Small Group Travel – Middle Agers

As a travel agent over the past few years, I’ve heard all the excuses. The general consenses is that group travel means 50 seniors on a big coach bus going at a turtle’s pace, following a colorful umbrella and stopping at each boring monument.

Please, let me educate you on a whole world of options that you are missing out on because of this widespread misconception! Please, open your mind for a few minutes and listen to what I have to share!

What if I told you that you can have a super-fun, yet still relaxing, vacation that combines the best of travel without all of the stress of planning it and booking every single minuscule detail?

What if I told you it doesn’t matter if you are single, in a relationship, married or divorced that travel is for everyone?

What if I told you that people from 18 – 99 travel in groups by the thousands every year with other people around their age and with similar interests?

What if I told you that you can travel anywhere in the world and never HAVE to be alone? (although if you choose to be, you certainly can)

I’ve done my fair share of solo travel over the last few years. In fact, I’m sure that’s what most of you think I do all the time, but that’s not true! I’ve been on several amazing group tours in the last four years as well, not to mention a whole bunch of day tours that I adore!

Myanmar – Tucan Travel
Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand – G Adventures
Chile & Argentina – Intrepid Travel
Belize – G Adventures (this itinerary is now a National Geographic Journey.)

There are group tours for everyone and some are specific to an interest, such as photography or cycling. Others are specific age groups, such as 19 – 20 somethings or seniors. Then there is a whole world of options for the middle agers, as well as for the mature 20 somethings and the extra active 60 – 70 somethings.

I hear these comments all the time …

“I can do it on my own.”
* Yes, you can. And, if you want to because you want to prove to yourself that you can, that’s great. However, if you simply don’t know the other options, you should learn why they are so awesome. Group travel isn’t any less adventurous, less rewarding or less worthy. It is often less stressful and better value though!

“I can do the same thing for cheaper.”
* Hmmmm …… No, actually you can’t. You might be able to book your flights, accommodations and entrance fees to the sites for slightly cheaper than a group tour, but you won’t have a local guide with you to share his or her stories and opinions (which, in my opinion is worth far more than the $200 bucks you saved and all of the hours it took you to book everything online!) You may or may not have a qualified guide to explain each of those sites you paid to get in to. You probably won’t have any meals included (maybe breakfast). Are you skilled at paying off people at the border to let you into a new country without a hassle? hmmm … And, if things go wrong at any step of the way, you are on your own. So, yes, you can book ‘something’ for cheaper, but NO, it will never be the same.

“I don’t want to travel with strangers.” (My favourite)
* So, you think you already know everyone you are going to see in the new country? (sarcasm). If you don’t want to travel with strangers, why are you traveling at all? If you want to be surrounded with your old familiar friends, that’s great, stay home. But, as soon as you head to the airport, you are with strangers (sorry to break it to ya). So, embrace the fact that you are surrounded by strangers, get out of your comfort zone and get to know them.

Oh, you meant you “don’t want to travel with other travellers”. You want to meet locals.
Alright, so I agree, traveling in a group of other travellers is not the same as meeting locals. However, if you think you are just going to arrive in a new country and locals are going to flock to you and become your friend, well …. it’s not really like that. It takes work to get to know the locals. So, if you are the extroverted type who can go hang out at a bar and talk up the bartender, or you go to the same market every day and chat with the lady selling fruit, that’s great. Not everyone can do that and don’t forget about the language barriers. If you think that you are getting to ‘know’ the locals by going to an all-inclusive resort … don’t forget, they are being paid to serve you. Chew on that for a few minutes. Is that what getting to know the locals looks like to you?

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent lots of time with amazing locals in many countries, but personally, I find it takes a lot of effort and a lot more than just five or six days to get to know people. Most times you have one encounter with a local. It might last five minutes or five hours, but you can hardly really understand an entire culture in that amount of time. You are only just scratching the surface.

Traveling with other travellers isn’t a bad thing! You get to learn about cultures and people from all over the world while you explore a destination that you are all interested in. You meet new friends (which you can then go visit in their countries – they are ‘locals in their own country you know!) and you have that little bit of comfort in knowing someone nearby likely understands why you are uncomfortable with the thought of eating a bug, a worm or spider.

“You’re so good at traveling by yourself. Why would you want to ruin that with a group tour?”
* Traveling solo is tough. It’s a whole other blog post (or series). Yes, I love my freedom and my alone time, but I also hate being lonely, going to dinner by myself and often being overwhelmed at the ‘newness’ of everything. Sometimes, it is just better to be with people who are seeing things for the first time with you. And, sometimes it is just a whole lot easier when someone else is in charge and deals with any mishaps or problems that arise! So, yes, I love traveling solo, but every time I’ve taken a group tour I’ve loved my experience and appreciated that things were just taken care of for me. I’ve also always loved my local guides and picked their brains for all kinds of information for further travel in their homeland … you know, the things you don’t find on the internet and in the guide books!

So, just what happens on one of these group tours?

For starters, most of them run in a similar fashion but all have their key features. In general, what will happen is you’ll meet with your group and tour leader on day 1. You’ll likely go out for a group dinner to get to know each other and go over the itinerary for your tour. Often (although not planned) this will turn into your first night on the town with your new friends, exploring the local bars or street foods. Sometimes your local leader will join you and other times, they will direct you to the best local spots, avoiding the tourist traps. You are not obligated to take part by any means, but it is a great way to get to know the people you’ll be traveling with. I’m not a drinker, but I often join in on the first night out just to chat with people.

Itineraries vary a great deal depending on destination and level of activity, but I can tell you from both personal experience and from selling hundreds of group tours, that there is something for everyone.

You’ll have a mix of included activities and free time. You’ll have some timelines that must be followed (for example 8am in the lobby to catch your 10am flight). And then other times your leader will say ‘this isn’t in the itinerary, but how do you feel about … ?’ However, don’t get wrapped up in thinking that you are tied to the group the entire time. Often the group will have a guided tour and then free time to explore further on your own, or with other group members. Often tour leaders will give options for free time, but that doesn’t mean you have to do any of them. Almost all tours have half or full free days scheduled in for you to take in specific activities of interest, to relax, shop or explore. Group tours are a good mixture of having friends and organization, but having freedom to do your own thing as well.

Picture yourself exploring a turtle sanctuary on a beautiful Costa Rican beach, hiking the inca trail in Peru, swimming with turtles and rays Mexico, meeting local farmers and helping with their harvest in Vietnam, hot air ballooning over Love Valley, Turkey, searching for the big five on a safari in Africa, enjoying wine tastings in France or Italy, climbing to the top of ancient ruins in Belize … the list goes on and on. And you don’t have to do it alone!

When I’m on a group tour and there is free time, I’m the first to go off on my own and do my own thing. I’m an introvert, so after two or three days spending a lot of time with a group, I find I need my own time. However, many of the people in my past groups have become great friends and spent all of their free time with other members of the group, exploring common interests in the new destination. It’s your choice. Go with new friends or chill on your own. Read a book in the sun or play cards with your new mates! Whatever makes your vacation perfect, that’s what you should do! Your local guide will be around to help you make plans and book tours whether you go it alone or in a group of new friends.

On the last night of the tour, there is usually another group dinner to enjoy the local food and beverages, which often turns into an evening outing drinking beer or wine with your new friends. It all depends on the group whether this becomes a wild and crazy goodbye party or a few friends at the pub sharing laughs. And, believe me, I’ve seen many a 50 or 60 year old have one too many and the 29 year old heads off to bed early. You just never know! And then the next morning, everyone parts ways to return home or continue on their journey.

It paints a little different picture than a group of 50 seniors on a coach bus stopping at monuments, right? And, I should point out that the 30 to 50 somethings love to nap on buses, likely more so than the seniors!

No matter what you are looking for, or where in the world you want to travel, don’t ever think that doing it on your own is the only option! It is AN option and many people love doing the research, the challenge of struggling with the language barriers, paying off police officers and border crossing guards, finding their way in a new land on their own. Many people love the challenge of saying they survived all of the obstacles. But, for many, all of the unknown is enough to make them want to stay home.

What I’m saying to you is get out there and travel. If you want to do it on your own, do it! If you’re apprehensive about doing it on your own, go with a group. And, don’t let your ‘do it yourself’ friend convince you that group tours suck. Group tours might suck for them, but might be perfect for you. After all, the same ‘do it yourself’ friend is probably great at fixing the electrical and plumbing in his / her house too, does that mean that you are?

Have you travelled on a small group tour before? Drop me a note in the comments about where you went and what you loved about your group!

If you are interested in exploring the plethora of options for group tours out there, get in touch. I’d love to help you, your friends or your parents get away and see something new in this beautiful world of ours!

Contact me at stucker@tpi.ca

 

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Who uses a travel agent and why?

Shari Tucker in Thailand

Wouldn’t you love to visit Koh Phi Phi Thailand? Let’s Chat

With so much information on the internet, why would you want to use a travel agent? And, with booking flights online being so easy, why would you have someone else do it?

So many people ask me why I’m a travel agent and assume that we agents are a dying breed. On the contrary, we are becoming more and more in demand in specialty areas. My specialty being Adventure Travel and Around the World travel, with secondary passions for sailing and river cruising.

Well, here’s what you need to know!

I am a home-based agent with Travel Professionals Internationals. That means I work under their brand, with all of their products and resources, but I do so from a home office instead of a fixed office. They are a large, Canadian based company entirely made up of home-based agents. Our head office is in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

In my case (I’m a little extra special), I have decided to travel the world and take my home office with me. I move around a lot and my work goes with me. It’s not like being on vacation because it isn’t very restful, but it is certainly adventurous!

I get to experience both the tourist and the local side of destinations and get a real in-depth experience that I can than pass along to my clients. You can’t argue that hands-on experience in travel is a pretty big value-add when you are taking on a new adventure.

I’ve been to over 30 countries and have several more coming up in the first few months of 2016. I bet I can tell you some interesting stories about places you’ve never even considered visiting!

My clients are almost all Canadian and I work with them just as I would if I were in an office in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Most of the time this is by email, but I can Skype, whatsapp, twitter … whatever works for you! The only difference you’ll see is that you can’t meet with me face to face in an office setting. Skype is a pretty good replacement for that though!

I can’t stress enough that, although I am traveling, I am not on vacation. I spend my working hours to send you on vacation and that allows me to continue living this amazing lifestyle where I can to see our amazing world. This gives me pretty high motivation to keep my clients happy and give them the best advice and vacations possible!

So, how do I get paid? Don’t worry, lots of people ask and for those who don’t ask, they want to, they just don’t know how to approach it. So, here it is … I’ll tell you so that you don’t have to ask!

I charge a $60 + tax consulting fee per person for any custom itinerary (although if it is an extended trip, such as round the world, I charge based on the amount of research required, so it could be $100 or $120 + tax for a couple or family depending on the destination, length of trip and services required). This would always be discussed up front, not a surprise part way through the planning.

NOTE: If you are booking a straight up all inclusive package, cruise, or group tour, I do not charge the consulting fee. This way my rates are the same as you would find online, however sometimes I get better deals due to our supplier agreements. Things that you can’t find online!

The $60 + tax fee can be looked at as a consulting fee and you can take as much information as I can provide you in one or two sessions and use it to book on your own, however you wish. The biggest benefit of this is having a trusted source of information from a real person who you know, rather than a random google search.

Although google has many answers, it also has many scams, incorrect information, out dated information etc. Wouldn’t you rather get your information from someone you know?

Or, you can think of it as a booking fee. I give you lots of information and then also go through the booking process for you with each of the individual companies so that you don’t have to (flights / tours / hotels / cars etc). The biggest benefit of this is that it saves you HOURS of time. If you have to call 10 companies in different time zones, sort out details and then give each of those companies all of your personal information to book a tour, it takes hours of time. I can do that for you so that you don’t have to. We also have systems that streamline the process to make it faster and more efficient.

What do you really get out of the consulting fee?
1. It gives you access to me as your personal resource for information. I’ve travelled 30+ countries in the last 7 years with many more on the horizon. I’ve been there and done that in a lot of places, so I have a lot of experience and knowledge to share. Yes, you can get that knowledge from the internet, but you never know how honest it is, was it sponsored, is it old / new / valid / trash. And, the internet can’t tailor information to your specific needs like I can!

2. Further to that, if I don’t have the experience in a particular destination, I can reach out to my colleagues who have personal experience or a gazillion tried, tested and true resources that we have as a company rather than randomly on google. I’ve also sent many clients to destinations that I have not yet been to. I have lots of experience in Australian and New Zealand adventures, but haven’t quite made it there yet. Same goes for Africa, which is on my list for 2016 / 2017.

3. I will spend my time researching your adventure so that you can just go and enjoy without the hassle of figuring it all out. You might spend hours on the internet, whereas I might spend 1 hour through our resources or I might know the answer to your question immediately through personal experience.

4. It gives you a real person to talk to instead of booking online. If you have a problem with your flight, need to make changes, etc, you can contact me. That will save you sitting on hold for hours. Many online sites are now charging booking fees as well, so it is quite normal, although sometimes they are hidden amongst other taxes and fees so you don’t see them.

5. Being a real person, I can give you options that you may not have thought of based on your particular interests / needs. Websites can only know so much about you. Not to mention that I’ve traveled with many of the companies we sell, so I truly know what they are like.

6. Flight bookings. Prices are set by the airlines, not by travel agencies. This is very important because it means that we all have access to the same prices. There are some exceptions but not that many. Generally speaking, if you search the exact same flight route / dates / times and class of service, we should get the same price. If you see a different price online (through expedia vs red tag for example), it is likely slightly different routing. OR, it could be one of them has a different tax or hidden fee somewhere.

Where I am better than the online sites is that I can look for connection options that they don’t see because their algorithm has set rules. I can often get long haul itineraries for the same (or cheaper) than the big online sites AND either get you there faster, or get you a cool stop over at little to no extra cost. We also have bulk buying agreements with most of the airlines, so often I can get you a slightly better price than what is offered online (but not always).

7. Exclusive insider knowledge on specials and discounts. Especially if you are following one of my social media feeds! Twitter – @ShariTucker or http://www.facebook.com/ShariTuckerPhotoAndAdventures
Sometimes we get deals that are only open to our clients at TPI and cannot be found online anywhere. Sometimes we get advanced knowledge of upcoming specials or flash sales (usually on tours, not flights).

8. In case of an emergency, you have someone to help you through the situation. Whether it is arranging an alternate flight route due to a volcano eruption or reminding you to keep receipts and start a claim for travel insurance. If someone falls ill in your family and you need to be with them, the last thing you need to be concerned about is trying to cancel your vacation plans to get refunds. I can take care of that for you while you take care of your family.

Other than the $60 + tax consulting/booking fee for custom itineraries, I also get paid through commissions. (It would take a lot of clients at $60 each to make a living, so don’t be surprised that I get paid in other ways too!)

1. The consulting fee pays for my time / effort / knowledge to help you with your trip. If I were to spend four hours researching options for a client, giving them tips / advice and suggestions and then they booked everything online themselves, I would have wasted four hours and not gotten paid for anything. I’m sure you’ll agree, no one can make a living that way. So, therefore, I don’t work for free.

2. Commissions. Many of the companies that we work with pay us commissions for selling their products. I promise that I will always offer you options that are suited to your needs and you can choose what is best for you. We have hundreds of companies that we have great communication with and we can also work with lesser-known companies as long as they are reputable.

Who works with Travel Agents:
My top 10 types of clients are the following (but others are certainly welcome!)

1. Retirees who want to travel and enjoy doing some online research but have hesitations in actually booking online. Fear of making a mistake or not knowing all of the details.
2. Busy professionals (doctors / lawyers / executives) – They desperately need time off and have 4 – 8 weeks of vacation a year, but they are too busy to do the planning themselves.
3. Solo travelers of all ages – people who are tired of waiting for their friends to travel with them and are ready to see the world. Sometimes I help these people travel on their own, other times in small group tours so they are not so alone.
4. Adventurers – These are people who want to do something active on their vacation that is a little harder to plan on the internet, therefore they look for professional help in booking the trip that is right for their passions and skill levels. Think hiking the Inca Trail, climbing Kilimanjaro, hiking Mont Blanc.
5. People who are looking for round the world trips, complicated flights with multiple cities or stop-overs along the way to a destination. I can almost always get a better deal on these options than what is available on the standard expedia / red tag etc.
6. Groups of people looking to travel together, whether it be extended family or a girls trip. Who really wants to take responsibility for all of the planning for 6 or 10 friends / family? That’s what I’m here as an impartial professional. I gather all of the information, work with you to set the itinerary and make it all happen behind the scenes so you can have a fantastic vacation without the hassles.
7. People looking for sailing trips on large or small boats.
8. Honeymooners looking for something more adventurous than an all inclusive vacation. Whether that be paddle boarding in Hawaii, self-drive through Ireland, swimming with whale sharks in the Maldives or Greek Island hopping.
9. All inclusive Caribbean destinations. Sure, it is easy to book these online, but you’ll spend hours researching the best deals, locations and prices change before you can decide. Agents also come in particularly handy when you have friends traveling from different destinations, but want to arrive on the same dates, or share rooms.
10. Well traveled people who are either tired of doing all of their own planning, or they need new ideas about up and coming destinations that interest them.

Do you fit in one of these above categories?

Get in touch. We’ll chat about your needs and then I can give you suggestions and start the planning process whenever you are ready. I’m here to help. Don’t let the plethora of options overwhelm you. Let me help narrow them down for you!

Who I don’t normally work with, although there are always exceptions!
If you are the type of person who has lots of time, little fear and enjoys doing all of your own research on line, then you may not want to work with me. And, that’s ok. There are lots of people out there just like you!

If you are looking for the absolute cheapest option for anything and are willing to sleep in airports for 12 hour layovers to make it happen. If you enjoy bartering for every last little thing. If you will stay at a 2 star resort in Cuba or you want to arrive in destination and book your hotel when you get there then I’m not the best fit for you. If your money is that important to you, then you probably won’t see the value in paying me to help with your decisions. There’s no problem with this, but we’re probably not a good match.

If you are only booking domestic flights (Halifax to Toronto / Halifax to Vancouver or something into the US), it is likely just as easy for you to do that on your own instead of paying an extra $60 + tax to me. However, if you don’t have a computer, your internet doesn’t work well, you hate researching on line or have 10 people who need the same flight .. Let me help!

If you are going to Disney, I’m not the right person for the job. Disney is a category all of it’s own. I have no experience in this area, but can recommend people who do!

So, now you are armed with all of the information on how I work as a travel agent. My passion is helping people like you see the world and sharing my own experiences. If you are interested in a consultation or getting your next vacation booked, I would be thrilled to hear from you.

I am currently (Jan 2016) in Istanbul. Remember, I am working, not on vacation. The best way to reach me is by email. But, if you’d prefer to talk by phone or skype I’ll arrange a time with you, no problem at all.

Let’s chat!

Stucker@tpi.ca

Adventures in Local Transportation – Philippines Part 2

BUS RIDE – EL NIDO TO PUERTO PRINCESA, PALAWAN

For the three days that we were in beautiful El Nido, I was slightly rattled by the accident that we had seen. There was nothing I could do to help and no way to know if the victims had been alright, but none-the-less, I couldn’t quite get the images out of my head.

When it came time for us to leave El Nido, we booked our van the night before, choosing a 1:30pm departure to hopefully put us in Puerto Princesa after the rush hour traffic and to give us time to sleep-in and enjoy the morning. We paid only 500 pesos ($15 CAD) for the return trip to the city, as we would also need to make our own way to the bus terminal.

After lunch, with our overnight bags in hand, we went searching for a tricycle to take us to the bus terminal. One tricycle driver asked us for 100 pesos.

Me: ‘Hmmm sounds like a bit much, we were thinking 15 pesos each’
Tricycle driver with a sly little laugh: ‘Just joking, it’s 50 pesos.’

I was quick to offer him 30 pesos for the two of us, which he declined, reiterating 50 pesos. We politely declined saying we would try with someone else. He quickly turned the tricycle around and rode off. Not too far down the street another driver asked if we needed a ride and we were able to negotiate a fare of 40 pesos for the 10 minute ride to the ramshackle bus terminal.

It was a bit disconcerting from the beginning when no one seemed to know the name of the company that was on our receipt, but after a couple of short conversations between men at the station, they directed us to a van and a friendly van assistant welcomed us to have a seat. We shifted into our chosen, assigned seats in the front row. We had chosen the front row hoping for a bit of extra foot and knee room, but were disappointed to see a hump on the floor giving us even less than normal foot space.

Two other passengers hopped in the van and off we went, departing nearly 10 minutes ahead of schedule. For the first few minutes, the road was more or less straight ahead and the driver clearly was excited to get going. He sped along the straight-away passing every vehicle (fast or slow) along the route. My friend and I exchanged a few questionable looks, but didn’t say anything.

The friendly assistant quickly became over friendly chatting away, asking questions and leaning over my shoulder to yell out the window to people of the side of the road to see if they needed a lift. Again, my friend and I exchanged glances wondering just what type of bus we had ended up on.

After picking up a local or two along the highway, the assistant leaned over me and adjusted the ceiling air conditioning off of me and on to himself. When I shot him a look, he adjusted one of the other vents to me and the one I had been using on to himself. Five minutes later, he moved to a different spot and readjusted the air conditioning that was on me, to him.

This cycle continued a ridiculous amount of times during the 4 – 5 hour transfer. The assistant couldn’t seem to sit still. Between leaning in beside me to yell out the window, to struggling to opening the door, to having a loud conversation with the driver from the back of the van … Not to mention the minimum of 10 times that he adjusted the air conditioning to himself.

Now, I know it sounds selfish that I would want the air conditioning all to myself, but that actually wasn’t the case! There were three ceiling air conditioning vents. I simply wanted one of them on me in the 40-degree heat. For whatever reason, he kept turning the one I was using on him and I would then have to adjust another one to be on me. Why he couldn’t have just adjusted the one that wasn’t in use, I will never know. He was antsy and kept changing seats, so he would change one vent and then change seats and change a different vent. I nearly lost it on him more than once.

As we barreled down the road at top speed passing everything along the way, I found myself thinking about the moto accident we had seen on the way to El Nido and remembering how thankful I had been for our reasonable and careful driver. Now, I felt like I was traveling with the devil!

About 15 minutes into the trip, much to my dismay, the driver’s speed stayed the same despite the hairpin turns going up and down mountains. After a short time, I stopped reaching for something to hold on to when we went around a turn, but instead, just held on for dear life.

As we careened down the steep hills, around corners and then back up again over roads in much need of repair, I thought to myself ‘Time to eat a cookie.’ Strange thought, right? True story … I was not going to die with home-baked cookies in my bag, so I was eating it to enjoy every last crumb … you know, just in case!

Along the way our driver would slow and occasionally stop to pick up new passengers and then put the pedal to the metal to make up for that lost thirty seconds. The craziness of the situation really set in when I realized that the driver of this rickety old van was leaning into the turns like a race car driver. Somehow he was delusional and thought we were in Formual One. How could this be?

Scared to death, annoyed by the unsettled assistant with his loud voice and increasing anxiety, I did the only thing I could in order to deal with it. I found a place where I could balance myself without falling out of the seat, stopped looking at the road and closed my eyes hoping for a nap. I was startled awake with the assistant mistakenly grabbed both sides of my head when he must have been reaching to hold on for a fast turn. I can’t even lie. The look I shot the assistant after his hands had come in contact both sides of my head while I was trying to sleep was a look of death. I managed to go back to a restless nap for another few minutes until we stopped at the halfway point.

Unbelievably, we had arrived at the halfway point in 45 minutes less time than it should have taken. I didn’t dare eat anything for fear that the roller-coaster of a drive would continue and that I would fall ill to motion sickness. After about a 15 minute stop, we piled back in the van with the other six or eight locals who we had picked up along the way and continued our mad dash to the city.

The assistant started up a new conversation with me about an hour in to the second part of the drive, tapping me on the shoulder and asking for the time. I quickly gave him the time. Not two minutes later, I was tapped on the arm and he asked again for the time. I looked at my phone, gave him the time and mumbled … ‘It’s two minutes after when you asked me last time.’ I had never met someone so constantly annoying. All I wanted to do was tune out, breathe and get through the crazy ride. The assistant then leaned in to the back of my seat and loudly had a conversation with the driver about the airport. That was the only word I understood in the local language. Then, a third tap on the arm from the assistant asking me what time we needed to be at the airport.

Seeing as we had bought our tickets specifically with a drop off at our hotel, it was a little frustrating that they wanted to drop us off at the airport. I explained that we were not going to the airport and that we needed to go to Puerto Princesa. A couple of minutes later, the assistant was trying to explain that one van would take us to the airport and another van would take the other passengers in to the city. I again explained ‘No Airport. No Flight. Hotel in Puerto Princesa.’ Who knew if we would end up in the city or at the airport.

To add to the joy of the ride, after another section of continuous S turns with the driver leaning in to each one, I heard the horrible sound of a cough and then a small choke and a splat. One of the two girls sitting in the front seat fumbled around for a plastic bag to give her friend. A couple more coughs and I cringed, now being sure that she was motion sick. I waited for the smell of vomit to permeate the rest of the van. As the poor girl continued to be sick, I wondered why she didn’t ask the driver to pull over for a moment. I then wondered why the driver wouldn’t offer to pull over. And then, my biggest wonderment was if the driver knew that it was likely his fault that this poor girl was motion sick. Had he driven like a normal person instead of a race car driver, he may not be smelling the puke of the girl sitting in the front seat with him, nor would we!

The friend tossed the plastic bag out the window and consoled her friend as we continued full speed ahead.

As we rounded the last few bends and started to see the slow rush hour traffic, it was a relief to know that the driver would have no option but to slow down. Sadly, the girl in the front was still sick once or twice more before the drive was over.

Next thing I knew, I was being tapped on the shoulder again, this time to be told we would be getting out and would need to hire a tricycle to our hotel. After 4-5 hours of life-threatening driving, a loud voice yelling in my ear, being woken by a strangers hands on my head and having the air conditioning re-directed every 10 minutes for no rhyme or reason, my sanity was nearly gone. I slowly and clearly explained (at least twice) that we had paid for the van to take us to our hotel and we would not take a tricycle. The assistant tried to tell me that we would get out at the next intersection and take a tricycle, but I refused, insisting that they drive us to the hotel.

In the end, the few remaining passengers piled out of the van and we continued on, stopping at a gas station along the way into the city. Within about 10 minutes, we were dropped off at the door to our hotel. Never had I been so happy to arrive at a hotel and get out of a vehicle. I was thankful that evening for being safe, for having a friend to travel with and endure the horrible ride with and I knew that eventually I would look back and have a laugh at the situation. I was wrong about that part though … two weeks later, I’m still not laughing.

Word of the wise:
If you are traveling from Manila to Palawan and plan to see both El Nido and Puerto Princesa, book one flight in to one airport and the other flight out of the other airport. This way you only have to do the crazy long drive once.

Secondly, we were really happy with the van and service of Camarih Palawan Shuttle Transport and I would strongly suggest NOT traveling with a company whose name starts with “B”. Sadly, they took our receipt when we got into the van and we had no idea that we would want to remember the company name, so I never asked for it back, therefore I can’t recall the company name. Do a little research, pay that extra $2 – $5 and make sure you arrive safe and sound.

Buenos Aires in Review

Throughout 2014 and 2015, I have been busy seeing the world and not spending much time in Nova Scotia. I am officially nomadic as I have no home and keep on moving. However, I’m not a full time tourist. Don’t be fooled! I work throughout the week as a travel agent and then I explore when I can.

During my stay in Buenos Aires other people often told me I ‘needed’ to see so much more. They are used to tourists who arrive for a few days and try to jam in all of the history and sight seeing they can. Those tourists are on vacation and have little time and no work to do. It is a very different situation than living in a place for four months and needing to make a living while you are there. Can you imagine 120 days straight of full-on sight seeing and then going home to work for six to eight hours each night? Phew! Talk about exhausting. And that’s why I spread my excitement out!

Sometimes I look back at my four months in Buenos Aires and get a little sad that I didn’t do more … but then I look at this list of what I did do and I’m back to being content.

Street Art Tour – Early in my stay I joined Travel Writer, Yvonne Gordon, on a wonderful Street Art tour with Graffitimundo. If you haven’t read my blog about it, check it out!
Tren de la Costa – Costal train stopping at several communities, with a final destination of El Tigre.
El Tigre – A lovely community boasting the National Art Museum and lovely boat rides along the delta.
Lujan – Known for it’s beautiful basilica. They happened to be having a community mural project that weekend so I got to meet lots of great street artists who were painting large canvases of their own pieces to be displayed together around the city.
San Telmo Market – Blocks and blocks of street vendors, artisans, dancers, performers and musicians that takes place every Sunday in the bohemian district of San Telmo.
House party with Karaoke – Does it get more local than a 2am house party with Spanish karaoke?
Bar – no name – The bar actually did have a name, although I’ve forgotten it, but it was not displayed on the outside of the building.
Trip to Fray Bento – A couple of locals offered to do a road trip with me to Uruguay to withdraw US money. We ended up driving several hours, crossing a large bridge and stopping in Fray Bento, Uruguay. The saying, it’s all about the journey and not the destination is very fitting for this. The road trip was a lot of fun; Fray Bento, well … not much to see here!
Gallerias Pacifico – A high end mall in a historic building with beautifully restored original art work.
Samba – One of my local friends was a member of a Brazilian Samba band. Not only was I invited to attend for the experience, but I was encouraged to participate. My instrument of choice … the cowbell.
Samba Percussion Show – Although I didn’t quite fit the bill for performing in the Samba band after practicing for one song, a few weeks later I attended one of their live performances and was treated to lively Samba music, along with my first live Samba dancing.
Plaza Serrano – A lively plaza in the heart of Palermo filled with tourists and locals. Boutique shops, bars and an artisan market make it a great meeting place for people day and night, all week long.
La Boca – Known for it’s colorful history, literally, with brightly painted buildings and a multitude of different artists. La Boca as a whole is a very poor area of the city and one of the highest crime areas. The tourist section has been revived and consists of two small streets. Talk to anyone and they highly recommend not leaving the tourist area. In fact, most locals avoid it as well.
Puerto Madero – A beautiful port area with higher end bars, shops and restaurants.
Feria de Mataderos – A travelling market straight out of the countryside. They bring their artisan crafts and delicious foods to different communities throughout Buenos Aires Province and do dance, singing and percussion performances as well.
Cafe Tortoni – One of the city’s oldest and best known cafes with history back to the 1800s.
Costanera Norte – An area along the edge of the river with yacht clubs, a university and museum. Well known for the delicious food (it was too busy for us to get in to eat) and nice walks along the coast.
Vos Spanish classes – For one week I attended Spanish classes at a school in Recoleta called Vos. It restarted my motivation when I felt it was failing. The staff and teachers were very welcoming and I met a couple of great other students.
Trip to Iguazu Falls – A short flight (or a very long bus ride) from Buenos Aires, you have easy access to the beautiful Iguazu Falls that has a tri-border with Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. Known as soon of the largest falls in the world.
Trip to Colonia, Uruguay – I did a full day trip on my own to Colonia, Uruguay in pursuit of US money. Some people love Colonia and speak very highly of this quaint little town. Personally, I found it a little lack-lustre and was glad to be headed back home on an early afternoon ferry.
French Food Market – My friend Holly invited me to a French Food market one weekend which was tucked away by the train tracks about 10 blocks from Raul Scalabrini Ortiz Street. With street food trucks and pastries, along with some French live music and the biggest glass of wine ever served, it was a delightful afternoon.
Family Asado / birthday party – One of my friends had a family and friends get together one evening to celebrate her birthday. It took place in the upper kitchen of the house, made especially for cooking for family gatherings. The asado (barbecue of sorts) was filled with chorizos, churipan, pop, chips and pickles, not to mention the tasty chimichurri!
Plaza Francia / Recoleta – One Sunday afternoon while wandering around Recoleta, which is known as one of the rich areas of the city, I stumbled across Plaza Francia and another lovely artisan market. Handicrafts, street food and musical performances. Grab a spot on the grass or stroll the walkways and enjoy.
Don Silvano Estancia – A Sunday visit to the Don Silvano Estancia on one of the coldest days of winter in Buenos Aires turned out to be a joy. Despite the fact that it was too cold outside to watch the full horse demonstration, the asado was delicious, the cultural show was great and we even had a very short crowd participation / tango lesson.
Live Radio show – Late one evening a couple of friends took me for the experience of seeing one of Buenos Aires’ famous live radio shows. I didn’t understand much, but it was great to sit in a live crowd and feel the energy. To me, it felt a bit like something CBC would do back home. They had a little politics, a little comedy and then live acoustic musicians at the end.
Food tour  – I had a great little food tour in the Recoleta area one evening that included such yumminess as empanadas, a variety of asado meats and salad and delicious ice cream.
Volunteer tour – I traveled with a group to the outskirts of the city to visit a not for profit organization for kids in a very poor area of the city. The organization provides a hot meal and a safe place for the children to be after school when often their parents aren’t home. We played soccer with a few of the kids and helped prepare the meal for the evening.
Mushka – A musical theatre about a prostitute who fell in love with one of her callers. It was a short performance, but well done and I happened to see it on it’s closing night. It was at the Gallerias Pacifico in the Borges theatre which is small, but cozy.
Night bike riding through the parks – Despite the heaps of traffic in Buenos Aires, lots of locals use bicycles for transportation from point A to point B. They even have free rental services for locals for one hour at a time. For many others though, cycling is a form of exercise and relaxation. Late one evening I went cycling with a friend from my apartment in Palermo to the parks nearby. Amazing to me that there were still tonnes of people out walking and running right up until we headed back to my apartment after midnight.
Marketing Class – One of my friends thought it would be interesting if I went to a business class with him one night at a small school. The topic was social media for your business and although I didn’t join in any discussions, I was excited that I understood almost everything that the instructor said.
Casa de la Fondue – I’ve never been to a fondue restaurant before, so why not try it in Buenos Aires with their amazing cheeses. A couple of platters and two different pots of cheese was a great way to share time with my new friends before I headed back home to Nova Scotia.
Cuba Mia – I had great plans of going out salsa dancing regularly while in Buenos Aires, but that didn’t happen. Instead, I went out only one night and that was for my going away party. Cuba Mia is a great dance club with live music and was packed the night we were there. It’s definitely somewhere I would check out again!

There are still some experiences that I missed out on and will save for my next extended visit to Buenos Aires. Here are a few that I would recommend if you are heading that way.

Theatre, theatre and more theatre – Although I went to one theatrical showing – Mushka at Borges – this city is filled with theatre performances of all kinds – one of the top theatre destinations in the world! I would love to see a symphony, a ballet and a really amazing tango show. Cirque de Soleil would have been amazing as well, but they were not performing during my time there. Fuerza Bruta is supposed to be a great show. It started my last week there, but tickets sold out incredibly fast and I was not able to get in before I left. There is also the Ciega Theatre where you take part in shows completely in the dark while both blind performers and others provided interesting shows for your other senses. From comedies to monologues, dance to musicals, there is something for everyone!

Bomba de Tiempo – Monday nights in Almagro there is a high energy percussion show that I hear is really fantastic. It runs from 7pm – 10pm (so they say). Would have loved to have gone but it just didn’t pan out. Next time.

Ecological Reserve – For weeks I planned on going to the beautiful, open, green space near the river in the central area of the city. For weeks, I couldn’t drag my butt there on my own. It is a great space for walking, cycling and bird watching, but I couldn’t get motivated to explore it on my own. So, next time it’ll be top priority when I need some nature-time to recharge. I swear, alone or with a friend, I’ll make it there next time.

Rose Park – I can’t believe I missed this one. Well, in all honesty, I didn’t miss it, I did circle it on my night city bike ride and saw the potential beauty. But, next time, I will enjoy this park with all of it’s scents and sights.

Yes, I agree, there are a million things to do in this fabulous city as a tourist or as a local. As a city, it is one of my favourites. As a country, I love it. But, the economy and government need more than a little work. It is a difficult society to live in despite your best intentions.

I bid farewell to Buenos Aires in August after four months. It was officially the place I lived the longest in the past year, so it is as close to home as anything right now. I suspect I will return in 2016 as the launching spot for a trip to Patagonia and possibly to stay for longer. Since I’ve lived there for four months, it will give me a bit of the familiar home-like feel after another six or seven months on the road, waters and in the skies.

I hope that we will meet again Buenos Aires, my friend.

Cheat the Yankee

I truly love the differences that come with all of the cultures of our beautiful amazing world. I love that people everywhere are the same, but yet somehow totally different.

I’ve been to Dominican Republic twice before, including a seven week stay in 2012. I’m here again now for approximately eight weeks and I’m enjoying *almost* every second. I’ve been sick with a couple of different issues which was not so enjoyable and I’ve had a couple of frustrating situations. However, overall, the people, the beach, the sun, the food, the new friends from here and afar, the little town of Sosua has not disappointed me.

Anytime you travel you have to be particularly careful of tourist scams. In my opinion, high priced excursions that you book in advance of travel or on the resorts are not scams. If you agree to the price in advance, if it seems reasonable to you in whatever culture you are used to and you are happy with the quality of service you receive when you take the excursion, then it’s not a scam. However, if you arrive, take the excursion and then there are additional ‘required’ costs at the end that you weren’t advised of, that is a different story.

Also don’t forget that the extras are offered at additional cost because people DO buy them at that price. If they weren’t getting any sales from it, they wouldn’t be in operation, or at least not offering that particular product. Business is the same everywhere in that they are all looking to make money. They will not do something at a loss. However, in some places you have to be more careful of the business ‘ethics’ and ‘scams’ than in others.

Many people book excursions in advance for the ease of it as well as the security of working with a reputable company. For those two things, you are paying a higher price than you would locally. However, if you try to book the same tour locally you have to consider that you have to barter the price on your own, spend your time researching the options and you aren’t sure on the security and standards of the local company. You are also on your own if something goes wrong rather than having the backing of a larger, reputable company. Prices can go either way locally for the exact same product. It can be the same as what you were offered by your travel agent or tour operator, or it could be lower or higher. It all depends on the agreements in place between the international and local suppliers. Some times they’ve negotiated special rates because they bring in bulk clients, which also means that the local companies are very careful to please and meet the standards of the international companies. Or, sometimes you can find a local supplier and pay less. Just keep in mind that you take your chances when you do that.

However, there are lots of real ‘scams’ out there. In fact, many people joke (but they are really serious) that the national past-time of Dominican Republic is actually ‘Cheat the Yankee’, not baseball as they would have you believe. Now, not all Dominican’s do this. There are certainly fair and honest people here. But, there are also many crimes of opportunity and tourist scams that you should be aware of

Take for example this one which is quite common in Dominican Republic. Here’s a little story so you can relate …

My friend and I left from Sosua to go to Puerto Plata to enjoy the summit to Pico Isabel de Torres on the only Cable car in the Caribbean. We hopped into a carro publico (public taxi), paid our 50 pesos each for the upcoming 45 minute drive squished in the back seat of a car similar to a Honda Civic with a total of six passengers. The driver, plus two passengers in the front and then four passengers in the back seat. This is the main source of transportation here so it’s nothing new to us and for one dollar, it’s really a pretty good deal.

Keep in mind, the public transit drivers don’t speak English, the remainder of this story takes place with me speaking Spanish.

As we got close to Puerto Plate the driver inquired where we needed to get off. I told him the centre of Puerto Plata would be fine as we were heading to the Teleferico. He asked a couple more questions, but I couldn’t understand him. My Spanish is much better when I can see someone speaking and hear them. In this case because he was in the front, driving, and I was in the back with the music blaring, I just couldn’t hear well enough to understand.

When we stopped at the central station in Puerto Plata everyone piled out, including me. Before my friend was able to wiggle her way out of the car, the driver told us to stay in the car to go to the Teleferico. I explained no problem, that we would find our own way there, but he insisted (nicely) that he would take us there and I got back in the car. Let’s just say I should have known better but for whatever reason at that moment, I thought he was genuine. And, I was able to hear and see him when we had the conversation, so I understood him well.

It was about a five minute car ride to the middle of the mountain where you buy your tickets for the cable car. He dropped us off and as I started to get out of the car he turned around and told me it would be an additional 100 Pesos. The conversation went a little something like this (in Spanish):

Driver: That’s 100 pesos
Me: No. Why?
Driver: Because I brought you all the way to the Cable Car.
Me: But you didn’t tell us there was an extra charge for that. We would have taken other transportation from the centre.
Driver: But I brought you, so you owe 100 pesos more.
Me: (getting agitated) No. I’m sorry but I’m not paying you. I tried to get out of the car and you told me to stay. You did not tell me there was an extra fee. (My friend and I exited the car)

We walked about 50 meters to the front entrance of the Cable Car pavilion when the driver and one of the Cable car employees approached us. I’m not sure which one spoke to me first, but at this point I was really annoyed with the driver.

Driver: You owe me 100 pesos.
Me: You should have told us that before you brought us here. We wanted to get off in the centre, but you didn’t let us. You told us to stay in the car.
Driver: But I brought you here, there is a charge for that.
Me: Not my problem. We were going to take other transportation but you wouldn’t let us. You didn’t tell me there was a fee. I’m not paying you.
Driver: Fine, I’ll get the police then.
Me: As you wish.

He beckoned the ‘police’ nearby which was actually only a security guard, not officially police. I’m sure he thought that the idea of the police was enough to scare me, but I didn’t back down.

The security guard sauntered over from the other side of the parking lot. When he was close the Driver immediately began to explain his side of the story. His side, of course, was simply that he drove us here and then we refused to pay. When he was finished, I immediately asked if the security guard spoke English. Of course he responded no! And I’m pretty sure I snarkily said ‘Of course not!’ Not for a second did I actually believe this as he was security at a huge tourist attraction, but whatever, I couldn’t be bothered to argue over that too. So, I yammered on in Spanish explaining how we had tried to get out of the public car but he told us to stay and that he didn’t tell us there was an extra fee for this.

By this time, there was a group of about five to seven of us. Myself and my friend, the driver, the security guard and several staff from the cable car who wait outside to greet people.

The security guard just stood there listening. I quite honestly don’t know if he even said a word other than ‘No’ that he didn’t speak English. And even then he might have just shook his head. HA HA

At some point one of the staff asked how much we had paid and I explained that we paid 50 pesos each when we got in the car in Sosua until Puerto Plata. 50 pesos each was already slightly high as I believe it is only 45 pesos, but I hadn’t asked for change, so I wasn’t going to argue over it.

It was then they asked why I didn’t want to pay the extra 100 pesos.

Although my friend tells me I wasn’t loud, I was certainly angry at this point. I was arguing over 100 pesos (approximately $2.50 CAD). Doesn’t that seem ridiculous? In the back of my mind it seemed ridiculous to me too, but I knew this was a regular occurrence and felt like I needed to take a stand so that they would know it wasn’t right to take advantage of tourists.

I also know that this has happened to other tourists and generally they just pay the money and back off as they don’t know what to do, what’s going to happen or even if they are right or wrong. For that reason, it is intimidating and the locals who are looking for opportunities can take advantage. I wasn’t going to let that happen to me … at least not this time.

Driver: It is only 100 pesos. That is not expensive.

And then I kind of lost it.

Me: Just because it is only 100 pesos doesn’t mean it isn’t expensive. Just because I’m white doesn’t mean that 100 pesos is nothing. I’m not new here. You should have let us out of your car or told us the price in advance and then we wouldn’t have this problem. We could have easily taken a moto concho or walked. We tried to get out of the car but you told us to stay. You are not honest. You didn’t tell us there was a fee. I’m not paying.

What I really wanted to do was take out 100 pesos and tear it up in front of them to prove that it wasn’t about the money. I’m glad I didn’t though. It would have been a waste!

I turned to the security guard ….

Me: Ok. Now what? I’m not paying. What happens now?

There was some mumbling and grumbling between the driver and the cable car staff and a short conversation between them that I didn’t understand.

Then one of the staff said ‘Ok. Ok. Go ahead’. I looked at each of the staff and the security guard and sincerely said ‘Thank you.’

My blood was boiling. For one, I don’t like confrontation. Secondly, confrontation in a foreign language? Yikes!

Go figure, once we finally got inside it started to rain and the teleferico stopped! Thankfully only for a short period of time, so we were able to get on about 30 – 45 minutes later.

It took awhile before my blood pressure returned to a regular level.

Funny enough, one of the staff who had been involved in the argument approached me while we were waiting to buy tickets and told me how good my Spanish was. Hmmm … maybe if you want to sound good in Spanish you just have to get angry so that you talk faster and they won’t hear your mistakes!

One of my friends in Canada said to me today “Don’t forget, you aren’t in Canada anymore.”

My response? “What are you talking about????? I would NEVER EVER EVER have argued like this if I was in Canada! I would have been arrested! LOL I only did it because I was in Dominican!”

By the way, for those of you who might be concerned (i.e. Mum & Papa) … I don’t do this on a regular basis. In fact, this was the first time. And, if there had been any real chance that I was going to be arrested I would have paid the $2.50 to stay safe.

How much do things cost in Chile

I’m going to be a good girl and try to keep track of my expenses while I’m traveling. This is not an exciting blog post, just simply for information purposes.

1. For tax purposes. When receipts are in other languages it is hard for my bookkeeper to determine what’s what.
2. For information for others traveling to these destinations.

November 14th

Reciprocity fee – $132 USD – credit card – Good for the term of your passport. Great if you’ve just gotten a brand new 10-year one. Not so good if you are replacing it that same year.

Taxi – minibus – booked after I picked up my luggage, but before leaving airport – $31 USD – credit card
* I checked with several other travellers who had gotten their own taxi outside the airport instead of a minibus / transfer through the company inside the airport. Some were able to negotiate down to about $25 USD, but most were $28 – $30 USD. It depends how good your negotiating skills are.

Ah Hotel – Historical Centre – Santiago – $132 for 2 nights – continental breakfast included

$50 US – changed at a ‘cambio station’ near Plaza del Armas – $29800 Chilean Pesos

Lunch – 1/4 chicken, french fries & pop – 4450 Chilean pesos – approx $7.50 USD
2 water, coke, 2 litre juice – $4.50 USD

Full Day tour – Vina del Mar & Valparaiso – 34 000 Chilean pesos – approx $57 USD – credit card

Lunch buffet with tour at Municipal Casino in Vina del Mar – $23 USD – credit card
Dinner – 4450 Pesos – approx $7.50 – cash
Tip at dinner – $350 pesos – cash
Tip for Felipe (guide) – $2000 pesos – cash

Taxi – 2 kms between hotels – 2450 pesos (gave him 3000 – an extra .50c or so)
Lunch at Da Nui on Portugal Ave – Pollitos y arroz, coke, jello w/ bananas – $4100 pesos + $400 pesos tip.

Dinner at a steak restaurant – Steak and veggies, coke, dessert – $34 USD including tip

I also gave a few coins to the baggage boys who loaded my luggage on to the bus in Santiago and unloaded it in Mendoza. This isn’t required, but it is simply easier. They make it very clear that they are expecting tips. There is no set rate, a few coins will do. They won’t allow you to put your own luggage in or remove it. And, if you refuse to tip them be prepared for a scene. To ensure your luggage isn’t damaged purposely or left behind, just chuck up the dollar or two.

How to travel solo and not be lonely

Every time I head out on a trip, whether it be an all inclusive vacation or to the other side of the world, everyone always asks ‘Are you traveling alone? All by yourself?’. My answer is pretty much always the same … ‘I’m traveling solo, but I’m never alone.’

It’s funny how needy we are (people in general). Everyone thinks you need to have someone else in order to travel, a partner or a friend. People don’t seem to get the whole travel solo idea even though millions of people are doing it. And, not just doing it but LOVING it.

All different types of personalities travel alone … some like peace and quiet, some like being social and meeting new people, some are nearly hermits at home, but when they get to a new country they flourish! Some people enjoy travel but there partner, spouse or friend does not or can’t get the time off. Everyone has their reasons.

Travelling solo gives you a great deal of confidence in yourself because it is up to you to make good decisions and hopefully non-harmful mistakes. We all make mistakes, it’s all about learning from them and hopefully making mistakes that make you stronger in the end. There is no one there but you to take responsibility for yourself and you truly learn a lot from that. Not to mention how much you learn about yourself! What you like and don’t like, how much stress you can handle, how resourceful you are …

It is true that I often get on the plane and leave my home in Halifax solo … yes, at that point I am alone – wait, not really … there’s another 100 people on the plane plus staff and crew. If I was really lonely, I could strike up a conversation with my seat mates or the staff, but most of the time I take that time to decompress, de-stress and get excited. Then I land in a new destination and there’s a whole new world out there waiting for me!

Don’t ever let not having a partner to travel with hold you back! Being alone is good for you sometimes and when you’re not ok with being alone, you just have to know where to find people … then you can make friends!

Generally speaking, people around the world like travellers. If you are lost, they’ll help you. If you are scared, they’ll get you to safety or take you under their wing. If you friendly, they’ll be friendly back. Ok, ok … unless you get yourself into some crazy gang area or unethical situations … then you might be on your own, so don’t do that! But, almost everywhere I’ve travelled I’ve found good people who want you to enjoy their country.

As we grow older, we forget how to make friends. As students, you spend time in class with people and create study groups. You hang out after class and have drinks together. But, as adults, we work and we don’t always want to work and play in the same sandbox, so where do you find friends then?

Students, hold tight to your best friendships in university. Work at keeping in touch with your best friends while you are traveling or when you move to different parts of the country. Sure, each of you are going to change, but you’ll always be bonded by memories of school years. These friendships can lead to interesting travel opportunities later on depending on where your friends spread out around the country and the world!

Here are a few tips for traveling solo but not getting lonely.

1. Small Group Adventure Tours – These tours are usually made up of 10 -12 like-minded travellers and are guided by a local. You get to go to some really interesting places and get a local’s insight along the way. You’ll meet new friends, see new places and not be alone which is great to stave off loneliness, but also for safety.

Have questions about which tour company is best or you or need help deciding on your destination? As an Adventure Travel Specialist & full service travel agent, I would love for you to contact me to discuss your many options! Keep in mind that prices are the same through a travel agent as online, but you get the benefit of personal experience, professional expertise and a real person to help sort out all of the details of your trip! For enquiries, email stucker@tpi.ca

2. City Tours – Not up for a week or month long small group tour? That’s ok, you can still join in on day tours. Again you’ll get to travel with a local and see some of the ins and outs of a city or area plus you’ll meet the others in your group and make plans for other day tours or hanging out for drinks later. As a solo female traveller, my favourite are the city by night tours. If I’m alone, I don’t normally go out in the city at night, so I love to go on night tours because I can meet people and travel the streets safely. It’s also nice to have a group to dine or have drinks with.

3. Bars – Although you have to be careful, bars are still a great place to meet people. Although I’ve never been very good at this one, lots of people are and I think it just takes practice. Find yourself a seat at the bar. Make sure you sit in the middle so there is a free seat on either side of you. Strike up a conversation with the bartender – male or female, doesn’t matter. Ask them about their community, their life, other fun things to do. Soon enough, you’ll probably have people sitting on both sides of you joining in the conversation. Just remember to keep your wits about you and be safe. Watch your drink at all times to make sure no one slips anything in it!

4. Hostels – Travelers of all ages use hostel accommodations these days. Staying at a hostel immediately gives you a sense of community. You are amongst fellow travellers. Don’t be shy. Ask someone if you can share their table at breakfast and start chatting about your travels. Some hostels have a bar or activity nights or a sitting / lobby area. Don’t be afraid to hang out there and chat with other travellers! Many a great travelling friendship has been born through hostel connections.

5. Couch Surfing – Looking for cheap accommodations? You can’t get much better than free! People offer up their couch (or spare bed) for travellers passing through for a day or two, sometimes longer. These folks are also often eager to show you around, tell you about their community and sometimes even take you out on the town. What a great way to meet new friends and stay on budget! Just make sure you check references and reviews carefully. If you ever arrive at a home and feel uncomfortable, don’t worry about anyone’s feelings, just keep yourself safe and leave the situation. Enjoy the local living and respect the people you stay with. Then, when you are done traveling and have a home of your own re-pay the favour to other travellers and offer your couch up for surfing!

Until the day when I meet the perfect travel partner who I am fully in tune with, I’ll continue traveling solo and loving every minute of it. You get to make the decisions that affect the outcome of your travel experience and you don’t have to be responsible for anyone else’s decisions.

Get out there. Step outside of your comfort zone. Start small with a week long trip to somewhere on the same continent. Challenge yourself to be fully responsible for your own happiness and travel alone. Cast aside the possibility of loneliness. With the few tips above, you’ll be well on your way to meeting new friends and having no shortage of fun options no matter where you travel. Once you get a taste of the freedom that solo travel provides, watch out … wanderlust is a disease that can’t be cured!

*** Credit Card Insider’s Visitor Experience department has requested that I write this post as a resource for their current and potential clients. If you wonder what credit card might be best for you, they are a great place to start. Give them a quick click and check it out! This is an unpaid post, solely on a collaborative basis.

Air BnB – I found one – Now what?

You’ve spent hours looking at pictures of lovely homes in the area you want to visit. You’ve read so many reviews from happy travellers that they are all blending together, but now what?

Exactly what do you do once you find a rental that you like?

For me, I save it to my favourites and write a little note about why I like this particular home, what was unique or anything else that caught my eye – good or bad.

For example: Great location – close to train / great reviews / no internet / lots of natural light
For example: Third floor, no elevator / no kitchen / reviews say wifi slow / 20 minutes from town / great host reviews / great view and balcony / breakfast included

Once I’ve exhausted my searching and narrowed down to a little (or large) list of my favourites, I start sending messages to the hosts to check on availability and pricing. This is also your time to ask any questions about any of the rules.

Air BnB does a great job at making things easy for you. Once you’ve written your first message, the site automatically saves it for the next time you write to a host. You don’t even have to copy and paste the message and you most certainly don’t have to start from scratch! Just take a moment to make sure the details of the message are pertinent to the host and property you are interested in and then send away! You might want to update any questions you have about particulars of a specific location such as asking about the size of the pool and how often it is cleaned; this is only relevant if there is a pool!

A big tip prices ARE negotiable. That’s right, you can ask the hosts for a special offer or discount. They can say yes or no, but it never hurts to ask! I don’t suggest trying to bargain like you would at a market in the Caribbean, but asking for a better price is acceptable. Every single host that I wrote, I asked for a discount … in Cinque Terre I reasoned it with ‘because October is low season and I’m renting for five days’ … However, I also found out from several of the hosts that October isn’t low season at all and that they are actually still very busy that time of year! Having said that, almost all of the hosts that I wrote, who had availability for my dates, gave me at least a small discount.

One rental started at $840 CAD and went to $751 CAD for five nights stay.
Another rental started at $463 CAD and went to $407 CAD for five nights stay.

When the host agrees to a discount, they can form a special offer for you with the details / price at the discounted rate and then you can decide to book or decline it. This is all done through the Air BnB mailbox that you will have once you set up your profile. Don’t worry, it isn’t another email address to remember, just part of your Air BnB profile. They can also put a deadline on the special offer so that you don’t take a month to decide when they could be booking up with other people.

If you simply get an email from them stating that they will give you a discount, that is not good enough. In order for it to be official, you need to get the Special Offer from them (a link that you click) and accept it. If it is simply done through email, you could arrive and be expected to pay the original price. You don’t want that to happen!

For Cinque Terre, I wrote to about five different hosts. My favourite home was out of my price range, but I asked the host for a discount and he obliged as I was traveling solo and his location was meant for up to five people. However, in the end I decided to go with a cheaper option (1/2 the price). Interesting enough, the host from my favourite location had also mentioned that he is involved with a tour company that offers wine / boat / cooking tours that he could give me further information on if I was interested. Although I didn’t book in to stay at his rental, I made sure to write him back and get more details on his tour company. I’m working on it now to see if they work with travel agent partners. If they do, I’ll be sure to share the information soon!

I’m excited that I will be enjoying my very first Air BnB experience in the lovely little fishing village of Vernazza in Cinque Terre, Italy. As I mentioned above, it was not my favourite rental option, however, it was my favourite within my price range, which is very important!

Eva’s Rooms #3

Maurizia, the host, has been absolutely lovely to correspond with so far and I suspect she’ll be a lovely host on arrival. Of course, I’ll be keeping you posted if you’re following along on my journey!

If you are considering trying Air BnB for the first time, please take a moment to sign up with this promo code. When you book your first stay it will give you $27 off, and I will get a credit as well. Share the love!

*** NOTE: As a travel agent, Air BnB is not a product that I sell or that I can assist you with professionally. They are private home rentals and you enter into an agreement with the hosts at your own risk. I am simply sharing my personal experiences and thoughts about the product because I love travel … just like you!

Air BnB – the ins and outs

When I first decided to really look into Air BnB, I started my Air BnB search with Cinque Terre, Italy. It is series of five fishing villages in the Italian Riviera where there are very few hotels. I’ve been looking for accommodations for two sets of honeymoon clients recently and coming up with nothing acceptable, only very basic or very luxurious accommodations, nothing in between. Both of these honeymoon couples decided to use Air BnB for their stay in this region, but still chose to book hotels with me in other locations, so now I’m giving it a go for part of my travels too!

I started looking through the listings which you can filter by price and various amenities. I found no shortage of great options in all five of the Cinque Terre villages.

What should you look for?
First of all, determine your wants and needs for accommodation and set up your filters to narrow down your search and make it less overwhelming. No point in sorting through 300 options if only 10 of them meet your price range! I set the filters to choose my price range and then in the amenities, only listings with internet as I will be working, not vacationing. I also choose if I want a private room, apartment or entire house, or sometimes I leave all three just to compare my options and the pricing variations.

Just like renting in your home town, if you rent a room from someone within their house, rent is cheaper than if you rent an apartment. And, renting an apartment is cheaper than renting a stand-alone home.

Once you have your filters set and hit search, you’ll be given all of your matches which you should look through thoroughly. They show up with the basic information: a photo, price and location. For me, I look at the main photo of the home on the profile and then I go directly to the written details. I look for what amenities are included (kitchen / internet / Air Conditioning / TV / Cable etc), how they describe the location, house rules, any extra charges (sometimes you have to pay electricity separate on longer rentals) and often if they give discounts for longer rentals it will be mentioned in the profile.

You’ll also want to take quick note of the cancellation policy category. If it is flexible, strict or long term. You can find descriptions for each of these here. It’s up to you, how confident are you that you are making a firm booking on those specific dates? If you are unsure, you may want the flexible option so that you don’t lose too much money. But, understand … not everyone offers flexible cancellation. If folks are in this to make money and you cancel your month long rental two days before you arrive, they may not be able to re-rent it. So, it is understandable if they put partial refund policy in place instead of full.

Further down the page you can check out the reviews. There are two types of reviews you can access. There are reviews on the specific property you are looking at and then there are reviews for all of the properties that the host has. Both are good to check out as you want to verify that the property you are looking at is as it says, but you also want to verify that the host is reliable, personable and honest.

On the right side of the website you can also see stats on the host’s response rate and timeliness. This is a great way to tell which hosts are organized and on top of things. If they have a 90% response rate within one day, you can be pretty sure they are going to get back to you quickly. If they have poor stats, that might be an indication that they will be difficult to track down in destination to get your keys or if a problem arrises. Something to keep an eye on.

One really great thing about Air BnB is that you get the chance to review every place you stay at AND the host cannot delete the review. That means if you give them a bad review, it shows up in their list and they can’t hide it. However, I would say about 90% of the hundreds of reviews I’ve read on various properties have been good. They seem to be more genuine and much less picky than Trip Advisor Reviews which you have to take with a grain of salt.

If the property and the host have good reviews, then I’ll check out all of the photos that they have.

Things to look for when you are reviewing the photos of a property:
1. Do they show all of the rooms? Kitchen / bedroom / bathroom / sitting areas / outside the property / pool
2. If it is listed as a two bedroom, do they show photos of both bedrooms or just one?
3. Do they show two or three photos of the kitchen (for example), but you notice that each one has different cupboards or layout? Then you need to ask which photo is correct for the property you are enquiring about. Sometimes it is a mistake, other times the same host has two apartments to rent within the same facility so they post photos of both. If you notice discrepancies though, it is in your best interest to ask before booking.
4. Do the photos match the amenities listed? If a pool is listed, is there a photo? Is it a full size pool or a lap pool? In the bedroom if you can see the entire room, is there only a fan or can you see an air conditioning unit? Does the kitchen have fridge / stove or cooktop / microwave? Or, is it just a kettle and a sink?

If everything seems to match your criteria for a good rental, then save it to your favourites and move on to the next one. Hopefully there will be a handful of really great options that become your favourites and a few others that would work if your top choices don’t pan out.

Air BnB – What’s that?

Just what is this Air BnB thing that you hear your traveling friends raving about? I’ve been hearing people talk about it for about the last year, but I’m sure it has been around much longer than that. There’s a long list of sites that offer similar (yet different variations) of private home rentals, Air BnB is one of them. Other variations are couch surfing, home away, flip key … the list goes on.

Since I started working in the travel industry and also running the Hello World meet up group I’ve been hearing great feedback about Air BnB. So, here’s the low-down for those of you who don’t know anything about it.

Air BnB is an online database of privately owned homes or rooms for rent around the world. Just like the real world, the homes vary in every way you can imagine! People can choose to rent out a room in their house or they can rent out their entire house. The ‘house’ could be an apartment, condo, shack, hut, mansion, castle or even a two person tented hammock.

As a travel agent, this is not something that I sell as it is dealing directly with private homeowners, so as an agency, we have no contracts in place for business partnerships with these individuals. It is something that you do *at your own risk*.

Air BnB is an online company dealing directly with homeowners, real estate agents or property management companies. They are not hotels or franchises of any kind and to my knowledge, do not work with travel agencies. They are simply homeowners like you and I … (oh wait, I sold my condo so I could go travel! So, not like me, but maybe just like you!)

People rent out their homes or a room for all different reasons …
1. To meet new people with similar travel interests and help travellers out.
2. To make money. They may own two or more homes, live in one and rent the others out. Or, they may be in the Property Management business.
3. To pay their bills. Maybe the owner is traveling, but has a place they have to pay for. Renting it out while they are away helps offset bill costs.
4. To boost their other travel related businesses. Many of the Air BnB hosts also run tour companies and although I haven’t found them pushy at all, they are certainly interested in having you try out their tours while you are there.

It is up to you as a traveler to decide what type of accommodations you are looking for and what price you are willing to pay. Do you want to be immersed in the culture and live with a local family? Do you want the privacy of your own apartment with the ability to cook meals? There’s a lot of variety out there, now it’s time to start sifting through it all.

The Air BnB website is very user friendly. I started browsing options immediately and only created a profile when I was starting to narrow down options and wanted to save them to my favourites.

Now, just why is a travel agent with access to thousands of hotels booking a product that she doesn’t even sell? Well, it’s pretty simple actually …

1. There are some places in the world that are very difficult to find hotels in.
2. I love to live locally and meet the people of the community. Hotels aren’t very social, usually. And, because I travel with so much equipment (camera / laptop etc), I can’t really stay comfortably in hostels for safety reasons.
3. Hotels can be incredibly expensive for a long term trip like my own, so for some parts of my trip, I’m doing Air BnB rentals to save money both on accommodation and on not eating every single meal at a restaurant.

Having said all of that, my fall trip is 80% hotel accommodations. I’m using Air BnB for my rental in Cinque Terre because it is a difficult location for hotels and I’ve chosen a rental in Dominican Republic that is an apartment with kitchen as I will be there more than a month. Doesn’t hurt to have a little variety throughout your travels!

Just in case you want to give Air BnB a try for somewhere you are planning to go, you can sign up with this special promotion link and we’ll both get a discount on our next booking! $27 off could be one free night for you AND for me!

Just keep in mind that Air BnB is not a product that I sell through the travel agency. We have no affiliation with it and take no responsibility if you have a bad experience. This is to be undertaken 100% at your own risk. This blog is purely from my personal perspective on traveling.

If private rentals just aren’t up your alley or you want a combination of hotels and private rentals, I’d be happy to help you out with finding great hotels / tours and packages for your next adventure!