A self-portrait from a road trip through Utah last summer near Forrest Gump point outside Monument Valley.
The hardest part of travel isn’t what you think. It’s not the jet lag, food poisoning or being stuck in the middle seat on a 12-hour flight between two people who’ve haven’t showered months or possibly ever.
The hardest part of travel is actually coming home. The longer I’ve been gone, the harder the transition is to life in America is. (This time I was only gone for five months in Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and Australia.)
The first few days and sometimes weeks of being back in the States are bliss. Those moments are filled with an overindulgence of the things I missed – cheese, bagels, breakfast tacos, hot showers with consistent water pressure, cheese and driving around with the windows down, singing horribly loud to Jimmy Eat World like it’s 2002. Did I mention cheese? (There’s no cheese in Asia.)
There’s nothing quite like that first trip to the Super Target, one of the great wonders of the modern world, where I can literally buy EVERYTHING I need in one place instead of going to five different stores to get the same things. Life in America is pretty convenient.
The reverse culture shock is a constant struggle. I always forget about sales tax and end up arguing with the Walgreens’ cashier about why my $1.99 mints aren’t really $1.99. The Southern drawl can sound so thick that I find myself pausing to translate it in my head before responding.
For me, the trick to readjusting is to learn how to take advantage of America’s virtues without falling victim to her vices. It is a daily balancing act. Plastic grocery bags remind me of the polluted beaches in Vietnam. The endless line of injury lawyer billboards with get-rich-quick marketing tactics are a reminder of the fact that I can’t afford U.S. health insurance, which is part of the reason I’m spending so much time abroad. (I want to start a GoFundMe page to replace these billboards with photos of kittens, puppies and baby llamas with thought bubbles that simply say “Drive Safe!”) However, every time I brush my teeth, I am grateful for the privilege of safe, drinkable tap water, after months of filtering my own.
Defining home is even more difficult. Where is home? When people ask me that question, my response is a laugh.
It’s a simple question with a complicated answer. In the past 10 years, I have lived in five states (South Carolina, Missouri, Alabama, California and Texas) and five countries (England, Australia, India, Thailand and the U.S.).
Pico Iyer: Where is home? - YouTube
My favorite travel writer, Pico Iyer, tackles the idea of home in a TED talk.
My favorite writer and fellow traveler, Pico Iyer, addressed the topic in a TED talk a few years ago. Over 220 million people live in a country that’s not their own. In his Ted talk, Iyer says what if the question “where do you come from?” simply means “Which place goes deepest inside you? Where do you try to spend most of your time?”
I surely don’t belong in that small South Carolina town where I was born. I was always the outcast. People thought I was crazy for wanting to travel. If the people who go after what they want in life 120% are crazy, then I’m happy to be called crazy. Life’s too short to do otherwise.
People often ask if I will ever settle down or if I want a home base. I’d like a home base but more than one. I love Texas but I also love Thailand. Buenos Aires also has a special place in my heart. Ideally, I’d split my year between a few different places between my work travels.
I’ve spent the last ten years living on a bridge between America and Asia. From 2009 to 2012, I spent two to six months a year working/traveling in Asia, which I considered making my home. I kept going back to America even though I never felt like I belonged there. I spent two months in Thailand on my recent Asia trip. It was the first time I’d been back to Southeast Asia in five years. The minute I got off the flight in Bangkok, it felt like home in the same way that Texas feels like home. Five years ago, I made a decision to go back to the States. While I loved Asia, I felt like I could only build a career in the U.S. (Plus, cheese might have had something to do with it.)
Pico Iyer makes another interesting point in his talk: “Home is not just the place where you happen to be born. It’s the place where you become yourself.” If this is true, then home is Northern England; Birmingham, Alabama; Sydney, Australia and India. Those four places had the single greatest influence on shaping my future.
A few of the places that have been “home” to me. Clockwise from top left: India; Birmingham, Alabama; Thailand and Austin, Texas.
The one thing that makes my traveling life easier is my ability to pick up where I left off with people I haven’t seen in months or years like no time has passed. Home is less about a place now for me and more about the people. A large portion of my adventures now are visiting old friends. (I’m currently typing this from my friend’s couch in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is another form of home.)
Home to me is many things: an overnight train through an Asian jungle; the arrivals hall at the Charlotte airport (the closet airport to my hometown); and a suitcase. It’s riding bikes with my nephew on my parent’s farm and taking silly photos of my gnome.
Home is meeting an old friend for a beer in a foreign city.
Above all, home is the road. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The highlight of my trip to the Gobi Desert was hiking up to the top of Khongor Els sand dunes. I threw a dress over my hiking clothes for a few photos. Photo by Nick Vasta
I’m THAT friend. The one that texts you on a random Thursday in April with a travel proposition you can’t turn down.
“How do you feel about a trip to Mongolia in August?”
My text to my friend Nick was prompted by a note I’d found in my phone from 2014—a bucket list. Riding a camel in the Gobi desert was number six on the list. Mongolia has been in the back of my head for ages. Like Kilimanjaro, I tried unsuccessfully to get hired to run photo trips in Mongolia so I could go for free. There was always some excuse not to go, which rotated between the distance, time and money. When I went freelance full-time, Mongolia moved to the top of my list because I finally had the time.
Nick lived in Japan so it wasn’t too far him. We had traveled to Burma together five years prior so I knew he was up for the adventure in a remote corner of the world. Plus, he is also a photographer and loves to eat as much as I do. (Plus, he always packs the BEST snacks!) He agreed instantly and we set off to plan an epic adventure that was my highlight of 2018.
A camel walks through our ger camp in Central Mongolia near Elsen Tasarkhai, the mini Gobi Desert. We slept in gers every night of the trip.
Everything You Need to Know: Central Mongolia & the Gobi Desert
In this post, I include all of the logistics, costs and details about Mongolia. I’ve also included a breakdown of our trip by day with observations about the route and life on the road. (Scroll down to the bottom for the packing list!)
The only paved road through the Middle Gobi Desert.
Do you have to take a guided tour?
The only way to do Mongolia is to book a tour. (And, I HATE tours, but there’s no way to drive yourself because there’s only a few main paved roads. Eighty percent of our trip was driving off-road through random fields with no signage.) We did our tour through the Vast Mongolia Guest House, which you can find on Booking.com, and loved it. A friend recommended a guide who organized the tour for us and found other people to join the trip to cut down the costs, which is a common practice. We ended up with five people on our trip including myself and Nick – Jorge, a Spanish chemist; Lisa, a British archeologist and Peter, a Canadian travel nurse based in Doha, Qatar.
Mongolia is so large that you can’t do the entire country in one trip unless you have a few months to spare. We opted for the 12-day Gobi Desert and Central Mongolia tour since Nick had limited vacation days. And, I had to be back in Texas for a big freelance project.
Food was included in the trip. Our guide and driver cooked really great meals every day!
Accommodation & Toilets
Our first ger camp was the most colorful of the entire trip! We always left our shoes outside or by the door to keep it clean.
We stayed in ger (large round tents) camps every night except in Ulaanbaatar when we were in a guesthouse. A few of the camps were homestays where there was a family living in the camp with animals. We had individual single beds each night except for one night when we slept in sleeping bags on the floor at a homestay. Other camps were more geared to tourists so they didn’t have livestock nearby. Only three camps had showers for the entire 12-day trip. Bathrooms were always pit toilets or outhouses even when we stopped in cities. There was no running water outside of Ulaanbaatar.
Left: The toilets were always outhouse-style pit toilets. BYO toilet paper. Right: The inside of our geriatrics’s with a stove in the center for heating.
Most of the gers had wood stoves with vents to keep us warm at night. There was only one night was I was really cold. Most have power for a few hours each night to charge your devices. We could also charge our phones in the van.
Day 1: Chingis Khaan Horse statue & Terelj National Park
Our first group photo with our van, Boris, on the first day of the trip at Terelj National Park.
The minute I saw Boris, it was love at first sight. Boris was our home for the next 12 days—a dark blue teal Russian van with pink interior. He was always the coolest van in the parking lot. (FYI: We named him Boris ourselves. He clearly looks like a Boris.)
Left: Camels at Terelj National Park. Right: Boris and our lunch spot in the woods. Most of our meals were eaten along the road in similar settings.
Our driver, Ogtoo, was the Mongolian version of MacGyver and Chuck Norris. He was the nicest guy, worked hard and could fix anything. He knew everyone and the younger drivers all said he was their role model. He could take the entire tire off the van in just a few short minutes. It was unreal. (Let’s just say if the zombie apocalypse ever arrives, I want to be on Ogtoo’s team!)
Clockwise from top left: A girl carries milk back to the ger at our first homestay; Prayer flags at Aryapala Temple Meditation Center; me behind the wheel of Boris; the Chinggis Khaan horse statue. (You can climb out onto the horses head!)
Our first stop was Terelj National Park, which is close to Ulaanbaatar. We rode horses to Aryapala Temple Meditation Center, a Buddhist temple that reminded me a bit of India. My horse decided to go rouge and ran under some tree branches. I almost fell backwards off the horse like a scene from a Bugs Bunny cartoon. My shoulder and hand got scraped up, but I survived with a good story. The next stop was super touristy but a must-see—the giant Chinggis Khaan horse statue. It’s 131-feet tall and points east to his birth place. Oh, it’s Chinggis (pronounced “Ching+ gus”), not Genghis.
Day 2: Baga Gazriin Chuluu
The ruins of Manjusri Monastery
Our first stop was the ruins of Manjusri Monastery, one of the many monasteries destroyed by the communists during the 1940s. The monks were either killed or forced to renounce their faith. Travel is always an excellent lesson in world history and a stark reminder of the reach and wrath of WWII. Above all, I hope it is a lesson for younger generations to not repeat the sins of the past.
We drove for ages and the driver turned off the paved road onto an unmarked dirt road—tire tracks through a field. There were no signs indicating where we were or where we were going. The driver just knew where to turn and sped across the field. This one of many moments of awe on this trip. We would spend a majority of the next few days driving through fields covered in a spiderweb of tire tracks going in all directions. The ride was always bumpy and inside of the van was padded a bit to absorb the shock a bit. Nick and I couldn’t understand how Ogtoo knew where to go when everything looked a like, and there were no signs!
Baggu Garzriin Chuluu is a small rock formation in Central Mongolia
We ended up at Baggu Garzriin Chuluu, a set of crazy rock formations that reminded me of northern New Mexico. There was also a small cave and tons of rock piles scattered about.
One of the highlights of the day was when we stopped to pee. We pulled over on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere by an abandoned building with a pen for herding animals. No one else was in sight. The minute one of the girls had her pants down to pee, two boys on a motorcycle appeared around the corner to round up horses in a pen beside building where she was squatting down!
Day 3: Middle Gobi & Tsagaan Suvaga
Left: A herd of wild camels. Right: Me taking photos of said camels. Notice the pink padded interior of our van! Boris was the most stylish van in Mongolia!
The highlight of the Middle Gobi was the drive. The scenery was flat, filled with green grass and patches of sand. At one point, I saw a herd of animals in the distance—too big to be sheep and not quite the right shape for horses. As we got closer, I saw the humps—a herd of two-hump camels! There is nothing that I love more than camels (except for breakfast tacos). I insisted that we stop for a road-side photo shoot!
Village Naadam in the Gobi Desert in August
Our next stop was a town called Luus for a local village Naadam, a traditional festival in Mongolia. It’s held in July every year across the country but a few villages in the Gobi have a mini-Naadam in August. There were horse races and wrestling. We tried fermented horse milk, which tastes about as good as it sounds.
Mongolians all appear to be as addicted to their phones like the rest of the world. There were more towns than I imagined and cell service was quite frequent outside of the Gobi. People use motorcycles to herd animals instead of horses. It was much more modern than I expected. (I bought a SIM card that worked almost everywhere except a few spots in the Gobi.)
Tsagaan Suvarga, known as White Stupa, is a rock formation in the Dundgobi, Mongolia that was an ancient sea floor.
We stopped by Tsagaan Suvarga, a viewpoint over a series of rock dome formations and red sand cliffs that resembled parts of Argentina.
Day 4: Yoliin Am & Southern Gobi
Hiking into Yoliin Am, a deep narrow gorge in Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park.
Rain during the night made the roads a bit messy and slowed down our progress. The weather was dreary, foggy and overcast as we drove to Yoliin Am, a range of high, narrow canyons split by a river that supposedly remains froze until July. (We were there in August, and it was flowing especially after the rain.) We hiked about 10 kilometers into the canyon in drizzly rain. It was a bit slippery at times on the rocks. The weather really set the mood and made for better photos than sunny weather, I thought.
The trail got rockier as we hiked deeper into the gorge. Hiking boots were a must here!
The museum at Yoliin Am had the most horrible taxidermy animals that I’ve ever seen. All of the Mongolian museums were this way. My favorite had an eagle with marbles for eyes—terrible, scary and hilarious.
The museums of Mongolia were always filled with scary taxidermy animals like this poor donkey.
After we made it back to the van, the rain started to pour and the road washed out in places leaving regular cars stranded. Boris—our badass Russian van—made it out okay. Ogtoo is seriously the best driver ever!
Top: The dirt road into Yoliin Am was flooded on our drive out of the park. Bottom: The main paved road outside the park had collapsed in places from previous rain storms.
The main paved road nearby was washed out and collapsed in places due to the rain. We made it to the Gobi desert that night to Khongoryn Els, the main attraction in the Southern Gobi—the largest sand dune in a 180-kilometer long field of dunes. THIS is exactly why I’d flown across the world.
The famous sand dunes of Khongoryn Els in the Gobi Desert.
There was a set of two-hump camels outside the ger camp when we arrived. I immediately started taking photos since the light was fading as sunset approached.
The best thing about the camp was the shower ger. There were a set of “sinks” with a water container and a spigot above it. The showers we behind the curtains with a series of hoses from containers on top.
By far, this was the nicest ger camp of the trip because it had a proper shower ger! I got my first shower of the trip, which was so exciting! (The water pressure was terrible, and the water was REALLY cold. Still it felt great to be clean!!) The dining room also had tall table and regular height chairs, the first time we didn’t have to sit on the floor or short stools.
These two camels appeared right before we climbed the dunes!
We took a sunset camel ride, which was lovely. The stars at night were amazing. Our visit aligned perfectly with the Perseids meteor shower. The Milky Way was on full display. We spent a good amount of time each night staring up at the sky watching for meteors.
Day 5: Gobi Desert & Flaming Cliffs
Alfred the Globetrotting Gnome at our ger campsite in the Gobi Desert.
I got up at 6:30 a.m. to shower and take photos. I’d brought one dress to wear in photos so I wasn’t wearing my dirty hiking clothes in every shot. We drove out to the base of the sand dunes just as a man walking with two camels arrived. I was like a kid on Christmas morning taking photos of the camels with the dunes.
The route to Phu Quoc island was a massive adventure that involved crazy driving and a noisy rooster. The island is located in Southern Vietnam near Cambodia.
“Is this a bus or a van?” I ask raising my eyebrows and looking down at my ticket.
“It’s a bus. Small bus,” replies the woman at the reception desk.
“Is it a minivan?” I ask motioning with my hands and pointing to a minivan on the street.
“It’s a bus,” she replies confidently.
I nod and hope she is right.
The next day, my alarm goes off at 5:45 a.m. I shower, pack and rush downstairs to make a quick breakfast in the hostel kitchen before my taxi arrives at 6:30 a.m.
The taxi drives into the bus station and takes me directly to the “bus,” which is, indeed, a minivan as I feared. Said minivan was my only option to go from Can Tho, the capital of the Mekong Delta in Southern Vietnam to Ha Tein, the ferry port for Phu Quoc island, one of Vietnam’s best tropical beach destinations.
I get out of my taxi and hand my ticket to the driver who motions for me to give it to a woman outside the van. She directs me to sit in the back of the minivan. I shake my head and slide into the seat directly behind the driver. I’ve spent enough time in Asia to know that sitting in the back was a terrible idea. The driving in Southeast Asia is erratic—people in the back row are alwaysthe first to vomit.
I notice a small stack of plastic stools in the aisle by the door—these are used as seats once the regular seats are full. It was going to be that kind of trip with frequent stops to pick up people along the way.
The van was pretty empty except for a two people in the back. We depart promptly at 7 a.m. as scheduled. The woman gets inside and sits on a plastic shoot at the end of my row behind the passenger seat. She has the window open to make it easier to yell to prospective passengers.
I am grateful that I snagged a spot in the front of the van. Maybe this trip won’t be so bad. My plan is to sleep the five hours to the ferry so I start blowing up my inflatable neck pillow. The driver and the ticket lady both look at me with confusion. Then, ticket woman realizes what I’m doing and starts laughing uncontrollably. She slaps the front seat and yells at the driver in Vietnamese who laughs in return. I shrugged. Do they not realize that neck pillows are the greatest thing since the invention of the burrito?
I snuggle down in the seat with my neck pillow. As we pull out of the bus station, Freddie pipes up.
I open my eyes and look around. Where was that coming from? Clearly, there was a rooster on the side of the road. It couldn’t be in the van.
It was too loud to be anywhere but in the back of the van with my luggage. I got a mental image of my suitcase covered in rooster poop. Freddie continued to crow every 2.5 minutes for the next 30 minutes.
One of the biggest attractions in the Mekong Delta is the Cai Rang Floating Market located six kilometers from Can Tho, the largest city in the Delta. The vendors tie what they are selling to a tall pole to simplify shopping.
In over a decade of nonstop travel, I’ve been on many chicken buses – local open-air buses but never one that had actuallive chickens on it. Chicken buses are a rite of passage for travelers because it normally means you “escaped” tourist trail. Deep down, part of me has always wanted to be on a bus with live chickens just for the story. Today was not that day. Today, I wanted to sleep. And, Freddie wanted to sing.
Freddie quiets down as we drive along. We stop along the side of the road to pick up new passengers every 30 miles or so. I try to count my blessings – at least, the van is blasting the air-conditioning.
Then, the driver rolls down his window to smoke. I instantly regret my seat choice. He averages a cigarette every 30 minutes. At this rate, I will have stage 4 lung cancer from the second-hand smoke by the time we get to ferry.
In typical Vietnamese fashion, the driver is swerving in and out of traffic, passing cars on blind curves and narrowly avoiding head-on collisions every five minutes.
Since I can’t sleep, I begin to reevaluate my life and the events that led me to the Rooster Van. It started with my fear of flying. (Yes, it is entirely possible for girl who’s been to over 50 countries to be afraid of flying. My love for travel is greater than my fear.) I never enjoyed flying but a series of aborted landings on flights in Asia and one in Charlotte made me a nervous mess. I took medication for a while but now, manage it with a variety of tactics including wearing a collection of good luck charms—a set of turquoise Buddhist prayer beads blessed by the Dalai Lama and a St. Christopher’s metal blessed by Father Jim, my favorite priest at my parent’s church.
The flights into Vietnam a few weeks prior were bumpy and anxiety-inducing. (One flight took a steep 10 second nose dive while landing!!) Once we touched down in Da Nang, I promised myself I wouldn’t get on another plane until my visa expired in a month. That decision lead me to the Rooster Van.
Statistically, flying is safer than the Rooster Van. (The New York Times reports that car crashes kill more Americans abroad than anything else.) Yet, I still feel safer with Freddie despite the non-existent seat belts in the Rooster Van.
We stop for one toilet break at a gas station. After we get back in the van, Freddie is so quiet that I wonder if he was dropped off at the gas station. Then, I begin to wonder if there is even a rooster in the van at all. Was it someone’s phone? Is “rooster” a ring-tone option? (I literally laugh out loud remembering the time in Thailand when the ringtone on my work phone—one of those indestructible stick Nokia phones that drug dealers use in movies—was set to “frog” by accident. I missed every call for 24-hours because I thought it was an actual frog outside.)
The minute I start to doze off, Freddie starts to sing again like he’s in a karaoke bar.
By the halfway point of the journey, the van is pretty full – two guys in military uniforms are in the front with the driver. Two local women are on my row, followed by a row of men behind me and a German couple on the third row, and one man sitting in the back sandwiched between Freddie and the luggage.
I check the map on my phone. We are making progress. Less than two hours left. I can handle this.
Then, I notice the women on the far edge of my row holding a small plastic bag over her face. I cringe. This is a common site in Asia—she was car sick and puking despite being in the front seat. She ties the bag together and hands it to the lady by the door who immediately throws it out the window. She holds a second bag up to her face.
To distract myself, I decide to record Freddie’s vocals on my iPhone. I notice he tends to crow more when the driver hit the brakes. I spend the next 30 minutes recording off and on narrowly missing his singing. (If you check out my Instagram story on Vietnam, you can hear Freddie!)
Mong Tay Island is a small island off the northern coast of Phu Quoc.
The van empties quickly the closer we get to Ha Tien. Finally, we pull into the bus station and the woman motions for me to get off the bus. It was only me and the German couple left on board.
The minute the van door opens, a swarm of taxi drivers appear like seagulls fighting over an abandoned French fry. I had flashbacks to India.
As I climb off the “bus,” I glance in the backseat to look for Freddie. I notice a cardboard box with holes cut in it. Freddie is real.
There’s nothing I hate more than someone yelling “taxi!” in my face. I dart inside the bus station and one guy peels off from the pack to follow me. He relentlessly asks if I need a taxi because it’s obvious that I do.
I’m always weary of trusting anyone who approaches me for a taxi and prefer to make sure I have a legitimate taxi. I walk to the ticket counter and ask for a taxi. The woman calls over the man I was just avoiding.
Feeling defeated, we agree on a price. I walk outside. He motions for me to wait while he gets the car. Two minutes later, he drives over on a motorbike. I look at my bright teal 25-inch suitcase and look back at him confused. He grabs the suitcase and puts it between his legs. Then, he hands me a helmet and motions for me to climb on the back.
My transit options just keep getting more dangerous as the day unfolds. It’s only two miles to the ferry, I tell myself as I reluctantly climb on the back with 30-pounds of camera gear on my back and a small duffle (with the gnome and my snacks) on my lap.
The driver asks if I have a ticket for the ferry. I don’t have a ticket, but I lie. (Unless you want pay double, the answer to this question is always yes.)
The taxi driver swerves a bit at first trying to navigate the steering with my suitcase in the way. I have a death grip on the back of the bike. Then, he pulls over at a travel agency and asks me again if I need a ticket. I lie again. Vietnam is notorious for trying to rip off foreigners.
We finally pull up to the ferry terminal. A man runs up to me to ask if I have a ticket. I lie a third time.
I rush up to the counter inside and buy a ticket from the actual ferry company to avoid paying the “foreigner” surcharge the third-parties add. I only pay the amount that’s visibly printed on the ticket.
As the ferry departs, I take note of where the life jackets are located despite the fact that the ferry is probably the safest form of transit I’ve been on all day. I settle in for a nap and think about Freddie. I’m sure our paths will cross again on another day when I am trying to nap.
In 2002, I took my first trip overseas to study abroad in England. Smart phones didn’t exist. Texting wasn’t even a thing yet. While the nostalgic part of me misses the days of paper maps and film cameras, smart phones do make travel and life a lot easier.
I’ve been on the road almost nonstop for over a year and keep trying new apps to simplify my travels and life. Here’s a recap of my current favorite travel apps – almost all of them are free, available on all phone platforms and have web versions!
XE is my favorite currency app. It allows you to add up to 10 currencies and switch easily been them. The best part is that it even works offline using the last updated rate. I use this all the time to check the cost of things to make sure I’m not overspending. TIP: If you have the option to pay in different currencies, check the rate for both to see which is cheaper. It’s almost always cheaper to pay in the local currency.
XE Currency Converter app is FREE and even works offline with the last updated rate. It’s saved in a lot during the last month in Vietnam.
The offline GPS app Maps.me is a must-have for all hikers and anyone traveling to areas without phone service. Simply download a map of where you are going, and the app will help you navigate efficiently without phone service. It allows you to create and edit routes, which many hikers share online. Read the app user guide before using in remote locations. Another highlight is that the app is completely free—no in-app purchases!
I used Maps.me to map all the places we stopped on my Mongolia trip back in August. It’s a great, customizable offline map tool.
1Password is my favorite app of all time even when I’m not traveling. The app securely stores and organizes all your passwords in one place. It’s easily searchable for what you need. I keep EVERYTHING in it – bank details, frequently flyer accounts and email passwords. It syncs across devices easily and is very secure. You use one password to open the app. (TIP: Use a password that you’ve never used elsewhere.) I use it to copy and paste my credit card number when shopping online. While the app isn’t free, it’s inexpensive – $2.99/month or $4.99 for a family of 5. There’s a free 30-day trail. (Full disclosure: I got this app for free through my old job five years ago so I don’t pay for it.)
I’ve used 1Password for years to manage passwords, bank accounts and loyalty programs. It’s secure and allows you to copy and paste numbers for online shopping.
For flights, Skyscanner is my favorite search engine. It shows all major U.S. airlines and many budget airlines that other searches exclude like Southwest. It also has an option to show prices for the month to let you choose the cheapest day to fly. You can also search by regions. While I use Skyscanner for searches, I prefer to book directly through the airline instead of third party websites. That way if there are issues with the flight, I don’t have to go through the third-party and can go diredlty through the airline.
Skyscanner is the best flight search engine because it includes budget airlines that other search engines exclude.
I’ve used Klook to buy discounted admission tickets and transportation options online across the world. It saved me roughly $10 on entry to Gardens by the Bay in Singapore and $13 on the cable car to the big Buddha in Hong Kong. I’ve also used it for private transfers in Vietnam. The best part of the app is that you get points for each purchase and points for reviews that can be redeemed for money off your next purchase. Overall, I’m a big fan because it saves me money and I never had to stand in line at popular attractions. For $4 off your first purchase, use my referral code here!
I discovered KLOOK in Hong Kong for discount admission tickets. It’s one of my favorite apps because it allows me to skip ticket lines!
The chances are high that you are already using WhatsApp. If not, then you need to download this text and voice message app NOW. The app is owned by Facebook and works across all phone platforms and locations. It’s a great way to connect with friends and even business when you are traveling. In South America, I used it to make dinner reservations. In places where you have to pay for internet, What’s App is often free to use without payment.
I’ve been using Skype for years and it’s the most useful tool when you are traveling. You can call other Skype numbers for free and pay a small fee per minute to call overseas. Here’s the best part – American’s can call toll-numbers in the U.S. for FREE with Skype, which is important if you ever need to call your bank from abroad or any type of customer service. I literally do this all the time. (I also use it to call the 24-hour Walgreens pharmacy in the U.S. when I’m sick abroad and want to double check medications.) You can also pay a small monthly fee ($6.50 USD) for a phone number through Skype so people can call you no matter where you are. I did this recently for one month when I was launching my book project then canceled it after the month ended. I also use this to text my mom, who still has a flip phone. While she can’t text back, it allows me to let her know I arrived at my destination safely so she won’t worry.
Skype is the best app for making calls while abroad. I use it for business calls all the time.
Ebates is one of the new tricks I discovered last year to save money on travel. (I’ve saved almost $70 in the last 12 months on it!) It’s a cash back app and website that’s simple to use. When you shop online, go to their website and use their referral link for a percentage back on the purchase. The money is put directly in your PayPal account four times a year. To keep your spending in check, only use this site to buy things you are planning to buy anyways. I use it for everything from renewing my website domain on GoDaddy.com to buying clothes to booking accommodation through Booking.com for my travels. This app will save you money even if you aren’t traveling!
There’s a great sign up bonus – a $10 Target or Walmart gift card after your first purchase of $25 or more. Use this referral link for the offer: ebates.com/r/AMAZ812
I made almost $70 last year from purchases I made through Ebates! Even if you aren’t traveling, this app will save you money.
I’ve started using Booking.com for all of my accommodation reservations for the past year. This was partly inspired by the Ebates cash back benefit I mentioned above. Plus, Booking.com offers a discount of 10 percent on select properties if you book five stays in less than two years, which I use a lot. They also price match other websites and offer free cancelation (with some limits). Pro tip: Sign up with my referral link for $25 off your first $50 booking. Then, refer any friends you are traveling with so you both save $25 when they book accommodation in the next city on your itinerary!
I’ve booked nearly all of my accommodation through Booking.com for over a year. Sign up and get $25 off your first booking with this link!
This PDF-scanner app is super helpful. It allows you to photograph anything – receipts, maps, brochures—and make a PDF file from the documents. It’s the best for tracking expenses for business travel. You can take photos through the app or import them from the camera roll on your phone. I find it useful for both tracking receipts when I travel and sending them to Dropbox. I also use it photograph brochures to reduce my paper usage.
While this may not look organized, Genius Scan does help me sort my receipts for my taxes and banking. I export them to DropBox as a backup.
I’ve spent countless hours on trips writing postcards to friends and family. It’s time consuming, but everyone appreciates real mail. Then, I started to notice that stamps were more than $1 each and many of my postcards from far flung places weren’t arriving at all. That’s when I started using the Postagram app to send printed postcards using my photos. The app allows you to customize the background design and colors. The most important feature is that it allows you to schedule delivery date so I never miss a birthday or holiday. While I still send real postcards when I can, Postagram has been the next best option. The cards start at $2 each but decrease in price if you buy in bulk. International locations cost $3 a card and delivery times vary. The printing quality is excellent.
This is a postcard I sent my Aunt with one of my own photos of my globetrotting gnome, Alfred. I’m a big fan of the Postagram app and how you can customize everything including delivery dates so I never miss a birthday!
Hoopla is an online platform that allows you to read eBooks and listen to audiobooks for free with your public library membership across North America. It also works on web browsers. I use it a lot for travel guides and audiobooks when I travel. There’s a monthly limit for the amount of books you can check out that varies based on your library membership. I get four per month from my Austin, Texas library. This is also great to use when you are at home.
I read a lot more books thanks to the Hoopla app and my public library membership.
Grab is the Uber of Southeast Asia. (They literally bought out Uber.) It covers Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines. It works very similar to Uber and Lyft except there is an option for a cheaper motorbike taxi. (The motorbike taxi provides a helmet for all passengers.) Aside from rush hour in major cities like Bangkok, it’s a much more affordable and convenient option. Use code GRABTRAVELANNA for a discount off your first ride!
Grab is the Uber of Southeast Asia and the cheapest form of transport aside from walking. Use the code GRABTRAVELANNA for a discount off your first ride.
I just started using TripIt to organize my reservations for accommodation and flights a few weeks ago. Overall, it’s been really helpful for this long-term trip. All of my confirmation numbers and details for the reservation are available in the app so I don’t have to search through my emails.
This is my travel schedule in Vietnam from earlier this month in TripIt.
Google Translate has been a lifesaver on my current Asia trip. Since SIM cards are cheap, I’ve had data in every country. I simply type a phrase and show it to my taxi driver or anyone I need to communicate with. It also lets you save phrases to use later. There’s a camera option so you can translate labels, which is helpful if you’re trying to find lotion that doesn’t have whitening cream in it in Asia. (It’s nearly impossible in Vietnam.) My favorite app in Spanish speaking countries is SpanishDICT, it allows you to translate phrases and also provides conjugations.
Sometimes even simple questions need to be translated.
Dollarbird is a free expense tracking app that I use to track my spending on my travels. It can be used for your regular budgeting. I make custom categories and manually add my expenses. It’s provides a running balance summary and allows you to export the data to a spreadsheet. (I only use it to track expenses, not income.) I used it to create the charts in my previous blog post about the real cost of travel, where I tracked my expenses for a seven-month South America trip.
These are my expenses from Chiang Mai, Thailand for the month of December. I’ve used Dollarbird for years to track my spending when I travel.
It took 45 minutes to climb to the top of the highest dunes in Khongoriin Els in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. I carried this dress to the top and threw it on top of my hiking clothes for a quick photo. Photo by Nick Vasta
On Instagram, the year probably looks completely perfect, but Instagram tends to be more of a highlight reel than reality. The honest reality is that long-term travel is far from perfect.
2018 was rough. Not quite as rough as sitting in I-35 traffic in Austin with a broken air conditioning in August but pretty damn close.
It’s been exactly 10 years since my first long-term trip to Australia that ignited my nonstop globetrotting. In many ways, this year has mirrored that year. Both were amazing beyond measure but involved some of the lowest lows of my life. I’ve begun to associate this roller coaster ride as part of long-term travel. (Turns out, self-publishing is an equally turbulent ordeal that tested my sanity.)
After a decade of nonstop travel, I can honestly say that it’s not a true adventure if you don’t end up feeling lost and doubting why you left home. Nothing will make you question your life more than an ill-timed bout of food poisoning that appears only hours before your 33-hour journey back to America from Mongolia. Trust me, on that one. (Despite this four bout of food poisoning, Mongolia was still the highlight of my year. )
2018 was my first big stint at being freelance fulltime while on the road. Many of my long-term travels in the past involved living off my savings entirely as I traveled.
Financially, it was a terrible year. Two of my big freelance contracts for the year fell through in the first few weeks of January due to circumstances I could not control. In March, I flew back to Texas from Chile for a photo shoot that got canceled. I only made $15,000 this year and lived off savings partly due to devoting time to my new book project. Countless times, I thought about selling my camera and doing something else with my life. This is partly fueled by the recent stock market slumps; rumors of another recession have me on edge. (I have a bit of PTSD from 2008 recession that ripped my life apart.)
This year I lost my uncle and two family friends. All three were a reminder that life is short and a reminder that the main reason I went freelance fulltime was for the freedom. The freedom to travel without constraints of a two-week vacation. The freedom to spend more time building furniture with my dad in his shop. The freedom to spend the winter in Asia wearing flipflops. The freedom to work on personal projects and write my first book. (I spent about three months visiting my family and the rest of the year visiting old friends, some of my favorite places and adding new stamps to my passport. I was still working between all of these adventures.)
I’m very humbled and grateful for all the support I’ve received for my book project. Writing a book is one of the most gut-wrenching and soul baring experiences. Thank you for your support and kind words.
Don’t worry—I’m not sitting still anytime soon. I’ve already lined up some exciting new adventures and big work projects for 2019. I’m kicking off the new year in Vietnam!
To celebrate the highlights of 2018, here’s a roundup for my favorite photographs and blog posts to help inspire your travel in the New Year:
A long exposure of Havasu Falls at sunrise, Havasupai, Arizona.
Havasu Falls was one of my favorite hikes of all time and favorite photo spots of the year. The stunning blue green waterfall is located in the Grand Canyon on the Havasupai Indian Reservation in Arizona. While the 10-mile hike was relatively easy, the hardest part was getting one of the elusive permits. (I talk about all the hike details in this post!)
I got up at sunrise to shoot this long exposure of the waterfall, which creates the smooth effect of the water. I used a tripod and snapped this shot of myself by the falls with the help of my friends.
The view from Palacio Barolo at sunset in Buenos Aires
There is no city in the world as seductive as Buenos Aires. It is a Latin Europe sprinkled with a bit of third-world charm reminiscent of Havana. The streets are lined with grand European palaces, cozy cafes and endless parks. The stables of life in this budget-friendly city are steak, wine, empanadas and ice cream. It will always be my favorite city in the world.
I snapped this frame of a marine iguana Espanola Island in the Galapagos. The islands are a haven for wildlife and the animals are all environmentally naive, which means they have no predators so they don’t run away from humans making them very easy to photograph.
Snorkeling with penguins in the Galapagos was the highlight of my four-month trip to South America earlier this year. Despite the high levels of tourism, it’s still one of the most pristine environments in the world and one of the best places for animal photography. (I got a last minute deal on the trip so it cut my costs down significantly.) The trip inspired some serious thoughts on eco-friendly travel. For more Galapagos photos, check out this post.
Rano Ranaku is a volcanic crater and a source for the stone used for the moai statues on Easter Island.
Those four days could not be have been more perfect— blues skies, windows down and Jack Johnson on the radio. The view was always stunning—steep cliffs lined with moai statues hover over the Pacific Ocean.
The tiny island is one of the most remote and unique places on the planet. It lies in the middle of the Pacific 2,290 miles from mainland Chile; the nearest inhabited island is 1,150 miles away. It’s only 14 miles wide and with an extinct volcano at each end of the island. No place on the world feels quite so remote. (For budget tips for Easter Island, check out this post.)
The lighthouse on Punta de Este, a lovely beach town on the coast of Uruguay.
Safe, stable Uruguay is the underdog of South America, sandwiched between its dramatic, flashy neighbors of Argentina and Brazil who often steal the spotlight. The progressive nation is the Switzerland of the South America filled with delicious restaurants, colonial charm and stunning beaches. It’s often overlooked but easily accessible with direct flights from the U.S. The best part is that the 18-20% VAT is waived on all purchases with foreign credit cards, cutting down costs significantly. Check out these 7 Reasons to Visit Uruguay.
A field of traditional Mongolian gers near the Tsenkher Hot Springs in the Orkhorn Valley in Central Mongolia.
Mongolia was the highlight of the entire year. I spent two weeks bumping around in the back of a blue Russian van named Boris. Through the windshield, I watched as paved roads faded into dirt tracks and the scenery transformed from lush green forests to the barren Gobi Desert. I miss the occasional traffic jams caused by a herd of camels wandering into the road. I’ve been obsessed with the remote corners of the globe for as long as I can remember and Mongolia far exceeded my expectations. (Mongolia blog post coming soon!)
Prague & Southern Bohemia, Czech Republic
A short hike through the woods lead to this stunning view of Kasperk Castle in Southern Bohemia in the Czech Republic.
The only thing I love as much as llamas are castles. The Czech Republic was my first taste of Eastern Europe. I ran a photo trip in the Czech Republic this summer for National Geographic Student Expeditions. Everything was amazing – the food, the scenery and the photo opportunities. I’m hoping I can squeeze in a longer trip Eastern Europe next year. Fingers crossed!
I stopped in Hong Kong for a week en route to Asia in October and took a day trip to Macau to see if it was really like the movies. My goal was to avoid casinos. The real Macau is a crumbling Portuguese settlement with old Chinese shop houses and delicious egg tarts. My favorite spot in town was Mandarin’s House, an enormous historic residential complex with circular doorways and a Instagram-worthy courtyard.
I shot this image of the viewfinder of a Hasselblad film camera with my iPhone this summer while I was visiting my friends in Northern England near where I studied abroad in college.
I fell in love with traveling and photography while studying abroad in England during college. I went back this summer to visit one of my best friends who lives on the coast in Northern England. Her dad always lets me borrow his Hasselblad, a fully manual medium format camera. I took it with me for a walk over the cliffs in Saltburn by the Sea and shot this image on my iPhone of the view through the viewfinder.
Monks walk through the courtyard at Wat Sisaket, my favorite Buddhist temple in Bangkok.
I’m back in Thailand now and it feels like home. It’s always felt like home. It’s my first trip back to Asia in over five years. (I ran photo trips in Asia from 2009-2013.)
I’ve spent the last ten years living in on a bridge between America and Asia debating where I belonged. I loved Asia but didn’t know how to make a living there aside from teaching English so I always returned to America. The irony is that I’m now very tied to America from a career standpoint so I have to fly back for work projects. I’m trying to find a way to spend at least part of the winter in Thailand. After all, winter is a choice and I prefer to spend it wearing flip-flops. For more about Asia, check out this guide to Southeast Asia and my favorite spots in Thailand!
I am super excited to announce that my first book Good With Money launches today!
The book answers the most common question I get asked: “How do you afford to travel so much?” Good With Money shares my story and documents the financial habits that allowed me to travel nonstop for almost 10 years with no debt, all on an average income of $30,000.
I started this blog in 2014 to help other travelers and share my experiences. But, I can only cover so much in a blog post. I figured it was time to hunker down and build a bigger tool to help others, which is why I devoted this year to the book. I’ve had the idea in my head for years but didn’t sit down to write it down until January. Since I’ve been on the road all year, the book was written across many locations from Buenos Aires to Easter Island to the Galapagos with references throughout the text.
In three parts, the book focuses on redefining priorities, maximizing savings, and slashing travel expenses. The first section focuses on my overall financial philosophy and savings techniques. The second section on top money hacks that digs into normal life expenses, including how to save on medical costs, paying for college without debt, making coupons worth your while and selling the stuff you don’t need. In the third and final section, I share my best travel hacks.
I discovered a lot of new gear during my adventures this year including the Osprey 32-liter pack with hip belt I used for my Havasu Falls hike.
12 Travel Gifts Under $100
2018 has been an epic year of travel for me and Alfred the gnome! During my adventures to Easter Island, Havasu Falls and the Galapagos, I discovered a lot of great travel gear that has made my life easier. Several of these were suggestions from friends and other travelers that I wish I’d bought years ago.
Here’s a few ideas (big and small) to help you find the perfect gifts for friends and family. Feel free to add these to your own Christmas list before you send it to Santa!
BAGGU’s reusable bags fold up into a small case to fit easily in your bag or purse.
I discovered these amazing BAGGU reusable bags last Christmas through a friend. I initially bought it because it had llamas on it. (I’m slightly obsessed with llamas.) It is the most amazing reusable bag on the market, which is great for trips to the grocery store and really handy when traveling for shopping or anytime you need a bag. They can hold up to 50 pounds and only cost $10! They come in a plethora of funky animal designs and include a storage pouch. I keep it in my purse and backpack at all times. (Cost: $10)
Travel is often smelly and gross. The best way to stay healthy is to wash your hands regularly. If a sink isn’t handy, then Dr. Bronner’s hand sanitizer is the next best thing. It also has a nice lavender scent to help with smelly locations. (Cost: $12.50 for two)
Not all travel clothes lines are the same so be sure to get one made of bungee cord to hold your clothes in place! Normal rope lines aren’t as secure!
The thing that I hate the most about traveling is dealing with laundry. Earlier this year, a hostel in Chile charged me $12 USD for a regular size load of laundry and didn’t even fold my clothes! (For the price, they should have folded them AND sprinkled them with gold dust!!!!) Laundry is either overpriced or my clothes come back destroyed. I try to find laundromats to do it myself. I often don’t have enough for a load so I just started washing the few pieces of clothing I need in the sink and hanging them in my room. My friend Gen told me about this amazing bungee cord laundry line this year! The bungee cord makes it easy to cinch the clothing so it doesn’t fall off the line. (Cost: $17.99)
I was jealous of every single person on my Galapagos trip who had a rash guard, which is a long sleeve shirt made of either spandex, nylon or polyester. While it’s great for water activities like snorkeling, kayaking and surfing, they are great for just everyday travel because the fabric is moisture wicking and provides SPF protection. While I LOVE my Columbia Silver Ridge Lite button-down shirt for hiking, it wasn’t great for snorkeling. You can buy these anywhere but I recommend REI or Land’s End, which often has them on sale for $20. (Cost: $20+)
Lightweight dry sacks are the both effective and pack easier than thick river dry bags. Avoid the ultralight sacks that rip very easily! The 13-liter bag fits my camera body and a wide angle lens with room to spare!
As a photographer, keeping my camera gear safe has been the biggest burden. I travel with a ridiculous amount of rain gear – ponchos, rain covers for my pack, etc. While thick river dry sacks are great for rafting trips, they are too bulky to travel with for long-term trips. The ultra-thin sacks rip too easy. The lightweight ones are perfect, and I keep one rolled up in my daypack at all times for my camera. (Cost: $13-30 depending on size)
In college, my best friend gave me a journal to take to England for my semester abroad. I caught the travel bug on that trip, which lead to this crazy traveling life I currently live. I still keep a journal to this day about my adventures. Moleskine notebooks (size: 3.5″ x 5.5″) are the best because they are tiny and durable. I have a shoebox full of filled with journals at home that hopefully will one day become a book project. (Cost: $8-10)
I bought a lightweight Humangear spork that’s been a huge help this year. Initially, it was for hiking but comes in handy everywhere. It’s the perfect companion for the jar of peanut butter I travel with. When I am in the States, I’ll keep it in my car. My goal is to avoid using disposable plastic cutlery at all times. (Cost: $3.95)
I discovered these low sugar (only 1 gram) electrolyte tablets last summer in Yellowstone. They were a lifesaver during the four terrible bouts of food poisoning (more on that here) I had earlier this year. I always pack a tube of these for every trip! They are essential for all hiking trips! (Cost: $7 a tube or 4 tubes for $23)
Every adventure teaches me something new. My hike to Havasu Falls this year was a reminder that compression sacks are a blessing. They really help condense sleeping bags and other items for hiking. They also work well as a storage sack and space saver for dirty laundry, which is why these bags above are perfect for any type of trip. (Cost: $30 for set of two)
For too many years, I hiked with a regular day pack with no hip belt support, which helps distribute the weigh off your shoulders. The reason was simple – my camera gear and laptop fits better in a daypack than a proper hiking pack. I always travel with a daypack filled with my camera gear so it seemed silly to buy a second hiking pack that I wouldn’t use as often. (I wasn’t going to take both on every trip!) I ended up buying one on sale at REI before my Havasu Falls trip, and the hip supports saved me! A proper hiking pack has better back and hip belt supports. While it’s not practical to travel with everywhere, it’s my new hiking pack. (As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a huge fan of Osprey because of their lifetime warranty. They’ve replaced two packs for me for free.) I recommend 24-32 liter packs for one to three day hikes. (Cost: Depending on size, these packs run from $90-175 USD. Take advantage of REI sales and their outlet for prices around the $100 mark.)
*Please note some Amazon and REI affiliate links are included above. If you click on the link and make any type of Amazon/REI purchase, I earn a small commission with no additional cost to you. I hope you found this post helpful and appreciate your support of the blog. Please email me if you have questions.
I’m super excited to announce that my first book “Good With Money” will launch on December 11th! The book answers the most common question I get asked: “How do you afford to travel so much?” I started this blog in 2014 to help other travelers and share my experiences. But, I can only cover so much in a blog post. The book documents the financial habits that allowed me to travel nonstop for almost 10 years with no debt, all on an average income of $30,000. I’m super excited to share it with you! Email list subscribers will get a surprise on launch day!
In the latest Travel Tuesday Interview series, I chat with Travis Sherry, host of the #1 travel podcast on iTunes, Extra Pack of Peanuts. Travis and his wife, Heather, are the ultimate travel hacking experts. He shares his travel stories and top hacking tips in this interview.
Travel hacking expert Travis Sherry is the host of the #1 travel podcast on iTunes, Extra Pack of Peanuts. He’s been on the road almost full-time since 2010. (Photo courtesy of Travis Sherry)
Name: Travis Sherry Age:35 Hometown: Philly Country count: My best guess is 51. Website: ExtraPackofPeanuts.com
1. How did you start traveling?
There are three distinct points. The first was when I was 18, I took a road trip to Florida. That was the first time I’d traveled without my family. It was me and buddy. We took a road trip from Philly to Florida to move sister into college. That was the first point where I experienced freedom. I still count it as one of the best trips I’ve had.
The second turning point was when I was 26. I traveled a bit before that. I lived for four months in Switzerland for an internship. That was the first time I lived abroad. That was a whole other experience. I was living abroad and making a life abroad. That was a distinctive moment.
The third point when I was 27. After returning home from Switzerland in 2010, Heather and I decided to move to Japan seven months later. That was the beginning of the third stage of my travel life. Travel became the main part of our life. That really opened up international travel for us a bit and this idea that this isn’t just a thing we are doing for vacation. More of our life than not is going to be spent traveling.
Travis often works from the road and makes the most of layovers by recording podcasts like in this photo from the Amsterdam airport. (Photo courtesy of Travis Sherry)
2. What does the average work day look like for you?
I’ve tried to make it more systematic and more normal. I’ll start working at 10 a.m. I might go to the gym and have an easy breakfast in the morning. The bulk of my work is done between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. What that involves depends on the day. Some days are podcast recordings. Usually on Tuesdays we do weekly workshops. That’s my day to focus on the community we run.
Recently, it’s been a lot of big picture planning and then, organizing the team to get things done. Depending on the day, I try to do different things. Mondays are calls. Tuesdays are podcast recording. Wednesday and Thursday are more creative days—shooting videos, writing and getting into that flow. Thursday or Friday are housekeeping days like doing taxes or bookkeeping. Batch responding to emails on one day. I don’t kill the creative flow to respond to emails. I’m trying to get better at working in those zones. It’s become more systematic as it goes.
The more organized it became, the more I enjoyed it and allowed myself spontaneity. Then, the rest of the day is open after 3 p.m. Trying to batch by day has been a big thing for us. You stay in the zone.
3. Share one of your travel highlights.
My favorite trip I’ve ever taken was to the Republic of Georgia. Every time anyone would mention Georgia, they were the biggest fan of it. It had raving fans. I had very high expectations going in. Finally, Heather and I went. I was a little worried it wouldn’t live up to the lofty expectations. Fortunately, it not only lived up to it but was better than I thought. That’s the best way to describe it. Essentially, we were in Georgia and we got on this bus, and it was the wrong bus. Then, we had a feast in this women’s house and the whole town came!
It’s the only place I’ve been that’s as naturally beautiful as Switzerland. It’s more rugged and 1/10 price of Switzerland. Great food. Incredible scenery. The food was fantastic. The people were super nice. We spent 12 days there in July of 2016. It just blew me away. It was everything I wanted out of it. It’s not super touristy. Everyone was excited to have you there.
We drove the third most dangerous road in the world. We had a driver. We got to this town with a village of 50 people. It’s only open five months of year due to snowfall. You feel like you’ve gone back in time. There’s a castle up over the hill and wild horses. I asked a guy, “Whose horses are those?” He was looking at me like I was crazy. He goes, “Those are just wild horses.” I guess I never thought of that before. Out there, it’s just this awesome, neat experience that lived up to every expectation I had.
Travis’ wife, Heather, took this shot of him at Ballycarbery Castle in Ireland last year. They have been using airline miles mostly from credit cards to pay for their flights. (Photo courtesy of Travis Sherry)
4. What is the biggest myth about travel hacking?
I’ll give you two. One is the myth I believed when I started—that frequent flyer miles were only for people who traveled a lot. You don’t have to fly a lot to earn a ton of frequent flyer miles. You can do it through credit card sign ups and shopping. That’s the reason a lot of people don’t get into it. They don’t think they can earn enough to get a free flight. They think they have to be getting on planes all the time to earn the miles. You can sign up for a credit card and get a free flight to Europe with the signup bonus from the card!
The second myth is that when you earn points that it’s super hard to redeem your points. It’s hard at first but with a little bit of knowledge, you pull the veil back, and it can become something that’s easy to do.
Usually, it’s just me saying, “You aren’t looking in the right place.” It’s easier than people think if they spend time learning the right stuff.
For guys, Bluffworks. They make men’s travel chinos, blazers and suits. All stretch and wrinkle free. I have five pairs, one in every color of the chinos. It’s the best travel clothing.
Travis works from the beach in Croatia or anywhere there is wifi! (Photo courtesy of Travis Sherry)
6. How do you balance work and travel?
Now, after of years of trying to figure it out, we try to batch work and batch travel. Instead of trying to do both at once really well. There are certain circumstances where we have to. When we are at home in Philly, that’s the time to move projects forward. That’s the time to make sure anything that needs to get done gets done. We’ve become a lot more organized that way. Then, when we are traveling, we’ve got some really big plans. We’ve got all these projects moving. We are able to tread water. It’s not that we are not working at all; we are doing things that are easier to do [and] are quick. When we are traveling, we are 80% travel and 20% work. It’s hard to build a business and travel.
We have a house in Philly. I was so opposed to moving back into a house. In August 2015, we moved back into the house. We live here when we are at home. Over the last year or two, it’s been about 50% on the road and 50% home.
7. The name of your podcast, Extra Pack of Peanuts, references your hatred of flying when you were younger. How did you overcome this fear? Any tips for others to do the same?
When I was a kid, I don’t know if was fear. I thought I would get sick, and then, I did get sick. I think some of it was naturally getting out of that [mindset]. I’m old enough to know that if you get sick on a plane, it’s not the end of the world. I think the second part was that I just ended up going on to my adult years. I just thought, “This is how I’m going to get to where I’m going to go.” Is it worth it to get sick for a day and then spend two to three weeks in Europe? The ends were worth the means.
I still don’t like flying or enjoy it. But, I also don’t mind it as much. I’m like middle ground. Maybe, I like it a little less than the average person.
Last year, Travis and Heather Sherry had their first child–Whittaker, who will turn one this year. Whittaker took his first flight when he was six months old. They are spending the holidays in their home in Philly and took Whittaker to visit a nearby pumpkin patch recently for this photo. (Photo courtesy of Travis Sherry)
8. How has having a child changed the way you travel? [His son Whittaker is turning one soon!]
It hasn’t been such a change. We still took all the trips we wanted to take. We don’t see that changing.
I guess that thing that does change is that we are going to start traveling slower, and we already have. Instead of going to four cities in 14 days, let’s do seven days in Barcelona and seven days in Budapest. I think we’ve started to slow down some and take our time.
The other big change was that we couldn’t go out at night. We were never huge partiers. We were in Budapest at 9 p.m. [and said] “I guess at some point we need to go back to get him in bed.” There needs to be a market for local babysitters so you can go out one night a week.
Since I’m getting older, there are changes I’d do anyways. We are very last minute especially me. We will book accommodation advance now and less spur of the month.
9. Share two of your favorite travel hacking tips.
The thing that has changed my life the most is just understanding how to use mile and points. Getting a good travel rewards card. Understanding how it works and how those points work. Just starting with one [card] and earning those points, then using them once [is the best way to start.]
One of the things we started doing is giving chocolates to flight attendants. I called it a trick but its’s more of a thing I just like to do. We bring chocolates for flight attendants. I make sure there’s enough for everyone on the plane. I give them to the flight attendants when I get on the plane. I say thanks for taking care of us. I appreciate it. All of it is true. That always puts a smile on their face. We’ve got upgraded to business class before because of it. They’ll come and give you free drinks. They are always super nice. It can never hurt to make the flight attendants day better.
I always pack in a carry on. We both always pack in a carry on. To me, only using a carry on eliminates a lot of stress [worrying] “Is my luggage going to get lost?” We only use carry-ons 90% of the time. Now, we might have to check a crib. We don’t have to pay baggage fees.
Travis and Heather spent a lot of time traveling around Asia when they lived in Japan and snapped this shot at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. They like to avoid spending the winter in Philly so they are heading to Mexico in January. (Photo courtesy of Travis Sherry)
10. What is your next adventure?
Our next adventure is January and February we will be spending in Mexico. We will be spending two months in Mexico to avoid the winter. We don’t have anything on the calendar yet for next year. If I never spend January and February in Philly again, I’d be fine with this.
This idea for living somewhere for two months. It’s not so much to travel to region. It’s to live there and get work done, but just be in a better place than Philly in winter.
*Please note some Amazon affiliate links are included above. If you click on the link and make any type of purchase, I earn a small commission with no additional cost to you. I hope you found this post helpful and appreciate your support of the blog. Please email me if you have questions.
2018 has been a year of big adventures for me and Alfred, the globetrotting gnome! Here’s a few ideas (big and small) to help you find the perfect gifts for friends and family. Feel free to add these to your own Christmas list for Santa!
My first self-published book, “Good with Money” will be released in early December. The cover was designed by Clare Vacha.
I have BIG news!
I’m wrapping up my first self-published book project called “Good With Money.” The book answers the most common question I get asked: “How do you afford to travel so much?” It documents the financial habits that allowed me to travel nonstop for almost 10 years with no debt, all on an average income of $30,000.
The book will be released in early December. I’m writing today to ask for your help!
I started this blog in 2014 to help other travelers and share my experiences. But, I can only cover so much in a blog post. I figured it was time to hunker down and build a bigger tool to help others.
In three parts, the book focuses on redefining priorities, maximizing savings, and slashing travel expenses. I also include a section on top money hacks that digs into normal life expenses, including how to save on medical costs, paying for college without debt, making coupons worth your while and selling the stuff you don’t need.
Since this is my first self-published book project, I need your help getting the word out! Do you have a friend with a podcast or a large social media following? Do you work at a media outlet? If you have enjoyed the blog, this is your chance to get involved!
Send me an email to Anna (at) TravelLikeAnna.com with any suggestions!
I am really excited to share the book with you!
P.S. The “official” launch announcement will be coming in early December. Email subscribers will get a surprise!
P.P.S. The cover design is by Clare Vacha. Isn’t she amazing?!?
I got up early to do a long exposure of Havasu Falls at sunrise without all the people.
Photo Guide to Havasu Falls
Last October, I was having lunch in Santa Fe with three friends and eating my weight in sopapillas. By the end of lunch, we set plan for one of the best hiking trips of my life. It started almost as a joke like most of my crazy adventures, but I was determined to make it happen.
Our goal was simple—to hike to Havasu Falls, a stunning blue green waterfall located in the Grand Canyon on the Havasupai Indian Reservation in Arizona. We set a date for the trip, my friends requested the time off work on their phones right there at the lunch table and we made a plan – May 2018. The only thing standing in our way was the permit.
A long exposure of the small rapids at the foot of Havasu Falls at sunrise.
How to Get a Permit for Havasu Falls
The hardest part about hiking to Havasu Fall is getting one of the elusive campground permits, which usually sell out in less than three hours each year. (The campground only accommodates 300 people and no day hikes are allowed. Permits go on sale on February 1st MST each year. Reservations are made by phone (928-448-2121) or online at https://www.havasupaireservations.com.
Three of the people in my group called the instant the permits went on sale but only got a busy signal. (I was in South America so I couldn’t call.) We all tried getting through on the website with no luck initially. I was using Safari as my web browser. Then, I opened a new browser window in Chrome and was able to get through! This was only a few minutes after they went on sale. Our first choice of dates wasn’t available so we shifted our hike back by a day.
Before permits go on sale, be sure to have a set list of dates along with several alternatives for your hike. It’s really important to be communicating with your hiking buddies the day they are released. The person who gets through needs to pay for everyone in the group. You need to include two names on the reservation. One of these people must show their ID at the office. If you have a friend who is flakey, DON’T put their name down.
Camping/Accomdation Prices for Havasu Falls
[Please note these are the 2018 prices. 2019 prices haven’t been announced yet.]
One Person, 2 Days / 1 Night: $140.56
One Person, 3 Days / 2 Nights: $171.12
One Person, 4 Days / 3 Nights: $201.67
There is a surcharge of $18.34/night for weekends (Friday through Sunday) and holiday weekdays nights including Spring Break.
If camping isn’t your style, you can stay at the Havasupai Lodge. These reservations are even harder to get than the campground. Lodge reservations go on sale every year on June 1st for the following year. I don’t recommend the lodge because it’s a good hour hike away from Havasu Falls. Plus, the people I met said it wasn’t worth the price ($145/night plus $40 per person for permit).
For more information, visit http://theofficialhavasupaitribe.com or call 928-448-2121. Office hours are 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. MST on weekdays. It’s very hard to get a person on the phone, but the earlier you call in the day, the more likely someone will answer.
A long exposure of Havasu Falls
When to Go to Havasu Falls
My friends and I hiked in May, which is what I recommend. It wasn’t too hot during the day and the nights weren’t cold. The water in the falls was cold but still okay for swimming. The monsoon season runs from June to September 30th. The monsoon is no joke–a July flood closed the campground and trail until September 1st this year! The temperatures during the day soar over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer months.
If you go during the winter months, it will be too cold to swim. The campgrounds area closed during December and January. Peak season is March through October. Avoid hiking during the heat of the day. I recommend hiking in at sunrise and out early in the morning. (We hiked in at 6 a.m. and started hiking out at 3 a.m.)
How to Get to Havasu Falls
The view from Hualapi Hilltop, the starting point from the Havasu Falls trek in Arizona, overlooks a string of well-worn hiking trails. The trail begins with a series of switchbacks before flatting out in Hualapai Canyon below.
Hualapai Hilltop Trailhead
The trailhead is located 68 miles from Route 66 near the tiny “town” of Peach Springs, Arizona. It takes a good hour or more to drive from Peach Springs to the trailhead. The night before our hike, we stayed at the Hualapai Lodge, the only hotel in Peach Springs. It’s roughly $150/night, which we split four ways. (To save $25 off your reservation, use this referral for Booking.com to book the reservation!)
We woke up at 2:30 a.m. to pack and drive to the trailhead. The tiny parking lot was already filled and cars were parked along the side of the road! By the time we parked and got organized, it was nearly 6 a.m. The sun was over the rim of the canyon by 7:30 a.m. (This was in early May.)
The trail drops roughly 1,500 feet in the first 1.5 miles through a series of switchbacks. We made it to the bottom of the switchbacks in 45 minutes after stopping to take a lot of photos. The trail is mostly flat the rest of the way with only a slight decrease in elevation.
After the switchbacks, you enter Hualapai Canyon. This area is exposed so it will be brutal in the summer months and dangerous during the monsoon season due to flash flooding. Check the weather and plan accordingly. Start hiking before sunrise to avoid the heat of the day.
Overall, the path is easy to follow. There’s one main well-worn path with a few that branch off here and there. But, the ones that branch off meet back up with the main path fairly quickly. There will be plenty of other hikers as well so it’s rare to get lost unless you miss the sign below.
The most important and only sign on the trek is the one located where Havasu Canyon meets Hualapai Canyon.
The most important part of the trail is to be sure to turn left when you see the wooden sign in the photo above. This is where Hualapai Canyon meets Havasu Canyon. Once you turn left, you follow the creek until you cross over a bridge to the other side to enter the village. It took us 20 minutes to walk from the sign to the village.
Supai Village (Mile 8)
A helicopter leaves Supai Village on the Havasu Falls trek in Arizona. From March to October, the helicoptor operates four days a week from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
We reached the village at mile eight, spent about an hour walking around and picked up our permit from the tourist office, a green building on the left that you can’t miss. It’s a good idea to bring a print out of your permit. Be sure to pick up the maps and other helpful information they give you. The town was surprisingly large for such a remote place. There’s a helicopter landing pad for those who don’t want to hike in.
From the office, it was about an hour (two miles) to the campground. The path is marked clearly through town. Follow the main (and only) road then turn left at the church to continue on the path.
Navajo Falls & Fifty Foot Falls (Mile 8-9)
Fifty Foot Falls is located just outside of the village of Supai
The first waterfall after the village is Navajo Falls. It’s off the trail slightly so it’s easy to miss. It’s nice but not as dramatic as the others in the park. It’s 300 yards up from Fifty Foot Falls. Refer to the maps you were given at the tourist office.
Havasu Falls (Mile 10)
The first view hikers see of Havasu Falls is from trail above the falls.
The star of the hike is Havasu Falls, which is two miles from the village. You can’t miss it because the trail passes right beside it. There’s a small trail that takes you to the base of the falls that’s a little steep. It’s best to take photos from the top, go drop off your backpack in the campground then go back for photos at the foot of the falls.
All of the waterfalls are part of Havasu Creek, which is fed by a natural spring. The turquoise color is the result of the water being stored underground for thousands of years. The water absorbs minerals from the limestone, which reflect sunlight to create the turquoise color.
The campground is huge and covers both sides of the creek.
The campground is surprisingly large and spread across both sides of the creek. There’s plenty of trees for putting up a hammock. There are picnic tables spread around the grounds. We choose a spot by the entrance by two picnic tables that was near the bathrooms. It was a quiet spot yet close to the falls for easy access for photography. The spring for drinking water is closer to the front of the campgrounds but easily accessible. It took us five hours to hike to the campground from the trailhead and less than four hours to hike out. (We stopped to take a ton of photos on the way in and spent an hour in the town.)
The trek to the base of Mooney Fall is an adrenaline-pumping adventure of shimming down 200 feet on ladders ropes and chains.
Mooney Falls is the tallest of all the waterfalls in the park. The top of the falls lies at the far edge of the campground. The climb down to the base of Mooney Falls isn’t for the timid. It’s a 200-foot drop through a small cave followed by series of ladders and chains that are perpetually wet from the mist from the falls. This is a very scary and potentially dangerous climb. There’s often two-way traffic so you are passing people. Make sure both of your hands are free and your pack is as light as possible. Wear your hiking boots—no flipflops or sandals! For a visual idea of the climb down, watch my “Southwest Road Trip” Instagram story to see the whole process.
A birds-eye view of Beaver Falls, which is two miles from the base of Mooney Falls.
Beaver Falls is the most remote of the waterfalls. It lies three miles from Mooney Falls. (You have to climb down to the base of Mooney Falls to get to the trail to Beaver Falls.) In some ways, this is the trickiest hike, but the trail is fairly easy to follow. You have to cross the river three times so wear water shoes or be prepared to take your boots off multiple times. The trail can spilt a bit at the water crossings, but the other trails only lead to other crossings that join the same trail. (Again, you are in a canyon so you can’t get that lost due to the canyon walls.)
A lone, giant palm tree marks the path to Beaver Falls. There’s a ladder on the right on the other side of the cave that leads to a path overlooking the falls.
Once you reach the lone palm tree, there’s a small cave with a ladder on the right. Climbing the ladder takes you to a view of the falls from above. You can then climb down to the base of the falls from there. You can reach the top of the falls by wading through the water and climbing over rocks but you will be soaked. If you have camera gear that’s not waterproof, take the trail that goes left by the palm tree to reach the top of the falls.
Beaver Falls is huge. You’ll pass a small waterfall on the way—this is not Beaver Falls. Keep on going until the palm tree! It took us two hours to hike from Beaver Falls back to the base of Mooney Falls. The trail is very exposed so start early in the day to avoid the intense sun!
Tips for Havasu Falls Hike
Our hiking crew (left to right): Sean, Bear, Rolando and myself. I would hike anywhere in the world with these guys!
Stay at least two nights to make the most of the waterfalls.
No drones are allowed on the reservation
Take a printed copy of your permit with you.
Pack out your trash. People bring lots of inflatable pool floats that often get left behind. Don’t do this!
There’s no cell phone service except a tiny bit in town. The town has WIFI.
Watch out for mules being herded down the trail.
We had no issues with any bugs or misquotes in May.
How hard is the hike?
Honestly, it wasn’t hard at all! It’s 10 miles total from the trail head to Havasu Falls and the campground. It’s another two miles to Beaver Falls, which you do with only a day pack. The hike into the falls is all downhill, but the hike out is uphill. The switchbacks at the end are steep, but if you go slow and steady, you’ll be fine. The weather is the only tricky part. Be sure to start hiking EARLY to avoid the heat since most of the hike is exposed without shade. If you do this, then you’ll be fine.
Food & Water
There’s a natural spring in the campground that’s safe to drink. If you have concerns, take a Sawyer MINI water filterwith you. There’s a café in the town of Supai and stalls that sell a bit of fry bread by the campgrounds. It’s better to bring your own food. Refer to packing list below for suggestions.
Bathrooms at Havasu
The toilets were amazing. They were compost toilets, but they were never smelly or dirty. Toilet paper was provided! There was no running water at the toilets, but they had hand sanitizer machines at the ones by the campground. (I’m writing this from Asia and dreaming about those nice Havasu toilets!)
Pack Mules & Helicopters
If you don’t want to hike, you can take a helicopter for $85/one-way to Supai Village. Then, hike two miles to Havasu Falls. You can also ride a pack mule into the village and/or have your luggage carried. It’s $242/roundtrip for a mule. Check with the office for weight limits. Reservations must be made one day in advance.
My pack weighed about 20 pounds including my DSLR camera and wide angle lens that weighed 7 pounds.
Summer Packing List for Havasu Falls (Three days & two nights)*
(When it comes to multi-day hikes, I am a super minimal packer since I’m also carrying a DSLR camera that weights seven pounds. I literally hike in the same outfit every day. If you buy quality gear, it won’t smell and will dry quickly.)