Ask Me a Question

I can’t believe my 91-Day Mediterranean Trek is almost complete! In just two weeks, I will experience what will literally be the longest day of my life as I add ten hours to my day while going back to Oregon.

Several of my friends who are inspired to travel have sent me messages saying they have questions for me. Before this trip, I would ask others in various online travel groups for advice and logistic information. Since I realize that answering questions about my personal experience can help multiple people, I decided to have an FAQ on this blog!

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Go ahead and ask me anything. You can either leave it in a comment below or send a private message to me. At the end of my trip, I will post an FAQ with answers about my Mediterranean Trek!

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Can’t wait to hear what you have to ask!

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Hipster Pope

My sister constantly tells me that I’m not a hipster, and can’t even begin to understand “her” type. But with my Facebook feed and online news feed blowing up with people analyzing what the Pope said while visiting the United States, even she will have to admit I’m “hipster” in at least one way.

I saw Pope Francis before it was cool!

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I didn’t necessarily start the trend. On the contrary, I was just one of tens of thousands. I didn’t even realize that the Pope was coming to America until just a few days before he left for Cuba. But I saw him a week before anyone in the USA did. All I had to do was go to The Vatican.

I first learned about Vatican City when I was in sixth grade. The religious connotations didn’t matter much to me at the time, but I made it my goal to someday go to the world’s smallest nation. When I got to Rome three weeks ago, the person checking me in asked, “do you want to see the Pope?” Um, sure! I hadn’t really thought of that as feasible, but she told me that all I had to do was show up at the Vatican on Wednesday morning.

So when Wednesday morning came, I excitedly walked all the way across the city and entered the fifth country of my Mediterranean Trek. When I got there, the event was already in progress. I’m not sure it it’s officially considered a mass, but there was singing, Bible reading, and a couple people spoke, one of whom was Pope Francis himself. I got my bag searched at the country’s entrance (which I learned when I returned another day is not an everyday thing, it’s just for the Pope’s safety when he’s so close to so many people), and I found a good place to stand. If you make a reservation ahead of time, you can get a seat that’s a little bit closer. But the standing room was nice and open, and there were jumbotrons so that you could see everything that was happening onstage.

After the service, most people left, but none of the Vatican’s attractions, such as St. Peter’s Basilica or the temporary exhibit, opened up, and security was still tight. I decided to stick around to see if something else would happen. Over an hour later, one of the seating sections was emptied out and some of the rowdy, Argentina-national-anthem-chanting crowd had moved there, so I got up closer to the basilica, too. Finally, Papa Francesco appeared again and waved at us all as he rode away. Soon after, the Basilica entrance opened up, and I was able to walked by the stage and see the chair where Pope Francis had sat that morning.

This is a weekly occurrence every Wednesday morning. Just a day or so later, I switched to another Rome hostel. Someone there told me that the Pope also gives a message every Sunday that he’s in town. It wasn’t as formal as Wednesday, but rather just a 15-minute speech given from his window. That sounded interesting! So on Sunday, I walked back to the Vatican. Since I guess his window is far enough to make it difficult for assassins, there was no bag check at the border this time. It was also less crowded, and the seated section was closed off since you couldn’t really see the window anywhere but from the standing area. I wasn’t really sure which window he would appear at, but a few minutes before the scheduled time, someone opened a window and hung a banner out of it. Right on time, Papa Francesco appeared, waving back to the thousands of people below!

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As he spoke, I took pictures of him in his window and got a better look from the jumbotrons (to make sure it really was him), but didn’t really listen to the message. One benefit that the Americans had over me is that they could hear him speak in English, which doesn’t happen in the Vatican! I am very limited when it comes to Italian, mostly just knowing food words, but all I really know is that Pope Francis was not telling us what he was going to eat for lunch! He spoke very eloquently and didn’t really use any simple words that I could make out. Sometimes people would cheer about what he was saying. I wasn’t sure what to do. Had he said something that I would also cheer for, or did he say something that was completely against my personal beliefs? I don’t really know for sure, but just having the rare opportunity to see the world’s most famous living religious leader was amazing!

I went to Vatican City two other times. While there, I enjoying the country’s other offerings, like climbing to the top of the cupola, straining my neck to admire the Sistine Chapel, and seeing a museum featuring many past Popemobiles. These were all great experiences, but there was something extra special about being there with the Pope! My last full day in Rome was a Sunday, but sadly, Papa Francesco had already made his way to Cuba. I attended an international English-speaking Baptist church that morning instead, and after the service when I headed over to the Vatican for one last goodbye, the nation was eerily empty.

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I’m not Catholic so I obviously don’t support everything that the Pope says or does. But I am a Christian and I think that he and I have a few of the most important beliefs in common. But I didn’t write this post to make any political statement. Besides, like I said, I really don’t know what he was talking about in the two occasions I visited him. All I know is that I got to see Pope Francis before most other Americans, and that makes me pretty hipster!

Have you ever seen the Pope, whether it was recently in America, previously in Italy, or even just on TV? What European celebrity would you like to meet?

Money Mondays: How Not to Pay for Bathrooms

Money Mondays is a weekly post about how to save money for the things that really matter in life and travel. Enjoy!

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Would you cross this glass bridge above ancient ruins to use a free bathroom?

I was told that I should set aside part of my daily travel budget for toilet money. In mist areas of Europe, “public” restrooms are privately owned, so if course the pass on the cleaning, maintenance, and utlities expenses to its users. On my last day in Paris, I was waiting for my bus to Madrid and wasn’t sure when I’d see a toilet again, so I paid to use a public restroom. But I’ve since widened up and found more ways to find free bathrooms throughout Europe. I haven’t paid to use a bathroom since!

– Years ago, when on a class trip to the East Coast, a local was taking us on a tour through Central Park. When we came across a restroom, he gave us all a brilliant piece of travel advice that I believe still holds true today: “Go when you can, not when you must.” This is helpful when travelling anywhere, even if it’s just across town, but especially true in countries with bathrooms are sparse and costly. When I see any of the following opportunities, I usually take advantage!

– Know what you’re looking for. Across Europe, bathrooms are marked “WC”, even though nobody actually uses the term “water closet”. If you want to ask someone where the bathroom is, ask “Where are the toilets?” The word toilet is more universal, and someone trying to translate the word bathroom may assume you’re looking for a place to take a bath.

– Unless it’s a historic site where adding a bathroom would cause a compromise in historic integrity, you can expect any place that charges an entrance fee to have free bathrooms inside.

-Restaurants always have bathrooms, except for places that are take-out only. If you’re going to eat out, the restroom is included in your cover charge.

– If you want to use the bathroom at a restaurant or bar but not order food, you can try, but it has risks. Most bathrooms are hidden so that you have to ask staff. If you’re caught, you may be asked to buy something. European McDonalds are particularly clever. Their restrooms can only be opened with a code that’s printed on receipts.

– Take a group tour. I don’t recommend an entire guided vacation, but I like to take walking tours on my first day in a city. Your guide will probably know of places, whether it’s an innovative street toilet or a super touristy restaurant where they let anyone use the facilities.

– Train stations typically charge a hefty toilet fee. Wait until you get on the train, where the toilets are free.

– While many historic churches lack public restrooms, some do have them available. Attending a service in a more modern church building basically guarantees a free commode. (And sometimes even free cookies!) At a small church I visited in Florence, Italy, they announced their weekly office hours just so travelers would know when they could access free bathrooms, air conditioning, and WiFi. Great ministry idea!

– If all else fails, you can always run back to your hostel, provided you’re staying somewhere centrally located!

Hopefully all this toilet talk didn’t gross you out too much, but it can make a big impact on a European travel budget. I’ve seen the charge for toilets range from 50¢ to 2€. If I paid for a toilet just once or twice per day, over my three month trip I would spend about €200 just to use the bathroom! Think of all the great European adventures that can be done for €200 when you think outside the stall!

Money Monday: How to Book Your Hostel

Money Monday is a weekly post about ways you can save during your travels. Enjoy!
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It should be a given that hostels will save individual travelers more money than a hotel would. (Of course there are exceptions. Last spring, I stayed at a hotel in Reno. Out of curiousity I looked up a bed in a Reno hostel, and it was twice the price!) For those of you unfamiliar with hostels, let me give you a brief description: you rent a bed in a dorm room, so you typically end up with roommates from around the world. Hostels are a much more social way to travel, which is especially great for the solo traveler. Plus, since you only book a bed and not an entire room, the hostel charges you less. Huge savings! In fact, my European trip would not have been affordable except for the abundance of great hostels.

So hostels in and of themselves save money, but there are ways to save even more on your hostel. When booking, of course consider whether or not breakfast is included, if you will need to bring your own towel, and little factors like that which could affect the cost. Also consider where you book your hostel. I use a mix of websites to book depending on what is the most advantageous for my bank account. Here are the perks of each:image

Hostelworld This is the most popular hostel booking site. The concept is pretty simple, you find a hostel in their database, pay 10% of the total to hold your place, and pay the other 90% when you arrive at the hostel. It is easy to get acquainted with this, but it is actually one of my least favorite booking sites. Sure, I may go there when they are running a contest or something like that, but Hostelworld does not really have any rewards system for people who book with them. This is why I prefer some of the lesser known booking sites.

Hostelz This has been a longtime favorite of mine. It is not exactly a booking site itself, but it uses several other popular booking sites to find you the cheapest rates. Because it is a culmination of booking sites, it is the biggest hostel database I have found to date. The only downside to this is that it is a little harder to organize the plethora of hostels in big cities and weed it down to the one where you should stay. Some listed hostels are not on any booking sites, which is cool because you can still contact them directly for a bed, but sometimes this means they closed years ago and did not inform Hostelz. The best part of Hostelz is that I write for them! Browse around their website to find my city descriptions and hostel reviews.

HostelsClub This is a hostel that I found out about just before leaving for Europe, and it has been well used over the past several weeks! They are currently running a promotion where if you book so much, you can get free nights at a hotel in Venice. I was able to get two free nights at a centrally located hotel while in Venice thanks to this. The only problem with HostelsClub is that they do charge a service fee for every booking, but that can be avoided by getting a HostelsClub membership. With the membership, you qualify for discounts at some hostels. So my membership paid for itself after just a few nights of booking! Best of all, every time you submit a review after a stay, HostelsClub gives members a 2 euro credit to use when booking future stays. It is almost like getting paid to stay at hostels!

Booking Directly with the Hostel While hostel booking sites are ideal for the long term traveler, any booking deposit you pay online does not actually go to the hostel itself. If you want to support the local economy where you visit, the best thing to do is book directly with the hostel so they can get the most money. This can be done by phone calls, emails, or booking on the website. Sometimes it is difficult to communicate with the staff, or their booking program does not really work. But sometimes, you can get a better deal because of this. While booking the Pisa Hostel, I saved 5% by booking with them as opposed to a booking site. They made a little more, and I saved a little more, so everyone won!image

There is no one best way to make a booking to save money. The important thing to do is compare the above (and any other sites you have found useful) to maximize your travel money!

Recipe for Traveling Friendship

Ingredients
A booking at a hostel with a common kitchen
A few free hours in the evening
As much energy as you can muster
The actual food ingredients… will vary in every situation

I’ve been hostel hopping for two months now. Sometimes, it has been surprisingly lonely. I’ve booked six or eight bed dorms, and I was the only one there for days. But that just makes the times when there is good socialization even better. At my last hostel, they hosted a semi weekly pasta night. That was a fun and filling way to get to know a few other people. It even inspired a few of us to hang out together on the following evenings at a nearby gelateria. My current hostel only offers breakfast, but while I was pondering what to get for dinner the other evening, I thought, why not make a big bowl of pasta for whoever happens to be in the hostel?

Step 1 Buy some local ingredients at a nearby grocery store.

Making a big meal really doesn’t have to cost too much. I did it for under €5! I decided on pasta because it’s cheap and easy to make. I just picked out the kind of noodle that cost the least. Out of the sauce selection, there were two kinds that cost less than the others. I figured basil would go over better than spicy. For some creaminess, I grabbed a small package of Philadelphia cream cheese. (It’s not just an American thing!) I was about to add parmesan, but then found a similar kind of mixed cheese that was even less expensive.

You may also notice a pudding cup in this picture. I had no intention to mix it with the other ingredients, but it did turn out to be vital. See #3.

I should add that I really enjoy grocery shopping in foreign countries. It’s interesting to learn about the culture when you realize you can’t find refrigerated cookie dough, or that nutella is cheaper than peanut butter. Even back at home, I try to make it a challenge to get the best food at the lowest price through sales and swaps. It’s the easiest way to live like a local!

Step 2 Boil water.

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Naturally, before you even buy ingredients, check to make sure your hostel has the appropriate kitchen facilities to cook your dish. Last week, I almost bought a take-home pizza, until I remembered that that hostel had a stove top, but no oven. But I did find some mini frozen pizza that cooked in the toaster! Some hostel kitchens only have a fridge and microwave, and a few have no kitchen at all. In any situation, it’s possible to still make a meal, but it may take some creativity.

I was using a gas burner, and was only provided with a cigarette lighter to ignite it. This turned into a nearly dangerous game of lighting the stove without burning my fingers or inhaling too much gas. (Solution: set one end of a twisted-up paper towel on fire, and use that to ignite the burner.)

3. Think about when to s

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Ideally, it should be ready to serve between the time day trippers arrive back from their adventures and the time night owls go out to party. Basically, whenever the most people will be at the hostel. Also consider people’s nationalities, as that will affect the time they get hungry for dinner. I was getting hungry at 5, which was way too early for everyone else. Since the water was taking a really long time to boil anyway, I put off my hunger with Italian-style pudding.

4. Coo

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I put the pasta in once the water finally boiled. It only took five minutes to cook, and I spent most of that time looking for a strainer. The hostel was sadly strainerless, so I made due by carefully pouring out as much water as I could without dumping any noodles. Hostel cooking does require a degree of resourcefulness, so get used to using kitchen tools for an unintended purpose.

Once the pasta was ready, I set it back on the burner and added half a block of cream cheese. I looked for some sort of oil to help it mix, and found free butter in the fridge. (Nice note: Never borrow food with a name written on it; only use things that clearly belong to the hostel! I lost a lot of milk and bread in Barcelona because people didn’t follow this golden rule of hostel stays.) Then I dumped in almost the entire jar of sauce and mixed thoroughly. I sprinkled on a little cheese, but left the bag out so that guests could determine their own amount of cheese.

5. Tell people to come eat.

Since I was in a small hostel, and many people had not checked in.for.the day yet, I could only get one person to join me. But one new friend is all you need! Dinner turned into a whole evening of conversation, including a trip to my favorite ge

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lateria.

6. Do something with leftovers.

Since I planned for more people, I had extra pasta and cream chese. I decided to have another hostel dinner night the following evening. I just had to restock the sauce, and this time I used a jar of pesto. More people had dinner this time around, and it again ended with an evening of conversation and dessert at the gelateria. So I guess this means that making a free dinner is a proven successful way to make traveling friends!

I think back to other times hostel buddies shared their food and friendship. At places that don’t include breakfast, a cup of yogurt is so helpful. In Madrid, a roommate forced me to take a peach in my day pack, concerned about me eating healthy foods! Even at my first hostel experience in Nashville years ago, one roommate would grill dinner for everybody, just because she found some food on sale! Experiences like these encourage me to pay it forward, and perhaps I can inspire others to do the same!

Have you ever been shown kindness in your travels? How have you paid it forward during a trip?

Money Mondays: Skip the “Skip the Lines”!

Hello everyone! I’m alive and well in Europe. So far I’ve been to five countries within two months, but I still have two nations and one month left to go. I’m excited to share my experiences with you, but I’ve been packing my days with so much that most of my stories will have to wait until I arrive back in the States. But for now, I’d like to begin a post series called Money Mondays, where I explain one way I save money for or during my travels. Enjoy!

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I actually began writing this post because I’m waiting in line for a famous museum, and I was getting bombarded by a ton of salespeople trying to sell me skip-the-line tickets. While that sometimes sounds intriguing, these tickets are also four times the cost of what I’ll pay when I do eventually get to the front of this line. Pulling out my phone and working hard seems to make the salespeople leave me alone, and it also is helping to pass the time. If you find yourself stuck in a line and tempted to buy skip-the-line tickets, here are a few other things you can do instead:

-Ahead of time, download a few ebooks to your phone or another device. Just make sure to bring said device with you.

-Pack a lunch (or breakfast or dinner, depending on the time of day) to eat while waiting. When doing this at Disneyland Paris, this actually ended up saving me time since I didn’t have to stop rides for meals!

-Talk with others who are also waiting in line. Give them your insider travel secrets and you may get a few tips in return!

-Pull out your tourist map and plan out your next stops.

-Before getting in line, head to a souvenir store and buy some postcards. Spend the time in line writing letters to all the friends and relatives who expect mail from you!

-Think about how much money you’re saving by not falling for the tourist traps of skipping lines and paying for tours!

But I Have Limited Time!

The ones most likely to buy into skip-the-line tours are the ones who didn’t build enough time into their trip. It’s always best to budget more time than you think you’ll need, but of course there are many factors in life that keep us from always doing this. Here are some timesaving tips I’ve picked up along the way that won’t cost you any extra money.

– At the Eiffel Tower, take the stairs if you are physically able to. It’s only a fraction of the cost of an elevator ticket, and you’ll only wait a few minutes in line. If you can’t walk the steps, make on online reservation well in advance.

– For most other Paris attractions (particularly the Louvre) buy a Paris Museum Pass. Not only does this mean free entry at dozens of locations, but many include skipping the ticket line as well. With my four day pass, I figured I was saving money as long as I went to at least two attractions per day.

– Don’t wait in line to buy a ticket at the Roman Colosseum. Go to Palatino or The Roman Forum, where the lines are short, and purchase a multi attraction ticket.

– Lines fluctuate throughout the day at the attractions connected to Florence’s Duomo. If they’re long, go do something else and come back in a little bit. But make sure to go in line with modest dress and a ticket. Tickets are not sold in the line, so check the posted map for sales locations. And if you come with exposed shoulders or knees, you will be denied entry. If either of these happen to you, you will have wasted a lot of time for nothing.

– At any religious site (specifically cathedrals), if you’re not sure your clothing is modest enough, bring a sarong or scarf that you can cover up with. The guards don’t do modesty checks until you’re at the entrance, so many people wait in line only to be turned away.

– Think about other ways you can save time that won’t cost as much. For example, I typically walk everywhere within a city. But yesterday, there was a lot that I wanted to do, and it would take an hour long walk to get there. Instead of walking there, I took the metro, which was only a fifteen minute trip. That’s like waiting in line for 45 minutes less! Another timesaving idea is to eat fewer meals at sit-down restaurants and opt for street food and takeaway.

– In general, see if you can buy tickets online. Some are the same cost or even less than buying on the spot. However, beware as some online tickets charge an extra service fee!

– While online, see if you can find any information on what days or times are the least busy for the places you want to see. Generally early morning midweek is good, but this can vary depending on the location

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Above all, know that there will be times you’ll be surprised at how little you wait, and times you’ll be waiting longer than you can imagine. Just remember that lines are part of the travel experience and can be an adventure within themselves. Happy saving!

Sweating the Small Stuff

Recently, I had a piece published on the Travel Fashion Girl website. It’s about several of the methods I use to avoid feeling the wrath of sweaty travel. Most of these ideas were learned during my travels last summer. But I didnt write the article until the middle of winter.

Sweating under the Mediterranean sun makes it way more real.

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Paris was going through an unusual heat wave most of my time there. The Spanish sun was of course even hotter – dry and hot in both Madrid and La Alberca, and sticky humid in Barcelona. Southern France was even hotter than the north. I thought since it’s now September, the heat would get a little better. But after traveling through three Italian cities, that is not so. And the luxury of AC is hit or miss here!

These three tips included in the linked article are being used by me on a daily basis, but on some days I could use a few more secrets!

Click here to read my article with Travel Fashion Girl.

Eating Chocolate con Churros in Madrid

When going into Madrid, I didn´t really have any plans for must-see attractions. But I did have some must-eats! And I think I ate everything I hoped for, from tapas, to paella, to toast covered in tomato sauce and olive oil. But I definitely did have a favorite, and that was chocolate con churros.

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Churros in Madrid may be very different from churros you´ve had before. In North America, churros are thick, straight, and rolled in cinnamon sugar. The Spanish churro is thinner and teardrop-shaped. While it still comes fried with ridges, you have to add the cinnamon yourself if you want it. But you might as well skip the seasonings because it is much better with a nice cup of chocolate!

When you order chocolate con churros in a cafe, you´ll receive the chocolate in a small mug. The consistency is thicker than hot chocolate, but thinner than melted chocolate. Not as much sugar is added like you’d find in most chocolate, but it’s sweet enough. It´s perfect for dunking, or for eating straight with a spoon!

After my first Madrid hostel, U Hostels, served me Spanish churros for breakfast, I was hooked! But they only offered toppings like sugar or butter or chocolate powder, not actual chocolate. So I looked up a few local chocolaterias so I’d know where to go to test this treatimage

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The good news is, there is no one “best place” to experience this deliciousness. Whenever I came across a cafe with the label “Chocolateria” above the door, I knew it was a good place to go. I didn’t notice any sort of difference between the churros or chocolate among the chocolaterias, so the only thing that makes one better than another is the price.

Okay, there is one notable difference, but I didn’t discover it until after I left Madrid. In Barcelona, because this area of Spain wants to be its own country, everything is different, including the language. Here, if you go to a Xocolateria for some xurros, you won’t get them in teardrop shape. My Barcelona xurros were cut into smaller lengths that curled slightly in the fryer, and we served in a paper cone. Interesting how one local treat can go from a cafe snack to a fair food!

Have you eaten chocolate con churros? What’s your favorite foreign snack?