Your Passenger Rights

Europe has been leading the way in advocating for passenger rights, and last week the European Commission announced the release of an app (available for Android, iPhone and iPad, Blackberry, and Windows) to check your rights immediately on the spot. The app is available in 22 European languages and applies to both flights and train trips.

The app is not just for residents of Europe — anyone on a flight departing from or arriving to an EU airport, or traveling by train within Europe, has rights covered by the app.

The app covers passenger rights for air and rail travel, from buying tickets and transparent information on flight prices, through to lost luggage and disability rights.

I have been on dozens of delayed trains in Europe, and have filed many forms requesting refunds and compensation. In my experience, many European train companies have forms that can be downloaded and submitted online and the option for reimbursement to be sent to an international bank account. In the EU a delay of 60-119 minutes will result in 25% compensation, and a 50% return for a delay of more than 120 minutes, with some exceptions.


Image courtesy of Europa

Free Range Wi-Fi in Argentina

Before I left for Argentina, I asked my waiter at an Argentinian restaurant in Amsterdam: “Why does beef from Argentina taste so much better than beef from everywhere else in the world?”.  He responded: “Because we have free range cattle.” What I didn’t expect was that, along with all the free range cattle, urban areas of Argentina seem to be covered in free range Wi-Fi eminating from hotels, cafes, restaurants, and bars.

Argentina has very expensive data service. When I was researching whether or not to buy a local SIM card upon arrival in Argentina, or whether to purchase an international SIM card, I saw that data rates were around $20 per KB. As an experiment in offline smartphone travel, I decided to forgo the international SIM, and just see if I need a SIM card over the course of my trip. Besides, my phone can make emergency phone calls without any phone service!

When we first arrived in Buenos Aires late at night, our hotel was locked up and we were stuck on the streets of San Telmo hoping that someone would come to our help. While my husband banged on the door as loudly as he could, I pulled out my smartphone, selected one of the four unlocked Wi-Fi connections available on the street, emailed my host, and within minutes the door was opened with a smiling face and a bottle of wine awaiting us on the other side. I figured this was a hotel, and so its evident that there might be a lingering Wi-Fi connection or two.

But it was the same case across Buenos Aires. Virtually every cafe, restaurant, juice bar, and even boutique stores displayed a “Wi-Fi” sticker in the window. On the rare occasion that a passcode was required, your server could get you connected in seconds. I even managed to book a hotel for Mendoza while getting a pedicure using the salon’s advertised Wi-Fi connection.

We set off for the wilds of Patagonia, and while I enjoyed ample connectivity at the domestic airport in Buenos Aires, I had forgotten to write down the name of our hotel in El Calafate. The airport in El Calafate had no signals to speak of, not even locked signals, but as we drove into town I was relieved to again see Wi-Fi stickers on many storefronts. We sat down at a table in the sun, ordered a beer, and I managed to retrieve our reservation, plot the address in our map app, route directions, and then go offline with the window still open, directing us to our hotel. While Wi-Fi was restricted to urban areas of Patagonia only, I was still impressed that even our campsite on the outskirts of town had Wi-Fi.

This trend continued in Mendoza and Iguazu, and throughout our trip we never missed not having data service or phone service. The only time we needed to make a phone call, we were able to use a VoIP service, in this case Skype, to phone using a cafe’s Wi-Fi.

It’s very exciting to think of a world where people can access virtually free wireless internet everywhere. And while Wi-Fi in Argentina may be a business initiative to attract more clientele, it is still a step towards wider access to information for all, and a remarkable convenience for those travelling with any wireless device such as a smartphone, tablet, or laptop.

How To Avoid Malaria – The App

“You come here with your laptop computers, your malaria medicine, and your little bottles of hand sanitizer and think you can change the outcome?”

This comment is made in the fictional film “Blood Diamonds” by a white Zimbabwean to an American journalist, insinuating that she’s trying to change the world without getting her hands dirty. But technology and communication do have the power to transform the outcome, and some new malaria apps for your smartphone could help change the world — both for travellers and for locals.

LifeLens – a smartphone app that can detect malaria in blood samples via a high resolution imaging sensor and micro ball lens attachment. Though not currently available to the wider public, this app has recently won Microsoft’s “Imagine Cup” grant, and is promising to create an affordable and effective method of diagnosing malaria, especially in children.

Malaria Signal – this app outlines general information on malaria, lists country-specific risk levels for malaria around the world, describes typical malaria symptoms, and provides information on malaria prevention (free, currently only available on iPhone, no reviews).

Malaria News – the World Health Organization has a Disease Outbreak News RSS feed that can keep you informed of malaria and other disease news.

Sonic mosquito repellers – there are several apps that send out a unique high frequency sound to repell mosquitos, available for all platforms and devices. The most downloaded is Anti Mosquito, (free, available for iPhone, Android, Nokia, and many others, but reviewers are split on whether it’s legit).

If you opt to leave your smartphone or tablet at home, Africa and other malaria-affected areas are great places to travel with your mobile or cell phone. Local SIM cards are very affordable across developing countries, and having a local phone number is a great way to stay in touch with locals while on your journey.

Without your malaria apps though, it’s important to learn some basic precautions about malari ahead of time. Here are a few personal recommendations about avoiding malaria:

Malaria-infected areas. First thing to do is to check if the area you’re going to is affected by malaria. There are websites to help with this, such as the malaria map.

Don’t get bit. The best way to prevent malaria is by not getting bitten by a mosquito. Whether or not you are taking anti-malarial pills, it is essential to cover your skin in the evenings, wear insect repellent, and sleep with an effective mosquito net. You can’t get malaria if you’re not bitten by mosquitos. I carry a small bottle of insect repellent with me at all times when I travel in malaria-affected areas.

Malaria takes 7 days to incubate. Once the virus has entered your system, it can take around 7 days to incubate before any signs of illness are revealed. Even after returning from a trip without any symptoms, you must monitor your health and continue to take your anti-malarial pills for up to 7 days.

Anti-malarial pills must be taken in frequency. When you are infected via a mosquito bite, the virus incubates for 3-9 days until it develops into malaria. Anti-malarial medications make your blood in-hospitable to the incubating virus, preventing full malaria from taking effect. What this means is that you must diligently follow the dosage and timing of your medication, even once you have returned from a trip. When I had malaria, the symptoms began exactly 7 days after I had missed a single daily pill, although I had been taking my medication consistently every day for 5 months.

Know the symptoms of malaria. Fever, vomiting, severe weakness, disorientation. While malaria has many of the same symptoms as Yellow Fever and other tropical viruses, one thing in particular is that malaria occurs mostly in the evening. Most people suffering from malaria feel fine during the day, and then become progressively ill after the sun sets. When I had malaria, I felt perfectly fine all day, until around 10PM when I felt a slight stiffness in my neck as if I was coming down with the flu, by 11PM I had a raging fever, and by midnight I was delirious and falling in and out of consciousness.

Side effects of anti-malarial medications. It is important to research the variety of anti-malarial pills available in your country. When I moved to West Africa, there were only 3 types of anti-malarial pills available in my home country, one of which was very expensive and had only been tested up to 1 year of use, another was an anti-biotic which would result in an increased resistance to anti-biotics from prolonged use as well as having an ingredient which makes users more susceptible to the sun, and the third had a terrifying reputation for giving users nightmares. I took the most expensive ones and only suffered from wild dreams for a week, and then slept calmly the rest of the year.

Side effects of malaria treatments. If you happen to be infected by malaria, it is important to seek treatment immediately. Some medications used to treat malaria can make people feel worse than the malaria itself, so it’s best to ask trusted friends or to discuss with your doctor any side effects of the treatment medication. Malaria is a serious virus that can kill you when un-treated. Travel with people you trust, take care of each other, ask for recommendations on medications, and get treated immediately if you are showing signs of the virus.

How Much Should I Tip…Here?

One of the most common questions asked by travellers is undoubtedly “How much should I tip?”  North Americans are particularly conscious about tipping etiquette, where tipping is both seen as something you should do to promote good service, but also as a serious social obligation.

However, no one wants people to be nice to them because they are expecting payment for it.

Rather than importing your home country’s tipping culture, instead try to blend in with the locals and promote fair compensation for services provided within that cultural or economic context. How do you learn what “fair” compensation for services is? There are hundreds of smartphone and tablet apps that can help with tipping in the US, but here are a few we recommend that focus on international tipping:

GlobeMaster – currently only available for iPhone, GlobeMaster is an offline travel app that combines several features into one $0.99 app (which is the same price as the developer’s GlobeTipping app, which only has the one feature). The tipping feature provides tipping information for over 200 countries and includes a tip calculator to automatically calculate the tip and even break up the total bill based on the number of people. The two drawbacks of the tip calculator are that it does not calculate tax as a factor, and so users need to type in the pre-tax total of the bill, and the tip percentage has to be manually inputted by the user after looking up the standard for the country — ideally, you would be able to set a country and the tip calculator would automatically adjust the standard tip value. Other non-tipping features of this app include country guides synched with WikiTravel, a currency converter, and offline capabilities. Available for iPhone and iPad only, $0.99.

Tipster Global Tip Calculator – while not the highest rated or best global tip calculator available, Tipster is at least available for platforms other than iTunes / iPhone / iPad. Tipster provides country-specific information for 60 countries worldwide and includes a tip calculator that has options for setting the percentage of tip, number of parties, and rounding off the tip or total bill. Available for Android, Windows Mobile, Free.

Global Tipping – currently only available for iPhone, this app includes almost every feature a tip-savvy person would want on their phone – it calculates the percentage of the tip that people with drinks should provide (“Drinkers), that people not drinking should provide (“Teetotalers”), allows you to tip on tax or without, and breaks up the bill – but only for 30 countries worldwide and not available offline. Available for iPhone and iPad only, $0.99.

iTip – another app only available on iPhone, for a whopping $4.99 the iTip is an international tip calculator with similar features to GlobeMaster’s tip calculator, but it automatically inputs the tip standard for countries in the calculator, and it includes…er…tips on tipping culture in the country directly below the calculation. While the app does offer information on sales tax in each country, this does not appear in the tip calculator, so make sure you type in the pre-tax total of the bill.  Available for iPhone and iPad only, $4.99.

Tipping culture changes constantly. Five years ago in Vancouver, a standard tip was 15%, or up to 20% for exceptional service. After hosting the Winter Olympics in 2010, the new standard is 18%, and exceptional service 25%!

Considering the lack of reliable international tipping apps for non-apple users, here are some general rules of thumb for tipping around the world which you can simply plug into your phone’s calculator or compute yourself:

// North America
In Canada, the United States, and in Mexico, it is customary to leave a 15% tip based on the bill before taxes, or 20% for excellent service. It is important to know that North American servers often have a pre-designated amount which they have to pay to bartenders, bus boys, the kitchen, and even the owners, and tips can account for almost 100% of a server’s income. In some places, a percentage of sales are automatically taxed and deducted from a server’s salary such as in the Province of Quebec.

In some rare cases, a tip will be included (called “propina” in Mexico, “pourboire” in Quebec) for groups or for special events. Check this with your server, and please ensure you are not confusing a sales tax with a service charge (example: “TPS” in Quebec is actually a sales tax, and does not stand for tips!).
For porters and taxis, a few extra dollars / pesos are appreciated, and in Canada and the U.S., it is expected to tip in addition for services such as hairdressers, massages, etc.

// South America
Tipping is also considered important in South American and Caribbean countries, where each country differs slightly. As a general rule, in restaurants look for a “propina” included on the bill, or tip 10% of the total bill before taxes. For excellence service, always add an additional tip regardless of whether it is included or not. For most tourism services such as porters and taxi drivers, a small tip is appreciated.

// Europe
Many European countries include a “service charge” of 10-15% in the total of the bill. Europeans will often round-up a bill to the next euro, or add a few euros for larger bills (maximum of 10%). Tips should be given in cash rather than on credit cards, but if a credit card is all you have make sure you tell your server before they swipe your card. When tips are not included on the bill, a 10% tip is a good rule of thumb throughout western and eastern Europe. For most tourism services such as valet, porters, and taxi drivers, a small tip is appreciated.

// Middle East and North Africa
In many Middle Eastern and North African countries, a tip will already be added to the bill and a patrons will likely round-off the bill for good service. Read the bill carefully, and if a tip is not included, 10% will suffice. It is common in less developed Middle Eastern and North African countries for people to provide services such as directions, or walking you to a place of interest. In this case, it is customary to give them a small tip for their troubles, however it is important not to encourage self-appointed guides to latch onto vulnerable tourists. For most tourism services such as valet, porters, and taxi drivers, a small tip is appreciated.

// Africa
In most African countries, it is not common for locals to tip wait staff, but a 10% tip from tourists is appreciated. In South Africa and in more touristy parts of Africa, a 10-15% tip is expected. It is important to understand the local etiquette with regards to tipping for other services – it is common and expected to tip professional guides, while it is uncommon in most countries to tip someone for common hospitality such as helping with directions.

// Asia
Asia has a much more complicated tipping culture, where in some countries it is considered offensive or will simply confuse your server. In China, Korean, and Japan, it is not recommended to leave a tip. In India and in Thailand, it is common to leave a 15% tip in restaurants. In Indonesia and in the Philippines, a service charge is usually included.

// Australasia
In the last few decades, it has become customary to leave a 10-15% tip for good service in Australia and New Zealand.

Belgium Namur BlackBerry

Bikes, Beer, and Belgium – on a Blackberry

This article was first written in 2007, when smart phones were still mostly used by business people, and before iPhone was released.  This trip to Belgium was the website authors’ first real experience of smart phone-based travel.  Virtually the entire trip was organised by BlackBerry, while on the road. The article also raises important issues on how smart phones can enhance, rather than impede, your travel experience.

Lonely Planet is often the bible of choice for backpackers all over the world. My LPs have gotten me around all sorts of places where I didn’t speak the local language, didn’t have time to try to ask the locals how often the boat leaves for abc, and my LPs have given me the needed direction when faced with thousands of decisions ranging from how do I eat, to what is the best itinerary for 5 days in xyz country.

However, I was finding myself living vicariously through my LP, afraid to venture off its suggested paths into the unknown world of self-reliant exploration. As a stepping stone away from the Lonely Planet Holiday towards Independant Travel, I have discovered the WikiTravel Holiday, the Google Holiday, and on a trip to Belgium and Holland in 2007, the Smart Phone Holiday.

I had become so accustomed to travel that I spent almost no time researching the trip before our departure. My brother and I had pieced the trip together on a shared google map of trappist breweries in Belgium. We decided to hire bicycles and virtually all of our research including accommodation, cycling distances, people to meet up with, brew pub opening hours, bicycle rentals, and restaurants came from various applications on my blackberry. At historical locations, I could simply wiki the name of the place, and we had an instant self-guided tour full of interesting little tidbits of information to help explain what we were seeing. On the train into a new city, we would search for accommodation, plug the address into google maps, route the path from the train station to the hotel including exact route distance, and organise our hotel choices with all of this in mind. Quite a departure from the usual walking-aimlessly-carrying-6-months-of-gear-on-your-back-looking-for-accommodation ritual that backpackers in Europe can empathise with.

What’s dangerous about the convenience of travel is that we have gotten lazy. That year, I rarely prepare anything before a trip, knowing much less about the place I was going before I departed. This had very negative impacts on my depth of experience of new places. I used to have rules: always know how to say ‘Please’, ‘Thank you’, ‘Excuse me’, and ‘Hello’ in the local language before setting foot in a new country; have some knowledge of the political and social history of a place; it’s staple cuisine and traditional dishes; etc. In fact, I had become so laissez-faire with travel in those years that I caught myself looking up the significance of places and sites after I had gotten back from a trip!

Did my BlackBerry only make me lazier? Or did it add layers of conventional information, alternative stories, historical reference, and sub-cultures to my experience? Why spend so much money and time traveling when you can’t invest those few hours before you leave to learn things that will make your experience exponentially richer? If I depend on GPS all the time, will I entirely lose my good sense of direction? I take pictures with my BlackBerry and immediately in near real-time send them to friends abroad, yet I never get around to putting words to the pictures anymore? Is access to third party (English) information conveniently enabling me to avoid engaging with people right in front of me?

I think I know the easiest solution: a Lonely Planet Application for BlackBerrys.

High Tourist Price Warning

Tourist Prices: The Good and the Bad

Tourist prices are a common sight when travelling in majority-world countries, but they are not a simple problem.

Consider for a moment these two stories.

Summer Holidays in Thailand

Khao San Road at night

Summer holidays in Japan are a short three weeks compared with the three months we got in Canada in the US.

My coworker Kate and I were especially ready for the break as we had spent a good chunk of the previous week accompanying our students on the traditional school trip. Sixteen hours a day supervising students followed by two hours of meetings leaves you exhausted and ready to unwind.

An overnight ferry to Osaka leaving us with four hours to kill before anything opened in the city followed by another three hours before our departure made sure that we carried our work weariness with us on the plane.

As the plane descended in to Bankok we knew we were on the last painful leg of our sprint to recovery.

The plane landed. The bags took the standard eternity that was probably only really fifteen minutes but felt like fifteen hours and customs flew at the speed of bureaucracy.

Finally, outside we teamed up with another couple that were headed to Khao San Road to grabbed the next cab in line.

“Hi. How much to Khao San Road?”

“1,800 Baht,” answered the cab driver.

“That’s like sixty bucks. Now way we’ll take the bus.”

“Okay, 900 Baht.”

“That’s a bit better. Do you guys want to take the bus? Or the cab?

“Okay, 700 Baht.”

“That sounds good. Lets go.”

Goreme Open Air Museum

Goreme Open Air Museum

Despite sleeping in a cave hotel carved out of the Tufa rock, it was the prayer call that had the power to infiltrate our early-morning dreams filtering in to our slumber and signalling the sluggish start to another day of discovery.

For Muslims, the Adhan is both a call to prayer and a message that there is no God except Allah and Muhammad is his messenger. To me and my friends, it was a regular reminder of the foreignness of our surroundings.

We slowly rose from our slumber taking turns at the tepid shower before assembling at the outdoor tables.

Guidebooks and maps slowly came out along with the standard breakfast of bread, feta-like cheese, tomato, black olives and Turkish coffee. Conversation slowly picked up as the coffee took effect with facts about the churches of the Open Air Museum on today’s agenda punctuating more casual talk.

Eventually, set off on foot to the nearby Goreme’s Open Air Museum. Moving at the speed of a group, which is about a tenth as fast as I like to move, we finally made our way to the museum only to be greeted by a sign in English and Turkish.

The Turkish side read 6,000 Lira.

The English side…48,000.

“What the…! They’re charging us eight times as much to get in.”

“This is wrong. I’m going to have a word with them and get us the real price. Quick, everyone get out your student cards.”

Goreme mural vandalism

The attendant had no doubt been through this drill many times and wouldn’t budge from the prices and eventually we were stuck paying the unfair prices which wasn’t really all that much money for one of Cappadocia’s biggest attractions.

The Open Air Museum was a refreshing experience providing a tremendous amount of freedom to explore and we quickly forgot our slightly souring experience at the gate as we explored monastic dwellings cut out of the sides of the valley and frescoes in the rock-cut churches.

But it wasn’t long before we noticed a disturbing little pattern with frescoes.

The frescoes on the ceilings and high up the walls were largely intact. Anything within easy reach had been pealed off to be a unique souvenir for some selfish tourist.

Despite tourists paying extra to get in, the Turkish government still couldn’t find enough money to give this UNESCO heritage site the protection it deserved from self-serving tourists.

Tourist Prices: The Good and the Bad

After the initial indignant reaction, I didn’t feel at all bad about paying extra for the Open Air Museum.

After taking a few more cab and Tuk-Tuk rides in Bankok and throughout Thailand, I realised that we still payed about triple the going rate. Cab and Tuk-Tuk drivers still asked tourists for much higher rates than locals, but the airport was by far the worst place to catch a cab with drivers asking a week’s salary in the hope of catching naive tourists unaware.

I was quite angry that the driver would try to take us for so much and that he still got a good deal more than he should have.

But ultimately, are these situations all that different?

Being a cab driver is not a great job wherever you live and it is hard to say that the cab driver is any less worthy of a financial windfall than a UNESCO heritage site.

In Thailand, organised crime and corrupt officials typically demand a cut of tourism businesses. It’s quite likely that my cab driver was handing off most of his windfall to one or both in order to keep the privilege of getting airport fares and probably needed a good number of 10x cost fares to make it profitable.

Is it any different when it is made official?

Should we be so naive as to think that every cent extra that we payed to the Goreme Open Air Museum stayed in the museum?

By paying tourist prices are we supporting a culture of bribery which has been shown to be very damaging?

And is there a substantial difference between the two situations that I described?

Or are my examples specific to these particular situations?

Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

Photo Credits: 1, 2, 3, 4

Anti Tourist

Love it or Leave it: 6 Reasons To Forget the Camera

Cameras are often ranked just behind passports as travel essentials, but the only people who should be carrying nice cameras around the world are people who love to take nice pictures.

When I first started travelling, I was a poor student and carried the cheapest camera that I could find. I didn’t really have any knowledge of photography, but I knew that a camera is one of those travel essentials.

The result: a lot of really bad photos that are hidden in a box somewhere.

On my next big trip, I still had the camera, but one of my travel companions was an amateur photographer with a nice camera. We decided that we would use his camera and share prints (this is back when digital cameras were expensive and obviously pixelated).

The result: I was a student and getting prints was really expensive, so I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a picture from that trip.

Finally, I moved abroad and had some money, so I bought myself a nice camera and learned how to use it. I spent some time thinking about composing my shots and learned to take some really nice photos. However, I realized that taking nice photos didn’t make me enjoy my trip anymore.

The result: I traded my nice camera for a more compact digital camera and since then only rarely take photos.

It took a number of years with many smaller trips in between for me to figure out that I am much happier leaving my camera at home. Since then I have learned the joys of travelling camera-free.

1. You Don’t Look Like a Tourist

Tourist With Camera

Not looking like a tourist is actually quite important.

Who do you think is going to be targeted first for theft?

The foreigner walking around in casual clothes without any bag? Or the sun burnt guy with a day-pack stopping traffic so he can take a picture?

Losing the camera is an important first step in making yourself a lower-priority target for pickpockets and other thieves.

2. Cameras Are Awkward

There is a tradeoff when buying a camera.
You can either choose the heavy, durable camera. Or the light, but fragile camera.

Neither heavy nor fragile are good qualities in things that you take on the road.

If you choose the heavy camera, you will feel it by the end of a full day of sight-seeing.

If you choose the light camera, you have to be careful how you treat it.

Lose the camera and you will have one less valuable to worry about and possibly save yourself a sore neck.

3. You Will Experience More

All of that time you spent setting up the shot so that the temple sits perfectly framed by the mountains in the background could have been spent admiring said temple and said mountains.

The photographer can visit just as many sites in a day, but the time spent on photography is time that won’t be spent on soaking up the surroundings.

The lens simply doesn’t compare with real life.

Leave the camera and focus on the experience at hand.

4. You Probably Have a Camera Anyways

Smartphone Camera

I am a big advocate of taking smartphones on the road which means I already have a basic camera suitable for taking average pictures.

Leave the camera at home and use your smartphone for any photos that you absolutely have to take.

5. Someone Else Probably Has a Digital Camera Anyway and Takes Better Pictures Too

Digital Cameras are so common now, that you will probably end up traveling with someone who has a camera.
Sharing photos is essentially free, so you can usually get photos of your trip without bothering with the camera.

With a bit of luck, one of your travel companions will even be a good photographer and you’ll get some pretty nice photos.

Lose the camera and let someone who loves photography take the pictures.

6. Stop Contributing to Annoying Camera Carousels

Tourist Group Photo

Okay smile please...only 30 more to go.

You know when you are traveling with five friends, everyone has a camera and you find an excellent shot, so everyone has to have a turn taking the same shot?

That’s the camera carousel and they are way too common and too annoying.

Leave the camera at home and save everyone a forced smile.

Photo Credit: 1, 2, 3, 4