Crabs in Cambodia

It’s been way too long since I posted anything, which I am blaming on a combination of being super tired at night, having bad wifi, and/or writing in my paper journal instead. But. Here I am in Cambodia! I have a half-written piece on Tokyo, which I will try to finish in the next few days, but here is the cliff-notes version of what I’ve been up to over the last few days:


  • Day 1, went to Mariakan museum, the museum of emerging science and technology. Cool robots! Creepy androids! Out-of-place exhibit on ninjas, with shoes that they used to walk on water. Met my cousin, her boyfriend, and her friend for lunch in Asakusa, then went to the big temple (Senso-ji) and pulled a fortune. It was a metaphor about fishing. An afternoon visit to the Tokyo National Museum ended when they shooed everyone out by playing “Auld Lang Syne.” Then we had conveyor-belt sushi for dinner.
  • Day 2, went to Meiji Jingu, a huge Shinto shrine, and its beautiful gardens. Met my cousin and her boyfriend for lunch in Harajuku (cold udon is a thing, and it’s delicious), then bought cute Japanese socks. In the afternoon I went to a Hayao Miyazaki exhibit on the 52d floor of Roppongi Tower. Couldn’t understand any of the signs, but the drawings were cute and the views fantastic. Walked around my hotel’s neighborhood (Shinjuku), quickly stumbling on the love hotels and men-only massage parlors, but also passing the very cool neighborhood of Golden Gai. Four alleyways lined with tiny bars, each seating no more than 10 patrons.
  • Day 3, I had a 3 o’clock train to Kyoto. I went to the Imperial Palace in the morning and wandered around the gardens, then went to Ginza, where I went to a soba shop and ordered what I thought was the tea I saw everyone around me drinking. They brought me a teapot full of the water they had been cooking the noodles in. I missed having my cousin to translate/explain, and did not drink it.


  • Day 1, I arrived around 6 pm, just in time to drop my bags off and get to the place where the river split to see the huge (as in, the whole hillside) bonfires for Bon-Odori/O-Bon, a religious festival. Kyoto lights five fires, each a different character, and all symbolic. I got to the riverside at 7:30, and it was pouring. Pouring. Pouring. I didn’t have an umbrella, just a raincoat, because I was planning to buy a cute Asian umbrella. Goretex let me down, and by the time I got back on the subway at 8:15 (theoretically they lit the fires at 8, but I sure didn’t see anything), I was squishing with every step.
  • Day 2, I went to Kiyomizu-Deru temple, which is up in the hills. I walked down a gravel path behind the temple, and saw a path going into the woods with a little sign clearly showing it was a hiking trail. Could I read any of the words on the sign? No. But it went somewhere, so I started walking. I climbed up the mountain, until I was way above and behind the shrine, and couldn’t read any of the signs I passed, though it was obviously still a hiking trail. I did eventually find a 2-inch sign in English, and found another trail that led back to the other side of the temple. I got a lot of mosquito bites. Walking down the hill towards Nishkin Market, I stopped at Kennin-Ji temple, where I rested my feet and cooled down while staring at the Zen garden. What do you know, it was peaceful. Zen, you might say. I ate lunch at 3 pm, continuing my cultural misunderstandings by ordering something called sashimi (it was slimy… bean curd strips? I don’t know) and pouring tea into the check stand. I then bought way too many souvenirs, and went back to the hostel to do laundry.
  • Day 3, I went to Hiroshima. I got there around 10 am, went to A-Bomb Dome, the Peace Park, and the museum. The museum hadn’t been renovated since it was built in the 50s, but they were in the middle of doing that, so half of it was closed. That meant a whole museum’s worth of people squished into half a museum. I couldn’t see most of the exhibits over the pack of people, which took away from an otherwise moving experience. Lunch was okonomiyaki, a Hiroshima treat of pancake, cabbage, bean sprouts, bacon, egg, noodles, and several sauces and spices cooked on a big griddle. There’s a food court that sells nothing but that, so I picked the most crowded place and waited in line. I had just enough time to hustle to a beautiful garden, where a couple in kimono were getting their wedding pictures taken, then I caught my train back to Kyoto. I went straight to the Fushimi Inari shrine, where there are red torii gates lining the whole path up the mountain. It’s a 2-hour hike to the top, and the sun was setting, so I only went halfway, but it was beautiful.
  • Day 4, I slept late and then went to Arashiyama, a western suburb of Kyoto. I had a kaiseki (Kyoto haute cuisine) lunch, then walked in the bamboo groves. After an afternoon visit to the monkey park (so cute!) I went to Gion in an attempt to see geisha. I saw one from a block away, and then bought a ticket to a super touristy show so I could see Japanese traditional arts, including the tea ceremony, flower arranging, and a geisha dance. I finally had ramen for the first time for dinner.
  • Day 5, I went to Nijo Castle, which was really cool. They had a nightingale floor, so you couldn’t sneak up on the shogun. I had tea in the traditional tea house. Then I caught the train to Hakone.


  • Day 1, I arrived at the Ryokan (Japanese traditional inn) around 3:30, having had to drag my bags uphill a kilometer in the rain. But they fed me cold tea and a sweet as a welcome, and then I could get straight in the onsen (traditional hot springs), which was why I had come. They’re public (though segregated by gender), and naked. I did not like the way the 5-year old girl stared at me, it made me self-conscious. The ryokan had 4, and I tried all of them: one before dinner (the genders switched for each one at 7 pm), one after, one when I woke up at 4 am, and one before breakfast at 8 am. The place was super traditional, tatami and sliding doors, and a six-course meal served to you in your room. So many kinds of fish. Some good, some gross. Sleeping in a traditional Japanese bed is like camping on a good camping pad, if someone chopped the bottom of your sleeping bag off (my feet stuck out the end).
  • Day 2, breakfast also had lots of different kinds of fish. I didn’t eat the baby sardines, I have a thing against eating eyes. Then I left my bags and went to the Hakone Open Air Museum, basically a big outdoor sculpture garden in the mountains. They have a public foot-onsen, which was odd but fun. Then I walked to the train station, caught the switchback-single track-mountain train, walked down the hill to the ryokan, picked up my bags, walked to Hakone station, took that train to Odawara, caught the Shinkansen to Shinagawa, changed to another line, took that one stop, changed to another line, walked two blocks, and finally ended up at my airport hotel.


  • Day 1, I woke up early in Tokyo, had sushi for breakfast, and made it out about an hour before a typhoon hit and they closed the airport. It was a bumpy ride. 7 hours later, I landed in Singapore. My hostel (a “capsule hotel,” not really, do not recommend) was in Chinatown. I went to the Chinatown Cultural Heritage Center, a cool museum like the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, tried and failed to get chicken rice at a hawker center (they were closed, I got rice porridge and mystery meet from another stall instead), and saw the sound and light show at the “Supertrees” in this big public garden.
  • Day 2, I went to the zoo. There’s this cool place where you go through like 4 doors, and then there are whistling ducks, mini deer, 2 kinds of parrots, ring-tailed lemurs, bats, butterflies, all just hanging out around you inches away. The elephant show was entertaining but also maybe exploitative, I felt somewhat conflicted. Then the botanical gardens, then Little India, then Arab Street. I did some shopping in both places, and had very spicy Indonesian food for dinner. I went to the People’s Park Complex and got a foot reflexology massage, my first, which was very painful but seems to have worked because my feet don’t hurt as much as they used to and the weird cramp on the bottom of my left foot is gone. I had a durian milkshake, but could only down four or five sips before I had to throw it away, it was so gross.
  • Day 3, I went to the gardens by the bay to try to go on the catwalk up in the Supertrees, but it was raining so that was closed. Then I went to the national museum, then I finally got my chicken rice. The airport has a sunflower garden on the roof. And I arrived in Cambodia around 6 pm.


  • Day 1. My friend who’s doing her Ph.D. research in Cambodia met me at the airport, and we took a long and winding tuktuk ride through all the bad parts of town (the roads were big craters full of mud, so we kept turning around), past karaoke bars where the women sit in rows of chairs so customers can pick one, and past big piles of burning trash. We stayed at a hotel a few blocks away from where she used to live, in the hipster ex-pat part of town, and had a very nice dinner of Khmer food. We went to a hotel’s rooftop bar for drinks, and ordered cocktails based just on the name. Mine was good, fresh apple juice with liquor (tequila I think) mixed in, but hers was a little fishbowl of bright blue liquid balanced on a bigger fishbowl full of lights, a battery pack, and flashing multicolor LED lights.
  • Day 2, today! We woke up early and a driver took us down south to Kep, a town which used to be a French resort town back in colonial days. We dropped our bags, changed into bathing suits, and walked over to the crab market. They wade out, pick up a trap, bring it onshore, and then cook the crabs then and there for you. It was too early for crabs, I had a mung bean waffle instead, and then we went to Rabbit Island. You get on this narrow wooden boat and just head over the bay for about half an hour, then have to climb down a ladder and wade in (there’s no dock). The beach was beautiful, and the sun came out. We both got sunburned, stupidly. Then we hung out by the pool, had crabs for dinner, and here we are, surrounded by a mosquito net to keep out not the mosquitos but the geckos and giant-ass spiders who call this bungalow home. Seriously, the spider that crawled off the toilet paper when I tried to use it was a solid 3 inches.

And that’s it, I’m finally caught up! Japan, Singapore, and Cambodia part 1 in a nutshell.

The View From The Top

I’m finally here! It took 28 hours and 37 minutes door-to-door, but I am nicely settled in a “ladies room” on the 14th floor of a Tokyo hotel. I was following the advice of the “First Time in Asia” Lonely Planet book to make sure you had a nice place to stay the first night because of jet lag, and I’m glad I did because I think I woke up at 3 am and every 20 minutes from 5-7, but I could always roll over and go straight back to sleep since the room was so quiet. My plan for the day is to go to Mariakan, the museum of emerging science and technology (robots!!!!), walk around the neighborhoods of Asakusa and Ueno, and probably go to the Tokyo National Museum. I’m going to try to meet up with my cousin, and she has some friends she wants to see, so we’ll see how it all shakes out. Also it’s the O-Bon festival, which means some stuff is closed (like the Tsukiji market, which I am very bummed about), but hopefully that means there will be a parade at some point. When I’m traveling, I love stumbling onto local parades and street fairs, because everyone who’s there is always, without fail, very cheerful and happy, and the good moods are infectious.

When I checked into the room, the lady at the front desk gave me this cute little goody bag with shampoo and things, which surprised me because it seemed like a nice enough hotel that it would already have that in the room. But it turns out that the Ladies Rooms come with special perks: I was opening all the cabinets and finding all of these little machines, most of which I could not identify. I did figure out what the foot massager and clothing steamer were, but there were two other little boxes. A white noise machine maybe? And a mystery box? But the goody bag also came with a questionnaire.


So I’m assuming the mystery box is a face steamer. I have no idea what that is or how to use it, but I might give it a try. There are also all sorts of little packets and things, most of which are either only labeled in Japanese or which have very generic names (e.g. “ladies amenity”, which I’m guessing is a pad?) in English.


I picked the ladies room (it’s on a floor that only women stay on) because I had heard that drunk Japanese businessmen can get a little pushy, and it cost the same price as all the other rooms so I figured why not, plus it was guaranteed to be non-smoking, but based on the questionnaire the “ladies amenities” and “ladies facilities” are also things that people seek out. I’ll try to ask my cousin’s boyfriend if this is a common thing in most big hotels, to have a women-only floor, but he probably won’t know.

For the last twenty minutes or so of the flight, I started chatting with (read: lightly interrogating) my seat mate, because even though he was obviously American he was also a Japanese citizen (since he had refused the foreigner card when the flight attendants were passing out immigration forms). It turns out he was bringing his boyfriend to meet his ultra-conservative Japanese relatives, and so all of his time living in Japan had been mostly with family. But he did confirm some of the things I hadn’t been totally sure about, namely that Google Maps is absolutely essential, and unless you read and speak Japanese you really can’t get around without it. Japanese addresses are for the location on the street on the block in the district in the bigger district in the something else in the city, and without Google maps you have to go find the district map to figure out what block to go to. Sort of like DC, where there are four places where Second Street intersects D Street, and you have to know which quadrant you’re in, only in a language that I can’t read. Also when I was asking about manners things, he basically said I can get away with anything because I’m so obviously white, and if people get upset with me for being rude I will probably never know. (Unlike in his case, where his relatives get mad at him for being rude but don’t tell him why.) I will try not to be rude, but there are so many extra rules! When the front desk lady handed me back my passport she did it two-handed, which reminded me that you’re never supposed to hand things to people with only one hand, and that I had therefore been rude to (so far): the people at the SIM card counter, the ticket lady at the airport, the guy at the information desk in Ueno station, and the lady at the front desk when I handed her my passport in the first place. Oops.

Two random facts about Japanese customs: they ask about swords on the forms. (Like, “are you importing illegal drugs, explosives, or swords.”) Also, they funnel you through a single file line next to a quarantine station (big sign reading “This is a quarantine station! We do NOT provide ANY medical care!”) so a thermometer can read your temperature, and over a carpet soaked in disinfectant. There were a lot of signs warning about various diseases, with maps of the world color-coded in various shades of red to indicate risk, but it was all in Japanese, and the US was the palest yellow, so I figured I was fine unless someone told me otherwise. The only word in Roman script was “MERS”.

Getting to the hotel was surprisingly easy, because the trains run so. precisely. on. time. I started with the information desk at the airport, asking her to tell me how to get to an ATM machine, a SIM card seller, and the train. Money in hand, it was time to get online. There were a bunch of counters selling SIM cards, I just picked the closest one, and paid about $35 for 200 mb of data each day for 15 days. More expensive than India, but still very cheap given how impossible it would be for me to function without a smartphone. I asked at the train counter what the best way to get to Shinjuku was, since Google Maps was telling me about trains and buses and I wasn’t sure what was easier, and she looks at the clock (it was 8:03 pm) and says “There’s an 8:10 train, and you only have to change trains once. But you only have seven minutes! Go!” So I hustle downstairs, and wait in line, and by the time I step up to the ticket counter it is 8:07. And yet I managed to get on the 8:10 train with not only my train ticket (I love the train names, it was the Kaisei Skyliner) but a two-day pass for the Tokyo metro. Amazingly efficient.

It took me longer to get the 500 meters from Shinjuku to my hotel than to walk 1 km from the main Ueno station to the one that had the E subway line, because there are so many exits, and so many streets, and all the streets were packed with people on the Saturday night stroll. I kept getting turned around. Thank goodness for Google Maps! Even when I could see the tower of the hotel, I couldn’t necessarily figure out which streets took me to the entrance. The only obviously drunk guy I saw was this older man, who was being carefully steered away from the crowds by very cheerful-looking policemen with white gloves. Somehow I can’t imagine the Times Square police on a Saturday night with white gloves on.


So I have now spent one night in a Western-style room, and I have to say, other than the fact that the bed is raised off the floor, there is no question about the fact that you’re in Japan. I won’t sleep on a tatami until near the end of the week, when I stay in a ryokan, so I don’t have anything to compare it too, but the Japanese definitely like their mattresses and pillows FIRM. I slept well, but I think it will take my back a while to get used to the new normal.

The mattress has no springs, and has an interesting pattern on the top:


One of the pillows is a normal feather pillow on one side, but then it’s like straw on the other, you can sort of see the ridges on the top:


And then the other pillow is sort of like a cross between foam and straw:


When I say straw, it’s not spiky like real straw, it bends, but it’s like a bunch of flexible straws sewn into pockets. Also, the toilet has a lot of buttons on the wall for the various angles of spray, and you can set the water pressure. Toto is definitely not in Kansas anymore!


And So It Begins!


I’m sitting in LAX right now, 12 hours into a trip that started at 4 am this morning with a drive to Logan Airport to catch my first flight. It was pitch black, and I had my fingers crossed I would be able to see the Perseid “meteor storm,” but unfortunately it was still cloudy. It was a beautiful sunrise, though, and I learned that Boston’s rush hour really does start at 5:30 in the morning.

First stop: Tokyo! I’m going to have three nights in Tokyo, then catch the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto for four nights. I’m planning to use Kyoto as a base for day trips to Hiroshima and probably Nara, though so far I’ve only read the Tokyo section of the guidebook. Whatever, I still have an 11 ½ hour flight from LA to Tokyo, plenty of time. I’m checking out e-book guidebooks from my library instead of buying a bunch of paper ones. Traveling light, 2016 edition. So far, my library has me covered, but I probably will end up buying the e-books for at least a few countries.

My cousin is in Tokyo right now visiting her boyfriend, and she speaks Japanese, so I’m planning to meet up with her on Sunday or Monday and hopefully she can show me around a little. She taught English in the southern part of Japan for a year, so I will also pick her brains about what to do in Kyoto/Hiroshima/Nara/etc.

Although I’m nowhere near as exhausted at this point as I was the only other times I flew to the other side of the world (India: the day after finals ended; Australia: a Sunday flight after spending all day Friday/early morning Saturday moving my entire apartment from DC to Boston and then catching a bus to New York), I’m still spending my first few nights in Japan in a hotel, to get over the jet lag a bit before I switch to sharing rooms in hostels. The hotel advertises “Godzilla-view rooms,” which should be interesting.

So excited to start my adventure!

Packing List

When I started planning this trip, and realized that I would have to deal with temperatures that could top 100 (Cambodia in August) or dip below freezing (Iceland at the end of September), I started looking at packing lists in travel blogs to see what other people suggested. I found them super helpful, so I’m publishing this packing list in case anyone else finds it useful. I’m sure I overpacked, because my suitcase is heavy, but I’m planning to ship a package home from Hong Kong with most of my warm-weather clothes and shoes, so that should help. (Part of the weight also comes from the clothes I’m bringing to the friend I’m staying with in Cambodia, because Amazon Prime doesn’t exactly deliver to her apartment.) I thought about trying to do the carryon-only backpacking style of trip, but for the reasons I mentioned in an earlier post, I decided to bring a few more things and just check the bag.



  • 1 pair sneakers
  • 1 pair walking sandals
  • 1 pair plastic flip-flops
  • 1 pair silver sandals
  • 1 pair black flats
  • 1 pair black booties

Six pairs of shoes is a lot, I admit, and the silver sandals and black flats didn’t necessarily need to come, but it’s going to rain for part of each day in many of the places I’m going, and I hate going to dinner in soaking wet and muddy shoes. I’m going to send the silver sandals back from Hong Kong, because once I’m in Europe it should be cool enough in the evenings that flats won’t give me blisters. The black booties are waterproof, and I’m planning on wearing them when it’s rainy and cold in England and Scotland. Plastic flip-flops are a necessity for hostel showers, and I’m going to be doing so much walking I want to be able to switch between sandals and sneakers if one is bothering my feet.


Coats/Cold Weather Gear

  • 1 packable down jacket
  • 1 rain coat
  • 1 lightweight jacket (water resistant on the outside, fleece on the inside)
  • 1 fleece hat
  • 1 pair fleece gloves
  • 1 pashmina-style scarf

So the key here is layering. I looked like an idiot wearing three coats on top of each other in my oven of an apartment in July, but I confirmed that if I wear the down coat, then the jacket, then the raincoat, a) it all fits, b) I can still move my arms, and c) it’s warm. I also am bringing a few merino sweaters, and with all that put together, plus a hat and gloves and the hood on my raincoat up, I should be comfortable in Iceland. I hope. The jacket and the pashmina scarf come in my carryon, because I get cold on planes, and everything else rolls and squishes into a medium-small packing cube. The down jacket is one of those ultra-lightweight down jackets from Uniqlo, which is only $70, packs to the size of a fist, and is water resistant.



  • 6 t-shirts
  • 4 long sleeve shirts
  • 4 wide-strapped tank tops
  • 2 spaghetti strap tank tops
  • 3 merino tops (1 ultra-lightweight base layer, 2 sweaters)
  • 2 lightweight cardigans
  • 1 button-down shirt
  • 2 pairs jeans
  • 1 pair quick-dry travel pants
  • 2 knee-length skirts
  • 1 dress
  • 2 bathing suits

For working out/hiking

  • 1 wicking t-shirt
  • 1 wicking button shirt
  • 1 pair athletic leggings
  • 1 pair athletic shorts
  • 1 pair yoga pants
  • 1 pair hiking socks


  • Pajamas
  • 12 pair underwear
  • 6 pair socks
  • 1 pair leggings
  • 1 pair tights

The indulgences here are the second pair of jeans and the second sweater. But it all fit in, under the weight limit, and I know I’m going to be so sick of everything else by the time I get to the UK/Iceland that I will be happy to have different clothes for the colder weather. I’m planning to do most of my laundry in the sink, and only use a washing machine every 10 days or two weeks for stuff that either doesn’t fit in a sink or won’t easily air dry. I found this awesome clothesline at REI that fits in a pouch smaller than my thumb but stretches out to be pretty long, and I have a little bottle of Dr. Bronners and a rubber sink plug.



  • DSLR camera
  • Laptop
  • iPad mini (for reading e-book guidebooks)
  • iPhone
  • Mini power bank (for recharging the phone in the middle of the day)
  • Converter plug with USB ports
  • Noise-cancelling headphones



  • Very thin cable, for locking my suitcase to the rack on overnight ferries/trains
  • Packable towels (1 full-size, 1 hand towel), so I don’t have to pay towel fees at hostels
  • Swiss Army knife
  • Safety pins
  • Paperclips, for switching SIM cards
  • Bug spray and sunscreen
  • Makeup and jewelry
  • Journal
  • Headlamp, for finding stuff in my bag at hostels
  • Hats
  • Medicine and tissues. I always seem to get a cold when I travel.
  • Portable humidifier. (It’s only about 3x3x6, and weighs about half a pound. It takes any regular disposable plastic bottle of water. I often get colds when I travel, and if the air is too dry, I wake up every 15 or 20 minutes because I’m so thirsty.)


I hope this was helpful!

How To Choose A Hostel

So, you’ve decided to take a solo trip, and you’ve taken a look at your budget. If you want to be able to do fun activities, you realize you need to keep your lodging costs below $50/day, and $15/day is sounding even better. That means a hostel, rather than a hotel. Today, Airbnb is also a cheap option, but I like the social aspect of hostels, and the chance encounters with strangers that can lead to fun discoveries, so I won’t discuss Airbnb here. If you’ve never traveled alone before, it can be overwhelming to sort through all the options and find a place you’re happy with. I have stayed in over 20 hostels in the last 6 years, in 15 countries (including the US!), and I have developed a system that has served me well.  Just follow these steps, and you should have a smooth hostelling experience.

1. Research the city you’re going to. Look at maps.

The location of your hostel is far and away the most important thing about it. Before you start looking at specific hostels, you need to get a sense of what neighborhood to be in. When I travel alone, I am very careful about going out after dark. If it’s a purely residential neighborhood, and you start to feel unsafe, there’s not much you can do about it, because there’s no one around to intervene and no place to go into for help. That’s why, especially if I’m traveling during a time of year where it gets dark really early, I like to stay right downtown, in commercial neighborhoods where there’s a lot of stuff to do, and places to eat, within walking distance. So, start by looking at the Google Maps for the city. Zoom in and out enough that you get a sense of where the train station, bus station, and airport are; if there is a subway system, how close together are the stations and how much of the city does it cover; how clustered are the museums/tourist sites; and how long it would take you to walk across downtown (which tells you how important public transit will be). If you’re zoomed at the right level, the map gives you the names of the neighborhoods, and you can keep that in mind for step 2.

2. Look at several hostel websites in tabs at the same time.

I generally find that between and I’m set, because they’re the two biggest ones, but there are lots of other options if you google “find a hostel in [city]”. You enter the city, the dates, and the number of guests, and see what results you get. For Tokyo, checking in August 13 and checking out August 16, for one person, Hostelworld found 48, starting at $19.93 per night, and Hostelbookers found 45, starting at $20.98. So obviously both websites cover the same universe of hostels, but it’s worth it to look at both because they have different ratings and reviews, which helps you make the final choice once you’ve narrowed it down. I used to use both, but when planning this trip I’ve found that Hostelworld has WAY more options once I’ve set the filters, particularly more highly rated options, so I’ve been using it exclusively. Its rating system also seems more precise than Hostelbookers’.

3. Filter out your deal breakers.

As a starting point, I filter out any hostel that doesn’t have free wifi and that has a rating below 65%. It takes a lot for people to leave bad reviews of a hostel, and at this point in my life I don’t feel like dealing with the headaches that go along with that kind of place. (Like not enough hot water, dirty bathrooms, doors that don’t lock, etc.) Realistically, I won’t stay anywhere that’s rated below 80% if I can help it, but it’s best to start broad and narrow in. You can also look for places that have washing machines, common rooms, bars, air conditioning, a gym, and many other types of amenities. At this point, most highly-rated hostels in big cities have been custom built, or renovated, with a global crowd of short-term travelers in mind, and they’re more like fancy hotels with bunk beds and shared bathrooms. Sometimes they’re called “flash packing” hostels, which means you’re less likely to be sharing your space with someone who’s living their long term. That’s a good thing. (In Chamonix, two friends and I took three beds in a 10-bed dorm. All the other beds were filled with people who had just come up to ski for the weekend, except for one lady who had been living there for four months. She made the atmosphere so uncomfortable with the way she had laid claim to the space, with her towels and socks drying on lines strung all around, that we spent no time in the room except to sleep. And then the room smelled like feet, which is always a risk with dorms but less common in nicer ones that are regularly cleaned, and filled with short-term guests.)


4. Read the reviews

This is the fastest way to weed out unacceptable hostels, so that you only bother looking at the details and pictures of the serious contenders. If a review mentions bedbugs, construction noise (and it was written within the last 3 months), dirty bathrooms, or a musty smell, I’m done with that hostel, especially if more than one are telling the same story. But once you’ve gotten past that step, dig a little farther back in the reviews to get a feel for the place. Is everyone talking about all the great friends they made while they were hanging out on the roof deck? That tells you that the common space is well designed, and probably comfortable for you to hang out in and socialize when you aren’t in the mood to go around in the neighborhood. One hostel I stayed in in Nelson, New Zealand baked a huge chocolate cake every night at 8 pm, so you could count on a full common room every day. If it wasn’t for the people I met my first night (who I then went on a day-long hiking/kayaking excursion with, and who then wanted to get a beer after a long day outdoors), I would never have discovered the coolest craft-beer bar I’ve ever been in, where the taps are just colors because the beers change so much. (It’s called Free House and it used to be a church, Are people singing the praises of the helpful staff, who gave them advice on where to go and how to buy tickets, or are they complaining that they had to stand in the street with their bags for an hour because no one was around to let them in? Especially if you haven’t done a lot of research on the city ahead of time, a knowledgeable person at the front desk is worth their weight in gold. Plus, a lot of big urban hostels have connections to free walking tours, and sometimes the guide will even swing by the hostel to pick you up if the hostel regularly sends big groups on the tours. I have taken free walking tours in Berlin, Sydney, and Melbourne through hostels.

Another thing to keep an eye out for is comments from the season you’re going in talking about the temperature. If you’re going to Southeast Asia in the middle of the summer, and the reviews talk about how they only run the AC for 8 hours at night, so it’s muggy and hard to sleep, that’s a bad sign. Similarly, if you’re going to Switzerland to ski in the middle of the winter, and people are complaining that it was hard to find extra blankets and they shivered all night, that’s not ideal either.

5. Select your room type

This is the category where I have arrived at all of my conclusions through bad experiences, so I am trying to save you from having puke splash on you because the bunk beds are too close together by sharing my wisdom, moving from larger room sizes down to small.

  • Don’t stay in a dorm with more than 12 beds, 16 max. I stayed in a 24-bed room in the Hague, and the beds were so close together you had to turn sideways and suck in your stomach to navigate around the room. There was absolutely nowhere to put your stuff, and when the guy on the top bunk next to me was too drunk to make it to the bathroom, puke splashed on me. Don’t do it. The rooms are never big enough for that many beds. And unless the weather is warm enough to leave a window open for fresh air 24/7, they stink.
  • If you’re a woman traveling alone, don’t stay in a mixed-gender room smaller than 6 people. In Berlin, the first night in a four-bed room was me and three other solo women travelers, in a nice new hostel where the room had its own bathroom. The second night, I walked out of the shower to find three guys who were all friends with each other, who had been pregaming before getting ready to hit the Berlin nightclubs hard. They were gentlemen, but unfortunately not everyone is, especially when they’re drunk and in a group of friends they’re trying to impress, and in a bigger room there’s a smaller chance that every other person will know each other except you.
  • If you’re staying in a mixed-gender room, I’ve found the sweet spot is 8 beds, because that’s usually 4 sets of bunks, and there’s generally enough floor space for everyone’s luggage. It’s usually a mix of pairs, trios, and solo travelers, and you can meet some really interesting people. In Barcelona, I shared my room with a French mother and her two children, who were staying in a hostel because someone had pickpocketed the mother and they couldn’t get back to France until the consulate replaced their documents since you can’t take children across international borders without papers; and two British girls who were traveling around Europe for a few months and who accompanied me to a sangria bar I had heard about but didn’t want to go to alone. In Vienna, I met a ballerina who was just about to go pro after graduating from college, who thought going to the opera and getting sachertorte after (standing room tickets at the Vienna Opera House are only 3 euros) was a great idea, so she changed her train by a day and rounded up another friend. And so on.
  • At this point, I always try to get a bed in a women’s only room, and if I can’t at one hostel often I will choose a different hostel where women’s only rooms are available. Safety is the biggest reason, but also girls generally don’t snore as loudly. There was one guy in Melbourne who was so loud that I couldn’t sleep all night, because it sounded like he had swallowed a dinosaur and it was trying to escape. And, while shared dorm rooms don’t necessarily smell like sunshine and flowers, especially if it’s in a place where people are there to do a lot of outdoor sports, the average stank-level is definitely lower in women-only rooms. Often the other girls in the room are traveling together, or at least some of them are, so it can be harder to make friends with your roommates, but as long as the hostel has a nice common room that really doesn’t matter. Since uninterrupted sleep is a higher priority than in-room socializing, I go for the smallest room I can get, usually a 4-bed. However, single-gender dorm rooms can go up to 12, though usually not much larger. Some hostels do have men-only dorms, but it’s less common than women-only ones.
  • Private rooms are great if you’re traveling with a few other friends, but if there’s only one of you, you need to read the terms carefully. If it’s a room with a double bed, the price listed is the price per person, so it’s actually twice that if you want to stay in it alone. One of the requirements of a private room generally is that you pay for every bed in it, so if it’s a 4-bed room you pay for four beds even if there are only three of you. It’s not super common, but some hostels do have private rooms for one person, just barely bigger than a twin bed, and those can be really nice if you want privacy. They’re more expensive than half of a double private room, but still way cheaper than a hotel, because you’re still sharing the bathroom with the other dorms. In Rotorua, New Zealand, I stayed in a single private room, and it was great because the sinks, toilets, and showers were just steps away, but I could watch videos without having to wear headphones, Skype without having to go into a common room, and not have to worry about being woken up by someone stumbling in late from a bar.

6. Look at pictures and the map to confirm your choice

At this point, it’s probably down to two or three choices, so look at the pictures they’ve posted of the rooms, bathrooms, and common spaces to get clues about how comfy the common space is, how big the kitchen is (if you’re planning on cooking), and if it looks like there’s room for your suitcase in the room. Double check the map to make sure you’re not in the middle of nowhere, half an hour’s walk away from the nearest public transit.


Congratulations! You’re ready to book your hostel!


In praise of checked bags

Last night I returned from a five-day trip to Santa Fe for a family wedding, and I checked my bag both ways. Even though it was a small roller board, the kind that can (and has, on many previous trips) fit easily in the overhead bin, I found that flying with only a backpack made my trip a lot more comfortable. That wasn’t the main reason I did it (I was traveling with elderly relatives, and I needed my hands free to assist them, including with their roller board), but the experience confirmed that the right choice for me on my big trip is to check a bag, rather than try to live only out of a carry-on for 47 days.

The biggest pro of checking your “big” bag is that you don’t have to keep your backpack under the seat in front of you. I’m studying for the bar this summer, so I needed to bring several Barbri books to New Mexico with me. I packed two of them in my checked bag, but between the book I kept out to work on during the 4 1/2 hour Boston-Denver flight, my notebook, my laptop and iPad, my headphones, my little plastic case of flashcards, my guidebook for Japan, my wallet/sunglasses/phone, chargers for all my electronics, and pens/pencils/highlighters (plus a water bottle), my backpack was pretty full.  (I don’t care how hard it is to fit the giant case in my bag, I never ever fly without my Bose noise-canceling headphones. I bought them 5 years ago with my very first bonus, and I feel vindicated every time I get off a long flight, when my travel companion says “such a shame about that unhappy baby!” and I have no idea what they’re talking about.)  We flew United, because it had the best timing for Boston-Albuquerque, with departures at noon or 10 AM and arrivals at ~7 PM, but I was promptly reminded why I hate American legacy carriers. Or maybe just United.

Both flights out (Boston-Denver, and Denver-Albuquerque) were on brand new planes, with thinner cushions in order to fit more rows of seats in the plane. There wasn’t enough space between the seats for me to bend forward and get things out of my bag, unless I had packed it just right, because I could only reach into the top 5 inches. The TV screens, unique to each passenger, only worked if you paid $8, otherwise you could creep on the screen of your neighbor (and not hear any dialog), or just watch 5 hours of ads in a row. I’m ashamed to admit it took me 3 hours to break and figure out how to turn the screen off completely; I kept hoping that they would eventually put on one old movie for the whole plane, the way they used to do 20 years ago, but they were too sophisticated (at nickel and diming you) for that. No, you either paid a lot for premium content or you got no content at all. My sister-in-law flew American, and was able to watch Eddie the Eagle, which was not necessarily a fine piece of cinema but which was definitely better than one hour of Discovery Shark Week per two hours (because of all the ads), on repeat. So what does this have to do with checking bags? Basically, in order to have any legroom or access to what’s in your bag, your under-the-seat bag should be small enough that you can get a foot around it and kick it back out to the space next to your knees. But, given how much you have to carry on (especially for long haul flights, international flights, or both, when I add a toiletry bag, snacks, clean shirt/socks/underwear, and more travel documents to the list), you can’t fit it into a tiny bag unless you’re actually traveling with three bags: a tiny bag (headphones, water bottle, and stuff to read/work on during the flight), a bigger carryon (toiletries, stuff to read/work on in the airport or on different flights, change of clothes, chargers, other electronics, etc.), and a checked bag (the clothes/shoes you will wear at your destination). In other words, in order to get enough legroom (if you’re traveling for more than a few days), it’s more comfortable to check a bag.

Other pros of checking a bag, which I had forgotten about (because I almost never do it), include being able to fit both yourself and your luggage in a bathroom stall without anything rubbing all over the toilet; maneuvering through crowds without tripping the people around you who never look down; and wandering through airport stores without being paranoid about knocking anything off the shelf. Also, you don’t have to worry about bringing full-size liquids or gels (because you can just check them), and you can make sure that your handy swiss army knife will be with you for your picnics. And you can put all the heavy stuff in the checked bag, so your shoulders don’t hurt.

Cons of checking a bag, of course, include having to pay ridiculous baggage fees, and waiting at the carousel for your bag to come when you know you could have been on the train/in the cab already. Also, no one else takes care of your stuff as well as you do, so you need to pack more carefully when checking it, but with the knowledge that TSA goons might always mess with your careful packing. (When my dad came to help me pack everything in a U-Haul and move for law school, he brought a claw, one of those things that you put on the steering wheel to make it harder to steal a car, so that we could be more confident that no one would drive our fully loaded truck away. The WHOLE POINT of these things is that they lock into place once expanded, and can only be retracted with the aid of a special key. TSA expanded it. His suitcase was never the same.)

Nonetheless, I am going to be doing enough sitting on planes over the next few months that I’m willing to wait a few more hours (I’m hoping less than 6 over the whole trip) in exchange for 60+ hours of more comfortable flying time. I need to buy a new suitcase though, because while checking a bag on international flights is nearly always free, many of the carriers I will be flying impose a strict 40 lb limit. My current “big” suitcase (28″) is 12.5 pounds when totally empty, and is big enough that, when full, it’s far more than 40 pounds. So, I’m currently researching hard-sided 24″ bags, which weigh in at more like 8.3 lbs, and won’t have the space to be filled to a higher weight.

Below, I’ve added a few pictures from the wedding, which had a Mexican-ish theme. The Mayor of Santa Fe witnessed the signing of the marriage license, and then serenaded everyone with “Volver,” accompanied by an all-female mariachi band. The image at the top of this post is the quadruple (!!!) rainbow which appeared for about ten minutes during the reception.

The tequila/mescal bar
The wedding feast: cornish hens with homemade rose petal sauce (garnished with edible rose petals!), homemade molé with turkey, rice and beans, and quinoa stuffed peppers with some sort of tasty sauce.


My name is Emma, and I graduated from law school less than two weeks ago. I’m spending this summer studying for the bar, and also planning my post-bar trip: a 47-day (mostly) solo adventure around the world. This is my third I’m-making-a-big-transition solo trip, and I’m hoping to share some of my planning tips and tricks before the trip, as well as my stories (and plenty of photos!) once I’m on my way. I also joined Instagram half an hour ago, so you can find me there at #atwlawyer (

A little bit about me and traveling: I grew up in Illinois but have also lived for 6 months or more in Australia, England, France, Ithaca (NY), Boston, and DC. I have been to 41 states and 38 countries on 6 continents, and I am as into food (both cooking it and eating it) as I am into travel. I spent my first year after college as an au pair in a Paris suburb, dipping my toes in the water of solo travel by going all around Western Europe during school breaks and on the weekends. My first big transition trip was the two weeks between when the kids got out of school and when my visa expired and I headed to DC to get my first real job. I went to Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland) and Germany. My second transition came between quitting my job and starting law school (four weeks in Australia and New Zealand).  Now, I’m done with school and I’m about to start my career, and it’s time to get out of my comfort zone and figure out who the new-and-improved Lawyer Emma is and how she should interact with the world. I’m hoping that 6 weeks in 9+ countries will do the trick!

If you decide to join my on my journey, expect to see pictures and hear stories from Japan, Singapore, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Finland (very briefly), Budapest, Croatia, ??? (TBD; Italy? France? Spain?), London, and Iceland. Right now, the only thing I have planned are the dates I will be in those countries/cities, because I had to buy plane tickets, but over the summer I will work on where to go and what to see/do/experience in each place. I can’t wait!