Travelling to a new destination is always exciting: the sense of the unknown, imaginations running wild, the anticipation of novel things to come and all the possibilities and experiences awaiting. We never really know what to expect. Sure, we have some preconceived ideas drawn from whatever we’ve gathered through various media outlets and talk with fellow travellers, but those are really just abstract concepts in our minds. It isn’t until we actually land that we are able to make some tangible connections to all the names of places and attractions thrown out as we do our research. Most of the time too, what we find are the same things repeated, those same things we “must-see” or “must-do”. Now don’t get us wrong, we love experiencing those attractions that are quintessential to a destination but we also strive to peel back the layers and tap into the deeper culture and witness, not only off-the-beaten path attractions, but everyday life as well. We love to make our way through a country or culture at deeper levels and in doing so we’ve found a few tricks for unique travel experiences that we use, or have heard of, in order to find exactly where and what a place has to offer outside of the typical, popular sights.

If you’re looking for something different while travelling then the below suggestions will definitely help you find just that… and if the main attractions are what bring you to a particular destination, these can help you to experience them in a unique way!

Some of Our Best Tricks for Unique Travel Experiences

Meet Locals

travel taiwan hiking jiufen

Perhaps one of our all-time favourite things to do while we travel, not just for finding different activities in a particular destination, is meeting locals. Interacting with locals allows you an insight into a country and culture unlike anything else and through the sharing of each others’ stories, friendships are often formed. We have genuine friends all over the world simply because of our interest in getting to know the people we meet as we travel.

It’s an interesting universal that people love to share information about their home country. No matter who we meet a sort of pride in one’s nation, national history and culture inevitably shines through and it is an amazing experience to share in that. Along with that pride is the desire to share all kinds of information about the great things to see and do – things one wouldn’t be able to find on TripAdvisor’s top restaurants or top attractions list. But how do you go about meeting locals and forging these relationships? While randomly interacting with people as you go can probably find you some good information, it’s not always a guarantee and we’ve found several sites/apps that can help you connect with like-minded individuals who are looking for people just like you!

couchsurfing friends taiwanese traditional food

Airbnb and Couchsurfing are two sites we regularly use while travelling. While it’s true that they are great for finding accommodations they are unique in that they are hosted by locals. They are also our favourite tools when looking to meet people as we travel. Other sites are also popping up to give tourists and locals ways to connect. Sites like EatWith, WithLocals, and even Uber (yes, we’ve had some suggestions come from conversations with an Uber driver!) will have you connecting with locals in different ways. Meetup also offers a great way to find gatherings and events, put together and attended by, those living nearby. If you’re not looking to meet locals in person but would still love some advice, sites like Trippy allow you to post travel questions about specific destinations that can be answered by locals and travellers alike.

Airbnb

carolann trying on gentle monster sunglasses

With Airbnb, the hosts are a great source of information and are often extremely helpful in suggesting, and even showing you, amazing things around the area. Though the host may not always live in the same place you are booking, that doesn’t mean they aren’t able to communicate some great suggestions to you. If they won’t be around and available during your stay, message them and ask them if they can provide any tips – most are eager to help!

We’ve had some amazing experiences through Airbnb. In Korea, we had a host that gave us a tour of the area, taking us to some different restaurants and showing us some great local sights, like Gentle Monster, one of the most interesting stores we’ve ever been to! We even spent an evening exploring and were taken to a 7-11 along the river which served fried chicken and beer to be eaten at an outdoor, riverside table – a popular local activity we were told!

In Japan, we met Taro, who had cycled for 4 years from Japan to England and back again! We were able to learn so much about the area from him and chatted frequently about our common passion for travel. Our first experience with Airbnb was in Chiang Mai, our host quickly became a friend and while we did very little of the typical sightseeing in the city, we were exposed to some of the best meals in Thailand and he helped us find one incredibly unique site of ancient Thai ruins. In fact, there isn’t a country where we haven’t found an amazing host though Airbnb!

Couchsurfing

hakka family, hakka, taiwan, taiwan ,hsinchu

Accommodation purposes is actually not our main reason for using Couchsurfing. In fact, most of the time we use the site to connect to locals who aren’t able to host but want to meet travellers, or we use it to learn about local meet-ups and gatherings rather than to actually request a stay. Whether we’ve stayed as a guest or met at a gathering, we’ve made some incredible friends through the site. In fact, two of our closest “international friends” were made while staying at their apartment in Taipei. With a spare bedroom, and a desire to meet other people who also loved to travel, the couple opened their home to Couchsurfers and we were fortunate enough to have found them on the site. After a few days, we realized we had a lot in common and asked if they were interested in renting their spare room to us for the month we were planning to stay in the city.

We returned after a quick trip around the coast and spent a week with them and their family to celebrate Chinese New Year. It was one of our favourite memories and a time we will always cherish. Warmly welcomed into the fold and made a part of all the festivities, we felt we had been given a special gift to have been able to experience such an important part of Taiwanese culture with them. Renting their spare room for the next month had us developing a deeper bond and we left with a tearful goodbye but many great moments to remember! We’ve been fortunate in that all of our Couchsurfing connections have led to incredibly unique travel experiences and insight into each destination.

Use Guidebooks

marco polo guide walking tour one day in bangkok

For some reason, there seemed to be a recent resistance to using guidebooks coming from those in the travel community. Citing reasons such as outdated information (due to the publication process), the extra weight taken on by travelling with books and, of course, the fact that books have been made seemingly irrelevant with the information available online. These are not completely false, but they are also not valid enough to ignore the huge benefits guidebooks can have to those seeking information and direction while travelling.

When we started our full-time travels, it was through reading a guidebook that set us on our course and had us visiting China first. If not for that, we would never had one of our most memorable experiences yet, climbing the great wall, dodging scams all day and meeting someone who we now consider one of our very good friends.  The fact is, guidebooks can be an incredible resource with a concise yet comprehensive compilation of information about a particular destination. Some guidebooks have become even more inclusive, offering more local secrets and tips, and providing information on significant places that are usually overlooked.

We found an abundance of this in Marco Polo Guidebooks. Though we were skeptical at first, probably because of the onslaught of people telling us to avoid guidebooks, we quickly found ourselves excited to heed the advice of the books. On top of that, we managed to carry our guidebooks for almost 6 months with no damage and with no hardships when it came to added weight – and we travel with only two carry-on sized backpacks and one for our tech equipment!

exploring phuket by motorbike

We found ourselves exploring Phuket by motorbike, finding things away from the popular and controversial Patong area, and made our way to some attractions even the locals were surprised we knew about! We were able to combine their “Perfect Route” in Phuket, detailing stops and suggestions along the way, with various other bits of information in the guidebook – such as insider tips for restaurant recommendations and the like. We chose one of their suggested restaurants while driving around the island and enjoyed some amazing sushi, a very difficult thing to find throughout Thailand!

Our spiral guide for Thailand helped us decide which islands we would visit in the short time we had in Thailand before we made our way to Bangkok, giving us tips and suggestions throughout and even including itineraries for varying lengths of days. Though we had been to Thailand before, we gained more information and facts about the country and the places we were visiting and when we got to Bangkok we knew we’d be using our Marco Polo Guides to maximize our short time available to explore.

In fact, while we intended to find our way through their suggested “Perfect Day” we found ourselves stumbling on their “Walking Tours” section and knew we had found the perfect way to spend our time in Bangkok. We ended up spending one day in Bangkok using the map provided and the guidebook to see the old farang quarter, a section of Bangkok we had neither heard of, nor visited before. We conversed with locals, stopped at a street vendor that had been cooking up food on the same corner for decades, and saw another piece of Thai history and culture through the old buildings and remains of a European colonial period. It’s something we never would have known about otherwise.

european quarter bangkok

We really were pleasantly surprised by the quality and quantity of information packed into the guides. The uniqueness of the information was also extremely valuable to us – insider tips, walking routes, motorbike/driving routes, itineraries for 1 day to 1 week and facts about the places listed and their significance. The maps were also helpful as, despite our immediate desire to rely on technology, GPS is not always perfect, especially in Thailand, and we were frequently pulling out the map to find our way.

Sure, guidebooks will always have outdated information as restaurants and hotels close or move and prices and hours for them, as well as attractions, also change. But so too does information on the internet. Restaurants we suggest because we absolutely love them are no less in danger of these changes because they are recommended online. Sites like TripAdvisor and Facebook Business Pages too must keep up with the ever changing landscape of the tourism industry, and there is often a delay in updated information.

But sometimes, having to act spontaneously, seek out an alternative because what you expected to be, wasn’t, leads to some of the best memories. Couple some great insight from a guidebook like Marco Polo produces with some instances of self-directed travel and you’ll find some truly unique travel experiences.

You can also check out the guides we used in Thailand on Amazon!

Get lost!

rice fields thailand, rice fields chiang rai, thailand views, rice patties,

One of the surefire ways of interacting with locals, finding hidden gems and getting a front-row seat into the heart of the culture and community is to simply get lost. By car, motorbike, or foot; by bus, train or other method of transportation, it really doesn’t matter. Just get out and start moving in one direction, turn yourself around a few times, make spontaneous turns because you see something that catches your eye and then, when you’re sure you have no clue where you are, take a moment to take it all in. Listen to the sounds and look at the comings and goings around you. Stop into a nearby restaurant and make conversation with the owners or waiters, stumble into a unique neighbourhood, listen to those you meet and find out if there’s anything going on nearby.

Alright, there is one caveat: you do have to be aware of where you are planning to get lost and make sure you consider safety first. Unfortunately, people are usually too frightened of the unknown, even in places that are generally safe, to just wander. Someone had something to say about the safety of EVERY country we went to. Korea isn’t safe. Taiwan isn’t safe. Japan isn’t safe. Spain isn’t safe. Don’t even get people started on Southeast Asia!

road trip unique travel experiences

In reality, we’ve walked our way through Asia, frequently without knowing exactly where we were going, and we’ve taken European road trips and driven around Spain and Germany pulling off the road at random to investigate a town that sounds or looks interesting or making turns because something catches our eye. We’ve been aware of our surroundings and cautious of any dangers but have never felt unsafe in any of the countries we’ve visited. We usually bring a map or GPS as well, not only for guiding us safely back but also so we can find random points of interest on either and head in that direction.

Maybe it isn’t quite necessary to ‘get lost’ maybe it’s simple enough to suggest being open and spontaneous. Open to the opportunities you may come across and spontaneous enough to change your direction to include those new experiences.

And even if you have a set destination in mind, perhaps someplace the locals have suggested to visit or a suggested walking tour found in a guidebook, once you’ve made your way to the area keep your mind open and just… get lost!

Take a Private Tour

this is korea tour of seoul with gene

We haven’t been on too many tours ourselves. We prefer a bit more flexibility, though the excursions and tours we went on during our Viking River Cruise were actually extremely enjoyable and pretty flexible when it came to itinerary and choices. So our opinion of guided tours has changed quite considerably.

However, if you’re looking for unique travel experiences but are wanting more guidance and structure than simply setting out on your own, a private tour may be perfect.

We took a private, or freestyle as they like to call it, tour of Seoul and it really was like a choose your own adventure! After a consultation where we discussed what we were interested in seeing and the types of activities and exploration we were hoping for, we were set up with a tour guide and a date. Our guide picked us up in the morning and had a pre-planned itinerary based on the feedback we gave. It really was more like touring with a friend as we all chatted away about ourselves in between our guide’s discussion of the sights we were passing as we drove. Throughout the day, we were able to change the itinerary as we pleased and inquire about visiting different parts of Seoul as we went. Though we had spent three months in Korea, the private tour was one of our favourite days and we learned a lot about Seoul in just a short amount of time.

The kind of flexibility and customization of a private tour allows you to find a local expert and have a guide while still providing you some freedom and choice. It also exposes you to unique aspects of a destination, particularly those that you are most interested in learning about and seeing. It’s definitely a great way to have unique travel experiences tailored to your travel style and preferences and you’ll usually get to meet and chat with the locals and/or expats who lead the tours as you do!

Scour Social Media

unique travel experiences from social media

While most people use social media channels to share photos and stories of their travels, very few realize it is also an amazing resource for information… for exactly that reason. People are constantly sharing their travels and experiences, whether at home or abroad, and much of that is not only accessible but also great for research purposes.

We’ve found restaurants and hidden gems, hotels and attractions, as well as connected with fellow travellers all though social media channels like Instagram and Twitter.  So how exactly do you go about making unique travel experiences out of all that info constantly thrown out on social media channels? Let’s break it down for our three favourite channels we use for just this purpose.

Instagram For Travel Planning

As Instagram is a platform for photos, you’ll be finding the unique aspects of a destination through images. Though there are an overwhelming number of photos to go through, Instagram provides some tools to help you narrow it down to exactly where and what you are looking for.

For instance, say you are already at your destination and are looking to find something different nearby. Simply click the search tab, click the search bar and you’ll be provided with options of what to look for including ‘Places’.  Once you’ve clicked on this tab, you’re able to search for posts related to nearby places (make sure to turn your location on on your device) or by another location of your choosing. This will give you photos posted from people who are in the area chosen. We happened to find a photo of the Toilet Cafe while in Taiwan (a unique restaurant with, yes, a toilet theme) and decided to hunt it down. We’ve also learned about local festivals and events, hiking trails and nature parks and so much more. You can plan ahead with the search or wait until you get there.

Another way to find more specific interests is to search specific hashtags. Perhaps you are looking for a restaurant in, let’s say Miami, Florida. Searching ‘#MiamiRestaurants’ will actually provide you with over 9,000 images (at the time of this post) which you can scroll through. Find an image of a meal you think looks good and you can learn more about it and where it is served. It may not be on the top of TripAdvisor’s list, but it may be on the top of local residents’. Of course, just searching ‘Miami Restaurants’, without the hashtag, will get you all profiles and hashtags related to that phrase so you’ll be able to pull up Instagram accounts of Miami food critics, restaurants and other related hashtags that may offer more options.

Twitter For Travel Planning

Twitter is less reliant on images and so you’ll be sorting through much more text and content but this offers a whole different set of advantages. Like Instagram, you can search by hashtag, and pull up all tweets that contain it or search by a phrase (like ‘Miami Restaurants’) and pull up related hashtags and accounts. One thing to note is that when a search is conducted in Twitter, you’ll automatically be shown the ‘Top Tweets’ retrieved from the search. These would be those most popular, or those with the most interaction, but do not cover all the tweets related to your search. Oftentimes, individuals will not make their way to the top tweets list as they have a small following. To find these, which will often have some more intimate knowledge of a destination, click on the tab “All Tweets”.

You may have to do a bit of scrolling and reading depending on how vague your search term is but you’ll have a variety of information to help you – tweets, images, links to posts. etc. In fact, Twitter is frequently used for content promotion so it’s very likely you’ll be able to find blog posts, articles and websites that will offer more in-depth information about the topic and/or destination.

Twitter is also incredibly interactive. You can comment on a tweet and request more information or send a tweet requesting some suggestions from a particular account holder – e.g. a tourism board, restaurant, attraction, travel blogger – and get some added information and suggestions back fairly quickly and simply!

Pinterest For Travel Planning

Pinterest is another great place to search for unique travel experiences. Pinterest has become a great platform for article sharing and collection and has aggregated quite a vast number of pins for travel.  Unlike Twitter and Instagram, the search ability in Pinterest is both simple and powerful. The search runs much like a Google search. You can search words or phrases or multiple concepts/terms you want included in the search. Simply typing ‘Unique things to do in ____’ can often find you an article or two about that very thing. Although, these posts tend to reduce the “uniqueness” by the fact that they are widely available and searchable, they are still a great place to start and can still offer some great ideas!

Find A Geocaching Adventure

geocache box and travel

This is the one trick for unique travel experiences that we’ve yet to try. Though our interest in it has been growing in leaps and bounds as we’ve learned more about the concept. We were first really introduced to geocaching during a roadtrip to New Brunswick. The entire trip very much followed our premise of “getting lost” as we drove from Toronto to Hopewell Rocks on the Eastern end of New Brunswick, taking various routes to get there as we pleased, stopping when we saw a sign for something that sounded interesting, and sometimes throwing GPS coordinates to the wind. When we did finally get to Hopewell Rocks, we were too late in the afternoon to see low tide and walk along the ocean floor but we wanted to see what it looked like at high tide so we would be able to compare it the following day.

As we walked through the forested path to get to the final lookout point, we saw a man following not too far behind us. A GPS device in his hand, he followed it to a tree, bent down near an area covered in bushes and vegetation and pulled out a box. As we were openly staring in confusion, and a bit of concern, he explained to us that he was geocaching and this was one of the sites. We talked to him for a while about the different places he’d been, all the things he’d seen while hunting for the locations and how he got started into it. As we researched it we learned it is much more involved than simply hunting hidden caches and we’re anxious to start participating while we travel to increase those unique travel experiences and find hidden gems as we go!

It is absolutely fascinating to us. Here is a way to see unique places, sometimes even places in your own neighbourhood you’ve never explored, and track your progress as you do. You meet people at geocaching meetups and while searching, become part of a global community and join one huge worldwide treasure hunt. With almost three million geocaches around the world, it’s really true what those in the geocaching world say –  there’s an adventure happening all around you, all the time!

 

No matter your style of travel or your interests, using any, or a combination, of these suggested tricks will have you learning more about your destination, exploring deeper into the culture or country and discovering some truly unique travel experiences.

 

Keep these tips for later or share with others on Pinterest – just hover over the image below and click “Pin it”!

unique-travel-experiences-pin

There are a few constants in travel and one in particular on which we often reflect. This constant appears no matter who you are, where you go or how long you stay. It can slap you in the face the moment you arrive or slowly creep up as you immerse yourself for longer periods in a particular country. This constant is the cultural differences and norms you’ll experience or at least, the discovery of those norms and taboos present across the world, albeit taking on different forms, every where you go.

A while back we asked several fellow travel bloggers to share their experiences with cultural taboos. We’ve also written about cultural taboos and customs in Malaysia and shared a guest post about dining etiquette in the Sudan. Since there are so many countries, cultures and norms, we thought we’d send out another request and give you information on even more countries to help guide you on your travels!

From personal experiences and stories to general lessons learned, here are some more cultural taboos and customs you should know before going!

Pardon, Please Don’t Do in Peru…

By Gemma & Craig of Two Scots Abroad

two scots abroad peru

Peru was a priority country on our list of places to visit during our 18 month career break. Craig was desperate to trek to Machu Picchu after watching numerous documentaries on it. The Lares trek to the seventh modern wonder of the world was interesting, not only because we felt we deserved to see the manmade town in the mountains after trekking twenty miles but also because we found out lots of facts along the way.

One thing that resonated with me was the photography situation. We all love to document our trip and I am still raging that I never got a selfie with a llama but did you know what many Quechan (the native Peruvians) do not like you taking photos of their livestock? This is particularly true of those who live in small villages, those who do not see many tourists bar the rogue anti-Lonely Planet backpacker now and again. These Peruvians believe that the act of taking a photo puts a curse on their animals and would result in a poor season and no money.

That brings me on to my second point. Ask before you take pictures! We witnessed an extremely awkward exchange on the touristy Uros Floating Islands. One tourist passed her camera to her partner, walked behind a Quechan couple and crouched down next to them. Their body language screamed I AM UNCOMFORTABLE! Instead of reading this, the tourist pulled them in closer for her shot. Why did you then take a photo of it Gemma? Good question! I wanted to share this with travellers to tell them to be sensible and respectful in future.

I asked if I could take a photo of two children on our trek to Machu Picchu and I gave them some fruit to say thanks. The little boy developed a massive smile on his face when he saw the image on the camera screen. I wish I could print it out and send it to him.

There are set-ups for tourists to take photos and this brings me on to my third point – pay the money! Wander around Cusco and you will see women and girls dressed in gorgeous, bright traditional clothing with llamas and alpacas. Sometimes they have baby llamas and alpacas too * COOS *

This set-up is for you. Pay them a small fee and they will happily get their photo taken with you and sometimes you can hold the baby llama. Obviously I questioned why the children were not at school, there is an issue with child labour in Peru according to our Spanish tutor, but if you want a photo of Peruvians in their traditional gear, this is your opportunity! Please do not zoom in at them from a distance; it’s cheap and disrespectful.

Two Scots Abroad (Gemma and Craig) have downed tools as teacher and tradesman and are traveling The Americas on an 18 month career break. They are currently living it up on the Sunshine Coast of Canada after four months in North, South America and Cuba. Follow them as well on Instagram

Dining Etiquette in Switzerland

By: Paula & Gordon of Contented Traveler

switzerland taboos

I will tell you how this story arose. The delightful lady had taken us to the Kornhuaskeller from Bern Tourism. This is one of the most beautiful underground restaurants in the capital city of Switzerland. As Gordon and I chatted away with Michelle, I noticed that she was not eating. Every time we spoke she put her cutlery down. We kept eating and talking. I asked her if we were offending her by talking and eating. This was when she told us, that like us, she and her family talk, eat and laugh during meals. However, the Swiss, particularly at a business dinner as this was, do not eat when the other person is talking. We are Australian, and we talk and eat – I think we are more like Italians.

She was very relieved that she didn’t have to stand on ceremony, and she caught up fairly quickly on her entree, which would have been totally cold.

As we all talked, ate and drank through the main meal, she told us about the dining etiquette in Switzerland. Most families do not talk while eating; her family was a rarity. Another was that punctuality to any meal was expected. I am punctual so that would never be an issue, but some people are late a lot. Don’t do it in Switzerland. Apparently pointing your index finger at you head is an insult, but I am yet to figure that one out.

On a subsequent business dinner in another city in Switzerland, we found out another very enjoyable dining etiquette expectation. You are supposed to keep your hands on the table at all times during a meal and not in your lap. Your left hands must always be visible. Switzerland has a very high ownership of guns, just behind the U.S, with the number of guns per capita. Now that is something I didn’t know. I did look around the restaurant and wondered who was packing heat. You should not put your elbows on the table but can rest your wrists.

At the end of the meal, place the knife and fork next to one another to indicate that you have finished eating as if they were hands on a clock at 5:25. This is what we do in Australia, but we know that other countries don’t.

So be on time, keep your hands visible especially your gun hand, eat and don’t talk unless you have dinner with someone like our lovely friend and enjoy.

Paula and Gordon of Contented Traveller regularly travel to Switzerland. They have been travelling together for 12 years, and independently for a lot longer than that. They are Experiential Travelers and love experiencing a country, city or place by connecting to its history, people and culture. Follow them also on  Instagram.

Jive With Locals in South Korea

By Alice of Teacake Travels

cultural taboos in south korea

South Korea is the wonderful land of kimchi, K-pop, unbelievable amounts of plastic surgery, endless hiking and enough karaoke joints to last you a lifetime. Whilst you’re having the time of your life here, here’s three things that will keep you in the locals’ good books.

Dress like a nun on top and a 60s Barbie doll on the bottom: South Korea is all about the legs.  For all you ladies out there, feel free to show as much of your pins as you wish.  No one will blink an eye and in the summer you’ll easily be able to keep yourself cool.  However, flash one bit of your cleavage or show your bare shoulders and the oldies will not be impressed. They’ll think you’re working the sexy night shift so to speak.

Keep your voice down. No-one needs to hear your ramblings thank you very much: There’s a very clear rule that if you’re on public transport, you need to keep a lid on it. Whether you’re on the bus, subway or train, don’t talk with your travel buddy like you’ve both been to too many rock concerts.  Koreans speak incredibly quietly in these places, to the point that they will cover their mouth whilst speaking on their mobile phone. Look over this rule and you will most certainly be shushed immediately.

Accept food and drink like you’re not going to be fed for a week: Koreans love to eat and share food with others so please accept everything you are given.  To decline it is very disrespectful. Even if you know you can’t finish it, still take what is given to you gratefully and try your best to take a couple of bites or sips. When it comes to alcohol and the infamous Korean liquor ‘soju’, it is impolite to decline it. Do what others have done before if you can’t stomach it: throw it over your shoulder, swap it for water or whatever your creative mind can think of to keep the locals happy. Follow these rules and South Korea will be super happy with you!

Teacake, of Teacake Travels is a British chick travelling around the world for as long as she can get away with it. Willingly throwing herself into anything outside of her comfort zone, she’s rocking girl solo travel one stride at a time! Follow her as well on Instagram

What Your Gestures Say in the UK!

By Margherita Ragg & Nick Burns of The Crowded Planet

london skyline

When I was leaving on London, I learnt that in the UK signing ‘V’ with your index and middle finger pointing the knuckles away from you is a derogatory sign – kind of like giving the middle finger. I had no idea! In Italy (and I’m sure in many other countries) that simply means ‘two’.

One day, when I was working at a café, a customer asked me for two cappuccinos. ‘Two’, I asked, doing the infamous reverse V sign. What are you doing!? Are you telling me to F*** off? he replied, visibly angry.. I was totally shocked and unaware of what was happening – luckily a coworker came to my rescue. That day I learnt it’s actually an offensive sign – keep it in mind if you’re travelling the UK!

Margherita and Nick, of The Crowded Planet, are a writer and photographer from Italy and Australia, long-term travellers and lovers of nature, wildlife and the outdoors.

How To Meet ‘n Greet in Hanoi, Vietnam

By Kach & Jon of Two Monkeys Travel

cultural norms in Vietnam

Vietnam is one of the most culture and tradition rich countries we have ever visited, which is why we chose to live in Hanoi for 9 months. This modern, thriving, bustling and chaotic metropolis is still heavily infused with long-standing traditions and social rules of conduct. One of my favourites, as it incorporates several customs in one, is incredibly important to know when invited to dinner – The order of drinking!

Upon sitting down on the floor for dinner with a group of Vietnamese, you must immediately scan your surroundings, looking for the oldest man in the room. This will usually be the grandfather of the house, or an older uncle, which is your next challenge, as the way to respectfully greet a person in Vietnamese depends completely on their age relative to yours. A man of similar age or slightly older is addressed as ‘Anh’ (ine) – brother, about ten to twenty years older is ‘Tu’ (too) – Uncle and any more than that must be addressed as ‘Ong’ (omg) – Grandfather. Be careful though, as although age is a sign of status, a ‘Tu’ may still take offence at being called an ‘Ong,’ but call an ‘Ong’ a ‘Tu,’ or even worse an ‘Anh’ and you’ll be devaluing their social status. Have fun with that one, I know I did!

Now you need to say hello – Xin chao! (sin chow!), plus their title. ‘Xin Chao, Ong!’ Extend your right hand, with your left hand resting palm down on your arm, just below your right bicep. This is the proper way to show respect while shaking hands, anything else might be deemed casual and flippant.

It’s now that you’ll probably be offered a drink, in the form of a shot of home-distilled spirit, called either Rượu Mạnh, or Zio, depending on how it’s made. Raise your glass and say cheers – ‘ZO!’ – then knock it back and try to keep a straight face! Shake hands again, just like before and say thank you – ‘Xin Cam on’ (sin gahm un), or simply ‘Cam on’. And you’re done!

Yes, I know, that’s a lot to remember just to introduce yourself, but the good news is that as a foreigner, every man in the group will want to drink with you (and some of the women too!), so you’ll have plenty of opportunity to practice! Just try to keep up, as it’s considered bad manners to refuse to drink with a man, regardless of whether you’ve just stopped for lunch in the middle of a 12 hour motorbike ride. (That was a hell of a day!) Then again, passing out in the middle of dinner is probably equally frowned upon!

Kach Medina and Jonathan Howe of Two Monkeys Travel are working-on-the-road couple from the Philippines and UK. Having each decided to quit their jobs and set off around South East Asia to start their new lives, neither imagined they would end up traveling the world with someone they met in a backpacker’s bar in Laos. But that’s what happened! Follow them as well on Instagram

Three Golden Rules of Travel in Dubai

By Mel of Footsteps on the Globe

dubai desert

Dubai is an exciting and glamorous place to spend some quality sunny holiday time. Less than 50 years it was a small fishing village on the edge of a desert, now it is one of the fastest growing cities in the world breaking world records for the tallest building, the biggest mall and the fastest roller coaster. But at its heart it is still a traditional and highly religious place so travellers take note not to offend any local people with these three golden rules.

Couples, don’t be over affectionate in public. In recent years there have been some horror stories coming out of Dubai about public displays of affection gone too far, resulting in the couple in question swiftly being asked to leave the country. The social codes are not as strict as they are in the other Emirates such as Sharjah however the rules still apply. Be respectful and aware of your surroundings. A peck on the cheek and loose hand hold are generally fine when out in public but be conscious of who is around you and whether it really is appropriate.

Dress appropriately. This goes for everyone however particularly for the ladies, be mindful of what you wear out in public. As a general rule, women should have their legs and shoulders covered and men should always wear a shirt or t-shirt. Although the most liberal of the Emirates, Dubai is still in a Muslim country and therefore anything short or low cut in public is a big no no. If you’re heading out for the night and are a little dressier, take a scarf or a pashmina with you just in case.

Don’t eat or drink in public during daylight hours in Ramadan. During the holy month of Ramadan you cannot eat, drink, chew gum, or smoke in public during the day. Nothing is permitted to pass through your lips between sunrise and sunset during this month, and foreigners must abide by Ramadan in public areas in which time locals fast during daylight hours for 29-30 days. The beginning and end of Ramadan is dictated by the Islamic Calendar but usually falls between June and July every year so make sure to check dates before booking your flights if you’d rather not travel during this time.

Mel, of Footsteps on the Globe is a British travel blogger who loves nothing more than immersing herself in different cultures and exploring new places. She shares her latest adventures, travel inspiration as well as tips and tricks on how to make your money and holiday allowance go further. Follow her on Instagram as well!

Finding Your Southern Charm in the USA

By Jennifer of Made All The Difference

southern usa

Don’t call a Southerner a Yankee.  It doesn’t matter that during the Revolutionary War all Americans were Yankees.  To a Southerner, a Yankee is from the North.  Be prepare to run should you call a Southerner a Yankee.

Order an unsweetened iced tea.  Iced tea is meant to have sugar in it.  It is impossible to get the proper ratio of sugar to water without dissolving the sugar with boiling water.

Do not try and tell Southerners that Bourbon Whiskey and Tennessee Whiskey are the same thing.  They are different and we don’t want to hear why you mistakenly believe they are the same thing.

Don’t assume we only like country music.  The south is the birthplace of much of the USA music scene.  From rock and roll to jazz, the South helped develop the music and provide many of the founding stats.  Do not forget that the “King of Rock and Roll” was a good ole boy from Tupelo, Mississippi.

Jennifer, of Made All The Difference, is a young American female who dreamed of moving away from her small town in Tennessee and getting to see the world.  She is travelling the world for work and using her free time to explore.

The Dos & Don’ts Down Under

By Vera of The Flash Window

Australia customs

Do not be too affectionate. This might not come as a surprise as Australia has always received a big influence from both the United States and Great Britain, and neither they’re famous for that. So, when you meet somebody, they will barely give you a handshake, if not only a little tilt with their head in order to ‘acknowledge each other presence’. Don’t even go to the two kisses as in Spain or three as in France, especially if it’s the first time you meet someone. And don’t even think about hugs. DON’T. You might be sent some awkward looks. This fact of course may be different for every Australian, and you might run into a big hugger, but just remember to be careful not to cross the line too soon.

Although not being strictly a costume to break, it’s essential to know that they drive on the left side in Australia – AKA the wrong side. Besides keeping to the left side while driving, keep this fact in mind when you are a pedestrian too. If you come from a right-driving country do remember that if you are walking through a busy street, you shall go to the left in order to keep two ordered tracks. If you cross with somebody who is going the opposite way, you are meant to move over to the left (on so does he/she) so you both don’t bump. If you are using the mechanical stairs, you shall take the ones in the left –or otherwise you won’t be going up. And before crossing any street, do remember to look to the other side your common sense tells you to. You’ll thank me later.

Do not break the rules. Ok, don’t never break the rules, but especially if you are in Australia. They are not there to play around. When they tell you they are closing at 5pm, they are. When they tell you not to cross, don’t. And do not try to push those boundaries. There aren’t many rules but it is essential to follow those few.

Extra: don’t mess around with football. If they say football – or footy – they mean Australian football. Soccer and American Football are two completely different things. And Australians love their sports, so you better get this fact straight from the beginning or they won’t hang around trying to explain it.

So you see, there aren’t many weird traditions you shouldn’t be breaking when you are Down Under, as most Australians come from various backgrounds and they’re pretty open to every culture. But please, remember to make sure you follow the few costumes they have or otherwise they could get pissed off.

Vera, of The Flash Window, is a curious girl who was born in Barcelona, yet she considers herself yo be a citizen of the world. Her biggest passion is to travel to awesome places and discover incredible things along her way. Follow her on Instagram as well!

 

Have you ever travelled to a new country only to be confused by certain customs and practices? Walked the roads of a new city uncertain as to how you should behave? Every country has its own customs, standards of behaviour and taboos and often times they remain undiscovered until those practices are breached. Amidst questioning looks, confused stares and, sometimes even, expressions of angry disbelief, a traveller learns fast what is not acceptable in the places they visit.

Getting Lost in the Customs of Malaysia

Malaysia travel

Malaysia is no different. Quickly becoming one of the hottest and most popular travel destinations, it is a multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic country rich in variety of foods, traditions, and history.

With a core society of indigenous Malay, Indian and Chinese, the culture of Malaysia has also found influence from other areas of the world, from Britain to Persia, Europe to the Arabic nations. With so much diversity it can get confusing for a traveller to know exactly what customs to follow.

Before we first visited Malaysia, we had heard tons of ‘dos and don’ts’ from fellow travellers and we supplemented that with lots of research on the issue ourselves. While we didn’t notice all of these rules in play, possibly because we spent most of our time in the tourist-friendly Georgetown, Penang, we definitely were aware of some stark differences in practices between our own culture and that of the people in Malaysia. We’re sure if we had stayed longer, we may have noticed an even more stark contrast.

If you’re looking to make sure you don’t breach any behavioural rules while visiting Malaysia, the following will give you a good idea of what not to do in Malaysia.

Be Aware of Gestures Considered Rude or Obscene

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Gestures are a difficult thing to control as they often come automatically. When in Malaysia, it’s good to avoid a few gestures that are not acceptable in Malaysia but may be commonly acceptable in other parts of the world.

For instance, the head is considered the most sacred part of the body and as such, should be respected. Touching the head of an adult or passing an object above someone’s head is considered rude and disrespectful.

While common in a lot of western cultures, using the forefinger to point is seen as a rude in Malaysia and instead, make a fist with your thumb over top the fingers and point using the thumb as the directional guide. We noticed about half of the people would point with their finger and the rest with their thumb over fingers. We’ve also found that in many places “pointing in a direction” with your whole hand open-palm, works very well.

Pounding your fist into the palm of your other hand is an obscene gesture to some people in Malaysia and should also be avoided.

Take Into Account Gender-Based Considerations

hand-819279_1280

An important consideration in many places is the difference in acceptable behaviour from, and between, men and women. In Malaysia, men and women should avoid embracing and kissing in public. Public behaviour and image is incredibly important and public displays of affection are not considered appropriate.

Women should also take care in the beachwear they choose. Topless sunbathing is not allowed and while some tourist areas allow bikinis, many Malay women will swim fully clothed.

Interaction between unfamiliar men and women also comes with taboos. Don’t be offended if a member of the opposite sex does not return an extended hand for a handshake. In Muslim culture, physical contact between members of the opposite sex is not encouraged and may not be reciprocated. If you are a man, wait for the woman to offer her hand first. With a country as diverse in culture as Malaysia, it’s not always easy to identify what beliefs a particular person holds.

Interestingly, it is also important that a woman never touch a monk, even accidentally brushing past, or hand a monk something as they are then required to fast and perform a ritual cleansing.

Remember Table Manners and Guest Etiquette

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Table manners and guest etiquette change significantly from country to country, and even sometimes city to city. What you have been told as a child may not always apply to another country or culture. In Malaysia, there are several important rules to remember when acting as a guest.

You may be used to showing signs of embarrassment when burping as it is often considered rude to do so in public in many Western countries, but in Malaysia burping after a meal is typically acceptable and a regular part of dining etiquette. On the flipside, wearing your shoes upon entering someone’s home, a mosque or a temple is a definite faux-pas. Remove your shoes before entering a house or place of worship as a sign of respect.

A related custom is ensuring the soles of your feet do not point at people or sacred images. When in public, ensure that your feet are facing towards the ground and are not propped up exposing the soles to others.

In Malaysia, there are apparently fairly strict customs for using your hands to eat. Always eat with your right hand, even if you are left-handed, as the left hand in Malaysian culture is usually reserved for bathroom-related behaviours. If you are left handed and cannot get used to the right-handed way, ask for utensils.

 

While there are more customs, traditions and taboos to be encountered in Malaysia, these are some common and more relevant behavioural rules to take into consideration while visiting the country. As a traveller it’s hard to know all the ins and outs of a culture, especially one as diverse and multi-ethnic as Malaysia, but taking time to learn the dos and don’ts, and making an effort to incorporate them while travelling, can make a huge difference in the way in which you are able to interact with the locals you meet and the impression you leave as you go.

 

Have you noticed any of these customs while in Malaysia? What other customs and practices have you noticed differ from your own culture while travelling abroad? Comment below and let us know!

 

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Okay, so it may not be the number one thing you need to know, but we feel it’s a pretty good thing to find out about before you get there!

When we first got to Taipei, we endeavoured to meet new people and really get a sense of Taiwan – the food, the culture, the hidden local secrets – and we did meet quite a few people in the first week who showed us around, pointed us in the direction of restaurants with amazing food and told us about some local hot-spots. But no one ever mentioned a lottery. The second week in Taipei we met up with a couple from the US who had been teaching English in Taiwan but had decided they would head back home after travelling a bit. We were fortunate enough to catch them on their last day in Taiwan and they invited us along on a hike. What we didn’t know is that they would provide us with the one piece of information that we (or at least Carolann) think should have been the first thing anyone told us upon arrival in Taiwan:

There’s a lottery in Taiwan… and it’s free!

BUT you have to save your receipts!! We discovered that each receipt issued contains a set of numbers at the top which are part of a country-wide lottery. The number is valid for the months also listed on the receipt and the draws occur for every two-month time frame. So, for us, the receipts we collected while there in January and February are all part of the same lottery with the numbers to be chosen on the 25th of the following month – March.

Known as the Uniform Invoice Award this bi-monthly lottery was put into place to encourage establishments to register with the government and make legal tax claims. It is an incentive for the customers to shop and dine at places that provide these receipts and thus an incentive for these establishments to register. After all, those 8-digits on the top of each receipt can win you up to 10 million NT (approximately $400,000CDN ) so it’s definitely motivation to frequent establishments that issue these “legal” receipts. Fortunate for us, foreigners are able to participate as well!

This might explain why most tellers are persistent, and consistent, in giving you your receipt.

We would estimate that around 85% of the places we ate or shopped at issued the receipts. In total, excluding the first week we were in Taipei (we threw away receipts because we didn’t know) we collected 167 of them.

That’s 167 lottery tickets for buying things we needed anyway! And that doesn’t include our receipts for our time spent in March.

How The Uniform Invoice Lottery Works

Taiwan lottery receipt

In total, 5 numbers are drawn. One 8-digit special prize draw for 10 million NT, one 8-digit grand prize draw for 2 million NT (about $80,000CDN), and three 8-digit numbers for the remainder of the prizes. For the three remaining 8-digit numbers you need to match the last 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8 digits to claim a prize from 200NT (about $8CDN) to 200,000 NT (about $8000 CDN).

There are also three 3-digit bonus numbers and if you match these to the last three digits of any of your receipts, you win 200NT. It’s a bit confusing but once you have your receipts and see the outline of the prizes, it becomes much clearer.

The only downside for us was having to collect and carry all of the receipts wherever we went. We even had to bring them to Japan as the draw was not held until recently and we will now be carrying our March receipts until May 25 when the next draw is held.

So, you may be asking, did we win? We did win 200NT but it would need to have been a hefty sum for us to go back to Taiwan to claim the prize! It was still fun to hope for more, and hey, there’s still the lottery tickets – er receipts – from March!!

 

You Can Do It Too!

It may seem a bit daunting to have to go through so many numbers to check if you’ve won but it really isn’t so bad. You just have to start by checking the last three digits of your receipts and work backwards from there. 

 For example, the three main 8-digit numbers for Jan and Feb were 63856949, 39459262, and 61944942. Matching the last three digits – 949, 262 or 942 – would win you 200NT; matching the last four digits – 6949, 9262 and 4942 – will win you 1000NT and so on. 

If you’re looking to collect receipts, you’ll want to be aware of which places issue these “legal receipts” and collect them as you go.

Winning numbers will be posted on the Ministry of Finance, ROC, website on the 25th day of every odd numbered month. The draw is for the previous two months receipts and each receipt contains the lottery number as well as the months for which the number is valid (e.g. 01-02) for your reference.

Tip: We created an Excel spreadsheet with all the receipt numbers we got as we went along and kept the receipts bundled together. We were then able to simply search for each of the prize numbers (last three digits first) to see if they matched any of ours. We’ve set one up for our March receipts as well. It may take away from the fun of checking each receipt, but we really don’t have the time to do so and, as long as we typed the numbers in correctly, we’ve created a quick check for any winning receipts.

 

What do you think of the lottery? Comment below and let us know! Is this something more countries should implement to increase legal taxing and accurate tax claims?

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Our First Scuba Experience with 8 Tips We Gathered For Beginners

Banner Fish Koh Tao

18m deep. Colder than the rest. The only sounds are your steady breath in and out through the regulator and a tapping sound from a nearby fish pecking at coral. Visibility is much less now but you can still see large schools of fish circling above and many others swimming calmly around you. The anemones, coral, and Christmas tree worms present a beautiful, waving display on the ocean floor below even though some of the colour is lost at this depth. Finding a clearing of sand, you finally stop and kneel at the bottom of the ocean.

You look down at your depth gauge and then up towards the surface and realize just how deep you are; the surface seemingly further in reality than any number on a gauge could ever suggest. At that moment it’s as if your mind has decided to depart from your body and head up to the surface, but you swiftly catch it and bring it back. 

Moving through the water now, concentrating on your breathing and the amazing marine life around you, you start worrying that your air pressure is lowering and you’ll have to end your dive and surface soon. You don’t want to. You never knew how awe-inspiring it was, never knew what was truly under the sea. But now you do. Now you see. Now you want more.

Scuba Diving in Koh Tao Wasn’t Part of Our Itinerary

learning to scuba dive

While scuba diving isn’t for everyone, we found it to be an absolutely incredible experience. It was a chance to explore a world unseen by most and we relished having that opportunity.  Until we made our first dive, we had no idea what we were missing.  Of course we had heard what people would say about scuba diving: “It’s amazing!” “ You have to try it!” “It’s so addictive!”. We heard what they were saying, but we never believed the hype. Now we realize that these people, crazy about scuba diving, were right. We’ve become one of those people.

Believe us when we say it is an unforgettable and truly amazing experience and one we hadn’t planned. While visiting Koh Tao, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand, we ended up walking past Scuba Shack and a sign advertising their options for scuba diving and certification. We hadn’t given it much thought and weren’t sure if we wanted to dive, but we opted to get some information anyways. After all, we were told that Koh Tao is the place for diving and diving certification and since our anniversary was coming up we thought it may be a great way to celebrate even though the voters had not chosen Koh Tao as our anniversary island in our poll. So changing our plans a little, we decided on Koh Tao and diving for our second anniversary celebration

Finding The Right Dive Shop For The Job

scuba-shack-logo

Walking up to the large, wrap-around patio of the small dive shop just metres from the beach, we noticed people were milling about, sitting and chatting, most with smiles on their faces. We found the people at Scuba Shack to be very informative and helpful and discovered that a portion of those on the porch were students who were invited to stay and drink water, or tea and relax after their dives.

scuba diving equipment check

After a thorough rundown of their dive packages and courses, followed by a couple of hours to explore our options and soak it all in, we decided to take the open water diving certification course and since we felt most at ease with Scuba Shack, we headed back to book our course. We felt this was a great option to take should we want to go diving in the future as the certification would allow us to go on our own and dive as deep as 18 meters.

While this is the first and most basic course available, there are many others that we can upgrade to in the future, like wreck diving, night diving, navigation and deep dives of 30m.

Scuba Diving: An Experience Like No Other

scuba diving gear

We were incredibly lucky. Not only were we impressed with Scuba Shack itself but our instructor, James, was awesome. Friendly, funny, professional and incredibly knowledgeable, he eased any qualms we had and was just generally a great guy to be learning from and leading our team.

Our ‘in-class’ training was conducted with another soon-to-be diver from Holland and covered everything from safety to equipment to techniques while under the water. Once that was completed we moved to a contained dive where we practiced the essentials of diving but in shallow water.

learning to scuba dive koh tao

Learning to empty our goggles of water once we were submerged was probably the most difficult. It’s a weird feeling once you start breathing with a regulator underwater to then remove your mask. It’s like your mind says “since your breathing you might as well do it with your nose!” Meanwhile your instincts are screaming for you to hold your breath and your brain is reminding you that the worst thing you can do is stop breathing through that regulator.

scuba dive team

The contained dive was where we built a bit of confidence and worked on our skills in preparation for the real dives the following day  It was during the dives that we were especially thankful for James’ experience, knowledge and even humour as all of us were a little bit nervous, and a little bit unsure, of what to expect and how we would react.

Taking That First Dive

learning how to scuba dive

Our dive team was joined by an American who had completed the written portion back home and was looking to finish his certification. With two pairs of dive buddies and James leading the way, our first descent was filled with anxiety (at least for some of us) and anticipation.

scuba diving team

There really is no way to describe those first few metres. we descended that first time with the assistance of a rope. The frayed, moss-encrusted hovering piece of entwined rope strands were the only visible thing, besides our fellow divers, as we slowly dropped down through the water. During this portion of the descent was where we discovered a slight disorientation may occur.  With no visibility to what’s below, it becomes an eerie float downward, several moments of uncertainty and relative internal disquiet.

scuba diving certification

On that first dive, when James told us to let go of the rope and follow him, we’re pretty sure we all hesitated but once we gave ourselves over to the moment and the water around us, we instantly fell into a trance, a kind of meditation. The constant worry about breathing washed away, our sense of sight overwhelmed the rest, and the ocean had us so relaxed the only thing we could do was enjoy what it had to offer.

scuba diving in koh tao thailand

That first dive was without any tests or practice of techniques and allowed us to get comfortable with swimming at such depths, maneuvering among the coral, fish and other underwater creatures (such as the nudibranch) and working with our buddies. In the end, that first dive also allowed us to fall in love with scuba diving itself.

We were fortunate to have someone from Fat Fish Movies (hey Charlie!) videotape one of our dives! Watch ours below:

 

We’ve put together a photo tour of our second dive with Charlie from Fat Fish Movies who documented it all in photos this time!! You can also check out some more amazing videos from Charlie and the team at Fat Fish Movies’ YouTube page. The box jelly fish one is particularly interesting to us since we were on the dive in which that was shot!! Yup, we swam with some box jelly fish unbeknownst to us the possible danger and the fact that we were swimming with one of the world’s deadliest creatures!

Now that we’re certified we are constantly keeping our eyes and ears open for great diving spots. We’ve already made a trip to Key West, but we hope to go back and add one more – scuba diving at the reef! With so many places to visit, we’re excited to be able to expand our adventures to the incredible unseen world underwater.

8 Tips For Those Considering Scuba Diving For The First Time

Learning to scuba dive in koh tao certification

We’ve put together a list of 8 tips for those who are considering scuba diving for the first time. If you’re looking for a spot like Scuba Shack to learn to dive, or if you haven’t gone diving for a while, we think these tips will help put your mind at ease and help you get the most out of your diving experience:

 scuba shack koh tao thailand

1. Do research to choose a good diving school. Make sure the group is small and that they are PADI or SIS certified. Even though they were the first dive shop we talked to, we were so comfortable and at ease with Scuba Shack that, although we looked around and did our research, there was really no better option for us. They were professional, had good quality equipment, knowledgeable instructors who were actually pretty fun to spend time with and came with a recommendation. Ask around and do your research.

2. Do not dive past your certification. It’s dangerous to dive without the right training, so if you want to dive in that cave or through a ship wreck to try and find some treasure, get certified first. Along with this, do not dive without certification or without going through a well-researched (see tip #1) dive shop for a fun dive (A dive with an introduction to the equipment, techniques and safety but with no certification)

scuba diving buddy teams

3. Value the Buddy System. We are fortunate in that we were able to learn together and thus develop our “buddy skills” together. It became another type of partnership as the responsibility for your partner and their safety is ever-present 18 meters below the surface. Always dive with a buddy, make sure they are doing okay throughout the dive and remember to ask where their air supply is at, once every 5-10 minutes. (Carolann obsessively asked Macrae this question about 30 times in a 45 min dive). With deeper dives and as air gets lower, ask them a little more often.

4. It’s normal to feel nervous before your first dive. In fact, several of us on the boat  were nervous for all of our open water certification dives. It can be helpful to know you are not alone in those worries and fortunately with an instructor like James, our minds were put at ease fairly easily.

learning to scuba dive

5. Some things don’t come naturally or easily. Clearing your goggles of water when submerged or equalizing your ear pressure is not always easy but that’s why there are contained dives to practice and drills throughout the regular dives. It may feel repetitious but it definitely helps in making them feel more natural. It’s a good idea to practice or brush-up on things like clearing your goggles and switching from regulator to snorkel to breath at the surface if you’ve been away from diving for some time.

6. It’s okay to take your time, to equalize, calm down.  Your instructor will wait, no one will mind, and in fact chances are someone else is thankful for a bit of a break. Don’t feel compelled to keep up as you have a buddy to stick with you and an instructor who should be patient. The pace is so much slower then you would think so taking your time is generally not an issue.

Scuba shack boat

7. Hiring a photographer/videographer is worth it! If you don’t mind the extra cost, and are able, hiring someone to take video footage and photos with you on your dive leaves you with an incredible documentation of your time under the water. We were fortunate to have someone from Fat Fish Movies dive with us and take some incredible photos of one of our dives. The video found earlier in this post was also taken by them on the previous dive.

8. Remember to have fun!! This is perhaps the most important point but one that is hard not to do once you are amidst the aquatic life below. The time goes by faster than you expect so enjoy!!

Comment below and let us know what locations are your favourite for scuba diving. Or, if you’ve never been, where would you want to start?

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We are not wine connoisseurs by any means of the word. Before this year, the extent of our knowledge of wines was that they were either red, white or rosé. In fact, I’m pretty sure if you asked us, we wouldn’t have even been able to tell you where our corkscrew was located.  Having said that, we were still interested in the idea of wine tasting, so when an opportunity to go on a wine tour came up we were eager to see what it was all about. Since then, we’ve attended a second wine and food tasting since and have kept this type of event on our list of things to do when we get the chance. We still don’t drink wine that often but we enjoy the experience of touring wine country and learning about new things.

The following is our list of 9 things we think are important to know when planning to go on a wine tasting or tour for the first time.

1. You don’t need to be a connoisseur

As novice wine tasters we’ve learned quite a few things about taking a wine tasting tour in just a few visits. We feel the most important thing to remember is that you don’t have to be an expert on wine in order to enjoy what wineries have to offer. It’s a great activity to do together or as a group and something different from the typical choice of outings.  Even if you aren’t a big fan of wine you can find something you may enjoy, learn things, and have a good time.

2. Plan transportation wisely

There are a variety of different transportation methods to get to, and around, wineries in different countries.  Whether you are planning on a one stop visit, or a tour of different wineries, make sure you have planned for a designated driver, whether it be a member of your group, a bus, a limo, etc. Some regions offer group tours pre-arranged with transportation varying from bicycles to buses to travel on foot. No matter what you choose, drinking and driving should never mix, and when taking a wine tasting tour, it’s good to plan this aspect well in advance.  It’s also good to note that some events in wineries provide an option of non-drinker passes.  Cheaper than a regular pass, these will offer admission to the particular event and the ability to participate in any additional activities, such as food pairings.

3. Plan to be there for lunch

Trius Winery Lunch

Trius Winery Restaurant

This is something we don’t think you will regret. We dined at Trius Winery on Niagara-on-the-lake (see the photo above) on our first visit and had an amazing fixed price, three course lunch. Many wineries and wine regions establish themselves as culinary experts as well and often have award-winning restaurants on site. You can usually try chef-paired wines with your meal and take your tasting to the next level. Combined food and wine events and tours are also a great way to satisfy both the foodie and the wine connoisseur within.

4. Keep moving; experience as many as you can

If this is a rare occasion for you, it may be a good idea to try a few different wineries out to get a feel for the difference in flavours between the different wines and wineries. On our second trip to a wine tasting, we went to “Sip & Sizzle” in the Niagara-On-The-Lake region which gave us a pass to 25 different wineries pairing a particular wine with a BBQ themed tapas style plate. We tried not to linger and managed to get to 20 different wineries that particular visit. Twenty was probably a lot, but managing to visit more than one may be worthwhile if you are not sure exactly what types of wines you enjoy or have not had too much exposure to the varieties.

5. Sipping vs. drinking

It’s called a wine tasting which means you are not obligated to drink the entire amount they pour. In fact, every winery we’ve been to has provided spittoons so you don’t have to actually drink any wine, or you can just have a sip and decide if you want the rest or are done with the glass. If you are with others who do enjoy the drinking experience,  you can always hand your sample to them. This is handy if you are the designated driver as you can have a taste here or there if desired. We usually made sure to stick around for a bit at the wineries where our DD did have a sip, even though it was only a taste. The key is to enjoy the experience so how much you drink is up to to. Just remember to stay safe and, like any other drinking situation, be conscious of your surroundings, your consumption, and your transportation methods.

6. Ask questions; it’s a good chance to learn a lot

The sommoliers at the wineries love talking about their wines and their vineyards. Their passion is evident as they explain the differences in varieties, flavours, soils, grapes and all aspects of the wine making process. We were quite surprised to learn that there is a vast amount involved in growing grapes and making wine and a number of factors that affect both such as harvesting times, climates and regions, additives during the fermentation process and much, much more. Since we are not huge wine drinkers, asking questions and taking an interest in the process adds to the overall experience for us and has helped us to enjoy wine more in general. Whether you are a connoisseur or a novice, there is always something to learn.

7. It’s not just a summer thing

Wine & Wine Glasses

Our first time at a wine tasting was in the middle of winter. It was cold, there was snow on the ground and the vineyards looked barren, but there was beauty in the scenery and every winery on our stop was an inviting and comfortable escape from the cold, each offering their own ambiance and character. It was something fun to do and what we learned was that wine is wine, whatever the season. Obviously the wine making process differs throughout the year and for each type of wine, but for us, if we’re tasting a 2010 Riesling from one winery in March or in July, we’ll probably have the same feelings about it. At least with our limited exposure to wines we found this to be our experience.  Regardless of the time of year, it’s still a fun experience.

8. Map it out, but don’t be too strict

If you plan to visit more than one winery in a particular region, make sure to have a plan of attack. Niagara-on-the-lake has many wineries and since we had a pass, we wanted to optimize our time and our experience so we made a tentative plan to reach the wineries with the wine samples we knew we wanted to taste and went from there. Be sure to be flexible however, since once you start tasting wines you may learn you like different types than you expected. We also met other tasters at each winery that gave us recommendations. Overall, you may not need a plan but it definitely helps, especially when you purchase passes or attend multi-winery events, to make sure you reach the places you know you’ll enjoy the most.

9. Keep your eyes open for passes and events

Speaking of passes and events, many wine regions have events which offer reasonably priced passes that allow you to visit multiple wineries in the same time frame. This allows you to try different wines, to learn more about what you like and to try new varieties. Often, these events have added bonuses, such as food themed pairings, that turn the wine tasting into a truly entertaining events.

We’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below and tell us about some of your greatest wine tasting experiences. What’s your favourite wine region to visit?

 

YOU CAN DO IT TOO!!

If you are interested in a wine tasting or tour, check the links below for a limited list of wine regions around the world. Don’t forget to look for events! Also, let us know if we’re missing a link to a great wine region and we’ll add it!

Australia

Australia

Canada:

Niagara on the lake

British Columbia

Nova Scotia

France:

France

Italy:

Tuscany

South Africa:

Cape Winelands

U.S.A:

Napa Valley, CA

Oregon

North Carolina

Connecticut

 

 

With only a little more than half of the summer season left, the panic has started to set in.  The dread of the imminent winter season starts to fall upon us well before it realistically should. Especially for those of us farther North from the equator, we know we have precious time to enjoy the warm weather and when we feel as though time is slipping away, we scramble to soak in as much sun and outdoor activity as possible. As a couple, the fear of missing out on spending quality time engaged in different activities than the norm is also present.  The warm weather brings a host of opportunities for couples that are not available at other times of the year and these can freshen up the normal date night plans.

Summer Sky

If you are feeling as though you have not explored every opportunity the warm months offer or if you are looking for different summer activities as a couple, don’t worry there is still time. The following are five summertime date ideas that we personally enjoy:

1. The Drive-In

Drive_In Photo

This is one of our favourite date night activities. The drive-in is a social activity meets quality alone time. Whether you bring lawn chairs, sit in your car, or open your hatch (if you have one) and recline back with blankets, the options are plenty.  Whatever you choose, the price is usually great, more than one movie is shown, and you get a change of scenery from your typical movie viewing location – the movie theatre or your couch.  Although drive-ins are not as popular as they once were, there are still many remaining in North America and Australia and there are a few in Europe and Asia.  If you are looking for one in your area or the area you are travelling, check out www.drive-ins.com for a list of drive-ins around the world and whether they are still open. Many places around the world also have outdoor movie screenings. For example, Venice has a popular outdoor cinema in Campo San Polo showing current films for the public. These are great changes to the typical date routine and loads of fun.

2. Farmer’s Markets

Farmer’s markets seem to be springing up everywhere. Ranging in size, these markets provide a central location to purchase fresh, locally grown produce to support your local farms.  Going to one as a couple can be a fun date activity and a unique way to cross off items on your weekly grocery list. Jams, baked goods and produce are just some of the main items to be found. Recently, we stopped at a market and purchased some of the freshest and sweetest strawberries we had tasted in years. We have a great time perusing the tables together and deciding on which items we’d like to buy and we often think of dinner ideas we can make together and purchase the fruits and veggies needed. Farmer’s markets typically have set times and days of the week so be sure to check before you go and if you aren’t too concerned about missing out on a particular item, going just before closing gives you the possibility of reduced prices as vendors attempt to sell-off what is left.

3. Festivals

Asian Festival

These events can be a great opportunity to experience new foods, music and cultures as a couple and while you’ll typically hear about main festivals, larger cities often have so many festivals that some are easily missed.  Trying different foods or those you already know you enjoy, listening to the music and sounds of the activity around you and sharing the day together creates a great shared experience and an escape from the everyday. We enjoy attending different cultural festivals to learn more about different countries and cultures until we get the chance to visit those countries ourselves. Don’t forget to look into smaller towns and communities as they will often have unique festivals or smaller versions of those you’d find in the city-centres.

4. Picnics

Picnics, while cliché, are a really romantic and simple way to spend time together. Whether it’s in your own backyard or in a private area with a pretty view, you can take a picnic pretty much anywhere you want and it’s perfect for enjoying the summer weather. If your significant other has an issue with bugs (notice we didn’t specify a gender) you can always bring lawn chairs instead of a blanket and keep yourselves a little further from the critters on the ground. Typical foods that come to mind when thinking of a picnic include fried chicken, potato salads, sandwiches, and coleslaw and while these are wonderful for keeping things simple, you can make an extra special picnic date by stepping up the food selection. Instead of simple fare, you may want to prepare a fancier meal such as spinach and artichoke dip with flat bread and precooked meat skewers with a spinach, strawberry and toasted almond salad. Whatever the food and wherever the location, picnics are wonderful ways to enjoy the sun with your significant other.

5. Nature Walks/Hikes

Nature Hike

Exploring new places is one of our favourite things to do as a couple and taking walks is a great way to check out new areas and enjoy the summer flora and fauna. Taking a nature walk or hike also gives you an added bump to those endorphins, leaving you both in a better mood and this type of activity really helps you to focus on the moment as you take in your surroundings. As a couple, nature hikes allow you to spend some dedicated, uninterrupted time together. Protected parks and nature reserves will typically have great walking and hiking trails that will offer a wide range of plants and animals to see, but be sure to remember that many have entrance fees.

While it’s been our goal for a long time now to travel the world, we knew it would take some time to build a stable foundation for us to do so. Part of that was building our savings.

For months we struggled with finding a good way to manage our finances. We used spreadsheets and formulas, charts and white boards and finally we decided we just wouldn’t budget our spending anymore. One month later we went through our saved receipts and realized we had spent a ridiculous amount of money (mostly on dining out) and that we failed to save any significant amount.

With both of us determined to travel more, we knew this wasn’t going to work and opted for a budgeting method we had both heard of many years ago: budget jars.

How We’ve Set Up Our Jars

We were initially introduced to the jar system while watching “Til Debt Do us Part”. Gail Vaz-Oxlade showed couples how to use jars to divide up monies budgeted to each expense. (if you are interested in learning more about her method and some tips on dividing up your budget click here for her website).

With this idea in mind, we set about creating our own jars system. Since we had been tracking our expenses, prior to our month of free-spending, we had an idea of how much we were putting towards various expenditures. We also, obviously, knew the cost of our fixed expenses like car payments, rent and utilities, cable and internet.

As a couple we set a monthly budget for:

1. Transportation – e.g. gas, taxis, subway rides, train rides

2. Entertainment – e.g. dining out, shows, sporting games, etc

3. Clothes and gifts – e.g. family gifts

4. Groceries – e.g. food and household needs

5. Other – emergency fund, household projects, etc

Since we both have separate bank accounts, we decided not to pool all the remaining money from our pay together, but instead determined a monthly budget for each expense and deemed whatever was left in each of our bank accounts to be savings for that individual.

We use our own savings to purchase personal toiletries. Each of us now pays into the jar after each payday and we use the jars to hold our cash and our receipts. It hasn’t been easy to adjust to but we have definitely seen results.

So You Want To Budget?

The following are some of our helpful hints if you are planning to try the budget jar method:

1. Be consistent with your jar deposits.

We are both paid biweekly so while we have budgeted monthly, we deposit half of that each payday. Whether you choose to put money in each week, or each month, be consistent and don’t let too much time pass or it will be tough to catch up and reconcile your spending.

2. Get used to paying with cash.

We are often in the habit of using debit or credit to make payments but it is easiest to use the cash in the jars to maintain your budget and it takes time to get used to pulling out money prior to leaving the house. If you really can’t bring yourself to do this, or you have a great rewards program you want to take advantage of on a card, make sure you sub your receipt for the cash in the jars ASAP.

3. Modify as you go.

You may think you’ve worked out the best budget for each expense, but spending through the jar method often leads to some unexpected lessons about your spending habits. Don’t be afraid to modify your budget once you identify areas you can decrease or need to increase. We learned we needed to add more to our groceries budget and decrease our entertainment budget.  This also forced us to focus on smarter purchasing and eating patterns which was another lifestyle change in itself.

4. Budget your budget.

Just because it’s in the jar, doesn’t mean you have to use it.  If you have extra entertainment money left over, don’t feel obligated to use it.  The money is there if you need it but it shouldn’t be a requirement.

receipts

5. Plan an exciting goal for your savings.

To help with number 4, decide how you will allocate the remaining money at the end of the month. Make it something you can look forward to and/or something that’s tangible and you can actually see come to fruition.We decided to split ours 50/50 between a travel fund and our online business.

Whether it is watching a savings account grow, saving for a trip or using that money to invest, make it something you can be excited about so you strive to keep some money in those jars.

6. Have change available.

This is a big one that we didn’t learn until well into the second month. If you do not plan to take the money in the jars with you, it is advisable to have change available so that you can produce the exact amount required when cashing in the receipt for the money spent.  This eliminates frustrations with what should be a fairly simple process.

7. Personal allowances are important.

With the expenses we defined, it didn’t leave us too much room for indulging in both of our personal vices – McDonald’s iced coffee. Instead of depriving ourselves of our fix, we used our own savings and gave a weekly budget for things like iced coffees.

8.  Take the jars on the go.

You can use this method even while travelling by converting the jars into envelopes. Even if you change the expense categories, combining efforts and keeping tabs on your spending will help save money and make you aware of how you spend it.

No matter how you choose to create your budget, having a good line of sight to your expenditures is key to staying out of debt, building your savings and investing in the future. We are putting the money we saved in the jars towards our travel plans for the year and are planning to use many of the tips and tricks we mentioned above in order to stay on budget while we travel.

Update: With our savings, a lot coming from our budget jar method, we’ve packed up and shipped out! This was a great method for us to save money and we’re constantly thinking of ways for us to implement it during our full-time travels.

Do you budget your expenses? What methods do you use/have found to work? Comment below and let us know!

 

Want to save this for later? Or share with others? In addition to the above images, you can hover on the top left corner of the below pin for the “Pin it” button and share on your Pinterest account!

budget jar method of saving money

 

Most young couples each have roughly 2 weeks’ vacation time per year and while this never seems like enough, there are some ways to maximize your vacation time. One of our favourite ways is taking short road trips which we either take on a long weekend or add a vacation day to one to make it a full four days. Wherever you are in the world, these mini vacations are a great way to maximize the limited vacation days you have available, while still exploring and spending quality time with your significant other. We’ve learned a few things over our travels that help us get the most out of our shorter trips and prevent us from experiencing cabin fever by the end of the drive:

1. Always check your vehicle. Even if you make plans last minute, checking windshield washer fluid, oil and gas levels are essential for a safe and incident free drive. Even with a thorough check, make sure you have a roadside assistance plan, whether it be a CAA/AAA card or the numbers of towing companies in the areas you are travelling through, preparing for car trouble is important. Taking a look at the air in your tires is also a good idea and can sometimes be overlooked in the excitement of impending vacation time. Ensuring the right tire pressure will also help you save gas, which leads us to our second tip.

2. Think of saving money on gas. The lighter you pack your car, the less gas it will need to lug you around, so pack as light as possible.  Other gas saving tips include driving relaxed (accelerating quickly and driving faster both eat at your fuel levels) and using open windows rather than the AC when driving at speeds under 80km/hr (50miles/hr) and rolling up those windows and turning on the AC when going over 80km, if possible (studies have shown that while A/C reduces fuel efficiency, driving over 80km/hr with the windows down increases resistance and fuel efficiency is reduced to a greater extent than having the AC on).  Not only is it good to think of saving on gas but using gas stations that accept points cards are key and it may mean fueling up sooner than you plan if you happen to see the right station.

3. Your vehicle is your living space, start with clean quarters. Make sure your car is clean of unnecessary items and garbage and organize your belongings for efficiency and safety.  Make sure emergency and first aid items, including water and blankets, are present and accessible and keep garbage bags nearby for any waste that accumulates. It may seem silly but keeping organized allows for a more relaxed few days on the road.  You don’t have much time to travel and you don’t want to be wasting it looking for items or cleaning up from stop to stop.

4. Be flexible! As you can tell by our spontaneous road trip to Key West (see 5 Things You Must Do When Travelling to the Keys), we tend not to overthink our travel plans. General plans are good to have. They allow you to stick to your shortened timeline and have a general route of getting to the main places you want to see. But planning too much can cause stress if there are any deviations or obstacles.  Being tied to a rigid schedule does not allow for the amazing unplanned adventures that a road trip often leads us on. In this day and age, cell phones allow us to access a wide range of information, including GPS, but if you are going somewhere where you will not have access to data, or you just want to do some good ol’ fashioned mapping, a CAA/AAA membership gets you free trip ticks showing you maps, restaurants, accommodations and key attractions from your home to your destination, and all the places in between.

5. Relax, road trips are about adventure. On road trips, we always like to just take things as they come. For spontaneous road trips, we have no choice. Either way, expect the unexpected and try to maintain excitement for new experiences. We’ve decided to camp for the night after a long day of driving and all the camp grounds were booked. We’ve even experienced an entire city’s worth of hotels being booked on the same night. Whether it’s your accommodations for the night, an attraction you were looking to see, or a detour you must take, try and maintain a positive outlook and enjoy it for what it is  – and adventure.

Short Road Trips

6. Music! You will be spending a significant amount of time driving and even if you think you’ll be able to chat endlessly with your partner, there will be times when silence will prevail. Whether it’s because you’ve run out of things to talk about, you’re enjoying the scenery, or you are switching off driving duty and it’s someone’s turn to nap, there will be times when some background music would be appreciated. Load up whatever media source you are able to play through your car stereo with music as radio reception is not guaranteed. We decided to get satellite radio to ensure we would have something to listen to no matter where we drive. What we did find was that, just like radio stations, satellite stations can begin to get repetitive when you drive for hours on end and having the option of turning to a talk radio station like a comedy channel was a great break.  This also helps to keep the driver awake and aware if you are taking turns napping.

7. Practice those relationship skills. This is a great time to practice working as a couple. It’s a time where you must work together to plan a general route and decide on stops, random or planned.  Staying cooperative, communicative and patient can be challenging during long periods together in closed quarters but it can definitely be a time that brings you closer together as a couple. And a word to the wise, this would probably not be a great time to bring up each others’ flaws as drivers.

8. Understand your budget and make the most of it. With short road trips it can be easier to budget your trip. If you want to save money, you can bring food and drinks in a cooler and top up the ice whenever needed. If you are looking to spend more on restaurants and the dining experience, you may want to reduce accommodation costs by finding camp sites or sleeping in the car rather than a hotel. Another aspect of your budget to take into account is whether you are looking to spend money on paid-for attractions or enjoy nature and the scenery for free. Whatever your budget is, there are ways to ensure you are getting exactly what you want out of the trip without breaking it.

9. Be realistic. Since you are only going for a short period of time, plan for your final destination to be at the midway point of the trip with plenty of time to return.  If you are the type of people who like to detour and/or make random stops when you see something interesting, set a mid-way date and time when you know you need to turn around, regardless of whether you have made your final destination or not.  It’s okay if you don’t get to see everything you had planned. You can use those missed places as inspiration for your next trip.

10. Be creative. Even though it is a short trip, there are always ways to get more out of it. Go somewhere close but with many different possible stops along the way. Or,  you can plan different routes to and from your destination so you can stop and see different things. You can also make rules for the trip to create more fun, such as always stopping whenever either of you see something in which you are interested. Just because you are taking a short road trip, doesn’t mean you can’t fill it with just as much excitement and adventure as a long one.