Photo of the day (12.16.10)

What charmed me about this photo from Thimphu, Bhutan, other than the pleasant colors and lines, was the caption. Flickr user AndreaKW translated the suggestion box’s Dzongkha script as literally “thoughts box” and I love the idea, much less pressure than coming up with constructive suggestions. A thoughts box could have notes like “Next time, pack fewer shoes” or “Why don’t I ever eat meat on a stick at home?” or even the classic “Help! I’m trapped in a thoughts box!” The possibilities are endless, especially for traveler interaction, like the postcards from strangers project.

Have any photos to leave in our thoughts box? How about adding them to the Gadling group on Flickr? We might just choose one of your shots as our Photo of the Day.

Laminate maps and printed directions – Road trip tip

Passengers eat, drink, and frequently move in and out of the car during a road trip. A paper map or set of printed directions easily gets shoved into a seat during a stop, or worse yet, ruined if food or drink is spilled on it. Upon arrival, directions and maps are even more likely to get misplaced or damaged. To keep maps and directions safe during the trip, laminate them.

For around $30, a home laminating machine will seal standard letter size pages. Copy and print stores have the capability to laminate larger maps for a minimal fee. Alternatively, you can use contact paper to cover paper maps.

Pro tip: you can draw your route on a laminated map and easily wipe the mark off, if you change your mind.

Why you should visit National Parks in the off-season

So, you missed out on those fee-free weekends at the National Parks last year? Don’t sweat it — you didn’t miss much. As with anything that’s both free and open to the public, those weekends drew huge crowds. And while gratis is always nice, fighting the crowds is decidedly not. The way we see it, America’s pristine National Park system is best enjoyed with as little ambient noise as possible. After all, entering these parks gives you a chance to really connect with nature and to simply soak in some of the most beautiful regions of the country. Good luck trying to soak anything in with hordes of tourists surrounding you, kids wailing about their PSP battery dying and crowded roadways leading to the entrance.

For better or worse, most National Parks turn into circuses (or zoos, if you prefer that visual) during the warmer months. Particularly in the flagship parks (Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Zion, Great Smoky Mountains, etc.), the summer months lead to bumper-to-bumper traffic, waiting lines at scenic pulloffs, and a general sense of frustration. Call us crazy, but that doesn’t exactly sound like the ideal National Park experience.

Thankfully for you, there’s a solution. Go now.The winter months are undoubtedly the time to visit, and for a number of reasons. For starters, you’ll find fewer people around you. In essence, you get more of the park to “yourself,” with more room to explore areas that you find particularly interesting. There’s also less waiting at the entrance, no queues for snapping shots at gorgeous overlooks and no added stress. There’s also the distinct chance that you’ll see magnificent sites covered in snow, which certainly adds a touch of character to things and gives your shots a lot more color.

We recently visited the south rim of the Grand Canyon National Park, and we’d be shocked if 50 other vehicles were at the park. Generous portions were drizzled with a light dusting of snow, but all of the roads were perfectly clear and all of the trails were open for exploration. There’s also the huge benefit of being able to drive yourself up and down Hermit Road. For those unaware, Hermit Road is a seven mile stretch that bends around the south rim, and it provides stunning overlooks over a great variety of points around the canyon. You’ll feel as if you’re looking at completely different canyons when moving from pullout to pullout, and it’s a real joy to cruise at your leisure, pull off at each stop and gaze at the new angles presented to you. Here’s the kicker: it’s only open to public vehicles in December, January and February. The rest of the year, you’ll be forced to park your ride and hop on a shuttle with scads of others. Don’t get us wrong — we appreciate the green aspect of using public transportation, but having the autonomy to drive yourself really enriches the experience.

We also stopped by Arches National Park in Utah, and we were able to secure rare shots of Delicate Arch surrounded by snow. The 1.5 mile hike was also made more difficult (and in turn, entirely more fun) by forcing us to trudge through the white stuff while attempting to scout out the next trailhead. We only passed three couples on the march to the top. It felt less like following school kids in a single-file line and more like blazing our own trail up a mountain. Be honest with yourself — which option would you prefer? To contrast this, we visited Yosemite in the dead of summer last year, and even during the recession, the main highway (US 120) that crosses from east to west was jammed, and we had a much tougher time locating spots for pictures in which no people were around.

Finally, heading to National Parks in the off-season will save you big bucks on travel. Flights are typically cheaper, hotels are definitely cheaper (our 2-bedroom room at the Best Western Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel was literally 50 percent less expensive than the summer rate), and you won’t have to pay peak prices when it comes time to pick up a souvenir. If you’ve got some vacation time that you’ve been dying to burn, there’s no better time to make a National Park run than right now. These gems weren’t meant to have a theme park vibe to ’em, and all of that serenity you’ve been dreaming of will be a lot easier to find if you make the off-season your season.

[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]

44 little travel rules no one tells you

Here at Gadling, we pride ourselves on sharing the best travel tips and advice with you. And from time to time, someone from outside the Gadling family adds something so fantastic to the travel discourse that we need to feature it. And that’s exactly what travel writer Robert Reid has done. [Full disclosure: Robert is a friend of mine. A talented and well-traveled friend, but a friend nonetheless.] In the latest entry on his blog, Reid on Travel, he shares 44 little travel rules that no one tells you.

At the heart of the post is the sentiment that we should each feel comfortable creating our own experiences. In other words, feel free to put ice in your beer (rule #8). Or proudly sport socks with sandals (rule #28). So long as you are broadening your horizons and being respectful of others, you should be comfortable being you.

Two of Robert’s rules hit particularly close to home for me:

21. Try a couple days without the camera or email.

I tend to over-document my trips. Lately, I have been attempting to get lost in moments and experiences rather than viewing them through an LCD screen. As much as I love to share my pictures with friends, I’m trying to teach myself the value of being in the moment rather than framing it perfectly for an album.

37. Take public transit — a tram (I LOVE trams), subway, ox cart — at least once, even if you don’t need to get where it’s going. So few Americans EVER take one, it’s sad.

I happen to love public transit. So much so, that I even used it in Los Angeles, where cars are considered a necessity (more on that in a future post). You can observe so many slice-of-life moments while on a train or bus that you would otherwise miss in a taxi. If you want to immerse yourself in a culture, public transit can provide you with a window into a place’s real character.

Take a gander at Robert’s full list and feel free to suggest some more travel rules in the comments below. And then plan a trip. Just be sure to get a hat (rule #29).

Photo by flickr user swimparallel.

Five things to do when things go bad

I opened the front door to my apartment yesterday evening to find an early, unwelcome, and unpleasant Christmas present waiting for me inside: my power had been turned off. Apparently, the Hawaiian Electric Company finds it completely acceptable to turn off your service when you are a new tenant in the building — and gives you NO warning, by email or otherwise, as to when or why it is happening.

What made this matter worse is that my friend came over to cook steak on my electric stove. We were hoping to drink a bottle of Merlot, and watch “Superbad” on DVD. Instead, we both showered by candlelight, ate out at a mediocre Vietnamese pho restaurant, went to Walmart to stock up on more candles, and are calling it a night.

There are, however, some awfully good lessons to be learned from such an experience as this. If you’re one of the many travelers stuck at an airport in the northern U.S., an unhappy backpacker in the middle of nowhere, or a peeved resident living in a city serviced by an incompetent and unresponsive electricity company, then please resist the urge to cry about it. Here are a few things you could try to get your life back on track when things go bad.

  1. Be creative: If you’re not having fun in your current situation, find a way to make it fun. As long as there’s gas in it, your car can be one of the most enjoyable tools for happiness. Turn up the heat in your Chevy, take a road never traveled, and slowly find your way back home. If you don’t have a car, use your feet. You’ll be surprised how much you never noticed about even the most familiar of surroundings.
  2. Reach out to a loved one: So, you’re all alone in some backward country that you thought you’d love, but it turns out you hate it. Think positively: things will not be this bad forever. Take out a piece of paper and write a letter to a loved one, using your pen as an outlet for frustration, anger, sadness, and expression. Or, if you can get to a phone, give that person a call and tell him/her how much s/he’s missed.
  3. Strike up a conversation with a stranger: I love making new friends in the most random places. The conversation starter here would be your current, shared, miserable experience/existence. My best friend met her husband while waiting for flight in Albequerque. It’s amazing how much a light conversation can ease your inner tension. If nothing else, your little debate can pass the time.
  4. Indulge in your favorite food: Forget that Weight Watchers diet. Take out that stash of Baskin-Robinns Peanut Butter ‘n Chocolate ice cream (sorry for the food plug here, it’s my one weakness) and go to town. At least your belly will thank you.
  5. Get some zzz’s: Sleep is one of the best cures for whatever crisis you might be in. Shrug off your problem for a few hours with a little shuteye.

I hate the sight of frustrated tears, and I particularly detest angry protests by customers upon innocent flight attendants (though, I must confess, I too have instigated such arguments). The best thing you can do in rough times is grin in bear it. Things always get better in time.