7 Reasons Malta is Your New Favorite European Destination

Do you know where Malta is? It’s ok, neither did I until recently.

But prepare to be wow’d Miss Momma Gurl! Three little islands in the Mediterranean (just south of Sicily) add up to one gorgeous destination!

Here are 7 reasons why Malta is YOUR new favorite destination in Europe:

1. The nonexistent language barrier

Look cool in Malta without sounding like a tourist – English is an official language there!

As English is an official language in Malta (in addition to Maltese), there’s no language barrier to worry about and street signs are in English. As a former British possession, Malta is actually a destination for English-as-a-second-language learning! So you get all the benefits of Europe without the hassle of a learning how to say, “Do you speak English?” in the local language.

2. 7,000 years of history

Temples dating from thousands of years ago – so much history in three tiny islands!

The first settlers to Malta arrived around 5000 BC. Since then it’s been variously under rule by the Phoenicians, Romans,

Byzantines, Arab, Spanish, the Knights of St. John, French, and British (it became a Republic and 1974 and joined the EU in 2004). Besides the brief history lesson, that means it is a treasure trove of heritage and culture, with three UNESCO World Heritage Sites and more monuments per square kilometer than any other country!

3. Year-Round Destination

Thanks to its location in the Mediterranean, Malta can be visited any time of the year. Beach season runs well into October and the “winter” (only getting into the 50s) is great for hiking and biking around the islands.

4. Sailing Paradise

The crystal-clear waters are a magnet for sailing enthusiasts who visit Malta from all over the world. Malta boasts various harbors and marinas which can accommodate any kind of sea craft. You can also opt to charter a sailing boat for a week or weekend, while day cruises are a favorite for many.

5. Diver’s Dream

Malta is a diver’s paradise!

Malta was recently rated #2 worldwide as a diving destination. The mild climate makes it possible to dive all year round and many diving schools offer their services throughout the year. Their tailor-made packages offer all types of educational and escorted day or night dives, including equipment rental for the more experienced unaccompanied divers. You can choose to dive from shore or from a boat. A family diving holiday here can be a magical experience, with many dive schools offering snorkeling and diving courses for young sea-explorers.

 

6. Night-Life

They know how to par-taaaaaay in Malta with a large selection of bars, restaurants, clubs, and casinos to choose from. Or you can take it easy and sip cocktails or wine at a sea-front establishment and enjoy gentler live music

7. LGBT Friendly

Although the country is super Catholic (St. Paul is said to have ship-wrecked on the island while fleeing the Romans and thus brought Christianity to the Maltese people), they are also super welcoming and totally down with the LGBT-folk! In fact, the Maltese Islands rose to first place on the ILGA-Europe Rainbow Europe Index in 2016.

Whatcha waiting for?! Malta or bust!!

 

River Cruising: It’s Not Just for Old People with $$

Oh gurl look! An episode of Downton Abbey is about to start!

If you were a super-fan (like moi) of the show “Downton Abbey,” then inevitably you caught the advertisement just before the episode started, which showed lots of well-accessorized old people sipping white wine on a Viking River Cruise while sailing past the Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest. For a time, river cruise lines’ focus on the old-folks demographic made sense, since retired people with money were the only ones with the time and the cash handy to afford a river cruise.

But hallelujah(!) the times are a-changing and river cruising is becoming more affordable and generally more attractive to a wider audience! Yaaaay!

Why Does River Cruising Tend to Cost More??

Unlike the standard ocean cruise, most river cruises are truly all-inclusive with your cruise fare covering room, meals, drinks (including booze!), and daily excursions (although a few super luxe ocean cruises are truly all-inclusive, the more generally recognized brands tend to nickel-and-dime the crap out of you, which is one of the many reasons why I can’t stand them).

River cruises are also MUCH smaller with one hundred guests or less—barge cruises are even smaller with 20–30 people or less. That means a much more hands-on customer service experience and more personal attention.

So, yes, they cost more, but you’re getting WAY more value and bang for the buck! As I always like to say when I’ve dropped a ton of cash on a gorgeous sale—it’s not what I spent but what I saved!

River Cruising IS for Families!

For families looking for a slower paced vacation that focuses on culture and history, then a river cruise is gorgeous option! You just need to know which ones to take.

Several of the major European river cruise lines have family-focused cruise itineraries that add in more kid-friendly activities while also providing an upscale and experiential time for moms, dads, and grandparents. A multi-generational river cruise is also fabulous way to treat the whole family during a school break or over the summer.

To make it more budget friendly, the family-focused itineraries typically discount the children’s cruise fare down to as much as 50% of the adult fare. Importantly, because river cruises are so completely all-inclusive, you pay for almost everything in advance with U.S. dollars, which allows you to take the guess work out of foreign exchange rates.

One thing to note: the typical river cruise cabin is made for only two people, so a family of 4 will be split into two cabins, which is why children are often so heavily discounted on family-focused cruises.

River Cruising IS for Younger Folks!

The average river cruising adult is 45+. But, not only is that average coming down as river cruises gain in popularity and there is more competition, river cruises are starting to specifically target the age 21-40ish crowd.

This year, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises launched U by Uniworld, which caters to this younger demographic. The price point is lower and the schedule is more forgiving by starting excursions later in the day and with more evening events/excursions. There are fewer overall inclusions (for example, booze are pay-as-you-go), but there’s still a lot on offer, including a daily excursion or tour, which make it worthwhile and still a better value and experience than an ocean cruise.

Now, I’m going to be painfully honest with you, while I adore and applaud U by Uniworld’s concept, there are some aspects to “U” that seem as though they were never focus-grouped by actual younger people; instead, they feel more like some board room persona just Googled “what do millennials like to do?” That being said, “U” is a concept with great potential and the upsides vastly outweigh any hokeyness.

Whatcha waiting for gurlina? It’s time for a river cruise!

Don’t Go Chasing Icelandic Northern Lights (or at least don’t pre-pay for it)

Lots of people visit Iceland in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights (aka the “Aurora Borealis”).  And who can blame them?!  They’re breathtaking!  To that end, many tour companies offer “Northern Lights Chasing Tours” or something similarly titled that promises to take you out and about in search of this fabled atmospheric phenomenon.  But what they don’t promise is that you’ll actually see the Northern Lights . . .

You need 3 things in order to see the Northern Lights: (1) solar activity; (2) darkness; and (3) clear skies.

Iceland in the winter is actually pretty fantastic. I speak from experience!

Solar Activity
This is the meat and potatoes and what actually causes the Norther Lights: no solar activity, no deal.  Our sun will sometimes throw off various particles, known as a solar wind, and send them hurtling out into space.  It takes these winds about 40 hours to reach Earth.  If the Earth is in the path of a solar wind, its magnetic fields concentrate the particles at its poles.  As the particles move towards the poles and begin to concentrate in the higher latitudes, such as Iceland, they interact with various gases in the atmosphere to create the awe-inspiring light display we refer to as the Northern Lights.

Darkness
It means just that – it needs to be dark.  This also means that a summer trip to Iceland won’t result in the needed night time darkness.  As early as May through as late as August, due to the Earth’s tilt towards the sun, some degree of sunlight persists around the clock in Iceland and prevents the necessary darkness to view Northern Lights activity.  So consider a trip to Iceland in the winter – the nights are sufficiently dark to see the Lights and it’s not as cold as you’d think thanks to Iceland’s location in the Gulf Stream (trust me, I’ve been there in February and it was fantastic!).

Clear Skies
Just like an overcast day casts only a gray light or a cloudy night masks the moon, cloudy skies will prevent you from seeing Northern Lights activity.  As with any weather, this is up to Mother Nature so with a little luck there will be at least one night on your trip with clear skies to view any Northern Lights activity.

Consider renting a car and doing some Northern Lights chasing on your own.

Unless these three requirements are all present, that “Northern Lights Chasing Tour” you pre-booked months ago simply can’t deliver.  This is not to say you shouldn’t try once you get to Iceland!  Darkness and clear skies are easy to figure out on your own by simply traveling to Iceland at the appropriate time of year and checking the weather app on your phone.  Fortunately, there is also a way for us non-scientist folks to see an “Aurora forecast” by visiting the Icelandic Meteorological Office.  Consider renting a car and doing some chasing on your own if the predictions look good.  Or, if you really want a tour, wait to book it until you’re actually in Iceland and have an opportunity to check out the necessary forecasts.

The Northern Lights are absolutely worth chasing – just be sure to chase them knowing there’s a good chance you’ll catch them.

-Chad

P.S. FUN FACT: Towards the South Pole, this same phenomenon is called the “Aurora Australis.”

Live a Little: 3 Small Ways to be a Travel Dare Devil

International travel is all about new experiences.  But if you don’t step outside your comfort zone then you aren’t really experiencing your destination.  When I say “dare devil” I don’t mean you need to bungie jump or sky dive your way in new experiences.  You simply need to embrace something that might scare you a little and go all-in.

Here are 3 ways to be a travel dare devil that will better immerse you in your chosen destination:

1. Rent a car and drive: This is an option I’ve been recommending to a lot of clients lately and, although they’re a bit dubious about it and recognize the need for a sense of adventure, they’ve found the freedom and access it grants them far outweighs any fears they had about driving in a foreign country.  Sure, signs may be

Driving on the left may take some getting used to, but the freedom to go where you want when you want is well worth it.

in a different language or you may be driving on the left side of the road; but, you’ll also have the freedom to reach those sightseeing gems that don’t have a train station or bus stop nearby.  Plus, if you bring the kids, you’ll be free to stop for the inevitable bathroom breaks.

2. Get lost and find your way WITHOUT your smartphone: In addition to being able to digitally detox, leave your smart phone in the hotel for a day, take a walk, and get lost in the city you’re visiting.  Rather than being tethered to your phone and all the distractions it brings, you’ll be free to take in the sites and interact with the locals when you need to ask for directions or a recommendation for lunch.  Allow yourself to be in your chosen destination without the crutch of your smart phone putting up an e-wall so you can truly experience some place new.

Try a different continent, like South America.

3. Up your destination game:  You’ve been to the great cities of western Europe?  Try eastern Europe or a river cruise.  Or try a new continent like South America.  If you’ve already done the “standard” international travel, then that has become your new normal and it’s time to push the envelope.  Try something truly unique like living for a week in a yurt in Mongolia, hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, or visiting ancient cities of the Silk Road in Uzbekistan.

What’s your next great adventure?  Let GBFTravels help you find it!

-Chad

How to Digitally Detox on Your Vacation in 3 Easy Steps

If you’re reading this on your phone right now then stop, look up, and take note of the kink in your neck.  Yeah we need to work on that.  Our smartphones are indispensable parts of our lives but they’re also preventing us from living.  We experience less first hand in real time for ourselves in favor of second hand on a tiny screen.

Use a real camera rather than your phone to take pictures without social media distractions. Just be sure to look up from the camera as well and really enjoy your surroundings.

This will simply not do when on your vacation.  So let’s digitally detox you in preparation to live, experience, and enjoy your vacation (yes you can still Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram it later).

Step One: Use an actual camera to take pictures.  True this is substituting one digital device for another; however, the camera serves only one function – to take pictures/video – which greatly decreases its distraction value.  Focusing on capturing the moment, rather than snap – tag – upload, snap – tag – upload, will allow you to be in the moment and experience it with your travel companions in real time and make actual memories of seeing it first-hand rather than on a screen.  Just remember, in between taking pictures, to put the camera down and simply look at the scenery around you.  Take in the architecture, breath in the history that surrounds you, run your hands over the ancient façade and actually BE there.

Step Two: When heading out for the day, all but one of you leaves the smart phone in the hotel.  Smart phones and their connectivity are extremely helpful while traveling – the GPS alone is a life saver.  But not everyone needs to bring their phone.  Have a designated navigator who uses her phone for ONLY that reason – not social media!  You’re on vacation with your friends or family, so be with them and share the experience.

Each day have only one person bring their phone for any navigational issues or in case of emergency. NO social media time!

Step Three: Hair of the dog.  You’ve been away from social media all day long and your jonesin’ for it, I totally get it!  So do your social media posting in the evening.  Upload the camera pics to your laptop, ruminate on the perfect hashtag, and induce major jealousy back home.  You’re probably about 6 or 7 hours ahead of them which means all your posts will hit during social media prime time back home with plenty of opportunities for your peeps to share, retweet, like, and comment.

-Chad

Spring Break for Families – 2 Ideas That Benefit Parents and Kids

Spring break is coming up and you need to figure out what to do with the kids.  The typical choices are either A.) take time off from your job to babysit them yourself, or B.) pay someone else to babysit them for you.  As much as you like at-home family time, that’s either burning precious work leave or shelling out $$ for a babysitter.  Since either option has you taking leave time and spending money, I present to you option C.) take a family vacation where everyone gets to have fun!

The next issue is how to have a family vacation where the parentals actually get to have some fun AND find a little time to rest.  Fear not, I have the solutions!

A family all-inclusive beach vacation is the way to go to maximize fun and value.

Solution 1 – All-Inclusive Beach Vacation:  Mexico, Dominican Republic, and Jamaica have some amazing beaches, amenity-filled all-inclusive resorts, and value-for-your-money that can’t be beat!  Add to that regular charted flights from major U.S. gateways like Baltimore-Washington, Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas, and the package savings and value are incredible.  There are a ton of family-friendly all-inclusive resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean that include activities for the kids so parents can spend time on their own to unwind and soak up some sun.  Everyone wins!

River cruises with Adventures By Disney take all the planning and guess work out of your overseas family vacation.

Solution 2 – Vacation Overseas with Adventures by Disney: Disney vacation options are so much more than Walt Disney World Resort in Florida or Disneyland in California.  And, let’s be honest, you don’t want to do the Disney parks scene during a major spring break when everyone and their cousin is there too.  Instead, take the family vacation overseas that you’ve always wanted but with none of the hassle.  Adventures by Disney include family-focused escorted tours all over the world and on the rivers of Europe.  Adventures by Disney takes care of all the details so the parentals can do their own thing and relax, the kids get some amazing culturally immersive activities, and the whole family will experience an international destination that will keep everyone smiling!

How are you going to spice up your family’s spring break?

-Chad

Top 3 Travel Safety Precautions to Save Your Life, Wallet, and Sanity

We seem to have our safety priorities turned around.  We choose a destination that seems “safe” these days – safe from terrorist attacks, natural disasters, etc.  Although the statistical likelihood of any of those happening on the trip we’re planning is SUPER low, we fixate on them and then ignore the safety precautions that will save us from all the things that are statically likely to happen.

To aid you in your travel savviness AND to keep you safe and traveling often, here are my top 3 super simple safety precautions that may just save your life, your wallet, and definitely your sanity:

  1. Learn the Local 911 Equivalent: We’ve all been taught to pick up the phone and dial 911 in an emergency – it’s one of the few numbers we’ve committed to memory. But you need to learn the emergency number for your destination AND keep in mind there may be different numbers based on whether you need police, fire, or ambulance.  Learn the numbers before you depart and store them in your phone.
  2. Don’t Always Have Your Phone Out – For one, you should be looking at the amazing destination you find yourself in rather than staring at your phone. But also, staring aimlessly at your phone tells pickpockets you are not paying attention to your surroundings and that you’re easy prey – you may have your phone snatched out of your hands or soon realize your wallet is no longer in your possession.
  3. Make a Copy of Your Passport – A U.S. passport is considered the highest form of identification in the land; overseas it’s your ONLY form of identification. If your passport is lost or stolen, proving your identity is not an easy task and you certainly won’t be allowed to board any planes home. Having a copy of your passport will help speed up the process for getting a new passport at a U.S. embassy or consulate.  Leave a copy at home and pack a copy to bring on your trip.  You can even scan your passport and email it to yourself.

Be smart, stay safe, but most importantly, have fun!

-Chad

Show Me the $$: Navigating Foreign Currency Exchange

Let’s be honest: dealing with foreign currency is a hassle because math is hard (or at least it is when you’re on vacation . . . well at least for me it is). So what are the best ways to prep for spending money on your trip without getting fleeced?

Best Way: Use a Credit Card with No Foreign Transaction Fees
Currency exchange rates change daily and the best way to keep up without having to think too much is to use a credit card with no foreign transaction fees. Call your credit card company to see if they offer this on your current card. If they don’t, sign up for a new one immediately otherwise you’ll be hit with a percentage fee of each overseas transaction you make and that adds up quickly. I personally use Chase Sapphire Preferred and I LOVE it.

Bank
Order money from your bank prior to departing and be sure to see if they have partnerships with overseas banks to avoid ATM fees.

OK Way: Get Foreign Cash from your Bank Before You Depart
Most banks keep popular foreign currency on hand (such as Euros and British Pounds) or they’re available to order on their website and pick it up at your local branch. This is super convenient as the bank will debit the money from your account and then let you know when it’s ready for pickup. The big drawback is that the bank’s “exchange rate” typically doesn’t match the market rate because they use the rate from the market’s close the previous day and then add their own hidden fee “mark up.” Still, it’s a good way to have some cash on hand when you land so you don’t have to deal with . . .

The Most Expensive Way: Airport/Hotel Exchanges and ATMs
If you can avoid it, DO NOT exchange money at the airport or hotel – the rates are abysmal and you will lose money. You know how items at a corner store are more expensive than they would be at the grocery store? It’s the same idea with exchanging money at the airport or hotel: you’re paying extra for the convenience. Sure, they work in a pinch but you are getting less for your money. ATMs are a crap shoot as you will likely be charged a fee by the bank ATM and your bank. Some larger international banks have partnerships with overseas banks that will allow you to avoid fees so be sure to ask your bank prior to departure.

Sometimes There’s No Need to Bother
If you’re going to an all-inclusive resort in Mexico or the Caribbean, you really don’t need to bother exchanging money as resort staff will be happy to accept U.S. currency for tips. Bring a stack of one’s and tip a couple dollars with each drink and leave some on the table after eating in resort restaurants.

-Chad

Save Yourself: 4 Essential Travel Tips

You’re on vacation but your smart phone can’t save you now. You’ve arrived in Europe and you didn’t want to shell out the extra money for an international data plan for your phone. Why should you? Everywhere has WiFi! Except where you are right now . . . and you have no idea where to go or what to do . . .

We take our 24/7 access to the internet for granted. The moment we have a question, need directions, or have the nagging urge to watch cat videos, our laptops and smart phones provide without fail. But when you go overseas, international data plans can become expensive and coverage can run the gamut from robust to nonexistent in the span of a few miles.

You’re on an international vacation so you’re obviously looking to try something out of the ordinary. Here are 4 tips that will help you make the most of a new travel experience.

  1. Learn how to drive a stick shift: Yeah your smart phone wouldn’t have really helped you out either way on this one (except maybe to watch a YouTube video on driving stick – but it’s really not the same . . .).
    First gear can be tough but it’s smooth sailing from there!

    Ubiquitous automatic shift cars are mostly a North America thing. Pretty much everywhere else people drive stick shifts. Sure you can rent an automatic shift car while abroad, but it will cost you and the options are limited. Ask a friend to teach you and head to an empty parking lot. First gear is always the hardest. It’s a piece of cake from there!

  1. Be ok with approaching strangers: Trying to find the best place to eat by slogging through online reviews is a hassle. GPS’ing your location if you’re lost may not be an option without a signal. So talk to the locals! They know the best places to go and how to get there. Start with local business owners or hotel staff – they often speak multiple languages and service is their thing. Want an even better insight? Go to a local bar and chat up the regulars.
  1. Learn to estimate currency and measurement conversions: Most of the world deals in kilometers, liters, and Celsius rather than miles, gallons, and Fahrenheit.
    A quick bit of math in your head will save you the headache.

    And you don’t want a surprise on your credit card statement when you’ve just been handing over the plastic and not thinking about what you’re spending. Learn some basic conversions so you can do a little math on the fly. The calculator on your smart phone doesn’t need a signal to work, you just need to have an idea of the numbers to punch in. Not great on math? Whip yourself up a little cheat card to keep on you with currency and measurement conversions.

  2. Learn a language: And I don’t mean just learning “Do you speak English?” in a foreign tongue. Google Translate is clunky and of no use if you don’t have any service. Before you leave for vacation try out free apps like Duolingo to get you started on the basics. Though pricey, I can personally attest that Rosetta Stone courses are excellent for romance languages (such as French, Spanish, and Italian). Knowing some of the local language will catapult a scratch-the-surface-visit into a real immersive experience. The locals will appreciate it and it’s a huge confidence boost when navigating a new place.

-Chad

 

 

I Embraced the Cliché in Italy and Regretted it Like WHOA!

5 minutes.  5 whole minutes.

In that time I took one teensy little spin around a parking lot on the outskirts of Florence, Italy. This supposedly “qualified” me to operate a Vespa for the remainder of the day.  I rarely drive a car stateside let alone having ever operated a bulky “scooter” that doesn’t seem to want to turn except in wide arcs that take you into on-coming traffic.

All my images of looking cool while riding a Vespa, holding a cappuccino, and exclaiming “ciao” (Eddie Izzard fans can appreciate this) were pathetically shattered in the ensuing 5 minutes following my qualifying ride.  A hairpin turn (please recall my comment above about scooters and turning), a poorly kept Tuscan road, a vain attempt to avoid heading straight into an ancient Italian rock wall, and an unfortunate gust of gravity were enough to have me kissing the pavement.

My body was relatively unscathed, but my pride was hemorrhaging.  For a time I told the story as, “so I was expertly riding my Vespa and looking effortlessly Italian cool (ciao!) when TUSCAN NINJA TERRORISTS(!!!) jumped out from behind an ancient Italian rock wall and I was forced to single handedly battle them!”

It was, of course, a woefully transparent fabrication of my finesse-less Vespa operating skills, but who doesn’t use a little bit of self-deprecating humor to try to move past an exceedingly embarrassing point in a story?  For the remainder of the day, the gorgeous Tuscan country-side passed me by mostly unnoticed as I only had eyes for the road and an overwhelming desire to survive live.

Tuscany is GREAT when you're not riding a Vespa!
Tuscany is GREAT when you’re not riding a Vespa!

By the way, do you know what is HUGE when you’re driving a Vespa and fear for your life?  A SMART CAR!!!  A litany of curse words spewed forth from under my helmet when one of those bad boys passed me.

Tuscany is stunningly gorgeous (what little I remember seeing) and I recommend everyone visit if they have a chance.  JUST NOT ON A VESPA!  As I always like to say when something harrowing like this happens to me, as long as no one ended up in the hospital or jail, if a good story comes out of it, then all is well.  Of course, when I laid down to sleep that night, having thankfully survived the tour, all I could see when I closed my eyes were Tuscan roads and humongous smart-cars.  I needed two cappuccinos the next morning.

-Chad