advice

Maximizing Your Solo Travel Experience

Solo travel is amazing for so many reasons. (I know, I know, I've said as much before.) But beyond the incredible sights and self-selected journeys, travelling alone is really one of the best ways to know yourself. I know it sounds a little corny, but solo travel has provided me with the opportunity to explore various sides of my personality and understand myself better through new and challenging experiences.

It's also an excellent way to further develop your gut instincts. When I'm travelling, I try to be a "yes" person as much as possible. It's a strategy that's helped me to accumulate a lot of crazy stories, but it's also helped me to learn when and how to say no. No one way is going to work for everyone, but this is a general guideline I use to make decisions when I'm travelling solo. To me, maximizing your travel experience means taking advantage of great opportunities while staying safe.
Say "yes" if...

it scares you (just a little bit).

Sometimes fear is a warning to stop and get out immediately. Sometimes that nervous fear is what lets you know that you're on to something incredible. Knowing the difference between the two is a skill worth cultivating.

it will significantly add to your travel experience.

it's something you've always wanted to try.

it doesn't sound like something you'd normally do.

When I decided to take a little break from teaching and spend a month in Guatemala building houses, there was a good half of my brain that told me I was insane. I was used to working with my mind to make money, and my most physically demanding job up until that point was serving. I wasn't a labourer by any means. But doing something physical like that helped me discover something I truly love. It made me feel strong, powerful and confident. It's helped me realize how adaptable and capable I am, and that's definitely something I've carried forward into my work life.
Say "no" if...

you feel genuinely uncomfortable or unsafe.

While I was in Antigua, a group of the girls I was staying with really wanted to go to a house party a guy they knew (although not well) was throwing after the salsa bar let out for the night. It didn't sound like something I'd normally do, but there was a large group of us and we'd hung around with these people before, so I said yes. We climbed up these insane, winding stone steps to this cute condo with next to no furniture inside. For a while we made polite and giggly conversation, and then the drugs started coming out. As I looked around at the girls I was with (a number of whom were crossing over into the sleepy drunk phase) I knew it was time to go. I felt uncomfortable. So I rounded everyone up and we all stumbled home together. Does the fact that I went to this party at all make a cool story? Sure. Am I glad I left when I did? Definitely.

it's going to bust your budget.

If saying yes to this means not being able to afford anything else, decline: plain and simple.

it seems too good to be true.

In my experience, if it seems too good to be true, that's because it probably is. When Chris and got time-shared in Vegas, it seemed almost too easy. Listen to a presentation for a while = get a bunch of free tickets. Yay! Hours later, after explaining to people of various levels of authority, that "No, we weren't interested in making a major financial decision on the spot while on vacation," we finally got our "free" stuff. It turned out that pretty much all of the tickets required some sort of charge or fee that we were responsible for covering. Lesson learned.

So, what about you? Do you have any strategies for maximizing your own travel experiences? Funny stories from times when you were still learning to trust your gut? I'd love to hear them!

This post is part of a collaboration with creditcardinsider.com, a great resource for finding the best credit card to meet your travel needs. They have some great pointers on their website, so if you're shopping around for a card, check them out! The content of this post is original to me, and this is not a sponsored post.

Top 3 Tips for Planning a European Adventure

I first fell in love with trip planning back in 2009, when my parents offered me the trip of a lifetime. To celebrate some recent family achievements, they wanted to take the whole family to Europe for two and a half weeks. But when they suggested a guided all-inclusive tour, I balked. In 2004, I went on a school trip to Greece booked through a travel company, and while I fell in love with Greece, I absolutely hated the way the trip was planned. The restaurants were tacky, the guided tours were mostly terrible and the transportation was poorly planned. So I told my parents, I'd love to, but you have to let me plan it.

We decided to take advantage of Eurorail's pass that (at the time) allowed you to travel between three bordering countries. So armed with travel guides to Italy, Austria and the Czech Republic, I set to work. Here are some important strategies I learned along the way.

How to bargain for hotel prices
If you're hoping to get a lower price for your hotel room, you need to do at least two of the following things: book well in advance, travel outside of high season, book a large party, or stay for 3+ nights in a row. If you meet most or all of these criteria, you may be in a place to bargain. You can email the hotel owner outlining the number in your party and your preferred dates and ask "What is your best price, considering the size of our group and the length of our stay?" Often, you'll get a lower price. A please and a thank you never hurts either.

Where to find the best restaurants
When you're travelling in popular European countries, most of the restaurants right by the main tourist attractions are pretty lousy. The prices will be higher and you'll find the suspect quotations marks hovering around words like "Authentic." Do your research, or ask a trusted local for their suggestion and find restaurants with good reviews that may be just a block or two out of your way. The best tiramisu of my life was eaten just a ten minute walk from Rome's Piazza Navona at a tiny, open air trattoria.

When to book in advance
It really pays to buy tickets for big tourist attractions like the Vatican or Prague Castle before you leave. Yes, you'll have to pay a fee for the convenience of printing out the tickets at home, but waltzing past those winding lines is well worth it. Booking in advance also helps you get into more exclusive attractions, like the Galleria Borghese in Rome (one of the most amazing art museums I've ever seen) where a very limited number of visitors are allowed in at a time.

If you have any other tips or tricks to share, feel free to respond in the comments below!

Early Riser

So during our trip to Chicago, I figured out a photographers secret - wake up early. 

Chris and I first stumbled on The Bean on a Sunday afternoon. It was nearly impossible to take a picture that wasn't filled with other people, finger prints, shoe prints (who knew the walking-on-the-bean selfie was so popular?) and smart phones held aloft. I snapped a few photos, but I wasn't really happy with any of them.

I returned the next morning a bit before 8 am. This time, there were only a few people around and the soft morning light was perfection. So there it is, if you want to get a great shot of a popular attraction, forsake those deliciously warm covers for solitary photo-taking glory.


If you're interested, check out my other photography tips here.

Money and Travel Part 1: Budgeting for Travel

Let's get one thing straight. Although I'm certainly fortunate when it comes to money, I'm not rich by any stretch of the imagination (at least not by North-American standards). I'm able to travel frequently for two main reasons: one, it's a priority for me and I'll skimp on other luxury items (fancy dinners, a flashy car, expensive haircuts, bejewelled Katy-Perry teeth?) to make it happen; and two, I'm one half of a d.i.n.k. Before I begin, I feel it's important to acknowledge that having two incomes and no children not only frees up a lot of money for travel, but also makes finding the time to do so a hell of a lot easier. However, this is not a guide on how not to have children and party every night in exotic locations (or whatever it is you assume child-free adults do), but one on how to put aside money for travel, whatever your current financial and offspring situation.

First, set aside actual money for those trips. This is simple and obvious, but many people don't, and it cushions the bank account blow when you're checking your statement the month after a trip. Chris and I have various savings accounts - general, retirement, emergency, home and travel. Every month, money is automatically transferred from our chequing into these various accounts. How much you allocate to travel will depend on your income and cost of living, but you'd be surprised to see how quickly the money adds up. Because the money is transferred automatically, it's pretty painless, and suddenly you have the money for a plane ticket, hotel stay, souvenirs, whatever. Then, when the time comes to pay for trip expenses, you transfer the money back into your main account to balance things out. This reduces the post-trip bank-balance nose dive.

Second, use credit cards, Airmiles, Aeroplan and the like strategically to help meet your travel goals. This is one you have to be careful about, since it really only makes sense to gain rewards on things you actually need and already buy, but if you can be honest with yourself and are diligent about watching for sales and promotions, the points can really add up. And again, it requires only a little effort and mindfulness, then bam! (seems like a) free trip! And seeming is the same as reality, right? ;)

Surviving a Winnipeg Winter: The Activity Edition

Last week, I posted about how to get your skin through the prolonged polar vortex known as winter here in Winnipeg, and this week I want to talk about how to get through the cold weather, mountains of snow and shortened daylight without resorting to murdering your loved ones in a cabin-fever rage.

When it comes to doing things around the city in the winter, my strategy is equal parts embrace and deny the cold. I'll tell you how to trick your brain into believing it's warm later this week, but first some suggestions for embracing the cold.
*Strap on skates, cross country skis or winter-proof boots and follow the river trail to visit the yearly expanding collection of warming huts at the Forks.
*Gather together a group of friends and go for a sleigh ride (spiked coffee in thermoses strongly encouraged)
*Admire snow sculptures while enjoying (admittedly overpriced) maple syrup snow candy at the Festival du Voyaguer
*Stop for cider and snacks at The Port on your winter bike to work February 14th
*Grab your kids or borrow someone else's and build a snow fort in your local park
*Follow up every wintry outing with a well-deserved cup of hot chocolate
Any other suggestions? I welcome your input!

(All photos taken by my dear friend Lindsey in and around The Forks)

My Picks for Photography Apps

I love Instagram for a couple of reasons. It's a great way to document trips, find travel inspiration, share vacation photos with loved ones and impress complete strangers with how cool and interesting you are. Like, "Ooh, look how many cappuccinos I can photograph in pretty light with a fun manicure." Guilty.

But in all seriousness, Instagram is a fun tool, and lately I've been working on stepping up my photography and editing game. These are my favourite apps to help with that so far.

Afterlight
The biggest reason I love this app is the ability to crop photos into different sizes and shapes from the standard Instagram square. It's a great tool for wider or taller shots, and you can also make your pictures into circles, ovals, stars, addition signs, even anchors. Seriously, not sure what you'd use that last one for, but someone could make it cool. The filters are also a lot more subtle than the Instagram options.
VSCOcam
I've just started playing around with this one, but I'm a big fan already. The quality of the images is gorgeous and there are a lot of interesting editing tools to play around with. You can also use your fingers to manipulate focus before you even take the photo. Again, subtler filters for a more professional look.
InstaFrame
This is my go-to for photo collages. I usually like to keep it pretty simple: white borders, squared corners and two or three photos that just belong together.
Camera+
This is another photo app that's new to my phone. I've only just started to see what kind of features it has to offer, but so far, I'm a fan. I like that you can see filters in a side-by-side array so it's easier to compare them. The picture-taking options are also great. You can use a timer or take photos in a burst for fast action shots.

Those are a few of my favourites. What about you? Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments below.

All these shots are taken from my Instagram feed. You can follow me @fullbellywornsoles.
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Travel Alone Without Feeling Lonely

I love travelling solo; it's exhilarating and a great way to try new things, but from time to time, it can get lonely. Here are a few tips on how to avoid that feeling.

Take a Class
Whether you're away for a few months or a few days, a class can be a great way to socialize. Cooking or yoga are great options. If you're travelling in a country where the language is foreign to you, this can also be an opportunity to take some language lessons. You'll be able to interact with people and acquire a useful skill. Some places even offer a free first class, just ask.

Spend Some Alone Time in a Public Place
Eat a sandwich in a busy park, read a newspaper at a coffee shop, people watch at busy tourist attractions. Sometimes all it takes to lift that feeling of loneliness is noticing the people around you.

Sit at the Bar 
If it's an option, ask to be seated at the bar or a communal table when eating out. At the very least, you can make conversation with the bartender, and likely a few other solo diners. Although it's tempting to put up the smart phone wall, resist the urge. Bonus, getting a seat at the bar is often a lot quicker than waiting around for a table.

Any other useful tips? Feel free to comment below.

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How to Eat at the Best Restaurants in Your Travels

I don't eat at restaurants often, so when I do, I want it to be worth my while. This feeling is heightened when I'm travelling. Sure we all scarf down the odd heat-lamp-warmed, microwaved egg sandwich from time to time (and by we, I mean I), but in my travels, I try to eat delicious food as often as I can.

Here are two approaches to doing just that.

Research at Home
Prepare before you leave by asking friends, scouring your favourite blogs for recommendations and reading reviews published by sources you trust. When in doubt, Google "best restaurants in ____________" and see what comes up. 

Depending on the popularity of the restaurant, make a reservation before you leave (many now let you do this through their website), or ask your hotel concierge to reserve for you. 

Seek out spots at different price points - a convenient spot to grab a cheap and quick bite, a great brunch place, a splurgy dinner joint - so that you have a few options when you're on the go.

Discover New Places When You're Out
I've found some of my favourite spots while I'm already on the trip. If a restaurant catches your eye and actual humans with taste appear to be eating and drinking at it, gamble; you may discover something great. 

A more reliable method is this, when you're at a restaurant/bar/whathaveyou that you enjoy and you get a good rapport going with the server, bartender, barista, ask them for their recommendations. I ate some of the most delicious and unique pizza of my life off a recommendation from a Vancouver bartender

The above photo is from a recent visit to Deseo; full review to follow Monday.

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Taking Photos (with you in them) on a Solo Journey

Travelling solo is something I really enjoy, but one annoying little difficulty is getting pictures of the sights with you in them. Endless photos of buildings and landscape can get a little ho-hum; it's nice to throw in a human element to catch the eye. And if you're the human, well that's even better. So here are some of my top tips for taking photos that you're actually in (no fancy camera necessary).
Take the Upshot
My variation on the extend-a-arm, this photo is easiest to take with a smart phone. Make sure the camera is flipped to the screen side, do some adjusting to find the best view, then nose your way into the shot and click. To avoid a double chin or just a weird, stretched out chin-only shot, be sure to look straight ahead.
Put Your Feet in There
Show off sweet street art, subway grates, cobblestone streets or interesting shadows with your feet in the mix. Bonus points for awesome shoes.
Get Creative with Your Reflection
Mirrors aren't the only opportunity for selfies. Use windowed buildings, water or shadows to get your image in the shot. 
Finally, Just Ask
If you really want a picture, particularly at a popular tourist spot, just ask someone. I've always found people to be obliging. If it's the middle of the day in a crowded area, you don't have to worry too much about who you ask, but if it's less crowded or later in the day I generally ask another woman or someone with a family. This may be a bit paranoid on my part, but safety is especially important when travelling solo.

Any other suggestions for solo travel photos? I love hearing from you!
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Cycling Beauty

Last week I posted about exploring a new city on a bicycle and the city cycling etiquette that goes along with it. This week I wanted to follow that up with a post on a beauty routine for cycling. In the photos my friend Lindsey took for the post I looked like this:

But when I'm cycling I typically look a little more like this:


And yes, I'm aware I'm a huge dork :) When I'm on a bike I generally don't concern myself too much with my appearance. But afterwards, I need to be able to transition into a look that doesn't scream "I just got off a bicycle and I'm really sweaty." Here's how to do that.

Putting on make up just to get on a bike is pretty pointless. Slap on some sunscreen for the ride and afterwards, splash your face with a bit of cool water. From there, follow up with your usual make up routine. Rock your bare-faced confidence, cake it on, do what you gotta do. I prefer to keep it light: tinted sunscreen, cheek stain, a swipe of mascara and lip balm. Don't have access to a mirror when you arrive and can't bear to go makeup-free? Waterproof mascara and cheek stain should stay in place while you're on the bike.

If your hair's long enough, pull it back into a french braid underneath your bike helmet. Afterwards, undo the braid for some mermaid waves. For short hair, wear a bandana underneath your helmet to keep things contained. Whether your hair's short or long, use baby powder or dry shampoo to perk up sweaty roots post-cycle.

Other than that, throw some deodorant in your bag and you should be fine: maybe a change of clothes depending on the situation.