Category Archives: Travel Adventures

Watching A Map For Saturday

My Thursday morning started just as any other Thursday morning does for me. I was excited that it was nearly the end of the week, yet completely unmotivated to get up and get moving. Typical.

By the time I had found enough energy and arrived at work, I was told that I could use first period as office hours because my students would be in their homeroom classes working on a project they’d be presenting in the afternoon.

WOOHOO! *insert cheesy, celebratory bell kick* Boy, was I excited! This meant I had one extra planning/grading period, and that the end of my week just got better! Extra time = extra productivity (or so I thought… *spoilers*).

I almost never have time to check my email first thing in the morning, but this time, I did. In my inbox I had a new email about a post from Nomadic Matt. *cue lack of productivity* Apparently it’s the 10th anniversary of a travel documentary I had never seen but needed to. After reading his post, I decided to download it. But first, I needed to get my grading done for the day. If only I had done that right away instead of diving into a sea of travel blogs.

Fast forward to the end of the school day, I actually had some downtime to begin watching A Map for Saturday. I found myself getting weirdly emotional during this. I wasn’t crying or anything, but it was just so relatable! The documentary does a phenomenal job of capturing the feelings of a traveler. It is more centered around long-term backpacking, but as someone who has lived abroad for two years and travelled on holidays, it still hit home.

The basis of this documentary is that a young guy, Brook, who has a well-paying job in New York, decides to quit his job and travel the world for 11 months, something that was far less common 10 years ago. He films a lot of what he experiences on his round the world trip, with the focus being on the people he meets.

It adequately describes the feelings one goes through before, during, and after a lengthy international trip. And because of this, I’m feeling mighty contemplative tonight about what to do with the upcoming year of my life.

Several things really stuck out to me while watching A Map for Saturday:

People’s Perception of Americans

I’ve experienced this myself while traveling. It certainly changes a bit with each president, but it’s not uncommon for someone to have a certain reaction when you say you’re from the U.S. The current face of the country does make a difference in some ways, but in other ways it doesn’t at all. Americans stereotypically have this arrogant sense of pride. I feel like we are known for thinking we are the best, and that is half the reason people refuse to travel and leave the States. If I had a dollar for every time someone back home has asked me, “But why would you want to leave the US?” It’s one of the most annoying questions to get.
A friend of mine that I met on a trip last summer is Canadian, and people often just assume he’s American. He told me that as soon as he says he’s from Canada, he immediately notices a difference in the way others treat him overseas. In this documentary, people admitted they pretend to be Canadian so they won’t have to admit they are actually American! Maybe if I find myself getting into awkward political conversations this summer, I’ll follow their lead and say I’m from Canada. (Haha)

You’re Never too Old to Stay in Hostels

One of the travelers featured in this film was a 73 year old man. He is officially my idol. I found him to be so inspirational. He has seen more of the world than most people ever will and he refused to let his age or health issues keep him from exploring. I can only hope that when I’m 73 that I’m still getting around as well as he was in this, and that I’m half as cool as him still travelling the world.

10 Years Later and It’s Like Nothing Has Changed

At least where I’m from in the U.S., the mentality towards long-term international travel is just as it was 10 years ago when Brook created this. People don’t like it. They’re afraid of it. They don’t understand it. Honestly, it’s easy to feel like you’re being judged for your decisions. A lot of people in America still don’t travel internationally, and if they do it’s for luxury or work. You won’t typically see people leaving the States to go stay in a hostel and immerse themselves into a new culture. People like luxury hotels, cruises, and tours. Americans seem to prefer what’s more accurately referred to as a vacation, a word that has nearly been deleted from my lexicon over the past two years. I don’t value vacation the way I do travel, but that’s not something I have in common with most people I know in the States.

I, too, Am Afraid to Go Home

Of course I miss my family, especially my niece and nephews. But honestly, I’m more afraid to go home than I was to begin my journey overseas. I’m afraid of how much of a challenge it might be to leave the country again. I’m afraid I’ll be pulled into a normal full-time career and not be able to get the time off I desire. I’m afraid I’ll forget what it’s like to just go into something so unfamiliar with some nerves, but mostly confidence because I’ve learned it’s really not so hard to just get up and go somewhere you’ve never been. I’m afraid I won’t feel like I’m growing as much as a person because you learn so much about yourself and the world when you travel. The life I live now is so different than my life back home. And quite frankly, I don’t want to go back to a normal life. These feelings are present in the documentary and helped reassure me that I’m not alone.

Watching this documentary genuinely made me happy. It’s such an honest reflection of what it’s like to be traveling. There are so many highs and lows, hellos and goodbyes, perfections and imperfections; in the end, you never return the same person you were before. Yet home, home still seems to be the same. People have grown a little older, maybe gotten engaged or married, had a baby, or started a new job, but things still feel the same. It’s a really odd thing to experience. A Map for Saturday captures this feeling quite well.

If you’ve never seen this before, I definitely recommend getting it. And if you’re curious to know what Brook is up to now 10 years later, check out Nomadic Matt’s interview with him.

Have you seen it before? Did you just download it so you could check it out? Comment below and let me know what you think!


What Travel has Taught Me – Lesson 1: Relax

travel lessons, relax, travel, lessons learned

lessons learned, travel lessons, relax, lessons, learn, let passion unfold, why travel
With every mile I’ve travelled, I’ve learned something new. Traveling teaches you so many things about the world and the people who inhabit it. But apart from that, traveling teaches you about yourself. You grow as a person and never return exactly the same.

The thought of traveling or moving abroad can be super scary, so I’m here to tell you that, out of all of things traveling has taught me, the biggest thing I can say to anyone is to just relax.

I have a friend who is temporarily moving to Shanghai for work,  and it has finally hit her that she’ll be living in China for the next two months. Messaging her has reminded me of how I felt before my first big international trip.

First and foremost, I was excited. It was a couple weeks before my 21st birthday and I was finally getting to study abroad in France, something I had dreamed about since I was a kid. But I was stressed. I had so much I had to pack, a long checklist of things I needed to take care of before leaving, a list of people I needed to see before I left, all while balancing my normal everyday life and responsibilities. I was nervous I wouldn’t get it all done.

Then I got emotional – and with plenty of reason. The week before I left, my grandfather suddenly passed away. Then, my boyfriend of two years decided it would be a good time to break up. Plus, I had a two day retreat I had to run for the student organization I was President of. And I still wasn’t packed!

It felt like a nightmare.

For a second, I actually considered cancelling my travel plans. I thought that I needed my friends and family more than anything at that time and I was overwhelmed. Staying home didn’t seem like a bad idea for my sanity.

What I didn’t know then was that taking that trip at that specific time in my life was actually the best thing I could have done for my sanity. I changed on that trip. I learned that when everything around you seems like it’s crashing down on top of you, it’s not the end of the world. Nothing ever is. I didn’t need to be in control of everything. Things will never play out perfectly, and when that inevitability occurs, you just have to take a deep breath and relax. Nothing is ever as bad or as scary as it seems.

Since that trip, I’ve travelled quite a bit. With each new country I travel to, I realize that there’s no reason to be nervous, stressed, or afraid. You don’t have to be fluent in the local language or have a strict itinerary planned before your trip. You don’t have to pack everything you can think of (because you probably won’t use half of it anyway), and you don’t have to spend all your money on accommodation and tours.

Pack light but efficient. Book your flight and accommodation.  Exchange a little bit of local currency. Notify your banks. Breathe easy, be flexible, and go.

It’s important to realize that while it seems like everything changes, living a few days, weeks, months, or years somewhere else is not all that different. You’re still a human being alive in a community of other humans who are also just being alive. The culture will be different, but it won’t be so different that you can’t function. Things might not go exactly as planned, but everything works out in the end. Don’t let stress or fear control your trip, and definitely don’t let it ruin your trip.  You simply just have to be. That’s it. So relax and enjoy!


A Weekend Guide to Xi’an China

A Weekend Guide to Xi'an, China - Let Passion Unfold

Visiting Xi’an was one of the most affordable trips I’ve taken in a while. Generally speaking, I am rather frugal and am careful about what I choose to spend my money on. If I’m going to splurge on anything, it has to be travel related. So of course it’s always extra exciting if I can have an amazing trip that doesn’t cost a lot of money.

This is one of the great perks of traveling around Asia where there are loads of affordable travel destinations. Living in Shanghai, though, isn’t always cheap, so it’s nice to travel to other cities and save some money.

Xi’an, however, is super affordable! For two nights at our hostel, we each only paid $11 USD. For less than $6 a night, I would have gladly stayed longer. Round trip flights from Shanghai were roughly $100. As terrible as it sounds, I’ve spent that on a single night out in Shanghai before!

So now that I’ve shamefully admitted that on occasion I can waste far too much money hanging out in the city, let’s talk about why Xi’an is worth a visit (and how affordable it really is).

Why Xi’an?

Traveling anywhere in China can be quite fascinating. The culture has been around forever, seemingly; there’s so much history to be discovered. The history of Xi’an is one that dates back more than 2,000 years. Xi’an was home to the Qin Dynasty, a fact that plays an important role in its recent popularity as a tourist city. It’s been said to be the starting point of the Silk Road, and there’s a enjoyable combination of Muslim and Chinese cultures. There is really a lot to experience in Xi’an. It feels as though you’re being transported back in time, and it’s absolutely amazing. Let your imagination take you away when you visit, and make the most of your trip!

What to Do
 1. Terracotta Army (bingmayong – 兵马俑)
Weekend in Xi'an, Terracotta Army, Terracotta Warriors and Horses, Xi'an, China

The top of the list is, of course, the Terracotta Army. This is what has brought in so many tourists in recent years, and odds are it’s one of the main things you think of when you hear “Xi’an.” Emperor Qin Shi Huang of the Qin Dynasty had this army created to protect his tomb. The Warriors and Horses were discovered only 43 years ago in 1974. Since then, it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Seeing pictures simply does not do this archeological find justice. There are three separate pits filled with members of the Terracotta Army. The amount of time it must have taken and the commitment to the first emperor is just amazing. It all seems too magnificent to truly comprehend, especially when you think about how long ago these were created.

Cost: 145 RMB
Directions: Take a bus to the Xi’an Railway Station. 1-2 RMB. Hop on bus 306 which will take you to the Terracotta Army (Bingmayong – 兵马俑  in Chinese). It’s about a one hour drive and costs about 8 RMB.
Important: BRING YOUR PASSPORT. YOU WILL NEED IT TO GET IN!

2. Bike the City WallsBike the City Walls, Xi'an, China, A Weekend in Xi'an

This one was super fun for me. I never would have imagined myself biking the city walls of an ancient capital city. The walls are in pretty good shape, but the bike ride is a bit rough. They stop renting out bikes after 6 pm, so it’s important to show up before then.City Walls, Xi'an, China, A Weekend Guide to Xi'an

Cost: 54 RMB to enter and get up on the city walls. 45 RMB to rent a bike for 2 hours. 200 RMB deposit for the entire group, which you should get back unless you do something terrible to the bikes!
Directions: Easily accessible from the same stop to catch the bus to go to the Terracotta Army (hint: look for stairs with a ticket box/security below). That’s the North Gate. The other gates have the bikes as well, and you can drop off at any of the locations around the wall.

3. Muslim Street Market (Beiyuanmen Islamic Street)

Muslim Quarter, Muslim Street, Xi'an, China, A Weekend Guide to Xi'anEvery one of my Chinese coworkers and parents of the students I tutor told me that the food is amazing. They weren’t lying. Do yourself a favor and read up on some of the best dishes in Xi’an.

Muslim Street Food, Muslim Street Market, Beiyuanmen, Potatoes, A Weekend in Xi'an China

These potatoes brought me so much happiness! Can’t go wrong with potatoes ♡

Going to the Muslim Street Market at night was a memorable experience with such tasty food and a lively atmosphere. Nighttime is definitely the best time to go. Come hungry and try as much as you can!

Cost: However much it takes to get full! Each item typically costs between 10-20 RMB.
Directions: Not far from the city center, you’ll want to find Beiyuanmen street -it’s located right behind the Drum Tower, which you can see from the Bell Tower. Across from the circle of the Bell Tower, there are some stairs that lead to a Starbucks and an alley of restaurants and shops. If you follow that alley to the Drum Tower, Beiyuanmen will intersect on the right.

4. View the Bell Tower at Night

Bell Tower, Xi'an, China, A Weekend Guide to Xi'an, Let Passion UnfoldYou pretty much can’t get around Xi’an without seeing the Bell Tower. It’s the center of everything, so you’ll constantly come across it. Make sure you make a stop near it at night though while it’s lit up and even more beautiful.

Cost: Free
Directions: You can’t miss it, honestly. It is the center of everything. If that isn’t useful to you, the metro stop is Zhong Lou.

5. The Shaanxi History Museum

This one I recommend lightly. If you have time and are looking for a way to spend an hour or two, go for it. There’s a lot of cool things to check out, including history of the Shaanxi people, how the Terracotta Army was made, and lots of bronze  as it was popular at that time. It is an EXTREMELY POPULAR museum and with a great reputation. The museum provides you with a lot of history (some in English), however a lot is in Chinese (naturally). Enjoy reading what is available to you and move right along. We enjoyed it overall, but were slightly underwhelmed. Some of the exhibits have an additional cost which can be quite hefty (300 RMB). We opted out of those, so maybe that’s part of the reason this museum didn’t completely blow us away. It was worth 30 RMB and skipping the line though!

As mentioned before, this museum is insanely popular, so the queue to get in is crazy long. Pro tip: Skip the line and walk up to the ticket office across from the mass of people. I don’t know if people are unaware they can get tickets at the other ticket window, but there is no line. Considering the long queue, it’s of course busy on the inside as well. You won’t be able to spend as much time reading and pacing yourself due to the crowds, so you don’t need to leave a ton of time to see it all.

Cost: 30 RMB
Directions: Off of Line 3 or Line 2 – stop: Xiaozhai. Take exit C, turn left, and walk until you see a giant queue of people under tents on the sidewalk (or about 800 meters).

Getting Around

Xi’an is surprisingly easy to navigate. We took taxis, buses, and the metro several times. We never had any issues, even with the buses! Don’t be afraid to go the cheapest route here. It’s relatively simple, so no worries! If you do find yourself needing a cab, they are still really affordable, just make sure you know the street names you’re looking for.

The entire weekend – museums, food, sites, transportation, flights from Shanghai, and accommodation cost just under $175 USD.

We had such a great time in the day and a half we had to explore. There are plenty of other places to visit in Xi’an if you’re staying longer than I did, but with limited time, these were the 5 things at the top of my list.


Choosing the Best Rental for Your Trip: New Zealand Driving Tour

Choose the best rental to tour New Zealand, Beginner Mistakes, New Zealand Rentals, Jucy Rentals, Drive New Zealand
Choose the best rental to tour New Zealand, Beginner Mistakes, New Zealand Rentals, Jucy Rentals, Drive New Zealand

When planning a tour around New Zealand, it’s fairly obvious that the most cost effective way to do it is to drive yourself (or hitchhike?). There are a ton of companies out there that you can rent a car or a camper from. So how do you choose which rental is the best for your trip?

 

Many of the rental companies around New Zealand are great for people who are beginners at camping this way. My friends and I had never really travelled in a campervan before. A friend of ours who lives in New Zealand recommended we use Jucy Rentals. We took her advice and booked ourselves a Jucy Chaser. The Jucy Chaser we drove was an automatic *phew* and not a bad size. It felt quite small on the inside, but it did the job for a couple weeks driving around NZ. They are also a good size for drivers who aren’t used to driving some massive vehicle through all the twisty, hilly roads around the South Island on a windy day.

Best Rentals, Tour New Zealand, Jucy Rentals, Jucy Chaser, Drive New Zealand

PROS

The rental process was easy. They arrange a shuttle to and from the airport, so we didn’t have anything to worry about! We showed up and met with friendly, helpful staff. We checked out our vehicle and got a brief explanation of different things to note on the camper. Soon we were ready to go! Our Chaser came with a TV, radio, refrigerator, dishes, stove, sink, bathroom, and two beds (sleeps 4). It had everything we could have wanted. There weren’t any sort of amenities that were missing. It wasn’t luxurious by any means, but it took care of all of the important things. It was pretty easy to set up at night and pack up in the morning, as well.

 

CONS

Not everything was perfect, though. We had an issue with one of our fuses blowing multiple times. The fuse controlled our radio, TV, and outlets. Lucky for us, it wasn’t anything really important. The first time it happened, we were close to the Queenstown airport and took the rental in for a quick fix. Unfortunately, it blew again. We were a little sad to not have our radio at times, especially because we had put together an awesome playlist for the trip. (Pro tip: Bring an auxiliary cord or portable speakers to play the music you spent so long putting together!) We also had troubles with the a/c. It just never seemed to work and the air from the front didn’t circulate well to the back. It got a little uncomfortable back there some days.

 

Overall, we had a pretty good experience, and I would definitely do another rental like this in the future. However, we did make a few mistakes when booking. We didn’t really know what we were doing when we made our decision. We definitely could have saved ourselves a little bit of money.

Best Rentals, Tour New Zealand, Drive New Zealand, Driving Tour, Jucy Rentals, Jucy Chaser

Just hanging out on the bottom bed!

Our biggest mistake was not fully understanding  the type of trip we wanted to take. It’s extremely important (if you’re trying to be wise about money) to decide if you want to do freedom camping, or are you staying at campsites and mostly treating your vehicle as a sleep-in car rental. For us it was the latter, but we booked as if we’d be freedom camping. This ended up being more costly for us.

 

If you plan to FREEDOM CAMP

+ Must be in a certified self-contained vehicle. In other words, the toilet and shower are contained within the vehicle, instead of simply popping out.

+ Free to camp anywhere unless there’s a sign stating otherwise. However, it’s good to be familiar with the rules in different areas. I’ve heard it can vary around the island.

+ Responsible for properly disposing of any wastes. Please be respectful to New Zealand’s beautiful environment and use the proper dump sites.

+ Don’t forget to find a place to charge your vehicle and refill any resources you use (easily found at campsites).

+ Save money by not paying nightly rates at campsites (roughly $70 NZD a night per vehicle for a powered site at a holiday park).

 

If you plan to STAY AT CAMPSITES (Holiday Parks)

+ Make sure the campsite your staying at accepts your vehicle. Not all places allow non-self-contained vehicles. I think all of the ones we stayed at did, though.

+ Use your vehicle mostly just to travel and to sleep.

+ Take advantage of the charging outlets and garbage services at your site.

+ Use the campsite facilities to shower, cook, wash dishes, use the toilet, etc. Doing this means you don’t have to refill or clean those parts of your camper!

+ Save money by not paying extra for a self-contained vehicle (at least $2-300 NZD depending on which vehicle is best for you).

 

These definitely aren’t your only options. You can rent a smaller vehicle and get a room at some campsites, or you can get a cheaper site and use a tent!  Honestly, this kind of appeals to me. It would be significantly cheaper, and the holiday parks have everything that you need for the night. The only concern would be bad weather. I guess in that case, maybe splurge on a room somewhere?

 

In my opinion, the most important thing is to think about the kind of trip you want to have and decide the best vehicle for your needs. It’s not necessary to have the ability to freedom camp if you don’t plan on taking full advantage of it. I wish we had planned that out more thoroughly.

Think about how much room you’ll really need for sleeping. Do you actually want to clean up the toilet and shower when you’re done or would you rather use a campsite? Smaller vehicles will obviously use less gas. Each option has its pros and cons, so choose whichever is best for you!

 

Have you ever done a driving tour of New Zealand? What’s your favorite way to get around?


How to Travel New Zealand’s South Island for Free

15 places you must see on New Zealand's South Island. Visit New Zealand on a budget. Budget Travel Tips

Whoever said Disney was the happiest place on Earth clearly never made it to New Zealand. Traveling around New Zealand’s South Island for two weeks had me in a constant state of awe. Throughout the entire two weeks, I don’t think I ever picked my jaw up off the floor. I’ve seen photos and documentaries, I’ve read plenty of blogs, but nothing compares to seeing it in person. However, the anticipated expenses can be a bit daunting. Luckily, there are plenty of free things to do in New Zealand!

This is precisely why budgeting a New Zealand trip really isn’t that difficult. There are loads of adventures you can take advantage of on the island that will cost you an arm and a leg, but those things aren’t necessary in order to truly enjoy New Zealand. The best things on the South Island are free. Today I’m going to share with you some of my favorite FREE experiences in New Zealand.

1. Travel back in time with the Moeraki Boulders
 2. Take a picture of the 2nd most photographed building in the Southern Hemisphere (after the Sydney Opera House) – the train station in Dunedin

 3. Enjoy all of the wonderful street art (Dunedin)

 4. Walk up the steepest road in the world (Dunedin) 5. Watch the sea lions at Allans Beach (Dunedin) 6. Relax by the Purakaunui Waterfalls 7. Hike any of the trails in Te Anau 8. View Queenstown from The Remarkables 9. Connect with the lonely tree at Lake Wanaka 10. Hike Mount Roy – Exhausting, but beyond worth it! 11. Stargaze at the Church of the Good Shephard (Lake Tekapo) 12. Check out Hooker Glacier Lake 13. Visit the Devil’s Punchbowl Waterfalls 14. Watch the sunrise and sunset at the beaches 15. Don’t hesitate to pull over and take photos!

So there you have it, my favorite experiences on the South Island that won’t cost you a penny and will leave you with unforgettable memories.

What are your favorite free (or budget friendly) things to do in New Zealand?


The Best App for Organizing Your Travel Plans

How to Plan a Trip, Best App for Organizing Travel, Free App, Microsoft OneNote Uses, Travel Plans
How to Plan a Trip, Best App for Organizing Travel, Free App, Microsoft OneNote Uses, Travel Plans
How to Plan a Trip, Best App for Organizing Travel, Free App, Microsoft OneNote Uses, Travel Plans

Planning a trip can be really stressful for some people, and with good reason. You’re probably going somewhere you’ve never been before, where you may not even speak the same language, and yet you have to manage transportation, accommodations, a general itinerary, and that’s just the beginning.
 Some people are very go-with-the-flow travelers, which I think is great; I, on the other hand, am a planner. It’s very important to be flexible an patient while traveling, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan. I like to at least have a rough plan so I can hit all the places I want to go.
Until recently, I’ve read blogs and Lonely Planet books and simply taken notes. I’ve made a list of all the places I’ve wanted to visit within a country or city (I love lists), and then I’ve casually planned each day the night before (sometimes even that morning). That’s when I would normally look up all the directions, addresses, contact info (if necessary), etc. This was pretty much my standard way of planning until I learned about Microsoft OneNote from The Rachael Way. I use it for pretty much everything, but I find it most beneficial for traveling. Here’s why:
  1. I can organize all of my travel into separate pages based on location.
  2. Within a page, you can click and type anywhere, adding text, tables, pictures, attachments, checklists, and more.
  3. You can easily arrange any parts you add at any time.
  4. You can zoom out to get a quick look at everything and easily find what you’re looking for in the document.
  5. It syncs with your phone, so you can take it with you anywhere you go!

So how do I actually use OneNote to plan a trip?

Step 1: BrainstormingOneNote allows me to take all the information I’ve gathered from blogs and easily copy it into the page I’ve created. I can choose activities, events, or sites and quickly add photos, hyperlinks, locations, or a bit of history if I want to be reminded why I became interested in a certain attraction in the first place.
Step 2: Create a List (optional, but preferred) After you’ve decided what it is you want to do, you can use the “To Do” button to create a list. I like to use this to list out the things that are most important for me to do and check them off as I go. Doing this allows me to make sure I don’t miss anything important. At this point, you could do two lists if you wanted, a list of must-dos and a list of other interesting activities if you have time. I haven’t done this yet, but it seems like a good idea to me!
Step 3: Mark Up a Map (especially if you’re touring a country) This was incredibly useful for organizing my drive around New Zealand. Find a clear map of wherever you’re traveling. In my case, I searched a map of the entire country of New Zealand and chose the best one, but you could use this for a city as well so that you know what is nearby for planning purposes! For New Zealand, using the list I created in Step 2, I plotted dots on my picture of all the locations we wanted to stop at by using the tools in the “Draw” tab of OneNote. I ended up with this lovely piece of work that really helped me with the next step!
 
Step 4: Set your Itinerary Some trips are more flexible than others. Setting an itinerary for a flexible trip helps you understand how much you should plan to do in a day. I planned Sydney like this until we booked our time slots for our big activities and checked the weather. Then, we did a little adjusting since we had the freedom to. Our trip around New Zealand, however, was not as flexible; we couldn’t exactly go around the South Island in a random order. After looking at where the airport is and deciding we wanted to travel clockwise around the island, I was able to build our itinerary. I created a list in the order we’d be stopping and added things to do in each location. Once I checked off the entire list from step 2, I removed the duplicated information from the page.
 
The Final Step: Put it into a Calendar Using the OneNote Insert > Table option, I built a calendar for our holiday. By having the itinerary on the same page, I was easily able to see how much we had scheduled for which cities and how long we would need to stay in each place. I quickly put everything in and adjusted the length of stays in certain areas if needed. It was also helpful to add prices, flight info, phone numbers, confirmation numbers, etc. to the appropriate days on the calendar. Here’s what our entire three week trip to Australia and New Zealand looked like.
 
I enjoy being able to zoom out and quickly pinpoint where my map, calendar, itinerary, tickets, and anything I added are located. I don’t have to scroll or flip through pages; it’s all there in one place, together!
Here’s a screenshot of the majority of the page and the planning. The left side is some of the brainstorming. I grabbed those photos from a blog I found on Pinterest: In a Faraway Land  
I also added things like who on the trip has paid for what since often we do a lot of online bookings and one person pays for it on a card. When the trip is done and it’s time to settle up, we have everything we need. And having this on my phone at all times is pretty much the greatest thing for traveling. I have all the information I need at my fingertips, no internet required after it syncs. I’m obsessed with using this as a travel planning tool. There’s always an opportunity to get creative and find more ways to use it!
Have you ever used OneNote? What is your favorite planning tool for trips?

Sydney, Australia: One Week Itinerary

Sydney is a place I’ve always wanted to visit but never thought I’d actually get to. This past week, that dream came true and majorly exceeded my expectations. If you’re looking for some unforgettable experiences to add to and then cross off your bucket list, Sydney has you covered.

We spent one week in Sydney, but I could have stayed forever. Viewing the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge was enough to make me instantly fall in love and never want to leave. Apart from those beautiful views, we did a lot of other things that I never imagined I would. We did everything we had planned and still had time for smaller, filler activities.
Here are my favorite things we did each day.
Day 1: Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney Harbour Dinner with a View
We were feeling jet lag a little bit on this day but managed to power through it, having a lovely dinner on the Harbour after a peaceful walk through the Royal Botanic Gardens. Walking through the gardens will bring you on a nice path along the water, taking you right to the Sydney Opera House. Down some steps near the Opera House you can find plenty of restaurants with a great view. If you eat outside, beware of the seagulls!
Day 2: Australian Museum, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb

The Australian Museum is great if you want to learn more about the history of the people who lived in Australia pre-colonization who still share the land today. It’s pretty remarkable and also contains different sections in different levels with native animals, fossils, minerals, and more. It is really close to the St. James subway stop. If you walk towards St. Mary’s Cathedral, the Australian Museum is on the right.

After spending a couple hours at the museum, we checked out St. Mary’s Cathedral. It’s beautiful, both inside and out! The day we visited, there were two weddings there, a truly stunning wedding venue.

We completed our evening with the Bridge Climb. This is a must do, even if you are afraid of heights. Trust me, it’s worth it. You go through quite a bit of training and are attached to a harness, no worries!

Day 3: Beach Day – Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk

To be honest, the day we went to the beach was really hot, and we all got pretty toasted considering we spend most of our time in Shanghai, “protected” from the Sun by the pollution. Because of this, we didn’t make it all the way to Coogee. We only made it to Bronte, but we stopped and did some swimming and photoshoots along the way! This walk is definitely a great place to get some amazing photos. If you get a chance, there are some aboriginal rock engravings nearby and a cemetery as well – just a couple extra things to spice up your walk. We were too warm and spent too much time swimming to have time to do anything extra. If you’re located in central Sydney, you can take a few different buses to Bondi which only costs $0.10 AUD – SO CHEAP!

Day 4: Darling Harbour, View from the Pylons

If you enjoy dining at The Hard Rock Café in different countries (or just want souvenirs), you can find one at Darling Harbour. We ate there for lunch and completed all of our souvenir shopping in this area. It’s also a nice place to walk around and just enjoy the weather (the Maritime Museum is located here if you’re interested).

After hanging out at Darling Harbour for a little while, we went to the Pylons for another spectacular view of Sydney. The Pylons are the stone structures on the Harbour Bridge. If you did the Bridge Climb, you can access the Pylons for free as long as you bring the right documents that they gave you; on the other hand, if you didn’t do the Bridge Climb, you can still get in for $15 AUD.

Day 5: Sydney Opera House Tour, Shark Dive Xtreme

The Sydney Opera House Tour is about an hour long, and I highly recommend doing it. You learn so much about the construction and history of the Opera House. You, of course, get to walk around and see the interior.  It’s pretty fascinating, and the thought put into this amazing specimen of architecture is impressive. I can’t even imagine seeing a show there. Can you imagine what it would be like to perform there?

The next big thing we did was swim with nurse sharks over at the Sea Life Sanctuary on Manly Beach (you’ll need to take a 30 minute ferry from the Harbour). It’s not as scary as it sounds and was incredibly cool. The great thing about this is that it’s meant so that someone with zero scuba experience can handle it. They teach you the basics through a thorough training process and guide you the whole way. The stingrays in the tank scared me most, but it was definitely worth it! Not to mention the adorable Myrtle the Turtle who came to hang out with us while we were under!

Day 6: Taronga Zoo

The Taronga Zoo is only a short ferry ride from the Harbour and has all the typical zoo animals, plus the ones specific to Australia. My favorite parts were the Koala Encounter and the Kangaroo Walkabout. For about $30 AUD, you can take a picture with a koala. You are not allowed to touch them though, as it is illegal in New South Wales.

The Kangaroo Walkabout was awesome because the animals just roam free with you in their designated area. You have to follow the path, but the kangaroos, wallabies, and emus wander around as they please. I had a kangaroo jump across my path, less than a foot away! It was pretty cool!

We flew out on day 7, so nothing exciting that day… mostly just tears. We were so sad to leave, but we were lucky that we picked a hostel with a great location. Bounce Sydney is located just outside of the Central train stop, so access anywhere was easy, especially the airport – only 10 minutes away!!!!  It made leaving slightly less dreadful. I recommend choosing a hostel with location to the metro in mind. Taxis are quite expensive and the bus can be a little confusing if you’re not entirely sure where you’re going. Get an Opal card and take the metro everywhere. Most things are pretty accessible from a train.
My favorite vantage point of  Sydney – Mrs. MacQuaries Point
One week in Sydney is enough time to do some pretty amazing things, but it will definitely leave you longing for more. The trip went by way too quickly, and I already want to go back. Sydney is now being added to the list of places that I would love to live long-term.

Have you ever been to Sydney? What are your favorite things to do there?

Snow Place Like Harbin: Ice and Snow Festival, Harbin, China

Visiting Harbin for the Snow and Ice Festival has been on my bucket list since I read about it a couple years ago over at The Rachael Way. Two years later and I’ve finally made it! I was worried that I had built this up so much that I’d be disappointed, but let me tell you, Harbin definitely lived up to my expectations. If you’re looking for a real life winter wonderland experience, Harbin is your place.
Ice Sculptures @ Zhaolin Park
This is a much smaller scale ice festival, but it’s only 50 RMB compared to the other, more expensive festivals and is easily accessible in the city center. There are plenty of sculptures around the park, as well as a cute train and some slides. 
Snow Sculptures @ Sun Island Park
This is where things get a little more expensive and a lot more intense. I recommend doing this during the day. You can easily spend a few hours walking around the park. The park closes at 5 pm, so I recommend going directly after lunch before it gets too cold. They turn the lights on around 4 pm, and the already mesmerizing sculptures become even more gorgeous. We paid 240RMB/ticket and an additional 20 for access to the cars three times (which we only used once as we were leaving).
Ice and Snow World
The biggest ice festival in the world is here, with companies like Ford, the NBA, Pizza Hut, and more all with their own designated ice castle ads. The Ford castle actually had a car parked on it. Uh, what. Everything is breathtaking, and there are loads of things to do. They have reindeer (pulling sleds-sad face), slides, an art expo, a lantern show, and a concert.  This festival costs about 330 RMB and closes at 10 pm. It’s not far from Sun Island Park; however, if you aren’t careful, you may end up spending an outrageous 50 RMB on a taxi from one place to the next.The Church of St. Sophia
There’s a bit of recent history in Harbin, which you might be able to guess when you arrive and notice how vastly different it looks from the rest of China. You can immediately see the Russian influence in the architecture, and it’s absolutely beautiful. Many Byzantine orthodox churches had been built in Harbin, but many had been torn down. The church of St. Sophia is the only one left standing today. It’s free to have a look from the outside, but if you want to go inside, it costs 15 RMB. It’s really inexpensive and worth it to walk around. There are pictures and models on the inside to help you understand the history behind it all. I definitely recommend it!
Several things to note:
//The people were super friendly and helpful, but don’t speak any English. It was a great opportunity to practice my Chinese skills.
//Cabs are super cheap, but they may try and rip you off. If you have Uber and know a small bit of Chinese, I would advise using the app. It was extremely helpful for us.
//Try to enjoy some Russian food. We had a place in mind that ended up being closed, so we missed our chance.
//Pack hand warmers (and maybe feet and body warmers as well).
//Layer up. It gets pretty cold! We were there before a cold front, and it was already -17°C or 2°F.
//It can be pretty polluted, so bring a mask! When I went, it was the worst pollution I’d ever experienced. I’m talking AQI of 463.
//Bring water or snacks to the ice and snow festivals. Concessions are over-priced, as expected, so pack your own. If you’re bringing water, put it in a thermos to keep it from freezing.
//Don’t be alarmed that a lot of the snacks they sell are frozen, like these candied fruit for example!
//As always, toilet paper and soap are in short supply or non-existent, so make sure you bring some tissues and hand sanitizer with you.
//Beware that your battery may die quickly being out in the cold. Find ways to protect your electronics from the brutal winter air.
//Zhongyangdajie is the pedestrian street that you may find yourself on if you’re looking for food. It has everything and no cars!
This place is truly wonderful to see if you get the chance. Just make sure that you come prepared, especially if you aren’t used to freezing cold weather!

Phuket, Thailand: Good Thai-dings for Christmas

Convincing me to spend Christmas in a tropical place was a bit of a task for my good friend Chris, but when combined with an opportunity to attend our friends’ wedding in Thailand, I agreed.

I will admit that Christmas was not the same, and I’m not sure that I’ll ever go anywhere warm again for Christmas; however, this was easily one of the best vacations I’ve taken in my life, and I certainly needed it. I’ve taken some amazing trips in 2016, every country just as amazing as the next, but for the first time I was able to do awesome things and relax at the same time. It was incredibly nice.

My favorite things in Phuket:
Swimming with Yaya @ Paradise Beach
This was a truly magnificent experience. Baby elephants are so playful , and this one was so well trained. Going swimming with this gentle giant was well worth the money. Yaya used to be at Tritang Beach but is now at Paradise Beach. Read more about my interaction with Yaya here.
Cuddling with Tiger Cubs @ Tiger Kingdom
(Well, this one’s not a cub, but look how cute!)
wI was in love with these little cubs. AHH, adorable!
This was another unforgettable experience. We did a package deal for this and paid 1600 baht to experience both the big and small tigers. They have several different packages for all the different sizes that you can purchase and there are age requirements, but everything is safe as long as you follow the rules and don’t do anything stupid. It’s a bit expensive, but hello… tigers!
Getting a Thai Massage
This may have been my best decision ever. I had my first traditional Thai massage at a little shop near our resort. I can’t even describe how amazing it was. For only 300 baht, you can get an hour of the most glorious massage available on Earth. They somehow manage to use every part of their body, seemingly simultaneously, and use just the right amount of pressure that it doesn’t cause any pain or discomfort. On top of that, they give you a good stretch, and you just feel like a whole new person in the end. Definitely do this, maybe once, twice, or twelve times before leaving.
Getting an Elephant Tattoo
One of the first things that you’ll probably notice while walking around Phuket is that there are loads of tattoo parlors. On our first day,  I jokingly said to my friend that we should get elephant tattoos. Later, we brought it up again to the groom after the wedding as a joke. After repeatedly saying this and not taking it seriously, we soon grew fond of the idea, especially after the impression that Yaya had left on us. And as our last line of business before departing the island, we went to Aussine, an Australian tattoo parlor, to get our tattoos.
White Water Rafting Going white water rafting in Thailand was our way of having a “white” Christmas. This was actually part of a tour we booked that included white water rafting, zip lining, elephant trekking, and a trip to a monkey “cave” all for 1200 baht. You could also book the ATV tour as well, but we opted not to. For our tour, they picked us up at 7:30 am from our hotel, and we were out all day. I can really only recommend the white water rafting as part of this specific tour. The white water rafting was fantastic and the crew was amazing; however, the elephant trekking and ATV option shared part of the track and weren’t really “through the forest” as advertised. We were also surprised that it was nearly three hours from our hotel, also not as advertised. We had to go to Phang Nga, so it took forever. It was certainly the best bang for your buck, though. I’d probably recommend skipping the tour and just doing the white water rafting.
Other Ideas:
Elephant TrekkingA lot of places offer elephant trekking. If you’re someone who is sensitive about animals and how they are treated, then I recommend doing your research on this before committing to a tour. I didn’t realize how terrible this was for the elephants until I got on. I, personally, won’t do this again.
Zip Lining/ATV Tour
The place we went was a bit underwhelming, but I’m sure if this is something you’re really into, you could definitely find better places.
Take a Tuk Tuk
If you’re not going far, this is the best way to get around, and it’s super fun with all the lights and music!
Relax at a Resort or BeachI think this one goes without saying. It’s vacation in Thailand, go enjoy yourself!
Take a Ferry to Koh Phi Phi
Keep in mind that the last ferry back to Phuket is at 2:30 in the afternoon so plan to spend the night there.
Go Snorkeling
There are many beaches that offer great snorkeling. You can easily search locations near you on the internet.
Night Life on Bangla Road
If you’re looking for a night out in Phuket, this is where you need to be. It’s pretty much a pedestrian street of bars and clubs.
Visit the Big Buddha
If you haven’t seen a Big Buddha, I would recommend checking this out. We didn’t because we have both visited the one in Hong Kong, but I sort of wish we had. Big Buddha’s are always fun, in my opinion. It’s definitely on my list for next time!

I definitely plan to visit Thailand again some day. Have you ever been? Any recommendations of other things to do?

Swimming with a Baby Elephant: Phuket, Thailand

 

This was hands down one of the coolest experiences I’ve had. I’ll admit I was a little skeptical at first because I read that the salt water really isn’t good for the elephant’s skin. While this may be true, I was extremely happy to see that after sending Yaya in the water to swim, they immediately wash her off.
If you want to go swimming with Yaya, you can find her at Paradise Beach, well nearby. We told our cab driver we wanted to go to Paradise Beach and once we got close enough to see signs, we were able to convey that we wanted him to follow them. He double checked with some locals and got us there without a problem.
Swimming with an elephant isn’t the cheapest experience, but you’re paying for a once in a lifetime experience. It’s 700 baht for 10 minutes (although honestly, there wasn’t anyone there when we went, and I’m sure we spent much longer than that). They can take pictures for you that I’m sure you can pay for, or you can allow them to use your camera. I seriously need to learn the photographer’s iPhone hacks because he took some amazing photos and videos simultaneously. I need to take lessons or something!
Yaya is super well-trained. She’ll sit down and let you ride on her back, give kisses, and throw you over her and into the water. It was a truly wonderful time swimming with Yaya. She’s an absolute sweetheart, but beware that she may poop in the water! They were super quick to notice and clean up, but the employee did pick it up with his hands. That was a bit disturbing.
After our time in the water, we hung out with our adorable, baby elephant friend on the beach. We were able to cuddle with her for a bit and take more pictures. Yaya is always up for a photo shoot! She gave us one last kiss goodbye before touching us each inappropriately. Quite the funny prank they’ve taught her to play on people!
To wrap it all up, she takes some photos by herself, being more photogenic than I’ll ever be in my life. Then she kindly waves bye to you and goes to receive her bath.

If this is something you’re thinking about doing, I strongly recommend it. It was beyond worth it, and it still feels a bit unreal to me. Truly unforgettable. Don’t forget to leave the guys who work there a tip for making your experience great! I found that most people are quick to remind you to tip, but these guys didn’t say a word and were so incredibly friendly and helpful. This is certainly an experience to look into if you’re ever in Phuket! And besides, who doesn’t wanna swim with a baby elephant?