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  They also tend to give outdated currency values.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.

Next Stop – Spain!

December 12th will mark one year to the day since I returned from my 3 month European walkabout. A trip during which I explored Scotland, England, The Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Italy, San Marino, The Vatican and Greece. While it has been less than a year and I have no right to complain, my feet have been itching for the open road, my eyes dying for new sights and my palate hankering for new tastes and foods.  I still have some great content to share and post on the usual subjects before I leave, but please be advised that for the duration of the trip (12/16/08-1/1/09) I will be publishing travel journals instead of my typical blog content.

The Research

For the past month I’ve been scouring the web for deals and information.  New Zealand’s weather, current currency rate, and beauty put it high on the list. As did the climate, exchange rate and tango dancing in Argentina.   I even considered Iceland despite the 5 hours of daylight and 35 degree highs…after all how can you beat an opportunity to visit a Scandinavian country whose currency has lost nearly half of its value in the last 5 months?  A return trip to the Greek islands also received heavy consideration.  As did Costa Rica, Hawaii and Cancun.  So many amazing destinations … each with its own flavor, its own mystery and its own adventure.

One of the most exciting things about travel is how your comfort level changes the more you do it. As I learn more about the world at large my curiosity and hunger to explore it continues to grow.  The end result is a fairly carefree approach to where I end up.  I know that no matter where I go or what part of the world I explore, I will grow as an individual while experiencing exciting new tastes, adventures and cultures.  The beauty of that approach is it allows me to be significantly more flexible when booking my trip. To use my upcoming trip as an example; despite researching possible destinations and airfare for more than a month and a half, it wasn’t until 60 minutes before I booked my flight that I knew which country/continent I was going to be traveling to.  30 minutes after that I’d narrowed the destination down to Barcelona and Madrid and shortly there after my ticket was booked.  There are few sensations like clicking “submit” and knowing that you just invested a sizable chunk of money in airfare and have committed to a new adventure. In its own way it’s every bit as exciting as a state of the art roller coaster ride and I find it often leaves me with similar butterflies in my stomach.

Unfortunately, the only time I’m able to get off is between December 16th and the 4th of January.  As a result of the holiday travel, airfare skyrockets during this period – even on international flights. As it turned out airfare to Argentina was over $500 more than a trip to Spain with airfare to New Zealand coming in at $800-$1000 more. Places like Hawaii, Cancun, and Puerto Rico were cheaper, but only by about $200.  By flying out on the 16th (my earliest possible date) and being willing to fly home on New Year’s Day, I was able to find airfare more than $200+ dollars cheaper than if I tried to fly back on the 2nd-4th.

The Resources

I do most of my booking research through Lessno.com and Kayak.com both of which do an excellent job searching multiple carriers and returning quality results.  While both offer a flexible date search the matrix which Lessno generates is the best I’ve seen on a travel booking site and allows for a much wider date range than Kayak.  On the flip side, with registration, Kayak’s daily fare monitoring e-mails can be really useful.  I did my actual booking, however, through FlyCheapAbroad.com which is the same service I booked through last year.  The website looked unprofessional and left me a bit nervous, but every time I’ve used them so far, they have delivered quality service and an unbeatable price.  The flight I ended up booking through them was the exact same flight that came up on Kayak but for more than $40 less.  Hopefully they won’t disappoint.  For those considering a flight to Hawaii or New Zealand, I discovered that Hawaiian Airlines and Air New Zealand/Qantas all run fantastic specials 1/2-2/3 of the lowest prices on Kayak and other search sites.  If you’re booking far enough in advance, it always pays to double check with the carrier and see what they’re offering.

With all of the global economic issues the dollar has been skyrocketing and while this may not be incredible for the US economy, it’s every travelers dream. The US dollar has gained over 20% against several major currencies over the last 6 months, and shows no signs of slowing down. It’s a great time to travel if you’ve been lucky enough to avoid the flood of pink slips going out.

The Destination

As mentioned above, I ended up selecting Spain as my destination.  My travel style is backpack/hostel based and takes a very play-it-by-ear approach.  I’ve booked my ticket so I know my starting and ending destination, but that’s about the extent of it.  I’ll be booking a hostel ahead of time in Spain for my first 2 nights and another over Christmas as a precautionary step, but beyond that my trip will be fluid.  While I may end up making it over to Portugal, it’s more likely that I’ll be focusing on southern Spain.  16 days should be just about the right amount of time to give southern Spain a somewhat thorough going over.  Similar to the first 2 months of my trip last year I’ll be traveling on my own and I’ll use Hostelworld.com, Couchsurfing.com and Hostelbookers to find and book my accommodations.

I’m eager to re-visit Spain and see it through an adult’s eyes and perception (I spent time there when I was 11 back in ’95) . I’m also thrilled to have an opportunity to explore a piece of Europe I skipped over during my last trip.   I’d love to make it over into southern France but highly doubt I’ll even make it as far as Barcelona.

One exciting addition to the trip that I did not have with me last year is an ultra portable Flip Camera. If all goes according to plan I should have the usual travel photos as well as exciting new video to share with you all.

Have tips, suggestions or ideas on where to go/see and stay?  Please share them in the comments section below! It’s time to do a bit of wayfaring!

Idle Feet

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin
-Tolkien

Listen to this post:

Audio: Idle Feet

The gift of travel is a wonderful thing. It expands the mind, liberates the heart, and refreshes the spirit. The opportunity to take in unimaginable beauty is an amazing gift. There are moments in our lives where we pause…Where we catch ourselves, breathless, in shock, reflecting that the experience, the moment in time we’re immersed in is something too good to be true…Something movie-like….Straight from fairytales and the depths of our creative imaginations.

Travel is that wonderful enabler…it’s the pixie dust of myth that enables the heart and mind to fly. It’s a blessing that far too few enjoy. It’s been 4 months since I returned from my European walkabout and I can already feel a yearning for the open road tugging at my heartstrings. I was watching several of the new videos posted on the TED (Technology. Entertainment. Design.) which is sponsored by BMW and after one of the videos an ad started running which caught my attention. You can view the ad here:

It’s for BMWs new hydrogen-powered car. In addition to being a beautiful ad, it has some amazing footage of waterfalls, fjords, and gorgeous natural spaces. Despite the fact that it’s an advertisement and I had no real incentive to watch it, I found myself glued to it…Sucked into the panoramic shots and the sheer beauty of the locale. It tapped into the roaring hunger for travel and new experiences raging just under my skin and held in place only by the knowledge that I have to be at work tomorrow at 9:00 and that cash doesn’t grow on trees.

The knowledge that there’s an amazing world out there, that’s nearly endless, with transformational adventures and opportunities but that I…like so many others…am shackled down by funds and responsibility…is frustrating. It is a frustration so tangible that I can almost feel it. It is something so powerful that it’s more a sensation than a feeling.

If everything goes according to plan and I’m able to make my work situation viable, I’m currently planning on spending a week or two in Japan with Lander sometime this fall. I’m praying the dollar has recovered a bit by then though I imagine that’s probably just silliness. I can’t wait to experience a new culture and for the opportunity to explore new places. The feeling of freedom that goes with being on the road and in amazing places is something else. The sense of independence…ahh, I don’t know how I’ll manage to wait.

I think a trip to the Rockies may be in order, sometime this summer. A small taste to keep me alive until I’m able to spread my wings again and fly.

Oktoberfest @ Munich – Day 1

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

Woke up bright and early Friday morning to meet Amber. We connected without any problem and then both made our way to the U.S. consulate so she could apply for a replacement passport. After a long bit in line we connected with our ride, a cool carpool service that they have in Germany. Cost us 20 Euro instead of the 100 a train ticket would have. The driver was a German headhunter from the area on his way to party with some friends. The other guy in the car worked with a local financial firm. The drive across the countryside was beautiful and took about 5 hours. When we eventually arrived in Munich we found our hostel quickly, got checked in, tossed our bags down, made our beds, and headed off to find food and explore a bit.

Bavaria: Munich

*side note* Initially the plan was to spend the night at Oktoberfest, then wake up in the morning and explore the city and the countryside before I headed to Prague and Amber headed back to Cologne. The reality was we discovered room rates were normal the next night (first night was ridiculous) and both extended our stay before leaving late Sunday night.

Bavaria: Munich

The first stop was a supermarket for a bit of water. From there we wandered our way toward what we thought was Oktoberfest. Luckily, the closer we got the bigger the crowd and it became easy to find our way. After winding over railroad tracks, across bridges, through small tents, and between buildings we eventually made it to the fairgrounds.

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

It’s a pretty incredible sight. The grounds are massive and I cannot even begin to imagine how many people were there. You hear talk of tents…which they are, but they don’t look it. With large wooden facades they are buildings in their own right. Each one able to hold thousands of people. It’s not just tents though… there are amusement rides (everything from a roller coaster to bumper cars), food, souvenir shops…take your pick! The smell of beer, people, and most of all German food is heavy in the air. I was really surprised by the number of people in traditional garb! Despite a ton of tourists, there were still lots of locals dressed in the dresses and leiderhosen for which Oktoberfest is famous. I’m not sure if it was the population, the outfits or the beer, but I was really surprised and impressed by just how attractive most of the girls were in their outfits=) The closest thing I’ve seen is the Renaissance Festival with all the corsets and leather etc…Oktoberfest had more flattering outfits, more cleavage, and better looking girls by far!

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

Anyhow, we wandered the grounds for a while and eventually found a tent that was not closed off. What I didn’t know is that Oktoberfest actually starts about 8 in the morning and shuts down at about 11 at night. The tents themselves are open for a good part of the morning, then close their doors to newcomers as they fill up. This means that to get in a tent you have to start your day sometime before 12. Luckily for latecomers there are tons of beer gardens attached to the tents which are almost as good. In addition to being unable to get into the tents, we walked around and didn’t see any available seats. It’s a hell of a sight. The tents are huge and typically have a raised area in the middle that has a full band playing. As far as I could tell they only play about 7 songs but the atmosphere and songs are such that you don’t mind in the least. Given that most of the songs are drinking songs and the steins are a liter each it works out perfectly. We made our way to the beer garden at the Paulner *SP* tent and found a small space we could both squeeze into.

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

The guy sitting across from us was a German from one of the tourist islands in the north and spoke a little English. We ordered our first stein of the night and set to getting acquainted. The whole thing is just a big area full of picnic tables end-to-end in long rows. Everyone is mashed in together, and you just fit as many people at the tables as you can. *You wont get served if you are standing*. The trick to surviving is to eat constantly while you drink, which is made all the easier by the food. It’s incredible, from the best rotisserie chicken I’ve ever had to stuff I’ve never even heard of.

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

As we sat there and got to know Hanz he took a liking to us and told us how I reminded him of his son who was 26. He had traveled around a good bit and owned an Irish Pub in the north. Apparently he also had a line of tourist souvenirs he was working on. He had a few of the slightly defective samples which he gave to us. Each was a small bottle of powerful schnaps with a figure on the top. One for Oktoberfest was a beer maid with ample cleavage and hands full of steins. The other was a big soccer ball – presumably for the world cup. As the night progressed we ended up sandwiched by a group of German girls who had studied in the US…All had excellent English. There was also a middle-aged Italian couple. Hanz would explain some of the toasts, talked about Bavarian culture, Germany, and other random things while we all drank and listened to the music.

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

To accompany my 2nd stein I ordered a half chicken. It was incredible. A mix between rotisserie and seared, it was moist but crispy, chicken but well seasoned. I plowed through it while Amber ordered some veggie-friendly thing I couldn’t pronounce. I guess the best way to describe it is as the original mac and cheese….but it was something totally different and a lot better. As the night progressed, I talked a bit to the Italian couple who spoke a little English, trying Spanish words when English failed us. They came from the northern part of Italy and as a result spoke Italian and German fluently. Both were incredibly friendly and warm and eventually ended up ordering a big table platter and a large pretzel. It had sausage links, drumsticks, a full thing of radishes, pretzel sticks, cheeses, etc. The whole thing was piled on a cutting board about 3 feet long and about 8 inches wide. They insisted we help them with it and we all spent the rest of the evening drinking and eating. Around 11 pm things started closing down. I looked at the damage I’d done…about 3 steins…and we started the walk back to the hostel.

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

The fantastic thing about Oktoberfest was that almost everyone seemed happy. Just about everyone we met and/or saw were in happy, friendly, and jovial moods…that and just about everyone was absolutely trashed which made the walk home pretty hysterical. As the night was still early, Amber and I decided to wrap around into the inner city a bit and check out the Cathedral and some of the stuff between the fairgrounds and our hostel. At night, gently lit by the moon, with lights cast to accentuate it, the Cathedral located was an incredible nighttime sight. The air was crisp and clear. It was an almost surreal walk home.

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

Once back to the hostel we relaxed a little bit before calling it a night. So it was that day one ended. But, that was just the start!

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

Going to go try and find some food, then get a bit more hammered out. So for now – bye bye!

Berlin – Walking the City’s Streets

Berlin, Germany

Whew, it’s amazing how easy it is to get behind and how hard it is to get caught up! That said, this should hopefully do it. Also, if there’s something you’re curious about, or would like to hear more about – post a comment with what that is and I’ll do my best to answer the question/include the info.

Right now I’m winding down after a good day spent walking around Berlin, during which I saw Checkpoint Charlie, a long stretch of the wall, a war/fire ruined cathedral, and some random parts of East Berlin.

But first – My last few hours in Amsterdam were fairly uneventful. I woke up, scrambled to get everything ready, made the brief walk to the train station, then sat around and waited on my train. The train ride was about 6 hours and about what one would expect. Beautiful countryside, very little leg room and a lot of people. I finished the Four Hour Work Week (awesome book – I highly recommend it) and began on the new Lord of the Rings book which I also have with me.

Upon arriving in Berlin real culture shock set in. While most people (even the occasional brat vendor) speak English the signs etc. are almost all in German. Exit signs are now green instead of red, the bathroom is exclusively called the WC and everything is significantly different. I made the mistake of not having a German – English dictionary, so it was sink or swim time and all 100% up to me. Feeling slightly overwhelmed I did the best thing I could think of – I ate….at Burger King of all places. I was starving and grumpy from the train ride, needed a second to get my bearings – so why not find the one place that was familiar, grab some food, and figure things out.

Berlin, Germany

With a full stomach, I set to the task of finding my way to my hostel – which with the aid of the gentleman who sold me my bus ticket became doable. After standing on the wrong side of the street for a few minutes (in the rain of course) I eventually realized my mistake and found the right stop. Much to my relief the bus stop itself was pretty clearly marked and the bus was even better. It told you, both audibly and visually, what the next stop was…which, given my complete inability to understand anything that was said was probably a good thing.

After getting dropped off, I found a map tied to the subway (didn’t have a Berlin map either at this point…lol) I memorized the route I needed to take to make the 5 or so minute walk to my hostel. The hostel itself was great, nice, clean, good shape, friendly people etc. in fact before I even made it up the elevator to my room I met a Canadian (Ian). As it turned out he was also in my dorm. He immediately invited me out on the pub crawl he and his two traveling companions were planning later that night. I agreed readily.

I got settled, got some food, took a shower, then geared up for the quick trip on the U bahn (Tube) to where the tour started at 9. We were a good 15 minutes late, but found them right away at the bar. I’d say there were a good 30-40 people on the tour mostly foreigners, but a few locals mixed into it. The tour had a few guides, the chief one among them a burly bald-headed German. The guy just oozed character. He reminded me in a lot of ways of an early barbarian. He had a few piercings (including a tongue ring), and a big fur-lined coat. You can drink on the streets of Berlin – as a result about 1/3 of the crawlers had drinks in their hand, even when moving between pubs. Our guide was no exception only he was double fisting 3 large bottles of vodka which he’d pour freely every time we paused at a light, park, you name it. It was reminiscent of a mother sow, chased by thirsty babes.

The tour itself took us to 4 walking distance pubs, then we all got on the tube together and headed to a fun night club which was in old East Berlin. The club was huge, located in a maze of rooms under the railway. It had a giant techno room, modern top 40, then a classic room, as well as 3 or 4 other smaller secondary rooms. In addition to the three Canadians from the dorm, I met a few other travelers – particularly two of the other taller guys on the trip, one from the U.S. and another from New Zealand, and a group of 3 girls from Spain. The 1 (mother hen) kept to herself, but the other two Anna and-I forget the other girl’s name -were super friendly. Anna and her friend made a fun mix. Anna was taller, thin and attractive … her friend was super short, with a little stockier build, bright eyes and a quick smile. The three of us talked, danced, and wandered off and on throughout the night, until my hostel mates and I decided we’d best head home. I bid my new friends adieu and headed out. We got back to the hostel around 3:30 and crashed right away.

Germany - Berlin

After sleeping in a bit, taking a nice shower, and a good bit of water I headed into the city to explore. The girl at reception recommended I see the Museum Isle, which I headed to first. There I walked through a fun flea market, before finding myself in front of the Bode Museum. Not really having a clue what I was doing, or what it was about (it looked pretty, and seemed interesting) I wandered in. I found out much to my surprise that a student day ticket for the entire island was only 6 Euro and decided to explore.

Germany - Berlin

Well, turns out I guess that the Bode is kinda important…so guess it was a good decision. The Museum itself was gorgeous and in it there were a number of beautiful pieces of art as well as a pretty interesting coin exhibit. I have to admit though, that a lot of the stuff was from cathedrals and religiously oriented. After the 5th gilded depiction of Jesus on the cross, I got a bit bored and moved through to the older sculpture.

The following were the ones that really stood out: A marble dancer mid-step. This was a larger piece located in the center of the room, the life-size carving was of a beautiful, robed woman with arms upraised with cymbals on her fingers. The position, flow, and composition of the piece reminded me of a belly dancer mid-dance.

A sequence of small bronzes – about the size of a cat-were incredibly realistic, detailed, and beautifully cast. They ranged from depictions of a beautiful woman and fawn holding each other to a mighty lion with a bull in its maw as the two fought.

Berlin, Museum Island

From the Bode I wandered down and off the island briefly (no other option) before coming to a bridge back onto the Isle that dumped me in front of a building based heavily on greco-roman architecture. Though most of the exterior columns were wrapped in scaffolding the building still struck me as incredible. In fact the whole island is pretty awesome. Not sure – but I have a hunch if you pull it up in Google Earth you’ll see what I’m talking about. Fascinated by the architecture I walked into the plaza, scratched my head and decided as far as museums go that this one seemed as good as any other. Turns out, it was the Alte National Gallery. Had no idea about the Alte part, but was able to figure out the National Gallery bit. Turns out they had a big French exhibit going on right now.

Berlin, Germany

In the National Gallery the most captivating part was again a beautiful marble of a woman with angel’s wings. This life size crystalline masterpiece was captivating. The emotion, presence, and beauty of the sculpture was fascinating. The wings in particular were beautifully worked and the statue itself was positioned next to/under a window which accentuated it.

Germany - Berlin: Dancer

Beyond that the paintings were fun, some were beautiful, some were ugly, others were just odd. I’m not a big impressionist fan, so the vaguely outlined paintings depicted with smeared paint and random brush strokes for the most part didn’t really hold me. They did however, have some fantastic realist pieces which were incredible. I forget names, etc. but a number of the large wall-sized pieces were fantastic. It was also fun to see pieces by a number of the more famous artists.

From there, more than a little tired I wandered through Berlin a bit more before finding my way back to the hostel where I wrote the other updates, took a nap, and eventually made an easy night of it.

Berlin, Germany

Today I woke up and headed to a stretch of the East-West border that I’d been told had a large chunk of the wall still intact. While the wall was intact, and a lot of the graffiti was still visible, it was hard to tell what was new, what was old and what was significant. The wall itself was impressive, and the difference between the east and west definitely is something else. From there I crossed the bridge and wandered a bit, before finding lunch and a tube station that would take me the rest of the way to Checkpoint Charlie. CC was a tourist trap and the line for the Museum was too long to make it worth bothering with, so I saw it, looked around, then moved on pretty quickly.

My next-final destination was the Zoo Garden area and the famous pillar-monument square, which is centered around the golden lady and her pillar. I started in the middle of the park or so, which resulted in a long, beautiful walk through the forest/garden along a canal, before eventually finding my way to the pillar.

Monument Square and Museum Isle were both really impressive. They are so organized and gigantic in scale! It seems like it’s one of the few places post Rome where things like that have been done.

On that note, my fingers are tired and it’s time for some more food, and to finish booking my next destination – Frankfurt.