Mar 02

Evolution of a Traveler, Part 1

I’m starting a series of posts called “Evolution of a Traveler.” I’m the traveler and these posts will talk about my journey as a traveler and how I’ve evolved. Here is part 1…

Many years ago a friend of mine took a tour with a company called Contiki and suggested that I tour when them when I finished college. Our friendship didn’t last but the advice did. In 2002 I booked a tour with Contiki that covered part of the US – a 6 day tour called California Highlights. My introduction to the tour was on the first morning in Las Vegas when I boarded the bus and met Ty. It was around 7am and his introduction included the fact that he was drunk and hadn’t been to bed yet, I knew at that moment this was going to be a good trip. In 6 days I transformed as a person. I started to see the wold in a new way, this was not an alcohol induced vision. I’m not sure if it was the places I saw or the people I met. The tour was filled with Aussies and people from a few other countries, but there were several peple on Around the World trips. Huh? People get to take 6 months or a year off of work and travel the world, where do I sign up for this plan? I came home and spent a week looking at my normal life from the outside; lets just say I wasn’t impressed. Quitting my job went through my head, but I was sensible enough to realize I had to have a plan before that. 7 years later I still have my job and am still working on my plan. I get 5 weeks vacation so I have ample opportunity to travel and figure out what I want to do and how I want to do it. But after that trip my life started on a new course.

Feb 27

Worry before your trip, go with the flow on your trip

One of the things that I do in my free time is moderate Contiki’s Message board. On the message board people discuss all sorts of stuff about their upcoming (or past) trips. Often the same questions come up, around this time of year there are often a lot of new people getting ready for their first trips abroad. We get questions about what to pack, plug adapters, what to see, who to fly with, what’s the best way to convert money. The money question is one that always sticks out at me, because it’s one that I find you worry about so much more before your trip, but once you’re on your trip you realize their aren’t as many options, and if their are you have to balance time verse money.

The best exchange rates are often from ATM’s. Travelers Cheques are usually a pain (and time consuming) to exchange, a lot of people don’t accept them. I consider Travelers Cheques as a nice back up incase of emergency, otherwise they’re not worth the time. It’s nice to go to a country and already have some local currency. That can be done by going to your bank or going to an exchange place, such as American Express, in your home country. The problem with your bank is that you’ll often have to order money, which requires planning, and not all banks offer this service. The problem with American Express is that they charge $4 (last time I used them) for each currency. You can bring cash from home and once you’re in the country you can use exchange places, some will charge a fee but others will not. Or, you can just use ATM’s once you’re in the country. Depending on your bank you may pay an extra fee to use an ATM in another country on top of the conversion fee.

What does it all come down to? Before my first trip I did a lot of research on my trip and exchangeing money, and in the end I had to just go with the flow. When I got low on money I would estimate what I needed and go to the most legit looking ATM I could find. Or when I was in a more off the beaten track location I would exchange money when the opportunity presented itself since they don’t come that often. Once you’re away you use all that knowledge to do your best at saving money, but most of the time you just have to go with the flow.

Feb 25

Traveling Solo or on a tour??

In the travel world there’s a bit of a separation between those that travel independently and those that travel on a tour. I’m a tour girl. It’s not that I don’t like to travel independently, but I tours suites me better.

I’m often traveling alone, I occasionally find a friend to travel with; but I travel so much and sometimes quite far away that I can’t always find someone to travel with. I don’t really like to travel alone either, it’s lonely. I know I could meet people along the way, but what if I don’t? The thought of traveling to foreign cities for 2 weeks without meeting people, or constantly meeting new people but not connecting with any of them is daunting. Imagine having no one to really talk to for 2 weeks, to discuss the things you did and the things you want to do. If you’re on a tour then you have instant friends (ok, I know that sounds bad.) But you’re with people who are more or less in the same boat and with the same interests. And if you keep your tour in the 2-3 week range you’re unlikely to get to know people’s annoying habits. But there is a certain comradery that develops on a tour. Picking place to see in a city, helping each other with problems that arise, sharing knowledge, and getting to know another culture through meeting people from different places. There is a lot to get out of a tour socially, and I’m still friends with many of the people that I travel with.

Then there is the idea of planning the trip – hotels, transportation, dining, ugh! I don’t mind it, but it is a lot of work and sometimes more then I have the time and patience for, especially if you’re looking at seeing a lot of places in a short period of time. A tour makes all this easier.

But there are some cons to traveling with a tour: you do often end up being sheparded around in a large group (though there is a lot of free time too,) being stuck with annoying people, limited control over your schedule and time. Overall though, I’ve enjoyed all the tours I’ve been on, felt they were a good value, and the people were absolutely worth meeting and getting to know. I am however looking at expanding the types of tours I use. A bus of 50 people is great, but I think a smaller group of people is better.

Feb 16

Choosing Scandinavia and Russia

When I tell people that I have traveled to Scandinavia and Russia they often ask, why? Here’s my journey…

After doing a 2 week tour of Europe with Contiki I had picked my next trip – Eastern Road – Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Krakow, Vienna, Warsaw. It was a 2 week trip that I had heard good things about. The problem was that I “fell” into some extra time off of work and wanted to take advantage. I wanted to go away for 3 or 4 weeks and on a whim looked through the Contiki brochure. Did I want to do the Eastern Road tour and another tour, or just do some independent travel before and after? Then I noticed this 33 day tour of Scandinavia and Russia, it piqued my interest. I started looking up some info on Scandinavia and after seeing some pictures realized it was beautiful there, I mean really beautiful – beyond anything I could imagine. Russia was easy since I’ve always had an interest in WWII and the Cold War. My next issue was dealing with the fact that this would be a “budget” tour – we would be staying in cabins instead of hotels. I did some more research and found out that in Russia we would be staying in hotels and that the cabins were pretty decent. I bit the bullet and in January I booked my trip for May. A couple cabins are a small price to pay for seeing a fjord (whatever that was), a glacier and the midnight sun.

I loved Scandinavia, it was a beautiful place. I was actually sick my whole time there and ended up sleeping on the bus a fair amount. I would often wake up and look out the window and see a waterfall, or a lake or a beautiful mountain view. Almost all of our campsites were in great locations, often on a lake or nestled in the mountains. I’m not a terribly outdoorsy person, but being in a place like this made me one.

On our drive to Nordkapp from Hammerfest to see the midnight sun we kept seeing reindeer, I kept trying to take pictures. They wouldn’t stop long enough for me to get a picture, but that was a gift. It was fun to watch them in their natural habitat (there isn’t much of a population this far north). The little ones would follow their mother around and the medium sized ones seemed to be playing with each other. Who needs Animal Planet when you have this? Then there was the one at one of our breaks on the drive. It was a lone reigndeer, a young looking one. He was just standing there and I jumped off to get a picture of him. One of the guys from the tour walked up to him to feed him something and the reigndeer ate it and hung around. The story differs depending on who you ask at this point. My story: The reigndeer turned to me, flared his nostrels and charged me, I ran away barely surviving the incident. Apparently the video shows that the reigndeer started to walk towards me and I panicked and ran away. Hey, where I come from animals aren’t friendly! Everyone then tried to feed or pet the reigndeer, it was funny to watch because I think he started getting freaked out by them. But the sweetest thing was that when the bus pulled away the reigndeer started to follow the bus and was at a full run.

I’ll leave Russia and more tales from Scandinavia for another day.

Feb 15

Disney World Tours

On my last trip to Disney World in October of 2008 Terye and I did two tours. The first was the Keys to the Kingdom tour, the second was a Segway Tour of World Showcase at EPCOT.

The Keys to the Kingdom tour is a 4 and a half hour tour where you learn some of the secrets of Walt Disney World (primarily the Magic Kingdom) and get to see some backstage stuff at the park. The tour starts on Main Street and our guide, Johnnie, showed us some of the names in the windows and told us the origins of those names. We learned about the 4 “keys” – Safety, Show, Courtesy, and Efficiency. Here are some examples of these: Safety – when they do bag checks at the park entrance they are looking for glass (among other things) – glass cuts people when it breaks. Courtesy – You’ll notice that cast members use a 2 fingered point, it’s apparently friendlier then the one fingered point. Show – cast members use the Utiladoors to move from land to land at the Magic Kingdom, you’ll never see a cast member from Fronteir Land in Tomorrow Land. Efficiency – you’ll notice that menues have limited choices at the parks and resorts, it makes it easier and faster for you to choose your meal. We went backstage in the area between Adventure Land and Fronteir Land. This is the area where they keep and service parade floats – we got to see many of the parade floats being tested. We got to ride Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion, and had a nice lunch at Harbor House. At the end of the tour we finally got to see the Utilador, which was very exciting. There is a whole network of underground tunnels under the Magic Kingdom which allows cast members and stuff to move around the park without being seen. They’re similar to something you would go through if you worked at a major sporting arena (that’s the best example I have since I worked in one,) but with just a little bit of a Disney flare to it. An interesting fact for all you recyclers out there. Although Disney does not have recycling bins in the parks, they do sort all garbage by hand, so rest assured that your cans will be recycled.

It was a great tour, Terye and I really did enjoy it. It was a little over 4 and a half hours. It does involve a fair amount of walking, but we did have many breaks from the walking, sometimes with the chance to sit down. If anyone is interested in the tour though I suggest doing it after you have spent a day or two in the Magic Kingdom so that you can better enjoy the tour.

The following day we did the Around the World on a Segway tour at EPCOT’S World Showcase. This is a 2 hour tour. The first hour is spent learning to ride a Segway, which is a lot of fun. The next hour you get a guided tour of World Showcase with one break in the middle. We rode through most of the “countries” and got some tidbits of infomation about them. It was nice to get to see World Showcase without people in it, you could appreciate things a little more, too bad we weren’t able to take pictures while riding the Segways. The Segways were sooooo much fun to ride. I wanted one after the tour, though I don’t think one would be very useful in my regular life. I will warn that they really do kill the feet and legs. You can’t really move your feet around when you’re on the segway since you use your legs and feet to control it. Although I wanted to go longer on it, I don’t think my feet could do much more. Next time I’ll have to try the Segway tour at Fort Wilderness.

Feb 11

What is Contiki

I’ve toured several times with a company called Contiki. Since a lot of my travel involves this company I thought i would talk about what a Contiki tour is. Contiki is a large tour company that caters to 18-35 year olds. They do group tours of Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and a couple other spots. The tours typically have around 40-50 people on them, many of the people are traveling Solo. The company that owns Contiki also owns Trafalgar, Insight, Bus A Bout and a couple other companies.

Contiki operates tours from 3 days to 46 days. They operate camping tours, tours where you stay in cabins at campsites and tours where you stay in hotels. This allows people to take more roughing it styles of tours in exchange for saving some money, or spend a little more money and have more conveniences. I’m a hotel tour kinda girl!

Contiki is good for first time travelers, solo travelers, and people who don’t want to do a lot of planning. Contiki takes care of transportation, accomodations, some meals (typically breakfasts and half the dinners), basic tours of cities, and offers optional activities – meals, tours of cities or museusms, and different activities depending on the place designed to enhance the experience. The typically persons on these tour are looking to spend time touring and getting to know new place, but also looking to drink and socialize too. One tour manager said that every morning is Monday morning and every night is Saturday night. But how much touring you do and how much partying you do is up to you.

Who shouldn’t take a Contiki tour? While most people will enjoy Contiki tours, there are some who will not. Very independent people tend not to enjoy the tours. Also, people who have not researched what a tour entails and the types of accomodations that are offered. While there is a lot of free time on the tour, there are quite a few time restricitons too. If your tour is traveling from one city to another, then their is only so much flexibility in the schedule. Or if you’re not familiar with what a 3 star hotel in europe is and expect what you would get in say the US – you’ll be disapointed. Also, if you’re not happy unless everything is catered to you, don’t take a Contiki tour.

If you’re interested in more info on Contiki, check out their website at www.contiki.com

Feb 08

Walt Disney World – All Star Sports

In October of 2008 I went to Disney World for a week with my friend Terye. Since we didn’t anticipate spending much time in the hotel room we decided to stay at a value resort. After researching them I knew that the All Star Sports resorts had recently been refurbished, so we decided to stayed there. We stayed in a Surf building near the pool, this is a “preferred building” at the resort.

I wasn’t overly impressed with the resort, though most of that has to do with what Terye and I anticipated we would be doing. The room size was on the small side, which we knew and wasn’t a big deal. It was just fine for 2 adult girls – not sure how 2 adults with 2 kids deal though. I liked the layout of the bathroom though, with the tub and toilet in the room and the sink separate. But the lighting was HORRIBLE. I’m lucky I didn’t look like a clown when I went out. Terye hated the programming on the TV, though it’s really not surprising what they had. Every ABC, Disney and ESPN channel that ever existed, and that was about it. Ok, they did also have the other basic channels – NBC, CBS, Fox.

The dining wasn’t anything to write home about. There is just the end-zone food court, which I didn’t think would bother me so much. But the pizza sucked (which meant I wasn’t into any of the Italian foods). The grilled food was just ok, the one breakfast I had wasn’t that fresh. Terye and I had at least 1 sit down meal a day and this just didn’t really fit in with our dining habits. After a long day at the parks we liked sitting down and having a nice meal at a restaurant, instead we were stuck with a mediocre quick meal. Fortunately we had dinner reservations somewhere else most nights.

The biggest disappointment was the lack of hot tub. I’m not a huge hot tub person, but after a long day in the parks it would have been wonderful to dip into one, but they didn’t have one. I don’t know how I missed this, but if I had realized it we might have chosen a different resort. Also, the pool was large, but was often packed with hordes of kids, especially at night. I was shocked by how late parents were keeping their kids up at night. There would be kids running around the pool area at 11pm.

In short, I would recommend the All Star Sports resort for people on a budget and only if there are 2 or 3 people in the room. Or for people just going down for a couple days and will be using it as a place to sleep, not for people who are looking for a resort experience.

Feb 06

Falling asleep

Last night I was reading a friends travelogue and after 60+ days of traveling he was starting to crash. Hitting that point where you don’t know if you could stay awake much longer, or travel much longer. I must admit, I find it amazing that he lasted 60+ days, even if he did have a little bit of a break after about 40 days. Travel can give you the energy of a new light bulb even when you’re tired, but then you can burn out just as fast when you’re in an amazing place.

In 2005 I did my second Contiki Tour (first in Europe), it was an amazing experience. I had been to Amsterdam; Munich, Innsbruck, Venice, Rome, Florence, Lucerne and Paris. So where did sleep deprivation hit? The Vatican Museum.

I was on a tour with the most painful ear piece that was ever created in my ear. I sat down for a little lecture about the art early in the tour and it took all of my willpower to stay awake. I could understand, it was an intense tour of Europe, we were up early in the morning. I was able to perk up enough to enjoy the vast majority of the museum after the lecture and did enjoy the Museum. Then a few days later I went to see Moulin Rouge, the one in Paris that they made a movie about. I had spent my day running around Paris seeing as much as possible – Notre Dame, the Louvre, Arc de Triumph, Musse Rodin. Despite some time to relax before the show I could NOT keep my eyes open during parts of the show. My memory of it is a blur of jugglers and half naked women in nifty costumes. I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised, I did fall asleep in the first row of Cats a couple years before that. But Moulin Rouge was much better then Cats.

But it was in the Hermitage where I pulled off my best falling asleep act. I was soooo excited to see the Hermitage, I heard it was either the biggest or the second biggest museum in the world (depends who you ask,) a true palace. It was the Czarist rendition of French opulence. I couldn’t stay awake, I was actually falling asleep as I was walking. I didn’t even know that was possible. I kept walking into people and having to apologize to them (thankfully most were from my tour). It was bizar, I still don’t understand how I was that tired I had been sleeping decently for most of the tour. And I felt so bad about it. I remember most of the place, sort of. I think we saw some Picasso’s?? But I do remember the red room and the gold room, but we went in a bunch of others too. I bought a book, and that helps jog my memory, but I do still feel like I missed something that day. Of course shortly after the tour was over I woke up. Maybe I should take all of this as a hint – that museums just aren’t my style?

Feb 05

Youtube is your friend…

Once deciding to take the cruise on the Pride of America it was time to start thinking about what to do on the cruise. I printed out a copy of all 8,000 excursions they offer and my brain almost exploded. I read some of it, but it just wouldn’t stick so I bought a guide book – Hawaii By Cruise Ship. The book is pretty good for someone taking a cruise. It gives an overview of cruising, the options in Hawaii and general info on Hawaii. It also breaks down the islands and the things to do on each. But the book only spent a little time on places to eat and hotels, which is fine for my purposes.

But after getting a feel for each island I was still left wondering, which island should we take a Heli Tour on? The first island I read about was Kauai and the Heli tour there sounded amazing. But, wouldn’t a helicopter be a great way to see an active volcano? Isn’t that what all the cool people do? I did some more research online and it sounded like Kauai was the place to do it, but I still wasn’t sure. I decided to try Youtube.com. Someone must have a video on their heli tours – and yes, they do. The ones from Kauai were amazing – Waimea Canyon and the Na Pali coast are GORGEOUS! The ones of the Kilauea on the Big Island just were not all that exciting. A little red lava oozing out just did not look like what I pictured all the cool people doing. So, with a hesitant Tara in tow I will be doing the Heli tour over Kauai.

Feb 04

How about Hawaii???

A couple months ago I got an email from my dear friend Tara. She is finishing her Masters Degree in May and wanted to know where I was taking her. It didn’t take much thought, I knew she wanted to go to Ireland and Hawaii. Since I know Hawaii is her first choice I decided Hawaii it is. Beside, with the exchange rate for the USD, Ireland would be expensive and Hawaii is, well Hawaii. Need I say more?

After giving it some thought, particularly about the fact that I don’t know much about Hawaii, I thought… What about a cruise. I ran it by Tara, and she said it was ok, and whatever I say (she says that a lot.) I combed the options and decided that NCL’s Pride of America sounded fantastic. 2 days on each island so we would get to see all the islands. We start and end in Honolulu, then have 2 days in Maui, 1 day at each port on the Big Island – Hilo and Kona, and a day and a half on Kauai. We’ll also be sailing by the Na Pali Coast of Kauai and have an evening sail by the erupting Volcano on the Big Island.

How on earth will we ever decide what excrusions to do???