Monday, February 28, 2011

Advice From A Traveling Coffee Addict

Coffee, for the majority of Americans out there, is the greatest invention ever made. Without it, nations would crumble and human societies would grind to a halt. My motto is that every one deserves at least one vice and by god mine is most definitely that brown liquid-like substance! When I'm traveling, though, this wonderful concoction is often hard to come by. Throughout my journey I've come up with several ways to keep my veins at the dangerously high level of caffeine that they're used to and I hope my advice will be just as beneficial to my fellow addicts out there.

Cowboy Coffee
All you need is some coffee, water, and a way to set something on fire. Just like the good ol' days of the cowboy, you can simply heat up some water and pour in your coffee and scoop out what you need. Sure, it's pretty gritty, but by gum does it give the kick you need to get on with your day! If you're too fancy to do it the old fashioned way, you can invest in a french press. Just pour in the hot water and it'll filter out the grounds. They also come in sizes that are small enough to fit in a backpack.

Coffee Shops
It's by and large the most expensive option and I guarantee it'll suck up your money right from under your nose but you can find a Starbucks on just about every block and it's tasty enough to almost justify the price. If you take this option, please take the time to find a local coffee shop, though.

7/11 also has some great coffee considering the low price but I'd be wary with other mini-marts. I nearly died a couple times drinking that stuff...

Yes, coffee is instant now. Just heat some water and pour! Honestly I hate the stuff because they taste like chemicals instead of coffee but it has the caffeine you need at the ease you want. Now that there are “cold” versions, you won't even need to heat the water!

That's right, caffeinated gum does exist! After several hours of driving and no coffee shops in sight I thought I came across an oasis in a desert when I saw this at a gas station. It's about 60 mg a piece – a typical cup of joe – and I can gladly say that it both tastes good and keeps you awake the rest of the day. A must buy for any traveler.

I call it the wussy's alternative but if you're willing to take a significant drop in caffeine levels this is definitely a healthier option to try.

If through all your efforts you come up with nothing, then try getting some natural adrenaline by going for a short jog or doing some jumping jacks. Exercise is the best method for keeping you awake throughout the day although I for one hope I'll never have to reach this option! :-P

Caffeine is a blessing but it's also a curse. It makes waking up super early in the morning from sleeping in the car that much easier when you have it but it also makes it fifty times harder when you don't. Follow some of these tips and hopefully you'll never have to do without!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Compass Points

Everyone needs a little direction in their life now and then, but I need it all the time. I have no sense of where I am at any given moment and get lost so easily that I once got separated from a giant mob and couldn't find my way back. If I were an albatross, I'd lead sailors in circles. If I were a salmon, I'd end up in someone's swimming pool. You get the picture.

It's funny, because I grew up sailing with my dad so I can read nautical charts with relative ease, but show me a road map and my mind locks up. This is most frustrating when I'm trying to get back on the freeway and have no idea which way is north, south, up, down, wallamahoo, Timbuktu. I'm lost!

Neurobomber and I have a deal--I drive highways, he drives cities. I do great when I'm only dealing with one direction and a few merges. Neurobomber, with his homing-pigeon like direction skills, cruises around towns he's never been to before like a local. He is the Magellan to my Columbus. "You just have to keep track of where everything is," he says. "Don't you remember how we got here?" He loves making fun of me for getting turned around and I don't blame him; other times, when I tell him about my latest misadventure, he stares at me wide-eyed and says "How did you even get over there?!"

I've gotten marginally better by playing navigator with his GPS. A GPS, while not excruciatingly necessary for the average road tripper, is an excellent piece of equipment to possess. You can use it to search for an incredible array of locations--specific types of stores, addresses, geocaches, restaurants, cafes, parks, whatever your heart desires. You can also set it to avoid toll roads and the like. Garmin is probably the best known brand, though their equipment tends to devolve into the electronic equivalent of a small child within a year or less.

Pros of GPS ownership or borrowership:
  • always know where you are and where you've been
  • step by step directions plus a map
  • more fun than a regular road map; lets you know where scenic views are
  • very useful in an emergency!
  • lets you know how long you will be driving
  • eats up batteries like french fries
  • sometimes loses signal, claims to not know where you are
  • sends you on extremely long and complicated route to avoid one toll road
  • can sometimes crap out on you only a few months after purchasing. Be picky when you choose your brand and model!
When Neurobomber skipped off to Portland he left me his trusty Vista eTrex; he worries I'll get lost and die in a ditch because I like to run off into the forest. Again, I don't blame him, but this never seems to happen. I hiked a lot when I was a kid, and got to know a substantial area of the state park behind my house just by repetitively getting lost and then finding my way back. No matter how lost I am, there are always a few simple ideas I keep in my head to get me back to civilization. Even if you have a GPS, there's no telling when it might blank out on you in the middle of the woods, so try to keep these rules in mind.

1. Go down. If you're lucky you'll hit a road; if not, you might find a river you can walk along. Towns are also more common in valleys.

2. Make lots of noise; sing or talk to yourself. Someone might hear you and then you can ask them which way to go.

3. Avoid going off a trail, even if it's just a little deer trail.

4. Once you take a direction, stick with it. Unless you see something definitive to turn your path towards like a building or road, you're more likely to come across something if you're not reversing direction every few steps.

5. Spiral: this is counter-intuitive to 4 and only for the truly and hopelessly lost. Predators and search teams use a spiral pattern to find prey/victims because it maximizes the radius of all the directions they could have taken from a given point. This method is dangerous though, because it's easy to lose track of how big your spirals are and start going in circles. Not recommended for mountainous or heavily wooded areas.

6. Treeline. If you can, walk along the edge of a treeline; it's easier to see where you've come from.

A GPS is definitely an investment, but if you split the cost with a friend or travel partner, it can be an invaluable addition to your road trip team. And you might never have to be as lost as me.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Mini-Road Trips: left/right game

In this series, I hope to provide new ideas for miniature road trips. That is, road trips that will only take either a day or two to complete when you can't take any days off for vacation. You can find the first of the series here.

This is a great game to play when you have at least two people in the car with you and you want to go somewhere you would never think to go to before.

While one person drives, another person gets blindfolded or simply closes their eyes. Then, when the driver is coming up to a possible fork in the road they simply state: “left or right?”. Then the blindfolded person shouts a direction.

This is a great game to play for any kind of distance. I play this all the time with Birdy when we're bored in the town we're in and we want to find someplace interesting that we've never seen before. The last time we did this we stumbled upon a park we had never known about before in the town we had been living in for almost 4 years! We ended up having a blast in the playground late at night.

If you decide to do this long distance, I wouldn't recommend keeping the blindfold on the whole time. It would probably be better to have one person write a series of directions and then when the driver calls a fork, the passenger just crosses off the next one.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Take the Train!

Today is my first day in Portland and I'm spending the morning to plan my trip and write to you. The train ride lasted a good 18 hours and it was a TON of fun! I would recommend the trip to anyone and here's why.

Breathtaking Views
The train I took went through the northern California and Oregon mountains. It traversed through cliffs miles high and made it through a snowstorm that would eventually lead to 10+ feet of snow the next day. I was blown away by the views that driving or taking a plane would never allow.

Wonderful People 
On my trip, I met two awesome people living in the Portland area that I ended up getting to know really well and got the contact info for one to meet again (the other one was too stoned from the brownie he took to remember his number!). I also met an Iraq war vet who told me about getting stabbed and shot in the back three times and still walking despite his doctors saying he never would and a woman who was riding the train for the first time after her 70th birthday. That's just the tip of the iceberg of the people I met. All you need is a warm personality and a listening ear and someone friendly will talk to you.

Hop on the train, sit back, and relax. No heavy lines, no groping security agents, you get to keep all your fluids, and your shoes stay on your feet.

In the states it's not by a lot (the difference for me was about 20 bucks) but if you're traveling elsewhere it's the cheapest way to travel.

If you're the type of person who hates talking to people, is always in a rush, and can't stand sleeping in a moving vehicle then I definitely wouldn't recommend riding in a train. For everyone else, I highly recommend it. I know the difference in time between a plane and a train is huge but it's worth the wait. If you've never been on a train for more than a couple hours then you definitely need to go. It's the experience of a lifetime!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Portland, Here I Come!

Tonight I catch a train to Portland, Oregon. After losing my job it was the first place I wanted to see. I've already got three places set to couchsurf for about a week and a half and then I plan on booking for a week at a hostel right after that.

My overall plan is to just explore Portland and if I like it maybe I'll stay for a bit but if I don't I'll try elsewhere. Every time I tell people that I get this look like I just said I wash my hair with peanut butter and then they smile, pat me on the head, and tell me that I might want to consider staying the Bay Area because the job market is alright there.

That kind of response worries me. I mean, I've gone on a two month road trip before with about a fifth of the money that I have saved up right now but for some reason I'm still worried. Plus, rent is significantly cheaper in Portland than any place I've lived in around California. I've even been up there three times and it seems like a pretty nice place to visit and maybe live. In fact it's one of my favoritest cities to visit!

But the fact of the matter is that it IS pretty crazy. I'm going to a city all alone with no car and no job and staying with total strangers while I attempt to find a place to live on money that I've only been able to save up for a few months. Yeah, I definitely bathe in peanut butter.

Suffice to say I'm in this weird zone where I'm nervous and scared and uncertain about everything in my life and the decisions I'm making while at the same time I'm more excited and happy about what I'm doing than anything I've ever done before.

The number one thing I keep telling myself, though, is that whatever happens I at least tried. Whether it ends up a supreme failure or a wonderful success, it will be a result that leaves me wiser, smarter, happier, and more adventurous. More importantly I hope to chronicle what happens so that my wonderful readers – that's you – can enjoy learning from my crazy attempts.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Open Road, Open Mind

One thing I've learned from hanging out with Neurobomber is that you never know what something is really like until you get off your ass and try it yourself. Many of you may have seen the comedic film Yes Man with Mr. Carrey, in which a man decides to never say no to life and expands his waking universe tenfold. Well, the movie takes it a bit far but the message "say yes to life" is an excellent one that more of us should practice!

If you decide to go on a trip, you're basically making a statement to yourself that you are trying to get out there and see new things. That being said, how contradictory is it to turn down events, places, and people just because it doesn't sound like something you would normally like? This world can surprise you...but only if you let it!

Let's take Portland for example; the very first out-of-state adventure featuring team NeuroBird.

We were sitting in Cafe Pergolesi, our favorite haunt and excellent source of all things caffeinated. Neurobomber was sipping a mocha pensively and he had that faraway look on his face that usually resulted in me doing something like dancing awkwardly with strangers in an attempt to learn how to waltz, or fording 5 freezing rivers to find a single geocache. "You know what we should do this summer? Go on a roadtrip."

Now at the best of times during my first year of college I wasn't exactly what you'd call "open" to experiences that I wasn't sure I would enjoy. It was beginning to be a bad habit.

"That sounds cool," I said cautiously. "Where?"

"Mmm. Well...Ashland is having their Shakespeare festival this month, and I've always wanted to see Portland."

"Portland...wait, Oregon? As in the Oregon trail videogame Oregon?" Visions of covered wagons and half-rations danced in my head.

"Yeah...I think it'd be super cool. Oregon's awesome."

My brain tried to connect the words "Oregon" and "awesome." It failed.

"I dunno, it sounds kind of...boring."

"Just trust me. It'll be fun!"

From that moment on I fought tooth and nail against everything. Did I want to see Much Ado About Nothing on the renowned Globe-like stage in Ashland? Not really. Did I want to spend 3 days in Portland, a city I knew nothing about? No. Was I OK with sleeping in Wal-Mart parking lots? Definitely not.

Looking back, I can't believe how negative I was. The Ashland stage was beautiful, and Portland is one of my favorite cities now. It was amazing. We met friendly people wherever we went, we never had a shortage of fun things to do. Even going in a tiny little bookstore had infinite rewards--a book called Fugitives and Refugees written by Chuck freaking Palahniuk about Portland's local secrets! A hardware store, a stone house, a nerdy cafe, and a science museum all made our list and each place was insanely fun.

I've since had doubts revoked about such other things as Couchsurfing, board game nights, talking to strangers, dance festivals, using the trains, sleeping in parking lots, and countless other situations.

I'm lucky to have a travel partner like Neurobomber help me cultivate an open mind. As for the rest of you, get the most out of your trip! Try new things even if they sound lame. Talk to people even if you think you'll look weird. If you hear music you like, dance. You'll be surprised at the support the universe shows you.

Friday, February 18, 2011

My Backpack

Since I'm planning on traveling quite a bit with my newfound freedom, I've decided to get rid of the majority of my stuff and live out of a backpack. That's right, a backpack. Granted, I'm cheating a little and leaving some of my stuff in my parent's basement, my day to day stuff is actually crammed in to one little backpack. Here's a list of all that I have on me:

Clothes – By far the most cumbersome.
  • 5 shirts (one I'm wearing)
  • 1 pair of pants – Yes, that's right. One pair.
  • Sleeping shorts – I wear these when I'm washing my pants. Also when I sleep.
  • Socks/Undies – It's enough to hold me over for about 2 weeks so I have plenty of time to find a place to get them washed.
  • One pair of shoes – I found an amazing pair of converse that are leatherbound and have foot support so I can wear them in the city AND take them hiking! They weren't cheap, but they're worth it in order to prevent carrying around 2 pairs of shoes
  • Plastic Bag for dirty laundry

  • Toothbrush + Toothpaste
  • Floss
  • Comb
  • Deodorant
  • Tweezers
  • Fingernail Clippers
  • Razors

Did you notice I didn't bring any soap? That's because I'm trying out the soap-less lifestyle. So far it's been great! I've gone about a month so far and I haven't stunk (according to others) and although my hair was rather greasy at first, it's now very soft and looks much better than it did with soap. I also don't have to carry around the extra weight of soap and if I ever have to take a plane I won't have to invoke the wrath of the TSA. I did fail the underarm test, though, so I still carry around a travel stick of deodorant.

  • My Netbook + Power Cord
  • Cell Phone + Charger
  • Portable Flash Light
I didn't bring a camera because my cell phone has one built in to it. If you have money to spend, it's a great idea to get gadgets that have multiple functions so you won't have to carry around as much.

Other Stuff
  • Games – I brought a deck of cards, a portable chess set, and dice
  • Notepad - For jotting down notes, addresses, names, etc.
  • Checkbook - I'm pretty much 100% digital these days but sometimes I need a checkbook
  • Wallet
  • Utensil Swiss Army Knife – Comes with a spoon, fork, knife, and corkscrew.
  • First Aid Kit – Filled with band-aids and alcohol wipes
  • Passport – I'm going to Portland but I want to check out Canada sometime and you need one to get in.
Although I feel like I could carry around less than this, this is going to be my first trip traveling alone and my funds are somewhat limited. In the future I'm hoping that I can figure out ways to carry around even less while still having the same functionality that most of these items bring.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

How to Survive the Most Expensive Place on Earth

Holy moly what a weekend! We got in to Anaheim super late and woke up the next morning to a Disneyland that was epically crowded despite being the least busiest month of the year. All in all the weekend was a lot of fun but it also had some major downsides that could have easily been avoided if we had both planned the trip better and made some different decisions.

Here is some stuff that I've learned after this harrowing weekend that any cheapskate traveler should follow:

Don't Go
Disneyland is by and large the most expensive place you could ever go to. Even when Birdy (my travel partner and obviously not her real name) and I went to Vegas for a weekend we did not spend as much money. If you want a nice relaxing vacation where you can pinch pennies and still have a good deal of fun, Disneyland is NOT the place!

Go On a Weekday!
I cannot express this enough. Disneyland is INSANE on a weekend and the line wait averages around 30 minutes. Weekdays are still pretty bad but not nearly as crowded as the weekend. If you're schedule doesn't allow you to go on a weekday then just reschedule to go at another time. It's not worth it. Although they're at their least crowded on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I'd recommend trying to get at least one day of the weekend in so you can experience the fireworks show and other awesome events of the day.

Photocopy Your Tickets
Our trip got cut short when Birdy lost her ticket on the last day of our trip. If you at least take a picture of your ticket, Disneyland will supposedly give you a new one if you can provide the code that was on the back of the ticket.

California Adventure Doesn't Suck
It's not as great as the original Magic Kingdom but it's less crowded than the main park and it has some pretty incredible offerings. When we were there we got to see several astounding 3D movies with some impressive “out of the screen” moments that will make you consider these new 3D movies in theaters to be pretty lame. We also saw a mind blowing live action performance of Aladdin that had updated dialogue by the Genie (“Hold on Al, I gotta tweet this!”), brand new music, and an actual flying carpet! Oh, and they serve alcohol there!

Eat Out
Disneyland has extremely expensive food and it's not even close to being good quality (unless you're getting ice cream or candy). Instead, get out of the park for a while and eat at one of the restaurants downtown. They're just as pricey but the quality is much better. Also, the park seems to peak in attendance between noon and 2pm so get out for a bit so you don't get overwhelmed.

If you're waiting in line for a while, try chatting with some of the people behind or in front of you. It's a great way to pass the time. Also, try to go with some friends so you always have someone to wait in line with. If you hate people or are just shy, try sneaking in a portable video game to pass the time.

Even in February, Los Angeles is scorching HOT! Bring a bottle of water and refill the second it gets empty. Bathrooms are everywhere so don't be afraid to fill your bladder. Also, although Disneyland's policy doesn't allow anyone to bring in outside food, I had no problem bringing in a couple snack bars to fend off hunger in between lunch and dinner.

See the Less Popular Stuff
The popular rides are fun, but they're not worth the 40+ minute wait. Disneyland has TONS of awesome stuff that most people look over so take the time to check them out yourself. When we were there we went to see “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” and we got to see the most up to date animatronic in the world. It blew my mind how realistic Robo Lincoln has become and I myself welcome my new robotic ex-presidential overlords. We also took the train all the way around the park and found several "secret attractions" along the way.

Disneyland is expensive and insane. If you don't plan it right or mentally prep yourself for what's to come, you'll find that it's quite far from the “Happiest Place on Earth”. If you do it right, though, you'll have a great time and you'll find you still have at least a small portion of your life savings (and your sanity) left over!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Mini-Road Trips: Geocaching

In this series, I hope to provide new ideas for miniature road trips. That is, road trips that will only take either a day or two to complete when you can't take any days off for vacation.

Geocaching is a game that requires a GPS system. The gist of it is that people will leave plastic containers hidden in random areas and then leave the coordinates to those containers with a few hints. Your job is then to get out of your house and track it down with your own GPS.

It's a great way to get outside and see the great outdoors. I've found over a hundred so far and it's a wonderful way to explore your surroundings and see new place you haven't seen before. It's a huge community with geocaches somewhere in the hundreds of millions so you're guaranteed to find some with a few miles of you, no matter where you are in the world!

Although geocaching is more of a hiking game, it's also a great way to make it a short road trip. If you're a premium member (About $30 a year, a great value!), then you can download coordinates based off of a specific route on a road. By doing this you can plan your own geocaching expedition and stop on the side of the road on occasion to pick up another geocache. It's a perfect way to make yourself literally stop and smell the roses instead of zipping by everything that doesn't catch your eye.

Have you geocached before? If so, what has been your best find?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

I'm Going to Disneyland!

Today I leave with my travel partner for Disneyland! Normally I wouldn't travel to the most expensive place on earth but my parents got me tickets for my birthday/Christmas present so I will totally take them up on that offer for that reason alone.

Disneyland (or Disneyworld for the luckier of us), is a very interesting place. It's the capital of American consumerism but it somehow feels like it's a separate entity entirely, a utopia that all of us can visit but never live. I find it fascinating because it's a major component of United States culture. Talk to anyone from the US and they have most likely been to a Disney theme park at least once or at the very least have detailed knowledge about the place and the rides.

As for me, this will be the fourth time I've been and the second time without my parents. I've gone on just about every ride except for Space Mountain (I know! It's the first one I'm getting on!), so I think I'm going to experience it for a different reason. Instead of rushing for the rides I want to enjoy the atmosphere, take in the sights and absorb the people. Not just the ones that play as characters but also the tourists. Very rarely can locals afford to go on a regular basis so the entire place is filled with people from all over the world and I think that really adds to the wonderment of the park itself.

I'm forgoing a little of my cheap road trip habits, too. I've booked a motel this time (albeit a cheap one) and I plan on eating out for the three days I'm there instead of cooking my food over a gas stove. One thing I'm definitely going to avoid though is shopping. It's incredibly expensive and I've never brought back anything that I was glad I had bought years down the line.

All in all I'm super excited. I can probably list hundreds of other places that are more worthwhile and at a much cheaper price but I think every single one of us always has a soft spot in their heart for the gigantic mega-corporation that defined their childhood.

What are some of your experiences with Disneyland? Good? Bad?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Merits of Booking a Cheap(er) Motel

SUPER sorry for not posting in a while! It's been a hectic week and starting a blog makes it difficult to keep the habit up. Anyway, I'm back on track and I'm hoping to update every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. To that end, here's today's post:

My parents can never understand why I always try to find the cheapest hotels. Even when they offer to foot the bill I still insist on getting a hotel that's two stars instead of three or four. Here's why:

They're Cheaper (Duh!)
It's obvious, but it's important to make this number one because the costs of a hotel can add up fast and it can mean the difference between several months of traveling and just a couple of days.

Free Amenities
Free parking, free internet, free breakfast. There's so much stuff that many cheap hotels offer that most fancy expensive hotels don't even offer or charge you to use. When I stayed at the MGM in Vegas, it cost me about $15 an HOUR for internet. Staying at any Super 8 on the other hand was completely free.

Rewards Programs
Most chain hotels offer up rewards programs that can add up to more savings in the long run.

Friendlier Staff
Maybe it's just a personal opinion but I always feel like the staff is friendlier when I'm at a cheaper motel. The pricier ones usually have that snooty guy that wishes he were french.

More Stuff 
I just booked a motel room at a Super 8 for my trip to Disneyland. It comes with a coffee pot, mini fridge, safe box, and microwave. Compare that to a more expensive hotel in the same area and it only has basic cable with a TV half the size.

More Comfortable Beds
The floral sheets may look boring but that mattress is top of the line! I always sleep a lot better when I'm in a cheaper hotel. It could be the satisfaction of saving a ton of money but it's more likely the super comfy bed that more expensive hotels seem to lack.

It boggles my mind that people constantly pay for expensive hotels. I get that they're classier and fancier experiences but come on. With a difference in the hundreds I'd say those “perks” are totally not worth it. I'd much rather take the money I've saved and invest it in a better vacation experience than dishing it out for a place that keeps you inside most of the time.

What are your experiences with using a cheap or pricey motel?
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