compared to the 17 Euro hostel I was staying in left me a bit annoyed with myself. The Couscous alone had been just over 10 Euro – not exactly the affordable meal I had in mind when she recommended the place.
After a leisurely stroll I found my way back to the hostel. I relaxed, read for a while and then crawled into bed. It had been a full, but good day.
Tomorrow I’ll head down to the Oasis, get checked in and then set about exploring the city!