26 Flying Travel Hacks

Check out these sick flying travel hacks so that traveling sucks less.

Ok, sometimes it’s the destination, not the journey. Globetrotting can be stressful, but it doesn’t have to be a nightmare. I sat down with an incredibly well traveled friend (been to 61 countries!) and jotted down a few tips to make your flight and time at the airport suck less:

Thinking ahead…Some pre-departure tips:

1)Pre-order a vegetarian or vegan meal with your ticket if plane meat grosses you out.

Or, obvs, if you don’t eat meat. This doesn’t apply to everyone, but personally, I can never stomach the mysteriously cooked meat that comes with my plane meal. I’m pretty sure airlines don’t charge for special meals (ie, gluten free, Kosher, etc.), so take a page out of Orange is the New Black, and lie about your dietary requirements for a better plate. Oh, did I mention you get served your food first!

2) Confirm with airline 24 hours in advance for special meals or baggage.

If your gluten allergy slipped through the system somehow, there will be nothing they can do about it once you’ve taken off. For special baggage, like a surf board, it’s just good to confirm so that there are no problems when you arrive at the airport.

3) Get travel insurance.

Maybe you’re a risk taker and don’t think that you’ll need the insurance. However, I always think it’s good to have, and companies like World Nomads offer really affordable and comprehensive insurance that covers everything from trip cancellation to emergency dental. Your insurance is likely to reimburse you if your baggage is damaged on a flight if the airlines won’t, and they’ll even give you money if your baggage is lost or misdirected so you can buy new clothes while you wait for your baggage to arrive. I wish I had had this many times on a Eurotrip I took a few years back because Alitalia lost my luggage twice! The most frustrating instance was when I flew to Warsaw from Sicily and had a train immediately booked to take me to Krakow, so I couldn’t stick around the airport. I had to go out for drinks that night, sleep and do a day tour in my plane clothes before the airline finally delivered my bags to my hostel.

Travel insurance is also good if you are flying to or from remote locations where there are natural disasters or extreme weather, because flights often get canceled and airlines don’t always reimburse or reschedule you.

4) Always try to join a rewards club or frequent flyer program. 

You can get free tickets, bumped up to first class, or use your points to purchase things in flight. In addition, you often gain access to airport lounges (which you can usually pay something like $50 to enter anyway), which often include free food, drinks, coffee and wifi.

A friend of mine, Napoleon Streisand, is an absolute champ at getting rewards and miles. He traveled to all seven continents in four months and only accrued $241 in flight costs. He’s a fucking legend, and lucky for us all, he’s writing a book about his travels so we can all learn a thing or two. Check out his site here or watch his book trailer below.

Airport tips:

5)Check the baggage weight limits for each airline so you know how to pack.

That seems to go without saying, but suddenly you’re at the baggage drop off counter and the unfeeling stewardess tells you that your bag is 2 kilos over. Next thing you know, you’re crouched over your bag on the floor, trying to put on as much extra clothing as you can and stuffing whatever looks heavy into your carry on. While you should always check the weight limits, DEFINITELY keep this in mind if you’re flying with a budget airline, like AirAsia or Ryanair. These airlines usually only allow only 20 kg (44 lb) for checked baggage and 7 kg (15 lb) for carryon. (Ryanair allows 10 kg carryon, and you have to pay to check 15-20 kg of luggage.) You can always call ahead or change it online if you really feel that you are going to go over the limit.

If you are flying a budget airline, try to pack as many heavy things as you can in your carryon, for example, laptop, books, etc. If you can stuff it all in a small roll-on, duffle or backpack and walk past the stewardesses like it ain’t no thing, chances are they aren’t going to stop you to weigh the bag. Although they might make you try to shove it in some metal crate thing to see if it fits…

Check out this list of luggage restrictions by airline for more specific info.

6) Don’t lose your arrival and departure forms.

Even if they give you one for a layover somewhere. I had a layover in Thailand, and they made me go through immigration and stamped my passport and everything. Some countries are really strict about those forms, and they’ll hassle you even if you have stamps on your passport to prove when you entered the country.

I remember Peru being a particular pain in my ass. Every hostel needed to see my arrival form, which I lost, and I had to pay a fine on the Chilean border because I didn’t have the stupid thing.

7) Carry a pen.

Not just for your crossword puzzles and sudokus. There’s almost always some form to fill in. It sucks to make it to the front of the line at customs or immigration or wherever and you have to let others pass you because you didn’t have a pen and didn’t fill in your forms.

8) Don’t bother waiting on that line to board the plane.

You know how the second your flight starts boarding people with disabilities or pregnant ladies or old people, everyone else gets anxious and starts racing to get on line? Don’t be one of those idiots. It’s useless, unless you feel like standing, of course. The only time it makes sense to wait there like a cow for the slaughter is when you have a big carryon and you want to make sure you shove it into the cabin before a stewardess sees it and tries to make you check it. Or if it’s first come, first serve seating (Ryanair, again).

9) Don’t lose your boarding pass.

It has often been in my nature to throw away papers I don’t think I need (see tip 6). However, not many people know (or at least I didn’t know) that the little sticker that the flight attendant puts on the back of your boarding pass at checkout has a barcode on it that tracks your baggage. The first time Alitalia lost my baggage, it was much harder to find my luggage (or maybe the guy working at the lost baggage desk was just a dick) because they couldn’t track it via the barcode that I threw away unknowingly.

10) Check the departure board for your gate, even if your gate is written on the ticket.

Sometimes, your gate gets moved. They usually make an announcement about it, but you can’t always hear the accented, quick-talking flight attendant over the hum of the airport. As you walk to your gate, just do yourself a favor and check the scoreboard in case anything has changed so you don’t have to make a mad dash to the right gate after zoning out on your phone at the wrong one for an hour.

Tips for comfort on board:

11) Upon check-in, ask the flight attendant about emergency exit seating.

Unless you’ve picked your seat in advance, they don’t always have a seat assigned to you until you check in. That’s why the flight attendant will sometimes ask you if you’d like the window or the aisle (only happens if you’re there early enough, usually). If you like a bit of extra legroom, and really, who doesn’t, ask if there is any emergency exit seating available. It usually is, and you only have to worry about being a hero if the plane crashes, which Superman tells us isn’t all that likely, statistically speaking.

Alternatively, or in addition, if you’re on a long flight and aren’t the type to cozy up to the window and knock out for the whole ride, ask for an aisle seat so you’re not jumping over sleeping passengers every time you have to pee.

12) Always ask if you’re on a full flight.

You can either ask at the check in counter or once you’ve boarded. If it’s not a full flight, you may have the option of moving to an empty aisle, or even getting bumped up a class.

13) Never be afraid to ask to switch seats.

Maybe you’re seated next to a baby, or a loud douche bag, or a smelly one. You can always ask the flight attendants to move you. On a flight home from Israel, a young Orthodox Jewish man sat next to me. I smiled at him and said hello, and he responded by promptly turning to get the attention of a male flight attendant and asking if he could switch seats because his religion doesn’t allow him to sit next to a woman, or something.

14) Never assume the in flight entertainment will be sufficient.

Sure many airlines boast having in flight entertainment, and often you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the high quality and wide variety of entertainment offered (United Airlines is on point!) However, you might get stuck on an old plane with outdated entertainment, or worse, a throwback to the 90s, when one movie plays on a big screen for everyone, and every time the pilot makes an announcement, the movie starts from the beginning. The horror!!! Always plan ahead, whether that means stocking up your hard drive with downloaded movies and making sure your computer is fully charged, or bringing a book and some sudokus. Or some valium. Maybe eat a pot brownie first. Whatever does it for you.

15) You can ask for more food and drinks at the service station at any time.

Nobody wants to be that guy, but technically, the flight attendants cannot decline your request for more than that stupid tiny cup of water, or a few extra airplane snacks. It’s one thing if they’ve run out of meals, but there is almost always something extra to consume on board if you’re starving.

16) Almost every airline serves free booze on international flights.

Some even do it on domestic flights. Some only serve wine or beer, but most have a pretty stocked bar that you can get your hands on. You only need ask, because they will rarely offer. Check out this super helpful list of airlines that serve free alcohol.

17) Ask for a courtesy pack on long or international flights.

Now, they don’t all offer it anymore, especially if you’re in steerage with the unwashed masses. But every once in a while you get lucky and are handed a lovely pack with socks, toothpaste, toothbrush, and other generally refreshing items. If you’re traveling with children, you can also ask for games and activities like coloring books and crayons.

18) Bring your own courtesy pack.

You know those days that turn into multiple days where you’ve been on and off planes for 40 hours and you feel and look and smell like a dumpster. A quick refresher in the bathroom never hurt anybody. I like to pack a small tube of face wash, toothpaste and tooth brush, baby wipes, and a change of undies and socks.

19) Stay hydrated.

While many of us might like a glass of red to calm us of our flight jitters, keep in mind that you’ll feel that glass as if you downed three glasses up in the air. The air on planes is very dry, so it’s important to keep drinking water. I like to buy a giant bottle at the airport and bring it on with me so I don’t have to keep asking the flight attendants for drinks (Note: Flying out of Israel, you are often not allowed to take ANY liquids on flights, even if you bought them at the airport.) It’s also a good idea to use some sort of face and hand moisturizer if you’re on a long flight or if you’re a frequent flyer, as well as lip balm.

20) Keep moving.

According to the CDC, blood clots can form in your legs if you are sitting still in a confined space for more than 4 hours, so this means it can happen when you’re on a bus or a boat, as well. Your chances can increase if you are older, obese, on the pill, etc. Try to reduce your chances by getting up and walking every once in a while, or by doing some seat exercises to keep the blood flowing. For example, you can point and flex your feet, raise and lower your legs while keeping them in a right angle, or do shoulder shrugs. My mother recently bought me some compression socks that look sort of ridiculous and go up past my knee. She also insisted that I take baby Aspirin to thin my blood before long flights. I did the things, because Mom’s always right, right?

Compression socks and baby aspirin
Compression socks and baby Aspirin to combat blood clots on long flights

21) Pack extra socks, a blanket and a sweater. Maybe you’ve already thought of this, but there have been plenty of flights where I was freezing even though I was already in a sweatshirt and they gave me blankets. You never know, and remember, the blood isn’t running as smoothly to your lower extremities on a flight. So if you hate being cold, and you hate your feet being cold, pack some extra bits of cloth for comfort.

22) Bring a sleeping mask and earplugs. These should just be staples in your travel bags. Jet lag sucks, but if you can get some rest on the plane, you’ll be much happier for it later. If you’re lucky enough to have noise canceling head phones, those work better than earplugs on flights because your ears may be more sensitive to the change in cabin pressure and it’s just never good to be sticking things in your ears.

23) Chew gum, yawn and swallow to keep your ears from popping during takeoff. You can also equalize by moving your jaw or holding your nose closed and pushing air out of your ears. If you have a cold, it’s definitely a good idea to take a decongestion pill before you board, as well, because the pressure in your sinuses and blocking your ears could grow with the changing of cabin pressure.

Post-flight tips

24) If your baggage comes out of baggage claim damaged, contact the airline to see if they’ll compensate you. If you notice it while still at the airport, go immediately to your airline’s baggage service office to file a claim. Usually, if you were on a domestic flight, you have one day to show any damage to the airlines in person. If you flew international, you usually have about a week after the date of arrival to get in contact with your airline.

25) Contact your airline to see what you can get if you have a long/overnight layover. Before you decide to set up your sleeping bag in a cozy corner of the airport, check to see if your airline offers courtesy overnight accommodation for long layovers. Korean Air, for example, offers a nice free room in a hotel plus free transfers to and from the airport for layovers over 8 hours. Some companies just provide food vouchers, but again, it’s always worth asking!

26) Leave reviews for good flight attendants. It’s not every flight that you find yourself with a flight attendant who is happy to help you and goes the extra mile. Pay it forward by getting their name and going on the airline’s website to leave a good review. This could increase their chance of getting a pay raise or getting put in first class.

 

by Rebecca Bellan

Summer in Big Bear Lake

View of Big Bear Lake from the top of Castle Rock Trail, California

I spent about three August weeks in Big Bear Lake, a small, clean town 6,750 feet high in the mountains of central California, where almost every house is a beautiful log cabin with a stone fireplace, and almost every log cabin has a carved wooden statue of a big bear serving as their personal mascot.

typical log cabin house and wooden bear mascot in Big Bear Lake, California
typical log cabin house in Big Bear Lake

I volunteered reception, kitchen and housekeeping work in exchange for a bed in the staff room and some meals at ITH Big Bear Mountain Adventure Lodge. The rustic hostel sits on a pinecone-covered hill, shaded by tall, dry pine trees. A big tree grows out of the long front porch that offers a sliver of a view of the sparkling blue lake.

ITH Big Bear Mountain Adventure Lodge facade, Big Bear Lake, California
ITH Big Bear Mountain Adventure Lodge facade
ITH Big Bear Mountain Adventure Lodge front porch, California
ITH Big Bear Mountain Adventure Lodge front porch

The lodge was originally built in the 1920’s, and has a giant old fireplace, a couple of staircases that look like they were made from tree roots and branches and a handful of dead mounted animal skulls to add authenticity. With 3 dorm rooms and 4 private rooms (all comfortable, yet simple), a pretty sweet games room, a fully-equipped guest kitchen, a cozy great room and a big backyard, the place is great for chilled out friends, solo travelers and families. People who expected luxury here were sadly mistaken, but those people sucked anyway. It’s a clean (I helped see to that), cheap place to kick it in the mountains and get a hot breakfast and dinner included in the price of the room. Not to mention all of the cool activities that come with the price of your stay, like boat cruises, guided hikes, karaoke, bowling, games nights and, my personal favorite, ARCHERY!! One of the managers, Rudy, used to compete and would teach anyone who asked how to shoot a bow and arrow.

Guest kitchen at ITH Big Bear Mountain Adventure Lodge in Big Bear Lake, California
Guest kitchen at ITH Big Bear Mountain Adventure Lodge
Games room at ITH Big Bear Mountain Adventure Lodge in California
Games room at ITH Big Bear Mountain Adventure Lodge in California
Signs pointing to activity stations in ITH Big Bear Mountain Adventure Lodge's grounds.
Signs pointing to activity stations in ITH Big Bear Mountain Adventure Lodge’s grounds.
ITH Big Bear Mountain Adventure Lodge archery
Rudy smoking a cigarette and notching his bow.
ITH Big Bear Mountain Adventure Lodge archery
Rudy pulling back his arrow, waiting to loose.
ITH Big Bear Mountain Adventure Lodge archery
Me pulling back the bow and arrow, aiming.

Before I go into my personal story, I just want to provide a list of practical information for anyone thinking of making the trip to Big Bear Lake.

How do you even get to Big Bear Lake?

Well, funny you ask, because it is a bitch and a half to get there without a car. If you’ve got one, I assume you also have some sort of navigation at your disposal, so please refer to that for driving directions. On public transit, the trip from, say Los Angeles, will very likely take you all day. So bring your patience, some Less Drowsy Dramamine and a snack or two, because it’s going to be a long, winding ride.

1) Arrive in Los Angeles and get to Union Station. I arrived in LAX at around 10 in the morning on a sunny Wednesday. From there, the cheapest and most out of the way route I found was to take an $8 airport shuttle into the city to Union Station.

2a) Take an Amtrak to San Bernardino. Find yourself (in advance) an Amtrak train that goes to San Bernardino, your destination to catch the Mountain Transit bus up the curvy and slightly treacherous road to Big Bear. Make sure you time it right, because there are only three times that the bus leaves from the San Bernardino Metrolink station (where the trains go, not the buses), 8:35 AM, 12:15 PM and 5:15 PM. For some reason, I didn’t take the train to San Bernardino. I took a godforsaken Greyhound bus that stopped in a million small towns along the way and made me miss my 5:15 bus, so I had to sleep in some shithole motel next to the liquor store where locals drank barefoot on the stoop.

But I digress. If you heed my advice and get a two-hour-or-so train ride up, you will also have the privilege of being an Amtrak customer. This means that if you happen to arrive in LA as early as I did and you have some time to kill, Amtrak will hold your luggage, I think for free, at Union Station. I had the unpleasant experience of sweating while guarding my luggage and taking it with me whenever I needed to pee or eat. But you, hopefully, will have the luxury of free hands and a weightless back. If you want to get a little tourism in, head over to Olvera Street, the oldest part of Downtown LA and part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument. It’s basically Little Mexico, and you can kill a few hours eating taquitos off the street and watching traditional Aztec dances.

2b) Take a Greyhound bus to San Bernardino. The Greyhound station is about a $4 Uber, or a 20 minute walk, from Union Station. I was told that the bus that takes you to Big Bear from San Bernardino stops at the Greyhound station. However, the people working behind the ticket booth seemed to not know what I was talking about, even though the schedule on the Mountain Transit website says that it stops at the Greyhound Station…

Screenshot of Mountain Transit schedule from Greyhound Station and Metrolink Station,San Bernardino, California
Screenshot of Mountain Transit schedule from Greyhound Station and Metrolink Station

3) Get to San Bernardino Metrolink station to catch Mountain Transit bus to Interlaken Center, Big Bear. I hopped in another Uber (again another $4 or so) to the Metrolink station (if you took the train to SB, you would have arrived at Metrolink), where I waited at an actual bus stop on the road for the mini-bus to arrive. There was a sign on the street with a number you can call to track the bus you’re waiting for. The bus costs $10, exact change only. Do not be alarmed if you are one of the only people on the bus. Just as likely, you will be accompanied by mountain crazies who shout conversations at the bus driver, or old sweeties who show you photos of their cats and make sure you get to the hostel safely once the bus reaches the Interlaken Center.

Screenshot of Mountain Transit arrival times in Interlaken Center, Big Bear, California
Screenshot of Mountain Transit arrival times in Interlaken Center, Big Bear, California

4) Go to ITH Big Bear Mountain Adventure Lodge. There are more Mountain Transit buses that go around the lake and can hopefully drop you off at your destination of choice. If you stay at ITH Big Bear, there is a convenient stop right at the bottom of the hostel’s steep driveway. But I know the guys who run the place, and if you just call and ask in advance, chances are someone could pick you up and drive you home. You’ve had a long enough of a day.

What to do in Big Bear Lake in the summer?

Big Bear Lake and Big Bear are more well known for their winter skiing and snowboarding culture because, duh, it’s a mountain. But summer offers a ton of super cool activities, too! My favorites include:

1) Hiking

trails map Big Bear Lake, California
Big Bear Lake trails map

Every Trail and Trails Foundation give pretty good rundowns of the hiking trails available in Big Bear. I hiked Pine Knot, Cougar Crest and Castle Rock while I was there.

  • Pine Knot: This trail, about 3 miles up one way, was only a half an hour walk away from the hostel, off of Mill Creek Road. The trail starts at Aspen Glen picnic area, a clearing with a few tables and some well-maintained toilets. It was a pretty mild hike with lots of shade, but I still wished I had brought more than one bottle of Powerade. About ¾ of the way up is a “picnic area” that looked more like a clearing to me, and a bit further is the Grand View Point. Unfortunately, it was getting dark so my fellow volunteer, Lara, and I didn’t make it to the view point. That didn’t stop us from climbing on top of boulders to get a good look at that glittering lake. It really was extraordinary and peaceful. We only passed a few other hikers and mountain bikers, and I could see that people had ridden horses through the trail, as well. In total, it took us about 3 hours.
Aspen Glen picnic area, Pine Knot Trail, Big Bear Lake, California
Aspen Glen
Sign for Pine Knot Trail in Big Bear Lake, California
Sign leading to the Pine Knot Trail
view of Big Bear Lake from the boulders we climbed on the Pine Knot Trail, Big Bear Lake, California
view of Big Bear Lake from the boulders we climbed on the Pine Knot Trail
Climbing on boulders on Pine Knot Trail in Big Bear Lake, California
Lara perched on a boulder, checking out the view of Big Bear Lake on the Pine Knot trail.
Lush greens and tall trees, Pine Knot trail, Big Bear Lake, California
Beautiful nature on Pine Knot
  • Cougar Crest: This trail was our manager Rudy’s favorite, so he took us volunteers and some guests here one day for an outing. The trail was very dry. I felt more like I was hiking a steep Mohave desert than climbing in the mountains of California. About 2.3 miles up one way, the trail was lined with pines and juniper trees, and it zigzagged a lot and offered many great views of the lake. At the end of the trail, you can connect with the Pacific Crest Trail and get a look at Mexico on one side and Canada on the other. Apparently it’s good to go during all seasons, and mountain bikers are allowed to ride only during off-peak seasons.
Start of Cougar Crest Trail, Big Bear Lake, California
Start of Cougar Crest Trail, Big Bear Lake, California
Scenic view of pines and junipers on Cougar Crest Trail, Big Bear Lake, California
Scenic view of pines and junipers on Cougar Crest Trail
#squad
#squad
dry, stone steps on the trail of Cougar Crest, Big Bear Lake, California
dry, stone steps on the trail of Cougar Crest
sliver of a view of Big Bear Lake on the Cougar Crest Trail, California
sliver of a view of Big Bear Lake on the Cougar Crest Trail
Crew of hikers resting at the top of Cougar Crest Trail in Big Bear Lake, California
The volunteers, guests and Rudy, hanging out at the top of the Cougar Crest Trail.
plenty of nice trees to climb on the Cougar Crest Trail in Big Bear Lake, California
Me climbing a tree at the top of the Cougar Crest Trail
Where Cougar Crest meets with the Pacific Crest Trail, Big Bear Lake, California
Where Cougar Crest meets with the Pacific Crest Trail
  • Castle Rock: This one was by far my favorite hike. As it was only 1.3 miles one way, it was probably the easiest trail, but by far the most beautiful. The trailhead is sort of hard to find, as there is no parking lot or easy-to-spot opening. You sort of just park along the road and walk into the trail from the street. As you walk further into the woods, along the dusty paths and the shady pines, the sounds of the street begin to fade. The walk up to the boulder playground is steep, with plenty of other boulders along the way available to climb. If you reach the first section of boulders, you haven’t reached the end, so don’t stop there. Keep going, past tall rocks and cliffs, to the main rock at the top, a castle of rocks, if you will. I took off my shoes so I could climb to the very top, as there is no path up, with a better grip. We even found some scary and dangerous crevices to try to climb out of. I love a good challenge and a solid boulder to climb. The view from all the way up there was the most stunning. The lake spread out infinitely before me, and the slight wind and silence of being so high up filled my ears. I felt lucky to be alive.
Start of Castle Rock Trail, Big Bear Lake, California
Start of Castle Rock Trail
Boulders and large rock formations abound on the Castle Rock Trail in Big Bear Lake, California
I like that boulder. That is a nice boulder.
Gathering of boulders at the midway point to the top of Castle Rock Trail in Big Bear Lake, California
First resting spot of boulders to climb on Castle Rock Trail
Rocks and boulders on Castle Rock Trail, Big Bear Lake, California
More rocks and boulders for the climbing
hikers pose on some boulders at Castle Rock, Big Bear Lake, California
A nice couple who stayed at the lodge with volunteers Vera and Anina pose atop a Castle of Rocks
View of Big Bear Lake from the top of Castle Rock Trail, California
View of Big Bear Lake from the top of Castle Rock Trail
Big Bear Lake, Castle Rock Trail, California
I sit on the edge and get a good view of Big Bear Lake at the end of the Castle Rock Trail
Selfie with Vera!
Selfie with Vera!
Lots of bouldering/ rock climbing opportunities at Castle Rock, Big Bear Lake, California
Me climbing out of some scary crevice
Made it out safely!
Made it out safely!

Of course, there are many other hikes available, as well as the Deep Creek hot springs, but those are an hour or two out of town.

2) Play on the lake.

photo of Big Bear Lake, California
Big Bear Lake from a boat on the lake
  • The hostel offers free boat tours of the lake! If you sign up in time, you’ll be one of the blessed few to ride the speedboat with the crisp mountain wind in your hair, the sun in your eyes, and a cold can of Coors in your hand. There is no toilet on the boat, but luckily the lake offers floating restrooms that are surprisingly clean. You can also rent your own boats, and other gear, for a day of fishing for rainbow trout or cruising in the sun. The best place to rent from is the Big Bear Marina.
Holloway's Marina, Big Bear Lake, California
Holloway’s Marina, where they kept the boat.
Riding on a boat on Big Bear Lake, California
Rudy with Chris driving the boat around Big Bear Lake, California
  • You can rent kayaks, canoes, jet skis, paddle boards and wakeboard gear from the Marina, and other spots along the south side of the lake, as well. (Just make sure if you’re bring your own paddle board or any type of boat that you check with the Big Bear Municipal Water District about permits and whether or not you’re required to wear a safety vest.) There are a few places on the north side, too, closer to Fawnskin, but if you stick with Captain John’s, Pleasure Point and even Holloway’s Marina and RV Park, you’ll be good to go. Cabins4Less advertise that they offer pretty cheap rentals, but that might just be for their guests. However, they are very close to Boulder Bay and Boulder Bay Park, some must-see sights.
  • You can also tour the lake on a super cool Pirate Ship Cruise- Home of the Bandit. I didn’t do it, but the skeleton mascot hanging from the sails looked like he was having a good time.
  • If you want to go swimming in Big Bear Lake, you have to find the right spot. I won’t lie to you, this isn’t the most fun lake to swim in. It’s cold and oily, and when I was there, the algae along the shore made easing your way in difficult and kind of gross. If you’re on a boat in the middle of the lake, unfortunately, you cannot just jump in. You are, however, allowed to fall in, so keep that one in mind. But if you want to have a day alternating between tanning, swimming and snacking, there are a few sandy shores for you.
    • Meadow Park: A great space to take friends and family, this park right on the lake is 16 acres big with picnic tables, barbecues, tennis courts, volleyball courts, horseshoes, baseball fields, bathrooms and more. The park is right next to appropriately named Swim Beach. Don’t expect a beautiful swim, here. You’re welcome to have a go, but you’ll probably be a bit disappointed.
    • Boulder Bay Park: Boulder Bay and the park next to it are a great place to spend the day. The rock formations all over the space are fun to climb on and take photos with. There are a few picnic areas and barbecues, and the rocky little shore is a good place to launch a kayak.
      Sandy shore at Boulder Bay in Big Bear Lake, California
      Sandy shore at Boulder Bay in Big Bear Lake, California
      Boulder Bay, Big Bear Lake, California
      Boulder Bay, Big Bear Lake, California
      View of Boulder Bay from the Park in Big Bear Lake, California
      View of Boulder Bay from the Park in Big Bear Lake, California

      The rock formations at Boulder Bay Park are great for climbing and photos, Big Bear Lake, California
      The rock formations at Boulder Bay Park are great for climbing and photos
    • Dana Point: On the north shore of the lake, in Fawnskin, is Dana Point, a small park with picnic tables and lake access. What more could you want?
    • Explore: This isn’t a place, it’s a suggestion. I went walking around with friends and we ended up stumbling across a small, mostly deserted beach front where the water was nice and not too obstructed by algae. For the life of me I cannot find it on Google maps to show you. I’m sorry. But something tells me it was in between Gibraltar Point and Lagonita Point.
      Big Bear Lake, California
      What our secret spot looks like from the road.
      Big Bear Lake, California
      The walk to where we decided to settle.

      IMG_6863

      squadsquadsquadsquad
      squadsquadsquadsquad
      Paddle boarding on Big Bear Lake, California
      Paddleboarding on Big Bear Lake

      We also found some boulders while we were on the lake that people were jumping off. So we parked on the side of the road one day, climbed over some rocks and possibly someone’s backyard, and voila, we were climbing up boulders and jumping off of them into the lake in no time! I’m pretty sure we stopped around 66 Big Bear Boulevard. There was a sandy shoulder off the road before the bridge on the west side. Directly in front of the shoulder are two signs, a green one that points to “Fawnskin North Shore” and a brown one below it that points to “Big Bear Discovery Center.” If you park there, take off your shoes and follow your heart, you may be able find the boulders we jumped off of (video below). It’s pretty close to “Treasure Island” or “China Island” for a point of reference. I advise someone to wade into the water first and see how deep it goes before anyone jumps off. I’m not sure how rainfall and droughts and science and stuff affect the depth of a man-made lake.  

    • China Island: You’ll be able to see this small, enticing outcrop of granite boulders from the lake. There are a few huts that were built into the boulders by the Chinese settlers who were building a dam in 1884, without which there would be no Big Bear Lake today. I had assumed that people were renting those huts out, and maybe they are, but further research tells me that the island is open to anyone, and it’s been dubbed the best swimming hole in Big Bear. If you want to jump off of a more established rock, China Island is the place to go. Keep in mind that there are only 6 to 8 parking spots available, so try to get there early if you are driving.

3)Alpine and Water Slide at Magic Mountain

The slides at Magic Mountain offer a nice way to cool off in the summer, as well as adding a cheap thrill to your day. The Alpine Slide, open year round, takes visitors on a chairlift to the top where they can pick which of the two slides they want, have a seat on your sled, and go. If the water slide is more your style, like it was mine, you can join a bunch of dripping, pushing little kids on the line to the two slides. The one on the left is slightly more dangerous if you’re up for a bit more of an adrenaline rush.

Magic Mountain also offers go karts, mini golf, an arcade and a deliciously gross snack bar where I made my fellow volunteers, Julian (from South Africa/ Switzerland) and Lara (from Germany) try, and get addicted to, corn dogs.

4) Eat in Big Bear Lake

There are obviously many places to stuff your face in Big Bear Lake. A few of my faves:

  • The Log Cabin: Located on the corner of Big Bear Boulevard and Edgemoor Road, this country restaurant serves all the best comfort food in a warm environment with friendly staff. They have a delightful mix of American and German plates, and they serve breakfast all day! I ate some sort of Sauerbraten (a German pot roast) Eggs Benedict, with a side of potato pancakes. So good, I nearly licked the plate. Ok, I did lick the plate.
    Greeting sign at Log Cabin Restaurant, Big Bear Lake, California
    Greeting sign at Log Cabin Restaurant, Big Bear Lake
    Homey and rustic atmosphere at Log Cabin Restaurant, Big Bear Lake, California
    Homey and rustic atmosphere at Log Cabin Restaurant

    Sauerbraten Eggs Benedict from Log Cabin Restaurant, Big Bear Lake, California
    Sauerbraten Eggs Benedict from Log Cabin Restaurant
  • The Grizzly Manor Cafe: A tiny shack on the side of the road (Big Bear Blvd, like everything else), Grizzly Manor serves heaping portions of cheap, down home American breakfast and lunch. They are open from 6am to 2pm, and are nearly always packed. With unassuming food cooked right, rustic settings and sassy staff, it’s no wonder there is often a line out the door.
  • Big Bear Mountain Brewery: The brewery is cozy on the inside and looks like a saloon on the outside. They offer 6 craft beers on tap, ranging from The Grizzly, a chocolate porter, to Old Miner’s Gold, a honey blond. Try a sampler set while you munch on some basic pub food.
  • Saucy Momma’s Pizzeria: This place stands out on the scenic Pine Knot Avenue, so I had to stop in for a taste. Good service, delicious pizza, and a patio with puppies everywhere. What else could you want?
  • North Pole Fudge Co: “The Sweetest Shoppe in Town,” is right. This place is heaven, and it’s right next to Saucy Momma’s. Among the thoughts you will have upon entering this magical place of homemade ice cream, milkshakes, floats, lemonade, fudge and candies, you will certainly think, How can I eat everything without becoming poor or sick? I ate some white chocolate caramel cinnamon delight thing and a fudge that had peanut butter rice crispy attached to it. I had a sugar rush for about 15 minutes and then I felt very sick. Worth it.
    Caramel/candy apples at the North Pole Fudge Co., Big Bear Lake, California
    Caramel/candy apples at the North Pole Fudge Co.
    So many chocolate truffles and candies at the North Pole Fudge Co., Big Bear Lake, California
    CHOCOLATEEEEEEE
    Fudge at North Pole Fudge Co., So many chocolate truffles and candies at the North Pole Fudge Co., Big Bear Lake, California
    Fudge on Fudge on Fudge

    Top Ten Comments of visitors to the North Pole Fudge Co., Big Bear Lake, California
    Julian with the Top Ten Comments of visitors to the North Pole Fudge Co.

5) Big Bear Discovery Center

This center, while mainly for kids, is a great way to introduce yourself to Big Bear and the San Bernardino National Forest. You’ll learn a lot about caring for nature and the history of the area. While visiting, you can hike their easy trail to the lake, or engage in child-friendly activities like panning for gold, arts and crafts, climbing and crawling, etc. You can also go on a 3 mile guided hike from Snow Summit. On the hike, you get a free lunch and a ride on the Sky Chair to check out views of Big Bear Lake and Mt. San Gorgornio while you continue on the trial. The Discovery Center is pet friendly and free to enter.

6) Antique Car Show

The Lake Antique Car Club Fun Run goes down every summer at Big Bear Lake, you just have to check their site to catch it. Our crew was actually heading to a Renaissance Fair that day, but as we drove along the lake, we noticed crazy cool antique cars in front and behind us. Locals had set up camp along the side of the road, sitting on fold up chairs and drinking Cokes from their coolers. Whenever an antique car would drive by, they’d cheer for them, and the car would obligingly honk or rev it’s engine.

Old car from the Lake Antique Car Club Fun Run, Big Bear Lake, California 2015
Old car from the Lake Antique Car Club Fun Run
Locals watching the old cars drive by from the Lake Antique Car Club Fun Run, Big Bear Lake, California 2015
Locals camp out in front of their homes around Big Bear Lake to catch the old cars drive by

7) Kick it at the hostel, and do hostel things.

The hostel itself has large grounds that offer a ton of activities to engage in when you’re bored, from volleyball and horse shoes, to archery and yoga. They also offers activities at night, for example:

  • Taco Tuesday’s:
    Azteca Grill, Big Bear Lake, California
    Azteca Grill patio

    This is the one night a week where you won’t get a free meal at the hostel. Instead, after a few sugary margaritas and some complimentary chips and salsa, everyone takes a ten minute walk over to Azteca Grill for $1 tacos and to overwhelm the staff.

  • Karaoke: About twice a week, Ian, our other manager, takes staff and guests to Murray’s Pub for karaoke night. I have heard it’s a good time, but the one night I actually bothered to see for myself, I was told I couldn’t return. I flipped off the bartender as I walked out for not letting my underage friend, Lara, stay. Whatever.
  • Bowling: Normally every week, the staff takes guests on a bowling night, as well. I suck at bowling, and hated it. But everyone was shrieking with delight most of the time. We went to The Bowling Barn, and it had all the stuff of a bowling alley. Black lights, gross shoes, cheap disinfectant smell, mass-produced nachos and previously frozen chicken nuggets, an impossible to win claw crane, multiple lanes, and a bored-looking bartender with cheap beer. Ah, yes, it was everything I expected it to be.

The list can go on and on. Big Bear was a great place to spend a quiet, yet action packed summer. I wish I could be there for the winter, but I’ll be kicking it by the beach in Australia this winter!!!

Check out the next post for some ITH Big Bear hostel life stories.

 

 

by Rebecca Bellan

 

Birthright is meant to strengthen your Jewish identity, here’s how it made mine shaky.

Israeli flag blows in the breeze

“Birthright is considered a “gift” to Jews around the world. It is meant to strengthen our Jewish identity while ensuring solidarity with the state of Israel. What they never outright say, but non

Source: Birthright is meant to strengthen your Jewish identity, here’s how it made mine shaky.

“ISRAEL IS FOR THE JEWS. It is a Jewish state,” said Anan, our Birthright group leader. I had liked him a lot before he uttered those words. I wasn’t prepared for this subtle prejudice, but realized then that I had been overlooking comments like these for ten days.

We were nearing the end of our free trip around Israel. Birthright is considered a “gift” to Jews around the world. It is meant to strengthen our Jewish identity while ensuring solidarity with the state of Israel. What they never outright say, but nonetheless drill into your head, is that they want you to “make Aliyah,” to return to the Holy Land and increase Israel’s numbers.

The first few days of our trip had me thinking that I could really move to Israel. The nature of the country alone was startlingly beautiful. Every landscape seemed limitless, despite the fact that Israel is such a small country. Immediately off the plane, our group was boarded onto a coach bus and driven to the tip of the Golan Heights. We stood on the border, looking out at Lebanon to our left, listening to bombs going off in Syria to our right.

For ten restless days, we toured the country on that bus, from the Tel Aviv to the Negev Desert, from the Banias Nature Reserve to Jerusalem. We went from stop to stop, climbing mountains before noon and sleeping somewhere different every night. One night in a hostel in Jerusalem, another night in a kibbutz by the Dead Sea, another in a Bedouin tent in the desert. Almost every time I took my seat on the bus, I’d fall asleep, like everyone else, only to be awoken by sweet Anan saying, “Wakey, wakey, everyone. Kosher food and eggs.”

My days and nights blended together. We moved around so much that I couldn’t keep track of which day we kayaked on the Jordan River and which day we watched the sun rise on the Masada. It didn’t matter. I was making close friends and falling in love with the State of Israel.

Of course, I had been to Israel a few times before with my family, but never as a Jew. My father, a Christian Arab, is an Israeli citizen. He is the youngest of eight siblings, and therefore, the only one who can say that he was born in Israel, and not Palestine. Since my American-born mother is Jewish, I am a Jew, and was thus eligible to go on Birthright. When my group arrived at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, jet lagged and awkward around each other, Israelis all over the airport called out to us. “Hey, Taglit! Welcome home,” they said. And I knew they meant it.

I’ve never been religious, or even a believer in God. However, there’s something about being raised Jewish that sticks with you. It’s cultural, and unless you’re in the tribe, you don’t get it. For years I had been the token Jew among my friends, enduring jokes about my curly hair or being cheap with a smirk and an equally racist remark. Now, in Israel, I loved how Jewish everything was. After being raised in a Puritan-based society where citizens question President Obama’s Christianity as a condition of his presidency, it was refreshing to suddenly be somewhere where the norm is to party on Thursday night because Friday night is the start of the Shabbat, and Saturday is the day of rest. It was easier to eat kosher than not, and I didn’t feel like I was teaching people about my heritage if I referred to anything I learned in Hebrew school.

We all shared an identity, a system of values that is old and traditional and ours. Who knew I was just an online application and an intense airport interrogation away from being stuck on a bus with 40 other Jews, all of us kvetching about the heat and sharing medicines from our personal pharmacies? I felt like I belonged, like I was with family. Who cares that there were packs of young soldiers with machine guns wandering about everywhere we went? There was a war going on, after all, and they were only protecting their country, right?

I was so caught up in enjoying this opportunity to be among “my people” that I almost forgot about my other people, my Arab side. An experience in Jerusalem provided me with a small reminder of just how unacceptable it is to be Arab in a Jewish state.

When our group arrived in the Holy City, an American man who had made Aliyah greeted us. He had a long beard and wore a kippah and was married to a conservative Jewish woman. Her hair and skin were covered and her hands rested on a stroller that carried their little Israeli citizen. I wasn’t listening to whatever lesson the man was trying to impart on us anyway, so I strolled to a nearby shop for an iced coffee. Every other time I had been to Israel, I always spoke in Arabic. So when I began to greet the woman behind the counter, who couldn’t have been much older than I, in the same tongue, she looked at me with hostility, like I was a terrorist.

Ma?” She asked. “What?”

“An iced coffee, please?” I tried in English.

Her face broke out into a relieved smile. “Of course,” she responded in English. “5 shekel, please.”

I walked away feeling uneasy. It was odd to me that this woman would speak English over Arabic, considering that every Arab in Israel most likely speaks Hebrew, and that until 1948, possibly later, the primary language spoken in this region was Arabic. It was also odd to me just how many Israelis spoke English very well. I later learned that Jews begin English lessons in elementary school. Arabs in the same country don’t begin their English lessons until middle school.

For the moment, I let that encounter roll off my shoulders. Our Israeli soldiers had arrived to join us for the rest of our trip, a part of the trip called Mifgash, and I was eager to meet them.

I got close to one in particular; he reminded me of family. His name was Noam, he was from Be’er Sheva, and he looked like an Arab — dark skin, black facial hair, hazel eyes. He said his family had lived in Be’er Sheva for centuries, hence his Middle Eastern features. Noam and I became fast friends as he took it upon himself to be my personal translator and haggler at the colorful and humming Machane Yehuda Market. Noam introduced me to a Jerusalem mixed grill, made of chicken hearts, liver and spleen and stuffed lovingly in a pita with salad and other fixings. He led the way into the caves of the archeological site, the City of David, and sang Destiny’s Child in the dark to make me laugh. My mother would have nudged me in his direction and told me he was “a nice Jewish boy.”

Noam spoke perfect English, but only a little Arabic. He knew enough to say, “Step out of the car, please.” “Lift your shirt.” And, “Close the door.” Things a soldier would say to the enemy. He was also fairly religious for a young, Friends-watching Israeli. On Friday night, we held a Havdalah service, a ceremony that marks the end of the Shabbat and the beginning of the new week. Noam piously explained to me that the ceremony is meant to stimulate all five senses. We light a special havdalah candle to see the flame and feel its heat, we pass a cup of wine around to taste, we smell a bag of spices, and we hear the prayers.

On the day we went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, Noam and I cried like babies while we watched videos from survivors. We held hands and walked through the museum a little ways back from the rest of the group.

“I am happy to live in a world where Jews finally have a home,” he said.

I pretended to tie my shoe so that I could dislodge my hand from his grasp. I was thinking about my father, my grandmother, my family who call Israel home, yet are not Jewish. This was my first trip to Israel where I noticed a distinguished absence of Arabs, Muslim or Christian, from my prevailing Israeli landscape.

“Right, I’m grateful for that too,” I said. “Especially after World War II. But what about the Arabs who lived here peacefully with Jews and Christians for centuries before Great Britain carved up the land with little regard for cultural territories?”

He smiled at me like I was a child who had asked an adorable question with an obvious answer.

“The Arabs have their land,” said Noam. “God blessed Ishmael and his sons and promised them that their descendants would have a great nation. But Israel is for the Jews, the chosen people.”

“You’re quoting the Bible now?” I asked, incredulous.

“Of course,” he replied with a furrowed brow. “God has given us the State of Israel. It was prophesied that we would lose Israel for our sins, which we have, but we would have to fight for our land, which would one day be restored to us, which it has. Didn’t they teach you anything in Hebrew school?”

“Do you know what we call people who use the Bible as a basis for a social and political argument in my country?” I asked.

He looked at me, waiting.

“Idiots!” I exclaimed. “Don’t you have separation of church and state, or whatever?”

“No, we are a Jewish state.”

“And my family? All those who remain here, degraded to near second-class citizens?”

“They are not second class,” he said, defensively. “Arabs can practice whatever religion they want and live among us. But they will live under our law.”

I didn’t respond. I didn’t know quite how I felt about this conflict inside me. Noam seemed brain washed. Now that I thought about it, many of the Israelis we met seemed ignorantly one-sided. Not necessarily outright hateful, but definitely nationalistic, which history tells us is never a good quality for a population to have. I suppose you might need to feel that way if you were risking your life for your country and there was no way out of it. We had had many group discussions about the importance of the Israeli draft, something Arab citizens are exempt from, and the general consensus among our young Israelis was that they were proud to serve their country and protect their borders.

Noam and I walked silently back to the group, hands at our sides.

After Yad Vashem, our group leaders drove us to Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery, named after Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. We paid our respects to the thousands of neat, gardened plots and rock-anointed graves that covered military casualties, some very recent. Anan led us over to a large patch of grass among the gravestones.

“Does anyone know why there is so much open space here?” he asked, arms stretched wide.

One of the girls in the group raised her hand and said, “To make room for more bodies.”

“Exactly,” said Anan. “Our war is far from over.”

That day, the Israelis left our group for their respective homes. Noam promised to keep in touch and try to visit me, which to his credit, he did, but I wasn’t as interested in being his friend. His views felt like an attack on a large part of me. I was proud to be a Jew, but I was also proud to be an Arab.

On the bus, Anan was on one of his spiels, so I was somewhere between staring out the window and dozing off. I perked up when he said, “Israel is for the Jews. It is a Jewish state.”

Again with this? I thought. Anan was sitting on his knees facing the seat behind him across the aisle from me. I don’t remember whom he was trying to brainwash.

“Anan,” I called. He looked at me from under his cowboy hat. “I’ve told you about my father before, haven’t I? He is a Christian Arab and he and his family have lived here in Israel, well, it was Palestine before, for generations. How do you fit Christians who call this land home into your Jewish state?”

“The Arabs don’t want to be a part of the State of Israel,” he said, throwing his hands into the air. “They cannot assimilate.”

“Why should they have to assimilate? They’ve lived here longer than all of the European Jews who immigrated here after the War.”

He started wagging his forefinger at me, smirked, and said, “Arabs are loyal to Arabs over the State of Israel. You ask your father where he lives, and he will say, ‘Israel.’ You ask him what he is, what his identity is, and he will say ‘I am an Arab.’”

A few days later, Birthright was over, and I had extended my stay in the country to visit my family in Kafr Kanna, an Arab town in lower Galilee, where you’re just as likely to be woken up by church bells as by the mosque’s call to prayer. My dad moved back home a few years ago, so this would be the first time I saw him. After a tearful reunion, we set off towards the Israel that I was used to.

Kafr Kanna was a lot smaller than I remembered it, and a lot uglier than the beautiful Jewish towns and cities we had visited during our tour. The streets were tight with sand-colored buildings and old cars. Everything from the shops and restaurants to the clothes people in the streets wore seemed like hand-me-downs. After spending time among the snow-white stone temples in Tzfat and the metropolitan haven of Tel Aviv, Kanna felt like kind of a dump. But this dump was home, and I was happy to be back with my family.

Later that night, over a meal of jaaj maashi, stuffed chicken, I asked my father, “Where do you live?”

“I live in Israel,” he said, with an indulgent smile.

“And what are you? What is your identity?”

“I am an Israeli citizen, habibti.” 

8 reasons a work exchange is the best way to travel

notched bow, archery, ITH big bear mountain adventure lodge

“#3. You’ll learn something new: You are guaranteed to pick up a new skill with each new place you volunteer.”

Source: 8 reasons a work exchange is the best way to travel

 

1. Accommodation is going to be cheaper for you.

Now, I’ve only used Workaway and HelpX as a source for my work exchanges. (Something about the different website layouts for each country’s WWOOF page is displeasing to my eye, and I don’t really care for children.) But each host only expected me to work an average of five hours a day, five days a week. In exchange, I’d get a bed to sleep in and at least breakfast, sometimes lunch or dinner. Not a bad deal, right?

I can’t imagine the amount of money I saved by working for my bed. Last year, I worked for two weeks at a bed and breakfast on Santa Marianita beach outside of Manta in Ecuador, a location I already wanted to visit for its sick kite surfing culture. If I had stayed in the dorm rooms for $15 per night, I’d have spent $210, not to mention the cost of ordering off their delicious breakfast menu every morning. Instead, I saved an average of $300, which I spent on kite surfing lessons, and got to feast on breakfast burritos and stuffed french toast every morning, prepared by the hotel’s charming Ecuadorean cook, Martiza.

2. It’s the easiest way to immerse yourself in the local culture.

Most hosts ask their volunteers to stay and work for an average of one month, sometimes more and sometimes less. In this time, you’re not merely stopping in a city for a weekend, seeing the touristy sites, and going on your merry way. You can truly embrace “slow travel” because you have the time and the resources to really get to know the place and the people who live in it full time.

I did my first work exchange at a hostel in Catania, Sicily. I stayed for two months, which was a little more than I needed at the time, but there were other volunteers who had been there for nearly a year. One British girl, George, in particular was practically Sicilian by the time she left, complete with big hand gestures, homemade pasta and recommending horse meat as a delicacy.

By staying in Catania for an extended period of time and not just passing through, I felt that I was able to assimilate a little more into the Sicilian culture, and therefore, adopt a little of that culture into myself. In general, I learned to slow my roll a little bit. I’d wake up in the morning and stroll to the bakery for some fresh bread to put on the table for the guests. The baker would help me practice my Italian by asking me if I’d like a little something sweet for myself, to which I’d demurely refuse until she asked if I was sure, and then I’d say, forse solo uno.

After the bakery, I’d stop at the fruit stand on the street, buy whatever the young man working there recommended, refuse his marriage proposals and head back up to the kitchen to lay out my purchases and make espressos for the guests.

I even spent enough time there that the manager, Rosario, had his mother come in and teach me how to make pasta a la Norma and a traditional tomato sauce, with just a touch of heat. I’d spend my days buying the freshest tomatoes and seafood from the outdoor market, stirring a simmering pot of sauce or soup that I’d serve to the guests for dinner, and putting laundry out on the line to dry, all the while staring off into the sea and listening to the hostel’s neighbor practice his cello for the Catania orchestra.

3. You’ll learn something new.

You are guaranteed to pick up a new skill with each new place you volunteer. Whether it’s learning everything there is about horse maintenance on a Midwestern ranch or excavating an archaeological monument in Siberia, you will walk away with more than what you arrived with.

If you’re like me, and basically the entire American millennial population, you’re not quite sure what career path you should be on. And that’s fine, work exchanges are a great way to try out different jobs and explore your interests.

It’s always been a far off dream of mine to open my own hostel, so that’s why I gravitate toward hostel work. As I write this, I’m volunteering at my third hostel, ITH Mountain Adventure Lodge in Big Bear, California. Due to my past experience working in hostels coupled with my general hospitality expertise, the managers here trust me to basically run the place while they’re away. I understand the flow of this industry, and now I’m learning how to use different booking software. Not to mention they have me splitting wood and teaching guests archery. I had no idea how to do either of those things until I got here. And I got to learn all these rugged and useful skills for free.

Last year, I volunteered with a family in the jungle in Peru. The other volunteers and I tended to their land, planting crops, feeding chickens and contributing to the compost pile. But mainly, we spent a ton of time digging an irrigation ditch that would hopefully redirect the heavy rainfall that completely flooded their house the year before. I learned a lot about the struggles of the residents of the Peruvian Amazon and got to contribute to the family’s well being. Not to mention how cool it was to have monkeys for neighbors, the Tambopata River as my personal bath, and fresh papaya to pick off the trees for breakfast.

4. Even though it is work, you can really just take a break.

If you’ve been moving non-stop around the world, living out of your backpack and in a new hostel every third night, you’ll definitely enjoy a chance to stop and rest for a while. It will feel good to have a purpose again other than just going and going, not to mention the wonderful feeling of being able to unpack without knowing that you’ll immediately have to roll and stuff everything into your bag again and hoist it on your shoulders within a few days.

As I travel, I always know that work exchanges are an option for when I’m just too tired to go on. Here at my current Workaway, a nice Swiss boy has just arrived. He’s been traveling around the States for a little over two months and hasn’t stayed in one city for more than five days. For the first two days of his arrival here, he couldn’t stop exclaiming how happy he is to get back to a routine that includes a normal work, exercise and eating schedule. He now has the responsibility of splitting wood and he says he couldn’t be happier.

And guess what, you can leave again whenever you want.

5. Work exchanges are also a really good way to start your trip.

Maybe you’ve never traveled solo before, or maybe you haven’t been to this particular part of the world before. Doing a quick work exchange will help you acclimate to being in a new environment.

When I graduated university two years ago and decided that I wanted to travel, I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. So I checked out Workaway’s website to see what opportunities different countries had to offer. I had been to Italy before, but only for ten days. If you’ve been to Italy, you’ll know that ten days isn’t nearly enough time. I could spend my life in that gorgeous country getting fat off pasta. So when I saw a post about a unique hostel where volunteers live with the guests and contribute to the running of the place, I thought it would be a great way to start my travels. I would know exactly where I was going and have a support system while away from home.

6. There’s going to be people from all over the world working alongside you.

Even if you’re the only volunteer at a farm in Nowheresville, Albania, you’ll still meet new people who will contribute to your sense of self. At hostels, obviously, the amount of people you meet is much more varied. I have so enjoyed comparing small traditions with people I’ve met from other countries, sharing stories about our different holiday experiences or hearing about what they eat for meals in their own countries. It never gets old when my German friend, Lara, complains about the amount of meat we eat in America and that we don’t know how to make bread.

Also, the people you meet can provide unique and valuable information for your future travels. They can recommend a great hostel or restaurant where they just were in Vietnam, or give you detailed notes about what you must see while you’re traveling the Rhine Valley, photos and all.

7. You can learn a new language, or practice a second or third language.

Many work exchange programs are specific to language exchange. If you search the Au Pair websites, you’ll see that many European families want to host native English speakers to speak to their children in English. At the same time, you’ll definitely get a chance to practice your French.

I loved volunteering in South America because I am passionate about becoming fluent in Spanish. The language is so beautiful and so useful to know. Speaking Spanish has helped me both abroad and back home. In fact, one of the reasons my work exchange in Ecuador hired me was because they desperately needed a translator. I’m not fluent, but dealing with vendors and guests forced me to practice my Spanish and even learn some new words, rather than just getting by on smiles and hand gestures.

8. You can use your host as a home base while you work on other important things.

Every morning, one of my fellow volunteers in California, Kaja, from Poland, wakes up to Skype with clients from home. She has her own marketing business which funds her travels, and she can keep up with her workload online.

That’s the great thing about these work exchanges, or at least the ones I have engaged in. Your free time is your free time. After my shift is up, or when I have a day off, I take time to write or edit photos and videos. I am currently enrolled in a few online classes that I feel I can dedicate more time to here than if I were back home, chasing money and keeping up with my social life. I feel as though I am living in some world that is separate from the real world, a world where I have the time and the freedom to explore any interest and dedicate time to it.