Life Nomadic: Tynan’s Top Ten Cruise Tips

Ahoy! Here’s a quick followup on my last post about cruising, posted from Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas. I’ve been on a bunch of cruises now, and have come up with a few tips and tricks to help you get the most out of your cruise.

1. If you’re really into safety, go to the “mandatory” lifeboat safety drill. If you’ve been to one before or think that you can handle following the green arrows and putting on your life vest, stay inside your cabin. They don’t actually check names or your cabin to make sure you go.

2. Never go on official shore excursions. If you just walk off the ship you’ll find lines of touts waiting to give you the same thing for half the price, usually with more flexibility if you want something slightly different. Walk past the touts and you’ll usually find stores offering the same tours for 25-30% of the cruise line quoted price.

3. When choosing your cabin, choose one near the stairwells and elevators. You’ll be making that walk many times every day.

4. At dinner you can order as many things off the menu as you want, not just one appetizer, salad, and entree. My record is 31 plates divided between a friend and I.5. You can also have meals customized based on your dietary needs. Contacting the cruise line in advance will get more promises than actual actions, but if you talk to the Maitre’D the first night, he’ll make sure you get what you want.

6. Don’t eat your meals at the buffets or informal dining rooms. The food quality in the main dining rooms is ten times better. If you’re hungry before or after your assigned dinner time, go to the other seating and eat two dinners.

7. Insist on carrying your own bags up to your room when you check in. If you give them to the porters you’ll end up waiting in your cabin for a few hours for your stuff, and you’ll have to tip them. It’s a short walk to carry them yourself and you’ll be able to explore the ship as soon as you get in.

8. On long cruises, don’t buy an internet package until the first sea day. The daily newspaper will usually have a 50% off sale, and you can use the minutes you buy for the rest of the cruise.

9. Make friends early. A good way to do this is to enter contests or sing karaoke on the first day there. People will recognize you and start conversations. If you have a choice of what size table to sit at, pick the biggest one possible.

10. You will be assigned a checkout time for the last day of the cruise. The cheaper your cabin, generally, the earlier it will be. Do like I do and ignore the time. Pack up the night before and sleep in until the maid comes knocking to clean your room for the next group. I’ve been the last person off the ship every single time.

Bonus tip: Make friends with the staff. They’re from all different countries and have all sorts of stories. They also know the ins and outs of each port and might even invite you to the staff parties, which are a lot crazier than the passenger parties.

Life Nomadic: Luxury Cruise Ships at Hostel Prices

When I was a kid, my breakfast cereal of choice was Kellog’s Corn Flakes. The back of the box, which I relied on for breakfast-time entertainmant, sometimes had contests to win cruises on Carnival Cruise lines. I guess advertising works, because since then I had always wanted to go on a cruise.

I had no idea how much cruises cost. I never saw prices advertised, so I assumed that they were like first class air travel – too expensive to actually consider.

As I found out many years later, cruises aren’t expensive at all. In fact, if you know what you’re doing, you can stay and eat on a luxury cruise ship for less than a hostel.The one notable downside to cruise travel is that you only visit each place for one or two days at most. On the other hand, you don’t have to worry about meals, you don’t have to pack and unpack between spots, and the ship is a destination itself.

Before I became a nomad I focused on round trip cruises. Leave out of Houston, cruise around the Caribbean and Central America for a week, and end up back in Houston. Now I use cruises as transportation whenever possible, seeking out one way tickets. That means that the price of the cruise is counting against the plane ticket, meals, and lodging I would have paid otherwise.

The gold standard for a good deal in cruising is fifty dollars a day, including taxes and port charges. Except for a transatlantic on the Queen Mary II, I’ve never paid more than that. You will also have to tip $10 per day total to the waiters, maids, and cabin stewards.

The first place I look for cruise deals is the Cruise Sales on Travelzoo, particularly the exotic cruise section. Exotic is a euphemism for cruises with strange, long, and usually one way routes. This is exactly what I want, but such strange itineraries usualy don’t fit into the standard weeklong vacations that most people go on, so they get seriously discounted.

The next step, once you find the cruise you want, is to go over to Cruise Compete and put in a request. Cruise Compete is an amazing site where cruise agents fight for your business by offering private quotes. These quotes are always cheaper than you’ll find anywhere else, often times by half.

For example, I put in a request today for a 23 day cruise from China through Japan and Alaska to Vancouver. The advertised price on Travelzoo was $1149, but I got a quote for $647. That’s $28 per day, including all fees, for a room, all meals, and entertainment. This particular cruise also happens to be on Princess, which is one of the best cruise lines.

Some of the very best deals can be had during repositioning cruises. Cruise ships tend to migrate, usually across the Atlantic, every fall and spring, and offer very low prices to passengers who want to go on a long cruise with a lot of days at sea. In fact, I’m on a fourteen day from the Dominican Republic to London as you read this.

If you can get past the slightly overdone tackiness on most cruise ships, you’ll really enjoy your time on them. For the partying types there are clubs and bars all over the place, as well as half a dozen pools and hot tubs. Many newer ships have attractions like miniature golf, rock climbing, and even ice skating rinks. I like these things, but my favorite part of being on a ship is getting away from the distractions of cell phones and constant internet access, and finding some peace and quiet to get work done or stare out at the sea and do some thinking.

My next post will be ten tips on getting the most out of your cruise, so start looking for the right one now!

Life Nomadic: The Art of Getting Mugged

After a safe return from Haiti, universally advertised as too dangerous to visit, my opinion on danger was stronger than ever. Everyone blows danger way out of proportion, and if you walk around confidently without being flashy, no one is going to rob you.

Here in Santo Domingo I eat at the same restaurant, Ananda, every night. It’s an amazing vegetarian restaurant that bears a startling resemblance to my favorite restaurant in Austin, Texas (Casa de Luz). It’s an eleven minute walk away through the main roads, or a ten minute walk with a shortcut.

The shortcut goes through the scariest little alley I’ve ever seen. The buildings on it are crumbling, it’s covered with trash, there are no streetlights, and just to make it a little more spooky, one side of it borders an overcrowded cemetery. Worse, the alley is a series of three sharp angles that make it hidden from nearby streets.

I liked walking through the alley. It made me feel tough, and I was proud to not have the same irrational fears that everyone else seems to have.

As it turned out, those fears weren’t quite so irrational. After the eight hour bus ride from Haiti I was starving, so I started walking towards the restaurant. At this point I’d gone through the alley so much that I didn’t even think about it. Two twenty-something-year-olds were walking towards me. I moved a bit to the right to pass them, but one went to one side of me and the other went on the other side.”Hola,” I said cheerfully.

Just as it started to register in my brain that something might be fishy about them surrounding me, they were on me. Their hands grabbed my shirt, they pushed me back against a wall, and started pulling the rings off of my fingers.

My logical mind kicked in. If I just spoke to them in Spanish they’d see that I’m not a typical gringo tourist.

“Espera! Que paso?”

They couldn’t have cared less, of course. They kept tugging at my rings and sliding their hands into my pockets. I didn’t have my wallet on me, but I did have a wad of cash. They took my passport, both rings, and the keys to my hotel. I glanced down at my expensive GPS watch which one of them was trying to take off, and realized that the longer I stood there, the more stuff they were going to take.

Cash and watch still attached, I started to run away. I figured they’d chase me, but as I looked back I saw them running the other way.

I felt calm during the actual incident, but afterwards I was rattled. I walked around the block a couple times, trying to process what had just happened. I didn’t care so much about what had been taken, but my worldview had just been shattered. I was naively optimistic enough to think that no one would mess with me because I was a nice friendly person who cared about the cultures I was visiting. It hadn’t occurred to me that wannabe thugs with probable drug habits don’t really care about any of that.

When I got home I went on the internet, determined to learn how to fight. I would buy a knife every time I landed, and learn knife fighting. If someone tried to rob me again, they would get stabbed.

Luckily, my first search yielded this site, which describes exactly why my plan was a terrible idea that might end up with me getting killed. Every post on the site links to twenty others, which meant that the following couple hours of my life were dedicated to learning everything I could about personal defense.

Here are the important things I learned, with links to No Nonsense Self Defense, in terms of avoiding getting mugged while traveling:

  • Low level criminals, like muggers, are not logical. Trying to use logic to dissuade them will never work.
  • Criminals are professionally violent. Training to fight them without the same real world experience they have, will lead to you getting hurt.
  • Mugging is a low level crime, which means that it is mostly perpetrated by younger people (18-25) with drug problems.
  • Crimes happen in “fringe areas“, places between isolated areas and highly populated areas. Isolated areas don’t have enough victims, heavily populated areas have too many witnesses.
  • To escape a bad situation, make sure you run towards a heavily populated area. Running “away” is likely to lead you into a less populated area.
  • Criminals are selfish and are obsessed with their status. Challenging them (“You wouldn’t shoot me”), is a good way to make them violent.

What I realized, more than anything, was that I was asking for it. Sure, no one ever has the right to rob me, but I entered an area that I knew was dangerous, and I did it habitually. My original idea that the world is safer than people say is probably correct, as long as I do my part to avoid danger.

Life Nomadic: What Couchsurfing in Haiti is Like

I’d never been to Haiti and I’d never tried couchsurfing, but since Haiti was just a $75 bus ride away ($67 if you have the foresight to pay in Pesos), I felt like I had no choice but to try it.

A search for couches in Port Au Prince yielded a few pages of results, with Natacha and Charlene showing up at the top. The site said that they both replied to almost all of the requests, and each offered a couch for up to two weeks. I e-mailed Charlene first because she has a son and I love kids.

Charlene wrote back the same day and said to let her know what dates I wanted to come. I replied back with a weekend and she said she’d be expecting me. It was so easy and painless that I wondered if it would actually work.

I had lingering worries in the back of my mind. Haiti was supposed to be a pretty dangerous place, so if she changed her mind at the last minute, I might be stranded. Besides, we all know that everyone on the internet is a demented weirdo (except for me). How much weirder do you have to be to invite strangers into your home for weeks at a time?

After a long scenic bus ride, I arrived in Haiti. I took a taxi through the unlit streets and arrived in front of a night club, where Charlene’s sister was waiting for me.

“Charlene is at Toastmasters. Come with me.”

I followed her down a narrow concrete alley (everything is concrete in Haiti), through a nondescript doorway, up a winding set of railing-less stairs, and into a small kitchen. As soon as I got in, Olivier, Charlene’s son, ran up to me, jumped, and latched on with a giant hug. Quite a welcome, I thought.

The power was out, as it often is in Haiti, so we sat and talked by the light of a single candle.

An hour later, I learned that it doesn’t much matter who you couchsurf with in Haiti. All of the surfers are best friends, and by signing up with one of them you put yourself at the mercy of a mob of hospitable Haitians determined to show you everything in Haiti. I ate home cooked food in four different houses, never once having to go to a restaurant.

Natacha picked me up to bring me to a club. I was terrified, not of the danger of Haiti, which I’d already begun to suspect was overhyped, but that I might have to dance. I am a terrible dancer.

We wove through the dark streets of Port Au Prince and finally arrived in front of what appeared to be a walled off apartment building. The only indication that it might be something more was a kerosene lamp sitting in the middle of the walkway. We descended into the backyard which held five or six large tables of people, a group of traditional Haitian drummers, and the flicker of kerosene lamps which served equally as functional light and ambiance.

Our table was already stocked with Natacha’s friends, some couchsurfers and some not, whose origins ranged from Haiti to Ghana to Belgium. French was the common language, but enough people spoke English that I was still able to be part of the conversation. When things got too French I would zone out and watch the drummers and the dancers that they attracted.

The next two days flew by. By the time I woke every day Charlene had already made breakfast and had coordinated with Natacha to plan my schedule. In just two days I visited an orphanage in the ghetto which Natacha takes care of, a Montessori school that she started, the landmarks downtown, a rehearsal for the Port Au Prince dance company, and a jazz concert. I quickly realized that I would have had a much different and less authentic experience if I hadn’t couchsurfed.

I went into Haiti knowing no one and left feeling like I have a whole social circle there. They prodded me to stay longer and asked when I would come back.

I used to see couchsurfing as a cheapskate’s alternative to a hotel, but now I realize that it’s a lot more. Couchsurfing offers the unique opportunity to have an instant group of friends in a new place and to really get to see it through the eyes of a local. I like to rent apartments wherever I go, but from now on I’m going to consider couchsurfing for the first few days to make some friends and learn about the city from someone who actually lives there.

To create a profile on Couchsurfing, check out

Side note: For anyone wanting a good charity to donate to, consider Natacha’s orphanage. I’m always leery of how much of the donated money actually gets to people who need it, and I can tell you that there is no overhead here. When they’re short for the month, Natacha takes money out of her own paycheck to make sure that the kids eat. If this is something you’re interested in, e-mail me at tynan.gadling at weblogsinc dot com and I will put you in touch with her.


Life Nomadic: Fifteen Essential Tips for Panama

Only a week remains in my two month stay in Panama, so I thought it would be useful to condense everything I’ve learned here to make it easier for future travelers.

Panama City is one of my favorite places in the world. It’s a perfect blend of “frontier spirit”, as Todd calls it, comfortable city life, good prices, and nearby cities and towns to explore. In list form, here are my recommendations for Panama:

1. When in Panama City, check out Casco Viejo before you decide on a place to stay. It’s a two dollar cab ride from anything in the city and it feels like a totally different country. Manolo Caracol, located in Casco Viejo, is considered to be the best restaurant in Panama, despite only costing $20 for the prix fixe menu.

2. The best place to go outside of Panama City is Boquete. The weather is cool, there’s tons to do, and it’s the total opposite of Panama City – perfect for a break.

3. Grocery shopping in Panama City is excellent. El Rey, Super 99, and Riba Smith are the main grocery stores. Riba Smith has the best selection of healthy foods and American and European imports. Organica, located in Paitilla, is an expensive store that has even more health food imports.

4. Don’t try to live in Paitilla or Pacifica. These are the the super gringo areas, which sounds like a good thing but isn’t. Cangrejo, Marbella, Bella Vista, and Obarrio are the best areas downtown. I personally wouldn’t want to stay anywhere farther out, except for Casco Viejo from #1.

5. Don’t pick up Taxis in front of hotels or malls. Walk down the street. If you ask the price, they know they can rip you off. If they try to barter the price up front, they’re trying to rip you off. Get in the car, and pay $2 for the ride as long as it’s within downtown.

6. Try patacones. They’re delicious fried plantain chips.
7. The only coffee shop with wifi is NY Bagel near “cabeza de Einstein” on Via Argentina. There are a few internet cafes that have wifi for .50-.75 per hour. The one at Via España and Via Argentina has really fast internet (for Panama).

8. When you arrive at the airport, go upstairs to the departure gate dropoff area. The taxis there will charge you less than the ones downstairs. Shoot for $15, negotiate up front.

9. Rental cars are only around $20 a day, which makes them great for road trips. Thrifty on Via España is a good place to go.

10. Finding good apartments is very difficult. Craigslist and VRBO are good places to start, but they are expensive. I rented a room from Michael (lirpa1966 at E-mail him and he may have something for you too. Just don’t book my room next winter!

11. The hostels in Panama City are pretty bad. I’ve stayed at a few and wouldn’t recommend them. Casa De Carmen is somewhere between a hostel a hotel. Great place, decent location, and decent prices.

12. Bocas Del Toro is probably not worth visiting unless you’re really into surfing. If you are into surfing, it’s a must do.

13. If you like beaches, go to the San Blas Islands. Any hostel will get you in touch with the right people to make it happen. It’s real remote island living with real indians. Highly recommended.

14. If you are a vegetarian, you MUST go to Casa Vegetariana next to Manolos near Casa Veneto. You will eat there every day. For special occasions, check out La Novena across from Happy Copy on Via Argentina. Arturo will take care of you!

15. It is possible to swim in both oceans in one day. We did it in 89.5 minutes, ocean to ocean. Can you beat us?

Panama is one of the first places I’d recommend to anyone. Consider visiting, and use these tips to make your trip even better.