Wednesday, November 1, 2006

General travel notes gleaned from a broad

Negotiating for Goods
Don't be afraid to try your hand at a little negotiating. I was a pathetic wheeler and dealer until I watched friends and others do it so often that I was deluded into thinking I could get discounts too, if I'd just grow the balls and give it a go. The first few attempts were failures, but I've got the hang of it now. I think ... My approach is absolutely basic. Rather than pay with a credit card, I always try to pay in cash. And even when I know it's going to go on a card, I still ask for a discount. The dance goes something like this: "How much for this purse if I pay in cash?" ... "How much each if I buy two? Three?" ... "I think I want three, actually. But I don't have the cash on me, so I'd like to put them on a card. If you can still offer them to me at that price, it's a deal." Cash or card, I can usually walk away with a 10% to 20% discount on a single item or more, for multiple items. Cash and the purchase of multiple items is the key to getting good deals in boutiques and small, non-chain stores all over Europe.

Negotiating for Accommodations
I'm one of those travelers who makes all of my hotel reservations before I leave home. I hate wasting the better part of a day looking for a room, when I'm already beat-down exhausted and lifeless after a long train or airplane ride. Upon arrival to any city, I just want to check in, shower, maybe take a nap, and then hit the pavement to find something to eat before getting a lay of the land and going photo-loco. I've learned that for hotels, I'm not good at cutting a deal in the flesh. It's just too difficult for me. I'm tired and desperate and it's written all over my face. No one is going to give me a break in that situation when it's obvious I'm seconds from crumbling like a cookie for a price that's probably higher than what they'd charge anyone else. So I take care of these details Stateside, usually via Internet. With more and more hotels, B&Bs, pensions, hostels, etc. offering online booking, negotiations are easier than ever. I will say that if you're staying for less than three nights in high season, for example, you're unlikely to get a discount of any kind. Three nights or less in low season, maybe. But to really get a good deal, regardless of the travel season, you should ideally be spending at least five to seven consecutive nights or more. Similar to negotiating a lower price on goods, ask what the rates or discounts are for longer stays and payment in cash. You can often get a good discount for longer stays even if you put it on a card. A higher number of nights is always going to be your strongest point of leverage. Add to that a bill settled in cash and you should score yourself the discount of the decade. I've got as much as 30% or more off per night by staying longer and paying in cash. A more typical discount would be 10% to 20% for a similar length of stay on plastic.

Meeting People
I think it's far easier to form friendships and make acquaintances on trips alone. I'm sure this has a lot to do with the perpetual need for help, directions, the time, an explanation, and bouts of boredom or loneliness. And from what I understand, it's still a lot harder for men to approach strangers than it is for women. Which makes sense. I can see how the solo male with a strange accent and a lonely look in the eye can be a little lost in translation and unfairly treated as strange or creepy. Especially by the ladies. But this is by no means a hard and fast rule. Men can make friends in foreign lands too, of course. Anyway, while I'm not particularly friendly with the guy needing directions or trying to strike up a conversation at home, I'm far more open (albeit cautious) abroad. I ask for directions, the time, give others directions or the time, comment on people's clothing, ask them what they're eating that looks and smells so good (or gross), etc. In short, I'm friendly. And while I'm not always looking for a new chum, I have made a few good ones afar just by being nice. Even when the conversation with a stranger doesn't blossom into bosom buddyhood, it's the little, seemingly insignificant and spontaneous encounters away from home that can make a trip most memorable and enjoyable. So talk to people. Be nice. And even if someone gives you a curt, cold as ice reply (or worse—a cold shoulder), let it roll off your back and chat up someone else. Some of the worst conversations and interactions overseas make for some of the best travel stories anyway. Am I right? And guys, if you feel that you just can't go it alone, bring along my favorite male travel companion—Bill Bryson—and you'll be just fine. He'll have you laughing and in good spirits even when you feel more like crying in your coffee at the nearest café.

The Lone Lady
While I now prefer to wander sans sidekick, I found it quite difficult, at first, to enjoy traveling alone. More than anything else I was afraid. Of what, I'm not quite sure. Bouts of loneliness and boredom. The mumbled comments and creepy sidelong glances of foreign men. Not having any friends in the places I'd be visiting. Not being able to speak or read the language and accidentally ordering sweetbreads (barf) or bull's balls (double barf) or something similarly disgusting that foodies might delight in and coo, "Oh, the flavor is so delicate. It's exotic and yet familiar. I dare say it tastes a bit like chicken." Et cetera. By employing all the obvious precautions on numerous trips by my lonesome, I've never had a bad trip and, on the contrary, have so loved the time by myself that I now look forward to solo travel almost more than that with friends. Roving alone opens up doors, opportunities, and experiences that simply aren't available to the lovers, the friends, or the family of five. The number of people on a trip and their relationship to each other is absolutely a factor in the sort of experience or encounters one can expect on vacation. When you're by yourself you're forced to seek out and interact more with strangers for help, for advice, for company. Your comfort zone expands and contracts as you learn to trust yourself and adjust to the unfamiliar. In addition to a unique kind of travel experience, solo voyages will also send you home with a deeper understanding of yourself. Not every trip is peppered with transcendent life altering epiphanies, but each leg of travel you take on alone is profoundly personal and will contribute to your growth and development in some small way. Travel is transformative, to be sure. Mostly though, traveling alone is great fun. Pure and simple. It might take a few tries to master, but if you give it a handful of chances, chances are it will become enjoyably addictive.

Curb your Emissions
But not your enthusiasm. In Europe in particular, it's easier to travel in a more eco-friendly way. Most European cities are connected to each other via rail and with high-speed lines between many of the most popular destinations, train travel is often as fast as and even easier than flying. Sometimes however, for financial or other reasons, it's impossible to avoid booking a flight. If you feel guilty like I do about the massive CO2 emissions racked up by air travel, there is something you can do to help offset your individual contribution to global warming: Visit to calculate your flight emissions and then purchase one of TerraPass' products to offset or balance out your emissions. Your TerraPass purchase results in the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions elsewhere. By supporting industrial efficiency and renewable, clean energy projects around the world, TerraPass guarantees a reduction in CO2 emissions, which in turn offsets or balances out the global warming impact of your air travel on the environment. Pretty cool, eh? I just learned about TerraPass in September of 2006 after reading a report on a similar program from the British firm ClimateCare. If you've got to travel by air, offsetting your CO2 emissions seems like the best way to make a difference and help curb the disastrous effects of global warming. Both US-based TerraPass and UK-based ClimateCare also offer offset programs for other sources of CO2 emissions, like cars.

Just how much carbon dioxide emissions are we really talking here? Well, four round-trip cross-country flights create about as much CO2 per passenger as the average driver accrues in an entire year... over 10,000 lbs of CO2. Since 'eco-friendly flying' is clearly a contradiction in terms, I think supporting the environment via TerraPass is a wonderful way for everyone to make a significant contribution to the solution. Hence forward, anytime I plan to board a plane I also plan to buy a TerraPass!

Questions? Ask away! Please use the comments feature to ask questions rather than contacting Marisa directly. That way everyone can learn a thing or two, too.


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