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.

 

best travel gear  rugged travel gear

Wouldn’t it be nice if you bought something for your travels and no matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t wear it out?

I’ve reviewed hundreds of items over at Practical Travel Gear, last decade on a Blogger site I was doing by myself, then from 2009 on with a team of men and women putting things through their paces. We have been able to screen out most of the duds, but still have run into a few now and then.

Overall though, like the evolution of automobiles, there aren’t a lot of clunkers around anymore. Competition is too stiff. So if you buy a name brand backpack, suitcase, jacket, or pair of hiking shoes, what you spent your hard-earned money on is probably going to last at least a few seasons.

Some items go way beyond that though, living on like The Terminator, unable to be killed. Here are some travel gear items I’ve used so much they should have fallen apart years ago. They’re still around though, still coming with me on a plane. Pay attention to the brands more than the specific items. For the ones I’ve recommended, I haven’t just used one or two things that have held up well. Usually it’s in the double digits.

Eagle Creek Suitcases/Osprey Backpacks

If you’re going to buy a wheelie backpack (not my recommendation, but if you must…) or a suitcase for vacation/biz travel, skip the bargain aisle at Costco or Burlington Coat Factory and buy something good from Eagle Creek. Yes, it’s going to cost you a bit, but you’ll still be using it a decade from now and if by chance something goes wrong because of a defect or maybe even a nasty baggage handler, they’ll replace it for you.

Ditto for Osprey, which also has a terrific guarantee on their suitcases and backpacks. Eagle Creeks seems to have backed off their backpack business to focus on luggage and packing cubes, but Osprey is still going strong and you’ll see plenty of their packs as you make your way around the world. I have never had to take advantage of the warranty for either of these companies. I keep abusing their luggage and packs, they keep on taking it.

ExOfficio Shirts and Pants

I’ve had many a traveler tell me it’s not worth it to buy travel clothing because you can just replace things as you go along. So okay, if a disposable wardrobe is how you like to roll, never mind the quality. If you would like to return from a round-the-world trip thought with pants and shirts you can still pack for the next trip, then head to ExOfficio.com. I have shirts of theirs I have tried my best to wear out but they still look pretty much like they did when I took them out of the package. I’ve got pants of theirs I’ve packed for at least 20 countries and they’re still in peak condition. It’s uncanny. Oh, and they dry in a flash when you sink wash them, which any light packer knows is the key to carrying less.

Craghoppers Shirts and Pants

Take everything I said above and substitute Craghoppers for ExOfficio. These guys even use thin strips of fabric to hold buttons to the clothing instead of thread, so you’re never going to have to replace a button. Fantastic clothing and easier to find on the European side of the Atlantic.

Kelty Backpacks

Kelty backpackIf you’re on a budget and the prices for Eagle Creek and Osprey are scaring you off, go for a Kelty pack and you’ll probably be just fine. Ounce for ounce and feature for feature, these are the best values in the store. I’m still using this one I rode across Missouri with years ago and my family has several daypacks from them we use regularly for travel and also mundane things like going to the market for fresh produce.

Pacsafe Daypacks

How worried are you about security? If that’s high on your list when you’re traveling, you only need to know two brand names: Clothing Arts (makers of Pickpocket Proof Pants) and Pacsafe. These guys are incredibly dedicated to keeping your valuables safe and each year they’re innovating to find better ways to do so. The big change recently is zippers that you can’t jam open with a knife or pen like most of them out there. Their products have an exo-skeleton built in to be slash-proof and lots of cool features that make it next to impossible to get inside your bag.

Ecco, Keen, Wolverine, and GoLite shoes

I think at this point I’ve tried out at least 50 pairs of travel shoes because for whatever reason, footwear companies are very aggressive about getting the word out on their new styles. Either they’re more savvy about online media or they just enjoy some really fat profit margins. Maybe both.

Wolverine hiking shoes

This brand list is not definitive because I really like Cushe, Sanuk, New Balance, and Oboz. And I think Hi-Tec ones are a good value if your budget is tight. But the four brands in the subhead there have proved to me time and time again that they’re built to last. I’ve got some Ecco Biom Grip shoes that I said were pricey when I reviewed them, but a year and a half and 16 trips with lots of walking later, I still pack them a lot. I have a really hard time getting rid of any of the Keens I’ve gotten because they still feel good after lots of wear. My Wolverine hiking shoes were the first ones that didn’t have one single thing I could complain about. And GoLite Footwear makes some really interesting, long-lasting shoes that don’t look like everyone else’s.

Tilley mash-up hat

Tilley Hats

I’ve been challenged in the hair department for a long time and a travel hat is essential when I’m outside in the sun. I’ve been through a lot of hats over the years, but 90% of the time I’m wearing one from Tilley. Again, they’re pricey, but they come with a lifetime guarantee. If you manage to wear it out, they’ll replace it. They’ll probably ask for your story to go along with it. Just be advised that people will automatically think you’re a Canuck when you have one on. In addition to a maple leaf backpack patch and a Roots clothing item, this is one of the essential items a Canadian must pack before going abroad.

Eagle Creek Travel Wallets

This is a small thing, but if you don’t want to be I could be wrong because I have a few of these, but I’m pretty sure one of the Eagle Creek Travel Pouch wallets I loop around my belt is the same one that I was using on my third round-the-world trip in the late 1990s. You only have to cough up $13.50 to keep your valuables safe. No mugger is going to tell you to take off your pants…

SteriPen

I’ve used three different versions of a SteriPen and have never worn one out. I’ve also never gotten sick from the water—anywhere. Neither has my daughter or my wife. And we’ve kept hundreds of plastic bottles out of streams and oceans. You don’t travel with one of these because…?

Any gear you’ve been using for a decade or more and haven’t managed to kill?

 

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?

Panama beach

Panama can be one of the world’s greatest places to live on a lower budget than you could in a developed country, especially if you’re a retiree. It’s also a place favored by thousands of very wealthy Latin Americans and business tycoons, however. So whether you find the place a bargain largely depends on where you live and how you live.

As I’ve been mentioning lately, I’m working on a book called A Better Life for Half the Price, about moving abroad to a cheaper destination to lower your monthly expenses. Panama doesn’t figure into my World’s Cheapest Destinations travel book except as a brief honorable mention. While it’s cheaper than Costa Rica, it’s nowhere near as good a value as some other countries in Central America. It is a poster child for publications such as International Living though and has been for at least a decade. That’s for a lot of good reasons:

- It’s a very stable country politically.
- It uses the US dollar as its currency and inflation is minimal.
- The banking system is good.
- Health care is excellent and affordable in the cities.
- Taxes are low, including on alcohol and electronics.
- Regulations are minimal for setting up a business.
- It’s easy to get a residency visa.
- The pensionada program for retirees has terrific benefits.

Panama is no backwater dirt-poor country though relying on what they can grow or dig out of the ground to build wealth. There’s a large middle class employed in all kinds of decent-paying jobs, from call centers to quality construction to the Panama Canal to banking. Most multinational companies have a base here and the whole country is like a big duty free zone.

luxury real estate Panama City

I did an interview that will air soon with Taylor White of the Overseas Property Insider Podcast. He’s stacking cash buying and selling real estate in Panama City, so he subscribes to the philosophy of “You’re going to spend what you’re going to spend, no matter where you are.” For some people that’s true and they didn’t move to Panama City to save money. Taylor spends about as much as he did in San Diego. You can spend a few hundred grand on a fancy condo with a view and there are plenty of temptations in terms of high-end restaurants, clubs, casinos, and beach resort excursions. For many, especially wealthy Latinos, the capital of this country is a “work hard, play hard” city akin to Miami. Living here can cost far less than Miami if you’re careful, but you can easily spend as much as you would there if you want.

There are retirees living in Panama City for less and the live abroad magazines and newsletters continually highlight people getting by on two U.S. social security checks—around $2,400 per month. A typical basket of goods and services is lower here, especially domestic help, transportation, domestic food, wine, and entertainment. Real estate is high for the region though as this is considered a “safe haven” investment for Venezuelans, Argentines, and others.

Outside the Big City

There are plenty of other places to live in Panama, however. Many retirees are attracted to the Chiriqui highlands around David and Boquete or the Bocas del Toro islands. Both these areas have far lower prices to rent or buy.

Panama adventure

Former Texan Richard Kongable lived in a few places in Panama before moving to a rural area near Volcan, on the side of a mountain. I tried a few other places in Panama before settling here,” he says. “I like that I never need heat, I never need air conditioning, and there’’s always a gentle breeze. I’m on the edge of a valley, with a volcano on the left and two rivers. I can see islands in the ocean even though it’s an hour and 20 minutes away.”

Richard rented his house for years for $300 a month and thought he was going to have to leave eventually when the American owner put it up for sale. Instead the owner fell into health problems and needed to sell in a hurry, so with no buyers in sight Richard got the 1,600 square foot house for half price: $25,000. He estimates that his family of three spends about $1,700 a month, including car expenses and about $300 a month for his son’s private school.

Retirees Kris and Joel Cunningham pay $385 per month for a house in a nice middle class neighborhood on the edge of David, Panama and they love it. “We have woods and a river behind us, there’s only one way into the neighborhood so it feels really safe. We’re surrounded by local professionals who are just lovely people.”

The Cunninghams were paying $1,200 per month in Sarasota, Florida where they lived before on their mortgage and taxes. If they had been renting, it would have been more. “The house next to us, similar to what we have now, was renting for $1,500 per month,” she adds.

They have been living on her husband’s social security payment and have a little savings from selling their house in Florida. Kris was about to start receiving her own social security payment when I talked to her, which will double their income and enable them to meet the income requirements for the pensionada program: $1,000 for one person plus $250 for each dependent. “It’s already so cheap though, I feel kind of guilty getting all those extra discounts,” she says.

Kris Cunningham says she has been pleasantly surprised by low costs in Panama, particularly groceries. “Food is definitely a great deal, especially fruit and vegetables. If you spend $20 on those in our local market it will be more than you can carry. We paid two or three times more for almost everything at home, including meat and fish. If you buy what the locals buy and cook, living here is very cheap.”

There’s the key advice that applies almost anywhere in the world: eat what’s local and you’ll probably be both healthier and wealthier. The usual advice that goes with that is to avoid imported products. With some of the cheapest wine and liquor prices in the world here though, you don’t have to make any adjustments in what you drink. This is one of the few places in the world where California wine is cheaper than in Napa Valley and Chilean wine is cheaper than in Santiago. (See this post on prices to booze it up in Panama.)

Italy travel Carrara

Sometimes editor types joke about the “three I’s of travel” that grace so many magazine covers: Italy, Ireland, and India. They’re photogenic, look exotic, and have nice luxury hotels with ad money to spend. You’ll rarely find a travel magazine that goes a whole 12 months without one of the three on a cover.

In the current issue of Perceptive Travel, we subbed in Iceland for Ireland. (Don’t worry, you can still find the latter plenty of places on our blog.) Iceland is also photogenic, can look exotic, and has some nice hotels. As usual though, we don’t tick off places you’ve already seen a hundred times before. We like to take the road less traveled. In this case we’re literally on the road with Luke Armstrong as he tries to learn how to drive a stick shift on the fly. In a van. Going across Iceland in the “crazy season.” See Learning to Drive a Dinosaur in Iceland.

We also have a story about Italy, but toss out your expectations because Debi Goodwin is not going to check anything off your bucket list. This place was on hers though: the Italian marble quarries of Carrara.

Old Delhi

We had a story in the past on how the “Incredible India” portrayed in ads and glossy travel stories is like an alternate universe to the Slumdog Millionaire reality that non-luxury travelers see every day. Being sheltered from the grinding poverty is next to impossible if you go for a walk though, as Jim Johnston finds out in Hunger and Privilege: Dinner in Old Delhi.

As always we run down some world music worth listening to, from a globalFEST compilation to classical music with a Turkish twinge, through the ears of Laurence Mitchell.

Susan Griffith reviews three new travel books: one from a legend, one from a shipping industry reporter, and one from…well, you decide.

Need some new travel shoes?

We give away something cool to one of our loyal Perceptive Travel readers each month and last time Jack P. from Florida scored a nice $139 daypack from Granite Gear. In April we’re setting someone from the USA up with a nice $90 pair summer travel shoes: the H2O Escape Bungee Sneaker from Sperry Topsiders.

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