Not All Who Wander Are Lost: A Blog for Adventurous Women

The Story of the Buff

Posted by Marian Marbury on Feb 20, 2015 2:14:27 PM

In our February newsletter, we talked about buffs- what they are, their many uses, and that we are starting to offer them as an option for women who go on a trip. But we had no idea where they came from until we received this email from our local partner in Spain. 

Hi Marian,

"Got a real chuckle at the February newsletter highlighting Buff.  DId you know it's a Spanish (well, Catalonian) company?  I have at least four buffs, and have been eyeing this year's models. BuffCindy

Short Buff story: the man who invented the thing was apparently using his neck gaiter from the military service (obligatory until not too long ago).  They're an ugly olive green and he decided that other colors just might sell to sports people.  In Spanish the name is the same as underwear for women:  braga.

 

All that is cute but....   not too long after they set up the company sometime in the 1990s, Buff funded a Spanish all-women team on a mega raid-adventure.   I don't remember the name of the raid, but it's something done every few years, funded by a millionaire who wanted to do some unusual giving-back.  The deal is (or was, maybe no longer happening) that teams of four people had a weeklong route, including hiking, probably some scrambling (not technical climbing), some water sport and maybe biking or horseback riding.  I think the team got 2 or 3 people for managing their supplies - but what was really unusual about this raid was that you signed up not knowing were it would be, and 2-3 weeks before it started you got a trip pack and had to plan everything in a short time:  when to cross the control points (that had a specific schedule), what to eat, what gear to take, and all that.   And they went to really isolated or underdeveloped areas.  No prizes, just a certificate for teams that completed the route in the stipulated time, with ALL the team members. 

The deal was of the team of four, one had to be a woman.  Thinking how to communicate and work together and all that, take the pace of the weakest member of the team (ummm).  The Spanish women team was the first all-woman team, and they needed to get funding. Government declined, but Buff said yes.  Buff got a lot of fabulous PR, used that in their adds for next few years  (rightly so!). And yes, all the photos of the women's team had Buffs somewhere in the shot. 

So what happened to the team?  They completed the route successfully and apparently even had fun. One of the blurbs was about them trying to get the rafts going in the right direction, amid gales and gales of laughter.  This route was so challenging that (so the story says) US Marines were seen sitting in tears next to the trail.  The women's team was praised for understanding that the spirit of the adventure was to test oneself, but also to have fun.

Just thought I'd share that with you, in case you didn't know. Makes the Buffs even better!"

Anne

Now that we know the history of the buff, we like them even more!!

Topics: clothing and gear

Ebola and travel to Africa: Is it safe?

Posted by Marian Marbury on Sep 17, 2014 11:03:19 AM

NOTE: I wrote this specifically for women who are signed up for our Kilimanajaro Climb and Safari next February, but I hope it is useful for anyone planning to travel to Africa in the next year. -- Marian

Safety is always our first priority at Adventures in Good Company, and we are constantly evaluating the safety of the places we go and the activities we're doing. While adventure travel often has inherent risks that are different than those of conventional travel, we believe that preparation and knowledge can minimize unnecessary risks. 

With constant stories about Ebola in the news, it is easy to wonder if you should be scared. If you are planning to climb Kilimanjaro this winter and you hear statements that the Ebola epidemic is out of control, and you have seen the movie Contagion, it is impossible not to have images of Kate Winslett dead in a body bag 24 hours after she started coughing. And the movie, with a little dramatic license, did accurately portray how a highly infectious respiratory virus could spread quickly around the world, causing panic and social chaos. One of these days a strain of bird flu may mutate and cause something similar.

But Ebola is not that virus. And speaking from my training as an epidemiologist (my career before starting Adventures in Good Company), when evaluating the risk of travel to Africa, particularly to Tanzania, it's important to understand the following points.

  1. Part of the reason that Ebola is so scary is the very high mortality rate associated with it. Although so far it seems less lethal than previous outbreaks, when 90% of victims died, 50% is still very high.

  2. We understand from previous experience how to control Ebola outbreaks. It takes public education, decent quarantine facilities where people who are sick can get treated and given some hope of recovery, and adequate manpower to track down and quarantine every one who comes in close contact with anyone who is sick. Nigeria has, so far, been successful in doing this;  at this point, all their cases are directly attributable to the Liberian who flew into the airport at Lagos and collapsed. Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia are poor and fragile countries whose efforts have been unsuccessful. In those three countries, Ebola is indeed out of control and the resources necessary to control it only now are being marshalled.

  3. There are two very important characteristics of Ebola that do not receive enough emphasis, but in fact make it very unlikely that it will cause a worldwide pandemic.

    - Ebola is not contagious until a person develops symptoms. If someone looks and feels well, it is possible that they are infected and incubating the virus, but they will not pass it on.

    - Ebola is spread through direct contact with infectious bodily fluids such as blood and sweat. Those fluids are highly infectious and the closer the person is to death, the more infectious they are. But it is not spread through the air, and simply being on the same airplane or in the same room as an Ebola victim does not expose you to risk.

    Ebola is actually more like HIV than it is the bird flu. They are both spread through contact with bodily fluids, although Ebola is more infectious than HIV. However, HIV is infectious before people develop symptoms and it is a much more widespread problem in Africa than Ebola. But because we understand how to protect ourselves from it, it is less scary.

  4. Africa is a huge continent. The Ebola epidemic is in West Africa, Tanzania is in East Africa. The distance between Monrovia, Liberia and Arusha, Tanzania is 3300 miles, basically a little more than the distance between Maryland and California.

  5. In every epidemic, much of the damage is caused by fear. We see that with some villagers stoning the guys in yellow suits, convinced they are coming to drag people away to die. But we also see it with the government in South Africa predicting a 40% drop in tourism next year.

  6. Could the virus mutate and become more infectious? Yes, viruses can always mutate and that could substantially elevate risks. But some viruses are more prone to mutate than others and, so far, Ebola has not demonstrated a high likelihood to mutate.

Everyone always has to decide their personal comfort level for themselves. But you can be assured that if a case of Ebola appeared in Arusha or Moshi, we would cancel our trip before we received the first email requesting it.

 

Do I really need to buy rain pants for my rafting or hiking trip

Posted by Marian Marbury on Aug 5, 2014 6:00:00 AM

Rain pants are an essential piece of outdoor gear, especially but not only for hiking trips. But do you always need them? The following two emails and responses might prove useful. As always, the answer is - it depends!

"Hi --I'm so excited that we have less than a month until our trip to Switzerland begins! I've been gathering the items on the packing list. The one item that I am having difficulty justifying the expense is waterproof pants. Do we really need them? Of course, my phone tells me that it's currently raining in Zermatt!"

Answer:
Sorry but yes, unless you plan to not hike if there is more than a 10% chance of rain (which is always an option!) rain pants do need to be available.  Most of our hiking is above tree line which means that if we hike in the rain or get caught in the rain we aren't protected by trees overhead at all.  When you're under trees you can quite often get away without rain pants and just use your rain jacket but not when you're exposed above tree line.  Plus, the jacket, coupled with the rain pants,  provide the warmth needed when the temperatures drop during a rain storm.

I do have a couple of solutions for the expense part though!  

  • My current (and favorite) rain pants are a pair I bought at Gander Mountain for 39.99.  They are lightweight and keep me dry and warm.  They have an elastic waist and wide leg/foot openings so they go on over my boots.  (Also, I bought them a bit larger than needed so they'll easily go over my boots)  They are the Guide Series and are available at stores or online.  This year they put a mesh liner in them (which I don't like -- adds nothing but weight) so you can just cut that part out and you'll have a great pair of rain pants for all occasions!
  • The second suggestion is to purchase a pair of Frogg Toggs or Ducks rain pants.  These are lightweight pants that are also elastic waist and slip over the boot style.  You can find these at places like Super Targets, Walmarts, Gander Mountain and Dicks.  They are made out of a fabric that feels a bit like paper but are strong, waterproof, lightweight and inexpensive.  The last pair I checked on were at a store here in Michigan, Meijers.  They were a cream color and were the lightweight version at 19.99.  Actually, one of our guides who hiked the entire Appalachian Trail used the Frogg Togg jacket and pants for the trail and is still using her Frogg Togg jacket so they are quite durable (and work well!)  If you go with the Frogg Toggs or Ducks --- wash/dry them several times before you use them to soften them up a bit.

Here are a couple of websites so you can see what each of these suggestions look like:

 

"Hello ladies -Could you please tell me how critical rain pants are for the Salmon River Rafting trip trip?  I really don't want to have to purchase if the chances are we won't be wearing them."

Answer: 
"Whether or not you will need the rain pants is always the big question, and ultimately the decision is yours. They would not be on the packing list if we didn’t think there was a chance you needed them, but it’s also true that this is a hot and dry summer. So let’s say this - on some trips (e.g. hiking in the Alps), if you didn’t show up with rain pants, we would take you shopping the first afternoon. We won’t do that on this trip. I would, however, bring a couple of extra garbage bags and you could make pantaloons if it rained."

Want more tips?

Hiking Tips for Women
 

Topics: clothing and gear, hiking trips

How We Price Our Adventure Trips

Posted by Marian Marbury on Jun 30, 2014 7:49:59 AM

Like many women, I was brought up not to talk about money.  But as I schedule our 2015 trips and determine what we'll charge for our adventure trips, I wanted to share some of our pricing principles.

1. Everyone here at Adventures in Good Company loves travel and the outdoors, and has a passion for sharing that love with other women. We want to be accessible to as many women as possible, while making a reasonable living for ourselves.

2. Our prices are based on the actual costs of the trip, plus an additional amount to cover the overhead. We don't use a percentage markup that makes trips with higher costs even more expensive. We don't charge what we think the market can bear. We don't charge more because it's a popular trip. We don't practice premium pricing. We do charge more for trips that take more of our time here in the office. 

3. We don't try to make our prices appear lower by not including meals or items that you will end up paying for out of pocket. Some additional costs, such as internal plane flights, are so volatile you would end up paying more for us to make sure we didn't lose money on it. Sometimes we offer optional activities we know not everyone will choose to try (zip lining comes to mind). And some meals may not be included when the flexibility for you to choose where or when you eat outweighs the convenience of having it paid for. In those cases we try to be transparent about exactly what additional expenses you can expect.

4. We don't keep prices down by increasing the group size. Our typical size is 10 to 12 - a manageable number that promotes good group dynamics. The few exceptions are trips that would become prohibitively expensive with our standard group size and that can easily accommodate a larger group.

5. We don't cut rates by not sending an Adventures in Good Company group leader on international trips when we're working with a local partner. It is much easier to untangle problems on a trip and prevent them from occuring again if we have someone there, thus assuring continuing high quality. In addition most international guides have little training in how to enhance the group experience.

6. We don't cut rates by only having one guide on domestic trips. One downside to group travel can be feeling locked into a schedule that might not reflect what you would choose to do or how fast you choose to hike. So for any trip with more than seven participants (again with rare exceptions) we have two guides for maximum flexibility.

7. We don't look for the cheapest local partner. We look for people who pay their employees fairly and who share our vision of sustainable travel. Tourism can be a force for improving the opportunities available to the people who live there, or it can be exploitative. We opt for the former.

8. We know that travel is a luxury and that it isn't possible to make all of our trips available to everyone. What we can do is look for ways to offer trips that are lower cost and still offer incredible value. In the United States we offer several trips that stay at hostels. Internationally we go to at least some countries where costs are lower. Spain and Italy are wonderful - and they are expensive. Bulgaria, the Balkans, and Nicaragua also provide fascinating travel experiences at a lower cost. We offer both.

While the nominal inflation rate may have stayed low, the travel inflation rate certainly has not. Airfares, hotels, meals- all have seen significant increases in the last two years. We will continue to work to design trips that, regardless of price, offer great value.

Topics: adventure travel

How Adventures in Good Company got its start

Posted by Marian Marbury on Mar 24, 2014 1:10:00 PM

March 22 was our 15th anniversary. People on our trips often ask how the company gotwomen on an adventure started so this seems like an appropriate occasion to tell the story more broadly.

Choosing March 22 as our starting date is a little arbitrary, but it was the date that Woodswomen officially closed its doors. Woodswomen was a Minnesota-based non-profit, the very first company that offered trips exclusively for women. 

Guiding outdoor trips had a been a lifelong dream for me. In 1987 I moved to Minnesota to work at the Minnesota Department of Health and it was there I found Woodswomen (this being pre-Internet days). They offered exactly the kinds of trips I had always hoped to guide so I enrolled in their leadership course as a way of exploring that longtime fantasy. It was only then that I discovered that Woodswomen needed women who could guide trips occasionally throughout the year, a perfect fit with my fulltime job. Anne Flueckiger, Deb Malmon, Brenda Porter, and I all guided there in the 1990s. We learned our guiding philosophy from Denise Mitten, the Executive Director of Woodswomen, and we honed our passion for supporting women as they gained new skills and knowledge, new perspectives, and new friends. 

As it started to become apparent in the late 90s that Woodswomen was having financial troubles, I started volunteering in the office in various capacities. I discovered that I enjoyed that end of it, too. When Woodswomen finally closed its doors in 1999, I was ready to make the leap and try starting my own company. I was incredibly fortunate to be able to build on the knowledge and experience I had gained, to employ Woodswomen guides I already knew (Anne, Deb and Brenda), to buy the Woodswomen mailing list, and to adopt many of the trip itineraries. Although our trip calendar has radically changed in 15 years, it was a solid foundation.

Except I knew nothing about running a business, having been in academia or government my whole life. Marketing? Sure, that means going to the grocery store for the week's groceries. Sales? Love 'em, what a great way to save money! Accounting? It can't be that much more than balancing a checkbook.

In a word, I was totally clueless. Fortunately those were all just the details and I had learned everything I needed to know about business from rock climbing. The three most important lessons I continually thought about were:

  • When you're standing at the bottom of a climb looking up and you think you want to attempt it - but you're really not sure you will get to the top - the only true failure is to give up before you give it a try. If you try and fail, at the least you will have learned something.
  • You don't have to have figured out the entire route before you start. If you make that first move, the second one often becomes apparent. And then the third, the fourth etc.
  • You need to trust your belayer, the person who is holding onto the rope that will catch you if you fall. If you don't trust her/him, you shouldn't be climbing with them. I would trust all of our guides with my life, absolutely.
You would assume with such a great foundation and such positive determination that the business would quickly take off. You would be wrong. I had to repeat those three lessons to myself frequently, especially the first one about failure.

The only reason we survived those first three years is that I was still getting a halftime paycheck from the Minnesota Department of Health. In retrospect, that slow start was beneficial in the long run. Because marketing, sales, and accounting may be details, but they're pretty essential if you want a tiny company to survive and you don't have the capital to hire people who actually know what they're doing. Not to mention public relations, legal matters, permitting, and logistics.

But we did survive. Starting and growing this company has been the biggest adventure of my life, and everything an adventure should be: challenging, thrilling, scary, rewarding, a chance to try new things and learn new skills, learn from mistakes, and learn about myself in the process.

You might also assume that the best part of owning or guiding for a company like this is the incredible places you get to go and things you get to do. And those are wonderful, yes. But really, it's about the people you get to meet.
  • Our guides: Deb, Anne, and Brenda still guide with AGC. Jan started in 2001 when she took a rock climbing class in Joshua Tree and afterwards told me that we needed a basecamp manager for the trip and she would be perfect (she was). A few years later she was guiding a backpacking trip and noticed that the owner of the hostel where they were staying seemed very interested in what she was doing - that was Leigh, who joined us the next year. Deb came back from guiding a kayaking trip in the Caribbean and told me I needed to recruit the local guide who actually lived in New York state; Anne Brewer joined us the next year. Deb is also responsible for Stephanie Lingwood who was on a Boundary Waters trip and ready to try leading someone other than Girl Scouts. Katie found us on her own and at the age of 26, I was sure she would never keep guiding with us. I'm so glad to be wrong: watching her get married, finish a PhD and have a baby has been wonderful. And Lisa was a friend of a guide who just happened to call at the right time with the right experience.  I am so fortunate that they have all chosen to make Adventures in Good Company part of their lives.
     
  • Our partners around the world: Sometimes I 've found them, sometimes they've found us. My favorite story is meeting Giuliana. We started chatting while we were sitting in the departure lounge at Newark, both headed for Geneva. It turned out she owned a small company in Italy that did hiking and biking trips and gave me her contact information. A year later when we were planning our first trip to Italy, I emailed her. She has been organizing our Italy trips ever since and in the process has become a good friend.
     
  • Our participants: Guiding has given all of us the opportunity to meet some of the most interesting, amazing, and courageous women you could ever hope to know. It takes alot of courage to sign up for the first trip, especially when you come alone. And it also takes a leap of faith - that you'll be safe, looked after, and supported in meeting your goals. 

Thanks to all of you who have been willing to leap over the last 15 years. It certainly has been, and continues to be, an Adventure - and the Company we've shared it with has been most excellent.

Topics: adventure travel, womens travel, women only travel

Lodging options for your next active vacation

Posted by Marian Marbury on Mar 6, 2014 4:54:00 AM

So you're planning your next active vacation and, having made your plane reservations, the next question is lodging. While air travel has gotten more expensive, more limited, and less enjoyable, the opposite is true for lodging. In fact the variety of lodging options, and the tools with which to findrooms the one that suits you, has just exploded. Covering all the options would be impossible so this blog is confined to short term stays.

Hotels: Hotels offer predictabilty, anonymity, and freedom from interacting with anyone other than the desk clerk. If all you want is a bed for the night, which is often true at the end of a long day or a long flight, they can be your best bet. Here are three possibilities for finding the right hotel room and which is better depends on where you're going, whether you have a car, and your preference for certainty.

  • If you have a car: Having a car gives you more flexibility. If your hotel ends up being 15 miles from the airport, it doesn't really matter. In this case I use the 'Name Your Own Price' function on Priceline.com. Before I put in a bid though, I go to hotwire.com. Hotwire is also an opaque site, meaning you don't know exactly where you're staying until you've agreed to stay there, but it offers fixed prices. That gives me a feel for what I can expect to pay. Armed with that info, I go to Priceline and put in a bid that is 10 to 30% lower than Hotwire. Be sure you look at the area map so you don't end up in another town.

    I only use Priceline when I have a car because I won't know if the hotel has an airport shuttle; and a taxi fare to a hotel that ends up being 6 miles away can eat up any savings I might have gotten - particularly if I have to return to the airport the next morning.
     
  • If you don't have a car: My favorite website when I want to know where I'm staying is Trivago. Trivago is a hotel metasearch engine; this means it not only lists lots of different hotels, but displays the current rate for each hotel on the date you want on each of the major booking websites (e.g. hotels. com, expedia etc.). It also gives overall ratings as well as the ratings at each of the booking sites. If it's not clear whether they offer an airport shuttle (never assume they do unless it is clearly stated), call them and ask. And while you're talking to them, tell them the lowest price you're seeing on the internet and ask them if that is the lowest rate they can offer.

    If you don't see anything you like, another comprehensive and easy to use booking site is booking.com. It has more options in more places, particularly for international destinations. We've found this particularly useful for international bookings. Checking out Priceline's Express Deals, where you can specify amenities such as airport shuttle and free internet, is also worth it.
     
  • If you have a high tolerance for uncertainty: There are an increasing number of booking sites that offer that day's unsold hotel inventory. The most well known is Hotel Tonight, which is only available as a smartphone or tablet app. You can get some great deals this way! Typically, though, it is good deals on higher end hotels and if price is the only consideration, you may be able to find cheaper on one of the other sites. It also only lists hotels in larger cities, so don't count it for finding you a spot when you're on a road trip in the West. And in the end, the uncertainty might not be worth it.

Hostels: Hostels used to serve only youth and often required chores. Those days have changed! The American Youth Hostel Association has been renamed to Hostelling International, because they don't just serve youth anymore and they truly are international in scope. The kind of lodging you'll find under the name hostel has also expanded, but typically you'll find: 1) all or some of the rooms are available to people who don't know each other (i.e. if there are four beds in the room, you may be sharing it with 3 people you don't know); 2) the bathroom is often outside the bedroom and shared by several other rooms; 3) there are cooking facilities available; and 4) they are much less expensive than hotels. An increasing number also offer private rooms and family rooms, and/or rooms segregated by gender.

We stay in hostels for all of our northern Georgia trips (the Hiker Hostel, owned by one of our guides, always gets rave reviews) and for our Canadian Rockies Hiking Holiday. In both cases we rent the entire hostel. This allows us to cook some of the meals, keep the price lower, and, just as important, gives everyone some common space to hang out together  - all of which make the trip more relaxed and less scheduled.

I often stay in hostels when I'm traveling personally; in addition to being less expensive, the hostelkeepers are usually great sources of local information and offer an opportunity to meet other travelers. I stayed in rifugios (mountain huts that are like hostels except they provide meals) when I was in northern Italy last year and one of my best memories was the evening I spent talking with a young couple from Bavaria and a cook from northern Italy. The two websites I use are HostelBookers and Hostelworld.  However, for people who like having some degree of privacy, hostels are not a great choice.

AirBnB: AirBnB has absolutely revolutionized the options available to travelers. Originally Bed and Breakfasts were homes of people who rented out a spare room to supplement their income. Especially in the US, they have morphed into more elaborate and expensive enterprises that are often more like small inns, although still offering great breakfasts, local knowledge, and the potential for connecting with other travelers.

AirBnB started by returning to the original concept, using the internet to connect people who needed a room with people who had one to spare. In the last couple of years it has exploded: people may choose to rent out a room or a whole house or apartment; it has even become the platform of choice for some small hotels. Both hosts and users can leave reviews, thereby helping to weed out the bad apples. There have been some legal issues in New York and other locales that forbid short term rentals (laws that are usually passed at the behest of the traditional hospitality industy), and critics who say that this provides a way to get around health laws and licensing. But most peopel who write about the travel industry think it is the wave of the future and in most places the issues will be resolved.

This is one of the most rapidly changing areas in travel, withnew ideas, websites, and apps appearing every day. The ones here are all likely to be around for awhile and, depending on what you're looking for in accomodation, all worth checking out.

Topics: active travel, travel tips, lodging

Buying airline tickets for your next adventure vacation - Part 2

Posted by Marian Marbury on Feb 6, 2014 7:40:00 PM

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!
Our EBook will help you get ready ready for your next interational trip

Topics: adventure travel, preparation, how to

Buying airline tickets for your next adventure vacation - Part 1

Posted by Marian Marbury on Feb 3, 2014 7:00:00 AM

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.relaxing in the Caribbean

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!

Our EBook will help you get ready ready for your next interational trip

Topics: active travel, travel tips, preparation, how to

How To Keep Your Feet Warm During Winter Outdoor Adventures

Posted by Marian Marbury on Jan 29, 2014 10:00:00 AM

After the last blog post about How to Stay Warm in Winter a reader asked that question. And in this winter of unrelentinAWT1 copyg 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.

Topics: clothing and gear, outdoors tips, safety, preparation, how to

Climbing Kilimanjaro: 5 decisions to make

Posted by Marian Marbury on Jan 17, 2014 6:10:00 PM

KILI1 copy

Climbing Mt Kilimanjaro is a dream for many women. It's non-technical, meaning you don't need mountaineering skills or even to be an athlete. It is also truly a physical and mental challenge. If you are finding yourself thinking about it, here are some of the decisions you need to make.

1. Are you healthy enough to climb Kilimanjaro?

It is our heartfelt belief that anyone who is healthy can get in the condition required to successfully complete the climb. It requires determination and commitment to training, and acquiring hiking experience if you don't already have it. But what do I mean by healthy? There are several common conditions that should make you think twice:

  • Bad knees The descent is challenging for everyone, even those with healthy knees. If you have significant knee pain, it is unlikely you could train sufficiently. Even if you could, your knees will be incredibly painful when you descend. That being said, many people with some knee pain find that a regular program of strengthening the muscles around their knees (e.g. lunges and squats) will significantly decrease their knee pain. This was true for me.
  • Chronic lung disease Air has progressively less oxygen as you get higher on Kili. If you have lung damage that impairs oxygen exchange, trying to get enough oxygen into your bloodstream can leave you literally gasping for breath, even when you are hiking quite slowly. If you have never been diagnosed with lung disease but have a history of heavy smoking, having a pulmonary evaluation would be a good idea.
  • Heart disease This is not automatically a disqualifier because there are several kinds of heart disease. If you have had stents for Coronary Artery Disease and can exercise vigorously at high heart rate, you may be fine - check with your doctor. But if you have angina, even if it is controlled with medication, then climbing Kilimanjaro is probably not a realistic goal. The combination of the physical stress of climbing with the thin air means that your heart has to work extra hard to keep up with the demands.

2. What company should you go with?

Tanzanian law requires you to have a Tanzanian guide and at least one porter to climb Mt Kilimanjaro. You can either go through a local Tanzanian company or an overseas company (like us) who works with a local Tanzanian company.

Booking directly with a local operator will cost less. If you want to climb Kilimanjaro alone or have your own group to do it with, and feel confident in your travel planning skills and your ability to pick out a good local operator, this can be a great way to go. If you prefer having all the details arranged for you, having access to people who can give you advice as you prepare, having a Western leader who works with the local leader to make the trip go smoothly and provides extra medical backup, and you like the idea of being part of a group of people with the same goals, then it may be worth the extra cost of going with an overseas company.

Regardless of which direction you take, you should think twice about focussing only on the price. Trips are cheap because porters are inadequately paid and inadequately clothed. We highly recommend that you start with looking at the Kilimanjaro Porter's Assistance Project to familiarize yourself with the issues. Unfortunately they have had to suspend their Climbing Partners program because they are now denied access to the Mountain (due to the government bowing to pressure from local operators who did not meet their standards). However, you can educate yourself about the questions you should be asking any company you want to go with.

3. When is the best time to climb Kilimanjaro?

Kilimanjaro is close to the equator, so you can climb it year round.  January, February, and September are considered to be the best months in terms of weather (warmest with the lowest precipitation). The tradeoff is that they also tend to be the busiest and therefore more expensive. The longer rainy season goes from the end of March to early June; you will likely deal with more clouds and lower visibility, plus wetter and muddier trail conditions - but there will be fewer people on the mountain. The summer months (June, July, and August) are drier but colder. There is a shorter rainy season that lasts from November through the beginning of December, where skies are clear in mornings and evenings and afternoon rains are common. So it's all tradeoffs and what is most important to you.

We always plan our trip in February because it offers better weather and coincides with the time that many animals are giving birth - which is an amazing sight during the safari. The specific timing depends on the full moon - we always plan for the final ascent to take place on the night of the full moon because when the weather is clear, the moon is so bright that headlamps are unnecessary - truly a magical experience.

4. What is the best route for climbing Kilimanjaro?

You can read about the 6 different routes on Kilimanjaro on Wikipedia. Again, there are tradeoffs. We have chosen the Machame route for the last several trips because 1) it is very scenic, going through five different eco-zones; 2) it allows adequate time for acclimatization (we break up the route from Barranco to Barafu with an overnight at Karanga to allow one more day for acclimatization); and 3) the drive to Machame Gate is only a couple of hours. The main drawback is that it is a popular route so there are more people on it.

One option some choose is to sleep in the crater at the top (called Crater Camp), which means that they only have 800 feet to climb to the summit at sunrise. We don't offer it because it is colder than most people have ever experienced (it's not only the air temperature but the fact that you feel cold more when you are oxygen-deprived) and sleeping at 18,000 feet significantly increases your risk of altitude sickness. However, one of the advantages is that your summit day is shorter - 800 feet up, then 8,000 down. I know several people who have done it that say it was an amazing experience. Our summit day is 4,000 feet up and 8,000 feet down and it is a very, very long day. However, climbing the 4000 feet up in the dark by the full moon will remain one of my most treasured memories - I wouldn't trade it. But you might!!

5. Can you guarantee success on Kilimanjaro?

Absolutely yes!

But not if your measure of success means getting to the top. While we all talk about "it's the journey, not the destination", that attitude often seems to fall by the wayside when climbing Kilimanjaro and only reaching the top is deemed success.

No, we can't guarantee you will reach the top. That will depend on your conditioning and your luck. Your conditioning is about the only thing you can control - but fortunately, it is under your control. But luck? Not so much. When I say luck, I mean

  • weather - one year there was an unsual amount of snow and no one made the summit, on our trip or any other trip going on at the same time
  • acclimatization - whether or not you are affected by altitude is largely a matter of genetics (although Diamox can help). Some people will have been fine at altitude their whole life and suddenly become sensitive to it.
  • your health during the trip - if you get a cold, bronchitis, or diarrhea, you may feel too weak for the final summit attempt.
On the other hand, if your definition of success is to get as prepared as you can, give it your best shot, and then be open to whatever experience you have (and it will be amazing!!), then absolutely, we can guarantee your trip will be successful.
Hiking Tips for Women

Topics: adventure travel, international destinations, hiking trips