Caribbean Islands Visa Requirements for Americans

This is information for each country regarding American visa requirements for all countries in the Caribbean. This is current from the State Department as of September 2016.

Bahamas: No visa required.

Turks and Caicos: No visa for less than 90 days. Visas required for longer stays and is renewable once.

Cuba: Visa required. Initial 30 day stay, renewable once for 30 days. Travel is only permitted for 1 of 12 reasons as listed by the US Government. We are looking for legitimate, reasonably priced Cuban travel operators and will update this page when we have found one we would use.

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Cayman Islands: No visa required.

Jamaica: No visa required.

Haiti: No visa for less than 90 days.

Dominican Republic:  No visa required, but a tourist card ($10) must be purchased before or on arrival. Tourist card covers up to 60 days.

British Virgin Islands: No visa required for less than 30 days.

Bonaire St, Eustatius, and Saba: No visa required for less than 90 days.

St Kitts and Nevis: No visa required for less than 90 days.

Anguilla: No visa required if you can show proof of accommodation, onward ticket (for some point in the future), and proof of funds.

Sint Maarten: No visa required for less than 90 days.

Antigua and Barbuda: No visa required if you can show proof of accommodation, onward ticket (for some point in the future), and proof of funds.

Montserrat: No visa required.

Guadeloupe, Barbados, Martinique (Collectively the French West Indies): No visa required for less than 90 days so long as you can show proof of accommodation, onward ticket and proof of funds.

Dominica: No visa required for less than 180 days (6 months).

St Lucia: No visa required if you can show proof of accommodation, onward ticket (for some point in the future), and proof of funds.

St Vincent and the Grenadines: No visa required.

 

 

24 Hours In: Brussels

Disclaimer: Language. Mostly because I’m into my second glass of wine and feeling passionately about this.

Hottest city I’ve ever been in, which is saying a lot coming from someone who’s lived in America’s armpit (Florida) for three years. The average temperature in Brussels in August is allegedly 22C / 72F. There’s so much bullshit in this claim I could fertilize Texas with it.

It wasn’t 22C. It was 36C (97F for the Americans). Intolerable heat. Not enough water in the city’s free water fountains to cool you off heat. Legs sticking to each other, hair matted to your face, sweat beads racing down the small of your back, kind of heat.

Are you feeling this yet? Here’s another layer of heat. The Airbnb we stayed at had “nature’s” aircon: open the windows, get the breeze, y’all be fine.

Except there wasn’t a breeze. And we weren’t fine. We were staying right in the middle of the pedestrian walkway so exploring on foot was easy. We found city hall and marveled at how old everything was, and got a postcard-perfect shot in front of the Godiva store. We did that for about 2 hours, and then found ourselves in the food district.

The food district is a place to go if you want to be aggressively guided into a restaurant. Don’t dare look at a menu because that’s your way of saying you want to eat there. I don’t remember where we wound up eating, but I do remember day drinking.

We got chatting with our servers whom were all from a country other than Belgium. I appreciated that about the city. We learned the drinking age in Belgium is 14, that it was uncharacteristically hot, and most people speak four languages which is absolutely mind-blowing. We day drank outside and people watched.

Day drinking has a way of leading into a 5 hour nap, which we took, because we were feeling a heat-induced buzz. When we woke up, it was dark, and the sheets and the bed were soaked in sweat. Hair was wet. Pillow cases were wet. The window in our room was like a prison window, a narrow horizontal opening about 6 feet up from our bed, unreachable without standing on tip-toes.

I opened it expecting healthy gusts of wind, and got nothing.

Twenty minutes into sizzling we decided it’d be cooler outside than it was in our abode. So we put new clothes on to instantly sweat in and went out night-drinking. Would you believe it, the temperature dropped to 30C/ 86F. What a fucking relief.

The rest of the night is a blur but it basically ends up at a place called ‘Delirium’ which isn’t just one bar but a  whole row of bars and each bar has its own alcoholic theme: vodka, tequila, huge ass beers, whiskey, and more.

Summary of Brussels: 2 days is enough for it, avoid August, and prepare for liver obliteration at Delirium.

Travel Diary: Thanksgiving in Kosovo

It is a big deal in America for families to get together for Thanksgiving. If people don’t have or don’t like their families, they do a “friendsgiving.” Since our hosts in Kosovo had never experienced this, we decided to cook a full Thanksgiving dinner in friendsgiving fashion and tell our holiday story. Typically the dinner is centered around a turkey, but neither Mark nor I like turkey so we decided to go with ham.

We searched the markets and stores in Prishtina for a ham, and found a lonely ham at the bottom of a cooler in a grocery store. We brought it back home, to our hostel, all proud until someone saw it and politely said “I don’t eat ham.” Unfortunately, we had completely forgotten that we were in Muslim-majority country, and many people don’t eat pork products.

Nonetheless, our hosts were very fun about it. They chalked it up to a cultural exchange and said there’s no better way to understand a people than to devour their food. I couldn’t agree more. So in good faith, Mark woke up early in the day and began dinner preparations.

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Mark made a rosemary ham with cinnamon. The spices available were considerably more limited than either of us had experienced until this point, so it was a very simple recipe, but we got lucky with rosemary and that is really what made this ham absolutely fantastic. (Mark’s made it three times since we’ve been home!)

We had originally planned for 7 people as that was about as much as we thought the ham could feed. But because the aroma of the cooking had filled the entire hostel, other people wanted to hang out and eat food with us instead of going out. And I can’t blame them, the food was irresistible.

thanksgiving ham

 I felt like Jesus feeding the 5,000.  Miraculously, we had food for everyone! Hand-mashed potatoes, vegetables, ham, and handmade cinnamon apples. Mark organized it all and it is definitely one of the more memorable Thanksgiving dinners I have had.

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Left to right: Ardi, Mark, me, Arben (owner), Asdren (owner) and his girlfriend, Yll, and Vernon

Everyone pretty much laughed at the story how our forefathers ate “peacefully” with the Native Americans, but the 80c 2L of beer in the center of the table really washed everything down swimmingly.

A big shout out to our friends at Hostel Han in Pristina for keeping us entertained for over a month! And if you ever need a home base in Kosovo, we recommend this hostel as the only place to stay in the city center. You will come as a traveler and leave as a friend.

Mark and Melody

Visa Requirements of Asia and India for US Citizens

This list is for people traveling independently, without a tour group**, as a tour group will file this paperwork on your behalf. In all cases, assume that passports must be valid at least 6 months after your intended stay.

China (Mainland, excluding Hong Kong and Macau):  Visa required. Visa must be presented upon arrival in China. You must specify your exact entry date and exit date, and do not deviate from this at all. The penalties for overstaying are harsh and you do not want to test them. If you are staying at a hostel / hotel / AirBnb, please ensure you are registered with the police within 24 hours to avoid trouble.

Chinese Visa Application Form and the steps for processing are available here. Apply no earlier than 2 months before your departure. The absolute latest you can apply for a visa is 3 weeks. We recommend you go for the 10 year multi-entry visa, as it makes subsequent visits to China much easier.

India: Visa required. Application must be sent and visa received before you enter India.
Exception: 30 day stay or less, an electronic visa (e-TV visa) can be issued no earlier than 4 days before entry.

India’s eTV Application.

India eTV application
India’s eTV Application

 

Japan: No visa for less than 90 days.

  • Be prepared to show an onward / return ticket or proof of funds. If you have neither, Japanese immigration may deny you entry.

Mongolia: No visa for less than 90 days.

Republic of Korea (South Korea): No visa for less than 90 days.

  • If you are planning to teach in Korea, you will need an E2 visa. Send it to the consulate in the US, and you will receive your visa in 3-5 business days

Teach English in Korea (E2) Visa Application.

Taiwan: No visa for less than 90 days.

Nepal: Visa Required. Visa on arrival available at Kathmandu International Airport. Three available visa options: 15 day, 1 month multi-entry, 3 month multi-entry. Maximum stay of 150 days per calendar year.

Nepal Visa Application

**Bhutan: Visa Required. You can only travel to Bhutan with a tour operator who applies for tourist clearance on your behalf. Here is the directory of Bhutan tour operators.

  • There is also a Minimum Daily Package, which covers many things but at a rate of $200-$250 per night. Please review the details carefully. This is a small country with a very, very strict set of laws.

Bangladesh: Visa Required. Visa on Arrival available for stays less than 30 days. If you think you may stay longer, fill out the official visa application and get approved before you arrive in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh Visa Application

Myanmar: Visa Required. Myanmar participates in eVisa. When your visa is granted, you will receive an approval letter, which you must have with you when you arrive in Myanmar.

Myanmar eVisa Application

Myanmar eVisa
First Page of Myanmar eVisa Application

 

Thailand: No visa for less than 30 days (for air arrival) or 15 days (for land arrival). You MUST make sure your passport is stamped before you leave the passport control, or you will have a hell of a time when you go to leave. If you do not get your passport stamped, there will be no proof of your entry into the country, and you will be subject to fines and arrest.

Thailand Visa Applications

Laos: Visa Required. Visa on Arrival offered at many points of entry for a 30 day stay. Visa can be extended for up to another 60 days for $2 / day. After that, you have to move to a different country.

Vietnam: Visa Required. Many countries (UK, Germany, Israel, India, Brazil, et al) are exempt from this requirement (full list available here) but US citizens must have a visa. For instructions regarding the information required on the visa, click here.

Vietnam Visa Application

Philippines: No visa for less than 30 days. If you are already in the Philippines and decide you want to stay longer, you can request a 29 day extension from the Philippine Bureau of Immigration and Deportation’s (BI) main office at Magallanes Drive, Intramuros, Manila.

Malaysia: No visa for less than 90 days. Check your stamp before you leave passport control, as some people have been granted less time. Visas can be extended for two months.

Indonesia: No visa for less than 30 days. Requirements for an extended tourist visa are available here.

Indonesia Visa Application

Singapore: No visa for less than 90 days.

Timor-Leste: Visa Required. Visa on Arrival for 30 days is available for $30. Visa can be extended for 30 days for an additional $30, up to 90 days.


We are not posting visa requirements for North Korea considering US citizens have been detained and worse even with proper documents. Americans are unwelcome in bits and pieces of the world, but traveling to North Korea is signing your own death certificate.


If you’re having trouble navigating the world of visas and forms, send us a shout! We are more than happy to help out a fellow traveler.

Salut and cheers.

Mark and Melody

How to Travel for Free (or Nearly Free!)

Every person we have talked to since returning to America has lamented about how they would quit their job and travel the world, if only they had the money. Let this serve as a guide of the websites that will help you secure lodging and food while overseas.

FREE ACCOMMODATION: 

We spent about half of the time working as HelpXers, where we exchanged 3-5 hours of work five days a week for semi-private or private accommodations and three meals a day.

HelpX: It’s something like $30 fee for a 2 year membership, and you can apply to as many HelpX’s as you want to!

Here’s a snapshot of some of the activities we did on a HelpX and how these skills are transferable to the workforce:

  • celebrated a Finnish birthday (learn culture, customs, and work through a language barrier)
  • France: built a retaining wall (ability to follow direction and work under pressure)
  • Bulgaria: built a chicken coup path (independent self-starter)
  • Bulgaria: milked a goat
  • Kosovo: assisted in running a hostel (hospitality / management experience)
  • Finland: taught English at a school

and so much more! None of it really felt like work, as we were learning from everyone we met. We stayed at hostels when we weren’t house sitting, and sometimes at AirBnBs.

Speaking of housesitting / petsitting, we watched pets in 3 countries: Ireland, France and Norway. We used both TrustedHousesitters and MindMyHouse. Again, for a small fee, you create a profile, what animals you feel comfortable watching, your experience with animals (from domestic to livestock), and you’re off to the races.

We have met people who have stringed together back to back house and pet sits and wound up staying entire months in the Eurozone for less than $500 per month. For some people, that is a car payment. That’s probably more than your mortgage or rent.

NEARLY FREE CARS:

There are many ride-sharing services in Europe, but the one we heard the most about is Blablacar. You type in the country you are starting in, and an end location, and a date, and you get matched with people who are going that direction!

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It is like yelp. Drivers are rated, the cars are rated, and you are shown the distance and the approximate drive time. The page is translatable to any language. In this example, it will cost approximately $10-13 for a 4 hour trip across Poland. Not a bad deal!*

poland

*We talked to over a dozen people who have used Blablacar, and none of them reported any safety incidences. It is like anything else in life – if your ride arrives and you get a sticky feeling, then forfeit the money – no big deal. No amount of money is worth your life.

This should get you off to a running start when you’re preparing your overseas adventure! Let us know what else you’d like to get for free (or on the cheap!) while traveling.

Salut, Cheers, and Happy Travels!

Mark and Melody

 

24 Hours In: Barcelona

We had a little over two days in Barcelona, but sometimes travel fatigue gets the better of you and you wind up spending a day hanging out in the hostel and doing a whole lot of nothing.

On day 1, that’s exactly what we did.

Day 2, we ventured out into Barcelona for an afternoon free walking tour and were under the graces of a warm and windy day.

Our first stop was the 14th century Placa del Rei, or the King’s Watchtower, where King Ferdinand and his lovely  wife Isabella welcomed back Christopher Columbus from his voyage. Considering America wasn’t even a thought yet, it’s surreal to stand in front of a building that’s three times as old as your country.

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Our next stop was the Barcelona Cathedral, for which construction was began just a few years ago, in 1298. The architecture speaks for itself, and you could spend days taking in each detail. The building is decorated or constructed so every inch floor to steeple commands attention.

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The next point of interest is even older than the cathedral. We visited the old Roman city walls. Remember, at its height the Roman Empire stretched west into Spain and north nearly into Scotland. Here’s a bit of the Roman ruins, and the fortress, currently used as church space.

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The bottom arches are what remains of the Placa Nova, entrance into the old Roman City.
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Note the different layers of brick over time.

We turned the corner and arrived at Placa Sant Felip Neri, A Romantic Square with a Sad History. During the Fascist regime, children hid in a bomb shelter under the church. Bombs were dropped over this square, sending shrapnel and explosives across the square and into the church. 42 people were killed. This harrowing event in 1938 is commemorated by a small plaque, but the evidence is unmistakable.

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After a few moments of silence, we walked on to a picnic area where we learned about the Catalonia movement for independence. (Catalonia is the region in Spain that includes Barcelona.) In every street in Barcelona, you will see flags hanging over balconies and in store fronts and that signifies support for independence from Spain.

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Long story short, the Catalans have always identified as a group independent from the rest of Spain, and they have been fighting (and losing) independence battles for hundreds of years. Now with the referendum going to Madrid, they have a real chance of breaking off from Spain and becoming the Catalonia they want. There’s a booming sense of patriotism.

We ended the evening in front of the Arc de Triomf, found ourselves some lovely Spanish wine, and cozied up to watch the day fade into night.

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Travel Diary: Getting from Skopje to Pristina

It’s 90 minutes by car, but up to three hours by bus. The Balkans’ definition of bus and our definition were clearly misaligned during this trip. When I think bus, I think of a temperature-controlled bus with WiFi, toilets, and comfortable seats.

This bus did not fit any of this criteria. It was a mini-bus that seats 16, with limited luggage storage, no WiFi, and definitely not any toilets (not that I would use them, anyway).

We shlepped our bags on board and made our way to the back rows, hoping no one would expect us to put our bags in the luggage hold. We found ourselves across the row from an American expat working for the World Bank (called Mark Deux), and a UK train employee named Mike. Too many M’s. Mark, Mike and Mark Deux set the world right talking about finance, startups and international affairs. I attempted to drift in and out of sleep but the roads in the Balkans are not known for their newness or smoothness so sleep became impossible.

A clipboard made its way around the bus where each person has to write down their name and passport/ ID card number. This, in theory, is supposed to make the border crossing much quicker. What actually happens at the border is a Macedonian border official collects the clipboard and takes it back to his little post. Then he comes back and has to collect each passenger’s passport/ ID card and return those to his post. After about ten minutes of hem-hawing, the passports are returned to us. Sometimes we get a stamp; sometimes we are disappointed. The odds are 50/50. Then the exact same process is repeated at the Kosovo border.

The border control is unremarkable, and the bus driver behaves normally by stopping at places that are most assuredly NOT typical bus stops to pick up random people. His homies, I’m guessing. These people pay when they get on, an indiscriminate amount, sometimes 1 euro and sometimes 3 euro. There’s definitely not a system.

We’re about an hour away from Pristina when we pull into a petrol station. I assume it’s to pick up fuel, but then Mark Deux investigates and the Batman driver and his Robin are taking a smoke break! We’re an hour away; honestly, you couldn’t wait? Mark and I run into the “convenience store” and pick up a crisps and chocolate breakfast. Someone runs in and asks us, in very broken English, if we’re with the bus. We say yes and run out to see everyone moving their luggage from our little bus to a large, cushy coach.

What is going on? We grab our bags and head to the coach. Turns out, our bus BROKE DOWN, and this coach has come to rescue us. Stellar. We are waiting in the stairwell of the coach to get onto it and I get frustrated. I snap at the person in front of me to move.

That’s when it becomes abundantly clear that the bus is full. There are no seats. So the 15 or so of us that were on our rinky dink bus are now standing in the aisle of the coach, hovering awkwardly over sitting passengers.  I move my way straight to the front and dig in to my breakfast: a Milke Oreo chocolate bar and tomato pesto crisps.

It’s probably only ten minutes later when people begin disembarking, but it being so awkward for me it felt like 20 hours. Someone moves and I gesture for the person behind me to take a seat, which she refuses. I don’t offer twice so I take the empty seat. One by one, people slowly begin filing out of the coach and the standing room passengers begin finding seats.

The coach enters Pristina and nearly the entire bus empties into the middle of a random intersection. That’s when it occurs to us that there’s a decent chance this coach’s final destination is not Pristina Bus Station. It could be going to Serbia. The coach driver could have had Rakija with his breakfast and forgotten his destination. When we turn away from Pristina city center and toward Mitrovice, my anxiety swells.

Just when I think we’re headed into a different country, the coach veers sharply to the left and off, on the side of the road, is the underwhelming Pristina Bus Station.

Whew. Mark Deux and Train Mike file off of the coach. There’s a running joke that whenever we board the bus to somewhere, it is always raining in our final destination. Pristina is no different. It was raining. A cold, piercing, hair-frizzing rain.

We part ways with Mark Deux and UK Mike, drag our sopping selves and our damp packs into a completely unmarked cab and arrive back to the hostel twenty minutes later for less than $4.

 

Travel Diary: Copenhagen’s Disappointing Walking Tour

View from the SkyIt all started when we took a train to Copenhagen city center to do one thing: a free walking tour at 3pm.
We found the main square and waited for 20 minutes. It’s an oddly warm day in Denmark, so we’re sitting and sweating. I’m admiring the 2-story Burger King on the corner, and Mark is observing this guy as part of some kind of stag party doing really socially awkward things to embarrass him.

We’re looking for a guide that, per reviews, is wearing a green shirt with a green umbrella. 3pm comes and goes with no mass tour assembling and no green t-shirt tour guide. According to Google Maps, the pickup point for the walking tour was at the entrance of a hotel. We go to the hotel and ask the lovely gent at the desk where the meet point actually is. He tells us to go out of the hotel and turn left, then we would see the meeting point behind the hotel.

We follow his instructions into a narrow pedestrian way that’s filled with the sweet aroma of hookah. Our eyes scan both sides of this walkway, and we don’t see any signage pointing to a walking tour. I’m well past frustrated and teetering on embroiled.

Mark checks the reservation and it says to meet at the steps of town hall. We go to town hall and wait for over 15 minutes. The original tour has long departed. We decide to wait for the next one, at 4. We go get overpriced froyo, sit on town hall steps and wait.

4pm comes and goes. No gathering of tourists. No guy in a green shirt. I go so far as to approach strangers in green shirts and ask them if they’re tour guides. We wander around a narrow street and into a shop with blue and white tourist info sign and ask about the tour. She lets us know that there wasn’t a walking tour today. Color me surprised.

We decide to take the high road and instead of chew this woman’s ear off, to go to Malmö, Sweden instead, since we’re in the business of collecting countries and all.

She shows us the schedule of the coach times to Malmö and transit times. It’s an hour to Sweden and an hour back to Denmark. While we can get to Sweden before day turns to night, the last coach back from Malmö departs 2 hours later, at 6pm. That didn’t work because we had an early am flight from Denmark the next day.

 

Disappointed by the lie that was the free walking tour and the unusable coach to Sweden, we schlepped back to the AC Bella Sky and enjoyed two Scandinavian priced (read: unreasonably expensive) appetizers.

Summary: If you want the walking tour, find the tourist office first and ask if they’re even doing a tour. And if you want to do a day trip to Sweden, leave Copenhagen before 9am. It’s $10 each way.

August 29, 2015

Mission Statement – Why We Travel

Starting in 2013, we began our journey by driving around the United States of America with the only intention being to gather pictures of ourselves next to each state welcome sign. That trip turned into something much more – it sparked the realization that as large as the United States seemed to be, we were missing out on something by staying within the bounds of our home country – a global perspective.

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There are 24,642,757 square miles of habitable space in the world and 7.2 billion people living within 196 countries. With all of these people within all of these countries it doesn’t seem fair to be speed travelers spending two days in capital cities to make determinations about the world. Such quick stays are unlikely to provide much perspective on the way life is lived.

Scoping out this guy's wagon. We kind of like it.
Scoping out this guy’s wagon. We kind of like it.

We want to experience difficulty communicating, difficulty getting around, and completely surrender of the congested, exhaust filled wide highways that belt the United States.

Over the past 2 1/2 years, we have traded in a life of huge highways for two lane roads that

In Costa Rica we drove on roads with potholes so large they could break axles.

Bulgarian posters in memory of those passed.
Bulgarian posters in memory of those passed.

In Bulgaria we have stayed in villages with less than 500 people and even fewer resources. Where the best internet we could update our blog from was a half lit connection from an iPhone nestled on the top of the roof, traded American standards of plumbing for long drop toilets and experienced what it meant to reuse and repurpose everything you buy and everything you produce.

We wanted the edge – where you’re wondering why you would ever sign up for a cross country bus with no toilets.

We have been robbed of sleep, found like-minded travelers, and met people living on less money than we made in a week in The United States, yet were a great deal happier and more giving.

While our travels have been filled with challenges and difficulties, we have also received some of the warmest welcomes from people in countries that notoriously ‘despise’ Americans. We have experienced first hand how schools in Finland are operated. We have learned of historic figures that have made pretty dramatic changes within countries that we would never have read about in our history books. We have seen landscapes that make you say, “Wow”.

It’s true, we have also participated in some of the touristy bits of travel, but that is just another part of the experience.

If anything, our appetite for travel has grown during the last 2 1/2 years. We have learned as much (if not more) about ourselves as we have about the world. Our desire to see the world has continued on an exponential growth curve as we have more experiences – ultimately filling us with a greater number and complexity of questions.

While we are not always sure where our experiences and journeys will take us, we will continue to eagerly pursue them.

We travel, initially, to lose ourselves. We travel, next, to find ourselves.

Guinness Storehouse Made a Customer out of an Unlikely Guest

If you’re a modest beer fan or with someone who is, the Guinness storehouse is a sensory overload. Six floors of beer and Irish history will fascinate and bewilder you. I wasn’t a fan of Guinness (too dark, too heavy, too bitter) until I took this tour. I’m glad Mark really wanted to go, and in a selfless act of love I went along.

Planning the trip, you’ll do best allowing three hours for it. Stepping into this building is like stepping into a time machine. You’re lost in the process, the maze that is the storehouse, and after enjoying the best Guinness you’ll arguably ever have, you’ll probably not want to leave.

Entry is 10% off if you book online, which we did. I was surprised this isn’t a guided tour. Everything is self guided and at your own pace, which is typically disappointing to me because I remember less if I’m reading it. However, Mark’s wealth of knowledge made it seem like I had one anyway. At one point, he was explaining the process of where the stout goes after its different stages and a small crowd had gathered around him. I was disappointed that an audio tour wasn’t available in English either, but it is for eleven other languages. Complimentary of course.

At the entrance is a piece of paper in the floor with thick glass covering it. That is Arthur Guinness’ 9,000 year lease in the 1750s. Can’t imagine what people are going to make of this note when it expires though.

Barrels of GuinessBarley at GuinessThen the tour begins! There’s a huge area of barley which I could not resist running my hands through and feeling the texture between my fingers. Videos of the barley growing/ collection process play on overhead projectors. There are a LOT of people. I didn’t really grasp why organizations limited the number of visitors to a place until we were in here. The line moves relatively quickly, through the general fermentation process.


Guiness Storehouse

This storehouse, St James’ Gate, is absolutely enormous – 55 acres of dark, beautiful Guinness-brewing sensationalism. The public is allowed through six floors, but they’re not fooling me – I know there’s much more to this enterprise than Guinness lets on. Over three million pints are made here – DAILY. That’s a modest amount of Guinness, right? Nearly 75% of all of Ireland’s barley goes to making this iconic stout – the most popular in the world, in fact.

It could be a little bit of madness, but I swore up and down I would never enjoy a Guinness, and yet here I found myself, next to Mark, enjoying a properly poured Guinness at the ever-impressive yet crowded Skybar.Guiness at Skybar

Expectation v. Reality: Reflections on the UK, Ireland, Belgium and Norway

This four part series is a compilation of something both memorable and shocking for each of the countries we have visited. Alas, the first of an ever evolving set of self-reflective, preparation posts for the questions that I’ll inevitably get when I return home:

“What’s changed?” and “Do you feel any different?”

And I’m reminded of a quote by C.S. Lewis: Day to day, nothing seems different, until one day you look back and find that everything has changed.

This is more a fun, haphazard collection of preconceived ideas, romantic fantasies and expectations of easy living I had before and during the visits to the following countries, along with their earth-shattering thought replacements:

  1. There are absolutely zero downfalls of public transportation! – England

Or so I said, before visiting London, which is really a country in itself. Not only does it get uber smelly on the underground, which is always busy, even at 1pm on a Wednesday, but tube strikes are not uncommon. Have you ever been to London when there’s a tube strike going on? The giant sidewalks aren’t big enough for the throngs of people waiting for the buses that are already full of smelly people nor are the roads able to afford anyone unlucky enough to be driving a car during a tube strike any traveling space. The tube strike that happened in July cost London nearly $500 million.

New thought: Sometimes, public transportation and the throngs of people in your personal space actually really sucks.

  1. Every capital city is worth going to. – Norway

Norway, for at least one year out of the past five, was the most expensive country on the planet. And we were warned that Oslo is perhaps the most underwhelming capital city Europe has to offer (We’ve since found one worse). Go to Norway? Yes. Go to Oslo? Hell no. Save yourself. Go anywhere else in Norway. Don’t go to Oslo.

Pub dinner: $110
Oslo’s version of Chipotle: $38

How can I eat my way through culture when every time I take a bite money actually ejects itself from my wallet and self-destructs?

Please don’t visit Oslo. Seriously.

New thought: After a dozen or so capital cities, they all really look the same. Fly into a capital city, and establish an adventure base elsewhere.

  1. The United Kingdom totally drives in kilometers per hour just like the rest of the continent. – Scotland

One of those situations where I would have bet money that I was right and I would have lost the bet. Funny story, abridged:

We rented a car in Edinburgh and got on the motorway (highway for us Americans) and came to a sign that says 70, so we do 70 kph. We approach signs telling us speed cameras. Other cars flash high-beams and swerve around us. We think all those people are stupid and are all getting speeding tickets. Next day, we confirm Mark’s suspicion. The UK drives in MPH, not KPH. The clincher? Distance is measured in meters, as in, “Hotel, 800 meters ahead.” Way to be confusing, Britain.

New thought: UK (and Ireland) drive on the left. Rest of Europe, on the right.

  1. Ireland is the place to get drunk on the cheap.

With the reputation that Ireland has of being a nation in perpetual drunkenness, I definitely thought that it would be ridiculously cheap to drink here – say 2 or 3 euros for a beer.

Color me surprised, it’s not.

It’s about 5 or 6 euros for a beer, and more in the touristy Temple Bar area, which is definitely not acceptable for drinking on a budget.

The tour of the Guinness Storehouse did shine a bit of light on a Guinness pour: if you get your stout less than two minutes after you requested it, the bartender poured it wrong. There’s mad science behind all of this which Mark is slated to explain.

New thought: Get drunk in Prague. Cheaper and more interesting a crowd.

  1. Living above restaurants is awesome and I want to have the life Marshall & Lily have. – Belgium

Wow, I was dead wrong on this. We stayed at an Airbnb that was up 8 very dark flights of stairs. The building apparently had no lights. The entrance opened up into the street with a restaurant to the left and to the right. I’m not a morning person, and I am very used to a long wake-up period. Not so in Brussels. As soon as we opened the door people were milling about in front of it from dawn to the middle of the night. After our evening meal and drinks, near the wee hours of the morning, we had to push people out of the way to get to the front door. Once we traipsed up eight flights of stairs in total darkness, we thought we’d be in the zone to sleep, but we couldn’t, because it was so dreadfully hot we had to leave the windows open and thus gave us an earful of the drunken commotion happening below.

New Thought: Overhearing yelling, screaming, fighting and crying until 3 or 4 in the morning is definitely not my idea of a good time or a good stay.

Have you been to any of these places? What were your experiences? Send us a shout in the comments below.

Ciao

7 Golden Rules to Surviving the Colosseum

In a universe far, far away, the Colosseum isn’t a hive swarming of tourists without deodorant. It isn’t in an awkward stage of half renovation where one side of the amphitheater looks completely fake and the other is a historic wonder of the world.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in that universe. I’d love to visit the Colosseum in those circumstances. Begrudgingly sometimes I go to such iconic places because it seems to make every life that visits it so. much. better.

The Colosseum is impressive. It is worth visiting. Because I know you’re going to go, here’s seven survival tips to make it much more enjoyable.

7. If you’re going between April and October, go to your Dollar Store/ Poundland and buy handheld fans. 

Otherwise you’ll melt. Honestly. Imagine a human current that takes you to different places and you’re shuffling along (and not in the cool way). There’s no way to not sweat. Bring a handheld fan and not only do you get to keep cool but you also get to accidentally hit stupid people that intentionally block your photo.

6. Toilet before you walk.

Toilets are by the audioguide pickup which is really inconvenient to get to once you’ve started walking around, that is. You have to walk downstairs (or through a hallway) and then you have to shuffle and scoot past the people that are trying to enter and shuffle and scowl at the people crowded around the audioguide pickup because the concept of a queue is lost here.

5. BYOB. Water bottles, that is.

I did mention it gets atrociously hot. Put some water bottles in the freezer and take them with you in your satchel/ man purse/ backpack and by the time you get into the Colosseum you’ll have about half a bottle of water to drink.

4. Buy your tickets here. Don’t be a dimwit and think you want to buy them at the door. Breezing past all of those people makes you feel like:

happy leo

And who doesn’t want to feel like that?

3. Pack a 4-liter bottle of patience. Or maybe just bring a flask to tolerate the very annoying groups.

You know, the kind that everyone loves that amass a group of about 20-30 people and then STOP RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE WALKWAY AND DECIDE TO GIVE A TEN MINUTE DISSERTATION ABOUT BRICKS.

2. Go to this restaurant to escape the crowds and the heat. 

Lovely, jovial older Italian gentleman who cracks jokes and has a sweet smile. They have little croissants for 3 euro and some really good espresso and Mark ordered lasagna which was divine and then some. Oh and for all my fellow AC-loving Americans, they have real air conditioning!

1. Get up at 7am and take the first uber there around 8am. 

Thank God Uber is here! The Colosseum is worth losing sleep to get even an hour without the droning and humming of the mid-morning tourists.

If you would like a quick look at the interior, from our perspective while we visited, see below!

Ciao, beautiful people.

Travel Diary: An Adventurous Self-Drive into the Scottish Highlands

Exploring the Highlands, if only for a day, is a must for any itinerary to Scotland. Deceivingly, they look much closer than they actually are. This is because in order for the Highlands to be Highlands, they have to be mountainous, rugged terrain, that’s what makes them Highlands. Navigating a road on this terrain is no small matter, and neither is driving on it.

Most people opt for the road-more-traveled: a day trip in a coach where you are comfortable and a driver takes you right to the scenic area, you take a dozen snapshots and return to your home, satisfied.

That’s not how we travel. We like to do things on our own.

I would have loved to do this drive by myself except manual transmissions and I don’t always get along. In some cars, like Hondas, it’s pretty easy to figure out how to drive. But the car we had wasn’t a Honda. It was a manual transmission car on the opposite side of the road with the driver’s seat where the passenger seat usually is. So Mark had to do the driving. All six hours of it.

If you’re in Glasgow and you want to get a taste of the Highlands, go to Glencoe. You don’t need to drive to Inverness or even Cairngorns National Park, though both of those are beautiful beyond belief and you could spend a week in either location.

Glencoe is a good introduction to the Highlands that will leave you salivating for more.

Getting through and out of Glasgow is a pretty boring, but once you leave the area, the road starts winding and taking sharp turns, twisting and the roads are narrow. Not just American narrow, but barely enough to fit two cars around the corner. There’s no room for error. It’s difficult to shift, keep your eyes on the road, and take a sip of water, so for the driver, it’s generally a stressful drive. About 40 minutes north of Glasgow, we lost cell phone service and entered Loch Lomond.

One of the things we look for is a waterfall. Whenever we land in a new place, we immediately go on a waterfall hunt. We heard that a waterfall existed in Loch Lomond National Park (Which you have to drive through to get to Glencoe) but we weren’t really optimistic about spotting it since there were no exits off of the road. However, a lovely, poorly marked sign indicated a parking area for us to pulll off. We did, if for nothing else than to take a quick hike down to the river and take in some of the gorgeous scenery. What we found was Falls of Falloch, a lovely waterfall hidden nested back at the end of a moderate hike.

Falloch Falls
Falls of Falloch

Once we got out Loch Lomond, the scenery becomes much more dramatic and more beautiful.

Entering Glencoe
Entering Glencoe

The problem with doing a self-drive in Scotland is there is virtually no where to stop for a picture. Miles and miles of breathtaking, jaw-dropping lush green and towering waterfalls and there is nothing to travel on but this narrow two-lane road.

So when we finally saw a parking lot to stop, we slammed on our brakes for it. We missed it and decided to pull off on the side of the road, as it appeared to have a shoulder. We do not recommend doing this. Once we pulled over, the rocky terrain grabbed the tires and cut them to the left. The car sank into the mud. The entire left side of the car was in the mud. Tires spinning, clutch burning. I was definitely convinced we were stuck. We were hungry. Gas was nearly empty. It seemed like the beginning to a Stephen King novel. I tried to lift the car out of the mud (most European cars can be lifted by a person of moderate strength), but I couldn’t get a grip on what needed to be lifted up. So Mark trusts me to operate a left-hand drive car while he lifts the car up and out of the goo and…well, forty minutes later, we were back on the road.

Hellooo, Glencoe!
Hellooo, Glencoe!

Extraordinary right? I couldn’t get enough of it.

Another couple of hours later, we arrived into Fort William. I expected more of a town than It actually is, but on one side of the road is a row of bed and breakfasts, and on the other is a beautiful lake and mountains.

Fort William, where you want to stay if you're to explore all of Glen Nevis
Fort William, where you want to stay if you’re to explore all of Glen Nevis

We are looking for a place to stay, or get information, but things aren’t very well marked out. Apple Maps finally makes a comeback, as we haven’t had map service since Glasgow. What a relief. I find the tourist information center and the woman there recommends a park called Glen Nevis. Says it has some waterfalls and a few nice hikes, best part of everything? It’s free! Off we go to Glen Nevis.

Glen Nevis really is like walking into the wilderness of the Highlands. It’s one-way dirt roads with pullouts to let the other cars pass by. We drive 7 miles on this narrow, gritty dirty road all the way to the end and get out. There’s one waterfall at the end of the trail so we follow it. The trail starts out pretty easy but gets pretty dramatic. Water trickles over exposed rocks and the air begins to thin. Elevation gains are made quickly but the scenery is breathtaking. Strongly recommend hiking boots or strong sturdy hiking shoes.

Hidden waterfalls like these are beautiful yet hazardous on the trail. Nike frees won't do you any good on this trail.
Hidden waterfalls like these are beautiful yet hazardous on the trail. Nike frees won’t do you much good here.
Pretty hard to contain my delight when there are little aquadrops everywhere!
Pretty hard to contain my delight when there are little aquadrops everywhere!

The trail opens up into a field, where you’re in the valley of the Highlands and you can see the waterfall. It’s possible at the end, to get closer to it, and you can climb over the rocks, I recommend you bring food, at least a few snacks, to sit on the rocks and enjoy the picnic time and the view.

A little impromptu rock climbing!
A little impromptu rock climbing!

We brought cheerios and we wish we had brought more. Keep in mind this is a national park of sorts, so there’s no trash or rubbish bins. There’s a rope bridge, which looks a lot like a tightrope, you can cross, if you dare. It’s a bit scary, the first few steps, but as long as no one else is on it, shaking it or moving it about wildly, it’s an exhilarating experience. It’s also a lot higher up than it looks from the underside of it.

Mark turned acrobat on the rope swing I crossed with great trepidation.
Mark turned acrobat on the rope bridge I crossed with great trepidation. How about that view though?

However, once you get to the other side, there isn’t much to see, there’s a house, but not much after it. We thought we could get closer to the waterfall and wound up stepping into a bog and getting covered in mud up to our knees.

The hiking back as or seemed faster than it actually was to get to the waterfall. Maybe it was because I was tired or maybe it was easier after the hike there. There are plenty more things in the park to explore. It’s worth at least two full days, as there are waterfalls in nearly every corner and dramatic drop-offs everywhere you look.

That’s the beauty of the Highlands.

Waterfall spotting on our way back up the mountain
Happy hiking!

Surviving the Louvre: Getting to, Getting into, and Enjoying Your Visit

It’s no small task to visit the Louvre. Spoiler alert: this is not a leisurely stroll where you can really absorb what you’re reading. Why you ask? Unless one of your languages is French, you won’t be able to read any of the signs for the artwork. I don’t understand why other museums around the world can post signage in two or four languages, but for some reason the Louvre has decided not to do that.

It’s an optic overload. The museum is housed inside of palace and that’s evidenced by the frescoes on the ceiling, the ornate gold on the walls and around the windows, and the sheer size of it.

One of the first rooms of the Sully entrance
One of the first rooms of the Sully entrance
Adorned in gold
Adorned in gold
Ornate hall
Ornate hall

Artifacts, paintings, and priceless memoirs of early human existence cover over 600,000 square feet/ 60,000 square meters of space. Three hours of moseying around this grand palace and my tootsies were getting very sore. There are ample places to sit, so they got that right.

Getting to the Louvre

Nearly everyone and their mom arrives via the subway/ metro, which dumps you into an exit where you arrive to the Louvre and you’re in fact surrounded by shops. This is really surreal, at least for me, because I literally uttered WTF while looking at the Apple Store – Thankfully it provides wifi. It’s just under the big glass pyramid.

Inevitably, there will be a long line jutting through the centre near where the two pyramids meet. This is the line to get through security. Note that if you are buying your ticket at the louvre, you must go through security first and then purchase your ticket at one of the counters that say, color me surprised, tickets.

Getting into the Louvre

Ticket machines and tellers are on the perimeter once you go through security. If you get lost look for the information desk, then focus your eyes past that and there’s a ticket area on the other side. Kind of brilliant really. If you have an international bank card that does not require a signature, you can use the ticket machines. Otherwise, you have to queue for a teller. Took me about two minutes on a Sunday afternoon, so not bad.

I picked up my ticket (€15 as of August 2015) and headed to the information desk to pick up a complimentary map of the museum. I thought it would be reassuring to know where galleries are at, but in fact it made me realize that there’s no way I could possibly cover it all.

So, focus on what you like. Do you like looking at marble slabs of rock hard abs carved by Michelangelo? Or would you rather see paintings? Or are you more interested in the Egyptian, Greek or Roman artifacts? (There are rooms dedicated to each). Pin this down before you get started to increase your odds of having a good time.

Then go to those first. I prefer looking at paintings so I can marvel at the texture, color composition, and the expressions on the subjects’ faces rather than Venus de Milo.

Disclaimer: Be honest with yourself. No matter how famous something is…if you’re not interested in that form of art, don’t spend the time, the patience and the energy looking for it and taking a mediocre picture of it. To take a picture and post it of something without knowing who the artist is or the inspiration of the work is a flimsy thing to do.

You don’t have to enjoy or give attention to every type of art. 

Honestly, after about three hours I was “arted” out. And I like art.

I saved the Mona Lisa for the end of my trip becaus I knew once I bore the brunt of the crowds I would be done with the museum. Turns out I know myself pretty well. There is signage everywhere pointing you to the Mona Lisa. It’s on the first floor in, naturally, the halls of the Italian paintings. On very busy days you will see a queue to see the Mona Lisa.

Entrance to the Mona Lisa. On especially crowded days the line begins back here.
Entrance to the Mona Lisa. On especially crowded days the line begins back here.

In this case, a Sunday afternoon, I was lucky to have to battle an arc of people about twelve people deep. When I visited the Mona Lisa in 2007, pictures were prohibited. Anyone caught with a camera was escorted out of the gallery. Now pictures are allowed, but no flash is permitted. Great, you’re thinking, except now we live in a world of selfie sticks and people jousting one another to make room for them and their selfie sticks. Not to mention its August, so it’s hot, and people are sweating, and odds are if you visit from March to September it will be smelly. That’s not too pleasant. So there’s people being smelly and being shovey and making  room for their selfie sticks selfishly and I kind of just wanted to hit them with it instead of admire the Mona Lisa.

The arc of people crowding around the Mona Lisa.
The arc of people crowding around the Mona Lisa.
Mona Lisa, taken from the right.
Mona Lisa, taken from the right.

I took my little picture of her cheeky little grin and found my way out quickly as the museum closes at 6pm (9:45pm on Wednesday and Friday).

I thought going a little more toward closing time would mean less of a crowd. Maybe what I experienced was a dwindle compared to what the day saw earlier, but half an hour to closing the place was still packed with people swarming everywhere like the Louvre is a hive. I stayed right until closing time and took the first metro home.

Tips to enjoy your visit:

  • Bring water and something to fan yourself with. The museum map works in a pinch, but in August it’s almost stifling warm.
  • Identify the art you’re most interested in seeing and start there.
  • Connect to the Louvre wifi and download the Louvre app. Plug in headphones. Insta-tour.
  • Carry some snacks to munch on while you’re browsing, because it’s a good ten minute endeavor to get from wherever you are to an exit.

When to go for budget travelers:

  • 18-26 are free on Friday evening regardless of nationally
  • 18-25 from EU, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein are free always (bring ID)
  • Under 18 is always free (bring ID)
  • Regardless of age or nationality, first Sunday of the month from October to March is free

Have you been to the Louvre? Looking to travel to the Louvre? Wanting to score unbelievably cheap flights to your next destination- click here.

Cheers,

Mark and Melody

Hostels No Longer Cheapest Lodging for Travelers

When we talk about  travel, we are nearly always asked if we are staying at hostels. The answer is: out of 32 days so far, we have only stayed at one. Hostels for a long time cornered the market of dirt cheap lodging, but this is no longer the case thanks to…

AirBnb!

Hostels typically charge by bed, regardless of if its a dorm room or a private room. Let’s start with the dorm room. Let’s say you can get a bed in a dorm room for €20 which is pretty cheap in Western Europe. There’s two of us, which means we’re paying €40 for two beds in a mixed bed dorm. That means there’s people of either gender all sleeping in one room. €40 for zero privacy sleeping and a shared bath with any number of people. In some cases, towels cost an extra euro and the showers are the kind you want to wear sandals in.

In a private room, it gets more expensive. Very rarely a private rooms equipped with only two beds. Usually they are four, but sometimes three. Now we have €60 to pay for a private room, on a good day. 

Disclaimer: since we’ve been in Europe we have not found beds in a hostel for less than €20 per night.

Note also that most hostels have minimum day stays, especially through the weekend. That means if we want to stay Thursday through Saturday,we are paying a premium because it’s a weekend and we are confined to a minimum number of days – usually three days.

Enter airbnb.

In Paris, we are staying 15 minutes away from city center for €38 /$40 each night. Private room. Shared bath, if our host is here. When he’s not,  we have our own flat in Paris.  Kitchen to cook in. Metro across the street. Great food nearby. Amazing bed.

In Glasgow, we stayed with the loveliest couple in a brand new house just south of the city. They provided amazing food, company, and advice on travelling the area. Awesome comfortable bed. They provided a washing machine (invaluable if you’re living on 8 days of clothes), towels and bathing essentials. Also less than €40 / $44.

In Brussels, we stayed with a French gentleman right in the city center in that same price bracket.

We’ve not once had to abide by a minimum stay or pay for a towel.

For couples or group travelers, we remain convinced airbnb is the best way to go if you’d rather spend your money on experiences instead of accommodations. 😉

Travelling somewhere new and looking for the best airbnb? Check out this page and learn the best questions to ask your next host.

Cheers and happy travelling!

Mark and Melody