CategoriesTravelAccommodationsTastes

Visiting Seattle with a Kid

Back in September, I took my first trip to Seattle with a kid. Well, not just any random kid – my own, of course.

I’d last been to Seattle in around 2005-ish with my now-wife. We walked all over the place, found all the tasty food and searched for good beer. As walkable as Seattle is, it would still present some different challenges with a 4-year-old along for the ride (and walk!).

If you’re thinking about visiting Seattle with a kid or three, let me share a few recommendations.

travel to seattle
Getting there is part of the fun for us.

Where to Stay

Hotel prices in Seattle are kind of obnoxious. We also try hard to avoid huge hotel chains. We wanted to be somewhat near the Space Needle since many cool things radiate out from that area.

My wife found a reasonably-price-for-Seattle place called Hotel 5, which is almost as cool as one of my other favorite hotels. It couldn’t have been friendlier or more comfortable. The lobby had all sorts of games, ranging from chess to (free) old-school arcade games. They also have a decent free breakfast — nothing fancy, just oatmeal, hardboiled eggs, pastries and the like. They also have a small cafe there that sells various fancier breakfast items, coffee and bar food (later in the day).

It’s a good location that’s pretty close to public transit stops and the Pike Place Market. I can’t say enough about the comfortable rooms and the overall friendliness of the staff. It’s a perfect place to stay in Seattle with a kid.

How to Have Fun in Seattle with a Kid

I realize your mileage will vary on this point. But my 4-year-old is a seafood fiend. She even helps me cook it at home by sprinkling the seasoning. When she walks into Nelson’s Seafood at home, the people there know her by sight and say “are you here to see the fish with eyes?” (She’s partial to whole fish.)

So you can imagine her delight at the seafood markets at Pike Place Market. At one point, she was looking at a pretty gross-looking fish on ice, and then it moved! Turns out the pranksters there planted a fake fish and have it rigged up so they can make it move whenever someone comes in for a closer look.

seattle with a kid
One of the any awesome playgrounds in Seattle.

But there’s plenty of other cool kid stuff aside from looking at fish. There are some epic playgrounds — some that compare favorably with even those in New Zealand — scattered all across the city. The playground at Seattle Center is a grand scale of challenges that will keep kids of all ages occupied. Mine also made several friends during her visits. There’s also the Cascade Playground, which is a lot smaller. But it will definitely keep a preschooler happy, especially since it’s a hotspot for dog walkers.

We had mixed results at the Pop Culture Museum. My little person loved the interactive area where she could play guitars, keyboards and electronic drums. She was also completely nuts over the sci-fi movie exhibit, where she was able to name every cool display from Star Wars. And the other costumes and displays also blew her away. She wasn’t so into looking at old guitars.

seattle with a kid
I’ve had so much trouble finding the right drummer that I’m trying to grow one at home.

The Seattle Aquarium was a hit that kept the little person occupied for several hours. From jellyfish to seahorses to octopi to sea otters, she enjoyed herself. My advice would be to get there early like we did. It gets crowded, so having 30 minutes or so where it’s nearly empty makes it a better experience.

We also took a little side jaunt on the ferry out to Bainbridge Island, which I found to be a very posh Sedona-on-the-water sort of place. We put in plenty of miles walking, which included foraging around for wild blackberries. It looked like we missed most of the prime season, so I was left rooting around for what the birds lefts behind. But it was still fun.

Where to Eat

I’m going to be honest here: If Seattle food is as good as Portland food, we weren’t able to find it quite as easily. That said, we had some wonderful meals there.

La Teranga, another find of my wife’s, served Senegalese food. It was my first time having it. Literally everything I tasted blew me away. There are three tables in the place, but it’s worth the wait. We had Thibou Djeun (a fish dish) and lamb mafe, along with a drink made out of baobab tree fruit called bouye juice. It was much thicker than a juice, and also one of the more unique flavors I’ve experienced. I’m not even sure what comparison to draw.

food in seattle
Delicious Senegalese food!

We all also loved the Skal Beer Hall in the Ballard neighborhood. We’re all big fans of charcuterie, and the little person particularly loves havarti. Everyone went away happy. There’s also the cool atmosphere as a bonus.

Oh, yeah. The little person also enjoys donuts. I made it a point to find her a few local donuts to try. We, of course, tried the local Hot Pot chain. Their plain glazed scored highly with the little person. But Tempesta, a tiny coffeehouse, makes a far better donut. Their coffee is also tasty, but the skew more toward fun coffee creations with a bit of sweetness.

A Little Bit of Fun for the Parents

Two of the things we always like about cities in the Pacific Northwest are beer and coffee.

Let’s start with coffee. This is clearly the city that built Starbucks, but you’re missing out if you don’t hit the local places. I could write a whole post just about coffee and beer, so I’m going to name some top spots for you to put on your list. To give you an idea of what it takes to get on the list, here’s my test: I order a real espresso drink, usually a cortado or a cappuccino. No whipped creme, no sprinkles, no pumpkin spice.

seattle with a kid
Having a donut with Lufthansa Lu.

That said, I recommend you check out Ghost Note, Monorail Espresso and Street Bean. Each has something that’s a standout about it. Ghost Note has a relaxing atmosphere and a barista who takes coffee very seriously while also being friendly about it. Monorail is tiny enough to walk past, but they use the space they have to also be very friendly while making serious espresso drinks. Street Bean stands out to me for its mission to help “street involved” young people in Seattle. All of these will serve a top-quality espresso. I also like Ghost Alley, even though I opted for a seasonal cold brew recipe there.

There be Beer Here

Then there’s beer. A quick note on visiting Seattle with a kid – or anywhere in Washington: Apparently, an archaic law on the books results in some places not allowing minors into the premises. Still others install some sort of a weird wooden bar as a barrier, and minors aren’t allowed beyond it. It’s truly strange. But just know where a brewery stands on this before making a long journey out to it before being turned away.

We are primarily about stouts and IPAs (preference to West Coast and hazy styles). We eschew blondes, most lagers, reds and other more mellow stuff. There is really one big winner from all the breweries we tried, and that’s Stoup. They had literally everything right: great beer, a food truck, a friendly atmosphere, and even stuff for the kids to do. We happened to drop in during fresh hop season, so they had a variety of seasonal IPAs that were mind-boggling. Their selection rotates often, so you won’t often see the same beer. I advise getting a flight.

We agreed that Stoup was our favorite beer place in Seattle.

I also enjoyed Flying Lion quite a bit. I would’ve spent a lot more time there had it not been for a little person completely crashed out asleep at that point. Not many places do cask-conditioned ales, so that was a nice treat. I also loved the old warehouse vibe, and the entire place smelled like cedar. It was so comfortable and easygoing that I wanted to take it home with me. My standout aside from the cask IPA was a blood orange IPA.

Then there’s Optimism, a no-tipping establishment that is sprawling and fun. It has plenty for kids to do, but they could probably take the decibels down a notch. They’re also a Bring Your Own Food sort of place, and they provide utensils. To be honest, Optimism is a bit undistinguished from a beer point of view (their IPAs tasted way too similar to each other), but as a concept, I can’t help loving it.

Point A to Point B

Seattle is awesome at public transit. The bus system, monorail and subway are easy to navigate. It’s a pedestrian-friendly environment. And there are ferries for little desert kids like mine who aren’t used to waterways that are navigable!

seattle with a kid
Taking a ferry to Bainbridge Island

We used Uber for getting to the hotel from the airport and back, and on only one other occasion (the trek for Sengalese food — well worth it).

Seattle with a Kid — Do It

How much did our little person like Seattle? She already wants to go again. We didn’t have to really go too far out of our way to entertain here. She found adventure in every street and on every bus ride. It’s hard to go wrong.

CategoriesTastes

Where to Drink Sahti in Finland

I didn’t go to Finland to drink sahti. But tracking down the traditional Finnish beer made a nice side quest during our visit a few years ago. 

If you’re beer-curious and plan to visit Finland, here are a few reasons you should search for a snort of sahti.

sahti
Brewing a traditional sahti (photo from distantmirror.wordpress.com).

You Like Tracking Down Stuff Even Locals Don’t Know About

During my visit, Finns preferred mugs of whiz-colored lager to earthy-brown brews served in a small silver cup. It’s the stuff a Finn’s mothball-scented grandpa drinks, not the young and hip.

So you won’t find sahti flowing like wine (sorry, but I can resist a “Dumb and Dumber” reference). Be prepared to do some digging and investigating, unless there’s been a sudden hipster resurgence.

I found the Lammin Sahti Oy brand in a kitschy farm setting at Zetor near the city center. And my order surprised the bartender: I explained that trying local/regional food and drink is part of the reason I travel. I guess not many foreigners know about sahti.

You might also find sahti at Bryggeri Helsinki. 

You Like the Smell of a Forest, and Wouldn’t Mind a Taste

My first sip of sahti was like tasting liquid forest — pine, wind, cool air — thanks to its main flavoring ingredients of juniper and rye. The small pour had barely any carbonation.

sahti
Sahti – the taste of the forest in a metal cup.

The bartender served it in a silver vessel that looked like a cross between a ladle and a cup. It’s dark and has a very homebrew look to it. You brewers out there know what I mean!

Oh, it’s also about 8 percent ABV.

Because Fake Sahti Isn’t Even Close

I’ve tasted several sahti-inspired ales in the U.S., including Samuel Adams Norse Legend or Dogfish Head Sah’Tea. They’re barely distinguishable from a brown ale — boring. To be fair, the brewers don’t label them as authentic versions.

And that’s the cool thing about travel: It gives you a chance to taste things you’ll never encounter at home.

Alvar
A glimpse of the beer menu at Alvar in Turku – some fine selections, but no sahti.

You Can Brew Your Own Sahti

Live somewhere with access to juniper? Then you brew your own. This recipe is promising if a bit large; some recipes don’t scale down well, but experimentation is part of the homebrewing fun. And of course, trying the real stuff will give you a better bench mark to judge your brew. 

Also, the story that goes along with the recipe is pretty cool. It’s definitely less scientific and sterile than commercial brewers in the U.S.!

An Extra Hint

I confused a lot of bartenders by asking for "sah-tea." It’s pronounced "sock-tea," like tea brewed in a sock. You can also add a bit of gravel to the "k" syllable. Yes, this seems like a small detail. But it can make the difference in finding this elusive beverage. Some even seemed annoyed by the mispronunciation once they realized what I meant. 

 

CategoriesTastes

Costa Rica Coffee in 2018

costa rica coffee
Some Costa Rica coffee turned into tasty beverages at Cafe del Barista in Arenjuez.

You’ve probably heard that Costa Rica coffee is ridiculously good. That’s true to a certain extent: You can walk into just about any establishment, pour yourself a mug of brewed coffee that’s been sitting around for hours, and still not need to put any cream or sugar into it.

Espresso is another story, and espresso-based drinks are my bag. I judge establishments by their ability to make a cappuccino – and I like the new-fangled style that has latte-style microfoam and arrives in your hand at drinking temperature. This sort of thing is pretty rare in Costa Rica. Most of the caps I had were too hot, which made them bitter. Many of the baristas nailed the foam pretty well.

Anyway, let’s take a stroll through the places where I drank some coffee and espresso. (Note: I usually only drink coffee four days a week. But I seriously indulged myself for all 10 days of my trip.)

Cafe Milagro in Manuel Antonio

Cafe Milagro in Manuel Antonio and Quepos is well-known. It’s not just a coffeehouse, but a full-service restaurant that keeps going well past dark. It’s a great place to grab a fish sandwich.

costa rica coffee
A cappuccino at Cafe Milagro

They also serve a tasty brewed coffee, probably my favorite of the type that I drank in Costa Rica. Their cappuccinos are so-so.

The short craft beer – or cervezas artisenal – list, is a nice feature for visits later in the day. Not extensive, but still a good start.

Downtown Coffee Roasters, San Jose

Downtown Coffee Roasters is in a pedestrians-only section of San Jose. And it is by far the best place to get espresso. Their cappuccino is absolutely perfect – right temperature, foam and taste. They also do a fine nitro cold brew -- I actually drank both on the same day, and you can imagine the result of that much caffeine. But I regret nothing. Would do again, 12/10.

I know this is a shorter write-up than some of the others. But Downtown Coffee Roasters was my favorite, and there are only so many ways I can say that. 

Doka Estate, Alajuela

I was a little skeptical of a coffee plantation tour. It sounded like boredom to me. But we wanted something to do that afternoon, so I went along with it. And I was proven wrong.

costa rica coffee
My not-so-inner 12-year-old couldn’t stop laughing at this statue.

It was very cool to see the amount of care and energy that goes into a drink so many of us love. There’s also a good bit of innovation. Ray, our tour guide, was engaging and knowledgeable -- and he let us try some of the tasks. Hands-on activities are always good! I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I’ll say that it’s worth your time, even if you think you know coffee.

Speaking of which, the tour included samples of four different types of brewed coffee. And I plunked down an extra $3 for a shot of espresso. It was a good shot – nice crema, which is always a good indicator. The Doka plantation is too far away to drop in for a casual morning cup, but it was still a nice place to sample some drinks.

Cafe del Barista, San Jose (Aranjuez)

I had some high expectations from the vibe at Cafe fel Barista. I expected them to be as good as Central Coffee Roasters. They were not. They were a cut above Cafe Milagro, though. Be careful if your Spanish is rusty: They serve spiked coffee drinks, too, at all times of day. That’s how the wife wound up with her crazy concoction.

costa rica coffee
The menu at Cafe del Barista

The cappuccino was pretty good, definitely more of a modern style with the latte-style foam. For me, it was a bit too hot and a bubbly. Still one of the better ones I had in Costa Rica, but not a match for Downtown Coffee Roasters.

CategoriesTravel

Can Condor Airlines Help Phoenix Become a "Real City?"

Condor Airlines just might help Phoenix become a real city. Here’s what I mean: Whenever Phoenix and Philadelphia play leapfrog in the city size rankings (which invariably makes our local journalists generate reams of predictable content), I always bring up Sky Harbor International Airport and its lack of intercontinental flights.

My view: I don’t care how many people live here – Phoenix won’t be a "real city" as long as its residents must go to Los Angeles or New York or Houston to fly to locations far abroad.

And finally, at long last, Sky Harbor has made a step in the right direction: In June, Sky Harbor announced that new service to Frankfurt, Germany, would begin in 2018 with twice-a-week flights on Condor Airlines. Condor will use a Boeing 767-300 for the flights, which are scheduled to fly May-September.

Condor Airlines
Autumn in Germany

Condor Airlines Reconnects Arizona to Germany

If you’ve lived here long enough, you might remember that Lufthansa used to connect Phoenix and Frankfurt. But that’s been gone for a long while, with only British Airways connecting Arizona to another continent. That, my friends, is not the stuff of a true "big city."

So the Condor flights are definitely a nice addition, even if it belongs in the "It’s About Time" file. And it’s only twice-weekly service. But it’s an airline rated 3 stars by Skytrax (that’s a star better than most domestic airlines, right?). Condor also has partnerships with Hawaiian Airlines and Alaska Airlines, if that matters to the air miles hogs out there.

Hoping for More Condor Airlines Flights from Phoenix

I’d also like to see that window open up a bit more: To me, October is THE time to be in Germany. You want to talk about an amazing autumn? Then you need to see a place like Schwabisch Hall or Rosengarten in October. And that whole Oktoberfest thing, right? Still, I’ll take any service at all at this point. And I really want to motivate Arizonans to just get on this plane already.

Condor Airlines
A Condor Airlines 767 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Look, Arizona -- traveling abroad is a good thing. You need to get out there and see a bit of the world, and Frankfurt is a terrific gateway to the rest of Europe. From there, you’re close to some really nice parts of Germany and also a fast train ride away from France, Belgium – just about anywhere in Europe!

So book some flights on Condor. Show the airlines that we’re not a bunch of insular homebodies who won’t go anywhere. Help Phoenix become a real city. And then maybe Sky Harbor can score daily service instead of twice weekly. From there, who knows? Maybe Asia?

CategoriesGear

Review: PRO Packing Cubes and Gate Check Pro XL

PRO packing cubes
PRO Packing Cubes getting tested in the real world!

This summer, I started testing a few new travel products – one for a problem I’ve always had, and another for a brand-new problem caused by traveling with a child stroller.

Getting the Most Out of Luggage Space: PRO Packing Cubes

The first problem is pretty obvious and familiar, even if you don’t travel with a little person: I don’t know a single frequent traveler who doesn’t constantly tweak the way they pack. It’s a constant cycle of stuff like giant, vacuum-sealed plastic bags, stuff sacks, dry sacks, you name it. The PRO Packing Cubes are zippered, vented pouches that aim to bring order to the chaos of your travel luggage of choice (in my case, that’s either a Swiss Army carryon or a Kelty Coyote backpack).

They don’t seal air out like the stuff/dry sacks I typically use. So I’m not trying to find exactly the right amount to stuff in them, which is kind of nice. They simply squish as needed as the luggage compresses.

PRO packing cubes
A closer look at the diferent sizes.

So far, I’ve had the PRO Packing Cubes on several domestic trips and one mega-intercontinental journey to New Zealand. While packing for the New Zealand trip, I let my wife get in on the testing fun, and the PRO Packing Cubes quickly became a favorite (I’ll have to make sure she’s not constantly swiping them from me). Throughout testing, there were absolutely no quality issues: The zippers are still perfect, and there are no rips or tears in the fabric. Also on the New Zealand trip, I started off putting the packed PRO Packing Cubes into dry sacks and sealing them. The shapes didn’t quite align with the dry sack being a cylinder rather than a rectangle. So from then on, I just kept the dry sack around just in case we ran into bad weather that would soak my gear. Otherwise, I just put the cubes straight into the backpack. They still fit with ample room left over.

The PRO Packing Cubes concept isn’t exclusive, and I’ve seen similar products elsewhere. But I haven’t tested them – so though they may be the same conceptually, I can’t say that any brand will hold up as well. I’m inclined to pick up another set of PRO Packing Cubes just in case my wife gets any funny ideas.

Gate Check Pro XL
The BOB Ironman is awesome, but some help during flights could make it even better. Could the Gate Check Pro XL help?

Shielding Your Stroller: The Gate Check Pro XL

It took me awhile to put the Gate Check Pro XL through its paces – many of my trips since this summer have been of the business variety -- so no little person to accompany me. The New Zealand trip meant we had to take our super-cool BOB Ironman stroller for its go-anywhere capability. And that also meant a golden opportunity for the Gate Check Pro XL –  with flights from Phoenix to Honolulu to Auckland to Nelson to Auckland and back, there’d be plenty of legs to test.

On previous trips with the BOB Ironman, I’d fold it up and use any combination of cordage – from bungee cables to camping gear ties to even shoelaces – to prevent it from unfolding. I was more than willing to see what the Gate Check Pro XL could do.

Gate Check Pro XL
The BOB all wrapped up in the Gate Check Pro XL and ready for departure.

I was skeptical: Could this big blue bag contain the mighty Ironman and stay sealed? Would I fumble with it while stuffing it into the bag at the gate. Yes, and no. Folding the Ironman and putting it into the Gate Check Pro XL went quickly and easily – and I never had to worry about it unfolding via the rough ministrations of a baggage handler. Oh, and it was so distinct that I could actually see it being loaded onto the plane from the boarding area (nice to know it will show up at the destination!). It also folds up small enough that I could stuff it into the lower cargo area of the BOB Ironman.

I have absolutely no reservations about using the PRO Packing Cubes or the Gate Check Check Pro XL on future trips of any length.

Love Pro Travel Gear provided these items for review. But rest assured that I’m always ready to give an honest review. The products in this test earned praise by actually being good!

CategoriesTravelTastes

Twelve Hours in New York City

12 hours in new york city
A few out our window

New York City has never been high on my list of travel destinations. But I finally got out of the airport for a look around after years of putting it off and just using it for connecting flights.

The family flew into Newark on a cloudy Saturday, landing at about 2 p.m. We managed to cram a lot into the past 36 hours or so. Let me give you a quick rundown of just the first 12, with more to come in future posts.

First, we checked into the Millennium Hilton right near Ground Zero. We were quickly back out the door determined to hit Chinatown; we figured that would be a great place to find a late lunch. Sure enough, we ran across a few Vietnamese places. I was hoping to find either cha ca la vong or bun cha ha noi, two of my favorite items from nearly three weeks in Vietnam. Given how much New Yorkers love to talk about what a great food city they call home, I figured it wouldn’t be a tall order. Not a single one had either dish, but New Xe Lua looked promising. Sure enough, it had a great salmon caramel hot pot, plus a really nice com dish with pork chops, shredded BBQ pork and one of those egg/pork things that look like a slice of quiche. They also did a decent ca fe sua da. Anneka couldn’t decide what she liked best.

12 hours in new york city
Checking out some Vietnamese food

Then, we decided to march toward a few of the well-known local beer spots. Along the way, we discovered that New York City has some fine parks for the little people. Anneka had herself a blast – she hit the slides, did some stair-stepping and made a few new friends (even older kids seem to love her).

From there, we ventured toward the beer. But the Proletariat was too tiny and frankly, it’s selection too underwhelming. We reset our course toward the Blind Tiger (running across Seek & Destroy, mentioned a few paragraphs later). Also not super impressive, and not a good place to hang out with a toddler and an Ironman stroller. We set course to walk back toward our hotel and hope for the best.

12 hours in new york city
Anneka makes a new friend.

I can tell you at this point that New York City is not a craft beer city. Contrast that to my home city, whose shortcomings I love hanging in the wind – in downtown Scottsdale, I can walk from the outstanding Craft 64 to Sip Coffee & Beer House to Goldwater Brewing Co. to Brat Haüs to the Cornish Pasty Co, none of which is more than 5 minutes from the other. At any single one of those, visitors will have no problems finding outstanding regional, national and world craft beer (in the case of Craft 64, all the beers are from Arizona). I hear Brooklyn is somewhat better on this count, but I can’t confirm that yet.

New York City seek & destroy
A terrific vintage shop in New York City

So, we walked back south. As we strolled, we came across a very fun place called Seek & Destroy Vintage Clothing Story. My description, if Seek & Destroy hired me to write their advertising copy, would be "Seek & Destroy Vintage Clothing/Bondage Gear/Halloween/Military Surplus Store." I could spend hours there, and probably drop some decent money. This place would be great around Halloween time.

We continued our march, with Sarah noticing a place called Rice Cream Shoppe. I figured this was probably some sort of vegan/rice ice cream sort of place. But no! It’s a rice pudding shop, which is far better! They had at least 20 varieties of rice pudding and various toppings (including carob chips, which I’m nuts about). It was a great dessert that wasn’t too cold for a chilly night, and made neither of us feel like pigs.

Rice Cream Shoppe New York City
The Rice Cream Shoppe in New York City

From there, we continued to the hotel. I made a quick stop at a nearby Whole Foods hoping to take advantage of its beer selection. I had a quick chat with an employee, explaining that I’m from out of town, and would like suggestions for single bottles from regional breweries. He was friendly and helpful, but Whole Foods had few good choices. His first and most definite selection was Flower Power, a nice IPA from Ithaca Beer Co. I’m enjoying that right now, and I mean "enjoy." It’s a fine beer with an aftertaste of pear. I’d bet there’s Cascade and Simcoe hops in it. He also sent me home with Brooklyn Brewing’s Sorachi Ace. I’ll let you know about that one in a moment.

Five Minutes Later

Meh. Tastes kind of bubblegummy, but not in that Belgian yeast sort of way. Probably a characteristic of the Sorachi Ace hop. Not badly brewed or anything -- no off flavors that would indicate that the brewers don’t know their stuff. Just not a recipe I dig that much. Oh, well.
So, that’s 2 p.m. to midnight, first day in New York City. Not bad!

CategoriesTravel

How Airfares Can Drive You Crazy

Straight answers are pretty rare when it comes to airfares. Just look at my recent search for flights to Auckland Airport. I priced out airfares for two adults and an infant just to get the conversation of our next trip started.

As usual, I started searching for airfares with a pretty broad Google Flights search – any airline, any alliance, pretty much any anything. This gave me a pretty good idea of what was out there. Hawaiian Airlines came out on top.

airfaresNow, I’m one of those guys who likes to maximize his frequent flier mileage haul. So once I find a flight that works, I check to see if it shares an alliance with an airline where I have a good chunk of miles. In this case, Hawaiian Airlines is in a bit of a weird state – it doesn’t seem to be a member of an airline alliance; its website lists American Airlines as a partner, but that status seems iffy, as well: The website says “**Important information on our partnership with American Airlines: The last day to earn HawaiianMiles on eligible American Airlines flights was December 31, 2015. Flights with travel dates after December 31, 2015 will not be eligible to earn HawaiianMiles.**

So, flying Hawaiian won’t let me use any miles that I have, and it won’t earn me anything. That’s a bummer. If Hawaiian was still an American partner, I could’ve presumably booked through AA.com to get on a Hawaiian flight and still earn some AAdvantage miles. I did a flight search, though, and Hawaiian wasn’t an option. And the less said about American’s options, the better – it’s the only airline that isn’t set up to get me to Auckland with one stop. I’d have to fly to Australia first.

This is all a disappointment because flying Hawaiian Airlines would let me skip visiting LAX, which is yet to win me over, humongous redesign or not. Its airfares are also reasonable.

So, what about other options?

airfares

Air New Zealand is also a solid choice and offers decent pricing through its own website. About $3,500 in airfares for a family is pretty good, and Air New Zealand gets solid reviews from customers.

 

airfaresNow, if I try booking on the United Airlines (one of Air New Zealand’s Star Alliance partners) website, the airfare shoots skyward. The price for an infant is $1,819! The price through the United Airlines website is nearly $3,000 than booking through the Air New Zealand site. I just cannot fathom this.

Delta Air Lines also couldn’t get us to Auckland with one stop, so I skipped them, too. Their airfares were also a few hundred dollars per ticket off the mark.

Clearly, booking through the Air New Zealand website is by far the winner here. It makes me really question the benefits of the airline alliances if you have the huge of a price variance even among member airlines for the same flight.

 

CategoriesAdventuresTastesTravel

Four Cheap Things to Do in Jeju, South Korea

Travel guidebooks sometimes call Jeju “the Hawaii of South Korea.” Though it falls short of Hawaii’s scenery, I really liked it. It has everything from a city of nearly half a million people to outdoor recreation. Also, this list of cheap things to do in Jeju will show you how to have fun without spending a lot.

Here are a few of my favorite parts of a visit to Jeju, along with one spot I regret missing. There is plentiful transportation; city buses run often, and taxis offer a reasonably priced option for quick trips around the city.

Seongsan Ilchulbong Cheap things to do in Jeju
At the base of Seongsan Ilchulbong

Cheap Things to Do in Jeju

Hike: Mount Halla (aka Hallasan)

A visit to the island’s highest point will give you a great view of the entire island. I enjoyed views of the many smaller volcanic cinder cones that dot the landscape. Along the way, I passed through forests populated by roe deer. Be sure to get an early start — there’s a 1 p.m. cutoff time to climb all the way to the summit. Hallasan not a technical hike, but the longest trail is 6 miles. There’s a 1,600 won fee to use the trails, which is about $1.50 U.S.

Climb: Seongsan Ilchulbong

This volcanic tuff cone pops up along the seashore and draws flocks of tour buses. The climb to the top is short, steep, and very crowded. But it’s worth the trip. On the way down, I found a second path that leads to the shore. There, you can try fresh raw seafood like abalone and octopus fresh from the water. The admission to climb Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak was 2,000 won, or about $1.70 U.S.

cheap things to do in jeju
Pick your spot for a makeshift tripod and make some photo magic,

Go Underground: Majanggul Lava Tube

A few miles south of the seashore, there’s massive lava tube designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Not all of Manjanggul-gil, Gujwa-eup is open to visitors, and those familiar with caving may be shocked at how developed it is. Still, the sheer size makes it worth mentioning on my list of cheap things to do in Jeju. A few features inside are well lit, and people handy with their camera settings can capture some images worthy of framing. I prefer my caves and lava tubes less developed, but I still enjoy any chance to go underground. The admission fee will fluctuate according to exchange rates, but it was less than $2 during my visit.

Imbibe: Boris Brewery

Travel guides say Modern Times is the best-known brewery at the moment. “Best-known” and “best beer” are two different things. Had I known about Boris Brewery, I would’ve bypassed Modern Times (the beer there is simply awful). The latest venture by brewer Boris de Mesones, Boris Brewery earned a bronze medal at the Australian AIWA international beer competition and a silver medal at the European Beer Star. I like hoppy brews, so I’d suggest trying the two India Pale Ales on tap.

If you’ll be in Jeju anyway, be sure to check out Jeju Loveland. I also have a blog post all about it. Enjoy!

CategoriesTravel

Review: Lufthansa 747-8i

Right now, the Boeing 747-8i is one of the coolest, newest airliners flying. People who are into air travel should put this on their "must fly" list.

This October, I got to fly in a 747-8i to Frankfurt Airport from O’Hare Airport and back. Lufthansa was my airline of choice. And I know that air travel nerds like me will want to know what the 8i is like.

Lufthansa 747-8i
Our 747-8i parks next to another one.

What’s the Deal?

If you like air travel as much as I do, you probably already know what’s so cool about the 747-8i. But for the rest of you might need some background: The 8i is built on concepts learned from the 787 Dreamliner. It’s incredibly fuel efficient thanks to new engines and a wing that sweeps upward steeply, especially after takeoff. It’s also the longest passenger airplane flying.

Inside, it’s all slick modern goodness, from LED lighting to fairly spacious lavatories to huge overhead luggage bins. And on-demand entertainment at every seat, of course.

How Did I Like the 747-8i?

On both flights, I had seat 34A, right up against a bulkhead and behind the wing and engines. So this wasn’t a quiet place to be.

747-8i
A look at the 747-8i cabin.

Our choice of seat was based on getting a bassinet for our 9-month-old daughter. The flight attendants attached it to the wall after takeoff, and the little person got some quality sleep.

The on-demand entertainment worked perfectly and included some cool extra programming, like short documentaries offering looks inside Lufthansa operations, in addition to movies, TV and sports. I would’ve loved some German language lessons.

This was also a very comfortable slimline seat. Usually, my buttcheeks get achy and numb  starting at about 5 hour. I had no problems at all on these 8-and-a-half hour flights.

747-8i
The 747-8i has some comfortable coach seats.

Boeing wisely skipped the Dreamliner-style window dimmers and opted for traditional shades. There are also power plugs at every seat, including a USB port. The USB port did seem to have an oddly loose fit with our cables, though.

What Complaints Do I Have?

No plane is perfect, not even the 747-8i. It didn’t have air nozzles at the seats to cool you off. This could be a problem if one gets left in the sun to bake; this is a trait it shares with the Airbus A330.

There are also some problems with the bassinet and retractable video screens and tray tables. They can interfere with each other, and their appears to be some inconsistency: It wasn’t a problem on the first flight -- a minor bit of Tetris allowed me to move the tray and monitor without moving the bassinet. The second plane. though – the monitor didn’t rotate as far, so I was out of luck.

747-8i
These slots on the bulkhead are where the flight attendants can mount a bassinet. I’ve probably seen these on other planes, but never thought about it before being a dad.

I also have yet to find a plane like the Asiana 777 that has self-serve water fountains. That is so much better than waiting for shot glass-sized water cups from the flight attendants. Why every airline doesn’t do that is beyond me. One thing I noticed in Europe is that people don’t drink water like we do in the U.S., especially in Arizona. So this could be partially a culture thing.

Summing Up the 747-8i

This is a graceful, elegant aircraft in spite of its size. Generally, I think all aircraft are industrial art forms. But the 747-8i is especially pleasing to my eye. It extra-awesome when you see the wings flex upward as the plane lifts off.

747-8i
The small person tests the bulkhead-mounted bassinet – her review was pretty favorable.

Strictly from the passenger experience, though, the Dreamliner still has a modern, starship-like mojo that tops even the 747-8i. And there’s that aforementioned Asiana 777 that I love so much. I probably won’t make a huge effort to get aboard a 747-8i in the future since the Dreamliner and 777 (depending on the individual airline’s configuration and service, to be sure) are out there. And I have yet to fly an A-380, so my next Lufthansa booking will probably be on an A-380 of my schedule allows. And yes, I’d fly Lufthansa to Europe again in a second.

Be sure to check my other review for Lufthansa; it focuses on the airline’s kid-friendly flight attendants and amenities.

CategoriesTastesTravel

48 Hours in Utah

In the mountains near Logan, Utah.

Believe it or not, I did not cause a single person to spontaneously combust during my visit to Utah. I understand why this might be a concern – after all, I am a long-haired, heavy metal, craft beer character. And Utah. Well, take those three things, and spin them 180 degrees.

Still, I enjoyed my visit. Here are a few completely random observations about a two-day stay in Utah, which took us from Salt Lake City to spend two night in Logan before returning to Salt Lake City for the flight home. We were there for Sarah to run her first post-baby marathon, which was the excellent, well-run, super-scenic Top of Utah Marathon.

Driving a Prius Kind of Sucks

This is less about Utah and more a general observation. We both loved the Prius gas mileage. The steering, breaking and acceleration, however, were absolutely porcine. Possibly even bovine. If Subaru dials its hybrid XV Crosstrek in for better gas mileage (and a halfway decent name), it will have people like us volitionally selling our current Subarus and getting into hybrids.

utah
Ogden – a weird little Utah town.

Ogden is a Weird Little Town

I don’t know quite what to make of Ogden. The first person I saw there was a shambling homeless dude who was not firing on all cylinders. The town seems to have a homeless problem, which for us culminated in a dude stinking up the entire first floor of the Grounds For Coffee. This coffee shop, by the way, has some weirdness of its own. One day, the barista cranked out some quality cappuccinos for us (attention, espresso snobs – they only offer one size). Two days later, the barista did a pretty half-assed job -- possibly because she had a crowd of local hipsters clamoring for her attention. I dunno. Personally, I’d poke my nose in and see how big the crowd is. If there are more than two people in line, I’d cross the street to the friendly Pearl Milk Tea Club.

Ogden, though, has some cool old buildings that have been gentrified silly. They are home to trendy, spendy shops. Nothin’ wrong with that. I also have a place called The Barrelhouse that I need to mock: On a chalkboard listing its craft beers, it listed Stella Artois. People, this is Europe’s Budweiser. It is made by the tanker ship load. It is not in any way “craft.” That’s like saying Justin Bieber is kvlt.

How could we NOT pose for this photo?

The Mountains are Cool

The drive to Logan (Utah) is dotted by some moderate-sized mountains. They look brown and dry, which reminds me of The Remarkables, those beautiful, stark, cinematic mountains you may have seen in Lord of the Rings -- or lining the adventure sports capitol of Queenstown, New Zealand.

Logan is Exceedingly Pleasant

On the surface, Logan is a 21st century Mayberry – a walkable city center, little farmer’s markets, awesome old-school brick houses. Ahhhh, Americana. Yet you can find a yoga class (not on weekends, as easily) and a decent coffeehouse in the form of Ibis.

utah
A bike shop got creative with its old tires.

It has trees. It has rivers. It has a beautiful park or three. And even a place where you can acquire freshly harvested bull semen. OK, maybe that’s not so Mayberry -- or is it, Otis?

But Logan Have Three Problems (As Borat Might Say)

Food, blight and a – ahem, how shall I put this? – fermented beverages.

First the food. Here’s the honest truth: For the better part of 24 hours I didn’t want to eat anything. My prime suspect is HuHot Mongolian Grill. I woke the morning after it, and my stomach wanted nothing. Every food commercial on TV and every smell made my stomach feel like it was full of live frogs. I only got better after a handy purchase from the pharmacy, which led me to Jack’s Wood Fired Oven. There, a pepperoni pizza with smoked cheddar cheese led me back toward normalcy. Sarah didn’t exactly give rave reviews to an Indian place she tried, even though Anneka approved enough to attempt snagging a platter of naan from a nearby table (cute babies can get away with nearly anything).

utah
Some hard-partying Logan residents were here. Jones Soda – scandalous! But at least it’s not caffeinated.

So, blight. I mentioned all the awesome, cozy-looking houses earlier. But walk away from the nicer areas, and there are some areas that just look flat-out abandoned. Some businesses seemed more closed permanently than closed for the day. Lots of empty buildings, and more than a few boarded up.

And onto fermented beverages. OK, I get it – this is a very Mormon city in a very Mormon state. But the archaic beer laws got repealed years ago. And if not beer, let’s talk about all that honey that makes everyone around here swell with pride like a tick gourging on a moose’s rump. Turn some of that into mead! If Superstition Meadery in Prescott is proving anything, it’s that people will love mead once they try it. What’s not to love about wine made out of honey? And if the local honey is that awesome, do those hard-working bees some justice!

That wraps up my ramblings of Utah. I’d like to stay a little longer – but some mead or craft beers would make my return far more likely. As-is, I think Colorado is a better bet for a guy like me.

Hey! I have other stories about being in Utah. Check ’em out!

 

CategoriesBlogging/WritingTravel

Book Review: attractive unattractive americans

attractive unattractive americans
If you travel abroad, “attractive unattractive americans” is worth a look.

American travelers trying to pass themselves off as Canadians is an old story. I’ve seen them with Canadian flags sewn onto their backpacks – but I haven’t heard them going so far as to claim to be from Moose Jaw or pepper their speech with an "eh" every few sentences.

That’s because there’s still a perception that the world doesn’t like Americans – that people from other countries think we’re loud, impolite and dumb.

Author René Zografos tries to get a handle on this in his book attractive unattractive americans: how the world sees america.

I should mention a little problem up front: Some people from the Americas might have a problem with the title. As a friend from Brazil likes to say, he’s an American, too. I see his point, so I would’ve called it how the world sees the united states.

attractive unattractive americans
A Canadian, or a faux-Canadian?

Zografos – who has an interesting half-Greek, half-Norwegian background – sets an interesting and nearly impossible task for himself here. He seems like the kind of guy who’s a great conversationalist. You’d want to run into him in a bar or a cafe and hang out with him. He clearly is good at getting people to chat with him, and at preserving the essence of what they say.

People from a long list of countries gave Zografos their thoughts on the United States and its people. Ultimately, I can’t see any clear-cut conclusion. I didn’t really expect him to reach one, though. I just expected to be entertained by the journey.

I also expected a few surprises along the way. Well, the people Zografos interviewed delivered. I was particularly shocked by some of the sweeping generalizations. More than a few people wrote off everything about the United States and rejected the possibility that there’s anything good about it – crude pursuit of wealth, crude language, crude dress (one person painted a picture of the entire United States running around with its pants collectively sagged).

I completely expected the United States to take its lumps in this book. I didn’t expect some of the criticism I saw, but I expected a good bit of it. I really enjoyed how one person skewered how the U.S. is addicted to superlatives – we love everything and think everything is awesome. And yes, we’re definitely way too oblivious to what’s happening in other countries.

There are a few things that caught me off-guard that I just can’t agree with:

  • Scandinavian and Nordic seem to think they’re cold and unfriendly. That’s their perception of themselves. Well, my Scandinavian and Nordic friends, this visitor doesn’t think so at all. From Iceland to Finland, people started conversations with me. They were quick to help with directions. Maybe they’re not as ebullient as Australians -- they’re more chill and relaxed. But they’re still genuinely nice. I have nothing but good to say about Scandinavian and Nordic people.
  • Speaking of friendliness, people from the U.S. have a reputation for friendliness. Some of the people interviewed for attractive unattractive americans accurately perceived that much of it is reflexive but insincere politeness rather than friendliness. I could probably write a book that deconstructs American friendliness for what it really is. That’s not to say we don’t have genuinely friendly people. But they’re the exception.
  • There’s also a perception that the United States is optimistic. I definitely question this. There was a time when each generation was expected to be more prosperous than the previous generation. Those days are over in the United States, and we know it. We lag behind the rest of the world in health care and paid time off (sick leave, vacation time, etc.). More of us work part-time and are mired in student debt. We’re over-caffeinated, overworked, overfed and over-tired. So, what reason do we really have to be optimistic?

Overall, I had fun reading attractive unattractive americans. I think future editions could use some improvement, though. One of my big quibbles is the book’s organization. I’d get into the flow and just be reading and reading -- and I’d lose track of who’s speaking. Between long interviews and short quotes from people he’s met, Zografos interjects with some ideas and opinions of his own. Sometimes, I had to backtrack a few pages because those transitions could be far more effective. That could be a design issue in the book’s layout. But it could also be solved with the author making a better effort to craft a more distinct voice.

If you travel, attractive unattractive americans is worth a look. It might help you realize a few things about yourself and your home country, and I see some learning opportunities that will help you connect with people you meet when you travel. And that is true no matter where you’re from.

CategoriesAdventuresTravel

Are These 5 Things Ruining Travel?

ruining travel
A selfie stick and a duck face, all in one photo! (Photo by Marco Verch)

Awhile back, "Ask The Pilot" writer Patrick Smith labeled the selfie stick the scourge of global travel. I get his point: hordes of people waving metal poles, so intent on showing people that they were There that they forget to enjoy Being There. I like a few self-produced travel memories, but I don’t want to document so much that I forget to do.

Patrick got made me think a bit about what I consider the scourges of travel. To be clear, they’re not ruining travel for me, but they could be screwing yours up. (If I’ve left something off the list, set me straight in the comments.)

Ridiculously Doctored Travel Photos

I’ve been to some photogenic places. I have some beautiful photos from travels hanging in super sizes on my walls. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen photos similar to mine processed beyond all reason into cartoonish facsimiles of themselves.

I’ve seen more than a few travelers post these photos and say "that’s where I’m going!" No – you’re going to a real place, not a rip in space and time where the scenery looks like it’s been abused by a cheesy photographer who plays with high dynamic range too much. These photos set up expectations that are hard to match.

ruining travel
I have almost no relevant art for this post – so enjoy this photo of kitties in South Korea.

Time for Some "Best" Control

Go to just about any travel discussion forum online. Count up the number of threads with the word "Best" in the title or subject line: "What’s the best food truck in San Francisco? What’s the best underrated cosplay-themed hotel in Belgrade? What’s the best miniature golf course in Sheboygan that caters to cross-dressing dwarves who work as assassins?" (Blame Bill Fitzhugh’s book Pest Control for that last one.)

Look, anyone with a functioning brainstem should know that nobody will ever agree on "the best" of anything. What’s wrong with asking for 5 of your favorite recommendations for -- well, whatever category you’re interested in?

Giving the Plot Away

ruining travel
I hope you like dogs, too.

When it comes to their entertainment, people are terrified of spoiler alerts. But when it comes to travel? It seems like people want to iron the surprises out, that anything not scheduled is ruining travel. Sure, a certain amount of research helps people get the most out of their travel – that’s the entire reason this blog exists! But do webcams, drone footage and virtual reality tours not suck the anticipation and surprise right out of the experience?

My advice: Do your homework, but leave room for spontaneity, for surprise.

Extreme Cheapskate Antics

I love a good deal. My specialty is scanning air travel routes and prices, mulling a huge list of variables (airline, alliance, aircraft type, schedule, reputation, etc.) and distilling that into a good deal. Not the cheapest, but a perfect intersection of value that fits my budget. It’s a beautiful thing. Sarah applies this same thinking when she digs for hotels and activities.

ruining travel
First cats, then a dog … now a baby. And yes, she likes to travel.

But when I see someone from a prosperous nation posting online for tips on free things to do in Mumbai, the blood vessels in my eyes feel like they’re about to burst. That’s another frequent topic – name the location, and people are looking for the cheapest, free-est things they can do; I half-expect someone to post about fun things they can get paid to do while traveling.

My friends, travel costs. Experiences cost. I have never regretted a penny I’ve spent on travel. I have, however, regretted money I didn’t spend. I have a list of things I should’ve done, but cheaped out on. That’s what I regret. And if you really, absolutely, positively must do something for free when traveling abroad -- simply walk around with your eyes open. I promise you’ll enjoy it.

Oh, and there’s a special hell reserved for travelers who pull all sorts of antics to save the equivalent of 25 cents when bargaining with someone who makes a 20th of their income. I’m not saying be a sucker – I’m saying “don’t be a cheapskate.”

Local Living

"How can I experience Place X like a local? How can I eat in Location Y like a local?" These are some of the silliest questions to ever take up 1s and 0s online.

You experience a place like a local by becoming one, or tagging along with one. And that last one is even questionable; your local will probably show you the cool stuff, not the routine places she actually frequents. Locals like to put their home’s best foot forward.

And here’s something else to remember: Locals eat at Applebee’s, too. They go to chain restaurants and drink over-roasted, over-sugared, vaguely coffee-flavored confections at Starbucks, too. That’s why there’s a ChipotleSmashPizza everywhere short of Olympus Mons.

Am I Just Getting Cranky?

I sound grumpy. Shit. I’m glad that people travel abroad at all. But it would be great if the people we send to each others’ countries might be more than walking travel cliches who exist to do something more than share their photos online.

Go forth and travel, people. But try to think about it a bit, eh?

CategoriesTravel

True or False: Europhobia in America

There’s an interesting thread on Quora right now. Someone asked "Is it true that Americans don’t travel to Europe because there is Europhobia in America?"

The answers add up to a definite "no." There’s a great synopsis that brings up the main points of why it might seem that way:

*Europe is far away, and expensive to take a family to

* America is huge, with many sites to see within driving distance

* Europeans speak many languages which may deter many Americans from visiting.

* Some Americans are afraid to fly long distances

* Americans get less vacation than Europeans; given the travel time, a trip to Europe would be effectively “too short” to reap the benefits.

Let’s take a look at these reasons and their effect on the perception of Europhobia.

Europhobia
I don’t have much art for this post, so you get this ludicrous dog I saw at a cafe in Vietnam.

*Europe is far away, and expensive to take a family to.

This isn’t a reason. It’s an excuse. Compare nine days in Europe next to nine days in Orlando drifting from theme park to theme park. It costs more to get to Europe because of airfare. But factor in daily park admissions and jacked-up meal prices, and I think you’ll be in for surprise: This site quotes a Disney vacation, for example, at about $3,485 (four people, 7 nights) not including the cost to get there. If you’re a good shopper, it is possible to get to Europe for nearly the same price – possibly even less if you head to Eastern Europe.

Another thought: Americans find it in their budget to throw down for all sorts of meaningless, forgettable extravagances – smartphones that will be obsolete before they’re out of warranty, needlessly luxurious cars, enormous cable and satellite television packages, just to name a few. These suck money out of our budgets that could just as easily go toward enriching, memorable trips abroad.

Where do Americans go instead of Europe? Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean, to family reunions and to theme parks I mentioned earlier. Those who venture abroad go to England. It’s the top destination.

* America is huge, with many sites to see within driving distance

So, let’s see if I have this straight: Driving eight hours is fine, but flying eight hours is just too far. Eight hours is eight hours, regardless of the vehicle. Yet there’s a perception that eight hours in the air is somehow more exhausting and stressful.

Let’s keep in mind, the point of travel isn’t just to see things. It’s also to learn and to add to your perspective of the world.

I am adamant that, to be a truly educated person, you have to see how people in other cultures live. You have to see it first-hand, not through the media. So while you can drive to all sorts of interesting places in the U.S., you’re missing a chance to see other cultures and people. This reason might not by Europhobia, but it definitely seems like BS.

Europhobia
The VR train is a nice way to get around Finland. And it’s not even the country’s fastest.

Many people in the U.S., especially those who do not travel, have an illusion that they have a degree of freedom and standard of living unparalleled in the world. I suppose this depends on how we define freedom. For some, I guess owning whatever sort of firearms they please and being able to drive enormous gas-guzzlers equals freedom to some. But can you really consider yourself free if you’re one medical problem away from bankruptcy, and you’re too afraid to go on vacation because you’re worried you might not have a job when you come back?

So travel isn’t just about seeing things. It’s about figuring out where you and what you believe fit among the world.

* Europeans speak many languages which may deter many Americans from visiting.

This is a point of insecurity with Americans. I’m miserable at foreign languages. But I pick up at least a few phrases everywhere I travel (and can sometimes pass myself off as a local for a few sentences anywhere outside of Asia).

best passenger planes
Get onboard one of these and go abroad.

But Americans may be forgetting about this place called England. Where they speak English. That’s really close to continental Europe. Which is part of the reason so many Europeans speak -- English.

It’s completely possible – even easy – to get around in Europe if you only speak English. On another note, the U.S. seems to have a huge problem effectively teaching foreign languages. This is a problem schools in continental Europe don’t have. And another missed opportunity to look to other nations, learn from them and better ourselves through their example.

Again, this doesn’t seem like Europhobia. But it’s a fear of our own shortcomings.

* Some Americans are afraid to fly long distances

This misses the mark somewhat. Americans know that flying is safer than driving. Their fear isn’t in the flying – it’s in being uncomfortable. Somehow, we morphed from people that headed west in Conestoga wagons into people who can’t fathom the notion of being less-than perfectly comfortable on a 14-hour flight to Australia.

Europhobia
And I’m out of relevant art, so you get a horse in Iceland. I assure you the horse does not have Europhobia.

That’s a weak, pathetic state of affairs. I’m a 6’2, 205-pound guy whose flown hundreds of thousands of coach-class miles. I’ve emerged physically and emotionally unscathed. I turn on my Kindle or use the on-demand in-seat entertainment and let the miles roll 38,000 feet below me as I enjoy being able to take a safe, affordable journey that spans timezones, cultures, ethnicities, languages, cuisines and landscapes.

* Americans get less vacation than Europeans, and given the travel time, a trip to Europe would be effectively  “too short” to reap the benefits of taking a holiday at all.

This is somewhat legit. The U.S. is far behind the industrialized world in vacation time. As a society, we’ve allowed modern-day robber barons to convince us that we live to work instead of work to live -- yet that our country is somehow also the forefront of personal freedom while we watch our personal time shrink.

europhobia
Americans are reluctant to go abroad, but many of them are happy to overspend on a sanitized, ersatz facsimile of the world. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Left to their own choices, employers will never change this. They will never voluntarily bring the U.S. level with the other industrialized nations of the world. It will be down to a next generation of lawmakers who choose to represent their electorate and say "this will not stand." The recent increases in minimum wage and healthcare coverage at least give me some hope that the U.S. could be on the way toward a turning point.

Also, discouraging travel abroad is a great way to preserve the venomous notion of American exceptionalism. Just imagine the impact on the status quo if Americans head abroad en masse, witness first-hand European quality of life and start asking uncomfortable questions like “Where’s our work-life balance? Tell me again what’s so much better about U.S. healthcare? Why is high-speed rail so bad? Hey, what’s your beef with free childcare and guaranteed vacation time and a higher minimum wage?” If we collectively start asking questions like this, things change. And there is a tiny, tiny minority of deep-pocketed people who simply don’t want that.

“But wait!” you might say, “What about all the countries out there with a lower standard of living?” Well, maybe those countries should make us appreciate what we do have. But is being better than some what you want the U.S. to be for future generations?

Do Americans Have Europhobia?

So, my European friends, Americans as a whole aren’t plagued by Europhobia. They have some barriers that prevent them from visiting you in your own countries. Some of the barriers are real, but most are imagined or self-imposed through their own poor choices.

 

CategoriesAdventuresTravel

Four Unusual Tourism Niches

tourism niches
A look at the sarcophagus at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are all sorts of tourism niches out there. You’ve heard of people traveling for food, shopping, golf, medical treatments, maybe even to visit war zones, disaster sites or the graves of dead celebrities. There’s also a lot of unsavory stuff out there that sways me from my usual stance that anything that motivates a person to get a passport, hop on a plane and get out of the usual milieu is a great thing. But let’s skip that for another day. I want to introduce you to a few tourism niches that I find genuinely interesting, potentially enriching and maybe just a bit nerdy.

tourism niches
View of Chernobyl taken from roof of building in Pripyat Ukraine. Photo Taken by Jason Minshull, then digitally zoomed. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Atomic Tourism Right now, there are people taking a tour into the 1,000-square mile Exclusion Zone established to keep people away from the wreckage of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Tourists are heading to Ukraine to fork over rubles to go into one of the most ghostly areas ever – the abandoned city of Pryp’yat’. They’re braving high background radiation levels (this recent blog post will show readings from a Geiger counter at various places).

tourism niches
An active volcano is a great location for sound tourism. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are other sites that can take you straight back to the Atomic Age, from the excellent Titan Missile Museum in Arizona to the White Sands National Monument. Personally, I’d absolutely love to take a trip into the Exclusion Zone, mostly to see what happens to a city when humans all but abandon it; believe it or not, there are still people who squat in the Exclusion Zone for all sorts of reasons. Here’s another fascinating article about the Exclusion Zone.

Sound Tourism

tourism niches
Glaciers make incredible noises, too.

I wrote about this awhile back, and I’m still fascinated by the idea of going places to hear things. And I’m not talking about concerts. In some cases, sound tourism is about not hearing things – it’s about silence The Sonic Wonders website has a great collection of ideas for people interesting in sound tourism (definitely one of the tourism niches that interests me most). The booming sand dunes are closest to me over in California. The site also lists Jökulsárlón Floating Icebergs and the creaks from the little icebergs. Some of the more interesting natural sounds I’ve heard while traveling have been the sound of water flowing under a glacier, and the rumble of huge cinders belching out of Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica. Oh, and howler monkeys make a really eerie "woofing" sound. Urban Exploration This is one of those tourism niches for people who think creepy equals cool. If you’ve ever wanted to poke your nose into an abandoned building or spend the day mapping out an abandoned subway tunnel, this is for you.

tourism niches
English: Inside Richmond Asylum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you turn to the right information sources, you’ll discover all sorts of places in your urban environment are waiting for you to arrive armed with flashlights. Urban exploration does carry some high risks – arrest, accidents, even encounters with people who calls these "abandoned" areas home. Still, it’s all pretty tempting. I know of an entire largely forgotten underground portion of Phoenix that even has a bowling alley. And there has to be a lot more that nobody talks about – the same probably goes for your home city. Urban exploration reminds me a bit of caving. Enthusiasts don’t like to share their secrets with the masses. But here’s a good place to start.

tourism niches
Ol Doinyo Lengai Crater, Tanzania. Taken from south-western edge. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Volcano Tourism Out of all the odd tourism niches, this is probably my favorite. The forces that shape the world fascinate me. I’ve stood on mountains that are emitting sulfuric fumes. I’ve looked into recently erupted volcanoes. I’ve seen the aftermath of catastrophic explosions (the blown-out visage of Red Crater in the Tongariro National Park is my favorite example). It really makes me realize how much power geographic forces possess.

tourism niches
Imagine the explosive power behind making Red Crater explode.

If you’d like to see volcanic forces first-hand, I recommend Iceland, New Zealand and Hawaii. I would also have recommended the oddball volcano Ol Doinyo Lengai in Tanzania. National Geographic wrote an amazing piece about 10 years ago all about its unusual black, free-flowing, low-temperature lava. But an explosion blew the Tim Burton-esque landscape that was once at its summit into oblivion. Enjoy the photos, anyway. And there’s also a place in Guatemala where you can ride a sled down a volcano’s cinder landscape. Here’s a source for planning your own volcanic vacation.



CategoriesUncategorized

A Traveler’s Tribute to His Cat

This is Noir. He enjoys lurking and running up and down staircases.
Noir put the happiness into returning home from even the greatest adventures.

Coming home is one of the best parts of travel.

Yes, I love a good adventure. I love the sights, smells and sounds of an unfamiliar city. I love seeing a forest filled with creatures I’ve never encountered before.

But my favorite foods, my own bed and – most of all – my most-excellent cat Noir made my return home a happy occasion.

If this was your cat, he'd make your top 5 list, too.
Noir wasn’t a very good guitar technician, but he tried hard.

Unfortunately, Noir will no longer greet me when I return from my next trip. We said goodbye to him last night after 16 years of friendship. Noir turned me from cat-indifferent to the sort of guy who couldn’t pass a cat without trying to pet it. During his long life, he watched me pack for my first international trip as an adult -- he was the cat of the house while Sarah and I hiked glaciers, searched for kangaroos and mangled foreign languages. (Since he lacked opposable thumbs like most cats, our good friend Todd cared for him in our absence. Every time Todd came to visit, Noir treated him exactly like he did Sarah or me. Noir was friendly toward all humans, but he held Todd above the rest.)

During my travels, I encountered many feline friends that made me think of my little buddy back home. If not for him, I wouldn’t have made these new friends. As a tribute to Noir’s memory -- in honor of his long life -- in recognition of the cheer he brought to our home, here are some photos of the cat friends I’ve made around the world!

A friendly cat starts off his busy day on the lake near Hakone, Japan.
We met this friendly cat on the lake near Hakone, Japan. (2011)
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The Hakone cats are a friendly bunch. This guy had a big motor mouth and wasn’t shy to ask for attention.
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And another friendly Hakone cat.
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These little furballs greeted visitors at a trailhead on Jeju Island, South Korea. (2011)
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Sarah meets Casador, the original travel cat, at the La Paz Waterfall Gardens outside San Jose, Costa Rica. His name means “scratcher,” but something that means “Attention Hog” would’ve been more appropriate. (2005)

 

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During lunch in a hut on the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, this little guy waited for anyone to drop a tasty morsel. (2013)
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A perfect little Halloween cat gets some attention from Sarah in Bergen, Norway. (2012)
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I didn’t expect to see a fluffy, rolly-polly Maine Coone prowling Hopkins, Belize. But this one spotted us from a few hundred feet away, bounded down the beach and nearly knocked Sarah off the pier to get a petting. (2007)

 

CategoriesAdventuresFitnessTravel

My Best Travel Advice – 2015 Edition

Kettlebell snatches - a great way to sweat enough to test the tasc Carrollton T.
Working out kind of sucks – but it makes me able to do cool things when I travel.

One thing people often tell me is "I wish I could travel with you!" I’m flattered, honestly. When someone says that, I hear "You know what you’re doing and you know how to have fun." Great! I’ll take that any day.

The fact is, though, I like traveling with as few people as possible. The odds of me opening up my travel time to just anyone are slim to none. The odds of our schedules aligning? Even worse (though I did get to travel overseas for work this year, and had a phenomenal co-worker with me).

Here’s some good news, though: I’m going to give you my best travel travel advice to help you check out the world the way I do. I’ve learned much beyond these, but I think these are the most important to me.

Better Fitness = Better Travel

Some people love tweeting from the gym, or taking selfies at the yoga studio. I am not one of them. My exercise routine is personal, almost solitary (with the exception of hot yoga classes) and always kind of grim. I don’t exercise to impress people or to be a male model. I exercise so I can do cool stuff.

best passenger planes
Flying ALWAYS beats a covered wagon.

Fitness is the basis for being ready to do anything you hear about when you travel. It gives you the ability to do a long hike, sign up for a 10k (which I’ve done in four countries so far), go cross country skiing -- you name it. There is no one-size-fits-all method to getting fit. My system of weightlifting, hot yoga, running and cycling is just right for me. There are so many ways to get sweaty these days that I can’t fathom it. Try a few things. See what you find fun or at least tolerable – and then stick with it. Start right this very minute. It will make your next travel experience better.

poop chute 1
Who knows what you might end up eating when you travel?

Love to Fly for Your Best Travel Ever

Airport security is a hassle. Airplane seats are leftover torture devices from the Spanish Inquisition. You always wind up sitting next to someone who hasn’t bathed since the Game Of Thrones season finale.

Wah.

Look, heading to Oregon in a covered wagon was no picnic. In the time it might’ve taken your ancestors to get out of the county, you can be on the exact opposite end of the planet. You can do this for a price unprecedented in human history, and you can do it breathing nice, clean air: I feel like smacking people who yap about the Golden Age of air travel when people suited up in their finest to fly -- and then smoked like chimneys the entire time (how easily we forget that, right?).

Even if you never learn to love flying, just remember it’s a means to an end. And that end is a new place, a new culture and new experiences.

Change From Your Usual

Let’s say you’re a meat-eating, football-watching SUV driver. If you travel, you just might wind up in a place where everyone else is a vegetarian cricket fan who gets around on a motorbike.

Guess what? You’ll have to fit in, because the culture isn’t going to change for you.

That goes for the vegans, too. I watched a vegan have an emotional warp-core breach because she had to ride in a horse-drawn cart. There was much blubbering and torrent of tears -- all because she expected that the world and its cultures would revolve around her comfort zone.

This isn’t the way travel works.

You’re going to get the best travel experience if you are willing to morph in any direction. Stay somewhere that doesn’t have a 5-Star rating. Eat something that would normally frighten you. Use your own two feet. Try to speak a different language.

CategoriesUncategorized

Five Ways to Make Your Vacation Photos Interesting

vacation photos
This photo is complete and total BS. It’s squashed from a wider shot to increase the relief. So don’t go to the Wind Cathedral in Namibia expecting to snap your own vacation photo like this.

I’m going to show you a valuable skill today: How to make your vacation photos interesting.

Now, many people these days use Facebook to show their vacation photos. This post assumes that’s your vehicle of choice. Still, even if you do something else, a lot of what I say here will apply.

Alright, let’s get this started.

Be discerning.

I don’t care if you took 7,351 photos. I don’t want to see all 7,351. If you want to make your vacation photos interesting, upload the absolute best of the best. Eliminate photos that are virtually identical. Keep group shots where you and a few people are saying cheese to a minimum. And honestly, far better photographers than you have photographed the world’s greatest landmarks – so seriously consider whether anyone needs to see yet another shoot-by-the-numbers photo of the Sydney Opera House. Pitch the blurry and boring. There. Now you’re down to about 84 photos (if you’re anything like me).

vacation photos
Just a shot of a cool moment. I could probably use a little bit of light photo editing to bring the colors out a bit … this looks a bit blue.

Say something about your vacation photos.

Like I mentioned earlier, far better photographers than you have shot the same place. Hell, some of your friends may have already been there. So say something about your experience, and what your photos will offer. DO NOT just name the place. You can be smirky and give your album an Upworthy-like clickbait name like "You Won’t Believe What Happens When I Go to a Thai Ladyboy Show!" Or you can play it straight – "Hiking in Jotunheimen, one of the coolest places I’ve ever been." Just offer a glimpse into what people will see in your vacation photos – and stay away from linear recitations of what you did that day. Nobody wants to read an itinerary.

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Caption your vacation photos, already!

I have this one photo I took in Vík í Mýrdal. I love the little white church, the towering green mountains and the sunlight filtering through hazy air. But the most remarkable thing about it? I snapped it 10:45 p.m. That boggles the minds of people from lower latitudes. And you’d never know this without a caption – the right caption adds context, humor, information -- something.
Look, we all get lazy and skip the caption. I get it. But captions can make all the difference.

Look for Moments, Not Places

The bucket list mentality equals photos that suck. Tourists file like little ducklings to their destinations, snap their photos and herd themselves back onto the bus when the guide tells them to. They get the exact same photos because they’re thinking about places, not moments.
Let me give you an example -- I was just walking around in Hanoi, and I took a little bridge out to a Buddhist temple in the middle of a small lake. People were praying and bowing before an alter. Incense curled into the air and interacting with the light just perfectly, and I got this cool shot of people praying. This isn’t a landmark like Ho Chi Minh’s tomb or the Cu Chi Tunnels. But there was a perfection in that moment that made a far more interesting photo than you’ll usually get snapping a major landmark. There are ways to be creative with shooting landmarks, though. I’m not much good at this, so maybe you can pitch in with some ideas.

vacation photos
It took just a little bit of editing to compensate for not getting my camera settings perfect. But I resisted any urge to exaggerate the colors.

Stop editing the hell out of your vacation photos

Excessive photo editing ruins travel. The Internet overfloweth with jokers who use High Dynamic Range and Photoshop to turn photos into cartoonish versions of reality. And you get excited, book the trip, arrive and then find out it’s not truly a rip in space and time where every color is vivid and every sunset is the color of orange blossom honey.

Edit photos to make them closer to what you saw with your eye, not to exaggerate. Here’s the truth – my photos sometimes need help because I am a hack photographer. Once in awhile, I get lucky with an image like the one I snapped of Elijah on his horse. That came straight out of my camera with not a single adjustment to the colors. This is pretty damn rare for me, especially since I often shoot in challenging light. The thing is, reality is just fine without being turned into a caricature. Nature doesn’t need you to make it awesome. And all that tinkering is a lie. So stop it. Tell the truth with your photos.

Essentially, everything I’m saying is … tell a story. With your photo choices. With your captions. With your album names. What would you add about making vacation photos more interesting?

 

CategoriesGearTravel

HolidayPhone Prepaid SIM Card Review

I have a great guest post from Debbie Lee for you today. Debbie is the community manager at Trippy.com, a really fun travel site that I frequent. She was headed to Germany just after HolidayPhone asked me to review their product. Since I didn’t have any upcoming travel plans, I asked Debbie to write this HolidayPhone prepaid SIM card review. She has some great observations and also took all the photos in this post. Enjoy! -Justin

For someone who’s traveled extensively and is pretty tech-savvy, one thing has remained a mystery to me since the advent of smartphones: how to access data affordably on my iPhone while traveling internationally.  I already have enough trouble doing that at home, much less overseas in a foreign land.

When I’m staying in one country for longer than a week, I just buy a local SIM card for my unlocked iPhone.  There’s a slight bit of hassle in doing this because you have to research which wireless provider works best, which plan makes the most economical sense, and then you actually have to find a store that carries that SIM card and possibly attempt to buy it without knowing the local language (usually not a problem at the airport for English speakers, but possibly an issue at stores outside of the airport).  Once you get the SIM card, though, it’s typically smooth sailing from there.
HolidayPhone prepaid SIM card review
Driving around Germany with the HolidayPhone SIM card.

Last summer when I visited Europe, though, I was staying in Italy for 4 days, then Switzerland for another 6. Since I was country-hopping, it didn’t seem worth it to buy local SIM cards for such short periods of time, so I just called up my wireless provider to put me on an international plan. When I got home and looked at my phone bill, it was the most horrible thing ever. And the worst part was that the data speed was never fast, so I vowed to never do that again if I could help it.

This past month, I found myself in the same boat, where I’d be country-hopping in Europe, and I was determined not to end up with a huge phone bill and to get my phone situation squared before I left home. So I posted a question asking what the best SIM card to use across Europe would be on Trippy.com (I’m the community manager there!), to which Wandering Justin reached out to me about the opportunity to write a HolidayPhone prepaid SIM card review. Despite the mixed reviews that I had read online about them, I decided to give it a shot.
Prior to leaving for Europe, and even when I first got there, I wasn’t exactly sure what countries I would be visiting (I like being able to be spontaneous!). I just knew that I would be flying in and out of Münster in Westphalia, Germany. Other countries I thought I might be visiting were the Netherlands, France, Great Britain and Poland, so I had wanted to find a SIM card that worked for all, or most of those countries.

First Look at the HolidayPhone Package

After informing HolidayPhone about my possible travel plans, I was sent a tracking code; a few days later, I received my HolidayPhone package, which included SIM cards for Germany, the UK, and the Netherlands, and even a mobile hotspot device so that friends could tether off of it. They mailed it to me in San Francisco all the way from Sweden. I was super excited to test them out!
When I landed at the Frankfurt Airport for a layover, I took the opportunity to test out my Germany SIM card from Blau Mobilfunk, a presumably smaller wireless provider that I wasn’t familiar with. No matter how many times I entered in the PIN number and subsequently PUK code provided on the card, though, it just would not work. Through the airport wifi, I emailed Melina, the HolidayPhone rep whose business card was included in my package, about my issue. She and another colleague, Daniel, attempted to help me troubleshoot, but to no avail.  Then randomly when I was on the tarmac to head to my next destination, my entering of the PIN number finally worked. Perhaps it just didn’t work in the airport? We’ll never know. But the SIM card did start to work outside of the airport.
HolidayPhone prepaid SIM card review
Here’s Debbie trading her city girl status for some time in rural Germany.

By the way, I do have to give Melina and Daniel extra kudos here — this was Christmas day when I emailed them and they got back to me within hours. Seeing that it was Christmas, I would’ve understood if they had gotten back to me the next day, so that’s great customer service right there.

I wish that the actual Blau Mobilfunk SIM card was as good as their customer service, though.  I ended up not going to any other countries, but decided to do a cross country road trip through Germany instead, so I only used the Blau Mobilfunk SIM card.
My home base was in the little farming town of Greven, which is pretty rural. I occasionally connected to a 3G network out there, which felt like I was using dial up internet. That was something I could tolerate as I understood the limitations of living on a farm.  Unfortunately, most of the time, the connected network was E or GPRS and sometimes there was No Service, rendering data transmission impossible on my phone, so Blau Mobilfunk was pretty much unusable where I was staying. I thought it was due to me living on a farm, but when local friends came to visit, the data on their T-Mobile and Vodafone networks worked just fine.  Those are two wireless providers I’ve actually heard of, which makes me wonder why HolidayPhone chose Blau Mobilfunk over them.
When I went on my cross country road trip, I got 3G data in the heart of the major cities, like Munster, Hamburg and Berlin, which was about as fast as dial-up Internet. Unfortunately, when I was actually on the road on the major highways and freeways, it was back on E, GPRS, and occasionally No Service, meaning that we couldn’t research anything on the road, stream music or get addresses and directions (we had in-dash navigation, but there were a few instances where it was incorrect and we needed Google Maps). I wasn’t sure if this was a Germany thing, or if it was a Blau Mobilfunk thing, though after comparing with my local friends’ phone connectivity, I’m pretty sure it was the latter.
Then there was the mobile hotspot device — the ZTE MF65 Mobile WiFi Router.  When I was in places where I had 3G connection, I would pop my unlocked SIM card into the device; but despite me following all the directions that were provided to me, it continually said that there was no SIM card or that it was unrecognizable. I was just testing it out for the sake of testing it out because they sent it to me, but fortunately, I was able to tether my other wireless devices directly off of my iPhone with the Blau Mobilfunk SIM card in it … when I had 3G connection, of course.

Wrapping up the HolidayPhone Prepaid SIM Card Review

The SIM card that I received was data-only, and I got 1 GB of data at 3G speeds that would be valid for 30 days. I felt like I had barely used the data (most of it was spent waiting for pages to load, or loading to “Please connect to the Internet” and “Server could not be reach” pages) before I received a text that said my 1 GB at 3G speeds was up just four days into my trip. This package is supposed to be $43.90, which I definitely would not have paid for such unreliable service. To add on the mobile hotspot device was another $79.99, which, as I mentioned earlier, didn’t even work.
This is all unfortunate because I really wanted to love HolidayPhone and was hoping that they were the answer to my prayers. I think that they’re really onto something here with their service and that the concept is great. I’m willing to pay a little extra money to have a local SIM card already on me when I arrive at a destination. It definitely takes the hassle out of things and is one less thing to worry about when there are so many other things going on during international travel. Unfortunately, their choice in wireless providers was not up to par with my fairly reasonable expectations; I had simply expected them to send me something that, for the most part, worked and was reliable.
The next time I travel overseas, I may just sign up for a T-Mobile month-to-month account at home as they seem to have decent international plans. People keep telling me that it gets slow after a certain point (as explained on the T-Mobile site), but after this experience, I can deal with slow data, so long as it’s reliable.
If anyone has any suggestions for what I or anyone who’s country-hopping should check out, please do comment!




CategoriesAdventuresFitnessTravel

Why You Should Go to Finland

I can’t even tell you how many times I hear American travelers go on about Spain, Italy, France and England. You’ll hear about culture, history, museums and food (a little less so with England on that last one!). But I can’t say I’ve ever heard an American traveler all wound up about the idea of a trip to Finland.

And I just don’t get it.

Finland – and also Iceland and Norway – have a certain sense of community spirit that’s hard to define. But that spirit makes Finland an incredibly fun place to travel. And then you have the scenery, the events, the food, the public transit and the shopping. I’m not ordinarily a big shopper. But I always look out for things that will interest others, and I can tell you that any fashionista with an eye for one-of-a-kind items from small, independent designers will love Finland.

Let me share some information that gives you an idea of why you should go to Finland.

First Impressions

We arrived in Helsinki after a flight from Tromsö, Norway via Oslo aboard Norwegian Air Shuttle. I sat across the aisle from a young female rock band, one member of which got startled when my wife accidentally launched a gob of sanitizer directly onto her lap (pressurization, yo). Sharing a plane with young rockers reinforced my notion that Finland is a paradise for good, loud rock music; part of our reason for visiting was to go to the Ruisrock festival in Turku (the Ruisrock link includes a story about having several people convinced that I’m a rock star who performed at the festival).

go to finland
It’s early evening – soon, this park will be jammed with people on blankets hanging out.

I was a little surprised that the rail line from the airport to the city center was still under construction during our visit (it may be ready now, though). The bus ride was still pleasant, and I thought more than a few times of Minnesota as we cruised along through rolling plains and evergreen trees.

Downtown Helsinki, though, was all cool Old World architecture alongside sleek but welcoming new architecture. It’s a blend Finland wears well, just like so many other countries in the region.

First example of the community spirit I mentioned earlier – we asked a young Finnish woman for directions, and she walked us to within a few steps of our hotel and told us all about herself as we walked.

What’s So Cool About Finland?

go to finland
Helsinki could give Portland a few lessons in weird.

If American travelers knew what I do about Finland, it would be a huge, up-and-coming destination. It’s just that awesome. Let me break it down:

Absolutely Vibrant During Summer – Finland comes alive in the summer, with music festivals spanning nearly every genre practically every weekend somewhere in the country. Also, there’s a nightly tradition in the cities -- people fill up a cooler, grab a blanket, head to the nearest park and hang out with their friends and neighbors in the post-dinner hours. I imagine winter is a little less social, but I’d bet it’s still a picture-perfect scene of a holiday season.

Getting Around is Super Easy – Whether you walk, bicycle or take a train, the transit options are affordable and easy to navigate. Our two-hour trip on the VR train to Turku was a marvel of comfort and efficiency. We also used a combination of train and bus travel to enjoy a day hiking at the Nuuksion Koulu. Every leg of the trip went off without a hitch. And cyclists – be prepared for an astounding bicycle infrastructure.

go to Finland
Finland has cool architecture a-plenty

History and Fun – We also took a quick boat trip out to Suomenlinna, where we spent a day enjoying the island’s history and sites -- be prepared for some gusty Baltic winds, though. I also got to try some bear sausage. Back in Helsinki, we took an evening trip out to the Linnanmaki amusement park.

Things to Know

  • You might be tempted to call Finland a Scandinavian country. Resist the urge. Refer to it as a Nordic country instead.
  • Also, Finland uses the Euro. That’s part of the reason its prices aren’t quite as high as Norway.
  • Try sahti. It’s a traditional Finnish beer that’s hard to find … and slightly hard to pronounce. Here’s everything you need to know about sahti.
  • If you’re a beer connoisseur, let’s just say Finland hasn’t quite hopped into the craft-beer movement just yet. There are a few places to get good brews, but you’ll mostly see fizzy, watery, pale-yellow lagers.
go to finland
Nuuksion National Park an easy combination of train and bus travel from Helsinki.

Finland in a Word: Liveable

I could very easily see living in Finland, even with its winters. There seems to be a work-life balance that allows the country to prosper, but it exudes a "work to live, not live to work" outlook. That’s healthy. The country’s fixation on sauna (pronounce it “sah-oo-nah”) is another healthy element, along with well-marked hiking trails serves by huts. Finland is the place to be for backpackers and cross-country skiers.

Other Details

My total time in Finland was about nine days – enough to convince me that you should go to Finland – split between Turku and Helsinki. Turku is built around a river, and it is so incredibly relaxed and pleasant that you might never realize that many of the world’s behemoth cruise ships are built there. As for Helsinki -- I could easily use a few weeks to dive into all that it offers. I’d love a chance to learn more about its heavy metal scene and to get out into the surrounding natural areas.

go to Finland
Turku is a maritime city you’ll love … if you like strolling along rivers, walking on tree-shaded paths and meeting people.




CategoriesGear

Match Your Travel Style to Your Luggage

luggage
A backpack is great for carrying your necessities in the Icelandic highlands … but it won’t fly for business travel or luxury destinations.

Some of the most-frequent questions I get from new travelers revolve around luggage. That’s reasonable – the right luggage makes a huge difference. People often ask me whether they should go backpacker style, or opt for something more traditional like a suitcase. But there’s just no one-size-fits-all answer.

Is a Backpack the Right Luggage for You?

Your itinerary and the purpose of your trip hold the answer. If you have plenty of hiking and outdoor activities waiting for you, a suitcase could be a liability. It won’t be able to run smoothly in the more rural areas. And you just can’t hike with it, right?

In this case, you’ll also have to figure out which backpack is right for you. Some are set up for multiday expeditions, while others will just make you look like an outdoor adventurer. You’ll have to spend some time determining your needs before your purchase. But that’s a topic for another day since it deserves a blog post of its own.

And are you headed off on holiday, or jetting off for business? I’ve never used a backpack for business travel. It just have the features I need, and has many attributes I don’t need (I don’t need a built-in hydration pack or daisy chain loops for my next business trip … ah, if only I did).

Louis Vuitton Malletier Paris Historical Suitcases luggage
For some people, suitcases – whether vintage or modern – are the way to go. (photo by Charlie Phillips via Wikimedia

When a Suitcase is Your Luggage Solution

Look, if you roll into a posh hotel with a backpack, you’re going to feel out of place. Will that fly in ritzy destinations like Monaco? Eh, probably not.

If you’re not planning to leave the urban areas, you don’t need to carry everything on your back. A light daypack is a great idea, but your taste might run more toward a suitcase (or three, all matching … of course). Just like backpacks, you’ll find a staggering array of luggage options. I recently traveled with a small hardshell suitcase that seemed sturdy enough to withstand having a rhino dropped on it. It also had a James Bond look I couldn’t resist. And every time I fly, I see everything from hot pink to tiger stripes rolling down the luggage return. It all comes down to your style and travel needs.

What About Me?

Well, I’m usually a backpack guy for leisure travel. When I’m on the road for business, a suitcase meets my luggage needs best. If you’re like me, you might wind up matching the luggage to the purpose of your trip.

This post is brought to you by Luggage Direct.

This blog accepts forms of cash advertising, sponsorship or other forms of compensation. All information reflects the opinions and experience of WanderingJustin.com.