Saint Patrick’s Day weekend featured another two-day travel show, this time right here in my neck of the woods. How could I be any luckier?
The Travel & Adventure Show returned to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC for a fifteenth year. I’d heard of this one, but had never been before. Having experienced the New York travel show in January, I needed something to compare it to. Game on!
Equipped with my new GoPro and Mark as my trusty assistant, we divided in order to conquer. A lesson learned from the New York show, I prepared an aggressive agenda at least as a template to maximize our time. There were several speakers I wanted to hear, and they were overlapping. Thankfully, a few of them were speaking on both days, which allowed much more flexibility between attending sessions and browsing the floor.
Travel Expert Speakers
Speakers kicked off the show for us, so below is the run down of who we saw speak. I will get into the specifics and all the helpful tips later.
- Lee Abbamonte. Best known for being the youngest person to travel to all the world’s countries and the North and South Poles, he has certainly made a name for himself with his varied experiences and destinations (beyond just the sovereign nations). I enjoyed his laid back approach and storytelling abilities. He told larger-than-life stories in an accessible way, swear words and all. Some of his most notable destinations included the Falkland Islands, Bhutan, North Korea, Libya, Guantanamo Bay, Easter Island, and visiting all the national parks in the USA! Meeting him after the talk, I could tell he was a genuinely positive guy.
- I also caught the last 20 minutes of Andrew McCarthy‘s talk. If that name sounds familiar to those of a certain generation, you are thinking correctly. The Pretty in Pink actor and director of several hit shows (Orange Is the New Black, Blacklist, New Amsterdam) is also a travel writer in his own right. After a life-changing trek through Spain, he published a book and has since gone on to write more, travel more, and of course do public speaking in the name of travel. His message is one of embracing solo travel and dispelling fear. Gee, that’s mine too! Mark attended the whole thing, and reported that McCarthy said everyone should travel solo at least once in their life. I couldn’t have agreed more.
- Peter Greenberg‘s talk “Beating the Airlines, Hotel and Cruise Lines at Their Own Game Playing by Their Rules.” It was in part a no-apologies diatribe aimed at the major players in the travel market that appear to keep us subjugated. However, it was also an honest and good-natured wake-up call to travelers everywhere to be more aware of the realities of each situation rather than blindly following or being immobilized by fear.
- Kellee Edwards was a breath of fresh air! She hosts a show on the Travel Channel, and talked about her adventurous spirit and being safe. Her talk didn’t dwell on the often dull aspects of security, she did it in a fun and practical way. She’s also a pilot and diver, so this woman is an adventure waiting to happen. I can’t wait to check out her show.
- Samantha Brown gave one of the most inspirational and positive talks. With her bright smile and cheery disposition, she highlighted the joy and curiosity that comes from discovering new places, interacting with people from all over the world, and being open to wonder. She hosts her own show on PBS, so I need to add another to my watch list.
- Packing and travel tip expert Angel Castellanos gave very practical and useful tips in a very engaging and straightforward way. He travels all the time and is up on many of the apps that I often am not familiar with because I’m less technologically savvy.
- Patricia Schultz gave two talks (different each day), but I didn’t go and Mark said her first talk about European river cruises was a bit dull. Still, she is best known for writing bestseller 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. I thought the book was too commercialized and contained way too many hotels, but it remains one of the most popular travel books.
- The Destination Theater included speakers talking about their respective countries: Your Own Italy, Greece – 365 Days a Year, and Cameroon: All Africa in One Country. Being the type of traveler intrigued by the lesser known destinations, I was interested in hearing about Cameroon. One of the country’s statesmen gave the presentation, which was a bit formulaic, but still interesting to me. Greece and Italy need little introduction or promotion, but Mark enjoyed them both.
- There were other speakers, but there just wasn’t enough time to attend all of the sessions. I’m sad to have missed Ralph Velasco‘s “How to Take Travel Photographs Everyone Wants to See,” so you will have to bear with my amateur iPhone snaps. The GoPro is going to take some getting used to for me!
Most people came to the show for the booths, so let’s dive into those for just a bit. The exhibit hall was compact, neatly organized, and very well set up for funneling people in and out. The speakers’ areas, dance stages, a few food stalls, and all other services were located in various places around the perimeter of the exhibit hall space, so it was all one big square.
In comparison with the New York show, there were several notable omissions here. Australia, much of Europe, Taiwan, and LGBTQ companies were all absent. Of course, there were many other vendors here that weren’t in New York, like specific counties in the area (various counties in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, and West Virginia). Others were at both.
Some notable participants at the exhibit hall
Events, Services, and Novelties
- Currituck Outer Banks: offering an interactive green screen photo booth
- Amusitronix VR: flight simulator rides using the latest virtual reality technology
- Camp Cody: archery practice fun for the family
- Mount Washington Cog Railway: featuring the actual legendary Peppersass train, which was the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway
- U.S. Customs and Border Protection: that’s right, the folks essentially responsible for the means by which we can travel abroad were there accepting passport applications and doing interviews for Global Entry, which if you don’t know, is an amazing program offered by the government that speeds you through customs upon reentry to the US from abroad. The cost is $100 and is valid for five years, and includes TSA PreCheck, allowing you to move through security without removing your shoes, liquids, or laptops. Both Mark and I had walk-up appointments and interviews for Global Entry and received our official cards within less than a week of the show. Easy peasy!
- T-Mobile: I’d been wanting to switch for a while because T-Mobile offers unlimited data plans for many international destinations. Being able to do it right there and save the $25 activation fee also rescued me from having to wait hours in line at a retail outlet. I was impressed with the no-pressure salespeople, although I wish they would have reminded me that all my saved voicemails would disappear by switching carriers.
- Moon Travel Guides: It feels almost blasphemous to say, but Moon is now my #1 travel guide (sorry, Lonely Planet…I still love you too).
- Cabot Creamery: Vermont cheese. Free cheese samples. Enough said.
- Honduras: intrigued by San Pedro Sula‘s reputation as the world’s most dangerous city, I simply asked about it. The woman behind the booth said that you do have to be careful, don’t go out at night and take usual precautions, but it’s like almost anywhere else. People live there and have to go about their day. Other more recent sources claim it’s no longer the most dangerous. Perhaps more interesting to tourists is relatively nearby UNESCO World Heritage Mayan ruins of Copán and the offshore island paradise of Roatán. Honduras is trying really hard to improve their status. All of the above sound good to me…sign me up!
- American Samoa: many people don’t know anything about this US territory, but one thing is that Hawaiian Airlines flies there and the booth doubled as its headquarters at the show. This place was already on my list before we had booked our tickets to Tahiti but it has been bumped up a bit higher after seeing the booth and meeting the lone guy staffing the booth. It ain’t close, but it’s sure to be a special place.
- Philippines: aside from their attractive display of kayakers in an aqua blue lagoon surrounded by picturesque rocks, I’d seen several friends post their envious vacation pictures on Instagram. I have clearly been hiding in a cave about how amazing the Philippines is. Thousands of islands, lush mountains, unique cuisine, and everyone speaks English. I also have a friend there (Hi, Cheryl! I swear I will visit someday!). Just take a look at the pictures on the travel agent’s website and you’ll be searching for flights.
- Montgomery County, Maryland: well, what do you know? My county of residence representing! I simply had to stop by and grab a booklet. I’ve traveled enough to know that there are always treasures waiting to be discovered right in your backyard. Montgomery is so large that driving an hour you’re still within its borders. On my local bucket list for ages are the wineries of northwestern MoCo. Sometimes, you’ve gotta keep it local.
- Cameroon: I recently learned that Rockville has the largest number of Cameroonian expats in the country. I guess it should be no surprise that this central African country had a booth at the show. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that it was always busy! Cameroon bills itself as “All of Africa in one country,” and from the presentation I attended plus the brochure I picked up, I would agree. I’m now intrigued and will make it a higher priority to consider for my next Africa trip.
- Bhutan: Besides their Gross National Happiness and the incredible Tiger’s Nest monastery built into the side of a mountain, Bhutan has been enthralling me for years. Their government-mandated $250 per day fee seems steep, but that includes lodging, transportation, and tours, so really it’s a decent value.
All the Travel Tips
The most practical takeaways from the show for me were undoubtedly the tips, suggestions, and resources that the speakers provided. Be sure explore these before your next trip, especially the apps and travel hacks.
Recommendations from Peter Greenberg
- Don’t book online. OK, it’s not like you can’t or shouldn’t ever…but instead of automatically going to the Internet, give the airlines a call and see if you can find a cheaper or better flight. This can work with finding seats, too. Those “only 1 seat left” notices on Kayak or Travelocity are definitely not telling you the truth. The cost of booking your flight with a phone agent may be worth it if you are saving money. This is especially true when it comes to hotels. Often if you call the hotel directly (not the toll-free reservations line, but the actual physical location you want to stay) and speak to the manager, you might get a deal that won’t be offered online. Just be sure to compare the prices on the booking site (and the airline’s website itself). It’s not *always* the cheapest; it’s just another option you should explore.
- Secret flights. Sometimes there are “secret airline routes” available that you’d never think would be possible. For example, flying Turkish Airlines from Sao Paulo to Buenos Aires is a thing. So is flying Air Tahiti Nui from Los Angeles to Paris. Some airlines have international rights to fly between two cities not in their country of origin. Those rights may have benefits for you in the form of a more desirable route and possibly better fare.
- Avoid basic economy. At least read the fine print and don’t fall for the lower price, because you are often restricted from carry-ons, seat selection, and are typically in the last boarding group. Airlines need to sell those empty middle seats, so they invented “basic economy” to do just that. If you are one of those travelers who just can’t with the dreaded middle seat, and you will have luggage to check, you should probably upgrade to avoid paying more at the airport or being uncomfortable on a long flight.
- Know your insurance. When you purchase a flight online and at the end, they ask if you want to protect your trip with their insurer. Don’t do it! Not because you shouldn’t insure your trip–you absolutely should–but because you want the right insurance and that’s not going to be it. First, your credit card will offer some coverage, so learn what that is. Your employer may also cover some things, especially if it’s a business trip. But what you really want is to be sure that it covers medical evacuation and repatriation. The last thing you need is to have to spend thousands of dollars to get flown back to the US or wherever to get medical treatment. Go to InsureMyTrip.com and find something that works for you. Double check that they’ll fly you to your preferred health care facility and not just the first place across the border. Personally, I like to use World Nomads, as they have experience with the backpacker types like myself. Avoid a travel insurance horror story. Get insured! Further reading about insurance can be found here.
- Don’t go where everyone else goes. I loved this piece of advice, as it speaks to my heart. Of course, I want to see the Eiffel Tower and the pyramids of Giza too, but with my limited vacation time, I’d rather not share the moment with thousands of annoying selfie-taking tourists. By all means, go to France, but explore the beautiful countryside and get to know the local culture and be one of those people who don’t tell their friends how rude they were. There are hundreds of countries waiting to be discovered and offer plenty for you to do to have a memorable experience.
- Put the State Department warnings into context. Actually, his advice was to pretty much ignore them, but what he was trying to get across is that you shouldn’t interpret the Level Three warning of “Reconsider Travel” to a particular country as a blanket statement condemning the entire nation. Often the reason for the travel warning has to do with a small or specific area, so you don’t need to avoid the whole country or region. It does pay to be aware of what’s going on in a foreign country and do some research ahead of time, but look at a map and proceed accordingly. The State Department now rates every country in one of four levels. The lowest, or “safest,” rating is “travel with normal caution,” but at a glance, it’s not really clear what that means. He urges travelers to put things in perspective and use common sense. Basically, don’t go “where no one is in charge.”
- Don’t spend your frequent flyer points on magazines. If you have unused miles and points, you may be tempted to use them by subscribing to a magazine or buying products. Don’t do it! That’s the equivalent of spending hundreds of dollars on each item. Better yet, plan out your usage to avoid leaving unused points on the table.
“Just because Cleveland is on fire, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to Cincinnati.”Peter Greenberg, “The Travel Detective”
- Don’t book too early. According to Greenberg, there’s an optimal window of time between 45 and 54 days out from a trip when the pricing algorithms kick in. Booking too early will usually result in higher prices and artificial demand within online booking platforms. Waiting until it’s too late is not advisable either, because the lower price points will have been surpassed. I don’t know how accurate that exact range is, but unless it’s a special flight deal, holiday package, or an award miles flight, I would not recommend booking more than 6 months in advance.
- Consider a courier for your bags. If you’ve ever lost luggage, you would probably have given Peter an “amen” at this point. Rather than pay the high fees airlines charge to check bags (or “lose them” as he claims), why not try a courier service? It may actually be cheaper to pay FedEx to ship your bags door to door, thereby saving you time at the baggage carousel, lost and found, or airline help desk, and much less stressful than hours on the phone with your credit card company or travel insurance agent. Better yet, just bring what you can always carry and you won’t have to worry about it.
- Be persistent. In any travel situation in which you find yourself being wronged in some way, you must be assertive with agents or whoever you’re dealing with. Don’t let them tell you “no” until you’ve reached the right person who has the authority to make a final decision. This may require multiple calls, but if you get declined the first time, call back and speak to someone else. Keep doing that until you get what you are entitled. This trick has worked for me personally in many occasions, and I’d add it’s not limited just to travel.
Tips from Kellee Edwards
- Engage. Kellee’s advice was fairly simple for traveling better. One of the safest ways of traveling involves communicating with people. Discover new things and engage with those around you, including other travelers.
- Embrace. Be respectful, keep an open mind, and be receptive to new ideas. Embrace the culture and do not judge the differences. She gave an example of the elaborate burial ceremonies found on the island in Sulawesi in Indonesia. The bodies of family members who had died were kept in the home until the family could afford a funeral. This practice may seem outrageous to westernized cultures, but you have to realize you are in a different place and then embrace that difference. These are the things that challenge us to understand a world bigger than our own.
- Remember your conversion rates. Aside from just currency, it helps to be aware of the basic differences and conversion rates for weights and measures, temperatures, distances, and times. Only three countries in the world don’t officially use the metric system. Know roughly that one kilogram is about 2.2 pounds, one kilometer is a little over a half a mile, and 0 degrees Celsius is 32 Fahrenheit. Time zones and daylight savings time also differs all over the world and depends on the jurisdiction and time of year.
- Useful products and travel hacks. Pack a door stopper because you never know when it might come in handy. Always bring a power bank that can charge your electronic devices. Batteries deplete faster than you might expect, and you may need to recharge before you reach a reliable power source. While many phones come with a flashlight app, consider bringing a small portable one that you can carry around your neck so you don’t have to fumble in your pocket or purse when you might not be able to do so.
- The Sitata app. It’s an app that helps you avoid scams, stay healthy while traveling, and offers travel tips. It bills itself as the “most comprehensive travel safety platform on the planet.” Designed for businesses as well as independent travelers, this app seems great for that peace of mind you might be seeking when embarking on a trip.
- Other apps. Trip Lingo has things like culture guides, tip calculator, voice translator, WiFi dialer, and safety tools. Life360, is designed for communication with family members and synchronizing road trip details in particular. SaferVPN can be used to secure data and access when connecting to unfamiliar WiFi or roaming, allowing you to protect your sensitive information without fear of hackers intercepting. ICE Contact is exactly what the acronym stands for: In Case of Emergency. Use this to relay messages in the event of a catastrophic event or other emergency.
Everything you want is at the end of your comfort zoneKellee Edwards, Host of The Travel Channel’s Mysterious Islands
Travel Advice from Samantha Brown
- Go to “B Side” Cities. If the thought of thousands of tourists clogging the streets of a city you want to see makes you reconsider your plans to visit that city, try another city that is the lesser known counterpart. Examples are Baltimore (the “B-side” to Washington, DC) or possibly Lyon (instead of Paris). The point is to venture away from the overtouristed cities and have just as good of a time in another place a little less crowded.
- Embrace the element of delight. We need something to take us out of ourselves and have a new experience. Travel should be “changing, challenging, and strengthening” for us.
- Create a separate email for travel deals. If you have a dedicated travel email, you can have a single place to go for flight deals, reservations, and other travel related items.
- Use Twitter as a tool. Follow the entity you are using (e.g., airlines, hotels, travel agency, etc.). You are more likely to get a quick response on Twitter than any other method.
- Don’t preboard children. If you have kids, you may be tempted to board ahead of the crowds during that time when they announce pre-boarding for families with children. However, it’s best if one family member boards at that time with all the luggage, and then wait until everyone else has boarded. Then you can walk right onto the plane with kids who won’t be as restless as if they’d boarded earlier.
- Other travel hacks. Create a ritual when you travel; for example, go to the same coffee shop every day. Take the side streets. Often one block away from the main crowds will be completely empty. Pack old things that you don’t want and use them on your trip. When you’re ready to go home, leave them there or donate them to a local charity before heading to the airport. Always bring peanut butter for a familiar and filling snack. Use the ironing board in a hotel–it can double as a table, standing desk for work, place to put things, etc.
Travel can be anywhere, it’s not measured in milesSamantha Brown, Host of “Places to Love“
Travel Hacks and Tips from Angel Castellanos
- Using mobile phones on international travel. Options range quite a bit here, depending on what kind of trip you undertake. T-Mobile has great unlimited, international data plans but it’s not completely limitless. Angel and other travelers have reported that frequent international use may lead to a disruption in service. If you’re going to be traveling longer term or staying in one place for more than a few weeks (or want to use your phone a lot while you’re there), your best bet is a local SIM card. You can usually get one for $20-25, which may be cheaper and more convenient than your carrier’s plans. Project Fi is a more recent option from Google that is gaining traction. GoogleVoice, Skype, Viber, and FreeWiFi are other app-based options you can use. The best option yet–and this is what I tend to do–is simply download apps to be used offline (e.g. Google Maps, language translation apps, etc.) and rely on public WiFi.
- Consider Clear. If waiting in airport security check-in lines is your personal hell, it’s probably time to apply for CLEAR. TSA PreCheck is good and allows you to keep your shoes on, laptop and liquids in your bag, and in theory a shorter line. It is also becoming so popular that the PreCheck lines can often be longer than the regular lines. If you are a frequent traveler or just can’t deal with lines of any kind, CLEAR might be your best bet. It relies on biometric data and is becoming more widespread at airports and major sporting events.
- Protect your data with a VPN. You may have heard of a virtual private network (VPN), but what is it exactly? It is a mechanism that masks your identity, rerouting data through another, secure server so that it is protected. If you have ever connected to public WiFi at a restaurant, cafe, or public space, chances are you were exposing your data to potential hackers. A VPN will protect you from that, and is even more useful when traveling abroad where online security could be even more precarious. ExpressVPN and TunnelBear can hook you up. I have an annual subscription to ExpressVPN, which is based in the Virgin Islands. One thing to note is that banking apps sometimes don’t work with a VPN, so you may have to disable it in order to deposit a check digitally, for example.
- RFID-blocking travel wallets. Another security-focused suggestion is to get a radio-frequency identification (RFID) blocking travel wallet. You would use it to protect your passport from being scanned inadvertently, as most passports now have RFID chips embedded within them. When traveling, simply remove your passport from the specialized wallet at customs control and otherwise store them in the wallet at all other times. They are plentiful online.
- Apple Pay as a fraud protection tool. Aside from the convenience of using it to pay for a variety of things, if you link Apple Pay to your credit card(s), you can get notifications about activity, which would be extremely useful for monitoring for fraud. If your card was used for any transaction you are not aware of, you would get an instantaneous notification, and could quickly stop the payment before any damage was done. Some banking apps also do this.
- Photo enhancing is all the rage. If you’re jealous of the pictures your friends are posting on Instagram, you might want to invest in some photo enhancing and editing techniques. The best thing is, you won’t need to drop thousands of dollars on a fancy camera. You can buy an Olloclip and attach it to your smartphone for all sorts of photographic manipulations, such as fish-eye lens and wide-angle shots. If you don’t have the budget for that or don’t want the hassle of more stuff to carry, there are apps like Snapseed that make photo editing pretty high tech. The best part? It’s free!
- Translation apps. Google Translate is one of the best tools out there period. You can download a particular language for use offline, and in addition to typing in words, you have the ability to speak into it or have someone else speak and the app will translate it. There is a writing feature too. What blows me away is the camera part of the app. You can hold up your smartphone’s camera lens and it will translate road signs and other text to the language of your choice. Magic! There are other translation apps, but this is hard to beat.
- More travel apps. For the busy traveler who wants to be organized, there’s App in the Air. Besides tracking your travel details, it provides wait times and allows you to access other travelers’ tips so you can find out what’s open and where to go in various airports. Mobile Passport is a godsend for people who don’t want to pay for Global Entry. It functions similarly in that you can plug in your information the same way you would upon landing, but it just expedites things. I personally haven’t used it, though. If you want to know where the WiFi hotspots are in your location, well, there’s an app for that! It’s called WiFi Finder and comes with a map so you can find the nearest, quickest WiFi available. If you’ve ever been stranded in a place because your lodging plans fell through or you just arrived and have no place to stay, then Hotel Tonight might be the app for you. It’s pretty straightforward, taking advantage of last minute hotel deals as they try to get rid of unsold rooms.
I often say that travel is my Ph.D in life because it has taught me so much about myself, other people and the world. In turn, travel is good for the world.Angel Castellanos, The Travel Ambassador
While there were plenty more nuggets of wisdom, enticing destinations, and things to learn, this was about all I could take in. We were at the show from start to finish both days, and still couldn’t do it all. The good thing is that they’ll be back again next year. And so will I.