Why Everyone Should Travel

 As I prepare to head out of the country next week I’ve been thinking about why I travel. I’ve been a bit of a rolling stone most of my life, moving 10 times before I graduated high school and pursuing a career as a professional photographer which has taken me to over 100 countries.

Gail at the Great Pyramids 1971
Gail in Egypt 1971

I think if I ever had to give up traveling I would wither and my spirit would die.

Here are my top ten reasons that I think every American (and other citizens of the world) should travel:

  • It gives you a much better perspective on our world rather than just experiencing it virally. Let’s face it, when you are an armchair traveler, you are getting someone else’s perspective.
  •  It makes one grateful for what they have. Many, if not most Americans are very privileged but don’t really have an understanding of that because they isolate themselves in their own environment.
  • You get to be a true diplomat for your country. When I’m traveling I try to give people from other countries and cultures a more realistic idea what an American is beyond our government’s policies and how we are depicted in the movies.
  • It creates lasting memories of importance or at least memories that last longer than buying a consumer product.
  • It teaches you a lot about yourself. When you travel things don’t always go according to plan. You get to see how you handle stress in situations beyond your control.
  • You learn how to communicate. Many times you don’t understand the language and you learn to read body language and pick up people’s vibes.
  • You meet people you would never get to meet at home. It makes you less fearful when you get to meet people from other lands.
  • As a photographer my camera has given me access to incredible experiences that I have shared with the world.
  • You can affect change.
    Gail showing video to children of remote Amazon village, Peru
    Gail with children in small village along Amazon River, Peru

    When you travel you realize that regardless which country you come from we are all part of the human race. We all share this planet and we are all stewards of keeping it healthy.

  • It brings wonder to your life. I have had many awe- inspiring moments and not all of them were at typical tourist sites. Some of my greatest memories are the simple conversations that I’ve had with people all around the world.

Check out some of the images that I’ve captured from my journeys. www.kellymooney.com

Flying 1 Million Miles with United Airlines – And Why I Wouldn’t Do it Again

I’ve always been a goal-oriented person. I envision the end goal and then break things down and figure out how I will reach it. Essentially, if I don’t have an end goal in sight then I usually don’t start something. I’m a self-inflicted creature who does the work andkeeps my eye on the prize.

I never set out to fly 1, 000,000 miles with United Airlines. It just kind of happened while I was in the process of going somewhere. gail-brooks-institute-263x300I’ve been on roads, trails, tracks, and the sea and in the air for most of my life capturing imagery with my cameras and immersing myself into other cultures in the world.

Before I knew it, I realized that I had flown over 950,000 miles with United – and that didn’t take into consideration the miles I had flown with their competition. I remember looking at my account and thinking – “what’s another 50,000 miles?” and deciding to finish the job and qualify for United’s Million Mile Premier status. I thought it would be a piece of cake.

The act of flying the last 50,000 miles actually was a piece of cake, but it came with incredible frustration when trying to decipher United’s rules and footnotes along with numerous exclusions and disclaimers. After spending hundreds of hours on the phone with countless United employees in an effort to clarify their rules before reserving and paying for a ticket, I eventually learned why I had been getting ambiguous and conflicting information. United airlines outsources many of the agents that answer their phone – even their premier desk lines! I found this out the hard way after spending a lot of time talking with someone who answered the United phone line only to be told that she/he can’t help me and that they would connect me with a United employee. Nine out of ten times – I got disconnected. Now when I call United, the first thing I do is ask if I am speaking with a United employee. I also understand now why I’ve been getting the conflicting information I have received.

Tip: Most likely if you call an airlines, it’s because you have a question that can’t easily be answered online. If so, ask if you are speaking with a United employee.

To be clear – This is not about outsourcing to a foreigner instead of hiring an American. This is about cost cutting efforts for United (as well as plenty of other companies) at their customer’s disservice. We live in a DIY yourself culture and I am more than capable of reserving an airline ticket online – but if I need help, I’d like the option of speaking with a person who can really help me rather than be sent down a phone tree or worse yet go through an online chat with a lot of time wasted ready cut and paste answers and links to more ambiguous information.

I could elaborate and cite numerous examples of how United Airlines simply doesn’t care about their loyal customers who fly their airlines. These days it seems they are more interested in their partnerships and making money on just about everything except aviation. Every step of the way, from making a reservation online, to checking in at the airport, I need to page through a half a dozen or more options on how I can spend more money with United. Check a bag? – more money. Want more legroom? More money. Need a car – a hotel? More money. Want to upgrade? More money. And if you are loyal Premier Gold Elite passenger like myself, you get to stand in line 2 to board your flight – along with other Premier Gold members as well as Premier Silver members, AND…………anyone who has a United Explorer credit card!

I completed my million miles when I flew to Prague, Czech, a fairytale city that I have dreamed of visiting. When booking my flight, I noticed that the miles that I flew on their partner’s legs, (Lufthansa from Germany to and from Czech) didn’t contribute to my Lifetime Miles account. I was told that even though Lufthansa was their Star Alliance partner and that United ticketed those flights and the ticket numbers began with “016” those miles would not count toward my lifetime total.

Tip: Only United or United Express flights on United aircrafts that have been ticketed by United count toward your total lifetime miles account.

I was also told that United couldn’t pre-assign me a seat on the Lufthansa and I found out later that neither could Lufthansa until I was at the airport. Even more aggravating was when I found out that I had to pay for the extra legroom seats designated as Economy + on the Lufthansa portions even though as a Premier Gold member I get those seats on the United legs for no extra charge. I asked a United agent what benefits I did get as a Gold Premier member when flying on one of their partner’s flights that had been ticketed by United?  The agent replied “You get your bags checked through”. Does that mean that the non-Elite passengers don’t get their bags checked through?

United Airlines’ slogan is “Fly the Friendly Skies”. The skies may be friendly and the journey is often priceless but United Airlines and their management have become callous, very impersonal and pretty much anything but friendly. In fact I believe that Peter Greenberg’s latest poll of US air carriers, listed United dead last.

I made my goal, but I no longer have the desire to be loyal to United because I get the distinct feeling that this company clearly doesn’t care about being loyal to me.

Traveling Solo (as a woman)

I’ve been traveling solo to all corners of the globe since I made my first big trip hitchhiking half way around the world when I was 19 years old. That was decades ago. I no longer hitch hike and I prefer to stay in a nice hotel over a youth hostel these days, Hanoi-0347but I still spend a great deal of my time – traveling solo. You can see some of the images I’ve made on these journeys on www.kellymooney.com

Whenever I tell someone that I will be traveling somewhere – solo – they usually respond with the same question: “Aren’t you afraid? I generally answer with my own question: “Afraid of what? Safety is a common concern, especially from women – and for good reason – but fear or fear of the unknown shouldn’t stop you. I do believe that being fully prepared prior to heading out solo is the best course of action to minimize fears.

Some of the biggest pros of traveling solo is having the flexibility of making your own itinerary and schedule, immersing yourself in the local culture and meeting people you probably never would have if you had not been on your own. Those things far outweigh any fears or trepidations I may have.  I’m more afraid of having regrets because I let my fears stop me.

Some tips:

  • Be prepared – research. Good research ahead of time can eliminate a lot of problems. And I don’t mean, just researching hotels, restaurants and the sites but research the local customs, other traveler reviews online, scam alerts, US State Department warnings or simply talk to someone who has gone before you. So, be prepared and do your research before you go, but don’t forget to leave time in your itinerary to let serendipity happen. Those moments make for life’s greatest memories.
  • Alert your bank and credit card companies before going overseas. My ATM card and credit cards are my lifelines when I’m traveling, especially when traveling solo. I need to make sure that they will work when I’m in a foreign country and not blocked. Many times if a credit card company sees unusual behavior on one of your cards – especially foreign transactions, security may put a block or hold on your card, suspecting fraud. I call a couple days before I leave on an overseas trip to give the appropriate companies a heads up.
  • Make copies of your itinerary and important documents. I make a few copies of any credit cards I’m taking, my passport, visas, flight itinerary, hotel info and any other important information. I leave one copy behind with my husband and take a few copies with me and keep them in separate places. I also keep a contact list of important phone numbers etc. and store them on my electronic devices, but I also have printed copies with me. If I do get robbed or lose something, I am in a better position to get assistance.
  • Keep your passport in hotel safe. I am keenly aware of where my passport is at all times. When I’m at my destination, I leave my passport in my hotel room’s safe. When I’m traveling, I keep my passport in the same place at all times. That makes it easy when doing a checklist to make sure I have everything after going through security.
  • Know before you go. Perhaps the most intimidating times for a solo traveler is upon arrival in a foreign place. If you aren’t comfortable with public transportation or even grabbing a cab, then have a pick up waiting for you at the airport or train station. If you do take a cab – make sure you negotiate what the price should be before you get in – even if it is a metered cab. Also, find out how long it should take for a taxi to get you to your destination. It’s a good idea to get familiar with the currency exchange rate. Nowadays it’s easy to get foreign currency out of an ATM machine but you should know the exchange rate so that you know how much to exchange. I just returned from Vietnam and I did not check the exchange rate before I got there. At the ATM machine I was given a choice of withdrawal amounts and selected the lowest amount of 350,000 Dong. Little did I know it was less than $20.
  • Don’t look like a tourist. I’m a photographer but I don’t want to stand out by looking like one. Not only is it not a good idea from a safety point of view, walking around a city with two cameras dangling around my neck or wearing a photo vest stuffed with gear, it’s not conducive to getting good images. The biggest plus of traveling solo as a photographer as opposed to traveling in a group is that I am able to blend in more, be more discreet and get more intimate images than if I’m in a group of people all shooting the same thing.
  • Don’t eat room service. It can be lonely and some women are even intimidated dining alone but don’t cheat yourself out of a cultural experience by eating alone in your room. I frequently eat in outdoor cafes. It’s more casual, more conducive to solo diners and has the extra added bonus of people watching. It’s hard to be lonely in that type of environment. In many countries, it’s quite normal to seat an individual at an empty seat at someone else’s table. I enjoy this because it’s an icebreaker and is a great way to meet people.
  • Don’t be shy – mingle. One of the best parts about traveling solo is that I immerse myself more in the culture of where I am. Most times I don’t seek people out to talk to – they usually initiate a conversation with me, mostly out of curiosity. I have had a lot of great experiences by meeting people this way. I am cautious, but at this point in my life I can usually size people up if they are trying to scam me or not. It’s become almost instinctive. For the most part though, it has opened up many opportunities that I may not have taken if I had been traveling with someone else or in a group. It’s also beneficial to talk to other travelers. I have had a lot of great experiences that I never would have had if other travelers hadn’t made me aware of them.
  • Use common sense. Be trusting and open but be aware. Don’t walk down unlit streets by yourself at night. Don’t wear a lot of jewelry or flash around a lot of expensive gear. Be mindful of your bags and belongings at all times, never leaving them unattended. (One of the cons of solo travel is not having someone to watch your back or your stuff.). Most of all – Go with your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, then it probably isn’t.
  • Be confident. If you look confident, you will be less likely to be a target. Most problems occur when a traveler is doing something that makes them an easy mark – getting intoxicated, not being mindful of their belongings or venturing into unsafe areas.   Don’t let yourself become an easy mark.

I’d love to hear other tips solo travelers have or experiences they’d like to share.

Travel Tips from a Bon Vivant

I never really thought of myself as a “bon vivant” until a friend told me that he admired my  “bon vivant” lifestyle. GailCoverThen another friend commented, “You have such joie de vivre”. My French boils down to what little I remember from high school but I remember enough to know that my friends see me as one who not only enjoys good food and wine but is living a full and joyful life.

I realized it’s true. I am a bon vivant and that’s exactly what I set out to be decades ago when I decided to become a photographer. My cameras have provided a means to that end – the end being choosing a career that gave me access to a life full of diverse experiences and journeys. It hasn’t always been easy and has had its own challenges and pitfalls, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

For those of you who may want to pursue a similar lifestyle, here are some thoughts and considerations about traveling:

  • You don’t have to be rich to travel. In fact some of the best experiences I have had didn’t cost me a lot of money at all. I’ve also found that whenever I spend a lot on travel and/or accommodations in foreign destinations, I end up isolating myself from the cultural experiences that traveling has to offer.
  • Think outside the box and don’t just go to the “10 best……..” unless you want to run into other Americans.
  • Good food and wine can be found in just about any destination without spending a lot of money. (Including expensive cities like New York and London) Get out of the tourist areas or go off-season.
  • Use the Internet to your advantage to find the great deals. For accommodations, check out Trivago – it will search dozens of sites to find the best rates for the same hotel. Better yet, try Airbnb – and experience how locals live. For low airfares – check out sites like Airfare watchdog or farecompare and set up alerts.
  • Read blogs by travel hackers – One of my favorites is The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau. Check out Chris’s travel hacking resources.
  • Travel solo – it’s a great way to put yourself in situations where you’ll meet others.
  • Look low key. I’m a photographer by profession but the last thing I want is to look like a photographer with a khaki vest and lots of gear. (Yes I know I’m wearing a khaki vest in this photo – but it is a Scotte Vest – very low key with hidden pockets)  Keep a low profile and you’ll have a better time.  Don’t be bogged down by traveling with a lot of stuff – you’ll be less likely to be robbed and will have an easier time getting through customs.
  • If I’m traveling on a job and need to bring a lot of gear, I make sure I travel with a carnet – which is a bond on my equipment that assures the customs agents that I won’t be selling my gear in their country but will be leaving their country with everything that I brought in.
  • Do your research – make a plan and be prepared to depart from your plan if serendipity strikes.
  • Don’t travel in groups. It might be easier because group operators take care of logistics but the travel experience is not nearly as rewarding most of the time. One exception would be if you were part of a group that has special access to places you wouldn’t have on your own.
  • Stay healthy. I make it a habit to never drink tap water when I’m traveling.
  • Make sure you alert your credit card companies that you will be traveling overseas. If you don’t and you start making purchases or using ATM’s, they may suspect fraud and lock you out.
  • Catch up on the local news of where you’ll be visiting. You don’t want to find out the Pope’s there when you plan to go. I made that mistake in Haiti.
  • Find out if there are any safety alerts from the State Department. To be honest, I haven’t always headed their warnings. Also research what visas and/or vaccinations you may need.
  • Make sure your passport won’t expire within 6 months of your travel dates. Many countries will deny you access if that’s the case.
  • Get “Global Entry” – If you travel overseas a lot, this will expedite your customs clearance upon your return to the US
  • Be prepared for things not going exactly according to plan – If you think things will work like they do in the US or at the same pace you’ll be exasperated when they don’t. Go with the flow.
  • Be respectful of the culture – If you’re a woman and traveling in a Muslim country – pack a scarf. Even in non-Muslim countries, if you plan on visiting churches or cathedrals, don’t show up in short shorts and a tank top.
  • Don’t wait until you retire to travel –  I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met that make that mistake and regret it. There will never be a perfect time.
  • Make photocopies of your passport and credit cards – Leave one set at home and keep another copy with you (not in the same bag as your cards or passport)

PS  Thanks to my good friend Jenna for designing my future tell all book cover.

 

Top Ten Reasons Everyone Should Travel

I’ve been a bit of a rolling stone

my entire life – moving 10 times before graduating high school and making a living as a professional photographer, which has taken me to almost 100 countries.

I think if I had to give up traveling, I would wither and my spirit would die.

Here’s my top 10 reasons every American (and other citizens of the world) should travel:

  • It gives you a much better perspective on our world than experiencing it virally.
    Gail Mooney as a student at Brooks Institute © Chad Weckler
    Gail Mooney as a student at Brooks Institute
    © Chad Weckler

    Let’s face it, when you are an armchair traveler, you are getting someone else’s perspective.

  • It makes you grateful for what you have. Many, if not most Americans are very privileged but you don’t really have an understanding of that when you contain yourself to your own environment.
  • You get to be a true diplomat for your country. When I’m traveling, I try to give people from other countries and cultures, a more realistic idea what an American is – beyond our government’s policies and how we are depicted in the movies.
  • It creates lasting memories of importance – or at least far more important than buying more consumer goods.
  • It teaches you a lot about yourself. When you travel, not everything goes according to plan all the time. You see how you handle stress in situations beyond your control.
  • You learn how to communicate. Many times, you don’t understand the language. You learn to read body language.
  • You meet people you would never get to meet at home.
    Gail and Erin in Egypt in 2006
    Gail and Erin in Egypt in 2006

    It makes you less fearful when you meet people from other lands.

  • As a photographer, my camera has given me access to incredible experiences, which I can share with the world.
  • You can affect change. When you travel, you realize that regardless which country you are from, you are part of the human race. We all share this planet and we are all stewards of keeping it healthy.
  • It brings wonder to your life. I have had many awe inspiring moments and not all of them were at your typical tourist sites. Some of my greatest memories have been simple conversations I’ve had with people from around the world.

 

Cuba – The Forbidden Fruit

How can I possibly sum up a 5 day trip to Cuba, a country that up until recently was theMural, Havana, Cuba “forbidden fruit” for US citizens. That in and of itself is what made me want to go there. My childhood impressions of Cuba came from seeing Ricky Ricardo on the “I Love Lucy” show and watching the Cuban Missile Crisis play out in my living room on our

TV set. What I saw as a child, was enticing with its music and its passionHavana, Cuba, and threatening, all at the same time.

I had an opportunity to join a group of travel writers who were traveling to Cuba, on a “people to people” program. The purpose of the trip was to make cultural connections with the people of the country through various planned interactions. As a “people shooter” and a photographer who is drawn to capturing the spirit of a place” through my visuals, Cuba-3858I knew I had to go to Cuba at a time when the country was on the brink of change.

We had a lot of interesting experiences as a group and I had many more on my own exploring the streets of old Havana and walking along the Malecon. The people were open to being photographed, – that was my experience. When I’m street shooting and I come upon people that I want to photograph, initially I approach the situation in a candid way. After I take a few shots, I will engage the person and proceed to shoot more. Man with armarall, cleaning car. Havana, CubaOur interaction is usually natural and seamless, even though we don’t speak the same language. We communicate in another way.

One day we met with a student at the University of Havana. University of Havana, CubaHe spoke about the day that President Obama met with President Raoul Castro in Panama.Havana, Cuba He said that all around the University, students and professors stopped what they were doing to watch the event on TV. As he told the story, his eyes filled with tears. He spoke of hope for his family, his people and his country and looked forward to the “embargo” being lifted so that Cuba can move forward. But he was also mindful of the potential downsides that come with rapid change.

Early on in our trip, we were driving through one of Havana’s neighborhoods that had been built during the “American years” and our guide said; “These are the good buildings built by the bad people”.Havana, Cuba As I look back at my interactions with the Cuban people, I hope that I had an impact on how they perceive Americans.

The Cuban people give true meaning to the word “resolve”. They’ve had over a half a century of practice.Gail in Havana, Cuba I will surely return to Cuba and see what’s yet to come in this country’s story.

Seeing Opportunities

The interesting thing about getting older is the perspective that one gains in the process.  You realize that all those decisions that you’ve made over the years, ultimately led to pivotal points in your life.  Looking back,

Gail in Window1983
Photograph of me taken in 1983

one either has regrets or is happy with the decisions they’ve made.  It’s usually a mixture of both. Regardless of a decision’s outcome, they all play their part in the life we have.

Some of the decisions I made early on in my “adult life”, charted the course of my future.  Perhaps, one of the biggest was my decision to take a sabbatical from Syracuse University where I was studying architecture.  I was a sophomore and only 19 years old, but I had an insatiable curiosity for the world beyond academia. So, instead of returning to college in September, I took off for Europe.  My plan was to meet up with a friend and travel around Europe and be home by Christmas.  The short story is that when I arrived in Munich and my friend wasn’t there, I made the decision to do what I set out to do – travel around Europe, except now I would be doing it on my own.

The long story is that I eventually met up with my friend a couple months later in Greece and we traveled around together until she went back to the U.S and I stayed.  I ended up traveling (mostly hitch hiking) around the world for a year and when I got home, I knew that I wanted to pursue a lifestyle that centered on travel and exploration.  I decided to become a photographer and use my camera as a means to that end.

I never did return to my studies at Syracuse University.  I headed to California, graduated from Brooks Institute and eventually came back East to make my mark in the editorial world – and I have in a richly rewarding way.  A lot as happened in my life since the day I made that decision to take a “break” from my studies so long ago, and I am grateful for all the opportunities and joy it has brought to my life.

I have just returned from a trip up to Syracuse.  I had been asked to moderate a discussion for an ASMP event, with National Geographic photographer, David Doubilet and Mike Davis, Alexia Chair for Documentary Photography at Newhouse School.  It was a fabulous event and was well attended by students from 9 different colleges in the area – all so eager to learn and make their mark on the world.

After the event was over, I reflected back on my days at SU and the life I’ve had since then. Somehow despite the angst and chaos of the times and the naiveté of youth, I made the “right” decision that changed the course of my life.  Here I was, decades later, at Syracuse University moderating a discussion between a legendary shooter for the “Geographic” and an esteemed editor and educator from the Newhouse School of Journalism. I smiled at how the universe continues to connect the dots in my life  – that is when I tune into it and “see” what it has in store for me.