Avoiding the “Gringo Trail” (and Paving a New One)

I‘ve loved traveling for a handful of years now but it wasn’t until I found myself venturing off the beaten path in Morocco last year when I started to realize the difference between the beaten path, and off the beaten path.

If you read this site semi-regularly you’ll know I talk a lot and recommend having a good guidebook for your travels.  Many dedicated travelers frown on it as they want to see a place on their own terms and not how some underpaid guidebook writer tells them to.  I see this point, don’t get me wrong, but most of my trips are condensed into two weeks or less and require some assistance with planning.  My vacation time is valuable and that’s why I always use a guidebook.

Continue reading “Avoiding the “Gringo Trail” (and Paving a New One)”

Where Would You Travel with $1,000 and a Free Flight?

Here’s a hypothetical question that I hope you’ll have fun with:

You walk into work today and were told you are getting a free 2 week vacation as a thank you to your performance and loyalty.  You’ll be given two weeks off, a $1,000 bonus, and get to cash in airline miles from the company for your flight.

Where would you travel to if you were given a $1,000 budget, and a free flight to anywhere in the world?

Where would you stay?  What would you want to see and what kind of activities would you do?  If you are a no-frills traveler, would you upgrade your level of accommodations, or if you are used to luxury, would you use some of your own money or travel cheaply and stay within budget?

Post your hypothetical travel plans in the comments and be sure to read others’ as well.  Let’s have fun with this! :)

Thanks to Darren for the post idea.

New Hotel & Hostel Booking Site Looks to Change Search Habits

Flight and hotel booking sites are a dime a dozen. Let’s face it. There are many affiliate programs out there that allow these companies to start a website and search various prices for their visitors. Typically their prices aren’t better than any of the major travel booking sites (Kayak, Expedia, Travelocity, etc) and often actually charge a small fee which makes me wonder why anybody would bother with these no-name sites.

So while there are no shortage of websites to find flights or hotels, searching for hostels has been more time consuming for me than I would prefer. Most times I’ve used HostelWorld to search for hostels based on location, price, availability, and most importantly, customer reviews. Most, but not all hostels are listed on HostelWorld. Others are listed on smaller sites like Hostelz or aren’t listed at all. Sometimes these small establishments find it too expensive to pay commissions to booking sites.

Looking for something a little more mid-range like a bed & breakfast or small guesthouse/inn can also be difficult. You usually don’t find small, independently run businesses on the larger booking sites and Hostel sites aren’t the same niche. I’ve found TripAdvisor to include many B&B’s but I’ve questioned their reviews since several hotels and tour companies have specifically asked me to post positive reviews on several occasions.

For flights, I’ve been a huge fan of Kayak for a while. They search most major airline’s websites and all of the major booking companies as well. It’s a simple, clean interface and does a great job of finding the best prices.
It wasn’t until last week that I found something that piqued my interest as much for searching for hotels though. Somebody recommended I check out HotelsCombined. I wasn’t expecting much, but I was pleasantly surprised after running my first search for Budapest. Over 300 results were presented in a clean and easy to use interface. By default the results are sorted by popularity based upon user reviews but can be sorted by price, quality (stars), distance or even the neighborhood.

What I really like about HotelsCombined is that they don’t simply list hotels, but also B&B’s, guesthouses, and even hostels. I can’t say that there aren’t any other sites that like it, but from what I’ve been able to find, it’s very unique.

One reason I continue to check multiple sites for hostels (or whatever else I am booking) is to see the various reviews that customers leave. Sometimes you don’t have much of a selection, but in places like Budapest there are an unbelievable amount of hostels and reading reviews helps you decide on which one(s) stand out. That’s what, to me, is the best part about HotelsCombined as they also aggregate the various reviews from all the sites they search. It saves quite a bit of time if you’re like me and really like to check out reviews.

If you use HotelsCombined and decide to book a room with their service you’ll be forwarded directly to the hotel or booking agent’s website to book without any additional fees. I’ve never understood why some of the major sites felt the need to charge booking fees when they also received commissions.

Give them a look and let me know what you think. It looks to be a good service and I’ll definitely be checking out accommodations through them. It may still take a while for me to break my habit of checking five or six different sites though.

The 10 Best Things to do in Costa Rica

1. Zip lining

Imagen 151Also referred to as canopy tours, zip lining entails putting on a harness and attaching to a series of cables strung throughout the trees. These tours are everywhere throughout Costa Rica and run between $50-100 depending on the location and amount of runs you get.  Between 8-12 runs seems to be average.  High in both adrenaline and excitement!  As scary as it sounds, it’s actually very safe and the most difficult part is usually walking between the cables.

2. Hike a volcano

DSCN0333Costa Rica is littered with volcanoes.  Some are active, like the popular Arenal which offers visitors views of red falling lava at night and constant rumbles throughout the day.  Most volcanoes are located on federally reserved national park land and offer great hikes with amazing views.  The Poás Volcano is a popular day trip from the San Jose area and a big tourist draw.

3. River rafting

195582978_b59430d427_b
photo by BallGame68

With the amount of rainfall Costa Rica receives it’s no surprise that white water rafting is a popular activity.  Most rafters set out for Turrialba, about two hours from San Jose where they can ride the Pacuare or the Reventazon for anywhere from four hours to three days.

4. Surfing

photo by DLH Creative
photo by DLH Creative

It’s no secret that Costa Rica is one of the top surf destinations in the world.  Surfing legends like Robert August now make their homes in Costa Rica for it’s legendary surf.  Breaks like Jaco and Playa Hermosa provide surfers with consistent waves on the Pacific side while Puerto Viejo de Talmanca and many others are great in the Caribbean.

5. Play with monkeys

DSCN0785Who doesn’t love monkeys? They are everywhere in Costa Rica swinging from trees or digging through restaurant’s trash cans (please don’t feed the monkeys).  National parks like Manuel Antonio provide great opportunities for hikers to see capuchin monkeys swinging overhead or even sharing the trail with them.  Other areas like the Arenal Volcano are filled with Howler monkeys who can nearly deafen nearby visitors with their calls.

6. Watch turtles lay eggs

photo by Arthur Chapman
photo by Arthur Chapman

Turtle lover?  Head up to Tortuguero where conservationists are working hard to preserve the endangered turtles who make the beaches their nesting grounds.  Only reachable by boat or plane, Tortuguero is a prime example of eco-tourism.

7. Volunteer

photo by theburied.life
photo by theburied.life

There are lots of opportunities to volunteer in Costa Rica, especially if you are interested in animal conservation.  Tortuguero, mentioned above, is a wildlife conservationist’s dream.

8. Drink coffee

IMG_0256What better way to start your day than enjoying some Costa Rican coffee.  Stop by a grocery store and pick up a bag to take back home.  Not only does it taste better than anything you can find back home–it’s a lot cheaper!

9. Climb a waterfall

DSCN0749Climbing and rappelling a waterfall is an extremely fun and exciting activity in Costa Rica.  There are tour operators all over the country that offer waterfall rappels, but if you find yourself in the Quepos/Manuel Antonio area, give Quepo Canyoning a call as they are the only one (currently) allowing you to climb a waterfall.  Believe it or not, going up is actually more exciting than going down!

10. Kayak through mangroves

photo by bawish
photo by bawish

If you’re looking for something a little slower paced but still plenty of fun, rent a kayak and explore the mangroves.  You’ll see wildlife you never imagined.

Top 10 Sights in Europe – a photo essay

1. Acropolis / Parthenon

photo by Kyri Sarantakos
photo by Kyri Sarantakos

2. Colosseum of Rome

photo by wenzday01
photo by wenzday01

3. Fjords of Norway

photo by padraic woods
photo by padraic woods

4. St. Peter’s Basilica

photo by Christopher Chan
photo by Christopher Chan

5. Sistine Chapel

photo by vgm8383
photo by vgm8383

6. Alhambra

photo by Ela2007
photo by Ela2007

7. Louvre Museum

photo by Djof
photo by Djof

8. Canals of Venice

photo by martino.pizzol
photo by martino.pizzol

9. Versailles

photo by Danielo_Bolo
photo by Danielo_Bolo

10. Pompeii

photo by Edgley Cesar
photo by Edgley Cesar

List courtesy of Howard Hillman

The Secret to Great Hotel Deals

I have a little secret for finding great deals on hotels that I’ve used over the years, and the good news is that in this economy, it’s only getting better.

Many people will probably be angry with this post, including a large number of our followers on Twitter.  Why? Because they’re constantly advertising deals for their own benefit through affiliate travel programs or their own business.  I have nothing against them doing so, but I have to warn that just because somebody says it is a deal, doesn’t always  make it a deal.  I receive hundreds of messages daily about amazing prices on hotels in Hawaii or New York.  Since I recently visited Maui, I looked into a few of them.  I never found any of these advertisements to be less than $250 per night.  I would hardly call that a deal.  Maybe that hotel used to charge $1,000 per night.  Even so, why am I going to pay that much for a place to sleep when I’m there to see the island, not sit around in a beautiful hotel?

So if that’s your business, I apologize in advance but let’s be honest, Have Pack, Will Travel is all about saving money and making the most of your trip, so we never really saw eye-to-eye anyway.

How to find deals on hotels

Some of the best deals are to be found at the last minute.  But how last minute should you look?  If you’re adventurous, the very last minute.  I rarely book accommodations for my entire trip unless I know it’ll be extremely difficult to secure a bed in a hostel or a cheap room in a hotel.  I like to book the first night if I am arriving in the afternoon or evening just to be sure I have somewhere to sleep, but beyond that, I play it by ear.  Sure, this has backfired and created a headache or two, but I’ve never slept out in the cold and I’ve never had to pay anything unreasonable for a place to sleep.

More times than naught, I’ve landed some incredible deals on hotel rooms by walking up late in the afternoon and simply inquiring about a price.  Yes, you run the risk of not finding someplace, but use your judgment on the time of year and the popularity of the city you are in.

The first time this worked out for me was in Florence, Italy back in 2004.  I was traveling with three Americans I met and our train arrived late in the afternoon.  We walked to a couple of hostels that ended up being completely booked.  This was pretty stressful and we weren’t sure where we were going to find somewhere to sleep.  Before we knew it, day became night and there were no more hostels to check.  On a small budget we weren’t looking forward to finding out how much a hotel room would cost.

By 8pm we entered a small two-star hotel to inquire about the price.  Right there on the wall was a sign that said without a bathroom was €50, or €60 with a bathroom.  We asked anyway and didn’t act desperate for a place to stay.  The desk clerk (probably the owner) knew it was late and the chances of them filling any of the open rooms was unlikely.  They offered us two rooms for €25 each.  That worked out to about €12 per person for a very clean and authentic Italian hotel.  Not bad since in Paris & Venice each hostel dorm bed cost €25 each.

I’ve had a few experiences like this over the years, but what I have been noticing lately is that, given the economy, there are even better deals to be had.  Back in February I went to Costa Rica (for the second time in one year) with two friends.  It was the high season and all common sense given the area were in said that booking a room was a wise idea.  We reserved a private room at a hostel in Quepos as it was considerably cheaper than the hostel and hotels in Manuel Antonio (the national park area that everybody travels to the area to visit).  In the guidebook and on their individual websites, all the small hotels on the road between Quepos and Manuel Antonio advertised rates of $99 or higher.  You can imagine our surprise when we were driving down the beautiful road taking in beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean when we noticed signs in front of several of the same hotels we looked at online advertising $25-50 rooms!  Not only could we have saved money, but we would have had beautiful ocean views and seclusion.

Sure, playing everything by ear can be stressful if you’re limited on time or easily stressed, but the upside is pretty nice.

Have you fallen into any great hotel deals?  Talk about it in the comments if you have any experience or tips on the matter!

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Budapest, the Beautiful Danube, and Expensive Hungarian Food

I first considered visiting Budapest after reading Tim Leffel’s blog (Tim is the author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations: 21 Countries Where Your Money is Worth a Fortune).  I didn’t pay much attention to the date it was posted and decided it would be my big fall trip thanks to a college graduation present I was ready to cash in.

The first thing I noticed during my pre-planning (I do much less than you would expect) was that there was an impressive amount of hostels listed on HostelWorld. 83 to be exact, as of this posting.  As a comparison, Paris only has 15 listed.

It turns out that it’s rather simple to set up a hostel in a converted apartment and many people are taking advantage of it and the increase in tourism that Hungary has been experiencing over the past decade or so.  Both hostels I stayed in were pretty small but modern, clean and well run.  You can’t ask for much more than that.

One of the things that I always consider when traveling is how easily I can survive on a limited budget.  Budapest was advertised as the secret budget destination in Eastern Europe and your money could go a long way.  Part of the EU, yet still clinging to their currency, the Hungarian Forint, the dollar was said to go much further than elsewhere in Europe.  In some ways, Budapest lived up to this claim, but in others, it exceeded any expectation one could have for larger, more popular European cities.

Széchenyi Baths
Széchenyi Baths

For instance, the average price of a hostel bed was around $15-20 which is certainly acceptable for Europe and much cheaper than Paris or London.  A day at the enormous and beautiful Széchenyi Baths was only about $10 and a full guided tour of surprisingly tight caves ran around $25.  I wouldn’t expect any of these to be much cheaper and they were all worth the price.

Then came the food.  For some reason, food was incredibly expensive.  I can’t recall spending more on a meal in any country, city, or state… anywhere.  My guidebook recommended a restaurant around the corner from the hostel I was staying at which offered traditional Hungarian meals for around $5-7.  It had been a year since the guidebook was published and the restaurant owner must have gotten wind of his literary mention.  It’s a common occurrence along the typical tourist trails for hostels, hotels, and restaurants to increase their price once they get a nod in a guidebook, but what I experienced was much higher than anyone could expect, and not only for the places that were published.  In Budapest every normal restaurant, regardless of the area it was in, charged at least $20 for a typical meal.  The bargains were actually on the heavily trafficked tourist districts in Pest which all offered set “tourist” menus.  The downside was that they were very small and left much to be desired.  Even a stop in a Subway chain for lunch cost me about $10 for a 6″ turkey sandwich.  The price of food was bewildering, to say the least.

DSCN0494While Hungarian cuisine is definitely highly recommended, there is much more to Budapest than overpriced restaurants luckily.  Budapest is a very beautiful town with beautiful castles across the Danube River and great architecture across the entire city.  A great day can be had by simply walking around the city with no destination taking in the sights.  Heroes Square and City Park give a taste of history and nature that helps you quickly forget about the hustle and bustle of Budapest’s busy city streets.  Don’t forget that Budapest is Hungary’s center of culture and home to both art and history museums like the House of Terror which reminds visitors of atrocious crimes that occurred during Hungary’s Stalinist regime and WWII.

One of the most impressive things about Budapest though was the amount of people who speak great English.  Obviously it’s in response to the tourist boom, but it’s impressive how friendly and willing to chat most Hungarians are especially seeing how this country was completely communist less than 20 years ago and experienced very little tourism.  Things have changed though and tourism has become a huge source of income for many businesses in Budapest.

If you want to explore the rest of Hungary (or go to just about any neighboring country) nearly all the trains in Hungary run right through Budapest.  I managed to head south three hours to Pécs which is one of the larger cities in Hungary, yet very small when compared to Budapest.  You can cross the entire town on foot in about 15 minutes but it’ll take you an entire day stopping at the many sights like modern art museum or the Mosque Church.  The later is quite impressive.  In the 16th-century the Turks built a mosque with the stones of a ruined church.  When the Turks were forced out of Hungary the mosque became a church again but kept the classic dome and still retains several touches of Moorish design.  There are even a few scribbles of Arabic around the church that can be found if you keep your eyes open.

Mosque Church
Mosque Church

For what it’s worth, Pécs also had the best food I experienced in Hungary and at much more reasonable prices.

DSCN0590For more photos from my trip to Hungary, check out the set on Flickr.

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Top 10 Natural Wonders of the World – a photo essay

1. Serengeti Migration

photo by benzpics63
photo by benzpics63

2. Galapagos Islands

photo by Scott Ableman
photo by Scott Ableman

3. Grand Canyon

photo by andywon
photo by andywon

4. Antarctica

photo by HRC
photo by HRC

5. Iguazu Falls

photo by Feffef
photo by Feffef

6. Amazon Rain Forest

photo by OLD SKOOL Cora
photo by OLD SKOOL Cora

7. Ngorongoro Crater

photo by epcp
photo by epcp

8. Great Barrier Reef

photo by In Veritas Lux
photo by In Veritas Lux

9. Victoria Falls

photo by iain rendle
photo by iain rendle

10. Bora Bora

photo by mrlins
photo by mrlins

List courtesy of Howard Hillman

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