You, a backpack and the wilds of Africa

Even with its abundant wildlife, stunning landscapes, precious gems and distinction as the cradle of humanity, Africa still leaves some travelers uneasy despite their fascination and longing. To dispel your fears, we caught up with Valerie Bowden, Africa travel expert, author, and blogger at BackPackingAfricaforBeginners.com. Valerie shares her personal account and love story with the continent, and how anyone — even a solo woman traveler –can explore the wilds of Africa safely.

WATCH our video interview with Valerie Bowden

Tell us about your website and what you do?

After my seven-month backpacking trip across Africa, I realized that a lot of people want to travel the continent, too, but they don’t know how. So I decided to start a blog and write an ebook, both called Backpacking Africa for Beginners, to help more travelers choose Africa as their next destination. While I share some personal stories, I mainly concentrate on providing practical how-to information to make their journey safe and fun.

How does a young woman take on the intrepid adventure of backpacking Africa alone? 

I was never that adventurous growing up, but I always wanted to go to Africa for some reason. After months of searching the internet, I finally found someone who had traveled the continent and was willing to give me some advice. He didn’t say much, but he told me that I’d be safe, and that he had seen other girls traveling solo. That was enough reassurance for me, so I booked my ticket.

To be honest, my original plan was limited to visiting five countries in two months, but the more I traveled, the more comfortable I felt. Plus, I realized Africa had a lot to offer. So I just kept going and going. Eventually, my trip ended up including 13 countries and took seven months. 

Africa is known for political instability, crime, and violence in some areas, but you say Africa is safer than Europe is today. Talk about that, because the big question on the minds of many travelers is, will I be safe? 

Most African countries are very safe to visit. The rise of crimes against tourists in Europe along with the threat of ISIS is making enough people, including myself, reevaluate what destinations are safe to visit. For the average tourist, the biggest crime they have to worry about in Africa is getting pick-pocketed. I recommend following basic common sense (not walking alone at night, not walking off with people you don’t know, etc.) and asking locals for safety information specific to the area. For example, everybody told me in Kilagi that I could walk down a dark alley with all my valuables, and I would be fine. But in Nairobi, I was told to take a taxi once it got dark even if I was only going a few minutes away. By following suggestions like this, I never put myself in a compromising position.

I actually just met a backpacker from Colombia, and he expressed that African countries are even safer to visit than South America. He cited the kindness of locals in Africa as a big advantage.

Which areas offer beauty, wildlife, and adventure while ensuring one’s safety, particularly if you’re a woman traveling this country alone?

Ironically, as women, we feel like it’s harder to travel alone. But in some ways, it’s actually easier. Throughout my trip, locals would help me, citing, “This is how I would want someone to treat my mother (or sister, or wife, etc).” And when I hitchhiked, I felt like individuals and families were much more willing to pick up a female traveler than male. I met dozens of other girls traveling Africa solo along my trip, and they all agreed with me.

As a woman in Africa, I think you can have a great time in almost all the countries. Just be more careful not to wander off at night or drink so much that you’re unaware of your surroundings. But again, that’s basic common sense that you should follow anywhere in the world. 

How would you categorize ways to experience Africa – we know safaris are a big one, but what are other options and what would one see and do? 

Besides safaris, travelers can enjoy outdoor activities (hiking, climbing mountains, visiting waterfalls,), adrenaline-pumping experiences (shark cage diving, sand surfing, bungee jumping), rest & relaxation (spas, wine tastings, luxurious resorts), historical sight-seeing (the pyramids in Egypt &Sudan, the churches

in Lalibela), cultural immersion (visiting rural communities, seeing huts, going to local markets, meeting locals), animals/marine life (snorkeling, scuba diving, walking safaris, riding ostriches, petting zoos, gorilla trekking, rescued animal orphanages), festivals, shopping, and so much more! 

How much time do you need to plan for a safari and how does one go about planning this type of trip?

If you’re new to Africa, I recommend going on a safari in one of the three most popular spots. This means visiting the Kruger Park region in South Africa, the Serengeti in Tanzania, or Masai Mara in Kenya. You’ll have a much smoother experience given that their tourism industries are more built up. You can explore lesser known, more rugged areas the next time.

It’s best to plan your trip around the time of year you can go, and what you want to see. Do you want to see the Big 5 game (African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros), the Great Wildebeest Migration, etc.? As far as which resort or tour guide to pick, check out reviews online from other travelers. They’ll give you the latest and most specific up-to- date information. Resorts will prefer you pay online before you come. But it’s not necessary. Once you arrive in the country, you’ll find dozens of tour agencies and resorts willing to help you make your trip spectacular. 

Obviously, different types of explorers and demographics will come at Africa in vastly different ways. For a younger person with limited resources, what’s the shoestring approach to getting to Africa and which country would you recommend as a starting point for first timers? 

For the shoestring budget, I recommend bringing a tent and sleeping in the camping section at backpacker lodges. Frugal travelers can also save money by taking local buses and eating at cheap local restaurants.

Malawi and Mozambique were two of the cheapest countries I found. But for someone who is really apprehensive, start in South Africa. It’s the most developed and easiest country to travel in Africa. Go there first. Travel around until you get the hang of backpacking. After that, you can explore cheaper countries.

What about the more mature traveler who has more disposable income and may want to experience a wildlife adventure, but on a gentler scale? 

There are many beautiful and luxurious resorts in Africa– especially in safari areas. They offer international comforts with a taste of Africa. It’s great for someone who wants to see animals and experience Africa, without the typical discomforts and annoyances that budget travelers will no doubt face.

This kind of traveler will find Africa a joy to travel. I think they’ll even be surprised how comfortable and extravagant it can be. My only warning is that at times some roads and paths may be uneven. Just make sure you’re in good walking shape, and you shouldn’t have a problem. 

What is your favorite African destination and why? 

I love Malawi. It’s cheap, locals are friendly, and Lake Malawi is unbelievably gorgeous. Uganda is a great destination for an adrenaline junkie. When I was there, I trekked gorillas and went white water rafting on the Nile.

When is the best time to visit Africa?

Right now! But practically speaking, it’s best to look up weather information per country so you travel at the right time. For example, in Ethiopia, I would avoid coming during the rainy season (July-September) because it’s a lot harder to travel then. But sometimes coming off-season has its advantages. Visiting Kruger Park in South Africa is actually better in the off-season because it’s cheaper and the colder weather brings more animals out of the shade. So do your research before you come based on the specific area you want to visit. And keep in mind some of the countries are so big that rainy season will occur at different times depending on which part of the country you’re visiting at that time. 

Any final thoughts or advice for our viewers/readers?

Just come! I know it’s hard to believe that Africa can be so magical and safe to visit. But it is! According to the Africa Tourism Monitor, over 65 million international tourists came to the continent in 2014 alone. While the media might pick up on the few cases that something bad happened, the majority of people who come will have amazing, lifelong memories.

Following the hippie trail for deals and cultural authenticity

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

hippie backpacker travel

Wanna know where the hot destinations are before the tourism industry’s commercialization removes the authentic charm and affordability?  Ask a hippie or talk to Steve Bramucci, Life Section managing editor at Uproxx.com.

WATCH our interview with Steve Bramucci

According to Steve, hippies and backpackers are guiding the trends in travel. A self-proclaimed hippie traveler, Steve defines this traveler persona as someone who is:

  • Not averse to staying in close quarters
  • On a budget
  • Emphasizing experiences over luxury
  • Interested in lifestyle markers, such as holistic living, health, fitness, adventure and the like.

“I knew that Iceland was going to be big before it was big because there was this certain segment of society kind of buzzing about it,” says Steve. “Travel in Iceland from foreign countries got really big over the past five years – increasing exponentially – and you felt that coming if you were someone who was in that backpacker world.”

Backpackers have eschewed Costa Rica of late because it has become too Americanized and expensive. This led to a surge in travel to Nicaragua, which has similar weather, jungle experiences, access to authentic culture, and a surf set up at a lower cost than Costa Rica.  “People were buzzing about Nicaragua a few years ago, and now that’s being replaced by places like El Salvador, which is friendly for adventure travelers for a whole bunch of reasons,” adds Steve.

“Greece is another good example. There are going to be a lot of great travel opportunities in Greece right now and there will be a lot of backpackers flooding the country to take advantage, which is great because tourism really drives economies and in Greece, it certainly works like that.”

If you want to take a page from the Hippie Guidebook, Steve recommends setting aside the last few days of your out of country vacation to wander a bit. “Don’t plan anything. Go back to the places that you liked. Have experiences that don’t have an agenda. Talk to taxi drivers; go to the post office and mail a postcard; get a haircut; go to religious services. Do things that take you out of the tourism industry and put you into a more natural environment. Those are some tips you can take from the backpacker hippie traveler that can really benefit your travel experience.”

You can check out Steve’s post on hot travel destinations and hidden gems here.

WOW, what big seats you have!

wow logoBoarding Area’s Travel Skills blog posted updates on international discount carrier, WOW Air’s new premium seat offering for travelers flying from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami to Reykjavik.

While photos were not readily available, WOW says the seats, known as The BIG Seat, “…is an entirely different seat, bigger with a foot rest and will at first only be in our A330 planes.”

Travel Skills reports that the section will offer 37-inch pitch (vs. 31 in regular economy), and fares for the premium seats will include carry-on bags, checked bags, in-flight food service and priority boarding. Typical economy pricing on WOW includes nothing but the ride and a single under-the-seat personal item.

Read the full post here.

ExpertFlyer & appPicker’s Top Travel App Picks for 2017

In 2017, there are no more and no fewer topics to discuss when it comes to travel.  We all want to decrease wait times and costs, while increasing comfort, fun, safety, and flexibility.  That’s a tall order requiring time, commitment and research.  It’s no wonder developers are hard at work to help solve this dilemma with just the right app – In fact, there are an estimated 80,000 travel apps on iTunes alone!

As consumers look to simplify their travel experiences, having to vet tens of thousands of apps to make life easier doesn’t seem so easy.  So, how does one separate the wheat from the chaff? We asked app expert, Tiernan Quinn, founder and CEO of appPicker.com, the leading indie iOS app blog on the web.

According to Quinn, there’s so much more than counting downloads when it comes to identifying a truly unique app that fulfills its promise and fills a niche that no one else has conquered. “We get under the hood, and manually test and explore new apps on a daily basis so we can provide a true testament to the app’s performance – which many times is not reflected in an iTunes rating,” says Quinn.

You can view appPicker’s top travel app picks here (Shameless self-promotion: ExpertFlyer Seat Alerts app tops the list!).

WATCH our video interview with Tiernan Quinn, founder and CEO, appPicker.com

Adding to appPicker’s list, we’ve come up with a few other appetizers to snack on that promise to make your travels more bearable – and who knows, maybe even fabulous!

Skip the Line!
Don’t wait in line at top attractions or museums like the Eiffel Tower, Vatican, or the Louvre. Many of the world’s most popular monuments now offer fast-track tickets that let you skip the line and head straight in, leaving you more time to enjoy the experience. You can compare multiple skip-the-line options easily at PlacePass.com. 

Fly Away – Fearlessly
SkyGuru app is designed for the vast international community of air travelers who experience anxiety while flying. It is the brainchild of Alex Gervash, a professional pilot and founder of the Fearless Flying research and treatment center. SkyGuru is the first app that merges mobile technology and professional aviation data to analyze and make predictions on flight processes, guiding passengers through the more anxiety-provoking moments in real time. SkyGuru users have already navigated more than 3,600 flights in over 60 countries around the world.

What’s Fare is Fare
There are more than 100,000 flights each day, and airfares change by the minute. Fareness.com will show round trip fares across 190+ departure dates and many trip lengths to global destinations with one fraction of a second search. Users are shown the soonest/cheapest flight options on a scrollable calendar. iOS app users can download the app here.

You’re Speaking My Language
When it comes to international travel, and booking great accommodation, in particular, it’s an advantage to speak the language of the country you are flying to. Have you tried Lingviny? Ok, the name doesn’t roll off the tongue, but this cool Chrome extension integrates with your Gmail and helps you write emails in any language with the help of professional translators.

Travel Procrastinators – There’s an App for that
The Last Minute Travel Deals app promises to deliver substantial savings even to last minute Louie’s. The app enables travelers to book and save up to 60% on everything from hotels and flights, to car rentals, vacation homes, activities, and transfers, regardless of where you are in the world – either well in advance or the day-of travel.

House, Hut or Hotel?
Travelers who are just looking at hotels are missing out. There are a ton of non-hotel options, such as Airbnb, Couchsurfing, vacation homes, and hostels, so if travelers don’t use a site like AllTheRooms they will miss out on a huge swath of potentially perfect options. And if you’re up to roughing it a bit, here are some sites that allow travelers to stay for free with locals  — often the best way to experience a foreign culture.

What’s in for US Travel in 2017? Small, sleepy and relaxed getaway spots

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

Trip.com, a travel planning and local discovery app/site, has revealed their “rising star” destinations for US Travel in 2017 and relaxation paired with quieter beach destinations is a prevailing theme among their top 10 picks below:

  1. Portsmouth Harbor, NH

    Portsmouth Harbor, NH

    Portsmouth, New Hampshire– This historic coastal town on the Maine border offers a mix of traditional New England seafaring culture along with an artsy, coffee house blend with everything from breweries like Smuttynose and Redhook to accessible yoga studios.

  1. Gulf Shores– Like a surprisingly exotic Caribbean destination with a Southern accent. Visit for the National Shrimp Festival, ‘jubilees’ (crab and shrimp spontaneously arriving in huge quantities in Mobile Bay, ripe for gathering), white sand beaches, sea turtles from May to October, dolphin cruises and more.
  1. The Poconos– While for some, the Poconos are synonymous with ads featuring couples in heart shaped hot tubs, this area of Pennsylvania has definitely transformed from kitschy to cool.  There are timeless fun activities like skiing in winter and canoeing in summer, with fun stops like the Barley Creek Brewing where you can play whiffle ball and bocce on the Pint-Sized Park.  Travelers can also go hardcore with whitewater rafting, or visit an amazing spa like the Lodge at Woodloch for a super modern rejuvenation.
  1. Washington, DC– While administrations may be changing, Washington, DC is always a popular destination for those who want to see the history and be part of country’s seat of power.   Tripsters are excited about DC as a travel destination, too, however, and not just for the exotic new wildlife. DC has some great trails, fabulous restaurants like Founding Farmers, free museums (unlike most large US cities) and some quirky offerings like the International Spy Museum.
  1. Hollywood Beach, FL

    Hollywood Beach, FL

    Hollywood, Florida- An art deco downtown, kitschy beach boardwalk, and just a drive from Miami’s airport, Hollywood is another of the old-school U.S. vacation destinations cropping up on the list this year (perhaps due to a country-wide thirst for a more innocent time?). But Hollywood can also feel like a welcome change from decadent Miami or just so, so, so, family-friendly Disney. Plus, sea turtles and a great beachside boardwalk.

  1. Oakland- The artistic heart of the Bay Area, where all San Francisco’s creative people flock to amazing art houses and cool bars and galleries. Travelers may want to check out an Oakland A’s baseball game and then check out one of the city’s acclaimed soul food restaurants.
  1. Fort Collins- This Colorado college town is also loaded with great beer (and no, we’re not talking about the Anheuser Busch brewery – think Odell or Equinox). Make sure the buzz wears off before hitting up cool stores like the Cupboard for kitchens and Killer Rabbit for cool menswear.
  2. Virginia Beach– Like a few other USA Rising Stars, Virginia Beach is known for being a somewhat old school, sleepy beach town. But its time has come again. Tripsters appreciate a bit of kitsch (salt water taffy and custard on the boardwalk never grow old) and love it as a family destination.
  3. Twilight in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park | Photo: (c) A. Duarte via Flickr

    Twilight in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park | Photo: (c) A. Duarte via Flickr

    Great Smoky Mountains- Yes, you can really find both mountains and moonshine here. Devastating fires recently ripped through Gatlinburg, one of this region’s main cities. But we kept it on the Rising Star list because Tripsters did turn their attention to it this year – and there is plenty of mountain territory to enjoy that has not been destroyed. Road trip on Highway 441 (Newfound Gap Road), visit the Cherokee Reservation, hike the national park or visit Dollywood for a unique amusement park experience, see moonshine made, and…visit the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum, a private collection open to the public for just $3.

  1. Myrtle Beach- Completing a hat trick of kitschy beach destinations reborn, Myrtle Beach completes the list. An old school boardwalk and a range of good seafood spots for dinner- and if traveling with kids or just a fan of revisiting childhood, there are plenty of opportunities to play mini golf and options like Alligator Adventure. Or check out the old school boardwalk and range of good seafood restaurants for dinner.