Tag Archives: Nashville

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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A Tale of Two Parthenons

I have visited two Parthenons. What, you didn’t know there were two of them? You’re probably aware of the most famous Parthenon sitting atop the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. I visited that one a few months ago as part of my three-month Mediterranean Trek.

But this wasn’t the first Parthenon I’ve been to.

Several years ago, I took my first “official” solo trip to Nashville, Tennessee. Like most visitors to this city, I enjoyed the music scene, but I also explored other elements of Nashville, like its history, its Bible belt Christianity, and its parks. Yes, Nashville has some excellent parks that alone may be enough to warrant a trip! There’s the huge Bicentennial Park, the Riverfront Park along the Cumberland, and Centennial Park. The centerpiece of Centennial park is a full-scale replica of Athens’ Parthenon. Seeing this Parthenon is what initially motivated me to visit Greece.

Although Tennessee’s Parthenon is a copy of the one in Greece, each have their own unique characteristics. If you’ve seen one, you may want to plan a trip to go see the other. If you have yet to see either, maybe this comparison will help you decide which to see first!

History

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The Acropolis in the center of Athens

Athens: Obviously, Athens’ ancient Acropolis and Parthenon has a long, rich history, so I’ll just go over some of the highlights that makes it what it is today. The Parthenon was built in ancient Greece as part of the Acropolis, or “City on High”. However, it wasn’t actually a city, but a mountain in the center of Athens where several temples were erected for various gods. The biggest, the Parthenon, was dedicated to Athena, a goddess who is the virgin patron of her namesake city. After thousands of years, the building is understandably in ruins, but some events, such as thievery and an accidental explosion when it was used for military storage, left it in even further shambles.

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The Parthenon in the center of Centennial Park

Nashville: The Parthenon’s replica was one of many buildings constructed on a piece of acreage in celebration of the city’s 100th year. The land aptly became known as Centennial Park. If you visit today, the only building you’ll find in the park is the Parthenon. What happened to all the other buildings? All of the exposition buildings were made to be temporary, but Nashville citizens fell in love with their version of the Parthenon. They protested until the city officials decided to make some structural adjustments to the Parthenon so that it would stand the test of time.

Location

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Behind me is another temple dedicated to Zeus. If you look in the background, you can see that the Parthenon is visible from most other ruins.

Athens: The Parthenon is located on a hill called the Acropolis, in the center of downtown. Back in the day, it was a convenient reminder for the Greeks to pay respect to their religion, especially since they could only travel by feet or chariot. Today, it makes it conveniently located for travelers, who may not even need to take the subway to reach it! I stayed at two hostels in Athens. Most of my time was spent at Athens Backpackers, but one night was spent in AthenStyle. Both of these hostels had a rooftop lookout where you could see the Parthenon, which was especially beautiful lit-up at night. During the day, it was just a short walk (albeit uphill) from both of these places to reach the entrance.

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Downtown Nashville in the backdrop of the Parthenon

Nashville: Because this park was created one hundred years after the downtown area was established, it’s a couple of miles away from other city sites. That doesn’t mean that the Parthenon isn’t accessible, though! Since many people drive to Nashville, they will appreciate that it’s much easier to park here than it is in the city center. I did not visit with a car, but there were several days when I would walk both in the downtown and Centennial Park areas. I stayed at Music City Hostel, which was at an ideal location between the Parthenon and other Nashville attractions.

Condition

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Scaffolding to help preserve the ruins of Athens’ Parthenon

Athens: As mentioned above, the original Parthenon is in disrepair. However, there are people working on its preservation. Many of the original attached pieces of art were taken by the British. (I would love to see a fight break out in this post’s comments about whether or not they were stolen!) Other remaining pieces were moved to the neighboring Acropolis Museum. Regardless, this is in every sense an ancient ruin, and visitors have to stay behind the roped-off area which is several meters away from the Parthenon itself.

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One of the art pieces inside Nashville’s Parthenon

Nashville: Unlike the Athens version, this replica invites people to come inside! While it’s not made with expensive marble like Greece’s, it is structurally sound and fully intact. In addition, of the original Parthenon’s sculptures were replicated and displayed on this Parthenon’s exterior. In other words, it is not a replica of the Greek Parthenon as we see it today. Other than the material it’s made of, it looks exactly like what the Parthenon would have looked like shortly after its construction.

Features

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I’m standing on Areopagus with the Acropolis entrance on the hill behind me

Athens: Surrounding the Parthenon are several other ancient Greek temples. Because it’s on a hill, the views of the city are stunning from up here. Although you can’t touch any of the buildings, you can walk among many pieces of original marble lying around. On the side of the hill is also a historic site that includes two theaters. If you’re into art, you will only see replica sculptures at the Acropolis, but visiting the Acropolis Museum down the hill may be worth the admission. My favorite thing to do at the Acropolis was listen to Rick Steves’ audio tour, which you can download for free onto your phone. On this tour, he even mentions the merit of the other Parthenon, located in…

Nashville: Entering through the basement of the Parthenon, you’ll find lockers and a gift shop. You can then walk up through the next several floors, which is a history museum. The displayed history is a combination of Nashville history (particularly pertaining to the Parthenon) and ancient history of the Athens Acropolis. When you reach the top level, you’ll find yourself face-to-face with a 42-foot statue of Athena, the tallest indoor sculpture in the western world. This is a replica of what was originally found in the Athens Parthenon, but no one knows what happened to that one. It’s even painted in the gold and bright colors that all the Acropolis statues were once painted with. (Though they did use fake gold instead of the real thing!)

Cost

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Athens light up the Parthenon

Athens: Admission to the Acropolis is typically 12 euros, or free for those under 19. I was fortunate enough to be in Athens during European Heritage Days. During this last weekend in September, all visits are free! (A few other Greek holidays also provide free admission.) The ticket also includes admission to other ancient Greek sites around Athens, so this ticket alone may be your only expense in Athens besides, food, accommodations, and transportation. If you don’t want to see the Parthenon up-close (although I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to!), there are several surrounding hills and buildings that offer a great view.

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Nashville lights up the Parthenon

Nashville: Normal admission is $6 for adults or $4 for children and seniors. There are sometimes events outside of normal museum hours that would involve a different rate. However, if you don’t want to go inside (again, I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to!), no one can stop you from enjoying the exterior, and the rest of Centennial Park, for absolutely free! Unlike the other Parthenon, you can touch, walk on, and get up close to building at no expense. It’s even lit up at night like the original! The only caveat is that it’s not on a hill, so you can’t see it outside of Centennial Park.

Which Parthenon would you like to visit next? Let me know in the comments!

 

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!

Travel I Can Cross Off My Bucket List

Yesterday, I posted my current Travel Bucket List. However, while I’m looking forward to hopefully accomplishing all those things in the future, I think it’s important to also look back on previous accomplishments. While I don’t plan every single trip around my goals, once I have a trip planned, I try to take advantage of any opportunities available to apply that trip to working towards a goal. I often accomplish several goals in one trip, which is why you’ll see that I have often done several goals at the same time. Here are some things that are no longer on my bucket list, because I actually did them!

1. Go to Chicago. (September 2014)

2. Eat pizza in Chicago. (September 2014)

3. Go up the Willis Tower and stand on the Skydeck. (September 2014- Okay, I’m done with the Chicago goals!)

On the Willis Tower Skydeck...before eating pizza...in Chicago.
On the Willis Tower Skydeck…before eating pizza…in Chicago.

4. Live away from the Pacific states. (August 2011)

5. Visit Amish Country. (October 2013 in Holmes County, plus two other trips within the following year)

6. Go to the Creation Museum. (March 2014)

Hanging out in the ark room of the Creation Musuem
Hanging out in the ark room of the Creation Musuem

7. Vacation in Hawaii. (April 2001, Oahu)

8. Go to Walt Disney World. (May 1999, plus three more times, all in May during my birthday!)

9. Bike around a major city. (May 2014, Columbus)

Going on a bike ride around Columbus, Ohio happened to bring me to the World's Largest Gavel!
Going on a bike ride around Columbus, Ohio happened to bring me to the World’s Largest Gavel!

10. Be in two places at once a la A Walk to Remember. (March 2013, Nebraska/Iowa, also internationally in July 2014 at New York/Ontario)

11. Visit a different country. (December 2005, Mexico; July 2007 in Peru was the first time I stayed the night inside the country)

12. Visit a different continent. (July 2007 and August 2009, Peru, South America)

Playing with kids at the Posada de Amor orphanage in Cieneguilla, Peru
Playing with kids at the Posada de Amor orphanage in Cieneguilla, Peru

13. Visit Canada. (July 2014, Niagara Falls)

14. Go on a mission trip. (July 2007, Posada de Amor in Peru, plus several other trips after)

15. Go to Seattle. (March 2004 was my first trip)

16. Go to Nashville. (September/October 2012)

In front of the Tennessee Capitol Building in Nashville
In front of the Tennessee Capitol Building in Nashville

17. Go to Niagara Falls. (July 2014)

18. Take an overnight train trip. (December 2011, from Nebraska to Oregon)

19. Go on a cruise. (December 2005, California and Baja)

20. Support overseas orphans. (Not including Latin American mission trips, I’ve sponsored Nelly in Zambia since 2013.)

Nelly, the teenager I sponsor through Every Orphan’s Hope

21. Fly first class. (January 2013, from Denver to Omaha)

22. See Mount Rushmore. (August 2011)

Mount Rushmore in South Dakota
Mount Rushmore in South Dakota

23. Be in the nation’s Capitol. (June 2007 in Washington DC, also in Peru’s capitol of Lima in July 2007 and August 2009)

24. Go to New York, New York. (June 2007)

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On a class trip to the East Coast

25. See historic Philadelphia. (June 2007)

26. Travel out-of-state without my parents. (March 2003 to Washington, and many, many, many trips since!)

27. Travel by myself. (This one’s ambiguous: in 2001 I flew by myself but was picked up by family at my destination, in August 2011 I moved to Nebraska for an internship, in September 2012 I went to Tennessee for two weeks but one week was spent with a friend, in August 2013 I took a solo road trip to get to Ohio for my new job… if none of the previous count to you has having traveled by myself, then I definitely took several trips over the past year that would certainly count!)

In the airport at the beginning of my move to Nebraska
In the airport at the beginning of my move to Nebraska

28. Drive more than an hour. (First time was February 2013 from Twin City area in Minnesota to somewhere in Iowa)

29. Drive the entire way on a road trip. (First time was August 2013 from Fremont, NE to Marengo, OH)

30. See a Great Lake. (First saw Lake Erie November 2013, within the next several months also saw Ontario and Michigan)

Walking alongside Lake Michigan in Chicago
Walking alongside Lake Michigan in Chicago

31. See the Atlantic Ocean. (June 2007)

32. Go to Colorado, but not just inside an airport. (October 2011, Estes Park, visited twice later on)

33. Buy a car (August 2012, bought a y2k red Ford Explorer, sadly sold August 2014)

My SUV Dora (named so because she was an Explorer)
My SUV Dora (named so because she was an Explorer)

34. Go to Yellowstone National Park to watch Old Faithful, see large wild animals, and stand on the Continental Divide. (July-ish 2002?)

35. Take a tethered balloon ride. (July 2010)

36. Sleep (inside a car) in a Walmart parking lot. (September 2013)

37. See Multnomah Falls. (September 2014)

Multnomah Falls
Multnomah Falls in Northern Oregon

38. Go on an extended whitewater rafting trip. (May 2011, Rogue River)

39. Take a trip with only carry-on luggage. (September/October 2011, Tennessee, and nearly every trip ever since!)

40. Ride the Greyhound. (July 2014, and again in August/September 2014)

Good Ol' Greyhound
Good Ol’ Greyhound

41. Go waterskiing/wakeboarding. (July 2004 was my first waterski attempt, July 2006 proved more successful and was also my wakeboard introduction)

42. Sleep all night in a hammock. (July 2012, at the top of a 60-foot tower overlooking the Platte River)

43. Stay in a hostel. (September 2012, Music City Hostel in Nashville; hostels are now my favorite accommodation!)

44. Attend a Christian music festival. (September 2011, Lifelight South Dakota)

Among over 10,000 fans at a Lifelight concert
Among over 10,000 fans at a Lifelight concert

45. See The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. (June 2007)

46. Visit the three main countries that make up North America. (Started at birth in the U.S., ended in Canada July 2014)

47. Hike from base to summit of a mountain. (The tallest so far was Harney Peak in South Dakota August 2011, but was preceded by Mount Humbug and both Table Rocks in Oregon)

This building is at the very top of Harney's Peak and it was a strenuous four-mile journey to get there
This building is at the very top of Harney’s Peak and it was a strenuous four-mile journey to get there

48. Ride a roller coaster that goes upside-down. (May 2003, Disney’s Rock n Roller Coaster, and of course with visits to more “adventurous” theme parks like Six Flags Marine World, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Adventureland, I’ve been on dozens more)

49. Be invited to a movie screening before it comes to theaters. (July 2011 for Courageous; I’ve also gone to Grace Unplugged, Moms’ Night Out, and When the Game Stands Tall)

50. Become a travel writer (started professionally writing November 2008!)

So there you have it: my top 50 travel accomplishments! I’m looking forward to adding more to this list!

Should You Become a Voluntourist?

Most of my travels are not simply vacations. On the contrary, I like to use my travel experience as a way to give back to the communities I visit. It all started with a mission trip to Cieneguilla, Peru, back in 2007.

Volunteer in Posada de Amor Peru Orphanage
My friend Erika and I with our little Peruvian friend Melissa.

My high school youth group went to the Posada de Amor orphanage and their neighboring Eliel Christian School. We did construction and painting projects, taught English, and spent quality time with the children. I had such a great experience, I returned two years later.

Playing games with the Rayitos group at Posada.

In 2010, I heard about another church that owned a mission in Carmen Serdan, Mexico. They offered trips for people to help out with the handicapped orphans they care for. I went along, and although we didn’t see even one touristy thing, I had a great time!

The orphans at the Mexico mission were all ages, such as 41-year-old Lupe.

Even though I haven’t gone on another “mission trip” since then, I have incorporated volunteering into elements of my travels. Ever since I was old enough to help, I’ve loved volunteering at camps offered by the Girl Scouts and churches, like this time at Camp Tadmor near Lebanon, Oregon.

Tadmor 031
Some of the nine girls in the yurt I was in charge of.

When I went to Nashville in 2012, I realized that was the headquarters of a nonprofit magazine that I write for. Before going, I e-mailed the editor asking if we could meet. She responded, saying I was coming during important planning days for the magazine, and I was invited to help with this. I was glad to help out!

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In the building where we worked on Devozine.

This past summer in Niagara Falls, I learned about a ministry called the Magdalene Project, which helps homeless people, prostitutes, and low-income families. I called up the director and asked how I could help. After asking me about my skills and passions, she offered to let me help chaperone a trip with their kids’ club.

Niagara Falls 2014 507
Daisy and I touring Fort Niagara.

After all this volunteering in my travels (the buzzword for this is “voluntourism”), you’d think I would encourage everyone to go out and try to volunteer on all their travels, right? Well, sort of. I’ve learned a lot since my first trip to Peru, and I’m now more selective about how I voluntour.

Before I volunteer afar, I volunteer near home. I taught a local youth group a game where they got to slap peanut butter bread on me!
Before I volunteer afar, I volunteer near home. I taught a local youth group a game where they got to slap peanut butter bread on me!

I think the most important rule is this: if you wouldn’t volunteer at home, you shouldn’t volunteer while you travel. Hapless volunteering is a terrible way to try to make your trip meaningful. If you want to volunteer while you travel, find a local charity to work with before your trip. This will help you gain experience and make sure you’re cut out for the job. Don’t want to help near your home? I hate to break this to you, but this indicates that you shouldn’t volunteer afar either. If you want to help your destination’s community, you can still make a difference by purchasing from family-owned shops, staying at local accommodations, or sending donations to worthy causes. You must be dedicated to give your time.

Comparing heights with little Angela and her tutora. This is one of the local women who are hired to care for the orphans, thus forming a long-lasting and mutually effective relationship.
Comparing heights with little Angela and her tutora. This is one of the local women who are hired to care for the orphans, thus forming a long-lasting and mutually effective relationship.

I’ve also learned that just because an opportunity exists doesn’t mean I should go for it. In fact, this can potentially hurt their community! For example, our Peru trip leader told us that two of our tasks were to play with kids and do construction. The problem was, I never picked up a power tool before! I should have at least learned the basics before going. Better yet, the money spent on my plane ticket could pay local experienced construction workers to do the work. Then, instead of just helping the orphanage and school, we could help local impoverished workers as well!

Now, while I’m no construction expert, I do know how to play with kids. But was that beneficial? The kids did have fun playing with us, but I know it hurt everyone emotionally when we left. Volunteering long-term, or at least keeping in touch through letters and frequent visits, would be a less harmful way to form relationships.

Looking back, I think the one thing we did that was of real value was teach English. This is a sought-after skill in business, thus breaking the cycle of poverty. Since we were the only native English speakers in that area, we were best suited in this department.

The kids in this program were told I was just helping for one day to prevent attachment. I was able to utilize my childcare and health skills in the pool and at the park. (The kids also got the treat of sharing my waterproof camera in the pool!)
The kids in this program were told I was helping for just one day. I was able to utilize my childcare and health skills in the pool and at the park. (The kids also loved sharing my waterproof camera in the pool!)

Contrast this to my recent voluntourism experiences. Before I went to Niagara Falls, I talked with the ministry director and offered to help in any way needed. (I also worded it so she wouldn’t feel obligated to place me if it was a hassle to get me involved.) She did what all charity leaders should do: asked questions! She wanted to know about my past volunteer experience, profession, church involvement, and even my hobbies! With that information, she could find the role where I would be most effective, which happened to be chaperoning a field trip.

Same thing goes with my experience in Nashville. If I hadn’t spent several years writing for Devozine, I would have been more of a burden than a blessing. In addition, I didn’t waste money by making special volunteer trips. I’d already planned extended travel in these places, so I was able to maximize my buying power by staying in locally-owned small hostels, buying from local businesses, and spending time learning about the actual culture and needs of the area.

Are you still interested in voluntouring? If you’ve read this far, I assume you are. The above wasn’t meant to scare people from voluntouring (because it CAN be a meaningful and helpful endeavor), but rather to just get people thinking about how they voluntour. I could continue to provide information on other things to think about, such as your ability and availability, safety limitations, legal requirements, and how to find worthy organizations to voluntour with, but all this information could fill a book! Instead, I’ll refer you to someone who already wrote a book! I learned a lot from Kirsty Henderson, a worldwide traveler who has volunteered in several countries. She wrote The Underground Guide to International Volunteering: For experiences that go beyond beaches and the backpacker trail. The eight chapters are filled with essential information, such as why you should (or should not!) pay a fee to volunteer, different types of volunteering, and a guide with a country-by-country breakdown of organizations you can help and what they provide their volunteers. I used this to discover a few opportunities that I’m looking forward to being a part of!

I would like to thank Kirsty Henderson for providing me with a digital copy of The Underground Guide to International Volunteering: For experiences that go beyond beaches and the backpacker trail. And no, she didn’t pay me to say nice things about it- I just really like her book!

7 Budget-Friendly Activities for Traveling Anywhere

I don’t believe that you have to be rich to travel. In fact, as long as you’re not in debt, there’s a trip out there that can fit your budget perfectly. Whether you’re headed around the world or simply to the next town over, here are a few ways you can get the most out of your travel experience- and still stick with your budget!

Eat Ice Cream

Twist O' The Mist in Niagara Falls, NY has been one of my favorite ice cream shops!
Twist O’ The Mist in Niagara Falls, NY has been one of my favorite ice cream shops!

I’ve visited (and once even lived in) several towns with triple-digit populations. There isn’t much in these places, but there’s usually an ice cream shop. Ask for a scoop of the most unique flavor on the menu, and you’ll be reminded of your visit whenever you taste, smell, or even hear that flavor. If you’re visiting an area that has several options for ice cream, pick a place that serves flavors from a local creamery. Sure, a small cone at an ice cream stand may cost more than a whole tub at the grocery store, but these few dollars won’t break anyone’s budget.

Visit a Church

One of the best churches I've ever been to- The River in Delaware, Ohio is held in a converted barn!
One of the best churches I’ve ever been to- The River in Delaware, Ohio is held in a converted barn!

If you want to meet locals, experience culture, and look at unique art and architecture for free, then head to a church near your destination. Churches are found throughout the world, even in places where it’s illegal, so you’re likely to find several churches within a short radius. Because this is part of your travel experience, don’t be bound by denomination or feel like you have to agree with everything the church believes. I’ve used travel as a way to experience Methodist, Presbyterian, Southern Baptist, and Catholic churches for the first time. Some churches have a historic significance to the area they serve, and may even be open during non-service times for visitors to see what makes the building unique.

Take a Walk

Walking can bring many unexpected surprises, like this large, walk-able map of Tennessee in Nashville!
Walking can bring many unexpected surprises, like this large, walk-able map of Tennessee in Nashville!

Not only is walking free, but it can actually save you money if you use it in place of buses, taxis, or car rentals. You can experience a lot more of the area by walking. While I remember taking some long walks on family vacations, my first trip with extensive walking was in Nashville. It was there that I went to RCA Studio B, where Elvis first recorded. I didn’t intend to go there, it just happened to be one of the many fascinating places I ended up stopping at while on my way somewhere else. Besides, walking ensures that you can enjoy all that ice cream you’ll sample, guilt-free.

Go On a Bike Ride

Going on a bike ride around Columbus, Ohio happened to bring me to the World's Largest Gavel!
Going on a bike ride around Columbus, Ohio happened to bring me to the World’s Largest Gavel!

Some areas are not pedestrian-friendly, either because of a lack of sidewalks or because all the places you want to visit are a few miles apart from each other. In that case, I recommend seeing the area on two wheels. If you cannot bring your own bike to your destination, many hostels and other travel-related businesses can rent a bike to you (with a lock and sometimes a helmet) for a daily fee. Bicycles are the best of both worlds: you’ll be able to notice most of the unique things you would if you were walking, but you can also travel faster and for further distances. While staying at a hostel in Canada, I met a fellow traveler who came from Japan to ride a bike from Los Angeles to New York City, with lots of side-trips along the way. Imagine all that he must have seen!

Photograph Everything

The best part of Chicago's Cloudgate "Bean" is taking tacky mirror selfies to a whole new level!
The best part of Chicago’s Cloudgate “Bean” is taking tacky mirror selfies to a whole new level!

Getting a durable, quality camera may come with an upfront cost, but it is certainly worth all of the memories you’ll be able to capture. Naturally you’ll want to take pictures of the sights you see and the people you share it with, but you can also spend some time and actually get creative with the photograph. If you take a picture of a famous place, it will look the same as the millions of other photographs that other people took of the same place. However, can you incorporate your own unique flair? I once read a traveling shoe ambassador’s blog that put a face on a flip-flop and took pictures of it in several countries and states. If you take a fun spin with a photo, be sure to share it with me!

Go To Unique Sites

Touring Boys Town in the heart of Omaha, NE was a great experience made even better by seeing the World's Largest Ball of Stamps!
Touring Boys Town in the heart of Omaha, NE was a great experience made even better by seeing the World’s Largest Ball of Stamps!

When traveling, you probably pick your destinations based on what you can see there. Of course you’ll want to visit what your destination is known for, but also keep an eye out for unique, little-known sites and attractions. People go to South Dakota’s Black Hills to see Mount Rushmore, but only a portion of these people stop at the wacky Wall-Drug on the way there. Find out about roadside stops that can enrich your travel experience at places like RoadsideAmerica.com. You can also follow road signs to any interesting-sounding attractions or, better still, ask the locals for their inside information.

Chat Up People

Two minutes before this picture was taken in Fremont, NE, I did not know this girl. But she was bold an encouraged me to dress up for the retreat's photo booth with her!
Two minutes before this picture was taken in Fremont, NE, I did not know this girl. But she was bold an encouraged me to dress up for the retreat’s photo booth with her!

Okay, I have to admit that I’m not naturally inclined to walk up to random strangers and start a conversation. But I do appreciate it when another (non-creepy) traveler comes up to me to talk. Being a native English speaker, I have had the privilege of helping people from all over the world practice their foreign language skills simply by chatting with them! While I had the luxury of speaking my own language, I have been able to hear all kinds of interesting first-person stories, and have also picked up a few tips for my travels. If you want to meet new people on your travels but aren’t very outgoing, try staying in hostels, riding the bus or train, or simply standing in a long line for a tourist attraction, and eventually someone will start talking to you!

What are some ways that YOU make the most of your adventure while spending little money?

United States of Hostels

When I mention to people that I enjoy staying in hostels, I expect one of the following responses:

“What’s a hostel?”

“Aren’t those only in Europe?”

“Those are creepy; you shouldn’t stay there!”

For the last two, I’d like to shout a resounding NO! Hostels are found throughout the world, and only horror movies make them creepy. (In fact, I feel a lot safer staying at a hostel than I do anywhere else!) As for the first question, a hostel is an accommodation where, instead of renting a room, you can rent a bed inside a dorm. That means a big savings in money, and also a greater sense of community with others who are also staying in the hostel.

Even though hostels are most popular in Europe, and I hope to visit dozens of hostels there next year, so far I have only stayed in hostels within the United States. (Okay, so I stayed in one in Niagara Falls, Ontario, but it was only a mile away from the U.S.!) Here are a few I have stayed in and recommend:

Music City Hostel, Tennessee: This was the first hostel I had ever stayed in. Music City Hostel is a culmination of everything that the city of Nashville represents. A variety of travelers from all around the world creates this makeshift community that results in spontaneous jam sessions, late-night talks, and memorable experiences.Music City Hostel is located on the West End of Nashville. This is the district where the hospitals are located, so you will often hear ambulance sirens, but other than that it is a very quiet community. It is a few blocks away from the nearest bus stop or main street, yet it is still extremely easy to find. It is less than a mile away from several attractions, including Centennial Park and Vanderbilt University. It is also within walking distance of Downtown Nashville. Overall, Music City Hostel provides an excellent opportunity to meet new friends and experience the Nashville sights and sounds. This unique hostel is recommended to anyone with a love of travel!

Wayfaring Buckeye, Ohio: The staff was amazing, the amenities were more than I expected, and I saved a whole bunch of money compared to if I had stayed anywhere else! I had only had one previous hostel experience, but the staff at The Wayfaring Buckeye made sure I understood everything and made me feel at home.  It did seem to have a fairly quiet atmosphere, which could be a good or bad thing depending on your personality and amount of energy, but if you wanted to talk, there were plenty of people willing to talk! I was especially impressed by the cleanliness. The hostel was conveniently located near the OSU campus. It was just a few miles by bike to get to the heart of Columbus. I was surprised that bikes and locks were provided for free! The Wayfaring Buckeye appears to have once been a duplex, but a wall dividing the two homes was removed. That means twice the kitchen space, living rooms, and everything else!

Gorge View Hostel, New York: Gorge View Hostel is the closest hostel to the Niagara Falls. This building is at least 85 years old and offers an interesting history in addition to its ease of access to Niagara Falls. This fairly new hostel offers a comfortable combination of old-fashioned charm and modern amenities. Gorge View is certainly worth staying at for several days! Perhaps the best part about the Gorge View location is that it’s the perfect place to view fireworks! On nights when Niagara Falls hosts a fireworks show, the rooftop is open for all guests to view the show and the lit-up city skyline. Overall, Gorge View Hostel is an excellent choice for travelers who want to see the wonder of Niagara Falls. This is one of the few hostels where you can interact directly with the owner, and he can definitely provide lots of insider information and fun stories. The hostel is continually improving, so every visit will get better and better!

Niagara Falls Backpackers Hostel, Ontario: Niagara Falls Backpackers Hostel is a charming, family-owned-and-operated accommodation. On the outside, the old Victorian home seems perhaps to fancy to be a hostel, but on the inside, you’ll enjoy many of the amenities that are unique to hostels. Niagara Falls Backpacker’s Hostel lives up to its “international” name by housing travelers from all over the world, many of whom are friendly and great to share experiences with in Niagara Falls. The hosts speak both of Canada’s national languages, English and French.There is so much to do in the Niagara Falls area, and Niagara Falls Backpackers Hostel is in a central location where you can access it all. The young will love to hear about adventures from their global peers, and older folks will appreciate the BnB-style atmosphere and community. All ages will enjoy their stay at Niagara Falls Backpackers Hostel.

Hostelling International Chicago, Illinois: HI-Chicago is one of the largest hostels in one of the largest cities in America. This safe and friendly hostel welcomes travelers around the world from all walks of life. It includes all the standards of Hostelling International, but for just a few dollars more will also provide a great place to stay for non-members. If there is anything you need to know about Chicago, ask the staff on the first or second floor. Need a cab? They’ll call one for you. Need a recommendation for a pizza joint? They’ll give you a map and point out their favorites. Need to explore Chicago on the cheap? They sell discount tickets to many of the popular attractions, including the famous Willis Tower Skydeck.

Note: Links and hostel research provided by Hostelz.com. At this site, you can find out more about hostelling and book and nearly any of the thousands of hostels around the world!