Category Archives: Travel Tips

The Travelers Guidebook – My Best Travel Tips, Rules, Etiquette, and Common Sense For Life on the Road

Anyone who’s spent a good amount of time traveling will have their own list of ‘best practices’ while on the road.  If you’re in that category you may already do some things on this list but at the least it’ll be a good refresher for you.  And who knows, you may learn something new too. If you haven’t done much traveling, or much traveling in unfamiliar places, these recommendations could make your travels more enjoyable…not to mention less stressful!  Here’s a list of my Best Travel Tips, Rules, Etiquette, and Common Sense for Life on the Road.  Enjoy!  (note: I don’t cover tips for everything in this post, hotels are one example.  If I don’t use it regularly I don’t feel I should give advice so their not included.)

Hostels

  • Don’t make (too much) noise after 11:00/11:30 pm or before 8:00/8:30 am in a hostel dorm room.  It’s just a matter of respect for other travelers in the room.  On the flip side, if others in your room break the rule at 3:00 am, it’s perfectly acceptable to do the same to them at 7:00 am.  Turnabout is fair play!
  • Always wash, dry, and put away any communal dishes you use – This is not your mother’s house.
  • Before putting food in a communal kitchen look for the sign that states when they clean out the refrigerator.  You may need to put your name on your food to make sure it doesn’t get thrown away.  Unfortunately, I learned this one the hard way!
  • Don’t eat other people’s food – Again, not your mother’s house.
  • If you need to catch a bus early in the morning, pack the night before so you’ll make as little noise as possible at 5:00 am.

Train/Bus/Subway

  • On a train, if you’re sitting in a seat with a table, don’t put your bags on it.  People reserve those seats so they can work, not so you have a counter for your man purse.
  • On a bus/subway give your seat to the elderly woman standing nearby.  She is someone’s grandma! (This is a good rule of thumb anywhere there is an old lady and no empty seats)

Taxis

  • In over four months of traveling I’ve only used a taxi twice…because they’re normally more expensive than the bus or subway and much more expensive than walking!  That said, one thing to remember when hiring a taxi (especially in a place you are unfamiliar or where there is a language barrier) is to agree on a price to get to your location before getting in the taxi.  In some parts of the world taxi drivers are notorious for charging foreign travelers exorbitant amounts, in part because they can get away with it when they have an uninformed patron.  The person working the desk at your hotel/hostel should know a reasonable amount for a taxi to get you to your desired location.  If the driver won’t agree to the right price, walk away and try the next taxi.

Air Travel

  • Shop around!  There are so many online tools now that make it easy to find good value for your domestic and international flights.  Currently I use Matrix – ITA Software by Google and Skyscanner to begin all my flight searches.
  • Once you’ve narrowed down your flight options use Seat Guru to help pick the right seat for you.  It’s very easy to use.  Just put in the flight information and it will bring up a seating diagram with information showing amenities, exit row locations, ‘best’ seat choices, leg room, etc.

Safety

  • Listen to your sixth sense.  We’ve all been there…You feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and have a funny feeling when walking in a dark alley, or you can tell the people across the room are looking at you.  Don’t ignore this sixth sense of self preservation, embrace it.  If you feel uncomfortable in a situation…change the situation.  Leave the dark alley, duck into a well lit store to see if the people are following you.  Follow your instincts.
  • The best tip I can give is to travel with minimal valuables (jewelry, excess amounts of cash, expensive watches, etc.).  For what you do travel with, keep these two tips in mind: Don’t show off wealth and know where your valuables are. Keep them locked in the hotel room safe, or the hostel locker, or on your person in a secure money belt.  If you look like you’re rich, you’re more likely to be targeted by thieves and pickpockets.  If you don’t have anything on you while walking Las Ramblas in Barcelona or riding the metro in Paris (both notorious for pickpockets) you won’t lose anything.

Packing

  • It’s ‘Location, Location, Location’ in Real Estate but in terms of smart travel packing it should be ‘Light, Light, Light!!’  MORE stuff means MORE weight to lug around, MORE hassle, MORE time packing, unpacking, and repacking, MORE things to wash when you get home, MORE things to keep track of, MORE baggage fees, and MORE things to carry with you your whole trip!  I recently met a solo traveler, Jana, on her first backpacking adventure who initially packed seven pairs of shoes for an eight week trip!  Needless to say she regretted bringing that many and was down to 4 pair going into her eighth week (that’s still too many).  We agreed her packing style was completely opposite of mine.  Form vs. Function!
  • An old travelers saying: ‘take half as much stuff and twice as much money as you think you need’.  I agree with the first part.

General

  • Be nice!  Not all travelers are nice and is seems those are a generally jerks in day to day life are also jerks while traveling.  As a traveler you will run into issues and a large portion of the people you encounter work in the tourism economy.  They are used to dealing with issues.  If you’re nice they’ll most likely go out of their way to help you.

Irish Stout in Ireland! – European Beer Culture Unfiltered #2

Irish stout, or ‘leann dubh’ (black beer) in Irish, has a dark, rich color and when poured correctly, a nice thick creamy head.  The taste of coffee and/or roasted malt normally comes out when drinking an Irish stout and some people also get a hint of chocolate in a subtle sweet aftertaste.

Popular brands:

Freshly poured Murphy's Irish Stout
Freshly poured Murphy’s Irish Stout
  • Guinness – Everyone around the world knows Guinness.  Based in Dublin (since 1759) they’ve brewed beer since 1756 and after starting life making ale they changed to porter (stout).  At one time Guinness was the largest brewer of beer in the world and is still the largest brewer of stout.
  • Beamish – Brewing since 1792 and based in Cork, Beamish was the largest brewery in Ireland for about 30 years in the early 19th century.  Their flagship brew has always been Beamish Stout.  This brewery is now owned by Heineken.
  • Murphy’s – Established in 1856 and, like Beamish also based in Cork and currently owned by Heineken.  During the last two decades of the 20th century it was heavily marketed to international beer consumers but failed to make a heavy dent in Guinness’s mighty market share.

That’s a little background on the main players in the Irish Stout game. The only real question is about taste, and like anything else that’s subjective, it is a personal preference. A local Cork bartender told me Beamish has the strongest taste and Murphy’s is really close in taste to Guinness.  After tasting all three in a three night span, in the cities they are brewed, I’d agree with that.

Personally, I like Guinness (with Murphy’s a very close second) and like a lot of people, think Guinness in Ireland tastes better than Guinness somewhere else… but the Murphy’s I had in Cork also tasted better than Guinness I’ve had back home too.  I’ll have to try Murphy’s in the US to find out if it’s as good as the Murphy’s in Cork, but I doubt it.  Maybe the taste here is getting an Irish ambiance boost! And Beamish was a little too close to coffee for my tastes so it ran a distant third in the taste race.

In the past Irish Stout was the beer of choice for locals (Guinness in the north and Murphy’s in the south), but that’s been changing for a couple of decades.  Nowadays, lighter ales, lagers,and pilsners are more popular.  In fact, I saw more locals drinking Budweiser than any dark beer (as an American who likes beer with some taste, this was sad to see), but I guess foreign beer is exotic all around the world (Aussies don’t drink Foster’s but it’s popular in the UK).

Beamish and Murphy's on tap in Cork
Beamish and Murphy’s on tap in Cork

Edinburgh Castle vs. Stirling Castle: Where Should You Spend Your Vacation Dollars?

As travelers we’re drawn to certain things; the vast, beautiful expanses of rugged mountain ranges, serene secluded beaches, the ruins left by ancient civilizations and the world-changing architecture in modern cities.

The list goes on and on and everyone’s list will be a little different.  I think, though, something on every travelers list of places to visit will be castles.  There is something inherently appealing about them.  Maybe it’s the fact that many are in idyllic settings; high on hilltops overlooking forests or river valleys.  It could be because there is so much history we can learn about the people who called these places home and the battles fought to protect their surrounding lands.  Whatever the reason, something steers a traveler’s compass towards castles.  But our fascination with them is where their similarities end.

Over three months I’ve visited many castles while traveling in Europe and one thing I’ve learned: all castles are not equal.  Some are dark, others very colorful.  Some near present day city centers, others much more secluded.  Some look the part of a picturesque Disney fairy tale castle, some aren’t so beautiful, and others, just plain ugly.  Some overlook small rural communities, other urban sprawls.  Many show the scars of countless battles, some never saw one.  And some, after centuries of life, lie in ruins, while others stay well-preserved.

On my way to Scotland, and with this castle dichotomy in mind, I faced a decision.  Edinburgh Castle or Stirling Castle?  They are the two most popular castle visits in Scotland and located near each other. Some say Edinburgh is best to visit, others Stirling.  Since I’d be staying in both cities I decided to compare the two myself and tell you all what I found, then, if you find yourself traveling in Scotland, you can decide for yourself where to spend your vacation dollars.

I visited Stirling first and from the cemetery that sits next to the castle there is a decent view of the hilltop it sits on.  From this vantage point there are two big buildings and part of a castle wall visible.  ‘That’s it?’, I thought.  There didn’t seem to be a lot going on, but when walking towards the entrance gate you’ll realize there are several buildings that make up this castle.  They range from small to very big and were built by many generations of royalty that ruled there.  I rented the audio guide while touring the castle grounds and went to every room in every building that was open.  After spending about 17 pounds for my day at the castle (about $25 USD) I wanted to get my monies worth!  Also, I wanted to have the full experience so I could compare Stirling to Edinburgh.  The audio guide was very informational and interesting.  It told the story of each building on the castle grounds, the people who built them, as well as a lot of Scottish history.

Like Stirling, Edinburgh Castle is not a typical Disney-esque looking castle with one enormous main building complete with towers and battlements that dominates a landscape and is surrounded by wall and moat.  It too has several buildings that were built over centuries.  Also like in Stirling, to get the full castle experience, I rented the audio guide and went into to every area that was open.  Again, the audio guide was filled with great historical information about the castle and interesting facts about the kings and queens who ruled there.

Below is my comparison of Stirling and Edinburgh Castles.

Tour

Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle
  • Stirling – It is interesting to walk through all the buildings including the Royal Palace (which recreates how it would have looked in the mid 16th century), the Great Hall that is the largest ever in Scotland, and the Chapel Royal (built-in 1594 for the baptism of James VI’s first son).  The complex also houses the Regimental Museum which tracks the history of the Argyll and Sutherlands British Army regiment, formed in 1881 and based at Stirling Castle, the Stirling Heads Gallery which showcases much of the carvings from around the castle complex, and the Castle Exhibition that shows a timeline and information of all monarchs that shaped the castle.  To me it felt more like a museum then an old castle.
  • Edinburgh – Like at Stirling, the Edinburgh Castle has Regimental Museums, a Great Hall, an old chapel, and a Royal Palace.  It also has some interesting extras like the Scottish Crown Jewels, the Scottish National War Memorial, and Prisons of War.  There is also the One O’clock Gun, which supposedly fires nearly every day at precisely 13:00 since its inception in 1861 as a time signal for ships in the Firth of Forth.  I say supposedly because of the 8 days I was in Edinburgh I did not hear the One O’clock Gun once.

Advantage, Edinburgh

Beauty

  • Stirling – There are many buildings in the complex all built at different time periods and in a mix of building styles.  The visual differences of the buildings make going through the castle ‘village’ an interesting and beautiful walk.  My favorites are the Great Hall, the Chapel Royal interior and the old gatehouse.
  • Edinburgh – Again, many buildings make up the castle grounds.  Unlike Stirling Castle, there’s not as great a visual contrast in building styles.  I’m sure someone more versed in architectural styles from these periods would see dozens of differences from building to building but to a layman they seem similar.  It is still a beautiful setting for sure; there just aren’t the striking variances you see at Stirling.

Advantage, Stirling

View

  • Stirling – The castle sits on a hill on the edge of Stirling.  There is a good view of the city and the River Forth.  Looking east you can see The National Wallace Monument and the Ochil Hills a few miles away.

    Edinburgh Castle View Towards the Firth of Forth
    Edinburgh Castle View Towards the Firth of Forth
  • Edinburgh – The castle sits on a high point in the center of Edinburgh, thus has a great view in all directions.  This includes a view of Arthur’s Seat to the east and the Firth of Forth to the north.

Advantage, Edinburgh

Price

  • Stirling – 14 pounds + 3 for the audio guide
  • Edinburgh – 16 + 3

Advantage, push (I think they’re both overpriced, just like seemingly everything in the UK)

So, two votes to one for Edinburgh Castle over Stirling Castle on my personal comparison.  Both were very interesting and there’s a lot of information to soak in.  History buffs would have a great day just reading information and listening to the audio guide at either site.  I think they are definitely worth visiting but if you’re in the area pick one.  Going to both is slightly redundant.

And there is one last reason I have Edinburgh Castle edging out Stirling Castle, and its something I haven’t seen in person.  It has nothing to do with a daily visit to the castle but is something I personally want to witness sometime.  It hosts the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo every August.  The tattoo is a series of performances that concludes after two weeks with the Lone Piper playing high atop the castle ramparts.  Unfortunately I can’t attend this year but some year I will be there!

Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

 

Highs and Lows of Solo Travel

I must admit, in a way I’m kind of a loner.  Being a never married (or close to it) thirty something lends itself to having a lot of ME time over the years.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a recluse, I spend as much time with my family and friends as anyone.  But while others were having long-term relationships that inevitably led to marriage and families I had shorter relationships that inevitably led to being single again.  I don’t mean to sound bitter; I’m not, because being a single thirty something has afforded me the opportunity to venture into this unknown lifestyle of ‘traveler’.  I won’t go so far as to say my time alone prepared me for long-term solo travel but I do think in certain situations it can help, especially if you’re naturally an introvert, like me.

Here are a few pros and cons of solo travel I’ve encountered while traveling:

Pros

  • At times travel makes even the most reticent introvert come out of their shell (which is a good thing!).  Since there isn’t anyone else to count on you are the doer.  So…say you want to try the native cuisine but don’t speak the language, you can’t figure out the automated ticket machine at the train station, or you just want to tag along to the pub with some people at the hostel…it’s on you.  You must step out of the shadows wallflower and ask that girl to dance.  If you don’t; there’s only one person to blame.
  • There’s no compromising.  You get to pick what you spend your time doing, all of your time.  If you don’t want to go to another museum…don’t.  The only person you have to please is you.  Recently I met another solo traveler, Jana, on a bus to Newcastle and she put it perfectly: “I get to be as selfish as I want!’
  • If you’re traveling unmapped, like me, you can make decisions on the fly about when/where you go, how you get there, and how long you stay…without needing a consult from anyone except Mr. Budget.

Cons

  • The opposite is true for the first point above.  It’s on you…always on you.  That can get old.  There’s nobody else to make reservations, buy and cook food, wash clothes, decide when/where to travel next, etc.  As nice as it is to have the freedom to do what you want, when you want, and how you want, having another decision maker on board is nice once in a while.  I think that’s one reason solo travelers, if only for a day, join with groups or each other.  They not only gain the camaraderie that’s missed in a ‘table for one’ setting but also someone to share the decision-making ‘burden’ with.
  • At some point you’ll want to get away, lay in your favorite recliner, and be alone.  The problem is your favorite recliner will be 7000 miles away and all you’ll have is the common room at the hostel.  It’s not always the best place to just veg out.  (a good hack to fix this problem is to find a scenic park, pop in your ear buds, and ignore everyone around you)
  • When you cook…it’s hard to only cook for one person.  Hostel refrigerators are usually small and full of other people’s food items so you won’t often be able to save ‘leftovers’.
  • You can’t take advantage of the discounts given to two or more.  Some include railpass discounts, plates for two at restaurants, and rooms for two at hostels.

This is a small list but whether you’re solo traveling for a weekend, a week-long work trip, or a gap year…at some point you’re bound to encounter some or all of these situations…and more.  I’d love to hear your ups and downs from being on the road alone.  Comment here with your solo travels pros and cons!

Real Ale – European Beer Culture Unfiltered #1

Way back in my college days I was like most Midwestern College students in that I drank what I could afford.  And like many Midwestern College students I seemed to drink more often than not so what I could afford was usually the cheapest bulk case of shitty beer in the liquor store cooler.  But for the better part of a decade my beer pallet has been evolving.  I’ve become a craft beer (particularly ales) junkie!  I love brown’s, red’s, pale’s, hefe’s…the list goes on.  While I don’t claim to be a connoisseur, I do enjoy trying beers from previously unknown breweries and new beers from my favorite regional and national craft brewers.  So it should come as no surprise to those who know me that I’ve tried local beers at nearly every stop on my travels so far.  Actually that may have been one of the things I‘d been looking forward to most when I started traveling!

Southern Europe was all about wine but now I’m getting to the areas where beer is king; England, Ireland, Belgium, the Czech Republic…  I’ll visit these places and more in the next few months. And doing ‘research’ along the way I’ll try to write in-depth blog posts about Europe’s beer culture.  Here’s my first report!

Real Ales in a London Pub
Real Ales in a London Pub

On my first day walking around London I kept noticing restaurants and pubs having ‘real ale’ advertised.  Real ale?  It’s a term I was unfamiliar with so like any good ale junkie I had to investigate.  The jaded tourism cynic in me thought this would be some London gimmick to trick tourists into paying a little extra for a pint but that couldn’t have been further from reality.

Here’s a simplified explanation of real ale but it should suffice for this post.  Real ale is a recent term (1970’s) given to beer made from traditional ingredients that goes through a secondary fermentation either in the cask it’s dispensed from or the bottle, and served without an extra carbon dioxide source.  In layman’s terms, real ale isn’t put in a keg like most people in the states are familiar with (while pouring ‘keg’ beer, additional CO2 gets added), isn’t pasteurized and isn’t filtered.  For real ale no extraneous CO2 is needed, the second fermentation provides all the CO2 needed.

So that’s the boring technical stuff.  Now,the real question…how does it taste?

Honestly, I was disappointed.  I tried six to eight different beers, from different brewers, in three different cities, within ten days of taking the Chunnel from Paris, and (with the exception of rhubarb ale, NO THANKS!) I tasted anything the bartenders suggested, and they all tasted about the same.  Forgettable.  From what I’ve read about real ales, adhering to the ‘traditional’ process is supposed to let hop and malt flavors develop but I thought they all tasted flat and a bit bland. Flavorless.  Even the so called ‘hoppy’ ales I tasted didn’t have the big flavor I was expecting (and accustomed to with hoppy craft varieties enjoyed across the pond).  I know it’s possible these real ales taste flat to me because I’ve become accustomed to beer with added CO2 stateside, but that doesn’t account for a lack of flavor in my opinion.

I remember several years ago when I first strayed from the volume pilsner producers in the US and began trying craft beers, I wasn’t immediately a fan.  I could tell it was something different but it was an intriguing difference so I kept trying them.  Not long after, there was no turning back. When trying the real ales here in the UK I thought my lack of enthusiasm could be, like before, because it was something new and different.  Maybe something that would grow on me.  But it hasn’t.  The difference between then and now, at least for the real ales I’ve tried so far, is they are boring.  You know when you try something and you aren’t sure if you like it or not so you keep trying it until you figure it out.  That’s not what is happening here.  I am 100% sure I don’t like what I’ve tried so far.  Let me put it this way: if I hadn’t been planning to write this article I don’t think I’d have tried more than two different flavorless real ales before moving on to something else.

After coming to this conclusion I thought there must be others that have this same opinion.  Either that or I’m a dumb Yank that doesn’t understand British hops.  To my surprise, it was the former.  Not only did I find those with like thinking, I found some in Britain…the hub of real ale production and drinking worldwide.  Check out this article for proof that I’m not a dumb Yank (at least not in this situation):

Craft Beer vs. Real Ale

The one redeeming quality I’ve gleaned from the real ale experience is the way it’s dispensed.  It’s either gravity fed from a tapped cask (cool) at the bar or manually drawn with a hand pump from the cellar up to the bar (very cool to a dumb Yank!).  While this is an interesting way of getting my beer poured it’s not nearly enough novelty to make up for the lack of taste.

Nottingham Bartender Manually Pumping Real Ale
Nottingham Bartender Manually Pumping Real Ale

On a completely off topic note (but still drinking related!); while walking through Norwich this week I passed by a whisky shop (no vodka, gin, rum or beer…just whisky).  After popping my head in I was pleased to see they not only had hundreds of different scotches, bourbons, and worldly whisky’s for sale, they also had three tapped oak barrels of their own blends and single malts (8 yr, 10 yr, 12 yr).  Customers could fill any of three sizes of bottle to purchase or take a bit as a taste test.  It was a good day!

How Do You Pack For That?

If you’re an avid visitor to the Unmapped Travels Facebook page, and why wouldn’t you be (wink, wink!), you may know that I planned as many things as possible for this journey…except exactly where I’d actually be traveling.  My three different roommates over the last few years can confirm I spent most nights either reading books on long-term travel or finding articles online with tips I could incorporate into my planning.  Not surprisingly, I spent the most time planning what to take with me.  Finding the perfect bag or the right laptop became the focus of many evenings of research.  I tried not to bore family and friends (too much) with planning talk but I know for at least a week after finding the exact pair of shoes I’d spent several months looking for there was at least a 5 minute conversation about them with everyone I was around.  A 5 minute conversation about shoes….that was a first for me.  Sorry about that.  But really, they are the perfect shoes!

My packing list was on more minds than just mine too.  I can’t count the number of times someone asked ‘how many bags are you carrying’, ‘you’re going to live out of a suitcase’, or just ‘what are you taking’.  Because of all the interest and questions I knew this was a blog post I’d write sooner or later.  So, how do you pack for that?  The question is a difficult one but the short answer is a simple.  Actually, to me, the answer is the same whether I’m going to Omaha for the weekend to visit family, spending 5 days in Chicago with a group of friends, or traveling non-stop over several months.

PACK LIGHT.  PACK SMART.

It’s cliché for a reason people; because it’s true.  Pack light and pack smart.

See…easy answer.  Easy in theory but a little more difficult in practice.

For me that packing mantra meant nearly everything that made the cut met three or four of my five criteria: lightweight, small, quick drying, multifunctional, absolutely 100% necessary.  If something fell into that absolutely necessary category I would find something that also met some of the other criteria.  It meant finding the right bag that’s not only airplane carry-on size but also has enough room to take everything I’d need and still only weigh 3 pounds.  It meant taking only light-weight clothing that are mostly multifunctional (e.g. convertible pants, ONE pair of shoes to wear as everyday walkers and running shoes that are still okay to wear to a nice dinner, a convertible jacket/vest).  It also meant not bringing any jeans (too heavy), or too many of any one thing.  It meant finding a small light-weight tripod that could hold my iPhone (which is my camera) but also has a mount for a digital camera if I upgrade in the future (but I’ve found out the iPhone combined with a good camera app takes such great pictures, there’s no reason to get a digital).

Here’s a list of everything I’m currently traveling with after 78 days on the road (it’s remarkably close to what I started traveling with):

Bags, etc.

  • Rick Steves’ Convertible Carry-on (suitcase/backpack)
  • Rick Steves’ Packing Cubes (helps organize gear and is especially handy to help give structure to a soft sided bag)
  • Camelbak Blowfish daypack
  • XPS 5 liter dry bag to protect small electronics
  • Eagle Creek personal bag (holds daily necessities like toothpaste and deodorant plus first aid kit, sewing kit, etc.)
  • Several 1 and 2 lb Ziploc bags (to keep H2O off things or to keep dirty clothes until washing)

Clothing

  • 1 Scottevest Transformer jacket/vest (thank you Matt!)
  • 1 Scottevest pullover
  • 1 Marmot Precip rain jacket
  • 1 pr Nike Free Run 3 shoes
  • 1 pr Clarks flip-flops
  • 2 pr. convertible pants (quick drying fabric)
  • 2 pr shorts (quick drying fabric)
  • 1 pr workout style lightweight pants
  • 1 long sleeve top and 1 pant silk base layer (for cold days or for sleeping)
  • 2 short sleeve cotton t-shirts (thank you Laura for one of these!)
  • 1 short sleeve quick drying t-shirt
  • 2 long sleeve cotton t-shirts
  • 1 long sleeve quick drying t-shirt
  • 1 collared polo shirt
  • 3 sleeveless workout shirts
  • 1 pr workout/sleeping shorts
  • 5 pr boxer briefs
  • 8 pr socks (2 long, 6 short)
  • 1 belt
  • 1 custom-made stocking cap (thank you Jaime!)

Misc. Travel Gear

  • 1 large microfiber bath towel w/bag
  • 1 small microfiber hand towel w/bag
  • 1 custom-made sleep sheet (thank you Jaime!)
  • 1 travel wallet
  • 1 London guidebook (thanks Matt!)
  • 1 European travel tips guidebook
  • 2 combination locks
  • 1 spork
  • Earplugs
  • 2 small key chain sized lights (thanks Dad and aunt Sue for those)
  • Compass
  • Assorted continent, country and city maps
  • Sunglasses
  • Ultrapod camera tripod
  • Nalgene 500 ml Backwoods water bottle

Misc. Other

  • Jump Rope (part of the travel workout plan I planned on doing every morning)
  • 1 deck playing cards
  • 1 book (found in an English bookstore in nowhere France)
  • Passport, misc. credit cards, DL, insurance info, other assorted travel documents
  • Common Sense (thanks Mom and Dad for this!)
  • Laptop sleeve
  • Misc. notebooks/pens/pencils for writing, taking notes, sketching etc.
  • Umbrella
  • Survival bracelet (thanks Pat and Andrea!)
  • Misc. personal items (shaving oil, shampoo, nail clippers, sunscreen, etc.)

Electronics

  • HP Folio Ultrabook
  • iPhone 4S w/2 USB cords, 1 plug adapter
  • Steripen Freedom water purifier (I haven’t used this yet and I knew I probably wouldn’t in most of Europe but I may need it in other areas of the world, it’s small and lightweight, very cool, and I always wanted one so it’s the one piece of gear I splurged on that wasn’t necessary)
  • Small wireless mouse
  • 2 plug adapters (1 for Europe, 1 for the UK – note: I don’t need a power converter because all my electronics are dual voltage)
  • Belkin 3-way adapter/surge protector
  • Hair clippers/beard trimmer
  • Timex Ironman watch

There are a few things I’ve picked up in the last 78 days that were intentionally left out.  I bought an umbrella when it rained enough to need one (in Paris less than a week ago) and since I wasn’t checking any bags on flights I couldn’t initially travel with large bottles of liquids so I bought sunscreen in Puerto Rico, etc.  There are a few things I’ve lost/parted ways with.  I really haven’t wanted for anything; in fact I plan on getting rid of some more things soon.

Items I have added (included above)

  • Umbrella
  • 3-way plug adapter/surge protector
  • 1 book (I found in an English bookstore in nowhere France)
  • 1 large bottle sunscreen, 1 large tube sunburn aloe, 1 large tube of toothpaste

Items I have lost or got rid of/am about to get rid of

  • Laundry bag (lost in Sintra Portugal)
  • Small wireless mouse (I never use it so I will try to sell/give it to someone)
  • Portugal guidebook (I left it at the last hostel I stayed in Portugal)
  • Hair clippers/beard trimmer (this died the first time I used it after arriving in Europe)

The below picture shows everything except the pair of shorts and flip-flops I was wearing…and the iPhone of course.

Unmapped Travels - Gear
Unmapped Travels – Gear

One Drawback of Traveling Unmapped

If you followed the Unmapped Travels Facebook page back in mid May, you may have known about the first Unmapped Travels Postcard Contest when I asked for suggestions of where to travel on my way to Brittany, France for my second Workaway gig.  It turned out my brother Matt had the lone dissenting opinion of all the comments and his reasons were solid so he won the contest.  His intended prize was a postcard from Bordeaux.

From the beginning of my travels I knew one drawback to the way I’m traveling (on the cheap while not planning routes and accommodations far in advance) could be occasionally hitting a situation that doesn’t fit into my budget.  It’s a risk I’m willing to take to allow more room for spontaneity.   I ran into such a situation on my way to Brittany through Bordeaux (Matt’s suggestion).  I was in San Sebastián, Spain looking for a place to stay in Bordeaux, France and to my surprise, there are next to zero budget accommodations in Bordeaux, and zero hostels.  So I went to the train station in San Sebastian and instead of buying a ticket to Bordeaux found a decent priced ticket to Paris.  So the drawback led to me SPONTANEOUSLY going to Paris.  For me, a nice consolation to Bordeaux, and for my Postcard Contest winning brother a nice consolation Brittany postcard.

Be a Traveler, Not a Tourist

Travelers and tourists…tourists and travelers.  Are those terms synonymous?  Some say yes and others no.

I believe, and I’m not the only one, there are similarities and differences between travelers and tourists.  Obviously both love to travel but tourists often have a cookie cutter experience in the places they visit; full of chain restaurants (they could dine in at home), guided bus tours, and tacky souvenir gift shops.  Conversely, true travelers tend to make wandering off the tourism tract a priority.  They want to spend time in the lesser known travel gems (think Burma and not Bermuda or Split, Croatia instead of Sydney, Australia).  To make a long story short, in many ways, tourists see the places they visit through rose-colored glasses and travelers have a better chance at having an authentic experience.

Here’s an example: About 18 hours after arriving in Paris I walked down a regular neighborhood street.  The kind of street locals do their everyday shopping.  It’s full of small specialty shops; the charcuterie, the wine shop, the fruit and vegetable markets, etc.  With the smells wafting onto the sidewalk from the fromage shop (cheese) and the crowds filing in and out of the bakery to get their daily baguette, walking a neighborhood like this can be quite fun and interesting on its own.  Not something you see all the time when visiting a new city.

But I also shopped.  I bought a small jar of expensive sardines at one, a baguette at the bakery (half for lunch and the rest for dinner), a salmon and tomato sandwich (delicious!) and a macaroon (equally delicious!) at another.  Twenty minutes later I’d set up a fantastic picnic in the Champ de Mars (a big park) between the Eiffel Tower and the Ecole Militaire which is a big military training area.  For a moment, staring at the Eiffel Tower while surrounded by dogs chasing Frisbee’s and parents playing football (soccer for those of us across the pond) with their kids, I felt I was having the most authentic Parisian experience of any traveler in Paris.  It was the BEST picnic ever…and sadly the only one happening in this park.  During my hour-long lunch break there were at least 50 people who walked by and looked to see what I was doing, locals and tourists alike.  The locals smiled and a few said bon appétit (that was cool) and the tourists thought I WAS a local (I think someone even took my picture).  While the tourists stared at me, I stared at this:

Picnic with a view!
Picnic with a view!

Maybe this post should be titled ‘Be a Traveler AND a Tourist’ because I think to get the most out the places you visit you need a mix of both.

Don’t sacrifice seeing the important sites just so you can say you traveled off the beaten path.  If you do you’ll miss out on some very cool stuff.  I mean, (most of) those places are popular for good reason!  To prove my point I’ll tell you what I did 45 minutes before walking down that street and buying my picnic lunch.  I went to the top of the Eiffel Tower!  Like a typical tourist I stood in line to pay the 14.50 euro (I couldn’t find a place to get my ticket in advance) and took the elevator all the way to the top.  It was a cool morning (especially that high up) and breezy and fantastic and crowded and cliché and absolutely the right thing to do.  If I’d just looked at the Eiffel Tower from ground level through a camera lens and while eating sardines across the park it wouldn’t have been as memorable a day.

The opposite is true too.  Don’t skip out on being more of a traveler just to stay in tourist mode for too long a time, or worse; for your whole trip.  To keep the Eiffel tower analogy going a bit longer, being a tourist AND a traveler, literally in the same morning…at the same site made it a special day.

So try to have balance in your day or your week.  That’s what I do.  See the sights and stay in the tourist areas but also mix it up with the natives…locals who don’t work in the tourism economy.  If you’re visiting Lisbon and Porto, stop for a couple of days in between at Coimbra, a less popular tourist area (and my favorite city in Portugal…so far).  Or break up the trip from Barcelona to Madrid and spend the afternoon in Zaragoza.  Take an hour bus ride from any big city and you’ll surely find a town without a tourism budget to attract flocks of people or a village without a popular attraction.  These places make great day trips and will inevitably give a more realistic peek into the lives of the people in the area you’re visiting.

There are opportunities like this everywhere I go and everywhere you’ll travel also.  We just need to seek them out and take advantage when they come along.  It’s not always easier but many times its more fun and more memorable.

And as always I try to relate things back to the bottom line.  It’s cheaper to eat, stay and BE in the local neighborhoods and not the tourist areas, in the smaller towns rather than the big cities.  So be a traveler, not a tourist.

Happy travels!

Big Travel Mistake

I was an idiot today.  I made a HUGE travel mistake.  Actually it wasn’t a travel mistake as much as it was just a stupid thing that happened because I wasn’t paying enough attention.  If I was French or had known the local customs it wouldn’t have happened.  If I was paying more attention to my surroundings it wouldn’t have happened.  And I wasn’t alone.

My WorkAway friend Dave and I were walking around this little Breton village and saw a nice tall church (all the small villages in Brittany seem to have a nice tall church).  We were in the back and saw a sign in French that roughly translated to ‘free church tower visits’.  Like any good traveler I like to check out the old churches I come across, especially those that are free.  After a couple of hours walking around the village and taking pictures we found ourselves walking in front of the church and noticing a few people walking out we decided to take a look at the inside.

There were only a few people inside, all in front, and it looked like they were talking with the priest.   I sat down, as I normally do in big churches to get a good look around, and Dave was wandering up the center aisle.   I began looking at the pamphlet on the pew next to me and upon looking up saw the people at the front turning to leave with a small casket.  That’s right….it was a funeral.

I’m sure you’ve all seen or heard of the movie ‘Wedding Crashers’.  At the end there is a scene about crashing a funeral.  That’s not exactly what we were doing, but close enough.

I immediately got up and we swiftly left.  After getting out the door we saw what should have been noticed while walking in…the 45 or so people standing outside in black, and the hearse waiting with back doors open.

We accidentally walked in on the funeral of a French child!!  At least I hadn’t pulled out my camera and started taking pictures yet.