How to be Safe Aboard

don’t give much thought to petty crime when I travel abroad. I’m well aware that it happens: I’ve been preaching about the importance of wearing a money belt for decades. And for decades — probably about a total of 4,000 days of travel — I’ve never been hit by a thief. Well, my happy streak finally ended: I was pickpocketed in Paris this summer.

It was my own fault. I wasn’t wearing my money belt — a small pouch worn at the waist under your clothes. I lost my driver’s license, credit cards, and some cash. I went back to my hotel, referred to the “in case of emergency section” in my Paris guidebook, and set about canceling my credit cards. My experience just goes to show that, sooner or later, if you’re not on guard, wearing a money belt — or at least keeping everything properly zipped and buttoned — you’ll likely be a victim.

Thieves target tourists — not because the thieves are mean, but because they’re smart. We’re the ones with the good stuff in our purses and wallets. But don’t let the fear of pickpockets keep you from traveling. Besides wearing a money belt, here are some other tips for keeping your valuables safe.

BE PREPARED. Before you go, take steps to minimize your potential loss. Make copies or take photos of key documents, back up your digital data, and password-protect your devices. Leave your fancy bling at home. Luxurious luggage lures thieves: They’ll choose the most impressive suitcase in the pile — never mine.

LEAVE IT BEHIND. Your valuables are most likely to be stolen when they are with you on the street. Your day bag is at high risk. I find my hotel room is the safest place to leave my passport, laptop, and so on. I wouldn’t leave valuables out in the open in my room — I just tuck things away out of sight. (I have never bothered with a hotel safe.)

HARDEN TARGETS. Thieves want to quickly separate you from your valuables, so even a minor obstacle can be an effective deterrent. If you’re sitting down to eat or rest, loop your day-bag strap around your arm, leg, or a chair leg. A cable tie, paper clip, or key ring can help keep your bag zipped up tight. The point isn’t to make your bag impenetrable, but harder to get into than the next guy’s.

Some thieves can even be so bold as to snatch something right out of your hands. I’ve even seen thieves on a bike zip by and snare a purse or bag that a relaxing traveler placed carelessly next to cafe table.

AVOID CROWDS. Thieves know where the crowds are — and where the tourists are — and they are very, very deft at their work. A petite bump and a slight nudge getting off the Metro in Paris and … wallet gone. (That’s exactly what happened to me.)

Be on guard in train stations, especially upon arrival, when you may be overburdened by luggage and overwhelmed by a new location. Take turns watching the bags with your travel partner. Don’t absentmindedly set down a bag; stay in physical contact with your stuff. Be especially careful on packed buses or subways. On trains, I keep my luggage above me on the luggage rack rather than on the shelves near the door.

Often artful-dodger teams create a disturbance — a fight, a messy spill, a jostle, or a stumble — to distract their victims. Crowds anywhere, but especially on public transit and at tourist sights, provide bad guys with plenty of targets, opportunities, and easy escape routes.

DON’T BE DECEIVED. The sneakiest pickpockets look like well-dressed businesspeople. Some pose as tourists, with daypacks, cameras, and even a Rick Steves guidebook. You’ll meet a lot of people on the street with beautiful eyes, beautiful children, and sad stories — but many beggars are pickpockets. Don’t be fooled by impressive uniforms, femme fatales, or hard-luck stories.

IF PICKPOCKETS STRIKE. Getting everything straightened out can take a while. If you do get robbed, file a police report; you’ll need it to file an insurance claim, and it can help with replacing your passport or credit cards. Cancel both credit and debit cards. Suspend your mobile service (if you have a security app, use your hotel’s computer to enable the “locate, lock, and wipe” feature before you cancel service altogether). Above all, be flexible and patient.

Nearly all crimes suffered by tourists are nonviolent and avoidable. Be aware of the pitfalls of traveling, but relax and have fun. It may not help at the time, but if you are a victim, remember that your loss will make for a good story when you get home. Like a friend of mine says, “When it comes to travel, Tragedy plus Time equals Comedy.”

 

 

 

Calgary, Canada

When booking a getaway north of the border, Calgary may not be the first place that springs to mind. Though it may not be as well-known of a travel destination as a Toronto or Montreal, make no mistake: Calgary is a place to be.

Alberta’s largest city, located in the eastern foothills of Canada’s Rocky Mountains, where the Bow and Elbow Rivers meet is an active and growing metropolis, home to 1.2 million people. Every year, millions of tourists flock to see its gorgeous scenery, unique attractions, and rich culture. Its mix of natural, outdoor experiences and modern, urban culture make it an exciting vacation spot for any traveler.

When to Go

Deciding when to book your stay depends largely on what you would like to do. Despite the snow and the low temperatures during the winter months, Calgary is a beautiful and exciting destination this time of year.

Given its proximity to the Rocky Mountains, Calgary has always been a popular spot for winter sporting events and activities, including skiing, ice skating, tobogganing, sledding, ice fishing, snowshoeing and hiking. In fact, in 1988, Calgary held the first-ever Winter Olympic Games in Canada.

Plus, there are plenty of indoor museums, zoos, tours and venues for guests that want to step out of the cold for a little while and enjoy Calgary at a different pace.

If cold weather is not ideal, there are a host of activities waiting for tourists in the summer. With mild average temperatures in the low 60s, exploring the city can be done comfortably, spared from the sometimes oppressive heat and humidity of a warmer area. In the summer the city offers attractions like outdoor festivals, concerts, sporting events, national parks, and more. In Calgary, there is an exciting vacation no matter the time of year.

Where to Stay

Peace Bridge // Photo by jewhyte/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
Kensington Riverside Inn

The boutique Kensington Riverside Inn, a Relais & Chateaux property, is located alongside the Bow River and just a short walk from the iconic pedestrian Peace Bridge. The top accommodations are the three Riverside Suites, totaling 566 square feet. They each include a fireplace, balcony, two-person deep soaking tub, and Chef’s Table in-room dining, plus more. Chef de Cuisine Sean Cutler runs the Oxbow restaurant, where he takes an artful approach to comfort food.

If you’re looking to get out of the city, the hotel can help you arrange horseback riding, fishing, biking/mountain biking, canoeing, skiing/cross-country skiing, hunting, golfing and more. Want to try your luck in the Olympic Oval speed skating? Kensington Riverside Inn can make it happen.

The Fairmont Palliser Hotel

Planted right in the heart of downtown Calgary, the Fairmont Palliser Hotel offers luxury service and amenities within walking distance of the city’s busiest and most attraction-packed area. The 407-room hotel recently renovated its guestrooms and suites with all of the modern comforts. At the hotel, guests will find both spa and fitness facilities, as well as elegant dining coordinated by executive chef Eraj Jayawickreme.

Not to mention you’ll be right near shops, entertainment venues, and popular landmarks. It’s even an historical landmark itself, as it has been in service for over 100 years.

Sheraton Suites Calgary Eau Claire

Located just a minute away from Prince’s Island Park and walking trails, the Sheraton Suites Calgary Eau Claire puts guests in a more scenic and natural part of the downtown area. Right next to the hotel is the famous Eau Claire Market, home to numerous one-of-a-kind dining, fashion, leisure, business and sporting experiences.

The Sheraton has over 300 rooms, luxury suites, two restaurants, a salon, in-room spa amenities, and other personalized services.

Attractions

Calgary Stampede // Photo by thefurnaceroom/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
Calgary is full of year-round sights and attractions, but there are a few things that just need to be experienced before departing.

The Calgary Stampede

Perhaps the area’s most unique attraction, the Calgary Stampede is a truly unforgettable experience that explains exactly why the city is so affectionately nicknamed “Cowtown.”

Held every year in July, the Stampede is a 10-day extravaganza of rodeos, exhibitions and festivals. Nine rodeo events, including barrel rolling and bull riding, are the main attractions each day followed by the two evening shows: the GMC Rangeland Derby, and the Transalta Grandstand Show with musical performances, stunts, and pyrotechnics.

Every year, the city embraces the Western theme and takes on a party atmosphere; dressing buildings up in Wild West décor. In many ways, it has become part of Calgary’s identity.

Canada Olympic Park

Previously home to the 1988 Olympic Games, the park is now a thrill-seeker’s dream. Operated by WinSport Canada, the park offers many summer and winter sporting activities such as skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, zip lining, bobsledding, mini golf and a tube park.

Sports fans can make a stop at Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, a fun and educational record of Canadian sports history that’s right on the grounds of the park.

The Calgary Zoo

Founded in 1917 and located in the neighborhood of Bridgeland-Riverside, the Calgary Zoo is the most visited zoo in Canada and is home to over 700 animals representing 130 species.

Its themed attractions include: Destination Africa,  which contains a 90,000-gallon warm-water hippo pool, as well as gorillas, lions, giraffes, and zebras; Penguin Plunge, the newest exhibit at the zoo, home to four species of penguins; and The Canadian Wilds, a 20-acre area of the zoo dedicated to showcasing Canadian wildlife.

The Glenbow Museum

Established in 1966, this art and history museum has been an important hub of Calgary culture for the past 50 years. Since its inception, the museum has developed an impressive collection of documents, photographs, and artworks, a collection that now contains over a million items.

The Glenbow holds a full calendar of art exhibitions, tours, and talks, making it not only a historical archive of Canada, but also showcase for contemporary culture. Last year, over 125,000 visitors came through the museum, including 65,000 students as part of Glenbow’s school programs that encourage creativity, critical thinking, and social engagement in their children.

Where to Eat

View from atop the Calgary Tower // Photo by stephenmeese/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
Sky 360

When a restaurant has an unforgettable glimpse of the city, an award winning wine list, and is within a popular landmark, it’s hard to pass up.

Perched atop the Calgary Tower, Sky 360 offers that and more. With a bird’s eye view of Calgary and observation deck access, guests can marvel at the beauty of the city as they dine on modern Canadian cuisine prepared through contemporary French techniques.

The River Cafe

Right in Prince’s Island Park along the Bow River, the River Café offers patrons a chance to connect with Calgary’s natural beauty as they enjoy fresh meat and seafood entrées served up by the award-winning restaurant. The café serves locally sourced, seasonal Canadian cuisine with an emphasis on respect and care for its ingredients. Its award-winning food and drink are topped off by artisan pastries and desserts produced in-house.

The River café is an environmentally conscious establishment that focuses on sustainability through the reduction of waste, the use of green energy, and sourcing from dozens of urban farmers in the area.

The Restaurant at Lougheed House

Have an elegant lunch—or brunch—at the historic mansion in downtown Calgary, a place that has attracted royal figures since its opening in 1891. The cozy and historic Restaurant at Lougheed House has a modest menu of familiar-yet-refined midday food options that anyone can enjoy

When guests are done eating, they can take an hour-long house tour to learn about its rich history or just explore the three-acre site themselves and take in the beautifully maintained flower and vegetable gardens on the property

 

Delta Airlines to Allow Free Texting

 

The latest free perk on U.S. airlines: Mobile messaging.

Delta Air Lines announced Wednesday morning that customers on its Wi-Fi enabled planes will be able to communicate via iMessage, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger at no charge. Delta’s free messaging begins Sunday (Oct. 1) and will be available to customers whether or not they’ve paid for in-flight Wi-Fi access.

Delta says its move makes it the first of the USA’s three big global carriers (American and United are the others) to offer the perk. But it’s not the first overall. Customers on JetBlue, for example, already had access to free in-flight Wi-Fi, which would allow many of the same capabilities — plus streaming and web-surfing.

And even without the same free in-flight Wi-Fi caveat, another big U.S. carrier — an arch-rival of Delta — already offered free mobile messaging. Alaska Airlines customers have had access to free in-flight messaging on its Wi-Fi enabled aircraft since January

We know that staying in touch while on the go is essential to our guests, many of whom don’t need full Internet access,” Andrew Harrison, Alaska Airlines’ chief commercial officer, said when announcing the chat option then. “Free Chat is a great way to keep that connection alive without breaking the bank.”

Alaska Air has since rolled out the complimentary messaging option to all flights on merger partner Virgin America, as well.

As for the effort announced by Delta announced on Wednesday, the company says it’s “part of (a) multi-billion dollar investment in the customer experience.” The move makes Delta the biggest U.S. airline to offer the option at no charge.

“We know many of Delta’s customers want or need to stay connected in the air and on the ground, which is why we’re investing in an easy, free way to send and receive messages inflight through some of the most popular global platforms,” Tim Mapes, Delta’s Chief Marketing Officer, says in a statement. “Coupled with our investments in seat-back screens, free entertainment and High-Speed Wi-Fi, free messaging is one more way customers can choose how to make the most of their time on Delta flights.”

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Delta says passengers will have the free messaging option on all of its Wi-Fi-enabled flights, a count that includes “all aircraft with two or more cabins.”

To access the option, fliers on Delta can unlock the option via the carrier’s Wi-Fi portal page. The option will allow text use only and will not support the transfer of photo or video files, according to the airline.

Delta also took the opportunity to tout its options for the more traditional seatback in-flight entertainment offerings. The company said it “offers customers more aircraft with seatback entertainment than any airline in the world, installing its 500th aircraft with seat-back entertainment in July.”

“In addition to investing in seat-back entertainment, customers can also choose to stream Delta Studio to their personal devices on the airline’s entire mainline fleet as well as all two-class regional aircraft,” Delta adds.

Visiting Tibet

For as far as the eye could see, thousands of white tents the size of Winnebagos covered a grassland valley, surrounding a tent as large as a football field. Inside, monks had been chanting along with the lectures of high Tibetan lamas for hours. Outside, some 300,000 Tibetan pilgrims – many of them nomads – followed the prayers via stadium-size jumbotrons broadcasting the action inside.
On my first afternoon in the valley, just outside Labrang Monastery, on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, I wandered through the sea of tents for an hour or so before pitching my own, which was designed for backpacking. My neighbours laughed at its size, then at me and invited me to dinner.
I’d just finished my first year teaching Chinese history in Beijing, at an exchange program for American high school students, and I was happy to be on my own for the summer. A decade earlier, in 2006, I’d been a student at the very same program, and we’d visited the area in the last weeks of school. At the time, I remembered the Tibetan plateau feeling different from the eastern cities of China, and not just because the air was cleaner. After living in Beijing for nine months, I couldn’t believe how much open space there was, and how slow the pace felt. During the trip, I’d also run across a backpacker travelling alone, who I envisioned wandering enchanted Buddhist grasslands without a care in the world. For a 17-year-old, it was hard to imagine more freedom.
Ten years later, my reasons for visiting had changed somewhat. In the years I’d been away, ethnic riots had broken out in Lhasa in 2008, and a wave of self-immolations had begun in protest of Chinese rule. The Chinese government had responded by pouring money into the region in an attempt to buy back Tibetan loyalty, and the plateau was changing fast. But that also meant the area was becoming more accessible, and more tourists were visiting beyond intrepid backpackers. Over the past three years, I’ve returned multiple times to track the changes, but I never stop taking in the scenery.

At elevations above 10,000 feet, Amdo’s winds and piercing sky can feel far removed from the smog of major Chinese cities, but its eastern edge lies only a few hours by plane from Beijing. To get there, most visitors fly into Lanzhou, the sprawling capital of Gansu Province, and then arrange a car or take a bus to Labrang Monastery, in Xiahe County, about three hours from the capital. Over the span of a 4,000-foot elevation gain from Lanzhou, the highway to Labrang provides a slide show of rapid cultural transition: urban sprawl gives way to the spires of Hui Muslim mosques in Linxia, and then, as the dry, cracked soil of the Loess plateau transforms into a canvas of open grassland, Buddhist monasteries begin to emerge, marking the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

The plateau offers two main activities for travellers: exploring the many monasteries scattered over the plains and trekking. Xiahe, Langmusi and Zhagana – a small city, a town, and mountain village respectively, all within a few hours’ drive of one another – offer both in spades to first-timers, though at different scales. Labrang Monastery, in Xiahe, remains one of the largest Buddhist institutions on the Plateau, with some 4,000 monks. Langmusi, a high-elevation town that splits the Gansu and Sichuan border, draws smaller crowds of backpackers in the summer for grassland treks and glimpses of its two smaller monasteries. And only a two-hour drive from Langmusi lies Zhagana, a narrow valley of dramatic mountain villages ideal for high-alpine hiking.

A road winds through Zhagana
A road winds through Zhagana, a village clinging to the mountainside in Amdo. The stunning valley has only recently become known among tourists, and guesthouses are popping up. Will Ford / The Washington Post

In the summers, I usually make my way between the towns by bus, and occasionally hitchhike, but travellers who don’t speak Chinese or Tibetan can find transportation just as easily with the guidance of a wide range of tourist agencies and guesthouses that cater to foreigners. Asking whether the operation is Chinese-run or Tibetan-run is often a good idea; the region has had a troubled history with the Chinese government since Mao Zedong adopted of the language of Marxist liberation in the 1950s to justify the Chinese army’s occupation of Tibet. The Tibetan historical narrative, to put it mildly, is more frank.

Labrang Monastery, which was rebuilt after most of it was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, marks the first logical stop from Lanzhou, and most of it can be seen in a day. In the morning, it’s worth waking up early to walk around the monastery with the pilgrims, some of whom travel great distances to Labrang while others stop there as part of their commute, prostrating themselves in a circumambulation of the complex. The beginning of late-morning prayers, marked by Tibetan horns and streams of monks hurrying to the central prayer hall, are sometimes open to the public. Afterward, a stroll down the town’s main street offers a view of long sets of souvenir shops, especially those that sell Tibetan textiles, as well as the sprawl of the city.

Amdo’s commercialization on the walk is tangible as well, offering a reminder of how fast things are now changing. When I visit, I sometimes stay with a former farmer who, after opening his guesthouse a few years ago, now earns more than 1 million renminbi – about $145,000 – during the tourist season in the summer.

The next stop, to Langmusi, is further removed from such aggressive commercialization, though the town is expanding as well. From Labrang, the drive takes about four-to-five hours, but the grassland scenery is spectacular, and there’s an opportunity to break up the drive by stopping in Hezuo, the capital of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. There, a nine-story temple – a rarity in Tibetan architecture – called Milarepa Lhakhang offers a great view. A climb up to the top through creaky floors passes through rooms filled with Tanka paintings of Buddhas and Arhats. The smell of yak-butter offerings near the shrines previews the many monasteries to come. The view from the top floor frames a typical expanse in modern Tibetan cities: an old monastery complex, then Chinese apartment sprawl and finally grasslands in the distance that extend into oblivion.

Sertri Monaster
A monk pauses to look at a taxi arriving for pickup at Sertri Monastery, one of two in Langmusi, a small town that straddles China’s Sichuan and Gansu provinces. Will Ford / The Washington Post

Another two hours of driving and you’ll arrive in Langmusi, a small town representative of many in Amdo – construction of a new commercial strip, financed by the Chinese government, has recently doubled its length, which is only about a half-mile long. The town’s appeal lies in the two monasteries and the surrounding mountains, which make the place an offbeat haven for backpackers. Occasionally, a nomad will even shepherd herds through the middle of town. Dramatic cliffs rise up above one side of town into a cluster of jagged rock, and hillsides of fir trees tuck themselves into the gorges.

Langmusi’s older monastery, Kirti, sits just below these mountains at the mouth of a gorge. About 300 feet up the ravine, groundwater trickles out of a rock bed and into a stream powering Tibetan prayer mills. A short hike above the gorge leads to tangle of prayer flags and a good spot to watch upland buzzards circling on thermals, searching for rodents. From the peak, Langmusi’s other monastery, Sertri, is easily visible, perched atop a hill on the other side of town, its golden roofs shimmering in the sunlight. Local divides in politics are visible as well; over the past few decades, Sertri, whose temples are in better shape, has done more business with the Chinese government, while more conservative Kirti has largely maintained its distance

In town – a bustling street of souvenir shops, guesthouses, and restaurants – both monasteries allow tourists to walk their grounds with an entrance ticket, and, for lunch, you can sample a yak burger at Leisha’s Restaurant. Walk up and down the main street and you’ll also see many advertisements for trekking – by foot or on horseback – across the grasslands surrounding Langmusi, often with the option to stay the night with nomads.
The treks are well worth the time, especially ones that visit nearby Gahai Lake, a high grassland lake surrounded by distant mountains and home to many highland bird species. I first visited the lake after meeting, in a noodle joint, a few monks from Sertri who invited me to picnic by the lake. It was one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever had with lunch and also a reminder that, in small towns like Langmusi, it’s never a bad idea to strike up a conversation.
But by far the greatest base for trekking in Gannan is the tiny mountain village of Zhagana, two hours’ drive from Langmusi across a winding valley. Cliffs, high peaks, streams, fir trees and terraced fields dominate the landscape – bringing to mind a kind of Tibetan Rivendell. In the 1930s, Mao’s Red Army used the landscape as cover, rampaging through the village on the Long March while fleeing Chang Kai-shek’s nationalists. A number of local guesthouses run treks up over high mountain passes and into grasslands hidden behind Zhagana’s imposing peaks, at over 12,000 feet, and some hikers trek up the very ravine Mao’s army descended during the Long March.
The first time I visited, I arrived hoping to hike to nomad camps, but the weather took a turn for the worse. Still, my days in the mountain village were well spent: As I waited for the weather to turn, I read on a guesthouse porch, overlooking the rows of houses that clung to the mountainside, and hiked to the monastery in the afternoons. Then I went back to the porch and read some more, gazing over the mountains and sipping yak-butter tea. At times, construction rang out over the valley, reminding me of how fast Amdo was changing. But the view, at least, wasn’t going away anytime soon.

How to Pay Overseas

(Recently published on Wendy Perrin’s blog)

 

Keeping track of currency exchange rates is a necessity when traveling. Thankfully, there are many apps for that task, so we don’t have to spend too much of our time doing the research (I like Easy Currency Converter; leave your favorite in the comments below). But while it’s helpful to know the rough exchange for your home currency, the actual conversion rate varies from bank to bank, credit card to credit card, and even local merchant to local merchant.

As a result, when you’re overseas and you use a credit card, you’ll often see that the payment machine asks whether you want to pay with U.S. dollars or the local currency. Which one should you choose, and why?

credit card payment machine screen

Overseas credit card machines offer currency options. Which should you choose? Photo: Lindsay Lambert Day

First: Use the right credit card.

Having a credit card that’s ideal for travelers is your first line of defense against currency pitfalls: The good ones waive all foreign-purchase fees. “When you make purchases abroad, you should be using a card that doesn’t add foreign transaction fees to your bill (which can be as much as 3%),” says credit card expert Gary Leff, of View From the Wing. “All cards are going to convert foreign currency to your home currency, and you’ll get the prevailing rate. Some cards, though, will charge you a fee on top of the conversion rate to do it.”

Second: Pay in local currency.

“When a merchant outside the U.S. asks whether you want to be charged in U.S. dollars or your local currency, always say local currency,” advises Gary. “That’s because [the merchant is] going to hit you with their own conversion rate (likely unfavorable, but certainly not as good as the one you will get from your card company). And then, if your credit card hits you with foreign transaction fees, they’re going to charge those fees anyway, even if you paid in U.S. dollars, because it’s a foreign-made transaction.”

The final word:

“There is almost never any benefit to being charged by a merchant in your home currency,” Gary says. “You are best off having your credit-card-issuing bank do it at their rate. And you want to make sure you’re paying with a card that doesn’t charge you for the privilege of making purchases abroad.”

Hike in Scotland’s National Parks

One of the best way to explore Scotland is through its national parks where mountains, tundra, forests, and wildlife can all be found. Tour operator Wilderness Scotland has recently added two new wilderness walking adventures as well as one new luxury walking experience.

Wilderness Scotland has been rated Europe’s No. 1 adventure travel company by National Geographic, and is Scotland’s only five-star accredited adventure tour operator, according to the company. It offers active and nature based travel throughout the British Isles. New tours include:

High Points of the Cairngorms National Park (Six nights)

Exploring Scotland’s largest mountain range, the Cairngorms, travels will hike up peaks as high as 4,000 feet. Along the way, guides will point out rare species like the ptarmigan, capercaillie, red squirrels and osprey. The all-inclusive trip is based out of a private wilderness lodge in Glen Feshie.

National Parks of the UK (Nine nights)

If exploring national parks is priority, clients will love this tour. Stopping at five National Parks in Scotland in England, travels will take part in some of the best hiking in the U.K. Guests will stay in country inns and hotels offering authentic local Scottish and English delicacies such as whisky in the Highlands, cream tea in Yorkshire, and Kendal Mint Cake in the Lakes.

North Highland Coast (Six nights)

Based from the exclusive luxury Kinloch lodge beneath the rocky slopes of Ben Loyal, travelers explore one of the quietest areas of the Highlands with an expert guide, surrounded by superb food and drink. Each day offers new landscapes to explore including mountains, beaches, islands of Sutherlands, and even ruined castes, abandoned villages, and an iron-age ‘broch.’

How to Get Everything from a Hotel Stay

Hotels are expensive. Like break-the-bank expensive. Even staying on the cheap — in a small town no one’s ever heard of or at a resort during the rain-miserable off-season — it can be hard to get your money’s worth. There’s a reason Ross Geller felt justified stealing the salt from the salt shakers. “You have to find the line between stealing and taking what the hotel owes you,” he memorably told Chandler. Words to call the front desk by.

But there are ways to ensure that you are getting the most of your hotel stay and scoring free upgrades. The rule is a good one in so many parts of life: When you want something, ask for it. Most hotels want to get to know your needs and wants instead of blindly offering recommendations, so always be thorough and clear with what you’re looking for. Several hotel GMs we spoke with said they empower their staff to help guests have a great experience, whether it’s surprising you with a cool local treat in your room or helping you get to the airport for free.

Jumeirah Beach Hotel, Dubai, UAE | Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock
Seebach, Germany | Juergen Wackenhut/Shutterstock
Positano, Italy | Alex Tihonovs/Shutterstock

Traveling Solo

Travelling by yourself can be liberating and self-indulgent in the best possible ways.

Some of my most treasured memories are from the times I set out on my own. It’s not just the fact that I could do whatever I wanted to do whenever I wanted to do it, it’s the way I got to know more about myself as I discovered new places.

That said going it alone does have its challenges, from not having anyone to wait in line or watch your bags while you pop to the bathroom, to no second opinions on the best way to tackle a public transport system. There are also times when you miss not being able to share some of the highs and lows of travel with a friendly face.

But for me the solo travel pros greatly outweigh the cons, and there are ways to make the experience easier and safer.

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media_cameraGet out and see the world alone. Picture: On The Go Tours.

SLEEPING ALONE

I talk to empty hotel rooms a lot when I travel solo. Don’t worry it’s not behind closed doors, but I like to create the illusion that someone else is there with a casual ‘I’m back’ and ‘see you soon’ as I enter and leave. I also ask for two keys at check in for my imaginary friend and I.

The Australian Government’s Smartraveller website suggests female solo travellers should book and check in using a first initial and surname only with no Miss, Ms or Mrs, and it’s a good idea not to tell anyone where you’re staying if they know you’re by yourself.

If anyone else is within earshot when you are asked your room number at breakfast give your name instead, and always listen to your intuition.

If your room doesn’t feel safe when you check in, ask to change rooms or move to another hotel. If someone waiting for the same lift makes you feel uneasy, say you’re waiting for a friend and will get the next one.

Avoid a ground floor room if you can as they are the easiest to break into, and as so many hotel doors don’t have chains on them a simple rubber door wedge can help you sleep better at night.

media_cameraPretend you’re greeting someone in a hotel room.

GETTING AROUND

If you’re planning on getting a taxi from the airport ask the hotel how much it should be and then ask the taxi driver the same question before you get in so you’re not taken for the wrong sort of ride.

Sit in the back seat behind the driver and either make a call to someone to say you’re on your way or mention to the driver that your partner is waiting for you. If you opt for the train instead, avoid sitting in an empty carriage.

Jenny Gray, Product Manager Intrepid Travel says petty theft can happen regardless of where you travel so it’s best not to carry all of your cash and cards on you when you’re out and about.

“Keeping a reserve locked away in the hotel means you have a back-up plan should the worst happen. Make scans of important travel documents and email them to yourself, this will save hours of time in paperwork if anything does happen.”

Ask your hotel if there are any areas you should avoid before you go exploring, and if you ever do feel a little lost or uncertain, don’t show it. Walk with calm confidence and retrace your steps until you’re back in your comfort zone.

If you start to crave human interaction join a walking tour, shoot the breeze with a friendly barman, or Skype with someone you love back home.

And don’t be put off if you see a Sold Out sign on a show you want to see. Single seats can appear so ask and you may be happily surprised.

media_cameraDon’t let being single stop you from seeing the world. Picture: On The Go Tours

TABLE FOR ONE

Solomangarephobia is a fear of eating alone in public. Personally I’m quite happy taking myself out to dinner but if it makes you nervous there are some things you can do.

Bring along a book or magazine, take the time to write postcards or capture your travels in your journal, edit the photos in your phone or do a little social media update.

But don’t spend the whole time with your face in your phone or book. Really taste the food and take in the scene around you.

A counter seat or a seat at the bar can be a good option, but if you prefer a table don’t let the waiter stick you on the worst one in the corner just because you’re alone. Ask if you can sit at a table you like and if they refuse you can always move onto somewhere you’ll feel more welcome.

While bathroom breaks are easy if you’re in a nice restaurant and won’t lose your seat, if you’re in a café leave something like a book or scarf to show your seat is taken and tell a waiter or another customer you’ll be right back while always taking your valuables to the rest room with you.

media_cameraGet out on your own.

CONSIDER A GROUP HOLIDAY

If your friends or family don’t want to travel to the same places you do but you’re not keen on going it alone then a group tour could be for you.

Greg Carter, co-founder of Latin America and Polar Specialist Chimu Adventures says apart from the social aspect of travelling with like-minded people, they give inexperienced solo travellers a sense of security and confidence.

“But even for the veteran traveller a group tour can be a great idea as it can give you access to regions that may be hard to visit independently.”

The Managing Director of Insight Vacations, Alexandra O’Connor says different tours are tailored for different travelling styles and so you should check what best suits your interests from city highlights to off the beaten track.

O’Connor says your Travel Director is like a 24 hour concierge and can give you all the tips you need before you do some exploring on your own.

“Listen to your Travel Director when they offer safety tips and areas to be mindful of (and) ensure you have their mobile number in case you’re running late or lost. But overall enjoy and take in all of your surroundings from the sounds to the scents and everything in between, some of the best experiences and memories are captured when you’re solo and can fully immerse yourself in your surroundings.”

While some group tours pair you up with someone of the same sex so you can save money on a single room, others waive single supplements altogether.

There are also companies like Monograms that mix the flexibility of travelling by yourself with the support found on a guided holiday.

Monograms’ Chris Fundell says their holidays include a choice of hotels, transportation and transfers, but guests are free to explore at their own pace.

“They include a selection of special activities and guided sightseeing as well as the services of a Monograms Local Host to offer advice and assist with planning additional excursions. The packages also give travellers the option of VIP access to popular tourist attractions, a perk that is usually only available to larger groups.”

media_cameraGet a group of solo travels together on tour. Picture: Intrepid

CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE

When it comes to deciding on a destination there are some countries that are easier for solo travellers than others.

Places like the UK, USA and Canada offer a mix of the new and exciting with the familiar and comforting as you speak the same language and are familiar with most of the customs, and you can easily meet fellow solo travellers in popular tourist spots throughout Europe and Asia.

On The Go Tours’ Carl Cross says solo travel can be daunting in places like Russia and in parts of Africa where overland travel is next to impossible without a local guide.

“Also, when touring overland across several borders, it can be much safer and more efficient to travel with a tour company in certain parts of the world. In some countries, solo female travel is not advised, often due to cultural considerations, so a tour group in these places is an ideal solution.”

No matter where you decide to go, make sure you do your research beforehand.

“Read and subscribe to the travel advice for the countries you plan to visit (and) talk to friends, relatives and colleagues who have travelled to the places you plan to visit.” A spokesperson from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade says. “Remember that careful planning before you leave is essential to help you choose a destination where you’ll feel safe and comfortable, and be prepared for any issues you might face.”

Register your trip with Smartraveller.gov.au, download the Smartraveller app and make sure you have the right insurance for all of the activities you plan to do.

Listen to your intuition, follow your travel dreams and remember a solo trip is one of the best gifts you can ever give yourself. And you deserve it.

Travelling by yourself can be liberating and self-indulgent in the best possible ways.

Some of my most treasured memories are from the times I set out on my own. It’s not just the fact that I could do whatever I wanted to do whenever I wanted to do it, it’s the way I got to know more about myself as I discovered new places.

That said going it alone does have its challenges, from not having anyone to wait in line or watch your bags while you pop to the bathroom, to no second opinions on the best way to tackle a public transport system. There are also times when you miss not being able to share some of the highs and lows of travel with a friendly face.

But for me the solo travel pros greatly outweigh the cons, and there are ways to make the experience easier and safer.

THE TRUTH ABOUT HOTEL SLIPPERS

10 TRICKS FOR GETTING A HOTEL UPGRADE

SOLO TRAVEL: THIS TIP WILL SAVE YOU THOUSANDS

media_cameraGet out and see the world alone. Picture: On The Go Tours.

SLEEPING ALONE

I talk to empty hotel rooms a lot when I travel solo. Don’t worry it’s not behind closed doors, but I like to create the illusion that someone else is there with a casual ‘I’m back’ and ‘see you soon’ as I enter and leave. I also ask for two keys at check in for my imaginary friend and I.

The Australian Government’s Smartraveller website suggests female solo travellers should book and check in using a first initial and surname only with no Miss, Ms or Mrs, and it’s a good idea not to tell anyone where you’re staying if they know you’re by yourself.

If anyone else is within earshot when you are asked your room number at breakfast give your name instead, and always listen to your intuition.

If your room doesn’t feel safe when you check in, ask to change rooms or move to another hotel. If someone waiting for the same lift makes you feel uneasy, say you’re waiting for a friend and will get the next one.

Avoid a ground floor room if you can as they are the easiest to break into, and as so many hotel doors don’t have chains on them a simple rubber door wedge can help you sleep better at night.

media_cameraPretend you’re greeting someone in a hotel room.

GETTING AROUND

If you’re planning on getting a taxi from the airport ask the hotel how much it should be and then ask the taxi driver the same question before you get in so you’re not taken for the wrong sort of ride.

Sit in the back seat behind the driver and either make a call to someone to say you’re on your way or mention to the driver that your partner is waiting for you. If you opt for the train instead, avoid sitting in an empty carriage.

Jenny Gray, Product Manager Intrepid Travel says petty theft can happen regardless of where you travel so it’s best not to carry all of your cash and cards on you when you’re out and about.

“Keeping a reserve locked away in the hotel means you have a back-up plan should the worst happen. Make scans of important travel documents and email them to yourself, this will save hours of time in paperwork if anything does happen.”

Ask your hotel if there are any areas you should avoid before you go exploring, and if you ever do feel a little lost or uncertain, don’t show it. Walk with calm confidence and retrace your steps until you’re back in your comfort zone.

If you start to crave human interaction join a walking tour, shoot the breeze with a friendly barman, or Skype with someone you love back home.

And don’t be put off if you see a Sold Out sign on a show you want to see. Single seats can appear so ask and you may be happily surprised.

media_cameraDon’t let being single stop you from seeing the world. Picture: On The Go Tours

TABLE FOR ONE

Solomangarephobia is a fear of eating alone in public. Personally I’m quite happy taking myself out to dinner but if it makes you nervous there are some things you can do.

Bring along a book or magazine, take the time to write postcards or capture your travels in your journal, edit the photos in your phone or do a little social media update.

But don’t spend the whole time with your face in your phone or book. Really taste the food and take in the scene around you.

A counter seat or a seat at the bar can be a good option, but if you prefer a table don’t let the waiter stick you on the worst one in the corner just because you’re alone. Ask if you can sit at a table you like and if they refuse you can always move onto somewhere you’ll feel more welcome.

While bathroom breaks are easy if you’re in a nice restaurant and won’t lose your seat, if you’re in a café leave something like a book or scarf to show your seat is taken and tell a waiter or another customer you’ll be right back while always taking your valuables to the rest room with you.

media_cameraGet out on your own.

CONSIDER A GROUP HOLIDAY

If your friends or family don’t want to travel to the same places you do but you’re not keen on going it alone then a group tour could be for you.

Greg Carter, co-founder of Latin America and Polar Specialist Chimu Adventures says apart from the social aspect of travelling with like-minded people, they give inexperienced solo travellers a sense of security and confidence.

“But even for the veteran traveller a group tour can be a great idea as it can give you access to regions that may be hard to visit independently.”

The Managing Director of Insight Vacations, Alexandra O’Connor says different tours are tailored for different travelling styles and so you should check what best suits your interests from city highlights to off the beaten track.

O’Connor says your Travel Director is like a 24 hour concierge and can give you all the tips you need before you do some exploring on your own.

“Listen to your Travel Director when they offer safety tips and areas to be mindful of (and) ensure you have their mobile number in case you’re running late or lost. But overall enjoy and take in all of your surroundings from the sounds to the scents and everything in between, some of the best experiences and memories are captured when you’re solo and can fully immerse yourself in your surroundings.”

While some group tours pair you up with someone of the same sex so you can save money on a single room, others waive single supplements altogether.

There are also companies like Monograms that mix the flexibility of travelling by yourself with the support found on a guided holiday.

Monograms’ Chris Fundell says their holidays include a choice of hotels, transportation and transfers, but guests are free to explore at their own pace.

“They include a selection of special activities and guided sightseeing as well as the services of a Monograms Local Host to offer advice and assist with planning additional excursions. The packages also give travellers the option of VIP access to popular tourist attractions, a perk that is usually only available to larger groups.”

media_cameraGet a group of solo travels together on tour. Picture: Intrepid

 

El Dorado, Arkansas

The city of El Dorado, Ark., a two-hour drive south of Little Rock, probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind as an up-and-coming tourist destination, but if Terry Stewart, 71, the former chief executive officer and president of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, has his way, this perception may soon change. As the chief executive officer of El Dorado Festivals & Events, Mr. Stewart is charged with turning the city into the next music and arts hub in the United States.

A $70 million infusion is key to the project: The money comes from a combination of donors, including Murphy Oil Corporation, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and the Walton Family Foundation. The first phase of the initiative, the $54 million, six-block Murphy Arts District in downtown El Dorado, is making its debut on Sept. 27. The district’s five-day opening celebration will have performances by artists like Brad Paisley, Smokey Robinson, Ludacris and the hip-hop trio Migos.

Below are edited excerpts from an interview with Mr. Stewart.

What exactly is the Murphy Arts District?

It’s essentially a new neighborhood in the center of El Dorado. We’ve repurposed a number of historic buildings to create a cabaret restaurant, a 2,000-seat music hall and an outdoor amphitheater which can seat 10,000 people. There’s also a two-acre play park for children with climbing equipment, slides, a zip line and a water area where there are fountains to run and jump through.

The amphitheater and music hall will be venues for music concerts by both famous and lesser-known artists and also for touring Broadway shows. The cabaret restaurant will host performances by cabaret acts

The city of El Dorado, Ark., a two-hour drive south of Little Rock, probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind as an up-and-coming tourist destination, but if Terry Stewart, 71, the former chief executive officer and president of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, has his way, this perception may soon change. As the chief executive officer of El Dorado Festivals & Events, Mr. Stewart is charged with turning the city into the next music and arts hub in the United States.

A $70 million infusion is key to the project: The money comes from a combination of donors, including Murphy Oil Corporation, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and the Walton Family Foundation. The first phase of the initiative, the $54 million, six-block Murphy Arts District in downtown El Dorado, is making its debut on Sept. 27. The district’s five-day opening celebration will have performances by artists like Brad Paisley, Smokey Robinson.

Luggage Help

(Recently posted in the Independent)

You check your shiny new suitcase onto a flight. Hours later an unrecognisable, battered old version of it is spat out onto the luggage carousel. What happened to it while you were snacking on peanuts and watching action movies? And is there anything you can do to protect it?

If anyone can advise, it’s Tricia Davis. As an airline employee she’s heard many stories from heartbroken travellers about their damaged luggage. But she promises not all luggage handlers are brutes and says there are things you can do to help your bags fare better.

“In my nine years of working for an airline, I have handled thousands of bags,” says Tricia. “I have also been a compulsive traveller my entire life and am always on the lookout for great bags. Your suitcase should protect the items inside and in order to do that, it needs to survive the journey itself.”

Here are Tricia’s top tips on everything from bag material to wheel configuration and how to claim for damaged luggage.

Cost

“My first suggestion is always to hit up charity shops. People don’t want to store suitcases and often donate them after their travels, I have purchased quite a few hundred dollar bags for less than five dollars. Some high end bags do come with a warranty but only if the bag is defective, not poorly designed.

Wheels

“I’m not sure why suitcase companies switched to four spinner wheels from two recessed rollerblade wheels, but it was a bad idea. Look in any cargo pit and you’ll see the spinner wheel graveyard. When your bag is pulled from the top of the stack, it comes crashing down on those wheels. Always get recessed wheels whenever possible. Unless it’s for your carry-on, when recessed wheels allow you to bring your bag sideways down the aisle.”

Materials

“Plastic suitcases were not created with travel in mind. Unless you’re travelling in a Lear jet or a limo, your plastic bag may not make it to your destination intact. Plastic cases crack in cold weather, they get crushed under the weight of all the other bags in the cargo pit, and they slide off the stack and land on the tarmac.

“Fabric bags are certainly more durable. They also tend to still come with recessed wheels. My favourite travel bag is a two compartment rolling duffle bag, very sturdy and you can squeeze a lot in. And they are survivors if you need to drag them up or down a flight of stairs.”

Name tags

“Yes you need them. If your bag came with one, fill it out. Name, phone number and city. Not your street address or your email. And your mobile number, not your home or office number. If your bag didn’t come with a name tag, buy one and put one of the airport ones on it too. Also, put one on your carry-on, especially if you have a black roller bag.”

Covers

Some high end bags come with a fitted clear plastic cover. There are also some cool stretchy covers, like a T-shirt for your suitcase. These are helpful for a few reasons. They protect your bag from dirt and grease from carts and belts, keep zip pulls from being snagged and ripped off and can customise your bag with a fun design.”

Zips

“Make sure all your zips are closed, even if nothing is in the pocket. If not, the open pocket can get hooked on something in the conveyer system which can rip the front off.”

Straps

“Loose and unhooked straps are a disaster waiting to happen. If your bag has a separate shoulder strap, take it off and put it inside your bag. You want as few reasons as possible for your bag to get caught on something and shredded.”

Old barcode labels

“When you arrive at your destination, remove all the barcode stickers from your bag. Ticket agents don’t always have the time to do it and your bag travels by barcode. So if your bag doesn’t arrive at your current destination, the airline may not have lost your bag, it could have gone to one of your previous destinations.”

Colour

“I suggest a multicoloured fabric bag. If you do choose a solid, stick to darker ones. I’ve seen some beautiful pink, white and yellow bags totally covered in grime after the first trip. And if you do get a black bag, do something to distinguish it from all the others. Just make sure it’s not a big scarf that will get stuck on a conveyor belt.”

Damage

“If your bag is damaged, make a claim as soon as you pick it up. Most airlines have a 24 hour window to make a claim. Keep the original bag tag on the bag because If you make an online claim you may need to return the empty bag back to the airport.”