Staying Connected Abroad Without Going Overboard

Year after year more gadgets come out that help us stay connected.  Blackberries, iPhones, laptops, netbooks, etc.  There are an absurd amount of gizmos that we carry around.

Traveling independently, usually with nothing more than a backpack, limits what you can carry, and something is going to have to go.

I used to be guilty of carrying too much with me when I traveled for work.  Not only did I pack a suitcase for one week in a fancy hotel, but I also carried my Apple Powerbook, iPod, digital camera (often a large digital SLR in addition to a pocket digital camera), and my old Sidekick cellphone.  Once you include all the power adapters and other miscellaneous required junk, that’s 15-20 pounds of gear in a daypack!

I’ve learned to live a more simple life, even when traveling for work.  For instance, I no longer need to travel with a laptop.  In fact, the only reason I carried it was to watch movies on airplanes and in my hotel room.

I’ve also consolidated my iPod and cell phone with an iPhone. This lovely gadget never leaves my side and also does most of the work my laptop used to do.  I can easily check my email, surf the web, watch movies, listen to music, and even update my website!

When I travel abroad I turn the cellular data off as I don’t need or want to pay for expensive calls, text messages, or data charges.  I find that most hostels and hotels now have free wireless internet and I’m able to keep up on my email, send messages to my family, and of course, TWITTER!

I’ve also ditched the digital SLRcamera for most trips.  As much as I loved it, it was just too much to carry and in some places, a security liability.  I have a Nikon Coolpix S610pocket digital camera that fits in my pocket and takes great photos.  It’s not the same, but it’s all I need.  Er, want.  Plus, it shoots pretty good quality movies so there’s no need for a video camera either.

In addition to my iPhone and digital camera, the only thing I would consider or recommend carrying would be a Netbook.  These small portable laptops are less than 10″ and usually weigh only 2 or 3 pounds!  To me, they’re not a necessity unless you I was going to be traveling for an extended period of time.  They can come in handy for storing your photographs, writing emails and blog posts, or even using Skype to call back home.

ASUS is arguably the most popular maker of Netbooks today and their latest, the ASUS Eee PC 1000HE is quite appealing.

Consolidating is your friend.  You don’t need every gadget and gizmo out there!  Many people have iPhones and Blackberries that can connect to the internet via WiFi now and that can substitute a laptop for the majority of budget travelers.  Don’t forget that many hostels and hotels now provide computers and if not, internet cafes are always around the corner!

OK now, be honest. What are you guilty of carrying? Share  your good (or bad) habits in the comments section!

That Taxi Driver is Probably NOT Your Friend

Taxi drivers.  You’ve got to love them.  It doesn’t matter what country you are in.  They always have a unique trinket dangling from their mirror and are happy to provide you with lots of advice on wherever it is you are traveling.  Especially so if they pick you up at the airport and you have a big backpack or you’re dragging some luggage behind you.

Unfortunately the first person you usually meet in a new country isn’t always the most trustworthy.

You hop in the car and tell the driver where you’d like to go.  Often times they respond by telling you that hotel is booked, it’s dirty, or unsafe.  If you don’t know any better, you might believe him and let him take you to a place he recommends.

Of course what he doesn’t tell you is that he is getting a commission for taking you to that place.

This is the oldest trick in the book and happens more often than you might believe.  Just last week I had it happen to me.  Twice.

So how do you avoid this? First of all, stick to your plans and know what you are getting in to.  If you are arriving somewhere late at night, it’s probably a good idea to book accommodation for your first night.

Another trick is charging you a flat rate versus using the meter.  This hardly works out in your favor.  Some places I have been (Morocco for instance) generally don’t use the meter and offer you a flat rate before you get in.  My experiences were fair and the prices were very cheap.  Recently in Costa Rica though, we agreed to pay 4,000 colones (about $8) for the three of us to be driven across town to a restaurant late at night.  We had a tough time finding a cab so we just agreed and off we went.  After dinner we flagged down another cab and headed back to our hotel room.  He turned on the meter and it came to 1,000 colones.  We realized we were ripped off the first time and always insisted on using the meter from then on.

All this negative talk about taxi drivers probably makes me look like a pessimist.  In reality, I’ve had some great conversations with taxi drivers and they are often very nice and enjoy meeting foreigners.  Especially if they want to practice your language.  I’ve had full conversations about American politics, tourism and the economy–all in various, and probably butchered, languages.  Often they can be insightful and entertaining, looking for somebody to chat with just like you are.

On the other hand, I’ve been ripped off (usually for such an insignifigant amount it’s laughable) and attempted to be taken advantage of.  So be careful and have a plan.  Don’t let a taxi driver boss you around.  They usually will take “no” for an answer very easily so insist on going where you want to go.

Have any funny (or horror) stories about taking taxis around the world? Share them in the comments below!

Photo credit: daveknapik

Five Destinations for First-Time Backpackers

Sunset in Cinque Terre, Italy
Sunset in Cinque Terre, Italy

The other day a friend of mine wrote to me and said he has been reading the site but was curious as to where I would recommend he and his wife go for their first adventure.

That question inspired me to write this post. Here are five destinations that I would highly recommend to first-time travelers:

Italy

Probably the first thing that comes to mind when people think of visiting Italy is the food. And it should be, because eating out in Italy is a treat and worth the trip even if it’s all you manage to do.

Of course Italy has a lot more to offer. You can spend weeks enjoying the wonderful ocean villages of Cinque Terre, the canals and neighboring islands of Venice, the great art in Florence, or the amazing history of Rome. Italy has so much going on that you’ll quickly realize there is not enough time to enjoy it all.

Italy is certainly well visited by tourists and Italians are very welcoming. When I went in 2004 I was prepared to use my poor Italian that I had learned but everybody I met was happy to speak English and would chat me up for hours on end if time allowed. The train system goes everywhere you’ll need to go and is easy to use. And best of all, the major cities are all wonderful walking towns. Rome has a metro system, but you’re better off walking to where you need to go and seeing the great sights around town.

You’ll also be able to find hostels and budget hotels everywhere you go. I rarely recommend booking in advance, but Italy has a lot of visitors and it’s not cheap either. It’s best to book things in advance if possible.

France

Who hasn’t dreamt of the city of lights? Whether you’re a hopeless romantic, wine connoisseur, or art buff, Paris is a place that everybody can enjoy.

Spend a day (a week is easily doable) in the Louvre and see the Mona Lisa. Check out the Van Gogh paintings in Musee D’Orsay. Walk around the Latin Quarter and practice your French by chatting up a Parisian student. Head up the steep cobblestone walkways of Montmartre and enjoy the views of the city from the Sacre Coeur. Buy some bread, cheese, and a cheap bottle of wine and enjoy a picnic lunch on the banks of the Seine. Don’t forget the obligatory trip up the Eiffel tower!

If you are there for a few days, take the train to Versailles. Enjoying dinner there is expensive, but viewing a castle like that is certainly an awe-inspiring sight.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a little more challenging for first time travelers but there is a lot of upside. Many hardcore travelers would consider Costa Rica “touristy” but it is far less visited than any of the other countries listed so far.

On the negative side, Costa Rica’s capital city of San Jose can be dangerous and offers very little other than a large airport. If you do some research though, you’ll find you only need to go into the city for specific buses and staying in neighboring Alajuela is a much better option for overnight stops. Stay away from the Coca-Cola bus terminal at night and you’ll be safe.

On the positive side, Costa Rica offers some of the most beautiful nature in the world. While the bus system may not be the smoothest in the world, it does exist and can take you around the entire country. It’s also very cheap!

The influx of tourism to Costa Rica over the past few years has increased prices, but it still will only cost a fraction of what a trip to nearly any city in Europe will cost. Hostel beds for less than $10 are common and eating a good meal at the local sodas (cafes) can cost as little as $2-3.

Whether you want to enjoy surfing on the Pacific or Caribbean, explore a rain forest with monkeys swinging overhead, go white water rafting, kayak mangroves, or peer into a Volcano, you can can do it all in Costa Rica. Spend as little as a week or as long as a year, and you can still manage to not go to the same place twice. This tiny country is a real gem in Central America.

Peru

Many people dream of visiting ancient Inca and Mayan ruins in Central America and Peru offers one of the most amazing opportunities to do so.

Machu Picchu is one of the most impressive sights in the world to visit ancient ruins despite it being 8,000 ft above sea level. While this elevation might make it a little more difficult to get to than other places, it still manages to be an extremely popular destination for travelers.

The common practice is to stay in nearby Cuzco for a couple of days to acclimate to the elevation. From there, you can book a multi-day hike and camping trek and enjoy the Inca Trail.

There are many providers for this tour and most provide the supplies you need. You should be aware that the number of visitors to the trail is limited so you should book in advance. I’ve heard as few as three weeks is required, and as long as nine months. Your experience may vary, but definitely plan ahead of time!

Canada

Canada is one of my favorite countries in the world. I have been all over the country and enjoy every little bit of it. It may not be as cheap for Americans as it once was, but there are still budget places to stay.

Vancouver is a wonderful city surrounded by the beautiful nature that is British Columbia. Enjoy the city for a couple of days, be sure to check out Stanley Park (Think Central Park but better!), then head up route 99, the Sea to Sky Highway, and stop in Squamish. The self described “Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada,” Squamish offers a great place for backpackers to call home for a while. Enjoy the outdoor activities like kayaking, mountain biking and hiking, or use it as an affordable base for Whistler. Located about one hour up the highway, Whistler is one of the best ski resorts in the world and its village provides great shopping and eating choices year round. Hitchiking is safe and popular from Squamish and you won’t be waiting for long before a fellow snowboarder or mountain biker picks you up and gives you a free ride to the mountain. Canadians are so darn friendly!

If you fancy the eastern side of Canada, Quebec is a wonderful place to visit as well. Although a bit pricier, there are several hostels in the Montreal area and English is spoke everywhere. In fact, I dare you to use your high school French and see what happens. They’ll automatically respond in English and you’ll feel a little stupid, but hey, that’s Montreal!

Hop on the train for a lovely three-hour ride to Quebec city and enjoy the more traditional French-Canadian culture. Quebec is a lovely city to simply walk around and go sightseeing. From statues to architecture, Quebec city will easily fill a couple of days and put a few miles on your feet.

There you have it. In no particular order, five great destinations of varying costs and level of adventure.

Do you have a recommendation for a good place beginner travelers should check out? Please share them, or your experiences in the comments below!

Kelty Redwing 3100 Review – Or: The best backpack I have ever purchased

If you read my post on 10 must-have items for independent travelers you know that the most important item you need is a good backpack.  This may sound obvious to most people but if you have ever shopped for a backpack you know how difficult it can be.  Head over to your local outdoors shop and you will be overwhelmed with the selection.

Then the questions arise:  How much space do I need? How heavy is it going to be? How much should I spend?

I previously recommended the Kelty Coyote 4750 which I still own and enjoy, but with more trips under my belt, I now realize it was more pack than I needed.  For my recent trip to Costa Rica I loaned it to my two friends who managed to squeeze enough clothes and other items for both of them, with a bit of room to spare!  The only problems were that it was excruciatingly heavy at 37 pounds, and needed to be checked on the airplane (which was a $25 fee).

The reason I was able to loan it to them was because I purchased a Kelty Redwing 3100 before this trip.  It holds 50 liters of clothes and gear compared to the Coyote 4750’s 80 liters.  Since I only packed my Coyote to about 60% capacity for my trip to Hungary last fall, I decided 50 liters should be more than enough.

Not only was it enough, it was more than enough.  After folding up my clothes and stuffing them into the bottom of the main compartment, I had at least 50% of the room still left!  This worked out well as I was able to put my Teva full strap hiking sandals into a plastic grocery bag and put them in there as well.  They are bigger than you would expect and awkward to pack, but still fit with room to spare for my toiletries and snacks.

This weighed in at 15 pounds before I left home.  I was able to carry it comfortably without the padded hip belt, but when attached and tightened, it hardly feels like you are carrying anything at all.

Here’s a rough idea of what I squeezed in it:

  • 1 pair of jeans
  • 2 pairs of shorts
  • 1 pair of board shorts
  • 7 pairs of socks
  • 5 pairs of underwear (I recommend synthetic materials for easy washing)
  • 7 t-shirts
  • 1 polo shirt
  • 1 light rain jacket
  • 1 pair of Teva outdoors sandals
  • Toiletries and snacks

And there was still some breathing room.  There would have been a lot had I skipped those sandals or clipped them to the outside of the bag.  In the small outer compartment I had my passport, digital camera, charger, phone, two books, and medicines.

Needless to say, this is my new main traveling backpack.  It can be carried on an airplane, has more room than you realize and it comfortable to boot.  Buy something bigger, and you’ll only bring more stuff that you don’t need.  In fact, I could have done with less on this trip.  Thanks to days at the beach and the river, I wore some of my synthetic blend shirts that were easily washable multiple times.  I never put on my jeans, jacket, polo shirt, or three of my nicer t-shirts.  What to, and not to pack is a post for another day though.

Overall, the Kelty Redwing 3100 is an amazing pack for around $99.  They also make a 2650 version (44 liters) and a 2500 version (41 liters) which is specifically designed for women.

I couldn’t help but giggle to myself every time I saw another backpacker walking down the street with their back hunched in pain from carrying an 80 liter pack filled to the brim.

Give this pack a shot.  I doubt you’ll have any complaints.

The MSRP is $109 but you can purchase the Kelty Redwing 3100 for around $85 on Amazon.  The price fluctuates and varies by color.

Why Working a Regular Job is NOT an Excuse to not Travel

19 02 07 - Office Ninja
Creative Commons License photo credit: Cliph

Americans generally have the shortest amount of vacation time per year (2 weeks on average) and this is the reason I hear from people all the time as to why they do not travel often. Yes, this is a limitation, but is it a reason to not travel abroad?

I vehemently disagree.

Just because you only have two weeks free every year it doesn’t mean you must stay home or spend your vacation in an American tourist trap like Las Vegas. OK, maybe that’s what you truly enjoy, but if you’re here, you’re likely interested in traveling abroad to slightly more engaging destinations.

I’d like to consider myself a vagabond, going all over without much of a destination. But unfortunately I am like you. I have two weeks of vacation every year, and I also must take them separately. This gives me a guaranteed two trips per year, but they are quite short. Many people can take their vacation at the same time and have much more time to enjoy their trip. I definitely recommend doing so if it is an option for you.

When meeting other travelers around the world I constantly hear the same remarks about my trip.

“You’re only here for a week?”

“That hardly seems worth the plane ride!”

“What a waste of money to only get a handful of days here.”

I certainly understand where they are coming from, but the truth is that most people (especially Americans) do not have the luxury of extended travel time.

Again, this doesn’t mean you can’t, or shouldn’t do it though. Just adjust your travel plans to enjoy a smaller area and don’t try to cover too much ground. Stay rooted in one or two cities and plan day trips to the surrounding areas. Doing this will keep your travel time on buses and trains to a minimum and you can maximize your time wherever you may go.

As far as expenses are concerned your largest will likely be plane travel. There are plenty of ways to seek out the best price for airfare so shop around and check sites like Kayak and Expedia to find the best fares.

When booking airfare, look for red-eyes that allow you to depart Friday night after you are finished with work.  Depending on the time zone, this can also allow you to land in the morning instead getting in late at night.  Pop in some earplugs and take a long nap.  Wake up halfway across the world.

When you arrive at your destination find a good hostel, bed or breakfast, or guest house and you’ll save some more money.

Is it ideal? No.

Is it worth it? Yes!

Don’t let your job get in the way. Find a way to balance the two. A nice week-long excursion every six months isn’t a bad way to see the world.

When Traveling with a Friend Becomes a Problem

Fighting wolves

Most of my friends do not travel often but the handful that do always share stories about the nightmares they experienced with their travel partners.

Just the other day a friend was telling me how the two people she was traveling through Asia expected to be able to use their credit cards everywhere and refused to get any cash. That backfired when they were unable to buy anything to eat for a couple of days unless it was in a hotel or a tourist trap.

Another friend told me about how they are no longer friends with the people they traveled through Europe for a few weeks with. By the end of the trip they were at each other’s throats for various reasons, but mostly because they just spent too much time together and didn’t get enough space.

A recent trip of mine didn’t go a smoothly as planned with my travel partner and I realized we had quite different tastes and plans for our trip. We were able to solve these issues fairly easily though and I will give you some tips on how we did it.

Plan ahead of time

You don’t need to set dates or times, but discuss what you would like to see, activities you would like to do, and what you would like to eat. Don’t forget to take budget into consideration. Make sure that you understand each other’s desires and what they are financially capable of doing.

Notice when an issue arises

Do not ignore problems. When you see that something is beginning to become an issue, address it immediately. Talk about it. Explain your feelings, listen to their concerns and wishes, and try to find a compromise. Never force somebody into doing or going somewhere they don’t want to. They will inevitably have a terrible time because they had a poor attitude about it to begin with.

Split up

Sometimes there is no easy resolve and the best thing to do is simply go your own way. Maybe you just need to explore the area on your own or hang out with some people from your hostel. There is nothing wrong with this. Just be an adult and explain that it has become obvious you guys need some time apart.

This doesn’t mean you have to sever all ties from this person foe your entire trip. Maybe a day or two apart is all you need.

This is what we did in my situation that I mentioned earlier. I don’t think either of us minded. We were both mature enough to realize the issue and we enjoyed some activities together, and also had fun meeting other people to spend time with.

If you haven’t realized by now, the key is communication, understanding, and respect. Your travel partner has spent just as much money and sacrificed just as much time to be there. You both deserve to have fun and with these tips hopefully you can.

[tip]Have any tips or horror stories? Please share in the comments below![/tip]

Maximizing Your Money While Traveling – When to splurge, and when to save

Local breakfast in La Fortuna, Costa Rica
Local breakfast in La Fortuna, Costa Rica

One of the first things people assume when they find out I travel frequently is that it must cost a fortune.  This certainly isn’t the case and over the years I have learned many ways to stay frugal but still enjoy myself while traveling.

More importantly than little tips that can save money here and there, you should learn how to decide when to spend and when to save.  This way, you aren’t constantly looking for the cheapest option, but you also aren’t spending too much money.

Sleeping

Where you sleep is important, but when you look at all the various options in most areas, there are a lot of amenities that you may not need, but can greatly increase the price of your hotel or hostel.

This is where doing research can really help.  If you know where you’ll be staying for a couple of days, check HostelWorld for hostels in the area.  You may be surprised how many smaller independently run hostels there are compared to what your guidebook lists.  The reviews on HostelWorld can be very informative as well.

As a general rule, I attempt to spend $20 US or less per night depending on the destination.  Some places, like Paris, are more expensive, and others such as Costa Rica, hover around $10 per night. I need a bed, a bathroom (somewhere, I don’t mind if it’s outside of the room and shared), and a shower.  A common area where travelers can converge is also a bonus.

Eating

Food is one of the things you might consider spending more money on.  Many times I’ll be hanging out with other travelers and they insist on stopping by a market to buy some cheese and bread for lunch.

For lunch?!?!

I prefer to enjoy a good meal at a local eatery.  If there is one thing I can really take home with me it’s the experience of good, local cuisine.  A good meal out is a nice treat when you’ve been traveling around all day with a heavy pack.

This doesn’t mean you have to spend a ton of money on every meal, sometimes a picnic lunch or a few snacks is all you need and easy on the wallet, but don’t be afraid to splurge a bit to enjoy some authentic cuisine.

Activities

While many independent travelers pride themselves in going off the beaten path and doing things that other tourists don’t do, let’s face it–you’re a still a tourist and sometimes you want to do those touristy things.

Strap on your walking shoes and get out and experience the highlights of your area.  There are often free alternatives to the typical tours and entrance fees associated with popular tourist sites (aka tourist traps).  Check your guidebook and see what they recommend.

While I can’t offer any advice on how to get up the Eiffel Tower for free, you might be able to enjoy it just as much from the ground or from a good lookout from the Siene river.  Extra bonus if you’re afraid of heights!

What do you splurge or save money on? Share in the comments!

Surfing the World, One Couch at a Time

An interesting method of traveling has been gaining popularity recently.

It’s called CouchSurfing.  You know, that thing you did when you forgot to pay your rent.  OK, well maybe not quite the same thing, but the concept is simple.  Travel around and sleep on somebody’s couch for a night (or longer).

I first came across CouchSurfing last year before I ventured to Morocco.  I wasn’t sure what to think of it at the time but soon I realized that it was an amazing project that can really change your life.

Think of CouchSurfing as a social network for people who all love to travel and share unique experiences around the world.  If you want to travel somewhere but either can’t afford, or don’t want to sleep in a boring hotel room, you can look for locals on CouchSurfing who might be able to host you, for free!

The system has some built in precautions, requiring you to register your name and address with your credit card for safety purposes (the site is totally free, but they use this to prove your identity).  In addition, friends and travelers can leave references indicating whether or not that person is friendly and safe.  Of course there is always a little risk involved, but overall the system works very well.

CouchSurfing runs on Karma.  There are no limits placed on how many couches you can sleep on, and no requirement for you to reciprocate.  If you choose to allow people to stay, you have complete control on who you allow in and you are in no way obligated to offer your couch to anybody.

The majority of the users are open to the idea though and are generally welcoming.

The concept of allowing strangers into your home (or entering a stranger’s home) may sound strange, but it can prove to be very rewarding.

Sure, it’s a way to save money.  But more importantly, it’s a very unique way to experience a town.  Staying with a local can be a very different experience than you might find in a hotel or hostel.  Especially if you are in a foreign land and experiencing a culture you are not used to.  Many CouchSurfers spend time together sharing their culture, food, and lifestyle together.

Other hosts simply hand you a key, or tell you when you can come and go, and let you stay for free.  It all depends on the host but this type of information is typically posted on their page.

I have hosted quite a few people.  I received a lot of requests last summer and fall (high season here in Southern California) and I had to be somewhat particular about who I let stay.  I preferred people with references and also chose foreign travelers over domestic ones when possible.  To me, CouchSurfing is more about the culture and experience than a free place to stay.

And if any of my guests were looking to save money, I probably helped ruin that plan.  We went to several baseball games, the firing range, and some local restaurants.  Explaining baseball to Liam from the UK was certainly fun, as was watching him shoot his first handgun.  Playing golf while attempting to speak French with Fabrice was also a great time, as was watching him experience his first enchilada!

As I’ve talked about before, I was welcomed to Casablanca, Morocco by several CouchSurfers who gave me a lovely walking tour of their city.  They also shared tea with me at their favorite cafe as well as a late night snack of chwarma, which I’m still not exactly sure I know what was.  Their generosity and friendship made me feel welcome and at home in a place where I was completely out of place.

There are downsides to CouchSurfing as well though.  Often, potential hosts will not live in the central area that most travelers want to experience.  Sometimes, you simply want to do the touristy things and that may be difficult if you are staying with somebody who lives outside of the city.  Public transportation may not be as accessible.  Sometimes CouchSurfing just isn’t appropriate for your trip, especially if it is short.

If it will work for your trip, I highly recommend giving it a shot.  Sign up for CouchSurfing (remember: it’s free!) and browse around.  Completely fill out your profile and also look in your area.  There are many large groups with local CouchSurfers putting on events and meetups.  In fact, I’ve made several good friends thanks to the local gatherings.

CouchSurfing is a wonderful concept that can make this big world, feel a lot smaller than it is thanks to strangers sharing kindness and culture.

How to Get Into the Independent Travel Mindset

Have you traveled independently/solo before?

If not, it probably sounds a little scary doesn’t it?

It doesn’t have to be.  In fact, now that I have been traveling independently for the better part of my adult life, I’ve really come to love it.  When I’m not traveling, I’m thinking about traveling.  All but one of my backpacking trips have been completely solo.

So what does it take to get into the mindset?

All it took for me was a little push.  My first trip to Europe was to be with one of my good friends.  Two days before, he canceled for reasons I still don’t know.  There I was, about to leave for Europe.  No accommodations booked, no real schedule or plan.  Top it all off, there was a bomb found underneath one of the French railways and terrorist threats of more that had not been found.

Yeah, I was a little nervous.  I stayed up all night before my early morning flight stressing over whether or not to go.

Obviously, I’m glad I went.  I had the time of my life, met some great people, and visited places I didn’t even plan on going to (or had even heard about).

You will not be alone

Costa Rica Dinner Party
17 of us from the hostel in La Fortuna, Costa Rica enjoying dinner together

Stay at almost any hostel and you are almost guaranteed to meet other travelers.  You may not the best at meeting and talking to random strangers, but when you travel all that will change.  Regardless of what language you speak or where you are from, you share at least one common thing with everybody else there.  You are travelers in a strange place and you’d probably enjoy some company.

I truly can’t think of a time when I had nobody to hang out with, share a meal, or just talk to in a hostel.  They are unbelievably social places and by staying in one, you will meet others and before you know it, be going out sightseeing, grabbing a bite to eat, or partying it up at a club or bar (ask the person in charge of the hostel for that information!).

Your guidebook is your friend

Unless you venturing off into uncharted territory, somebody has probably been there already and written an entire book about it.  Pack your guidebook and read as much of it as you can.  Need a hostel recommendation?  What about a good place to eat? How about information on safety and tips to avoid trouble.

Your guidebook has all of that already!  Read it and follow it–but don’t be afraid to stray a little.

Be willing to explore

Some of the best days you will have are when you simply venture out on your own (or with others).  Many cities are great to simply walk around all day and explore.  See the sights, but walk down those streets that look interesting.  Visit shops, eat some food from street vendors, look at the architecture, talk to people! There are many things you can do without an itinerary.

Please feel free to share your experiences of traveling alone (or with a small group) and the encounters you’ve had! Tips are always welcome as well.

How to Easily Learn a Language and Enjoy your Trip

Would you like to know a little secret?

Language is important.

Pretty obvious, right?

Being American (technically Canadian-American but who’s counting?) I am always surprised by how few of us speak a foreign language. Sure, in California many people speak Spanish, but not nearly as many as you would expect.

One of the things I always tell people is that they should learn at least a few conversational basics when traveling to a foreign country.

I did a lot to cram in some French and Italian before traveling to Europe for my first backpacking trip. I was in no way fluent, or even comfortable speaking either language, but what little I did know helped tremendously.

Many Americans expect that since they are paying tourists, they should be catered to. If you use Paris for an example, you’ll realize that Paris does not live off of tourism! It’s the cultural center of France and if no Americans visited, they would hardly miss us.

I saw this first hand when ordering lunch at a small cafe. I managed to ask for a particular sandwich and a glass of tea but I could not understand the price. I politely asked, “parlez-vous Anglais?”

“Yes, a little,” she responded and told me the price in English. I paid, thanked her in French, received a kind smile and enjoyed my food.

Shortly after another young backpacker came in and asked for something using only English and didn’t even bother to try French. The same lady who was so friendly to me responded, “je suis désolé monsieur. Je ne comprende pas Anglais.” He made a couple more requests in English but eventually left frustrated and hungry. The lady looked at me, shrugged her shoulders and smiled.

To her, a few Euros were less important than the cultural pride. This attitude is very common not only in Paris, but anywhere that does not rely solely on tourism.

But surely you don’t have the time to enroll in a class and practice for several months before traveling.

So here is the real secret I promised:

Dr. Pimsleur

Never heard the name before? Well Dr. Pimsleur created a wonderful technique for learning language and has produced fantastic audio programs.

While the full versions with nearly 50 hours of training are quite expensive, there is a great alternative if you wish to get started and learn the basics, whether it be for fun or in preparation for a trip.

The insert Pimsleur Learn to Speak & Understand programs contain 16 lessons (each unit of the full program has 30, so you are getting about half of the free unit). The best part, they’re pretty cheap on Amazon.

Of course, they hope you enjoy them and decide to move on to the full course. If you do, I believe there is an upgrade program for purchasers of the intro versions.

Let me tell you first hand that these work very well and will prepare you for many common situations such as asking (and understanding) directions, ordering food, or exchanging money. Of course you’ll learn how to politely interact with people in that language and how to ask for help if you are unable to understand.

I tried several different French audio training tools before coming across the Pimsleur program. The other were ALL a waste of money.

Here’s the list of all the ones I have used and enjoyed success with:

Again, I am far from fluent in any of these (except French which I went on to study for a couple of years) but learning these basics will be very rewarding.

Sure. You can usually get by with English and hand gestures, but being able to speak a language can help in ways you’ve never imagined.

Have you tried learning a language before your trip? Post a comment and let us know how it went. Have a funny language story? Please share!