Tips for making the most of your travel money

With the pound not buying quite as many euros or dollars as it used to, here are some tips to get the best value for your holiday money.

1. Understanding the basics of travel money

The Bank of England exchange rates website gives you the latest interbank exchange rates. These are the rates at which the big banks exchange money among themselves. As a traveller, you’re not going to get a rate as good as this, but it gives you an idea of what the best possible rate is.

Because exchange rates involve two currencies, such as the pound against the euro, it can be a bit confusing as to whether a higher exchange rate is better or worse.

The easiest way to remember this is if you have the pound first, such as pounds to euros or pounds to US dollars, these days the exchange rate will start with a 1. Then, the higher the number, the better it is for you.

For example, with pounds to euros, 1.14 is better for you than 1.08.

With pounds to US dollars, 1.30 is better for you than 1.20.

2. Nobody knows the best time to buy!

If the exchange rate is low, you might be tempted to wait and see if it improves. It might get better, but it might get worse. Although foreign exchange rates tend to move in long-term trends, the truth is that nobody knows with certainty where it’s going—if they did, currency speculators would all be rich!

3. Buy half now and half later, and hedge your bets!

If you think there could be a meaningful change in the exchange rate between now and your holiday, you could buy half of your travel money now, and half closer to when you travel. In this way, you’ll get the average of the two rates.

But again, you don’t have a crystal ball, so this could work out better, or it could work out worse. You also have to consider any fees, commissions, or delivery charges when you’re making two transactions rather than one.

4. Buy your holiday money online in advance

Don’t buy your holiday money at the airport: the exchange rate you’ll get will be terrible.

If you’ve got a few days to spare before your holiday, use a currency comparison websiteto get the best deals.

If you’re in a hurry, eurochange gives decent rates, and if you order before 4pm you get next day delivery, which is free on orders of £600 or more. They also have 181 branchesthroughout Britain if you want to collect your currency.

5. Always pay abroad in local currency—never pay in pounds

When you’re abroad, if a cash machine, shop or restaurant asks you whether to pay in pounds or the local currency (such as euros), always pay in the local currency. Never pay in pounds.

If you pay in pounds, you’re at the mercy of the overseas merchant or bank, and their rates are going to be pretty bad.

6. Don’t withdraw cash on your credit card if you can help it

If you withdraw cash on a credit card, it will be noted on your credit report. This can look bad if you apply for a loan, credit card, or mortgage within the next few months: it looks to lenders like you might not have any cash in your bank account, forcing you to borrow at high rates on your credit card!

Credit cards often tend to charge fees for withdrawing cash too, so it can work out an expensive way to get travel money.

7. A quick sanity check to make sure you’re not being ripped off

These days, pounds, euros, and US dollars are all broadly similar in value. But sometimes when we see prices in a restaurant or a shop in a foreign currency, we’re not sure whether it’s a good deal or not.

When you’re buying something, ask yourself: if the same price was given in pounds, would it be a good deal? For example, if a meal in a restaurant is 20 euros, would it be good value if it was 20 pounds?

8. Keep your cash safe

Don’t forget to put extra cash in the safe in your hotel room, along with your passport.

Travel insurance will cover you for having your cash stolen, as long as you have taken sensible precautions. For example, our Go2 Travel Insurance will cover you for up to £500 of Personal Money (on a single-trip Gold policy), and so will our Europe Plus Platinum policy.

Off the beaten track in New York: gangsters and a speakeasy!

Travel writer Julia Hammond takes us to some of the more unusual sites in New York City. With gangsters, a prohibition-era liquor den, and hidden museums and parks, New York is a city worth hanging around in after you’ve ticked off the major sights.

Since moving to the countryside a few years ago, crowded cities hold far less appeal for me than they once did. I find myself irritated by the hum of the traffic, the jostling of commuter shoulders, and the claustrophobia of high-rises packed so tightly that the sky all but disappears.

Yet a few cities have a magnetism that I still find irresistible. I can’t disagree with Samuel Johnson’s famous words, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford”. But I’d like to point out that they could equally hold true for New York City.

New York skyscrapers

Start by visiting the Freedom Tower, now known as One World Trade Center, if only for its elevator ride. As you ascend, the city develops around you in one of the best multimedia presentations I’ve seen anywhere. There’s a twist at the top, but I won’t spoil the surprise.

Not far away, the tiny Skyscraper Museum, tucked away in a forgotten corner of Battery Park, flies under the radar of most of those queuing for the Statue of Liberty ferries. Its models and photographs explain the engineering and architecture of many of the tallest structures that crowd Lower Manhattan and Midtown. You might be wondering why there’s a gap in between these areas, and I’ll tell you: the soft bedrock just wasn’t up to the job of holding up these monster tower blocks.

Museums and the Muppets

But a city is much more than its physical geography. If you’re keen to get a handle on its psyche, then the Museum of the City of New York should be your next stop.

It’s worth the trek up to the top of the Museum Mile on the Upper East Side to fill in the gaps and learn a little about what makes this city tick. The temporary exhibits are the most rewarding if you’d like to find out which issues have ignited the passions of its residents over the decades. New Yorkers are nothing if not opinionated, and this is where you can find out what’s riled them the most!

New York City is blessed with many more fascinating museums. The Brooklyn Transit Museum fills a void underneath the spot where Boerum Place meets Schermerhorn Street. Some of the exhibits in this subterranean collection of vintage subway cars are over a hundred years old. And the best bit? No one minds if you hop on board!

Out in Astoria, I loved getting reacquainted with the Muppets at the Museum of the Moving Image. In the Lower East Side, don’t be in too much of a rush to dash off once you’ve eaten at Katz’s famous deli.

The High Line Park

The High Line is now one of New York’s top five parks by visitor numbers. It was once an elevated railway, but a community-led group fought to save it from demolition and turned it into a green space. There’s lots of amazing planting, architectural interest by retaining the tracks, and hardwood furniture so you can lounge. Very New York!

In the ten years it’s been open, it’s been extended and now goes from the trendy Meatpacking District to the new development at Hudson Yards. It’s one of my favourite places in the city, whatever the weather—I’ve even been up there in the snow.

Lesser-known parks

Across the East River, a derelict industrial space once used as a sugar refinery has been transformed into Brooklyn’s answer to the High Line. But unlike its Manhattan counterpart, Domino Park has yet to find a place on the well-trodden tourist trail, and you’ll have peace and quiet—and space—as you take in the famous skyline across the water.

Another of my favourite green spaces, the New York Botanical Garden, located in the Bronx, takes a bit more effort to reach. Nevertheless, it’s well worth a visit, particularly in the autumn when the extensive collection of trees becomes a riot of russets, ochres, golds and crimsons. Central Park, eat your heart out.

Gangster museum and an authentic speakeasy

But back to Manhattan. The unprepossessing façade of the Museum of the American Gangster means that many wandering the streets of the East Village won’t even notice it and will walk right on by. But climb its steps, and amid a room of scruffy cuttings and faded photographs, the chilling tales emerge of some of New York’s most infamous characters. The basement still bears the scars of a decades-old gunfight, with bullet holes in the ageing brickwork.

Between 1920 and 1933, alcoholic drinks were banned throughout the United States. This was known as the prohibition era, and it gave rise to many illegal secret drinking dens, known as speakeasies.

A few doors further down St Mark’s Place from the museum, hidden behind the door of a telephone booth in a hot dog restaurant, is my favourite speakeasy, Please Don’t Tell. You’ll need a password to sip a cocktail at the bar and mull over the Prohibition years while night falls over the 21st-century city outside. What is it? I could tell you, but then I’d have to…

Corfu: beaches, sun, and beautiful local produce

Continuing our series of first-hand travel experiences, eager traveller Victoria Norris tells us about some of her latest adventures in Corfu.

If you’re wondering where to go for a late summer holiday in Europe, the Greek islands are always worth considering. With so many islands to choose from, all benefitting from beautiful weather, there is an island to suit every taste. You’ll also often find some great last-minute deals!

Corfu is one of the most popular islands, and for good reason. It’s the furthest north of the Greek islands, so it does receive more rain than some other places, but that means you get lovely lush scenery and beautiful flowers to enjoy.

Corfu climate is great in September

September is arguably the best month to visit Corfu. It’s still warm, with average highs of 28C (82F), without the often oppressive heat in the 30s—and the crowds—which come with a mid-summer visit. As an added bonus, the sea has had all summer to warm up, so if you like to swim in the sea, or even just have a paddle, you won’t need to worry about cold toes!

Beaches and hire cars

If you enjoy the wide, commercial beaches with beach bars, loungers, and watersports, then the north of Corfu is packed with resort after resort which will cater for your every need.

However, if you prefer a quieter beach, and are willing to forego some of the facilities and spectacular scenery of the larger resorts, you’re in luck. It’s worth hiring a car and exploring some of the more remote stretches of coastline. You will find narrow stretches of beach where you have the immediate area to yourself. Don’t forget our CHEW Insurance so that you don’t get caught out by unforeseen hire car excess charges.

Corfu has a reputation for being a party island, but for the most part the all-night bars and nightclubs are located only in Kavos, at the very south of the island. The family/couple-friendly resorts are found at the north end of the island. The capital, Corfu Town, is fairly central, so it’s easy to get to regardless of where you are staying.

Traditional olive oil soap factory

Soap factory demonstration

One of my favourite attractions is in Corfu Town and is well worth a visit:

The Patounis soap factory is a family run business, and the recipe and manufacturing methods have been passed down from father to son for five successive generations. The soap factory has been manufacturing locally-produced olive oil soap from its premises in Corfu Town since 1891.

There are still lots of historical tools and equipment to be seen, either still in use today or preserved to view. As a result, the factory is even listed as a monument of industrial heritage with the Greek Ministry of Culture.

The factory offers free tours each day from Monday to Saturday at 12 noon. There is also a shop selling their produce, which is open Monday – Friday 9am-5pm and Saturdays 9:30am to 2:30pm.

If you visit the factory during these times, you will be greeted by a member of staff, often the owner, and shown through to the back of the shop to where the magic happens!

You’ll be told all about the history of the company, and shown the ingredients used to make the soap, and also the manufacturing process. I took the photograph shown here during the demonstration.

The exact method is a family secret, but you get a good overview, with demonstrations of soap cutting and stamping. Then, at the end of the tour, you get to purchase the finished product if you so wish, although there is no pressure to do so whatsoever!

If you want a nice little souvenir for someone special, or even a memento of your holiday for yourself, what could be nicer than some traditionally made olive oil soap?!

Olive oil factory

Sticking to the theme of olive oil (well, why not, it’s healthy and good for the heart!) a visit to Corfu wouldn’t be complete without a visit to an olive oil factory to see exactly how the olive oil is actually made.

My favourite factory is Mavroudis. Again, it’s a family business, this time in the village of Vraganiotika, in central Corfu.

This is a working cold-pressed olive oil extraction mill, which has a fascinating museum. Tours are given by a member of the family and are available free of charge upon request. There’s also a lovely shop where you can purchase all kinds of olive oil produce, including the olives themselves and a huge variety of cold-pressed olive oils, olive-wood bowls, and beauty products such as soaps and lotions.

A really nice touch after you’ve had the tour of their museum and a browse in their shop is the tasting station, where you can dip bread into their award-winning flavoured infused olive oils to “try before you buy”.

The flavours available include chilli, garlic, basil, oregano, orange, and my personal favourite, lemon (excellent splashed over fish and salads).

Like their standard extra virgin olive oil, these are all cold-pressed. This means that without any heat or chemicals involved in the production process, the oil retains maximum nutrient and antioxidant benefits.

Food

The Greek islands have arguably some of the world’s most delicious food. Be sure to sample traditional Gyros, pronounced “year-ros”. Also try the local Pastitsada dish of meat in tomato sauce with pasta, topped off with a yummy Greek salad dressed in lots of that tasty local olive oil.

With free cultural attractions such as these, together with beautiful beaches, spectacular scenery, crystal clear warm waters, and great food, what’s not to love?

Fifteen tips to make your long-haul flight more enjoyable

Now that our Go2 Travel Insurance covers you for many countries worldwide, why not try a long-haul holiday? Here’s how to have a great flight!

1. Dress in layers
One of the things that can make a flight uncomfortable is temperature fluctuations. Planes are typically quite cold due to the air conditioning, but you might start to feel overheated after being in close proximity to so many other people. Some people also tend to feel hot or cold as they get tired. 

The best way to prepare for this is to wear layers. Wear a comfortable T-shirt with a sweater, cardigan, or fleece on top that you can easily take on and off. Don’t wear tight-fitting footwear, because your feet tend to swell at high altitudes.

2. Look for seat upgrades
When you’re booking your flight and choosing your seat, a website like SeatGuru will help you to choose a slightly more spacious and convenient seat.

Most airlines today have their own mobile phone app where you can check your flight’s seat map before you board. If you check this carefully, you may be able to move to an empty row or even get an upgrade to premium class. 

Keep an eye on the seat map for your flight starting a few hours beforehand. If it looks like economy class is overbooked, but premium economy or business class is relatively empty, and you fancy taking a risk, consider not checking in until you arrive at the airport. Airlines sometimes need to move your seat out of necessity, either because they have overbooked the economy cabin or they need to move passengers around to balance the aircraft. Just don’t wait too late: you don’t want to be last to check in, just in case the flight has been overbooked and all the seats are now taken! 

On the airline’s app, you should also keep an eye out for empty rows in economy class. If you notice an empty row, ask the airline staff politely if they can move you. Be sure to do this when the gate agent isn’t busy, and you’ll be much more likely to get a positive response. 

3. Stay hydrated
The air on planes is very dry, another reason many people find them uncomfortable for long periods of time. It can be tempting to drink alcohol to help you relax, but this will actually dehydrate you further. Tea and coffee can also dehydrate you, due to the caffeine.

You can either buy a bottle of water once you’ve gone through security, or bring your own empty water bottle with you and ask the cabin crew to fill it when they pass by. Sip your water slowly, rather than having a huge drink all at once: this way you’re a lot less likely to need the toilet!

4. Bring a snack
You can also bring small snacks, which help pass the time and stave off any hunger pains. Try and choose something that will fill you up and has at least some nutritional value, like a muesli bar, rather than just chocolate!

5. Moisturise your skin
Bring moisturising products for your hands, face, and lips to prevent them from drying out. 

6. Protect your eyes
If you wear contact lenses, bring eye drops that you can use while you’re still wearing your lenses. The air conditioning, the long time you’ll be wearing your lenses, and possibly falling asleep with your lenses in, will all conspire to really dry out your eyes. 

[Editor’s note: my optician recommended Hycosan eye drops, which work very well for me, and an opened pack lasts for six months.]

7. Bring several entertainment options
Remember to pre-load your phone or iPad with goodies! You can download multiple podcasts or audiobooks, as well as TV series, films, and addictive games. A magazine app such as Readly gives you access to hundreds of top magazines which you can download before your flight and then read at 39,000 feet! 

Staring at a screen can make your eyes tired, so some audio-only options can be nice. Books, magazines, and puzzle books are also nice ways to stay occupied.

8. Bring a battery charger
portable battery charger with a USB connection can help prevent your gadgets from going flat during your flight. Remember you’ll need enough battery power left in your phone to help you get from the airport to a taxi, and then to see a map to get to your hotel! 

9. Plan your trip while you’re on the plane
You could take a guide book (or download some Kindle travel guides) and start getting excited about the holiday, planning your trip while you’re on the plane. Many guide books have a section on the history, culture, and customs of the place you’re visiting, and reading this can really set the scene for your holiday.

Other people like to bring a pen and a notebook and do some journaling, thinking about their goals for the next few months.

10. Reduce fatigue with noise-cancelling headphones
Noise-cancelling headphones can reduce fatigue because they block out the background hum of the engines. You can even just wear them and turn on the noise cancelling without even listening to music! Remember to bring spare batteries. These headphones tend to be quite bulky, but smaller in-ear versions are now being sold by Bose and other manufacturers.

11. Catch up on the boring stuff to get it out of the way
If you don’t need to get into the holiday mood immediately, you can use the time onboard the plane to catch up with your paperwork or admin. Lots of people actually find planes a productive place to work, since there are few distractions. Long-haul airlines are starting to offer WiFi (wireless internet) now, sometimes just for basic messaging, with an option to pay to get a full connection.

12. Move around
You can ease the boredom by getting up, walking around, and stretching. This also helps to lower the risk of developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Just walk to the toilets every couple of hours or so, even if you don’t need to go, and stand up for a while.

13. Bring along a small dental kit
Taking care of your hygiene is an easy way to make a long flight a little less unpleasant, but many people don’t think to do it. Pack a travel-sized toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste, and perhaps some travel-sized mouthwash too, and brush your teeth after meals on the plane. It will help you feel more refreshed, plus it lets you stretch your legs. Some people like to bring a small bottle of hand sanitiser too. 

14. Get some good sleep
Sleeping is one of the best ways to make a long-haul flight go by faster. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to sleep on a plane, but a few things can help.

You could bring a lightweight blanket or an eye mask to help you sleep. Airlines will often give you these, but they tend to be quite basic. You could also bring earplugs, or keep your noise-cancelling headphones on.

A neck pillow or head support can also be helpful. Things have moved on from the days of the simple U-shaped neck pillow, and you’ll now find a huge variety of weird and (possibly) wonderful head supports to choose from! Reviews such as this and this might help you make a choice.

15. Bring a small extra bag
Since the space at your seat is limited, it’s often useful to pack a spare carrier bag or shoulder bag inside your main rucksack or cabin bag. Then, you can simply put the items you need for the actual flight into the carrier bag and keep it at your feet, while keeping your main cabin bag in the overhead locker.

Discovering Florida beyond the theme parks

Whether you’re travelling solo, as a couple, or as a family holiday with the grandchildren, you’ll find plenty of fun in Florida beyond the theme parks. We asked a native Floridian what she recommends.

With more than 8,000 miles of shoreline, Florida, also known as the Sunshine State, is a prime holiday destination all year round. The climate is warm and sunny, which is why so many Americans retire to Florida!

Let’s see what you could be getting up to:

Central Florida: Orlando
Orlando is a destination filled with unique experiences for every visitor. It is the theme park capital of the world, with Disney and Universal both having huge parks. But if thrill-seeking isn’t your style, there’s a lot more for you to discover, including dining, shopping, and ecotourism. 

The arts come alive in Orlando! You’ll find Broadway-quality shows, ballet, interesting collections, and travelling exhibits, at venues like Orlando Museum of Art and Cornell Fine Arts Museum.

With its unique Historic Preservation Districts (which have walking tours), Orlando offers a mix of traditional and contemporary artistry and culture for you to explore. Even better, many of these options are entirely free. 

The Central Florida region has many lakes for recreational fun, and is a haven for anglers and boaters. 

You can choose from a wide range of accommodation, from luxury Disney Park resorts to condominiums rented by their owners. There is something for everyone’s taste and budget.

Southeast Florida: Miami
Southeast Florida is the most culturally rich and ethnically diverse part of Florida. From the distinctive cultural scene found in Little Havana—Miami’s Cuban district—to the plush hotels of Miami Beach and the historic hideaways of Coral Gables, there’s a wide variety of experiences to be had.

Dance a little salsa along Miami’s Bayfront, spend a few days shopping in the modern sprawling malls, and visit the quiet family-owned shops of Coconut Grove and many other corners of the region. Or catch a game at one of Miami’s major sporting venues, where you can enjoy American football (the Miami Dolphins), hockey (the Florida Panthers), or baseball (the Miami Marlins). Golf, tennis, or even deep-sea fishing adventures are also plentiful.

Miami is also known for being the restaurant mecca of Florida—fresh seafood specialities are abundant. Miami’s Metrorail system is a 25-mile track that provides easily accessible and convenient transport to most major attractions. 

The area encompasses several popular neighbouring cities, including Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach, West Palm Beach, and Boca Raton. These cities all lie along the east coast of Florida, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Everglades, so there are plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation.

Northeast Florida: Jacksonville
Looking for a holiday that’s both fun and relaxing, while also being one of the best value destinations in the world? Jacksonville has 22 miles of beaches, extensive parks, world-class fishing, historic neighbourhoods, creative coastal cuisine, and delicious craft beer!

Located in the northeastern corner of Florida, Lonely Planet ranked Jacksonville on its list of the world’s “10 Best Value Destinations for 2018“.

Jacksonville’s various districts include thriving history, arts and cultural community showcases, museums, boutique galleries, and performing art centres. Outside of Jacksonville, there are several quaint towns to visit. These include St. Augustine, the oldest city in the U.S. which dates back to 1565, and Fernandina Beach, one of Florida’s many lovely beach towns. 

Which will you choose?
Florida is a melting pot of history, beautiful beaches, and extraordinary arts and culture. So when Europe goes cooler in the autumn, warm up with a visit to Florida—you’re sure to have an amazing experience in this magnificent part of the United States!

Classic Italy: Naples and a trip to Pompeii

If you’re looking for a classic Italian holiday, how about a trip to Naples and then going to see the ruins of Pompeii?

Pompeii actually consists of several major locations, and together they cover an area of around 150 acres. In this article we’ll look at what’s on offer, getting to Pompeii railway station, named Pompei Scavi-Villa dei Misteri, and then getting to the key sites within the archaeological park. 

Pompeii map and guides to plan your trip
At Pompeii you can explore the remains of villages, houses, streets, villas, baths, a forum, and an amphitheatre. There are websites with a good overview of the attractions and a tourist guide. There’s also the Pompeii official website, with suggested walking paths and all manner of information.

How to get to Pompeii by train
There are two public transport options: Trenitalia’s MET/REG, or the #1 (black line) trains from Naples Garibaldi. Both run every hour and have many stops along the way. 

However, the Campania Express runs from Porta Nolana, the start of the railway line and only a short walk from Napoli Garibaldi station. 

It’s probably best to take the Campania Express because it’s fairly direct and only takes around 35 minutes. You’ll also get a seat and air-conditioning, both important for summer travel, although opinions of the service are mixed!

Porta Nolana station is quieter than the main station. Staff will personally escort you to the correct train, and you’ll be assured of getting that all-important seat! 

Booking the train to Pompeii
Speak with the station attendant and tell them you want the Campania Express to Pompeii. They’ll check you mean the train with a seat, then they’ll take you to a small office where you can make the booking. You must book the departure and return times, as this train has a strict passenger ticketing policy: no ticket, no travel.

Buying a ticket for the Pompeii site
When you arrive at Pompeii station, you’ll come in on the northern platform, so exit the station and turn right. Head down the hill and just walk straight past all the hawkers who’ll pressure you to buy a ticket.

Don’t panic if you haven’t bought your ticket yet; it’s easy to buy at the site entrance. There may be queues on the day, but they move quickly. On average, it takes no more than 15 minutes to purchase tickets and enter the site. It’s better to arrive early if you can.

Alternatively, you can buy Pompeii tickets online via the official Pompeii website beforehand. Or you could consider a Campania>Artecard, which includes the wider Naples and Campania region.

At Pompeii
Using the map available at the box-office, or the official online PDF map of Pompeii, head to the major sites first, but be prepared to queue at peak times. The Casa del Fauno, Terme del Foro, and Foro Civile di Pompei, are all located to your left (northwest) as you climb the pathway. Villa dei Meisteri is located at the end of Via Consolare and should not be missed for its ornate walls and authentic domestic architectural beauty.

The Teatro Grande, Tempio di Iside, Foro Triangolare, Quadriporch, and Teatro Piccolo, along with the House of the Physician, are all located on the right (southeast). These sites are sometimes overlooked as they’re not as aesthetically pleasing. However, they are still spectacular displays of Roman architecture and social life.

Final things
There are toilets at the entrance, and the next nearest are located in a café onsite, up a hill. You should hire an audio guide instead of joining a tour group: groups can be loud and large (25 people or more). 

At the end of a spectacular visit, head back to Pompeii station, crossing under the station itself to get to the southern platform. You’ll have certainly had a day to remember!

Alberobello: a quirky part of Italy with a difference

Travel writer Julia Hammond explains how she fell in love with the southern Italian town of Alberobello.

Trulli
Image credit: Berthold Werner

The first time I saw a picture of a row of trulli—quirky round huts—it popped up on a Twitter feed during a weekly chat about #TheRoadLessTravelled. That turned out to be a bit wide of the mark.

In the town of Alberobello, where these trulli cluster, numerous tour guides bearing colourful umbrellas lead groups of camera-toting tourists on walking tours. Some describe it as a hobbit town, but it has its own distinct character. Judge for yourself, with these photos.

What’s going on with these huts?
These huts are found not just in Alberobello but are scattered across Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot. They look like something out of a fantasy film set, but in fact were originally built for agricultural purposes, sheltering livestock from the elements. Stone in this karst limestone plateau was abundant, making these construction methods cheap. The trulli huts are as common a sight in the fields of the Valle d’Itria as dry stone walls are in the Yorkshire Dales. 

With no mortar holding the blocks in place, dismantling trulli when they were no longer needed was easy, a fact that caught the attention of the townsfolk of Alberobello, for a very sneaky reason.

Centuries ago, the area came under the rule of the distant Kings of Napoli, whose wealth was in part due to levies imposed on permanent dwellings. But if a dwelling could be taken down quickly, there’d be nothing to pay. It was the ultimate tax dodge, and one which served the people of Alberobello for a considerable period of time. Eventually, the political situation changed, and these temporary structures became as much a part of the urban landscape as they were the countryside that surrounded it. 

Learning the history
This, and more of the town’s long history, form the exhibits in the fascinating Museo del Territorio. Spread across fifteen interconnected trulli, visitors take a virtual walk through Alberobello’s colourful past.

Equally fascinating is Trulli Sovrano. It’s the only trullo in the town to have a second storey, as such a rudimentary form of architecture wasn’t usually sturdy enough to support an upper floor. It was once a warehouse, and a trapdoor in the upper floor is a clue to its former use. A spy hole from a bedroom near the front door would have been used to check who was visiting, and as the friendly staff will point out, it was wide enough to accommodate a rifle when they were deemed unwelcome!

Grander still is the 20th-century trulli church of Chiesa Sant’Antonio which stands on the edge of the Rione Monti district. It’s a good starting point to explore this hilly part of town, not least because the stroll along Via Monte Michele back to the main square is of the gentle downhill variety. 

While you’re in Rione Monti, worth seeking out is the Trulli Siamesi. A single dipped roof covers its two domes, and the place is thought to date from the 15th century. Legend has it that two brothers lived there, but came to blows when they fell for the same woman. Neither would give up the house they’d inherited, so the oddly shaped hut with its separate rooms and extra door became the tangible result of their stubbornness. 

Shopping for traditional goods
Many of Rione Monti’s trulli house souvenir shops sell artisan olive oil, hand-woven textiles, and bold ceramics, though you’ll need to weed out the tat! Something to look out for is the traditional Puglian whistle, which takes the form of a chicken. You’ll hear them too if there are any school groups in town. A few of these stores have panoramic terraces. They’re free to enter and offer superb views across the trulli tops which appear stranger still when viewed en masse. 

Facing off across the square is Rione Aia Piccola. In contrast to its touristy neighbour, this largely residential neighbourhood is sleepy, although the density of trulli is as great. Holiday lets festooned with brightly coloured flowers are the only clue to the town’s popularity with visitors. Once the day trippers have gone home, those lucky enough to be staying in one of these charming trulli have the place to themselves. That’s when the area’s unique character really makes itself felt. You’ll still experience the Italy of pasta and passeggiata—leisurely walks taken in the evening for socialising—but with a Puglian twist.

It’s not as hilly as it looks!
If you look at photos online, it looks like there are a few hills. But fear not! The district of Rione Monti is slightly hilly, but with large, broad steps in places and gentle slopes for the most part. If you’d like to see the most picturesque row of trulli without any uphill walk at all, it’s easy to park just along by the trulli church, and from there it’s a totally flat walk. Rione Aia Piccola is flatter and would be much easier to access; this area is actually more interesting and a lot less touristy.

So don’t be put off by the hills: Alberobello is one Italian town that you won’t want to miss.

American National Parks: a natural delight

The great outdoors is a beauty to behold. Nothing brings inner peace faster than engaging in a slice of nature, and you can experience it for yourself by visiting any of the historic national parks dotted around the United States of America. 

There are 61 national parks, providing a wide range of leisure pursuits and gorgeous scenery that will make you want to come back again and again. The National Parks Service website has lots of information to help you plan your trip.

So let’s have a look at some of the top places to visit for a great American holiday, and see what Uncle Sam has in store for you!

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Located on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, this little slice of green heaven, an offshoot of the legendary Blue Ridge mountain range, houses over 10,000 different species of plants and animals, and is home to its signature black bears. It has high elevations ranging from 200 metres (650 feet) to 2,000 metres (6,500 feet), making it an ideal hiking spot. 

It houses the famous Clingsman Dome, which is the highest mountain in the state of Tennessee. It will give you a wonderful view from its observatory tower. 

Cades Cove offers a great spot for nature enthusiasts to observe plants and animals. There is also the Ober Gatlinburg park, an amusement park and skiing area, which can provide lots of family fun.

You can also wow your children by taking them to the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, which houses a huge collection of exotic aquatic creatures. 

Many people say that the most beautiful time of the year to visit Great Smoky Mountains is in the autumn, where temperatures are slightly cooler too, from around 10C (50F) to 26C (79F).

Grand Canyon National Park
Located in Arizona, this national park is centred around the amazing Grand Canyon, a feature often hailed as a wonder of the world and is so large that it can be spotted from space

The Grand Canyon National Park is best enjoyed by those who enjoy hiking as it features numerous idyllic walking spots, from the beautiful Bright Angel Trail to the South Kaibab Trail. 

The park also houses the prestigious Grand Canyon Village which serves as a hub for rafting and camping. It provides lodging, souvenirs, and more. You need to carefully choose which time of year to visit, because the temperatures can get pretty extreme, especially in the inner canyon.

The North Rim and South Rim of the canyon can also be explored with your family, and helicopter tours are available for an amazing scenic view.

The Grand Canyon National Park is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for an adventurous family. You can also visit Las Vegas while you’re in the area; it’s a four hour drive away.

Yosemite National Park
Anyone looking for the thrill of heights and extreme sports should look no further than the Yosemite National Park. Located in California, this park is known for its well-polished mountainsides and steep peaks. It is also home to over 250 species of vertebrates and several hundred species of plants. 

Yosemite is also steeped in Hollywood legend, since popular television shows and films such as Star Trek V, The Last of the Mohicans, and Maverick were all filmed here. 

Temperatures at Yosemite range quite a lot throughout the year, so choose a time where the heat suits the kind of activities you want to be doing. There is a wide variety of climbing spots like the Half DomeYosemite Falls, and the Yosemite Valley, which holds a great view over the glaciers. 

Rocky Mountain National Park
This historic national park is located in the lofty mountain ranges of the Rockies in Colorado. It is filled with a diverse biosphere ecosystem, from lush green vegetation to snowy peaks. The park is perfect for enthusiasts of hiking and mountaineering, as there are various trail types—from easy to challenging!—for those looking for a thrill. Fishing is also available for a more relaxed family experience. Because of the mountains, temperatures can vary a lot, depending on exactly where you are, so be prepared.

There are a lot of other activities to keep the family engaged, like cross country skiing and rock climbing. You can also explore the charming city of Boulder, which is something of a modern tech company hotspot too.

There are so many national parks to choose from, so why not set off on a voyage of discovery? Due to the high cost of medical care in the USA, we strongly recommend that you purchase travel insurance before your trip. Our Go2 Travel policy is the most suitable – choose the Worldwide cover option.

Spain: the rolling green hills and secluded beaches of Cantabria

We asked Mira Dornakova, who has lived in various provinces in Spain for ten years, to give us some inside info on the seaside places in Spain that travellers usually miss.

Santander
Santander isn’t just a bank; it’s also the capital city of the Cantabria province in northern Spain. 

Although staying in Santander would be an obvious choice on your trip to Cantabria, I suggest you travel a bit further east along the coast, as I’ll shortly explain. Believe me, you won’t be disappointed. 

However, you should at least take a day trip to Santander and get your dose of holiday sightseeing. The hop-on-hop-off bus will take you to the CathedralMaritime Museum and, most importantly to El Sardinero, one of the city’s long sandy beaches.

Once you’ve had your fill of taking pictures, tried out the fresh produce at the farmer’s market, and decided which of the tapas bars in the old part is the best, you’re ready to go further east.

Rural Cantabria
The first time I visited the beaches of the Ribamontán al Mar municipality and the countryside further east of Santander, I was amazed, and I’ve been coming back ever since. There are plenty of villages along the coast, and you can’t go wrong no matter which one you choose. 

If you like a lively atmosphere you can enjoy the surfers’ paradise of Somo, or, if you prefer something quieter, stay in Isla to marvel at the peculiar rocks that stick out of the sea at low tide. You might also want to go even further east to Noja and pick a hotel overlooking its endless sandy beaches. 

The whole area has a network of footpaths, each of them about three miles long, that will take you to the local churches, chapels, and beaches. The summer temperatures reach about 23C (73F), and the light sea breeze makes it bearable even on the hottest days.

Accommodation options range from little individual apartments to four-star hotels. We stayed at a spotless and well-equipped apartment with a terrace for £45 a night.

Galizano and the beaches
My personal favourite is a tiny village called Galizano, a hidden gem on the Cantabrian coast. The village itself is only a 30-minute drive away from Santander and lies tucked in between hills and farmland. There is a small supermarket, a couple of restaurants where you can enjoy a tasty set menu for little more than £10, and there is an impressive beach right at the foot of the hills. You can park in the local car park and take the short walk down the paved path to Playa Galizano, which is quiet in the spring and not overly busy during the summer. 

If you feel up for it, you can take an easy walk to Playa Langre, yet another long sandy beach with impressive cliffs looming over it. The beaches of Galizano, Langre, Loredo, and Somo form part of the Northern Way of the Way of St. James (El Camino de Santiago), which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can often see pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela.

Cabárceno Natural Park
Would you like to go on a safari during your summer holiday? It’s only half an hour’s drive south from Santander before you find yourself immersed in the picturesque surroundings of a former iron mine, which is home to about 150 species from five continents. Make sure you arrive nice and early as Cabárceno lies inland, and it can get rather hot during the summer. 

The park opens at 9:30 a.m. and once you’ve paid your entry fee you can park your car and get a cable car that takes you over the main enclosures. Seeing elephants from above really does make you feel that you are about to land in Africa. 

Make sure you hold on to your ticket because you will need it for all the cable car routes. Then take your car and drive along the well-marked roads within the park, stopping to see brown bears, hippos, and dozens of other species along the way. You can have lunch in one of the restaurants, or at a picnic spot, where we were surprised by an escaped antelope roaming free in the picnic area! 

Cantabria unfolds before you as an unforgettable mix of lush green countryside, rugged cliffs, and sandy beaches. It’s welcoming and full of energy, just like the people who live there. So why not give it a try?

Geneva: The lakeside city at the foot of the Alps

Geneva has long been associated with the 1864 Geneva Convention which established the humane rules of war. What fewer people know is that this treaty was signed in one of the most picturesque travel destinations in Europe. 

Summer is the ideal time to visit, since the temperatures reach a comfortable 26C (79F) during the day and drop down to a cooler 17C (63F) at night. During the summer months, Geneva becomes a bustling town filled with music, open-air bars and restaurants, and astonishing views of Mont Blanc.

Accommodation and activities
There is an abundance of activities on offer, and accommodation to fit any desired budget. Lakeside, waterfront views can stretch your pocket with prices at £450 per night, although three-star hotels average around £150 per night. In general, Geneva can be a bit expensive. Expect to pay roughly £15 per meal with an accompanying beer or wine for £8. 

So, what can you do in Geneva? You can enjoy world-class museums, visit international organisations, and do some historic sightseeing as you explore the scenic old town.

Enjoy the picturesque Lake Geneva – Lac Leman 
Lake Geneva, also known as Lac Leman, is one of the largest lakes in western Europe. It is nestled in a valley surrounded by the rising mountains of France and Switzerland. In the summertime, the lake’s many free beaches attract people from the city. Bains de Paquis is a popular swimming spot featuring saunas, restaurants, and sandy beaches. The water stays a cool 15C (59F) and provides a welcome relief from the summer sun. 

You can rent pedalos or power boats to enjoy the beauty of the crystal-clear water and the striking water jet: the Jet D’eau (Geneva Water Fountain) is one of Geneva’s best-known landmarks and can be seen from the air. It pumps a huge 500 litres of water per second 140 metres (460 feet) into the air! There are lots of other tours to enjoy too.

Cruise the lake
For an all-around unforgettable experience, you might want to consider signing up for a lake cruise. The Lac Leman boat tours feature a historic paddle steamer, allowing you to stop off at different locations around the lake. You can enjoy a brunch, lunch, or dinner cruise. For a budget option, you can ride on the Mouettes (Geneva public transport lake boats) for a mere £2, which provide similarly gorgeous views. 

Taste the fondue at a local restaurant
No trip to Switzerland would be complete without sitting down with a glass of wine and cheese, especially dipping a crunchy baguette into a pot of steaming hot Gruyère fondue. This iconic communal dish has been considered a Swiss national dish since 1875, when the first modern recipe was developed.

Visit major international organisations
Geneva holds an impressive position on the international stage. If you are interested, there are tours available for you to visit the United Nations. You could also see the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

In the streets, you will encounter people of every nationality. Geneva’s strong international culture brings cuisines and cultures together, yet you will enjoy Swiss precision and safety in the city. So take a seat by the lakeside, and raise a glass to the beautiful views!