The Wanderlust Gene: Could It Explain Your Love of Travel?

At age 20, I had never been on a plane — but by the age of 30, I had visited a dozen countries. Since then, I have spent at least two months of every year on the road, and structured my work life not only to support travel, but to be travel.

Meanwhile, my brother once traveled on an around-the-world fare and nearly stayed Down Under before a troubled mountain hike forced him home to recuperate. Where did a couple of beach town kids get the urge to roam so extensively and continuously?

senior couple with map

When I was 10, my father, a police officer who was anything but a hippie vagabond, converted a van to have a shower, sink, stove and sleeping space for four, and my family spent the next decade rolling up and down the East Coast of the U.S. So maybe my brother and I caught the traveling bug from our parents — which genetic science suggests might be possible. Turns out there’s a so-called “wanderlust gene” that might have been passed down by our ancestors — and if you’re reading this, you might have it too.

If you love to travel, it’s possible that you have a certain mutation of dopamine receptor D4 (DRD4), which could be contributing to your wanderlust.

National Geographic cites multiple studies showing that migratory populations are more likely to have certain variants of DRD4 than more sedentary populations. The D4 receptor is tied to risk-taking and the need for new stimulus, which may explain why the same variant of the gene that’s common in migratory populations also seems to be tied to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Here is a very readable review of the research on the topic. According to this source, the gene variant occurs in less than 1 percent of some populations but more than 70 percent in others, with a strong correlation to long histories of migration.

Could a gene tied to migration and novelty-seeking help explain why some of us love to travel? It makes some sense: Get a gene firing that makes someone want to do new things, see new things, try new things and be new places, and you could end up with a pretty serious traveler.

Going back some generations, my father’s ancestors were fishermen and pirates, moving around trying to capture and take aboard riches of fish and unsuspecting outsiders wherever they could. Certainly those folks were strong candidates for the DRD4 variants, which might have been passed on to me.

Of course, it’s unlikely that a single gene is wholly responsible for a traveler’s wanderlust; other genetic and environmental factors are almost certainly at play. But there is evidence all around us (both scientific and commonsensical) that there’s something innate in us that spurs us to migrate. The human race has ranged over Earth in a way that no other species has in the history of the planet, so it would not be surprising if there is something in our genetic makeup that inspires us to be on the move — even if it’s probably not a single travel gene.

16 Signs You’re Addicted to Travel

There are any number of other behavioral traits that are thought to be genetically caused; one example is whether you are a morning person or a night person. Recent genetic research has found 15 regions of the human genome that appear to be linked to making someone a morning person.

Just as you’re unlikely to turn into a night owl after a lifetime of waking up early, the urge to travel is unlikely to go away once you’ve discovered it in yourself; you’re either wired for travel, or you’re not. So when a family member without a passport advised a hardcore traveler to go to the Morocco pavilion of Epcot instead of going to actual Morocco because it would be “safer” (which made our list of The Worst Travel Advice We’ve Ever Seen), it might have been that both were expressing their genetic inclinations perfectly.

traveler with camera

An interesting finding in the circadian rhythm studies is that being a morning person or a night person appears to be what is called a “continuous trait,” much like height; that is, the range of expression of the trait across the species, or even within a family, can vary considerably.

Just like some folks are tall and others short, and everyone else falls somewhere in between, the same is true for sleep habits: some of us are strictly morning people, others truly night people, and everyone else falls along a spectrum between the extremes.

The research is not as deep, so it’s not yet clear why the same effect appears to be in play when it comes to wanderlust. Could our genes alone explain why some folks like to travel a lot but always return home, while others stay on the road indefinitely or even live in a foreign country? Could DNA explain why many expats seem puzzled by those who don’t want to retire abroad, while some homebodies live in one place for decades and seem genetically inclined to sit tight?

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We may all be inclined toward a certain type and amount of travel. Your set point may drift a little one way or the other, and may change as you get older (the sleep study noted that older folks are more likely to be morning people than those under age 30), but overall we are pretty hard-wired.

This has implications for the frequency and type of travel that you do, and how you like to spend your days on the road; here are some thoughts on how to embrace your own travel inclinations.

– Accept that travel is an important part of your life, and that it’s not likely to change too much. You may find yourself choosing to take a vacation over buying a new TV or changing careers to prioritize traveling — and that’s okay.

– Realize that your traveling companions may not quite have the same innate drive that you do; they may be more or less adventurous, or have different reasons for traveling. Choose your trip companions wisely because you aren’t going to change their hard-wired preferences.

– Know that if you are one of those people who starts checking flight prices for your next trip the day before you fly home from your current trip, there might not be a lot you can do about it: It’s in your genes.

Do you feel as though you’re hard-wired to travel? Share your take in the comments!

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com

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Graz in-sights

Graz in-sights

Author: Francoise
Date of Trip: August 2014

Tonight is one of those evenings when instead of doing what I have to, I will indulge in the pleasure of doing what I want: sharing with you some of my thoughts and feelings during my few days’ stay in Graz.

buildings in graz

When was the last time I found myself riding a bicycle under pouring rain in the midst of the summer? By “pouring rain” I mean that heaven’s shower tap had been left turned on right above my head, so that by the time I reached my hotel I was soaked like after having taken a bath with my clothes on. But this was actually in more than one way a very refreshing experience. Had I been an immigrant worker going back home from a hard day’s toil with a bicycle because he has no car, I might have felt different, but to me this was such a cheerful moment, feeling happy and blessed under heaven’s abundance and bounty. So as we know, experiences are what they are, what makes them enjoyable or not is most of the time our mindset.

It also gave me a chance to sing my head off under Heaven’s natural symphonic orchestra, while pedaling in the deserted streets, enjoying my newly found voice – the one I could hear for a long time with my inner ears, that my friends had to take my word for its existence as they never witnessed it first hand – or first ear if I may say. Because I forgot to tell you, I came to Graz for a singing workshop that, although extenuating was actually very helpful!

So I came to Graz, I know, it’s Austria.

As a teenager who grew up in Paris and stopped learning German in high school, after having attended in Kohln the trial of three Nazis who had orchestrated the deportation of over one hundred thousand French Jews, coming to Austria did arise some dark sensations in my body and soul. 70 years later, even if most of the victims and perpetrators are not alive anymore, the holocaust damages are far from being over. Even though from the outside they look like everyone else, most children of holocaust survivors did not grow up in regular families and as a result of it they did not become regular parents. What about the second and third generation of Nazis. What kind of people did they grow to be? Do they still carry the hateful believes of their forefathers or do they feel shame and remorse?

Obviously I could never know the answers to those troubling questions but I decided that if I went to Austria, I should go “tabula rasa”, like a blank slate, with an open heart and no prejudices, otherwise I’d better find myself a singing workshop at home!

From a different angle, I must say that after having come across the biased and incriminating way in which Israel is portrayed in the news especially in Europe, I would have expected people to frown at me when hearing I came from Israel. But on the contrary, they were very friendly and did not look at me as a bi-ped monster. I felt such a relief as it saved me hours of explaining and substantiating why we are not what the manipulating news report us to be. I was even surprised to hear that some of the people I met had actually even visited or volunteered in Israel and had kept a very positive memory of their visit. Did they say the truth or just pretended like their history revealed they are good at, I’ll never know…

In any case, I found Graz to be a very pleasant town with the advantages of modern urbanism, without giving up the laid-back and peaceful way of life that the rural towns usually provide.

graz rooftops

• The population
By and large, I have found the residents of Graz to be very nice and helpful and to have that kind of innocence that many of us have lost to the challenges of modern life. It is very funny to see how kindly they greet you when you walk into a store. They will always acknowledge your presence with a good afternoon greeting and a sweet smile. When you walk out, even if you did not buy anything, they will say good bye to you with such a great smile and a kind voice, that one could think you had bought half of their store!

One thing that can not go unnoticed is that in Graz, people are very clean. You can see it from their streets to their bathrooms and it is very pleasant.

One thing that struck me is that the city is free of the massive African and Magrehbian immigration that characterizes most European cities. I did meet a few immigrants from Iran, Ethiopia and Nigeria, but they had been there for many years and besides a difference in look and accent, they had more or less the same attitude and manners as the indigenous population.

In a general way, I found Grazers to be calm and serene. Spouses spoke quietly with one another, parents spoke patiently with their children. I wondered what was the connection between their calmness and cell phones which I barely saw. I mean are they calmer because they don’t use their cell phones or perhaps it is the other way around: because they are calm and centered, they don’t become cell phone addicted as we are!

I must say that vehicles were quiet as well. I don’t know what Grazer horns sound like!

And then I truly wondered: How is it to live in a city where everything is so perfect? Doesn’t it get boring sometimes? Don’t they miss excitement and action? Are their houses painted in all those colors in order to add color to their lives or again, is it because they are happy and cheerful that they paint their houses in so many colors?

In Israel everything is louder, the laughter, the crying, the talking. Everything is more tensed, and more intense. But everything is more lively too in a way. I doubt we would see Breslavers dancing on the roof of a van in the heart of the traffic like near the Azrieli Towers in Tel Aviv, or shanty people dancing with strangers on the streets like on the Tel Aviv beach promenade, or see a mass “water fight” on the main square of the city with thousands of participants!!! In Israel, people dare go crazy, and it’s fun! But sometimes, it can be annoying too!

My visit in Graz granted me the “empiric” proof that I am not a paranoiac. In other words, it is THEM and NOT me! I am talking about Israeli men. In Graz, when I talked to men, they did not scan me from tip to toes. What a pleasure it was to feel a full-fledged human being and not just a female. I must admit that I don’t really know what the reason is behind it. As you could have guessed, I have already thought of a few possibilities: perhaps I am simply not the type of look that does it to them – I’m not really in the skinny, tall, blonde range. Or perhaps they are just more polite, or perhaps they are less transparent, or repress more their impulses or they are better actors, or they might have less testosterone, or they are more connected to their higher self… I have no idea, and the truth is that I don’t care. It just felt good. What I did notice is that the few immigrants I came across in Austria did make me feel like many Israeli men. So now I finally nailed it: it is a Middle Eastern thing!

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How Safe Is Air Travel?

Unless you’ve avoided television and the Internet entirely over the past few years, it has been almost impossible not to be aware of the recent dramatic and tragic airplane crashes. From the still-mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 to the deliberate crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 by a pilot, the details of each crash are unsettling and full of sorrow and heartbreak. It’s enough to make even seasoned travelers wonder if flying is getting steadily less safe.

Although the past few years have featured a few high-profile crashes, if you take the long view it becomes clear that the airline industry actually has a very good safety record — and it’s getting better, not worse.

airplane flight sunset

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), in 2015 there was one commercial jet accident per 4.5 million flights. This was in line with 2014, when the number was one accident per 4.4 million flights, and better than 2013 (one accident per 2.4 million flights).

In 2015, there were just four fatal accidents with a total of 136 fatalities. (Note that the Germanwings crash and a suspected terrorist attack on Metrojet Flight 9268 are not included in these stats because they were judged not to be accidents; these add an additional 374 deaths.) Compare that to the period from 2010 through 2014, which had an average of 17.6 fatal accidents and 504 fatalities per year.

In 2015 the 510 total fatalities were out of more than 3.5 billion journeys. For perspective, ABCNews.com reports that on average you would need to fly every day for 55,000 years in order to be involved in a fatal crash.

An article in the Wall Street Journal lays out the trend toward tremendously improved safety very clearly (a paywall applies). In fact, older travelers may be taken aback a bit by the risk they survived in the past; one of the most powerful stats noted in the WSJ article states that if we had the same accident rate today as in 1973, there would be a fatal crash every other day.

Some other critical stats to help you get over your fear of being in a plane crash:

– The crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 was the first major crash in Western Europe since 2008.

– The Germanwings aircraft was an Airbus 320; with 3,673 of these aircraft in operation worldwide, assuming each plane flies once daily (many do more than one flight), there should be a 320 taking off or landing every 11 – 12 seconds. At that kind of frequency, one crash is a very low number.

– Know that almost 96 percent of passengers involved in plane crashes make it out alive, according to the ABC News story linked above, and some fatalities could be prevented if passengers knew what to do.

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Driving is the obvious first comparison, and the National Safety Council notes that your odds of dying in a motor vehicle crash are 1 in 112. Your odds of dying in a plane crash? 1 in 96,566.

The National Safety Council offers these odds on other methods of dying, all of which are significantly more likely to happen than being killed in a plane crash:

– Being assaulted by a firearm: 1 in 358

– Being electrocuted: 1 in 12,200

– Walking down the street: 1 in 704

– Falling: 1 in 144

– Overdosing on a prescription painkiller: 1 in 234

Further, airline safety experts believe that the industry is likely to maintain and even improve these statistics as technology improves, older fleets are replaced and developing regions such as parts of Asia strive to match the air safety record of Europe and the United States.

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Limit — or at least understand the effects of — media exposure. Psychologists speak a lot about the “availability heuristic,” which is a term that explains how the more easily we can remember something, the more common we think that type of event is. The barrage of media coverage imprints an aircraft accident on our minds, increasing our sense of the danger involved — while the majority of automobile fatalities go unreported.

pilots in cockpit

Trust pilot training. The training of a commercial pilot is rigorous on a level that few other occupations require — far more rigorous than that of police officers, firefighters and other safety-oriented professions. Add the fact that many professional pilots learned to handle a plane by flying upside down and sideways in the Air Force, and you are in darn good hands.

Don’t worry about the unlikeliest scenarios. The Germanwings crash would not have occurred in the U.S., where there must be at least two crewmembers in the cockpit at all times. Other countries and airlines scrambled to adopt similar regulations after the Germanwings incident, making it unlikely that this type of tragedy would happen again.

Understand the extent of flight oversight. Even when there are issues with a specific pilot, air traffic control is a very active participant in the minute-to-minute conduct of a flight.

Be prepared. If you still can’t rest easy knowing that the numbers are overwhelmingly on your side, perhaps having a plan will help you; read How to Survive a Plane Crash to prepare for the worst.

More Tips to Overcome Your Fear of Flying

There are a bunch of good reasons many of us remain wary of air travel, and none of them is “because we are idiots.” For one, it is not so long ago that air travel was indeed pretty dangerous — the 1973 stats cited above are well within the memory of many of our readers, and going back even further, things get only worse. For many decades air travel really wasn’t so safe.

Second, studies of various types of fear have largely concluded that the fear of any activity or possibility is rarely overcome by reading statistics and lots of rational thought. Rather, our deep inclination toward self-preservation takes over, and it can be nearly impossible to turn that off. Even if we know that flying is safer than taking a bath, and even if we’re aware of some of the stats and the effect of media amplification, it is still hard not to wonder if it’s really safe to fly.

So I will offer the single most effective tactic I have ever offered to a fellow flier (an Olympic athlete who was so scared of flying she was nearly hugging me): Look to the leaders of the team, the flight attendants and pilots.

These folks choose to do this every day, as their job. They get up early, put on work clothes, have a quick breakfast, commute to work — and then, as routinely as many of us go to the office and boot up the computer, get on a long-haul plane. Look at their faces. They are not scared or nervous — it’s just another day on the job. If they’re not worried that their 55,000 years are up, why should we be?

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com

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Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom: Still the Happiest Place on Earth? Don't Believe the Hype.

Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom: Still the Happiest Place on Earth? Don’t Believe the Hype.

Author: Rachel McGrady-Hawley
Date of Trip: September 2016

“If you go on the weekend, they won’t miss much school.”

That piece of advice proved to be our down fall. We attempted a trip to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom on a HOT and sweaty Saturday in late September, 2016. This trip was a gift from my mother, affectionately known as Nana, and was meant to be the magical (or mythical?) once in a lifetime experience Disney is known for. We planned the trip according to a travel agent’s recommendations and thought we had all of our ducks in a row. We ran into a number of unexpected circumstances, however, many of which could have been prevented with some fore thought.

We went to the Magic Kingdom on Saturday because it was open late that day, until midnight. What we didn’t realize is that during Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party (which runs on select dates beginning in September and running through October) the Magic Kingdom closes early, really early, on these party dates. That means people who DON’T wish to be escorted out of the Magic Kingdom at 7pm come on the days it’s open late. This includes all the locals. We also didn’t realize that we were coming during the final days of the Walt Disney World Electric Light Parade. You can’t announce an end to a nearly 40 year old tradition and NOT expect an increase in crowds, right? Apparently, no one told Mickey Mouse.

We arrived by shuttle around 9:30am, and we were greeted with some VERY LONG LINES at the bag check counters. I understand the necessity of having to inspect purses and backpacks in this day and age, I really do, but they also went to the added step of pulling out random individuals for an additional metal detector screening, of which I was one, which meant waiting in another line and I hadn’t even entered the park yet.

Eventually, we made it to the entrance line, the line just to get into the park. At this point everyone has a ticket or a “magic band” to scan that shows that they paid to get in. You get to scan your ticket or magic band in front of a Mickey shaped scanner and go happily about your day. It’s supposed to streamline the process. Unfortunately, every scanner was malfunctioning on the day of our visit. EVERY SINGLE ONE. Each scanner is manned by a “cast member,” or park employee. If there is a problem with the scanner, the cast member raises their hand and another cast member comes and resets the scanner with an iPad. Every single cast member had their hand up waiting for a reset, and there was only one cast member present with an iPad. ONLY ONE. This meant that by the time we finally entered the so-called happiest place on Earth, we were already frustrated. This is obviously not the way you want to begin.

We were able to see Cinderella make her grand appearance from her castle at 10am, but just barely. The horns were sounding the moment we got there. This meant no casual strolling down Main Street USA, and no browsing any of the shops.

Our next stop was Adventureland. We had a fast pass for the Jungle Cruise at 10:30am. We had three fast passes to use each day of our stay, and these fast passes enable you to pass the line at the attractions you select. We were encouraged by our travel agent to plan these fast pass attractions before we left, the problem was that we didn’t know which attractions would have the longest lines until we got there. Believe me, if I had known in advance that The Seven Dwarves Mine Train would have a two hour wait, I would have stomached the 30 minute wait for the Jungle Cruise. Our second fast pass was for The Pirates of the Caribbean at noon. For those of you that don’t know, the Jungle Cruise and Pirates of the Caribbean are right next to each other, but the fast pass times we were given for these rides was an hour and a half apart! Our last fast pass was for Splash Mountain at 3:30pm. Splash Mountain is around the corner from Pirates of the Caribbean (The Magic Kingdom is laid out in a near perfect circle, which made it easy to navigate.), and I was once again confused as to why these times were spread so far apart when the attractions are relatively close together.

After we used our first three fast passes, we had the ability to get a fourth. However the Wi-Fi was spotty the day of our visit, so we had to wait in line at a kiosk for our fourth fast pass. The irony of waiting in a line to bypass a line wasn’t lost on us. Also, the rides with the longest waits no longer had fast passes available, so our ride on the Mine Train has to wait for a possible future visit. I am also confused why, in a park with over two dozen popular rides and attractions, we were limited to only 4 fast passes.

On a positive note, I will say that having the 3:30 time for Splash Mountain worked in our favor. The 3:00pm parade was just making its way through Frontierland as we exited the ride. With its raised sidewalks, Frontierland IS the ideal place for parade viewing, and that is no joke. My kids had front row viewing for this parade just by exiting Splash Mountain and walking up to the street. There was no need to arrive 20 minutes early and save a seat. Later on, we tried to watch the 10pm Electric Light Parade on Main Street in front of Cinderella’s castle, and that proved to be a HUGE mistake, even with arriving 20 minutes early to save a seat. So when cast members tell you that there is better parade viewing in Frontierland, you can believe it.

We did not make our way to Tomorrowland until around dinner time, and the wait for Space Mountain was about an hour. We were told by cast members that the wait would go down after the fireworks when the crowd thins out. We decided to take a trip on the Tomorrowland Speedway while we waited. This is a sad experience with a happy ending. While waiting in line for the Tomorrowland Speedway, a group of 20 somethings cut the line in front of my nine year old daughter and knocked her $3.50 soda out of her hands (YES! They charge $3.50 for SODA!), causing it to spill. My nine year old began to cry, not a loud wailing cry, but the quiet-wiping-of-tears-which–is-somehow-sadder-to- watch type of cry. The cast member who was manning the line smiled when my daughter reached her and said “Let me make this go a little faster for you.” She let us go in the fast pass lane despite having used all of our fast passes for the day, which made my nine year old’s night. NO, we did not wave to the 20 somethings when we passed them inline, but I was glad to see that Disney World empowered their cast members to fix small things that are out of their control.

The 9 pm fireworks started as we exited Tomorrowland Speedway. Watching them from behind Cinderella’s castle is not as picturesque as watching them in front of Cinderella’s castle. However, we still enjoyed them. After the fireworks, we attempted to cross one of the bridges that run alongside of Cinderella’s Castle. DON’T DO THIS! These bridges are the shortest distance between Fantasyland and Main Street USA, but they are by no means the fastest route. Take the long way around, you will get there faster AND safer. We were stuck on this bridge for 20 minutes. It was packed with people all trying to leave after the fireworks, or get to Main Street USA for the last Electric Light Parade. Imagine people so thick on a bridge that they literally CANNOT move, because that is what it was like. There was only one cast member on the bridge directing the foot traffic. ONLY ONE! We were all hot, tired, sweaty, and, once again, frustrated. When the people behind us began to push, a gentleman in front of us pushed back, with his fist. A fight broke out on the bridge next to Cinderella’s castle in the happiest place on earth, and it wasn’t until security got there that we were finally able to get off the bridge. This was one of the WORST vacation experiences of my life.

We were able to ride Space Mountain after the Electric Light Parade. In fact, we were able to squeeze in Space Mountain, the Tomorrowland Transit Authority Peoplemover, AND Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin before the park closed at midnight. We caught the last bus to the All Star Movies Resort at 12:30am (again, no browsing down Main Street USA, except for a brief stop to admire some window displays). On the bus, I said to my kids, “We just spent 15 hours in the happiest place on earth.” My nine year old replied, “If that was the happiest place on earth, how come no one was smiling? Seriously, no one was smiling.”

That summed up our Magic Kingdom experience, but if you still want to go:
DON’T go on a Saturday.
Bring plenty of water (It costs $3.00 per bottle. They will give you ice at any eatery that serves fountain pop if you ask, but who wants to wait?)
Get a Dole Whip Float in Adventureland. It’s dairy free and worth it.
Save two fast passes for the Seven Dwarves Mine Train and Peter Pan’s Flight. They had the longest wait times of all the rides all day long.
Watch the parade from Frontierland, I promise you won’t regret it.
See the Hall of Presidents; it’s 22 minutes of the BEST quality air conditioning in the Magic Kingdom.
And, for the love of all things Disney, STAY OFF THE BRIDGE!

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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.

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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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