Sometimes it happens to the best of itineraries: you're on a marathon haul from one continent to another and the cheapest flight involves a 5-hour layover in a random city. Maybe you don't have a visa, maybe you don't have time, maybe you're on an organised tour and you're just not allowed... but you're stuck in the airport.
It's happened to me several times: I've been stranded in airports for up to 11 hours at a stretch. I can tell you that Paris, Chicago, and Durban are terrible airports to be stuck in, but what are the best? Here's our list of the 5 best airports for layovers:
Hong Kong - If you're stuck in an airport with kids, Hong Kong is where you want to be. Aside from the numerous bars, restaurants and shops, the airport has a movie theatre, arcades, and free Playstation set-ups sprinkled around. It also offers free wi-fi throughout.
Las Vegas - In the gambling capital of the US, you will not be surprised to see a number of slot machines dotting the concourse in the Las Vegas airport. There are other things to do though, including kid's play areas, an art gallery, free wi-fi, plenty of restaurants, bars and duty-free shops, and a huge fitness centre with sauna, jacuzzi, working equipment and showers.
Amsterdam - This airport really knows how to entertain. I've been stuck here for hours without getting bored, because there's a casino, an art museum, dozens of shops and restaurants, and a brand-new library to browse through with both physical and electronic books! There are also a lot of out-of-the-way corners if you really need to catch a nap.
Nashville - You have to pay in Nashville for wi-fi, but if you don't feel like shelling out to check Facebook you can always browse the duty-free shops, have a big helping of barbecue in one of the restaurants, play video games, get a massage, browse the art exhibitions, and catch a live concert at Tootsie's orchid Lounge, an extension of the Grand Ole Opry!
Singapore - Singapore Changi sets the standard that all other airport entertainment tries to live up to. The basics are all there: free wi-fi, bars, restaurants, duty-free shopping, and luggage lockers. There's plenty more though, with lovely gardens, koi ponds, butterfly rooms, play areas, a movie theatre, LAN gaming facilities, spa, and multiple shower facilities. Attached airport hotels up the game as well, offering a swimming pool and jacuzzi (for a fee).
You could argue that it's more of a sports movie than a travel movie, but Clint Eastwood's 2009 feel-good epic Invictus manages to capture just a little of the beauty of South Africa in its swooping shots of Cape Town and Table Mountain.
In Cape Town it's hard to avoid spectacular views, whether on or off the sports field!
One of the most poignant scenes involves a visit to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighters were imprisoned for so many years. Nearly 4,000 people per day take this same tour, and it is currently one of South Africa's top attractions.
If you want to recreate the Invictus experience, take a township tour and see children playing football and rugby, climb Table Mountain and enjoy the view, take in a rugby game at Newlands Stadium, and don't forget to have a beer at Ferryman's Tavern at the V&A Waterfront afterwards to celebrate!
Switzerland-based artist Corinne Vionnet has created some very interesting images of instantly-recognisable tourist attractions by overlaying hundreds of tourist's photos, taken from the same spot. The results are haunting: busy locations like the St Basil's Cathedral, the Taj Mahal and Tiananmen Square (above) are filled with ghostly crowds of people, and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco appears to by trying to fly.
We're all searching for the best travel bargains we can find. That's a worldwide truth. No one wants to hear that someone else paid half what they did for the same cruise by going to a specific website, or that they could have gotten free hotel upgrades by booking at a certain time.
But in our quest for savings, we sometimes get taken in by unscrupulous people looking to take advantage of our lack of knowledge by at best charging us more than we actually need to pay, or at worst just outright stealing from us.
So here's our list of the top 5 travel scams to avoid:
Timeshare 'deals' - It's happened to most of us on holiday: you're walking along the promenade, and someone offers you a lucky draw prize. If you're truly lucky you'll come out with a 10% off ice cream coupon, but most likely you'll 'win' a free vacation. Unfortunately, nothing here is free and you'll end up wasting at least several hours in an office being pitched pricey and fine-print-ridden timeshare contracts. They'll also call and tell you that you just won a free trip.
How to avoid it: Remember that if you didn't enter, it's probably not really free, and an hour presentation could end up costing you a lot more than time. Just say no!
Retail tour stops - This has become a big concern on Hong Kong city tours. Tour operators strike deals with stores for commission on sales when they bring foreign tour groups in. Usually the goods are more expensive and of lower quality than can be had elsewhere, but you'll be left in the shop for sometimes hours on end.
How to avoid it: Check your tour in advance and be sure how much time will be spent shopping before you sign up.
Inflated drink prices - This tends to happen in slick bars operated in developing countries. Some bars in Thailand are known for handing foreign customers enormous bills after a night of drinking, and threatening them with violence if they don't pay. Similar scams involve making local 'friends' who take you to bars that will charge inflated prices and give them a commission on your business.
How to avoid it: Always know what the drinks cost before ordering them, and never go clubbing alone in a foreign country.
Crooked cops - The set-up could be anything from a person throwing themselves at your car and then writhing in 'agony' as a crowd demands compensation, a drug dealer trying to sell to you as the cops appear as if by magic, a dodgy-looking road block demanding to see your papers... the end result is always the same: angry men calling themselves policemen demanding your papers or wallet. You'll never see them again.
How to avoid it: Always insist on seeing official police identification, and never hand anything over unless you are taken to a police station.
Nigerian love scams - These are a bit different than usual travel scams. You meet the person of your dreams online while they happen to be working overseas. Things are perfect and they're coming home to start your fabulous life together - but oh no! They've been in an accident and need cash to pay the hospital up front, or they need to hold a certain amount of cash before they can board the plane, or they need cash... The truth is, as obvious as they may seem, innocent and well-meaning people get taken in by these scams every day. Read some of their stories here.
How to avoid it: Never send money to a person you don't know, and remember that no one needs to have a certain amount of cash to board a plane.
Granted, there are aspects of this 2010 remake that people can complain about: there's no actual karate in the film, the moves performed by the children are unrealistic, or that the whole thing is a vanity project for Will Smith's kid.
But there are some beautiful scenes in the movie that highlight the gorgeous scenery around Beijing, and interesting tidbits about Chinese culture. For me though, the real value of the film is in highlighting the disconnected existence of western expats* living in China, especially expat kids. In cliched ways, it is a great lesson for children in overcoming a fear of the unfamiliar and pushing yourself to do things you thought you couldn't.
Verdict: Rent it
* For other interesting info about expats in China, visit Expat Arrivals' China Guide.
Sometimes it can be confusing figuring out where you can afford to go, given your travel budget. Maybe your dream destination is within your grasp, or maybe not. There may be a fantastic alternative destination you hadn't considered. You wanted to go to Thailand, but have you considered the Philippines?
Wanderfly lets you search for travel destinations based on your location and budget, as well as desired activities and interests. The site is still in beta, so the hotel booking function and a few other gadgets are a bit spotty, but it's a great way to find inspiration!
Paris, Paris, Paris... when romantic cities are the topic that's all you ever hear about! But there's more to romance than the Eiffel Tower.
We put together a list of the top 5 most romantic cities in the world, but it could easily have been 10, or even 20. The truth is, there's romance everywhere! Here are a few of our favourites, and if we missed any, be sure to let us know in the comments.
The fiery excitement of the tango is enough to awaken anyone's passion, whether formally on the grand stage of the Teatro Colon or spontaneously on the streets of the Plaza Dorrego. The nightlife in Buenos Aires sizzles with live music and dancing, and makes a perfect romantic getaway for couples looking to spark the romance in their relationship.
South Africa's most chic city brings European-style elegance to the wilds of Africa. Whether your taking a sunset cruise from the V&A Waterfront, having dinner on top of Table Mountain, sharing a picnic on the beach, or sampling local vintages in the Cape winelands, Cape Town offers no end of romantic activities for couples.
Edinburgh blends the old and the new, with sleek and modern restaurants next to quaint pubs, and fashionable shopping areas in the shadow of ancient castles. A simple stroll down the scenic Royal Mile can be a romantic way to spend an hour, and any man working up the courage to pop the question can take strength in the excellent whisky!
While it may seem a bit cliche, New York City offers everything you need for a romantic holiday. Do the classics like a carriage ride in Central Park, ice skating at Rockefellar Center, and playing games on the midway at the Coney Island Amusement Park. Watch the sun set from the top of the Empire State Building, and take in a Broadway show before dinner at some of the world's top restaurants.
Santorini is one of the most beautiful islands in the world, with mountaintop cities overlooking sparkling the sparkling blue Mediterranean Sea. Sample wines at the local vineyards, lounge on the picturesque beaches, or stroll through the towns and have a candlelit dinner in a tiny family restaurant. Whatever you do, it's easy to forget the rest of the world exists.
(Pssst! For the low-down on Paris, check this post!)
Millions of people loved the music of ABBA, and the Broadway musical it inspired. So it was not a huge surprise that the big screen movie Mamma Mia! grossed more than $140 million in the US alone.
The film stars the ever-evolving Meryl Streep as Donna, a single mother who owns a hotel on a small island in Greece where her daughter Sophie is about to get married. Unbeknownst to her, Sophie has invited three men, one of whom is her father. The problem is, no one knows who it is!
The film was shot on several greek islands, including Damouchari, Skopelos and Skiathos; so if you want the whole Mamma Mia experience, you'll have to make a few stops! They're worth it though, as you can see from the gorgeous scenery in the film.
It's like something out of a romantic comedy... guy meets girl, they fall in love, something happens and he decides to leave the country in order to take a job, she realises she can't live without him and races to stop him boarding the plane and disappearing forever...
Except not quite. When Grace Guajardo called in a fake bomb threat to stop her boyfriend's plane from taking off in Chile, it seemed a little less than romantic to the other 300 people on the plane. Consider that they had been living together for eight years, and that he would only be gone for a few months. Consider that he had done this many times before.
We talked about iPhone travel apps a while back, but in South Africa and the UK, the Blackberry is still king. So here are our top 5 Blackberry travel apps:
The Weather Channel - I've tried a few weather apps, and this one is by far my favourite. It has a clear display that shows you current and predicted weather forecasts up to 10 days in advance or any destination worldwide, so you'll know when to hit the beach and what to pack. (Free)
FlightTrack - One of the most advanced flight tracking apps out there, FlightTrack gives you information on not only your arrival time, but gate updates and realtime flight mapping. It's pretty comprehensive, covering 1,400 airlines in over 4,000 airports worldwide. (US$4.99)
Google Maps - My Blackberry's built-in GPS is pretty crap... so one of my first downloads was Google Maps. It's handy in the car if you don't have a Garmin or TomTom, and even better if you're wandering around an unfamiliar city trying to locate major landmarks! (Free)
Navita Translator - There are a lot of translation apps out there, but Navita keeps coming out tops. This handy app allows you to translate emails, texts, and tweets; you can also type or speak the phrase you want to translate. Navita supports 50 languages, including English, Portuguese, Chinese, Spanish, Italian, French, German and Russian. (Free)
TripIt - This travel organiser lets you forward confirmation emails to them, and they'll build your itinerary for you! Keeping all your scheduling info at your fingertips, it syncs with your Blackberry calendar and Google Maps, and will even update people with your trip progress. (Free, or pro subscription for US$49/year)
Communications are spotty, reporting is varied and governments disagree. Here's a summary of what's going on in Egypt at the moment:
At present, most governments are advising against all travel to Egypt, if not actively evacuating their citizens. Ongoing violent protests in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez make the cities dangerous for travellers, and communications are still difficult as internet and cellular networks are still down. There are reports that airports (which must abide by the 4pm curfew) are chaotic as expatriates attempt to flee the country. Many tour companies...
In honour of Black History Month in the US, put Tell My Horse into your travel book rotation. Written by anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, well-known African American author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Tell My Horse is an account of her travels to Haiti and Jamaica in the 1930s to investigate voodoo culture.
The book is decades old, but having spent some time in Haiti in 2003, I know that voodoo beliefs are still very much alive, especially in the rural areas. The book is a fascinating mix of travelogue, anthropological study, and political analysis that is all the more interesting when you take into account the constraints placed on Hurston by her predominantly white audience and patron.
Let's say you're on holiday in the Netherlands and need to book a flight. You can't necessarily use the same websites you do at home, but can't get to a travel agent. Where you you go?
This site has a great list of local flight booking websites in 32 countries. It will tell you that in the Netherlands, GoedkoopsteVliegtarieven.com is the place to go, or Despegar if you're in Chile. You need never be stuck again!