Category Archives: Essential Tips

Backpacking Packing List – Essential Items for Your Travels

You can literally get away with travelling with just a passport and some cash in most cases, however if you’re looking to get off the beaten path, you may want to be a little more prepared in your packing.

A few other essential items:

  1. Bring 2 credit cards and 2 debit cards from different banks, keeping them in separate places. When your bank automatically freezes your account because of suspicious activity in Honduras, you’ll be glad you have another card and can pay the dive shop for your Open Water Course. This is also in case you are robbed – a sad reality of many backpacking adventures.
  2. Have a photo of your passport and flight information saved in your phone and backed up on Google Photos or the iCloud. It is also helpful to have a printed copy so you aren’t held up at the Panama/Costa Rica border when your phone dies and you don’t have proof of onward travel in order to enter Costa Rica because you were relying on keeping all your flight information in your phone.
  3. Local currency and a little bit of your own currency from home. Having a small amount of your own currency allows you to do a small exchange on that final day if you run out of money without paying the withdrawal fees on a bank withdrawal (the last thing you want to do is pay $5 in bank fees for a $5 final meal) but doesn’t require you to change money back and forth multiple times. There are a few (very few) places where travelling with US cash is helpful. If you are on the tourist trail, there should be plenty of currency exchange places happy to exchange your Canadian dollars for local currency in any amount.
  4. Drivers license. I like to empty my wallet and only bring the essential cards. Your drivers license should be considered an essential card to bring with you. Keep this separate from your passport (with your back up debit and credit card) as a back up form of ID should your passport end up travelling without you.
  5. Clean ziplock bags. You don’t know what you will need them for until you need them and are happy you brought them.
  6. A pen. It seems so simple! This is probably the number one thing I forget every single trip and am left bothering my neighbour on the plane to borrow theirs to complete my customs forms.
  7. Hand sanitizer, wipes, toilet paper. Not every country has a fully equipped bathroom like at home. You may find yourself squatting behind a Guatemalan bus station and grateful you brought your necessary items for this from home. Likewise, not every country sells the tampons you might be used to at home.
  8. Extra pair of shoes. I have learned this
    Walking back to Akbol Yoga Retreat in San Pedro, Belize

    lesson too many times while travelling and have left behind many broken soles. Thankfully a kind woman at a yoga retreat gave me her shoes (how yoga of her!) so I no longer had to walk around with a rope tying my flip flop together after a 2 mile walk back to the retreat centre. True story.

  9. Pills. pills. pills. I don’t recommend playing pharmacist when you travel, except when you have to. Due to some of the situations mentioned below, I literally travel with every single one of these pills, every single trip. I have only been hassled once for having them all in one massive pill bottle (Lithuania of all places) but if you have space, you should probably keep them in their labelled containers, especially any prescription medication.
      1. Melatonin. To help with sleep and jet lag
      2. An anti-histamine such as Benadryl. I didn’t know I had any food allergies and I didn’t know Benadryl isn’t an over the counter medication in every country until my throat was swelling up in Thailand and I wasn’t able to get Benadryl at any of the 3 pharmacies we tried. You also never know when you will wake up in a bush of poison ivy in the Amazon, 5 hours travel from the nearest pharmacy or doctor. True story.
      3. Antibiotics. This one is dicey, not all physicians will give you a prescription of antibiotics just in case but when you get a case of Bali belly, you’ll be happy you have them. Make sure to understand proper dosing for the specific conditions or ailments before just randomly popping pills.
      4. Probiotics. After not having a bowel
        If you are going to eat like this, pack probiotics. Carb loading before a night of drinking for New Years eve in Costa Rica.

        movement for over a week while sailing from Panama to Colombia, these are now essential. Because of the change in diet when travelling, you should just take these preventatively rather than waiting until you actually have an issue.

      5. Pain killers (Naproxen, Acetaminophen, Advil, whatever you like) – whatever you use at home, bring it with you for headaches and minor ailments.
      6. Pepto-Bismol Pills. Because the liquid would be messy to backpack around and when you’re lying on the floor of your AirBnB in Hollywood, the last thing you want to do is run out to the nearest CVS to buy some.
      7. Gravol or another anti-nausea pill. I learned why the boat from La Ceiba to Roatan is nicknamed “the vomit comet” and wish I had taken the Gravol at least 30 minutes prior to departure (there is no point taking it after you start barfing as I did).
      8. Anti diarrhea medicine. No explanation needed. We have all been there.
      9. Cold & Flu medicine – day time and night time. Because when you are kayaking with seals in New Zealand, it confuses the other kayakers when you sound like a barking seal due to the bronchitis you are fighting.
      10. Vitamins. Because there isn’t a lot of nutrition in beer and the other things we tend to consume on vacation.

If you are going to be travelling or backpacking around, it is important to keep things compact. I’ve seen people with oversize suitcases trying to navigate cobblestone pedestrian only s   treets or water taxis while I walk by with ease with my organized pack. It is painful to watch, and with some simple packing tips, you can avoid being that person.

Do this… a well packed bag in Nusa Lembongan, Bali

 

The key to packing is to ensure everything you bring will be used, and is an essential item. When you’re travelling around for a month or two on trains, planes and automobiles, you are going to regret bringing those 12 different travel books stuffed between your damp, oversize, cotton, Costco beach towel when you could have just uploaded them onto your ereader nestled in your dry, compact travel towel.

Ciudad Perdida hike
Don’t do this… a stupidly packed plastic bag for a 4 day trek through the jungle to the lost city of Ciudad Perdida, Columbia

You can head out to Mountain Equipment Co-op and purchase the top of the line everything, but for the casual backpacker, Amazon is usually your best friend as it has great products (with reviews) for great prices.

    1. Battery pack. Since our phones are now also our cameras, music players, note pads, etc. a dying battery can cause stress. This is the battery pack I use. It is a bit bulky and heavy compared to some others, however the amount of charges I get out of it makes it worth it.

2. A compact quick dry towel. This can be used for showering if you stay places that don’t provide towels (hostels, campgrounds, etc) but can also be used as a beach towel, yoga mat, pillow, etc. Do not bring your fluffy large cotton towel from home. It will not dry when you pack up and will end up smelling moldy in your first day or two of travel. My favourite ones are from Amazon or Lululemon.

3. Tide Sink Laundry Packets. The inevitable will happen and before you are ready to do a full load of laundry, you will run out of clean socks or underwear. Or perhaps you will fall off a horse into a mud puddle in Ecuador on your first few days of a 3 week trip and will want to quickly wash the clothes you were wearing. These don’t take up much space and have saved me many times.

4. Dr. Bronner’s 18 in 1 pure castille soap. This can replace the tide sink packets and several other things as it has 18 uses. I can’t imagine travelling without this as I use it for a body wash, laundry soap and dish soap (I haven’t discovered the other 15 uses yet but I imagine they’re just as great!)


5. Ereader. I prefer reading books over an ereader however I do not prefer carrying books around so this is a compromise I make. I opted for the Kobo brand of ereader as it syncs with my local library. It is slow, has very few bells and whistles, but it allows me to store hundreds of books for those long plane and bus rides between destinations.

6. Earbuds. Not just for listening to music, but also for killing time on the plane as some airlines no longer provide headphones for the entertainment.

7. Lifeproof phone case. Drop proof, water proof, Dawn proof. I tried taking it snorkelling once without great results (difficult to  press button to take a photo when underwater) but I do feel safer about my phone getting tossed around in my bag when wrapped up in this case.

8. Travel Adapter. Not every country runs on the same voltage as we do and if you want to fry your brand new travel flat iron, you can try plugging it into a socket without an adapter, if the prongs seem to line up, but you’re better off using an adapter when you go somewhere outside of your home voltage.

I do get a super tiny (tiny) kickback from Amazon if you purchase these items through the links on this page but these are all products that I seriously recommend purchasing, and I have purchased myself through Amazon for my own travels. 

Knowing Your Air Travel Rights


On a trip to Miami a few years ago, my flight departing YVR was delayed due to a mechanical trouble. This resulted in missing my connection to Miami through Chicago. United Airlines did what would be the most economical resolution and booked me on their next flight to Miami much later that evening. I had somewhere to be, and so I reminded them of their obligation to put me on the next available flight, on any airline, and was on my way to Miami shortly after on an American Airlines flight. Had I not known my rights and accepted the airline’s first offer, I would have been stuck hanging out at Chicago O’Hare airport for several hours, missing the party in Miami. Likewise on a trip from Toronto to New York, United Airlines cancelled my flight due to “weather” (I think it was actually because the flight was only half sold) despite all competitors still flying at the same time on the same route. They automatically rebooked me me on a flight 3.5 hours later and with some pushing I was able to get to New York on an American Airlines ticket at my originally scheduled departure time.

Passenger rights vary from country to country, and airline to airline; I will not go into great detail into all of them but rather provide you with some general tips:

  1. If you encounter a delay, cancellation or involuntary bump, first jump on Google to see what your airline’s responsibilities are before you accept an offer from the airline. The most economical or first offer from the airline may not be the one most appealing to you. For example, I had been out for a few pre-flight beers when my flight to Australia was cancelled by Air Canada until the next day. They informed me I should go home and come back to the airport the following day and did not offer any compensation for additional costs as I was “local” (although I live 30 minutes away from the airport). I did not have transportation to/from the airport and was unwilling to pay the $70 taxi fare each way myself, and was able to have Air Canada pay for both taxi rides for me as this was an unnecessary expense for their delay.
  2. Be careful booking your own connections. For example, when I flew Air Canada to London, and then booked a separate ticket to Rome on Alitalia, I was warned to leave enough time for the connection as they would not be responsible if I missed this connection the same way as if I had booked with Air Canada the whole way in which case they would be responsible for re-booking the missed connection to Rome. Airlines often book their own tight connections knowing they will be responsible to re-book passengers if the flight is missed. You cannot take such liberties with booking.
  3. Those low cost carriers such as Sunwing, Air Transat, Allegiant, Ryanair, etc. do not have the same passenger rights as flying full service airlines such as Air Canada or WestJet. I try to avoid these airlines at all cost, especially after a significant flight change on Air Transat to Fort Lauderdale where I was simply told they had the right to change my flight by 12 hours without any other options provided. I remember explaining to the person I was travelling with why we paid more to fly Air Canada as we walked out the airport past everyone we had travelled to Mexico with while they were arguing with Sunwing about their luggage that never appeared.
  4. Delayed or lost baggage compensation varies by airline and is why you should always book on your travel credit card as suggested here. I had Lufthansa try to explain their super complicated compensation process when my bag was delayed on a trip to Wales (they wanted me to return the clothing I had bought by mailing it to them to get 100% reimbursement or I would only get 50%?) and I was grateful I had proper insurance through my CIBC Aerogold Infinite VISA as their process seemed onerous.
  5. The 24 hour grace period for booking errors is one I mention in my blog about booking here but should be mentioned again. Not all airlines or booking sites honour this, but it is great to be aware of in case you make an error while booking (or you book a flight impulsively before actually checking if you can get the days off work…)
  6. Europe has some serious passenger rights with minimum compensation for delayed flights. The airline isn’t going to advertise this or hold your hand through the filing process – the onus is on you to know about this. On a recent flight from Reykjavik to Copenhagen, I was compensated 400 euros for a 3 hour delay. That is more than I paid for my entire flight!
  7. Don’t forget food and drinks! With any cancelled or delayed flight situation, they’ll usually throw in some vouchers for food or drinks while you’re stuck waiting around. Don’t be shy to ask.

By knowing your rights (or at least Googling them at the time a situation occurs, because who really has time to read all that fine print when planning a trip) and following my tips on utilizing a travel credit card, you should never be left stranded, sleeping in an airport, or paying out of pocket for expenses that should be covered by an airline. The Canadian federal government is currently (2018) working on a Passenger Bill of Rights that I imagine will be similar to the one in the US. Although this is a fantastic step to protect passengers flying on those airlines who do not honour the same level of customer service, I do feel Air Canada already follows many of the guidelines that are introduced in this bill and by a little self advocacy, I have been able to ensure my travel experiences have been as smooth as possible during the delays, cancellations, and complications that are inevitable with air travel.

A great website to start your search on rights should you come into a situation while flying is: airefarewatchdog although I suggest that you verify any information you read on any blog with the actual airline website as policies can change faster than blogs get updated.

When Fernweh hits… choosing a destination.

You’ve probably stumbled on this site because you have a slight case of the travel bug, wanderlust, fernweh or simply the desire to explore and see somewhere new.

Hopefully this site gives you some ideas of cool places to go but this particular article may give you some specific thoughts on choosing a destination.

Some of my trips have been a result of impulsive booking when a seat sale drops on www.yvrdeals.com. Turkey had never been near the top of my list to visit until there was an awesome seat sale and next thing you know I was hiking around the caves of Cappadocia and dancing in a hookah bar with locals in Istanbul.

Because I tend to focus on budget travel, I like to remain fairly open to where I’ll end up. For example, some friends and I knew we wanted to head to a beach destination for spring break 2018 but were pretty open minded. We checked who had decent weather and beaches this time of year, then checked flight prices for Central America, South East Asia and the Carribean, and landed on booking the Philippines as it fit our criteria for price, beaches, weather, and somewhere we had never been before.

Since not all destinations are created equally, and sitting on a beach in New Zealand can cost you significantly more money than a beach in the Philippines, you may also want to factor in cost once you arrive. The flight is just the beginning.

Once you’ve determined if budget, the weather, and activities align with what you’re looking for, you may want to do a Google Images search or Instagram #hashtag search to get an idea of what to expect before booking.  By looking up #philippines we were able to get an idea of which islands we wanted to visit based on user photos.

I wish I had more interesting tips to share or an algorithm to help you figure out the perfect destination and when, but for me, scrolling through Instagram has been inspiration for a large number of my trips.

If you are looking for more guidance on how to choose a destination, and even an algorithm to follow, I recommend Lonely Planet’s Where To Go When book.

Essential Phone Apps for Travelling

With thousands of travel apps out there, how do you know what you really need?

Here are the ones I never leave home without:

Google Maps. Before leaving home, download the offline maps of all areas you will be travelling to. You may not have cell service or data in these areas and it then functions as a traditional GPS system without requiring data or internet. When you’re lost wandering on the island of St. Lucia after trying to find a waterfall, you’ll be glad you did this.

TripIt – the easiest way to organize all those confirmation numbers for flights, hotels, car rentals, etc. When you receive  an email confirmation for each booking, you simply click forward and send it to TripIt account. When you head out on your trip, all your info is stored in one simple app.

Ebates – Several airline and hotel booking sites offer cash back if you connect through Ebates. If you aren’t already using Ebates   Click here for $5 to get you started.

Airline specific apps. Some airlines require you to download their apps to access their entertainment (Air Canada rouge and United are two)  Before you fly, download the app for the airline.

Netflix – you can download movies and shows to watch offline. This can save you from purchasing entertainment from airlines who charge for this

Tripadvisor – they’ve gone downhill since they eliminated their city guides however you can still download some offline content for certain destinations. Tripadvisor is also the fastest way to find fun things to do and good places to eat when you arrive in a town.  Also, I will never book accommodation without taking a peek at Tripadvisor reviews. When the reviews say they have bed bugs, you don’t need to wake up in the middle of the night in a hostel in Panama itching and covered in bites to believe them, trust the reviewers.

XE Currency – excellent currency conversion tool.  Saves you from having to do the math yourself every time you make a purchase.

– There are so many others that are dependent on specific areas but can help you save money while at your destination: Uber, Groupon, Hotwire, Airbnbbooking.com are all essential apps I have on my phone.

Booking flights – not all booking sites are created equal

Once you decide you want to travel, it is time to start finding the best deal to get there.

If you are Canadian, two essential sites you need to follow on Facebook or through their email lists are www.yvrdeals.com (or www.yyzdeals.com if in the Toronto area) and www.nextdeparture.ca

These sites are for the impulsive ready to go people out there. You are flexible with your schedule and your destination, and ready to jump on a deal. Unlike other travel companies that continually advertise “sale” fares, these sites only advertise significant discounted fares.

If you’re unable to find a deal on these sites and have an idea of where or when you’d like to travel, you can start a general search with travel search engines.

I like to start with a broad using Google flights or Kayak and here is why:

Google flights:

– Ability to search multiple nearby airports at once (for example Los Angeles has about 5 nearby airports and prices/flight times can vary considerably)

– Flexible date range – if you are flexible and looking for the best deal to a destination google flights has a calendar view option allowing you to check several months in advance

–  Flexible location search. Maybe you know your dates but are flexible on where you want to go? You can enter broad search terms like “Europe” or “South America”

– Fantastic multi city destination search options

Kayak

I use kayak if I am pretty sure where I want to go and when, but have a bit of flexibility. Reasons to use kayak are:

– Allows you to search +/- 3 days on either side of your date

– Also allows multiple destinations to be entered

– You can enter a price drop alert and they will email you if your destination drops below the price you set

There are other great search engines such as sky scanner and momondo – it really comes down to personal preference.

Once you’ve found flights you want to book on the search engine, you can click on the link to get redirected to their preferred booking site. There have been cases where the link from Google Flights has provided me with a cheaper price with United Airlines than if I search any other search engine or the United Airlines site itself so it is always worth the click through!

Alternately, you can take the information you found and plug it into a separate booking site, or the airlines direct booking site.

Personally, I prefer to book directly with the airline, or through Expedia.

Expedia has a cool perk that allows you to change your flight by end of business day with no penalty (I’ve used this on more than one occasion when I’ve made mistakes) and will also honour the airline change policies – such as free changes or cancellation within 24 hours – please double check with them in case this has changed but I used it as recently as December 2017.

Other pros to Expedia are the opportunity to collect money back through Ebates and their Expedia+ points. Expedia usually has the exact same prices as booking direct the airline so these little perks make it worth using their site.

I will however book directly with airlines in some occasions. Typically when a fare isn’t showing up on Expedia (it happens. I don’t know why, but it does) or I’m looking for a specific connection, or in some cases, airlines offer promo codes to book directly with them. These codes typically can’t be used with third party sites like Expedia. The best way to access these promo codes is to keep an eye out on their social media sites (for example, I follow on Air Canada on Facebook to be alerted on the rare times they post a 15% discount code for booking direct)

In summary, after checking Google flights or Kayak to find your flight dates/times/airline, head to Expedia (via Ebates) or the airlines’ website (with promo codes in hand) to book directly.

I cannot recommend any other booking sites. There are many I haven’t used before, and a couple I have had bad experiences with.

I will NOT book through Travelocity or Flight Network again and although I hope their business practices have improved since my negative experiences, I am unable to recommend them.

In 2013 I booked a trip on Travelocity and within the 24 hour guarantee period, the price dropped. It took me several hours of phone calls and emails to cancel my original flight. I was sent a $50 credit to use on a future booking for my trouble but obviously never used the credit as it would have required me to book with them again. Amongst the worst customer service I have experienced in my travel career.

When I booked a flight on Flight Network in 2015 (their price drop guarantee attracted me and a friend cashed in on this successfully so I thought I’d give it a try) I quickly realized (within the hour) that I wanted to change my flight. I had booked an Air Canada flight and since Air Canada has a no fee change policy within 24 hours of booking, I assumed I was fine. Unfortunately Flight Network adds their own $75 surcharge to this making this change not free.

Loyalty clubs, rewards, points, where does one begin?

We all love free stuff, and as a traveller, you should be taking advantage of the opportunities for discounted travel (I say discounted because nothing is really free – even “free” flights and hotels require you to pay taxes and service fees)

Travel Rewards Credit Cards:
The biggest tip I can give you if you want to travel is to get yourself a travel rewards credit card. There are many sites out there to help you decide which card is best suited for you based on your needs and preferences. I like comparing on www.greedyrates.ca for up to date comparisons on the different credit cards in Canada but a few things you should consider:

  • Many offer no annual fee for the first year with a large points incentive (often enough for a free flight or several nights in a hotel)
  • Most cover the additional car rental insurance – this alone can justify the cost of the card if you rent a car for a week or more every year.
  • Most include emergency travel medical insurance – another important insurance that can justify the cost of the card. Typically this insurance is only for the first 15 days of your trip so you will still want to ensure you have insurance for the remainder of your trip.
  • Trip cancellation and interruption insurance – another saving
  • Baggage insurance – this one has saved me on more than one occasion when the airline coverage is simply not enough to cover those wardrobe emergencies while your bag is finding its way to your final destination the long way.
  • Purchase security and extended warranty protection – this is not entirely travel related but does make me feel better about bringing a brand new iphone or camera travelling knowing I have 90 days’ coverage from the time of purchase if it is lost or stolen.

Personally I continue to use the CIBC Aerogold VISA Infinite. It had a great welcome bonus including first year free and I continue to remain loyal to the Aeroplan program (I explain why in more detail here) however I do plan on switching in the near future. The $120 annual fee pays for itself several times over with the free flights, and ease of making insurance claims (with no deductible) which unfortunately I have done several times for lost baggage, and medical. I also have a Rogers Platinum Mastercard as my backup card because of the no annual fee and foreign currency cash back option. And because no traveller should rely on a single credit card when abroad.

Loyalty clubs
Blind loyalty is dangerously expensive but discerning loyalty can pay off with members only discounts. Nobody likes junk email from all these loyalty clubs but when planning a trip, I make a point to sign up for the newsletters and loyalty clubs, and to follow social media of the hotels and car rental companies I am thinking about using in my travels.  A great example of this is with Vegas hotels. I have found some amazing deals by joining their loyalty clubs and email lists when thinking about booking a specific hotel in Vegas, even better than secret hotrate hotels on Hotwire (and I love my secret Hotwire hotels…) 

Airline Loyalty
Airline loyalty is one that I will recommend. In Canada, the two major airlines offer almost identical flight schedules (with the exception of some rural routings which can make your loyalty easy to choose if you live in one of these communities) and almost identical prices. Pick one. Stick with it. For me, I am loyal to Air Canada, the Aeroplan program, and the Star Alliance. The only time I have flown Westjet in the last 10 years was when I moved from Toronto to Vancouver and they flew my dog on the same plane, rather than on a cargo flight. For me, everything about the Star Alliance is preferable from the free seat back entertainment, the network connections around the world, right down to the cheese and cracker snacks on Air Canada flights being superior to other airlines. But again, this is personal choice. That being said, blind loyalty can come with a price tag. I really wanted the points and security of flying Star Alliance to the Philippines but was I willing to pay $300 more and have longer connections? No. China Eastern, here I come.

Car Rental Loyalty
In my experience, there are too many local discount car rental companies to make loyalty to one of the big brands (Budget, Avis, etc) worthwhile. I managed to save a significant amount on a car rental in New Zealand by signing up for the newsletter for a local car rental company a month before I left so a little research can pay off by signing up in advance.

Hotel Loyalty
As for hotels, if your travels take you to major cities, there are benefits to remaining loyal to one particular brand as hotel points can result in free hotel stays and discounts. Since most of my travel does not involve major cities, and I use a variety of accommodation options, I do not usually opt for this and if booking regular hotels, I use discount sites like Hotwire or Priceline which typically offer the best rate. However, having access to hotel points through family members who collect these have saved me from some seriously expensive hotel stays in overpriced cities.

Booking Site Loyalty
If you’re able to redirect the junk email, signing up for any loyalty club can’t hurt. I didn’t realize Expedia even had a loyalty club (Expedia+) until I had enough points for a free stay! I had only signed up to keep my bookings organized, not realizing I was accumulating points.

For more information on booking with points, click here 

For more information on booking sites and how to book flights, click here