Life Pro Tips for UK Festivals

Going to your first UK festival (Glastonbury, Bestival, etc)? Here are some life pro tips from a festival vet:

  • Bring the right gear!  Sensible footwear, like gumboots, and heavy-duty rain jackets.  CamelBak to stay hydrated.
  • Buy a cheap tent that you can leave behind. It will be a hot mess by the end of the festival.
  • Bring a large flag pole so that your crew can find you.
  • Bring a “festival phone.” First, this is a phone that has a long battery life so that you aren’t spending valuable time charging it (although battery packs can help with this problem nowadays).  Second, you won’t mind if it gets damaged, lost or stolen. The Nokia 3210 is a good one.
  • Bring ear plugs in case you are close to the stage, but mainly to be able to sleep (if you do try to sleep).
  • Go a day early to get a good space for your tent.

Did I miss anything?  Comment below:

The Best of Chicago for Tourists

It’s always wonderful to host out of town guests in Chicago. I’ve compiled my full list of activities and recommendations for you to make the most of your trip.

Tips:  

  • Chicago is a foodie’s dream. Make reservations for the best restaurants weeks or months in advance for the best times, but if you don’t have reservations, arriving around 5 pm usually means you’ll get a seat.
  • The best place to take photos of the skyline (aside from being on a boat in Lake Michigan) is on the Adler Planetarium’s peninsula.  It’s easy to get to using the lake shore path.
  • Many of the boat cruises and kayak tours have sunset or firework options. You may want to consider doing that–booking in advance is recommended.
  • During the summer, the Shedd Aquarium has Jazzin’ at the Shedd Nights. There’s live music, cocktails and a great view of the fireworks.
  • A hidden gem is the Chicago Cultural Center. Upstairs is the largest Tiffany stained glass dome in the world. The center is free to explore (it used to be a public library) and is right across the street from Millennium Park.
  • Go to the Signature Room for a cocktail and an amazing view of Chicago.
  • Garrett’s Popcorn is a wonderful souvenir.

Must Do’s:

  • Eat Deep Dish Pizza (I recommend Lou Malnati’s, but Pizzeria Uno claims to have invented the style of pizza)
  • Eat at Portillo’s
  • Eat a nice steakhouse
  • Visit one of the many amazing museums
  • Take a river cruise
  • Enjoy the view from the Signature Lounge at the John Hancock building
  • See a show at Second City’s mainstage
  • Do a shot of  Malort!

Download the activities here.

Activities:

Recommended reading: 

  • The Devil and the White City
  • The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream
  • Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America’s Soul
  • The Warmth of Other Suns

Fellow Chicagoans, did I miss anything?  Please comment below:

Samba in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval!

A week in Rio de Janeiro to celebrate Carnaval in February 2009.

Tips:  

  • Stay in Leblon. We stayed at the Hotel Ritz. It’s a beautiful hotel close to the beach, restaurants and bars.
  • Do the cablecar to Sugerloaf Mountain an hour before sunset and watch the sunset from the bar at the top, drinking caipirinhas
  • Sector 5 is the best value for money for seats in the Sambadromo

Must Do’s:

  • Hang glide
  • March with one of the schools in the Sambadromo

Do overs: 

  • Spend time in the neighborhoods of Santa Teresa & Lapa
  • Visit one of the nearby beach towns (Angra dois Reais or Buzios)
  • Explore more of Brazil!

Itinerary and Packing List:

Download the file here.

Recommended reading: 

  • The War of the End of the World

My Trusty Travel Binder

Let me preface this story:  this trip happened before the widespread adoption of smartphones.

My first big adventure trip was to Peru to hike the Inca Trail. I went with two girlfriends and as you can see in the itinerary, it was about a two week trip.

We had to leave some of our stuff at the hostel while we were hiking the trail. As we were organizing our things, we pulled out all of our documents (flight confirmations, hostel reservations, etc) to get our Inca Trail permits. One friend had a neatly organized binder with her documents in separators. I had a semi-rigid folder that had all of my documents in chronological order.  My other friend had….well, she had a wad of papers that she kept in her cargo pants pocket. It took her a bit longer than us to find her proper documents, but she did.

I copied my more organized friend and stepped up my travel binder game for my big trips.

I use 1/2 inch binders (you don’t want it to be too big) and I put my documents in various separators according to theme.  Here’s what my trusty travel binder contains (each bullet point has its own separator):

  • Printed out travel itinerary with dates, locations, flight numbers, hotels, tour information
  • Printed versions of all of my confirmations in the order in which I’ll need them (hotels, tours, flights, visas, travel insurance, etc)
  • Copies of my various credit and debit cards
  • Additional paperwork

The travel binder takes a lot of stress from my travel.  I know where I need to be and I know I have the proper documents in case something goes awry. It’s also handy to have if you receive certificates or departure cards–it’ll keep them in good shape and you won’t lose/forget them.

Does anyone else still travel with paper?  Share your experiences below:

 

 

 

Why You Need to Learn How To Scuba Dive Right Now

I live in the middle of the US surrounded by flat lands and no ocean. When I traveled internationally to beach destinations, I always saw dive shops that offered scuba certification courses. Every time I saw those, I vowed to learn to scuba dive…one day.

I decided that to truly experience the Great Barrier Reef, I need to be able to dive.  I wanted to experience its beauty. And with that resolution in my mind, I got certified in the middle of the US, doing my open water work in a quarry. It wasn’t pretty but it got the job done. It’s been almost four years since my certification and it’s changed my life.  Here’s why you should get scuba certified right now:

  • The amazing beauty hidden under the water
  • The sense of soaring when swimming through the ocean
  • The meditative experience–hearing yourself inhale and exhale, controlling your body in new ways, it’s only you and your thoughts
  • The excitement of discovery–the hidden flounder, the sand covered rays
  • The adventure–you never know what you’ll see underwater
  • The sense of accomplishment–learning to be calm under (water) pressure, doing more challenging dives
  • The awesome community of scuba divers–they look out for each other, they love to travel, and they have great travel recommendations

If my words aren’t enough to convince you, watch my videos from the Great Barrier Reef, Belize and Bali:

Great Barrier Reef 1

Great Barrier Reef 2

Blue Hole Diving Belize

Diving Half Moon Wall

Soaring with the Manta Rays in Bali

Have I convinced you?  Where do I need to go for the best diving? Leave your comments!

 

Scuba Diving in Belize

We went scuba diving in various places in Belize with the aim of seeing whale sharks in May 2016. It’s one of the best places that I’ve gone diving.

Tips:
  • You can snorkel or dive with the whale sharks in Placencia, Belize but don’t get your hopes up. It’s very hit or miss.  It seems that the 2017 season is cancelled because of a lack of sightings. If you see them at the surface, you only have a few seconds with them so be prepared!
  • When they are in the area, there’s only a certain time when they are there to feed. Reserve your space well in advance.
  • Reconfirm your boats’ departure times the night before as they may change.
  • In Palacencia, we loved staying at the Dolce Cabana Waterfront Suites. It’s off of the main street, so very quiet. It has a great back deck with wonderful hammocks. The owner is amazing.
  • The Blue Hole is a great attraction.  We loved diving it, but it is a two hour, rough boat ride to get there. I’m not sure it’s worth it if you’re just snorkeling and it’s definitely not worth it if you get seasick easily. Instead, you should check out flights to view it from the sky.  I recommend Tropic Air.
  • All businesses accept dollars but list prices in Belizean dollars. The exchange rate is 2 Belizean dollars to 1 US dollar.  Bring small dollar bills to pay for things in cash.
Must Do’s:
  • Snorkel or dive around the country, Turneffe, Hol Chan and the Blue Hole are great dive spots all accessible from Ambergis Caye
  • Tour the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave
  • Rent a golf cart in San Pedro to explore Ambergris Caye
  • Eat fryjacks and try Marie Sharp’s hot sauce
Do overs:
  • Spend more time inland, particularly San Ignacio, Belize to visit Tikal in Guatemala (do either the sunset or sunrise at the ruins) and the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave
  • Make sure to leave a day at the end for some rest and relaxation
  • Stay north of the bridge in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. It’s likely cheaper to stay at a nicer resort and rent a golf cart to get down to the city center.
Itinerary and Packing List:

Download the file here.

Recommended reading: 

  • The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird
  • Pataki Full

How to Hike the Inca Trail in Peru

I hiked the Inca Trail and traveled around Peru for two weeks in September 2008. I loved the experience and the country.

Tips:  

  • The entry rules to Machu Picchu changed in 2017. Please be aware of this when booking your travel, even if you aren’t hiking the Inca Trail.
  • Choose a responsible tour operator that treats its porters well (here’s a good resource). We went with Peru Treks and they were amazing!
  • Book your Inca Trail hike far in advance (there are limited spaces available). The trail is closed during February, which is the height of the rainy season. Avoid hiking in the rainy season, which runs from November to April.
  • The second day is tough.  You can hire an extra porter for that day to carry excess stuff if needed.
  • Bring the appropriate amount of cash to tip your trekking staff (make sure you have the right bills–there’s no change!).

Must Do’s:

  • Hike the Inca Trail, don’t just take the bus from Aguas Calientes
  • Spend time in Cusco, a beautiful city

Do overs: 

  • Don’t overpack your daypack for the trail hike
  • Use the Camelbak Aventura for Women backpack
  • Don’t stay four days in Arequipa unless you are hiking Colca Canyon
  • Spend time in Lima especially if you are a foodie
  • A day trip from Cusco to see the Rainbow Mountain

Itinerary and Packing List:

Download the file here.

Recommended reading: 

  • Last Days of the Incas
  • The Other Path: The Economic Answer to Terrorism

12 Tips for International Air Travel

  1. Always travel with a pen. You will be given immigration and customs forms on the flight. It’s good to have a pen handy to fill the forms out on the plane. I’ve noticed that pens have become scarcer at the airports, so having your own pen is key. Also, keep whatever forms immigration/customs give back to you. You’ll need them when you leave the country—another good use for the travel binder.
  2. Always travel with a travel battery charger. Electrical outlets can be scarce in airports and planes. Travel with a travel battery charger with an octopus style for your various electronic devices. And of course, remember your adapters.
  3. Sign up for loyalty programs and perhaps get a cobranded credit card. It is much harder to earn miles from a loyalty program by just flying, but it’s free, and over time it might add up to something. If you have a preferred airline alliance, I’d recommend getting a cobranded credit card if you are eager to earn miles to redeem for flights. But the biggest perk of having a cobranded card is that you have your own customer service phone number. You can get faster service if something goes wrong with your flight by calling that number.
  4. Arrive to the airport extra early. I hate worrying about potentially missing my flight. It’s the worst anxiety ever. In international airports, you don’t know the layout, the check-in procedures and security protocols (sometimes you have to go through customs to leave a country). Give yourself some extra time at the airport so you don’t worry.
  5. Bring your own entertainment. U.S. airlines are in the process of upgrading their fleets, so it’s hard to tell what kind of entertainment options you’ll have. I recommend bringing your own. Also, your headphones will likely be better than the ones the airlines hand out.
  6. Select the right seat for you. Know your seat preference and check in early online if you can. Loyalty programs also help with getting your preferred seat. I prefer the window so that I can sleep up against the wall, and I only usually go to the bathroom once a flight. Some prefer the aisle so that they have unrestricted movement.
  7. Bring water and snacks. I always bring a bottle of water and a small bag of trail mix that I buy at the airport. You never know when thirst or hunger will strike. It’s important to always stay hydrated on the plane. And I’ve accidentally slept through food and drink service.
  8. Know how you’re leaving the destination airport. It’s important to know how you are getting from the airport, whether its public or private transport. You’ll likely be tired from the flight, maybe jetlagged, so having this planned in advance is one less thing to worry about. Some airports have reliable and safe shuttle options. Some airports have reliable and safe taxi operations.  Some airports have reliable and safe public transit options. And for some airports, it’s best to arrange an airport transfer. Most hotels and hostels offer an airport transfer. I think it’s worth it to go through them. This way you know that someone with your name will pick you up and take you straight to the place you need to be at a price agreed upon in advance.
  9. Grab some location currency.  You can convert some of the US$200 that you have on you although the exchange rate may not be the best. Or withdraw some cash from an ATM.  You never know how soon you’ll need local currency.
  10. Pack your checked bag wisely. I’m advocate for packing light (pack only what you can carry). Make sure your bag stands out in some way, and if it doesn’t, put a marker on it. It’s also good to take a photo of it in case something happens. Always take care to keep the bag tag in case it does get lost or delayed. It’s much easier to handle those situations when you have that tag.
  11. Keep your carry-on luggage light. It’s even more crucial to pack your carry-on luggage lightly. I hate having to fight for overhead space, and this leaves room for last minute gifts at the airport. I usually travel with my small messenger bag and a backpack that’s not full. Make sure to have everything that you can’t live without on you. Never fully trust that your checked bag will show up with you. I don’t travel with jewelry, but anything expensive, such as camera gear, should be on your person at all times. Remember to bring your medications and maybe a spare pair of underwear. I also bring a passport holder that goes around my neck. It holds my passport, my travel wallet and my house keys. It stays around my neck and under my shirt all times. It may not be the safest way to carry these things, but it guarantees that I don’t lose my important documents and credit cards. It’s amazing how many things you can forget or lose on a plane, especially long haul flights. The seat pouch in front of you is not really your friend! Speaking of which, resist the temptation to turn on your phone as soon as you land. First make sure you’ve gathered all your belongings. If you start talking or texting right away, you’ll be more likely to leave something important behind.
  12. Consider Global Entry. If you plan to travel internationally a few times a year and are eligible to do this, it might be a good idea to sign up for Global Entry, which helpfully includes expedited TSA Pre-Check security screening even when you’re traveling domestically.

Did I miss any? Please share your tips below!

The Power of the Playlist

Of the five senses, hearing retains memory the best. This is one of the many reasons that music is so powerful.

And no matter where you travel, there’s always music.

Because music holds memory so well, I put together playlists after most of my trips. It’s pretty easy to remember the songs because there’s a lot of repetition (thanks American music industry!), but I do jot down the names in my journal to help.

As I write this post on the beach in Punta del Este, I’m listening to my South East Asia playlist. It was astonishing how much American pop music we heard through the region. In Vietnam, we couldn’t escape Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance. In the small town of Hoi An, my friend and I happened across a teenager sitting on the floor of a fabric shop, just belting out Bad Romance with her eyes closed and bopping her head like crazy. It was pure enjoyment for her.

Another interesting music moment was when we turned on our TV in Siem Reap and watched a Pitbull music video with Khmer subtitles. Mind blown.

Pitbull music video with Khmer subtitles

Listening to my playlists brings back so many happy memories from my travels. It’s another way, in addition to photos, videos, books and souvenirs, to keep your trip alive.  Make soundtracks of your adventures.

P.S.

I finished writing this post but kept listening to the SE Asia playlist. Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” came on. Everyone has special songs that they will love forever and have many memories tied to it. This is one of mine.

My friend and I were at Angkor What? Bar in Siem Reap and I spent most of the night talking to the manager and drinking super cheap beer. We bonded over our love of Winamp. I asked him if he could play Hot in Herre for me and let us dance on the bar. He said he would play the song, but we could only dance on the tables. Fair enough. Before the first verse ended, we had jumpstarted the dance party at the bar.  I cherish the memory of how we started a dance party in Siem Reap with one of my favorite songs. We danced until the bar closed for a night.

Angkor What? Bar dance party

What songs are a must on your travels? Share below!

Tips for Pale People

Once upon a time, when I was a young girl, I would frolic outdoors everyday in the summer. And I would develop a beautiful tan. In a cool twist, a portion of my hair in the front would get bleached by the sun.  It was awesome.

As I got older, I spent less time frolicking outdoors and more time indoors, studying and then working. I would go on vacation and try to come back with a bronze glow. Instead I would come back painfully red.  To add insult to injury, the painful redness would simply disappear, leaving me pale as ever.

It took many years, but I finally came to accept the fact that it was best to remain pale on vacation than become sunburned for no reason.

Here are my tips for my fellow pale travelers:

  1. The shade is your friend. Walk in the shade. Put your beach chair in the shade. Make sure to eat in the shade. Try to wait in lines that are in the shade.
  2. Use strong sunscreen applied multiple times a day. I always use Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 100+ with Helioplex. I know that anything above SPF 50 is marketing BS, but I can’t help myself.
  3. Good outerwear. Clothing with UPF50. A hat. A swimsuit with maximum skin coverage (it’s really difficult to put sunscreen on everything if you’re traveling alone). A swimsuit cover-up with UPF 50.
  4. Medications that warn you about greater sun sensitivity are not joking around. I got a slight burn on my face because I forgot to put sunscreen on it in the morning when I was taking malaria pills.  The pain was unbearable that day.
  5. Don’t worry about looking foolish. No one looks more foolish than me!
Pale people can enjoy the beach!

Did I miss any tips?  Please share below!