Friday, November 13, 2009

World's Best Suitcase

Buy a Backpack Not a Suitcase

If you're taking a big international trip, bag the suitcase and go with a backpack. Your arms, shoulders, and back will thank you.

The first time I shopped for a travel backpack, I didn't do much homework. I went to a local super store that catered to outdoor enthusiasts. Inside, it was the size of a national park. The floor was a herringbone maze of aisles displaying gizmos with digital readouts and clothes with more pockets than a four-piece luggage set.

I tracked down a salesman who had just traveled through Southeast Asia. As he leaned against a rack of overpriced travel pants, he raved about the cheap massages in Bangkok. He raved about the cheap massages in Koh Samui. He raved about the cheap massages in Phuket. He seemed a little too knowledgeable about the subject, so I avoided shaking his hand.

I tried on a few packs and settled on a man's large. The clerk loaded it with 30 pounds of weight, and I took it for a 15-minute spin. I tried running as if being chased by South African street thugs. I tried moving my hands around as if I were fending off frisky Bangkok masseuses offering multi-visit specials. I tried balancing on one leg for no reason at all.

It was good spending the time because the bag jabbed me just about everywhere. The clerk recommended I try a medium that was available at another store. Between finding the clerk, listening to his tales, and realizing that this model didn't fit, I'd wasted nearly two hours and still didn't have a pack.

I learned about backpacks the hard way, but you don't have to. Here's the world's shortest guide to buying a backpack for long-term travel.

Key Things to Look for:

- Price
Expect to pay about $200. You may find an off-season deal or lower price on a store brand, but this is no place to skimp.

- Size
Look for something 40 to 60 liters -- about 2400 to 3700 cubic inches-- the smaller the better. Smaller size means you'll bring less and be more comfortable lugging the bag around. If you're a 120-pound woman, a fully loaded 60-liter bag maybe more than you want to deal with. In hiking lingo, you are looking for a weekend pack, two- to four- day pack, or rucksack -- you don't want an expedition pack, which is fine for climbing Mount Everest, but not for stuffing into the overhead bin of Boeing 747. Remember, you'll only be carrying a few days worth of clothes because you'll be washing them regularly. More packing tips  More packing tips

- Limited access
You don't want a lot of compartments that are easily accessible from the outside. In many countries, anyone with a backpack is a good target for petty theft. If someone can reach into your bag while you're wearing it, they will.

- Comfort
A fully loaded pack can jab you in several places, most notably your lower back and inner shoulders. Lower back pain is a no-no. After trying on several packs, I got the back right, but still had some rubbing on my inner shoulders. I was able to live with it.

- Style
Avoid flashing colors and logos that imply, "I'm a rich tourist, please mug me." Also, the bag will likely include more straps than a strait-jacket. Fear not, these compression straps are relatively easy to figure out and serve to squish down all your belongings in the bag so they don't flop around while you're racing through an airport or bus terminal.

The Shopping Process:

1) Go to decent general purpose outdoor gear store like REI

REI or EMS that carries multiple brands.

2) Find a salesperson who will put a couple of different packs on you. Sizes are not standard across brands, so you may need a medium in a Northface but a large in an Osprey.

3) The salesperson should load the pack up with about 30 pounds of weight and let you tromp around the store.

4) Ask about the return policy and, as always, pay with a credit card.
5) Take the bag home and load it with your gear and walk around the neighborhood for an hour or so to see how if feels. On my trip, I knew I would be biking 10 miles with the pack, so I loaded it up and road around with it.

6) If you don't already have some kind of large, puncture-resistant bag to cover the pack, buy a pack cover. They're a total rip off at $25 or so, but they will help keep your bag clean and dry.

What I Bought: Pros and Cons

I bought a 60-liter, 3700 cubic inch Osprey Aether pack for $199 in a drab green.

- Indestructible
- Relatively comfortable
- I could cram a lot of stuff in and on it.

- Too big (Because I went windsurfing on my recent trip, I had to bring bulky gear, such as a harness belt, rubber booties, rash-guard shirt.)
- Some pinching in the shoulders

For more information than you'd ever want on backpacks, check out:

- Goxplore
Designed for hikers, this site includes useful information for normal travelers, such as how to pack your pack.

- Outdoorhighadventure

The information is provided by REI, which carries much of the same gear as EMS.

- Wikipedia This article discusses terminology, history, and other details.


News and Tips


1) State Dept Travel Alerts and Warnings

- Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire, Philippines, Congo, Mali, Kenya. more

- India: security concerns continue. more

- China may quarantine arriving passengers exhibiting flu-like symptoms. more

2) Speed Through Airport Security

- Dress like a mensch: if you look like a grubby backpacker and have a one-way ticket to Pakistan, expect hassles. Look clean cut, and pass on through.
- Liquids: Put liquids in small travel containers. Then put them in all in clear plastic bag. Kits with containers and a bag available at places like Walgreens.
- Travel weekdays before 9:00 a.m., instead of Sundays (non-stop amateur hour) more

3) Get Your Belongings Onboard: Gadgets, Clothing
- Weigh belongings with a handheld luggage scale: $32
- Wear a hoodie with pockets, built-in neck pillow, and light shield: $100 (a little much, aye?)
- Wear a vest with 22 pockets: also $100. 

4) Keep Your Home Safe While Traveling
- Don't blab on Facebook or Twitter that you're leaving for six months.
- Do blab to the local police.
- Get a light timer to turn lights on and off. (I bought a cheapie from Sears)
- Stop your mail or have someone pick it up.
- Unplug your TV, PC, and other appliances that draw power when "off." (protects against power spikes, saves on electric bills.) more

5) Travel Insurance: Latest Advice
- Shop around and don't buy from a travel agent.
- Find out whether your health insurance covers you overseas.
- Places to shop:  Travel insurance comparison sites
* US Travel Insurance Association
* Squaremouth
* Insuremytrip
- Some recommended brands: Access America, CSA Travel Protection, and Travel Guard. (I bought a Travel Guard policy for a long trip. Never used it, but it appeared to be comprehensive.) more

6) Decent Around-the-World Fare: $2000 to $2300 includes taxes, may be other fees.
NYC to Southeast Asia to Middle East to Europe to NYC (Three continents). It's through AirTreks, so be sure to ask which airlines they use and get all fees in writing. Expires 11/30/09.  I got quotes from them once, pretty quick, only hitch was they used some small carriers, one of which bailed before I could buy ticket. Worth getting a quote from them and seeing if your travel agent can beat it. more

7) Detritus, Flotsam, Jetsam

- Another good reason not to smuggle heroin in Southeast Asia: A 20-year old Brit almost faced firing squad for drug smuggling in Laos. Now, she's in a U.K. prison -- and just had a child. Congrats!

- Another good reason to bring your bags onboard: Luggage theft by baggage handlers. more

- Train from Bangkok's international airport  (Suvarnabhumi ) to downtown to open in early 2010. Bus and taxi service to the airport can be unpredictable due to traffic. more

Monday, September 21, 2009

News and Tips from My Monthly Newsletter

couple in robes

1) Travel Alert for India

Warnings about terrorist attacks during Indian holiday season. Alert expires on 10/30/09. more
2) Get Best Seats on the Plane
- Don't travel on Fridays and Sundays.
- Bribe the gate agent.
- Dress like a mensch more
3) Top Travel Scams and How to Avoid Them
- Hotels that lie about proximity to beaches, airports etc. (check location in Google Maps)
- Dangerous knock offs, such as pharmaceuticals.
- Money changers.
- Taxis. more
- New scam in Thailand: Jet ski rentals companies that charge for questionable damage. more
4) More Untested Tips for Avoiding Jet Lag
- Wear loose footwear
- Eat dried cherries.
- Spend 20 minutes in direct sunlight without sunglasses upon landing at destination.
- Eat carbs to sleep, and fats and protein to stay awake.
- Allow one day to recover for every hour time difference you experience. more
5) Best Smartphone for International Travelers
The BlackBerry Tour 9630 lots of features but lacks Wi-Fi.
6) Detritus, Flotsam, Jetsam
- Swine Flu Prevention in France: Government asks people to stop
greeting each other by kissing. more
- World's Weirdest Foods: Pig blood cake, grasshopper (with or without legs), snake wine (Tasty: I can vouch for it), donkey.
- Top Beaches for Shark Attacks: Hong Kong, South Africa, Costa Rica, Brazil. more
- Little Bakery of Horrors: bread sculpted to look like body parts. Not for the squeamish. more
More News
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One Day at the Travel Clinic

Solo tourist

Cholera, plague, typhoid, typhus, river blindness, rotavirus, norovirus, hantavirus, head lice, hemorrhagic fever, yellow fever, chikungunya fever, dengue fever, diphtheria, and dysentery. This was just a sampling of the ailments I could encounter on an upcoming four-month trip around the world. According to the experts, I wasn't supposed to eat the food, drink the water, or kiss the women. Walking barefoot and swimming in fresh water were definitely out. Still, there was one thing I dreaded more than any ghastly Third-World disease: the pre-trip visit to a vaccine clinic. 
Eight weeks before my departure date, I found myself in the waiting room of a Boston clinic. While the patients around me chirped excitedly about their upcoming trips, I focused on my breathing. Deep full inhalation, long slow exhalation.

Finally, a woman in a unisex lab coat called my name and hustled me into her office.
"So, where are we off to?" she asked. 
"Venezuela, Greece, South Africa, Thailand, Australia, Vietnam, and possibly Burma, Cambodia or Laos," I said.
"How exciting. Must be nice to get so much time off."
"Actually I just lost my job."
"Oh," she said, recoiling as if I had already contracted some communicable disease.
She struck a few keys on her computer and announced with glee that I'd need seven shots. Better yet, I couldn't get them all in one visit, or even two. I'd have to come back three times.
Next, she printed maps highlighting the malarial zones for seven countries on my itinerary. On several maps, she noted which drugs to take in case I contracted an exotic case of the runs. In Cambodia and Vietnam I'd take Ciprofloxacin. In Thailand, it would be Azithromycin. By the time the woman finished with me, I was afraid to leave my apartment, never mind the country.
Visiting a travel clinic will likely not be the most enjoyable part of your trip, but it's still a necessity.
- To find a clinic near you. 
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention travel health info
- World Health Organization travel health info.

- List of 58 scary diseases you can contract while traveling
- Tips and common sense for avoiding food poisoning.
- Customs officials in foreign countries use tougher health questionnaires.
- Twelve tips for healthier travel.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

How to Have a Rotten Time in Athens

Only have a couple of days in the ancient city? Follow our guide to making the most of a short stay.

Day One:
1) Observe the madcap Greek police in action.
In June 2007, a video posted on youtube showed authorities at the Omonia subway station ordering two young men to take turns smacking each other in the face. The two had been arrested for mugging an elderly woman. In the video, a police officer in a stylish black t-shirt and trendy jeans, jabs each of the detainees with a long stick to encourage them to hit each other. Four officers were suspended and charged with brutality. What rascals!

2) Contemplate the awesome power of a forest fire.
Through the summer of 2007, a series of infernos broke out across Greece. During the fourth week of July, 100 fires a day broke out. In total, about 1160 square miles of agricultural and farmland were destroyed. While some of the fires were believed to have been caused by environmental factors -- such as a summer heat wave with temperatures over 105 degrees -- others were not. Greek police announced the capture of three arsonists. Greece's ruling political party insinuated that the main opposition party may have been involved. Sing-alongs welcome.

3) Cheer wildly at a volleyball game in picturesque Peania.
In March 2007, a 22-year-old fan was stabbed and then beaten by other fans following a women's game in Peania, which is about 20 miles from Athens. A total of 18 fans were arrested with 12 of them charged with felonies. Go team go!

4) Evening is free

Day Two:

1) Experience an earthquake
Greece frequently experiences quakes and tremors and has an occasional whopper. In September 1999, a quake killed 143 people, injured 1,600, left 50,000 homeless, and damaged or destroyed 53,000 buildings in the Athens area. The preliminary damage was estimated at $655 million. Shake, rattle, roll.

2) Thrill to the sights, sounds, and smells of a workers' strike.
Like workers in other European countries, the Greeks enjoy a good employment strike. The U.S. State Department says that strikes are generally orderly, but they can get exciting, particularly in Athens. "There have been recent incidents…in which unruly protestors engaged in aggressive confrontations with police, often in areas frequented by tourists. Riot control procedures often include the use of tear gas." Bring it on…

3) Take in a rocket-propelled grenade attack.
Apparently, strikers aren't the only disgruntled Greeks. Some domestic radical groups act out locally against both domestic and foreign targets. In January 2007, a group called the Revolutionary Struggle fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the U.S. Embassy. There was minor damage, and no injuries. Cool, man, cool.

4) Evening is free.

Estimate the Cost of a Long Trip

If you're planning a long trip in today's economy, you've got less room for error than you used to. Returning home with big surprises on your credit card isn't an option.

This article will help you develop a rough idea of what your trip is going to cost -- and if you can afford it -- before you fork over any cash. In addition, we've created an easy-to-use calculation spreadsheet to simplify the process even further.

Destinations and accommodations are two of the biggest factors that affect the cost of a trip. For airfare, we'll use estimates based on currently available fares.


Travel in the developing world is substantially cheaper than the Western world. A week in Hanoi with a hostel dorm room, food and drink can run you as little as $140 a week. That's about $10 a night for the room and about $10 a day for a couple of meals and drinks from street vendors. An inexpensive room in Melbourne, Australia, plus food can run three times as much. Europe, Canada, South Africa, the U.K., New Zealand -- they're all pricey.

But if heading West is your goal, all is not lost. Be sure check the currency exchange rates before you go.


Hostels aren't just for kids anymore. On a recent trip, we stayed at hostels in five different countries. This cut our accommodation costs by at least half. Most hostels were decent. A few were stellar. A couple were barely bearable. Check out our review of hostels and guest houses.

We're not big on staying in dorm rooms, so we always forked out for a single. In a Hanoi hostel, our single room bumped our bill weekly room and board to about $200 a week, which is still much cheaper than Australia.

Naturally, if you want to spend $500 a night, you can do that anywhere in the world -- even in a small beachside town in Vietnam.

Flights, Travel Insurance, and Contingency

The cheapest way to fly is to find a special on one of the sites that

The cheapest way to fly is to find a special on one of the sites that specializes in long term travel, like Airtreks or Airbrokers. Often these outfits use lesser-known airlines, so get all this information upfront before you hand over a credit card. If you've got more to spend or a travel agent you like, check out around-the-world fares on Oneworld or Star Alliance. Get estimates from a few of these companies and then play them against a local travel agent.

For the purpose of this article, we'll assume airfare for a low-cost trip focusing on developing countries at about $3,000. We'll add another 15 percent for traveler's insurance, which will include medical insurance, trip interruption, and evacuation in case of emergency for four months of travel.

At this point, you should have a subtotal for room, board, flight, and insurance. Then add another 20 percent for contingency (in-country travel, entertainment, and miscellaneous items). If this is your first time on an extended trip, you may need to purchase gear, such as a backpack, and other items that could add another $600.

Then enter your numbers into our budget-estimation spreadsheet.

Click here to see sample budgets.

May the numbers be with you.


Sunday, August 9, 2009

Bungee Jumping, River-Boarding, and Other Active Overseas Activities

I wake at 8:00 a.m. and my stomach is churning like a blender filled with margaritas. I am in Storms River, South Africa, and about to go bungee jumping for the first time. A driver takes me to the Bloukrans Bridge jump site, which is about 710 feet high.

For a little perspective, 710 feet is the equivalent of two Statues of Liberty stacked on top of each other. Or put another way, I'm going to take an elevator halfway up the Empire State Building and then jump out of one of the windows.

I get weighed and strapped into a strappy chest harness. To get to the jump platform, I totter along a chain-link metal catwalk. I can see through the links to the rocks and boulders that drop away to a thread of river 700-feet below up. The catwalk flexes underfoot with each step. I've taken meditation before, so I attempt to calm my mind and follow my breathing. A soothing image comes to me: I am home in my bed hugging my night-night.

The walkway ends on an open concrete platform where techno music is booming. The other bungee jumpers are hopping in time to the music. I become quiet and pace around focusing on the lines and stains on the concrete slab floor. I'll be jumping second. My hands start to shake, so I put them in my pockets.

The first person is called to the edge of the platform and jumps without much fanfare. I'm called to the platform. The attendants tell me to sit. They bind up my ankles with a padded collar that attaches to the bungee cord, which is about as thick as a sink pipe.

The whole apparatus is so clumsy that I can't walk, so the attendants walk me to the edge of the platform. One of them puts his hand under my chin to prevent me from looking down. I look straight out and can feel tears in my eyes. My breathing is shallow; I think it may have stopped altogether. The attendants try to talk to me.

"Mr. Ross, where you from?"
"Nice. You have good rugby team, hey?" they laugh, referring to the fact that the U.S. team just got creamed by the South Africans team two nights ago in the World Cup.
My eyes are open but I can't see anything. 
"We gonna count to three, then do a nice swan dive for us, arms out, hey?"
"Whatever you say."
The attendants start counting.
"One, two, three. Jump!"
They push me forward and I scream, "Mommy!"

In bungee jumping your body can accelerate from zero to ninety miles per hour in about five seconds. A $200,000 Lamborghini goes from zero to ninety in about eight seconds. I'm used to driving a Honda Civic, which goes from zero to ninety in about eight minutes.

As I'm falling, I feel like I'm on a plane that has hit an air pocket and is plunging 70 stories. I also feel as if someone has grabbed my stomach and they're trying to pull it out through my ears. Gradually, the collars tighten around my ankles and I stop falling. I open my eyes as I bounce back up towards the sky.

I actually enjoyed the experience and I jumped two more times. If you're interested in adventure sports or just want to break up the sight-seeing on your next trip, here are some links to get you started.

Bungee jumping where I went in South Africa

Bungee jumping in Macau, New Zealand, and other spots.

River boarding (white-water rafting without a raft) in New Zealand.

For windsurfing and kitesurfing abroad see Vela or Club Mistral.

This company offers exercise bootcamps in Kenya and Greece, see Wildfitness.


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

How to Use a Squat Toilet

Squat toilets range from gleaming porcelain models in international airports to holes in the floor that empty into a pig sty on the ground below. Some have toilet paper, others an old magazine, and others no visible means of wiping.
To avoid embarrassment and messing up your Tevas, here are several links, to, um, get you going.

Graphic and funny

Solo Travel: Pros, Cons, Tips

A friend was recently planning a trip to Southeast Asia and his travel partner bailed. Then a second partner started to waffle. I suggested he skip the nonsense and take the trip himself. But traveling solo can be a scary proposition. Here's a look at the pros and how to deal with the cons.
1) You can do what you want, when you want.
You can be spontaneous, a spendthrift, and a cheapskate, as your mood and budget dictate.
2) You don't need to worry about matching someone else's vacation schedule.
How many people do you know can take off for two weeks or two months? Of those, who has got the money to do so?
3) You'll meet more people and lose fewer friends.
- Traveling solo will force you to interact with strangers and strangers will also be comfortable approaching you -- for better or worse.)
- For a long trip, you have to pick your travel companions carefully.
That friend who is fun at parties might not be fun 24-hours-a-day or after a 10-hour red-eye. They may kvetch, have weird food allergies, or worry constantly about their house-sitter and sick cats.
1) Loneliness and all its parts.
- It's part of the experience and will come and go. Just let it happen. But, as a solo traveler, you will meet more people, particularly locals, than you would with a traveling companion.
- Some Web sites can help you find a travel companion. I've never tried this, but it's free and worth a look. I performed a quick search for men and women going to Asia and found a bunch. Some were looking for only platonic partners , others were open to a little romance.

- Dining alone: eat at the bar or at an outdoor café as opposed to a fancy restaurant where you'll be at an empty table for two, bring a book or other hobby. For more tips.
2) Safety Concerns
- If you read enough travel literature, particularly government travel sites, you'll never leave the country. Use common sense and check out basic tips at the following sites.
- Women traveling solo need to be more careful
3) Single Supplement:
Some hotels, hostels, and tours may charge additional fees -- up to 100 percent -- to solo travelers. At hostels, I just paid the fee -- it was worth it to have my own room. If you're tight on cash, you can stay in a dorm, which charges by the bed. Some tours will match you with a roommate -- ask.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Squat Toilets 101

Squat Toilets
Squat toilets range from gleaming porcelain models in international airports to holes in the floor that empty into a pig sty on the ground below. Some have toilet paper, others an old magazine, and others no visible means of wiping.

To avoid embarrassment and messing up your Tevas, here are several links, to, um, get you going.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

I'm Restarting this Blog

Dear Reader,

Yesterday, I sent out a How-To article on doing laundry while traveling. The piece was recently published in my monthly newsletter and on my travel Web site,

I will continue to update this blog with new travel stories, articles, and excerpts from a travel memoir manuscript that I am currently circulating to agents.

I apologize for any confusion,


Friday, June 26, 2009

Laundry While Traveling

On a recent trip, a woman joked that she could wear her G-string underwear six days in a row. Each day, she could rotate the underwear so as to be covered by a different of one the garment's three corners. After three days, she'd turn it inside out and repeat.
That would be one way to minimize laundry requirements on a long trip. But it's not necessary. Here's a quick and dirty guide to doing laundry on the road.
1) Bring the right outfits.
- Purchase sturdy, quick-drying camping clothes -- underwear, socks, shorts, long pants, long-sleeved shirts -- from an outdoor outfitter or camping gear store like REI or Eastern Mountain Sports.

- Ideally, you want clothing that has a high sunblock rating. I like the long-sleeved, synthetic ski undershirts and I've never gotten sunburned wearing one. Most of the clothing will be nylon or some other synthetic.

- Spend the money and get good stuff. On a four-month trip, I brought two pairs of long pants, a bathing suit that doubled as shorts, a pair of long swim tights, four pairs of underwear, two long-sleeved shirts (one with a collar, one without), a short-sleeved shirt, and four pairs of socks.

- On a long trip, avoid bringing anything denim or cotton: it takes forever to dry and, if it gets wet while you're wearing it, you'll be in for a cold, miserable day.

- I also pick long pants and shorts with liners, as a backup in case I run out of underwear.
2) Do laundry at hostels
- Many hostels have laundry machines. Some are cheap to use, others are a rip off.
- They can be a hassle if they require lots of coins or there's line of grubby-looking folks ahead of you.
3) Send laundry out
Many places Southeast Asia, it's very cheap to have your laundry done. I had clothes cleaned in Phnom Penh numerous times and they always came back folded and sweet-smelling. The price: a couple of dollars for virtually everything I brought.
4) Do it by hand
Tips - In many cases, this is probably the best solution.
- Drying time is effected by the climate. If you're somewhere hot like Venezuela or Australia, you can hand wash at night, put your clothers on the balcony and they'll be dry in the morning. If you're some place cold and damp, like spring in South Africa, factor in some takes longer to dry -- something to consider if you're only going to be some place for a few nights.

- Do clothes in small batches, so this doesn't become an onerous chore. I typically wash the clothes I wore on a particular day, when I take my evening shower.

- Some experts will tell you to bring a flat rubber drain stopper for soaking and washing-- I brought one and and never used it.

- Don't ask hostels or guest houses or hotels if it's ok, just do it.
Technique: - Shower with clothes on.

- Soap with clothes on.
- Rinse with clothes on.
- Remove clothes, wring, and, if possible, hang outside on porch to dry overnight.

- If clothes smell particularly gamey, pretreat by jumping into swimming pool before showering.
Related tips on Packing for an extended trip:
- Advice and spreadsheet of what I brought on an around the world trip in 2007. (too much crap.)

- More Packing Tips
Old but still useful guide on how to buy backpack for travel (I still have and use mine)

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Margarita Island, Venezuela:
Windsurfing, implants, comrade Hugo Chavez.

Chapter 2: Karpathos, Greece:
Why bipolar foreign women are no fun.

Chapter 3: Garden Route, South Africa:
The 700-foot bungee jump that goes nowhere.

Chapter 4: Bangkok and Vietnam:
Never date anyone with an Adam's apple bigger than yours

Chapter 5: Phnom Penh and Agkor Wat, Cambodia:
A rat in the lobby, one day at the massage parlor.

Chapter 6: Melbourne, Australia:
A scene from Papillon, 33,000 high schoolies on break.

Chapter 7: North and South Island, New Zealand:
Where political correctness is for girls.

Read more world travel tips and humor at