6 non-touristy activities that help you connect

I left Seattle at the beginning of February with a rather aggressive travel plan. Five months, five countries. From India through Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, China and finally to Mongolia. I was going to conquer each of these countries!

Except that after seven weeks in India I discovered my itinerary was starting to feel more like work — and work was preciously what I decided to take a break from when I sold my IT consulting company last year.

So, I abandoned my original itinerary and down shifted. I started spending more time in fewer places and seeking out different experiences — fewer of the top ten tourist hits and more of a connection to the people and culture of the places I was visiting — this was what I realized I most wanted from my time away from home.

Here are the strategies I used as I spent time in a few different cities during the past four months, including London, Berlin, Zurich, and Dubrovnik. All of these helped me connect with people and get involved in ways that were deeper and more meaningful than what I’m usually able to experience as a tourist.

1. Meet a local

I met Vidya and Ravi in the Andaman Islands while I was traveling in India in February 2011. We shared a meal and now I have friends in Chennai.

I love meeting people when I travel. In fact, my best memories almost always have to do with the people — both locals and fellow travelers — I met along the way.

The folks I meet not only provide an insight into and a connection with the place I’m visiting, but they also remind me that the majority of the people on our planet are good and really not that different than you and me (and certainly not our enemies, as some would have us believe). In this way, connecting with the locals is both interesting and fun, but also important.

There are a ton of ways to meet people — sitting at a bar and talking with the bartender, saying hi to locals that are hanging out in a cafe or park, or getting involved in an activity. While the venue can help set the stage, being friendly and putting yourself out there is really the key.

There are also sites like Badoo and CouchSurfing that can help too. And don’t forget to ask your friends and colleagues who they know in your destinations — a quick post to Facebook will often yield great connections.

2. Exercise

The Stadtbad (city bath) in Berlin's Neukölln district provides a dramatic backdrop for lap swimming.

Exercise is not only an important element of staying healthy while you’re traveling, it’s great way to connect with people and take in a physical environment or landscape that you might not otherwise get to experience as a visitor.

Depending on whether you’re interested in exercising with a group (which is a great way to meet locals) or prefer to set out on your own, there are a few ways to get started.

For group workouts, search for clubs that practice your activity of choice. For example, in many cities you’ll find a running group that comes together on a regular basis or a swim team that has regularly scheduled workouts. Most welcome visitors — just be sure to contact the group leader ahead of time as some groups require advance notice of your arrival.

If you’re setting out on your own, use the internet to search for suitable routes (e.g. running, biking, open water swimming) or facilities (e.g. indoor swimming pools). For example, MapMyRun publishes running maps and routes their members have recorded using the company’s mobile app.

3. Make a meal

Quinoa Salad with shredded carrots, green onions, tomatoes, and walnuts. Made from ingredients I purchased at the Morning Market in Dubrovnik, Croatia.

If you have access to kitchen, actively participating in the local food economy is a great way to connect with the people and culture of a particular place. (Not to mention the health benefits and savings that come along with cooking for yourself.)

Start by hitting the nearest farmer’s market. There you’ll be able to pick up fresh and local fruits and vegetables and maybe even things like honey, nuts, jams, fish/meats, eggs, and bread. Then pass by a supermarket for anything else you might need like olive oil, sea salt/pepper, spices, pasta, grains, beans, or wine. And be sure to invite one of the locals you’ve just befriend to share your meal.

4. Volunteer

Photo courtesy of Gabriel Kamener, Sown Together

There’s probably no quicker way to connect with the place you’re in than by getting involved with a local issue. Volunteering is a great way to meet the people and it provides exposure to the challenges the community is facing.

Check your guidebook for suggested organizations and causes for the city you’re visiting. Also, organizations like International Volunteer Headquarters and World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) can help connect you with volunteer opportunities.

5. Take a class

Photo courtesy of kristi-san.

Learning a new language, cuisine, craft, dance, song, or instrument — these are all great ways to deepen your experience and connection with the place you’re visiting. Plus traveling is a perfect time to pick up a new skill.

Check your guidebook for recommendations on classes, talk with the folks that manage the place where you’re staying, and also look for flyers posted in local restaurants and cafés.

6. Go to the movies

The Pioneer Cinema of 1909, Poland. Photo courtesy of onnola.

This is certainly an activity that you can do at home, but seeing a movie in a foreign city is an entertaining new experience.

From the architecture of the theater, to the commercials aired at the beginning of — and in some cases during — the movie, how seats are assigned (movie houses in some countries operate more like theaters with assigned seating and flash-light equipped-docents that help you find your seat), they way the audience behaves (audiences that rely solely on subtitles can sometimes be a bit chatty), and the different refreshments available for consumption — all of these elements provide a glimpse of the people and culture you’re visiting — plus, there’s also the movie to watch!

What are some of the ways you’ve connected with the people and places you’ve visited?

Get your voicemail online while traveling

Listening to voice messages left on your mobile phone can be expensive when you’re traveling internationally. This is because carriers require you to dial their messaging system (resulting international roaming charges) — or — if you’re an iPhone user — to download the message using your phone’s data connection (also expensive unless you’re using WiFi).

Instead of using the carrier’s voice messaging system on your mobile phone, switch to Google Voice, which allows you to store and retrieve your messages online, in one central place so you never have to worry about messages being deleted. Plus, the service will convert voicemails into text and send them to you by email or text message (SMS).

Google Voice is completely free and works with all of the major US mobile carriers, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. You can also use this with a landline, as long as your provider allows you to forward unanswered calls to a different number.

Here’s how to set it up:

  1. First, create a Google Voice account. As part of this, select the I want to use my mobile number option.
  2. After completing the verification process, click Settings in the upper right corner, locate your mobile phone, and click Activate Google voicemail on this phone.
  3. Follow the instructions provided to enable voicemail forwarding on your mobile phone. For example, AT&T users will dial *004*xxx-xxx-xxxx# (where xxx-xxx-xxxx is your Google Voice phone number) and press Call.
  4. Lastly, click the Voicemail tab to record your outgoing greeting by using the buttons provided in the Voicemail Greeting section.

To have your messages transcribed to text sent to you by email and/or SMS:

  1. Click Settings in the upper right corner, then click the Voicemail tab.
  2. Under Voicemail Notifications, check Email the message to and select an email address where you’d like to receive your voicemail transcriptions.
  3. To send receive voicemail transcripts via SMS (text message), check Send a text (SMS) message to and selecting your mobile phone from the list provided.
  4. Finally, under Voicemail Transcripts, check Transcribe Voicemails and click Save Changes at the bottom of the page.

Now that you’ve replaced your carrier’s voice messaging system with Google Voice, here’s how to retrieve your messages:

  1. Online through the Google Voice Website or the mobile optimized version of the site at m.google.com/voice.
  2. Through the Google Voice phone system by calling the Google Voicemail number provided with your account.
  3. By email, if you’ve enabled this option.
  4. Using the Google Voice iPhone app.

Don’t worry — you can disable voicemail forwarding to Google Voice at any time by logging into Google Voice, clicking Settings in the upper right corner, clicking Deactivate voicemail, and following the instructions provided.

Now that you have Google Voice fully setup and configured, you’ll no longer have to call in to retrieve your voice messages (saving you international roaming charges), and you’ll the flexiblity of listening to your messages using any computer or phone with internet access.

Thank you to HTT reader, Amy S., for inspiring this topic!

India by train – a comprehensive how-to guide

India has an extensive train network that can get you nearly everywhere – some 63,000km of routes and nearly 7,000 stations making it the third largest in the world. Not only is it an incredibly economical way of getting around the country, traveling by train also provides an experience of India and its people that you simply can’t get at in a plane 30,000ft above the earth. No trip to India would be complete without at least one journey by train, preferably one that is overnight.

A few details

There are a few things you’ll want to understand before you dive in and start searching for trains: seating classes, quotas, and waitlists.

Seating classes

India Railways offers no less than eight seating classes throughout its network (though usually only two to four on any given train). Here is a quick overview of the seating classes with their official accommodation class codes. Guidebooks and websites all seems to use their own version of these codes so 1A could be A1, 1AC, or AC1. Focus on the number (seating class) and whether it comes with air conditioning (AC).

  • First Class Air Conditioned (1A) – Coaches are divided into lockable and carpeted compartments with either two or four berths. A berth is simply a bed attached to the wall of the compartment. Lower and middle berths can be secured vertically during the day (so they’re out of the way) and then brought down (usually at night) for sleeping. This level of service (1A) is only found on the most important long distance trains and it’s not possible to request a specific type of compartment (two or four berths). Pillows, sheets, and blankets are distributed at night.
  • 2-tier Air Conditioned Sleeper (2A) – Coaches are divided into open bays with two upper and two lower berths on the left side of the aisle and one upper and one lower berth on the right side. Lower berths are used for sitting during the day and converted to beds at night. Each bay is curtained for privacy and pillows, sheets, and blankets are distributed at night. Found on nearly all long-distance trains.
  • 3-tier Air Conditioned Sleeper (3A) – Similar in every way to 2A, except three levels of berths (lower, middle, upper) are found on the left side of the aisle, meaning there are two additional passengers in each bay.
  • First Class (FC) – non air-conditioned coaches with locking four and two-berth compartments. No bedding is included in the fare, but is often available for a small fee. This seating class is being phased out in favor of 2A coaches.
  • AC Executive Chair Class (1A) – Air conditioned coaches with upright seats, much like you’d find in trains throughout the west. Only found on the the Shatabhi Express trains (e.g. Delhi to Agra). Note: this seating class uses the same code as First Class Air Conditioned.
  • AC Chair Class (CC) – Air conditioned coaches with upright seats often found on intercity trains traveling during the day. This is a good choice for for daytime travel.
  • Sleeper Class (SL) – Open air coaches (meaning no windows and no AC) similar in configuration to 2A. This is the standard choice for Indians traveling long distances, so it can be quite crowded. Bedding is not provided, so be sure to bring a sleeping bag or sack.
  • Second Sitting (2S) – Open air coaches with either wooden or padded bench seating. An okay choice for short distance daytime travel.

Tip: 3-tier AC (3A) or higher is the best option for most travelers for overnight journeys as are any of the AC chair cars for daytime journeys.

Tip: Upper berths provide the most privacy (but you do have to hoist yourself up, which can take a little practice). If you get a lower berth you’ll be sharing it with the other passengers during the day and have to negotiate with them if you decide to sleep before they’re ready to do so.


Indian Railways has set up a complicated system of reserved seats for different groups of people (tourists, women, senior citizens, high officials, etc.). Here are the three you most need to know about:

  • General – Open to everybody!
  • Tatkal – Meaning “immediate” in Hindi, these are for latecomers, allowing you to book tickets just 2 days before the actual date of journey for a small surcharge, between Rs. 75 and Rs. 300.
  • Tourist – Seats set aside specifically for foreign tourists, but they must be purchased at a train station (be sure to bring your passport) which can be impractical if you’ve already reached your destination and aren’t near a station. For example, the nearest train station to Orchha is in Jhansi which is 20km away. Even so, sometimes this may be the only way of getting a seat for your desired departure date.


It’s quite likely that you’ll find the perfect train only to discover that either your preferred seating class or the entire train is fully booked. This can be a common and frustrating experience, especially if you’re purchasing tickets as you go. Be sure to check availability for a higher or lower seating classes as well as other trains departing on the same day.

Indian Railways has developed a complicated (yet elegant) two-tiered system of waitlisting to ensure that trains are filled to capacity: Reserved Against Cancellation and Waitlisted.

  • Reserved Against Cancellation (RAC) – A certain number of RAC seats are allocated for each seating class and are sold once the seating class is fully booked. Passengers on the RAC list at the time of departure may still board and travel on the train and are provided a seat (but not necessarily a berth) in the relevant seating class. This means if you end up with an RAC seat in 3-tier AC (3A) on an overnight journey, you may be sitting upright all night with another RAC passenger (or taking turns sleeping). Chances are generally good that an RAC passenger will end up with the seat or berth he or she intended to book from the beginning.
  • Waitlisted (WL) – Once RAC seats are exhausted, passengers can still purchase tickets. Passengers that are WL at the time of departure cannot board the train and are entitled to a refund.
Availability of AC 3 Tier (3A) seats from Kolkata to Varanasi, one month out. Green: the number of seats still available. Yellow: number of RAC still available. Pink: number of waitlisted passengers.

Now that you understand the two-tiers of the Indian Railways waitlisting system, here’s how seats are confirmed:

  • As passengers with confirmed reservations cancel — or — when unused seats that were previously set aside as part of the quota system are released on the day of departure, these seats are given to RAC passengers who are then confirmed and assigned a seat/berth.
  • As RAC seats open up, WL passengers are automatically promoted to RAC.
  • This process repeats each time a seat becomes available up until the day of departure when the final seating chart is produced.

For example, if there are 6 RAC and 20 WL passengers and 8 seats become available, all 6 RAC and the first 2 WL passengers are confirmed and assigned seats. Of the remaining 18 WL passengers, the first 6 are promoted to RAC and the last 12 remain WL unless more seats become available, at which time the process repeats.

It doesn’t matter whether you purchased an RAC or WL ticket, it only matters where you end up on the day of departure when the seating chart is finalized. As noted above, if you end up with an RAC seat, then you can board, otherwise, you’ll need to get a refund and book a new ticket.

You can check your current standing (whether you’ve moved up on the list) or whether you’ve been confirmed and assigned a seat/berth at any time using the PNR (passenger number) printed on your ticket. Both Cleartrip and the official Indian Railways website allow you to look up your PNR status.

Researching your journey

Now that you understand the different types of seats and berths available, the three main quotas, and how the waitlisting process works, you can start searching for trains to your destination. Here are the tools and resources you can use to research connections, departure times, and seat availability:

  • Guidebooks – These provide a great starting place for understanding how to get from one city to another. Use them as well to determine which stations best serve your travel plans since the big cities all have multiple stations, some of which aren’t located in the city center.
  • Websites – The first thing that you should know is that the official Indian Railways website is awful. It’s hard to use, it crashes often, and it doesn’t accept non-Indian credit cards, so you can’t actually purchase a ticket. Instead use a commercial site like Cleartrip (who gladly accepts foreign credit cards) to search for and purchase tickets. Cleartrip also provides a great availability calendar that allows you to quickly see the number of seats available or waitlist status of trains between two cities for a 15-day period.
  • Local travel agents – These folks can help you figure out which trains you should take if the routing isn’t clear. For example, if there isn’t a direct train and you need to book two separate legs. They’re also helpful when there are waitlists and when you’re not able to search or book online. They can also advise you on other transport options that may make more sense (e.g. bus or plane). Travel agents are found nearly everywhere you’re likely to venture as a traveller.
  • Printed timetable – If you’re in India, pick up a copy of ‘Trains at a Glance’ for about Rs. 45 at bookstalls and train stations. It’s helpful for trip planning when internet connectivity isn’t available, which is more often than you might expect. With the aid of a map, a guidebook, and this timetable you should able to plot your course and chose a train. Of course, you’ll need to check actual seat availability online or with a travel agent.

Keep in mind, that city names can vary from what you might be used to (e.g. Bombay vs. Mumbai) and that there will be times when getting there by bus or plane may be the better option. For example, if better to take a bus or plane between Mumbai and Udaipur.

Booking your ticket

Once you’ve figured out which train and class of service you’d like to book, you’ll need to purchase your ticket. Yes, reservations are required on all long-distance trains – you can’t just show up and hop on. In fact, popular routes fill up quickly and often a week or more in advance. So, it can often be difficult to purchase the tickets you’d like with little notice, especially during holidays or festivals.

When you’re ready to purchase a ticket, here are your options:

  • Online – This is by far the easiest solution. You’ll need to use a site like Cleartrip which accepts non-Indian credit cards (and charges a small fee). You won’t be able to purchasing tickets using the Tourist Quota, but you can access the General and Tatkal quotas. Make sure you have access to a printer — you’ll need to present your ticket once on board.
  • Local travel agents – Again, these folks can be helpful when you’re having difficulty booking online or if you need advice on waitlists. They also charge a small fee on top of the price of the ticket.
  • Train station ticketing office – Another option if you’re close to a station. Pick up a reservation slip and fill in the names of the departure and destination stations, the train number, and your desired class of service. You’ll need to join the line to the ticket window. In larger cities there are dedicated windows for foreigners and sometimes separate queues for women.

Boarding your train

You’ve purchased your ticket and have arrived at the train station ready for your next adventure.

Your train, coach, and seat number will be printed on your ticket. You will need each of these numbers to get seated in the right place going to the right city.

Finding your train

When you arrive at the train station, you’ll need to find which track your train will depart from, which you can often do using the display monitors in the lobby of most stations. Stay put in the lobby area until about 10-15 minutes before your train’s departure in case of delays or track changes. The loudspeakers used to announce these changes, if they exist, can be difficult to hear from the platform because of their poor quality or placement and the general commotion on the platforms.

Note: In December 2010, Indian Railway converted from a four to five-digit train numbering scheme, however as of March 2011, it was still common to see the old four-digit train numbers in use. You can figure out the new number for most trains by simply adding a 1 or 2 to the beginning of the old four-digit number. For example the old train number for the Manahagari Express, which departs from Mumbai CST for Varanasi, was 1093; the new number is 11093. This is not a hard and fast rule, but can be helpful if you encounter the old numbering scheme.

Finding your coach

While you’re figuring out which track the train will depart from, you’ll also need to figure out where along the platform your coach will be. Don’t underestimate the importance of figuring this out ahead of time:

  • Yes, coaches are numbered, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be connected in numerical order. This is India!
  • Indian trains can be long – 18 to 24 coaches — and each coach is approximately 70ft / 22m in length. Do the math and you’ll realize this means the train can be nearly 1/3 mile or .5 km long – not a distance you’ll want to run with luggage.
  • Unless your train originates from your departure city, you’ll only have a few minutes to board once the train comes to a stop. You’ll need these precious minutes to find your way through the mass of humanity that is people disembarking and boarding at the same time.

Here’s how to find your coach:

  • Along with the track and current departure time, some train stations display a picture of the train with each of its coaches in order so you can determine where your coach will be in the line-up. Use this picture to position yourself on the platform.
  • Some stations have small LED displays along the platform with the coach number that you can use to position yourself before the train arrives.
  • If your train originates from your departure city, then it should be sitting on the track and you’ll be able to walk up and down the train to find your coach, with relative calm.
  • If your train originates in a different city, first, determine which direction your train is coming from then position yourself at the mid-point of the platform. As the train rolls into the station, keep an eye on each passing coach number. If your coach passes you, then turn around and start walking quickly toward the front of the train. If you haven’t seen your coach the moment the train begins to slow, then start walking toward the back of the train until you find your coach.

Finding your seat

Once you’re on board, finding your seat should be relatively easy, using the numbered decals throughout the coach. However, if you’re boarding a coach with sleeping berths, these can be obscured by the curtains for each bay.

Hiring porter

If you’d rather not deal with all of this coach finding madness, there is a solution! Hire a porter. For a small fee, the porter will make sure you and your bag end up in the right place.

Enjoying the journey

Food and drink

There are no restaurant cars on Indian trains, and except for a few of the premier routes (Rajdhani Express and Shatabdi Express), food is not included in your fare — but that doesn’t mean you’ll go hungry.

Generally speaking, an attendant will come through to take orders for veg or non-veg meals. About an hour or so later your meal will appear in small foil containers. The food may not be very inspiring, but it’s cheap. In addition there will be a steady stream of vendors selling drinks (water, tea, soft drinks) and snacks (chips, peanuts, and even hot soup). Be sure to listen for the signature call of the Chaiwalla as he walks down the aisle selling chai tea  — it’s a quintessential detail of Indian train travel.

It’s always a good idea to bring extra food and a bottle of water to replace or supplement what’s available on board, especially if you have specific dietary requirements. Be sure to also bring enough small bills/change to make purchases on board.


Don’t expect any entertainment on board, except for the passing Indian landscapes and conversations with fellow passengers. If that’s not enough, then bring a good book and some music and be prepared to catch up on your sleep (if you’re traveling in one of the sleeper coaches).

Electrical outlets are provided in most classes, in case you need to recharge your mobile, MP3 player, or netbook.


Bedding is provided on all air conditioned sleeper coaches (1A/2A/3A) but not in Sleeper Class (SL). In all sleeping compartments the lower berth is converted into a seat during the day, so if you’d rather sleep, be sure to book an upper berth.

When it comes time to sleep, you’ll first want to arrange your sheets and blanket (if provided), deposit your shoes on the floor, and then hoisted yourself up using the small “ladders” on the aisle end of each berth.

Don’t be surprised if you board during the middle of the day and find passengers fast asleep. If you are traveling during the day and would prefer to remain seated upright, book one of these classes: First Class Air Conditioned (1A), First Class (FC), AC Chair Class (CC) or Second Sitting (2S). Otherwise you may be forced into a horizontal position for the length of your journey.


Don’t expect western standards of hygiene, but the toilets in air conditioned coaches are generally good by Indian standards (but less so in Sleeper and non-AC 2nd Class). Both western and Indian squat toilets are usually available, but you’ll need to supply your own toilet paper. And don’t use the toilets when you’re stopped at a station. Yes, that’s the ground you see when you look down.


This is not one of those “when in Rome” moments. Don’t throw your garbarge out the window. Instead either deposit it in one of the receptacles at the end of the coach or collect and place it on the ground under the lower berth next to the aisle for the attendants to collect (and be sure to tip a few rupees for this service).

Be sure to share your India train travel tips and experiences with us!

Managing postal mail during a long trip

I left Seattle at the beginning of February and I’m not planning to return until the end June — about 5 months of travel.

One of the challenges of traveling for extended periods of time is managing mail (the kind the carrier in the blue uniform delivers six days a week). With all of the options for receiving bills by email and paying them online, postal mail isn’t nearly as important as it once was, but let’s be real, there’s still stuff that arrives that needs to be open, read, and dealt with, like car registration notices, property tax assessments, etc. Perhaps not fun, but still important.

I briefly considered my options: have a friend check my mailbox or ignore it and hope nothing important arrives, but neither of these were practical.

First, I rented out my condo and needed a solution that would allow the renter to receive his mail while not having to deal with mine. Second, while I sold the IT services company that I founded in 2002 late last year, I knew I’d continue to receive and need to deal with mail related to the LLC. And lastly, I wanted a solution that I could use on an ongoing basis during future trips.

A year or so ago, a company named Earth Class Mail set up shop next to the post office near my old office in Pioneer Square (Seattle’s old historic neighborhood). They were advertising a service that allows you to receive mail online. I had no need for it at the time, but filed it away in the back of my brain.

As I was preparing for my latest trip, I thought I’d take a look at Earth Class Mail, and ultimately decided to give them a try. Here’s how their service works:

  • I set up an account and selected a new mailing address. There were a few options to choose from including PO Boxes and so-called “premium” street addresses. I chose the Seattle-based PO Box, which cost me a little extra — $2.95/month.
  • I forwarded all of my mailing using the standard USPS change of address process and then began updating my address with all of the companies I do business with.
  • As mail is arrives, Earth Class Mail scans and uploads an image of the envelope to their online portal.
  • From the portal I can request the envelope be opened and the contents scanned, shredded or recycled, or forwarded to another address. It takes them about a day to open, scan, and upload a letter, which is then available online as a PDF.

The setup process itself was rather straightforward, but did involve returning a notarized USPS authorization form requiring a bit of legwork.

The base monthly cost is $19.95, and then there are a few extras you have to factor in: actual mail scanning ($1.50/item) and their optional shredding service ($4.95/month, or you can have your mail recycled, but I don’t think it’s wise to recycle letters that contain personal or financial information). Here’s a breakdown of what I paid in the past 30-days:

Description Cost
Monthly Subscription $19.95
Address Fee (for Seattle PO Box) $2.95
Content Scans $12.00
Unlimited Shredding Option $4.95
Total $39.85

This may seem like a lot — another monthly expensive — but it’s given me the freedom to travel for months on end (which is a huge cost savings compared to living in the US) while continuing to manage all of my personal and business affairs.

I’ve been using the service for just over 2 months and have been quite happy. Every few days I log in to the online portal to review any new mail that has arrived, decide what I want scanned/shredded/recycled, and then download the mail that was scanned since my last log in.

How have you managed postal mail during long trips?

3 hotel alternatives that are better and cheaper

Hotel Alternatives

If you’ve done any traveling in the developing world, you’ve probably come to appreciate how far your dollars/euros/pounds will take you. On my recent trip to India I spent $10-20/night for decent accommodations and not much more for food and activities. Back in the west, even relatively affordable cities like Berlin can feel quite expensive, especially for those on an extended journey. This is partly due to the poor performance of the dollar against the euro, but let’s face it, things just cost more — a lot more — in the west.

But it’s not just about the cost — if you value having access to a kitchen or a place to safely park your rented bike, if you appreciate non-sterile living spaces, or if you’d prefer to spend your time in an actual neighborhood rather than the tourist or commercial district of a city, then check out these alternatives that can not only save you a ton of money but actually be better than staying in a hotel:

  • Friends or friends-of-friends. This may seem obvious, but I recently came to Berlin thinking I didn’t know anybody in this city. After a quick post to Facebook asking friends to connect me with the people they knew, I not only ended up with free accommodation for my first week, but also an invitation to Berghain, one of Berlin’s hottest dance clubs. Both were awesome introductions to the city. Chances are you know somebody that has a connection in your destination city.
  • Private rentals. Sites like Airbnb, Homeaway, and VBRO make it possible for people to rent out individual rooms or entire flats/houses to travelers. After staying with friends my first week in Berlin, I moved to a private room in Mitte off Torstraße and then again to another private room in Kreuzberg. Both were really great rooms in hip Berlin neighborhoods costing me less than $40/night.
  • Free couchesCouchsurfing is another great alternative that connects travelers with locals who have a couch or a spare bed/bedroom available at no cost. This is another excellent way to save money while meeting interesting locals who’ll often share their insider perspective with you.

What other accommodations have you found that are both better and less expensive than traditional hotels?

Filing income taxes while traveling abroad

In honor of the personal income tax filing deadline today in the US, I wanted to share how to managed to submit my tax returns while traveling.

I’m currently on a five month trip. I left in February and am planning to return to Seattle at the end of June – completely missing the tax season. (If only this were a check box on the 1040 that said “Sorry, I can’t be bothered to submit this form because I’m away traveling!”)

Now, I should say, that I’ve had a CPA for the past eight years which greatly reduces the amount of time and effort involved with preparing my business and personal tax returns, but it has always been my job to gather and submit all of the supporting tax documents and information, sign and submit the returns to the IRS, and pay any taxes that were due. None of these tasks is overly complicated and all are easily accomplished from home, but taking care of taxes while traveling added a few complications.

How I did it

The first thing I did was sign up for the IRS’s EFTPS service. This is an online tool that allows you to submit estimated quarterly and yearly tax payments. The enrollment process is decently straight-forward, but does involve the IRS does sending an enrollment PIN by US mail, which means you have to sign up for the service a few weeks before your departure – or – make sure you have access to your mail while you’re away.

I then gathered and scanned all of the tax-related paperwork and information I had in-hand before my departure, and stored these as PDFs using Dropbox. As more documents arrived by mail, my mailing service, Earth Class Mail, scanned and uploaded them as PDFs so I could access these from any internet café. Once I had all of the documents and paperwork together, I submitted them to my CPA using their ShareFile account. (I could have also shared these using Dropbox, but the firm had standardized on ShareFile.)

When the returns were finally prepared, the CPA emailed them to me as PDFs so I could review and approve. And once we agreed they were good to go, he emailed me the authorization forms required to submit these on my behalf electronically to the IRS. So far, so good.

The last thing I needed to do was print, sign, and return the authorization forms. Printing and signing was relatively easy – most internet cafes in India had printers available and charged a nominal 5 to 10 rupees per page – but returning the document turned out to be a bit of a challenge.

Since the documents contained my name, social security number, and signature, I didn’t want to scan and email them, as I would have back home. I was worried the internet café could have retained a copy of the scanned page. As an old-school and slightly more secure alternative, I tried faxing, but the connection repeatedly failed and the fax never went through.

After a bit of creative problem solving, I used my iPhone to snap a picture of the signed authorization forms, which I then emailed to the CPA. The result wasn’t the prettiest, but it was a functional solution and allowed them to submit my returns. After the returns were submitted, I signed in to EFTPS and submitted my tax payment (which was decidedly no fun).

Resources for filing your taxes while traveling

  • EFTPS – IRS service that allows you to make tax payments online using direct withdrawal from your checking or savings account. Sign up a few weeks before your departure.
  • Dropbox – service that allows you to sync your files online and across computers/devices, including iPhones/iPads.
  • Earth Class Mail – online mail management service that receives, opens, and scans your mail to PDF.
  • IRS FreeFile & e-file – two options for filing your personal tax returns online. Everyone can e-file individual tax returns for free.

Receiving calls abroad is cheap and easy

Technology like email and Facebook make staying in touch with friends, family, and business colleagues a breeze and services like Skype make international calling easier and cheaper. Gone are the days of calling cards, special access numbers, and expensive calling rates.

But most people only use Skype to make (free) computer-to-computer calls, which requires both parties be online and connected at the same time. Finding a computer with good connectivity and Skype installed can be challenging in many countries and coordinating a time to talk may not always be easy or convenient. Plus, sometimes you need to receive a call when you’re out and about or your contacts at home need to call you on their own schedule.

There is where Skype comes it. It offers two separate calling features that when used together make it easy and cheap for folks to reach you by phone while you’re traveling.

The first is online number which is an actual phone number your contacts can call you on. They’re currently available from Skype in 24 countries, including the US and most of western Europe. When the number is dialed, the call automatically rings on you on Skype. Call forwarding is the second feature which forwards your Skype calls to an actual phone.

When used together, calls are routed over Skype’s calling network to a local phone in your destination. This means your friends, family, and colleagues don’t have to fuss with the trouble and expense of making an international call (which, at least for many Americans, is still a daunting task), nor do they have to set up or learn how to use Skype. Combine this with the fact that Skype’s international call rates are excellent and most non-US mobile carriers allow you to receive calls free of charge (they make their money when you place calls), means you’ll save a ton of money along the way.

To illustrate how this worked on my recent trip to India:

  • My friend Grace, who lives in Seattle, calls me at (206) 905-92XX, a local Seattle number, so the call is free to her. Skype charged me $18 to set up and use the online number for 3 months, but doesn’t charge me per minute to receive calls placed using the number.
  • The call goes to Skype and they attempt to reach me online. If I’m connected to Skype in an internet cafe, on my netbook, or on my iPhone, then I can take the call there. There’s no per-minute charge for me to receive the call this way.
  • If I’m not online, the call is automatically forwarded to my Indian mobile number +91 73890095XX, where I can answer. Skype charges 9.2¢/minute to forward the call to an Indian mobile but Airtel, my carrier in India, doesn’t charge my anything to receive the call.

Connecting the dots this way makes it super easy for folks back home to get a hold of me, and I can update the number calls are forwarded to as I move between countries, which makes it even more seamless.

Here’s a quick re-cap of how to set up Skype so that your contacts at home can call you:

Don’t get hacked while traveling

In my former life running an IT consulting company, security was a big topic and making sure people were who they said they were (i.e. when they were logging in remotely to check their email) was a key part of securing our clients’ networks. You might think that usernames and passwords would be enough, but entering these on a login page doesn’t prove it’s actually you, it only proves that you know the username and password.

That’s where so-called two factor authentication comes in.  Without geeking out too much, the basic idea is that there are three things you can use to establish your identity: something you know (username/password/PIN), something you have (passport/credit card/security token), and something you are (finger print/face geometry). Two factor security just means using at least two of these to establish your identity.

This may sound complicated, but if you have an ATM card, you’re already using two factor authentication — something you know (PIN) and something you have (ATM card). One doesn’t work without the other and without both there’s no cash for you.

So, what does this all have to do with travel?

Well, it turns out there’s easy-to-install software and hardware that allow an unscrupulous third-party to eavesdrop on your surfing and capture your usernames and passwords as you type them. It’s practice is known as key logging and if you’re not careful, you’ll inadvertently “outsource” the management of your Facebook profile, or worse, your finances to somebody who may have a funny idea or two. (Perhaps you’ve had a friend or two stranded in London, that just needed some cash? I’ve experienced this first hand and so has a former client of mine.)

One of the ways two factor authentication protects you against eavesdropping is through the use of one-time passwords (OTP). Just like it sounds, a OTP is an additional code created by a device or system only you have access to and can only be used once. So, even if it’s captured through key logging, it can’t be used again after you click the login button.

If you’re wondering whether this is a theoretical threat, let me assure you that it’s not. First, you should know that I’m not an alarmist by nature. I don’t think fear mongering is ever the right answer and I find almost all security risks can be mitigated through practical/pragmatic solutions. Second, I’ve been in way too many internet cafes (in places like India) where the keyboards barely worked, the operating system was bootlegged, and the electricity would cut in and out. The idea of properly securing these systems to ensure a safe internet surfing experience would have surely been considered a luxury only a westerner could have dreamed up and demanded.

The good news is that financial institutions, like Bank of AmericaCitibank, and Paypal (and as a result eBay), have taken notice and are starting to provide more secure ways for accessing their sites. Other companies are stepping up too. Google has incorporated two factor authentication into its Gmail service and Facebook provides a number of opt-in security features, including login notifications and one-time passwords. There are also products that allow small businesses to secure their networks using two factor authentication.

If the thought of yet another security “enhancement” leaves you pining for the simplicity of yesteryears, keep in mind that ALL security measures have felt annoying when they were first introduced, but with ubiquity comes improvements in usability. Eventually we’ll carry one universal security access token or card that allows us to securely login in to all sensitive websites and systems.

In the meantime, get prepared.  Before your next trip, give some thought to what sites and services you’ll need to access online while you’re traveling. Investigate whether these companies provide any additional layers of security that can help ensure a safer internet experience (try googling the company’s name + “two factor authentication”). This might involve using your mobile phone to receive a special code by text message (SMS) that you can use to log in or using a specialized app on your iPhone to generate a one-time password.

Here’s a re-cap of the companies I’ve mentioned above that currently provide additional layers of security:

What other precautions do you take online to protect yourself?

Travel isn’t a contest

If you have competitive or perfectionist tendencies like me, than it can be easy to find yourself comparing your travel experiences to those you meet along the way and conclude that you’re doing something wrong. I find this is especially true when I’m not enjoying myself in a particular place, and I quickly decide I must somehow be failing or deficient in my travel abilities. Everybody else seems to be relaxed and having the time of their life. Why can’t I?

Travel Tip: Stop worrying about what other people are supposedly doing and focus on your experience. If you’re not enjoying a particular city – or even an entire country – it’s ok. You’re not a bad person. It may be that you’re still recovering from the transit involved with getting to that city. It may be that you’re not feeling well. Or it may be that you just don’t like the city, and that doesn’t have to mean there’s anything wrong with you.

See if there’s a change or two you can make that would improve your experience. Perhaps some self-care would help – get a massage, spend the morning (or even the entire day) resting and mentally regrouping in the hotel, splurge on a nice meal, or even upgrade your room.

Talk about your experience with those around you. You’ll most certainly find that you’re not alone in your frustration and everybody isn’t, in fact, having the time of their life. It’s important to connect and share your experiences, rather than keeping it bottled up inside. Plus, fellow travelers may provide some practical advice or strategies for coping with the stress.

Lastly, if you feel like you’ve given a particular place a chance and the two of you just aren’t becoming the best of friends, then it’s ok to move on. There’s no contest and what’s most important is that you’re actually enjoying yourself.

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