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!

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.