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Korea! Wow.

Friends and readers, I hope you'll excuse a brief post today. I've been in Seoul, Korea for three jam-packed days, meeting thousands of people. Yeah, thousands ... it's been intense. So far we've done more than a dozen events and filming sessions, including one that ended yesterday at midnight.

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Report from the Road

Greetings, friends and readers. I've been on the road for 10 days, meeting people in 7 cities and counting so far.

We kicked things off in New York City with a great crowd.

The next day I rode Amtrak up to Boston for a return visit to the Harvard Coop, where I was 18 months ago for The Art of Non-Conformity tour.

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Strange Places

I went to Ethiopia and was driven around on an afternoon city tour. “The streets are so bad here,” my guide said. “And the traffic in Addis is terrible!”

I looked out the window. Sure, it wasn't Scandinavia, but I'd seen far worse. “You should visit Liberia,” I said. “This looks pretty good to me.”

Over two weeks of travel, I flew a series of random airlines: Royal Air Maroc, Ethiopian, and Aeroflot. It was my first time on Aeroflot, and I'd heard plenty of horror stories. “You're flying Aeroflop?” someone asked. “The safety card in the seat pocket has a warning about not bringing goats on board.”

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Tips for Stress-Free Travel

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The title of this post is somewhat of a misnomer: I almost never experience travel that is truly stress-free. For starters, not all travel can or should be predictable. Sometimes the unexpected is better than the planned.

Secondly, not all stress is bad, because some of the most challenging times in our lives are the most stressful. No risk, no glory—that kind of thing.

Yet, when heading out into the world, it helps to control as many variables as you can. I'd rather experience travel stress related to something fun than something preventable that was my own fault. With that in mind, here's a primer on low-stress travel—and your contributions are welcome too.

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The Latest in Travel Hacking

This is a story that involves a) a frustrating series of calls to Expedia, b) a way to repay Expedia's unhelpfulness by giving many of you $200, c) my attempts to order a total of $16,500 coins from the U.S. Mint, d) a Lasik eye exam in pursuit of Delta SkyMiles, and much more.

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Overland Journey from Guyana to Suriname

suriname-house Part I: Georgetown to New Amsterdam, Guyana

My sleep schedule is still off from the 3:30 a.m. arrival a couple of nights earlier, but it's an early morning wake-up to get to the Guyana taxi station. I fall asleep at 2:00 a.m., and the alarm goes off at 4:45. Nice. By 5:15 I'm downstairs paying the bill and waiting for my first ride of the day.

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Bangkok Adventures

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The Japanese man sitting next to me looks back and forth between the video and me. Finally, he takes off his headphones and asks, “Wrong movie?”

Yes. Wrong movie.

The wrong movie plays for nearly three minutes before it is turned off by a flight attendant. She comes on the p.a. after another three minutes. “Ladies and gentlemen… sorry… we can’t find the arrival video for Japan. If you have any questions about Japan, let us know.”

Other than that, the 11-hour flight across the Pacific is uneventful. I arrive in Narita and quickly transfer to a Cathay Pacific flight for Hong Kong. Another five hours goes by as I fitfully sleep in the back of the plane.

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The Perfect City by Personal Standards (Vienna, Austria)

Vienna, Austria
Image by Kliefi

The first time I went to Vienna, I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. I was tired after a two-week trip to Africa, and headed back to the U.S. a couple days later. The dollar had hit another all-time low against the euro the day before my arrival, providing even less motivation for visiting an expensive European city I expected to find crawling with tourists.

All that to say that the city of Vienna completely surprised me by how truly beautiful it was. From start to finish, virtually everything about my stay went right. From the airport I took the express CAT train to the Landstraße station, where I changed to the underground metro. At the city station, an Austrian Airlines check-in desk allowed me to check in to my ongoing flight even though it was two days away. I took my boarding pass for a flight that wasn't leaving for 36 hours, which I didn’t even think was possible until they handed it to me.

Walking down to the subway, a guy approached me, saying something I didn’t understand. “Entschuldigung, ich spreche kein Deutsch,” I replied, using a full third of my German vocabulary.

Oh,” he said in English. “Can you please spare 90 cents?

I’m always impressed by multilingual panhandlers. In America they could work for the U.N., but elsewhere in the world they have to ask for spare change in the subway. Anyway, the metro line took me exactly where my directions said it would, and I found my hostel a few short blocks away.

If this sounds normal, it’s not—I have a recurring experience of getting lost nearly everywhere I go, usually with my bags and often for an hour or more. It’s a small miracle when I successfully arrive at my destination in an unfamiliar city without getting lost at least once.

The hostel was just what I needed: a small dorm room with a writing desk and a window that looked out over a pretty courtyard. After dropping off my bags, I walked to a bakery I had seen on the way in. The sun was shining and I sat outside for 40 minutes, sipping cappuccino and brainstorming some notes for a business project. Life is good, I thought.

That evening I did some more business work and went running along the river Wien. It was incredibly relaxing and served as a good capstone for my first day in the city.

***

The next day was much the same—perfect chocolate croissants, friendly people, fun streets to wander. The skies were overcast and it rained off and on throughout the day, but I live in Seattle, so that didn’t bother me.

At the end of the trip I decided two things: first, I love Vienna and will start using it as a Star Alliance hub city instead of Frankfurt from now on. Second, I realized that part of what I like or dislike about certain places has to do with fairly narrow, personal standards. Is it a nice country to run in? Are there fun discoveries to be made? Of course there always are, but are they my kind of discoveries?

I hope I’m not becoming materialistic. At any rate, I do try to find beauty wherever I am. And by these admittedly personal and quirky standards, Vienna is beautiful. I spent my last morning at my favorite café, where I had gradually become amazingly fluent in ordering various kinds of coffee and croissants. This might not get me a job at the U.N., but it’s a good skill for my own travel needs.

When I went back to the airport, I headed straight to departures thanks to the boarding pass I received two days earlier. I left Vienna and traveled further east to Romania, which I expected to be a fairly direct contrast to everything I found in Austria.

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Lost in Singapore


Image by tobym
First – thank you to everyone so far who has purchased my first product, the Unconventional Guide to Discount Airfare. I am truly grateful.

If you weren’t here yesterday, you can read more about it in the expected location. Against the conventional wisdom of scarcity, I plan to keep selling and improving it for a long time.

And now -

This is the story in which I am provided a geographic tour of Singaporean prostitutes, reflect on the biggest travel month of my life, and sleep in Changi airport prior to heading back to Hong Kong on the ultimate no-frills airline.

It’s a bit long—if you’re not interested in my travel diaries, you might not like this one. But if you’re up for it, here it is.

The last time I was in Singapore, things didn’t go so well – I walked into the glass door of a Starbucks on Orchard Road. My head recovered quickly, but my pride was wounded for the rest of the day.

Today I’m between Brunei, an odd little country completely surrounded by Malaysia, and Hong Kong on a nice 36-hour transit stop. I arrived mid-afternoon, which means I officially have one-and-a-half nights to spend before catching a 6am flight back to HKG. The first night I had planned to stay in a budget hotel, and the second night I expect to hang out at Changi Airport.

Singapore is the Asian city all travel writers love to hate.

Almost any commentary on visiting here is filled with references to canings and chewing gum. The implication is that Singapore is uptight, militant, and boring. Mention you are going to Singapore among established travel writers, and many will roll their eyes. “Why don’t you go up to Malaysia or down to Indonesia for some real culture?”

Yeah, yeah. Actually, I like Singapore just fine. It has a culture all of its own. Sure, part of that culture is somewhat manufactured – but that doesn’t mean it’s not culture in its own way.

On the train from Changi Airport, I listen to my iPod and say silent prayers for being finished with Brunei and on my way back home. In Singapore I have no schedule or major travel mysteries to solve, and I am happy for that.

The Red-Light Hotel 81

For my one night in the city before sleeping in the airport the next night, I’ve booked the cheapest hotel I could possibly find. Times are hard these days, and that’s just how it goes. The YWCA I stayed in before goes for $90 a night, but I’ve found a cheaper place further out of town in the Geylang district – which also happens to be the red-light district.

When I learn this information about my neighborhood, I’m a little surprised. I had no idea that Singapore even had a red-light district, but indeed they do. I get out of the train and hail a taxi to take me to the hotel. Along the short journey, the driver gives me an unrequested run-down on the prices of the local prostitutes.

“This area here, this is Chinese area. Chinese prostitutes, very expensive—maybe $80!” he says. ($80 in Singapore dollars is about $60 U.S.). He looks back at me for encouragement, but I don’t give him any. Nevertheless, he keeps going.

“Indonesian prostitutes over here—they go cheaper, lah. Maybe $30!”

I tell him I’m only interested in sleeping in my room tonight, but he doesn’t take the hint. “Over here, Malay prostitutes, over there, Thai prostitutes…” and on it goes.

It’s like the ASEAN of prostitutes in this neighborhood, with every nationality assigned its own couple of blocks. When I check in to the budget hotel, a Chinese guy next to me is paying for a stay of two hours. A sign reads “Only two people are allowed in the rooms after 11pm.”

Well, this is definitely not the vibe I get up at the YMCA, which does stand for Young Men’s Christian Association, after all. But the room is clean, and I take a quick shower, leave my bags, and head out to the parts of the city I’m more interested in.

The rest of the day, I walk. First I take the MRT over to Little India, a great neighborhood I’ve never managed to explore before.

Unlike a lot of Chinatowns, it really is like its own, well, little India. After a late lunch of potato curry, I head over to Orchard Road, Singapore’s central shopping area and also a nice place to walk in the early evening. I had just ran about 13 miles in Brunei the evening before, so my legs are pretty tired. I walk along at a slow pace, thinking about the whole trip that will be coming to an end soon.

The next day I head out to Changi Airport for an overnight stay before a 6am flight. I’ve decided to save money again and sleep on the airport floor, which at Changi is usually not as bad as it may sound if you haven’t been there.

Changi is frequently voted the #1 airport in the world, and for good reason. Transit passengers have access to free Xbox gaming consoles, internet-enabled PCs throughout the airport, nice relaxation rooms, a movie theatre, and even an outdoor garden you can sit in to pass the time. If you’re transiting in Singapore between 4 and 24 hours, the city will even send you on a free tour into the city, or give you a complimentary transfer shuttle so you can make your own tour.

In short, if you are going to sleep on the floor of an airport, Singapore is one of your better choices. I had planned to hang out in the garden, get caught up on emails, have a nice dinner at the vegetarian restaurant (yes, they have one of those too), and then crash out down by the Oasis lounge, where reclining chairs are freely provided.

There was just one problem… as there often is when traveling.

I do most of my long-haul travel on the Star Alliance and OneWorld networks, with major airlines like Cathay Pacific, Austrian, Thai, and so on. But I do a lot of side trips on low-cost carriers, which are ubiquitous throughout Asia and Europe.

On this side trip, I was traveling between Singapore and Hong Kong on JetStar Asia, a budget carrier in the truest sense. On JetStar Asia, you can’t even get a cup of water without paying extra for it… and they don’t allow you to bring your own food or drinks on board.

I know, I know – it’s almost as bad as Air Canada or any major U.S. airline. But the most troubling thing to me was that in addition to charging $1.80 for a cup of water, JetStar also does not allow anyone to check-in for a flight more than two hours prior to departure.

I didn’t realize this before I got to the airport, because I frequently get boarding passes for up to 36 hours in advance from other airlines. Then I’m free to cross security to the transit side, hang out in the lounge if I have access, or do whatever I want.

Anyway, I found out about 2pm that afternoon that I would not be able to get a boarding pass for my flight until 4am the next morning. This was definitely an unexpected disappointment, because it meant that my whole plan of spending the night in the transit area would not be possible now.

Happiness and Expectations

Writer Gretchen Rubin is publishing a book on the search for happiness next year, and I’m eager to hear what she has to say about it when the time comes. For me, I’ve learned through travel that happiness is largely related to expectations and perception.

I had been looking forward to the meal and the relatively comfortable place to sleep on the airport floor. With that plan, I’d get up about 5:15 in the morning and walk straight to the gate with boarding pass in hand. But without the boarding pass, of course, none of that was possible.

I’d have to fend for myself in the check-in area (which had less comfortable chairs and no carpeting, just a hard floor), and I would also have to wake up at 4:00, queue for the check-in, go through immigration and security, and then have another hour to wait until the flight actually boarded.

With my expectations dashed, I felt disappointed and unhappy. But when I thought about if further, I realized I had been in far more serious situations before. I mean, just last week I arrived in Pakistan without a visa. This should be easy, right?

I gave myself the “get over it” talk – also known as ass-kicking – and realized further that it was 2pm and I hadn’t eaten anything all day. (The lovely Hotel 81 in Geylang offers the option of two-hour rooms, but no complimentary breakfast.) After I ate some nice fried noodles with chili sauce, I immediately felt better about the situation.

I left my bags at the drop-off office downstairs, and went back into town on the MTR. After walking around Raffles Place for a while, I took the long way back to Changi. There wasn’t anything waiting for me there, and besides, I like to walk. For about an hour and a half, I walked through downtown, going along the Singapore river and then the Boat Quay area. Singapore is usually hot and sticky, but halfway through my walk, it cooled down.

Goodbye, Southeast Asia

My trip was coming to an end, and I was heading home. At 6am I’d be back on the no-frills flight to Hong Kong, then a connection to Tokyo and a long-haul flight across the Pacific the following morning. This trip had been far more tiring than usual, but I also made some good progress towards my long-term travel goal.

I realized I had been in a lot of places recently:

Pakistan – where I arrived without a visa, but then had a great week hanging out in Karachi.

Brunei – which was not really my kind of place, but I did have a great two-hour run and saw The Dark Knight with some Malaysians at the theatre in Bandar Seri Begawan.

San Marino – where I rented a car from the Rome airport and drove 12 hours round-trip to visit the Europe’s smallest republic. What, you don’t remember that story? It’s probably because I haven’t written about it yet. In fact, I may never write about it, because it didn’t go very well. But I did it, and I’ve been to San Marino now.

Mongolia – where I was evicted from my guesthouse—a first for me. It’s over, so that’s good. But it was also cool to see the Genghis Khan Brewery and other interesting cultural sites.

Poland – where I had another great run, also about 13 miles or so along the Vistula riverbank in Warsaw. I also learned I had made my biggest travel mistake ever, but I’ve gotten over it by now.

Northern Iraq, AKA Kurdistan – where I took off from my time in Eastern Europe to visit over a weekend. I was impressed with the culture and felt completely safe the whole time I was there.

Russia, Moldova, and Beyond – where I trekked through the Baltics, on to Russia, on Moldovan Airlines to Chisinau, and a train to Bucharest… before flying back to Vienna.

Yes, it was quite the journey. As I write this out in my journal this afternoon, I realize there’s a good reason why I’ve been so tired lately.

Thankfully, being tired works in my favor when nighttime comes, at least tonight in Singapore. I go back to Changi and enjoy a surprisingly good meal in the subway area below the airport. It also costs half the price of the $9 meal in the real airport, so I’m doubly-content. I buy a beer at the downstairs grocery store (they have one of those at Changi too) and head up to the check-in area, where I’ll make my “bed” on a couple of plastic chairs.

It’s not comfortable and they never dim the bright lights even after the last flight has left, but because I’m so tired I manage to sleep about four or five hours. I wake up sleepy-eyed, but ready to check-in and move on at 4:00 a.m.

I fly back on the uneventful JetStar Asia, but the good news this time is that the flight is half-full. I have a row of three seats to myself, and right after takeoff I fall asleep across the whole row. Nearly three hours go by before I wake up as we descend to Hong Kong, and I’m very thankful for the extra sleep.

Home from Japan

And then, a few hours later, I was heading back to Tokyo on the wonderful Japan Airlines, which provides consistently great service. Hot towels are brought out to everyone in all classes, and everyone gets a welcome drink. The 15 flight attendants, who are all women, are super-polite.

“Excuse me, sir,” says one of them as we are all boarding. “Is it alright if I ask you to please turn off your iPod before the departure?”

Being asked like that puts you in a great mood for the flight. Yes, it is quite alright. Thank you for asking so nicely.

The next morning, I'm on the way across the water, and I watch Kung-Fu Panda and type up these notes for everyone. Next stop, Seattle, my home city. It’s nice to travel, and it’s nice to come home.

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Getting To India

First, a brief warning: this trip report, and the forthcoming ones about this trip and others, may be more detailed than some readers prefer. My regular essays on Life, Work, and Travel will continue to be posted on the usual schedule, so you can choose to read what you enjoy and skip what you don’t.…

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