I spent six months travelling across Australia to research my two books, The Great Australian Bucket List and 75 Places to Take the Kids (Before They Don't Want to Go). I'm often asked about highlights and tips, and so I'm delighted to share both below. Both books contain loads more experiences information, and are available on Australian bookshelves, or online.
1. Cradle Mountain, TAS
Nature has a powerfully soothing effect on overexcited young kids. The fresh air and scenery of Cradle Mountain, coupled with nearby attractions like Devils@Cradle wildlife park, made this Tassie jewel a highlight of our journey. The Dove Lake Circuit, my nomination for Australia’s most beautiful walk, might prove a little challenging for the very little ones, but forest walks, lake swims, and campsite BBQ’s will make up for it.
2. Shark Bay, WA
Both parents and kids were disappointed with the over-hyped dolphin feeding at Monkey Mia, but there were big smiles all round when sailing the turquoise waters of Shark Bay, spotting dugongs, dolphins, and a glorious sunset. Discovering Shell Beach, the Ocean Park Aquarium, Denham’s seaside playground, and the friendly locals that gather each evening inside the Shark Bay Inn proved just as successful.
3. Litchfield National Park, NT
Two iconic national parks dominate the Top End, but Litchfield is far more accessible than Kakadu. A two-hour drive on the 130 km/hr highway from Darwin, Litchfield is also packed with natural attractions in close proximity. After gazing at the giant cathedral and magnetic termite mounds, we soaked up a memorable afternoon in the Buley Rockholes, where Nature has carved a series of refreshing pools and rock Jacuzzis.
4. Melbourne Zoo’s Roar n’ Snore, VIC
Camping overnight in one of the world’s best urban zoos is wild. Driving into the zoo’s access gates after hours, it felt like we had entered Jurassic Park . Our friendly hosts gave us a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour, and after a tasty BBQ, we strolled around the grounds discovering just how active animals are at night (lions included). Waking to monkey howls and feeding giraffes all but guarantees a very happy camper.
5. Irukandji Shark and Ray Experience, NSW
We did a lot of research scouring the country for unique experiences, but we also followed our noses. A simple signpost outside of Port Stephens led us to this friendly, family-run facility working hard to dispel fears and give visitors a hands-on encounter with various rays and sharks. Our two year-old wasn’t convinced when a large smooth ray gave us a wet hug, but was awed watching me hand feed a 3-metre-long Tawny Nurse shark.
6. Whitsundays, QLD
“Best. Day. Ever!” My daughter screamed these three words many times on our journey, my just reward for braving her meltdowns, food quirks, and occasional projectile vomit. Fortunately, it was smooth sailing off Airlie Beach, hopping aboard a Cruise Whitsundays catamaran to snorkel, play beach cricket, and explore the squeaky pure sands of Whitehaven Beach.
7. Questacon National Science and Technology Centre, ACT
We took the kids to fantastic museums around the country, and there were definite standouts: MONA in Hobart, the Melbourne Museum, National Gallery of Victoria, and the WA Maritime Museum in Fremantle. From the moment they encountered a thespian robot in the lobby of Canberra’s Questacon, my kids tuned into science through the museum’s outstanding interactive displays.
8. Oceanic Victor, SA
Having braved Monarto Zoo’s innovative and unnerving Lions360 experience, I took my kids to Victor Harbour to get up close and personal with large blue-fin tuna. Built for educational and tourism purposes, this offshore holding pen is home to 80 prized tuna, blitzing about as we fed them sardines under the guidance of friendly marine biologists. Swimming with these speedy “Ferraris of the Ocean” is an unusual and delightful tick on the national bucket list.
TIPS FOR TRAVELLING WITH YOUNG KIDS
Don’t overwhelm yourself with bringing too many toys on the plane, as you’ll just overwhelm yourself. A colouring book and device loaded with educational apps or their favourite Netflix shows (which can now be downloaded to tablets) will suffice. If your kid keeps licking seat trays that were last wiped down in the 1980’s, don’t worry. Ours survived and yours will too. Invest in durable over-ear headphones to fit small ears, and always carry easy-to-access snacks.
Plan longer drives around nap times. Keep a barf bag or towel in easy reach. Get to know signs of car sickness, like moans and eye rolling, as a few minutes break here will always be preferable to a half hour clean-up there. Load up your phone with your kids’ favourite songs. Build in extra time for playgrounds to exhaust their energy along the way. Imagination games buy some time, as will devices (although it could also buy you motion sickness). Instead of playing Tetris with your luggage, consider renting a trailer.
Ask for extra towels and call in advance if you need a crib (we travelled with an sturdy yet ultralight crib from Melbourne’s Valco Baby). Bring a favourite stuffed toy and light blanket for each child to ensure consistency at night. Rooms higher up are less noisy. Download a white noise track for your phone or tablet to drown out noisy neighbours. Move all breakables out of reach, and push tables with sharp corners to the side. Remove what you can from the mini-bar to fill the fridge with milk and snacks (and avoid temptation). With playgrounds and swimming pools, Discovery Holiday Park cabins and self-catering Oaks apartment rentals served us better than traditional hotel rooms.
Weathering the judgmental gaze of pre-digital and holier than thou parents, we faced a choice: employ the screen to enjoy our meal in relative peace and quiet, or forget the screen and risk food fights, tantrums, and spills. There will be plenty of opportunities for both, of course, and we usually start with colouring books and small toys before resorting to the device. Restaurants seem to think kids survive solely on chicken nuggets, fish and chips, and spaghetti. We often shared our healthier “adult” dishes, and ordered extra veggies on the side.
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.
Remember when times were just...interesting? Ah, the good old days! When quarantine sounded like an exotic nectarine and we didn't keep a running score on how many people got sick and died every day. We're not going to beat this virus, but we will flatten the curve so our health services can cope, even if we have to drive the economy at high speed into a steel cliff to do it. Of course, all this is good practice for the true zombie apocalypse, and plenty of anxious quality family time ahead. Watching the world react has been the most insightful reality show ever produced. Wouldn't it be ironic if Donald Trump was brought down by a virus from China with the name of a Mexican beer? Wouldn't it be strange if a pandemic put the breaks on our excessive materialism, global emissions, and political absurdity? It's certainly taken care of the Overtourism conversation...although I don't think Venice, Dubrovnik and Iceland will have to worry once the virus inevitably subsides due to media fatigue, vaccines and whatever virus awaits the next time someone gets kinky with a horny armadillo. For this will happen again. And again.
A global crisis will either bring the world together, or tear us even further apart. As I write, there are plenty of people and organizations working hard to make both scenarios a reality. No sports, concerts, events, festivals? No cruise ships, parades, parties, schools or restaurants? No offices, no staff meetings, no touching, no looking, no French kisses or Italian hugs? How much can the economy take? Will it snap back with vengeance, or evolve into something altogether different? When the curtains drop, and the Coronovirus circus ends, will humanity celebrate with a debauchery the planet has never seen before? There's a scene in the prescient Kathryn Bigelow film, Strange Days, that shows a city combusting. You're not quite sure if the masses are rioting, protesting, destroying or celebrating. That's what we can look forward to when this is all over. Business as unusual. Meanwhile, as icecaps melt and forests burn, scientists are beseeching the world to do something already about climate change, a call to arms that mustered but a fraction of the response to the latest pandemic. To use another entertainment analogy, I can't help but wonder if the coronavirus is akin to the politics of Kings Landing in Game of Thrones, while the larger existential threat of the White Walkers marches ever closer. Climate change won't just target the vulnerable elderly: it's coming for us all. Forgive me, I've just been streaming too much.
Speaking of which, I'm delighted to share news that my show (the most misspelt title in the history of television) WORD TRAVELS is now available to stream on Amazon Prime. That's all three beautiful seasons, filmed in 36 countries, visiting spectacular locations to tick off incredible adventures that will inspire dreamers of all ages and interests. Since it's likely most of the world is going to be in quarantine for a while, I hope you'll continue to feed your travel bug, keeping that poor, battered creature nourished within the insulated warmth of your soul. Rest assured, the planes will once again take off, the ships and trains will depart, the museums will open, and the world will be a better place soon. I know this, because it has always been so.
My cabin is as comfortable as any you’ll find on a train, the bed adorned with soft sheets and pillows, and still I cannot fall asleep. Too much on my mind, too much to process from a day exploring remote underground homes in the world’s opal mining capital, too much fun at the open bar aboard The Ghan. I typically read before bedtime as a way to put my mind to rest, but tonight my eyes are too tired to stay open, and my brain too wired to close. It would be great if someone could read me to sleep, with a safe and soothing voice. As for the story, it should be deliberately and delicately crafted to avoid anything too exciting, and take me on a peaceful journey to Sleepland. Just so happens that Phoebe Smith, soon to be the official sleep storyteller-in-residence for the Calm mindfulness app, is in the cabin right next to mine. I’m sure she’s sleeping like a baby.
With over 40 million downloads, 200,000 5-star reviews, and Best App of the Year Awards from both Apple and Google, the Calm app has hit a cultural bulls eye with sharpened z-shaped arrows. It’s loaded with meditations, ambient music and soundscapes, and dozens of sleep stories narrated by folks like Matthew McConaughey, Stephen Fry, Joanna Lumley, and The Wire’s Clarke Peters, who has richer Morgan Freeman voice than Morgan Freeman himself. Millions of satisfied subscribers swear that Calm does exactly as its very name suggests: it calms you down, whether you set-up an easy 15-minute Focus or Anxiety meditation, a fiction or non-fiction story to lull you to sleep, or soothing sounds to massage your ear canal.
“Two million people a month listen to my stories, it’s mind-blowing,” Phoebe tells me. “I admit I was sceptical, until I listened to one of my own stories and quickly fell asleep.” A year has passed since our Ghan adventure across Australia, and she’s in Vancouver on her way up north to explore the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary. Since we ran about Alice Springs trying unsuccessfully to get an epic author photo for my next book, she’s been called the JK Rowling of Sleep Stories, has been profiled in major media, and fine-tuned her craft. We’re in the lobby bar at the Hotel Vancouver, and having just flown in from Brisbane that morning, Phoebe looks like she could use a little sleep herself. Isn’t a 14-hour flight and 17-hour time the enemy of the well rested? “Honestly, travelling with my own pillow has been a game-changer. Your brain associates the scent of your pillow with sleep, and it really works!”
It pays to listen to someone who makes a living devoted to sleep.
Phoebe finds a nice, warm, comfy place to sleep for the night.
Back in the UK where she lives, Phoebe is known for her books and stories about sleeping in unusual, extreme and wild places. I quite like the fact that Calm didn’t hire a scientist or psychologist to methodically bore you to sleep, but rather a storyteller. “Storytelling is such an old tradition, it’s how knowledge and wisdom has been passed down throughout history,” says Phoebe. But hang on, aren’t you essentially writing stories so boring it puts people to sleep? “As a kid, you didn’t want a boring story, but there’s definitely a technique involved. There can’t be too much action or excitement, and it should take you on a journey, which is why trains, boats, rivers and forests work so well. Feedback suggests that most people fall asleep within five to ten minutes, but I get lots of emails from people around the world wanting to know more about the places I write about.” Places like the lavender fields of Provence, the jungles of Madagascar, the Mississippi River and the forgotten forests of Morocco. There are travel stories about oceans and deserts, safaris and night skies.
There are train journeys aboard the Orient Express, the Trans-Siberia, and yes, our adventure aboard The Ghan. We both agree that stories are a far healthier alternative to medication and sleep aids.
“These days, we often treat sleep as an inconvenience,” Phoebe explains. “There’s so much going on and instantly available that we can’t switch off, which only adds to the anxiety.” It’s why she turns off her devices at least an hour before bed, keeps her bedroom free of distractions, and is passionate about sleeping in the wild. “When it gets dark, you sleep, and when the sun rises, you wake up. It’s the natural rhythm of our bodies, and it makes you feel calm and rested.” Unlike Phoebe, the very thought of sleeping outdoors, exposed and alone on say, a mountain top, freaks my poor brain out. So I’ll ignore her advice and keep my iPhone handy, ready to load up a Calm sleep story, and let her words inspire a blissful lullaby.
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.
Living in a country, as opposed to travelling through it, is a form of travel I have long felt missing in my repertoire. My career, after all, has too often involved the ticking off of unique experiences, and then running off to the next destination. After a frenetic 6-month research period in Australia to write my next book, and with my daughter only starting kindergarten at the year-end, it felt like the perfect opportunity to live in a place I've always loved, and in places I've yet to explore. We started with six weeks in Chiang Mai.
I first visited the city 2005, and fell in love with it. Unlike the congested, polluted mess that is Bangkok, Chiang Mai was friendly, peaceful and calm, beaming with golden temples, cheap eats, and guesthouses. I returned a few years later to film an episode of Word Travels, and always thought: “If I had to live anywhere in Asia for a while, this would be the place.” With my family and Amy, our own travelling Mary Poppins-assistant in tow, we found a semi-detached house outside of the Old Town on Air Bnb, and prepared to settle into the neighbourhood. The Thai – at least those outside of heavy tourist zones - are just unbelievably, remarkably, authentically warm and gentle people. They love children. They smile a lot. They are 95% Buddhist. We weren’t off the plane for five minutes and felt reassured by the welcoming nature of the culture. . Our house was at the end of a soi, an alley, off a busy road. Everything was so different, so anything-goes, so jarring, so unlike Australia. Like most Thai houses, ours didn’t have much of a kitchen (a gas burner, a fridge, some basic cutlery and utensils). Like most Thai houses, we wouldn’t be able to flush toilet paper down the toilet. The beds were rock hard, the furniture basic, the shower pressure almost non-existent. A rooster crowed directly across from us all through the night (more on the rooster later). There was blessed air conditioning in the bedrooms, and just a fan downstairs. Mosquitoes and flies patrolled the windows and the wonky screen door. Inside the place was clean, but a little rough around the edges, softened each Monday when the cleaner would come and leave it spotless. When we arrived, my wife looked at me like I was a madman for bringing us here. But at least we wouldn’t have to unpack after a few days, and at least we didn’t have anything in particular to do. We could just be.
It took us about 10 days to get our bearings, to navigate the wild discrepancies between tourist/rich Thai prices, and local/poor Thai prices. After our careful budget in Australia, we leaned heavily towards to the latter. All that beef in Australia disappeared from the menu in Northern Thailand (unless we wanted to pay $50 for a steak in a fancy mall restaurant). Up here, they love pork, pork and smelly fish, rice, pork and rice, and lots of chicken. Prices for food in the big Tesco supermarket were significantly more expensive than Australia. We splurged on olive oil. Cheap plastic toys from China were triple the price.
In fact, everything was more expensive than I anticipated. In the decade since I last visited, Chiang Mai has become a haven for an estimated 3000- 5000 digital nomads – people who can work from anywhere - and Chiang Mai is as good as an anywhere as you’d want to be. A military coup that took place a few years ago in Thailand must be good for business and tourism because the sheer number of visitors and new hotels within Old Town was staggering. Every shop was a guesthouse or tour operator, a massage parlour or restaurant. While we might see one or two westerners wandering about our neighbourhood, once we crossed the old walls into Old Town, gringos were everywhere, still wearing the baggy elephant-imprint pants one can only wear in Thailand without looking ridiculous. At first, we wondered if we made a mistake booking a place so removed from the thick of Old Town, but quickly came to appreciate it. Because we did indeed get to know the community, who embraced us after a couple weeks when they realized we were not the typical transient visitors. We slotted into a lifestyle that was more than just visiting temples, going to overpriced bars and eating pad thai. Although we definitely visited temples and ate pad thai.
Temples and Mobikes
Getting around was affordable and easy, something we really only appreciated when we arrived in Bangkok, where getting around was difficult and comparatively expensive. Mobike, Chiang Mai’s public bicycle system, allowed us to rent bikes with handy baskets in the front, seemingly perfectly designed for the kids to sit up front. Solar powered and blue-tooth operated through a phone app, the bikes could be left anywhere, so we basically just “borrowed” a few to use and permanently kept them outside our heavy sliding green gate. It cost 10 baht (about 50c) for a half hour, although I got a 200 baht ($10) unlimited use for 90 days pass. My fondest memories of Chiang Mai are riding the streets with Raquel or Gali in the basket, stopping at temples, waving to locals. Chiang Mai is mostly flat, and the Mobikes – at least the orange ones we used and not the wonky silver ones – were super comfortable. We never saw any other kids in the baskets, and neither had anyone else, which is why Gali and Raquel were instant rock stars on the Mobikes. Smiles and laughs and waves came from every direction. For further distances, Grab Taxis is the local Uber, and they eliminated the constant haggle and rip off with tuk tuk drivers and taxi drivers. The fare was always fair, and the drivers gave us no nonsense. What a game changer! We took a few tuk tuks, more for the experience, but between the Mobikes and Grab, we could get around wherever we needed to go. On the last week, I hired a scooter, which was super fun, even if we had to wear a helmet primarily to avoid the bribes we’d have to pay at roadblocks (only foreigners get stopped if they don’t have a helmet). Our underpowered bike didn’t make it up every hill, but we had a fun day lunching by a river, feeling the jungle breeze, and braking for elephants. Raquel only fell asleep twice, on the scooter, in heavy traffic. Raquel and I took a bigger bike for a 90-minute ride to the beautiful Sticky Waterfalls. It was quite the adventure I hope she somehow remembers, racing 100 km/hr through the jungles of Northern Thailand, seated between my legs.
One the ladies
“Hi-low Lay-dees!” The local Thai ladies were besotted with the kids, especially Gali. We never got their names and would not be able to remember or pronounce them if we did, so we just called them “the ladies.” On our street, upstairs in an old wooden house was an old lady always sewing. She always smiled and waved, and raced downstairs one day to give the kids handmade Thai clothes. We printed out a picture of her and the kids to say thanks. When we said goodbye, she gave the kids teary hugs and some wooden Buddhas. On our corner was the “chicken fried rice ladies”, working in their gritty local eatery a tourist wouldn’t go near. We must have waved and greeted to them at least six times a day. They made us the fine and tasty chicken fried rice that we ate a couple times a week. Then there was the Thai Ice Tea lady, although we all had our favourite Thai tea lady. The Plastic Lady, who provided us with plastic bins and knick knacks and spoke some English. The Pad Thai ladies, another place tourists wouldn’t blink at but made a great 30 baht ($1.50) pad thai. The Market Ladies, the Fruit Lady, the Temple Lady (above) who always cried when she saw the kids, the Pancake Lady, the Ice Cream Lady. We did cook at home a fair amount and realized how much we miss an oven when we don’t have one. We made do with pasta and deep friend chicken and eggs and toast in the morning, although usually had to watch out for the geckos jumping out of the toaster. My wife took a Thai cooking class and came home to make a fantastic Tom Yum soup. It was often more expensive to buy the ingredients than just grab a pad thai. Without eating pork or stinky fish, it says much about Thai cooking that we ate chicken/rice/noodles in some configuration for 6 weeks without getting tired of it. There was a local vegetable market - more friendly ladies - around the corner, along with a Tesco Express and 7-11 (a mini supermarket), and it all amounted to a situation that became dependably convenient – something we again only appreciated when we left Chiang Mai.
Pity the fool who messes with this 5 year-old
Also around the corner was a gritty local Muay Thai gym – Thai kickboxing. We paid the friendly manager Ratana to give Raquel private lessons on Thursday nights. Ratana and her pretty daughter loved Raquel, who cut the cutest curly-haired figure sparring among sweaty fighters. She learned to keep her fists up, kick, punch and elbow, and survive the massive mosquitoes attacking the gym in the early evening. Ratana took lots of videos, she thought Raquel was just amazing. We hoped the lessons would help burn off some of her energy so there wouldn’t be a prize fight trying to get her to sleep that night.
Although we tried hard not to be tourists, of course we did a few touristy things. Art in Paradise is an interactive art museum that blew us away, putting us in the picture with dinosaurs and masterpieces. The kids loved the Elephant Poo Poo Park, where dung is sustainably converted into paper (it's a lot more interesting than it sounds, and in case you're wondering, doesn't smell at all). We visited a massive waterpark called Tube Trek, the Saturday Night Market, which was so much better than the overcrowded Sunday Night Market. The Ginger Farm, where Gali fell into a muddy trench. He had more luck at the Buak Hard Public Park, which had the only decent playground we could find. Of course there were all the amazing temples, and we had a beautiful moment with an elephant on the road without visiting an expensive and dubiously elephant park. We made friends with wonderful locals and expats (and their kids), celebrated birthdays. Along with the rest of the world, we anxiously watched the dramatic rescue of the schoolboys from a cave located a few hours drive away. We joined hundred of Israelis every Friday night for a Chabad feast, and enjoyed the spectacle of the FIFA World Cup in Russia, washed down with tall bottles of cold Singha beer.
Next door was a Burmese family who prepared rounded fish balls over burning charcoal, the smell of which reliably wafted through the windows each afternoon. Each night, and often during the day, the loud roosters would get started. If they didn’t keep us awake, they invaded our dreams. We spent long nights lying in semi-sleep thinking about how much we’d love to kill those damn birds. I suppose it was revenge for the sheer amount of chicken we ate every day.
Making paper with elephant poo
Art in Paradise
We brake for elephants
The smell of the camphor/citronella mosquito spray. The ants that would snake from the ceiling to the garbage bin in the kitchen. The kids writing with chalk on the patio outside before the daily late afternoon tropical rain would wash their scribbles away. Amy’s ongoing saga with the dodgy dentists of Chiang Mai. The manual washing machine we didn’t use in the back, and the communal washing machines we did down the road. The modern malls and dragon fruit. The homemade ice-lollies with the plastic we bought from the Plastic Lady. To say nothing of Chiang Mai itself, with its bustling markets, and shiny golden Buddhist temples, orange robed monks, crazy traffic, and pungent fish-sauce fragrances. The kids couldn’t enjoy our $15 hour-long massages in the dark but innocent backrooms off the strip next to the Doo Dee Bar, but they sure chomped down the surprisingly good biltong we managed to find, made by a Dutchman, and delivered to our front gate.
We could only appreciate how comfortable we’d become in Chiang Mai when we bid our farewells and arrived in Bangkok for 2 weeks. Our first Air Bnb was such an epic disaster we had to evacuate it after a few hours (with a small refund, thanks Air Bnb). Our second last-minute emergency lodging was called the Paradise Sukhumvit, which was as far from Paradise as you can imagine. Our third attempt was modern and clean and on the 29th floor of a condo in Thonglor, which is where you want to be in sticky, smoggy Bangkok, away from the insane traffic and noise and mayhem. A big city means less smiles, and more issues getting around to do anything. The disparity between expensive “normal” restaurants and cheap street food, between normal Thai and rich Thai/expat, is bewildering and excessive. The traffic can often jam you into a single intersection for 15 minutes. Grab Taxi is double the price here because you’re hardly moving. It’s enough to make you want to lock yourself up in a tower with a swimming pool and air conditioning and hardly venture outside. We did take a couple crazy river boats and visited some of the bigger temples, hooked up an amazing indoor play area in a ritzy mall where a hand bag costs more than several month’s wages. Still, Bangkok offered up some wonderful and vivid moments: riding the loud riverboats up the narrow canals (always preferable to the frustrating gridlock in the back of a taxi). The incredible temples and time well spent in the wonderful condo infinity pool above the snarling traffic on Petchaburi Road; a play date with a family from Vancouver; Raquel conquering the monkey bars for the first time in Lumpini Park, seeing a movie where the audience must stand and sing tribute to the King (I'd say more about the King, but in Thailand that can get you arrested).
Bangkok, oriental city...
We hope Chiang Mai is only the beginning of the amazing experiences to come in Bali and Vietnam (and a side trip to Singapore to see our old dear friends), as opposed to the pinnacle of our Asian adventure. Because if I reminisce about it so fondly after being away from the city for less than a week, memory will likely grow positively and brighter as the months and years pass. My family spent 6 weeks in Thailand. Not travelled in, but lived. It was a culture shock, it was full of big challenges, unforgettable and wonderful moments, lovely people, and everything we hoped it would be. Next up: Bali.
A lovely beach bar on a hot summer's day, with nobody in it - Dhermi, Albania
There's never a bad time to travel, but there certainly are seasons. Let's look at low season first:
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.
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 love.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.