I went to a talk today that was supposed to be on backpacking, and travelling without breaking the bank.
It was horrible.
The lecturer talked of hitchhiking, sleeping out in the open, carrying thousands of dollars on you so you don’t waste money using a bank machine in another country, and buying separate plane tickets to get the best deals. He spoke of getting accosted on public transport, and how he carries peppery spray as a deterrent while travelling. He told us not to get caught in tourist traps (good advice, yes) but lectured us that it was never, ever, ever to be done. He gave an example of a couple who paid to go up in a hot-air balloon in Turkey, while he got up early while they were being filled and took photographs, for free.
Never mind that sometimes a person wants to do, or see, a tourist trap – the Eiffel Tower is a tourist trap, but will you not visit it while in Paris? My safari was a tourist trap, but I am forever grateful that I spent that $900.
Never mind that it should be up to traveller to decide – if you are aware that it is a tourist trap, but are willing to pay the money to experience it, if it is on your bucket list, by all means pay the money and go! Do! See!
One thing this man missed in Turkey was the experience of floating, in an open air basket, in the quiet, still morning air as it floated over a foreign country. Taking pictures of the hot-air balloons on the ground is fine, but that I can do at home. Flying over Turkey in a hot-air balloon will look nothing like flying over Ottawa in a hot-air balloon.
Suffice to say, I was not pleased with the lecture. Besides being encouraged to participate in some rather risky behaviour – hitchhiking? Really? – he gave us no information. He talked of his trips, of planning where he was going next, but gave no information on what websites were helpful, what resources he uses to research his trips, how to apply for visas, or anything. It was, in a word, useless. (Also, scary.)
So here’s my list. Here’s what resources I use, what websites I visit, and how to find out if you need a visa.
Once you know you want to go somewhere, you have to decide where. I usually end up walking by travel agencies, to see what places are advertised that week, or by hitting the Air Canada website to look up various destinations.
You’ve got your location, now you need a ticket. Travel Cuts has, by far, the best deals I’ve found. I haven’t found them cheaper anywhere else – not Expedia, not Kayak, not Travelocity. That isn’t to say that you can’t find cheap flights on these webistes, and I still recommend you do some price checking, but Travel Cuts is where I always end up buying my ticket. Sometimes the routing leaves a little to be desired – when I went to Costa Rica my itinerary was Ottawa – Newark – Houston – Liberia, Costa Rica, and on the way home it was Liberia –Houston – Chicago – Ottawa, but it was all on one ticket (if I had missed a flight, the carrier was responsible for getting me on another one, rather than me having to pay for a new ticket), and I had enough time between flights that I wasn’t rushed to get on the next one.
They don’t always have the best guide books (I’ve been told that Bradt travel guides are the best for Africa, Moon travel guides are the best for Central America) but their traveller forum, The Thorn Tree, is a wonderful resource for planning. Used by other travellers and locals, you can search previous posts matching your inquiry, or post a new one, to find current information, recommendations, and advisors.
Hostels.com, Hostel World, Hotels.com
So you’ve bought the ticket, you’re researching what to do, now you need a place to stay. All these sites provide an easy, hassle-free way to book rooms. The first two are, of course, cheaper than the third. However, cheaper does not necessarily mean cockroach filled! It also does not automatically mean you will be sharing a dorm room with 15 other people. It is possible to book private (some with an ensuite, some with shared bath), double, or triple rooms, at a hostel, at a fraction of the cost of a hotel. Check it out, look at the pictures, and read the reviews.
This site is a great resource for double checking the reviews from the links above. Just type in the name of the hotel (or company) and you can read other reviews – you can see how many excellent, good, average, poor or terrible reviews a place has, to help you decide where to stay in an unfamiliar city.
Google Maps and Google Images
You can check out how far (or how close!) to an attraction hotels are by using Google Maps. It also allows you to check out the neighbourhood of the hotel. Google Images allows you to see photos of not only different hotels (just type in the name and off you go) but also of sites – how easy is it to get around? Is there anything there actually worth seeing?
If it doesn’t matter where, exactly, you end up staying, this site is great at offering great deals on hotels. The only catch is, you don’t know where your staying until you book. The site will give you a general location (say….within 2 or 3 miles of the location you picked), the number of stars the hotel has, and what big-name chains fall in that category, but it won’t tell you the address or name of the hotel until after you’ve booked. If your location is very important (i.e. you’re attending a conference, and need to be close to the conference centre) this might not be the best site.
Once you’ve started looking at what to do at your destination, you may find prices quoted in the local price. This is a fantastic currency converting website, and really easy to use.
I usually bring enough money to get me through the first few days. I put all my hotels/hostels on my visa, and use atms to withdraw more money in the local currency. The exception to this is when I went to East Africa. Occasionally, I was in places where there were no atms, and so I had to carry more currency with me than normal. But for most destinations, I carry about $500 with me. (This number could go up if you’re travelling as a family.)
If you’re Canadian, and need a passport, Passport Canada is where you need to go. Their website covers everything from how to renew a passport, how to apply, what to do it your passport is lost or stolen.
One thing to keep in mind, is that some countries require that your passport be valid 3 to 6 months after your departure. The link for travel advisories below also includes that information.
How do you know if you need a visa? If you’re Canadian, I can help you with that. Or rather, the government can.
Travel.gc.ca is a government website full of information, on which countries require a visa, what travel advisors are in place (both topics available here http://travel.gc.ca/travelling/advisories) to health precautions in different areas. I (personally) take the warnings with a grain of salt – I take note of where, exactly, the warning is for, and how close it is to my chosen destination, and decide how comfortable I feel.
By now we all probably know that google is the go-to when you need information. Sometimes you need to apply for a visa in person, sometimes you can apply online. Type in “Canadian Visa application for ….” with your destination, and you’ll find lots of info on what to do next.
For information on what vaccines you may need before you leave, check out the Public Health Agency They’ll tell you what you definitely need, and what is only recommended. Occasionally, if you are only going to built-up urban centres, you don’t need a lot of vaccines beyond a regular booster. However, if you intend to travel outside these areas (into jungles, deserts, forests, etc.) you may need a vaccine. For some, such as yellow fever, some countries require proof that you’ve been vaccinated, a small yellow certificate.
Ultimately, you definitely want to talk with a doctor to find out what vaccines are the best for you. These websites are merely guides and should not replace a doctor’s supervision.
Tips on Travel:
1. You should get your vaccines early – 6 weeks prior to your trip is the typical timeframe for vaccination, at a minimum.
2. Know yourself. If you like to be prepared, book things before you leave. If you like to wing it, leave it open. No one way is best. I like to have at least the first night booked when I’m going to a foreign country. It gives me time to get my legs under me (to borrow some hockey lingo) and allows me time to adapt and find my way around.
3. Take all reviews with a grain of salt. Do some other research – did this person book into a hostel, expecting a five-star resort? Read some of their other reviews to get an idea of who they are, and how they travel. And again, something that bothers them may not bother you.
4. Don’t pack your money in your checked luggage. Keep it with you at all times, but not all in the same place. I usually put my passport and a large portion of my money in a money belt, and put enough money for that day in my wallet. That way, if I get pickpocketed, they only get what I would have spent that day, not everything.
I hope this helps you plan your trips, and makes for some smooth(er) travelling.