Friday, December 27, 2013

Existential Quest for WiFi Coming to a Close for Travelers? Warning to Hostels...

The desire to have WiFi as much as possible when I travel has largely defined my travel experience for the last six to eight years. Some people don't understand this, and I've even been ridiculed for it in print (“If he has to have WiFi, then why doesn't he just stay home?”). It seems pretty simple to me: if you can have three dimensions, then why settle for two? If you can have four, then why settle for three?

WiFi definitely adds another dimension to travel, the ability to interact and make multiple adjustments while traveling. Traveling is no longer a matter of dead reckoning: setting your itinerary, then proceeding by the plan. There's a word for that—touring. Traveling is different. Traveling is better than all that. Traveling is more than the sipping of Mai Tai's on the beach or the veranda. Traveling is interaction with your environment, and for that you need Internet (or a local squeeze). WiFi works with either smart-phones or laptops, of course. I'm not sure what a local squeeze works with.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Destination: Athens, Greece

ATHENS is where Western civilization began, with accomplishments in philosophy, politics, art, and literature that are unsurpassed to this day. Athens is also one of the world’s oldest cities, documented from 1400 BC, when it played a role in the preclassical Mycenaean culture; today it’s the largest city and capital of Greece. After centuries of neglect as a part of the Ottoman Empire, Athens today has returned to much of its previous vitality and importance. It has also overcome much of its horrendous smog problem of a few decades ago, and today is fairly pleasant, especially in the tourist areas under the Parthenon.

Piraeus is the major port and is only a short train ride away. It resembles nothing so much as a modern airport with ferries coming and going constantly. The main tourist sights center on the ancient Acropolis and its crown jewel Parthenon. Then there is the National Archeological Museum. Those expecting an eastern Rome-like “museum city” full of medieval art and architecture will be disappointed, though. During the long civil war Athens was mostly depopulated and destroyed.

Only the Plaka below the Acropolis maintains some of that original ambience, with streets devoted to certain crafts and other vestiges of that era. Still the Acropolis is not the only classical site of interest. There is also the Roman-built Odeum theatre built in 161 AD and now used in the summer festival of music and drama, and the Theatre of Dionysius to which it is attached. Others are found in the Agora, including the Theseum, a 5th Century BC temple. Then there are the 42-foot-high Horologium water clock and the Byzantine church Aylos Eleftherios.

There are also hostels in Athens, ten of them written up with full specs and contact details in the latest installment of "Backpackers & Flashpackers" series: '1100 Hostels: Spain, Alps & South Europe Hyper-Guide', available now online.  One of our partner hostels there is Athens Backpackers, with a prime location, bar, cafe, and beds starting at less than thirty bucks.  Check 'em out.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Hostels of the Future: Beyond Bunk Beds

There are several reasons why it took me so long to get hip to hostels. Firstly, Europe was the fourth continent for me to explore, not the first, and Europe is their homeland. Secondly, by the time I got there I wasn't so young anymore, and not long ago they were known almost exclusively as 'youth hostels', often with age limits... and memberships... and curfews. Thirdly, as an adult, the idea of sleeping in a dorm was not always my first choice. And lastly, even in a dorm, I really don't care for bunk beds.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Good Place to Chill: Hafnarfjörður, Reykjavík, Iceland

Iceland is one of the coolest places in the world, and I'm not just overworking a metaphor.  The main source of energy is geothermal and the island is full of volcanoes and geysers. The northern tip of the island kisses the Arctic Circle. There is a road that rings the island, which I figure would make an excellent two-three day tour under the summer’s midnight sun. Icelandic Air has some of the cheapest flights between Europe and the East Coast of the US. They’ll usually let you stopover at no extra charge for three days.  There is more than natural beauty, though: the pop music is some of the best in the world—Bjork, Sigur Ros, and all the rest.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Hostels are for Youth, Backpackers, Partiers, and... Surfers

Hostels have come a long way from their origins as the barracks-like haunt of teenagers on field trips, with knapsacks on their backs, and the smell of dirty socks wafting windward. Sure, some of those places still exist, but diversification is the order of the day. They've long been a staple for backpackers—in Europe at least—and increasingly the haunt of partiers, particularly small-town boys looking for a lark in the big city. Those can get pretty rowdy sometimes, so require some caution, especially if you're hoping to sleep. 

Increasingly, though, the diversification gets even more interesting. For example, it is not uncommon to find boutique hostels, art-oriented hostels, music-oriented hostels, and one that is all the rage in Europe these days—surfers' hostels. Surfers' hostels... in Europe? HUH?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

NOW AVILABLE ONLINE: 1100 Hostels- Spain, Alps, & South Europe Hyper-Guide

North Europe may be the birthplace and historic heartland of hostelling, but South Europe has greater numbers nowadays, and the quality is as good, if not better. South Europe may just have the greatest number of hostels in the world, in fact, but the distribution of them might surprise you. For, while France may be the Number One tourist destination in the world, it’s not at the top of the hostel list. No, the greatest number of hostels in the world is in the Iberian Peninsula, in modern-day Spain and Portugal. The quality in Spain and Portugal is very good, too, in fact, exactly the paradigm of what a modern ‘flashpacker’ hostel should be. There are almost 500 of them here in this book, complete with specs and details.

But that’s not all.  Italy and the expensive Alpine countries of Austria and Switzerland are here, too, now affordable with the sudden wide spread of hostels. And Greece is here, of course, with its fabulous sun-soaked islands, timeless culture, and… self-contained party compounds. The smart money is on East Europe, though, with (almost) everything you can find in the West, and all at half the price. The Cold War is but a memory, too, with borders little more than formalities, if even that. In none of the countries listed in this book is a visa required of a Westerner. You can simply hop on the plane, or train, or bus, and go. C U in Barcelona, Lisbon, Rome, or Belgrade.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Viva La Backpack! Welcome to North Ireland...

Backpacking has come a long way since the early days when it referred literally to the pack—rucksack, knapsack, whatever—on one's back. That is exactly what you needed when hiking out into the wilderness, of course. And that's the way it stood, from the early 1900's right up until about 1980, hiking and camping, at home and abroad, when for many of us the international travel became more important than what we did when we actually got there.  

After all there were many interesting countries with many cultures, but not all of them lent themselves easily to hiking and camping. Guatemala and Bali come to mind. And many were too dangerous for solo efforts. Peru comes quickly to mind. And many guys were more interested in 'night-trekking' along gaily lighted city streets than lonely walks through distant mountains. Think Thailand. Thus the concept of 'backpacking' gradually became a euphemism for budget travel, and we backpackers became the butt of many jokes from better-heeled ex-pat professionals, sex tourists and overseas retirees. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

"1000 Hostels in Britain and North Europe" Now Available Online in Paperback and Kindle E-Book

The British Isles and Germany are the historic heartland of the hostel movement, and they’re the heart of this book, too, with over 600 hostels—lodgings with shared rooms—between them.  They have private rooms, too, of course.  And the Benelux countries and Scandinavia are no slouches, either.  Then there’s East Europe—Poland, Ukraine, Russia, and the Baltic countries—a new frontier just waiting to be explored further.  Do you already know how to travel? Do you just want to know where the hostels are, so that you can plan a hostel-based trip along the highways and byways of North Europe, in the major cities, smaller towns and remote villages, too?  Then this is the book for you. 
     This is the most comprehensive hostel guide ever written, encompassing the old youth hostel movement and the modern phenomenal spread of backpackers’ hostels around the globe as well.  That ranges from the dozens of the most modern ‘flash-packers’ hostels in the urban centers of London and Berlin to remote wilderness hostels in Ireland and surfers’ camps in Sweden.  Sound good?  Are you afraid that maybe you’re too old for a hostel?  Don’t worry; most hostels have no age restrictions. And they all have English-speaking staff and internet capabilities.  Most even have kitchens.  Some even have bars.  All have cool people as guests.  The 1000 hostels listed here are to be found in over 250 cities and places in north Europe. from Dublin to Moscow, and Oslo to Munich.  C U there.    

Friday, August 23, 2013

Great Travelers, Great Writers: Naipaul & Steinbeck, not a Miller moment…

Travel writing not only has the potential to compete with other genres.  It should excel.  After all, it’s potentially got it everything: exotic locations, true adventure, multiple story lines, peak emotion, honest reflection, and poetic insight… for starters.  So why is most of it—in short (magazine) form, anyway—so bad?  Follow the money.  No other literary genre is expected to sell peripheral products—tickets and tours and gear and (gulp) insurance—in addition to magazines and books.  Maybe travel writing should be reserved for non-travel-writers.  If I could time-travel, I’d travel back in time and cure Rimbaud of his disease so that he could live out the rest of his life as a travel writer, enlightening us all in the process.  Ahhh, time travel… now that’s the best kind…

Fortunately the long narrative form of travel writing is much better than the short, so we’ve still got some good options (just make sure they spend as much time in threadbare hovels as they do in fancy resorts).  V.S. Naipaul did just that in his “The Middle Passage,” an account of his 1960-ish trip to the Caribbean, first and foremost to his birth home of Trinidad, but also including five societies in the Caribbean region of all different colonial stripe.  Given the title of the book and his own Indian heritage, you can bet that slavery and racism are not far from his mind. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

"500 Hostels in the USA (& Canada & Mexico)" is Now Available on Kindle, just another week in the life...

 "500 Hostels in the USA (& Canada & Mexico)" is Now Available on Kindle at

Here's a week-in-the-life article I wrote for another blog, The Professional Hobo, until I realized I had no  pictures to go along with it, since my camera had just been stolen (along with cash, passport, cell-phone, dignity, etc), which is more-or-less the subject of the week's activities, that and getting over it.  Nevertheless, without pictures it wouldn't work, so I had to re-do it.  Here's the original, from August, 2009.  Visualize it.  I figured this would be a good way to re-launch this other blog, the one intended for actual travel.  I'm trying to build up a head of steam.


I get up and start packing.  Today is the day I leave South Africa, southern Africa in fact, after several weeks of travel, hard travel until this past week in Jo’burg, Randburg actually, north of the city.  I take one last look around the hostel and say goodbye to the few people I’ve befriended in the course of a week, but they’re mostly partiers, and I’m mostly not.  There are beer cans everywhere, and cigarette butts, too.  Yuk.  The two English girls and I hug, and promise to stay in touch, though I know we never will.  My driver to the airport comes right on schedule, so that’s nice.  He’s got Fela on the CD player; that’s even nicer.  I get to the airport long before my flight leaves.  That’s okay. 

I have no stamps in my passport, so I don’t know how this plays out.  My emergency passport was only issued a few days ago.  Immigration asks me what day I entered the country.  I ask which time; I’ve entered South Africa several times in the last few weeks, from Europe, from Botswana, from Lesotho, and from Mozambique.  Fortunately the first time was right here in the Jo’burg airport.  Otherwise it might be problematic.  He stamps me out; we’re good.  I don’t fare so well at the Air France gate.  They look at my passport and almost laugh.  They think it’s fake.  I tell him the story, but that’s not enough.  They call it in.  Fortunately everybody’s cell phones are working, and they finally let me pass.  It’s a long flight to CDG in Paris.  I try to get some sleep.  Their food is pretty good.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Have Phone, Will Travel

There is one new development regarding cellphones worth mentioning and that is the availability of “world phones,” specifically intended for world travel, an option worth considering, especially for Americans, maybe even Europeans and others, particularly for those who need several different numbers for several different places.  As mentioned before, most Americans don’t have GSM phones, which is the world digital standard, and roaming’s not cheap with ATT and T-Mobile, even if you do.  Now you can buy a British SIM card and/or phone and travel the world with a +44 number, and not only pay for the service in US dollars, but pay no monthly fees at all.