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travel booking companies

Why is it important to get travel advice (and prices) from different sources? Because almost every source is flawed in one way or another.

The “truth in travel” magazines that brag about not accepting freebies purposely sell special advertising sections meant to fool you into thinking ad copy is really editorial. You won’t read a bad hotel review or negative cruise story in them because they get millions a year in hotel and cruise advertising. They do fashion shoots disguised as travel pictorials because the jewelry and clothing companies pay them even more. They put Italy on the cover twice a year because newsstand sales are highest when they do.

Travel + Leisure and Departures magazines are owned by American Express. Think they want you to travel within your means on a budget? Or would they rather you aspire to be rich and pull out the plastic, cost be damned?

Travel bloggers who are writing about a new country every week or two are generally not paying for that themselves. They wouldn’t be moving around so quickly if they were. They’re on press trips hosted by tourism bureaus or private companies. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that (travel writers’ earnings are generally pitiful), but the reason it seems like “everybody’s going there” may not be because it’s the best place to go. Only that they’ve got a healthy media budget.

SmarterTravel, TravelPod, and VirtualTourist are all owned by TripAdvisor, which also owns SeatGuru, CruiseCritic, AirfareWatchdog, and others. So naturally, they recommend each other a lot as a source you should be checking out. They’ll send you to an associated site for a booking—they’d be crazy not to. But just understand that’s going on.

Expedia brands

That parent company used to be owned by Expedia, the largest online booking service by far. Expedia still owns Hotwire, Hotels.com, and Venere. Thus the “Also check rates on…” prompts that are really just sending you to the same company.

The hotels appearing at the top of city searches on these sites paid to be there. Understand that and search by price or neighborhood instead.

If someone is recommending a product or service, do they/did they use it themselves? Or are they just plugging an advertiser or putting up an affiliate link to make money?

Most of the stories on the front of Huffington Post, CNN.com, Yahoo, and the like are not the most important stories or the best-written articles. They’re the ones that are getting the most clicks. Dig deeper or subscribe to The Economist.

Not an Agenda, Just Suspect

People who write hotel reviews for no compensation are people who have a lot of time on their hands and need a hobby. They often haven’t traveled much either, so when they tell you a hotel is “the best in town,” how do they know? I’ve had hotel owners beg me to write a review on Tripadvisor. Others I know have been offered cocktails or meals if they’ll do so before they check out. And if you pay enough, you can get someone to write anything you want.

Ditto for your social media circles. It’s great to ask for recommendations, but consider the source. Do they travel like you do?

The best advice? Consult multiple sources, trust who has earned your trust. And verify.

 

Budapest train

What’s the biggest perception difference between an experienced budget traveler and one planning to take off around the world?

The first has learned what really breaks the budget over time. The latter generally has it all backwards.

Here are some paraphrased quotes from people who have sent me e-mails or asked questions on message boards I’ve been on.

- “Yes, I know we’re going to a lot of expensive places in Europe, but we’re going to sleep in hostels.” (Person who had Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, England, France, Spain, Italy, and the Greek Islands on their itinerary.)

- “We’re on a tight budget, but we really want to hit all every continent except Antarctica on our trip.” (A trip that was just 12 months long.)

- “I’m trying to find a cheap round-the-world flight that includes South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia but I’m not having much luck.”

These statements are inherently at odds with traveling on a budget. They’re hoping for a magic bullet answer that is the equivalent of defying the laws of physics. If you don’t tackle the big budget items, you had better have lots and lots of money saved.

You can ignore most of the “Top-10 Ways to Shave Your Travel Costs in Europe” articles that are meant to be click bait. Most of the time they’re just about messing with the margins, the small stuff. It’s like trying to fix the U.S. deficit problem by cutting funding for the arts. To really make a difference we would need to reform social security, truly fix the health care system, or cut defense spending. All three at once to achieve anything dramatic.

hostel prices

For the price of a hostel bed here, you get a really nice hotel room for 2 in a cheap destination.

Location

Budapest is a fantastic bargain. Nobody will ever call Oslo a bargain, or even London for that matter. You can buy a round of drinks for all your friends in Hungary for the price of one in Norway.  The price of a hostel bed in Copenhagen will get you a spacious hotel room for two almost anywhere in Eastern Europe. One nice restaurant meal in Switzerland will feed you for a week in Portugal.

Now take that further and go to Central America, Southeast Asia, or the Indian Subcontinent. Prices drop in half again, for almost everything you could possibly spend money on. So don’t think of how you can shave costs by self-catering and staying at hostels. If you cut the entire “basket of goods and services” cost by 2/3, messing with the margins isn’t necessary.

And as I’ve said often, getting out of the big capital cities will usually help no matter where you are.

long-term travel

Did you really leave home to do this every day or two?

Velocity

The more you’re moving around, the more money you’re going to spend every week, every month. It’s not far-fetched to say that someone visiting 24 countries in one year is going to spend twice as much as someone visiting 12. The one visiting 8 will spend even less.

If those 24 countries are on multiple continents that require long-haul flights, bump the budget up by thousand of dollars. Even in places where transportation is cheap, being on the move a lot requires constant spending on some kind of tickets. If you’re in one place for a month though, it’s just your feet and local buses or subways. Plus when you get to know an area, you don’t have to throw money at hurdles because you’re in a hurry. You can figure out cheaper/better options for everything from lodging to groceries to bus options for leaving town at the end.

Many people setting out on their first round-the-world trip act as if their life is going to end the moment they return home. They have to do it all, see it all, on this one grand adventure. Hey, you’re 28 years old; is this really the last time in your life you’re going to get on a plane and go somewhere? On my three round-the-world trips, I never even set foot in Latin America. Now I’ve been to a dozen countries in Latin America. They didn’t disappear from the map. I still haven’t been to New Zealand. But I think it’ll wait for me.

round the world flight

This route STARTS at $7,250.

Distance

I’ve written a few articles related to my book on traveling in the cheap clusters of the world. This one is getting a bit dated, but apart from Turkey getting more expensive it’s still pretty accurate.

The idea is, you take a long-haul flight to a cluster of cheap countries, then go overland from there. The most common one is to get a flight to Bangkok and then you can hit a half-dozen other countries without getting on another long-haul flight. You can get a cheapo flight from Singapore to Indonesia or a not-so-bad one from Bangkok to Nepal or India, which is the start of another cluster. The cheapest cluster option from the U.S. or Canada is to fly to Mexico or Guatemala and then make your way south by land and boat. For the Brits, a cheap flight to Budapest or Prague can then turn into lots of jaunts by train and bus to the least expensive parts of Europe.

The easiest way to ratchet up your long-term travel budget in a hurry is to try to check far-flung places off your list on one trip. Sure, you may have always dreamed of visiting Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Israel, and France, but if you’re trying to find a ticket hitting all those areas, it’s going to be the price of a used car, no way around it. Save some for later.

What lesson did you learn the hard way between planning and actually traveling?

carnitas-mexico

Want to get a tour of Guanajuato with me and chow down on some good Mexican Street Food? Follow that link and sign up if you’re heading my way.

The problem with having a job that you can do from anywhere is that you end up doing your same job everywhere. A big reason my family ended up in Guanajuato is that most of the tourists are Mexican tourists and we actually use our Spanish regularly. It’s also a beautiful place to walk around, with weather that encourages you to be outside almost every day of the year. When I’ve got my head down cranking out articles and blog posts, however, dealing with freelancers and advertisers, sometimes I look up and go, “It’s Friday already?”

sope GuanajuatoSo if you come to Guanajuato and want to get a tour that mixes some sightseeing, market tours, and lots of chowing down, come get me out of the house. We’ll get some buns from a bakery and see where they make them. We’ll tour a local market and then later a larger covered one. We’ll sample carnitas, gorditas, tamales, and more, washing it down with fresh-squeezed juices.

We’ll ride a funicular up to a lookout point and walk down the alleys where people have only one way to get to their home: on foot. Then we’ll have some street stand ice cream and go our separate ways for a siesta.

chorizo tacos

I’ve taken out three groups so far and I’ll post some testimonials on the site later with their impressions of my tour guide and food fact-quoting abilities. Hopefully by now I know a thing or two about the highlights of my adopted town and the best vendors to buy from. Check the rest of the site out here for details: Guanajuato Street Food Tours.

Hasta pronto!

international travel

Take the leap!

If you live in the UK, Holland, or Australia and you tell people you’re going to go backpacking around the world for a year, you’ll get a lot of nods and slaps on the back. If you say you’re moving abroad somewhere, they’ll probably ask when they can come crash at your place. You probably won’t be looked at as a loony.

In much of the USA or even Canada, however, it’s still a different story. It’s more accepted than it was when I first took off in the mid-90s for a year and then did it twice more, but it’s still an oddity. The first step in making plans to make the leap is to understand that a lot of people just aren’t going to get it. Here are a few reasons why. Maybe if you understand these you’ll be able to just say, “Excuse me, there’s someone over there I need to talk to” when someone starts criticizing your plans instead of getting red in the face and telling them off.

1) They haven’t traveled much.

Most people who don’t understand why you would take off around the world for a year or move to another country haven’t spent much time outside their own country. (In many cases, that’s a good thing for the rest of the world.) You’ve probably seen a map at some point of which states have the most passport holders and which don’t. Here’s one drawn from 2013 figures. If you’ve seen a red state/blue state map, a diversity map, or  college education percentage map, it’ll look pretty familiar with just a few exceptions. As Richard Florida said on CreativeClass.com, “There are stark cultural differences between places where international travel is common and those where it’s not, and we can see them playing out in the cultural and political strife that has been riving the country over the past decades.”

passport holders by state

I’ll go out on a limb and say if your favorite TV news network tells you every day that America is the greatest country in the world and every other place out there is screwed up and scary, you’re liable to look at foreign lands in a more negative light than others.

Here are the extremes, by passport holder percentage. The highest are California, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Delaware, and oddly enough, Alaska. The lowest are Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

If you live in San Francisco or Seattle, making this big announcement will be no big thing. If you live in Natchez, MS, different story.

When I left on my first trip around the world, I think some of my relatives sincerely thought I’d come back in a body bag. Now that I live in Mexico, they’re waiting for the news that I’ve been beheaded.

2) They don’t believe you can do it on the cheap

You could buy some people The World’s Cheapest Destinations, send them blog posts with prices, and pull up hotel sites to show them rates in other countries and they still won’t believe you can travel for cheap. As I said in this post, to many Americans, travel means a trip to Disney World, Cancun, or London—or a Caribbean Cruise. They simply can’t fathom that you could eat a nutritious meal for $2, get an hour-long massage for $5, or find a decent double room anywhere for $12. To them, traveling to a foreign country and spending less than you would at home on bills each month just does…not…compute.

Kathmandu hotels

3) They’re envious because their own boring life is all mapped out.

“Going on an adventure” is a depressingly rare event for nearly all the adult population of my home country. Vacations are strictly planned, time off is a too-rare commodity that can’t be spent spontaneously. The race for more stuff and more money to pay a bloated health care and university system saps the life out of most people who have managed to land a good job and keep it. Ask them how their life will be different in five or ten years and they may not be able to think of anything. Or they’ll just say something weak about a hoped-for promotion, retirement, or their kids going to college.

They’ll say, “I wish I could do what you’re doing” and will have plenty of the usual excuses as to why they can’t. It’s all mapped out, pre-ordained, set in stone.

For a majority, the closest they’ll get to an adventure is having an illicit affair with a co-worker or staying up all night “getting crazy” at the next convention in Vegas. They are slaves to routines, commutes, the kids’ activity schedules, and the big-screen TV. You represent a threat because you’re showing them it doesn’t have to be that way. And that’s as scary as the revelation in The Matrix.

international travelers

Hmmm, that does a little more interesting than Paducah…

4) If you’re leaving, that means this place is not perfect

If you’re in some kind of club and people start dropping out, that makes you wonder. If the star performers in your company start taking jobs elsewhere, you’re going to think that’s a bad sign. You feel like a sucker for still being there.

If someone tells you they’re moving away from where you live and that they think this whole lifestyle they’ve been living in your town is not the best they can do, how’s that going to make you feel? Some will just think you’re nuts (see #1). Some will feel envious and maybe a bit bitter (see #3). Others will start wondering if this club they thought was perfect may not be so great after all.

You don’t want to hear your mother say “You’re an idiot for doing this and you should feel guilty for leaving me.”

But then again, hearing “We’re so happy for you” while seeing a dark cloud pass over your friend’s face is not so great either.

Understand that your radical decision (in their eyes) can spur heavy emotions and soul-searching, no matter how much that person knows you’re going to have an amazing time.

But it’s your decision and it’s a good one, so lock the storage shed door and go!

Travel in Romania

I write fairly often on here about how even seasoned travelers sometimes have very warped perceptions of potential travel destinations. The other day I saw someone spewing out all kinds of vile, derogatory comments on Romania on someone’s travel story, which I’m sure the person writing had never visited. It was one of those “I’ll never set foot in that sh&thole” rants from an ignoramus.

Living in a foreign country that has its share of bashers, I hear this from my own seldom-traveled friends and relatives in the states sometimes. I’m always surprised though when it comes from people who should know better. So let me go on record to say Romania can be a really lovely place.

Brasov Romania

That shot at the very top is from the countryside, which is quite beautiful, with high mountains and a lot of historic towns. The second one is from Brasov, which I wouldn’t mind living in for at least a few months. There’s good skiing nearby too. Yes, you can ski in Romania, and for about 1/3 of what you would spend a country or two over.

Romanian wineYou can also drink good wine here. This was an Iron Curtain country for a few decades, so as in Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia, great wine makers were forced to go into quantity over quality mode for a depressing period. Freed from the shackles of communism, they now have an incentive to return to quality again and have come roaring back. This Rhein Cellars winery I visited in Azuga, Romania makes sparkling wine with the labor intensive Champagne method. Since labor is pretty cheap here though, a really good bottle will set you back $15 or so.

Borders in this part of the world have been very fluid over the past couple centuries, so people are often surprised that Romania contains a lot of gorgeous medieval towns like they would expect to see in Germany. This one below is Sighisoara, which has changed hands multiple times after various wars. It’s a great place to feel like you’ve stepped back in time, especially if you can hang out a couple days and take a stroll after all the tour buses are gone. You can get here on an overnight train from Budapest, so it’s a good place to start your Romanian journey.

Sighisoara Transylvania

The shot below is from Sibiu, which would be a relaxing place to hang out for a few days, doing nothing but strolling the plazas, dining on hearty food at outdoor cafes, and drinking good wine for cheap at night.

Sibiu Transylvania

And this photo below, is it from one of those super-popular European capitals that are mobbed with hundreds of thousands of tourists in the summer? No, it’s much-maligned Bucharest, the capital of Romania. Yes, the famous last dictator ripped down much of the historic center to build his giant ugly “Palace of the People,” but there are still some nice neighborhoods with some interesting walks and good cafes.

bucharest-romania

If you like intricately carved wooden doors that are a few hundred years old, here are some great photos of interesting doors I saw in Romania. Next time I go back, I want to check out some of these cool castles in the countryside.