Monday, October 31, 2011

Djemaa el Fina in Marrakesh, Morocco

Kebobs for sale
The Djemaa El Fina in Marrakesh, Morocco, a large busy square near the souks, serves as a the central meeting place of the city. The square is full of people, food vendors, street performers, henna artists and animals. As the day progresses, the moveable stalls change to make way for different types of food and performers. But of course, for me, the main attraction was the food.

Dates for sale
In the afternoon, the square is full of stalls selling nuts, dates, and figs. After walking around we determined that most of the stalls were selling the same things for about the same prices. Most of the vendors allowed us to taste the nuts and dried fruits and we purchased a few bags of each to eat as we walked around. The main entertainment during the day was a multitude of snake and monkey charmers, the henna artists, the fortune tellers and the musicians.  It wasn't uncommon to walk by charmers luring dancing snakes out of baskets next to children sitting on the ground getting flowers tattooed in henna on their hands.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

6 Tips for visiting the "BIG" sites

Angkor Wat under construction

Angkor Wat in Cambodia is legendary. An ancient city, lost to the western wall and "found" in the modern era. Partially reclaimed by the jungle, the ruins reputation is known throughout the world and tempts thousands of visitors form hundreds of miles away. It is for sure the highlight of any trip. Its also an exhausting two to three day touring extravaganza, populated with picture taking tourists and pushy local touts. Most travelers fantasize so much about their visits to the BIG site seeing spots: Petra, the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, etc that they sometimes skim over the logistical facts of their visit. Planning ahead and knowing what to expect will help make sure you get the most out of your trip.

1. Ditch the fantasy
You aren't the only one who thinks visiting the Parthenon would be cool. Trust me, there will be other tourists...tons of them. You will most likely have to wait in lines, fight to see things, and take strategic shots so your photos don't look like they were taken at a mall. There will be people selling something at every turn. At times, you will feel like you are at Disney World rather than an important historical site. That doesn't mean your experience isn't still amazing but, the more you anticipate these irritations that more you will enjoy your time. Don't let these things bog you down.

Crowds at the Parthenon
It also possible that your trip won't get exactly as planned - When I went to Petra it was so hot I didn't want to move, in Cambodia Angkor Wat was under construction... this could be the case for you. Just roll with the punches and don't let these things ruin everything.

Photos from the Accra Market

Masks made from wood and old soda cans. For sale in a Market in Accra, Ghana

A Man adds beads to a wooden elephant

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dining in the Dark

While in Montreal, my friends and I visited the famous O.Noir  restaurant. Although the food is good, the main draw is the atmosphere - or rather the lack there of. Meals are served completely in the dark. No lights, no candles (sorry for the misleading visual), no blinking cell phones. The idea is that since your sense of sight is gone, your other senses will be really focused on the meal. You will supposedly taste your food in a whole new way.

We made reservations ahead of time for one of their planned seating times. They usually have two servings a night - so everyone gets seated and starts eating at the same time. This helps cut down on needless noise and shuffling around while you are trying to eat.

Earning Frequent Flyer Miles Without Ever Leaving Home

ABC's new Pan Am show
 I recently started watching ABC's new series Pan Am....I'd like to say that I had hopes about this show, but the truth is I expected it to be mediocre and so far it has been. I was hoping for something along the lines of "Mad Men" meets the "Amazing Race"...but it was more "Sex and the City" meets "a really boring flight I once took." I did get a few giggles out of the first episode being called "Pilot." This was pretty obviously unintentional but you know...pilot...get it... okay I'm done.

Anyway, watching an entire show about people being stuck in a airplane cabin has inspired me to share some of my tips for getting frequent flyer (FF) miles without ever stepping foot in one. As you may have guessed from my blog title I am a huge fan of FF miles. Not only can you get free flights, but if you rack up enough of them you can get special perks like early boarding and free checked luggage. In addition, being a member of an airlines loyalty program gives you a tiny bit of clout when it comes to working with the company to rebook flights, file complaints, etc. Now before I give you my tips a couple of quick notes:

1. Never, ever, ever buy a ticket for the FF miles. You should always buy tickets based on price/schedule. End of story. FF miles are just not that valuable. Once you have picked out a ticket, you should research to see if this airline is a partner of your FF program. If so they should accept your number. Otherwise, just sign up for their program. Chances you will be flying with them again in the future.

Monday, October 24, 2011

My Day of No

Charles Bridge in Prague

I have been incredibly lucky in my travels – I’ve had amazing experiences and (with a few exceptions) rarely does anything go wrong. I love filling my trips with fun, quirky and interesting activities that allow me squeeze every last drop out of the experience. To make the most of my time I try to plan ahead and research the must dos of each city. My trip to Prague was no exception. My friend and I had planned two very full days to see the city, taste the beer, attend the opera and experience this gem of Eastern Europe. Sometimes the proverbial travel gods are looking out for you, but sometimes they and sometimes they are waiting for any opportunity to look you and the eyes and say, “No.”

We arrived in Prague, by train from Vienna, on a freezing overcast morning to a city covered in about a foot of snow. After 30 minutes of dragging our bags and ourselves to the old city, we were excited to have finally reached our pre-booked hostel which was located about four blocks from the main square. We had confirmed via e-mail that we could check in early and drop of our bags so that we could get an early start on the day. Sadly, this seemed to not be the case because our hostel was locked up tight with no sign of life. Knocks and calls went unanswered and, after half an hour, we went to a nearby pizza place to take advantage of their free wi-fi and regroup.

While we waited for our pizza, I checked my e-mail to see if there was any further information from the Hostel. The bad news was there was no e-mail from the hostel, the even worse news was that we had an e-mail about the opera tickets we had purchased for the next night: the opera had been cancelled and in its place they would be performing a children’s ballet of Cinderella. Homeless and facing the prospect of an evening with prince charming and the evil step sisters, it seemed our trip was turning into a bit of a pumpkin. After wasting another hour searching for an alternate hostel, we finally were able to set off and see the city.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Trip Planning 101 Part IV: Booking Hotels/ Transportation

There are many options when it comes to transportation while traveling

This post is part of a series on planning a trip. The other posts covered choosing a location, booking airline tickets and Creating an Itinerary.

I feel like if you've been reading this far you should have at least gotten to Trip Planning 201... and yet here we are in another 101 class.....

After determining your itinerary,  you have to decided where you will stay and how long you will stay in each place. Moving hotels too often can be exhausting, so its often better to choose a 'home base' from which to explore nearby areas. Keeping that in mind, look through your itinerary and choose your overnight locations and how many nights you plan to stay in each. Below is my example from my trip to Israel and Jordan:

Once you know where and for how many night you will be staying in each place, you can start planning out transportation. This if often a case of taking into account the issues of time vs. money.  For example, a short flight might be the quickest option, but it is probably also the most expensive option. If you have a longer trip, you have the time to take a bus or train, but if your only a two week holiday, you might opt for the flight.

Some options to consider:
  • Rental Car - This is something that I never considered when I first traveling overseas. The idea of driving in a foreign country can be intimidating but depending on the number of travelers it can sometimes be the cheapest option. It also provide you with more flexibility and allows you to see more things. Make sure to check the local driving regulations/conditions as well as what parking will be like in the cities you plan to visit. 
  • Train/Bus - This is often the easiest and cheapest way to get from point A to point B. Make sure the bus/train runs the route on the day you need to make the trip. Buses and Trains don't always take you to the places you need to go and can limit your itinerary.
  • Taxi - In countries where driving yourself isn't an option you can often hire a driver for anywhere from a few hours to your entire trip. This can get very expensive depending on where you are visiting, but it is definitely one of the most convenient options. 

Phnom Penh Top 5 - Guest Post

I'm guest blogging today over at Top Backpacker Destinations about my Phnom Penh experience. Go check it out here!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Walking on Water: the Siq trail in Wadi Mujib

We had planned to spend our first day in Jordan driving down the King's Highway from Madaba towards Petra. We had been told that the historic road offered interesting scenery and many stopping points of interest. The night before we had worked with our hotel to hire a car to take us on our desired route with stops at a few recommended sites. Afterwards we took a short stroll through the town and pretty soon our clothes were plastered to our bodies and we were exhausted from the intense heat of the Jordanian summer.  It was enough to convince us to throw away our entire "Kings Highway Plan" in favor of a new plan concocted based on something we had been told at the hotel bar that evening. Somewhere between Madaba and Petra there was a 'water walk' and the face that it involved being in water was enough for us. Heck - we had already packed some sweet water shoes.

We got into the car the next morning, with our new fried form the hotel bar and explained the change of plans to the driver. Although he didn't change the estimated price, he seemed a little miffed, "I wish I had known that we were going to the water walk."  After about 20 minutes of driving, he pulled over and purchased a pair of swim trunks from a stall on the side of the road and the source of his 'annoyance' became clear - he planned to join us and had he known he would have packed his shorts.

The entrance to the park provides changing rooms and lockers to keep your valuables. They also provided life jackets (although the water is never deep enough that you have to swim). I don't have a water proof camera so we carried it in a plastic bag in a small back pack we carried. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this option and you can see from the photo quality that it was difficult to stand still in the stream long enough to take good shots.

At the entrance to the Siq

The path starts off about ankle deep in water as you walk into the canyon (Siq just means canyon). At first there are pebbly banks you can walk on but eventually there is no other option but to wade. Although it was slow going, the cold water and shade provided by the canyon felt wonderful and the scenery provided by the canyon walls was incredible.

After the first 300 feet, the 'walk' became more of a scramble as we climbed/slid over large boulders and pulled our way up small waterfalls. Thank goodness we had our driver with us because he was able to help us over these obstacles and give us advice as to the best routes. Pretty soon we were totally soaked.

Trip Planning 101: Part III - Creating an Itinerary

The Tunisia to Iceland flight can be a killer...

This post is part of a series on planning a trip. The other posts covered choosing a location and booking airline tickets.

When traveling for a limited amount of time and on a limited budget, I find that its always helpful to plan out an itinerary ahead of time. As I've mentioned before, some people like to travel with lots of flexibility in their plans and more power to them. This guide is probably not for those people. Although, sometimes the best experiences can come from last minute changes to plans and decisions on a whim, a planned itinerary allows you to book hotels and transportation ahead of time which will allow you to make the most of your time and money. It also makes sure you don't miss you on important experiences (You will know ahead of time which days hotels are closed, you can book a meal in advance for the world famous restaurant and you can grab that last seat on that overnight train to your next destination).

A planned itinerary doesn't necessarily close the door to spontaneity. Tickets can be rescheduled, hotel accommodations can be canceled and plans can be reworked if some once in a lifetime opportunity presents itself. All an itinerary allows that you can do the hard work of bookings and research before your trip so you can spend your vacation...well, enjoying your vacation. Think of it as being your own travel agent.

Whenever I start planning for a new trip, my first step is always to take a look at a map of the are I plan to visit and keep in mind where my flights land. For example, when I visited Israel and Jordan in 2010 I flew into Amman and out of Tel Aviv:

Monday, October 17, 2011

Christmas Markets of Eastern Europe

Snowy Road in Budapest
Starting in mid-November of every year, Christmas Markets start popping up all over Europe. In December of 2010, I took a mini train journey through Hungary, Austria, Slovakia and Czech Republic. The cheery Christmas Markets were definitely one of the highlights of my trip.

Pretzels for Sale in Vienna, Austria - Not sure about 'Krapfen'

Each city, especially the major capitals is usually home to many different markets ranging in size.  Different markets are usually popular for different reasons - food, crafts, entertainment, decorations. Most major squares will house at least a few Christmas booths which gives the markets quite the dramatic back drop.

Christmas Market in Vienna, Austria
 The main activities of the Christmas Markets are shopping, eating and drinking. Most stalls sell Christmas decorations, toys, souvenirs and crafts.

Friday, October 14, 2011

My Encounter with the Israeli Military

Israel/Jordan Border near the Red Sea
 Traveling overseas is always somewhat of a calculated risk. You are purposely placing yourself outside of your comfort zone (which sometimes is half the fun) and sometimes things go wrong. All the sudden you are faced with a problem that would be manageable at home, but in these new surroundings you know no one, you don’t know the laws, you don’t know the language and you are still recovering from the side effects of whatever the heck you ate from that street vendor who you knew looked sketchy but you threw caution to the wind in what now seems like a horrible lack of judgment. I could tell you that in these situations it’s important to keep your cool and try and rationally think through a solution, but obviously that’s easier said than done.

When I visited Israel in 2010 I had been across the border for less than half a day when I was stopped, accused of being a spy and detained on the side of the road for over an hour in 100 degree weather – and it was all because of a camel. I’m not sure this is the best example of “keeping your cool” but it is a reminder that at some point every traveler will hit a bump in the road. You will get past it, your trip will still be good, and it will make an interesting story when you return home.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Trip Planning 101: Pt. II - Buying Airplane Tickets

This post is part of a series on planning a trip. The last post covered choosing a destination.

Once you have chosen your destination you can start on the biggest road block - buying plane tickets. For me, this is often the "pulling the trigger" moment which can be nerve wracking. Tickets can be a huge chunk of money and are for the most part non-refundable.

Searching For Ticket Prices

To help ensure that you make the best decision possible it’s a good idea to do a little research and price comparison. This will be easier if you have very set dates. If your dates are more flexible, you will want to make sure you are tracking ticket prices to see when the best fare is available. I always recommend starting first at In addition to finding some of the lowest prices, kayak will also allow you to search for flexible dates and filter by a variety of different criteria. My other favorite feature of kayak is kayak buzz which allows you to pick a departure place, a time period and a general destination ("Europe" or "World Cities") and see what low fares have been found recently. For example, right now I search for flights leaving from Washington "anytime" and found a $220 round trip flight to the Caribbean.

After a little searching on Kayak you will have a general idea of around what the flight should cost. This will allow you to search around for a possible better deal. This means going to the carrier websites (Delta, United), other bargain flight locators, etc. It’s also a good idea to see if you can get a ticket using miles or other rewards points.

Open Jaw Itineraries

My number one recommendation is that you get outside of the "round trip" pigeon hole. I find that people usually automatically assume that this is the way they should purchase their ticket. However, in my experience flying an "open jaw" (fly into one city and fly out of another) itinerary is often the best use of both your time in money.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Dr. Fish Spa

Dinner Time!
Siem Reap, the town outside of the Angkor Wat complex, is full of fun things to do and see while you rest up from a busy day at the temples. Shopping, night life, outdoor movie theaters and spas literally cover ever street. When I was there in Summer 2011, the 'Dr. Fish' Spa was all the rage. I'm not sure if 'Dr. Fish' is the original company or what - but from what I saw they all had the same name.
Free beer with Fish Pedicure
Most of the places had the same drill. Pay a few dollars and get unlimited QT with the fish. In a show of true free market competition most of them now offered extras like free beers. You could literally find a place offering these 'fish pedicures' every 100 feet or so but the quality ranged from large marble fountains with free Angkor documentary screenings to street food vendors with 15 gallon buckets. 
 I opted for the mid range option which was your basic tub full of human flesh eating fish. The sensation is really one of the craziest things I've ever felt. Its a mixture between pin pricks and tickling that  makes it almost impossible to keep your feet in the tub at first. After a few minutes though you start to get used to the little nippers and you are able to keep your feet in for longer.

While we sat there a group of about six gathered with their feet in the tub. It was pretty gross to see how the herd of fish would flock to the 'fresh meat' that put their feet in (Hope no ones eating lunch!). After about 15 minutes of nomming on some old skin, the fish would start to lose interest (and probably your feet started to run out of fish food). 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Trip Planning 101 - Choosing a Destination

Something I hear people say a lot when discussing upcoming vacations is how stressful it is to plan a trip. Longer trips, especially those overseas can be overwhelming to those who don't have any experience in being their own travel agent.  Obviously, it can also be very time consuming to plan out a one or two week overseas trip and with the pressures of everyday life some people just don't have time. There are always travel agents or websites that will help you plan out an itinerary - and I've known plenty of people who have had wonderful experiences with pre-planned trips. However, I think that the more time and energy you put into planning the trip, the more you will get out of it.  I've also heard the argument that trips are more fun if they aren't planned. This may be true for your style of travel -but that doesn't mean that you can at least research your options so that your fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants decisions can be informed fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants decisions.
The first step in planning in trip is to pick your location. Sometimes this is out of your control (friends wedding, work trip, etc) but other times the world is your oyster. When choosing where you want to go there are several things you want to take into consideration:
  • Budget
  • Time of Year
  • Length of Vacation
  • Number of Travel Partners
  • Safety Concerns
It also helps if you keep a running list of places you want to visit. The list doesn't have to be realistic... you can include places can't afford or that you know are too dangerous right now. Once you outline your criteria for your upcoming trip you can cross reference it against your list and see what is feasible.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Battambang's Bamboo Train

View from the Bamboo Train
 On my way from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh I stopped in a town called Battambang to see some of their Angkor temples and ride the famous (well famous might be questionable) bamboo train. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge the trains were discontinued but the overgrown tracks still remain in many parts of the country. In Battambang, the locals have developed their own system of transportation using these abandoned tracks.

Overgrown Train Tracks
Passengers sit on platforms built out of bamboo with engines attached to the back where the driver (who controls the speed) sits. For $10 I was able to take an hour long drive through the Battambang countryside. 
Bamboo Car

Awkward over the shoulder shot...I think he knew

Friday, October 7, 2011

Surviving Long Plane Rides

Long plane rides are without a doubt one of my least favorite parts of traveling. I'm not afraid of flying, but I hate every moment of it. The crowded airports, the long lines, the boring 12 hours in one seat, the horrible airplane food, the noisy children....ick. I have a pretty consistent day dream that mankind invents teleportation and it suddenly becomes possible to visit far flung locations without all the pain of transoceanic flights. Then I think about how it will probably be so expensive that I won't be able to afford it and so I will just be bitter about it (much like I am now about the existence of first class). Then, when it is affordable everyone (and their children) will be traveling all the time and exotic travel locations will become so crowded with tourists they will feel like Disney World. Then I start to worry that this mass migration of people will lead to a diminishment of cultural diversity and we will be one step closer to 1984...

But, I'm getting off topic...for now, the only option (short of a multi week boat ride) if you want to visit Timbuktu is to fly. And as painful as that may be, I have found that there are some ways to improve the experience somewhat.

1. Develop a Routine
The more you know what to expect, the more comfortable you will feel during your flight. When I travel I like to wear a simlar outfit (jeans and t-shirt/sweater) and carry the same bag. This way I know where my important documents are, I know what compartment my computer is in, I know what I need to take off at airport security, and I know if I am suddenly missing something. (Was I wearing a belt before I went through security?) Once these things become habit you can use your mind for something more productive (like thinking about how much you hate every single person working the check-in desk).

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Relics of the Bosnian War

Bosnian war ruins
 Our hostel  owner in Sarajevo was a survivor of  the Bosnian war in the 90s and he offered a daily tour of the sites that helped tell the story of his experience.  We had arrived at the hostel at around noon after an overnight flight from the states so our group was exhausted.  On a whim we asked him if he could recommend anything for us to do that afternoon and he offered to take us - it ended up being one of the most amazing experiences of the trip.  (PS. If you are wondering, the name of the hostel is SA Hostel - I highly recommend you stay there) 

1980s Olympic Bob Sled Track

Our group of four, along with two Australian guys from the hostel piled into two cars, one driven by our hostel owner and the other by his adult son, Jan. We then set off at break neck speeds for the hills surrounding the city which we would later find out made up most of the Serbian line during the siege of Sarajevo. Our first stop was the ruins of the former 1984 Olympic village - now covered in graffiti and bullet holes.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Graffiti of the World

Train in Ljubljana, Slovenia
1890 "I was here" in Angkor Wat Temple Siem Reap, Cambodia

1980s Olympic Bob Sled Track/ 1990s War Zone in Sarajevo, Bosnia

Bethlehem Wall in Palestine

Lessons learned from arriving in Budapest after dark

In winter of 2010, I flew into Budapest for a week of work. I had gotten there a few days early so that I would have time to see the city and visit the Christmas Markets. To save money, I was staying in a small hostel prior to checking into my work hotel.

My flight landed after dark (which isn't that late when you think of winter in Eastern Europe) and I had to make my way from the airport to my hostel. Because I knew there was a flat rate shuttle service available at the airport and that I could expense the cost, I hadn't bothered researching other methods of getting to my hostel.

Mistake #1: Not knowing the exact location of your hotel
As a woman traveling alone, especially when arriving after dark,  I think its important to always know the exact location of your hotel/hostel. I try to carry my reservation print out (with the exact address and phone number) and a map with my hostel marked. This way if anything goes wrong with your transfer you have back up.

After boarding the shuttle, I told them I was staying at the Aboriginal Hostel and the driver confirmed he knew the place. The driver had to make several other stops before he eventually pulled over at my destination. He said he couldn't go down the street because it was one way but that if I walked a block I would see it.