Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Flying Solo

“To awaken quite alone in a strange town
is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” - Freya Stark

Having travelled alone extensively during 2008, I can heartily agree with Freya Stark. However, there are advantages and disadvantages to travelling solo, and this entry looks at a few of them.

The three most obvious disadvantages are bearing the full cost of the trip on your own; your personal security; and not having someone to share the experience with.

The Costs
Generally, travelling on your own is more expensive than travelling with at least one other person. The old saying that, "Two can live as cheaply as one," makes a lot of sense when travelling in company.

Accommodation is always cheaper per person when shared between two people, since persons travelling alone have to pay a premium for occupying a room on their own. Other costs can be shared between two people, such as car rental and fuel costs, Chinese banquets and extra large pizza - not to mention sharing the cost of a decent bottle of red wine as opposed to a bottle of cheap plonk.

Travelling in company is generally safer than travelling solo - especially for women. And that applies wherever you travel, not just in certain parts of the third world. Horror stories abound by the hundreds – if not thousands – of holidays gone wrong, and this is neither the time or place to recount them. For now it is enough to raise a red flag about it.

The Shared Experience
Sharing the experience – that is, sharing the joys, pitfalls, highs and lows, of a journey with a good friend of partner. Having someone to reminisce with after a long and exciting vacation can be one of the great rewards of travel. Conversations that begin: “Do you remember when…?” Or, “What about the day we…”, can lead to long recollections of shared adventures that keep the travel experience alive for many years after the actual events themselves.

The most obvious benefit of flying solo is the fact that you can do what you want, when you want, for a long as you want, and not compromise your choices by negotiating with a travel partner. The solo traveller answers to no-one but themselves.

Want to stay up until 3am - be my guest. Want to sleep-in until 11am - go ahead. Want to change your schedule at the last minute and go on a river cruise rather than visit a museum – you’ll have no-one to argue with but yourself over that decision.

Yes, it seems hedonistic and selfish, but hey, you are paying thousands of dollars for your vacation, so you might as well make the most of it. Constant haggling over where to go and when, with a partner who doesn’t share your sense of adventure or interests can sap all the joy and excitement out of the travel experience. By travelling on your own you have no-one to blame but yourself if you are not having a good time.

Of course, you have to really enjoy your own company if you are going to travel solo. This has started me thinking about that aspect of the travel experience, and I will return to the question soon in a future entry.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Hidden Gems: The New York Pass

~ While writing yesterday’s entry, I remembered one of the best money saving Hidden Gems of my New York visit. The New York Pass. Since many readers may already be planning a Spring visit to the Big Apple, I thought I might as well write about the Pass today.

If you are planning a trip to New York City, and want to get the most value for money out of your stay, you must get a New York Pass – especially if visiting the host of stunning attractions scattered around the city is high on your list.

The New York Pass is the size of a credit card, and comes with a handy pocket sized, full colour booklet containing details of virtually every major attraction, and then some, in New York City (and that includes all five boroughs, not just in Manhattan.

Seriously, if there is one purchase you should make before you travel to New York, the New York Pass is it.

Don’t worry, it won’t go out of date. The time limit on the Pass begins the moment you use it for the first time. When I bought mine, I held onto it for almost two weeks before I started to utilise it. However, you must remember this (a kiss is not a kiss… sorry, I couldn’t help myself); you need to know that once you have used the New York Pass for the first time, you then have to use it within the allocated time period of the Pass.

For example; if you purchase a 3 Day Pass, you must use it over three consecutive days. So, even if you are going to be in New York for five days, you can’t use the Pass on say, Monday, Tuesday, and then again on Friday. It will no longer be valid by Friday. If you start using the New York Pass on a Monday, you will have to use it over the next two days – Tuesday and Wednesday – as well.

However, that is virtually the only restriction the Pass comes with.

Click the image below to find out more and order your New York Pass - or keep reading to see a partial list of what is on offer.

The list of attractions the New York Pass includes presents unbeatable value if you use it to its full potential. Here are just a few of them:
  • Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island
  • Empire State Building
  • Guggenheim Museum
  • Sports Museum of America
  • Top of the Rock (Rockefeller Center)
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Bodies…The Exhibition

“What about the kids,” I hear you ask.

Well, I’m glad you did, because with a New York Pass you gain entry to…

  • Madame Tussaud's
  • The New York Skyride
  • Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises
  • Four zoos: the Bronx, Central Park, Prospect Park, and Queens Zoos
  • Brooklyn Children's Museum
  • Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum
  • Staten Island Children's Museum

And much more.

If you are interested in the arts, the New York Pass is perfect:

  • Bronx Museum of the Arts
  • Carnegie Hall Tours
  • Tour at Lincoln Center
  • Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
  • Queens Museum of Art
  • Whitney Museum of American Art
  • … and as already noted above…
  • The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art

And still the list goes on.

Remember: purchasing a New York Pass means you have already paid admission fees to all the above places of interest as well as many others. It also means that since you have the Pass, in many cases you get to go to the head of the queue, since you don’t need to line up for entry tickets.

In addition to the above (and many others I haven’t mentioned), you are also entitled to money saving discounts on a host of items at other participating outlets.

Believe me, if you can’t find something for everyone in the New York Pass booklet – I’ll eat my hat!

This is truly one of the best value Hidden Gems of my overseas trip. Click on the image below to find out more. You’ll be glad you did.

Planning a trip to NYC?

Statue of Liberty: Get the full experience

~ This is an extended review of an earlier one I posted to the Trip Adviser web site on April 28, 2008.

Five weeks into my New York stay, I finally got around to visiting the Statue of Liberty. It wasn’t as if I didn’t want to see it – up close and personal, like. But one of the benefits of staying in one location for an extended period of time, is the ability to eliminate the need to rush. It is a luxury few people seem to give themselves when they travel, and I had decided to give myself that very luxury during my New York City visit.

So after a couple of false starts (one due to rain, and the other due to the long lines of people queuing up to board the boats ferrying visitors out to Liberty Island and Ellis Island), I made an early start from my base at the Greenpoint, Brooklyn YMCA, and joined the relatively short queue at the foot of Manhattan.

Unfortunately, I and about 80% of the other visitors who visit the Statue of Liberty were not able to enter the base of the monument where an exhibition area is located. Nor were we able to go up to the Observatory, some 10 floors above ground level, to take in the views. Heck, we couldn’t even get to the lower promenade onto the remains of Fort Wood, upon which the Statue Of Liberty stands. Oh, and don’t even think about climbing to the very top of the Statue. Nobody gets to do that anymore.

Apart from the obvious security issues, I understand it’s because they just can’t accommodate the huge numbers of people who visit the monument each year. However, they can find room for some of the four million visitors, so the trick is to find out how you can become one of those select few.

According to the visitors guide, which you can pick up from the information kiosks on the island, you must have something called a “time pass” to enter the monument (it’s amazing what you can find out once it’s too late to do anything about it).

Quoting from the brochure: “Time passes include a ranger-led program, viewing the statue’s interior and other public areas, and visiting the Statue of Liberty exhibit and original torch.”

They then go on to write: “You can obtain time passes with the advance purchase of ferry tickets (at) 1-866-STATUE4 or online at Statue Reservations. A limited number of time passes are available each day at no charge to walkins at the ferry ticket offices.”

If you are lucky enough to secure one of these ‘time passes’, you have now scored yourself a
‘reservation’. A reservation means that you don’t have to queue up with the hundreds of other tickets holders who have to wait for up to 90 minutes or more, to board a ferry to Liberty Island. There is a separate (much shorter) line for holders of these reservations.

Now that you know – plan your visit to the Statue Of Liberty accordingly.

For those visitors who don’t get a time pass, a trip out to the Statue Of Liberty is still one of the ‘must see’ locations on any New York stop. Exhibit panels around the island have orientation and historical information on the Statue Of Liberty. National Park Rangers conduct guided tours throughout the day, and you can also make use of the self-guided audio tours that are available.

Apart from all that, it is just such a monumental structure to begin with, that you really must see it up close to appreciate the scale and size of the thing. And to think, initially the powers that be didn’t want the statue, even though it was being given to the United States as a gift.

If you have time, try and watch the short History Channel film about the making of the Statue which is screened continuously at the monument. Or do your own research before you go, by visiting the official Statue of Liberty web site here, where you will get the latest, up-to-date information.

By the way, Ellis Island is considered to be part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, and your ticket gives you the opportunity to visit that location as well, although if you are pressed for time, you could simply stay on the ferry and return to Manhattan.

I will write about Ellis Island in a forthcoming entry.

Oh, and finally, my ticket to the Statue of Liberty National Monument came as part of the price I paid for a New York Pass - which I will also write about soon. In the meantime, just click on the image below to check out the New York Pass for yourself.

Your passport to NYC

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Organised/Unorganised Traveller

“A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”
- Lao Tzu
Recent posts have asked the question: What Type of Traveller Are You? I have also looked at the Plugged In Traveller, and the Wired Traveller. Today I’m turning my attention to the Organised Traveller, and their opposite number – the Unorganised Traveller.

All of these – Plugged, Wired and Organised/Unorganised travellers – are part of the mix when thinking about the type of traveller you are.

The Organised Traveller happily leaves everything to their travel agent: flight bookings, travel insurance, hotel reservations, excursions, and the many other details that have to be attended to before embarking on their vacation.

The Organised Traveller likes to know that every stage of their journey has been planned in fine detail. That every waking hour is mapped out like a military exercise. Nothing is left to chance. If you are this type of traveller, guided tours are perfect for you. As are cruise ship vacations, study tours, holiday resorts, and any other type of holiday which offers a full program of activities, and saves you from having to plan or organise more than the absolute essentials.

The Unorganised Traveller on the other hand is, as you might expect, the opposite. But first, let me be clear about what I am talking about here. Being Un-organised is not the same as being Dis-organised. Chevy Chase in the National Lampoon series of Vacation… movies is a completely disorganised traveller.

The Unorganised Traveller maps out points along the way, but leaves plenty of slack in their itinerary to take advantage of last minute changes or chance encounters with locals, and fellow travellers.

Road trips, for instance, are a perfect example.

The Unorganised Traveller plans to drive from A to B; say Adelaide to Sydney (or New York to New Orleans). He might have a list of cities and attractions along the route he wants to visit, but is happy to take ‘the road less travelled’ if it looks interesting, or if he hears about some other place worth visiting. He doesn’t book his accommodation two months in advance. When he is tired of being on the road, he will pull into any reasonable looking motel and rest and recuperate there, before moving on the next day.

Since they never know what awaits them around the next bend in the road, or what panoramic vista might lie before them when they crest a mountain highway - every day holds the potential for new adventures for the Unorganised Traveller.

None of this is meant to disparage the Organised Traveller, of course. As always, it comes down to understanding the type of traveller you are, and planning your travels to reflect your preferences.

Friday, February 20, 2009

My Big Fat Greek Wedding

~ My attention was drawn to an article in the Adelaide Advertiser published on February 17. It detailed the enormous costs associated with getting married in Australia in 2008. I believe the original source for the data published in the paper came from an online poll conducted by Bride to Be last year.

Here are a few Australian dollar figures for you to think about if you are contemplating taking that fateful step.

• The average cost of getting married in Australia is $50,000
• One couple reported spending more than $62,000 on their wedding!
• The average cost of wedding receptions is almost $10,500 (approx: $110.00 per head)…
• …which means the average number of guests is around a 100
• Even wedding cakes cost a small fortune these days – an average of $387.00

All of this got me thinking about the four weddings I attended last year during my stay on the Greek island of Ikaria.

The first wedding I went to had upwards of a 1000 guests!

No, that number is not a typo – it is correct, although not precise. The exact number of guest is unknown, because although the couple getting married issue invitations to family and friends in the traditional manner, the invited guests are not expected to RSVP their intentions to attend. Both families concerned just assume that everyone invited will be there, and that if they don’t, others will make up the numbers!

By the way, at one of the other weddings I attended they were expecting 1200-1300 hundred guests! The numbers fell well short of that (again around a 1000 or so), because there were two other weddings taking place on the island at the same time, and many families would have received invitations to at least two, if not all three events.

Here is a seven minute video I put together of the wedding and the party that followed. I call it a party, because essentially that’s what it is – a huge party celebrating the marriage of the bride and groom, and the ‘marriage’ of two island families. The first couple of minutes set the scene, but once the ‘reception’ starts, the party really begins.

One could write a book about island weddings, but I have to keep this as short as practicable, so let me highlight some of the logistics of the wedding you see in the film.

The church where the marriage took place was tiny, as are most island churches. Since it was barely big enough to hold the families of the bride and groom, most people who attended the wedding itself, hung around outside chatting, and waited for the ceremony to end.

The assembled throng then walked several hundred yards to the village centre where the reception was taking place. Seated on benches, ranged along trestle tables, the wedding guests waited to be served the tradition wedding meal – a dish of rice and goat meat. There were salads and lots of mezes (Greek finger food), and plenty of red wine sourced from the island itself or from local islands.

I know what you’re thinking: How on earth do you feed a thousand people?

Well, apart from the paid ‘professionals’ working on the day, the musicians; the Wedding Rice cooks; and the photographers, virtually all other work is carried out on a voluntary basis by extended family, friends, and acquaintances of the bride and groom.

The video shows some of these people serving guests. The huge two person serving tray you see (at around the six minute mark), holds upwards of 30 plates of food, and helps distribute meals quickly and efficiently.

Since the wedding will go right through to the early morning hours (and in many cases through until late morning), the volunteers serving the meals don’t have to worry about missing out on all the fun. Once everyone has been fed, a process that might take a several hours, they still have 10-12 hours of partying ahead of them.

There are no dull speeches; no embarrassing roasting of the bride and groom; no official toasting, even. Just lots of food, wine, music, and good fellowship. Oh, and hours of constant dancing.

You will also notice that children are everywhere. Asking parents to leave their children at home would be as unthinkable as having a wedding without dancing. Greek island weddings are huge community events which involve pretty much everyone - and that includes children.

At some point convenient to the newly weds, they will each take a glass of wine and circulate among the guests clinking glasses with as many of them as they can; all the while accepting the good wishes the guests bestow upon them for a long and happy marriage (you catch a glimpse of that at the two minute mark in the film).

I can’t tell you what the typical budget for a Greek island wedding might be, but I’m sure it is a fraction of the cost of Australian weddings. Since they are held in the open air, there are no hall hire fees, no waiters to pay, no extravagantly decorated tables and chairs, no stretch limos, and no wedding planner.

The main meal, as I said, consists of rice and meat (cooked in huge cauldrons). It probably required no more than 80-100 kilograms of rice to feed everyone present, and a good quantity of meat. Rice is cheap, and while the meat is less so, you can be sure that every guest was fed for far less than the average Australian price of $110 per person.

The contrast between a typical Australian wedding and a Greek island wedding could not be more pronounced. I haven’t attended weddings in other parts of Greece or on other islands, so I don’t know how they compare with those that take place on Ikaria, but Ikarian weddings are monumental events that are a wonder to behold, and a joy to be part of.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Greenpoint, YMCA Review Part 2

~ This is the second of a two part extended review of the Greenpoint, YMCA in Brooklyn, New York. Click here to read the first part...

The original, shorter version of this review first appeared on the Trip Adviser website in April, 2008. At the time I was staying at another New York City 'Y', the North Brooklyn/Twelve Towns YMCA. Since I mentioned the Greenpoint 'Y' in a previous post, Cheap Accommodation in New York City, I thought I would include an expanded review here.

I moved into the Greenpoint 'Y' on Monday, March 17, 2008, and stayed for a full 28 days before moving out for two nights to the North Brooklyn/12 Towns YMCA in the neighbourhood of Cypress Hills. I then returned for a week, before moving back to North Brooklyn.

Having spent five weeks at the Greenpoint branch of the YMCA during March and April, 2008, I feel reasonably qualified to offer a review of the facilities, the staff, the location, and the surrounding area.

Now on to part two of my review.

While I was there, the reception staff at the Greenpoint 'Y' were mostly young, bored, and showed little interest in who was visiting, from where, or for how long. Most of them were just going through the motions, and getting even a “Good morning,” or “Hi, how are you,” from them was a major achievement. If you have a Polish or Hispanic background, you may have a different experience to me, but from my perspective, the reception staff really let the Greenpoint YMCA down. Even after staying at Greenpoint a total of five weeks, the staff could never remember my room number or my name.

And no, I don’t expect Five Star treatment at a Two Star facility, but it would have been nice to have my presence acknowledged occasionally.
Note: I specifically mention the reception staff of the Greenpoint YMCA because 80 percent of my interactions with staff members was with them. I can offer not opinion of other staff except to say that all my interactions with cleaners and maintenance personal were brief, cordial, and incident free.

Location, Location, Location
Even though you have to change subway trains at least once to get to Manhattan, the Greenpoint 'Y' is perfectly located for quick and easy access to the heart of New York City.

The 'Y' is on Meserole Ave, approximately half way between two ‘G’ train subway stations, both of which are within easy walking distance of the 'Y'. One is at the corner of Manhattan Ave and Nassau Ave, and the other at the corner of Manhattan Ave and Greenpoint Ave (refer to map).

By the way, the Manhattan 3 Decker Restaurant is just a block away (on the way to the Manhattan/Nassau Avenue station), at the corner of Manhattan and Norman Avenues.

Staying Connected
Apparently there is some sort of internet facility at the Greenpoint 'Y', but I didn’t make use of it, so I can’t tell you anything about it. However, if you need access to the internet (and in a wired world, who doesn’t?), I found the perfect solution.

A block and a half away from the 'Y', at the intersection of Norman Ave and Leonard Street (remember: the 3 Decker Restaurant is on the corner of Manhattan and Norman Avenues), you will find a local branch of the Brooklyn Library (location ‘C’ on the map). If you have a wireless enabled laptop, you can use the library’s internet connection for free. That’s right – Free. My understanding is that all public libraries (in New York at least), provide this service.

If you are not travelling with your own WiFi laptop, you can still use the computers at the library but will need to pay a small fee. Unfortunately, from what I could see there was a big demand for these computers, and users were only able to stay on line for 30 minutes at a time. Barely enough, in my opinion, to read and reply to emails. But at least it was cheap, and easy to get to.

Of course, if you travel with a laptop and have the right kind of provider, you can connect almost anywhere in the US, and it is getting easier by the day to do so.

The Neighbourhood
The highest concentration of Polish migrants in the whole of the United States is living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. This is a fact – not a criticism. There are numerous Polish owned restaurants, bars, cafés, and shops and business of all descriptions in the area surrounding the YMCA. In fact every type of business is represented in the neighbourhood with the exception of cinemas.

I enjoyed exploring the neighbourhood, and learning about my surroundings, and if you have the time, I would encourage you to do the same. Manhattan does not have a monopoly on the action in New York City. There is plenty going on in Brooklyn as well.

US Postal Service
If you head one block down Meserole Avenue towards the East River, you will find a local branch of the US Postal Service on the corner of Meserole Ave and Guernsey Street (location ‘B’ on the map). If you need to send letters or packages home, this is the most convenient place to do it from.

Safety and Security
And finally… It doesn’t hurt that the 94th Police Precinct building is directly opposite the YMCA. The latest I returned to Greenpoint from Manhattan was around 2am. I never felt unsafe or under threat around the Greenpoint 'Y'. In addition, I never felt unsafe in the YMCA itself, or worried about having my room broken into or having things stolen.

Like any big city in the world (or small city for that matter), it pays to keep your wits about you and to not take any unnecessary risks. If you can do that and manage to stay out of trouble, there is no reason why your stay in New York can’t be one of the most exciting travel experiences of your life.

I have no hesitation saying it was just that for me, and I would happily stay at the Greenpoint, YMCA again if I got the opportunity.

Greenpoint, YMCA Review Part 1

~ This is the first of a two part extended review of the Greenpoint, YMCA in Brooklyn, New York. You can read Part 2 here...

The original, shorter version of this review first appeared on the Trip Adviser website in April, 2008. At the time I was staying at another New York City 'Y', the North Brooklyn/Twelve Towns YMCA. Since I mentioned the Greenpoint 'Y' in a previous post, Cheap Accommodation in New York City, I thought I would include an expanded review here.

In a forthcoming entry, I will also add a review of the North Brooklyn/Twelve Towns YMCA.

One of the great things about sites like Trip Adviser is the ability for travellers to add their own reviews and photographs of any aspect of the travel experience they care to comment on. Used properly, this type of service can be invaluable for other travellers following in the reviewers footsteps, since it can give new visitors a chance to see how other people felt about a particular service, attraction, or location.

Having said that, travellers take from their experiences only the things they want to take. What may be regarded as a run down building, filled with dusty rooms, and uninterested staff to one traveller, may be viewed completely differently by another.

If you read all the Trip Adviser reviews for the Greenpoint, YMCA you will find a very divergent range of opinions about that particular YMCA branch. My advice is to read as many of the reviews as possible, and make up your own mind. Despite the obvious mixed reviews you will find at Trip Advisor and other online review sites, there are a whole lot of excellent reasons for choosing to stay at the Greenpoint, YMCA, and this review covers the most important ones.

Having spent five weeks at the Greenpoint branch of the YMCA during March and April, 2008, I feel reasonably qualified to offer a review of the facilities, the staff, the location, and the surrounding area.

I moved into the Greenpoint 'Y' on Monday, March 17, 2008, and stayed for a full 28 days before moving out for two nights to the North Brooklyn/12 Towns YMCA in the neighbourhood of Cypress Hills. I then returned for a week, before moving back to North Brooklyn.

If you are looking for five star accommodation during your stay in New York, you won’t choose to stay with the YMCA. Accommodations are basic, at best, but pretty much all that you need for a short or long stay. Although the website for the Greenpoint YMCA states that rooms have televisions and air conditioning, this does not apply to all rooms. Apparently deluxe rooms have them but economy rooms don't. Bare this in mind if you are visiting New York in the middle of summer, where I understand it gets very hot and humid. You may want to pay for a deluxe room so that you have the use of an air conditioner.

I did not use the fitness centre, pool, or any of the other facilities available to the public so I have no comment to make on these, except to say they are very popular with the local community.

Other reviewers have complained about the smells and vermin. I never saw rats or mice, or even signs of them. However, small brown cockroaches were in plentiful supply. Hey, this is a big city after all, and I suspect there are more than a few cockroaches scurrying around New York. My advice – ignore them or kill them, but don’t let them spoil your stay at Greenpoint or in New York City. And coming from me – a guy who has an aversion to cockroaches bordering on the pathological – that is saying something!

Keeping Clean
Bathrooms and shower facilities were generally clean and tidy. If they are not, blame the people who make the mess, not the staff who clean these facilities in the morning and again late at night. The water in the showers was always hot and plentiful, there was plenty of free liquid soap in the dispensers in each shower cubicle, and there was always toilet paper available, at least in the fourth floor bathroom facilities I used.

Breakfast Included
A great advantage of staying at the Greenpoint YMCA, is that breakfast is included in the cost of accommodation. You can choose anything from the breakfast menu at the Manhattan 3 Decker Restaurant (Location ‘D’ on the map), with items ranging in price from around $2.50-$5.50. This arrangement is a great money saver in my opinion, and it would be fantastic if other branches of the 'Y', could make similar arrangements with a local diner in their area. NOTE: You must ask reception staff for a breakfast voucher each morning before going to the restaurant.

I assume the owner of the 3 Decker Restaurant is reimbursed a set fee for every voucher he returns to the YMCA. However, this amazing deal (cheap accommodation and full American breakfast), has to be one of the best on offer in New York City – and all for around $30 a night.

If someone knows of a better deal – I’d like to hear about it.

Addendum: Monday, April 26, 2010
According to my journal entry for Monday, March 17, 2008, I paid US$916.00 for 28 nights accommodation at the Greenpoint YMCA. That's just US$32.70 a night! Unfortunately, it seems that all YMCA branches in New York have now subcontracted the booking process for rooms through Hostel World.

Now a single room will cost you US$77.00 per night (well over double what I paid just two years ago), while a twin share room is US$46.00 per person per night.

In Part 2, I look at Staffing, Staying Connected, The Neighbourhood, and more...
~ Thanks to Google Maps for the street map used in the main image.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Wired Traveller

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”
- Jack Kerouac

~ Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the wired world.

A couple of days ago I wrote about the Plugged in Traveller. Today let’s look at the Wired Traveller.

Actually, the plugged in traveller and the wired traveller are generally one and the same person. But first, let’s reminisce…(insert dreamy transition sequence as we flash back to the olden days…).

Dear reader, if you are as old as I am, you will still remember the days of ‘snail mail’ – that ancient and all but lost art of letter writing. When men (and women) of letters sent home detailed reports of their adventures as they crossed the globe encountering strange and exotic people, in lands they had previously only read about in geography class. You do remember geography class, don’t you?

If you didn’t have time to write extended reports you could always get away with a PAR AVION* letter.

Remember them? Bought from a local post office, these were light weight, pale blue, one page, prepaid sheets of paper with gummed edges, that had to be folded in a particular sequence before you could drop them into any post box you stumbled across (see image illustrating this entry).

The really lazy traveller always made do with Post Cards. At least post cards gave you the added bonus of including a picture of a famous landmark, or island sunset to make the folks back home envious of your exciting adventures.

You can still get post cards of course, but I haven’t seen an air mail letter in years, and as for long letters home, they too are pretty much a thing of the past. Because today, we are living in a wired world, and the wired traveller wants to work fast, cheap, and online.

Yes, the wired traveller is constantly plugged in, switched on, instant messaging, and uploading to their FaceBook, MySpace, Blogger, Twitter, WordPress, Flickr, YouTube or personal web sites. In fact, the truly wired traveller probably keeps in contact through all the above portals.

Now as you travel the world you can take photographs of the pyramids with your mobile phone and upload them instantly to any number of free websites. Or you could send them to everyone on your phone contact list, and really make your friends back home jealous as they sit, shackled to their work desks, dreaming of their own foreign escapades.

The wired traveller moves around the world with a GPS enabled phone and never has to worry about getting lost in a strange city. He can check his email on the move, and answer them while enjoying a cappuccino in London, a slice of pizza in New York, or a kebab within sight of the pyramids.

The wired traveller can pop into her nearest Internet Café and Google her favourite fashion chain, before heading out to try on the latest summer craze, whether she is in Paris, Milan or Rio. Come to think of it – she can do that from her phone.

If your mobile phone is up to the task, a new opt-in service being trialled by Google called, Google Latitude allows your friends and family to know exactly where you are in the world, at any time, at the touch of a button. While there are some privacy concerns, the security conscious among us will feel a lot happier knowing our movements can be tracked in real time as we travel the world in search of new experiences. Click on the video to watch a short demonstration of Google Latitude’s features.

It won’t be long before you are able to hit a special key on your phone, to send out an alarm to the nearest police station if you are caught up in an emergency, allowing law enforcement to know exactly where you are and track your movements while they close in on you and those threatening you – if it can’t be done already!

Welcome to the wired world, indeed.

*PAR AVION is French for ‘By Air’.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Travelling Light

~ Travel light? Yeah, right.

If you are planning an extended vacation, you will almost certainly take too much with you. In fact, I don’t know anyone who has gone on a vacation of any type, long or short, and complained they didn’t take enough with them. They may have complained they didn’t take the right items along, but they never complained about not taking enough.

In fact, I’m a good example. When I arrived in New York early in March, 2008, it was bitterly cold. Personally, I generally have no problem with the cold, but New York was even colder than I was ready for. The jumper I had with me was just not up to the task of keeping out the freezing wind.

Rather than race out to the nearest department store and buy an expensive jacket, I found a charity store close to where I was staying and bought an excellent second hand jacket for under $20. I wore this over the next few weeks, but gave it away once the weather warmed up enough for me not to need it again. I also found some perfectly good t-shirts in the same charity store for a dollar or two each, and added these to my kit.

On my 2008 travels I started packing clothes with the concept of taking ‘three of everything’. Three pairs of socks, jocks, shirts, trousers, etc. Of course, ‘three of everything’ is only a starting point. Taking three pairs of shoes is overkill, as are three jackets/coats and many other items. So adjust the idea for your own needs and take the minimum you think you will need. After all, isn’t one of the joys of travel discovering and purchasing new clothing in exotic, far away locations?

My suggestion: half fill your suitcase before you leave, that way there will be room in it for the new purchases you make. Otherwise you will have to start discarding clothing as you purchase new items, or start shipping boxes back home – which is potentially very expensive, depending on how you decide to ship your packages.

As it was, I ended up sending three packages home while travelling: two from America, and one from Greece. To be quite honest, the postage for each probably doubled the cost of the original items contained in each box. Was it worth it? I’m still not sure. Some items (gifts and souvenirs, etc), simply had to be sent back to lighten my load, but other items could, and probably should have been left behind.

Don’t discount the option of hiring the items you need once you arrive at your destination. Dragging a set of golf clubs from Sydney to Florida, just doesn’t make sense. Renting a set of golf clubs once you arrive at your hotel in Florida does however, makes perfect sense.

In deed, you can hire almost anything today, making the possibility of travelling light, much more of a reality than it ever was.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Travel Insurance

~ Returning to the article Cheap Tricks For A Great Trip by Herald Sun writer, Donna Coutts, Donna writes:

“THINK of travel insurance as potentially saving you money. An accident or illness overseas could cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars, which is an expensive holiday in anyone's language. But don't waste money on overpriced or inappropriate cover.”

Ah yes, but what constitutes overpriced or inappropriate?

I paid around AU$1,200 for insurance, and didn’t once make a claim in seven months. Should I have paid less? How about, nothing? How much is enough, and how much is too little? Only you can answer these questions. The cold hard reality is that if you take a chance and have no insurance or too little, it could cost you dearly if you need major medical treatment while you are away.

One of your main considerations will be to look at the type of holiday you are planning. If you are into extreme sports of any kind, you would be mad not to have the best travel insurance you can get.

If on the other hand you are taking part in a fully organised, 14 day guided tour of European capitals, you may decide to tailor an insurance package specifically for your needs, and hopefully save a handful of money in the process.

By the way, travel agents make huge commissions on insurance, so whatever you do – make sure you shop around. A good place to start is the online comparison site, Travel Insurance.

If you are buying travel insurance online, make sure you read the fine print before you pay for anything. If you are unsure of anything, email the provider with your questions before signing up. If you can’t find anyone to answer your questions – move on to another provider.

Some countries have reciprocal health agreements with Australia, and will treat Australian citizens as if they are their own. These countries are New Zealand, The United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, Sweden, The Netherlands, Finland, Italy, Malta, and Norway.

Visit the Medicare Australia site at this link for full details of any conditions which may apply, and for a list of what you are entitled to in each country.

Other countries, especially the United States are notoriously expensive, and travelling in America without adequate insurance is courting financial disaster if you need treatment for even minor ailments.

In her article, Donna suggests you check your credit-card policy. Some of the major providers include travel insurance in their policies, although special conditions will almost certainly apply. If you have existing private health insurance, you may be able to upgrade your coverage to include travel insurance.

Once again, if you have any tips to offer, please feel free to add a comment.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Plugged in Traveller

~ Once upon a very long time ago, the compleat traveller could explore the world with just a suitcase or two, and maybe a notebook and pen to record their adventures. You could of course, still travel the world with nothing more than a backpack and a notebook and pen to record your memories, but increasingly, that just won’t do.

Now the compleat traveller doesn’t feel complete unless they have a mobile phone with global roaming enabled (preferably with GPS built in), a WiFi enabled laptop, a digital video camera and digital SLR (with at least a couple of extra lenses), and much more.

When I travelled in 2008, I had all of the above (except that my phone didn’t have a GPS function), and all of the associated paraphernalia that goes with it: separate battery chargers for both cameras and the phone (including spare batteries for the cameras); a power pack for the laptop; a collection of power socket converters that enabled me to plug my various chargers and laptop into the electricity grids of England, the United States, and Greece – where each country required its own specific converters, of course!

Then there were the associated cables needed to connect all this technology together. Cables for transferring images from the digital camera to the computer; separate cables for transferring film from the digital video cassettes to the laptop; a recovery disc just in case my computer ‘crashed’ while I was on the road somewhere; a couple of memory sticks; and God knows what else!

I had so much gear with me that I had to hump it around in a separate shoulder bag. At least it was small enough to serve as my carry on bag when flying.

Thankfully, the day is fast approaching when some of these items will all come together into one small, light weight, compact unit. That unit will even have a catchy name to help it sell –something like: iPhone! Oh, yeah, they already have those.

Unfortunately, I don’t, but I’m working on it.

Mind you, by the time I am ready or able to purchase one, the technology will have moved on to some other even more compact, fully featured device that does even more than an iPhone can do, and it will do it faster, cheaper, and better.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Cheap Accommodation in New York City

~ I recently found an online article titled Cheap Tricks For A Great Trip by Herald Sun writer, Donna Coutts, worth reading, and thought I’d add my own observations to some of her tips.

In her article, Donna writes:

“BAD accommodation is a waste of money, no matter how cheap.”

However, cheap accommodation need not necessarily be bad. I spent eight weeks in New York City during March-April, 2008. My total accommodation costs during this time were under AU$2,500. That’s right, under $2,500.

So how did I do it? I stayed at the YMCA.

Yes, you can laugh, but I reckon I’ve had the last laugh – because, for under $300 a week I spent eight weeks in one of the most exciting, vibrant, and amazing cities in the world. When you think, that some people happily spend $300 a night for a bed in New York, my costs seem miniscule by comparison.

Ok, I admit the accommodations at the ‘Y’ are not luxurious, but if I was looking for luxurious accommodations, I would have had to quadruple my budget, not just double it. And even that might not have been enough.

There are several YMCAs around New York City that offer accommodations, and to my knowledge they are all open to males and females, so if you are female, don’t assume you can’t stay at the 'Y'. Some are cheaper than others, and all offer peak and off peak rates. Since membership comes as part of your sign up costs, you are also free to use the facilities that each 'Y' has, which may include a gymnasium, swimming pool, computer lab, and much more.

For around $30 a night you get a room to yourself (no dormitory style accommodation here), clean sheets and shared bathroom facilities. The YMCA in Greenpoint, Brooklyn even provides you with a voucher which you can use at the Manhattan 3 Decker Restaurant just down the road (see image illustrating this entry). Here you can choose anything off the breakfast menu for FREE! Yes, you read it correctly – Free. Given some of the items on the breakfast menu could set you back over $5.00, the 'Y' in Greenpoint is definitely my top choice for budget accommodation in New York City.

Donna also writes that a visit to Trip Advisor is essential.

I agree, that Trip Advisor is a good place to start your research, in fact I have posted reviews on the site myself. However, you must read as many reviews as possible before making up your own mind, and try and base your decision on the most recent reviews, not those more than a year old. Things change all the time in the travel industry, and a bad review posted in 2007 may have no bearing on the state of a hotel or attraction in 2009.

I will return to Donna’s article in future posts. If you have your own tips regarding accommodation, please feel free to add them here.

Friday, February 6, 2009

What Type of Traveller Are You?

~ This may seem like an odd question to ask, but knowing what kind of tourist or traveller you are will help you and your travelling companions enjoy your trip or vacation more than you might imagine. Essentially, there are four main types of travellers: Recreational, Experiential, Experimental, and Existential.

Recreational Travellers usually like nothing more than to unwind, and free themselves from the stresses and strains of modern life. They are not necessarily interested in local flavour or customs, or even the culture of the country they are visiting – if they travel abroad at all. Recreational travellers may just want to sit around and relax reading books, and generally resting. They are not against travelling to foreign locations per se, but neither are they interested in immersing themselves in new cultures. Often they just want to recharge their batteries before another year at the grindstone.

Experiential Travellers search for meaning within other cultures. They tend to be inquisitive and inquiring; always interested and curious about the places they visit. These travellers like to get beneath the exterior of strange new worlds and try to get the most experience out of a destination as possible. They are willing to risk a little bit in order to gain experience and insight. They like to connect with different cultures and find as much meaning within them as they can.

Experimental Travellers are not only willing to try new things but quite often actively seek them out. They may also be looking for meaning outside their present existence and way of life, and are willing to try new destinations that others may never have considered. In marketing terms, Experimental travellers are the ‘early adopters’ of the travel world. They are people who like to be among the first to visit remote regions of previously unpopular travel destinations.

Finally, Existential Travellers are those who find great meaning in a new culture, and who now want to engage in it as much as possible. When they return home from their travels, they may spend weeks and months pining for a favourite city, country, or remote location. No sooner are they back home, than they begin saving for another trip to the same spot or somewhere close to it.

So, what type of traveller are you?

Clearly, if you are a recreational traveller, you are going to have a lot of problems travelling with a partner or group of people who love to experiment as much as possible when they travel. Knowing what type of traveller you and your travel companions are, should make they whole travel experience much more enjoyable for everyone involved.

Of course, you could always go on vacation by yourself – as I did. This has many advantages – and disadvantages – that I will explore in another entry.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Welcome to The Compleat Traveller

Welcome to The Compleat Traveller*

I've decided to set up this blog because I want to share some of my travel stories with you. My best travel photographs. And the best travel tips, tricks, and money saving ideas I can find online.

Last year I spent seven months travelling to the USA, Britain and Greece. While I spent extended periods of time in both America and Greece, I came away with a wealth of stories, experiences, great photographs and hours of video footage.

I'd love to share this with you, the reader, and while some of my posts will recount past trips and exploits, I will also be adding new posts based on any additional travel I do - and I plan to do a lot.

* Just in case you think I can't spell, the word Compleat is the archaic form of the modern English, complete. Since several of my first choice names for this blog where already taken, I was lucky enough to register a blog title that was at least close to what I originally wanted.
As for the word, Traveller, being Australian born and educated, I prefer the British spelling for this word, rather than the American which uses one 'l'.
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