How to Be a Five Star Airbnb Guest

We’re big fans of Airbnb as a way to meet locals, experience authentic culture, and to find quality, budget lodging. Sometimes it can be difficult to determine, especially if you have a super relaxed host, what your responsibilities are. To earn yourself a five-star rating as a guest, abide by these tenets:

  • Most people loathe dishes in the sink, so wash them and leave them to dry, or rinse and put in dishwasher.
  • Minimize items left around the house. I’m really bad with this one, as I can be comfortable pretty much everywhere and thus my laundry, socks, and shoes tend to distribute themselves around any place of residence. It’s not messy; it’s a sign of genius. But if you have a host coming and going in the house, it can leave a bad impression of you. So if you’re like me and you enjoying occupying an entire space with your belongings, confine it to your room.
  • And close the door to your room, if for nothing else, because no one else wants to see your stuff, and you don’t want people seeing your stuff. If you’re a night owl like me and your day begins at 10pm (half kidding) then this also works to keep light and music in your room.
  • Ask to use the clothes washing machine!! Even if it is listed as an amenity, because odds are you’ll be using their soap too.
  • Recall your Aretha Franklin lyrics and R-E-S-P-E-C-T the space. Mark wants me to write to straighten the bed – fake make it – just in case something is needed from the room. This has never happened to us, where the host needed something from the room, but ya never know.
  • Understand personal time and space. The host might not always want to talk to you, and they’re not really obligated to. Most of the time they are working people too. We’ve had some quieter hosts and other hosts, like our lovely couple in Glasgow, that were happy to chat for hours.
  • Don’t eat food in the fridge or freezer unless you are invited to – if you finish something that you were given permission to eat or drink, offer to replace it.

And lastly…

Thank the host in person if they’re available – if not, leave a note / send SMS or E-Mail before writing and submitting your review. Airbnb will prompt you for a review at the end of your stay. If there’s any notes you’d like to offer the host privately, you can do so in a separate box after writing your review.

Let us know about your travels abroad, and as always, feel free to ask us for advice from lodging to low airfare.

Happy travels!

Mark and Melody

The Only App You Need to find Cheap Flights Anywhere

Airfare is usually one of the “cost prohibitory” expenses for anyone looking to travel to a far flung place. Yes I know Asia is cheap, they may say, but the flight is so expensive. But are they right? For a long time, I believed it. I took a flight from West Palm Beach, Florida to Hong Kong and it cost over $1,200 in March 2012. Granted, Air Canada is a very nice airline to travel on but after planning our months abroad, Mark and I have found the omniscient, no fail flight app:

Skyscanner.

Skyscanner is a search engine that allows you find the cheapest airfare to any destination at any time.

Type in your home airport. For us, it’s Fort Lauderdale. Then we play our favorite game called let’s see what the cheapest destination is by typing “Everywhere” into the destination box.

Searching
Searching “Everywhere” will show a list of destinations available from your home airport. Anywhere in the world.

Now you can pick a month, or pick the cheapest month. Pick your number of travelers, make sure you have round-trip selected, and go! You’ll get a lovely list of all the destinations by country first. For most people in the US, US destinations will pop up first. Sometimes this isn’t the case though, because once it was cheaper to go to Mexico than it was to go to Chicago from Miami. 🙂

List of countries to travel to from Fort Lauderdale. Note: Prices are round trip per person!
List of countries to travel to from Fort Lauderdale. Note: Prices are round trip per person!

A little further down, we see this list:

Batch two of options from Fort Lauderdale. Check out those European destinations!
Batch two of options from Fort Lauderdale. Check out those European destinations!

This is how we managed to get to Europe for $550.00. Yes, for two people! Once you find a country you like, click on it to see the destination cities. Let’s use Norway as an example:

List of cities you can fly to in Norway. Oslo looks like a good option, right?
List of cities you can fly to in Norway. Oslo looks like a good option, right?

We just finished up a beautiful long weekend in Oslo, so let’s go with Oslo. It’s definitely feasible to take a day trip to see the fjords, or take a drive to neighboring Sweden. Remember that we selected the cheapest month, so when you select Oslo, the cheapest dates come up. Easiest vacation planning ever! No more determining the best time to go or for how long.

You have to select the departing and return dates, and the price you see on the dates is the price for that leg (example Fort Lauderdale – Oslo). But when you select both travel dates, your total price per person comes up:

Norway for under $400? Pack your bags!
Norway for under $400? Pack your bags!

Now that you’re armed with the best airfare finder in the industry, where would you like to travel next?

Let us know in the comments.

Happy travelling!

Mark and Melody

24 Hours In: Things We Learned in Brussels

Bruxelles, a heavily blended capital city, location of the European Central Bank, and port of entry to the rest of Europe. With exactly 24 hours to eat, drink, and experience, these observations sum up our feelings about Brussels:

  1. In August, it’s hot. People said it was unusual, but it was so hot we decided to go out and drink instead of stay in our flat with no AC.
  2. Incredibly weighty French influence which no one in the UK or Ireland prepared us for. Totally caught us off guard to be greeted with a Bonjour/ Bon Soir. We expected a Flemish dialogue, some Germanic influence perhaps, but it was predominantly French.
  3. Drinking age is 16. While American high school students tweet about a drivers license, kids in Brussels are legally ordering their first brew with their parents. This is a limited drinking license as hard liquor is still prohibited for under 18s.
  4. Many embassy guards for the U.S. Frequent a bar called Roosters, which has two lovely bartenders – one named Kelly and the other Anna. They are incredibly funny and knowledgable about the area and their beers are reasonably priced too!
  5. I had a romantic fantasy that living above shops near downtown would be, in the words of Gretchen Weiners, so fetch. Early in the morning I’d wake up and head to the place right beneath my flat, grab a coffee, and begin my beautiful breezy day. The flip side of that dream is that at night, there are a lot of loud drunk people crowding the entrance to your flat, and you have to sneak in between them and open the door. It feels so odd having tons of complete strangers know where you live…
  6. Hardly anyone accepts American credit/ debit cards, even with a chip. We had to convert to euros because our cards kept getting declined. Come into Brussels with some cash, or find an exchange place, but please don’t exchange currency at the bus station,or airport. It’s a total rip off. 
  7. If you want to drink and talk to tons of people from all corners of the world, ask for the Delirium bar. It’s a narrow street with a dozen entrances to bars dedicated to one type of alcohol. There’s a tequila bar. There’s a vodka bar where you order a liter of vodka. All of them sell beer, but if you really want to prove your worth to yourself and all the strangers around you, order a two liter chalice of beer. Take time to wander upstairs, downstairs, around. You’ll find plenty of interesting things to see.
  8. The food district of Brussels is made of narrow streets crowded by outdoor seating and hosts standing in the walkway. As your eyes wander over to the menu, you’re immediately approached by someone and asked if you want to sit. I found this really revolting as they give you no time really to look at the menu, so we kept shaking our heads no and walked out of the restaurant district to a quieter, less pressure cooker type atmosphere.
  9. If you’re staying at an AirBnB here, please ask your host what floor they are on. We stayed on the top floor which I thought was awesome until we arrived and had to climb EIGHT, count them, EIGHT flights of stairs up and down to enter or leave this apartment.
  10. Want to make this known that I asked for tap water at a restaurant, was advised they “don’t do tap.” I told her bring the cheapest water, she brought me €6 mineral water. Sigh. 

If you’re planning a trip to Brussels, know that it’s a small capital city, and two to three leisurely days can cover the main attractions. If you have any questions about where to go, what to see, or what type of food to eat, send us a message! 

Mark and Melody

Five Awesome Free Things to do in London

London is a difficult place to keep on a budget. It’s really a buffet of things to do, history to understand, and information to absorb. In the madness and chaos that it is, there’s remarkably wonderful free things. After scouring the city for ourselves, we found the following attractions the best way to spend free time (as they can consume a lot of it) and keep your money in your wallet.

1. Imperial War Museum

Making bullets as the voice overhead observes Mark's job
Making bullets as the voice overhead observes Mark’s job

This is not any ordinary war/ history dull experience museum. There are voice overs, interactive whiteboards where you can touch and manipulate things as it shows you how long it took to create artillery, make bread or assemble shoes. There is gunfire and men and women shouting overhead. Lights are strategically positioned to make you feel like a time capsule has transported you back to The Great War. Incredible facts abound. We spent nearly three hours at the museum and didn’t finish the ground floor (there’s five of them). We learned:

  • Britain received gifts from all of her territories during World War I, including sheep, money, and food from Canada; rum from Jamaica; food and cocoa from Africa; and an assortment of goats.
  • Each participating military had its own unique outfit: colors, designs, emblems, embellishments, even if they were on the same side.
  • Germany’s army pushed Russia back an impressive 300 miles in one invasion! But it was not enough to defeat the Russians.

The museum is free of charge to enter; a map will cost a pound. There is also an entire floor devoted appropriately to the Holocaust.

2. The British Museum

Well done, Britain, this is an extraordinary place to visit. It’s also extraordinarily crowded, though people typically move about at a good pace. To avoid crowds, go on a Wednesday afternoon. I won’t tell you all the reasons you should go, because you’ve probably already put it on your list. But here’s the coolest parts:

  • Holding a 2,500 year old silver Greek coin, and learning that the symbol on that coin is on the Greek euro.
  • Seeing clocks from the 1500s. I watched the interactive video multiple times and I’m still convinced it’s part mechanics, part magic.
  • Seeing this poster which shows it’s cheaper to print on this currency than paper.DSC_0191
  • One of the first cash registers, created aptly by Tiffany and Co
  • The largest paper money denomination is 20 ‘million billion’ Hungarian. Wow.

3. The National Gallery

Simply wonderful. If you took your time through it you couldn’t cover the gallery. It’s simply stunning. People are milling about from the time it opens to the time that it closes. These pieces of art are so varied in size, emotion and structure. There’s one in particular, a painting of a horse that stretches from floor to ceiling. The walls are 20-30 feet high? The painting is so phenomenally large you’re captivated by the thought that one hand of one person painted this enormous horse. It’s held by chains that come down from the ceiling. 

The Gallery is best broken up into two afternoons if you want to really feel like you’ve experienced it. Suggested itinerary, do something paid in the morning then head over to the gallery for the later part of the afternoon. 

Van Goh's Most Famous: Chair, Sunflowers and Two Crabs
Van Gogh’s: Chair, Sunflowers and Two Crabs

Pro-tip: want to know what the fuss is about over an artist or a painting? Plenty of educated art enthusiasts at the entrance and exit of each gallery room to tell you about those works. Chat em up. 

BONUS: The buskers outside the National Gallery are extremely talented. There’s one gentleman, The Homeless Bard, who writes exceptional poetry detailing his highs and lows and major mistakes. Everything he writes is impromptu, spoken from the heart. Talk to him, he’s got a sweet drawl and tired blue eyes. He is optimistic, despite losing everything, and is currently rebuilding his life through his gift of penmanship.

Homeless Bard prays before writing his fourth poem of the day.
Homeless Bard prays before writing his fourth poem of the day.

Finally, here’s a separate list of interesting places that are also free, but unfortunately we’re missed because of time:

4. Geffrye Museum – quirky and fun facts about the evolution of furniture throughout centuries. Even shag carpet has its genetic roots somewhere. And it’s always amazing to me how much SMALLER all the furniture is. An adult chair would maybe fit today’s child.

5. King George V Park evidently has alpacas, which are my favorite animal. If I ever had the opportunity to have land, I would certainly get a herd of alpacas. And feed them apples. Because they don’t have incisors that allow them to cut up food and all that.

Travelling to London and looking for more helpful hints? Click here to learn how to travel around London efficiently and cheaply.

MarkandMelody

Choosing Your First AirBnB

AirBnB has been truly great to us and we can’t recommend them enough. Every type of lodging is available: tree houses, huts, beach cabanas, modern flats and castles! Search functions allow you to search for a private room, a shared space, or the entire home. The prices vary as much as the style, meaning there is definitely a listing for your taste.

For accuracy in prices and availability, put in the dates you’re looking to stay, even if they’re tentative because you may find a place you like that happens to have a flexible host. It’s no fun to get super attached to a listing only to find out it’s not available. 😦

Before booking, check the cancellation policy. Each listing has one: flexible, moderate or strict. Flexible means you can cancel no later than 24 hours before your intended stay for a full refund, which is best for more spontaneous bookings. Moderate means cancellation must be made five days (in host’s local time) before intended stay for a full refund.  If you’re planning to attend an event or you’re pretty sure you won’t change plans, this is an option. Strict is… Strict. No full refunds are offered for Strict cancellation policies.  Instead, a 50% refund will be given for cancellations made seven days or more before your intended stay.

We’ve found the hosts to be quite delightful and to ensure you get the most out of your stay without any misunderstanding, we always message the host before booking. We also crafted a template to familiarize you with the site and ensure you ask vital questions with a message like this:

Hello, My husband and I are traveling to London from September 23 to September 28- confirming you have these dates available. We are mainly looking forward to visiting Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, and Camden Market. We would like to prepare a couple small meals as well. We will be arriving from Heathrow at 7pm- would you be home at that time? What is the best tube route to your location? 

Thank you kindly. 

Most hosts respond within two hours as they are eager to confirm guests :). Generally, a more outgoing, interactive host will respond with a more detailed message. Ask for recommendations in their area. If you’ve any allergies, it’s good to note that so the host can accommodate. We had an instance where a review noted a pet but the host didn’t, so if pets are something you need to avoid, confirm before the booking. At a different stay, I was totally under the impression the host would be there, but he didn’t live in the area anymore; the house was a rental property. For a first time stay, you may want to ask if there will be other guests in the house.

For short stay travelers looking to maximize time, ask:

  • What do you find is the best way to get around?
  • Is Uber operating here?
  • What times do the trains/ buses run?
  • Additional charge on public transit during peak travel times?

For super savvy and aspiring long term travelers, ask:

  • How far is the nearest market and when does it close?
  • How far is the nearest pharmacy?
  • Do you have ample pots and pans, flatware and cooking tools?
  • Do you have a clothes washer if I bring my own detergent?

For families of four or more, we recommend:

  • Selecting “entire house” instead of one room as a search filter. More privacy, flexibility and importantly security.
  • Booking as soon as possible if you’re attending an event. AirBnB hosts will raise prices too, sometimes three months in advance.
  • Letting the host know the ages of your children, especially younger tots.
  • If you rented a car, ask where the car can be parked. 

Final note: Give a host with no reviews a chance. We did and had a lovely stay!

Have you had an experience at airbnb you’d like us to feature? Let us know! We would love to hear your travel adventures.

Mark and Melody

London on a Budget: Don’t Forget This! 

When looking to travel in a big city like London, it’s easy to be seduced into picking the lowest price for hotels/ lodging. We found out the hard way that the cheapest place actually ends up costing more…

Big Ben.

How? Because time is valuable too. 

Our 100+ day journey (no return ticket!) started with a week in London, so this is sage advice for long journey travelers and ambitious tourists who believe they can absorb London in a week.

It’s hard to find a way around London being pricey: bargain hotels start at $130 USD near the main attractions and hostels are mostly dorm style. AirBnB is typically the best way to get quality lodging at a deeply discounted rate. Unless you’re the worlds greatest hotel rewards points collector of course, in which case, don’t be afraid to share.

After looking into our options, we found a beautiful little place ‘just outside of London City Center’ for a modest $38 per night. That’s just $19 per person, per night. We had a nice little kitchen to cook in and a living room – excellent!

We flew ‘Into London’ (rolls eyes) and began working our way toward the house. Color me surprised to find that it would take us nearly an hour and a half via train and underground to get there.

Geograph-2430114-by-Malc-McDonald

Transit into London came at a steep cost of $77 via train on the express, taking about 45 minutes. Buy your ticket in advance and you might not get taken advantage of like we did. After another two transfers, we ended up on the train that would take us 45 minutes outside of London City Center ($4). We then walked / climbed the hill that brought us to the house we would call home for the next week.

Side note: This hill did not mess around. It puts San Francisco to shame. I’ve been on trail hikes less exerting than this. I felt like a winded mountaineer. What’s worse is these delightful little British kids are running all up and down this hill like it’s the easiest thing they’ve done all day. Ah.  Good ol days.

EVERY day we went into London to visit the Tower of London, or Tower Bridge, or the Beefeater Gin Distillery, or to visit a random park to have lunch, we were literally travelling uphill both ways. So that’s what my grandparents meant.


We took the bait for the cheapest place and paid a lot in time; over 18 hours was spent traveling to and from London city center which was $148 in fare over seven days for two people. The underground, overground and Thameslink train are surprisingly inexpensive, but we definitely could have used that 18 hours to spend another day at the Imperial War Museum, the National Gallery or the British Museum. 

Taking into account travel costs, the weighted cost of lodging became $415 – not taking into account our time (which of course everyone values differently). That brought the nightly rate to $59.29 or $29.65 per person.

We may have been able to find something that was more accessible and end up spending the same amount (or less), by opting for something a little higher in initial cost.

Pro-tips:

London’ is broken up into six zones. Zones one and two are where most of the popular attractions are. We were technically staying in London, but zone six, which was an hour away from the center. A trip to the Jewish Museum, a little further afield, was over 90 minutes away and back.

If you are staying at an airbnb (which we totally recommend) please ask them what zone they are in and what station they are near. Give us a shout if you need help deciphering the infamous London Underground map. 🙂

Think about how much time you want to spend getting to your points of interest each day, and always account for potential delays when you are further away. Remember – time is money!

Cheaper accommodation usually sacrifices: Convenience, Amenities, and/or Access to Transit. Even if you do not mind spending more time in transit, always take the everyday travel cost into account when making your decision.

AirBnB London

Consider a slightly more expensive accommodation to save yourself time or money overall. Looking back now, we could have spent $40-50 per night at a different AirBnB and found ourselves at a spot near London City Center, which would have saved us $65-135 – not to mention the time we spent and the stress incurred by the longer transit.


Whether you are on a mission to visit every country in the world as we are, or you’re just looking for a quick getaway to a world city, we hope that the information here might prove enlightening whilst you are planning.

Please send us a note of the travels you wish to embark on, and don’t be afraid to let the travel bug bite.

Mark & Melody

The Oystercard Doesn’t Get You to London Airports, and other London Travel Tips

More about the benefits of an Oystercard and why you should by one in London here, but it’s a little known fact that it doesn’t cover transport all the way to ANY of London’s major tourist airports: Gatwick, Heathrow or Standsted. Instead, each airport offers its own express train. 

For flying into London Gatwick, please note, it’s about two hours from London City Center, so please calculate an additional $70 USD/ £40 for two people for the Gatwick Express to Victoria Station. From there you can buy an Oystercard and get just about anywhere in London via the tube/ underground. 

For flying into London Heathrow, it’s about an hour from London City Center. The Heathrow Express travels to Paddington station in 15 minutes for about $30 / £21 if you purchase in advance. To buy the Express ticket upon arrival into an airport it’s an additional $8 / £5 per ticket. 

For flying into London Stansted, there are two public transport options to get near city center. For $14/ £9, a 55 minute bus ride will take you from the airport to Liverpool Street. For $27/ £18, a 45 minute Stansted Express train will get you from the airport to Liverpool Street. 

NOTE: once you get to Liverpool street, you can use your Oystercard to get anywhere else on the tube, the overground, or the bus system. 

If you’re traveling with a group or you don’t want to deal with inevitable crowds, a third option is a taxi from Stansted which costs between $120-150 (£80-£100), though I’ve never taken it. You’re better off downloading the Gett app and hailing a taxicab that way. 

This is important so I’m saying it twice: buy your Oystercard in London. Do not get a travel card. Do not buy one-way tickets.  And please look hard at the London Pass before subscribing. The Oystercard lets you travel like a Londoner through nearly all the zones and you can refill/ top up the card as you go. 

Happy travels! 

Your Survival Guide to Driving in Scotland

The scenery in Scotland is world class. Traveled to over a dozen countries and it’s truly some of the most majestic landscapes I have ever seen. Scotland deserves independent exploration, some time to get lost in the incredible greenness of the area. After some frustrating, laughable trial and error, we can give you this must know list to make driving in Scotland much easier. 

There are four types of roadway: M, A, B, and C. The M stands for motorway, and that’s your typical highway (ex, M6, M74). A is secondary road, a busy two or four lane road (ex, A735, A82). B and C are curvy, narrow, back country roads.

The speed limit on these roads are in MILES PER HOUR, not kilometers per hour:

M roads: 70 mph

A and B roads: 60, but sometimes required to slow to 40 or 30 mph

C roads: 30 mph

This was discovered when we were going 60kph (37 mph) on a motorway designed for 60mph. No wonder we were getting passed right and left! Speaking on passing…

Odds are if you’re visiting Scotland, you come from a country that drives on the right. Your highways have the slow lane on the right, entrance and exit ramps on the right, and the fast lane on the left, toward the middle of the highway. In the UK, people drive on the left. This means the slow lane is on the left, the entrance and exit ramps are on the left and the fast lane is to your right. If you need to pass someone, you will be moving left to right. 

Love roundabouts. Scotland uses roundabouts instead of stoplights, so your GPS will be prompting you to take exits off roundabouts with about the same frequency you stop at a light in your hometown. Some of them are quite large, while others are the size of an intersection in a suburb community. Enter roundabouts by turning LEFT. 

Signs approaching a dangerous curve or severe dip in the road will tell you to slow down but not tell you what speed to reduce to. Generally reducing speed by 5-10mph will yield a more comfortable turn. But if you’re in a sports car and you want to power slide or attempt to drift,  just maintain and you’ll get a good thrill.

Drive during the day only. In the summer, the sun doesn’t set until 10pm. Many of the A, B and C roads are without street lighting which can be very dangerous. 

Taking a car around Scotland has proven to be taxing on the body and mind, especially with a manual drive car. Nearly all rental cars in the UK are manual: automatic drive is about twice as much. However, the scenery is more than rewarding and more than worth it. 

Safe travels! 

Eating in Oslo is Outrageously Expensive

Eating Diagram

Oslo may no longer be the world’s most expensive city (it lost that rank in 2013), but it is still outrageously expensive. Unfortunately, for budget travelers looking to spend $50 USD or less, there is not a lot to do other than walk. Happy hour doesn’t exist here. Eating on the cheap doesn’t exist here. Thankfully the couple we are pet-sitting for left a fridge with some foodstuffs in it because otherwise we would DIE.

At an Irish pub, $120 was spent in Oslo on 2 Guinness, 2 ciders, a chicken club sandwich, Irish stew, and a whiskey.

We thought, no worries (actually Mark was like “WHAT!”), we’ll just eat from convenience stores and gas stations…

At a Shell gas station, $30 was spent on a Coke ($4), water bottle ($4), two Snickers bars, a muffin, and two hot dogs.

We learned that the city pretty much shuts down in July and it is cheaper to spend a month anywhere else in Europe than it is to stay in Oslo. We learned this after we walked around Oslo looking for cheap eats courtesy of Yelp, but two of the places we went to were closed.

We wound up… at a Norwegian version of Chipotle (one of two places open) where two burrito bowls cost $30.

We’ve finally given up on dining out, even as a treat, so we relegated to finding the grocery store. Only to discover…

Grocery stores close at noon on Saturday and are closed on Sunday.

When I said I wanted to lose weight, this is not what I had in mind.

What We’ve Learned After 3 Days in London

Our first stop on our 111 day journey around the world takes us to London. What a city. We had a lot of expectations, both of ourselves and of the city. Here’s what we’ve learned with a little bit of tough love from one of the world’s most cosmopolitan places, and see this link for how to do London on a Budget.

1) This is not a bargain town. With the USD-GBP exchange rate, we’re getting about 64 pounds for every $100 USD. Here’s a point of reference, all prices in pounds:

Cheap beer: 4
Nice beer: 6
175 ml glass of wine: 6-8
Appetizers (half the size of American apps so a bad substitute for dinner): 9-12
Cheap dinner: 13
Filling Dinner: 20-30

So you can see, a nice (non-budget) dinner for two could easily eat up your 64 pounds.
In other words, you’ve just spent $100 on one meal.
No tipping here. Please don’t do it. And no added-on tax. The price you see on the receipt is what you pay.

Picking up foodstuffs from supermarkets or grocery stores is key to saving money.

Cold/ Flu Medicine: 4 [please see note here about pharmacies in the UK]
Small bottle of water: 1
Large water: 2
Takeaway pasta from grocery store: 4 (or you can get lucky with a 3 for 3 deal at Sainsbury’s)
Box of tea: 2

NOTE: There are Panera Bread type places where you can purchase coffees, smoothies and bread items, but you will see two prices: a takeaway (to-go) and eat-in price. The eat-in prices are higher because of a VAT (value added tax) charge. Our suggestion? Get your items for takeaway and eat at one of the numerous parks and green spaces.

2) Please be extremely mindful of the amount of walking/ stair-climbing you do. It is very easy to wear out your body and thus make yourself sick. London is very walkable, but please please plan your visits to attractions in clusters and plan for no more than three attractions a day. It is not necessary to visit the Imperial War Museum and the National Gallery in the same day. They are on opposite sides of town and there is plenty in each “zone” to keep you busy for an entire day.

3) Buy an OysterCard the day you arrive (and think twice about the London Pass). They’re available at the airport, convenience stores, kiosks, and supermarkets. It gives you access to the tube (underground subway), the overground (above-ground subway), and the buses for very low prices. We took a bus during the tube strike: they’re great. Note: As of July 2015, the tube does not run 24 hours; in September 2015, 24 hour tube operations are scheduled to begin.

4) If you have an unlocked phone that can take a different SIM, we strongly suggest you seek out a LycaMobile SIM for 1 pound. The plan we purchased was 17 pounds and came with 2000 minutes, 5GB of data and unlimited text messages. This means we can load maps on Google with the route/ directions, put the phone on airplane mode to save battery/ data, and use the pre-loaded map. Genius. It works. It saves battery. We haven’t gotten lost.

Cheers.

xx

Snorkeling at John Pennekamp State Park – Know Before You Go!

As part of our ambitious desire to visit every state park, we thought a snorkeling adventure at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park would be an easy and fun addition to our list. We called the snorkeling crew down in Key Largo and made a reservation over the phone a day before. The next morning, we made the drive to Key Largo.

The park is easy to find with plenty of signs directing you. Like any other state park, it’s a $6 entrance fee to the park for a car with 2-8 people. With your receipt you’re given a map of the park and some history of the area.

After you park your vehicle you’ll see an education center with some wildlife and conservation information. A little further and you’ll see the area where you’ll check in, which is the gift shop and activities check-in desk together..

The conditions for the water are listed on a whiteboard when you go to check in which details the level of choppiness and visibility in the water.

They have mask, snorkel and fin rentals available in case you don’t bring your own, but I definitely suggest you find your closest WINGS store and pick up a set there. Buying a mask/ snorkel set at Pennekamp will cost a hefty $30.

Fortunately, the people at John Pennekamp don’t make you pay in advance. Unfortunately, we and two other people signed up for the snorkeling adventure and drove about two hours to get to the park. We got to the counter, big-eyed and bushy tailed, ready to snorkel to our hearts’ content when we were told…

The water is too choppy. We might not be running the tour today. If we do run the tour, you will need to be an experienced snorkeler and a strong swimmer.

FYI: I’m not the world’s strongest swimmer. Mark’s never snorkeled. The couple we were with had both snorkeled and swam, but they weren’t keen on bobbing about in choppy waters. We decided to have lunch and see how we felt about going. When we went back inside, we were told that the waters were still really choppy (the wind was gusting at about 15-20 miles per hour) and good visibility wasn’t guaranteed.

Translation: The current is kicking up a bunch of sand and you might not actually see shit.

With the tour being about $40-50 a person including the gear rental, we decided that going snorkeling on a super windy, super choppy day wouldn’t be the best idea for first-time snorkelers.

Alternative plan: We asked about the glass-bottom boat tour, but were told the choppy waters were churning up the sand and reducing visibility on the boats as well.

So, what’s a group to do in John Pennekamp if you’re not snorkeling/ glass-bottom-boating?

It turns out… not a whole lot.

There are three small beaches where you can put your towel down or post up some chairs, but the sand is packed hard and it’s really uncomfortable to lay on. There’s a few boardwalks, and there’s kayaking, but we went kayaking at Oleta River State Park the day before, so our upper bodies were sore.

We wound up leaving about an hour after lunch and headed to Crandon Park, near downtown Miami, for a classic cityscape photo shoot before driving home.

Pro-tip #1: Make a reservation a day before, then call before you leave and ask about “if the conditions are clear, the waters are smooth, and if we can see the statue.”

Pro-tip #2: Buy your own mask and snorkel, even at a drugstore. It’ll be cheaper and function just the same. And you can keep it.

Ciao!

Our Most Oft Asked Question: Travel – on the Cheap!

One of the questions that we get most often is, “How can you afford to travel? You must be rich / rolling in the dough / get money from your parents.” While all of these things would make traveling long-term much easier…it just isn’t the case for Melody and I.

Knowing that we would need to find a way to do it a little cheaper, and also knowing the type of trip that we both mutually enjoy, we set out to discover some cheaper ways to travel.

In general, the two largest cost items while traveling will be lodging and food – these are inescapable truths. While it is certainly possible to eat ramen noodles and camp in a tent, sometimes the weather and local culture may just not let that be a possibility (not to mention that would likely become old, very quickly). Striking a little bit of the middle ground, the following are a couple of other options:

  1. House-sit!We would first like to say a big thank you to Hecktic Travels for their amazing blogs and advice, as well as informing us and many others about house sitting as a travel option. Cheers, guys!Anyone with pets that loves to travel knows that bringing their animals along can make for…less than ideal trips. Traveling with a pet is expensive, and depending on your breed of dog / cat / bird / other exotic animal, may not be possible at all. For the longer trips, it is also not possible to leave your animals unattended (you wouldn’t do that, right?).

    Boarding your animals is another option – but again expensive.

    Some are lucky that they have close family or friends to watch after their furry / feathered babies – but again, not always possible for longer stays.

    For people who fall outside of these lovely conveniences, consider having someone come sit your house!

    In exchange for lodging, you can have a trusted and verified traveler stay at your house and care for your animals / property. The requirements for the stays are clearly stated (expectations and duration), and there are even some that are paid – though not very many – your mileage may vary.

    For our uses, we used Mind My House and Trusted House Sitters, but there are many others out there. Not only will you get to visit some unique and interesting destinations, but in most cases your only costs will be transit expense, food and some time commitment. A secondary bonus for people like us who live in a place that having animals is forbidden – you even get to enjoy the company of the resident animals.

  2. Help ExchangeMelody and I both enjoy staying active. We also love to meet new people and immerse ourselves in new cultures – out of the city and away from the tourist areas. Don’t get me wrong, we love to see the sights too, but there is something powerful about the countryside and the people that live outside of the hustle and bustle of the city.Keeping these things in mind, we set out to find a way to immerse ourselves into the everyday life of a local – and save some money doing it along the route. When we came across Help Exchanges, we knew we had found a winner.

    For our uses, we use HelpX – although there are many more sites out there that do the same thing.

    Simplified, a help exchange is an exchange of your time and labor for lodging and food.

    This exchange comes in many shapes and sizes, but the postings usually detail exactly what the expectations are in advance. The number of hours you are expected to work will vary, but most that we have seen are between 20-25 hours per week.

    Some examples of what you might expect to find:

    Hostel Operator looking for help in maintaining hostel. 20 hours per week to include: Admitting guests, making beds, dusting lobby, preparing food, general cleaning. In exchange you will receive private lodging with bathroom. Minimum 30 day stay.

    or

    Looking for helpers to work in the garden with some experience of gardening and growing vegetables to get the spring work done. Four hours work per each nights stay in return for 3 meals per day and accommodation. Double en-suite bedroom and single bed. Fresh food from the garden where possible and all home cooked meals prepared for you.

  3. AirBNBIf neither of the above sound overly interesting, or you are not really interested in working for your lodging / food, fear not! There are other options for you.AirBNB is, in effect, a house / room / couch sharing site designed to allow homeowners the opportunity to earn a little extra income on empty or unoccupied rooms within their home. These rooms are usually priced substantially below what you might find at a hotel in the same area.

    For smaller groups 2-3, this might actually be cheaper than if you were to individually stay at a hostel.

    The site itself is very simple to navigate, and rooms are available in 190+ countries.Capture

    With an available mobile application, the ability to instantly book rooms, and read reviews from others who have stayed, Airbnb is a viable option for those planning far in advance, or on the fly.

For our purposes, we will be using a combination of the three, in addition to some other creative maneuvering to create the most memorable and dynamic trip that we can.

We have almost finalized our rough travel itinerary, so keep an eye out for that soon. In the meantime, keep thinking about that trip you would like to take, and… don’t be afraid to let the travel bug bite.

Cheers!

Mark & Melody

Bucket List in Progress: Every Country in the World

A VERY rough draft of our course in Europe, subject to change based on places we may fall in love with or where we house-sit (more on that in an upcoming post!)
Arriving into London

Starting with Europe!

We have finally decided to take the trip we have talked about for a long while.

To get away.

Explore.

While this has been a thought of ours for a while, it is only through a bit of luck, and a bit of misfortune that we are being given the opportunity. Until February, I was nose to the grindstone – 70+ hours a week devoted to a company. While I learned a great deal in the position that I was filling, there was just something missing. The freedom to travel!

At the end of February, I was laid off due to company cut-backs. While at first this was very upsetting – and certainly a huge shift in the way I lived my life – I am now relieved that it happened then instead of later.

For both Melody and I, few things are more exciting than travel – both planning and executing (see State Signs Tour: III, and III). With this newfound freedom we plan to live out, plan and execute a mutual goal to step foot on every country in the world, together – beginning with every country in Europe over the Summer.

While I do not regularly post on here, I encourage you to follow our Facebook Page for more regular announcements from myself and Melody. Once we get a little further into the planning stages, you can expect to see more regular posts both here and on our Facebook where you can follow our progress to see how we are doing with our goal.

Until then, stay well and don’t be afraid to let the travel bug bite you too!

Going Airbnb? Check Your Assumptions First

Airbnb is a great tool to find authentic places in the city, in the suburbs, up in trees, down by the ocean, hosted by locals that affords you a more genuine experience. Prices range dramatically across 190 countries, from $10 a bed to several hundred. You can rent out entire villas, mansions, downtown flats, or rent out a single room or even a futon.

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This variation is great. I must advise you, on behalf of those variations, to be aware of some assumptions. Here’s a 5-count list of the things that surprised me at my first AirBnb.

1. The hosts might not be there to greet you, or meet with you period.

One of the things I looked forward to was meeting new people in my new location as soon as possible. I was surprised that the hosts weren’t there and that they wouldn’t be around. It’s not their primary residence. This was one of several places they owned. I assumed the hosts wanted to at least put a face to the person staying in their house. Nope. Apparently not bothered by this at all.

Pro tip: If this will bother you, most listings on Airbnb will note whether the hosts are there to greet you.

I’ll be sure to look for this when booking my next listing.

2. Not the hosts’ fault, but sometimes the neighbors wake up really early. And sometimes the neighbors’ dogs wake up early too.

Ah, the bane of urban living. In Chicago you can hardly sneeze without being on someone else’s property. That being said, the unit below us had a tiny yippy dog that decided to start its yipping rounds about 7am. The dog would yip on and off for a couple of hours, which are precious hours after a long flight on a plane, or at a bar…

3. You may have housemates that you don’t interact with…at all.

Another cool thing I assumed (and was totally wrong about) is that fellow house mates want to hang out with you. We were lucky that the housemates at least greeted us as we walked out. We only saw them once, and never engaged in witticisms over travel and bonded over whiskey. Nope. A quick hello, goodbye and they were off.

4. You may be sharing a house with someone who balls up wet towels in the bathroom or leaves dishes in the sink.

College, 2.0. I don’t know why this bothers me (it’s not a catastrophe in my own house) when I travel, but I was a little peeved by a balled up wet towel in the bathroom. It’s kind of like leaving the cork off of the wine; you know someone else wants to enjoy it, so why leave those good things to spoil? Especially in a place where it’s like 21 degrees outside and everything with water on it suddenly freezes.

Also not a problem in my house, but I hate cups in the sink. Cups are really the most annoying thing to wash. Second only to Tupperware.

5. Not every shower in the universe has water as hot as you like it or pressure as high as you need it. 

Apparently I like my shower water temperature: skin-burning hot. Old buildings simply can’t deliver. Also, I need more than a light poof of water. Who doesn’t like waterfall shower heads? Please comment if you don’t.

Ciao.

xx

Hontoon Island State Park – Minutes from Orlando, Worlds Away

We’re a bit off-beat. We like off the beaten path adventures, off the tourist trail destinations, and off the major highway eats and treats. For New Years weekend, we decided to celebrate by camping in the wilderness, north of Orlando in Hontoon Island State Park.

The name by itself had me wondering an island exists in the middle of the state. Is it a hidden, lesser known version of Alcatraz? Is it the setting for a new series of horror novels? Is this Stephen King’s vacation residence?

Unfortunately (or fortunately), none of the above are true. I was delightfully surprised to find a hidden gem kind of place.

First of all, it’s only an island by about two hundred feet. That’s the span from the “mainland” to the “island”. This lovely little taxi (with room for only six!) schleps people to and from the parking lot (mainland) as needed from 8am to 5pm.

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There is no charge to park. Wheelbarrows are provided to unload camping gear into while waiting for this taxi. Hontoon Island staff make it very easy to move things about. A complimentary van ride will take you and your stuff to your campsite. When you are packed up, simply give them a buzz and that same van will pick you and your things up. Bear in mind that even though the website says a 2 tent maximum per campsite it’s not really enforced so long as you don’t cause a ruckus.

Wildlife:

There are bears. Yes. Bears on an island. Deer. Armadillos. Lots of ‘Coons running around. Poisonous snakes. And the most aggressive mosquitoes I have ever experienced. You’ve got to douse yourself in bug spray if you are camping from November to February because the mosquitoes will eat you alive.

Facilities:

There are public (hot) showers and public bathrooms. There’s a coke machine also. One of my friends remarked that, because of this, we weren’t actually camping (though I beg to differ). Everything was well equipped. We had a first time camper with us and she had a great time; moreover, the campgrounds are family friendly. A lot of people bring kids over for a day trip and everyone seems to have a ball.

There’s a small general store with postcards, bug spray, sunscreen, toiletry items and some snacks all at fair prices. This is also where you buy firewood, fire-starters and Duralogs.

Each campsite is outfitted with a firepit and griddle to cook on. There are trash cans by the public washrooms (and that nefarious Coke machine), so at the end of the night (due to the bears and other animals) it’s best to walk the trash to the bear-proof trash bins.

Things to do:

Fish. You can catch an assortment of freshwater fish. If you’re a Florida resident, it’s worth the $20 to get a fishing license which is valid for a year.

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Hiking is another great option, recommended earlier in the day as the air seems to stagnate until you get close to the water. Cypress trees are abundant here, and when you see a group of them together, create a feeling within that this is not that place to be once the sun goes down.

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A lot of people canoe and kayak around this area. In fact, Blue Springs is an hour away by kayak (without wind) or two hours with the wind blowing against you. To travel from Hontoon to Blue Springs, you have to traverse the St. John’s River, which has a very fast moving northbound current.  Blue Springs is a bit south of Hontoon, so you will be rowing against the current to Blue Springs, and with the current coming back. Even though it’s a hell of an upper body workout, Blue Springs is worth the trip because of some amazing emerald waters and the chance to see the manatee’s winter home.

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Believe it or not, the water is truly that green. Remarkably, you can see down into the bubbling spring from the boardwalk. (Blue Springs is swimmable when it’s not busy being the manatee winter home from October to April).

Finally, it wouldn’t be a spectacular Florida destination without a riveting sunset. This was taken right as we arrived back from Blue Spring, without any photo editing or filters.

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Cheers!

MarkandMelody