Category Archives: Overview

Trip Planning

A lot of friends ask me how I find all the cool places we stay at. In this post I’ll introduce a few of the sites that I use for researching and booking places to stay.

TripAdvisor is probably the site I use most heavily when researching trips. I’m sure most people are familiar with it, but it’s a site that ranks hotels, restaurants and attractions based on user reviews. I use it primarily for researching hotels. I’ll look up a specific hotel that I’m considering, which I may have found elsewhere, as well as looking at the hotel rankings for a city or area I’m interested in. For example, I recently used it to check out hotels in St Augustine. There are various useful filters, for example this was for a trip with my partner Paula over Valentine’s weekend, so I filtered to just show the “romantic” hotels and ended up booking the top one on that list, Casa Monica. I don’t go purely off TripAdvisor rankings though, I do read the reviews in quite a bit of detail to try to work out which place would best suit what we’re after on a given trip – and of course cost comes into it too! Also I often find useful tips on TripAdvisor for a given hotel – which rooms to ask for, where to go for dinner, etc.

Tablet Hotels is a site that I use quite a lot to find cool boutique hotels. A lot of the nicer hotels that we’ve stayed at in the past few years I’ve found through Tablet. Some of their properties are pretty expensive, but in a lot of cases they’re comparable to the costs of more boring chain hotels – there is quite a price range, but based on my experience so far, their hotels are always cool and interesting. Tablet is just an agency, so hotels are not exclusively with them – you can book through Tablet, or via other means. Usually I have found Tablet prices to be competitive with (generally the same as) other booking routes, though on our recent trip to Trancoso, I booked one of the hotels I found on Tablet for half the price on Expedia. But this is the exception rather than the rule. They have an optional paid membership called Tablet Plus, which costs $195 a year, and gets you various perks including room upgrades when available (at some but not all hotels), and other things like free drinks/breakfasts/Internet depending on the place. If you think you’ll use Tablet quite a bit it’s worth considering, I have received some nice room upgrades through this. You can use this link to sign up for Tablet’s private sale email, which sends you special offers before they are generally available.

Hotwire is another site I use a lot, which approaches this from a whole different direction than the previous two. They offer discounted deals for hotels or car rental, but you don’t know in advance the name of the hotel or rental car company. I use them quite a bit for both hotels and cars, in certain situations. For example, if I’m staying in Manhattan I often use Hotwire to book a hotel, as hotel rates there tend to be so crazy. I can usually get a 4 star hotel for $150 to $200, and they usually have 3 star hotels for closer to $100, which is much cheaper than booking direct, in most cases. If I’m staying in New York I’m usually not going to be spending much time in the hotel anyway. I’ve used Hotwire in London a number of times too. They often have incredibly cheap deals on hotels by Heathrow Airport, which I’ve used quite a few times – though recently I prefer to stay in central London, I’ll write a post on traveling in and out of Heathrow shortly. I have also used Hotwire fairly often for rental cars – in most cases I don’t have a strong preference which company I use, and often they do have good deals.

Airbnb is a site I’ve used quite a bit recently, where individuals rent out rooms in their homes, or their whole home. I used to think of them mainly as a low budget alternative to staying in a hotel, but these days they have a wide price range and a lot of very cool and interesting places to stay – and all across their range you are likely to get something that is a much better deal than a comparable hotel. I recently used this to book a couple of stays at an extraordinary apartment at the top of St Pancras Clock Tower in London. It’s definitely worth checking out airbnb as an alternative. In most cases you won’t find airbnb places on TripAdvisor.

VRBO is another site somewhat like airbnb, in that it lets home owners rent out their homes directly. It’s been around a bit longer and is a little more “old school” – it doesn’t handle all the booking and reservations in a consistent way like airbnb does. But in some situations I’ve found it useful. I was just booking a house to rent for a few days in Santa Fe, and VRBO had a much bigger choice of places than airbnb there.

Introduction to traveling light

I am a huge fan of traveling light – this makes various aspects of travel easier and more enjoyable. For the past 4 years or so I have been a “one bag” traveler. On all except three of the hundred or so trips I’ve taken over that time, I have taken just a single carry on bag (with no additional bag for a laptop or other items). Two exceptions were when we were going to events where I had to wear a suit or tuxedo, when I carried an additional lightweight suit carrier (which I still carried on the plane). And the third was when I went on a winter bald eagle photography trip, for which I had to take lots of equipment and warm winter clothing! On most trips I use a bag that is smaller than the maximum carry on size, which will fit in the overhead bin even on a small regional jet, or underneath the seat if necessary. Even other seasoned traveler friends of mine are usually impressed at how little I travel with!

I use bags that can be carried as a backpack, rather than bags with wheels, as this gives you more flexibility in many situations, for example when navigating steps, bumpy streets or crowded spaces. I am fairly large and strong and have no problem with the weight of a backpack. My partner is more petite than me and has had occasional back problems, so she prefers to use a lightweight wheeled bag, and that works just fine on most trips.

Benefits of traveling light

It makes life much easier in many situations if you can easily walk carrying all your luggage. I use public transport quite a lot, and it’s generally much easier on buses and train if you are fairly mobile, and able to walk a reasonable distance when needed. I travel through London fairly often, and it’s a real pain to navigate the Underground with large or heavy bags.

Not having to check bags on planes eliminates the risk of the airline losing your bag, which isn’t common but does happen – it has happened to me several times in my pre-one-bag days. In the event of flights being canceled or delayed, you have a lot more flexibility to change plans and switch to a different itinerary if you don’t have any bags checked. In some cases the airline won’t re-route you unless your bags are on the same plane – rules tend to be strict about this on international flights in particular. And even if the airline does let you take a different route from your bags, you risk not being reunited with them in a timely fashion. You also save time when arriving at your destination if you don’t have to wait for bags to arrive at the baggage claim. On international flights, this often means you can get to customs ahead of the rest of your fellow passengers, which can save further time in some situations.

You run less risk of having a bag stolen if you only have a single bag to watch, and you can easily carry it around with you whenever needed, rather than having to leave it watched by someone else even for a brief time.

Packing and unpacking are quicker and simpler tasks if you have less stuff, and there is less chance of forgetting things. Additional techniques like using packing cubes, which I’ll talk more about in another post, can also help with this.

There’s something that’s just satisfying and enjoyable about reducing clutter, whether in your life in general or when traveling. Doing it when traveling is by far the simpler of the two to achieve, so it’s a good place to start! I’m a big believer in having less stuff and more experiences. Also, it’s not a primary reason for doing this, but it is fun to see other people’s reaction when they see you carrying one small carry on for a three week trip around Europe!

In upcoming posts I’ll talk a lot more about different aspects of traveling light. A few other good resources on this topic are One Bag, One Bag, One World and this article by Rick Steves.. There is a whole sub-culture out there around one bag travel!

My current cameras

I enjoy photography and love to document my travels. I’m also quite into wildlife photography in particular. I’ll be doing plenty of posts with tips on taking, editing, organizing and sharing photos.

I use three main cameras currently, all of which have pros and cons:

A Nikon D7000, which is fairly serious DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex). I mainly use a large 18-300mm zoom lens on this. This is what I use for wildlife photography, and I’ve used it a lot for general travel photography too. This has now been superseded by the similar Nikon D7100. While it’s the most powerful of my cameras, it’s also quite bulky and heavy, as well as being expensive (roughly $1000 for the camera body and $1000 for the lens).

A Lumix LX7, which is a high end compact camera that will fit in my pocket. In the majority of situations, this takes pictures that are just as good as those I get with the D7000 – the most obvious exception being when I need a long zoom lens for wildlife or other purposes. It actually has several useful features that the D7000 doesn’t have, which I’ll explain in a future post. Because I like to travel light (a topic I’ll talk a lot about), increasingly often I find this is the only dedicated camera I will take on trips, if I’m not planning to do wildlife photography. It has the added benefit of being more discreet, so you can look less like a tourist, which is often a good thing!

An iPhone 5 (now superseded by the 5S), which is the camera I always have with me. It doesn’t have all the capabilities of the other two, but it also takes great pictures in many situations. Its big advantage is being able to share pictures immediately, which you want to do sometimes, so there will be occasions when I’ll use this even if I have one of the other two cameras with me. And of course it’s even more compact than the LX7 so there might be times when you only want to carry this.

I recommend all of these cameras and will discuss much more about them, other cameras, and many aspects of travel and wildlife photography in future posts.

Travel better!

This is a personal site about travel and photography, and a little bit about life in general. I have been fortunate to travel quite a lot and have some great experiences. A lot of friends ask for tips on travel, so I decided to create this web site with the hope of inspiring you to travel more and travel better!

This is not a site about long term travel, giving up your job and traveling the world – there are lots of other good sites about that. And it’s not about budget travel. Though there are aspects of the site that may be of interest to any traveler, like the material on traveling light and photography. It’s not about out and out luxury travel either. I do stay at some very nice, and expensive, hotels. But I don’t do that all the time, and can’t afford those places for too long. Sometimes I’ll stay in quite basic and economical places, especially if the focus of the trip is not on where we’re staying. But other times I will splurge a bit in order to have a really great experience versus just a good experience. For me, life is about having great experiences rather than accumulating possessions, and my prioritization of where I spend my money reflects that.

I hope you enjoy the site, and please send me feedback on what you like or don’t like, and any suggestions for improvement.