Kaaba in Masjid-al-Haram in Makkah's Grand mosque

Hajj Series: Tiny Tips for Hajj Planning

The last post within the series really just shares a few little tips that don’t fall under any specific category. I may come back and update this as I recall things.

There are so many little tidbits to remember and this is only the PLANNING portion of this series. Still, to come are the actual days of Hajj and how to take on Madina during Hajj time.

Now here are the few things that are useful to know when planning for Hajj:

  • Do not plan to travel outside of the country at least 3-4 months before your departure date as your passport will be unavailable since it will be sent off to get a visa.

 

  • Some groups may provide you with certain things but this can change year-to-year. From our group, we got a full set of luggage with the company’s name and info, a backpack, a string bag (though we found our Nike one to be much stronger and noticed that the one provided by the group had broken for a lot of people), a very, very useful side bag/fanny pack, travel adapters and bags for our shoes as well as our stones that we would collect in Muzdalifah.

 

  • Load the Quran onto your phone. While waiting, traveling and during the days of Hajj, it can be difficult to carry your Quraan safely. This makes it a lot easier to get more reading done and not worry about accidentally taking your bag into the bathroom or placing it on the floor. To make this easier, pack a portable charger as well!

 

  • When leaving to come home, you can get a gift of a new Quraan from the airport. Once you go through security, there is someone sitting on the side handing them out. Pay attention to the version you get so that it is actually legible for you.

 

  • Make Friends! You’re going to need a support system as the days get tougher. You will naturally find people you will get along with who think the same way you do. Be there for others and others will be there for you as well!

 

  • Not everyone will be a happy camper but positively will take you a long way. If something doesn’t work – that’s okay. There are people who are in a much more difficult position than you are in.

 

  • Take care of your health – try to eat well when you can, practice walking before you go and prepare for being very tired – all the time!

 

  • There is lots of food handed out during the Hajj season – the Saudi Government is very generous to Hajj pilgrims. Sometimes, it is a little too much. Keep in mind that there are a lot of people outside that may not have enough money for food. Try sharing first so that there are packaged leftovers to give to those who might need it.

 

  • Shop in Madina – it’s much calmer and this way, it is already taken care of before you get to Makkah

 

  • If you are ordering a large number of dates – you have the option to ship it home. This keeps it safe from going bad but if you don’t have that option, be sure to keep it in an air-conditioned space for the entire time.

Keep in mind, this list will likely be updated every so often so check back closer to when you leave. I actually can’t believe I finished this!

I will be sharing this on my Instagram and on Facebook. Feel free to ask me any questions in the comments below or on either platform. I will try to share direct messages and questions as a highlight on my page as well so that I can share as much info as possible.

Quran on black background

Hajj Series: Research & Study Resources

One thing that really surprised me was how many people I had spoken to who had not studied ahead of time. Once you sign up with your group you are given resources to read and refer to while you are performing your Hajj. Read this in advance and read anything you can get your hands on. This is a big trip and if you were going to any other trip, you would be all over the researching and building an itinerary. The one benefit of going in a group is that you don’t have to plan your transportation accommodation or food so use that to your advantage and study what your steps are for when you are performing the Hajj. You won’t remember everything and though the group leader will have lectures every day on what to expect the next day, it is always beneficial to know what to expect and use these lectures as refreshers. There were many people who were hearing what they would be doing for the very first time during these lectures and simply were not as mentally prepared as those who had done some reading and researching ahead of time. Again, something that I cannot stress enough!

If reading many books isn’t your thing, watch vlogs and YouTube videos. My favourite online hajj resource was recommended by a few of my friends and I would listen to this on my commutes and drives as well. Although you may be listening to many different leaders and reading from a variety of books, keep in mind that everyone’s programs are a little different and that the details will vary from group to group. The main rites are always the same and learning what you will do and why you will do them so will bring much more value and benefit to your Hajj.

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I listened to lectures, watched YouTube videos and did a bit of high-level reading. Below are some resources I found very helpful.

At a minimum – digest these over the next few months as you prepare for your trip. They take time but I tried to listen to the lectures during my commute and watch the videos during Ramadan and the few weeks leading to our departure.

Questions? Ask me below or on my Instagram page! As always, keep up with me on socials via Facebook and Instagram!

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Hajj Series: What to Pack for Hajj

Now there are a ton of lists and YouTube videos out there on what to pack for your trip and what to take with you so I won’t go into too much detail but certainly leave a comment or DM me on Instagram to ask me if you need any help or further suggestions.  

I will share a few things that I found really, really useful:

  • Command Hooks
    • These are really handy for Mina since there isn’t anywhere to put your things. They are also great if you will be moving into an apartment building as they may not have enough hooks. I used this right above my bed to hang my bag as well as my clothing/PJs.
    • Carabiners
      • These were so useful for so many things. We kept them on our water bottles if we didn’t feel like carrying them. If a bag strap broke, it was an easy thing to use to hold it together, etc.
    • Swimming shoes
      • We used these only IN the haram while doing tawaaf. Once we got to the gates, we would pop on our other shoes into our bags and switch into these. Now when in ihram, men cannot use them but once out of ihram, they made it much easier as the floor can get pretty hard to walk on and it also keeps your feet clean!
      • A small note on shoes – I found that waterproof Birkenstock was the best during this trip.
    • Spray water bottle
      • You will find many spray fans and/or bottles with a spray and fan but these are bulky and require a battery for the fan. This is a 2-in-1 and trust me, you want to carry less! I got mine from mountain warehouse and it was a lifesaver!
    • Phone fan
      • I cannot tell you how ideal this little fan was! The fact that it could fit into my pocket and didn’t need any batteries was such a blessing. It is plugged into your phone and doesn’t use much of your battery.
    • Rubber gloves
      • I will go into this a bit further on my next post where I explain what to know for the days of Hajj but this is something I am so happy I took. With millions of people performing their hajj and a few thousand people sharing a few bathrooms in Mina, this made the bathroom experience just a TAD easier. It may seem like a lot but it’s better to have more than less – take my word for it.

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Hajj Series: What does it really cost?

Now the cost of Hajj will always vary and every year there is generally a slight price increase but this post should give you an overall idea of what to expect. When we went in 2018, the cost per person for Hajj was approx. CAD $10,500 for a 19-day package.

Outside of this base cost, there are other costs you need to consider. These are:

  • The Hajj Draft (approx. CAD $150 each) A Hajj draft is a fee by the Ministry of Hajj on each person that goes for Hajj. A portion of this fee is used to maintain the sites where you will stay and perform the Hajj – Mina, Arafat, and Muzdalifa while the other portion is used to cover a portion of the Transportation in Saudi Arabia. This Draft is required in order to obtain a Hajj visa from Canada. Your group will pay this for you ahead of time when they process your passports to get a visa. Once the visa has been confirmed, you make that payment to your group. This may vary from group-to-group.
  • Sacrifice/Qurbani fee (Approx. $450 each)At the end of your Hajj, you must ensure you complete the rites with the sacrifice or Qurbani. Being from a Canadian group, you don’t have to do this yourself (yes, some pilgrims from other places may have to do this on our own). The group leader arranges to have this done and he will let you know once it has been done. Only then can you remove your ihram, cut your hair/shave your head and complete your Hajj. Keep this in mind – you need to ensure this is done in order to come out of Ihram.
  • Costs of purchasing items for the trip (approx. $150) Before you leave for Hajj, you will go through many articles, videos and hopefully this blog series that recommend that you take things with you for your trip. All of this adds up and though this cost can vary, I spoke to a few people who agreed that for them it also came in and around this price. Now I won’t give you details on what exactly these items are since I will have a post dedicated on what to pack for hajj next week! The gist of it is mainly medication, food, and other handy items to make your trip a little easier or comfortable!
  • Spending money while you are there. This can vary but it would include:
    • Lunch – many groups include both breakfast and dinner buffets at the hotels you stay at but tend not to include lunch. During the days of Hajj, you will get lunch and snacks too – you will have more food than you can eat during these days!
    • Snacks
    • Dates
    • Bottles to fill extra water to take home. You can fill and take home as much Zam Zam water as you’d like from the Haram. Before you leave for home, you will also be able to purchase one 5L bottle per person from the airport. Some people were able to buy more but this might be risky if the attendant at the time does not allow for it. Many stores sell bottles that are made to transport water so you will generally buy a few of these. They don’t cost much but just to give you an idea on something you may end up spending money on!
    • Gifts – We did not buy much as we did not want to spend the few days we had in markets and malls but many others in our group that were there for longer bought a lot of things. Obviously, this includes prayer mats, clothing and smaller things to give to family back home and keep for yourself as well. This bucket can range but you can imagine that if you do choose to bring something back – your list may be quite long!
Abraj Al-Bait,

Abraj Al-Bait, Clock Tower. Home to the epicentre of shopping in the Haram, Grand Mosque of Makkah, Saudi Arabia

This brings the total close to approx. $22,500 per couple without spending money. We spent about $400 or so but this will vary for everyone and therefore I have not included it in the total listed above. Now, this is a big amount of money – you can’t deny that BUT the earlier you decide to go, the easier it becomes to start putting money aside. You also don’t pay it all in one chunk. Generally, there is a 50% deposit earlier in the year – around 7 to 8 months ahead. You then pay the remaining balance closer to the date – may be about 4-5 months ahead.

This is the one thing that will help you determine which group to go to Hajj with. Everyone has different budgets but the biggest thing to keep in mind is that you are doing a significant thing and in every difficulty, there is a reward.

Other things to consider that will increase your costs: Continue reading

Kaaba in Makkah Mataf

Hajj Series: How to choose a Hajj Group

The most common question that you usually get once you’ve shared that you will be going to Hajj is generally who you are going with. Going to Hajj requires you to travel with a group. You cannot go on your own and everything from your flights, accommodation, food, and transportation is a part of the package. This is a big decision – it determines where you will stay, what you will eat, your itinerary, the length of your stay and the language the lectures will be in and the ‘star-rating’ of your entire experience.

At the start, you will find lots of groups with lots of amenities and package offers. Generally, you can choose between an ‘express-type’ 2-weekish stay up-to a full one-month stay. This again varies from group to group. It’s best to sit down with whoever you are going with, create a chart to compare the different options. This will also easily help you determine right up front what your ‘must-haves’ are and what your budget is.

There are many Canadian Hajj groups that take pilgrims to perform and complete their Hajj. If you do a quick google search, you’ll be able to pull up the different companies and see what options they are offering in terms of the items listed above as well as the cost.

Kaaba in Masjid-al-haram_Grand mosque of Makkah

Kaaba in Masjid-al-haram_Grand mosque of Makkah

Our Experience
We chose to go with Toronto-based Al-Falah Hajj & Umrah Services. We determined this by looking at all of the points above as well as reviews from many of our friends. We had a great experience with Al-Falah and certainly recommend it to others if they are looking for an affordable 5-star (note that there are 7-star rated groups out there as well as well as 3-star groups) experience.

Traveling with Al-Falah meant being a part of a group that is invested in your Hajj experience with a dedicated leader who has been in the business for over 25 years. One note to take in for this group is that the leader of this group tends to communicate in Urdu and English – not just in english simply due to the general makeup of the group. The group leader does speaks English and does have a translator at the sessions he leads but it’s just something to take note of if you don’t speak/understand this language. Our group consisted of many people from all over the country of all ages and backgrounds and on the last day we were all extremely satisfied and happy with our experience. Alhamdulillah, our hajj was complete!

We chose to go with this group because it met all of our requirements in terms of budget, offering a 5-star package and the number of days we were able to travel for. If you take a look on their website, you will see that their package offers a split stay in Makkah between a very convenient 5-star hotel and a few days in the Hajj buildings. Not all groups do this but it is something that allows pilgrims to have a 5-star experience for the whole trip – Madina, Makkah and the days of Hajj for a reasonable cost.

Kaaba in Masjid-al-Haram in Makkah's Grand mosque

Kaaba in Masjid-al-Haram in Makkah’s Grand mosque

With this split accommodation, based on the 19-day package we were in a 5-star hotel (Al-Safwa), two mins to the Haram for 3 nights and then moved to the Hajj building (about a 10-15 min. away). Other group members who were there for longer were in the hotel for a few more days than we were and moved to the apartment buildings with us, once we arrived.

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Masjid Al Nabawi

5 things I wish I knew before going to Hajj

Brace yourselves – this is a going to be a big series but it certainly deserves to be. I hope it makes up for me not posting for ONE YEAR!
This is a series of posts that were basically done in my head – I’ve been telling anyone that has asked me – and discussing it with anyone that has been through it. It’s not exactly what I wish I knew because I eventually got all this info from friends who shared it with me BUT everyone may not have that option and that’s where I come in! And trust me if you don’t get this info you will wish you did!
Crowds in the haram in front of the gates during the hajj season in Makkah Saudi Arabia

Gates leading to the Masjid-al-Haram (Great Mosque of Mecca) during Hajj in Makkah, Saudi Arabia

Last year, Alhamdulillah we were given the opportunity to perform our Hajj. Now, we knew this was something we wanted to prioritize for ourselves and we’re lucky to be joined by our friends as well which made a huge difference!
There is so much I can talk about and I will certainly do a Q + A on my Instagram stories when this goes up but below are my top 5 things to consider when preparing for your upcoming Hajj 2019 trip.
Each week I will release one blog post per category listed below and update this post to hyperlink each article. The top 5 things I wish I knew before going to Hajj are:
Kaaba in Makkah after Maghreb Salah in the Masjid-al-Haram (Great Mosque of Mecca)

Kaaba in Makkah after Maghreb Salah in the Masjid-al-Haram (Great Mosque of Mecca), Makkah, Saudi Arabia

In all honesty, I can’t believe I actually finished this! I will be sharing when new posts go up on my Instagram as well as Facebook so be sure to follow along for updates. As of right now, I plan to release the first hajj blog post on tomorrow (Sunday!) and after this, every Friday until they are all posted. Feel free to ask me any questions in the comments below or on either social media platform. I will try to share direct messages and questions as a highlight on my page as well so that I can share as much info as possible.

I hope this will be helpful! You can follow on Instagram here and on Facebook here. Continue reading

One week in Panamá City

Although I have travelled recently, I didn’t get a chance to blog about them since the summer! Yes, we’re well into winter but it’s been a busy few months with a new job, a project I am working on with some friends as well as trying to rethink my blog strategy. Even my Instagram page has been suffering – and that means something!

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As I sit here, trying to warm my toes, I keep thinking back to the week we spent in Panamá City back in July. I close my eyes and think of a warm sun and a vibrant city. This was a bit of a different trip for us as we went with my siblings and spent some time with our family while exploring the city. The best part of that trip would hands-down have to be the day trip we took to explore small untouched islands of San Blas.

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We hit the ground running as soon as we landed! Our one week in Panamá City itinerary included spending some time at our aunt’s cottage in Cerro Azul (straight from the airport!), strolling along the up-and-coming neighbourhood of Costa del Este off the Pacific Ocean, visiting the Panamá Canal, Old Panamá exploring the vibrant new Casco Viejo, spending a day in the sun at the San Blas Islands, visiting El Valle and taking in a breathtaking view of the city from Ancon Hill. We also visited Panamá Viejo, the old city as well as Coronado, a black sand beach and the Frank Gehry-designed Bio Museum along the Amador Causeway.

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The fun thing about visiting a place where you know people is that you get an insight into everyday life and the local lifestyle. As an example, we got to visit a few of our aunt’s farms which is something you wouldn’t get a chance to do as otherwise. And while we dedicated some time to visit family members, I would say one week to ten days in the city is perfect.

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The San Blas Islands of Panamá

If you do a quick google search, you’ll find that The San Blas Islands are an archipelago in Panamá and comprise of about 365 islands. Of these, only 49 are inhabited. This was a big thing on my bucket list of things to do in Panamá. To get to these islands are anything but easy. You can drive there, sail in or take a short local plane ride. There are many tour buses that also do day trips to this place in case you don’t drive abroad. If you do drive, it is important to return before it gets dark as there are no lights or completely paved roads on this route. The drive is breathtaking as you are driving through almost untouched valleys and mountains. We stopped a few times to take in the view and get some photos.

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If you do plan on getting to San Blas, the most important thing to remember is that you need your passport in order to get through to this beautiful paradise. We drove through the Panamanian mountains and valleys before reaching the border of where the Kuna People’s governance begins. The Kuna People are a tight-knit tribal community that lives on the San Blas Islands, in the Atlantic. They live a lifestyle in the same manner as their ancestors – simple, and technology-free. We spent a full day, leaving at about 7:00 in the morning and heading back before it got dark. The waters are clear, there are starfish at the bottom of the sea floor and the coconuts tasted amazing. We also got a chance to check out the beautiful ‘natural swimming pool’ which was a shallow circumference of water away from the shores of the island, set in the midst of the deep Atlantic waters.

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On any given day, there won’t be more than 15 people on the island you visit and you can pretty much walk the perimeter of this island is less than 10 mins time. It truly is a piece of Paradise, something you see in the movies or read about in books. If you do plan on going to the San Blas islands, you should remember to pack lots of food – there are no shops for you to grab a snack and although you can order some fresh sea lobster, it’s not always a guarantee. Seafood is picked daily and you won’t want to just depend on that!

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Once you drive out to the coast, you show your passports and then pay to get on a boat that will take you out to one of the small islands. If the waters are too rough, there is a chance that the boats will not run and you will have to return back to the city. I would do a lot more research on this if you were to go on your own. I would also highly recommend going on a tour if you haven’t driven around a foreign country before or if it isn’t something you are comfortable with.

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El Valle de Antón

We did another day-trip and this time head up to El Valle de Antón, or more commonly known as El Valle. El Valle a high town in a mountainous region. El Valle (meaning, ‘The Valley’) sits on the floor of the largest crater in the world. This is a small town with lots of outdoor activities for visitors, a countryside getaway for city-dwellers and a popular destination for North American retirees. Those living in the city also have cottages in El Valle as well as farmland.

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We drove out to El Valle early on a weekday, making a street-side pitstop to get a taste of a local favourite and must-eat at Quesos Chela. These empanadas were amazing! While at El Valle, we made a quick stop at our aunt’s farm before visiting a local market, going zip lining and taking a mini hike to catch a glimpse of a lovely waterfall. After all the activities, we had a beautiful lunch at a hotel villa-style restaurant called Casa de Lourdes. It was truly like something out of the movies! Not only was the food amazing, but we were surrounded by views of the lush mountains. It was such a fun, relaxing day and had I the time, I would have aimed to stay a night and take in more of the activities and nature surrounding this beautiful place.

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Panamá City’s Casco Viejo

The last place I want to highlight is Casco Viejo (meaning old quarter) – a historical part of the city which a unique modern vibe. This neighbourhood is deeply entrenched in history – from the late 1600s to now,  it has seen a lot of change in its inhabitants. What was once a place that no local or tourist would want to step into is now a bustling hip area that is also UNESCO-protected.

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We went here a few times during our trip to take in the real vibe of the quarter. The place is perfect to grab a pour over coffee, eat delicious desserts, enjoy rooftop bars and have dinner in one of the endless restaurants that line the wide streets. With old colonial buildings, a large church and an even bigger piazza, this European-style quarter has a beautiful view of the modern city of Panamá ahead of it and the futuristic Cinta Costera highway that sits in the Pacific. You can’t help but want to return every night.

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Panamá City has a lot to offer including lush rainforests alongside beautiful city skylines as well as some of the best seafood you could have. It is so unique in that you could head to one side and be along the Pacific Ocean while and a few hours later head the to the coast opposite to be on the shores of the Atlantic. If you can spare more time, you can take a few days to go up to Bocas Del Torro as well as Volcán Barú. Both of these are on my list for the next time I head down south!

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Below of some photos from our trip and of the places we visited while we were away. Got questions? Just leave a comment below and I would be happy to share tips with you!

 

 

ONE WEEK IN PANAMA CITY

santorini, air bnb, sunrise, reading, greece, balcony, Mediterranean

Five Tips on Mastering Airbnb 

Fresh bread in Oia, Santorini

Breakfast with a view from the balcony of our Airbnb in Oia, Santorini.

When you want to travel a lot, Airbnb can be very handy. It is our go-to choice for accommodation as we can choose from such a wide range of options when it comes to style, pricing, and location. Generally, we will only choose hotels if we know we will be arriving at an odd hour or if we just need it for an overnight layover. We may switch to a hotel if an airport is far from the city.

I love the concept of  Airbnb and with the new addition of experiences, it’s getting even better. We have met so many interesting people, saved tons of money and stayed in some unique places.

I have had quite a few people ask me about my experience with Airbnb. A lot of people hesitate using the service because they may have heard myths or negative things about the service. I have gotten questions about cleanliness, safety and how to know if you will actually get what you’re seeing. Now that I have stayed in quite a few locations, I can vouch for the service and share my Airbnb experience. Below you can find my top 5 hacks on finding the best Airbnb options for you.

Barcelona Hotel

The hotel room window from the rare time we stayed at a hotel in Barcelona, Spain

Location
Location is everything. It’s what can make or break a trip. Having to commute into a city or back to where you’re staying can be a pain. Having to travel a distance back and forth not only cuts into your travel time but also deters your experience. Some of the best times we have really seen a city come to life with locals has been post-dinner, simply walking back to our apartment.

Consider the neighbourhood, do some research, and note down the distance via google maps on how far it is located from everything that you want to see. Can you walk instead of taking a cab, Uber or metro? Go with that option! When it comes to pricing out your accommodations, make sure you consider this. Yes, it might be $10 or $20 cheaper per night, but that may just be what a return metro ticket may cost! If you end up staying out past the time of the last train, that $20 will go straight to an Uber or a cab!

While staying in Paris, we were a 3 min walk away from Champs-Elysees and we only paid about $90 for our Air BnB apartment! Yes, it was a tiny attic apartment, the size of my bedroom in a building that had no elevators, but we were able to really stretch our time in the beautiful city of love because we didn’t have to worry about leaving early enough to make it back in a safe and affordable way.

So yes, location is key. Also weigh out your options and remember, if you’re only staying there to sleep, it doesn’t have to be the largest place on the block!

Attic room in Paris

This ridiculously tiny attic-room Airbnb apartment just steps away from Champs-Elysees in Paris

Reviews
The reviews are golden. They will help assure you that you have made the best choice. It’s obvious I know, but it’s easy to get caught up in beautiful photos of the apartment or the views and lose sight of checking all the details. I tend to choose to go with an Airbnb super host or a room that has racked up a decent amount of reviews. I look for how much the host communicated, for someone who went out of their way to ensure their guests have had a good stay and genuinely great reviews from others who have stayed there already.

There has been a time or two where I have seen bad reviews crop up within more than 20 good reviews and in this case, I generally ignore them. If the ratio of good to bad reviews is significant, it is likely that one person may have been upset about one thing and decided to just write anything out of anger or disappointment. These are to be taken with a grain of salt.

Every so often, I have also booked places where there are only a few really good reviews. Obviously, there are new people opening their homes to travelers on a daily basis and I like giving them a chance. The great thing about Airbnb is that they will back you if you have any issues. Their customer service is amazing and they are available on Twitter 24/7!

Tulum Aibnb

This beauty of the bedroom in our Airbnb apartment in Tulum, Mexico

Communication
Keep in contact with your host, ask questions and don’t be afraid to reach out. If I have the time, I usually reach out to the host with questions before I book their place. If I am in a crunch and the cancellation policy is flexible on Airbnb, I will book and then ask questions. My top things to usually ask are how accessible the place is by public transportation or if they can store my luggage before or after my official time there. I usually will take the last flight out of somewhere in order to maximize my day and I need to know in advance that I won’t have to worry about lugging my suitcase around while I am out and about!

Hosts are great to speak with. They can assist with organizing activities, accommodations or just providing local favourites for dinner. Let them know if you will be arriving early or late, exchange contact info in advance and let them know that you are excited to stay at their place and appreciate them opening up their home to you. You want to make them comfortable with who you are and why you are traveling. Remember, this is their home and just like you would want to know who is stepping into your place, they do too!

Greece Air bnb

I really did not want to return home after this breathtaking view from our Airbnb apartment in Oia, Santorini

The Fine Print
Look at the fine print. Everything you need to know is laid out on the page. Know exactly what you are in for so that you are not greeted with a surprise as soon as you enter. If you were expecting a full bed but are presented with a sofa bed, chances are it was already stated on the page. Hosts are generally very clear with what they offer as part of the price and what you will be charged for. As an example, when traveling in Europe, many cities have hotel taxes that are paid outside of the reservation. This is for large hotels as well as your Airbnb stay. Hosts will put this in the description so it is handy to have cash on hand to give them before you leave.

To the right of the page, you can see a breakdown of the full price. There are cleaning fees and service fees so use this as a guide to calculate your total cost before sharing the listing with all of your friends! The fine print is also where you’ll discover if your host provides a free breakfast – always a treat in my option!

Capadoccia Cave Hotel

Our free breakfast in our Cappadocia Airbnb. A room within a fairy chimney cave.

Be Flexible
Know your needs. Not your wants. If you are using Airbnb, it’s likely that you are into saving your money for experiences and eats vs. your accommodations. This doesn’t mean you can’t stay at a nice place, but think about what you really need. Yes, a room with a view would be fabulous but how long are you really staying there?

If you’re on a go-go-go sort of trip then you really don’t need to spend on the view. For example, in Santorini, we knew we would spend time in our apartment, enjoy the view and relax so we opted for something a bit more pricey and we made sure it was worth the spend. On the other hand, on our recent trip to Tulum, we knew the room was to sleep in and most of our time would be spent on the beach or sightseeing. Although the room didn’t have any fancy views, it was pretty trendy in decor and was actually quite nice.

I have loved each and every one of my Airbnb stays. I make sure to use their wish list feature to start building a list of potential places I want to stay. I then filter through this list based on all of the above points. So far this method has worked well for me and I am quite excited to step foot in our next Airbnb room!

Do you have any tips on using Airbnb? I would love to know! Please share in the comments below 🙂

As always, follow me on Instagram for more day-to-day updates.

Enjoy!

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A resort-free trip to Mexico

There is a lot more to Mexico than resorts and full days on the beach. Yes, I know many people head south to enjoy beaches, sun and sand in order to relax – and there is nothing wrong with that – but I just can’t be that person. Trust me, I tried! 

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The beautiful coast of Playa Del Carmen, Mexico

During our time in Mexico, we visited a beach twice and although the first time was really fun, we just couldn’t get into it the second time around. 

During the week we were gone, we visited Cozumel, Tulum and Play del Carmen (for a short time)! We balanced out being on-the-go and relaxing on the beach. Our itinerary was as follows:

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Overlooking the Caribbean from Cozumel, Mexico

Day 1: On the first day, we took the time to explore the downtown area of Cozumel, the boardwalk, eat some local food and check out the touristy places that cruise-goers flooded – we even popped into a grocery store! Cozumel is not massive, and a lot of it is actually untouched territory, so it really is doable in a day or two. The island of Cozumel is known for snorkelling and diving because of the coral reefs around the island. There is also the beautiful ‘other side’ of the island which is very remote – almost untouched and breathtakingly beautiful. Unfortunately we couldn’t get there without a car and renting one would mean using it for a whole day. We had to make the decision to let it go since there were other things on the mainland we wanted to see more. 

Cozumel is very tourist-friendly. We would walk around the downtown area, where our hotel was, until midnight and the bars that were open were full of tourists from the resorts or nearby hotels.

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Speed-ferry between Cozumel and mainland Mexico

Day 2: The first thing we did the next morning was get on a speed ferry to go across to Playa Del Carmen from Cozumel.

It takes only 45 mins and is only about $6 return. The tickets can be used on any day and it’s cheaper to buy it at the pier directly from company. There are a few desks along the pier but not all boats come back until late night. We chose the one that had an option to come back as late as 11 p.m.

Play Del Carmen’s beach area is really vibrant and this fun party-atmosphere goes until the late hours. You can find all of the well-known brands on their ‘5th Ave.‘ including Nike, Zara, Tous, Bershka and more!  Once we got off the boat, we had lunch along the beach and roamed around the stalls and shops before making out way up a few streets to catch a local bus. This bus was packed full with both tourists and locals and we paid about $5 to get from Playa Del Carmen to Tulum by bus. The local bus is really safe and a lot cheaper than taking a taxi. 

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Super-cute AirBnB in Tulum, Mexico

Once we arrived in Tulum, we checked into our really cute AirBnB and went for a stroll in the small town. We planned on going out to Chichén Itzá the next day so we went straight to the bus station to get details on tickets and scheduling. After coming across a full-day tour which was already pre-planned and included swimming in the Cenotes (sinkholes), visiting the ruins, lunch and visiting a small local town (Valladolid), we went with that option. This tour was a lot more expensive when I looked online and I was really glad to find it at a fraction of the price ($56) in-person.

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Picture-perfect, powder-white sand on the beach in Tulum, Mexico

After this, we went straight to Tulum’s famous beaches. Although we didn’t visit the Tulum ruins, we got to enjoy an afternoon at the beach and I cannot explain how beautiful it was. With powder-white sands and turquoise waters, this beach was heaven! We used the local bus or shared van, also known as a Colectivo, to get to the pathway to walk down to the beach and took it back to our AirBnB once we were done. I just wanted to keep taking photos!

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Waiting for our delicious vegan dinner at Restaurare in, Tulum, Mexico

Our evening in Tulum was spent at a beautiful Vegan restaurant called Restaurare. The vibe of this place was so amazing – almost making you feel like you are dining in the middle of a jungle. The restaurant was totally outdoors with the original trees still in place with dining tables setup around them. The food was really, really good but we were pretty full and couldn’t finish it all. We had Soy Tacos, Traditional Mole and Mayan Curry. If I could choose again, I would order less for sure! I would also try going to that area during the day time if I got the chance. It is right along the water and although we could hear it, and see the stars in the sky at night, it would’ve been beautiful to see in the daytime. Once we took a cab back, we ended our night strolling the downtown strip, enjoying the chill vibe of the small town.

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Waiting at a super-cute outdoor coffee shop before our tour starts!

Day 3: With an early 8:00 a.m. start to our full-day tour, we made sure we slept on time and woke up early to make it to our tour. This was a long day and we had our bags with us – thankfully we packed light and were assured the coach-sized bus would have cabins for our bags, which it did! We started this day at a general meeting spot with the rest of the group at a really cute local coffee shop. Again, this was a guided tour which I will cover in another post! We got back to Playa Del Carmen after this tour by about 8:30 p.m. and spent time having eating and relaxing on 5th Ave. before taking a 10 p.m. ferry back to Cozumel. This boat ride was one of the scariest ones of my life! It was pitch-black, in a speed-ferry and while everyone else looks normal, I felt like I was gripping my seat for my life! Looking back, it’s almost laughable but, at the time, I was pretty scared! Our hotel (which we didn’t check out of) was right by the ferry docks so we were able to get to bed right away!

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Good reads and good eats at the beach in Cozumel, Mexico

Day 4 & Day 5 were spent relaxing on the beach. On the first day we snorkelled and kayaked in clear turquoise waters and relaxed on beach chairs while eating guac and drinking delicious fruity drinks. It was my first time snorkelling and I had such a great time. I was a bit nervous at first around the fish but after a while, it really didn’t bother me. We paid to get into both of the beaches but this included one free drink and the activities. The second one we went to, Paradise beach, had a beautiful large pool, water games and activities, hammocks to relax in and a nice pier to walk down. This beach was really fun because it had that ‘resort’ vibe but I couldn’t imagine spending everyday there for a week. By the time we left, I was more than ready to go!

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Strolling along the boardwalk on our last day in Cozumel, Mexico

On Day 6 we spent time shopping for gifts, strolling the waterfront in a different direction than what we did on the first day, had dinner at an Italian restaurant a few blocks up from the main centre and then had delicious churros on the street of the main centre. I really wanted more on our last day but the stall didn’t open until the evening and we had a flight to catch!

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Waves crashing along the shore in Cozumel, Mexico.  A welcomed sight for a Canadian in February!

Cozumel was one of those trips we decided on very last-minute and I am glad I went. I don’t think I would have been able to spend all my time on the small island and both of us were very glad we went over to the other side. In the future, I think I would base myself in Playa Del Carmen instead of Cozumel but at the same time, this gave us the chance to have a much more laid-back trip in comparison to the ones we’ve had in the past. Each night we would go down to the local bars (our hotel was in the main square) and watch cover bands play, see breakdancers perform and just people watch while sitting on a bench under a tree. This was a nice trip and very different from other ones I have done. I would highly recommend Tulum to those who want to try a different type of trip to Mexico.

I would also really say skip the resort and enjoy the real, local culture. You meet so many more people this way, learn more about where you are and get the chance to eat really good food!

I will be sharing my tour and experience at the Chichen Itza in another post, really soon.

Below are some more photos from our trip. Enjoy!

How to travel more for less

Since graduating from university, I have had the pleasure to travel at least once a year. The first two places I went to were in the US (Washington + Chicago). In 2014 I got the chance to go to India and in 2015, Pakistan.

Over the last one year though, I was able to go to a few more places – Greece, Turkey, Spain, France, England, the US (Orlando this time) and Mexico. Alhamdulillah I have been lucky to do this and hope to continue traveling!  The key to being able to travel more is to spend less and stay on a budget.

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Swimming pool at the ITC Maharashtra in Mumbai, India

Here are my top ten ways to keep your wallet and experience happy!

 

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Mazar-e-Quaid, also known as the Jinnah Mausoleum; Karachi, Pakistan

 

1. Travel during the off-season

Sure, summer is great, but there are also the downsides – higher prices and children everywhere! Choose to go on the cusp of these popular times and you’ll enjoy shorter lines, fewer crowds and cheaper ticket prices. It’s also extremely hot in the summer. We went to Greece in the summer and at one point during the day in Santorini, we actually stood in an covered walkway for about ten minutes to stay away from the heat!

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Wedding celebrations in Mumbai, India

 

2. Travel with friends

We have yet to do this but are planning something soon and can already see the benefits of costing out cars/cabs/accommodation when doing it in a group.

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Hot air balloons over the beautiful region of Cappadocia, Turkey

 

3. Travel for longer

If you’re going to fly all the way to Europe, take the opportunity to travel within the EU. Last summer, we flew from Greece to Turkey for less that $150 each and only paid about $500 or so to get from Cappadoccia to Barcelona. We would have had to pay much more if we wanted to go there from here. While you may not always have the long vacation time, if you do, make use of it. Sometimes it’s better to go on one long trip instead of two or three shorter ones. It feels much more relaxing this way too!

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The view from our Airbnb in Santorini, Greece

 

4. Stay in an Airbnb or with friends/family

Fancy hotels are nice – if you’re planning to spend time in them. We splurged on our honeymoon hotels in Santorini because we planned on spending a good chunk of our time relaxing and just hanging out. We also stayed at a nicer hotel in Barcelona because we had just dealt with a whole ordeal and wanted something fuss-free. Airbnbs offer a lot of options and some of the apartments are even nicer than hotels. They offer a lot more autonomy and can even give you the option to cook if you choose to do that.

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Some posage in front of Kensington Palace in London, England

5. Use public transportation + walk – a lot!

Always remember to pack comfortable shoes. The best way to see the most of the city is to walk around, get lost, discover new places and meet locals. Whenever we travel, we research the best ways to get around using public transportation. Obviously, there will be smaller places where you can’t always get a public train or bus but you can always arrange for a shuttle to take you to and from the airport and this is usually cheaper than a cab.

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Walking in the beautiful gardens at the Chateau in Versailles, France

6. Pack smart

Sometimes you can get away with a carry-on and other times it just won’t happen! Many flights offer really cheap rates but then get you with their luggage fees. Always read ahead and look into this before booking your flight. At times, it is still cheaper than going with another airline, but again, do your research! Another work-around this is to take one shared larger piece of luggage and a backpack that still meets the dimension requirements and split your clothing into this. Look at ways to minimize what you’re taking by using travel-sized toiletries, wearing a dress instead of a top and pants and reuse bottoms!

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La Sagrada Familia; Barcelona, Spain

7. Avoid shopping

You can be doing really well and then go all out on the last day by popping into a mall – trust me, we’ve been there. There is nothing wrong with buying things when you are away, there are lots of new styles, great deals and different stores! If you do plan to shop, build that into your overall budget and remember you are not always paying in your own currency so the prices will be different than the number you see on the tag. If you do shop, research what the minimum-spend is for tax-refunds. The amount you spend varies by country and you need to get a form from the store in order to get this refund at the airport. If you don’t do it before you leave the country, you won’t get some money back!

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In front of Cinderella’s castle at the Magic Kingdom. Orlando, Florida

8. Stick to your budget!

I can’t stress this enough! Build a budget AFTER doing your research. This way you can have a realistic idea of what things cost, how much is too much and what a local meal can cost you. Having parameters and tracking what you spend will keep you in-check and you won’t go home with a big credit card bill to face. Although it’s easier to track if you take cash, sometimes it’s just more convenient to use your credit card. This way you can check online or have a record of what amount you spent where. Generally, we just jot things down into our phones to get an idea of what we’re at in terms of spending and this way we can ensure we don’t go over budget.

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Traditional Turkish breakfast in Göreme, Cappadocia

9. Eat like a local

Not only is this a great way to eat different foods, it’s also another way to have a budget-friendly trip. You can’t always eat street food or at Mcdonald’s (you won’t want to!) but there are lots of places that you can dine in that the locals go to on a daily basis. If your hotel has breakfast, eat there and then spend a bit more on lunch. If you have an Airbnb, chances are you will have access to a kitchen and a chance to make your own meals or at least your own breakfast. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy nice restaurants but treat those as ‘date-night’ or a special dinner. We always try to go to one really nice restaurant that is vegetarian or vegan so we can enjoy at least one higher-end meal of that region instead of a series of restaurants with mediocre food and high prices. The two notable places we ate were in Spain and Mexico. In Spain we are a delicious vegetarian tapas dinner with a tasting menu (Sésamo) and in Mexico we ate at a vegan Mexican restaurant by the sea, at night, amongst the stars and untouched forest (Restaurare).

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On the Acropolis – Old temple of Athena in Athens, Greece

10. Research, research, research!

It all comes down to this! Do your research, take your time and plan your trip. Don’t go somewhere because someone else just went. Go somewhere that you want to explore, somewhere that you know you will have a good time and somewhere that you can learn more about who you are. I always create an itinerary which is very detailed but not rigid. I am happy to explore other options, see what a local might recommend but I always want to have everything I want to get to on my list so that I don’t forget. I don’t always get to everything but that’s what second trips are for! I use online resources such as Yelp, TripAdvisor and travel websites such as Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. I tend to get a rough guides pocket guide or guidebook if available because it goes into every depth and detail and I can mark which parts I want to see or use the maps to create my itinerary based on the physical location of places. Lastly, I like to use Instagram to search things by using the hashtags. This lets you see what other people are doing and you can look into it more.

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The Louvre at night. Paris, France.

That’s it – that’s everything I’ve got! I can go into further detail on each of these points if that is something of interest. Let me know in the comments below!

Do you have any go-to budget travel tips? Let me know this below too!

 

Happy Travels!