Keeping in Touch While Traveling

With all the excitement and preparations of traveling it’s easy to (initially) forget the family and friends you’re leaving behind. But we’re interested, honest; and most of us (for the time being anyway) are living vicariously through you, so don’t forget about us. We want to know about the interesting guy you sat beside on the plane who invited you to dinner afterward. Or the hidden cave you explored while swimming in the Mediterranean. So please, fill us in.

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Avoiding the “Gringo Trail” (and Paving a New One)

I‘ve loved traveling for a handful of years now but it wasn’t until I found myself venturing off the beaten path in Morocco last year when I started to realize the difference between the beaten path, and off the beaten path.

If you read this site semi-regularly you’ll know I talk a lot and recommend having a good guidebook for your travels.  Many dedicated travelers frown on it as they want to see a place on their own terms and not how some underpaid guidebook writer tells them to.  I see this point, don’t get me wrong, but most of my trips are condensed into two weeks or less and require some assistance with planning.  My vacation time is valuable and that’s why I always use a guidebook.

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Tips for Planning a Successful Trip

Talk to several different travelers about their travel tips and you probably won’t hear the same answer twice. Everybody has their own preferences and techniques or they don’t bother planning at all. Both sides have their advantages and both have their disadvantages.

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New Hotel & Hostel Booking Site Looks to Change Search Habits

Flight and hotel booking sites are a dime a dozen. Let’s face it. There are many affiliate programs out there that allow these companies to start a website and search various prices for their visitors. Typically their prices aren’t better than any of the major travel booking sites (Kayak, Expedia, Travelocity, etc) and often actually charge a small fee which makes me wonder why anybody would bother with these no-name sites.

So while there are no shortage of websites to find flights or hotels, searching for hostels has been more time consuming for me than I would prefer. Most times I’ve used HostelWorld to search for hostels based on location, price, availability, and most importantly, customer reviews. Most, but not all hostels are listed on HostelWorld. Others are listed on smaller sites like Hostelz or aren’t listed at all. Sometimes these small establishments find it too expensive to pay commissions to booking sites.

Looking for something a little more mid-range like a bed & breakfast or small guesthouse/inn can also be difficult. You usually don’t find small, independently run businesses on the larger booking sites and Hostel sites aren’t the same niche. I’ve found TripAdvisor to include many B&B’s but I’ve questioned their reviews since several hotels and tour companies have specifically asked me to post positive reviews on several occasions.

For flights, I’ve been a huge fan of Kayak for a while. They search most major airline’s websites and all of the major booking companies as well. It’s a simple, clean interface and does a great job of finding the best prices.
It wasn’t until last week that I found something that piqued my interest as much for searching for hotels though. Somebody recommended I check out HotelsCombined. I wasn’t expecting much, but I was pleasantly surprised after running my first search for Budapest. Over 300 results were presented in a clean and easy to use interface. By default the results are sorted by popularity based upon user reviews but can be sorted by price, quality (stars), distance or even the neighborhood.

What I really like about HotelsCombined is that they don’t simply list hotels, but also B&B’s, guesthouses, and even hostels. I can’t say that there aren’t any other sites that like it, but from what I’ve been able to find, it’s very unique.

One reason I continue to check multiple sites for hostels (or whatever else I am booking) is to see the various reviews that customers leave. Sometimes you don’t have much of a selection, but in places like Budapest there are an unbelievable amount of hostels and reading reviews helps you decide on which one(s) stand out. That’s what, to me, is the best part about HotelsCombined as they also aggregate the various reviews from all the sites they search. It saves quite a bit of time if you’re like me and really like to check out reviews.

If you use HotelsCombined and decide to book a room with their service you’ll be forwarded directly to the hotel or booking agent’s website to book without any additional fees. I’ve never understood why some of the major sites felt the need to charge booking fees when they also received commissions.

Give them a look and let me know what you think. It looks to be a good service and I’ll definitely be checking out accommodations through them. It may still take a while for me to break my habit of checking five or six different sites though.

The Secret to Great Hotel Deals

I have a little secret for finding great deals on hotels that I’ve used over the years, and the good news is that in this economy, it’s only getting better.

Many people will probably be angry with this post, including a large number of our followers on Twitter.  Why? Because they’re constantly advertising deals for their own benefit through affiliate travel programs or their own business.  I have nothing against them doing so, but I have to warn that just because somebody says it is a deal, doesn’t always  make it a deal.  I receive hundreds of messages daily about amazing prices on hotels in Hawaii or New York.  Since I recently visited Maui, I looked into a few of them.  I never found any of these advertisements to be less than $250 per night.  I would hardly call that a deal.  Maybe that hotel used to charge $1,000 per night.  Even so, why am I going to pay that much for a place to sleep when I’m there to see the island, not sit around in a beautiful hotel?

So if that’s your business, I apologize in advance but let’s be honest, Have Pack, Will Travel is all about saving money and making the most of your trip, so we never really saw eye-to-eye anyway.

How to find deals on hotels

Some of the best deals are to be found at the last minute.  But how last minute should you look?  If you’re adventurous, the very last minute.  I rarely book accommodations for my entire trip unless I know it’ll be extremely difficult to secure a bed in a hostel or a cheap room in a hotel.  I like to book the first night if I am arriving in the afternoon or evening just to be sure I have somewhere to sleep, but beyond that, I play it by ear.  Sure, this has backfired and created a headache or two, but I’ve never slept out in the cold and I’ve never had to pay anything unreasonable for a place to sleep.

More times than naught, I’ve landed some incredible deals on hotel rooms by walking up late in the afternoon and simply inquiring about a price.  Yes, you run the risk of not finding someplace, but use your judgment on the time of year and the popularity of the city you are in.

The first time this worked out for me was in Florence, Italy back in 2004.  I was traveling with three Americans I met and our train arrived late in the afternoon.  We walked to a couple of hostels that ended up being completely booked.  This was pretty stressful and we weren’t sure where we were going to find somewhere to sleep.  Before we knew it, day became night and there were no more hostels to check.  On a small budget we weren’t looking forward to finding out how much a hotel room would cost.

By 8pm we entered a small two-star hotel to inquire about the price.  Right there on the wall was a sign that said without a bathroom was €50, or €60 with a bathroom.  We asked anyway and didn’t act desperate for a place to stay.  The desk clerk (probably the owner) knew it was late and the chances of them filling any of the open rooms was unlikely.  They offered us two rooms for €25 each.  That worked out to about €12 per person for a very clean and authentic Italian hotel.  Not bad since in Paris & Venice each hostel dorm bed cost €25 each.

I’ve had a few experiences like this over the years, but what I have been noticing lately is that, given the economy, there are even better deals to be had.  Back in February I went to Costa Rica (for the second time in one year) with two friends.  It was the high season and all common sense given the area were in said that booking a room was a wise idea.  We reserved a private room at a hostel in Quepos as it was considerably cheaper than the hostel and hotels in Manuel Antonio (the national park area that everybody travels to the area to visit).  In the guidebook and on their individual websites, all the small hotels on the road between Quepos and Manuel Antonio advertised rates of $99 or higher.  You can imagine our surprise when we were driving down the beautiful road taking in beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean when we noticed signs in front of several of the same hotels we looked at online advertising $25-50 rooms!  Not only could we have saved money, but we would have had beautiful ocean views and seclusion.

Sure, playing everything by ear can be stressful if you’re limited on time or easily stressed, but the upside is pretty nice.

Have you fallen into any great hotel deals?  Talk about it in the comments if you have any experience or tips on the matter!

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Budapest, the Beautiful Danube, and Expensive Hungarian Food

I first considered visiting Budapest after reading Tim Leffel’s blog (Tim is the author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations: 21 Countries Where Your Money is Worth a Fortune).  I didn’t pay much attention to the date it was posted and decided it would be my big fall trip thanks to a college graduation present I was ready to cash in.

The first thing I noticed during my pre-planning (I do much less than you would expect) was that there was an impressive amount of hostels listed on HostelWorld. 83 to be exact, as of this posting.  As a comparison, Paris only has 15 listed.

It turns out that it’s rather simple to set up a hostel in a converted apartment and many people are taking advantage of it and the increase in tourism that Hungary has been experiencing over the past decade or so.  Both hostels I stayed in were pretty small but modern, clean and well run.  You can’t ask for much more than that.

One of the things that I always consider when traveling is how easily I can survive on a limited budget.  Budapest was advertised as the secret budget destination in Eastern Europe and your money could go a long way.  Part of the EU, yet still clinging to their currency, the Hungarian Forint, the dollar was said to go much further than elsewhere in Europe.  In some ways, Budapest lived up to this claim, but in others, it exceeded any expectation one could have for larger, more popular European cities.

Széchenyi Baths

Széchenyi Baths

For instance, the average price of a hostel bed was around $15-20 which is certainly acceptable for Europe and much cheaper than Paris or London.  A day at the enormous and beautiful Széchenyi Baths was only about $10 and a full guided tour of surprisingly tight caves ran around $25.  I wouldn’t expect any of these to be much cheaper and they were all worth the price.

Then came the food.  For some reason, food was incredibly expensive.  I can’t recall spending more on a meal in any country, city, or state… anywhere.  My guidebook recommended a restaurant around the corner from the hostel I was staying at which offered traditional Hungarian meals for around $5-7.  It had been a year since the guidebook was published and the restaurant owner must have gotten wind of his literary mention.  It’s a common occurrence along the typical tourist trails for hostels, hotels, and restaurants to increase their price once they get a nod in a guidebook, but what I experienced was much higher than anyone could expect, and not only for the places that were published.  In Budapest every normal restaurant, regardless of the area it was in, charged at least $20 for a typical meal.  The bargains were actually on the heavily trafficked tourist districts in Pest which all offered set “tourist” menus.  The downside was that they were very small and left much to be desired.  Even a stop in a Subway chain for lunch cost me about $10 for a 6″ turkey sandwich.  The price of food was bewildering, to say the least.

DSCN0494While Hungarian cuisine is definitely highly recommended, there is much more to Budapest than overpriced restaurants luckily.  Budapest is a very beautiful town with beautiful castles across the Danube River and great architecture across the entire city.  A great day can be had by simply walking around the city with no destination taking in the sights.  Heroes Square and City Park give a taste of history and nature that helps you quickly forget about the hustle and bustle of Budapest’s busy city streets.  Don’t forget that Budapest is Hungary’s center of culture and home to both art and history museums like the House of Terror which reminds visitors of atrocious crimes that occurred during Hungary’s Stalinist regime and WWII.

One of the most impressive things about Budapest though was the amount of people who speak great English.  Obviously it’s in response to the tourist boom, but it’s impressive how friendly and willing to chat most Hungarians are especially seeing how this country was completely communist less than 20 years ago and experienced very little tourism.  Things have changed though and tourism has become a huge source of income for many businesses in Budapest.

If you want to explore the rest of Hungary (or go to just about any neighboring country) nearly all the trains in Hungary run right through Budapest.  I managed to head south three hours to Pécs which is one of the larger cities in Hungary, yet very small when compared to Budapest.  You can cross the entire town on foot in about 15 minutes but it’ll take you an entire day stopping at the many sights like modern art museum or the Mosque Church.  The later is quite impressive.  In the 16th-century the Turks built a mosque with the stones of a ruined church.  When the Turks were forced out of Hungary the mosque became a church again but kept the classic dome and still retains several touches of Moorish design.  There are even a few scribbles of Arabic around the church that can be found if you keep your eyes open.

Mosque Church

Mosque Church

For what it’s worth, Pécs also had the best food I experienced in Hungary and at much more reasonable prices.

DSCN0590For more photos from my trip to Hungary, check out the set on Flickr.

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Protecting Your Belongings and Valuables While Traveling

With the subject of hostels last week I started thinking more about protecting your belongings while traveling.  There are very few real dangers around the world that you actually have to be worried about.  People love to exaggerate claims of violence and terrorism around the world (thanks media) but the truth is that your biggest concern is petty theft.  Here are a few ways you can fight back.

Money belt

moneybeltThese have become pretty popular over the last few years.  If you’re going to crowded places where pick pocketing might be a problem, a money belt is a good answer.  They’re made of soft fabric that won’t irritate your skin.  You were it around your waist and under your clothes and it’s nearly impossible to know you’re wearing it.

Here’s a tip though: I once traveled with a girl who wore one every day but she held all of her money in it.  So every time she had to pay for something, she had to open it up in public.  Not a wise idea.  Instead, keep a little bit of cash in a separate pocket so that you don’t have to reach into your money belt every time.  It is supposed to be hidden, right?

Pacsafe

pacsafetravelsafe100Pacsafe has a few great solutions for securing your valuables or luggage in your room while you’re away.  It’s difficult to enjoy your traveling if you can’t leave things back in your room.  While many hostels are offering lockers, some leave you without a way to secure your valuables.  Hostels are, for the most part, very safe, but it doesn’t hurt to make sure your things are secure.  Here’s where Pacsafe comes in.

The Travelsafe 100 is essentially, a portable safe.  It’s a small pouch that is virtually indestructible.  Just put your money, passport, or even small camera inside and lock it to a bedpost or other secure place.

pacsafe55The other popular product by Pacsafe is Pacsafe55.  A small bag contains an expandable eXomesh cover that will wrap around your backpack and make it nearly impossible to get anything in or out of it.  Same as before, you lock it up to a bed post and it’s not going anywhere.  I don’t believe your clothes are in very much danger in a hostel, but this is a good option for people traveling with cameras or other expensive equipment that has its own bag.  These come in various sizes for different types and styles of backpacks.

If you have any other tips or recommendations on protecting your valuables while traveling please feel free to share them in the comments below.

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article photo by squacco

All You Need to Know About Hostels

“You stay in hostels?” people often ask when I talk to them about the way I travel.  “Aren’t you afraid of getting robbed or murdered?”

Thanks a lot Eli Roth for scaring the bejeezus out of inexperienced travelers and causing them to think they’re going to get murdered if they stay in a hostel.  I personally haven’t bothered watching his films Hostel and Hostel II, but I can assure you that there are very few similarities.  In fact, if you want to consider your personal safety, aren’t you safer in the small confines of a hostel with other travelers in the same room or nearby than you would be in a hotel?  Just saying.

The truth is that hostels actually provide a great option for budget travelers and with their affordable prices, allow many people to see the world they otherwise couldn’t afford.

What is a hostel?

OK, let’s start from the beginning in case you aren’t very familiar with hostels. A hostel is typically much smaller than a hotel and has fewer rooms.  The majority of rooms are dorm-style accommodations and have multiple (usually bunk) beds.  These rooms can house anywhere from 6 to 12 people usually and may or may not have an attached bathroom.

Doesn’t sound all that glamorous, and it’s not, but they’re cheap.  Depending on where the hostel is located, they can cost between $5-$25 on average.  Obviously, big European cities are going to be more expensive than smaller towns in South America, but no matter where you are, hostels are going to be considerably cheaper than a hotel room.

Need more privacy?

Nobody wants to share a room with strangers, but some people may flat out refuse to do so.  If that’s the case, many hostels also offer private rooms.  These typically have a couple of beds and can be a good option if you are traveling with a friend or small group.  The prices are higher obviously, but usually still cheaper than a hotel room.  It is worth your while to check around though because sometimes you might find a better deal on a hotel room.  I’ve seen some overly priced private rooms before and it doesn’t always  make sense.

What else does a hostel offer?

Not all hostels are the same but the trend over the past couple of years is for hostels to offer more and more amenities for their guests.  Many hostels provide maps and information on the area and some even arrange their own tours.  Sometimes these are complimentary or cheap, but often they will help book tours with local tour companies.  You should be aware that the hostel usually gets a commission for setting you up with a tour company, but most hostels have already done the work to figure out which companies are trustworthy and a good deal.  With the word-of-mouth nature of hostel guests, it’s in their best interest to be honest and helpful as word will get around quickly if they are not.

Most hostels also provide a kitchen where you can store and cook your own food.  While I always recommend enjoying the local cuisine and dining out, many travelers choose to cook in order to keep their costs down.  Some hostels also include continental style breakfast and a few I’ve seen sell their own food and drinks.  In fact, the second-best restaurant I found in Costa Rica was conveniently in the Arenal Backpackers Hostel in La Fortuna.

Another thing that is becoming popular in hostels is free computer use and/or free WiFi.  For travelers with their own computer or wireless-enabled phone this can be a godsend for sending emails or planning many aspects of their trip.

A great form of social interaction

Just like a hotel, you probably want to spend most of your time away from the hostel enjoying wherever you may be traveling, but for lazy days or early nights, hostels can be a great way to socialize.  Whether you are by yourself or with friends, you’ll quickly meet people in a hostel.

Many hostels provide a common room or area with a TV, music, a pool, or just a place to sit and eat and this is usually where most people congregate.  Sooner or later you’ll be enjoying a drink with a handful of people speaking several different languages.  This is one of my favorite things about staying at hostels and I have made some good friends like this.

What you should bring

Nearly all hostels now provide bedding but I’m sure there are still a few out there that don’t, or still charge a small fee for it.  Some people travel with a sleeping bag or bed sheet but this is very rare these days.  You will want to bring your own toiletries as things like soap and shampoo aren’t provided.  Also, my favorite thing to bring is a pair of ear plugs.  Inevitably you’ll have at least one night with somebody who snores so these can really save your night.

The safety of your belongings should also be a concern and while I have been less than smart about keeping my things secure in the past without any negative results, you shouldn’t try your luck.  Many hostels provide lockers but you’ll probably need your own lock.  It’s safe enough to leave your clothes and stuff lying out on your bed, but keep your passport, money, and any valuables like a camera with you just to be safe.  While theft in hostels isn’t prevalent, it does happen.

Another thing you should bring is a towel.  I recommend a thin, quick drying towel made for traveling or camping.  These take up very little space in your backpack and dry fast so they don’t start to stink when packed.  Many hostels do provide towels but not all of them.  Some do, but charge a dollar or two.  Having your own certainly makes life easier.

How to find a hostel

The best website out there for booking and researching hostels is HostelWorld which is why I have a convenient form on the right of this web page to search for them.  There are plenty of reviews for most hostels along with pictures that can help you visualize the place.  It’s easy to reserve a bed or room in a hostel through HostelWorld but I also recommend playing things by ear a little bit.  If you know that your destination isn’t incredibly busy, try only booking for a night or two and then seeing how the rest of your time goes.  Maybe you won’t like the hostel and want to move to a different one.  Perhaps you’ll decide to move on to another city.  Not booking too many nights in advance will allow you a bit of freedom.  Just make sure you discuss the situation about extending your stay when you arrive because many hostels fill up quickly during peak times.  Having at least one night booked to begin with will certainly make things easier when you arrive though so it’s nice to have something arranged ahead of time.

If you are yet to experience a hostel I hope this shed some light on them for you.  I highly recommend them not only for the cost savings, but the experience as well.  If you have any comments or questions about sleeping at hostels feel free to post them in the comments section.

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How the Economy is Changing Our Travel

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Two weeks ago I asked you readers how the economy was affecting your travel plans or travel habits.

I think that there are several obvious things that are changing.  Several people commented and told me on twitter that they are traveling less due to being laid off.  That’s unfortunate news and I’m very sorry to hear about anybody losing their job.

But what wasn’t as obvious, and exactly what I hoped to hear when I posed that question, was how people are changing their travel habits so they could continue traveling despite lower pay, no job at all, or just worry about the economy in general.

Despite these challenges posed by various financial concerns, people are still traveling.  Affordable vacations like road trips, camping and other outdoor activities appear to be gaining in popularity.

Some popular domestic vacation destinations like Las Vegas have been hurting, but some travelers are finding great deals for both airfare and hotels.

On my last vacation I talked to a lot of travelers of all ages and nationalities.  Although it is a trend I have been noticing for a few years, many hostels are becoming increasingly popular with older and/or more financially stable visitors than the typical crowd one would expect at youth hostels.  Note: you won’t find the word “youth” in many hostel’s names anymore :)

And then there is the final type of traveler who is not affected too much by the current economic situation.  Several people mentioned on twitter that they’re not too worried since they already travel cheaply.  Combine that airfares that continue to get lower and lower, and these travelers are benefiting the most from the current economy.

If you have any questions or comments on traveling in this economy please share in the comments section below. We’d love to hear any and all opinions and/or tips!

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Has Hawaii Become a Budget Traveler’s Dream?

Highway 30 - North/North West Maui

Highway 30 - North/North West Maui

I’ve been traveling as much as possible for nearly a decade and to be completely honest, Hawaii was never really on my mind as a place to visit.

I pictured big high-rise hotels and resorts, families, and overweight German tourists wearing speedos.  And let’s not even bring up how expensive it all must have been.

I can admit that my ignorance clouded my judgment, but one thing I’m sure I had right was about how expensive Hawaii was.   Then this little thing called an economic crisis came in to play.  A year ago I briefly flirted with the idea and a round trip ticket from Los Angeles was $700.  Today it is $235 round trip to Honolulu, or about $330 to Maui.

So we have our first requirement for a good budget destination; cheap airfare.

Next, we’ll need someplace to stay.  The $200+ hotels on the beach in Lahaina probably won’t be feasible.  Don’t worry too much though because Maui has three hostels that I was able to track down online.

There is Patey’s Place in Lahaina which had pretty poor reviews so I chose not to stay there.  In Wailuku there is the Northshore Hostel and Banana Bungalows.  Based off of Hostelworld’s reviews, I opted for Northshore but Banana Bungalows looked decent enough from the outside when I walked past.  I had just read too many horror stories online about them which is why I continued to skip it.  All three places cost about $25 per night which isn’t cheap, but affordable enough given that we are in Hawaii after all.

Wailuku is a sleepy little town with little to offer travelers other than good central point for exploring the island.  It’s easy to get to from the airport and both the Hana Highway (37) and the amazing scenic route 30 are easily accessible.

In fact, my favorite thing to do in Maui was to simply drive those roads.  Everybody has heard about the road to Hana, and it definitely lives up to the hype, but Highway 30 is an amazing drive along the north coast along a winding 1.5 lane road.

Both highways are literally littered with hikes.  So many that you will have a difficult time deciding which ones to do and which ones to skip.  You’ll want to consult your guidebook the night before so you don’t waste precious time that you could be using to be exploring this wonderful island.

Don’t forget the beaches.  Kihei and Lahaina have great beaches for snorkeling or just relaxing and catching some rays.  Both places have plenty of places to rent snorkel gear or surfboard and you’d be surprised how cheap it can be.  A complete snorkel package should run you less than $10 for a 24 hour rental.

So we have our second and third important items for a budget destination;  free or cheap things to do and beautiful nature.

Maui really surprised me by being so easily accessible for budget travel.  You’ll spend your time exploring rather than paying money for tours or other types of entertainment.  I heard horror stories about food and everything else being extremely overpriced but other than one overpriced breakfast wrap I had, everything was priced the same, or cheaper than back home in California.

I know what you are thinking: “there has to be a catch!” Right?

I suppose the only downside to visiting Hawaii is that you really need to have your own car.  I rented a car through Thrifty which cost $179 for 5 days.  I used DiscountHawaiiCarRental which saved me about 10% over using a larger travel search engine.  Add in about $50 in gas and you have a pretty major expense.  This is where it helps to have a friend traveling with you so you can split it.

Not counting food, I spent less than $30 on entertaining myself.  It cost $10 to drive into Haleakala National Park, $6 to enter the Waihe’e Valley Trail and $4 for snorkel gear.  One night I spent another $9.50 on going to see a movie.  Not bad for five full days of never being bored.

I try to keep a fair balance between staying frugal and enjoying myself but I never attempted to be cheap on this trip.  It just ended up that everything that I wanted to do was basically free.

I should thank my amazing guidebook, Maui Revealed.
I typically swear by Lonely Planet, but I picked up this book at the store and then read the reviews on Amazon.  It is packed full of information that other books don’t have and every time I visited one of the more secret places in it, I was either alone, or with only a couple of other readers of the book.  You can’t visit Maui without it.

There we have it.  I deem Hawaii, and Maui in particular, a great budget traveler’s destination.  Thanks to this economy for providing cheap airfare, you can now visit for less than half of what it would have cost last year.  Assuming you like the sun and outdoors, you’ll have a great time exploring the island.

If you would like to see more photos from Jeff’s trip to Maui please check out the photoset on Flickr.

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