Flying long-haul? What do we take with us to pass the time?

We’ve all been there.  You check-in at the airport and you are staring a 16-hour day time flight right between the eyes.  Ok so this is probably our longest day-time stint (on the way back from the Philippines) but even 12 hours during the day can feel like a long time.  This was the situation we were in when we flew to Cuba.  We had chosen to fly with a budget airline – more down to flight times rather than budget – and as soon as I sat down on the plane and they didn’t have personal screens in the seats, I was grateful for the bag of goodies I had brought with me to keep us entertained.  So what’s on our long haul must pack list?

1. Decent headphones!  With or without screens in the back of your seat these are a must.  Some airlines provide pretty average headphones while some budget airlines will sell you a pair, but when you are seated near two screaming 18 month old twins for 12 hours (yes this happened) you will be grateful for them.  Film or no film – they are a necessity!  I inherited a pair of noise cancelling earphones from Dean and they are now the perfect flying accessory.

2. iPod / iPhone / iPad or critically, music!  If the film selection fails you or you just want to switch off, this is your best bet. Pre make a chill out playlist, or perhaps get into the mood of your final destination with a location specific playlist. If music is not your thing, you can always download four seasons of Game of Thrones!

3. A good book / Kindle – this is always on my packing list, but to be honest the flying conditions have to be perfect for me to read.  The slightest bump and it goes back in my bag!  A good backup though for when you get tired of your music selection.

4. A set of travel Connect Four or Uno cards.  Whenever Dean and I travel (not just fly) we have these in our bags and the dual continues!  Normally one of us gets on a winning streak – annoying the other. (Currently it is me!)

A fun and competitive way to pass the time

 

5. Water.  I usually take an empty bottle through security with me.  The best airports tend to have water fountains for you to top up your bottle.  Some airlines such as Korean Air give you a bottle as you board – a great piece of service.  At any rate, having a bottle in the back of the seat keeps you hydrated (and makes you go to the loo so is a good chance to walk around!)

6. Head ache tablets – I’m not sure if it’s the stress of flying (yes for all my air miles I’m not the greatest fan), dehydration or flight conditions, but I often end up with a headache.  Some easily accessible tablets are a must for me.

7. Snacks!  For our recent Cuba flight I had everything from cereal bars to boiled sweets.  Everything in moderation, but they pass the time during the hours that drag.

8. A light fleece to wear backwards if the air con is set to sub freezing temperatures.

9. A Buff or Head Scarf. Great to block out unwanted light from the Cabin if you are trying to catch up on sleep. They can wrap around your head in different ways and a scarf can act like an extra pillow.

Buffs are extremely versatile and handy for blocking out cabin light

Buffs are extremely versatile and handy for blocking out cabin light

If, like me, you are blessed (ha ha) with a husband who sleeps on flights, then you might find you don’t get round to using some of these.  However they are all things that will come in handy at some point during your holiday.

Above all I like to sit by the aisle then I can walk-around and stretch my legs.  Flying really does feel more like a marathon than a sprint sometimes.  As we all know it’s a means to an end and one that is worth every piece of the boredom along the way.

–  Natalie

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What’s better than the Friday feeling….

…the going on holiday feeling!

I don’t know about you, but no matter how much you love your job you always smile a smile of relief on Friday afternoons. No alarm clocks, no telephone calls and no difficult questions.

Ive always worked hard, but with that comes a real appreciation of ‘my time’ and going home at the end of the day and relaxing. I admit I’m sometimes pretty bad at it, always with one half of my mind thinking about what tomorrow may bring, but I try.

For me ‘that Friday feeling’ is magnified by an immeasurable amount before you leave to go on your next adventure. It could be you are leaving for a long weekend, perhaps two weeks or even six months. I’m all for as long a trip as possible, but for now I have to settle for the two week option and even leaving for that amount of time gives me that warm fuzzy feeling.

Research and travel inspiration go hand in hand in the weeks leading up to your holiday

Research and travel inspiration go hand in hand leading up to your holiday (photo from previous trip)

For the weeks leading up to it you may have been reading the trusty Lonely Planet or watching any documentary going that remotely relates to you trip. The odd Google search helps with preparation not to mention the last minute panic over bug spray and sun cream (which incidentally I often forget to put on, much to Dean’s annoyance…)

Last minute packing of sunscreen and bug spray, not that I remember to use it, sorry Dean!

Last minute packing of sunscreen and bug spray, not that I remember to use it, sorry Dean!

All of a sudden your trip creeps up on you. One week of work left and panic sets in. Will you finish everything on time, will that last piece of work be done? Of course it will as you go in
early, you leave late and like every good employee, you pull out all the stops to deliver what is needed.

Now I don’t know about you but I’m partial to a bit of paper around my desk. I try to be green. I often fail. Part of the holiday preparation is to take the furniture polish in and I go on a tidying and cleaning frenzy at the end of my last day. OCD kicks in and even though I remind myself ‘I’m only going for two weeks’ I find the need to clean all those crevices that probably contain inherited dirt. This frenzy also translates to home too – our house is at its cleanest just before we go away!

Anyway with the last swipe of the duster I move the empty coffee cup in its resting position, move it again and line it up a third time (everything must be straight you know!). With that it’s time to take one last look around the office and with a sigh say to myself, ‘next time I see you it will all be over!’

Clean and clear, it is holiday time!

Clean and clear, it is holiday time!

Without looking back I pickup my things, bid my farewells (let’s be fair, most people have already gone as I have spent so long cleaning) and head for the door. The feeling of relaxation washes over me (a feeling only bettered by walking into the airport). The freedom of travel awaits. News sights, sounds and smells ahead. New friends to make. This is why we work, to experience the highs of our time off. As I walk through the door I will the holiday to last forever…..

– Natalie

All we have to do now is grab our bags and go

All we have to do now is grab our bags and go

10 Tips for the Trans Siberian / Trans Mongolian Railway

The Trans Siberian and Trans Mongolian railways are considered to be two of the world’s longest train journeys. An epic adventure taking a minimum of one week (without getting off the train), either one is a travel experience high on many people’s bucket list. The Trans Mongolian was also the integral part of our 20,000 km overland adventure from London to Beijing and back into India last year. Since we returned home many friends and followers on social media channels have asked us for  hints we could recommend for the journey. So in no particualr order we have some inside tips on life aboard the trains.

1. Carry a Multi Functional Plastic Cup

These plastic cups saved the day on more than one occasion

These plastic cups saved the day on more than one occasion

These were without a doubt the single greatest purchases of our entire pre trip planning. Slightly bigger than a coffee mug they could be used for just about anything. From Cups of tea to boiling pot noodles or turning into a makeshift tumbler for your vodka we would have been in serious trouble without them. The secure snap on lids ensured you didn’t spill your hot snack or most importantly your vodka on the walk from the carriage urn to your cabin.  They are also light weight which is essential on any long distance backpacking adventure.  We vowed to throw them away when we’d finished with them, but we got so attached they came all the way home and Natalie now uses them for soup at work!

2. Book a Four Berth Second Class Ticket

Plenty of room in our second class cabin

Plenty of room in our second class cabin

We found the second class cabins really were the best option. You had the best of both worlds. There was a little more security for your belongings than the third class ‘dorm style’ carriages, and you also had plenty of room to yourself. Most importantly we had the chance to interact with a wide variety of different characters throughout the journey. Our cabin was like a revolving door and with each stop we eagerly awaited to see who we would meet next. We shared tea and chocolate, an even watched a slide show presentation about one man’s home village on Lake Baikal (all in Russian of course). We met a few travellers who had booked their own private cabin but felt they really missed out on what the Trans Siberian / Trans Mongolian is all about. Our tip, if there is two of you try and book and top and bottom bed, it just meant we had a bit more space to spread out, and you didn’t get in the way of those sharing your cabin.

3. Look after your Provodnista

These ladies are the lifeblood of the Russian trains. Each carriage has one or two ladies responsible for everything, from checking people’s tickets, waking them or reminding them their stop is approaching, changing over bed sheets and cleaning (which they do every day to an amazingly high standard). They are also responsible for keeping the coal heating for the carriage running and hot water in the urn for your hot drinks or noodles. They don’t get paid that much and they normally sell snacks from their cabin, anything from crisps, tea, noodles to occasionally chocolate. They work incredibly hard so help them out and buy something from them. You don’t have to do it all the time but a few purchases will see that scowl turn into a welcoming and friendly smile.

4. Eat in the Dining Cart

Natalie and our new friends Vladimir in the Dining Cart

Natalie and our new friend Vladimir in the Dining Cart

Some of our favourite evenings and train experiences came in the Dining Cart. People from all corners of the train converge for a meal or more importantly for a few drinks. We ate, drank and got to know news crews, young soldiers returning home, other travellers, train staff and friendly locals and it really is the heart of the train. Funnily enough most people we met were called Sergei! Language barriers disappear like the miles under the train, suspicious stares are replaced with swapping of Facebook accounts and after a few vodkas you will find a great improvement in your Russian!

5. Keep two sets of time

The trains run on Moscow time to try and save confusion, and every carriage has a timetable somewhere in the corridor where you can see how long each segment will take. However, the entire journey crosses around eight different time zones and can create a feeling of permanent jet lag. Our suggestion is to run two clocks, one on Moscow time (because the Dining cart etc run on it) and set a second time to your arrival destination. This will help a little, but still expect to feel a little dazed and confused.

6. Get off in Ulan Ude and catch the morning train to Ulaanbataar

The largest statue of Lenin's head in the world!

The largest statue of Lenin’s head in the world!

Many people pass straight through Ulan-Ude and for years it was off limits as it was a military manufacturing town. However it makes for a great afternoon or couple of days exploration. The town is also home to the world’s largest statue of Lenin’s head, how could you not miss that! Regarded as one of if not the most picturesque part of the entire train ride is the couple of hours from Ulan-Ude towards Mongolia. The train tracks skirt along the southern borders of the famous Lake Baikal and many people miss witnessing this by training directly from Irkutsk to Mongolia (the train takes this route in the evening if you don’t jump off). For a little extra time you are rewarded with a stunning break to the barren emptiness that is the Siberian countryside.

7. Buy food of the locals on the platforms

Support the local economy and buy food from the locals on the platforms

Support the local economy and buy food from the locals on the platforms

Just about everytime the train stops there will be elderly ladies selling some sort of food on the platforms. In some of the more isolated communities connected by the train service making ends meet can be difficult. Not only does it give you the chance to stretch your legs, and breath in some fresh air, it also gives you the opportunity to mix and mingle as well as restock your provisions. Not everything may be to your liking (we did struggle a little with the smoked fish and the caviar bread) but you are helping out the locals and you see just how important the train is to the livelihood of many Russians.

8. Have a bottle of vodka with you

Nothing gets the conversation going on the Russian trains like vodka. Offering a drink to your cabin buddies may lead to a long evening of conversation, a rowdy evening of drinking (with disapproving glares from your Provodnitsa) but most importantly it helps pass the time. Just be prepared though, it is bad manners not to finish a bottle of vodka once it is open, you have been warned!

9. Carry Wet Wipes

While the carriages have toilets and running water on board there are no shower facilities. A quick scrub down with a couple of wet wipes can make all the difference to you feeling clean and refreshed as the hours turn into days on the train. They can also be an ice breaker in your cabin by offering one to your ‘room mates’.

10. Don’t fly into / out of Russia.

Regardless of which direction you are taking the train (Moscow-Beijing/Vladivostock or vice versa) you have just completed one of the worlds last great train journeys so why give up and fly from Moscow or St Petersburg? Keep the adventure going and train into or through Europe. Overnight trains out of Moscow (via Belarus so make sure you have your visa) head to Poland and beyond. From St Petersburg trains head into Latvia and Lithuania. We actually caught the train from London across Europe into Russia. Surely that makes for a much better overland adventure story than saying you flew?!

Enjoy the adventure

Enjoy the adventure

Experiencing either of these train journeys is something you will never forget, and armed with these hints and tips, all you need to do now is find a nice long book to fill your time, we suggest perhaps ‘War and Peace’…

– Dean

If you have not seen our ‘starring’ role in the CBC short documentary on the Trans Siberian you can follow the link below.

Why now is the perfect time to visit Egypt

For many people Egypt conjures up some incredible imagery. The rolling sand dunes of the Sahara desert, the enormous temple ruins of Luxor and Karnak, and of course the pyramids, arguably some of the most recognisable structures in the world. Sadly in recent years most people think of the violence and protests associated with the Arab Spring and the power vacuum left behind in its wake. Thankfully however things are improving and many countries have altered their travel advice and warnings over the past few months. With Egypt being given the ‘green light’ so to speak for many nationalities to return and with several big named travel operators resuming their tours, now is one of the best times to visit or start planning a trip to Egypt.

THE photo everyone wants

THE photo everyone wants

While there are still travel warnings for some areas of Egypt, such as the northern Sinai area (which has always been quite hostile) and the western deserts towards Libya (sadly one of our favourite areas), the main regions for international tourism such as along the Nile and the southern areas of the Sinai peninsula such as Sharm-el-Sheikh and Dahab are classified as safe by the British Foreign Office.

The sun setting over the alluring Nile River

The sun setting over the alluring Nile River

The so-called Arab Spring had a devastating effect upon Egyptian tourism, but for visitors venturing there now that can have a number of advantages. The thought of wandering around the famous ruins, temples and tombs without the huge throngs of tourists is massively appealing. I love old ruins, and could easily spend days wandering around the crumbling columns, the row upon row of sphinx and the hieroglyph engraved walls. In fact I normally get fed up with the crowds well before being overwhelmed by yet another temple. With fewer crowds (there will still be some) there is a greater sense of adventure and discovery, so it may be time to dust off the fedora and leather jacket and start exploring Indiana Jones style.

Imagine exploring temples and ruins without the masses

Imagine exploring temples and ruins without the masses

For many visitors a large amount of time is spent in the souks or markets, particularly in Luxor and Aswan trying to grab a bargain. In the boom periods you could guarantee that prices were massively inflated, the hard sell was a certainty and begrudgingly you would agree to a purchase price over a glass of apple tea. The huge drop in tourism has had a flow on effect into the markets, prices are more reasonable, the hard sell has disappeared (to a degree) and you don’t mind (so much) paying a little extra, knowing it is helping people get back on their feet. Many of the main tourist frequented souks are deserted, save for the scent of apple tea or the waft of the shisha smoke, so get out there and support the local economy.

Many of the once thriving souks geared towards tourists are now near empty. Great when searching for a bargain

Many of the once thriving souks geared towards tourists are now near empty. Great when searching for a bargain

Not only has shopping  become cheaper but there are some amazing bargains to be had when it comes to accommodation. Why not splurge and stay in one of the most famous hotels in Egypt, The Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan? This is the hotel where Agatha Christie wrote ‘Death on the Nile’ and for such a famous residence, rates are reasonably priced. If cruising down the Nile is more your thing then there are also some great bargains to be had on river cruises. A word to the wise though, with numbers down the amount of boats is nowhere near as many as before the revolution so plan ahead.

Sailing down the Nile, Agatha Christie style

Sailing down the Nile, Agatha Christie style

Egypt relies heavily upon tourism and so do many of the citizens of the bigger more frequented cities. Local guides (or as they’d rather be known, ‘Egyptologists’) spend years of university education attaining the qualifications to guide in Egypt and the sudden down turn in tourism has probably hit them the hardest. Whether visiting the Temples of Karnak and Luxor, the Valley of the Kings or the rescued temple of Abu Simbel we highly recommend  employing the services of a local guide. Walking around these awe-inspiring sites without one is like watching the television with the sound off, you don’t quite know what is going on.

Abu Simbel, before the hordes return

Abu Simbel, before the hordes return

Visiting Egypt is an experience you will never forget, the hair stands on the back of my neck every time I see the pyramids for the first time or walk amongst the enormous stone columns of Karnak Temple. Best of all, visiting now will give you the knowledge that through tourism you are helping a country heal and get back on its feet. Your visit is helping people return to some semblance of a normal life. If you ask me, that is the best reason of all…

– Dean

Keep an eye out on Facebook as we celebrate ‘Egypt Week’ with some of our favourite photos!

The two of us at the Hatshepsut

The two of us at the Hatshepsut

Bring on 2015: Another year of adventure for The Smart Way Round

What an epic year 2014 was for us. We completed our overland adventure from London to Melbourne, settled back into ‘normal life’ (for us anyway) back home and scattered in a few European  travels along the way. From spending New Years on the world’s highest train in China, to the temples of Bagan in Myanmar, it would be near impossible to pick a top travel experience.

Over the last few weeks many travel bloggers have been recapping on their 2014 adventures, and while we are incredibly proud of what we achieved we cannot wait to get stuck into 2015. From some great new adventures to hopefully an updated website (if we can figure it out!) we are planning for The Smart Way Round to get bigger and better!

First things first though, we are excited to announce that we are heading to Cuba! A long time bucket list destination, we are off to explore this amazing country at the end of February and are looking forward to some fun, sun and rum when we get there!

We also have a week in Prague planned – one of our favourite European cities.  In July Natalie is off to explore the Faroe Islands and Iceland (I’m likely to be stuck at work, but hey I travel around Europe for a living so don’t feel too sorry for me!). So 2015 is already shaping up as another exciting year for us.

This year we are also approaching a major travel milestone. We are both knocking on the door of visiting 100 countries (not all the same ones mind you), and are trying to plan how to celebrate this achievement. If you have any ideas please drop us a comment, email or Facebook post, between us we cannot decide which country to make lucky number 100.

So roll on 2015 and all the adventures it holds.  Wherever you are off too, happy travels!

–  Dean