Tag Archives: Flying

11 Travel Hacks that Don’t Require Credit Cards 

Do you love the idea of getting flights, lodging, ground transportation, meals, and attractions for free or steeply discounted? Who wouldn’t want that! This is what makes travel hacking so enticing. But this can be too daunting when it comes to churning credit cards and running up a big bill. 

Never fear, there are plenty of travel hacks where owning a credit card is completely optional! Below are credit-free hacks based on my personal experience, as well as a few collected from others in my travel networks.

Last trip of the summer with a free trip to Lava Beds

Plan your costly attractions around free times.

I wish I would have kept records of how much I have saved with this one simple hack; it’s probably hundreds. In Madrid, I waited to visit the art museums until after 5pm, when they are free. I happened to be in Athens for a national holiday I didn’t even know about, yet celebrated with free admission to all the ruins, including Acropolis. I’ve had even more success stateside. I planned my San Francisco schedule around free admission times to Golden Gate Park’s attractions, found a rare free day to visit Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, and I have gone on several trips to various National Park Sites on their free entry days. Just last month,  I was spelunking in over a dozen lava tubes at Lava Beds National Monument, and it only cost me the gas to drive there!

Camp in your car, even in Amish country! My Explorer in Holmes County, Ohio.

Make a bed in the back of your car.

When I first visited the Subaru dealership, I brought measuring tape with me. I wanted to make sure I was able to lay down in the trunk with the back seat down. If you road trip in a van or SUV, this could be a comfortable and cheap option for overnights. For me, I started doing this as a kid. Before getting my own tent for Christmas, I would often choose to sleep in the back of my dad’s Jeep Cherokee during family camping trips. My first car was a 2000 Ford Explorer. I bought it for about $1750, and made a large portion of that back in savings by sleeping in it at free campgrounds and WalMart parking lots. Since then, I’ve learned to fit an inflated air mattress in the back, how to make temporary privacy curtains, and that my favorite free spot to stay the night is casinos that allow RVs overnight. Just a few steps away, I have access to bathrooms, WiFi, and security!

Before arriving at Disney World that day, I responded to a medical emergency on my plane and got a free snack box. Apparently even more snacks were justified

Help others for airline perks.

Back when I was an EMT, I helped out with someone having an emergency while boarding our plane. Had this person stayed on the flight, the crew would have offered to refund my ticket to sit with her. Although this didn’t happen, a flight attendant gave me one of those super-expensive snack boxes I would never afford to buy myself. Megan Parsons shared, “this couple asked if they could help me because I am flying alone with a baby. I said yes and their boarding position jumped significantly.” Obviously opportunities like these don’t always arise, but it always helps to keep an eye out!

Even in Europe, you can find public toilets (and bidets!) for free

Use free toilets.

“Go when you can, not when you must.” I heard this from a NYC tourguide ten years ago, and it’s stuck with me as a useful, albeit awkward travel motto. Of course needing to use the bathroom when there isn’t one available can result in ruined clothes, laundry expenses, smelly luggage, and embarrassment. I’ve pointed several visitors to free bathrooms in a small tourist town near where I live, and look out for free restrooms while I travel. This tip is especially useful in areas where most public toilets cost money, since they’re still usually free at restaurants, paid attractions, churches, trains, and porta potties. (Bonus tip: always carry a pack of travel tissues. Your stall may be out of toilet paper, and in some countries the stalls don’t always have toilet roll holders!)

I even brought Laduree macarons home from Paris in my carry-on so my family could taste them.

Get free food and drinks in the airport with this simple tip.

We know that the shops and restaurants in airports are overpriced. But do you know how to get food and drinks past TSA security? More and more people are realizing that you can bring an empty bottle and fill it with water once past security, instead of dropping several dollars for a disposable plastic bottle. (If you do forget your water bottle, some airport fast food places might give you a free water cup.) You can add single-serve flavor packs if you wish. As for food, it’s totally okay to go through security as long as it doesn’t contain many liquid-based components. (Mustard on a sandwich should be fine; a heavily-frosted cupcake is a no-go.) You don’t even have to fit your food in your carry-on or personal item as long as it’s consumed before boarding. 

I planned my entire Tennessee trip around a good airline deal.

Find mistake fares and airline sales. 

Stephan Mark Smith shared, “Check each day until you find a mistake fare.” While I personally have yet to find a mistake fare, I did take advantage of a cheap airline sale a few years ago. As long as you’re not too picky about your destination, you could plan a great trip around a cheap flight!

Last year I found a gift certificate on Groupon to take my family to Trees of Mystery

Fund your trip with gift cards.

Just about every aspect of travel can be paid for with a gift card. If you have partially- used gift cards lying around, get creative and brainstorm how they can be used towards upcoming travels. For everything else, check out Swagbucks. Many people think of this site as a rebate program. But I promised that none of these travel hacks require a credit card, and this one doesn’t have to, either. On Swagbucks, you can earn points by watching videos, playing games, taking surveys, and my favorite, using a search engine. These points then translate into gift cards for gas, hotels, cruises, restaurants, Groupon, and more. You even get free points just for signing up!

Do an online search before booking tickets or making a reservation. You could find steeply discounted prices to places like Wildlife Safari.

Check the fine print on coupons.

Between free travel gear and free souvenirs, this hack has saved me a lot of money, and provided me with wonderful things I never would have gotten if I had to pay for them! I ignore most coupons because their stipulations require me to buy something I don’t need. But years ago, while backpacking Nashville, I found a coupon that offered $3 off at a local candy store- no minimum purchase!  I even surprised the cashier when I got a $2.50 nut log for free. Since then, I stay on the lookout for coupons offering free food, free souvenirs, and free gear. I also like stores that allow coupon stacking or using coupons on already-discounted items. My favorite coupon right now is the $10 rewards coupon I get from Eddie Bauer twice a year. I have to spend at least $10 to get $10 off, but it’s still a good deal for useful gear and clearance items!

Books make wonderful cheap, unplugged entertainment for camping trips. And that’s just one free thing you can get from the library!

Visit your library before leaving.

A library is more than books. When planning my trip to Europe, I learned about Rick Steves, and wanted more of his advice than what was offered online and on PBS. I went to the library and found his Europe Through the Back Door guidebook as well as a few seasons of his show on DVD. Of course my rental time wasn’t long enough to bring these with me in Europe for 90 days, but I could take notes on the most useful information for me. For shorter trips, a borrowed library book is great for downtime, as long as you make sure not to lose it. With a lot of weekend road trips I’ve been taking lately, I enjoy getting an audio book or two from the library to listen to in the car. I’ve also taken periodicals from the free magazine rack. Your library may have other perks that benefit travel as well.

Soda was just one of many sponsor freebies at Paris’ Tour de France street fair!

Double up on freebies at events.

Some of my favorite travel memories have been at free local events. I went to some of these at the advice of a local person or fellow traveler. Others I stumbled onto completely by accident. Either way, you’re likely to find a free concert, play, or street fair, especially in large cities. Not only is the event free, but you can often double up on freebies at events like this since the sponsors often give free items away. This could mean food, apparel, pens, and other items that make excellent souvenirs.

Upsides of a totaled car: massages, rentals, cash for a new car…

If something goes wrong, cash in on all you can.

I definitely would not recommend getting into a car crash as a way to travel hack. With recent personal experience, it’s a hassle, it’s costly, and it can ruin the joy of travel, at least temporarily. But if something like this does happen to you, milk it for all it’s worth. My favorite car crash perk has been the free massages and chiropractic adjustments, especially helpful since my health insurance ended just a couple weeks after my crash. You can enjoy this benefit even if you were only a passenger in a crash. When I got my rental car, I planned a weekend getaway to Redding, California. While I paid for the gas, the rental was covered by insurance, and it didn’t add mileage to my own car. Speaking of mileage, since my car was totalled before its warranty ended, I got most of it refunded. While each situation differs, look into what’s available in the event of an unfortunate incident involving a car, plane, hotel, restaurant, event, or attraction. Don’t be demanding or threatening, but be sure to get what you’re owed.

What travel hacks have you done? Let me know in the comments!

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Pro Packing Tips

The following is something I wrote as a sidebar to an article that will appear in the Summer 2016 issue of Girlz 4 Christ Magazine, titled “Summer Shopping”. Since the article itself will have even more tips for shopping and packing for your travels, I suggest getting a free subscription by clicking here!

 

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I’ve impressed many TSA agents with the way I pack. Most of the time, I manage to bring everything I need in just my carry-on luggage, including when I spent three months backpacking Mediterranean Europe last summer! I’d like to pass on a few of my pro tips with you.

-If you’re flying, look up the exact carry-on limits for your airline and country. While all have size restrictions, there may or may not also be a weight limit.

-Because you can only carry on liquids in 3.1 oz. containers that fit in a one-quart bag, try to find solid alternatives for your liquid toiletries. There are soap bars, deodorant bars, lotion bars, and even shampoo bars! If you end up needing to bring a lot of liquid product, pack it in your checked luggage.

-Keep your clothing compact and wrinkle-free by rolling each item up.

-Stash your undergarments in baggies. This will help keep your suitcase organized and could save you some embarrassment if a TSA agent has to search your belongings.

-Wear your bulkiest clothing on your flight days to save more suitcase space.

-Always remember to stay hydrated, especially while traveling! You’re allowed to bring an empty water bottle through TSA security, and then after the checkpoint there will be plenty of drinking fountains to fill up at.

-Most importantly, never pack more than you can carry!

Medford Airport to Mediterranean

Making Liquids TSA-Friendly

If you’ve flown at all in the past ten years, you’re probably familiar with the rule for liquid carry-ons: you can fill a one-quart or one-liter plastic zip bag with containers no larger than 3.4 fluid ounces (100 mL). With this kind of restriction, is it really possible to take all your toiletries without checking your luggage? I am, and I’ll be gone for three months! Here’s how I’m making it happen:

Toothpaste

3oz toothpaste

A lot of toothpaste tubes are actually perfectly fine to take in your carry-on. Remember that the TSA limit for liquid carry-ons is 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters)- that’s a lot bigger than most things labeled as “travel-sized”! If you’re going on a week-long trip, one of the free sample-sized tubes that they give out at the dentist office will work fine. (If you run out of toothpaste early, cut open the tube for about an extra day’s worth of toothpaste.) If you need more toothpaste for longer trips or because you’ll share with others, look among the normal-sized toothpaste instead of the travel section. I found a three-ounce tube, so I’m set!

Soap

dr bronners soap

Many travelers swear by Dr. Bronner’s Castille Soap. I do take a small bottle on most of my trips because it the condensed formula lasts a long time, but it’s not exactly my favorite. I don’t use Dr. Bronner’s at home because it’s not as effective as other soaps and tends to leave a residue, especially when being used as a shampoo substitute. Instead, I use my Dr. Bronner’s once every few days and supplement with a solid bar of soap. The kind I use, both at-home and on-the-road, is a natural oil-based soap made by a company that gave me extras since I was the last customer just before it went out of business. So while I unfortunately can’t recommend a specific kind of bar soap (and I’ll sadly have to find another supplier when I run out of my last few bars), there are plenty of bar soaps out there for you to find one that perfectly suits your needs. I bring a family-size bar and cut it into chunks as I go so that only one small piece is wet. As a bonus, soap bars are like an air freshener for your suitcase!

Insect Repellent

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If you like to use the aerosol cans of bug repellent, it could be confiscated, even from checked luggage. I prefer to use DEET-free spray, comes in a spray bottle instead. I wanted to use up my almost-full bottle of spray that I currently had, but when I checked the label, it was marked as four ounces. Yes, I think companies purposefully make four-ounce bottles a better deal so they can charge you extra when you have to go back and buy a 3.4-ounce bottle! Instead of paying for an extra bottle of repellent, I instead decided to pour it into a travel-sized bottle. I do this with other liquids all the time, but this was the first time doing so with a spray bottle. Sure, I could just pour it into an ordinary bottle and rub the repellent on like a lotion, but I’m pretty sure it’s sold as a spray because that’s the way it’s most effective. Fortunately, I had a travel bottle that had the same exact size of opening as the original bottle, so I could just pop the original spray mechanism on the new bottle. Since this bottle was smaller, I had to trim down the hose so that the lid would fit on. Because I was afraid this might leak, I cut a small circle of plastic, poked a hole in the center, and slid it onto the hose before twisting the bottle shut. (You can put a piece of plastic underneath any liquid lid to prevent leaks, but unless it has a hose like it did in this case, you’ll have to remove it before you use it.) I also put a piece of cotton next to the nozzle to absorb any leaks, but so far not a single drop has leaked, and I packed this over a week ago!

Sunscreen

sunscreen

For my eighteenth birthday, a friend gave me a Mary Kay travel kit for my birthday, which included two small empty bottles that I could fill with my own liquids. However, my bottles have outlasted their production, because Mary Kay no longer sells these. (But I recently found another brand of bottle, and I may like it even better. Just keep reading for a few more sentences and you’ll find out what it is!) For the past several years, these bottles have been filled with things like shampoo, conditioner, soap, and even liquid deodorant at one point in time. I think this is my first time packing sunscreen in them, though.

Since I burn easily and will be outside quite a bit, perhaps one small bottle of sunscreen won’t be enough. I recently bought a sunscreen stick to supplement this liquid. I found it at an outdoor supply store in the fisherman’s section. Of course, hats and sleeved shirts help keep the harmful rays away, too!

Shampoo

gotoob shampoo

Many travelers don’t take shampoo at all since it’s provided in just about every single hotel room on the face of the planet. But some people have a specific brand that works best for them. And hostels are usually a toss-up in whether or not they provide shampoo. Plus there are other forms of accommodation, like camping and rentals where you definitely shouldn’t count on this. So while I’ll always jump at the opportunity to use free shampoo and conditioner, I am bringing something for those times when it’s not around.

Now I can share my latest discovery in the world of traveling with liquids! I recently got a GoToob, and it’s filled with a shampoo and conditioner combo to start out my trip. These are travel bottles made out of silicone, which means more flexibility and less possibility of damage. (But if they are damaged, they’re covered by a lifetime warranty!) While I still love my plastic bottles and will continue to use them for liquids that aren’t silicone-compatible, GoToobs are my new go-to travel bottle, and I don’t see myself pouring shampoo into any other container! Although the bottle size ranges up to 3 fluid ounces, I downsized to just two ounces because that bottle includes a suction cup, perfect for sticking on the wall of a shower that lacks soap dishes! And since GoToobs are food-safe, towards the end of my trip I may wash out the remaining shampoo and fill it with a delicious Greek or Turkish condiment to take home with me! As I travel, I will compare the silicone GoToob to its plastic counterparts and keep you updated on which works better!

Laundry Detergent

homemade laundry powder

When I read about other long-term carry-on-only travelers discussing how they pack sample-sized detergent, I have to laugh. They do know laundry soap comes in powder form too, right?

Even if you’re hand-washing, as long as you use warm water, powder soap will dissolve enough to be just as effective as liquid. The only problem with laundry powder is that it tends to look… well, suspicious! I don’t pack any kind of powder in a plastic baggie, since people automatically think “drugs” when it’s packaged like that. I put it into Snapware containers and make sure it’s clearly labeled. Technically, anything that you repackage needs to be labeled, but at least with most things you can tell what it is by sight and smell. Since powders look suspiciously like something else, it would be suspicious for a TSA agent to get close enough to smell what it is!

By the way, I bring a homemade laundry soap that’s so condensed, only one tablespoon is needed for a full load. You can find recipes like this online, but I’ve made a few tweaks for maximum effectiveness and traveler-friendliness. Would anyone be interested in getting the recipe for this or any of my other homemade travel toiletries?

Other Liquids to Take

tsa quart liquid bag

I got a free sample-sized bottle of mouthwash that I’m taking with me, but if you don’t have room or don’t want to buy a miniature bottle, this certainly isn’t a necessity. I am also bringing along tea tree oil. These typically come in small bottles anyway, so there’s no need to transfer packaging or look for something specifically travel-sized. The most important liquid might be hand sanitizer! I’ve been carrying the same little bottle around for over a year and can easily refill it from larger bottles of hand sanitizer. Hey, with as popular as hand sanitizer is, it can even be refilled for free along the road by using sanitizer stations at schools, hotels, and other public places. All together, all the liquids easily fit into the TSA carry-on-approved one-quart bag!

This post was made possible by HumanGear, the newest sponsor of the Mediterranean European Trek! They provided products to use on my trip, but all opinions are my own. Stay tuned for more of my thoughts on different HumanGear products!

Travel Advice from the Doctor’s Office

Travel Advice from the Doctor's Office- glove with OTC meds

Making an appointment with a medical clinic before going on an extended overseas trip is a very important way to prepare for travel. I checked this off my to-do list yesterday by going in with the explanation that I wanted to do what I could to make sure I was in good health and avoid any illnesses for the next several months. Here is some advice I gleaned while I was there:

  • Get emergency medications NOW. Europe is a good place for Americans to travel to. The water’s drinkable in most places, the food is generally safe, and and pharmacies are abundant and well-stocked. However, my nurse practitioner did mention that it’s difficult when you’re sick overseas to find a pharmacy, describe your symptoms, and make sure you understand how to take the medication- all while you aren’t familiar with the language! Many clinics keep samples of at least some prescriptions stocked. I was fortunate enough that my clinic could give me full-sized samples of ciprofloxacin and azithromycin! Both of these antibiotics can really help with several serious but common illnesses for travelers in most parts of the world. Clinics typically don’t have over-the-counter medication to give out, but they can recommend specific types of meds you can pick up at a grocery store or pharmacy.

Travel Advice from the Doctor's Office: prescriptions

  • Clean ears are flying-friendly. Do your eardrums feel immense pressure whenever you take off or land in an airplane? When I was a kid, earaches and infections were so common that I would have to get my ears checked before every family vacation, and my mom’s carry-on included an arsenal of chewing gum to help ease the pain. My ear problems are hardly noticeable anymore, except when flying or going underwater. The physical part of my appointment included checking my ears. I was told that getting my ear cleaned out could really help me be less affected by cabin pressure when flying. The nurse was able to complete a cleaning quickly and on-the-spot using special irrigation (or as I like to say, EARrigation) tools.
  • The CDC has a TON of health info for travelers. I just went to a small clinic, not a full-fledged medical center. They were limited on the kinds of immunizations they could provide, but told me to visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website to find out if I should make an appointment for any specific shots, as well as other recommendations for things like food, transportation, and the outdoors. Note that this website is designed for US-native travelers, but may have some useful tips for other travelers. If you are from another country, check to see if your nation has a similar resource.

Travel Advice from the Doctor's Office: stethoscope

  • Have a mini-physical done. Get your blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, ears, and throat checked. If you are feeling any symptoms, have those checked out too. You may not have anything serious, but even if you have even something a little bit wrong with your health, it’s best to have it taken care of in your hometown at your convenience (and with your normal insurance).
  • Remember that doctors are travelers, too! Okay, they may not have the same travel style or travel budget as you, but they may still have some general travel tips, encouragement, or inspiration for you. My nurse said she also thinks traveling alone is the best way to go (although we both face some criticism due to this belief). And the nurse practitioner told me she is going to walk El Camino… right around the same time I’m in Spain! I don’t plan to spend much time in that area, but somehow it’s still nice to know that I’ll know someone nearby!

Tales of a Tall Traveler

I’m six foot one. And I’m a traveler. These two things don’t typically work hand-in-hand.

Towering over the children and staff at the Posada de Amor orphanage in Peru so much that not even my entire face fits into the picture!
Towering over the children and staff at the Posada de Amor orphanage in Peru so much that not even my entire face fits into the picture! (And I was only sixteen here!)

Wouldn’t it be great if tall people could travel without running into any height-related problems. Wouldn’t it be great if travel-related companies could expand their reach by better catering to the tall population? If so, take note! Here are six things I can’t stand as a tall traveler, as well as ways I try to deal and simple ways the travel industry could help.

HI-Chicago dorms featured the best of both worlds: partial walls around the beds for more privacy, but tall bunks, high ceilings, and an extra foot of room between the bed and wall to accommodate tall people.
HI-Chicago dorms featured the best of both worlds: partial walls around the beds for more privacy, but tall bunks, high ceilings, and an extra foot of room between the bed and wall to accommodate tall people.

I Can’t Fit in Twin Bunks! Actually, the only beds that are truly long enough for me are XL twins and California kings. Since I have never owned either of these types of mattresses, I have gotten used to curling up in order to sleep. But there are definitely times when I toss and turn and just want to stretch out in bed. There are two things that REALLY help in this case. One, having plenty of space above me. It seems like when I’m on a bottom bunk, the top bunk is only two feet above my head. If I’m put in a top bunk, the ceiling is only two feet above my head. I really appreciate dorm rooms that take things like sitting up in bed into account by ensuring that the ceiling is high enough and using beds with ample headroom. The other thing that really helps is not having any sort of blockade at the end of the bed. If I need to stretch out my legs, I’m okay with my feet hanging off the edge. What I’m NOT okay with is if there is a wall on both sides of the bed. I slept in an RV for a month where the length of my bedroom was exactly one inch shorter than I was. Even though I still had a twin bed when moving into my next place, the freedom to hang my ankles over the end of the bed made all the difference. If hostels offered XL twin mattresses, I would be willing to pay a little extra for that luxury.

Having to share your bus seat with your carry-on items can make a cramped ride feel even more squished.
Having to share your bus seat with your carry-on items can make a cramped ride feel even more squished.

I Can’t Fit in Coach Seats! I’m not sure how I’ve made it through every flight I’ve ever been on. I guess that’s why I only fly when it’s the only reasonable option. I got a tip from another tall person before to request an aisle seat so that you can stretch out your legs in the center aisle of the plane. I do this whenever I’m going somewhere without a view (otherwise being cramped in a window seat might be worth it), but there is the drawback of people walking down the aisle who step on your feet and flight attendants ramming into your legs with the beverage cart. When boarding buses, I hope and pray that it will be empty enough that I can get two seats to myself, and therefore sit kind of sideways. I’ve never had a plane ticket where I was able to choose the economy plus seats with extra leg room (or even an emergency exit row), but if buses offered the option of paying extra for more leg room, I would definitely take that into account. Trains of course are a problem as well, but on one leg of an Amtrak ride, the woman sitting next to me got us switched from seats in the middle of the car to seats in the front of the car. Not having a seat in front of me did provide a little extra leg room, and there was even a bar sticking out of the ground so we could still put our feet up. However, the train probably bothers me the least since you can always go to the observation or dining cars.

Gorge View Hostel made an excellent use of space in a small bathroom. The shower had a tub basin and a curtain instead of a door for ample movement, there was nothing in the way of the toilet's leg room,  the towel rack is placed in reach but not in the way, and as for the sink- just look at that wonderful mirror!
Gorge View Hostel made an excellent use of space in a small bathroom. The shower had a tub basin and a curtain instead of a door for ample movement, there was nothing in the way of the toilet’s leg room, the towel rack is placed in reach but not in the way, and as for the sink- just look at that wonderful mirror!

I Can’t Wash My Hair! I can only think of one time in my travels that I thought the shower heads were at the perfect height so I would have no problem washing my hair. Oddly enough, that was in Peru, when I was at least a foot taller than most of the locals. Most of the time, the stream from the shower head doesn’t even get on my face. In the tub showers, I can usually back up and then bow my head so my hair will get wet. But this seems to be more of a luxury, as many showers in hostels and camps are boxed stalls where there’s hardly enough room to turn around, let alone squat low enough to get water on my head. This isn’t as big of an issue in my own home if my shower head is too low since I install one of those shower heads on a hose. That usually adds enough height, and if for some reason it doesn’t, I can take the shower head off the wall and adjust it to where it needs to be. I’m guessing accommodations wouldn’t want me to do even basic plumbing on their bathrooms though, but if lodging owners added these shower heads themselves, it would be a small one-time expense to pay for years of happiness from their tall customers. When designing or renovating accommodations, staff should also keep in mind that no one, regardless of height, wants to feel crammed in a bathroom. Allowing more room to move in the shower, by the sink (make sure the mirrors are set high enough!), and around the toilet (so legs don’t run into the wall or toilet paper holder) is a subtle yet effective way to make guests’ stays much more comfortable.

Me with my now-retired carry-on. I'm slightly hunched-down in this picture, and it's not because my backpack's heavy.
Me with my now-retired carry-on. I’m slightly hunched-down in this picture, and it’s not because my backpack’s heavy.

I Can’t Reach All Rolling Suitcase Handles! For years, I used the same little black carry-on rolling suitcase. I usually didn’t have to walk it more than around an airport, so I barely noticed that the extent of the handle was just a bit too short for my arm’s reach. When I started doing more backpack-style trips, this became more noticeable. Last year when I arrived in Niagara Falls, I had to walk just a little over a mile to get from the bus’ drop-off point to my hostel. About halfway there, my back felt so out of whack that I decided it was easier to carry it by hand for the rest of the way. I decided there was no way I was walking it across the border to Canada (I crammed everything I would need for those days in my backpack and begged the hostel owner to store my suitcase until I came back to America). I also decided I should probably buy a new carry-on before going on any more backpacker trips. Last fall, as I was researching suitcases online, I noticed that almost none of them had the specifications for how long the handle extended. I even asked that question on a few of the Amazon purchasing pages. None of the manufacturing companies even bothered to answer that question, and the community answers just said things that were of no help. Seriously, I got a response to the degree of “It’s pretty long. I’m 5’7″ and don’t have to hunch over or anything.” Without exact measurements, it was impossible to tell if someone six inches taller would still consider it “pretty long”. Having important stats like this could really help online luggage sales.

That's three pieces of clothing- count them!- just to avoid baring it all. (And I still couldn't put my arms above my head without having a top malfunction.)
That’s three pieces of clothing- count them!- just to avoid baring it all. (And I still couldn’t put my arms above my head without having a top malfunction.)

I Can’t Fit Into Traveler Clothing! This might be more of a “I can’t fit into ANY clothing” complaint, but at least with my day-to-day street clothing, there are enough stores and brands so I can shop around until I find the right fit. With fewer companies specializing in women’s travel clothes, I haven’t found any article that fits and flatters me just right. Many outdoor stores only carry up to women’s size 10 (US) in shoes and sandals, leaving me with the option to either risk ordering online or instead going with the clunky men’s shoes. I’ve had to go to plenty of water-based events where one-piece swimsuits were required. Since I have never found a one-piece that would fit me, this means I bulk up my bag with at least three different pieces of swimwear so that I would be modest enough. (My tummy shows even with tankinis.) Pants are too short, long enough shirts are too baggy… you get the picture. It can take hours of determined shopping to find even one piece that will sort-of work. I know there are high-fashion clothing lines designed for tall women, and all styles of clothing for tall men. I wish someone in the clothing industry would figure out that tall women like to travel, too.

The good news is Voodoo Doughnuts has some pretty cool chandeliers to look at that are far enough out of reach to avoid damaging them (and people's heads)! The bad news: you'll have to look at them and the other tall-people-friendly decorations for a long time since the line is always long!
The good news is Voodoo Doughnuts has some pretty cool chandeliers to look at that are far enough out of reach to avoid damaging them (and people’s heads)! The bad news: you’ll have to look at them and the other tall-people-friendly decorations for a long time since the line is always long!

I Can’t Avoid Hitting My Head on Things Suspended from the Ceiling! Yes, the dining room looks beautifully decorated with a glass chandelier. But it’s bad room feng shui to place it high enough to be out of my line of vision, but not so high that I won’t run into it with my forehead. And the antique doorway that hasn’t changed in 200 years? You must realize that the average person was much, much shorter back then. I don’t even know where to start when it comes to those tiny prop planes. Decorators and designers need to keep in mind that they are probably not the tallest people that will be in that area. For things that can’t be moved or removed, a warning, both in the planning guide and in person, would be appropriate. Someone yelling “Be careful! Watch out!” right before the incident (or worse yet, right after) is not responsible. I’m actually surprised I have never heard about a lawsuit over something like this. For now, I guess the best solution is to make sure I get plenty of calcium so that my cranium is strong enough to protect my brain from all these impacts.

The travel industry has found ways to better serve overweight people, short people, and handicapped people. Isn’t it about time that travel becomes inclusive to tall people, too?

Checklist for Planning a Crazy Hectic European Adventure

After entertaining ideas in my head for the past year or so, I finally confirmed that I will be trekking through the Mediterranean. This was decided on exactly two months before my departure date. So what can I do in those waiting months? Ha, there’s plenty to do! Here’s a checklist if you want to know what’s been on my mind lately, or if you’re interested in taking on a similar endeavor!

  • Buy plane tickets. I have found fairly cheap tickets with budget airlines, but in the end, I just booked with Expedia. There were a few reasons for this: for one, I could make sure to earn loyalty points, both with Expedia and with the name-brand airlines they booked for me. For another, I could fly right out of the nearby little airport instead of going to Portland, San Francisco, or another major airport. It would also ensure that there would be no ridiculous hidden fees and that all the basics were covered. I know the exact size my luggage can be, whether or not I’m getting in-flight meals or entertainment, and other things that provide more peace of mind. I decided to book shortly after news broke out about an ordeal involving a passenger suing United Airlines. I thought it might be a good time to snag a cheap ticket. The funny thing was, even though United is usually the cheapest airline for me, that’s not the airline that ended up being the cheapest this time. I guess the other airlines wanted to draw in the loyalties that United was losing!
  • Purchase traveler’s insurance. This was something extra offered as I was checking out with Expedia. I had debated for so long if I would get this, and at the last second I decided to go for it. It was less than $100, but it could end up saving me thousands if certain situations arose. A number of things have the potential to occur during a trip (just like every other day of life), so it’s good to know that I have a fallback for many of these possibilities.
  • Map out destinations. This is especially important if you’re flying multi-destination or open-jaw. You have to be in certain places at certain times, and have to take travel time in between everything. Figure out how many days to spend in each location. Also determine if everything you want to visit is centrally located, or if you’ll need extra transportation or possibly two different accommodations at the same destination.
If you're going to use a GPS, make sure it is loaded with maps of your destination.
If you’re going to use a GPS, make sure it is loaded with maps of your destination.
  • Budget and brainstorm ways to save. Nobody likes the word “budget”, but think of it more as a challenge than a chore. How much can you do with a set amount of money? How much do you want to do? Also keep in mind that budgets can change over time. As I’ve gotten a more realistic idea about Europe, my budget has adjusted to reflect that. And even though my budget is still relatively low compared to most tourists, I am still looking for ways to save. (Do you have any tips specific to saving for Europe? I’d love to read them in the comments!)
  • Make at least a couple of accommodation reservations. My task today was booking the hostel I’ll be staying at for the first several days. It’s a good idea to book ahead of time, since prime accommodations can fill up quickly, especially during busy seasons. I don’t believe in booking all the accommodations for an extended trip though. If your plans change and you want to spend more or less time at a certain destination, it’s nice not to be tied down with having to pay for a bed you don’t want to sleep in. If you are making plans to visit people or enroll in a program, make sure to take care of this ahead of time, though. I was accepted into the Diverbo program a few days ago, which means that I have a free place to stay for seven days (in exchange for speaking English with those enrolled in the program). However, I did have to apply for that ahead of time to make sure I got a place, and I probably should have applied even sooner!
Hostels are great! Stay in them as much as you can.
Hostels are great! Stay in them as much as you can.
  • Get overseas communication. This was something that I had to promise I would do in order to gain my parents’ support for this journey. WiFi works overseas, but cell phone plans don’t. I did hours of research trying to see if I could get MiFi or an unlocked phone with an international plan, but nothing was cheap, and everything involved waiting until I got overseas for purchasing. However, I finally discovered a company that offers prepaid international SIM cards and inexpensive unlocked phones. I’ll tell you all about them once my phone arrives in the mail!
  • Attend any needed or desired doctor appointments. Your medical insurance probably isn’t valid overseas. And no one wants to have to cancel or shorten a trip due to unexpected health problems, so a pre-trip physical is always a good idea. I’ll usually tell my doctor when I am about to travel, and they often make some good health recommendations that I wouldn’t have thought of myself. Sometimes, they even give me sample-sized products of medicines I may need! Visit the dentist or any other specialty doctors before you go, too. Oh, and if you ever experience any sort of back pain, going to a chiropractor before leaving will change the outlook of the trip. Chiropractors can’t make being stuffed in an economy airplane seat for twenty hours feel comfortable, but they can help make it more bearable.

    Having been a practicing EMT (and I'm still licensed) gives me the confidence to take care of my and others' health while traveling. But it's never wrong to get a second opinion.
    Having been a practicing EMT (and I’m still licensed) gives me the confidence to take care of my and others’ health while traveling. But it’s never wrong to get a second opinion.
  • Arrange things with work. Will you quit? Request a leave of absence? Try to figure out a way to work from the road? Oh, so many options. With three jobs, this one will be an ordeal for me. I still need to modify my writing job so that it will be most effective for travels, and also take care of my other jobs that are not so location-independent.
  • Figure out on-ground transportation. If flying from one airport to another was the only transportation necessary during a trip, travel would be much less stressful. But the thing about airports is they tend to be miles away from the stuff you actually want to visit. Does the destination airport offer shuttle service? How much will that be? If you’re going to multiple destinations, you also have to factor in traveling between cities. Bus, train, or regional jet? Does your preferred method of travel service all the destinations you plan on visiting? Will travel time take up too much of your trip? This is probably my biggest headache right now, but I know it will be so worth it once it’s planned out. Yet another on-ground transportation factor is going about day-to-day. I prefer to walk anywhere possible, but that involves making sure that roads are pedestrian-friendly, allowing extra time to get from place to place, and planning to staying no more than a couple of miles away from the sites I want to see.

    Hoofing it during last year's international trip to Niagara Falls
    Hoofing it during last year’s international trip to Niagara Falls
  • Gather gear. Knowing I needed a good maximum-sized carry-on backpack for this trip, I found one way back in December. It’s possible that will be my biggest piece of gear, but there are plenty of things that I will need for this trip that I don’t normally have at home. Just yesterday, I bought an international adapter/converter plug (so I don’t fry my electronics), a combination lock (so I can secure my belongings in hostel lockers), and mini caribiners (so I can make sure the zippers on my backpack stay closed). And while I’m almost done with shopping, there are still a few more pieces of gear on my list to get!
  • Ensure passport and any needed visas are prepared. When I was sixteen, there was a big ordeal with getting my passport. I was going to Peru the same year that the law was made requiring passports for Canada and Mexico. With the increase in people applying for passports, somehow mine got lost in a government storage room for months on end, so I had to go to Seattle to get a replacement. Case in point: get your passport as early as possible. Keep in mind that passports technically expire six months before the printed date, so check the information and apply for one if necessary. This will be my first trip where I will need to get a visa. I can actually go through Spain, France, Italy, Greece, and pretty much anywhere else without one, but for just a few days in Istanbul, the Turkish government is going to make me apply for one. This sort of thing can typically be done online ahead of time.
  • Pack. All that stuff you bought for the trip? Now it has to go in the backpack you bought for the trip. I am sticking with carry-on only for a number of reasons: I won’t have to pay airline luggage fees, there’s less chance that I’ll lose anything, I won’t get a back injury from carrying too much luggage, and when I arrive in a city I can explore on foot instead of paying for a cab to get to the hostel. In order to accomplish this, I can’t take my whole closet with me, and I have to siphon liquid toiletries into TSA-friendly 3.1 ounce containers.
Having multiple bags, like I did while moving across America, means that you may have to try to balance all your belongings on the curb of a busy Chicago street while waiting for a cab to take you one mile to the bus station.
Having multiple bags, like I did while moving across America, means that you may have to try to balance all your belongings on the curb of a busy Chicago street while waiting for a cab to take you one mile to the bus station.
  • Make it to the airport on time! This one is probably the simplest, but also the most important. Find someone to drop you off or otherwise make arrangements, and plan plenty of time to get through the security line and find the right gate. Yes, there is plenty more do to once you land. But for the next few hours, kick back and enjoy the beginning of a new adventure!

Fast Friday Thought

Having dreams and goals are exciting, but making a commitment toward them? That’s a big deal.

I made a commitment today.

I bought a plane ticket. First stop, Paris!

It seems so unreal. Yet, this means my Mediterranean Europe Backpacking Adventure will now actually become real.

Whoa.

Question: What backpacking or European advice do you have to share? Anything helps!

Happy Hot Air Balloon Birthday to Me!

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My family happened to be vacationing in Walt Disney World when I turned 18. That day, as a newly minted adult, I took a ferry to Downtown Disney in hopes of experiencing something only adults could experience- signing my own liability waiver! I wanted to ride the then-new “Characters in Flight”, a giant tethered helium balloon. Unfortunately, when I got there, it was closed due to the wind. But as a left Florida that year, I was determined that I would eventually be able to have lots of non-airplane flying experiences… and also sign lots of liability waivers!

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About a year later, I went to a local hot air balloon festival. It was there that I got to take my first tethered hot air balloon ride. After signing my waiver and waiting an hour in line, the ride lasted maybe three minutes, and gave me a great view… of just the field where it took place! It was well worth the $3, but it was only an adventure appetizer when I wanted a dinner buffet.

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For three years now, I’ve decided to do something adventurous for my birthday. After meeting up with my family at Disney World (for the fourth time), or taking a bike trip around Columbus that ended up with me suspended on a high wire, I was looking for something that would be even better this year, especially since I was spending my first birthday at home since age 19. My plan actually wasn’t on my bucket list, but probably should be: go paragliding! I called a local paragliding guide and made plans for my birthday weekend.

On Thursday night, I received a message from the pilot with some bad news. The mountain that gliders have used for years belongs to the Bureau of Land Management, and somebody complained about the property’s use. That means all paragliding in the area will be shut down for at least six months. And of course it had to happen right before my birthday weekend! I still wanted to have some high-flying fun for my birthday, but would I be able to get anything arranged in just one business day?

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Referring to my Travel Bucket List, I picked out the ones that would be able to be done in the area and started scouring the internet for contacts. On Friday morning, I got two responses. One was from a helicopter service that offered me a one-hour flight for just $1500 (yeouch!), and the other was from Daybreak Ballooning that, while not cheap enough to be a regular activity, was WAY more affordable and worth every penny for this special occasion. So at 6 am Saturday morning, I was all set for my first real hot air balloon adventure!

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My friend Steph had agreed to accompany me on this ride, and my parents came to watch our take-off. But first we watched the crew set up. The first thing they did was figure out the wind pattern using what is probably the best instrument in the business: an ordinary helium party balloon. Fortunately, we had great weather conditions. We then went out to the soccer field of Jewett Elementary School for set-up. First, they took out the three-person basket, and then they spread out the envelope (the actual balloon part). Using a fan, the envelope slowly began to take shape, and eventually, some heat was added.

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Steph and I got into the balloon with our pilot Drew, and went over, like, two safety rules 1. You can hold onto something if you want to as long as that something is not the fuel line, and 2. Don’t get out of the basket for any reason unless you’re told to. Then with few pumps of heat, we lifted off!

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How do you describe the view? We were hovering over Central Point, which I lived in from age 3 to age 15, so I was very familiar with the town and many of its buildings, but I never saw any of them like this before! (Google Maps would be better if it was taken from a hot air balloon’s point of view!) Of course, when you’re up in the air, the first thing you want to try to find is your house. We were a little too far away to find my current house, so I instead tried to find my childhood home. I found Central Point Elementary, where I attended from kindergarten through fifth grade, and then peered into the suburbia beyond that to see if I could spot the street.

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I did find a corner market that’s about a block away from the house. While I didn’t exactly see that house in the air, I did take lots of pictures of the area so maybe I can zoom into the photo later to try to find it.

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It was kind of fun to spy on other people’s houses, too. I now know where to go if I ever feel like crashing a pool party!

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Some people were outside and, when we were low enough that they could see us in the basket, we’d wave at each other.

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One home had a super-cool large tent that you could practically live in.

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And then there was this one house that had a bus in their backyard!

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But more fun than looking at houses was looking at buildings that I knew about. Besides my elementary school, I got aerial shots of the other two elementary schools (including the one we launched from), as well as my high school. My middle school is on the outskirts of town, so it was harder to see that one, but eventually we did get close enough to take a few pictures.

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Another thing that was neat to see was the churches.

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For awhile, we were hovering in one spot above the McDonald’s. My parents had told me that they were going to eat breakfast there after we launched, and I was able to spot their car in the parking lot.

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We floated over the main street and saw many of the local businesses. In the distance, we could see the interstate, the Family Fun Center, the Jackson County Fairgrounds, and the mountains. We even saw the Medford Airport and watched a plane take off!

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One thing I hadn’t thought about until this morning was that hot air balloons can’t really control where they’re going. The crew was on the ground chasing us and keeping in contact during the entire flight, but toward the end, they were essential in helping us get a place to land.

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Pilot Drew had pointed out some of his common landing sites early in the flight, such as all the different school soccer fields, and even some power line-free residential streets, but the wind ended up taking us toward a wheat field. Of course the chasers had to ask the farmers if it would be okay to land there, and we really didn’t want to make crop circles on the wheat, so we headed to a farm road that split up two of the crops. And then I was offered the opportunity to play pilot!

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Okay, so all I really did was pull the trigger that made the fire whenever the real pilot told me to, but it sure was an experience! At that point we were also getting lower, and I mean really low, to the point that we could probably reach out and touch the wheat. (I was probably more nervous flying at that point than I would have been at our highest altitude!) Fortunately, no wheat was harmed in the making of this birthday experience!

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Our pilot threw a tether out to the crew member so that we could make sure we landed right between the two fields, and after bouncing a couple times, we were back on solid ground. For a few minutes, we just stood in the basket while the balloon deflated enough (that is where the don’t-get-out-of-the-basket-without-permission rule really comes into play, because one less body of weight could make it take off again!). We then got out as everything was taken apart and returned to the trailer. Steph and I then hopped in the car with the crew and we headed back to our starting point. But the fun wasn’t over yet!

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When we returned to the elementary school, we met up with my parents and then gathered at a picnic table that the crew had set up. While we were munching on the treats, Drew explained that, since it was our first flight, he would tell us the history behind hot air balloons and the traditional after-flight champagne toast. Ballooning was first done in France in the 1780s, before any other human-carrying aircraft was even though of. It started out by carrying a few animals, then someone took a tethered flight, and finally, they were brave enough to try a real flight. During one of the early flights, a balloon had to land on farmland. The farmers, having never seen anything like this before, thought this smoke-causing contraption must be a demon or something equally evil and vicious. To prove that they were just ordinary Frenchmen, the balloonists offered a very French-like peace offering: a bottle of champagne.

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In our correspondence beforehand, I had noticed on the website that champagne was served, and being a teetotaler (who tried champagne once and found it awful), I mentioned it was not necessary. But we were still able to carry on this tradition using sparkling cider instead. But first, Steph and I had to participate in another tradition of drinking “champagne” without your hands while kneeling on the ground and a traditional prayer is said over you that includes sprinkling!

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We all chatted for a little bit longer, asking any last burning questions we had about flying hot air balloons. Then we all thanked each other for the part we each played in making this event happen, and I got a few birthday wishes as we left. Even though it was a day before my actual birthday (which is today), this was a great start to a birthday weekend!

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Have you ever flown without an airplane? Have you ever wanted to? What would you like to do for your next birthday?

August 3rd, 2009: Somewhere Over Latin America

Context: This was the first entry of my second trip to Peru, written before landing in Lima.

Do you ever get the feeling that you just want to dance and have the energy to run to South America, but you’re forced to sit in one spot? That’s exactly what it feels like as I am now sitting on a plane headed toward my second-ever Peruvian voyage! To think, it all started yesterday afternoon as the group took a big bus ride from our church to Concordia University. I hung out in the dorm lobby, attempted to sleep on the lawn, in a hallway, and on the couch, got my hair done, read, and got a grand total of 1.5 hours of sleep before we had to leave at 2:15 to be at the airport by 3 for our 6 o’clock flight. I had muffins a teammate brought and a Wendy’s egg-n-cheese breakfast sandwich (and a lot of water!) We then boarded a plane to Atlanta, which had personal TVs. Unfortunately you had to pay to watch almost everything! We then ate Arby’s in Georgia and sat next to our boarding gate (oh, and we got to ride on one of those airport subways!) Now we’re on a 6+ hour flight to Lima. Everything’s free on our TVs this time, so I’m enjoying a movie marathon of Monsters vs. Aliens, 17 Again, and Race to Witch Mountain. In about an hour, we’ll be landing and getting ready to go to Loma Linda for the night. And tomorrow, we’ll see Posada de Amor! I miss them so much and I want to see how the kids have grown and I want to meet the newer kids. But for now, I’m stuck on a turbulent plane!

The mission team before we started our journey

Highlight of the Day: Not exactly a “highlight”, but an embarrassing moment worth remembering! On the first flight, I didn’t want to use the lavatory, so I decided to wait for the end of the 5.5 hour trip. After several hours (okay, I didn’t have to go the WHOLE trip; it just seemed that way) I realized I needed to go, so I was about to get up, when the seat belt sign turned on! They announced we’d land in 20 minutes. Well, 20 turned to 30, and I soon couldn’t keep still or silent. After a bumpy ride to the landing strip, I anxiously awaited for the seat belt sign to go off. Then I dashed off to the lavatory, which was in the back. When I came out, everyone was already in the aisle, so I have to wait a half an hour to get out, and the whole group had to wait for me!