Browsing Posts in Travel industry

budget Galapagos tough

A bit over a year ago I wrote this post on building splurge money into your shoestring travel budget. Sometimes you have to throw that $40 a day budget out the window. While I’m a big advocate for going to cheap destinations where you can get a lot more for your money, even in those places you have to drop some serious dough sometimes if you want to get the full experience.

I got an e-mail last week from someone who was flabbergasted at how expensive lodging was in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. But he was going in July, the peak of the peak season, and going to the most popular spots in Peru. I gave him some advice on shaving costs here and there by staying in some towns that wouldn’t be so mobbed, but there’s only so much you can do. It’s the same story in Ko Pha Ngan, Agra, Bali, or Pokhara if you come at the very peak. That may be a good time to be there weather-wise or event-wise, but understand that the laws of economics still apply.

There are other cases though where you are paying a lot because the place or experience just plain costs a lot. Because of a writing assignment, I just took my second trip to the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. If you search around on the web, you can find articles on how to “do the Galapagos on the cheap,” but really it’s all relative. You have to spend a few hundred dollars to fly out there in the first place, you’ll pay $110 in fees after arrival into a conservation fund, and then virtually everything on Santa Cruz Island is going to be twice the price as the mainland while you’re lining up a tour.

marine iguana

Once you do get some kind of bargained-down tour, it’s still going to cost you north of $150 a day per person most likely to just take short jaunts to see the nearby islands. That’s cheaper than going with a well-known tour company where people are happy to pay $500 to $800 per night, but it’s not exactly shoestring travel territory. That’s because of a lot of good regulations that are in place to keep the environment from getting degraded. Guides must be trained and licensed, plus only around 100 ships are authorized to ply these waters with passengers.

Captains also have to be licensed and must undergo training on, among other things, how and where they can dock and send passengers to shore. They don’t really have a say in their itinerary. For good reasons, you can’t just hire a fishing boat captain in the harbor and say, “Show me some boobies!”

Galapagos OwlThat guide you’ll get at the low end will be the kind of guy who can’t get hired by any of the real tour operators paying a good salary to real naturalists. After he struck out with all of them or got fired because of a string of guest complaints, he has ended up with you. It’s a pretty safe bet he won’t be able to lead you to the hard-to-spot creatures like this owl who hunts in the daytime. He probably won’t be able to explain why this bird is so strange and how it got that way.

I’m using this fragile Galapagos ecosystem as an example, but all around the world there are spots like this where governments have in purposely put hurdles in your way for a good cause. If you want to go to Bhutan, be prepared to pay $300+ per day. There’s no budget tour to Antarctica. Visiting Petra is really going to cost you, so suck it up and overpay. If you want to go deep into the jungle almost anywhere, be it the Amazon, Borneo, or Sumatra, you’re probably going to have to pony up some cash to do it right.

If nothing else, this is all a good reminder than you don’t have to cram everything in on your first trip around the world. You can do that river cruise down the Danube or the Amazon later when grandma is paying for it. You can do that tour up the coast of Brazil when you’ve got a good job later and are making the big bucks. You can go scuba diving on the barrier reef of Australia when you go there as a vacationer rather than a backpacker.

Traveling on a budget means understanding that you can’t do it all, whenever you want, wherever you want. You’ve still got a thousand things to pick from. Save the most expensive ones for later instead of trying to do them half-assed on a limited budget. Even with climate change and economic growth going full-tilt, those experiences should still be waiting for you…

round-the-world travel

Around 21 years ago, I got on a flight that would change my life. I was on a plane to Japan and would then proceed through Southeast Asia, Nepal, India, Greece, Turkey, and a bit of Europe.My then-girlfriend was with me and since we hadn’t killed each other after a year of being together 24/7, eventually it seemed like a good idea to get married. We did it two more times after that.

Last week I got an e-mail from someone asking for long-term travel advice and she said, “It seems so difficult and scary to just pick up and travel around for a year, much less three times. How did you manage it?”

That’s a funny question because to me it seems like traveling is incredibly easy now compared to what it was like when I first started. Instead of having to search hard for advice, you find a deluge of it. Things that used to be frustratingly difficult and took days are now done with a few clicks.

So that you about-to-depart travelers get a sense of perspective on how lucky you are these days, here are 21 things travelers couldn’t do 21 years ago, when I went on my first year-long backpacking trip in 1993.

1) Send an e-mail.

OK, if you were a real techie you could find a way to send an e-mail back in 1993, but unless your friends were computer programmers, they probably didn’t have an address. Hotmail, AOL, and Yahoo Mail didn’t exist.

2) Find info about a hotel/restaurant/destination/travel site on the web

There was no web, no browser, nothing to look up even if you could. The Netscape browser launched to limited use at the end of 1994, but nobody could really “surf the web” until the following year. And only by dial-up through the phone line.

3) Google something

Nope, no browser, no World Wide Web, not even a rudimentary search engine. Yahoo was incorporated in 1995 and Google didn’t exist until 1998. A world without Google? It wasn’t so long ago.

camel safari

No website, no reviews.

4) Book a hotel/hostel/apartment online

To find a place to stay, you showed up and looked around. If you were really intrepid you could call ahead or have a travel agent do it, but you were flying blind with no photos or descriptions besides what was in your guidebook or that article you ripped out of a magazine. (Incidentally, the backpackers who still do it this way tend to pay significantly less over time than those who book everything in advance. Easier isn’t always better in terms of your budget.)

5) Compare flight prices and book a trip yourself

On our first round-the-world trip, we bought a RTW ticket from an agency specializing in that sort of thing and then carried the physical tickets around with us for a year. When we had to make a change at one point because of canceled flights in India, we had to phone the office in San Francisco from a telephone kiosk in Delhi and they had to get an Indian travel agent to issue us new tickets for us to pick up. The only way to get prices or book a ticket was to call the airline direct or deal with a travel agent.

6) Check in with a confirmation code or e-ticket

On all three of our round-the-world trips, we had to keep bringing a physical ticket to the airport to check in and get a boarding pass. It wasn’t until everyone and their brother had an e-mail address that airlines finally started accepting printed pieces of paper with a confirmation code. And forget about online check-in or boarding passes on your smart phone.

7) Check the status of your flight in real time

It was a big deal when airlines started texting passengers on their flip phones to tell them a flight was canceled or delayed. Before that, you had to proactively call and confirm and if things changed last minute, too bad!

Nobody could tweet this...

Nobody could tweet this…

8) Shop online for travel gear and luggage

We bought everything we needed for our first round-the-world trip at our local Campmor store in New Jersey. Had we been in some small town, however, we would have been SOL. You couldn’t just pull up a Backcountry, REI, Sierra Trading Post, or Zappos site to order the travel gear you needed. Your only choice would have been Wal-mart, Sears, or a mail order catalog. And you didn’t know what was good until you used it.

9) Easily keep in touch with friends and family

My mother would collect our mail and send it to an American Express office along the way according to our itinerary. We’d go to the office and get the bundle when we arrived. Often this meant getting letters about surprise bills or late charges months after the unforeseen infraction happened. If we wanted to communicate with our friends and relatives, we had to pay for an expensive phone call, send a letter/postcard, or send a fax. No Facebook, no Twitter, not even Friendster or MySpace.

10) Bank online

When you went traveling back in the early 1990s, you put all the money you had into your bank account and either wiped out all your debts or had Mom/Dad/Sis/Aunt Sally take care of writing checks for your outstanding bills. You took an ATM card and prayed you’d find a machine somewhere that would accept it. There were entire countries where there were no ATMS though and you had to go into a bank branch to do a withdrawal. This would often require waiting, paperwork, a bank manager calling someone for the current exchange rate, more waiting, and then a stack of big bills you needed to make last until you had the energy to do all that again. So you also carried these things called traveler’s checks that you paid for in advance. No online bill paying, no inter-bank transfers, no Paypal.

11) Post things on a blog

After the birth of the browser, the internet came to the common man. Blogging didn’t really get going until the beginning of the 21st century though and WordPress didn’t launch until 2003.

12) Ask questions on message boards

As with e-mail, there were a few geeks who were logging in and sharing information on online message boards through their dial-up connection, but this wasn’t a widespread practice. There was no Lonely Planet Thorn Tree, BootsnAll, Fodor’s board, or FlyerTalk. The message boards were often real boards instead: big cork things with messages pinned to them in Bangkok or Kathmandu guesthouses.

12) Read reviews on Tripadvisor

Before online reviews came along, crappy hotels could stay crappy and almost never suffer real consequences. Sure, they would get bad word of mouth and people would leave nasty “avoid this place” notes on those physical message boards. People might even write to Lonely Planet or Rough Guides and tell them what a bedbug-infested rathole that place was. But there was no central place to find out what other travelers had to say. Now every hotel needs to be on its toes and even hostels get rated on sites where you book hostels. Apartments get rated where you rent apartments. If a place is terrible, you’ll know it.

travel in 1990s

Never posted on Instagram

13) Pull up a map

If you wanted a map of where you were going 20 years ago, you visited a store that sold maps. If they didn’t have it, then you hoped you could find one where you were going. If you wanted to access one from your (15-pound) laptop, you needed this thing called a CD-ROM. And that didn’t come cheap.

14) Use GPS

Back in 1993, about the only people walking or driving around with a GPS device were Special Ops soldiers and jungle expedition guides. If you were lost, you unfolded a big map or asked for directions.

15) Store your photos digitally

Nobody had a digital camera then. Photos were stored on this stuff called film and you printed them out at a photo shop. We mailed ours home but kept the negatives in case they didn’t make it. When we got word they arrived at one of our parents’ houses, we sent the negatives in the next batch. Sometimes these photos faded, or got mildewed, or stuck together, or got lost. If I want to share them now, I need to dig them out and scan them. We didn’t know if we got a good shot until the developing was done. So two months later, we got this:

Indonesia travel

Landed in town Monday, decided on batik class on Tuesday

16) Share your photos

Unless someone was sitting next to you looking at printed photos (or the old slide projector), they didn’t see what you saw. The only place you could “post” them was on a cork bulletin board somewhere or in a frame on the wall.

17) Carry 40 books in your daypack

Trying to find good books to read on a regular basis was a constant struggle when we traveled. We read a lot of so-so books because they were all we could find. The main sources were used book shops (great in Bangkok, not so great in rural Indonesia), guesthouse book exchanges, and trading with other travelers. Carrying more than two or three at a time meant a lot of bulk and weight. There was no Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iPad, Nexus, or phone screen.

18) Carry 1,000 songs in your pocket

This was the pitch of the first iPod, which launched in 2001: “1,000 songs in your pocket.” Now you can carry 10,000+ if you want, or have an unlimited supply via Spotify. In the early 90s we traveled with this thing called a Walkman and it played cassettes. As you can imagine, there are only so many cassettes you can carry in a backpack. It got a little better when the price of portable CD players came down, but they and the player still took up a good bit of room. And you got sick of your collection fast.

Steripen review

19) Pack a UV wand water sterilizer

Our water sterilizers in 1993 were a little charcoal filter cup we used mostly for brushing our teeth and iodine tablets. Mostly we had to buy bottled water and contribute hundreds of throwaway plastic bottles to the environment. Now you can travel the world with a SteriPen that recharges by USB and have safe water to drink anywhere on Earth. Or this cool Camelbak bottle with a built-in sterilizer.

20) Find a place to crash online

We did a few homestays on our first trip around the world. It was through an organization called Servas. Here’s how cumbersome it was: you paid a fee to join, got interviewed to get approved, purchased lists for the country where you were going, wrote letters to potential hosts, waited for a reply by mail, then followed up by payphone once you arrived in the country. Compare that to the ease of Couchsurfing.

21) Get answers to trivia by IMDB, Shazam, or Google

Travelers used to argue for hours or agonize for hours about who that actor was in x movie or who sang that certain song that was playing on the cafe stereo. Now you just wake up your phone or open the tablet.

All you geezers out there that have been traveling for 20+ years, it’s your turn now. What else can you easily do now that you couldn’t do then?

yucatan Mexico

There may be a chance, because of how the travel industry conference circuit plays out, that I’ll be in Cancun three times this year. This turn of events is certainly not something I planned, wished for, or ever imagined. So for my TBEX blogger brethren who will soon be wondering how they ended up in a hotel zone that attracts four million tourists a year, here’s my advice: Go west young man/woman.

Tack on some time, because there are a lot of really cool places to see and interesting things to do in the rest of the Yucatan Peninsula, beyond the vacation factories. Here’s a story I’ve been meaning to write for years: The Other Side of the Yucatan.

This one’s a little more personal, with a little more reflection than what I usually write. That’s because the Yucatan has been deeply entwined in my life for the past 11 years. It was the first place we took my daughter after she got her first passport at three and we returned there again and again after buying a little beach house on the Gulf Coast near Merida. Each time we did a little more exploring, plus I’ve been back a few times on my own for writing trips. I could post a hundred photos from there, but I mostly just put up some Mayan ruins, a fun video of a horse-drawn train, and some memories of when my teenager was a cuddly little girl.

Borneo man

In this month’s issue of Perceptive Travel though, that’s just the start. My buddy Bruce Northam is back with a fun story about hanging with a real man in Borneo, the kind of man who does the things we used to do before we got so soft. He catches fish with his bare hands and cooks them up in bamboo tubes. He can whip up a shelter in the jungle in no time flat with a tarp and a machete. See Rent a Real Man in Borneo.

James Dorsey has met up with plenty of wild men himself in the stories of Perceptive Travel and this time he ends up on a baboon hunt with the Hadzabe tribesmen in Tanzania. There’s smoking, spearing, and passing around primate meat. See Last of the Bushmen in Tanzania.

As always, we check out some new travel books so you’ll know what’s worth reading and we review some new world music albums so you’ll know what’s worth downloading. (Oh, okay, what’s worth at least checking out on Spotify.)

We’re always helping our loyal readers gear up for their travels. Last month someone scored some nice $100 polarized sunglasses from Bolle. This month we’re giving away two, yes two gift certificates to buy whatever Samsonite luggage, messenger bag, or travel accessories you need. If you’re on our newsletter list, watch your inbox. That’s the best bet because as you’ve probably noticed, even if you follow Perceptive Travel on Facebook, you’re probably not seeing the feed. That social network has become a “pay to play” platform where fan pages don’t show up unless they’re paying. Sign up here to be sure you can enter.

traveling in Mexico

The Mexican gangs may not be busted, but Mexican tourism is going gangbusters.

Apparently 23.7 million tourists came to Mexico last year, up 3.5% from their previous record year in 2008. Yes, that was six years ago, so it’s been a climb up after a big drop, but a steady, fruitful climb in the face of tough circumstances at home and abroad. The vast majority of those visitors were from the USA.

I started this cheap travel blog back in 2003, when the word “blog” was still very much a novelty and I knew people still using AOL dial-up. Sometimes I like to go back and look at those original posts to see how much has changed. I may be reading the cues wrong, but it seems like in the past decade, travelers—especially Americans—have gotten a lot better about putting fear in perspective.

Ten years ago I wrote a post called How Safe is International Travel? It was spurred on by my father saying he and his wife were scared to get in an airplane to go to Europe so they were going to drive somewhere instead. That led me to ranting about how much safer you are in a plane than a car. But I was also addressing the larger issue of people watching too much TV news instead of getting the real story from more reliable sources. And not comparing the risk of where they’re going to the risk in their own home town. Fear of the unknown has a huge impact on travel plans.

But maybe, just maybe, it’s having less of an impact than it used to.

Last week I was at the annual Mexican tourism fair called Tianguis, and despite all the fear-mongering that goes on about my adopted home, Mexican tourism officials are very happy right now. They’re seeing steady increases from the traditional markets (US, Canada, UK) but downright dramatic increases from other countries, especially Latin American ones. Specifically, Mazatlan tourism is up 18% in three years, Los Cabos is up 25% in two years, Cancun/Riviera May hotels were running at nearly 90% occupancy levels the first week of May. That region alone hosted 36 thousand weddings in 2013. And on it goes with a dozen other destinations both coastal and in the interior.

Mexico travel fears

Sure, the Ciudad Juarez booth at that tourism fair had one poor lonely girl playing on her phone most of the time and you couldn’t pay me enough to be the tourism PR person for Tijuana. Overall though, considering all the inflammatory bad press the country gets and the constant news stories asking whether it’s okay to travel to this destination, no wonder the Mexican tourism industry is feeling fortunate.

Maybe travelers are getting less afraid of what lies beyond their borders. Just maybe they’re realizing that 81 total Americans killed in Mexico in an entire year–counting Mexican/American citizens in the drugs or guns trade—looks pretty darn good compared to D.C., New Orleans, or Chicago.

Next stop, Egypt…?

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.