Host David Lyle is joined by Frommers.com Online Editor Jason Clampet to discuss websites that make the web, if not the best, then at least the most enjoyable way to plan a trip. Lytle and Clampet look at sites everyone should use before planning a trip, such as SeatGuru (www.seatguru.com) (where travelers can get advice about specific airline seats), to niche sites like Sleeping in Airports (www.sleepinginairports.net) , where users share tips about where to bed down during an overnight layover. They also talk about Google map mash-ups, roadside attractions and sleeping on a stranger's couch.
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Top Tips from This Podcast
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- List of Sites Discussed: Unusual Hotels of the World, CouchSurfing.com, SleepingInAirports.net, SeatGuru.com, Festivals.com, RoadsideAmerica.com, GoogleMapsMania.blogspot.com, TheBathroomDiaries.com, SmokeFreeWorld.com, AirlineMeals.net, RoadFood.com.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.Announcer: Welcome to the frommers.com travel podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit www.frommers.com.
David Lytle: Hi, welcome to the frommers.com podcast. I'm David Lytle, and today I'm talking with our online editor, Jason Clampett. Hey Jason.
Jason Clampet: Hi, David.
David: Today's topic is sort of off-the-beaten-path travel; web sites that provide things that are a little more eccentric. I mean it pretty much goes without saying that, I think the majority of our readers and listeners plan those traditional vacations. You're looking for airfare, you're looking for a hotel, and you just want to get away for five to six days.
But thanks to the Internet, which has allowed just about anybody to publish, anybody can write a site, and there are often times those eccentric people out there who are really hyper-focused on just one particular little niche of travel, or just sort of a hobby for them. And then eventually, over time, these sites grow to be really fantastic resources of some oddball information. So today we are going to look at some of these and just talk about the idea of expanding your mind to consider traveling in a different way.
Jason: I tend to think of these sites, David, as places that, I couldn't find an airfare on oddball sites, but they always make my trip better. Kind of the second stops to make, or even a place to start and then book the hotels and airfare around it through a different way. They are just kind of a supplement to the hardcore encyclopedic information of other web sites.
David: Right, exactly. For the most part these aren't booking sites, although a few of them do have some booking capabilities, and I guess that is a great jumping-off point.
One of the first sites that I just like to look at from time to time is a web site called "Unusual Hotels of the World." It's www.uhotw.com. For our listeners, we will have a corresponding article to this podcast so that you can quickly see the list of URLs. But really, this site is fantastic because it just lists really unusual places to stay around the world. For example, you can stay in a lighthouse; you can stay in decommissioned train cars. There is a place in New Zealand, for example, that has taken a whole series of train cars, submersed them under the earth, and turned them into hobbit homes.
So it's just a way to plan your trip by saying, "You know what? I really want to stay someplace completely unusual. Now let me see how to figure out how to get there." This site is really, it is easily clickable; it is organized by underwater/reefside properties, crazy decor, rainforest, jungle or bush accommodations, lighthouses, staying in a desert. Overall there are about 20 different categories that you can go through.
Jason: Though it is slightly different from romantic hotels and business travelers, right?
David: Yes. It is more like huts, tents and cabins. Well, I guess there are also the fantasy theme hotels, which might fall into the romantic notion. But it is not really for somebody planning a business trip. These are places that are typically a little bit out of the way and a little odd to get to. It is even organized by views; you can select someplace that simply is going to have an incredible view.
Like tree houses, for example; there are tree houses all over the world. There is actually a place that is near where I am in San Francisco, down in Big Sur, called Post Ranch, which is a very high-end hotel; but they have a whole series of rooms that are individual tree houses that look out over the Big Sur coastline out onto the Pacific Ocean.
Jason: Right. I am also looking now at four different hotels that I chose by choosing "prisons." You can stay in great prisons from Turkey to Australia to Sweden and then South Africa. And they are not cheap.
David: Isn't "Turkish prison" an oxymoron?
Jason: I am quite surprised. It actually looks very homey. It is well lit, and it actually looks like maybe Luke Skywalker's home on Tattooine. It is carved into a rock. It is in Cappadocia.
Jason: Never knew prison could look so comfortable.
David: Absolutely. I know that there was a period of time when there was a federal prison outside of Philadelphia that they had closed down, and they were offering tours where you could spend just a night at the hotel as part of your tour. Never really seemed that interesting to me, having visited someplace like Alcatraz. Perfectly creepy. It is "to each their own, " and this will help them find that sort of unusual place they want to stay in.
David: Another unusual way to find accommodation is not to look for an actual hotel, but is to barter, beg, or just ask for a free stay in somebody's apartment or house. One site that does that is a site called CouchSurfing.com that was started not too long ago. Basically, how Couch Surfing works is, you sign up, you create a profile.
To use the system you are supposed to be willing to volunteer your space as well. The whole idea is, if you are driving through an area, you are visiting an area, these people have a space available for you to crash on the couch if you make arrangements ahead of time. It is really sort of a social networking site as well. It's free, which is a nice thing, especially for those hardcore budget travelers.
Jason: Right, and it got a big bump this summer, I think, when this New York Times writer did his budget travel across Europe. I remember he stayed in some in Croatia and also Italy, perhaps, and kind of had the same questions: is it safe? How clean is the couch going to be? But I think it is one of those things like Craigslist, where it is a community of like-minded people. It all ends up turning out fine, and you end up meeting people that you would otherwise never meet, and experience a place through a person's home rather than a hotel, which is going to be so standard no matter where you are.
David: Right, and as I have had in other conversations with other authors and editors, it is nice to get out of a hotel sometimes, because what you are going to encounter in a hotel are other travelers. When you can have the experience of communing with a local, you get much better information. You are going to find out about restaurants that are maybe neighborhood favorites that don't make it into any guidebook, which lends charm to them because the crowd is going to be different than it is going to be someplace that is recommended by every guidebook, that tends to be overbooked and the prices can go up.
Jason: Well, speaking of staying in places that aren't hotels is another site, which you told me about David, SleepingInAirports.net.
David: Oh, one of my favorites.
Jason: And how did you come across that?
David: I think I found out about Sleeping in Airports originally from one of our writers, Sasha Segan. He had written about it a few years ago -- this was like five or six years ago. This is, again, for people who are budget travelers, who really don't want to pay an extra hundred dollars a night for a hotel room. What this site does is, it is sort of like a trip advisor for airport floors. People rate the design of seats in airports. So if you have a layover and you have to be at the airport the next morning again to catch your flight, why not just sleep in the airport?
But unfortunately, airports discourage people from doing this. They don't want to be a free hotel. Seats are connected along long rows, and they have armrests in between them so that you can't lie down flat. This is a site that lets you know where to find those comfortable airports where you can actually crash for a few hours and get a decent night's sleep. They are rated on a scale of "hellish" to "tolerable" to "excellent." And apparently, according to them right now, Moscow is the most hellish airport to try and get some shuteye in, and then Singapore is the most popular one.
Jason: Yeah, there is a great thing on the home page describing the essentials that you should have if you are planning on camping out in an airport for a night, and it is almost as detailed as what you need if you are going to be heading into a national park. They suggest having an inflatable pool raft, eyeshades, earplugs, snacks, large headphones for a Walkman, alarm clock, disinfectant wipes, toilet paper rolls, potpourri or glade plug-in, a twister mat so that you can entertain yourself.
David: And it's flat and folds up!
Jason: Exactly and so it's, and it also offers tips on how you handle security when they begin their inevitable hassling.
David: It does, it rates these airports on a lot of different scales. Comfort, if you can find a dark corner so that you don't have florescent lights overhead. I think this is the site where I found out about a guy who said that he needed to pick up an unaccompanied minor which then gave him access to a room of cots and he was actually able to lie down flat and sleep for a while. Again this isn't for everybody, but this site has a lot of contributors to it who are willing to give this information up.
Jason: And it's mainly a lot of business travelers who are forced to take early morning flights and connections from smaller towns going through hubs and have to fly in late at night or in the morning and often there isn't the option or the budget to spend the night in a hotel from your company or if you're self employed.
David: And sometimes you're just stranded, I mean, flights get canceled, airports fill up, so you happen to be stuck here. Another site that has to do with flying, it's for actually before you're in the air, it's one that we refer people to all the time. It's called seatguru.com. And this is a fantastic site that I use every time I book a ticket, unless I'm flying on JetBlue, which I know the seating arrangements on that because they only have one model of plane.
How Seat Guru works is you choose the airline that you're flying, the model of plane that you're flying and then it rates where the good seats are, where the OK seats are and where the seats you absolutely should avoid. Seats that are in the back of the plane don't necessarily recline, for business travelers it lets you know if there's actually a power cord nearby if you have to recharge your laptop. It lets you know if you're sitting too close to a lavatory, all sorts of great information.
Jason: I was on an international flight recently and I was on the back of the plane, center row, I think it had four seats, and there was a mother there struggling with her kids, and then the attendant asked the gentleman in front of me, "Will you be willing to move back a few rows?" and he said "No, because I looked on Seat Guru and I know those armrests don't go up." And I hadn't looked on Seat Guru even though I typically always do and I was in one of those rows and even though I had four seats all to myself, none of the armrests went up, so it was just one seven-hour tease all the way to Paris.
Sometimes people choose window seats and then you find out that the way the seats are positioned against the wall that you don't actually match up to a window. The back of your chair is actually next to a window, and the next window up is against that person's seat, so you can't actually look out a window or it makes it hard, if you're trying to take a nap sometimes the positioning of it, it's just really good information to arm yourself with. And then of course before you fly you can also check out a couple of other sites that are all about getting airfare deals and much more traditional but still these touch on the idea that some people can be obsessive about one thing and one thing only when they travel and these are sites like Webflyer and Flyertalk, that are all about the use of frequent flyer miles, and then these people are really really devoted to their cause.
David: Do you ever use these sites like Flyertalk or WebFlyer?
Jason: Yes I use Flyertalk; I have a subscription. I get a weekly or biweekly email for my United Miles and it tells me how to use them and how many miles to upgrade to each one and premium flyer they sell out the tickets too quickly but they have all sorts of tricks and ways that we an spend the miles that we wouldn't think of and ways to maximize your miles, so depending on what frequent flyer program you're a member of you can subscribe to specific newsletters and specific forums.
David: Again, it goes back to information really empowers a traveler today, so the more information they have about any specific element about their travel they're better at getting what they want and you're talking to a customer service person and you're trying to upgrade or get a particular flight, sometimes you're going to get pointers on the site that the airlines are never going to let you know about.
David: It's very frustrating for very many flyers I know. And then, of course, you can talk about unusual places to stay, how to find hotels or oddball accommodations. These are elements about finding airports and flying, but then sometimes people they travel just to find festivals to find those items that are truly local that don't really ever make it into guidebooks. So we've got a whole collection of these sites. One that is very appropriately named, festivals.com, and if you happen to be traveling somewhere it's a great way to find out what's happening during that period of time. It's searchable by destination, it's searchable by the type of event that it is. It's global, it's not just limited to the United States, so if you happen to want to go to a rodeo somewhere, you can find out where rodeos are happening across the US. For example, here, if you're trying to find a tractor pulling championship, anything that's going on, a lot of these things are really really very local.
Jason: It's the stuff that doesn't make it into guidebooks or even into websites. Do a lot of listings because they're typically Ticketmaster events or whatnot, largely family events, things that remind me of my childhood. Homecoming events, which you're not going travel somewhere for a homecoming event but if ones going on and you're there, you really get a sense of being in a small town where you're at much better than another event of a local megaplex.
David: Right. Tying into that too, is another really great site called roadsideamerica.com. I tend to look at this just to peruse the oddity of America. For example, one of the great things about these sites is they make a great little email to friends as well, just saying look what I found! In my home town in northern Indiana, and it's listed on roadsideamerica.com, Kokomo Indiana happens to be the home of two oddball things, the world's largest steer, Old Ben, which Old Ben's been dead since I think 1906 and is stuffed in a glass house in a public park. My family used to have family reunions right near it. And then right next to this is the world's largest sycamore tree stump, which was knocked down by a storm maybe 100 years ago. So they moved these two things together. It's nothing that you're going to go completely out of your way for, but they are certainly bizarre, so these things are great if you're taking a road trip. If you know you're going form Point A to Point B in a car, why not take a little detour and see the giant ball of twine.
Jason: Yeah, one of things that I like about sites like this is that they're constantly encouraging people to participate. They have a whole section on roadsideamerica.com dedicated to muffler men. Those three story fiber glass or paper mache men that for some reason are selling mufflers or tires or if the business has changed maybe doing dry cleaning, and they're constantly encouraging people to submit photograph, and then they divide the muffler men into lumber jacks and Indians and Vikings and pirates and it's quite the thing.
David: Right, it's a collection of kitsch for good or bad. It's one of America's contributions to pop culture globally and has listings for all sorts of things, celebrity burials sites, you can find odd animal attractions, it also has listings for hotels and things that are of practical use.
Jason: Well, speaking of practical oddities, one of my recent favorite things to do is to look up Google Map Hacks, where if you are obsessed with, say, Muffler Man, or in one case, stolen bikes around Portland, people take the advantage of Google Maps and map their interest out. So you can go from point A to Point B along that. So it can be something as small as, as I said, stolen bikes in Portland, to happy hours in Manhattan, linking together all the... and happy hours, you can link them together by time of day. If you want to hit bars at 4:00, what happy hours are open and how you get between them? Just something as broad as "U.S. Reggae Clubs, " you know, all the reggae clubs in America and how they are connected.
These are really great because you can tell that the person has a passion for it and they are desperate to share it with everybody, and they have given you a way to get into it by linking it all together with a map. If you go to GoogleMapsMania.blogspot.com, it is a collection of all sorts of map hacks, and it is updated every week. Some of them are travel-specific, like happy hours or '50s motels, and some of them are very practical like current 911 calls in the L.A. area, which makes it very interesting to check into when you are going to a specific location.
David: Right, right. I'm just looking at it right now. I love the fact that the happy hour is now called "Mappy Hour"...
David: ... because they've done it for you. The thing about this is, too, is this stuff, it really takes some time to create these mashups.
Jason: Right, and they are very difficult to do; but once they are there, they are there forever. I actually have one bookmarked on my desk at work for the MTA and PATH trains going into Manhattan.
David: Oh yeah?
Jason: It actually synchs with the exit, the site of the street I get out, and how I can get across town; because you can't really map, easily, 42nd and 8th Avenue when you're trying to get directions, but when somebody does a hack they do half the work for you.
David: Well it is a nice thing, too. Just on GoogleMapsMania.com it has a whole series of urban public transportation and subway maps that do exactly what you said, they link you to exactly those sites of the streets that you need to get out on. Now, how would somebody find this on their own?
Jason: Well, most of the Google Map hacks are done using blogging software or hosted through blogging software, so I will go to something like Blogger.com and use their blog-specific search engine -- I think Yahoo! Has their own blog-specific search engine -- and just type in "Google Map hack" and you will get a whole host. Some people do their own collection of Google Map hacks, and that is often a good way to find your way into specific ones; because if you type in "doughnut shops in Ohio map hack" you may not find something. So it is good to find kind of a repository of these that fans have found already.
David: And if you can't find what you are looking for, maybe it is your duty then to make that map of doughnut shops in Ohio.
Another thing that, those very specific things that people are looking for, the map hacks obviously target that, but there are a few sites that are really practical too, that are helpful. One of them is a site called TheBathroomDiaries.com. Everybody knows what it is like when you are in a foreign place, a city that you don't live in, and you need to find a bathroom. Public restrooms are one of the hardest things to find, as we discussed earlier.
Arthur Frommer had written up a little booklet that lists public bathrooms in major cities around the world, but there is also this web site that basically rates bathrooms in cities and helps people find them. If you are going someplace it is a good idea to look at this site just to note down where those bathrooms are. It's like George Costanza in Seinfeld had his secret bathroom that was, I think, nine floors off a public street, but he didn't want anybody to know about it because he had access.
Jason: And what is the name of the site, David?
David: The site is called TheBathroomDiaries.com.
Another similar site that speaks to the needs of very specific travelers is, this one is called SmokeFreeWorld.com and it is a collection of those places that offer smoke-free dining. It is not an incredibly vast site yet. It has got some depth to it, it is building up slowly I think.
Jason: I guess as more city councils ban smoking they will probably need a SmokeWorld sooner than a SmokeFreeWorld.
David: Exactly, but it gives you nice listings for some, not all destinations. Much more so for the United States than they have for Europe, but it also lists if cities or states have smoking bans in place, lists restaurants that may still allow you to smoke if that is what you want, or how to get away from it. It is all about comfort level. So as more people find out about this stuff, if it is their need then these things grow. Traffic will determine that.
Jason: Yeah, and again that is one of the great things about these obsessive and oddball sites, is they rely so much on user-generated content, people out there who have the same needs and the site has helped them, so when they come back from any trip they're like, "Oh I have to contribute to this. I have to put this information up."
David: Right. Oh, a great contributor-driven site is one of the quirkiest, and to me it is just hilarious, is AirlineMeals.net, where people submit photographs of their trays with the food on it that the airline serves them, with brief little reviews. Oftentimes they are photographs of things that you would never even consider eating. You are able to browse, as they say, "Thousands of in-flight meals." Then it also has a collection of photographs of meals that are basically archived from 30 years ago. So they have a whole section of '70s, '80s and '90s meals that you can look at if you are so inclined to peruse the history of airline food.
Along the lines of food as well, there is another really good web site called RoadFood.com. Again, it is good for the idea of those people who are on the road, but it really is a labor of love. It is a husband and wife team, the Sterns, who have done the majority of the reviews, and then they have just a great team. It is not a commercial site. It lets people find those great local eateries that make a small town special. So you can search by any state in the Union -- I don't think they have Canada on here, it is just U.S. The Sterns have done the legwork on this and gone all over.
Jason: Yeah, what I like about this site is it is kind of the same sensibility as Chowhound, the site we'll talk about in a second, but it has been filtered down by, it is kind of like two people you can trust, and once you know their opinions you will know whether this restaurant will work for you or not. They always, then, pick out their favorite items at whatever place it is, whether it is the Mug 'n Bun Drive-In in Indianapolis...
David: Oh, I love the Mug 'n Bun.
Jason: ... they'd say, "Do try the root beer here, but stay away from the french fries."
David: Right, exactly.
Jason: So, knowing the voice and preferences of the people who create this site just improves the experience.
David: Right. And for people who don't know, the Mug 'n Bun is an old school drive-in hot dog stand in the Speedway, which is where the 500 race track is, and they are known because they make their own root beer, still to this day, and it is excellent, frothy root beer. So if you ever happen to be in the Speedway...
Jason: It's only a dollar.
David: ... you should stop. Right, it's only a dollar, and you should stop at the Mug 'n Bun. Well Jason, really we are sort of out of time here. You could really talk about these all day long. I mean, these are just sort of ways... these sites are ways for people to just sort of imagine traveling differently.
Jason: Yeah, and it's a good way to be an armchair traveler as well.
David: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, oftentimes the visitors just to frommers.com, they don't really come to plan a trip, they just come to read about new destinations and just sort of dare to dream sometimes. It was great talking to you, thanks a lot.
Jason: Thanks for having me.
David: Sure. We'll talk again soon.
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