Photos of the Day: Imerovigli & Fira (Santorini)

I miss Santorini…the peaceful walks around the caldera, the amazing sunsets, the fragrant & colorful bouquets of flowers & plants that add a pop of color to the white facades…it’s the perfect place to relax & unwind. You can use up an entire memory card in one hour. Have you been to Santorini? If so, what was your favorite thing to do?¬† What other Greek Islands would you recommend to visit? I’m looking to book my next excursion ūüôā

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Hustlin’ Hard: The Story of the Valley of the Kings

Entrace to the Valley of the Kings

Entrace to the Valley of the Kings

Luxor is home to the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, Karnak Temple, Luxor Temple and the funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut (just to name a few). It used to be called ‚ÄúThebes‚ÄĚ in ancient times (which was the capital of Egypt when King Tut & Ramses II ruled). It is believed that Ramses II was the pharaoh when Moses came along asking for him to let his people go. Rams apparently didn‚Äôt know Moses (aka Charlton Heston) was an active member of the NRA and thus should‚Äôve taken him seriously.

We arrive in Luxor about an hour and 15 minutes later then board a bus to drive to the Valley of the Kings (‚ÄúVOK‚ÄĚ)‚Ķthe necropolis of the New Kingdom pharaohs. The VOK (which is home to King Tut‚Äôs tomb) is located on the West Bank of the Nile River. The Nile is beautiful (much more so in the country than in the city).

The VOK is purposefully built on the West Bank because the ancient Egyptians believed that since the sun sets in the west, so should their remains. I was unable to take pictures inside VOK because, unfortunately, the people at VOK are like Kanye and Sean Penn as they absolutely forbade cameras. In fact, if you tried to bring a camera in, they said it would be confiscated. And if you tried to be slick and take a picture with a camera phone…they took your phone and fined you $400. So, y’all are just going to have to use your imagination as I describe VOK. I have included a few pictures I sourced via the internet from renegade photographers braver than me (ha!).

Valley of the Kings (source: http://nurdinsembelit.files.wordpress.com)

Valley of the Kings (source: http://nurdinsembelit.files.wordpress.com)

It ends up being 104 degrees (which apparently is cool since a few days before it was 120). I think I saw the devil when I was walking toward the tombs. He was selling bottled water like, ‚ÄúWelcome to Egypt, y‚Äôall.‚ÄĚ Anyway, we end up seeing 3 tombs (the tombs of Ramses IX, Ramses I and Ramose). I think Egypt may be the birthplace of hustling. Because, after you paid the fee to get in to see the tombs, there was an additional fee if you wanted to go into King Tut or Ramses VI tombs. Hustlers. You have to show your ticket to the guy at the entrance of each tomb who uses a hole puncher to validate it. This system ensures you don‚Äôt see more than 3 tombs without paying extra. Hustlers.

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The tombs are built into the desert Theban Hills and they are incredible. It’s hard to believe that such wonderful & intricate artwork was done so many thousands of years ago! So far, 62 tombs have been found. Tombs (before they were discovered and open to the public) held almost everything that the pharaoh owned (including his bed, jewelry, statues of servants who would serve him, etc.)…basically anything they felt the pharaoh would need in the afterlife. Since the tombs contained such valuable items, it’s said that the slaves who built the tombs were killed afterwards so they wouldn’t reveal its location. Too bad they didn’t have Confidentiality Agreements back then. That has got to suck.

To enter most tombs, you have to walk down into the opening of the mountain and while you’d think it would be cool since it’s dark…it’s just hot and stuffy. However, you don’t focus on that too much as you quickly get caught up in the hieroglyphics. The sarcophagus (coffin) of one of the pharaohs was still in the tomb. You know they had a guy standing right by it. Probably to charge you if you touched it. Hustlers.

Egyptian Afterlife (source: http://www.photo2013.com)

Egyptian Afterlife (source: http://www.photo2013.com)

Each tomb contained funerary hieroglyphics. Ancient Egyptians believed in eternal afterlife and they had a complex funeral tradition. Bodies of the pharaohs were mummified so that their soul could live on in its embalmed corpse. They took 4 organs (liver, intestines, stomach & lungs) and placed them in beautiful marble jars. The only organ left in the body was the heart which would be weighed in the afterlife. The entire mummification process took 70 days! What I found the most fascinating was the weighing of the heart. That was the final stage in the journey to the afterlife. The god, Anubis (which has the body of a man but the head of a jackal), would weigh the deceased pharaoh’s heart against a feather on a set of scales. If the heart weighed more than the feather (because of living a sinned life) then this beast named, Ammut, devoured it and the pharaoh’s soul would die and they would not live on in eternity. I’m pretty sure that Ammut kept a full belly because a lot of these pharaohs were killing their brothers and fathers and basically doing a lot of dirty stuff to get the throne. You can read a detailed description of the funeral customs here. It was so fascinating that I bought a papyrus painting of the Egyptian Funerary Scene.

After you leave the tombs, you have to wait in the heat (next to Beelzebub) for the little train to come get you and take you back to the entrance. In the meantime, you have to just sit in Hustle City. Those folks were trying to sell you EVERYTHING! They are relentless. It‚Äôs like their mantra is ‚ÄúHustle or Die‚ÄĚ. Seriously. I‚Äôm gonna see about getting them a record deal because this is just plain ridiculous. You know the package of fold out postcards? Well, they had those (which had seen a better day) and would whip them out and let them fall down all dramatically like they are David Copperfield getting ready to show you a magic card trick. If you refused to buy it, they wanted to know why. It didn‚Äôt matter if you had already bought one from Muhammed. Ali Babba doesn‚Äôt care about that. He wants you to buy his 1970 postcards with the coffee stains. You can get it for $1! What? You still don‚Äôt want it? What about a book on the VOK? You can‚Äôt read? No problem. It‚Äôs got pictures. It can be yours for $5! Why are you walking away? Oh, they will just follow you and worry the mess out of you (while smoking their cigarettes). They were determined that you were going to do a customer feedback survey. You would think you are saved when the little trolly/train shows up to take you back to the entrance. Surprise! Foodoo gets out of the driver‚Äôs seat and brings his postcards and books to sell them to you BEFORE HE WILL TAKE YOU BACK TO THE ENTRANCE. Stop the madness, Egypt. It‚Äôs 104 degrees in the hot desert‚Ķand I left my water on the bus, people are stinking and the hustlers are swarming around you like mosquitoes with the West Nile virus.

But for the heat (and really, that is my fault because I should’ve known better than to visit the desert in the summer) and the hustling, the Valley of the Kings is absolutely fascinating! I was so amazed & enthralled by the ancient Egyptian traditions. The VOK is a “must see” during your visit to Egypt!

What I Know For Sure

quote-i-havent-been-everywhereEach month, Oprah writes a column titled “What I Know For Sure” for her O Magazine.¬†¬†After recent events, I am inspired to write my own article on “What I Know For Sure” about travel.¬† For me, travel is all about “The Travelling Be’s”…

Be Flexible
Travelling is like gambling…sometimes you win, other times you crap out. I would love to say ‘always bet on black’ but you might get caught in a blackout and I can’t have that on my conscience ūüôā¬† Not every trip will go as planned…and that is the beauty of travel.¬† The adventure you experience along the way.¬† You may have a bad experience or 2, but hopefully the good travel memories blot out the bad.¬† Don’t sweat the small stuff.¬† Remember this…you are somewhere¬†AMAZING (hopefully…sorry if you aren’t…that does suck for you…and if that is the case, get a ticket and go somewhere amazing, k?)!

Be Kind
You’d be amazed how far a smile & great attitude will take you.¬† It will open doors to experiences you wouldn’t otherwise be privy to. People are more inclined to go that extra mile for folks who are kind & really embrace experiencing their culture.¬† Travel is stressful but don’t let the small stuff ruin what could be a fabulous vacation.¬† Delayed?¬† Strike up a conversation with a fellow traveler…you never know what tips you can learn!¬† Going on a tour?¬† Take the time to get to know your tour guide. My guide in Fez took me under his wing and had his wife & sister-in-law take me for a memorable hammam experience!

20121227-145616.jpgBe Informed
I research…then research some more on each destination I travel to.¬† I recently learned the hard way about going somewhere unprepared.¬† You don’t want to miss out on seeing/experiencing something amazing!¬† But you also want to make sure you are safe.¬† A small investment in a guidebook (I love Rick Steves…followed by Lonely Planet) makes all the difference.¬† Also, I’ve gained LOADS of tips from fellow travel bloggers which has enriched my own travel experience!¬† Don’t just rely on guidebooks though…search the web. I highly suggest keyword searches on “sexual harassment + name of the city you are visiting”, etc.¬† Guidebooks are meant to entice you to a particular city/country.¬† Try to gather information from various sources to make a well-informed decision on your next travel destination.

Be Patient
Lord knows I struggle with this.¬† Flight delays, long lines at museums, cranky people…the list can go on and on.¬† There isn’t much you can do about delays.¬† I travel with my Kindle, iPad and camera to keep me entertained during unexpected downtime.

Be Open-Minded
Remember you are a guest in someone else’s country/state/city.¬† Their ways may not be your ways.¬† Open your mind, forget the stereotypes and embrace the journey you are about to take!¬† Try new foods, check an activity off your bucket list…get to know the locals.¬† Beautiful memories of a trip create a travel scrapbook for your soul.

Maya Angelou

Be Relaxed
The purpose of a vacation is to “vacate”. I am guilty of constantly checking my iPhone for work messages while I’m on vacation…then end up spending precious moments in a fabulous locale troubleshooting drama back home. Which defeats the purpose of the trip.¬† I am also guilty of scheduling a lot of tours/activities because I want to experience everything. What I know now is to choose my top 3 activities and spread them out.¬† Balance sightseeing with doing absolutely nothing but relaxing.¬† Relax, Release, Rest.

So…what do I know for sure?¬† Travel is unpredictable, addictive, educational and magnificent.¬† Yeah, you can have a bad experience but I like to treat them to the Harry Potter effect.¬† If I’ve gone someplace that was awful, I don’t even speak its name…it is now known as The Country/City/Place That Shall Not Be Named.¬† Think of it as a lesson you learned to make your future trips better.¬† If you aren’t travelling, then start.¬† There is a whole world waiting for you!¬† Remember “The Travelling Be’s” and start your adventure.¬† Happy travels!

Travelin’ Mr./Mrs. Daisy

This post is intended to help you learn how¬†to travel with your parents.¬† Once your parents are eligible for social security, something happens.¬† I don’t know what it is.¬† But trust me.¬† Here are some handy dandy tips to make your family travel experience smoother.

1.  Guidebook Dilemma

Most of us use guidebooks to prepare and use for travel.¬† It makes sense to follow the advice of someone who has been there, done that.¬† Unless you are my Dad.¬† I swear by Rick Steves.¬† His guidebooks have always provided me with helpful tips.¬† However, a map (usually hand drawn in the books) was off/unclear during our trip to Rome.¬† Which meant that Rick can’t be trusted to tell you the time of day.¬† Sorry, Rick.¬† You had your chance.¬† No second chances with Mr. Daisy.¬† My Dad acts like he suffers from Rick Steves PTSD.¬† When I suggest some international¬†destination to visit, his response is, “Did Steve Bob’s recommend that?”¬† Because he is not going to get Rick’s name right.¬† That’s what happens when you have 2 first names & you mess up directions.

My Mom, however, has to find every book related to the country we plan to visit.¬† I usually stick with the big 3:¬† Rick Steves, Lonely Planet or Eyewitness Travels.¬† She found The Cadogan Guide to Morocco by Barnaby Rogerson on Amazon.¬† This guide has a bit more color than usual guides. For instance, Mr. Rogerson says the following about sexual attitudes in Morocco, “”Moroccans also tend to think of themselves as immeasurably more virile & potent than Western men. However chaste your intentions, why not pack some condoms beside the sun cream and romantic fiction?” Really, Barnaby? Now I have to put an “elderly lock” on my Mom’s laptop.

Do yourself a favor and just handle all the travel and prep.¬† Monitor their internet & tv usage because this can lead to trouble.¬† Retired people find time to explore & become scholars based on the latest gossip from “Spacebook”.¬† My Dad has become an international travel expert based solely on 60 Minutes reports from Mike Wallace that aired 15 years ago.¬† It doesn’t matter if you have been there and he hasn’t.¬† You don’t know the real deal.¬† Don’t become a victim.¬† You will only get confused trying to wade thru their attempt¬†at using hip jargon.¬† My Dad can’t grasp the concept of BFFs.¬† He keeps saying BSFF…like it’s Best Super Friends Forever.¬† I don’t know.¬† See how I just got sucked into that?

Only 8 kilometers?  Whatchu talkin' bout, Willis?  That should say 12!

The look they give you when you suggest something “exotic”.

2.¬† You’re Taking Me Where?

Not all elderly parents (and by elderly, I mean anybody older than you) can handle “exotic” trips to Miami.¬† I blame Mike Wallace.¬† My Dad isn’t into traveling to Africa and Italy was full of too many basilicas.¬† When I suggested London, I was met with “I don’t want to look at butter teeth.”¬† I tried to explain that their dental care has improved since the 1800’s but Mike can’t verify that since he passed away.¬†¬†I then attempted¬†to talk my Dad into going on a safari.¬† His response?¬† “I haven’t lost anything in Africa.”¬† See a pattern?¬† Don’t try to force it, kids.¬† Let your parents go on a jazz cruise where they can fall asleep on the Lido Deck after slurping down a 189 ounce daiquiri while listening to the sleepy time music of Brian Culbertson.

Now, if you happen to have an adventurous parent, keep it in perspective.¬† Your type of adventure isn’t theirs.¬† There will be no backpacking or taking public transportation.¬† Understand that now.¬† You can’t make your mother walk 3 blocks after she spent 202 hours in labor with you 40 years ago.¬† You are still paying on that.¬† It’s like labor layaway.¬† Ease them into the adventure.¬† Morgan Freeman didn’t¬†tell Miss Daisy¬†to take¬†MARTA.¬† He made sure she was comfortable and that her needs were attended to.

3.  Once, Twice, Three Times Too Much

Some parents like to overpack.¬† You know how you grew up hearing, “You can’t ever be too prepared”?¬† That is a lie.¬† You can be too prepared.¬† Don’t fall for that.¬† And, the older they get, the more “prepared” they get.¬† During one trip, the guidebook said we should plan to bring toilet tissue as some bathrooms may not have any.¬† I bought a 24 pack of Tush Wipes and told my Mom not to worry about that.¬† So why did she show up with 3 rolls of toilet paper?¬† I don’t know.¬† Apparently, 24 wipes + 3 rolls of Quilted Northern seemed like the right amount for a 12 day trip for 2 people.¬† Don’t let your parents take a Sam’s Club approach to packing.¬† You’ll be the one hauling it around.¬† Remember, labor layaway.¬† Some things you can’t get around.¬† Do you remember Titanic when Rose came on the ship at the beginning of the movie and had 44 trunks and 132 picture frames?¬† That is what you are battling against.¬† Don’t let your Mom bring every item from Magellans…or your Dad bring his tool belt because you never know when something will need to be fixed.¬† Have an intervention if you need to.¬† Because if you don’t, Delta will.

4.  Picture Time

I took a travel photography class to learn how to capture creative images that don’t look like Honey Boo Boo took them.¬† This requires setting up your shot…which means you must have patience.¬† Especially for someone new at it.¬† I’ve got some news for you.¬† Elderly parents aren’t patient.¬† They don’t have time to wait on you to set up a shot.¬† Take the picture as you are walking.¬† Who cares if it is blurry.¬† That’s your fault.¬† Practice walking and clicking.

The deluxe “ghetto”

5.  25 Star Hotels

Elderly parents have a¬†Kanye¬†West¬†mindset to travel.¬† Which means that 5 star hotels may not be enough.¬† Ask yourself this question…Would Oprah stay there?¬† If you are not 100% certain, then find someplace else.¬† Yeah, you might have to sell yourself on the streets but that’s what happens.¬† Labor Layaway.¬† That’s the Big Joker to any argument you may have.¬† Parents will always win.¬† You can’t make your Mom stay someplace that is 4 stars after you ripped her open and then refused to sleep thru the night for weeks.

For example, my Mom and I did the 5 star hotel option for our recent trip to Morocco.¬† Which included an upgrade to a deluxe tent in the Sahara Desert.¬† The tent had 2 twin beds (complete with mattresses on frames), bathroom (which included a shower) and sitting room.¬† But, it is a tent…in the Sahara.¬† My Mom was like, “What is this?”¬† I don’t know if she thought there was a Ritz Carlton – Sahara or what.¬† Now, in my mind, I had already prepared myself for the fact that I would encounter a bug or 2.¬† I already had my Avon Skin So Soft and Off (courtesy of my Mom).¬† The operators had the nerve to shut the power off at night so my Mom couldn’t keep the lights on for fear that bats would swoop in, turn into Dracula, and bite us.¬† What would happen if we turned into vampires?¬† We didn’t have any True Blood in our emergency preparedness kit (there wasn’t¬†enough space with all the toilet paper).¬† Around 1am, I awake to my Mom screaming about scorpions.¬† She’s got her flashlight on and pointed towards her face like it’s the Moroccan Blair Witch Project.¬† I’m trying to figure out what is going on.¬† I mean, I know she isn’t serious.¬† I must be dreaming this.¬† Did my mint tea have another type of herb in it?¬† I’m confused.¬† At this point, she has moved into my twin bed and made the proclamation that she will NEVER sleep in that bed again because there is a scorpion the size of a “cow” in it.¬† But, before I could find Bessie the Scorpion and lead her out of the tent, my Mom wanted me to see if her arm was swelling.¬† Sigh.¬† After confirming that there was no swelling, I check the bed and can’t find the Velociraptor-sized scorpion.¬† I did see a big cockroach though.¬† Lest you think we are going to sleep peacefully together in a small twin bed, I’ve got news for you…we are not.¬† Labor layaway requires counseling sessions as well.¬† And, my Mom had to question why there was no actual door on the tent.¬† You read that right.¬† And, I’m sure that will go into the survey feedback she is working on right now.¬† See, as you get older, things don’t have to make sense.¬† A tent in the Sahara to young people means just that.¬† But to older people?¬† It means a cottage with a fireplace, butler and an exterminator on speed dial.

I’m pretty sure it was the Scorpion King who came into the tent.

6.  Hustled

Hustlers target older people because it’s easy.¬† Older people don’t like to be hassled and would prefer to pay you 110% more than you deserve just to get you to leave them alone.¬† Younger people?¬† We will protest on basic principle.¬† If the guidebook says that you should tip $2 to a porter for getting your bags out of the car, you can best believe that that is what you are going to get if there is nothing exceptional about the service.¬† Are they pushing the luggage up a hill?¬† Okay, they get extra.¬† But to take my luggage that I lugged all the way thru the airport and just move it from my hand to the trunk?¬† TWO DOLLARS, buddy.¬† But, this philosophy can only work when you aren’t traveling with older parents.¬† Just pay the man.¬† I don’t care that you had to ask your guide to go to Lowes –¬†Marrakesh to find a storm door for the tent.¬† Make it rain.

7.  Trying Something New

Not all parents will try something new.  My Mom is really good about being open to certain things.  But, my Dad?  Forget it.  Here are some examples of new things I tried to expose him to:

Me:  Hi Dad, I brought you some boisenberry jam back from London!  Try it.

Dad: *puts the jam on a biscuit…then spits it out*¬† This is the nastiest stuff I’ve ever tasted in my life.¬† Do me a favor and don’t ever bring me back anything to eat.¬† This must be why they have yellow teeth that look like they’ve been chewing on rocks.

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Me:  I went to a public hammam in Morocco.  It was a surreal experience.  You should try it!

Dad:¬† I don’t need my booty scrubbed.

——————-

Mom:  I learned how to make chocolate molten lava cake at a Pastry & Desserts class in Paris.  What do you think?

Dad:¬† This doesn’t have anything on Chili’s chocolate lava cake.¬† Where is the chocolate sauce?¬† Why isn’t caramel drizzled over it?¬† You don’t have any Breyer’s ice cream to go with this?¬† Paris seems awful plain to me.

I’m sure that my Dad is finding a cooking class at the local Chili’s right now.¬† That will be his Christmas gift for my mother.¬† Bottom line, if you are traveling with elderly parents (or just folks that are older and like to go on Robin Leach-style vacations), do yourself a favor and take my advice above.¬† Need further convincing, read my post from Las Vegas.¬† Last tip for you?¬† Pack a flask and your favorite spirits.¬† You’ll need their guidance ūüôā

Smartphone Apps = Smart Travel

Smartphone apps are a great way to plan & enhance your travel. Below is a list of my favorite iPhone apps that I use while travelling.¬† The best part?¬† Most of these apps are free unless I’ve specified a cost.

1.  Trip Planning

  • Expedia‘s Trip Assist — Great way to book or manage trips via Expedia.
  • Trip Advisor — I use Trip Advisor before booking any hotel because I find the reviews invaluable.¬† Plus, users can post pictures of the hotels which gives you an honest look at the property instead of the “dressed up” photos from 15 years ago.
  • Airbnb — This is the coolest app.¬† It’s a booking tool that¬†features unique places to rent.¬† You can rent a luxury villa, an igloo or a house shaped like a boot!
  • Jetsetter — ¬†It’s invitation-only¬†& features flash travel sales¬†to exotic destinations all over the world.¬† This app features every kind of hotel you can think of ‚Äď luxury properties, trendy hang-outs, or eco-conscious resorts ‚Äď for discounts as high as 50% off!¬† Love this app!!
  • TripIt — Great app for managing your travel itinerary.

2.  Logistics (Air, Train, etc)

  • FlyDelta
  • TripTracker¬†— Keeps track of all your travel plans across different airlines.¬† Will notify you of any changes to your reservations.
  • GateGuru — Great app for identifying products & services in each terminal at the airport.
  • Rail Europe — This is a must-have app for European train travel.¬† You can easily check arrival/departure times and book tickets.
  • Amtrak
  • AllSubway HD — this is a WONDERFUL app!¬† It features maps for 128 different cities around the world (i.e. Atlanta, Amsterdam, Chicago, Sydney, London, Paris, Cairo, Buenos Aires, etc.)
  • Taxi Magic — Electronic taxi booking service.¬† Great for finding out what rates should be.

3.  Tours

  • Viator — I’ve been using Viator for 2 years and love it!¬† The app is super easy to use and great for showing you last-minute deals on tours.
  • Rick Steves‘ Audio Europe – Free audio tours you can¬†download from iTunes.¬† Tour cover Paris (i.e. the Louvre), Rome, Florence, etc.¬† It’s a great app if you don’t want to pay for an audio guide.

4.  Food & Drinks

  • Starbucks — In case you need your caffeine fix on the go.
  • Zagat — Provides ratings and reviews¬†for restaurants worldwide ($9.99)
  • UrbanSpoon —¬†You can find local restaurants by shaking your¬†device and watching nearby restaurants slide up and down your screen like a slot machine.¬† This app covers the U.S. Canada, UK and Australia.
  • Foodspotting¬†—¬†Shows nearby restaurants and allows users to recommend specific dishes.

5.  General

  • Cultures — This is a great app to educate yourself on the local customs for each country you visit.
  • Currency — I use this app ALL THE TIME!¬† I absolutely love it.¬† Enter in the amount in a particular currency and it will show you what it costs in U.S. dollars and vice versa.
  • Google Translate — Great app for simple translations.
  • Free Wi-Fi Finder

6.  Country-specific apps

  • London = London¬†Tube Map; JourneyPro
  • Paris = ParisMetro

Here are a few resources that can help you find travel apps for your device type.

AOLs 11 Best Travel Apps

10 Must-Have Travel Apps for your iOS Phone

Forbes 10 Best Travel Apps

Best iPhone Tour Apps

Travel Tip #1: Deciding on a Destination

Some of us know exactly where we want to travel to while others just know they want to go someplace. So, how do you decide on a destination?

1. Figure out the type of vacation/trip you want to have (i.e. adventure, relaxation, beach, ski, etc.).

2. What’s your budget?¬†This will help you to determine the length & locale. Some people think that international travel is too expensive to consider. But, smart travellers can save a lot of money by travelling during the right months (shoulder or off-peak season) & with proper planning (staying in a vacation rental instead of a hotel, buying tickets in advance, taking trains, buses & shuttles, etc). Travel Tip #2 will focus on how to travel overseas on a budget.

3. What time of year? Keep in mind that southern countries & islands have opposite seasons than the US (i.e. South America & South Africa have their summer season during our winter season). So, if you are looking for a tropical vacation during the holidays, check out the Caribbean, Mexico, South America & Africa. If you want to save money and travel off-peak to Europe (including the UK and Asia), it will be cold there (maybe even more so) than it is here and there are less hours of sunlight but you can still have the trip of a lifetime.

4. Travel as part of a tour group or on your own? 
¬†¬†¬†¬†a. The advantages of a tour group (especially in foreign speaking countries) is that¬†you¬†have a set schedule with an English-speaking guide and are pretty much guaranteed to see the big tourist attractions. I strongly recommend going with a tour group (i.e. Ambassadair) for Asian countries (the language barrier is a killer) or if you want to experience the “typical” tourist adventure in any country without the pressure of planning it yourself. These “pre-packaged” tours are pretty easy to do. Just sign up and go.

¬†¬†¬† b. If you are comfortable with planning your own logistics & want to have a bit more flexibility to your trip, doing it on your own can be cheaper & more exciting. I would only recommend doing this on shoulder & off-peak seasons for major trips (i.e. visiting Italy for the first time). Peak season brings loads of tourists and you’ll end up spending a lot of your time standing in line.

5. Buy a guidebook.¬†I never travel without one. Rick Steves is my best friend when I go to Europe. Most of his books are updated annually (however, I only replace mine every 3 years as you can go online to www.ricksteves.com and get the updates). This is great because you have the most up to date information before you travel.¬† Just know that Rick only covers Europe, the UK and Istanbul. For other locales, try Lonely Planet, Eyewitness Travel & Frommers. Before planning a European trip, I suggest you pick up Rick Steves “Europe Through the Back Door” as it has a lot of great travel tips (buy it on amazon.com to save $).

6. Verify that you have a valid passport. U.S. passports are valid for 10 years. I believe they cost approximately $165 (passport book & card) or $135 (passport book only) for a first time adult applicant (16+).  Renewal is approximately $140 (adult passport & card) or $110 (adult passport only). Minors are charged $115 for first time applicant.  However, check the website for the most current fee schedule.  Passports must be valid for up to 6 months after your ticketed date of return.

7. Visas. Be sure to verify if the country you plan to visit requires a visa as well as a passport.  If so, you will need to fill out the proper paperwork. I generally get my visas thru CIBT (which also processes passports as well). 

8. Vaccinations. Visit the CDC website to see what (if any) vaccinations are required. You should definitely make sure your tetanus shot is up to date and consider getting the Hep A vaccination. A lot of cities have “travel clinics” where you can make an appointment with a nurse, tell them the countries you plan to visit and they will suggest the recommended (or required) vaccinations.

9. Travel Insurance.¬†This is a bit like gambling — you just don’t know if you will need it. I recommend it because you never know what can happen and it can give you some peace of mind. I was lucky to have travel insurance when my luggage got lost on a trip to Italy. This allowed me to be reimbursed for the clothes I had to buy while I waited for my luggage to arrive.

10. Be safe. It never hurts to check on the state of affairs in the country you plan to visit. I generally look at the travel alerts on the U.S. State Department website and ASIS International (which will give you the demographics, crime rates & incidents, political climate, & emergency contact numbers). Also, I research any local scams on Rick Steves Graffiti Wall. This has proved to be invaluable.