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Cultural Sensitivity While Traveling

As a frequent traveler, I try to keep in mind the following: “When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.”

That may seem like an amorphous saying, but I take it to mean this: check your ethnocentrism at the airport.

One of the best – but often strangest – parts of traveling to places very different from where you live is experiencing another culture. It’s not for everyone; some people don’t feel comfortable getting out of what they know, which is not a bad thing, just a personal preference. I often find, though, there are people who want to experience different cultures, but are unprepared for doing so.

Nothing dampens a travel experience like internal or external conflict with the cultural or social norms of the country you’re visiting. The best way to avoid this is to go into a travel experience with an open mind and a willingness to learn.

In general, you can’t expect your own country’s values or ideals to be accepted everywhere you go. When you travel to places that differ substantially from where you call home, you must sometimes leave behind many of your own cultural norms and temporarily accept some new ones. It doesn’t mean you have to go to extremes, but it does mean that you need to be respectful of people and their customs and try to abide by them when necessary.  This might mean not making jokes about being gay, not discussing certain social or political topics, covering your head with a scarf, refraining from engaging in public displays of affection, or not being visibly drunk in public. On top of being culturally sensitive, it can keep you from getting in real trouble, like finding yourself being detained for breaking the law.

Sometimes, we can be inadvertently offensive because we’re simply unaware. There are plenty of social norms or customs that might not be obvious to a visitor that have implications in your interactions with people – certain gestures or words that are considered rude or inappropriate, for example. The best way to prevent accidentally upsetting people is to do your research ahead of time. You can easily find information on local customs online or in guidebooks. Understanding local codes of behavior is an important part of planning for travel. It may be that where you’re going, there’s nothing to know; but in case there is, be a conscientious traveler and check. Not only will it prevent you from offending people, it’ll make your travel experience that much more enjoyable. If you’re acting like a jackass, good luck being able to have pleasant, educational interactions with the people you’re upsetting.

I’ve unfortunately read about travelers being disgruntled with local customs (like covering your head or shoulders at a religious site) and purposely bucking tradition in order to make a point. Don’t do this.  This is unequivocally a dick move. It is not your prerogative as a traveler – a tourist, vacationer, visitor – to take stands against customs or beliefs you find disagreeable, or to balk at cultural norms or traditions because you have ~feelings~ about them. The origins and workings of most customs and government/religious/cultural institutions are far too complex for the casual traveler to understand anyway, so you’re not going to solve any of those perceived issues by being insensitive. This is what I meant when I said to check your ethnocentrism at the airport. Unless it’s your actual job to delve into these matters, be respectful and mindful of your attitudes and actions.

There have been times I’ve been uncomfortable with what I see or hear while traveling. Some places  have customs and attitudes about women that trouble me on many levels. I am human and I have opinions on things like that – I suspect we all do, and by no means am I saying people are not entitled to those opinions. But there is a time and a place to discuss those, and as a visitor to another country, you should prioritize being respectful and culturally sensitive over ignorance or making a point.

This brings me to culturally sensitive photography. I love taking pictures of people and “daily life” when I travel. But don’t be disrespectful about it – either snap photos inconspicuously if you’re trying to snap a picture of people or scenes on the street, or better yet, if you’re wanting a photo of particular people, ask if they mind you taking their picture (you don’t even need to speak the same language to do this, simply smiling and pointing to your camera does the trick). I got a great picture of a couple of people walking their cows across the road in Peru. They smiled and waved for the photo, and in return I gave them some money for their time. It was a small price to pay to have a pleasant interaction with them and in return get myself a great memento of my time in Peru.

In short, don’t be a culturally insensitive jerk when you travel. Be mindful and respectful. It’s the least you can do.




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Planning Your Trip: Part 1

This is Part 1 of a multi-part series about planning a trip, from figuring out your destination to choosing a hotel to exploring.

Deciding Where To Go

The world is a big place, so figuring out where to take a vacation if you don’t already have a place in mind can be daunting.  A lot of friends ask me where I think they should go on vacation, and that’s hard to answer because everybody is different and wants different things out of a trip.

Generally speaking, however, if you’re completely undecided and open, I find it helps to figure out the answers to a few basic questions:

  • When will your trip be?
  • How long will your trip be?
  • How far are you willing to travel?
  • Do you want to limit it to one place, or do you want a multi-destination trip?
  • What is your overall budget? Include flights, transportation and hotel costs, meals, and attractions.
  • Do you want an active/adventure oriented vacation? A relaxing vacation? Or some combination of both?

These are the important questions and can help you narrow down your choices. If you’ve only got a week, traveling to Australia from the United States might not be the best use of your time, for example; if your budget is on the lower side but you’ve got some time, a road trip or choosing your destination based on available flight deals might be a good option. If you’re like me and hate the cold, you’ll want to stay away from Helsinki in December.

You also have to decide whether you want to stick to one place or visit multiple places, because this will affect your budget the most. In Europe specifically, getting from one city or country to the next is decidedly easier because there is a great railway system and very cheap budget airlines, so it may be doable to do two or even three cities in the span of 7-10 days without breaking the bank.

Harness the Power of Social Media

There is no shortage of travel information available on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. It takes a few minutes of effort, but try to follow some travel accounts online and read some good blogs. Here is a short list of some of my favorites: Travel + Leisure, Budget Travel, Conde Nast Traveler, AFAR Media, National Geographic Travel (and its various off-shoots), Matador Network, Jetset Extra, Nomadic Matt, Landlopers, The Frugal Traveler, and Digital Nomad Andrew Evans of “Where’s Andrew?” fame.

If you search the #travel or #destinations hashtags on Twitter or Instagram, you’ll find a bevy of information. Pinterest is also great for travel inspiration. You’ll probably see places you’ve never even dreamed of going. For me, Instagram is where I get most of my inspiration. I browse the photos and can see what travelers are seeing during their trips. It has given me so many ideas in the past and it’s a simple thing you can do, since most of us are on Instagram and browsing photos on there anyway.

Figure out the Logistics

Do you need a Visa from the country to which you’re traveling? What about vaccinations? Is there a State Department Travel Advisory? Figure this stuff out before you go any further. It can take a while to get Visas to certain countries, so start the process immediately if you decide you want to go to a place that requires one.

Also, now is the time to check your passport if you plan on traveling internationally. The general rule is that your passport must be valid for at least 6 months past the date on which you plan to enter your destination country. I almost got burned by this when I went to Turkey, as my passport expired 6 months and 2 weeks after I planned to enter – too close for my comfort. If you’re not sure of requirements, check the government travel website of your destination; it will have visitor information for entering the country. The US State Department also has some information that might be helpful in answering your questions regarding visas, vaccinations, and any movement limitations within the country.

Do Your Research

Once you have it narrowed down to a few places and you’ve ticked off all the government travel requirements, use your resources to help you decide. Ask friends and family via Facebook if they’ve been to any of the places you’re considering. Use the internet to find out what travelers before you thought of your destinations, as sometimes places are very different than they seem and your expectations might need to be adjusted. Sites like TripAdvisor let you search forums for discussions about cities and activities in those cities, including a ranking of attractions, reviews, words of warning, and must-sees. After reading about your choices, one may stand out as the best, or you may decide that they all sound great and you can’t go wrong with any of them.

The travel sites i listed above also have lots of information from fellow travelers. The travel world is full of information on pretty much any destination you can think of, no matter how remote; travel is a multi-billion dollar industry, after all.  Tap into the hard work of hundreds of travelers before you; there’s no need to start from scratch!

So Now You’ve Decided….

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, which will focus on finding and planning flights and transportation, lodging, and activities.

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Guest Post: Not Enough Time In Toronto, by D.C. Cutler

Thanks for this great write-up of Toronto by my friend D.C. Cutler! You can follow him on Twitter @DCCutlersports! 

From the moment I arrived at the airport, Toronto seemed like a city where nobody was in a hurry. It’s a much laid back city, which is strange, because Toronto is a financial hub with thousands of professionals walking around. No one seems rushed and I never once found myself standing next to someone on public transit unloading on their cell phone about work.

When I met my friend from college, who worked in Toronto’s downtown business district, we had lunch at a small deli near City Hall. The place was crowded but it wasn’t noisy. Everyone there was courteous and mellow. I began noticing that about every public place I visited.

From eating at a few restaurants and walking around the business district, I felt like I could live there. It’s without a doubt the nicest city I’ve ever been to. I’ve been to a lot of cities throughout my life, but I’ve never been to one where I felt so comfortable that I could uproot everything and move there. Polite isn’t a strong enough word to describe how people are in the capital of Ontario.

As a tourist, expect to get asked, “Have you been to the CN Tower?” I was asked three times if I had seen it. I think the CN Tower is probably one of the least interesting things about Toronto. It’s not like you can miss it.

Toronto is Canada’s leading banking and financial center, and it is also a major transportation hub. When you ask someone what they do, 8 out of 10 times they’ll answer “banking” or “transportation.” There are University of Toronto students everywhere. It makes sense; the college has the largest enrollment of any Canadian university.

At the nightclubs, it seems like you either find yourself at a young professional’s club or a club with a college student lean. Both are fun, but you certainly know when you’re in a young professional’s club. The difference: Within five minutes of being in a young professional’s club someone will ask you “what do you do?” But they ask in such a courteous way, it makes it alright.

I’ve never been around so many people who like drinking scotch. I don’t know if I just happened to be around a bunch of scotch drinkers, though that seems like the drink of choice in Toronto. And if you drink scotch, especially as much as the group I was with; you’re probably an experienced drinker with particular tastes. I drank beer the whole time because I was drinking on the cheap and I wanted to remember what I had experienced.

You could visit Toronto for several weeks and still just scratch the surface of the nightclub and restaurant scene. The opportunity to discover a new club or bar around the city seemed endless.

My friend took me to a club called Forty2, an urban-chic supper club in the heart of Liberty Village that turns into a straight warehouse club. It changes over fast. The girls’ skirts get shorter and the men’s wardrobe get Gucci-correct real fast. The club went from a place where people were eating dinner, to a warehouse happening, within minutes. Most of the people there were a mix of young professionals and college students.

My friend was familiar with Forty2; it was one of her “go to” places on weekends, so she knew all the good bartenders. Sometimes when you travel to a strange, new city, you find a spot that you feel comfortable at, and that’s different than any club you’ve ever been to; Forty2 was that place for me. It didn’t hurt that the girl to guy ration was dramatically more girls over guys.

Throughout the four days I was there, every band that I saw performing in a club were just okay. Toronto isn’t Austin, or Nashville, it’s not known as a music hub, but I thought I would at least hear one good band while I was there. Perhaps I was just going to the wrong bars and clubs. When a cover band, with a drummer who thumped on a white bucket, was the best band I saw, I can’t say I was impressed by Toronto’s live music scene. And I purposely went to the entertainment district to listen to some live music.

I was in Toronto for mostly business, but The Art Gallery of Ontario was impressive. The paintings and sculptures, with the exception of the international exhibits, are mostly created by Canadian artists. I was impressed by the architecture of the actual museum. The artwork was exceptional. The visit was one of the standout moments of my trip. The Modern and Contemporary Art collection was the most memorable for me because there was work there I recognized and appreciated.

City Hall is breathtaking. Pictures do not do the architectural marvel justice; especially when you’re standing between the two curved buildings and the large man-made lake. Or, it could be a pond; it’s large. The day I was there, it was early in the morning, the sky was overcast and everyone was heading to work. You can sit along the lake on metal benches and write, or, like I did, just people watch. I didn’t see it at night. The city lights the fountain at night, which I’ve heard is gorgeous. My friend told me it’s where a lot of dates end when City Hall is lit up and the fountain is on. “You see couples strolling around everywhere at night, its romantic” she said.

I never visited the infamous zoo. Though, I’ve never been a big zoo fan when I visit a city. I’d rather try and attempt to discover a city’s soul, and spending valuably time looking at wild animals awkwardly staring back at you isn’t going to accomplish that goal.

I did finally see the CN Tower… through my tiny, airplane window as I was flying out of Toronto. It’s tall.



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Use Your Damn Paid Time Off

Let me preface this article by saying that it is a huge privilege to have paid time off (PTO) at all. Many people work low-wage or hourly jobs where they don’t; that is terrible in its own right, but that’s a post for another day.

But for Americans who are lucky enough to have jobs that offer paid time off, many of them don’t take it. According to “An Assessment of Paid Time Off in the U.S.” a study commissioned by the U.S. Travel Association, and completed by Oxford Economics., as many as 40% of Americans who have PTO took zero – that’s right, zero – vacation days in 2013, leaving a total of 429 million unused days for U.S. workers.

For many people, it might be that they can’t afford a vacation. But let’s put aside the idea that time off work necessarily equals going on a “vacation” where one travels away from home. People can easily take a staycation, as I’ve written before, and utilize PTO to take a much needed break from work without upending their budgets. Or even take a random day off here and there because they just need a break, which I like to call “Mental Health Days.” But they still don’t.

We can speculate as to why this happens. Maybe it’s a fear of coming back to a mountain of work. Maybe it’s reluctance due to a corporate culture that looks down on taking vacation days (despite company proclamations that they “care” about work/life balance). The U.S. Travel Association study noted that nearly 34 percent of employees surveyed indicated that their employer neither encouraged nor discouraged leave, but 17 percent of managers considered employees who take all of their leave to be less dedicated employees.  Or perhaps Americans want to be martyrs who wear “busy” like a badge of honor, and taking time off is seen as lazy. For some, according to the study, their heavy workload simply prevents them from taking time off. I’m sure the reasons are varied.

But numerous studies have demonstrated that using PTO stimulates the economy, and is better for worker productivity and well-being. I won’t get into the economic benefits of taking PTO since I’m not an economics expert, though a simple google search will lead you to many studies showing that to be the case. Let’s focus on the two things that affect the worker as an individual: productivity and health.

As for productivity, we all tend to labor under the misapprehension that more hours working means more work accomplished. In fact, the evidence demonstrates the complete opposite: to be an effective worker, don’t work too much.

Back in the 1920’s, car manufacturer extraordinaire Henry Ford did something revolutionary for the time. He decreased his employees’ work weeks from 6 days to 5 days, decreasing their working hours from 48 to 40. Ford did this after realizing that employee productivity dropped significantly after 40 hours, and they could accomplish just as much in 5 days of work as they could in 6. Now, this might seem like a liberal policy approach, but this was motivated purely by profit.

That being said, Ford was onto something. Numerous studies show that weekly productivity diminishes past the 40 hour mark, and pretty much cliff-dives once you get past 50 hours. We aren’t meant to sustain a constant or extended output of mental energy; we can push hard for a certain period of time, but then need to recharge.   Take working overtime, for instance. While an overtime push usually creates a large output of work in the short term, it’s almost always followed by a “hangover” period for several days afterward, where productivity decreases significantly. And working more than 50 hours a week does not generally increase productivity, either. Any of us who have pulled all-nighters at the office or worked 60, 70, or 80 hour weeks can attest to this. It makes more sense to work reasonable hours week to week, which facilitates routinely high output, than to crank out overtime and suffer from peaks and valleys in productivity.

Not only does productivity increase with mental breaks, but the quality of the work is better. This study demonstrated that brief mental respites from work results in better quality of work with fewer mistakes. Trying to sustain a constant stream of attention without interruption causes a depletion of mental resources over time. To put it another way: burn out leads to crappy work product.

Taking this past the arguments for shorter work weeks and the occasional day of rest, what about prolonged absences, like week-long vacations? Wouldn’t that automatically result in less productivity since you’re away from work for extended periods of time? The short answer is no. The longer answer is nope.

Extended breaks may, in the short term, result in slightly decreased productivity for the time you are away, but they more than make up for it in better job performance overall. We tend to be more motivated and less likely to make mistakes when we take vacation time. So while our work output might decrease while we’re gone, we come back to work raring to go, producing more, performing work more accurately, and feeling better about it.

Which brings me to the next benefit of taking PTO: your health. Studies show that taking extended breaks from work, whether you travel somewhere or simply stay home and relax, decreases stress.  Constant high stress levels can lead to higher blood pressure, an increase in harmful stress hormones, weight gain, and depression, all of which also cost money to treat. Taking vacation also increases your energy, and can even lead to a healthier heart and longer life. 

Although it’s inevitable that stress will return once you get back to “real life,” the health benefits of taking vacation are still considerable.  Europeans seem to have this figured out, as vacation time is codified into law.

So, take your PTO if you have it. Do it for both your work performance as well as your sanity. And if you’re not going to, give me some of those 429 million unused days, people, and I’ll find something to do with them.






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Travel Hack: Hidden City Ticketing

This is a somewhat lesser known travel hack that many travelers either aren’t aware of or have never used. ?I’ve only done this once, a couple of years ago, and as I’ll explain later, it was because I had some miles to burn and I happened upon it by accident.

Hidden City Ticketing is best illustrated through example. Let’s say you need?to book a last minute trip to?Charlotte, North Carolina, but a one-way ticket is $350. But, you see there’s a one-way ticket to Washington DC?with a layover in Charlotte that is only $225. You would book the ticket to DC, but ditch the second leg of your trip. You end up with a ticket that is $125?cheaper, which is a substantial savings. Now, imagine if you could also rent a car in Dubai during your layover in Charlotte to explore the city. It adds an extra layer of flexibility and adventure to your journey, making the most out of your travel experience.

That’s the gist. Obviously, there’s some “fine print” to keep in mind.

This hack does not work for round-trip tickets, because for all airlines, if you miss one leg of your trip, the rest of your reservation is automatically cancelled. So, understand that you?ll have to buy two one-ways or use miles to book the return leg if that?s what you need (which is what I did the only time I’ve ever done this.) You also cannot check a bag, since your checked bag will be sent through to the final destination, not where you’re skipping off. Also, there’s always the slim chance that your flight could get re-routed through a different destination, though in all my years of flying, such a thing has only ever happened to me once and it was a change from Chicago Midway to O’Hare, so it wouldn’t have made any difference if you were planning on ditching the second half of your flight.

I suppose you could try to do the same hidden city hack for your return trip, but airlines can absolutely catch onto this, and they really don’t like it. It violates most airlines’ ticketing policies. For that reason, don’t include your frequent flyer number when booking; I’ve read stories about airlines revoking passengers’ miles for abusing the practice. Legally, it’s a bit of a grey area. Airline ticketing rules don’t exactly have the force of law, so while the airline could ding you by revoking miles or possibly not allowing you to fly with them anymore, their penalties are pretty limited in scope. I read recently about British Airways cracking down on this, too. So this is a “Do at your own risk” kind of thing.

Finding these kinds of flights is not for those who are uncomfortable doing a lot of research and using advanced search methods on the internet. I happened across my hack by accident because I had seen something on Twitter advertising one-stop flights that happened to have a layover at my destination for a very cheap price.

But if you want to actually search a hidden-city ticket yourself, the best way to do it is by using this flight matrix.?A quick how-to (here is a list of airport codes, which you’ll need for this hack):

  • Click on “One-way” then put in your originating airport.
  • Right under “Destination” click on “Advanced Routing Codes” which will open up another search space.
  • In the “Destination” space, put a?few airports?that might logically have layovers at your intended destination (you wouldn’t put SFO if you’re trying to go to New York from Texas, for example), and are otherwise major hubs (think LAX, ATL, SFO, and the like).
  • Then, in the “Enter outbound routing code” space, put x:[airport code of your actual destination].
  • Fill in your departure date and run the search; it will bring up all the flights to your listed destinations that have stops in your desired destination.

There is also a site?called Skiplagged that can run these kinds of searches for you, though I’ve never used it myself so I’m not sure how easy or user friendly it is. United Airlines actually sued Skiplagged for this and lost, so round 1 goes to us cheapskate travelers!

I just did a search using the flight matrix and put in Charlotte as my actual destination, with flights to LaGuardia, Newark, JFK, Washington Reagan, and Philadelphia as my “intended destination”. It turned up a $117 one way ticket to?Washington Reagan. A one way flight to Charlotte on Kayak was?a $162 ticket, and a round trip ticket to Charlotte beginning on the same date and coming back a week later was $256. ?Assuming you had miles for the return ticket or your return date had cheaper one way ticket prices than the ticket out there, it might be a worthwhile savings. ? If you were to do something similar over ?holiday weekend or during a busy flying time, you might get even larger savings.

Again, this is a lot of research and it doesn’t always yield flights that are cheaper enough to warrant doing it. So use other flight search methods before going this route. I think this method probably only comes in handy if you are extremely strapped for cash, where a $50 or so difference really matters, or if you are booking a very last-minute flight to a major hub city, since?ticket prices to these destinations do fluctuate regularly and a last minute ticket could be extremely expensive. Ticket prices to smaller airports tend to have less fluctuation in ticket price, so the savings might not be as great if you’re trying to go to one of these smaller airports.

*Shout out to my BFF Melanie Donahue, who is the pinchiest of the penny pinchers, and inspires me to attempt budget hacks on the regular.

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How to Survive a Long Flight

People are always surprised when I tell them that I hate flying. HATE. Despise. Loathe. Detest. I travel all the time, so people tend to assume it doesn’t bother me. But I have really bad anxiety, and being stuck on an airplane, even for just a few hours, tends to exacerbate it. Turbulence scares the ever-loving shit out of me, and I can usually be found clutching the armrest, white-knuckled, praying for the smooth air to return. I’m not above popping a Valium and/or drinking a whiskey on the rocks  to settle my nerves on a long flight.

Obviously my first tip for surviving long flights is to be rich and fly first class. If that’s not possible, as is the case for me, I’ve figured out some decent ways to quell anxiety and make international flights slightly more comfortable.

Dress Comfortably. Sorry but I don’t believe in dressing “nice” for a long flight. Seriously, who wants to be smooshed into a plane with hundreds of other people wearing uncomfortable clothes? Yoga pants and Northface Fleece or bust. I also always bring a pashmina, since it’s easy to throw around your neck and can double as a blanket to accommodate the sub-zero temperatures on flights.

Drink.   As in, have a drink at the airport. I always have a pre-flight beer or glass of wine. It calms the nerves and makes dealing with the people who line up at the gate 20 minutes before boarding begins much more bearable. I typically also get a drink when the first beverage service comes around, as it takes the edge off. Pro-tip: it’s easier to get drunk on planes because of the slightly lower oxygen levels so be careful and don’t overdo it, or you’ll wake up hungover on the plane, which is the second worst place to wake up hungover (the NYC subway is number one).

Bring snacks. Do not make yourself hangry on top of being stuck in a tin can hurtling through the atmosphere. Also the last thing you want is your blood sugar crashing because you haven’t eaten enough. You can bring food through security so long as it isn’t liquid, so take advantage, since snacks at the airport and on the plane are offensively expensive. I typically bring almonds, dried fruit, beef jerky, and Lara Bars (bonus: I usually have stuff left over for the first couple days of my trip). Try to stick with healthy stuff that won’t upset your stomach. Make sure you’re eating an appropriate amount; sometimes I have to force myself because my anxiety diminishes my appetite, but you really don’t want low blood sugar on a flight.

Hydrate. And not just on the flight. The couple days leading up to your trip, drink extra water so you’re going in fully hydrated. If you bring your own water bottle (make sure it’s empty when you go through security), the flight attendants will fill it up for you no problem- it’s easier than having to constantly bring you water. I typically bring a large one and refill it once every 2 hours, because flights more than a few hours can leave you very dehydrated due to the pressurized air being pumped into the cabin. Dehydration can lead to headache, fatigue, and a general feeling of shittiness, so drink more than you think you should. That is actually why I always get aisle seats, even on long flights; I pee constantly due to chugging extra water.

Eye Mask, Ear Plugs and Neck Pillow.  I didn’t used to travel with these when I was younger, but now that I’m past that “I can sleep anywhere!” phase, I need dark and quiet if I’m going to snooze, and god help my neck if I don’t have a proper neck pillow. Most people will have their overhead light off on overnight flights, but there’s always that one asshole who stays up reading the latest James Patterson novel, so best to bring the mask just in case. The ear plugs might not be necessary if you’re someone who can sleep through noise, but I always travel with them anyway in case the hotel is noisy, so I use them if I’m not listening to music. As for the pillow, invest in a really good one, because it’s so worth it. Here’s a great list. 

Melatonin. I find this is the best sleep aid for me. It’s gentle, natural, and doesn’t leave me waking up wondering who and where I am (like the unfortunate Ambien episode of 2007). I definitely recommend giving it a shot, but Tylenol PM or any other sleep aid that works for you should do the trick.

Entertainment. Many long flights, especially international ones, have some sort of entertainment for each seat. If I can’t sleep, I watch a shit ton of TV or movies. But bring your own entertainment just in case; on two flights I’ve been on, my entertainment console didn’t work and it was a full flight, so there was nothing they could do. Luckily I had 2 seasons of The Good Wife downloaded and a bunch of old Star Trek: TNG episodes, so I was set. Plan ahead and download some TV shows, movies, or books, so you have some options. It’ll make the time go by way faster.

Move Around. The worst thing you can do on a long flight is stay seated the whole time. I usually grab aisle seats precisely so I can get up anytime I want. I’ve been known to do yoga in my seat, or head to the back of the plane to do standing yoga sequences; I’ve even led a mini yoga session for a few flight attendants. Here is a link for a great plane yoga sequence that I highly recommend the next time you’re on a flight more than a few hours. If you don’t want to do plane yoga, at least walk around every couple of hours. It’ll keep the blood flowing and reduce swelling, as well as your risk of developing a blood clot. I also regularly spell the alphabet with my feet, as mine tend to get sore and swollen on long flights.

Chapstick, Lotion and Socks. Dry lips and hands make me so uncomfortable, as do cold feet, so I always bring these items. The air on planes dries everything out, so next to belly-flopping into a vat of vaseline, this is the next best thing. You don’t want to deal with dry, cracked lips heading into your vacation. Also don’t put your bare feet on the airplane floor, who knows what’s been there. I typically bring a pair of thick socks with those little rubber dots on the bottom, so I can walk around in them. I also always bring an extra pair of socks just in case.

Meditate. Partly due to my anxiety and partly because it’s just a great thing to do, I keep several short meditation podcasts on my phone. Whenever I’m getting antsy or anxious, I listen to one.  Meditation Oasis on iTunes has some great free ones, ranging from 7 minute relaxation sequences to 20 minute sleep meditations. I promise it works. These have kept me from having full-fledged anxiety attacks on flights before.

And finally…..just think about all the cool stuff you’re about to do. Sometimes, no matter what, you just want to get off the damn plane. When that feeling hits, start mentally ticking off all the fun things you want to do on your trip and revel in the excitement of travel. That’s why you’re putting yourself through the hell of flying in the first place.


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Tips for a Great Staycation

Sometimes it’s impossible to get away for a few days, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t escape your life for a little while. In my experience, we tend to overlook the great things our home cities have to offer as we maneuver regular and demanding responsibilities. If you’re in need of a break from the responsibilities of everyday life, a staycation might be your answer. One thing I’ve learned from being sidelined from travel for a while is that it’s not so much the destination that makes for an escape, but just getting away from your normal routine.

You can take a long weekend, or even just a regular weekend, and turn it into a mini-escape by availing yourself of all the cool stuff around you that maybe you’ve seen and wanted to check out, or that you’ve never even heard of.  When I lived in NYC, I tried to make as many weekends as possible a “staycation” and since moving back to Dallas, I’ve done the same thing. Here are a few tips I’ve come up with over the years:

1. Treat Yo Self.

A staycation shouldn’t break your bank (otherwise what’s the point), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t Treat Yo Self. Take your cue from Tom Haverford and Donna Meagle and commit to doing at least one thing that’s considered a splurge. Maybe it’s a nice dinner at a restaurant you’ve always wanted to try or a few hours at a spa, or maybe you spend one night at a B&B nearby. Just do something nice for yourself. It’s your vacation!

2. Forget your home and work responsibilities. 

If you were on vacation, you wouldn’t be doing laundry or scrubbing the bathtub, right? Follow the same rules on your staycation. Let the house get a little messy. There may be some things you can’t ignore (like pool maintenance, picking up after kids, taking care of pets, etc.), but try to at least forego some of the housework duties that can wait a few days.

As for work, if you were on vacation, you probably wouldn’t be answering emails or checking your voicemail. Follow that same rule on your staycation. Unless it’s a life or death situation, I promise that whatever needs your attention can wait. Set an out-of-office reply that says you will not have access to email or voicemail for the duration of your staycation, just as you would if you were leaving town.

3. Try new things.

It may be tempting to do stuff you always do, like swimming or your local park. But try to mix it up for your staycation.  Check the internet for fun, out of the ordinary things going on in your city; movie screenings or concerts at local parks, farmer’s markets, wine tastings, mini golf, museum exhibits….the list is endless! If it’s the holidays or Summer, there should be lots of things going on. You just have to commit to doing some digging a few weeks in advance.  Mashable has a great list of several apps you can use to find events near you. You can also visit Eventful, which lets you search for events by category and dates, or utilize local city guides or magazines. Also, tap into friends and family as a resource. They might have great suggestions!

4. Make plans.

When you go on vacation, you probably at least have a loose itinerary; do the same thing for your staycation. Decide ahead of time the activities you want to do, so that you don’t end up falling back on your “normal” routine. This doesn’t mean you need to plan out every second, but having a set idea of what you will do each day will make it more likely that you’ll branch out. Plus, it’s easier to keep track of your spending if you know how much cash you’ll be shelling out ahead of time; a staycation is supposed to be a cheaper alternative to a vacation, after all.

5.  Search for deals.

I’ve issued caution about Groupon Getaway deals in past posts, but for a staycation, Groupon or similar sites like LivingSocial have great activity deals that can both save you some money and give you ideas of activities you might not have thought to do. Go-karts, small museum tours, flying lessons, kayaking, brewery tours….the list is endless. Groupon has a “Things to Do” category specifically for this purpose.  This can save you money and give you ideas, so it’s a win-win.


My final tip: RELAX! It might be tempting to let the everyday stresses of life affect you since you’re still technically “at home,” but try to resist the urge. Give yourself a break – you deserve it.

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What is Ecotourism?

You’ve probably heard the phrase “ecotourism” thrown around before, or you may have heard it referred to as “sustainable travel.” These phrases are certainly catchy, but what do they really mean?

It can be hard to define ecotourism, but in general, ecotourism means a type of travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people. According to the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism will:

  • Minimize physical, social, behavioral, and psychological impacts.
  • Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
  • Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
  • Provide direct financial benefits for conservation.
  • Generate financial benefits for both local people and private industry.
  • Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climates.
  • Design, construct and operate low-impact facilities.
  • Recognize the rights and spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous People in your community and work in partnership with them to create empowerment.

That’s a tall order, no doubt, but in reality many travel experiences can easily promote most or all of these ideals.

In my research, however, I found that many companies promote their trips or tours as being “eco-friendly,” which may be true, but eco-friendly is not the same thing as ecotourism. Rafting down the Amazon is not ecotourism, unless doing so somehow benefits its conservation or local residents, or is focused on environmental awareness of the region.

The Pros of Ecotourism

Ecotourism, if done correctly and conscientiously, can do a lot for both the environment and local communities. It directs attention and money into conservation of important natural habitats that might otherwise be overlooked, or worse, overrun with big businesses looking to make a quick buck by exploitation of environments rich in resources or with the potential to generate high profits. It provides supplemental income to local populations as they get involved in ecotourism endeavors, and keeps that money local. And in the best of scenarios, interactions between visitors and local indigenous people can provide a better understanding of cultural ideas and differences.

The Cons of Ecotourism

Some environmentalists believe that certain parts of the world should be “No Visitor” zones, as tourism can and does upset the delicate ecosystems of the area (many environmentalists feel this way about tourism to Antarctica, which has seen a huge rise over the last several years). Ecotourism can, even when incredible care is taken, displace indigenous peoples from their land as those areas become preserved for ecotourism; this has been an issue in various African countries, as people are forced off their land as National Parks are created for the booming Safari industry.

The concerns about potential negative effects of ecotourism are legitimate, and there are mixed opinions about Ecotourism, understandably so. But personally I look at it this way: People are not going to stop traveling. It benefits everyone, and the environment, to promote a type of travel that protects the environment, minimizes our carbon footprints, benefits local communities, and promotes biodiversity.  But as a traveling community, we should carefully work together to make sure that the cons of ecotourism don’t overtake the pros, and be conscientious of whether our travels truly promote ecotourism ideals.

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In Defense of Tourist Traps

If you’ve done some traveling in your day, or read travel websites, you’ve seen articles warning against being too much of a “tourist” when you travel. “Steer clear of that attraction, it’s nothing but tourists,” they say.

I’m here to tell you that philosophy? It’s bullshit.

There’s a lot to be said about getting off the beaten path a bit to experience a different side of a place, but that doesn’t make the more popular sites any less worthy of your attention. Travel snobbery demands that you refrain from being too touristy, but I say that travel snobbery deprives you of seeing some of the world’s most amazing places.  In my estimation, a great traveling experience will contain a healthy mix of seeing famous sites, which will likely be crawling with tourists, and doing some independent exploring that lets you see the more everyday side of the destination.

The most spectacular travel experience I’ve ever had is considered a “touristy” place: Machu Picchu. After the first couple of hours we were up there (we took the first bus so we got there about 6:00am to catch the sunrise), it was crawling with people. But the moment my best friend and I laid eyes on the ruins, we started crying and hugged each other; it didn’t matter that there were groups of tourists snapping pictures around us. Later on, after spending 8 hours exploring and even taking a short snooze on one of Machu Picchu’s many hills, we would tell each other that this day could not have been more perfect. That it’s one of the most visited places in all of South America did not diminish my experience in any way, and I doubt anything I do in the future will top the amazing feeling I had while there.

I throw major side-eye toward anyone who says they stay away from famous sites; why would you go somewhere with a world-famous attraction and deprive yourself of the opportunity to see it, just because other people also want to see it? Most of us don’t get unlimited time to travel and will likely only visit a lot of places once, so it’s silly to stay away from an attraction that is historically and culturally significant because of a misguided philosophy about being a “real” traveler.  Are you a human being who is traveling somewhere? Then you are a “real” traveler. I’m much more likely to get annoyed by the person who proudly proclaims they are avoiding a major attraction than I am the person who’s itinerary consists mostly of seeing those major attractions. These places become popular because they’re historically or culturally important, or just beautiful, so it’s no surprise to find yourself among other travelers when you visit them.

Since when did “seeing the sights” become passé?

Besides, you can still enjoy crowded tourist attractions, especially if you do a little planning. Get there first thing in the morning. Visit during off-season (bonus: everything is cheaper). Buy tickets in advance so you don’t wait in double the lines. And if all else fails, throw some vodka and orange juice into a water bottle and enjoy the fact that while other people are at work, you’re waiting in line in a beautiful place to see something incredible.

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Frugal Flying

I’ve done my fare share of traveling (see what I did there? bazinga), and there are ways to get the most out of your vacation while not completely depleting yourself of funds, thus requiring you to live off Ramen Noodles upon your return.

So now to the most expensive, annoying, frustrating aspect of traveling:  Flying.

If you are traveling internationally, this can be the most expensive aspect of your trip.  Even if you are keeping your vacation domestic, between rising fuel costs and airlines hiking up miscellaneous fees, a round trip ticket within the Continental U.S. can still be costly (once American Airlines wanted $500 for a round trip ticket from Dallas to Houston – sorry AA, nobody from Dallas wants to go to Houston that badly).

I’m a big believer in using Kayak, Cheap Tickets, Cheapo Air and similar comparative search engines to find the cheapest flights.  Too often we end up booking with U.S.-based airlines, when other international ones – like KLM Dutch or Air India – have cheaper tickets. These websites search a database of hundreds of airlines around the globe, so you know you’re getting the best deal.

Here are a few money-saving tips for booking that flight:

1.  Flexibility: If you are planning your trip far enough in advance and your dates are flexible, click the “Flexible Dates” box and the sites will compare prices over a span of several departure dates to find the cheapest fare.

2. Weekends: Flying on Fridays and Sundays typically costs the most, so if you can schedule your flights mid-week, you can save some dough.

3.  Fare Hikes: Ticket prices typically go up 21, 14, 7, and 3 days before the departure date, so try to book your ticket before these deadlines.

4.  Fare Sales: Airlines usually launch sales on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, so these are often the best days of the week to purchase a flight.  I have seen fare differences of $60-$80 dollars from a Tuesday/Wednesday to Thursday.

5.  Layovers: If you don’t mind them, flights with 1 or 2 stops can be cheaper, so select this option when searching on whatever site you use.  This is an especially good option if you are traveling internationally and in for an 8+ hour trek anyway.

6.  Price Alerts: Several months before your trip, set up a “Price Alert” on Kayak and other comparison sites, including specific airline websites. You’ll receive a daily or weekly email of price fluctuations for flights to your destination, and special notifications if the price drops.

7.  Emails: Sign up for emails from Orbitz, Expedia, and the like, as they all send out regular emails with great flight deals to various destinations.  It makes for a more crowded inbox, but on numerous occasions I have found the flight I needed in their “Daily Deals” and saved myself some serious cash.

8.  Track Fares: Using Bing Fare’s “Price Predictor”  you can plug in your anticipated travel dates and see whether flights should increase or decrease based on price trends, so you can plan when to book that ticket and try to do so during a predicted decrease.

9.  Air Passes:  If you are planning on doing a lot of traveling around one country or within a few countries (such as Australia or Europe), consider getting an Air Pass, which will offer discounts for air travel within one country or region.

10.  Ask for a Refund: If you purchase your ticket and the price drops soon after, ask the airline for a refund!  You may not get one, but refund policies vary between airlines and some simply don’t publicize that they offer refunds.  It doesn’t hurt to ask!

11.  Late Deals:  For spontaneous trips, make sure you check out travel deals on Orbitz, Expedia, and various airlines.  If they need to fill up seats, they will offer huge discounts for late ticket bookers, and will usually feature this option in a “Deals” or “Late Trips” section of their website.

12.  Use Social Media:  Follow airlines or services like Travel Zoo on Twitter and “Like” them on Facebook.  They frequently post “Today Only” flight deals for various popular destinations, or offer discount promotion codes for booking your ticket. Virgin America is especially good about doing this.

13.  Credit Cards:  If you travel a lot, consider getting a credit card linked to an airline.  You rack up miles for purchases you make on the card, and this can result in free tickets or a hefty number of frequent flier miles that you can put towards a ticket purchase.

14.  Shop One Passenger at a Time:   Airline ticket reservations systems aren’t budget-friendly when quoting prices for two or more passengers.  If the cheapest price-point has one seat less than the requested number of passengers in your search, it bumps everyone up to the next price level that has enough seats, and continues until it finds a price point with enough seats to meet your request. This means that even though some of your party could actually fly at a cheaper price, you won’t get that opportunity.  The solution:  Shop for one seat at a time! It’s more annoying because you’ll have to split your transaction in two, but could save you hundreds.


The bottom line is that saving money on flying requires a little bit of patience and a lot of research, but if budget is your biggest motivator, that’s the name of the game.