January 5, 2013

Students Of The World

For the past year we have been students of the world. That sounds so cheesy, but it’s true. The difference between us and younger backpackers on their gap year was that they watched movies and hit the bars every night. We were reading and planning our next move. 

We were very aware that we would never get another chance like this again, so we “studied” for lack of a better word. We had a great trip because we planned a great trip.
We have learned so much about the way we like to travel. We avoid large tourist groups and tour buses at all cost. Our experience is that large groups get in the way of having authentic experiences with the local people and culture. Independent travel is harder and scarier, but all the more rewarding.

If there's one thing I'm most proud of it’s how quickly we were able to learn new terrain. Most people have months to plan vacations. We would roll into major European cities without a map or guidebook, and within 30 minutes, we’d have a complete plan for the next few days. What’s the secret? Talking to locals.

We also noticed that more than most tourists, we could really spend a lot of time in the smallest of villages. It was rare that we left a town or city feeling that we got to see all that we wanted.

By the time we hit Australia, we had become snobby about waterfalls, blue water, and pristine beaches. It goes against logic that we became so picky while backpacking on a shoestring budget. We may not have been living the best of the best, but we saw the best of the best...and that's all that mattered.

So for all of you fellow students of the world, we have tried to capture a lot of the practical information that we picked up along the way…

The phrase, “pictures just don't do it justice” has taken on new meaning for us. It's exclusively used to imply that the picture is not as good as what someone is experiencing in person. But what about the other way around? There are places like Croatia and Thailand where pictures are sometimes better than reality. Take this picture, for example:

Here’s what it looked like just slightly zoomed out:

Or this one…looks dreamy. But you are not feeling the pain of having to arch your bare-skinned back across a jagged boulder as you sunbathe in nearly 100-degree heat. 

Or would you believe that just 45 minutes earlier, there were hundreds of tourists swamping this sandbar? We descended for a scuba dive, and when we popped back up, their ferries had swept them all away.  

Most travel photos don't show the tourists, trash, power lines, construction workers, shanties, and scaffolding cluttering the scene.

Throughout this blog, I have never once tried to make something sound better than it really is. I believe that's the worst crime a travel writer can commit. I would never want someone to go somewhere on my behalf and then have them be disappointed. I respect people's vacation time and money too much for that. I wish all travel writers agreed…

We have looked through every kind of guidebook out there, and we now know exactly what we like and don’t like about each one of them. It would be so easy to take the best features of our favorites and combine them into one awesome travel guide. (Hint: if you know anything about getting a publisher, please send me a note!)

The one thing I do know is that we should all begin boycotting Lonely Planet guidebooks immediately. I feel strongly about this for two reasons. First, we are very lucky in America to have a choice when it comes to guidebooks…Rough Guides, Frommor’s, Eyewitness Travel, Fodor’s, and so on. I’m not saying these are all good, but do you know what every single person throughout the rest of the world uses? They use Lonely Planet. They seriously have no other option. Do you want to line up at the same hotel, restaurant, and “hidden gem” as every one else in the world? Of course not!

Secondly, Lonely Planet has absolutely no point of view…they’re basically just encyclopedias. There were many times when we visited a country and then popped into a bookstore after the fact to browse through the Lonely Planet (because that’s all that was available). We’ve been shocked at how useless and misinformed their information is.

Lonely Planet = bad information + everyone else in the world is using it = stay away. 
We much prefer niche writers who know their territory inside and out and make educated recommendations…recommendations being the key word. You don’t need a meaningless list of hundreds of cities that you’re never going to go to. You need a concise list of the country’s top 10 cities and how to make the most of them with your precious time.

If you think PBS is only for grandmothers, then you might initially balk at what I’m about to say. Rick Steves’ guidebooks are, hands-down, the best in the world. If you are planning a trip to anywhere in Europe, consider yourself lucky that you have a resource like his at your fingertips. If you’re not planning a trip to Europe, then we think the second best option is Rough Guides.

We would also recommend avoiding conglomerate guidebooks that try to cover all of South America or Southeast Asia. They do a bad job of covering everything well. It’s better off to just buy the individual countries and be more informed. The cost of a guidebook is nothing compared to the time and hassle you’ll save yourself.

Do you know what screams TOURIST more than anything? Walking down a busy road with your head buried in a guidebook. Locals will run in the other direction, and after all, we travel to see the locals, right? We rarely used guidebooks on our trip, but when we did, we bought them as an e-book. That way we could walk around with our non-descript Kindle and not look so embarrassingly out of place. Using a guidebook on the Kindle takes a little bit of getting used to – and you won’t have the physical book to hang on your bookshelf like a trophy – but we thought it was worth it.

For the many countries where we didn’t use a guidebook, we supplemented with online user-generated sources of information like Wikitravel, Trip Advisor, and Lonely Planet’s Thorn TreeTravel Forum (which is only acceptable because it’s content written by users and not Lonely Planet's useless staff).

For simple country-to-country flights, we used Kayak for price comparisons and then also checked individual local low-cost carrier websites.

For more complicated, multi-destination flights, we went with a company called AirTreks out of San Francisco. They were great to work with, and as an added bonus, our travel and medical insurance was included in the cost of our tickets. Yay!

The Internet has changed backpacking forever. Gone are the days of showing up in a city without a reservation and shopping for hostels on foot. Sure it’s still possible, but you’ll only have the horrible ones to choose from. Now that backpackers are becoming flashpackers, they are making advance reservations online and snatching up all of the gems.

For hostels, the best resources are Hostel Bookers and Hostel World. Their guest rankings allowed us to make quick decisions based on the trifecta of priorities: location, safety, and cleanliness. If you wait too long to make a reservation, then you can also find home stays on Airbnb, although it’s much more time consuming.

For hotels, our preferred search engine was Kayak. While traveling with my parents through Europe, we had a process for finding awesome hotels that worked every time…

1.  On Kayak's Hotels page, enter in your city and date range. Un-click the boxes for Expedia, Travelocity, etc.
2.  Once the results have returned, look for the filter settings on the left-hand side of the page and adjust these:
     a) Select a distance of 1 mile or less from the city center (or another landmark)
     b) Narrow down your star ratings
     c) Hone in your price range
     d) Click the box for Trip Advisor ratings/reviews

From there it’s a judgment call to find the best overall value among (1) price (2) location and (3) Trip Advisor ratings. People are very dramatic and opinionated and this site, and you’ll be able to tell pretty quickly from their comments whether it’s a good hotel or not.

For having absolutely no clue what we were doing, we were really happy with how and what we packed. People like to ask us if we threw stuff away as we went. Honestly, we didn’t. We researched everything we brought with us…because if it was weight we were putting on our backs, it needed to be worth it.

There were a handful of small things that we carried around with us for a year which we hardly ever used: drain plug, clothesline, water purifier, laundry soap, purse, first aid kit, garbage bags, whistle, febreze, travel speakers, compression bags, and pad locks.

Then there were the items that we couldn’t live without. Any brand in parenthesis denotes a product that we tested and highly recommend:

Backpack w/ Rainfly (REI) – awesome, top-quality backpack. The rainfly will protect the bag from dirt and grease in cargo holds, and you can lock it up to deter thieves. 

Slash-Proof Day Bag (Pac Safe) – hands-down our best investment. This shoulder bag has metal meshing hidden underneath the fabric to prevent thieves from slashing and running off with it.

Reusable Nylon Tote Bag – packs up small, washable, and super versatile.

Small Luggage Locks – great for locking up valuables in a hotel room and locking up your luggage on a bus or train ride. Huge pad locks are just a waste of weight and space.

Hidden Wallet (Le Travel Store) – small wallet that clips to the inside of a waistband. It’s not bulky, so it’s not too intrusive.

Packing Cubes (Eagle Creek) – a revolution in packing. You can fit so much more in a bag by rolling up your clothes and put them in these cubes. Plus, it allows you to quickly find a pair of socks without tearing your entire bag apart.

Mud Box (Eagle Creek) – keeps dirty and smelly shoes from infiltrating the rest of your bag.

Sleeping Bag Liner (Cocoon) keeps bed bugs and generally heebie-jeebie feelings at bay. 

Pillowcase – doses out little peace of mind in any sketchy hotel room.

Sarong – folds up small and doubles as a beach blanket or picnic blanket.

Toiletry Bag (Eagle Creek) – perfectly organized compartments.

Travel Towel (REI) – quick-drying.

Travel Washcloth (Trekr) – super quick-drying and self-cleaning.

Travel Hair Dryer (Brookstone) – powerful, folds down small, and comes with a travel bag.

Travel Brushfolds down small.

Refillable Bottles (GoToob) great for shampoo, conditioner, soap, lotion, and sunscreen.

30% DEET Bug Spray (Ben's) – this stuff never let us down. We only let ourselves down when we didn't use it.

Lightweight Earplugs & Eyemasklife savers on overnight buses, trains, and planes or in street-facing or dorm-style hotel rooms.

Motion Sickness Bracelets – I can’t confirm these are full-proof, but I do think they are better than nothing.

Trail Running Shoes – versatile shoes that can go on hikes, runs, or just walks around town.

Hiking Sandals (Chaco) – solid enough for hiking and pounding the streets when you don’t want to wear bulky shoes.       

Quick Dry T-Shirts (Lululemon) – lightweight and anti-odor. 

Quick Dry Pants (Lululemon) – lightweight and good for sightseeing, running, or hiking. They sit below the knee, so you can also wear them to fussy churches in Europe (although they’re deemed “too tight” for temples in Asia).

Comfy Pants (Lululemon) – warm, and in dire situations, can pass for “fancy black pants”.

Synthetic Down Coats (Patagonia) – warm, super lightweight, and insulated even when wet. They stuff into a small, self-contained pouch to easily pack away. When stuffed in their pouches, they can also double as pillows!

Raincoat (Marmot) – something with a hood, pit-zips, and preferably Gortex.

Umbrella – something small but durable.

Netbook – a small, lightweight laptop to research and communicate on the road. You don't want to waste your time finding an Internet cafe.

Travel Mouse (Kensington) – super small but completely necessary for productivity.

Kindle – be a tourist but don’t look like one (see Guidebooks section above).

iPhone – a handheld computer that we could not have lived without (see Apps section below).

Headphone Splitter – allows two people to listen from the same device. Great for watching movies on an airplane or listening to Rick Steves’ free audio tours in Europe.

Global Adapter & USB Charging Port (Monster Power) – a completely necessary, all-in-one space-saver.

SLR Camera – we get asked a lot about our camera. It’s an entry-level SLR, and good for beginning SLR users.

Slash-Proof Camera Strap (Pac Safe) – a strap with metal inside that gives you more confidence when slinging your fancy SLR camera across your body.

Polarizing Filter – our #1 trick for making outdoor pictures look better. Through reducing glare, it makes the colors in your photos richer.

Maps: Cartographer, Google Maps, Nav Free 
Info: Google Reader, Read It Later, Kindle, Dropbox 
Budgeting: Cash Trails, Mint, XE Currency
Travel: I Travel Free (Wikitravel App), Hostel World, Hobo Maps (Asia) 
Photos: Apple Panoramic, Photosynth
Communication: Skype, Google Voice  
Movies: Goodplayer

  1. Go independent – unless you’re going somewhere really unusual like Africa or the Middle East, try going without an organized tour group or hop-on / hop-off bus. Instead, look for free walking tours lead by locals in major cities throughout Europe, Australia, and South America. Use public transportation…the cheaper the better because that’s where the locals hang out. Cut out the security blanket and see how you like it!
  2. Go for a run – I think you experience a city differently on a run, and as a bonus, you get to cover a lot more ground and see areas you wouldn’t normally have time for. From our trip, I have fond memories of running in places like Rio de Janiero, Buenos Aires, London, St. Andrews, Nice, Lake Bled, Sydney, and Saigon.
  3. Go away from the landmark. I don’t mean skip the landmark...I just mean that you should also consider seeing it from afar. I bet the best views of Paris are not those from atop the Eiffel Tower. The best views of Paris are probably from some rooftop bar where you can see Paris AND the Eiffel Tower. Ask locals about a counterpoint in the city where you can catch classic views.
  4. Go between big cities and nature. On longer trips, alternating them gives you a nice balance and you’ll appreciate each of them more.
  5. Just GO! This applies to any kind of trip – from a year off to a weekend getaway. Sometimes it’s so difficult to pull the trigger. So the next time you have even the slightest inkling to go somewhere, act on it in some way that commits you to it – submitting for a vacation day at work, purchasing a flight, or putting a deposit on a hotel room. You can figure out the details of your trip later, but once you make some form of tangible commitment, you can’t turn back. What are you waiting for? The perfect time? It may never come. Follow that urge. Dream, commit, explore!

At the Witch Market in La Paz, Bolivia we purchased a condor stone that is supposed to bring the owner “travel, luck, and good travel”. We’re starting a new tradition with our friends. If you’re planning a traveling adventure any time soon, you just might see the condor arrive at your doorstep. Calling all students of the world!


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  5. Oops, I tried to edit for spelling. I really like your blog! I found you through Nomadic Matt. I hope you keep posting, even though you must have a full life with your young family. I enjoy reading your perspective. Vicki