The best guidebook is the one you write yourself

The best guidebook is the one you write yourself

“For every traveller who has any taste of his own, the only useful guidebook will be the one which he himself has written.” 

                                                 -Aldous Huxley

No kidding. During our home exchange to Paris last summer, our best tips didn’t come from Fodor’s or Rough Guide or Lonely Planet but from the pile of hand-picked and well-worn books, magazines, newspaper clippings and hand-written notes left for us by our exchange family. 

I vowed we’d do a similar favour for our Berlin exchange visitors this coming summer, and was delighted to run across a new offering from the good folks at Moleskine, creators of the sleek little Italian notebooks favoured for centuries by artists and other creative types.

Moleskine City Notebooks –the “guidebooks you write yourself”–are currently available for dozens of international destinations, including Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver in Canada. Each blank 3.5 x 5.5″ 228-page leather-bound notebook features the Moleskine hallmarks: an elastic wrap-around closure, an accordion pocket for receipts and such, and ribbon placemarkers. But you also get detailed city and transit maps, a street index, blank pages for notes and diary entries, indexed pages with space for shopping, dining and entertainment recommendations, and tear-out loose notes.

Includes a detailed city map

Includes a detailed city map

At just over $17 CDN (from Amazon.ca), this is the best guidebook investment a committed home exchanger will ever make.

Buy one for your home city and fill it in during the year, then leave it behind for your guests with a request that they add their favourite finds to it. And then buy another one for your destination city, fill it in during your exchange holiday, and leave it behind as a gift–to be added to by other guests over the years.

Related post: 10 tips for a successful home exchange.

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At the sold-out Northern Voice 2009 social media conference in Vancouver this past weekend, Nora Young, host of CBC’s entertaining technology-and-culture show Spark, was a keynote speaker. On the drive home, I tuned into her program and gleaned this clever travel tidbit:

Before you hit the road, consider scanning all your essential printed documents–passport, visas, credit cards, train passes, vaccination records, and the rest–and then saving them all as PDFs  on a tiny, totable USB key. If the unfortunate day comes when you need to prove you are who you say you are, you’ll have all the important details close at hand.

Ain’t technology grand? 

On a recent not-quite-full flight to Mexico (sorry Canada, but my seasonal affective disorder was reaching epic proportions), I was reminded that the booking of airline seats should not be left to amateurs.

My girlfriend had chosen our seats when she booked the flight, and in an effort to keep us together, she’d sensibly booked an aisle-and-middle combination. The problem, of course, was that the window seat was later claimed by a guy bigger than both of us put together.

It was, as my husband likes to say, a teachable moment, and I explained to my friend the following (almost) never-fail trick for avoiding the sardine can experience on an airplane.

First: use the electronic check-in kiosks whenever possible–even if you’ve already been assigned seats by a travel agent or airline

During the electronic check-in process, you will asked to confirm your seat selection. You will be able to see the location of your pre-assigned seats, as well as any unclaimed seats.

Second: secure a seating arrangement that leaves a middle seat empty

It seems counter-intuitive for people traveling together to split themselves up, but that’s the magic of this system. When you book yourself and your companion into a window and aisle, that leaves a middle seat free–and no one likes to sit in a middle seat.

When the next person comes along to do their seat selection, they will avoid the middle seat and look for a window or aisle somewhere else–even if it means they have to break up their own traveling unit.

Third: be prepared to give up your better seat

Nine times out of 10, using this system I have found myself left with room to spread out. The middle seat is still vacant when the plane starts rolling down the runway. However, sometimes if the flight is full, someone will be forced to claim the dreaded centre seat–and then I simply ask them if they’d like my window or aisle seat so I can still sit next to my travelling companion. They always agree to the switch.

Try it–it really works!

And while you’re at it: beat the bank at Priceline.com

There’s another little travel trick you should know about too. You likely already know that you can save big money by bidding on hotel rooms at Priceline.com. But there’s a hitch: if your bid isn’t accepted the first time around, you have to wait for a period of time before you are allowed to try again. There is a way around it though: check out this helpful little post by friend and fellow Vancouver-based travel-writer Randall Shirley.

How about you–any travel-deal workarounds you’d like to share?

Reading the TravelCUTS blog today (always find great budget-minded travel tips there) and was reminded by this morning’s post of the value of carrying calling cards whenever you hit the road.  

It’s an old-fashioned concept–a small card with just your name, and possibly an e-dress or blog URL–that you can you can tuck into the backpack of a new friend to make it easy to stay in touch when you’re home again.

I know a guy–a very polished Vancouver businessman–who carries only simple white cards with just his name embossed in black on one side. He uses them for business and pleasure, jotting down the appropriate phone number or address in ink depending on who he is handing his card to. It eliminates the need for different cards for different contexts–and it just looks classy.

When my daughter moved into residence at university a couple of years ago, I ordered some free cards on-line from VistaPrint with just her name, cell number and e-dress (three things that aren’t likely to change anytime soon), and she has since carried them to China, France and Switzerland.

The cost was a meagre $5 for shipping and the cards were on good stock, but you have to accept a tiny line of VistaPrint advertising on the back. I was so impressed with the print quality that I ordered some custom cards for myself–for a small fee, you can forego the advertising. Makes a nice gift for a new grad heading off on a gap year…

Update March 6, 2009: I’ve since learned about another company, Moo, that offers inexpensive custom-printed mini calling cards. My writer friend James Glave ordered some to promote his Bowen Island B&B, and I was really impressed with the quality–and the fun factor.