Before continuing I want you to take note of the first thing which comes to mind when you think of Haiti.
Did images of palm-lined Caribbean beaches come to mind? Perhaps you thought of the friendly locals of African descent who call it home? Perchance you visualized a mysterious voodoo ceremony? Or maybe the Creole language – part French, part African – stirred some memory? Did you consider the tourism and business potential of this largely undeveloped yet aspirational nation?
I am willing to bet that you thought of none of that stuff. You see, it’s only every so often that we hear about this small island nation in the news. And it’s always when something has gone terribly wrong. Natural disasters – earthquakes, cyclones, and floods. Poverty. Thousands dead. Diseases spreading. Cholera. Malaria. Displaced peoples, homeless, jobless, and hopeless. Children without parents. Food shortages. No clean water. Desperately in need of your help and donations. We have been conditioned to view this poor nation with sympathy towards their (immense) current problems and apathy to everything else: their history, culture, language, politics, and – most importantly – tourism. Yes, tourism. But more on that later on. You see, the media and international aid organisations have basically relegated the entire country to a permanent humanitarian disaster with no apparent solution in sight. It sure makes it sound like a risky and dangerous place to visit, right?
Well, I won’t blame you if that’s what you thought. Because I had the exact same worries before I just said ‘fuck it’ and decided to put Haiti on my itinerary.
Now, some of Haiti’s early history for more context:
The Caribbean island of Hispaniola (100 km east of Cuba) was first discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. The following year Spanish settlement began which notably included the introduction of sugar cane and the enslavement of the indigenous Taino peoples. In 1496 Santo Domingo was founded (the capital city of present-day Dominican Republic) which was the first permanent European settlement in the Americas. By 1517 it is believed that only 14,000 of the indigenous Taino peoples remained (down from approximately 750,000). As the local labour population dwindled, African slaves were brought in to keep up the production of cane molasses and sugar. A 1574 census counted 1,000 Spaniards and 12,000 African slaves on Hispaniola.
It was in 1665 that French colonization of the island officially began (having unofficially begun several decades earlier by French buccaneers). This was roughly around the time when Spain was busy reaping the bloody rewards of their successful conquests of the Americas – such as gold, silver, sugar, cocoa, and tobacco. As such, Spain’s interests in Hispaniola were waning and so they officially ceded the western third of the island to the French in the 1697 Treaty of Ryswick. The French part of the island was promptly named Saint-Domingue, after the Spanish side’s Santo Domingo. Over the next century or so the French continued with the proven and highly lucrative business of importing African slaves in order to increase sugar exports to Europe. Then, in 1791, inspired by the recent French revolution of 1789, the plantation slaves organised a resistance movement which eventually succeeded by them gaining unofficial independence from the French on January 1st, 1804.
As one can imagine, the French did not take this significant and embarrassing loss lightly. In addition, Haiti’s neighbours in the USA did not look upon their emancipation favourably as it greatly threatened the status quo of their domestic slave economy. If Haiti wanted to keep its independence it would be made to pay for it – with blood or with debt. As it turned out, in July 1825, the president of France agreed to a treaty with Haiti which would make their independence official. The terms of the treaty were finalised at 150 million francs – during which time Haiti was surrounded by French naval ships threatening invasion if negotiations did not go the right way. This great debt burden as well as the alienation from neighbouring economies would keep Haiti’s own economy from developing for the next century. Despite this, what the Haitians had achieved in their freedom was unprecedented in modern history and is to be lauded.
End of history lesson (check out the more modern history – it’s pretty wild).
In June 2016 I crossed the border into Haiti by bus from the Dominican Republic side – very much against the well-intentioned but mal-informed advice given to me from locals I met in the DR. You see, the Dominicans who were telling me I’d get mugged (or worse) had never actually stepped foot in Haiti before. Regardless of this, I still had the prudence to keep my plans secret from my parents who would have undoubtedly worried unnecessarily. I spent the next week exploring Haiti by first starting in Cap-Haïtien, going down to Jacmel, and finishing in the capital Port-Au-Prince. Yes, I witnessed a lot of poverty, trash, and general listlessness but I also saw the beauty of its nature and the industriousness and generosity of its people. And yes, I definitely experienced discomfort in the sub-par accommodations and while travelling by bus but the overall cultural experiences far outweighed those minor incidents. There are two sides to every coin and you will never fully experience that unless you go to a place to see it for yourself. Plain and simple. So as it turned out the naysayers were totally wrong. Nothing bad happened to me and in fact I had a great time. The weather was great, the food was cheap, there were many things to see, and the culture was fascinating.
While there I definitely saw the potential in developing a local tourism business to cater to foreigners due to the lack of readily available services and basic information. In fact, I see tourism as one of the best ways that locals can take matters into their own hands to combat unemployment, lack of opportunities, and the overall low standards of living. As mentioned at the start of this article, many tourists visiting the Caribbean region (e.g. Cuba, Dominican Republic, Jamaica) have strong misconceptions about Haiti and so simply decide to exclude it from their itineraries as it appears to be too dangerous or difficult to visit. My initial impressions were not dissimilar. In my case I just decided to ‘wing it’ and do a self-guided tour which turned out to be awesome as you can see from the above photos. My Couch Surfing host from Port-Au-Prince, Clemson Saint-fleur, was a great guide around his local area and is now working to boost tourism to his home country through his organisation, Nomad Ayiti. If some of the above history or photos piqued your interest and you’re considering adding Haiti to your to-visit list in the near future then I can highly recommend that you contact Nomad Ayiti and see how they can make your stay more enriching and pleasant, catered to your needs.
Likewise, feel free to contact me with any questions you have.
It was 5:45am when my phone alarm went off. I woke up feeling refreshed, well-rested and with absolutely no idea what day of the week it was. What’s more, it felt so good and so right that I had no desire or care in the world to know what day it was. It simply didn’t matter. That’s how tranquil the place was. That’s how deep in ‘the zone’ I was.
A few minutes later and I was up. The sun had already begun its slow ascent over the fields of bananas, plantains, and coffee at Finca Siempre Verde, bathing them in the coming glow of daylight. Located in the southern mountains of Costa Rica this family-run organic farm was remote and exactly what I needed after 3 months on the road as a backpacker. They had no Wi-Fi, no television, and very limited phone coverage. While some people might baulk at this, I absolutely loved it.
Every day I would help out for roughly 5 hours around the property and in return would receive three hearty, organic, and delicious meals from Jenny as well as a warm bed for the night. Replanting crops, cooking with Yuca, conducting my first Yoga class with the other volunteers, constructing and lacquering picture frames with Marcos, as well as building a mosaic were some of the activities I helped out with during my stay. And all of this in just a short week!
I had woken up extra-early that day in order to go for a jog before breakfast and commencing the day’s activities. But before I could run nature called. So I made the obligatory stop at the compostable toilet. Sitting down on the wooden throne I was rewarded with an uninterrupted view of the forest right before me. As I did my business I wasn’t aware that I was about to experience one of the most special moments of my trip. Pardon the pun, but nature called again.
This time, it came in the form of four small Toucans which all flew into the frame I was quietly contemplating. They perched on the branches of the tree which was right in front of me, both surprising and delighting me in equal measure. It was my first ever wild Toucan sighting! And at such close proximity I was simply left gobsmacked. They must not have noticed my stinky silhouette sitting on the loo because for the following ten minutes they continued to jump around, socialize and enjoy the first rays of daylight before literally nose-diving and gliding serenely away.
The entire time I was fully entranced by their totally natural behaviour. I had a massive grin across my face and my eyes must have grown and sparkled with amazement like in the Japanese cartoons. I didn’t even dare to wipe my bum during the special spectacle out of fear of revealing myself and ruining the moment. A little later, after jogging down the dirt road and up the grassy hill near the farm, accompanied by Marcos and Jenny’s crazy but gorgeous dog as my only companion I felt a deep love for nature and all its mysterious wonders.
I had come into this volunteering experience seeking to simply recharge my batteries before the next round of rapid backpacking but left with so much more. And it was from sources I could have never expected. Maybe that is what is at the heart of a good adventure.
If you’re planning to travel in a foreign-language country any time soon then this article is for you. I’ve used Spanish here but you can re-create the tables below with the language(s) of interest to you.
Step 1. Learn the following key phrases:
Where is…? / At what time is it?
Dónde está…? / A qué hora es?
How much does it cost? / How much is it?
Cuánto cuesta? / Cuánto es?
Thank you / You’re welcome
Gracias / De nada
I would like this / that
Me gustería esto / eso
The bill (at restaurant)
Please / Yes / No
Por favour / Sí / No
Hello / Goodbye
Hola / Ciao or Adiós
How are you? / How’s it going?
Como estás? / Qué tal?
I’m from Australia
Soy de Australia
I’m going to…
I don’t speak Spanish / Do you speak English?
No hablo español / Hablas Ingles?
I’m sorry / Excuse me (to get attention) / Pardon me
Lo siento / Disculpe / Perdón
Step 2. Learn these 3 key verbs and their 3 basic tenses:
English – Spanish
To be (PLACE – Position, Location, Actions, Conditions, Emotions) –Estar
Estoy – I am
Estás – You are
Está – He/She/It is
Estamos – We are
Están – They are
Estuve – I was
Estuviste – You were
Estuvo – He/She/It was
Estuvimos – We were
Estuvieron – They were
Estaré – I will be
Estarás – You will be
Estará – He/She/It will be
Estaremos – We will be
Estarán – They will be
To be (DOCTOR – Descriptions, Occupations, Characteristics, Time, Origin, Relationship) –Ser
Soy – I am
Eres – You are
Es – He/She/It is
Somos – We are
Son – They are
Fui – I was
Fuiste – You were
Fue – He/She/It was
Fuimos – We were
Fueron – They were
Seré – I will be
Serás – You will be
Será – He/She/It will be
Seremos – We will be
Serán – They will be
To go – Ir
Voy – I go, I am going
Vas – You are going
Va – He/She/It goes
Vamos – We are going
Van – They are going
Fui – I went
Fuiste – You went
Fue – He/She/It went
Fuimos – We went
Fueron – They went
Iré – I will go
Irás – You will go
Irá – He/She/It will go
Iremos – We will go
Irán – They will go
Step 3. Motivation is key!
But why should you even bother to learn all of the above?
Most people overseas can speak English, right?
Being able to speak even a smattering of a foreign language can do wonders for your overall travel experience. You will get more smiles, positive responses, better deals, experiences, and respect from locals than you would otherwise. This is a virtuous cycle which should enthuse you to learn more and more. And with absolutely zero downside to knowing a foreign language – apart from having to exert a bit of mental effort – why not give it a go before your next trip? You’ll be amazed at the doors it will unlock.
So you’ve made it past the 3 steps and are keen to learn more of the language? Fantastic!
Here are some more ideas and resources which have helped me (besides having conversations, which is the best way to learn!):
If you’re stuck wondering what to pack for your upcoming trip around the world then this short guide will give you a good starting point (you can thank me later when it helps you out). Remember, this is only a basic guide and does not cover specialised trips (such as mountaineering, bouldering, surfing, bicycling, or extended camping expeditions). Either way it should give you some new ideas.
Let’s begin by viewing our main backpacks as being made up of eight compartments. Each one serves a critical purpose which should not be overlooked.
TOP OF BACKPACK
Things you pick up on the way, gifts, etc.
Store food for day trips, left-overs, etc.
Socks, underwear, bras, towel
About 7-10 days’ worth of clothing is recommended
Shirts, skirts, shorts, pants
About 7-10 days’ worth of clothing is recommended
Rain-jacket, sun-proof clothes, swim-wear, etc.
Dress, collared shirt, pants, etc.
Toothbrush, floss, hairbrush, nail-clippers, etc.
2nd pair of shoes, flip flops
Hiking shoes, joggers, going-out shoes, etc.
BOTTOM OF BACKPACK
The main body of the backpack which comprises over half of the available space should be for your clothing (i.e. Compartments 3, 4, 5, and 6). The rest is for important ancillary items including the recommendation to leave about 15% as empty space (trust me). After your first packing attempt if your backpack is bulging, full or does not contain the recommended empty space then I highly recommend you pull and lay everything out and make some sacrifices.
Am I only travelling during summer? If yes, then why am I bringing that nice jacket, sweater, pants, and all those socks (i.e. will I realistically ever use them)?
Will I be travelling during winter? If yes, then can I substitute some of those thick sweaters, jackets, and pants for thinner and lighter undergarments such as thermals?
Will I be doing serious hiking or going out to many nice venues? If no and no then you can leave behind those heavy hiking boots and fancy dress shoes, for starters.
Will I be cooking or eating out most of the time? If you’re not big on eating healthy – which is ultimately what this comes down to, in my opinion – then you won’t need Compartment 2 (besides, it’s very easy to pick this stuff up on the road when you will eventually start cooking your own delicious, tasty and healthy food – trust me on this J).
Now, you may have noticed that I’ve left out one very critical item from the backpack – the medicine bag! Your medicine bag should contain aspirin, pain-relief, and cold-&-flu tablets, band aids, disinfectant, wraps, bandages, and any other special medications you may require.
Why did I leave it out? Simply because I believe it belongs in your day-pack, not your backpack.
This time we’ll view the day-pack as being made up of 4 compartments.
TOP OF DAY-PACK
For your jacket, hat, gloves, packed lunch, etc.
Passport, spare cash, sunglasses, drink bottle etc.
Laptops, tablets, cables, chargers, etc.
Must be in the day-pack for cases of emergencies
BOTTOM OF DAY-PACK
Your electronics, valuables, and medicine bag should be in your day-pack because it should always be by your side. Remember that your main backpack is going to get thrown around and beaten up during transit and will not be with you all the time. When going on day trips, you can simply leave your electronics and valuables in a locker in your hostel room (or bring them with you if you don’t feel comfortable with the level of security in the hostel).
Choose a backpack which will reflect the type of trip you’ll be doing. If you’re going trekking and will be doing a lot of camping then you’ll need a technical backpack with enough straps and trappings from which to secure your tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, and walking poles on the outside of the pack;
Remember to buy a waterproof backpack cover if you expect rain on your trip. This cover also helps keep your backpack clean and in one piece from all the wear and tear it will experience during transit (but check the durability of the material before doing this);
All of the recommendations in the article can be applied to any size backpack (50L right up to the 100L+ technical packs). Personally I would not recommend going below a 50L backpack unless you have trouble carrying heavy weights or just like going lean and mean;
I really hope this has been helpful and I’m excited for your upcoming trip!
The philosophies behind travel and thrift need not be at odds with each other. To use some (perhaps exaggerated) examples, being a money-conscious traveller does not mean you’ll need to:
Sleep in 20-bed dorms, camp out, or Couchsurf every single night;
Eat 2-minute noodles, drink instant coffee, or skip lunch every day;
Busk for money on the streets with a ukulele, juggling, or doing backflips;
Only take the cheapest buses, do self-guided tours, or visit the free attractions;
Avoid quality restaurants, drinking at fancy bars, or smoking the odd Cuban cigar.
Many of the above-mentioned ideas will certainly appeal to some travellers. However, many others will shudder to even seriously consider some of them. Whichever camp you’re in I am not asking you to completely change. Rather, the key take-away has to do with having a willingness to be flexible from time to time. Even if you are a ‘higher-class’ kind of traveller don’t completely rule out the value of cultural experiences such as Couchsurfing, taking Chicken* buses, or eating from local street vendors.
Remember that nobody ever lists ‘travel’ as a strategy under their savings plan. Saving money is what you’re supposed to do while at home. When travelling you will spend money. How much you are willing to spend, and what you expect to get for it, are the critical questions you need to ask before and during your travels.
Now that we’ve discussed the crucial difference between travel thriftiness (getting the experiences you want for less while not sacrificing your standards) and outright saving, let’s jump into the list of ideas.
(1) Destination Flexibility
This is the very first question you should ask yourself. Which region will give me better value for money – Scandinavia or South-East Asia? Which country would I prefer my wallet to get into the ring with – Thailand or Switzerland? For the thrifty traveller the answers are obvious. For those with their hearts already set on a particular destination – keep on reading!
(2) Departure Flexibility
Check when the cheapest return (or one-way) flights are available before lodging that request for vacation (or resignation letter) to your boss. I have found the ‘monthly fare view’ on Skyscanner.com absolutely fantastic for identifying the cheapest dates to fly. If you’re not sure of your destination but have a region in mind (such as South America) I have found the ‘map fare view’ on Kayak.com really useful as a starting point.
Bonus Thrift Points: Combining the above two methods forms a solid base for your thrifty trip but it’s also a good idea to keep an eye out for last-minute deals and specials on packaged trips.
(3) Don’t Neglect The Basics
There are two sides to the thrift equation. One has to do with finding the best ‘bang for your buck’. The other has to do with proper preparation to avoid costly mistakes and uncomfortable situations.
(a) Passport and money card expiration dates
Many countries will not allow you to enter if your passport has less than 6 months remaining until it expires. Furthermore, your government does not care that you have a flight to catch in 2 days’ time – it will charge you very dearly for a new, expedited passport. And if you find yourself half-way around the world with an expired credit card you might just be in a spot of trouble. Check expiration dates well in advance!
(b) Adequate time for vaccinations
Some vaccinations – such as the one for Cholera – require a return trip to the doctor for the second injection a week after the first. Leaving your vaccinations until the very last moment may mean missing some (or all!) of them or paying for injections you don’t really need due to inadequate time to do your own research. Also, if you don’t have your proof of vaccination certificate with you certain countries can deny you entry at the border – including your home country upon your return! Not to mention the possibility of catching a deadly disease you could have prevented.
(c) Multiple sources of funds
Relying on a single source for all of your monetary needs during your trip – such as a debit card – is a foolish move for a multitude of reasons: potential loss, breakage, expiration, security-based limitations, theft, or incompatibility with local merchants. The solution is simple: the best card you can get your hands on (i.e. zero account fees, zero foreign transaction / exchange fees, and zero ATM cash advance / withdrawal fees) will be your primary card. If it happens to be a VISA-branded card then your secondary card should be a MasterCard and should be stored in your main bag (not in your wallet!). In addition, having a cash reserve of about $200 US dollars for emergencies and special situations is a smart move (make sure to have plenty of small denominations in $1’s and $5’s, not just $20 bills!).
(d) Tourist Visas and Entry Requirements
It goes without saying that thorough research and preparation will help avoid massive embarrassment, disappointment and stress at airports and borders. Trust me, I’ve been there. Some countries require you to purchase a Tourist Visa at their border with absolutely perfect, fresh US dollar bills. Others require prior online payment and the presentation of a printed receipt. Others will need a blank page in your passport well ahead of your departure date to stick your Tourist Visa inside. Certain border agents will interrogate you, give you a hard time, and might require proof of funds, employment, or vaccination. Others will let you in with barely a single question. Do your own up-to-date research as rules, prices, stay durations, and penalties change often and without notice!
(e) Travel Insurance
If you can’t afford it then you can’t afford to travel! Did you know that some employers include travel insurance as a perk for their employees or might offer you a discounted rate? If you’re a student you should check with your university or their travel company to see if they have any special offers. Also, some credit cards come with conditions which may make you eligible for ‘free’ travel insurance if you purchase your flights with that credit card. If you have exhausted these options and need to purchase travel insurance online, make sure you carefully read the medical section (which is ultimately the only thing that really matters!). You may be surprised to learn precisely under what conditions the insurance company will and will not cover you.
(f) Proof of exit at entry
Yeah, this one really sucks big time. And yet the fact is that certain countries will deny you entry at their border if you cannot provide proof of an exit ticket (or return ticket to your home country). This point can cause many problems for long-term, open-itinerary travellers such as backpackers who don’t know where they’ll be tomorrow let alone when and how they’ll exit the country. One way of getting around it is to create and print off a fake exit ticket (at your own risk). The other way is usually to buy the cheapest online bus ticket you can find out of the country and present that to border agents. Do your research on this and good luck!
(4) Off Season
Going in the off season is a fantastic strategy to visit the really popular destinations for a decent discount. You can find off-season deal hunters snowboarding in the slush, hiking through 100 km/hr winds, surfing in freezing conditions, and perhaps enjoying a beer in Munich when it’s not Oktoberfest. In some places it certainly makes sense to do this while in others the savings may not make up for the crappy experience. It all comes down to you!
(5) Does it Take Two to Tango?
Many articles have been written and opinions shared on the merits and downsides to travelling in a group. Usually the bottom line is: significant differences in tastes, preferences, and expectations = NOT GOOD for everyone’s overall experience. The thrifty part of this equation has the same conclusion: significant differences in budgets, spending habits, and standards = NOT GOOD for everyone’s overall experience (and certain people’s bank accounts). A detailed discussion with your travel bud(s) needs to be had well before committing to travelling in a group.
(6) Accommodation Options
(a) Hotel, Hostel, Bed & Breakfast, or Air B&B?
Whichever one you prefer, silly! Many travellers forget that all of these paid accommodation options share one thing in common: they all have a bed and a bathroom. The key question which the thrifty traveller remembers to ask is: “do I expect that a doubling of the price will result in a doubling of my enjoyment and experience?” Often the answer will be a “no” and so the best-value option should always be selected from the bunch.
It is difficult to define the Couchsurfing community but if you join up and try it you will meet a lot of warm and open-minded people who share common interests of travelling, cultural exchange, and who often speak or are learning a foreign language. Of course, it goes without saying that thriftiness is a big part of the Couchsurfing ethos.
(c) Camping & Hammocks
This option is not only for nature lovers or adventurers as camp sites can be found in big cities and certain hostels are hammock-friendly. In the long term a good tent and an appropriate sleeping bag will pay itself off many times over. As such, the most important question the thrifty traveller should ask is whether they will actually use their camping gear or hammock often enough on their trip to make it economically (and effort-wise carrying it around everywhere!) worthwhile. If you’re not sure why would you consider buying one? My advice if you’re in this boat is to first gain experience with different tent models and sleeping bags by renting them so that you can make an informed decision when and if you decide to buy your own.
Campervans, mini-buses, station wagons, and vans are a popular way to do long-term travel with your accommodation. This awesome option is not just for retirees and remote-location explorers but should be embraced by thrifty travellers of all ages and budgets. Having like-minded friends along for the ride can be incredibly fun and a cheap solution – per person – to travelling through expensive countries (such as Australia, USA, Norway, Sweden, and Canada).
(e) Exotic Options
Did you know that you can sleep in monasteries? Or that farmers can allow you to camp on their property (and might even throw in a free meal)? Did you know that some people are travelling the world on a yacht? Doing some research on this can certainly yield some interesting possibilities for those who are daring.
Bonus Thrift Points: Install the most popular accommodation booking apps on your smart phone and scour them for the best deals. Keep in mind though that these booking companies act like ‘middle-men’ and often add on fees of 10-20% per night for the convenience of booking ahead. For the more money conscious, calling or emailing a place directly or even walking around and asking for prices at receptions can yield some fantastic places to sleep at great prices. Just remember: when bargaining for the price of a room at 10 AM you have a lot of power. But by 10 PM it’s far too late for this strategy to work.
(7) Transportation Tips
(a) Offline Maps & Your Smartphone’s GPS
Did you know that your smartphone’s GPS system works without a SIM card and without a network to connect to? Did you know that even if you put your smartphone on flight mode and on power saving mode your GPS will still work? Install a reliable offline map on your phone before you leave. MAPS.ME and Google Offline Maps are good options. Take the time to zoom into your next destination and put flags down on the map for your accommodation, bus station, and places of interest.
Bonus Thrift Points: If you can walk to where you’re going then just do it! Sitting at home and reading this you might scoff and say, “Yeah right buddy, that’s a sure way to get mugged!” I disagree. I walked everywhere around Haiti, Honduras, and Colombia without incident. Just be careful, cautious, and confident and you’ll be fine. By walking around town you will also get a much better feel for the place.
(b) Uber or Taxi?
First of all, for the thrifty traveller these are always the options of last resort. If you must take a Taxi for whatever reason (i.e. if there is no Uber) always ensure the following, where possible:
It is an official taxi – check for Driver ID on the dashboard;
Know your destination and how many kilometres to it;
Ask locals what they would pay for your intended trip;
Always negotiate the price before getting in (if there is no counter);
Use your GPS map to ensure that the driver is indeed going the right way and is not taking you ‘the long way round’ (if there is a counter);
(c) Bus, Boat, Train, Flight, or Rental Car?
Choosing the right option here comes down to so many factors. The bottom line though is to do your research on which mix of options are best. Not necessarily the cheapest, but the best for your desired experiences. Some countries and regions offer long-term train tickets which can be very cost-effective (e.g. Japan & Eurozone). Certain car rental companies have offices in different cities and allow you to drop off your rental car at a different location. Doing more research on these kinds of things will enable you to determine the best – or cheapest – transportation mix.
Bonus Thrift Points: Before committing to purchase a flight always check the website of the local budget airline to see if they have an even better price if you buy it directly through them.
(d) Arriving at Airports
I cannot stress enough how important it is to do your research on where you can find cheap transportation (such as buses or the subway) from the airport into town before you board your flight. This will give you the confidence to barrel past the taxi drivers literally trying to drag you out to their cars. Why is this important? Because there are many people standing around at airport kiosks whose jobs depend on them not knowing where the cheap transport options are.
(e) Online Check-In
Travelling with a budget airline? This little peculiarity catches many new-time travellers completely unaware. If you don’t complete your check-in online before you arrive at the physical check-in desk at the airport then you can be slammed with a fee for them to “process” your boarding pass. Rules is rules.
(8) Loss Prevention
Nobody enjoys getting scammed out of their hard-earned dollars. The damage goes well beyond the monetary loss. Victims of scams and theft feel like idiots, begin to distrust everyone around them, and in some cases simply cannot enjoy themselves or relax in that particular country any longer. Let’s dive into some of the scams you’re most likely to encounter while travelling.
(a) Those tricky taxi drivers! Ok, imagine this scenario. You’ve just arrived to a new place and you’ve taken a taxi and you’re about to pay your driver:
If he tells you he doesn’t have any change to break your high-denomination bill, say a $20 USD bill (and you don’t have the exact amount to pay him), don’t give in! This is the first trick they often try on inexperienced travellers;
If he takes your high denomination bill and starts scrutinising it carefully, holding it to the light, and tugging on it – keep a very close eye on his hands as you’re witnessing a magic trick! After some time he will look at you sorrowfully, return it to you and inform you that you gave him a fake bill. Of course, by the end of his antics he has your real bill in his pocket and he has just returned to you the one ‘he prepared earlier’; and
If he gives you change to a large bill then make sure that you very carefully check the notes he returns to you! This is the second trick they often try – giving you fake change.
(b) People asking for “donations” for ‘Charity XYZ’. Just have your wits about you and be sceptical. Not everyone walking around asking for donations is legit;
(c) People approaching you with a smile and calling you “Amigo” or “Hey Friend” and asking to shake your hand. They will eventually ask you for money, trust me;
(d) Anyone trying to give you something for ‘free’. Common examples are bracelets, cards, palm readings, toys, vouchers, etc. If someone tries to give you something just politely decline;
(e) Exchanging money (even in what appears to be a reputable exchange desk). Always come prepared by:
Knowing the latest exchange rate (Google);
Knowing how to tell fake bills from real ones (Google & your experience);
(f) Did someone just bump into you? Check your valuables: pick-pockets, after all, are professional thieves and they are very quick with their hands;
(g) Did someone just smear you with something sticky? It’s a diversion! While you’re busy looking around for the culprit or cleaning yourself you will likely get pickpocketed;
(h) Did someone suspiciously faint or fall in front of you? Should you go and help them? Yes, absolutely, but not before first checking where your valuables are and having them with you. Rushing off to help and leaving your bag unattended is the thieves’ best case scenario;
(i) Bags on night buses. I have personally met many travellers who have had their bags stolen on night buses. It can happen anywhere in the world. One guy fell asleep with his locked laptop bag firmly on his lap and entwined around his arms. No way that the thieves were stealing it, right? Well, they managed to cut a slit in the top and took his expensive laptop right from under his nose. Literally!
(j) Bags on day buses. Another method that thieves employ for daylight robbery is a diversion. Someone causes a ruckus at the back of the bus and while you’re busy looking at the commotion your bag (between your feet or in the overhead space above you) mysteriously disappears;
(k) Fake agents. Always ask for a receipt from people selling you tours or tickets. Even in official offices. And especially ask for a receipt if you’re entering a ‘national park’ and someone not-so-official-looking is asking you to pay for entry;
(l) Knife-point or gun-point robbery. So you have a knife or something sharp pressed to your ribs or your stomach. Or there’s a guy pointing a gun at you. What should you do? Answer: always give the mugger what he wants! Remember that your long-term health is much more important than short-term wealth. As a side-note, if you find yourself in this situation it’s more than likely due to poor intuition and decision-making on your part rather than blind, dumb luck;
(9) Discounts and Bargaining
We all like to pay less for something that we need or want. But not all of us have the confidence to bargain effectively. First ask yourself why you believe you can’t? Contrary to some people’s opinions on this you don’t need to be tough, rude, or belligerent in order to bargain effectively. Here are some methods which the astute and thrifty traveller can employ right away.
(a) Student Card
This is the ultimate weapon of mass discounts! If you have one of these then don’t forget to bring it and use it lavishly (even in places you think it might not work) because it will save you serious amounts of money. Not a student any longer? Not to worry! Why not bring along your old student card and just ‘try your luck’? If you’re comfortable pushing your moral boundaries even further then why not just have a fake card made (printed and laminated)? Many of the workers who verify your student status often don’t care if you’re gaming the system a little;
(b) Power in Numbers
Put yourself in the position of a seller. If you’re selling tours, souvenirs, accommodation, or [insert anything!] then there’s a serious psychological (and monetary!) difference between losing one customer versus losing many customers. Remember, if you’re in a group then you have much more bargaining power! Use it and try to get that 20 or 40% discount! You’ll be surprised by how low they will go. If they don’t budge then just stand up and walk away (… and see how quickly even “stubborn” minds can change);
Bonus Thrift Points: If you you’re not in a group or there’s only two of you then be proactive and enlist some more troops! The likelihood of finding other travellers nearby who want to do the same things as you is very high. You’ll not only save significant amounts of money on the more expensive tours but it’s a great way to make new friends and enjoy good company.
(c) Can you beat their price?
This is the classic tactic of letting competitors fight it out. It removes any feelings of guilt you might have (when bargaining) and is the most unassailable reason you can present to a seller when asking for a discount. It goes something like this:
“Look, I’d love to buy this [tour, souvenir, etc.] off you but the [competitor so and so] is offering me the same one for $X! I have a tight budget so if you can beat their price by 10% then I’ll buy it from you right now.”
You’ll get two responses to the above. Let’s examine both.
“Hmmm… Alright, I can beat their price by 10% [or match it at the very least]! You have a deal.” Success.
“Sorry but we are offering a higher degree of service and have better quality equipment and etc., etc., etc.…”
How you respond to the above really depends on whether you believe it’s true or not.
(d) Cash is King
There are two main ways in which you can use cash to get a discount. Firstly, offering to pay in cash if they give you a discount of at least 10% (Pssst: if you want 10% then start by asking for 20%). Secondly, by stating that you only have $X cash in your wallet and you’re not willing to spend a cent more.
Bonus Thrift Points: When applying the above bargaining tactics it is very important to be reasonable with the sellers you’re dealing with. In a competitive and busy marketplace you’ll do very well and save money. However, when there is only a single tour operator in the region or only one hostel with rooms left for the night it may not be such a good idea if you alienate or insult the seller. So above all always negotiate respectfully.
(10) Back Home
Before you leave for your trip ask yourself the following two questions:
“What assets do I own which can work for me (i.e. rent out) while I’m away?”
“What services can I suspend (and not pay for) while I’m away?”
We all know that houses and apartments can be rented out while away to make some extra income. But this is only feasible on long trips. But did you know that even during short-term travel you can now tap into the rent-potential of your car, motorbike, tools, equipment, boat, trailer, or campervan? More and more smart-phone apps enable us to create a marketplace for previously “dead assets.”
Another easy way to reduce costs while away is to call your health insurer and tell them that you’ll be travelling for ‘period X’. They should be able to suspend your insurance payments for this period of time. If they cannot do this then it’s perhaps time to simply cancel and look for a better provider. Other cash-leaks such as subscriptions, memberships, and services which you will not be able to use should be scrutinised and suspended or cancelled.
My road to Chimborazo: Ecuador’s highest peak and the furthest point on the surface of the Earth from the centre of the Earth.
Saturday Night, 19th November 2016
It was around 8PM and the public hot springs in the touristic Ecuadorian town of Baños were bustling with locals and foreigners alike, all enjoying themselves in one of the several pools. Half-submerged, head leaning back, eyes closed, with each arm perched on the rim of the pool, I was in a state of utter and complete relaxation. I had arrived earlier that day by bus from Quito with two fellow travellers (an American and a Chilean) and we passed the afternoon by hiking up to the popular Casa del Arbol – a giant tree swing on a field up in the mountains.
It only cost $1 entry to re-live childhood memories on an adult-sized swing
Unfortunately, on that particular afternoon there were thick clouds obstructing my potential swing-boosted view of the 5,016m-high and recently active Tungurahua Volcano, which looms above the Baños valley and which the locals vehemently dissuaded me from climbing due to it being muy peligroso. The swing was certainly a fun reward at the end of the three-hour hike with several encounters with irate farm dogs (always carry a stick with you, or be prepared to throw rocks at or kick the little yappers if they get too close).
The hike combined with partying in Quito the night before resulted in one pretty exhausted little Aussie backpacker by the time I got to the hot springs. Speaking of which, at night they are impossible to miss as there is a 50m-high waterfall right next to them, lit up an alien green colour and visible from nearly every corner of Baños. The water in the first pool was hot, murky and a dirty brown colour. People of all ages and walks of life packed the pool full, literally to the brim. The unappealing brown colour was likely from the scrubbed-off dead skin cells floating around (is that why the place is called Baños?) but to be honest at that point I didn’t really care. My aching muscles were slowly being soothed and the $3 USD entry was a fair price to pay for the unique experience with the massive waterfall above me.
At that point I was reminiscing about my journey so far as I was nearly at the 6 month mark. This is a kind of badge of honour for backpackers: you’ve survived some sketchy situations, seen some cool places, and had awesome experiences with new friends – and… – there is plenty more to come! For me, the need to re-acquaint myself with my motivation and reason to keep travelling was very important. While my original motivation for leaving Perth 6 months prior had not changed markedly, it had morphed with new flavours and dreams over the months.
Significant milestones (including 6 months of travel!) in one’s life require a requisite level of celebration. It’s important as it makes the milestone or achievement official, whether just to yourself or also within your social circles. The only thing is that my particular definition of ‘celebration’ might be a little bit different to most other people. I moved on to the second pool which was much hotter, really shallow, and perhaps a bit cleaner than the first. Lying fully horizontally in the shallows with ears beneath the surface and my nose above, I was quietly considering whether I should throw caution out the window and just go for Chimborazo. I had the time to do it. I had the desire. After being told upon arrival to Ecuador that Cotopaxi (my original plan) was closed due to activity, I had to set my sights on another mountain. Of course, I wasn’t going to choose the 3rd highest, so naturally I went with Chimborazo. But did I have the experience? That was my only doubt. But sometimes in life you just need to say screw it, which is exactly what I thought as I slid my ass fully into the boiling-hot water of the third and final pool.
It must have also boiled my brain because the next day I booked a tour to Chimborazo.
Monday Morning, 21st November 2016
Fast forward two days later and I have just entered the Chimborazo National Park, beginning my hike up to the first shelter. At this point I should probably add some factual information to my story. First of all, Chimborazo is an inactive stratovolcano with a claimed peak of 6,310m* above sea level. It is also the highest peak in Ecuador; the second-highest being the more popular Cotopaxi at 5,897m. But more impressively than that, Chimborazo’s summit is the furthest point on the surface of the earth from the centre of the earth. In fact, it is approximately 2km further from the centre than the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest (8,848m). This interesting fact is due to planet Earth not being a perfect sphere, rather an oblate spheroid which is thicker around the equator.
*I really enjoyed reading Mark Horrell’s blog of his Chimborazo climb here where he measured the peak’s highest point at only 6,284m (26m lower than the official number – perhaps due to the glacier melting?)
The barren plains of Chimborazo are absolutely devoid of greenery and any distinguishing features. Small rocks and boulders are the only things which thrive here, overlooked from above and afar by their glacier-capped overlord. So what made me come to this uninviting place to ‘celebrate’ my personal milestone? Well, the short story is that I wanted to mark my 6 months of travelling with a truly high note (pun intended!). The long story is that I had climbed dozens of volcanoes and mountains up to this point in my travels (the highest of which was just shy of 5,000m) and I felt that it was time to step it up to the next level. Crampons and ice picks have always been out of reach to me in Australia and so my curiosity was massive. On the 25th of November I would be flying to the Galapagos Islands and so I didn’t feel like I had enough time to do the popular Quilotoa Loop (usually takes 3 to 4 days). As such, the 2 night / 3 day Chimborazo experience would fit perfectly into my schedule.
The experience would prove to be a brutal introduction to mountaineering and a baptism in the nasty effects on the human body of high altitude and sub-zero temperatures.
Stay tuned for Part II where I will very openly go into more details of my personal experience on the climb and what lessons I took away from it.
I want you to think – right now – whether you identify more with being a ‘tourist’ or a ‘traveller’
Regardless of what images and emotions the two words conjure in your mind (and which one you identify with more) we’ll get to the implications of your thoughts in a few minutes.
As humans we all naturally gravitate to identifying ourselves as part of a social group. This begins with the family and country we’re born in, the school we studied at, our friends, the sporting team we support, and extends even to the particular brand of shoes we prefer. This behaviour is evolutionary. More specifically, it springs from one of our most ingrained survival instincts. From the early stages of our evolutionary path we discovered the benefits of belonging to a group, the most identifiable benefit being personal security (think of all the bears, lions, and hostile tribes roaming around). This group concept was so successful that it better enabled us to hunt, protect our offspring, and grow our average group size until we had thriving societies which eventually adopted agriculture and new technologies.
Nowadays, as physical security is no longer the primary concern in our governed and policed societies, we predominantly seek emotional security in groups. I’m going to define emotional security with an arbitrary threshold. If a person is below this threshold then they are not emotionally secure. They are more susceptible to mental illnesses such as depression and display poor decision-making. If a person is above this threshold then they are emotionally secure. They have a healthy resistance to mental illnesses and exhibit better decision-making.
So what does all this have to do with being a tourist or a traveller I hear you say? Well, I am willing to guess that most of us identified as travellers. Let’s try to understand why through the group-belonging concept and maximising our emotional security.
For those of us with imaginations susceptible to stereotyping, the word ‘tourist’ usually conjures images of DSLR-laden, suitcase toting, hotel lobby-frequenting, please-rob-me looking, sandals-sporting, cruise-ship loving people of undefined age and gender who congregate in herds near the biggest and most impressive monuments. On the flip side, the word ‘traveller’ usually brings up images of adventure, going solo, backpacking, exploration, less-trodden paths, bucking the trend, quality cultural encounters, and unexpected discoveries. As such, the word ‘traveller’ has less stereotypes attached to it which is what enables us to appropriate positive qualities to the word which we desire others to see in ourselves.
I identify most as a traveller. This implies I have a natural bias against anyone who is not in this group, especially those identifying as “tourists”
The implications of examining the most stereotypical versions of the two words are clear, whether or not your mental images were more diluted versions of the descriptions I provided above. It is only natural that we choose to identify with a social group which we believe maximises our emotional security (whether or not it actually does is another matter). I’ve experienced this numerous times while chatting to other backpackers. In sharing our stories we would often bemoan “all the damn tourists” crowding a particularly popular place, or exalt in how “travelling opens your mind”. I bet you’ve never heard someone say “being a tourist really expanded my previously narrow worldview”.
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a tourist as “one that makes a tour for pleasure or culture” and a traveller as “one that goes on a trip or journey”. Even in the linguistic definition of the two words we can see the potential broader appeal of the word ‘traveller’ as being associated with a ‘journey’. A trip is a trip while a journey is something personal. A journey can transcend the mere physical transportation of your body from place to place. This is why there’s a kernel of truth in the saying that it’s not the destination that matters most but the journey.
Note: Whether you identified more with one group over the other may have absolutely no correlation with the number, quality or depth of the experiences you’ve had while exploring the incredible planet earth.
The difference between average and excellence is surprisingly slim
Our expectations of hostels is higher than ever before. If you agree that a hostel should be much more than merely a place where one goes to sleep for 10 bucks a night then you’re in good company.
The better hostels are invariably those where we can make new friends and travel-buddies in a buzzing atmosphere, where we can safely stow our belongings and go on epic adventures and day-trips, where we can cook, drink, smoke, read books, chill, update our social status, send emails, call family and friends, and party or converse with our new buddies until the wee hours of the morning.
Such hostels become truly memorable for the above experiences only if they can first and foremost address every traveller’s most fundamental needs of a comfortable, quiet, and safe place to sleep as well as clean, hot showers. Great hostels should basically feel like a home away from home where we can be ourselves, relax, and recharge our mental energies away from the hustle and bustle of the outside world.
To put it another way, you’ll know you’ve come across such a hostel if you feel amply comfortable and happy to spend several weeks there irrespective of its location.
But the reality is that hostels belonging to this exclusive, almost-mystical club are few and far in between. Many would argue that ticking all the boxes and pleasing every single traveller is a lofty, unachievable height – especially in the realm of the standard $10 USD or 10 Euro-per-night dormitory fare. Better facilities, staff, and location certainly come at a fixed and ongoing financial cost to the owners but there is also an opportunity cost inherent in the more expensive hostels. By having higher prices relative to competitors in a market segment which is quintessentially known for its low prices, most potential clientele simply find cheaper alternatives and as a result the place ends up offering low value* overall. This point depends somewhat on location but is usually around the $20 USD limit in my opinion.
Which brings me to examine what factors quantify a largely qualitative hostel experience. Nowadays with the rise in popularity of apps such as Air BNB and Couchsurfing, hostels today exist in a highly competitive and dynamic marketplace. So how do customers rate them and how does this data then aid prospective customers in choosing a specific hostel to stay at?
*Value is a very subjective factor relative to the others
The two most popular and hostel-dedicated websites, Hostelworld and Hostelbookers, both present an equally-weighted average score (in a “%” and “out of 10” format, respectively) from the 7 different categories in the table above. Scores for a given hostel are input only by that hostel’s most recent customers and all such scores are averaged over the past 12 months. I included Tripadvisor in here to show how an aggregate site (with reviews for hotels, hostels, inns, motels, boutiques, etc.) runs its reviews. In short, we get very non-specific data upfront with Tripadvisor and as such need to read the comments to gain more insight into the place.
From my experience I have found that hostels rated with an overall score above 95% cut the mustard for a truly great and memorable experience. Want to know the interesting thing? Often times it was the basic things which prevented decent hostels in the 75% to 90% range from joining the 95% club.
My top 15 dislikes were the following:
Towels are not free
No hot water in showers
Personal lockers unavailable, too small, or they can be cracked open by a 5 year-old child
Dorm room does not have enough free space and feels over-crowded
Quietness after “10 PM” is not enforced by staff or no efforts have been made to soundproof anything, whether dorm rooms or segregating the party area away from sleeping area
Mattress is uncomfortable and too short or the bunks are flimsy and creaky
Dorm room not locked and no key or pass card made available for each person
No kitchen or kitchen is inadequately equipped
Staff members had little to no personality or were not interested in chatting
Drip coffee and drinking water are not free
Breakfast is not free
No information board with bus timetable, maps, points of interest, and cheap day-trip ideas
Inadequate fun facilities in the common area or curfew after “midnight”
Poor general maintenance and outdated facilities and furniture
No snacks, drinks, or toiletries for sale and no bar
As a general rule of thumb I discovered that if less than 3 of the above 15 key cardinal dislikes were encountered then that hostel was just shy of a 95% score – keeping in mind that the 7 general categories were more or less fine of course. And while all of the above 15 points fall under one or more of the 7 general categories, they are nevertheless very specific and quantifiable things. What’s more is that many of the 15 dislikes are easily fixable or could be designed before construction. So it turns out that attention to details do actually matter even in the so-called “lacklustre” hostel industry.