Tuesday, January 20, 2015

TED On Tuesday: Turning War Into Peace Through Travel

Aziz Abu Sarah helps people break down cultural and historical barriers through tourism.

When Aziz Abu Sarah was a boy, his older brother was arrested on charges of throwing stones. He was taken to prison and beaten — and died of his injuries. Sarah grew up angry, bitter and wanting revenge. But when later in life he met, for the first time, Jews who were not soldiers, Sarah had an epiphany: Not only did they share his love of small things, namely country music, but coming face to face with the “enemy” compelled him to find ways to overcome hatred, anger and fear.

Sarah founded MEDJI Tours to send tourists to Jerusalem with two guides, one Jewish and one Palestinian, each offering a different history and narrative of the city. Sarah tells success stories of tourists from the US visiting a Palestinian refugee camp and listening to joint Arab and Jewish bands play music, and of a Muslim family from the UK sharing Sabbath dinner with a Jewish family and realizing that 100 years ago, their people came from the same town in Northern Africa.

MEJDI is expanding its service to Iran, Turkey, Ireland and other regions suffering from cultural conflict. If more of the world’s one billion tourists were to engage with real people living real lives, argues Sarah, it would be a powerful force for shattering stereotypes and promoting understanding, friendship and peace.

While I found Aziz Abul Sarah’s talk inspiring for the possibilities he promises, I found this video produced by MEDJI Tours even more inspiring.

If you want to see more videos, check out the organisations collection of short films on VIMEO, and also visit the MEDJI Tours website.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Introducing AirBnB

During 2014 I spent two weeks in Paris, where for the first time I booked the bulk of my accommodations (10 nights) through Airbnb. For readers not familiar with Airbnb, let the company explain in their own words:

“Airbnb began in 2008 when two designers who had space to share hosted three travellers looking for a place to stay. Now, millions of hosts and travellers choose to create a free Airbnb account so they can list their space and book unique accommodation anywhere in the world.”

Today, Airbnb hosts are sharing spare rooms or the whole homes and apartments in 190 countries and more than 34,000 cities. Incredibly, since 2008, this company has grown from nothing to one valued at more than two billion dollars! Unlike free accommodation sharing services like Couchsurfing, Hospitality Club, Stay4Free, and others, Airbnb hosts charge a nightly fee for the use of their rooms or homes. Here’s an introductory video from the company:

Airbnb Intro video  

So how did the actual experience of researching, booking, communicating with my host, and the all important stay measure up against the glowing promo material? That dear reader is the focus of this entry.

This is the easy part: decide which city you want to visit, entry your check In and check Out dates (any dates will do, if you don’t know your exact dates), start searching. The screen that appears next should give you the option to rent the Entire Place, a Private Room, or a Shared Room. You will also see a Price Range slider from which you can select your maximum price per night. As you fine tune your selections, links to the available rooms automatically display as does a map showing each location.

At this point it is easy to check out each location, examine the uploaded images, read the fine print, and especially read through the reviews left by previous visitors.

To make a booking you will first need to sign in and register the usual information that all websites can’t seem to do without—even those sites that don’t require billing information. Airbnb, of course, does need billing information so go ahead, register and make your booking. You do have the option to send your host a message and ask questions of them, so if you have any concerns or questions the obligation is on you to ask them before you commit to making your booking.

Watch out for the extras as you are booking your accommodations. These are generally included under the Prices category on the site, but some hosts charge more for extra guests, towels and such like, and these are not always noted under Prices. They are generally mentioned under House Rules or the Description of the property. 

All hosts must provide an email address so that you can communicate with them before and after you make a booking. As far as I am aware, all hosts must supply a contact phone number, although I am not sure if they are obliged to make it available to you before you make a booking.

The best hosts know that open, quick communications with potential or actual guests is always the best way to foster confidence and trust in both them, their accommodations and Airbnb itself. Again, reviews from previous guests are generally a good way to gauge the reliability and trust of potential hosts, so make sure you read all the reviews for a property you are planning to book.

Another Airbnb Video worth watching  

Be Quick Or Be Sorry
I did not start researching my Paris stay until well into July. Since I was trying to make my booking during the height of summer, I found that many of my first choices were booked solid right through July, August and into September. Further, I wanted a minimum of ten nights. By leaving my booking late, those places that did have bookable nights often had no more than two or three consecutive nights available. I began to worry that I had left it too late to find a suitable rental via Airbnb, but thankfully I was eventually lucky enough to find the right place, at the right price, for the right number of nights. However, the lesson I learned was that it pays to book well ahead if you are planning to hit Paris, London, New York City, or any other major metropolis during the height of the travel season.

I have mentioned several times the importance of reading reviews for rental properties. However, there is one potential ‘spanner in the works’ to this and that occurs when a new listing has been added to Airbnb, and the property owner has only one or two reviews, or even worse—none at all. Obviously, someone has to be the first person to book a property and there is no reason why it should not be you, but as always, the obligation is on you to make sure you are completely satisfied that the host and the property are what they claim to be.

If you are travelling alone, your best option may be to simply ignore properties with no reviews. On the other hand, on the basis that there are supposed to be safety in numbers, you might go ahead and rent a property if you are planning to share the accommodation with a friend or partner. Of course, it is entirely possible that a property listing has had guests stay there, but visitors have not bothered to write a review for the host.

TIP: When checking a listing, find the About The Host heading. This includes information about how long the host has been a member. The newer their membership, the less likely are they to have a lot of reviews, or any at all. However, if the property has been listed for three months or more, one could reasonable expect there to be at least one or two reviews, if not more, especially if the property is in a popular destination.

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In an upcoming post I will write specifically about my first Airbnb experience.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

What We’re Reading This Week

12 Small Ways To Travel More
Suzy Strutner writes about travel matters for The Huffington Post. I thought her recent post examining alternatives to major travel was of interest.

I think exploring your own city and nearby locations is always a good idea, not least because it helps to keep your travel bug well fed and nourished while it waits for the longer journeys ahead.

As Suzy writes: "A trip doesn't have to cross continents, span oceans or even leave the house to be a healthy, inspiring adventure that leaves you totally refreshed." 

Here are some of Suzy Strutner's suggestions.
  • Spend one night under the stars (in your backyard, at a campground, on the beach... anywhere!).
  • Take an hour-long drive to a different city, and go out to dinner.
  • Roll out the map, point to a country with your eyes closed, and research a traditional meal to cook for dinner.
  • Go to the tourist spots in your hometown... sometimes we forget why they're famous in the first place.
  • Spend the night in a nearby B&B.

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Parts Unknown: Vietnam 
Photo: Yiannis Apostolakis
I’ve never been to Vietnam, but I know numerous people who have been there, and with one exception they all loved it. If I can make the time, I will make the journey there myself one day, but for now I will have to make do by visiting through the eyes of other travellers.

Yiannis Apostolakis describes his site as “One mans’ blog about travel, photography and digital technology.” And adds: “It all started in Vietnam.” His website is heavy on photographic images, which is always a great way to tell a story and give readers (viewers?), a sense of place. 

I particularly like this image of baseball caps and bags utilising recycled aluminium (aluminum) Coca-Cola and Pepsi cans. Check out Parts Unknown…

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Tips For Women Traveling Alone
This article from Madelen Lindgren provides good advice for men as well as women. Among her most salient suggestions:
  • Read about your destination and learn some basic phrases of the language
  • Research the good and the bad about your destination
  • Don’t walk around in the wrong clothes. Observe cultural norms.
  • Be street smart. Don’t walk in the dark. Don’t flash your money.
  • Follow your gut feeling, trust it, every time.


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