What to Read Before a Journey

When taking an international trip, I spend a lot of time preparing myself, physically and emotionally, by reading a variety of books about or set in said country. Here are the types of books that I typically read prior to a journey.

Travel Guides
I always begin with travel guides, but the difficult part is deciding which travel guide to choose from. Lonely Planet, National Geographic, Rick Steves, Rough Guides, Frommers and many more! Don’t just buy what’s at your local book store simply because it’s there, you can spend a lot of money on information that is free online or difficult to navigate. After purchasing more than a couple of travel books from a variety of Publishers, here are my top publishers:

Lonely Planet: This is by far my favorite, and it’s the easiest to find in your local book store. I think they do an excellent job of laying out information in an easy to read and interesting manner. My least favorite is by Bradt. I find the information is dense, doesn’t intrigue, and is generally more tedious to read. Before you buy any travel books, be sure to check out your local library. I found the Iran Lonely Planet there, saved myself $20.

In addition to tradition travel guides, keep your eye out for cultural and language guides. I’m currently reading a well written cultural guide to Iran published by Culture Smart Guides. Remember, even if you’re going to an English speaking country, the culture can still be quite different than our own!


Who has time for work with all of these books?!?

Historical Fiction
Reading fiction stories set in your destination country can help understand a culture and ignite your imagination. Prior to my trip to Turkey, I read a number of entertaining stories by Jason Goodwin, setting the stage of the Ottoman Empire and the age of the Sultans. I read “The Persian Boy” about Alexander the Great’s time in Persia in preparation for my upcoming trip to Iran. To find a good historical fiction set in a particular country, just do some googling (and let me know if you need help!).

Non-fiction is an especially good way to understand more about the political situation in a certain country. For Iran, I’ve already read “Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran” as well as “Iran Awakening.” I’m also currently reading a couple of memoirs written by women (modern and not) who have lived and traveled in the Middle East. I’ve learned a lot about the current political setting as well as some history of how we got where we are now. And, I’ve been inspired by the people who have traveled before me. Again, a good Google search will be a great source of suggested books.

Culturally Important Books
Last, but certainly not least, I try to read books or stories that have cultural significance for the locals. Reading books that they love and admire can give you a great window into the culture. For example, in Iran I’m reading the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings. It is the National Epic Story of the Iranian people, detailing the historic (and non-historic) link between the early Zoroastrians and the Muslim conquest and subsequent rule. I’m also reading Hafez, an Iranian poet who is beloved by Iranians. I’ll even be going to his tomb while I’m there.

Reading prior to a trip is a great way of traveling long before your actual trip takes place. It helps mentally gear you up while teaching and entertaining you at the same time.


Self Care on the Journey

I’m a pro when it comes to deliberately finding time for self-care…when I’m at home in my comfort zone. Bubble baths, a relatively strict social calendar (social one night means alone the next, etc.) and recognizing what my body needs is my norm.

While traveling, we are literally in a whole new world. The time zone is different, the food is different, our bed is strange, and we’re surrounded by people who often don’t speak our language. Our routines get thrown out the window. And, if you’re anything like me, you’re trying to do and see as much as humanly possible. It’s a recipe for exhaustion. Here are some tips for how to keep your sanity, and take care of yourself!

Pack a small treat for yourself

One of the people I met in the hostel in Istanbul had brought a small pack of Mint Milanos, which he kindly shared with a small group of us. It was not only fun to watch our new German and French friends taste this delightful cookie, but it was also a nice reminder of home. From now on, I’ll be packing some small comfort food. Sometimes a tea bag or a favorite chocolate bar is all you need to bring you home for just a moment.

Mini Mint Milanos!

Bet you didn’t know that Mini Mint Milanos Existed! NOM NOM NOM

Keep yourself organized

Living out of a suitcase, no matter how big or small, can be tricky. I always start out with great expectations to keep everything in its place, make sure I know exactly where everything is, and not make a mess of my room. I always fail. I get back to the hostel or the hotel room, usually exhausted, or focused on socializing, that everything gets tossed in. So once a week, while abroad, I make sure to tidy up. It takes about 10 minutes and saves me a lot of anxiety the rest of the week. This is also a good time to wash any clothes that are getting a little stinky, if necessary. Feeling clean is also important!

Stay inside for a day

Sometimes, the greatest give you can give yourself is a break. Put your feet up, read a book, drink tea, and well, do as little as possible. It’s okay to take a day off and not see things. If you don’t see everything, which is impossible anyways, you’ll be fine. It’s okay to even miss the “must see” places! On my very last day in Turkey, I was utterly exhausted and sick of getting harassed by the salesmen. I couldn’t imagine the idea of trying to find my way around the winding streets to see another (probably fabulous) mural or piece of history. So instead, I stayed in the hostel, almost the entire day. I read a book and slept. It was glorious. Do I regret not going to tour more? Not even a little bit.

Connect with your roots

Even though you may be thousands of miles away, we are fortunate to live in a time of technology, when it’s easy to reach out to the people who know you and love you the most. I have a friend who was recently traveling in India for a couple of weeks and found herself overwhelmed, exhausted, and homesick. She posted on Facebook that she needed some love, support, and permission for self care even though she felt like she *should* be out exploring. Her friends came to her rescue and encouraged, reminded her that she’s not the first person to have this feeling, and gave her the permission she needed to rest.

No matter if you are gone for one week or 5, remembering to take care of yourself will go a long way in helping you enjoy your journey.

For the Love of Flying

There’s very little doubt about it, flying has become one of the most stressful experiences for those of us in first world countries. Seats are smaller, lines are longer, prices are higher. But even now, flying home for Christmas, I am reminded why I love flying. 

Perspective. Sometimes we need to see the world differently, literally. That can mean noticing the smallest details close up to distantly experiencing that which surrounds us every day. On a plane, it is this second perspective which is illuminated. The countryside appears as blocks of color, dotted with tiny buildings. Green, yellow, red, the source of our life. One sees a city in the full expanse of its existence. Not just a few buildings on a block, but an entire network of structures, working together. Flying into Seattle today, I saw the Space Needle and the Experience Music Museum, encompassed by their surroundings, no longer single entities, but part of a whole.


The Sweet Grass Hills, Montana. This is home.

Time to do nothing. While flying, we literally have to disconnect. Yes, we have our iPads with our books, and our games, but we no longer have Facebook, endless web surfing, or emails. This is probably my favorite part of flying. Just sitting. Just being. I so rarely give myself time to do this in my everyday life. I don’t know why. I blame Netflix, I am, after all, a champion binge watcher. I don’t meditate, and yet I believe that it is necessary and good. I use my time in the air to just sit with my thoughts, so let them flow by like the land and water below. 

The anticipation of arrival. Anticipation is a double edged sword. It feels wonderful to be excited about something, but it can often feel miserable. Time can drag and we can suffer in our waiting. But with practice, anticipation can be a peaceful and calming experience. It’s a time to dream and hope for what is to come when the plane lands. 

My recommendation to those of you who get stressed out when flying is this: slow down. Give yourself time to move slowly and to enjoy the act of simply watching. It will take some practice, and even the best of us get frustrated and antsy sometimes, but with time you will begin to enjoy the process.

Solo Travel for the Lonely

When I was 20, I was fortunate to be able to study abroad in Belfast, Northern Ireland for my Junior year of College. There, I lived in a flat style dorm, sharing the kitchen and living space with 9 others. Unfortunately, my relationship with my flat mates was tenuous at best (save the times I made apple pie, then I was their best friend).

One day, I couldn’t handle their snark anymore and decided to journey on my own for the weekend. So I took the train down to a little town on the coast of Ireland, arriving just around 5pm. I imagined a hike followed by a lovely meal out where I would visit with locals and be invited to their home for tea and crumpets.

It didn’t work out that way.

My hike was cut short due to darkness, the one cafe was closing in about 20 minutes, and there was nobody around to boot.

All was not lost. I thought, I will go back to the hotel, enjoy my book and some television and perhaps catch up on my emails to home.

The hotel had no tv and no internet access. So there I was, 7:00 at night, just me and my book that I was suddenly not interested in. I panicked. I was alone. Literally. There was nobody but me and the thoughts that I could conjure. And boy was I good at conjuring thoughts.

That’s the problem with loneliness. When we are alone, we often become our own worst enemy. I ended up panicking, checking out of the hotel, and catching the last train back to Belfast.  The trip was a shambles. I was embarrassed, ashamed, and disappointed in myself. My perception of myself as an independent world traveler was destroyed. I couldn’t even handle one night on my own.

Over ten years later, I was reminded of this failed journey when a friend recommended this blog post to me: “How and Why to Travel Alone.”

As I planned my solo trip to Turkey a couple of years ago, I dreamed of an experience like this bloggers, but I also feared a repeat of my Irish jaunt. Being alone is a skill that some people just have to learn and practice to be good at.

I wish I could say I knew how to learn to be alone. My personal journey of learning to enjoy it came out of necessity – moving to new cities and having no friends, roommates moving away, being dumped, etc. Slowly, I figured out that my own company was pretty great. So great, in fact, that when people asked me if they could come with me to Turkey, I flat out said no. It’s just like the blogger above said, I wanted all the WTF time I could have.

The best thing, I met other travelers, was never lonely, and still got my own WTF time. So find your bliss, and do it…alone.


Travel Insurance – An Interview

When I started traveling abroad a few years back, I scoffed at the idea of travel insurance. It sounded like a scam, just a way to lose money. But, with time and hearing the merits of travel insurance, I finally broke down and really looked into it prior to my trip to Turkey in 2013.

Travel insurance is generally considered to be just extra medical insurance when you’re outside of the country, but it can be much more than that. It’s often used for trip cancellations, baggage loss, theft, and even acts of terrorism. I’ve interviewed my friend Jeff Banks who’s professional experience in the travel industry has taught him much about what’s important when purchasing travel insurance. Thanks to Jeff for being the first interviewee on my new blog!

Who Should Buy Travel Insurance?
I strongly recommend anyone who is traveling anywhere to purchase insurance

Why Should Anyone Buy Travel Insurance?
For any type of international travel (including Mexico and Canada), your medical insurance probably won’t cover you. I like to tell my clients that even for the most simple emergency evacuations you can be looking at a bill of $20,000.00 or more. If you are covered, most insurance companies have a service that will put you in touch with a local, English speaking doctor that you can trust.

Besides medical, Travel insurance covers many other areas. You have Trip Cancellation, Trip Interruption, Missed Connection, Lost Baggage, Baggage Delay, Rental Car Damage just to mention a few. If your flight is late getting you to the port for your cruise, the ship is not going to wait for you. You would be responsible to pay for another flight and hotel accommodation to get you to the next port of call. That is money out of your pocket.

How Does One Choose a Good Travel Insurance Company and Plan?
You want to go with well-established company like CSA, Travel Guard, Allianz, or Travel Insured. Don’t go with the lowest price. Look at all the coverages and make a decision based on your needs. Some companies offer Cancel-For-Any-Reason while others cover pre-existing condition. The best company may be different from person to person depending on their needs. To make this easier, I strongly recommend contacting a Travel Agent who can go over your needs and find a plan that most closely matches what you want.. It doesn’t cost any more to have them do it then for you to do it.

I STRONGLY recommend that you don’t purchase insurance from the tour operator/cruise line/airline etc. that you are booking your travel with. For instance, if you are booking a cruise, don’t buy insurance from the cruise line’s web page. You may notice that the policies are from well-known insurance companies. What you don’t know is that these policies usually very basic and don’t offer much protection at all. The restrictions are greater and the amenities are less. Some are written in such a way that you can’t ever use it no matter what happens to you.

What are the Most Important Products or Features a Plan Should Have?
Trip Cancellation and Medical Coverage are the most important features of an insurance Policy. Make sure you read the fine print on these. Each company covers different things.

Are there any Red Flags to be Aware of When Reviewing Plans?
You will be safe if you stick to the major companies listed above. There are a few more out there as well. I can’t stress enough that you should never go with a tour operators insurance. Purchase insurance through your travel agent as a separate item.

Can you Recommend any of Your Favorite Travel Insurance Companies?
My favorite company is CSA Travel Pro. They have great policy that will allow you to add the Cancel-For-Any-Reason option. With that being said, they do not offer coverage for pre-existing conditions. If that is something you need, I would go with Travel Insured.

Jeff in Winnipeg

Jeff Banks has been in the travel industry for the last 7 years specializing in both Leisure and Corporate Travel. He is currently a Meeting and Events planner for one of the top corporate travel agencies in the country.