Travel Hacks for First Time Cruisers

Travel Hacks for First Time Cruisers

To be on a massive floating hotel, seeing the huge anchors for the first time, the wonder of seeing inside the cruise ship for the first time and the best part is how much the staff cater to their guests. Going on a cruise makes any traveler feel like they have hit the height of their financial glory! Yet there are a lot of fees that are tacked on, after you pay the initial fee for the trip that many first time cruisers don’t know about. There are also the rules on tenders, drinks, gratuities and so much more that I wish I would have known before taking my first cruise. After traveling all over the world on several different cruise lines, seven different cruises, and during different seasons and hemispheres – here are my travel hacks for first time cruisers.

Booking Your First Cruise

First step is booking your cruise. I would pick out the cruises that you want to go on, even if they are your dream cruise or they are super expensive. Write them down, and head over to Cruise Fair Monitor. This website will track your cruise prices for you, to search for the lowest possible fare. Simply put your destination, desired dates, length of cruise, and even the cruise line you wish to cruise with and emails will be sent with stellar discounts are available.

travel hacks for first time cruisers

If you book right around the holidays (Thanksgiving and Christmas) your cruise will be much cheaper.

If you have more than two people going with you, then your going to find that your total cost of the cruise will be significantly reduced. Just be sure to let the cruise ship know that there will be 4 people, or 3 people with you. Some rooms don’t have more than just the two beds for single person to fit. They would need to put you in a room that had the fold down bunk beds (for four people), or the rooms with a couch (three people).

Ships that are repositioning, going over the transatlantic and even last minute deals are going to be incredibly affordable. I have some friends that scored a transatlantic cruise for around $201 total! While that was several years ago, it is still possible to find incredible deals if you diligently look.

If you are trying to book a cruise right during the busy season, then call the cruise ship booking agent and ask for a “guaranteed stateroom” to get the absolute lowest price on whichever cabin type you’re interested in (inside, outside, balcony, suite). With this type of room you are guaranteed a room within that particular type of stateroom range or higher. What’s the catch? Well you don’t get to choose the cabin’s exact location on the ship. This could mean a balcony, but it could be under the dance floor, or have an obstructed view (aka life boats are in the way).

travel hacks for first time cruisers

I highly suggest calling the booking agent and asking them what side of the ship they would suggest for the best views on the way to the last destination. Also ask them which room has an unobstructed view, and the rooms that are further away from the elevators. When people drink too much, they get loud. If you can, get a balcony room. You can watch the wildlife of the ocean from the comfort of your room and don’t have to take photos through the window of the dining area, or the plexi glass put up to prevent people from climbing over the railing. Otherwise the few spots that are unobstructed, you are typically fighting all the other passengers for that perfect photo.

Travel Insurance For Your Cruise

There are a lot of reasons to get insurance for your airline flight, but why would you need travel insurance for your Cruise? Well with how frequently cruises have been in the news, let me just remind you of a few reasons as to why you SHOULD get travel insurance.

What if you get sick while on the ship, and need to see the ship’s doctor. What if break your ankle on land, but don’t want to miss the ship and end up going to the doctor on the ship – your going to end up with a massive medical bill.

If you miss your flight, and then miss your ship – travel insurance should fly you to the next port. It can also cover the cost of your cruise should you have to cancel it.

There was a couple that had their luggage taken from the cruise ship staging ground and it was taken to the wrong ship. So they went on a 2 week trip with just the clothes they had bought with the minimal clothing they were able to find in the cruise gift shop. The cruise did happen to provide a $100 gift card for the mistake, but trip insurance can reimburse you for the full cost of the clothing you had to purchase from lost luggage.

Culture Trekker Tip: Don’t book trip insurance with the cruise ship. They often have minimal coverage and is very expensive. It doesn’t cover your pre or post trip, nor your flights to or from the trip. You need to specifically ask the cruise ship to NOT include their trip insurance. I suggest using World Nomads Travel Insurance, because you can tailor make it to your trip and activities you plan to participate in.

travel hacks for first time cruisers

Solo Traveler Cruising

It is more expensive to travel as a solo cruiser, but more and more ships are realizing not everyone has a special someone or family that can afford to travel. There are also some hard core cruising Facebook groups that people are looking for someone to travel with. If you book a group tour cruise, then you can typically find someone to room with in those groups.

If not, then here are a few cruise ships starting to offer passage for solo travel crusiers.

  • Norwegian Cruise Line
  • Holland America
  • Royal Caribbean International
  • Silversea Cruises
  • Crystal Cruises
  • Seabourn Cruise Line
  • Cunard Line
travel hacks for first time cruisers

Packing for A Cruise

While there are amenities like laundry services available, if you are wanting to save a little money – bring laundry soap, color catcher sheets (temperatures aren’t reliable), clothesline and pins from the $1 store for hanging things in room. Get a balcony room so you can air out the room for drying things off and two swimming suits to trade off while . I would also ask a cruise agent if they use tokens or quarters for the laundry room. Getting tokens on our last cruise was the hardest part. The tokens often run out, and you are left to go fight the crowds at the concierge desk for more.

There is typically only one plug available in a cruise ship, so traditionally people would bring power strips. The power strips with surge protectors are now banned, but there are a few like this power strip that are Cruise ship approved. So be sure you bring this one otherwise your other power strip will be confiscated.

Some cruise ships are still working on allowing notifications being able to be delivered to the other members of your party through their app. Walkie talkies tend to not work, as the frequencies get lost between the metal floors and structure. So bringing a pen and sticky notes, or a small white board to leave notes for other people in your party in case they come back to the room and/or can’t find you is one of the best things you can do. Along with this, it is also a good idea to bring a watch, or a phone with a clock that you can all set to the ships clock. This will save you on missing the boat, missing shows, and more. The crew goes by the captains clock, so be sure you are back at least an hour before they say they will depart.

travel hacks for first time cruisers

Over the door organizer this is a life saver if you have more than a few people in your cruise cabin, especially kids. This gives each person 3-4 pockets they can store shampoo, toiletries, or extra shoes/flip flops in. You can over the door organizers on amazon, or at the dollar store.

Many people don’t realize the walls of the cruise cabin are actually made of metal. So bringing magnets to post up pictures of the dog at home, the daily schedule, or even hooks that you can string up an extra clothes line to let clothes/snorkel gear dry out. These are the metal hooks I use.

I wish I would have had binoculars on my last cruise, it would have made seeing the Manta Rays, jelly fish and all the other sea life on the cruise of South America so much easier to see from the 15th floor. I would also highly suggest bringing a reusable travel straw to save a few more non-recyclable plastic pieces going in the ocean. While your at it, stuffing a pair of reusable silverware (I suggest Bamboo silverware) for shore.

I used to bring Tupperware to take a roll or sandwich to shore, but they do not allow this any longer. Now I just bring protein bars for shore excursions if I’m tied up having an adventure, or can’t find something that doesn’t have peppers in it.

Beach and snorkel rentals from the ship or the shore can sometimes be as costly as taking a private tour. So I suggest bringing your own snorkel gear, reef safe defog and sunscreen a packable beach tent, and a few microfiber towels with you if you can fit it in your luggage.

Be sure to check out my basic packing list, and other cruise packing tidbits.

travel hacks for first time cruisers

Parking and Transport

You have to think of how much parking in an abandoned dock is going to cost you while your gone. Sometimes the parking can start at $140 for 7 day cruise. You also have to take into account the traffic in the area, on the way to the cruise ship. The ship will have 2000-4000 other people arriving at the same time. If there is more than one cruise ship going out that day, then there could be more people arriving all at the same time.

I suggest allowing at least 3-4 hours prior to the ship leaving to get in and to the port. I wouldn’t suggest getting a taxi at the port if you are disembarking, the taxi drivers know your desperate. This is for those cruise ships who are relocating, or will only be going one way and not round trip. Will you have to fly back to the airport you departed from, and then pay to make your way to the dock as well? It is definitely something to think about if you are looking for transportation to or from the dock, or will be parking near the port.

I would also consider the safety of your vehicle in a parking lot at a working port. These areas are commonly abandoned, and have cars broken into if they are not guarded 24/7 while your gone. These guarded areas are more expensive, but well worth the peace of mind.

travel hacks for first time cruisers

Drinks on a Cruise

Drinking while on a cruise is quite common, you will see loads of people doing it. The cruise ship will often give you a credit to use on board. What many people don’t realize, is that each and every time you buy a soda or alcoholic beverage – they will automatically add 15% gratuity to the bill.

Limit yourself to only having alcoholic beverages at night or every other night or just on the formal nights. You make the rules, and both your waistline and pocketbook will thank you. If you try to buy an unlimited alcoholic beverage package before the ship, everyone else listed in your room will have to buy one as well.

Regular coffee on the ship is typically free, but a speciality drink like a Latte is going to cost more.

Culture Trekker Tip: Buy the drink buckets with beer, which are far more affordable and come in a variety of packages. You can also brink one bottle of wine or 750ml champagne bottle per person on board.

You can also bring Starbucks insta-latte packets and just ask for hot water. If you are a soda drinker, then stop by a store on the way to your port and get a 12 pack of soda. Just ask your room porter for a bucket of ice if you like a cold drink.

Motion Sickness on a Cruise

I have an entire article on motion sickness and ways that you can treat it while traveling. You have to ensure that if you are prone to motion sickness while traveling, then it is imperative to treat yourself before you get on the ship.

There are some people who claim that getting in the pool if the waters aren’t too crazy, can help with the inner ear issue. It can help with calming the feeling of motion sickness. If the waves in the pool are too aggressive, then the cruise ships may close down the pool, so just keep this in mind.

Get Away From the Crowd

While vacations are great, I am one who likes to get away from the crowds and have some alone time. Just to unwind, be present in my own thoughts, and just enjoy the sound of the ocean lapping against the boat. Places I highly recommend going are the aft and bow of the ship. They tend to be two very overlooked places to relax onboard. The Library during mealtimes and/or the side of the anytime eating that is closed when the ship switches from lunch to dinner.

Get in the hot tub during movies to stay warm on the cold nights on the ship instead of snuggling under a blanket. Getting in the pool when it is raining, or going to the pool that isn’t the easiest one to get to is also a great option.

travel hacks for first time cruisers

Avoid the buffet on the first day, eat before you get on the ship. It is going to be a mad house of people gorging themselves on their first ship meal. I suggest going to a specialty restaurant for the first day instead as a way to celebrate your first cruise in style. Just make sure there is one that will be open on the first day of the cruise.

How to Not Gain Weight On a Cruise

Weigh yourself as soon as you get on board so you can keep tabs of any weight gain during the cruise. This a particularly good idea if you’re on a longer cruise, it gives you strict accountability. I also tend to wake up early on each day at sea to workout, and if we are docking/arriving in port later in the day I will typically workout as well.

Something else I love doing, is signing up for the cycle classes, you can burn up to 1000 calories in an hour participating in one of these. You can go as fast or as slow as you want, it is easy on the joints, and you won’t lose your balance if the ship is rocking.

The first day is always a freebie for me, but after that I make a rule to always use the stairs…no excuses.

Take your FitBit or bring along an inexpensive pedometer to track all your steps and calories burned. You may be surprised at just how much walking you can unconsciously do on a big ship! Make a goal of walking at least 10,000 steps a day. Typically there is a good track around the outside of the ship you can walk. Just be careful of the wet floor from the waves, especially on stormy nights.

Ask for the early dinner times, so you aren’t eating really late. Also ask your waiter to avoid bringing bread to your table, if your with a large party – then just make a rule you can only have it WITH your meal, not before.

Sign up for classes, take advantage of the massage discounts once you get on board – the days you have shore excursions will be cheaper than sea days.

DIY Shore Excursions

Always look at your itinerary and see if the ship requires you to tender to shore. Those who utilize the ships excursions are always the first ones allowed to get off the ship. So take that into account should you DIY your own excursions. I would suggest doing your own excursions as much as possible, unless it is an excursion that is a small group.

I have found when I do my own excursion, there are less people around, I enjoy it more, and I can go off the beaten path a little more.

Keep in mind that the port may not be close to town, and the ships may have paid the port authorities to block the transport you paid for from picking you up – or dropping you off at night. There have been several ports I have watched people RUN all the way down the dock, to make it just in time onto the ship, just as they were pulling in the loading ramp.

There are a few guidelines to doing my own shore excursions. I will look on Trip Advisor for “Shore excursions in ______”. If it says shore excursions, then I contact the company via email. Let them know what day I’m coming in, and what times we will be in port. I will typically give them a time that is 1.5 hours prior to when we are supposed to leave, that way I have a little time for souvenir shopping & know if we run into problems or traffic that I still have a small window to reach the ship.

When you are scanning yourself off the ship, be sure to check the time on your watch to the crews ship. I will bring a watch, because I take so many videos and photos that I end up with 2% battery. I do have an external battery on my phone, but the watch is a surefire way to keep good track of the time.

travel hacks for first time cruisers

Cutting Costs on a Cruise and Things You Need To Know

Unfortunately, your cruise fare doesn’t include every activity that happens on the ship, which can be disappointing for some people. There are things like the cycling classes, art classes, IMAX theater, BINGO, murder mystery dinners or wine tastings that will require an extra fee. So be sure to factor that into your budget, as each activity is designed by the cruise director, and could be confirmed with the cruise agent upon booking which activities will require a fee.

If you are bringing kids on the ship, and think you will want babysitting -it will cost you an hourly rate on some ships.

Specialty restaurants such as steakhouses, Italian restaurants, chefs table experiences, or Sushi will all cost you more money.

Cruise ships have now started to pre-authorize $200-$300 for each passenger on the ship. If you get below $200 then they will keep re-authorizing it at each port. So I suggest you go ahead and put the money on your account prior to boarding, that way you avoid any overspending of the budget while onboard where it is very easy to blow a lot of money. (They don’t call them floating piggy banks for nothing).

If you pay the porter $5-$6 and when you get to your room, your bags will be there so much faster than if you just waited for them. I have personally never had an issue with this, but if you see other bags showing up at a neighbors cabin and not yours – well…..I would start asking where you luggage is and if it got on the right ship.

Tips and Gratuities Quick Guide

Tips and gratuities will be automatically deducted from your card on file at the end of the trip, unless you tell the customer service desk otherwise. You can also tip the staff directly, because the tips are shared among the staff. It is pretty shocking to hear what they make, how many hours they spend working and who they are trying to support at home. Here is a quick guide on how much each person who helps you should be tipped.

Suite attendant: $7.25 USD a day per guest
Stateroom attendant: $5.00 USD a day per guest
Dining Room Waiter: $3.75 USD a day per guest
Assistant Waiter: $2.15 USD a day per guest
Headwaiter: $0.75 USD a day per guest

Wifi On Board a Cruiseship

WiFi packages on board are so incredibly expensive, it could easily add a couple of hundred dollars to your bill. There are a few tricks to minimize your usage and still keep in touch though.

You can use the internet for 30 seconds or less and it won’t deduct from your time. So quickly get online download your emails, then get offline and read them.

If you need to send an email, pre-write the email in your notes, then paste it into your email after you connect, quickly disconnect after the email is on its way.

Please keep in mind the internet on the ship is INCREDIBLY slow. I would also suggest to buy it beforehand for a 10-15% discount.

If you put your phone on airplane mode and turn on WiFi and you can still get push notifications — you just won’t be able to respond to messages, but at least your will still be able to see when someone messages you. That way you are still slightly connected, even if you don’t exactly pay for the WiFi.

Connect your computer through your phone when your in port, for free internet while in port. Just use your phones data plan, but keep in mind it may cost you more if you don’t have an international plan and are traveling into a different country.

You can also purchase a WiFi If your phone carrier doesn’t include free international plans. I am personally considering making the switch to the new Google Fi phone plan, which includes international roaming in nearly every country where cruises go. Google Fi plans typically are about $20 per month, plus just $10 for every gig of data used. And there’s no contract so you can use it just for a month or just for a cruise and cancel. It would be worth it to sign up, just for peace of mind – especially if you have little ones at home.

travel hacks for first time cruisers

Other First Time Cruiser Tidbits

Download the app for the cruise beforehand, so you don’t have to use the expensive WiFi to do so. Most ships have these apps, and even have in app messaging that you can use to contact other people in your party.

If you need cash, avoid the ATM costs ($15 to withdraw cash), buy your money you need in chips then take it over to the cashier and you will only be charged $3 instead of $15 to get the money out of your bank.

Bon Voyage!

These are all the tips and travel hacks for first time cruisers that I can think of right now. I will regularly update this post with each cruise I go on, to give you the most up to date and relevant information. So be sure to bookmark this page, and check back before your cruise for a refresher. If you have any cruise tips I missed, feel free to jot them down in the comment section below. Love having other Culture Trekkers contribute to a better travel experience for all. Cheers and Bon Voyage on your first Cruise!

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Tips for First Time Scuba Divers – Avoid Aquatic Awkwardness

Tips for First Time Scuba Divers – Avoid Aquatic Awkwardness

No one likes to stand out or feel awkward in sports, especially me. If there were awards for awkwardness, I’m sure I would have a few by now. Maybe it is the elementary physical education classes where I farted while trying to do a sit up in front of the entire 6th grade that still haunts me, I dunno – it just isn’t fun to feel awkward. So when I took up the new, posh, sport of Scuba Diving I dreaded getting in the water and looking like a fool. So after a few dive trips under my belt, here are my Tips for First Time Scuba Divers, and how to avoid aquatic awkwardness.

Tanks for scuba diving equipment with city in the backgorund

My Number One Tip for First Time Divers: Go To The Bathroom!

Going to the bathroom beforehand is the most important part of this entire tip. Do NOT get creative in your eating right before your first scuba trip. Yes some of the boats have the confined toilets, but if your bowels decide to become water instead….well, the whole boat will get to smell your innards the whole trip. The other part is, when you are under pressure, at depth and have a….shall we say intestinal civil war – you are going to be in a wetsuit and there is no escape from the dreaded explosion.

There is a natural physiological phenomenon that happens when a warm body is placed in cool water. It will make you want to urinate, so just let it go – most divers end up doing this. You are swimming in a marine life toilet anyway, so just consider it contributing to the minerals in the ocean.

Ladies, very important, do not plan on going diving with sharks if it is your time of the month unless you are in a cage – then it is fine.

scuba diving in a cave with flashlights

Keep it Clean

Make sure to keep your stuff neat and tidy. While there are different ways for everyone to organize, just make sure you are conscious of the common space on the boat. There are limited areas for you to put your belongings. There is a dry area (typically under the front of the boat on a ledge) where you can keep a small bag. Anything wet, that can get wet should be tucked under the assigned spot where your tanks are.

Keep your fins out of the walking area, as this is a tripping hazard and can land someone in the water with a ‘man overboard’. Which you don’t want to be on the receiving end of that when the individual gets back in the boat.

scuba diving in a cave with a flashlight

Bring Cash

There are a lot of things I remembered to bring on my first dive trip, and a few I didn’t. No matter where you are in the world, a boat does not have an ATM card to give tips, nor do they have a cash register. So if you plan on giving a tip then be sure to bring that with you.

My Scuba Instructor Rachelle, from Scuba Utah, gave some good advice on this as she has been diving for the last 35 years, “It is pretty typical when on a dive trip to tip them 10-15% for the day (total, not per individual). Make sure to tip them on a daily basis, as the crew will or can change daily”.

Bring a Photo Stick

I’m not talking about a selfie stick, I’m talking about a blunt 12″ rod that you can clip to your BCD. When you are first starting out, and going from fresh water to salt water; or if you have lost a lot of weight or gained weight it can be hard to find your buoyancy. This small blunt instrument will allow you to gently push off surrounding rock and not crash into the delicate coral reefs.

I recently lost 25 lbs and wasn’t quite sure on my weight I should have in salt water. Utah has all fresh water diving, and when you dive in Salt Water, your weight requirements are going to increase. So keep that in mind, and get the photo stick so that you are protecting the environment until your able to get a little more experience.

Janiel with city in the background with dive flag and scuba tanks

Get Reef Safe Defogger and Sunscreen

While on the subject of protecting the coral systems and reefs of the world I would highly suggest getting reef safe defogger and sunscreen. Here are a few I recommend: SurfDurt not only is it organic, it is also in a non-plastic container, so win win!


There are a couple of different options for the ladies (or guys) with long hair and to keep it from becoming a rats nest when you get out of the ocean. One way is to use a swim cap. You want to make sure that it does not go underneath your mask, as this can let the water seep in. It keeps everything tame, and also adds a little extra layer to your head to keep in the heat without having to wear a hood.

Another option, which I learned recently, is to put leave in conditioner in your hair the night before (I’m talking quite a bit). I prefer the spray in kind, like Sun Bum Revitalizing 3 in 1 Leave-In Conditioner Spray (which is vegan and environmentally friendly). When you wake up, put your hair in two braids as tightly as you can get them. This works well for those with long hair especially. It looks great in underwater photos too! When I got back to my hotel, I couldn’t believe how much easier it was to unravel my hair.

scuba diving in a cave with a surprised face on a woman

Watch That Air

I was guilty of this the last dive trip I went on. Again, being from Utah, pretty coral reefs, sea turtles, and sharks are in short supply here for divers. So when you see these animals in person, it is easy to get enamored with them and taking video of it that you lose track of your air. Luckily I had a dive buddy who I had warned her about this prior to diving and she caught me at 800 on my tank pressure. We started to head for our safety stop, and the more shallow we became the harder it was to stay down despite the extra weight that I added. I have never swam so hard to stay at 15 feet in my life as BCD and tank were trying to skyrocket me to the surface. I burned through 300 PSI in 1:30 min and surfaced before my 3 minutes were up with 400 PSI.

This could have gotten me in big trouble, and her in big trouble. So now I’m fully aware that each time I see marine life that is interesting to me, I need to check my air. Luckily I wasn’t diving deep enough on that dive to put me into decompression sickness, but I don’t ever want to take that chance again.

For the Asthmatics or Those With COPD

When you have Asthma, or COPD you can still go Scuba diving, but have to be aware of a few things. You have a form of air obstruction, which means air gets trapped in your lungs more easily than the average joe (or jane). This can significantly affect your bouyancy when you get fatigued.

When a person with Asthma or COPD is fatigued, air can get trapped. This will require you to add more weight to counter this. Think of trying to get an inflated balloon to descend on a dive. It is nearly impossible, unless you have a tow rope to pull you down with the balloon. This is the same idea when you go diving. So if you are out of shape or fatigued, I would suggest adding an additional 2-4 lbs of weight to your BCD so that you can stay down during the safety stop as you start to surface. (A lesson I have had to learn the hard way).

Scuba Diving among fish in cabo san lucas

The Noise

Rachelle taught me in my Scuba Class, that noise underwater will be amplified. Being very sensitive to sound above land, I was a shocked at how much sound carries underwater.

My first time diving in Cabo San Lucas, was my first real ocean dive. Our first dive was near Pelican Rock, with the boats zipping back and forth above us to take tourists to see the Sealions. While it was fun to see the Sealions playing underwater in Cabo, the noise from the boats felt like it was a tourist trap both above and below ground.

Once I realized what was going on, it was easier to isolate and tune out the buzzing of the engines above me. It is quite distracting though when your descending for the firs time, so stay close to your diving buddy and the instructor.

Motion Sickness

Motion sickness can happen in many different places, and is different for everyone. For example, I do not get sick on boats big or small, but get me in the back of a tour bus and I will be green as a tree within the first ten minutes. There are many options for Motion Sickness so be sure to read my recent article on different ways of treating this and avoiding it in the first place.

sealion swimming

Allow 18-24 hours Before Flying

Even some of the most experienced divers, forget about this rule. It can affect the incidence of Decompression sickness due to the altitude, and Nitrogen needing to fully ‘off-gas’ or dissolve before flying.

I typically give myself 24 hours, just to make sure I won’t get sick. While this is more important for live aboard diving where you are doing multiple dives per day over several days. It is good to get into the habit, so you don’t forget in the long term like many divers end up doing.

Know How To Self Calm

The Scuba Magazine reported that 20% of diving accidents are caused by people panicking. So knowing how to calm yourself while underwater is key to beginner divers.

On my last dive, I was so nervous before getting into the water for some reason. I quietly asked my friend Jen, from Coleman Concierge, ‘Do you get nervous before dives still?’ She said, ‘After all the dives I have been on, all the years I have done this. This year has been the first year where I haven’t felt nervous before a dive’.

I have PTSD, and anxiety at baseline – I also almost drowned as a child after getting stuck under a bridge during a river tubing trip. So I had to learn very quickly underwater, that simply maintaining bouyancy, making a specific handsignal where both hands are up in a stop gesture – signals to my diving buddy that I just need a second to calm my nerves.

After getting an ok from my dive buddy that they understand and come closer. I hang onto their BCD, close my eyes, and concentrate on breathing slowly until the wave of anxiety passes.

If the wave of panic or anxiety is bad enough, or you can’t self soothe. Just gesture to your diving buddy that you need to end the dive. Be kind to yourself, and like Rachelle always says – ‘It is normal and ok to be nervous. Never be afraid to end a dive if you feel uncomfortable’.

star fish with frog fish while scuba diving

Tips for First Time Scuba Divers From A Professional

I asked my instructor, Rachelle, for some of her input on things that she would strongly recommend to new students. Having 35 years of experience and teaching hundreds of students, and Veterans with PTSD, Here is what she suggested:

  • Dive within your limits – don’t try to appear cool, or think you are the weak link by voicing something you are uncomfortable with.
  • Do not try to dive outside your training or your equipment requirements. You will put yourself at risk, which you have that right to do if you wish – but more importantly, you are putting your dive buddy, and dive master at risk which is absolutely NOT ok to do.
  • Respect the boat and the crew no matter how much you think you know. They know the area better than anyone, and they know what works best for the conditions in that moment. So even if it seems ridiculous, offensive or childish – just do what they ask with a smile and complain when your done with the dive.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. Our brains aren’t trained to protect us underwater, so just keep in mind to keep an eye above, and below you. You could stuck between a person who can’t keep their buoyancy and a Moray Eel. You might be confidant in your abilities, but there are other people you can affect by not being aware.
  • Leave only bubbles, take only picture. While it might be tempting to pick up that starfish, or take that giant seashell home as a souvenir. Just leave it alone, and let the next diver appreciate it as you did.
  • Don’t touch, tease or harass aquatic animals. There are so many marine animals that may look harmless enough, but can be quite deadly.
  • Keep your mask OFF your forehead! This is a universal sign of distress that Master Divers are trained to recognize. So when you do this, it can cause all sorts of chaos that is not needed. Keep the mask on your face until you are back in the boat and even then don’t make it a habit.
colorful coral reefs and barrel coral reefs

Create Your Bucket List!

The Diving community is a tight knit community, that generally is quite supportive. Reach out to those in your community, take a dive class, and then create your bucket list of Diving. I asked my fellow divers for their Top Dives From Around The World, and now have my own Diving Bucket list I’m working through.

If you have any Tips for First Time Scuba Divers, be sure to drop them below and connect with the Culture Trekking Community on Facebook or Instagram; arrange a few dive trips with other members of the community.

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Top Ten Unique Places in Rome

Top Ten Unique Places in Rome

Naturally, after studying this and Art throughout the ages Rome was a destination that I just had to visit. Popular for its ties to the Roman Empire and most of the tourist traps being centered around that century, there are some very unique places and experiences I would suggest doing or seeing. This will give you a glimpse into the alternate history, the religious confusion of the time, the darker underbelly of Rome and possibly a new site to visit.

Here are my Top Ten Unique Places in Rome :

1. Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano

Top Ten Unique Places in Rome

This is by far my favorite site to visit whenever I am in Rome. It is not very well known, so you aren’t inundated by tourists and get to descend through history…..literally.
It is a 9-minute walk from the Colosseo east on Via Nicola Salvi, you turn right on Piazza di S. Clemente and it will be on your right-hand side. The exterior is very unassuming, it appears as any other dilapidated building would in the shadow of the ever famous Coliseum. Once you enter, a symbol of new life greets you in the Byzantine mosaic of the tree of life with the twelve doves symbolizing the apostles of Jesus Christ.

Top Ten Unique Places in Rome

Exploring this church is like eating an artichoke, you have to pull each later back to get to the very heart of the best part. Make your way to the side door where you will descend into the fairly new discoveries below the surface of this church.

The first level you will find a FOURTH CENTURY Basilica, only discovered in the 18th century after it had been covered for the last 1,100 years with gravel!

Wait! Keep going down the stairs! In the bottom level, you will find the heart of the Lanterno, an ancient Roman house from the FIRST CENTURY! If this isn’t enough to tickle your historical fantasies, then visit the tomb of St Clement, the fourth Pope in world history after St Peter, st Linus and St. Anacletus, and the tomb of St Cyril the founder of the Slavonic literature.

Top Ten Unique Places in Rome

Address: Via Labicana, 95
Hours: Mon-Sat 9am-12:30pm/3pm-6pm; Sunday from 12pm-6pm
Fees: 10 Euros

2. Galleria Borghese

Between 1576 and 1633 the nephew of Pope Paul V, Cardinal Scipione Borghese began collecting some of the most stunning art pieces in his mansion. This collection included works by Tiziano, Raphael, Caravaggio, Rubens and Botticelli.

As you walk through the doors you feel as if you truly are walking into a Grand mansion, not a museum. As you ascend, the decorations on the walls become more lavish and then you turn a corner into a room and are hit with the vision of a statue of Bernini. I have always been a fan of art, and especially of the master sculptor’s of old, but nothing prepared me for the exquisite pieces in front of me.

You don’t just go to see a Bernini Statue, you have to go an EXPERIENCE a Bernini statue. The twisting, turning, facial expressions, attention to intricate details, angles and the way the statues are lit makes me to seem to come alive. I would suggest walking around each sculpture and truly soak in the master’s work.

Top Ten Unique Places in Rome

Cardinal Borghese was attempting to re-inspire the people to recreate a new Golden Age of Art Appreciation. With his Uncle favoring him in the classical Papal Nepotism, Cardinal Borghese nearly tripled his wealth from 1609 to 1612 his wealth increased from 90,000 Scudi to 140,000 Scudi. This allowed him to continue his patronage for Caravaggio and Bernini.
Address: Piazzale del Museo Borghese, 5
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday: 8:30am7:30pm, Monday: closed
From July 6th to October 06th every Friday and Saturday evening opening (entry at 7 pm exit at 22)
Fees & Tickets: Pre-paid scheduled admissions for Borghese Gallery Museum only!
Adults: 11 euros, EU citizen (18-25) 6.50 Euros, Youth (<18) or Seniors (>65) is 2 Euros
I would highly suggest that you book your tickets in advance (right about the same time you book your flight). The museum is wildly popular and they do not allow more than a certain number of visitors in at a time. There are no walk-in’s, only reservations.

3. Underground Colosseum Tour

This is one of the MUST DO highlights for your trip if you want to see the Colosseum, but see it from a unique perspective. If you schedule online ahead of time, you can take an exclusive Underground Colosseum Tour.

During this tour, you will descend into the Gladiator pits, see the mechanisms that made the Gladiator Games work. While underground you see how the Colosseum was once filled with water and where the water was sourced. The backstage pully systems, the areas where the animals were kept and just how magnificent this architectural wonder of the world truly is. Seeing the Colosseum from the outside or from the tourist platforms is one thing, but seeing how it worked gives it a whole new appreciation.

If the Underground Tour is not enough, then you are also taken up an elevator to the top of the Colosseum where you are able to have a guided tour through the museum, as well as a fantastic birds-eye view of the interior or the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.

Opening Hours: By appointment only
Tickets: Book your Underground Colosseum Tickets ahead of time online
Address: Piazza del Colosseo, 1, 00184 Roma RM, Italy
How to get there: All roads lead to Rome, so if you are in Rome and can’t find this place….you are likely in the wrong country. If you are coming from a nearby city, use to find the best route into the city.

4. San Pietro in Vincoli

Also known as Saint Peter in Chains was built to house the chains of Saint Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem. The Empress Eudoxia gave Pope Leo I the chains as a present, after which the church was commissioned.

There is more to this church than the chains that held Saint Peter if you visit be sure to look at the Tomb of Pope Julius the II. In the center of this tomb is Michelangelo’s Moses statue.

According to legend, the chains of Saint Peter arrived to the Pope in 2 pieces, and miraculously joined together to form one piece. The chains are stored underneath the altar in a glass box. On either side of Michelangelo is statues of Leah and Rachel (likely completed by his students). The tomb itself was never finished for Pope Julius II, who ended up being buried in St Peter’s Basilica. Michelangelo had planned on 40 different statues for the tomb but was so focused on the Sistine Chapel that the tomb was never completed.

The church itself is very unique compared to other churches in Rome. There are not as many ornate decorations, skeletons are also seen on adjacent tombs both of which are highly unusual in Catholic churches.
The church itself is very dimly lit so it is difficult to get a decent photo. If you make a donation to the mausoleum then it will light up. I did not know that this is something that is very common with most of the churches in Rome.

Opening Hours: Every day: 8 am – 12:30 (midday) and 3:30 pm – 6 pm
Price: No Fee for Entrance
Address: San Pietro in Vincoli, Emilia-Romagna, Italy
How to get there: Buses 75 or 84 will take you near the Basilica. You can also go along Via Cavour, you will see a steep set of steps on Via San Francesco di Paola and the Piazza di San Pietro in Vincoli.

5. Catacombs

These underground secret passageways were used by the Jewish, Pagan and early Christian Roman citizens to hide and as a place of burial from the 2nd-5th centuries. The burial grounds were discovered after investigative excavations were taking place next to a quarry. The word Catacomb means ‘next to a quarry’.

Top Ten Unique Places in Rome

The Catacombs can be several miles long, each niche being hand dug for the particular burials. The deceased was then wrapped in a cloth, placed in the niche and either clay/marble or some other sustainable material was placed in front of the niche with the deceased name and religious symbol on it (usually Christian)

During Roman times, and especially the gladiator games, Christians were persecuted and tortured for their beliefs. The catacombs provided a place outside the city walls that allowed them to bury their dead and freely use and perform Christian rights, rituals and symbols when burying their loved ones. It wasn’t until the 3rd century that the persecutions stopped and they were allowed to worship freely.

Top Ten Unique Places in Rome

Barbarian invasions of the 8th century resulted in many lootings of these catacombs, and so the Pope ordered all relics be moved to nearby churches.
You can now visit the burial grounds today with more than 60 catacombs now being discovered here, you can visit several of them that have been safely and properly excavated. The best catacomb to visit is the Catacombs of San Sebastiano (circa 136 AD), so named for the martyred soldier who converted to Christianity.

Other Catacombs include Catacombs of San Callisto, Catacombs of Priscilla, Catacombs of Domitilla, Catacombs of Sant’Agnese, Catacombs of San Valentino, and the Catacombs of St Callixtus.
Address: Via Appia Antica, 136, 00179 Roma RM, Italy (for Saint Sebastian Catacombs) – Other Catacombs will be within a few miles of this one with separate entrances. There are some on the South East of Rome as well as Valentino and Priscilla’s Catacombs located in the Northwest Outskirts of Rome.

Italyxp.comOpening times: Each Catacomb has its own opening times but most are open from 10am

Opening times: Each Catacomb has its own opening times but most are open from 10am-12pm and 2pm to 5pm with Agnese being open in the afternoons only between 4pm-6pm.
Fees: Adults: 8 Euros, Children <15 is 5 Euros (guides in English, Spanish, and Italian)

6. The Twin Churches of Rome:

Santa Maria dei Miracoli 1681, and the Montesanto built in 1679 grace the Piazza del Popolo facing the Northern gate of the Aurelian Walls.
Santa Maria dei Miracoli was started in 1675 by Girolamo Theodore. A bell tower and circular pattern were adopted in the design of the building. The lovely decorations inside are done by none other than Bernini’s pupil, Antonio Raggi. The altar of the Virgin Mary is what gave this church its name.

Top Ten Unique Places in Rome

It is believed that the paint used to craft the image of the Virgin came from a miracle of when a woman prayed to an image of the Virgin Mary on the walls to save her drowning son in the Tiber. Her child was saved and the chapel was built in her honor.
Santa Maria in Montesanto was built in 1662 and completed in 1675. Carmelite monks occupied a church that was previously built on this site. and thus the church was named Montesanto or ‘Holy Mountain’ because of the ties to ‘Mt Carmel’. Although the buildings are very similar and a perfect place for a photo, they are also very different.

Address: Via del Corso, 528
Fees: No fee for entrance
How to get there: Enter Moovit and find your route now
Opening times: Monday to Sunday 7.00 am 12.30 pm / 4.00 pm – 7.30pm

7. Scala Sancta

These stairs are ones that lead to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem on which Christ stepped on his way to trial during the passion. Reportedly the stairs were brought to Rome by St Helena in the 4th century.
There is a prayer that people must pray on each step leading up to the Praetorium, or you can climb the steps to the top on either side of the sacred stairs. At the bottom of the staircase is the statue of Christ with hands outstretched and Judas betraying him by kissing him on the Cheek. You will also find a statue of Christ in Chains, helping to set the mood for the journey of prayer up to the Scala Sancta.

Top Ten Unique Places in Rome

Prayer for each of the 28 steps
(Note: A Hail Mary and an invocation to your Patron Saint may be added to each step.)
1 st Step.
O My Jesus! By the anguish of heart Thou didst experience, on separating from Thy most holy mother, to go to Thy death, have mercy on me!
2 nd Step.
O My Jesus! By the confusion Thou didst feel and that caused Thee to sweat blood in the Garden of Olives, have mercy on me!
3 rd Step.
O My Jesus! By the intense grief that filled Thy heart on seeing Thyself betrayed by the perfidious Judas, have mercy on me!
4 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the confusion Thou didst feel, when led as a malefactor through the streets of Jerusalem, have mercy on me!
5 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the sweetness Thou didst show, when brought before the tribunal and struck in the face, have mercy on me!
6 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the patience Thou didst exhibit amid the outrages and mockeries, of which Thou wert the object throughout the night preceding Thy death, have mercy on me!

Top Ten Unique Places in Rome

7 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the cruel insult Thou didst endure, when dragged many times on the Sacred Stairs, have mercy on me!
8 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the silence Thou didst observe in the presence of those who bore false witness against Thee, and of the iniquitous Pilate who unjustly condemned Thee, have mercy on me!
9 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the humiliation to which Thou didst subject Thyself amidst the derision of Herod and his court, have mercy on me!
10 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the shame Thou didst feel on being stripped of Thy garments and tied to the pillar to be scourged, have mercy on me!
11 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the pain Thou didst suffer on being scourged, when Thy body was all covered with wounds and bruises, have mercy on me!
12 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the torture of the sharp thorns, wherewith Thy adorable head was pierced, have mercy on me!
13 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the patience Thou didst exhibit when clothed with purple rags and with a reed in Thy hand, Thou wert derided and treated as a mocking, have mercy on me!
14 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the affliction, Thou didst feel when Thou didst hear the people cry out against Thee, and clamor for Thy death, have mercy on me!
15 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the humiliation to which Thou wert subject, on being compared with Barabbas, and on seeing that criminal preferred to Thine adorable person, have mercy on me!
16 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the resignation, wherewith Thou didst embrace the Cross, and proceed with it upon the road to Calvary, have mercy on me!
17 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the sorrow Thou didst feel on meeting Thy most holy Mother, and on witnessing the anguish of her heart, have mercy on me!
18 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the excessive weariness that overcame Thee, while bearing the burden of the cross on Thy shoulders, have mercy on me!
19 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the bitterness Thou didst experience, when the gall and vinegar touched Thy lips, have mercy on me!

Top Ten Unique Places in Rome

20 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the agony, Thou didst endure, when Thy garments were roughly torn from Thee, have mercy on me!
21 st Step.
O My Jesus! By the pain, Thou didst suffer, when fastened with great nails to the cross of Calvary, have mercy on me!
22 nd Step.
O My Jesus! By the infinite charity that moved Thee to forgive Thine executioners and pray to Thy heavenly Father for them, have mercy on me!
23 rd Step.
O My Jesus! By the goodness with which Thou didst give paradise to the penitent thief, and Mary unto John, as his Mother, have mercy on me!
24 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the burning thirst with which Thou wast tortured on the gibbet of the Cross, have mercy on me!
25 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the torment, Thou didst suffer, on seeing Thyself abandoned by all, have mercy on me!
26 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the great love for me with which Thy Divine Heart was inflamed, on breathing forth Thy last sigh, have mercy on me!
27 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the boundless kindness Thou didst manifest, in permitting Thy side to be opened with a spear, have mercy on me!
28 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the tender condescension with which Thou didst permit Thy most sacred body to be placed in the arms of Thy mother, and afterward in the sepulcher, have mercy on me!
Address: Piazza di Spagna, 00187 Roma RM, Italy
Fees: No fees
How to get there: From the Metro Linea A (red line) take the exit at Spagna. Rome bus tours are too big to navigate the narrow streets. Catch a bus that heads to the Barberini, Piazza del Popolo / Flamino (about a 10-minute walk).
Opening times: open 24 hours

8. The Spanish Steps

These steps were built in 1725 to help link the church Trinita dei Monit with the Spanish square down below it. Why are the steps so famous then? The Unique design, flowers adorning the steps and the Romantic setting near the Spanish square has inspired artists and musicians for generations. The artists would attract the beautiful women to the stairs to pose as models, then the wealthy and elite would come to ‘browse’. Thus was born the meeting place for Roman society, the Spanish Stairs.

Top Ten Unique Places in Rome

As you ascend the 135 stairs, look up to your right and you will see an apartment where the poet John Keats lived and died. Be sure to take a peek inside the church once you reach the top.

Top Ten Unique Places in Rome

Although some tourists complain that ‘it’s just a bunch of stupid steps’, this staircase is both unique and pivotal to the Roman history. If you want to take the steps in, in all its beauty, be sure to visit in the early AM when there will be limited tourists.

Address: Piazza di Spagna, 00187 Roma RM, Italy
Hours: Always open
Traveler Tip: Don’t expect to stop for a picnic, eating on the steps after the restoration is forbidden. Although there is a McDonald’s conveniently placed at the bottom of the staircase in the Spanish Square, seems counterintuitive with the rule, but I’m not in charge….soooo….there is that.

9. Piazza Navona

This is truly an artist’s Paradise, Piazza Navona in Rome! To get here you must wander through the streets, rounding several corners before it opens up into a grand courtyard flanked by fountains and churches. It was golden hour when we arrived and the sun was peaking through the alleyways, popping out to highlight the many perfectly picturesque balconies surrounding the courtyard.

Top Ten Unique Places in Rome

This plaza has been the focal point for the being the city’s main market since the 15th century. Another reason I fell in love with this plaza is that there is a Bernini fountain specifically designed for this square, Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi. Here you will witness both visual movement and water flowing over muscular personifications of the different major rivers of the world. Stroll around the fountain and try to guess which one represents the Nile, Ganges, Danube and Rio de la Plata. This is why the fountain is now called the Fountain of the Four Rivers.

Top Ten Unique Places in Rome

Behind the Fountain, you will see a beautiful Baroque style building, Sant’Agnese in Agone. This is thought to be named after St Agnes around 300AD who was martyred here. This church was impressive and worth a quick look, but I personally couldn’t wait to wander through the impromptu artistic market that was quickly developing as night settled in on Piazza Navona.

Top Ten Unique Places in Rome

If you are a little too frazzled or dazed from hours of exploring, then stop by one of the surrounding cafes with outdoor seating and be serenaded by the artisans in the Piazza while eating your pasta 😉

Address: Piazza Navona, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
How to get there: There are no metro’s nearby, but if you take a bus (typically 40 or 60) there will be a stop near Piazza Navona towards the Termini station.

10. Torre Argentina (The Cat Sanctuary)

Although I am not a fan of Cats in my home, it is hard to deny these animals are an integral part of the Italian Culture. In Rome, these cats take refuge at the base of statues, bask in the sunlight on top of Roman columns and walk the parapets of the Colosseum.

Top Ten Unique Places in Rome

There is a place that the city has classified officially as a Cat Sanctuary, the Torre Argentina. Here you will find over 150 feral friends sheltered. Volunteers come in and spay or neuter the cats to help control population size, as well as vaccinate the cats.  There is a cat shop nearby, donations are accepted and you are even allowed to adopt a cat if you so desire.
The area was being excavated in 1927 when the ancient ruins of the four Republican-era pagan temples dating from 44BC. There is an annual re-enactment of the murder of Caesar on the Ides of March to honor his death.

Address: Entrance is at Largo di Torre Argentina – at the corner of Via Florida & Via di Torre Argentina
Fees: Donation based
Opening times: Open daily from noon to 6pm

Top Ten Unique Places in Rome

With Rome being the pivotal place where all wander lusting travelers tend to visit, it may be worthwhile to seek out a few of the off the beaten path sites. You are sure to run into a local or two, experience ‘newer’ historical sites dating back to the 4th century.

Maybe you could even end up adopting a new furry friend and one of the most unique souvenirs, a Roman Kitty Cat. Whatever you decide to do in Rome, it is a place that has and will continue to inspire the artistic side within us all; thrill us with the idea of Roman times and educate us on the variety of historical facts it contains.
Have you ever been to Rome? What was your favorite place to visit?
Is there something or some destination near Rome you would suggest visiting that is off the beaten path?

As Always….Happy Travels, Happy Tales, see you on the Flip Side.

Where to Stay in Rome

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Travel by Train in Europe: My Top 15 Tips

Travel by Train in Europe: My Top 15 Tips

The first time I backpacked through Europe as a US Citizen, I was entirely overwhelmed and confused. I wasn’t the only foreign visitor who was confused, there were so many people who had questions about how this complex interconnecting system worked. So for those first timers out there, here are my Top 15 Tips for Travel by Train in Europe.

Top 15 Tips for Travel by Train in Europe

1- Buy a ticket

Just because you have a Eurail pass, doesn’t mean you have a reserved seat. So be sure to buy that extra ticket in order to reserve a seat. Also, make sure you are there at least 30 minutes early so you don’t miss your train. Especially if you are traveling across country lines. Only buy tickets from reputable places, there are a lot of scams in Europe around travel. Educate yourself on how to avoid scams in Europe.

Top 15 Tips for Travel by Train in Europe

2- Check Your Platform And Car Number

Get on the right train from the right platform. Look at the train names above the numbered platforms. Then make sure that the car you enter is the exact car you need to take. The cars separate at different stops and you don’t want to be left behind unknowingly.

IF YOU DON’T KNOW, ASK!!!! Ask someone after you get on the train if you must. They will close the doors when the conductor blows the whistle. The trains in Europe wait for no one.

3- Anticipate The Need To Run

Once seated, look at your ticket……look at the next platform you need to go to. Look at when your train arrives and when the next departs. You may need to run across the station to platform 12b from platform 1a in 15 minutes. There is always going to be someone slow in front of you, so take the stairs.

Top 15 Tips for Travel by Train in Europe

4- Scan Your Ticket To Get In And Out

Keep your ticket in hand! You need it to scan in and scan out of each of the train stations. The ticket must be current, or you can get a fine. If you have a Eurail Pass, you can just scan the code on the outside of the ticket to get through the gates. The Eurail tickets sometimes have their own gates. Try to go with the gate not everyone is going through (if you can’t understand the Language).

5- Check The Type Of Train You Get On

Make sure you are getting on the right type of train. If you get on the wrong train you can still get fined. It may be going to the right place, but if you get on the faster train or get on an inter-city train instead, you can get fined. B

Top 15 Tips for Travel by Train in Europe

6- Bring Your Own Supplies

Bring your own water, your phone charger, and a Travel Pillow— especially if you have a sleeper train — small backpacks are the best…..just minimize by packing like the news told you the city was going to be bombed and you had 15 minutes before you had to be evacuated. That will get you everything you need in one bag. Yes, you will probably smell……bring Febreeze… me…..there are people who smell worse on the trains.7 – Take Your Trash With You

7- Take Your Trash With You

Take your trash with you when you exit the train. There are small little garbage cans underneath the tables or right under the window on most trains. These fill up very quickly, as well as the ones in the bathrooms, so take your rubbish with you when you get off.

Top 15 Tips for Travel by Train in Europe

8- Sit In Seats With No Reservations

Don’t sit in a seat with a paper at the top or an electronic name above the seat…..You will lose your seat. I had this experience once, and that is all it took for me to learn to not do this. Was very unpleasant to be laughed out of your seat by a group of teenage boys. Then I stood in the café car for two hours till the next stop, the train was so full you couldn’t find a seat even between the cars.

9- Treat The Train Like You Would Your Living Room

Don’t put your feet up on the seats, or let your luggage take a seat near you. Put your bags on top and your coat on the hooks. MOVE if there are people looking for a place to sit. You wouldn’t want to sit on a spot where someone’s muddy shoes have just been, ruining your outfit. Take your shoes off first at least before you do this. They don’t exactly clean these seats regularly.

10 – Be The First In Line, In the Right Spot On The Platform

Be the first in line to get on the train…..the seats run out very quickly. Don’t be rude and shove people aside, but if you have the chance, stay close to the train. I also would gauge where the train door would stop ultimately by the train next to us. You stand right where the train opposite would stop, and you get to be the first one onto the train! Worked like a charm every time. Most people just stand at the platform thinking if they are near the front they will get a seat, this is not true. If you are at the front of the platform, right where the doors are going to stop, THEN you will get a seat.

11- Pack Light

Please don’t bring 500 pieces of luggage that require you to ask for help onto and off the train. If you cannot easily get up and down 4 very tall 18-inch steps with both luggage pieces in hand…..people will get mad. The longer you take to board the train the less likely the people behind you will be able to find a seat.

Top 15 Tips for Travel by Train in Europe

12- Sitting In Between Cars Is Uncomfortable

If you are just going one stop, you can sit in-between the cars. If you try and do this for the entire trip….you will have to get up and move every time someone opens the car doors……very annoying.

13- Sit In The Cafe If All Else Fails

There are seats in the back at the café car that you can order food and sit or stand there. I wouldn’t recommend this, as it gets crowded very very quick. No one can eat for 6 hours straight… would go broke.

14 – Limit Your Bathroom Use When Possible

Don’t try to use the bathrooms unless it is an emergency. If you do try and use them— bring hand sanitizer and toilet paper in your purse. The few I did have to use were so gross I was gagging. One had a floor so sticky and stinky that I had to breathe through my mouth. A coin-operated train station in Amsterdam was another bad experience. This particular bathroom had no toilet paper (luckily I had Kleenex in my bag), the sink had a powerful water flow and you could literally see the poop near the walls of the sink.

I am a pretty laid back person when it comes to expecting things to always be perfect (if you do expect it, your trip will be horrible); but this particular restroom was the most disgusting one I have used in the ENTIRE world. Who would have thought that a train station in the Netherlands would be that gross…..they are usually a very clean people.

I will say this though, there are some trains (typically the newer ones) that have decent bathrooms with air-fresheners and everything. They give hefty fines to people who are caught using first class bathrooms without a ticket.

Top 15 Tips for Travel by Train in Europe

15 – Getting A First Class Ticket Can Be Worth It

If you get a sleeper car for an overnight train trip, get one in first class with one other person if you must. I’m telling you….. it is amazing, and I actually slept…..everything is so clean and really just like a hotel room. You even get breakfast. Second class sleeper trains are adequate but don’t expect to have it be perfect.

My experience with the Second class sleeper was with 4 people in it, and nowhere to put your things because the ladies on the bottom bunks took up all the space. On top of that, you are usually at the end of the train which is a lot more bouncy and less restful. The Air conditioner broke and it was so incredibly hot woke up drenched in sweat. The gentleman in charge of our car and cabin just apologized, said they tried to fix it, and there were no other rooms for us to go

Top 15 Tips for Travel by Train in Europe

Make Train Travel in Europe Easier

Now all these things may make you not want to take the train at all. These 15 tips, were constructed from the worst parts of my experience. These tips and tricks will help your experience better. There are many many more wonderful parts of train travel, that can end up being a really great experience. My luck on trains is not the greatest. Apart from the one time I got a first class cabin all to myself. Being in first class was sooooo worth the money! To be in a cool, quiet, restful place with an attendant who really cared.

So don’t let this article deter you from train travel, it really is a great way to get around. I hope these things have helped and will allow at least those in the Culture Trekking Community to travel with ease, by learning from my mistakes.

As always, Happy Travels, Happy Tales and See You on the Flip Side.

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The Ultimate Guide to Pompeii

Pompeii has always held a deep fascination for me. I have been here twice now because the first time we did a self-tour, and I didn’t end up noticing half of the things that I learned when taking a guided tour. So after having been there twice now, I put together the Ultimate Guide to Pompeii.

Why was Pompeii important?

After learning more about this place, you walk through its streets and can feel the amazing history, wonder at the extremely detailed and well-preserved ruins, and sense of the palpable weight of the many deaths that occurred there. Pompeii was the city used as a retreat for high ranking generals, nobles, and dignitaries. It was also a major town along the trade route to Rome because of its proximity to the Ocean. Set below the famous, volcanic Mount Vesuvius, around 5 miles away, it was a place of gladiator games, theater, food, trade markets, prostitution, homosexuality, romance, and slavery, and it was all buried under 20 feet of ash from Vesuvius. Pompeii was excavated in the 1700’s and because it was buried in ash from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the contents and people of the city were quite well-preserved. Over the years, the streets have become worn from the thousands of tourists visiting this magnificent historical city. That massive foot traffic has started to take its toll on what was once well-preserved. Make sure to see this before it is destroyed by time and tourists.

Traveler tip: If you are booking a guide, make sure that the way they communicate in a large group is with either a microphone or personalized earpieces so you can hear them. Pompeii can become very crowded with lots of different guides speaking a variety of languages, and it gets very hard to hear. It’s even more difficult when you are all gathered around looking at the same thing, so make sure you pick a guide or tour that accommodates this, as well as provides an early morning departure time. This way,  you can avoid the majority of the crowds from the cruise ships and buses.

The Streets of Pompeii

Our cute, curly-haired Italian guide led us through the streets and pointed out that the stones beneath our feet are made from rocks from Mt. Vesuvius. The stones are approximately 30 cm from the base of the street, and there are elevated sidewalks and stepping stones at the major crossings. These stepping stones were actually a way to avoid the sewage and drainage that was so often running in the streets. They also have a break between stepping stones to allow carriages to pass through (quite ingenious.) In some streets, you can actually still see the crevices where the carriages seemed to pass the most. It’s quite fascinating to think that you can actually witness the marks of history in the streets of Pompeii. If you wander in the streets, you will likely notice how straight the roads seem to be. This is quite a feat for an ancient society to be so sophisticated in their grid-like roads and drainage systems.  The majority of all roads in Rome and Italy come from the Roman period, where these roads were typically placed by the Roman legion along military and trade routes. They had massive forces and were out to conquer the world or as much of it as they could. A typical invading party would consist of 20,000 legionnaires, 10,000 cavalry, 15,000 auxiliaries, 6,000 support personnel, and 15,000 animals. I would hate to be at the end of that train if the roads weren’t precisely engineered.

Road Construction

Roman Road Anatomy

So how did the Romans construct these roads without all of the technology we possess today? To construct these straight and precise roads, they used a Groma (see photo). If there was a direction change, then a high point was utilized to indicate the change of the direction. A plow loosened the ground, workers dug the trenches on the sides for the slight slope for drainage, the bed was trampled down and then the stone laid on top. This is how these roads were built so incredibly straight. I’m not typically interested in the particulars of construction of roads, but I found this so fascinating for some reason. The anatomy of their roads is incredibly modern! So after learning about all these roads, you turn a corner and see a crooked road and it just throws off your feng shui. The brothels and prostitutes were said to live on these roads and were frequented by all. A customer would enter the brothel where photos were painted on the walls of the different talents the prostitutes in that particular establishment could perform. The customer would then point to a photo and was taken the corresponding room. Erotic murals were said to be painted within these rooms. (No photo included as most are distasteful and I do not wish to offend my readers.)

Pompeii Markets

We wandered down more streets and found this little gem where they bartered and traded food and different products. I hadn’t realized that Pompeii was actually situated along a major Roman trade route because of its proximity to the ocean. You can see the loaves of bread and fish depicted in the photo on the right, and on the left, various other outlines of different trades and services offered within this market. What was amazing to me was how detailed the murals were and the amount of color that went into them (as artificial coloring was not yet available to this ancient society). If they are this colorful now after so many years, can you imagine how vibrant it must have been during the time of the Roman empire?

Our guide then told us about the word siesta. In modern times, it’s considered to be a luxury, but in ancient times it was deemed a necessity. Siestas were typically taken during the hottest parts of the day to avoid the oppressive heat. The word siesta comes from the Latin word ‘hora sexta’ meaning “the 6th hour of the day,” where there was a dedicated time to grab some fresh sardines and bread on the street, then take a nap before returning to the order of the day.

The Temple of Apollo

After our short siesta history lesson, we visited the temple of Apollo. It boasted magnificent preservation of columns, statues, and mosaics, where you could truly imagine it as a place of reflection and religious pursuits of the time. This particular temple dates clear back to the 6th century; even back to the Samnite period. It has both Roman and Greco-style influences throughout. The perimeter is surrounded by 48 columns that were originally 2 stories high, and the inner ‘cella’ (center) houses a sacrificial altar with Apollo shooting arrows at Diana (the original statues are housed in the National Archeological Museum in Naples). There is also a sundial or meridian that was found to the left of the stairway to the temple. Interestingly enough, this temple is one of the oldest in the city and Apollo was, in fact, one of the main divinities of early Pompeii.

Roman Bath’s in the Ultimate Guide to Pompeii

Prior to entering a temple, patrons would typically bathe themselves; so we stopped at a magnificent bath house where it was so well preserved I nearly giggled. Why would I giggle? Because it was like I was literally walking into a REAL bathhouse where you could see the intricate and magnificent Roman statues holding up the ceiling, the hollow tubes that were inside the walls to warm the different areas, the elevated floor where steam was pushed through so you weren’t walking on cold floor, a huge basin where you could go and cool down if you were too hot, and the wonderful ceilings that are RARELY EVER seen in a place as old as this! I couldn’t believe it!
My Grandma and I have always been fascinated by Roman History. We watch Gladiator together all the time. This experience felt like I was seeing first-hand how Maximus would have bathed, and it just made me kind of giggle knowing my imagination was running away with me; but how could it NOT in a place such as THIS?!

We left the bathhouse and took a drink from the ancient aqueducts that run throughout the city. They are still widely used today throughout both Pompeii and Italy, and the water often flows from the mouths of Lions. In addition to the very modern plumbing throughout the city, most houses also had indoor plumbing! Aqueducts would bring fresh water into the home and either pass through via a small trough-like stream or be used and stored in large cisterns or water-collecting basins within the home itself. I pondered the complexity of their society as well as the fact that they were so well supplied with more modern conveniences. I never imagined an ‘ancient’ society such as this.

The Tragedy of Pompeii

The next leg of my tour is where things got a little sobering and dark for me. I work in the medical field, so I have seen dead bodies. I have watched first-hand as life slipped away from someone who lost the battle to infection, cancer, etc. This was disturbing for me though, to see the encasement of the bodies that had died during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius so long ago.

Originally, the bodies were buried in the ash where they eventually decayed, leaving the shells surrounding the area where they had once been. A scientist then used a form of ultrasound/radio-frequency to locate these cavities and injected plaster into them to preserve the area, allowing for their excavation. The result is a macabre witness to the magnitude of the volcanic eruption, the fear that must have consumed the inhabitants of Pompeii, and the horrific ways in which they died. Their terror is visible in their body language and in their faces. These encasements or historical cavities were found both within the town and clear down by the ocean as if the residents were trying to take to the sea to escape the volcano’s wrath. Mothers cradling their babies, pregnant women, lovers holding each other in bed; it’s sobering and broke my heart a little to see all of this destruction. So many were found in their beds that it is assumed the eruption happened late at night, and likely took the whole town by surprise.

The last thing we looked at while in Pompeii was the names of different houses and streets. The graffiti on the streets was actually announcements and advertisements. Most of the streets are classified and named by modern street signs to help tourists and guides find their way. Many scholars believe that the streets were likely named by nobles who often spoke Greek. Three languages were spoken in Pompeii – Latin (of course), Oscan (the language of the people in the area), and Greek (still spoken throughout Magna Grecia as well as the language of sailors throughout the Roman territories). They know these were the core languages based on the graffiti that was found on the street corners and walls.
There was one particular house that had a title over the door. I remember our guide telling us that gladiators and slaves didn’t have names, only a particular nickname under the master they belonged to or were owned by. Under some circumstances, if a Gladiator was quite fierce or famous, they were given their own particular name with a suffix in Roman that indicated their rise from slavery. If I’m not mistaken, I believe this sign adorning the top of the house was one of these examples.

In the end, Pompeii was a sobering and fascinating place with detailed and magnificent preservation. I think all could and should learn from such an emotionally evoking environment. So if you get a chance to visit, I hope the information provided here helps you realize that you are literally standing amongst the best-preserved history of the Roman Empire, and likely one of the most tragic moments in its history.

Traveler Tip: Where to stay and how to get there: Stay in Sorrento because it is a 30 minute train ride to Pompeii, instead of a half day trip from Rome (3.5 hours each way to travel if coming from Rome). Sorrento is a coastal town that is very tourist friendly and most people speak English, while Naples is a quieter town and not so overrun with tourists (just my kind of town). Other nearby towns that are worth a visit include: Capria, Positano, Amalfi, Herculeneum, Naples, Paestum.

Recipe of Ancient Pompeii:

Ius Diabotanon in Pisce Frixo (Fish in Herb Sauces)
4 Whitefish
3 tsp cumin
3 tsp coriander seed
3 tsp oregano
3 tsp rue
1 garlic
1 carrot
Honey to taste
Oil and Vinegar to Taste
Defritum (Grape juice to taste)
Liquamen (Salt)
Black pepper to taste
Instructions: Prepare, clean, turn in flour, and salt and fry the fish. Finely crush pepper, cumin, coriander seed, oregano, rue, and garlic; moisten with vinegar, a carrot, honey, oil, Defritum, and Liquamen. Pour in the saucepan, place on fire. When simmering, pour over the fried fish, sprinkle with pepper, and serve.  (Read here for more recipes like this.)

Be Italian Royalty on the Amalfi Coast

I first fell in love with the romanticism of the Amalfi Coast when I saw the movie Under The Tuscan Sun. It’s about a woman recovering from a divorce who meets this gorgeous Italian man, and they have a bit of an interlude. He then invites her to the black sand beaches of the Amalfi Coast and they have a wonderful bonding dinner with friends. Like most women, I am entranced by men with accents, especially so with French and Italian accents. [gallery ids="2935,2938" type="rectangular"] I’m not much of a ‘tour group person’, so I specifically chose a smaller group and it was PERFECT! It was a small bus, so no one developed car sickness on the way from the port to the Amalfi Coastline. [gallery ids="2952,2953,2951" type="rectangular"] At one point we even had a policeman helping us around the tighter corners to get to our destination. This was the point where I started to feel self-important and beautiful. We only had about 8 hours to see the Amalfi Coast and take a tour through Pompeii Ruins with our guide (Pompeii will be covered in a later post). We sped past mosaics, yachts sitting in the various alcoves along the coast, and my favorite: IMG_6767 an entire replica of Bethlehem carved into the wall of the mountain along the road. People have apparently decorated it with the people from the Nativity, and they light  it up with candles around Christmas time — HOW WONDERFUL WOULD THAT BE TO SEE IT AT CHRISTMAS TIME?! [gallery ids="2937,2936" type="rectangular"] I was absolutely STUNNED as we drove along the road to the center of town. There were hotels that looked so luxurious and romantic! The hotels had these pools on the edges of cliffs looking out at the ocean and featuring a canopy of roses and other flowers, and the clouds gently rested on the mountainside like a baby laying on its mother’s chest. It was so relaxing! I got swept away in the environment where everything looked amazing, even the shops filled with white, lacy clothing — I bought a shirt there and really felt like I had stepped onto the set of Under The Tuscan Sun.  [gallery ids="2976,2984,2983" type="rectangular"] We stopped at the lovely Hotel with dei Principi everything, from the entrance to the back of the hotel; it was really like one huge masterpiece! I really felt like I was a princess that had just arrived at her coronation luncheon. [gallery ids="2977,2978,2982" type="rectangular"] Before we sat down to eat, I stepped out onto the patio of the Hotel (that I found out really was owned by royalty at one point) and my hair was swept upwards in the wind. I could smell the salt from the sea and feel the slight sting of it, and the sun kissing my cheeks. All of this made me feel like someone would sweep through the doors, hand me my tiara, and tell me my carriage was waiting outside. [gallery ids="2981" type="square" columns="1"] I went back inside after my Photo Op from the Paparazzi 😉 and sat down to my coronation luncheon, which was so delicious, fresh, and nutritious, that I forgot to take photos of anything but the salad and the table. I loved every bite of it; the fresh fish, the fresh mozzarella, and the gorgeous waiters that were like footmen in my own Cinderella story. View from Restaurant on Amalfi Coast After lunch, we explored the gardens at the hotel and I took 100 Instagrammable photos, lol. I don’t really like photos of myself and I really hate how I look on camera, but people tell me I’m really photogenic (this whole argument could take me weeks to debate in my own head, so I won’t bore you with it here). The pathways of the gardens were immaculate, the flowers were perfect, the quiet nature of this place further made me feel like the Queen herself would walk around any corner and ask if I would like to share a cup of tea. [gallery ids="2990,2985,2988,2991,2993,2989,2987,2986" type="slideshow"] After the gardens, we were able to wander around the town and down to the shore. There were artists everywhere! [gallery ids="2946,2945,2947" type="rectangular"] There were two old women arguing in the alleyways on the way down to the shore and wonderful shops full of Italian clothing I couldn’t get enough of. [gallery ids="2944,2943,2942" type="rectangular"] The Roman Catholic Religion was everywhere, with an amazing Church, Santa Maria Del Carmine,  I found full of Fontanini style Nativity characters, and 17th Century paintings. The intricate details of the ceiling and woodwork inlay was stunning. After the wonderful experience I was already having, I decided to make use of the church and thank God for all that I had been given (even though I’m not Catholic). I spent a lot of time in this church (see below). [gallery ids="2973,2970,2968,2967,4882,4881" type="rectangular"] There were oranges everywhere! Even the Statue of Saint Anthony in the middle of a roundabout held Oranges. Be sure to visit his reliquary across the street should you find yourself at his feet. If you don’t like celebrating Valentine’s Day in the States, then head to Sorrento where they hold a feast in St Anthony’s honor. [gallery ids="2972,2997" type="rectangular"] After wandering through the streets and slowly making my way down the side of the mountain, I came to the wonderful black sand beaches I had seen in Under the Tuscan Sun. The beach is beautiful in photos but is actually quite rocky, so I couldn’t quite imagine myself swimming in the ocean at this particular spot. However, I could see myself relaxing in a nice beach chair with a wonderful glass of orange juice and soaking in the sun. I was here during the off-season, so the beach was pretty empty; but typically I hear that the beach is filled with beach chairs to do just what I was imagining. [gallery ids="4880,4879" type="square" columns="2"] I think the Amalfi coast is somewhere I would like to definitely go back to, but with a romantic partner. It is the perfect setting to relax, explore, and enjoy the magical setting that is sure to make anyone (whether single or married) feel like royalty.

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