backpack, resources, saving money, travel tips

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 Journal Tuesdays, voluntourism

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!

#ThrowbackThursday, Bucket List

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)

TIESS3 209
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!

resources, saving money, travel tips

Free Substitutions for Everyday Expenses

What would you rather spend your money on: a super-amazing trip of a lifetime, or day-to-day costs? Of course you want to be able to live well, but when you’re saving for a trip or other big goal, you may realize that you’re spending money on things that you don’t need to spend money on. But going on a spending freeze does not mean you have to stop enjoying the things you love. It just means you have to go about things differently. Here are twenty-one expenses that many people have, along with some cost-free substitutions.

Instead of paying for network television… many channels upload some of their popular shows onto their website or onto the free version of Hulu. ABC, CBS, and A&E are just some of the channels whose websites you can visit for free shows. Yes, this does mean watching on your computer, but if you really want to watch on a bigger screen, you can consider a one-time cost of buying a cord that will display your computer screen on your television. If your favorite show is not offered online, see if a friend who has that channel would be willing to host a weekly screening night.

Instead of going out to dinner… enjoy time together by cooking a meal at home. Begin by looking up a recipe (for free online, of course) for a dish you’ve never made or tasted before. If you don’t have the ingredients at home, make shopping at the grocery store part of your dinner date! This can be your opportunity to try out crazy cooking methods and use your finest dinnerware. You can even make it formal by busting out the cocktail dress or suit and tie! I realize that technically, this still costs money as you’re buying the ingredients, but you need to eat anyway, right? As long as you’re not purchasing new cookware or exotic foods, this memorable night in can cost just as much as any other meal you cook at home.

A former roommate and I spent an evening shaping and baking pretzels!
A former roommate and I spent an evening shaping and baking pretzels!

Instead of spending money on movies… some production companies have movies available for free online, often available to stream straight from YouTube! There are also dozens of websites dedicated to providing free documentaries to the public. Now this takes care of your movie subscription services, but what about the movie theater experience? If you’re a business owner, ministry leader, or even a blogger, not only can you attend movie screenings for free, but you can see them before they come out. Since getting into the Lifeway Films advanced screenings, I’ve been able to see several free movies over the past few years in the best theaters in town!

Instead of buying books… the obvious recommendation would be the library, but I realize that it is not a viable resource to everyone. Even if you do have a local library, it may not have the kind of selection you want. Many communities have some sort of book exchange, which could be anything from a mailbox on the sidewalk, to a bookshelf in a store, to a whole building filled with free books! Sure, you may have to give up some books, but in return you can get an entire selection of new books! If your area doesn’t have a book exchange, consider starting one up! A great way to get brand-new books is to enter contests, often sponsored by either the author or the publisher. Even if there are no advertised contests, a nice fan letter sent to the author may be returned by free books- possibly autographed!

Instead of shopping online Craigslist, eBay, and other online stores… you can look for a local free group on Facebook. This has a similar philosophy to the Freecycle website, but because it’s on a regularly-accessed social network, it tends to be better utilized. Once you join your local group, all you have to do is either post what you’re looking for, or post something that you want to give away. Your neighbors will then be able to help you out in your endeavor. In addition to this, never underestimate the good old-fashioned method of telling your friends what you’re free-shopping for!

When I was moving, someone on a local Facebook group was fortunate enough to take this custom-made bed out of my hands for free!
When I was moving, someone on a local Facebook group was fortunate enough to take this custom-made bed out of my hands for free!

Instead of purchasing clothing… you can try trading with friends. Of course, this only works if your friends have similar size and style. You can also take up sewing and upcycle your current threads. You can prolong the life of your clothes by patching up holes, or you can give your wardrobe a complete makeover and turn one item of clothing into something else entirely. If you get creative, you can turn a t-shirt into a skirt, or a skirt into a scarf!

I upcycled twelve camp t-shirts into a no-sew blanket!
I upcycled twelve camp t-shirts into a no-sew blanket!

Instead of buying school books… share with a friend who is also taking the class, or borrow from someone who took the same class the previous semester. If you don’t have these kinds of connections, many school libraries, and sometimes local public libraries, carry the current school books and allow students to borrow them for a short time as needed. If you can, contact the instructor before the class starts and ask what books are actually required. (Sometimes what the school thinks is read and what the instructor actually assigns can be different.) All the above options typically only work for books that are not read on a daily basis. You probably will have to buy some books, so find them used for as cheap as you can online, and after your class ends you can sell them directly to another student for almost the same amount that you bought it for. Even though it requires putting a little money down, many students find that this method will help them break even in the end.

Instead of purchasing souvenirs… take lots of pictures. Go geocaching and trade for an item that will remind you of the area. Keep a travel journal. Collect your ticket stubs, itineraries, and brochures. Find rocks, shells, or other natural objects and label where you found them (make sure this is legal before taking them). The souvenirs you want to buy are likely made overseas and simply stamped with your destination’s name. Another bonus of free mementos is that they often better represent your vacation spot.

The only "souvenirs" my friends and I have from this hike are the photos we took and the trinkets we traded in the geocaches.
The only “souvenirs” my friends and I have from this hike are the photos we took and the trinkets we traded in the geocaches.

Instead of giving pricey gifts… find a way to spend time instead of money. Newlyweds may need a house- or pet-sitter while they’re on their honeymoon. First-time parents often need help catching up on housework and yard work, or getting the nursery ready. Not-first-time parents may be looking for babysitting for their older kids or meal preparation. You could also get crafty and make a unique, quality gift out of items you already own. Used gifts are sometimes okay as long as it’s a gift from the heart, such as an antique family heirloom being passed down. Just make sure that your free gifts don’t come across as stingy or unwanted. In some cases it is better to buy a (couponed, on-sale) gift for a dear friend than hoarding away a few extra bucks.

Instead of paying for a pet… pet-sit for your friends and neighbors and you could get paid to snuggle with a furry friend! You can also get your animal fix by volunteering at, or even just visiting, an animal shelter. You could also volunteer or work as a farmhand and be exposed to a variety of creatures! Remember that a pet does not typically fit into a traveler’s lifestyle. You either have to hope to find pet-friendly lodging and camps and pay the extra pet fee, or pay for a kennel or pet-sitter back home. This is a huge expense in addition to the regular expenses of food, immunizations, etc.

Not having pets didn't stop me from playing with my Nebraska neighbor's puppy!
Not having pets didn’t stop me from playing with my Nebraska neighbor’s puppy!

Instead of buying paper products… use reusable! Many people already have plenty of towels and other paper product replacements already in their homes, but even if you don’t have enough cloth towels to replace paper towels, you probably have enough material to make your own. Bandannas can make festive napkins. Old t-shirts can be cut to any size of rectangle for whatever you repurpose them as. Even old socks are great for scrubbing and wiping down when cleaning. If you don’t feel like washing rags, use a small piece of salvaged cloth for the task and then throw it away.

Instead of purchasing periodicals… think about why you’re really reading it. If you only buy magazines to read one or two certain sections, search for those topics on Pinterest and you’ll get thousands of pins linking to articles on that topic. Remember that lots of magazines publish their most popular articles online for free. As for the newspaper, I’m not sure why they’re even still in print, but you can find all that news online and immediately after it happens. If you want something you can hold in your hands, there are free subscriptions, or at least trial issues, to many magazines. They’re getting rare, but they’re still out there! Finally, utilize free magazine racks, check out magazines at the library, and trade magazines with friends. As long as it’s your first time reading it, who cares if the magazine is several months old?

Instead of paying to exercise… work out at home and on the road. If you are traveling and there is no price difference between an accommodation with a pool or workout room and an accommodation that doesn’t offer any workout equipment, choose the place where you can be more active. As long as you have decent walking or running shoes, you can turn any place into a gym. Motivate yourself to exercise more at home by doing small, vigorous tasks such as unloading groceries, walking to the mailbox, or vacuuming. Also, there are many workout videos available for free online streaming. Some may recommend simple exercise equipment, but you can replace a yoga mat with a towel and use water bottles filled with rocks instead of weights.

You can save money on exercise AND transportation if you decide to walk EVERYWHERE like I did on my Niagara Falls trip.
You can save money on exercise AND transportation if you decide to walk EVERYWHERE like I did on my Niagara Falls trip.

Instead of buying shipping material… save the packaging from items shipped to you, cover your address with a new label, and ship it out! If your shipment requires cushioning, you can use already-used wrapping paper, the contents from a paper shredder, or any other needs-to-be-recycled paper from around the house. Oh, and you can also save the bubble wrap that gets sent to you for later use. You can even place fragile items in the center of the package and surround it with other softer, non-fragile items. If you plan to ship through Priority Mail at the US Post Office, don’t even bother trying to find packaging. All post offices provide Priority Mail boxes, envelopes, tape, and address labels for free. Whenever you have to mail just a small envelope, consider if you could send the information online instead. If you’re careful about your shipments, you can get away with only spending money on stamps!

Instead of buying video games and gaming devices… I’m not entirely sure why the gaming industry is so big when there are so many games you can play for free. If you have a smart phone, you’re probably already aware that you can download free gaming apps. There are also many free online gaming sites with many different genres. And a bonus to parents and students: there are a ton of fun, free games that are also educational! But, in my opinion, video games will never be as fun as traditional board games. You probably have a few hiding in the back of your closet; why not pull them out and play a few rounds?

Instead of paying for a hotel room… don’t do it! I understand the merit behind hotels and motels, but I believe that they are used far more than they need to be. Read my article on ten alternatives to hotels. All of them are cheaper than a hotel, and several of the suggestions are absolutely free!

Lounging in a lodge... that we stayed a night in FOR FREE!
Lounging in a lodge… that we stayed a night in FOR FREE!

Instead of an expensive friends’ night on the town… enjoy a night in! Have a potluck (depending on what dish you make, you could actually spend less than you would for your own personal dinner), and spend the night watching movies, playing games, or simply catching up. If you volunteer to host a night like this, your friends will probably realize that they can also host low-key, low-cost get-together at their house. There will be fewer pricey nights in town and more times celebrating friendship in the comforts of each other’s homes.

Instead of spending money on music… many cities of decent size will have free concerts going on at least a few times per month. These may be small, one-man shows inside coffee shops, but this could be great as you’ll really get to know the artist. For in-home entertainment, Amazon often offers free downloads, and up-and-coming artists will give some songs away on their website to get people interested in their music. Of course, if you don’t care about owning music, you have plenty of options for listening to music, such as YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, and, of course, the traditional radio.

A few years ago, I bummed a ride with friends to South Dakota to attend Lifelight, a huge, FREE music festival!
A few years ago, I bummed a ride with friends to South Dakota to attend Lifelight, a huge, FREE music festival!

Instead of buying snack foods… go foraging! First study up on different types of edible plants that are native in your area, and which ones can be poisonous if ingested. Then go into the forest or perhaps even your backyard or another area that doesn’t get sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. Some leaves can be used as spices or to make herbal tea, and there are plenty of other nuts, flowers, grasses, fruits, and roots to enjoy. Foraging may not fill an empty belly, but it will give you a greater appreciation for food and hopefully these wild, organic options will lessen your consumption of junk food!

Instead of spending money on sporting events… watch the kids! In most communities, sporting events for children in middle school and under are free to attend. Even if you don’t have any kids in sports, this is an easy, free way to show your support in the community. Check with the local schools and Little League for game times. You could also check with community clubs, churches, and other organizations that may play intramural sports and ask if you can come watch a game. Local games can be just as interesting as the big leagues. If you’re set on seeing the professionals play and you don’t get any free sports channels, you can stream some games online.

Even some college games are free! When Penn State Men's Volleyball came to challenge Ohio State, it didn't cost me anything to cheer on my cousin!
Even some college games are free! When Penn State Men’s Volleyball came to challenge Ohio State, it didn’t cost me anything to cheer on my cousin!

Instead of paying a monthly phone bill… make phone calls using Google Voice. If you’re in the United States, you can call for free to any other phone number in the United States. However, there are some caveats. First of all, you need to be connected to the internet, which usually isn’t a problem with the prevalent free WiFi and the fact that so many people use data plans. The worst part is that you cannot provide a number for people to call you, and you cannot leave voicemail. But since Google Voice will take care of most of your outgoing calls, consider getting a cheap pay-as-you-go phone for when you need to receive calls and leave messages. You can get a Tracfone for as little as $10 (they even have smart phones for a slightly higher price), and all of their phones come with at least 10 free minutes upon activation. If you prefer texting, there are many websites that will allow you to text over their website, and will even provide recipients with a temporary number for them to text you back.

What swaps have you made to save money for your adventures?

resources, travel tips, writing

I Now Write Travel Guides!

24 hours ago, I never expected I’d write travel guides. But here I am, 24 hours later, and I have two guides published!

Just last night I found out about a website called Buggl. It is a resource to look up all kinds of travel guides. You can search by location or by type of activity. Each guide varies in price (depending on how much the author charges), but they all include an online version and a downloadable, printable PDF book.

I decided right away that I wanted to create a travel guide of my own, so I signed up. While some of the features were kind of annoying to work with, overall it was fairly easy to put together a guidebook. With a late night last night, I finally finished this:

A Non-Mushy Week in Niagara Falls

Because I have the freedom to write about anywhere I want from whatever perspective I want, I decided it might be fun to write a book about how you can visit Niagara Falls, the ultimate honeymoon destination, when you don’t want any romantic ideas whatsoever. Of course, I think this guide would still be useful to couples who wanted to visit, but because I went solo on this trip, I wanted to let others know that they can enjoy this place by themselves, too! Furthermore, I wanted people to know that Niagara Falls is so much more than an afternoon stop! This guide explains in detail how you can enjoy seven action-packed days! In it, I give little-known secrets, information on how to prepare for this excursion, and more. I wrote all the words and took all the background pictures featured in this guide! Click here to download A Non-Mushy Week in Niagara Falls for only $1.25!

After publishing this book, I tried to get some sleep, but I woke up early this morning because my mind was buzzing with ideas. I immediately wrote down a few ideas I had for other guidebooks, and after I got ready for the day I sat down and wrote another one!

A Weekend at the Creation Museum Travel Guide

I was inspired to write this one because I visited the Creation Museum last March, and was surprised to learn that while all tickets are valid for two days, many people only spend a couple hours there! That’s not nearly enough time to experience all that the Creation Museum has to offer! Based on my experience, I made this guide to better utilize the two-day ticket and enjoy a whole weekend in and around the Creation Museum. This includes where to stay, where to eat, and what to do after-hours. Click here to download A Weekend at the Creation Museum for only 99 cents!

If these two guides go over well, I plan to write many more. If you are interested in visiting Niagara Falls and/or the Creation Museum, I truly believe that these books will be a helpful resource to you! If you are interested in some other place, let me know. If I’ve been there, I’ll create a guidebook customized for you!

Thanks for reading, both my Buggl travel guides and right here on my blog. Let me know what you think!

#ThrowbackThursday, Accommodations, destinations, tour

Throwback Thursday: Rafting the Rogue River

In honor of the ever-popular hashtag, this website will now celebrate Throwback Thursdays by featuring trips I’ve taken anytime in the past- from a couple years ago, all the way back to when I was a couple years old! It may be every Thursday, or it may just be on Thursdays that I feel like searching through my archives- I don’t know yet. 

School recently started for many colleges. That means an official end to all summer activities. No more summer camps, no more walking the beach in flip-flops… and no more rafting. The Rogue River in Southern Oregon closed to all rafters around the same time that the local colleges kicked off. But a few years ago, I found out I could go to college AND go rafting at the same time!

In order to get my college degree, I needed to get three health credits. These could come from traditional health classes, such as First Aid and Nutrition, or they could come from Physical Education classes. I decided that Phys Ed would be a stress-releasing way to break up the more rigorous classes. When signing up for classes for my final quarter, I still needed to get one more health credit. When I saw a whitewater rafting class among the course listings, I immediately wanted to go. Instead of a standard twice-per-week class, I could go on a three-day rafting trip down the Rogue River. It cost an extra $400 fee, but knowing I may never have this opportunity again, I decided it was worth the money. (I later learned that this was an incredibly good deal since the trip was comped by the school and volunteer guides. So if you’re looking for a less-expensive rafting trip, call your community college and see if you can join them on a trip!)

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The trip was in early May in order to align with the school’s schedule, and also so we could go during a legal rafting time without having to get a summer permit. That meant, in order to stay dry and warm, I had to bring the right clothes! I hardly ever shop for new clothes, but I spent an entire day buying under armor, a rainsuit, wool socks, water shoes, sunglasses, and a special poly-spandex fabric blend of pants to go with a rash guard suit I already owned. I never would have thought I’d spend so much money on such a ridiculous-looking outfit, but it was definitely worth it!

00000005  0000000800000007Cabin by Rogue River

Three days is a long time to be on the river, but fortunately the Rogue River is so unique, there are a lot of unique stops along the way. We stopped every day for lunch and a couple of other attraction/bathroom breaks. We stopped at a few hiking trails, historic buildings, and even farms! I never realized how much was along the Rogue, and so much of it is difficult to get to by car!

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One of the best parts of the trip was that we got to stay in beautiful lodges each night! The fed us such large meals and offered fun activities to wind down the day. At the lodge we stayed in the first night, I looked through a scrapbook they had, and learned that many celebrities had come to Southern Oregon to go rafting and stay at this lodge. Today I don’t recall any of the celebrities except for Laura Bush. The second lodge was so remote that it was only accessible by river! Some of us had a campfire that night, and the staff made sure we knew to put the fire completely out when we were done, because if a fire did start, there would be no way for a firetruck to get there!

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With so many people taking this class, we had quite a few rafts, each one owned by an experienced guide. I was in a small raft with two other students and our fearless leader Jen. She did an excellent job at getting us through the rapids, and when the water was calmer, she captivated us with interesting stories about her rafting experience.

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Jen rowed the raft most of the way, but she was nice enough to let us get some hands-on learning in the lower-class water. I was actually surprised at how little we were required to do, especially since this was a physical education class! Rowing was completely optional, and we were only required to take a short walk around some class 5 rapids, since our school’s policy would not let students raft over those. At the end of the trip, we did have to take a one-page test about rafting vocabulary and operations. Since I got an A in the class, I guess that proves I learned something!

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Even though we weren’t allowed to raft through the class 5 rapids, we were allowed to go on all the lower classes of rapids, including some pretty intense class fours. Looking back at these pictures, I realized I only took pictures in the calm water. That’s probably because high-class rapids require everyone’s attention in case something goes wrong. Plus, they’re just fun to ride over!

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While whitewater rafting was a fun, educational, new experience, the most memorable part of this trip for me was the scenery. I can’t think of a better way to end this post than with some snapshots of these gorgeous (not to mention completely unedited!) views.

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moving, road trip, saving money, travel tips

Across America By Bus (Greyhound Perks and Pitfalls)

This is Part One of the Across America By Bus series.

This past July, I backpacked around Niagara Falls. My primary goal of this trip was to have a ton of awesome new experiences. My secondary goal was to keep it minimalist. Both of these goals came into play when I decided how to get to Niagara Falls. Because I was living in Central Ohio, it seemed almost pointless to fly. Besides, the Niagara Falls airport is nowhere near the actual Niagara Falls. Driving was out of the question. I already find driving to be somewhat stressful, and it would be even worse figuring out directions, navigating traffic, and driving my car that was already on the fritz. And although I did enjoy taking a train trip a few years ago, there are no Amtrak stations in Central Ohio. That only left one option:

The Greyhound bus.

I had never ridden in a Greyhound before, but I had heard and read plenty of horror stories. But it would be a new experience for me, and I would save a lot of money. Besides, it wasn’t that long of a trip, so surely I could handle it.

I took three different buses there and back. One from Mansfield, Ohio to Cleveland, one from Cleveland to Buffalo, and from there I took a New York Trailways bus to Niagara Falls. It turned out to be a great experience! Right away I started telling my friends, family, and fellow travelers the perks of riding the Greyhound:

-You save lots of money!

-It’s the most environmentally-friendly way to travel

-You can take a carry-on plus one checked bag for free

-Footrests

-Reclining Seats

-Large panoramic windows are perfect for drive-by photography

-Centrally-located drop-offs and pick-ups

-Personal adjustable air vents

-Free WiFi (woo-hoo!)

-Power Outlets (double woo-hoo!)

-Enough rest stops so you never have to use the mysterious bathroom in the back of the bus

-A sense of community you can’t typically find on an airplane

(Note that these features are based on the new bus models; some older models are still in commission, but they are getting rare.)

As mentioned in previous posts, I moved from Ohio to Oregon a few weeks ago. It was the biggest move I ever made. I had to travel through ten states and four time zones all the way across the country. And guess how I got there?

Yep, the Greyhound bus!

Because I didn’t want to spend days on end inside a bus, I bought four separate bus tickets so that I could stop at a few different cities, see the sights, and visit some friends. I bought a ticket from Columbus to Chicago, from there to Omaha, from there to Denver, and finally, to my home in Oregon. The bus ride combined with several days of mini vacations ended up taking me nearly eight days to make this trip. During this time, I did see the darker side of Greyhound. While I think overall Greyhound is a worthwhile experience, these are some of the pitfalls:

-Regardless of the time of day, stops are made every 2-3 hours, so it’s really hard to sleep

-The seats don’t have enough legroom

-The overhead compartments are usually too small to hold typical carry-ons, which translates to even less legroom

-Small children can have meltdowns on long rides

-Some (not all) bus drivers can be in very bad moods

-The buses run late more often than they’re on time

-You have to transfer your own luggage every time you change buses

-Fellow passengers can be cranky, annoying, or have body odor

-YOU could be cranky, annoying, or have body odor

No, traveling cross-country by bus is not for the faint of heart. However, I think everyone can benefit from taking a bus ride that’s only a few hours long. I was really glad to have the experience of my Ohio-to-Niagara bus ride before embarking across America. Because of it, I was able to come up with some handy tips that probably saved my sanity. If you’re heading on a Greyhound trip anytime soon, here’s some tried-and-true advice you may want to consider:

-Buy your tickets online and several weeks in advance. You’ll save a ton of money that way.

-If you plan to sleep, come prepared. I brought melatonin tablets, lavender lotion, a Snuggie, and a pillow. You may want to bring a neck pillow instead of a full-size one, and earplugs may also be beneficial. I’ve heard some people suggest bringing an eye mask, but I would advise against it. I think you’re much more likely to get robbed if you’re already blindfolded!

-Unless you enjoy eating nothing but fast food and convenience store snacks, bring a few healthy foods along with you. Yes, food and drink are allowed on the bus!

-Bring hand sanitizer and keep it convenient. The 3.1 ounce liquid rule doesn’t apply to buses, so feel free to bring an industrial-sized bottle!

-Don’t expect to look your best. I always kept my hair tied back and covered with a buff, hat, scarf, or some combination of all three. I changed my clothes once per day and brushed my teeth during layovers. Other than that, just make sure you apply deodorant, and don’t even bother with hair styling, make-up, or fashion.

-Pack as light as possible. Because I was moving, I had a lot to carry. It was a hassle.

-You may find some sketchy people on the bus. Sit near the front of the bus where you can easily call for help from the bus driver. I even wore a rescue whistle under my shirt. I never had to blow it, but it could have saved me if I got into a dangerous situation.

-Try to keep track of where you’re going and how much longer you’ll be on the bus. For some legs of the ride, I pulled out my GPS so I could follow the route and know exactly where we were at. When I didn’t use it, I sometimes wouldn’t even know what state we were in!

-Using the WiFi is a great way to pass time, but don’t expect it to always work. (And even when it does work, you cannot use it to stream videos.) Other things I did to pass the time included watching DVDs, writing in my travel journal, napping, and conversing with my fellow passengers.

-Try to talk at least a little bit with your fellow English-speaking passengers. It will make everyone more comfortable.

-If it’s light outside and you have a several-hour layover in any given city, do yourself a favor and get out of the bus station! Because stations are centrally-located, you’ll probably see quite a bit on a short walk.

Even after spending too-many-hours-to-count on the bus, I can’t wait for my next opportunity to ride the Greyhound. I signed up for Greyhound’s Road Rewards, and between my Niagara Falls trip and my Ohio to Oregon trip, I earned enough points to get a free companion pass on my next trip! I’m excited to introduce someone else to the joys of riding the Greyhound. But first, I need to figure out where to go!

Stay tuned for “Across America By Bus, Part Two”, in which I actually tell you what I did at my stops across the country.

backpack, destinations, tour

U.S. vs Canada: Who Has the Better Niagara Falls?

As much as I’ve traveled across the United States, I never seemed to make it to Canada. I had been to New York, but never set foot out of the Big Apple while there. This summer, I took an eight-day trip to Niagara Falls. This means I had the opportunity to see the other side of New York State, as well as finally enter Canada. And since I visited both sides of this international city, people often ask me “Which side is better?”

Now, when it comes to travel, I don’t play favorites. I sometimes say that because I’m not a mother, my trips are like my children, therefore it would be wrong to choose a favorite. And really, I enjoyed both countries very much, but for different reasons. Here are a few highlights from each side:

Transportation:

US: You can take a trolley around Niagara Falls State Park, which is a lot of fun and very inexpensive. Unfortunately, public transportation around the rest of the city isn’t so great.

CA: While there’s nothing fun like a trolley, you can buy a WeGo pass and ride any bus with the WeGo logo. It goes anywhere in town that a tourist would want to visit.

Sights:

US: You can get up-close and personal with the falls. There are spots where you can be about five feet away from the top of the falls. (Naturally there’s railing to keep you a safe distance.)

CA: There’s only one waterfall that spans from the US to Canada, but because you’re not so close, Canada is the best place for viewing the falls and taking scenic pictures.

Attractions:

US: My favorite attraction was Cave of the Winds, where you can walk a deck at the base of Bridal Veil falls and get drenched. Other attractions include the Gorge Discovery Center, Aquarium of Niagara, and the Observation Tower, all of which are packaged in the Discovery Pass. The most famous attraction is the Maid of the Mist boat tour.

CA: My favorite attraction was Journey Behind the Falls, where you literally walk in an underground tunnel where you can see the underside of Horseshoe Falls. Another attraction included on the Adventure Pass is an amazing theater experience called Niagara’s Fury. Canada has an identical tour to Maid of the Mist, but it is called the Hornblower Niagara Cruise.

Down the River:

US: The Gorge Trail system offers miles of paths along the Niagara all the way to Lewiston. I experienced it as a combination of hiking and biking, using a bike I rented from Gorge View. This takes you through three state parks, Niagara Falls (of course), Whirlpool (which is the best place to view the large Niagara whirlpool), and Devil’s Hole (aptly named because of the hundreds of torturous steps, but has a great view of the power plant). If you drive, you can go to Fort Niagara, which is a historic base where the Niagara drains into Lake Ontario.

CA: While you could walk downriver by foot on the sidewalks, the WeGo buses can take you all the way to Queenston Heights, with hop-on-hop-off stops at interesting places such as gift shops, aviaries, and a large floral clock by the power plant. The White Water Walk takes you on a long deck as close to the Whirlpool Rapids as is legal (there is also an Aerocar that takes passengers above the Whirlpool for an outrageous extra fee). This side also has a beautiful site where the Niagara connects with the Great Lake, and you can get there by paying an extra fee for a special WeGo bus.

City Life: 

US: This is the side where you’ll experience the most nature. Wooded forests, walkable islands, and dirt paths are hard to find on the other side of the Niagara. It also seems to be the quieter town, if you go a few blocks away from the park, there are only houses, restaurants, hotels, and one casino. If you’ve never had Indian food before, this is the place to try it. Authentic Indian restaurants are practically on every corner.

CA: This side has a lot more tourist flair. Clifton Hills is a Disney-Vegas mashup filled with quirky museums, flashy tourist traps, and casinos. There are elegant (AKA expensive!) restaurants that beautifully frame views of the falls, most notably the Seattle Space Needle’s twin, Skylon Tower. While the nature aspect is lacking, more tourists mean more shops and services are offered here.

Hostels:

US: I stayed at Gorge View Hostel, which is the closest hostel to Niagara Falls. My favorite aspects were that is was across the street from the aquarium, the bedrooms were spacious and comfortable, and the owner let guests go on the roof to watch fireworks.

CA: I stayed at Niagara Backpackers Hostel in the bed-and-breakfast community, so everything was pretty upscale and historic-looking. I enjoyed this family-run accommodation, and the free breakfast was delicious!

Names and Number of Falls:

US: There are three waterfalls: American, Bridal Veil, and Horseshoe. The American Falls span between mainland New York and Luna Island. From Luna Island to Goat Island is Bridal Veil Falls. Then from Goat Island (still part of New York) to Canada is the Horseshoe Falls.

CA: There are two waterfalls. The American Falls is the collective name for the waterfalls on the US side. Of course the largest waterfall is still a horseshoe, but it is referred to here as the CANADIAN Horseshoe Falls! I just found it funny that each side has different interpretations of what the falls are!

As long as you have a passport, I encourage you to visit both sides of Niagara Falls to get the full experience. After all, perhaps the best part of Niagara Falls is walking across the Rainbow Bridge, where you have one foot in each country! 

Note: This post was made possible in part by two hostels on opposite sides of the Niagara! Gorge View in the States, and Backpacker’s Hostel in Canada.