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Five Extraordinary Travel Tips

By 15 November 2012 Travel, Travel Tips

With the abundance of travel tips on the internet, as well as advice from well-travelled friends, family and acquaintances, it’s easy to lose yourself in trying to remember it all. It can be hard to keep it all together as you’re trying to stick to the basics—here are some tips that most gap year travellers would never think of.

Get to Know the Locals Ahead of Time 

You can read all the travel guidebooks, articles and online tips you want, but that won’t tell you where the locals like to go. The only way to find out is to talk to them! Think of the kind of people who have similar tastes as you and read blogs by people from your chosen destination. It can be a great way to find out what’s happening in more out-of-the-way places.

The forums on TripAdvisor also tend to have a lot of locals hanging out. Take the time to get to know them and maybe you’ll get an offer of a free guided tour when you arrive!

Turn your Trip into a Project 

If you aren’t a fan of so-called “package tours”, you might have to pound the pavement a bit to find the local flavour you’re looking for. All you need is one good tip or a savvy guide and local gems will reveal themselves. Whether it’s enjoying flavourful local cuisine in South Africa or learning how to surf in Hawaii, any trip can be turned into an educational, documentary-style experience.

Go to a Sporting Event 

Sports are a universal language—you get to see the passion and excitement of the local fans and you’ll get to see people at their most excited and open (as long as you’re rooting for the right team!). Look for games wherever you go; it could be cricket in Sri Lanka, Japanese baseball, or a takraw game in Laos.

Ideally, try to avoid watching the ‘big’ teams. Go to a smaller, local event and you’ll not only pay a lot less for your ticket, but you’ll get a much more genuine feel for how the locals live.

One of the best things about travel is that even when things go wrong, you can still end up somewhere great. Even if you arrive after the event is over, you’ll still get a glimpse of the culture that you might not have gotten if things had happened as planned.

Take a Tour by Taxi

Taxi drivers make some of the best unplanned tour guides, and their services can be had for the price of a fare. They’re generally local and are chock-full of information and stories; they can always tell you where to find delicious (and cheap food).

Read a Book 

Reading a fiction book set in your chosen destination is a great way to get a feel for a place before you visit, and it can also give you ideas for places to visit. It’s always fun to see how a site compares with its description in a book! Books can also provide a map of sorts; make a route of places mentioned in the book and you might find something unexpected.

Despite the benefits of literary trip-planning, there are some drawbacks to be aware of. One of the most obvious is the chance that the places mentioned in the book don’t actually exist and the other is that you won’t reach the end of your list by the end of your trip. Generally speaking though, this is a good way to find interesting places and it’s a lot more fun than reading a stuffy old guide book.

This guest post was written and contributed by Amy Fowler, for gap year specialists Sport Lived. Find out more about gap years in South Africa here.

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What it’s Like Living in a Hostel

By 10 October 2012 Life, Lifestyle, Travel, Travel Tips

While I was in Melbourne I lived solely in hostels.  For 5 months.  For some people, I can imagine this would be a total nightmare!  I, however, LOVED it!

Nomads Melbourne Industry Bay city centre Australia
My home from early May until late August 2008 🙂 Photo from Nomads.

It took my three attempts to find the best hostel.  When I first got to Melbourne I stayed at Cooee on St Kilda (now renamed Habitat HQ) that I had pre-booked from the UK.  It wasn’t very friendly towards long term stayers so I tried Hotel Discovery in the city, which is one of the worst I’ve ever stayed at!  Then I found Nomads Melbourne, which was only round the corner from Hotel Discovery.  Because of my bad experience I went and asked to have a look at the dorm rooms at Nomads before booking myself in.  The 6 bed dorm room that I checked out, and that I booked, was a good size.  There were no under-bed lockers like in some hostels I’ve stayed at but small wall mounted lockers to keep valuables in and some hanging rails, which were really handy for me as I had work clothes to hang up.

When I moved it took 2 runs because I had accumulated so much stuff in just 4 short weeks.  I had to go and buy a cabin-size roller case to put stuff that wouldn’t fit in my backpack in!  I got the top bunk in the middle of the room.  The room was full.  After a few days the bottom bunk near the window became free so I moved in.  I lived there for about 10 weeks.  I used towels to create a den for myself and gain some privacy.  I hung my travel towel from the end and my newly purchased beach towel along the front of the bed.  Sometimes I would hang wet washing on the struts supporting the mattress for the top bunk and my den would get a little steamy!  One of my roomies called me “swamp girl” for a while.

I was working for the first 6 weeks and during this time I had to get up pretty early.  I got good at getting dressed and even putting my make up on in the dark!  Nomads offered a free “dinner” every night.  But this so called dinner was puny!  You could pay A$3 to upgrade to a bigger (think normal) sized portion. I ate this food every night as the kitchen was SO small!  They’ve now had a much needed kitchen extension added, which was desperately needed.

Nomads Melbourne Industry bar quiz night
Winning the Quiz!  No idea who took this photo but I’m in it!

It took me a few days to make friends.  Firstly just with people in my dorm and then slowly but surely I met other people in the hostel.  There was a large group of longtermers, which was quite intimidating to begin with.  It seemed that everyone knew each other and I find that quite off-putting.  I’m not good in social settings like that where there’s lots of people I don’t know.  One of my best mates who was in the bunk next to me left to go back home and I was forced to make an effort to meet more people.  I managed to infiltrate the group and as I was at the hostel longer and longer, I became one of the longtermers.  I was able to join the gang!

I had such an amazing time at Nomads.  I don’t regret a thing, not even going to work having drunk a whole bottle of Southern Comfort the night before and having to throw up every half an hour during the day!  I made such an amazing group of friends.  I still keep in touch with some of them and I think we’ll be friends forever.  Because you’re living in such confined quarters and spending so much time together it seems like you’ve known each other for a much longer time.  Regular friends at home you may only see a couple of times a week.  In a hostel you’re with each other for several hours a day, every day.  You have so many joint experiences.

Backpackers party in dorm room before going out in Melbourne to sample nightlife
Getting ready to go out.

I cried so much when I left Nomads and Melbourne.   I took an overnight bus to Sydney and cried half the way there.  My first stop in Sydney, after I’d dumped my stuff in the hostel, was Darling Harbour and I cried again.  I cried myself to sleep on my first night there.  I just couldn’t believe I’d left Melbourne.  This sounds pretty sad but I felt totally lost without my friends and in new surroundings.  I barely shed a tear when I left my parents and sister at the airport to go travelling.  Living in a hostel is like living with all your best mates.  You have so much fun, get up to some outrageous antics and make unforgettable memories to cherish forever.  One day I will go back to Melbourne.  However much I’d like to go back to Nomads, I don’t think I ever will.  It just wouldn’t be the same and I think it would taint my memories.

Have you ever lived in a hostel? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

You might also be interested to read my blog posts about why I love Melbourne and my day at the F1 Australian Grand Prix.
By Rachel Birchley

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Getting your First Adult Passport in the UK

By 24 September 2012 Life, Lifestyle, Travel, Travel Tips

As a UK citizen from birth you would have thought that getting a passport would be a simple process.  For an adult a new passport costs £72.50 (about US$118), which is quite a lot of money really.  I’m not sure how much it costs to actually produce each passport.  I do wonder quite how much profit the Government make from this.  As it costs so much you would think that the Government would be looking to encourage each of its citizens to have a passport and make the process simple.  But no.

The form itself requires you to have a degree in problem solving.  The instructions are complicated and each applicant requires extreme concentration and patience in order to correctly complete the application form.  It has to be machine readable so you mustn’t make a mark outside of the boxes.

If you manage to complete the form, the next task is finding a suitable countersignatory.  For anyone applying for their first passport, or if your appearance has changed significantly since your last passport, it is necessary to find a professional person who knows you in a personal capacity to sign your form and 1 of the 2 photographs that you must provide.  Woe betide they sign both as that will invalidate the application!  They must declare that you are the person named on the form.  If you are a working class person it is hard to find a suitable “professional” who you are friends with.  How many builders are friends with lawyers or doctors?

The next trick to perform is to get the form sent off.  Bearing in mind you have included your birth certificate this is precious cargo.  So a trip to the Post Office is required to pay nearly £6 to send the envelope off Special Delivery.  You can pay the Post Office about £8 for their “Check and Send” service but as far as I’m concerned I can read the instructions just as well as someone who works in the Post Office.  I’ve heard of people paying for the service and still having their forms returned due to errors.

In the last few years the Government have decided to add an additional complication to the application process.  Any adult applying for their first passport must now attend an interview with the Identity and Passport Service to prove that they are who they say they are.  I understand the reasoning behind this.  Our country is trying to cut down on identity theft.  But this means each law-abiding, tax-paying citizen has to travel to their “nearest” IPS office (in our case 40 miles away) to be grilled.  I’ve been looking at some forums to see what sort of questions are asked seems like questions I could answer about myself but then I have a good memory and don’t get nervous during interviews.

After the interview it can take 7-10 days for the passport to come through.  All in all you are advised to allow 6 weeks for your first passport to arrive from date of application.  If you haven’t got a passport please bear this in mind before booking any travel.  One thing I will say in favour of the IPS is the Passport Advice Line.  The guy I spoke to was actually really nice and helpful.  I would recommend ringing them with any queries.

What are other countries like when it comes to passport applications?  How does the price of a UK passport compare to other countries?  Anyone got any passport stories to share?

By Rachel Birchley

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36 Hours in Las Vegas on a Budget

By 30 August 2012 Las Vegas, Travel, Travel Tips, United States of America

The famous sign – what isn’t shown in photos is that its in the middle of a busy road!

My only trip to Vegas was whistle-stop to say the least.  I was with a Trek America tour, we were in Sin City for just 36 hours and determined to make the most of our time in Nevada’s playground but we only had a limited budget.

Inside The Luxor hotel

On arrival we went straight to the Luxor’s huge buffet restaurant where I took eat-at-much-as-you-can quite literally!  Having started the day with the hangover from hell after our party round the campfire in Death Valley and with only a cup of tea in me I was starving.  The waitress gave me a really funny look when I asked if I was allowed to live there!  I’ve never before (or since!) seen such a selection of food.  It was incredible.  The best part was that we arrived while the lunch selection was out but were there so long that they started to bring out the dinner so we got so much choice.  We paid less than $20 for all this food.

Our hotel

After dinner we went straight to the hotel to dump our stuff and shower before heading out again.  We stayed at the off-strip Alexis Resort where my roomie, Sabina, and I shared a massive suite.  Well it was massive to us, we had mostly been staying in tents so didn’t have much to compare with.  Once we’d cleaned up, our tour leader, Paul, drove us downtown to Fremont Street to see the light show.  Well, what a disappointment.  It was a sponsored affair so instead of the amazing lights that I was expecting we were watching what seemed to be one long advert.  I think it was for a mobile phone company.

New York New York – I really wanted to go on the rollercoaster but it was closed 🙁

Our next stop was much better.  The Bellagio fountains.  This show is spectacular with the fountains’ movement choreographed to music.  We must have seen the show at least 3 or 4 times during our stay and each time the show was different.  If I have the money, next time I go to Vegas I want a lake view room at The Bellagio.  Although it might be hard to leave the room! When you think of Las Vegas you think of the desert and people lounging around the hotel swimming pools.  Well in January it’s freezing!  Not so much during the day when you don’t really want a jacket on but at night the temperature dips to nearly freezing.  Do not forget your gloves!  The annoying thing is that in the hotels it’s not cold so you have to lug your coat round the casinos and attractions.

After watching the fountains we walked up to Caesar’s Palace.  All the hotels along the strip are incredible.  The theming is awesome.  We scooted past the long snaking queue for the nightclub and had a browse round the Pussycat Dolls themed area.  There were semi-naked girls serving as croupiers, not really Sabina and I’s thing.  We had a look at the very small clothes in the shop and then decided to move on.  We wanted to explore one of the malls but all the shops were closed.  It turns out the 24 hour city does not extend to the retail outlets.  While enjoying a well-earned Starbucks hot chocolate we made our way back to the hotel on foot.  This is when we learnt that the hotel is further off strip than we realised.  We finally clambered in to our beds about 1.30am.

Miracle Mile Mall inside The Planet Hollywood Hotel and Resort

A short 5 hours later we were rudely woken by our alarm and were up and dressed in no time eager to make the most of our only full day in Las Vegas.  We were exploring the Miracle Mile Mall in the Planet Hollywood Hotel as the shops opened.  Unfortunately we were too early for the rainstorm, which I was quite upset about.  It was something I had read about before the trip.  We realised at about 11.30am we were hungry so we ventured in to McDonald’s for brunch.  Little did we know that this would be our only meal of the day!  We must have walked miles that day along the sidewalks, over bridges and past really annoying men flicking the cards for prostitutes.  That flicking noise is everywhere you walk.  We tried to go in as many hotels as possible to experience the different themes and stopped to play the slots at each one.

2-Pac’s waxwork dummy at Madam Tussaud’s

Sabina and I decided to visit Madame Tussaud’s in The Venetian Resort.  We wanted to save some money so bought our tickets in one of the many Tix 4 Tonight kiosks in town.  These kiosks are the best place for show and attraction tickets as they offer some great discounts.  Having not been to Madame Tussaud’s since I was a small child I wasn’t sure what to expect.  The Vegas version is highly interactive.  It’s even possible to don a wedding dress and pretend you’re getting married to George Clooney!  Swoon!  We played golf with Tiger Woods, shot hoops with Shaquille and pretended to punch George W. in the face (an optional activity :-p).  Elvis serenaded us while we held his hand and Simon Cowell berated my terrible singing.  It was good fun and a fab way to spend a few hours.

The palatial Palazzo Hotel

One of the highlights of our Vegas adventure was American Storm.  Yes this was a male revue – a very polite word for strip show!  Having never seen strippers before Sabina and I ummed and ahhed about buying tickets for this show.  We initially wanted to see Thunder from Downunder but the show wasn’t on that night.  So back to Tix 4 Tonight we went and, while giggling like schoolgirls, purchased our tickets for the show at The Stratosphere Hotel.  All the guys in the show had been chosen on a reality TV show aired in the US.  We arrived at the hotel far too early and had to hang around for the show to start.  Being a Wednesday in January it was quiet in Las Vegas and there were only about 20 women in total in the night club where the show was performed.  It was a little too intimate for my liking.  I didn’t want to get involved in the show at all.  I wouldn’t know what to do if a stripper came up to me!  I’m not outgoing like that.  The show was a good laugh.  I think the experience was improved by the cocktails I was drinking!  After the show I had my photo taken sitting on their laps and we all got a free shot.  It was in a test tube that I had to remove from a semi-naken bar tenders waistband! Argh!

Sabina and I spent the rest of the night running about different hotels on our walk back from The Stratosphere, which is right at the top of the strip.  We enjoyed the free drinks in the casinos by playing the 1 cent credit slots! We met some random guys on the monorail.  I can’t remember where we were going as the rest of that night is a bit of a blur!  I do remember that they were impressed with our shoes. Sabina was wearing some bright red trainers and I had sequin-encrusted Sketchers that I had purchased earlier in the day!  Eventually we decided we should eat.  By this time is was 3am and we found a food court still open so I could tuck in to a Subway and Sabina a burrito.  Once again we found ourselves stumbling in to our hotel room in the middle of the night, just a few hours before we had to get up.  The next day we were moving on to our next destination and an early start was on the cards.

Beautiful gardens in front of The Wynn Hotel

I don’t think I’ve ever managed to fit so much in to such a short space of time!  There is just so much to do there was no way we could do everything but we certainly got a taster.  I would love to return to Las Vegas, stay on strip and spend at least 5 days there.  Much more and you could be bankrupt!  There is a misconception that Las Vegas is only for people who enjoy gambling.  You could spend all your time sat round a poker table if that’s your thing but there is a huge selection of alternative activities from the amazing shopping to the numerous shows, boredom is never an issue in this playground.
By Rachel Birchley

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What Not to Do in Kuala Lumpur if You Want to Keep Your Money and Your Dignity

By 28 August 2012 Malaysia, Travel, Travel Tips
Kuala Lumpur tourist scam near Petronas Towers

I arrived in Kuala Lumpur fresh off the plane from Singapore, nine months in to my travels.  You would have thought that I would be aware of potential traveller scams and be able to spot trouble from a mile off.  Well, you would be wrong.  Naive, innocent me, who likes to see the best in people nearly had what was left of my money taken from me in a gambling scam.  When I recall the experience I feel stupid because in hindsight it seems obvious but at the time I really thought I was going to help out a nice family.

I was walking along one of the main roads near the Petronas Towers trying to find the Tourist Information Centre.  I was wearing a summer dress with a scarf around my neck.  A couple, probably in their late forties/early fifties stopped me so that the lady could compliment my scarf.  She was touching it and asking where I had bought it.  As it happened I acquired it while on housekeeping duties in the hostel in Melbourne.  One of the benefits of cleaning out empty rooms!  Anyway we got talking about where I was from, etc.  When I mentioned that I was from England she wanted to know if I lived near London as her younger sister was going to live there soon to take up a nursing job.  The woman explained how anxious their mother is as none of the family have ever left Malaysia.  The couple wanted me to talk to the old lady about London so that I could alleviate some of her fears.

Now the thoughts that crossed my mind were mixed.  Do you really want to go with people you’ve just met?  What if they mean harm?  What happens if this is just a lovely couple who I’ve just happened upon and I could really help their mother?  I’ve read about meeting locals on your travels and it being rude to refuse hospitality?  What should I do?

The couple convinced me that if I can just come with them to their house for 20 minutes I could be a real help to them.  We would get a taxi to and from their house.  They promised to return me to where they found me (as it were!).  So I got in the taxi didn’t I.  We were driven out to a suburb of KL where the houses were actually quite nice.  I was pleasantly surprised because to be honest I had no idea what to expect.  We got to the house and I was offered a drink and a cigarette, I took the glass of water gratefully as it was hot in the taxi but the house was lovely and cool.  We talked about England and where I had been on my travels.  An uncle was in the house and he told me about how he works as a casino croupier in Genting, a Las Vegas-style resort in the mountains a couple of hours outside the city.  The man asked if I had ever been in a casino and if I enjoyed gambling.  I explained how I had been to Las Vegas earlier in the year but I had only played the slot machines because I didn’t have much money.

I was starting to wonder where the old lady was who I was supposed to be talking to about London.  I was told that she was in hospital at the moment but the sister who was moving to London would be home soon and I could talk to her.  By now I had definitely been more than 20 minutes.  The uncle asked if I wanted to learn how to play Blackjack while we waited for them.  The lady was going to learn too as she didn’t know how to play either.  We went in to his “office” which was just a room off the kitchen.  We had fun for a little while learning how to play.  I’m really bad at learning rules to games.  I’ve never been any good at card games.  The lady kept smiling at me and hugging me saying how exciting and fun it was.  Then the uncle showed me how it was possible to cheat with the croupier.  He would hold the card in a specific way to show what he had in his hand so that I could choose whether to stick or twist.

We played this way a few times before he told me that he had a client coming round to play, as he held private games in his office, and I should practice on her.  This is when I got nervous.  He said he would give me most of the money to play with but I need to put in.  He said that I would get my money back because we were going to cheat but I needed to look like I had higher stakes to put in as this client was very rich.  I opened my purse and the only money I had was a 100RM note.   I slowly and nervously handed it over.  This was the only money I had left as I had totally maxed out all my credit cards by now and only had this tiny amount of money to live off until I got home.  He was just about to put it securely away when I suddenly told him I couldn’t give him the money and I wanted it back.  I explained how this was the only money I had and couldn’t part with it.  He seemed to understand and said that we would just play with his money.

When the “client” arrived (now thinking about it she was probably the allusive mother that I was supposed to be talking to) I started to panic and decided that I should not be here.  I couldn’t stop thinking about what could happen and started to recall warnings in the guidebooks about gambling scams and unwitting tourists being frog marched to ATMs to repay “debts”.  I excused myself to go to the toilet where I gave myself a good ticking off, probably quite loudly as when I returned I was told that the client no longer wanted to play.  I told the uncle I had to leave and asked them please to take me back to the city as promised.  They informed me that they had to go to the hospital to visit their mother and asked would I come with them.  I requested to be taken back to the city again.  They said they would however I was put in the car with the rest of the family and we started driving up the motorway.  At this point I was getting scared but tried to remain calm and not show it.  I kept asking if we were on the way back in to the city.  Eventually, I was dropped off at a train station.  Thankfully I got out of the car.  The family tried to ask me for petrol money!  I refused and walked off.

I managed to find my way back to the city and my hostel.  I was fine until a fellow British traveller asked if I was ok and how was my day, which is when I broke down in tears.  I was crying out of relief and in self-pity of my own stupidity more than anything else.  This left a sour taste in my mouth for the rest of my time in Malaysia as I was constantly on guard when any locals tried to talk to me.  It also affected me on a solo trip to Paris the following year.  2 different men offered to take me for coffee but I was so wary of their ulterior motives that I refused both offers.

To this day, I can count the number of people I’ve told this experience to on one hand.  I have been so embarrassed.  I haven’t even told my parents.  However, 4 years later, I wanted to finally tell the story in the most public way I can think of in order to warn others.

Have you had any similar lucky escapes?  Or have you been scammed as a traveller?  Please feel free to share your stories below.
By Rachel Birchley

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