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Month: January 2017

How to Survive Missing Your Airline Connection

How to Survive Missing Your Airline Connection

It almost never snows in Milan. In three years of living there, I saw it snow for at most a half hour at a time – usually rain that turned into snow briefly, and then back to rain. Snowfall is typically light or non-existent each winter because most of the cold fronts and snow get trapped in the Alps not far outside of the city. The biggest accumulation I ever saw was a light dusting that lasted just long enough for me (in a brief moment of inspiration) go for a run in Sempione Park.

So last month as I was preparing for my repatriation trip to the United States, a.k.a. moving back “home,” I had a lot of mixed thoughts and emotions about the trip – but none that included a snow-related delay for my flight! I didn’t even check the weather before heading to the airport, since winter in Milan tends to hover just above freezing pretty much every day. (Although I found out later that snow was not in the forecast, so checking the weather wouldn’t have helped anyway.)

Only when I was at the airport all checked in and cleared through customs did I approach the departure gate. Which is when I first glanced outside and was quite surprised to see a sheet of white on the other side of the window. Even then I thought that it was most likely hail, and it was only when I walked closer to the glass did I realize it was snowing. And not just flurries, it was driving snow coming down hard and fast. Of course, since the first leg of my flight was the relatively short hop from Milan to London, we didn’t even have a jetbridge to stroll onto the airplane directly, but ended up boarding by taking a bus to the plane and then ascending on foot.

Getting off the shuttle bus and crossing the tarmac on foot to board the plane, I (along with all of the Milanesi) were consumed by the joy of the snowfall. Smartphones popped into everyone’s hands, with pretty much all the passengers snapping shots of the snow, the airport and the snow, and selfies boarding the plane as it’s snowing. It was such an unusual event, everyone wanted to capture it, and we passengers were all smiles as we boarded.

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It was in the moment after I took my seat that the panic and dread about my connecting flight started to set in. I had an already tight connection of barely over an hour at London Heathrow, one of the largest airports in the world. I wasted no time and flagged over the flight attendant nearly immediately. He tried to reassure me that we’d likely make up time in the air and it shouldn’t be that bad. Then the captain comes on and she starts talking about the growing line to get the plane de-iced and then the likely takeoff delays after that process. Her ballpark estimate of our delay time is a modest 20 minutes. Another flight attendant stops by and she lets me know that my outbound flight should be leaving from the same terminal where we’ll be arriving, and that as long as I clear the transfer desk 35 minutes in advance, all should be well.

But of course de-icing and even the line to start the process takes longer than expected. Then we are far back in the line of planes waiting to leave. By the time we take off, it’s almost an hour after our original departure time. Although we are supposed to make up some of that time in the air, for an unknown reasons we slow down to cross Swiss air space. We land at Heathrow nearly an hour late, so just minutes before my next flight is expected to leave. I head briskly to the transfer desk anyway and find a person who brings me to the front of the line, but when my boarding pass is scanned an unpleasant beep sounds, indicating that I am too late for the electronic gate to let me through.

At a smaller airport, or even some of the larger US ones where I’ve had tight connections before, they might hold the plane for you. Or there could be a cascade of delays, allowing you time to catch the continuing flight. At Heathrow, everything is automated and there is no way for the staff to override the built-in time limits. When my boarding pass for the transfer is rejected by the scanner, there is nothing left to try – I take a deep breath and head straight for the re-booking line.

What to Expect When You Miss Your Connection
The first thing to expect when you miss a flight, especially at a big airport like London’s Heathrow, is . . . waiting. The rush of trying to catch your flight and all of the adrenaline that is pumping through your system comes to a screeching halt as you get in line behind the other delayed and frustrated travelers in the re-booking line. I was fortunate to have been traveling in Business class (this is what happens when it’s a company-booked flight), so there was a separate re-booking line I could join. Even then, it took me nearly a half hour to reach the front of the queue and finally speak to a person.

By this time, a couple of what would have been re-booking options for me had elapsed. They could have re-routed me at that point to a far away airport in the US, but then ground transportation once I arrived would have been at my own expense to the tune of hundreds of dollars. With 3 checked bags and a carry-on, there would have been no way to take cheaper public transit options. However, staying overnight and catching the same connecting flight the following day meant that British Airways would put me up in a hotel and provide meal and transportation vouchers for free.

In the end, it made the most sense for me to simply take the flight the next day, and once that was decided it was just a matter of getting everything booked and my vouchers printed. Here’s what was involved in being put up overnight by the airline:

Phone Calls
It didn’t occur to me that I’d be able to use the airline’s phone to make an international call to the US, until the helpful staff member at the desk saw me fumbling with my Italian cell phone. Although I only made a single call, I found out later that in the European Union (EU), you are entitled to 2 phone calls or some other type of communication in the event of being re-booked (see more in the section below on the Passenger Rights).
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Hotel
I imagine that pretty much all airlines will book you at a hotel as close to the airport as possible. For me, the surprise came in that British Airways has a separate hotel for its customers traveling in Business Class. Apparently I would have ended up somewhere else if they were re-booking an Economy ticket. Either way, there seems to be particular hotels they are partnered with, and I did not get a choice about where I stayed.
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Transportation
The hotel was close to the airport, but still a bit of a drive, so the airline covered my round-trip transportation. The down side? Transportation was only covered on a specific shuttle bus, so I was subject to their schedule in both directions, and could not simply catch a ride when I was ready. Also, transportation was only covered between the airport and the hotel. When I went into downtown London to stroll around and meet a friend for dinner, that was at my own expense.
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Meal Vouchers
Since breakfast was included at the hotel, I received two meal vouchers. The first was for a “snack” and only valid at the airport. So the first thing I did after being re-booked was stay at the airport so I could get some food as I had missed lunch and was actually quite hungry at that point. My second voucher was for dinner, but again with limited validity. I could only use it at the hotel. By the point my vouchers were issued I knew it was likely I’d go into London to meet a friend for dinner, so asked if there was an alternate voucher for this. There wasn’t, so dinner ended up being at my own expense.

Luggage
This is an important one – checked luggage stays checked during the layover. So you will not have access to what’s inside your checked bags. This is one of the reasons that I’m so glad I pack my carry-on bag strategically every time I fly (see more about my essential carry-on items in the next section on How to Be Ready for Every Flight).
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Amenities Kit
You may be familiar with the amenities kit you’ll get from an airline for an overnight flight, usually with an eye mask, toothbrush, tissues, and maybe some lotion. When you are put up overnight by the airline at a hotel, it’s a slightly different collection of items. My British Airways kit contained an XL t-shirt (for the record I usually wear a small so this would have been like a dress on me), deodorant, shampoo, lotion, shaving cream, a razor, a comb, & a toothbrush with a tiny toothpaste tube. If I hadn’t been prepared, this would have been great to tide me over until the next day, but I still felt better having my own stuff. In the end, I didn’t use anything from this pack.

Immigration
I’ve even had to clear immigration for long layovers that were not delayed. Certainly in the case of a flight delay of many hours or an overnight in a different country than where you left from, you will have to be processed (plus, you’ll want to leave the airport anyway). I have Global Entry for arriving in the US, so I was not expected any new passport stamps before returning home and being able to get a new passport, as mine was almost completely full. Fortunately while the Immigration Officer made sure I wasn’t traveling anywhere else besides the UK that would require space for a stamp, he found a somewhat empty corner to place the UK stamp and let me in =)
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Passenger Rights
I wouldn’t have thought to ask for this, but the re-booking desk provided me with a copy of the Passenger Rights for the EU. Other countries have similar policies. Some of the compensation I received was specific to Europe, so be sure to request a copy of what your rights are in the country where you’ve been delayed. If a copy is not available, find it online to know what you’re entitled to get in your specific scenario.

How to Be Ready for Every Flight

Some of the reason I survived staying overnight unexpectedly in a surprise country with the greatest of ease is because I am *always* prepared for the unexpected every time I board a flight. What does this mean?

First, if you have any sort of connecting flight, be sure to book with the same airline for whole itinerary. An airline only has an obligation to help you if it one of their flights that caused you to miss the next one. Otherwise, if you are traveling on two different carriers, there is no help if you’re delayed and miss the connection. It will be your financial responsibility to sort it out.

I’ve had my luggage delayed on several occasions, this was the first time I was waylaid en route. That’s usually the contingency I’m planning for – me making it to my final destination without luggage. I’ve had my luggage delayed for anywhere from a few hours to several days, and my carry on bag is always packed with that possibility in mind.

Another general preparation tip – make sure your carry on bag makes it onto the plane with you! All of the emergency provisions you pack are only useful if you still have access to them if your luggage doesn’t make it or ends up routed to a wrong destination. To do this, I go to great lengths to make sure that the plane does not run out of overhead space before I board, requiring me to “gate check” my bag. Even it means queuing up early to board the plane.

With the “gate check” process, sometimes your bag is brought to you at the jetway to pick up and sometimes it comes out on the belt with your checked luggage (causing you to spend additional time once you arrive to retrieve it). Sometimes they tell you that your bag will come to the jetway, and you only find out at your destination that it will come out with the checked luggage instead. Again, reasons I try my best to avoid being in the situation of having to “gate check” my bag. Just in case.

Here’s what to pack in your carry-on for any “just in case” situation, whether it’s your checked bag not arriving at your destination or you needing to stay overnight unexpectedly in a strange city or country:

  • Laptop, e-reader, and other key electronics
  • Chargers for your phone & any other electronics you have with you
  • Universal plug adapter (for any international travel)
  • Basic toiletries, including toothbrush, hairbrush, & deodorant
  • Other basic items, including nail clippers, tweezers, band-aids, & a sewing kit
  • Any moisturizers or lotions, plus travel-sized shower items (for me this is shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, facewash, & body lotion) And yes, this all fits in my quart-sized bag. And then some.
  • Any medicines you might need, plus several pills of a basic pain-killer and an anti-diarrheal
  • Pajamas
  • At least 1 clean additional shirt and 1 pair of socks
  • Several clean pairs of underwear.
    Yes, even though I only bring one shirt and a pair of socks, I bring several pairs of underwear. Because other things can be dirty in a pinch if you’re delayed longer than expected (or your lost luggage takes extra time to arrive). You want your underwear to be clean.

There are a few other things that I typically have in my carry-on bag – like an umbrella – but this list is just the essentials to be sure to include for those “just in case” situations. There’s definitely space for more than this in my carry-on, with the specifics of the other contents depending on the trip.

In this particular instance, I was especially glad to have my universal adapter, as the UK is on a different plug from both Italy and the US. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to charge my devices. And even though I got basic toiletries and a t-shirt from the airline, I was far more relaxed and comfortable having my own clothes and basics to get me through my unexpected layover in London.
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Plus, since I didn’t have to spend any time scrambling to buy clothing or toiletries or electronics, I was able to focus my time on meeting up last-minute with friends (I saw 2 different friends during my surprise layover!) and soaking up the holiday atmosphere of London, just a few days before Christmas.

Have you ever missed your connecting flight? What do you wish you had known beforehand? Share any tips I missed for how to survive a surprise overnight layover!

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How to Make the Most of Chinese New Year in Hong Kong

How to Make the Most of Chinese New Year in Hong Kong

Chinese New Year in Hong Kong is a series of celebrations so spectacular that many mainland Chinese – along with visitors from around the world – travel to the city to join in the festivities. Each year, there are a series of events, including the iconic fireworks display over Victoria Harbour. After spending a week in Hong Kong around Chinese New Year two years ago (my second visit), it’s hands-down the time I’d recommend for a trip.

Chinese New Year follows the lunar calendar, so while it consistently takes place in late January to mid-February, the exact dates change each year – so check a calendar before planning your trip. Also, a lesser known fact that I love is that in the Chinese calendar (depending on which approach you subscribe to), the new year is around 4715! Just a wee bit ahead of the Gregorian calendar. This is obviously representative of the long history of Chinese dynasties and how long they’ve been keeping track.

If you haven’t planned for it, you’ll know you’re in Hong Kong for Chinese New Year by the abundance of orange and tangerine plants being sold at stores, displayed at hotel entrances, and located pretty much everywhere you turn. It’s considered auspicious to eat – or at least display – the fruit as the Chinese word for orange is a homophone with the word for success & the word for tangerine contains the Chinese character for luck.

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It is also traditional for people to exchange red (or otherwise decorated) lai see envelopes containing cash as a gift for good luck prosperity in the new year. In general these envelopes are given from senior to junior colleagues in an office and from married to single relatives. And it is customary not to open the envelopes in front of the giver, so you’ll see many people around town with a collection of red envelopes.

Read on for more about the Chinese New Year traditions to expect, the ways Hong Kong celebrates every year, and other sights to explore during your time in Hong Kong.

Things to Do to Celebrate the Chinese New Year

Just a wee bit crowded at the flower market

Explore the Flower Market

If you’d like to explore all of the nooks and crannies of the Flower Market at a leisurely pace, go on one of the days leading up to the eve of Chinese New Year. For the quintessential, so-crowded-you-can-barely-walk experience, head to Victoria Park after dinner on Chinese New Year eve. You’ll wait in long queues to enter, and feel as if the entire rest of Hong Kong is there with you, but that is also the most festive time and when you’ll get the deepest discounts if you’re looking to make a purchase.

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Join a Family ‘Reunion Dinner’ on New Year’s Eve

It is traditional for families to gather together on the eve of Chinese New Year for a ‘reunion dinner.’ If you’re extra lucky like me, you have family who lives in Hong Kong who will invite you to their house, where we enjoyed each other’s company and a festive meal, along with a family friend. If you have any contacts or even friends of friends there, I recommend joining one of these meals, or creating your own festive meal out with your travel companions and friends you’ve met on the road. And of course, there are traditional Chinese dishes you can seek out for good luck in the new year.

TIP! When you’re looking for food the following day (on Chinese New Year’s Day), be aware that many restaurants will have a surcharge that is a percentage of your bill added to your check. And many spots will be closed, so do your homework before you show up somewhere to dine on the national holiday. There are still some great options, especially in the more central areas, including Mak’s Noodle where I enjoyed lunch the New Year’s Day I spent there.

Well, that's one way to raise money

Attend the Parade

There is annual parade on the evening of Chinese New Year Day, on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong, beginning in the Tsim Sha Tsui (TST) area. If you plan ahead, there are spectator seats for sale, otherwise it is free to stand anywhere else along the parade route. It is a mix of traditional Chinese performances, like the dragon, as well as a variety of foreign performers who are invited to participate.

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View the Fireworks Display

I don’t exaggerate when I say that the fireworks in Hong Kong for Chinese New Year are epic. You’ll want to stake out a spot close to the Harbour in advance where you can get a good view of the 20-minute spectacle. Fireworks are set off for the New Year, as it is believed that they drive off evil spirits. The fireworks display in Hong Kong takes place each year on the evening of the day after Chinese New Year’s Day (the second day of the new year), along with a classical musical accompaniment.

TIP! As soon as the fireworks end, the hordes of people set off in search of dinner. Have a plan within walking distance for where you’ll go for dinner after the fireworks (if you haven’t already eaten) or where you’ll be able to go close to your viewing point. While the MTR (metro) and buses will be running, they will be at their most crowded, so you shouldn’t count on them as an immediate means of transportation.

(More) Things to Do in and around Hong Kong

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Victoria’s Peak

Known colloquially in Hong Kong as “the Peak,” Victoria’s Peak is located on Hong Kong Island. There is an expansive view of the Harbour and Kowloon on the other side from the summit. There is a steep trail where you can hike to the top, or a funicular tram that will get you there.

TIP! The tram can get quite crowded (especially in the Chinese New Year period), so plan to hike up by foot or go outside of this time if you can. Or even if you take the tram to the top, you can save yourself the time of waiting in the line to descend and instead hike down on foot.

Light Show

Like Singapore, Hong Kong sure knows how to take advantage of all of its tall buildings with the nightly light show at 8:00pm involving 40 (!) buildings on both sides of Victoria Harbour. If you watch from the Wan Chai promenade or outside the ICC building, you can also hear the accompanying soundtrack that really brings it to life. It’s also popular to watch it from a boat crossing the Harbour.

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Star Ferry

Yes, there is the metro that will take you across, but there is no more iconic way to cross Victoria Harbour than on the quite inexpensive Star Ferry, at least once during your visit. It runs back and forth between Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon side about every 10 minutes and gives you a great view of both skylines. If you watch it pull away or dock, you can see one of the crew members still throwing a rope by hand to attach and detach the boat.

Kowloon night market

Kowloon

A lot of tourists will stick to the Hong Kong Island side, but even if you have no tourist destinations in mind, head to the Kowloon side across the Harbour to get a very different flavor of Hong Kong life. It is more densely-populated than Hong Kong Island, and has a variety of attractions worth checking out, from the Kowloon Walled City Park (commemorating the self-contained enclave that was a crime haven throughout most of the 1900s then demolished) to the Temple Street night market.

Highest Bar in the World

Hong Kong boasts the highest bar in the world, the Ozone Bar on the 118th floor of the International Commerce Center (ICC) building, as part of the Ritz-Carlton hotel there. It is so high up that you are above the clouds, so go when it is a clear day or night for a different perspective on the Hong Kong skyline.

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Hiking

When you conjure up an image of Hong Kong, you probably envision a collection of skyscrapers, all crowded in next to each other in some of the most densely-populated neighborhoods in the world. But the truth is that the vast majority of the islands that comprise Hong Kong are undeveloped and pristine nature areas with a wealth of hiking trails to guide your path. And even if you’re staying in ‘Central’ – basically downtown Hong Kong – it’s usually just a hop on the MTR (metro) or a cheap taxi ride to arrive at the start of a hike well off the beaten path.

Museums

The one museum I visited during my visit was the Hong Kong Museum of History, which does a great job outlining different periods in Hong Kong’s founding. It provided some great context for the region that I didn’t get in the rest of my sightseeing. If museums are your thing, or you’re faced with rainy weather, there are a ton of other museums in Hong Kong to visit, from the expected (the Hong Kong Maritime Museum) to the obscure (Hong Kong International Hobby and Toy Museum).

Buddhist Temples and Sites

The two main Buddha-related sights are the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery and Tian Tan Buddha, otherwise known as the Big Buddha. For both, you are better off visiting on a non-holiday weekday if possible. The Big Buddha, part of the Ngong Ping Village, is best accessed by the cable car that you can find adjacent to the Tung Chung MTR (metro) station. The Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery is also metro accessible, from the Sha Tin MTR station.

TIP! Buddhist temples and tourist attractions – especially the Big Buddha – are likely to be slammed on the holiday days of the Chinese New Year, as pretty much everyone has off from work and many of those people have additional family members visiting. Reserve spots ahead of time and if possible (even with a reservation) go on the days before or after the two-day New Year holiday. Or first thing in the morning before the lines will keep you queuing for hours.

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One of the Macau market streets

Visit Macau

Macau, like Hong Kong, is also a “Special Administrative Region” of China, and is easily accessible by ferry from Hong Kong. Leading up to Chinese New Year, it will be packed during the day with Chinese mainlanders who come over for the day to stock up on holiday foods and other shopping for a fresh start to the new year. However, not only is it great to experience the decorations for lunar new year interspersed with the Portuguese flavor of this former colonial outpost, there are a lot of great deals on hotel accommodations in this period.

 

What’s your favorite Chinese New Year tradition? And what are the best places where you’ve celebrated Chinese New Year before? Let me know in the Comments below!

Happy travels, and I wish you all a very happy Chinese New Year – gong hei fat choi!!

Lana

How to Make the Most of

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I’m a Liebster Award Winner!

I’m a Liebster Award Winner!

I’m thrilled to announce . . . that I’m a Liebster award winner!! Much gratitude goes out to Stefano of The Travel Bakery, an Italian from Turin who is also relatively new to this crazy journey called travel blogging, and who nominated me for this award. It’s a way for bloggers to recognize blogger newbies for their efforts.

First, thank you so much to all of my readers for your support for Travel Savvy Gal! I started the blog in August of 2016 not knowing if I would have enough to say to keep producing new blog posts & how everything would go as I slowly learn the ins and outs of social media platforms (many of which I had never used before). Even now, almost 6 months in, I am only just starting to get the hang of Pinterest, for example. It’s still a learning process, so I am incredibly humbled for this recognition of all of the work I’ve put in to produce quality, engaging content for YOU, THE READER.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!!

Read on to learn a little bit more about how I travel, as I answer Stefano’s questions & be sure to check out the blogs I’m nominating below for some truly excellent travel inspiration!!

Please, read the rules before going on:

  • Thank the person who nominated you and post a link to their site on your blog.
  • Display the award on your blog.
  • Answer their 10 questions about yourself.
  • Nominate 5-10 other bloggers for the award and inform them via social media.
  • Create your own set of 10 questions for your nominees.

My replies to Stefano

  1. What’s the last place you have been dreaming of traveling to?

    Georgia. The country, of course. I’ve been dreaming about it for a while, from the incredible cuisine to wine country to hiking the great outdoors. Anyone I know who has been came back raving about the experience, and it has all of my favorite things packed into a single country. I’m hoping that 2017 is the year I finally visit!

  2. You are given ONE TRIP in life. Where are you going?

    Bora Bora

  3. Tell your most embarrassing travel moment ever. Don’t be shy.

    Back in 2009 on my 5-week solo trip through Mexico, I had one of those terrible travel days when it seemed like everything was going wrong. After a disappointing day trying to do sightseeing in Puebla on foot, a huge rainstorm set in. Crossing the street was like wading through a stream, and some of the puddles were quite deep. The second there was a break in the car traffic, I started to cross one of the main thoroughfares, and only realized when I reached the island in the middle of the road that I would not have time to get completely across. And then as some locals were watching me standing alone on the island as traffic went by both in front of me and behind, a car came speeding through in the lane right next to me and completely soaked me from head to toe. I had a pretty embarrassing stroll the rest of the way back to my hostel, garnering stares from pretty much everyone I passed.

  1. Which books and movies you have read and watched in 2016? Which are you looking forward to in 2017?

    I read 75 books in 2016, people!! My most ever, I’m pretty sure, although my early reading years may have given me a run for my money. And 2 of them were in Italian! Something I’m very proud of. My top reads from last year:

  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Berniéres
  • Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy
  • I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes
  • Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore
  • The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
  • Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky.

I’m much more of a book than a movie person — probably most of the movies I saw last year were on airplanes. For this coming year, I am my usual eclectic self when it comes to reading, and already have a few dozen titles on hold at the library. I am currently reading The Italians by John Hooper.

  1. What’s the funniest item you always bring with you when traveling?

    For any trip longer than a weekend, I take what is called a Miracle Ball. It’s a softball-sized teal, rubber ball that is used to relieve muscle tension that I use to help with headaches, back pain, and any other painfully tight muscles that crop up as I’m traveling. It may look weird, but it works!

  2. What was your lowest moment in your (presumably short) blogging career?

    I think most of my low moments have come when I write a post that I think is great, and then there is not much of a reaction on my Facebook page. Even though I know a lot of this has to do with their recent changes to the algorithm for the News Feed, it’s still frustrating :-\

  3. Do you believe believing in blogging alone as a primary source of income?

    Sure, I believe in it, and many people have certainly made that work for a variety of budgets and travel styles. For me, blogging right now is a hobby. I’m motivated to share some of the amazing destinations I’ve been privileged to visit and the tips and tricks I’ve amassed over my years of frequent travel, hoping to inspire my readers to get out there more!

  4. Tell a secret strategy (legit or not, we all know..!) you have been using to increase your social media followers.

    I don’t think it’s a secret per se, but for Instagram I follow a lot of re-gram accounts that post pictures from a variety of people. When there’s a picture I like, I’m sure to follow the person who took the shot, which is how I’ve started following some of the more popular accounts and get great picture-taking inspiration.

  5. Mac or Windows? Lightroom or GIMP? Twitter or Instagram?

    I am definitely a Windows person. As for touching up photos, I sometimes crop or adjust lightness, but don’t really edit. Everyone keeps telling me that “real” travel bloggers edit their photos, but at this point I want to do it differently – showing what things actually look like instead of displaying a stunning shot that I’ll never be able to duplicate in real life – because so much has been photo-shopped or adjusted from the original. And I’m much more active on my Instagram account right now, showcasing my adventures visually.

  6. Do you collect / Have you collected something in life or during your travel?

Probably the biggest thing I collect in my travel these days is wine. I enjoy wine tasting in lots of places I visit – and what better souvenir to take home and remind you of your wonderful trip than being able to open a bottle of wine you sampled there? Right now, my wine rack has wines from Australia, Bulgaria, France, Israel, Italy, Liechtenstein, Spain, and the US!

The 10 Questions I’m Asking

  1. What travel destination do you love so much you keep returning again and again?
  2. Tell the story of the best hospitality you’ve gotten from a stranger.
  3. What was the turning point from being like any regular traveler to being a blogger?
  4. What destination would you never go back to? Why not?
  5. Must-have travel accessory?
  6. What do you love most about being a travel blogger?
  7. Most under-rated country you’ve visited?
  8. Share your favorite photo-taking tip.
  9. Weirdest hashtag you’ve ever used?
  10. What’s the biggest success of your blogging career so far? (other than the Liebster Award, of course)

And here are my nominees for the Liebster Award…

From Italy. With Love. – I love the insights, tips, and engaging writing style of Gina, an American living just outside of Milan who shares her experiences with the “real” Italy.

Globetrotter Guru – Amy is living proof that even people with chronic illnesses can get out there and follow their dreams.

Headed Anywhere – Daina is inspiring people to prioritize travel in their lives, even for those working full-time jobs like she is.

Skye Travels – Skye is chasing his ever-growing bucket list, with no signs of stopping anytime soon.

Tales of a Backpacker – Claire is sharing her latest adventures and travel intel as she makes her way through South America.

Congratulations to all of the blogs!! Please take a moment to check them out and support these wonderful bloggers who are doing a stellar job sharing their travel tips and inspiration with *YOU*.

With gratitude, and happy travels!

Lana

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How to Plan Solo Travel in 8 Easy Steps

How to Plan Solo Travel in 8 Easy Steps

Solo travel can look like so many different things, and is one of the most rewarding things I have done as a frequent traveler. I love having a buddy (or several) to share my travel adventures with, but there is a totally different perspective and awareness that comes from taking a trip just for you. Most destinations have an abundance of organized activities as well as plenty of things you can do solo, so you really can tailor the trip to what is best for you personally, or most comfortable. And you can still eat incredibly well while traveling alone. Even though I’ve been a solo traveler for nearly two decades, I keep planning (and savoring) solo trips, and have now visited over a dozen countries on my own.

Below I break it down into my step-by-step process for how I plan my solo trips, whether it’s for a weekend or a month. Follow the process one step at a time, and before you know it you’ll be on your first trip on your own!

Planning…

Step 1: Pick the amount of time you’ll travel.

This sounds basic, but it’s hugely important. If this will be your first solo trip, you’ll probably want to keep it to a day or weekend, so you can get a taste for solo travel without feeling too overwhelmed or stressed with the planning. Sometimes the amount of time will be dictated by your available vacation time from work or a period of time in between trips already planned with other people. In any case, decide on something reasonable that fits with your free time, level of comfort, and budget.

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Step 2: Pick a destination.

This step can be done interchangeably with Step 1. Sometimes I block off time to travel and then pick where I’ll go & other times I have somewhere I want to visit and figure out how much time I have available to spend there. In any case, picking a destination is related to your free time, as you probably won’t want to venture too far for a weekend trip, but might spend 20 hours flying to go away for a month. Take into account how expensive a destination is (both to get there & once you arrive), whether you speak the language, and if there are enough things you’re interested in doing for the time you’ve set aside.

Step 3: Book transportation.

This step for me is always the point at which things go from me dreaming about a trip to it becoming R-E-A-L. If you book a flight in the US, you have 24 hours to change your mind, but most other US transportation options – and certainly international ones – are typically non-refundable or can only be changed with a hefty fee. So for me, booking my transportation to and from a place is when I feel committed. Figure out if it’s best for you to arrive by car, bus, train, or plane, look into economical options that work with your schedule. And of course, don’t forget to take a minute to run down my Travel Checklist for Booking Flights, most of which applies to bus or train transportation as well. Then just pull the trigger and book!

Let’s be real, people tend to be most terrified of this step, myself included. You may think it over for so long that there are no good cheap flight options left or you let your fear get the better of you and never actually make the plan. But take a second to think about it. At this stage, you’ve already decided where to go and for how long, so the hard part is over. Don’t think too much about it, and just book. Now you’re going on a trip!! And it’ll be great =)

Kayaking as the sun is starting to set.

Step 4: Decide how you’ll split your trip between time on your own vs. organized tours.

When I have a solo trip planned for anything longer than a weekend, I typically plan at least one formal tour. Not only is this a great way to get to know a place while hosted by locals or experts, it is a social activity that can be a nice way to break up time sightseeing on your own. I also use organized tours as a way to meet others, including (but not only!) other solo travelers. This is also your chance to decide how much time feels right for you to be traveling on your own. If this is your first solo trip, you might want to schedule some form of planned activity each day you’ll be traveling. Or every other day. Perhaps you like to explore new places at your own pace and will only schedule a single day activity for a week on the road.

This is your chance to be real with yourself about what feels comfortable and works for you. And the good news? There’s no wrong way to take a solo trip! Do it in a way so you don’t feel overwhelmed or in over your head. For me, if I’m feeling adventurous, I’ll book only a single tour – or even none at all. If I don’t have a lot of planning time, or will be too exhausted from a previous trip, I’ll slot in more activities in advance. You can get a better feel for what this balance might look like in the next section, where I share the details of previous solo trips I’ve taken. Of course, if you decide to not plan any organized activities ahead of time, skip straight to Step 5.

Step 5: Book accommodations.

The only reason I am putting this step after outlining your rough overview of your trip is because some organized tours or trips may involve overnights where you’re sleeping arrangements are taken care of (see more about my Thailand trip in the next section), so you’ll want to know which nights are not accounted for before booking where you’ll stay. Your style of travel may typically involve familiar chains or boutique hotels, but if you are traveling solo I’d also recommend that you consider booking accommodations where you can meet others easily, like a hostel. Many hostels offer private room options if you’re not interested in having a bed in a communal dorm room, and often will host other solo travelers who might be looking for a sightseeing companion for a day or afternoon. They are also great sources of information on local tours and excursions, and can often book these for you directly. Regardless of which type of accommodation you choose, be sure to run down my Travel Checklist for Booking Accommodations.

I urge you that even if your days are unplanned, to book accommodations ahead of time, so you know where you’ll be resting your head each night. Even if you’re a seasoned solo traveler who chooses to not book and leave it up in the air, at a minimum take a few minutes to search and do a reality check that there’s still decent availability on the nights you’ll be somewhere – not every destination has a wealth of places to stay or there may be a convention or special event in town you didn’t know about that has most places already booked up. In which case, you will probably want to go ahead and reserve accommodations in advance.

Step 6: Rent a car (if applicable).

Honestly, I tend to shy away from renting a car when I’m traveling on my own. Street signs, especially in a foreign country, can range from confusing to being displayed in a different alphabet from your own. And navigating can also present challenges, even if you have a data plan for your phone or have rented a GPS along with the vehicle. Personally I like driving in a strange place with a buddy, so one person can drive and the other help navigate, although I have rented a car on my own in more familiar locales. If you do go this route, be sure in advance that you’ll really be comfortable doing so, and also check out my road trip tips – some of these are Europe-specific but many apply to any time you’re renting a car or taking a road trip.

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Step 7: Figure out if there are any restaurants that you’ll want to reserve in advance.

Sometimes for me this step is quite quick, involving a cursory internet search to discover that I’ll probably want to stick to low-key places or that there are no “fancy” restaurants or local hot spots I really want to sample that would involve a reservation. In other cases, I’ll get caught up scouring many excellent options and reserve one or several places for dinner around any organized tours I’ve already planned. Again, specific to your level of comfort, you can eat street food for all of your meals, plan all your meals at sit-down establishments, or anticipate a mix of sit-down places and eating on the go. There are a great variety of restaurant types that are friendly to the solo diner, and of course you can pretty much always find a place to eat, even without advance planning.

Step 8: Do as much (or as little) additional research as you’d like.

For certain trips, I’ll spend weeks intermittently looking into sights to see and places I’d like to eat while I’m there. Sometimes for me this is flipping through a guidebook at the airport waiting for my flight, or during the train ride or flight itself. Or posting a plea on Facebook a few days beforehand requesting begging for recommendations from friends who have previously visited a certain destination. This is another step that is really up to you in terms of how much, if any, effort you put into it, depending on your comfort level and how much of your trip you’d like to be planned out in advance.

*NOTE: Regardless of your level of advance planning, still check out the “Before you go” section below for the essentials to definitely complete before your trip begins, regardless of how much other planning you’ve done ahead of time.

Details of actual solo trips I’ve taken!

I’ve given a detailed run-down of my trip planning for my week-long solo trip to Thailand in 2015, plus an overview of one shorter and one longer solo trip I’ve done to give you an idea of what your trip might look like – and how little planning it takes to flesh out an itinerary for a week away on your own.

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Berlin, Germany (long weekend)

There are an abundance of walking tours in Berlin, so while I didn’t buy a ticket ahead of time, I did research into the meeting spots and times for different options, and ended up having a great introduction to the city with an experienced guide. I also blocked off one day to visit the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, which has an audioguide and the option of an in-person guide as well. Then I left my other two days unplanned, although I did do advance research into restaurants to try and sightseeing options. You can find more details about my favorite spots and best Berlin meals in the blog post I wrote here.

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Thailand (1 week)

Steps 1 & 2: My solo trip in Thailand was actually my second time visiting the country, and I chose to spend a week there between the northern town of Chiang Mai and Bangkok, the capital.

Step 3: I knew I wanted to spend most of my time in Chiang Mai (which I had missed on my first trip), then went ahead and booked my flights to and from Bangkok, with a side round-trip flight to Chiang Mai.

Step 4: In terms of activities, I was interested in spending so much time in Chiang Mai to be able to do a 2-day meditation retreat and also some rock climbing. After looking into some options, I realized that I could do an overnight homestay as part of a climbing and zip-lining trip, so booked that as well. That was just enough organized activity, although I did meet another female traveler at my hostel who arrived a day before her travel companion, and we spent my first afternoon in town exploring Chiang Mai together.

I had two full days in Bangkok, and booked one organized activity there – a night tour of the city by tuk-tuk, including street food and sightseeing. I sought out this option after knowing from my previous trip both how hot the city can get during the day and also how difficult it can be at times to navigate between different neighborhoods.

Step 5: I booked a private room in a hostel in Chiang Mai for the nights I wasn’t away (2 of my excursions were overnight), and then reserved a bed in an all-female dorm in Bangkok (close to the MRT stop where the airport express arrived). Saving money on my Bangkok accommodation let me splurge on my meals there =)

Step 6: Nope, no rental car.

Step 7: I knew I wanted to eat at nahm in Bangkok, one of the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants,” so I made a reservation for my last night in town. Their tasting menu ended up being well-suited to the solo traveler, since there was a lot of choice across several categories of dishes with the portion size being adapted to the number of people at the table. And my meal was absolutely delicious, and good value compared to tasting menus in Europe, Australia, or the US since the prices were in Thai Baht, the local currency.

Step 8: I did a bit of additional planning about sights I had missed in Bangkok on my first visit, and spots to check out around Chiang Mai. My list ended up being broken down into “EAT” and “DO” sections, with some vague entries like “temples” and “get massages!” along with specific items, like visiting the Jim Thompson house in Bangkok.

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Mexico (5 weeks)

The part that was planned ahead of time was my time in each general area, as I did book a few flights within Mexico to get between different regions. I actually did pretty much nothing though in terms of planning organized tours in advance, although I did hire guides on the spot at several tourist attractions and joined a lot of day tours that I arranged through the hostels where I stayed. There were also several important religious celebrations taking place over my trip, so I planned to be in proximity to where I could celebrate on the pertinent dates.

Want more details on the nitty gritty of planning a solo trip? Something else you’re still unclear about that you’d like me to cover in a future blog post? Let me know in the Comments!

Before you go…

The amount of advance planning I do depends on all sorts of factors, from how I’m feeling about a trip to how much planning I think I need to do to get the most out of a destination. Your level of planning will probably vary as well from trip to trip, depending on how much free time you have, your motivation, and how important you think prior planning will be to your enjoyment when you travel. Regardless of how much activity planning and restaurant scouring you decide to do, there are some non-negotiables for me when it comes to solo travel:

Know how to get from your arrival point to your accommodation. Please, please, please don’t wait until after you’ve arrived to realize that you have no clue how to get from the airport or train station to your hotel. It’s much less stressful to have a plan in advance, and you can’t always count on having helpful information desks accessible (or with English-speaking staff on hand). Plus, one of the best ways to keep safe as a solo traveller is to know where you are headed – or at least look like you do – at all times.

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Send your detailed itinerary and a scan of your passport to a trusted friend or family member. It’s always good to have a copy of your travel plans with someone who is not traveling with you.  Especially if you go off on your own, like I did on the hike in Liechtenstein pictured above.  Hopefully it won’t need to be accessed, but it’s good to have someone with those details just in case.

Print hard copies of all of these details. Technology is wonderful, but it doesn’t always work when we need it most. Be sure to have your accommodation confirmation and directions on how to arrive there in hard copy, as well as a copy of your itinerary and a photocopy of the main page of your passport. I usually keep a copy in my purse and also in one of my carry-on bags so everything is duplicated.

Of course, while these three things are especially important for solo travel, they are not the only steps I recommend to prepare for travel. Check out my Pre-Trip Travel Checklist for more on how you can be best prepared by the time you arrive.

And for some additional safety tips to keep in mind before you go and as you travel, check out these Essential Tips from The Blonde Abroad (which are aimed at solo female travellers, but really good advice for everyone!)

On the road…

I have a few final words to the wise for the time you’re actually on your solo trip, so you can make the most of your time away:

Trust your instincts. You already know when a situation doesn’t feel quite right or something is just ‘off’ about a place. Or a person walks into your train car or sits next to you at a bar and you feel instantly on edge. Especially as a solo traveler, don’t be afraid to walk away from an uncomfortable situation, even if you’ll look silly in the process. Feeling silly for a moment trumps compromising your safety. Every time.

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Do what you *want* to do, not what you feel like you *should* be doing. This is a trap that a lot of travelers fall into, not just ones adventuring on their own. There is probably a list for your chosen travel destination of “must see places” or “must have experiences.” Those are great places to start your planning, but don’t feel compelled to do something just because everyone else is too. Sometimes my first hours in a new place have been walking the strip malls in the local neighborhood because that is all I felt up for doing, instead of heading to a top tourist attraction. Or passing up an outdoor adventure an hour-long bus ride away that sounded amazing to have a quiet day in town instead. It’s okay, even if the thing you feel like you should be doing (but don’t want to in the moment) is something you’ve already planned for.

Check in with yourself as you go. It’s a good idea to consciously touch base with your own travel desires every few hours or daily on your solo trip.

  • Are you feeling too planned and want more open time to wander?
  • Feel lonely and want to book an extra organized tour or guide at a specific sight?
  • Want some down time in a green space reading a book on your own?

Don’t be afraid to deviate from any previous plan you might have had – being able to change your plan at a moment’s notice is one of the advantages of solo travel. This is your chance to make adjustments so you enjoy your time even more!

 

Solo travel can sound intimidating, but really it’s an opportunity to customize a trip exactly to your own travel style and feelings in the moment. It’s a hugely liberating feeling to be able to make all of the travel decisions based on what you alone want, and is a great way to connect with those desires. And it also is not limited to being on your own every minute of every day. Solo travel for most is really a blend of organized activities and tours that take place with others along with sightseeing and wandering alone. So take it one step at a time and get out there!

What was the hardest part for you before you took your first solo trip? Or what things still frighten you, even after reading this step-by-step guide? I’ll address any concerns you still have personally.

And do you have any solo travel tips I haven’t already mentioned? Fire away in the Comments below!

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How to Eat Well When You Travel Solo

How to Eat Well When You Travel Solo

If you’re like me and love going out to a restaurant with a group of adventurous friends, because it means you get to sample even more different dishes, the thought of traveling solo may give you pause. How will you consume enough meals to taste all of the local dishes? What if there are multiple dishes you’d like to sample, but you’re just not hungry enough to order (and eat) them all?

As someone who both loves to eat and savors my time traveling solo, this issue has come up for me time and again. Over the last two decades or so, I have definitely honed what types of food I seek out when I’m on my own on the road, to maximize the number of different bites and how much local cuisine I get to experience. And fortunately, as solo travel has become more commonplace, I don’t get nearly the amount of looks or raised eyebrows as I used to when asking for a “table for one.”

How to Dine Solo, Your Own Way

“Oh no,” you’re thinking, “I just don’t feel comfortable eating at a restaurant by myself.” Don’t worry, that’s okay! Several of the options below involve street food or eating-on-the-go. And even at a proper restaurant, a lot of times there is a bar where you can sit and order food and socialize, or possibly a communal table where you may encounter others traveling solo or other friendly diners.

For those of you ready to dine solo at a restaurant for the first time, it can look like whatever you’re comfortable with. I’ve seen people reading a newspaper or a book as they eat alone, which for many eliminates what would otherwise be a socially awkward situation. Others spend it on their smart phone, reading, planning, or staying in touch with friends. Some solo diners sit back and quietly take in their surroundings. And others will just keep a deep focus on the food, slowly savoring each bite.

Personally, I tend to either be introspective, reflecting on my day or strategizing for the day ahead, or will go into people-watching mode. I’ll sit and quietly observe the diners around me inside the restaurant, pretending I am at an outdoor table at a cafe watching the passers-by. Occasionally, I’ll read – usually a long-form newspaper article or an article to learn more about a tourist attraction I already visited. And when the food comes, I do my best to channel my focus on truly enjoying the flavors as I eat. Do what works best for you!

Foods to Seek Out

To eat well during solo travel, my basic strategy is to cobble together a bunch of different bites on my own, by sampling the offerings of different street food vendors or enjoying small plates of food at a sit-down restaurant – in whatever combination feels right on a particular trip. Here’s what to look for:

Appetizers

I mention a lot of specific types of cuisine below, but in fact, any restaurant can be turned into your own customized version of small plates by simply ordering 2-3 starters or sides instead of a main dish. Just ask before you order, and most places will be happy to accommodate you. It can also be helpful to specify if you want your dishes to arrive all at once, or to be brought out one at a time.

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Bakeries

Bakeries and pastry shops (or bakery sections in supermarkets) can offer a quick bite in the morning to leave room for a larger lunch. You can also get a taste of local life by sampling the baked good of choice, whether sweet or savory. Or get a bunch of smaller items to sample for lunch, as nibbles throughout the day, or snacks to consume while out hiking.

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Breakfast or Brunch

You may not have thought of it this way before, but many breakfast or brunch options can really be several different types of food all on a single plate together: eggs, potatoes, vegetables, and a sauce. Even if breakfast is included with my accommodation, I will still sometimes go out somewhere for a more authentic first meal of the day, and a lot of countries have very local breakfast options that you won’t see anywhere else (check out this post on Singaporean breakfast for the details on one of my favorites). And many breakfasts can be ordered for take away if you don’t feel like dining alone.

Buffets

In general I’m not a huge buffet person, but when I’m on the road for a limited time, it can often be the most effective way to sample many different dishes of the local cuisine. Often hotels or hotel restaurants will serve food buffet-style, and you typically don’t need to be a guest at the hotel to partake. Do be sure to check ahead of time when buffet meals will be available, as in certain locales it will only be offered on 1 night each week (or only specifically feature local cuisine on a single night).

Happy Hour

Taking place usually over a few hours in the afternoon, happy hour often includes special deals on small portions of food and allows you to sit at the bar if you feel like socializing. Italy has especially good happy hour options, from small bites or buffet spreads at aperitivo to traditional tapas in Venice known as cicchetti. Wherever you’ll be traveling solo likely has some similar local happy hour specials. Ask at your hostel or hotel, or gather some intel from locals who can point you in the right direction.

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Indian restaurants

In my experience, there are a fair number of Indian restaurants all over the world that have lunch buffets or set menus available. When I am traveling solo and seeking out Indian food, I will also peruse a menu in advance to see if there is thali available, another option which is a built-in way to try lots of dishes. A thali is basically like a sampler platter and will include bread, rice, and a mix of other curries and dishes, all for a reasonable price. Usually a vegetarian and meat thali option will both be offered.

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Set Menus

You’ll see a set menu option more often for lunch, with a choice of a few dishes for each course, sometimes including a beverage and/or dessert. Set menus offer a good value on price as well.  One of my favorite places to take advantage of a set menu is in Liechtenstein, which otherwise can be a pricey place to dine out. Keep your eyes open starting in the late morning when these specials begin to be advertised, and find a spot that strikes your fancy or fits your budget.

Spanish restaurants

I have one word for you: tapas! These small plates have become trendy in a lot of places outside of Spain, so in many countries you’ll be able to find a Spanish restaurant where the dishes come in small enough portions that you can pick out a few different ones and still have a reasonably sized meal for one. Of course this works in Spain as well, and is especially fun at a busy market stall. Plus, many tapas places I’ve visited – both in Spain and elsewhere – have a bar where you can sit and order dishes, which can be a more social experience for solo travellers.

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Street Food

There are many cities renowned for their street food offerings, but even for most others, you can find delicious and inexpensive bites on the go. Street food lets you eat with your other senses first – hearing the sizzle of a piece of meat on a grill, smelling enticing aromas waft toward you, or seeing where the locals queue up for the best bites. I’ve had some of my best street food experiences in Asia (Bangkok & Chiang Mai in Thailand have possibly been my favorite spots – for being able to get small bites from a lot of different vendors). But if you keep your eyes open you’ll see street vendors in most cities you visit, and there are also a lot of places where Food Trucks are trendy and ever-present with many types of cuisines represented. Go ahead and sample whatever catches your eye. Or tempts one of your other senses.

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Tasting Menus

On the opposite end of the budget spectrum, you can also get a fair bit of food variety on the high-end of dining, especially when there is a tasting or degustation menu available. And at several of these more fancy establishments, you’ll even have the option to sit at the bar or communal table, which can be a less intimidating experience for the solo diner. This can be true even at Michelin-starred places, like the satisfying tasting menu I recently enjoyed at Stockholm’s Ekstedt (sitting at a communal table where I met and chatted during the whole meal with another solo traveller!). Or the very reasonably priced tasting menu I enjoyed on my own last year at Restaurant Bieberbau in Berlin.

Turkish (or Middle Eastern) restaurants

This is another cuisine that naturally lends itself to having a lot of small dishes – called mezze – cobbled together to form a meal. Think grilled meats, falafel balls, hummus, babaganoush, and tabbouli in small portions that together can form a satisfying single meal with a whole lot of variety. Middle Eastern cuisines can also be well-suited to vegetarians, as many of the mezze are vegetable- or legume-based.

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Vegetarian restaurants

Despite not having meat on the menu, vegetarian and vegan restaurants can offer some of the best variety of bites on a single plate. I usually encounter a mix of starches, proteins, and vegetables that can be mixed and matched for a single dish. Sometimes there are even small plates available. And although I’m not a vegetarian, some of my most recent memorable bites dining solo have been at vegetarian establishments.

 

Of course, there is no one right way to eat well while traveling solo. This list is really a starting point for you to venture out and figure out what types of cuisine and dining formats feel comfortable for you, and help you to maximize your time alone on the road. And of course, as you become a more and more seasoned solo traveler, use this list as inspiration for that food or restaurant to try next!

Do you notice yourself gravitating toward certain foods when you travel solo? What things have you found most helpful to keep in mind for eating well when you travel on your own? Any other advice or cuisines to add to the list? Share your tips below!

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Top Reasons to Savor Solo Travel

Top Reasons to Savor Solo Travel

One of the things that always surprises people the most about my frequent travel is how many trips I take on my own. Known in travel circles as “solo travel,” so many people have built it up as something to be feared, which requires a lot of preparation and know-how to be done well. But nothing could be further from the truth!

The advantages to traveling with a friend, romantic partner, family, or group of friends are well known. When traveling with others, there is always someone to bounce ideas off of, to keep you company on long train rides, and be your dining companion. There are of course advantages to traveling on your own as well (plus I think that I’m pretty excellent company!) so if you’ve never taken a trip on your own, make this the year that you do.

Why I savor my time travelling solo:

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Do what you want, when you want. I love traveling with others, but certainly one of the many advantages of solo travel is that you can do exactly what you want, when you feel like it. You never have to go to a tourist attraction or restaurant just because someone else really wants to, and there is no negotiation involved when deciding where to go or what sights to see on a particular day. Just decide what *you* would like out of your day.

Deals on accommodations. Especially in Europe, there are plenty of hotel rooms that are so tiny they are really only meant for one person. Because travelling solo is not nearly as common as traveling with others, single rooms can be available – and offered at a steep discount – even after other accommodation options are already sold out. This also applies to more budget-friendly places to stay, like hostels, which at the last minute may still have a room or a single bed left in a dorm accommodation.

People, especially locals, talk to you and open up more. Even if you’re an expat living in a foreign country it can be hard to make inroads with locals. It’s that much more challenging when you only have a few days or a week to explore a new destination. The good news – when you are traveling on your own, you are much more approachable and locals are far more likely to ask if you need help or go out of their way to offer advice. The New York Times had a great piece last year about ways strangers can make your trip better, and of course the top recommendation for engaging with locals is to travel alone, even if just for a day.

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Spontaneity. I love seeing something interesting down a twisting alleyway or following an unknown path to see where it takes me. When you’re traveling solo and something catches your eye, you can just go. It saves you the time of talking it over with your travel buddy and deciding to go together in a new direction or split up and meet up again later – and helps you to be in touch with your gut desires and the spontaneity that brings. Even if you have a crazy idea that you’d like to follow, you can just do it. If it doesn’t pan out, there’s no guilt for dragging along your unwilling friend. And often with the craziest ideas while you’re traveling, there is some huge up side you couldn’t have predicted in advance.

Catch up on reading. Sometimes when I take a trip with a friend, we spend all of our free and transit time chatting. Which is great, but I love that when I travel on my own, I get to catch up on my reading. I love books, and I always have several loaded onto my e-reader before a trip. I of course want to appreciate my surroundings and interact with locals and fellow travelers, so I don’t read constantly. But especially on airplanes, underground subways, or even just taking in the scenery at a nearby park, I like having the chance to relax and get lost in a good book. Plus, I often read books set in places that I’m visiting, so it’s just another way to learn about a new city or country, mixed in with seeing all the sights in person.

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Being “just one.” Even if something is ‘sold out’ or a restaurant is ‘fully booked’ there are often ways to squeeze in a single person if you ask. Or find one seat at a bar, even if it’s pretty packed. I have snagged a last-minute theater ticket because it was a single seat that no one else wanted. I’ve been placed at an awkward table at a restaurant in the corner by the bathroom that really only had one spot for sitting. And even squeezed in once at a table at a trattoria with a couple already dining there (after the owner asked their permission, of course). Which turned out to be really great, because we had a lovely conversation over dinner, and then we even ran into each other at a museum the next day . . . and it was like reuniting with old friends.

Time to reflect. I usually spend a lot of time planning before a trip and time after remembering how great it was, but I don’t always get the opportunity to reflect on my experiences during the trip itself. But I do know that I am far more likely to have time to reflect on my day, my travels (or anything, really) when I am traveling solo and have the time at a sit-down meal or strolling around to be alone with my thoughts. I do some of my best thinking and brainstorming traveling on my own, and you can often catch me jotting down the results of my reflections in a memo on my cell phone.

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Make adjustments on the fly. Does your alarm go off early for an ambitious morning, but you just want to sleep in? Or you’re wide awake at 5 am in the morning and feel like getting a super-early start to your day? Perhaps to watch the sun rise? When you’re traveling solo, you’re not messing up anyone else’s plans – so go for it!

 

Solo travel is a way to experience a destination in a new way, and also an opportunity to get in touch with who you are and what things you would choose to do if there are no competing opinions around. Traveling on your own is not just for single people or loners, it’s especially for people who usually travel with others. Even if you’re in a relationship or married. And the more you are open to interacting with locals and strangers, the richer your time away will be.

The best part? Solo travel is always tailored exactly to you. Make plans on your own and get out there!

What do you look forward to most when you travel solo?

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9 Reasons to Visit Sri Lanka: A Destination With It All

9 Reasons to Visit Sri Lanka: A Destination With It All

Every time I recommend Sri Lanka as a travel destination to someone, the first thing that comes to mind is the great variety of activities you can do on this single island. Anywhere else, you’d have to go to at least half a dozen different destinations to get comparable offerings. In Sri, Lanka, it feels like you can do it all:

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Explore Ancient Temples

One of the highlights of my trip was visiting the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy on December 31st, because not only is that an auspicious day to go, but I also ended up standing two feet from the Sri Lankan President who also visited that day! I was close enough to get a great selfie with him, but it seemed rude to turn my back on him while I was so close, so I settled for a few excited pictures. And the exhilaration of the travel magic when you happen to land in the right place at the right time for an experience that no amount of planning would have created. There are of course ancient temples all across the island, worth exploring if you happen to be nearby or even planning your itinerary around.

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Relax on the Beach

Sri Lanka is an island, so there is plenty of coastline to choose from. Along the western coast south of Colombo and continuing along the southern side of the island are a wide variety of hotels and resorts, including several all-inclusive and luxury options. The beaches on the eastern coast are more isolated, and possibly even more visually stunning. I stayed in a resort on the coast south of Colombo for a few nights, doing not much and decompressing before the more active itinerary for the 1.5 weeks after. Beaches are also accessible from many of the proper towns along the coast that have famous beaches nearby that you can check out with an inexpensive tuk-tuk ride during your stay.

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Go Whale (and Dolphin) Watching

This is one of many items on this list that I consider a “bucket list” item, and it’s so incredible to me that this is one of several once-in-a-lifetime options you have to see wildlife while in Sri Lanka. However, this is one of those activities that require advance planning and due diligence to have a good experience – you’re not likely to accidentally have a great boat trip. I visited in December, when it is peak season for whale watching off Mirissa in the south, and saw many dolphins and several whales the morning I went.

The down side? Due to the size of the boat (too big with too many passengers) as well as the poor organization and communication from the crew, I spent the most visually spectacular moments of the trip doubled over seasick, and barely got any pictures of the morning at all. Be sure if you go to: take a pill to combat seasickness (even if you don’t normally have trouble) and ensure that you will share the boat with as few others as possible. And if they put you on a boat bigger than what was guaranteed during your booking, demand something smaller as promised.

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Discover the Capital City of Colombo

Colombo is a bustling capital city, with a lot of different cultures and traditions represented, and not unlike other capital cities I’ve visited across Asia. It is a former colonial outpost, reflecting the Portuguese, Dutch, and British influences over the years. Colombo also boasts modern skyscrapers and an abundance of fancy rooftop bars with a cosmopolitan atmosphere for watching the sun set. And there are a ton of places where you feel the presence of locals, with street food stands and markets. Although I am not always a huge fan of organized tours or guides, it is worth taking in a few hours of knowledge from a local and getting a verbal history of the many nuances of Colombo that are not immediately visible.

Surf

Surfing is hugely popular on the beaches of Sri Lanka, and many visitors come just for that. You’ll see a mix of backpackers staying put for a while to do some surfing every day for weeks, tourists trying the sport for the first time, and locals taking advantage of the proximity of the waves. While unfortunately I did not get the chance to do any surfing in Sri Lanka myself, I saw plenty of beaches with surfers, with some catering nearly exclusively to the surfing community. Whatever your level of expertise – or even if you’re a complete beginner – there will definitely be an option close to you with the right difficulty of waves.

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Explore Colonial Forts

The coastline of Sri Lanka is dotted with forts that in most cases passed through the control of the three colonial powers: the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British. I visited the Galle Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the southwest that is probably the most popular Sri Lankan fort to visit. It’s actually more like a mini city, with all of the specialized buildings needed to be a self-sufficient community. As most of the fortifications are along the coast, they are also great spots for scenic views of the ocean.

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Visit Tea Plantations (& Do Tea Tastings)

I’m a bit of an accidental tea lover, after getting into tea tastings after moving to Milan, and realizing how similar they were to the wine tastings I already appreciated. By the time I visited Sri Lanka in late 2015, tasting tea was an activity I was actively incorporating into my itinerary, and that was one of the many reasons I was excited for the trip. The good news about tea and Sri Lanka is that there are many spots across the country where you can do tea tastings and buy local tea and – especially in the central ‘Hill Country’ – lots of large tea plantations to tour and hike. Even if tea is not your thing, you’ll definitely be served plenty during your visit, so why not embrace it? You’ll learn a bit about tea, and get a better understanding of which types you most enjoy.

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Go on Safari

When I think of going on safari, I envision Africa, so I was quite surprised in my trip research that this is a popular activity in Sri Lanka as well due to the incredible wild animal populations. There are national parks all over the island where you can experience safari, with your choice depending on the time of year of your visit and which animals you’d like to see most. I did a safari in Yala National Park on the southern coast, and saw many impressive creatures, including many of the large game animals: elephants and leopards. There are plenty of options and countless tour providers, or you can plan for accommodations nearby and arrange a day (or several) of safari through your hotel.

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Eat Incredibly Well

From bowl-shaped crepes called hoppers for breakfast to “rice and curry” that comes with half a dozen side dishes, Sri Lankan cuisine was a delightful surprise. Due to its proximity to southern India, Sri Lanka has a lot of Indian influence on its food, both in the predominance of curries and also the roti bread that comes in many forms. You can have it served in what I consider a more Indian style with the roti stuffed like a burrito, or the more street food style kottu roti with the bread chopped up and stir fried on a griddle with eggs, vegetables, and your choice of meat. And if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, eat with your hands like the locals – they think that the metal of silverware alters the taste of the food, and you get the best taste by not using any.

 

While I’ve never been to India, I came back from my Sri Lanka trip calling it “India light” because it featured incredible cuisine quite similar to Indian food, but the overall day-to-day tourist experience was quite pleasant – and lacking the harassment or negotiation needed in other parts of Asia, India or otherwise. People tended to quote reasonable prices the first time you asked. And if you were not interested and said so, they left you alone.

I had such a great time visiting Sri Lanka, and feel like there were plenty of areas I didn’t get a chance to explore over my visit, so I’d go back in a heartbeat. Plus, anywhere the food is that good is always top on my list for a return trip.

What about Sri Lanka appeals most to you? What cities or activities would you like more details about on the blog?

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Where to Find the Top Tea Experiences in Sri Lanka

Where to Find the Top Tea Experiences in Sri Lanka

Sampling the local food and drink is a great way to explore a new culture as you travel. For several years now, wine tasting has been one of the top things I like to do when visiting a new place. Sri Lanka however is the first country I’ve visited where instead I sought out tea. There are actually a lot of similarities between tea tasting and wine tasting, so perhaps it was a natural transition?

Sri Lanka actually has a rich – if relatively recent – history of tea production, dating back to Sir Thomas Lipton. He started his own plantations there in the late 1800s, to have a direct source of tea to sell in his UK-based grocery stores. Lipton basically undercut prices this way, making tea affordable for the British masses for the first time, and cementing the widespread UK tradition of tea drinking.

While there are a lot of tea factory tours across Sri Lanka that range from mediocre to quite informative, there were only a small number of places where you could actually taste the tea or walk through the tea plantation grounds. The spot where I saw the most stunning tea landscapes and also had a great hike was around Haputale, while my favorite tea tastings were in two of the more unexpected locations: a tea shop in the center of Ella & at a tea plantation close to the coast.

Tea Landscapes & Hiking

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Dambatenne Tea Factory & Hike to Lipton’s Seat (Haputale)

If you are visiting the nearby tea meccas of Ella and Nuwara Eliya, it is an easy train ride to Haputale. The tour of the tea factory was pretty interesting even after other similar tours, although unfortunately you don’t actually get to taste any tea. The real highlight here is seeing the surrounding plantation of rolling hills with workers shifting along the rows of plants as they pick the leaves, loading up the giant sack they carry on their backs.

There is also a lovely hiking trail to the lookout point known as Lipton’s Seat. On the day I visited, there was rolling rain and fog that only lifted for a second at the top, but the trail itself was wonderful to traverse and the bad weather became an excuse to befriend fellow hikers as we huddled under an awning to avoid the rain at one point. It was obvious at the top why Sir Thomas Lipton sought out this vista when visiting his tea plantation, a spot where you can take in the entire landscape on a clear day. It’s also possible to take a tuk-tuk to the top if hiking is not your thing. There are plenty available for hire in the town center of Haputale and at the main entrance to the Tea Factory.

Tea Tasting

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Ceylon Tea Center, entrance inside Ella Village Inn restaurant (Ella)

Over a several-night stay in Ella, I popped into quite a few tea shops. But the only one where I could taste a large variety of tea all at once was at the Ceylon Tea Center. It’s a good thing I did a bit of online research to find them, because otherwise the location is the least conspicuous tea store in town, with the entrance actually inside a restaurant. I popped in at the tail end of lunch inquiring about a tasting, and within 15 minutes or so, a huge line of tea cups was laid out in an enticing line. After careful brewing of each variety of tea, the tasting began in the proscribed sequence. Some sips were more traditional Ceylon teas, other were aromatic infusions of ginger and flowers, and there were also some delicate, light versions of green and black teas. I’ll admit that offering tea tastings is also a brilliant marketing strategy, as I walked out with an armful of tea purchases, most of which I would not have bought without the opportunity to taste and enjoy them first.

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Handunugoda Tea Factory (near Galle & Mirissa)

If you only go to one tea factory during your time in Sri Lanka, this should be it! Although it is not in the central ‘Hill Country’ where most plantations are located, it was the best overall experience and the most tea I was able to taste in conjunction with a tour. The tour at Handunugoda operates like a well-oiled machine, starting with some tea and cake, then progressing through the tea plants and factory machines for processing the tea. The guide was incredibly informative, and I was lucky that this was my first tea tour as I then had this information as a reference point for all of the subsequent tours. For example, they use parts of the same tea leaves to make both black and green tea, with the difference being in the processing method, which I didn’t even know was a possibility. This was also by far the most amount of teas I was able to taste at any tea factory, with dozens of teas available for tasting, from tea made with flowers to their signature ‘sapphire’ oolong to the renowned virgin white tea that is picked by hand by workers wearing gloves to protect the tea leaves! Just be aware that the teas are all pre-brewed, so were room temperature when I did the tasting.

 

Which tea experience appeals to you the most? Is there anything else you’d still like to know about tea tasting in Sri Lanka? Ask away in the Comments.

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Top 10 Travel Destinations for 2017

Top 10 Travel Destinations for 2017

Happy 2017! As the new year starts (along with some New Year’s resolutions, maybe?) this is also the time of year to start to think about what places to visit in the coming year. For many, vacation days are precious, but with a little creative planning there is a lot of travel destinations that you can squeeze into a single twelve-month period.

Last year for me was the year that I visited the most new countries. Final tally: 11 new countries (6 in Europe, 5 beyond)!!! I don‘t expect that this coming year will be quite as prolific, but I am already planning for the spots I want to hit up. I usually pick where to go these days by finding hidden gems – destinations that may not be at the top of traditional travel lists but have a variety of cultural and outdoor activities to enjoy, along with a unique food culture. And having good wineries to visit doesn’t hurt either =)

This list is not meant to be exhaustive, and it certainly is subjective. It’s also a mix of countries I’ve been and loved, along with other destinations that are timely for 2017 that I haven’t explored yet, but hope to this year. And I contemplated ranking the choices, but in the end decided that since it’s already a top ten list, alphabetical order will do.

Here are the Travel Savvy Gal Top 10 Travel Destinations for 2017:

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Australia

Maybe I’m a little biased since I loved the year I lived in Perth, but I really believe that this year will be a great time to visit. The Australian dollar is still around 75 US cents, which means that despite the sometimes high price tags, it’s like having a 25% discount on everything if you’re American (and even more if you’re European). Yes, it is far to travel, but this is a destination that will wow you whatever your interests and is worth the week or two you’ll want to spend after making the trek.

Melbourne has a vibrant food scene and alleyways to wander and explore. Sydney has icons like the Harbour Bridge and Opera House to discover. And Perth has great year-round weather, with both beaches and wine country easily accessible on the city metro system. The list goes on and on and on. And really, Australians are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. They’re JUST. SO. NICE.

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Bulgaria

When a friend and I both had a week free in late August last year, I don’t quite remember how we settled on visiting Bulgaria, but I’m so glad we did. Sofia has the feel of any typical Eastern Europe capital city, and it’s worth spending a few days there, but the real gems are further afield. My favorite spot was the old Roman city of Plovdiv, where you can explore the city’s ancient history, or drive a bit out of town to sample the excellent local wines and visit the nearby fort and monastery.

The UNESCO site of the Old Town of Nessebar on the Black Sea is also a great spot for exploring one day and relaxing on the beach the next. And there is an abundance of forts and monasteries, many with breathtaking views, to take in wherever you are.

Cuba

Yes I know, if you wanted to go to Cuba before flights and cruises were widely available to Americans, it’s too late. However, even if you haven’t been yet – and I haven’t either – all is not lost. Cuba is at the outset of a possible shift into a commercialized tourist destination, but it is still worth making it there sooner rather than later.

And as the country slowly shifts to catering to tourists, the earlier you go, the more places that will still be off the beaten path to discover. There is also some concern about how a Trump presidency might impact the recent openness for American tourists. Which again, puts Cuba on this list of top places to visit this year.

Kazakhstan

This is another country I have not made it to yet, however I’ve included it on my list for 2017 because Kazakhstan’s capital city of Astana will be hosting the 2017 International Expo from June 10th until September 10th. When the 2015 World Expo was in Milan, I was quite impressed by the Kazakhstan pavilion – and with the hour-long queues outside, I wasn’t the only one. Inside, their interactive displays lived up to the hype. I can’t wait to see what Kazakhstan rolls out when they are the host country this year for EXPO 2017, with the theme of “Future Energy.”

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Liechtenstein

If you live in Europe, Liechtenstein is a great spot for a weekend trip. If you’re visiting Europe from further away but will be in the vicinity (Zurich, Innsbruck, & Munich are all from 1-3 hours away by car), I’d definitely add Liechtenstein to your itinerary.

Not only is there excellent hiking in summer and skiing in winter, but there are also several museums to take in and some outstanding breweries and wineries to visit. It’s a great spot for a relaxing couple of days, a few days of intense outdoor adventure, or a little bit of both – take your pick!

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Oman

Yes, I *just* came back from my week-long Oman road trip, and yes, it’s already made my list of top places to go in 2017. This really is a stretch of unspoiled Middle East, where history has been preserved in many ways. Omanis also offer incredible hospitality. In other countries, when someone stops you on the street it’s usually to try to sell you something. In Oman, it’s because you look like you might need assistance and Omanis will jump at the opportunity to help.

Like Bulgaria, Oman has a lot of forts, but also a lot of outdoor adventure opportunities, from desert exploring to swimming in a wadi to touring the fjords of the Musandam peninsula by boat. And Muscat is a city of wonder, with stunning sights like the Sultan’s Palace and Grand Mosque. Their tourism motto is: “Beauty has an address.” It’s true.

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Spain

Before living in Europe, I kind of clumped all of the countries on the Euro as its currency as being equally affordable, but it doesn’t quite work like that. Spain is incredibly affordable especially compared to many of its Euro-using neighbors, and can really be a budget destination while still eating and drinking well. I haven’t explored the whole country yet, but I have enjoyed my time spent in Seville, Barcelona, Zaragoza, and San Sebastian, plus wine tasting in the Rioja region.

The more off-the-beaten-path you venture, the more value you get for your money, with cheap accommodations available and incredibly affordable and filling tapas and stellar wines if that’s what you’re looking for. There are also plenty of opportunities to splurge, including at one of the highest concentrations of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world in San Sebastian in Basque country on the northern coast.

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Sri Lanka

Ever since I spent two weeks in Sri Lanka in December 2015, I have been singing its praises. There is a huge variety of things to see and do on this relatively small island nation: ancient temples, beach, Dutch forts, hiking, safaris, visiting a tea plantation, whale watching . . . the list goes on.

The food is amazing, involving a combination of south Indian and Tamil influences along with other dishes only found on Sri Lanka. The beer is good and the variety of tea is incredible, with many plantations offering tours and excellent tea tastings. It’s a whirlwind adventure, I’d dedicate at least 10 days to exploring, although you can get a taste of the wonder in fewer.

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United Kingdom

Since the UK voted in favor of a Brexit – the exit from the European Union – the value of the pound has been steadily falling. Britain has always had a wealth of places to visit, and I enjoy my time in London every time I go, but with the value for your money, 2017 is the time to go for your first time (or again).

A highlight of my last trip there was the town of Bath. Not too far from London, the site of Britain’s only natural hot springs, and boasting a history dating from Roman times to Jane Austen to the present day.

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Vietnam

Vietnam was another winter holiday trip, like Sri Lanka, and is another destination I can’t recommend enough to anyone who will listen. The coffee and food are fabulous, and there is so much to do that after a busy two weeks there, I felt like I had only scratched the surface. There is the bustle of cities Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), while the center of Vietnam boasts the largest cave systems in the world, several of which you can tour.

Ha Long Bay in the north has lovely spots for rock climbing and deep water soloing, kayaking, or staying overnight on a boat. Hoi An on the coast is a foodie mecca and probably the most popular spot in Asia to get clothes custom-made. The south has the Mekong River delta and also some intriguing remnants of the war, like the underground Cu Chi tunnels. And although I didn’t get a chance to go, I hear the beaches in the south are great. I want to go back just writing about it…

What’s top on your list to visit in 2017??

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6 Books to Inspire Travel in 2017

6 Books to Inspire Travel in 2017

Note: This post may contain affiliate links.

In case you haven’t already figured it out – I’m an avid reader. I especially like to read books set in countries where I’m living and traveling, and sometimes books I’ve selected for other reasons end up inspiring me to visit the places where they’re set.

To kick off the new year, here are my pics for the top books to inspire travel, and get you excited for your next adventure:

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Crazy Rich Asians
by Kevin Kwan

I started this book right before my trip to Singapore at the end of last year, and was so hooked that I immediately read Kwan’s follow-up novel (the third book of the trilogy is expected to be released in May 2017). A bit of a guilty pleasure or beach read kind of book, there is also a great sense of what it’s like in Singapore. Although many of the characters come from very well-to-do families, there are a lot of drool-worthy descriptions of Singaporean food and the street hawkers that make eating in this tiny island nature such an adventure – you’ll want to eat your way through Singapore, too.

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Down Under / In a Sunburned Country
by Bill Bryson

After reading one of Bryson’s most popular books, A Short History of Nearly Everything, I was hooked on his sense of humor and how craftily he uses levity to present facts in a memorable way. When I moved to Australia in 2012, Bryson’s book on his travels in Australia (titled differently depending on where in the world you live) was the first book I read upon my arrival. Not only are his descriptions absolutely hilarious, they are also spot on in portraying this island nation and continent. And although it was over a year later that I finally had the chance to visit some of the parts of Australia that Bryson describes, his imagery is so vivid that I still clearly remembered his passages and how exactly they corresponded to the reality on the ground.  One of my all-time top books to inspire travel!

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The Great Railway Bazaar
by Paul Theroux

This book chronicles the author’s trip by train from London across Asia and back. I read it during my trip to Sri Lanka a year ago – for the small part of the book that is set there – and ended up completely engrossed start to finish. Descriptions cover human nature and the train journey itself, as well as the various destinations on the train journey. For places like Vietnam where I’ve traveled before, I smiled knowingly as I read the passages, and for the countries I haven’t visited, I got a unique view of the culture through Theroux’s descriptions. Covering so much ground, surely one of the stops on this train journey will pique your interest. And in the meantime, the book will keep you highly entertained.

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My Brilliant Friend: Neapolitan Novels, Book One
by Elena Ferrante

Naples is not always a destination for visitors to Italy, but this first book of Ferrante’s four-part series about two friends shows why it should be. The sometimes harsh reality of the city living in the shadow of a volcano also means that there is a vivacity to Naples – and southern Italy in general – that is just not quite the same up north. It is also a great window into the mentality of a southern Italian, and how challenging it can be to break the mold of where you were raised. Not only will you want to go to Naples, you’ll have a much better understanding of the city when you do.  It’s one of those books to inspire travel you might not have expected, but will land you in an incredible destination!

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Wild
by Cheryl Strayed

Raw and honest, the descriptions in this book are so vivid that I was quite surprised to find out that it had been written many years after the journey took place. In the wake of personal problems, Strayed decides to hike the Pacific Coast Trail solo. Not only was this book inspirational for me as a frequent solo female traveler, but it also illustrates how time spent outdoors can be transformative. If it’s been awhile since you’ve trekked through nature, you’ll want to get back out there after this read.

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Yes Man
by Danny Wallace

Although there are some specific travel destinations that come up in this book, I took the most from its central idea – that people these days say “no” quite a bit, whether to an invitation to go out for drinks after work or a proposition for a far-flung vacation. And you open yourself up to so much more adventure and unexpected experiences by simply saying “yes” more. There will always be reasons not to take that next trip or embark on a new adventure, but you gain so much more by going anyway. I doubt most people will go to the extremes that Wallace did, but the underlying reminder is a strong one.

What would you pick as the top books to inspire travel?  Which one has affected you most?

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