September 27, 2016

8 Reasons GoogleTrips Might Be My New Travel BFF // Travel Tips


The roll of technology and travel is a kind of complicated one.  There's a balance, right?  Many people travel to get away from technology in a lot of ways.  We seek to have real experiences and be in the moment in these beautiful places and that means we have to put down our phones and unplug to do that.  On the other hand, technology is an amazing tool that is making travel easier for us.  It's helping us to plan effective travel routes and connect with other travelers to find the best hotels and the best spots to eat sushi in Tokyo.

Google just introduced a new travel app to add to the tools in our traveling toolbelt called GoogleTrips.  Have you seen the ad?

I have to be honest, I'm already kind of hooked.  It's the kind of simple tech app that is really easy to use and it makes travel easier and what's not to love about that?  It is still in it's infancy, so it has so growing to do, but I see a lot of promise.  It could be a really amazing new addition to my travel planning if it works out a few kinks and continues to expand.  And so, I give you...

8 good reasons that GoogleTrips might be my new travel BFF...


1. Automatic Imports : GoogleTrips automatically connects in to your Gmail (with your permission of course) and finds all the relevant details relating to upcoming and past travel - your car rentals, flight reservations, and hotel bookings - so that when you launch the app, all of your upcoming trips are listed on the home screen!  It also has a listing of your past trip information which I think it always nice to be able to reference.   
The downside: If you don't use Gmail for your travel bookings, you get none of this magic.


2. Offline Mode : Data coverage abroad can be expensive!  And wifi is iffy at best in some places, so all the great internet based apps in the world can fail if you don't have an offline option.  GoogleTrips allows offline options that could save the day.  By flipping the "available offline" switch, it will download and store the reservations, maps to your hotels, and destination information.


3. Need to Know :  Part of planning any big international trip for me always includes taking an extra moment to document all the emergency numbers, details on currency, and tipping notes.  GoogleTrips takes care of that for you in the "Need to Know" section.

Area of Opportunity : Currency conversion would make this so much more dynamic.  Also, this section is not available in all destinations yet.

4. Recommendations : Check through lists of things to do or places to eat based on different categories that might suit you personally such as "family friendly" or "outdoor adventures"

The downside: While it seems to feed you the star ratings from TripAdvisor, it doesn't make those ratings clickable to see the actual reviews at a glance.


5. Save Places : When you find a restaurant or a thing to do that looks like your kind of fun, hit it with a star and it goes into your saved places.  The saved places then get put into maps so that when you are planning your days, you can easily see how close those options are to each other.  Saves so much time from manually mapping and makes for more efficiency to see all the things you're dreaming of.

6. Day Plans : An offering of a few ideas are listed here or you can create your own using your saved options and search features.  It then maps everything out for you and give you the time breakdown and transportation information to go from place to place.

The downside: This feature needs more manual input options in order to actually replace an itinerary for me.  It only recognizes certain locations and I think it should auto recognize your hotel here to give you your natural starting and ending point option.

7. Getting Around : A listing of taxi numbers, public transport information, airport shuttles, and basic driving rules are all located in one place.


8. Local Specialties : Sometimes when you are traveling to a new country, it's hard to keep track of all the amazing dishing and what all the new culinary words mean, so I appreciate this little spot on the food and drink section with some local specialties so you can reference that in addition to just run of the mill restaurant recommendations.  This is also nice to check in less exotic locations just to see what dishes they are known for.

What do you think?  Have you tried it yet?

September 19, 2016

A Scooter Tour of Bangkok // Thailand


Continuing on with sharing my trip to Thailand, I wanted to share a really fun experience I had the first day I was there - a scooter tour of the city!

Bangkok is infamous for traffic jams. It's a big city with a population of around 8 million people - about the same as the population of New York City.  It can be hard to cover a lot of ground without the right transportation and I quickly learned why the one of the most popular methods of transport in Thailand is by scooter.  Scooters are able to weave in and out of traffic, get off the beaten path, and cover a lot more ground than sitting in a traffic in a taxi ever could, so I am really glad I was able to set up a tour of the city via scooter on my first day there!

I booked my tour through Best Bangkok Tours and I am so glad I did!  It was a perfect introduction to the city and the culture and it was also really fun and exciting! It gave me a good glimpse of the experience I was about to embark on! My tour guides met me at my hotel and set me up with a walkie talkie and professional scooter driver.

A Scooter Tour of Bangkok // Thailand // A Suitcase and a Stamp

I hopped on the back for the scooter, reluctant and nervous at first, but after a few minutes, I was so engrossed in the beautiful sights of the city that every fear or hesitation I had just melted away and quickly turned to excitement and enchantment! Weaving in and out of traffic and feeling the wind on my skin, I felt such freedom and I felt like I was seeing Bangkok like a local. I was lucky enough to have the benefit of the knowledge of two guides as one was training! Both Susan and Leighton were lovely, they were both American expats who obviously had a deep love and appreciation for the city they were showing me. I learned so much in my hour and half tour and I saw so much in that short time.

A Scooter Tour of Bangkok // Thailand // A Suitcase and a Stamp


A Scooter Tour of Bangkok // Thailand // A Suitcase and a Stamp

Not only did I get to see the traditional sights you find in the tourism books like the flower market and Chinatown, but I also got to see the more "secret" local gems like the best happy hour spot to see the sunset.  I felt much more like I was seeing Bangkok as people live in it instead of just the tourist viewpoints.  My guides answered every question I had and gave me extensive insight into the Thai culture and the little nuances and customs that differ from life in the States. It was an absolutely perfect way to be introduced to the country I would be spending the next two weeks exploring and it really helped me get my bearings in this big city.

A Scooter Tour of Bangkok // Thailand // A Suitcase and a Stamp

Before my arrival, I was uneasy over the news of violence and protesting in Bangkok, but as we drove past the Ministry of Defense building, my guide stopped to point out the small strands of pretty pastel ribbons that were tied along the bared wire. She explained that this was done by the protesters as an act of peace. It put things in perspective and perhaps shifted the way I perceived the situation and the Thai people. The juxtaposition of hard, guarded barbed wire with softly colored pretty pastel ribbons was striking and emotional for me. We also rode past the camps of the protesters and although I would keep my distance from the situation, I felt a little more at ease and gained new perspective.

A Scooter Tour of Bangkok // Thailand // A Suitcase and a Stamp

 My guides made me feel safe and comfortable.  There were a lot of breaks and chances to get off the scooter for quick photo shoots and exploration. They were both so sweet and gave me lots traveling tips and restaurant recommendations and really went above and beyond by letting me know that I could call or email them if I needed anything during my trip.  As a solo traveler, it is really lovely to be able to dive in and really get a chance to experience the city in that way with so much helpful guidance.

A Scooter Tour of Bangkok // Thailand // A Suitcase and a Stamp

A Scooter Tour of Bangkok // Thailand // A Suitcase and a Stamp

After the tour, they even emailed me the customized google map with every sight that we saw so that I could easily make my plans to to back and spend more time visiting the sights that interested me most! So perfect! They also took some super cute fun photos for me and emailed them as a momento of our trip.

A Scooter Tour of Bangkok // Thailand // A Suitcase and a Stamp

If you are planning a trip to Bangkok, I hope you consider going on a scooter tour with Best Bangkok! I really can't say enough about how wonderful it was! Follow my blog with Bloglovin

September 17, 2016

Elephant Nature Park // Thailand


Elephant Nature Park // Thailand

Animal interactions in Thailand are plentiful and animals are very much a part of the life and culture of the country.  Animals are pretty much my heart, so when I travel, I really do try to make wildlife a central part of my experience if possible.  Before arriving in Thailand, I did a lot of research on how to have these experiences responsibly without participating in any experiences or supporting businesses that cause harm to animals.  I won't get on a soapbox and pretend to be an expert or tell you how to live or travel, but I do encourage you to take some time to do your own research and follow your heart if you plan to make animals a part of your travel experience.
Elephant Nature Park // Thailand // A Suitcase and A Stamp

Asian elephants are a beautiful and important symbol of Thai culture and they are also endangered, so I knew I wanted to learn and experience them while I was there.  I choose the Elephant Nature Park for my experience based on lots of research and some inspiring bloggers experience there.  It is run by a wonderful woman named Lek, who started the park years ago when she rescued an elephant from the illegal logging industry. She believes elephants should be respected and trained using positive reinforcement and love instead of hooks.  The money raised with tourism to the park goes toward the elephant care and towards buying other elephants in bad situations in need of rescue.

Elephant Nature Park // Thailand // A Suitcase and A Stamp


The day started out with an hour drive from Chiang Mai into the beautiful mountains, we watched a video about the park and about elephant treatment in Thailand as we drove.  Once we arrived, we met two of the park's residents - two old girls, one blind from being shot at with a slingshot in her time as a logging worker, the other her best friend who never leaves her side and has protected her for years.  The story of these two friends brought me to tears and genuinely inspired me with their way of loving.  We fed them their favorite snacks of melon, squash, and bananas and they waved their ears (a sign our guide told us meant they were happy - like a dog's tail wag).  

Elephant Nature Park // Thailand // A Suitcase and A Stamp

Next, our lovely guide, Kai, took us for a walk to meet some of the other herds around the park.  She told us stories about where each elephant came from and she was full of knowledge about each of them.

Elephant Nature Park // Thailand // A Suitcase and A Stamp

One of the things about elephants that really touched me was they way they form bonds with each other and make families even though they are unrelated. And these bonds last a lifetime.

Elephant Nature Park // Thailand // A Suitcase and A Stamp

We had lunch at the park and then watched a documentary about elephant phajaan or "crushing" - the way most elephants are tamed to work in logging and tourism in Thailand.  The movie was heartbreaking at hard to watch, but it was important and I felt grateful that education was such a large part of the mission of this park.  It really made me understand why elephant riding is not acceptable & I would be careful to make good choices in my travels.



After the movie, to soothe our heavy hearts, we came to one of the best parts of the day - bath time!  We met our elephant, Medo, at the river with buckets and gave her a nice cooling rub down.  Medo had a very obvious broken hip for being forced to haul more than she was able in her work in logging, but she was sweet as can be and seemed to appreciate the attention.  


Elephant Nature Park // Thailand // A Suitcase and A Stamp





The rest of the afternoon, we followed our guide to meet more of the herds - including these sweet little babies!


Elephant Nature Park // Thailand // A Suitcase and A Stamp

Elephant Nature Park // Thailand // A Suitcase and A Stamp

Elephant Nature Park // Thailand // A Suitcase and A Stamp

Elephant Nature Park also offers sanctuary for stray dogs and I loved that.  Thailand's streets are filled with wandering dogs and cats and it was nice to see some of them had found a nice home among the giant elephants with good care.  Kai took us to the kennels and it was so hard not to take one of the sweet dogs back to the states with me! It was a nice way to end the day.


Elephant Nature Park // Thailand // A Suitcase and A Stamp




All in all, the Elephant Nature Park was an incredible day!  I learned so much and had experiences that will stay with me for a lifetime!  My dream is to be able to visit Thailand again and spend time volunteering for them.

September 16, 2016

The Golden Circle // Iceland

The Golden Circle // Iceland



The Golden Circle is a popular tourist route just over the mountains outside of Reykjavik.  We decided to take a tour bus out to see some of the famously beautiful nature of Iceland.   We had a really wonderful tour guide who was able to fill our 5 hour adventure with plenty of education about Iceland's history, geology, culture, and mythology.  Not only did we get to see some amazing sites, but we also learned so much about the country along the way!
The Golden Circle // Iceland // A Suitcase and A Stamp
Pretty lava swirls in Þingvellir
Our first stop was at Þingvellir National Park. Þingvellir is both historically and geographically fascinating as well as being beautiful. It's a spot right between the North American & Eurasian contential plates and as they drift apart, beautiful lava feilds and faults form. This is also the site of the first Icelandic parliment over a thousand years ago.  It was really a breathtaking view & it was also pretty amazing to feel like you are in such a special place.

The Golden Circle // Iceland // A Suitcase and A Stamp
A view over Þingvellir


Our next stop was the Gullfoss waterfall. It was beathtakingly beautiful and massive with multiple teirs of white and blue rushing water.  Some of the water had even frozen in spots and created pretty icicles   I have never seen anything like it!


We then stopped in the Haukadalur Valley to see some active geysers. It was a pretty amazing site to see these bubbling springs and sprays of water.


The Golden Circle // Iceland // A Suitcase and A Stamp

Next was the Faxi Waterfall. It was much smaller than Gullfoss, but just as beautiful!


The Golden Circle // Iceland // A Suitcase and A Stamp

The last stop on the tour was the Kerið volcano crater. It was this amazing vivid lake in the middle of a lava field It almost felt like we were looking into a beautiful place in a distant planet.

If you get a chance to go to Iceland, I hope you get a chance to do the Golden Circle!  It was well worth the trip!

Diving the Hol Chan Marine Reserve // Belize

Diving the Hol Chan Marine Reserve // Belize


Who says second isn't good enough?  Sure, we've all heard about the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, but if Australia is out of your price range (or you just don't want to fly for 18+ hours)...look no further than Central America! The snorkeling and diving in Belize is really world class and it's something you should not miss. The Belize Barrier Reef is the second largest in the world. It is home to over 100 coral species, 500+species of fish, and hundreds of invertebrate species.

One of my main draws that lead me to Belize was the search for the majestic whale shark.  In the spring months, the southern Belize reef is the spawning zone for whale sharks.  It was my dream to be able to swim with them.  Even though I tried, it wasn't mean to be this time.   Even though the whale shark eluded me this time, I did get to have some amazing underwarter experiences in the reef!

I chose our hotel in part because it was the home to the tour company - Tsunami Adventures.  It was a fantastic choice.  The hotel was affordable, beautiful, and right on the water...everything I could have hoped for in paradise.  Tsunami Adventures was a perfect choice as well.  They took care of everything for us and gave us an unforgettable day!


Diving the Hol Chan Marine Reserve // Belize // A Suitcase and A Stamp

We set sail on our boat with our captain and tour guide and small group (8 of us total) and headed into the sea!  It was our second day in Belize and what an amazing introduction to the country.

Our first stop was within the Hol Chan Marine Reserve.  As soon as we arrived there, it started storming.  Pouring down rain, but we persevered and our fearless guide explained that was just part of living in Belize and guided us into the water.  The first glance into this underwater world was pure magic. Even though dark clouds loomed, the world underneath us seemed so unaware of it and vibrant fish and corals danced below us.  Eventually the storm let up, but the dance below kept my full attention.

Diving the Hol Chan Marine Reserve // Belize // A Suitcase and A Stamp



Diving the Hol Chan Marine Reserve // Belize // A Suitcase and A Stamp


Diving the Hol Chan Marine Reserve // Belize // A Suitcase and A Stamp

Next stop was a visit to a popular sea turtle watching spot.  I came face to face with a hundred year old sea turtle!

Diving the Hol Chan Marine Reserve // Belize // A Suitcase and A Stamp

Diving the Hol Chan Marine Reserve // Belize // A Suitcase and A Stamp

From sea turtles to Shark and Ray Alley.  Maybe my favorite spot!  The nurse sharks are harmless, but absolutely beautiful.  I've never been so close to a shark before!  My favorite thing was just watching the rays move through the water - they were so graceful and seem to just fly through the water (see the video below!).

Disclaimer: I'll be honest, I struggled a little with this magic moment - the sharks come up to the boats because they know that they will be fed and each of the boats threw snacks overboard so that their groups could get up close and personal.  I don't think I did enough research before I left about this and I was torn about the situation because feeding wild animals can be a really unethical practice.  As always, I advise you do your own research.

Diving the Hol Chan Marine Reserve // Belize // A Suitcase and A Stamp

Diving the Hol Chan Marine Reserve // Belize // A Suitcase and A Stamp

The last dive stop was the Coral Gardens.  It seemed like an endless space of alien terrain full of so many types of corals.  Every inch was just full of little creatures hiding out and making their homes there.  I was completely enthralled in the adventure of the coral reef.

Diving the Hol Chan Marine Reserve // Belize // A Suitcase and A Stamp

Diving the Hol Chan Marine Reserve // Belize // A Suitcase and A Stamp

Diving the Hol Chan Marine Reserve // Belize // A Suitcase and A Stamp

On the way back to the hotel, we took a beautiful slow ride around the mangroves on the northern side of the island with a glass of rum punch.  We got to take a different perspective of the island and hear stories from our captain about what it was like to grow up there.  We also had a surprise visit with a dolphin mama and baby and our captain happily went out of our way to create some wake for them so we could watch them surface.  

Belize was full of a lot of really breathtaking moments, but this day on the water was definitely one of my favorite days there.  

Although video is not my strong suit, I got some fun underwater video that I managed to stitch together and capture some of the beautiful movement: