Monthly Archives: July 2009

On My Itinerary: London and Sweden, here we come!

guardian.co.uk

guardian.co.uk

In exactly 24 hours we’ll be on a flight heading from DC to Boston… then a 12-hour layover (yes, American Airlines screwed us and changed our flights so none to London take off until evening) eating lobster rolls and looking at the birth of our nation… then following the Redcoats path across the pond to London where the invading British first came from. We’re staying at my friend Dave’s flat (because they are “flats” and not “apartments” there) in Notting Hill. Apparently that travel bookshop that Hugh Grant owns in the movie “Notting Hill”  (see photo) is not a front and is really a travel bookstore, which first peaked my interest while I was watching the movie, and it’s located right around the corner from Dave, so I’ll be heading there too (and not because Hugh Grant was there). Dave is an old Boston friend, actually from Habitat for Humanity we did together in Paraguay, but then I moved two blocks from him in Boston.

Then after running through London for a few days, we’ll be on a flight to Stockholm, then another to Visby on the island of Gotland to participate in Medieval Week), then a ferry back to Stockholm to catch the morning fast train to Gothenburg for Josie’s and Steve’s wedding. Following that, we’ll be driving (really I will be driving, since Jon doesn’t know stick shift) through the lakes and along the Gota Canal back to Stockholm in our rental car, and then spending our final days in Stockholm where I’ll also get to visit with my old Boston roommate, Jenny. There is a certain Boston theme running throughout this trip.

Of course, stay posted as I update with our adventures, photos, and whether Jon’s suit and shoes for the wedding will really fit into his carry-on suitcase along with 12 days of clothes (he seems to believe it will). Yeeha! It’s already an adventure.

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Filed under Europe, On My Itinerary

Cool Tools: XE.com, currency converter

If there’s a silver lining in this recession, it comes threefold: the cheaper cost of travel, the abundance of time for unemployed individuals to travel, and the value of the dollar against other currencies.

The last time I was in London (November 2003) the pound was worth $1.75. I ate a ₤9.99 value lunch at TGIF in Heathrow Airport which ended up translating into more than $20 with tax and tip for what should have been $9.99, anywhere around the world.

Today, on checking one of my favorite travel tools, XE.com, the Great Pound of Great Britain came up as… $1.64! While still not the 1:1 ratio I would like (or even more to the U.S.’s favor), and still a little trouble rationalizing spending lots of ₤’s on my niece and nephew at Hamley’s (the British equivalent of FAO Schwartz) or to restock my teas at Fortnum & Mason, it is better than spending $13 on a pint ‘o beer. XE.com uses live mid-market rates, updated every minute so it’s as accurate as you’d like it. Just hope your bank will provide you with the same or better exchange rate.

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Getting Lost In: Historic Washington, D.C.!

Summer vacation NY and DC 009

(Above: my best friend Karen the giant, pushing the Washington Monument on a very typical insanely hot summer day in DC. This photo is from the Silly Pictures Archive of Rin & Karen that we use to blackmail each other from time to time.)

This weekend, Jon, I, and his two cousins went to see Night at the Museum 2: Battle at the Smithsonian (click on the link to view the trailer), AT the Smithsonian IMAX, so the whole experience was pretty trippy, particularly the scene when Ben Stiller and Amy Adams run into the Air & Space Museum where we were watching the movie. Now, I’m sure the Smithsonian had some hand in all this to create some incredible marketing on its behalf, because now I really want to go back to some of these museums that I hadn’t visited in years.

Now, here is a link to back up my theory behind Smithsonian’s marketing ploy: http://www.gosmithsonian.com/nightatthemuseummovie.

You can easily spend a week wandering through all of Smithsonian’s museums, but you will get a little bit museum-ed and monument-ed out. But since there’s so much to see in DC, I’m breaking this city down by theme, starting with Historic Washington. All this comes straight from a local who acts like a tourist – me! I figured it was about time and a little bit silly that I, living in one of America’s biggest tourist magnets, haven’t even bothered to cover it. Until now.

Smithsonian

Kailin's First Birthday 038Smithsonian is actually made up of 19 museums. They are all free, so you can visit or skip areas without guilt other than that you’ve traveled all this way to Washington and are skipping parts of our national treasures. The following are museums I think are worth visiting, based solely on what is unique and Washingt0n-esque and may not necessarily be found in other cities: Air & Space MuseumAmerican History Museum, The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (which has a good, but expensive, lunch place)(photo above), the National Zoo (the pandas are a must-see and even put a goofy grin of adoration on the faces of my cousin and his friend, two dudes in their 20’s who otherwise thought they were too cool), the National Portrait Gallery, and (if you don’t live in New York to enjoy the Museum of Natural History there) National Museum of Natural History. For some reason I believed there were several other museums that were part of Smithsonian, but don’t seem to appear on its Web site. Now, this list is not to say that the other museums are not worthwhile; but if I was pressed for time, I would focus more on what’s relevant to American history and government because that’s what I would be in town for – other people have their reasons. And that’s my disclaimer.

The National MallIMG_0139

Get a bike, or even better, a Segway to explore our nation’s backyard. Watch out for flying softballs, frisbees and kickballs. Start from the U.S. Capitol (go on a Rotunda tour) and then roll over past the Washington monument (book tickets online or go to the kiosk at 15th Street and Jefferson the same day to ride to the top – a worthy visit), WWII, Vietnam and Korea, up to Lincoln. Then cycle out along the Tidal basin to view FDR and Thomas Jefferson. If it’s cherry blossom season, it’s even prettier. Of course, then you have to make your way over to the White House, but you can’t bike in front of it. You can bike behind it, but watch out for roller hockey players. Visiting the White House is best accomplished with a cardboard President Obama (see right, taken right before our wedding and after Obama’s election), and if you’re smart, IMG_1461you’ll start charging all the tourists $5 a photo. Bring a rain jacket or umbrella because it might suddenly break out into a ridiculous downpour.

(Note about downpours: I often get caught in them while running or biking, so I don’t look as ridiculous. But it’s particularly hilarious watching Probably Political Men in Suits with nowhere to hide following the five-step Rain Breakthrough. It consists of 1. Disbelief of the Rain, 2. Acknowledging the Rain, 3. Acknowledging they Left Umbrella At Home, 4. Acknowledging that Newspaper Over Head is Leaving Black Stains on White Collared Shirt, and 5. Acceptance and Trudging Along Street Anyway in Surrender. The whole process takes about four minutes.)

Other historical favorites

My niece and other small children seem to love the Building Museum, which is set inside a beautiful building itself and highlights architecture of American buildings. The reason children love it so much is because of the giant blocks that inspire future civil engineers in all of us.

Mt. Vernon. I have yet to visit George Washington’s estate, though I have mapped out the 18-mile bike path there. We were going to bike it one of these weekends until Jon got his bike stolen at Union Station. It’s worth a visit, I have been told, but prices are not cheap: $15 for adults (free for kids under 5!).

courtesy: Jaime Windon
courtesy: Jaime Windon

United States National Arboretum.  A very widespread botanical garden that people like to bike around in. You can view the original Congressional columns and trees from the 50 states, among other fun things. Also, this photo was taken by the fantabulous Jaime Windon, our wedding photographer, during an engagement photo session with my sister & family.

Library of Congress. Another one I haven’t visited yet. Boy, I am a terrible local. I hear it is fantastic inside. Now it’s time for me to follow my own guide to historic DC! See you there!

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My Travel Hats adds: Chomping Around Town

 

IMG_8047

(above: an amazing food stall at the market in Florence)

Surprise! It was about time I started in with one of my favorite activities and highlights of traveling: eating. Soon you’ll start to find entries specific to food highlights, ingredients, and all those deliciousness that will make your mouth water from reading my blog. Kind of like when Jon and I went to see Ratatouille, and started getting very hungry watching the characters cook the cartoon dishes. If you click on the “Chomping Around Town” category on the right, you’ll see I’ve already labeled some previous entries with this one so you can enjoy a little gastronomique tour around the world. Keep your eyes – and appetites – open. Bon appetit!

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Cool Tools: Gotobus.com and Busjunction.com

My niece has her own version of “The Wheels on the Bus” that she prefers to sing. For example, the “Ayi (me) on the bus goes ‘Hi Kiddo. Where is everybody? JON!!'” Apparently Ayi (which officially means “aunt on mother’s side” in Chinese, but does get loosely applied to any aunt-like person) leaves enough voice messages asking where everyone is when nobody answers and says JON!! a lot.

In any case, Ayi doesn’t really enjoy riding buses because they are slow and make her nauseous. So, all these newfangled features that come with today’s long-distance buses along the east coast, like Wifi and videos, don’t really do much to sway me to get on the bus. I believe it has to do with all the lurching braking action that trains don’t really have, which is why I would inevitably prefer the much more expensive Amtrak. I have managed to survive bus rides before, but with the same enthusiasm applied to roller coasters and worms.

But I am incredibly tempted by the low, low cost of riding the bus. $15-$20 from DC to New York can’t really be beat. In a car, it costs us $25 in tolls, plus gas, although we can just roll up to my dad’s house or wherever we are destined without having to switch to the subway, or, god forbid, another bus. For years my friends took the infamous Chinatown Bus home from college for $10 (really a conglomerate of several companies run by Chinese people, dropping off and picking up in Chinatowns throughout the East coast). Today, there’s also the sleek Bolt Bus (a partnership of Greyhound and Peter Pan in response to the competition of Chinatown bus), Megabus (the British company), Vamoose, and other non-Chinatown bus companies to whisk you off. And if you don’t have issues reading on a bus, and you pick non-traffic hours, then there’s really no good reason not to take the bus for a quarter of the price of a plane or train ticket. Now all the buses, including Chinatown buses, have plush seats, washrooms, videos (sometimes in Chinese, which can be entertaining if you’re guessing the plot), Wifi, and other comforts to compete with each other.

In the end, it appears price and location of pick up/ drop off win. There are two search engine sites that will aid in the process of booking your bus trip. The first, and more comprehensive, is Gotobus.com, which not only searches and books on the East Coast but also throughout the entire country and even Canada. The second is Busjunction.com, which functions more like Kayak except with buses. Each lists the cities and locations for pickup and drop-off, so if you want to go to Bethesda instead of downtown Washington, you can select that option. Likewise, if you live in midtown Manhattan, you can opt to pick up at Times Square than haul yourself down, downtown to Chinatown.

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My Travel Hats has a new nephew!

Technically it’s me, and not the blog, who has a new nephew, but that will explain the brief hiatus from last week. I will be back with more entries this week! In the meantime, enjoy the addition to the cast of characters mentioned in My Travel Hats. Soon enough you’ll be hearing about his upcoming travel plans.

baby

6.2 pounds, 18.5 inches. Fits perfectly into a carry-on suitcase.

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Filed under Wanderings

Cool Tools: EuroFlights.info for discount European airlines

IMG_8005One of the best highlights of living in Paris was its proximity to so many amazing European destinations that would otherwise cost us 10 days of vacation and $700+ if flying from the U.S. Of course, while the euro continued to ascend against the dollar during my time there, and in my student status, I had to do a lot of due diligence when shopping for these flights. While significantly cheaper than if I flew from the U.S., the amount of traveling I was doing was inversely proportional to the amount of cash in my bank account (i.e. the more I flew, the less money I had).

One of my great finds (and still is): EuroFlights.info, an extremely resourceful, albeit slightly annoying to navigate, resource for domestic and European destinations on a budget.

How it works:

Let’s say I’m in Paris and I’d like to fly to Florence for the weekend (because, who wouldn’t?). I click on “Florence” as my city option, which takes me to another page, listing the different Florentine airports available to me. I decide that Florence Airport is the best choice. The next page pulls up a list of every country in Europe with cities that are connected by various airlines. I look down the list to find Paris, and see that Brussels Airlines is the airport that serves between Florence Airport and Paris.

At this point, my search is exhausted on Euroflights, so I click on “Brussels Airlines” which takes me to a page showing all the possible cities Brussels Airlines serves in general, as well as its web site. Clicking on the site takes me to Brussel Airlines’ site to book a flight. And that is it.

Why is this better than, say, kayak or expedia? Kayak and Expedia don’t provide every airline, particularly discount ones who can’t afford to advertise with those search engines. This site, however, gives every possible airline between the cities you’re looking for. You have to do the extra legwork to find out its schedule and price.  It is a very complete source of information, and will save you many, many euros.

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Filed under Cool Tools, Europe