Fortnighter launches, providing customized expert travel advice

travel adviceEver wish you could have a travel magazine or guidebook written just for you, catering to your specific interests and full of up-to-date travel advice? The new travel website Fortnighter offers just that–customized itineraries written by professional travel writers.

How does it work?
Start with a destination, specify who you’re traveling with (solo, as a couple, or with friends), and the number of days (currently 3, 5, or 7). You’ll be quoted a fee of $100 – $200 depending on the number of days and given a questionnaire to fill out with your interests and specifications. One week later, Fortnighter will send back a PDF with a detailed run-down of what to do and where to eat and stay (check out a sample itinerary here).

How can I trust the travel advice on Fortnighter?
The contributors have written for all the big travel outlets, from the New York Times to Condé Nast Traveler to Fodor’s guidebooks, travel frequently both for a living and because it’s what they love. All itineraries come without writer bylines, to ensure that their advice comes without bias or influence from hotels or restaurants. Plus, we can personally vouch for the site – it was founded by writer Alexander Basek, a friend and colleague to many of Gadling’s contributors.

Why should I pay for travel advice?
If you’ve ever spent time on Trip Advisor or other user-generated websites, you’ll know that sometimes you want expert advice from people who travel extensively, not just people who want to complain about the airplane movie or that their towel wasn’t folded into the right animal. Just because Joe Blow loves a restaurant featured in all the guidebooks doesn’t mean a single local would eat there, and you might miss out on a great small hotel if they don’t have a fancy website optimized to come to the top of your Google search. Fortnighter writers are selected based on their personal expertise and experience, and are often located in the destinations they write about to provide local recommendations. It’s a fraction of the cost of a customized tour, and you can do it independently and at your own pace.

Sound good to you? Check it out at www.fortnighter.com and share your experiences with us.

Abandoned Caracas skyscraper is home to 2,500 squatters


In downtown Caracas, thousands have found home in an unlikely structure. The “Tower of David,” a one time symbol for Venezuela‘s economic growth prospects, is an unfinished 45 story skyscraper filled with idle Venezuelans and enterprising small business start-ups. According to the New York Times, a housing shortage in Caracas has led many to make the most out of the housing opportunity provided by this massive abandoned structure.

A relic of the Venezuelan banking boom, the slum-scraper is one of the tallest buildings in Latin America and houses roughly 2500 squatters. The tenants have wired electricity, created makeshift shops, and installed DirecTV satellite dishes that cling precariously to the exterior of the re-purposed tower. Many residents have set up businesses, including a PlayStation home-brew arcade, a beauty salon, and a suspicious sounding dentistry operation.

The DIY housing solution is currently inhabited up to the 28th floor, though residents plan to push higher towards the incongruous Helipad that rests atop the tower. This video by the New York Times provides a candid glimpse into life within the dilapidated tower.

Craigslist user scams New York Times writer in London

Being victimized by internet scam artists isn’t hearsay–it’s happening all over, to all kinds of people, and all of the time. New York Times writer, Seth Kugel, published his personal testimony yesterday–a testimony of innocent trip-planning gone wrong.

While organizing his pending trip to London, Kugel found himself on Craigslist looking for attractive sublets in good neighborhoods. When he came across a Notting Hill studio available for a seemingly fair price (around $73 a night), he emailed the address in the ad and was responded to right away.

When the respondent requested that Kugel wire the money directly to his bank account, red flags should have been waving wildly in his face. But in Kugel’s defense, he’d recently lived in Brazil for two years; a country he claims utilizes wire transfers for even everyday expenses, like medical bills.

But he was duped. And that’s really all there is to it. Myriad are the ways in which internet scammers trick users out of their money, but it sure seems like accommodations, be them temporary or ostensibly permanent, are among scam artists’ favorite lures.

The good news? Kugel pieced together an insightful and resourceful list of ways in which we all can better avoid being scammed. You should read it here.

[photo by Elizabeth Seward]

iheart the Roger Smith Hotel: art salon arrives in Manhattan

I would not have been surprised to find the likes of Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau sitting across from me Friday night. Reviving a concept only too scarce since the end of the eighteenth century, the Roger Smith Hotel was host to a dinner that centered on the exchange of ideas and the appreciation of art. The creators themselves were in attendance, flanked by friends, admirers and even the lowly folks who sit on the sidelines and chronicle these affairs. In midtown Manhattan, known for flocks of tourists eager to consume the same eye-candy as the previous wave, it was a rare reprieve from the commodity norm.

The arts are important to the Roger Smith Hotel, evident from the Lexington Avenue sidewalk in front of the property. A look inside THE LAB, home to installation and performance art, shows what can be done with a converted storefront to provide intellectual depth and enrichment in a world characterized by the swift progress of passers by, not unlike the 25CPW studio on the Upper West Side and other non-traditional gallery spaces. As you move farther up the street and turn to the main entrance, the interactive display immediately to your right drives the point home. In fact, it was the reason I was at the hotel in the first place.

The inside wall of the Roger Smith Hotel’s entrance changes regularly based on the whim and fancy of anybody who chooses to walk by. Framed magnetic pop art images from the “iheart” project are stacked on the floor when not stuck to the wall, and staff, guests and just about anyone else can pick them up and rearrange them in an attempt to make a point or express a feeling. It’s fun, hands on and expressive. You become a part of the exhibition.

I encountered the iheart project for the first time at New York’s Affordable Art Fair a couple of weeks ago. Entering the ArtWeLove booth, I was struck immediately by the display, which consumed a generous amount of wall space. After talking for a bit with company founder Laurence Lafforgue, I was hooked, and didn’t hesitate to accept her invitation to the iheart dinner at the Roger Smith. Not knowing what to expect, I showed up early (unusual for me) and grabbed a glass of wine and a cigar at the hotel’s rooftop bar with my friend and fellow blogger Laurie DePrete, who introduced me to the Affordable Art Fair in the first place, effectively making the experience to come possible.

The crip autumn air and accompanying glass of white wine provided the perfect frame of mind for the iheart dinner: it was impossible to avoid clarity, openness and a sense of excitement after viewing the city below with the lubricating effects of the vino, of course.

The room had filled in my absence, and upon first inspection, it was evident that a varied crowd would make for a lively and insightful evening. Salient eccentricity made the artists easy to identify, and clusters of conversation indicated which guests were present in support of the creators. Interestingly, the artists were not holding court in these disparate collections of discourse. Rather, their palpable humility made interpretation the main event, as observations tended to trump explanations. Underscoring this dynamic was a video projected on a screen at the front of the room, showing the variations on the front door display that had already come to life … and departed. Punctuating the conversation were pauses to look up, yielding the knowing looks of some and the expressions of awe by others.

With iheart being the guiding theme of the dinner, it followed naturally that the artists in attendance were responsible for variations on the original, having put their own imprimaturs on this spirited concept. In a sense, it was a vast, asynchronous collaboration, involving unique and divergent perspectives that nonetheless came together into a cohesive whole. An international effort representing three continents, a bevy of accents and broad range of experiences came together seamlessly, demonstrating that a shared mission can translate to a spectacular outcome, even without strict and rigid control.

As the meal was served and the table filled with plates, wine glasses and the spoken word shooting to and fro, with the original conversation groups mixing into new pockets of insight on art and art market issues. It was impossible not to share ideas, even while chomping on the pasta served by the hotel, given the diversity sitting elbow-to-elbow. I was particularly excited to speak with Kosuke Fujitaka, co-founder of NY Art Beat, which has an iPhone app listing in granular detail the city’s many (and perhaps otherwise unknown) art exhibitions.

The evening drew to a close, and I again retired to the rooftop bar to smoke a Guillermo Leon Signature cigar, sip my final glass of wine and watch the staff collect the blankets from the chairs (a nice touch for combating the late-night chill) as they wound down, too. The direct exchange of ideas was ending, though it would doubtless continue through the Roger Smith’s interactive exhibition, the online presence of the iheart project and, of course, the collective and separate efforts of the artists and onlookers.

Doubtless, Diderot and Rousseau would have been proud. If slightly divergent from their experiences, the spirit was certainly present, contrasting wildly with the relative mayhem of the streets 16 floors below. ArtWeLove, iheart and the Roger Smith created an experience nearly absent from today’s social lexicon, reviving the art of thinking for its own sake.

[photos by Laurie DePrete]

Kindle tips for travelers


The iPad may be the current darling of techie travelers but some of us are waiting for the first generation kinks to be worked out and a decrease in price (or a sudden cash windfall) before taking the plunge. While still a “monotasker” compared to a tablet or laptop computer, Amazon’s Kindle is still a great tool to carry books on the road with a lightweight design and almost limitless capacity to store whatever travel guidebooks, beach reads, or other reading materials you desire. Combined with the easy ability to search within a book for a place name or keyword, a much lower profile than carrying a tourist map, and limited but free web browser, Kindle is a good choice for travelers. Here are a few other ideas beyond ebooks for your next trip:

  1. Google Maps are a fantastic resource when traveling, but lose their usefulness once you are without internet access or unwilling to pay for data roaming. Whether you download individual maps of city neighborhoods or get all fancy with creating your own Google Map of destinations and recommendations, having a “hard copy” on your Kindle is handy when you are offline and want to quickly locate that vintage store in Berlin a friend told you about.
  2. Many free PDF travel guides are available online including In Your Pocket and Arrival Guides. While not as extensive as a guidebook, they provide a few suggestions for where to stay, eat, shop, and what to do in many cities and often cover less-traveled destinations such as Eastern Europe. Lonely Planet has also introduced Pick and Mix chapters for purchase, perfect for when you only need a chapter of a guidebook rather than a whole country book.
  3. Create your own travel guide by saving magazine articles, blog posts, and web pages for your destination with content more recent, relevant and varied than any guidebook. Tote along Gadling’s guide to Paris’ Japanese quarter, The New York Times‘ 36 Hours in Copenhagen, or the Wikitravel page for Mumbai.

How to save documents for your Kindle: most Mac browsers have a Print to PDF feature and PDFs are easily read on the Kindle. PC users can download a program such as PDFCreator to save PDFs. If you have another format including HTML or a Word document (good if you are copying and pasting text), you can email to Amazon and they will convert and send back. Then you can add documents via the USB cord to your Kindle, simply drag and drop into the Kindle documents folder. While many files don’t have the same functionality as ebook format, you can zoom in and often search many of the file types.

While many of these documents can simply be printed, printer access is often scarce on the road and this method saves a lot on paper. Any other travel tips for Kindle? Leave ’em in the comments below.