Should you get a Priority Pass?

Anyone who’s ever had to spend more than half an hour in an airport departure lounge, you know, it can be…uncomfortable.

My earliest memory of an airport layover was going to The Netherlands with my mom and cousin when I was around 7 years old.

We made our home on the floor of London’s Heathrow Airport, waiting overnight for our connecting flight. There was a bookstore nearby where we bought a bunch of crossword puzzles and that was the entertainment for the night.

So since my earliest memory of airports, I’ve associated them with discomfort and “roughing it”.

Because of this sheer unpleasantness, booking flights with connections has always been a delicate art for me – balancing enough time to make my connections in case of any minor delay, but also so I don’t have to suffer for any unnecessary amount of time in an airport.

And obviously I always knew airport lounges existed but I always assumed they required a specific airline membership or a particular credit card (and many of them do) in order to use them.

Then one day I saw a travel blogger post about Priority Pass to her Instagram Story.

What’s this? A way to get access to airport lounges without having to be a business class passenger or sell my soul to an airline alliance?

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Half of the drinks set up at Blossom Lounge, Terminal 4, Changi Airport, Singapore. The other half was a fridge of canned soft drinks. Most lounges I visited had at least a coffee machine offering a variety of hot beverages, tea and a fridge with canned drinks.

Interesting…but you know what I really learned that day that changed my entire mind about airport lounges? Most, if not all of them offer you free food and beverages for the duration of your stay! Whaaaat?

Now I normally don’t eat a WHOLE lot in the airport but that’s largely because airport food is expensive and usually gross. So if you’re telling me that there’s a place in an airport I can eat “good” food for “free” (cause really I just paid upfront for it) then I am definitely listening.

If you haven’t figured it out by now – Priority Pass is essentially an airport lounge membership programme.

I checked out the Priority Pass website and it seemed their network of lounges was pretty extensive – over 1200 lounges in 143 countries.

The Standard membership costs $99 USD per year and entitles the member to pay just $32 USD per person per lounge visit for you and your guests.

The Standard Plus membership costs $299 USD per year and entitles the member to 10 free lounge visits and $32 USD per person per visit for your guests.

The Prestige membership costs $429 USD per year and entitles the member to unlimited free lounge visits and $32 USD per person per visit for your guests.

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This Premium Plaza Lounge at klia2, Malaysia, was actually landside (meaning before you go through security). Make sure you check the app to see where lounges are located in your respective terminal.

After I dropped some VERY unsubtle hints throughout the year, my boyfriend ended up getting me a Priority Pass Standard Plus membership for Christmas. Wooohooo!

I knew then I would be traversing at least four major airports in April so I was pretty excited to plan my Priority Pass usage during this trip.

Now the trip has come and gone and I used four out of my ten lounge visits for the year. It’s important to note that for this to be worth the dinero you really should be in a position to utilise all your free lounge visits in a year on this tier.

So what did I think of the Priority Pass? Would I recommend anyone put down the money for one?

Here’s why you should definitely get a Priority Pass:

1. You essentially get Lounge access at a discounted rate. The typical lounge experience (I’m using the Plaza Premium Lounge chain as an example) will set you back $42 USD for a 2 hour stay. Some will be even more expensive. Priority Pass Standard Plus Membership typically gets you a maximum of three hours in the Lounge (though I stayed for over three hours in one lounge and nobody checked me, boo) at $30 USD per visit (if you count your 10 visits for the year) and the $32 USD for guests or beyond your ‘free’ visits is still a $10 discount.

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The spread at Premium Plaza Lounge in klia2, Malaysia – a selection of salad, pastries, desserts, soup, rice, noodles, vegetables and chicken.

2. Unlimited fooooooood. I ate quite a few times in each of the lounges I went to out of pure bad mind. I kept thinking about what $30 USD of food looked like in my head and tried to eat and drink that or more. Of course you’re not just paying for the food but I admit, if I didn’t eat as much as I did I might find it hard to justify the cost. The food was pretty good as well. All the lounges I went to had a buffet style spread, and some also had an a la carte order service. All offered coffee and tea, soft drinks like soda water (yas) and juices. Beer was also included in all the lounges’ complimentary offering and one lounge also had wine and liquor. Different lounges will have different policies regarding alcohol so just check the app to confirm what you’ll get.

3. The lounge WiFi is usually superior to whatever the airport is offering at a public level, and the access doesn’t require your Facebook password or the blood of your firstborn child, so that’s cool too.

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My little cubby in Blossom Lounge, Terminal 4, Changi Airport, Singapore. Not clearly pictured is a footrest and an electrical outlet.

4. Comfort and maybe even some privacy. It goes without saying that the seating arrangements in most standard departure lounges are sheer hell, so it’s nice to have a comfortable, soft place to rest your tush, most likely with an electrical outlet within arm’s reach. God knows how my heart drops at the sight of people laying on the ground next to the cluster of electrical outlets in the airport, desperate for a socket to free up. In at least one of the lounges I visited, there were also these more private cubbies where you could probably take a nap if you were so inclined. Actually, people nap everywhere in lounges, you really don’t need any privacy to do that.

5. Even if there’s no participating lounge in your terminal of choice, there may still be a restaurant or two that allows you to apply up to $28 USD credit to the bill, along with a heap of terms and conditions. You can also benefit from offers from vendors in the airport like XpresSpa and those folks who wrap your luggage. More glamorous airports may have better deals but that’s what JFK is giving us to work with.

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The first course of my breakfast at Blossom Lounge, Terminal 4, Changi Airport Singapore.

6. Fantastic app. The Priority Pass app is an actually useful app. It contains a comprehensive list of all the participating lounges – you just need to know 1) the airport you’ll be in 2) the terminal you’ll be in and you can find out if there’s a lounge you can use. It lets you know what you can expect from the various lounges as well as any rules or guidelines you should be aware of. You can also track your lounge visits on the app.

And after all those compelling reasons, here’s why, maybe, you should think twice before you purchase a membership:

1. It’s a luxury, not a necessity. Remember all the crap I just wrote about departure lounges? The basic ones? Yeah, if $299 isn’t something you should be spending on the frivolity of a Priority Pass, forget I said any of it! This is a nice-to-have, it is in no way a need-to-have and honestly, unless you travel a whole lot, it doesn’t make sense to spend that coin.

2. Not every airport or terminal has a participating lounge. It would be wise to check out the airports and terminals within those airports you frequent to see if they contain participating lounges. For example, JetBlue departs from Terminal 5 in JFK and that terminal has no participating lounges in the Priority Pass programme. So if you know you fly JetBlue often to and from New York, Priority Pass may not be worth the money.

3. This is less a con of Priority Pass and more one of Premium Plaza Lounge, which seems to be one of the more popular lounges on the Priority Pass roster – it can get sticky. There was a queue to get into the Premium Plaza Lounge in Hong Kong and once inside, it was tough to get the prime seating options (though there was ample seating otherwise). It should be noted that access to any lounge isn’t a guarantee if they reach their capacity.

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More swanky seating options at Blossom Lounge, Terminal 4, Changi Airport, Singapore.

4. If you have the Standard Plus membership you can’t roll over any unused visits into the next year. You also cannot transfer lounge visits to anyone else or lend anyone your Pass for them to utilise since they match your boarding pass to your membership card at the entrance to the Lounge.

In summary, I think the Priority Pass is a great buy if you are going to be travelling enough times in the year to max out your included visits. Even if you just take the Standard membership, which doesn’t include any ‘free’ visits, you’d have to ensure you can visit enough lounges for the $99 USD price tag to make sense (what’s that…5 lounge visits maybe to recoup your money?). If you travel a WHOLE lot, the Prestige membership tier absolutely is definitely something to consider.

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Opted for a lighter second course for breakfast at Blossom Lounge, Terminal 4, Changi Airport, Singapore.

Honestly, like I said, it’s not at all a necessity but if you travel enough to be disillusioned by the airport experience and are looking for a way to ease the pain just a little bit, Priority Pass may be the answer. 

I would also consider flights with a longer layover when booking since I know I have somewhere to pass the time. This might save me some bucks in the long run since the flights with longer layovers can sometimes be cheaper.

I’m not positive yet if I’ll be renewing my membership for next year as I have to plan my travel, but once it looks like I’ll be taking ten or more flights it’s very likely I will be a Priority Pass member again in 2020.

You can check out the Frequently Asked Questions on the Priority Pass website for more information. 

Or if you have any questions about my specific Priority Pass or lounge experience, hit me up below.

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Thoughts in transit: Did I come to Malaysia for the wrong reason?

I’ve made a New Year’s resolution (not really) to try to be a better blogger. And in my head, being a better blogger means writing while I am on a trip, and not attempting to do it three years later when I can barely remember anything.

Anyway, I’m three days into my trip to Malaysia and up until yesterday I was in a bit of a quandary – I wasn’t…really…loving…this.

“But how Ceola?! How?!” you might ask.

The truth is, I don’t really know.

I should preface this by saying Malaysia was not one of my must-visit countries.

I’ve gotten to a point in travelling where I realise I’m feeling torn between going to a new country or returning to ones I’ve already been to when I’m picking a destination.

I don’t want to think of me going somewhere new as ‘ticking a box’, every country I’ve been to so far was somewhere I really wanted to see and experience.

Malaysia was less that and more…well…it’s a country in South East Asia I haven’t visited yet so I should go…right?

I think that lack of zeal from the decision-making phase of this trip has, to an extent, coloured my experience so far.

Before I go any further though, I want to emphatically say to Malaysia – it’s not you, it is definitely me. Everything I’ve seen of the country so far (which, in all fairness, is not very much at all) has been fascinating – it’s this incredible amalgamation of cultures and ethnicities that I, as a Trinidadian, can appreciate, and yet it doesn’t feel entirely familiar to me.

I think part of the issue is I didn’t come here with any real plan – not even a plan not to have a plan. It took me ages to even finish booking all my hotels and flights. I still haven’t booked tours, but it was not my intention to take it easy in Malaysia (like it was last year in Bali). I have not been very purposeful in my coming here and I think that is my problem.

I know there’s a lot to learn from Malaysia, and I know this is a unique and exciting place that I can feel myself warming to even now as I type. I feel pretty confident that by the end of this I will fall in love with the country.

But for the first two days of my trip…I wondered…what if I don’t? What if I came all the way here, spent all this money, and then didn’t enjoy myself at all?

That’s never happened to me before, not really. There have been cities I visited that I didn’t care for, but those were usually on the way to somewhere else I really wanted to be.

So this now brings me to a bigger philosophical position on travel – can you travel without a purpose and have the experience still be a rewarding one? I’m beginning to suspect I cannot. And when I say purpose I don’t necessarily mean plan…I mean…just something that is driving you in your journey – an objective or a goal.

When I went to Bali I went with the explicit intention of relaxing. I ‘wasted’ a lot of time there – lazing about in bed, aimlessly wandering the streets of Ubud, getting far more massages than any one person should get, and yet, that’s why I went, to do exactly that.

But if you asked me now why I came to Malaysia, I cannot say much more than ‘because I hadn’t been yet’.

I don’t think this works for me, not just in travel, but in life in general. I am goal-oriented to the point of it being a flaw, evidently.

Anyway, my attitude is improving. My last day in Penang for some reason was a kick in the butt – I started to feel more energised and excited about being here and the fact that my next destination is Malaysia Borneo helps tremendously.

If there’s one thing I wanted to do above all else in Malaysia it was to visit the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sepilok, and in two days I’ll be doing just that. Before I see the ‘tans though, I’ll be diving in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, Borneo.

After that I head on to Kuala Lumpur where I’ll be in a feeding frenzy and perhaps get a bit of shopping in as well. I promised my co-workers Malaysian treats so I need to go on a hunt for travel-friendly snacks to take back to the office.

I really just wanted to get my thoughts about this down on paper…or screen. I’ve never felt that overwhelming feeling of dread about a destination before – what if I don’t love this? What if I don’t enjoy myself here? It was alarming, and yet I feel like it might be a common thing in this age of doing shit specifically for the ‘gram.

What’s the point of all this travel if you don’t know why you’re doing it?
Is anything fundamentally wrong with scratching things off a list or ticking a box?
Can you enjoy travel without a purpose?

I don’t know that I have the explicit answers to all those questions.

Here’s what I know right now – travel is a privilege and should be entered into with reverence and respect for the destination. If you arrive without that, you might be in for a hard time.

I’m not sure I came to Malaysia for the right reasons but I think there is still time to fix that.

I really want to come away from each of my travels with a better and more sincere appreciation for the place I’ve been to. For me that means trying to engage with more locals and learn more about a country.

It’s about learning the history so I can understand the present better. What are the challenges? Where are the opportunities?

Hopefully by the end of this journey most of those initial reservations would be a distant memory.

So tell me, have you ever travelled for what you now believe to be the wrong reasons? What would you do if you got to a country and decided you could not enjoy your time there? And how do you decide which country to visit when planning travel?

To tour or not to tour?

To tour or not to tour?

That is the question.

Except for me, it’s not really a question.

I have, in my online explorations, seen a lot of arguments for and against taking tours.

Some people argue for the more organic route – show up and just see what happens, hang with the locals, get the true VIBE of a place and ride it until there’s little left to squeeze out of the experience.

Alternatively, you could belong to the pro-tour group – you prefer a more organised approach to travel, packing as much as you can into your day and leaving little to fate.

While I see the merits of both, I belong predominantly to the latter camp. I love a good tour. Seriously.

And I love a good tour for a few reasons –

1. I am a woman and I often travel alone. While I encourage any and every woman to go brave and book that ticket, I also like to err on the side of caution when it comes to actually being in a foreign country and exploring accordingly (duh) Tour groups or a private guide afford you a level of security you may not otherwise have as a solitary figure wandering a city or countryside. When I need a bomb ass photo, I’d faster trust a tour guide with my phone than some passerby. If something of value gets lost or stolen, you may benefit from having professionals on hand to assist. While I’d love to just befriend a random local and let them show me around, I also have to be smart about my own safety and minimise my risk as much as possible.

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Photo taken by a tour guide at Tegenungan Waterfall in Bali

2. I travel on a TIGHT schedule so I need to get as much as I can from a place in one go. Trust me, if I had it my way, I’d be able to travel for months on end (sorry Mom, Dad, Brandon). But the way my vacation days are set up, I can really only squirrel away two weeks for my longer trips, and a week for the shorter voyages abroad. Depending on the country I go to, there’s a HEAP of historical and cultural context I want to pack into my travels, because while I am all for just enjoying an experience for what it is, I personally just appreciate a place more when I have a better understanding of why things are the way they are and how they came to be. For me, personally, that’s easier to come by in a short space of time when I have a tour guide on hand.

3. I think it is really important to support the local tourism industry in the places I visit. I like spending my money on local enterprise, wherever in the world I am. I’ve supported a lot of different kinds of tour companies – multinational companies that hire locals who may have previously worked in other industries, and adapted (sometimes late in life) to work in the tourism industry, family-run tour companies, students offering free tours while they try to gain experience in the tourism industry, and so on. I met one man in Cambodia who learned English just so he could become a licensed tour guide (which actually costs a lot of money so I need to show that dude some ROI). I’ve also just really enjoyed spending time with people passionate about their country and eager to share it with visitors. Maybe I’ve been really lucky to get stellar tour guides 9 times out of 10.

4. I like tours. Sorry, not sorry, but I find tours super fun, ESPECIALLY food tours. Food tours are the best kind of tour, hands down, and if you can only do one tour in a country, I recommend you make it all about that country’s gastronomy. In my experience, food tours encapsulate a vast range of cultural cues. For the cultural or historical tours – I like the ease of access being a part of a tour affords you. No long lines, somewhere to leave your bag, and a guide on hand to explain other little bits and bobs to you that might not be covered in an audio-guide of a place.

5. Sometimes the only way to get there is a tour. If I wanted to go to Machu Picchu (again), this time around I would need to do it with a tour operator. If I want to hike the Inca trail, I need to do it with a tour company. I would NEVER dream of doing rock climbing with a rando, licensed tour operators and instructors only, please. And so on and so on. Sometimes when you want to have a particular experience, the only way to get it is through a tour.

That said, there are a lot of inherent challenges with booking tours in foreign countries. One I come up against A LOT as a solo traveller is finding tours that don’t demand a minimum of two people per booking or don’t charge me three times the rate for being solo. Another thing I’ve noted is tour platforms like Viator being accused of inflating the price of local tours significantly (always read reviews folks, a lot will be revealed in them). I experienced that when I was planning my trip to Chile and ended up having to contact many of the tour operators directly to arrange my tours, which isn’t extremely difficult, just mildly inconvenient.

Be thorough in your research when shopping around for the best tour – other traveller reviews are gold! Blogs usually link directly to tour operators as well, so do a general search for the activity you’re interested in and see if they’ve linked to the operators they used.

However, there are a few tour companies that I have found myself going back to repeatedly, namely Urban Adventures (excellent food tours) and Grasshopper Adventures (Grasshopper does predominantly bike tours across Asia).

I can also highly recommend Amansuka Tours in Bali. It’s a small family-owned and -operated gig that’s very flexible and competitively priced.

If you need any help finding the perfect tour feel free to hit me up and I’ll help where I can.

Travel gadgets on my radar in 2019

The year has just begun and for most people travel is on the brain.

I’m no different really. I’ve been planning my trips for this year since the latter half of 2018 and while nothing is confirmed just yet, it looks like I have a pretty decent lineup so far.

I had originally wanted to do a travel gift guide for Christmas but obviously, I missed that deadline so ‘Travel Gadgets I want to get in 2019’ was the next best thing.

Like most travellers, I LIVE for a good travel gadget, and I’ve come across a few in my last few years of travel that has become an integral part of my packing list.

Here are some of the gadgets I am hoping to add to my arsenal this year, and some I’ll just be lusting after from afar.

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Hanging Gonex Toiletry Bag

I have stayed in enough hostels to know that a hanging toiletry bag is life. Right now I’m using a toiletry bag that I think I’ve had for over 12 years and it’s holding up well but it’s time for a re-up.

I like this one from Gonex because it’s black (duh) and compact but has a ton of compartments for me to separate the ridiculous amount of toiletries I carry with me when I travel.

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GoPro HERO7

This is one of the items I’ll be lusting after until I can justify spending $400 USD to capture videos I never post anywhere.

I bought my first GoPro in 2016, ahead of my first solo trip to Thailand. The GoPro Session 4 was around $200 USD at the time and I had planned to create these awesome travel videos so it made perfect sense then to get it.

Three years later and I’m older and wiser now and appreciate that the only reason I’d be getting this upgrade is for the screen on the back.

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SANDMARC Roll-Up Case for GoPro Hero 7

Again with the GoPro items. Right now my GoPro and accessories are in various baggies, which makes keeping them organised pretty difficult. As a result, I often end up leaving gear home or losing it in my luggage and never using it. I’m hoping this roll-up case will help with that.

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Multi- Travel Wallet

I love my current passport case as it’s super thin and sleek but I am intrigued by this Amazon top seller. While I don’t need a new passport case, I’ll be getting this purely for variety.

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Trivium Duffel

So I like to travel light. However, a problem arises when I travel very compact to a country then realise the shopping is BOMB af. Where will I put all my new treasures? Well, when I went to Thailand I ended up buying a whole other suitcase, but since I am now living a minimalist life (ha), I won’t be operating on that extreme again.

I’ve found a happy medium in carrying foldable bags that expand into carry-on sized duffels or backpacks. I like this duffel especially because you can adjust the bag to suit the amount of goods you need to lug back home.

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Travel Steamer

To appreciate this selection you need to know two things about me:

  1. I am a woman obsessed with steaming my clothes and prefer to buy clothing that steams easily versus having to iron it
  2. I almost always pack clothing that’s bound to get wrinkled in transit. I’m just not a wrinkle-free clothing kinda gal

So enter this portable steamer. Full disclosure, I already own a portable steamer – in fact, I may even own two – but I find it too bulky to travel with when I’m opting for carry-on only. This steamer appears to be a bit more compact and the reviews are positive.

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goTenna Mesh

So this is a bit of a random selection. I first discovered this when searching for a GPS/Geolocation device to give my dad for his hunting trips (he’s gotten separated from his group before with no cell service and basically just a great set up for a lost-in-the-woods saga). 

Basically, goTenna – sold as a pair – is two off-grid SMS & GPS devices that pair with any phone. Once paired with their respective phones, the persons with the goTenna devices can transmit messages to each other without a cellular network. 

Outside of using it to keep my dad from getting lost, I thought this could be useful for people who don’t opt for a sim when in a foreign country, or, even better, for folks heading on a cruise who want to stay in touch without buying the wifi plans on offer.

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Trtl Pillow Plus

I feel like I buy a new travel pillow every couple months, especially if I’m preparing for a long haul flight. The newest travel pillow on my radar is the yet-to-be-released upgrade to the massively popular Trtl pillow. I actually never got the Trtl pillow for one main reason – I overheat, and one of the prevailing criticisms of that pillow (and there were not many) was that the fleece fabric ran warm. I can guarantee you it would be IMPOSSIBLE for me to sleep with my neck feeling warm, so I never purchased it.

This Trtl Plus, though, addresses that issue by incorporating a lighter, more breathable fabric than its predecessor. I’m hoping this gets released by February so I can try it in time for my trip in April.

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Scrubba

Travelling light means washing clothes in transit. I remember washing my underwear in a very undignified manner in my hotel in Patagonia, willing the thing to dry before I checked out the next day.

This Scrubba wash bag allegedly gives your clothes a machine-quality wash in just three minutes. That eliminates having to find a way to stop up your hotel or hostel sink to wash your dirty clothes in the middle of your trip. Bonus item – these laundry detergent strips save you having to carry or buy laundry detergent powder on your journey.

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Away The Bigger Carry-On

To be clear – I in no way need new luggage…but how NOT to get caught up in the hype around Away luggage? I swear every travel podcast, magazine or blog I follow mentions this brand so I need to see what all the hype is about.

Considering I got my whole luggage set for $150US or thereabouts, it’s going to take some significant momentum (or a sale) for me to spend $245 on a single carry-on.

The lifetime (limited) warranty does help soften the blow though. They’ll repair major damage to the suitcase for as long as you both roll across the earth.

Cenote-hopping in Mexico

I can’t remember exactly when my fascination with cenotes began.

Actually, that’s a lie. It was when my friend Veesha went to Mexico in 2015 and posted the wildest photos of these underground water-filled lairs that looked like something out of a Guillermo del Toro flick.

Since then, I knew that if I ever went to Mexico, I would have to see these geological wonders for myself, and maybe, if I was brave enough, even take a dip in one.

The opportunity presented itself this August when I deliberately booked a Carnival cruise for my boyfriend and I that stopped in Mexico.

At first, browsing the shore excursions on the Carnival website, I assumed we would end up in some ancient ruins, climbing mind-boggling man-made structures in the sweltering heat and jungle steam.

Then, I saw it. A cenote-hopping tour.

Well, I’ll be damned.

It was an easy choice for me – reviews on most of the tours to the ruins confirmed my worst fears – long commute to and from, crowded, and very little face time with the actual structures. Not my idea of a day well-spent.

The cenote tour, on the other hand, promised a visit to four different cenotes, plus lunch!

My boyfriend went along with it only, I learned on the day because he didn’t expect to have to go into the water (more on this later).

On the day we docked in Cozumel, Mexico, we took a roughly 30-minute ferry to the mainland, disembarking at Playa del Carmen – a posh beachfront lined with hotels, restaurants, shops and a healthy heaping of sargassum seaweed.

Our guide, Martin, was a blast. It would be around an hour by bus to our destination of Tankah Village – a private compound inhabited by descendants of the Mayans, villagers who maintained the cultures and traditions of their forefathers as much as possible.

Martin explained that the site itself only opened up to tourists around 6 months before we arrived, and that part of the money we spent on the tour would go towards running electricity to the village.

We visited four cenotes on the compound – Cenote Piranas (not the best name for a body of water, IMO), Cenote Cueva, Cenote Naval and Cenote Azul.

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Cenote Piranas

Piranas was a good ease into the cenote experience – freezing cold water, possibly around 20 feet deep with a cavernous mouth you could easily jump off of into the water about 10 feet below. This particular cenote had a blowhole further back, under the rocky outcrop you see in the photo. So you could swim into the darkness then look up at your friends on solid ground, but since the cavern seemed to be teeming with bats I passed on that epic photo op because fuck bats. This was probably the most creature-filled cenote since there were also heaps of little fish that were nibbling on your feet, allegedly giving you a pedicure but who knows, maybe they were baby piranhas.

Brandon isn’t a fan of bodies of water where you can’t see the bottom so I didn’t get him to venture too far into this cenote. Clearly, I need to work on my peer pressure skills. He did climb down the stairs though and got a mini pedicure from the fish before he was like nah, fuck this.

Once we left Piranas we headed to La Cueva. This cenote had a zipline running across it, and for the more adventurous, you could swing yourself across before dropping into the water below. Of course, your girl was out here zipping around in the people cenote. Other than the zipline there wasn’t too much excitement around this particular cenote.

Brandon mostly hung out on the dock and recorded me dropping into the water like a big heavy stone. We took a minute to observe one girl in our group being egged on to jump into the water from the surrounding wall, and she was getting visibly upset in the process. Fun fact guys – people are allowed to enjoy themselves however they see fit. Traumatising members of your party into doing things they aren’t comfortable with really isn’t the best approach to a great time in a foreign country.

After La Cueva, we walked about five minutes to the next location – a cenote we wouldn’t be swimming in, but ziplining across in a harness.

This was Cenote Naval, and while we weren’t allowed to swim there (I presume due to ancient water creatures dwelling within) we did get to canoe across the cenote to get to our next location. Pro tip: sit up front and let your boyfriend who used to be on a dragon boat team do all the work.

One we disembarked rather precariously from our canoes, we walked to the next cenote – and the crowning glory of the compound – Cenote Azul.

Talk about an appropriate (even if not super creative) name. Wow oh wow was this water pristine and a strikingly blue (and cold).

You could literally see to the bottom of this particular cenote without even needing goggles (so I wasted my money renting goggles since this was the only cenote worth peering into anyway). And this is how I managed to cajole Brandon into getting into the water to frolic for a bit.

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Brandon enjoying Cenote Azul

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Me, trying to mimic those cool Instagram travel models

For the duration of our stay at Cenote Azul, one member of our group (a different woman from the one before) stood at the edge of the cliff trying to muster up the courage to jump in. She literally stood there for the entire time we were there, and never jumped, and she didn’t get to swim in the water below at all. Seems like a good metaphor for travel, or life in general.

Anyway, once we said goodbye to Cenote Azul, it was time for lunch!

Some of our group stopped for a tequila tasting on the way to lunch but we opted to head straight on to the grub.

The menu was simple but very delicious – chicken pibil, pork, rice and beans and fresh salad. You also had the choice of salsa rojo or verde. On each table was a little clay pot filled with freshly made corn tortillas (like so fresh they were literally making them as we were eating).

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Lunch was washed down with a cup of piping hot Mexican coffee.

After we ate Martin guided us through some of the homes in the village so we could see how the people in Tankah lived. The village is currently working towards getting electricity so for now, they use car batteries to power whatever they need to in their homes.

When you’re on a cruise and only have one day to spend in a country it can be tough choosing how to spend that time. I think we chose the best possible experience given the time constraints – able to experience some of the Mayan Riviera’s natural wonders as well as observe the life of the people indigenous to the area, who remain something of a world apart from the tourist-laden beach fronts.

I’ll be back to Mexico in the near future, but for now, the cenotes at Tankah Village will keep that vibrant country vivid in my memory of my travels in 2018.

 

Eating like a local in Saigon

It was a balmy night in Saigon, and I had found myself perched atop a low plastic stool, alternating between sucking on a cold brew and sea snails seasoned generously with chilli and salt.

It was a completely unexpected foray into the food scene of Saigon, and I was having the best time of my life.

How I got there, on the eve of my last day in Ho Chi Minh City could only be described as pure good luck.

If you know me, you know I travel for two things – adventure and food.

So I was slightly disappointed when after one full day in Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon, I hadn’t found any leads on truly mind-blowing Vietnamese food. I was acutely aware that with only four days in this city, time was against me.

Being a non-pork eater in Asia has proven to be quite a barrier to enjoying the best that places like Thailand, Bali and Vietnam have to offer. Of course, I wanted to try banh mi and pho in Vietnam, but the best versions of those dishes are made with animals that go oink and I just can’t.

So I had kind of resigned myself to an unremarkable foodie fate when my Airbnb host Mai stopped me on my way out one day. She asked if I was interested in joining her on a food tour that she was testing out for guests in the Airbnb.

At the time I was still waffling between two other food tours and trying to schedule my tours for the next few days. I told her I would get back to her.

The following day I had my timing sorted out enough to say what the heck, and I messaged Mai to say she could count me in.

Two nights later Mai and Linh (her co-manager) met me at the apartment. I was kind of thrilled to find out I was the only one going on the tour with them. I love a personalised experience.

I hopped on the back of Mai’s motorcycle and we sped off into the night, out of District 1 and through the winding streets of Saigon, through hundreds – maybe thousands – of other scooter-bound motorists to District 10.

There we found Bánh Canh Ghẹ, a restaurant I am told is named after the main dish served there, so guess what we were going to have.

That’s right – Bánh Canh Ghẹ!

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Bánh Canh Ghẹ is essentially a crab noodle soup. The broth itself was thick and spicy, while slightly sweet at the same time (coconut milk perhaps). Swimming in the broth was a miscellanea of fish meat, spices, herbs, thick and meaty udon noodles, a few crunchy puffs (the name of these escape me) and an entire crab.

It was frickin’ delicious.

It was an amalgamation of some of my favourite things – seafood, udon noodles, spice, coconut and it was the exact thing I had been after in Saigon. Everyone eating at the restaurant appeared to be a local, I was getting the real deal.

Once we finished up with our bánh canh ghẹ we headed back to the bikes and I hopped back on the back of Mai’s scooter to zoom to the next location on our food tour.

Luckily for me, I’m a pretty adventurous and trusting person. So I actually wasn’t put off at all when Mai and Linh turned down a dimly lit alleyway off the main street, and pulled up alongside an open-air room, clamouring with locals, packed to capacity with low metal tables and plastic chairs.

We were at the snail spot I mentioned earlier – Quán Ốc Như.

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I gave Mai and Linh full authority on what to order – this wasn’t exactly the kind of place where I could peruse a menu.

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After some animated deliberation with a waiter, they settled on chilli salt sea snails, snails in a milky coconut broth, clams in lemongrass broth and cockles in an assortment of sauces. Despite my protestation that I absolutely do not drink beer, Linh ordered me a Saigon beer anyway, insisting that this was how the locals did it.

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Believe you me, no one was as surprised as me when that bottle hit the table empty. The beer, as it turned out, was the perfect accompaniment to the salty, chewy molluscs.

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As much as the food, I was thoroughly enjoying my company. Mai and Linh – both Vietnamese girls in their early 20s – made me feel like I was shooting the breeze with friends back home.

Despite my sometimes frosty exterior, I actually get along very well with people most of the time. We chatted about boys (I showed them pictures of my boyfriend which got them oohing and aahing), our careers, travelling and just general challenges they faced being bold young women in a somewhat conservative society.

Beer and sea snails safely tucked away in the confines of our bellies, we soldiered on to the next and final stop – dessert.

Vietnam, like most of the South East Asian countries I’ve visited, has a vibrant street food culture. Vietnam pavements are often lined with plastic stools and low metal or wooden tables. At any point in the day, you can observe a multitude of locals enjoying a meal amidst the minimalist furnishings, served by street side cooks.

We pulled up alongside one of these vendors, the girls giggling excitedly while promising me ‘the best ice cream in Saigon’.

I’m not a huge ice cream fan by any stretch but I’ve experienced some of the most satisfying ice cream in this part of the world – due in large part to their commitment to coconut. I looooove coconut so I’m always thrilled to dig into a scoop of coconut ice cream and find chunks of coconut jelly ensconced within.

This particular coconut ice cream was also topped with toasted coconut and served in a coconut shell.

Talk about staying on theme.

Also in this coconut shell? Purple sweet rice, corn and peanuts (yuck). I picked the peanuts off but everything else was bomb.

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Following our sweet treat, the girls and I headed back to our apartment building.

Back at the base, the girls said that as they were just doing a test run of the tour, they’d just divvy up the damage from the night and we’d split the cost evenly between us.

My grand total for a night of delicious Vietnamese food and great company? Roughly $16 USD.

Of course, once the ladies launch this tour officially it’ll set their customers back a bit more but even at four times this cost, I’d say the experience is totally worth it.

As a bonus, the following day I went to a restaurant that had been featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations in search of another traditional Vietnamese dish – bánh xèo.

Bánh xèo is basically a Vietnamese crepe, stuffed with assorted veggies and some kind of protein.

I headed to Bánh Xèo 46A on the back of my Grab motorcycle. It was evident I’d shown up during the lunch rush but one of the perks of eating alone is that there is almost always a spare single seat somewhere to accommodate me.

I foolishly ordered some fried calamari to start, ignorant to the size of the bánh xèo that would be heading my way in a few.

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I was more than a little puzzled when the waiter plopped a plate of greens in front of me – pretty sure I didn’t order a very plain salad with this meal.

I panicked.

What was the deal with this lettuce? A quick glance around provided me with a lead – it was no mistake, it had to do with the bánh xèo.

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I literally googled “bánh xèo” and “lettuce”, and found a YouTube video demonstrating the accepted way to eat bánh xèo – first by tearing off a piece of the crepe, placing it atop the lettuce, rolling it tightly then dipping it into the sauce they served with the meal – a kind of fish sauce and chili concoction.

The bánh xèo was massive; I actually read in one blog that bánh xèo is prepared a little differently across Vietnam, but that the crepes in Saigon were typically large.

No lie.

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The final verdict – definitely delicious but way too much for me to finish in one go. This might be a meal that’s better shared with friends.

I know I barely even scratched the surface of Vietnamese food. I’ve already resolved to return so I can travel to Central and North Vietnam and try all the regional dishes.

That’s all for now, hope this titillated your inner foodie a bit.

Until next time!

What Bali cost me

I don’t sell drugs.

I fund all of my trips myself (no sugar daddy in sight).

I am not SUPER rich (God I wish).

While I’m not a “budget” traveler per se, and I don’t always adhere to my budget, one thing I try to stick to is visiting places that are either 1) relatively cheap to get to 2) have a relatively low cost of living so my dollar goes a long way.

Reason # 2 is probably why countries in south-east Asia are my favourite travel destinations to date. Pricy sometimes (and difficult always) to get to, but once you land, totally worth it, trust me.

It has come to my attention, through a very scientific Instagram poll, that a lot of people opt out of travelling to Asia because they think it’s too expensive a destination.

I could weep.

Because while the plane ticket to get there might be a decent chunk of change (I’d say cater $1500USD per person for most destinations), once you land, you have infinitely more price flexibility where accommodation, dining, experiences, and shopping are concerned.

In order to demonstrate this, I decided to share with you guys what my trip to Bali set me back. I’m omitting the cost of Vietnam and Cambodia because I don’t think I stayed long enough in either location to give a comprehensive idea of cost of life (but if you do have questions about either country I’m happy to share what I do know).

The costs cited here are in TT Dollars.

My return ticket to NYC from Trinidad and Tobago cost me $1,136.00 (I used my miles for this leg of the journey, so the cost reflected here is the taxes I had to pay). Signing up for a miles reward programme through a credit card or through an airline is a great idea and I wish I had done it sooner. The great thing about my current miles programme (I have a Scotia Aero Rewards Visa card) is that I’m not tied down to one airline, and there are NO blackout dates for travel (I just have to book at least 14 days before I plan to travel).

In terms of my return to NYC, I have to note that I actually travelled to Bali from NYC, but returned to NYC via Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam because I travelled from Bali to Cambodia to Vietnam. That ticket cost $7,440.04. Generally, though, I’ve checked some of the more affordable months and the cost of a return ticket to and from Bali will run you around this or even less if you’re willing to try the cheapest airline. I had my heart set on flying Korean Air because I travelled with them to Thailand two years ago and thoroughly enjoyed the in-flight experience so I insisted on going with them again. I could have shaved about $1000 off of this cost if I was willing to fly with someone else.

Accommodation is something I am pretty flexible with. I can stay in a hotel one night, a hostel another and a homestay the next and be extremely happy with my choices. My requirements are pretty basic – be clean, and have a/c. Everything else is negotiable.

I didn’t use Airbnb in Bali. I booked all my accommodation on booking.com for a few reasons: I found that a lot of the accommodation listed on Airbnb was also on booking.com at comparable prices. Because I book through booking.com frequently, I have “Genius” status, meaning I get 10% off the cost of many hotels, as well as the option of early check-in and late check-out at some hotels. It was the best choice for my schedule in Bali.

I got into Bali on a Sunday night. Ubud, where I planned to base for most of my trip was about an hour and a half away from the airport, so I opted to stay at a hotel closer to the airport for the night, in an area called Seminyak. I stayed at a chain hotel – Harris – which set me back $200.

Once I got to Ubud, I checked into what I’d consider the most luxurious of all my accommodation for my trip, Adiwana Arya Villas and Residences in Ubud was my home for four nights, costing me $338.50 per night inclusive of breakfast. The only major downside to this accommodation was the distance from the town. I had to get transportation to and from every day, but the hotel had a free scheduled shuttle service, which I used as often as I could. Because I knew I wanted to stay outside of the town centre for the first few days, I specifically looked for a hotel with a free shuttle service into town so I could save on transportation costs.

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My room at Adiwana Arya Residences

When I left Adiwana, I headed to another island, Flores, to dive and trek Komodo National Park for the weekend. While this isn’t Bali, I’m still including the cost as I think anyone headed to Bali should make a pit stop to the Komodo National Park if they can.

The return flight from Bali to Labuan Bajo, Flores, was $645.84. I stayed in a private room in a dive hostel near the port – Dragon Dive Komodo Hostel – for three nights, which cost me $275.10 a night for my stay. Now, this is pricy by hostel standards. If you’re willing to stay in shared rooms at a hostel you can get spots as low as $60 a night. As a solo female traveller though, I opt only for private rooms in hostels, ideally with an en-suite bathroom but I will share a bathroom if necessary.

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Heading off to dive Komodo National Park

Back in Bali, I stayed one night in Kuta, which is an area near the airport again, and that hotel cost $188.34.

Once I got back to Ubud, I checked in to an inn (which is like a bed and breakfast, Bali style) Gatra Ubud Inn, which turned out to be my cheapest accommodation for my entire stay, costing just $120.51 a night inclusive of breakfast.

All the necessary travel and accommodation expenses for my two-week Indonesia trip came up to just over $12,000.

As for any additional expenses – my travel insurance for my entire three-week trip cost $1022.73. Bear in mind that this includes my visit to Vietnam and Cambodia as well, plus, I took the Explorer option on World Nomads so my scuba diving could be covered. A basic package for two weeks travel will cost less.

Food and drink in Bali were ridiculously affordable. The average cost of an entree in a top-rated restaurant was around $40 – $50. 

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Enjoying some crispy duck at Bebek Tepi Sawah Restaurant & Villas. Cost the equivalent of $46

Transport was also very cheap. A 1 1/2 hour taxi to Ubud from Bali’s airport run me between $120 – $140. To get around Ubud and Kuta I used motorcycle taxi and the most I paid for any trip was $6. That was the 20-minute ride back to Adiwana from the town centre. Most trips within the city centre cost less than $3.

I didn’t do many tours while in Bali but the ones I did do were full-day private tours in an air-conditioned vehicle and included a personal guide and entrance fees to major sites and cost between $355 to $400.

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At the Goa Gajah aka Elephant Cave in Bali – one of the stops on my day tour.

You can find cheaper tours if you’re travelling in a group or open to joining a group.

So there you have it, now you know all my business.

I fully acknowledge this is not a cheap vacation by any stretch, but I hope you were at least a little bit pleasantly surprised by what it cost me to travel to this jewel in south-east Asia.

Travel to far-flung destinations doesn’t have to break the bank, it just requires patience when planning, flexibility and above all else, an open mind.

Right now I’m toying with the idea of starting a vacation-planning or consultancy service to help other people make their bucket-list destinations a reality.

What do you guys think? Is something like that worth exploring?

Let me know in the comments!