Here is a handy compendium of the websites and apps we use most frequently in our travels:
Airbnb – Indispensable. Use it wisely! There are so many options, and most of our experiences have been good. The more reviews, the more photos, the more information, the better.
Rome2Rio – Possibly the best get-from-point-A-to-point-B website out there. It will find you a route by car, on foot, or on transit. In our experience it is relatively accurate, especially in places where local transit runs predictably. And it even gives you pricing and a time estimate so you can judge for yourself whether a taxi will be worth it.
Skyscanner – So many flight search combinations! Often points to the cheapest tickets, and can give an idea of when is cheapest to fly across a month or a continent. Their open-ended “Everywhere” search opens up all sorts of possibilities for where to go next.
Uber – Better and safer than taxis, if you can get a connection. A few times in Cancun and Penang the app left us or our driver high and dry. And in Estonia, be forewarned that no drivers are going to be out for that early 5 a.m. flight.
Google Maps – Goes without saying that streetview and links to transit and business/museum/restaurant websites make everything easier. That is, until you are wandering around Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter and the iPhone it is running on has no clue where you are.
FlightAware – Find the route your flight will take, check delays, see what is over your head right now. It is really just fun to play around on and take inspiration from.
Generic drug search – Useful if you run out of any medication. It provides alternatives and the countries where each is available (in theory). It is a good starting point to check before heading to a pharmacy.
SIM Card Wiki – This will get you a working phone almost anywhere on earth. We check it before landing in a new country and find the provider with a store closest to our apartment. Make sure you phone is unlocked and capable of using the different signals around the world.
Duolingo – It’s not going to replace practice with real people, but until the Hitchhiker’s Babel fish is available, Duolingo is a good start. It is light on providing grammar rules and regular v. irregular words, but you can start stumbling through local conversations after a few levels. Spanish and German are the easiest new languages I’ve tried, but Hungarian and Polish both left my brain in a hopeless mire.
Google Translate – The app is incredible. Point it at text and it live translates on the screen. We download the language packs for every country we visit and it comes in handy everywhere from mystery food labels to telling the woman in the apartment above that she might have a water leak, judging by the drips coming through our ceiling.
Hangouts Dialer and Google Voice – Our permanent phone numbers live here now. Since we live in the future, the call now gets routed through the internet and then to my phone, no matter what the SIM card’s number is. I have some issues with delays between actual calls and text messages and when Hangouts decides it wants to tell me I received a call, but I usually get it in a few hours. Plus, I can call the US for free from basically anywhere with a stable internet connection. Miracles!
WhatsApp – Though this isn’t our preferred method of communication, it is for many around the world, especially Airbnb hosts. We’ve used it on many occasions to get in touch with them when, say, the ceiling is leaking.
XE Currency Exchange – On a daily basis, what our money is actually worth is some of the most important information to have. Should we go to the ATM today or try to wait out the weekend anticipating a swing in our favor on Monday? And if you think you are circumventing the exchange rate by paying in US dollars or on your credit card in other countries, chances are you are forking over at least 30% more than you should be. Prices listed in local currency are always cheaper, and it only takes 2 minutes to find an ATM. Learn some quick ballpark conversions ($1, $5, $20), and shop happier.
Expatistan – Cost of living analysis to make you feel bad about how expensive where we lived was. Compare your current location to oh, say, Bucharest. Long term travel looks a lot cheaper after playing around with this for half an hour.
Meetup – Practice language skills, take a hike, play board games, meet new friends. Between this and Facebook groups, we try to attend things in every city we are in. Language groups are the perfect way to practice up while getting local recommendations.
Cloud Storage: OneDrive and iCloud – I’d be freaking out without OneDrive. It holds photos, lists, journals, notes on books I’ve read or plan to read. Everything uploads itself when my phone connects to wi-fi. If I lose my phone or it gets stolen, I can buy another, but I can’t go back and re-take the thousands of pictures. Kevin uses OneDrive for documents and iCloud for photos since that is what his iPhone plays nicer with it. The nominal monthly fees are absolutely worth it and make these apps one of the few we’ve ever paid to use.
TripAdvisor – I both love and hate this website. Too many popups and it is easy to miss more interesting and unique things. But previous travelers sometimes leave detailed and advice-filled posts that can make exploring much simpler and less surprise-laden. Bonus if they mention the free/discount days for museums!
Atlas Obscura – Pair this with a more mainstream site to get a better picture of the area you are staying in or your neighborhood at home.
REI – Currently missing REI shopping. Physical stores are only located in the US. We’ve found their store-brand items to be as good or better than pricier alternatives both during this trip and before on our many hiking adventures in Washington.
Sky Guide – Night skies differ depending on your position on the globe. This lets us explore new Southern constellations and get alerts when satellites or the ISS flies over. If only stars were more visible inside city limits.
Voyager: Grand Tour and BuildDown – Games are great for distraction during airport waits and flights since no internet connection is required. Rumor Games is Kevin’s company, and he has just updated Voyager to include even more content. So check it out, play it often, and add the expansions! I’m still working through the new lander levels and may not be the rocket scientist I thought I was.
Pokemon Go! – Ok, so it turns out to be a good way to learn about a new city. Many of the stops point out statues, murals, or historical buildings that we might not have noticed otherwise. Plus, if you need some a way to bond with people that speak different languages, this can work pretty well. Just ask for the local spot for Dragonites.
After a little more than a year of travel, I thought I’d add a post about how we live on the road. Of course, this is only our way. We’ve met people living out of hostels, couchsurfing, out of camper vans, off the back of a motorbike, who split their time between their favorite cities and keep apartments in each. It all depends on your travel goals, career, and budget. The amazing thing is that doing it full time for us means that we don’t have the expenses associated keeping with a house or car back home. Unlike a vacation, the cost of this kind of travel is the cost of day-to-day life. We live frugally just like we did in Seattle, only now we do it on a variety of continents.
We use Airbnb almost exclusively. Hotels are too expensive, not private enough, and don’t come with kitchens and in-room washing machines. Most hosts know the local restaurants and transit and tend to be very responsive if something goes wrong. Those good reviews count for a lot. And if we book for four weeks or longer, many rentals are discounted because a longer-term rental saves the host hassle and guarantees that the space is rented out; we saved as much as half on a month rental versus the per-day price.
We spend a fair amount of time researching before booking an Airbnb. We pour over the photos and reviews. We’ll search on Google maps to find the building front just so we get that extra perspective of the neighborhood. Ideally, the kitchen comes with a nice variety of cookware and utensils, there is a washer, fast internet, and comfy furniture or a desk for working. We haven’t stayed in a true studio, though many combine living areas and the kitchen into tight spaces. Preferably previous guests mention that the place is quiet but close to essentials. A grocery store, ATM, pharmacy, and transit stop should all be less than 15 minutes away on foot. In most cities, this isn’t a problem.
Of course, despite extra assessment, not knowing where you are living for a month always comes with surprises and catches. Sure, there is a stove, but only one burner works! Huge screenless windows let in so much light, but also all the mosquitoes! In some places water coming out of the faucet isn’t potable. In others, toilet paper can’t go down the pipes and needs to go in a trash can instead. We’ve had a recurring streak of picking places next to construction zones. Just today, a scaffolding went up on the building right next to our windows, ruining the quiet that we were so proud of finding in the middle of Buenos Aires.
We book airfare and our housing in tandem. A cheap apartment and a cheap way to get there is the winning combination, since our other living costs are small in comparison. Skyscanner is our favorite search tool because it has an “Everywhere” button. It regularly takes us down a rabbit hole of possibilities. The cheapest flights tend toward early morning or late night. We almost always pick the lowest price within reason; we’ll pay a little more to avoid multiple layovers and flying multiple countries out of the way. We’ve arrived in more than one new city at midnight; waking up at 3 a.m. is now a familiar moving-day routine.
Since we need to check bags, we have to factor that into the airfare price. It is a nice surprise when an airline will let bags fly free, as many will do in Europe and on trans-oceanic flights. Of course, the mobs surrounding the baggage carousel on arrival would be better avoided.
If we book a flight on a super-budget airline like RyanAir or WizzAir, we splurge and upgrade our boarding ($5 or so per person) so we don’t have to fight the horde rushing for the gate before it even opens. I’m not large enough to deal with shoving a entire soccer team out of my way so I don’t get separated from Kevin. Yes, I know I’m paying to sit on the plane longer, but I’m also paying to not be trampled. Whatever happened to just getting in a decent line? I thought everyone learned that in kindergarten…
We have great shoes! (Though new insoles would be nice.) Why pay for transit when walking is free? Exploring a new city on foot is more intimate than looking out a window. We find all sorts of shops, street food vendors, and little markets that get missed on a speeding bus. Plus, we get to count it as exercise.
Taxis have a bad reputation for cheating tourists/new arrivals all over the world. We’ve never taken a taxi from the airport and don’t intend to. We work out a public transit route or arrange for a transfer; sometimes our Airbnb host will even meet us. If we need point-to-point around the city, we prefer Uber. It is more widely available every day. The fact that it comes with pre-set pricing, a driver rating, and the ability to track the trip makes us feel more secure. This is especially important if I’m going somewhere by myself. It frees us from needing to carry money and lets us report any issues. In some places, like Lima, using Uber or local apps like TaxiBeat will get you a regular taxi instead of a completely private vehicle. But it guarantees the cost – something that doesn’t necessarily come with flagging one down streetside.
Public transit is more usually more readily available in cities outside the US, especially in countries where cars are still very much a luxury for the average person. The transit may be publicly funded and very traditional – trams, subways, and buses on set routes. Others are more chaotic – songthaews in Chiang Mai are like group taxis and don’t follow routes. Buses in Lima come in all shapes and sizes and with an assistant hollering the route out the door and convincing riders to board.
Eating out is nice, and in countries like Thailand, Malaysia, and Mexico, it is feasible to dine at small restaurants and on street food for less than it costs to make it yourself. However, in most places we eat at home to meet our budget. And since Kevin is an especially good cook, this provides opportunities to try local ingredients and recipes. He’s made spicy soups in Thailand, paprika-laden dishes in Hungary, cuy in Peru, and ratatouilles; we’ve even sampled kangaroo and horse. Especially in European groceries, you sometimes find interesting bargains. We didn’t know to anticipate cheap duck in Hungary, but it was a happy surprise.
Growing up in America conditioned us to expect supermarkets with an incredible selection of items, both in and out of season. In other countries (especially in cities where shops are be crammed in to small spaces) many familiar products are unavailable. Our closest grocery might only be two aisles wide and fit into less square footage than our old apartment. And, in Poland, one of the two aisles might be completely taken over with vodka plus a few other hard alcohols. In Argentina it is more likely to be wine and yerba mate. In Asia, wheat bread and dairy products are luxuries. In Argentina, bagels and maple syrup don’t exist. And peanut butter, especially the creamy kind, is a rarity everywhere (in Croatia, a grainy version lived in the refrigerated section; Argentina’s local crunchy brand is turning out to be passable). Produce might also be more seasonal than we are used to in the US, though staples like apples and bananas are never missing. Local green markets are a great place to learn what local agriculture is like, and, at the right time of year, get some great bargains. I paid approximately 17 cents a pound 🙂 for perfectly fresh Italian plums in Hungary.
Everything that moves with us comes in four backpacks and my small purse. Our two checked bags are Gregory hiking packs, the Deva 60 and Baltoro 70. The bags we carry on (with our most essential items) are an Osprey hiking pack and an Eagle Creek backpack. We carry everything, nothing has wheels. This makes steps, tight elevators in old building, and getting out of the airport easier. It is also harder for an aggressive taxi driver to try to grab luggage away from us in an effort to get us to use their vehicle.
With 16 full moves behind us, we are getting reasonably good at packing. Our clothes are contained in large, airtight storage bags. These keep everything dry in rain and shrinks it down a bit to make it fit in a more arrangeable fashion. All our pointy objects (a chef’s knife, for example) go in checked luggage, which should go without saying. Anything valuable needs to go in the carry on. This usually means our electronics, and an couple changes of clothes in case our checked bags don’t make it.
A reminder for anyone who might be tempted to toss pricey items into checked bags: We had a cell phone (thankfully a spare, 6-year-old, worn-out-batteried, now-irrelevant-and-worthless one) taken out of a checked bag, clearly after an airport employee saw it on an X-ray. Also gone were spare luggage locks, presumably so they could rummage through other bags and then close them back up.
Though we count on Airbnbs to contain basic kitchen supplies and items like towels, we carry a few basics we discovered were often lacking. Kitchen items are the biggest luxury-but-really-necessity. It took us a couple months to accumulate our current travel kit of chef’s knife with sheath, knife sharpener, thin cutting board, and clothespins. We purchased tiny salt shakers for spices, but already broke those. And we brought along our own plastic wine glasses (thanks Northwest Cellars!) and a wine bottle opener, which turned out to be very prescient. I picked up a decent sewing kit in Croatia that has a dozen or more colors of thread, perfect to repair a shirt seams and my shoes. Our most used items are the clothespins – for closing snack bags, keeping cords in line, packing – and reusable shopping bags – for packing picnics, returning bottles, and avoiding grocery store bag fees.
Cheap and accessible SIMs spoil us. Just a few years ago getting cell service in another country was a major hassle. Now an unlocked phone will mesh with any network. Cell providers usually have SIMs good for a few days to a few months that are aimed at tourists. Otherwise, there are usually a handful of prepaid plans meant for locals that fit our needs, letting us buy a month’s worth of service all at once or load up with a balance equivalent to the data we need.
Ireland was the exception and charges a premium for short-term contracts that made it as expensive as cell service the US. But in Poland, for example, a SIM loaded with a month’s worth of data and a few minutes of talk time was only US$5. In Romania, for US$9.31/person, we got SIMS and 9 Gigs of data. Since Internet is included in our rentals (sometimes at speeds topping what we had in Seattle), we can get by with small amounts even in places, like Mexico, where prepaid cards are more expensive but allow for a few pesos to be added at a time. Like everything else, we try to only buy the amount we’ll need. Our monthly cell phone bill has averaged less than $15 per line.
All our big vaccinations (hepatitis, measles, tetanus, yellow fever) last more than a year, and so are still up to date. A new flu shot would be nice, but since we are in the southern hemisphere for their summer, we missed flu season and will have a harder time finding the inoculation.
We (thankfully!) haven’t had any major health scares since we left. The minor colds/upset stomachs have all been taken care of with some rest and OTC medication. Of note is that Ibuprofen is much more expensive and harder to get in Europe. If stores sell it, it is usually only available in a 10 or 25 count blister pack, which costs as much as a 200 pill bottle in the US.
In Thailand, I was bitten (lightly) by a dog. We tried the public hospital, but it was late at night and no one on duty spoke English. So instead, we went to the private hospital the next morning. Since they specialized in medical tourism, explanations were easier. I wanted the rabies shots, just in case. The appointments were spaced over three days and I added two more injections to my impressive record for the previous months. Prepping for travel is a good way to learn how to deal with needles.
It may or may not be obvious, but I very much do not want to get pregnant while travelling. (Not least because we’ve been in zika-outbreak areas in the company of some very vicious mosquitoes.) Not to get too much into detail, I take a daily pill. Turns out that in Europe, prescriptions are mostly not necessary, and a pack of pills costs less than $10 almost universally, with some as low as $3. (Why are they $60/month in the US?) Even in countries where you are supposed to have a prescription, you can find usually a sympathetic pharmacist who will sell it anyway, especially if you come in with a wedding band, a used pack, and stating that you do have a doctor in the US. (If all else fails, I keep a story about lost luggage up my sleeve.)
Hahahah. If only… A downside of travelling for an extended amount of time is that we only get to take home pictures and memories. We collect some of the ticket stubs, and randomly have the lid from a pate can because it says Tarczynski on it. Otherwise, the kitchen supplies and toiletries count for a while, at least until they break or get used up. They are at least covered in foreign languages. We’d rather not carry excess stuff with us, and paying to ship it home is no fun either. I’ve decided I’ll just go to Goodwill when we get back to Seattle and see what cheesy things I can find from the places we’ve visited.
Of course, extended travel isn’t for everyone. The distance from family and friends is hard. Living for months in places where the default language isn’t ours can be draining. Familiar things can be difficult to find and the abundance of new experience can be overwhelming. We wear the same clothes. A lot. Our apartments almost never have dryers (except for one with a combination washer-dryer that seemed more like a fire hazard than an appliance) or hair dryers. It would be nice to have our own place and things again. But I’m thrilled we made it a year on the road and have plans to keep going.
If you want extra information or inspiration for planning your own trip/world tour, feel free to contact me. I don’t mind sharing budgets or answering questions (to the best of my and the internet’s ability).
This month we took the classier way of getting from one city to another: seaplane. It didn’t cost much more than a bus ticket, and saved several hours and border crossings in to and out of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Basically European Coastal Airlines is my new favorite transport.
The “terminal” in Split was a few harbor-front tables. When it was time to board, no gaggles of people waiting around the gate, just a nod from the attendant that we could find our seats. We were two-thirds of three passengers. Everyone got a window. A trainee rounded out the crew of two pilots. A quick safety orientation consisted of pointing out doors and lifevests and asking for a thumbs-up when our seatbelts were buckled.
It was bumpier leaving the harbor than I would have liked, aided by the day’s decent breeze. But once the engines throttled up, it took less than 8 seconds to get airborne.
In short order we were over our suburb of Podstrana, Omis’s mountain-top castle, the Makarska Riviera, and dozens of islands. Vineyards, olive groves and fish farms dotted the mountains and sea. Bosnia-Herzegovina’s waterfront city was set back in a beautiful bay. We flew lower than surrounding mountain ranges and were occasionally buffeted by wind, especially where deep valleys cut through. It was worth the extra bit of bounce to be able to admire the Croatian coastline.
Finally came Dubrovnik. It was set perfectly against the Adriatic, its massive, fortified city walls visible from miles away. Newer suburbs accosted the Old Town from all sides, and the neighboring coasts are thick with hotels and resorts.
The seaplane port at Dubrovnik’s harbor is currently under construction, so we landed at the airport south of the city. To my surprise, some seaplanes have landing gear hidden in the pontoons. Being in such a small craft really made clear just how large runways are; we flew over it for quite a while before touching down and it took up the entire front window.
A tiny staircase met us on the tarmac and our luggage was handed directly to us (no annoying waiting for it to pop out on a conveyor belt). It all felt very elegant and exclusive…
We’ve wanted to take a seaplane ever since moving to Seattle and seeing them on Lake Union. We even bought tickets for a aerial tour at one point, but never got to take it. I’m so glad we finally got to cross this off our bucket lists.
Like other Buddhist temples, the Dhamikarama Temple has many buildings and altars scattered around the grounds, and the far corners of the complex were relatively tourist-free. We wandered to a bell tower in the back, and climbed up four floors in order to get a view of the temple and the new glass-and-metal high rises going up around it. We were the only ones there and admired the carved marble reliefs showing sacred Buddhist sites from around the world. We also tried our hand at tossing coins into alms bowls circling above a pond, but had no luck.
The main hall was the tour group stop, and its towering Buddha statue was the center of attention. It was surrounded by some of the most detailed carving we’ve seen so far – what looked to be a fine lace mesh hanging around the walls was actually hundreds of wooden panels fit together to look like cascades of foliage. It must have taken years to create and assemble. Behind the main Buddha was a row of statues of revered monks, each representing a country with a major Buddhist populations, and all life sized.
Directly across the street from the Burmese Temple was the vibrantly decorated Wat Chaiya Mangalaram, a Thai temple that looked similar to the ones we grew familiar with in Chiang Mai. This temple is famous for its reclining Buddha statute; at over 100 feet long it is one of the largest in the world.
Outside, the nagas protecting the front of the temple are covered in glass mosaic tiles and were my favorite so far because of their bright, jeweled colors. Other guardian statues stood near the entrances and several side pagodas held altars to various deities. Incense, flower garlands, and bright fabrics seemed to be common offerings.
Nearby was a mee goring stand that had the most delicious tofu we’ve ever tasted… and more of the famous Penang white coffee with ice.
Our last stop for the day was the Kapital Keling Mosque. We arrived as the mosque itself was closing for prayers, so we spent a few minutes in the Islamic Outreach Center located in the minaret. We came back after 2 p.m. to see the interior of the mosque itself. I donned a robe to cover my hair and bare arms. Modesty works both ways though – Kevin also was given a wrap since he was only wearing shorts and men need to have their legs covered to their ankles in order to enter. The mosque itself was peaceful and quiet, just a few people were finishing their prayers and greeting one another.
The Islamic influence in Penang is something I didn’t touch on yet, in part because the island is so diverse. However, Malaysia is officially an Islamic country, so there were a few interesting things we noted. For example, shopping centers and large attractions have prayers rooms for Muslims to use if they happen to be there at one of the five times each day the call to prayer is given. From our apartment, we could hear both mosques in our neighborhood broadcasting the call to prayer from their PA systems.
Consuming pork and alcohol is forbidden in Islam, but stores still carry those items to cater to other segments of the population. The beer/wine/hard liquor was in its own corner or room in the store, so it was still easier to get than in some US states. Pork was also in the same section or its own room, usually with “BACON” emblazoned prominently above the door. Washing is a must before eating, so restaurants and areas with hawker stalls have sinks readily available out in the open. I got the sense this was also part of the local secular culture – napkins were few and far between.
Malaysia was such an interesting mix of influences that I can’t wait to go back. We were told multiple times that we should see Kuala Lumpur in all its crazy-traffic, delicious-food, impressive-building glory. As long as air conditioning is part of that, I agree.
We’ve already made our 24-hour trek to Lisbon, Portugal. Our first flights on Malaysia Airlines, which booked us on an earlier flight after we arrived at the Penang Airport early, and on British Airways, which has those fancy new Boeing Dreamliners, were uneventful except for a mad dash of a transfer at Heathrow. (Does anyone else get the feeling that a transfer from one gate to another that requires walking, a tram, more walking, a bus, even more walking down back-hallway looking corridors, going up escalators, meandering through another maze of corridors, passing through security – which we had already done once at Penang and once at Kuala Lumpur – and then a mad dash from security to the gate… literally as the gate is closing… is badly misplaced British humor?)
Lisbon feels like half a world away from Malaysia, and reminds us a lot of Italy so far. We’ll have to get used to driving on the right again, and 60 degrees does seem rather cold. Still, time to explore a new corner of the world and Europe!