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For many of us volunteering is a rite of passage when we travel abroad. It allows you to get under the skin of different cultures, and get to know the essence of each country through its people.

Whilst there are many positives to volunteering abroad, setting foot overseas to volunteer with migrants and refugees can also be challenging, regardless of how well you prepare yourself.



In the video below, I interviewed a friend of mine, Stephen, who was a refugee camp manager for a volunteering organisation called Lighthouse Relief, who are based on the small Greek island of Lesvos. Being only a stone's throw from Turkey, they are often helping to care for and process 300 new refugees and migrants every day.



If you are thinking about heading abroad to volunteer and help migrants and refugees, there are several things to bear in mind. I've wrapped up all the points raised by Stephen in the Q&A, and added a few others below.

VOLUNTEER THROUGH AN ESTABLISHED ORGANISATION
Although you may think charging into a refugee camp and helping with food, clothes and other essentials may be useful, you'll probably find one or more NGO's already on location, with processes in place to help as many people as possible, in priority order. As such, volunteering through an organisation means you’ll be able to more effectively assist the ones you gave up your time to help. The organisation is also on hand to provide emotional support, if certain experiences become too much for you whilst volunteering.

VOLUNTEERS CAN BE INFLUENTIAL TO MIGRANTS
There are often thousands of migrants and refugees in a particular camp. The majority will have come from war zones, or other unstable environments which they wanted to escape from. At the same time, they are desperate to reach their destination, and will often ask questions and take any advice as fact, and use that to get to where they need to be. As such, be aware that giving onward travel or asylum advice could have unintended consequences and be dangerous. Always check with your organisation for what you should and shouldn’t advise.


MIGRANTS ARE VULNERABLE TO EXPLOITATION
As Stephen eluded to in the video, where migrant camps exist, so do organised criminals. Be aware that criminals could operate in the area you are volunteering, and report any suspicious activity to your organisation or camp manager. Finally, using social media responsibly - such as not taking photos or videos of migrants and refugees out of respect for their safety and privacy – could help keep migrants and their families secure.

VOLUNTEER FOR AT LEAST TWO WEEKS 
If you only have a few days to spare, then the consensus from Stephen, and others, is that it may be better to help in other ways. Ideally you need two weeks on the ground to make an impact. Aside from getting to know your fellow volunteers, it also allows your organisation to divvy up specific tasks over that 2 week period. If you can volunteer for longer, great!

For more information about volunteering abroad, including tips, advice and videos, please check out the NCVO website, at www.ncvo.org.uk. The following link also gives advice about volunteering safely within a migrant camp - http://bit.ly/2GaN604.

If you have volunteered before and you have more tips or advice, or if you have any other questions about volunteering, feel free to add them below in the comments.

Disclaimer - this blog post and video were created in collaboration with the Government (HMG) and NCVO. 
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The new General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) come into force starting 25th May 2018. The regulations are designed to be an update to the Data Protection Act laws from 1998, which - as you can imagine - are waaaaay out of date.

So are bloggers affected by GDPR? Yes indeed.



Whilst GDPR covers the EU area (any bloggers in Europe are affected), if you are a blogger in say the US or Australia, and you hold personal data on someone in Europe, then you are also affected.

Put simply, any organisation or individual entity that collects personal data, such as email addresses, falls under GDPR. That means pretty much every blogger and business operating online will be affected.

BIG DISCLAIMER before I go any further. I am not a legal or privacy expert. I work in digital marketing. Everything written below is my interpretation of GDPR from a bloggers point of view. As such, please get someone with a legal background to double check how you are affected, and the steps you need to take to become compliant. Thanks! Read on...

Whilst this is no means a full proof guide to becoming GDPR compliant, it should give you enough insight into what you need to change in terms of processes and compliance moving forwards.

From the end of May onwards, the consumer (or 'data subject') has more power and control than ever before. So the more transparent you make your reasons for collecting and processing data (such as email addresses), and the more control you give users over that data, the safer you'll be.

But will bloggers really be penalised for lack of compliance under GDPR? Surely the ICO should be going after the big businesses that process lots of data? Very true and a good point. The honest answer is I have no idea.

And I'm not sure any GDPR experts have a clue either.

Take the EU cookie law for example. This came into force back in 2011, making it mandatory for websites to be transparent about using cookies, with the idea that users could opt-out of cookies if they wanted. But there are hundreds of blogs and websites that don't have a cookie or privacy policy. And the tidal wave of clampdowns never arrived. Will GDPR be the same? Only time will tell.

GDPR WORDING
Let's start with decoding some of the overly complicated terminology used by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO). This is the UK's independent authority set up to uphold data privacy for individuals. The more you understand about the key wordings and rights set by the ICO, the easier it will be for you to comply.

The ICO talks about data controllers and data processors. A data controller determines the purposes and means of processing personal data. A data processor is responsible for processing personal data on behalf of a controller. And the two are intrinsically linked.

For example, let's take my friends blog, Vicky Flip Flop. Vicky kindly agreed to let me use her blog as an example - thanks Vic! So in her case, she is a data controller. She uses Google Analytics, Adsense and Mailchimp, which are her data processors.

HOW ARE BLOGGERS AFFECTED BY GDPR?
The new privacy regulations talk about 'personal data'. This means any online personal identifier: name, address, phone number, email address, National Insurance Number, IP address and other IDs.

As such, the areas where GDPR affects bloggers are as follows:

  • Email subscriptions and newsletters 
  • Blog comments (Wordpress) 
  • If you use any sort of tracking, such as Google Analytics 
  • Contact forms 
  • Plugins that might collect personal data
  • Competitions and giveaways

The crux behind each of the areas above is that you need to have a lawful basis for collecting and processing personal data. The simplest way to achieve that is for users to opt-in (and thus give you consent) when giving you their data. 

Consent, in ICO terms, means you then have a lawful basis for processing their information. The best way to do that is to add a checkbox to your comments and contact forms, with a little legal text, such as the examples below: 



There is a nice Wordpress plugin called WP GDPR Compliance, which adds the nice checkbox shown above.

NOTE - not adding a checkbox means that users are giving you their personal data without consent, which means that technically, you would be in breach of the GDPR laws.

If that wasn't enough, you also need a record of how someone opted in, and when they opted in. For those that use Wordpress or Blogger, you receive a time stamp from contact forms and comments, which is perfect.


The other option is to somehow switch off Wordpress from collecting the personal data in the first place...no data means no consent required. Although I'm not sure how to achieve this.

GDPR & BLOGGER EMAIL DATABASES
For email subscriptions and databases, there is good and bad news. The good news is that if you have email subscription forms on your site, all you need to do is add an opt-in mechanism, such as a checkbox. This shows the user has given you consent to add them to the database.

Getting users to simply hit subscribe will no longer be GDPR compliant. I would say most bloggers have a simple form, such as the ones below, taken from Vicky's blog, and Monica's blog (TheTravelHack.com):



I asked the ICO whether these would be compliant under GDPR. "Take my friend's blog, and note the 'subscribe to the newsletter' link towards the bottom of the page. In this case, this wouldn't be GDPR compliant moving forwards, right?"

This was their reply:

"Yes, everything needs to be very transparent"

The bad news is that GDPR doesn’t just affect personal data collected moving forwards...it also affects how you've requested and collected email addresses previously.

As per my comment above, if you can't prove a user opted in / consented to subscribing, AND when they opted in since you started collecting personal data, then you may need to remove them from your database.

Yes, really.

The option here is to send an email out to your subscribers, explaining that you're updating your database, and ask them to re-subscribe (essentially getting them to opt-in this time around). Those that re-subscribe using the new opt-in method can remain in the database.

Here was my question for the ICO, and what they said in reply. "GDPR applies to everyone that has signed up to their newsletters, prior to the 25th May, correct? In which case will they (bloggers) have to remove those people from their database and delete whatever data they have if they cannot prove those users explicitly opted in, and on what day? Or if they cannot get them to re-validate their subscription?"

The ICO:

"Their consent will need to be GDPR compliant, they may need to refresh the consent or have another legal basis for processing the data. If the subscribers don't refresh their consent, their data shouldn't be keep no longer than is necessary."

A vague response, but you get the idea.

The other saving grace (potentially) is that consent isn't the only legal basis you have for collecting an storing email addresses. The most flexible and loose terminology is around 'legitimate interests'. The ICO says digital and direct marketing may be a legitimate interest (helpful).

The ICO also says that: "...as long as the marketing is carried out in compliance with e-privacy laws and other legal and industry standards, in most cases it is likely that direct marketing is a legitimate interest".

To add a further twist, it seems that if you are a full time blogger, and rely on your subscriber database, it may be the case you don't need consent for previous sign ups, as the processing is minimal and provides a 'clear benefit' to you, AND 'there’s a limited privacy impact on the individual', which is true.

See how vague and complicated this all is?!

I know what you're thinking. If you have hundreds or thousands of email subscribers, you're probably going to lose a lot, if you don't want to risk reliance on 'legitimate interests'. But you're not alone - think of the huge companies operating in Europe that have thousands of email subscribers. If they can't prove opt-in type and time, they are also going to have to remove a large chunk of their subscriber base also, if they want to comply.

For those using Mailchimp, they are ahead of the game, and have published information about how they comply, and how they can help you comply - https://blog.mailchimp.com/gdpr-tools-from-mailchimp/.

COMPETITIONS & GIVEAWAYS
For most bloggers, you will have run a competition or giveaway in the past. For people to enter, they may have to tweet, send you an image, select an answer to a question...or various other ways. If you've used Rafflecopter or Gleam, the chances are that you have collected a lot of personal data on everyone that entered. That means GDPR comes into play.

The first thing to do is check whether the users opted-in to the competition or giveaway, and that there was a privacy policy or terms and conditions link somewhere near the entry mechanic that proves they consented to giving you information.

If you don't have the content (which is likely), then you will need to delete the data. Now, you might have passed names and email addresses to the brand you were running the competition or giveaway with. You guessed it - they also need to delete that data.

The only option for keeping the data is to get consent from those that entered, otherwise you a) have no lawful basis for using the data, and b) you're keeping the data for much longer than required.

Gleam have written a post on how their systems will comply - and help you comply - with GDPR. Please review their post here - https://gleam.io/docs/updates#gdpr. Hopefully Rafflecopter will do the same in the next few weeks.

GDPR & THIRD PARTY COOKIES
Next up, and where it gets a little more complicated, is with Google Analytics and adverts. In order to track users on your blog, the first time someone visits your site, Google Analytics will drop a few cookies to help them track users. Those cookies collect personal data in the form of identifiers.

As such, you need to make people aware of - and get them to opt-in to - cookies. Not only that. You need to tell users what cookies you are using, what data they collect, what you use those cookies and that data for, and how people can delete their cookies, if they don't want any data collected.

This includes using Google Analytics, Google AdSense and Facebook advertising (if you use the Pixel). In the case of running ads on your site, or retargeting through Facebook, the following will apply: "If your blog uses an analytics provider who uses cookies to capture aggregate demographic info about its readers, and a Facebook advertiser who installs the Facebook pixel on its website in order to measure ad conversions or retarget advertisements on Facebook" (more info here - https://developers.facebook.com/docs/privacy/)

For those using Blogger, Google has already made changes to this effect, and you'll notice a big pop up banner at the top of your site if you clear your cookies.

For those using Wordpress, there are a number of simple, free plugins you can use to set this up. These are:


Once you've got all the opt-in checkboxes set up, and the cookie banner loaded, the next thing you need to do is reference all the cookies, what they are used for, and what you use the data for, in a privacy policy.

If you have a privacy policy already, then that is a great start, but it will need updating to reflect the GDPR changes. If you don't have a privacy policy, then you can search online to find one.  I found some excellent templates on SEQLegal, for example, although you have to pay to use their licence.

Just ensure every area mentioned above that is relevant to your blog is included in the privacy policy. Once you've got a privacy policy, updated it with all the data you collect, and stated how and why you process that data, you're all set. Well, you're compliant anyway.

SUBJECT ACCESS REQUESTSUnder the new GDPR laws, any user can request to see the information a blogger or organisation holds on them (known as 'Rights to Access').

That means diving into Wordpress or Blogger, looking back over comments and contact forms, checking your email marketing provider, and - most complicated of all - finding their session data within Google Analytics.

Thankfully Google has made several big changes over the last few weeks to help businesses and bloggers comply with GDPR, such as data retention. These can be viewed here for Google Analytics - https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/7667196.

They have created a way for you to delete data that is no longer processed, and created a way for you to find and delete data on a particular user. This allows you to manage the deletion of all data associated with an individual user (e.g. site visitor) from your Google Analytics. Check back here under 'User Deletion API' - https://developers.google.com/analytics/#apis-for-reporting-and-configuration.

Once you have all the information on the data subject, you then need to share it with them in a secure way. This could be a password protected zip file, for example.

DATA BREACHES
Last but not least is arguably the most important part of GDPR: data breaches.

If, for example, your Mailchimp account or Wordpress account is hacked, there are certain steps you need to take to notify both your data subjects and the ICO, then do everything in your power to secure the data.

Interestingly, under GDPR, is there is a breach in, say Facebook, Mailchimp or Google, and it had nothing to do with you, technically your data subjects data is at risk. So not only are those third party providers liable, so are you.

Scary, right?!

As such, if you process a lot of user data, it's worth checking if you need some kind of insurance, and to what level. This is the main reason you'll have seen new privacy policies flying around your inbox over the last month or so from various email and software providers.

REGISTRATION WITH THE ICO
I've read in a couple of other posts, that bloggers need to register with the ICO. This will apply to some bloggers, and not to others. The ICO has a simple self assessment tool that you can use in order to work out whether you need to register - https://ico.org.uk/for-organisations/register/self-assessment/.

I've used the tool a couple of times, and have come up with the following summary:

  • If you don't decide how the personal data you collect is processed, then you don't have to register. But, in the majority of blogger cases, you decide to use Google Analytics and Mailchimp, so you do decide how the data is processed
  • If you process information for the use of advertising or marketing for others (for example, you put an affiliate ad or a discount code into your newsletter), then you have to register


Registration with the ICO costs £35. For more information, see the registration page here - https://ico.org.uk/for-organisations/register/.

Frustratingly, once you have registered, you are treated like a company, which means you're private information is on public display in a data register. That means if you're a blogger that works from home and you use your home address for registration, everyone can see it. Here's Facebook's entry for example - https://ico.org.uk/ESDWebPages/Entry/ZA265194

Given we're trying to comply with all these new privacy laws, surely this is stupidly ironic and slightly dangerous to provide the ICO with details which are then put on public display?!

As such, my personal feeling and suggestion is that bloggers who think they need to register should contact the ICO directly and ask for advice before registering.

Hopefully this is one area that will become clearer over the next few weeks.

SUMMARY
Judging by the response on Twitter, and through chatting to other bloggers, it seems as though quite a few bloggers know what GDPR is, and know when it is coming, but aren't sure how they are affected. But the majority don't know about GDPR, and don't know what it affects them, which is incredibly worrying.

To add another layer of complication, cookies and email marketing also fall under the upcoming new ePrivacy Regulation (ePR), which will overlap with GDPR. This still requires consent, although I'm hoping any updates to this initiative will help bloggers, rather than hinder their progress.

Take time to make sure your blog is compliant, especially if you are a full time blogger. The penalties for non-compliance are financial, so the impact could be serious. Here are all the useful links again:




As a summary, here are the steps bloggers need to take in order to be compliant with the GDPR laws coming into force:
  • Create and display a privacy policy for how and why personal data is collected 
  • Create opt-in mechanisms for email subscribers and blog commenters
  • Be able to evidence and date stamp opt-in permissions
  • Reference which platforms you use to run adverts on your site, or through Facebook ad targeting, and again explain how and why personal data is collected and used
  • Check whether you need to register with the ICO
  • Create a process document for all the personal data that is collected, from which sources, who processes the data, and how you will comply with rights of access (and deletion if required) of that data (handy template from the ICO here)

To re-iterate again, I'm not a legal or..
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I'm not particularly brand loyal when it comes to hotels. More often than not, I would choose to stay in an Airbnb property when I travel, whether that is for work or play.

But over the last few years I've been in a bit of accommodation limbo. The Airbnb's on offer haven't quite met the standards of previous stays, and the hotels I chose weren't great either.

Enter Eden Locke.

The design-focused apart-hotel opened in late 2017, and sits in the heart of Edinburgh, at the West end of George Street, amongst the bars, shops and restaurants of Edinburgh's New Town. A mere 15-minute walk from Waverley station, Eden Locke sits in a prime location.



SERVICE
I discovered it purely by chance, but I'm very glad I found it. The ground floor lobby is shared with the hip coffee shop Hyde & Son, with the aroma of fresh coffee greeting you every time you check in.

Speaking of checking in, I've now stayed at Eden Locke three times, and regardless of what time I've checked in (once as late as 11pm), I've always been greeted by someone smartly dressed, usually with a tweed waistcoat, and a big friendly smile. First impressions go a long way.

The hotel is new, so naturally most of the areas around the hotel look clean and unblemished. I might amend this review in a few years, but for the time being the hotel is squeaky clean.

THE ROOMS
After collecting your key card, you head to the either the front lift or the rear lift. Either way, you need your key card to activate the lift - important given anyone could grab a coffee from Hyde & Son and wander around the hotel otherwise.

Similarly, if you took the stairs, you would need your key card to exit the stairwell. Top marks for security...but it could get interesting if you were staying in the hotel, left your key card in your room and got stuck in the stairwell!

Most of the rooms at Eden Locke are an open studio style. The first thing that struck me is the amount of space you get compared to a regular hotel room. There is LOADS of space.



After dumping your bags inside the door and hanging up coats, you can either walk into the bedroom or the open lounge and kitchen. The size of bathroom is pretty considerable too.



All rooms have big comfy beds with room to walk around the bed at either side. There is also ample storage, and - this gets top marks - plenty of plug sockets around the bed, and those sockets have separate USB sockets.



In the age of smartphones, watches, iPads and more, the more sockets near the bed, the better. So Eden Locke have nailed that placement.

In the kitchen / lounge area you'll be greeted with a signature L-shaped sofa, a table, chairs and a Smart TV. You'll find tea and coffee, tubs of granola and porridge, fresh milk, and bottled water.




It also seems as if every room has it's own WiFi login too, which is superb and means that no-one else can hog the bandwidth of your own WiFi.

PRICE
You might be more alarmed by the price of the craft beers and quality wine downstairs at Hyde & Son than the price of the studio rooms. In the low season rooms are available from £79, rising up to and beyond £200 in high season. I've never paid more than £97 each time I've visited.

Eden Locke pitches itself as a calm refuge in the heart of Edinburgh's New Town. I would have to agree. Grab yourself a cup of tea after exploring this wonderful city, plonk yourself down in from of the TV, and then retire next door to the comfy bed to get some zzzz's.

Sounds like a good stay, am I right? :)

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

Reviewed on 15th March by Simon Heyes
http://www.lockeliving.com/eden-locke/
Eden Locke offers studio-based hotel rooms in the centre of Edinburgh.
Eden Locke offers a calm refuge in the heart of Edinburgh's New Town. Every studio apartment has been meticulously designed to include everything you want - regardless of your length of stay.
Rating: 5

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I've always been a fan of Osprey backpacks and holdalls. My 6 month round the world trip back in 2012/2013 was done with an older 55 litre backpack, and that saw everything from the heights of Bolivia to the smog-ridden cities of Eastern China.

In my opinion, Osprey are consistent in the rucksacks and holdalls they produce. They are always durable, reliable and comfortable, and the new Transporter 95 'adventureproof' holdall/rucksack hybrid continues this trend.

I put the Osprey Transporter 95 to the test during a long weekend to Coniston in the Lake District, in the North West of England, and didn't mess around when it came to throwing into onto the floor, into and out of the car, and around the rooms of the YHA Coniston.



Have a peek at the video below for the full unboxing. As you'll see in the video, the Osprey Transporter 95 packs down to a ridiculously small size when empty.

OSPREY TRANSPORTER 95 - REVIEW & UNBOXING - YouTube


The first thing I noticed is how incredibly rugged and durable all the materials are, from strong zips, water-resistant materials and tough handles which almost encourage you to throw the holdall around.

It's probably a good thing then that Osprey say: "The construction patterns and materials of Transporter have been chosen to provide a high level of weather resistance and the ability to withstand a lot of punishment."

HOLDALL / BACKPACK HYBRID

The Transporter 95 has four large grab handles around the bag, and hidden away carry straps that convert it into a backpack.




The Transporter is pitched as an expedition-style duffel bag. When you think about your journey to that expedition, it takes on all forms - being chucked around on luggage carousels and baggage handlers at the airport, then you might give it to a coach driver who chucks it onto a pile of other bags in the diesel-fulled belly of his vehicle.

During your journey, your bag is on a journey of its own. Being tested for strength and durability, rips and strains.

In each corner of the Transporter 95 holdall, there are four clips, which pin down the corners of the bag. The backpack straps neatly fold away into a zipped compartment (clever), so the probability of straps, zips and loose material to get snagged is pretty low with the transporter.

Then, when you arrive and need to put the bag onto your bag, you get the straps out of the zipped compartment, and swing it round onto your back, and allow the standard Osprey straps to hug you comfortably, and for the pack to fit snug against your back.

TRANSPORTER 95 FEATURES
  • Backpack harness carry straps
  • Backpack harness stows in main cover pocket
  • Durable and water resistant fabric
  • External end pocket
  • ID card holder pocket
  • Internal mesh pockets
  • Internal mesh side pocket
  • 4 grab handles
  • Lockable zips
  • Sternum strap with emergency whistle
  • Can fit a Springer Spaniel inside*

FINAL TIPS
As I was heading to the Lake District for a walking weekend, one trick I used was saving some of the space in the main compartment for a day sack. This means I only needed to lug around one holdall for the main parts of my journey, and use the day sack for walks. You could use the same trick for cabin and hold luggage at the airport.

Whilst my 55 litre old Osprey pack was ideal for backpacking, the 95 litre version of the Transporter  isn't is a full-on 'travel round the world' or expedition backpack. It's ideal for carrying lots of luggage on long trips, but not the best solution if the pack is going to be on your back most of the time.

The Osprey Transporter 95 costs £130 and is a fantastic, versatile, well-built, rugged holdall, with the advantage of a converting into a usable large rucksack. You can buy it on Amazon, or directly from Osprey.

*The pack also gets the thumbs up from Pip :)




Reviewed on 13th March by Simon Heyes
Osprey Transporter 95 holdall
A versatile, durable, water-resistant, rugged option as a holdall / backpack hybrid.
The Transporter 95 is a brilliant all-round travel pack, offering the performance and durability of an expedition holdall, with the comfort, build quality and innovative features that Osprey is known for.
Rating: 5

Disclaimer - The Osprey Transporter 95 holdall was gifted to me by the Osprey team. Whilst I didn't pay for the pack, the views and opinions I present here are explicitly my own. 
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Looking back at 2017, I did a lot of travelling. I visited the usual favourites of the Lake District, Cornwall, Scotland, I skied in France and Switzerland, and bagged three new countries in the form of Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Slovenia.

It was a busy old year!

So when people ask me: "What are your travel plans for 2018?", I have to stop and think. I've got a wedding in Italy planned, a trip to the Loire Valley in France...and that's about it. For a travel blogger, that is not good!

Then, out of the blue, American Express® got in touch and asked if I would like to pop a long to an event in London, in a collaboration with Shortlist Magazine and British Airways. January had been fairly quiet, so I said yes. And the fuse for my travel inspiration for 2018 was ignited.

TRAVEL INSPIRATION
The event was held at the swanky Ham Yard Hotel in Piccadilly Circus, London.





Together with around 150 Shortlist and Stylist magazine readers, I was invited to watch a screening of The Grand Budapest Hotel - a film I love - as well as mingle and chat about all things travel.




The hashtag for the event was #EscapeJanuary - I had escaped to central London, but my travel mind would soon begin to wander much further.

Interspersed between the glasses of wine and elderflower presses (dry January was in full swing!), helium filled balloons swayed between the minglers. The balloons were imprinted with the branding of the sponsors, as well as British Airways American Express® Credit Card.



Then I saw the card on the screen. And another screen. Then on the projected TV above the bar.



I had one of these BA AMEX cards previously, which - you'll have to read in a separate post - allowed me to fly First Class return to New York a few years ago. I also knew I had some Avios points in my BA account after the flights my wife and I took to Sri Lanka, so I logged on and checked - 6,500.
MOUNTAINS & SKIING

My excitement was paused as we were ushered through into the screening room.



The film only made my excitement worse. Although the Grand Budapest Hotel was set in the fictional country of Zubrowska, it was filmed entirely in Germany, with many scenes showing mountain ranges and skiing.

I've skied every year since 2002, but nothing has been booked for this year. And that, dear readers, was all I needed to kick my travel plans into gear for 2018.

I searched for return flights to Geneva. £105 with BA. Then with my 6,500 Avios I could get £40 off. £65 return. With BA. AMAZING.

Then I looked for return flights to Warsaw (I've been wanting to visit Poland for the last few years). £126 return. Again, I could get £40 off. This was awesome.

I helped myself to a beer at the bar and began making plans. Whilst I love to be spontaneous and book trips on the spot, I now have a wife and dog to think about, so my plans would need to include them :)

TRAVEL FOR 2018, BOOKED!
It's now been 48 hours since the event, and I confirm I now have THREE trips in the diary for 2018! In March I'll be heading to Coniston in the Lake District with some friends. In April I'll be heading out to Swaziland on a blogger trip, and in May I'll be heading to Poland!

So although it looks like skiing as escaped me this year, I'll still get my mountain fix in the shape of the Lake District.

I feel so much better for getting more trips booked in! :)

TURN TRAVEL PLANS INTO REALITY
January is a tough month. It's a long month following Christmas, it's the time when the tax man comes knocking, but it's also the time when airlines and other sites put on their January sales.

This is where the BA AMEX card comes in handy. Not only do you get 1 Avios point for every £1 you spend, but new Cardmembers can earn 5,000 Avios when they spend £1,000 in the first 3 months.

If I added that 5,000 Avios to my current 6,500, I would be able to afford return flights to a host of different destinations around Europe, such as Paris, Munich, Madrid or Berlin.

I hope you've got some trips booked for 2018! Let me know where you're heading in the comments below! :)


Disclaimer - this is a sponsored post in association with American Express. Whilst this is a collaboration with them, Shortlist and British Airways, all the thoughts, comments and travel plans are my own.

Promoter: American Express Services Europe Limited has its registered office at Belgrave House, 76 Buckingham Palace Road, London SW1W 9AX, United Kingdom. It is registered in England and Wales with Company Number: 1833139 and authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority.

Representative 22.9% APR variable. Subject to availability. Applicants must be 18 years old or over. Approval subject to status and terms and conditions apply. Terms and exclusions apply to the collection and redemption of Avios and to the welcome bonus. Visit BA.com/Amex for more information.
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In one of my last ski blog posts I said that if you go skiing for a week, it will cost you around £1000. I still stand by that statement..if you plan on skiing for a full week. BUT...if you do some research into travel options, sales and offers, you could get three full days skiing over a long weekend in the Alps for a budget of £350.

Don't believe me? Read on...


Skiing during a cheap weekend in Germany

Here's how the budget skiing scenario came about. Last year was a big blow out. We went big. We went luxury catered chalet for a week, and it was awesome. That was because all my close friends were having babies left, right and centre. We knew we wouldn't be able to ski this year. Unless it was cheap. And over a weekend.

So I started researching. And with the right offers, over the right dates, with the right number of people, you can get everything included from between £350 - £450, depending on when you ski, where you ski and who you go with.

Enough of the babble - here's a complete guide (and video) for how to go skiing on a budget.

GET PLANNING & BUDGETING
The most important thing for a ski holiday is to agree on the following, between the group of you who plan to go skiing:

  • Dates of when you want to ski
  • Places you want to ski
  • Budget for skiing for each person
A quick comment of each of those points above:

Dates - typically flights that leave on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday are going to be much more expensive than mid-week flights. A good tip is to travel Thurs - Mon, or Thurs - Tues to get the cheapest ski flights, and keep your budgets in check.

Places you want to ski - if you're skiing for a long weekend, you want a resort that is fairly close to the airport, so you can maximise your time on the slopes. Also bear in mind flights are also likely to be cheaper to bigger Alps airport hubs such as Geneva or Lyon. For this example, I've used Geneva. It's 1 hour 20 mins from Chamonix, 1 hour 40 mins from Flaine (used throughout this example) and 2.5 hours from Meribel.

Budget - this is important to everyone agrees to stick to the budget set.

Once you have that information, you can get your geek on and start looking at flights, accommodation and more.

In terms of budget, these are the elements you need to consider:

  • Return flights
  • Car hire
  • Accommodation
  • Ski lift pass
  • Ski hire

You'll also need budget for food and those all important apres ski beers of course, but for the purposes of this post, I've stuck to the list above.

Flights - you can use various sites to keep track of flights and prices. My personal favourite at the moment is Google Flights, but you can use Skyscanner or Kayak too.

With Google Flights, you simply put in the dates you want to travel and the airports you want to fly to, and set a tracker on the exact flight(s) you want. For this example, my ski dates were 22nd March - 26th/27th March.

Every time the flight changes, you get a notification to your inbox. 


As you can see, flights were already cheap! Remember those are the base costs though - you may need to pay for hold luggage and sports equipment if you're choosing to take skis with you. However, as you'll see below, it's often cheaper (and less faff) to hire them in resort.

Car Hire - there are many budget transport options in the Alps, but if there's 3 or 4 of you going skiing, the most likely cheap option is to hire a car and share the costs. I use Argus Car Hire to view prices from different suppliers.

Accommodation - this is where the fun really begins. Probably the best option to find cheap ski accommodation, is to look through the options on Airbnb. There are loads of cheap properties, and if you find one close to the slopes, you're winning.

Did you also know there are hostels in the Alps? Check out this list from Hostelworld.

Also check sites such as Late Rooms and Booking.com for cheap deals.

Ski lift pass - lift pass prices vary depending on the ski area you want to explore. Typically the larger ski areas demand higher prices, and the more days you want to ski, the more it costs. I would suggest a 3 or 4 day ski pass for your long weekend, which gives you the balance between cost and time on the slopes.

Ski hire - there are deals to be had in lots of resorts for ski hire. Check Intersport or Ski Set for the best options, and then Google discount codes for Intersport and you're more than likely to come across one or two voucher codes which give you even more money off.

Food & drink - just a quick note on food and drink. For food, do a big supermarket shop on your way up to the slopes. Buy ingredients for meals that can be split between the group (chilli con carne, pasta, pizza) and also buy sandwiches and nibbles for the slopes in the supermarket too - you'll save a fortune. For beers - keep an eye on happy hour for different bars in your resort. Each will have slightly different happy hour times, so if you plan it correctly, you can bar hop on the cheap!

GO SKIING ON THE CHEAP!

So based on the research suggestions above, this is what I found:

Return flights from London to Geneva, with one hold bag, for £66.43...



....car hire for £215 (which, when split between 4 is £54)....


....accommodation for 5 nights in Flaine through Airbnb for £459 (£115 when split between 4 - that's £23 per night!!!), which is 2 minutes from the slopes...


....lift pass for the whole Grand Massif area for £165 each for 4 days skiing....


...and for ski hire, I've assumed you need skis, boots and helmet to keep your hold luggage light. £50 for 4 days.



Now if we add all those costs together, we get to £449 for the long ski weekend:



Bear in mind that this total includes 4 days skiing in the middle of the season. The best deal I've found is to fly out on the Thursday and back on the Monday, which takes a day off the costs for car hire, accommodation, ski pass and ski hire. Using the same method, that came to £353 for a weekend in Flaine in early April.



There you have it - skiing on a budget IS possible - you just need good research and planning skills, discount codes and a good eye for a bargain :)

You also have the option of skiing in smaller mountain regions, such as Bulgaria and Slovenia. Using the same method, this could be even cheaper than the main Alps region, but be aware the ski areas are smaller, and there will be less accommodation options.

Oh, and don't forget, you can always do a city break that is close to the Alps, and get away for one day skiing - like the skier in me did in Munich / the Zugspitze in Germany a few years ago :)

Let me know if you have any cheap, budget skiing tips in the comments below!
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"You shouldn't be dancing on tables at your age!", my grandma said after I'd told her the story.

It was my birthday. I was in a restaurant in Preston that encouraged dancing on tables, once the food had been cleared away. It was a brilliant night. Everyone danced, everyone got a little drunk, and everyone had a good time.

It was my 18th birthday.

Watch the full Age Is Just A Number video towards the bottom of this post! :)

Me and my grandma :)

That little flashback got me thinking. Who gets to dictate at what age you should, or shouldn't do something? At what age do you 'grow up'? Maybe it's a generational thing. My grandma would never have danced on tables when she was 18. In fact she would never have danced on tables, period.*

Or is it a societal thing? A couple of years ago I went to a fancy dress party as Aladdin. At 33, would society have deemed me too old to do such a thing? To imitate riding an imaginary carpet whilst been fed a shot of Jager?

I have no idea, and nor do I care. After all, age is just a number, right?

COMPLETE THAT BUCKET LIST
If like me, you couldn't care less about age, then read on fellow-age-stereotype smasher.

You've got one life. So live it. A great motto to live by. That motto becomes even more important if you have a bucket list. Because a bucket list doesn't have a specific time completion date. Not really. Once you make a bucket list, it's there to be completed until the day you die.

That means no matter what is on the bucket list, you can do it at any age.

Society, older generations, mood hoovers, naysayers...they can all GTF.

Skydiving was on my bucket list. I did it aged 31. I threw myself out of a perfectly good plane over the incredible town of Queenstown in New Zealand. Nzone - the people who helped me do my skydive - regularly help people of all ages do the same - every week they showcase their jumpers, and they range from age 7 to 77. The oldest person to ever do a skydive is 101 years old. 101 YEARS OLD.

YOU'VE NEVER TOO OLD
Whatever stereotypes exist about age and social class, smash them to pieces. You're only as old as you feel.

You're not too old to learn a new skill.
You're not too old to do something new.
You're not too old to dance on tables.

Life is short. Enjoy every minute.

*Sorry grandma!

AGE IS JUST A NUMBER - YouTube



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Disclaimer: This post and video was created in collaboration with Essilor, who are running the #ageisjustanumber campaign. Find out more at Ageisjustanumber.com.
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