It is rare to hear hostels referred to as youth hostels anymore as they’ve evolved and most tend to cater to a wide age range of budget travellers. There are days I think I am too old to stay in a hostel and then I find one filled with community, good food, and good people and am reminded that they’re more than just a cheap place to crash.
Most hostels focus on bringing travellers together and have a variety of activities, events or amenities to accomplish this. They can have everything from karaoke to food tours to community meals. For the solo traveller, hostels are a fantastic way to meet other people and to get suggestions and tips on the area you’re travelling in, and in some cases to make lifelong friends from around the world. They’re typically in some of the best locations, central to many tourist activities where some of the most expensive hotels are located. For the person travelling for a longer period of time, hostels also typically include kitchen facilities which allow you to cook and store your own food, and their bars often offer amazing drink specials saving you even more money.
– Do not book the cheapest hostel you see available. Read the reviews before deciding on a place to place to stay!
– I do not suggest anything larger than a 6 bed dorm, but preferably 4. Pay the extra money for the quiet and cleanliness. Trust me on this. I’d say 12 bed dorms should be reserved for prisons, but I think even prisoners deserve more quiet and privacy than these overcrowded dorms allow.
– Consider a private room in the hostel if your budget permits. You can take advantage of the facilities while maintaining your privacy, quiet, and cleanliness.
– If travelling with friends, a hostel may not be your cheapest option. In Amsterdam I was able to get a beautiful 4 star central hotel on Hotwire for less than the cost of 2 dorm beds. Barcelona had similar results. Don’t assume hostels are always cheap, especially in Europe.
– Make sure to inquire on things that are important to you before booking (hot showers, drinking water, wifi, clean washrooms absence of bed bugs are a few that I prefer)
– If any review reports bed bugs, no matter how outdated, avoid that hostel! The management may respond to the review stating the bed bugs have been eradicated but when you wake up covered in bites with a full bed bug waddling across your chest as occurred in Bocas Del Toro, Panama, you’ll wish you’d have trusted the reviews.
– Participate in the activities, beyond the drinking at the bar (but that is fun too). We had a lot more fun in the free salsa class than the trio of girls watching us with judgmental faces sitting st the bar in Holbox, Mexico.
– Many hostels offer free accommodation in exchange for volunteering around the hostel. There is nothing that could have me clean hostel bathrooms on my holiday, but especially not for a $15/night dorm bed. Do the math on the value of this arrangement before signing up. As mentioned, hostels are great for community, but you may be better off meeting friends at the bar than cleaning their post bar vomit off the hostel toilet seats.
– And on that note… hostel bathrooms are the one main reason I don’t exclusively stay in hostels. I’m all for community, great locations, and saving money but shared bathrooms can get pretty disgusting, pretty fast which is why following my earlier tips (read reviews, as few beds as possible) will minimize the likelihood of contracting a new strain of Hepatitis or whatever else these places grow.
– Some hostels offer an ensuite option. Sharing a washroom with the 3 people in your dorm is a lot nicer than every person in the hallway. Take this option if it is available.
– Sex in the hostel dorm is a no no. This is why most offer a private room option.
– If you need to get up early, you get one chance with the alarm, no snoozing. Setting an alarm for 4:30 am and snoozing until 6 am is absolutely inappropriate
– If you are waking up early, have everything laid out and ready to go for a quiet and quick exit from the room. Do not turn on the lights while others are sleeping.
– Likewise if you are planning to come back from a late night. Have everything ready to go to bed and do not turn on the lights while others are sleeping.
– Clean up after yourself and be kind to the volunteers and staff who run the hostel. They do not get paid enough to be treated like service staff.
– Don’t steal food from others’ in the kitchen. Unless your phone gets wet and you need some rice for a quick dry out or if it is left in the free bin.
I’m not sure where to start with sharing my tips on booking accommodations as there are so many things I do depending on where I am staying, and what my budget is but below are a few general tips.
– Always read reviews if you have time!
– Cheapest is not always best value.
– Most of these sites offer a % cash back if you book through Ebates.
– Beware of hidden fees for resort fees, extra people, etc. Often the cheapest accommodation listed actually isn’t cheapest when you go to the final booking step with fees. Another hotel that was initially more expensive is often actually less!
– I usually book double occupancy with large hotel chains despite sometimes having 3 or 4 (or 5) people in my room and have never been questioned about this. I don’t bring the whole group to check in, usually just text them the room number to join me after check in. Don’t do this with small boutique hotels or B&Bs, only places that give you a minimum 2 queen bed set up and have hundreds of rooms.
– Do a quick google search for coupon codes, especially for Hotwire & Priceline.
– Don’t forget your corporate rate, AMA, CAA, Aeroplan etc. discounts if you’re booking directly with a hotel.
– Never trust a booking site when they say an accommodation is sold out for destinations off the beaten path. These sites are usually fairly accurate for large chain hotels in North America but my experience overseas has been different. If you want to stay somewhere, email them directly and usually they’ll have room for you.
Hotwire & Priceline are my favourite sites for scoring an amazing hotel deal when I’m pretty flexible. I’ll often look on Hotwire for an idea of a price for their hidden rate hotels and then lowball it on Priceline’s name your price. I’ve never been disappointed and it’s kind of fun! The downside to these sites is booking is final so you need to be 100% sure you’re not going to cancel. Lately Hotwire has been showing the name of the hotel before booking but if you really want to know, you can check betterbidding.com for a list of hotels listed on Hotwire & Priceline.
If I am a bit more particular about location or or am going somewhere a little more remote, booking.com is my go-to site for searching. They have all types of accommodations including hotels, hostels, B&B’s, and even campsites in some places! They appear to be the most comprehensive booking site. They also allow you to search by minimum review score by users which is a feature I use religiously. It doesn’t matter how good of a deal a place is, I try to always take time to check at least a few reviews and if there’s any mention of bed bugs or unclean bathrooms, I won’t stay there. Once I find a good spot on booking.com I’ll often go to the website to book directly with the hotel to save a few dollars with whatever promo code or corporate rate I have for that hotel chain, or book through Expedia. If I’m in a hurry and don’t have time to do thorough research, booking.com is the easiest and quickest way to book a hotel. A couple things to beware of with booking.com (or any booking site) are:
– Read the fine print to find out additional fees, taxes, etc.
– Check reception/check in hours. Some places do not offer 24 hour or late check in.
– Beware of booking on booking.com and then the hotel asking you to pay on PayPal or through wire transfer at an increased cost. There isn’t much you can do about it other than report them to booking.com but it does happen.
– Because booking.com offers such a wide variety of accommodation options, it is possible that some are scams. A friend sshowed up at her place in Spain to find out it didn’t exist. Booking.com took care of her but it still cost her hours of time to sort it out.
Expedia has less options than booking.com for broad searches but remains a favourite site to book on if prices are the same as booking direct with the hotel. I also love the flight + hotel option. If you need to book both a flight and hotel, always start with Expedia flight + hotel search. On a trip to Vegas a few years ago I ended up with my flight AND 2 nights on Fremont street for less than the cost of the same flight alone! This feature allows you to create your own packages. I’ve also used this feature when invited to a wedding in the Mayan Riviera. I didn’t want to spend a week at an all inclusive, nor did I want to fly a cheap charter airline with the rest of the wedding party, so I was able to use Expedia to book a flight on Air Canada and 3 nights at the all inclusive where the wedding was, while still getting the savings of a package deal. After I added another few nights at another hotel, I ended up paying less than the all inclusive package wedding party “discount” rate from the charter airline. You can click “I only need a hotel for part of my trip” if like me, you only want to spend a few nights locked in an all inclusive zoo before spending the rest of your time exploring. Hotwire also offers this option to create your own packages. One word of warning is that they do not include ground transportation like other vacation packages so you will need to find your way to the hotel on your own.
Hostels & “Other” Accommodations:
Another way to find the best accommodations is to check Tripadvisor. They have 3 categories: hotels, B&Bs and speciality lodging. For cheapest options, check speciality lodging. This is where you’ll find hostels but also cool spots like eco lodges, glamping, yoga retreats and other cool spots! Don’t necessarily go by the top rated one, some newer places haven’t crept their way to the top yet due to lack of reviews. I usually look at their overall score and read a few reviews to get a sense of the place. Tripadvisor isn’t actually for booking, but is meant to guide you to the best spots to stay. Once I decide where I want to stay, I book direct with the accommodation, or through websites such as hostelbookers.com or hostelworld.com.
For more information on my thoughts of hostelling for adults, click here.
If you’re travelling somewhere a little off the beaten path, you can use Tripadvisor, booking.com or Expedia to get a sense of prices and vacancy but then walk up to the place to negotiate a better price after viewing it in person. This only works when vacancy rates are high, you speak a bit of the local language, and you don’t mind carrying your bags around to a few spots. If you’re travelling during peak season you probably want to secure somewhere to stay before you arrive, at least for the first night.
I love Airbnb. It is such a fantastic concept, especially if travelling with a larger group or to a place with crazy high hotel prices like Europe or Manhattan. Their app is terrible. Absolutely terrible, and not user friendly making it difficult (but not impossible) to book on the go. If you have a desktop computer, checking out Airbnb is a great option. They have all types of accommodations in all types of price ranges. You can share someone’s home with them, share a room with strangers hostel style, or you can end up with an entire private house to yourself! I’ve stayed in Airbnb’s at least 10 times and have never had a bad experience.
They have generous promo codes to get money off your first stay. Click here for a promo code for your first stay.
Tip: double check the map of the location of your Airbnb before you book it. The search function sometimes sends you quite far away even after you specify where you want to stay.
This is brand new to me but on a recent trip to Banff, Alberta (Jan 2018) I wasn’t loving the options on my regular search sites so had a peek on Groupon Getaways. I found an incredible condo for a better price than anything on Hotwire – and it had breakfast included. I’ll probably start checking this more often although it seems limited to the bigger tourist areas.
I’ve tried all these and have found limited options and prices comparable with the above. I usually don’t bother checking but if you’ve had a good experience with one of these, shoot me an email as I’m happy to be proven wrong here.
Now if you really want to save money, check out Couchsurfing. Be prepared though, Couchsurfing is about more than just a free place to stay in someone’s home but is about building community, meeting friends, and sharing culture. If you want more private/indepedent lodging, try the above options.
Vegas deserves its own little section here. My biggest tip is to beware of crazy high resort fees (can be up to $40/night) before booking anything! Also, some “north strip” hotels can barely be considered on the strip. Anything north of the Wynn/Encore isn’t really walking distance to most strip attractions.
Hotwire/Priceline are still going to get you a kick ass deal but if you want to do a bit of work, you can score an even better deal by signing up to the loyalty clubs for different hotel groups. This has resulted in even better prices than Hotwire or Priceline when I’ve taken the time to do this and had a specific strip hotel in mind. They may also throw in some extras like meals or show tickets.
To really save money, consider staying downtown or off the strip. You’ll end up with cheaper accommodations and cheaper food options nearby. Your transportation costs will be increased if your primary objective is to hang out on the strip gambling, clubbing or hitting shows. If your Vegas goals involve the strip, you probably want to stay on the strip. If the off strip hotels offer a free shuttle to the strip you have to ask yourself if you really want to sit around waiting for a shuttle bus that only runs certain hours beside a family of screaming children, or are you more likely to jump in an Uber to rent a car? If so, you might want to just stay on the strip.
One of my favourite value accommodation spots in Vegas is Desert Rose Resort because they are located just behind Tropicana near the strip, do not charge a resort fee, have large spacious condos ideal for groups, and have little extras like free breakfast and happy hour drinks. The only downside is the pool is small and shady, but you can usually use the nicer Hooters pool (and 24 hour hot tub!) next door. Check their website directly for the best deals.
Lastly, you can usually get an upgraded room if you ask while passing over a $20 or $50 bill at check in. They may also throw in some extras like a bottle of champagne we got with our upgraded room at TI a few years ago.
Cuba also deserves its own little section on here. A quick look on any booking site and it will seem as though Cuba doesn’t have many small hotels, hostels or B&Bs listed, just the big all inclusive resorts. This will probably change over time with the Americans visiting Cuba but as of April 2017 when I was last there, most accommodations were in the homes of people, and were found on AirBnB, through word of mouth, or by looking for the white and blue sign out front of a home (it looks like an anchor). It seems strange to just walk up to a door to a house and ask if you can stay there but if they have a blue anchor out front, they’re expecting you! The occasional hostel has its own website you can find through an internet search but my accommodation booking tips don’t typically apply to this country and your best bet is to knock on some doors upon arrival or use AirBnB.
Part of travelling around means you may not always have a home base to defecate in peace. You might be on a stopover for a day without accommodation, or the place you’re staying might be too far from the area you’re exploring. Either way, we’ve all been there. You’re out and about, and need to go, but you’re afraid that merely touching the door handle of the public park toilets will lead to a newly discovered type of Hepatitis…
Here is what you do:
Find the nearest fancy hotel and walk in like you belong there. Own it. Strut with confidence. You need to be able to scan the lobby fast while walking with purpose, leading concierge to believe you’re just another hotel guest. Almost every high end hotel has a well maintained lobby bathroom you can use. They’re typically located near other hotel amenities such as the pool, fitness centre or spa. Once you pass concierge and front desk staff, you’re free to make use of the hotel facilities. I stick to large chain hotels over boutique hotels with more attentive staff and have never had a problem or been questioned for not being an actual hotel guest, even when the sign at the Fairmont Lake Louise clearly stated hotel guests only beyond this point. A little confidence and looking like I belonged had nobody questioning my presence as I ducked into the main floor bathroom to do my thing.
In addition to finding a peaceful place to poop, I have a few other tips that will not only protect you from contracting the newest form of Hepatitis, but will save you money and make your travels more comfortable.
Bring your own water bottle – you want to buy that $4 bottle of water at the airport and waste your money? Cool. Except killing the environment isn’t cool, so don’t do it. Pack your travel water bottle, empty it before security, and fill it back up after security. Travelling doesn’t give you an excuse to kill the environment with your plastic obsession with convenience. Tap water is safe in many countries around the world and if it is not, there are often water bottle refill stations in hotels or restaurants, or you can buy a huge jug to fill your water bottle with each day. I was a little skeptical about water treatment tabs a friend brought to Cuba but the hassle of finding and carrying jugs of water had me give it a try, and by the end of the trip I was drinking treated tap water exclusively!
Food & Drink:
Besides the flight, food & drinks can be your next major expense. Try to eat and drink as the locals do, at least some of the time. Do you eat out every single meal at home? Probably not, so why would you when you’re travelling? You can grab picnic supplies from the local grocery store, or if you have cooking facilities where you’re staying, you can throw together quick meals. At the very least buy your snacks from local markets or the grocery store. This seems obvious, but I had to throw it in here as so few people do it and get into vacation mode of buying the $2 Apple at Starbucks instead of the 20 cent one from the market next door. The same applies to alcohol. You can save a significant amount by buying your booze at the local grocery or liquor shop than having every single drink at a bar. And that travel water bottle you’re bringing; also allows you to bring your own cocktails to the beach.
Just like walking into a fancy hotel like a boss will usually warrant free usage of the lobby toilet, the same generally applies to their pools and other amenities. I mean, who would actually sneak into a hotel pool? I would. And I have. And I enjoy my cucumber infused water courtesy of the Four Seasons while I do it, all while staying in a much cheaper hotel with no pool nearby. Some pools require key access so it may require a bit of coordination to ensue you get in behind someone who has a key first. Or you may keep a collection of hotel room keys from various hotels in Vegas for
your frequent trips there knowing they actually check room keys of every person entering their pools (the “I forgot my key” has worked once or twice but isn’t something to rely on). Another option to help gain access is the free hotel bathrobes found in the spa changeroom hamper. But back to that Hepatitis thing… after finding a stain on the bathrobe I borrowed to get into the Harrison Hot Springs hotel pool, I’m not sure I’ll do this again.
So many novice travellers walk out of the airport and hail a cab. This is the most expensive, and sometimes most time consuming way of getting around. If you absolutely need to be driven around by a chauffeur, at least use Uber or Lyft. However, usually major airports have public transit that is a fraction of the cost, and sometimes faster! Vancouver (YVR), Toronto (YYZ) and Newark (EWR) airports are examples where you will get to the city centre faster (and cheaper!) by public transit. Consider these options before bothering a friend to pick you up at the airport as well. The one exception to this rule is Los Angeles. Don’t take public transit here unless you want to be part of a reality based version of straight out of Compton. Despite the above, it is always worth inquiring about the price of taxis in non North American countries. After sitting on a broken down bus for an hour and a half in Cuba we ended up splitting a cab with two others for barely more than the bus fare, and got to our destination much quicker than if we had waited for a repair that may have never come.
Renting a car vs. public transit:
Believe it or not, renting a car is often more economical than even taking public transit. Especially in major centres in the US. Take Vegas for example… an Uber to the strip is about $15 each way. Add one trip on the deuce bus x 4 people for another $20. You’re already at $50 and haven’t even left the main touristy area of Vegas. Throw in 4 of those Grand Canyon bus tours and that car rental is becoming seriously economical. If you have someone willing to be sober enough to drive, a car rental is usually a cheaper option for Vegas with weekend deals as low as $10/day and free parking at some major hotels (and you don’t pay the extra insurance because you followed my tips on getting a travel credit card here) Despite this, I still rarely rent a car in Vegas because that shuttle to the car rental centre is far too time consuming and I usually stay within walking distance of whatever centre strip hotel I am booked into (a car rental also allows you to save big by staying off the strip) and Vegas is one of those examples where convenience outweighs cost savings for me. The moral of this story is that public transit is not always cheaper, especially with groups. One look at the New Zealand bus pass prices and shitty schedules had me sold on renting a car there, even though I was solo.
One last general rule with ground transportation, stay out of those airport shuttles. They’re usually more expensive than a taxi for two as they charge per person, so unless travelling solo to some remote place not served by public transportation with super expensive car rentals, you shouldn’t have a reason to take these airport shuttles.
If you decide to rent a car rather than taking a taxi or public transit (often far more efficient and cheaper!) you can still save money by parking for free. Almost every major city I’ve been to has little pockets of free street parking. Yep, even Vancouver. A recent trip to San Francisco had me meeting people at Pier 39 for dinner. They warned me parking was $20 for 2 hours. I parked less than a 10 min walk away on the street for free. I always check the street parking around hotels as well before paying their parking fees. In Napa, the Embassy Suites wanted $18/night for parking and I parked right beside the lot on the street overnight for free. A net
inconvenience of probably 12 steps. Do make sure you fully understand the local bylaws before street parking or you’ll end up mailing an envelope of cash to a friend in Germany to pay your Austrian parking ticket because none of the ticket payment options are accessible for a foreigner leaving town before the next banking day.
– If you missed getting the seat you wanted with advance check in online seat selection, give it one more shot. I prefer to be near the front of the plane (last on, first off) and in a window seat (extra space to sleep) and by politely asking the gate agent for this, I’m usually able to move up a few rows with my desired seat.
– If you’re not a fan of those long security lines at airports (who is?) get a Nexus card. For about $10/year I have saved myself countless hours at the border crossing as well as in airport security lines. If you’re a Canadian citizen without a criminal record preventing you from US travel, there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t have a Nexus card.
– When you’re having a blast in Mexico and aren’t ready to go home for a few more days, you’ll be grateful to see a travel advisory for your connecting airport. The plane may fly anyway, but you can use this as a good excuse to extend your Mexican vacation. Check your individual airline but most allow you to rebook within a 7 day window if there is a travel advisory for weather. Airlines are notorious for lacking flexibility and this is one minor way to change your travel plans for free.
– Pack a snack. And maybe a drink (under 100 ml.) Airport and airline food is expensive and drinking is even costlier. Those travel shampoo bottles are perfect for bringing your spirit of choice on board to spike your complimentary beverage. Having a snack can prevent you from stealing Twizzlers from the stranger in the seat beside you when she gets up to use the washroom mid-flight when the munchies hit.
– With carry on fees getting expensive, know what you can bring on board for free. You are actually allowed one carry on AND one personal item which I choose to maximize by bringing a rolling suitcase AND a backpack (day pack size) when travelling. Everyone opting for carry on is likely what is slowing down security lines, and making boarding and deplaning take so long but until airlines address this, check your carry on allowance and try to take advantage of your full allowance before paying to check a bag. Carry on also reduces the risk of your bags getting lost and as someone who has had their bags lost at least 3 times, I can assure you that it does happen. Some airlines charge for carry on in which case a checked bag may be the way to go.
You have already downloaded as much offline content as possible by following my Apps to download tips, but sometimes you really want to post that amazing photo on Instagram and don’t want to wait until you’re back at your hotel. Skip the temptation to turn on your roaming, those charges are ridiculous. Every McDonalds or Starbucks has free wifi for customers, or non customers who stand outside their storefront borrowing their Wifi signal. Alternately, consider purchasing a prepaid SIM on the local network. You can usually get one at the airport for a fraction of what we pay at home in Canada or with roam like home. I typically pay less than $1/day. Make sure your phone is unlocked and you have a pin to exchange SIMs with.
Before you do anything currency related, find out if your destination is a cash or card spot. Argentina prefers cash, with surcharges on credit card payments in most places, whereas Norway is essentially a cash free society with even public washrooms only accepting cards.
Since smaller destinations only accept cash, or maybe you want to avoid credit card surcharges from both your vendor and credit card company, either way, travel often leaves you carrying around more cash than you would at home.
First of all, empty your wallet before you leave, only bring essential cards. You do not need your social insurance number card or grocery store loyalty card with you on a beach in Southeast Asia but losing them might be a hassle.
Make sure your wallet fits somewhere it can be easily concealed. Not your back pocket where pickpockets can reach in and grab as I observed at a train station in Naples. Your bra, waistband, sock are all great places to keep your wallet, while keeping a small amount of money for the day in your accessible pocket. You can buy those fanny pack/money belts but I usually just take advantage of opportunities that already exist. Those bras that have the little pockets for padding? Take the padding out and stuff your bra with cash instead. These tips extend to in your room as well. Your hotel rooms are not secure! I’ve had my room robbed in Nicaragua and Thailand, thankfully only for a small amount of cash each time because I had the bulk of my cash tucked away somewhere less obvious like in the pocket of a dirty pair of rolled up jeans.
If you’re travelling in a group you may want to have one separate wallet of cash for shared expenses rather than trying to figure out the math for every taxi ride or hotel room.
Carry local currency. Unless you’re actually American, you’re going to pay exchange fees twice to bring US dollars to a foreign country just to exchange it to their local currency. Know the local currency and obtain some before you leave from your bank (they require a few days notice) or a reputable currency exchange company that has good rates and doesn’t charge an exchange fee. Do not use the airport currency exchange kiosks under any circumstances.
One last tip about currency. You know when you have one day left of travel but you’re almost completely out of cash wondering if you should pay those extra bank fees to make another withdrawal or just not eat on your final day? Bring a small amount of currency from home (or US cash) with you. You can change a small amount at a local bank to get through that final day without paying crazy bank fees, and if you don’t need the money, you haven’t paid anything to exchange it and then have to exchange the unused amount back.
Be polite and at least attempt to learn a few words in the local language. Don’t be an ignorant tourist expecting everyone to understand your English. They probably do and will speak to you in English but your attempt at learning a few key words will be appreciated by the locals.
These are just a few of my travel hacks to staying cheap and Hepatitis free. For more packing tips, click here.
Have you got any tips to add? Feel free to email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
If you take only one tip away from this blog, let it be to carry all essential items for the first 48 hours of your trip in your carry on. When you are stuck in the hot, humid, jungle of Costa Rica in jeans, a hoodie and running shoes while your bag is delayed a day, you will wish you listened to me.
A few other essential items:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Clean ziplock bags. You don’t know what you will need them for until you need them and are happy you brought them.
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.
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.
Extra pair of shoes. I have learned this
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.
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.
Melatonin. To help with sleep and jet lag
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.
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.
Probiotics. After not having a bowel
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.
Pain killers (Naproxen, Acetaminophen, Advil, whatever you like) – whatever you use at home, bring it with you for headaches and minor ailments.
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.
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).
Anti diarrhea medicine. No explanation needed. We have all been there.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…)
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!
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.
If the travel bug is found to be genetic then I can thank my dad for my addiction. Since he takes 120+ flights a year I asked him to summarize some of his top tips for those who are a bit more amateur with flying. Understanding these common issues can make travel a bit less stressful, and by following my tips on knowing your rights posted here, you can navigate these bumps with a bit less stress.
Screaming at the ticketing agent isn’t going to get your grounded flight in the air any faster during a snowstorm so pack a good book, grab a drink, and learn to travel like a boss – preferably in the business class lounge.
Rob’s Rules of Travel:
1) Connecting flights – No matter the weather conditions and other factors causing delays, when your incoming flight is late your connecting flight is always on time.
2) Nexus/TSA Pre – Despite all the signs and information available some people still insist on taking off their shoes, coats and remove liquids, electronics that they don’t have to. Clearly should be a test when you sign up and only allow those who can pass a minimum intelligence level to qualify. Anyone who still can’t figure out how to go through security should be suspended from the program.
3) The later the flight the further out your gate is. Want to arrive at gate 99 in YYZ, try arriving at 1:00 am for a healthy 30 minute walk. Better yet, when the weather is horrible and the first 200 metres is outside.
4) There is a definite correlation between how much of a hurry you are in, and how delayed your flight is. Midday flight no appointments, right on time. Birthday dinner, running close, guaranteed 4 hour delay. When the pilot announces that the flight looks like it will arrive early, almost guaranteed to have a ground hold, gate occupied or ground crew shortage to prove them wrong.
5) After you spend time on seat selection and prebook a bulkhead, aisle, or exit row seat how is that some people have the gall to ask if you would mind changing with him so he/she can sit beside their spouse? Really not sure you always need that much closeness anyway but I sure don’t have a problem saying “hell no”.
6) Flight delays come in 20 minute increments. Even when you verify on an independent app like Flightviewer that the incoming flight hasn’t even left yet and you will be at least 4 hours delayed, the airline insists on letting you know 20 minutes at a time. Some kind of training program I guess to keep customers on their toes.
7) Airline food actually gets a bit of a bad rap. Not the free hot meals they still insist on forking out on overseas flights. No those are crap and should be avoided at all costs. I’m talking about the buy on board stuff. Pretty good sandwiches, salads and snacks which improved dramatically once you started having to pay. In fact, I have asked for a selection from that menu when flying business class as the selection was better than the pre-plated stuff up front. On the other hand, people bringing their own food on board should be banned. Whole plane ends up smelling like a food court and what is it about being on a plane that all of a sudden you can’t go a couple of hours without food?
As mentioned in my blog about loyalty clubs and rewards points, I am going to try to explain why I have chosen the Aeroplan program (at least until 2020 when it is said to be parting ways with Air Canada) and some general rules on how to make the most of those points you accumulate.
I prefer to fly Air Canada and Star Alliance airlines. Say what you will about any issues you’ve had with Air Canada, they’re still rated the number one airline in North America.
I am able to accumulate Aeroplan points at a rapid rate, allowing me to redeem several free flights a year. Using a combination of flights, credit card points, and random small accumulations at certain stores and with the Carrot App I rack up these points far faster than Airmiles or other comparable programs would. Note: travellers, you should be putting EVERY purchase on your travel reward points credit card. Even that $2 tea you buy at Starbucks. Everything.
I’ve looked at other reward points programs and most give you a dollar amount that can be applied towards a travel dollar amount. This is great for when you find those seat sales, but I like to use my Aeroplan points for those really expensive or remote trips and am happy to pay (with my travel rewards credit card) for bargain seat sales when it isn’t worth using points.
There are lots of websites out there that will do the math for you on when it is worth using Aeroplan or not. I do not abide by a simple formula, but rather look at opportunities to take advantage of their flat rate travel rewards system to maximize value for remote destinations.
For example, a trip from Vancouver to Whitehorse is typically around $600-700. Because of the short distance, it is only 15,000 Aeroplan points. By contrast, a flight to LAX is 25,000 points but typically costs $200-$300.
Obviously, the flight to Whitehorse is the better value. It is less points for a flight that costs significantly more. If I was to use a different travel rewards program based on monetary amount, I’d be left paying 2-3x as much to go to Whitehorse. But with Aeroplan, I am able to go for 10,000 less points, saving me a significant amount of money.
I have used Aeroplan for short haul flights internationally as well (thanks to the partnership with Star Alliance). This has served me well with an expensive connection to Lithuania from London, as well as from Ecuador to the Galapagos.
Another perk of the Aeroplan program is the ability to include stopovers. I once took a trip from Vancouver to Toronto to Miami and back to Vancouver for 25,000 points. Any trip within North America is 25,000 points but you can add a stopover for free, making this itinerary a better value than just going to Toronto or Miami on their own. In this case, to purchase the ticket would have cost me over $1000.
I have used these single stopovers within North America several times, however I have yet to try the mini RTW (round the world) stopover option. On international roundtrip rewards, Aeroplan allows you to book TWO stopovers. Rather than their full RTW option with 5 stopovers for 200,000 points, this mini RTW option should be able to get you to a couple different continents for a much lower point amount (75,000 – 90,000 points).
Now don’t get too excited and switch all your loyalty to the Aeroplan program. It is not without its faults. It does require some flexibility, either with dates, or with random stopovers – sometimes stopovers that don’t make any sense. This program is best for someone who travels frequently and is able to discern when to best use the points vs. paying for flights. It is not for the person who saves up their points for 5 years for a 60,000 point trip to Europe, only to discover the taxes on the points are more expensive than the latest advertised seat sale.
The taxes on flights are the next largest downside to Aeroplan following the lack of availability. As mentioned, the taxes on a flight to Europe can be more than paying cash on a flight to Europe ($600+). Likewise, there are some flights that have almost no taxes, like Seattle to Central America where taxes are $15-30. There are several airlines who do not charge all the same fees and levies that Air Canada does, and many airports who do not, hence why flying out of Seattle airport on United airlines, can save hundreds of dollars over an Air Canada flight from YVR.
Unfortunately the Aeroplan website does not have any quick way of comparing things (it would be amazing if they had a platform similar to Google flights!) so researching the best use of your Aeroplan points can be time consuming and onerous. Knowing that availability changes daily, I remember spending every day for a week or two checking flights from YVR to Miami, Fort Launderdale and West Palm Beach every morning until the dates I was looking for opened up.
One last note… Aeroplan also has hotel stays and merchandise. I have never found this to be a value. A night at a cheap Best Western for the same number of points as a flight within North America? No thank you… I stick to using my Aeroplan points only for flights.
This is just a quick blog about why I choose Aeroplan over the points programs based on monetary travel amounts. If you are interested in learning more secrets about how to maximize your Aeroplan points, there are a bunch of fantastic blogs out there that go into serious detail with far more tips on making the most of your points.
As a fairly seasoned traveller, I am always looking for how I can get the most out of my travel time. One easy way to do this is through stopovers.
I’ve been able to spend a day or two in places I want to check out but don’t want to stay too long in, and have been able to turn a single vacation into two destinations. Since I live in Vancouver, and Toronto is home, I will often use a stopover on my way to Europe or south to stop in and visit family and friends.
How to do this? You have already learned how to find the cheapest flights with my tips here, but the ones with the best stopovers may not be listed first as Google Flights tends to list in order of price. The cheapest flight may not be the best value. There is a function where you can click “show longer or more expensive flights”at the bottom of your search results which I recommend always exploring. I suggest looking for either the shortest stopover, or the longest stopover to avoid spending time waiting around the airport. You can also use the multi-city search function to create your own stopover ideas.
3-6 hour stopovers are useless to me and I rarely book flights with these stopovers. I’d rather pay a little bit more to reduce my airport time, either through a quick connection, or through a long stopover allowing me to venture into the city. I’ve been able to make the most of stopovers ranging from 6 hours to several days. Beyond 24 hours can impact taxes/fees so be aware of this (I try to do the 23.5 hour stopover in Toronto to avoid having to pay extra fees but to allow the most amount of time visiting as possible).
Stopovers can also work a different way…. when you are going somewhere, and then add a destination. I was planning a trip to Toronto and was able to add a side trip to Cancun for only an extra $100 total (in business class!!! Whaaaat?) and then fly home from Cancun to Vancouver. It is always fun to play around with Google Flights to see where you end up!
Some airlines promote free stopovers to encourage you to visit additional places.. Icelandair is probably the most famous for attracting visitors to Iceland on their way to Europe from North America however other European airlines such as Air France and KLM do the same with their home bases (Paris and Amsterdam).
A few things to consider when looking to leave the airport on a stopover:
Is this city somewhere I want to explore? Is it worth the trouble/cost to check it out (usually the answer is yes as even exploring a place I don’t like such as Beijing beats sitting in an airport for 14 hours). There are additional currencies to obtain, different weather to pack for, research on transportation and sights, etc.
How far away is the city/nearest attractions? For example, in Vancouver, you can jump on the skytrain from YVR airport and be downtown in 30 minutes.
Do I need to claim and recheck my bags before leaving the airport? Or will I be stuck carrying my bags with me for my stopover?
Do I need to go through customs? Do I require a visa? In China, Canadians are eligible for a 72 hour transit visa which allowed me to visit Beijing. The line to get this visa at the airport however was lengthy and did cut into my 14 hours of exploring time.
How much time do I need to get back in time to catch my next flight? It is important to factor in any stressors that could arise such as traffic or a transportation break down.
Costs. Those pesky Houston stopovers on the way to Central America can get expensive as they are often overnight and require a hotel – thus increasing the price. If there is another flight available that avoids this cost, even if slightly more expensive, it is likely a better value to avoid hotel cost.
To give you an idea of what you can do on a stopover, below are some stopovers I have managed to enjoy while connecting on to my final destination.
New York City (via Newark, NJ airport) on my way to Puerto Rico, and again on my way to Ecuador – the train from Newark gets you to Manhattan Penn station in under an hour.
Frankfurt, Germany on my way to Croatia, and another time on my way to Lithuania – There is a direct train from the airport to the centre of the city which is incredibly walkable.
40 km bike ride around Adelaide during a 6 hour stopover on my way from Port Lincoln to Perth, Australia.
Honolulu, Hawaii on my way to Sydney, Australia – I ended up taking a couple of days here to enjoy my first trip to Hawaii before heading down under.
A vegan binge in downtown Denver enjoying the food scene.
Vegan baked brie at Watercourse Foods in Denver – worth the stopover!
Beijing, China on my way home from Australia. The 72 hour transit visa line was lengthy but thankfully I had 14+ hours.
Several hours in Toronto AND several days in Amsterdam on my way to Turkey.
Tokyo, Japan on my way home from Bali, Indonesia. This train was rather long and infrequent however I had 14+ hours and still managed to see quite a bit of the city.
Hong Kong for a few days on my way to Thailand. Having a few days doesn’t require as much rushing or planning as stopovers of a few hours.
Houston, several times on my way to Central America. This is one stopover I can’t really recommend. The airport is not served by any efficient transit and there isn’t much to see or do. If you have to fly through Houston, try to keep it short.
San Francisco – if you only have an hour, try the chicken pesto sandwich from Kleins, but if you have a few hours you can jump on the BART and be downtown in no time, hanging with the sea lions at Pier 39.
Toronto – my other home. If a route I’m flying has a stopover option for Toronto, I’ll take it, even if only for a few hours. If I only have 3 hours I’ll often have friends come pick me up to grab something to eat at Jack Astors nearby in Mississauga. Otherwise, the new Union Pearson Express train makes going into downtown even for only 5 or 6 hours worthwhile when in Toronto.
This isn’t entirely foolproof. On a recent trip to the Philippines (March 2018) I was denied the transit Visa in Shangahi and spent nearly 10 gruelling hours in the airport. A shorter stopover would have been nicer here. Other than China, I’ve never heard of this being an issue.
Regardless of where your travels take you, you can add a little bit more adventure or culture by looking beyond the basic search results for your flights.
Ecuador remains one of my favourite places I’ve visited and I am excited to share the reasons why with you! The country has everything one could want to visit, and other than the Galapagos, is quite budget friendly.
Trip Length: 22 days
Dec 24. 2016 – Jan. 15, 2017
Guayaquil – Montanita – Galapagos (on the Golondrina) – Quito – Amazon – Banos – Latacunga (Quilatoa) – Quito (Otavalo)
Go: If you love the outdoors, hiking, surfing, Spanish language, yoga near the beach, South American food and culture, vegetarian and vegan friendly food options, and if you carry a sense of adventure.
Don’t Go: If you want North American style comforts of home, prefer McDonalds over Empanadas made fresh on the street, if you would rather watch cable tv than share a drink with locals on the street, or if you’re afraid of altitude sickness or if your attachment to your phone and the fear of getting robbed outweighs your sense of curiosity and adventure.
YVR – GYE, UIO – YVR: $1192 CA (I booked fairly last minute over the holiday season – 3 weeks prior to my trip, by planning in advance you can cut this down by at least 30-50%)
Quito (UIO) return to Lago Agrio (LGQ) $57 US (at this price, why bother taking a bus?)
Guayaquil to Galapagos, Galapagos to Quito: 15,000 Aeroplan points plus taxes (check this article here on when it is worth using points)
7 night cruise through the Galapagos on the Golondrina $1687 US ($1600 for the cruise, $30 bank fees, $57 non issuance fee for not booking my flight with them) You do need to bring some additional money for snorkel gear, wetsuit rental, alcoholic beverages and tips for your guides.
2 night stay at Jamu Lodge, Cuyabeno $238.88 US (including activities, food, transportation, etc)
Accommodations, food, buses to destinations, and taxis were all very cheap. You can get a decent hostel bed in Quito for $10 US/night (even cheaper if crowds and cleanliness aren’t a concern)although my major score was a private room in Banos for $15 US/night. The north American in me cringed when I needed to take a taxi from the centre of Quito to the bus terminal as at home I would never take a taxi for 25 minutes but it turned out to be only a few dollars (I don’t remember the exact amount, sorry!) You’ll notice through this blog that I took taxis quite often. This is a pretty standard way of getting around cities in Ecuador and are significantly less than your standard Uber ride at home.
YVR – EWR
I started my trip with a stopover in New York City on Christmas Eve. I only had 7 hours at Newark airport which didn’t leave a lot of time, but it was my 3rd trip to New York in 2016 so I knew what I wanted to see. I jumped on the NJ Transit train from Newark station and was at Penn Station in Manhattan in no time (under an hour). I was able to visit the ridiculously crowded Rockefeller Center, Empire State Building, Central Park, Times Square, Christmas windows at
Macy’s, and spend some time in my favourite area, Bryant Park where all the little Christmas vendors were out while people ice skated around. Although I didn’t have a lot of time in each place, I had a chance to enjoy the Christmas lights and holiday spirit (crowds) before jumping back a flight to Ecuador.
One more short connection through Bogota and I landed in Guayaquil on Christmas Day. The Terminal Terrestre bus terminal was a short walk from Guayaquil airport (although I did have to ask for directions more than once) where I caught a direct bus (2.5 hours) to Montanita. The bus terminal is a 3 story chaotic place so it took me awhile before I found the ticket agent for a direct bus to Montanita which was conveniently located next to an empanada stand on the top floor.
I saw no reason to spend any time in Guayaquil. Large Latin American cities do not appeal to me in general as they tend to be crowded, noisy, and often have higher crime rates. Also, any time spent in Guayaquil would have been subtracted from my beach time in Montanita.
Montanita (4 nights)
I spent 4 amazing nights at Casa del Sol in Montanita. I can’t say enough about this place. I arrived on Christmas Day to an incredible dinner with the community hosted by Casa del Sol and spent the rest of my time jumping into the activities offered in this beach town including:
Surf lessons ($20/each) from a guy down the beach. The staff at Casa del Sol offered to help me find an English speaking instructor but I was able to practice my Spanish and learn to surf at the same time by hiring a local.
Yoga classes at Casa del Sol with the fantastic instructors in their beautiful yoga facility
Horseback riding to Cascadas de Dos Mangas – it was beautiful to trek up into the lush forest and go for a swim in one of the natural pools however I might recommend just hiking if like me, you aren’t confident on a horse. My apprehension was confirmed when my horse bent down to drink some water and stumbled a little under my weight, dropping me in the puddle
(without a helmet because… South America). There is probably a more organized way to do this hike or ride, but we had heard about this place from another person (there are no words to describe his physical interpretation of horse back riding as he thrust his hips around) and so jumped in a taxi and found someone renting horses in front of a little tourist shack who agreed to give us a guided tour.
Beach time. Montanita’s beach sprawls for miles and so it is pretty easy to find your own little space to relax. The sunsets are breath taking.
Checking out the iguanas hanging out in the sun near the bridge in town.
Eating – I was surprised by the number of vegetarian and vegan friendly restaurants in town and ate some of the most incredible food on this trip in
Montanita. The granadilla fruit was a new taste for me and something I continued to enjoy my whole time in Ecuador. The harder shell on it made it great to throw in my bag for long bus trips and travelling around. The best gelato of my life (sorry Italy) was at the little restaurant across from Casa del Sol (I don’t remember the name, but you’ll find it) For Empanadas “the size of your head” as they were described to me, check out Tiburon.
Drinking – I didn’t take advantage of the nightlife in Montanita as much as I would have in my younger years but I did check out a couple of clubs and of course, cocktail alley. The nightlife in Montanita is what you would expect for a beach town and if you enjoy late nights of dancing, this is your spot.
Detour: If I had stayed longer I would have gone up to explore some of the quieter beach towns up the coast including Isla de la Plata (poor mans Galapagos)
Guayaquil (1 night) & Galapagos (7 nights) .
I left Montanita just after sunset to catch the final bus back to Guayaquil as I had an early flight to Baltra in the Galapagos the next morning. I stayed at the Holiday Inn near the airport to keep travel time at a minimum as the hotel was literally on the hotel grounds and I was able to walk over to board my flight the next morning. Because I booked separately from the others on the Golondrina cruise, I had some time to kill waiting around at the airport where food was minimal, internet was non existent, and one could only peruse the 2 airport shops for so long. I attempted to go for a walk to explore the area but the Baltra airport is literally the only thing in the middle of a desert. Bring a book.
Once everyone arrived, we boarded a bus down to where the Golondrina boat was loading. I opted for the “itinerary C” as it covered the islands I was most interested in visiting, and the dates suited my timeline. There are so many islands and options of cruises to visit, below is a brief description of the islands I went to which may help you decide which ones to visit. Each island was so distinctly different that even after 7 days of island hopping, I could have easily stayed longer!
Bachas Beach, Santa Cruz Island: Instant gratification. Right away we got to see seals, iguanas, and several species of birds. An amazing introduction to the Galapagos and the diversity of wildlife we would encounter over the next week.
Genovesa Island: El Barranco: This island was quite dry and we spent a significant amount of time looking at birds. The coolest part was probably catching a glimpse of an owl!
Darwin Bay: Back to the beach and more seals. The guide promised we would be sick of seeing seals by the end of our cruise but I can honestly say that did not happen. We walked around this bay and were able to see some bones of different creatures which was interesting, however I was more enthralled with the live animals we encountered.
It was a super early morning but we were rewarded with penguins at sunrise! We were able to jump in and snorkel with them which sounds cooler than it was, they really weren’t too interested in playing with us. But they were beautiful to photograph on land.Following a short hang out with penguins on the rocks we docked and then explored the island. The short hike up the wooden stairs provided one of the most picturesque views of the Galapagos, possibly my favourite view of the week.
Sullivan Bay (Santiago Island):
The lava fields were such a contrast from the the previous islands. We didn’t see much animal life other than some red crabs but the outlines of lava in the rocks were beautiful.
South Plazas Island:
So. Many. Sea. Lions. Including lots of nursing babies! The iguanas also put on a nice little show for us feeding off the trees and climbing on each other.
Santa Fe Island:
We snorkelled around a bit in the bay and had a chance to see some really cool iguanas. They seemed pretty chill and not too bothered by our presence.
Leon Dormido: When we boarded the Golondrina I had said I really wanted to see Hammerhead sharks. I was informed that these are rarely seen snorkelling and usually one needs to dive to see them. While snorkelling around kicker rock, we were treated to 3 hammer head sharks swimming below us!
Cerro Brujo, San Cristobal Island: After snorkelling with hammerhead sharks at Kicker Rock, we spent time relaxing on a beautiful beach alongside seal lions while watching turtles swim in the water. This was your typical white sand beach and possibly the most beautiful beach we stopped at.
Lobos Island: This was my favourite island. I couldn’t get enough of the baby sea lion pups – some so small they were only a few days old! We even got to see the placenta of a totally new born pup. In the water, older sea lions were playing around treating us to a show that would rival the captive sea lions at Sea World but so much cooler in a cruelty free, natural environment. The island also had iguanas sun bathing and blue footed boobies.
We stopped at a few different spots on Espanola Island. More sea lions, iguanas, different species of birds, but I promise it doesn’t get old. Snorkelling around with the sea lions (and sharks!) was pretty epic. The sea lions were quite playful in the water, particularly curious of the Go Pro cameras some people were using. We were having a great time until the guide whistled for us to get back in the boat – I guess he didn’t like the look of one particular Galapagos shark that was hanging out with us. At no point on this entire boat tour did I ever feel at risk – these guides know the animals so well and it is their job to keep tourists safe. I trusted our guides judgment when it was time to get out of the water despite feeling quite safe swimming beside the sea lions and sharks.
Cormorant Point, Floreana Island:
Another super early morning – most days we left the boat by 6 or 7 am with our first hike or snorkel happening before breakfast. The flamingos on this island were tough to see in the distance but fortunately some people had brought binoculars and were happy to share them.
Although other times on this trip I had been a bit cold snorkelling, this was the one time I regretted not bringing a wetsuit or renting one. The water was freezing! And to add to it, I was getting stung multiple times every minute by mini jelly fish.
Charles Darwin Station, Santa Cruz Island:
This was one of only two stops on a serviced island with other tourists, accommodations, restaurants, etc. We went to the Charles Darwin Station where we observed some massive, slow, tortoises and learned a bit about the conservation efforts. I very much recommend stopping by this place as I think it provides some essential context to exploring the Galapagos Islands. The air conditioning in the little museum area was a nice touch as well. We had some time to hang around the town where I grabbed a daiquiri (or two) and enjoyed the break from the boat.
Our final day was spent with an early morning stop on Seymour Island. Although bird watching isn’t really my thing (you can probably tell by the lack of mention of all the amazing species of birds throughout the islands) I was completely amazed by the Frigate bird. The males have a massive red chest (actually their throat pouch) which is inflated to attract females.
My time on the Golondrina boat can be summarized with a simple route of hike. snorkel. eat. repeat. which was absolutely perfect in every way! The guide had a saying that with a little optimism and enthusiasm things would always go well. This was certainly the case as we were treated to sightings of penguins, hammer head sharks, dolphins and a whale. The different species of birds, seals, and sharks were all pretty standard
and abundant but we were fortunate to have seen the others. You will learn a lot about the different species, evolution, and even a little about the people of Ecuador. All this education provided alongside some incredible activities in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
The accommodations on the Golondrina were basic and small – in fact, my roommate and I had to take turns in the room if we wanted to stand on the floor but they were clean and the crew were friendly and helpful. The food was basic and tasty (you better enjoy rice as they serve it at every single meal) but the best part of the boat was the many options for outdoor space. The front deck was quieter (except when we all rushed to the front to watch the dolphins playing in the bow) and the back was more of a gathering place while we cruised through the Galapagos. There was plenty of room for everyone and there was even a small covered outdoor space for when things got a bit too windy. I will never forget celebrating new years eve on the Golodrina where we were gathered on the deck watching a seal who had jumped in our panga (dinghy boat) being circled by a shark. The excitement mounted when he jumped in the water to eat a water snake but luckily made it back in the panga before he became dinner for the circling shark. We also used flashlights to see turtles and fish swimming below us.
Why did I choose the Golondrina? With so many boats to choose from, it can be a tough decision. Ultimately it came down to 3 things for me: dates, itinerary, and price. Because I planned my trip only a couple weeks before I left, prices had already dropped but some boats had sold out, limiting my options. There are several “last minute” Galapagos booking sites but I opted to book with the Golondrina staff directly.
After a week on the Golondrina, we arrived back at Baltra several hours before my departing flight back to Quito. A polite conversation with the check in agent got me on a flight leaving in the next half hour… for only $15 change fee. Same day change fees with airlines can vary in price from free to ridiculously expensive… it is always worth (politely) inquiring if you find yourself at an airport several hours before your flight time.
Quito (2 nights)
I caught the bus and then the crowded, slow, eco-via to get to the Community Hostel in Quito. I typically prefer to take public transit for budget and environmental reasons but this is one time I am going to say that taking a taxi or shuttle is probably worth the splurge, at least after the initial bus. The bus into Quito was long, but otherwise comfortable, but the crowded eco-via with a huge backpack in a city known for pick pocketing just wasn’t a good idea. It was hot, crowded, uncomfortable and slow. I finally arrived at my accommodation, happy to finally put down my bag after standing on the eco-via for far too long. The Community Hostel was everything one could want in a budget accommodation for solo travel. It was walking distance to the most amazing empanadas (they put sugar on everything in Ecuador, including their savoury empanadas) as well as offered many community events. I don’t often take advantage of these activities but the free walking tour was a suggested activity by several people and I’m glad I did it. I learned a lot of interesting facts and history about Ecuador from the walking tour and it gave me an idea of how to spend the rest of my day in Quito while orienting me to this large city.
Despite snorkelling with sharks, canoeing with crocodiles, and sleeping in an open tree house in the Amazon with anaconda snakes nearby; the scariest thing I did on this entire trip was climb the clock towers of the Basilica church. Worth it. Do it. But if you don’t like heights, don’t look down.
I took a taxi up to the Virgen de Quito after reading several warnings about not hiking up due to robberies of tourists. Quito is a beautiful city with amazing culture, food & people, but it is a large South American urban centre and care must be taken. Twice when I had taken my phone out to snap photos I had well meaning locals tell me to put my phone away or it would be stolen. I met individuals at the hostel who had been robbed and I carried a feeling that I might be leaving Quito without some of the valuables I had brought with me. Thankfully I managed to enjoy Quito without getting robbed, but it meant avoiding some of the things I might naturally enjoy, such as taking the stairs up the Virgen de Quito instead of a taxi.
A beer at the nearby brewery followed by a food tour hosted by my hostel wrapped up a pretty awesome day in Quito. The food tour was an excellent introduction to many of the Ecuadorian delicacies although I was a bit too timid to try some of the more adventurous options.
Note about food in Quito: I am not sure why I did it, I rarely eat poutine at home in Canada but I did try the poutine at Casa Quebecua in Quito. It was the worst! Stick to the empanadas and other local street eats and avoid this spot at all costs.
Jamu Lodge, Cuyabeno… the Amazon! (2 nights)
Following 2 nights in Quito, I headed back to the airport to catch my flight to Lago Agrio to spend a couple of days in the Amazon. I had arranged to share a cab to the airport with some others heading there from my hostel (a good compromise to avoid public transit but keep costs down) and set off on what would be a longer journey than I had anticipated. With all the excitement of booking the Galapagos, I hadn’t paid much attention to planning my visit to the Amazon. I knew I wanted to see pink dolphins and so booked myself 2 nights at Jamu Lodge as their website promised this opportunity. After a short flight of under an hour, there was a man waiting for me at the airport sent by Jamu Lodge. We drove for approximately two hours until we arrived at a river. I was fed a simple lunch while waiting for
the motorized canoe to take me to the lodge. 2 more hours down the river and I finally arrived! Jamu Lodge was a bit pricier than a backpacker budget, but considering all things were included, was a great value. I had the opportunity to see pink dolphins (which are actually more grey than pink), monkeys swinging in the trees, crocodiles in the water during a nighttime boat cruise, and unfortunately (fortunately?) missed the anaconda snake encounter some others at the lodge had. The lodge is well organized with plenty of activities and
great space (hammocks) for down time. Unfortunately I caught some stomach bug and spent the majority of the ride to the Siona Community of Puerto Bolivar barfing over the side of the boat. While we were at the yucca garden harvesting the yucca, I snuck off to barf in private and the next thing I knew, I woke up passed out in a bush of poison ivy. Because whatever flu had me barfing and passing out wasn’t enough, I was now covered in a poison ivy rash (tip: always travel with antihistamines. They aren’t over the counter in some countries and even if available over the counter in Ecuador, the nearest pharmacy was at least a 5 hour journey by boat, van and plane). This couldn’t stop me from enjoying the Amazon so I participated as best I could with the remainder of the scheduled activities. A highlight was watching a woman from the tribe prepare Casabe from yucca. She was so strong! Literally draining the fluid from the yucca into a powder to make a tortilla. Amazing! Following this experience, we met up with a local shaman – and no he did not heal me (I didn’t ask) but we had the opportunity to ask questions
and learn about the medicines and healing the shaman does within the community. I tucked into bed early due to the flu I was battling and although I’d like to say I fell asleep to the quiet sounds of the Amazon jungle around me, the lack of walls in the treehouse accommodation meant I was left trying to sleep with the monkeys from Montreal the floor below me and their animalistic love making, leaving the treehouse shaking. The following day I returned back to Quito on the reverse long journey I had just done two days prior. There are options to stay longer than 2 days but although there was a lot of travel to get to the amazon for only one full day and two nights, I felt this was enough opportunity to see and do everything I was interested in. If you have the time, I don’t think you’d regret an extra night or two here.
Banos (2 nights)
Upon returning to Quito from the Amazon, I headed to the bus terminal to Banos. Note: the bus to Banos leaves from Terrestre Quitumbe (the south terminal) – there are two terminals in Quito, and they are on opposite sides of the city. The 3.5 hour bus ride to Banos following the journey from the Amazon made for a long day of travel. I can’t say I totally hate these travel days as they give me a chance to relax and catch up on reading. When you know you’re going to be travelling for 8+ hours, grab a good book and some snacks (granadilla and plantain chips travel well) and sit back and enjoy the ride. I arrived in Banos after dark so didn’t want to mess around trying to find a place to stay on foot. I jumped in a cab and tried a couple of options I had written down ahead of time. The second one had availability and I scored a private room for $15/night. The taxi ride from the bus station to two hostels around town cost me $1.50. I spent 2 nights in Banos but it is one of those towns you could actually settle into and spend a lot more time in. Sometimes it is helpful to book accommodations in advance but I wasn’t actually sure I was going to Banos after being sick in the Amazon, so I kept things open. This typically goes well for me as I
do research a few options ahead of time to know what is within my budget, despite not actually booking things.
A few things I got up to in Banos and can recommend were:
Cascada de La Virgen – a waterfall in town. A nice little walk although nothing spectacular.
Casa Del Arbol – it was a bit confusing to figure out where the bus was and when to get to this super touristy, but breathtaking spot (literally breathtaking… that swing was absolutely terrifying!) I suggest asking at the visitor centre or your accommodations for the most up to date bus location/time to get here. Once on the bus, finding Casa Del Arbol was straight forward. There were actually several swings and look outs, a cute little treehouse, and a little cafe you can chill at before catching the bus (or hiking) back down.
Pailon del Diablo – I took a short bus ride to Rio Verde however if you feel inspired, this would be a great bike ride. It was a bit challenging to find the correct entrance to this breat
htaking spot, but the locals appeared to be used to wandering lost tourists and pointed me in the right direction without me having to ask. There are quite a few stairs but nothing too challenging. You will get wet from the spray of the waterfall and crawling through the narrow caves. This is all part of the fun.
Chocolate banana empanadas near the bus terminal. These alone are worth staying in Banos longer for!
Banos had it all. There was plenty to do (there are lots of adventure tourism options I did not embark on or list here, but you can’t miss the agencies advertising the options throughout town), cheap accommodations, beautiful scenery, great food and a general safe feeling walking around. I did walk around at night on my own and unlike Quito, I felt safe taking my phone out to snap a few photos.
Detour: I would actually recommend flying out of Guayaquil to allow you to visit Cuenca after Banos, visiting the next spots on my itinerary before Banos.
Latacunga (2 nights)
There is varying information about how to get to Latacunga from Banos and again, best to verify when you’re there. I opted for the bus to Quito/drop off on the highway/catch a taxi into Latacunga option. It was cheap and efficient. Latacunga isn’t much of a destination itself but had cheap accommodations, lots of places to eat, and was a good base to explore the Quilotoa Loop.
The following day I caught the bus to Quilotoa. This bus transfer made me a bit nervous as I had read the buses are infrequent. I am not going to list bus times as I don’t want to lead you astray but this site gave me the most accurate information.
I did confirm the return bus time with the driver when I arrived at Quilotoa but despite this I thankfully got out to the road early as I almost missed the last bus back! Part of the adventure is being prepared for missed buses so make sure you have some money for an alternate way back if you miss the bus. Don’t let this deter you from going to Quilotoa. It is definitely worth going for a day trip or if you can swing it, do the entire multi day hike. I only had the day so
I hiked down to the lake and back up. The views throughout the entire hike were spectacular. It is pretty much straight down and back but the entire time you are looking over the water filled volcanic crater, Laguna Quilotoa. I contemplated taking a kayak out on the lake as there are rentals at the bottom of the lake but the altitude sickness was kicking my ass. I hadn’t been prepared to be affected by altitude sickness so hadn’t brought any cocoa leaves, cocoa tea or cocoa candies. Altitude sickness is tough to describe but it almost like the space between drunk and hungover, when you wake up with a bit of a dizzy headache but still feel slightly silly and forgetful. I slept off my altitude sickness back in Latacunga and prepared to check out the Cotopaxi volcano the following day.
Detour: Spend a few days and hike the whole loop
Quito (1 night… that turned into 2)
I jumped on a Quito bound bus with the intention to get off at the entrance to the Cotopaxi volcano. My broken Spanish failed me when I thought I had shared my intention with the driver, and by the time I realized we had passed Cotopaxi, it was too late to stop. I asked the driver if it was too late and stopped at the nearest town, much further away from the Cotopaxi entrance. Before I could protest and let him know I was ok to skip Cotopaxi and stay on the bus until Quito, he had thrown my backpack on the side of the highway and quickly told me what I assume was directions on how to backtrack to Cotopaxi. I ended up hanging out on the side of the road for a little while, contemplating if I wanted to go back to Cotopaxi or continue on to Quito when I decided to jump on the next Quito bound bus.
Detour: It would have been nice to check out Cotopaxi. Figure out your directions and your Spanish ahead of time so you don’t miss this spot as I did.
I spent the rest of the day in Quito revisiting some of my favourite spots (no, I did not climb the clock tower steps to the Basilica again) and grabbing a few things to bring home including some dark chocolate, alpaca wool socks from the market, and Zumir Plug Tattoo cinnamon whiskey which is basically like Ecuador
ian Fireball. This cinnamon whiskey was responsible for a very messy night with friends when I got home… a story for another blog.
My flight home wasn’t until late at night leaving me one last day in Quito. I opted to head to Otavalo to check out the market and Peguche waterfall, a short taxi ride from town. The market was massive and went on for quite a few blocks, however mostly sold many of the same wares seen at the markets in Quito. If you make shopping your main reason to go to Otavalo, you might be disappointed if you’ve already seen the markets in Quito. The Peguche waterfall however, is an Indigenous ceremonial site and completely worth checking out!
I headed back to Quito to grab my bag and make my way to the airport. When I arrived, they announced that they had overbooked my flight and asked for volunteers to take a later flight. I queried about the compensation and to arrive home at YVR 45 minutes later, I would be provided a $500 United credit to use on future flights. For a frequent traveller like myself it was a no brainer. That flight voucher paid for 3 round trip tickets to California in 2017! Since the connections were different, I was actually leaving a few hours later on my new flight so was put up at the airport hotel until departure time. For more information what to do if you hear the announcement for people voluntarily opting to get bumped off a flight, click here.
General Ecuador Tips:
If you have more time than money, you may want to fly to the Galapagos early and stay on Santa Cruz to try and score a last minute deal on a cruise. Day trips to the islands are another option but I recommend doing an overnight cruise to maximize the time you spend exploring the islands over travel time.
Try to learn a little bit of Spanish before you go. Out of respect for the locals, you should at least try to converse with them in their language (even if it means getting thrown off a bus on the side of a highway because you weren’t able to clearly articulate your destination)
Keep an eye on your belongings or consider leaving them at home. I thankfully didn’t have any negative experiences, but I met several others who had been robbed. Thankfully, unlike other South American cities, violent crime is rather low in Ecuador and it is just petty theft you need to worry about.
If you are going on a Galapagos tour, check what items are not included that you may want to pack yourself. I brought my own snorkel, underwater camera, and booze on board to save myself a few dollars. Some of the early morning snorkel outings are quite chilly, you may want to bring your wetsuit or rent one. They also help protect against jellyfish stings.
Ecuador is one of the most amazing countries I have visited and I look forward to the opportunity to return in the near future. I can’t say enough about this place and hope this blog has given you a few ideas of how to spend your time there. Please feel free to email me at email@example.com or reach out on Instagram @wanderingsincedawn if you have any questions about something you have read here.
There is a lot of negative press about airlines overbooking flights and bumping passengers. As a budget traveller who often has flexibility with her itinerary (I often don’t even book accommodations or plan where I am going until I arrive) voluntarily giving up my seat has resulted in flight credits to feed my travel addiction on several occasions. There are entire websites dedicated to figuring out how to book on a flight most likely to be oversold, and people who are able to travel completely free by taking advantage of these opportunities on a regular basis. I am not this organized but have been lucky enough to get bumped on a few occasions. The airline will provide you with food vouchers, accommodations (if necessary) and a voucher for future travel. When you hear the announcement calling for volunteers, always inquire as to what the revised flight plan and compensation are. When I went to Ecuador, I got a $500 travel credit with United Airlines and arrived home only 45 minutes later than my originally scheduled flight. Getting bumped off a flight in San Francisco resulted in staying in one of the nicest Hilton hotels I’ve been to, better than my bed at home and a $350 flight credit. I remember a friend declining a bump because she had already booked and paid for her hotel in a stopover city, not realizing the airline would have put her up in an equally as nice (if not better) hotel, free meals, AND provided her with several hundred dollars’ worth of flight credits for future travel. Since she was only connecting through this town and catching another flight the following day, this bump would have actually saved her the trips to and from the airport at this stopover.
Because I live near a major international airport, I have the flexibility of knowing I can take many different routes to get home. If you live somewhere less serviced by major airlines, taking the bump may not be as beneficial to you as a delay on one end could cost you a day on the other if your home airport only has one flight/day and you miss that connection.
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