Maybe as a side-effect of growing up in the middle of nowhere, I’ve wanted to see the world ever since I can remember. When I’m not actually going somewhere, I love reading and sharing travel stories.
I’d like to start by explaining that I’m not someone who blogs/travels “for a living” — I do have a full time job. I mention this because most of the time if I’m reading someone’s stories, I eventually also want to know, for example, how the author finds cheap flights or their tips for saving money when abroad. Almost inevitably, travel bloggers will say something to the effect of “just do what I did, ditch your soul-sucking office routine and hop a plane to the other side of the world!” Maybe that approach is perfect for someone else, but I would fall into an anxiety hole filled with looming debt and impending homelessness.
This may sound shocking, but: I actually like my job. I’m definitely not going to tell you to quit yours. Maybe you, like myself, enjoy the stability and comfort of having a retirement fund and owning a home as much as you enjoy the uncertainty and adventure of traveling. Because I’m not independently wealthy, my goal has been to find a healthy balance between work and play.
Here are some (hopefully practical) tips I can share:
- I have an airline miles credit card (Capital One Venture) that I use for everything.
- If possible, I try to schedule longer trips to take advantage of paid federal holidays such as Labor Day. Also, most people don’t want to fly on holidays (e.g. Thanksgiving), so those can be cheaper days to book vs. the day before or after.
- Instead of a hotel, I’ll often stay with a local (before I joined up with the Hash House Harriers, I used Couchsurfing). I feel like I’m too cantankerous for youth hostels now, but that’s an inexpensive lodging option if you are unbothered by ramshackle rooms and/or sharing with strangers.
- If available, I use public transportation (or my own legs) instead of rental cars or taxis.
- I’m big on self-guided exploration, and the internet makes it really easy to do. Field Trip is a great smartphone app that will alert you if something of interest is nearby. Many local attractions are usually free, like public parks/museums, historic monuments, festivals, and farmer’s/artisan’s markets.
- Skipping restaurant meals in favor of cooking my own (if a kitchen is available) can help me stretch my budget further if necessary.
- A lot of people don’t like cruises, but if well-planned (look for booking discounts, don’t do any on-board shopping/gambling, skip expensive shore excursions, bring snacks when you disembark) it can be a really cost-effective way to see a lot of different cities in one trip.
My “bucket list” is constantly growing and evolving. Sometimes I set out on a mission to cross specific items off the list, and other times I embark with an open mind and am blindsided by a memorable experience. I like round numbers, so I’ve got ten things listed here (five I’ve done + five I want to do)… but since there is so much more I could discuss, I’m leaving room for the topic to expand with future posts.
Five of my ‘bucket list’ items:
1. Ride the Trans-Mongolian Railway from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Beijing, China
This is number 1 on my list right now and probably the next really big trip that Devon and I will be planning after we return from Indonesia. I’ve never been to this part of the world and the idea of riding a train across an entire continent sounds ridiculously exciting.
2. Visit the catacombs in Paris, France
I’ve never been to Paris and it’s been on my bucket list for years. I’m working on creating a whole “Tour de Creepy” involving things that are off the beaten path and/or a little morbid.
3. Camp in the Sahara Desert in Morocco
I’m considering this for my 40th birthday. Most of the time I avoid camping (I think voluntarily sleeping on the ground is usually a dumb idea), but turning 40 in the middle of the desert sounds pretty epic.
4. Drive I-10 from here in Jacksonville all the way to the end in Santa Monica, CA
We’re going to Phoenix next year and have decided to turn one weekend into a week-long road trip. I’ve driven as far west as Houston, but I’d like to complete the journey with visits to the Alamo, Grand Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns, Los Angeles, and In-N-Out… to see what all the hype is about.
5. Run with the Hash House Harriers in Antarctica
Okay, so I keep saying I want to see all 7 continents, and I need a reason to go to someplace that cold. Running and drinking a beer is as good a reason as any.
Five ‘bucket list’ experiences I recommend:
1. Visit the Colosseum in Rome
It probably sounds like a cliché, but my summer 2004 study abroad experience was so overwhelmingly memorable and life-changing in all the best kinds of ways. My travels through Italy left such an impression on me that it’s hard to pick one landmark or location that stands out from the rest. After giving it some thought, the capital city of Rome finally emerged as the winner. Sometimes overhyped tourist destinations can be a let-down, yet the Colosseum lived up to all of my expectations. There are so many things to see and do in Rome and Vatican City that you could easily spend a whole week there and not explore every nook and cranny.
2. Climb to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, Mexico
In 2007, during my first trip to Mexico, I visited the Aztec ruins at Teotihuacan. This site houses the remains of what was once the largest Mesoamerican city in pre-Columbian times — a mix of residential, commercial, and ceremonial structures. A walk down the “Avenue of the Dead” (flanked by dozens of tombs) leads to the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon. Although nobody knows the definitive purpose of these pyramids, it’s speculated that they were likely used in religious rituals. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest ancient pyramid in the world. The ascent is a steep one, and in some places there are ropes to grab and help yourself up the stairs. It was extremely hot that day so I was carrying 2 liters of water on my back too (I was in terrible shape so at the time this was agonizing). I was exhausted by the time I got to the apex, but the breathtaking view made the climb entirely worth it! In this photo, the Avenue of the Dead and Pyramid of the Moon are in the distance.
3. Hike the Diamond Head crater in Honolulu, Hawaii, USA
This was one of the highlights from my 2008 trip to Hawaii. Diamond Head is the crater of an inactive cinder cone volcano, which has been turned into a national park on the island of Oahu. It’s pretty touristy (typical for anything in Honolulu), and when I was there, the trails were packed with people. Start early and don’t forget your hat, sunscreen, comfortable shoes, and water (like I did…) or you’re gonna have a bad time. The trails are well marked and most are paved, but there is absolutely no shade. Aside from the hot and arid weather, the most strenuous part will probably be climbing stairs to the top rim of the cone. We didn’t quite make it all the way, since my rookie mistakes made me pretty miserable about halfway through… I guess that means I have to go back and finish the hike!
4. Attend Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
My first trip to New Orleans was in 2010, and I moved there a few months later. I assumed I already knew what Mardi Gras was about, but I learned very quickly that it isn’t just about boobs, booze, and beads — it’s a celebration of life that is uniquely New Orleans, involving a beautiful patchwork of French, African, Caribbean, and Native American traditions. Contrary to popular belief, mardi gras is family-friendly, aside from Bourbon Street, which is easy to avoid along with the tourist traps and crowds if that’s not your cup of tea. If cheesy fun, more beer than you can physically drink, and seas of people screaming for plastic trinkets sounds fun too, then you’ll find that in abundance. You can be as silly or as subdued as you want; it’s all about “do whatcha wanna!” This photo is from 2011’s Krewe du Vieux, one of my favorite parades.
5. Trace the gold rush from Alaska to Yukon Territory
This was definitely my favorite excursion from my cruise to Alaska last year. We followed the gold rush route from Skagway, Alaska, to Carcross, Yukon Territory. Fortunately, we had the benefit of modern transportation to make the journey comfortable, and an awesome tour guide to point out landmarks and provide us with bits of trivia and history.
Let me know: what have you done that you would recommend to everyone? The more strange and offbeat the activity, the more I’ll probably be interested.