Top Travel Resources on the Web

We have a little bit of a theme going this week which all about travel and the internet.  Today I’ve outlined a few of my favorite travel resources online.

Kayak

To me, Kayak is simply the best airline search engine out there.  Plug in where you want to go and they’ll automatically show you a list of recently found fares for many specific dates.  You can easily browse the calender and get an idea of what dates have the lowest fares.  In addition, they do a great job of piecing together flights on multiple carriers if your destination requires several legs (although expedia.com might do a slightly better job at that).  Best of all, Kayak will direct you to the carrier’s booking page so you can book it with them, rather than through Kayak with an additional fee.

Lonely Planet

Most travelers know and love Lonely Planet guidebooks. Sure, you can criticize some of their books, but no matter how you look at it, their website is a great resource for initial travel planning.  They offer great overviews of nearly every country in the world, weather statistics, basic transportation information, and recommendations on the top areas to visit.

U.S. State Department

Going somewhere with questionable political stability and possible danger? The U.S. State Department does a good job of providing information on these topics with recommendations on whether or not it’s safe to travel.  They err on the side of caution though and just because they say it might not be a good idea, doesn’t mean it’s a bad place to go.  Check it out, but don’t use them as a final say.

One Bag

OneBag.com is a great resource to teach you to lighten your load whether you are heading out for adventure travel or simply business.  They have great packing lists, tips on how to pack, and even luggage recommendations.  The amount you can learn about packing from OneBag is truly unbelievable.

TripAdvisor

Over the past few years I’ve had small hotels and tour companies ask me to give them a review on TripAdvisor which, unfortunately, has actually made me use the site less.  But when I am interested in a hotel or hostel but can’t find much information on it elsewhere, I’ll check it out on TripAdvisor and see what kind of reviews they are receiving.  One of the nice things is that they allow users to upload photos so you can get an idea of what the hotel looks like.  I’m not too picky usually but it doesn’t hurt to check out.

Hostel World

Hostel World is a huge directory of hostels all over the world.  You can even book right on the website.  There are reviews and photos which, like Trip Advisor, I like very much when trying to decide on a hostel if there are many to choose from.

CouchSurfing

If you’re using CouchSurfing you’re a different kind of traveler and I’ve written about that in the past.  There are people all over the world who are willing to share their living space with you.  Sure, it’s a way to get free accommodation, but that’s not the point.  Meet people, make friends, and experience the area’s culture from a different perspective.

I hope these links help you in your travel planning.  If you have any to add please feel free to list them in the comments below.

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Volunteering Abroad During Your Travels

jfjf
Creative Commons License - by Common Threadz

Lately I’ve been asked by several people about things they can do while traveling for an extended surprise.  Much to my surprise, some people they will get bored or sick of traveling and want to have something to fall back on.

While I can’t imagine ever getting bored with traveling non-stop I do understand the desire to change it up while out on the road.

Why not look at volunteering?  There are opportunities all over the world and you can easily manage to help for a while during your travels.

One problem with searching for volunteer opportunities from abroad is that “volunteerism” has become quite popular and many people are exploiting volunteer’s desires to help by charging high prices for volunteer trips.  Some of them might be legitimate, but I don’t understand paying a couple of thousand dollars to go somewhere for a week and work hard.

Luckily, Serve Your World has built a good list of free volunteer opportunities.  But keep in mind that your costs are typically not covered so you’ll have to pay for your airfare and travel arrangements but often the organization has some sort of housing for you and sometimes provides meals as well.  You might also want to check out Volunteerism.

Looking to make a little more of a dent in the world?  Why not check out the Peace Corps?  You’ll have to be more dedicated, as the minimum commitment is 2 years.

Becoming quite popular recently is WWOOF’ing.  And it’s not just fun to say either.  WWOOF stands for WorldWide Opportunities on Organic Farms.  When volunteering on a WWOOF farm you’ll work and live on an organic farm, helping do any number of tasks and receive free meals and a place to stay.  There are an abundance of farms in the organization so you should definitely check out the website to see all of the opportunities to help sustainable agriculture. Note: some of the organizations charge a small fee to gain access to the website and this fee goes to supporting the network.

These aren’t the only opportunities around, but three of the more popular options.  If you are interested in learning more please check out the appropriate links above.  It’d also be worth your time to look into various NGO’s (non governmental organizations) in the area you’ll be in.

Have you volunteered abroad or are you looking into it? We’d appreciate hearing about it in the comments below!

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Taking a Year Off After School to Travel

Graduation joy
Creative Commons by Robert Crum

Spring break is wrapping up and the home stretch for many students is now in full force. Soon, students will be graduating from high school or college and ready to move on to the next chapter in life.

Going on to college? Starting their career? These are just the two most likely choices students are facing, but some will contemplate taking a year off. Some will be lazy and do nothing worthwhile, some will get meaningless jobs to make enough money to move out and live off of, and others will venture out into the world. It’s the later that we’ll be looking at today.

Deciding to Travel

Are you considering taking time off from your normal routine to travel for a while? Let’s look at the pros and cons.

Pros:

  • Experience other cultures
  • Learn about world history
  • Make new friends
  • Learn real-life skills

Cons:

  • Potentially expensive
  • Putting off job or school acceptance

For High School Grads

If you are about to graduate high school, I’ll assume you are planning on attending college. I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t, but that is the typical route students take here in America. Often, the school application process begins in the beginning of the student’s senior year and it might be damaging to put off going directly to college if you have already been accepted. Many times though, admission can be delayed by simply contacting the school in question. If it is a typical public university, this likely is not a problem. If it is Ivy League or a private institution, you might run into problems and if that is the case, you should heavily weigh your options before making a decision.

For those who do decide to take some time off before starting their higher education, they’ll learn valuable real life skills. Spending time traveling around the world can truly help expose you to so many different cultures and experiences that you will certainly not only learn, but possibly be steered to a path that you will eventually want to follow in school.

For College Grads

If you are about to graduate college you’re likely looking at potential employers, brushing up your resume, and determining what type of job you are qualified for.

There’s only one problem: the economy.

The economy is absolutely terrible right now and while I hate to add to the hype surrounding it, the simple truth is that there are very few jobs out there, and definitely even less for new grads. The job pool is huge thanks to all of the layoffs we have experienced across the country and chances are that there is somebody more qualified than you and willing to work for less than they would normally. What does this mean for grads? Get ready for a tough time.

But what if you have the financial means to do some traveling for awhile? Go for it. I can’t guarantee that the economy will recover by the time you get back, but it can’t get that much worse… can it? Maybe I shouldn’t ask that.

So why not hit the road? Find a way to make your travels appeal to employers in the future. Consider volunteering somewhere or doing some writing. It might be difficult to make a living by traveling but you can certainly use your experiences to your advantage. Give this article on making your travels look good on your resume over at Matador Network a read and see if you can come up with some good ideas of your own.

Be sure to check back this week for two more articles about ways to spend a year abroad.

Did you, or are you currently on a gap year? Tell us about it!

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Five Wonderful Travel Books You Should Read

Here’s a list of five great travel-related books (in no particular order) that I recommend any and all to give a read.  They’re all quite different from each other and each author provides his own unique outlook on the world.  They should be on every travelers bookshelf.

Babylon by Bus: Or, the true story of two friends who gave up their valuable franchise selling YANKEES SUCK T-shirts at Fenway to find meaning and adventure in Iraq,

Two young Americans ditch their Yankees Suck t-shirt business and make their way to Iraq during the first year of the American Invasion.  That was all I needed to read before I purchased this book!  Babylon by Bus chronicles their experience in and out of the green zone from their drug use to mask the sounds of bombs exploding to their interactions with coalition forces which result in NGO work aiming to help Iraqis.

It’s an easy read, fun, and also allows you to step inside Baghdad from an outsider’s point of view.

Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism

Drugs, debauchery, and writing for Lonely Planet.  That’s Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? in a nutshell.  Thomas Kohnstamm chronicles his experience in giving up everything he had in life to go to Brazil and write for Lonely Planet.  This results is more trouble than you could ever one person getting into, an impossible writing workload and the author’s conflicted feelings about guidebooks and the gringo trail.

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Part travel narrative, part scientific study, NPR’s Eric Weiner aims to find the happiest countries on earth and figure out what makes the people so happy.  Wealth, social equality, and beautiful weather are popular explanations yet Weiner realized they have little to do with the places that are happiest.

Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer

I previously reviewed Marco Polo Didn’t Go There but decided it needed to be included in this list as well.

This collection of Rollf Potts’ travel stories include a commentary about why and how he wrote each and every one.

A great resource for the aspiring travel writer, but also a great read for anybody who will enjoy Potts unique outlook on his experiences and encounters around the world.

The Great Railway Bazaar

Paul Theroux’s classic travel narrative of his journey along the Trans-Siberian Express is over 30 years old but still holds up remarkably well.  Theroux has become one of the most respected and read authors in the world and this is the book that started it all.

Sometimes brash and unapologetic about the characters he meets, some people find him off putting but it’s his brutal honesty that gains respect from everybody else.  His vivid descriptions of the people he meets and places he sees is colorful, but not overly adjectve-laiden like many lesser authors.  You will definitely feel as if you are on the railway car over 30 years ago while reading this classic.

Marco Polo Didn’t Go There – Book Review

marco_polo_rolf_coverAttending the LA Travel and Adventure show last month I stopped by to see some of the books they were selling.  My eyes were drawn to the half price Lonely Planet books but unfortunately for me, I had just purchased my guidebook for Costa Rica and didn’t have any other trips on the agenda at the moment.

Then I noticed and picked up Rolf Potts’ Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. I am ashamed to admit I had never heard of Potts before nor had I read any of his stories.  The stories in the book sounded good though so I went ahead and purchased a copy.

Essentially a collection of Potts’ stories for various websites and glossy print magazines, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There turned out to be one of my best impulse book purchases ever.  You probably could skip buying the book and find them all archived online, but then you would miss out on the great commentary Potts adds at the end of each story.  These commentaries give more information about the characters, events or even about his state of mind when experiencing or writing the story.  With no need to please a magazine editor or make sure a story captures the reader, they also act as a place where Potts can be more honest than in the original story.

Who this book will really interest ,though, is the aspiring travel writer, such as myself.  Potts shares not just the details of the experience, but why he included certain elements, excluded specific characters or exaggerated various details.  He shares his opinion on what made the story work, and will be honest about what didnt’ work.  Potts also talks about the many styles and forms of travel writing and points out why he chose to use various techniques.

Whether you are a writer or not, you will be engaged in his stories, feeling as if you know the characters. Not because of vivid, adjective heavy descriptions, but because most of stories revolve around personal interactions that you’ve certainly experienced in one form or another.

This is the first book I have read with the author’s commentary after each chapter and it was a welcomed change.  I truly enjoyed getting in to his head and understanding the why and how of his stories.

Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer is available on Amazon.com at a discounted price.

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What to Pack For Morocco

This is the first in a series of posts about what to pack for specific destinations.  I noticed an unbelievable amount of Google traffic searching for information on what to pack for Morocco, one of my favorite previous trips.  Since I never touched  on what I packed for Morocco, I decided to write a post about it.  Occasionally I’ll revisit this topic for other destinations that require certain types of clothing or gear.

Morocco is a very unique destination.  Located in North Africa but still carrying the vibe of the Middle East.  Morocco is full of culture, languages, sights, great food, amazing landscapes, and best of all, relatively safe.  This makes it a popular destination for independent travelers and backpackers flock to the various areas around the country.

Morocco is not your every day tourist destination though.  Being a conservative Islamic republic, you should be mindful of Moroccan’s customs and be respectful in your dress.  This means that, despite the often warm temperatures, you should not plan on walking around in shorts and short-sleeved t-shirts.  This goes for both men and women.

For men, jeans, khaki’s and cargo pants are acceptable and long sleeved t-shirts, thin jackets, or lightweight casual button-down shirts are recommended.

Women can generally follow the above recommendations but just be mindful to not wear tops that expose cleavage or have short sleeves.  It may not be considered risque in western culture, but these items are generally unacceptable in Moroccan culture.

Recommended Packing List:

  • 4-5 shirts (or blouses) – preferably long sleeved
  • 1 jacket or sweater
  • 2 pairs of comfortable pants
  • swim suit – if you’re visiting the beach
  • hat – especially if you’re visiting the desert
  • enough socks and underwear
  • comfortable sneakers or hiking shoes
  • toiletries – don’t go overboard, but shopping for your typical toiletries in Morocco might be difficult
  • digital camera – smaller is better

Morocco isn’t particularly dangerous, but places like Tangiers do suffer from slightly more than normal amounts of petty theft.  If you are spending time in any medina areas and want to take photographs, a small camera is a better idea.  Remember, this is where Moroccan’s live and work and aren’t necessarily tourist areas, despite the popularity of them.

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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

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!