Watch History Unfold – One Year of Family Travel in Europe

In 1995 and 1996 my parents travelschooled my brother and I for a year.  Together, as a family, we made our way across Europe. At times we used Eurail passes, rented a car, or took buses and ferries. Throughout it all, we recorded the journey on a small tape video camera. I recently re-visited the old tapes, 8 in total, and was struck by an odd thought; why not upload them and share them.  While they differ significantly from most normal travel content, my imagination was captured by the recent Norwegian slow travel videos and how people were using them as ambient background entertainment.  So, perhaps these will be of interest to those of you who want to explore what it was like as we learned and explored our way through a Europe that pre-dates the European Union, the Euro, and the widespread adoption of modern Hostel culture and the internet.

For those wondering what the realities of family travel with kids might be, or just want to see mid-90s Europe, these videos will also hopefully be of interest. You can view the full playlist here.

September to October

October to November

November

December

January to March

May

May to June

June to July

I hope you found these interesting. Did they catch your attention or trigger observations?  Have questions about the trip or its impact on me?  Post a comment below and let me know!

David – 20 Years Later – Two Years of Family Travel

It was more than 20 years ago when my parents called my brother and I into the living room. At the time I was 10 or 11 and I vaguely remember being more than a little confused. We were going to go on an adventure. In my previous post, Reflecting On Two Years of Travelschooling – 20 Years Later, I shared my reflections on the trip.  But, part of what I think makes this story special is the opportunity to also contrast those recollections with those of my parents, Ed and Jo, alongside my brother, David.

As part of the prep for my post, I asked each of them to write down their own recollections and reflections on our trips. Focusing on the 1995 trip to Europe, but also elaborating where inclined about our 97 trip through the US. I asked them to write down their musings independently, without talking to each other and without reading my more in-depth piece. In this two-part post, I compile their thoughts and share them with you un-edited and in their own voice. Due to the extended nature of David’s response, I’ve made the decision to post it as a stand alone. View my mother and father’s responses here. You can also view David’s fantastic blog here.

 

David Berger

BROTHER – David Berger

I wasn’t sure what was happening. I didn’t quite understand. We’d been talking as a family about a great adventure, about exploring the world and seeing new countries, but I wasn’t sure what it meant. I knew I’d need my favorite toys. We talked a lot about what to pack, what to do. I remember having to pack up my room, we were renting out the house… someone else was going to come and live in our house in Sedona. Someone else would stay in my room. I understood that I would not see my friends for a while, but I didn’t think about it much. It was all too exciting.

I was excited, new clothes, new backpacks, thinking about what I needed to take with me. We got our packs, and I remember watching Jo and Ed packing their big Osprey Packs, Dad’s highlander carrying the most important gear, the kitchen, and the necessities for travel. Mom’s strategically stuffed with the extra toys I knew I’d need. We started walking around the block, getting used to the heft of our packs. I remember thinking mine was big, but I was strong, I could carry it. There was a lot of encouragement from my brother and parents. We were going to do great, it was heavy, but we’d get used to it! We only walked around the block a couple of times. We’d learn the error of our ways later on.

We talked about Europe, we talked about our first destination. I remember talking about the trip, about what it would be like, as we walked around our neighborhood. The smell of the red earth, the dry Sedona air, and juniper pinions. I wanted to go and play, the pack was heavy, but it wasn’t too bad. Ma and Pa took a lot of our weight in their own bags, so we weren’t overburdened… Then it was time. We packed up and we headed out to Denver and then to Europe!

In Their Words – 20 Years Later – Two Years of Family Travel

It was more than 20 years ago when my parents called my brother and I into the living room. At the time I was 10 or 11 and I vaguely remember being more than a little confused. We were going to go on an adventure. In my previous post, Reflecting On Two Years of Travelschooling – 20 Years Later, I shared my reflections on the trip.  But, part of what I think makes this story special is the opportunity to also contrast those recollections with those of my parents, Ed and Jo, alongside my brother, David.

As part of the prep for my post, I asked each of them to write down their own recollections and reflections on our trips. Focusing on the 1995 trip to Europe, but also elaborating where inclined about our 97 trip through the US. I asked them to write down their musings independently, without talking to each other and without reading my more in-depth piece. In this post, I compile their thoughts and share them with you un-edited and in their own voice. Due to the extended nature of David’s response, I’ve made the decision to post it as a stand alone. Jump to it here.

Jo Berger

MOM – Jo Berger

As I think back to the time 20 years ago when Ed and I were contemplating a year of travel schooling abroad with our two sons, I find I don’t have a lot of planning memories. One thing I know for certain is that it was absolutely the best child-rearing, family-bonding, life-altering decision we ever made.

I had the good fortune to be raised in a family that valued education, history, literature, art, music and travel. As Ed and I raised our own family, we continued to instill those values in our own children. I had traveled to Italy in college twice to study Italian and art history. Ed and I had traveled there together before having a family. Ed had also traveled extensively on a year-long, around the world adventure. Both of us were teachers. As a result, we didn’t have a lot of fear about traveling abroad in Europe without a fixed itinerary and teaching the boys from experiences in the real world. We were pretty confident we could handle most anything that came our way.

Once we knew we wanted to do it, we had to figure out how we could afford it. We planned for a year-long break from working. We had some small savings to cover our airfare, our 3-month Eurail passes, and our travel gear. We were able to find renters for our house and we used that income to help defray our travel costs. Food was basically food no matter where we were. Ed managed most of those details as he is the one in our relationship who keeps track of the finances.

Reflecting On Two Years of Travelschooling – 20 Years Later

It was more than 20 years ago when my parents called my brother and I into the living room. At the time I was 10 or 11 and I vaguely remember being more than a little confused.  We were going to go on an adventure. The specifics were still being hammered out, but we’d be packing our lives into backpacks, renting out the house we owned in Sedona, and striking out for a year-long exploration of Europe.

I remember a tumultuous combination of emotions. A mixture of excitement, of confusion, of wonder, and of fear. But what about our cats? The house? My friends? It was all a lot to take in. I knew that there were things I loved – knights, medieval history, mythology, fishing and exploring and as the son of travelers, I’d been exposed to travel before.  When I was six we re-located from Southwestern Colorado to Sedona and since birth I’d grown up familiar with road trips and visits to the Sea of Cortez in northern Mexico.  But those were month long trips…this? This was something different.

How does a 10 year old wrap their mind around an entirely different continent … one full of alien people, foods, smells and languages? Shadows of sensations stir in my mind as I try and recall that moment nearly 22 years ago. And time? What did a full year mean to me then? I know it seemed daunting…but how daunting? It has softened with time and the glossy shades of fond memories and rich experiences. Yet, it still stands out vividly in my memory – a tribute to how intense the experience was.

It is only as I’ve grown older that I’ve truly started to understand the incredible undertaking my parents chose to take. Sure, they were veteran travelers and experienced educators … but even to consider a similar trip today is daunting, and that with an amazing wealth of technologies, the rise of the internet and a (mostly) unified Europe.

On that spring day in 1995 the world looked very differently. Echoes of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the First Gulf War were still recent history. The nations of Europe were only beginning to contemplate the concept of the European Union and the internet was in an infantile state.  Though I know many of my parent’s friends were supportive, I’m sure many others looked on wondering and convinced that their bold abandon was instead dangerous recklessness.

NOTE: This post is Part One of a Three Part series in which I compile and share reflections, independently written and then compiled, from my parents, my brother and myself. Jump straight to Part II in which I share my mother and father’s reflections or to Part III where my brother, David, goes in depth and shares his thoughts, reflections and memories.  Have your own personal experiences or questions?  Don’t hesitate to post them in a comment!

AlexandNate1995

Preparation

Over the following months we pulled out an atlas and world map.  We sat as a family, my younger brother David and I leaning in and treated as equals as we planned. This was important and an incredible difference between my parents and most adults. We were co-learners and in it together. We were at the center of the trip and they truly meant it when they asked: What did we want to see?  Where did we want to go?  How silly and naive some of our requests must have sounded to our parents, and yet, they included us and structured our trip in-part around our interests. Mythology? Yes, we’d have to go to Greece.  The Eiffel Tower, that stunning feat of architectural accomplishment? Of course, Paris then was a must.  And what of Normandy where my Grandfather fought in WWII?

Slowly a plan came together. It was a casual plan, one that was fluid, free formed and largely limited to the first three months during which we’d have unlimited Eurail passes.  As ideas erupted before slowly evolving into their final shape we adapted – my father’s sister would join us in France for several weeks, we’d wander Western Europe and then end our three-month sprint in southern Italy at the conclusion of our Eurail pass. Then we’d hop to Greece by ferry, spend a month on Corfu and then continue southward aiming to travel slowly and winter where it was warm. Then from there?  It was all uncertain, except for a return ticket booked from Amsterdam 11 months after our initial arrival.

Preparing and Packing for a Year of Travelschooling

In the late summer of 1995, Jo and Ed Berger commenced their final preparations for an 11 month backpacking trip which would take them and their two sons ages 8 and 11 (hey, that’s me!) through roughly a dozen European countries. Just one short year after returning, they’d once again find themselves packing for a very different type of trip. This time, the trip offered more space: A 32 foot 5th-wheel trailer and crew-cab pickup truck, but came with added challenges such as different academic needs for the boys and a high-energy border collie which shared the back seat with two teenage boys.

In this interview I sit down with Jo and ask her to reflect on what ultimately worked, what didn’t, what she wished she had prepared differently, and gain insights into the thoughts and doubts she had before leaving for the trip with the unusual insight to weigh in on how those panned out now that the boys have grown up and 20+ years have passed.

You can view my interview with Jo and Ed where we discuss the trip and they reflect on their fears learnings and key pieces of advice in the full interview here.

We Discovered The World Together – RTW Family Travel 20 Years Later

I was 11, tall for my age, lanky, a bit shy, and perpetually curious.  I wasn’t a huge fan of school and found the whole thing awkward but, I had my core group of friends and powerful interests.  I was introduced to travel before I could walk – carving long furrows in the golden sands of Puerto Penasco’s pristine beaches while joining Dad in our inflatable Sea Eagles for light boating.  That relationship to travel persisted as I grew up first in Colorado, and then moved at the age of six to Sedona, Arizona. We’d camp, we’d hike, and when not making trips to Puerto Penasco, Mexico we’d spend time in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado.

It was a great childhood, and yet, I was far from outdoorsy. My passions and interests were equally dedicated to our computer. I spent as many afternoons and evenings as I could hogging the computer, and later as we got access to the web, the phone line as I battled through the nail- biting sounds of an old dial-up modem.  My folks were concerned that my social growth might be impacted or that I was rotting my brain – luckily, they’ve come around and in the interim made sure there was ample non-digital stimulation to keep things balanced.

So it was with some shock and disbelief that I received the news that we’d be renting our house and leaving everything behind for 11 months.  There wasn’t much warning. I didn’t really know what to expect, and at the age of 11, I’m not sure you even really properly understand what a trip 11 months long could possible entail. I vaguely remember thinking it was the end of the world and a grand new adventure.  At a certain level I think it felt like I was moving, more or less never to see my friends again.

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.

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.