Monday, January 21, 2013

Travel Tips & Tricks from the NY Times Travel Show

The only thing I want out of this world is to see it.  I've never understood anyone who doesn't have a passport, and even more dumbfounded when people who have one, don't use it as much as humanly possible. There are countless places to see, things to do, people to meet, and weird foods to try, and if you can find a great friend (or two or three) who travels similarly to the way you like to that you get to share the world with, then you've hit the ultimate jackpot. So when one of my favorite travel partners brought forward the idea of attending a day of the NY Times Travel Show, I didn't even ask questions about what it was and just said, "Sure, buy my ticket, I'll Venmo you the money, and see you on Sunday."

This was the 10th anniversary of the Travel Show, and it took place over 3 days at the Jacob K. Javits Center in New York City as put on by the NY Times.  A $14 VIP Consumer ticket (pre-bought) got us access to quite a few seminars, over 500 exhibitions, stage shows, food tastings, and an encounter with some penguins.

We chose to go to 4 of the 5 seminars (there were 3 options each hour from 10:30-2:30), and they were all incredibly well done and informative. We also perused the exhibitor floor, which was extremely lively with people in authentic costumes & dance shows. 

Session 1:  Travel & Social Media

Now, I know a thing or two about this social media stuff, but it was great to hear representatives from Mashable, AFAR Magazine, and Johnny Jet talk about how they're using it and which companies they know to be the most active.  They all agreed that social has disrupted travel and that it's an incredibly useful tool in preparing for a trip as well as fast customer service, but that most of them weren't really using it *while* traveling.  I think it's important to mention that the average age in the room had to be circling 50, and the moderator had quite the affinity for chatting about travel agents and giant travel sites like Travelocity &, so there wasn't much mention of modern travel startups like Airbnb, Jetsetter, or Couchsurfing.

This isn't to say that they didn't know much about social, but they mentioned the non-use of social mostly because when you travel the whole point is to soak up the culture & immerse yourself in the place that you're in, instead of having your face in a mobile device.  I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment and style of travel.  Enjoy the ones your with, save the social for before and after mostly. That being said, there probably could have been a little more social savvy on this panel that included understanding some of the more modern ways to get around the world.

Takeaway: The Cranky Concierge, TripTwit, Airfare Watch Dog

Session 2:  // Tips for Traveling Better Cheaper Smarter

We split this session up.  Home Exchange is cool... basically if you've seen the movie "The Holiday" then you've got the exact idea of Home Exchange. The presentation was basically a giant [dry] advertisement, so we left.

Tips for Traveling was the place to be.  Full room, very funny presenter (@JohnnyJets) and he had an entire giant word document list of tips.  Basically, just check out his website Johnny Jet for any takeaways.  He reminded me I need to sign up for Global Entry that I keep forgetting about, so that was a plus.

Session 3: Maximizing Credit Cards for Free w/ The Points Guy (Brian Kelly)

This might have been the most valuable session of the day for me.  As I claw my way out of a little bit of manageable credit card debt, I'm thinking of ways to be smarter about it all and become a mileage points aficionado. I started years ago by signing up for Star Alliance (airline loyalty program), Amtrak Rewards (train), and Starwood Hotels, but this was a really good overview of how to work at getting more for your money. However, it requires a lot of research, a very good understanding of your credit score and what goes into it, and playing a little bit of a numbers game/pay for play.

The trick here is organizing yourself.  Understanding how much you're spending in categories like Airfare, Gas, Grocery, and Dining and which cards will ultimately pay out the most points for things you're doing anyway. Brian Kelly discussed using Amex, Chase, ad Starwood as his preferred systems and the pros & cons of a Transferable, Cobranded, & Fixed Value credit card, depending on what you're after. Personally I never thought about it like this before, so I'll be checking out his site to learn more.

Takeway: Communities: FlyerTalk & MilePoint, and a weird Amex/Walmart partnership for: BlueBird

Session 4: Culinary Tourism: Expanding Your Horizons

This one was a bit of a fun one. Who doesn't like to eat when they travel? As one of the panelists joked, she was the kind of person who goes to museums just to work up an appetite to eat.  Which is someone that's totally on my level.

The panelists spoke on Mezcales from Mexico, pasta & desserts on tours throughout Italy, Bourgogne's many Michelin rated restaurants, and a culinary festival & cooking school in Panama.  Not only was I thoroughly entertained, I left starving and wanting pasta.

Takeaways:  Outside of some great story telling, I look forward to hearing more from the Italian speaker as she does "Undiscovered Italy" & history lectures around New York.  


This was definitely worthwhile for anyone that has a penchant for traveling. If I didn't already have an addiction to travel, this would have done it, and hell - may have even made things worse.  I'll see you next year NY Times Travel Show... 

Did you attend the NY Times Travel Show?  Did you partake in different sessions?  I'd love to hear some of your thoughts & takeaways in the comments below.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Harbor Hopping in Nova Scotia

For quite a few years I used to take an international trip at least every 3-6 months.  My first passport was full to the brim of stamps and visas (may it rest in peace). This blog was updated a few times a week with expatriate shenanigans.  Unfortunately, once you move back home and get yourself [an amazing] big kid's job, priorities shift a little and the amount of trips dwindle.  I never imagined that it would be 18 months in between international trips for me, but here we are.  This isn't to say that I've been sitting idly by in New York (I'd lose my damned mind), I've actually seen quite a bit of the US that I hadn't before.  In the past 18 months after getting back from India I've spent some time in Vermont, Louisiana, Georgia, Colorado, and quite a few places in California.  Getting to know America better is always a good thing as this country is quite beautiful, and its people are extremely diverse.  Seeing different places makes you appreciate what you have as an American, especially when you can compare it to other international locations and what they might not have.  For me, I tend to realize moreso what America doesn't have compared to those places as well.  That all being said, I think I love America only in the context of those other locations and I desperately need to get out of it as much as time, money, and opportunity will allow.  I have the world's itchiest feet.

Hence -- Canada for a few days.  

Many Americans would scoff at Canada as an international destination because it's so close, and the cultures are *SO* similar it's just like going to another state.  I on the other hand, will vehemently defend that Canada feels as much a foreign country as anywhere else and Canadians are unique and awesome.  I just hate that I don't get a passport stamp when I go through customs.

Tuesday morning started like any other Tuesday.  Fighting with my snooze button, throwing on gym clothes, bitching about the heat/the subway/New York/New Yorkers to myself like your typical NYC crazy person, getting to work later than I probably should.  When I receive an email from my best friend with our usual "God I hate this place" banter we realize that Tuesdays come with United Airlines travel deals and neither of us having anything going on in the upcoming weekend and we've hit our tipping point.  As we're scrolling through the list of places that 99% of people would NEVER think to take a vacation to, we find 4 diamonds in the rough:  Trinidad & Tobago, Toronto, Montreal, Moncton, and Halifax.   Trinidad was a no brainer but the flight times were completely ridiculous.  Toronto/Montreal were feasible, but I had been to both and didn't know what we'd do there for a weekend, and I had no idea what in the world Moncton was.  Then, we settled on Halifax on reading this little blurb on Lonely Planet:
Halifax is the kind of town that people flock to, not so much for the opportunities, but for the quality of life it has to offer. Sea breezes off the harbor keep the air clean and parks and trees nestle between heritage buildings, cosmopolitan eateries and arty shops. Several universities keep the population young and the bars and nightclubs full. Stroll the historic waterfront, catch some live music and enjoy the best of what the Maritimes have to offer.
Done and Done.  Flight booked (for me, $90 + 17,000 United Miles) for Friday night to Monday afternoon.  AirBnB utilized for a place to stay and found an amazing house on the water and a cheap car booked through Budget Rental Car that came with a few upgrades (GPS was extremely necessary, in hindsight).  We lovingly referred to it as the Bouncy Castle - A Chrysler 300C.  Tack on a $30 Global Data Plan for 120mb on AT&T, a $20 Lonely Planet Guidebook (a travel must) and we were good to go.  I think the whole thing really took an hour, maybe two to plan.  And man - did it feel great to be out in the world again talking to people with different perspectives and wordly experiences.  There are just some conversations about travel you can't have in the United States for fear of sounding like an entitled douchebag.

Peggy's Cove, South Shore, Nova Scotia
In a total of two and a half days, we hit 6 towns in Nova Scotia: Halifax, Lunenberg, Mahone Bay, Chester, Peggy's Cove, and Wolfville.  The first 5 were all on the South Shore, and is considered to be the best Nova Scotia has to offer as far as views, restaurants, and people. >

 Wolfville was in the north in the Minas Basin in the Bay of Fundy, which is home to the world's most dramatic tides.  All of it was beautiful.  We ate extremely well the whole time.  Two notable restaurants:  The Bicycle Club in Halifax (Rated the best new restaurant in Halifax in 2012) and The Tempest (rated #13 of the Top 50 Restaurants in Canada) in Wolfville. 
Wolfville, Minas Basin, Nova Scotia
I'd absolutely love to go back.  The weather we perfect with high 80s during the day and low 60s at night, and there were so many opportunities for shopping, farmer's markets, hiking, driving, boating, camping, and all sorts of stuff that you could definitely keep yourself busy for awhile. An incredible amount of history for any history buff as well.  Next time you're looking for an easy getaway weekend trip -- Nova Scotia and it's gorgeous natural harbors may just be for you.

View from the Citadel in Halifax, overlooking the fog roll in in the Harbor above the Clock Tower

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Indian Adventures

Just because I am no longer living the adventurous life of an ex-pat abroad in Seoul, South Korea doesn't mean that I am not an ex-pat at heart.   I am bound and determined to get snippets of that lifestyle any chance that I can get them and just because I happen to be back on American soil doesn't mean that my adventures and travels are over.  In fact, quite the opposite.   I have no doubt in my mind that in the future I'll pack up and leave to live on foreign soil once more, and that's no reason to stop blogging about traveling during that time.  Afterall, vacations really are just samplers to see if maybe that's a place I'll someday call home.
I spent two weeks from December 2010 to January 2011 traveling the Indian southwestern coast.   I can tell you I sampled a good amount of that country - and I can tell you that I most likely will not be moving there any time soon.

India was actually pretty great - in hindsight.   I did not take Malaria pills or get any typhoid shots, so I guess I have 3-6 months to go before I can say that I made it out alive truly, but I can say so far that I survived.  And that's saying something.

Mumbai - Wedding Festivities
My best friend and I traveled to Mumbai from New York on Christmas Day, literally minutes before a gigantic blizzard dumped 3 feet of snow on the area,  to attend a wedding for the first 5 days of our trip.  The wedding was for my friend's former coworker who is first generation American, but Indian by family.  It was a fairly traditional catholic mass, but the events surrounding the wedding were traditional.  On our first full day/night in the country, we stayed in a suburb called Bandra, and went to the bride's home for a party.  We participated in a fascinating tradition called a Paani, where the entire party has a live band follow them around in the streets dancing, singing, eating, drinking homemade whiskey from tea kettles and having an all out parade.   We stopped at a house and danced on a patio and had buckets of water thrown on us, and the party/parade continued back to the bride's home where more events and a wondeful buffet of traditional indian dishes awaited.

Five days in Mumbai is far too many in my opinion.  It's a very loud, dirty, abrasive, and difficult city.  I swear I will hear the sound of carhorns in my head for the rest of my days.   The rickshaws and cabs use their horns in such a way that it's practically another language, and with no kind of public transportation system setup for a billion people, it's a kind of controlled chaos.  The sound makes rush hour in midtown Manhattan sound like a whisper.  The beaches the surrounded Mumbai are trash ridden and you can see raw sewage flowing into the ocean.  The water is quite toxic, so I wouldn't get too close.

You might think at this point that I actually didn't enjoy Mumbai, and you'd be wrong.  In a lot of ways, it's exactly what I pictured.  It was fun to walk around central Mumbai and see buildings that are 2, 3, 4x older than America itself.  The people were so nice and friendly that it made all the difference.  The food was unbelievable - though of the 50 American wedding attendees, I'd say 99% of them got what's lovingly referred to as "Bombay Belly" and it did a number on more than a few.  Some couldn't even get out of bed they were so dehydrated.  Whether it was the bacteria in the food, the water not being safe, or just not being accustomed to the spice level, it wasn't pleasant for a few.

Fort Cochi - Kerala
After five days though, we flew down to the southern state of Kerala and into the city of Cochin.  We hopped in a cab with a fine Australian lady and drove 2 hours into the little backpacker town of Fort Kochi.   We stayed for 3 days in a god awful little homestay called Costa Gamma where we slept on bricks and our bathroom was the gateway to Mosquito hell.   It was lovely.

I decided to nap a bit on that first day, and my friend wandered the abandoned down which was New Year's Day.   After a few hours he returned to inform me that I had missed Carnivale - a gigantic parade with floats, dancers, drag queens, and elephants.   Figures.   We went out for dinner and there were thousands of revelers in the streets of this tiny town - it was amazing!  The community that lived in this little town known for ancient Chinese fishing nets and backwater tours was vibrant and so excited to be celebrating the New Year.

We didn't plan very well, but one of the days we took in a cooking class from a lovely woman named Leena who was off of Tower Road.  We were the only two students that day and she taught us to make Banana Lassi, Chicken Masala, Roti, and Coconut/Carrot Salsa.   It of the most amazing things I've ever done.

We hired a rickshaw driver for the day as well and he took us all around to shops, and a spice market, and the Dutch Palace, and a temple.   A few hours for a couple hundred rupees  ($5) and it was rather nice.   Though he brought us to two shops that were basically the same -  one we were in for hours and I walked out with more knowledge about rugs than I ever imagined possible AND a brand new orange bedspread that would come in handy more often than I'd like to admit for the rest of the trip - and one that if we went into, our driver would get a free shirt out of the deal.    We ended up creating a whole side story about the life we lead and how we owned 10 houses and needed rugs for all of them.   If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, right?

After 3 days in Fort Kochi battling the mosquitoes that owned our room, and the only town where we found pretty decent coffee, we flew up to Goa.  Goa is a weird place.  It's a place of beaches and tourism and hippies.   If you're a foreigner, you are pretty much going to wind up in Goa at some point, and that's not necessarily a bad thing, but you're going to be amongst so many other foreigners.  Many of whom are pre-packaged British tourists on holiday who've spent thousands to stay at the most ridiculous resorts.   Just be forewarned.

We spent a few days in Candolim and checked out the Anjuna Market that's a village that sprouts up on Wednesdays only.  Again we hired a cabbie to take us here, and to the largest lighthouse in Asia at Fort Anjuna.  The beach in Candolim was nice -  very clean, flat, beautiful sunset, and beach shacks that lined the sand as far as you could see that served breakfast, lunch, dinner, and booze until 10pm.

The one really cool thing about Candolim is the marooned River Princess Tanker that ran aground in the 90s and no one ever bothered to clean up.   It's only a few meters off shore, and I bet you could swim out to touch it if you really wanted to.  Though it's a large rusting tanker, so I wouldn't advise you to try.

We actually got out of Candolim and drove 2 hours south to Palolem to stay the night in our own pretty spacious beachhut.  It was glorious.   Falling asleep to the sound of the ocean right outside my window is exactly what I want everyday of my life.   The cool thing about Palolem is that it was featured in the Bourne Supremacy so my feet have touched the same beach that Matt Damon has ran on.   It's the little things ;)

And that pretty much sums up my experience with India.

Some things that I would like to share with those who may also be going to India:
  • Bring plenty of antibiotics.   I never do this on trips, but I was glad I did this time.  
  • Bring plenty of random meds.  Immodium, Tums, Vitamins, Allergy medications, etc.  You WILL need it. 
  • Don't touch the animals.  You WILL see dogs, cows, elephants in the streets, in the cities, on the beach.  Don't touch them.   Though I will say I broke down and picked up a little fluffball of a puppy after noticing he was on a leash and had a collar and assessed the risk.  He was maximum levels of cute.
  • Don't drink anything with ice in it from anywhere.  Ever.   (Ice may not be from filtered water)
  • If you're going for an event - flat shoes.  Heels are a really stupid idea. 
  • Eat breakfast at the Kashi Art Cafe in Fort Kochi.  You will not be disappointed.  
  • Read the book Shantaram and freak out that you're in Mumbai, at Leopold's Cafe, just like in the book!
  • IF someone asks you if you want Weed, and you say, "No Thanks, I don't smoke"  that's not an acceptable answer.  They'll offer you cocaine, heroin, and other such stuff that you can snort or shoot.   Be specific & say,  "NO DRUGS THANK YOU!"
  • Everything will smell like mothballs.  Seriously.  They put them in bedrooms, sinks, bathtubs, anywhere they can.  Burn your clothing upon returning home, b/c it will smell like mothballs for the rest of eternity, even after multiple washings. 
  • Everyone will tell you that their items are made in Kashmir.  I am convinced that the entire population of India is Kashmiri.  
  • Make sure to print out your itinerary for EVERY trip you take in the country.  To get into an airport you MUST show them you're confirmed flight status or they WILL NOT let you into the building.   Showing them a picture on your iPhone of the confirmation MIGHT work, but will cause a lot of questions to be asked.  Trust me.  
  • In airports your bags, checked AND non-checked, will be scanned 1000x and be stamped.  Make sure this stamp does NOT wash off before you get to your gate on your carry on luggage and they will not let you on the plane.  Again,  TRUST ME.
  • Make sure to read the cab meters correctly.   On the first day we were giving 10 and 20 rupees to people instead of 1 or 2.   The difference is pennies in USD really, but no sense in over paying.
  • Download Google Maps for the cities that you're visiting before you go.   Not having a data plan abroad blows.  The maps in Lonely Planet weren't terrible accurate either.
  • And that brings me to last point:  You will get to know the areas you're staying in better than the locals because you're using a map.  I can't tell you how many times we had to direct our drivers to the places we were staying b/c they had no idea what planet they were on, much less what street. 

India is not the feint of heart.   It's NOT a starter country to visit if you've never left the good ol' US of A.    It's a fantastic challenge though, and one that I am really glad that I took.   Traveling to a third world country is never a vacation - it's nothing short of an exciting, exhausting, stressful, and rewarding adventure.