Canada is an amazing winter destination due to its pristine beauty and wealth of outdoor winter activities. There is something for everyone here! Of course buying all your gear or forgotten items while on winter vacation is considerably more expensive than bringing them from home. So, if you are heading to Canada this winter, here is what you need for some of the most popular activities:

Elk Viewing

Getting to see winter animals in their native environment is a humbling, peaceful activity -- and a great opportunity for photographers. Edmonton, Alberta is home of the Elk Island National Park and offers some of the best winter Elk viewing in all of Canada. Don't forget:

  • Binoculars
  • Photography gear


Banff, Alberta is home to the Banff National Park and an amazing destination for adventurous winter activities such as dogsledding. To avoid expensive gear rental fees, be sure to bring:

  • Fleece or down jacket with a wind/water proof shell
  • Supportive insulated winter boots (or water-resistant hiking boots) above the ankle
  • Goggles or sunglasses
  • Lip balm to protect against the cold, dry winter winds

Skiing is one of the best winter activities in Canada


Canada has no shortage of skiing destinations for people of all skill levels, however Whistler, British Columbia is consistently ranked as (one of) the top ski destination in Canada. It not only is fun for kids and adults, but also has plenty of non-skiing activities as well, including snow tubing and snowcat tours. For those who plan to go skiing, do not forgot to bring:

  • Thick, waterproof parka with a hoodie
  • Supportive insulated winter boots (or water-resistant hiking boots) above the ankle
  • Any ski gear you own that is not too cumbersome to bring (to avoid high rental fees)

Winter Festivals & Events

For seasonal festivals, shows and events, there is nowhere better to be than Quebec. Food festivals. Holiday shows. Performances and events a plenty. There is something new to do every day here during winter. However the pinnacle of all Canada's winter festivals is the Quebec winter carnival, Le Carnaval de Québec. It is one of the world's largest winter festivals and includes parades, parties, ice sculptures, sleigh races, shows, amusement rides and more.

What to bring to Le Carnaval de Québec?

  • Your appetite -- there are plenty of wonder winter foods and delicious dishes available
  • A swimsuit!

Why your appetite? The carnival also includes the "Bain de Neige" or snow bath. The unique challenge is something unique that you won't soon forget!

Everything Else

When it comes to general outdoor activities and family fun, Mississauga, Ontario is a great choice. There is plenty of great ways to pass the days outside. Some of their most popular activities include tobogganing, snow-shoeing, cross-country skiing, and ice skating. Of course there are also lots of great festivals, events and even indoor activities as well. Just don't forget:

  • To bring a great attitude and be ready for a fun winter vacation!

  One final note: do not bring any cotton clothing. Cotton (including blue jeans) absorbs moisture and when combined with the cold, snowy Canadian winter, can easily cause hypothermia.

Published in Canada

Ever a city of cultural convergence and commerce, modern Istanbul’s 11 to 12 million annual international visitors can find themselves beckoned into shops and restaurants in their native tongues. There are a great many things to see in Turkey, but for the traveler looking for a truly unique experience, the Grand Bazaar is a feast for the senses. Constructed in the 1450s following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the Grand Bazaar is alive with color, smells, and sounds. With over 5000 shops, the market is open from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., Monday through Saturday, with closures on Sundays and bank holidays. Here are some tips having an optimal shopping experience in the Grand Bazaar, so grab some Turkish Lira (currently 0.36 to the US dollar) and hit the market where the wandering visitor can find everything from fortune telling rabbits, to vibrant textiles, rich spices, and much more.

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Where to Stay

If you’re looking for a place to stay in the middle of it all, at Niles Hotel Istanbul – Special Class, the rooms have Ottoman style décor, and air conditioning or the DoubleTree by Hilton Istanbul Old Town for modern chic with affordable prices.

Hitting the Grand Bazaar

Upon first entering the Grand Bazaar, expect to immediately see a dozen things you want to buy. It is a rookie mistake to commit to the first eye catching object, so try to refrain from buying the first thing you see. Instead, spend some time walking around and observing many shops (with a smartphone, it’s easy to pin the location to return later) to get an idea of price range and item selection. With some 5,000 shops stretching 60 streets, there is a lot to see. The high domed Cevâhir Bedesten at the market’s center was originally constructed by Sultan Mehmet II as a dedicated area for the trade of textiles. The building still stands, and continues to house some of the market’s most precious objects and antiques. There’s much to see, so consider staying at the Barcelo Saray Hotel for easy return trips.

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Local Hospitality

Many shopkeepers will offer çay, or tea, to browsing patrons. To refuse is rude, though acceptance at some 16 shops might very well be a bit much. To avoid coming out of an afternoon feeling like a water balloon, politely accept and sip, accepting does not commit the shopper to making a purchase.

Haggling like a Pro

Many Americans are inexperienced with haggling or bargaining, but it is typical in a great many countries around the world. It is common to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed when starting out, but trust us, it can be quite fun and exhilarating once you’ve had some practice and walk out of a transaction with a great price! Vendors will often intentionally inflate prices because they 1) expect patrons to bargain, and 2) generally charge more to tourists. To get a feel for fair prices and how to bargain, it can help to try to inconspicuously observe locals haggling. If the price is wrong, one might try thanking the vendor and moving to leave the shop, at which point, the vendor may counter by asking what price you want. Alternatively, the vendor may walk away, but if you refuse to cave, and the last price was not too far off from reasonable, they may return to resume haggling. It can also be helpful to find two vendors with the same item and play them off one another. While you should be confident and firm while bargaining, keep your tone light and friendly. The business owners often have families to support, so don’t be rude.

When a particular item catches your eye, avoid showing too much interest or enthusiasm, especially if that item is rare as the shop owner will know they have the upper hand as they know you cannot find another vendor with a potentially better price and will stay firm.

If haggling still feels uncomfortable, there will be shops with fixed sticker prices, but expect to pay much more at such establishments.

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No trip to the Grand Bazaar would be complete without shopping for a Turkish carpet. However, this can be quite an expensive process, and it is very difficult to know the value of the prospects. If you want to be safe, try a trusted shop, as many carpets are now manufactured in China and it can be difficult to tell—there is a list of trusted shops here (though it is certainly worth while to visit small shops in the Bazaar). There is a range of materials, like silk or wool; designs, which are specific to the different cultures who hand-make the rugs (the more intricate the pattern, the more expensive); dyes, natural and chemical (natural dyes are less subject to fading, and do so more gracefully than chemical dyes); number of knots per square meter (the more knots, the better made, the more expensive); sizes (prayer rug sized to large).

Visit several carpet shops, where the vendors will treat you to a show of their wares (this can take hours). Do not buy on the first day, but rather, return to your favorite shop after having visited several, getting a sense for colors, patterns, and prices. Always buy handmade rugs. Again, definitely haggle for the price, but do so respectfully and with some humor.

Consider how to get a purchase home—a canvas duffel bag lined with plastic can help protect the textiles, though some shops offer shipping services.

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Dressing to Local Customs

While foreign visitors are not expected to dress according to local customs, when visiting any of the mosques, one must dress appropriately for admittance.

At the Aya Sofya or Blue Mosque, which are very close to the Grand Bazaar, men must wear long pants, and women must wear cover to mid shins. Women must also don a wrap or pashmina covering their heads. Wraps are supplied at the entrance of the Blue Mosque, free of charge or more stylish choices can be purchased easily in the Grand Bazaar.

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A day of haggling can work up an appetite. There are incredible options available to the traveler, but we recommend heading over to the Galata Bridge for an Istanbul fish sandwich. Fishermen catch, grill, and serve their catches fresh on their boats so you can enjoy a delicious, fresh dinner while watching the sunset over the Golden Horn!

  This article was posted on Hipmunk's Tailwind blog by The Hipmunk on November 1st.

Published in Turkey

No matter where you live, the version of a city seen from a tour bus bears little resemblance to the experience of actually living there. Nowhere is that more true than history-rich Europe.

You might see everything in London (The Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, The Globe, and The Sherlock Holmes Museum) without getting a true sense of what it’s like to live there. By the same token, a born Londoner will get coffee at their favorite cart (adjacent to Westminster Abbey) without giving the monument a second glance. A Berlin itinerary that includes the Reichstag building and the Berlin Cathedral but skips the Club Der Visionaere would be a waste of time to any music-loving Berliner.

Since we’re always looking for ways to have our cake and eat it, too, we picked the brains of a few well-informed European locals to bring you the very best hidden gems in some the world’s most fascinating cities. Consider it a local’s guide to off-the-grid musts. (Fair warning: some are naughtier than others.) With this expertly-curated list, you can explore Europe’s best underground offerings and still have time to hit the Eiffel Tower.

Atonal Festival in Berlin, Germany

  Local Guide: Dan
  City: Berlin, Germany
  Hangout: Atonal Festival

This sound and light festival happens once a year. Set in a converted abandoned power plant in central Berlin, the space is entirely cement, with 300-400 foot ceilings, multiple floors, and totally awe-inspiring. As you explore the space, you realize it’s a labyrinth. You’ll find more and more hidden rooms. It’s impossible to explore them all.

Upon arrival at this year’s festival, everyone went to the second floor, where it was pitch black and silent. (Picture that crazy party scene in The Matrix: It’s just like that.) Eventually, a man rose on a podium, raised his hands, and lights shone beneath him. Surrounding him, a choir began to sing.

Later explorations of the space exposed more bars within bars, rooms within rooms turned into art exhibits. At midnight, the place turned into a discotheque. Consider this a much more interesting alternative to the Berghain.

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  Local Guide: Peter
  City: Berlin, Germany
  Hangout: SpreePark

SpreePark is a true local secret. The story goes that a decade or two ago, the owner got into some trouble and had to close this amusement park. Now, it’s like a cross between Little Shop Of Horrors, The Boxcar Children, and Harry Potter. It’s enclosed by a gate which in-the-know ruffians jump over to sneak around and explore.

The place looks frozen in time — railways, an enormous Ferris wheel, cobweb-covered space cars, a merry-go-round. Circus tents and swamps that once were gorgeous ponds — it's a deserted wonderland.

You'll definitely see rebellious kids walking around, but everyone’s on tiptoe. Guards patrol the area to keep people out, though it’s an open secret that people do. From what I understand, the worst thing that happens is they write down your name and ask you to leave. Hiding in the bushes, sneaking around and exploring, it feels a bit like Mission Impossible. It’s magical, and a must-do for more adventurous visitors.

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  Local Guide: Jean
  City: Paris, France
  Hangout: Agua

Agua is a multistory dance boat that’s permanently docked on the Seine. The entrance is definitely not asking for attention — you have to go down a winding staircase to get there. But if you like salsa, the dancing is unbelievable, and salsa on the Seine is an attraction in itself. One floor is devoted to salsa, one to Kizomba and Semba. The event happens every Tuesday, 8 p.m. to 2 a.m.

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  Local Guide: Angelique
  City: Paris, France
  Hangout: Sacré-Coeur Basilica, Montmartre

At the top of Montmartre, this stunning work of architecture is worth a trip on its own merit. But if you put aside the religious and historical significance of the building, the basilica remains a slice of Paris that shouldn’t be passed over. Montmartre is a large hill in Paris’s 18th arrondissement that overlooks the city.

It’s the best place to watch the many fireworks shows that happen throughout the year, in celebration of things like Bastille Day. I suggest grabbing a blanket, getting coffee at the Café de 2 Moulins (Audrey Tatou’s workplace as the titular character in Amélie), and watching the sun set over the city. Fireworks or none, it’s an idyllic, romantic way to spend an evening.

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  Local Guide: Jenny
  City: Gosport, England
  Hangout: Hill Head

There’s not much to do in Gosport, so adventurous types often take the ferry to Portsmouth (only partly because there might be a shop or two there that doesn’t card, but you didn’t hear it from me). Then, you fill a duffle bag with booze, and ferry to Hill Head.

You have to walk past a couple of police stations to get there, which adds to the manufactured sense of thrill. You know you’ve made it when you reach a rocky outcropping on the far side of some boulders. It overlooks The Isle of Wight, across the Solent, and has a beautiful view of Portsmouth, beyond the bay.

The liquor isn’t a requirement to enjoy the quiet and the view. You might see one or two fellow adventurers, but they’ll be enjoying their own private musings. If you’re visiting England, finding picturesque places to reflect, away from the noise and bustle of the city, is a lovely and necessary respite.

  This article was posted on Hipmunk's Tailwind blog by The Hipmunk on October 22nd

Published in Europe

Tipping is a hot topic in the United States these days, as rising minimum wages call into question the standard practice of making servers reliant on tips. For travelers abroad, tipping is an equally sticky issue. Figuring out what to tip when can all too quickly turn a relaxing vacation into a stressful one. Knowing what to tip, on the other hand, can empower travelers to navigate a foreign culture with ease.

Because tipping rules vary by country, region, and place of business, it’s important to research your destination’s customs prior to any trip. Start by consulting this guide, which outlines tipping customs in 20 countries around the world, for restaurants, hotels, and beyond!


Restaurants: While tipping at restaurants and bars isn’t considered a necessity, many tourists often tip around 10%.

Taxis: Tips aren’t expected, but consider rounding up to the nearest whole peso so the driver doesn’t have to sort out change. If they help you with your bags, add on a bit more as a token of appreciation.

Hospitality: Tip tour guides up to 20% and always give bag handlers a small bill or two.


Restaurants: Australian servers are paid decent wages and generally don’t expect tips. Recognize exceptional service by rounding up the bill. In upscale establishments only, tip 10%.

Taxis: While tipping isn’t expected, it’s common courtesy to round up to the nearest whole number.

Hospitality: For the most part, tips aren’t expected within the hospitality industry.


Restaurants: Canada’s tipping protocols are similar to those in the United States (although most Canadian servers are paid minimum wage before tips). Most restaurants expect a minimum 15% tip.

Taxis: It’s customary to tip cab drivers 10% upon arriving at your destination.

Hospitality: Tip concierges for exceptional service only, leave behind a few dollars (or more) for housekeeping, and give bag handlers $1-2 for each bag they carry.

The Caribbean

Restaurants: Most places in the Caribbean islands follow the same tipping standards as the United States, so in general plan to tip 15% or more. One possible exception: If you’re staying in an all-inclusive resort, check to see if the service charge is included.

Taxis: Plan to tip around $1-2 for in-town fares. Tack on a bit extra for late-night or long-distance rides.

Hospitality: Most hotels include a service charge in the bill. If this isn’t the case, be sure to tip bag handlers ($1-2 per bag) and housekeepers ($2 per day). Many resorts discourage tipping, so use your own discretion.


Restaurants: China has a fairly strict no-tipping culture (though some finer establishments may include a 10-15% service charge), so there’s no need to tip at restaurants. If you want to offer a tip for exceptional service, do so out of sight of the server’s employer.

Taxis: Tipping isn’t expected, but it is appreciated (especially in larger cities). Because there’s no customary rate, use your own discretion when deciding how much to tip.

Hospitality: Tipping is usually not expected, although this is changing in more westernized establishments. A good bet is to tip tour guides, housekeepers, and bag handlers a few dollars per day (or bag).

Costa Rica

Restaurants: Tip will be included in the bill at most Costa Rican restaurants. If you want to recognize exceptional service, add another 10% on top.

Taxis: Tips aren’t required, but it’s a friendly gesture to tip a few dollars or round up the fare to the nearest whole number.

Hospitality: Tip tour guides 10-15%, and give a few dollars to bag handlers and housekeeping.

Czech Republic

Restaurants: While tipping wasn’t always standard in the Czech Republic, the custom has been catching on. There’s no need to tip if the bill includes a service charge (though feel free to add on another 10% for great service). If no service charge is included in the bill, tip 10-15%.

Taxis: Round up the fare to the nearest whole number.

Hospitality: Give bag handlers $1-3 per bag, housekeepers $3-5 per day, and concierges $20 if they go above and beyond.


Restaurants: The government requires a 10% service charge on all bills at restaurants, bars, and hotels. While it’s not necessary to tip more than that, you’re free to hand over a few extra dirhams to the server.

Taxis: Cab drivers don’t expect tips, but it’s polite to round up to the nearest 5-dirham note.

Hospitality: Because service charges are included in the bill, there’s little need to tip hotel staff unless you want to recognize great service.


Restaurants: Tip will be included in the bill at most establishments, but plan to tack on another 5-10%.

Taxis: Pay cab drivers 10-15% beyond the stated fare.

Hospitality: Give housekeepers $1-2 per day throughout your stay, tip $1 per bag for bag handlers, and give the concierge $10-20 at the beginning of your stay to ensure great service.


Restaurants: French law requires that service be included in the price, but most locals round up their bills with small change (or up to 10% of the bill).

Taxis: Plan to tip cab drivers about 10%.

Hospitality: Give bag handlers $1-2 per bag and housekeepers around $2-3 per day. Exceptional service from the concierge should warrant 10 or more Euros.


Restaurants: Germany’s tipping customs work much like France’s: Service is included in the price, but it’s customary to round up the bill to an even figure (this usually amounts to 5-10% of the total bill).

Taxis: Round up to the nearest Euro or tack on an extra few Euros if you’re feeling generous.

Hospitality: While tips aren’t required, it’s courteous to leave behind a few Euros for housekeepers and to pay baggage handlers around 2 Euros per item. Slip the concierge 10 or more Euros for great service.


Restaurants: Tip 10% for the waiter, even at upscale restaurants (where a 10% service charge is included in the bill).

Taxis: Tips aren’t expected for short trips. If you hire a driver for a long trip or multiple days, tip around 150-300 rupees per day.

Hospitality: Tip bag handlers around 20 rupees per bag and offer tour guides several hundred rupees.


Restaurants: Tips aren’t expected, but feel free to round up the bill or tip 10% for exceptional service.

Taxis: Tips aren’t expected, but they are appreciated. Use your own discretion.

Hospitality: Ditto the above. Tipping really isn’t expected in Italy, but who doesn’t like being appreciated for good service?


Restaurants: It’s unlikely that a server will accept your tip, so it’s probably most polite not to offer one.

Taxis: Tips are not at all expected. A simple “thank you” will suffice.

Hospitality: Tour guides don’t expect tips but are likely to accept them. Hotel staff may refuse a tip if offered; you’re more likely to transfer cash if you put it in an envelope and leave it behind for staff, rather than foisting cash into their hands.


Restaurants: When service is included in the bill, there’s no need to tip. Otherwise, plan to leave 10-15%.

Taxis: While tips aren’t expected, it’s courteous to round up the fare.

Hospitality: Many hotel staff rely on tips as part of their take-home pay, so be generous. Bag handlers, housekeepers, the concierge, and anyone else who performs a service during your stay warrants a tip. The amount is up to your own discretion.

New Zealand

Restaurants: Like Australia, New Zealand doesn’t have much of a tipping culture. Service and sales tax are almost always included in the bill. Tip only for exceptional service or when the menu states that service is not included.

Taxis: Tipping isn’t expected, but acknowledge great service by rounding up the fair or leaving behind a few small bills.

Hospitality: Ditto the above. Tips aren’t expected, but they’re a nice way to express appreciation for a job well done.


Restaurants: Locals generally leave small change or round up to the nearest euro, so go ahead and follow suit. If you receive great service or are dining at an upscale establishment, leave a 5-10% tip.

Taxis: Small change, rounding up to the nearest Euro, or a couple of extra Euros are all acceptable tips.

Hospitality: Pay the bag handler up to five Euros, the person who delivers room service 1-2 Euros, and housekeepers a few Euros for the stay.

South Africa

Restaurants: In nearly all establishments, it’s customary to leave a 10-15% tip for the waiter.

Taxis: Plan to tip cab drivers around 10%.

Hospitality: Tip bag handlers around $1 per bag. Tip other hotel staff at your own discretion.


Restaurants: Expectations here vary widely: Some sources advocate for not leaving a tip, others suggest leaving 10-15%, and still others suggest leaving $1 per diner. Keep it simple by sticking with 10% or $1 per person, whichever is more generous.

Taxis: Tips aren’t encouraged, but a tip of 20 or 30 Baht is courteous.

Hospitality: It’s standard to tip bag handlers 20 Baht. While there’s no standard tip for housekeepers, it’s respectful to leave behind a tip (the size of which is up to you).

United Kingdom

Restaurants: If a service charge isn’t included in the bill, tip 10% (or higher for exceptional service).

Taxis: Tip 10-15% for black cabs and licensed minicabs, or just round up to the nearest Euro. Tip extra for help with loading or unloading baggage.

Hospitality: Most hotels include a service charge, but it’s still customary to offer small tips to bag handlers and housekeepers.

No matter where you are in the world, remember that servers, cab drivers, and hotel staff are performing a tough (and often thankless) job. Be both appreciative and thoughtful—try to tip in cash and in the local currency so your server can put the money to good use. And practice discretion when handing out tips, particularly in regions where tipping may be frowned upon. Respecting local customs will go a long way toward make any excursion a positive experience.

  This article was posted on Hipmunk's Tailwind blog by The Himpunk on September 9th.

Published in Travel Tips

France — and especially Paris — has a love/hate relationship with tourists. Tourism is an important industry, but if you’re not careful, you can make a nuisance of yourself with locals. Here are five ways you can avoid being that tourist:

  1. Realize you’re not in Kansas anymore. The customs are different. While you’re in France, it’s best to learn to do what the French do, and refrain from doing what they don’t do. People expect tourists to make the occasional cultural faux pas. What they don’t expect is an earful about what’s “wrong” with the way they do things.
  2. Realize that some French people don’t speak English. Most French speak at least some English, especially in the larger cities, and the vast majority of those who work for hotels in Paris or other tourism-related industries speak English relatively well. However, you are in France, and you can’t expect everyone to speak your language. Many who do speak it, don’t speak it well, and some who speak perfectly good English refuse to do so. After all, vous êtes en France. Pick up a French phrase book (or, hey, it’s 2015, download a French app to your smartphone. You’ll find that French people speak much better English after you’ve at least made an attempt to communicate in French. Most importantly, if someone doesn’t appear to understand you, don’t repeat yourself louder and slower. If they speak English, you’ll offend them. If they don’t, volume won’t help.
  3. Refrain from asking where to find the nearest McDonald’s, Starbucks and so on. You’re in France! Enjoy the local cuisine. If you absolutely must have Chicken McNuggets, at least don’t announce it. If you have to ask, quietly ask the concierge at your hotel. It really does irritate the French when tourists ask for American chain restaurants.
  4. Follow the protocol on the Metro. This one’s pretty simple. You let everyone exiting the train get out before you go in. When you’re in, if the train is crowded, stand up. Only sit if there’s a clear place to do so.
  5. Don’t tip. Seriously. It’s not part of the French culture. Many of the people we typically tip in America, such as wait staff, are paid considerably better in France, and your attempt to tip can be interpreted as an insult.

Remember, to the French, France isn’t a tourist destination, it’s home. You’re the guest and the one who has to adapt, not them. Try to fit in, and you’re sure to have a great time.

  This article was posted by The Hipmunk on Hipmunk's Tailwind blog on August 19th.

Published in France

As the sultry summer rolls in, the desire to travel peaks for many. According to a TripAdvisor survey, 67% of U.S. travelers are planning to embark on an international leisure trip this year. In 2014, only 50% of the travelers were reported taking one. The survey also revealed that 95% of travelers from the country have plans for a domestic trip this year.

The survey features 44,000 global responses from hotel sectors and travelers, including over 6,700 U.S. respondents. It also indicated that the travel budgets in the country are likely to average $8,700 in 2015. One quarter of the respondents in the U.S. are planning to keep their 2015 travel budget similar to last year, whereas 43% have plans to spend more and another 23% are anticipating cutbacks.

The TripBarometer "Global Travel Economy" report from TripAdvisor also names the “Top 5 Dream Destinations for U.S. Travelers” in 2015:

  • Italy
  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Ireland
  • Greece

These are places that U.S. travellers said they would like to visit, if money is no object. But for many travelers money is an object and therefore we have created this list of 5 international budget vacation destinations:

1. Northern Italy

Since Italy is one of the top dream destinations of the U.S. travelers, we could not help but include it in our list. 2015 is indeed the year if you have always dreamt about visiting this land of art and ancient ruins. Expo Milano, from May 1 to Oct. 31, is expected to bring in over 20 million visitors to the country.

Udine, Italy

But we are not just talking about big cities like Rome, Venice and Milan. There are several other breathtaking beautiful cities in Northern Italy that deserve all your attention. Visit the Roman Theatre in Aosta; the beautiful Lake Como; the magical seaport city of Trieste with its scenic Città Vecchia; the mediaval city of Udine and its Venetian-Gothic style buildings and castles, and hundreds of other tiny picturesque towns that are literally begging to be explored.

2. Tbilisi, Georgia


If you are foodie and have budget constraints, visit this gourmet paradise this summer. The colorful Georgian life of Tbilisi awaits you. Don’t forget to savor a healthy portion of their scrumptious meat dumplings (locally known as khinkhali) and khackapuri, which is the Georgian equivalent to the pizza and wash it down with some of the finest rich red wine. You will be surprised to know that the tradition of wine growing in Georgia goes back to 6000 BC and the country has some interesting grape varieties.

Apart from being a gourmet paradise, Tbilisi has a rich history. This ancient city was founded in the 5th century and has been rebuilt 29 times. For all the history buffs, the city offers an exotic mix of classical, medieval, Art Deco and Soviet structures.

Explore the 4th century Persian citadel, the churches and museums all day through and relax in the steam of the famous sulphur baths in the Old Town. The summer weather makes it a perfect vacation destination and its insanely low holiday prices are added bonus.

3. Bali, Indonesia


This Pacific paradise has good news for budget travellers this year: hotel prices in Bali are down 12 percent, as per Hotel Price Index. The Island of the Gods is popular for its distinctive black sand beaches and rugged coastlines. If you are inclined to it, enjoy the island’s world-class surfing and diving and explore the jungle interior that houses 10,000 picturesque temples (including the renowned hillside temple Pura Luhur Batukau) and volcanoes.

Take a walk around Ubud, the Balinese bustling metropolis, to explore its stunning royal palace and soak your soul in the heavenly gamelan music; the traditional local market is a shopper’s paradise.

If you want a laid-back vacation, the hotel pools are great places to laze around. After all Bali, with its natural beauty, cultural attractions and unique music, is a place to sooth your mind and body into a state of perfect relaxation.

4. İzmir, Turkey


If you think Istanbul is the only place to visit in Turkey, İzmir will stun you with its liberal and laid-back feel. Located along the Central Aegean coastline, this historic and happening port city lives by its seafront kordon. Visit the hip bars in the Alsancak District or its collective art exhibition spaces if you want to experience İzmir’s distinct culture.

June is a great time to visit the city when it hosts the International Izmir Festival, where you can enjoy classical and contemporary ballet, music and theatre performances. The city with its Mediterranean Europe atmosphere is a chic alternative to other popular and more expensive Turkish destinations.

5. Porto, Portugal


Porto or Oporto is one of the most charismatic cities of Europe. In fact, you won’t find another European budget spot finer than this second largest metropolis of Portugal. The motto of this picturesque city, where Port Wine was named and originated, is: “You’ve tried the wine; now try the city!”

The Ribeira Square, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and lies next to the Douro River, is the place to start off. Enjoy the art of people watching from a quiet corner while sipping your morning ‘bica’, which is the Portuguese espresso. The Crystal Palace Gardens are just a short walk away from the Ribeira Square where you can see roaming peacocks along with other love birds. Head towards the Romantic Museum or explore the city’s renowned architects.

Don’t forget to indulge in the culinary feast of a classic Porto lunch, the ‘Francesinha’, a meat-delight served with layers of various meats and melted cheese and drenched in tomato sauce. It is served with a chilled Portuguese beer.

The romantic Porto awaits you this summer with its intriguing and majestic beauty for that ultimate budget European vacation.

A Final Word

While these are some of the best international budget holiday destinations you can think of this summer, you can further cut the cost by opting for a budget hotel and bargained deals instead of staying in a luxury resort. Whether you are looking to explore a royal European city or relax on the beach, we have tried to include vacation options for every budget and taste.

  flickr   //   cmichel67   vshioshvili   kailehmann   ligthelm

Published in Travel Tips

I've been on more than my fair share of cruises. I'm actually not certain how many I've been on. More than 100. To be fair, I worked on cruise ships. And yes, some days it actually was work. Really, the amount of time you spend working depends on your job. The first three years I worked quite a bit. I was a youth counselor.

The last two years I spent on ships were as a "Computer Lecturer." I taught computer classes to passengers. I was technically a crew member with "Passenger Status." It was the best of all worlds. It meant that when I wasn't working, I was playing. I got to use the pools and hot tubs, fitness facilities and eat in the dining rooms. I got to play in the ports and explore fantastic new places. Things that normal crew members aren't allowed to do. Also I was able to have a guest sail with me for free nearly every cruise. It was the perfect job. Truly.

Over five years I worked on ten different ships for two different cruise lines. It was life-changing. And eye-opening. So if you're planning a cruise, take advantage of my industry insider experience to help streamline your process.

Cruising has become a huge vacation industry. And by huge, I mean just look at the sheer tonnage afloat these days. Before airplanes, one had to sail across the seas to travel. Inter-continental traveling was a lengthy and difficult affair. One group of my ancestors immigrated from Sweden to the US in 1866. They traveled from Stockholm to Hamburg and then from Hamburg to New York. The journey from Hamburg took nearly nine weeks to complete. The ship had only provisioned for three to four weeks at sea. It was a harrowing journey to say the least. These days you can hop on a plane in New York and be in London in six hours. Current Cruise liners make the journey using massive propulsion systems in five days, laden with enough food to feed their passengers and crew for nearly double that time and stocked with amenities enough to keep even the most finicky traveler happy.

Cruising has evolved. Ships have evolved. Case in point, Titanic vs. The Oasis of the Seas.

The Titanic
(Titanic Image from the deep, dark recesses of the interweb....)

The Oasis of the Seas cruise ship
(Image courtesy of Royal Caribbean. I'm only spotlighting the Oasis because she is currently the largest ship afloat.)

The Titanic was said to have been the largest ship afloat in her day, a "modern marvel." Titanic and her sister ship, the Olympic weighed in at 46,328 tons. In 2010, Royal Caribbean line launched their new ship Oasis of the Seas, which is the largest ship built to date. It weighs in at 225,282 tons, more than five times the Titanic!

The Oasis of the Seas boasts living luxury at sea with it's Spa & Fitness center, four pools, ten hot tubs, surf machines, sport courts, mini-golf, zip line, casino, theatres, nightclub, and youth and teen centers. And don’t forget the FOOD, FOOD, FOOD. Aside from the traditional dining rooms and buffets there are also cafes and fine-dining restaurants galore.

The Oasis of the Seas cruise ship
Odyssey Restaurant on Holland America's Zuiderdam

There are more cruise ships sailing today than ever before and that translates to price drops for passengers. The most expensive suite on Titanic cost around $4500 per person, given inflation, in 2008 that would have been the equivalent of $95,860 USD! Today, depending on the cruise line you sail, you can sail a transatlantic cruise in a luxury suite (but keep in mind, a standard room isn't exactly steerage these days either!) for between $2500-$5000/person or only $500-$1000 for a basic, inside cabin.

The view out of a cruise ship porthole

With the huge number of cruise ships sailing the seas these days, it is safe to say that just about anyone can find a cruise they will love. To help streamline the confusing process of finding your perfect cruise, let's walk through a few things:

1.   Is This Your First Cruise?   First-time cruisers could potentially set sail in a bucket and love it. As you go on more cruises you become much pickier. It's just a fact of cruising. So if you've never been and don't know what to expect, I'd recommend sailing a less expensive itinerary/ship to get your sea legs. Also, go on a shorter cruise -- a two or three-day itinerary, just to see if you like it.

2.   Luxury Vs Budget Cruise (Is budget a large factor?)   If so, stick to larger cruise lines and larger ships. Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian are good bets for finding great deals. But keep in mind, with the larger, budget cruise lines you will have more passengers per square foot than on other lines.

When you book will play a big part in determining the price of your cruise. If you plan your cruise a year in advance you'll be able to ensure you get the room you want and the itinerary you want, but you'll pay full listing price. If you can wait until 60-90 days within sailing, the prices drop, sometimes a drastic 50-70% below list price.

A resource I use to help find cruise deals for friends is Sign up for their newsletter and they'll send you weekly updates on all of the great deals happening at sea. (Again, no sponsorship on their part. And no animals were harmed in the making of this guide.)

Lastly, don't forget to figure in your airfare. If budget is a determining factor, stick to a homeport near you. If you live in Seattle, you can find cruises to Vancouver/Victoria and even Alaska that sail out of your home city. Omit airfare entirely, if possible, to help push your hard-earned cash further. If you have to fly to meet a ship, find a ship that departs from an airline hub city like LA, Miami, Fort Lauderdale or New York. Flights to those places will be immensely less expensive than flying to a small island in the South Pacific to meet a ship.

If flight price isn't really a big deal to you, try flying into San Juan, Puerto Rico or Bridgetown, Barbados to catch a Southern Caribbean cruise. They're my absolute favorite Caribbean cruises. If you're able, spend a few days in the city you're sailing out of before or after your cruise and explore.

If money is no object, try a very small luxury ship or yacht. Seabourn, Crystal and Windstar cruises are all very highly rated small luxury lines. Some of these lines include alcohol in the price of your cruise. FYI: These lines often have strict dress codes.

3.   Large Ship vs Small Ship (And Age Group)   Size does matter. If you're looking for a cheap, spring break cruise go for a larger ship in a region that is ship-dense (ie: Caribbean or Alaska in the summer). But if you want to go to places a bit off the beaten path, smaller ships are often the only ships that will take you there (because the big ones don't fit into port!)

Large ships offer more stuff. More pools. Ice Skating rinks. Rock Climbing walls. More stuff to do on those days at sea. If you're sailing with children/teens, you want a ship that has a diverse offering of things to do. Disney cruises are ALWAYS a great idea for children, but you will pay a premium to sail with Disney. Other cruise lines offer phenomenal childrens' centers and activity programs to keep your kids occupied and having fun the whole cruise. Generally the larger (and newer) the ship, the better the kids facilities.

Small ships are great for a quieter, more intimate cruise. Less people, less crowding = more relaxation time and less regiment. Smaller ships will offer more traditional cruise activities like quoits and shuffleboard and group games to keep you entertained.

Age   Specific Cruise lines cater to specific age groups. Carnival and Royal Caribbean go for the younger crowd. Celebrity and Princess cater best to the 25-50 crowd. Holland America is generally known for retirement cruising. No matter what the age target for the cruise line, every ship will offer something for all age groups.

4.   Do Ship Amenities Matter?   Some people simply like to spend their vacations reading or sitting by the pool. If this is you, you'll want to ensure you find a ship with a larger passenger to square footage ratio. Less passengers = less crowding = less crowding in ports and easier access to ammenities. Generally you can look to smaller ships on cruise lines like Holland America, Princess or Cunard for great passenger to space ratios. These are your best bet to finding a quiet hideaway.

Enjoying a nearly empty cruise ship whilst anchored in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii
Enjoying a nearly empty ship whilst anchored in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii

5.   Cruise Length   It's up to you, really. For that quick getaway you can find cruises that run 2-3 days. If you've got time on your hands, try an around-the-world itinerary (90-120 days). If seven days isn't enough you can sail two seven-day cruises on the same ship in the same cabin back to back. Personally I like 10-day cruises. In my time working on ships I met several elderly passengers who were full-time cruisers. Basically, instead of going into retirement homes, they lived on ships. Pretty great idea. And fairly cost-effective. For about the same price as a retirement home they received a luxury home with extremely attentive service.

6.   Destination & Timing   Where you want to go will often limit when you can go. Ships are generally assigned to a specific region for a season, but some can be assigned a region indefinitely. For instance, the Oasis of the Seas is currently dedicated to cruising the Caribbean. It offers several itineraries in the Caribbean. On the other hand, in 2010, the Splendour of the Seas will sail South America, Transatlantic, Europe, Transatlantic and back to South America.

Generally in the winter ships move to warm places; in the summer they sail Alaska, Europe and the Baltic. Spring is the season for Hawaii and Mexico, and in the fall you can find cruises to Canada and New England. When the seasons change, the ships reposition. Repositioning cruises are generally a bit longer and have more sea-days.

Relaxing on the beach while a cruise ship passes by

Regardless of where or when you cruise, I always recommend cruising a newer ship, or an older ship that has been dry-docked recently (within the last year). Ships are taken out of service every few years and put into dry dock. Dry docks usually mean a ship will be gutted and redone. Sometimes the ships in drydock will have major structural work done – enlargements or complete renovations to certain areas. When dry dock is over, ships return to service good as new, sometimes better.

Happy Cruising!

Published in Cruises

Do I need warm clothes? Do I need to bring my hiking boots? Or is my toothbrush, tickets and passport enough? In only a few days before I'm off to Thailand. I'm excited, chaotic and nervous. Its my third or fourth time that I will be visiting Thailand but I'm still worried. Worried I'll forget something.

Now I have to pack my backpack and every time its a challenge. I always pack too much, but for the first time I’m going backpacking for a short time. Only two weeks, which means that I don’t need a lot and anything which I forget I can buy in Thailand.

This is my packing list:

    Basic Necessities
  • Passport
  • Photocopy passport
  • International drivers license (for renting a scooter)
  • ATM card
  • Credit card (just in case)
  • Student ID (for discounts when available)
  • Moneybelt (to keep everything in one place)
  • A small purse
    Clothing & Apparel
  • (1) long plants
  • (1) sweater
  • (1) long sleeve shirt
  • (2) T-shirts
  • (4) socks
  • (4) sets of underwear
  • (1) night shirt
  • (1) short and 1 skirt
  • (1) bikini
  • (1) harem pants
  • (2) tank tops
    Tech / Travel Gear
  • Iphone and charger
  • Photocamera and charger
  • SD-card for camera
  • Lonely planet Thailand
  • Book to read
  • Notebook and pen
  • Sunglasses
  • Walking shoes
  • Flip flops
  • Comb
  • Shampoo
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Deodorant
  • Basic make-up
  • Quick-dry towel
  • First aid kit
  • Sunscreen
  • Deet bugspray
  • Earplugs

Backpacking Thailand and my gear is ready to go!

Any Questions?

What else do you recommend for backpacking Thailand?

Published in Thailand

This coastal metropolis is India’s Gotham City. Home to more than fifteen million people, Mumbai shows extremes of both, debauchery and deprivation. Do not be surprised to find a custom-made Jaguar navigating its way through a street saturated with bicycles, foot-traffic and a variety of animals. The disparity of the city is as striking as it is omnipresent.

Formerly known as Bombay, the city was rechristened with its original moniker of Mumbai, derived from the Hindu goddess Mumba Devi, a few years ago. Mumbai has a lot to offer for the eager traveler. The city is full of ancient temples and places of worship for all religions from Judaism to Zoroastrianism. It boasts of striking colonial era architecture, scenic locales, walkways, parks, as well as a wide assortment of malls, bars and pubs.

But one of the first questions usually asked by anyone travelling to Mumbai is how safe the city really is? The city thrives on chaos; like in all metros in India, Mumbai has a vast migrant population often blamed for the ills of the city. The recent spate of rape cases in the country has once again shifted the spotlight on the safety the city offers to travelers. But contrary to most opinions, Mumbai is one of the safest cities for solo female travelers in India.

Thousands of tourists visit the city each year, on business or for pleasure. There are always certain precautions you need to take when travelling to a foreign country. With Mumbai though, these precautions become a little more specific.

Research the City   India can be a sensory overload to a novice traveler. Much unlike other countries India is diverse, ancient and exists in a precarious balance of traditional values and modern understanding. Knowing as much as you can about the culture, traditions and values espoused by the people of the cities you are visiting will hold you in good stead.

There will be places that you will visit, like the Leopold pub and café, made famous by Gregory David Roberts’ seminal novel on Mumbai, Shantaram, which will feel much the same like any pub back home. But a few hundred meters away you will find yourself in dense lanes, packed with people and wares from wall to wall.

Finding out which area the hotel you will be living in is situated will help you get a better idea of measures you need to take. Check out important numbers like police stations, ambulance services and hospitals close to your place of stay or locations you want to visit.

Understanding the city will take time, coming to terms with the disparity it presents, even more so. Doing your research before you land is the best weapon you have against getting any more culture shocks than necessary.

Play It Safe   India is currently on the cusp of a massive change. Centuries old traditional values exist here alongside modern understanding and the latest technology and often find it hard to maintain a balance. This is not a run-of-the-mill tourist destination; you can’t do here what you will do in, say, Italy.

For example, kissing your wife or companion on the street in Bombay may not only earn you a lot of uncomfortable stares but also a reprimand by the police for indecent behavior in public. Avoid wearing revealing clothes and being overfriendly with unknown men. Your nicety might be interpreted as a come on. Something as simple as walking into a temple with your footwear on, or stepping into a mosque without your head covered can get you into trouble.

Mumbai is the safest city in India for solo female travelers

Project Confidence   Many people travelling to India, specifically to Mumbai, have said that projecting a certain amount of confidence in your dealings with the locals will help avoid you getting taken advantage of. Walk briskly and know exactly where you want to go.

Do not indulge beggars or street urchins; ignoring them, while seeming heartless, is the best way to protect yourself against losing your purse or getting groped. This is one of the most basic tips of travelling to Mumbai. Being polite does not work in this city, it requires a firm hand and a confident demeanor to ensure you are left alone.

Learn the Language   Hindi is the national language of India and is spoken widely in Mumbai. Marathi, on the other hand, is the language that is predominantly spoken by the locals. Getting a handle on some useful local phrases in Hindi and, if you can manage it, in Marathi also, is a good idea.

For example, “chalo” means let’s go, “ruko” means stop and “nahi” means no in Hindi. Understanding and learning these few phrases will not only earn you the respect of the locals but also make your task of navigating through the city much easier.

Plan Your Transportation Carefully   It is never a good idea to be stranded on the streets of a strange city without transportation, especially a strange city in India. Taxis ply through the streets at all hours of the day. The night-time charges though can be steeper than the morning rates, roughly one and a half times more.

Auto-rickshaws, the yellow and green two-stroke wonder of the Indian transport system, are also available at all hours of the day. The thing to take care with autos and taxis is the meter reading; always pay according to the meter regardless of what the driver says. Local trains are one of the biggest means of public transport in the city, followed closely by buses, but are a hotbed for “accidental” touching and theft. There are women special trains and coaches, which you can use for travelling cheaply and safely.

If you are leaving a bar or a restaurant late at night, have someone accompany you to a taxi or an auto-rickshaw. Arriving in the middle of the night can pose more problems; if your flight lands at night make sure you have a pick-up arranged from the hotel you have reserved. Keep your friends and family informed of where you are through the phone or social media. Staying connected will help you ensure that someone is always informed of your whereabouts.

Beware of Pickpockets   Pickpockets are a perpetual nuisance in the crowded streets and public transport systems of this city. Avoid travelling with a lot of cash, and always be careful with your purses and wallets. Keeping your wallet in your front pocket is a good idea. If you have a back pack do not sling it over your back, instead wear it in front where you can see it.

Mumbai is a melting pot of a multitude of cultures, values and modern day thinking. One of the biggest cities in the world it is a much loved tourist destination and has a lot to offer a traveler. But as is the case with traveling to any country, follow the old adage of “when in Rome do as the Romans do.” This will not only ensure you stay safe, but also show you a perspective of the city you may not see otherwise.

  flickr   //   tataimitra   skyevidur

Published in Travel Tips

Traveling is expensive, that's no secret. From booking flights to hotels, cheap is never really a word we would use to describe traveling. When you can lighten the financial load, that's always a plus. I often find it helpful if I pack items that you might typically buy when you're traveling.

Most of these items will often cost you more if you buy them at the airport or once you've reached your destination. If you take a moment to check these items off your list before leaving then you will be saving yourself both time and money. (Two things we all need a little bit more of, no?)

Reading Material

Whether it's a book or a magazine make sure you've got it ready to go before your trip. If you're a Kindle person like me and consequently have Amazon Prime, you will find that they offer plenty of free books and discounted magazines. I always make sure I stock up my Kindle with plenty of light-reads for each trip. Magazines are another staple of mine but can be very costly at airports. Your best bet is to check your local bookstore or see if any of your friends have old issues they will lend you.


I had to capitalize this one, not only because I'm a foodie but because airport food costs a fortune! I like to hit up a local store and buy a box of protein bars, usually at a pretty discounted price. They pack easily and will fill you up for those in between waiting times. Trail mix is also another great snack to pack, it's even cheaper if you buy the nuts and dried fruit yourself and create small baggy's for them. You could easily spend $10 and more on airport snacks that aren't even that great.

Water Bottle (With Purifier)

Now we all know you can't bring liquids through airport security BUT if you wise up and purchase a water bottle with built-in purifier you can fill your bottle up at the water fountain after you've gone through security. A bottle of water cost at least $3 at the airport -- who feels like that?


Not traveling to some place tropical? Skip this one. However if you are on the verge of a tropical vacation bring your own sunblock. Vendors in tropical climates realize that many tourists will either not pack sunblock, or run out. That being said, its no surprise that they will jack up the prices on sunblock, because they know they can make money on it. (One of the best tricks I've used is to take a regular 6oz bottle of sunblock and squeeze it into two 3oz travel sized bottles. This is very clever if you don't want to check your'll be able to save quite a bit of money this way.)

Headphones, Chargers, Accessories

These items you think would be a no-brainer but how many times have you seen people purchasing ear-buds and chargers from those Best Buy machines? Generic chargers and headphones can cost around $5-25 depending on where in the world you are, airport prices will charge at least double. And sure, you can buy some off the street if you happen to be backpacking through some Southeast Asian country, but those crappy fake products will only last a few days before they break. Trust me, repeatedly experience. (And always remember: you get what you pay for...unless you are buying it at the airport)

Other Recommended Items

  • Neck Pillow
  • Travel Blanket
  • Eye-Mask
  • Sleep Aids
  • Headache/Cold Pills

If you take the time to purchase a few of these before your travels you will be pleasantly surprised how less stressed you will be not only mentally but financially as well. Having a snack handy and a good book can go a long way. Happy travels!

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