Airport Delays: 7 Ways to Cope

Nothing throws a wrench into your travel plans quite like a big, hairy airport delay. And there’s no shortage of reasons why your flight might be late: unpredictable weather, technical glitches, airport security problems, congested airways … even UFOs. According to ABC News, an unidentified flying object that appeared above China’s Hangzhou Xiaoshan International Airport disrupted a total of 18 flights in July 2010. The UFO hovered in the air above Hangzhou, causing all inbound and outbound flights to be delayed for several hours.

airport delay frustrated passenger

Whether flying saucers or snowstorms are keeping you grounded, it’s important to know how to protect yourself in the event of a flight delay. First, you need a backup plan. Make sure you have options, like a hotel reservation or an alternative flight, in case you’re stranded. Second, you need to know your rights as a passenger. Airlines aren’t required by U.S. law to compensate passengers for delayed or canceled flights, and each carrier has its own policy on this. Read (or at least have access to) your airline’s contract of carriage in case of emergency.

For more on what rights you have as a flier, check out Passenger Rights.

Below are a few tips to help you cope in the event of software switches, storms or other causes of airport delays.

When it comes to the weather, you don’t need to be Al Roker to know when a storm might affect your travel. If you are flying in winter, there’s no excuse not to know at least a couple days ahead of time that your flight could be threatened. Particularly in the case of a winter storm, weather forecasting is pretty reliable 48 – 72 hours out. Summer storms can be less predictable, as thundercloud formation can occur fairly quickly. But forewarned is forearmed, and it’s not like you need to look for red skies in the morning of your travel these days to know that you might have a problem.

Foul Weather Travel

Some hotels don’t charge your card until you show up at the front desk, so it’s usually safe to book a room and cancel if your flight does take off reasonably on time. Make sure to ask about cancellation policies to be on the safe side when you call. (Many hotels will charge you if you don’t cancel at least 24 hours in advance.)

Look for airport hotels that offer shuttle service so you can ditch your rental car or otherwise count on a ride to the airport without too much trouble or expense.

You don’t need an elephant’s memory to be able to call a reservation site, a hotel, your airline or any travel service outfit; you just need to program these numbers into your cell phone before your trip starts. Save the contact number for your airline (use the frequent flier program phone number if you have elite status of any kind, as the service is better), reservation sites, car rental companies that permit drop-offs near you, and your travel agent if you have ever used one — even if the agent didn’t book you into your current jam, he or she might be able to get you out of it.

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If it looks like things might get ugly, make sure you know some of the alternative flights on other airlines; if this is too much to remember, just try to remember on which airlines the best flights are available. This way, when 100,000 people are on hold to the United 800 number, you’re on the phone with another airline figuring out whether they will honor your tickets and can book you onto the next flight. If you know a few flights on a couple of airlines within a few hours of your original flight, you’re way ahead of the game when you try to transfer your ticket to another airline. Ultimately you’ll have to get your original airline to sign off on the transfer, but at least you’ll get to the airline desk armed with information and maybe even a tentative reservation on the other airline.

A good way to do these searches is to use one of the aggregator sites, such as Kayak.com or Mobissimo.com. The best of these allow you to adjust several parameters on the fly, including airlines displayed (in case your original airline will grant exchanges only on select airlines), flight times (so you can see flights close to your original departure time first, then expand from there) and alternate airports (perhaps you can get within a reasonable drive of your original airport). You can also filter results by the duration of your itinerary, in case you are looking at absurd routes, connections or layovers on some of your results. These sites can offer a very fluid and customizable view of what is available to you airline by airline, hour by hour, airport by airport.

airline ticket app smartphone

In the past, airline call centers have been utterly crippled by the high call volume that happens when there are masses of flight delays. Now you’ll usually get text or email alerts sent straight to your phone when something goes wrong, and you can use the airline’s website or app to check flight status.

When winter storms or other major weather events happen, many airlines allow travelers to rebook without penalty, especially if they know they’ll have to delay or even cancel their scheduled flights. In these cases you’ll want to call as early as possible so you get your pick of alternative itineraries.

Many travel insurance policies include coverage that will help you pay for a hotel room, meals or other expenses associated with a delay. Of course, you’ll need to purchase this well before your trip in order to be covered; any storm system that develops before you buy a policy will likely be excluded from coverage. Learn more about travel insurance.

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com

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11 Reasons Why You Should Travel Alone at Least Once

Traveling with family and friends can be incredibly rewarding, offering experiences and laughs that can bind us for a lifetime. So it might seem that traveling alone would be a less enriching experience; without our favorite people to share it with, how could it compare?

And yet many veteran travelers have memories of extraordinary, eye-opening solo trips, of glorious days when they set out alone and found and saw and noticed things they might never have done otherwise.

Why travel alone? Consider finding out for yourself. Here are 11 reasons why you should travel alone at least once in your life.

When traveling alone, the lack of familiar people to interact with forces you to engage much more directly with your surroundings — on where you are rather than who you’re with. This is probably why many travelers report more vivid memories from solo trips; their attention is absolutely focused on their surroundings.

Unable to rely on your traveling partners to buy breakfast, or use their better language skills to get things done, or distract you during a boring train ride, you’ll have to turn to the locals, whether you’re looking for human interaction or not.

A solo traveler can also seem more approachable. If you’re with a partner or friend, it’s tempting to talk mostly with each other, and outsiders might not want to impose. But if you’re by yourself, it’s often easier for someone else to strike up a conversation with you (or vice versa).

When traveling with others, we are often selective about suggesting activities that we hope everyone will enjoy and find a good use of precious vacation time. If one of these activities doesn’t work out, it can be a source of guilt and conflict.

If you make the wrong choice on a solo trip, there’s no one to worry about other than yourself, and you won’t feel guilty for ruining someone else’s travel day. Plus, it’s easier to ditch your itinerary and move on, which brings us to…

When traveling in a group, changing plans can be rife with interpersonal, financial and other concerns. When traveling alone, you can simply make a decision and move on. This can apply to decisions both small and large, from deciding where to eat to choosing whether to rent a car and leave town.

Want to blow a ton of money on a waterfront room? Go for it. Want to spend next to nothing on food? Fine. Want to go only to free museums, events and attractions? Keep your money. As a solo traveler, you have the last (and only) word on every dollar you spend.

When we are with friends and family, much of our experience is a shared one, which can offer rich rewards but can also create a buffer between us and the world around us. Traveling alone makes remaining in the bubble of your own comfort zone nigh on impossible — which can lead to more intense travel experiences.

Perhaps the most striking thing about traveling alone is that your schedule is entirely yours to decide. Our everyday lives can be a tyrannical grind of accommodating other people’s schedules, and this can easily carry over to leisure time as we try to pace our vacation days to adapt to the preferences of the group.

Traveling alone, you can walk out of a movie you don’t like, stay for hours in a museum no one else you know would care about, ride an elevated subway to the last stop just for the sights, read a book in your hotel room or whatever you can come up with that would seem a waste of time to almost anyone else. Following your own rhythm without compromise might not be possible in daily life, but it’s great, indulgent fun on a solo vacation.

IndependentTraveler.com senior editor Sarah Schlichter notes that her first solo trip, originally a source of trepidation, ultimately offered a well-spring of confidence.

“I remember how scared I was the first time I traveled by myself — and sometimes I still am,” she says. “It can be lonely and unsettling not to have anyone else around for backup. But being able to get yourself out of a jam or figure out where you are when you’re lost can give you a new sense of confidence and faith in your own resourcefulness. For me this carried into not only other trips but also into my life at home.”

Schlichter found her newfound abilities liberating, especially when deciding if and where to travel.

“When I was younger I thought that if I couldn’t find someone who wanted to visit a place with me, I couldn’t go,” she says. “Now, if no one else is interested or available, I just shrug and go anyway, knowing that traveling by myself isn’t a big deal.”

Solo travelers often report instances of mundane happenstance offering up strong and memorable emotions. Imagine waking up in an empty hotel, where nearly no one knows you are there, with the hours ahead lying entirely unscripted and your sense of possibilities is nearly exploding. As Freya Stark once noted, “To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” It is a unique and heady experience.

When you venture out into the world on your own, you eventually need to face who you are, what you care about and what you want to do with your time. Certainly the literature of our species bears this out, with a journey at the center of many of our greatest and most significant myths, novels and memoirs. Traveling with others you will find great friendship, diversion and fun; but traveling alone you might find yourself.

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com

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Top 25 Ways to Save on Europe Travel

Europe is one of the world’s most expensive travel destinations. Hotel rates are sky-high in major capitals like London, Paris and Moscow, and the hefty cost of living (particularly in Scandinavian countries) makes everyday purchases such as meals and public transportation tickets a pricey proposition for travelers.

colmar alsace france flowers

But that doesn’t mean you can’t see Europe on a budget. We’ve gathered 25 tips to help you save your pennies (or pounds!) on your next trip to Europe.

1. Get rate quotes in your home currency. Long before you travel, when you are booking your hotel, car rental and other non-flight essentials, try to get quotes in U.S. dollars (or your home currency) and pay in that currency whenever possible. This way there are no surprises when your credit card statement arrives and you find out you paid a lot more than your quick back-of-the-envelope estimate when calculating the exchange rate.

2. Find your focus. When planning your European itinerary, consider exploring one region or country in depth rather than bouncing around from place to place. For example, spend a week sightseeing in Florence and taking day trips to nearby towns in Tuscany rather than trying to squeeze Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome into seven or eight days. You’ll not only spare yourself hours of sitting in transit, but you’ll also save big on transportation expenses such as airfare or pricey train tickets. Learn more about slow travel.

3. Save on museum entrance fees. Many museums offer free admission on certain days or nights of the week or at certain times of the month. (For example, the Louvre is free on the first Sunday of each month between October and March.) Check ahead of time for free admission at the museums you’re interested in, and schedule your visit accordingly.

Planning a Trip to Europe: Your 10-Step Guide

4. Find free entertainment. Similarly, keep an eye out for free concerts or performances going on in local parks, churches and other public venues. The best place to find these is in the local newspapers or entertainment listings, by asking at your hotel — or simply by stumbling upon them.

5. Purchase a pass. Most major cities offer special cards that include discounts or free admission for museums, attractions, tours and public transportation. These can be a great value if the card covers many of the attractions you were already planning to visit, but be sure to evaluate whether it’s really worth it. If the card costs $40 and you’re only going to use it at one or two museums, it may be better to pay a la carte.

6. Get cash from ATMs — at a bank. An ATM is your best option for a combination of a fair exchange rate and low surcharges and fees. At an ATM, you’ll likely pay a transaction fee from your bank (typically 1 – 2 percent or a few dollars), but you’ll also get the favorable interbank exchange rate rather than the higher rates you’ll find at typical exchange bureaus. To avoid excessive fees, take out large amounts of cash at a time and store the excess in a money belt or hotel safe. For more tips, see our feature on money safety.

You’ll do well to avoid stand-alone, off-brand ATMs of the kind you often find in the back of convenience stores. These typically have the highest transaction fees; use an ATM from a reputable bank instead. (If possible, use your own bank to avoid fees from other institutions. Check your bank’s website for ATM and branch locations.)

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7. Use your credit card. Many of the benefits of using an ATM card also apply to your credit card, particularly the strong exchange rates. However, keep in mind that many credit card companies charge fees for purchases made in foreign currencies, usually 1 – 3 percent. Choose the right card and you can avoid these fees. Capital One, for example, is a major credit card company that levies no surcharges on foreign transactions for its U.S. card holders. Check with your credit card companies to figure out which of your cards has the lowest fees for foreign purchases, and then use that one for your overseas purchases.

Out on the road, also check the fine print to make sure that your hotel, restaurant or other outfit does not tack on a percentage fee on all credit card transactions to cover authorization fees.

euros credit card

8. Choose your counter wisely. If you absolutely must use a currency exchange counter, skip the airport or train station kiosks where you are almost guaranteed to get the worst rate available. Instead, choose a bank if you can find one. Wherever you are, exchange only enough money to get the job of the moment done (whether it be a cab ride, emergency rations or the purchase of a souvnenir), and then get thee to an ATM as soon as you can.

9. Fly cash (and coin) light. Wait until you reach your destination before exchanging currency, and spend the bulk of your foreign currency at your destination before you go home. This way, you won’t have to pick up and then dump a lot of money at an exchange booth while taking losses both coming and going.

This is especially applicable to the piles of rattling coins you accumulate while traveling. Good luck finding a place back home that accepts a bucket of euro tin and Queen Elizabeth heads in your neighborhood. Spend all your change on the way out, or at least stop at a bank and convert it to bills; you might actually get your money back someday if you do. For more tips, see Foreign Currency.

10. Don’t be afraid to haggle. We wouldn’t recommend trying this at Harrods or other department stores, but there are still plenty of places in Europe where bargaining is acceptable. Outdoor markets and street vendor stalls offer prime opportunities to try your haggling skills.

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11. Cut out the car… Most of us know that a rental car isn’t really necessary (and in fact can be a hindrance) when visiting a major city. But many European nations have such comprehensive networks of trains and local buses that you may not even need a car to visit the countryside. Public transportation is available to many small towns and rural tourist attractions, which will save you not only the price of your rental but also the cost of gas (Europeans pay significantly more than Americans do). If you truly are headed out into the middle of nowhere for a day or two, plan to keep your rental for only as long as you need it rather than for your entire stay.

12. …and the cab. Most European airports are served by trains, buses, shuttles and ridesharing services that will take you downtown and back for a fraction of the cost of a cab. (Make it easier on yourself by packing light since you may have to schlep your own luggage.) Similarly, it’s much cheaper to get around town via public transportation, Uber/Lift or, better yet, by walking from place to place. If you think you’ll be relying heavily on a subway or bus system, a single- or multi-day pass could be a good buy.

13. Consider a rail pass. Whether you’re concentrating on a single country or traveling all over the Continent, there may be a Eurail pass that will save you money. Before purchasing a pass, carefully plan out how many train trips you will take and calculate the total cost of point-to-point tickets at RailEurope.com. Keep in mind that short trips are relatively inexpensive — so if you’re going to be sticking to a very small area, a pass may not be worth the cost.

14. Overnight it. If you’re planning a lengthy train journey, consider traveling on an overnight train. This way you won’t waste valuable daylight hours in transit, and you’ll save on the cost of a night’s lodging as well. See our Europe train tips. Or take a quick flight with one of Europe’s many low-cost carriers such as Ryanair and easyJet. Learn more about international discount airlines.

15. Go grocery shopping. Stock up on bottled water, fruit and snacks at grocery stores rather than tourist shops. You’ll pay what the locals pay and often get a wider selection too.

16. Learn to love lunch. Instead of eating a pricey multi-course dinner, make lunch your big meal of the day. Often you can enjoy similar dishes for half the price.

17. Don’t overtip. Americans are used to tipping 18 – 20 percent in restaurants, but in most European nations, 10 percent is the norm unless the service was truly extraordinary. Check first to see whether a service charge has already been added to your bill; if so, you usually don’t need to leave anything additional. For country-specific tipping information, refer to a good guidebook, do a Google search or ask at the local tourist office. And don’t miss our Tips for Tipping Abroad.

18. Save on breakfast. If breakfast is included in your hotel’s nightly rate, then be sure to take advantage of it. But if it’s not, skip the overpriced room service. You can almost certainly find a much cheaper croissant and cup of coffee at the cafe down the street. Ask your hotel’s concierge or front desk about what’s nearby.

19. Be wise about wine. If you’re dining out, order the house wine; you’ll save money, and in places like France and Italy, you may be surprised at how good it is. Want a drink out on your hotel balcony? Pick up a bottle at the local liquor store and bring it back to your room for an affordable taste of luxury.

20. Choose wisely. To find authentic and affordable food, skip the restaurants with the tourist-friendly English-language menus out front and seek out places where you see plenty of locals. (The Google Translate app can help you make sense of the menu.) Don’t hesitate to ask your hotel concierge to recommend affordable restaurants in the area. For more information, see Finding the Best Restaurants on the Road.

21. Follow the locals’ lead for cheap eats. Eat the plentiful pizza in Italy, grab a quick baguette sandwich in France or nosh on takeaway curry in London.

22. Consider a rental. Choosing a vacation rental instead of a standard hotel has several cost advantages. Renting an apartment or house often gives you more space for less money (so it’s a particularly economical option if you’re traveling with a group or family), and having kitchen facilities means you can cook for yourself rather than spending a lot on overpriced restaurant meals.

23. Don’t count out hostels. Many travelers steer clear of hostels, thinking that they’re just for 20-something backpackers who don’t mind sleeping 10 to a room. However, you may not know that many hostels also offer private rooms, some with ensuite bathrooms as well. They may not be luxurious, but if you’re looking for a clean, basic room at a low price, it’s worth checking out the hostel scene.

24. Look at location. To get a lower hotel rate, consider staying outside the city center. As long as you’re located somewhere near a public transit line, it will still be pretty convenient — and you could save big bucks.

25. Get creative. Discover other affordable possibilities — from B&Bs to farmstays — in Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay.

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–written by Ed Hewitt and Sarah Schlichter

Two Weeks in Japan for the First Time

Two Weeks in Japan for the First Time

Author: Nghiep Q
Date of Trip: December 2016

Useful things I did before the trip.

I ordered the Japan Rail (JR) pass about one month ahead. Once it was ordered and paid for online, the Exchange Order was delivered by FedEx to our home address. Be sure to bring it to Japan! The Exchange Order and the passport are needed to obtain the JR pass for each traveler from the JR office at the airport. The pass allows for unlimited rides on trains operated by the Japan Rail company. It served us extremely well. We did not have to figure out the cost of tickets for each time we used the JR train. We just went through the gate monitored by the attendant and showed the pass. Since we took the trains everywhere, it saved us a lot of money. We even used the pass to reserve seats on several occasions while traveling on the high speed trains such as Kansai Airport to Kyoto, Kyoto to Hiroshima, Kyoto to Tokyo, etc. Normally, reserved seating requires an additional fee but it is included with the JR pass. We did have to pay for a few segments of rides since the JR lines do not reach all of the places we wanted to visit.

I also ordered a pocket wi-fi about two weeks before the trip. It was delivered to the post office at the arrival airport–Kansai in our case. The unit I received must have been a little older as the battery meter was not accurate. I ended up having to charge it every night. My estimate is it worked about 98% of the time. I had to reboot it several times over a two-week period. I noticed that the arrival hall had several kiosks offering rentals of those devices. We used it mainly for navigation. Having reliable wi-fi saved us a lot of time and potential headache.

I downloaded the Hyperdia app one week before the trip since it is free to use for 30 days. I used it to check the train schedules in real-time. This app was indispensable. During our two weeks, the app displayed the incorrect track number only once. I always double checked the information with the display board at the station and/or platform.

Our trip

We used Kyoto as a base to explore the western region and Tokyo as the other base. Hence, we flew into Kansai International Airport. Since our flight was scheduled to land in the evening, I booked one night at the Hotel Nikko Kansai. The hotel is just across the sky bridge from the airport. After checking-in, we walked back into the airport to exchange money. My research indicated that the exchange rate at the airport is either the same or better than the rate in the cities. I can confirm that was the case the handful of times I bothered to check while in the cities. We also picked up the JR Pass and reserved seats for next day’s train ride (free service/upgrade with JR Pass). After a light meal of ramen, we even had a chance to do some window shopping before resting up.

The pocket wi-fi was picked up from the post office, located at the northeast end of the second floor, in the morning. The “Limited Express HARUKA” train ride from Kansai Airport to Kyoto Station took 78 minutes. Kyoto Station is massive but due to the ample signage in both Japanese and English, we were able to find our way.

The following is a brief summary of the places we visited from Kyoto.

Kyoto Station: The ground and second levels have numerous restaurants, bakeries, convenient stores, shops, tourist information centers and multiple JR offices. The ninth floor has a “Ramen Street” offering up ramen dishes from different regions of Japan. It was busy both times we went. But everything was organized and done efficiently to minimize the wait time. There is a “Skywalk” up in the rafters, high above the station. Oh, I almost forgot, the tenth floor has more restaurants. We did not eat there though.

Areas around Kyoto Station: To the north, there is the Kyoto Tower. We did not explore it. But we did venture around seven floors of the Yodabashi building. Each level of the department store sold a different category of goods. Underground, there are hundreds of shops and restaurants as part of the Kyoto Porta. To the south, there is an Aeon Mall. We explored the supermarket on the ground floor, many of the stores and ate at a restaurant on the fourth floor and at different stalls in the food court.

Kyoto Imperial Palace, Nishiji Market, Sanjo Dori and other shopping streets in the area: Unfortunately, the Imperial Palace was still closed when we arrived due to the New Year holidays. We ended up walking around the outside and through the park. Nishiji Market was lively though as well as the various shopping streets. We ended up having a couple of good meals in the area.

Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavillion), Fushimi Inari-Taisha (with thousands of torii gates), Kiyomizu-dera: We needed to use the buses in addition to the trains for these three sites. A day pass for the buses at a cost of ¥500 was a good value since the cost of a single bus ride was ¥230. The pass was purchased from the Bus Information Center on the north side of Kyoto Station. Each site was well worth the visit. We hiked all the way to the top of the mountain at Fushimi Inari-Taisha. We managed to capture beautiful pictures at Kinkaku-ji and Kiyomizu-dera. Unfortunately, we did not get a chance to walk around Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka (historic shopping streets) because the stores were closing by the time we were done at Kiyomizu-dera.

Tennoji Temple in Osaka: This temple is a short walk, less than 15 minutes, from the Tennoji Station. Before entering the temple, rinse your hands and mouth with the water by the gate. This is a ritual at all temples. If you want to climb the five-story pagoda, be sure to take off your shoes, put them in the bags provided at the entrance and carry them with you. On the way back to the train station, we ate at two places filled with locals. The noodles and gyoza were standard fare. The takoyaki, balls made of wheat flour batter with octopus chunks inside, was an interesting eat.

Dotonbori in Osaka: It is a covered shopping street (there are many such streets). It was a lively scene with people everywhere. Hozenji Temple is nearby. We saw locals formed a long line for the opportunity to pay respect to the statue of a deity covered in moss.

Osaka Station City: This is another massive structure. Shops and restaurants were on many floors. We had okonomiyaki, noodle-pancake with various toppings, for dinner there. It was also an interesting meal but we were on carb overload by the end of that day.

Nara: We visited Kofukuji (a temple), Todaiji (a temple with a giant Buddha) and Kasuga Taisha (a shrine). There were countless deer around. Purchase crackers if you want to feed and pet them. Watch your steps though as deer dropping were everywhere. There were ladies with broom and pan trying to clean up but they were vastly outnumbered. We caught the rapid train. The ride from Kyoto took 58 minutes (it would have taken 70 minutes on the local train). The Hyperdia app helped us planned accordingly. There is a branch of Vie de France, an excellent bakery, inside Nara Station. This branch had the sweet rice balls which are crispy on the outside with different fillings such azuki, red bean paste, inside. We tried to find this item again at other branches but had no luck. Since we were there on New Year’s Eve, there were numerous food stalls offering up countless variety of dishes. I sampled as much as I could.

Miyajima and Hiroshima: We used the high speed train from Kyoto to Hiroshima and went on to Miyajima by way of a local train and then a ferry. Since there was a large crowd at Miyajima, by the time we completed our visit and got back to Hiroshima, it was already early evening. My plan was for us to catch the Meipuru-pu sightseeing loop-bus in Hiroshima (no additional cost for JR pass holders). I went into the JR office to ask for directions because I did not see signage for the Granvia Hotel where the bus originates. At that moment, I realized I had not reserved seats back to Kyoto. When I inquired, I was told all of the reserved seats had been taken. Our group decided to skip Hiroshima and take the train back as soon as possible rather risk being stranded in Hiroshima. The train we caught was packed. I had to stand the entire ride back to the transfer station at Shin-Osaka (85 minutes). Lesson learned.

Himeji Castle and Koko-En Garden: The walk from the Himeji Station to the castle took about 15 minutes. Notice we typically opt to walk. I personally find it to be a more immersive experience. The entrance fee was ¥1000 to enter the castle and ¥1040 to enter the adjacent garden also. It was a no brainer to pay the extra ¥40. The castle is as impressive as I expected based on the pictures I have seen. The garden has a very peaceful, zen, feel to it.


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11 Days in Havana

11 Days in Havana

Author: John McBay
Date of Trip: December 2016

HAVANA GEOGRAPHY

Havana is a BIG city with over two million people, 30 miles from east to west and 13 miles north to south. But, most of the interesting stuff is in the area to the west of Havana harbor for 10 miles or so and within a mile or so of the coast.

Havana Vieja. By far, the most interesting part of Havana is Havana Vieja (Old Havana – the historic district). Less than one mile north to south and east to west. Vieja extends from Havana harbor to Paseo de Marti (Prado). This whole area is walkable and contains many of the most historic and interesting sights in Havana. The streets are narrow and much of the architecture is from the 19th century and earlier. If you have limited time in Havana, make sure to explore this part of Havana.

Centro. The district (neighborhood) to the west of Vieja is Centro. There are few reasons to visit Centro except by cab to visit a particular attraction, such as a restaurant or the Partagas cigar factory (worth the trip). See the finest cigars in the world rolled by hand.

Vedado. The district to the west of Centro is Vedado. This area contains many beautiful (and sometimes crumbling) houses and embassies. Portions reminded us of Ardsley Park in Savannah. Cementario Colon is an amazing cemetery. All travel here will have to be by cab.

Miramar. Continuing west, Miramar is notable for The Marina Hemingway, Club Habana (formerly the Biltmore Yacht Club) and Fusterlandia (a small town – Jaimanitas – and art studio covered in mosaic tile by Jose Fuster, a disciple of Gaudi). There are also sections of Miramar that have beautiful houses. All travel here will have to be by cab. These attractions are all about 10 miles west of Vieja.

MONEY

You can’t use American bank issued credit or debit cards in Cuba because of the American trade embargo.

All transactions by tourists in Cuba are in Cuban pesos (CUC$). In this document any references to $ will be referring to CUC$. Ie 10$ = 10 CUC$ = 10 pesos. Cubans will usually refer to the currency amount as pesos.

A Cuban $ is approximately equal to a US dollar, depending on the current conversion rates (December 2016).
You obtain CUC’s by converting some other currency to CUC$ in Cuba. You can not obtain Cuban currency in the US.

If you take American dollars to Cuba and convert them, you lose more than 10% on the transaction. This is a “tax” that the Cuban government imposes on the conversion of US dollars.

You are better off buying Euros in the US and then converting them in Cuba to Cuban currency. In the long run you will save several percent over converting from dollars into CUC$.

Shop around and try to get the most favorable rate. Currency exchange is a crazy business. Exchange rates are all over the place. First try your local bank and see if they can get Euros for you. Triple A (AAA) can also obtain Euros.

To give you an idea of the crazy world of currency conversion; when we returned from Cuba we brought back 610 Euros that I wanted converted back to dollars. I called a popular currency exchange. They would give me $547. I went to a Chase bank and they gave me $595. That’s a 10% difference.

When you arrive in Cuba with Euros, the best place to convert them is at a bank. As of early December 2016, I was able to get about 103 CUC$ for 100 Euros in a bank.

I only used a currency exchange once while we were in Havana and that was at the airport. I only exchanged enough Euros to pay the taxi and have enough left over for dinner. I am not sure how good the exchange rate was.

Hotels will change Euros for you but it will cost you 5+% more than the official exchange rate.


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Hiking Diamond Head

Hiking Diamond Head

Author: Jill Weinlein (More Trip Reviews by Jill Weinlein)
Date of Trip: February 2017

When vacationing on Oahu, part of the Hawaiian Island chain, one of the most photogenic spots in Waikiki Beach is Diamond Head. The sun drums up the energy to rise above the dormant volcano and illuminate Waikiki Beach in the morning.
The Hawaiian name of this volcano is Le’ahi, because the summit resembles the forehead of an ahi fish.
On our last visit, we stayed at the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Hotel and took the hotel’s complimentary Waikiki Connection Trolley to the base of the mountain to hike to the top. It’s a good morning activity for individuals, couples and families, before the sun heats up the two mile hike inside the volcanic crater.
In the late 1700s, Western explorers and traders believed the calcite crystals on the slope of the craters were diamonds. Soon the name Diamond Head became the common name of this area.
There is a paved and dirt trail, built in 1908 as part of the U.S. Army Coastal Artillery defense system. Historically, this coastal defense area was built to defend the island of Oahu from attack, however no artillery was ever fired during a war.
For a $1 admission fee, visitors and locals (wear tennis or hiking shoes to maneuver the many rocks, steep inclines, stairs and switchbacks) walk from an elevation of 200 feet to 761 feet.
Diamond Head is a semi-arid climate. Most of the plants and animals today were introduced in the 1800s. The Kiawe (in the mesquite family) grows in the shallow soil. Near the trees are birds that include cardinals, morning doves and sparrows.
Starting up the switchback trail, the army left a concrete landing with a rusted winch and cable that was used to lift materials from the crater floor. This is a good water break area offering incredible East views of the area. Continuing along is a steep stairway, with about 74 steps leading to a narrow tunnel. This tunnel is lit dimly and about 225 feet long. After the tunnel is another stairway with 99 steps. At the top is the lowest level of a Fire Control Observation Station.
Almost at the top is a spiral three level stairway, about 52 steps. This replaced a ladder and was installed in the 1970s. Once at the top, be sure to duck, because the ceiling is quite low.
The end result is worth all the exercise with sweeping coastal views of the seven beaches along Waikiki and the Diamond Head lighthouse, built in 1917 as a visual aid for navigation. The views of beautiful reefs along the southeastern shore towards Koko Head are awe inspiring.
Along the crater rim is a Bunker built in 1915.This area is now closed, however a few visitors ignore the sign and climb over the metal fence for photo opportunities.
Walking back down can be slippery at times, so take your time. Be sure to wear a hat, sunscreen and bring at least one bottle of water. The area opens at 6 a.m. for sunrise hikes and the last time to start a hike is at 4:30 p.m.
At the bottom is a concession truck with water, juice, shaved ice and smoothies. If you hike in on a Saturday morning, catch the trolley or walk to the KCC Farmers Market at the Community College. It’s open from 7:30 to 11 a.m., serving local farm-fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers and street food.

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How the Trump Administration Could Affect Travelers

With every new White House administration, and indeed with every shift in Congress, the regulations, norms and mood surrounding the travel industry shift, sometimes significantly. The new Trump administration is no different, offering potentially both good and bad news for travelers. Here’s our look at how the Trump administration could affect travelers, along with some things to monitor as policies take effect and are adjusted, new developments are announced, and future plans are revealed.

donald trump

President Trump’s January 27 executive order banning individuals from seven countries from entering the U.S. sparked public controversy and generated a fair amount of uncertainty at airports around the country. After the original ban was put on hold by the courts, the president signed a new executive order this week that revoked the old order and made the following changes, according to the Washington Post:

– The ban applies to nationals of six Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen) rather than seven; Iraq has been removed from the list.

– The ban blocks only the issuance of new visas rather than keeping all travelers from the affected countries from entering the U.S.

– The ban takes effect 10 days after signing rather than immediately, and does not affect legal permanent residents, dual nationals, those with existing visas and those who’ve already been granted refugee or asylum status.

This version of the ban could cause less chaos for travelers than the original executive order. The 10-day grace period between the signing and implementation of the order should allow travelers and government officials alike enough time to familiarize themselves with the restrictions. And with green card and visa holders being exempted, fewer travelers should be affected by the ban. That said, there could be disruptions at airports if the new executive order inspires more protests or if there are legal challenges to the ban.

After the signing of the original travel ban, there was some concern in the tourism industry about a drop in planned travel to the U.S. The Boston Globe reported that several online booking sites saw declines of 6 to 17 percent in searches on international flights to the U.S. after the original executive order was signed on January 27.

According to the Guardian, Kayak.com saw more than 50 percent declines in searches to Tampa, Orlando and Miami from the U.K., with searches to San Diego down 43 percent, Las Vegas 36 percent and Los Angeles 32 percent.

In the Globe report, Mike McCormick of the Global Business Travel Association said that $185 million in business travel bookings had already been lost as of February 8. For perspective, David Scowsill of the World Travel & Tourism Council noted that post-September 11 policies led to a $600 billion loss in tourism in the subsequent decade; travel to the U.S. had returned to pre-9/11 levels only just last year.

It’s not yet clear what effect, if any, the new travel ban will have on bookings.

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

If reduced demand for U.S. flights persists, it’s possible that it could lead to a drop in flight, lodging and car rental prices for Americans traveling to domestic destinations. The Guardian article linked above notes that hotel prices are already down 39 percent in Las Vegas and 32 percent in New York City.

There may well be savings on international travel as well; the Guardian reports that Kayak is showing double-digit price drops in flights to Mexico, Rio de Janeiro, New Zealand and Singapore, as well as to several European destinations.

The administration’s broader plans could lead to other benefits for travelers. The U.S. Travel Association expressed support for President Trump’s planned large-scale infrastructure expenditure, which would improve roads, bridges and airports.

The overall effort has bipartisan backing, as displayed by legislation introduced by Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY) to uncap passenger facility charges to fund airport improvements. The legislation would almost certainly increase fees paid by passengers, however.

airport

As time passes, keep an eye on these other travel issues:

– The European Parliament voted to require visas for U.S. citizens to visit Europe, which makes for a splashy headline but so far is just a non-binding resolution. It’s part of an effort to encourage full visa waiver reciprocity between the U.S. and the European Union (citizens of Bulgaria, Croatia, Poland, Romania and Cyprus currently must apply for a visa in order to visit the U.S., though Americans can visit all E.U. countries visa-free). These demands started under the previous administration, but it’s unclear how President Trump will respond.

– Plans for a border tax could affect the strength of the U.S. dollar, though it’s not yet fully clear how. A stronger dollar would be welcome news for Americans traveling abroad, who would have more spending power.

– There could be changes to the recent thaw in U.S. relations with Cuba that would affect Americans’ ability to travel there. Few details are available, but the administration has said the current policy toward Cuba is under review.

– The Department of Transportation is moving toward undoing some of President Obama’s consumer protections for fliers by putting on hold the public comment process for a policy that would require more disclosure of baggage fees and delaying for a year a regulation that would oblige airlines to report mishandling of wheelchairs and motorized scooters. Given the president’s commitment to roll back regulations across various industries, these might not be the last traveler protections to come under question.

10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

Despite considerable uncertainty, there are things you can do to protect yourself, minimize hassles and delays, and get on your way.

1. Apply for Global Entry. This trusted traveler program will get you quickly through security lines and customs checkpoints. It involves a background check, an in-person interview and a $100 nonrefundable application fee. If you’re approved, membership is good for five years.

2. Allow plenty of time at the airport. Any changes in travel restrictions — and any protests in response — could lead to confusion or holdups at the airport. Keep an eye on the local news and arrive extra-early at your airport if necessary.

3. Stay informed. It’s no one’s responsibility but yours to know whether you need a visa for your trip to Europe or if there are new restrictions that might affect your trip to Cuba. Following the news can keep you abreast of any developments — positive or negative — that might affect your trip.

4. If you have a potentially vulnerable name or ethnicity, take extra care. It is an unfortunate fact of life that folks with certain names or appearances may be more likely to face scrutiny during travel. (Note that this is not new to the current administration; I have friends with names that sound Middle Eastern who’ve faced extra airport screening for many years.) If you are among these numbers, make sure that you carry all necessary documentation and that someone at home is familiar with your travel plans.

Regardless of the changing landscape, we at IndependentTraveler.com remain committed to exploring the world, and, as always, will do our best to…

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com

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Retiring Abroad: A Beginner's Guide

Americans are moving and retiring abroad in record numbers; some do so to fulfill a dream of tropical or alpine ease, some to save money, some for adventure. According to USA Today, nearly 400,000 American retirees are currently living abroad, and that number is expected to rise.

retire abroad senior tropical

The attraction of retiring overseas is not limited to those approaching traditional retirement age. In fact, many eager potential transplants are younger folks looking to “retire early,” or to escape the rat race, or to live a simpler (or even identical) lifestyle in their own idea of paradise. And some folks don’t want to retire at all per se; they may want to go lead rafting tours, run a B&B or offer photography workshops in their new home.

Whichever way your pleasure tends, here is a primer on making your dream of retiring abroad a reality.

Knowing a lot about a destination may be less important than knowing a lot about yourself. Suzan Haskins, senior editor for International Living, offers the following advice.

“Profile yourself ruthlessly,” she said. “Being a tourist is far different than being a resident. So knowing what makes you comfortable personally (especially from a cultural standpoint) and what drives you crazy is important.”

Haskins offers a great example: “If you’re a big city person and love to get away from the rat race on vacation and do nothing but hang in a hammock on an undiscovered beach, you may think that’s how you want to spend your retirement. But think hard about that — can you really give up the symphony and the theater and shopping malls? You may be better suited to a larger city with proximity to the beach.”

By the time a destination hits the “Best Places to Retire” lists (the mainstream media lists, at least), many of the best properties are gone, prices are up and Amerians abound.

Showing up late to the party may not always be a bad thing, however — not everyone has the fortitude to be among the first expats in a new location, and to have had some folks clear the logistical brush can be a tremendous help.

Whether leading or following, you will want to do a heap of research, especially on the more mundane aspects of everyday life.

“You need to research everything, from the climate during various seasons, the housing options, the infrastructure (including internet reliability), to all the legalities, including visa qualifications, tax obligations, requirements for bringing your pets and duties if you bring your household goods,” Haskins says. “Most importantly, be sure you will have good access to quality health care, and know your options for health insurance.”

Living Abroad: 12 Tips from Travelers Who’ve Been There

When I was in college, an older friend and mentor spoke frequently about retiring to the homeland of his ancestors, and worked hard to save money to be able to retire there. Upon his retirement, he and his wife were gone within a month — and were back a couple of months later.

“It was terrible,” he told me. “It was cold and wet, the people were not welcoming, it was impossible to get around, and within two weeks I wanted out.”

As we all know from our own travels, very few destinations turn out exactly as expected, and this goes 24 x 7 x 365 for a place in which you intend to spend the rest of your life. If there is any one thing you should do before pulling up roots for good, it is to take a long, uninterrupted stay in your intended location. A long vacation or even a couple of weeks won’t quite cut it; shoot for a couple of months, a season or even a year.

“We always recommend that you not buy property at first, but rent until you get some experience under your belt,” Haskins advises.

While you’re there, see what it costs to get a week’s worth of groceries, what it costs to eat out and how easy it is to get simple services like a haircut or a car service. The mundane activities you ignore on vacation can become essential when you live there.

A big part of the expat experience, especially for retirees, is figuring out recurring expenses. The exercise of putting together a budget should include everything you pay for at home, plus:

– Increased electrical costs in a hotter/colder climate

– Potentially higher gasoline costs

– Cost of internet access and high-end electronics

– Home, car and health insurance

– Cost of transport for medical care

– Whether you will maintain Medicare, which does not cover you overseas but may be useful if you need to return to the U.S. for medical treatment

– Any unusual home expenses, such as security systems, waste disposal costs, etc.

– The cost of visits back home, whether to see family or for weddings, funerals, banking or estate issues, emergencies and the like

money currency

Other money concerns might be access to stateside bank accounts, whether your pension/Social Security/other check can be sent by mail or (even better) direct deposit, if there are local bank branches to do simple banking, if there are any really onerous tax implications, if your accountant can work with you remotely and more.

While it is true you can live overseas pretty cheaply, don’t ignore startup costs, which can be formidable.

“It’s quite easy to live in many locations overseas on $2,000 a month,” Haskins says (she and her husband Dan Prescher have even written a book about it), “but there will be startup costs. In the first months, you’ll need to pay for your visas and any associated legal costs. You’ll probably have a first- and last-month rental deposit, you’ll want to buy some one-time supplies and furnishings for your rental home, and so on.”

Living Abroad: 4 Ways to Make It Happen

Expat lore is rife with folks who did not seem to fit in at their new “home” until they truly mastered the local language. Some stick it out while others are driven away, but almost everyone thinks it is important.

Beyond the language issue, you will want to investigate the local culture and norms of behavior. The differences can be quite jarring; witness Vanessa Van Doren’s list of cultural shifts she needed to adapt to upon moving from the U.S. to Germany — and then compare them to Ed Keith’s very different experience after moving from the U.K. to Spain. Germany and Spain are only about 600 miles apart, but the cultural differences will make your head spin.

“The biggest challenge/surprise is probably culture shock,” Haskins notes. “Nowhere is just like your home country. There will be different laws (or lack thereof) and different ways of doing things. You may not be able to find your favorite brand of peanut butter or scotch, and if you do, it may be crazy expensive, thanks to import tariffs. And again, the language issue: The little things you take for granted (ordering a pizza, asking the guy at the hardware store for a specific item, going to the pharmacy) can be daunting.”

9 Things to Do When No One Speaks English

You might think of Ecuador as a hot, balmy country, but the most popular expat roost there is Cuenca, a mountain town with temperate weather year-round with a record high temperature of 80 degrees. The rainy season features sunny mornings and rainy afternoons. Farther north, the interior of El Salvador is similar but flipped, with frost in the morning and cooking sun in the afternoon.

So while you might think of South and Central America as hot all the time, this is not always the case; be sure to do your research.

Check out the nearest medical facilities — as a rule, the farther from the major cities you get, the more dramatically the types and quality of care drop off.

If you’re approaching retirement age, you may not want to live up on a mountain or in a treehouse.

Look into pet policies, including quarantine laws and local restrictions.

Research the requirements and timeline to get a driver’s license.

Know the local home ownership and property rights laws, including whether residency/citizenship is required to own property and whether you must reside in the house for a minimum amount of time each year.

How to Blend In with the Locals: 20 Tips

Finally, Haskins says that keeping your wits about you can make all the difference.

“The only thing I would add is not to leave your brains at the border,” she says. “There is a great big, wonderful world to explore, but do that with common sense and the same kind of careful deliberation and self-preservation you would rely on at home. Don’t trust someone just because they speak your language, for example. Give relationships time to develop. Keep an open mind and enjoy the experience. This is not rocket science … there are lots of great resources to help you and expat forums (such as those at International Living) where you can get advice and suggestions.

“All these little issues will work themselves out over time, and those who have a positive attitude and approach every day as an adventure will thrive and LOVE the experience. The biggest pleasant surprise is how much you will personally grow and change over time. Living in a different culture not only broadens your horizons but [also] keeps you young, and if you let it, it can make you a better person.”

Would you consider retiring abroad?

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com

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8 Ways to Make Your Dream Trip a Reality

Whether it’s written down or just lurking somewhere in your subconscious, many travelers have a travel bucket list of sorts — a wish list of dream trips they absolutely must take in their lifetime. But even the most serious world travelers often find themselves taking more conventional vacations than those found on their bucket list.

hiker in canadian rockies

Maybe they go to Paris, but don’t make a side trip to the French Alps to watch the Tour de France blow by. Or they drive to Hana on Maui, but don’t climb Mauna Kea in time to see the sunrise from a dormant crater. Or they watch timelapses of the northern lights online, but never go to Iceland and stay up all night to see the real thing. So close, but so far.

If you have a travel bucket list and want to start checking things off it, here are some tactics to help you not just plan your dream trip but also make it a reality.

The most common roadblock to tackling a dream trip is that the time doesn’t seem right: Work is really intense at the moment, or you just started a home renovation, or you don’t have the energy to make it happen. Maybe next year…

These are all valid concerns, but it is critical to realize these issues will never quite go away. The truth is that what a lot of folks are looking for is not really the right time, but instead the perfect time. And that time will likely never come. Settle instead for a time that you can actually do something, even if you have to sacrifice other things. So instead of waiting for the perfect time, or even the right time, look for a possible time. And then make it happen.

Bucket List Travel: Tips, Inspiration and Ideas

Writing down your bucket list, more or less in the order in which you rank each destination, is a good way to make it just real enough that you can actually start doing something about it. Once it is written down, it is something you can use in a few different ways:

– As a guide for when you are poking around the internet, reading or goofing off. During TV commercials you can call up articles on your dream destinations instead of hitting refresh on Twitter again and again.

– To help you see if everything on the list stands up to repeated scrutiny; some items on the list might not seem as interesting after you have looked at them several times, and could fall off the list in favor of other ideas.

While you’re at it, you might also write down the reasons you can’t get started on your bucket list — all the excuses may seem like just that once they are written down. When you read “Don’t have time to plan” after spending an entire weekend binge-watching a TV series, you may realize you have more time than you thought, and at the next opportunity will put your time to work for your goals.

Sharing your bucket list with friends, family or even a dedicated site like BucketList.org can give you several things:

– Motivation: As with a lot of things, telling someone else you are going to do something often provides a bit of inspiration actually to do it. Humans are funny that way.

– A dose of reality: A bucket list is often reflective of our idealization of a place or trip, and not necessarily what it is really like to go there. When you share your list with folks who may already have bagged a few of your choices, you can get a sense of what a place is really like.

– Good and hardscrabble ideas: Putting your network of friends and family on the task of making your trip a reality offers you an instant team of schemers and thinkers who can bring any number of ideas to the table.

What’s on Your Bucket List? Readers Choose

Once you get a sense of where you might go and when you might pull it off, you will want to narrow down your choices to the trips you most want to take. Unless one destination rates well above and beyond the others, I recommend starting to research two or three of your top choices; trying to plan for 10 very different potential bucket list options is unreasonable, and picking only one could set you up for disappointment if the logistics turn out to be forbidding.

Focus first on practical things like what time of year you can get off work versus the best time of year to go there, how much time it takes really to do the destination justice and how much money you will need to pull it off.

Here’s an example: If the Galapagos Islands top your list, you will quickly face a few logistical choices. The period between December and May has the calmest seas and weather, but June through August sees more active wildlife. If those times don’t work for you, you need to know that in September (and into November) many boats are in dry dock, so your choices may be a bit more limited.

sea lion and woman in galapagos

On top of that, there are strict limits on how many people can be there at the same time, and all visitors must be accompanied by a certified guide. Clearly heading for the Galapagos is not a last-minute impulse trip, and this is the kind of information you might not know until you do some serious research into logistics.

More prosaically, you might decide that August is the best time for you to tackle some bucket list travel, but if you are headed to a part of Europe that more or less shuts down that month when everyone goes on vacation, your ideal trip filled with locals and long nights might not synch up so well with the facts on the ground.

Because you might have to go a couple of trips down your list before the logistics start lining up, research two or three to start.

IndependentTraveler.com Staff Share What’s on Their Bucket Lists

If there is something without which a trip to a specific location would not be complete, you pretty much have to do that one thing, irrespective of cost or logistics. Need to pay a guide? Sure. It requires a ride on a seaplane? Do it. Have to rent four-wheel-drive vehicle to get to a waterfall? Go for it. No one’s idea of bucket list travel includes sticking to the tourist overlooks, skipping more remote spots or driving around in a Hyundai Accent. All of this is the point of bucket list travel.

To do your dream trip right, you probably don’t want to plan a “36 Hours in…” job, charging around taking snapshots in front of all the stuff you researched. Give yourself time to let a place sink in and take on some meaning for you beyond simply checking off your list. You want this to be a truly memorable experience, not just an elaborate mileage run.

This is probably the most personal of issues, as everyone’s financial means are different and complex. The fallback “skip the latte and put the money in the bank” has become a dreaded cliche for good reason — and for most coffee drinkers, this is not a negotiable purchase anyway. If it is 1:30 p.m., you need coffee, you are not near a decent coffee maker and there is a Starbucks nearby, you are not going to choose caffeine withdrawal over saving three bucks.

The idea of saving on overpriced and non-essential purchases is the right one, but you want to take actual money and make it pile up, not just skip a coffee and hope you put that money to better use later. Here are a few tangible tactics that really work for most folks:

– Get a big container and put every spare cent (and bill) you have in it. The last time I cashed one of these in, it came to more than $1,100.

– Set up an automatic transfer into a dedicated travel banking account of X dollars per week or month, and don’t turn it off until you have enough money for your bucket list trip.

– Instead of just thinking about saving when you need coffee, set up constant reminders in your environment that will help you save money all the time. Put a picture of your chosen destination next to your home computer to keep you from spending money online, or use it as your phone screensaver. Set up a system of daily calendar or email reminders to keep you focused and on track.

9 Creative Ways to Save for a Vacation

To keep your inspiration up, you can hire companies and read publications that are dedicated to helping people complete bucket list adventures. Check out the following sites:

BucketListly.com

BucketList.net

TripBucket.com

Inertia, fear, habit, laziness, procrastination, parsimony, excuses — none of us want to be accused of these things, but often they are the very things keeping us from the trip of our dreams. We hope the outline above will help you make your dream a reality.

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com

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3 Secrets for Traveling Like a Local

Traveling like a local sounds simple enough but can be difficult to execute; certainly most independent travelers have had trips on which, no matter how far afield they ventured, they ended up surrounded by other folks from their own country. Or perhaps they found themselves unable to discover where the “real” locals go, and ended up somewhat neither here nor there — an eternal outsider.

man in night market

How does one find the secret entrances to a truly local, indigenous experience? It turns out that there are great opportunities to travel like a local via both tour operators and self-booked avenues, and sometimes through a mix of the two.

In response to the growing demand for authentic “insider” tours that are not forced marches amidst swarms of folks from the same country, a number of tour guide services offering a more intimate and unique “guided experience” have cropped up. A couple of well-reviewed services worth checking out are ToursByLocals.com and Vayable.com. Both will take you on hikes up to volcanoes and down to waterfalls in Hawaii, on bike tours in London and much more.

Poring over the ToursByLocals site, I discovered that your guide is emphasized nearly as much as the excursion he or she will be leading. In bigger cities where numerous guides are available, you can pre-determine the spirit and emphasis of your tour by the guides’ own descriptions of their background and tour type. Prefer a taxi driver with an encyclopedic knowledge of London? Try Lee C. Prefer a “Blue Badge Tourist Guide” with an interest in history? Try Dawn B.

20 Ways to Blend In with the Locals

Vayable approaches tour selection a bit differently, emphasizing the topic or sights of the tour a little more — although when you click down to a specific offering, there is a lot of information about the person who will be giving the tour and how they tend to conduct things, whether with seriousness, humor, energy, etc. Vayable’s more upscale presentation doesn’t mean they are no fun — for example, one London tour focuses on how art meets function in the form of notable loos.

Lodging site Airbnb also recently jumped into the tour space with its new Experiences product. The offerings are a bit limited so far, but they sound fascinating — think learning the art of ancient pottery in Tokyo or exploring Havana’s music scene with a local singer.

ShowAround.com is a portal where you can choose a local guide in a particular city for a certain hourly rate. Eliana, a 21-year-old hotel receptionist, will show you around Lisbon for $6/hour, while a local guy named Tom offers free tours of Sydney’s Bondi Beach area. Many of the guides on the site don’t have any reviews yet, so you might need to trust your gut a bit. We recommend sending a message to guides you’re interested in to establish whether they seem like a good fit.

VRBO, Airbnb, HomeAway and other vacation rental sites offer interesting opportunities to travel like a local, as by nature you end up staying in neighborhoods where other people actually live instead of cloistered away in hotels in commercial/tourist districts. Then again, many vacation rentals are clustered among other vacation rental houses, so you can end up in a bit of a “tourist ghetto” even when living in an ordinary rancher that no one would ever think was a tourist hangout.

The Ultimate Vacation Rental Guide

An admittedly riskier approach in terms of quality (and at times safety), joining the couchsurfing revolution is an extremely promising way to approach total immersion in a culture, as you not only hang out with locals, but you also sleep in their spare beds, on their couches, on their floors, all while they are still living there. Couchsurfing.com is the leading site for this practice, which, if the sheer abundance of options is any indication, is a huge and growing travel tactic.

A search on the site for a place to stay in Seattle, for example, brings back more than 23,000 hosts — wow.

The site also hosts local events, such as meetups in bars or restaurants. As you might expect just based on the site name, the users tend to skew young and a bit adventurous, though not weird or spooky in any way — that is, it doesn’t seem to have turned into a website for drifters. When you are talking about 23,000 options in a single town alone, stereotypes tend to falter pretty quickly.

To learn more, check out this interview with a couchsurfing host.

woman sleeping on couch

Another option is Airbnb, which we have written about in the past (see Airbnb and Beyond: Tips for Safe, Legal Vacation Rentals and 7 Airbnb Problems and How to Solve Them). You could consider Airbnb a hybrid of a vacation rental and couchsurfing site, as the site lists both very upscale vacation homes and “sleep in someone’s spare bedroom” options.

Finally, Homestay.com lets you book a night or two in local spare bedrooms; check out our interview with the Homestay.com CEO.

10 Things You Should Never Wear When Traveling Abroad

Often the best way to gain access into the local culture is to invite people into your own personal cultural experience, based on your own interests and passions. This has been my go-to approach over time. Below are some examples of how I got this to work for me; all you have to do is plug in your own interests, figure out where and how to make a first contact, and you are on your way. A few have to do with my own long association with rowing, which has led me to many unique experiences.

– While trying to visit a (now defunct) rowing club in Hawaii, standing around the locked boathouse looking at outrigger canoes led to a day’s wave-riding session in outrigger canoes with a local semi-pro wave rider.

– While visiting a friend at a boathouse in Spain, I asked about local surfing, and he shouted out to some amigos that I liked to surf; within hours we were all enjoying the famous break at Mundaka.

– A small guitar stuffed into the back of a rental car in Punta Arenas, Venezuela, led to a local asking to play it, and subsequently to an invite to a massive locals-only gymnasium party.

– A fairly serious interest in photography can open heaps of doors; taking decent photos of local folks and kids and then showing them the photos has led to countless fruitful introductions for me.

– Even something as simple as taking your children to playgrounds instead of expensive theme parks can offer tremendous opportunities to meet local folks.

With all of these, the rule is that when you’re willing to show and share a little bit of yourself, of how you like to live your own life, many people become much more interested in sharing with you how they live their lives. You can’t walk around with your metaphorical arms folded and expect to be welcomed with open arms. Give a little, get a little — or sometimes a lot.

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Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com

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