juliamhammond

Travel advice and guidance

How to minimise the impact of coronavirus on your travel plans

The spread of coronavirus continues to dominate the news headlines and my thoughts and sympathies are with those families affected directly. As a writer who makes her living producing articles about tourist destinations, I’m also watching with interest as to how it might impact on travel. The situation is changing so fast it is hard to keep up.

To date, there have been lockdowns and quarantines in locations across the world. Various countries are refusing entry to nationals of a range of countries, and an increasing number are including UK passport holders on that list as the situation worsens here. I was supposed to visit Bergamo in northern Italy in March. Ryanair cancelled my flight with just over two weeks’ notice and I have received a full refund.

So how can you ensure that, as the virus spreads, your upcoming travel plans won’t be affected? In short, you can’t. But you can try to minimise the impact of coronavirus on your travel plans.

Keep abreast of changes and book last minute

Right now, the spread of the virus is hard to predict and as such, booking well ahead isn’t the way to go. Keep a close eye on where cases have been reported and book last minute for a place that seems unaffected. Though even if you do so, as the number of cases increases, you can’t rule out being placed in quarantine unexpectedly, as those held in the Costa Adeje Palace hotel in Tenerife (and many others since) have found:

 

Choose your accommodation carefully

Putting yourself in crowded places is perhaps a greater risk than if you opt for a smaller hotel or self-catering apartment. However, if you are quarantined, eating in replaces eating out and you would need to ensure you could cater for yourself in the place you’ve chosen as your base if you’re self-catering or opt for room-only. In terms of comfort levels, I couldn’t help comparing those confined to inside cabins on the Diamond Princess while it was quarantined in Japan with those waving at news crews from their balconies in Tenerife. At least the latter had access to fresh air and a view whenever they wanted. Nevertheless, ask yourself, would you be better off staying home than risking being stranded for an indefinite period.

Check your travel insurance

Policies vary, but check the small print of your travel insurance to ensure that it has adequate cover for cancellations and disrupted travel arrangements. Some businesses have stopped selling travel insurance altogether and others have altered the terms of their policies. Read the terms and coverage carefully; ask for advice or clarification if unsure.

Booking a package with a firm that is ATOL-protected might help. Some operators, desperate to drum up business, are offering free date changes if the situation changes before your departure date, which brings peace of mind to some extent. Travelling with a package operator would also mean if you couldn’t fly home as expected, there would be someone to help take care of your arrangements.

If you choose to travel to a place that has been designated by the FCO as a no-go, your insurance will be invalid – that’s if you can find an airline that will take you there, of course. Simply deciding that you don’t fancy taking a risk is, unfortunately, not a reason to get your money back, though some airlines are been more helpful than others when it comes to rearranging or rerouting flight bookings. More on your rights here, in this informative BBC roundup.

Pack smart

 

If you are dead set on going, it’s sensible to follow the advice of health professionals about hand-washing routines and pack some anti-bacterial wipes or hand sanitiser. Some sources suggest using wipes to clean shared surfaces such as aeroplane or train tray tables. Liquid or foam hand sanitiser would have the advantage of not leaving you with potentially contaminated wipes to get rid of. According to the WHO, plain old soap and water is likely to be just as effective. If you do use wipes or tissues, remember to dispose of them responsibly, such as in a closed bin. Read advice from a trusted medical source and don’t take the word of bloggers and travel writers – we know travel, but we are not medical professionals.

You may also feel calmer wearing a mask though reports of their efficacy are disputed. Wherever you are planning to travel, think about what might happen if you are quarantined. If you are on regular medication, ensure you take additional supplies to cover an extended stay. If that’s not possible, it’s wise to make sure you know the local brand name of the drug you take. Take a look at this useful website which lists brand names of drugs in different countries.

Take the opportunity to enjoy a staycation

If you’re concerned about the likelihood of getting stranded while travelling, perhaps it’s the perfect time to enjoy a staycation. Take the opportunity to explore the area in which you live with fresh eyes. Take a walk somewhere you’ve never been, visit that museum that’s been on your wishlist for ages or book an activity or experience such as a spa treatment, steam train day out or windsurfing lesson. That just might be the most stress-free way to have a holiday at the moment.

If increasing numbers of people choose not to book an international vacation, then those small-scale independent tourism businesses in your local area might be relying on your support to stay afloat. Reports such as these about France and New Zealand explain why.

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Remember, do your research and make sure you are comfortable with the risks you are taking. It’s your responsibility to look after yourself, so whatever the type of holiday you’re considering, think it through before you book and make the decision that’s right for you.

Updated 12 March 2020


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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.


The dog ate my passport

The last couple of days have taught me a lot about unconditional love and even more about where not to leave dog treats.

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I’d been finalising details of a press trip to the Lombardy region of Italy. Everything had finally fallen into place: agreements with Ryanair on commissions, flight bookings and a programme from the PR agency that would take me to four Italian cities that I’d not visited before. The builders had gone home for the day and I’d wrapped up an article I was writing for an Icelandic client. It was late afternoon and already dark.

Einstein, my 12 year old golden retriever, was snoring at the foot of the stairs. Edison, his 8 year old nephew, was lying on the office rug behind my chair.This was the dog we’d nicknamed Ed the Shred on account of his obsession with tearing up paper he retrieved from waste paper baskets. My office, or more specifically its recycling bin, is one of his most favourite places in the whole house, along with the patch of kitchen floor directly beside the fridge and the sofa from which it’s his custom to bark at squirrels.

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I checked in for my flights and tucked the paperwork inside my passport, leaving it beside the keyboard on my desk. Next to it were a few dog treats that had been there all day. Just then, I had a message from my husband to say he’d be home early but had a work call. Would I pop the oven on so he could get a jump on dinner? Distracted, I got up and went downstairs. On autopilot I started to make dinner, tired from all the early starts and late nights and stress that come with a house renovation. Normally, Edison would have been under my feet, keen to be first in line if tasters are handed out, ready to pounce on anything that accidentally finds itself on the floor. I was so tired that I didn’t notice he wasn’t there.

As my husband ate dinner, he commented on Ed’s absence. Not long afterwards, we heard the bump as he jumped off a bed (another of his favourite places) and clattered downstairs. A little later on, I went back up to my office. The dog treats were still where I’d left them, but where the passport had been was a big, fat, empty bit of desk. Slowly I put two and two together. Ed must have smelt the dog treats and then found the temptation of shredding his beloved paper just too much to resist. Entering the bedroom, I spotted the chewed up remains of my passport scattered across the bedspread and my stomach did a back flip. He hadn’t, had he?

He had.

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Hitherto what was on the desk rather than in a bin beneath it had always been left untouched. Until now. Initially speechless, I picked up what remained of my passport, a ragtag collection of slightly soggy pieces, most about the size of a penny. The photo page was largely intact, save for the passport number in the top corner. A couple of visas were still recognisable, though they had chunks missing from the corners.

At first, all I could do was utter the word no, over and over. Google was my next thought, followed by the Passport Office website. At first, things looked hopeful. There was an appointment available in London the following morning, and if I paid for the premium fast track service, it seemed I might be able to get a new passport in just four hours. But as I read on, my heart sank. If the passport was lost, stolen or damaged, the notes said, then I would have to make an appointment for the weekly service.

Hopes dashed, I read and reread the website. Calling the Passport Office hotline, the voice on the other end of the phone was sympathetic but unable to help. Rules were rules, unfortunately, and there was no way I could replace the passport in the 36 hours I had before my flight was due to depart. The earliest available appointment for the service I needed was two hours and ten minutes after I was scheduled to take off.

There was nothing for it but to fess up. Mortified, I called the agency that was managing the press trip and recounted the whole sorry saga to the PR lady’s colleague who happened to be working late. I followed it up with an email to the PR lady herself. Apologising didn’t seem enough. Fortunately, she was very understanding and even offered to see if Ryanair could do anything. I didn’t hold out much hope. Opportunities like this were still a big deal for a second career travel writer like myself and I’d blown it. I was furious with myself for being so careless. Sensing my bleak mood, Ed sat down beside me and offered me his paw. I stroked his head as he looked up at me with big brown eyes and a broad smile. How could I be cross with a face like that?

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The following morning there was a glimmer of hope. While I was out getting a form for a new passport and organising a countersignatory for the photo, we received a phone call. There was a slim chance that I might be able to fly without a passport if I had a colour photocopy, they said. And I did! Two in fact, though one was a bit blurry. I sent them over by email and began the waiting game. All Wednesday afternoon I tried to keep busy. Edison seemed to know something was up, though of course remained blissfully unaware of the trouble he’d caused. I couldn’t stay mad at my goofball fur baby for long, and he stretched out on the office rug while I wrote another article. Throughout the day, I received progress updates from the PR lady telling me that as yet there was no news but Ryanair staff were working on it with border officials in Italy and the UK. I was mortified at the trouble I’d caused. By 5 o’clock, I’d pretty much given up hope.

And then the email came. At first, I didn’t believe what I was seeing, so I read it a second time and then a third. But it was the news I’d hoped for. Both border agencies had accepted Ryanair’s request to let me travel with a colour photocopy and email authorisation. My flight was rearranged so that I could still attend the Passport Office appointment. I was going. Eight hours later than planned, but I was going after all.

Today has been a strange experience. I arrived at the airport car park at about the time I had expected, but instead of going to the check in desk, I left the suitcase in the car and hopped on the Stansted Express instead. By 11am I’d had my replacement passport approved, with delivery confirmed by the middle of next week, and was back on the train. The Ryanair check in staff, wide eyed and slack jawed, admired the photo I showed them of a very innocent looking Edison while a manager confirmed my email authorisation was legit.

On arrival at Bergamo Airport I was whisked into the office (not the first time I’ve had to wait for permission to enter a country, as you might remember if you read my Abkhazia post). The officials were very apologetic for the delay and for me catching them in the middle of their dinner. Smiles all round and the now obligatory laughing at the photos of the dog and passport done, my precious photocopy was stamped and in I was. I did have a bit of a moment when they asked did I need to go to the consulate in Milan, but luckily for me they pretty much changed their minds straightaway.

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And so here I am, in Italy, minus a passport. I’m pretty sure Edison will be curled up beside Einstein, keeping a watchful eye on my husband’s dinner plate lest a small piece of chicken or a stray chip finds its way to the floor.


When to splurge while travelling

Over the years my travel routine has evolved and fits me now like a well worn cardigan. While I’m all for saving money where I can, there are a few things that I never scrimp on – sometimes you just need to splurge when travelling. Here’s where I recommend spending rather than saving.

Insurance

Insurance is vital. Though I’ve been to some pretty adventurous places, I’m actually quite risk averse, and the thought of travelling without insurance makes me very nervous. You can take all the precautions you possibly can, but no one can predict what’s going to happen, as the photo below shows (a tumble on a hike in Sweden a couple of years back though fortunately nothing serious). Generous medical cover is a must no matter what policy you take out. I don’t worry as much about valuables cover, as the high ticket items are covered by our house insurance policy, but it’s worth checking the small print if you plan to do the same. I have an annual policy which costs around £35 for worldwide cover with American Express (you don’t have to have one of their cards to qualify). Remember, you may need to up the budget if you need winter sports cover, or add-ons like scheduled airline failure, for instance. But however tight your budget, don’t be tempted to ditch the policy completely.

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Haggling

Though we all love a bargain, it just doesn’t sit well for me to haggle hard knowing that the person in front of me needs the money so much more than I do. Play the game, but work out what a reasonable price is before driving that figure down to a level where there’s almost no profit in the transaction for the trader. After all, that money might be needed for school books or much needed medical treatment.

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Footwear

Strictly speaking I guess this isn’t counted as part of the travel budget, but investing in a good pair of shoes or boots before you leave home is so important. There’s surely nothing worse than hobbling along city streets with angry blisters on your heels or trying to focus on the scenery during an amazing hike when all you can think about is the pain around your toes. Pay what it takes to get footwear that is going to be comfortable, supports your feet and isn’t going to fall apart before you come home. Caveat: if I have a pair of boots or shoes that are almost on their last, I don’t bring them home with me. The boots below fell apart on the Bolivian salt flats and ended their days in the salt hotel’s bin.

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First and last night’s accommodation

My husband likes to say he has a rule when travelling: “Never stay anywhere that’s not as nice as your own home”. Well if that was the case for me I’d miss out on a whole lot of places through lack of funds. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve stayed in fancy places (and not just when someone else is paying) but for the most part, I’d rather save money on my accommodation to free up that part of the budget for something a lot more fun. But then I’ve never been one for confining myself to a hotel. That said, I do try to book somewhere reasonably nice for at least the first and last night of a longer trip. After a long flight, having somewhere decent to get over any jet lag and rest properly can’t be underestimated. And if you stay somewhere lovely for the last night, that trip’s going to end on a high.

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Experiences

My final suggestion for would-be splurgers is to set aside a healthy chunk of the budget for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I can’t remember the details of the hotel I stayed in when I went to Margarita Island in Venezuela in 1992 except that it might have been pink? But I remember vividly dismissing an excursion to see the world’s tallest waterfall, Angel Falls, by air. It was ridiculously expensive and the decision was probably a sound one given that it was likely to have been cloudy. But a piece of me has always regretted not going. Since then, I’ve tried if at all possible to sieze such opportunities. Hot air ballooning over the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia, taking a helicopter ride to the top of a New Zealand glacier and sharing a turquoise sea with the cute swimming pigs in the Bahamas are just three of the many experiences I’ve enjoyed. Those memories will last me a lifetime and I don’t regret a penny of the money I spent.

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If you’re now thinking you need to work out where to free up some cash, why not take a look at my last post, When to scrimp while travelling. And don’t forget, I’d love to hear your suggestions for scrimping and saving, as well as when you’ve splashed the cash with good reason.


The end of the High Street travel agent – or is it?

News has broken today that Thomas Cook will close 21 of its High Street stores, one of which is my local branch in Colchester. It’s no surprise. Even Thomas Cook themselves admit that 64% of its UK bookings were made online last year. Their website is bright, colourful and most important of all, easy to navigate. Rationalising a business is the way to keep it afloat, and if you don’t move with the times you become a dinosaur. Thomas Cook led the way in 1841 with its pioneering railway excursions and is a respected player in the industry. Closing its stores isn’t a sign of failure, it’s a savvy move designed to help the company retain its market share.

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I haven’t stepped foot inside a travel agency for over two decades. The last time I asked about flights, the assistant hadn’t heard of the place I wanted to fly to, so I left. The rise of budget airlines and the breadth of information available at the click of a mouse means I have no need to pick up the phone and speak to a specialist, much less go to the bother of visiting a High Street store. The rise of the internet made the travel agent the middle man. Online agencies such as Expedia, originally set up by Microsoft in 1996, do a more than satisfactory job. Use an online travel agent and you’re not tied to store opening hours, but you’ll still have the convenience of a one-stop shop for your travel package and the benefit of bulk buying discounts.

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But just because I no longer use a travel agent, doesn’t mean I don’t advise others to use one. One of the benefits of the internet is also its biggest drawback – sometimes there’s just too much information. Sifting out what you need to know from the mountain of websites that Google presents can be hard. Travel’s my job – I take for granted that I know which sites will be useful and which are irrelevant to my needs. But for many, navigating through all that information is a minefield. How do you know what you’re reading isn’t misleading or downright inaccurate? Sadly there are many influencers out there who just don’t know as much as they claim to, like the blogger who presented a £1000 indirect flight from London to the US as a bargain, when direct fares are often half that amount or less. How do you whittle down which New York hotel to choose when Expedia presents almost two thousand search results?

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In the light of that, it’s not surprising that some High Street travel agents are actually expanding the number of branches. Kuoni’s one of them. Paired with John Lewis, they offer a different experience to Thomas Cook, and aim at a different clientele including the lucrative luxury honeymoon market. Their customers, they say, value quality over cost. Between 2016 and 2017, they reported a 38% increase in the number of appointments made with their in-store experts. 59% of their customers, they reveal, come in with a blank sheet and ask the consultant to help them find their perfect trip. Visit Kuoni’s website, and though you’ll find plenty of tempting images and itineraries, you can’t book them online – instead you have to telephone or book in person. Hays Travel, the UK’s largest independent travel agent, are also expanding, so the trend’s not confined to Kuoni.

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Millennials are particularly keen to utilise a travel agent, a trend that’s mirroring what’s going on across the Atlantic. FOMO – that’s the fear of missing out to those of us who are old enough to be their parents – means that they want to ensure that they book the very best when it comes to travel. According to ABTA, 59% of millennials say they’d pay extra for a holiday that’s tailormade to their preferences, good news for agents like Trailfinders with a High Street presence and a strong reputation for bespoke but affordable packages. In Kuoni’s latest worldwide trends report, it notes a rise in bookings of what’s termed “wow experiences”. From dining beside a waterfall in Thailand to staying in a vintage Airstream trailer on the Bolivian salt flats, bespoke just got interesting – and crucially, difficult to pull off without the right connections. ABTA’s annual report backs up this desire to leave the booking process to an expert. They state that 45% of those booking via a travel professional do so because of the confidence it gives them, while Google asserts that 69% of travellers return to companies offering a personalised approach.

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While hardened low-budget, intrepidly independent travellers (like me!) will stubbornly continue to find their own way, the age of High Street travel agents isn’t yet over. After all, if you’d call out a plumber to fix a water leak, why not call upon a travel professional to find you the holiday that’s right for you? It will probably cost you more, but if you think it would be worth it, then it’s money well spent.


The risks of road transport – and how to avoid them

Independent travel brings many rewards, but travel using such means isn’t without its risks. The older I get, the more I factor safety into my plans. If as a traveller I have nine lives when it comes to near misses, I figure I used up a fair few of them when I was young, naive and imperturbable.

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Rust buckets and fatigued drivers

In the UK, we take it for granted that vehicles are roadworthy but the same can’t be said for some parts of the world. Things have improved somewhat since, but on my first trip to Lima, the taxi that took us to the airport was an ancient Beetle. Its doors had rusted into a beautiful but deadly filigree mesh and were held shut by pieces of ragged string. Even the driver made reference to its poor condition, opting to leave us on the road outside rather than to risk being apprehended by the police or airport authorities in front of the airport terminal. Things are rather different now. Doing the same run on my last visit I had a functioning seat belt and a seat with complete upholstery, though the traffic in Callao was as bad as it had ever been.

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Driver fatigue, particularly when it’s coupled with bad roads, can be lethal. In places where driver hours aren’t regulated and drivers aren’t routinely breathtested, you could find yourself in a whole heap of trouble. Sometimes, if it’s the only bus company running the route, you don’t have a choice. The bus I boarded to take me from Chachapoyas to Cajamarca wasn’t in the best of condition (though by no means the worst I’ve encountered) but it was that or a prohibitively expensive private transfer. Safety-wise, I should have opted for the latter. Instead I tried to sleep through a night of switchbacks and squealing brakes, saying a prayer of thanks that we made it one piece when we pulled up at our destination at daybreak. Travelling at night had one big advantage, however – it was easier on the nerves not to see how close we were to the edge of the ravines.

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Often, I’ve taken local buses within cities or out into the surrounding countryside. In Latin America, they’re often repurposed American school buses. The bench seats are uncomfortable: sticky in the heat, the cracked leather slippery and uncomfortable on bare legs. In Haiti, though, I’d have given anything to be travelling in one of these Nicaraguan chicken buses. Instead, I took what was possibly the most uncomfortable ride of my life in an overloaded tap tap. The end justified the means, but you can read here about the journey from hell that took me to Port Salut:

https://juliahammond.blog/2015/02/14/the-best-beach-in-haiti/

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These days I turn away vehicles, though, when I know there’s a choice, refusing a taxi without seat belts and doing some homework about which bus companies have the best safety record. It’s possible to find companies that run services with two drivers so that each can be well rested after a stint at the wheel. If a company states on their website that they routinely screeen for drugs that’s also a plus, though admittedly hard to corroborate. It’s particularly important to be cautious if the road you’re due to travel on is an accident blackspot. Hiring a car and a driver is often a smart choice, though check the condition of the vehicle before agreeing a price – no one wants to break down in the middle of nowhere, as happened to me out in the Senegalese countryside.

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The dangers of walking

It can be tempting, especially in cities, to think that opting for two feet instead of a ride with a crazed minibus driver would be safer. Remember though, that this assumes the driver won’t opt for your bit of pavement. In Nairobi, I needed to get to the central railway station to catch a train to Mombasa. It departed right in the middle of rush hour; my journey took me from the suburbs to the thick of the action.

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Drivers lent on horns to vent their frustration but in the melee, there were vehicles everywhere. Lane discipline was a forgotten art as cars, buses, vans and taxis tried everything they could to get ahead. Not every overtaking manouevre was a successful one. Consequently, some drivers found themselves stranded on the wrong side of the road. My driver was optimistic we would reach the station in time, following a full sized bus packed with commuters up the kerb and along the pavement (which incidentally wasn’t as wide as the car, let alone the bus). Pedestrians scattered and we returned to the carriageway when we reached the junction.

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I’m not saying I was especially safe in the passenger seat, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be a pedestrian on those streets. In China and Vietnam, I’ve found that the solution to crossing roads where there is that much traffic – there, it’s likely to be bicycles and motorbikes – is to team up with other pedestrians and form a kind of Roman testudo, minus the shields. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve put a local person between me and the oncoming traffic. I figure that they’re used to it, plus they speak the lingo should it become necessary to yell obscenities at any driver coming too close. I’ve also learnt that it’s imperative to maintain a steady pace and not to waiver from my course. If the driver or rider knows where you’re going to be, they can swerve to go round you.

It works – if you can hold your nerve. Have you got any other tips?


How I choose my next destination

Happy New Year, fellow travellers. As we embark on 2019, thoughts inevitably turn to the year ahead and for me, that means thinking about where I’d like to travel in the coming year. One of the questions I’m inevitably asked is how I decide where to go. The answer’s not a simple one, but here’s how I choose my next destination.

Cheap flights

As an independent traveller who likes to pay her own way, the biggest outlay for many of my trips, particularly long haul ones, is the cost of my flights. I’m always on the lookout for a good deal, so I sign up for airline newsletters and that way, I’m the first to know of any special offers. That’s how, on Black Friday 2017, I snagged Air New Zealand’s £399 flight deal to Auckland via LAX. There were only 50 seats on offer at that price, so had I been surfing the net, I’d almost certainly have missed out. Similarly, to make the most of Ryanair’s flash sales it’s important to be ahead of the pack. But with a bit of creativity, it’s possible to save on flight costs by searching for error fares and utilise reward schemes as I did for my recent trip to Barbados.

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Social media

My Twitter feed is full of photographs of exotic locations and every now and again, something stands out from the pack. Georgia (the country) first entered my radar in this way, as did those cute swimming pigs in the Bahamas, and I wasn’t disappointed with either. On Facebook, members of the My Wanderlusters group provide inspiration for destinations through their own holidays snaps. Some are friends in real life and I have the double privilege of seeing their travels via their personal accounts too. I maintain a file of e-clippings (the old-fashioned way, in a folder, rather than via something more creative like Pinterest). This April, Brexit-permitting, I’m off to Alberobello in Italy to stay in a trullo after seeing it on someone’s timeline. I expect Santorini will also feature at some point for the same reason.

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TV

I love watching TV documentaries and travelling without leaving the sofa. Joanna Lumley’s Japan series has been bookmarked for a return trip one day. It’s been over a decade since I visited but seeing the country through her eyes has made me yearn to go back. Levison Wood’s adventures also give me inspiration; I especially enjoyed his Nile walk though it’s way too energetic for this traveller. Chris Tarrant has, in the past, done some incredible rail trips, from the Trans-Sib to some distinctly more adventurous destinations. Sometimes, though, even a venerated presenter can’t entice me: Michael Palin’s recent foray into North Korea was a charm to watch, but the country itself doesn’t appeal to me.

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Magazines and other tourist literature

Whether it’s via a magazine that plops through the letter box or a tourist leaflet picked up at a trade show, there’s always something to tempt me to investigate a place a bit further. During a visit to World Travel Market in autumn 2017, I got chatting to a lady manning the Uganda stall. I’d previously visited other parts of East Africa, notably Kenya and Tanzania, but Uganda is a new one for me. When I mentioned it in passing to a couple of fellow villagers here at home, I discovered they ran a school out there, so I’m now looking forward to a trip in February when I’ll combine a visit to their school with a couple of safaris. No gorillas, but look out for tree-climbing lions if I’m lucky enough to spot them.

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Festivals and other special events

Sometimes it’s not only the destination that’s the attraction, but a particular event that requires a visit at a particular time of year. I visited Mexico long before I managed to schedule a trip to coincide with the Day of the Dead celebrations. That was several years ago now, but it remains one of my favourite trips of all times. Cusco’s Inti Raymi festival was also on my radar long before I was able to time a visit to Peru to experience it. The colourful costumes, dancers and theatrical spectacle made this a memorable holiday too. Most recently, I headed off to Moldova to join Chisinau’s residents for their National Wine Day, which was fun.

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Press trips

As a relative newbie to travel writing with an expanding portfolio, I’ve yet to be inundated with press trips, though I do get offered one now and again. Every so often, an offer comes along that’s too good to resist and that’s how I found myself in the Faroe Islands in May 2018. It was a beautiful country and I’d love to return one day to explore a little further. Without wishing to sound ungrateful, I do struggle with a prescribed itinerary which can be a little stifling, as I’m so used to travelling solo and doing as I please. That said, I’m always delighted to be offered such visits even when I choose not to go.

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How do you choose where to visit? Like me, do you have an ever-growing wish list? I’d love to hear what motivates your travel choices.


How to visit Transnistria from Chisinau

When the Soviet Union broke up, Moldova became an independent country. But the region that’s now Transnistria was home to a high percentage of ethnic Russians and decided it didn’t want to remain part of Moldova. It operates as a country in its own right, with its own government, military, currency and so on, though it’s not widely recognised.
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Many reports suggest it’s very Soviet, but there are plenty of beautiful monasteries, gatehouses and other interesting buildings. But with day excursions from the Moldovan capital Chisinau costing as much as 163 euros for a private tour and no group trips running on the day I was in town, I decided to go it alone. If you want to do the same, here’s what you need to know.

 

 

 

Getting there
The day before my visit had been National Wine Day. A tasting menu of twelve glasses cost just 200 lei (about £10) and it had been a very enjoyable way to spend the day. It perhaps wasn’t the wisest move to opt to travel to Transnistria by train the morning after, and especially as that train departed before 7am. The train station’s not central either, which pushed the alarm clock back even further. That said, I would still recommend the rail option: trains are much more comfortable than buses or marshrutkas (minibuses).
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To reach the station from the centre of Chisinau, catch a trolley bus costing 2 lei to the main station (numbers 4, 5, 8, 17 and 20). There’s a map on Wikipedia that shows the entire network. You’ll pay the attendant on the bus and the ride takes about 15 minutes. Get off opposite the station and walk under the underpass; when you emerge you’ll see the station building.

 

 

 

Buying your train ticket is straightforward and you don’t need to pre-book. The train is number 642 and it’s a cross-border train that runs to Odessa in Ukraine. The relatively short hop to Tiraspol, the Transnistrian capital, costs just 21 lei in second class which is just over £1. Your documents may be checked by a station official as most passengers are bound for Ukraine. The train left bang on time at 6.57am and arrived exactly at 8.21am. As you can see I had the fabled seat 61 and was excited* enough to tweet to the man himself!
* as excited as you can be when up before daylight and the worse for wear from all that wine the night before.

 

 

 

Passport control
You don’t complete border formalities on the train. In fact, once the carriage attendants see that your ticket says Tiraspol, you won’t even need to show your passport. However, you do need to take your passport. While the Moldovan authorities class Transnistria as part of Moldova, the Transnistrian government does not. When you get to Tiraspol station, you need to look for a small booth just to the left of the main exit. An immigration official will hand you a form to complete; you’ll need to fill in both sections. Hand the form in with your passport and it will be checked and one part returned with your passport. Do not lose this piece of paper as you will need to show it in order to exit Transnistria.
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Money
To buy anything in Transnistria you need Transnistrian rubles. Though there is an ATM at the station, there’s no foreign language translation and it doesn’t accept foreign cards. I read on the internet that these ATMs dispense Russian rubles in any case, which themselves need to be exchanged for the local currency. Instead, take cash: US dollars, euros, Russian rubles, Ukrainian hryvnia and of course Moldovan lei are all good. Pounds sterling wasn’t on the list, though it is easy to change into Moldovan lei in Chisinau.
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It’s hard to know how much to change up, and the last thing you want with a currency that’s useless outside its own territory is to be left with a wad of notes. I decided to change 200 lei (about £10), thinking I’d need more but would see how I went. The exchange rate is almost at a parity so I received 190 Transnistrian rubles. In actual fact, it was hard to get rid of it. My biggest expenditure was a hearty brunch costing 60 Transnistrian rubles. I took a bus from the bridge in the centre of Tiraspol to the monastery at Kitskany and that cost 4 rubles. The monastery was free to enter.

 

 

 

A cramped but otherwise acceptably comfortable minibus departed for Bender from right outside the monastery and cost 10 rubles. It might have even been 8 but I wasn’t sure how many fingers the driver was holding up so gave him 10 just in case. I also visited Bender fortress. I’d read on the internet that there was an entrance fee but there wasn’t. A couple of drinks cost me a further 29 rubles. If you’re adding up as you go, I spent a total of 140 rubles (including the return bus fare) and came home with a 50 ruble note as a souvenir. £7.50 for a day out (£8.60 if you include the train fare from Chisinau) has to be one of my best bargain trips ever.
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Getting away
From Bender to Chisinau cost 37 rubles by marshrutka. I’d have been tempted to catch the train but the first one back from Bender, a Moscow-bound international train, was due to arrive just two and a half hours before my late evening flight departed. Given the strong chance of a delay, and information on the internet indicating that the last bus left around 6.30pm, I decided not to risk getting stranded. The marshrutka was already nearly full when I got in, so I had the back row seat. It was very bumpy – not the most comfortable ride I’ve ever had. Time-wise, it was very similar to the train, though the Moscow train would have been slower.
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What’s there to see
Everything I’d read online said the same thing: Tiraspol is very Soviet. The signage is in Russian, so I had to adjust to using the Cyrillic alphabet again. One thing I’d forgotten to look up was how Chisinau would translate; the Russians call it Kishinev so the “b” on the end threw me a bit. As it was Sunday morning, the place was dead. I strolled down from the railway station and along the main drag, 25 October Street. It was pleasant enough but nothing to write home about with any enthusiasm. I snapped pictures of the Kvint factory and the Kotovsky museum, but the former was closed as it was Sunday and I figured the displays in the latter would be labelled in Russian only.
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I walked across to have a closer look at the monument to Alexander Suvorov, who founded the city. A bunch of young soldiers had gathered there, waiting for a ride, so I didn’t hang around too long with the camera. What I should have done is walk a short distance further to the House of Soviets and Transnistria’s Parliament building.
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Instead, I was distracted by a tank beside the Dniester River and never ticked off Lenin’s statue. It’s listed as one of the must-sees in Tiraspol, but probably that’s due to a lack of anything more interesting. I read one highlights list which extolled the virtues of changing money as one of their “top things to do in Tiraspol”.  Beside the tank, a few bored kids chucked stones into the river and an elderly man made slow, painful circles on his roller blades.

 

 

 

Not far was a bridge and on the other side, a marshrutka waiting to load up for Kitskany. I decided to cut my losses and hop aboard. Kitskany monastery was a super diversion. It’s a working monastery and there were plenty of monks in black robes wandering about. There was also a service taking place inside the richly decorated main church. Some people had come from Tiraspol as I’d seen them on the bus.

 

 

 

Noul Neamţ Monastery, as it’s correctly called, also has a bell tower with a frescoed ceiling and, in its lobby, two wooden changing rooms where women can pull on a skirt over their trousers if needed. The golden domes glittered as the sun caught them and women sat in the dappled shade of the monastery’s tranquil garden. I couldn’t help but think that in many countries, you’d have to pay an entrance fee to visit somewhere as special as this.

 

 

 

Eventually I wandered back to the road. A derelict facade caught my eye and I set off up a lane to see it close up. The lane was sandy, which was a little odd, so far from the sea. As I strode up the lane, a man called out to me. It turned out he was Ukrainian and was trying to show me the house. I don’t understand what he was telling me; he kept referring to “monastery” but pointing at the house. He signalled clearly that I shouldn’t go any further, so I headed back to the bus stop.
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When I bought my ticket, I fully intended to come back and finish my walk along 25 October Street. But outside Kitskany monastery, a minibus came along for Bender and I decided to go there instead, having seen the spectacular fortress from the train. The ride to Bender was a pretty one, past fields and rural dwellings. Hay was stacked in what I call Dalek style, familiar from a previous trip to Romania. The road, by rural standards, was pretty good. Soon we came to an unmanned control point and then into the town itself.

 

 

 

Bender, once scene of fierce fighting, was delightful. Several pleasant cafes lined the main street. I ducked into a couple but there were no toilets. Finally I found a cafe next to a fake McDonald’s with decent cakes – pastry swans – and an obliging barista who escorted me around the corner into some offices to use the bathroom facilities. Back at the cafe, the coffee was good, the food even better. I saw the #19 trolley bus pull up, which links Bender and Tiraspol – the cheapest way to travel at a fare of something in the region of 2 rubles. Bender also had a wide pedestrian street. I saw a place renting out toy cars for kids, similar to what I’d seen at Sukhumi last year – maybe it’s a Russian thing?
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Across the street from a series of posters in Russian detailing the history of Bender, I spotted the outdoor museum. This amounted to a park which was home to several statues and castings, each representing an event in the town’s history. The information for both was in Russian so I’m none the wiser, but one looked rather like Napoleon Bonaparte. Nearby was an art installation featuring multiple coloured umbrellas – cue lots of people taking selfies.
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The star of the show, however, was Bender’s fortress. There was a special event on and the fortress had been adorned with swags of cheap white satin. Many of the stalls had a mediaeval theme. I was invited to try my hand at firing a crossbow, which I declined as I didn’t want to harm anyone through clumsiness. But I did walk the walls and look out over the Dniester River and surrounding countryside. There were plenty of men barbecuing and people dressed in mediaeval costume, plus a fair number of plastic ducks. No idea why, in case you’re wondering – the frustrations of travelling where you don’t speak the language.

 

 

 

Was Transnistria worth the visit?
While I wouldn’t make the trip specially, it was a pleasant day out from Chisinau. Lots of reports online, especially older ones, refer to this as a rebel state with border guards taking bribes. It certainly didn’t feel like that to me, though of course on such a short visit I’m no expert. If you are tempted to visit, I’d suggest going on a weekday so that more businesses and museums are open, but having said that, Bender had a really nice family vibe which you possibly wouldn’t get if everyone was at work.
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Would it have been worth 163 euros? No, definitely not. Even the most committed of country counters (which I’m not) would have a hard time justifying that cost. But to do it independently and on a tight budget, definitely yes. In terms of value for money, it was incredibly cheap. It’s hard to find fault with a day out that only cost £8.60!
Postscript
It’s great when you realise other travellers have found a post useful; check this out too if you’re planning a trip:
I’ve also had a couple of comments about why I would use the term Transnistria in this post. I use the English versions of place names on this site, hence Chisinau rather than Chișinău, Kishinev, Kishineu or Кишинэу. Hence, I refer to it as Transnistria for consistency, as do many other UK sources including the highly regarded travel magazine Wanderlust: https://www.wanderlust.co.uk/content/step-by-step-guide-to-transnistria-by-bus/

How to travel solo without the hefty price tag

An email popped up into my inbox the other day touting an article that promised a selection of holidays this summer for under £600 per person. Intrigued, I clicked – the dreaded click bait! Though there were a couple of holidays that fell within the price range, most required a group of six people to share a villa to achieve the deal. I prefer to travel alone – yes, it’s a choice! – so the thought of spending a week with five other people is not my bag. But it got me thinking and here’s the result – how to travel solo without the hefty price tag.

Be independent
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Singles holidays are often a no when it comes to budget solo travel as they usually slap on a significant single supplement. Even when they don’t, the price of that single supplement has usually been absorbed into the package cost which bumps the price up. Ditch the tour operator (but not the insurance!) and go it alone. You’ll be more in control of what you pay and who you pay it to. If you’re a bit worried about travelling solo, why not read my post about travel hacks for solo travellers which contains tips and tricks learned from years of going it alone.

Consider a hostel


The cheapest option for a solo traveller is a bed in a dorm room, but that’s not going to cut it if you need quiet to sleep and you like to shut the door on the world when you turn in. Instead, consider a private room in a hostel. Check out the cleanliness ratings on a reliable website and if it scores well, don’t rule out a shared bathroom. Try the Acco Hostel in Stockholm’s Södermalm district. £18 will get you a bed in a four-person dorm room but double the budget to £39 and you can have a room of your own. I can also recommend the excellent Adventure Queenstown Hostel in New Zealand. They only have one private double (book well ahead!) but it has a balcony and starts at a budget friendly £59 a night. If that’s too dear, their 6 bed dorm rooms will cost you £17.50 per night.

Seek out accommodation that’s designed for one
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The best way to avoid a single supplement is to find somewhere that isn’t big enough for two. There’s plenty of budget accommodation out there that will keep your costs down. I stayed in the central but basic Pension Vergara in the heart of Seville’s old town for £18 a night. If you think you have to travel off season, you don’t – that price is available this August. It wasn’t a room I intended to use other than to sleep, so the lack of space didn’t bother me, and I really couldn’t have found a more convenient location. Turkey’s also a good option. I travelled to Cappadocia and stayed at the Kelebek Cave Hotel. Their most expensive suites come in at 180 euros per night but stay in one of their atmospheric cave rooms to keep the cost down. The cheapest double is currently £39 per night, including a 20% discount for single occupancy. Yes – you read that right – a discount, not a supplement.

Save money by self-catering
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Renting an apartment doesn’t have to break the bank and if you can find one with a kitchen, you can save money on eating out too. I’m off to Barbados as soon as rainy season ends and have found a studio apartment for just £45 a night by using Airbnb. It’s part of a complex on a golf course near the beach which means I have access to a shared pool too, and the apartment is configured so that the bed is on a mezzanine, leaving the ground floor free for a living room and kitchen. It’s a short stroll to the bus stop so I can get around easily and just 15 minutes’ walk from the beach. On paper it sounds perfect: check back later in the year to read my review.

Grab a flight deal while it lasts
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Unless you’re holidaying close to home, it’s often the cost of travel that represents the biggest outlay. I try to keep an open mind about where I might travel to next and keep my dates flexible. If you’re tied to school holidays, plan well in advance and take full advantage of February and October half terms as they often throw up the best deals. Sign up for email alerts from airlines so you don’t miss out on any flash sales and also from deal spotters such as Secret Flying as they will hunt out the bargains for you. If a bargain flight crops up, grab it while it’s available and worry about booking accommodation later. But don’t believe all you read: I once saw a post from a respected blogger promoting a fare of almost £1000 as a cheap flight to Seattle yet a couple of weeks ago, Secret Flying advertised the same route for £290. Both were on scheduled airlines. Keep an eye on these comparison sites and you’ll soon learn what’s a good price.

Do you have tips for saving money as a solo traveller? Why not share them by leaving a comment?


Tips for getting the best out of Salzburg’s Christmas markets

If you’re looking for an alternative to Germany’s excellent Christmas markets, then why not head over the border to Austria?  Salzburg is one of Europe’s most elegant cities, and during the run up to Christmas, it’s bedecked with festive lights and crammed full of stalls.  I spent the weekend exploring its Christmas markets and experienced Advent Austrian-style.  Here are my tips for getting the best out of a pre-Christmas trip.

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Make the most of public transport with a day pass

An extensive network of buses and trolley buses makes getting around easy.  Day passes are available, as is the more expensive Salzburg Card which includes free admission to visitor attractions as well as free transport.  It does cost 24 euros for the day, however, so you need to be sure you’re going to get your money’s worth for the extra 20 euros you’ll be spending per person.  If you’re going to be spending a lot of time at the markets it’s unlikely the Salzburg Card will represent good value for money.

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But if you buy regular, transport-only day passes from a machine they cost just 4 euros a day, compared to 5,70 euros if you purchase them from the driver of the bus.  If you’re arriving in Salzburg by train or plane, you’ll find these machines in the main bus station or at the airport.  They are valid for a complete 24 hour period rather than by calendar days, so you’ll most likely be able to use them the following morning too – good to know if you’re going to be starting your day somewhere there’s no machine.  Print off or download maps before you go to make sense of the network; there’s also an app featuring timetables and mobile ticketing.

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Download from:

https://salzburg-verkehr.at/service/downloads/

There’s an English option available, but if not these are the maps you’ll find most useful:

City: Liniennetzplan Stadt Salzburg              Region: SVV Zonenplan

Wrap up warm

You might not get a dumping of snow as I did, but if you’re visiting Salzburg in December, it is likely to be very cold. Temperatures during my visit hovered just below freezing, but if like me you’re tempted out onto the Wolfgangsee, the wind that blows across the lake is a chill one. Pack accordingly, and layer up with hat, scarf, gloves and thermal underlayers. If all else fails, drink gluhwein!

Plan your market trips

As you might expect, there’s more than just one market in the city, as well as some delightful markets in the surrounding towns and villages.  I took a trip out to St Gilgen and Strobl on the shores of the Wolfgangsee.  Strobl’s market featured livestock in the form of sheep, goats and reindeer and boat trips were possible too between the lakeshore villages.  St Gilgen’s market was bigger and had a lot of character.  A day pass on the #150 bus meant I could hop on and hop off all day for a fare of 17,60 euros.

In the city itself, the largest market is the Christkindlmarkt in Domplatz.  As the name suggests, it’s right by the cathedral in the Old Town.  It has its origins in a market that started in the 15th century, though in its present incarnation it’s been going since 1974.  Just around the corner you’ll find an ice rink.  The Christkindlmarkt had a huge concentration of stalls but as a result was packed; if you’re not so keen on crowds, I’d recommend visiting this one during the day.

There is also a smaller market at Mirabellplatz, which is handy if you need to kill time or grab a hot drink before your bus leaves as it’s right by the stops.  This year the market up at the Hohensalzburg fortress is closed due to renovation work, but well worth checking out next year.

My favourite of all the city markets was that at Hellbrunn, a short ride away by #25 bus and included in the 4 euros day pass.  Nestled in the courtyard of this attractive palace, there are plenty of artisan stalls so a lot of choice if you plan to do some gift-shopping.  The inclusion of hundreds of trees festooned with red baubles and the use of the palace shutters to turn the palace into a huge Advent calendar makes this one extra special.

There is a 3 euros entrance charge at the weekend (it’s free on weekdays) but this is redeemable for a mug of Gluhwein which would have cost 3,50 euros.  If you have kids with you, it’s good to know that this is the place where they have the trick fountains and although they used to be a summer-only attraction, for the last couple of years these have been opened during Advent too.

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To check opening times and other details, this is the link you’ll need:

https://www.austria.info/uk/things-to-do/skiing-and-winter/christmas-markets/christmas-markets-in-salzburg

Don’t just visit the markets

Space them out and punctuate your visits with other activities. There are carol concerts and muscial recitals at many of the markets; you’ll find schedules online, though not all sites are in English. For something completely different, I caught a train out to Oberndorf bei Salzburg to visit the Silent Night chapel, a memorial chapel in the village where schoolmaster Franz Gruber and pastor Josef Mohr composed and performed the popular carol for the first time.  In the company of a band of actors and local dignitaries, I participated in a themed walk that crossed the Salzach River into Laufen, Germany.  there, at the Salzachhalle, watched a play which recounted the tale of the history of those twin villages as well as the story of how Silent Night came to be.  I won’t pretend I understood a lot with my schoolgirl German, but the music was heavenly.

Attending a Krampus run is also good fun and it’s worth checking out where the nearest is during your visit.  If you haven’t already seen the blog I wrote about Gnigl’s Krampus festivities, check out the post here where you’ll also find some useful links if you plan to go yourself:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/12/05/the-scary-side-of-christmas/

Done Salzburg?

If you’ve already been to Salzburg’s Christmas markets and they’ve given you a taste for more, why not try these alternatives?  Last year I blogged about Copenhagen and Regensburg, both of which can be visited in a day from London:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/12/05/just-back-from-a-day-at-copenhagens-christmas-markets/

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/11/25/just-back-from-a-day-trip-to-regensburg/

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Wherever you are this Advent, have a safe and happy time!


How tough is the hike to Chalaadi Glacier?

The older I get and the more my knees creak, the more I need to research possible hikes before setting on to ensure I don’t end up with aching muscles or worse, being stretchered out. But no one, least of all me, wants to find out that they’ve missed out on superb scenery on a hike that would have been perfectly within their capabilities. So when I found out about a glacier accessible from Mestia on foot, I set about reading up. The trouble is, many of those who post are young and fit. Their definition of an easy hike isn’t necessarily what I’d call easy. So here are the facts about hiking to the Chalaadi Glacier.

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You don’t have to walk all the way

Technically, the Svans consider this hike a 25km round trip. The official tourist board literature states the duration of the hike as being eight hours. That’s beginning and ending in Mestia and walking up the road past the airport until it runs out. Well, 25km would take me more than eight hours including collapses, even if much of it is fairly flat.

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Keen not to have to quit before the good bit, I hired a lovely driver called Nodani. I found him in the main square in his adapted Subaru – look for the Subaru sunshield and a disabled badge in his rear windscreen. He agreed to drive me to the suspension bridge that crosses the River Mestiachala. It costs a flat rate of 80 lari (about £26). It’s also possible to rent horses, but they looked pretty frisky and once you pay for the guide too, it’s not a cheap option.

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Allow time to enjoy the hike

Most people book a two hour gap between rides; I made it three so as not to have to rush. I was keen to take the hike at a steady pace and allow enough time to appreciate my surroundings. I thought I’d make an afternoon of it but in actual fact got back thirty minutes ahead of schedule. No biggie: there’s a cafe at the bridge where I waited for Nodani to come and collect me.

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You won’t get lost

A concern if you’re hiking solo, as I was, is getting lost. Most trails are marked but the frequency of such signs can be less than you need. Not so here, where they’ve helpfully painted red and white rectangles on assorted rocks and tree trunks. There was even an arrow cut into the tree trunks in some places. It was very clear which direction you needed to take, so you won’t get lost.

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The uphill bits were a bit of a slog

Remember, I’m no athlete. If you are reasonably fit, then this will be a piece of cake. But the altitude at the river is around 1600 metres above sea level, rising to about 1920 up near the glacier. If like me you live at sea level, the thinner air won’t help either. But it’s shady amid the trees and where the route passes through the forest, you’ll see plenty of pretty flowers and lichen covered rocks.

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The path wasn’t difficult to navigate as the stones formed a natural staircase. I took frequent rests and carried plenty of water. Further up, heavy rains a few days before my hike meant the water was running high and parts of the path had turned into a shallow stream. Luckily it wasn’t deep enough to leave me with wet feet.

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You have to cross a boulder field

About halfway to the glacier, you reach an area where rockfalls have created a big obstacle. Boulders of various sizes lie piled up. Some are steady, others move disconcertingly beneath your feet. I fell foul of such a hazard when I hiked one of Sweden’s High Coast trails last year and ended up with a nasty cut and bruised elbow. There are also deep gaps between some of the stones, meaning a misstep would leave me with a twisted ankle or worse. This was the scariest part of the hike, more so on the way back down as higher up the slope I could hear rocks falling. Fortunately I managed to cross without incident and didn’t end up a casualty of a rock avalanche. You’ll need decent boots though.

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You can cut out the very top part of the hike and still see the glacier

Once you’ve successfully negotiated the boulders, the path is an easy one and leads to a flower strewn meadow by the river. Here, you get a fabulous view of the glacier itself and in its mountain setting, it really is a spectacular view. Turn around, and you’ll see mountains behind you too. Unless you’re really dead set on touching the glacier, you’ll be scrambling over terminal moraine to get any higher. Personally, given the timing of my visit in early summer when the ice is melting and there’s a real possibility of being hit by falling ice or rocks, I didn’t continue. If you carry on, as many do, it’s advisable to use walking poles.

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Is it worth it?

That’s a resounding yes! If the weather’s playing nicely as it was during my visit, it’s hard to imagine a better way of spending an afternoon. But to maximise your time spent at the scenic parts of the trail, I’d definitely advise hiring a driver for that dull airport road.

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What you need to know about the US laptop ban

Much has been written in the press over the past week on the subject of a ban on larger electronics items entering the United States with airline passengers.  Following on from the March policy shift in which inbound flights from certain Middle Eastern and North African destinations, there’s speculation that such a policy could be extended to European destinations.

What’s the current situation?

At present, passengers travelling to the US from ten airports are affected: Queen Alia International Airport (AMM), Cairo International Airport (CAI), Ataturk International Airport (IST), King Abdul-Aziz International Airport (JED), King Khalid International Airport (RUH), Kuwait International Airport (KWI), Mohammed V Airport (CMN), Hamad International Airport (DOH), Dubai International Airport (DXB) and Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH).

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Large electronics items, including laptops but also larger cameras like DSLRs and tablets such as the iPad, must be carried in the hold and cannot be taken on board the flight.  How airlines are implementing this varies, but some are offering gate check in and secure packaging in the form of bubble wrap and cardboard boxes.  This policy doesn’t extend to the return leg; flights departing the US for these ten airports are not subject to the same restrictions.

So why are people getting upset?  Surely they can do without their gadgets for a few hours?

As talk grows about an extension to the ban, so too do certain worrying facts emerge.  Many of these larger items are powered by lithium ion batteries, which up to now have been banned from the hold for safety reasons.  They carry a risk of catching fire, something that could have disastrous consequences if unnoticed.  The FAA itself stated its concerns in 2016:

http://abcnews.go.com/US/lithium-batteries-spark-catastrophic-plane-fires-faa-warns/story?id=36816040

There’s more here, from The Independent:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/laptop-ban-uk-flights-usa-america-donald-trump-british-airline-pilots-association-heathrow-a7736076.html

There’s also the issue of sensitive data on company laptops and directives from some businesses to their employees requiring them to keep such equipment on their person whilst travelling.  For the regular tourist, it’s more a case of a lack of insurance.  I might just about be able to cope without my iPad on a long flight if I went back to those old fashioned paperback things I used to lug around, but if the airline then loses my suitcase, my travel insurance policy won’t pay out.  I really can’t afford to replace my DSLR if the lens gets smashed in transit.  So, with a flight to Houston looming on Friday, I’ve been watching the TSA website and Twitter like a stalker.

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So have they made a decision yet?

There were some misleading headlines last week, like this one in NYMag following a piece in The Daily Beast:

http://nymag.com/selectall/2017/05/laptops-banned-in-plane-cabin-on-flights-from-europe-to-u-s.html

Retweeted and quoted to within an inch of its life, The Daily Beast’s article, claiming an announcement would be made Thursday 11 May, sparked an angry reaction.  In part, there was a touch of indignation along the lines of European nations being way too civilised to be lumped together with the Middle East.

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But amidst all the fuss, some serious issues for the Americans began to be raised, not least the impact that it would have to the US economy and its tourism sector.  This article from The Independent explains:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/laptop-ban-on-flights-electronic-devices-travel-industry-airlines-travelport-a7737671.html

Yes, you read that right: 1 in 3 potential foreign tourists would think twice about going if this policy becomes a reality.  I’m among them.  I’d be seriously concerned about that fire risk, especially on such a long flight.

Here’s a follow up article, also from The Independent:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/laptop-ban-europe-economic-tsunami-travel-industry-electronic-devices-flights-plane-hold-uk-usa-a7740396.html

I’m hoping, as we get closer to my departure date, that even if the electronics ban is widened, the changes won’t take effect until after I’m there.  Getting my valuables back to Blighty in one piece will be, as it has always been, down to me.  But after that, much as it pains me to say given my love of the USA, I’d have to give it a miss, at least until the TSA came to its senses once more.  It was reported that the TSA met with representatives of the US’ major airlines last Friday to see how a ban could be implemented; sources indicate that further meetings were to be held with EU personnel today.  At the time of writing, there’s been no announcement.

Watch this space.

Update 18.5.17

Well as it turned out we didn’t have to wait too long for an update.  Common sense has prevailed and the EU have persuaded the US authorities that widening the ban on larger electronics would be foolish:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-39956968

The ban still exists for the ten Middle Eastern and North African airports, so think about your safety before you opt to fly.  Happy travels!


Best kept secrets? I’ll give you a few of mine…

Sometimes there’s a travel listicle that does the rounds that just makes you laugh out loud.  I’ve just read a piece by Tour Radar claiming to have been written in conjunction with Lonely Planet which puts Prague, Sri Lanka and Goa on a compilation of eight “best kept secrets”.  I’m sorry, but walk into any High Street travel agent and it won’t be hard to find a package to any of those.  I’m shocked that this got through the filter, if I’m honest, so here’s my response.  You want best kept secrets?  I’ll reveal a few of mine.

Karajia, Peru

Everyone goes south from Lima, but head north and leave the crowds behind.  The area around Chachapoyas has some superb sights and you’ll often get them to yourself.  Read more in my guide to Northern Peru’s Chacha circuit here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/northern-peru-the-chacha-circuit/

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The sarcophagi at Karajia

Citadelle Laferriere, Haiti

Haiti’s troubled political history and its penchant for getting right in the way of terrible natural disasters means that tourist infrastructure is severely limited.  Make the effort, though, and there are many wonderful places to be explored.  Aside from Jacmel, I pretty much had everywhere to myself.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/07/05/looking-back-on-my-trip-to-haiti/

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The view from the Citadelle

Copan Ruinas, Honduras

Central America is packed with Mayan ruins but you’ll have a hard time finding space for a bit of quiet reflection if you stick to the beaten track.  Honduras’ reputation as the murder capital of the world keeps the tourists away, but the savvy traveller will know that away from the large cities, the country is as safe as they come.  Saddle up and see for yourself in sleepy Copan Ruinas.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/08/12/the-best-places-to-ride-a-horse-on-holiday/

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Riding with the cowboys up near the border with Guatemala

Obuasi, Ghana

The only other foreigners at the lodge in Obuasi were a bunch of South Africans who partied hard by night and worked the gold mine by day.  Few tourists make it to this part of Ghana but it remains one of my favourite underground experiences.

http://www.gonomad.com/5032-ghana-going-down-a-gold-mine-in-obuasi

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Obuasi miners at shift change

Tanna, Vanuatu

The draw of this South Pacific island is well documented – an active volcano which bred the Prince Philip cult. Its remoteness, however, means that it sees relatively few tourists and those that venture are likely to have little company as they view some of the most spectacular sights on the planet.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/looking-back-on-my-trip-to-tanna-vanuatu/

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Mount Yasur erupts

Bremen, Germany

If you’re looking for somewhere off the beaten track in Europe, you’re going to have to search hard.  Bremen’s northerly location in Germany means it sees relatively few visitors and yet there’s lots to do and see.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/10/03/beautiful-bremen/

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/06/07/just-back-from-a-day-trip-to-bremen/

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Windmill in the park

Extremadura, Spain

Also in a country that sees its fair share of international tourists is the delightful region of Extremadura.  Overlooked in favour of its southerly neighbour Andalusia, yet an easy ride from Madrid, this part of Spain is packed with history and extraordinary scenery.  Get there before everyone else.  No, scratch that – leave this one to me!

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/07/12/a-beginners-guide-to-extremadura/

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The sound of Spanish guitar carries across Cáceres’ Ciudad Monumental


New York for second-timers

OK, so you’ve been to the Big Apple, and during that first trip, you diligently ticked off the essential sights: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State (other towers are available!), the Brooklyn Bridge.  You strolled through Central Park, caught the Staten Island ferry, shopped on 5th Avenue, dined in the neon-lit Times Square and were humbled by your emotions at the 9/11 Memorial.  So that’s it, right?  Wrong.  Here are some great New York City experiences to keep you busy when you return for more.

Bronx Botanical Gardens and Zoo

These two attractions are just a short walk from each other, so combining them on the same day makes sense, especially on a Wednesday when you can get into most exhibits free of charge.  I visited in November, the perfect time to witness the fall colours at their best and watch the animals play without distracting crowds.

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High Line or Lowline?

Both, of course.  The High Line park is now well established on everyone’s must-see list for New York, and won’t disappoint.  I love it in winter; if the sun’s shining and the wind’s absent, there’s no place better to chill out.  But now the elevated railway has a rival, at weekends at least: the Lowline Lab, an experimental space destined to become the city’s first underground park.

Update: the Lowline has now closed.

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Gospel brunch in Harlem

The other great way to spend a Sunday is to savour the tastes and of course the sounds of brunch in Harlem.  You don’t have to be religious – just musical – to appreciate the atmosphere and joy generated in a number of excellent eateries.  Sylvia’s and The Cotton Club have been at it for years, but I opted for a relative newcomer, Ginny’s Supper Club, located in the basement of Red Rooster – and wasn’t disappointed.

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City of New York Museum

You’ll have paid a visit to the Met and the Guggenheim last time, so how about learning a little of the city’s history to give you some context.  Located beyond the Upper East Side facing the north-east corner of Central Park, it’s the perfect place to learn more about the story that whizzed past you as you ascended the elevator to the top of the Freedom Tower.

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Skyscraper Museum

This tiny museum is tucked away around the corner from Battery Park, but is well worth the detour.  It has a mixture of permanent and rotating exhibits, explaining the development of the skyscraper and its contribution to the city’s iconic skyline.  If you’re in the city between now and January, check out the Skyline installation.

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Governors Island

Once known as Nut Island, this tiny haven from the noise of Manhattan was renamed Governors Island by the British in 1699 who occupied it until the time of the American Revolution.  Later a military base for the US Army and home to the Coastguard, it’s now open during the summer months as a city playground.  Once you’ve admired the view of southern Manhattan, rent a bicycle, enjoy a lazy picnic or try out Slide Hill, one of the island’s newest attractions.

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Watch a game

Which sport you watch depends of course on the season in which you visit. In summer or autumn, head up to 161st Street where you’ll find the Yankee Stadium.  In winter, try the ice hockey at a fast-paced Rangers game or watch the Knicks play basketball at Madison Square Garden.  The latter offers an interesting backstage tour as well.  For those of us visiting from outside the US, it’s as much an exercise in people-watching as anything else.  Attention spans are low compared to the intensity of watching the footie back home, for instance, but grab a beer and a hot dog to soak it up anyway.

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Bryant Park Christmas market

Once Thanksgiving has passed, it’s time to focus on Christmas.  My favourite Christmas market in the city is at Bryant Park, an easy hop from Times Square in the heart of Midtown, though the last time I was there heavy rainfall had flooded the paths and many of the stallholders had gone home early.  Union Square also has a market, a little smaller but also worth a look.

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Roosevelt Island tramway

It’s been a while since I rode this, but a ride on the Roosevelt Island tramway is worth it for the views alone.  After the Staten Island ferry, it’s probably the biggest public transport bargain in the city, as you can ride it for a price equivalent to a single subway ride using your MTA card.  If you think it looks familiar, that’s because t’s been featured in many movies, including Scarface, City Slickers, Now You See Me and Spiderman.

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New York Transit Museum

The shops and cafes of Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg are well-documented but a few miles down the road, you’ll find the New York Transit Museum, occupying a decommissioned subway station where Boerum Place meets Schermerhorn Street.  Underground, you’ll find a collection of vintage subway cars, some of which are over a hundred years old.  The best bit: no one minds if you hop on board.

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Tips for keeping yourself – and your stuff – safe while you’re travelling

Travel safety is a big consideration for most travellers and as a solo female, it’s something that has to be thought about, both at the planning stage and while I’m on the road. Here’s some advice based on what I’ve learned over the years about keeping myself safe.

Plan before you go

I hold what I call my reserve bucket list. I contains places that I hope to go to one day, but for safety or security reasons aren’t top of the list right now. One of the websites I go to when I have a trip idea involving somewhere that might just be a bit dodgy is the FCO’s – and in particular its Travel Advice by Country. Sometimes it can make for scary reading, but knowledge is never a bad thing. The FCO’s up to date facts about a country can help rule it out – sorry, Mali, you’ll just have to wait in line with Yemen – but where it’s clear that any issues involving safety are contained to a specific part of the country, it can sometimes rule a country in.

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Guatemala – one place where the FCO’s advice helped me prepare

Keep abreast of news while on the road

I’ve found Twitter to be an invaluable help in finding out what’s going on within a country from the inside. In Haiti last year, it was the most accurate way of tracking the unrest triggered by fuel price rises and ensuring that I didn’t leave sleepy Jacmel too early. It’s also been handy to check how the roads are running in and out of Calais when my family have taken a cross Channel ferry during the recent difficulties.

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Haiti – not the safest place to travel but  certainly interesting

Think about luggage

Habitually I travel with a rigid-shell wheelie, which would be harder for thieves to slash than a soft suitcase. My aim is usually to appear a more difficult target than someone else, so to that end I ensure zips and fastenings are done up, small padlocks secure outside pockets from interfering fingers and bags are worn cross-body so they can’t easily be slipped off my shoulder. Valuables are buried deep within inside pockets and expensive equipment like cameras are in plain bags rather than labelled ones with Nikon or Canon clearly visible. One thing I never do, though, is wear my rucksack on my chest – personally, I just think that marks you out as a dumb tourist and makes you more of a target.

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My trusty travelling companions, seen here waiting for a ferry in the Seychelles

Trust your instincts

Over the years I’ve either been lucky or I’ve developed the skill of knowing when something just doesn’t feel right.  Of course, I could have been blissfully unaware of any potential danger.  Sometimes, you just have to go with your gut and accept help or hospitality from complete strangers.  I’ve trusted people to give me a lift and turned others down simply because it didn’t seem right; spoken to others at length and entered their homes while avoiding eye contact with others.  One of the most rewarding aspects of travelling is the encounters you have with people along the way, which would be impossible if your guard was always up.  So far, though I shouldn’t want to jinx my luck, I’ve never got myself into any situation I couldn’t get out of.  Perhaps that’s the key – have an exit strategy in the back of your mind.

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I’ve been rescued by a group of Rastas in Zambia

Choose accommodation in a safe location

It can be tempting to book a hotel or hostel near a bus or train station but I do check first to find out if that puts it in an insalubrious district. Better to have a short taxi ride or subway trip than to risk walking around somewhere that I’m more likely to get robbed. That’s especially important if I’m arriving after dark, which may be earlier than at home, of course. If arriving after nightfall is unavoidable, then I’ll almost always take a taxi; to do otherwise could be false economy. It’s also good to take local advice.  The hostel I stayed at in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, was very clear with the advice posted on its gate: leave anything behind that you didn’t wish to lose – pickpockets were, sadly, rife.

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Damascus in the daylight

Ironically as it turned out, when I visited Syria just months before the civil war kicked off, I took the airport bus from Damascus into the city and then walked alone through its deserted streets at 2 am – and have rarely felt safer than I did that night. Perhaps safety is a state of mind?


Travel hacks for solo travel

For almost three decades, I’ve happily travelled the globe alone. While I enjoy travelling with family or friends, nothing beats the joy of being by myself as I discover a new place. But there are, as with anything worthwhile, a few issues to consider. Here are a few tips to help you discover solo nirvana.

Watching the bags

One of the most inconvenient things about travelling alone is having no one with you to watch your bags.  With a bag on your back or at your feet, you become very vulnerable when your attention is distracted – like when you’re booking a bus ticket for instance.  There are several ways of reducing the chances of being robbed.  Travelling light is the obvious one – carry less stuff and there’s less chance of that stuff being stolen.

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All the luggage I needed for a two-week trip to the Indian Ocean

Also consider which type of luggage you’re carrying and how to avoid being the victim of an opportunist thief.  I travel with a hard shell wheelie and when I’m off somewhere dodgy, pop a mini padlock on my rucksack.  It’s not foolproof – a bag slasher obviously wouldn’t have a problem – but it is a small deterrent.  If the person next to you has their bag wide open, you’re not going to be the first choice for a thief.  Keep your bags in sight and where possible, keep the strap across your body.

Timing is everything

On a related point, I’ve never thought it would be smart to leave my bags unattended. I’ve no wish to be the reason an airport is evacuated. But I’m also regularly the victim of suggestion – and if I see a toilet, then there’s  a good chance I need to visit it.  That can be tricky when you’re on the move with all your bags and the floors are at best grubby, at worst, well, let’s not go there…

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No single option even in the loo – Norway’s answer to toilet queues

Timing is everything. Go before you leave your hotel, in an airport where the cubicle could be big and clean enough to leave belongings on the floor or somewhere there’s a solid, heavy duty hook. And pray it’s not a squat toilet. Believe me when I say it’s almost impossible to keep your balance with a rucksack on your back.

Avoid tours

The dreaded single supplement can make it all too obvious that solo travellers incur a financial penalty from some establishments. While I understand how frustrating it must be for hoteliers to lose half the potential revenue from a double or twin room, I still have a travel budget to stick to. I look for hotels with single rooms – they’re not all windowless cells shoved in basements – and unpackage my trip to swap private drivers for public transport.

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Don’t rule out private rooms in hostels for single occupancy

I also avoid tour companies promising single rooms without the single supplement – usually all they’ve done is absorbed those charges into their headline price. If I do need to take a tour, I opt to share with a same-sex stranger – sometimes you get lucky and get a room to yourself anyway and where that’s not been the case, I’m relieved to say my room mate has been a pleasant distraction for a few nights and not a surprise snorer.

Personal space

Most of the time, while I’m happy for my husband to rest his head on my shoulder, the same doesn’t apply for complete strangers who just happen to be occupying the seat beside me. On buses and trains, I seat myself on the aisle seat with my bag by the window. Most people would prefer to slide into an empty seat rather than have to ask someone to move, so you often keep your seat even when the bus is quite full.  I’m always gazing intently at something out of the window, though if they ask me to move over or let them in, I always do so with a smile.  There’s no sense in pissing someone off who’s going to be next to you for hours.  It’s also easier than you might think to find single seats, whether on trains or on the overnight sleeper buses that are common in South America.

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No shortage of space on Italy’s FrecciaRossa trains in executive class

If you do end up next to someone, it’s not the end of the world. The most comfortable flight I ever took was an overnighter from Ghana wedged tightly up against a very large woman – she was as soft as a goose feather pillow and happy for me to snuggle up as she spilled over into my seat.

Eat at the bar

Often, the only time when I’m really conscious I’m travelling alone is when it comes to dinner. Where eating breakfast without a companion rarely feels odd, there still seems to be a stigma about sitting alone over dinner. I’ve never been one for room service (and let’s face it, rarely stay somewhere smart enough to even have room service) so how do I overcome the thorny problem of dinner for one? I’m not frightened to say no to a table shoved up at the back of a restaurant by the kitchen door – if they don’t want to give me a decent table, I’m quite happy to take my business elsewhere.

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Alas, there was no one present to witness me eating grasshoppers in Mexico 

But if I’m feeling sociable I often sit at the bar to eat, as the bar tender and fellow patrons are often chattier there. And if I’m not, I’m quite happy to read a book between courses or simply people watch.

If you’re thinking of travelling solo but are scared to try it – don’t be! It might just be the best thing you’ve ever done.


Weather to travel: New York City

For a first time visitor wanting to maximise sightseeing time, good weather is a must, but when’s the best time to visit New York City? I’ve visited in all seasons, so here are some observations and tips based on my experience.

Avoid summer if you can

Summer in the city, with its long sunny days and picnics in the park, sounds like the perfect recipe for a great trip, right? Wrong! New York in summer is humid and hot. Typical temperatures push 30°C which in my opinion is too hot for sightseeing. Add to that average humidity which peaks in August at around 70% and conditions are often unpleasant. It’s sweltering if there’s a storm brewing and when the rain does fall, it’ll be heavy and you can expect localised flooding.

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Beating the summer heat on a bicycle round Governor’s Island

It’s beach weather, sure, and there are some fun places to go close to the city like Coney Island, but if you’re planning to visit the Big Apple’s iconic sights like the Empire State and the Statue of Liberty, then you’ll be standing in line until you’re good and sweaty. If you have booked to travel between June and August, then take a ferry to Governor’s Island to catch a breeze, rent a boat from Central Park’s Loeb Boathouse or head out of Manhattan to the Botanical Gardens in the Bronx.

Don’t write off winter

Travelling to New York in winter is not without its risks. If your holiday coincides with a big winter storm, then you can find yourself stranded if the subway system shuts down and the buses can’t get through. That said, there’s a lot of fun to be had snowballing in Central Park and seeing the rooftops dusted with powder. Overnight temperatures can plunge to -10°C or below, but in the daytime, it usually hovers around zero. Wind may well be your biggest problem, but an advantage of a grid pattern street network is that if you turn a corner, you’ll come out of the icy blast and warm up. Make sure you pack accordingly, and don’t skimp on the hats, scarves and windproof down jacket.

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Coney Island closed for the winter

The main advantage of travelling in winter is the lack of crowds – those who venture to the Big Apple in winter are rewarded handsomely. First-timers can pack more into an itinerary and reduce the need for pre-booking popular attractions such as the Freedom Tower. It’ll also be easier to pick up tickets for popular Broadway shows. Restaurant week takes place in late January or early February, with lots of establishments offering special menus and good deals.

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9/11 Memorial in winter

Spring and autumn might just be the best compromise

Temperatures by April are on the rise, and it can be warm and sunny through into October, so travelling in the shoulder seasons is a good option. You’re looking at an average of around 17°C in May which in my book is perfect for sightseeing. Statistically, October is the driest month, though that was also the month in 2012 that Storm Sandy wreaked havoc, so it’s not a dead cert. April is the wettest, but rainfall averages are fairly constant through the year so that’s not a deal breaker. Markets reemerge from their winter hibernation, blossom enhances the High Line and stepping out is a pleasure.

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Some of New York’s attractions are great whatever the weather

Book your hotel well ahead, however, because late spring and early autumn are when you’ll see accommodation prices spike – it makes sense, of course, as you would expect demand to drive up rates. May sees temperatures climb and after Memorial Day weekend, summer has officially started; try earlier in the month if you prefer it less busy. You’re more likely to find a deal in November, and maybe even plan a trip to coincide with Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, and the leaves will be on the turn in the city’s parks to boot.

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The Bronx River in autumn

What I have learned over the years and through numerous visits, is that there’s really never a bad time to go. My personal preference is for a winter trip, but I’ve never had a bad holiday in New York yet.

Tempted to book? Don’t miss these earlier posts from Julia’s Travels:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/01/06/julias-guide-to-new-york-part-1-lower-manhattan/

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/01/06/julias-guide-to-new-york-part-2-manhattan-west/

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/01/07/julias-guide-to-new-york-part-3-manhattan-east/

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/01/24/tips-for-getting-the-best-out-of-a-trip-to-new-york-city/


How to survive a long haul flight

Always wanted to visit that far flung destination but dread the flight you’ll need to take to get there? Sometimes a long haul flight is the hell that has to be endured to reach paradise. If you aren’t lucky enough to fly First Class or have incredible views beneath you through a cloudless sky, you might need my help. Here are a few tried and tested tips for making that journey fly by (sorry, couldn’t resist!)

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London at dawn from the air

Drink plenty

Sadly, I don’t mean chug back the wine and pass out. Save the alcohol for your holiday and instead drink plenty of water. Flying is very dehydrating – which means if you don’t keep topping up your liquids, on top of thirst, you risk suffering headaches, dry skin and tiredness. And none of those are conducive to a happy flight. You can keep asking cabin crew for water, but you might be more popular if you buy a bottle of water from the airside newsagents before you board. Pack a travel-size moisturiser to keep your skin hydrated too.

Keep moving

Unless you’re still lucky enough to be a lithe and supple twenty something who can curl themselves up into a ball on take off and stretch like a contented cat as they awake on landing, a long flight potentially means discomfort. Spending a long time in a cramped environment leads to aching muscles and stiff joints. Make a point of getting up at regular intervals to move those legs and you’ll feel much better for it.

Bring some reading material

Forget War and Peace, what I take on a flight has to be easy to read. Eschew the literary classics and think chick lit, trashy magazines and historical sagas. I was so engrossed in Jeffrey Archer’s Clifton Chronicles on a recent flight I barely noticed we’d landed. Make sure the Kindle’s fully charged or go retro and take a paperback. And if you’re taking a guide book, don’t pack it in your hold luggage; plan your trip in the air to maximise time for sightseeing when you arrive.

Save up your correspondence

There are rarely enough hours in the day to fit everything in and it’s not uncommon to fall behind, so I spend some of a long flight writing drafts of emails on my iPad ready to send when I arrive. (Some airlines offer Internet access on board but check the small print to find out how much it’s likely to cost before you connect.) I also use the time to write future blog posts, draft articles for clients and make to do lists.

Make the most of the on-board entertainment

Listen to the album you’ve not had chance to download, engross yourself in that film you failed to catch at the cinema, binge watch addictive TV sitcoms – most airlines have plenty of choice. I also make sure I’ve got lots of games on my tablet so I can pass the time playing Scrabble, card games and Sudoku.

Talk to your neighbour

Whether you’re travelling with a companion or solo, it’s often pleasant to chat. Take the hint though if your neighbour is monosyllabic with their responses – some people might find your inane chatter intensely annoying. And if you’re stuck with the cabin’s biggest bore, dig out some headphones and announce with an apologetic shrug you’ve been looking forward to listening to that album or audio book for ages.

Hit the snooze button

If all else fails, sleep. Beg, borrow or steal an extra pillow and blanket to pad out those uncomfortable armrests and snatch a nap or two.


Why not paying attention to your Geography teacher could cost you dearly

Next time you go online to book flights, be careful. You may end up miles off course if you don’t double check your booking before you confirm travel.  As an ex-Geography teacher myself, I couldn’t help but shake my head in despair at the unfortunate couple who this week made the news as they managed to book themselves flights to Las Vegas from Birmingham Alabama rather than the UK’s second largest city:

Couple book flights from Birmingham airport… What could possibly go wrong?

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Vegas, baby!

While it’s a shame they missed out on their dream holiday, it shouldn’t be an easy mistake to make.  Flight booking sites are easy to navigate and cities clearly identifiable.  They’re not the first, either.  I remember a couple trying to get to see their daughter in San Jose, Mexico but who ended up flying to San Jose, California instead:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/news/Couple-mistakenly-fly-to-San-Jose-California-instead-of-San-Jose-Mexico/

The flight codes are only one letter different, so if I’m being generous that could have been hard to spot. But then there was the granny who actually wanted to be in San Jose, California but headed to the Costa Rican capital instead:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-118629/Grandmother-flown-3-000-miles-way.html

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The beautiful Spanish city of Granada

While many accept responsibility for their mistakes, some just can’t believe it. This American couple decided to sue when they were wrongly routed to the Caribbean island of Grenada instead of the Spanish city Granada:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/25/american-couple-sue-british-airways-grenada-granada

They aren’t the only ones to fall foul of these two similar sounding places, though at least this granny can claim she was misheard:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2478016/Granny-sent-Grenada-instead-Granada-booking-mix-up.html

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Dakar’s colourful boats

I could go on and on.  The internet’s full of tales of people mixing up Dakar and Dhaka, respectively the capitals of Senegal and Bangladesh and located on different continents, Melbourne, Florida and Melbourne, Australia (I’d recommend the latter if you can’t decide which to add to your bucket list), and Paris, Texas with the French capital itself.

So, if your child isn’t paying as much attention as you’d like in school, show them this blog and tell them to pull their socks up, or one day they might find themselves facing an expensive onward flight!


When it isn’t OK to post a bad review

Recently I stayed in a hotel very close to Colombo’s airport, the Otha Shy Airport Hotel. The Sri Lankan capital is some distance away, and as I had a late arrival followed by a morning onward flight, I was more focused on location than quality. I took a cursory look at some reviews but didn’t bother with much more.  The price was reasonable, it looked clean and I wasn’t going to have to spend an hour in traffic worrying whether I’d miss my flight.

On arrival, at nearly midnight following a delayed flight, the person manning reception was pleasant and efficient. He gave me a complimentary bottle of water and a working WiFi code. The room was spotless and I had a comfortable night’s sleep. I woke reasonably early and half an hour or so later I became aware of some persistent hammering from the floor above. I wasn’t too worried, as I was about to check out anyway.

On check out, the reason became apparent: the ground floor was complete but the first floor was a scaffolding-clad building site. Never mind: the owner was still charm personified and despite his late night, gave me a free lift to the airport about ten minutes up the road.

Curious, I checked the reviews. Most were very positive.  Here’s what Trip Advisor has to say: https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g2550421-d8656795-Reviews-Otha_Shy_Airport_Hotel-Katunayaka_Western_Province.html#review_361396695 and here are the reviews on Booking.com: http://www.booking.com/hotel/lk/otha-shy-airport.en-gb.html#tab-reviews.

The owner was very enthusiastic about his expansion plans and convinced that the building work would be completed this month (April 2016).  He was the kind of man you want to root for; he had a dream and was determined to realise it.  What’s nice is that the lack of poor reviews means that the people that have stayed there while construction is underway get that.  I can’t imagine there being much leeway in his budget, so he’d need bookings for his ground floor rooms despite the noise or disruption.  A few bad reviews could scupper his dreams.

I’m not in the habit of destroying someone’s chances to improve themselves.  Mr Nalaka, I wish you every success with your business and if I return to Sri Lanka, I’ll be booking my old room.


Tea time in the Hill Country

I expected tea picking to be difficult. Working in the sun on scarily steep slopes for eight hours wouldn’t be my choice of job and certainly not for the 600 rupee (£3) daily wage that these industrious women earn.

Tea pickers off to work

Tea pickers off to work

Learning that the Heritance Tea Factory offered a tea plucking and tasting activity, I jumped at the chance to try my hand. The slopes carpeted with squat tea bushes were relatively gentle compared to those I’d seen from the train on the way in and thickening cloud promised to deal with the heat issue.

Weather changes fast in the hills

Weather changes fast in the hills

The staff at the Heritance kitted out their small but enthusiastic team of volunteers in suitable attire: saris for the women and sarongs for the men. Raising my arms, my dresser tied a string snugly around my waist, into which she tucked a carefully pleated sari. Six metres of fabric is expertly tied to create an elegantly flowing dress, pinned across one shoulder to ensure modesty isn’t neglected.

The basket for collecting leaves

The basket for collecting leaves

Elegant, that is, until I moved. Sadly walking in a long dress without tripping had never been a skill I’d mastered and squeezing my way through the tiniest of gaps between tea bushes only compounded my clumsiness. Unhooking me from a stray piece of barbed wire, our guide led me to the plucking area and demonstrated which leaves to pick.

The guide showed us which leaves to pluck

The guide showed us which leaves to pluck

Get it wrong and the tea will be useless.

Tea, glorious tea!

Tea, glorious tea!

As I started to pick what I hoped were the softer, greener leaves I wished I’d paid closer attention to those deftly thrown into the basket by the expert. My basket, with an optimistic capacity of 3kg given we were only out here for half an hour, looked pathetically empty, despite the guide’s surreptitious efforts to sneak a few handfuls of her leaves in when my attention was diverted.

Not much to show for my efforts

Not much to show for my efforts


No shortage of tea bushes

No shortage of tea bushes

The bag attached with a wide canvas strap across my forehead. As I bent over to pick, it swung a little, needing the weight of some leaves to hold it steady. That strap seemed to have a mind of its own, alternating between slipping down onto my glasses and wriggling up to form a Sixties’ style beehive. Eventually, I gave up and balanced the basket on the ground. It wasn’t quite what was expected but at least I could fling in a few more leaves before my shift ended to save face.

The area surrounding Heritance is stunning

The area surrounding Heritance is stunning

It was hard to concentrate given the beauty of the landscape surrounding the hotel – and indeed, it’s own well-tended gardens. The Heritance Tea Factory has a long history. Its original owner was a man called William Flowerdew who bought the land in 1879, only a decade or so after tea bushes were introduced to Sri Lanka by Scot James Taylor.

Heritance Tea Factory

Heritance Tea Factory

Flowerdew named his factory Hethersett, producing around half a million kilos of tea each year for decades.

Machinery from the factory still in place

Machinery from the factory still in place

The factory buildings were modernised in 1937 but the factory closed, no longer economic, in 1973. Fortunately, it soon underwent a sympathetic restoration: much of the factory machinery remains in situ to make this what surely must be a unique hotel and, with attentive staff, a delight in which to stay.

The table laid for tea tasting; flavour and strength are determined only by how small the leaves have been ground

The hotel has its own tea bar; flavour and strength are determined only by how small the leaves have been ground

The fact that they serve a decent cuppa – well, that’s just a bonus.

Hands off the Flowery Pekoe!

Hands off the Flowery Pekoe!


Packing tips from someone who learnt the hard way

1995.  The end of a six week holiday in Peru, my first big trip.  I’d been completely clueless when it came to packing, wondering how I’d fit six weeks’ worth of clothes into my suitcase (did I even have six weeks’ worth of clothes?) and trying to check in at the airport with the entire stock of Arequipa’s souvenir vendors. It took a lot of begging but I somehow managed to avoid excess baggage charges despite the fact that I couldn’t even lift my suitcase onto the weighing scales.  I was then the kind of traveller I laugh at now.  How easy it is to forget.

Peru Llama girls and Inca stonework

Cusco 1995

1997.  I’d downsized my suitcase, though not by much, and figured a lightweight trolley would help me drag it around Morocco.  The dust, potholes and uneven surfaces took their toll and once again I was heaving half my worldly goods on and off trains in the August heat.  It was uncomfortable, ineffective and something had to change.  A backpack was out as I could never trust my dodgy back to cope, and a little hard-sided wheelie became my saviour and trusty travelling companion for over a decade, only to be replaced when its lightweight sibling hit the market.  I’ve never looked back.

Morocco Djemaa water sellers (1)

Marrakesh 1997

Fitting my stuff into a tiny wheelie has taken practice, but I reckon now I’ve got it down to a fine art.  Here’s my top tips.

Take as few clothes as you can get away with

It’s never very far to a laundry.  Look for one that operates by weight rather than by individual item and avoid hotel laundries like the plague.  Alternatively, pack a couple of washing capsules in a small plastic tub and do it yourself in a self-service laundrette.  You’ll meet local people and who knows where that might lead?

Pack things that work together

Take clothes that don’t need ironing and roll them as you pack them to avoid any creases.  Make sure everything goes together and never take something just in case you might need it – you won’t.  Don’t forget a swimsuit and flip flops.  Forget about a hair drier or straighteners.  You’re on holiday, who cares?

Wear the heavy stuff

Hiking boots are bulky and heavy.  They’ll take up way too much space in your suitcase so if you need them, travel in them.  Ditto a thick fleece or coat; if you don’t need it in your plane/train/automobile you can fold it up and use it as a pillow. Ignore anyone who says you can do that with a sarong.  They’re just not thick enough to be any good.

Decant toiletries to travel sized containers

In terms of shampoo and the like, you’re really only taking emergency rations.  Reasonable hotels and guest houses will provide toiletries anyway.  If they don’t, you’re never far from a supermarket to go and buy some.

Take wipes instead of bottles

When it comes to insect repellent, take plenty.  It’s not always possible to buy it and there’s nothing that spoils a good holiday faster than a leg full of itchy bites.  Sprays are messy.  Take individually-wrapped wipes instead and as your travels progress, you are making space for shopping.  Don’t forget some wet wipes too to clean your hands afterwards, but again, choose the flat plastic packs not the rigid tubs.

Consider posting things home

A word of caution needed here, obviously.  Don’t post anything you’d be devastated to lose and be prepared for things to take months to get home.  I’ve successfully sent books from Cuba, a bulky throw from Turkey and even dirty laundry!  No matter what the vendors say, though, breakable stuff will rarely be packed well enough to make the journey back unscathed.

Have you got a tip you’d like to share?  I’d love to hear from you!


Changes to the US visa waiver program

A headline on the news section of the BBC’s website caught my eye this morning. It read: “Iranian dual citizens fight new US visa rules”. I’ve never been to Iran but reading on, this article could have directly affected me, but for a few months. The article explained that any British citizen that had been to Syria in the last five years would no longer qualify for the visa waiver program; in other words, they couldn’t travel on an ESTA and would now have to apply for a visa.

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Spices for sale, Damascus 2010

 

I’ve checked my travel diary, in which I keep a list of the places I’ve been and the dates I visited. One of those is Syria. Now, the country is a no-go zone, but just a few short years ago, it was a different place, largely undiscovered by tourists. I wandered the souks of Aleppo and Damascus, travelling between them across the beautiful countryside on a modern train. I enjoyed a wonderful walk through Hama to a soundtrack of creaking norias. You can find out more about them here:
http://www.juliahammond.co.uk/Travel/Hama_time.html

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Noria by the river in Hama 2010

 

I went to Syria and neighbouring Jordan in Spring 2010 and the new regulations stipulate a cut off date of March 2011. That means I’m still good to go to one of my most favourite cities, New York, next May. I was worried, though I don’t regret visiting Syria back then for a moment.  Nor do I condemn the US government for passing such legislation; countries have a right to determine their own security and their own rules.

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Citadel of Aleppo 2010

 

It’s not just Brits and it’s not just Syria. The Wall Street Journal wrote: “Coming up with a comprehensive plan has been challenging. Instead, a piece-by-piece approach appears to be emerging. The initial step was legislation to put some restrictions on the visa-waiver program, which allows travelers from the 38 mostly European and Asian nations to enter the U.S. without obtaining a visa. The measure would ban people from those nations who had traveled to places including Iraq or Syria since March 2011 without first getting a visa. The bill, which passed 407-19, is supported by the White House and is expected to be wrapped into a must-pass spending bill and become law by year’s end.”

You can read the exact wording of the bill here:
https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/158/text

A list of visa waiver countries can be found here:
http://travel.state.gov/content/visas/en/visit/visa-waiver-program.html

Currently, the restrictions affect those who have travelled since 1 March 2011 to Iraq, Syria and “any other country or area of concern designated by the Secretary of Homeland Security” (to be determined within 60 days). If, like me, you’re a fan of visiting unusual destinations, it looks like it’s going to be important to double check you still qualify to travel on an ESTA if you wish to visit the USA.


To stopover, or not to stopover?

One decision to be made when working out a long haul itinerary is whether or not to plan a stopover when booking flights.  Here are a few issues to consider which might help you decide.

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Boeing Dreamliner takes off

What’s it going to do to the flight cost?

Before making a decision to stopover, check out flight combinations and prices. A stopover including a few nights’ accommodation sometimes makes very little difference to the total flight cost compared to a direct flight. A stopover is classed as a stay of more than 24 hours whereas a layover might be just an hour or two. Layovers can also give you the chance to do a bit of sightseeing during your journey. See if you can extend your layover by taking a later flight to your final destination with that same airline. If the city is relatively close to the airport and if transportation is good, you can see a little of the layover city without it increasing the budget at all. Your luggage will usually be checked through to your final destination leaving you with just hand luggage. This has worked for me several times, most recently in Chicago and in Istanbul.

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Istanbul

How much of the world do you want to see?

On both occasions I’ve been to the Antipodes, the best flight deals hubbed through places I’d already visited, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.  Eschewing the stopover didn’t leave me feeling like I’d missed out , but I may have felt differently if I’d never been to the stopover city before.  A trip to Tanzania with Qatar Airways gave me the opportunity for a two-day stopover in the Qatari capital Doha, somewhere I’d not have chosen to visit in itself, but a pleasant stopover nevertheless.  Next year, I’m stopping off in Sri Lanka en route to the Seychelles, a little out of the way but a great opportunity to see more places without vastly inflating my budget.

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Doha

How will you cope with double jet lag?

If you are travelling east over any distance then you’re going to be hit by jet lag. There are things you can do to help alleviate symptoms, including trying to eat and sleep according to the new time zone before you arrive and keeping hydrated during the journey with plenty of water, but the fact remains, jet lag is a very real possibility. On my trips to Australia and New Zealand, I’ve opted for a quick change of flights rather than a few days’ stopover. Why? So I suffer the dreaded jet lag once rather than twice. Admittedly by 4pm on my first day in Sydney I was punch-drunk with fatigue but after a good sleep I was raring to go the next day. In Auckland a few years later, prepared for the same thing, I enjoyed a pleasant day exploring Ponsonby before hitting the hay at 7pm for a decent night’s rest. Again, the following morning, I was fully refreshed and ready to tackle the city instead of facing another long flight. Choose a layover airport with plenty of facilities, such as Singapore’s Changi or Kuala Lumpur International, both of which have airside hotels. You can book a bed or take a shower while you wait for the second flight, and get that horrible journey out of the way in one hit.

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Auckland’s Sky Tower

How much time do you have for your holiday?

If you’re heading long haul for a long stay holiday such as a gap year, then a few weeks exploring somewhere on the way doesn’t make a big dent in the time you’re going to get at your destination.  But if that holiday is restricted to the two or three weeks you’re going to be able to get off work, then you need to think about where you really want to spend it. Ask yourself whether your stopover days will prevent you seeing something amazing at your main destination, or give you the chance to see something equally amazing en route that you’d otherwise have missed.

Australia Sydney Opera House at night

Sydney’s iconic Opera House

Are you likely to get the opportunity to go back?

For some, a long haul trip will be the adventure of a lifetime, and likely to happen only once.  If that’s the case, then stopping on the way to your main destination might be the only chance you’ll have to explore that part of the world and as such, you might be foolish to pass up the chance.  If it’s somewhere that frequently shows up on flight deals websites or is a popular package holiday destination and thus relatively cheap, you might be tempted to ditch the place as a stopover for now and go there later on for a longer holiday.

Thailand Old temple in Ayutthaya

Ayuttahaya, Thailand

Are you unsure about whether you’d like the place or not?

Taking the opportunity to make a stopover in a city is a good way to find out if you like the place enough to book a longer holiday or not. Sometimes, this might be clear beforehand; it’s possible to stop in Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital, on the way to certain North American destinations, but in my opinion, this incredible country warrants more than a couple of days. But if you’re unsure, then staying just a night or two in a place gives you a taster, enough to help you decide whether to tick it off the list or to go back for a more leisurely visit.

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The Sun Voyager statue, Reykjavik