Want to know how to travel in style, just like the pros? We check in with frequent fliers to find out how often they fly, their favorite destinations and what they never leave home without.
Name: Branden Fugate and Lauren Gay. Together we make Rotten Journal.
Occupation: Travel + booze writers, photographers, videographers, and content creators
Hometown: Dayton, OH
Residence: Full-time travelers since 2016, but we recently returned to Ohio to set up a home base.
College: Branden—Wittenberg University; Lauren—The Ohio State University.
College major: Lauren—Marketing and Musicology; Branden—English.
Facebook: Rotten Journal
YouTube: Rotten Journal
Short bio: We travel the world looking for something good to drink, giving special preference to booze and drinking traditions that have a strong sense of place. Extra special preference given if you can’t find them anywhere else! As we like to call it, an endless vacation in search of fermentation.
How often do you fly? We definitely road trip more than fly, but we are in the air about once every six weeks.
How many countries have you been to? About 20.
How many continents have you been to? 3
Earliest travel memory: Lauren—Growing up with parents that worked for the airlines meant that I was flying at two-months old! My earliest memory was being in 2nd grade, my parents pulling me out of school early on a Friday afternoon to take a quick weekend trip to Florida. We also flew to Washington, DC, for the day. We took an early morning flight (with no luggage), spent the day visiting the monuments, and caught a return flight back home in the evening. The ability to fly standby enabled us to travel frequently, giving me a lot of confidence in my travel abilities from a young age.
Branden—I think my earliest travel memory was also Florida. Lol. My mom had gotten suckered into a timeshare when I was maybe eight or nine, so we hopped on my first flight and spent a week in Orlando. Didn’t leave the resort once.
Favorite American city: Overall, we have to give our #1 spot to New Orleans. You can feel its history. There aren’t many US cities where you can have a drink at a bar that is older than America itself. We are booze nerds and the American cocktail would simply not exist in its current form without the ample contributions of NOLA. Special shoutout to Tucson, AZ, though. A criminally underrated American city with an outstanding food and bar scene. Grab a Sonoran hot dog (or three) and then end your night at the Meet Rack (if you dare).
Favorite international city: Mexico City. Hands down. We keep going back, staying longer every time, but we never tire of it. It just makes us love it even more. The food scene, the booze scene, the art scene—it’s all world-class. The city itself is at once hyper-modern but also ancient and great pains are taken to preserve that history and culture. For instance, you can tour Olmec and Aztec ruins in the middle of the town square, or even in the subway!
Least favorite country: This is a complicated question, and we’re not going to answer it directly. Instead, we will say that we think it is unfair to write a place off as being not worthwhile or unequivocally less good than other places based on your one experience there. For most travelers, our perception of a place is based on a four-to-10-day excursion. You can’t truly experience all that a location has to offer in such a short period of time. On top of that, so many additional factors can contribute to how good of a time you have in a place: who you travel with, where you stay, how much sleep you get, the time of year, the weather, your physical health at the time, etc. The same person can visit the same place multiple times and have completely different experiences every single time. We feel that just because you have a bad time in a place doesn’t mean that it is a bad place to visit. Yes, we have traveled to locations that we liked less than others. We don’t want to advertise them as a ‘bad place to visit’ or even ‘our least favorite country’ based on our singular experience.
I have no desire to go to: Azkaban.
Friendliest people in the world: Mexicans. Always willing to lend a hand, give directions, have a chat, and expect nothing in return. Our last trip through we spent a month and became quite attached to the fresh juice salesman on our corner. After around day three he stopped accepting our tips! Said we had paid him enough already. Also, when Branden came down with a cold he gave me a special cold/flu blend to take to him. No idea what was in it (other than magic).
Country with the meanest immigration officers: The U.S.
Favorite World Heritage Site: Lamu Old Town off the coast of Kenya/Somalia is magical. It was built in the 1300s and is the oldest preserved Swahili settlement in Africa. The old stone streets are too narrow for cars; there are none on the entire island. Instead, donkeys are used for all transportation. It is a very conservative, traditional Muslim community. It is not uncommon for women to be completely covered in burqa, niqab and even gloves. This is no small feat considering Lamu was also the most humid place I’ve ever been. For things to do: visit the beautiful mosques, wander the streets and look at the intricately carved Swahili doors, visit the Lamu fort, take a dhow boat ride, and eat as much delicious Swahili food as you can! It is a breathtakingly beautiful place that is truly stuck in time.
Favorite airline: For domestic travel, we tend to go with Delta. We have a Delta SkyMiles card that we easily rack up miles on and haven’t paid for a ticket in quite some time. In our experience, they are consistently on time, the service is great and the amenities are pretty good. Now, if you happen to be taking, say, a 12-hour international flight and you have to do it in coach, we would prefer to do it on Emirates. We have yet to enjoy their first class offerings (hey Emirates…sponsor us!), but their coach experience was actually quite comfortable, the food/beverage offerings were good, and it was overall as enjoyable as a long flight can be.
Favorite aircraft type: The bigger the better.
Aisle or window: We both fight over the window. The views from an airplane window make holding it worthwhile.
Favorite U.S. airport: Not LAX. Especially not LAX when you have to make a connection on a different airline.
Favorite international airport: Brussels, and here is why: When I was younger and less responsible, I missed an alarm on a travel day from Belgium back home to the U.S. Waking up (not packed and hungover) about two hours before departure time did not instill much confidence in my ability to catch that flight. A fast taxi driver (staying at the Metropole less than 20 mins from the airport was helpful) and the world’s most understanding airport staff made it possible. I arrived at the airport and the security line was the longer than I could have imagined. I explained the situation to an airport employee, who got me to the front of security, had the airline hold the door for us, and even shuttled us directly to the gate. I made that flight and I will never forget the kindness that was (admittedly undeservedly) shown to me.
Favorite hotel: The Cape in Cabo San Lucas. We stayed there for a few days while shooting a video for the hotel and we absolutely fell in love with the property. The amenities are gorgeous. Such care was put into all of the design elements. It is one of the few properties in the city that gives you an A+ view of the Cabo arches. The beach is pristine and always full of surfers. The food and drinks were top notch. Most important to us (having worked in hospitality for so long) is service, and the staff at the Cape was next level. They are one step ahead in expecting every need of their guests. All staff member were helpful, welcoming and genuinely friendly. We shot many elements of the hotel, but the Surfer Villa was the most fun. If you want to spend a cool $4k/night on a hotel stay, it should be one with a private beachfront infinity pool, amirite?
Favorite travel credit card: Chase Sapphire. So. Many. Perks. A good sign-up bonus, 2X points for dining/travel, points for additional authorized users, no foreign transaction fees, and the list goes on. We like the flexibility of being able to use points on a variety of airlines and hotels. There are a lot of other great travel cards out there, but why the Chase Sapphire takes the lead for us is the ability to use points in a wider variety of ways. Since we have been doing a lot of road tripping lately, we had more points than we really needed. We wanted to purchase another drone and were able to use our Chase points on Amazon to make the purchase. Awesome.
Favorite island: Hispaniola. My trip to the Dominican Republic was the first time I left the U.S. It was on this trip that I realized how much travel meant to me. I had taken one year of Spanish in high school, and was able to put it into practice. I was 15 and able to navigate myself and have conversations in a foreign language in a foreign country. The whole experience was very invigorating; it built a lot of confidence in myself, my abilities, my independence, and ignited a desire within me to continue to travel as much as possible. Oh, did I mention that it is absolutely beautiful?
Favorite beach: Venice (Los Angeles). I know I know. There are much much more exotic beaches, where the water is cleaner (much cleaner) and you don’t need a hazmat suit to sit in the sand. We’ve been to those beaches and we love ‘em. How long can you just listen to the waves crash though, really? Venice is gritty, we won’t deny it, but that’s what we love about it. Where else can you see world-class bodybuilders, drunk fire breathers, amazing 15-year-old graffiti artists, unbelievably amazing nine-year-old skateboarders, get a medical marijuana card from a guy in a bolo tie, and eat the best Peruvian chicken outside of Lima (and wash it down with a funnel cake)? Exactly.
Favorite National Park: Petrified Forest. This was the first place Lauren and I camped together. It’s otherworldly, especially after the sun goes down. Psychedelic colors that will make you think you are dreaming. PSA: DO NOT take a piece of wood as souvenir. Tons of petrified wood leave the park every year because of this. Take a picture instead. Don’t ruin it for everyone else.
Favorite fancy restaurant: Quintonil in Mexico City. Do the tasting menu. Do the wine pairings. Expect to stay for four hours and to not eat again for the next 24.
Favorite hole-in-the-wall: Any Waffle House.
Favorite airport restaurant: Cole’s at LAX.
Favorite bar: This, as you can imagine, is not an easy question for us to answer so we’re going to break the rules and give ya our top three: First up, Latitude 29 in New Orleans. The owner, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, has dedicated his life to preserving and reviving tiki culture, going so far as to track down old busboys from original Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s locations in an effort to piece together original recipes from these famously secretive tiki visionaries. The results are truly spellbinding. During our first brief trip through NOLA, it’s the only bar we visited twice.
Second, the Kibitz Room in Los Angeles. This place is connected to the legendary Canter’s Deli and it’s one of the few places in LA that’s open late. It’s small, dark, unfussy, and one of the last places in that part of town to get a cheap drink. Sometimes they have live music, which usually involves a fair amount of bar patrons swapping in for various musicians in the band as the night progresses. If you’re on speaking terms with the bartenders, they may even ask you to join them for the occasional shot of Irish, usually taken in the bathroom so as to avoid the security cameras.
Third, the Meet Rack in Tucson, AZ. This is, without question, the strangest bar we’ve ever been to. This may actually be the strangest place of any kind we’ve ever been to. Located amongst the still-gleaming neon signs of mostly out-of-service hotels, and owned by a man who calls himself, unironically, “God,” the interior of the Meet Rack is covered—floor to ceiling—in off-color memorabilia. If you’re lucky enough to strike up a conversation with God, he may actually give you a tour of the place, which includes a sex dungeon located in a side room. Oh, also, food and drink discounts for anyone willing to get his face branded somewhere on their body. Thousands have taken him up on this. We’ve seen the polaroids.
Favorite fruit: Mamey: A red tropical fruit that tastes like a pumpkin crossed with a persimmon.
Favorite food: Branden—Tacos, of any kind. Bastardized Midwestern abominations (the kind I grew up with), cheese-covered Tex-Mex, L.A. food truck al pastor, and (my current favorite) suadero with onions, cilantro and a little salsa roja from literally any sidewalk stall in Mexico. I will have one or two on my walk to dinner.
Lauren—The cheeseburger is the most perfect culinary creation. It has all elements in balance: juicy, meaty patty, crunchy lettuce, melty cheese, nice acidic lift from the pickles. Just don’t ruin it by putting it on a brioche bun.
Least favorite food: Branden—With very few exceptions, anything with detectable amounts of sesame oil.
Lauren—I feel that I usually understand the difference between food that is inherently bad and food that I just personally don’t like. Cottage cheese is inherently bad.
Drink of choice (in the air and on the ground): Lauren—How I see myself: Italian wine snob. How I really am: cheap cava-obsessed plebeian.
Branden—In the air, whatever is free. On the ground, hmmm, a good negroni is hard to beat.
Favorite travel movie(s): To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. If you haven’t had the pleasure, it features Patrick Swayze, John Leguizamo and Wesley Snipes in surprisingly convincing drag. An epic road trip gone awry. A heartwarming story about, among other things, small towns. Everyone’s a stranger until you say hello.
Favorite travel show(s): Anything Anthony Bourdain (RIP).
Favorite travel podcast(s): “Dirtbag Diaries.”
Favorite travel book(s): “Lord of the Rings.”
Right now I am reading: Branden—I just had surgery so I am recovering in bed and finally making my way through the Harry Potter series. I know. I know. Better late than never.
Lauren—I’m really bad about finishing one book before starting another. Right now I am currently reading “Native Son” by Richard Wright, “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk” by Dave Sedaris, and “Tasting Beer” by Randy Mosher.
Top 3 favorite travel newsletters/magazines/blogs: Lonely Planet: Duh, it’s an institution. ROVA: The best and most beautiful print magazine about road travel (ok, we are biased since we are contributors). A subscription is definitely worth it. How Not to Travel Like a Basic Bitch: How to travel with a conscience. How to travel respectfully. This girl puts out so much content and creates a platform for so many different voices to be heard. We are constantly learning something new from her.
Favorite travel website(s)—besides JohnnyJet.com, of course! Tastemade Travel. We have done a lot of work for them, and are honored to be a part of a group of people that makes beautiful content, promotes travel, and brings awareness and exposure to interesting destinations!
5 things you bring on a plane: Earplugs, sleeping mask, earbuds, headphone splitter, laptops with downloaded movies.
What do you always seem to forget? Sleeping pills.
What do you like least about travel? TSA.
What do you want your loved one to buy you from an airport Duty Free store? As long as it’s not flavored or vodka or flavored vodka, we’re good. We’ve got nothing against vodka, it’s just a lame gift, like giving someone a loaf of sliced white bread.
Favorite travel app(s): Converse! We have had lengthy conversations in foreign countries using this app. It’s saved our butts a few times, especially when trying to explain appearance releases.
Most embarrassing travel moment: Vomiting pink strawberry yogurt out of the rear window of a matatu in Kenya.
I’m embarrassed I haven’t been to: Lauren—Japan. Branden—The dentist in a very long time.
Worst travel moment: Branden—Getting separated and then having my phone pickpocketed during the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City (my own fault, I let my guard down in the most tightly packed crowd I’ve ever experienced). We spent the next several hours trying to locate each other, sans communication device, forcing us to forgo the client shoot that had brought us to the parade in the first place. All in all, it certainly could have been worse.
What’s your dream destination? It’s about to get real cheesy here, but anywhere that we can travel together is a dream destination. It is hard to find somebody to love. It is even harder to find somebody that you can work with. And it is the most difficult to find a compatible travel partner. The fact that we do all three well is something special. Traveling the world together is a dream in itself.
Favorite travel charity: Rotten Journal Travel Fund, established today. In all seriousness, we’re embarrassed to say we didn’t know this was a thing. Non-travel charities/orgs we support: Greenpeace, Planned Parenthood, ACLU.
Best travel tip: Travel feels like a luxury to most people, like it has to be a destination thousands of miles away costing thousands of dollars to visit. It doesn’t have to be if you know how to play the points and miles game. It is one reason we have been able to do some of our travel. Follow sites like Johnny Jet and organize your credit cards/finances in a way that allows you to earn travel rewards. It really does work.
Additionally, we feel that the best part about traveling is that you gain a set of very particular skills that allows you to view the world in a unique way. Traveling, gaining all of these skills, returning to your hometown, and viewing your home with a fresh set of eyes is very important. These experiences help you to appreciate elements of your hometown that somebody that has never really left can’t appreciate in the same way. Having recently come back to Ohio, we are realizing that travel is a state of mind. It dictates how you exist in any city. You can approach anywhere, even your hometown, through the eyes of a traveler. There is so much we become accustomed to and so much we take for granted when we see it all the time. Research your hometown (or a nearby city) like you would an exotic destination and you will be surprised as to how many new, historic, important, or interesting things you can find. We are starting to do that here in Dayton and are falling in love with this city in an entirely new way.