New Years resolutions are so 2011 (and hard to keep, too!), which is why I decided to do things differently this year. Instead of dropping my usual resolution within days, I went a different route and chose to take on a new language. Next month, I will be heading off to Thailand so I’ve decided to take on this crazy challenge on an extremely tight schedule. Within the next 30 days, I want to learn Thai. That’s right, by the time I leave on February 4th, I want to be comfortable with the basics of Thai so that I can get around Thailand a little easier.
Learning basic Thai in order to be able to interact with people using simple sentences for common situations such as asking for directions, ordering food or trying to bargain when possible. I don’t plan to be able to hold a conversation but I want to be able to flesh out the conversation instead of relying on hand gestures and saying ‘yes please’ repeatedly.
I’m leaving in 30 days so this is basically a month-long challenge and it gives me exactly 4 weeks to reach my goal. I will put the focus on different things every week but the idea is to learn as much as possible in that time.
This isn’t the first language I learn so I’ll probably rely on proven methods (lists of words! Cue cards! Phonetic learning! Chocolate?) to be able to learn as much as possible in as little time as possible. I do have a few reference tools like my trusty Lonely Planet and an iPad app, which will probably be the 2 tools I’ll use the most. I don’t plan on buying a dictionary or anything like that as I won’t be gone long enough for it to be worth the money and at the end of the day, I’ll learn the words phonetically, not the spelling, so a dictionary wouldn’t be the best tool anyway.
I’ve never felt like I had to learn a language before heading to a foreign country for two reasons; I don’t travel for more than a few weeks at a time and I’ve simply never felt the need to. I can usually get around easily with the languages I know as I’ve always been to places where French, Spanish or English are spoken either as a first or second language.
Things are different this time around as Thailand, much like Asia in general, simply feels like a whole different world and as the saying goes, when in Rome, do as Romans do. Obviously, it’s also a sign of respect to at least be able to use a few basic words, even if most of the conversation will probably end up being done in English.
Stay tuned to follow my process and see if I’ll be able to reach my goal or if I’ll need to rely on hand gestures, smiles and nods when I get to Thailand in February!
The last few weeks of a year usually mean a whole lot of posts involving lists of various “top” accomplishments, experiences and sights seen but the moments that didn’t happen, just like the sights we didn’t get to see are quickly forgotten and usually go completely unnoticed. After all, they didn’t happen so why bother mentioning them at all?
I decided to focus on those moments, not as a reminder of what I missed this year but as a way to prove that it can be OK to miss out sometimes. It happens and more often than not, it’s not the end of the world.
Concentration camp (Belgium, May 2011)
Getting to visit a concentration camp has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember and I had every intention of finally checking it off while in Brussels. Unfortunately, due to a “perfect storm” of last minute planning, a bus driver who dropped me off at the wrong stop and a subsequent issue with ATMs throughout the city the following day, my plan fell through. The rest of my trip went without a hitch and I actually got close to Breendonk but not close enough to explore the camp, just a village that happened to share the camp’s name but was nowhere near my original destination.
Continent #5; Africa
Assuming North and South America are considered two continents, Africa almost became the 5th continent I set foot on. Granted, the only real reason why I didn’t book a trip to South Africa this year was seeing low-priced tickets and waiting too long to get them because I was conflicted between two destinations. When my mind was finally set, the price difference cooled down my desire to go. I still had Africa on my mind though and focused on other destinations on the continent but with the political unrest in Egypt and the drought/famine in Somalia that forced massive amounts of people to seek refuge in neighbouring Kenya, I was running out of destinations and felt that the logical thing to do would be to postpone Africa. It almost happened and in a way, it probably should have happened in 2011 but I know for a fact that I will set foot on the African continent in the future.
Continent #5 redux; Asia
In a rather ironic twist of faith, I set my eyes on Thailand as a replacement to South Africa (completely different destinations, yes, but also both very different from the trips I’ve taken so far). Unfortunately, I needed to travel on fairly specific dates and it happened to be right in the middle of the floods that hit Thailand in the fall. I kept a close eye on the news and still planned to go until more and more countries issued travel warnings for their citizens and airlines began waiving fees and offering travellers the chance to modify their plans without penalties. A week before I was scheduled to leave, I caved and spent some time on the phone with Continental to find the best course of action. The fees were waived, yes, but my plans had to be postponed and moved to a much later date. It felt as if I simply wasn’t meant to visit a fifth continent in 2011.
There are quite probably a few more non-events that I forgot to list but those 3 are the main ones and they all influenced my plans this year and some of my plans next year as well. There’s no denying that I would have loved to make all three of these things happen this year but it turns out that I had a blast on the trips I was able to take and with some perspective, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Is there anything you wish had happen when you travelled this year? Anything you came close to do but just didn’t quite make it? What it the end of the world?
Budget should always be a very important part of planning for a trip, a holiday or an extended period of travel but no matter how much planning is done, unexpected situations and events can occasionally arise and throw a wrench in all that careful planning. Just like planes can be delayed and social unrest or protests can disrupt cultural visits, a single event like the ones below can lead to a pretty drastic increase in your expenses and burn a massive hole through a budget.
While some events simply cannot be avoided, there are some steps to work around those situations or at least minimize the impact they will have on your plans (and your wallet!)
Sickness, illnesses and meds
While being sick might not break the bank, unless you need meds or a visit to the hospital, it can impact your plans and prevent you from going on tours that are already paid for which forces you to either book the same activity twice or simply give up on something you had planned on doing, without necessarily getting your money back.
Keep in mind that medical consultations and medication can become rather expensive, even if they seem rather minor, if you don’t have some kind of travel insurance and while some people feel that paying for insurance in case something happens is a waste of money, I definitely see it as one of those “rather be safe than sorry” moments. You can also get a year long protection for a reduced rate with quite a few different companies, which means you’ll never have to worry about your coverage expiring while on the road.
Lost or misplaced luggage
Although most airlines try their best to return any misplaced luggage to its rightful owner in under 24 hours, there is no guarantee that your beloved suitcase will be at your side the next day. Delays happen, and they often happen at the worst possible time, which can lead to some additional expenses if you need to buy some clothes or toiletries while waiting for your belongings to be returned to you. While there’s not much you can do to avoid this, unless you pack light and manage not to check any luggage, you can take a few pictures of your luggage and its content, in case you need to file an insurance claim later and keeping a few basic necessities in your carry on luggage is always a good idea. Don’t forget the rules for liquids and gels still apply if you choose to travel with toiletries in your carry on and not check in any luggage.
Passport (and other travel documents)
As a rule, you should never leave your passport out of sight when traveling but since that can sometimes be hard to do, it is always a good idea to either carry a photocopy of your passport (and all important travel documents) or scan them and keep a copy in your inbox. That way, should they get stolen, lost, misplaced or damaged while you travel, you’ll have a backup available. Granted, a photocopy of your passport or IDs will not get you far, it will make things a lot easier to get an emergency passport processed at the embassy, as they require two forms of ID. Having an idea of where your country’s embassy is located is never a bad idea as they can offer a lot of support in cases like this.
Although I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest getting a money belt to keep all your important documents safe, I would definitely suggest not keeping everything in the same place. The odds of losing all your belongings at the same time are rather slim but if your documents are all in your trusty day bag, things can do downhill very fast if a thief manages to separate you from it.
Many places around the world make renting cars, bikes, motorcycles and many other means of transportation very easy and while the rates can be tempting, insurance is an absolute must-have. Basic car rental will offer some minimal insurance but it will most likely not cover a lot of damage in case of an accident, especially if you are responsible. Sorting out an accident while in a foreign country can also become a hassle as you don’t have the confidence of having home field advantage. It can be difficult to tell your side of the story, even though you might be completely innocent in the incident, especially if you don’t speak the local language, which is why travel agents and airline representatives in many Caribbean hotspots will advise against renting scooters and motorcycles as the risk of accident is high and the odds of being ruled “not responsible” for an accident are very slim.
Safety is obviously the first step to avoid getting in trouble on the road but since you can only control your own actions and not other drivers’, making sure you’re insured for accidents while driving in a foreign country is the responsible step to take before leaving the country.
So your alarm didn’t go off and you make a mad dash for the airport but the plane was on time for once and you end up missing your flight? You can try your luck with the airline and see if they can’t assign you on the next departing flight to your destination. Since the flight wasn’t delayed or cancelled and not making your flight falls on your shoulders, airlines aren’t required to put you on a different flight for free, but they might be able to do it for a small fee; which is definitely better than buying a new ticket at full price.
My only real advice if this ever happens is don’t panic, even though you’ll want to scream at the top of your lungs or throw a tantrum in the middle of the airport, your best bet to get on the airline’s good side is to be as nice as you possibly can. I’m guessing some tears probably don’t hurt either, but I’ll leave that up to you.
While it would be amazing to be able to take months off work to travel the world and explore every corner of every country, most of us have to be a little more realistic and turn to short vacations if we want to travel. While longer holidays obviously give you more time, a week or two can be sufficient to see a lot of the things you want to see if you follow a few basic steps.
1) Flights (arrival times, layovers)
If you’re dealing with a particularly tight travel schedule, being careful about your choice of flights can make a pretty big difference. Check for weird and lengthy layovers and avoid them if possible; the last thing you want to do is waste half a day in an airport if you only have a week or two to travel. Maybe you won’t get the cheapest flight but in the end, you’ll spend more time where you actually want to be and less time in airports.
The same applies for arrival times; nobody likes to get up at 3 in the morning to catch an early morning flight but odds are they will give you a better arrival time instead of eating your day away. Sure, you get to sleep in, but if you arrive at your destination after dinner, you pretty much wasted a day. Consider getting up at the crack of dawn to avoid wasting hours you could use to explore a new city.
2) Jet lag
Jet lag can put a big dent in your travel plans if you’re not careful and although it isn’t as simple a step as the rest, there are some things you can do to avoid feeling the effects of jet lag too much. Obviously, if you can sleep on the plane, then you’ve got a head start, but not all of us are lucky enough to be able to catch some ZZZs. Make sure to drink plenty of water (or non-alcoholic beverages) to stay hydrated and make yourself follow the local time as soon as you reach your destination. If you can eat and sleep at regular times on your first day abroad, odds are you won’t be feeling the effects of jet lag too much. You probably won’t avoid being tired but if you can keep busy enough to stay away from those short afternoon naps that turn into 12 hours nights, you’ll go to bed early on the first night and be able to hit the ground in perfect form the next morning.
I usually keep a pretty light schedule on the first day because I know I’ll be tired and I don’t want to miss out on any of the big things I was planning to see and do but I always make sure to go for a long walk to explore the city, get some fresh air and stay away from my bed for as long as possible. It usually works till early evening and then I do a little writing before calling it an early night; which means I’m usually up at 6 the next morning, ready to do some serious exploring.
3) Planning ahead
Obviously planning ahead goes without saying but when you’re dealing with limited time and you want to make the most of it, planning becomes pivotal. Make sure to know if there are holidays during your trip or if any special event such as an election falls on the day you planned on visiting museums that may not be opened due to those special circumstances. If you plan on seeing a lot of attractions such as museums, make sure to schedule accordingly so that you don’t end up paying the entrance fee and rush through the museum because it’s closing in half an hour. Not all museums and attractions in general follow the same schedule so keeping an eye out for opening hours, free admission days or days/times during which certain exhibits are closed can make the difference between actually seeing the Louvre and missing out on it.
Sure, it would be amazing to see every single thing there is to see in every country and city you visit but it’s simply not doable on a short trip. You could spend over a week in most major European cities and not even see half of the sights and attractions. The truth is, you should prioritize and plan what you really don’t want to miss. When you have some free time, you can add a few other things to your itinerary but at least you’ll be able to cover the things you absolutely want to see. If possible, try to do as many of those “must dos” at the beginning of your trip; that way, if some unforeseen circumstances come up and force you to change your plans down the road, you won’t have to skip something you’ve been meaning to see for a long time. After all, do you really want to come back from Sydney and say that you didn’t get to see the Harbor because you spent too much time in random museums?
5) Be realistic
Yes, you can see 25 things in a day if you want your trip to be a blurry montage of rushing through foreign streets and checking off landmarks as you go but this isn’t The Amazing Race; you really shouldn’t plan your trip as if it was. After all, you do want to remember the things you see and you also have to consider several outside factors that will impact the time it takes you to see attractions or travel in-between them. There will be crowds, bad weather, strikes and some places simply have weird hours of operation. Unless you plan to spend every waking hour traveling between monuments and landmarks, make sure you plan realistically and worse comes to worst, you can always add some things you hadn’t picked as priorities along the way if you see that you have some free time.
Whether it is a pivotal part of travel plans or it simply happens to fall in the middle of a trip, odds are if you travel enough, Holidays will sooner or later be spent abroad. On one side, you have the Holidays that don’t really have a lot of signification in the sense that you will probably not feel homesick traveling on Labor Day or Halloween but when traveling keeps you away from your family and loved ones on Christmas, Valentine’s Day or birthdays, the stakes are definitely higher.
I haven’t had the guts to spend Christmas away from home yet but I’ve been away for a few different Holidays and from personal experience, those are some of the ways to make the whole experience better.
Research, research, research
Generally speaking, it’s never a bad idea to do a minimum of research on a destination but searching for Holidays-specific information might actually make your experience a lot better. Not only will it allow you to know what’s closed and what’s opened but it also gives you some insight on what to expect. The traditions you’re familiar with might not translate into the same experience when you’re halfway around the world and if you get up at the crack of dawn on Christmas morning, expecting to be joined by the locals, you might be heading for disappointment.
Find out about the local traditions and try to embrace them; it might not be your definition of Christmas but if you know what to expect, you’re likely to enjoy the experience much more.
Do something about it
Traveling alone on your Birthday? Plan something. Make sure to schedule some cool things to do so that you don’t spend the day sulking alone in a corner. If you’re a fan of tours, go for it; that way you’ll be surrounded by people all day. The important thing is to make sure you make it a day to remember and doing something unique that’ll fill your head with memories and stories to tell is the best way to do it. Go Zorbing if you’re in New Zealand, take a helicopter ride over volcanoes in Iceland or see one of the World Wonders; you might not be home but the experience alone will be worth it.
Don’t see being away from home as an unfortunate experience, see it as a way to do something completely out of the ordinary and make it a Holiday to remember.
Follow the local traditions
The old saying, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”, is particularly true when it comes to Holidays and doing some planning to make sure you know what to expect is key to make sure you aren’t taken by surprise by a Holiday you aren’t familiar with. Maybe you’re used to celebrating New Years at the end of December but if you’re traveling through China, you should expect some serious celebrating at the end of January. The Carnival in Rio, Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Mexico’s Día de los Muertos are some of the most famous area-specific Holidays that you may experience and always making sure that you know what to expect, especially in terms of what is closed and the services running on a limited or modified schedule is key to enjoying the experience instead of being held back by the celebration. The same logic applies if you expect to visit the most famous Mayan sites of the Riviera Maya. If your trip falls around the equinoxes, expect to be surrounded by crowds of people who are there specifically for the equinox.
Play it safe
If you’re traveling for an extended period of time and have some freedom to build your itinerary along the way, why not build it around the Holiday in question? Not only does it make sense to plan your itinerary around a unique experience and still be in a relatively familiar setting but it also definitely beats avoiding celebrations altogether.
Spending Christmas abroad? The Christmas markets across Europe are world-renowned so spending Christmas time in Austria or Germany might actually be an experience that’ll make you want to travel even more around the Holidays.
It can be New Year’s Eve in Times Square, Easter at the Vatican, Valentine’s Day in Paris or even Halloween in Europe to visit some famous haunted places; Holidays abroad can be a unique experience that’ll completely take your mind away from feeling homesick about missing out on traditions.
Sure, maybe you’re used to seeing snow on the ground and bundling up in winter clothes to go to church or Christmas Eve and it may be hard to get in the spirit of Christmas if you’re on a beach in Thailand but embrace the local traditions and be open to a celebration that’s out of the ordinary for you.
Worse comes to worst, if you realize that you simply cannot break away from tradition, there’s always next year if you want to go back to a more traditional celebration. On the plus side, you’ll be able to share the unusual experience you’ve lived and who knows; you might actually fall in love with the traditions you’ll discover abroad.
I’ve done all-inclusive resorts, packages, flights only, hotels, hostels, airport floors but this is only the second time I’m doing what I consider to be a “last minute” trip. I’m not sure if there’s a ground rule to define last minute but less than 7 days before departure is, to me, on the last minute side. I’m used to planning a trip ahead, buying plane tickets, at least, and then playing it by ear when it comes to accommodations and the like. That way, at least, I know where I’m going ahead of time and it seems like the excitement has time to build up.
This time, I knew I wanted to take a week off in February and that somewhere warm would be nice but that was about all I knew. I looked around, bouncing back and forth between an all-inclusive in South or Central America, maybe even Europe. Anywhere was fair game. I finally narrowed it down to maybe half a dozen different destinations and thanks to the expertise and input of Stephanie from http://www.traveldesigned.com I was able to play the elimination game with myself until I was left with a single destination; Panama.
For some reason Panama had been on my mind for a while and it met all my criteria so it ultimately seemed like a pretty good decision. To my surprise though, it seemed like 7 days wasn’t enough to build the hype in my head and I was left somewhat lukewarm at the idea of going away. I was happy to take time off and to visit a new country but it seemed like the usual excitement I feel when a trip is around the corner simply wasn’t there.
This made me wonder, while deals are often incredibly tempting when it comes to last minute travel, do they make traveling less of an experience we can really feel blessed with? With the economy being where it has been over the past few months, luxuries like travel should be something we are thankful to be doing but it seems that, with a last minute vacation, we forgo the excitement as it doesn’t have time to build up into an experience.
Those of us who can afford to wait for last minute deals obviously have a good reason to do so as there are, more often than not, great savings attached to such sales but if planning ahead and spending a little more time trying to find those bargains can result in a more rewarding, unique and unforgettable experience, it adds a value last minutes bargains simply don’t offer.
*You can also find Stephanie on Twitter at @travelDesigned
Looking at a map of Iceland, the logical thing to do if you want to see many of the numerous sights in a relatively short period of time is to rent a car and explore at your own pace. Not only does that give you the freedom needed to truly appreciate all of what Iceland has to offer but it also means you won’t have to worry about the reduced schedules and limited departure times of several guided tours outside of the summer months. Guided tours are great but they aren’t the best way to really enjoy the untouched nature of Iceland. For the most part, the scenery is absolutely breathtaking but the distance is definitely a factor that needs to be taken into consideration when planning to drive from one place to the next.
Here’s a quick summary of what I managed to fit in the 5 days I had a rental car;
Day 1: Reykjavík – Þingvellir – Geysir/Gulfoss – Vík í Mýrdal – Hvoll
(Daily distance : 392 kilometers / 294 miles)
Day 2 : Hvoll – Jökulsárlón – Þorlákshöfn – Heimaey Island, Vestmannaeyjar
(Daily distance : 472 kilometers / 293 miles & 2h45 ferry ride)
Day 3: Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar – Þorlákshöfn – Akureyri
(Daily distance : 424 kilometers / 263 miles & 2h45 ferry ride)
Day 4 : Akureyri – Dalvík – Grimsey island – Dalvík – Akureyri
(Daily distance : 88 kilometers / 55 miles & 2 3h ferry rides)
Day 5 : Akureyri – Reykjavík
(Daily distance : 386 kilometers / 240 miles)
Total distance: 1762 kilometers / 1095 miles
Obviously you can cover more distance each day, especially if there is more than one driver but here are some things to be taken into consideration before planning to cover unrealistic distances and either running out of time or missing out on unique sights because of delusive planning.
Outside of towns, the speed limit is generally 90 kilometers per hour (roughly 56 mph) but drops to 70 km/h (43 mph) from time to time. Moreover, even though the speed limit is 90, there are times when the road conditions and visibility make it very hard to maintain that speed and you will find yourself forced to slow down considerably. When you pass through towns and their roundabouts, the limit drops to 50 km/h (31 mph), no matter how small the town/village/group of 2 barns and a gas station is.
That alone will impact the distance covered considerably as it quickly adds up and eats away at your day if you haven’t planned a realistic distance in your day. This became particularly obvious to me on the day I drove to Akureyri; planning for about 4 hours of driving which gave me just enough time to be checking into the hostel before the reception closed. The drive ended up taking about an hour and a half longer than expected and definitely threw a wrench in my plans for the night.
Bear with me on this; I know concentration is always important when it comes to driving but driving in Iceland requires all of your attention because of the constant changes in road conditions. The road will go from paved to unpaved with little warning and if you aren’t careful, the frequent curves and occasional blind bends will leave you swerving.
What’s great about Iceland is that traffic is next to non-existant traffic except if you’re driving in downtown Reykjavík. You can drive for hours without seeing another car and an entire day of driving could translate into seeing maybe a dozen cars. While that stress free setting is perfect for long drives, the lack of traffic means that you often need to concentrate on “nothing” instead of instinctively concentrating because you’re stuck in traffic during rush hour.
Odds are the beauty of the landscape is one of the things that led you here in the first place and the road will provide numerous outlandish scenes that are too mesmerizing to simply drive by. There are many places along the way that are designed especially for cars to stop and the urge to capture the surrounding beauty will lead to frequent stops. While those moments often won’t last more than a couple of minutes for most drivers, they too will add up. I would even go as far as to say there should be time in your schedule strictly for that because even if you don’t plan to stop at all, it becomes very difficult not to and while you might resist a few times, you are bound to give in at some point and since the landscape changes so much, 1 stop will simply not suffice if you wish to capture all of which Iceland as to offer.
If you plan to cross the Arctic Circle on Grimsey Island or explore the Westman Islands, the ferries definitely come into play as they both take roughly 3 hours to reach their destinations. While there is no actual driving involved, obviously, they take a good chunk of your day and since the schedules run on a very limited timetable during the winter season (which is usually October 1st to May 1st), sacrificing a whole day to get to Grimsey and return is often the only possible solution if you don’t want to have to spend 2 full days there before the ferry comes back. The ferry to the Westman islands offers a little more freedom but with only a couple of departures each day, it’s hard not to be forced to modify your schedule in order to make sure the ferry rides fit in there.
In the end, the best advice I can possibly give is to plan ahead to make sure you don’t miss out on some of the sights that are truly unique but make sure that your schedule remains slightly flexible as driving in Iceland will make you forget everything that you know about driving; you will love spending hours on the road and getting to your destination as fast as possible will simply not even cross your mind. Don’t wait to drive at night to avoid traffic hours that don’t even exist; you’ll end up losing out on the sights along the way and you’ll give yourself a headache driving unknown sinuous roads in the dark. After all, no traffic means the roads aren’t overly well lit and since you drive by such amazing landscapes, losing them to the pitch black obscurity of the night after spending so much time on the road would just be a shame.