Yes, I love a good adventure. I love the sights, smells and sounds of an unfamiliar city. I love seeing a forest filled with creatures I’ve never encountered before.
But my favorite foods, my own bed and – most of all – my most-excellent cat Noir made my return home a happy occasion.
Unfortunately, Noir will no longer greet me when I return from my next trip. We said goodbye to him last night after 16 years of friendship. Noir turned me from cat-indifferent to the sort of guy who couldn’t pass a cat without trying to pet it. During his long life, he watched me pack for my first international trip as an adult -- he was the cat of the house while Sarah and I hiked glaciers, searched for kangaroos and mangled foreign languages. (Since he lacked opposable thumbs like most cats, our good friend Todd cared for him in our absence. Every time Todd came to visit, Noir treated him exactly like he did Sarah or me. Noir was friendly toward all humans, but he held Todd above the rest.)
During my travels, I encountered many feline friends that made me think of my little buddy back home. If not for him, I wouldn’t have made these new friends. As a tribute to Noir’s memory -- in honor of his long life -- in recognition of the cheer he brought to our home, here are some photos of the cat friends I’ve made around the world!
One thing people often tell me is "I wish I could travel with you!" I’m flattered, honestly. When someone says that, I hear "You know what you’re doing and you know how to have fun." Great! I’ll take that any day.
The fact is, though, I like traveling with as few people as possible. The odds of me opening up my travel time to just anyone are slim to none. The odds of our schedules aligning? Even worse (though I did get to travel overseas for work this year, and had a phenomenal co-worker with me).
Here’s some good news, though: I’m going to give you my best travel travel advice to help you check out the world the way I do. I’ve learned much beyond these, but I think these are the most important to me.
Better Fitness = Better Travel
Some people love tweeting from the gym, or taking selfies at the yoga studio. I am not one of them. My exercise routine is personal, almost solitary (with the exception of hot yoga classes) and always kind of grim. I don’t exercise to impress people or to be a male model. I exercise so I can do cool stuff.
Fitness is the basis for being ready to do anything you hear about when you travel. It gives you the ability to do a long hike, sign up for a 10k (which I’ve done in four countries so far), go cross country skiing -- you name it. There is no one-size-fits-all method to getting fit. My system of weightlifting, hot yoga, running and cycling is just right for me. There are so many ways to get sweaty these days that I can’t fathom it. Try a few things. See what you find fun or at least tolerable – and then stick with it. Start right this very minute. It will make your next travel experience better.
Love to Fly for Your Best Travel Ever
Airport security is a hassle. Airplane seats are leftover torture devices from the Spanish Inquisition. You always wind up sitting next to someone who hasn’t bathed since the Game Of Thrones season finale.
Look, heading to Oregon in a covered wagon was no picnic. In the time it might’ve taken your ancestors to get out of the county, you can be on the exact opposite end of the planet. You can do this for a price unprecedented in human history, and you can do it breathing nice, clean air: I feel like smacking people who yap about the Golden Age of air travel when people suited up in their finest to fly -- and then smoked like chimneys the entire time (how easily we forget that, right?).
Even if you never learn to love flying, just remember it’s a means to an end. And that end is a new place, a new culture and new experiences.
Change From Your Usual
Let’s say you’re a meat-eating, football-watching SUV driver. If you travel, you just might wind up in a place where everyone else is a vegetarian cricket fan who gets around on a motorbike.
Guess what? You’ll have to fit in, because the culture isn’t going to change for you.
That goes for the vegans, too. I watched a vegan have an emotional warp-core breach because she had to ride in a horse-drawn cart. There was much blubbering and torrent of tears -- all because she expected that the world and its cultures would revolve around her comfort zone.
This isn’t the way travel works.
You’re going to get the best travel experience if you are willing to morph in any direction. Stay somewhere that doesn’t have a 5-Star rating. Eat something that would normally frighten you. Use your own two feet. Try to speak a different language.
I’m going to show you a valuable skill today: How to make your vacation photos interesting.
Now, many people these days use Facebook to show their vacation photos. This post assumes that’s your vehicle of choice. Still, even if you do something else, a lot of what I say here will apply.
Alright, let’s get this started.
I don’t care if you took 7,351 photos. I don’t want to see all 7,351. If you want to make your vacation photos interesting, upload the absolute best of the best. Eliminate photos that are virtually identical. Keep group shots where you and a few people are saying cheese to a minimum. And honestly, far better photographers than you have photographed the world’s greatest landmarks – so seriously consider whether anyone needs to see yet another shoot-by-the-numbers photo of the Sydney Opera House. Pitch the blurry and boring. There. Now you’re down to about 84 photos (if you’re anything like me).
Say something about your vacation photos.
Like I mentioned earlier, far better photographers than you have shot the same place. Hell, some of your friends may have already been there. So say something about your experience, and what your photos will offer. DO NOT just name the place. You can be smirky and give your album an Upworthy-like clickbait name like "You Won’t Believe What Happens When I Go to a Thai Ladyboy Show!" Or you can play it straight – "Hiking in Jotunheimen, one of the coolest places I’ve ever been." Just offer a glimpse into what people will see in your vacation photos – and stay away from linear recitations of what you did that day. Nobody wants to read an itinerary.
Caption your vacation photos, already!
I have this one photo I took in VÃk Ã MÃ½rdal. I love the little white church, the towering green mountains and the sunlight filtering through hazy air. But the most remarkable thing about it? I snapped it 10:45 p.m. That boggles the minds of people from lower latitudes. And you’d never know this without a caption – the right caption adds context, humor, information -- something.
Look, we all get lazy and skip the caption. I get it. But captions can make all the difference.
Look for Moments, Not Places
The bucket list mentality equals photos that suck. Tourists file like little ducklings to their destinations, snap their photos and herd themselves back onto the bus when the guide tells them to. They get the exact same photos because they’re thinking about places, not moments.
Let me give you an example -- I was just walking around in Hanoi, and I took a little bridge out to a Buddhist temple in the middle of a small lake. People were praying and bowing before an alter. Incense curled into the air and interacting with the light just perfectly, and I got this cool shot of people praying. This isn’t a landmark like Ho Chi Minh’s tomb or the Cu Chi Tunnels. But there was a perfection in that moment that made a far more interesting photo than you’ll usually get snapping a major landmark. There are ways to be creative with shooting landmarks, though. I’m not much good at this, so maybe you can pitch in with some ideas.
Stop editing the hell out of your vacation photos
Excessive photo editing ruins travel. The Internet overfloweth with jokers who use High Dynamic Range and Photoshop to turn photos into cartoonish versions of reality. And you get excited, book the trip, arrive and then find out it’s not truly a rip in space and time where every color is vivid and every sunset is the color of orange blossom honey.
Edit photos to make them closer to what you saw with your eye, not to exaggerate. Here’s the truth – my photos sometimes need help because I am a hack photographer. Once in awhile, I get lucky with an image like the one I snapped of Elijah on his horse. That came straight out of my camera with not a single adjustment to the colors. This is pretty damn rare for me, especially since I often shoot in challenging light. The thing is, reality is just fine without being turned into a caricature. Nature doesn’t need you to make it awesome. And all that tinkering is a lie. So stop it. Tell the truth with your photos.
Essentially, everything I’m saying is … tell a story. With your photo choices. With your captions. With your album names. What would you add about making vacation photos more interesting?
It’s easy to dismiss a glacier as a big, boring slab of ice. I get it. But you will never again think that way once you’ve stood on one. You hear water rush under and over it. You’ll hear the groans and cracks of its movements. You’ll never truly fathom how dynamic glaciers are until you spend time near them.
I can’t replicate the experience here … but I can give you some of the flavor with these photos of scenes from a glacier. I hope you like what you see enough to visit someplace where you can spend a day on a glacier. I promise, it will exceed your expectations.
In these photos, you’ll see FalljÃ¶kull, a glacier on the southern portion of VatnajÃ¶kull, which is the largest ice cap in Europe. It’s also near Skaftafell National Park, which is a must for any outdoor adventurer planning a stop in Iceland.Â Glacier Guides guys Gisli and Robert equipped and led us. Click any photo to get a closer look.
Here we are starting our approach to FalljÃ¶kull. This means “falling glacier,” and you can see why as it tumbled down this mountain. By this point, we’re wearing crampons and harnesses … and we have ice axes!
Here, I’ve aimed a 200mm lens at an icy outcrop. All the gray stuff you see is probably soot from the then-recentÂ EyjafjallajÃ¶kull volcano eruption.
A little bit more ice. Just imagine how many gallons and gallons of water this one glacier contains.And it’s just a baby as part of the larger ice cap.
My advice – don’t fill up on water before you go to the glacier. Just stick your bottle or hydration bladder under some flowing water for some of the tastiest glacier meltwater you’ll ever drink
Water and movement carve out incredible nooks from the nice. This one is just one of my favorite scenes from a glacier.
Another cranny carved by nature.
I love all the stripes in the ice, along with all the ripples and folds.
White ice with streaks of blue, with the darkness of rock in the background.
Looking back toward the flatlands and ultimately the ocean. My camera faces south in this photo.
Our hike didn’t go up high into the folds and spires, which was a bit disappointing. The glacier guides say it’s too dangerous up there.
Sarah, a German hiker and Robert from Glacier Guides.
I have a great guest post from Debbie Lee for you today. Debbie is the community manager at Trippy.com, a really fun travel site that I frequent. She was headed toÂ Germany just after HolidayPhone asked me to review their product. Since I didn’t have any upcoming travel plans, I asked Debbie to write this HolidayPhone prepaid SIM card review. She has some great observations and also took all the photos in this post. Enjoy! -Justin
For someone who’s traveled extensively and is pretty tech-savvy, one thing has remained a mystery to me since the advent of smartphones: how to access data affordably on my iPhone while traveling internationally.Â I already have enough trouble doing that at home, much less overseas in a foreign land.
When I’m staying in one country for longer than a week, I just buy a local SIM card for my unlocked iPhone.Â There’s a slight bit of hassle in doing this because you have to research which wireless provider works best, which plan makes the most economical sense, and then you actually have to find a store that carries that SIM card and possibly attempt to buy it without knowing the local language (usually not a problem at the airport for English speakers, but possibly an issue at stores outside of the airport).Â Once you get the SIM card, though, it’s typically smooth sailing from there.
Last summer when I visited Europe, though, I was staying inÂ Italy for 4 days, then Switzerland for another 6. Since I was country-hopping, it didn’t seem worth it to buy local SIM cards for such short periods of time, so I just called up my wireless provider to put me on an international plan. When I got home and looked at my phone bill, it was the most horrible thing ever. And the worst part was that the data speed was never fast, so I vowed to never do that again if I could help it.
This past month, I found myself in the same boat, where I’d be country-hopping in Europe, and I was determined not to end up with a huge phone bill and to get my phone situation squared before I left home. So I posted a question asking what the best SIM card to use across Europe would be on Trippy.com (I’m the community manager there!), to which Wandering Justin reached out to me about the opportunity to write a HolidayPhone prepaid SIM card review. Despite the mixed reviews that I had read online about them, I decided to give it a shot.
Prior to leaving for Europe, and even when I first got there, I wasn’t exactly sure what countries I would be visiting (I like being able to be spontaneous!). I just knew that I would be flying in and out of MÃ¼nster in Westphalia, Germany. Other countries I thought I might be visiting were the Netherlands, France, Great Britain and Poland, so I had wanted to find a SIM card that worked for all, or most of those countries.
First Look at the HolidayPhone Package
After informing HolidayPhone about my possible travel plans, I was sent a tracking code; a few days later, I received my HolidayPhone package, which included SIM cards for Germany, the UK, and the Netherlands, and even a mobile hotspot device so that friends could tether off of it. They mailed it to me in San Francisco all the way from Sweden. I was super excited to test them out!
When I landed at theÂ Frankfurt Airport for a layover, I took the opportunity to test out my Germany SIM card from Blau Mobilfunk, a presumably smaller wireless provider that I wasn’t familiar with. No matter how many times I entered in the PIN number and subsequently PUK code provided on the card, though, it just would not work. Through the airport wifi, I emailed Melina, the HolidayPhone rep whose business card was included in my package, about my issue. She and another colleague, Daniel, attempted to help me troubleshoot, but to no avail.Â Then randomly when I was on the tarmac to head to my next destination, my entering of the PIN number finally worked. Perhaps it just didn’t work in the airport? We’ll never know. But the SIM card did start to work outside of the airport.
By the way, I do have to give Melina and Daniel extra kudos here — this was Christmas day when I emailed them and they got back to me within hours. Seeing that it was Christmas, I would’ve understood if they had gotten back to me the next day, so that’s great customer service right there.
I wish that the actual Blau Mobilfunk SIM card was as good as their customer service, though.Â I ended up not going to any other countries, but decided to do a cross country road trip through Germany instead, so I only used the Blau Mobilfunk SIM card.
My home base was in the little farming town of Greven, which is pretty rural. I occasionally connected to a 3G network out there, which felt like I was using dial up internet. That was something I could tolerate as I understood the limitations of living on a farm.Â Unfortunately, most of the time, the connected network was E or GPRS and sometimes there was No Service, rendering data transmission impossible on my phone, so Blau Mobilfunk was pretty much unusable where I was staying. I thought it was due to me living on a farm, but when local friends came to visit, the data on their T-Mobile and Vodafone networks worked just fine.Â Those are two wireless providers I’ve actually heard of, which makes me wonder why HolidayPhone chose Blau Mobilfunk over them.
When I went on my cross country road trip, I got 3G data in the heart of the major cities, like Munster, Hamburg and Berlin, which was about as fast as dial-up Internet. Unfortunately, when I was actually on the road on the major highways and freeways, it was back on E, GPRS, and occasionally No Service, meaning that we couldn’t research anything on the road, stream music or get addresses and directions (we had in-dash navigation, but there were a few instances where it was incorrect and we needed Google Maps). I wasn’t sure if this was a Germany thing, or if it was a Blau Mobilfunk thing, though after comparing with my local friends’ phone connectivity, I’m pretty sure it was the latter.
Then there was the mobile hotspot device — the ZTE MF65 Mobile WiFi Router.Â When I was in places where I had 3G connection, I would pop my unlocked SIM card into the device; but despite me following all the directions that were provided to me, it continually said that there was no SIM card or that it was unrecognizable. I was just testing it out for the sake of testing it out because they sent it to me, but fortunately, I was able to tether my other wireless devices directly off of my iPhone with the Blau Mobilfunk SIM card in it … when I had 3G connection, of course.
Wrapping up the HolidayPhone Prepaid SIM Card Review
The SIM card that I received was data-only, and I got 1 GB of data at 3G speeds that would be valid for 30 days. I felt like I had barely used the data (most of it was spent waiting for pages to load, or loading to “Please connect to the Internet” and “Server could not be reach” pages) before I received a text that said my 1 GB at 3G speeds was up just four days into my trip. This package is supposed to be $43.90, which I definitely would not have paid for such unreliable service. To add on the mobile hotspot device was another $79.99, which, as I mentioned earlier, didn’t even work.
This is all unfortunate because I really wanted to love HolidayPhone and was hoping that they were the answer to my prayers. I think that they’re really onto something here with their service and that the concept is great. I’m willing to pay a little extra money to have a local SIM card already on me when I arrive at a destination. It definitely takes the hassle out of things and is one less thing to worry about when there are so many other things going on during international travel. Unfortunately, their choice in wireless providers was not up to par with my fairly reasonable expectations; I had simply expected them to send me something that, for the most part, worked and was reliable.
The next time I travel overseas, I may just sign up for a T-Mobile month-to-month account at home as they seem to have decent international plans. People keep telling me that it gets slow after a certain point (as explained on the T-Mobile site), but after this experience, I can deal with slow data, so long as it’s reliable.
If anyone has any suggestions for what I or anyone who’s country-hopping should check out, please do comment!
I won’t drink until I soil myself. I’ll cut back on snorting rat poison. I’ll quit inhaling high-fructose corn syrup by the troughful.
These are the spirit of New Year’s resolutions: things we won’t do anymore. Me? I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. I certainly don’t do "bucket lists." But I identify opportunities to do things that will make my life better. I scour the world looking for activities and destinations I’d like to do, get to as many as possible and then annoy everyone around me by not shutting up about them, ever.
So what would make my list for 2015? I’ve got a few for you that I’d do. I wish I could get to them all, but you know how that goes. Maybe a few of you can help out by standing in for me! And I’d also like to hear what would make your list.
One of These Crazy GoRuck Events
You’ve heard of all the mud runs, the color runs and all that hoopla. Now GORUCK, whose ads I’ve noticed on Facebook, is getting the word out about its series of events all over the country. They have something for everybody this calendar year, from 48-plus hours of mayhem that require you to move 80 miles all the way to scavenger hunts that are more about beer drinkin’ than bravery. The events started Jan. 9, with many more throughout the calendar year. GORUCK says these events offer a "slice of Special Operations training." I have a feeling these events will draw a lot of CrossFit sort of folks and more than a few ex-military types. So yeah, my long hair will likely stand out!
I have my eye on starting with a GORUCK Light event in Flagstaff, Ariz. this May (registration is now $50) and following up with a Challenge event near Tucson in September. Check the events list for descriptions, and to find one near you. If you’ve ever done one of these events, drop me a line – I’d like to hear about it and share the info with readers.
Still, we’re just talking about floating around in the air like a freakin’ astronaut. No big deal. It was one of the coolest things to do in 1959 aboard the original Vomit Comet, and it is still one of the coolest things to do in 2015.
LaplandX Extreme Lapland Tour Still one of the Coolest Things to do in 2015
I’ve already yapped about this 7-day Northern Lights tour at length. But it bears repeating that you still have time to sign up before the fun starts on Feb. 16 in Finland. If you have about $4,000, I don’t think you’ll find a much better way to spend it.
I’m not going to be able to get to this one, so I’ll have to miss out on the icebreaker cruise, the sled dogs and the snow machine hijinks -- and the aurora borealis light show up there near the Arctic Circle. If you are LaplandX-bound, please get a hold of me afterward for a guest blog post. I want to hear all about this.
So that makes me think these 10-dayÂ Flanders Adventure Tours have to be one of the coolest things to do in 2015. Riders will cover 40-80 days on flat terrain every day, and they’ll hit eight towns and 10 breweries. You’ll see some of the big breweries, and some of those below-the-radar locals. The first tour starts April 10; check out the itinerary for dates and more details. Tour cost is $2,600 at the moment, which includes: nine nights hotel; breakfast and lunch each day; bike and bag rental; two tour guides (one Dutch-speaking); all brewery tours plus beer; sampling at breweries; and luggage storage before and after the tour. Not bad at all!
Drop Into the Mouth of a Volcano
OK, I’ve also mentioned this one before. But how can descending into the magma chamber of an extinct volcano – the only one known to exist intact! – not be one of the coolest things to do in 2015?
The fun starts on May 15 when Inside the Volcano starts running tours to the Thrihnukagigur volcano. It’ll cost you about $300, and will remain one of the most stupid-awesome things you ever do. Ever. Just get yourself to Reykjavik and be ready to do a short hike before you plunge into the volcano!
I’ve mentioned thatÂ Halong Bay, Vietnam, is a conundrum for travelers concerned about their impact on sensitive areas. This time, let me take you a bit further into the sights of this UNESCO World Heritage site. Here are a few Halong Bay photos I didn’t get to in my original post. And these photos are the real thing, not Photoshopped and HDR-modified into cartoonish caricatures of reality (one of my travel pet peeves I’ll dive into at a later point).
At any given time, there’s an absolute fleet of vessels headed to and from Halong Bay’s most-popular spots. Here’s our view of it as we head into the karst islands.
The small ships carting passengers all over range from opulent to barely afloat. Ours looked better inside than it did from the outside.
Reaching many of the destinations requires a small boat to cart us in from the larger boat. This gave me a chance to snap a nice shot of our boat/ship/floating thing.
This is one of my favorite Halong Bay photos – a bit of quiet away surrounded by chaos. I’m not sure what these guys are up to … but it’s definitely a nice moment to witness.
You’ll hear a lot about the floating market. It’s kind of a letdown, especially after some time in Vietnam conditions you to equate “market” with “place to buy anything from poop chutes to bulk cinnamon to sea cucumbers to textiles.” This was pretty much a floating ramshackle convenience store.
Sunlight reacts very nicely with the tall, sheer mountains bursting out of the water. I shudder to think what sort of lens flare J.J. Abrams would add to his personal stash of Halong Bay photos.
Some of my favorite Halong Bay photos are from Sung Sot Cave, an enormous show cave. But I really longed for a look into the undeveloped parts of the cave. I notice that Asian countries haven’t latched onto the adventurous side of caving. People like me love getting dirty and seeing caves as they really are.
If you don’t know why I think this photo is awesome, you probably haven’t plunged into the depths of my terrible sense of humor.
This is a huge cave, and it’s lit very well to score some sweet photos.
I alluded in a previous post to booming construction to a sensitive area. The signs are all there …
I snapped this shot on the way to a pearl farm. The pearl farm was fairly cool.
The light and hazy sea air are just so inviting for a camera.
We spent a night in Cat Ba City, which is on … wait for it …Â Cat Ba Island. I didn’t take enough photos of the city. It was a really cool experience, especially when we wound up wandering through a neighborhood. We hiked around a good bit, and I spotted this cool scene from the top of a seaside cliff.