Confessions of a Couchsurfer
Let's get this out of the way up front: Couchsurfing.org is not a scheme that allows you to "see the world for free."
Although it is a worldwide community of more than 6 million people in 100,000 cities who will open their homes to guests at no charge, Couchsurfing aims to bring like-minded, travel-obsessed people together for the sheer good of it—the cultural exchange, the personal connection. And one of the benefits is that you can obtain insider, locals-only travel advice before you leave home, and a comfortable place to sleep free of charge when you get to your destination.
I was skeptical. Though I'm not averse to sleeping on a couch—or even a floor—when duty calls, at heart I'm more of a comfy hotel bed kind of guy. Also, I seem to be hard-wired to fret about safety. (Family lore holds that one of my ancestors almost bought a ticket on Titanic but at the last minute was warned against sailing on a maiden voyage—that kind of epic save is tough to shake off.)
But Couchsurfing is not some fly-by-night fad. Founded in 2004, the company has successfully paired so many travelers with hosts around the world that at this point it's not even surprising to see Seth Kugal, the New York Times's Frugal Traveler columnist, mention it as a smart choice from time to time. As for safety, Couchsurfing requires members to register via detailed online profiles, and urges users to make contact early, get to know potential guests and/or hosts, and to report complaints. And some users simply rely on Couchsurfing as a source of travel advice, never actually meeting the people with whom they correspond.
Curious, I decided to grill a veteran. Kathryn Cooper, a New York City-based writer/photographer, has been using Couchsurfing for four years now and has a travel resume that would be the envy of any BT reader (or editor, for that matter). Here, Cooper's candid answers to my (and, I hope, your) top questions:
How did you get into Couchsurfing? "I was hanging out with a well-traveled friend in Brooklyn. He had maps all over his apartment and entertained me with his exotic travel stories. He introduced me to a group of Couchsurfers visiting from Europe and I suddenly "got" the whole idea: It's not just a way to travel for less, but to actually get a real feel for local people and places. And I could show people my city and my favorite hidden sections."
What was your best-ever Couchsurfing experience? "From learning to surf in California to hiking with wild elephants in India, I've had quite a few incredible Couchsurfing experiences. My most amazing, however has to be my trip last year through Nepal: a 15-day adventure that included motorcycle trips, visits to Tibetan refugee camps, and a hike up into the Himalayas where we met locals, heard their stories, and hiked up steep inclines with quite a few cows!"
What was your worst? "My brother and I were staying with a host down South who came back home in the middle of the night with a black eye and several cuts on his face—and a number of additional house guests. The next morning, he didn't even remember what had happened. We never felt in danger, but it was definitely my least favorite Couchsurfing experience."
Any advice for a Budget Travel reader who wants to give Couchsurfing a try? "My first piece of advice: Be open. Open to new experiences, new types of people, and more. I can truly say it's changed my life, the way I travel, the way I learn about a country. If all you want is a free bed, don't bother. And when people are skeptical, I don't mind at all: We're a wonderful community, but not everyone will approve of the idea. It involves quite a high degree of trust. If you do visit Couchsurfing.org and decide to join, fill out your profile completely—including likes, dislikes, pet peeves, and hobbies. It's a way for those you contact to really find out who you are."
Amazing Experiences Every Traveler MUST Try!
The phrase "adventure travel" has a bit of an image problem. For many, it conjures only images of summiting mountains, diving into underwater caverns, and, well, aching muscles. But when we asked ourselves what kinds of adventures belong on everyone's travel list, we cast a much wider net. Yes, we can get you underwater—snorkeling among corals off Belize, anyone? But we also think it's mighty adventurous to sign up for cooking lessons in the land that practically invented eating—Tuscany. Or mastering the dance in a Buenos Aires tango hall. Of course, if you insist on some good old-fashioned adrenaline pumping, we'll direct you to some expert hang gliding instructors in Los Angeles. All eight of our can't-miss adventures have one thing in common—you'll arrive back home with a heckuva story to tell. SEE OUR MUST-DO TRIPS! Snorkeling in Belize With knockout beaches on Ambergris Caye, Caye Kaulker, and Placenia, plus inland jungles, 600 species of birds (think toucans and motmots), and Mayan ruins, Belize is paradise for landlubbers. But nothing beats exploring the blue sea and getting up-close-and-personal with the underwater residents on a snorkeling adventure. A visit to the five-square-mile Hol Chan Marine Reserve with a good outfitter will include all snorkeling gear and the chance to hobnob with colorful coral, angelfish, grunts, snappers, rays, nurse sharks (it's okay, they're harmless!), and maybe even a manatee from June to September. Get started: Raggamuffin Tours offers day trips to Hol Chan Marine Reserve and other packages, including overnights on a sailboat. River Cruise in Europe River cruises are routinely touted as the "next big thing." And there's a reason for that. While Europe's long, winding, history-drenched rivers aren't exactly a secret, it's true that cruise lines are adding more river cruises each year. And cruising in a small, intimate ship on an iconic European river like the Danube, the Seine, or the Rhine means you're making frequent stops at charming little towns and even big cities like Paris, whose Port de Grenelle dock is walking distance from the Eiffel Tower. Add gourmet meals, local wines, and guided tours and you've got a dream trip in the making. The season runs from March to September, with a high season (read: more expensive) in May, June, and July. Get started: Viking River Cruises offers sails on the Rhine, the Seine, the Danube, and the Rhône, as well as the Volga. Safari in Kenya Think a close encounter with lions, elephants, zebra, rhinos, and hippos is out of your reach? Think again. Sure, they don't come cheap, but it's possible to have a full safari experience (including airfare, lodging, meals, and game-viewing drives) for under $2,500. A quality tour will give you time to spot animals in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Lake Naivasha, and Kigio Wildlife Camp, and guarantee window seats on drives through preserves with an experienced English-speaking guide. Get started: Gate 1 Travel offers a number of package tours to Kenya from major U.S. airports. Hang Gliding in Los Angeles We know, at first glance it's likely that you're not too keen on jumping off a cliff and letting a sail on an aluminum frame help you waft safely back to earth. But we're here to tell you it's a lot easier—and infinitely more fun—than you might think. In fact, of all the photo-worthy stunts attempt on vacation, hang gliding with the help of a qualified tandem partner is completely safe. While you may have heard that gliding over Rio is the ultimate glide (and it is), there are opportunities to fly right here in the U.S. Los Angeles, with its mid-size mountain ranges and stretches of beach, makes a terrific backdrop for a float. Learn to hang glide on the sand, and when you're ready to take the plunge, sign up for a tandem ride, in which you share the glider with a licensed pilot. Get started: Windsports offers beginners' training on the beach, tandem glides from mountains, and, if you're really bitten by the hang gliding bug, pilot training. Cooking Classes in Tuscany Anyone who has tucked into a plate of fresh pasta or seafood—or, for that matter, just about any dish—in Tuscany knows that ohmygosh moment when you wonder, how on earth do they do this? It's time to take the leap: Sign up for a cooking class with an expert in Tuscan cuisine. It may not sound quite as adventurous as hang gliding or snorkeling, but consider this: You're pushing the envelope of your abilities and that plate of hand-made pasta you put in front of your guests at the next dinner party may impress them more than any adventure travel story ever could. There are a number of opportunities to immerse yourself in Italian cuisine both in Florence and in outlying areas, where you find yourself learning to craft bruschetta, gnocchi, and even tiramisu while surrounded by olive trees, vineyards, and rolling farmland. Get started: Toscana Mia offers hands-on culinary training in a relaxed, friendly environment in either Florence or the Chianti countryside. Tango Lessons in Buenos Aires Argentina's cultural life may be defined by dance more than that of any other country. Visit a tango salon, or milonga, and you'll see extraordinary demonstrations of this seductive, mysterious dance, whose rapid turns and inherent drama were inspired by Argentine gangsters. But aside from the flamboyant styles of tango on display, there is also the opportunity for you, as a visitor, to learn a more subdued—and manageable—version of the dance. C'mon, we know you've thought about it: Arrive at a milonga early in the evening and you can usually participate in an affordable group lesson. (Experienced dancers won't show up till midnight.) If you're up for it, dress the part: That means dress shoes, suits, and dresses. Ready for even more adventure? Once you've mastered the basic moves, dance with a stranger. Get started: Academia Nacional de Tango (11/4345-6968) offers evening lessons. Volunteer Vacation Most experienced travelers are eager to find ways to make their world a better place, and there's no better way to indulge your Peace Corps fantasies—without the long-term commitment—than by signing up for a volunteer vacation. Book a trip with an experienced tour operator and make a difference by working with underprivileged children, teaching, or participating in a construction project. Examples of ongoing volunteer vacation opportunities include teaching arts and crafts to children in orphanages in India and assisting with food and water safety and building or renovating infrastructure on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Get started: GVI is a tour operator specializing in volunteer opportunities. It offers packages that can include working with children, construction projects, and wildlife conservation. Genealogy Travel There's never been a better time in human history to find a route to your roots. Heritage travel is big business, with Ireland leading the way with more than 120,000 overseas visitors per year. (One in nine Americans, including President Obama, have some Irish heritage.) Aer Lingus offers a "Discover Your Roots" tour that includes a night in Dublin, an hour-long consultation with an Irish genealogy specialist, and vouchers for car rentals to get you to your hometown. Similarly, African Americans have explored West Africa with the help of Palace Travel's Discover Senegal package; Chinese Americans have booked customized trips through Explore China Tours, and Italian Americans turn to the Pallante Center for Italian Research for genealogical research. Sure, results vary, but for some people a walk back into their family history is the greatest adventure they could take. Get started: Read "Find Your Roots in Ireland" for a BT writer's narrative of tracing her family's history on the Emerald Isle, plus tips for exploring other ethnic backgrounds.
12 Most Extreme Places in America
The United States has always been a land of extremes. European explorers were staggered by the sheer vastness of the land, and generations of immigrants have arrived here with the biggest dreams imaginable. We decided to dig in and explore America's highest highs, lowest lows, and a number of other extremes (quick: how many people live in America's smallest town?). Here, a dozen of our favorite points that embody our nation's capacity for wonder—plus tips for actually getting to these amazing destinations, some of which can require a plane trip and a rental car. SEE THE EXTREMES! 1. HOTTEST COMMUNITY: LAKE HAVASU CITY, ARIZONA Death Valley may be the most scorching spot in America, with temperatures that can reach 130 degrees F, but Lake Havasu City in Arizona earns the gold star for the hottest place where lots of people actually live. The town is home to more than 50,000 residents, all of whom have found a way to survive summer temperatures that regularly top 100 degrees F and can reach as high as the 120s. What keeps folks here is what also draws thousands of visitors, including 45 miles of lakefront for boating, fishing (blue gill and crappie are anglers' favorites here), and hiking amid volcanic rock, sparkling geodes, and other desert formations. Lake Havasu also boasts two unexpected attractions: It is home to more than a dozen 1/3 scale miniature lighthouses that dot the lake's shores, and London Bridge, purchased in 1968 from the City of London for more than $2 million, shipped more than 5,000 miles, and reassembled in Arizona. The bridge is now the second-most-popular tourist site in the state, after the Grand Canyon. Get there: Las Vegas is the nearest major airport, about 150 miles from Lake Havasu City; round-trip flights on Delta from New York City start at $338. London Bridge Resort offers condo-style suites, three restaurants, a beach bar, and a pool (1477 Queens Bay, Lake Havasu City, londonbridgeresort.com, doubles from $95). 2. EASTERNMOST POINT: ST. CROIX, U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS United States territories are surprisingly globe-spanning, and the nod for easternmost point goes not to the Maine coast but to tiny St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. That means that, without a passport, you can immerse yourself in a culture that blends Caribbean, Dutch, French, British, Spanish, and Danish influences all in a package less than 23 miles long and eight miles wide. With all the expected to-dos you associate with an island paradise (swimming, snorkeling, sunbathing, fine dining, and golf), St. Croix also offers the old-world architecture of Christiansted, with homes dating back to the 18th century, and a "rain forest" near the western shore. (It's not technically a rain forest, but private land open to visitors, with a bounty of tropical flora and colorful hummingbirds, warblers, and other birds.) Get there: Round-trip flights on American Airlines from New York City start at $359. Hotel Caravelle is near Christiansted's historical sites and has a restaurant, bar, outdoor pool, and spa onsite (44A Queen Cross St., Christiansted, hotelcaravelle.com, doubles from $136). 3. COLDEST COMMUNITY: FAIRBANKS, ARKANSAS With average winter temperatures below -5 and highs only in the mid-40s, you may wonder what draws visitors to Fairbanks. Sure, the city's population is warm and welcoming and its gold rush history is still tangible in sites such as the Pioneer Museum, with its dioramas and murals. But most tourists are here to see the Aurora Borealis. Also known as the Northern Lights, the aurora will be at its peak in 2013 due to heavy sunspot activity at the end of an 11-year cycle, producing the appearance of crackling skies filled with bright blue, green, and red patterns for more than 200 nights over the course of the year. August through April is primetime for aurora-viewing, and if you spend three nights in Fairbanks you have about an 80 percent chance of a clear night. Ask your hotel if it offers middle-of-the-night wake-up calls to rouse you in time to see a display. Get there: Round-trip flights on Alaska Airlines from San Francisco start at $937. When you're ready to warm up in the "great indoors," the Hampton Inn and Suites offers welcome amenities like Cloud Nine beds, complimentary breakfast, and a pool and fitness center (433 Harold Bentley Ave., hamptoninn.hilton.com, doubles from $104). 4. WESTERNMOST POINT: AMERICAN SAMOA Most of us are stunned to realize that the U.S. territories extend west of French Polynesia in the South Pacific. Easy to miss on the globe, American Samoa rewards those who are intrepid enough to make the trip with towering mountains, gentle waters, and friendly locals who will actually serenade you (and invite you to sing along) on their buses. With a population of fewer than 65,000, you'll also find elbow room on white-sand beaches such as the 2.5-mile-long Ofu Beach, the 5,000-plus-acre National Park of American Samoa and its rain forest birds, and the major town, Pago Pago. Visit during the dry season, May through October, and, because the only direct flights to American Samoa are from Samoa and Honolulu, consider making this destination just one stop on a South Pacific excursion. Get there: Round-trip flights on Hawaiian Airlines from Honolulu start at $937. The Tradewinds Hotel in Pago Pago offers access to sites such as the iconic Leone Church and Mount Alava. Guests can also enjoy the onsite pool and fitness center, coffee shop, and complimentary breakfast (Main Road, Pago Pago, tradewinds.as, doubles from $140). 5. HIGHEST POINT: MOUNT MCKINLEY, DENALI NATIONAL PARK, ARKANSAS Denali National Park would be an extraordinary destination even if weren't home to the tallest peak in North America, 20,320-foot Mount McKinley. The park comprises 6 million acres that most visitors navigate via 92-mile-long Park Road, which parallels the stunning Alaska Range and allows access to a number of visitors' centers and six campgrounds. The park even has its own Big Five, a North American variation on the popular African safari hit list: If you're lucky, you'll spot moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves, and grizzly bears. Although the park is open year-round, most people visit from mid-May to mid-September, when most visitors' centers are open, offering ranger talks and other interactive education programs. Summer bus tours are a convenient way to experience highlights of the park, including interpretive trails, scenic overlooks, and education programs. More ambitious travelers can learn about backpacking, dogsledding, and mountaineering opportunities at nps.gov/denali. Get there: Round-trip flights on Delta from San Francisco to Anchorage (about 150 miles from Denali National Park) start at $540. The Denali Perch Resort is located 13 miles outside the park (for Alaskans, that's next door) and offers two restaurants, a free area shuttle service, assistance with tours and tickets, and rooms have either river or mountain views (Mile 224 George Parks Highway, 907/683-2523, doubles from $125). 6. LOWEST PLACE: DEATH VALLEY, CALIFORNIA AND NEVADA Death Valley is not only the lowest point in the United States—its Badwater Basin is 282 feet below sea level—but also the hottest and the driest. This stretch of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts in California and Nevada is known for temperatures in the 100s for five months out of the year (the record high was 134 degrees, in 1913), unexpected deluges that bring fields of wildflowers, and, in winter, snow that can be seen dusting the higher peaks surrounding the valley. That's not to say it isn't a popular tourist destination. On the contrary, unique (and wildly diverse) attractions such as hikers' mecca Golden Canyon and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes make Death Valley a one-of-a-kind destination that's totally worth the trek. Explore Death Valley National Park via nps.gov/deva before you arrive—it's an excellent site that will help you choose among the varied offerings of this forbidding but beautiful place. Get there: Round-trip flights on Delta from New York to Las Vegas, about 130 miles from Death Valley, start at $338. Stovepipe Wells Village offers basic rooms with air-conditioning (vital here!) and an onsite restaurant (Highway 190, Death Valley National Park, escapetodeathvalley.com, doubles from $95). 7. OLDEST COMMUNITY: ACOMA, NEW MEXICO Here in the U.S., we run the risk of applying the word tradition to institutions, such as the Super Bowl, that are less than 50 years old. So Acoma, NM, comes as a surprise to many. This community, which was originally settled by Native Americans, dates back to 1150, placing it squarely in the company of some of the oldest of old-world sites, such as medieval European cathedrals. About an hour's drive from Albuquerque, visit the Sky City Cultural Center for guided tours of an ancient pueblo on a sandstone bluff, explore the Acoma Pueblo Indian Museum, shop for traditional Native American crafts at the tribal-operated Gaits'I Gallery, and if gaming is your thing drop by the Sky City Casino Hotel for slots and table games. Get there: Round-trip flights on American Airlines from Chicago to Albuquerque start at $450. Sky City Casino and Hotel has an onsite restaurant, fitness facility, and spa (Acoma Village, skycitycasino.com, doubles from $84). 8. BIGGEST CITY: NEW YORK CITY New York has been the most populous city in the U.S. since the first census was taken in 1790, but it wasn't until the inauguration of the Erie Canal in 1825 that its numbers really took off, nearly tripling by 1840. By connecting the Hudson River to Lake Erie, the waterway ushered in a new era in trade that rocketed the city to the economic preeminence it enjoys to this day. For visitors, that prosperity translates into unparalleled art collections, theater, music, and cuisine. And while world-class museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim can come with a hefty suggested donation, New York also offers some of the choicest low-cost—or free— attractions anywhere in the world, including holiday department-store displays, the immense Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, and public skating rinks in several locations, including cozy Bryant Park, right in Midtown. Get there: Round-trip flights on Delta from Atlanta start at $254. The Jane Hotel is right on the Hudson River in the bustling, vibrant West Village; its bunk-bed "cabin" room is incredibly reasonable by NYC standards (113 Jane St., thejanenyc.com, doubles from $125). 9. SMALLEST TOWN: BUFORD, WYOMING It doesn't get any smaller than Buford. Why? Because the town has only one resident, Don Simmons, the proprietor of The Buford Trading Post, a gas station and convenience store. If you're making a cross-country road trip on Interstate 80, it's worth stopping in Buford (between Cheyenne and Laramie) just to say hi, and to tell the folks back home that you've seen it. And since the town was purchased in an auction in September, it's not clear how long it will hold its title. Looking to do more than just pass through Buford? Nearby Vedauwoo State Park offers a breathtaking mountain landscape that flatlanders back east would die for. Get there: Well, you're not going to fly to Wyoming just to see little Buford, but round-trip flights on Frontier from San Francisco to Cheyenne, about 30 miles away, start at $478. Holiday Inn Express Hotel and Suites Cheyenne has an indoor pool, complimentary breakfast, and is near the historic Wyoming State Capitol (1741 Fleischli Parkway, hiexpress.com, doubles from $109). 10. BIRTHPLACE OF MOST PRESIDENTS: VIRGINIA While most grade-school students know that four of the first five presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe) were born in Virginia, the list goes on: Harrison, Tyler, Taylor, and Wilson also entered the world in the Old Dominion. That historical density is reflected in the variety of amazing attractions you can find in Virginia, including historic downtown Richmond, the re-created colonial town of Williamsburg, Washington's estate at Mount Vernon, the home Jefferson designed for himself at Monticello, the National Cemetery at Arlington (on the grounds of what was once Confederate General Robert E. Lee's estate), and such Civil War battlefields as Manassas and Fredericksburg. Get there: Round-trip flights on United AirTran from St. Louis to Norfolk (near Colonial Williamsburg) start at $491. Crowne Plaza Williamsburg was built on the Fort Magruder battleground and is walking distance to Colonial Williamsburg and the Jamestown Settlement; indoor and outdoor pools provide a welcome break from theme-park and historic-site frenzy (6945 Pocahontas Trail, crowneplaza.com, doubles from $99). 11. BIGGEST LAKE: LAKE SUPERIOR With an area of nearly 32,000 square miles, Lake Superior is not only the largest lake in the United States but also the largest freshwater lake in the world. Bounded by Ontario, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, this northernmost and westernmost of the Great Lakes was carved by glaciers 10,000 years ago and is so big (roughly the size of South Carolina) that it has its own climate, more akin to a coastal region than one so far inland. Among many beautiful parks and beaches along the lake's shores, Isle Royale National Park is perhaps the standout, with world-class canoe and kayak routes, hiking, and even scuba diving the lake's depths. Visit nps.gov/isro to start planning your visit. Get there: Round-trip flights on Delta from New York to Detroit, start at $288. Rock Island Lodge is a bit of a splurge, but it's inside the Isle Royale National Park and offers unparalleled access to the park's activities (Isle Royale, reachable by ferry from Houghton, MI, rockharborlodge.com, cottages from $223). 12. BIGGEST RIVER: MISSISSIPPI RIVER At 2,320 miles long, the Mississippi flows from Lake Itasca, in Minnesota, to the Gulf of Mexico, passing through or bordering 10 states and draining water from 31 between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachian Range. While there are a number of major cities along the river, including Minneapolis, St. Paul, St. Louis, and Memphis, if you have to choose just one Mississippi River destination, head down to the river's mouth, to New Orleans, for authentic jazz at Preservation Hall, a ride on one of the city's historic streetcars, the unique cuisine and party scene in the French Quarter, and, this winter, the Super Bowl. Get there: Round-trip flights on United AirTran from Los Angeles start at $423. The French Market Inn is walking distance from Bourbon Street and includes an onsite coffee shop (501 Decatur St., frenchmarketinn.com, doubles from $132).
7 Great Culinary Bike Tours
The French aren’t the only ones who can pair a meal with a pair of wheels. A fresh crop of culinary bike tours is leading American city slickers to restaurants that are well worth the trip. Charlotte Taste & Cycle Charlotte The pace on this three-hour tour is Southern-drawl slow, so don’t count on burning off most of those deep-fried calories. And you’ll consume quite a few along the way at places such as Price’s Chicken Coop, celebrated for its fried bird, and Mert’s, where the house specialty is the “soul roll,” filled with collard greens, black-eyed peas, and chicken. You’ll also sample a few morsels of local history: As you wind through bustling Uptown (home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame) and the post-industrial South End, your guide will run through the Queen City’s history, from its early days as a Native American trading center to its modern incarnation as the South’s banking hub. Know Before You Go: Gratuities aren’t included in the tour price, so be sure to bring along extra cash to tip your guide and servers. Tours depart from 401 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Wednesday through Sunday year-round, $55 (includes bike and helmet). San Francisco Streets of S.F.’s Food Tour Don’t be daunted by the city’s famously sloping streets: This six- to eight-mile tour avoids heart-pumping hills in favor of a mellow ride on urban-friendly, ergonomic bikes. Stops aren’t fixed, but you’ll likely cruise to the Mission District for killer Mexican at hole-in-the-wall Vallarta taqueria and Hayes Valley for artisanal coffee at Ritual Roasters. One local favorite is a bit of a moving target: Roaming mobile food market Off the Grid takes its ever-changing roster of food trucks to a different Bay Area location each day of the week. Know Before You Go: Have your camera ready—tours often pass architectural landmarks (City Hall), as well as pop-culture ones (Twitter’s headquarters). Tours depart from Fulton and Pierce Streets, on the north side of Alamo Square, dates available year-round, $95 (includes food, bike, and helmet). New Orleans New Orleans Culinary Bike Tour This leisurely, 10-mile jaunt departs from the touristy French Quarter, but the point of this tour by Confederacy of Cruisers is to highlight how locals live. To that end, bikers spend up to four-and-a-half hours steering their Schwinns through traditionally Creole areas, like Tremé and Faubourg Marigny. Stops vary depending on the day—and the seafood in season—but you can expect staples like gumbo and po’boys. Bonus: Mid-ride, sole tour leader Cassady Cooper shares lessons on music and antebellum architecture. Know Before You Go: Pork and shellfish are always plats du jour. If you have dietary restrictions, consider one of the company’s other tours, like the History of Drinking in New Orleans Bike Tour. Tours depart from 634 Elysian Fields Ave., Wednesday through Saturday year-round, $85 (includes bike, helmet, water bottle, and tips for the servers). Chicago Fork and the Road It all started when two food-loving pals began rounding up their friends for bike tours of Chicago gelaterias and taco joints. Now in their fourth year, Fork and the Road’s 12- to 18-mile tours are centered on quirky themes, such as global bakeries (Vietnamese, French, and Middle Eastern) or the Silk Road, with stops at Chinese, Afghani, and Turkish restaurants. Know Before You Go: Bikes and helmets aren’t included in the tour—or the tour’s fee—so BYO or prepare to rent. The ride starts and ends near Bike and Roll stations, where you can rent wheels for as low as $10 per hour, or $20 for an all-day rental through chicago.bcycle.com. Tours depart from Intelligentsia Coffee (53 E. Randolph St.) or Kitchen Sink Café (1107 W. Berwyn Ave.), check site for dates, $50–$65. Portland Bites by Bike America’s most bike-friendly city shows off its other trademark—fresh locavore grub—on this easy-paced, five-mile ride, which coasts through downtown, the artsy Pearl District, and the historic Northwest neighborhood. Pit stops on the three-and-a-half-hour ride offer highbrow treats: cookies sprinkled with fleur de sel at Two Tarts Bakery, cola-braised Thai pork at Nong’s Khao Man Ghai food truck, and artisanal chocolate at Cacao. On Saturdays, the tour visits the 250-vendor Portland Farmers Market, where riders can refuel with fresh produce. Know Before You Go: If you supply your own wheels, Pedal Bike Tours will knock $10 off the tour price. Tours depart from 133 SW 2nd Ave., Tuesday through Saturday year-round, $69 (includes bike and helmet). Washington, D.C. International Bites by Bike Launched this March in conjunction with the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, International Bites by Bike will run throughout 2012. Itineraries aren’t set yet, but rides during blossom season played to the D.C. power-lunch set, with stops at sit-down restaurants instead of food trucks, in areas like Dupont Circle and U Street. A typical outing let riders sample one dish at three spots: Southern-themed Eatonville, Asian-tinged Scion, and swanky bistro 1905. Know Before You Go: Although you’ll be in bike lanes, if you’re not comfortable with the idea of cars whizzing by, this tour may not be ideal for you. Tours depart from the Old Post Office Pavilion, 1100 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, check site for dates, $89 (includes bike, helmet, and food). Austin East Austin Bicycle Food Tour Andy Potter guessed that most visitors to the city never make it to the hip but less-developed East Side. So he and his wife debuted the East Austin Bike Tour, a roughly six-mile, four-hour trek that shows off the area’s ethnic restaurants and funky retro food trailers. A recent agenda included snacks from Argentina (Buenos Aires Café), Japan (Love Balls Bus), and West Africa (Cazamance trailer). Know Before You Go: The tour typically stops at a brewery, where riders are free to imbibe (the fee includes two alcohol samples). Helmets aren’t mandatory for adults here, but ask for one, especially if you’re boozing. Departure points vary by tour, Fridays year-round, $69 (includes food, bike, helmet, and drinks).—Nicole Frehsee MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL 10 Restaurants that Started a Food Movement 15 International Dining Etiquette Rules that Might Surprise You 6 Ways to Keep Your Stomach Safe Anywhere on Earth
How To House-Sit Your Way Around The World
You’ve heard about pet–sitting, but what about house–sitting to save money while traveling? Dalene and Peter Heck are one Canadian couple who did just that: five years ago, they sold everything for the sake of travel, and started a website, Hecktic Travels, about how they saved over $30,000 in accommodations costs by house–sitting their way around the world. The basic idea is reciprocity: keep an eye on someone's home while they're away, and you get to stay in it for free. It's a win–win since the owners get the peace of mind in knowing their houses (and sometimes pets) are safe, and you get to take the price of accommodations out of your vacation budget. (You'll also save money on food, since your lodgings now include a kitchen.) Jobs can last anywhere from two weeks to six months and give new meaning to the term culture immersion. "The best part about the whole experience has been the ability to really dig in to a destination and get to understand the culture. We get to know people and visit places that regular tourists never would," said Dalene Heck. A number of websites, such as TrustedHousesitters.com, House Sitters America, The Caretaker Gazette, Mind My House among others, provide listings for a fee (ranging from $20 to $60 depending on the membership), but consider this an investment. The couple recommends creating an account on multiple websites to increase your chances of being chosen for a coveted house–sit job. Planning ahead is the key, since it can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to fully flesh out the details of a contract. House–sitting hopefuls from the U.S. should remember to check Visa requirements for countries they plan to apply for, Dalene warns. "In 28 countries of Europe, Americans are only allowed 90 days total at a time, so the dream of bouncing around from house–sit to house–sit indefinitely isn't really an option there." How did they find out about this underground travel trend? During a trip to Ecuador in 2009, the two met an elderly American couple who had been house–sitting around the world for a whopping 16 years! They inspired Dalene and Peter to apply for their first gig in British Columbia, Canada, and shortly afterward, the couple took on a six–month long stint in Roatan, Honduras. Over the last three years, they've also been house–sitters in Ireland, Belgium, England, Spain, Turkey, and the United States. For more details about house–sitting contracts, the best ways to find opportunities, and tips on how to be a good house–sitter, purchase the couple's e–book, "How to Become a House–Sitter and See The World" for $19.99 on their website.