If you do enough traveling or are crazy enough to want to go everywhere, sooner or later you’ll encounter a few countries that aren’t especially known for being welcoming to travelers. Sadly, civil war, longstanding dictatorships, and massive corruption is the norm in several parts of the world. For the independent traveler, these countries present…Read More
A few years ago in West Africa, I had to travel overland between Benin and Nigeria twice. This border crossing is known as one of the most corrupt in the world, and it certainly met my expectations for entrepreneurial activity among the numerous officials. From the moment I entered the Nigerian side, I encountered at…Read More
Courtesy of the Fun "Dynamic Einstein" Tool
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Some of you have noted that I haven’t published any first-person travel adventures lately. I haven’t been to any crazy countries, slept in airports, crash-landed without a visa, etc.
Don’t worry – I’m not getting soft. I’ve enjoyed hanging out in Seattle, trying to make a living, get my book contract sorted out, and recover from a running injury that has bothered me for a while. The extended break has been good for me, but in January I’ll resume my adventures around the world.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been planning out my trips for the first half of 2009. I tend to change things around a fair amount, but as of now, here is what I expect it to look like from January to June. If it seems overwhelming, first remember that I’ve done this a lot – I certainly didn’t begin with itineraries as complex as the ones I’ll show you here.
And of course, I’ll chronicle each trip in more detail as it gets closer. Cool?
In January, I’ll head to Northeast Africa, flying in to Ethiopia, then heading up to Somaliand (not Somalia; even I am not that crazy), over to Djibouti, and hopefully on to Eritrea and back out after about 12 days of roaming.
My fingers are crossed on this one, because the Eritrean embassy in D.C. has not yet given me a visa. If I don’t get one, I’ll have to scramble to figure something else out, because I already have a flight booked out of Asmara, the capital.
Earlier this summer, I learned that the Kurdish (Iraqi) government checked out this web site before deciding to issue me a visa at no charge. They even sent me a “Welcome Chris Guillebeau!” message which made me feel like a minor celebrity, at least in Kurdistan. Perhaps the Eritreans will be similarly kind – guys, if you’re reading this, please help me out. You can keep the $40 money order that I sent; I just need the visa.
Assuming I get to Eritrea or at least get home somehow, in late February, I’ll head to Washington, D.C. for a conference, then fly out from there to Qatar to resume the Round-the-World ticket I began last year. That trip will take me to southern Africa – specifically Mauritius and Namibia. I also hope to take a side-trip to Swaziland and Mozambique while I’m over in that part of the world.
After I’m done there, the ticket takes me back to my usual Asian hub of Hong Kong, where I’ll need to figure out how to get back to the States for another four-week stay at home.
One month later, I’ll be back on the road to visit Haiti and what I call the “three mysterious countries” of South America. They are Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. If you haven’t heard much about them, don’t feel bad – that’s why I call them “mysterious.” I’m not sure I’ll solve any mysteries, but I’ll try to at least get there and back.
In May and June, I hope to wrap up the rest of South America, which for me includes Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, and Bolivia. I’m not sure I’ll get to all of them, but it would be significant to complete the whole continent, so I’ll give it a try.
Finally (are you getting tired of this?), I’ll travel to Jordan and then perhaps on to the Sudan. I say “perhaps” because Khartoum (KRT) is part of my current Round-the-World ticket, but I suspect it will be extremely difficult to get the visa. I hope I’m not disappointing anyone with this, but Sudan is not a place I am willing to attempt to fly to without a visa. As previously mentioned, I may be crazy but not that crazy.
If I don’t think it will work out a couple of weeks prior to departure, I’ll pay $150 to change the ticket – not really my preferred option, but also not the end of the world. If I have to drop Khartoum for now, I still have a couple of other options in that region that are less problematic for U.S. passport holders.
For those who like these things, the itineraries for the trips are listed below. The parentheses are for transit stops, and the “x” refers to an overland segment.
By extreme travel standards, this is a fairly straightforward trip – all on Lufthansa, and the only complicated part will be the overland journey from Ethiopia (ADD) to Eritrea (ASM), assuming I get the visa sorted out. I also need to get to Djibiouti or Somaliland during the two weeks I’ll be away – preferably both, but nothing is for certain yet.
The next trip looks like this:
The ??? in this one is due to the fact that I’ll need to fly to one of the three mysterious countries (again: Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana) and I don’t have that ticket yet. PAP is Port Au Prince, Haiti; and POS is Port of Spain, Trinidad – the jumping-off point to get to Guyana or Suriname.
The trip to Bolivia and elsewhere looks like this, tentatively:
Here I will be resuming last year’s Round-the-World ticket from Miami (MIA). I’ll need to buy separate tickets to and from Seattle, but that’s how I break up my trips to only be away from home for about two weeks at a time.
How Much Does All of this Cost?
I could go on about the flights for a while, but hopefully the above information gives you a good overview. If you have specific questions, post them in the comments and I’ll respond. For now, I’ll address the most frequently asked question I get about these kinds of trips: how much does it cost?
First, read this about priorities and how it all started. I don’t own a car, I have no debt, I didn’t take out a sub-prime mortgage when you could get one at 7-11, I spend about $150 a year on clothes, and so on. I honestly believe that most people (at least, those in Western countries who read this blog) who want to travel can find a way to do so. It may require you to make changes or sacrifices, but inertia is a much greater hindrance for most of us than lack of money.
That said, it does cost money to do this kind of thing, so it's only fair to give you the specifics.
Ethiopia & Beyond
I used Star Alliance Frequent Flyer miles for the first Africa trip, round-trip from Seattle. It took a big hit to my United balance (120,000), and I now have only 60k left. On the bright side, I got the flights I wanted, it’s in Business Class (important to me for long-haul and back-to-back overnight flights), and it would otherwise be fairly expensive to purchase a ticket to that part of Africa. The taxes were also cheap -- just under $150.
Cost: 120k Miles + $150 in taxes
Countries: Ethopia, Eritrea (hopefully), and presumably a side trip to at least one additional country in the region
Qatar & Beyond
My Qatar Airways ticket, another Frequent Flyer award, was 90,000 miles and $391 in taxes – and I’m also trying to add a free stopover to Yemen or Kuwait.
I didn’t have any Qatar Airways miles (I’ve only flown with them once, and I credited it to United), so I transferred points from American Express Membership Rewards into ANA Airlines (Japan) to book the partner award. It sounds a bit convoluted, I know, but it wasn’t that difficult in practice.
Cost: 90k AmEx Points + $399 in taxes
Countries: Qatar to resume another ticket, Yemen or Kuwait (side trip)
All of the South America stops, as well as the second trip to Africa (Mauritius, Namibia, Jo’burg, etc.) are part of my OneWorld Round-the-Word trip. This will also take me on to Hong Kong at some point in the early summer. That ticket was about $5,000, and I’ve received tremendous value from it. I have no idea how much it would cost if I were to try to book everything with round-trip flights – certainly several times more than what I pay when I effectively buy the flights in book with the RTW ticket.
Cost: Roughly $350 per country, prepaid last year
Countries: Mauritius, Namibia, South Africa, Hong Kong, U.K. (transit only)
The only “cash money” flights I need to sort out now are the entry and exit flights to the three mysterious countries, the flights within Northeast Africa, and the occasional cross-country trek to Miami or New York. Those will probably be a few hundred dollars each.
Cost: Variable, but usually $200-400 each
Countries: None, but allows me to come home and take side trips
After I complete all the trips mentioned above, I’ll start running out of prepaid flights, so I hope to begin at least one more Round-the-World ticket in the early summer. This one may be back on Star Alliance since I've earned more than 200,000 miles with OneWorld in 2008, and therefore don’t need to worry about elite status with them for a while.
I'm not 100% sure of what I'll do about the ticket, but whenever I sort it out, I’ll let you know exactly what I decide and what the next monster itinerary will be.
Well, You Asked for It
One request I’ve heard several times now is for more detailed travel planning notes. I have a question for you in return: is this progress? Is this the kind of thing that you guys want to know?
I cover even more travel planning details in the original Discount Airfare Guide, and I’ll be coming out with a more advanced Travel Ninja report soon… but I’m also happy to post information like this on the site whenever it seems like a good fit. As long as you give me good feedback, I’ll keep doing it.
Also, remember that next month we’ll look at my version of lifestyle design and annual planning. This includes travel planning, but also creating a structure for work, fun, learning, and more. I always look forward to doing the review in December, and this year I’m looking forward to sharing the process with you as well.
If you have any questions or feedback about the 2009 travel plans, simply leave a comment below. Thanks for reading!
Travel Hacking in an Unfriendly Enviornment
What I Talk About When I Talk About Travel (a Travel FAQ)
28 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Traveling
Why You Should Quit Your Job and Travel Around the World
Image by TaberAndrew
As per the usual protocol, today’s essay is about travel -- but it’s also about choices, because your choices will take you where you want to go.
Last week I asked about Your One Place. This site attracts a lot of diverse people, including some who don’t travel much at all. But my theory was that even the non-travelers have somewhere in the world they’d like to see before they die.
I think I was on to something. Here are some of the answers readers shared:
Matthew: Island hopping on a sailboat Daniel: The moon (or Ladakh in northern India) Dwight: Bicycle tour of North America for a year Coral: Macchu Pichu, Peru Reese: Tuscany Mike: England, Tuscany and Sitges (Spain) Justin: Tuva Tee: Any of the northern fjords of Iceland Kazari: Kenya PizzaDream: Greece on a Mediterranean cruise Kiri: somewhere in Asia, maybe southern China Jen: South America, or maybe the Trans Siberian Railroad Frugal Bachelor, Graham, and JKG: Antarctica The Wyman: Australia Jessica: Vegas Jody: The moon Kat: Patagonia Kristian: Turkey Michael: Japan NewWorldYankee: Mauritius and France Katherine: Lake Victoria Gretchen: Ireland Alan: Nepal Mogs: Socotra, Yemen Linnea: Florence, Italy Robyn: Egypt, and after that, Pompeii and Herculaneum Chris N.: Alaska Crystal: Buddhist statue tour of Asia Danny: Iceland Guiness: Bhutan
Others sent emails: Chile, train from Moscow to Beijing, “somewhere in Africa,” Lithuania, more votes for Alaska, etc.
My take: all good ideas. Nice job, everyone. I am not one to hold anyone back from heading off somewhere, and I heartily endorse anyone going out of their comfort zone at any time. Here’s wishing you good luck with the $2 savings funds and bon voyage.
BUT… before we all pack up, I have to rain on the parade a little. Sorry about this, but it will be worth it in the end. The thing is, I learned a long time ago that everyone has a dream, but most people never take action on it.
This is true with travel, work, life – pretty much anything. Everyone has a long list of things they’d like to do or places they’d like to go, but for most of them, the list remains a list.
What’s wrong with dreaming? Nothing, at least by itself. If all you want to do is dream, then dream away.
If there’s a problem, it’s that many of us want more than the dream. We actually want to go to the one place on our list. Accomplishing this, or any goal, is not usually that difficult, but it won’t happen by itself.
At some point you’ll have to make some choices. The choice of giving up $2 a day doesn’t seem that much, but sooner or later, you’ll probably want the money for something else. You’ll get busy, like everyone does, and time will go by.
The Dream and the Realization
I started a limited consulting service recently. I only do two sessions a week, and I don’t schedule anyone who I don’t think is a good fit. This decision comes from my own healthy paranoia that I want to make sure I can really provide good value to someone who pays me.
As I was talking with Sike the other day (just like “Mike”, but with an ‘s’) I realized that my motivation for doing this was to help people avoid getting stuck between the dream and the realization. Sike is a very motivated young guy (just 23 years old) who is worried about doing what everyone expects him to do next year when he finishes college. His parents have one idea about his future and he has a completely different one. It sounds like he’ll be just fine.
After talking with Sike, I went out to have drinks with Dave and Breanne, AONC readers and new friends who happen to live in my Seattle neighborhood. They talked about their own choices and how their perspective had shifted over the past year. Dave was on track to be a CFO in corporate America when they decided to quit their jobs and travel through Latin America for six months. Coming back to the States recently for an indefinite time, Breanne said they felt conflicted over returning to “the American dream” after having learned so much more about the world.
I told them the same thing I told Sike: it’s probably a good sign that you’re concerned about that. When you feel no tension over living an unremarkably average life, that’s when you should worry.
As I said, turning your dream into a goal is not necessarily difficult, but you will need to make some hard choices at some point.
Back to Your Place
If you played along and selected a place (it’s not too late), you’re going to need to make an effort to keep it in your mind over the next three years or however long it takes you to get there. Your goal doesn’t need to be constantly in focus, but it needs to at least be in your peripheral vision.
By the way, you don’t owe it to me or anyone else to do this. You do, however, owe it to yourself.
Many will dream. A few will go.
Which group are you in?
Here’s a fun game to play: think about one place in the world that you’d like to visit someday. You don’t have to make a long list, just think of one single place.Even including people who don’t travel that much, most of us can think of somewhere we’d like to see before we die. There are a couple of easy rules for this game: 1) You only get one place 2) It has to be somewhere you haven’t been yet Read More
Image of La Gomera by Leo-Seta
On a bus into downtown Seoul from ICN airport a couple years ago, I chatted with a French-Canadian guy who was interested in my travel experiences. He asked me a question that has always stumped me: “What is your favorite country?”
I never know how to answer that one, because I honestly have no idea. When I started traveling years ago out of a search for something indefinable, I think I expected that somewhere along the way I would find the perfect place. As long as I had that expectation in mind, I was continually disappointed throughout the journey – or if not disappointed, I was certainly unfulfilled.
Since then, I’ve heard the “favorite country” question countless times. Now that this site has a fairly broad readership, I do interviews for other blogs at least once a week. Whenever the interview is with a travel-related site, I can always count on that question coming up.
My favorite country… my favorite place... hmmm.
Somewhere along the way, I decided that I simply don’t have one favorite place in the world. There are still a lot of countries left on the list, and of course many places in the countries I’ve already visited that I haven’t been to, but as of now, I’m no longer expecting one clear favorite to emerge.
Instead, I’ve developed a larger perspective, where I have not one but several favorite places in the world. Maybe it’s a cop-out, but I think it’s also a reflection that many of us enjoy different things about different places. No single destination is the best.
Here are some of the most beautiful places I’ve been to since I got serious about travel.
Image by Ewa
Image by Slack12
Image by d70focus
Image by Leo-Seta
Image by FDVG
Image by RahelSharon
Image by NM
Update: Before I published this post, I asked on Twitter for other recommendations. Here’s what I heard in the initial replies:
Itpodcast: Cathedral cove, NZ. recently featured in Narnia: Prince Caspian
zoewesthof: Merzouga, Morocco and anywhere in Galicia (Spain)!
obsalah : Petra in Jordan, one of the 7 wonders of the world (the new ones) not much known kind of hidden away
eighteyes : Canyon Dechey, Sighisoara -> Romania, Mono Lake, Lost Coast
theo_chiari: Québec City
ElasticMind : White Desert, outside Bahariya Oasis, Egpyt
Earl52 : Hatteras Island, Outer Banks, North Carolina. Absolutely remarkable.
melissamcd: 2 of My Favorite Places: Camp Leaky (Tanjung National Park, Borneo); Bonaire National Marine Park
amoir : I adore ShinSekai in Osaka. ShinSekai is Japan at its most accessible, alive, vibrant, humble and real.
rose_w:The drive from Fairbanks, AK to the Artic Circle, desolate, breath taking and cool to say you've been there
krippl : Puerto Pinaso, Mexico. Better known as Rocky Point.
TheGirlPie: We LOVED our month at Ein Bokek at the Dead Sea in Israel in 10/01. No one else would though... it was beyond dead.
I’ll add to my list as I keep traveling. Early in 2009 I’ll be heading to a big part of Africa that I’ve never visited before – the region around Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. In the spring I’ll resume my OneWorld Round-the-World trip with visits to Haiti and South America. After that, I’m not sure what comes next.. but my journey will still be far from over.
But wait, what about you?
A couple weeks back I told you about 9 Overrated Tourist Destinations (and 9 great alternatives) and asked for your feedback. Is the Grand Canyon more than just a Not-Bad Canyon? Is Dublin worth visiting? I don’t think we ever came to a consensus, which isn’t too surprising considering how passionate people can be about travel.
Well, here’s your chance again – what would you add to the above list of beautiful places? Is there anything you’d take off? Let me know.
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A few years and many trips ago, I learned that it is usually better to travel by land whenever possible. I love flying, and I even love hanging out in big airports for hours, but it’s true that the experience of flying from one place to another often isn’t always that different wherever you are in the world.
When you travel overland, however, you’ll almost always meet people and experience life as it’s seen through more natural perspectives. When I have the choice, I usually try to fly into one country, travel overland for a while, and then fly out of another airport at least one country away.
I did this in Jordan two years ago, flying into Tel Aviv in Israel, traveling overland between the two countries and then throughout Jordan before leaving from Amman. I did it again a couple months later by taking a series of buses throughout the Balkans, including an overnight bus through Albania. I thought these experiences would prepare me well for an even bigger trip that took in the summer of 2007. For the most part, they did.
My trip began in Kampala, Uganda, where I visited one of the largest taxi parks in the world and spent some time with local NGO workers. After a few days sightseeing, I bought a one-way bus ticket to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania via a number of other cities along the way. The ticket cost $54, and the journey was expected to take 31 hours.
I showed up at 12:30 for the 1:00 p.m. departure, but I didn’t see a bus anywhere. I sat with all of the other passengers for two hours, waiting for the appearance of an elusive bus. It finally arrived close to 3:00. In a way, I didn’t mind the delay, because another passenger told me they were fixing the tires. Not having good tires is a major cause of road accidents in Africa, so better to be late with good tires, I thought.
Uganda to Kenya
After the delayed departure, our trip began well enough. Every seat on the bus was taken, but there was no overcrowding and no one standing. I was also the only Westerner for the entire trip, which definitely helped with getting a more natural perspective of East Africa. After we got out of Kampala, the driver’s assistant passed out ice cream samples to each passenger, a nice treat after not eating lunch.
For the next four hours, nothing much happened. I had hoped to use a big part of the trip for reading and writing, but the roads were far too bumpy for that. We rode along through Eastern Uganda until arriving at the Kenyan border directly at sunset. Border stops are rarely boring, and in Africa, they are often highly disorganized and corrupt. At this one, though, all the formalities went about as well as could be. I paid $20 for a transit visa, as I had expected, and headed back up the road to the bus after receiving the necessary clearances. The whole process took less than half an hour, complete with an amazing dust storm that I tried to capture in a couple of quick snapshots.
We had roughly seven hours more until Nairobi, where we were scheduled to arrive at 3:00 a.m. for a two-hour stop. Mid-point through the journey, the bus broke down. I wasn’t thrilled about this, and neither were the other passengers, but after a while the engine started up and we were underway again. We arrived in Nairobi sometime around 4:30, waiting at the bus station for a couple of hours, and got back underway just before dawn.
At this point my memory gets a bit fuzzy, because I had only slept an hour or two during the night and wasn’t feeling well from all the bumpy roads. I think it was about three or four more hours when we arrived at the next border, this time between Kenya and Tanzania.
This stop was also fairly efficient—we were through within 45 minutes. There were a fair share of “helpers” who tried to offer their services to me (to change money, expedite the visa process, etc.), but after I declined a few times they stopped asking.
Waiting in Arusha
Back underway and a couple more undetermined hours later, we arrived in Arusha, a Tanzanian city in the north of the country. We were told that we had to change buses, but no other bus was around. I spent the time in the transit area writing postcards from Kampala and eating peanuts, which in addition to two Cliff Bars I had brought from Seattle and the ice cream 24 hours earlier were my only food. I wasn’t really hungry, but I was certainly tired.
A new bus finally arrived two hours later. We were all relieved to transfer our bags and hop onboard, but there was just one problem: five other passengers had joined us at Arusha, and they had seat numbers for seats that were already occupied by those of us who had started way back in Uganda. Thankfully, I had already taken my seat when the mistake was discovered, so I didn’t have to worry about standing up for the remaining nine hours.
After a lot of arguing and the unsuccessful mediation efforts of the bus company’s employees, a woman stood up and addressed everyone. “Brothers and sisters in the Lord!” she began. “We are all Christians, so let us find a way to solve this problem!”
So far, so good, but some guys in the back were laughing and not listening to her, so she commanded them to “Shut up in the name of Jesus!” It was one of the most interesting social interactions I’ve ever been a part of. For better or worse, the evangelist was able to resolve the problem by acquiring some extra makeshift seats from the bus driver. Before we left Arusha after waiting far too long, she led the whole bus in a prayer for the journey. Even the Muslims supported a Christian prayer for a safe road journey to our final destination.
Kenya to Tanzania
A lot of other things happened along the way, but as we hit the 24-hour point, I was pretty exhausted. I vaguely remember running my hands through my hair and seeing them completely covered in red dust. I remember a collective bus stop for bananas, which looked nice but I couldn’t buy any because I didn’t have any Tanzanian currency, and I remember waking up after sleeping for three straight hours to find our bus about an hour out of Dar es Salaam. By then, it had gone well over the 31 hours we had expected to travel, so when people said we were an hour away I could hardly believe it.
We arrived at the Dar es Salaam bus station close to midnight the day after I had left Uganda. I stepped off the bus for the last time and walked to the gate where I navigated the usual throng of taxi drivers all shouting for my attention. Choosing one and negotiating a price of $8 (it was late at night and a fair distance away) to take me downtown to change money and then to a hotel near the port, I finally arrived at the beautiful sight of a hotel check-in desk shortly after 1:00 a.m. They had one last room available, which I was quite happy to accept sight unseen and without even considering the cost.
Before I feel asleep, I took two full showers in an attempt to shake off the dust from three African countries and 35 hours in a bus. For the next week, however, my shoes would set off a mini dust storm every time I put them on or took them off. When I finally got home two weeks later, my bags still had Kenya’s dust on them despite my best efforts to clean them with washcloths during my next two stops.
I decided to consider it evidence of an achievement that had personal meaning to me, even if other people might find it incomprehensible. I also decided that I wouldn't necessarily want to do this again... but I’m really glad I did it once.
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Six weeks ago, I went to downtown Seattle for an appointment at a big office building. The receptionist asked me to fill out a short medical history, which included questions about my self-esteem and physical appearance. After 10 minutes of waiting, I was ushered back into a small clinic down the hall.Read More
Image by JasonRogers
In my trips around the world, I’ve been to a lot of conventional places and a lot of off-the-grid places. Among other things, these experiences have led me discover that some of the best destinations for travelers are not always “undiscovered.”
Many places have a well-deserved reputation for being cool, and some other places you’ve never heard of maintain that status for a good reason. Still other places have gained undeserved reputations for being somewhere you “must’ visit before you die – but whenever I’ve gone there, I’ve felt a bit disappointed.
I’ll tell you about 9 of those here, but…
I don’t like to be overly-negative, so in addition to telling you what’s wrong with these overrated destinations, I’ll also give you an alternative for each one that is worth visiting. Then if you’ve been to either the overrated one or the alternative, you can tell me if you think I’m wrong, and also add your own overrated destination for everyone else to consider.
Ready? Here we go.
The Alternative: If you really want to see the world’s best waterfalls and you can go anywhere, then head to Zambia and check out the great Victoria Falls. I was there in 2006 and can confirm that it is indeed one seriously big waterfall. Afterwards, head over to the Victoria Falls Hotel on the Zimbabwean side and pay $1,000,000 for a Diet Coke.
If you can’t easily hop off to Southern Africa, then just go somewhere else in Ontario or Quebec. There's lots to see in that part of Canada that is definitely worth checking out.
- The Decent Canyon
- The Not-Bad Canyon
- The “If you’re 10 miles away, go and see it” Canyon
You get the idea. Technically speaking, the Grand Canyon is impressive, but there’s so much hype about it that it’s hard to live up to your expectations upon arrival.
The Alternative: Sedona, Tucson, Santa Fe (New Mexico), or elsewhere in the area. The American Southwest can be a fun place. I liked hanging out in Sedona, where we stayed before driving to the Not-Bad Canyon. It does get pretty hot there, but it is the desert, after all.
The Alternative: There are plenty of other nice islands in the Caribbean not yet overrun with visitors. St Kitts & Nevis is nice, for example, as is Dominica. Also, Barbados has a lot of visitors, but they do a better job with planning the overall development and culture of the island.
Paris, London, and Rome in the summer. These are all great cities, but not in the summer. Most Parisians leave their city in August, and they have the right idea.
The Alternative: For anyone traveling with U.S. or Canadian dollars, these aren’t great places to go at any time of the year, but for everyone else, going in the winter can be nice. And even if you do pay in dollars, lodging will usually be cheaper in the late fall or winter.
The Alternative: The best alternative is to keep your money and go anywhere else, but if you really want to gamble, head to an American Indian casino so that the money you lose will at least go into tribal education funds.
The Alternative: Dublin isn’t a bad jumping off point - so head there first, then quickly go out to the other cities and smaller towns of Ireland. Chances are you'll discover that they are more fun for visitors who want to experience the Ireland they've always imagined.
The Alternative: Egypt’s neighbor, Jordan, is a better place to visit overall. You won’t be hassled nearly as much (some people will even give you rides for free or otherwise extend hospitality without taking anything in return), and the ancient city of Petra is simply amazing. If you’re interested in visiting Israel or Lebanon, you can get there easily from Amman, and overall you’ll likely be much happier in Jordan anyway.
The Alternative: Just half an hour away by bus, Malaysia offers a better presentation of Asian diversity. The cities are edgier (not necessarily a bad thing, when compared to an overly-sterile environment), and nearly everything is cheaper. You can also head down to Bantam Island (Indonesia) by ferry, although I found the experience a bit strange when I was there two years ago.
The Most Overrated Destination on the Planet
All of those destinations are somewhat overrated - which doesn't mean you shouldn't go there. You should do exactly what you want; just try to keep your expectations in check. There’s one place over all the others, however, that wins the prize for being the most over-hyped city anywhere on the planet:
Image by Sharam Sharif
This is not actually that unusual, because most travelers end up thinking that Dubai is odd when they get there. The majority of the people you’ll interact with in Dubai are immigrant workers (English surpassed Arabic as the common language a while back), and seemingly permanent construction cranes fill the city. Yes, you can get anything you want in Dubai, but since sheiks and Russian billionaires use Dubai as a playground, it won’t be cheap. As for entertainment, there are shopping malls, shopping centers, shopping areas with fake ski resorts, and hotels with shopping malls enclosed within.
The Alternative: Oman, a nearby Persian Gulf country, is much more fun and a thousand times more authentic. Qatar is also OK, but seems to be on track to become another Dubai as soon as they can build a ski lodge and fake islands with huge hotels.
And Now, Your Turn
I need your help with this one. What other places are overrated, and what’s a better alternative? In other words, what did I miss?
Also, whenever people talk about their favorite places, someone usually disagrees – and that’s fine. Would you change anything in the above recommendations? Let me know.
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1) Working for yourself, especially while traveling, is not as easy as most people think. The fantasy and the reality are quite distinct, and it takes a lot of work to be successful. 2) Working for yourself, even while traveling, is awesome! The freedom is great, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Both statements are completely true, but naturally, we tend to view the idea of self-employment and extensive travel through only one of the two statements. I'd like to look at it a bit deeper.Read More
Colombo by Night -- Image by Dimitri
I’m sitting in a hotel lobby in Colombo, Sri Lanka, listening to the cover band play Lionel Ritchie from the back of a wedding reception where I’m obviously an outside observer. Sipping a 12-ounce Heineken I bought at the gas station across the street, I reflect on the last two weeks.
The final trip of the year.
And also, my 100th country. How did I come this far?
Before I can fully consider the question, we have a brief diversion as the band segues into a toast for the bride and groom -- or so I presume, since the bandleader is speaking Sinhala, the local language. I hear the word champagne and everyone stands with a glass in hand. I raise my Heineken can and smile. No one notices me, which I take to be a good sign.
In Which I Sleep Through the Entire Day
The flight to Sri Lanka (from Doha, Qatar) did not go so well. I was told at check-in that the morning flight was totally full, but if I wanted I could switch to the red-eye flight leaving at 12:50 a.m. Since I don’t usually sleep on planes, I’m not a big fan of red-eye flights, but I asked how full the flight was before making a decision. I was told that the midnight flight was fairly empty and I could have a whole row to myself near the front of the Economy section. OK, I said. I’ll take it.
You can guess what happened – the flight was totally packed and I was in the next-to-last row in the back. How does that work? Why did they lie to me?
It’s all about expectations, and in this case I was not prepared to fly 5 hours through the night in the very back of a crowded plane. Thankfully, every bad flight has to end at some point, and at 8:30 a.m. local time, it’s all over.
Upon arrival at the airport in Colombo, I’m tired from not sleeping at all the night before. I negotiate the taxi price down from $25 to $15 (it’s a long way from the city), and ride into town to a local hotel. I’m not especially jet-lagged, since I’ve been traveling incrementally this time (Panama City, Madrid, Cairo, Doha, and now Colombo), but the red-eye flight has definitely taken its toll.
I lie down and sleep for five hours straight, about three hours more than I planned.
I wake up when someone knocks on the door to ask about cleaning. "No thanks," I say, and go back to bed. I sleep for three more hours, and then three more after that. After 11 hours of sleeping, which I think is a personal record for me, I finally wake up at exactly midnight local time. I can’t believe I’ve slept this long!
I decide there’s not much to do except get up and pretend it’s morning, since there’s no going back to sleep tonight after a day of sleeping 11 hours.
Colombo from Midnight to 7am
I take a shower and sit down at the desk to do some writing. I have been trying to finish the next Unconventional Guide for weeks now, and I finally manage to force myself to work on it for three good hours.
At 3:00 a.m., I decide it’s time to go exploring. Sri Lanka itself is not exactly a safe place (there is an ongoing civil war between government forces and what is considered a rebel army in the north), but ironically this means that the capital of Colombo is actually more safe than it would otherwise be. This is because almost everywhere you go, armed soldiers are standing guard 24 hours a day at intervals of only 100 meters apart. There are security checkpoints throughout the city, and a big section of downtown is blocked off from traffic for most of the day.
I walk along the beach and am stopped at each post along the way by guards who are surprised to see a foreigner out walking in the middle of the night, but they don’t bother me too much. I pass by a group of kids about 7-10 years old who are all out flying a kite on the beach. As to why they are doing this at 3:00 a.m., I have no idea, but they are friendly enough. They all run up to me and start talking, but after we exchange names, there’s not a lot to say.
“Please, tell me what time it is,” one of them says. I tell him the time and he thanks me.
The next one speaks up. “Please, tell me what time it is,” he says. I repeat the same answer and he thanks me. It seems this is as far as the English lessons go in the 4th grade over here, so I wave goodbye and keep walking.
An hour later I’m on my way back to the hotel and it’s close to 4:30 a.m. I know this because I encounter the group of kids on the beach again. They all wave and come over. “Please, tell me what time it is,” one of them says again. “What is your name?” another one asks for the second time.
I give them the answers (again) and they all wave me off. The guards are less anxious now that I’m going back where I came from, and the sun should be up soon. I read until 6:30 a.m. and then go down to breakfast, which effectively also serves as lunch and dinner from the day before. It’s a big meal, thankfully.
A long time ago, I had a dream to visit 100 countries. I was traveling through Eastern Europe for the first time, and I counted up all the places I had been and thought about everywhere else I wanted to go.
This was nearly four years ago.
Dreams only go so far – they have to be turned into goals, or else they tend to remain dreams, like winning the lottery. I did the math and figured out that it would not be terribly difficult to visit 100 countries as long as I was willing to give up some other things. I set the goal and started planning several overseas trips a year.
Along the way I had to make a number of other decisions and very real sacrifices. I had to be away from home a lot, spend most of my disposable income on Round-the-World plane tickets, endure a few stressful and uncomfortable situations, and so on. While I enjoy many aspects of travel and many places around the world, there are certainly others I don’t care for as much. With travel, like anything else, sometimes you have to take the bad with the good. It’s just part of the deal.
When it comes down to it, though, when I first started thinking about the goal of 100 countries, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I knew that I would always regret it if I didn’t try, and that knowledge has made all the difference. I think about that often, especially when it gets hard. This summer had some hard times, but now I’m sitting on a small island in South Asia, and I’ve already been to more places than most people will visit in their lifetime.
Back at the Wedding Reception
I’m in Sri Lanka for three more days, and it’s a nice place to hang out for your 100th country. I go to a Buddhist festival, an international book fair, and an Anglican church service. One taxi driver I meet tells me it’s 42° (107° Fahrenheit) the first morning I’m there, and I believe him. My clothes are soaked with sweat after half an hour of walking mostly in the shade, and I’m quickly defeated. I hire a tuk-tuk and go to the civic center for the book fair.
On the day of departure, my flight out to Hong Kong doesn’t leave until the awful hour of 1:45 a.m., so I have a final evening to spend before heading back out to the airport. After walking for a while, I pass the time hanging out at the previously-mentioned wedding.
From a sign at the entrance I see that this wedding is for Mr. Shahib Praseen and his lovely bride Tenga. Thank you, Shahib and Tenga, for letting me sit in the back of the room and write these notes while listening to Stuck On You being performed in traditional Asian hotel band style.
Classic Asian hotel band style, if you didn’t know, consists of five musicians but rarely a drummer – fake drums are provided via MIDI keyboard. There is often a female singer, but all of the musicians are men. You can hear the same synthesizer sounds all over Asia, and usually the same songs too.
I head out to the lobby to buy something to eat, where a competing band is playing Shania Twain.
Looks like we made it
Look how far we’ve come now baby
There’s one thing I like about going to places like Sri Lanka – I can afford to eat at real restaurants, and sometimes stay in nice hotels. In Brussels the $3 sandwich I’m eating would cost $14, and would the band really be playing Shania Twain? Come on. You want to hear Stuck On You or Still the One performed in full MIDI glory, you’d better come to Asia.
As I’m leaving, the band has moved to Carolina in My Mind, but I have no more time or interest. In my mind, I’m going to Colombo airport.
On the ride to the airport we have what I assume will be the final installment of worldwide taxi driver commentary on the U.S. election. In previous installments, we’ve heard from drivers in Pakistan and Egypt, and tonight my driver (in a small tuk-tuk, not a full taxi) tells me that America will not elect Obama because he is Muslim.
“Actually, he is Christian,” I say, feeling a little annoyed. You can like Obama or not like him, but I’m troubled to hear that the lies being spread about him have made it all the way to Sri Lanka.
Alas, my driver is not swayed. “No, he is Muslim. He has a Muslim name. You can not be Christian with that name.”
I briefly consider taking another taxi out of protest, but this is Sri Lanka, after all, and I do need to get to the airport. I guess if Fox News ever decides to broadcast from South Asia, this guy can be a commentator.
After waiting at the airport for two hours, I sleep-walk on to the plane at the 1:25 a.m. boarding time. I’m going to NYC before heading home to Seattle, and I don’t even want to think about what time it is in either of those places. The Cathay Pacific flight takes off for Bangkok and then continues to Hong Kong on the same aircraft. This all feels very familiar – the flight back from Karachi last month was almost the same, with a late-night boarding time, then a three hour hop to Bangkok followed by two and a half hours to Hong Kong.
I sleep on the plane out of exhaustion, but it’s all good. I made it. 100 countries down, and I’m on my way home.
This was my final “big trip” of 2008. I’ll be at home for the next two and a half months before planning my travel for 2009.
As I’ve said a couple of times, the next 100 (or technically, 92+) countries will be far more difficult. I’m rapidly running out of “easy” countries. There are a lot of countries in Africa I haven't really planned for, and two entire regions (Central Asia and the South Pacific) I haven’t even started in.
But for right now, I’m not ready to think about how hard it will be. It does feel somewhat monumental to have come this far, and that’s where I’m going to leave it for now.
It was totally worth it, and I hope I can say the same at the next few milestones.
Thanks so much for reading and being a big part of it. You guys are awesome.
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The title comes from Haruki Murakami, who in turn took it from Raymond Carver. *** Since I started this site in March, I’ve been to more than 20 countries in pursuit of my goal to visit every country in the world. It’s going well so far, and I've made even more progress than expected. Next year I suspect it will get much harder, but we’ll take things one trip at a time. As the community here has grown, I’ve noticed that I receive at least several emails a day with the same kinds of questions about travel. I’m making a full FAQ later for the upcoming site redesign, but I thought I’d go ahead and publish this one now.Read More
Image by Kurlvink
We all travel with expectations that may or may not be met when our imagination of a place meets the reality of actually being there. Traveling in Pakistan one week and Brunei the next, for example, I found my expectations upended.
Before going to both places, I expected that Karachi (Pakistan) would be a fairly rough place. The plan was to lie low for a couple of days, visit the market and mosque, maybe talk with a few people – nothing major. I do get tired fairly often while traveling, especially when I’m going between continents and to hot climates my body isn’t used to.
I figured I would “tough it out” in Pakistan and be rewarded with a few days in Brunei, a sleepy, oil-rich sultanate. Brunei was to be my last real stop on this trip before heading back to the States via Singapore and Tokyo.
If you expect to learn that my imagination did not match up to reality, you’re right: I greatly enjoyed my time in Karachi and found it quite relaxing (in an odd way), and I struggled with my weekend stay in Brunei.
Getting to Pakistan was quite an adventure, mostly because I was unable to obtain a visa in advance, and they do not (usually) offer any visas upon arrival. That one was a real drama for a while, but after it was resolved, everything was smooth sailing. I could afford to eat whatever I wanted there, public transport was easy and cheap, I had good wi-fi access, and importantly, I felt completely safe for the whole visit.
After I went to Pakistan, I took off for Brunei, a small Islamic sultanate located on Borneo in Southeast Asia. Here’s a map, since not everyone knows where that is:
Part of the reason that Westerners don’t know much about Brunei is because it’s a small country. Another part of the reason is because, to be perfectly honest, there’s not a whole lot to do there for the average visitor.
During my weekend there, I naturally went walking, and naturally spent a morning at the local coffee shop. Picking up the local newspaper, this was the main story:
Imams Urge Decent Behavior: “Social ills and negative elements like intoxicating drinks, wearing indecent clothing, smoking and so on which are against the religion and culture [and] can be shielded by a knowledge of the religion,” imams said Friday.
A few other short headlines:
- Prize Presentation for 10-Pin Bowling Competition
- Police Recruits to Uphold Discipline
- Racers All Set for Brunei Go-Kart Challenge
- Fun Quizzes and Poetry Recitals to Be Held at Convention Center
(I thought some of those could probably come straight from The Onion… but this was actually a real newspaper. It gives you an accurate reflection of how sleepy Brunei is.)
The coffee shop featured a free magazine rack, but when I looked more closely, I discovered a McCall’s magazine from October 1999. Seriously, 1999 – nine years ago. I don’t always expect the latest Economist, but nine years is a long time in the life of a magazine.
Because of the country's vast oil wealth, Brunei is also pretty expensive. I quickly discovered I couldn’t afford much of anything, including food anywhere other than the coffee shop. By contrast, in Pakistan I could pay for breakfast – or any meal I wanted – in the nice hotel.
Before we go any further, I should provide the Obligatory Disclaimer: I’m not saying Brunei’s a bad place; I’m just saying that other than the entertaining newspapers, it didn’t really have anything that was appealing to me. If you live there or have visited and have a different impression, that’s great.
Your Mileage May Vary
None of my friends travel the way I do – and almost none of them travel the same way as anyone else. We all have different styles of travel, different things we enjoy, and different goals for our trips.
I’m pretty open-minded about all of this. There’s just one thing I don’t like to hear:
“You’re doing it wrong.”
That one bothers me. My view is that as long as your actions don’t hurt someone else (the basic “do no harm” principle), then it is up to you to figure out what you enjoy and appreciate about travel.
If someone tells you, “You’re doing it wrong,” you don’t have to listen to them. Maybe they’re doing it wrong, or more likely, they have not yet learned that people can do things differently without being wrong.
The people at Indie Travel Podcast are all about, well, independent travel. Their audience is mostly students (U.S., Canada, and U.K. primarily) and younger, adventure travel types.
I also read First Class Flyer every month to learn about strategies for upgrades and premium flights. Matt, the publisher, has a completely different audience than your average casual traveler.
There are people on FlyerTalk who fly all over the world and never leave the airport – they just enjoy flying. I like flying too, but not that much – I do like to get out and about for a while before getting on another plane.
These are just a few ends of the spectrum -- if you think about it, you can probably think of lots of other ways to travel.
What Is Culture?
For a while, I felt guilty if I went to a new place and didn’t “experience local culture” according to the way some people think you should.
I remember when I went to Tunisia in the late spring. Thanks to a friend’s help, I was able to spend a whole weekend with a host family. One of the highlights, believe it or not, was going to the grocery store on Sunday morning with them.
Some people might feel it is more important to visit the historical sites of Tunisia (there are many) rather than hang out at the grocery store, and they usually use the culture word to make their case. I enjoyed seeing a few of the sites, but I enjoyed my time with my host family even more.
To people who wonder about this, I ask, "What do you think people who live in Tunisia do all the time?" Well, among other things, they go to the grocery store. They watch TV. They live their lives.
Creating a philosophy of travel that works for you goes back to the two questions I wrote about a while back –
- What do you really want?
- What can you give?
Your individual answers to these questions can affect what you enjoy about travel, and if you spend some time on it, you can develop your own travel philosophy that is unique to you.
A Little of Everything
As for me, I kind of like to do it all. I’ve flown in Virgin Atlantic’s amazing Upper Class cabin and stayed in countless $10-a-night hostels. Using my Starwood points, sometimes I’ve been fortunate to stay in great hotels that otherwise cost hundreds of dollars a night… and then I check out after a day or two to move across town to a cheap guesthouse. I know most people would probably stay more at one end or another, but for me, I’m comfortable with both.
When I went down to El Salvador on the first part of my trip this week, I enjoyed the ironic fact that the taxi from the airport ($25) cost more than my room at the Hotel Happy House ($23). And by the way, there wasn’t a whole lot happening at the Hotel Happy House, but it had a nice vibe. If you head that direction, it’s not a bad place to stay for a couple of days.
Oh, and earlier this week, I slept on the floor of the Dallas airport. At least I tried to sleep for a few hours in between landing close to midnight and boarding the next flight at 5:30 a.m. It was pretty much as you’d expect – not a great experience, but it’s over now. No big deal.
The point is, I like mixing it up. That’s my style.
I stay in most places longer than the average jet-setter, but shorter than the average backpacker. Over the past few months, I’ve made some adjustments in my preferred travel style to allow me to visit more countries, especially the difficult ones like Iraq, Mongolia, and Pakistan.
I think of this as more of a lifestyle design issue – the goal of visiting every country is really important to me, so I've chosen to focus on it and occasionally push myself harder than I’d otherwise prefer.
Now I’m off to the Middle East and Persian Gulf again. I’ll be in Cairo most of next week, and I just realized that Ramadan is currently being observed. I’ve been in the region several times, but never during Ramadan... so I'm excited to experience it firsthand.
But anyway, that’s me…
The point is, I am resistant to people who try to put an agenda on the way other people live their lives, including their own preferences or styles of travel.
And really, life is short, right? Rather than do it someone else’s way, isn’t it better to figure out what matters to you and then pursue that goal?
What do you think -- and how do you like to travel?
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Image by deqalb
Have you ever gone on a vacation only to come back feeling more tired than before you left? It’s not a good feeling to need a vacation from the vacation, but many of us have experienced that kind of let-down.
The secret to overcoming this feeling is planning some good, productive blocks of “work time” into your restful vacation.
No, I am not a workaholic. The key difference is that the work you do on vacation needs to be the kind of work that brings you energy… not the kind of work that tethers you to your cell phone or PDA.
While people not interested in lifestyle design may not appreciate this idea, I suspect that many AONC readers will not find the combination of vacations and productivity to be strange at all. The goal of most vacations is to relax, but we often go about it the wrong way. We binge on relaxation the same way we binge on work. It feels good the first day, but by the third day, you may have the same burned-out feeling you get from working too much.
Without a clear set of goals for your vacation, you may not come back feeling relaxed.
That’s why I advocate a process of goal-setting and GTD for vacations that is fairly similar to what I use for the work-week. The projects on the list are much different than work-week projects, but the system is the same.
At the start of any vacation, I set a few goals for myself -- usually just two or three big ones, along with a few small ones such as journaling every day. If you adopt this system, you should set goals that make sense for you, but feel free to steal some of my ideas if you’d like.
Here’s a Few Ideas
-Complete a bigger “weekly review” than usual. This could be a quarterly or yearly review. For several years now, I have completed a full annual review each December while on vacation. It is the most important thing I do that week, and I plan everything else around it.
Later this year, I'll explain more about that process in real time -- but for now, you can create your own review by looking at the major aspects of your life and planning anything you want to change. There are also many good books that can help with this - two of my favorites are Wishcraft and Finding Your Own North Star.
-Work on one or more writing projects. The good thing about being a writer is that I can work anywhere. I don’t even need a laptop all the time (although I do usually take one with me) because I do a lot of my initial work in a paper notebook before transferring it to computer. But even if you’re not a writer by profession, chances are you have some writing projects to work on, and these are usually a good fit for a relaxing week. You’ll likely find you get a lot more done without interruption, and the work is usually free of the stress that comes with being online all the time.
-Exercise Goals. I try to eat sensibly wherever I go, but I do usually end up eating a bit more while on a real vacation. That’s why I always make sure to set some simple goals of exercise during the week, which also helps maintain my regular habits of taking care of myself. I like to run, so my exercise goals revolve around that, but depending on where you are vacationing, you may also be able to swim, bike, or just take long walks.
Live from Alaska
By the way, I actually wrote the notes for this short essay in June while on vacation myself, from a cruise ship on the Alaskan inside passage. And in between all those big dinners and bread pudding desserts, I set aside a morning to run a full marathon (26.2 miles) while on the open sea. You can read the whole story here, but the short version is that it was an intense, crazy experience that I probably wouldn’t repeat, but I’m tremendously glad that I did it.
I knew I would have a good story to tell, and I enjoyed the bread pudding a lot more afterwards. Then, I went back to my room and did some more writing.
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