My favorite “no-star” travel experiences

Grand Canyon rafting trip

After a little more than 4 months in Asia, we’re home again.  I say “home” but as someone who is technically homeless, what I really mean is “Stateside.”  Or really, I’m in the places where I don’t need a reservation to belong.

For some reason this last time I was incredibly ready to come back to the States.  Going from hotel to hotel exhausts something other than my energy.  I don’t know how to describe it but hotels exist in this funny world where everything is constructed around temporary connections.  And especially with luxury hotels, they exist in a world where the staff dresses to the nines and speaks with attention to formalities.  It’s incredible and exquisite but not exactly “homey”.

After 4 months I just wanted to sit in front of a campfire and roast marshmallows in my ratty jeans.

Or my space cats shirt…


In light of these thoughts, I decided to dedicate a post to my favorite, 0-star experiences.  I love rustic.  I love genuine.  I love dirty and I love challenging.  Of course, no one is going to complain about exquisite and refined either.  I have learned to love those things too.  But today’s post is about the 0-star experiences.

7.) Rafting the Grand Canyon

When I was 18 my twin sister, my Dad and I did a 3 night rafting trip through the Grand Canyon.  We spent the nights sleeping either in a little tent or sans-tent under the starts.  One night the local whose grandmother owned the rafting company told my sister and I traditional Native American “ghost” stories.

It was incredible falling asleep with the stars above me, and even bathing in the freezing waters of the Colorado River was an experience I enjoyed.  Everything was rustic but 100% comfortable.

Grand Canyon rafting trip

6.) Roadside camping from Ohio to Alaska and back.

Another epic family vacation in my late teen years.  Just before graduating highschool my family piled into a van and road-tripped all the way from Ohio to Alaska and back.  We spent many nights sleeping in the van at roadside camping areas along the Alaska Highway.  That’s how we saw a black bear and the Northern lights within the same few hours.  It’s like a more temperature-friendly and comfortable version of tent camping and I loved it.


5.) Sleeping on the beach in Thailand

Ok now it’s time to mention a few trips that happened within this decade.

The first time Drew and I went to Thailand (was it Phuket?  I forget) we arrived into town so late at night/ early in the morning that we very quickly gave up finding a hotel/hostel and decided we would just sleep on the beach for a few hours, then check into a hotel later in the day.  We happened to pick a section of beach inside the gates of a retirement/gated community of some kind and when the security guards asked where we were going, our local friend told him “Oh we’re just going to sleep on the beach.”  To my surprise they just nodded and let us by.

It was perfect.  The breeze from the ocean kept all the mosquitoes away and we were right around the corner from a rec center with showers.  Perfect.

We woke just in time for one of the most beautiful sunrises I’d ever seen.


4.) Living with a host family in “Bogside” Derry

Just before graduating college I spent some time in the city of Derry (or London Derry depending on your political affiliation) and lived with a host family in the famed “Bogside” region of the city.  We were situated in the precise area where the “Bloody Sunday” tragedy occurred in 1972 just up the street from the commemorative murals.

The whole experience of my time there was incredible and it was humbling to be somewhere with such an immense and heavy history to bear.  Everyone in that neighborhood was part of that story.

There’s so much more I could say about that but instead I’ll say this: Derry is not your typical travel destination.  It is a place that holds this complex history teetering on the edge of past and present.  You can’t just visit it.  You have to dive in and hear a few stories…



3.) Car Camping in Guam

In Guam Drew and I got to revive the travel-style of my growing up years with a little bit of car-camping.  I think a majority of what made this experience so good was simply the amount of time we got to spend together.  The island is pretty small so it didn’t take long to see everything we could figure out how to get to.  That left lots of time for conversation, snorkeling, and laying out in the park.  It’s amazing how little time you can spend with someone when there’s something else to pay attention to like internet or television or whatever.  Without any of those conveniences, we got to just hang out.

And the plus side of being on a small island is that you’re never too far from the beach and if you’re lucky, the beach’s showers.

2.) Eating at the home of a stranger in Sri Lanka

One of our favorite travel stories is of the time Drew and I were trying to find a local spot to eat in Sri Lanka.  We were not at all interested in the touristy spots along the main street in Negombo so we headed off on a dusty little side street.  We must have looked fairly lost because a young girl stopped us and asked what we were looking for.  Her English was fairly broken so it took some hand gestures before we successfully communicated that we were looking for food.  She motioned to the street where we’d just come- where the tourist restaurants were.  So Drew clarified.  No, we want to eat at the sorts of places where you eat.  Where do you eat?

Her face lit up and she told us that she ate in her own home, and that we were welcome to come eat in her home too.  So we followed her into a little door-less building where she introduced us to her whole family.  She and her mother disappeared into the kitchen where a fire-pit served as a stove-top and they cooked us instant noodles.  We chatted over our instant noodles and spent the rest of the evening with the girl and her brother.

Instant noodles never tasted so good before or after.

1.) Couchsurfing in Zakynthos

Zakynthos is always in the back of my mind, no matter where in the world I am.  Not only is it a gorgeous island with a slow pace and an untouched feel, it’s also home of the most incredible traditional restaurant.  We could not have been luckier to couchsurf with the owner of this particular restaurant- Malanos.

Couchsurfing is awesome in general and is a great way to meet locals and see their perspective on the place you’re visiting.  It was no different in Zakynthos with Niko.  Niko was as nice a person as we’ve ever met and full of enthusiasm for his beautiful island.

Then we rented scooters and explored the island together.  It was a dream.  A pure dream.  Read the posts I linked to here because I wrote about the experience in more detail.



The miles and points hobby is a wonderful way to do traveling that we couldn’t do otherwise.  It’s incredible and I feel so lucky.  But sometimes we have the most fun when we go entirely outside of the miles and points strategies.  Luxury hotels are inherently designed to be comfortable places with lots of privacy.  Two elements that work against adventure.  If you can put yourself somewhere less comfortable and less private…well…we’ve had some good success finding adventures that way. 🙂

6 Comments on “My favorite “no-star” travel experiences

  1. I agree that “no star” travel experiences are often some of the most memorable. I spent months couchsurfing around Europe and got to know the local peoples and areas much better than I ever have staying in hotels. You get a lot more real insight and tips this way than you could from a concierge. I just spent the last week visiting a friend way up in the North Carolina mountains, well off the beaten path from any sort of luxury hotels, and it was some of the most relaxing time ever spent.

    Camping out is great too – a couple of years back two friends and I spent a month traveling around the western US in a Prius, most often sleeping crammed in the car or camping at some of the amazing national parks out there. I wouldn’t trade that experience for a month full of ICs and Park Hyatts.

    If you love to travel (and are super frugal like me), miles and points are a great tool, but there are so many other amazing opportunities waiting for anyone willing to take them :-).

    • Totally agree! I have really been feeling a pull towards the more rustic strategies lately… I want to roadside camp in a national park!!

  2. I’m so glad Derry made the cut! 🙂 I also love using this little blog to stay connect to you. xoxo

  3. Another original, wonderful post, Carrie…. Thanks for sharing this side of the journey, the fond memories of Zakynthos…! Fun too the contrast to Drew’s dizzying infographic on the world’s tallest hotels…. I prefer being more, ummm….. “down to earth.” (once in a while anyway 😉 )

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