Eight Things Not to Bring Home from a Trip

The stuff you bring home from your travels tends to come in two types: souvenirs and stowaways. Souvenirs you want to bring home, and stowaways, well, you don’t. I don’t just mean stuff — great souvenirs worth protecting and cherishing need not only be mementos and curios, but can also be experiences that you hope become a part of you when your travels end. The evil stowaway twin is no different, but these are things and experiences you want to make sure stay behind, forever and for good.

Making sure nothing comes home with you that you don’t want is worth some thought and action; here are eight things to leave behind before you board the plane home.

suitcase unpack hotel woman

Unless you have a coin and currency collection, leave these behind — you will almost certainly never use them. Even if you know you are going to return to a country, despite best intentions very few travelers have the storage system, recall power and spare time when packing to remember to bring all the currency left over from the last trip. The better plan is to spend all your foreign currency and go home with empty pockets.

Or at least nearly empty — if you know you will be returning relatively soon, an exception here might be to take one or two larger bills home with you, which could be useful when you return to pay for any expenses you incur before you can get to a low-fee ATM. Having $20 – $50 of the local currency in your pocket when getting off a plane in a foreign airport can be very comforting.

If you do collect foreign coins and bills — as good a souvenir as any — pare down your bounty to a few pieces that really interest you, and spend or exchange (or even give away) the rest before you leave. Here are a bunch of tips for dealing with foreign currency, including information on UNICEF’s Change for Good program if you want to put your leftover currency to work for the benefit of others.

On a return trip from Lithuania last year, with a connection in Amsterdam, the list of allowable items was somewhat laxly enforced at the Vilnius airport. When we got to the gate for our connecting flight home out of Amsterdam, however, security tightened considerably, and many folks flying in from smaller airports had to discard items that would have passed muster in Vilnius. Big container of Gira beer? Sorry. Homemade beet soup? If you can eat it before the flight, please do; otherwise, sorry.

We didn’t have a connection to a domestic U.S. flight, but things might have gotten even tighter if we had. We all know that what one airport security agent might let through, another might not, and this can often be amplified when international airports are involved.

So when you are packing for your flight home, unless you want to be shedding stuff from your carry-on bag at each successive airport, you should choose what and how to pack based on the strictest airport through which you are likely to pass, not just the first one.

Airport Security: What You Need to Know

Many international travelers find themselves adopting speech patterns during their trip that folks back home would consider an accent. There are often good reasons to do this; for example, when overseas I have sometimes found it helpful to articulate each word much more clearly than my South Jersey roots would usually demand.

You will usually want to dial it back a bit when you get home. If you find you like articulating your words a bit better, you can hold onto some of your diction improvements, but don’t let yourself start sounding like a European after a couple weeks in the Old Country. Why? It’s fake.

There is no reason to cart home things that break, wear out, no longer fit, need a new home or simply aren’t needed anymore. Is your travel toothbrush beat? Toss it in the hotel trash can before you check out. Alternatively, if you are done with something that someone else could use, consider donating it before you leave. Ask your hotel concierge if there are local charities that might be able to use your items.

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Good night, sleep tight … and don’t bring any critters home with you in your clothes or luggage. Bed bugs are the most obvious culprit to avoid, especially because they are very difficult to eradicate once they’ve infested your home. To keep them from hopping a ride from your hotel to your house, see How to Find a Clean Hotel Room.

It’s not only bed bugs that you want to avoid. Bringing home cockroaches, stink bugs (which most likely traveled to the U.S. as stowaways in packing crates from China) or even stowaway mammals like mice can make you mighty sorry if they escape into your living space. Check your bags and clothes for any stowaways both when packing abroad and unpacking at home.

sneeze sick germs

Much as you want to avoid transporting visible (or almost visible) critters, you will want to try to do the same with illness-causing germs and bacteria. It is not uncommon for international bugs to spread to a new country thanks to unwitting travelers giving them a ride; in recent years, many U.S. universities have had outbreaks of various diseases that most likely traveled to America with international students.

18 Surefire Ways to Get Sick While Traveling

That said, it’s not that easy to keep yourself germ- and bacteria-free. Your best way forward is to do all the things you would usually do when trying to avoid infection, and then up your game a bit. Some tactics include washing your clothes in hot water immediately upon unpacking, doing a thorough cleaning of your luggage when you get home, airing things out to dry, using antibacterial gels and soaps, and whatever else you come up with along those lines. I know folks who leave their bags out on the back porch in freezing conditions, or put their bags and clothes in direct sun during summer, both of which can help rid your luggage of bacteria and germs that thrive in warm, damp conditions. Check out 9 Products to Help You Stay Healthy While Traveling.

It is not just at your destination that you have to be careful of microscopic hitchhikers; airplanes themselves can be rife with germs, bacteria and run-of-the-mill filth. Find some tips to keep yourself germ-free in Avoiding the Airplane Cold.

It may have been okay in Amsterdam or Uruguay, and sort of okay in Switzerland and Spain (not to mention Colorado and Washington) — but it’s not legal most places you are headed, and especially not at airport security checkpoints.

This is not something to take lightly; carrying illegal items across international borders can bring very serious charges. Leave ’em behind if you’ve got ’em.

It’s not just the most obvious substances that might get you in trouble — it could be absinthe, or sassafras oil, or haggis. Also, items that are otherwise completely legal in the United States may not necessarily be permissible to carry across borders, including fruit, vegetables, seeds and the like. When in doubt, leave it out.

10 Things to Do Before You Travel

Ah, well. You can try, at least.

Have you ever opened your bags to find you took something home that should have been left behind? Have any more tips for must-avoid hitchhikers? Let us know in the comments.

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com

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Mondulkiri Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary

Mondulkiri Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary

Author: Debz
Date of Trip: October 2016

An experience of a lifetime… to spend a day with free roaming (rescued) Asian elephants at Mondulkiri Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary, Sen Monorom, Cambodia.

The morning starts with a beautiful, leisurely walk through wonderful scenery to locate the elephants on the hill.  You then get to spend a little over two hours enjoying the elephants company, taking photographs and learning about them and their habitat.  Just sitting there and watching the elephants eat and roam freely and without a care in the world is something special.  You will have trouble choosing your favourite photographs.

A delicious lunch is prepared by the chef at the Sanctuary and, providing you haven’t eaten too much it’s off to the river and waterfall for a most welcome swim in crystal clear water.

After a hot drink we cut some banana trees and fed these to the elephants, which was great fun… how agile are those trunks.?

Following close behind the elephants, we go down to the river and waterpool to bathe the elephants.  This was so much fun, even the rain didn’t dampen our enjoyment.

An hour or so later and we make our way back to the Sanctuary for hot drinks, chatting non stop about our awesome day and looking at each others photographs.  This truly was a “once in a lifetime experience” and one I’m going to recommend to everyone.  

The best thing about Mondulkiri Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary is that it’s an NGO charity, which means 100% of what you pay goes to the elephants, conservation and indigenous people… NOT into a private individuals back pocket, like most of them.

Check it out: http://www.mondulkirisanctuary.org/

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16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

With airports busier than ever, airline staffing reductions creating longer lines at check-in and airport security wait times that can be entirely unpredictable, the old airport “two-hour” rule often leaves just minutes to spare to buy a magazine, grab a snack or hustle your kids into the bathroom. Saving a few extra minutes here and there along the way can add up in your favor; here are 16 airport tips to get you from your front door to your seat on the plane as quickly and painlessly as possible — as well as some ideas to keep you moving no matter what is going on with your flight.

man walking through airport with suitcase

1) Sign up. The TSA’s PreCheck (TSA.gov/precheck), a trusted traveler program, has spread to more cities across the U.S. and is now available at more than 180 airports. Members of the program are prescreened and can whiz through security without having to take off their shoes or remove laptops from cases. The U.S. Customs Department’s Global Entry program (see GlobalEntry.gov) is another shortcut for frequent international travelers, especially as the federal government immigration and customs lines get longer. Read 12 Ways to Cruise Through Customs and Immigration to learn more.

2) Gear up. Personally, I have found that buying more stuff is not always the best solution to travel problems, as one of the most serious travel problems for many people is having too much stuff in the first place. But there are a few items that are useful enough away from the airport to justify buying mostly for the airport, including slip-on shoes, clear zip-shut sundries bags and TSA-friendly laptop cases to help speed you through security.

11 Versatile Travel Essentials You Can’t Do Without

3) Check flight status. I feel like this tip is almost so obvious that I should not even include it, but I find that even in my own travels, I often fail to do this one simple but critical thing. Then this summer, I almost got burned. A very early morning flight for my son and me was canceled; luckily, I have a TripIt account, and found out about the cancellation before anyone else in the house was even awake. Had that not been the case, I am certain that in the rush to leave before dawn, I would not have checked flight status, and would have gotten a ride to the airport with all our stuff, waved goodbye, headed into the terminal, stood in line and only then discovered the cancellation. So — check flight status early and often.

Most airlines will text you flight status updates if you sign up on their websites, and sites like FlightStats.com and TripIt.com will do the same by text, on the web and through smartphone apps.

4) Check in online. Especially if you are not checking bags, this can save you a heap of time. I have found that when checking bags, having the preprinted boarding pass in your hand doesn’t help all that much, and check-in agents often end up reissuing another boarding pass when you check your bags — but it sure doesn’t hurt. Plus, it’s the best way to secure the seat you want onboard the plane. Learn more about online check-in.

5) Before you leave for the airport, put your ID, credit card and boarding pass in an easily accessible part of your wallet or bag. There are two reasons for this: one, by going through this exercise, you make sure that you don’t leave home without these crucial items. Two, you don’t waste your (and other people’s) time fumbling around for them at the moment you need them.

6) Pack everything else out of reach. Clutter is the enemy of smooth passage through the airport; pack out of reach and sight anything that you will not need between your front door and your airplane seat.

What Not to Pack

7) Check the airport parking situation online. Knowing ahead of time where to park, which lots are open and how far they are from the terminal can save you a lot of anxiety on your drive in, as well as keep you safer as you navigate tortuous and almost always poorly marked airport ring roads. During peak travel periods, lots fill up quickly, so you will want an alternate parking plan.

Many airports are adding parking lot status updates to their websites, while others have automated telephone information. As a side benefit, parking prices are usually displayed, so you can save money as well. At the very least, check the maps so you know where you are going; these also typically show the location of cell phone waiting lots, which can be useful to folks picking you up.

Off-airport lots are also worth considering, both for the ability to reserve a spot in advance and for price savings in many cases.

8) Check the airport maps, hotel shuttle info and rental car counter details for your destination airport. If navigating your home airport is confusing, it will be even worse at an unfamiliar airport at your destination. Flight status updates frequently include the likely arrival gate, so checking the maps at your destination airport can help you get through the baggage pickup, find the rental car counters or shuttle pickup locations, and find rendezvous spots for shuttles to your airport as available. If someone is picking you up, you can also pre-arrange a pickup location so he or she can find you without too much hassle.

airport signs

9) Prep your documents. Before you get in line to check in, or at least before you get to the front of the line, have in hand all the items and documentation you will need to check in. This makes everyone happy — you, airline agents and the people behind you in line who appreciate your efficiency.

10) Weigh your bags. Many airports are installing scales in front of the check-in areas; if you suspect your checked bag might be overweight, weigh it before you get in line, and do any swapping between your bags before you reach the check-in counter. This also avoids any scrutiny from the check-in agents about your carry-on bag starting to swell (another topic altogether, which I won’t go into here).

If you are really serious about baggage weight, you can even weigh bags at home — buying your own luggage scale is inexpensive and will prevent surprises at the airport.

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11) Stow everything except your ID and boarding pass in your carry-on bag. This way, when you get to the front of the security line, you are not finding stuff in random pockets, messing with your phone, dropping credit cards and keys, spilling crumpled cash all over the place and generally ticking off everyone behind you. By the time you get in the security line, you should be as close to ready to go through the actual security machine as possible.

12) Take inventory of what you will need to do when you get to the front of the security line. Do a quick mental review of everything you are wearing that you will need to remove (shoes, jewelry, watch, jacket), and what you have inside your carry-on bag that might need to be taken out (liquids, large electronics). When you get to the front of the line, blast through your mental inventory and make it happen.

For more help with security, see 10 Things Not to Do at Airport Security and Airport Security: Your Questions Answered.

13) Check the flight status boards again. Unless you are really early, your actual flight time is getting close, and this is when you will start to see gate changes and more reliable departure time estimates.

14) With that said, though flight status boards are your first stop for directions, go directly to your gate for any breaking information. The official system updates sometimes lag behind reality, so you want to check in at your gate to make sure nothing has changed. Beyond finding out your flight status, by showing up at the gate you will get a sense of how crowded the flight is and figure out which terminal amenities (restaurants, bathrooms) are nearby.

15) Program your airline’s 800 number into your phone. If you get stuck due to a delayed or canceled flight, you’ll want to be proactive in figuring out your options, as airline folks are typically understaffed and under siege in these situations. If you have the phone numbers of airlines that fly your preferred route programmed into your phone, you will get a lot farther a lot faster than if you don’t.

Airport Delays: Six Ways to Cope

16) Download apps that help. When the previously mentioned flight with my son was canceled, TripIt notified me very early on, and also gave me access to a list of other flights on the route for that day, both on my original airline and on other airlines. When I called my airline armed with this info, I was rebooked in minutes, and we went to the zoo for the morning.

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com

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On the Short Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

On the Short Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Author: Carolyn Boyle (More Trip Reviews by Carolyn Boyle)
Date of Trip: September 2016

This review describes an eight-night, small group package tour of Peru with G Adventures. This was the National Geographic Journeys “Explore Machu Picchu (SPENG)” seven-night tour plus one additional night at the joining hotel in Lima. In addition to the extra night, we booked a one-day trek on the “short” Inca Trail (from KM 104 to Machu Picchu) and the “Peru Culinary Bundle” (cooking lessons in Lima and Cusco). This review is primarily a journal of how we spent each day, including suggested resources and web links to tourist information web sites and maps.

SIGHTS SEEN

Lima: Cooking Class, Huaca Pucllana, Guided Walking Tour of Colonial Lima, San Francisco Catacombs, Larco Museum

Sacred Valley: Weaving Cooperative, Pottery Demonstration, Pisac Ruins, Moray Ruins, Salinas Salt Pans, Ollantaytambo Ruins

Aguas Calientes: 1-Day Inca Trail (from KM 104 to Machu Picchu), Machu Picchu

Cusco: Guided Walking Tour, Museo de Machu Picchu, Cooking Class, Cusco Planeterium, Koricancha (Temple of the Sun), Cathedral, Templo de la Compania de Jesus (Jesuit Church)

ABOUT US

John and I (Carolyn) are retired Mississippi State University professors in our mid-sixties, who currently reside in central North Carolina. Both of us are natives of New Orleans and, as such, are interested in good food (and wine!) and good times.

We have traveled extensively worldwide and enjoy both land tours and cruises; often our trips combine the two. We generally make our own travel arrangements; this is only the second package tour we have taken. On our trips, we favor nature and wildlife tours that involve snorkeling, SCUBA diving or hiking. In particular, we will hike for miles to see waterfalls, volcanoes, caves or other interesting geologic features. We also enjoy lighthouses, forts, castles and anything else we can legally climb up on for a good view.

Hiking the “short” Inca Trail requires a moderate level of physical fitness and preparation. For comparison, John and I live at an altitude of about 344 ft (105 m) a.s.l. and have no medical conditions. We routinely walk 6 miles (~10 km) for five days a week on hard surfaces and gravel paths over rolling terrain with a trivial elevation change of about 200 ft (61 m). The “short” Inca Trail is about 7 miles (11.2 km) from the trail head to Machu Picchu but the trail rises from 6,890 ft (2,100 m) to a maximum of 8,858 ft (2,700 m) a.s.l. The path has uneven footing and many rough steps with a high rise (18 in/0.5 m). Another issue is that the effective oxygen concentration is only 72-77% of what we normally inhale. Nevertheless, by pacing ourselves and taking periodic breaks, we were able to complete the hike with only minor difficulties. For more details about the hike, see “Day 4” below.

RESOURCES

G Adventures “Explore Machu Picchu (SPENG)”, www.gadventures.com/trips/explore-machu-picchu/2588/

Andean Travel Web, www.andeantravelweb.com/peru/index.html

The Machu Picchu Guidebook: A Self-Guided Tour, Revised edition (July 1, 2011), by Ruth M. Wright and Alfredo Valencia Zegarra (ISBN-10: 1555663273, ISBN-13: 978-1555663278)

Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time, by Mark Adams (ISBN-10: 0452297982, ISBN-13: 978-0452297982)

NOVA: Secrets of Lost Empires – Inca (2), Season 24, Episode 14 (1997) (www.imdb.com/title/tt1406043/?ref_=tt_ep_nx) This NOVA episode focuses on the citadel at Ollantaytambo: how were the stones moved to the site from the quarry on the other side of the Urubamba River, how were they cut to fit so perfectly together and how were they raised into position. There is also a segment on building a bridge out of grass cables.

Secret of the Incas (1954) (www.imdb.com/title/tt0047464/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1) This was the first major movie to be filmed on location at Machu Picchu; scenes were also filmed in Cusco. Five hundred indigenous people were used as extras in the film, which also prominently featured the Peruvian singer, Yma Suma. The Harry Steele character (Charlton Heston) is widely regarded as the direct inspiration for the Indian Jones character in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”; however, except for the fedora that they have in common, we see few other similarities.

NOTES ON THE INCA EMPIRE

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15 Mistakes to Avoid When Traveling Solo

Solo travel is a growing and compelling mode of travel in the 21st century. As our daily lives become more fragmented and sometimes isolated, it may seem counterintuitive that solo travel can be an antidote to how alone we find ourselves in many ways. But the very fact of being alone forces solo travelers to burst their own solitude to find companionship among strangers in a strange land.

great wall of china solo traveler

In the past, we’ve outlined some of the important safety considerations for solo travelers, as well as advice for saving money, finding deals and eating alone without feeling awkward (see Single Travel: Tips for Going Solo). But solo travel can offer rich rewards that are both different and sometimes more expansive than those found when traveling with other people; with a little thought and care, it can be a life-defining or life-changing event. To help you get the most out of your solo trip, check out these 15 mistakes to avoid.

It seems that the most common advice you will find when researching solo travel online is to stay in a hostel or other communal living establishment, as these lend themselves to meeting people quickly and relatively easily. I agree to an extent, but also find value in the occasional more traditional lodging. These can offer a safe zone when needed, a bit more comfort when you are tired, and a place to unwind and desensitize from hard travels or constant sensory input. It can also be a more secure place to leave your belongings while you’re out exploring.

What hostels and guesthouses are great for is meeting other folks doing the same thing that you are — true fellow travelers. But you don’t have to commit to them unrelentingly; your choice of lodging is just another tool in your solo traveler bag. When in need of comfort, safety and convenience, choose a reputable hotel; when in need of companionship, think about hostels and other alternative lodging options.

Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay

A lesson I have learned after many years of travel is to reel in my ambitions on the first and last nights of my trips. At these times, you need things to go well; you are at your most vulnerable when you are just arriving in a place (and most laden down with luggage and stuff), and at your most stressed when you are trying to get on a plane or train on time. On these nights, take it easy on yourself; you might stay near the airport or train station, or splurge on a well-known hotel, or take a cab when you might otherwise save money by taking public transit.

For more information, see 10 Things to Do in the First 24 Hours of Your Trip and 12 Things to Do on the Last Day of a Trip.

Having no money in your pocket and no way to get any is a problem for any traveler, but even more so when traveling solo. Asking strangers for help, sleeping on a bench or any number of last-ditch tactics may be doable when traveling with others; traveling solo, you definitely don’t want to be asking for free rides and crash pads with no one to watch your back. I used to put a $100 bill under the sole of my shoe on all my trips; I used it only once, but man, did it save me.

Many solo travel tips focus on how to meet people, but this can be counterproductive — there was a reason you chose to travel alone, after all. Many folks who travel in big groups yearn for a moment or two by themselves; you don’t have that problem, so enjoy it!

As an extension of the item above, even if you have met some great people, there still may be things best done on your own. These might be things that relate to niche interests of yours that not everyone will appreciate (an extended visit to a specialty museum, perhaps), or physically demanding outings on which not everyone may be as goal-oriented as you might be (such as surfing lessons).

One tremendous benefit of traveling alone is that you can change your plans without consulting anyone else about anything. This is a luxury you should not resist, as it is almost non-existent in regular day-to-day life; if you like an idea, go for it.

Similar to keeping some cash on you, keeping a tab on your bar tab is probably a good idea as well. If you are not in control of your facilities, you become a mark for thieves and other bad people, and with no wingperson to help you out, you could get in trouble. Teetotaling is not required, but getting hammered might not be your best option.

Hotel Safety Tips

As is becoming clear, there are potential risks when traveling alone that might not be as prevalent when traveling with other people. A good rule of thumb: If your internal alarms are going off, listen to them.

lisbon cafe wine woman

Overscheduling can be a trip killer under almost any conditions, but as a solo traveler this can really leave you wrung out. You are responsible for all the planning, all the execution, and all the mundane and tedious tasks as well — finding a store to buy a razor and toothpaste, figuring out train schedules, searching for an ATM, waiting out a bout of traveler’s tummy. Even without considering these small hassles, the ability to go with the flow is part of the reason to travel alone, and overscheduling can make that impossible.

Standing in long lines is a drag, but standing in long lines alone is almost unendurable. If you are going to popular attractions, museums or anywhere else that will require some waiting, get online ahead of time to see if you can make reservations or purchase tickets in advance.

Traveling alone can be as grueling as it is exhilarating, so I recommend choosing your battles well. Some simple but carefully chosen times to take the easy way out might be to get rental cars at on-airport counters to avoid hauling your stuff around on multiple shuttles; to go for hotels that don’t require long commutes to your preferred attractions; to book direct flights or at least avoid tight connections; and to take some of the tips mentioned above like the occasional hotel upgrade and unscheduled afternoon.

How to Save on Solo Travel

Another great benefit of traveling solo is that you alone set the pace and schedule. This might be one of very few times in your life that you decide what time to get up, what time to eat, what time to go to sleep, when to hustle and when to dally. Get up early, get up late, take a nap midday — whatever. Your time is yours; make sure you make it yours.

If you want to meet and talk to people, to find out who they are and how they live, traveling alone is going to require some courage. Most people have a bit of a shy streak, and in many of the types of people inclined to travel alone, this trait might be even more pronounced. To get the most out of your encounters, you are going to have to suppress your shyness once in a while.

One way to get started on this might be to refrain from ending casual conversations that spring up in shops, when asking directions, in a restaurant, in a line. Instead of cutting short these unexpected exchanges, ask a simple question about someone’s family, or the neighborhood, or almost anything really; this can often lead to a longer conversation, and you are under way and getting some practice talking to strangers. As you go along, it will become easier all the time.

Tips for Introverted Travelers

Many big cities have expat bars or even folks offering lodging who might have an accent like your own. Don’t feel like you need to avoid anyone from back home, as sometimes these brief interludes with the relatively familiar can energize you as you venture back out to find folks and customs very different from your own. TravBuddy.com and CouchSurfing.com are good places to start on these, and many guidebooks offer information about where the local “American bar” can be found.

Having a fallback plan if things go sideways is a good idea in general, but an even better one when traveling alone. Most importantly, it can be helpful to have someone who knows where you are, where you are headed and what you are up to. Smartphones, email and social media make this very easy to do today; leave some breadcrumbs as you go along to let folks know when to start worrying — and when just to be jealous at the great adventures you are having while they are stuck at home staring at Facebook.

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com

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Three Days of Outdoor Activity in San Francisco's Microclimate

Three Days of Outdoor Activity in San Francisco’s Microclimate

Author: Jen Lucas (More Trip Reviews by Jen Lucas)
Date of Trip: August 2016

Having been to the Bay Area several times I knew I wanted this trip and the activities to be unique as all trips I take, each one a snowflake. This time around I would be navigating the city with a good friend who is a San Francisco native so I planned to take total advantage of having my very own tour guide and disappoint, she did not. Not only were we compatible adventure companions, both ready for a full blown, action packed adventure but hadn’t seen each other in over a year so had that excitement boiling up inside, ready to fuel us over the next 3 days. Otherwise, not sure we would’ve made it!

bikers golden gate bridge san francisco

It’s August and the average temperature in San Francisco is a high of 72 but these few days it barely made it to 60 in the city. I’d battled the East Coast heat and humidity for months, so welcomed the gloomy, misty San Francisco microclimate as a bit of relief. Especially with the outdoor activities we were about to partake in.

I arrived on a beautiful, sunny Wednesday, which was the warmest day of the three, full force ready to embark on the day. With every intention on taking an Uber downtown from SFO to meet my partner in crime at her tech company office (naturally) however with several cabs immediately at my disposal, I opted to take that route which I would not recommend as I could’ve saved at least $20 but chalk that up as another life lesson learned.

After reaching my destination and a quick tour through the modern day tech office complete with stocked snack kitchen, auditorium, bike closet and yoga room, we head off to our first destination, Muir Woods. Somehow living in California for 12 years I’d never managed to see a Redwood tree forest so suggested we squeeze that into our already jam packed agenda and I’m sure happy we did! What an amazing site, complete with different level hiking trails and trees that could fit a football team in the base of the trunk.

The park is open 365 days a year and parking is very limited so plan on having to search for parking possibly a nice walk to reach the entrance. For a small fee of $10 (children under 16 are free) you get access to the trails, participation in a Junior Ranger program and they offer guided walks and tours occur at various times, just check with a ranger for programs available on the day of your visit.

The weather was similar to that of the city and required us to layer up but the large tree canopies seemed to be a buffer between us and the damp fog lurking above. The smell hit you as soon as you enter the forest, like a fresh whiff of clean air, tree sap and fresh pine. Looking up at these monstrous trees and then down at the impressive trunks resulted in an instant feeling of being one with nature but unfortunately excessive touching and contact is frowned upon. Instead we decided to take one of the more intense hikes which included some pretty insane switchbacks and one serious ascent up a staircase, over 50 steps. It turned out to be about a 2 hour hike through the majestic forest with many different sites, tall, skinny trees, round fat ones, various creeks running through. Never had I thought that this felt like Groundhog’s Day, seeing the same thing over and over which made the treacherous hike over narrow, steep canyon walls with protruding tree roots even more enjoyable. The main obstacle was wanting to view the site in all of its glory but having to look down so as not to trip over a root or tumble down a very steep hill.

muir woods wine at barrel house tavern

After our hike, we cleaned up and headed out to meet some friends in the Mission District. From the late 1990s through the 2010s, and especially during the dot-com boom, young urban professionals, moved into the area, initiating gentrification, raising rent and housing prices. It was evident a lot of cleaning up was happening in the area and it is becoming a haven for trendy restaurants and shops.

We chose El Techo as our dinner spot as it boasts incredible open air, roof top 180 degree views and I of course needed my fill of Mexican food right away. El Techo’s menu is minimal and includes several portion sizes of carnitas to share and small plates which allows them to turn over tables extremely fast. We ordered the 1-1/2 pounds of carnitas that arrived within minutes of us being seated and includes house made tortillas, lime, salsa and black bean puree. To wash them down, some of the best pitchers of margaritas I’ve had.

The following day was one that I’ll remember for this lifetime. Everyone recognizes the Golden Gate Bridge as the major landmark of the city which I’ve seen previously but when my friend mentioned us riding bikes across, I visualized myself with a huge sharpie checking off a large box on my bucket list.

While crossing the bridge the previous day en route to Muir Woods, I have to admit a bout of nervous energy set in seeing all of the other tourists with the same idea, wondering how you even ride with all of the other foot and bike traffic on the bridge but once we made it, any bit of negative energy evaporated right into the fog above.

I was fortunate enough to have friends in the city so borrowed bikes however there are several bike rental companies in the city including CityRide Bike Rentals, San Francisco Bicycle Rentals, Bike & View Bicycle Rentals, just to name a few.

We started in the heart of the city, dressed in layers, forced to walk the bike up a few of the famous, uber steep incline hills, riding down the Presidio and finally arriving at the iconic red bridge. After the obligatory photo, we continued the adventure, weaving in and out of people on that very chilly, windy afternoon. The crowd did not intimidate or affect my riding abilities, or I was in such a euphoric state I didn’t notice. The total distance across was about 1 mile and our plan was to keep going onto Sausalito to grab a well-deserved brunch then take the ferry back to the city.

waterfront san francisco

After a welcomed descent down hill to Sausalito, we agreed to perch at the Barrel House Tavern which boasts outdoor seating along the water. The weather in Sausalito was a sunny 75 degrees so we stripped of the two top layers down to tank tops. In the spirit of brunch, despite it being a Thursday, we both went with the Summer Champagne Cocktail complete with Brut champagne, Blackberry and Elderflower Liquor and with zero regrets! I chose the blackened snapper sandwich as I was immediately sold on the fried caper aioli, again exceptional choice and I felt like I’d just conquered the world!

With a full belly and gigantic smile on my face, it was time to head back, rest then onto the evening. Unfortunately, everyone on Sausalito had the same idea as it was about 4:30pm so the ferry line was enormous. We proceeded to the ticket sales kiosk, spent the $11.75 one-way fare and waited in the line that didn’t move an inch in 30+ minutes. There is only one ferry at the port at a time and when it leaves, the other is usually en route. So considering the sea of people having to load not only themselves but find space for their bikes, I estimated we wouldn’t get back into the city for at least 1-1/2 hours. Luckily there are anxious cab drivers willing to take passengers and their bikes unable to wait for the ferry back to the city. Their goal is to fill up the car with a minimum of 4 people and they all charged about $18 per person. If choosing this option be sure to confirm whether their fee includes bridge charges as I learned they try to throw that in at the end if you do not ask up front.

We finally made it back, somehow managed to keep the adrenaline flowing, had another amazing dinner and drinks in the Polk which is known as the “city’s premier bohemian drinking enclave”.


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15 Things You Don't Know About Vacation Rentals

Although vacation rentals have been around for a long time, it has never been easier for property owners to list lodgings and for travelers to find them — and business is booming. A 2015 TripAdvisor study found that nearly 60 percent of respondents were likely to stay at a vacation rental, up considerably from the previous year.

vacation rental house in switzerland

Reasons included better prices, better amenities, more space, a more home-like experience, full kitchens, pet-friendly lodging and stunning views: all pretty solid reasons to choose any property. Whether you are in that 60 percent looking at rentals or in the 40 percent still holding out in hotel rooms, here are 15 things you might not know about vacation rentals.

Castles, churches, themed homes, cabins, lighthouses, a windmill or an igloo — all are bookable on various vacation rental sites. For examples, check out this Travel + Leisure slideshow of the strangest vacation rentals, FlipKey’s list of 10 unique vacation rentals and Airbnb’s roundup of treehouse rentals.

You can even rent the same place as your favorite celebrity.

If your rental is part of a condo association, or a converted hotel or motel, you may be able to use facilities such as gyms, pools and more. Some even offer housekeeping.

Airbnb gets most of the press, but there are countless other dedicated vacation rental sites, including HomeAway, VRBO (owned by HomeAway with similar listings), FlipKey (powered by TripAdvisor) and Tripping.com (which searches many sites all at once, a bit like a Kayak for vacation rentals). Many other sites cover rentals in certain geographical regions. See Finding a Vacation Rental for more.

In addition, vacation rentals are starting to show up on sites traditionally associated with hotels, such as Booking.com and TripAdvisor.

You don’t need to search them all, but there are enough differences that poking around more than a couple of sites is worth your time.

In my own past searches for vacation rentals, I found that using filters of any kind sometimes hid properties that were desirable, affordable and available. By applying truly zero filters (as when using the “I don’t have dates yet” option), many more properties showed up.

Subsequently I found that the owner had stipulated stays of one week or longer when they first placed the listing, but regularly relaxed that requirement.

This is not a new problem; when searching airfare sites, for example, many experts recommend that you do searches for one traveler even when purchasing fares for multiple people, as the search sites may choose not to show you some fares where availability is limited.

Is a Vacation Rental Right for You?

As with the length of stay filters issue above, you might find that availability calendars and/or photos are outdated. This is because many property owners do not have the time or resources to keep listings on multiple vacation rental sites up to date. Sometimes it will work in your favor, as when a property is allowing for shorter stays than shown or the price has gone down, and sometimes against, such as when a property that appears to be available is already booked.

In my experience, the “sleeps X people” stats can be the most problematic detail in vacation rental listings. This is caused by a few factors:

A. Not all bedrooms may be real bedrooms. Sometimes vacation rental owners stuff a single bed into a walk-in closet, or put up a curtain or divider in a room, or use some other tactic to create “rooms” that anyone else would call a closet, curtained space, etc.

B. When counting sleeping spaces, some owners will count a foldout bed, or a cot that is in the kitchen, or a lumpy couch, or even a loveseat that could only hold a child.

C. You can sometimes figure out the actual number of private-ish sleeping spaces from the bedroom count, but then you are back to Point A above — oof.

Your best tactic: Ask the owner directly.

Note that similar issues sometimes happen with kitchens; is the space just a sink area with a microwave and coffee pot, or is it a full kitchen? Again, be sure to ask.

beach house kitchen

An online listing can’t tell you everything you need to know about a property, but talking to the owner can. Benefits of reaching out directly to the owner include:

– Getting a feel for the person with whom you are going to do business

– Understanding any additional costs (such as cleaning fees)

– Checking on issues such as check-in and check-out times, curfews, whether there’s cable/internet/air conditioning

Over the years, some of the owners I have worked with were noticeably unenthusiastic about renting out their homes; they just needed income and wanted the absolute minimum hassle possible in return. Other owners are simply busy at the time you want to rent and don’t have time to drop off keys or clean up afterward. I even had one owner decline to rent after I sent a single cursory email. You are renting a property, not staying at a B&B, so you may want to temper your expectations for a warm welcome and attentive service.

Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay

Some vacation rental owners are fussy and have rules that can make your stay tricky. No sand, no outside guests, no barbecues, no loud music, no parties, no additional cars … such rules could make your beach house stay a bit different than what you had in mind.

Airbnb has a “House Rules” section on its listings, but many other sites don’t. Reach out to the owner and ask “What are the rules of the property?” before you book.

Just because something is in the house doesn’t mean you can use it. I once stayed at a waterfront house at which we couldn’t go on the dock, go figure. Things like bikes, surfboards and beach chairs may not be for guest use or may incur an additional charge. Again — ask before using.

At a hotel, you assume there will be parking, that the “neighbors” expect you to be there, that there is air conditioning, that there is a working television, and even that there is electricity and plumbing. None of these are a given with a vacation rental, especially the more unique or remote properties. Check before you book.

In some cases, the person listing the lodging may not have a legal right to do so. This might be due to his or her lease agreement, or condo association restrictions, or areas that have restrictions on subletting. To learn more, read Airbnb and Beyond: Tips for Safe, Legal Vacation Rentals.

Think of a vacation rental like a rental car; if there is a big scratch or something doesn’t work, you would report it immediately, lest you be blamed for it upon return. I recommend doing a full inspection of your rental property when you arrive, even taking pictures if appropriate, and then putting everything in writing in an email, which gives you a record of the time you noticed and reported the problem. This will help in the event of any disputes.

7 Airbnb Problems and How to Solve Them

Pricing on vacation rental sites can sometimes be flexible; as noted previously, property owners are not necessarily updating their listings in real time, setting different prices for off-season and longer stays. Discussing prices directly is often the best approach.

The boom in vacation rentals has not come without its share of disputes and even scammers, so you’ll want to use payment methods that give you some recourse if there is a problem. Avoid cash, wire transfers and other slippery payment methods, and stick with payment by credit card or services like PayPal whenever possible. If it sounds like a scam, skip it.

Have any expert tips for folks looking into vacation rentals? Let us know in the comments!

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com

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Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc., which also owns FlipKey.com.

Silk Road in a "Luxury" train

Silk Road in a “Luxury” train

Author: Murat Kunt
Date of Trip: September 2016

The trip runs from Moscow to Beijing in two trains (Golden Eagle – GE – till the China border and Shangrila Express – SE – till Beijing, both operated both by Golden Eagle Luxury Trains Limited.

We liked:

L1) The countries, the cities and the places we have visited. We have now a better idea of their culture, history and civilizations. The excursions were well selected and well organized, although in some places time spent in the souvenir shops could be reduced.

L2) The hotels we stayed in: Kempinski, The Silk Road Hotel, Sofitel and Regent

L3) The professionalism, availability and serviability of the tour leaders on both trainsL4) The arrangement of the GE train with the bar and restaurant in the middle, the decoration and settings

L5) The quality of the service on GE train, at the bar, in the cars and in the restaurant as well as the pianist. The permanent availability of Alexandra and André in our car (No. 3), serving permanently with a smile is highly appreciated

L6) The pain the Chief-cook of the GE train took to decorate the dishes served, that compensated the lack of good taste of the food

L7) Although separate, the shower car in the Shangri la – express (SE) was the only clean place to be.

We disliked:

D1) Pre-tour information was not available enough in advance, including visas requirements. Although we started in June, we barely made it in time. Information received was undated and unsigned. It has been forwarded with some delay by QCNS without any added value,

D2) The poor timing of the entire trip. Our week in China collided with the national Holliday week. Everywhere we went was full of local Chinese tourists, whereas a week later or before would be a far better choice. Very often we were squeezed in lines and waste precious time.

D3) The poor quality of the train cars (in both trains) and of the railways in the running mode. The GE train was shaking laterally almost permanently, in addition to saccadic braking’s and accelerations. The SE train was a bit better in lateral shaking. As a consequence we were unable to sleep properly during none of night we were in the trains. It was like trying to sleep in a giant drink shaker or a laundry washing machine.

D4) The beds on both trains were very narrow. The Gold class lower bed in the GE train is just enough for one person (for a claimed luxury trip). In the SE train, it was even worse, some of us were obliged to sleep on the floor thanks to an extra mattress Tatiana was able to provide.

D5) The location of the safe in the GE train. It required laying on the floor to use it.

D6) The extremely poor quality of the food and service on the SE train. It was below the acceptable level. Wine was served on a drop-by-drop basis. We were refused to have a coffee after lunch. Luckily Tatiana made it herself to serve us. The bar didn’t have more than half of the drinks listed in their price list. We were unable to have a bloody marry or a Bailey’s

D7) The wall-to wall carpeting in the SE train cars was dirty and has never been cleaned although a person sits permanently and watch around.

D8) Although we were told for the SE train that there are two restaurant cars, one for us and one for the personnel, our restaurant car was shared all the time with some “personnel”

D9) On the basis of our experience of other luxury cruises and trips we made, we claim that he SE train has nothing to do with the qualification “luxury”. It is rather an oxymoron.


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How to Be Safe and Culturally Sensitive When You Travel

For most free-roaming travelers, some of the things we take for granted are luxuries in many parts of the world. The right to speak our minds, to make innocent mistakes, to travel freely and to be judged fairly under the law are not to be assumed everywhere.

woman in burma myanmar

Nonetheless, there is beauty, understanding and value to be found when visiting pretty much any place on Earth — and potentially a lot to learn by visiting countries and cultures that are less open than our own. If you are considering travel to a culture very different from yours, there are many things you can do to keep yourself safe while allowing you to experience as much of the place as possible.

If I had to sum up this article in a single sentence, this would be it. When traveling in places with strict laws or standards of conduct, try to avoid behaviors that draw attention to you. If you blend in, you are far less likely to be singled out. This applies not only to how you speak and behave but also to what you bring with you, such as expensive cameras, smartphones, jewelry and watches; all have the potential to attract attention to you as a (relatively) wealthy outsider.

How to Blend In with the Locals: 20 Tips

One important consideration is that restrictions on speech and behaviors apply not only to you but to the locals as well — so if you insist on discussing sensitive topics, you could be putting your hosts, guides and people you meet into an awkward or even dangerous position. Even if you leave (or get kicked out of) the country, they have to live there and face any consequences.

Given the complexity and sensitivity involved, it is essential to get online and do some rigorous research, starting with the website of the U.S. State Department (or your own country’s equivalent). See our story on travel warnings and advisories for links to several of these agencies and advice on how to interpret their advice.

Good old-fashioned guidebooks also typically have a thoughtful section or two about local culture, taboos and things to watch out for.

I have found it useful to cross-reference multiple opinions when researching. For example, I saw one website that said to never, ever wear a bikini in the Maldives, while other sites showed photos of people comfortably wearing bikinis on vacation in the Maldives.

Additionally, one region of a country might be tolerant or even permissive, while another is less so (you might see a difference in behavioral standards between big cities and rural areas, for example). Or you might go to a resort where you can dress and behave casually, while outside the resort very different standards apply. Even here in the U.S., going into a Wawa in a bathing suit on the Jersey Shore is pretty common, but doing the same thing a few states inland might get you turned away.

Your research might turn up all kinds of issues. Perhaps taking photos of locals is considered offensive, or the country has rigid blasphemy laws against certain types of speech. Knowing these ahead of time will help you avoid blundering into an uncomfortable or even illegal situation.

The easiest tactic you can employ to blend in and avoid causing offense is to dress modestly and simply, and if possible in a similar way to those around you. This is not to say that you should dress in traditional Muslim garb if you are not a Muslim, but you should certainly dress differently in Saudi Arabia than you would in Daytona Beach.

In general, if you pack neutral clothing — not too flashy, not too skimpy, not too colorful, without slogans and commercial messages, etc. — you can’t go wrong. When in doubt, err on the side of dressing conservatively.

Some simple guidelines:

– Skip tank tops and other clothing that exposes a lot of skin.

– Dress respectfully in houses of worship and other religious places. (A shawl or scarf can be useful to cover your head and/or shoulders in places where this is required.)

– Skip clothing with political or overt cultural references, or with potentially inflammatory language (“all I got was this stupid T-shirt”).

– Consider carefully which valuables you need to take.

10 Things You Should Never Wear When Traveling Abroad

Staying alert to your surroundings is an important skill anytime and anywhere you travel, and even more so in countries where you may be slightly out of place in some way. Be wary of alcohol and drugs, as getting intoxicated can open you up to trouble you don’t need and won’t be able to handle in an impaired state.

glasses of beer

If there are rules or laws regarding curfews, restricted areas, photography and forms of expression, follow them. In many cultures, habits you’re used to at home are less acceptable and can create problems, as with drinking alcohol above.

Rules you might run into: no drinking in public, no smoking during Ramadan, no photos of military installations or personnel, no public displays of affection and no political expression of any kind.

Put some thought into both what you say and how you say it. Saying the wrong thing to the wrong person has gotten many travelers into hot water.

Some locals may want to draw you into discussions about religion or international politics; if this happens, you will want to think on their motives and try to read their body language to determine if they are being confrontational or not (see “Keep your wits about you” above).

If you feel comfortable proceeding, you might find some of these conversations to be very fruitful, but it’s best to start slowly. Consider lightweight or even indirect questions like asking whether the person has visited your country or whether there are any upcoming religious holidays. If you feel uncomfortable, change the subject or excuse yourself from the conversation as needed.

More simple guidelines:

– There is a reason the old saying not to talk about religion, politics or money has endured for so long; it will serve you well here.

– Skip exclamatory or inflammatory words, particularly those with religious implications (“Oh, my God!” for example).

– Just tone it down; common sense goes a long way in cases like this.

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This should go without saying, but here it is anyway. Engaging in vandalism, taking daring or potentially disrespectful selfies, wandering around unfamiliar neighborhoods after dark, having and using illegal drugs, and engaging in otherwise risky behavior is just asking for it. You can easily get yourself and people around you into difficult situations through mere bad judgment. If you know better, do better.

If you’re not sure whether you can go inside a place of worship, or if you can take someone’s photo, or if your attire is appropriate, ask someone. There are many who can help; try folks at the front desk of your hotel, tour guides, people working at the local visitor center or fellow travelers who know the location better than you do.

Not all types of travelers are welcomed equally in all parts of the world. Single-sex or interracial couples could be denied lodging or face harassment (or worse) in many cultures, while women traveling alone may feel more at risk in some places than in others. Of course, some of these situations can be an issue even in societies we often view as more open or tolerant. As noted above, it’s up to you to research these issues before you go and take appropriate precautions.

What advice would you offer to travelers visiting places where speech or behavior is restricted? Do you have first-hand experience to share? Let us know in the comments.

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com

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New England

New England

Author: Harrison Goldstein
Date of Trip: October 2016

Very enjoyable visit back to NY for one of the finest months of the year, Octobwr Fall season in full bloom / peak color of the trees…
Tandem causes of a class reunion and seeing f&f in both upsate NY and then down in the big city included several beautiful local hikes w/in 30-45 minutes drives in nearby mountains for a couple weeks, and then the solid contrast of a week down in the city… Weather began Fall-like w/pleasant 60 degree temps, rose to a nice final 80 degree heatwave for a couple days, and then finally veering down to average chilly temps around 50.

Having f&f to reside with is certainly an ideal situation to enjoy a low cost pleasant stay… plenty other reasonable options do of course exist for others requiring or desiring full privacy. Fall season in New England includes plenty wonderful attractions, festivities and plenty hustle and bustle, with no lack of interesting choices to remain engaged in all levels of life.

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