When I typed “solo travel” into Google today, it returned 60 million hits – yes, 60 million!  As the world grows smaller through technological advances and travel becomes more accessible, solo travel has increased in popularity.  The internet is full of information both from and for solo travellers, but what is it really like to travel on your own and is it for you?

I began my solo travel career a few years back through both necessity and desire.  Initially I began to travel on my own in response to the life changes my friends were experiencing.  People I had travelled with in the past were now getting married, starting families or, as is often the case when you live in London, returning to their Antipodean homes after working holiday visas expired.  Other single friends were burnt out by demanding careers and wanted to spend the little time off they had relaxing on a beach, not backpacking through a developing country.

I was also reacting to a lesson many of us have learned the hard way – close friends do not always make great travel buddies.  When your friend wants to lie by the pool each day on a trip to Sri Lanka and you want to join some locals on a day trip to a tea plantation and elephant orphanage, you realise being great drinking buddies in a London pub does not make you compatible travel partners.

Travelling solo is not for everyone and it helps to understand the travel personality of yourself in addition to those you are considering travelling with.  You may be more suited to travelling in a group but that doesn’t guarantee a perfect travel experience if you are travelling with someone more suited to solo travel. 

Are you a solo traveller?  Maybe the points below will help you decide.

TOP FIVE:  Best things about solo travel

1. The Selfish Factor

Going solo wasn’t just a reaction to my circumstances.  I was a thirty-something single, independent female who was starting to realise you only get one shot at life.  Put simply, I was growing selfish and didn’t want to compromise my travel experiences.  Going solo allows you guilt-free selfish moments and also helps you stick to your own budget.  Remember the Friends episode where half the group wanted to go to a rock concert but the others couldn’t afford it?  Travel can cause the same tension if you have different budgets and you inevitably have to compromise.  You may choose to take that balloon ride over the Serengeti without your travel partner because you can afford it and don’t want to miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  But do you really want to stay in the 5* hotel you can afford on your own when you travel buddy is sharing a dorm at the hostel on the other side of town?   

How do you see and do everything you want when you are travelling whilst staying within your budget?  You travel solo!

2. A flexible itinerary

Some people feel suffocated by a travel itinerary whilst others need a planned approach to a travel experience.  I sit somewhere in the middle.  Travelling solo not only allows me the luxury of setting my own itinerary, it lets me change it along the way.  I am a very keen amateur photographer and I am not surprised to learn photographers usually prefer to travel on their own.  There is nothing worse than missing an incredible sunset because your travel buddy wants to catch happy hour at the local bar.  Or patiently waiting for someone to move out of the frame of your shot as your travel partner impatiently stands beside you ready to move on. 

How do you get to the best places at the best times or return to a place a number of times to capture that magical shot?  You travel solo!

3.  It’s a great way to meet people

Most solo travellers I’ve met agree that going solo is the best way to meet people.  Not only are you more likely to approach other people when you are on your own looking for company, but you are more approachable yourself.  It makes sense right?  Who are you more likely to strike up a conversation with - the intimidating group of friends travelling together or the person sitting on their own? 

How do you meet people when you travel?  You travel solo!

4. Local interaction

An extension of the previous point, travelling solo makes it a lot easier to make local friends.  What is a group of ‘travellers’ called?  Tourists!  Ok, I made that up and I am generalising, but I have often found locals more likely to treat me as a tourist when I am with other foreigners.  I get a very different reaction when travelling on my own and have had some unforgettable conversations with locals who have approached me simply to have a chat. 

How do you increase local interaction when travelling?  You travel solo!

5. Self Discovery

It’s often said that the best way to get to know someone is by travelling with them and there is no better journey of self-discovery than the one you take as a solo traveller.   Not only do you have more time on your own to reflect and relax, you will also inevitably face situations that help you understand more about what makes you happy, what your strengths and weaknesses are and what (or who) irritates you.  Travelling solo not only increases self-awareness but it also creates the opportunity to change.  Having to face challenges on my own whilst travelling – the bag stolen in Bolivia, needing medication for infected insect bites in Uganda, missing my plane in Copenhagen – has helped me face challenges back home with more patience and less stress.   

How do you create self discovery opportunities?  You travel solo!

TOP FIVE:  Worst things about solo travel

1. Table for one

A phobia is an irrational fear.  I have an irrational fear of mice.  Many people have an irrational fear of eating alone.  I don’t know if this particular fear has a name, but it should because it’s so common.  There is something about asking for a table for one that sends a shiver of fear through most people.  They are convinced the conversation around them stops as they are led through the crowded restaurant to their table, as couples and groups throw them sympathetic looks.  The sound of the waiter clearing the extra place at the table seems to echo around them and many would prefer to grab a sandwich at the local supermarket to eat in their room, than repeat the experience the next night. 

How to face this challenge?  My kindle is my dinner companion – it doesn’t take up too much space, it doesn’t tell me long and boring stories, and it doesn’t reach over and steal my fries!

2. Sharing

This is the hardest part about travelling solo for me.   I have lost count of the breathtaking views, serene sunsets and comical encounters that I can’t re-create after the event.  Whether it’s sharing a moment with someone special, laughing for days at a ‘had to be there’ moment with someone who was actually there, or having a healthy debate over the pros and cons of volunteerism after visiting a local project, having someone to share travel experiences with makes it just that bit more special.

How to face this challenge?  The age of technology that we live in let’s me share experiences in my blog, by postings photos on Facebook and through emailing friends and family.  It’s not as good as the real thing, but sharing and connecting with like-minded people who weren’t there is the second best option.

3. The dreaded Single Supplement

There’s no way around it – it is more expensive to travel on your own, especially with accommodation where you can’t split the cost with your travel partner.

How to face this challenge?  The issue of increased expense is offset by the flexibility solo travel gives you.  I may not be able to split the cost of a hotel room, but having the freedom to stick to my own budget helps me manage my finances a little better whilst on the road.

4. Safety

I have rarely felt unsafe when travelling on my own, but the fact remains that safety is a risk for solo travellers.  Travelling on your own in some countries (parts of Africa for example) can feel like wearing a target on your forehead inviting trouble.  Solo travellers in other countries (especially females) may find themselves the subject of unwanted attention.  The most common issue for solo travellers is not having someone to watch their luggage whilst they run to the toilet or to buy some water.  Falling asleep on a train makes them nervous when there is a stranger next to them who can reach over and grab their Ipod. 

How to face this challenge?  Sometimes you just have bad luck and are in the wrong place at the wrong time.  But using common sense can help reduce the likelihood of these ‘bad luck’ moments. I always check out the ‘safety and security’ advice issued about the country I am heading to (both Australia and UK governments have excellent online safety advice) and am sensitive to the cultural differences I may face.  I don’t take chances – life is too short.

5. Loneliness

I almost didn’t include this in this list, because I can honestly say I’ve felt lonelier at times back home than I have when I’ve been travelling on my own.  But loneliness is a possible side-effect of solo travel and some feel it more than others.   If you don’t enjoy spending time on your own at home, chances are you may struggle with travelling solo. 

How to face this challenge?   Overcoming this challenge will be easier for some people than others, because it often involves reaching outside your comfort zone – approaching strangers, enjoying your own company for example.

Travelling solo is not for everyone.  Is it for me?  Absolutely!

Published in Travel Tips

India is a wonderful place to visit but is a vast country which cannot be covered in one vacation. The food and the people are so good that you will like to come back to India again and again. The country is incredible....true to its slogan INCREDIBLE INDIA. Now let me present you with 10 important tips that may prove helpful when you visit India.

  1. First of all I would like to mention that India as seen by many is not a poor country. You will get all the ameneties provdied that you book in advance and have the capacity to bear the cost. >Note: planning trip well in advance will not only provide mental peace but also cut your cost. In India usually everything gets booked compeletely full.
  2. Don't rely too much on plastic money, be sure to carry some cash, Indian rupee. Although nowadays most of the reputed outlets accept plastic money, cash is preferred and universally accepted.
  3. Carry or purchase drinking water of reputed brands at all times. Check out for the seal of the bottle if you feel the bottle is tempered do get it changed. The brands in India are Kinley, Bisleri, Aquafina, Manikchand, Bagpiper, Neer, Himalaya, etc
  4. Since India is a vast country traveling times vary from place to place. Kindly check on the web for best travelling time and place of interest. Best and true facts are provided with government sites ending in ".gov.in"
  5. Pots for sale in Jaipur, India
  6. Beware of the the guides, shopkeepers and taxi or tuk-tuk walas. They will pursue you for talking to them. They ususally observe you and follow you. Note: pretending that you are with some Indian or know some local there will always give an edge to you. Best is to book your guide through hotel or government appointed guides directly at the tourist spot
  7. If you are in ROME be a Roman and the saying goes true in India. If in India, particularly single women should be dressed modestly in Indian Salwar Kameez if you dont want an extra ordinary attention. Though the country is liberal it is best to dress up people admire rather than get stared.
  8. In India, kindly take this note that the food served is highly spicy, if you want a moderate taste then you should look for the luxury star property or tell the waiter to arrange for the less spicy food. Even the food giant chains that operate in India served Indianized taste such as paneer burger or paneer wrap at Mc donalds.
  9. If you are a shopaholic, then you must move the market at your own, explore it take notes of economy shops. In India same products are sold at different prices and if you are a foreigner than the tag prices shoot up by more than 50% so its better to try out various shops before starting purchase. This practice will definitely save your pocket.
  10. Night life in India can only be found in the metro cities like Delhi Mumbai etc or Goa else India doesnt have a culture of night life. If you are partying person hook to these city for parties.
  11. Note for giving tips in India. If you want a better and personalized service keep giving tips to room boys, cab drivers, waiters, etc. Tip should be moderate as excessive tip can drill a hole in your purse and less tip can drive away the personal touch in your service.

Have any tips to add or questions?

Published in India

 

 

 

 

A large percentage of jobs these days include an element of business travel. It could be a conference, meeting other branch offices or just some face time with key stakeholders. Travel can be to another branch office in a neighbouring or full-blown international travel. While some of us enjoy it, many begrudge the long and arduous flight journey and uncomfortable hotel stay. But it also gives you a great opportunity to go out there and capture some great photographs. Here are 5 top tips on getting the most of the business trips.

Wake up early, subsequently sleep early: Most business meetings begin at breakfast time which means, you can squeeze in a couple of hours in the morning to get out of your room to cover one photographic destination each day. Most business trips also involve some kind of a social event where you’re served a few drinks. Resist the temptation to go overboard and always use the excuse of jet lag (if applicable) to retire to your room at a reasonable hour. The early morning sun can present great photo ops.

Ask locals specific questions for specific places: There is no substitute for local knowledge . But its not very helpful when you ask a local ‘What’s good around these parts?” You will have to figure out what you like shooting and ask specific questions. For eg: On my recent trip to San Francisco, I asked people where is the best place to get a sweeping view of the city and a majority of the people recommended Dolores Park. And indeed, the photos did not disappoint.

Have a camera with you at all times: This is the golden rule for all photographers at most times, but it becomes even more crucial during travel so you can capture any interesting subjects or shots that you come across. On my trip to New York, I saw some cop cars covered with snow and I absolutely loved it.

 Use in-flight guides and destination magazines: Most flights, especially the international ones have ‘Destination Guides’ on the TV screens or as a magazine. Spend some time reading about the place you are getting to and take note of the weather to help you plan your stay better.

Research the destination before hand: A bit of research always helps and uploading the pictures to various social networks helps you connect with like minded photographers so you can see different perspectives of the same place. Flickr groups are fantastic for this sort of thing. Also check with travel blogs and get their take on it. If you are planning a trip to Sydney, please feel free to send me a note using the contact link up top and I would love to share my tips for this beautiful city.

Hope this helps you make the most out of your business trips. Do you have any tips to share? Sound me out in the comments.

Published in Travel Photography

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 vacationstogo.com. 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

These are some of the lessons I have learned while traveling.

  1. Pack smart and only take what you need. Then unpack 20% of that.
  2. Expect things to go wrong because they will. Delayed flights, cancelled flights, bad weather and more are all part of traveling. Things are going to go wrong just pack a good book, fire up the computer or have a chat with others at a bar and it will eventually get better.
  3. No matter what, do not follow the pretty girl downstairs to the club in Piccadilly Square London. Just trust me.
  4. There is no real need to pack loads of cash, ATM's are everywhere.
  5. Let your bank know what countries you will be traveling in or they might think your card is being used illegally and cut off the funds.
  6. A group of little kids crowding around you are not always just curious. Sometimes they are skilled pickpockets.
  7. German police don't have much sense of humor.
  8. An extra large t-shirt in the Philippines is only extra large if you are a teenage girl.
  9. In Thailand when they tell you your meal is a little spicy, they lie.
  10. Don't be so aloof. Talk to everyone, the waiter, the hotel clerk, shop keepers and even strangers. You meet some really good people and they can give you insight into the area others will never discover.
  11. Tequila tastes better when you're in Mexico.
  12. Beer tastes better in Munich and Prague.
  13. Bugs, insects and other local delicacies taste like you think they will no matter where you are.
  14. People for the most part are pretty decent but there are a few jerks out there.
  15. Relaxing at an outdoor café drinking a cold beer is a good way to pass the time and do some people watching.
  16. Foregoing the “must see” attractions and exploring the area on your own can be rewarding.
  17. Whether in Mexico, Bangkok or the train station in Frankfurt, street food is pretty tasty.
  18. Japanese Police don't have much sense of humor either.
  19. The pretty Russian female tourist at the bar in Dubai is not a tourist.
  20. Just when I think I have things figured out something new happens and catches me by surprise.

What have you learned?

  Share your comments below

Published in Travel Tips

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The Stockholm Card

That's the Stockholm Card. I was a little bit apprehensive to get it at first because at 795 Swedish Crowns, it's really expensive, but it was really worth it. For our short trip, we wanted to cover as much ground as possible, and at the same time not spend too much time inside museums. Without much advance planning though, we just decided to visit the major sites, while being spontaneous along the way ("oh look, there's the Nobel Museum! let's go in!" "hey, that's the Spritmuseum, we can get in there for free").

Let's have a look at all the attractions we visited in three days and the figures:

Transportation costs & tours and entrance fees

  • 72 hour public transportation card - SEK 230
  • Historic Canal Tour - SEK 160
  • City Hall Tour - SEK 100
  • Drottningholm Palace - SEK 215 UNESCO World Heritage Site alert!
  • Storkyrkan - SEK 40
  • Nobel Museum - SEK 100
  • Nordic Museum - SEK 100
  • Vasa Museum - SEK 130
  • Spritmuseum - SEK 100
  • Skansen - SEK 150

TOTAL: SEK 1,325

Stockholm Card: SEK 795

Savings with the Stockholm Card: SEK 530

Verdict: WORTH IT!

Stockholm Card - worth it or not? appeared first on No Stopovers

Published in Sweden
 

As the countdown to Antarctica begins, I’m looking online for past travellers blogs and write-ups. However, at the end of the day, I think I will rely on my own past experiences and tailor the gear to my own biological behaviours.

Spending portions of my childhood between Hong Kong and Winnipeg, and now my adult life in Toronto, Canada have proven to be very helpful.

Hong Kong is known for its humid, hot summers and humid, cool winters. The “coldest” day I’ve experienced in Hong Kong, I saw the thermostat dip down to +10 degree Celsius. Flocks of people rushed to the top of The Peak to see frost. These days, I walk around in Hong Kong with a long sleeve shirt and a pair of jeans while my friends don 4 layers of clothing plus a heavy down coat/parka.

Winnipeg, Canada has a nickname “WinterPeg”. It’s known for its dry, COLD winters with lots and lots of snow. The “coldest” days I’ve experienced in Winnipeg, the thermostat hovered around the -35 degree Celsius mark. Then there’s the “Windchill factor” to consider; it is a measure of the cold with consideration of the Wind speed felt on exposed skin. Trust me when the wind is gusting at 40 km/hr when it is already -30 degree Celsius outside, you’d want to crawl right back in bed under layers of blankets and not know that it feels like -45 outside!! However, all that’s really necessary for me is a good windproof jacket, a fleece, a pair of gloves, a hat of some sort and a pair of boots.

Toronto, Canada is a bit of both those scenarios. Downtown Toronto is humid and cold with less and less snow as I live here longer and longer. Thanks to global warming, Toronto’s thermostat doesn’t really dip below -20 degree Celsius and there was hardly any snow in 2011. Because of the humidity though, I have resorted to buying my first down filled parka 3 years ago. Humid cold is the type of cold that goes to my bones and some days I can’t warm up. I’ve also invested in some waterproof rubber boots as I’m tired of the salt saturated slush destroying my precious leather boots. Just remember to wear a pair of nice thick wool socks, or you can buy the fleece liners that Hunter sells for their gum boots.

Human beings are very resilient – we adapt to our environments; sooner or later. I still prefer the dry, cold winters but am slowly accepting the humid, cold winters.

So what to consider as warm clothing when you want to travel to a COLD country in the middle of their winter or Antarctica / the Arctic in their summer?! Here are a few things to consider…

Find out their humidity levels

Humid (40% or higher) => consider getting a down filled jacket or parka, especially if you have always lived in a warm climate zone and this is your first trip.

Dry (less than 40%) => depending on the thermostat, perhaps a warm fleece is sufficient. On windy days, make sure the windproof or wind-resistant shell is handy. They are also good for rainy or snowy days (clothing with double duty are great!).

Is indoor heating available?

There are many countries or regions within a country which do not have central indoor heating. This means walking around the hotel, shops with as much clothing as you would wear while walking around outside in nature.

Boots – Rubber / WaterProof / Fashion statements?

Judge according to the weather condition but if you’re doing lots of walking in the city or in nature, I would consider a pair of waterproof hiking boots with warm, wool socks to be a good alternative.

Must Have’s:

Gloves OR Mitts – whether they are made from leather, wool, cotton or some synthetic material do your fingers and thumbs a favour –wear them. Your hand will thank you.

Hats OR Beanies OR Toques OR Hood – about 10% of your body heat is loss through your head. Also, I can assure you when I heard one of my blood vessels burst in my ear – it’s a very scary experience! Luckily I wasn’t outside long enough to get frostbitten.

Sunglasses – sunlight reflected off snow can be very, very bright. Also, you’ll see snow falling while the Sun is out with a blue sky overhead. This is why I prefer snow over rain – any day.

Sunscreen or Sunblock – any exposed skin in the winter time is subjected to the wind and UV. Also, I think I read somewhere that the ozone is thinner in the winter time. Don’t forget to apply sunscreen under your chin, UV rays will bounce off the snow and give you a nice sunburn there.

Optional’s:

Scarves OR Neck Gaiters – when the air is really cold and dry, it’s nice to breathe through some layers of fabric so the moisture from your breath gets trapped.

Earmuffs – if you chose the hat gear option and your ears are still left exposed, this would be a good consideration.

Long johns OR Thermal underwear – if you know you’ll be outside in the cold, consider investing in some synthetic or wool or silk thermal underwear. I would personally rather be warm than freezing cold and cutting short on the outing.

ALWAYS dress in Layers. I never lived by this rule as a child, I would walk out of the house with a t-shirt under my ski jacket. However, as I mature, I understand the benefits of dressing in layers. Having the option to add or remove a layer provides flexibility of your activities during the day.

NEVER stick your tongue to anything metallic!!!! This is fair warning, if you insist on trying it for yourself, have a friend close-by with a bucket of luke warm water handy…

Now go pack and learn to make some snow angels! Bon Voyage!

Published in Travel Tips

Regardless of your thoughts on the TSA, they are here to stay. So we have to deal with long check in lines, bags being scanned and searched and ever changing rules on what you can and cannot take on board flights. There are some things you want to make sure to include for your carry on bag in case things go wrong or so you can have them when needed.

1. Any electronics you don't want to wind up missing or stolen. Thieves still target checked in bags so put cameras, laptops and cell phones in your carry on.

2. Take your medications in your carry on. I am not talking about aspirin or other over the counter drugs but any prescription medication. You don't want to arrive at your destination to find out your luggage is lost and your stuck trying to find a way to get your meds. As a side note be careful with medications, some countries look at certain medications differently so make sure your name is on the bottle. You don't want to be sitting in an interrogation room trying to explain to some customs official why you are smuggling unmarked medicine into the country.

3. Take a small battery operated flashlight. They cost a few dollars at any mega retailer and don't take up any room. Trying to rummage through your stuff late at night in a new place can be a pain, especially if you stay in Hostels or you are just trying to find something in the dark.

4. Pack a change of clothes. This could be a t-shirt, extra shorts or whatever. If you have ever traveled and had lost luggage you know what I mean. A change of clothes in your carry on can be a life saver. At least you won't have to wear the same clothes for 3 days while your luggage catches up to you.

5. Things that should be common sense, but if your like me you always forget one of them. Or instead of your carry on you bury it in your checked bags. Passport for International travel, extra passport photos for getting visas and extensions, Drivers License for extra ID, ATM cards and copies of itineraries and flight confirmations. I usually go to my local bank and get $100 changed into the destination currency before I leave so I can have a little spending money when I get there for taxis, buses or whatever. And my pet peeve, bring a damn pen. Every international flight I am on no one has a pen and you know you are going to have to fill out immigration and custom forms.

Those are my 5 carry on essentials, what do you have to add?

Published in Travel Tips

Holguin, Cuba. This was my first trip to Cuba and I had a few questions that even veteran Cuba travelers couldn’t remember answers to.

  • What currency do I pay in? Do they exchange Canadian or American dollars?

As a traveler, they will exchange your money into Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC almost 1:1). Cuban Pesos are local currencies that are not exchanged to travelers. We brought both American and Canadian currency with us and had no issues with exchange either at our hotel. However, they do not accept coins.

  • Where do I get my currency exchange?

Our flight was late at night so the exchange at the airport was closed (although we were told we can get slightly better rates here). Of course, our hotel also provided currency exchange as long as we have our passport and (duh) cash.

  • Who do I look for when my flight lands?

There will be someone holding up a sign of the tour company you signed up with. As you board the bus, this will be the first time you tip so be prepared to bring some American dollar bills.

  • Should I book an ocean view room?

On selloffvacations.com to get an ocean view room, we had to pay an extra $10/day/person + 13% HST so we decided against it. When we arrived at the reception, I tried my luck and asked if there’s a possibility of an upgrade. She showed me a list of prices and it was for $110 to upgrade so we shook our head, but then she told us that since it’s our first time in Cuba, we can get it for $65 and of course we accepted.

  • Should I tip in gifts or money? How much should I tip?

I did both! Every day I left a gift – some clothes I’ve never worn, or jewelry that I never used – along with $1 CUC. For the first day of the week and the last day before I left, I left a nicer gift as well as $2 CUC.

  • Where should I buy those famous Cuban cigars?

There were cigars available for purchase in the hotel gift shop. However, if you have time, go for an excursion to a cigar factory! They’re much cheaper, and honestly, the tour guide will also have some sort of hook up in the city to sell way cheaper cigars from the factory workers. But that’s at your own discretion.

  • My flight leaves at 9pm, what do I do between check out and time to the airport?

You have two options. You can either pay extra for a late check out or have your baggage locked up while you soak up the sun! We paid the extra money for a late check out – reason being that after you’re in the sun you’d want a nice shower and possibly a nap! The public shower at our resort closed at 4pm and we didn’t leave till 6pm. Also, if you’re staying at a resort similar to ours, the resort was entirely outdoors and there’s no such thing as cooling down in an air conditioned bar/restaurant.

  • Are there any other charges?

There is actually a $25 CUC departure tax you have to pay before you leave the airport so be sure not to spend it all! There is no way around it.

Published in Cuba
All types of emergencies can happen while traveling. For some people traveling in a foreign country is routine while for others it is a once in a lifetime experience. Whether you are a seasoned traveler or taking that one time memorable trip, being prepared in case of an emergency situation can mean the difference in getting through the situation smoothly or in some cases not surviving at all. Travelers can encounter everything thing from natural disasters to being a victim of crime or being caught up in a political uprising. There are a few things you can do to be better prepared for these situations. Medical Emergencies Before You Go Contact your health insurance and see what coverage you have while traveling. In some foreign countries health care costs are very low however you will probably be required to pay first. You may find that a lot of countries do not have the quality care you are accustomed to at home and in case of a serious injury or illness you may need to go to another country or in some cases return home. This is where medevac insurance comes in. If you plan on being in a faraway place for some length of time or your travels involve adventure traveling where the risk of injury is greater it might be worth your while to invest in a medevac policy. How to handle a medical emergency If you become ill or injured while traveling try to get help in any way possible. Have someone call a doctor or emergency services for you or try to call yourself. If you are injured get to a hospital as soon as possible. The hospital will do what they can for immediate care and if needed transfer you to a better facility later. If you are going to be in a location for a while then find out where the best hospitals are located and make a note of them in case an emergency arises while you are there. If needed, you can contact your embassy and they will notify relatives of your situation. Victim of a Crime or Kidnapping Before you Go Prior to your trip there are certain things you should do in case you find yourself a victim of a crime. First, know emergency and important phone numbers. Find out what the local phone numbers are for emergency situations such as fire and police. Write down numbers for your embassy, banks and credit cards along with contacts back home. Keep these numbers handy in your wallet and also put a copy somewhere else. If something were to happen such as an accident and you are unconscious, the authorities will have an easier time if they find your embassy phone number and contacts at home on your person. Make a copy of your passport and put it somewhere in your luggage. In case of your passport being lost or stolen a copy makes it easier for your embassy to issue a new one. In case of credit card or ATM loss or theft then the numbers to call and cancel your cards is extremely important. Divide money among several pockets; if you carry a wallet, carry it in a front pocket. Better yet carry a money clip with an ATM and some cash in your front pocket. Keep multiple sources of cash, ATM cards and a credit card or two in different locations such as carrying some and keeping some in different bags. Hiding a few $100 bills or traveler's checks in a separate bag, your shoe, or several different spots is a good idea in case of robbery or theft. Leave copies of your travel itineraries and documents with friends or family at home. Tell them where you expect to be during certain times of your travel. How to handle a Robbery or Pickpocketing Situation. First, if you are confronted by a robber or someone out to do you harm, be cool when facing confrontation; focus on de-escalation and escape. If you are confronted with an armed individual wanting your possessions just give it to them and do not try and fight back. It is better to lose your possessions than your life. If they are asking for your wallet, then give it to them. Distract the robber if you can and toss your wallet then run in the opposite direction. One option is to carry a dummy wallet with a little cash in it and give that to them. Keep your ATM cards and remaining money in another pocket. Notify your bank as soon as possible to get the cards cancelled and also to order new ones. Every credit card company has a 24-hour hotline that accepts collect calls. Notify the local police. Even if they cannot find your items a police report may be needed later. Notify your Embassy. Your Embassy can help in arranging emergency funds from relatives be sent to you or in case of passport loss or theft can get a new one issued. How to handle a Kidnapping Situation Kidnapping is a real threat in some countries. Just the fact you are a foreigner and traveling makes you a target since you are perceived as rich or having a rich family willing to pay a ransom. Maintain a low profile, don’t wear politically themed shirts, and don’t wear clothes showing you are a proud member of your country’s military or any other nationalistic or political emblems or slogans. Do not try to stand out instead blend in. If you are the target of a kidnapping, remain calm and alert. The best time to escape is at the onset of a kidnapping. Things are hectic the kidnappers are nervous and want to get away as soon as possible. This is also one of the greatest times for injury or physical harm. Only you can decide whether you will fight or relent. If you do decide to fight back then commit to it as if your life depended on it because it just might. Make a scene. Kick, punch, scream, do anything to resist and draw attention yourself. Attempt to get away by any means possible. If you don’t succeed then maybe someone will see the struggle and be able to give authorities details of the kidnappers. If you do get taken pay attention to your surroundings (license plate number, distinguishing features, accents, clothing, etc.). Remain calm and try to determine where you are being taken, how long the trip is and did you travel through the city or country. If in the city what distinguishing sounds did you hear? Did you hear trains or other distinguishing sounds in the background? Did you pass over bridges? Try to remember anything that will help in the future to determine where you are being taken. Remain calm, try to make yourself appear human to your captives and not an object, cooperate as much as you can without demeaning yourself. Avoid eye contact with your captors and do not appear defiant or combative. Make requests that show your captives you are human, such as things for personal comfort, blankets, food and other basic human needs. Do not volunteer information on your family, work or other aspects of your life. If questioned keep your answers short. Continue to tell your captors you have done nothing wrong and just want to be released. Do not engage in political or religious conversations, Do not agree or disagree with their statements just continue to repeat you are not interested in such matters and just want to be released. Do little things each day to keep your mental and physical abilities sharp. Keep a positive attitude. Keep aware of your surroundings and if the opportunity to escape presents itself then take it only if you have a high percentage of being successful. An attempt to escape may only happen once and if you decide to do it then just as before you were taken, commit to it. Realize that this may be your only chance and make sure you are willing to do whatever necessary to get away. Once you escape run far and fast and look for populated areas where you can find help. Natural Disasters and Political Conflicts Before You Go Whether it is a Typhoon, Earthquake, Terrorist attack or Political upheaval, travel in foreign countries presents the risk of any of these actions happening at any time. In 2005, terrorists detonated four bombs in London Fifty-two civilians and the four bombers were killed in the attacks, and over 700 more were injured. Hurricanes and Typhoons strand thousands of tourists every year. Some are delayed a day or two while others are caught off guard and face more dire consequences. First, notify your embassy of your travels. In case of a natural disaster or conflict breaks out they need to know you are in the country so arrangements can be made to evacuate you to safety. Again, notify your friends and family back home where you will be traveling to, so someone knows your itinerary. If a natural disaster hits in a remote area where you happen to be traveling they can notify the Embassy of your whereabouts so efforts can be made to get to you. Stay away from Political rallies and demonstrations. How to Handle a Natural Disaster or Conflict Many government embassies organize evacuations when a location is unsafe, but you’re better off not counting on it. Notify your Embassy of your location and situation. Ask if they recommend evacuation or what help they can provide. If you cannot contact your relatives back home then ask the embassy to relay a message that you are okay. Stay away from affected areas, buildings or structures that have been damaged. Stay out of the way of the emergency responders and obey all instructions of police and military. If you are in your Hotel make sure it is safe and stay put, if it isn’t safe then evacuate as soon as possible to a safe area. While the chances may be remote the possibility of being caught in a conflict still exists. If you get caught in a political uprising or conflict breaks out there are some additional things you need to be aware of. In 2008, protesters occupied various parts of the airport and downtown areas in Thailand. In 2012 forty or so westerners woke up to find armed conflict had broken out in Tajikistan, and lately tourists have been caught up in riots in Greece and other European countries. If you find yourself approaching a roadblock keep your hands in sight. You do not want to appear as a being armed or on one side or another. Be polite and try to stay in the vehicle. If this is not possible, try to stay together, especially if you or others in your group are female. Keep your doors and windows locked. Cooperate with those running the roadblock and explain you are just trying to get out of the area. Do not photograph any military checkpoints, roadblocks or facilities. Do not photograph the hostilities as it may draw attention to you and the rest of your party and draw you into the conflict. Either side may suspect you are gathering information for the other side to use. Avoid large gatherings where there is a potential for bombers to attack. Always be vigilant at large tourist attractions or popular restaurants and clubs. If you are in the vicinity of a bombing realize that there may be more than one. Sometimes a second bomb is timed to detonate once people start gathering to help at the first one. If you are shot at or find yourself caught in the middle of a firefight then move and move fast. If driving back up and take another route, if on foot then find cover. If possible avoid hiding behind vehicles since they are targets for heavy weapons and even bullets can pass through them. Find a wall, concrete building, or similar hard structure. While they are not completely safe they provide the best protection until you can get out of the area. If driving be aware that in an all-out armed conflict mines and explosives may be used. Stay on paved roads when possible and follow other traffic. Additional Tips for Safe Travel Be alert of your surroundings and avoid trouble areas when possible. Trust your instincts. Dress, behave and act in a responsible and respectful manner. You may always stick out as a foreigner but don’t bring more attention to yourself than necessary. Don’t wear flashy jewelry, leave your jewelry at home no one is impressed. Don’t flash your expensive camera or laptop in public. If carrying a camera keep it close to you at all times. Don’t leave personal belongings unattended, even for a minute. Walk and act in a confident manner with purpose. Notice I said confident, not cocky or arrogant. Don’t discuss travel plans in public and don’t flash money. Don’t talk or express your opinions about Politics, Religion or other sensitive subjects. If you have to drive, know where you are going and always look for a path of escape at stops. Park your vehicle in such a way that it is easy to leave. Whether you are driving or in a taxi keep the doors locked and windows rolled up. Only use licensed taxis; note the license plate number of taxi and write it down. Never get into a taxi already occupied by other people. Have small enough bills to pay the fare or exact change if possible. Politely decline offers of food or drink from strangers. Accept beverages only in sealed containers; make sure there has been no tampering. Stay at Hotels, Hostels and Boarding Houses in safe areas. Look for well-lit areas in high traffic locations, not some dark hotel in an alley far away from the main areas. Keep a card with the hotel name, address and phone number with you. Once you check in take some time to become acquainted with the hotel. Where are the stairs, fire extinguishers, what does the hotel staff dress look like, where are all the exits? Inspect your room, not only to see if the bed is comfortable, but does the phone work? How about the smoke alarm, door and window locks, door peephole and chain lock on the door? Keep your doors locked and the chain secure while you are there. Don’t open the door for unexpected visitors. If someone unexpected knocks and says they are with the hotel, tell them to wait and call downstairs to the front desk and verify. When you leave put the do not disturb sign on the door and leave the lights on with the TV volume on low but loud enough to be heard by someone at the door. Lock up your valuables, laptop, camera and such when you are not there. There is no need to be paranoid when traveling and most of the time your vacation or trip will go off without any problems. But being prepared for an emergency can mean the difference between a disaster vacation or worse. Have you ever been caught in an emergency while traveling?
Published in Travel Tips
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