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February 15, 2017

THE END OF YEAR LISTS

2016 is in the books, and as another year closes, we are inundated with hundreds of lists. The top 10 best movies of the year, the 20 worst posts on Facebook, etc, etc. For the most part, these are a light look back on the last 52 weeks, but there are sometimes some very useful nuggets of information to be found, if you can be bothered sifting through it all. We've done some of that work for you, bringing together some of the more useful lists for international travelers.

It's impossible to get an official figure for how many hotels there are in the world, but an educated guestimate made in 2012 put the figure at approximately 187,000 worldwide. Assuming that this figure has only grown in the last 5 years, there will now be more than 17.5 million guest rooms on offer. Making an informed choice about where you should stay would be an almost impossible task, were it not for the internet and the rises in user-reviewed sites. Having had their reviewers do all the legwork, it's simply a case of listing the top 10 or 20 reviews by popularity, and even easier for us to gather all of them together. So, here are the best rated hotels in the USA, Australia, Asia, Europe, Africa and the UK.

It’s fine when you're sending journalists out to review a luxurious 5-star hotel experience. Curiously enough, there is less enthusiasm when it comes to reviewing the worst hotels. There is, however, no such thing as bad publicity, and one enterprising company with hostels in Amsterdam and Lisbon is proudly claiming the title of the worst hotel in the world. Hans Brinker Hostels make a joke out of their somewhat questionable quality levels, but they know that their clientele isn't looking for 100% Egyptian cotton sheets and perfect room service. Just as long as they’ve got somewhere vaguely secure to pass out in, they're happy - something that cannot be said of a certain other high-profile hotel owner who has been in the news recently. Things were bad for him last year - they seem destined to only get worse.

Even the best hotel's efforts can be missed if you've had a miserable time getting there. It's not just the destination that is reviewed, but also the airline that gets you there. The best and worst airlines, as well as the best and worst airports, of the last year are also reviewed. If you're looking for inspiration, these are the top 20 travel books of the last year, and of course there is a list for the best travel-based apps available.

There were also some fun lists, a selection of which we provide here: the most bizarre requests made to airline workers, the weird things people have asked staff to leave in their hotel rooms, the 10 strangest things people have tried to smuggle through US customs over the past 12 months, and 2016's most ridiculous failed Kickstarter travel campaigns. Enjoy!


February 8, 2017

SUPERBOWL SUPERSTAR SUPER-ADS

The Superbowl took place last weekend in the USA, the annual showcase of America’s best advertising efforts, where you can also watch a live Football game during the breaks. While some sporting purists might argue that it's supposed to be the other way around, the statistics don't lie - 16 minutes of gameplay over a four hour period, compared with over an hour of commercials, each costing an estimated $5 million to produce. And then, Batman's latest nemesis/Lady Gaga jumped off the roof.

One of the brands to make headlines due to their Superbowl adverts was T-Mobile. It wasn't for the advert featuring a tuxedo'd Justin Beiber. Nor was it the one that featured real-life odd couple Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart. No, it was this pair of '50 Shades of Grey' themed commercials featuring comedian Kristen Schaal taking aim squarely at Verizon. As soon as the commercials aired, reps from Verizon headed straight to Twitter for some attempts at damage limitation. But T-Mobile's rogue CEO, John Legere was, as always, already waiting for them and once again got the better of the exchange. It's a testament to T-Mobile's attacking tactics that they've done so well in such a short space of time, taking the fight directly to their competitors, whose efforts seemed tame by comparison, choosing to focus on loyalty perks, the horrors of billshock and the lengths that people would go to to avoid it.

Phone companies leveraging star power to sell their products is nothing new. In fact, in the UK, it's been happening for some time. Kevin Bacon stars in a long-running campaign for EE (Everything Everywhere), which has been (mostly) well-received. The star of Footloose is one thing, but for A-List stars, you'll need to turn to BT (British Telecom) who have splashed the cash to invite over big-name stars such as Bruce Willis, Ryan Reynolds, Alec Baldwin and, most recently, Jeremy Renner to publicise their brand.

So there's no shortage of stars willing to travel to the UK to make a quick buck, but is there much traffic going the other way? Well we've yet to see Dame Judi Dench appear in an advert for Geiko, but there is plenty of work for one of Britain's more controversial performers. Well, we say 'work'; the truth is, Ricky Gervais didn't put a whole lot of effort into this pair of commercials for Verizon a few years ago. But at least these ones have props, and mention the product - which is more than can be said for the two commercials he made for Australian operator Optus.

As with all types of advertising, things can quickly take a dark turn. Feast your eyes, if you dare, on this horrendous reimagining by smartphone manufacturers LG of a world in which we are all Jason Statham. Or perhaps this nightmarish alternate reality is more your speed, in which your smartphone has been replaced by comedian TJ Miller. The worst is saved for rapper Lil' Wayne, who begins his smartphone journey in wide-eyed innocence as he discovers Samsung's Galaxy S7 is champagne-proof. But then we see him, presumably some time later, stuck in an endless loop. It is heart-breaking.

As competition between network operators and phone manufacturers heats up, it wouldn't be a surprise to see even more A-List stars appearing in commercials. Not all of them are going to be successful, of course, but it’s important to remember that we've come such a long way since the early days.


January 29, 2017

LONG-DISTANCE FOR THE FUN OF IT


Calling long-distance used to be something we only did on an occasional basis. A short call in the middle of a trip to parents or children used to be enough to make sure everyone knew you were okay and were having an appropriately wonderful time (or an appropriately horrible/busy time if it's a business trip). Now that we have international SIM cards, better domestic roaming deals that are improving all the time and VOIP, it's easier than ever before to call long distance. Now we don't need to do it out of obligation or security, we can, if we want, just do it for fun. So here are a few ways to talk to people in other countries that don't require any reason whatsoever.


Unfortunately, for the moment, you can't call the Swedish Number any more. Partly as a way to boost tourist interest, and partly to commemorate the abolition of censorship in the country in 1766, the Swedish Tourist Board set up a phone line that would connect callers from around the world with a random Swedish person. British comedy panel show, QI, recently tried this out for themselves, in front of a live studio audience. The result was a brief but charming encounter with a Swedish man who was, at the time, shopping for groceries. For the 79 days that the line was open, a whole year’s worth of calls were logged, with most interest being shown by callers from the USA. The project was a huge success and hopefully, it will return soon.


This does not mean you've missed your chance to speak to a random European. Impressed by the success of their northern neighbor, France has launched the French Number, their version of the same thing. Don't worry if you don't speak French, as anyone who signs up to receive random calls has committed to speaking English. Alternately, you could talk to a random person in a number of different countries, determined not by their location, but by religion – at least, that's what the Jewish Number promises. There are people from all over the world registered and ready to take your random calls, including Buenos Ares, Berlin and Kiev.


Of course, the internet is tailor-made for chatting with random strangers. There have been thousands of chat rooms and video chat sites over the years that have offered a way for strangers to connect with each other. Inevitably, of course, this being the internet, things are often, shall we say, corrupted, and made less enjoyable on account of the increasing likelihood of someone saying, or worse, showing something inappropriate. Really, the safest option is a voice chat, as you can't see anything, and it's harder to troll someone when you're speaking out loud. One of the most successful and frankly, strangest, of these apps is called Wakie.


When it was first launched in 2014, Wakie seemed counter-intuitive. Combining a call with an alarm clock doesn't seem like something that would take off. After all, if you're anything like me, words of more than one syllable first thing in the morning is a bit of a struggle. However, based on the results collated by its predecessor, a Russian app called Budist, it makes more sense than at first glance. The theory is that despite not being fully operational when it wakes up, a person's brain is at its most creative. In addition, a conversation is a far more effective method of fully regaining consciousness after sleeping, and users reported that it was far more effective than a bleeping alarm. Within its first year of operation, the Budist app boasted 700,000 users.


When it started, Wakie worked in the same way. Using VOIP and hiding both connected numbers for security reasons, people could set an alarm or offer themselves up as 'wakers'. The original call length was set to just one minute, which led to some amusing and bizarre situations. Now, however, the app has evolved. Not only are conversations capped at 10 minutes, you can choose a subject that you want to talk about, and someone can call you at any time you want. There are still the usual problems with talking to anyone random – occasional bad and/or creepy behavior, for example – but with two million users in 80 countries, it's one of the few social network apps that is genuinely social.



January 17, 2017

FINDING ADVENTURE IN A CONVENIENT WORLD

When The Mayflower left Plymouth in England in 1620, it took the first pilgrims 66 days to reach Cape Cod, a journey that now takes approximately 7 hours. The fictitious adventurer Phileas Fogg just about managed to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days, whereas the current record-holder, a Gulfstream G650, made it in under two days. Travelling long distances is becoming quicker, easier and cheaper than ever before, but for some people, this convenience is taking the adventure out of travelling. So they've decided to do something a little different, and have made their own adventures.

People have many reasons for going on a life-changing, time-consuming adventure, and it wouldn't be a huge surprise to learn that drunken bets comprise more than a few of them. That's exactly what happened to Ty Dalitz, a former farmer from Melbourne, Australia. As he himself says, - I first planned the trip a few years ago, it started off as a joke on some drunk nights. I spoke about it too much and committed myself. -What was it he had spoken too much about? An attempt to travel from Sydney, Australia to London, England without using a plane. Flying would have taken him just over 23 hours; Ty’s method took two years and just under four months. By his own admission, he could have finished his travelling much earlier, having arrived in Europe in July 2015, but 'got distracted', and spent a further year and a half exploring Europe, having several adventures and close shaves along the way.

Of course, Ty was 'only' trying to get from one side of the world to the other, something that Danish explorer Thor Pedersen might consider a bit too easy. After all, Thor's own challenge to himself is similar, but with a much expanded scope, as he is also attempting to travel without using a plane %u2013 but he's going to every country in the world. This is an epic journey that started three years ago, and isn't likely to end for another three, as at present, Thor still has 82 countries to visit. He's been using container ships for most of his sea-crossings, something which seems to have been an overwhelmingly positive experience for him, even if the crossings are a little slow (averaging at about two weeks per ocean).

Of course, this is all well and good if you can afford to save the amount it takes to implement a plan such as this. Ty's journey from Sydney to London cost him $30,000 in total, and even with a strict budget of only $20 per day for food, accommodation and other expenses, Thor Pedersen's journey will cost him over $43,000. The ideal thing would be to travel the world and be paid for the privilege of doing so. An impossible dream? Not at all. For example, you could get yourself a job as an intern aboard a Royal Caribbean International cruise line, and be paid the equivalent of $70,000 to take photos and post them to Instagram.

Alternately, you could take up the job offer recently posted by this family, who are looking for a nanny to help out while they travel the world. And this isn't a case of staying at home with the kids while the adults are off having fun %u2013 the kids, and the nanny, are coming too. While some on social media have commented that the salary offered ($1200-1500 per month) seems a bit low, it's got to be difficult to find something to compare it too. Whatever their thoughts on how the job pays, the family have been inundated with offers.

There's more out there than the hotel, beach and bar. You've just got to be willing to take the risk and explore the world in the ways that interest you. And just because we've made it quicker and easier to cover vast distances, it's worth remembering that there is plenty to see in all those miles that are eaten up when you're cruising at fifty thousand feet. So why not take your time and have an adventure?



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