I've been on more than my fair share of cruises. I'm actually not certain how many I've been on. More than 100. To be fair, I worked on cruise ships. And yes, some days it actually was work. Really, the amount of time you spend working depends on your job. The first three years I worked quite a bit. I was a youth counselor.

The last two years I spent on ships were as a "Computer Lecturer." I taught computer classes to passengers. I was technically a crew member with "Passenger Status." It was the best of all worlds. It meant that when I wasn't working, I was playing. I got to use the pools and hot tubs, fitness facilities and eat in the dining rooms. I got to play in the ports and explore fantastic new places. Things that normal crew members aren't allowed to do. Also I was able to have a guest sail with me for free nearly every cruise. It was the perfect job. Truly.

Over five years I worked on ten different ships for two different cruise lines. It was life-changing. And eye-opening. So if you're planning a cruise, take advantage of my industry insider experience to help streamline your process.

Cruising has become a huge vacation industry. And by huge, I mean just look at the sheer tonnage afloat these days. Before airplanes, one had to sail across the seas to travel. Inter-continental traveling was a lengthy and difficult affair. One group of my ancestors immigrated from Sweden to the US in 1866. They traveled from Stockholm to Hamburg and then from Hamburg to New York. The journey from Hamburg took nearly nine weeks to complete. The ship had only provisioned for three to four weeks at sea. It was a harrowing journey to say the least. These days you can hop on a plane in New York and be in London in six hours. Current Cruise liners make the journey using massive propulsion systems in five days, laden with enough food to feed their passengers and crew for nearly double that time and stocked with amenities enough to keep even the most finicky traveler happy.

Cruising has evolved. Ships have evolved. Case in point, Titanic vs. The Oasis of the Seas.

The Titanic
(Titanic Image from the deep, dark recesses of the interweb....)

The Oasis of the Seas cruise ship
(Image courtesy of Royal Caribbean. I'm only spotlighting the Oasis because she is currently the largest ship afloat.)

The Titanic was said to have been the largest ship afloat in her day, a "modern marvel." Titanic and her sister ship, the Olympic weighed in at 46,328 tons. In 2010, Royal Caribbean line launched their new ship Oasis of the Seas, which is the largest ship built to date. It weighs in at 225,282 tons, more than five times the Titanic!

The Oasis of the Seas boasts living luxury at sea with it's Spa & Fitness center, four pools, ten hot tubs, surf machines, sport courts, mini-golf, zip line, casino, theatres, nightclub, and youth and teen centers. And don’t forget the FOOD, FOOD, FOOD. Aside from the traditional dining rooms and buffets there are also cafes and fine-dining restaurants galore.

The Oasis of the Seas cruise ship
Odyssey Restaurant on Holland America's Zuiderdam

There are more cruise ships sailing today than ever before and that translates to price drops for passengers. The most expensive suite on Titanic cost around $4500 per person, given inflation, in 2008 that would have been the equivalent of $95,860 USD! Today, depending on the cruise line you sail, you can sail a transatlantic cruise in a luxury suite (but keep in mind, a standard room isn't exactly steerage these days either!) for between $2500-$5000/person or only $500-$1000 for a basic, inside cabin.

The view out of a cruise ship porthole

With the huge number of cruise ships sailing the seas these days, it is safe to say that just about anyone can find a cruise they will love. To help streamline the confusing process of finding your perfect cruise, let's walk through a few things:

1.   Is This Your First Cruise?   First-time cruisers could potentially set sail in a bucket and love it. As you go on more cruises you become much pickier. It's just a fact of cruising. So if you've never been and don't know what to expect, I'd recommend sailing a less expensive itinerary/ship to get your sea legs. Also, go on a shorter cruise -- a two or three-day itinerary, just to see if you like it.

2.   Luxury Vs Budget Cruise (Is budget a large factor?)   If so, stick to larger cruise lines and larger ships. Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian are good bets for finding great deals. But keep in mind, with the larger, budget cruise lines you will have more passengers per square foot than on other lines.

When you book will play a big part in determining the price of your cruise. If you plan your cruise a year in advance you'll be able to ensure you get the room you want and the itinerary you want, but you'll pay full listing price. If you can wait until 60-90 days within sailing, the prices drop, sometimes a drastic 50-70% below list price.

A resource I use to help find cruise deals for friends is vacationstogo.com. Sign up for their newsletter and they'll send you weekly updates on all of the great deals happening at sea. (Again, no sponsorship on their part. And no animals were harmed in the making of this guide.)

Lastly, don't forget to figure in your airfare. If budget is a determining factor, stick to a homeport near you. If you live in Seattle, you can find cruises to Vancouver/Victoria and even Alaska that sail out of your home city. Omit airfare entirely, if possible, to help push your hard-earned cash further. If you have to fly to meet a ship, find a ship that departs from an airline hub city like LA, Miami, Fort Lauderdale or New York. Flights to those places will be immensely less expensive than flying to a small island in the South Pacific to meet a ship.

If flight price isn't really a big deal to you, try flying into San Juan, Puerto Rico or Bridgetown, Barbados to catch a Southern Caribbean cruise. They're my absolute favorite Caribbean cruises. If you're able, spend a few days in the city you're sailing out of before or after your cruise and explore.

If money is no object, try a very small luxury ship or yacht. Seabourn, Crystal and Windstar cruises are all very highly rated small luxury lines. Some of these lines include alcohol in the price of your cruise. FYI: These lines often have strict dress codes.

3.   Large Ship vs Small Ship (And Age Group)   Size does matter. If you're looking for a cheap, spring break cruise go for a larger ship in a region that is ship-dense (ie: Caribbean or Alaska in the summer). But if you want to go to places a bit off the beaten path, smaller ships are often the only ships that will take you there (because the big ones don't fit into port!)

Large ships offer more stuff. More pools. Ice Skating rinks. Rock Climbing walls. More stuff to do on those days at sea. If you're sailing with children/teens, you want a ship that has a diverse offering of things to do. Disney cruises are ALWAYS a great idea for children, but you will pay a premium to sail with Disney. Other cruise lines offer phenomenal childrens' centers and activity programs to keep your kids occupied and having fun the whole cruise. Generally the larger (and newer) the ship, the better the kids facilities.

Small ships are great for a quieter, more intimate cruise. Less people, less crowding = more relaxation time and less regiment. Smaller ships will offer more traditional cruise activities like quoits and shuffleboard and group games to keep you entertained.

Age   Specific Cruise lines cater to specific age groups. Carnival and Royal Caribbean go for the younger crowd. Celebrity and Princess cater best to the 25-50 crowd. Holland America is generally known for retirement cruising. No matter what the age target for the cruise line, every ship will offer something for all age groups.

4.   Do Ship Amenities Matter?   Some people simply like to spend their vacations reading or sitting by the pool. If this is you, you'll want to ensure you find a ship with a larger passenger to square footage ratio. Less passengers = less crowding = less crowding in ports and easier access to ammenities. Generally you can look to smaller ships on cruise lines like Holland America, Princess or Cunard for great passenger to space ratios. These are your best bet to finding a quiet hideaway.

Enjoying a nearly empty cruise ship whilst anchored in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii
Enjoying a nearly empty ship whilst anchored in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii

5.   Cruise Length   It's up to you, really. For that quick getaway you can find cruises that run 2-3 days. If you've got time on your hands, try an around-the-world itinerary (90-120 days). If seven days isn't enough you can sail two seven-day cruises on the same ship in the same cabin back to back. Personally I like 10-day cruises. In my time working on ships I met several elderly passengers who were full-time cruisers. Basically, instead of going into retirement homes, they lived on ships. Pretty great idea. And fairly cost-effective. For about the same price as a retirement home they received a luxury home with extremely attentive service.

6.   Destination & Timing   Where you want to go will often limit when you can go. Ships are generally assigned to a specific region for a season, but some can be assigned a region indefinitely. For instance, the Oasis of the Seas is currently dedicated to cruising the Caribbean. It offers several itineraries in the Caribbean. On the other hand, in 2010, the Splendour of the Seas will sail South America, Transatlantic, Europe, Transatlantic and back to South America.

Generally in the winter ships move to warm places; in the summer they sail Alaska, Europe and the Baltic. Spring is the season for Hawaii and Mexico, and in the fall you can find cruises to Canada and New England. When the seasons change, the ships reposition. Repositioning cruises are generally a bit longer and have more sea-days.

Relaxing on the beach while a cruise ship passes by

Regardless of where or when you cruise, I always recommend cruising a newer ship, or an older ship that has been dry-docked recently (within the last year). Ships are taken out of service every few years and put into dry dock. Dry docks usually mean a ship will be gutted and redone. Sometimes the ships in drydock will have major structural work done – enlargements or complete renovations to certain areas. When dry dock is over, ships return to service good as new, sometimes better.

Happy Cruising!

Published in Cruises

These are some of the lessons I have learned while traveling.

  1. Pack smart and only take what you need. Then unpack 20% of that.
  2. Expect things to go wrong because they will. Delayed flights, cancelled flights, bad weather and more are all part of traveling. Things are going to go wrong just pack a good book, fire up the computer or have a chat with others at a bar and it will eventually get better.
  3. No matter what, do not follow the pretty girl downstairs to the club in Piccadilly Square London. Just trust me.
  4. There is no real need to pack loads of cash, ATM's are everywhere.
  5. Let your bank know what countries you will be traveling in or they might think your card is being used illegally and cut off the funds.
  6. A group of little kids crowding around you are not always just curious. Sometimes they are skilled pickpockets.
  7. German police don't have much sense of humor.
  8. An extra large t-shirt in the Philippines is only extra large if you are a teenage girl.
  9. In Thailand when they tell you your meal is a little spicy, they lie.
  10. Don't be so aloof. Talk to everyone, the waiter, the hotel clerk, shop keepers and even strangers. You meet some really good people and they can give you insight into the area others will never discover.
  11. Tequila tastes better when you're in Mexico.
  12. Beer tastes better in Munich and Prague.
  13. Bugs, insects and other local delicacies taste like you think they will no matter where you are.
  14. People for the most part are pretty decent but there are a few jerks out there.
  15. Relaxing at an outdoor café drinking a cold beer is a good way to pass the time and do some people watching.
  16. Foregoing the “must see” attractions and exploring the area on your own can be rewarding.
  17. Whether in Mexico, Bangkok or the train station in Frankfurt, street food is pretty tasty.
  18. Japanese Police don't have much sense of humor either.
  19. The pretty Russian female tourist at the bar in Dubai is not a tourist.
  20. Just when I think I have things figured out something new happens and catches me by surprise.

What have you learned?

  Share your comments below

Published in Travel Tips

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The Stockholm Card

That's the Stockholm Card. I was a little bit apprehensive to get it at first because at 795 Swedish Crowns, it's really expensive, but it was really worth it. For our short trip, we wanted to cover as much ground as possible, and at the same time not spend too much time inside museums. Without much advance planning though, we just decided to visit the major sites, while being spontaneous along the way ("oh look, there's the Nobel Museum! let's go in!" "hey, that's the Spritmuseum, we can get in there for free").

Let's have a look at all the attractions we visited in three days and the figures:

Transportation costs & tours and entrance fees

  • 72 hour public transportation card - SEK 230
  • Historic Canal Tour - SEK 160
  • City Hall Tour - SEK 100
  • Drottningholm Palace - SEK 215 UNESCO World Heritage Site alert!
  • Storkyrkan - SEK 40
  • Nobel Museum - SEK 100
  • Nordic Museum - SEK 100
  • Vasa Museum - SEK 130
  • Spritmuseum - SEK 100
  • Skansen - SEK 150

TOTAL: SEK 1,325

Stockholm Card: SEK 795

Savings with the Stockholm Card: SEK 530

Verdict: WORTH IT!

Stockholm Card - worth it or not? appeared first on No Stopovers

Published in Sweden

The last time I paid a visit to Sin City was when I was 10 years old, approximately 13 years ago, to visit relatives. As one would guess, I wasn't able to partake in any wickedness the city is known for. I made up for that with my recent trip to Vegas.

I had covered the basics of Las Vegas in 2000; touring the Strip, seeing Sigfried & Roy's white tigers, going on the New York, New York roller coaster, taking in the light show on Fremont Street, and the like. This time around, yours truly got to see a whole lot more of Las Vegas. Unfortunately I can't share everything with you, (what happens there stays there, remember?) but will be happy to tell you my travels and tips!

Our hotel view-love those mountains!

 

 

My three-day trip first began when my boyfriend and I (whom I will refer to as 'S') got a good price on a hotel not too far from the strip. They had a great deal going on at check-in where for $50 dollars you could pick two tickets to a large variety of shows, plus get 2 free buffets and $50 worth of playing money at the Luxor. Sounds awesome, right!? Like any deal, it was mostly too good to be true, as we had to endure a 1.5 hour spiel about time shares. But, we got an additional free lunch out of the offer, and once the presentation was over we were on our way (and feeling pretty good we didn't cave and buy).

For the show, we chose Cirque du Soleil's Mystere. I had previously seen Saltimbanco and loved it, and wanted to add another Cirque show to my plate. Mystere was interesting, for lack of a better word. The acrobatics were amazing, but I was a little thrown off by the theme-and the adult baby that kept making an appearance throughout the show. Don't get me wrong, it was a great show, but I probably would not go see it again. After the show we decided to take a stroll down the Strip and use our gambling money at the Luxor. I had forgotten how much fun it is to see the hotels and all that they offer! In the casino, I decided to try my hand at Black Jack, which I had never played before (or any card games, for that matter). Both me and S ended up ahead, so we erred on the side of caution and decided to stop. It was so much fun though-I can't wait to play again! After that, we headed down to the buffet area and I was overwhelmed at first. Sure, I'd been to a buffet before, but nothing like that. I spent a good five minutes planning my strategy and execution, and quickly decided salad bar was out. Who was I kidding, I was going to end up with five desserts anyway, so no need to have salad take up any space. Even after all that planning, I ended up taking those desserts but not having room for any of them. Later, we decided to go out on the town. I foolishly wore a pair of black heels that night that I hadn't worn for over a couple hours at a time, and by this point I'd been wearing them all day. So naturally, by 9 PM, I wasn't up to much walking. I decided to power through it as this was our only night to live it up in Vegas. We went to a couple bars but realized it probably wasn't the best night to go as it was a Wednesday night during the off-season, and there were not many people around. That didn't stop us from having a good time, though. After an hour or so I suddenly remembered that I had to check off one of my Bucket List items: dancing on the bar at Coyote Ugly. Ever since I had seen that movie I promised myself I would do it one day. Not wanting to disappoint my 12 year old self, we went to New York New York and visited the bar there. It was not very crowded and I wasn't so sure about getting up there anymore, and I kept waiting for a good song to come on. Finally after about 5 subpar songs, I decided to just get up there. I danced around to a stupid 80's song and came back down. Sadly, it wasn't up to my expectations, but I was glad to be able to check it off my Bucket List! Next time I'll have to visit the real Coyote Ugly-Hogs and Heifers Saloon, and maybe then I'll feel a bit more satisfied. 

The Strip At Night


The next day, we got up early and went back to the strip. We had originally planned on going swimming, but as luck would have it we were there during an unseasonably cold streak, so we decided to visit as many hotels as we could and do some exploring. With so many different themes and activities, it's hard to pick a favorite hotel! I really liked the style of the Venetian, with the indoor canal and gondola rides available. It let us have a small taste of what Venice might be like. 

 

The Venetian

When I was 10, I remember walking into the MGM and having that feeling of being overwhelmed and in awe of the sheer size of everything. This time around, I was starting to wonder if I'd get that feeling again. We had stepped inside nearly every hotel on the Strip and while I admired every one of them, I still hadn't gotten that "feeling". Granted, I was about 4 feet tall back then so everything looked bigger-but still. Finally, the lobby of the Luxor changed my view-it was huge! I was a happy camper and glad to have the feeling of awe back. 

 

The Luxor Lobby

That night, S told me he had a surprise for me and of course a thousand things were running through my head; A helicopter ride over the city? Tickets to a sumo-wrestling match? A life size sculpture of me made out of candy? After all, this was Vegas and virtually anything could be possible. He led me to the Mirage Hotel and there he surprised me with tickets to the Beatles Love Cirque du Soleil show. I had wanted to see this show SO BADLY and had a hard time trying to contain my excitement. After jumping up and down and making a bit of a scene, we waited in line for the doors to open. Finally we were let in to the lobby and it was awesome, it was decorated exactly like I imagined it would be; tons of colors,  fun props and of course, Beatles music. 

 

Walking into a Beatles Wonderland

 

We were then led to our seats and I kept wondering when the guy would stop walking and point us in the direction-he kept getting closer and closer to the stage and I started getting more and more excited, until we were directly in front of the stage in the first row. I looked at S and thought there must be some mistake-I had never been this close at a show before. It wasn't a mistake, so I sat down and thanked my lucky stars-and S-and waited for the show to begin. It is hard to describe the whole show, and I don't want to give anything away, but it was honestly the BEST show I had ever seen in my life. If you love Beatles music, or even like it somewhat, you have to see this at some point. It showcased a good 20 songs, and every song had its own theme. There was so much going on, and I would say it was a 4D experience. I was amazed throughout the whole show, and didn't want it to end. If you ever have a chance, GO SEE IT!

 

 

 

After the show, we headed back to the hotel to get a good night's sleep, as we had to get up at 5 AM the next morning! We had purchased tickets for a bus trip to the Grand Canyon and Skywalk, and while I was excited it was hard to be enthusiastic about anything at 5 in the morning. Since we purchased the tickets online, I wasn't sure what to expect about the whole thing, but once we got to the tour headquarters I felt more at ease. They gave us more detailed information and sent us off with coffee and a granola bar. Our bus driver was great-really funny and knowledgable. We drove through Las Vegas and the surrounding counties until we hit the Hoover Dam. I hadn't seen it before, so it was nice to have a few minutes for pictures. 

 

Hoover Dam

 

After that, we got back on the bus for another two hours. I hadn't realized how far away the Grand Canyon was from the Vegas area. I had always assumed it was pretty close but it is actually a good 3 hours away. No wonder this trip was designated 12 hours on the website! But, our tour guide had great commentary along the way and entertained us pretty well. After a long and bumpy road, we had finally made it to the Grand Canyon! It was definitely worth the drive as it's not very often you get to see a view like this:

Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon experience was different than I imagined. I had always pictured it as being very sunny and hot, while climbing up and down various hills and spotting tourists on donkeys every now and then (blame it on the movies, or maybe I just totally made all that up in my head). It was a tad different, as we were there in November in the coldest week they'd had (low 50's), and it was cloudy and windy. Also, I didn't spot any donkeys. However, the weather didn't change the amazing view of the Canyon, and it was truly spectacular. It definitely put things into perspective for me, seeing something so naturally breathtaking. I also never knew how close you could get to the drop-offs as there are no barriers! You could literally fall right off! Every time I got about five feet from the edge I got a little dizzy and a big adrenaline rush and decided to knock it off and be sensible. S and I had a really fun time with our mini photo shoot and have some great pictures to show for it. 

 

We also had tickets to the Skywalk, which is pictured above. It's built so it juts out approximately 70 feet over the edge and the drop from the Skywalk to the ground below is between 500-800 feet. The floor is made entirely of glass. Camera's and any other personal items are not allowed on the Skywalk, so if you want a picture you have to purchase one. There are a couple photographers on the walk that take multiple pictures of you in different poses. We ended up choosing one that looked like we were about to fall off the ledge. Yeah, a bit cheesy, but you just gotta do those things once in awhile. We were able to stay on the Skywalk for about 10 to 15 minutes. If you ever visit the Canyon, I would say spend the extra money and get a Skywalk ticket, it was definitely worth it and added a unique perspective of the Canyon. 

 

After the SkyWalk we had one more trip to the Hualapai Ranch, a Western/Cowboy themed place not far from the Skywalk. The brochure said there would be a "Wild West Show", so again, I got excited thinking it would be like the movies; an old fashioned cowboy quick draw. It may have been because we were there during the off-season, but it looked more like a ghost town than anything else. There wasn't any type of show to see, but there were little stations set up where you could throw a tomahawk, learn how to rope, and quick draw. We tried our hands at roping and it's a lot harder than it looks! I was a little better at the tomahawk throw-and a little better than S. :)

 

It wasn't perfect, but at least I hit the board!

We ended our trip with a red-eye flight back home, very tired but happy we could fit so much in our 3 day trip. Las Vegas has so much to offer, you definitely can't see it all in one vacation. I can't wait to come back and make some more memories! What's your favorite Vegas memory?

Published in United States
 

As the countdown to Antarctica begins, I’m looking online for past travellers blogs and write-ups. However, at the end of the day, I think I will rely on my own past experiences and tailor the gear to my own biological behaviours.

Spending portions of my childhood between Hong Kong and Winnipeg, and now my adult life in Toronto, Canada have proven to be very helpful.

Hong Kong is known for its humid, hot summers and humid, cool winters. The “coldest” day I’ve experienced in Hong Kong, I saw the thermostat dip down to +10 degree Celsius. Flocks of people rushed to the top of The Peak to see frost. These days, I walk around in Hong Kong with a long sleeve shirt and a pair of jeans while my friends don 4 layers of clothing plus a heavy down coat/parka.

Winnipeg, Canada has a nickname “WinterPeg”. It’s known for its dry, COLD winters with lots and lots of snow. The “coldest” days I’ve experienced in Winnipeg, the thermostat hovered around the -35 degree Celsius mark. Then there’s the “Windchill factor” to consider; it is a measure of the cold with consideration of the Wind speed felt on exposed skin. Trust me when the wind is gusting at 40 km/hr when it is already -30 degree Celsius outside, you’d want to crawl right back in bed under layers of blankets and not know that it feels like -45 outside!! However, all that’s really necessary for me is a good windproof jacket, a fleece, a pair of gloves, a hat of some sort and a pair of boots.

Toronto, Canada is a bit of both those scenarios. Downtown Toronto is humid and cold with less and less snow as I live here longer and longer. Thanks to global warming, Toronto’s thermostat doesn’t really dip below -20 degree Celsius and there was hardly any snow in 2011. Because of the humidity though, I have resorted to buying my first down filled parka 3 years ago. Humid cold is the type of cold that goes to my bones and some days I can’t warm up. I’ve also invested in some waterproof rubber boots as I’m tired of the salt saturated slush destroying my precious leather boots. Just remember to wear a pair of nice thick wool socks, or you can buy the fleece liners that Hunter sells for their gum boots.

Human beings are very resilient – we adapt to our environments; sooner or later. I still prefer the dry, cold winters but am slowly accepting the humid, cold winters.

So what to consider as warm clothing when you want to travel to a COLD country in the middle of their winter or Antarctica / the Arctic in their summer?! Here are a few things to consider…

Find out their humidity levels

Humid (40% or higher) => consider getting a down filled jacket or parka, especially if you have always lived in a warm climate zone and this is your first trip.

Dry (less than 40%) => depending on the thermostat, perhaps a warm fleece is sufficient. On windy days, make sure the windproof or wind-resistant shell is handy. They are also good for rainy or snowy days (clothing with double duty are great!).

Is indoor heating available?

There are many countries or regions within a country which do not have central indoor heating. This means walking around the hotel, shops with as much clothing as you would wear while walking around outside in nature.

Boots – Rubber / WaterProof / Fashion statements?

Judge according to the weather condition but if you’re doing lots of walking in the city or in nature, I would consider a pair of waterproof hiking boots with warm, wool socks to be a good alternative.

Must Have’s:

Gloves OR Mitts – whether they are made from leather, wool, cotton or some synthetic material do your fingers and thumbs a favour –wear them. Your hand will thank you.

Hats OR Beanies OR Toques OR Hood – about 10% of your body heat is loss through your head. Also, I can assure you when I heard one of my blood vessels burst in my ear – it’s a very scary experience! Luckily I wasn’t outside long enough to get frostbitten.

Sunglasses – sunlight reflected off snow can be very, very bright. Also, you’ll see snow falling while the Sun is out with a blue sky overhead. This is why I prefer snow over rain – any day.

Sunscreen or Sunblock – any exposed skin in the winter time is subjected to the wind and UV. Also, I think I read somewhere that the ozone is thinner in the winter time. Don’t forget to apply sunscreen under your chin, UV rays will bounce off the snow and give you a nice sunburn there.

Optional’s:

Scarves OR Neck Gaiters – when the air is really cold and dry, it’s nice to breathe through some layers of fabric so the moisture from your breath gets trapped.

Earmuffs – if you chose the hat gear option and your ears are still left exposed, this would be a good consideration.

Long johns OR Thermal underwear – if you know you’ll be outside in the cold, consider investing in some synthetic or wool or silk thermal underwear. I would personally rather be warm than freezing cold and cutting short on the outing.

ALWAYS dress in Layers. I never lived by this rule as a child, I would walk out of the house with a t-shirt under my ski jacket. However, as I mature, I understand the benefits of dressing in layers. Having the option to add or remove a layer provides flexibility of your activities during the day.

NEVER stick your tongue to anything metallic!!!! This is fair warning, if you insist on trying it for yourself, have a friend close-by with a bucket of luke warm water handy…

Now go pack and learn to make some snow angels! Bon Voyage!

Published in Travel Tips

Regardless of your thoughts on the TSA, they are here to stay. So we have to deal with long check in lines, bags being scanned and searched and ever changing rules on what you can and cannot take on board flights. There are some things you want to make sure to include for your carry on bag in case things go wrong or so you can have them when needed.

1. Any electronics you don't want to wind up missing or stolen. Thieves still target checked in bags so put cameras, laptops and cell phones in your carry on.

2. Take your medications in your carry on. I am not talking about aspirin or other over the counter drugs but any prescription medication. You don't want to arrive at your destination to find out your luggage is lost and your stuck trying to find a way to get your meds. As a side note be careful with medications, some countries look at certain medications differently so make sure your name is on the bottle. You don't want to be sitting in an interrogation room trying to explain to some customs official why you are smuggling unmarked medicine into the country.

3. Take a small battery operated flashlight. They cost a few dollars at any mega retailer and don't take up any room. Trying to rummage through your stuff late at night in a new place can be a pain, especially if you stay in Hostels or you are just trying to find something in the dark.

4. Pack a change of clothes. This could be a t-shirt, extra shorts or whatever. If you have ever traveled and had lost luggage you know what I mean. A change of clothes in your carry on can be a life saver. At least you won't have to wear the same clothes for 3 days while your luggage catches up to you.

5. Things that should be common sense, but if your like me you always forget one of them. Or instead of your carry on you bury it in your checked bags. Passport for International travel, extra passport photos for getting visas and extensions, Drivers License for extra ID, ATM cards and copies of itineraries and flight confirmations. I usually go to my local bank and get $100 changed into the destination currency before I leave so I can have a little spending money when I get there for taxis, buses or whatever. And my pet peeve, bring a damn pen. Every international flight I am on no one has a pen and you know you are going to have to fill out immigration and custom forms.

Those are my 5 carry on essentials, what do you have to add?

Published in Travel Tips

This was my first trip to Cuba and I had a few questions that even veteran Cuba travelers couldn’t remember answers to.

What currency do I pay in? Do they exchange Canadian or American dollars?   As a traveler, they will exchange your money into Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC almost 1:1). Cuban Pesos are local currencies that are not exchanged to travelers. We brought both American and Canadian currency with us and had no issues with exchange either at our hotel. However, they do not accept coins.

Where do I get my currency exchange?   Our flight was late at night so the exchange at the airport was closed (although we were told we can get slightly better rates here). Of course, our hotel also provided currency exchange as long as we have our passport and (duh) cash.

Who do I look for when my flight lands?   There will be someone holding up a sign of the tour company you signed up with. As you board the bus, this will be the first time you tip so be prepared to bring some American dollar bills.

Should I book an ocean view room?   At our hotel, to get an ocean view room, we had to pay an extra $10/day/person + 13% HST so we decided against it. When we arrived at the reception, I tried my luck and asked if there’s a possibility of an upgrade. She showed me a list of prices and it was for $110 to upgrade so we shook our head, but then she told us that since it’s our first time in Cuba, we can get it for $65 and of course we accepted.

Should I tip in gifts or money? How much should I tip?   I did both! Every day I left a gift – some clothes I’ve never worn, or jewelry that I never used – along with $1 CUC. For the first day of the week and the last day before I left, I left a nicer gift as well as $2 CUC.

Where should I buy those famous Cuban cigars?   There were cigars available for purchase in the hotel gift shop. However, if you have time, go for an excursion to a cigar factory! They’re much cheaper, and honestly, the tour guide will also have some sort of hook up in the city to sell way cheaper cigars from the factory workers. But that’s at your own discretion.

My flight leaves at 9pm, what do I do between check out and time to the airport?   You have two options. You can either pay extra for a late check out or have your baggage locked up while you soak up the sun! We paid the extra money for a late check out – reason being that after you’re in the sun you’d want a nice shower and possibly a nap! The public shower at our resort closed at 4pm and we didn’t leave till 6pm. Also, if you’re staying at a resort similar to ours, the resort was entirely outdoors and there’s no such thing as cooling down in an air conditioned bar/restaurant.

Are there any other charges?   There is actually a $25 CUC departure tax you have to pay before you leave the airport so be sure not to spend it all! There is no way around it.

Any other questions?

Published in Cuba
All types of emergencies can happen while traveling. For some people traveling in a foreign country is routine while for others it is a once in a lifetime experience. Whether you are a seasoned traveler or taking that one time memorable trip, being prepared in case of an emergency situation can mean the difference in getting through the situation smoothly or in some cases not surviving at all. Travelers can encounter everything thing from natural disasters to being a victim of crime or being caught up in a political uprising. There are a few things you can do to be better prepared for these situations. Medical Emergencies Before You Go Contact your health insurance and see what coverage you have while traveling. In some foreign countries health care costs are very low however you will probably be required to pay first. You may find that a lot of countries do not have the quality care you are accustomed to at home and in case of a serious injury or illness you may need to go to another country or in some cases return home. This is where medevac insurance comes in. If you plan on being in a faraway place for some length of time or your travels involve adventure traveling where the risk of injury is greater it might be worth your while to invest in a medevac policy. How to handle a medical emergency If you become ill or injured while traveling try to get help in any way possible. Have someone call a doctor or emergency services for you or try to call yourself. If you are injured get to a hospital as soon as possible. The hospital will do what they can for immediate care and if needed transfer you to a better facility later. If you are going to be in a location for a while then find out where the best hospitals are located and make a note of them in case an emergency arises while you are there. If needed, you can contact your embassy and they will notify relatives of your situation. Victim of a Crime or Kidnapping Before you Go Prior to your trip there are certain things you should do in case you find yourself a victim of a crime. First, know emergency and important phone numbers. Find out what the local phone numbers are for emergency situations such as fire and police. Write down numbers for your embassy, banks and credit cards along with contacts back home. Keep these numbers handy in your wallet and also put a copy somewhere else. If something were to happen such as an accident and you are unconscious, the authorities will have an easier time if they find your embassy phone number and contacts at home on your person. Make a copy of your passport and put it somewhere in your luggage. In case of your passport being lost or stolen a copy makes it easier for your embassy to issue a new one. In case of credit card or ATM loss or theft then the numbers to call and cancel your cards is extremely important. Divide money among several pockets; if you carry a wallet, carry it in a front pocket. Better yet carry a money clip with an ATM and some cash in your front pocket. Keep multiple sources of cash, ATM cards and a credit card or two in different locations such as carrying some and keeping some in different bags. Hiding a few $100 bills or traveler's checks in a separate bag, your shoe, or several different spots is a good idea in case of robbery or theft. Leave copies of your travel itineraries and documents with friends or family at home. Tell them where you expect to be during certain times of your travel. How to handle a Robbery or Pickpocketing Situation. First, if you are confronted by a robber or someone out to do you harm, be cool when facing confrontation; focus on de-escalation and escape. If you are confronted with an armed individual wanting your possessions just give it to them and do not try and fight back. It is better to lose your possessions than your life. If they are asking for your wallet, then give it to them. Distract the robber if you can and toss your wallet then run in the opposite direction. One option is to carry a dummy wallet with a little cash in it and give that to them. Keep your ATM cards and remaining money in another pocket. Notify your bank as soon as possible to get the cards cancelled and also to order new ones. Every credit card company has a 24-hour hotline that accepts collect calls. Notify the local police. Even if they cannot find your items a police report may be needed later. Notify your Embassy. Your Embassy can help in arranging emergency funds from relatives be sent to you or in case of passport loss or theft can get a new one issued. How to handle a Kidnapping Situation Kidnapping is a real threat in some countries. Just the fact you are a foreigner and traveling makes you a target since you are perceived as rich or having a rich family willing to pay a ransom. Maintain a low profile, don’t wear politically themed shirts, and don’t wear clothes showing you are a proud member of your country’s military or any other nationalistic or political emblems or slogans. Do not try to stand out instead blend in. If you are the target of a kidnapping, remain calm and alert. The best time to escape is at the onset of a kidnapping. Things are hectic the kidnappers are nervous and want to get away as soon as possible. This is also one of the greatest times for injury or physical harm. Only you can decide whether you will fight or relent. If you do decide to fight back then commit to it as if your life depended on it because it just might. Make a scene. Kick, punch, scream, do anything to resist and draw attention yourself. Attempt to get away by any means possible. If you don’t succeed then maybe someone will see the struggle and be able to give authorities details of the kidnappers. If you do get taken pay attention to your surroundings (license plate number, distinguishing features, accents, clothing, etc.). Remain calm and try to determine where you are being taken, how long the trip is and did you travel through the city or country. If in the city what distinguishing sounds did you hear? Did you hear trains or other distinguishing sounds in the background? Did you pass over bridges? Try to remember anything that will help in the future to determine where you are being taken. Remain calm, try to make yourself appear human to your captives and not an object, cooperate as much as you can without demeaning yourself. Avoid eye contact with your captors and do not appear defiant or combative. Make requests that show your captives you are human, such as things for personal comfort, blankets, food and other basic human needs. Do not volunteer information on your family, work or other aspects of your life. If questioned keep your answers short. Continue to tell your captors you have done nothing wrong and just want to be released. Do not engage in political or religious conversations, Do not agree or disagree with their statements just continue to repeat you are not interested in such matters and just want to be released. Do little things each day to keep your mental and physical abilities sharp. Keep a positive attitude. Keep aware of your surroundings and if the opportunity to escape presents itself then take it only if you have a high percentage of being successful. An attempt to escape may only happen once and if you decide to do it then just as before you were taken, commit to it. Realize that this may be your only chance and make sure you are willing to do whatever necessary to get away. Once you escape run far and fast and look for populated areas where you can find help. Natural Disasters and Political Conflicts Before You Go Whether it is a Typhoon, Earthquake, Terrorist attack or Political upheaval, travel in foreign countries presents the risk of any of these actions happening at any time. In 2005, terrorists detonated four bombs in London Fifty-two civilians and the four bombers were killed in the attacks, and over 700 more were injured. Hurricanes and Typhoons strand thousands of tourists every year. Some are delayed a day or two while others are caught off guard and face more dire consequences. First, notify your embassy of your travels. In case of a natural disaster or conflict breaks out they need to know you are in the country so arrangements can be made to evacuate you to safety. Again, notify your friends and family back home where you will be traveling to, so someone knows your itinerary. If a natural disaster hits in a remote area where you happen to be traveling they can notify the Embassy of your whereabouts so efforts can be made to get to you. Stay away from Political rallies and demonstrations. How to Handle a Natural Disaster or Conflict Many government embassies organize evacuations when a location is unsafe, but you’re better off not counting on it. Notify your Embassy of your location and situation. Ask if they recommend evacuation or what help they can provide. If you cannot contact your relatives back home then ask the embassy to relay a message that you are okay. Stay away from affected areas, buildings or structures that have been damaged. Stay out of the way of the emergency responders and obey all instructions of police and military. If you are in your Hotel make sure it is safe and stay put, if it isn’t safe then evacuate as soon as possible to a safe area. While the chances may be remote the possibility of being caught in a conflict still exists. If you get caught in a political uprising or conflict breaks out there are some additional things you need to be aware of. In 2008, protesters occupied various parts of the airport and downtown areas in Thailand. In 2012 forty or so westerners woke up to find armed conflict had broken out in Tajikistan, and lately tourists have been caught up in riots in Greece and other European countries. If you find yourself approaching a roadblock keep your hands in sight. You do not want to appear as a being armed or on one side or another. Be polite and try to stay in the vehicle. If this is not possible, try to stay together, especially if you or others in your group are female. Keep your doors and windows locked. Cooperate with those running the roadblock and explain you are just trying to get out of the area. Do not photograph any military checkpoints, roadblocks or facilities. Do not photograph the hostilities as it may draw attention to you and the rest of your party and draw you into the conflict. Either side may suspect you are gathering information for the other side to use. Avoid large gatherings where there is a potential for bombers to attack. Always be vigilant at large tourist attractions or popular restaurants and clubs. If you are in the vicinity of a bombing realize that there may be more than one. Sometimes a second bomb is timed to detonate once people start gathering to help at the first one. If you are shot at or find yourself caught in the middle of a firefight then move and move fast. If driving back up and take another route, if on foot then find cover. If possible avoid hiding behind vehicles since they are targets for heavy weapons and even bullets can pass through them. Find a wall, concrete building, or similar hard structure. While they are not completely safe they provide the best protection until you can get out of the area. If driving be aware that in an all-out armed conflict mines and explosives may be used. Stay on paved roads when possible and follow other traffic. Additional Tips for Safe Travel Be alert of your surroundings and avoid trouble areas when possible. Trust your instincts. Dress, behave and act in a responsible and respectful manner. You may always stick out as a foreigner but don’t bring more attention to yourself than necessary. Don’t wear flashy jewelry, leave your jewelry at home no one is impressed. Don’t flash your expensive camera or laptop in public. If carrying a camera keep it close to you at all times. Don’t leave personal belongings unattended, even for a minute. Walk and act in a confident manner with purpose. Notice I said confident, not cocky or arrogant. Don’t discuss travel plans in public and don’t flash money. Don’t talk or express your opinions about Politics, Religion or other sensitive subjects. If you have to drive, know where you are going and always look for a path of escape at stops. Park your vehicle in such a way that it is easy to leave. Whether you are driving or in a taxi keep the doors locked and windows rolled up. Only use licensed taxis; note the license plate number of taxi and write it down. Never get into a taxi already occupied by other people. Have small enough bills to pay the fare or exact change if possible. Politely decline offers of food or drink from strangers. Accept beverages only in sealed containers; make sure there has been no tampering. Stay at Hotels, Hostels and Boarding Houses in safe areas. Look for well-lit areas in high traffic locations, not some dark hotel in an alley far away from the main areas. Keep a card with the hotel name, address and phone number with you. Once you check in take some time to become acquainted with the hotel. Where are the stairs, fire extinguishers, what does the hotel staff dress look like, where are all the exits? Inspect your room, not only to see if the bed is comfortable, but does the phone work? How about the smoke alarm, door and window locks, door peephole and chain lock on the door? Keep your doors locked and the chain secure while you are there. Don’t open the door for unexpected visitors. If someone unexpected knocks and says they are with the hotel, tell them to wait and call downstairs to the front desk and verify. When you leave put the do not disturb sign on the door and leave the lights on with the TV volume on low but loud enough to be heard by someone at the door. Lock up your valuables, laptop, camera and such when you are not there. There is no need to be paranoid when traveling and most of the time your vacation or trip will go off without any problems. But being prepared for an emergency can mean the difference between a disaster vacation or worse. Have you ever been caught in an emergency while traveling?
Published in Travel Tips

Jammu and Kashmir is one of the most beautiful states in India and is blessed with natural scenic beauty. Though the state suffered during the years when terrorism was in its most intense and destructive phase, it has slowly limped back to normalcy.

In the past couple of years, Kashmir has gone on to become the most visited state in India. The amazingly beautiful landscape of the land has enthralled emperors and kings, and mesmerized visitors for centuries.

If you are planning a trip to Kashmir, it is important that you decide on the places you want to visit beforehand. There are so many picturesque locations that you may get confused.

Let’s have a look at some of the places that are must-see for any tourist.

Anantnag

Anantnag is also known as the rice bowl of Kashmir valley. Kokernag, Verinag, Achabal and Daksum are places noted for their beauty.

The scenic towns are also home to renowned health resorts and spas. Located at 2438m above sea level, Daksum is lush, green and bounds in exotic flora and fauna. The dense forests are surrounded by snow-capped mountains and offer endless trekking options to enthusiasts. You can also go fishing in the trout-rich streams of Daksum.

Pahalgam is a famous hill station in Anantnag located at an altitude 7200 ft. from sea level. Vast meadows and pastures, pine forests and snow clad mountains justify why Kashmir is often referred to as the Switzerland of India. It has featured in several Bollywood romances and still is one of the most favored honeymoon spots for Indian newly-weds. Lidder River is any angler’s dream come true with bountiful brown trout fishing beats. The beautiful trekking routes through pine and cedar forests, a 9-hole golf course, lovely camping sites and skiing opportunities make Pahalgam an adventure seeker’s paradise. The picturesque Kolahoi glacier is another must-see.

Gulmarg

Gulmarg is famous for its vast expanse of flower-clad meadows set against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains.

This exceptionally beautiful mountain resort boasts of the highest green golf course in the world located at a height of 2,650 m above the sea level. The first ski resort in India was established in Gulmarg in 1927 and continues to be the premier skiing destination in the country.

The Gulmarg Gondola is Asia’s highest and longest, and the world’s second highest cable car project. The views are breathtaking and you get to see the Meadow of Flowers, as Gulmarg is popularly known, in all its glory.

If long treks to ski spots are not your thing you can also opt for a pony ride. Some pony owners may try to overcharge foreign tourists so be careful.

If you are a skiing enthusiast then head to Apparwath Peak and Shark Fin for what are arguably the best skiing trails in the country.

Srinagar

Srinagar is the summer capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and does not in any way fall short where natural beauty is concerned. Lush gardens, historical monuments, ancient shrines and serene lakes make it one of the most sought after and visited tourist destinations in the country.

Shikharas are beautiful decorated wooden boats that are found on the Dal and Nagin lakes in Srinagar. No tourist to Kashmir can afford to miss a ride on the delicate Shikhara. You also get to see quaint floating vegetable and flower markets on the lakes.

There are houseboat hotels where you can book in advance for a luxury stay on the lake. You also can indulge in watersports like kayaking, water surfing, angling and canoeing.

The lakes are the star attractions but, you must also find time to visit other places of interest like Jama Masjid, Hazratbal Mosque, Sri Pratap Singh Museum, Indira Gandhi Tulip Garden and Shankaracharya Temple.

The Mughal Gardens and Dachigam Wildlife Sanctuary are other places that you should visit during your stay in Srinagar.

Sonamarg

Sonamarg means ‘Meadow of Gold’ and is noted for its pristine natural beauty. Sonamarg is blessed with lovely alpine forests and is nestled in the towering snow-clad Himalayan Mountains.

The valley is located at an altitude of 2800 meters, and the journey to Sonamarg is in itself as satisfying and beautiful as the destination. As you meander through the valley you get to see the imposing Harmukh range that dominates the horizon all along the way.

If you are a selfie lover you get plenty of photogenic spots along the route where you can stop to click some good pictures.

Sonamarg is located on the banks of Sindh River where you can enjoy fishing for the plentiful trout and mahseer.

If you are visiting in summer you can plan a trip to the Thajiwas glacier. It is a major tourist attraction and you can choose to trek up the scenic trail or hire a pony ride.

Sonamarg experiences heavy snowfall and avalanches during winter months, so always check with authorities before you plan a trek into the mountains.

Pangong Lake

Pangong Lake is a 5-hour drive from Leh and the extreme landscape will give you an experience you will never forget.

The azure-blue lake is a 45-km stretch on the Indian side and is fed by inland streams and rivers. The salty water does not allow fish and other flora and fauna to flourish, but small crustaceans can be found in the waters. The marshy surroundings are also home to ducks, gulls, and migratory birds. So you can see this also a great place for bird watching.

Pangong Lake got noticed when it featured in the Bollywood blockbuster ‘3 Idiots’ and has since attracted tourists in thousands.

It’s not Pangong Lake alone that Ladakh has on offer. Located at a distance of 45 km from Leh is the quaint town of Hemis. Leh and Ladakh are perfect places to sample India’s incredible diversity, so ensure they are on your itinerary.

Hemis is home to the renowned Hemis National Park which provides shelter to many rare forms of wildlife including the snow leopards and bharals. You can also pay a visit to the Buddhist monastery in Hemis which is the largest in Ladakh and attracts tourists from all over the world.

Schedule your visit during the Hemis festival to enjoy the true culture of Hemis.

Conclusion

Kashmir is one of the most beautiful and picturesque places in the world, where you get to enjoy a unique blend of cultural warmth and hospitality. So the next time you are in India, do plan a visit to the northern-most tip of India.

Published in India

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