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Monthly Archives: March 2011

Cherry Blossoms!

It’s spring in DC and that means basically one thing – Cherry blossoms.  Along with that is unpredictable weather and rain.  So, with the rest of the week looking a little murky and yesterday being one of the predicted peak bloom days, I decided to wake up and ride my bike to the Tidal Basin for sunrise.  Fantastic idea had I been prepared, but alas I decided to act like an ass and not wear the appropriate gear to keep me warm.  Instead, I froze for almost two hours while I rode around to various spots to try to catch the blossoms at their finest.  Hopefully my stupidity will have its rewards and you’ll enjoy the photos!

Jefferson Memorial, © 2011 Heather Freitag

The blossoms were a gift from Japan in 1912, which is now commemorated every year by a festival.  This year’s Cherry Blossom Festival started on March 26th and runs until April 10th.  Besides the beautiful trees blossoming, there are many other activities that are part of the festival, most of which celebrate and showcase the culture of Japan.  Throughout the festival there are parades, street festivals, kite flying festivals, sushi tastings, cherry-inspired food tastings, fireworks, even a cherry blossom run.  Plus this year’s festival is also benefiting Japan aid efforts.

Why all the hub-bub about a tree?  First, cherry blossom trees are incredibly beautiful and for their short bloom period, the entire tree is lit up in perfect pink/white blossoms.

Cherry Blossom Trees, © 2011 Heather Freitag

© 2011 Heather Freitag

© 2011 Heather Freitag

© 2011 Heather Freitag

Magnifying the beauty of the cherry blossoms is that it’s not just one tree, but thousands.  The initial gift of 2,000 trees was infested with disease by the time they arrived.  However, the Japanese responded by sending a total of 3,020 more trees to DC.  With so many trees, they don’t just ring the Tidal Basin.  There are some surrounding the Washington Monument…

© 2011 Heather Freitag

And more around the Capitol building…

© 2011 Heather Freitag

And can also be scattered throughout DC really.  The only downside is allergies!  If you come during cherry blossom time, pack some Claritin, Nasonex, Benadryl or whatever it is you use.  I have never had any outdoor allergies until I moved to DC.  I always suspected the cherry blossoms, but after today’s extended meeting with many blossoms, I’m pretty sure of it.  Puffy, itchy eyes and scratchy, closing throat can be added to the numbness I felt for the first 4 hours of my day.  I literally sat in my cubicle with a throw blanket on and sipped on my coffee, hoping to restore warmth and feeling to my extremities.  Still, I would do it all again for a chance to meet these truly beautiful and historic blossoms.  I’ll end this post with a thank you to my trusty steed…

That's my bike, Pierre, in the corner

and one last parting shot…

© 2011 Heather Freitag

The plane was seriously there – no photo shop.

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Posted by on March 30, 2011 in Travel

 

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On Bathrooms

The very idea of travel conjures up images of foreign lands, interesting new foods and meeting new people.  Then when it comes to planning, the usual when to go, where to stay, what to see questions arise.  You might ask for other people’s opinions or go to the guidebooks, eagerly soaking up everything so as not to miss anything.  All these things are some of the fantastic parts of travel.  But there is another side to travel – the more mundane, “everyday” aspects that might get overlooked as you plan, devour information and daydream in anticipation.  Oddly enough, you are guaranteed to encounter these little intricacies that make even the boring unique and that help you feel like you are truly part of a place.  For example – going to the bathroom.

The bathroom, well toilet really, as most of us Americans think of it today has not been around for very long.  The first flushing toilet was not patented until 1775 and most homes didn’t have indoor plumbing until 1840.  The modern toilet didn’t start to shape up until 1910. As far as toilet paper is concerned, the first paper on a roll was sold by the Scott company in 1879.  So really, our modern bathroom has not had that long of a history.  

If you have not done much travel outside of your home country, you may not realize that going to the bathroom is a very different experience in other parts of the world.  In the U.S. we expect the bathroom to be pristine and germ-free.  Toilet paper and soap are a given and at nicer places hand sanitizer, mints, an attendant selling various toiletry items.  But, in many other places this is not anywhere near the norm.

A more "typical" bathroom

First, what constitutes a “toilet” varies drastically.  Depending on the country and even where you are in that country, it could be a toilet, a ceramic basin in the floor, a room with a hole in the ground, an outhouse with a hole in the ground, just a hole in the ground, or out in nature.  It’s always hilarious because you don’t know what you are going to get!  Even in a nicer restaurant in Vietnam, I walked through a door to reveal a pleasantly painted and tiled restroom only to notice that it was absent a toilet…it was just a hole.  This is not limited to what people think of as developing countries either. Some places in Europe also have this “turkish” toilet.  It’s not really about status or price, it’s just different.   

A "turkish" toilet

For guys, this usually doesn’t present a problem.  For either sex I offer these tips for a mishap free trip to the bathroom.  Do some serious wall sits and strengthen up your legs before you travel.  Give any things you have to a friend to hold: bags, purses, cameras, jackets, scarves, etc.  There likely will not be hooks for you to hang things and you don’t want anything to dangle, get caught, drop somewhere it shouldn’t or throw you off balance – all of these can lead to disaster.  When you approach the hole or ceramic basin in the ground, see if there is a way you can position yourself to be able to use the wall to help prop you up.  Truly last ditch effort, get a little closer to your fellow traveler and have them help hold you up.  Just for women – this is another reason for wearing skirts or dresses, much easier to manage.

Besides the differences in “toilets” be prepared for differing levels of cleanliness, privacy and smells.  In the state-run airport hotel bathroom we stayed at in Ho Chi Minh City, we were greeted by cockroaches of unusual sizes.  Some of the outhouses as we traveled north in Vietnam were wooden shacks with holes dug into the ground.  If you think a Don John’s outhouse at a one day festival smells bad, try to wrap your mind around the unimaginable stench of one of these little bathrooms that sit in the sun and humidity. To help with the smell, especially if you gag easily like my mom, put a scented lotion on your hands and around your nose before you go into the bathroom.  You could also use Vicks vapor rub or the extreme knock-out all smells and clear your sinuses smelling oils that many Vietnamese people carry around as a cure all.  Keep one hand over your mouth and nose and deal with it.

In addition, in some countries toilet paper is not provided and is not really used.  C’mon whaaaat!?!  No TP?  Yes, no toilet paper.  Instead, some bathrooms have the water sprayer thing like people have next to their sink faucets or nothing at all. 

The water sprayer method

Thailand was the first time I encountered the sprayer, which has always baffled me.  The hose is on the side of the toilet in place of a toilet paper holder and you spray yourself down when you are done, but then you leave with your parts all wet, and usually your clothes and the rest of your body as well – I was not good at controlling the sprayer.  It probably just takes some time to get used to, but my solution was to carry my own small roll of TP.  But, whether you bring your own or on the off chance that there is toilet paper, you usually do NOT flush it down the toilet.  Instead, the toilet paper goes into the trash or a pail next to the toilet.  Even if this creeps you out or whatever, just do it.  You don’t want to mess up someone’s plumbing because of your hang ups on what is proper.

Last note – almost anywhere you go toilets are not as readily available to you.  Far fewer places have public restrooms.  In addition, many places, especially in Europe, require you to pay for the restroom – just a small amount, but it’s best to know this ahead of time so you can make sure to have change at the ready in emergencies.  You also want to start looking for a bathroom as soon as you need to go.

This whole post and my experiences with bathrooms of shadier quality are not meant to deter you from traveling – not in the least.  Bathrooms, like traveling in cramped conditions, sleeping in strange arrangements, taking overnight trains, etc. are slighlty unpleasant; but, add to the experience of traveling.  While it might suck at the time, a true traveler experiences and appreciates these things, and will likely remember them as clearly (maybe even more so) as the visit to see the reclining Buddha or snacking on a doner kebab.

Have any good travel bathroom stories?

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2011 in Travel

 

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Friday Escape – Tahiti

Last week, Ryan and I took a leisurely stroll over to the National Gallery of Art to see the newly installed Gauguin exhibit, Gauguin: Maker of Myth (one of the perks of living in DC is the access to the free museums!) and it just reinforced my intense longing to go to Tahiti!!!  Gauguin was a french Post-Impressionist painter that relocated to French Polynesia after suffering through depression and the lose of his job as a successful stock broker after a stock market crash.  He spent almost a decade in Tahiti painting and carving before moving to the Marquesas Islands in 1901, where he would die 2 years later.  His grave is still there and has a cast of one of his most beloved works – Oviri.  The original Oviri is usually housed at the Musee d’Orsay in France, but is a part of the traveling exhibit here in DC.

Gauguin seemed to love the same things about Tahiti that anyone would, especially a feeling of escape to somewhere tropical & exotic.  I’m sure you’ve all seen the images – little straw huts suspended above the water, your own little paradise island in a tranquil sea of mystifyingly blue color.  I can see why Gauguin would have been compelled to stay here, whittling away at his carvings (which are quite good – I didn’t know that he carved until the exhibit) or painting his next tahitian scene.  But just in case you aren’t convinced of Tahiti’s awe-inspiring beauty:

A quick check on Lonely Planet reveals that the best time to go is during the dry season, May-October….hmmm…looks like that’s right around the corner!

So yes it’s beautiful, but what is there to do?  (As if lounging around in such a beautiful place is NOT enough…).  There is a lot more to do in Tahiti and the surrounding islands than people might think, although it should seem fairly obvious that there are a good deal of water activities.  If you like to dive, the crystal clear water is more than just an element of a fantastic photo or the source of your own personal, natural dream machine at night.  Tahiti offers diving with the added “bonus” of some shark sightings.  They idea of being far below the surface (over 10 feet is a little far for me) with a breathing apparatus strapped to my back so I can pretend I’m a fish, all the while being encircled by sharks, is not an appealing one; however, I know that lots of people would love this.  If simply being near the wildlife is not enough for you, you can also feed the sharks and the rays during some dives.  

If you are with me and want to will the idea of sharks from your mind altogether, then snorkeling is likely a better option that is thankfully also offered in Tahiti.  Again, with the clarity of the water, it is not surprising that you would have some great views and you get to stay at the surface.

Another good way to enjoy the views of Tahiti (and not just the underwater views) is by boat!  I know I would be absolutely happy to spend a day paddling around the islands, but even if you aren’t much of a paddler a different type of floating vessel can be found for you.  Sailing and other boat cruises are great options for getting out on the open water without using your own manpower.

For those that are more the land-lover type or just want to switch it up from all the water activities, there’s always hiking.

All this activity will certainly work up an appetite and food wise, Tahiti offers up its fruit of the sea in various forms.  The traditional dish is poisson cru – a raw fish marinated in lime juice and coconut milk, but there are many other types of seafood as well.  If you don’t like seafood (something I will never truly understand, but to each his own), the local pork is supposed to be quite tasty too.

All in all, Tahiti and the rest of French Polynesia seem to me like a destination filled with relaxation, sun, sand, beautiful water, yummy fresh food, and a tranquility that would cost you much more money in places in the Carribbean.  Again, I have never been; but, hopefully that will change soon and I can report back on how right I was. 🙂

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2011 in Art, Friday Escape, Travel

 

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How to Survive a Festival

Last Saturday, my friends and I went to Shamrockfest 2011.  It is, as you might guess, a giant festival celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.  In that vein, there is an Irish village, food tents, four stages with bands, and lots and lots of beer trucks.  The bands are usually a mix of cover bands and Irish bands, and this year’s were pretty awesome.  I saw Lost in Paris (a cover band that was ok, but lamely put on a recording of Dave Matthew’s Band instead of actually singing Ants Go Marching), the Pubcrawlers (very high energy), Barleyjuice (good Irish band with an incredibly talented fiddle player), Scythian (fantastic job – lots of instruments, lots of enthusiasm!) and Dropkick Murphys (which most people know and love, even if you think you don’t you have probably heard the following song “I’m Shipping Up To Boston” from The Departed..).

As I wandered and observed the crowd, I realized that although this was not my first rodeo, others either had very little experience at festivals or were a little dense and hadn’t quite got it all figured out.

Festivals require some preparation.  Yes, it’s all about experiencing the music with friends and drinks and yes, festivals have been associated with a certain freedom and do-what-the-fuck-you-want spirit that grew out of a free love and drug culture; however, you still need to think about two basic things – that is, unless you are going to re-create Woodstock or something, then disregard everything I’m saying.  First, the clothing.  When you go to spring or fall festivals, you should dress in layers.  This way you can take things off (light jackets or scarves) when you get warm and put them on when you are cold.  Usually flat boots or some sort of cushioned flat (chucks, sperrys, Toms, etc) are the best, followed by comfy flip flops if it’s warm enough.  Generally, four-inch heels are considered to be a really dumb idea.  Along with that, skanky little skirts, thigh highs and see through tops are pretty dumb as well.  You aren’t comfortable in that and let’s face it, it’s NOT warm enough to be dressed in skimpy clothes.  Additionally, you look horrible…seriously.

Second thing to consider – arrival time. When you look at a festival schedule decide which bands you really care about.  If your top choices are toward the end, then maybe show up a little later.  Basically, you need to decide how long you can sustain your drinking, standing and wandering while staving off your hunger, because you are going to want to save your money for beer and not the over-priced festival food. Trust me, tons of people end up too tired, too drunk or too hungry to last to the last band, which is usually the headliner. 

Another consideration with arrival is to factor in time to stop at an ATM machine somewhere else other than the show.  One of three things will happen if you don’t: (1) there won’t be any ATMs and you will either have to mooch relentless all day or you will get no food or beers, (2) there will be colossal ATM lines, or (3) the “helpful” worker outside of the festival will tell you that two ATMs by the gates with the large trail of your fellow unprepared dummies streaming from it are the only two ATMs available.  So, you will have no choice but to wait while your friends take in the drinks and music inside.  Then the second you walk in, you will be confronted by what seems to be an endless wall of ATMs laughing at you and your stupidity.  Clearly, this is not from personal experience….and thanks a lot to the worker who did this…very funny sir.

Now, once you are at the festival…

Know how to be drunk in public. You wouldn’t think this would be such a hard skill to hone, but for some it must be.  I love being outside, listening to music and getting a little toasted just as much as the next person; however, there is no need for puking on strangers, having angry drunk fights or finding it acceptable to form a circle of friends around the “pickle in the middle” that is peeing in daylight right next to the beer tents – NOT COOL.

Understand a mosh pit. Mosh pit might seem cool and might look rock and roll but seriously, I would only do it if i was high out of my mind and thought I was flying closer to the friendly purple koala in the sky that wants me to follow him.  People get very seriously hurt crowd surfing or even just trying to get a closer look at the band.  This past festival had one particularly nasty example – a guy completely obliterated his ankle crowd surfing (was probably dropped) and his ankle was shattered, bloody and floppy…three things that I don’t want my ankle ever described as.  Basically, don’t do it unless you know what you are getting yourself into.

Despite my few “rules” on festival survival, a festival truly is about enjoying friends, music, the outdoors and beer (in no particular order).  So, really just have fun and who cares what you are doing.  If you want to do a silly Irish jig – knock yourself out.  I guarantee that most peole do not care what you are doing.  If they do, so you give them a laugh.  And, it’s a festival so there is undoubtedly someone somewhere doing something much more ridiculous looking than whatever weird dance move you’re trying out.  In sum – get out there and bust a move, cut a rug, get low, shake your moneymaker, or whatever it is you do.

Oh, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

 
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Posted by on March 17, 2011 in Travel

 

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Enhance Your Relaxation During Any Adventure

With the great and many joys that come along with traveling, there is one constant downside no matter where you go – the act of traveling puts your body in some awkward positions.  I’ve never flown first class, so I don’t know for certain, but I would think that even a first class flight leaves the body a little weary.  So, if you are jetting off to Tokyo from the US, so you can hop another plane to Bangkok, so that you can rest for the night and then take a smaller plane to the south of Thailand, you can probably expect that there will be some kinks in your muscles – even if your travel is without them.  But you’re on vacation right?  You aren’t going to bother with the gym or with caring about working out – what could be done anyways?

Yes, you are on vacation; but, you will enjoy it much much more if you aren’t being bothered by the weird crick in your neck that you gave yourself by awkwardly falling asleep with your head on a stranger’s shoulder while drooling.  Plus, just because you get to your destination, doesn’t mean you will suddenly be whisked away into luxury (well, maybe for some trips).  Most people don’t sleep that well outside of their own beds with their perfect concoction of bedding, numbers of pillows, pillow firmness, mattress pliability, etc.  Yes, the majority of us sleep like a princess – that is, the Princess and the Pea – when we are away from home.  Plus during the day you might be kayaking, hiking, mountain biking, or some other activity that may add to your aches.  Even if you are “just” sight-seeing, standing and walking around all day will take it’s toll too.  Let’s face it, we’re not all spring chickens anymore. But…

An easy solution to all of the muscle aches that go along with travel is yoga!  Yoga can be done in your room with little to no equipment (maybe some yoga paws – seriously, I want some of these!) and will help you stretch out your weary body.  Or get outside – you can do yoga on the beach, at your camp, on a mountain, wherever!

Yoga on a mountain: stretch out with a fantastic view

 Plus, you can do as much or as little as you think you need.  Even just a quick 10-15 minute session will have you feeling awesome and ready to start your new day of adventures.  Or you can do it at night as a way to unwind and relax.

Relax

If you are new to yoga, don’t be nervous.  There is yoga for all levels and most dvds will let you know of ways you can modify moves to make them a little easier.  And you do NOT need to be flexible – yoga will help you increase your flexibility.

You don't need to be able to do this to do yoga

In the context of yoga for traveling, it will help your body undo the feeling of being cramped in a tiny space for hours while en route to your latest destination, will take that weird kink out of your back, or ease your muscles after a bumpy ride down a mountain.

My favorite yoga dvds are the Gaiam dvds with Rodney Yee, but there are many dvds out there.  If you don’t know what you will want, check them out from the library, borrow from a friend or try them on Netflix.  There are also tons of yoga apps that you can download on your phone.

My advice is to find a yoga dvd that works for you and either pack it with you or write down the moves so that you can practice them on your own while you travel.  Again, just a few minutes a day goes a long, long way.  It will help you relax, re-group, re-align, and undo any damage that the trains, planes & automobiles may be doing to your body.  Seriously, I even do office yoga at my horrible cubicle to help keep my posture up and my muscles happy.

On a side note: last night I finally tried something I’ve been wanting to try for years now – bikram!  My friend Sheridan has been going to a bikram studio near my house and I tagged along with her to last nights 6PM session.  Bikram is a type of hot yoga done in a room heated to around 105 degrees Fahrenheit.  It’s 90 minutes long and is comprised of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises.  Many of the poses I had done in other dvds before, but the addition of the heat is another ballgame!  You seriously sweat buckets.  I will say that it was both tiring and invigorating!  Perhaps a good way to detox when you come back from your next vacation…

Namaste

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2011 in Travel

 

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Cabin Fever? 5 Tips on Planning Your Next Getaway

If you are like me, the winter months probably have you cooped up inside more than you would like.  Without the outdoor activity, you feel the need to travel somewhere even more strongly than usual.  No worries.  Before you go spinning into an out-of-control “I NEED TO TRAVEL NOW!!!” tantrum, here are 5 tips on how to get going on planning the perfectly-timed, much needed getaway.  As an added motivator, I’ve sprinkled photos throughout!

Escape the weather!

1. Start SAVING $$$. By starting to save right away (if you haven’t been already), you can make your way toward your travel goal even as you plan.  My favorite way to do this is by setting up a direct deposit from my checking to my ING account.  That way you don’t have to think about it or remember to do it – it just goes!  Trust me, I saved just over $4,000 by doing this for a year and a half.  Depending on the expense of your trip and your current financial situation, start thinking about little changes you can make.  By bringing your lunch to work everyday, drinking the free (although admittedly ALWAYS inferior) work coffee in lieu of Starbucks, etc. you can save a lot of money that can be re-directed toward travel.

Thailand - Beautiful Country, Great Food, Nice People

2. Find a travel buddy….or don’t. Decide if you want to travel solo or have someone come along with you.  If you would prefer a companion, think seriously about who would be good to travel with.  Word of caution:  not all of your friends, regardless of how “fun” they are, are going to make good fellow travelers.  Don’t choose someone who always backs out of plans (spoiler – they will back out of the trip too, leaving you very angry).  Think about how the person has reacted when plans go awry.  If they are a major drama queen maybe you don’t want to be traveling with someone who will break down and cry at the sight of one bug in your hostel.  Also, depending on what types of activities you want to do on your travel, pick someone who is also interested in those things.  The best person is generally someone whom you always have a good time with and that has a good sense of humor!  Choosing a travel friend now gives you someone to continue the rest of the decision making process with.  Although perhaps too many chefs spoil the broth and you would rather have a set plan in your mind and then just present it to those you think would be interested.  This really depends on your own personality and your friends.  If so, save this step until after the next two.

Art and Architecture - Gaudi in Barcelona

3.  Decide on a time frame. How soon do you want to leave?  How much money do you have saved already?  How good of a saver are you?  Answering these questions will help you decide how much money you will have to spend and as a result, what destinations will be feasible.  If you only have $50 in savings and want to leave right this second, then perhaps a month of backpacking through Europe is out of the question.  If you think you can wait and have a little bit of savings already, I say go for something big!  May as well start knocking off the dream list now.  I know it’s hard to wait at all, but once you have your vacation planned, you can start to look forward to it and the waiting will be much easier.  Plus you can make yourself a countdown and spend your days learning about your new destination.

Sun, Sand, Drinks - All Inclusive in the DR

4.  Choose a destination!! If you already have somewhere in mind, this is likely to be easy.  Also given what I said in #3, you may have to rule out some of your options and save those for another trip.  But maybe you have no idea where you want to go – what then?  One idea would be to subscribe to emails from travel websites, such as Travelzoo.  Each week they send out a list of their top 20 travel deals.  Scan through them and pick something that sounds interesting!

Another idea is to think about your hobbies and interests and choose somewhere that reflects them.  If you like yoga, maybe you want to head to Costa Rica and relax with some yoga on the beach, can’t get enough pho – head to Vietnam, drawn to art – find a museum or exhibit that you would love.  Last year I went to Chicago to see Aerosmith because I love Aerosmith, they weren’t playing in DC and I had never been to Chicago, so why not?

If none of these methods works for you, throw a dart at a map or put your finger on a spinning globe.  Or pick up Lonely Planet’s The Travel Book and flip through the pages for inspiration.  If this all fails, you should probably just stay at home – you likely suck at life.

One thing NOT to do is to get hung up on what you should do on vacation or what a vacation is supposed to be.  Do what you want!  I’ve done all-inclusive, I’ve done luxury, I’ve done backpacking and hostels.  All have their merits.  Do what you feel like doing!!!  If you aren’t big on art, don’t feel like you have to go to a “must-see” museum if you don’t want to, hate spice food? – then don’t try the spiciest of Thai food.  At the same time, travel is partially about being outside of your comfort zone and trying new things.  As with most things in life, it’s about balance.  Travel the way you want, see and do the things you want; but don’t be a pig-headed, stubborn, rude ass about it.  There is a happy medium – find it.

Backpacking in the Three Sisters Wilderness (Oregon)

5. Logistics and Itineraries. Depending on who you are, this could be your favorite part or this could truly be your biggest nightmare.  It does haven’t to be a big debacle.  Once you have made your travel date choices (probably should consult a guide for best times to travel), get your plane tickets squared away.  If you are going to be traveling by plane once you reach your destination, those quicker trips are almost always going to be cheaper on smaller, local airlines – and sometimes will only be available in this way.  For lodging, decide if you want camping, hostels, moderate hotels, or luxury and go from there.  Activities and sights – you could search the internet and scour books, but I”m telling you, you will be overwhelmed if you do this.  If you are indecisive like me, to the point of choosing a cheesy card for your sister takes you 20 minutes, then the amount of information available will certainly be a little much.  A great way to avoid this is by asking other travelers!  Don’t know anyone that has gone to your desired destination?  Hit up Twitter or travel advice sites written by travelers.  Twitter is fantastic because you can find people who have traveled and/or lived in the locations, find blogs about travel, and be able to interact with people.

The following is a list of some sites that I find helpful:

Airfare

Lodging

Travel Advice

Hopefully this was helpful to you – flee your cubicles and get out in the real world!

Crater Lake National Park in Oregon

 
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Posted by on March 5, 2011 in Travel

 

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