Monthly Archives: May 2010

Getting Lost In: Ireland!

Two friends of mine are headed on a wee vacation to O’Land o’ Ireland, home of the pint, Angela’s Ashes, Celtics, Aran sweaters and shamrocks. I was lucky (Irish luck?) enough to have taken a similar vacation a few years ago with a friend of mine, over St. Patrick’s Day,  partially-paid by my company. She and I rented a giant Ford Galaxy that seated eight, since it was the only rental car available with automatic transmission, and we set off from Kinsale  (photo, below) north to Galway (photo right). In this entry, I will create a Do and Don’t separation for Ireland.

DO realize that this trip is usually best taken with a significant other, due to its country cuteness, cozy bed & breakfasts and tranquilizing scenery. DO realize that if you’re not traveling with a significant other and you’re both under 50 years old, you may get bored quickly. Keep driving along.

DO rent an automatic transmission car, unless you are ambidextrous and can drive stick-shift with your opposite hand (unless you’re English or Japanese, in which please drive as you ordinarily do). Remember that the Irish are one of the cultures who drive on the left.

DO try the local brews and whiskeys – after all, this is Ireland! but then DON’T try to drive on the opposite side of the road afterwards.

DO buy at least one Aran sweater.

DO visit the Ring of Kerry and Dingle Peninsula. Do drive it yourself so you can decide your schedule and whether you want to get off or stay on the road. Don’t bother with the bus tours which will just tell you “here is something pretty – now get off and take a picture of it” unless you plan to be drunk at lunch and can’t continue to drive.

DO admire the scenery at Dingle: as I wrote in an email to a friend, “one point there was nothing but waves thrashing in slow-motion against black rocks in the blue-purple, almost amethyst, ocean, and then if you look to the right was a continuum of green hills dotted with puffy white sheep that looked like clouds.” (I was inspired by all the literature in Ireland. I don’t ordinarily write such florally emails to my friends).

DO note the wealth of literary types and writers from Ireland, and visit the Literary Museum in Listowel. It only takes an hour and pays tribute to the various famous Irish writers.

DO visit the Cliffs of Moher (photo, left) for some equally dramatic ocean-pounding action and pictures. It will be windy.

DO drive through the Burren (limestone-covered hills) to Galway.

DO hop the ferry over to Aran Islands and rent bikes to cycle around.

DO visit the Blarney Castle (photo, above). In the interest of H1N1, DO NOT kiss the Blarney Stone. You will not get bad luck (but you might get the flu).

DO check out the city of Cork which has lots of interesting restaurants (including some very tasty Indian food) and shops.

DO keep in mind that “Mna” means “women” and “Fir” means “men” when trying to choose a restroom in Gaelic.

DO try to squeeze in a quick train trip to Dublin. A lot of people skip this because they want to just focus on the western part of Ireland. The western part, to re-emphasize, is kind of slow if you’re a faster-paced and young traveler. Dublin is the main city in Ireland and would be a good complement to the rest of the country. I hear the literary tour is worth it.

left: town of Limerick

below: house on Aran Islands.

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In the Suitcase: Avoiding tourist traps

It’s easy to take advice from others while on vacation: Eat here! Go there! That place has the best mojitos! Don’t miss the incredible tour of this!

Depending from whom this advice is doled, we forget that opinions and tastes still vary greatly and then suddenly we fall into – the tourist trap. It happens often. Who do you blame? For starters, there’s some guidebooks, although those often will warn against tourist traps and some try to steer you away to “off-the-beaten-path” – sometimes a little more than you’d like. Then there’s friends who don’t know any better, concierge people who just recommend the same places to everyone, other travelers who are just plain excited to be on vacation that anything seems great, and then the dreaded Internet.

My in-laws just came back from a week in Puerto Vallarta where they’d experienced quite a bit of this. Now, my in-laws have very good taste when it comes to restaurants. They know what’s a good meal and what’s just for show. They’re not easily fooled by the  waiter making guacamole right before their eyes, even though they did take the suggestions of several people who raved about this particular restaurant and then it turned out to be a tourist trap with so-so food. They’d even tried a restaurant where only locals went, but even that turned out to be a disappointment. But they lucked out with a couple places suggested by some other travelers, and were happy with those.

I’ve learned never to ask the concierge for recommendations anymore. Each time I have, I’ve been directed to something that might as well be the Olive Garden.

So how do you know when to avoid a tourist trap or not? Well, some attractions are designed to trap a tourist (i.e. Ripley’s Believe it or Not, Hard Rock Cafe). Here is my breakdown of what’s touristy and what’s not.

  • Any guided tour on a tram or boat
  • Any observation deck of a tall structure or building that charges you for the elevator ride
  • Any store doing a “demonstration” of how something is made (lady weaving a blanket in the front, man carving a statuette)
  • Any street with chain shops and restaurants – because people tend towards what’s familiar (Times Square, Michigan Avenue)
  • Any piers with more than just boats attached to them (Navy Pier, Santa Monica Pier, South Street Seaport)
  • Anywhere with local people dressed up in period costume with whom you can take pictures for a small price.

Of course, sometimes the reason these places are so touristy is because they’re why the world comes to visit – like the Statue of Liberty, or the beaches of Mexico, or the top of the Eiffel Tower. And sometimes they’re really fun, like walking the entire Freedom Trail in Boston or part of the Great Wall of China.

Restaurants are harder, because sometimes the best restaurants are that good because they’ve been highly recommended by magazines, friends, guidebooks, etc. But realize that writers often get their news from other writers, so sometimes the reason that restaurant has been so acclaimed is because someone else acclaimed it, and hence a domino effect begins. However, guidebooks have become slightly more reliable in recent years, partly because of the competition, and none of them want to be known as the book that leads travelers to tourist traps. That being said, it is also the guidebooks who create the tourist traps, so really – chicken/ egg situation.

If you don’t want a touristy dining experience, then avoid:

  • Any restaurant where the majority of patrons are carrying backpacks or fanny packs, or are not of local origin.
  • Any restaurant where someone is standing outside with menu in hand trying to get you to eat there
  • Any restaurant with menus in several languages
  • Sometimes it’s best to ask a local who doesn’t seem sketchy (i.e. the kind who will try to send you off on a ride around town so he can earn a commission for referring you. This is practiced in India and Thailand frequently). He or she will usually give a “pshaw!” to a recommended touristy place and then direct you to one that is reputable in that city but probably little-known to tourists. Locals rarely go where tourists dine.

    Happy non-touristy travels!

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    Now Boarding: This Week’s Travel headlines

    Happy Wednesday Travelers! Here’s an update in travel news: 

    JETBLUE was offering $10 tickets to celebrate its 10-year anniversary of service, to be purchased yesterday and today, but the promotion was so successful it sold out. 

    CHINA has lifted a 20-year ban on travelers with HIV and AIDS that prevented them from entering the country. The Border Quarantine Law was amended recently, in light of the Shanghai Expo 2010. 

    LIBYA’S plane crash has one lone survivor, an 8-year-old Dutch boy. The Afriqiyah Airways plane from Johannesburg crashed while attempting to land at its destination in Tripoli, Libya, killing nearly 100 passengers on board. Investigations are still underway. The airline, based in Tripoli, has no prior history of crashes or accidents. 



    British Airways is threatening another strike by the cabin crew this summer. The 20-day walkoff could affect hundreds of thousands of passengers, including 90,000 who travel through Heathrow alone each day in summer. This would interfere with soccer fans trying to get to South Africa for the World Cup in June. The strike is in response to British Airways’ removing travel perks to those who were striking in March.

    MEXICO TRAVEL WARNING EXTENDED. The US State Department has extended its travel advisory to Mexico to include three more states: Michoacan and Tamaulipas, as well as parts of Sinaloa. Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuila. These include popular tourist attractions, such as Copper Canyon and the monarch butterfly mountains of Michoacan. These areas have recently experienced violence and organized crime related to drugs. The Mexican government is working to protect travelers, and millions still visit Mexico safely. However, it warns that gangs may use new tactics, such as blocking roads with stolen vehicles and hijacking cars, at times and places that are still unpredictable.

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    On My Itinerary: Africa!

    It’s official: we booked tickets to Africa! Believe me, it was NOT cheap, though it was significantly cheaper than other flights (thank for a great find, and for carrying the same itinerary because not all engines do, and for $10 less, and for allowing me to earn 1% of the ticket price towards my student loans with this). I hovered the mouse over the “Book now!” button before clicking; of course, our credit card company sounded an alarm and blocked the hefty purchase, but after soothing its feathers and thanking the fraud department, we secured ourselves two tickets on Ethiopian Airlines to Nairobi (we are not staying in Nairobi) and a return trip from Zanzibar that would take us on a 15-hour layover in Addis Ababa (plus a 45-minute layover in Rome).

    Why shell out nearly two months of mortgage payments for this trip? I partly blame my dad, who has always dreamed of traveling through these parts of Africa before they became huge tourist traps. Already, Tanzania has turned in that direction, serving the Kilimanjaro and safari circuits of foreigners. But outside those areas, there isn’t much for tourists to do but observe, which is the purpose of our visit to southern Kenya as volunteers, helping the Masai people assimilate to modern Africa. It’s also sort of a taking-advantage-of-a-life situation: we still don’t have kids, we’re willing to not shower for several days, and we don’t spend much money on anything else except trips. Plus, it was time to cover a new continent.

    My friend Jenny just told me about her similar hesitation to click the “book now” button earlier this week, when she bought tickets to Botswana and South Africa to catch the World Cup this June.

    Our plan over 18 days: two days of flying, a week volunteering at a primary school with the Masai in southern Kenya, followed by a camping safari in Northern Tanzania and then relaxing (and a shower!) on Zanzibar. On the way back, we’ll get to explore the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.

    I’m excited and incredibly nervous. We’re strictly heeding the state department warnings to avoid the streets of Nairobi (where we are being met, at the airport, by our volunteer organization and then after an orientation session, driven to southern Kenya). Addis Ababa, considered the safest of all African cities, is apparently under watch through June as it undergoes national elections (the watch expires July 1).

    We’re due for immunizations, a supply of maladrome to prevent malaria, acidopholous pills to strengthen our stomachs, paperwork for visas to Tanzania, Kenya and a transit visa for Ethiopia, good trip insurance; modest clothing so people don’t trouble me for showing my shoulders and thighs; light packing and good shoes and memory cards and books and Swahili basics. For example, did you know that a Swahili day starts at our 6am, but they consider it “1:00”? Some places work by regular time, others like to go by Swahili time, so it will be interesting trying to catch a train or plane or setting a wake-up call. 

    I am still in disbelief that we’re really going, but we are.  Stay tuned for updates as we plan!

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    Now Boarding: United merges with Continental

    The news is out: United Airlines is buying out Continental Airlines, a $3 billion merger that will make United the world’s biggest airline.

    As long as the merger wins approval from the Justice Department’s anti-trust department, the merged airline will be headquartered out of Chicago (United’s current headquarters and major hub).

    What does this mean to passengers? Well, it looks like airlines keep swallowing each other up until there is just one giant airline…  and Southwest. This news come only months after Delta took over Northwest Airlines. Of course, the government would never allow this to happen, but what it will mean is fewer seats and higher ticket prices. Likely your frequent flier miles will also be moved to United, which is good for people like me because I rarely fly Continental unless I really want to be in New Jersey. United will take over Continental’s main hub of Newark Airport, as well as all the other cities it services. For the areas they overlap is where service will be cut – at the expense of passengers.

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