Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Copenhagen, Trondheim, and Snasa

Warning: This post is image-heavy!

Copenhagen - Day 2

After my first day wandering around Copenhagen, I retired to my very comfortable bed at the First Hotel Mayfair. The hotel included breakfast, which was a bonus in a city like Copenhagen which is rather expensive. I checked out and left my bags at the hotel, since I was moving to a hostel for my second night. They were a bit surprised when I told them I'd be back around 9pm for my bags, but it turned out to be fairly accurate.

My second day I started out by going palace-hopping. First up was Christiansborg Palace, which had two parts: The Royal Reception Rooms and the Ruins. I did the Royal Reception Rooms first, and after putting on bright blue shoe-coverings, I entered the rooms. Many of the rooms were full of "typical" palace riches, however, the great hall stood out as unique (and seriously awesome)... All the walls were covered in brightly-colored tapestries detailing over 1000 years of Danish history. The tapestries were only recently woven (within the past 15 years, I believe), and they are stunning. They cover everything from Danish Viking history to the black death to the reformation to the Nazi occupation, all in a gigantic rainbow tapestry. In my opinion, the great hall was worth the price of admission alone.

Tapestry-filled Great Hall


Tapestry!

Tapestry and me!

Christiansborg Palace

One of the classier selfies!

Next up was the ruins, which were interesting, although sadly not very well preserved due to the fires which created the ruins in the first place. The ruins included the infamous Blue Tower (now a small, indistinguishable pile of rubble) and some various other relics from the old palaces dating back to 1167. I joined the tour of the ruins a few minutes late, and I highly recommend it -- The ruins themselves aren't that much to look at, but the stories behind them are very cool.

The remains of the Blue Tower

Leaving Christiansborg, I caught the bus to Frederiksborg Castle, which houses many of the royal storerooms, including the Crown Jewels. Again, much of it contained typical palace riches which were very neat, but the room housing the glass collection, as well as the coronation chairs were both especially nice. I also took a lot of selfies in all the various highly decorated mirrors:

Frederiksborg Castle

Fancy Mirror Selfie

One of the storerooms at the castle

Crown Jewels!

After touring the Castle and Crown Jewels, I continued into the adjoining park, which was packed with people -- Mostly Danes enjoying the weather. Across the street at the far end of the park was the David Museum, which houses a collection of Islamic art from the 8th century to the 19th century. The collection is extensive and well-presented, and I stayed until closing time at 5pm wandering through the exhibits.

When I finished, I headed over to Malmo, Sweden to meet up with a fellow Stanford Class of 2018 member who lives there. We spent a few hours wandering and talking, then I headed back to Denmark to check in to my hostel. Unfortunately, before I could go back I had to buy a train ticket, and of course the machine didn't accept my chip+signature card (I'm working on getting a chip+pin card, but I don't have it yet unfortunately) and since I was only popping over into Sweden for a few hours, I didn't have any Swedish Krona, only Danish Krones. Eventually I found an ATM and all was well though.

I had dinner at a Thai Restaurant (a.k.a. traditional Danish food) which was excellent and reasonably priced, then picked up my bags and went to the hostel. After checking in, I spent several hours talking with a few fun people from the hostel, and eventually went to bed.

Copenhagen Day 3

My final day in Copenhagen was spent wet and amused. I started in Nyhavn, wandering around the harbor area before running into (ha, no) the Copenhagen Marathon, around which a massive crowd was gathered.

Marathon passing through Nyhavn
The harbor
I watched for a while, had lunch, and then decided to go to the Danish National Museum. The museum is easily accessible by bus, but is not near any metro stations. Naturally, because of the marathon, all the buses were running significantly behind schedule -- I decided a 1km walk in the rain wouldn't be as bad as waiting 30 minutes for the bus to potentially (never) come. Shortly after I committed to the walk, it started raining heavily, and I got drenched... Fortunately both my jacket and my Stanford-shirt were both made of quick-drying material, and the museum was interesting enough to distract me from the awful wet and damp feeling. I only covered from prehistory to the Viking Age, but the exhibits were neat. By the time I left the museum, I was mostly dry... Just in time for more rain while walking to the Ny Carlsborg Glyptotek for more ancient stuff.

Runestone at the Danish National Museum

Again, since I was short on time (5pm closings are rough!), I decided to start with the Ancient Egyptian collection, then continue into the Greek and Roman collections. The museum's Egyptian collection was pretty good, with a massive relief of Ramses II, multiple false-doors, and several mummies, including one from Roman times without a traditional Egyptian head-mask. Though their Greek and Roman collections were lacking, sadly. I'm probably just spoiled from having visited both Athens and Rome relatively recently, but aside from their massive collection of busts, the Roman and Greek portions left a lot to be desired (read: a head, in the case of the many headless torsos, and a body, in the case of the many torsoless heads).

I bet this is what France looked like during the revolution
So, I was wondering how to make my walk through the Roman collection more fun, when I realized that I had an opportunity to do something completely tasteless but fun: Selfies with the busts. Many of the rooms were fairly empty since it was later in the day, and I managed to take a bunch of selfies. I posted them on my Facebook, but I'll spare you the horror, since I am too lazy to collect them into a single collage at the moment.

When I left the Ny Carlsborg Glyptotek, it had finally stopped raining, so I stopped by the Thai restaurant again, then headed to the hostel to get my bags and go to the airport for my evening flight, which was completely uneventful... The approach to Trondheim by air is awesome, and while it isn't exactly bright at midnight, it was still plenty light enough to enjoy the scenery. Get a window seat and leave your electronic devices in your bag... I know I should have.

Final Thoughts on Copenhagen
Copenhagen was a fun city to visit, and I felt like I chose roughly the right about of time to visit -- 2.5-3 days was enough to cover the major sights, visit some museums, and still have time to wander around and enjoy the city. If I could, I might add another half-day, but otherwise I think ~3 days is a good amount of time to see the city.  I stayed at the First Hotel Mayfair for my first night, then at Copenhagen Backpackers on my second night. My favorite place was the Christiansborg Palace, primarily because I absolutely loved the tapestries.

Trondheim

Trondheim airport
 The airport bus passed through a city apparently called Hell:
The weather is pretty good in Hell
We also passed by Trondheim fjord shortly after "sunset"

I got to my hotel, P-Hotel Brattora, just before midnight (a.k.a. dusk). It is the closest hotel to the train station, and was a nice base for visiting the city the next day. They also have a great outdoor sun-deck with tables and chairs, and I was able to get a lot of work done with the great weather and fantastic views of the harbor to my left and the fjord (and train tracks) to my right.

Panorama taken without getting up from my seat
My first stop in the morning was the Nidaros Cathedral, a large stereotypically Gothic church, and the Northernmost medieval cathedral. Normally I am not a church person (usually I believe once you've seen a few, you've seen them all), but this one was different for some reason. I can't place why, but I really liked this church -- I think it might have been because of the archaeological exhibits alongside the church, in addition to having the place mostly to myself. The West end has been restored and has a variety of religious sculptures, and the interior is nicely decorated and again, stereotypically Gothic. There is a large sitting area facing the West end which is a great place to sit and relax and admire the architectural work, and next to the church is the Archbishop's Palace with the Norwegian crown jewels and an exhibit of the original sculptures and decorations of the church from 1050-1250.

Self-timer!
I spent a long time at the church and exhibits, then wandered around town for a while before heading back to an Italian restaurant in the main square.

On the Old Town Bridge

Houses on the Water

I had a pizza at the restaurant, and afterwards I felt like shit. Italian food and being active and sightseeing really don't mix well, and after doing a bit more wandering, I went back to the hotel to work for a while. The hotel had an open deck overlooking the harbor, so I spent a while working there until I had recovered and completed a few of the Stanford forms. I found another Thai restaurant rated highly on Tripadvisor, and I set off. The food was great as usual, and I realized just how big of a difference it made when a few minutes later I felt good as new. I wandered down to the Harbor for a while, walked past a few barricades for some pictures, and then went back to my hotel around 11pm to pack and set my alarm for my early train to Snasa.

It was worth the barrier-jump!

Final Thoughts on Trondheim

I really enjoyed Trondheim, and again, I felt like I chose a good amount of time to visit. A day was enough to see the church and explore the city a bit, and I had enough time that I could have visited a museum or two if they were open. I'd happily go back to visit again and spend a few days relaxing, although that wouldn't be ideal for this trip, given my time constraints. My favorite place was definitely the Nidaros Cathedral... For a church, it is toward the top of my list of the ones I have visited.

Snasa and Public Transit Extraordinaire

I wrote this post while heading back to Trondheim on the morning train from Snasa, where I went to visit a friend. He was a great host, and we played bridge last night which was a lot of fun. It was my fifth bridge club outside of the US (the others were in England, Czech Republic, Austria, and Greece). The views from my seat on the ride both ways were/are great, and Norwegian farmland is quite picturesque... Everything is ridiculously green, and together with various fjords, it has made for very enjoyable train trips. I have a few videos from the ride, but I'll save those for when I have more robust WiFi than is available on the train. Here are a few pictures:





This train trip is the beginning of nearly a week of using trains, buses, and ferries to get around. I'll be spending all day from 11am-10pm today on trains and buses, but hopefully the scenery will be worth it (so far so good!)

Friday, May 16, 2014

Random Musings

Yesterday was spent traveling -- I met my grandfather at the airport, had lunch with him, then handed him my car keys and headed off. I was very fortunate to escape many of the travel debacles that affected a lot of flights: The weather in Tampa was awful, with heavy rain, wind, and thunderstorms, and the weather in Chicago was supposedly pretty bad too. My flight left on time, and upon arriving in Chicago, I immediately set out on a quest to top up the charges on all of my devices... Which would have been wonderful, except there were no plugs available anywhere. Eventually I went over to the international terminal and found a bench next to two empty plugs. It felt like a godsend until I actually sat on the bench and realized why nobody was using these plugs: The bench could have won an award for world's most uncomfortable place to sit. Even if it wouldn't win, it would probably only be slightly behind a cactus. Or a cactus in the behind, whatever.

I spent a while on this wonderful bench, then about 2 hours before my flight, I figured I'd go through security, grab some dinner, and board my plane. I eventually did all of these things, but not before a 45-minute wait through security. There were plenty of TSA agents and staff available, but they only had one lane open... The rest of the staff seemed to be having a conference of some kind where they stand around in a circle and laugh at all the poor travelers waiting for them to do their jobs. Eventually the conference finished and instead of attending to the massive line of travelers anxious to get through security (many of whom were about to miss their flights), the wonderful agents decided to have dinner. The poor guy in front of me made it through security only 15 minutes before his flight took off, but hey, at least I felt safe.

After my security debacle, I had just enough time to get food and board my flight. Onboard, I got to my seat which was broken: The reclining button was stuck, so any time I leaned back at all, my seat would violently jerk backwards. A technician came and fixed the seat, and then things ran a bit more smoothly from there... I even got a little sleep before landing in Copenhagen at 1pm today.

Upon landing, I took the metro to the central station and walked to my hotel which was a short distance away. I'll be moving to a hostel for tomorrow night, but when I found this mistake rate, a night in a 4-star hotel for $32 was too good to pass up. This site is a great resource for finding mistake rates around the world, and sometimes the stars (and dates) will line up for one of the deals to work!

Tonight's Hotel Room
After checking in, I wandered aimlessly around the city for 5 hours. When I arrive somewhere and only have a half-day for my first day, I like to use it to wander around and explore -- Often I stumble on the coolest things just by walking. I walked down to the waterside and explored the area for a while, eventually stumbling upon a greenhouse dome which housed a bunch of plants along with a two-story sustainable house. I then wandered into the Christanshavn neighborhood, best known for its anti-establishment and pro-weed-smoking rules. While I didn't partake, it was an interesting area to explore. A bunch more wandering later, and I started to get kind-of tired. Since I have this nice hotel room for the night, I figured I'd come back, relax, and write up a blog post while I work to shake off any lingering traces of jetlag.

Selfie Numero Uno


Sustainable Dome-Thing
P.S. Speaking of jetlag, I seem to be able to adjust to a new time-zone quite easily when traveling, but I have a really difficult time adjusting back when I get home... Oh well, at least I've got 7 weeks of this time-zone (+/- 2 hours) to go!

P.P.S. Writing blog posts is a bit more time-consuming than I thought, but I'll try to post something in the next couple days.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

On Accommodation

One of the most important aspects of any trip is sleep. Sure, sightseeing, visiting friends, and experiencing a new place are all wonderful, but it is impossible to do any of these without sleep. Travel is tiring, and after a full day of exploring a new city, often nothing sounds better than collapsing on a comfortable bed for the night. This post will cover how I like to approach the process of finding a good place to sleep for each night during my travels. In general, I have five goals for each place I sleep:

  1. To stay well-rested
  2. To stay somewhere safe
  3. To stay somewhere central
  4. To meet other travelers or friends
  5. To avoid paying twenty-nine metric fucktons for the previous four criteria


Sometimes not all of these goals are possible, but they are a good baseline to strive toward.

One of the absolute best options, if possible, is to stay with friends who live in the city you plan to visit. Meeting up with people who live in your destinations not only offers an opportunity to reconnect with friends, but also to learn about good places to eat, drink, and sightsee.

In many places, however, staying with a friend isn't possible. When this is the case, there are a multitude of accommodation options, from hostels to hotels to real BnBs to AirBnB to couch-surfing, and trying to decide which one is appropriate for each destination can be difficult. 

I'll try to give a run-down of each type of accommodation and some other tips. In all cases reading TripAdvisor and any other reviews of properties is absolutely vital! Learn to trust the masses: There will always be one or two people who have bad experiences, but if the majority overwhelmingly recommends a property, it is likely to be good. Look at customers' pictures, and don't let your opinion of a property become tainted by a single review claiming the property is the equivalent of the Bates Motel. As always, the more reviews the better -- I avoid staying at properties with only one or two reviews if I can help it. Tripadvisor is a great start, but branching out to other sites (such as Hostelbookers or Kayak) for reviews can also be a good idea if Tripadvisor is lacking. 

My approach to this trip has been as follows:


1. Use hostels or hotels for one-night stays.

2. If planning to take tours and do day-trips, avoid types of accommodation where I might feel obliged to spend more time with my host. This means hostels or hotels for busy and tightly-packed stays.
3. Try to find friends to stay with when possible, provided I won't just be showing up for one night and then disappearing.
4. Use AirBnB or Couchsurfing for longer stays if reasonable options are available
5. For some longer stays, stay at a hostel if it is in a fun location (or if the hostel is much more convenient)
6. Include one hotel night for every 10-15 days of alternative accommodation to enable me to recharge

While following these six guidelines, my secondary goal is to keep my average spent per night below $60. Considering the extensive amount of time I'll be spending in expensive destinations (Scandinavia, London, Paris, Switzerland, St. Petersburg), this seems like a reasonable target. Hopefully I'll get it even lower than that.


While most of the places I will be staying aren't especially exotic or interesting, I do have a couple lodging plans I am really excited about: 


In Interlaken, I'll be staying in a tent. A tent hostel surrounded by mountains of course. Each tent contains several beds, complete with sheets, pillows, and blankets.



I'll be sleeping in one of these!
My last night in Stockholm, instead of having to wake up extra early to get to the airport which is 30+ minutes outside of the city, I'll be staying on a plane. There is an old 747 which is now grounded and has been converted into a hostel/hotel called JumboStay and I'll be staying there for my final night. While I didn't book the Cockpit Suite or Black Box Suite (I was tempted!), I'm still really excited about it.


... Because I won't already be spending enough time on a plane flying home.
I also have a mistake rate at a 4-star hotel in Copenhagen for my first night, but I have a bad feeling about it. $32 instead of $295 might not fly, but I'm going to give it a try! If it falls through, I'll probably try to extend my hostel stay for the next night or rely on Hotel Tonight.

Throughout my planning process I have learned new tricks for finding and booking hotels. Here are 8 assorted tips on the process:


1. Tripadvisor is my best friend, and it should be yours too. I can't say this enough. No matter what sort of accommodation I am looking at, Tripadvisor is my first stop. In the cases of AirBnB or Couchsurfing where Tripadvisor doesn't have information, I trust the reviews and avoid places with 1-2 reviews or references if possible. Don't be afraid to ask as many questions about the accommodation as you feel are necessary.

2. Just because you can't find a hotel in one place doesn't mean you should give up. There have been times when I found a hotel on Tripadvisor and wanted to book it, but Tripadvisor told me it was sold out. A quick check of Kayak showed that there was a site that still was showing rooms available, and I jumped on it. The same thing goes for flights -- Don't just stick to searching one site! (A great example of this is my Amsterdam-Moscow and St. Petersburg-Stockholm flights -- I found options with perfect times, but I waited until I had confirmed I had my Russian visa before trying to book. They disappeared from all US-based booking sites when I looked a couple days later, but I was still able to find them on ebookers!)


3. The blind-bookings on Hotwire and Priceline can be good resources for hotels, but only when you are OK with any of the potential options. In many European cities, this is not the case, since there are often a few really poor 3 or 4 star properties you'll want to avoid, and you wouldn't be able to do so through Hotwire or Priceline (although they now show you the Tripadvisor rating for the property usually -- A very useful thing to look at before booking). The best places for Hotwire or Priceline are smaller cities and places like Scandinavia, where all the options are high-quality. Yet again, Tripadvisor is also good way to judge when Hotwire or Priceline could be best: When all the possible options are very close together (if you care about location) or when they are all rated highly (if you care about quality), often using either site can be a good option.

3. For chain hotels (see my rant below), avoid using booking sites like Orbitz or Expedia because those rates often are ineligible for any loyalty program rewards directly from the hotel. Instead, try to go through a portal found via Cash Back Monitor and book directly on the hotel's website.



4. If not booking a chain hotel, always make sure you are getting some sort of benefits or rewards back if possible. Especially for a longer trip (or if you are staying in places for one night), going through cash-back or other reward portals can add up, and they have offers for almost every major hotel booking site (as well as the Hotel's own site in many cases too). Use a site like Cash Back Monitor to find a suitable portal. You can get 3% back on Hostelbookers, 5-7.5% back on Orbitz, and 5.5-7% back on hotels.com. My preference is hotels.com, which I explain in tip #6.

5. Best rate guarantees can be an a great way to score free or discounted hotel nights. Many sites and hotel chains have their own variation of a best rate guarantee, and if you can get your claim approved, it can be an easy way to heavily subsidize your stay. Unfortunately, getting these claims approved can sometimes be a pain, but in many cases it's worth the effort. I don't have too much experience here, but I did manage to get one approved with Orbitz: Expedia was offering a hotel for $110 and Orbitz was offering the same room for $159.


6. Many major booking sites have their own loyalty programs which offer even more money back... My preferred choice is hotels.com, which effectively gives 10% back on every booking through their Welcome Rewards program, and that rate is the best in the industry that I am aware of. Many sites offer bonuses or discounts for bookings of multiple nights, and often these are worth $20-$100 as well. For example, Orbitz currently gives 15% off all eligible hotels (until June 1st) by using the promo code "GETHAPPY" in addition to their usual 3% back through Orbitz Rewards, and Hotels.com currently offers $20 off a 3-night booking by using the promo code "REBATES14". 

I can usually get a hotel at a minimum of a 10-15% discount, not counting the 3-7% back I get through tip #4. For hostels, it is more difficult to get much back, although sometimes the major booking sites will offer rooms at hostels too. For example, I booked my night at JumboStay (the 747 hostel/hotel) through Hotels.com for the same price I could have gotten through a hostel booking site.

Even though it might not sound like it is worth the trouble of going through these steps when booking hotels, the benefits add up quickly, especially when booking close to 54 nights worth of lodging! 

Using my JumboStay booking as an example, the private room I booked cost $108. I will get 10% of that back from Hotels.com's loyalty program, and 5.5% of that back from the portal I used to click through to Hotels.com. After both of these, it will really only cost me $91.26... And that's without any promo codes. Not bad!

7. Other noteworthy sites I haven't mentioned yet include Rocketmiles and PointsHound which offer airline miles for hotel stays. Rocketmiles offers a minimum of 1000 miles a night, while PointsHound offers 100-1000ish... Rocketmiles has a more limited collection of hotels, but they usually offer a lot more miles than PointsHound. Both are worth checking out depending on the circumstances, and although I still feel I can do better on balance by booking through Hotels.com, I do use both sites from time-to-time. 


If you do decide to join either site, you can earn bonus miles for being referred by an existing member:

For Rocketmiles, you can get 1000 bonus miles on your first booking by using my referral link: 
Join RocketMiles
For Pointshound, you can get 250 bonus miles on your first booking by using my referral link: 
Join PointsHound
If you do happen to join using either link, thanks! I get the same amount of bonus miles (1000 or 250 respectively) for a referral after you book your first hotel.

8. I'm still learning new tricks and options all the time, and you'll learn new tricks as you go too. There are more booking sites than stars in the sky, and there are always new complications and ways to maximize each hotel booking. I learned a lot by messing things up, and while I kind-of hope that isn't the same for everyone, it is a learning curve and you will miss out on some opportunities... Don't let that discourage you at all.


Now, a run-down of different accommodation options and some of my thoughts on them... Most of these thoughts are in the context of traveling in Europe, although they mostly still apply elsewhere:

Hostels

Hostels are fun, but it can often be difficult to get a good night of sleep when you are staying with multiple other people in the same dorm, and if you stay out drinking until three in the morning every night, you definitely won't get a good night of sleep. Of course, ironically, these same people who may be preventing you from sleeping also may be the reason you are at a hostel in the first place: Even if you go out and actively seek other people at hotels, nothing can compare to the social environment of a hostel, and as a single traveler, meeting other people along my travels is an important consideration. Finding an affordable centrally-located hostel is also much easier than finding an affordable centrally-located hotel, especially in some of the bigger European cities.

Hostels have a stigma associated with them that suggests they are only for dirty partying backpackers. There are some hostels that cater toward that audience, but there are tons of hostels which are clean, quiet, friendly, and open to people of all ages. Staying in a hostel doesn't mean staying in a dump, especially if you do your research. There are even options with en-suite bathrooms in many places.


Pros: Excellent social scene, cheap, often centrally-located
Cons: Sometimes difficult to sleep, lack-of-privacy
For how long?: I have overnighted at a hostel and spent an entire week at a hostel. Spending more than a day is better if you really want to get involved in the social scene, but hostels can also make a great crash-pad for a one night stay.
Price per night: Depending on the location, good hostels are usually $20-$40/night for a dorm and $50-$100/night for a private room. Cheaper options are often available, although for hostels I care far more about quality than price provided it is under $50/night.


One of the best hostels I ever stayed at: Hostel One Home in Prague. The facilities were great, the beds were comfortable, the location was central, and the people were amazing!

AirBnB

AirBnB is a relatively new and rapidly growing resource for short-term rentals of apartments and houses. The term BnB may give an incorrect impression: While there are some properties whose owners offer fantastic BnB-like service, there are many others which offer a more hands-off approach. There are listings for everything from a converted 18-wheeler to a couch or private room in an apartment to to an entire beach house. AirBnB is a great compromise between staying in a hostel and staying in a hotel: You get to meet a local host who usually can offer advice on the destination you are visiting, you get to see the destination from a very different point-of-view by staying in an apartment or house, and you get the privacy of having your own room. Different hosts have different levels of involvement, and AirBnB has their own rating and review system set up for guests to provide feedback on their stays. There are over half a million listings around the world, and AirBnB can often be cheap option to enjoy the privacy of having your own room while not compromising on safety or the social aspect of travel.

Pros: Opportunity to meet a local host and experience the city from a different point of view, budget-friendly, centrally located options available, private rooms (or entire apartments!), laundry facilities often available

Cons: Requires communication and coordination with a host (especially to pick up the key, which may be difficult if you arrive very early or very late), less formal than a hotel, may lack certain facilities that would be standard at a hotel, unless renting a full apartment it can be difficult to find space for more than two people, short stays are generally inconvenient
For how long?: While one-night stays are feasible, I personally feel it is both inconvenient and rude to only stay for one night. The process of conversing with a host and meeting to get a key to the apartment isn't bad, but it's not something I am willing to do for one night. I think two nights is the absolute minimum for AirBnB, and I tend not to consider it unless I am booking at least three nights in a destination.
Price per night: Depending on the location, AirBnB options are generally $20-$50 for a shared room or bare-bones couch, $50-$125 for a private room, and $80-$300 for an entire apartment or house.

If you decide to sign up, I'd appreciate it if you used my referral link. I get a $25 credit when you book your first stay, and you get $25 credit toward that stay: Sign Up for AirBnB!

Couchsurfing

Couchsurfing is an extremely economical way to find a place to sleep at your destination: It's free! Before you suddenly think you have found a ticket to a free lunch though, couchsurfing is very community-oriented, and you should only consider it if you have an interest in interacting with and spending time with (usually very friendly) strangers: To participate, you need to be willing to dedicate some time toward finding a potential host, checking on what type of accommodation they have, and getting to know your host beyond a few awkward exchanges of pleasantries. Couchsurfing is more about meeting other travelers and fostering a community of generous (and not free-loading) people. Remember, these are people inviting you into their homes. Couchsurfing is like a no-frills version of AirBnB with more social emphasis -- It certainly is not for everyone, but can be a fascinating way to see a destination from a very different perspective and an amazing opportunity to meet locals and fellow travelers.


Because couchsurfing is very informal, there are very few standards for any sort of host. Some people might have a bed, some might have a floor, some might have something in-between. Some might host more than one couchsurfer per night, others may have multiple other housemates, and others may have twenty-seven cats and a gerbil named Harold. Hosts may live two minutes from the central station, or they might live multiple miles from the nearest metro station. Know what sort of situation you are getting yourself into beforehand, and make sure you are comfortable with all of the arrangements. Be sure to read profiles, and remember that you want to be someone a host might be excited about meeting and spending time with for a few days (and you should be excited to meet your host too!), not someone who is solely in it to save a bit of cash.

Pros: Opportunity to meet a local host (and sometimes other travelers) and experience the city from a different point of view, free (aside from a gift from your hometown or somewhere else outside of your host's country/state -- usually a great way to say thanks), centrally located options sometimes available, laundry facilities sometimes available
Cons: Requires large amounts communication and coordination with a host (both to pick up the key, which may be difficult if you arrive very early or very late, and to establish a relationship of some kind before you are invited into the host's home), much less formal than a hotel, can be bare-bones accommodations, sleeping arrangement may make it difficult to get good nights of rest (i.e. sleeping in the living room sofa or on the floor), short stays are rarely worth the time and social investment
For how long?: I personally feel it is both inconvenient and rude to stay at a couchsurfing host's house for less than two nights, and I usually aim for at least three nights. The process of getting to know and trust a host and meeting to get a key to the apartment is rewarding but time-consuming, and it's not something I am willing to do (or would want to make someone else do) for one or two nights. Personally I feel two nights is the absolute minimum for Couchsurfing, and I tend not to consider it unless I am planning at least three nights in a destination. In addition, staying for at least three nights allows you time to become comfortable with your host, and may even mean they'll have time to show you around their hometown.
Price per night: Free. While you aren't expected to pay to stay at a host's house, bringing a gift or buying a drink or two is a polite and friendly gesture.

If you are interested in Couchsurfing, there is a great post on it on MileValue's site here.


Hotels

Hotels are, of course, the most common option for most trips. They're convenient, they're reliable, they offer privacy, and they get old quickly. I like to be able to look around wherever I am staying and be able to figure out if I am in Oklahoma or Paris, and all too often, hotels don't cut it. There are some great hotels out there that I'd love to stay at, or that I have really enjoyed my stay at, but they are rarely Hiltons, Hyatts, or Marriotts, or if they are, they are way out of my price range (read: upwards of $500/night). Sure, chain hotels offer reliable value, but they rarely offer the feeling that you are somewhere exotic or interesting. I can definitely understand redeeming hotel points for a few nights at a unique or luxury hotel that is part of a chain, but I don't like the sterile feeling of being in "just another Hilton".


I prefer smaller, non-chain options whenever I am considering staying in a hotel. Non-chain hotels with good reviews on TripAdvisor often provide great experiences beyond just comfortable and private beds, and they are more likely to help immerse you in the culture of wherever you are visiting (inasmuch as a hotel can do so).


Maybe I'm just a stingy budget traveler, but I prefer to aim for 3-star (or extremely well-reviewed 2-star) hotels when I do opt for a hotel. I don't need overwhelming luxury, I need a comfortable bed in a reasonable location that won't cost me a fortune. I find it hard to justify having my toilet paper folded into a neat little triangle when I plan to spend the entire day out of the room anyway. For me, hotels are necessity to recharge, but outside of recharging they are not my go-to option unless my other choices are very limited. I don't feel like I need to say too much more about hotels other than getting on my soapbox about staying in boring chain hotels in far-flung destinations.


So, with that said, let's play a little game (Hint: One of these rooms costs over $300 less than the other two):



Marriott Paris, Marriott Rome, or Marriott Tampa?
Marriott Paris, Marriott Rome, or Marriott Tampa?
Marriott Paris, Marriott Rome, or Marriott Tampa?

Sorry, I lied about getting off my soapbox. The correct answers are (highlight to see): 1. Marriott Champes-Elysees, Paris - Starting at only $485 a night! 2. Marriott Tampa - Starting at only $129 a night! 3. Marriott Grand Hotel Flora, Rome - Starting at only $430 a night!


The moral of the game? Even if you got all three right, chain hotels tend to have relatively standard offerings. You know what you are getting -- Chain hotels offer a reliable product, but it's unlikely you'll have a fun story to tell after you check out. In fact, it's unlikely you'll even remember the hotel at all, since it'll blend in with any other hotels you stayed in. 


I'll try to put up one more post before I leave, but for now let me just offer a friendly reminder that it always pays to double-check your reservations whenever possible: I happened to glance at my SAS reservation for Thursday and noticed that I had somehow been reassigned to a middle seat for the long-haul portion of my trip! A quick phone call sorted it out, but it'd have been a far more unwelcome surprise at the airport. 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Destination: Pompeii

Before I get started on this year's trip, I want to share one of my favorite destinations from my travels so far. I visited Pompeii last summer at the end of my last Europe trip. While I went to a lot of awesome places during that trip, nowhere stood out as much as my visit to Pompeii. Why? I'm not sure, but I absolutely loved it. The town itself is a typical small Italian town, and they rely heavily on tourism from day-visitors. The remarkable part was that it seemed none of these visitors ever spent the night! This meant that after about 5pm every day, the town was deserted. It was mid-summer, and I felt like one of the only tourists there. I did a lot of things backwards or wrong, but I still had an amazing time.

I would recommend the following itinerary, which is what I did when I visited:

Day 1: Pompeii
Day 2: Hike Mt. Vesuvius in the morning, visit Herculaneum in the evening
Day 3: Train to Naples, visit the Archaeological Museum

I left Rome around 6pm on a train to Naples which took just over an hour. It was a comfortable ride, and after getting off the train, I followed the signs to the Circumvesuviana Trains, which connect Naples with the surrounding area (including Pompeii, Sorrento, Sarno, and countless other towns). These trains are privately-owned and therefore a rail pass does not work for them. Tickets are cheap though, so it's not a major inconvenience (beyond knowing to buy tickets!). I caught one of the last trains of the day from Napoli Centrale to Pompeii, and it was pretty obvious I had ventured into Southern Italy: People were smoking all over the train platform, the train cars were covered in graffiti, and although the train cars are supposedly new, their insides looked like something from the 1950s.


A Graffiti-ed Circumvesuviana Train 

In the car I rode in, the station announcement system was broken, and it seemed each station had their signs covered in graffiti. Since it was nighttime, the combination of graffiti and darkness made it even harder to identify where I was. I tried asking a couple people, but they were no help. I tried counting the stops relying on the route map, but that was no help either, because I was tired and lost track of the stops. After a while, I started to think I had missed my stop, but I decided to keep going. Sure enough, one stop later was Pompeii Scavi. Great, right? ... Well, not so much. I didn't see the sign until after the train doors had closed, because it was all the way on the far end of the station. I got off at the next stop, planning to take the next train back one stop.

Great plan, right? Nope! That was the last blue-line train of the day, and there was not another soul in sight. The train station was deserted, and I appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. I called my hotel in Pompeii and explained what happened. After a few minutes, I managed to figure out where I was, and the hotel sent a taxi to pick me up. After the rocky start, I was very glad to get to my hotel and sleep. I stayed at Hotel del Sole, and it was quite nice. The staff's English wasn't great, but they were very friendly, the rooms were clean and comfortable, and they offered a nice breakfast in the morning. The best part was that I could see the ruins from my bed, framed in the background by Mt. Vesuvius. The view probably wasn't unique to my hotel, but it was probably one of the best in the city, given the hotel's location directly across the street from the ruins.

Day 1 - Pompeii

After a hard-earned night of sleep, I spent my first day exploring the ruins of Pompeii. While the hotel was located directly across the street from one of the entrances to the Pompeii ruins, this entrance was not the main one. As I later discovered, it was not an ideal starting point to explore the ruins since I was working backwards. I highly recommend starting at the official entrance across from the Pompeii Scavi station, since audio-guides can only be found there (and they must be returned there too!), and there are guided tours available as well. The lines are longer, but there are more resources available than at the smaller entrance. Also, once you enter the site, you cannot leave without buying another ticket. There is a cafe inside the site, but it is pretty overpriced, so I'd recommend bringing something for lunch.

Of course I did none of these things, and armed with my 1.5L bottle of water, backpack, and camera, I entered through the back entrance, bought a ticket without realizing I couldn't leave again, and forgot to bring anything for lunch. There is very little shade available, so bring sunscreen, hats, and whatever else you might use to avoid sunburn. I wouldn't know, since I was burnt to a crisp. Oh, and make absolutely sure you bring a large water bottle... There are water fountains scattered across the ruins, and although they look kind-of disgusting, the water is cold and safe. They are a godsend, especially in the sweltering summer heat. 

Being the do-it-yourself-er that I am, I wandered aimlessly for a while, eventually winding up at the main entrance where I chose to rent an audio-guide and continue wandering on my own. The audio-guide is a must-have, as it brings the ruins to life and offers lots of interesting information about each site. Many of the best findings from Pompeii have been removed unfortunately, but they are exhibited in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, which is definitely worth a stop on your way back North. The audioguide has a fairly extensive range of tracks to guide you through the ruins, although there are a few places it paid to linger for a while (and this is yet another reason to do Pompeii on your own!):

My personal favorite was the brothel house. Sure, the wall paintings are pretty cool, and it's an interesting building, but the real fun begins when a tour group enters. The brothel is a very popular stop for all the tour groups, and listening to each tour guide try to explain the brothel, its art, and the walls covered in ancient graffiti, was better than a Comedy Central special, especially when there were kids on the tour. The awkward censoring, parents trying to shoo their children away, and shocked old women only made the experience better. It never got old, but after about 20 minutes I felt a little weird just hanging out in the brothel house, so I moved on.


I didn't move on before taking a couple selfies though!

Now, onto the reason why I feel it is so vital to spend the night in Pompeii: After about 5pm, all the tour groups go home, leaving the city deserted. Most of the popular buildings that all the tour groups visit are empty, and the evening breeze feels great after a day of sweltering 95-degree heat. Take advantage of the emptiness and visit some of the more popular sites in the evening -- You'll have a lot more space to enjoy them, and they're far more authentic when not crowded with fanny-pack-toting cruise-ship tour groups. It's difficult to convey just how different the atmosphere at an ancient site can be when you have it to yourself, but it really is an amazing feeling.


At the Pompeii Amphitheater -- Ah, the wonders of self-timer!

The Archaeological site closes at 7:30pm, and when I got kicked out, having spent nearly 10 hours exploring the ruins, I was absolutely exhausted. I grabbed dinner at a pleasant local cafe, wandered around the town square a bit, and went to bed. Yes, I was more sun-burnt than an albino in a tanning salon.

Day 2 - Hiking to the Crater of Mt. Vesuvius and Herculaneum

For my second day, I planned to hike up to the crater of Mt. Vesuvius. It can be done on a tour, but there are also buses that operate from near Pompeii Scavi station which bring you to the highest point that vehicles can go. I arrived at Pompeii Scavi and bought tickets with Bus Vesuvius. After buying tickets, I boarded the bus that takes you to meet the 4x4 bus that takes you to the highest point. Yes, a 4x4 bus. The roads are in horrendous condition, and there are some potholes that are several feet deep. In fact, lucky me, I found this out when the bus hit one of these mega-potholes and blew a tire! We had to wait for 30 minutes on the steeply inclined road halfway up the mountain while a rescue bus was sent to retrieve all the passengers and bring them the rest of the way up the mountain. To their credit, the bus company handled the situation very well, but it was still a bit frightening.


The view from where our bus was stranded

The buses give you 90 minutes from when they drop you off, and although it feels a bit rushed at first, the timing is actually about right. 30-40 minutes is plenty of time to walk around the crater, take pictures, and absorb the scenery. It might be nice to have a little longer, and it might have been possible to miss my bus and take a later one, but I didn't want to risk it.

From the point where the bus left us, it was still another 30-minute hike in slippery volcanic sand at roughly a 15% incline. The sand and dust is particularly brutal, and it's a tiring trek. On one side is the mountain, and on the other is a relatively steep drop. It's a good thing they had a sturdy rope handrail to ensure nobody fell, because as we all know, rope is extremely difficult to pass under or over. Once I reached the top, I walked about 3/4ths of the way around the entire crater. It's impossible to do the crater justice in photos, but suffice to say it was absolutely amazing. There were even a few active vents which were giving off steam. The view of the crater is amazing, but the view of the Bay of Naples and the surrounding cities is also fantastic, especially on a clear day.


Yes, a selfie. How creative.


The crater! For scale, those are people on the left.
The hike back down from the crater was much easier, although because of the volcanic sand, it was still rough. I picked up a small rock of pumice laying along the trail as a souvenir (which I later wrote a college essay about!), and met the bus for the journey back down the mountain. I made it back down to Pompeii Scavi around 3pm, and although I was tired, I wanted to visit Herculaneum. As I learned from Pompeii the day before, the best time to visit was in the afternoon when it was cooler and after many of the tour groups and day-trippers had left. After having lunch, I caught the next train from Pompeii to Herculaneum, taking care to actually count the stops this time. Of course, counting the stops wasn't actually necessary, since the train-car I was in had a working announcement system.

Coming out of the Herculaneum train station, I walked down the hill on the main road, which dead-ends into the archaeological site. After buying tickets I descended into the city, and... Surprise, surprise, it was almost empty. There were about 10 other people in the entire city.
Empty ancient cities are my favorite kind!
Herculaneum is much smaller than Pompeii, and I managed to explore almost the entire city in about 2 1/2 hours before being kicked out at 7:30pm. It is actually better preserved than Pompeii, and many of the two-story buildings remain intact. Yet again, all the best finds from the city have been moved to the archaeological museum in Naples, but there are still plenty of hidden gems scattered throughout the city. I really enjoyed visiting both cities, but preferred Herculaneum since it was better preserved (and less crowded!). 

By the end of my second day, I was exhausted, but it was totally worth it. It's a lot to do in one day, but very manageable as long as you get an early-ish start to visiting Vesuvius. I had dinner at a small local restaurant and went back to my room, packed up my things, and crashed. Not even another eruption of Vesuvius could have woken me up.

Day 3 - The Archaeological Museum in Naples

After breakfast, I checked out of the hotel and caught the next train back to Naples. I left my bags at the train station in Naples (Left Luggage at train stations is a wonderful thing!), bought a metro ticket, and headed on the M1 to the Museo stop which is connected to the museum. The museum houses an unrivaled collection of artifacts from Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the entire surrounding area. I recommend doing the museum last because the museum is even more interesting having just visited the ancient cities where many of the items on exhibit came from.

I won't bother giving too much more detail here, although the museum does have a special room dedicated to all the Roman artifacts that excavators were too embarrassed to exhibit elsewhere. This room has several paintings from the brothel house in Pompeii, a statue of Pan and the goat, and countless phallic Roman relics. It's quite an entertaining exhibit which is worth the price of admission alone.


See? Fun relics.

I spent the whole day at the museum, leaving around 6pm to catch my train back to Milan for my flight home the next morning. While I visited a lot of cool places during my trip last summer, Pompeii and the surrounding area stood out as the most memorable and the most interesting, and if you'll be in Italy any time soon, I'd highly recommend taking 3 days to visit -- It's an experience unlike any other.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Introduction and Itinerary - Europe 2014

Hi everyone, I have decided to start attempting to write a blog because I am hoping to have a place to share some of my trip reports beyond the short updates I send out via email or Facebook. Before I head off to Stanford in the fall I have two major trips planned, and I figured this would be the best way to offer some insight into my planning and allow you to participate in some armchair travel. I have no idea how often I’ll be updating this, but as new ideas and details come to mind, I hope to make a few posts regarding some of the logistics and planning that is going into the trip before I actually leave on May 15th

As you may have gathered by now, most of my writing here will primarily be travel-related, but I may throw in a post about something else from time-to-time. At some point I’ll probably go back and write about a few of my past trips, but for now, I’ll be sticking to talking about my upcoming trip(s). I’ll start at the beginning – From planning an itinerary to booking hotels and airfare, I hope to offer some insight into my methodology when researching and planning a trip, then a bit of a travelogue (and tips) from each location once I have visited.

Now, onto my trips: The first is a 7-week trip in Europe, visiting primarily Northern destinations. The second is a 3-week trip to Istanbul and a couple Baltic countries. The former begins on May 15th, the latter on August 7th. I haven’t fully planned the latter trip yet, so I will be focusing on the former for now.

So, first things first…

The Itinerary:


I knew I had a large chunk of time available to travel, since I had no plans between when I graduate (May 10th or so – nothing official really) and the summer nationals in Vegas in July. I was considering visiting Asia or Australia, but the combination of being too expensive and my traveling alone made me decide to stick to Europe for this summer.

With the entry of Norwegian Air Shuttle into the US market, airfares to Scandinavia have dropped tremendously. In the past, flights like New York to Milan were often the cheapest option, but now many cities in Scandinavia are cheaper, even for summer travel. Since I am crediting my flights to Aegean Airlines now (more on that another time – they are the shortcut to Star Alliance Gold status), I wanted to fly either US Air or SAS. I found cheap flights on SAS that fit my schedule perfectly, so I was all set: I had a start date of May 15th in Copenhagen and an end date of July 9th in Stockholm… The challenge was filling in 54 days of blanks.

As usual, I started my planning by exploring Google Maps and deciding if there was anywhere I wanted to ensure I could visit no matter what. This time around, those places were Reykjavik, Paris, and St. Petersburg. With those cities in mind, I started building an itinerary playing connect-the-dots on Google maps. Initially I thought I would spend time in the Baltic countries before/after Russia, but due to logistical and time considerations caused by needing a Russian visa, I decided to save those for my August trip.

Though my destinations were not geographically close together, getting around Europe is super-easy thanks to the combination of budget airlines, great train systems, and the extensive network of many regular airlines. In many cases, it is almost as quick to go from Paris to Amsterdam by train as it is to fly from Copenhagen to Madrid – Just because places seem far apart doesn’t mean they are difficult to get to. Of course, I still tried to optimize my itinerary to avoid doubling back a bunch, but even places like Reykjavik and St. Petersburg really aren’t far-fetched at all when taking full advantage of the wide variety of transportation options available across Europe.

I won’t go into all the details of how I eventually wound up with my current itinerary, but I mostly pieced it together using Google Maps, picking out cities and places that seemed interesting and then considering the practicality of reaching that place. Picking cities was the easy part though… The hard part was deciding how long to stay in each place.

I’m a fast-paced traveler. I try to maximize my time in each city by avoiding mid-day transit options, and I usually try to hit the ground running in each place I visit. It is a very tiring style of travel, but it is also extremely productive and rewarding. Of course after a week or two of this, I need a couple days to really relax and just enjoy whatever city I am visiting. Since I know my travel-style, I knew I needed to add a day or two of down time for every couple weeks of travel.

Tripadvisor is my best friend. It is an invaluable trip-planning resource, and I spend countless hours browsing information for each city I plan to visit. While I usually have a general idea how long I want to spend in each city, Tripadvisor helps me adjust that to be even more accurate.

It’s impossible to plan everything perfectly though, and depending on flexibility, it can even be fun not to plan at all! For my summer trip last year, I planned a start city and an end city and a general route, but didn't do much beyond that. Since I had a rail pass, I was completely flexible, and I wound up visiting several places I never would have visited if I had planned extremely rigidly. Unfortunately this luxury of flexibility isn't always possible, and for this year since I’ll be relying a lot more on flights, last-minute plans simply weren't an option. Over-planning definitely is a problem, but sometimes you have to lock yourself into certain dates or locations. As always, when planning, being flexible is vital: Be open to changing dates, rearranging itineraries, cutting cities that are inconvenient, and adding cities that you stumble upon in your research. My initial itinerary was very different from the one I have now!

With all that in mind, after several weeks of rather intense planning, I now have a working itinerary and am in the process of booking hotels, trains, planes, buses, tours, and countless other things. Here’s my itinerary:

Copenhagen
5/16/2014 (Morning)
5/18/2014 (Evening)
Trondheim
5/18/2014 (Evening)
5/21/2014 (Morning)
Alesund
5/21/2014 (Evening)
5/22/2014 (Evening)
Hurtigruten Ferry
5/22/2014 (Evening)
5/23/2014 (Afternoon)
Bergen
5/23/2014 (Afternoon)
5/24/2014 (Morning)
Oslo
5/24/2014 (Evening)
5/27/2014 (Morning)
Reykjavik
5/27/2014 (Morning)
6/1/2014 (Morning)
Glasgow (Day), Inverness
6/1/2014 (Morning)
6/4/2014 (Morning)
Edinburgh
6/4/2014 (Morning)
6/6/2014 (Evening)
London
6/6/2014 (Evening)
6/8/2014 (Morning)
Paris
6/8/2014 (Afternoon)
6/13/2014 (Morning)
Geneva (Day), Interlaken
6/13/2014 (Evening)
6/15/2014 (Evening)
Lucerne
6/15/2014 (Evening)
6/17/2014 (Evening)
Frankfurt
6/17/2014 (Evening)
6/20/2014 (Morning)
Trier
6/20/2014 (Morning)
6/21/2014 (Afternoon)
Amsterdam
6/21/2014 (Afternoon)
6/25/2014 (Morning)
Moscow
6/25/2014 (Afternoon)
6/29/2014 (Overnight Train)
Veliky Novgorod
6/29/2014 (Morning)
6/30/2014 (Evening)
St. Petersburg
6/30/2014 (Evening)
7/5/2014 (Morning)
Stockholm
7/5/2014 (Morning)
7/9/2014 (Morning)

As you can see, I will be relying heavily on morning and evening transportation options, and will be making a few very short overnight stops. I don’t like sleeper trains, so I tend to avoid those even though they save time. I will be forced to take one to Veliky Novgorod, but otherwise will likely steer clear of them.

An approximate visual view of my itinerary:


I'm drawing a bat-figure across Europe! (drawn using GCMap)


I'm really excited about this trip actually happening, and given the amount of time I have devoted to planning it so far, I hope things go off relatively smoothly. I'm a firm believer in Murphy's Law when applied to travel though, so if I make my first 5 or 6 transportation connections, I'll start to expect a worker's strike, a flat tire on a bus, or maybe even poor WiFi at one of my accommodations... Oh, the horror.


I'll try to share some more details soon, but given that May 15th is rapidly approaching, I have a lot of details to work out before then!