I recently had the pleasure of contributing a photo to the launch of Hostel Booker’s fun travel photo game which showcased 7 exciting travel photos across 7 categories from 7 different travel bloggers. Now, it’s time for me to dive into my archives and to pull out 7 photos before nominating 5 of my fellow bloggers! Please enjoy, and let me know which is your personal favorite?
A photo that…takes my breath away
Located about halfway between Croatia’s Capital, Zagreb and the coastal town of Split is Plitvice Lakes National Park. I had the opportunity to visit the day before first snowfall and quickly fell in love. A UNESCO world heritage site, the area is easily one of Europe’s most beautiful national parks. While the main waterfall featured above was impressive, the 6-8 hour hike along the river as a whole was filled with incredible beauty.
A photo that…makes me laugh or smile
I find penguins hilarious. They’re odd, inquisitive, horribly awkward on land and generally fairly adorable. Which is why I can’t help but grin and chuckle every time I see this photo from a small island in the Beagle Channel in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. Located just a few hundred miles north of Antarctica and in the world’s most southern continental region, Tierra del Fuego is a fascinating land full of amazing wonders and highly entertaining inhabitants.
A photo that…makes me dream
Taken in the summer of 2011 this shot is from the back side of Shark’s Tooth Pass in southwestern Colorado deep within the San Juan Mountain Range. Every time I see this photo i’m reminded to dream of new adventures, of new accomplishments, and to close my eyes and remember the wonderful adventures already experienced.
A photo that…makes me think
The FDR monument in Washington, DC is one of my favorite monuments in the world. It is powerful, compelling and offers amazing quotes based in great wisdom. I snapped this shot of a random woman in front of one of the quotes during a visit in April 2011. It always causes me to pause and ask myself – what have I done to help those who need it today?
A photo that…makes my mouth water
Outdoor markets are one of the things I love most about traveling outside of the US. During a recent visit to Dublin I swung by a wonderful little market square located just outside the heart of Temple Bar. Once I stumbled upon this booth I couldn’t help by sample several of the wildly different offerings – each of which had a strong, delightful taste the memory of which makes my mouth water to this day.
A photo that…tells a story
One of the things I love about travel is the opportunity to stumble upon delightful moments that capture the imagination and tie into our inner self. It can be a reminder of our childhood curiosity, simple delight in every-day things, or a sense of wonder at things we would otherwise be blind to. During a trip to Bergen, Norway I was lucky enough to have my camera out during one of these moments as a young boy wandered away from his parents to boldly march up to a doorway that had piqued his curiosity. For me, this shot embodies my perpetual re-connection with my inner child while on the road.
A photo that…I am most proud of (aka my worthy of National Geographic shot)
There’s something about this photo that just moves me. It is of a random photographer in-front of the Perito Moreno Glacier in the Patagonia region of Argentina after an all-day glacier trek. Despite being snowed and rained upon for most of the trek the clouds lifted and the rains paused long enough for me to capture this special moment. In particular I like how it conveys that sense of wonder that strikes from time to time – causing even the most committed photographer to lower their camera, pause, and take in the wonderful beauty that surrounds them.
Join the Game
1. Choose 7 of your own photos, one for each of the following categories:
A photo that…takes my breath away
A photo that…makes me laugh or smile
A photo that…makes me dream
A photo that…makes me think
A photo that…makes my mouth water
A photo that…tells a story
A photo that…I am most proud of (aka my worthy of National Geographic shot)
2. Write a short description for each image.
3. Write somewhere in your blog post: ‘I am taking part in HostelBookers 7 Super Shots‘.
4. Tell us you have participated and tweet the hashtag #7SuperShots
5. Nominate 5 other bloggers by including a link to their blog in your post.
We will be retweeting and sharing the best posts from participating bloggers.
I would love to see the fantastic photos the following bloggers come up with, so to each of the following I nominate YOU to post your own 7 Super Shots.
Hello friends, I’m excited to announce a new weekly photo feature I’m starting. One of the things I enjoy the most about traveling is the opportunity to capture amazing moments and destinations which I can then share with friends and readers. It’s easy for travel photographs to get overlooked and buried deep in the albums associated with where they were taken. To help highlight some of my favorite photos from over the years, I’m going to dig down into my travel photo galleries/album archives and post a favorite shot to feature every Friday as part of my new Friday Traveller’s Photo Feature. These are shots I’ve taken over the years on my Canon G11, Canon G6, and Canon G2 during my hostel and backpacking themed trips across the world.
This weeks photograph is one of my absolute favorites from Plitvice Lakes in central Croatia. These lakes and stunning waterfalls are located in the heart of one of Europe’s finest UNESCO World Heritage sites. I snapped this photo the day before the year’s first snow. While the park can be overcrowded in the summers, I visited it in late October and found it nearly deserted. It was truly magical wandering along the rustic raised wooden boardwalks surrounded by large schools of fish, stunning blue water and captivating waterfalls. The fall yellows, golds, and reds added to the natural greens you’ll typically see in photos from Plitvice.
September 11th 2007 I caught a plane to Europe with a one way ticket and and the butterflies of uncertainty fluttering away in my chest. What followed was a three month trip that started in Scotland and wound its way down through Europe to Crete before looping back up to fly home from Athens on December 12th of that year. At the time I shot on a Canon Powershot G6. I was recently looking back through some of my old photos and decided to touch up the color on a few of the shots and re-post them. Here are 17 that made the cut. Enjoy!
Number 1 – Glencoe Valley, Scotland
Number 2 – Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland
Number 3 – Unknown Scottish Waterfall, Scotland
Number 4 – Big Ben, London England
Number 5 – Neuschwanstein, Fussen Germany
Number 6 – Woods Near Neuschwanstein, Fussen Germany
Number 7 – Swan Lake near Neuschwanstein, Fussen Germany
Number 8 – Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
Number 9 – Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
Number 10 – Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
Number 11 – Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
Number 12 – Roman Cathedral, Rome Italy
Number 13 – San Marino Castle, San Marino
Number 14 – San Marino Castle, San Marino
Number 15 – Ponte Vecchio, Florence Italy
Number 16 – Cinque Terra, Vernazza Italy
Number 17 – Cinque Terra, Manarola Italy
Always fun going back through old photos and posts and remembering past adventures and magical places! I hope you enjoyed the shots!
The following are 30 of my favorite travel photos. Shots were taken on PowerShot G series cameras (G6, or G11). All are my original photos. Please do not re-produce them without my consent. You can view more of my photography on flickr.
Now that I’m back stateside and getting caught up on things – I wanted to share with you a guest post that I wrote for the travel blog VelvetEscape.com. Keith, the blog’s author approached me about participating in their “World of Inspiration” series. Each week VelvetEscape posts a new blog post where guest bloggers share amazing experiences and the revelations that resulted.
Eager to participate I wrote a piece sharing my experiences in Croatia which he published on July 15th. If you have a few minutes definitely head over and check it out: A World of Inspiration – Pay It Forward by Alex Berger. Definitely take a few minutes to view some of the other posts as well – they’re truly wonderful and share the magic of travel.
**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.
The bus ride to Dubrovnik was beautiful. Definitely an interesting ride south. As you wind along the coast the roads are intense. At several points we noted vehicles (a car, a large truck etc.) down on the rocks-cliff side. Little bit of a hairy drive, but then again – I’m glad I was not in the first seat up front looking forward AND down. The water and countryside of the Dalmatian Coast was gorgeous. The bus ride itself was like a tour bus trip. One of the peculiarities in the drive came in the form of a passport stop. As it turns out Bosnia has a one mile or so stretch of the Croatian coast which you have to drive through. Not sure if its always been that way or if it was a wartime concession. Either way it’s weird to have the country split like that.
Dubrovnik itself is a neat city. With architecture significantly different than Split. It still shares the small winding streets, with white polished paving stones and crystal clear water. As was the case in Split there are cats everywhere…they are well fed and friendly. It adds a great feeling to things and makes everything that much more picturesque. The inner city is surrounded by a wall which is in excellent condition. The wall itself is fairly impressive, a good 20-30 feet high on average with other points far exceeding that. At approximately 2km in length, the city itself is less than a mile square…or circle…whichever that would be. There are several main drags which then have streets that branch off of them. The streets then typically climb up the steep hillsides creating a beautiful feeling as you walk through the town. The buildings roofs are all red brick tiles, many have colorful shutters on their windows.
Interestingly Dubrovnik itself is very hard to photograph. Perhaps because of how it is layed out, though I think it is tied more to the color of the stone used and the pristine nature of the city walls. Either way the city is gorgeous and I regret not having longer to explore it. I arrived in the evening, then learned that the ferry to Italy only ran twice a week. Luckily enough the next one was the following evening at 11 at night. That gave me a small part of one evening and the entirety of the next day to explore. A lot of the experience reflected what I saw and did in Split. The wall was spectacular and the real highlight came at sunset.
A group of us set out from the hostel early in the morning to explore, get our ferry tickets, etc. We made our way to the ticket office, then down to the city proper where we ate, then split up setting a 3:00 meeting time. The girls went to do various errands and explore and the German guy and I set off to check out a nearby island. The small ferry was not running on account of weather, so we instead decided to split up. He continued exploring the city proper while I did the wall tour during which you walk the top of the wall the full length of the city at your own pace. From there I explored the city, bought a book, then reconnected with one of the girls at the fountain. The other two failed to make it by the appointed time, so after relaxing, resting and waiting a bit we set off together to explore the city a bit more socializing as we went. Eventually we found our way to a set of benches out on the old breakwater.
There were two people bread-fishing for mullet, a weird scrappy dog that was perpetually in motion, a nice luke-warm breeze, blue water, the smell and sound of the sea and an incredible city to our back. As time passed we eventually decided to walk around the city a bit more and picked up a quick snack. We then found our way to a bar that you access through a door in the city wall. The bar is a small set of cement terraces on the cliff in front of the castle wall. It is surrounded by jagged rocks and only about 10 feet above the water. The place only has enough room for the walkway and the tables. It was incredible! The bathroom is a stand at the far end with palm fronds and chemical camping toilets. The cats were out in full force as well, exploring the rocks and playing with each other.
From there we watched the sunset. It was a brilliant-fiery red event, that cast the whole area in red and gold hues. With the wall behind us it was fantastic. There was just enough cloud cover to disperse the light and create a beautiful sunset, but not enough to obscure things. Also, right as the sun neared the final stages a cruise ship sailed toward it. While i was a bit annoyed to have it obscure the natural beauty, it added its own movie esque flavor to things. From there we split up and eventually made it back to the place, grabbed our bags and headed for the ferry. It left at 11:00 PM and arrived at 8:00 AM the next morning. Our seats were deck seats, which meant that sleep was a FFA. As a result we headed to the bar, found the softest sofas and couch-like, areas dumped our bags and tried to sleep. I woke up stiff and sore, but still got some quality rest and had a good night of it.
I disembarked, made my way to the train station and caught a train to Florence. All said and done it took some 22 hours between when I left Dubrovnik and arrived in Florence.
Unfortunately, that does it for this update. I have a ton of catching up to do, I’m currently north of Verona in Trento and have done Florence, the Cinque Terra, Verona and Venice. Depending on how tomorrow shapes up I may be able to get partially caught up. If not, know I’m still alive and loving the adventure!
The bus I caught from the waterfalls ended up being a regional slow-moving one. Its route took it down rural roads and through small villages. The up side of which was an exceptional view of the Croatian countryside. The downside of which was an added hour plus to the bus ride. After four hours on the thing my legs were cramped, I was tired, hungry, and anxious. The hostel I had reserved a spot closed their reception at 8PM unless you had e-mailed ahead, which I hadn’t as I fully expected to arrive closer to 5 than 9.
The city of Split itself is fairly large, much larger in fact than I expected. The old town however is tiny and ironically enough, much smaller than I expected. The good news was the bus station was located right by the ferry station/port and right next to the old town. I’ve hinted and flat out mentioned it before – but I suppose this is another prime example…I’m doing everything by the seat of the ol’ pants so of course I had no clue where the hostel was, lacked a map and only vaguely remembered the hostels name (it was easy after all…Split Hostel…I was in Split and it WAS a hostel…soo yeah go me).
I quickly found an over-priced internet cafe, paid for 10 minutes, printed a HORRIBLE map off their website and set off to find the place at a bisque pace (it was already 8:40). Split is a fascinating city, it’s also incredibly confusing – but more on that later. I wandered around, ended up completely overshooting where I was going and was thoroughly confused as to where exactly I was. I asked a local, who in the drop of a hat set to helping me find the place. He had recently started English lessons as was eager to gain a little experience talking to me. He wasn’t sure where the hostel was, but together we wandered around the heart of the old town for a few minutes. Eventually, he asked another local, who joined up and also set to helping locate the place. The newcomer split off after taking us to another square and seeing things were in hand. This left the original local and I to locate the small alley behind a magazine stand that led to the hostel. Relieved to be there and to have met such incredibly warm and friendly people, I said my thanks and wandered up the stairs to the hostel.
Luckily the place was still open. I walked past the small courtyard in front which was full of hostel residents all gathered around drinking and getting to know each other. I then paid for my room, dropped off my stuff and set to introducing myself. I joined the others out on the patio and practically threw myself at the stool I was going to sit on. Collapsing in an exhausted, relieved heap, I introduced myself and as often occurs in a good hostel was immediately part of the group. We all socialized a bit, then all set off to a nearby bar. There we settled in and closed the place down, mixing, mingling and exchanging wild stories.
The next morning I’d dedicated to checking out one of the local islands. First though I started out by exploring Split a bit. Split (the old town) is an incredible city. Located beside the harbor it shows obvious signs of being a major tourist haven but has a more aged and historical feel to it as well. Home to arguably the last (or second to last) western Caesar it was once a beautiful palace. It has also served as a major fortification and general city. The old town itself is an odd mix of old buildings and marble-paved streets. The city is (IMHO) designed to be defended from military attack. The old city is tiny – a 5 minute walk will get you across it. However, it is a crazy mix of tiny streets, small squares, alleyways and stone structures.
The city is designed to both confuse and limit successful troop movement. Even if an invading force were 10 times that of the defenders they would easily become lost in the warren of small streets and alleyways. At some points only 1 person can walk down the street, while others allow for a spacious 3 or perhaps even 4. All the while invaders would be exposed to rooftop assault. Its often hard to tell if you are turning into a small walkway that will dead end, or a dead end that turns out to be the entrance to a large courtyard with 3 or 4 other exits and entrances. It took me quite a bit to figure out the lay of it and it was not until I started exploring every small, odd, tiny little crack in the walls that I truly got to explore the city. The streets themselves are made of a marble-like stone and washed every night creating a clean, uniform feeling to things.
Cats – Croatian cities have tons of cats. It’s fantastic and while the cats are arguably wild they are clean, well kept and well fed. I heard it rumored that they were partially there to keep the snake, rat, and pigeon populations under control. Many of the locals leave food out for them and the rest they catch and scavenge. As a cat lover, it was great having beautiful cats all over the place. In many ways cities like Split and Dubrovnik belong more to the cats than to the people.
After exploring Split and finding some food, I returned to the hostel where I bumped into 3 of the girls I’d talked to a bit the night before. They had missed their initial ferry and were preparing to catch a later one to a different (and closer island). I inquired about the island and their plans and they invited me along. It fit with my plans and seemed like a good idea so I grabbed my bag and out the door we raced. We caught the ferry and headed to the island of Brock. A windy and cold hour or so later we unloaded off the boat into a small town. I’d heard some of the other guys that had done the island the day before talk about renting a car or scooter. Eager to see the island and countryside the girls and I quickly decided to give it a try. For $20 each we got an automatic car for the day. One of the girls offered to drive and I took up the co-pilot’s seat map in hand. The island itself it turned out was…well an island and a small one at that, which, worked perfectly for us allowing us to see about half of it during the course of the day.
Our first stop was about 5 minutes outside of town along the coast. We raced down to the jagged stone beach and snapped a few photos before resuming our 7 km trip to the next town. There we parked the car and explored a picturesque little village with a quiet harbor. There were very few people around and no other tourists. The town itself was pristine. Surrounded by olive groves, vineyards, and orange trees it was nestled in a small valley. The harbor was framed by palm treas and the entire village was covered in pomegranate trees, kiwi trees and grape vines…all interlaced with beautiful red and sandy-colored blossoms on large bougainvillea type vines. Everything was in bloom and I was reminded of the old movies and sailors tales of island paradises where you could roam around picking fruit right off the vine while the waves gently rolled in. We walked about and I had the epiphany that kiwis actually grow on vine-like trees. Not really sure where else I thought they would grow, but…well…sometimes its the little details that get you.
We piled back into the car and started inland. The roads were narrow and wound through the countryside. The island itself is incredibly rocky and once you get away from the water only suitable for vineyards on terraced mountainsides and rugged olive groves. We wound up to a small village that the map said had a museum and an old castle. Upon arriving we found the old monastery locked and paid the admittance fee for the small museum. There a younger Croatian woman, who spoke incredible English, shared the island’s history with us…from its early greco-roman residents…to the Napoleonic wars when a Croatian commander sank several English war ships. Her eyes positively shone with love of country and history.
We left the old converted house and then realized that one of the buildings we had walked by – thinking it was another (though larger) house – was in fact the remains of the old castle. Most of it had fallen or been incorporated into other things but once you knew what you were looking at its original pedigree was unmistakable. As we took it in, an old Croatian lady that didn’t speak any English, came in and beckoned for us to join her. The castle as it turns out was her home and after walking us around it briefly (it was a tiny thing, no larger than a normal home in the states) she led us to a cellar-barn area full of large vats and with a small table set up. On the table there was an odd assortment of water bottles and old plastic coke bottles filled with two different substances. One of the substances was homemade olive oil. She poured us a spoonful to sample and the rich taste was fantastic. Then with a playful gleam in her eye she poured a sampling of the other – it was clear and in bottles with rosemary in it. Elegantly displayed despite being housed in an odd assortment of old water bottles. The first girl took a sip and immediately her eyes bulged and she began to cough. The bottles contained a local alcohol. I forget the exact name but its something like Rakleon. It tastes like rubbing alcohol (with a taste of rosemary) and definitely had a bit of a kick. We all tried both, then decided we could not/did not want to purchase the two. Only slightly disappointed she then asked if we wanted to try vino.
More manageable and eager to try a bit she walked over to a huge glass vase and poured a sample. The wine was a deep red. If you held it up to the light the sunlight would be hard pressed to make its way through. Deeply tasting of grapes but not overly bitter – or sweet it had a sound taste. The price for a 2 liter bottle was $4. As much because I wanted to repay her kindness (and salesmanship) as out of eagerness to try the homemade wine, the girls and I each picked up a two liter. The old lady was delighted, pouring from the huge vase into a funnel that filled the old plastic bottles. She then threw in a few ripe pomegranates for us to enjoy with the wine. Delighted we said thank you and left, piling back into the car and on a mission to find food. We wandered to the next village down which was the 2nd largest we had seen we parked the car again and found one of the only open food places we had seen. A small pizza place by the old harbor. We ate, then explored the town a bit. It was gorgeous and closely resembled the other, except that it had a soccer field and there were more people out and about.
We made our way out and about once again winding up to a tiny town on a hillside with a small chapel. There we took a few quick photos, had a brief conversation with a mule, and then decided to head back towards town to eat our pomegranates and drink our wine. We found a spot, sheltered from the cold wind, on the protected side of the breakwater and dove into our pomegranates. Before long we were all sporting blood-red noses, hands, and stained mouths. The pomegranates and wine tasted great. With about an hour and a half left to kill we decided to explore the northern end of the island. Driving in a huge loop we wound up and toward the center of the island on tiny streets. Some were on the edge of small cliffs. At times it was a pretty exhilarating experience as the roads were tiny, the locals drove incredibly fast, there were no lines and the edge of the road ended with an immediate drop off the side of the cliff. In many places there were no guard rails and others lacked even so much as a 1 inch shoulder. The island was beautiful.
Eventually we found our way back to the port safe and sound, put in a little gas and returned the car. We piled onto the ferry and headed back to Split. That night we all went out, watched the England-South Africa rugby cup then contented ourselves enjoying the evening.
The next day I spent relaxing, napping, hiding from the rain and exploring the city. My brunch was a rotisserie chicken and an apple purchased at the local outdoor market. The market itself was a fun mix of butcher shops, produce tables and florists. While most of the butcher shops were actually shops I did see one merchant with two halves of a sheep or goat laid out in the bisque morning air on a folding table. It’s definitely a wonderfully different world than back home. I hiked to the high point and overlooked the city, then meandered through the inner city a bit more. That night a good group of us got together and did the hostel thing.
As I talked to a few of the guys at the hostel we all discovered that we were heading to Dubrovnik at about the same time. We formed a small group (there were 4 of us) and made our way to the bus, then struggled through the 6 hour bus ride to Dubrovnik in the very south of Croatia.
I heard a lot of people compare Dubrovnik to Split but I found it to be very different. Surrounded by an intact old city wall, the old city itself was beautiful but more organized, cleaner, and I would say touristy. That said, time is up and my fingers are tired. I’ll tell Dubrovnik’s tale as soon as I get the chance to write another update.