My Mistake – How I Overlooked Camden

The Camden Lock

Is Camden Dangerous?

Let’s start with the basics…this post should likely be titled – “Camden – You’re not going to get shot, stabbed, murdered, or bludgeoned to death” but that seemed slightly too long and obtuse. The short answer to this concern is, “No it’s not dangerous and in fact, it’s relatively safe and downright awesome”.

The Camden Lock

My first trip to London was as part of a study abroad program through Arizona State University in 2004.  I spent three weeks in the city based out of Kensington just off the Earl’s Court metro station.  I explored the city, wandered its streets, and was in that perpetual state of wide-eyed awe that goes with your first study abroad experience.  Since that visit I’ve been back to London several times for a variety of reasons.  In 2007 I paused there as part of the early stages of my 3 month solo jaunt through Europe.  Last year I found myself back in London for the World Travel Market conference to chat travel and travel blogs.  In between I’ve found myself in London for layovers and other similar things a number of times.  However, one area of the city (well at least one) slipped through the cracks: Camden.

The Camden Lock

Somehow, despite my many visits to London, I never made it to Camden. Given the area’s reputation as being somewhat less than safe and recent attention after the series of riots that damaged the district, I suppose it wasn’t purely accidental that I never made it to the area.  After all, getting stabbed or mugged doesn’t exactly rank on most traveler’s top-10 list for London.  The running commentary about the area from British friends did little to assuage my fears.

The Camden Lock

Still, when the time came to book a hostel in London just a few days before the start of the Olympics my options were fairly limited.  It doesn’t help that London, for all of its other fantastic elements, is really a dreadful hostel city.  Sure it has a wealth of them but, most are shoddy, overpriced, run down, or old-model Hosteling International bedbug-ridden flea traps.  So, it was with some trepidation that I eventually settled on St. Christopher’s Camden Town hostel.  The rating was better than most and I was familiar with the St. Christopher’s franchise, if not an overly enthusiastic fan.  As with the rest of Camden, I shouldn’t have worried.  The hostel was acceptable and perfectly located in the heart of Camden.  It served as an easy meeting point, as it was also where I met my folks who arrived a few hours later on the same day.  I’ll admit I was more than a little nervous about how they would deal with staying in a hostel – after all my Dad is in his 70s and my Mom her early 60s.  Luckily they braved the hostel eagerly and I’ll even wager they enjoyed it a bit but more on that soon!

The Camden Lock

The Camden Town Charm

But Camden is why you’re reading this post right?  So here’s the scoop.  Camden is a vibrant neighborhood.  It is alive with tourists, immigrants, and a smattering of Brits.  The whole area is a mixture of gentrified and partly gentrified blocks which boast a busy jumble of health stores, fashion outlets, and street markets in a vibrant explosion of colors, scents, and sounds.  During the day the streets are nearly overwhelmed with people, especially in the area surrounding Camden Lock.  The biggest safety concern most need worry about is the area’s skilled and apparently prolific pickpockets.  Still, as is always the case in these types of areas, it’s just a matter of being attentive and properly prepared. Or perhaps looking really, really mean?

The Camden Lock

The mixture of shops and street stands provide a fantastic opportunity for people looking to do a bit of budget friendly shopping.  I saw everything from ornately carved jade jewelry to steampunk/goth clothing on display.  The area also provides a top-notch mixture of culinary options including the quirky food court area of Camden Lock which features outdoor bench seating in the form of the back half of old mopeds bolted to long tables overlooking the canal.  Though the most common types of food are Asian and Indian I spotted a wide variety including Mexican and burgers. The local restaurants are also wonderful.  We used Yelp to track down a great Thai restaurant which was cheap and offered fantastic lunch specials.

The Camden Lock

In short, it’s a vibrant, energetic, and highly enjoyable area to spend time in.  As a visiting tourist it’s a great budget friendly slice of London.  It is also located within walking distance of classic English neighborhoods, a main train station, and parts of London’s thriving downtown area.  The neighborhood boasts a wonderful mixture of bars and pubs including a local Brew Dog where we paused to try their Tactical Nuclear Penguin beer. Some of you may recognize the name as it was, for a brief time, the strongest beer in the world at 36%.  As you might expect, it doesn’t taste much like beer.

The Camden Lock

No matter what you’re looking for you’ll probably be able to find it in Camden.  It’s high on my list of areas to return to when I visit London again and I strongly suggest you at least visit it for the afternoon.  It is worth noting, however, that it isn’t the world’s safest district at night.  Be careful where you walk, stick to the main streets, and you’ll be fine.  Stray down dark alleyways or wander too far off the beaten path and…well…you’ll no doubt find and experience a far less enjoyable side of one of London’s most famous districts.

Have any questions about Camden?  Or comments, tips or suggestions?  I’d love to hear them!

Trip Update: Off to Africa and Back Through Europe

David on an Elephant in Zambia

Ack! Where’s this week’s Ask Alex?  In light of my impending departure early next week I’ve opted to swap out this week’s Q&A with a quick update about what I’ll be doing for the next month and a half.  Needless to say, I’m super excited about the upcoming trip though you probably haven’t heard me talk about it much here on the site.

On July 3rd I’ll be throwing an odd assortment of stuff into my backpack before setting off for London where I’ll be re-connecting with my folks.  It has been just under a year since I left Arizona and moved to Denmark and this will be the first time we’ve been able to see each other since my move.  After connecting in London we’ll jump a long flight on Emirates down to Dubai where we’ve scheduled an extended layover. After all, it would be a shame to pass through the famous (infamous?) city without pausing to see what all the talk is about and to take a peak at the Burj.  After a bit over a day and a half in the city we’ll re-board our flight and continue the 2nd 7 hour leg (ouch) to Lusaka, Zambia. Wait, Zambia?  Yep! Zambia!

Why Zambia?  Well, as it turned out my brother and I decided to make it really easy on our folks.  Out of the blue we both decided to head abroad for two years.  For me it was a 2 year Masters Degree here in Denmark.  For my little brother, David (pictured on the Elephant), it was a 2 year commission in the US Peace Corps.  Happy but hard news for any parent, right?  To make matters worse we both left within 3 days of each other….and haven’t been home since.  As it turned out David got deployed to Zambia where he has been assigned as a health volunteer in the country’s far north, just outside of Mansa along the border with the Congo. For those of you who are about as familiar with Africa as I was before his deployment, it’s actually a pretty good gig.  Unlike many of the countries in the region (here’s looking at you Congo) Zambia has experienced relatively competent management and been largely peaceful since the Brits pulled out a few decades ago.

Now that he’s a year into his 2 year commitment he finally has some time to explore.  So, instead of letting him wander around aimlessly, we’ve decided to get the band back together and to make him play tour guide.  After all, who better to introduce us to things like dehydrated caterpillars, termites, and other local culinary delights?  We will be in Zambia between July 8th and August 3rd.  During that time we’ll be visiting Victoria Falls (which is the last of the big three for me, I’ve already done Niagra and Iguazu), jumping into Botswana for a mini safari, seeing his village, wandering about aimlessly and doing a world class photo safari with Shenton Safaris and when I say world class, I mean it!  It’s going to be our first time in Africa and I’m incredibly excited.  It will also be my first trip that far off the traditional grid.  About the most  rural trip I’ve done previously was to parts of Guatemala, but we still had two niceties which will be lacking during parts of the Zambia leg of our trip – running water and electricity. Oh, and flushing toilets.  I’m already practicing my squats.  No small feat for my 6’4″ (193), 200 pound build.  I’ve already decided I need to do FAR more yoga.

On August 2nd we’ll be forced to undergo a tear-filled goodbye as we leave David behind and let him get back to work.  The folks and I will just be getting warmed up, however, as we’ll head straight from Zambia to Prague, across to Berlin and then up to Edinburgh by the 11th of August.  Once there I’ve signed the folks up for a 6-day backpacker themed tour which will see the three of us in a small 16 person bus wandering our way through the Scottish Highlands, over to the Isle of Skye (with a stop at the Old Man of Storr), past a few ancient standing stones, and then up and across to the outer Hebrideas to explore the Isles of Harris and Lewis. Don’t worry, we’ll likely also pause at the Tullibardine Distillery for a wee bit of Scotch.

By August 20th I’ll be back in Copenhagen and furiously working on getting photos and posts written to share the adventure with you all.  In the meantime, however, I’ll be posting updates where possible to the VirtualWayfarer Facebook Page and my twitter account.  I’ve also scheduled a number of fantastic posts about Italy and Turkey to keep you busy in the meantime!   You can also learn more about what my brother is doing in Africa and his past adventures and observations on his blog DavidBerger.net.

It’s going to be quite the adventure and a startling contrast between incredible cultures and completely opposite climates.  I can’t wait and look forward to sharing it with you all!  Also, keep in mind that later this year (in October), I’ll be following this trip up with another to Churchill, Manitoba to partake in a 3 day polar bear watching tundra excursion thanks to the Canadian Tourism Board.

Lot of amazing adventures and stories to share with you over the following few months.  As always, I treasure your feedback and the time you take to following the blog.  If you have a special request, question or some advice to share please don’t hesitate to let me know!

Cheers!

-Alex

Why Denmark – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Q and A every Wednesday

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.

This week’s travel question is from Lindsay who asks,

Q. “Alex, why visit Denmark over England, France, Germany? Make your case.

A. – That’s a difficult one!  Over the last 10 months I’ve fallen in love thoroughly with Copenhagen, and the parts of Denmark I’ve seen.  However, it’s a relatively small country and geographically fairly uniform.   You won’t find the awe inspiring fjords, clifftop castles, or the soaring spires of the alps. What you will find are beautiful cities awash in vibrant colors which are populated by wonderful, friendly, happy and sincere people.  As most of my time spent here in Denmark has been in the late fall/winter I’ve stayed on the island of Zealand where the capital city, Copenhagen is located.  It will not be until later this spring that I have the opportunity to head to the mainland (Jutland) and the country’s many smaller islands to explore Denmark more completely.

The Danes have a rich history and heritage.  Their flag is the oldest flag in the world.  They were the launching point for the Viking explorers, raiders and conquerors that explored the globe and left a lasting mark everywhere they visited.  More recently they have invested heavily in alternative technologies, education and culture.  All of these elements come together to create a landscape that is distinctly Danish.  Danish artists, architects, musicians, and intellectuals have been incredibly influential on the international stage for hundreds of years – an incredible accomplishment given Denmark’s small population and challenging geography.  Each of these factors shapes and crafts the Danish experience and what you will find when you visit the country.

That said, I would not necessarily call Denmark an exclusive destination country.  It is possible to visit England, France or Germany as the sole destination for a 2+ week trip and leave feeling like you still missed a lot.  With Denmark I think you would find it to be a wonderful, rich, experience but one which might lack the diversity and fast-paced stimulation that you typically want out of a 2-3 week trip.  I believe a good illustration of why this is the case is Copenhagen.  As I mentioned earlier, I’ve fallen in love with the city.  It is beautiful, it is charming, it feels cozy, and it has a lot to offer.  However, it’s what I would call a 4 day or 8 week city. The primary tourist attractions in Copenhagen – Nyhavn, the Opera House, Tivoli, the Little Mermaid, Christiania, etc. – can be seen fairly easily over the course of 2-3 days.  A week or a week and a half would be far too long for a casual visit. However, for those who have several weeks to spend and who want to immerse themselves in Copenhagen, the city has a lot to offer.  Copenhagen has an amazing music scene, wonderful festivals, an incredible outdoor, park and BBQ lifestyle in the summer, charming coffee shops and a wealth of small stores and quirky side streets that draw you in and leave you hankering for more.  In summer it is a wonderful cafe city with its ancient cobblestone streets, a young, gorgeous population, vibrantly painted multi-colored buildings, bikes everywhere, and a wealth of outdoor cafes.  The city’s numerous canals and lakes also give it an Amsterdam-like feel, but in a uniquely Danish fashion.

So, to answer your question – I would suggest Denmark, but I would suggest it as part of a larger visit.  Round trip flights to Copenhagen from Berlin, Germany can often be found for less than $70 USD.   Flights from England and France are often only slightly more expensive making it hard to justify not including Copenhagen in an itinerary.

Would you like me to elaborate on an aspect of this response?  Let me know!

Have a question of your own? ASK IT! Want to see previous questions? click here.

Revisiting 17 of My Favorite Photos From My 2007 Europe Trip

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!

Glencoe

Number 1 – Glencoe Valley, Scotland

Scottish Castle

Number 2 – Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland

 Scottish Waterfall

Number 3 – Unknown Scottish Waterfall, Scotland

Big Ben in London

Number 4 – Big Ben, London England

German Fairytale Castle

Number 5 – Neuschwanstein, Fussen Germany

German Foggy Forest

Number 6 – Woods Near Neuschwanstein, Fussen Germany

Swan Lake in Germany

Number 7 – Swan Lake near Neuschwanstein, Fussen Germany

Plitvice Lakes Croatia

Number 8 – Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

Plitvice Lakes Croatia

Number 9 – Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

Number 10 – Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

Plitvice Lakes Croatia

Number 11 – Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

Rome

Number 12 – Roman Cathedral, Rome Italy

San Marino at Dusk

Number 13 – San Marino Castle, San Marino

San Marino

Number 14 – San Marino Castle, San Marino

Florence

Number 15 – Ponte Vecchio, Florence Italy

Cinque Terra

Number 16 – Cinque Terra, Vernazza Italy

Cinque Terra

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!

Traveler’s 101 – The Complete Travel Tip Post

Guejar Spain Boot Shot by Alex Berger

**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.

Money

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.

Contact Information

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.

Community

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.

Health

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.

Packing

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:

Hostels

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).

Security

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.

General

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.

Travel

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.

Reflecting – The British Isles

Hello again, I’m currently writing from Berlin – Sorry for the lack of updates – there just hasn’t been time or quality access. I also apologize as I will inevitably switch out Ys and Zs during this post – the keyboards here in Germany are different and I may not have time to correct/notice all the errors.

During the final day in London I explored the city a bit more. Unlike the previous days where I had started out at Picadilly Circus or Leicester Square I decided to head toward the London Bridge and the Tower of London. Unfortunately, the map I’d purchased didn’t quite extend that far. As a result, I ended up kinda guessing as I picked tube lines…meandered in their general direction. Eventually, I made it to the Tower of London where I poked around the outside a bit, walked along the water front (it was a beautiful, crisp day, with the occasional light misting/bone chilling breeze), then made a huge loop around the entire Tower. I decided not to pay to go in, as I’d done the tour in ’04 and a lot of the info was still fresh in my memory.

From there I wandered north – exploring the skyscrapers and eventually ending up in the financial district. It was awesome, so much energy and bustle. The architecture – Lloyds building especially – is spectacular. It’s also a pretty eye-opening experience standing in front of a medium-sized old gothic cathedral, and being surrounded by massive skyscrapers that dwarf everything.

After my meanderings I made my way back to the hostel, ate, took a nap, and tried to connect with some family friends by phone but didn’t have any luck. Then, decided that despite my aching legs and feet I should hit up the salsa club again for round two.

I was not disappointed. The experience was a blast. Great energy, friendly people, great dancers. Met two French girls who I ended up dancing with for a good chunk of the evening. We had a fun political discussion before calling it a night and I caught the last tube home – the tube closes down around 12:20 which is a major PIA.

The next morning I dragged myself out of bed, splashed some water on my face and made my way to London Heathrow where I caught a nice flight on BMI over to Amsterdam. I’ll leave off there on the update part and focus on general reflections.

I really loved my time in the British Isles. Even – and perhaps more so – after this second visit I’m definitely still in love-fascinated by the Highlands. The beauty, richness, and majesty of them is captivating. My taste of England was also reallz enjoyable. It wasn’t planned but between Leeds, York and London I feel like my experience was diverse. York was incredible from a historical sense, it was beautiful, and rich. Leeds was an awesome university experience. The warm reception I recieved from Meagan and the guys/girls in her dorm was reallz fantastic.

The other side of Leeds that was truly fascinating was it’s business and economic prosperity. The city, while possesed of historic architecture is also very modern. A feeling added to by the mixture of contemporary architecture and Victorian era shops, markets, and buildings. It truly is a youthful, vibrant, beautiful city. My hunch is between the universities and the economzy – that it pulls a lot of the best and brightest from the small English towns across the country side and retains them.

London – Well London is London. The city’s depth and diversity is incredible. The history is fantastic and for a big city the people were decent as well.

The pound-dollar difference was really rough. It’s incredible what a difference it makes and how it changes the way you calculate things and view them. I suppose the benefit is that it forces you to pick more carefully what you choose to do as well as really increasing your level of awareness about how much you spend, where you spend, and the spending habits you have that you don’t even really realize you have. The lucky thing is that in general things in England are slightly cheaper e.g. – where a burger might cost us $6 it will only cost 4 pounds. I think that slight difference more than anything really saved me…that and finding ways to avoid the tourist areas and exploit that cost of living difference.

I would have loved to visit one of the Colliers offices while I was in GB – but just did not have the opportunity. It was really fun though seeing Colliers-for-lease signs up all over the place. Though I didn’t see a ton in London, they seemed to dominate Edinburgh. There were also a decent number in Leeds.

The last 48 hours have really been a different experience. I’ll write a bit more about it later, when I write on Amsterdam and Berlin – but briefly, it wasn’t until I arrived in Berlin that the language barrier really hit me hard and I really felt like … Ok, here I am. Just me. Right now. Right here. What the hell have I gotten myself into. Oh well – time to swim.

The Isles and Amsterdam were really a great soft transition. The architecture is different (though not AS different as say, Germany). Even the simple difference in background noise really effects the way you feel and think. In the Isles it was familiar, normal, ‘right’ if you will. Now it’s different, it seems almost wrong on a subconcious level. I find myself in a different state of mind – different perspective on how I fit into the culture and need to approach things in part because of it. My ears and brain are constantly scanning. Trying to locate the familiar or make sense of it. It’s incredible, but also definitely tiring. Hostels – so far they’ve been really good. Better than I expect. Some are loud, some are dirty, some are less secure than I’d like – but all in all the people have been fun, decent people. While there have been one or two nights where I couldn’t find someone to explore with, or socialize with – in most cases I’ve met people and found things to do. It’s definitely a different experience sharing a room with 10-20 perfect strangers.

It’s also really interesting to watch how standard protocol and rules go out the window. The mixture between cultures and environment creates a very unique experience. Especially between the sexes. Since many of the dorms are mixed and everyone is constantly coming and going things are much more sexually relaxed. While not, per say common – it’s not overly unusual for people to change quickly in the dark, sleep/walk/mingle in their boxers, or wander around in towels. Especially since most of the bathrooms-shower areas etc. that I’ve seen so far are mixed sex even if the dorm itself isn’t. In a lot of ways it’s much nicer and more natural (in a completely non-sexual way) than things are normally. I think the longer people spend traveling and in hostels, the more comfortable they become not only with themselves but interacting with and being around others.

Some have kitchens, others don’t. So far one of the biggest things I’ve found is the importance of a common area where people can mingle – and a common area with a ‘backpacker’ feeling to it – so people WANT to mingle. The greater the number of long-term residents typically the colder and more clickish the crowd. This can make it hard when you first arrive to try and mingle and meet people.

Drinking – both a blessing and a curse. While in no way necessary, it’s a big part of the travel experience. I’ve come to the conclusion that a new designation needs to be created for young (and perhaps old) travelers alike. That of the TA – the Traveling Alcoholic. Short of Salsa, i’ve found few ways to mingle, meet people, and cement bonds as quickly as sitting around the hostel drinking in the common area, or heading to the local pub, or a pub crawl with people after a long day spent exploring the city. In many ways I think it’s a major component of the hostel culture. It is that one thing that brings complete strangers together, provides a common interest that then allows friendships or at the very least social acquaintances to sprout.

It’s really something else traveling on my own. I knew it would be, but theres even more to it. I have not quite figured out how to put it into words, but when I do – I’ll let you know. Beyond that though, being forced to deal with and push through highly uncomfortable situations is really an incredible experience…One that builds confidence and really makes you more comfortable with facing decisions that scare you, or you don’t want to make.

Times running down, I’ll try and post my Amsterdam – and First Berlin experiences later tonight.

Sorrz again for the ys and zs!

Lord of the Rings – London

After getting checked in at the new hostel I caught the tube into London and got off at Picadilly Circus. From there I wandered aimlessly around Soho, China Town, and the surrounding areas. The weather this morning started out poor but cleared up during the remainder of the day – which was a blessing. Tomorrow I expect to try and make it to some of the museums etc. that I have not seen. I’ll probably start with the Imperial War Museum as it’s almost next door to the hostel.

As I was wandering around I eventually found a place with a semi-decent ‘day of’ ticket price for the LoTR. I’d narrowed it down to Macbeth (Patrick Stewart) or the LoTR. (I saw Cyrno, Les Mis, and Phantom in 04).

The sets and parts of the LOTR were incredible, and overall I think I liked it. It definitely didn’t capture me though as the others had. The music was a bit bland and they toyed with the story line in a lot of places and ways that were not needed. I think a big issue was some of the casting. The actors that played Gandalf and Stryder were both really poor, though Stryder more so than Gandalf.

The sets were incredible, the use of lighting etc. – also Galadriel was everything in the play that she wasn’t in the movie. Some truly incredible scenes there. The orcs were also a lot of fun.

Some of the other stuff was just weird – IE: They combined both human kingdoms and re-did the story to interact with the hybrid.

I definitely don’t regret seeing it and enjoyed it, but I think I’d catch a different show if I were to pick again. May try and see another tonight – or an opera. Have to figure out pricing.

After the show, I poked around Leicster Square and Picadilly a bit in the evening then made my way back to the hostel. I feel the tinglings of a cold, so i’m going to take it easy tonight and prepare for tomorrow.

G’night!

London – Salsa Dancing at Club Salsa

Just a quick update – last night after posting my last update I decided I’d give Salsa another go over here. The hostel I was at was a bit out of the way and didn’t really have anything interesting around it. Added to that it was like a trendy hotel with shared bedrooms…just weird. Wasn’t the backpacker crowd and I wasn’t a huge fan of the people there – Now I’m sitting in the computer cafe part of the new hostel much closer to downtown now – just off the Lambeth North station and near the Imperial War Museum.

Anyhow – last night headed into town to try one of the two Salsa clubs I pulled off the web. To my suprise the club – Club Salsa – was located right off of Leicester Square and a very prominant restaurant/club. The place was huge – with great wooden floors all over the place. I arrived around 9 – towards the end of the lesson and was suprised to find at least a 100 people or so already there. It continued to get busier and busier. I was really impressed … there was a great atmosphere, the music was fun (though the DJs could have been a bit more focused on playing good dance music instead of showing off how good they were), and for the most part the girls were friendly, approachable, and skilled. I think of the 15 or so I approached, maybe 3 said no – not bad at all given the setting.

Danced up a storm, eventually ended up meeting a fun local. We spent a good bit of the night socializing/dancing before calling it quits at around 12:45. A recent university grad, she was just starting her masters after working for a newspaper for a bit. Unfortunately, the tube stops running at 12 – which meant the last tube run was at about 11:15. Only having a general idea which route to hop on, I wandered around for a good 20 minutes or so, grabbed a quick bite, then eventually hopped on the n97 – I knew the n9 and n28 would take me back generally near the hostel so I figured n97 would as well – which it did, lol..luckily. Even then the closest stop was a good 10 minutes walk through a deserted area at 1:00 in the morning….oops!

Arrived back at the hostel and made it in safe and sound. A great night all around. Slept like a baby until about 8 – the fun part about group rooms is inevitably 2 or 3 people decide that anything past 7:00 qualifies as ffa time and that it’s ok to talk in normal voices and bang around making a huge commotion. Gah.

Anyhow – stiff and sore today, but I’ll probably look into either catching Macbeth (Patrick Stewart) or the LoTR – depending on the cost. it’s a rainy day unfortunately, so probably going for museums and the lot!