Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Wired for travel: modern backpacker essentials

Remember when staying in touch with friends and family while backpacking meant the odd crackling trunk call home or popping a postcard into the post and hoping that the snail mail didn't beat you home?

With the great leaps made in technology in the last ten years – the spread of the internet, wireless connections, Bluetooth, mobile communication – today's backpackers have become increasingly tech-savvy and digitally driven. So much so, that they're now lugging around packs full of flashy gadgets and gizmos worth more than £1 billion ($2.11 billion AUD).

According to a recent survey conducted by AA Travel Insurance, the top five essential backpacking items are a far cry from the basics you might expect to find buried deep in a rucksack. They are:

  • Mobile phone
  • Digital camera
  • MP3 player
  • Laptop
  • Hairdryer
When it comes to high-tech gadgets I must confess that I am guilty of carrying around a laptop, digital camera and mobile phone. Mind you, I only recently joined the mobile phone revolution taking one with me for the first time last year on a research trip to South Africa and Libya. Even then, I carried what I lovingly referred to as my 'travel' mobile – an early model Nokia that I purchased while living in South Africa which still sings out to me in annoying high-pitch monotone – leaving behind my flashy, 3G, Bluetooth, picture taking, video conferencing mobile. As to the laptop and digital camera, these are tools of my trade, so for me they are essentials. To be honest though I often spend most of my time jealously eyeing off the packs of less encumbered travellers wishing I could make a trade.

While I certainly regard digital cameras and MP3 players as worthy backpack fillers, the danger is that in using them we risk isolating ourselves from the world we are trying to explore. Have a look around you the next time you're out on the road and you'll soon notice that there are many travellers for whom the only way they seem to experience the world is by viewing it vicariously through the camera's lens. But in so doing, they become what renowned theorist Susan Sontag labels 'tourists of reality' - tourists who relentlessly seek out 'constructed' realities (those sold and endorsed by glossy travel brochures) while denying themselves the reality of their own unique experience. I once did a two-week trip through Zimbabwe with a German backpacker who spent the entire time with his eyes glued to his video camera. I'm not even sure he noticed that there was anyone else on the trip let alone realised that that there was a whole other world beyond the range of his viewfinder. Again, with MP3 players or similar devices you see it time and time again when a traveller on a bus or a train becomes so absorbed in their own insular musical world they take no notice of the amazing scenery that flashes by them and often miss making real connections with local people and places.

The real problem is that technology has become an umbilical cord backpackers use to stay connected to home. Many spend endless hours in internet cafes downloading digital photos, posting minute details of their trip on MySpace or Facebook and even producing video travel diaries for sites like YouTube. But the question we need to ask is: if we are spending so much time on the road keeping in touch with home; should we have ever left in the first place?

My advice is, yes, do take a digital camera, mobile phone and MP3 player - a camrea is a great way to record your memories, a mobile phone can save you in a pinch and an MP3 player can help fill in the endless hours waiting for buses and trains - just make sure they're compact and lightweight. When it comes to laptops, however, in my opinion, unless you are a travel writer or travelling for business, leave the laptop at home - that’s what internet cafes are for! And don't even get me started on how a hairdryer ended up on the essential packing list!

Bear in mind that whatever gadgets you take with you, you have to be prepared to lose them. Besides misplacing them yourself (easily done, I once left my mobile phone in the taxi on the way to the airport) they're tempting targets for thieves, so there is no point in taking the latest flashy, high-tech gizmo. Above all, be careful not to allow technology to form a barrier between you and your new surroundings. After all, seeing the world, experiencing new cultures and meeting local people is what travelling is all about.

What 'essentials' do you travel with? Do you think technology has become more of a curse than a blessing?

Image sourced from

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The world's best and worst international airlines

This last week I was asked to write a brief round-up article for a travel website on the world's top 10 airlines based on an international survey conducted by Skytrax. While I didn't think this was a terribly interesting article, apparently it struck a nerve with the website's readers whose quick clicking actions made my story one of the site's most downloaded articles for the day.

Personally I've always loved flying - I love the food (yes, I really do like reheated airline dinners; they heighten my sense of excitement about the fact that I am doing something out of the ordinary and that I am going somewhere special), I love the movies and I love the thought of taking off to a distant foreign land. But as I have gotten older the whole experienced has dimmed. So much so, that I now spend most of my time during the flight watching the flight route map continually asking myself the question all parent's loath: "Are we there yet?", "Are we there yet?", "Are we there yet?"

The overwhelming response drawn by this article, however, got me thinking about which international carrier was my most and least favoured airline. So here are my picks:

My favourite international airline
I agree wholeheartedly with Skytrak's survey participants here; without a doubt my all time favourite international airline is Singapore Airlines. I just love to fly with Singapore Airlines. Not only are the seats comfortable (from an economy perspective of course), but the food is superlative and the flight attendants are so sweet and lovely that it’s almost a crime to ask them to do anything for you. The first time I flew with them back in early 2000 I thought I'd been accidentally upgraded from my usual cramped position in cattle class to business class – the seats seemed bigger, I had my own personal TV with a huge choice of movies and could control what I watched and when I watched it; I even had my own telephone (not that I used it). Most of these things are now standard on almost all international airlines, but, in my opinion, Singapore was, and still is, well ahead of the competition.

My least favourite international airline
Nothing against Germans here, but I have to say Lufthansa is the worst airline I have ever flown with – and I've flown with some pretty doggy airlines over the years including a number of very undesirable and unsafe African and Eastern European airlines which I never thought I'd make it to my final destination still in one piece on. When it comes to international airlines, though, Lufthansa with its cramped, cold vinyl seats (didn’t vinyl go out with the 70s?), bland, inedible food and dour flight attendants is by far the worst international airline... All I can say is avoid if you can!

While these two are my most and least favoured airlines, I am sure there are many others out there that I haven’t even contemplated. Which international airlines do you think are the best and the worst?

Image sourced from

Friday, February 8, 2008

The single's survival guide to Valentine’s Day

With Valentine's Day almost upon us, it's that time of year when sweet nothings, red roses and romantic dinners become the order of the day. But if you, like me, are unattached then it is often the one day of the year you dread the most, silently wishing you could fritter it away hiding under your doona with your best friends Ben & Jerry close at hand.

Ironically, I’ve just spend the last week writing articles for one of my publishers about romantic spa treatments you can surprise your partner with and unusual wedding destinations where you can get hitched this Valentine’s Day, giving my happily married and coupled-up friends a great laugh at my expense. Unfortunately, I seem to have a six month expiry date when it comes to relationships (even cyber relationships as I most recently discovered!) and somehow with out planning I’ve missed out on celebrating almost all of the hallmark events with a significant other – Christmas, Valentine’s Day; even my birthday!

Personally, I think all my ex-boyfriends out of common curtesy should, at the very least, send me a belated birthday present! But I digress…

The point is, people don’t naturally come in pairs. We come into this world alone (unless you are a twin of course) and, in most cases, we leave it the same way. So rather than mope about not being in a relationship this Valentine’s Day, I say ditch the tub of ice-cream, embrace your solo status and treat yourself to a fabulous single’s getaway.

Fortunately, there are a number of great specialist travel operators offering tours where your single status can be worn as a badge of honour. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

Argentina & Brazil
Ever fancied learning how to dance the tango? This has been on the top of my “to do” list for a long time. Footloose Tours combines the passion of Latin America's most vibrant cities, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, with intoxicating musical rhythms, warm tropical coastlines, rainforest and thunderous waterfalls on this fun 12-day tour.You never know, you might strike up a new romance while dancing one of the world's most seductive dances.

Vietnam & Cambodia
Discover the varied sights, sounds and flavours of the Far East on Solo Traveller’s 15-day tour through Vietnam and Cambodia. The tour takes in the temples of Angkor Wat, the Indo-French city of Siem Reap, the floating markets of Saigon and the bustling city of Hanoi. (OK, so this is probably who I should have arranged to go with on my planned, though ill-fated, trip to Cambodia at the end of last year – next time!)

Caribbean cruise
Being trapped on a boat with a bunch of hormonally-charged 20-somethings eager to party with nothing but endless sea surrounding me is not my idea of fun, but there are many singles out there for whom cruising is a passion. So if that is you, check out the range of Caribbean cruises offered by Cruises depart from New York, Fort Lauderdale and Miami and run for around 6-8 nights. All tours include theme nights, pool parties, dancing lessons and even speed dating.

Africa overland
For a real adventure nothing beats my personal favourite tour for singles – the African overland safari (just steer clear of the tour leaders; especially if they are blonde-haired, blue-eyed South Africans!). Dragomon has a great 28-day tour departing from Cape Town which snakes its way across South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana before arriving in Victoria Falls/Livingstone in Zambia. Highlights include quad biking through the Namib Desert, spying wildlife in Etosha National Park and canoeing through the Okavango Delta.

Kakadu & beyond
My final pick takes in a part of my home country which I am itching to see – Australia’s most famous national park; the Kakadu. Australian-based aRendezvous offers a “singles only” 9-day tour through the Kakadu where you'll observe Dreamtime rock art, swim in remote gorges and cruise among the abundant wildlife of Yellow Waters. This tour is operated by World Expeditions and also includes three days floating on the Katherine River.

Have a happily single Valentine’s Day!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Journey Woman Travel Writing Contest

Sorry guys this is one for the girls!

To all the budding travel writing women out there, Journey Woman, a great resource site for women travellers, has launched a travel writing contest looking for the most inspiring “women-centred” tales of determination and courage. They want to hear your stories of how you overcame either a personal or external struggle in order to make your journey a successful one.

Stories can be serious, comical or reflective – however you write best – just as long as you demonstrate that the journey was worth the effort. Entries must be no more than 500 words.

1st Prize: $100 (U.S.) + being published in their newsletter and website
4 Runners up: $25 (U.S.) each + being published in their newsletter and website
Deadline: March 15, 2008

Read the complete list of rules (plus a sample story) here

Good luck!