Posts Tagged With: Free travel advice

Safety Tips for the Skittish Traveler

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Be safe wherever you go.

The world is a crazy, unsafe place. At times I too wish I could just bury myself in a hole in the ground and shut out all the insanity and insecurity. But the inherent problem with holes in the ground – the Grand Canyon not withstanding – is that they usually don’t offer a very good view. For that, it requires the courage to get out there and explore. Below I’ve listed 8 steps on how to travel safely and still maintain relative peace of mind.

1) The World is Just as Crazy Where You Live

Crime, terrorism and natural disasters are not limited to those on vacation. Sadly, such risks are part of the global human experience. This goes for visiting popular tourist attractions and traveling by air just as much as going to and from your job or school. Yes, it is possible something bad might happen while traveling, but statistically it is far more likely that you’ll have a car accident on the way home from the store than experience a terrorist attack while traveling abroad. By gaining some perspective on the risks involved, you can ease your worries and take comfort in knowing that you’re likely not at any greater risk than you are in your own hometown. That is, unless you’re visiting Falluja.

2) Be Shrewd, Dude

Taking practical precautions before embarking on your trip can do much to allay anxiety. Travel insurance is an increasingly good idea, not just for its practicality but also for the peace of mind. Thoroughly researching your intended destination can alert you to potential threats or dangers, both health and safety-wise, and buying a money belt or similar products can help lessen the your odds of being a victim.

3) Here’s Looking At You, Punk

Imagine for a second that you’re a pickpocket or any other variation of street criminal. Would you rather target the oblivious tourist that’s so engrossed in looking at the sights that they don’t even notice you’re there, or the wary tourist with the shifty eyes that are constantly scanning the surroundings? If you didn’t choose the former, then maybe you’re just not cut out for a life of petty crime. Yes, criminals prey on the easiest targets, and nothing says “I see you, punk. Try someone else” better than being aware of those around you and making eye contact. Sure, you might come off as paranoid but at least your message won’t be missed.

4) You’ve Got A Brain. Use It.

What you wear, bring, do and say can all have a direct bearing on your safety. Wearing expensive jewelry in poor cities is an invitation to potential muggers. Flashing costly electronics and camera equipment at inappropriate places and times can have the same effect as well. Even traveling through relatively safe areas and neighborhoods after nightfall may increase your risk, as might talking loudly in your native tongue, as nothing screams “tourist!” more than asking for directions. This is not to say that you should stay in your hotel room and not speak to anyone. Just use your head and the risks will be much lower.

5) If You’ve Got It, Don’t Flaunt It

Standards of dress and conduct vary wildly worldwide and to keep things on the up and up with the local populous it’s a good idea to learn what they are and then follow them. In many places in Latin America and India for example, women will at times draw unwanted male attention in direct proportion to the amount of skin they show. So ladies, be prepared to cover up if you don’t feel like being stared at by often not-too-subtle men. And don’t get me started on the Italians….

6) Make Friends, Not Mistakes

One of the best things about travel is the possibility of interacting with so many different people. While I heartily encourage all to mingle with the locals, this doesn’t mean drop your guard. Be mindful that some in bars and restaurants frequented by tourists may have their own agenda and be wary about what it is in (and how much) you drink. And sometimes (not all) that friendly local that just happens to strike up a conversation with you will eventually reveal that they want to take you to a “friend’s” shop where you can get bargains unheard of elsewhere. Again, you’ve got a brain, and don’t be afraid to say no. Most of all, don’t let the few bad eggs ruin the joys of cultural exchange.

7) Don’t Forget What Your Mommy Told You

As it turns out, your mom was right about a lot of things. While traveling, many of her adages still hold true if you want to come home safely: Look both ways before crossing the street (especially in London), be careful after dark, don’t walk through the woods by yourself and many more I’m sure. About the only one I would openly contest is the prohibition on going swimming for at least an hour after eating (An hour. A good hour).

8) Face Your Fears & Get Out There

With all the rampant insecurity in today’s society, it may be hard to overcome your fears to get out there and explore. But identifying your fears is a necessary step if you’re to experience peace of mind in travel or anything else. As I said in my 2015 humor/travel guide You Can Keep Your Adventure, Just Leave Me the Toilet Paper, “finding the root of your fears is like giving a prostate exam–uncomfortable even if you do manage to put your finger on it.” But once you do, and you’re willing to challenge yourself, enjoying the world – risks and all – will become a whole lot easier.

Summary

Of course, despite taking all these precautions you can still get hit by a bus, but hey, a meteor strike is a possibility as well. My point is that it is impossible to eliminate all risk in this world, so you’ll just have to do your best and relax. By taking practical steps you can lower your risk of danger while traveling, and I say that  if you have to accept a level of risk, it might as well be on vacation.

Do you have any safety tips you’d like to share? Leave a comment below!

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Cruising Advice For People Who Don’t Like Cruising – Tip #1

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Rainbow over Puntarenas, Chile

As readers of this blog already know, I’m a big fan of cruising (see my book You Can Keep Your Adventure, Just Leave Me the Toilet Paper) In my professional experience, I have run across those who vehemently oppose the very idea of a vacation out on the briny. In this installment (and some future ones as well) I will use my insight, hindsight and foresight to explain why such opposition is unwarranted; nay, downright silly.

Tip #1 – Finding Your Escape Route

A common reason given by those who aren’t interested in a cruise vacation is the desire for privacy and the assumption that aboard a cruise ship, this is not a likely possibility. An understandable assumption to be sure, but we all know what happens when we assume.

The truth is that now more than ever, cruise guests have the option of greater privacy and less forced interaction with the maddening hordes clogging the buffet line. They key lies in knowing where to go (and not go) to get away from it all. The following are some examples of where you can go to escape the crowds so that this lame excuse of needing “privacy” can be debunked for the myth it truly is.

1) Your Cabin

Consider your cabin your own personal sanctuary. It is your space and your space alone. You can refuse daily cleaning service. You can order room service all day long from your bunk. You don’t even have to leave until disembarkation. If you want to live like a recluse and let your hair and fingernails grow until they curl, that is your option. Of course, if this is the option you choose, you might want to ask yourself why you’ve bothered to cruise at all. You’ll also probably want to take a shower.

Yes, for those moments you wish to be utterly alone, you can hide out in your own accommodations. If that’s your game plan, then I highly recommend that you invest on a nice cabin – preferably one with a balcony or a porthole – where you can take your rest and room service in peace. It will also help to get rid of the stink.

2) Your Table

That’s right, most cruise lines these days give guests the option of choosing freestyle dining times and configurations. So if you’re turned off at the idea of a week of forced conversation with strangers (which can be a lot more fun that you think) just let the maitre’d know you want a table for two. You and your significant other/family can dine in peace without hearing about how much the middle-aged couple from the Midwest lost at the casino or a how the elderly couple from Florida almost won at Bingo but were waiting on an I 27.

3)Adult-Only Areas

More and more, recently refitted ships are reserving portions of their public space as adult-only areas. Usually in the vicinity of the spa, these oases are all about relaxation and tranquility, and have zero room for screaming infants – or for that matter, any other screaming individuals regardless of their age . You may not be completely alone, but you’ll be far enough from the masses so that with a decent set of headphones it should be more than just an adequate amount of privacy.

4) Libraries and Lounges

Every ship has those little corners that look nice in the brochure but are often underutilized. The libraries are commonly without seething throngs of patrons and there’s always a bar or lounge that sits quietly when no scheduled activities are taking place. If you’d like to get out of your cabin but still would rather not rub elbows with the masses, this might just be a good compromise.

5) Your Own Balcony

I alluded to this in the first listing, but having a private balcony means you get to be with you, your travel partner(s) and the ocean below – that’s it. If that’s not enough privacy, then perhaps you should move out to a cabin in the woods. I hear the Unabomber’s is available…

There are other places you can go for “privacy” on a cruise ship – your closet, your suitcase, or you can sneak into a smokestack. But the above suggestions are enough to brush aside the quote unquote lack of privacy issue. Besides, if you really want to be by yourself that badly, maybe you should stay at home. Just remember to crack a window…

 

Categories: Travel Tips | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Dude, Where’s My Ranch? – Review of Rancho Cortez, Bandera, Texas

Rancho Cortez, Bandera, Texas

Rancho Cortez, Bandera, Texas

Dude Ranch:

n. noun

  • 1. A resort patterned after a Western ranch, featuring camping, horseback riding, and other outdoor activities.

Not even two months after my move to Texas, I felt compelled to seek out a more authentic ‘Texan’ experience than just shopping and eating my way through Houston. So when my parents came to town for a visit, I knew the time was right to head out to where the stars at night, are big and bright (clap, clap, clap, clap) deep in the heart of Texas.

Nothing better encapsulates the image of Texas more than staying on a ranch (except, perhaps, clapping along to the aforementioned song). So as I planned our jitney into the famed hill country, I settled on a place called Rancho Cortez, located on the periphery of Bandera, Texas – the self-proclaimed “cowboy capital of the world”. As it turns out, I chose wisely, and the experience had was both fun and authentic. The follow is a breakdown as to why.

The Ranch

Check in at the General Store

Check in at the General Store

Bandera is set some 45 minutes northwest of San Antonio. It features a small main street brimming with Western facades and numerous souvenir shops to go along with a few eateries. Rancho Cortez is perhaps a ten minute drive out of town, nestled in the rolling hills that characterize the region. Coming from Houston, ANY hill was a welcome sight, as a little topographical variety is good for the soul.

Check in takes place in the main office/general store that looks like it was lifted right out of a ghost town. Here you can buy sundries and souvenirs – including an authentic cowboy hat, which I might add, will actually come in handy during your stay. Guest cabins of varying sizes dot the property, many of which are great for families as they contain kitchenettes and bunk beds for the kids. There’s a large barn structure housing a game room in the event that you’d like to stay indoors (?!) as well as an outdoor pool. A covered hot tub is available for a post-ride soak, and since the ranch also doubles as a fitness spa (with extensive programs and training) there is a well-equipped fitness center and an indoor pool as well.

Meals (generally included depending on your package) are served in a no-frills dining hall where you can interact with fellow guests, or even ranch owner Larry Cortez, whose Texas-size personality feels right out of the movie City Slickers. The food is basic but tasty, and I was glad I was not here on a fitness program, as those guests had a far more restrictive diet.

Of course, the real reason for visiting a dude ranch is the horses, and I am happy to say that all of the many horses I encountered were well-cared for and in good health. It was easy to see the handlers’ genuine respect and concern for the animals, and this of course assuaged my guilty conscience for having some poor horse have to walk around with someone the size of me on its back. Which brings me to the next point…

The Horseback Riding

Horseback riding, Rancho Cortez

Horseback riding, Rancho Cortez

Guests are divvied into riding parties so that there’s never an exceptionally large group out at one time (and so that the horses are not overworked either). The guides will lead the posse through groves of trees, expansive meadows, and lovely hilltop vistas. Rides will last about an hour unless prior arrangements have been made. As any non-rider can attest, an hour is enough time to enjoy the experience without feeling overly saddle-sore. For guests on the all-inclusive package, they are entitled to two rides a day – plus a hay ride through the property, which at times will include a visit to the impressive herd of cows on site.

Off the Horse Activities

Since horseback riding will only take up about two hours of your day, the ranch does offer other diversions to pass the time. There’s a scenic trail that winds across the hill overlooking the property, where at the top guests can play in the obstacle course put there for those on a fitness package. Or you can do what I did, which was to walk past and shake my head at doing that stuff under a hot Texas sun.

How to catch a woman - Texas style

How to catch a woman – Texas style

The ranch hands will also tutor interested guests in the art of roping. It took a little while but eventually I got the hang of it. In the event that I were tasked with lassoing an absolutely stationary colt from a few feet away, I’d feel pretty certain about my chances of success. As for moving targets, not so much so, though one of the cowboys very nonchalantly lassoed my wife mid-step and attempted to teach me how to do it. Call me a Neanderthal, but it dawned on me that such a skill would be quite useful, not to mention a very effective way to meet more women after she leaves me for lassoing her in public.

DSC_2836Perhaps the most enjoyable of all activities offered at Rancho Cortez takes place at dusk. This is when they get a fire started in the stone fire pit, allowing guests to pull up their chairs and enjoy the ambiance as the stars start blinking on one by one. On some evenings they have a singer drop by, who will regale guests with folk songs and other ditties accompanied by guitar. Between the twang of the voice, the crackling of the fire, and the mix of starlight and firelight, there’s no mistaking that you are truly (clap, clap, clap, clap) deep in the heart of Texas.

The Conclusion

I came to Rancho Cortez for a genuine, non-touristy ranch stay, and I didn’t leave disappointed. The price was quite reasonable, the staff friendly and personable, and the scenery was all I could hope for. I would heartily recommend it to anyone seeking a cowboy experience in the Lone Star State. In fact, I can’t wait to receive other visitors, as it will give me an excuse to come back. Dude, that’s something to look forward to.


For a witty tour of the planet, don’t forget to download a copy of my travel guide You Can Keep Your Adventure, Just Leave Me the Toilet Paper, available at most major online retailers.

Categories: Destinations | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

How To Make Your Travel Photos So Interesting That People Won’t Paint Their Toenails

Keep "selfies" to a minimum

Keep “selfies” to a minimum

Invariably, when I’m about to leave for a trip, I get all sorts of advice from my friends and family. Be safe. Have fun. Call me when you get there (usually just my parents). And of course: Take lots of pictures.

 

While all are well-intentioned, that last one always seems to me to be a bit of a platitude. It implies that anyone who tells you that actually wants to see the aforementioned ‘lots of pictures’. And while I’ve found that there are a select few who would like to see ‘some, but not a lot’ of your pictures—regardless of their quality—the majority are content to skip the slideshow portion of your trip review in favor of doing something more interesting, such as painting their toenails for instance.

 

I can understand where they’re coming from. The last thing anyone wants to do is spend an hour looking at snapshots of other people having a great time, eating great food, or taking a selfie in front of something famous that you haven’t been to. Travel photos bring out the inner narcissist in all of us, and while we might find ourselves the most interesting thing in the world, others usually don’t feel the same. Therefore, the trick, I’ve found, is in how you present your travel photos, and I’ll briefly rundown the key elements to keeping people interested.

 

It’s Not All About You

 

Keep the subject interesting, such as here in Chinchero, Peru

Keep the subject interesting, such as here in Chinchero, Peru

Yes, as hard as it is to believe, what you saw, what you ate or what you stood in front of is of limited interest to others—even those who love you. So when taking “lots of pictures” be sure to include some of scenes that would be of interest to others: particularly striking landscapes; interesting locals; architectural nuances; funny signs and things of that sort. Ask yourself if what you’re taking a picture of is something you would want to see when others show you their photos, and you’ll have a general idea of what works and what doesn’t. So please don’t take this the wrong way, but that picture of the ham sandwich you had for lunch just ain’t going to cut it, so please spare us. (That goes for Instagram as well!)

 

Edit Yourself

 

In the age of digital photography, technology has freed us from the limitations of traditional film. No longer are we hesitant to snap off multiple shots for fear of using up our remaining rolls. Gone are the multitude of small black canisters with the gray tops—each holding a precious roll of film that may or may not contain the images we hope for. However, such technology is both a blessing and a curse, because with an endless amount of shots available, there’s the tendency to take–and here’s the problem–keep, more shots than are reasonably necessary. So if you take a shot and see that it is blurry, crooked, photo bombed by an oblivious pedestrian or anything else that means you or someone else would have no interest in looking at it, then please, trash it. I know your electronic storage device has more than enough space to preserve that shot of the armrest of your chair when you accidentally hit the button, but the age-old adage applies: Just because you could, doesn’t mean that you should.

 

It’s All In The Presentation

 

Showcase your best

Showcase your best

Now that you’ve made sure to keep your subject matter interesting and have culled your thousands of jpegs, it is time to go through your photos once again and move the best into a separate file. At this point, you can use any one of a number of online photo services to create your trip’s ultimate showpiece: the photo book. With leaps in print-on-demand technology, you can now create your own printed and bound hardcover book for about the price of having prints made and stuffing them in a three ring photo album. While there are some variations, most will allow you a number of options that allow you to customize your cover, mix and match templates, backgrounds and borders, as well as add captions and special effects. My own personal favorites are http://www.winkflash.com and http://www.snapfish.com. Either way, handing your audience a beautifully bound book with your own artistic flair is a whole lot more interesting than pulling out your smart phone and swiping for twenty minutes.

 

I know that I’m in the rare minority of people that actually do want to see other people’s travel photos. But even then I have my limits. So keep it interesting, choose your best shots, and present them well. Otherwise I’m going to go paint my toenails.

 

Do you have any advice to keep your photo albums interesting?

Categories: Travel Tips | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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