So after reading "Buying airline tickets for your next adventure vacation - Part 1" you have decided not to use a travel agent and that now is the time you should start looking. These recommendations are primarily for people who have to be somewhere on a specific date by a specific time. If you have flexibility, there are additional options that will be addressed in another blog post.
1. Do you live some place that Southwest Airlines serves and if so, do they fly to where you're going? Southwest has excluded themselves from all the search engines so the only place you can find their schedule and prices is on the Southwest website. Although they are no longer truly a discount airline, there are 3 reasons they are my airline of choice.
- They don't charge baggage fees. If you need more than a carry on, this means you can subtract $50 - $100 from their price when you compare it to their competitors.
- They have a great cancellation policy. They won't give you a refund, but you will have a credit for the full amount you paid to use for up to 365 days. And they make it easy to use that credit.
- Their employees' morale is high. I've chatted with several flight sttendants and I'm convinced that it isn't just for show. I like to support companies that treat their employees well.
2. Regardless of whether Southwest is an option (and it isn't for international flights), you probably want to see what else is available. Here are our favorite websites and why.
Note: All the websites we recommend are actually travel-specific search engines, meaning that they search a variety of different websites including the major airlines (except Southwest). You may find different prices on them so it definitely is worth checking more than one. At the same time, there are lots of them; these are the ones we look at.
- Kayak.com (http://www.kayak.com/). If I was only going to check one site, this is the one I would choose. Kayak has an intuitive interface and many ways to filter results all at the same time - by airport, duration, take off or landing times, layovers, airline etc. If you have lots of choices, Kayak can help you quickly sort through them based on your preferences. For common routes it usually has a Price Predictor, which shows you how low prices have fluctuated over the last 90 days and, based on an algorithm, their best guess whether this is a good time to buy or whether you should wait because prices might drop. You can also set up fare alerts for specific routes, which is a good way to get a feel for price fluctuations if you're not needing to buy now. However, these aren't flight-specific; knowing that the price has gone down $20 without knowing if it's on the flight you're interested in may not be helpful.
The only cons I've found are that I've sometimes found better prices and flights on one of the other sites I'll mention.
- Google flights (https://www.google.com/flights/). This is my new first stop website because it is blazingly fast and has a clean and simple interface. It also gives you tips such as being able to save X dollars if you fly a different day. In addition there is a world map on the initial page with prices for lots of destinations based on your departure city and date. Is it that useful to know I could fly to Tromso, Norway for $1,071 on February 21 from Washington, DC? Maybe not, but it's fun!!
The cons? It doesn't have filters other than other nearby airports. If, for example, you can't leave until 12pm, there isn't a way to limit your flights to those parameters. It also has a box at the top called Best Flights, about which it says "We chose these flights to give you the best trade-off between number of stops, duration, and price." Sometimes that seems accurate but sometimes not (like an American flight that was $10 more expensive and 30 minutes longer was listed over its Delta counterpart.) Is there an advertising consideration? If so, you can still see the other options so just be sure to look.
- Hipmunk (http://www.hipmunk.com). Hipmunk has my favorite interface. It uses bar graphs that allow you to instantly see how long flights are, how many layovers and how long each one is, and what time they take off and land. Another great aspect is the default sort order, which is their "agony index": a combination of price, layovers, and length. This absolutely assures that you don't overlook a much better flight that costs $10 more but saves you 4 hours of travel time. It may or may not find you the cheapest flight.
So why isn't this my go to site? Three reasons: 1) it's slow, sometimes mind-numbingly so - although that may be improving. 2) There have been several instances where the flight I selected "was no longer available". Really? Why waste my time then? 3) You pick your outbound flight and then you pick your return flight. So you might really like your outbound flight only to find there is no good return flight paired with it. It's still worth a look but don't spend too much time there.
There are a couple of other websites to use in specific situations.
Skyscanner (http://www.skyscanner.com) covers all the small discount airlines in other countries, of which there are a growing number. If you have trouble finding an acceptable fare, consider flying to another city and look for a cheap flight from there. When I was going to London and then Dublin last year, it was less expensive (and actually a better connection) to book a roundtrip ticket from Baltimore to London and a roundtrip from London to Dublin. The only caution with this strategy is that your two tickets will not be connected electronically; if you have trouble on one flight you aren't entitled to any help, even if it's the same airline.
If you have a multicity itinerary: For test purposes, I looked at an itinerary that went from Baltimore to Managua, Managua to Madrid, and then back home from Madrid. Using a website that only lets you search leg by leg (e.g. Google flights or Hipmunk might take forever as you go down blind alleys on your second or third leg and have to start all over again). This is another case where Kayak.com really shines as it searches for all 3 legs and presents the options as a package. The best option I found was $1932 after I filtered out flights that took more than 16 hours.
It's also worth taking a look at Orbitz (http://www.orbitz.com) one of the oldest and largest online booking websites. Personally, I have never found them that useful and they are another site where I've had the "flight is no longer available" experience. But you can look at itineraries that involve more than 2 cities. Still, when I tried it just now, the only flights it showed from Madrid to Baltimore were on LOT Polish Airlines with a time of 49 hours and 41 mins. And it was more expensive than the one Kayak came up with.
But the winner in my test case? Google flights, which quickly found acceptable flights and was $1751 because it combined flights on American and United.
One other suggestion here - if you go back to a website that you have been looking at, delete your browsing history first. The websites say that they won't track your activity and show you a higher fare just because they know you are very interested. But honestly, I don't believe it. The last time I returned to a site and only found a fare that was higher than the first time, I deleted my browsing history. When I returned for the third time, I saw the same fare that I had seen the first time. While Google is probably one of the biggest collectors of personal information that exists, the Google chrome browser has easy to use privacy settings and makes it simple to delete browsing history.
If you have websites that you like that I haven't mentioned, please leave a comment with what and why - we're always interested in learning!
Incidentally, we just updated our Ebook on Getting Ready for International Travel. If you haven't downloaded the previous one or if you've misplaced it, you might want to download it again. It's clear, concise, and practical and it's free. For once, you'll get more than you paid for!
I've written a blog post about this previously but there are some new considerations and some new websites that make it worth updating. This advice is oriented towards the person who is considering or has booked a specific adventure vacation and therefore is locked into specific dates - perhaps you have a day or two of flexibility but you're not in the position of being able to go anywhere or anytime.
There are three issues to consider: 1) when should you book your airline ticket; 2) should you use a travel agent; and 3) if you book your own tickets, what sites are most useful? I'll look at the first 2 questions in this post and consider the third one in a second.
When should you book your airline tickets?
In the original blog post, I suggested you start looking not earlier than 4 months and not later than 3 weeks. Those are still not bad guidelines, but it's not that simple. Airlines have gotten very sophisticated at projecting demand and basing their pricing on that - the cost of your ticket has virtually nothing to do with how many miles you're flying. If you are going to a popular destination at a popular time of year (e.g. the Caribbean in February, Florida during Spring Break, Europe in July, or home for the holidays), you might start looking 6 to 8 months in advance and you should definitely book early while there are still lots of seats. As planes fill, prices will go up. That is particularly true if you are flying from a small airport, on a route with limited competition, and/or to a place of high demand for your particular departure city. For example, if you live in Michigan and want to go to Florida this March, hopefully you already have your tickets booked. If instead you're going to Minneapolis, you can probably wait a few more weeks.
Of course if seats don't get sold the prices may go down (one website reported that on average, the lowest price was 3 weeks before the departure day); but you take the risk that seats will be sold out and/or prices will go up. You also have to factor in your time and anxiety level. If you think you found a good price, just book it and don't look again. If you don't find a good price, then set up a fare alert. Maybe the price will never come down but at least you will have had time to adjust to the fact that you are going to pay more than you hoped.
Warning: if you haven't flown recently, be prepared for sticker shock. Prices have gone up significantly on many flights in the last couple of years. With continuing consolidation of airlines, this is not likely to improve soon.
Should you use a travel agent?
Travel agents charge a fee (the one we work with charges $35 for domestic tickets and $45 for international flights) and may or may not be able to find a flight that is cheaper than you can find on your own. But in addition to saving you time and relieving you of the paralysis that sometimes descends from looking at too many booking sites, a huge advantage is that you have someone to help you when your flight is delayed or cancelled. Rather than trying to get through to your airlines' call center which is being inundated by 1000s of other stranded customers, you call your agent and she takes care of it, finding you the best alternative there is.
The major disadvantage is that, if you're like me, it's hard to know what the optimal itinerary is until you actually see all your choices. Price is the single most important determinant for me, but it's not the only important thing. I might be willing to pay an additional $50 to get home four hours earlier or go a day earlier to save $120. But maybe I won't - I don't really know until I see exactly what the choices are.
So what websites do we use when we're booking flights? I'll cover that in the next post. There are a couple of new entrants to the crowded field of airline booking sites. And the most surprising thing is that you can't rely on just one!
After the last blog post about How to Stay Warm in Winter a reader asked that question. And in this winter of unrelenting polar vortices and plunging temperatures, it's an important consideration.
Like hands, feet are more prone to get cold since your body attempts to preserve core body warmth by skimping on blood flow to your extremities. But that's where the similarity between hands and feet stops. Hands get cold because you often expose them directly to cold air as you take off your gloves to use your fingers, and because your fingers have alot of surface area.
Feet get cold because 1) your feet sweat. You may not feel it, but they do; 2) your feet are in contact with the freezing ground; and 3) like skin everywhere on your body, there is an imperceptible layer of moisture that protects the skin and needs to be protected. In order to keep your feet warm, you need to consider each of these.
1) Wear synthetic or the new wool socks. Good brands are Thorlo and Smartwool. I say new wool because in the old days we used ragg wool socks, which have their own set of problems. If you're going to be out for more than a couple of hours, bring another pair to switch into if your feet get cold.
2) If you are someone who can wear liners (some of us get blisters from liners), use a sweat-wicking pair as your first layer. You do not, however, want to wear two thick layers unless your boots are really roomy. Otherwise your feet can be so tight in your boots that your circulation decreases and your feet actually get colder.
3) Boots are your most important decision and what you buy depends on where you live and what you need them for. Like every other piece of clothing, you want your boots to be waterproof but you also want them to be breathable and there is always a tradeoff. Completely waterproof boots will also be completely unbreathable. But in cold and especially wet weather, it's a tradeoff worth making. In that case your best choice is to buy insulated boots that have a removable felt liner that you can take out and dry. Sorels are a common brand. The liner acts as extra insulation, particularly from the ground, and the fact that its removeable means you can dry it out. If you live someplace with predictably cold weather, these are well worth the cost.
But what if you live someplace that isn't ususally cold, it's just this winter (think Mobile, Alabama this morning). It's likely you couldn't find Sorels if you wanted to and you won't need them for long anyway. In that case, take your roomiest pair of boots, put some neatly folded newspaper in the bottom for an extra layer of insulation and then seal them up with a layer of duct tape on the outside. Or instead of duct tape, put a shower cap over each boot. Fashionable? Well sure, in that quirky kind of outdoors way. And definitely functional.
4) Get chemical heaters. These are little packets that you activate by crunching them up and they give off an amazing amout of heat. Do not put them next to your bare skin. But a packet placed inside your boot at the tip can keep your feet warmer for hours.
Remember, keeping your feet warm is not just a matter of comfort but of vital safety. Your feet are very susceptible to frost bite, as evidenced by the number of mountaineers without ten toes. But being adequately prepared can make going out in the cold fun and safe.
One of our guides just returned from the Canadian Rockies Hiking holiday, a hiking trip in the Canadian Rockies, and wrote "A participant suggested a topic for a blog...basically, it was 'why we are carrying all this stuff and wearing hiking boots when others are wearing flip flops and not carrying a damn thing' ".
It's a great observation!! I immediately started thinking of the time I climbed Mt Katahdin in my early 30s in a cotton tshirt and shorts on a gorgeous hot summer day. We had food and snacks in a pack but that was about it. We got up to the plateau where it started drizzling. Undeterred we walked across to the summit and sat to eat our lunch, while the drizzle continued and the temperature plunged 20 degrees. Deciding we needed to get going, we headed for the path we intended to take down. Unfortunately it was the kind of path that required being able to hold on to rocks. Our hands were so cold that we literally could not use them, so that path was not possible. When I turned to discuss our options, it became clear that my hiking buddy was past the point of coherent conversation and in the first stage of hypothermia, where apathy is the most common symptom. Finding a boulder where we could get out of the wind, we stood and held each other until our body warmth followed by some snacking got her mobile and thinking again. We returned the way we had come, reached the bottom safely, and knew we had been lucky to get away with being so ill prepared.
"Be Prepared" is not just the Boy Scout motto, it's the motto of everyone who spends significant time in the outdoors. What you should have with you will vary with the location and the time of year, so our packing lists are not all the same. But let's look at some of the common items and why we carry them.
- Hiking poles.There isn't a hiking trip we offer where these aren't on the list. The only difference is whether we put them in the Essential or the Recommended category. Most of our guides use them routinely on any hike for purposes of knee and energy conservation, and getting a great upper body workout. But when you're going steeply downhill or when you're tired, they add a large margin of safety.
- Synthetic clothing. When we climbed Katahdin, our cotton clothing got soaked and at that point was actively leaching heat from our bodies. Wearing a synthetic tshirt and having a fleece to pull out of our packs, even if we didn't have rain gear, would have made all the difference.
- Rain gear. But we were really dumb not to carry rain gear just because it was a gorgeous morning when we started out. Weather can change quickly and in unforeseen ways, especially in the mountains. Whether you carry a rain jacket and pants or just a jacket depends on where you're hiking, but a jacket at least should automatically go in your pack. One of our guides leading a hiking trip in the Swiss Alps ran into a hail storm on the day they did the 10 mile traverse from Schynige Platte to First. What could have been a dangerous situation remained an inconvenience because they all carried full rain gear and fleece.
- Hiking Boots. Hiking boots aren't always essential. If the path is flat and smooth, then wearing flip flops might be all you need. But what flip flops and athletic shoes don't offer you is arch or ankle support, or protection from rocks - all requirements for most trails. A pair of hiking boots that fit your feet well should be comfortable. Yes, I have seen a woman descending a Grand Canyon trail in heels. I can't imagine what her feet felt like on the way out (assuming she didn't break her ankle on the way down).
Probably 49 times out of 50, you will carry more than you end up needing. But that 50th time, when bad weather comes out of nowhere, the trail is unexpectedly eroded or rocky, or what you thought was going to be a 6 hour hike ends up taking 9 hours, you will be delighted to have what you need to stay safe and warm.
Like many travelers, the first time I went to Switzerland I read Rick Steves "Switzerland Through the Back Door". His guidebooks often have suggestions you don't see in others so they're always worth looking at. In the Lauterbrunnen Valley he recommended staying in Gimmelwald rather than Murren, both car-free villages perched high on cliffs above the valley floor. Gimmelwald, he said, was an unknown gem, off the beaten path, much less crowded than Murren. We walked through Gimmelwald on our way to Murren and what quickly became apparent was that there was nothing there - maybe a restaurant that closed at 5, a self-service store for cold drinks and souvenirs, a hotel or two. But the hikes out of the village were very limited and frankly, there wasn't anything to do. We stay two nights in this area on Hiking the Swiss Alps Alpine Pass Route and there is no way we would choose Gimmelwald over the much livelier town of Murren with its restaurants, shops, and multitude of hiking paths. It's interesting that Rick Steves' tours don't either.
Just the phrase "the beaten path" conjurs up a destination mobbed by hordes of tourists who have been delivered by big busses, long lines, human noise, pushing and shoving - crowds that make appreciating the destination incredibly difficult. Especially in adventure travel circles, getting off the beaten path is what we should all want to do - there is even a guidebook series called "Fill In The Blank off the beaten path". And there is always the intimation that if you are a sophisticated and discerning traveller, these are places you want to avoid like the plague.
There's only one problem with this mindset: you're going to miss seeing some pretty cool things. There is a reason crowds beat a path to certain places or sites. Do you really want to visit Rome and not see the coliseum or the Vatican? Skip the Grand Canyon, the most visited National Park in the US? Avoid the Louvre in Paris? Of course not. What you want to avoid, if possible, is having such a crowded experience that you can't appreciate whatever it is that you want to see.
Sometimes that just isn't possible, particularly if the event is time-limited. For example, if an art exhibition is going to be in your city for 6 weeks, you know its going to be mobbed the entire time. There's not really much choice here (unless you're a major donor or have another inside connection). Nope, you just have to decide how much you want to see it.
But often there are steps you can take. So the next time you are thinking about a visit to some place on the beaten path, consider whether any of these strategies can work.
- Can you go in the off season? Every destination has a time of year where there are far fewer visitors. Reservations are easier to get and prices are often less. Generally the weather is not as good and some attractions may close in the off season. For example, some countries' low seasons coincide with their monsoon season. But I remember going to see the Crown Jewels in London in February. It was clearly set up to whisk large crowds of people quickly by. When we went, it was virtually empty and we could linger as long as we chose.
- Can you go either the moment it opens or shortly before it closes? These are almost always the quietest time. If you go as soon as it opens, see if you can start at the most popular part of it - particularly if it isn't the recommended order of things. For example, in Rome we met our tour guide at the Vatican before it opened and she took us immediately to the Sistine Chapel; we got there before any of the other groups arrived. Or go at the end of the day. In some places they shoo you out the moment it closes, in others they simply stop letting people in. Make sure you know what the policy is so you have at least some time.
- Can you get off the beaten path at the beaten path destination? At the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the average visitor stands on the rim and gazes at the Canyon for 15 minutes before going to eat at a restaurant. If you hike below the Rim, particularly if you avoid the Bright Angel and South Kaibab, you will see very few people and experience the true wilderness nature of the Canyon. Alternatively, avoid the South Rim and go to the North Rim that has many fewer visitors and still offers amazing vistas and great hiking.
- Can you mix a little beaten path with a little off the beaten path? Just like I don't think you should visit Italy without seeing Florence sometime in your life, I also don't think you have seen Italy if you only go to the cities. Walking the countryside of Italy will give you a completely different perspective on Italy's history and culture.
The bottom line is that the beaten path leads to some pretty amazing places. Using these strategies hopefully you can enjoy them without the crowds!
"You know all those things you've always wanted to do? You should go do them."
Ever since I saw that quote, I've been pondering it. Specifically, why do we not do things we say we want to? So often women have told me that they really want to go on a trip, sometimes a specific trip and sometimes just any trip, but...
So the end of the year seems like a good time to really sift through our bucket lists and consider each item. I've written this about travel but most of it is applicable to non-travel bucket lists too.
Generally, there are one of three reasons why we haven't done something we say we want to.
1. It genuinely isn't the right time. Maybe it's an issue of time, money, health etc. But the situation will be different in the foreseeable future - we'll graduate from school or retire from our job, our kids will leave the house, we'll recuperate from an operation or our partner will finish chemo. Put those things in your Future Travel Bucket List, with a definite date attached to when you'll do each. Otherwise they may just stay on the To Do list forever.
2. We realize we no longer want to do it. Maybe 10 years ago we wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail or climb Mt Kilimanjaro. But now when we're honest with ourselves, we realize we don't want to camp that long or commit that amount of time and money to one goal. That's OK, we all change. Maybe it's hard to give up something you always thought you wanted to do, but once you make that leap, you'll feel better. And you'll have both mental and physical space to make other things happen.
3. There is some underlying fear that is holding us back. The first thing is to recognize that that is what you're feeling, and then try to articulate that fear as clearly as possible. Often just saying it out loud helps give you clarity about it. For example, maybe you are interested in a specific trip but you are afraid you will hold everyone back. This is a common fear, incidentally. So then it's a question of looking at whether you have any evidence that your fear is true, e.g. you always arrive an hour behind your hiking group. If that is the case, then maybe you need to plan getting in better shape and getting more hiking experience on hiking trips with shorter mileage- both of those will help you pick up your pace.
But often the fact is that we're scared because it's something we've never done before - and doing something for the first time is always scary. You can do an excellent job of researching all the details but there will always be unknowables. What will the other people on the trip be like? The guides? The food? Will it be well organized? Will you be the slowest or oldest person on the trip? In addition you will be allocating two limited resources - time and money - and you want to know that it will be worth it.
But you can't. And nothing you can do will give you enough information. You really only have one of two choices: you can admit to yourself that you'll never do it and find things that aren't as scary; or you can feel the fear and do it anyway. Imagine yourself on your deathbed and think about how you'll feel if you never do whatever it is. If you feel no regrets, then let it go. But if it feels like it would be a loss, then this is the time to get over the hump.
One thing I've found helpful here is to think through what the worst case is. When I started Adventures in Good Company, I had a well paid very secure job with great benefits - that I didn't love. The idea of leaving it to start a businees (with no previous business experience) felt pretty terrifying. So I thought about what I was really scared of. The major fear was that the business would fail. Once I articulated that, I knew that the worst that would happen is that I would have to go back to my previous work, but that ending up bankrupt and homeless was not a real risk. And then I knew that trying and failing was infinitely better than not trying.
It's OK to decide not to do something - just make sure that it's a decision, rather than waiting until you really are too old or infirm to do it.
Happy New Year!!
The first time I started to realize what a difference hiking experience made was about 20 years ago. I was in my early 40s and guiding a backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon. We were a small group of 5, including another woman my age and three women who were in their late 20s, one of whom ran marathons. And of course I wondered if I would be able to keep up.
The first afternoon we left our packs at the campsite and 4 of us hiked to a spring for water, about a mile downhill on a very primitive and rough trail. We picked our way down, filtered water, and headed back up with me in the lead. I kept a steady but not a fast pace back up. At the top, the marathon runner said "Well that was humbling!" It took me a minute to realize that she meant she had struggled to keep up with me - not because I was more fit (which I wasn't) but because I had more experience hiking that kind of trail.
When I first started guiding hiking trips for women, I thought that a woman's level of previous hiking experience didn't really matter in choosing the best trip. I thought it was more an issue of her fitness level and of her deciding what kind of trip she enjoyed. And certainly that is still true - if what you enjoy are leisurely hikes with time for taking pictures and identifying wildflowers, then signing up for a trip where the average mileage is 10 to 12 miles a day will not be ebjoyable no matter how many hiking trips you've taken.
But I have also come to realize that regardless of how fit you are, starting your hiking experience with a hike described as "for novice hikers" is the best idea. Why is that?
There are some things you want to have totally wired before you set off on a challenging trail. You want to know how to dress and when to take your layers on and off, so that you don't get too sweaty or too chilled. You want to know how to pace yourself so that you can hike without ever stopping to catch your breath. You want the use of trekking poles to be second nature, so you don't put any effort into thinking about where to place them. You want to know when to snack and when to drink so you don't become dehydrated or hit a low blood sugar wall. All of these are things that become instinctive with experience, but take energy to think about and keep track of when you're new. Think about when you first started driving a car - it's exactly like that.
But there is another equally important reason, which is best described as footwork. By that, I mean knowing where to place your feet without thinking about it. You can tell if someone has much experience by watching them hike on uneven or rough (i.e. lots of rocks and roots) terrain. An inexperienced hiker is watching her feet, uncertain about whether a rock will be stable or how placing her foot at a certain angle will affect her balance. Especially going downhill, this takes alot of focussed concentration. An experienced hiker will constantly be glancing at the ground but then also looking up at the trail to see what is coming up and looking around at the scenery. The difference between me and the marathon runner that day was the 25 years I'd been hiking.
But that's the great thing! As long as you have your health, you are never too old to start hiking. With experience, your body and mind will learn how to move comfortably over a variety of terrains and you will have more energy at the end of a hike because you haven't had to focus so much on where to put your feet or how to stay comfortable on the trail. At that point, if you want to try hikes that are challenging in terms of length and terrain (and for many women this is not something they ever aspire too), you can consider yourself ready.
If you're interested in reading more hiking tips, download our new tipsheet.
Sometimes your adventure vacation goes wrong all by itself - your flight is delayed or cancelled, you get sick just before you were supposed to leave, there is a flood or fire in the area you were supposed to visit, etc. These are all things you can't control that you just have to accept. But if you want to make sure that your adventure vacation doesn't live up to your hopes and expectations, here are five methods you can use to guarantee that you won't come back as refreshed and rejuvenated as you might have.
- Wait until the day before you leave to pack. This works particularly well if you have an early morning flight, or if you are doing something that is quite different from what you usually do so you may need new clothing or equipment. There is nothing quite like starting off your trip already stressed and tired!
- Bring an electronic device that lets you check email (SmartPhone, IPad, Ipod etc) and then be sure to check it at least once a day, if not two or three times. This method works particularly well if there is some difficult issue at home or work that you can do absolutely nothing about while you're away.
- Pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV in your hotel room and watch the news. This works particularly well if you are someone who follows current events closely and frequently finds yourself upset by what is going on in the world.
- Look at your packing list and then take twice as much as it suggests. After all, if 2 t-shirts are good, 4 are even better. Or better yet, don't even look at the packing list and just bring everything you could possibly need. This method works particularly well if you are frequently changing lodging and/or are taking public transportation from the airport.
- Bring a book you really need to read for work. For example, if you are a computer programmer, what better time could there possibly be to learn a new programming language? The only rule here is to make sure that it isn't a book you would read if you had a different career or job.
Of course you may do all these things and still have a great time. But next time- just try doing any or all of these things differently and see what a difference it makes.
The question of whether you can trust TripAdvisor for planning overseas adventure travel, or domestic travel for that matter, is an important one for anyone who regularly plans her own trips. The central issue is whether "reader reviews" of a hotel, tour company, or attraction are real. B&Bs have been known to offer people discounts on future stays in exchange for favorable reviews; some hotels have paid people to trash their competitors. A recent Cornell study suggested we might not be very good at detecting fakes and a computer can do better. TripAdvisor has tried to deal with this issue by making more information available about reviewers- how long they have been a member, how many and what reviews they have written etc; and by banning any hotels that clearly manipulate reviews.
There are clearly some red flags to watch out for: excessive use of exclamation points, superlatives, and gushing reviews; reviewers who have only written one review; badly written reviews by someone whose name and location indicates they are from an English speaking country; one poor review among many good ones or vice versa. But the truth is that you can never be completely sure and at best you may be able to get a sense of what people like and dislike about a particular place.
But where TripAdvisor truly shines is their Travelers' Forum. Over the weekend I was planning a hiking trip to Switzerland - this year it's my vacation but I am also scouting it for a new trip next year. I was struggling with the question of needing to book everything in advance and could not find a clear answer on the internet, so I posted a question in the Travelers' Forum. Within 24 hours I not only had an answer, I had a spreadsheet that Stephen (English, living in Switzerland) had put together for his Alpine Pass Route hike plus a link to his blog; and a 20 page mini-travel guide that Kim (American, has visited Switzerland 15 times in 15 years with husband) had put together for her friends. Many of the forums have "Destination Experts" - passionate travelers or locals whose major motivation is sharing their passion.
I'm never going to be a Destination Expert but from now on, I'm going to make sure I post reviews of any hotel or restaurant that stands out - for good or bad. Because in the end, the only way to crowd out fakes is for all of us passionate travelers to share our experience.
I'm thinking about the topic of training for hiking trips right now because in less than 2 weeks I will be heading for Austria and our hiking trip in the Austrian Alps. And I am not feeling in quite the same physical condition as I was last year. I came to this realization yesterday when I hiked Sugarloaf Mountain, the only hill with any decent elevation change in a 90 minute drive of where I live. My aerobic capacity was fine- I didn't get winded going uphill at a decent pace. And my endurance was OK - I hiked for 3.5 hours with only two short stops to drink water. But I just didn't have that feeling of being able to hike forever that I have when I'm in really good hiking shape. Why is that? I've been working out at the gym 30 - 45 minutes on the elliptical 5 to 6 days a week pretty consistently and going on (fairly flat) walks as often as my dogs will take me.
And then I realized that in contrast to last year, I have been doing very little actual hiking. Although hiking in Maryland is limited (at least any real hiking i.e. not flat), I had guided our trips in Utah, Alaska, and Bulgaria in the four months before the Austria trip. This year life got in the way and I haven't hiked since Death Valley. And that has made a huge difference. While the fitness gained during those trips might not be completely maintained, the muscle memory and the specific stress placed on the muscles during those activities, does carry over. So here is the lesson and the corollary.
Lesson: The best training for hiking is hiking. This is also true for paddling, kayaking, rock climbing etc. But if you just can't do it before, get in as good shape as you can and then expect to just be a little stiffer the first few days.
The corollary: Don't wait until you're in good enough shape to start doing an activity. If your goal is to hike 8 miles comfortably, don't just go the gym- start with 1 or 2 miles and gradually increase. Gyms are great for giving yourself a base level of preparation but they can't completely get you ready for a big endeavour.
Now if only I had started climbing Sugarloaf in June....