Category Archives: TRAVEL TIPS

Tips for Your First Time Traveling Abroad

Tips for your first time traveling abroad: how to be safe, smart, and prepared. Most importantly, have fun and don’t be afraid to try something new.

 

1. Don’t be scared

Traveling to another country for the first time is intimidating for anyone, but don’t let your fear hold you back. Think about how many people travel all over the world every single day and have a great experience. No travel experience is guaranteed to be perfect, but being smart and informed as well as open-minded is the best recipe for a great first time traveling abroad. Don’t be afraid to try new things.

tips for first time traveling abroad
You don’t have to eat a scorpion on a stick, but don’t be afraid to try something new

2. Read something about the place you are going before you go.

To many this is probably a no-brainer, but a lot of people just want to “show up and go where the wind blows them.” While this ideal notion of a spontaneous adventure may sound great, the reality can be very different and even dangerous. Pick up a guidebook, and read the general information about getting to your destination, getting around, customs and etiquette of the country you are going to, and basic advice on health, food, common tourist cons, and dangerous animals and insects. Make sure you know what gestures or behavior is considered rude at your destination and act accordingly.

Check up on current events in the country or city you are headed to. Find out if there are political protests, civil unrest, travel advisories, etc. Find out which neighborhoods are unsafe and be sure to avoid them. When we went to Thailand there were protests going on in Bangkok that included some grenades and gunfire on occasion. We followed the stories closely on the Bangkok Post and on Tripadvisor forums a few months before our trip, learned where the protest zones were and what areas to avoid, and we had no issues. Right before we went there was a story online in an Australian newspaper, where an Australian woman was interviewed in Bangkok. She was completely appalled that the Australian government had not warned her about the protests and that she had wandered into an area where people had been killed in a grenade blast the night before and she had no idea that was going on. “There should be signs at the airport,” she said. “Our government should have warned us.” Don’t be that lady. Take some responsibility and read the international news. The internet is a big place with a lot of news resources

3. Apply for your passport a minimum of 6 months before your travel dates, make sure you sign it

Passports take a month or so minimum to obtain, possibly longer if there is a back up in applications. To be safe, don’t wait any longer than 6 months before your trip to apply for one. They are good for 10 years, so applying a bit early isn’t going to make much of a difference. If you wear glasses, take them off for your passport photo, and be sure to sign your passport when you get it.

If you or anyone in your party already has a passport, check to make sure it expires more than 6 months after you plan on returning. Many countries will turn you away at the border if your passport expires within six months of your trip.

4. If a Visa is required for the country you are visiting, apply well in advance

If you are American or Western European, there is a pretty wide range of countries that don’t require visa applications to visit. However, it is always best to check as soon as you start planning your trip to find out. Americans can visit the State Department website for more info on specific countries.

5. Let your bank know where you are going and when

Do not forget to let your bank and credit card companies know that you are traveling out of the country. Call the numbers on the backs of your cards and tell them you would like to give them a travel notification. They will ask for the dates and for all countries you expect to be in during your trip. If you don’t warn your bank ahead of time, you may find your card(s) declined until you call them.

6. When visiting a city, map out the places you want to see and then look for a hotel close by.

Figure out what you want to see the most, and where the nightlife you are interested in is. Being able to walk places at your leisure instead of relying on public transportation is always nice. If you plan on going out drinking at night, you might consider getting a hotel close to the area you think you are going to be going. Public transportation is easier to come by during the day (and cheaper), and being able to walk back to your hotel tipsy at 2:00 AM instead of paying for an expensive cab ride is always a plus.

tips for first time traveling abroad
You can pretty much walk everywhere in town on Isla Mujeres, Mexico

7. Use an RFID money belt or cross-shoulder purse, and use ATMS in banks if possible.

Keep your money hidden under your clothes with a money belt, and if you carry a purse make it small and able to be worn diagonal and not vertical over your shoulder. This will make it a lot more difficult to be snatched or pick pocketed. Use common sense and don’t flash any large wads of cash around.

The best way to get foreign currency is from an ATM (traveler’s checks are a thing of the past). Tell your bank and credit card company about your travel plans prior to leaving the country so that they don’t block your purchases and withdraws. In many countries, it is wise to withdraw cash from an ATM in a bank (preferably during banking hours so that you can get assistance if it eats your card) and pay cash wherever you go instead of using a debit card. Credit card fraud is extremely common in many places, and the poorer the country, the more cautious you should be.

If you need cash and a bank ATM isn’t available, look for ones that are part of the wall of a building and not a stand-alone. We’ve heard of instances of fake ATMs eating your card or stealing your card information and then telling you the ATM is out of order.

8. Take a copy of your passport and a secondary ID with you, packed separately from your passport

It’s a common notion to keep all your important papers and documents in one place, but you’ll want to keep a xerox copy of your passport in a separate place than your actual passport. It’s a good idea to keep your driver’s license or another form of ID along with it separate from your passport and money as well. If your purse or passport is stolen, it will be helpful to have a passport copy and extra identification to obtain a replacement from the nearest US Embassy.

It is also a good idea to have your credit card numbers and bank phone numbers written down somewhere separate as well, so that you can quickly call and cancel your cards if they are also stolen.

 

9. Avoid the tour buses if possible.

Yes, it’s easy to do a pre-packaged tour. In some places, it might be your best option. If it involves 40 other tourists from resorts in a huge tour bus though, try to avoid it. We managed to avoid a tour and take a shuttle to Chichen Itza in Mexico and it ended up being a fabulous trip. We got a photo of the pyramid with no one in it. Don’t be afraid to find your own transportation and see it on your own schedule. If it’s a big tourist attraction, get up early and get there when they open. The tour buses and crowds always start flowing in around 10:00 or 11:00, and if you can get most of the sightseeing done and move on to a less touristy location by then–bonus.

tips-for-first-time-traveling-abroad
Chichen Itza before the tour bus crowds hit. So worth getting up early for.

10. Don’t spend all your time in resorts.

Resorts are always enticing–huge beautiful swimming pools, beaches, fancy rooms and foo-foo cocktails. However, if you spend all your time at a resort you’ll miss out on a lot. We’ve stayed at a few and we always get annoyed with the fake, pre-packaged tourist show put on by the resort employees, and annoyed with our fellow resort patrons who are often rude to the staff and self-important. When we look back at all our trips, some of the best experiences were the mom-and-pop hotels and bungalows we stayed at where we met some locals or like-minded travelers and learned more about the culture and community.

Thai street food
Paddy wouldn’t miss out on the Thai street food for all the swim-up bars in the world…

11. Read reviews on www.tripadvisor.com before you book.

That fabulous deal on that hotel on Expedia? There’s often a reason it’s so cheap. Tripadvisor is a great way to read about other people’s experiences at a hotel or restaurant. You can tell when someone is being uppity (“there was a stain in the corner of the curtain”) vs. reporting a legitimate issue (“bedbugs!”). It’s also a good way to find out more information about the location of the hotel and what is nearby. We booked our resort in Bora Bora based on it’s walking distance to a convenience store and local restaurants to help us save money on food while we were there, and we learned all of that information by reading reviews. We’ve also discovered some really cool small hotels on Tripadvisor that we wouldn’t have seen as options on travel booking sites.

Another great thing about Tripadvisor is it’s forums. Ask a question and get answers from fellow travelers who have been there. Read other people’s questions and see answers. We’ve received a lot of good advice from fellow travelers on these forums and it really helped a lot with our planning. When you get back, post your reviews and photos and tell everyone what you thought about where you stayed.

tips for first time traveling abroad
Awesome B&B we stayed at in the Aran Islands, Ireland. Thanks TripAdvisor!

12. Check with your cell phone carrier about using your phone outside of the country

More and more cell phone carriers will allow you to use your phone in certain countries outside the US. Some will allow you to turn on an international calling plan with unlimited data and texting in certain countries, with an extra fee per minute for phone calls. Always check with your carrier before traveling, you don’t want to end up with crazy cell phone bills when you get home.

If your carrier doesn’t have an economical international option for your phone, you can always put it in airplane mode and use hotel wifi to communicate back home.

13. If you have medications, be sure you have enough to cover your trip and a little extra. Take copies of your prescriptions from the doctor.

Some countries/customs officials may be strict about certain medications being brought into a country. To be on the safe side, take your prescriptions in the original prescription bottles with your name on them and get a copy of your prescription list from your doctor’s office. Always bring more than you think you might need in case your flight home gets delayed, but don’t bring too much more or they might think you’re trying to sell it. I have a couple common prescription drugs that I travel with, and I’ve never had a problem. It’s always best to be prepared for questions though.

14. Pack comfortable shoes suitable for the climate.

Bad shoes will absolutely ruin any trip. If you are able to walk a lot, then you will be doing some major walking. The best way to see sights is on foot. Make sure to bring comfortable shoes with good support. If you are going to a tropical climate, you may want to invest in some athletic water sandals that are good for hiking or water use. If you are traveling to Iceland or planning on being outdoors in a cold, rainy climate, waterproof hiking boots are a life-saver.

Personally, I gave up on high heels and uncomfortable shoes in my 20s. Now I’m all about quality, not quantity. I’ve found that with shoes, you get what you pay for. It’s worth the extra money to be comfortable and ready for any adventure.

what to pack for a trip to Iceland in the winter
Waterproof boots are essential for a trip to Iceland. At Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach

15. Be an eco-conscious traveler.

Recycle whenever possible, and take all your trash with you when you leave a beach, park, or other destination. Don’t patronize restaurants that serve shark fin soup (more about this here). If going somewhere where animals are part of the attraction (such as riding elephants or whale watching), read up on companies and choose the ones that treat the animals well. Patronize tour companies that give wild animals their space and don’t encourage feeding them. Leave a small footprint, and don’t buy souvenirs consisting of animal parts such as ivory, shark jaws, or fur.

tips for first time traveling abroad
http://icewhale.is

16. Pack light.

Yes, much easier said than done. I’ve kicked myself for not following this rule a few times. It’s always more difficult with cooler climates as well, because clothes are bulkier and take up more space. Take everything you think you need and then put half of it back. Tide makes great little travel-size packets of laundry detergent that are made for doing laundry in a hotel sink and we’ve used them quite a few times. Going for two weeks? Take one week’s worth of clothes and plan on doing some laundry when you get a hotel stay that is two nights or more. Trust us, it sucks lugging around a bunch of stuff and keeping track of it. If you can fit everything you are taking with you into a hiking backpack with some extra room for souvenirs to take home–you’ve done it right.

tips-for-first-time-traveling-abroad
Lugging around a bunch of luggage isn’t fun. You probably won’t even need as much as you think you will.

17. Learn how to say “Hello” and “Thank you” in the language of the country you are visiting.

No one expects you to speak Swedish or Thai, but learning these basic  courtesies in the language of the country you are going to will win you brownie points with the locals. It is also often polite to ask “Do you speak English?” to a stranger before you start rambling off your questions. If you’re going to a country with a more common language such as Spanish or French, try to learn a few more basic phrases. If you know some of the language, use it. Even if you’re embarrassed about your pronunciation or grammar, locals will appreciate the fact that you are trying (except for people in Paris, but I digress….).

18. Don’t be the guy with no shirt on in a restaurant.

You don’t need a sign that says “no shirt, no shoes, no service” to tell you that this is rude in most places. While in Thailand, a country that dresses fairly conservatively and tank tops are uncommon among locals, we visited a restaurant on the side of the highway for lunch. There we saw a fat European tourist in tiny short shorts, with no shirt on and his huge belly hanging over his waistband which looked like it was about to burst. The icing on the cake: black socks with sandals accompanied his outfit. Don’t be that guy. Just don’t.

 

With a little preparation and research, your first time traveling abroad should be a fun and exciting experience. Keep an open mind, and remember that you are a guest in the country you are traveling to. Don’t be afraid to venture out and learn about the world. I guarantee you won’t regret it.

 

 

Wine Tasting Tips for Beginners

Wine tasting tips for beginners: what to expect and how to have a great wine tasting adventure

 

Paddy and I love wine. We also love food, and the two go hand in hand. We are lucky to live in one of the top wine producing states in the US, Washington State. Wine tourism has boomed in Washington over the last 20 years, with new wineries and vineyards springing up all over the state. The highest concentration of Washington wineries are on the east side of the Cascade Mountains, and there are so many to choose from that it can be quite overwhelming. Wine tasting is one of our favorite tourism activities in our home state, and we’ve been on several wine tasting adventures.

We know a considerable amount about wine, but not a ton. We are by no means experts and there is A LOT to learn. We really enjoy drinking wine and pairing wine with food, but we don’t always know what we’re doing.

Here are some wine tasting tips for beginners based on our experiences:

1. You don’t have to know anything about wine

If you don’t know anything about wine, except that you kind of like it and are curious to know more, wine tasting is the best way to learn. Don’t be intimidated, and don’t feel like a failure if you can’t taste all the “notes of fig and honeysuckle” like the wine description says you should. It can take a while to develop your palate. Concentrate on finding out what you like and don’t like in a wine–reds or whites, sweet or dry, fruity or spicy, light or robust and smoky. Remember the types of the wines that you liked, and remember that not all types of wines are created equal. Some wineries might make a chardonnay that you love, while others may have ones that you aren’t so into. Just taste and learn. Don’t be afraid to ask the winery questions.

2. Wine tasting is a daytime activity

Wine tasting rooms are typically open between noon and 5:00 PM, with some opening as early as 10:00 AM and some closing as early as 4:00 PM. It’s generally not an activity to do after dinner, and will monopolize your whole afternoon, so don’t have any other plans that day unless they are in the morning. Also, you may end up needing a nap before dinner after all that wine…

3. You will most likely get a little drunk, so have a safe transportation plan

One of the downsides about wine tasting is that a lot of areas have wineries that you have to drive to. Since drinking and driving is not a good idea, you have several options to address this common conundrum:

  1. Have a designated driver–your DD can spit the wine out into the receptacle at the wine counter after tasting, or opt out of tasting altogether.
  2. Join a wine tasting tour or hire a driver. Many of these can be expensive or book out far in advance, so plan accordingly. It is nice to have a driver.
  3. Stay in a town with wine tasting rooms in walking distance from your hotel
  4. Drive to only one or two wineries, and/or have a picnic at one of them after tasting while you sober up. Many wineries are happy to let you sit out and eat some snacks while you sip. A lot of them don’t have food licenses so they have no problem with you bringing your own.

Our plan of attack is usually a combo of suggestions 4 and 5. We like to find a hotel in walking distance from tasting rooms, but drive to a couple in the beginning before we get buzzed to see some of the pretty vineyards and grapes. Some good Washington towns with ample tasting rooms in walking distance from downtown lodging are Leavenworth, Wenatchee, Prosser, and Walla Walla.

wine tasting tips
Getting out of town and seeing the grapes growing in the vineyards is a great part of the experience. Just be sure to be safe if you are driving.

4. Tasting rooms generally have fees

Wine tasting generally isn’t free. Some wineries don’t charge fees, but most of the time you should expect to pay about $5-$10 per person at each winery to taste between 4-6 wines. Most will waive the fee if you buy a bottle, however. The winery wants to sell you wine, and if you plan on investing in a nice bottle, it’s great to sample beforehand. Most places take cards, but having cash is easier if you don’t plan on buying many bottles.

Wine tasting tips

5. Take your time and experience each wine

Don’t just gulp it down. Take some time to sniff each wine, and swirl the wine around in the glass to oxidize the wine and release the flavor. Think about what you smell and then how the wine tastes at first, while you swirl it around in your mouth, and how it finishes when you swallow it. Think about what kind of food would pair well with it (steak? chocolate? fish?) It might take some time to develop your palate and really be able to differentiate all the complex flavors each wine has, but taking your time is the way to learn.

wine tasting tips

6. You are really only going to make it to four or five wineries in a day

When we first started wine tasting, we thought we’d be able to go to a ton of tasting rooms in one day but each time we find that we only end up getting to four or five. Wine tasting takes more time than you think it does. You might have to wait your turn at the pour counter, you may get into a lively conversation with your server (extra tip–your time with your wine server is a great opportunity to find out where the best place for dinner is that evening or any other local tips about the area), and tasting each wine takes time and shouldn’t be rushed if possible. Also, there is a strong possibility that you may be drunk after five wineries, and ready for a nap. We once went to a winery that had us taste all 12 of their wines. We were a little loopy at the end of that day.

Research the ones you think you might want to visit, or just ask a local which ones they like best and narrow it down from there.

wine tasting tips
Vineyard in Rattlesnake Hills, WA

7. If venturing out to vineyards out of town, pack a picnic

When Paddy and I first went on our first wine tasting adventure around Wenatchee and Leavenworth, we got hungry. I think I may have said something like, “I could eat the shit out of some brie right now” on the drive back to Leavenworth. But wineries generally don’t have food licenses and there was no great cheese and snacks around to go with all that good wine.

Many wineries that don’t sell food are perfectly fine if you bring a little picnic. Pack some fruit, cheese, salami, crackers, chocolate, or whatever you want. You may want to purchase a glass of wine as a courtesy to go with your picnic if the winery allows you to sit and enjoy their vineyard.

wine tasting tips
Wine tasting in Chelan, WA

 

Wine tasting does not have to be as pretentious as some people make it out to be. Everyone who likes wine had to start learning about it somewhere. You also might find out that wine just isn’t your thing. Either way, it’s fun to learn and try new things, and a great way to spend a day with friends or a partner.

Coping with Travel Fever When You’re Stuck in the 9 to 5

Coping with travel fever when you’re stuck in the 9 to 5: Ways to get through those long periods between trips when you’re stuck in a 40+ hour work week at a job that is not your dream job.

 

We write about our travels, but we aren’t travel writers. We have jobs, bills, a mortgage, two cats, aging parents, and family and friends we love to spend time with. You know, responsibilities and stuff. We’re childfree, which helps us tremendously in the travel department, but we can’t travel full time. Coping with travel fever in between adventures is tough, especially because travel is addicting. The more you travel, the more you want to travel. The more off the beaten path you get, the need for a more unique travel experience to top the last becomes more and more unbearable. For us, travel isn’t about sitting on a beach with a mai tai and trying to unwind. It’s a cultural learning adventure. Maybe someday we’ll find a way to travel more.

But for now, we have things that keep us in one place most of the year. We feel lucky that we can travel as much as we do, and we travel more than most of our friends and family. We are grateful for every experience we’ve had, and grateful for all the ones to come. However, that doesn’t mean that we don’t go to work fighting the urge to turn our cars around and drive off into the sunset (or sunrise). Coping with travel fever can be hard, but there are ways we try to ease the pain:

1. Plan your next trip

If you don’t have your next trip planned already, start planning. The only way things happen is if you plan them and set goals. Figure out where you want to go, how long you want to (or can) travel for, and finally how much it will cost (always overestimate). Buy a guidebook to get the basics, and spend the rest of the time googling and reading about places on tripadvisor.com. I’m a planner, and I probably over-plan a bit, but I also plan for days without plans in my destinations. If you have a long time to travel, try to stay a bit longer in a few key destinations to really get to know them and leave room for spontaneous moments. For me, coping with travel fever is a lot easier if there is a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. If we have a trip to look forward to, and I can obsessively read about the culture, food, restaurants, weird tourist attractions, transportation methods, etc–and I’m a lot happier.

coping with travel fever

2. Watch travel documentaries

Unfortunately, there are a lot of really bad travel documentaries out there. I am so sick of the overly peppy, pseudo-knowledgeable travel host going to all the major tourist spots.

There are also some really good ones. I have a post about our favorite travel shows that you can check out. We are big fans of Departures, Anthony Bourdain, and Zane Lamprey. Watching travel shows is a method of coping with travel fever, but it also kind of makes your travel fever worse. Be warned.

coping with travel fever Departures TV Show
Scott and Justin in Departures.

3. Read travel books

Books will always go more in depth than shows. Reading someone’s well-written memoirs of their travels is more educational, and allows you to live vicariously through their experiences. My favorite travel book that I’ve read is the Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. He is a former NPR journalist who decides to travel around the world to the world’s proclaimed “happiest countries” to find out what makes them happy. He also travel’s to one of the world’s unhappiest countries in contrast. It is a really interesting read and very well written.

Other favorites:

What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman

Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman

Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain

 

4. Take short weekend getaways

Go on little adventures for the weekend to places within a few hours’ drive of your city. Stop for food at little hole-in-the-wall restaurants and diners, go on a new hike, visit that town with the unusual name that you’ve only seen while looking at a road atlas. We are a bit lucky in Seattle to have so much natural and diverse places to visit within a three hour drive. I believe there is something interesting to see everywhere. Check out what your region has to offer.

coping with travel fever Hiking the High Lakes Loop Trail at Mt Rainier National Park, WA
Hiking the High Lakes Loop Trail at Mt Rainier National Park, WA

 5. Visit new restaurants and try new foods

One of the biggest parts about travel is trying new foods. Food is always what Paddy looks forward to the most in our adventures. A great method of coping with travel fever is to go to a restaurant with a type of cuisine you haven’t tried before. This is more easily done if you live in an urban area with lots of culture. Yelp can be a great tool to hunt for different restaurants. Have you tried Ethiopian food? Indonesian? Dim Sum? Eating at a restaurant can be a foreign cultural experience in itself.

coping with travel fever lunar new year seattle asia bbq
Asia BBQ in the International District, Seattle

6. Host a theme party around your favorite travel destination

Have an Italian dinner party, a Polynesian luau, a Mexican fiesta, a Parisian brunch, or a Danish Julefrokost. Make a bunch of food from your favorite travel destination and invite friends to share and learn.

coping with travel fever
Watermelon jalepeno margaritas are also a good remedy for travel fever

7. Learn a new language

You may not be able to travel right this minute, but you can improve your language skills for your next trip. Many community colleges offer continuing education language classes in the evenings that anyone can take. A friend of mine keeps her Spanish fluent by attending a Spanish language conversation group. You might even meet some new travel buddies or new friends to share travel tales with. If you live out in the sticks or local classes don’t work for your schedule, I’ve heard the Rosetta Stone is a great self-learning tool. Check and see if your local library has it available to use for free.

8. Look for cultural festivities in your city

If your city has any kind of diversity (as most cities do), there are probably many cultural celebrations and events open to the public that you can check out. Some aren’t as well advertised as others, so you may have to do some research. Seattle has Scandinavian breakfasts and movie nights at the Swedish Cultural Center (I also heard they recently had an ABBA night as well,) a Lunar New Year/Chinese New Year celebration in the International District, and a whole plethora of cultural festivals at the Seattle Center throughout the year (Hawaiian, Arab, Iranian, Japanese, Brazilian, Polish, Italian, Croatian, Turkish, Mexican Dia de Los Muertos, Filipino, Irish, and more). Check out what the city nearest you has to offer.

coping with travel fever Chinese dragon dance, Lunar New Year in Seattle
Chinese dragon dance, Lunar New Year celebration in Seattle’s International District

Coping with travel fever is hard, but getting little doses of culture and learning in combined with quick weekend getaways helps tide us over until our next travel adventure. We also always have to be planning our next adventure–there can’t be an indefinite period of no travel. Something needs to be planned. Don’t let the 9-5 bog you down. If you have vacation time, plan a trip and go for it. Happy travels!

 

Why it is Important to Have Adventure in a Relationship

Why it is important to have adventure in a relationship: Learning, discovery, and fun are the antithesis of boredom and essential to growing your bond. And you don’t have to go to Morocco to do it.

Adventure in a relationship is essential. Not to downplay the necessity of those nights on the couch with Netflix and popcorn (those are essential to our sanity), but you don’t want to get stuck in a rut. Learning is what keeps the brain fresh, and adventure is about learning, discovery, and creativity.

Sharing an adventure with your partner strengthens the bond between you, and helps you grow as a couple and individuals. If you have a good time or share something exciting together, you will associate that experience with your partner.

Adventure in a relationship
Hiking near Mt Rainier, Washington

Travel is the ultimate great adventure, but you don’t have to travel to have adventure in a relationship. An adventure can simply be trying something new. Go try Ethiopian food. Try a new hiking trail. Learn how to brew beer. Spend a day in a neighborhood you never go to. You don’t have to spend money, you just have to make some time and be adventurous. Take turns picking what you do on your next “adventure date.”

Here are some ideas:

Camping

Learn to make pickles

Explore a nearby town you’ve never spent time in

Wine tasting

Snowshoeing

River tubing

Snow tubing

Bike riding

Do a fun home improvement project, like a tile back splash in your kitchen

Take a cooking class

Take a swing dancing class

Volunteer

Go to a show and check out a new band

adventure in a relationship
Wine tasting in Chelan, Washington

You can also out festivals in your city or nearby cities/towns and attend an event. Summertime is full of these. Whatever adventures you embark on, just make sure you do something new together at least every couple months. Don’t get too bogged down with life and end up stuck in a TV rut. Adventure in a relationship is essential, it keeps your relationship growing.

 

Winter Driving in Iceland

 Winter Driving in Iceland: Tips on how to navigate the roads without ending up being a search and rescue statistic, or ending up with an expensive rental car repair bill

 

Driving in Iceland in the winter can be scary for even the most seasoned winter driver. The main reason is Iceland’s furious and ferocious winds, which have been reported to blow rocks off of glaciers and cars right off of the roads. Rental cars come equipped with snow tires but very little insurance, and there are places in Iceland on the ring road with absolutely nothing around for miles.

We drove around the southern part of Iceland in March with very little snow driving experience, and made it out alive. Here is our advice:

1. Pay close attention to the road conditions and weather reports

The most invaluable website during our trip was http://www.vegagerdin.is/english/road-conditions-and-weather/, which we were checking several times a day. They keep the road conditions up to date and you must check to make sure your route is clear before venturing out, especially in the winter. You don’t want to end up a search-and-rescue tourist trapped in a snow storm. For an up to date weather report for the day, http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/areas/ is the Icelandic weather site. If a storm is predicted in the area you are planning on driving to, check with locals to see if they think going there is a good idea. If not, you may need to change your plans. On the day we wanted to go up to see Gullfoss the snow and wind wouldn’t let up, so we played it safe and stayed in. After we got back to the US, we read a news story about 50 tourists that had to be search and rescued up there the very next day. We were glad we stayed at our cabin and had a lazy snow day instead.

winter driving in Iceland
Winter driving in Iceland: Wind can cause snow to blow into the road causing very low visibility

2. The insurance is pretty much useless, but get the sand and ash protection just in case

Winds in Iceland can be insanely strong. Right before we went we read news stories of cars being blown off the road by the wind and rocks being blown off cliffs into people’s car windows. These are extreme examples, but the winds are strong at times and will blow sand and volcanic ash at your car, causing damage to the paint. The sand and ash protection doesn’t cost that much extra, and could save you some money in the event that you run into these conditions.

3. Park on a flat surface overnight, and don’t set your parking brake

Our car rental company told us not to set the parking brake overnight, or it would freeze and break off, and we would have to pay for it.

4. Go slow and let cars pass you if you are not used to driving in the snow

It’s okay to be the slow asshole on the highway if you aren’t comfortable or sure about the road conditions. I’m sure we pissed a lot of locals off on our first day out on snow-covered roads, but they drove around us and we made it in one piece. It’s better to take it easy than to risk an accident due to overconfidence.

Winter driving in Iceland
Winter driving in Iceland

5. Never slam on the brakes for any reason

Slamming on your brakes on an icy road is the best way to have your car spin out of control. If you need to slow down, take your foot off of the gas and downshift (this is where a manual shift car is a plus), and gently tap the brake.

We were driving along a snowy road in the southern part of the ring road, and I stopped the car to get out and take a picture of the white, desolate landscape. When I stepped out of the car and my foot hit the road I almost fell right on my ass. I didn’t fully realize that we were driving on a solid sheet of ice. Take caution and make slow stops.

winter driving in Iceland
Southern ring road winter wonderland: winter driving in Iceland

6. If you start to slide, don’t jerk the steering wheel

Aside from slamming on the brakes, the worst thing you can do if you start to slide is over-correct and jerk the wheel. Slow down by down-shifting and taking your foot off the gas, and keep a tight grip on the wheel to keep it as steady as you can.

7. Hold onto the car doors when getting in and out of the car

Again, the winds are the most dangerous part of driving in Iceland. They are STRONG. Strong enough to blow the door right off of your car. When getting in and out of the car, hold the door TIGHT to keep it from blowing back open. If the door comes off, you have to pay for it. Even the insurance with a $1000 deductible won’t cover it. And everything is more expensive in Iceland.

8. Never attempt driving on the F Roads in winter

Iceland blocks the F Roads (in the highlands in the middle of the country) off in the winter time, but every now and then some idiot will think his four wheel drive SUV can make it. Locals report seeing tire tracks around the blockades all the time. These people end up putting the lives of volunteer search and rescue workers at stake when they get lost or stuck. Don’t be a dumbass, just stick to the ring road. There are plenty of amazing sights to see there.

9. Bring a credit card with a chip in it for the gas pumps

Bring a credit card or debit card with a chip in it, and know your PIN number. Gas pumps won’t take American credit cards without a chip. We traveled just before the chip came out in the US, and we had to only use gas stations where we could pay inside. Some wouldn’t let us and we had to find one that did. Fortunately, in 2015 banks in the US started to put out chip cards, so hopefully this won’t be a hassle for you like it was for us.

Also, remember to fill up the tank before you attempt long stretches of road in between towns.

 

Iceland is a beautiful country. Summer is the peak visiting time, and the hotel, airfare, and lodging prices double June through September. We went in March, which is still winter in Iceland, and it was amazing. We didn’t get to see some of the things we wanted to because of the weather, but we had a great time in winter wonderland. Driving in Iceland in the winter was intimidating, but the snow tires made a big difference and we were cautious and everything went fine. If you plan on driving in Iceland in the winter, make sure you keep up to date daily on the weather report (it can change on a dime) and stay put if there is a big storm. Wind is the most dangerous factor in winter driving in Iceland, especially on the south coast. Stay safe and have a great trip!

Glacier on the southern ring road, Iceland
Glacier on the southern ring road, Iceland

Hiding Your Valuables While Traveling

Hiding your valuables while traveling: tips for keeping your stuff safe in your hotel room and with you on the go to avoid getting ripped off.

 

Needless to say, having your money, passport, or other valuables stolen while traveling can really ruin an otherwise great adventure. Even the hotel safe can’t always be trusted–they often have an override code for the staff to use when guests forget how to open the safe. Here are a few tips for hiding your valuables and lowering your risk of being a victim of theft while traveling:

1. Don’t keep all your money in one place.

Don’t bring all your money with you when you go out, and hide it in multiple places on your body and in your hotel room. If you get mugged, chances are they won’t take all of it. I also keep one credit card on me and one hidden in the room, just in case.

2. While walking around, keep everything on your body and well attached to you

Keep your money, passport, and credit cards attached to your body. Money belts, small purses hung diagonally around your body, etc help keep things attached. In the ankle of your sock, in your bra, etc. I just discovered a company called PortaPocket that makes little pockets you can strap to your ankle, arm, leg, waist, etc.

3. Use fake item hidden safes

Hidden safes that look like other items can be really effective ways for hiding your valuables. I would recommend the hairbrush or screwdriver safes over a soda can safe, however. You don’t want the housekeeper accidentally throwing it away thinking it is garbage.

4. Hide things in dirty clothes

I will often hide electronics or passports in socks in the middle of my backpack or suitcase, underneath all of my dirty clothes and underwear. I figure the chances of a dishonest housekeeper really wanting to dig  through all my dirty clothes are slim.

5. Hide money in personal products

Pill bottles (not see-through), empty re-useable shampoo bottles, etc. I often put cash and a credit card in a box of tampons (the small non-applicator style kind such as O.B.) and put the tampons on top of it.

Hiding your valuables while traveling--tampon boxes are a good hiding spot
Hiding your valuables while traveling

6. Find sneaky spots in your hotel room

Inside shower curtain rod or inside zipper covers to cushions are good places for hiding your valuables. Inside a ziplock baggie in the toilet tank might be okay, but I feel like this is the most obvious hiding location thanks to all the drug and crime shows. Also, ziplock baggies are not waterproof so don’t submerge your phone or electronics in water in them. Under the mattress is another one that is pretty obvious–if you do I’d recommend doing it only after the housekeeper has been by to make your bed and shove it towards the middle, not under the edge of the mattress.

Don’t forget that you hid stuff! You don’t want to leave it behind.

7. Tip your housekeeper

If the custom of where you are traveling is to tip your housekeeper, you should do this anyway. However, leaving a tip for the housekeeper may alter a disgruntled housekeeper’s view of you into an appreciative guest, vs another asshole tourist. Maybe not, but it’s always a good thing to do.

8. Use ATMs that are attached to a bank or embedded in a wall, preferably when the bank is open

As a side note, we generally don’t use stand-alone ATMs when traveling. I’ve heard too many stories about stand-alone  ATMs being fake or tampered with to read card info or steal your card and tell you that the machine is broken. In reality, someone comes and collects your card or card info later after you’ve left.

ATMs that are part of banks are always the safest bet. If you can’t find a bank ATM, one that is embedded into a wall is the next best option. If you can, try to withdraw your cash during bank hours–there is often a security guard or place to withdraw off of the street, and if your card does get eaten by the machine you can go in and get help.

9. Get a waterproof pouch for the beach

Never leave important stuff unattended on the beach. Get a waterproof waist pouch for your money, phone, etc and take it into the water with you. Lifeproof cases for phones offer extra water protection as well.

 

There’s never a guarantee that you won’t get ripped off when you travel, but don’t be paranoid–just be smart. Hiding your valuables while traveling is kind of an art, the key being not to keep it all in one place. Do what works best for you, and have a safe trip!

 

Working Travel into Your Budget

Working travel into your budget: ways to turn a travel dream into reality. You just have to want it bad enough.

 

The biggest reason people don’t travel is money. They look at pictures of tropical beaches or European castles longingly, thinking, “someday I’ll go there.” They may think they will travel after they retire. For a lot of people though, working travel into your budget can be a bigger hindrance after retirement than before. You also might not be physically able to do as many things when you are older as you think you will.

In reality, biggest obstacle in going somewhere may not actually be money, it is probably just planning and prioritizing. If you want to travel, here are some ways to do it on a tight budget:

 

1. Prioritize travel

This is the number one thing you have to do if you want to travel, and it is the most difficult. If you want it, you have to keep your eyes on the prize. Maybe those beat up shoes can get you through another year. Maybe you don’t need to upgrade to the new iPhone. Maybe you can cancel your cable package and stream Neflix and Hulu instead. Maybe you can eat dinner out with your sweetie at the bar during happy hour instead of a nice 5 course meal.

You won’t have room in your budget for everything you want, so you will have to pick and choose what is a priority and what can wait or isn’t necessary. Cut back your expenses in whatever way you can. If you’re single, consider getting a roommate. If you want it bad enough, you can work it out.

I’m a planner, and I plan our vacations way in advance and save for them. I did this even when I was working at a low paying job with no paid vacation right after college. I had to save up for the vacation, plus enough to cover my expenses for the week I wasn’t going to be working. I did it, and you can too.

2. Research your trip and get a savings goal together

Once you know where you want to go, research airfare on Expedia, Kayak, or other travel sites. Booking.com is my favorite site for booking and researching hotels, along with Tripadvisor. Get a ball park figure together of how much plane tickets cost for your destination. Next, figure out what you want to see and where you want to stay and get cost figures on those. Add on and overestimate a total budget for meals, souvenirs, tours, gratuities, and anything else you think you might spend money on. Add it together and you have your final figure.

If the figure is higher than you expected, don’t despair. It just means you will have to cut back your expenses a little more, or postpone your trip a bit longer while you save. If you want it bad enough, you can make it happen. Figure out how much you think you can save per month, and then divide your total figure by that amount, and you have an idea of when to plan your trip.  There are sites with nifty travel calculators that can help you with this as well, such as this one on IndependentTraveler.com.

 

3. Use your tax return as a savings plan

I’ve always claimed zero on my W-4s so that my employer takes the maximum amount out of my paycheck for federal taxes. Yeah, I could put that extra money in a savings account and earn interest, blah blah blah. But I know that won’t happen. I would probably just spend it. This is always how I afforded cheap spring break getaways in college. Every year, we get a decent amount of money back when we do our taxes and put that towards our next vacation that year. It’s a “bonus” we can always count on, and it helps.

 

4. Set up sneaky savings transfers

You can “trick” yourself into saving by setting up an automatic savings transfer for your paydays of a low specific amount, like $20.00. You probably won’t notice the money moving over when your paycheck hits, and it can add up. I do this in small amounts into what I call my “oh shit fund.” It’s what I withdraw from on a rainy day (or if I’m a bit short the day before payday). This can also work towards a travel savings goal. The savings are still there for emergencies, but if everything goes well, it will put you ahead on your savings plan.

 

5. Don’t be afraid of alternative lodging

You might need to adjust your travel plans if you can’t afford everything you want to do. Research budget hotels on Tripadvisor and check out Airbnb.com. Also consider hostels. Most hostels cater towards young travelers staying in multi-bunk dorm rooms, but many have private rooms  as well, some with private bathrooms. We stayed in a really nice hostel in Bangkok with a private room en suite for only $35 a night. Hostels also cater to those without a lot of money, meaning they often have free wifi, laundry facilities, kitchens and fridges for making and storing your own food, lockers for keeping your stuff safe while out and about, and helpful staff willing to provide info and sometimes book tours. We’ve stayed in some nice upscale hotels before and hostels, and we really enjoyed the hostels. It is easier to meet like-minded travelers from all around the world at a hostel–you might make some new friends and get some good travel tips as well. Not all hostels are great though, make sure you do your research and read reviews to find the right one.

 

6. Travel closer to home

Sure, Thailand is cheap when you get there, but flying there from North America is not. Distance = high cost. If the plane tickets are too much, you might consider another inexpensive destination closer to home like Mexico or Costa Rica. Don’t give up that dream of Asia or Australia though–you’ll just need to save a little longer for those trips. If you really want to go on a trip now, try one with cheaper airfare.

 

7. Travel in the off season

The best times to travel are right before the peak season starts or right after it ends. The rates are lower and the crowds are thinner. We went to Costa Rica during the rainy season in September, and aside from obsessively checking NOAA’s hurricane watch the days before departure, it worked out great. Tours had only a couple other people along with us, and we practically had the town of La Fortuna to ourselves. It rained every day, but in the afternoon and evenings only. We did our sightseeing and tours in the morning when it was sunny, and napped in the afternoon when it rained.

We did travel in the off-season in September again to Mexico, and it was a bit too hot for our comfort. We had the beach to ourselves, but had to tuck ourselves completely into the shade of a palapa umbrella like vampires. Do some research and see what time of year would be the best weather-wise for your destination as well as cost. Shoulder seasons in between the low and peak seasons are often a good bet as well.

 

8. Stay in one place or one city to save money on transportation

I always want to see everything, so when we go to another country I try to pick a few regions of the area we are going and spend a few nights in a few different places. It gives our trip diversity and more adventure.

However, transportation to all those places can add up quite a bit. If you need a vacation and are on a tight budget, go somewhere that has a good amount of stuff to do and see in one place. Hotels will often give discounts on online booking sites for extended stays as well.

 

Working travel into your budget can be tricky, but if there is a will there’s a way. We just became first time homeowners, so I’m sure we’ll have things come up that will throw a monkey wrench into our savings plans. Whatever happens, we will still find a way to travel. Prioritize your travel adventures over other non-essentials, and it will work out for you. Be patient and stick to the goal.