Travel Insider: Advance Booking vs Going with the Flow

Travel is the ultimate expression of freedom. You've escaped the normal boring duties and routines of your everyday life so you can experience new people and places. The last thing you want is to be too restricted by a tightly planned itinerary or, conversely, to be stranded with no place to sleep because of a lack of planning.

So how do you balance booking your plans in advance while still keeping your options on the road open to some famous traveler serendipity? First you have to weigh the pros and cons of each approach. Different personalities need different planning strategies to feel comfortable leaving home and to have fun on a trip. 

Pros of Advance Booking:

  • The peace of mind of always having a bed to sleep in and a ticket onward
  • Never scrambling last minute to find out how to pick or get to your next destination
  • Establishing and sticking to a pre-planned budget
  • Being able to book tickets to local events before you arrive

Cons of Advance Booking:

  • Losing the freedom to jump in on some last minute activities on the road
  • Being stuck for days in a place you're not particularly fond of
  • Having to leave a place you really love sooner than you want to 

Pros of Going with the Flow: 

  • Being able to go anywhere you want on the turn of a dime
  • Having the freedom at any point of the trip to stay longer in a destination
  • Being able to tag along with friends you meet on the road on their plans

Cons of Going with the Flow: 

  • Bus, plane, or train tickets being sold out or sold at sky high last minute prices
  • Not being able to coordinate transit to your next destination
  • Not finding a place (or at least an affordable place) to sleep
  • Not being able to keep to a budget as easily 

Ideally, you will want your trip planning to have a mix of both these strategies --but it's an imperfect science. I've done month long trips before where I've pre-booked all my lodging and buses between destinations and they went really well. But there were definitely some moments where I wished I could have stayed in a certain place for longer or shorter. I also attempted a trip where I planned literally nothing in advance and found it really difficult to find affordable lodging or even transport that would go where I needed it to. 

Your best bet is to do some preliminary planning to make sure there are bus or train routes between cities you think you would like to visit and sketch out non-binding route. Then, when you look into lodging for each destination, you can gauge which places will most likely always have an open bed and which sell out fast and need to be booked earlier. Using this method will allow you to nail down some definite destinations while still having the option to do spontaneous things in between. 

And don't ever be too too worried about not having somewhere to sleep. Airbnb usually turns up a good amount of options in areas scant on hostels and the generosity of the folks on couchsurfing should never be underestimated. 

(Brought to you by Ally Thibault)


Travel Insider: Dos and don'ts of packing

When I first started travelling, I dreaded packing. Choosing what to bring along and what had to be left behind was stressful, and yet my bag was still always filled to burst. Carrying around a heavy pack is a nuisance and digging around in it for that one ticket you need is even worse. So, from a chronic overpacker who has (finally) learned her lessons the hard way, here are some tips to help you pack for your next trip.

Less is More

I'm sure you've heard this one before, but it's importance can't be overstated. Keeping your pack as light as possible will make your travels so much more enjoyable and carefree. You never need as many clothes or shoes as you think you will, so pack less. If worse comes to worse and you really end up needing another sweater or pair of pants, you can always buy one on the road. 

And don't try to justify your overpacking by thinking you won't mind carrying the extra weight of those big jackets or rain shoes -- believe me, 10 minutes into your first walk from the train station to the hostel, you will be cursing yourself. You're a traveler now, it's okay to wear the same clothes for days in a row. 

What to Leave Behind

I never pack shampoo or toothpaste or any other toiletries like that anymore. Unless you're going trekking into the wilderness or traveling to a remote area of a developing nation, you'll be able to find a store at your destination to stock up on these essentials. That way you don't have to worry about checking liquids onto a plane or taking up more room in your pack with oversized bottles.    

Focus on the bare minimum that you will need on your travels and prioritize the items. Clothes and toiletries are really the only essentials. Packing for worse case scenario situations is smart if you're willing to carry the extra weight, but again, if it's something you probably won't need and you could just buy it at your destination, then just leave it at home.  

What to Bring

I know it's tedious and you'd rather just throw some random tops and bottoms into your bag and be on your way, but it really does help to plan out some outfits. Just by laying your clothes out a bed, you can see when you're trying to take way too much along. Remember, you're going to meet new people and experience new things, your clothes really aren't that important. 

If there are extra things you want to bring along, like laptops, tablets, cameras, or books, make sure you're being realistic about what you'll actually use. You are not going to read 3 books on your 3 month long trip. You don't need an ipad and a laptop. Be selective about extras you take along, because again, you're going to experience a new place, not new apps on your tablet or new TV episodes to stream. 

In short, keep it simple, light, and stress free! 

(Brought to you by Ally Thibault)


Travel Insider: How to explore a new city

There's nothing more exciting than arriving in a new place where you know hardly anything about the local culture or attractions. The thrill of traveling somewhere new to you and being ready to adventure and experience something different is the ultimate feeling for a traveler.

But sometimes it can be really overwhelming too. How do you know where to start exploring? How do you make sure you experience real local life while avoiding money-sucking tourist traps? Every city is unique, but here's a game plan that will help you have a stress-free and fun first few days in just about any place.    

Do only a little research

Okay, this part is actually a little trickier than it seems. One of the easiest ways to ruin a travel experience is to try to learn too much about a place before you arrive. This may seem counter intuitive -- wouldn't you want to know as much as possible before you go? In my experience, not really. You don't want to build up expectations solely based on what you read online from travel guides or random travelers who may not have the same interests as you. 

To truly learn about a place, you have to go and experience it yourself and be open to just about anything that may happen. That being said, you still don't want to arrive knowing absolutely nothing. Look into basic things like how the public transit system works, key phrases in the local language, and try to find out what the city is known for as far as new kinds of food, nightlife, and art.

Ask for recommendations

Exploring a new city on foot or by bike with no destination in mind is a great way to get a feel for the culture and vibe of the people. It can be a lot of fun as long as you are in a vibrant area. Ask the hostel staff or locals where the happening business or arts districts are and head that way. For some cities, it's downtown or the city center that's lively while other cities may have specific neighborhoods that are more fun.

If you are asking for recommendations on restaurants or bars, make sure to find out why someone likes a certain spot. Just knowing that someone loves a  place doesn't help you know if you'll like it - one person's perfect spot could be your worst nightmare.

But still stay open to new ideas. If the suggestion sounds like a bizarre place, it may be worth checking out for the experience. And of course, if a city is famous for a certain dish or type of restaurant, you should try it out even if it feels super touristy.

Adapt to the culture

There's no point in traveling to a new place if you are only going to do things you'd normally do at home. Your destination is not your hometown, so don't arrive assuming certain things will be the same. I've made that mistake before when traveling and it will only leave you dissatisfied with your trip and blind to the unique beauty your destination does offer.

The best way to explore and enjoy a new city is to accept each place for what it has to offer and to try to make connections with local people. Leave your expectations and any emotional baggage at the train station and enter your new city willing to learn and interact with new people. After all, traveling is oftentimes more about who you meet on the journey, not where the journey ends up. 

The most helpful travel advice I've ever gotten is this: Don't do something just to check it off your list. Don't feel like there are certain things you have to do at your destination as a rite of passage just because everyone else does them. If you really aren't that interested in a certain attraction, don't feel like you lost out by skipping it. The best moments always end up happening at hole-in-the-wall local joints or just by hanging out in public squares and parks anyway. 

(Brought to you by Ally Thibault


Travel Insider: How to eat cheaply on the road

As a traveler with a tight budget, I try to cut costs wherever I can. Staying in hostels and relying on public transport helps, but the next biggest expense by far is food. Eating out at nice restaurants will empty your wallet fast, yet sticking to cheap fast food and convenience store hot dogs will take a toll on your body. So how can you eat healthily and affordably on the road? Here's what I've found works best on my travels. 


How to be a Super Saver

The cheapest and most filling food you can find is pasta. At just over a dollar a box, you can't beat the bang for your buck. If you're a solo traveler, you can get a good 4 or 5 meals out of one box. And if you're pooling money with friends, you'll spend even less per meal. Pasta is easy and quick to cook and can be jazzed up just as easily with some tomato sauce, olive oil, or a few vegetables. Look for bags of frozen vegetables at the supermarket if you want to the cheapest produce options. 

While McDonald's and other fast food burger joints look like the most affordable meals, you can't live off Big Macs. Once in a while, you'll end up stopping for a quick roadside meal, but making a habit of it will have you feeling pretty gross after a few days. And the dollar menu meals never keep you full for long - sometimes this just makes you eat more meals and spend more money. 

Finding Cheap-ish Local Fare

Experiencing local food is one of the best parts of traveling. Look for farmer's markets or street food carts in the area for authentic local food. Some items at these markets, like special cheeses or bakery items, can be more expensive than the supermarket, but generally produce is cheaper and fresher. And the money you put down there goes to real people in the community rather than some soulless corporation, so you can justify spending a bit more sometimes. 

Always ask the hostel staff, other travelers, or locals you meet around town at your destination what restaurants they recommend. They can help you avoid the tourist traps or over-priced places and lead you to the real local gems. It can be fun to just wander on your own and stop in a place that looks cool, but you always run the risk of bad food or steep prices. When you want to be sure you're getting the best deal for tasty food, ask around. 

Budgeting for a Splurge

Don't skimp out on your food budget entirely. While it's great to save money when you can, food is important and you want to budget enough resources to be able to stay energized for all you adventures. Occasionally, you'll want the ease and deliciousness of going out to a nice restaurant and having a meal made for you.

Eating off the specials menu or looking for happy hour deals will make the price tag of a fancy meal more reasonable. And often in the U.S. a meal at a restaurant is more like the proportion of 2 or 3 meals, so take leftovers back to the hostel with you for tomorrow's lunch.  

(Brought to you by Ally Thibault)