Christina Román is a San Diego-based full-time freelance writer and has been for 30 years. She launched her travel blog, Explore Now or Never, in January 2018 to inspire other mid-life professionals to see the world now... not to wait until retirement. It's possible to do both! She mostly travels with her research scientist husband.
Christina was kind enough to answer a few of our travel questions below...
TA: How many years have you been traveling and what got you hooked?
Christina: My first international trip was as a summer exchange student to Brazil at age 16. So that means I've been traveling for 38 years now! I did a second year-long exchange to France in college. I was just so fascinated learning about different cultures and all of the many wonderful ways to live in the world. I think that's what hooked me.
TA: Do you specialize in a particular type of travel?
Christina: I'm not a budget traveler, but I'm definitely a VALUE traveler. I specialize in helping travelers get the most out of a trip through independent travel, getting off the beaten path to skip the crowds and connect with locals, and investing in experiences that are rejuvenating and authentic.
TA: What is the best vacation you've ever taken?
Christina: I'm famous for saying the last place I visited is my new favorite travel destination! I had an epiphany about what makes the best vacation when I was in Southern Spain a few weeks ago. It's not really the sights I've seen (although holy cow, those have been amazing!), but rather, a few magic moments during something we didn't plan. So I'm challenging myself to leave more space for those in future itineraries.
In southern Spain, for example, our hotel in Ronda was perched at the edge of an incredible gorge and valley with a rushing waterfall. Watching the sun set, just the two of us on the terrace there, with a glass of wine, was remarkable. In northern France, en route to Normandy from Paris, I screamed "Stop!" as we passed these crumbling ruins of an abbey out in the middle of nowhere and we picnicked there -- again, just the two of us -- with an apricot tart, runny Camembert cheese, and a baguette that we'd scored at a local market day in Paris.
Those are the kinds of experiences that make memories. But all that said, I'd urge everyone to head to New Zealand immediately! You can see thermal geysers, rugged coast lines, pristine beaches, and redwood forests in practically a single day.
TA: What's one place you've always wanted to visit?
Christina: I'm still trying to get to Asia! I've got to be the only travel blogger who hasn't made it to Bali or Thailand yet. It's high on my list, but the planets haven't aligned yet. There's that 20+ hour flight to consider so I want to have lots of time once I finally get there. And more time in South America! We seem to be endlessly called back to Europe for one reason or another, but I can hardly complain.
TA: What's one thing you ALWAYS pack when you travel?
Christina: My non-negotiable packing item is -- you're going to laugh -- a tiny, spiky massage ball. I walk endlessly on trips and my middle-aged back does not love that. But I find that some early morning stretching with my ball under the small of my back or glutes is an amazing restorer. Some people use them on their feet. I just walked 5 miles daily for two weeks in Spain no problem! I'd never have made it without my massage ball. Just google "spiky massage ball" on Amazon. It's the best $7 you'll ever spend if you struggle with these kinds of issues.
TA: If you could only give a traveler one piece of advice, what would it be?
Christina: Take the leap. Book a trip. Just do it, like Nike says. There are so many reasons people allow travel to remain a vague idea -- budget, time, family commitments -- and never actually get around to it. All of these obstacles are definitely surmountable with a little education and creative thinking. Don't be that person who regrets you didn't see more of the world during your last days on earth.
TA: What are some of your favorite travel blogs and communities?
Christina: I like to follow travel bloggers who are busting stereotypes because they inspire me. Oneika the Traveller is a black woman currently traveling Uzbekistan. She's all about helping people of color travel more. Plus, her travel enthusiasm is so contagious. I also like to follow Jodi Etttenberg of Legal Nomads, who's currently on a medical sabbatical due to a crazy incident with a spinal epidural gone bad. She's so open about her journey of acceptance and I admire that. I love bloggers that keep it real!
TA: What are the top 3 websites you use for research/inspiration when planning a trip?
Christina: 1. Scott's Cheap Flights. You can sign up (free) to receive a few weekly emails on flash airfare sales. They won't spam you. And it's made travel incredibly affordable for me. There are routinely fares to Europe from the west coast of the US, for example, for under $500 round-trip. We just went LAX to Barcelona round-trip non-stop for $340 each! I have more travel hacks at Explore Now or Never under "Travel Tips."
2. Pinterest! Before I had a travel blog, I'd never planned a trip using a travel blog. Pinterest is a GOLDMINE for travel tips, inspiration, and detailed itineraries from travel bloggers. If you're not sure which blogs to follow, you can even check out the travel blogger group boards (just put that term in the Pinterest search function and click on "Boards" versus, say "People"). There are dozens and dozens of boards for easy access to top travel bloggers.
3. The Lonely Planet travel forums. There's an active community of travelers who are experts on every geographic area. If you have specific questions about whether a proposed itinerary makes sense or how to catch a train, someone there will know!
TA: What's a travel scam travelers should be wary of?
Christina: Theft is always my biggest concern. So it's important to outmaneuver pickpockets near airport ATMs, on trains, and near tourist locations. Wear a backpack on your chest or carry your purse in front of you with a hand over it, for example. We've been pretty lucky so far (knock on wood) in avoiding theft and scams. We nearly fell victim in front of the ferry terminal at Lago Maggiore in Italy once though. As we were trying to park our rental car, this official looking ferry captain was super helpful finding us a spot and then waved us over to his little kiosk to sell us a ferry ticket. Just then I flashed on something I'd read in Rick Steves about how these private companies try to take advantage of tourists to sell them more expensive tickets than the ones available at the public ferry terminal just next door. We walked him off, but he was livid!
TA: Which country has surprisingly good food?
Christina: I have to go with France, even though it's no surprise! Definitely duck into a patisserie (pastry shop) daily to sample all the amazingness. You won't want to miss the almond croissants (with marzipan in the middle), brioche (an airy buttery bread), or all the local delicacies at patisseries around the country. Just ask what the local specialty is and order that! In Normandy, order things with butter and cream. At the coast, order fish. It's truly hard to go wrong in France. Tip: Read up on food specialties before you go and learn the words for those! It's a great way to build trip anticipation in a useful way.
TA: What was the most romantic place you ever visited with a partner?
Christina: It's maybe a tie between Ronda, Spain (as I described earlier) and the overnight wilderness cruise we did on Doubtful Sound in Fjordlands National Park on the south island of New Zealand. (I have a whole blog post on which cruise we took and what it was like on Explore Now or Never.) That one might be an unconventional choice though as we slept on twin bunks., But to be in one of the most pristine, untouched places on earth together was truly magical. I cried when I heard the sound of silence.
TA: What are the best places to travel solo and why?
Christina: Costa Rica! I did a solo trip there to attend a Qigong retreat -- it's similar to Tai Chi -- in a cloud forest. Costa Rica is friendly and safe. There are so many expats and women headed to yoga retreats there that you might even get your change in a combination of U.S. coins and Costa Rican colóns!
TA: Which underrated destination deserves to be more famous?
Christina: Small town Europe! I think most people head to Paris, London or Venice and they miss the very best of what Europe has to offer. You don't need to head to the Louvre to see great art. It's everywhere. When you stay in a small town, you meet friendly locals and miss all the tourist crowds. In fact, I have a whole blog post on 47 Places to Get Off the Beaten Path in Europe on Explore Now or Never with contributions from well-traveled bloggers worldwide. (Just click on Europe on the site to find it.)