It’s been too many years since my last gift guide, which gathered an eclectic collection of travel-ish products I thought were interesting, helpful, appreciated, unique, or fun. What do you give to someone who has everything? For starters, you can remind them how lucky they are. You might consider an experience (memories tend to stick around much longer than products). If that doesn’t work, maybe something on the list below will work. A list that includes fire, feet, fun, and something for your butt, because that's how my Gift Guides roll...
Note: In some cases below, it made sense to link to Amazon, which includes an affiliation link to support my on-going and stubborn travel habit that I just can’t seem to kick.
Solo Stove Backyard Fire Pit (Ranger + Stand)
Here’s a fact: You can’t roast marshmallows over a propane fire pit. Well, you can, they just taste like propane, which isn’t very nice at all. Propane fire-pits might be convenient, but it also lacks the crackle and pop of wood, those five senses of a real fire. It’s also a pain to carry around. All of which makes the stainless-steel Solo Stove so appealing. It takes seconds to set up, holds (and with clever air-flow design) sustains a lovely fire, and its base ensures no damage or scorch marks to grass, wood or any outdoor surface beneath it. Sitting about knee high, the Solo Stove has a metal net option to trap any unwanted embers, and burns way less smoke than your typical fire put. Once you’re done and the ranger has cooled down, simply tip the pit over and feed your plants with fine ash. All of which makes for an instant, easy-to-use fine looking fire pit, and s’mores that don’t taste like a gas tank.
Brutrek BaseCamp Travel Press
Coffee was a contentious issue camping this summer. We obviously needed a good cup to get us going in the morning, but it takes time to do coffee properly, and instant coffee is well, instant coffee. Introducing a clever travelling press that lets you enjoy your favourite beans, without worrying about smashing glass, or the black gold losing its steam. The sturdy, double-walled, insulated stainless steel body is topped by a spill-proof, leak-proof lid with a press that keeps the ground beans firmly at the bottom and avoids overcooking the brew. Available in two sizes, it’s an easy clean-up, and a trusty companion on long hikes too.
From $100 including shipping
Keen Tempo Flex Waterproof
I live in a coastal rainforest masquerading as a city. Vancouver is wet, and waterproof shoes are a must. Trainers and runners are fine for rare sunny days, but soaking my cold wet feet in cold wet socks is an experience I’d rather avoid. Keen’s light Tempo Flex waterproof running/hiking/walking hybrids have a speed-lace, slip-on fit, high traction rubber sole, and importantly, don’t look like a baboon’s butt on your feet. They aren’t as wide as Keen’s usual hikers though, but will definitely cut it for urban wear, day hikes or trail running. Most importantly, they keep feet dry. I just checked the weather: solid rain for the next 7 days. Guess there’s only one pair of shoes I’ll be wearing then. Available for Men and Women.
Sigvaris Travel Compression Socks
Here’s a couple travel tips that will forever change your experience on long haul flights. Firstly: stay away from tomato juice. It’s loaded with sodium, and in the compressed cabin at altitude, it will have your feet swelling up like helium balloons. I only used to drink tomato juice on planes figuring it must be good for you, but a well-versed flight attendant informed it’s the opposite. Stay off the salt! Secondly: slip on a pair of compression socks, which dramatically improves blood circulation to your legs and feet. The result are feet and limbs that feel fresh, rested, and ready to go just as soon as you arrive. Sigvaris Compression socks come in a variety of pattern, styles and fabrics, and will become your new essential travel companion.
Fix n Zip
You have a perfectly fine daypack, backpack, sleeping bag or tent. More than perfectly fine. You’ve broken the mustang in, made it home, figured out every compartment, worked out the nooks and crannies. Then the zipper slider breaks, because that’s what zippers eventually do. You might repair it with a zip tie, and now you have a really ugly piece of equipment. You might call a tailor shop who will charge you more to repair the thing than it’s worth. Or you can take this handy little gadget that slots over the slider, thumbscrews in, and voila, instant repair. No thread, no needle, no tools, no fuss. Fix n Zip is made out of durable nickel and works on plastic and metal zippers. You can unscrew it and use it on multiple zips, and it might just save your dress or clothing too. Simple, effective, and adding a few more years to my old trusty backpack.
When it comes to backpacking, packing remains one of the biggest pains in the, well, back. We tend to take too much, use too little, and spend way too much time squeezing and shoving in our stuff when it’s time to pack up. Top-down packs are particularly difficult to get organized. PackStack is a simple system of stackable water or weatherproof compartments where everything can finally have its place. There’s a top handle to pull everything out, and its crescent shape naturally take care of dead space in your backpack. Compartments can separate toiletries from electronics, food from clothing, and it naturally stacks within itself once you’re done.
Here’s one you can’t take this one with you (unless you install it in an RV or caravan). Trust me, once you bidet, it’s hard to go back. There’s something intrinsically refreshing about having a washed derriere (as many Eastern cultures know only too well). There’s quite a few of these gadgets on the market. I found Luxe Bidet to be affordable, easy to install, and great to deal with too. At just $50, it’s easily my most gifted item of 2021, although everyone I gifted it too didn’t think they needed such a thing – seriously Esrock, what the hell?! Then they installed it, tried it, and now they thank me. What gave me the idea for a bidet? Well, my bestselling Bucket List books have always made great toilet reads.
How to Invent Everything by Ryan North
I used to think I was the only one worried what might happen if a solar storm wiped out electricity, or the internet went down forever, or humanity suddenly reverted back to the Stone Age. How do things actually work? How does the average person save thousands of years of invention without having to figure everything out… again? Using the construct of a stranded time traveller, Ryan North takes on, well… everything we’ve ever invented, and explains how to recreate it using only the basic elements available to someone stranded thousands of years ago. Short, punchy chapters with illustrations teach us how to build kerns and ploughs, art and engineering. The breadth and research of this book makes it, literally, the only manual that needs to survive Armageddon to give humanity some hope of returning to civilization. In the process, you’ll learn tons about history, philosophy, the environment, engineering, the stars, and just about everything North focused his unflinching and impressive curiosity on.
Congratulations! Each decade of your life is an accomplishment. Goals are realized, professions evolve, priorities shift, families grow and experience is gained. This is also reflected in how we choose to travel, and where we choose to go. Celebrating these important milestones, I've gathered inspiring destinations to suit this passage of time. Of course, every journey is unique. You can turn these decades upside down, or mix them up entirely. A bucket list is as special and individual as the person who crafts it, and each life journey is one’s own. As for the passing of the years themselves, I defer to the wisdom of Mark Twain: “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter!”
Meeting Boris Becker as an 18 year old at Madame Taussad's in London.
20’s - LET'S PARTY
In our twenties, we travel to relish in the excess. All night parties, camping on beaches, intense relationships – all with a no-holds-barred commitment to the carefree abandon of youth. It's a time to make the kind of mistakes you'll learn from, and sacrifices you'd only make when you're young. Legends of Full Moon parties and all-night desert parties sound particularly appealing, and you don't mind sleeping on floors or eating instant noodles for a month if it means you can get to them. Backpacking across Western Europe is a rite of passage, although it's also very expensive, Stretching your travel dollar, you'll be drawn to budget-travel meccas like Thailand, Central America, India and Laos. You might be drawn to a Kibbutz in Israel or volunteering with animals in Bolivia. Everything and everyone will be particularly vivid and intense, an opportunity to learn and grow and let your hair down. You'll only realize just how big that opportunity was when you're further along your life journey.
Sharing a special sunset in Mauritius
30’s - ROMANCE AND FAMILY
As we grow into our third decade, life might have rearranged itself so that we'd want to visit special places with a special partner who one day will grow a family with us. As we circle the possibility of a major life milestone, a romantic adventure is definitely in order. Bus around Thailand, from the white, sandy beaches in the south to the rich culture of the north. Brave the bungie jumps and wild adventures of New Zealand. Take a tour through Eastern Europe, exploring cobblestone alleys and medieval town squares. Perhaps towards the end of the decade or the start of the next, your partnership has grown. Parents of young kids know that happy kids will always make a happy vacation. Choose a sunny beach resort with lots of activities in Hawaii, Mexico, Barbados, or Jamaica. Introduce your kids to new cultures and cuisines. Slow down and bond with your nearest and dearest, as together you build the memorable traditions of meaningful family vacations.
Here's an idea: let's hire an RV for an epic road trip in the Rockies! So we did!
40’s - IN MOTION
At last, the kids are at summer camp, or old enough to join us on an adventure that's physical, but not too strenuous. As careers stabilize and hobbies strengthen, perhaps it’s time to hike the Inca Trail, trek in Nepal, or spend our well-earned holidays on a multi-day bike ride through the valleys of Italy or France. A fly-in fishing trip in Canada, a multi-day rafting excursion between the Grand Canyon, or maybe just an epic road trip to explore the Oregon coast, Route 66, Yellowstone or Banff National Parks. Consider a few weeks camping across Iceland, or taking a tour to pack in the highlights of Western Europe. Volunteering in a foreign country delivers a rich, rewarding experience. Teaching kids, building wells, looking after rescued animals – making a difference in the lives of others makes a difference for us too. Old enough to know better and yet young enough to go with the flow, the forties is a milestone decade to follow our feet, and safely veer off the beaten track.
Smoked burnt ends and dinosaur bones. This is going to be so bad for me, and so, so very good.
50’s - FOOD AND FESTS
Do you remember when 50 used to be old? Not anymore. Today it’s a time to celebrate our decades of hard work, and the settled income that it has brought us. Now we can appreciate the more expensive bottle of wine, the fine dining restaurant, the outstanding stage play. Forget nightclubs, it’s time to appreciate the spectacle shows and world-class performances on offer in Las Vegas. For something more exotic, we’ll turn to major cultural spectacles like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, or Rio’s famous Carnaval. Perhaps a major sporting event is in order, such as Wimbledon, an Olympics or the Superbowl. The very idea of exploring one of the world’s great wine routes – Napa in California, Mendoza in Argentina, Margaret River in Western Australia – is intoxicating. We’ve finally booked to see the world’s largest jazz and comedy festivals in Montreal, the best acts at the Edinburgh Arts Festival, or the latest hits on Broadway. Enjoy the festivals, performances, wine tastings and feasts. You’ve earned it!
You can take my youth, but you can never take my freedom!
60’s - TIME FOR HISTORY
As we usher in the next decade, the allure of history is more fascinating than ever. We begin to see our lives in a greater context, and appreciate the passing of time. Once we might have ticked off the Louvre in a couple hours before racing off to the next Parisian attraction. Now we take our time in the world’s great museums – the Louvre and Hermitage, the Guggenheim, the ROM and the Museum of Natural History. Waterways and rail transports us in comfort to treasures of antiquity: cruise down the Yangtze or Nile Rivers, or along the Mediterranean and Black Sea. Sit back in a viewing carriage to marvel at the Canadian Rockies, the Australian Outback, or the highlands of Scotland. We’ll take our time exploring the ancient temples of Cambodia’s Angkor, the biblical alleys of Jerusalem, the Mayan ruins of Mexico, or the narrow canals of Venice. There is so much to see, and still plenty of time.
Making friends with young Masai warriors in Kenya,
70’s + - BUCKET LIST
We’ve always wanted to go there. We’ve always wanted to do that. As we enter the seventh decade of life, we realize our bucket list destinations are not going anywhere, but we most certainly are. Fortunately, in an age of affordable airfare and such a diverse variety of packages, our dreams are more accessible than ever. Cruise among the islands and abundant wildlife of the Galapagos. On the plains of the Serengeti and the legendary Masai Mara, witness the migration of the wildebeest from the comforts of a luxury, or self-catered bush camp, and make friends with Masai tribesmen. It’s not always easy, but we’ll put up with a sweaty trek for a face-to-face encounter with endangered mountain gorillas in the jungles of Central Africa. Iconic landmarks like the Great Wall of China and the Coliseum, the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal draw us like magnets. Perhaps it’s also time to finally tick off that Alaska or Caribbean cruise, or visit long-lost relatives in the nations of our ancestors. Let’s celebrate how far we’ve come, and appreciate the value of all that is to follow.
It was important to stay awake on the overcrowded night train to Dharamshala. If I missed my stop I would end up north at the Pakistani border, where there are enough problems without a confused hack stumbling about. I was scheduled to arrive in a small town called Chakkebank at 3am, which, translated into Indian time, meant anywhere between last Wednesday and the coming of the messiah. Due to a festival, the train was steaming with people, but my sticky-vinyl top bunk afforded some distance from the disjointed beggars, the transsexuals who bring luck for a buck, and the tea guy who somehow managed to get through the throng every ten minutes screaming “Chaaiiiii!!” without inflicting third degree burns with his thermal. I dozed off and awoke to discover two guys had scaled my upper bunk and somehow positioned themselves between my open-scissor legs. When a third tried to join them, I put my foot down. Literally, on his head. I made my station, waited two hours for the bumpy dawn bus into the mountains, and finally arrived in Dharamshala, home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. Like cigarettes, I’m convinced this journey took years off my life.
It felt like I had arrived in another country, and in a sense I had. A traveller today can experience more Tibetan culture in Dharamshala than they can in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Along with Tibetan refugees, thousands arrive monthly from all over the world to study Buddhism, get involved in various Tibetan movements, catch a glimpse of the Dalai Lama when he is in town, or just enjoy the tranquility and beauty of the surrounding mountains. The cold, wet narrow streets were lined with restaurants, hotels, clothing stalls, internet cafes, offices of Tibetan institutions, and too many westerners wrapped in blankets as opposed to their usual Gore-Tex jackets.
“It’s not so much a question of ‘Free Tibet’, so much as ‘Save Tibet’,” explains Tenzin from the Central Tibetan Authority. The Dalai Lama was in town and I was trying to arrange a camera permit, in the process learning something about Tibet’s current status. Decades of Chinese investment and migration has fundamentally changed the face of Tibet, so the Tibetans are now focused on preserving their identity as opposed to regaining independence. Like other world hotspots, religious and political boundaries are blurred in the conflict, and at the centre meditates the Dalai Lama himself – the political and religious head of a nation. His non-violent “Middle Way” solution continues to make Tibet a popular Western cause. Whatever happens, I am told it is all karma.
I did manage to see the Dalai Lama, and sat in on a Buddhist class. I walked the lovely Lingkhor path around the temple, spun the colorful mani wheels, chanted mantras, ate traditional dumpling-like momos, and lost my breath at sunset, staring out at the mountains and valley from the peaceful confines of the Tsuglagkhang temple complex. In lower Dharamshala, the Indian community gathered for the annual Dusehra festival, in which giant effigies were blown up to rid the year of evil. Huge fireworks lit up the snowy peaks, as crowds of happy Indians shook my hand and wanted me in their photographs. I could have soaked up this atmosphere for weeks, but my time in India was just about up. There was just one more thing needed to complete my Indian experience, and fortunately, it did not involve dysentery.
The Taj Mahal is the world’s most breathtaking and romantic mausoleum, built in 17th century to honor a sultan’s second wife, who died at childbirth. It is located in Agra, about three-sorry-four-oops-five hours by train from Delhi, and is India’s busiest tourist destination. It took me three hours just to arrange my return ticket, but by now I had learnt the most crucial lesson for successful travelling in India. Never be in a hurry to get anywhere! Certainly I wasn’t in a hurry to get back to my roach “hotel” - a prison cell with a crusty Hello Kitty bedsheet, creating a colorful, if disturbing touch. So off I went to the Taj, where tourists are happily fleeced and touts, taxi drivers and beggars jostle for pole position. When I arrived in India for my month of travel, I dreaded this scenario. Now my skin is hardened, my wits sharpened, and it’s just paneer for the course.
Now this is how one executes a photo bomb.
After dealing with massive lines, corrupt guards, confiscated cameras and a hefty foreign tourist entry fee, I finally got into the complex. The late afternoon sun glittered across the white marble of the Taj Mahal, silently reflecting in the ponds and floating like a fairytale palace. Was the day’s journey not a symbol of travelling in India itself? The frustration, the stress, the scams, the sweat, and finally, the magic that somehow made it all worthwhile. The Taj Mahal is truly as magical as it looks in the photos.
Back in Delhi after another completely eventful train journey (there’s no other kind in India), I packed my bags and headed for the airport. India, this world within a world within a world, had won me over. I remember what a traveller told me when I first arrived. “No matter what you've read, seen or heard about India, wherever you go, it is nothing at all like what you expect."
It took three, long hours to get to the temple. An hour of that was figuring out which bus to take, negotiating the ticket, and finding directions to the correct platform. Five people were crammed into a seat built for three, and although there were no live animals, there was a freshly slaughtered chicken. It was hot, it was uncomfortable, it was intense, and it was vivid. This is travel, and this is all worth it. I hike up the hill, and there it is, a beautiful stone temple, glowing in the sun. I take a deep breath, pull out my camera, and then I see them. Over a hundred tourists, wearing name tags, following a red umbrella. Ladies and gentlemen: begin the debate!
Travellers carry towels, never iron their clothes, and freak out when there’s a schedule. Tourists stay in nice hotels, look forward to going home, and typically pay the set price. Travellers discard guidebooks, tourists clutch them closely to their chests. Travellers need a holiday when they return home, tourists leave home for a holiday. Or vice-versa.
The Traveller vs Tourist is a timeless, heated debate. Many backpackers make proud, public announcements so nobody might confuse them with being a tourist. Many tourists seem compelled to sheepishly justify their package vacation, while others would never dream of leaving the comfort bubble of a tour bus. Never mind that both groups are united in the same purpose – to leave their homes and discover something new. And never mind that tourists don’t seem too bothered by the whole debate in general – it’s usually travellers, sitting in a dive bar, scratching the dirt from under their fingernails, scoffing at the thought of seeing anywhere from the comfort of, dare I say it, a brightly coloured tour bus.
At the root of this inane rivalry is the assumption that one experience is better, more authentic, and more valuable than the other. I love it when I meet “real travellers” and the conversation goes like this:
Them: “Have you been to Bolivia.”
Me: “Yes, I’ve spent three weeks in the country.”
Them: Did you go to [insert obscure destination here].
Me: No, I would have loved to, but focused on [insert second obscure destination].
Them: Oh, then you haven’t seen the REAL Bolivia!
Me (under my breath): So many stupid people, so few asteroids.
Every single one of us is different, and every single one of us will have a different experience, even if we’re in the same place. Further, by definition, anyone who travels can be called a traveller. Some travellers like comfort, peace of mind with their security, being told where to go, and even what to wear. Some travellers like crowded buses, smelly toilets, sleeping in dorms and bargaining for everything. Seriously, they love this stuff! Judging someone by the experience they choose (with little thought to decision-making factors like budget, time, health, or personal preference) is like judging someone because of the colour of their skin, religion, or personal belief.
There, I’ve said it. The old debate is nothing more than thinly veiled racism, which, like all racism, is steeped in ignorance, fear, envy, and several ounces of basic stupidity. Still, I don’t see the argument ending anytime soon. As I watched the busload of Japanese name-taggers descend on my (my!) hard-fought temple, having being comfortably dropped off by their luxury air-conditioned bus, I couldn’t help but feel they had missed out on the best part of the journey. And when I told them what I could expect on the long road home, they wondered why anyone in their right mind would put themselves through such an ordeal. It felt rejuvenating to be independent, but I was jealous as hell of their comfort.
There’s no right way to apply ketchup to your fries, scratch an itch, or smile at a stranger. While we can always and should learn from the advice of others, there’s also no right way to see the world.
There is only your way.
Many years ago, before I set out on my first round-the-world adventure, I was faced with an intimidating challenge:
How do you pack for 12 months on the road, travelling across the diverse landscapes and climates of 24 countries?
I knew I’d have to pack light, remaining nimble for the opportunities while avoiding excessive weight, unwanted attention, and painful waiting at airport arrivals. I knew I’d have to be prepared for any situation. I knew my clothing would have to be lightweight, high performance, and work in any number of combinations.
I knew all this, and still I got it all wrong.
The last-minute jeans I threw into my backpack (at the insistence of my Mom) were used more than other garment in my possession. My colour combinations were horrific. Gray pants and gray shirts? My hiking boots were too heavy and I had to buy cheap sneakers on the road that quickly fell apart. I brought way too many medications and toiletries when I could have just picked up what I needed when I needed it. And I did not heed the sound advice from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, that the only thing a traveller really needs is a good towel. And despite reading that one should pack everything and then halve it, I packed way too much, not accounting for the stuff I’d inevitable buy along the way (Indian hippie-threads! Thai pants! Souvenir T-Shirts!) to cram into my overstuffed backpack.
In the years since, I’ve became much more adept at packing, so much so that I can usually pack an hour before leaving for the airport. Two very solid pieces of advice have always stuck with me:
Some of the most impressive travellers I’ve met pack everything they need for a two week hot climate adventure in their day pack. Personally, I’m not one for hard-core packing sacrifices. I’d rather pack at least a week’s worth of clothing than scrub one of two pairs of underwear every night. Still, you can stuff a lot into your carry-on, or my spanking new, lightweight 69-litre wheeled duffel.
For my family’s upcoming 10-month adventure to four countries, I’m heeding all these words of advice. Victorinox (Swiss Army) have provided us with outstanding luggage options, from wheeled duffels to medium sized hard cases for the kids. Travelling with children, of course, is a different ball game. They can burn through clothing like a pyro with a matchbox, oblivious to the time and effort cost of laundering clothes covered in yoghurt, snot, mud, cream cheese, blood, drool, vomit, or any combination of the above. They’re also a lot less amenable to clothes choices. My daughter already insists on wearing her stained Elsa princess shirt for every and any occasion.
A dozen years of professional travel has certainly taken the panic out of the process. The same rules apply, as they always have, even if we’re packing diapers and wipes, stuffies and bedtime books. You lay it all out on the bed. Pack the best combinations for that one incredible day where anything can happen. And while anything you forget can be replaced or picked up on the road, the most important packing tip comes from within: Wherever you go, it’s essential to pack the right state of mind.
Having broken in my hostel chops around the world, I've identified factors that, combined with creativity, would result in the Perfect Hostel. It is a given, naturally, that any hostel today has no curfew, no lockout, a reception, security and lockers. These are still touted as if they are features when in effect, who wants to stay at some dodgy dump that won't let you in after 10pm. Those days are gone, and fortunately, most hostels now conform to international standards, and in many cases, international or regional associations. Below are my essentials, in no particular order, and they would be appreciated by just about anyone traipsing around the world with a backpack and a budget. Hosteliers and hoteliers, take note!
Staff & People
It's all about the people. A friendly patron can quickly make you forget about the other 33 points listed below, with advice, patience and all round enthusiasm for hospitality. Of course, you could have the Perfect Hostel with an asshole at reception. Assholes are usually broke foreigners who act as if they are doing you a favour when they buzz you in. Staff are the condiments, but the meat of the matter are the people you share your dorm with if they're loud, discourteous, obnoxious, snorers, smokers and stealers, even the Perfect Hostel will suck.
Given the cost of the Internet, and the fact that many hostels offer it as a free service, it irks me when hostels charge for a basic traveling service, nay necessity! More so, they tend to charge double what the Internet cafe charges on the corner. It's taking advantage and it's unnecessary. You will get more traffic, more recommendations and more happy clients if you have two machines available, with a 15-minute max usage if someone is waiting. A USB port so that people can download their photos wouldn't hurt either.
Hooks in the bathroom
Amazing how many places think that your towel, clothes and toilet bag belong on a wet floor full of someone else's pubic hair. Put up some hooks! And while you at it, plugs in the sink for shaving, and a mirror won't hurt either.
Everyone who travels has to put their alarm clock somewhere, as well as some keys, or a book, some water, or even a wallet. One hostel had a neat little lockable wooden cabinet by each bed for your essentials. Otherwise, it's dump everything on the floor and let people trip all over it, and if the guy on the top bunk needs water during the night, as he probably will, be prepared to be woken up with him falling all over you.
Lockers (under bed)
Lockers are so essential that if you have no place where people can secure their daybags (with cameras, iPods, moneybelts etc), stop calling yourself a hostel immediately. Lockers come in all shapes and sizes, but they should be roomy enough for a daypack, and close to the bunks. The best I've seen were on wheels under the bunks, and could fit entire backpacks so that the room was free of clutter and even your clothes were safely locked away.
Most, if not all travelers are using the Internet to find and research hostels. Hostels.com, hostelworld.com and others have valuable rating systems and booking facilities, and keep hostels on their toes. I usually find something interesting and then Google their website to find out more. A good site almost always means a good hostel. If it's ugly, slow and scary, it says something about the hostel. There have been exceptions, but even if your site is simple, make sure the information is current and includes everything a prospective patron needs to know, ie: location, cost, directions, facilities, services.
This one is surprisingly simple and rarely down well. You've just come off a long flight/night bus/delayed train. You're in a strange, new country, with a strange new currency and language. The directions to the hostel on the website say "Go to the east side of the station, catch the 41 bus south, walk up Flecheschmefer Road and you'll find us". Make the directions as easy and simple to follow as possible. Use signs and landmarks. What is the colour of the building? Which direction do I take bus 41? And who the hell is traveling with a compass to know where south or east is? Sometimes it is fun to find places, but not when you're tired, confused, and walking around town with all your valuables.
The key to a good night's sleep. When they wear down, get new ones. They are not too expensive, and in the price of board is it not too much to expect a pillow that's thicker than a folded towel?
Clean linen, including sheets for the blankets or duvet. If we have sleeping bags, which a lot of us don't, it's great to use them as little as possible. Also, linen helps with bed bugs!
Every once in a while, mattresses should be checked for bed bugs, dips and humps, smell and wear and tear. You know, just in case someone wanted to actually sleep. I've seen bed bud scars, and backs with bunkboard splinters through the mattress. Use foam if you're cheap.
"How was Vienna?"
"Oh, the shower was amazing!"
That's how much an impact showers have on dirty budget travelers. A good shower means getting clean and feeling good. If I want to stand under a broken cold water tap, I will stand under a cold water tap. Just don't call it a shower.
In the bathroom, in the dorms. We go out, we want to see what we look like.
Cheap IKEA lamps so that the person in bunk 12 can read if the person in bunk 7 is sleeping. One hostel had lamps built into the headboards. If you get back late and everyone's sleeping, you also need to see where your stuff is, how to open your locker, find that bottle of water. Lamps at least allow everyone in a dorm to operate independently; this "I must sleep we all must sleep" nonsense is unnecessary.
We're traveling with digital cameras, iPods, cellphones, laptops, video cameras. And there is, maybe, one plug in the room. Each room should have a charging station, or better yet, each bed should have its own plug to charge while you sleep (the other plug can be used for a reading lamp or pluglight). It is not an option having a charged battery or being afraid to leave it downstairs next to the toaster where you just know someone is going to steal.
This is a given. Just because we're budget travelers doesn't mean we want to sleep, eat and clean ourselves in your shitty house, where the garbage is overflowing, ashtrays are in the sinks and the toilets have last year's skid marks.
Pool, Foozball, Games
A hostel is largely a social hub. The main difference between hostel and hotel is the "s", which stands for "social." Social games make people meet and talk and that's where the fun is. In a hotel, the only people you meet are other losers like yourselves in the bar. Here, you can play ping pong with a professor or find yourself playing Uno with two gay couples and a pair of monks. And if you do have a pool or ping pong table, try keep it in shape. We don't mind putting a deposit down to ensure that nobody wrecks the equipment.
Non-essential, but fun in a hostel. Again, it's a social place to meet interesting people and make new friends from around the world. Do it over liquor. It doesn't have to be cheap, but it should be cheaper than bars in the town. You can make a lot of money at the same time too.
2-Ply Toilet Paper
Such a small difference, but oh so preferable to wiping with recycled half-ply tissue paper. We don't have our own bathrooms, but at least give us the luxury of pretending we do. Also, have back-up rolls always available in the loos, and keep a tab on how low they get. A toilet without paper is a sad toilet.
Nobody likes going anywhere with a wet towel in their backpack. And the hostel, hopefully, are doing linen laundry anyway. Even a tea towel is better than using my beach towel
Crucial to anyone who travels is having something to read. A few long flights, bus or train journeys can see you knock back a book every couple of days. Book exchanges are not uncommon, they just don't have much thought. Typically it is two books for one, or one for one plus a couple dollars. Some guys in Bolivia had the right idea. As readers, they could make judgment calls on the quality of books. The first shelf were airline reads. The second better. The third best. One for one to me is fair, providing the books are of equal quality, according to the hostel. People reading good books can swap for good books, or maybe two craps for one goodie. Be creative, build a library, save our boredom!
Nightclub shuttle / promotions
Why this doesn't happen more is beyond me. You have a hostel with dozens of interesting, dare I say attractive travelers looking to rip it. Any bar or club in the city would give you special deals, VIP access, maybe 2-1 drinks, for bringing in a bunch of foreigners. It adds spice to the club, plus we travel with dollars and euros! Who wants to go out in a city to line-up for four hours and be treated like shit. Cut some deals with your favourite clubs and bars, and make a win-win for everyone. Shuttles also encourage just about everyone to go out. Make it easy and people will party!
A hostel with everything mentioned here is great, but not if it's located amongst the crack houses of downtown's worst area, or a bus, tram and taxi away. The best hostels are within (safe) walking distance of the city's attractions , be it central squares, shopping, strips, bars and restaurants, the beach. Packers are prepared to walk, but it's got to be reasonable. As in all real estate: Location, location, location!
Many hostels offer a kitchen, which is great because you can cook up with a few people and save considerable bucks. Some of them, however, don't offer anything to cook with, or have one rusty small pot, a banged up pan and a spoon to scrape away any non-stick that might be left. The best have everything you need (especially pasta strainers, pots, pans, washing up liquid and sponges, sharp knives, cutting boards) and the very best have basic ingredients that don't cost much in bulk, but no traveler wants to buy a big tube of salt and pepper for one meal.
I always feel ripped off having to pay additional fees to leave my backpack at a hostel, especially those in major cities where day or two-day trips are common. Usually we come back to stay another night, and in any case, it costs nothing to throw a few backpacks in a locked room.
The best way to spend a slow afternoon with a good book. At the very least, some deck chairs or garden furniture or someplace when we can lounge in the sun and chill out.
Private Rooms & Dorms
Nice to have both options available at a budget price, but not essential. Sometimes, privacy becomes an issue, especially with intense short-term intimate friendships (aka one night stands) being quite common in this environment and lifestyle. I came up with an idea that each hostel should have a "Love Room", a closet that can be rented out by the hour for late night trysts. Take out the junk, put in a foam mattress with a red light bulb and start counting the extra dollars!
Laundry is offered free in many Eastern European hostels, while in others it costs a fortune. If sheets and towels are washed in-house, backpackers would salivate at the opportunity to wash their smelly clothes. Obviously, free and folded laundry is a service in my Perfect Hostel.
Perhaps the greatest scam in the entire hospitality industry is the so-called free breakfast. Usually this means a bun, some butter, and some jam, which somehow justifies hotels and hostels tacking on a few dollars for this service. Unless the breakfast has eggs or fruit, I decline this breakfast and see if I can get a few bucks knocked off the price, which I can then use to buy a real breakfast should I actually be awake to need one (which is hardly ever). Packers go out late and sleep late, so the free breakfast that ends at 9am gets very few takers and is part of the scam. Good breakfasts should end at least at 11am, which shows a good understanding of the needs of backpacking clientele.
Library of Guidebooks
A nice little extra to have up-to-date guidebooks available for Packers to read and refer to in the common room. They could be signed out to avoid theft.
Fans and Heat
A dark room with 12 people and bad ventilation does not make a peaceful nights sleep. Ceiling or standing fans are essential in summer, as are heaters in winter. This is especially needed in places with harsh climates.
Tips and Noticeboard
Get your staff to compile their favorite hangouts, bars, pastimes etc on a slow day. Create your own guide, because chances are it will be far better than the Lonely Planet. Your hostel will probably determine whether someone enjoys your city or not, so give us some help. Tips can include: places to eat, bad restaurants and scams to look out for, good nights at various clubs, current movies and exhibitions, transport and easy directions, must-sees, weather, even current events (a printout of the daily headlines will interest just about everyone). Give us a space to give our own advice to others, such as good places to stay in other countries or regions, things for sale, lifts etc etc.
Construction Sites & Traffic Noise
OK, I know this is often beyond anyone's control, but I went 2 weeks staying five hostels and everyone of them was in earth-shattering distance to a jack hammer.
Which always, as a rule, crank up at 6am. Perhaps this is an unwritten rule for all hostels. Lots of hostels also find themselves on busy streets where traffic is outrageous. If so, have cheap foam ear-plugs for sale. The same if you're above an industrial techno club. The best hostel is on a quiet street where the only noise I hear are the birds, chirping like angels in the trees.
Drop the Youth
Hostels are no longer only for youth. They are for budget travelers, of whatever age, and those that enjoy a social aspect to their travels. The sooner we dispel the "youth" aspect, the sooner hostels will get busier with a whole range of fascinating people looking to meet each other, and drink lots of beer.
Music and DVD's
A hi-fi playing some tunes, even better if travelers can jack in their iPods and play DJ. Without music, where is the vibe? I know some guys think a TV kills a social atmosphere, but a DVD Player and TV is also a great way to relax, spend a night in and save money. Ideally in a seperate room so those who want to party can do so, and those who want to watch a few movies can do so too. Have a couple of classic DVD's (they can be signed out), which doesn't cost much in any blackmarket.
A recent article brought to light hilarious predictions of travel in the future that didn't come true. I've made my own. Flying to fashion, entertainment to passports, here's my crystal ball of what the future of travel could look like.
I’m on a 15-hour direct flight from Sydney to Vancouver, an impossible flight twenty five years ago. Lighter aircraft using better technology means we can fly further and cheaper than ever before. Through the curtain a few rows up, I see business class passengers (the lucky bastards) fully reclined in their cubicles. Comfort and on-board entertainment is leaping forward. Perhaps one day we’ll see flying cruise ships, where it will be possible to reach anywhere in unimagined comfort. Perhaps we’ll have floating hotels, or stopovers in the sky. New environmentally friendly fuels generate power at a fraction of the cost, as the world becomes increasingly smaller, even for us here in Economy Class.
I remember backpacking through Europe many years ago, completely bewildered by the array and diversity of currencies. Not one to dwell on the socio-political impact of the euro (or the sinister whisperings around the so-called amero) but there’s no doubt it has made travelling easier. A worldwide currency? These days I use my credit card as much as I can, or withdraw local currency from global banking networks. Imagine a world where one card carries everything you could possibly need. Some people might argue we’re already there, but then some people should visit the developing world before making such assumptions.
The cameras get smaller, the memory gets bigger, the pictures get clearer. Here’s a device that fits via a radio frequency onto the cornea of your eye. All you have to do is blink, and a perfect HD video or high-resolution photo is recorded, and immediately sorted according to a voice command. Virtual visual experiences, like the ones featured in the classic underrated sci-fi movie Strange Days, could take you on lifelike adventures to foreign shores without leaving your living room. Until someone invents such a device, you’re stuck with travel writers like me.
James Bond zips around the world, looking fantastic, carrying nothing so much as a cell phone charger, yet with a different pair of sunglasses in every destination. Maybe Q invented a pair of sunglasses that double as video monitors, connected to a 10 terabyte harddrive the size of a pinhead. It’s loaded with movies, TV, guidebooks, a global cellphone, e-books, GPS maps, music, photos, translators, wireless in-ear receivers and recipes for gin martinis. James Bond doesn’t have time to go the movies, pick up a book, or carry an cellphone. One pair of shades, and we’ve got everything we need. Including an electronic locater, when we inevitably lose them at the backseat of a taxi.
In our increasingly digital age, it’s almost quaint to think we travel with a little book that is absolutely essential for our safe passage. Be it immigration officials or dodgy police officers who want to see our papers, our ID’s can instead be written in our very bodies, from our fingerprints to our retinas. Biometric scanners should be able to tag us wherever we are, although the potential for a ruthless big brother scenario is just as probable as the potential for less hassle.
Our safety is of such concern that we’ve been reduced to confiscating toothpaste on airplanes, or blowing up suspicious items like someone’s forgotten shopping bag. Unhackable E-passports should help lock down the bad guys, but if there’s a will there’s a way. That’s why X-ray vision capable of identifying weapons and contagious illnesses will hone in on everyone getting on a bus, plane or subway (privacy advocates will ensure it is not subject to abuse.). Meanwhile, political or environment turbulence will be analyzed information and quickly distributed by a panel of professionals, trained to avoid disseminating panic and fear. Hey, I can dream…
Besides the sunglasses equipped with every gadget you can think of (the failure of Google Glasses notwithstanding), I look forward to clothes with integrated nanobots that automatically refresh, clean and kill all foreign bacteria. Furthermore, one item of clothing will be able to change colour, shape and style depending on what you need it for. Surely this is what our favourite superspies Bourne and Bond use. Nanotechnology will also give us a hat that stretches into a hammock or cot, a belt that transforms into a sleeping bag, and while we’re at it, a jacket that turns into an indestructible mobile panic room, should you find yourself needing a sudden emergency exit.
The Final Frontier
Space tourism has already started, and much like tourism in its very early days, the final frontier is reserved for those of incredible wealth and means. At some point in the future, major hotel chains will open on the moon, and Vegas-style space stations will follow. After all, what goes on in Space, stays in Space. The discovery that quantum physics and string theory can bend the space-time continuum will open up new planets for brave explorers, and a few months later, name-tagged package tours. “Off the beaten track” will make way for the “off the chartered galaxy”, and expect a series of guidebooks, Lonely Universe, to shepherd budget-minded earthlings to the seven corners of the galaxy.
Say what you will about the value of guidebooks, but I’d never have found Köycegiz if I’d had one with me in Turkey. To be fair, this small Aegean town peppered against a large, warm, freshwater lake does get a mention in most Turkish guides - usually a throwaway paragraph with words like “sleepy” and “quiet” and “nice for lunch”. It’s just one of several signposts you’ll pass en-route from the infamous ruins at Ephesus to the Mediterranean beach resorts around Fethiye. But stop inside, look around, and you’ll find it as sweet as the sugar in Turkish tea, as chilled as a penguin guzzling down some flash-frozen baba ghanouj.
I got the hot tip about Köycegiz from a New Zealander named Alison who ran a guesthouse in Selcuk. She had married herself a Turk, settled in for a life of olives and fruit orchids, and was only too happy to share the secret of the lake with me. Since I had no real urgency to be anywhere else, I asked the Selcuk-Fethiye bus driver to let me out on the highway outside the town. A couple of other travellers looked on with mild curiosity, and who could blame them? Why is this guy getting off in the middle of nowhere? Alison suggested I hit a local hostel and after walking through the quiet, sleepy, nice-for-lunch town, I was pleased to find the Tango welcoming and comfortable. Large mattresses were covered in rugs and pillows, interspersed with hammocks, a bar and a DJ booth. There were just a straggling of backpackers, but the owner Sahin assured me things would pick up when the Fez Bus pulled in. The Fez is a hop-on hop-off backpacker bus with the deserved reputation of being a moving party. In anticipation, Sahin had organized a booze cruise on the lake for that evening. Enjoying the calm before the storm, I walked down to the lakefront and was blasted by a fresh breeze, the gentle lapping of water, the view of towering mountains in the distance. The lake, also called Köycegiz, connects with the Mediterranean through a channel called the Dalyan Delta, and cruising through large bulrushes to the sea is a popular activity for Turkish tourists. I see a couple guys playing tavla, which we know as backgammon, and gradually readjusted to the pace of a fishing village where not much happens and people prefer it that way. Here is the real Turkey away from the bustle of the tourist circle, and with it of course, real Turkish hospitality. People smile, invite you for tea, quiz your origins, all with a genuine sincerity and warmth. Sometimes they’ll try sell you a rug too.
Well equipped with a headache the following morning, I awake to find the Tango Inn empty, the Fez Bus departed, and another delightful Turkish sunny day. Hopping aboard a wooden boat crammed with local tourists on their way to the beach, I am the only foreigner and relish the enthusiastic hospitality. I am ploughed with homemade food and polite questions by new found friends. Along the canals, we pass imposing 2000-year-old Lyceum rock tombs carved into the cliffs above us. History is never far away in Turkey. After stopping off for a refreshing dip in the lake, we arrive at a long sandy beach, and the crystal blue Mediterranean. I end up playing Frisbee with a some brothers from the boat, eating local delicacies, enjoying my spontaneous off the beaten path adventure. The boats slowly makes its way back to Köycegiz at sunset, humid wind in my fingertips, the notes of a tanbur floating out the speakers up front. These are the moments in life when you stop, look around, and believe that somehow, everything, for everybody, is going to work out just fine.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.