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The true colors of Cuba: Part 2

Barry Ostrow recently recounted his first trip to Cuba on a Friendly Planet Travel tour. Barry glimpsed the 1950s cars lining the streets of Old Havana, met world-class dance students at Pro Danza, and listened to energetic salsa beats at a Cuban dance club — and that was only in the first four days! Here’s the final account of Barry’s Cuban experience.

Day 5: On the way back to Havana from Trinidad, we stopped at the former French city of Cienfuegos. Cienfuegos is a wealthy city thanks to the presence of Cuba’s oil refineries. Instead of the narrow, twisty cobblestoned streets of Havana and Trinidad, Cienfuegos’ main street is long, wide, and lined on both sides with large stores surprisingly stuffed with consumer goods. One of the highlights of the trip was the unexpected appearance of a band of revelers dressed in colorful Mardi Gras apparel, many on stilts, playing instruments, dancing, and pulling bystanders into their midst.

A few blocks away, we visited the art studio Grafica Cienfuegos. The studio’s business model blended old and new Cuban economics. While salaries were still set and paid by the government, the gallery had to sustain itself — buying paper, ink, and equipment — through the sale of its art.

That night, we returned to Havana and our hotel, the famous Nacional, which overlooked the Malecon and featured collages of all the famous people who had stayed there, including Myer Lansky and Frank Sinatra. The Malecon is a ribbon of sidewalk that runs for miles along the Atlantic waterfront. Since we were there on Valentine’s Day, the entire stretch was packed with young lovers.

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The true colors of Cuba: Part 1

Travel opens peoples’ minds, hearts, and souls, and allows them to form new, authentic opinions about the world. This sentiment couldn’t be truer than among our people-to-people program travelers who visit Cuba through our specially licensed program and experience a world that has been shut off to Americans for decades.

That exact experience happened to Barry Ostrow when he traveled to Cuba on Friendly Planet Travel’s Colors of Cuba tour. We caught up with Barry to get a personal account of his people-to-people excursion to Cuba. Here’s the first half of his story, be sure to check back soon for part two.

Day 1: On my first trip to Cuba, I legally arrived with 21 other travelers in Havana to begin my U.S.-sanctioned Friendly Planet people-to-people tour. The tour introduced us to the social, historical, and educational aspects of Cuba, and it certainly opened my eyes to life on the beautiful, yet troubled island. The narrative of the trip was frank with no holds barred. We saw all of the good things the island had to offer, as well as the bad.

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5 things I wish I knew before traveling to Brazil

With the Brazilian World Cup beginning in just two days, I wanted to take a moment to turn away from soccer and politics, and highlight the vibrant and passionate host country — Brazil. Brazil’s a destination that appeals to all types of travelers.

Adventure seekers can spend a day barreling through the rugged Amazon rainforest on a Jeep tour. Beachcombers can lounge on Rio de Janeiro’s famed Copacabana beach. Party animals can samba the night away at hot Brazilian clubs. Brazil is simply unlike any other place on Earth, and while it might be too late to book your trip to The World Cup, Brazil’s still a surefire bucket-list destination for anyone seeking beauty and excitement.

But before you book your flight, check out my list of five tips that you’ll find handy to know before traveling to Brazil. It’s sure to clear up some common misconceptions and help prepare you for this once-in-a-lifetime adventure:

1) Embrace the Brazilian culture

I’ve traveled from Chile to China, and dozens of countries in between, but Brazil stands out as a true cultural gem. The 3.288-million-square-mile country was built on a foundation of indigenous Brazilian traditions, Portuguese customs, and African influences. These independent cultures have shaped modern-day Brazil, creating a unique mix of food, music, religion, and local sights. Visitors can view the intersection of African and indigenous Brazilian traditions by attending a capoeira performance — a Brazilian martial art that combines dance, aerobatics, and music. They can indulge in European sophistication by sampling pastéis de nata, a Portuguese custard tart, in a Brazilian café. Finally, they can feel the unbreakable union of a diverse country by attending a Brazilian national team football game. Brazil has embraced its past to create a nation that accepts all traditions. My only advice is to leave all preconceived notions at the door before traveling to Brazil, as it’s unlike any other Latin American country.

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Peggy’s quick-and-dirty guide to packing light

If you’ve been paying attention to our latest Friday’s Friendly Funny cartoons, then you’ve picked up on my distaste for airline fees. While some are unavoidable, one of the easiest ways to keep your airline costs down is by packing light to avoid baggage fees.

If you’re a serial overpacker, here are some of my quick-and-dirty tips to help keep you underweight and fee free.

Shrink your shoe collection. First and foremost, limit your shoe obsession to two pairs. All you need is one casual pair and one that’s slightly dressier. This will lighten your luggage immensely. Next, pack your shoes on the bottom of the bag, but don’t leave them empty. You should stuff sneakers with socks, belts, and other small items to save space.

Pack early. Don’t wait until that last minute to pack your bags, since rushed packing usually leads to overpacking. Packing efficiently is like a science, so take time to really assess what you’ll need and what you can leave at home. My favorite rule is to lay out everything you want to bring — then cut it in half.

Leave it behind. Leave toiletries at home. Hotels usually provide shampoo, conditioner, and body wash, and anything else you need you can easily pick up in a convenience store at your destination. Also, forget your hair dryer. If you’re staying in a decent hotel, they’ll have one for you. Insider tip: Toiletries and hair dryers might be hard to come by in places like Cuba and Cambodia, so double check before visiting an “exotic” destination.

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6 tips for traveling internationally with your grandchild

My husband and I recently returned from an unforgettable trip to Brazil. The Brazilian beaches, nightlife, culture, and food were spectacular, but the true highlight was vacationing with our 14-year-old grandson, Ben. This was the first time my husband and I planned an international excursion with a grandchild — without his parents — and the experience was one we’ll never forget.

Travel opens a young person’s eyes like no other experience. It introduces them to foreign sights and sounds that free their minds and expand their world views. Travel teaches life lessons, like that people who look, speak, eat, dress, and behave differently are still people just like you.

By traveling to Brazil with Ben, my husband and I also expanded our own world views by viewing the country through his fresh, curious eyes and savoring new experiences through his enormous appetite for adventure. Ben’s excitement began the moment we stepped off the airplane, and he remained in a state of wonder for the entire trip. We watched him soak up every detail, ask questions, embrace a new culture and people, and try strange foods, and we were delighted as every one of his firsts transformed into our own.

The experience not only influenced our views of Brazil, but it also forged bonds among us that would never have been possible under other circumstances. Traveling without Ben’s parents allowed us to truly get to know one another in a new way, and appreciate each other far beyond the traditional grandparent and grandchild relationship.

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9 tips for budget-conscious travelers

International travel can seem like a luxury affair, but that doesn’t have to be the case. If you’re a budget traveler determined to see the world without breaking the bank, you’re in luck. Here are nine of my easy, money-saving tips for traveling overseas.

1. Avoid foreign conversion fees. Sneaky foreign conversion fees can put a dent in a travel budget, adding an additional 1 to 3 percent to every transaction made with a debit or credit card overseas. Before traveling, research if your bank charges a fee for international debit or credit card use. If so, consider applying for a card like the Capital One Visa or any of the other cards that are free of transaction fees.

2. Document your expenses. It’s easy to get swept up in the romance of travel and end up paying 50 euros for a hand-pressed bottle of olive oil or 100 euros for a carafe of local wine, but expensive impulse buys can quickly add up. Instead, create a budget for yourself before departure. Try to decide in advance approximately how much you’d like to spend on food, tours, and even those unexpected items. Then document your daily spend as you travel. This simple strategy will allow you see how much you’re spending, and help curb excess purchases along the way.

3. Shop off the beaten path. Traveling on a budget doesn’t mean you have to forgo souvenirs. Rather than picking up trinkets at the entrance of well-known attractions like the Great Wall of China or the Coliseum, shop at local street markets instead. Not only will you purchase more authentic gifts, but you’ll have fun putting your bartering skills to the test.

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Chinese city spotlight: A traveler’s take on Shanghai, Beijing, and Xi’an

I’m not the only person at Friendly Planet Travel with a love for international adventures. In fact, many of us here at Friendly Planet have been drawn to our work by our love of exotic destinations, and we travel regularly to stay abreast of great new tour opportunities for our customers.

Kate Katubi, a member of Friendly Planet Travel’s reservations team, recently returned from our 10-day A Taste of China tour. As all exotic travel should be, Katie’s trip was life changing, and she wanted to share insights about her tour with us on the Friendly Planet blog. View the slideshow to see China from her eyes and read on to hear what she had to say about three of her favorite Chinese cities.

Exploring the “Paris of the East”

Shanghai, China’s largest city, boasts an array of cultural delights. During my time in the city, I explored timeless silk shops, dined on decadent pork dumplings, and gazed at bronze sculptures at the Shanghai Museum of ancient Chinese art. Within a city renowned for its skyscrapers, I still stumbled upon beautiful ancient gardens and quaint meandering canals. At night, I joined the hordes of tourists and locals at Nanjing road and the historical Bund, and admired the brightly lit streets and Shanghai skyline. This city is a perfect example of China’s growth in the last 20 years.

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The perfect Mother’s Day gift: International travel

It’s almost Mother’s Day, and as a mother and grandmother, I wanted to take a minute to share some motherly advice. While all moms appreciate the traditional Mother’s Day flowers, cards and the occasional breakfast in bed, the ultimate present has always been spending time with our children and yes, our grandchildren. I’ve watched my kids grow from wobbling toddlers to successful adults, and looking back over the years, the moments that bring the biggest smiles to my face are those spent enjoying time together.

With that in mind, I suggest rethinking the traditional Mother’s Day gifts this year, and consider giving Mom a present that will create lifelong memories for your family — a mother-and-child trip to an exotic destination that both of you are dying to visit and enjoy together.

In my more than 30 years in the industry, I’ve heard countless stories about how travel has built bonds and strengthened relationships. In fact, a lot of those stories are mine, having traveled internationally with both my own kids and grandkids. Not only do families learn about new cultures, they learn about each other and gain a new level of appreciation for one another. In case you haven’t discovered any mutual travel “must visits” of your own, here’s my Mother’s Day gifting guide to help you choose the perfect destination for you and your mom.

The first-time-traveler mom: Italy

Italy is a perfect destination for first-time international travelers. Your mom will fall in love with the welcoming Italian people and feel completely at home in the relaxed culture. Stroll through the winding cobblestone streets of Venice, a city that floats on water, and watch gondoliers serenade patrons as they glide along the city’s 177 canals. Travel to Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, and shop for gold, jewels, and art on the Ponte Vecchio, a walking bridge lined with high-end stores. Then gaze upon Michelangelo’s famous statue of David. End the trip sipping bold red wines at a café in Rome and wandering through the ruins of the famed Coliseum. Whether you and your Mom love cooking, art, music or just plain strolling, you’ll find boundless opportunities to make memories that will last a lifetime.

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5 amazing experiences you can only have in China

I remember my first trip to China. After 15 hours in flight, my jelly legs wobbled off the plane and I found myself smack-dab in the middle of Shanghai. I stood amid Pudong, Shanghai’s high-end financial district, in an endless sea of businessmen marching through the city’s metallic skyscrapers. The scene put New York to shame, and motivated me to uncover more about a nation seemingly plucked from the future.

As I ventured beyond the “Paris of the East,” I discovered the true diversity of the world’s most populous country. I journeyed to the water town of Zhujiajiao, glimpsed the barren Karst Mountains, and strolled among the gardens of the Forbidden City. My explorations helped me develop a truer understanding of the country — one beyond the metropolis of Shanghai. China is a dynamic nation, one rooted in the dynasties of the past while integral to our world’s future. It’s a nation composed of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and one of my favorite destinations.

In a country spanning nearly four million square miles, it’s impossible to view all of China’s wonders. For that reason, I developed my list of top five things to see and do in China to help travelers navigate this fascinating land.

1. Hike the Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China is an obvious must-see for any first-time visitor, but the best way to experience the Great Wall is by hiking it, instead of just visiting and snapping a couple of pictures. The wall, which dates back to the Ming Dynasty, stretches more than 13,170 miles in length and is the largest man-made structure in the world. Obviously, no one can hike the entire length. Instead, try the three-hour walk from Jinshanling to Simatai, where hikers can experience the vast ruggedness of China’s wilderness and its lush farmlands.

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Did you win our Great Greece Giveaway? Find out!

Greece is truly a destination of a lifetime, one filled with ancient marvels, world-class beaches, and warm and welcoming people. For that reason, I’m not surprised by the outpouring of excitement that we received around our Great Greece Giveaway. We collected more than 12,982 entries, and out of all of those submissions, one lucky traveler will win a free trip for two on our nine-day Athens & 4 Day Greek Isles Cruise tour!

The winner and a guest can spend a morning sipping Greek coffee in Athens’ Plaka district, and hike to the top of the ancient Acropolis in the afternoon. They’ll sail to Mykonos and wander a maze of winding alleyways and whitewashed villas, and stumble upon hidden shops and tavernas. After a stop on the island Patmos, where Saint John wrote the Book of Revelation, they’ll sail on to Rhodes to explore an island famed for its history, and visit the largest inhabited medieval town in Europe. Finally, the trip will end in Santorini where the winner will lounge under orange-striped umbrellas on black sand beaches.

The Great Greece Giveaway winner will experience all of that and more!

The randomly selected winner of our Great Greece Giveaway is …

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About Peggy

Peggy Goldman is a specialty tour operator and travel expert, who owns and operates Friendly Planet Travel, a full-service company that specializes in tour packages to exotic worldwide destinations at affordable prices.   More about Peggy

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