Travels in 2020 – and what’s in store for 2021
At one point this year I wondered whether I’d even be writing this post. When the UK government imposed its first lockdown in March, the future of travel looked extremely bleak. Day after day I received gloomy notifications on Facebook and Twitter, not to mention countless emails from PRs and tour operators. Borders closed, airlines cancelled flights and festival organisers postponed events. I’d have liked not to have thought about travel at all, but that’s not exactly a smart move for someone who writes about it for a living.
At first, it seemed like it could all be over in a few months. Respite came in the summer but as autumn set in, numbers began to rise again and lockdowns and travel restrictions once again became the norm. On top of everything comes Brexit. Though in theory Brits should still be able to travel throughout the EU with minimal restrictions, in practice our coronavirus numbers could see us barred for an indeterminate period of time if, as now seems likely, a deal isn’t done. Before I get too depressed, let’s look back at where I escaped to this year.
February: New York City
I adore New York. There’s always something new to see or do and this trip was no exception. I paid a visit to Hudson Yards. Though I was underwhelmed with Vessel and let down by the PR who promised to get me onto the Edge observation deck ahead of the public opening but cancelled at the very last minute, I did at least get to wander around the mall. More interesting was my visit to Staten Island. Instead of just doing the classic ferry U-turn, I hopped on a bus and spent some time exploring Historic Richmond Town with a very engaging guide. Amid all the modern skyscrapers on Manhattan it’s easy to forget there’s a lot of old stuff in the city so it’s well worth checking it out and exploring the other boroughs.
March: St Petersburg
It had been a long time since my first visit to Russia when I set out from Moscow on the Trans-Mongolian bound for Ulan Bator. In the intervening years I’ve written many times for Just Go Russia and it was that experience that won me the job with Morning Calm magazine for a feature on St Petersburg. Keen to see as much of this beautiful city as I possibly could, I put together a punishing itinerary crammed with palaces, churches and other visitor attractions. I was blown away by the lavish interiors of the royal palaces (not least because there were so few tourists) but it was the quirkier side to the city that I enjoyed the most, like figuring out how to beat the machine at the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games, meeting the feline residents of a cat cafe and drinking Maverick Bumbles in trendy cafes.
By the time we reached August I was going stir crazy but my Iceland itinerary changed so many times I almost didn’t dare to believe I’d actually make it. The reward for all that uncertainty was a trip blessed with unseasonably warm weather and sunny skies. Couple this with the lack of visitors and it’s not hard to understand why this was one of the best trips I’ve had, not just in 2020, but ever. After such a stressful period, hiking in the fresh air was invigorating not just for the body but also for the soul. Some of the driving was a lot more challenging than I expected, but those terrible gravel roads led me to off the beaten track corners for some truly magical moments. I can’t wait to go back to Husavik in particular and watch another sunset from GeoSea.
Nothing would compare to Iceland but I really enjoyed my first visit to Madeira. I thought I’d just relax and do a little bit of walking but there was actually a lot more to do and see than I’d anticipated. From my base in Funchal, I could explore not only the capital – and ride one of those famous wicker toboggans – but head out around the island. I walked a couple of levada trails and saw just how pretty the Madeiran countryside is, though some of the ridiculously steep descents left me hobbling in agony! But the wow factor moment came over lunch in the northern village of Porto Moniz. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the sea was brochure blue as I watched the waves break over the famous lava pools.
And that’s about it, save for a holiday to Northumberland with the dog and a lot of local walks. Right now I’d normally be at a Christmas market somewhere in Europe. Most of them have been postponed until 2021, but the thought of being somewhere crowded while case numbers are this high just doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.
So what of next year? If this year has taught me one thing, it’s to seize opportunities to travel while you can. If the pandemic permits, when flights resume I’m keen to visit the Azores for some more wow-factor volcanic scenery having enjoyed Cape Verde and Madeira so much. Santorini is also on my wishlist – I’ve never been but perhaps it won’t be as busy (or expensive) as it normally is. Andorra would be great, though I’d then be tempted to visit Belarus too – they’re the only two countries in Europe I’ve never been.
Who knows when it will be safe and sensible to travel further afield? But if there’s no chance of being stranded and I’ve had the vaccine by then, Peru for its 200th birthday celebrations sounds like a whole lot of fun. Last year I wrote about how I’d love to visit Tajikistan, Comoros, Sao Tome & Principe, Rwanda and Madagascar – all of them are still high on my wishlist. Over in the States, I’d still love to make it to Alaska or Hawaii, though a road trip taking in Washington DC, North Carolina and Dollywood looks more likely. Nothing’s certain right now, but it doesn’t hurt to dream.
Happy travels for 2021, whether you see places in real life or travel vicariously through the words and pictures of others.
How do I tackle trip planning?
One of the questions I’m asked most often is how I choose where to go and then once I’ve settled on a destination, how I set about planning the trip. Of course, it would be much simpler to let someone else take care of the details, but that’s where a lot of the fun is, and who wouldn’t want to create a bespoke trip without the bespoke price tag that comes with it. I’ve saved tens of thousands of pounds over the years going it alone, so I plan to continue travelling independently as much as possible.
Now I’m writing for a living, I am offered press trips on a regular basis. While I have accepted some of these and am very grateful for the generosity of the tourist boards involved, I don’t like to travel like this all the time. I’m fortunate to have worked with some lovely PRs who have gone out of their way to deliver a tailormade experience within the confines of the programme that’s been agreed. But on a group trip, everyone has to compromise. When I travel solo, I can do as I please and it’s extraordinarily liberating.
How I go about choosing my next destination
Now a big trip for me these days, with family commitments, is just two weeks. This blog won’t be relevant if you’re planning a gap year and need to stretch a budget or find annual insurance cover. (However, you can apply some of the same principles and concentrate on the first and last week of a longer period of travel.) Instead, I’m talking about choosing the destination that’s likely to be your main holiday.
This is often a fluid concept. I do have a loose wish list of places I’d like to visit. Right now, for instance, Sao Tome & Principe, The Azores and Tobago are on that list, together with Tajikistan, Madagascar, Belarus and Algeria. However, I’ve found that being more flexible enables me to take advantage of better flight deals that might present themselves. Often, flight costs form a large part of a trip, particularly if it’s to a long haul destination. Keeping abreast of flight sales and last minute offers is a good idea. But although I have that list, I almost always end up travelling somewhere else – this year it’s Grenada.
Next steps after I’ve found my flights
Finding a well-priced flight is a start, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to book. But if there’s a chance that the cost of that flight will increase, it’s important to act fast. It is possible with some airlines to pay a small amount to hold the fare. I’ve never needed to do so, but it does quite literally buy you time to get your other arrangements tentatively in place before committing to the full whack.
A case in point
I recently found a sub £100 return fare from London to Algiers. Algeria is on my travel B list at the moment, a place I expect I would enjoy. The fare was a great deal, far lower than usual, with BA. The dates worked too. A quick scour of accommodation via booking.com indicated that I could find something central and reasonably priced that didn’t look like a dive. Photos from the road from the excellent Simon Urwin via my Twitter feed only served to fuel my interest.
It all fell apart when it came to the visa. I’ve never been turned down for a visa – and I’ve bought a fair number in my time. Sadly, it would seem the Algerians are hard to please and turn down many applications. As a freelance writer on an unreliable income I might or might not match their criteria – who knows? But to meet the visa criteria I would need to buy the flight and arrange the accommodation in advance. The latter I could achieve with minimal risk on a free cancellation basis, but the former would be an unrefundable outlay. So, I decided not to take the risk and have not applied. Algeria is a destination probably best left for another time.
Back to the drawing board
Having shortlisted a destination with affordable transport, it’s time to look at geography. Use a guide book such as Lonely Planet or a comprehensive online guide to identify some of the key places and sights that interest you. Don’t over-plan, but also don’t be the person who realises once they return home that they missed out something they’d love to have seen because they didn’t do any research. The trick is to do just enough planning to make sure it’s possible to fit in all your must-dos. Fine tuning can come later.
I sometimes take a look at the itineraries of tour operators such as Explore or Intrepid, as they tend to be balanced and well thought through. Then I weed out the parts that don’t interest me and mentally replace them with what I’d prefer to do. But don’t assume that because an area doesn’t feature on most tours, it isn’t worth bothering with. If I had relied solely on such sources of information, I’d have missed out wild and wonderful Svaneti in Georgia which was the highlight of my time in the country.
Considering open jaw itineraries
Is a round trip fare to and from the same airport a smart decision or would an open jaw be more sensible, saving unnecessary backtracking? For instance, I’ve used this for a rail holiday in the US, booking Amtrak services to link the two cities at either end. I also looped through a few countries on a longer journey, beginning in Cape Town and ending in Johannesburg but going the long way round via Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Alternatively, I’ve flown into one capital, for example Panama City, and out of its neighbour, San Jose, using the two cities as bases for point and spoke excursions. (That’s when you stay in one place and head out and back in a different direction each day.)
If you are going to opt for an open jaw flight, try flipping the two destinations around. Sometimes when I’ve looked into following the same itinerary but in reverse I have saved a whole heap of money. It’s also worth thinking about whether to avoid somewhere on a particular day of the week. For example, there’s no use planning to be in a city on, say, a Monday if the main reason you are going there is to visit a museum that’s closed on that day. Kick off dates for seasonal attractions might vary from year to year so always check. Finally, if the place you intend to visit stages a big festival of some sort, such as Day of the Dead in Mexico, make sure you’re booking early enough to make sure transport and accommodation isn’t already sold out.
The overland bit
One final thing to look at is overland transport. If I plan to start and finish in two different cities, I always research what the public transport is like between. I look into whether I can take a bus or train and if so, how far in advance I can book my ticket (many companies have online sites). In some cases, demand outstrips supply, so make sure there’s a plan B before committing to expensive flights.
Don’t rule out domestic flights, which in some places can be cost (and certainly time) effective. I always leave a day clear between any inbound transport and my international flight home, even if that means splitting the sightseeing between the early and later part of my trip. Delays do happen, and you don’t want the added stress of worrying about missed connections. Another thing I’ve learnt the hard way is to reconfirm flights with regional airlines or carriers that you’re not sure you can trust. I didn’t, in Argentina, and had to make hasty arrangements to bus it across the country to make Buenos Aires before my next flight left. Look what I would have missed!
Now factor in the weather
This one’s important. Once I know that my potential trip is a possibility – the flights are available, the accommodation suits my needs and I have a vague plan of the order in which I’ll see places – I just double check the weather. It helps that I was a geography teacher for years, so I’m unlikely to make the mistake of unwittingly timing it to arrive right in the middle of hurricane season or the monsoon. Do that, and not only will your triup be a washout, but you might find yourself stranded if public transport on the ground is adversely affected.
Consider how you’re likely to spend your time. Is it still going to be OK if the temperature’s on the chilly side? There’s not a lot of point in booking a beach resort if it’s going to be too cold to swim in the sea or snooze beside the pool. But if you’re keen to explore a city, then those same cooler temperatures will make sightseeing a whole lot more pleasant. Shoulder seasons are a gamble with their promise of cheaper flights but a higher chance of inclement weather. Of course, you can’t predict the weather even in peak season, so there’s always going to be that chance of it scuppering your plans.
That’s almost it
By the time you’ve got this far, I expect you’ll probably fall into one of two camps. Some of you will be thinking that it would be so much simpler just to let a tour operator take care of all this time-consuming planning stuff. But if like me, you love that kind of thing, just think of the many happy hours you can spend travelling vicariously through blogs and magazine articles while you craft a trip that’s perfect for you. Book those flights, make sure you have insurance from the get go and start making your dream a reality.
Why I’m loathe to take the hotel’s airport transfer
One of the more stressful aspects of independent solo travel is the journey from the airport to the hotel. In some cases, the availability of public transport makes this transfer cheap and easy – so long as you’re not carrying too much luggage. I’m a big fan of hopping on the metro or train – as stations don’t move and are usually clearly marked, the chance of jumping off at the wrong place is pretty slim. Buses can be a little more tricky, though using Google maps and tracking my position has helped a lot. It’s frustrating when the bus sails right by where you want to get off – or doesn’t stop anywhere near.
In others, however, the need to arrange your own transfer can leave you vulnerable to the attentions of hustlers. Taxi drivers in some parts of the world can be notorious for ripping off the newly arrived and unsuspecting traveller. Insisting that the driver uses a meter helps, if it’s working of course, though there’s nothing to stop an unscrupulous driver taking a roundabout route to the city. Even if you know where the airport and the hotel are in relation to each other, traffic jams and other congestion bottlenecks might make the obvious route more time-consuming. The driver might be doing you a favour with that detour – or leading you a merry dance.
Often, there is no meter, and you’re then at the mercy of your haggling skills and the likelihood that the driver will honour the price you agreed. I’ve had drivers pull over in en route – thank you Delhi – to demand a bigger fare. If you agree, you’ve just cost yourself more money; if you don’t you risk being stranded in the middle of nowhere with a pile of heavy luggage.
In some cities, official taxis operate within the airport. They charge a fixed rate for a transfer to specific neighbourhoods and you pay the desk rather than the driver. Lima is one such airport; I’ve used Taxi Green almost every time I’ve been there, though improvements to public transit were on the cards when I last visited. You’ll pay a little more than if you walk out to the airport perimeter and flag down a taxi yourself, but the cars are in better condition and the drivers have been checked out.
Shared shuttles are a good value compromise where they’re available. In Santiago, the Chilean capital, you can prebook a place on a shuttle for a fraction of the private taxi price. Even if your flight is delayed, they just put you on the next shuttle leaving for your neighbourhood and off you go. Unfortunately, relatively few airports have them – and certainly that’s the case for the kind of offbeat destinations I prefer.
Which brings me to the hotel transfer. They tend to be the most expensive option, but when they work, the least stressful. A driver will be waiting for you with your name on a board and in theory, there’s no hanging around before you’re safely on your way to the hotel. But things can and do go wrong. I’ve arrived to find there’s no one waiting on more than a handful of occasions. As you wander around looking for where the driver might have disappeared to, other drivers swarm like bees to a pot of honey hoping to pick up a fare. In some cases, I’ve rung the hotel only to be told there’s been a problem and advised to get a taxi instead. Other times, they’ve asked me to wait and I’ve had to spend the next hour fighting off unwanted attention until the driver’s finally arrived.
Sometimes, taking a hotel’s airport transfer is the only practical option. I’m returning to Fez in Morocco soon, but on a flight that doesn’t get in until almost midnight. My riad, in the heart of the medina, is, I’m told, hard to find without help even in daylight. So I’ve booked their reasonably-priced transfer and shall have to keep my fingers crossed that the driver’s waiting for me when I emerge into the arrivals hall.
Have you had any bad experiences arriving at an airport? Do share your horror stories – but I might just hold off reading them until I’m safely tucked up in my riad…
A day trip to San Marino
When I started planning my trip to San Marino, I knew almost nothing about the country except that it was small. It is also one of only three nations in the world, along with Lesotho and Vatican City, that are totally surrounded by the land of a single other country. You can see the sea from San Marino, but you have to cross Italian territory first.
To reach San Marino, you need to enter from Italy. There’s a regular bus service which leaves from Rimini station and costs 5 euros. You can find the timetable here. Rather than stay in Rimini off season (Italians have long since fled the beach by mid-October, even though Brits would still consider it warm enough) I chose to base myself in Bologna. You can read about the food tour I did here. It adds a little under an hour to the journey if you travel between Bologna and Rimini by high speed Frecciabianca train. It costs surprisingly little for the train ticket (under 30 euros return for a first class seat, cheaper in second, and cheaper still if you opt for the slower regional train).
The bus from Rimini drops its passengers in one of San Marino’s car parks. The city of San Marino occupies a lofty position on top of Monte Titano, and visitors have to be prepared for its steeply sloping streets. In a few places, there are lifts, which is a boon for those with buggies or aching legs.
My first stop was at the tourist information office, to pick up a visa and a map, though strictly speaking, neither was necessary. For a fee of 5 euros, you can have a stamp in your passport, which seemed to me to be the best souvenir of my visit. That was, until I discovered the San Marino Duck Store later in the day, which had the biggest range of rubber ducks you could imagine, including a Star Wars stormtrooper that lit up when it came into contact with water. That was husband’s present sorted then.
From there, it was a short stroll uphill to the first of San Marino’s three towers. Called the Guaita, it’s the oldest of the trio, built in the 11th century. There was an interesting series of exhibits which recounted the tower’s history – at one time it was a prison – and a breathtaking view from its ramparts.
Visibility was excellent the day I visited, giving me a glimpse of the Adriatic in one direction and the Apennines the other. I was content with looking at the Second Tower, known as the Cesta, from the Guaita; a path joins the two, but the Cesta located on the tallest peak and if I’m honest I’m not interested enough in weaponry to have made the hike worthwhile. (The Third Tower, the Montale, isn’t open to the public.
Instead, I headed downhill for a spot of lunch and a visit to the Museum of Curiosities. This museum houses a quirky and eclectic collection of oddities. Amongst other things, you’ll find Venetian platform shoes, designed with flooding in mind, and a German mug with a porcelain half-lid to help moustached men deal with the problem of foam on their facial hair. It’s tacky and voyeuristic, but go with the right mindset and it’s a lot of fun too.
The last visit of the day was to the San Marino parliament, housed in the Palazzo Pubblico. The Most Serene Republic of San Marino, as it is unofficially called, is the world’s oldest continually operating republic. It also has a claim on the title of world’s smallest republic, depending on whether you measure Nauru by its land mass or include its marine territories as well. The parliament building was grand, with an imposing staircase leading up to the chamber where its government convenes. On the wall at the top of the staircase is a bust of Abraham Lincoln. San Marino conferred dual citizenship on the US President in 1861 in recognition of the “high consideration and fraternity” they felt with the USA.
For a small country, I was pleasantly surprised by the range of things to do – there were plenty more museums that I didn’t choose to look around, including the Museum of Torture which I didn’t have the stomach for. I’m not sure I’d choose to stay overnight, nor visit in the height of summer. But on a sunny October day, it made for an interesting diversion from Bologna and had a lot going for it.
I’m grateful for the complimentary tickets I received for the Guaita and Palazzo Pubblico, as well as the discounted admission I was given at the Museum of Curiosities. All opinions expressed in this piece are my own.
Travel in an Instagram world
Is travel about wanting to see the world, or wanting the world to see you?
A couple of weeks ago, Facebook thought I might be interested in something called Shoot My Travel. Intrigued, I visited their website. Basically, the site connects travellers with a photographer and takes them on a tour of the city they’re visiting. The twist? The tour’s curated around spots that are the most photogenic and the traveller is the focus, with the location merely the supporting act. It’s not for me, but the marketing’s pretty savvy for today’s Instagram-obsessed world. In their “How It Works” section, they say:
Experience the city
Once everything is coordinated, it’s time to meet your photographer and start
the photo tour. Your photographer will guide you through the best spots in
the city while taking candid pictures of you along the way. Our photo tours
are a travel experience where you can learn from the culture, language
and hidden gems of your destination!
I’m a bit dubious. I can’t see how much you’ll be learning about the culture, language and hidden gems of a city when there’s a photographer fussing about getting the perfect shot. And of course, that’s going to be important, because client satisfaction depends on it. If you weren’t bothered about how you looked, you’d have signed up for a regular walking tour instead. It’s not cheap, either, with prices for a one location shoot typically between about $200 and $230. Stretch that to two locations and a “tour” lasting two hours, and the price jumps to over $300. Call me picky, but it’s not much of a city tour if you only visit one or two places, is it?
A 2017 article in The Independent stated that finding an Instagram-worthy location was the most important factor in choosing a destination among millennials. The poll was carried about by an insurance company and surveyed 1000 18-33 year olds. Of course, questionnaires can be easy to skew, but the result (over 40%) seems high enough to be significant. A bit more digging and it would seem that hotels might be jumping on the Shoot My Travel bandwagon (or is it the other way round?) This Evening Standard article reports on the “social media butlers” provided by the Conrad Maldives Rangali.
So why does this bug me so much? Surely, a live and live attitude is the way to go? But travel to some of the world’s most famous landmarks has become frustratingly busy, and the queues to get a selfie (or several) a real turn off. Thanks to the internet, the more that post, the more that follow them. I now think twice about even booking somewhere mainstream in peak season – I just don’t have the patience, let alone control over my mouth, for that to be a good idea. It bores me to see numerous copycat versions of the same scene, when all that’s changed is the person in them. Diversity and creativity fall by the wayside in the clamour to be like everyone else. And don’t get me started about those gaze-into-the-distance shots where the person doesn’t even show their face – I can’t see the point of that kind of image at all.
However (and here’s the hypocrisy) it’s a real buzz when I find a spot that I can enjoy by myself, though of course by promoting it in the articles I write and sharing it on my social media feeds I’m part of the problem.
So why take photographs at all? I’ve taken tens of thousands of pictures over the years and looking back through them is a wonderful way of reliving my travels. Memories blur with age and poring over an album from twenty years ago is a reminder of just what we forget. Of course, the really special memories are engraved on your soul, as are those want-to-forget moments, but it’s good to get a refresher of those that fall somewhere in the middle.
So I’ll keep taking snaps while I’m travelling, but the vast majority of them won’t have me in them. And I certainly won’t be paying hundreds of dollars for someone to photograph me while I do. What about you?
All the images in this post were sourced from Pixabay, using the search term “Travel”.
My pick for Room 101: solo bookers who call themselves solo travellers
Apologies in advance: I’m feeling very grumpy this week. As such, it’s the perfect time for me to pretend I’m a guest on the popular BBC TV show Room 101. If you’ve never seen it, guests get to argue the case for putting something they can’t stand into the proverbial Room 101 and get rid of it for ever. Room 101 is a reference to the torture room in George Orwell’s novel 1984. (Orwell is said to have taken his inspiration from a conference room where he sat through interminable meetings while working for the BBC.)
Items banished to Room 101 include people who call you ‘mate’ when you’ve never met them before, though coming from Essex we are rather used to that and quite honestly I wouldn’t like to see that go. Other observations include the frustration of being saddled with a waiter who pours a little bit of wine into your glass (totally agree with that, utterly pretentious). People who say “have a nice day” (sorry America, I don’t know why that winds some people up) and people who don’t pick up their dog’s poo (can’t argue with that) are two more. Travel-related good riddances include the prohibition of mosquitoes and expensive water in hotels. Yes and yes! The list is as eclectic as it is fascinating.
So here’s mine. I’m a huge fan of solo travel and without wishing to sounding like a travel snob, solo travel by its very definition means travelling alone, without anyone else. The whole point of travelling solo is to get away from everyone else and give yourself space to explore your new surroundings. Google it, if you don’t believe me. I just did and this was the top result:
Solo travel means you’re going somewhere else alone, where you will spend a significant chunk of time alone once you get there.
Thank you Quora.
Now call me thick if you like (though please not to my face, had about enough this week and need a dollop of nice, thank you very much), but how does that sit with someone making a booking for a group tour? My inbox and social media feeds are awash with travel suggestions that involve a solo booker joining a singles holiday or a group tour with other lone travellers.
Let me just stress, I have no problem with anyone who wants to do just that. It’s a great way to make friends and to share the experience of visiting a new country. But there’s a distinction between someone who books a single place on a tour and someone who deliberately seeks to distance themselves from a tour at all costs. The former’s a solo booker. The latter’s a solo traveller.
And they’re two different things.
Do you agree or would you send something entirely different to Room 101? I’d love to find out what your pet peeves are when it comes to travel. But if I’m a little slow in responding, that’s because I’m off to the remote Kyrgyzstan countryside for a week – solo of course.