4+1 Christmas Gifts Any Backpacker Would Appreciate

4+1 Christmas Gifts Any Backpacker Would Appreciate

   It’s almost Christmas! Having a hard time coming up with gift ideas? Here’s a few off the top of my head for the traveler in your life:

Christmas Gifts For The Backpacker In Your Life

Stuffa One Wearable Carry-On

stuffa1

   Cheap flights are not too difficult to find these days. With SecretFlying being a thing, and using the sites I listed in the 4+1 Websites for Booking Cheap Flights post, you should spend less than 100$ on a majority of your flights that don’t cross an ocean. Of course, most of these flights are on discount carriers where there is always a catch. The most common trick being the 70$ baggage fee that accompanies that $12 flight you booked to Paris. This Stuffa One vest is the solution to that. It wears comfortably like a normal Back to the Future vest, but it has 16-22 packable pockets that can be packed with up to 5kg (11lb) of clothing. Sure packing it full might trigger a second screening from the kind people of the TSA, but they aren’t the ones charging baggage fees.

ICONSPEAK Traveller Shirt

iconspeak

   You may have heard of this one a few years ago as its initial release stirred up some major buzz among the top news and travel outlets including CNN, Today, and Lonely Planet. The ICONSPEAK Traveller Shirt has 40 pictographs that help you to communicate in any country without speaking the language. Whether you need to use the bathroom or are looking for some WiFi this shirt has you covered. It probably wasn’t worth the original $60 price tag but it has dropped in price considerably and now offers an array of customized colors and styles for different travelers.

GSI Outdoors Spice Missile

spice-missile

  Take it from someone living in the Czech Republic, some parts of the world just do not know how the hell to spice their food. I hardly consider myself a foodie, but I’ve lost count of how many times it has been abundantly clear that the only spice in the house was salt. The Spice Missile is a pocket-sized game changer. I really wish I had heard of such a thing when I was preparing for my 9 month journey around the world a few years ago. A small bottle of Tabasco was the only thing that kept me satisfied in the case of a culinary emergency.
While the GSI Spice Missile is great for backpackers, it is indeed quite small. So if you are camping you may be better off going with the GSI Outdoors Spice Rack or the BlenderBottle GoStak Twist n’ Lock Storage Jars.

Pakems

pakems

  Pakems are the simply best. I mentioned them in a previous post but they are absolutely worth mentioning again. Pakems are foldable shoes with rubber tread that weigh 15 ounces and come with their own little carrying bag you can strap to the outside of your backpack. They are a little goofy looking but they are ABSURDLY comfortable. I brought a pair of the low-tops to the Himalayas and after every day of hiking they were an absolute godsend. While writing about them last time I got inspired and decided to throw more money at their company. I now own two more pairs.

And One For The OTG

LampChamp Light Socket USB Port

lampchamp

  So 99.9% of the population will never find themselves in a situation where this gadget is remotely useful. But the fact that you’re even reading this makes me think that you (or someone you know) may be that remainder heading off the grid this year. It is important to know that many times hotels on the beach in SE Asia or huts in the Himalayas are not wired to have functional power outlets in the bedrooms. In fact, in some cases where opportunity has been recognized you are asked to pay a fee to use an outlet on the premises. This handy little device will make sure you can keep your GoPro batteries full and your iPhone functional for the duration of your time away from civilization.

If you have any other great gift suggestions for travelers I’d love to hear about them. Shoot me a message or leave a link below.

Mike Risser

http://www.escape-backpackers.com

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4+1 Travel Apps That Simplify Life on the Road

4+1 Travel Apps That Simplify Life on the Road

   Alright good, so you leave tomorrow and you’re loading up your iPhone with music and games for the long flight. While you’re doing so I recommend checking out these apps to help simplify your traveling experience:

Best Travel Apps for Making Backpackers’ Lives Easier

CityMaps2Go

   CityMaps2Go is my main app for getting around while away from home. CityMaps2Go offers you the ability to download the map of any city, country, or region ahead of time and track yourself using GPS, even in offline situations. While the maps are fantastic, what’s even better is that the app also allows you to download a fully integrated guidebook with restaurant ratings, accommodation locations, information on local landmarks, public transport pickups and dropoffs, and loads of other helpful information. This app is a must.

Google Translate (formerly WordLens)

   The first time I saw WordLens it blew my mind. Basically it acts as a camera app that translates whatever words are on the screen IN REAL TIME. So if you are at an authentic Polish restaurant in Kazimierz and cannot read the menu just whip out your phone and this app will translate the descriptions instantly. As far as pronouncing “Jajecznica z kurkami i boczkiem” (scrambled eggs and bacon) when the waiter comes…. you’re on your own. I’d recommend pointing and grunting. Google recently bought out WordLens (of course) and paired it up with their extensive translation services, so when it comes to language apps this is the way to go. The dictionary currently translates 90 different languages, and the real time camera translation can handle 26.

ÖBB Scotty

   Scotty Mobil gives you access to every train/bus schedule in Europe. However, as far as I know, you still cannot buy tickets via the app. While it is a noticeably dated app, it is still the best at what it does. What puts this Scotty Mobil app over the top for me is the new GPS integration, and the fact that it lists every stop between your starting point and your destination, which makes it easy to monitor where you are and when you will arrive (and also helps you when tagging your pictures’ locations when you catch a glimpse of a beautiful castle or lake out of the train window).

Skype

   By now everyone knows about Skype’s worldwide video calling. However, not everyone has realized that it also turns whatever WiFi device you are using into one of the most user friendly and cheap worldphones in existence. Any time you are connected to a WiFi network you can call any phone on the planet for as low as 2 cents per minute for landlines and 10 cents per minute for cell phones. While this is rarely useful at home, while traveling I probably use it every day to book a bed at a hostel or a dinner reservation on a Saturday night. In fact, living in Prague I still use it when I call my parents so they don’t have to deal with computers and webcams just to talk to me.
Note: You just need to register your account and throw 25$ on there to draw from. I highly recommend it, if nothing else, as a safety measure.

And An Important One for Travel Safety

SmartTraveler/Smartraveler

   SmartTraveler (or Smartraveler for you Aussies) is the app run by our State Department and while hopefully you won’t need its emergency services, it is incredibly important particularly in this increasingly volatile world (I mean it really isn’t, but the news definitely makes it seem that way doesn’t it?). If nothing else, just tell your mom about it and she will be more at ease about you traveling alone.
The app itself is really quite fantastic. It provides you with information on seemingly everything you could need regarding your destinations: from Embassy Locations to Visa Requirements to Health/Transportation services to Local Laws and Punishments. It also integrates the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) which is a program where you are registered with the different Embassies along your journey so they can keep tabs on you and be prepared to provide you with what you need in the case of emergencies.

Mike Risser

http://www.escape-backpackers.com

4+1 “Don’t Backpack Europe Without” Items

4+1 “Don’t Backpack Europe Without” Items

   Ok so after reading my “4+1 Websites for Booking Cheap Flights” post last week you booked your super cheap flight to Berlin on SkyScanner, and you picked up your new ~50 liter travel backpack from REI. Great! Now what do you put in it? Backpacker Rule #1 is Pack Light! I absolutely second this motion, but I also highly suggest the following items to keep things comfortable:

Backpacker Necessities:

WiFi Ready Device

   Some people talk about just leaving technology behind and disappearing for a few weeks. What a beautiful thought! The truth is traveling without a WiFi ready device makes the backpacker lifestyle quite a pain in the ass. Nowadays booking hostels/buses/flights is all done online. There is also an abundance of apps that make your journey easier and safer (my next blog post is all ready and highlights these).

   When I travel, I carry an older iPhone 4s and a 7″ Samsung Galaxy Tab 4. The Galaxy Tab makes long airport waits a breeze. It is also hugely convenient as a photographer for keeping my photos flowing on to my Dropbox and Amazon Cloud throughout my trip.

Travel Adapter & Portable Battery

   Travel adapters are obvious necessities. A personal recommendation is spending a few bucks more for one that has multiple outlets and/or USB ports because many times hostels will not have not have as many outlets as guests (not to mention its benefit at cafes and airports). When you see someone already using the outlet at the airport it is a nice benefit to be able to ask if you can slip your mini extension cord in and share the outlet.

   The development of portable batteries has been an absolute game changer for me. Even at home I always have one with me. As far as bringing one backpacking, there are two options: a lipstick charger that is about the size of a tube of lipstick and can recharge your phone once or twice, or a high capacity battery that is larger and heavier but can recharge your device up to 7 times. I personally carry the Anker PowerCore+ Mini 3350 mAh ($9.99 right now) and the Anker Astro 15000 mAh and would highly recommend both. The small one really comes in handy when you’re out walking a new city all day with the GPS burning up your phone battery and the big one is excellent for long train journeys or airport layovers.

Microfiber Towel

   Do NOT forget this item. Can you rent towels in most European hostels? Yes. Do yo want to? Hell. No. Despite what you may be assuming this has very little to do with cleanliness. This is all about frugality. I stayed in a hostel in Copenhagen a few summers ago that actually charged 4 euros for a one night towel rental. While this is an exception to the rule, a free towel is very rare and paying even 1 euro a pop will add up.

   Beyond all that I must say these microfiber towels are pure magic. They are incredibly absorbent, dry in less than an hour, are antibacterial (no smell) and pack down small enough to fit in your pocket.

Pakems Shoes

   Alright, so Pakems. Pakems are foldable shoes with rubber tread that weigh 15 ounces and come with their own little carrying bag you can strap to your backpack. They are a little goofy looking but they are ABSURDLY comfortable. I brought a pair of the low-tops to the Himalayas and after every day of hiking they were an absolute godsend. In fact, just writing this reminded me how badass they are and inspired me to buy another pair before I even started this sentence (here’s PROOF!).

   Honestly, while I LOVE these and highly recommend them, you could also just get some flip flops and strap them to your bag. In either case, do not forget to bring some form of comfortable house shoes.

Optional “Put Your Mind at Ease” Item:

Pacsafe Backpack Protector

   I have had one of these for more than 4 years and I think I’ve used it MAYBE 3 times. That being said, those 3 times I was really glad I had it. If you are nervous about the possibility of your things being stolen while you travel, a Pacsafe backpack protector should put those feelings of discomfort to rest. Pacsafe makes TOP of the line security products. The backpack protector consists of an incredibly strong stainless steel wire mesh netting that covers your bag, entirely preventing it from being slashed or rummaged through. It definitely makes swimming at the beach more comfortable not having to swim in shifts or keep an eye on your stuff from 100 meters away.

Mike Risser

http://www.escape-backpackers.com

4+1 Websites for Booking Cheap Flights

4+1 Websites for Booking Cheap Flights

Berlin to Brussels for $5
Prague to Rome for $20
Prague to Sarajevo for $37
Prague to Los Angeles for $257
New York to Bangkok for $276

  These are just a few of the tickets I have managed to land over the past 2 years. I believe everyone has a superpower and I believe mine to be finding cheap plane tickets. Traveling on a budget starts with getting there. Of course there are fairly well known trade secrets (like flights being cheaper on Wed/Thurs/Sat or the fact that most websites do not update their conversion rates as quickly as your bank so paying in a foreign currency can save you big), but the real secret to flying on the cheap is as easy as ABC. A-Always. B-Be. C-Checking. Always Be Checking. Always Be Checking. If you want cheap flights you have to keep your eyes open and be ready to pull the trigger at the drop of a hat. Here are the best websites to keep your eyes on:

Best Aggregate Websites for Getting Cheap Flights:

SkyScanner

   SkyScanner cut its teeth dealing strictly with European budget airlines and while it remains the absolute top of this field, it has expanded exponentially to deal with airlines all over the world. SkyScanner does not sell flights directly, instead it is more or less an aggregate of aggregates. It offers the widest range of search results of any site and permits you to search entire states/countries/regions and entire months (instead of +/- 3 days) for the best deals.

   SkyScanner is my go-to site for absolute steals like the ones listed above. In fact, searching “PRAGUE to EVERYWHERE during CHEAPEST MONTH” has worked itself into my morning routine.

Google Flights

   Google has recently entered the game after buying out and converting the ‘information only’ ITA Matrix Airfare Search website into Google Flights. Just like most of their ventures, Google has bought up the absolute top technology in the field and gone ahead and created the most streamlined and user-friendly search engine for flights. Similar to SkyScanner, on Google Flights the results you will be given are as wide or as narrow as the search criteria you input. Google has taken the opposite approach of SkyScanner, starting with large airlines and international travel and working their way down to the budget airlines.

AirfareWatchdog

   AirfareWatchdog (one of the many branches of TripAdvisor) takes an interesting approach; they employ a team to search out and identify the cheapest possible flights which they then pass on directly to the consumer. To use their service, you set up “Low Fare Alerts” on their website and they notify you via email when sales or significant price drops occur that involve your chosen airports or regular routes. While their everyday rates and search functionality are not quite on par with the likes of SkyScanner and Google, this alert service they run can save you big. As of right now their services are heavily weighted towards American routes and travelers, but they do function globally.

Skiplagged

   And then there’s Skiplagged. Skiplagged made such an immediate impact on the airline industry that in late 2014, United Airlines (unsuccessfully) attempted to sue the 22 year old founder for exposing trade secrets and costing them millions. The concept behind Skiplagged is known as “hidden-city” and it’s creator lays it out as such: “Basically, hidden-city is where your destination is a stopover; you’d simply leave the airport when you arrive at your destination. It turns out booking this way can save you hundreds of dollars on over 25% of common routes, especially in the USA.” For example, if you are in Chicago and you want to fly to New York, what Skiplagged does is search for cheaper flights from Chicago to other destinations that would have New York as a layover. Then, when you arrive in New York rather than getting on the next flight you would just leave the airport.

   The founder does mention that there are a few caveats to using their method: “1. You have to book a round-trip as two one-ways (which Skiplagged handles automatically), 2. You can’t have any checked baggage, only carry-ons, and 3. technically you may be breaking an agreement with the airlines known as contract of carriage, where it might say you can’t miss flights on purpose.” Even with those in mind when the situation warrants it Skiplagged can be a solid choice.

Best Airline for Crossing the Atlantic on the Cheap:

Norwegian Airlines

   Norwegian Airlines made the headlines in October when their CEO announced that 69$ flights from the United States to Europe were “right around the corner.” Even though the proposed date of these sub-100$ flights is sometime in 2017, at this point in time the absolute best deals on flights across the Atlantic are being still dished out by Norwegian Airlines. While it is certainly a ‘get what you pay for’ budget airline, there are reasons Norwegian is a perennial award winner including its 787 Dreamliners with good airline food and more than adequate entertainment options.

   As was stated above, many times the euro-dollar conversion rate for these travel websites lags behind the banks so it can be cheaper to purchase in euros, this is one of those websites.

Mike Risser (instagram: @mikerisser)

Online Check-in…

Online Check-in…

   Over the last few years I have been fortunate enough to make it to more than 50 countries. Along the way I picked up more than a handful of tips and tricks to refine my methods of travel which help in keeping things very affordable without sacrificing too much by way of comfort while on the road. I plan on using this blog as an outlet to reach anyone who is interested in traveling and to impart some of the wisdom I have gained through my travels and by living abroad. I will also invite some of the fascinating and knowledgeable travelers I have met along the way to write some guest posts in their areas of expertise.

    But first, a little about me. I grew up in Milwaukee, WI and lived there for 24 years before moving to Boston to finish my degree in Psychology at UMass. After my graduation in December of 2011 I took off and spent 9 months completely circumnavigating the globe, during which I fell in love with the city of Prague, where I now call home. I currently own a photo studio and over the last 2 years I have worked my ass off to put together a travel company called Escape Backpackers with the goal of taking young people across Central Europe. My crew is made up of a fantastic, charismatic, wildly international group of awesome people who were born in, or have lived for years in the region and have intimate knowledge of the cities on the tour. Check out the website I built from the bottom up; I’m pretty proud of it:

http://www.escape-backpackers.com

Mike Risser (instagram: @mikerisser)

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost.
-JRR Tolkien