Backpacker Research

Discovering Innsbruck

Some of you may have noticed that I’m behind on updates this month.  I apologize for the gap in content, and promise to dive back into things with lots of exciting new material in August.  As some of you know, in addition to authoring VirtualWayfarer I’ve been a full time masters student over the past two years in Communication and Cognition at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.  The experience of living expat life, and pursuing a two-year masters program abroad has been an incredible one.  As with all great adventures, this one is winding down.  On August 1st I’ll be handing in my masters thesis and completing my program.  As you might imagine, that August 1st deadline means that I’ve been up to my neck in journal articles, research data, and writing deadlines.

It’s going great, but I’ve still got lots of work to do before my final deadline.  It hasn’t left much time to breath, let alone sit down and write new updates here.  The flip side is, however, that the thesis is an analysis of Facebook’s influences (both positive and negative) on hostel and backpacker culture.  Through it, I’ve put together a wealth of incredible research which really helps delve into the role social networking sites like Facebook play in changing our behaviors and enabling our relationships. Once completed, I’ll be sharing highlights from my research and the final thesis here on VirtualWayfarer.

If the topic sounds particularly interesting to you, and you’re antsy to learn more, you can read my paper, Exploring the Influence of Facebook on Backpacker’s Social Experience in Hostels. Published earlier this year, it is my first peer-reviewed academic article and was co-authored by Dr. Cody Morris Paris.  Cody is at the forefront of backpacker research and has done some fantastic work.   The journal article is based upon a survey of backpackers and served as preliminary research for my masters thesis topic which covers a similar area.

Independent of my current thesis project, I’m teaming up with Cody once again, for a second look at backpacker behavior. If you are interested in participating, we have three questions that we are collecting responses to.

1. Share a story or experience about how technology (mobile or social media) has disrupted or separated you from the ‘travel experience’.

2. Share a story or experience from traveling in a ‘technology dead zone’ where you were disconnected from your online social networks.

3. Have you ever ‘unplugged’ by choice while traveling? Why? Please share a story.

If you want to submit your answers, you can either e-mail them to me privately [alex *at*], or leave them as a comment on this thread.  While it is not necessary that you answer all three (it is great if you would) please answer the questions in-depth while using specifics.  Basic information about you is also appreciated. Cutoff for submitting your answers is August 1st, 2013.

On a completely unrelated note, I recently switched VirtualWayfarer to a new hosting company.  The site is now hosted on an account by itself.  It is my hope that this should improve site performance, speed and reliability.  If you notice any issues (or improvements), please let me know!

Time for me to get back to work on the thesis!  As always, thanks for reading and your ceaseless support!

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

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!



Beer, Subways and Hedgehogs

The Canal - Copenhagen, Denmark

A quick update – things have been pretty hectic here. I started classes last week and was delighted to find that most of the reading was engaging, relevant, and genuinely interesting. Both of my professors seem to be friendly, supportive, and engaging.  All in all a promising start.

On the other side of things I’m still waiting for my Visa to come through.  Danish immigration services have given me inaccurate information several times so far slowing down the process. Frustrating. I’m hoping that I finally fixed the last issue and will get my Visa and CPR (basically your Danish drivers license/social security card) later this week.  Not having a CPR has been absolutely brutal as it’s required for everything – from signing up for a bank account to registering for a cell phone plan.  Housing is also an absolute nightmare here with virtually no support from the University. I’m still looking, but find that anything near the city center typically gets snapped up in a matter of hours.  Definitely a change of pace from what I was familiar with in Phoenix.

BUT, I’m sure you’re wondering what hedgehogs have to do with this article right?

Last night I was heading home from a friend’s birthday party at about 4:30AM.  After a night spent chatting with new friends I made my way to the Christianshavn metro station dodging past the bums sleeping at the entrance and preparing to hop on the escalators that would carry me the 2-3 stories down to the metro line. As I neared the escalator a marginally sober Danish woman in her 40s? approached me in a flurry telling me she needed my help with an animal (first in Danish and then in English).  Initially thinking she was just a weird drunk I was a bit hesitant at first, but I quickly noticed a small spiny critter sitting huddled on the 3rd step down on the now halted escalator.

She had a large sweater with which she was trying to move the little guy, but given his spines, and her fear of him she ended up jumping up and down/back more than actually moving him.  After getting over my disbelief at drunkenly running into a hedgehog randomly in the middle of a metro station at 5AM in the heart of Copenhagen I tried to figure out how to help the little guy.  Though unsure his chances were much better up-top I felt fairly certain that the odds for the little guy surviving the night, and passing drunks in the metro station were significantly worse.  I gingerly took the sweater and slowly scooped up hedgehog as he bristled, talking to him soothingly and trying to calm him before carrying him up, and out of the metro.  All the while trying to remember if hedgehogs had the ability to shoot spines like a porcupine, and hoping that he continued to be fairly docile despite being carried.  Luckily I avoided getting poked, stabbed or shot with a quill and was able to walk him a ways along the canal and down by some trees and bushes before releasing him.

One thing is for certain – Copenhagen continues to shock and entertain me.

For now – I’m off to the next adventure!

Major Updates & Announcements: A Trans-Atlantic Move to Denmark, Interviews and Other Exciting Updates

The Old Harbor - Copenhagen, Denmark

So far 2011 has been an incredibly exciting year.  The last several months have set the stage for wonderful new adventures and drastic lifestyle changes. These changes and accomplishments have been both personal and related to VirtualWayfarer and the Travel Resource Network.

Moving to Denmark

As some of you may be aware, I’m currently based out of Scottsdale, Arizona where I have worked as a Corporate 9-5er since January of 2008. When not on the road or blogging about it, I’ve served as Director of Research for a mid-market, boutique business sales, mergers & acquisitions company.  I’ve had a wonderful time working with my current team and have the utmost respect for them.  That said, I’m excited to announce that Tuesday July 12th will be my last day with the Company and July 19th will be my last day as an Arizona resident.

Just under a year ago I made the decision to start exploring a return to higher education in pursuit of a Masters degree.  Eight applications and several letters of acceptance later I found myself considering two choices:  Georgetown University in Washington, DC or the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.  Ultimately the University of Copenhagen offered me a tuition waiver and the opportunity to realize one of my dreams – to live (and study) abroad.

I’ve accepted a position as a two year Masters student in their Communication and Cognition program where I hope to focus on studying the impact of social media, the web, and virtual worlds on education, travel and social interactions. The program is taught in English and will serve as an exciting continuation of my undergraduate studies at Arizona State University in the department of Human Communication and as a graduate of Barrett, the Honors College.

About the University of Copenhagen (from Wikipedia):

The University of Copenhagen (Danish: Københavns Universitet) is the oldest and largest university and research institution in Denmark. Founded in 1479, it has more than 37,000 students, the majority of whom are female (59%), and more than 7,000 employees. The university has several campuses located in and around Copenhagen, with the oldest located in central Copenhagen. Most courses are taught in Danish; however, many courses are also offered in English and a few in German. The university has 2800 foreign students of which about half are from Nordic countries.

The university is a member of the International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU), along with University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, Yale University, The Australian National University, and UC Berkeley, amongst others. The Academic Ranking of World Universities, compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, sees Copenhagen as the leading university in Scandinavia and the 40th ranked university in the world in 2010.[1][2][3] Moreover, In 2010, according to University Ranking by Academic Performance (URAP),[4] University of Copenhagen is the best university in Denmark and 47th university in the world. The university is generally understood to be one of Europe’s leading research institutions. The university has had 9 alumni become Nobel laureates and 1 Turing award recipient.

As someone who was born in Colorado and has lived most of his life in the United States the opportunity to attend an academic institution which pre-dates Columbus’ re-discovery of the Americas is a pretty exciting prospect.  As an avid traveler, the opportunity to return to student life while re-locating to another country is positively exhilarating. It is my hope that this shift will allow me a significant increase in flexibility and travel opportunities.  Over the past several years I’ve managed to do a lot of traveling.  Still, the lion’s share of that travel was confined to two 18-20 day trips a year where I leveraged weekends, holidays, and unpaid time off to stretch my two weeks of paid vacation to the max. On a student’s schedule and based next to one of Europe’s most modern and central airports, it is my hope that I will have easy (and cheap!) train, plane and ferry access to all of Europe.

What does this mean for VirtualWayfarer? Only good things! It means I’ll be traveling more, writing more, and that in addition to my standard travel advice and travelogue-themed content you can expect additional articles about living, studying, moving, and work internationally!  It also means that I hope to ramp up the time I have available to dedicate to VirtualWayfarer and the Travel Resource Network. That should translate into more posts, more photos, and more advice!  As always, know that I love your questions and am happy to respond to them either by e-mail, twitter, or in a comment here on the blog.  But that’s not the end of the good news!

VirtualWayfarer in the News

The past month has been a very exciting one for VirtualWayfarer and the good news and exciting opportunities are continuing to roll in so expect continued updates and developments.

On the Airwaves

I was recently approached by Portland-based Radio Station KPAM’s Azumano Travel show to do an interview.  The interview was my first radio interview and featured discussion about Iguazu Falls, Argentina and solo travel.  You can listen to the 6 minute interview:  Alex Berger Radio Interview on Solo Travel, Iguazu Falls and Argentina.  The team at the Azumano Travel Show were professional and a pleasure to work with.  I look forward to doing future radio pieces as the opportunity permits.

Becoming A Top Travel Influencer

While I’ve been a vocal voice in the travel social media scene for a long time, I’ve only recently broken into the top rankings.  I’m excited to announce that I’m currently fluctuating between #14 and #20 on the Top 50 list of independent travel influencers in social media.  A rank which is connected to a recent increase in my Klout score which is now fluctuating between 69 and 71.   Klout is the leading social media metric company offering insights into social media engagement, activity and influence.

I’ve also taken steps to actively correct the incredibly inaccurate scores for VirtualWayfarer which traffic ranking sites Compete and Alexa had on file for this website.  This should result in increased visibility for the site and provide the opportunity to break into several other top lists.


I was recently interviewed by CheapFlights as part of their Waiting to Board Q&A.  You can see the interview here.  I’ve also been approached by several other groups interested in Q&As which should be published sometime over the next few weeks.  I’ll let you know as they go live!

Website Changes and Updates

In addition to working on improving the accuracy of my Alexa and Compete scores I’ve also made a number of important changes to the website.  You may have noticed that there is a new link on the website’s main navigation.  I’ve added a “Press, PR & Advertising” page to the site to make it easier for interested parties to contact me.  I’ve also updated and re-worked the “Alex Berger” AKA ‘About Me’ page with more in-depth information about who I am and what I’m up to.

You may also have noticed the addition of a new free resource to the sidebar. In response to some of the travel-centered e-mail slideshows I’ve received over the last few years I decided to make my own and offer it to my readers for free.   If you enjoy my photography I invite you to view, or download and save, the powerpoint-based travel photo slideshow. If you would like to save it for later, just right click over the link and select either save as or save link as. The slideshow is designed for e-mail and I hope you’ll enjoy it and then choose to forward it on to your friends and family.

I’ve also added a social media bar to the right hand screen, and a visually appealing related posts element which now displays 5 similar posts under each blog to make it easier for you to discover old topics.  You’ll  find several new categories on the sidebar which will sort older posts by region (eg: Europe, South America, Scandinavia etc.).

I am also in the midst of populating content for my new Travel Resource Network website: which is coming soon. Keep an eye on it and stay tuned!

Comments? Suggestions? Questions?  I value your feedback! As always, thank you for reading and making this site and the rest of my network of sites what they are.

Design Updates and Why You Shouldn’t Host With Ipower

First The Good

There have been a number of major, but subtle changes made to the site over the past month.  My hope is that while subtle, that these changes will drastically increase your viewing and navigating experience while on the site.

The most obvious of these changes is site performance based.  I’ve spent the last few weeks transferring all of my hosted websites off of my previous host – Ipowerweb – a company I was with for over 7 years and had, unfortunately recommended for years.   This also has to do with the bad – which I’ll get into in greater detail in a moment. The end result of this move, however, is a ten fold increase in website speed and performance.

Why Ipowerweb Sucks as a Webhost

The image above is a screen capture of the website performance statistics offered by Google Webmasters.  Note the point mid January where performance changed dramatically and stabilized.  The graph displays with the following blurb, “On average, pages in your site take 1.0 seconds to load (updated on Jan 27, 2010). This is faster than 89% of sites. These estimates are of low accuracy (less than 100 data points). The chart below shows how your site’s average page load time has changed over the last few months. For your reference, it also shows the 20th percentile value across all sites, separating slow and fast load times.”

If you’ve been a long time visitor, you’ll note that up until two weeks ago 8-15 second load times and periodic timeouts were somewhat regular.  I specifically targeted a new web host that guaranteed a higher level of performance for their mySQL servers – the part that was killing blog performance on Ipower.  That webhost is Dreamhost.  As I write this all of my sites and content has been transferred and running smoothly.  If you experienced any brief downtime over the last month, I apologize.  The construction/transfer period should be over!

A huge thank you goes out to Glenn Jimerson  at Vista Web Media for all of his help and time transferring the site over.

Second – More good!

In addition to a new webhost you may have also noticed a number of layout changes as well as the addition of entire new page to the website. Earlier this week I added the “Travel Videos” page which you’ll find linked to above.  This page replaces the old “Photography” page which took you to a page, then forcing you to click a link which re-directed you to my main photo gallery on Don’t worry though! The “Photography” link has been re-located to the right hand side via an image front and center which you’ve no doubt noticed.  The image links directly with my flickr gallery – which is where I upload select shots (compared to my self hosted gallery which has ALL of my travel photos).  This also brings me to one of the other added benefits of the new webhost. My old photo gallery is now…well usable. It, like all mySQL database driven portions of the site was painfully slow in the past.  No longer.

I have also re-designed my RSS button to be both more visually stimulating and to provide a cleaner sidebar.  Search has been re-arranged, and several of the other sidebar elements have been slightly tweaked.

In the page/nav bar at the top of the site – you’ll noticed that About is no longer an option.  It hasn’t gone anywhere, I’ve simply moved it from 2nd on the list to 4th and renamed it “Alex Berger” which I feel is more relevant.  I’ve done a similar thing to “Audio” which is now “Podcasts”.

Lastly, more on  the Travel Videos page:  You’ll notice that the page is little more than a list of youtube videos.  I recently realized that I have over 180 uploaded videos on youtube.   Of those, fewer than 20 are polished travel videos. In an effort to make it easier for viewers to find my polished, final products – without removing the various individual travel clips and other (must see) material I have uploaded – I’ll continue to add my travel compilation highlight videos to the “travel videos” to improve access to the content.

Third – The Bad and an Apology

I mentioned above that I’d been with Ipowerweb for years (Since 2002).  For the first couple years, they offered great services at a great price.  Performance was good, tech support was responsive and the solution was incredibly powerful for the money.  Needless to say, they built up a lot of good will with me. So much so, that when I registered a second hosting account a few years ago – I opted to set it up with them.  I’d also maintained an affiliate account with them for years and referred friends, family, etc. who were interested in a decent hosting solution – boy was I wrong.

I’d run into a few major headaches when they changed control panel platforms, or got bought out by new corporate parents – but by and large after a brief headache every 6 months or so they’d fix things and assure me that everything was not only good as new, but that they’d be rolling out new features and services to help.

3-4 years ago things really took a nose dive. The company was purchased and transferred to a new platform which resulted in major downtime, and while told it would improve performance – did the complete opposite.  You can read some of the exchange from 2008 here. At the time I was lied to, blamed for the poor site performance [common theme] and eventually assured that the company was going through great lengths to fix the problem.

In January of this year I had another bout of performance issues.  Some of you may recall how debilitating they were. Eventually I was contacted by Ernie Lopez who in addition to having a management role in Ipower was “Manager – Quality Assurance, Engineering” for Endurance International Group who as I understand it, own Ipower and a large network of other hosting providers.  I had a series of conversations with Ernie about my frustrations, before eventually agreeing to be put in a beta test program.  According to Ernie, endurance had purchased Ipower in 08′ resulting in the huge fiasco mentioned above, and was hard at work improving network structure, performance, etc. he flagged my account with Premium support, added Akamai and Gomez to the account, and put me in contact with David Brazzell at Ipower.

Thinking that the issues would be completely resolved and expecting a strong improvement in performance, not to mention impressed by the top tier people who were helping me with what was being couched as an a-typical issue, I continued to recommend Ipower as an affiliate.  Boy was I wrong. After an initial burst of attention and help – communication died off with everyone except the premium support contact who i’d been put in touch with. Even that was canceled by late October of last year.  After an initial test on the Akamai software – the stats David passed on to me showed that instead of improving performance it had added more than a second to load times.  Which were still floating around 10 seconds.  10 seconds is a lot of load time for a site.  In fact, it has probably cost me tens of thousands of views over the years.  Each time I’d complain to Ipower I got the same bullshit.  It’s your site, it’s you, etc.  – here’s an example:

“You’re very welcome. I understand that this type of issue can be frustrating, especially due to the difficulty in being able to accurately replicate your issue over a different network.

I did run some further testing on your site today, and tried running load time tests on your site after disabling the loading of all 3rd party images, java code, and youtube references using firefox plugins, and comparing them to load times of the site in it’s entirety without any stripped content.

I loaded the site ten times with each configuration, then removed the highest and lowest result, to get the following average load times:

  • stripping java, 3rd party images, youtube: 2.76 average load time
  • no stripping: 4.52

Given this information, and as you mention, the dynamic nature of your site, the load times that I experience seem within expectations. “

The above was a final response in an extended exchange – after I complained about severe periods of major slow down.  Slowdown that impacted all of my sites equally, was obviously a mySQL database overload issue, and which also was directly visible when looking at the performance of their myPHPAdmin cpanel. Hell, when working on transferring my databases to Dreamhost, the buddy helping me ran into the same timeout and agonizing speed issues – just trying to navigate their phpMyAdmin site and generate a backup was nearly impossible. Honestly, what kinda of shit company is doing such a piss poor job providing database servers that even their backend sucks – then has the balls to turn around and tell the customer that it’s their fault and that the piss-poor database performance is “normal”?  Also, keep in mind the google webmaster tools data. On Ipower = 10 second average load time.  Same EXACT setup/site on Dreamhost = ~1 second average load time.  That goes beyond fishy, straight into the realm of dishonest.

Long story short – I’ll never recommend Ipower again. Worse, I find myself now in a position where I am deeply embarrassed to have ever so much as recommended them.  So, to those of you who are current using Ipower on my recommendation.  I am deeply sorry and I owe you an apology.

To anyone considering using Ipower webhosting? Don’t. They’re cheats, liars and crooks. Just glanced at their profile on Yelp – not that I needed further confirmation – but it looks like I’m not alone in my estimation of the company.

Thank you all for reading this blog and sticking with me through thick and thin, fast and slow!