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Advice for Americans traveling to Cuba

Our recent survey of folks who’ve traveled to Cuba on Friendly Planet people-to-people programs showed how these trips are changing the hearts and minds of Americans nationwide. U.S. citizens get a unique opportunity to meet Cuban people one-on-one in these programs, learning how the Cubans live, work, and play.

The big lesson from our survey? As traveler Cynthia Richmond told us, “This was the most meaningful trip I have been on. You will not come back as the person you were.”

Respondents were also eager to offer advice to other Americans traveling to Cuba. If you’ve been considering visiting this island nation, read on to hear what they had to say.

Just go, and go now!

“If you have the opportunity, go. It’s an experience of a lifetime.” - Jose Deleon, traveler on a people-to-people program with Friendly Planet in May 2012.

“Don’t put it off, go now! You won’t regret it. What a wonderful opportunity and I can’t wait to go again!” - Suzanne Wells, traveler on a people-to-people program with Friendly Planet in March 2013. (more…)

American travel to Cuba: The truth you need to know

We’ve sent thousands of travelers to Cuba over the past few years through people-to-people programs, and we recently conducted a survey to better understand their experiences there. I spent this weekend reading over these travelers’ comments from the survey, and it was mind-blowing. Their trips to Cuba forever changed them — a truly transformational experience that opened their minds, hearts, and souls to the people, culture, and arts of this island nation.

How about you? Looking for an exotic, once-in-a-lifetime tour? A way to connect with a people and culture? These folks would suggest you take a trip to Cuba, soon. Here are some of the most poignant responses from our survey.

Culturally, what impact did your trip to Cuba have on you?

“I learned more about Cuban art and culture than I could have imagined … Meeting world-renowned artists in their studios and talking to young artists was the highlight of the trip. Being able to purchase artwork to bring back was a joy.” - Mona Becker, traveler on a people-to-people program with Friendly Planet in December 2012.

“I saw a vibrant people who love music and art. Who are always striving to be their best. A country where people care about each other and take pride in their country.” – Marilyn Cantisano and Donald Southworth, travelers on a people-to-people program with Friendly Planet in October 2013.

“It reinforced for me that people are very much the same regardless of nationality, origin, or standard of living.” - Steve Rutherford, traveler on a people-to-people program with Friendly Planet in February 2013.

(more…)

Why travel to Cuba and why travel there now!

Today I am more passionate about the power of travel than any time in my long career of helping people experience new places around the world. That excitement stems from a survey of Friendly Planet travelers who have recently visited Cuba under our people-to-people program. The results dramatically underscore how travel, more than any other endeavor, opens peoples’ minds, hearts, and souls, and allows them to form new, authentic opinions about the world.

The survey showed that 81.3 percent of those who traveled to Cuba with Friendly Planet would return again if given the chance. That is the highest intended return rate we have ever seen here at Friendly Planet. The reasons are many and fascinating.

Image © Jeremy Woodhouse | Pixelchrome.com

Our survey revealed that people-to-people programs are transformational events in the lives of our travelers. They go to Cuba not for luxury or creature comforts (Cuban travel infrastructure is still lacking), but rather to experience the people, culture, and arts; connect with Cubans on their terms, under the conditions they currently find themselves; and learn about Cuba now, before it’s forever changed by the outside world.

A trip to Cuba changes minds and opinions, allowing travelers to set aside politics and connect personally with the Cuban people as they go about their daily lives, struggling economically, but achieving much through their art and culture. In some ways, it represents a step back in time, before cell phones and the Internet, when people shared their lives through music, storytelling, and simple small talk within their homes and public plazas. It is this setting that shatters expectations and connects travelers directly with the Cuban people.

Image © Jeremy Woodhouse | Pixelchrome.com


According to our survey, the surprises are many. For example, 78.1 percent of our travelers were surprised by how open and friendly the Cuban people were toward American visitors. Some 67.6 percent said that upon their return, they could more easily separate politics from culture and appreciate the people for who they are!

And isn’t that the real intent of traveling the world and meeting other people? Isn’t our real drive to learn to appreciate the world directly, without filter or bias? It’s easy to form opinions from a distance, even the mere 90 miles that separate America from the Cuban shore. But it’s much more real and much more accurate to shelve our own opinions until we spend time with a people, immersed in their culture.

Image © Jeremy Woodhouse | Pixelchrome.com

Make no doubts about it. These travelers were honest about their experiences. They saw both the good and the bad of the politics and economics of the Cuban experience. But they also witnessed the nobility of the people. Their pride in their heritage. Their intelligence and wit. In fact, the most valuable findings of our survey had nothing to do with statistics and everything to do with heartfelt sentiments. Here are just four firsthand accounts from Friendly Planet’s Cuba travelers:

“You will take away so much more than you can imagine from your trip. After you leave Cuba, ask yourself the question ‘How can I make a difference for the Cuban people?’ My answer would be: Tell everyone you can that you, an American, have been to Cuba and it is time that more Americans go and see … this country and change our attitude.” – Jean Pluchar, traveler on a people-to-people program with Friendly Planet in April 2013.

“We felt like our trip to Cuba was an incredible gift. … There was so much to see and do and absorb, and the people-to-people interactions were what made it so special. Cuba was nothing like the 51 other countries we have visited in the past.” – Robin Hannigan, traveler on a people-to-people program with Friendly Planet in January 2013.

“It provided a more personal understanding of the people, culture, and political structure than you can ever experience in books or TV documentaries.” – Drew Nixon, traveler on a people-to-people program with Friendly Planet in November 2013.

“This was the most meaningful trip I have been on. You will not come back as the person you were.” – Cynthia Richmond, traveler on a people-to-people program with Friendly Planet in December 2012.

From my involvement with the people-to-people Cuba program, my own love of travel has been renewed and refreshed. I am reminded that travel opens vistas, encourages understanding and acceptance, and reminds me that people are basically the same everywhere.

Our people-to-people programs to Cuba are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to gain a deep and lasting appreciation for an island nation where people care about each other, are amazingly creative, are able to withstand great challenges, and treasure family and love visitors. No doubt Cuba will evolve, sooner or later, to meet the realities of our world. But for now, at this moment in time, Cuba offers the rarest of chances to open one’s mind, one’s perceptions, and one’s heart and soul to forever be transformed.

We plan to publish a number of the survey’s findings here on our blog and through the media. So check back frequently to learn more about how a trip to Cuba will forever change your life!

Discovering the magic of ageless India

The following story from Cherie Thiessen, a traveler on one of our Taj Mahal Express tours, ran in Senior Living Magazine’s December 2013 issue. I was truly impressed by her fabulous article about India, which captures the essence of the scenes she describes beautifully. I experienced those very same places, and her descriptions reminded me of the details, which we typically tend to gloss over in our hurry to take everything in. She, on the other hand, noticed all the special tidbits that make India so fascinating. Read on for her story.


We’re swerving and bumping our way along one of the world’s oldest roads: the historic Silk Route, one of a network of connecting trade routes linking East, South, and Western Asia with Europe and North Africa. We’re only taking this impossibly congested road from Delhi as far as Agra, a mere 240 kilometres, but that will nevertheless take us all day. Here’s what will slow us down:

  • Cows lying in the middle of the road, nonchalantly munching on garbage. The drivers all manage to veer around them without altering their speed.
  • Two truckloads full of students, standing cheek-to-jowl in the back as they jerk and jostle to the music spilling out of the front. Every time the vehicles slow, some of the agile youths rappel out of the trucks and swap places, nonchalantly flicking in and out of traffic. Our driver brakes.
  • Women in rainbow saris balancing bales of chaff the size of smart cars on their heads, the edges of which scratch against our windows.
  • Vehicles ahead of us abruptly stopping in the middle of the road to enable occupants to pray alongside three-storey Hindu statues whose large eyes eerily track our every move.
  • A school bus crammed with tidy, uniformed children, barreling down on us on the wrong side of the freeway, forcing our two lanes of traffic to further divide into a very emaciated three. An overloaded fruit truck inching past the school bus so closely that a young arm is able to reach out and grab a banana from the teetering pile.

We wave and the children wave back exuberantly. (more…)

The fearless international traveler

2013 was quite a year for growth in international travel. For instance, Americans explored Cuba in record numbers and interest in active and volunteer tourism has reached new heights, further indicating that many people are very excited to explore our fascinating world in traditional as well as innovative ways.

We wanted to investigate further into this growth trend to determine just where people stand on international travel at the close of 2013. So, we conducted a poll on our website and gathered over 23,000 responses from travelers around the world. We also studied the research of top-tier organizations to get the full picture of the state of the international travel industry. We created the below infographic from our findings.

All in all, I believe we can bill 2013 as the year of the “fearless international traveler,” and I’m excited to see where our industry progresses in 2014.

The top holiday gift of 2013? You might be surprised – It’s water.

Think about how many times you’ve used clean water today. Did you wake up and take a sip of water from the glass on your bedside table? Did you take a shower, brush your teeth, use the bathroom and wash your hands? Did you make a cup of coffee, rinse off an apple before sitting down at the computer to read this article?

Many Americans don’t think twice about having access to safe, clean water, but for many more people around the world, access to potable water is difficult or even impossible. In fact, according to UNICEF, 768 million people worldwide do not have access to clean drinking water, and nearly 1,600 children die each day from lack of access to safe water.

Cambodia is one of those countries where people are in desperate need of clean water. So, maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself, but when we started sending tours to Cambodia, we thought the major reason to visit this small, Southeast Asian country, was the incredible site of Angkor Wat. This long-ago abandoned temple complex overgrown with jungle flora is a magnet for tourists, as well it should be. It never occurred to us that our tours to this coveted UNESCO World Heritage Site and important international destination would lead us on a different kind of journey, one that would bring us even more satisfaction than our visit to the fabled site of Angkor Wat.

Surrounding the site, there are many Cambodian villages where people struggle every day to find enough water, clean or not, for drinking, bathing, irrigating crops, and cooking. As you drive through the countryside, the lack of good water is as apparent as the magnificence of the Angkor temples.

Of Cambodia’s 14 million citizens, over 9 million suffer from intermittent diarrheal disease caused by contaminated water. On top of that, women and children often have the responsibilities of retrieving water, walking far distances for what little water they can access, and caring for the sick. These duties take up most of their day, leaving them unable to contribute to the workforce or attend school, which has contributed to Cambodia’s lack of economic growth.

But here’s the surprising truth: There isn’t a shortage of water in Cambodia — there’s plenty of it in the ground. Villagers simply lack the funding, infrastructure, and skills to dig the wells they need to access it. The cost to dig and install a pump well that provides clean, drinkable water? About $230, according to the Trailblazer Foundation, a non-profit that helps Cambodian villagers create self-sustaining economic and educational programs.

Once our Cambodia departures were established, we became keenly interested in projects to help out in this impoverished place. On one of our tours, the guide pointed out a well bearing a plaque hand-painted with someone’s name, a Western name at that. “That’s a Trailblazer well, donated by a tourist,” was his explanation. Some of the travelers on the bus wanted to know how much such a well could cost, how many people it could serve, and other details, and once the guide finished explaining the facts, several of the travelers on the bus offered to pay for wells. Thus began Friendly Planet Travel’s wells project and our association with Trailblazer.

But the Trailblazer Foundation was busy digging wells and helping in other important ways before we ever met them. In fact, the foundation has had a significant impact on Cambodia for over 10 years, with many Cambodians gaining access to clean water thanks to their efforts. And while Trailblazer’s impact is growing, there’s plenty of work to be done, especially by rallying the support of American tourists to Cambodia.

(more…)

Don’t miss your second chance to save on every Friendly Planet tour!

Cyber Monday at Friendly Planet was a whirlwind — many travel enthusiasts from all over the U.S. and Canada, too, booked incredible tour packages at our best discounted prices of the year.

But for all of you that didn’t get a chance to book with us on Cyber Monday (or want to plan another trip!), we heard you, and we’re offering a second chance to book your dream vacation this holiday season at highly reduced prices. We’re discounting all of our tours AGAIN for our “Second Chance Monday” sale on Dec. 9! Tours to 36 countries will be $100-$300 off per person.

Our 24-hour blowout sale will take place on Dec. 9, starting at 12:01 a.m. EST and ending at 11:59 p.m. EST.  Like Cyber Monday, we’ll be offering these deals for online reservations only, but feel free to call us at 800-555-5765 if you have any questions.

You can’t afford to miss these savings twice! Get a sneak peek at all of our discounts today by visiting our website.

10 tips for stress-free travel this holiday season

When traveling during the holiday season, you can expect to find higher fares, larger crowds and lines, and a bit more hustle and bustle than any other time of the year. But don’t let these factors stress you out or influence you to alter your travel plans.

I travel throughout the year, but can attest that preparation is especially key to staying stress-free during holiday travel. So, I’ve compiled my best advice for booking your vacation, packing your suitcase, and keeping your cool when traveling this holiday season. Read on for my ten stress-free holiday travel tips.

Book early

  • When I say early, I mean YESTERDAY. The longer you wait, the more it’ll cost, assuming you can find space at all. So make your plans ASAP to get the best deal.
  • If you know that you want to get away, are on a budget, but don’t know where to go, I suggest traveling to a European capital, like Paris, Rome or even Prague. There are plenty of great airfare and hotel deals around Thanksgiving, especially.   
  • This next tip may not work for everyone, but if you can travel ON a holiday, you’ll usually find space and save some money. For example, Christmas Day is often the beginning of low season (and hence, costs less) for some destinations. However, Dec. 24, Christmas Eve, is still peak season. There can be a big cost differential there, so weigh your options carefully. (more…)

Save $$$ on EVERY Friendly Planet tour during our Cyber Monday sale!

You might not believe what I’m about to say because it’s a little crazy, but get ready! Today we’re announcing our Cyber Monday sale, where we’re discounting EVERY Friendly Planet tour by at least $100, with some discounts of up to $500 on select tours and departures.

That means that we’re discounting tours for travel to 36 countries. From going on safari in South Africa, to exploring the fascinating cuisine in Thailand, to climbing to the top of Machu Picchu in Peru, to kissing the Blarney Stone in Ireland, to exploring the culture of Cuba, or going down under in Australia, it’s all on sale. If you’re been dreaming of taking that vacation and exploring a brand new country and culture, the time to book is on Cyber Monday during our 24-hour blowout sale.

Our prices are already deeply discounted for travelers, but our Cyber Monday discounts push the envelope even further. We’ll be offering these deals for online reservations only, starting on Dec. 2 at 12:01 a.m. EST and ending at 11:59 p.m. EST. But you can feel free to call us at 800-555-5765 if you have any questions about our deals. So talk to your family and friends now and decide: Where are you going in 2014?

We encourage early booking on Monday because space is limited, and we expect many departures to sell out quickly! Get a sneak peek at all of our discounts today by visiting our website.

The miracle of Israel that touches travelers of all walks of life

The following is a guest post from Dr. Steven Derfler, who just returned from Israel with a group.


Traveling to the ancient land of David and Solomon, Sarah and Deborah, the ministry of Jesus, and 3rd holiest place in Islam, is to be profoundly touched by history. The art and archaeology of this biblical world “puts flesh onto the bones” of the literature and religion that shapes the 3 great western religious traditions.

As an archaeology professor who has been a part of many excavations in Israel, and served as the American director of 2 projects, I try to bring the passion of rediscovery to those who travel with me. As a result, in-depth explanation on an archaeology and history-oriented study tour brings the biblical world to life again. Then, when you add in the opportunity to visit the sites with fellow archaeologists involved in the process itself gives a first-hand perspective not often found in study tours.

This was lure of our program this past October. Perhaps the signature site for archaeology and history of ancient Israel is the mountain-top monolith of Masada; overlooking the Dead Sea. The fortress citadel of King Herod over 2000 years ago, this site later went on to become the rallying point of Jewish identity and self-preservation — as defenders were the last to hold out against Rome in 73 CE. Having worked on the mountain myself, one of my closest friends in Israel is the Director of Masada National Park, Eitan Campbell. He would greet the group personally, and offer his own eloquent description of the fortress initially excavated by Yigal Yadin in the mid-60s. It has been the focus of his entire adult life in Israel, and his love for the site came through in his discussion — a fact not lost on the group. (more…)

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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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