A Beginners Guide to Hitch Hiking

The cheapest and most budget friendly means of travelling, hitchhiking has seen a recent resurgence as a viable means of travel for low budget backpackers. With that being said hitchhiking is often a safe and rewarding means of travel and each year tens of thousands of people catch rides with complete strangers. Drivers are often pleased to have some company for the duration of the journey, and you are generally obliged to make some efforts to talk with them, even if it’s just a few words in their local language.

If you do decide to hitchhike between destinations it’s best to have a flexible schedule as you may receive offers of accommodation or even invitations to events such as weddings or Christmas dinner and suddenly find yourself several days behind schedule. Ensure that you check the legalities of hitchhiking abroad before you travel, as it is illegal in some countries and inadvisable in others. For first time hitchhikers, there are several important things you can do to ensure that you find a ride and stay safe during your travels:

Use a map – Given the sometimes stop-start nature of hitchhiking, a good map is an invaluable tool to have, especially if it highlights things such as rest stops or petrol stations. A map with an at least 1:1,000,000 ratio will suffice if needed while 1:750,000 should normally be good enough. If your phone or tablet is capable of doing so it may also help to map your intended route into the phone, which can also assist you in determining your location should you get lost or disoriented.

Find a good, safe location – If you’re looking to hitch it may be tempting to walk to a major street or highway and simply try from there; however, this could prove to be more time-consuming than useful. Find a major highway or road that leads towards your destination to reduce the amount of local traffic and position yourself on the side of the road where you are clearly visible to oncoming traffic and they have enough space to stop and pick you up.

Have a sign outlining your destination – Having a clearly visible sign greatly improves your chances of getting a lift and getting to your intended destination, even if your intended destination is as vague as ‘South’ or ‘France’. Additionally you can add a few words of the local language in ‘Por Favor’ for instance, or use abbreviations for cities rather than full names, such a ‘KRK’ for Krakow or ‘HH’ for Hamburg.

Dress appropriately – You’re much more likely to get a lift if you’re dressed like a trustworthy and honest person. Resist the urge to wear sunglasses or a hoodie when trying to thumb a lift and wear neutral or pale colours if possible, as these appear more trustworthy than black or khaki clothing.

Trust your instincts – If someone stops and offers you a ride, but you’re getting a bad vibe from them, it’s best to decline, even if they’re the only person who’s stopped for some time. It’s better to wait a while longer for a ride than to go against your instincts and get in a vehicle with someone who you’re not entirely comfortable with.

Note the details of the vehicle – As an added safety precaution note the details of the vehicle before you get in, including the brand, model, colour and license plate number of the car. Write these down or put them in your phone and, if possible, message them to a friend. If asked explain that this is a precautionary measure and most drivers will understand this. You can also make a joke that your Mum insists you text her the details every time you hitch a lift as she worries about you far too much.

While the notion of hitch hiking may seem quite daunting at first it soon becomes and enjoyable and interesting part of your trip and can provide some of the most memorable experiences of the entire journey, just remember to put safety ahead of fun and be prepared to meet some interesting people!

Volunteer farm-stays and organic farming

An ever increasing budget travel option is farm-stays whereby backpackers live and work on a farm for an extended period of time in exchange for accommodation and meals. While farm work can be hard work it’s often a rich and rewarding experience and gives you the opportunity to learn new skills ranging from carpentry to viniculture. Working days are typically five to eight hours long and the quality of accommodation and meals can vary depending on your location and host. Often you will find that there are several travellers working on the farm at one time, particularly in the warmer months, and this offers you a wonderful opportunity to meet people of different cultures and make friends with common interests. When looking for potential farmstay locations it’s important to take into consideration the visa requirements for the country you are staying in and the level of difficulty associated with obtaining a visa for this country.

While your work may not be paid and you are staying as the guest of your farmstay hosts many countries deem this work, volunteer or otherwise, to be ‘work’ for visa purposes and as such you will need to apply for a work permit in a lot of cases, unless you’re prepared to work on a tourist visa. While there is often little chance of being caught doing so given the nature of your volunteering penalties can be quite strict for those found to be breaching the rules of your tourist visa. If you’re prepared to take this risk then obtaining a tourist visa and working ‘illegally’ can be readily done with the entire application being fairly straightforward, just make sure you don’t mention your volunteering or farmstay plans during the visa process. If you’re looking to go the official route and apply for a working visa workpermit.com is a great place to start for details regarding work permits abroad. While the majority of farm-stay hosts are welcoming, friendly and positive there are volunteers who have experienced negative stays with hosts who have provided poor accommodation, low quality meals or simply overworked volunteers for up to fourteen hours per day seven days per week. Fortunately these horror stories are outweighed by the sheer number of positive experiences that people have had and there is a number of things you can do to ensure that your stay is a positive one as well:  

  • Establish what you want to get out of your stay – Are you looking to work on a farm that deals with animals on a daily basis or are you looking for somewhere that is strictly organic? Are you happy to share a tent with someone for several weeks or would you prefer to work somewhere with a flushing toilet? Whatever your preferences it’s important to have a clear idea of your requirements for a farmstay and ensure that you take into consideration any allergies, dietary restrictions or phobias you may have when doing so.
  • Identify your skills and strengths- Much like a job interview it’s important to identify your key strengths and find a position that matches accordingly. If you’re not one for manual labor, harvesting or animal upkeep then consider working with hosts who are looking for volunteers to assist with document keeping, market stalls or photography. This isn’t to say you’ll never be expected to do other tasks, but if the bulk of your work is something you’re passionate about then you’re happy to do other tasks occasionally as part of your stay.
  • Consider your timing – Farming is a seasonal occupation and routines vary depending on the time of year and weather conditions. Spring is often a time for planting harvests and birthing animals, summer is normally devoted to fruit picking and jam making. Autumn is traditionally a time for harvest, especially on farms with a lot of grain while winter is often the quietest time of the year and farms traditionally slow down over this cooler period. By planning ahead and choosing the right time of year you’re likely to take a lot more out of your volunteer experience than if you arrive at a time devoted to something else entirely than you were expecting.
  • Choose a location and time frame – With well over 150 different countries participating in farmstay programs it may seem like a daunting prospect choosing one (or two, or three) place to volunteer. Likewise deciding how long you want to volunteer for and organise your schedule around these plans. When choosing a location it’s important to consider your ease of access getting there, access to medical facilities and healthcare, cultural expectations and customs associated within each location and community.
  • Contact your hosts personally – As part of organising your farmstay it’s important to write to your hosts to organise a stay. As part of this you should enquire about the working expectations (hours per day, role etc), a bit about you and what skills you can offer, what you’re looking to get out of your farmstay and any experience you’ve had in the past with farmstays or similar experiences. Ensure that you personalise your letter to each host rather than using a generic letter, as this not only shows your interest in the position but it also makes you stand out compared to other applicants. This is also a good time to ask for references from previous volunteers to find out a little more about things from a volunteers perspective and most large farms will be able to provide these without too much trouble.
  • Allow sufficient time – Farmstays can take several weeks to organise, especially if your potential host is living in a remote location with limited internet access, and it’s important to ensure that you’re organised well in advance of your arrival. This not only gives you time to organise flights and any relevant visas but it also give your hosts an opportunity to plan for your arrival if they are picking you up from an agreed location or they’re trying to establish volunteer numbers for the upcoming season.
  • Buy insurance – While farmstays can be a thoroughly enjoyable experience there is also the ever present risk of injury or death when working with machinery or in isolated areas and it’s important that you have sufficient insurance to cover any unexpected issues you may encounter during your stay. Before purchasing your insurance ensure that you are covered for working as a volunteer and working with both animals and machinery, as some insurance providers omit these from their plans. It’s better to spend extra and know you’re covered than to save a few dollars and hope that nothing happens during your stay.
  • Have a backup plan – In the event that your plans fall through or your farmstay turns out different than you expected it’s important to have a plan to fall back on, especially if you’re staying in a remote location or travelling solo. If possible have an emergency contact who you can stay with if required and ensure that you have the phone number of your national embassy written down somewhere for worst case scenarios such as natural disasters.
Greece

Haggling for Beginners

To most western people, the idea of haggling is both fun and intimidating, especially for first timers. Seldom do we get the chance to test our haggling skills at a market or store and it can be quite a shock to suddenly find yourself in an environment where you’re expected to haggle for almost everything, from taxis to food to accommodation. Ultimately the purpose of haggling is to arrive at a price that you feel comfortable paying and the vendor feels comfortable selling at. While haggling can seem like a daunting prospect there are several things you can do to ensure you get the best deal:

  • Be polite throughout the bargaining – Haggling is one of the oldest concepts known to man and is deeply rooted in the values of numerous cultures. By engaging in the process of haggling it’s expected that you will adhere to these values and maintain a polite and civil tone throughout the process.
  • Let the salesman give you the opening price – Giving the opening price as a potential buyer is a great way of exposing yourself as an amateur haggler and leaves you with very little manoeuvrability when it comes to setting a price, as your initial offer may be far higher than anything the vendor expects to earn for the goods and the only way is upwards in price.
  • Make your opening offer low but not insulting – This can be difficult to gauge depending on your location as every culture has their own expectations on what constitutes a reasonable opening offer. A good rule of thumb is to start at 25% of the asking price and then work your way upwards from there; however, some locations, such as China, you can start the bargaining process with as little as one percent of the asking price on some goods such as electronics or fake clothing.
  • Bargain in progressively smaller increments – Ensure that your bargaining has a pattern that suggests you’re nearing your maximum. There’s no point opening with 1200 rupees before going 1250, 1400, 1425, 1500, 1600 as this will suggest you’re more open to paying a higher price, while 1200, 1350, 1450, 1500, 1525, 1540 shows that you’re getting close to a price point you’re happy with.
  • Mention that you can get it cheaper elsewhere – If you’re in a busy marketplace, it’s highly likely there are two, three or even a dozen different stalls all selling the same goods that you are currently looking to purchase. A useful technique for lowering the price is to mention that you can get the same item for a lower price elsewhere.
  • Add more to the deal – If you’re looking to purchase two shirts it’s always good to start the bargaining with a negotiation over one shirt rather than both, as this gives you greater leverage later on as it’s always better for the salesman to sell two shirts rather than one. If you’ve negotiated a price of 150 rupees for one shirt start the process again for adding a second shirt, how about two for 280 instead?
  • Don’t insult the person or the goods – Haggling is a fun activity and one that warrants respect from both parties. Don’t insult the salesman or the quality of the goods during the bargaining process as this will only make the negotiations less friendly rather than getting you a better deal. If you feel the need to critique the quality mention that the shirt is slightly too big or slightly too small to fit you properly rather than pointing out the stitching is inferior or the quality is poor.
  • Be prepared to walk away – Perhaps the most underutilised tool in your haggling arsenal is being prepared to walk away if you’re unable to reach a price you want. Often this will determine if the salesman was correct when he said that he was unable to go any lower on price, as a sale for a lower price is better than no sale at all and he’s about to lose that sale. If he’s unwilling or unable to lower the price even after you’ve left then you know that is the lowest he’s prepared to go on the price and you can always return later to buy it.

So what should a typical haggling conversation look like? To use an example from a market stall purchasing two shirts the conversation should normally go as follows if you’re browsing shirts at a particular stall:

Shopkeeper: Hello my friend, perhaps you want to buy some shirts today?

You: Yeah, I’m interested in buying one if I can find something I like, how much do you have on this one?

S: This shirt is good quality and for you I can do a very good price, 250 rupees.

Y: Hmm 220 rupees is quite high for a shirt like this, I can do you 80 rupees for it though.

S: 80 rupees? No, my friend, this shirt is very good quality, see it’s ‘Armani’, very good brand. I can sell for 220 rupees only.

Y: Hmm yes it is quite a nice shirt but 200 is still too much, I can buy it for 200 from the other store. I’ll give you 120 rupees for it. 

S: 120 for this? No, my friend, I cannot sell so low, this is worth at least 180.

Y: 180 rupees? I can do 135, this shirt might not even fit me yet.

S: It will fit, is perfect size for you. 160 rupees, special price. 

Y: Ok I’ll give you 145 if I can buy two shirts for this price. 290 total.

S: Ok my friend, for you, both shirts for 300. 

Y: Deal.

While this whole exchange can take anywhere from 15 seconds through to several minutes as each side dramatises their offers the above is an example of finding the right price for goods purchased from a market. Even goods with a fixed price attached to them can be negotiated, though the overall markdown may be lower than in the example above. Keep in mind that if your friends have purchased an item from the same store previously, it’s quite rude to walk up and demand the same price as your friend got, it’s normally expected that you will engage in the same bartering process your friend did in order to get the same deal.

New e-books now available on Amazon Kindle!

After the successful publication of my first e-book last year ‘Your Handbook Guide to Planning a Backpacking Trip Abroad’ I have now written and published two follow up e-books to provide even more assistance for first time travellers!

BackpackingAbroad

Picking up where the first book left off  ‘Your Handbook Guide to Backpacking Abroad’ is perfect for first time backpackers travelling abroad. Packed full of information and providing you with a wealth of information from the moment you arrive at your destination this book answers questions such as:

* What are my four different options for accommodation and how can I maximise my accommodation budget?

* What are the most common scams I am likely to encounter, how can I avoid them and what should I do if I get caught up in them?

* What is acceptable tipping and donation etiquette when traveling abroad?

* How can I best stay in touch with family and friends and create a lasting memory of my trip?

* How do I budget for a country and ensure that I can travel as cheaply as possible?

* What should I do if being solicited for a bribe by the police or immigration?

To purchase a copy of ‘Your Handbook Guide to Travelling Abroad’ on Amazon Kindle for the travel friendly price of just $2.99 click here!

TravelScams

Accompanying ‘Your Handbook Guide to Travelling Abroad’ is ‘Your Handbook Guide to Travel Scams and How to Avoid Them’ and this book is packed full of information about common scams, locations you’re likely to encounter them, how to detect and avoid being scammed and what to do if you get caught up in them.

With specific chapters dedicated to different kinds of scams including accommodation, technology, airport, stores and restaurants, confidence and more this book is essential reading if you’re traveling abroad and will potentially saving you hundreds if someone attempts to scam you.

To purchase a copy of ‘Your Handbook Guide to Travel Scams and How to Avoid Them’ on Amazon Kindle for the travel friendly price of just $2.99 click here!

5 Steps to Creating the Perfect Couchsurfing Profile

Since its foundation in 2004 Couchsurfing has become one of the biggest alternative means of finding accommodation in the world. While the primary core of couchsurfing revolves around meeting local people and saving money with free accommodation there is also a vibrant Couchsurfing community where you can find local meet-ups and events, hitchhiking and travel offers and even the occasional job offer. With over 9 million members worldwide there are potential hosts in just about every major city in the world and with so many different people it’s important to stand out and to get yourself noticed when trying to find a potential host:

Create an attractive profile

Unlike some other social network sites and apps creating an attractive profile is about showing off your personality, rather than your physique.  Take the time to fill in the boxes and fill in as much information as possible, from your favourite bands and current travel plans to your skills that you can teach others and your hobbies. The more information displayed to potential hosts the more likely you are to get accepted. Likewise one sentence answers for every box are unlikely to make you stand out and come across as someone that hosts would want to spend time with.

Use a variety of pictures

While you may have several photos of of you taken from various different angles in the bathroom mirror this is not the time to show them off. Instead look for 5-7 photos showing off who you are as a person such as photos with friends or photos at various events or locations. Ensure that you have at least one photo where you are the only person in it, as a profile full of group photos will only confuse potential hosts, as they are unable to establish exactly who you are.

Build up your references

Even with a fun and vibrant profile with several great photos some hosts may balk at the idea of hosting someone who’s never surfed before and has no experience in doing so. While this may be in part to do with previous negative experiences it’s also because the host has less of an idea about what you’re expecting from your Couchsurfing experience. With two months up your sleeve until departure date now is a great opportunity to start hosting other travellers for a day or two to get a feel of what Couchsurfing is all about and to build up those valuable reviews from other travellers. If you’re unable to host look to meet up locally with travellers or other hosts for a drink, or alternately ask friends who use Couchsurfing to leave you a review.

Contact your hosts early

While two months may be a little too early for some hosts, one month out from arrival is about the perfect time to start looking for potential hosts. Search for active users who have good feedback from other users and fit your desired criteria. Additionally you can put up a general request as well with your intended arrival and departure dates, as well as your plans while you are visiting.

Personalise your message

While it may seem practical to take the Nigerian scam email approach and message as many people as possible and praying for a response you’re far more likely to succeed when sending out five to ten messages to different hosts who you feel you have something in common with or you would like to meet. Spend a few minutes letting them know when you intend to arrive, who you’re travelling with if you have companions, what you plan on doing when you arrive in the city and why you would like to meet and stay with them in particular. If you receive an offer be sure to remove your general request, to allow other Couchsurfers a better chance to find a host as well.

While this may seem like a lot of work just to meet people or find a bed for the night the entire process takes only a couple of hours and the rewards in meeting people and experiencing a city from a locals perspective make setting up a Couchsurfing profile more than worthwhile and you will often find your experiences with other Couchsurfers can be the overall highlight of your trip abroad.

 

The entrance to Amsterdam's red light district

The working women of Amsterdam

Every evening, as the red light district moves from a bustling thoroughfare to a touristic hotspot, the otherwise nondescript and well hidden red light windows that play host to Amsterdam’s sex workers spring to life. Filled with dozens of women dressed in little more than bikinis and a smile the windows are world famous and attract tens of thousands of tourists every year, with the promises of more legal drugs and sex than any man could ever consume. As the evening sets in many begin to contemplate their next move, are they ready for a night out or would they rather go to bed a bit earlier? For the sex workers of Amsterdam however, the day is just beginning and their focus turns towards plying their trade for another night.

With 800 or so of the famous windows crammed into just a few hundred square metres the competition for male attention is fierce. Many of the women have turned to Botox to give themselves a competitive edge, while more than half have silicone breast implants. Some women use a costume to stand out, and those who do so pose as maids, police officers and naughty nurses. Despite the glamour and showiness of their attire photography is strictly prohibited, and any tourist who breaks this unspoken agreement quickly finds themself facing the wrath of several very angry women.

As the rain pours down on a cold November evening you find yourself pulling up a chair on the second floor of a café that overlooks three of the famous red light windows. The girls have already started work for the evening, and as you await your traditional Amsterdam munchies food of waffles and hot chocolate you find yourself absentmindedly watching them go about their business, a voyeur besot with curiosity. In the first window a tall, black haired sex worker in an electric blue bikini sits idly playing with her phone and looking incredibly disinterested. A shorter, blonde haired sex worker in red heels, lipstick and suggestive nurses uniform fidgets with a strap on her corset in the second window. The third window, although open, is currently empty and the woman nowhere to be seen.

Over the course of the evening you sit and talk with your friend, enjoying the comfort of the café, the sound of the pouring rain outside and the seemingly endless supply of sweet hot chocolate. As the conversation piques your interest so too does the routine of the sex workers below as they flitter between texting, fidgeting and trying to entice passers-by to part with their Euro.

*tap, tap, tap*

*tap, tap, tap*

The three men passing by the window stop, apparently surprised that the short blonde girl on the other side of the window has even noticed that they were even there. She ceases rapping on the window with her fingertips and instead singles out the man closest to her, blowing him a kiss to get his attention. As of his friends have suddenly ceased to exist she locks eyes with him and begins to wiggle her finger suggestively, inviting him to make contact with her. He stands memorised before turning to his friends and, after a quick conversation, he clasps one of them on the shoulder and shakes hands with the other before they melt away into the darkness and the rain, leaving him alone with the woman.

Glancing left and right, he looks to see if anyone he knows just happens to be wandering down the same alleyway at the same time. Satisfied that he’s anonymous in the crowd he lowers his hoody and he steps from the darkness and into the vivid fluorescent glow that the red light window casts upon the cobblestones. Taking care to display her ample cleavage the naughty nurse opens her full length window and leans out to converse with the potential suitor. After a few moments of conversation she stands up, brushes down her costume as if making herself presentable and opens the window entirely, allowing the man to enter. As he eagerly steps inside and disappears from view she draws a large red curtain across the window and turns her attention towards her waiting client.

It takes approximately one hot chocolate and half a waffle before the curtain is drawn back and the man steps back out onto the street. Raising his hoody to cover himself from the worst of the rain he turns to thank the woman, however she has already drawn the curtain again and closed the window, not bothering with the formalities of saying goodbye. For a few moments he stands there, unsure of his next move. He takes a few steps in the direction he came from, before seemingly realise he was originally headed the other way. As disappears into the night he has a slight spring in his step that he didn’t have before.

Fifteen minutes go by and as your thoughts begin to turn towards bed the blonde sex worker suddenly reappears, drawing the curtain back in the same manner one would do to let a bit of light in on a sunny morning. She has rearranged her makeup, applied new lipstick and once again begins to fiddle with the laces on her corset, setting everything back in place the way it was at the start of her shift. Satisfied that her uniform is ready to go she straightens up and casts her eyes up and down the alleyway, scanning for single guys or groups of men. After a few moments later two guys wander past, seemingly enjoying an animated conversation. Their attention, however, is waylaid as a sudden distraction dressed proactively in a naughty nurses costume seizes their attention by rapping on the widows with her fingertips.

*tap, tap, tap*

*tap, tap, tap*

 

All Saints Day – Krakow

All Saints’ Day is an important traditional Polish holiday where Poles recognise the deceased and spend time with their loved ones. On All Saints Day Poles traditionally visit church for a Mass that remembers the dead and in the evening cemeteries are visited and candles and flowers placed on graves as the living say prayers for the deceased. As the holiday is about remembering all the deceased, not just loved ones who have passed away, old and forgotten graves and the graves of strangers are also visited. The graves of historical Polish figures are also visited by admirers.

As the evening approaches people make a journey with loved ones to the cemetery, taking with them a number of candles in colourful glass jars, resulting in thousands of candles dotted about the cemetery and creating a wonderfully colourful spectacle.