Match Your Travel Style to Your Luggage

A backpack is great for carrying your necessities in the Icelandic highlands … but it won’t fly for business travel or luxury destinations.

Some of the most-frequent questions I get from new travelers revolve around luggage. That’s reasonable – the right luggage makes a huge difference. People often ask me whether they should go backpacker style, or opt for something more traditional like a suitcase. But there’s just no one-size-fits-all answer.

Is a Backpack the Right Luggage for You?

Your itinerary and the purpose of your trip hold the answer. If you have plenty of hiking and outdoor activities waiting for you, a suitcase could be a liability. It won’t be able to run smoothly in the more rural areas. And you just can’t hike with it, right?

In this case, you’ll also have to figure out which backpack is right for you. Some are set up for multiday expeditions, while others will just make you look like an outdoor adventurer. You’ll have to spend some time determining your needs before your purchase. But that’s a topic for another day since it deserves a blog post of its own.

And are you headed off on holiday, or jetting off for business? I’ve never used a backpack for business travel. It just have the features I need, and has many attributes I don’t need (I don’t need a built-in hydration pack or daisy chain loops for my next business trip … ah, if only I did).

Louis Vuitton Malletier Paris Historical Suitcases luggage
For some people, suitcases – whether vintage or modern – are the way to go. (photo by Charlie Phillips via Wikimedia

When a Suitcase is Your Luggage Solution

Look, if you roll into a posh hotel with a backpack, you’re going to feel out of place. Will that fly in ritzy destinations like Monaco? Eh, probably not.

If you’re not planning to leave the urban areas, you don’t need to carry everything on your back. A light daypack is a great idea, but your taste might run more toward a suitcase (or three, all matching … of course). Just like backpacks, you’ll find a staggering array of luggage options. I recently traveled with a small hardshell suitcase that seemed sturdy enough to withstand having a rhino dropped on it. It also had a James Bond look I couldn’t resist. And every time I fly, I see everything from hot pink to tiger stripes rolling down the luggage return. It all comes down to your style and travel needs.

What About Me?

Well, I’m usually a backpack guy for leisure travel. When I’m on the road for business, a suitcase meets my luggage needs best. If you’re like me, you might wind up matching the luggage to the purpose of your trip.

This post is brought to you by Luggage Direct.

This blog accepts forms of cash advertising, sponsorship or other forms of compensation. All information reflects the opinions and experience of

What’s Costa Rica Like?

What's Costa Rica like?
Sure, lots of travelers have been to Costa Rica. But that doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy the Original Canopy Tour any less.

You can tell someone is an obnoxiously world-weary hipster traveler if you ask "What’s Costa Rica like?" and the answer starts with a sigh. And then a sneer, and then the words "Costa Rica is so -- Americanized.

I’ve heard this answer countless times, and I find it just as myopic now as I did the first time.

Yes, Costa Rica has McDonald’s and common fast-food chains. But show me just one place in the United States where a jackhammer of a road like the one from Lake Arenal to Monteverde serves a major destination for travelers. Show me a major metro-area mall where guards tote shotguns. Show me a hotel in a capital city that’s surrounded by razor wire.

OK, then.

What's Costa Rica like?
Meet a coati in Costa Rica.

What’s Costa Rica Like?

I might not have made Costa Rica sound very nice right then. It definitely doesn’t sound like the United States. And it’s not.

It’s more laid back, more laissez faire. During my trip, the chaotic traffic through me off. Now that I’ve been to Vietnam, I might be a bit more comfortable with it.

Here’s what you can expect: tasty food, beautiful scenery and people who are genuinely friendly, even those not affiliated with the tourism industry. People there really do say "pura vida" to greet each other. It’s not some travel magazine exaggeration. One traveler friend described Costa Ricans, aka Ticos, as the Canadians of Latin America.

What's Costa Rica Like?
Looks at these little scamps hanging out in Manuel Antonia, Costa Rica!

Living Pura Vida

Here’s a great example of what Costa Rica is like: I was a few hours outside San Jose visiting La Paz Waterfall Gardens. And shit -- I missed the last bus back. Well, an employee from the gardens noticed, and offered me a ride back toward San Jose, where he lives in a different neighborhood. We had a pleasant ride back, chatting the whole way about all that’s good and bad about life in Costa Rica. When he dropped me off at a convenient spot, I offered him some gas money. He wouldn’t take a dime from me. He’s still one of the all-time nice guys I’ve met in my travels. (If you go to La Paz Waterfall Gardens and see someone named Roy, that’s him. And if Cassador the cat is still around, give him a scratch between the ears. Cassador, that is. Not Roy.)

What's Costa Rica Like?
Check out the La Paz Waterfall Gardens.

Advice for Your Costa Rica Adventure

Fly anywhere you can with one of the local airlines. Four hours in a bus on bumpy roads equals 15 minutes aloft in a Nature Air Twin Otter. The views are spectacular, and that’s time you add to your valuable-beyond-money vacation. It is worth every penny you spend (especially since you won’t be holding in a giant pee after a few hours). A quick flight from San Jose puts you in Quepos, where it’s a short ride to Manuel Antonio.

And look, there are tons of blogs out there that will give you Top 10 Most Awesome lists about everything in Costa Rica. They’ll tell you what to add to your – excuse me while a barf just a little from cliche-induced nausea – "bucket list." So I won’t dive too far into that.

What's Costa Rica like?
Go to Monteverde if you like coffee, yoga and easy access to solitude. Just prepare for a rough road.

I’ll just say the volcano-philes like me will love Costa Rica. So will people who love zip lines, coffee, simple-but-hearty food and soccer rivalries; if you can schedule your trip around Saprissa versus Alajuela, you will have a ton of fun basking in soccer madness. The country is also brilliant-green enough to blind someone from a desert environment.

What's Costa Rica like?
One of the residents of the La Paz Waterfall Gardens.

Costa Rica in a Word: Aware

The powers that be in Costa Rica know what they have on their hands: scenery, scenery, scenery. The country has protected 25 percent of its land area, and is still working to improve.

Just ignore the hipster travelers and their scorn. Go to Costa Rica and have fun, even if you aren’t going before it was cool. Because it still is. Honestly.

Airline Employees Mostly Overlooked and Underrated

airline employees
It’s a busy summer evening at Sky Harbor. And airline employees keep the dance running smoothly, for the most part.

There’s a day/week/month honoring just about everything these days -- donuts, India Pale Ale, truck drivers, pie – you name it.

Guess who doesn’t have one? Airline employees. Pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and all the other people who do nothing but fly you safely at 35,000 feet for fares that are relatively peanuts next to any other time in human history. They don’t have any sort of appreciation days that I could find. The closest I could come is October, which is Flight Attendant Appreciation Month at Allegiant Airlines. Correct me if I’m wrong and missing something I should know about.

Oh, and if you’re going to complain about TSA or uncomfortable seats or bad food or spotty in-flight Internet, watch the video below. If you can still summon a complaint, maybe you’re just a whiner (and you wouldn’t have lasted three hours in a covered wagon).

I am convinced that people take for granted the expertise, experience and professionalism or airline employees. All they do is make it possible for them to fly. Sure, things go wrong. But we’re talking about a complicated ballet of humans, machinery and software. And I’ll admit that some people on both sides of the ticket counter are better than others at making the best of bad situations. By and large, though, airline employees do a great job.

Here’s my message to every pilot, flight attendant, mechanic, gate agent, baggage handler and all other airline employees: Your profession is every bit as worthy as any other of some sort of appreciation or recognition. Until someone steps up for you, I hope you’ll realize I’m glad you do what you do so well. And hey, I know things don’t always work out the way they should. When something doesn’t go my way, I’ll be patient with you. You might not have your official appreciation. You might get flak from passengers short on patience -- but there are people out there who appreciate you every time they step on a plane.

  • The real culprit behind that flight delay: Pilot, crew, maybe you?

What’s Brazil Like?

What's Brazil like?
World Cup crazy in Brazil – just as you’d expect.

If you’re wondering "What’s Brazil like?", I have a small part of your answer. It’s a big country, and I was only in one city – Curitiba – for seven days. But I’ll give you some ideas for at least a segment of any future trip to Brazil.

Brazil in a Word: Stylish

From the way people dress to the architecture to the dining, Brazil – if it matches Curitiba – is stylish. There’s a European flair to the architecture and streets with the occasional outburst of wild modern architecture and abundance of cool cobblestones.

What's Brazil like?
Nighttime in Curitiba, Brazil, overlooking a tony mall (right, lit up in red) and one of the fancier urban areas.

You’ve probably heard horror stories about slums in other cities. Well, I don’t know what is going on in Curitiba, but it also has a prosperous flair and a very safe vibe. I roamed the streets all hours of the day. People aren’t as quick to make eye contact or say hello as in, say, Australia. But they don’t bother each other, either.

You can get some detailed notes about Curitiba in my earlier post about the city. It’ll tell you all about some great highlights like the craft beer scene (I’d go as far as to call it the Portland of Brazil just based on the regional craft beer).

What's Brazil like?
I wish I’d gotten more into the wild areas. But this reclaimed quarry was all I had time to find.

Things to Remember

Just one city in seven days makes me even less-than-qualified to answer "What’s Brazil Like?". But I can say with authority that Curitiba has a lot going for it. It makes me think Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo are getting too high a billing as Brazil’s highlights.

Before traveling to Brazil, you might want to think about hepatitis B and typhoid vaccines, but I skipped the yellow fever vaccines since it wasn’t recommended for travel to Curitiba at the time.


What’s Belize Like?

What's Belize like?
What’s Belize like? Well, you have some great caves and water sports, but mediocre beaches and food.

If you’ve ever wondered "What’s Belize Like?", the latest entry in my "What’s it Like" series has the answer.

Belize in a Word: Narrow

What's Belize like?
A misty day at the Gaia Riverlodge.

OK, what do I mean by "narrow?" Well, it means that Belize has a narrow range of appeal. If you’re going there for food or beaches, prepare to be disappointed. I found neither to be memorable. Let me correct that – the beaches were memorable for being strewn with flotsam. Resorts hire people to keep them looking nice.

What's Belize like?
Belize looks great from the air.

On the other hand, if you are a caver (please don’t say "spelunker"), snorkeler or SCUBA diver … Belize is heaven. I absolutely loved the Aktun Tunichil Muknal cave tour more than I can tell you. If I had more time, I would’ve interrogated locals for non-tour, do-it-myself cave experiences. Belize is practically all limestone, and has more miles of caves than anyone can properly track. And for the water people, Ambergris Caye, Belize is a perfect base to get you out for snorkel or SCUBA adventures where you’ll see baracuda, octopi, rays and much more.

What's Belize Like?
The ATM cave is full of all sorts of great surprises.

You’ll note that I went in December. The weather was nice but warm. Though the town of Hopkins was just downright hot, even in December. This is coming from a guy who has lived in Arizona for decades, so pay attention. I mean it.

Don’t bother with Belize City. It’s horrible. Oh, and everybody there wants to sell you souvenirs. They can’t compare to the Red Dzao or Black Hmong in Vietnam when it comes to high-pressure sales … but they make up for it in volume.

Things People Said to Me
"Hey, big guy! Let me braid your hair!"

What's Belize Like?
A view from Caracol.

Other Cool Stuff Worth Noting
I absolutely love the Gaia Riverlodge outside of San Ignacio. It’s a hydroelectric lodge powered by a nearby river. There were no TVs or even hairdryers in the thatched-roof huts. Since my visit, it’s gone all-inclusive and changed names. But the location remains the same, and it’s a serene, quiet place that’s an excellent base for hikes and cycling. I also had a great time visiting the Caracol ruins. Don’t be surprised if you wind up with an army escort to visit the ruins – or if you here gunfire from Guatemalan bandits clashing with the army.

When I Went: December 2007
Duration: 10 Days
Areas Visited: Caye Ambergris, San Ignacio, Hopkins, Belize City

Sure, I was only there 10 days. I’m not expert on Belize. But I think you’ll get enough out of this to make some better-informed choices if you’re going to Belize.

What Gear Do I Need in My Daypack?

Outside magazine claims that a reader wrote in to ask "What Gear Do I Need in My Daypack?" It’s answer shocked me, and reaffirmed why I don’t read Outside magazine.

Go look. OK, you don’t feel like giving Outside magazine the click? Fair enough. To adapt a phrase from Joan Jett, I hate myself for clicking them, too. I’ll just list some of the more egregiously ludicrous items:

  • $50 underwear – Because adventures are born from overpriced undies.
  • $140 sunglasses – They’ll save your life. OK, maybe not. Scratch that: Definitely not.
  • Ultra-light quarter socks – Anything less than Darn Tough socks are foolish. These flimsy things will have holes in them inside of three months.
  • $40 sandals – Oh, just cross the stream barefoot. You’ll be fine. (What’s that, Outside? "The Therm-a-Rest footbeds feel like they’re massaging your feet?")

Here are the fairly legit items:

  • A handful of Kind bars – Everybody needs food. But you’re better off cranking out homemade batches of pemmican. Or just getting some nuts and dried fruit.
  • A Bic lighter with duct tape wrapped around it – Better yet, wrap your duct tape around a Nalgene bottle. And skip the lighter -- get yourself some flint and learn how to use it.

Here are the only items I agree with, no strings attached:

  • A decent day pack – Fairly obvious, right?
  • A Petzl headland – Always a must.
  • Sunscreen – Well, yeah.

Outside magazine, in its rush to load expensive items from its advertisers into its "What Gear Do I Need in My Daypack?" list, left out some potential life-savers.

  • A high-quality fixed-blade knife – Too many uses to list.
  • Tincture of iodine 2% – Good for disinfecting water and treating wounds.
  • Something to cover your head – Hat, bandana, shemagh, whatever. All have multiple uses.
  • At least a small first-aid kit.
  • I already mentioned flint and a Nalgene bottle.
  • Some knowledge – You can’t really put it in your pack. Learn before you go.

Look, this stuff is important. How many stories have you heard about people being unprepared when a "simple day hike" turns pear-shaped? You need warmth. You need shelter. You need calories. The items in your pack should give you a fighting chance to create some of these on the fly. Fifty-dollar underwear can’t do that; get caught unprepared, and your ass will be just as dead in it as someone wearing used Fruit of the Looms from a Goodwill store.

In a future post, I’ll break down everything in my pack for my own solution to the "What Gear Do I Need in My Daypack?" question.

Re-Thinking Foreign Language Studies in the U.S.

U.S. schools need to get better at foreign language studies.

Sure, you can find hundreds of online articles that say A) Americans are even worse at foreign languages than we realize or B) it’s not as bad as everyone says. Here’s the reality: When I run into someone from Germany, the Netherlands or Norway, they speak English that rivals many Americans. They speak their native language. They usually speak at least one other language with confidence and authority.

I speak Spanish like 3-year-old. I know a few phrases in Portuguese, Russian and Japanese. I can conjure a handful of words in Korean and Vietnamese. That’s it.

I think about this often. I ultimately come back to two key factors: American school start foreign language studies late, and they teach languages all wrong.

I think back to my Spanish classes, and I shake my head in wonder. What educator would consider them a good idea? Lists of vocabulary and endless conjugations … really? Did you grow up speaking your native language and thinking about whether you were using the past-plural-fermented-indicative-imperfect-accusative tense?

No. You learned by context, by doing.

To me, it’s obvious that context is the right way to approach foreign language studies.

A Worthy Idea in Foreign Language Studies

I’m not alone in this. There’s a new book out called The Farm to Table French Phrasebook; author Victoria Mas dishes out the proper phrases, plus slang that can help a visitor fit right in at the table (and yes, it’s available as an eBook). I think this is a super-smart concept. I’d compare it to teaching music theory by showing a student how to play a song … and then unraveling the theory behind the song as the student’s playing competency develops. They can start playing from Day One, and then the true knowledge comes from diving into how – and why – the chords and notes mesh so well.

Mas’ idea clicks with me. Why not gear foreign language studies toward the scenario a food lover is likely to encounter? I could see this turning into a series geared toward different countries -- possibly even regions. And it could apply to just about any hobby … a wine or beer connoisseur’s language book. Maybe one for bicyclists. I see myriad possibilities.

And I think that’s a smart model for foreign language studies in the classroom, too. Why not aim the topics at situations we’re likely to encounter? I could see language teachers making lessons far more immersive by building them around a visit to the airport, getting around a museum, buying EuroRail passes, ordering food and other travel situations. Teach the handy phrases first -- then deconstruct them for grammar and usage.

Groping for grammar is a poor use of up-front time in foreign language studies. Build confidence with helpful phrases first. Catch the conjugations another time. Get into the hardcore linguistic aspects as the student progresses.

What Can the U.S. Do Better?

I imagine there are plenty of other ways to catch up with the rest of the world in foreign language studies. But I am 100 percent certain that the United States won’t make any progress with the status quo.

And this should be a priority. Every one of us who is more conversant in a foreign language is more likely to travel abroad -- and has a valuable tool in any business situation.

I also think we need to get beyond "practical" languages. My high school only offered Spanish, French and German -- the obvious ones. I really wanted to learn Russian, but I settled for Spanish. I wasn’t genuinely interested, and it showed in my results.

What ideas do you have for a re-thinking of how American schools teach foreign languages? If you grew outside the United States, how did you learn your foreign languages?

What’s Australia Like?

what's Australia like?
Brisbane – a great city that answers the question “what’s Australia like?” (via wikipedia, photo by Baycha Byrne.)
I mark 2005 as the true beginning of my international travel experience. Since then, the way I view travel has changed as I’ve seen and done more. This post marks the first in a series that collects and compares what I’ve learned. Let’s get it started with "What’s Australia Like?", a look at what you can expect from a visit Down Undah. Watch for more "What’s It Like?" posts in the future.

Australia in a Word: Balanced

What do I mean by that? Australia struck me as a place that strikes a near-perfect balance of everything that I like in life. I saw a lot of hard-driven, Type A people on the move in Sydney. But they also had the sense to know when it’s time to relax. People love watching their Aussie rules football, rugby union and cricket matches – but I got the sense that many people love actually playing as well as watching. People talk to each other easily, even to strangers.

What's Australia like?
Black sapote fruit – one of the many exotic tastes you’ll find in Australia.

And here’s something else: I only had one person display any air of snobbery -- and he was being more than a little ironic and smirky about it. There a no-nonsense, non-douchey, unpretentious air to Australians that I really like. And it’s one of the first things I mention when people ask "What’s Australia like?"

Dining in Australia

What's Australia like?
That’s me havin’ a blow on the didge.

I also love Australia’s adventurous food options. It’s close to Southeast Asia, so you have some of that influence seeping into all sorts of great regional ingredients. Kangaroo is a fixture on a lot of menus, as is the mild fish called baramundi (takes very well to a good curry). To this day, I’ve not had a better cheesecake than the outrageous example I had at the Mungalli Creek Dairy just outside Cairns. The beer scene lagged at the time, but my bet is that it’s improved (if the delicious Galaxy hops I had in a craft beer is any indicator). This might surprise you, but Australia also grows great coffee beans, and skilled baristas turn those beans into great espresso drinks (they’re not as into the brewed coffees).

What's Australia like?
Up in the Kakadu … the mythical Australia of the big screen.

Outdoors in Australia

It’s everything you’d expect. Termite mounds, snakes, huge bats, salt-water crocs, wallabies, kangaroos, water fowl -- it’s all here and abundant and impressive and potentially deadly. Start off in Darwin and get a tour to Kakadu National Park (don’t try to do this on your own … crocs and crazy roads can make your trip turn pear-shaped),

And that scenery! You have everything from desert in places like Coober Pedy to thick tropical rain forests near Cape Tribulation. The coasts are scenic beyond belief.

When I went: 2009

What's Australia like?
Awwwwww, Skip!

Duration: 16 days

Areas Visited: Sydney, Katoomba, Kurada, Kakadu National Park, Darwin, Port Douglas, Cape Tribulation, Atherton Table Lands, Brisbane (such an underrated city)

Things to Remember

I realize it’s impossible to get the essence of a country in just one two-week visit -- especially one as large as Australia. Still, I think my observations have some value for anyone considering a visit. People from around the world laugh at Americans who show up with just two weeks to spend – until our country catches up with the rest of the First World when it comes to vacation time, that’s pretty much what most of us can afford. Any less is barely worthwhile. Whether you spend your entire time on the beach or head into the Kakadu for an expedition, you will have an unbelievable time.