Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Money Management Part 1: Tracking Your Spending

One of the most stressful parts of traveling is budgeting your money. Usually when I travel, I feel like money is just flying out of my hands left and right which is not a pleasant feeling at all. This stress can usually be mitigated in two ways: 1) by effectively tracking your spending and 2) by spending less. I feel much better when I can account for where my money went and know that it wasn't wasted. Nothing is worse than finishing a day with an empty wallet and not remembering where it all went.

I'm not going to lie, this is something that I have struggled with consistently when I travel. I someone who uses credit cards 99% of the time at home, I'm used to tracking my spending via online banking. Having to carry and use cash becomes frustrating and overwhelming over long periods of time. Over the course of my trips I've found a few strategies which have helped keep tabs on my cash.

1. Plan Ahead
I know I know, my gravestone is going to say "Plan ahead! Make an itinerary!" But that's okay, because at least it won't say "add text later..." Booyah. Anyway, this is not the part where I tell you to make a budget and stick to it. Yes, you should do that - so should I, but it never happens. Budgets are like the high school boyfriend you promised you'd still want to be with when you got to college. Then you get to college and you can't understand how you though $15 a day would be enough for food. Your about to college, you don't need that kind of commitment.

So go ahead, dump the boyfriend, call the spade a spade and admit you're going to single (this metaphor stopped working about three sentences ago.) What I am saying is, sit down and add up your possible trip expenses and be honest -really honest about your spending plans. Add up the cost of your hotel every night, and the cost of food every day. Now double whatever amount your wrote down for food. Now add in about $50 a day for "incidentals, entertainment, and transportation." Now add up everything together and for good measure tack on an extra $300.  You should be looking at a pretty large sum of money.

Mentally deduct that amount from your bank account and think about if you will be okay with that when you come back. Imagine that that money is gone - can you still make the rent when you get back? How do you feel about having spent that money? You need to mentally prepare yourself for the fact that you could spend this money on your trip. (If you're starting to feel a little ill at this point - good, hold onto this feeling. Remember it every time you think you'll grab just one more beer or take a taxi instead of the train.)

If you can't afford to spend this money, at this point you need to make some hard choices. Even if your the best budget keeper in the entire world, there are always unexpected expenses - sometimes big one. You don't want a financial cushion of $100. Its time to start reevaluating your priorities - maybe you can book a cheaper hotel. Maybe you can skip out on a couple days of touring. Adjust your expectations and your plan to better meet your finances.

2. Pay up front this is also a little bit similar to planning head but bear with me. It's not always possible to pay for things ahead of time, but if there is anything you know you can buy or pay for in advance - go ahead and take care of that. Flights, Train Tickets, Hotels - those are all good things that can be paid for in advance.

Now there are obvious drawbacks of this approach - mainly that you will be committed to these plans. But, one major advantage is that you can go ahead and see this money spent before your trip. Its much easier to budget and view your expenditures before your trip. Having gotten these big expenses out of the way will allow you to focus on tracking your other spending during the trip. In addition, it means you can carry less cash during your trip. If (heaven forbid) you were robbed during your trip - you would at least have your hotel and flight sorted out.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Fall in DC

Tree near the White House
One of the great parts of living somewhere is that you get a chance to see it all year round. I've never been to Paris in the Spring, and I've only ever seen Eastern Europe under a foot of snow, but I get a chance to see DC in every season. Right now, its fall in DC and the trees are beautiful. These are some of my favorite photos from around the Mall, Union Station and the White House.

Union Station


Vietnam Memorial

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Photos of Philadelphia's Magic Garden

Last Spring, I visited the Magic Garden in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Magic Garden is a house and outdoor space that displays the work of Mosaic Artist Isaiah Zagar. According to the organization, much of the art is inspired by Zagar's international travel and his time in the peace corps.

The Garden is located near the famous Philly Cheese steak stands, so its an easy visit. Its $5 for entrance and you can see everything in about 45 minutes. Most of the exhibit is outside so its worth waiting until a sunny day so you can get the full effect of the sun streaming through the recycled glass bottles.

From their website:

"Zagar started working on the Magic Gardens in 1994 in the vacant lot nearby his studio. He began by constructing a massive fence to protect the area from harm and then spent the next fourteen years excavating tunnels and grottos, sculpting multi-layered walls, and tiling and grouting the 3,000 square foot space. The installation pays tribute to Zagar's many artistic influences, as well as the events and experiences of his life. Enveloped in visual anecdotes, the mosaiced walls refer to his wife Julia and sons Ezekiel and Jeremiah through playful images and words, but also reference important elements of the wider world — Las Pozas and Day of the Dead, the dance community of Philadelphia, and even the airplanes of the nationwide 9/11 tragedy."

Friday, November 18, 2011

8 Tips for Filing a Complaint with a Travel Service Provider

Photo: Lindyy, through a Creative Commons Attribution License
Nothing is more frustrating than shelling out money for a hotel or flight and feeling like you didn't get the service you were promised. Worse yet is when you feel like you were swindled or overcharged by a deceitful company. It can oftentimes feel like you are alone - one person against a huge company. The key to getting your voice heard is to communicate effectively with the company. The 8 tips below give some thoughts on how to get the best response. However, before you file a complaint, make sure you really analyze why you are upset. Filing useless complaints just to get free things doesn't help anyone - and can hurt small business, especially in developing countries. Use your best judgement and save complaints for when something has truly impacted your traveling experience.

1. Be a sympathetic character
The first step is always to explain why you are upset. People working in Customer Service are just that - People. If they can relate to your problems, they are more likely to care, and if they care, they are more likely to try and help you out. Don't just say "You cancelled my flight and now I'll never make it to Texas!!" Tell them why you need to get there - "I am flying in to Texas be in my friend's wedding and I really need to get there by today so I don't miss it." If your on your honeymoon, and your room is awful, tell management "I booked here because I wanted a special experience for my honeymoon and I don't feel like you are providing it."

2. Throw around numbers
Loyalty numbers that is. If you are part of a frequent flyer program, or a hotel points system, NOW is the time to tell them. Hand them your care or include your number in your complaint. Let them know how long you've been a customer. If Suzy Joe, who leaves her hometown once a decade, tells a hotel that she will never stay there again, they don't really feel that that loss will impact their business. If you let them know that you have been staying with them every month for the last three years and have the rewards points to back that up, they will see what they are loosing when they lose you as a customer - money. A couple of free nights is nothing for them, especially if it means a future lifetime of profits as you continue to come back.

3. Give them a chance to make it right
When something goes wrong that you would like to see fixed, let them know right away. Don't wait until  its too late. If there really is a problem with your room or flight, let the staff know and they may be able to easily resolve it. They might now even know you are dissatisfied. It could mean the difference between you spending an entire flight or stay being dissatisfied and something being easily fixed.  Once you are home, there isn't much the hotel can do about the AC being broken during your entire stay - if you didn't tell them how can expect them to have fixed it? If you do inform an hotel or airline of a problem and it is not resolved, make sure to note these interactions in your follow up (See step 6).

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Oh Little Town of Bethlehem: Photos of the Palestine Wall

Barbed Wire Fence in front of the wal
During our stay in Jerusalem, we took a day trip to the West Bank to visit the cities of Bethlehem and Hebron. Although I had been really looking forward to Hebron, the most moving part of the day ended up being the city of Bethlehem - home to the wall between Palestine and Israel.
The wall separates the Palestine territory from the rest of Israel. It looms almost twice as large as the infamous Berlin wall which once separated East Germany and West Germany. But, much like the Berlin Wall, the concrete barrer in Bethlehem has been decorated to express the feelings of those whose lives the wall has impacted.
Personification of Palestine with hands tied
Almost every inch of the wall is covered with paintings and murals. The art depicts many different feelings and emotions. Most are highly political - depicting the personification of Palestine being abused or images of picturesque Bethlehem being walled off from the rest of the world. Bethlehem is well known as being the birth place of Jesus, so many illustrations show walls blocking off Christmas or the nativity scene.
Christmas behind the wall
Some pictures show scenes of hope, illustrating times after the wall has fallen. Peace doves are common themes.
The wall after it falls

Issac's knife can cut away all the poisoned yesterdays

Monday, November 14, 2011

Istanbul: Food, Drink and Narleigh

Istanbul Mosque at twilight
Although Istanbul is full of famous historic sites, its also a really fun city to just hang out in. During my visit there in November 2009, we had a great time eating, drinking and smoking the traditional Turkish water pipe: Narleigh. Although we ate out almost every meal we were there, we quickly found that the best food was the street food.  Our favorite were this (lamb?) meatball sandwiches being sold by men in carts near the river on the way to Ortakoy.

The men had fresh vegetables, spices and meat which they would grill up right there when you 'ordered.' It was seriously the most delicious sandwich I've ever had. I've tried to recreate it several times with no luck, so if anyone knows exactly whats in them, please let me know!

Our favorite spot to hang out and enjoy the city was the Galata Bridge. The Galata bridge spans the Bosphorus River and therefore connects the Asian and European sides of the city. The bridge has two levels: one for traffic and the other for pedestrians. The pedestrian part of the bridge is lined with restaurants and cafes with views of both sides of the city. 

Galata Bridge cafe with Galata Tower in the background

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Photos of Occupy DC

The Occupy DC group, a branch of the Occupy Wallstreet Movement, has set up two camps in DC: one at McPherson Square and the other in Freedom Plaza near the Ronald Reagan Building.  This isn't a political blog, so I won't get into the reasons or issues at hand - those can easily be found in many other places. I wanted to share some of the photos I took of the group at McPherson Square this past Saturday.

Walking around the square where the group is organized is fascinating. During my visit a band was playing for a group of people who either danced, listened to the music or chatted nearby. Another group held a meeting near the statue in the center of the park. Others set near their tents, painting, talking to neighbors or setting up camp.

The posted rules asked that no one's picture be taken without permission. At first I was concerned that they wouldn't be okay with visitors, but everyone I spoke with was friendly, happy to talk and willing to be photographed.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Sand Boarding in Ica, Peru

The Haucachina Oasis
After a week in Peru, exploring Machu Pichu, Cusco, Puno and Arequipa, it was time to return to Lima to catch our flight back to the US. We had to take an overnight bus from Arequipa, but decided to make one last stop along the way. We had heard of several interesting places including the famous Nazca Lines but what really caught our interest was the chance to sand board in Ica on the sand dunes surrounding the Huacachina Oasis. Before we boarded our bus, it was really easy to book a tour in Arequipa for a tour the next morning. For $20 we would get breakfast, a sand dune tour in a buggy and sand boarding rental equipment.
Oasis surrounded by sand with Ica in the background
After a long night on the bus, we were dropped off in the small town of Ica. The Oasis is actually about 15 minutes away by cab. After leaving the bus station you slowly drive out of civilization and into a pretty desolate area surrounded by sand. Just as we were starting to regret choosing this as our destination, the Oasis suddenly appeared surrounded by hostels and backpacker hang outs.

 After breakfast, we grabbed our gear and headed out with our guide in a four man dune buggy.  The dune buggy ride itself was actually half the attraction. After driving for about 10 min all signs of civilization are left behind and all you can see are huge sand dunes. Our driver drove up and down the dunes turning the ride into one long roller coaster -esque adventure. 
Ten Minutes past the Oasis - nothing but dunes

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Photo fo the Day: Plaza de Armas, Lima, Peru

Guest Post - Cruise Down the Nile

I'm Guest Bloggin again today! Check out my post about a Cruise Down the Nile over at Twenty Something Travel.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Reader Question - Going to Peru? Issues and Concerns

I'm fascinated by your trip to Peru. I've traveled a lot but always been hesitant about South America. Did you have any problems/issues/OMG I'm never coming back moments?
                                                                                        - Rob P. , Rocky Mountains, USA

Hey Rob -

Thanks for your question! Personally I loved Peru- probably one of my favorite trips. Its a wonderful country with tons to see and do. Overall, it also felt very safe, but that probably depends on your comfort level and where you are visiting. I mainly took overnight buses to get around and stayed in hostels on the nights I wasn't traveling. (You can read more about my overnight bus adventures here and here.) I was only able to spend a week touring Southern Peru, but I hope to explore more of South America in the future.

The US state department also gives the country a pretty positive rating: "Peru is a developing country with an expanding tourism sector. A wide variety of tourist facilities and services is available, with quality varying according to price and location. Read the Department of State Background Notes on Peru for additional information."

Monday, November 7, 2011

Landmines, The Never Ending War

The Cambodian Landmine Problem

Cambodia is home to the largest number of amputees in the world. It's impossible to visit the country without seeing amputees - a situation which is only compounded by the lack of availability of prosthetics. Most people are forced to do with ill fitting or homemade devices, or they simply go without. Although I had seen many of these amputees in the entrances to the Angkor temples, it wasn't until my visit to the Cambodia Land Mine Museum, near Siem Reap, that I fully understood the reasons and implications. Most if not all of these amputees were victims of landmines left over from the time of the Khmer Rouge - over thirty years ago.  One thing about the the mines used in Cambodia is that most of them are designed to maim not kill. The though being that more resources are used for first aid on injured soldiers.

The Cambodia Land Mine Museum is run by Aki Ra, a Cambodian and former child soldier who has dedicated his life to helping remove mines and help the victims.  His story is really interesting and I recommend everyone read about him.

In addition to educating people about the horrors of landmines, the museum also serves as a home to children who have lost limbs to landmine accidents. These children are given room, board and an education. Most victims of landmines have no other option than to beg - Aki Ra offers these children another possibility.

Guest Post: Don't Stop Belizing

Kids playing in the school yard

Today I'm guest blogging!  Check out my post about volunteering in Belize over at Amanda's blog, A Dangerous Business.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Sabbath in the City - Friday in Jerusalem

We were sitting cross legged on the ground of a stone walkway overlooking the Western Wall plaza. Each of us had brought a large bottle of water that we sipped on frequently as we tried to squeeze ourselves into the little shade offered by the wall we leaned against. It was still daylight, an hour before the setting sun would indicate the start of the Sabbath, but the crowds were already assembling below. To our left, the golden dome of the Temple on the Mount shined with the last rays of the setting sun.

We had only planned on staying in Jerusalem for three nights before heading to Tel Aviv. I'm not much of a city person, and the 100 degree August weather made us hesitant to stray too far from the beach (Or really, on that trip, any water). But on the night before our planned departure we had found ourselves reluctant to leave and made a last minute change of plans. The next day was Friday, Shabbat, and we were in holiest city in Judaism.
The Western Wall
But Jerusalem isn't just the holy city of the Jewish People - it is also claimed by the Muslims and the Catholics as their own. Our stay happened to coincide with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and tomorrow's sunset would not only mark the start of Shabbat, it would also put an end to the Muslim day of fasting. Jerusalem is one of the most hotly contested cities in the world, located in a country that rarely finds itself out of the news. We had spent days wandering through the city's four sections (a fourth section is home to the city's Armenian population) and we were eager to stay and witness the culmination of religious celebrations. After a few calls to sort out our hostel accommodations, we decided to extend our stay another night.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

October in Review

Whew - I can't believe October is already over (4 days ago). Since this is the end of the first real month that I've been blogging I thought it would be nice to sum up some highlights from my blog and some of the posts I've enjoyed reading from other travel blogs. If its your first visit, this post will help you "get your feet wet" without having to go through every post on my blog. (I know that was a stretch but I wanted to make the picture work.)

L'appel du Vide Highlights

Trip Planning Parts I, II, III
This series of posts walks through my normal trip planning steps and explains how to pick a destination, book flights and plan out an itinerary.

When things go wrong
This month I also focused on issues I've run into while traveling. From run ins with the Israeli Military to non-stop cancellations in Prague. I also gave tips for what to do when the weather on your trip is less than ideal.

Travel Advice
Several posts this month dealt with advice for traveling based on my experiences. I gave my thoughts on surviving long plane rides and tips on earning frequent flyer miles. I also gave some pointers for visiting big historical sites when abroad.

In October, I also shared some photos from my recent trips. I did a series of pictures from my visit to the Great Pyramids as well as some from a trip to the market in Accra, Ghana.

My Trips
My favorite kind of posts are ones about the fun things I actually did on my trips. This month I posted about the Wadi Mujib Siq Trail in Jordan and my trip on the Bamboo Train in Battambang.

Guest Posts

This month I also did my first guest post about the Top 5 Phnom Penh experiences over at Top Backpacking Destinations.

Other Travel Blogs

Traveling Canucks - 13 Awesome Miniature Photos from around the world
This really cool picture posts takes classic shots and gives them a slightly different spin. By using tilt-shift photography, they have made these scenes look like they were created in miniature.

Photos of the "Egyptian Spice Market" in Istanbul

Unfortunately, while I was in Istanbul, the famous Grand Bazaar was closed due to a Muslim holiday, but we were able to visit the "Egyptian Spice Market" which specializes in selling spices, soaps, food, perfumes, etc.

Soap for sale


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

5 tips for when the weather doesn't cooperate while traveling

Phnom Penh in the rain

As you may have heard, the East Coast got some weird weather this weekend (also known as Snoloween). I couldn’t help but feel bad for the poor tourists who must have come to DC expecting a nice fall weekend monument tour and instead had to trek through snow and sleet. I had actually planned to head down to the national mall on Saturday, but because of the weather decided to reschedule for a weekend with sunnier skies. It was nice that since I live here I had this option – obviously when you are traveling you have limited time and you don’t always have this luxury. After many years of traveling I’ve had my share of encounters with less than desirable weather and found the best ways of dealing.

1. Be Flexible
When I went to Amsterdam in September it ended up raining almost every day. As I later learned, this isn’t so rare for Amsterdam – they usually only get a few really nice days each summer. Thankfully, Amsterdam has a nice mix of both indoor and outdoor activities. When we did happen to get once really nice day during my visit, I postponed my trip to the Van Gogh museum and made sure to do all the things on my outdoor list – bike ride, canal tour, and visiting the parks. When the rain started up again, I still had plenty of museums and in door attractions to visit. The key is to rearrange your plans to make the most of the good weather when you have it and save rainy day activities for actual rainy days.

Escaping the heat
2. Look for the silver lining
It would be great if the weather on every trip was 70 degrees and sunny, but isn’t variety the spice of life? Hasn’t everyone seen pictures of the Eiffel Tower in front of blue skies? But have you seen it in a Thunder storm? Do you know what London looks like under a foot of snow? Have you ever seen camels react to nonstop sand storms? The fact is bad weather happens everywhere and if you are on vacation when the weather goes hay wire you will have a front row seat for observing real life. Whether its kids playing in the streets during a rain storm or animals rolling in the cool mud to avoid the heat, you are going to get to see a side of the world you don’t always find in the guide books. In addition, you sometimes get the most unique and beautiful photos during times of bad weather.