How to Couchsurf (And Why I Love It So Far)

How to Couchsurf (And Why I Love It So Far)

This year for my 22nd birthday, I asked my parents for a trip to Greece. My parents were okay with paying for the flight as long as it was cheap- so off to Corfu I went for 130 euros. (more…)

How to Couchsurf

For the first three nights I stayed at the Pink Palace - an infamous party hostel I had heard about for years. The hostel was everything I expected; rowdy, alcohol-stained and full of Canadians. I had rightly assumed I wasn’t going to learn anything about Greece there (besides the shots of ouzo I was being handed left and right) so I checked in advance for Couchsurfing hosts in Corfu.

A few days before  I left, a girl named Marina accepted my Couchsurfing request. She seemed like a fun, well-read and overall, trustworthy Greek girl. I decided the plot of Hostel happening to me was unlikely so I decided to stay with her. I had no idea how to Couchsurf- but hey, what’s travel without some new experiences?

How to Couchsurf

How to Couchsurf

Staying with Marina was better than anything I could have hoped for.  She took me out for cocktails at a bar next to a Greek fortress. She introduced me to all her friends. She taught me how to pronounce all the names of the Greek gods and goddesses in Greek (I’m a nerd, yes). She made me pasta with her dad’s homemade olive oil. She took me out for ice cream topped with the ever-ambrosial Greek honey.

How to Couchsurf

How to Couchsurf

To top it all off, she basically brought me back from the dead. I had tonsillitis and a fever of 103 degrees while I was staying with her (this may have had something to do with binge-drinking at the Pink Palace for four days). She not only took me to the hospital and the clinic, she also made me teas with her magical Cretan herbs. She even gave me the one fan in her house to use during the 110 degree nights.

How to Couchsurf

How to Couchsurf

Crispy-skinned bass on a breezy Greek night. Heaven.

By the end of it I was petitioning for Marina to become the new patron saint of the island.

This review of Couchsurfing may be a bit premature (advocating staying with strangers after one experience) but the concept is so brilliant- stay with a local host for free and learn all about the local culture. And make lots of friends.

Here are some tips to have a successful Couchsurfing experience yourself. All you have to do is create and build up your profile and then send out Couchsurfing requests.

1.       Have at least one profile picture, but having two or three is better.

2.      Fill out your profile. You want to seem trustworthy and like a real person.

3.       Check the reviews of whoever you’re staying with.

4.      Check to see if your friends already have accounts (use the name search). They can provide you with your first references.

5.       Use good judgment. As a solo female traveler I will only stay with a female host.

6.       Make sure you review your hosts and your host reviews you- the more reviews the better.

7.     Go to the couchsurfing events to meet people.

8.       If you enjoyed your time with your host, add them as a friend. That way you can keep in touch with them and they can keep in touch with you, in case either of you are in the same city again.

Have you ever couchsurfed? Would you consider trying it?

The Many Benefits of Solo Travel

The Many Benefits of Solo Travel

At first, traveling alone wasn’t really my scene. I was staying in Amsterdam, my first stop on a three-month trip to Europe.

“Maybe I hate this city because of its inherent melancholy, flowing through the pipes of the old houses, lining the underbelly of the dark-watered canals,” I wrote in a very dramatic journal entry.

I basically wandered around the narrow streets in the drizzle, cold, jet-lagged and lonely. Sartre would have been proud.

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A few years later, I now love traveling alone more than I ever thought I would. You don’t have to get sick of someone else, you can go wherever you want and most importantly, you meet infinitely more people.

When traveling by yourself, one will often hear the question, “Are you traveling alone?”

Followed by other questions such as:

“Come by the pub tonight.”

“Stop by tomorrow for coffee, on the house.”

“My friend’s having a party Wednesday, did you want to come?”

So far I have made solo trips to Amsterdam, Barcelona, London, Dublin, Scotland and twice to the west coast of Ireland.

This summer in Dingle, Ireland, I started chatting with an American family outside a pub. They invited me inside for a Guinness and then took me out for a multi-course dinner at the best seafood restaurant in town. We happily shared stories about our travels in Ireland over fish chowder and brown bread.

From personal experience, this probably would never have happened if I would’ve been traveling with someone else. When you’re alone people have a tendency to want to take you under their wing and make sure that you have a good time. Plus, it’s always easier to make room for one more person than two or three.

Other travelers often ask,

“But don’t you get lonely?”

No, not really. For me it’s the perfect combination of socializing and solitude. I can explore all day, often with a newly acquired friend, have a few hours to shower, read and relax, and then go out for a night of fun. Solo travel has led me to opportunities I would never have experienced before; couchsurfing with a delightful Greek girl in Corfu for almost a week, taking a train up to the stunning Scottish highlands and road-tripping across the Dingle Peninsula with Irish guy I just met.


The view from the train in the Scottish Highlands.

So honestly, if you love being surprised and having random acts of kindness bestowed upon you, give solo travel a try. I know it seems scary but it will probably work out. And just send me a note if you’re feeling melancholy.

How to Pack for a Backpacking Trip

How to Pack for a Backpacking Trip

Packing for a backpacking trip can be a daunting task, but can be accomplished with a bit of preliminary research.

The pack I use is the REI Women’s Ridgeline 65. It’s small enough to carry on a Ryanair flight, but big enough to store all that I need. It expands as well.

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I bring a backpack and never check, so all liquids are less than 3.3 ounces (100 ml). I usually store all toiletries at the top of the bag (easy access for showering) and my journal, alarm clock, and other necessities are stored in the zippered head compartment.

Here is a packing list of everything I bring. And I always have extra space to bring home souvenirs.

Basics:

Passport

Photocopies of passport. You should have a photocopy of your own passport, and swap copies with your travel buddy.

At least one credit card and one debit card. Preferably Capital One, as they have no international transaction fees. And keep them separate, just in case.

Photocopies of all credit and debit cards

card with your bank’s number that you store in your backpack which you can call in the event your credit or debit card is stolen. Have it saved in your email too.

Print-out of all airline tickets. Ryanair, Europe’s biggest budget airline, will charge upwards of 40 pounds if you don’t have a print-out of your ticket.

Emergency contact information. Have a copy in your backpack with emergency contacts (phone number, email, address, allergies, etc.)

 

Clothes (summer list):

(Note- try to make sure it’s all wrinkle-free. But if something does wrinkle, just hang it in the shower as you are showering to steam it.)

1 lightweight jacket

5 shirts

1 pair of jeans

1 pair leggings. To wear under a dress if cold.

Several skirts or dresses

Bathing suit

Underwear

Socks

2 bras. One regular, one sports.

Pajamas. Note, can use cotton shorts for bottoms.

2 pair of cotton shorts. For beach or sleeping.

 

Footwear:

1 pair leather sandals. My everyday walking shoes in summer.

1 pair lightweight tennis shoes. I use Pumas.

1 pair flip flops. For hostel showers or beach. I swear by my super comfortable Reefs.

Wedge espadrilles. (I bring them because they are cute, comfortable and summery for going out, but they admittedly take up a ton of space).

 

Toiletries:

3 travel-size bottles bottles. 3.3 oz  (100 ml) or less with shampoo, conditioner and face wash (buy more if I need it).

Hairbrush

Hair ties

Toothbrush

Travel-size toothpastes.

Advil, Midol

Deodorant

Razor. (with one extra blade).

Tampons. (in plastic Ziploc bag, in case they get wet and to save space).

 

Electronics:

iPhone or iPod Touch, headphones and charger. Even without phone service, you can take great pictures, take notes, listen to music, set an alarm and use wifi. (Tip- there’s almost always free wifi, and air-conditioning, at Starbucks or McDonalds).

Kindle and charger. I’m a bookworm, so this is a must for me. If your Kindle has 3G it is really helpful to be able to use wifi on it, and unlike the iPad there is no charge.

Adapter. The U.K. and Ireland have a different outlet than continental Europe. Buy a universal adapter if you’re traveling to many areas with different outlets.

Camera, Charger and Protective Case. I always bring my small digital camera that takes fantastic pictures, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5. Leica lens, HD video, pocket-sized and 10.1 mega-pixels- best camera I’ve ever owned. I also bought this case and this protective screen.

 32 GB Memory Card. Lots of space for photos and great if I take videos.

 

Miscellaneous:

Journal and lots of pens

Little Moleskine notebook When I am learning a language I use this portable, flexible little notebook to jot down new words.

Nalgene water bottle attached to backpack with carabiner (to save money, fill up water bottle in sinks, fine in Western Europe but not a great idea in certain countries).

Sunglasses in hard case

Small lock for fastening outside of backpack

Pad lock. Often needed for locking belongings at hostel locker.

Small alarm clock

Large Ziploc plastic bags. For wet or dirty clothes.

Small towel

Small pair scissors

Make-up in case. Bobbi Brown tinted moisturizer with spf 15, bronzer, blush brush, concealer, mascara, lip stain, pencil sharpener, tweezers

 

What I don’t bring:

Sheets. Renting  is rare and inexpensive.

Laptop. A large, heavy liability.

Shaving cream. Just shave with conditioner.

Earplugs. Some people love them but I never find use for them.

Sunscreen. I just buy it or borrow it when I get there.

 

Final note:

This is just a guideline which should be tailored to your own trip and your own preferences (i.e.If you’re hiking Patagonia, bring hiking boots!)

Some of the links above are affiliate links and I will receive a commission if you purchase through them. This funds both my site and my travels so please help in any way that you can!

How to Eat Cheaply Abroad

How to Eat Cheaply Abroad

Eating is one of my absolute favorite activities while traveling. Some of my best travel memories are through food; whether it’s finishing dinner in France with a plate of oozing, raw-milk cheeses or devouring a fresh, cilantro-flecked ceviche in a Chilean seafood market, food ties you to a place in a way like no other.

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While it would be a tragedy to go all the way to Spain and skimp on trying the pricey but celestial Iberian ham, it’s an important to know when to save and when to splurge when it comes to food.

A delicious waffle in Brussels for 1.80 euros, hot off the griddle

Here are some ideas for eating and drinking cheaply while still learning about the local food culture.

Street food.

From pork gyros in Greece to fried herring on wasa in Sweden, street food is tasty and economical. While many people are skeptical about eating street food, my rule of thumb is that if you see a long line or the locals rave about it, the street food is safe for you to eat it too.

The best fried herring ever. If you are in Stockholm please go here and let me live vicariously through you.

Cooking.

You’re never going to feel like Ina Garten in a hostel kitchen, but it is possible to make simple, filling meals; pasta with sausage and tomato sauce, bruschetta and goat cheese salad are some of my favorites. And don’t forgot to use the ‘free box’- most hostels have a box where travelers leave behind the ingredients they don’t need.

Farmers’ markets.

Farmers’ markets are a great way to collect ingredients for a picnic or a simple meal at the hostel (and also just a lot of fun to see). Once while staying in Cork, Ireland I bought Irish soda bread, buttered eggs and white cheddar at the famed English Market. I returned to my hostel and made myself a delicious fried egg and cheddar sandwich. Inexpensive, filling, delicious.

Picnic.

 I love picnics- it’s a great way to save money while enjoying a simple meal, wine in the park and people-watching. Just bring a baguette with some cheese and deli meat and enjoy yourself! And even though Rick Steves has led me astray in the past, this picnic set actually looks very useful.

I also have some tips about how to drink cheaply abroad, check them out!

Enough about me! What are some of the ways you save money on food while traveling?

Essential Safety Tips for Backpackers

Essential Safety Tips for Backpackers

When I first started traveling at 17, I paid too much attention to backpacker safety. I held back from talking to strangers and used a money belt for the first three days (THANK YOU, Rick Steves).

Needless to say, being overly cautious takes the fun out of travel. But there is also such a thing as being downright irresponsible. (more…)

By my fifth backpacking trip to Europe at the age of 22, I had become reckless. I am a notoriously light packer, but you can’t be proud of your packing skills when you’ve forgotten your Kindle charger, tennis shoes and bathing suit bottoms.

I was carrying ONE debit card. No credit card, no stash of cash in my backpack.

I didn’t have a copy of my passport in my bag.

My parents had only a vague idea of where I was.

I was traveling alone. Sleeping on strangers’ couches I met on Couchsurfing. With a fever of 103 degrees and tonsillitis.

One night I even asked a guy I was sharing a cab with if I could sleep in the extra twin in his hotel room, just to save money. This is not a good idea, as a rule of thumb.

Luckily, I made it home without a hitch (I must have a guardian angel). But please, dear reader, learn from my foolhardiness and follow these precautions while you’re abroad. I promise to follow them too.

  • Carry a photocopy of your passport (or have digital copy). Carry your own and swap copies with your travel buddy if you have one.
  • Carry photocopies of your credit cards (or have digital copy).
  • Travel with at least two credit or debit cards (and at least one of each), and also keep an emergency stash of money in your backpack (no more than $100-200).
  • Treat your credit cards like the president and the VP. They should never be in the same place at the same time.
  • Make sure to have the phone number of your bank in case your credit card is stolen.
  • While you should always carry a copy of your passport, I prefer to leave my actual passport at the front desk of the hostel or lock it up in their security deposit boxes (bring a padlock from home, some hostels charge you to rent one).
  • Don’t be too trusting of fellow travelers at a hostel. If there is a locker available, I almost always pay to lock up my valuables.
  • Make sure the taxi driver has the meter on.  He or she can’t legally charge you if the meter has not been turned on, but it’s  better request it up front than risk a confrontation.
  • Especially for female travelers- bring a small can of pepper spray. I’ve never needed to use it, but it certainly gives me peace of mind to wield some kind of defense.
  • Also for girls- A cross-body purse is not only harder for thieves to pull off of your body but is also great when you’re carrying a backpack.
  • Never check anything important or valuable. Carry on your visa papers, jewelry, laptop, camera or other valuable items.
  • Bring your health insurance card. Can’t hurt, right?
  • Don’t give to beggars. You reveal the location of your wallet, which can lead to trouble.
  • Secure your backpack. I use a second lock (much smaller) so that my backpack can’t be unzipped from the outside.

What do you do to stay safe? Anything you find silly (i.e. moneybelts)?