Saturday, February 27, 2016

Three slightly crazy things we've done while travelling

We're pretty conservative as travellers go. Sure, we like to do our own thing. We book all our own transport and accommodation online. We've used AirBNB with only slight (and unwarranted) trepidation. But we're not big risk-takers. Sometimes though, things don't quite work out as you plan.

I give you my top three "Well, that didn't go quite as we planned" moments from our overseas adventures:

1. Lifts are for wusses

There are 704 steps to the second floor of the Eiffel Tower, which is 115m from the ground. There are perfectly good lifts, but nope, we took the stairs. Bike Boy had a raging chest infection as well, so bonus crazy points to him!

I had originally wanted to do the behind the scenes tour, which included the machinery room and the underground "bunker" beneath the Champs de Mars, and also allowed you to skip the line. Unfortunately, when I tried to book just before we left home, there were no tickets available on any of the dates we'd be in Paris.

Not to worry, we said; we'll just rock up early and beat the crowds. Ha! We got there a full hour before it opened and the queue at the north pillar (the only one allowing non-group entry) was at least 200 people long. Luckily I'd done quite a bit of research into the best ways to tackle various attractions. I turned to Bike Boy and said "There is another way. Follow me".

So we made our way to the south pillar, where only about a dozen people were queuing. We had to wait for the ticket office to open, but within ten minutes of the window sliding open, we were starting our climb. About three flights up, chest heaving, I started to think we'd made a huge mistake. Bike Boy was coughing up a lung, and I swear our pace was so slow, a few septuagenarians overtook us, but we eventually made it out onto the first floor. After a look at the view and a bit of recovery time, we tackled the next flight to the second floor. We loitered for a while there before locating the ticket window for the lift to the top floor - where, I might add, THERE WAS NO QUEUE AT ALL.

It may have taken superhuman effort, but we stepped out onto the top level while more than half of the people who had arrived before us were still on the ground queuing for the lifts. Totally worth it. We also saved about 8 euros, so all-around win.

That view!

2. "Je ne parle pas Anglais"

While we were in France, we hired a car. It was the only way to get to the places we wanted to visit outside Paris without being stuck on some godawful group tour, or trying to negotiate local bus services to remote locations.

I wasn't keen on driving on the wrong side of the road, but Bike Boy was pretty gung-ho about it. Turns out, that was the easy part. We loaded our bags into the car in the railway station car park at Lyon, got in and sussed out where the controls were before easing out into the organised chaos that is the French road system. The tricky thing was, the GPS was (of course) programmed to speak French. Changing the language seemed like it ought to be simple, but all of the instructions were on-screen in the electronic audio system, and also in French. Gah!

We eventually managed to program in our destination, and set off. We could understand droite (right) and gauche (left), but mostly had to just follow the visual cues on the map. The bloody thing kept giving us instructions we had no hope of understanding, so we just crossed our fingers, kept going and hoped we weren't about to break some road law and end up in a French jail.

Once we got to our first overnight destination, I spent some quality time with Google and eventually managed to get the stupid car to speak English for the next leg of our trip.

That would have to be the most stressful road trip of my life.

Nice view, but HOLY SHIT, where are we going?!

3. Travel like the locals, they said. It'll be fun, they said.

On our brief visit to Vietnam, we had to get from Da Nang to Hue. It's less than 100km by road, so we could have organised a driver for a pretty reasonable cost. But no. "Let's take the train", said Bike Boy. I gave him my best sceptical look. "I've looked it up, and it's FINE", he said. The descriptions I read of the view as the train travelled through the Hai Van pass persuaded me. It was also stupidly cheap, and I do love a bargain.

Booking train tickets ourselves wasn't all that easy, but luckily every business in Vietnam offers multiple services and the nail salon/laundry across the road from our hotel was also a travel agent. Of course. So a lovely Vietnamese lady got on the phone and organised our tickets for us.

"You want soft seat or hard seat? Soft seat better." It was organised quickly and we left clutching a receipt with instructions to come back tomorrow to collect our tickets.

On the appointed day, we took a taxi to Da Nang railway station and manhandled our suitcases into the foyer. We stood for a minute, trying to figure out where we should go and how it all worked. There were glass sliding doors barring the way onto the platform, and piled-up luggage to one side of them. People - a mixture of locals and backpacking tourists - were sitting on hard chairs in the un-air conditioned waiting room. There were no signs indicating train departures or anything else useful.

We attempted to ask various staff where we should go, showing our tickets, but a hand wave and a stream of Vietnamese was all we got. Eventually, Bike Boy found a man who grabbed our suitcases and parked them right in front of the sliding doors, and told us to sit and wait.

Eventually we heard the train arriving, and people got up and began to mill around in front of the doors. Our man appeared out of nowhere just as the doors opened, grabbed our bags and pushed through the crowd, beckoning to us to follow him. He elbowed past all the people in front of him, hoisted our bags up the steps into the carriage, climbed up after them and disappeared. We followed to find him waiting at our seats, our bags shoved up onto the overhead luggage racks. People were pouring in behind us, and within a couple of minutes there was no room for any more bags. We were very grateful for our porter (official or not, I have no idea, but frankly, I don't care). We tipped him generously and he vanished.

The "soft seats" weren't all that soft or spacious, but at least they weren't hard wooden slats, which I believe was the alternative. The air conditioning struggled and we were pretty soon sitting in a puddle of sweat. The next two-and-a-half hours were a bit uncomfortable, but I was cheered by the thought of that view... As it turned out, the windows were so filthy and the condensation so bad that you couldn't see a damn thing.

What view?
We both agreed that it was an adventure, but one that we didn't care to repeat. For our return trip to the airport at Da Nang, we booked an air conditioned car and driver.

We've been lucky in that none of our adventures resulted in any negative repercussions. And honestly, I find that the things that go a bit wrong on a trip often become the most hilarious stories afterwards.  Do you have a favourite "didn't go as planned" travel memory? Name and shame Share your stories in the comments.


Monday, February 22, 2016

Review: Airpocket travel organiser

Way back at the beginning of 2015, I spotted a Facebook post about a Kickstarter project to fund a business idea. It caught my eye because it was travel-related. The idea was brilliantly simple: to create a product for airline passengers to keep all their stuff organised in their seat pocket.  

I usually have a horrible time trying to find things once I've placed them in the seat pocket, and I'm paranoid about disembarking and leaving behind something important, like my phone or passport. So I didn't need much persuading to back the project. The risk was low in dollar terms and the benefit extremely enticing - to be one of the first to receive an Airpocket at a low, low price.

It took a little longer than I expected for the whole thing to come to fruition, but it was worth the wait. My Airpocket arrived the other day and it's a top-quality item. 

For a quick test of its capacity, I shoved most of the things I'd usually carry on board a flight inside:

It zipped up easily and still had room for more.

That's most of what I'd carry on board: iPad, reading glasses, Kindle, passport (and boarding pass), pen, ear buds and Ventolin. My phone is missing because I used it to take the photo, duh. There was still plenty of room for a few extra essentials: some basic toiletries and medications, my compact camera, and maybe a travel guide for when I get bored with novels or the in-flight entertainment. My noise-cancelling headphones won't fit, but I can live with that. They're a bulky item anyway, and I'm not likely to leave them behind.

There's a handy thingy that slips over the handle of your suitcase, and a detachable shoulder strap, so you can go hands-free if you like.

The only thing I'm unhappy about is that I didn't buy the extra accessories that fit inside the Airpocket at the initial super-cheap price offered to backers. Looks like I'm going to have to pay full price for those, because I've decided I must have them.

Now I just need to go somewhere so I can test it out properly.

This was my first time ever supporting a Kickstarter project. Have you ever backed a new product? how did it work out?


Friday, February 19, 2016

Three easy ways to make extra cash

Saving for stuff you want can be hard going - a new car, travel, or that gorgeous handbag you've had your eye on for ages. By the time you pay mortgage or rent, utility bills, buy food and cover transport costs and put some money aside for infrequent bills like car registration, there's often not a lot left over.

You can cut back on non-essentials like take away coffee, lunches and outings to create a bit more of a surplus in your budget - but you've probably done that already, and your savings are growing way too slowly. Wouldn't it be nice if there was an easy way to earn a little extra money?

Well, there's no need to sell a kidney. I'm going to share my top three money-earning tips for helping to reach your savings goal quite a bit sooner.

1. Paid market research. Guys, there are companies out there who will pay you cold, hard cash for your opinion on their product or service. HOW GOOD IS THAT? There are all kinds of opportunities: online surveys, testing products or apps, taste-testing food or wines (I am so up for that!), interviews and focus groups.

Over the past three months I have participated in two focus groups, done a one-on-one interview and tested a new phone app, and have been rewarded with $450 for what amounts to about six hours of my time. As a bonus, they were also a lot of fun.

Just do a search for "paid market research [your city]" - there are heaps of market research companies to choose from. Register with as many as you can, and they'll email you when something is available in your area. If it sounds interesting and you're available on the day and time specified, you fill in a brief questionnaire and you may be selected to participate. You won't always be in the demographic they're looking for, but don't give up if you get a few knock-backs. I have to add that there are a lot more opportunities if you're in a capital city (sorry, country folks).

I also do online surveys for e-rewards. I don't get paid for those, but I do accrue points, which I can convert to gift cards or hotel points once I get to a certain total. It won't suit everyone, but I'm happily accruing Hilton points so I can score a free night or two of accommodation on a future holiday.

2. Sell your old crap. This is an obvious one, but I'm amazed at the number of people who throw out/give away perfectly good stuff because they can't be bothered listing it for sale.

eBay is my preferred platform, but some folks tell me they have good results with Gumtree too. I get up to 100 listings per month free of charge on eBay, so only pay commission if my item sells. Local Facebook buy/swap/sell groups can be OK, but my experience is that because buyers have no accountability, they frequently change their minds and reneg on a sale, or are intolerably difficult about when they can pick items up. Still, it's an extra option.

What kind of stuff sells well?
-Women's clothes, especially if they're well-known brands and have been worn only a few times. My black Anthea Crawford suit, worn 4 times, sold super-fast, but I've also had success with items from Sussan and even Target.
-Kids' clothes can be a big seller. I found selling bundles of my kids' clothes worked well - for example, 2 pairs of boys' shorts and 4 t-shirts, all in the one size. Listing 4 t-shirts for $3 each is a mug's game, but my bundles sold quickly for between $25 and $50.
-Shoes and handbags, in new or almost new condition. Grab those shoes at the back of your wardrobe that you've never worn and turn them into cash!
-Furniture and household items. I've sold beds, a desk, a couple of vintage pieces I've restored, lamps, kitchenware, Mum's souvenir spoon collection(!), and more.
-Books, particularly textbooks. They need to be current, so don't leave them sitting around for years; sell them at the end of the school year, when cash-strapped parents are looking to save on next year's booklist.
-Bikes, gym and sporting equipment. Want a new bike? Sell your old one to help fund the purchase.
-Plants, pots and garden ornaments. If you're good at propagating plants, this is practically money for nothing.

To maximise your chances of a sale, search for similar items and see how much they're selling for. If your starting price is too high, you won't get a bid. Take clear photos, from all angles. Dark or out of focus images aren't going to entice buyers. Write a fairly detailed description: for clothing, brand, size, type of fabric and some measurements will help potential buyers decide if it's right for them. For furniture, detail any defects (close-up photos are helpful) and provide measurements for height, width, depth. Think about what you would want to know about the item if you were considering buying it and include that information. Don't forget to add postage costs, or you could end up out of pocket for low-value items.

3. Do some extra work. I know what you're thinking: You don't have time for an extra part-time job. How about a job that only takes a day of your time now and then and pays a few hundred dollars? If you have some experience dealing with the public, are literate and reasonably intelligent, consider signing up with the Australian Electoral Commission and your state electoral authority for work at elections.

There's a federal and a state election every 3-4 years, as well as local council elections. Councils in Victoria mostly do postal votes these days (I'm not sure about the rest of the country), but someone still has to process and count those ballot papers, so there may still be some jobs available.

As a polling official for a state or federal election, you'll be expected to do some online training beforehand (easy!), and on election day you'll work from 7:30am until the votes are counted at your polling place, usually somewhere around 9:00-9:30pm. It's a long day, but it's not difficult work and the pay is OK. I've been doing it since 1984 and I keep going back, so it can't be too bad, can it?

You can register with the AEC here (click the link that says "apply for temporary employment"), and the VEC here. Other states should be easy to find - I'm sure you're smart enough to do a Google search yourself.

There you go: My tried-and-true methods for making extra cash. Do you have any hot money-making tips?


Sunday, February 07, 2016

Bollocks to quitting sugar

Hordes of people are currently on a New Year health kick or doing FebFast and have opted to "quit sugar". Every time I see one of these posts or articles, I roll my eyes so hard I see the back of my skull. In most cases, they're not quitting sugar at all, they're just being scammed by clever marketing.

Swapping ordinary old white refined sugar for some funky substitute from the health food aisle isn't quitting sugar. Your body doesn't care if you're eating cane sugar or nectar of Himalayan moon-orchids; it treats all kinds of sugar the same way. It gets converted to glucose, used as energy, or stored in your muscles and liver as glycogen until it's needed. And as I keep saying (over and over like a broken bloody record, I know), if you over-consume calories, no matter where they come from, you will also store fat.

Do you eat fruit and veggies? You're eating sugar. Fruit or veggie juice or "healthy" smoothies? Sugar. Starchy carbohydrates? The starch gets converted to sugar. (Side note: have you ever chewed a piece of bread for a bit longer than usual and noticed it becomes sweet? That's your saliva turning starch to sugar. You can thank my Year 7 science teacher for that bit of knowledge.)

My Pinterest feed is full of "sugar-free" desserts and treats. Now and then I'm bored enough to click through to the recipe and guessed it: the ingredients list invariably includes some kind of expensive sugar disguised as a healthy alternative.

I was in Coles this morning and discovered that these bullshit trendy products have become so mainstream they've moved out of the "health foods" section and invaded the baking aisle. Spot the difference...

Coconut blossom sugar, unrefined sugar and agave sugar, $4.50 for a measly 250g. That's a horrifying $1.80 per 100g:

Plain old refined white sugar, $3.90 for a big 2kg bag, or 0.20c per 100g:

I don't know who's buying this stuff, but come ON, people! That's a whopping $1.60 per kg price difference. For zero nutritional benefit. ARE YOU BARKING MAD?

Look, I know that there is a taste difference. Coconut sugar gives a lovely caramel flavour to your baking - but so does brown sugar, at a much lower cost. Last I checked, it was about 28c per 100g. Marketing that makes people fear food is not a good thing. Sugar won't kill you, if you eat it in moderation. Yes, I said the M-word. Food is just food, not something to be feared.

Someone's getting rich selling this shit to an increasingly food-phobic public. I'm taking a stand and saying no to fear-based food marketing. I'm boycotting products that have no advantage over regular food items and that are frankly, just a huge rip-off.

What food marketing annoys you most?


Saturday, February 06, 2016

Granny or Nanny?

Sorry, can't mind the "grandies", there are exotic places to explore.

There was a news story this week that started some hot debate about "grumpy" grandparents wanting to be paid for looking after their grandchildren. It's not like hordes of older folks are asking their kids to stump up an hourly payment for babysitting for the odd night or weekend; the complaints are apparently coming from grandparents who take care of their offspring's offspring full time while they work.

Somebody at work broached the topic and people chimed in with their opinions. I was surprised to find that there was an expectation from a majority of those with small children that their parents should be available for full time free childcare. Someone turned to me and asked "You'll be looking after the grandkids when they come along, right?" I almost fell off my chair laughing.

Seriously. Entitled, much? When my lot were young, my mother was only in her fifties and working full time. And my in-laws lived almost a four-hour drive away. Even if they had been available, I would never have expected them to take on the demands of looking after my three cherubs five days a week. It wasn't easy, and we got zero government support, but we used council family day care and alternated taking our leave in school holidays to save a few dollars.

I've worked with numerous people whose kids are cared for, for free, by their parents. Some are grateful, but many just take it for granted. I've lost count of the number of times I've rolled my eyes at selfish remarks like "Well, what else would they be doing with their time?"

I know it's hard to manage a mortgage and childcare and every other bloody thing these days, but here's a newsflash: it was hard back in "those days" too. I have never not worked. Three lots of maternity leave is all the time off I've had in thirty-six years, and that doesn't count as a break.

Future grandchildren will be adored, but they're not my responsibility, and I have a life. I'll be available for babysitting duty for a few hours or overnight, or for the odd day or weekend, as long as I don't have other plans.

I've served my time shackled to babies, toddlers, primary school kids and teenagers. Can't go out, the baby's having a nap. Can't have a sit down and a cuppa, the toddler needs to be coaxed down off the TV unit. Can't go to bed, the teenager needs to be picked up from a party. Now that they all have their driver's licences, cars and their own incomes, I'm finally free to do what I want, when I want. Retirement is so close, I can taste it and I plan to be out enjoying myself or off travelling as often as possible.

I honestly don't have an opinion on whether or not grandparents ought to be paid for their childcare duties. I do wonder if there are people out there who would really love their free time back, but feel that they don't have a choice. Not me; my kids will be lucky to catch me at home.

What do you think? Do parents have some kind of obligation to help their kids out with free childcare?


Monday, February 01, 2016


It's the first day of February, and you know what that means: FebFast. All over Australia, folks are locking up the beer fridge, avoiding the pub and showing up for work a little less bleary-eyed.

There are several months where abstaining from alcohol (and donating to charity) is encouraged, but anybody with any sense picks February because, HELLO! it only lasts 28 days. Dry July and Ocsober can bite me; three whole extra days sans grog? Hell, no.

Disclaimer: I'm not actually quitting drinking altogether - my plan is more like kind of FebFast Lite. I'll be giving myself a free pass on a few occasions, partly because I have a busy social calendar this month, and partly because if I slap a total ban on anything, my rebellious streak goes into overdrive and it usually backfires spectacularly. So if you see me posting Instagram shots of my dinner with a glass of wine in the background, don't go all judgy, OK?

Being back at work helps a lot. Holidays are great, but there's nothing like the knowledge that you can sleep in next morning to encourage you to have a few extra drinks in the evening. On the other hand, a 5:30am alarm is a pretty good incentive to avoid a hangover.

Because we're conscientious folks, Bike Boy and I have put in a superhuman effort and emptied our wine supplies over the past month. I know, bloody champions or what? It's way less tempting to open a bottle with dinner when you have to get in the car and drive to Liquorland to buy one, rather than just grab it out of the stash in the dining room.

Apart from the obvious health benefits of not drinking/drinking less, I find it much easier to stick to my exercise and food goals when I'm off the booze. Seriously, a few wines and I completely lose touch with my hunger. Tipsy Kek is quite likely to decide that buttered toast, half a box of Savoury Shapes or second dessert is a great idea at 10:00pm. As for getting out of bed to hit the gym... not likely with a little hammer tap-tap-tapping inside my skull.

Is anyone else joining me? A bit of moral support would be nice; leave a comment and let me know.