Backpack Tips for New Travelers

backpack tips
Your backpack can be your best friend – or your worst enemy.

I saw a soon-to-be first-time traveler ask online about backpacks – specifically, which one he should take for a three-week trip. The question opens a massive can of live eels. Let’s see what I can do to offer some quality backpack tips.

1. What kind of backpack traveler do you want to be?

Your backpack can just be a suitcase you wear on your back from hotel to hotel. Ot it can signal intent to camp, ability to cook on the fly and a desire to go hiking a lot. So which are you? Be honest with yourself. If you’re the first option, you’ll have more room for extra shoes, evening wear and various fancy city shit. If you choose option 2, your tent, sleeping bag and cooking/eating gear will eat up space when you load your backpack. Plan accordingly.

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Social Networking Takes to the Air

Southwest Airlines, 737-700
Whether you booked your Southwest Airlines trip on flights24.com or used a local travel agent, you can share your thoughts on routehappy.com.

Social networking just got more specific. This time, its frequent fliers getting their own way to swap information.

Unlike old-school frequent-flier message boards, RouteHappy.com is interactive. All members get a profile that shows users a bit about them – where’s they’ve flown, how they’ve liked it, their peeves about the airports they visit. You can search by route, by airline … and also by specific amenities like power plugs, wi-fi, roomy seats and even on-time performance.

And you can be part of the information overload: Whether you booked a Southwest Airlines tickets on flights24.com or arranged your flight with a travel agent, you can share your observations with other travelers seeking the best seats and insider information about each airport.”

USA Today posted a review with a decent mix of praise and legit criticism for RouteHappy.com. Put succinctly, you’ll be well-prepared for your next flight if you visit RouteHappy.com. The most important knock is the lack of side-by-side comparison. I’ll cut the site’s crew some slack. Every website has to start somewhere, and RouteHappy.com shows a genuine interest in applying member feedback. I’d also add a more general browsing feature for members. Right now, it’s mostly confined to the handful featured on the home page. At it’s very heart, RouteHappy.com is a social network. So it needs to get more social!

Oh, and let’s not forget: The site offers an iPhone app. But not everyone uses an iPhone. My far-less-fragile Samsung runs on the Android operating system – so where’s my RouteHappy.com app?

The bottom line is that I think it’s a site with lots of fun potential. I love swapping stories with others who love flying and travel. RouteHappy.com could become a great forum to connect like-minded people. Part of that might be a bit more interaction via the blog. Call out some of the more interesting facts gleaned from traveler profiles – write posts about them and push them out through social media. This could add real voices and faces to the site. I’d like to see the site be willing to stir the pot a but … having a laugh at the most-scathing criticism in addition to applauding the praiseworthy. I look forward to seeing how RouteHappy evolves.

This post is sponsored by Flights24.com, the online travel agency that helps you find the best flights with just a few simple clicks. Whether you’re looking for scheduled flights, low cost carriers or seasonal offers, flights24.com helps you find the best deals from over 750 airlines worldwide. Flights24.com lets you browse by date, airline, destination and a range of other criteria to find the last-minute flight deals you need for your next vacation or business trip.

Australia and New Zealand – Not the Same Continent

Resident of Australia – not New Zealand

To my friends in Australia and New Zealand,

If you felt a disturbance in The Force earlier, blame my co-worker. She said a few things about you that weren’t true. I was there, though, to step up for you both. To set the record straight. To make your antipodean world clearer and more real … one person at a time.

You see, I overheard two co-workers talking about skydiving. One of them was talking about going to San Diego to skydive.

Being the tireless travel advocate I am, I said “If you really want to get into some adventure, go to New Zealand. It’s the place where adventure sports are born.”

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Safeguard Your House While You Travel

Ever worry about your house when you travel? Or get that nagging feeling that something is not quite right as you head to the airport?

Well, my streak of luck ended. After years of problem-free travel, it all caught up: A faulty seal in a toilet flooded our house while we were gone. And it made me write this story for Yahoo! Voices about steps you can take to protect your house.

The big one? Turn the water valves at your toilets off. Some people have also mentioned doing the same at the wash machine. Really, this experience with a house flood makes me dream about just having a yurt and a composting toilet. But check out the rest of the tips, too. You might find something that bails you out the next time you travel.

http://www.blogdash.com/full_profile/?claim_code=ecf477a6000978062b03d7366701ed76

 

 

TSA’s Security Circus Snags Wrenches

If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball. But your wrench can’t dodge the TSA if it’s too big. (Image from carolramsey.net)

My brother J.D. probably didn’t expect things to turn out this way. It was just a quick visit to Arizona and a meet-up with Sarah and me for gelato. So how in the world does the Transportation Security Administration come into play?

Well, it started with a shrieky sound and a burning rubber smell from my Subaru Forester about an hour before we were supposed to meet. I made it home, popped the hood and saw the soon-to-be-shredded final remnants of my fan belts. They were past due for a change (thanks so much to the guys who changed my oil last week and didn’t mention this as part of their 40-point "inspection").

I mentioned this to my Subaru-driving brother around a mouthful of gelato. Soon after, we had flashlights aimed on the offending belts and developed a plan of attack. A few problems emerged: All the auto shops were closed, we had some inadequate tools and a bolt had fallen into an awkward place.

J.D. picked the parts the next day at Camelback Subaru. And he grabbed some wrenches designed for hard-to-reach places. The repairs went off easily after that. J.D. figured he’d keep the tools since A), he paid for ‘em and B) he’s more likely to get repeat use out of them (I concur). And off to the airport he went to head home to Missouri.

Some Tools Are Too Big to Fly

The TSA agents snared J.D.’s shiny new wrenches in their security gauntlet at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. All but one, apparently, was at least three-eighths of an inch too long to get through security.

These are not sharp objects – what? No, I mean the wrenches!

"Three-eighths of an inch is what makes us safe?" JD mused as he told me the story.

According to the TSA website’s Prohibited Items page:
Wrenches and Pliers (seven inches or less in length) OK OK

JD sought some flexibility from the agents, including having me drop by to collect the tools. They were having none of it – they offered no ideas other than tossing these objects that are too dangerous to fly into a trash bin (is that any place for something too dangerous to fly?). And I can’t help thinking that these are now stored somewhere in a TSA employee’s garage.

The policy and "unsafe" length seem arbitrary. And it confirms a big knock against TSA: that it wrings its hands over objects rather than assessing who’s carrying the objects. They’re looking for stuff, not people with intent to cause mayhem.

TSA Keeps Authority and Sense Separated

This makes me think of Tokyo Narita International Airport: After we checked out baggage, a polite security agent pulled Sarah aside: "Excuse me, please – you have two cans of shaving cream in your backpack. Can you tell me why?" Sarah told her that she thought she’d left one behind earlier in the trip and picked up a second one. The agent thanked her and sent us on our way. She exhibited tact and good sense.

The point isn’t the $20 cost of the tools. The lack of good sense, unwillingness to solve problems and security theatrics, though, are the crux of the matter.

TSA made no one safer today by preventing a bunch of wrenches from flying. And that’s the organization’s mission, isn’t it?

 

Darwin, Australia: My Guide to the Top End’s Top City

Morning on Sandy Billabong – just hours from the Northern Territory city of Darwin.

I’ve never talked to people about travel to Australia and had them say “you know, I’ve always wanted to visit Darwin.”

But ever since my visit to the city on the Indian Ocean, I’ve touted it to everyone who asks me about Australia. I don’t know how many people I’ve swayed with my pro-Darwin raving – but I’ve at least put it on the map of those who previously hadn’t thought much past the opera house and the monolith in the desert. Here’s everything that’s cool about Darwin, and everything you need to get the most out of your visit to the Northern Territory (aka the Top End) – outdoor adventures, dining and snagging a hotel room after a few days of camping.

Launchpad for Adventure

The promise of three nights of camping in the Outback brought me to Darwin. Tour companies vie for the chance to cart visitors into the Never Never. Trips can last mere hours or stretch into weeks. You’ll wind up fording rivers in off-road trucks, sometimes in water reaching the top of your wheel wells. You’ll hike to Jim Jim or Twin Falls. And animals? You’ll never stop scanning the water for salt-water crocs. The tours generally head to Litchfield Park or the monstrous slab of Outback known as Kakadu National Park. Wherever you go, have your camera batteries charged and plenty of room on your memory card.

Enjoying a sunny day in Darwin, NT.

Small City, Big Nightlife

Darwin is no Sydney. Heck, it’s not even Cairns. But its residents know how to have fun. Clubs and restaurants line the main streets. There’s no kind of food you can’t find. I was sad to hear that Lewinsky’s, my favorite wine bar in the world, closed a few years ago. But don’t fret too much. There’s plenty else to eat and drink. My favorite find was the Darwin Wharf Precinct; you can pick from a number of different selections at its food court. Being the culinary Indiana Jones I am, I picked the camel schnitzel. And I was pretty stoked to see a box jellyfish swimming near the pier.

Don’t Go Homeless

Darwin fills up pretty quickly. It’s remote, but is the place to be to see the Northern Territory. That kind of demand can make hotel rooms pretty scarce. So book a hotel well in advance. You’ll find everything from hostels to fancy four-star sorts of accommodations in Darwin. Even the low-budget choices can sting the wallet next to other Australian cities. Early planning can help your cash go further.

Want to see really Australian wildlife? Then get to Darwin and book a tour.

Shopping and Stuff

The Aboriginal culture takes front and center in Darwin. Numerous galleries sell art and Aborigine-made goods. Obviously, it can descend into kitsch – but you’ll see some genuine talent. And a few miles outside the city, you’ll find the Didgeridoo Hut – that’s where I snagged a beautiful eucalyptus didge -- and for a far lower price than I found in other cities. You can shop for the usual trinkets at the Parap Village Market, too. But the real reason to go there is for the food. Darwin is home to a diverse group of people, many from Southeast Asia. Parap Village Market is where you can get some great tastes of their cuisine. My favorite: Thai papaya salad with a hit of fiery flavor balanced with sweetness.

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Jumbo Stay at Stockholm Arlanda Airport

The Jumbo Stay blends into the background at Stockholm Arlanda Airport. If you spot it as your plane rolls along a taxiway, you might notice an aging widebody jet parked by its lonesome self in a secluded part of the airport.

But the Jumbo Stay is no regular Boeing 747. A closer look reveals that its four engines are gone. A tire swing hangs from the bottom of the rear fuselage. There’s a metal structure permanently attached to its left side. It’s not going anywhere. Though it says “747” on the outside, inside it’s all hotel. As far as I’ve discovered, it’s one of just four airplanes throughout the world converted to hotels. Here’s what you need to know about the Jumbo Hostel.

jumbo stay
Evening in the former first-class section of the 747 that is now Jumbo Stay.

Cool Factor + Convenience
Jumbo Stay is a quick bus ride from the terminals – it’s possible to walk, but I wouldn’t do it with luggage. We arrived late in the afternoon and had a flight to catch early the nex morning. We got pretty lost while trying to walk to the terminals. Some better signage pointing the way would be nice (and yes, you will lose sight of the old Boeing jumbo as you walk). Speaking of convenience, the rates include breakfast. It’s typical Scandinavian fare – cold cuts, bread, cheese, jam, some herring – which I love. The cafe is in the first-class section of the retired Boeing jet, and you can also buy other food and beverages during the non-breakfast hours.

More Comfort Than Coach Class
The Jumbo Stay owner did a great job in keeping the air travel vibe alive. There’s still a distinct sense of Boeing jumbo jet, despite being nearly unrecognizable  as you walk down the hallway. The rooms are small but efficient; ours had bunkbeds and a small TV. The mattresses were comfortable. Despite the airport location, we didn’t hear much airplane noise – and what we did hear didn’t affect our sleep.

jumbo stay
Welcome aboard Jumbo Stay.

Connect to Other Fun
You can book through the Jumbo Stay website to combine nights there with stays at other cool places – the ICEHOTEL in Jukkasjärvi and the Tree Hotel.

More About the Rooms
You’ll find all sorts of rooms at the Jumbo Stay. If you’re really well-heeled, book the cockpit room – you’ll get an incredible view from the distinctive hump of the old Boeing. You’ll also find dorm rooms with four beds, private rooms and nicer private rooms with their own bathrooms. Our room had room for three, but we used the shared showers/toilets (the same room we had goes for about $112 right now).

jumbo stay
Our room in the Jumbo Stay.
jumbo stay
Looking down the Jumbo Stay’s hallway.

T-Mobile “World” Smartphone Disappoints

smartphone
A smart phone could be handy for checking out foreign cities like Helsinki. Too bad T-Mobile dropped the ball on my latest trip.

People act like a smartphone can change their world. I had a less-lofty hope – I just wanted a smartphone that would be handy for traveling.

All I had in mind – a smartphone that could connect to 4G for GPS and a little bit of social network fun (mostly to give a real-time glimpse at some of my destinations).

That’s how I wound up with a Samsung Galaxy S Blaze. The T-Mobile sales person hooked me up with an upgrade to this phone, which is part of a class of smartphone known as “world phones.” Well, neither T-Mobile nor the S Blaze did much to help me travel abroad – so “world phone” is a misnomer.

Keep in mind, I bought this phone and took the subsequent trip to Scandinavia before I knew about TravelSIM.com.au, a clever company based in Australia. It offers pre-paid SIM cards online and in stores.
The T-Mobile store staff told me what I needed to do: Call T-Mobile, get my phone unlocked, buy a SIM card once I reached my destination (in this case, Scandinavia).

You can imagine how easy this would’ve been with TravelSIM – I could’ve carefully reviewed my options at home rather than making an ill-advised decision on the fly in an airport cell phone store.
T-Mobile’s customer service failed me at Step 2: I called three times to get my unlock code, which they were supposed to text and e-mail to me. I still haven’t gotten my unlock code.

My wife had better luck with her unlock code. So onto Step 3: Get a SIM card. We did this at the airport in Oslo, Norway. A few things worked against us: The sales person at the mobile phone store didn’t have much inclination to explain our SIM card options (he was not Scandinavian, and thus lacked the inherent friendliness of most of the people in the region). Talking to him was frustrating enough that we didn’t ask many questions. But we at least had a phone for any emergency that might arise.

I was able to connect to WiFi networks, but that wasn’t much help in the more remote areas.

So a word to my T-Mobile friends: Either have a “world phone” or not, none of this half-assed in-between nonsense. I really couldn’t used some GPS help in more than a few places. It’s ridiculous that you can call something a “world phone” if you fail to get me an unlock code, and then give me no concrete idea of what to look for in a SIM card. Better yet, sell a SIM card for different regions for travelers.

My final word: This is something I’ll remember as my contract expiration grows nearer. And I’ll see what other companies do better than T-Mobile for getting 4G service to its customers, no matter where they travel.

IcelandAir – Random Travel Photo

Now boarding in Bergen – the daily flight to Keflavik, Iceland.

IcelandAir has a cool practice: It names its aircraft after Icelandic volcanoes. I took two flights on Hekla, to and from JFK airport in New York. While I was waiting for a Norwegian Air Shuttle flight in Bergen, Norway, guess who showed up?

Well, it was the IcelandAir 757 Grimsvötn. I always thought the 757 is a particularly good-looking airplane. Something about the IcelandAir colors – and naming them after volcanoes – makes them even more sleek and slick. So I snapped a photo … and got jealous that I wasn’t going to Reykjavik anytime soon. Still, I guess a flight to Helsinki isn’t such a bad thing.

You can check out a complete list of the names of IcelandAir planes. Just be sure to scroll down to Fleet List.

Social Media for Travel Geeks – About Trippy.com

A few days ago, I started playing around with a social media travel site called Trippy.com. In a nutshell, it lets you organize places you’ve been and places you want to go with a photo to represent each of them. Trippy.com lets you organize them in boards. Let’s say you want a board of cool hotels and the best places to get dessert around the world. Name the boards accordingly, and then search for the place in the Trippy.com database. You can pick a photo that’s offered, or upload your own.

It’s addicting fun, and a nice way for bloggers to get an extra link to their blog, generate buzz, swap travel ideas. It integrates into Facebook.com, and it’s easy to share your boards with other social media sites. I’ve built a few based on cool hotels, stuff to do and flavors of the world.

There’s just one thing that annoys me about Trippy.com: When you sign up, it automatically makes you follow a little clatch of flavor-of-the-moment celebrities. And that shows up on social media sites connected to your profile.

I turned purple with rage at the idea of anyone who knows me seeing "Justin followed Jason Mraz on Trippy.com" on any of my social media pages. I un-followed the pre-loaded celebrities with extreme prejudice – but not before it wound up on my Facebook.com profile.

A "nice to have" would be some way to post updates – just some sort of random, pithy, travel-related thoughts. It might exist, and I just haven’t found it yet; if so, feel free to correct me. The login process is also pretty slow – I’d blame that on all the needlessly cute animation – which add nothing to the experience.

So Trippy.com is good social media fun for travel fiends. It has some flaws, but the Trippy.com team seems open to feedback. I’d expect to see some changes in the near future that will improve the site. I’m for once a fairly early adopter (I think --), and very interested in seeing how this site plays out.

Norway – A Quick Update

Norway is a good place to be in the summer. But I still wonder how that ‘good’ would turn really challenging in the winter. I’m still getting my head around the experience – I’ll have more to say when I return. Count on some epic photos … and maybe another quick update or two about where I am at the moment.

And I’ll have a lot to say about how worthless smart phones are for international travel. I love how the industry calls my Samsung Galaxy Blaze a ‘world phone.’ Not so much, as you’ll learn in a future episode.

Brisbane – Overlooked City of Australia

BNE CityFerry
The Brisbane riverside at night. (By Bachya Byrne via Wikimedia Commons)
Brisbane is Australia’s overlooked city. It was my last stop Down Under before heading back to the United States. Though I knew little about Brisbane, it became one of my favorite cities.

We arrived with barely any plans. Our first mission was to look for cheap Brisbane hotels. We picked a bad time to wait until the last minute because of a city-wide festival about to begin. We got lucky, though, and found an affordable place near the Queen Street Mall. That put us across the street from the apartment of some friends who lived in Australia at the time.

So what’s cool about Brisbane?

First off, the Brisbane Festival in September. It begins with a crazy fireworks display called Riverfire. In 2007, the fireworks started when F-111 jet fighter-bombers screeched over the city at sub-skyscraper altitude, flames from their afterburners casting a glow over the city. Australia no longer flies the F-111, so I’m not sure how Riverfire launches now. The weeks-long festival showcases art in all its forms. We had no clue about the festival when we arrived in Brisbane, but left blown away by its scope and quality.

Then, we did what we always do in an unfamiliar city: We walked. One of the better finds? The Queensland Museum. Since we like science and nature, we found a lot to enjoy. I always approach museums with caution – some are weighted heavily toward the kids. The Queensland Museum’s literature and displays had a nice balance – simple enough for younger visitors, but thorough enough for adults.

A look inside the Queensland Museum.

Then there’s the Queen Street Mall, an open-air thoroughfare of shops and dining. I didn’t do much shopping. I was there just to stroll around and enjoy the Brisbane ambiance. But I could’ve found anything from the usual touristy items to pretty much any clothes or sportswear – especially if it’s rugby, cricket or Australian Football League-related!

We also found a brewery called The Brewhouse. The selection wasn’t huge back in 2007 – but craft brewing was still filtering through Australia at the time. It’s a nice place to hang out and have a chocolate porter.

And I know this might be routine for some people -- but for a desert dweller like me, a ride down the Brisbane River on the CityCat is a lot of fun. Any amount of standing water gets me excited. Embarrassing, I know! It just continues the Australia theme of good public transportation by rail, boat or bus.

This post is sponsored by QuickBeds.com, the fee-free way to book cheap domestic and international accommodation. They’ve done their fair share of sleeping around so that you have the best deals on a not-so-slumberous 50,000 international and 4,000 domestic accommodation options. This includes hotels, apartments, B&Bs, backpackers, resorts, motels.

Sky Harbor Responds to “International Flight” Criticism

Welcome to Sky Harbor – small planes, small goals.

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport isn’t happy with a WanderingJustin.com post that hints that its staff lags in securing intercontinental routes and airlines.The recent “addition” of another British Airways flight didn’t impress me. More accurately, this will bring Phoenix back to seven flights a week from the current six; (seven years ago, the British Airways flight went from daily to six days a week, a fact The Arizona Republic skipped in its rush to cheerfully ralph up the city press release).

So, there’s little net gain. Sky Harbor is just back where it was seven years ago. Contrast that to Denver International Airport, which just made hay by snagging seasonal direct service to Iceland. Nice score for an outdoorsy metro area! It puts this snippy, defensive reply to my post from unnamed Sky Harbor personnel into perspective:

We have seen your blog in response to the added British Airways flight. Your disappointment in the number of international flights is concerning. Please be advised that airports compete heavily for air service and airlines make business decisions about where to fly based on the estimated profitability of the flight. This begins with the number of passengers that will fly daily in full-fare first and business class seats, followed by the number of additional passengers in full-fare and discount economy seats. Under the direction of the Mayor, Council and City Manager, the Aviation Department actively evaluates this local market and presents competitive information to airlines to encourage them to consider Phoenix. If you have research about the areas you mention in your blog such as Asia and Europe and evidence of 150-200+ people per day in the Valley who would buy seats on these flights, please share it with us. We would appreciate any such information that would assist the airlines in making what amounts to a multi-million dollar investment in our market and more international flights for the Valley. 
Thank you in advance for any information you can provide.
 

Customer Service
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport

So, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport wants me to do its job. It wants me to do what its staff can’t –  compete with competition like Denver International Airport. Sounds to me like Denver and its staff researched areas where 150-200+ people might make it worthwhile for an airline to make a multi-million-dollar investment in their market for international flights. Denver displayed the initiative, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport crew lacks. The score? Denver International Airport – 4 new Icelandair flights, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport – 1 “sort-of-new” British Airways flight.

My response:

Dear Customer Service,

Thanks for your response. I would be happy to help Sky Harbor in its mission to add intercontinental routes and carriers. We can approach it two ways: A per-hour consulting fee of $150, or a retainer for up to 20 hours of research per month. You could also arrange a panel of local travelers representing leisure and business segments to determine what routes are worth your thought. Finally, you could poll Sky Harbor travelers with questions related to their thoughts on intercontinental routes – a sample of about 3,000 is enough to be statistically relevant. 
 
Or, and I’m just spitballing here, you can encourage the people already on the city’s payroll to display initiative, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit.
 
Here’s a bit of free advice: Study the number of Phoenix travelers who have to fly to Los Angeles International, Chicago O’Hare, San Francisco International, Newark, John F. Kennedy and Houston Intercontinental to transfer to flights abroad. Determine the top destinations. Court those airlines and routes heavily. Just off the top of my head, I know that United Airlines – possibly as a punitive punishment over a squabble for international flights – cancelled the soon-to-be-implemented 787 service from Houston to Auckland (word is it was an excuse to put the 787 on a route to Japan instead, while also sticking it to the Houston City Council). Now, if I were a Sky Harbor employee tasked with attracting new routes, I’d look into pitching 787 service from Phoenix to Auckland starting at four flights a week. Such a flight would pull passengers from the Qantas and Air New Zealand flights from LAX and possibly SFO. Name a passenger who loves flying from LAX … oh, that’s right: Nobody likes flying from LAX. Other aspects to consider: New Zealand is an English-speaking country that makes a convenient travel experience for American travelers. And the U.S. dollar is strong next to the Kiwi dollar. Plus filling up a 787 on this route wouldn’t be as difficult as a 777 or 747, which is the 787’s mission – long, thin routes. 
 
Here’s something else I’d add – consider what Phoenix Sky Harbor could offer travelers seeking intercontinental routes. Phoenix Sky Harbor has a compact footprint, and it will be even easier to navigate with the opening of the rail system that will connect each terminal. That will make a connecting experience far better than the mad scrambles of airports like LAX. That means quicker, easier connections and less stress. Sell that hard.
 
I will be out of the country starting next week until mid July. Feel free to contact me to further discuss a consulting arrangement. 

I’m curious: Why does Sky Harbor care what one blogger thinks about international flights? Why acknowledge me at all instead of crowing about the “new” British Airways flight?

I know attracting new routes and airlines isn’t easy. They don’t appear overnight with the wave of a magic travel wand. But … nothing new in seven years? Is this really the best Phoenix can do?

The Kangaroo – A Spotter’s Guide

Hold still, Skippy! My one half-decent wild kangaroo shot. And I’m not even convinced it’s not actually a wallaby.

A kangaroo in the wild is nothing like what you see in the zoo.

Stealth and speed kept me from getting many good kangaroo photos. I tried hard, everywhere from Kakadu National Park to the Atherton Table Lands.

First off, imagine the setting: Forest lands, often dotted with termite mounds. When you scan the terrain, you’ll see the trees. And you’ll see the termite mounds. Things get interesting, though, when a group of "termite mounds" starts to move. Fast. Their body shape at rest is an amazing camouflage.

From a distance, a good-sized kangaroo can look like a big ol’ termite mound.

Now, just set aside your notions of how a kangaroo moves when it’s hell-bent to get away from you. Forget everything you imagine about a placid, languid bounce.

Instead, imagine a furry missile streaking over the land. From what I could see, they fold their upper bodies parallel to the ground. They push off with their hind legs and project their considerable power back rather than up. The result is a tremendous burst of speed – and little chance for the camera I carried at the time to catch any action: My Fuji superzoom was great for landscape, but was just overmatched for trying to catch a fast, quick, camera-shy creature.

So if you want to photograph Skippy, remember these tips:

  • Be quiet
  • Be patient
  • Use an SLR
  • Bring a big, honkin’ lens, no less than 200 millimeters.

Scandinavia – My Travel Packing List

Epic trips require epic backpacks. Store that away for a rainy day, eh?

Scandinavia is less than a month away. Well, same for Finland, which is really a Nordic country. No matter what you call this trip, it’s time to mentally pack my bags for a trip through Sweden, Finland, Norway and possibly a bit of Estonia.

We like camping and hiking when we travel, which adds challenges people who go on laid-back beach vacations won’t ever encounter. So, what’s on the packing list for Scandinavia? Pretty much the same stuff I brought to Iceland with a few new additions …

  • Cook stove (MSR Whisperlite International) – I’ll never go on a camping vacation without it after seeing a French family whip up a gourmet meal with one -- while I choked down a cold military MRE pack. It sounds like bottles and fuel are readily available in Scandinavia. There’s no reason to eat bad when you travel!
  • t-shirts and underwear (tasc Performance) – I wind up wearing the same stuff for many days. The bamboo blend of the tasc Performance gear resists funky stench. And it’s super-comfortable. tasc sent me some of its latest bamboo/merino wool blends to test out above the Arctic circle. It’s not on the tasc website yet, but you can check here for other tasc goodies. Watch for a full review later. I expect they’ll be great for hiking and camping.
  • Shirts (Kuhl Breakaway Cafe) – These follow the "no stink allowed" theme. They’re made from something called Coffeenna, which incorporates recycled coffee grounds to beat the stink. Also comfortable to the max. I flogged them without mercy in the humidity of Asia and stayed fresh the whole while. A perfect travel shirt.

I’ll also bring a few packets of freeze-dried foods to get us started. But we may switch to canned stuff once we’re on the ground … I imagine all sorts of canned fish products in Scandinavia. Lutefisk, anyone?

And my travel pillow stays home this time. I’ll bring an inflatable pillow instead, and use a stuff sack as either a pillowcase or a second pillow. I might also skip my infamous hat and just roll with a decent stocking cap instead. But that should do it for the big Scandinavia trip.

Inside a “Love Hotel” in South Korea

love hotel
A look inside a room at Busan’s Queen Hotel

The amenities in a South Korea "love hotel" are not what you’ll see at your local Holiday Inn: flashing colored lights over the bed, a higher-than-average number of mirrors, a "personal massager" for sale in the minibar.

If you travel to South Korea, though, you’ll find some good reasons to check into a love hotel. Here’s what you need to know about the "love hotel" experience:

Why They Exist

In South Korea, it’s not unusual for several generations of a family to live together. Sure, that can make for a close-knit family. But it also detracts from privacy. So when couples feel like gettin’ freaky/frisky/funky, they might leave the family at home and check into a love hotel for a night – or even a few hours.

Why They’re Different

love hotel
An outside view of the Queen Motel in Busan

First of all, a love hotel in South Korea is cheap – as much as half the cost of a conventional hotel. And they’re considerably nicer than hostels or guesthouses: You’ll find a generously sized TV, a computer with Internet and very likely a fancy Japanese toilet that can blast a jet of water a good 12 feet. It’s everything people need while they travel – and then some. Also, you’ll enter through a discreet entrance designed to conceal guest’s identities. You’ll pay through a bank teller-like window (and possibly not even make eye contact with the staff) in cash per day. And I’m serious about the in-room amenities. The staff issues a little care package with things like powdered coffee, tea bags, razors, hair ties, bubble bath gel … and condoms.

Why You Might Think Twice

As far as I could tell, most love hotels allow smoking in rooms. That’s a tough smell to get out of the rooms to nonsmokers’ satisfaction. It took a little arm twisting to make sure it was eradicated from our room – or at least enough to pass muster.

love hotel
A typical love hotel amenity kit

How You Can Find One

It seems love hotels don’t really fly their flag on the Internet. There’s a feeling that the people of South Korea consider them ever-so-slightly tawdry (if necessary). But they stick out in the landscape. Just look for a building that’s on the garish side, likely with a word like "Queen" or "Castle" or somesuch in the name: I saw one called the Wow Motel. If you see neon, fringe and jarring colors, you’ve found yourself a love hotel.

 

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Camping adds Natural Flavor to International Travel

Camping makes international travel better. You won't get this experience in a Reykjavik hotel.

I don’t travel without a sleeping bag – and I even prefer to bring my own tent.

Ever since my trip to New Zealand, I’ve tried to work camping into my travel itinerary. That’s where I first discovered that international travel is a good chance to break away from staying in hotels. And New Zealand’s system of hiking huts in its national parks also impressed me. I regretted that I didn’t think to bring a sleeping bag every time I saw a tent off in some quiet spot.

My Kiwi camping revelation made me re-think the possibilities of where to lay my head at night. My next trip was a summertime jaunt to Iceland. I know – it’s not the first place most people would think to camp. But the days I spent camping in Iceland were some of my most memorable experiences. I slept in my tent near the noses of glaciers at Skaftafell, on the shores of Myvatn, even in the remote highlands along the Laugavegur. Hotels in Iceland aren’t exactly cheap, so I was able to save a fistful of króna while getting a little closer to the landscape.

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On the shore of Myvatn at Vogar campground.

For my recent trip to South Korea and Japan, I knew the chances of camping were more remote. Still, my tent and sleeping bag were the first items in my backpack. I didn’t wind up getting a chance to camp, but I was ready for anything.

When I finally get to the UK, my camping gear will go with me. I’ll find some good campsites and be ready for some outdoor fun. Iceland was nearly silent since there’s very little wildlife scampering about – I imagine a forest in Ireland or the UK would be much more alive with the sound of creatures.

Give camping a try on your next trip. You don’t even have to bring your tent. New Zealand, Iceland and the UK all have sites with huts, yurts and other accommodations far more fun than the typical hotel or hostel experience. You’ll save some weight in your backpack and still have a close-to-nature place to sleep.

This post is featured by Pitchup.com. Pitchup.com is your free guide to all types of camping and caravanning in the UK and Ireland – judged Best UK Travel Website of the Year 2011 and Best UK Travel Information Site 2010. With 5,000 campsites and holiday parks (including more than 200 to book), nifty searching and loads of offers, it has never been easier to find and book the perfect site – and rediscover the glee in camping and caravanning.

South Korea Destination: Manjanggul Lava Tube

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A slow-shutter look at Majanngul Lava Tube

I can wax poetic about a lava tube all day long. There’s just something cool about walking where glowing lava once flowed. When I found out there was a lava tube on Jeju Island in South Korea, I had to go.

The quest to find Manjanggul Lava Tube is why Sarah and I took a city bus out into the countryside of the island known as the Hawaii of South Korea. We hopped off the bus and two miles up a road. We left the sea behind and headed into a forest of shady trees and huge spiders.

And lava tubes. Lots of them, only a few of them fully mapped and likely many left undiscovered.

But we’re headed to one that’s certainly well discovered. Manjanggul is a well-known attraction, judging from the steady flow of traffic along the road. Taxis honk at us, hoping to take us the rest of the way. But we’re walkers – we decline every few moments with what we hope is a polite head-shake and wave.

And we come to the parking lot. We pay an entry fee of less than $2 – a spectacular deal for a 30-minute walk underground.

manjanggul
Another look at Majanggul Lava Tube.

By this time, I’d been in South Korea long enough to expect even a lava tube to be a bit well-developed. As I feared, Manjanggul is a bit too regular, tame and paved to slake my thirst for the shadowy depths of a former volcanic hot spot. It’s certainly nothing like the Ape Cave lava tube in Cougar, Washington.

On the other hand, Manjanggul is grand, with a ceiling that arches high above. So far, researchers have plumbed about 50,000 feet of it. Only about 3,500 feet are open to the public, though.

It’s nice and damp inside Manjanggul, with some nice lighting effects. The flow of traffic never seems to stop, so you won’t experience the solitude that you can in more rugged, remote lava tubes. But the grandeur that earned Manjanggul status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site makes it well worth the trip to South Korea and to Jeju Island. If you’re creative with camera settings, you can also snag some nice photos.

 

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New Zealand – Up and Coming Craft Beer Destination

Outdoor adventure and craft brew go hand-in-hand ... but wait until after for the brew, right?

During my 2009 visit, New Zealand had everything needed to be a great travel destination for craft beer fans: a do-it-yourself attitude, a friendly vibe and the perfect climate to grow untold tons of tasty hops. But I was too early – the craft beer craze hadn’t kindled for Kiwis.

Today, though, I can’t log in to Twitter without hearing about a new craft brewery popping up in Rotorua or Queenstown. Some are just ramping up and earning attention, like Renaissance Brewing Company: I tried its Stonecutter Scotch Ale and 2009 MPA Double IPA at my local brew store, and both were spectacular. Pay attention to what I say, curious beer connoisseur: Book a ticket for New Zealand. Here’s why:

Home-Grown Hops

If you make a product with ingredients directly from the source, you get good results. It stands to reason, then, that the hops I mentioned will produce delicious brews. Just south of Nelson, you’ll see expanses of hops that will send IPA lovers into a state of bliss. That MPA I mentioned earlier? Its Rakau hops infused the brew with a distinct note of apple I’ve tasted in no other hop.

And I can only wonder what the folks at Monkey Wizard (I don’t have to tell you that’s an awesome name, right?) craft brewery are up to. I passed the brewery twice, on my way to and from Abel Tasman National Park – each time I got forlorn that it wasn’t open, and I couldn’t stop the bus even if it was. So do me a favor: Go there and tell me how awesome it is.

Outdoor Adventures of All Kinds

Leave it to Kiwis to turn a cargo plane into hotel rooms.

Craft beer is the pepperoni on the gooey pizza of outdoor activities. Mountain biking, hiking, ice climbing, bungee jumping -- they’re best re-lived over pints. Everywhere you travel in New Zealand, somewhere is advertising some sort of activity straight out of a Red Bull commercial. I barely scratched the surface with Zorbing, street luge and glacier hiking.

My mountain biker nature is still bitter that I failed to try the Schweeb. I still don’t know why I did that. Maybe it was a "bizarre activity overload." Here’s another chance for you to learn from my mistakes: Try everything you can, and find one of these great new craft breweries to relive the rush.

Crazy, Cool and Comfortable

For two nights in Waitomo, I slept in a cargo plane turned into two hotel suites. Other rooms were made from old boxcars and a yacht. While none of my other NZ accommodations were quite as creative, all were reasonably priced and very homey. For instance, every hotel we stayed at had a kitchenette. That means a great place to store any craft beer you score at the local market. And kitchenettes are nice for long trips because it’s easy to get tired of dining out. It’s also fun to try the awesome ingredients from the many farmers markets (Produce and meat in New Zealand are first-rate).

This post is sponsored by Jason’s Travel Media. With extensive online booking for both accommodation and activities, Jason’s is not only a fantastic travel information resource but also a one-stop shop for any travelers, domestic or international.

Travel in Russia – Thoughts from a Cold War Kid

6582 - Moscow - Red Square
When I was 12, I never would've imagined I could visit Red Square. Which made it intriguing ...

There’s something about travel in Russia that appeals to me. I’m convinced it’s because I’m a late Cold War Kid.

One of my earliest memories is the Miracle on Ice – the dramatic U.S. hockey victory over the Soviet Union. I grew up with movies like Red Dawn. I remember wondering when we’d have a nuclear war. The Soviet Union was mysterious, dangerous, hostile. Which made it fascinating.

Sure enough, the Soviet Union collapsed. The once-feared hammer and sickle is clever marketing for selling soda. There are groups of American Airsoft players who relish the role of being Soviet soldiers, right down to accurate uniforms and gas masks.

And now … I can go there!

A former colleague already has. Ryan is now in Russia for a semester of study. He writes about it in his RussianRamblings blog, and I look forward to having him drop in here to share thoughts and advice. Be sure to check out his post about the banya. Way to step into the culture, Ryan!

This is pretty awesome for Ryan, and it sounds like he’ll make the most of the experience.

In my case, a trip to Russia will likely be part of something larger. I have visions of hitting the Scandinavian and Nordic countries in addition to Russia. This is all just starting to take shape in my head. But it could be way awesome – multiple countries and some trail travel are always fun.

My Switch Vision sunglasses giveaway is still going on! Competition is heating up, with hikers and mountain bikers pitching in some great stories about the best thing they’ve ever found on a trail. Best story wins! Check this blog post  for the rules. Deadline is March 30, 2012.