Lesser Known Backpacking Travel Tips

By: leelefever on January 3, 2007 - 1:38pm

Throughout the trip, when the inspiration struck, we would type a few travel tips into our phone. The majority of the tips below came from spur-of-the-moment revelations on the road, now in more organized and long form. 


  • To save battery power turn off mobile phones - being connected to or looking for the network drains the battery.  The same is true for laptops and wi-fi signals.  Turn em off.
  • When you get to a hotel room, open your computer and look for an unsecured wi-fi signal.  You’ll be surprised often.
  • Carry two batteries for all gadgets.  Though, a computer battery may be an exception.
  • If you are using a mobile phone for more than a few weeks in a country, buy a SIM card for a local network when you arrive.  It's what the locals use and you would have a local phone number with free incoming calls from home
  • If you want to be able to charge more than one gadget at once, get a travel splitter or multiple outlet adapters for each format. 
  • Always think redundancy - back up often and send home DVDs of your pictures.
  •  DVDs hold a lot more pictures than CDs for back-up purposes - 3 times the amount.  Most internet cafes offer DVD burning services.
  • Invest in lots of camera memory (lSD cards, memory sticks).  You do not want to consistently be hamstrung by a camera that is full of pictures.  A 1GB card with 5megapixel photos was enough for us.
  • If you have a laptop, move photos from the camera to the laptop daily.  Always leave the room with 2 charged batteries and an empty memory card.
  • Take your computer to the Internet cafe and plug it into their network with the Ethernet cable.  They will know how.  Europe doesn’t allow this, Asia does.
  • Wrap your computer in some sort of sealable plastic bag before packing it away.  Wetness happens.
  • Keep your valuable electronics on your person when in transit.  Don't  put your computer in a bag under a bus.  
  • People can’t steal what they don’t see.  Limit gadgetry use in public.

Hotel Living:

  •  When leaving a hotel, take the complimentaries with you, like coffee, cream, tea, toilet tissue, etc.  Towels, bedspreads and hangers are not complimentary.
  • Never, ever miss an included breakfast.
  • Many cheap hotels require that you insert the key into a slot in order for the power to come on. While it saves energy, it means you can’t charge electronics while you’re out of the room.  Often you can use a business card in the slot instead of a key.
  • Don't leave the room for the day without a map, local currency, identification and the room key.
  • Try to resist giving the front desk your key when you leave – this is very insecure.  Notice that when you return, they will give you any key you request. 
  • If your hotel does not serve breakfast, remember to go to a store on the way home at night to get something for the morning.
  • Unless the city gets full consistently, don't make reservations in advance.  Get there; find your favorite neighborhood and then a place to stay. 
  • If you are going to be in one city for more than a week or so, consider renting an apartment.  A kitchen and washer /dryer are so nice sometimes.
  • If you know the part of the city where you want to stay, make a reservation in advance for a single night at a hotel in that area, even if it is more expensive. Then, when you arrive, walk around to hotels and find a better deal for the rest of your stay.
  • For most major cities, two nights is not enough as it leaves only one full day for exploration.  Three nights is usually a good amount if you're on the move. More is better.
  • The combination of your padlock is a risk.  You may be asked for it if your bags are lost on international flights (they may need to open the bag).  Make it unique - not associated with bank accounts, etc.
  • When unlocking your padlock for your bag, remember to spin the numbers once so your combination is not displayed for others, like the housekeeper, to see.


  • Tear unused pages out if your guidebook.
  • In inexpensive countries like India remember to carry small bills and change - go to a bank to get the change you need. Making change is a pain.
  • When wandering a new city at night, adopt the moth strategy and go toward the light.
  • Buy clothes made of synthetic fiber - they are lighter, stay cleaner and are easier to wash and dry quickly.
  • Days of the week can start to blend together.  The biggest problems happen on Sundays when a lot of businesses are closed and Mondays when museums often close.
  • In packing your backpack, make sure you pack it the same each time, giving each item a specific place.  When something is missing you'll know.
  • Buy a backpack that is built for travel and not camping.  The best ones open from the side, allowing access to everything quickly instead of bags that open from the top only - requiring an unpacking to reach the bottom.
  • A clean and free bathroom is only as far as the closest McDonalds.
  • Take a flashlight.
  • In public, you will never be judged or create a spectacle for being too quiet.  This is made more difficult with alcohol.
  • Look for English language weeklies in cities to find out about events.
  • Check local pharmacies for prescriptions that are expensive from home.  Beware of fakes in China.
  • Do like the Spanish and have a siesta.  Explore for a few hours in the morning, nap in the heat of the afternoon and go back out for the evening.  This is sustainable for long periods.
  • Only rookies get sunburned.  Be liberal with strong sunscreen. Wear a hat.
  • When getting up from a park bench, airplane seat or any place where you sat, turn around and look back at the area to ensure you didn't leave anything.
  • Use the local mail service to send home items you are not using.  Most useful when changing climates.
  • Remember that you can’t do everything. Relax, take a deep breath and enjoy what you *can* do.

The Peaks and Valleys of Travel

By: leelefever on December 28, 2006 - 3:01pm

 I wrote this pretty early in the trip - around the middle of March 2006, just as we were coming to terms with how extended travel actually works.  It sounds a little negative, but it's real. 



We’re learning every day, learning to be better travelers. For us, it’s about being able to find fulfillment in the bulk of the time between the absolutely fantastic and the miserably horrible experiences.  The continuum is long between the two and filled with mediocre and boring attempts to find excitement when none exists.

The idea of a year away from home, away from work, away from normal life was fascinating to us, as I think it would be to anyone.  One pictures a montage set to frantic music that displays a life of freedom, exotic locations, new people, interesting cultures, new experiences and drinks with umbrellas.  These things are all parts of extended world travel.  But, what one doesn’t imagine is the constant, constant fear of losing bags or passports or tickets.  Far from expectation is the feeling of running for a train in 95 degree heat only to miss the last train of the day.  No one looks forward to only having three pairs of underwear and having to wash them by hand in a sink every few days, along with every other piece of clothing.  Sweating yourself to sleep is not high on the list of people who look forward to travel.  In the list of reasons to see the world, being lost in a strange city late at night with all your belongings on your back does not rank high. Yet, these are all a very real part of the overall experience. The key, for us, is attitude and finding joy in the journey, or making your own joy.

It’s easy to get frustrated.  As you might expect, the world does not work as you’d prefer sometimes. Despite having spent a whole day to travel to a location, it is sometimes closed for renovation or doesn’t allow your type of shoes and you just have to deal with the fact that no one told you, or that you didn’t listen, or couldn’t understand.  You just have to suck it up and move on. Being able to move on and put it behind you is absolutely key, and something I’m currently working on.

Making up for the valleys are the peaks.  Unfortunately, it seems that the highest peaks are not something you can plan - they come unexpectedly.  It’s easy to get excited about the Great Wall of China or the Taj Mahal, but you expect that excitement and plan on it.  The expectations are so high sometimes that the reality cannot measure up and there are pangs of disappointment.  I battle this feeling often, perhaps because I’ve psyched myself to too high a level.

The peaks we find often arrive on the wings of chance, happenstance or the kindness of others.  The random person that gives us a bit of advice that saves us time and energy is reason for us to celebrate.  Finding a hotel at half the price we expected is cause for joy.  Sharing a meal with other travelers from other countries gives us a reason to be happy.  Capturing a scene with my camera in the way that I want gives me great pleasure. Having clean laundry, charged batteries, good health and tickets to our next destination is almost nirvana. 

More than anything else, we are most gratified by knowing that we are learning- learning to be smart travelers, learning about the people of the world, the history, the politics, and the quirkiness.  Museums and galleries are nice and we often visit- but they don’t often give us great joy.  We’ve found that the good stuff comes from the locals, the driver, the friend of a friend, the person who lives there and has an ear to the ground.  Given the choice, we’d spend 10 times more time drinking beer with a local than walking around a museum.  Though we’ve wanted more, connecting with locals have represented some of our highest peaks on the trip.

In the end, it’s a balance, a balance of expectations and reality, of fun and boredom, of frustration and success.  Joy in travel does not always come from the places you visit, the people you meet or the pictures you take – it comes from the little things that present themselves in the nick of time –  just in time to renew your excitement and remind you that travel is a wonderful and complex event and one that, more than anything else, is what you as an individual choose to make of it.

Conflicts and Anxieties of Travel

By: leelefever on December 27, 2006 - 11:18am

 I wrote the entry below in June of 2006 but never posted it until now.  I went through a phase where I was way too concerned about our travel style and this reflects the issues on my mind at the time. I got over it, if you're curious.

Through this trip, whether I like it or not, I am coming to terms with some of the things about me that I cannot control, or find hard to control.  I am consistently conflicted regarding what I call “travel dilemmas” and I’m writing about it because it represents a minor but annoying problem for me and one that I hope to overcome.  I feel that I am needlessly pre-occupied with trying to find our answers to questions about our travel style. I am most concerned about the conflicts between:

  • Being a traveler vs. a backpacker
  • Being on vacation vs. traveling
  • Taking our time vs. rushing from place to place

Let me take these one by one to explain:

Being a Traveler vs. a Backpacker

Backpacking is a practice that has evolved its own culture.  This culture has a particular outlook, fashion, attitude and accessories.  I was a backpacker in 1996 when me and my (then) girlfriend spent two months in Europe and I was never conflicted- we were backpackers and our reality of flea-bag hostels, bad food and camaraderie with other backpackers was the only choice for us and it was a blast.  Fast-forward 10 years and I am now on a similar trip, except a few things are different.  I am now married, have had a career for some time and have the means to travel at a higher level of comfort than I did 10 years ago.  We have innumerable choices and can put our comfort first.  The source of this conflict is rooted in the anxiety that we are insulating ourselves from a part of travel that, while not comfortable, offers a higher level of cultural access and experience. Perhaps the $10 guesthouse is more fun, interesting and cultural than the $30 hotel, but lacks air conditioning. Perhaps the train ride takes longer than the plane, but offers better scenery.  Are we buying our way out of the best experiences?  Are the backpackers getting more from their experience than we are while spending less?  Or, would they travel as we do if they could? Should we forsake comfort for experience?


Being on Vacation vs. Traveling

When one thinks of a year off to travel, one of the first images that come to mind is not having to work- liberation from the daily grind.  This is certainly part of extended travel and one thing that I do not take for granted.  However, a year is really far too long to have a vacation and extended travel, for us, ends up being a little of both.  We’ve had periods where travel was like a job.  We had to be up at a certain time every morning and returned to the hotel later that evening, with pictures and experiences and exhaustion in hand.  This was the case in Sri Lanka and India when we had guides and drivers.  This experience is rewarding, but tiresome and not sustainable for months and months.  It does become a grind.  We followed India with Thailand and planned a vacation from travel.  For about a month, we did very little but move from beach to beach and it was nirvana. We learned how to do nothing in Thailand- how sleep all day and not listen to the devil (or angel) on your shoulder who tells you you’re being lazy. Having lived both sides of the travel spectrum, I find myself searching for balance these days.  Now that we’re recharged and back into the travel life, I have anxiety that we’re wasting time by relaxing in the hotel room when there are still things we want to see and do.  Are we still on vacation? When does vacation stop and travel begin? Does it matter?  Should we just enjoy the freedom and do things as they feel right?  Or, should we push ourselves to get out and do everything and then relax? 


Taking Our Time vs. Rushing from Place to Place

Perhaps the most consistent piece of advice we received from travelers who have done year-long trips is that you can’t do everything. They say that the best you can do is to find a place you like and stay there for a while, like a month or two. By doing this you can get a deeper understanding of the local culture.  While this advice is certainly good advice, it has been hard for us to implement.  We spent a month in Southern Thailand and a month in Japan, but never more than 7 days in any one town or city.  We’ve never stayed more than 10 days in one place. The grass is always greener I suppose and I think we’re in a habit of seeing what we want in a place and then moving on, essentially collecting experiences like baseball cards.  Maybe by the end of the trip, we figure, we’ll have a collection of which we’ll be proud. Stopping in one town for a month seems to have a high opportunity cost.  We have no idea how that month could be used in the future.  Would we trade a month in Osaka now for a month in Turkey in November?  How are we to comprehend the future value of spending a month in one town now? Are we neglecting an important aspect of the travel experience by moving quickly? The next new place always seems so much more appealing.


The Bottom Line For Me:

First, I realize that these are all comparatively good problems to have. I should feel lucky to have such problems and I do feel extremely fortunate.  I do not seek sympathy- just an outlet to talk.

All these conflicts, all the anxieties I have, all the thinking that I’ve done about this is all based on a simple question that I constantly ask myself:  Are we doing it right?  This simple question haunts me much more than it should. Logically, I know that there is no right way to travel- it is something that each person does in their own way and no two people experience travel in the same way. However, I want to know that we are doing our best to extract as much enjoyment, experience, learning and fun out of these 12 months and I wonder sometimes if all these conflicts and anxieties are only serving to detract from the experiences instead of help us add to them. Perhaps I would be better served by doing what feels good and remembering that there will be few times in my life when I will have such freedom and such wonderful opportunities. Maybe I just need a vacation from thinking about this too much.

Almost Fully Converted

By: leelefever on December 14, 2006 - 9:23am

It takes a while to covert.  After a year, we found ourselves becoming almost fully converted to the world's systems as opposed to the US systems.  35 degrees used to mean close freezing to me - now it means heat and sweat and stickiness.  Here are a few other:

We now know about how long a kilometer is.

Trash is rubbish.

When eating fast food, we leave the rubbish on the table instead of cleaning it up ourselves.

A can on Coke is 33 milliliters.

Dates are in this format  dd/mm/yyyy.

Dinner time is now closer to 9 pm.

You fill up a car in liters of gas.

When roads intersect they usually form a circle instead of a cross.

We line up on the right side of escalators if not moving ourselves

We can now provide exact change in Euros without staring at our palm for 10 seconds. Intersting side note: There is no 25 cent euro coin - only a 20.  We figure because the US quarter is based on the stardard system that has a base of 12 instead of the metric base of 10.  Royale wi' Cheese.

The education after high school is called university

The 24 hour clock (military time in the US) now works in our heads without calculation.

There are no restrooms of even bathrooms - only toilets and WC's.

When we pay for something, we expect to pay the price on the tag (without tax added at the end).

When calling, we automatically want to start with a "+".

 Of course, this means that we now have to de-convert.

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On Spanish Time

By: leelefever on November 15, 2006 - 3:37pm

From the roof of the Gothic Cathedral La Seu in Barcelona 

We're pretending we live in Barcelona, sort of.  We've rented an apartment and stocked it with food and drinks and made ourselves at home as much as possible.  Along with this comes trying to adjust to the Spanish lifestyle, which is decidedly time-shifted.  The Spanish seem to take the day and shift everything a couple of hours later and throw a mid-day break into the mix - the siesta.

This is surely one of the only times I've posted something close to 1am.  That's because we ate dinner at around 11 and will sleep late tomorrow. Being a morning person, I'm having a hard time adjusting. Getting up after 10am makes me feel like the best part of the day was wasted and I might as well give up on the rest of it.  In reality, the morning hours I missed are just appended onto the end of the day - I'm writing this post in on borrowed time from early this morning.  So, it's a matter of perspective I suppose.

As for the rest of the Spanish lifestyle, we'll see.

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Reader Question: The Impact of Blogging on Travel

By: leelefever on October 21, 2006 - 8:26am

We recently received a nice email from Nath at Blue Fronier Media. Nath asks...

Firstly, how much has running this blog taken over the 'mission' that you guys have embarked upon?

Hi Nathan!
What a can of worms you have opened. We love talking about this stuff... Let's see...about the mission...

TwinF is a huge part of our experience - I am personally thinking about it all the time - usually in terms of what would make great content and where the next Web connection is going to come from (man, I sound like a junky). As for mission though - TwinF was part of the mission from the beginning. We saw it as an opportunity to travel and experiment at the same time. We had a hypothesis that a new type of travel is possible now because the Internet makes it so easy to collect information and meet new people. In testing this hypothesis, I get to learn new things for my work with Common Craft. So, we're very motivated to keep things rolling. I'd also say that our hypothesis has proven to be true - blogs and the Internet have enabled us to learn about places and meet people we never would have known otherwise. TwinF has helped us make our travel world much smaller and more localized. We call it the "Long Tail of Travel", if you're familiar with that idea.

Has it enriched the trip...something to keep you interacting with your world and -- in the case of a travel diary like yours perhaps -- ensuring that you keep engaging critically with what's going on around you; chasing the next post, as it were).

It's a double-edged sword. It is amazing to know that people are watching and are ready to help, but it's also intimidating sometimes. I honestly worry about looking like a rookie or saying something insensitive. Aside from that, the notion of sharing something on the web has pushed us into places and situations that we may not have pursued otherwise. The perfect example is eating weird things in Asia - that would not have been so fun without video and TwinF as a means to share it. Also, it has made us really think about how a place makes us feel because we want to be as authentic as possible. I have no regrets - I would say blogging has enriched more than detracted by a long shot.

Also, Member Travel Experiences along with comments and emails has enriched the trip immeasurably. We found some of our favorite spots by asking for advice from our readers.

Has it become a pain at times when you'd just rather blow TwinF off and be another hedonistic, aimless vagabonding vagrant?

I have a little voice in the back of my head that is constantly keeping track of the length of time between posts and sometimes it is a bit too loud. However, that voice is not specific to TwinF, I've heard it since my first blog and I'm used to it.

It is the administrivia that gets old... Finding a connection, uploading pictures, trying to use the mobile phone, dealing with comment spam, etc. If wifi was ubiquitous and the technology worked consistently, we would have no complaints.

Blowing off TwinF has never even been a possibility and I think we would both count it as a failure if we did. TwinF is a project that are both committed to seeing through to the end and I think we're lucky that we have such fun doing it.

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Observing Young Americans in Prague

By: leelefever on October 20, 2006 - 3:38am

It's Friday and at home that means a special treat : a latte. Today we held up this tradition in Prague and got some fancy coffee at a place with good coffee, terrible techno and wifi. In walking to our seats we walked by 2 young women with Apple computers. Little did we know, but these girls would reveal more to us about themselves than we ever wanted to know.

They were American, college age and filling in a profile for a community web site for college students called Facebook. What was special about this situation was that they conversed about every part of their own profile, loud enough for everyone to hear (an American trait it seems).

So there we were, listening to these two girls debate the section of the profile that required them to describe themselves in adjectives - a unique window into the psyche of these two.

This produced such deep quotes as "I'm using 'welcoming' because that's how I am when people come over" and "I'm 'musical' because I listen to Coldplay A LOT". Apparently the word "workaholic" was a no-no and the ensuing discussion it caused ended in one explaining to the other "You just don't understand - I'm not mad at you." In the end this was the list that was defined by one of the girls to describe them to other Facebooks members:

musical, adaptable, idealistic, random, fun loving, disorganized, welcoming, rambunctious.

We would add these two words to their profile: "Loud" and "Entertaining in Public".

Travel Strife: One Day Between Oslo and Copenhagen

By: leelefever on October 19, 2006 - 7:07am

We learned a valuable lesson on the day we shot this video. Europe is not Asia and apparently whole cities can sell out of hotel rooms - especially on football match days.


Also, in the video I mention the "stupid" check in procedures of Norwegian Airlines. This is what I mean...

All international travelers are lined up in front of 7 check-in counters.  As flights get close to leaving, the attendants yell out "Anyone going to Berlin!  berlin anyone??" When they do, anarchy nearly breaks out as all the people going to Berlin are allowed to the front, replacing people in line. This was repeated 3 times as our departure time got closer and closer. The system punished people who arrived early (us) and rewarded the late ones. We were so frustrated. I don't know why they don't segregate the travelers by flight.  Ugh.


Rounding Third

By: leelefever on October 8, 2006 - 10:58pm

With this post I'm adding a new tag to the "filed under" list:  "goinghome". Our thoughts are increasingly looking to the end of the trip.  We still have a couple of months which is a lot of time, but it really feels like home is just around the corner.  The inevitable transition into a normal working life has been a big topic of discussion and one that we wish could wait another 6 months.  We've also been considering what to do with this web site when we're finished. We're considering coming to a hard stop at the end of the year so we don't just fade away.

Two friends that we met on the Trans-Siberian train are at the very end of a mammoth 400+ days across 40+ countries.  Kathy and Sharon are back in the UK and only days away from home.  They remind us of the mix of excitement and sadness of going home.  Check out their site- a truly incredible trip.

 Alas we have a lot to think about now - like making it to Amsterdam today and meeting our Seattle friends Josh and Betty.  Yup - mainland Europe and hopefully a respite from the ridiculous prices we've found in Scandinavia.  Sachi has never been to Europe, so I think the last phase of the trip will be some of the European basics - and some rest.  We've been moving constantly - every 2 days for weeks and it'll be nice to settle in for a week or so and regroup for the final push.  

Besides the whole city being sold out of hotel rooms thanks to a soccer match, Copenhagen was awesome.  One of the most interesting things to us is how diverse the populations are becoming as we move into mainland Europe.  For most of the trip we've been in mostly homogenous societies (at least in appearance) - India, SE Asia, China, Japan, Russia, Scandinavia; everyone looks the same.  Suddenly, it seems strange to see such diversity - and a little more like home.  Did I mention home again?

Here are a couple of photos from Copenhagen...

 This is "Nyhavn" - quite touristy, but also very  cool.

 One more from there...

 Copenhagen has great cobblestone pedestrian walkways throughout the old city.


Lessons in Line Breaking

By: leelefever on August 27, 2006 - 1:54am

I had made a decision and I was going to act on it.  Gone were the days of standing passively in line while Chinese people wedge themselves in front of me and place an order before I could react.  I was going stand up for myself and try to be a little more Chinese.

This is not the kind of thing you can plan – it just has to happen and just last night, I had my chance.  We were in the Shanghai subway terminal in line for our first subway card at a vending machine, as we’ve done so many times before in other cities.  Just as the couple in front of me at the machine received their card and turned away, a young Chinese guy stepped directly in front of me.  So, with great determination, I stepped in front of him enough to place my right shoulder at about his eye level and in a single motion stepped directly in front of the vending machine.   It was mine!  HAHA!  I’ll show you line breaker!  I’m no push-over tourist softy!

So there I was, with this foreign and unfamiliar machine staring me in the face.  It was mine, yes, but I realized all too quickly that I had no idea how to use it.  The instructions were in English and the #1 read “Select Fare”.  Scratching my head with waves of embarrassment pending, I searched the machine for anything that said “Fare”.  Nothing.  I inquisitively pressed a couple of random buttons in the hopes that something would happen. Nothing.  My pride was on the line here and I was blowing it!  Thoughts of fleeing in shame entered my mind when I heard a voice over my shoulder, “Where do you need to go?”  It was the line breaker politely asking a simple question that I couldn’t answer completely.  All we knew was that we needed to go two stops on Line 2.  He ended up doing the whole transaction for me and after many “thank yous” I left with our subway cards in hand and my pride more than a little crushed.

The moral here is that if you’re going to try to act like a local, be prepared for the entire event.  Going off half-cocked is a good way to shoot yourself in the foot.

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