Speeding up Pre-Boarding – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Q and A every Wednesday

This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here. To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.

A quick introductory note – When I began authoring VirtualWayfarer in July of 2007 I never expected that I’d still be blogging on travel, adventures, study abroad and everything that goes with it nearly five years later. Over the years I’ve had a lot of questions and luckily my friends, network, and more than a few random strangers have gone well out of their way to answer those questions. While I still find myself asking questions on a regular basis I’ve found that I can also pay it forward as a resource for friends, my readers, and strangers alike. In an effort to share what I’ve learned from my various adventures I’ve launched Travel Question Wednesdays. I’ll be answering one reader-submitted question every week. You are all encouraged to submit, and all past questions will be archived and available as a resource for readers of this blog. I’m going to take a very open approach to the topics I’ll cover, so feel free to ask me just about anything , just keep it somewhat travel related.

This week’s travel question is from AJ S. he asks,

Q. “How to cut your prep time down (everything pre-boarding)?”

A. – If you review the packing videos that I’ve posted you’ll note that I tend not to change the basics much.  While it may vary slightly depending on what I have on hand, a lot of the core items such as jeans, shirts, underwear, etc. are all the same from trip to trip.  I would estimate that these stable items make up about 60% of what I pack.  The remaining 40% depend on the duration of the trip and the climate/weather I’m expecting. This consistency cuts down a lot of my prep time as I generally know exactly what I need in advance. As a result, so long as I’ve remembered to do laundry, I can throw my gear together a few hours before leaving.  I also like to make sure that I pack relatively light which means I don’t have to worry about dealing with heavy/checked baggage. Remember, in most cases if you’re not sure about taking an item I suggest you leave it behind. If it turns out you need the item, you can usually purchase it while traveling without too much added cost/trouble.

If there are items you need, consider buying them online ahead of time.  While this can create an issue if the item gets delayed or you don’t order sufficiently in advance, it can save a lot of time hunting around for things like power converters and combination locks.

To aid and speed up the boarding process I tend to avoid mailed/pre-printed paper tickets. Instead I prefer e-tickets.  Many airports allow you to check in and print your tickets through automated kiosks provided you have the credit card you used to book on hand.  These are a great option that often lets you bypass long checkin lines.  I’ve noticed that many airports have expanded these kiosks beyond carry-on-only travelers, allowing you to check in at the kiosk, note the number of bags you have, and then proceed to an expedited luggage drop off window.   This can cut a lot of stress and bypass significant airport delays.

Another easily overlooked time delay is what you wear to the airport.  It always amazes me when I see people, women especially, wearing a number of bracelets, jewelry, and other metallic items.   If you are going to wear these types of items, a belt, or have a lot of coins on you make sure you put them in a jacket coat pocket or your carry on bag before getting in line for the metal detectors.  You’ll find yourself significantly less stressed if you slide through security without any major delays.

An additional airport hack is to try and schedule your flights at times that are less popular.  Think about when people prefer to fly and keep in mind that those times will often have significantly longer check in times, and long lines at security.

One of my biggest time savers tends to be how much pre-trip research I (don’t) do.  I’m pretty comfortable taking a by-the-seat-of-the-pants approach, so planning out every little detail and researching every item I’ll be visiting in advance isn’t something I spend time on.  That frees up a lot of time while preparing for the trip, and gives me a lot of added flexibility.  Instead of doing a wealth of pre-trip research I usually glance through the wikipedia page for the destinations I’m considering, then look at wikitravel. From there it’s mostly done through word of mouth, or on-the-ground research a few days in advance.  This approach won’t work for all travelers, especially those interested in traveling at a quick pace – but there’s a good balance which is just right for everyone.  I always encourage friends to remember: a key part of travel is adventure and a cornerstone to finding adventure is having enough flexibility to explore opportunities as they arise.

For additional tips head on over to the more-in-depth resource list I’ve created at The Ultimate Packing List.

Have a question of your own? ASK IT! Want to see previous questions? click here.

An Unexpected Introduction to Istanbul


I swallowed hard with an expression that was no doubt a mixture of delight and annoyance as I suppressed that small lump clawing its way up into my throat as the airplane descended the final few thousand feet before bouncing down onto the runway. The view out the window was unusual.  What I had initially thought to be part of the city’s sprawl clarified into a veritable armada of dozens of merchant vessels all anchored in line, waiting their turn to traverse the Bosphorus.

Before long the thick rubber tires of the Turkish Airways flight were rumbling along the tarmac soon to be replaced by the high pitched squeak of my shoes on the polished marble tiles of Ataturk International Airport.  Laden with my front and back packs – in total weighing just under 15kg – I wound my way through the airport’s serpentine complex of tunnels, halls, and checkpoints in search of the metro.  It was relatively late. My flight landed just after 9:30PM. Darkness had long since fallen.  I was experiencing that familiar feeling of slight anxiety over finding my way to my hostel, at night, through one of the world’s largest cities.  As usual, I hadn’t bothered to pick up a guide book or a map.  I softly chided myself and wondered – as I often do – if it had been a mistake.  No time to dwell, I eventually found a metro map and paused just long enough to trace my route and take a photo on my phone.  With a map to reference it was time to take the escalator down and into the nearly abandoned metro station.

I didn’t know what to expect.  In a conversation earlier on the flight I’d learned that contrary to the 8-13 million person population I had expected via Wikipedia, the locals all placed the actual figure closer to 19/20 Million.  Nearly double the size.  Guides, tweets, and other travelers had warned me that locals were friendly, but could also be obnoxiously pushy sales people and were prone to running scams.  I had a mental image of the Hollywood versions of the markets in Morocco or Mumbai, filled with in-your-face sales people, large throngs of humanity and more pick-pockets than tourists.    I was on my guard.  Shoulders rolled forward. Thumbs stuck in my front pockets.  I didn’t expect trouble, but I was also dead set on making sure I didn’t find any.

As I waited for the train on the largely deserted platform, I repeatedly checked the map trying to figure out which side would take me in the right direction.  Most metro systems are similar, but there are always subtle differences that take a while to figure out.  Is it a zone system or does it work on a per-line ticket basis?  Does the train stop at midnight or run 24 hours?  How are the signs laid out?  Do they announce stops on the train or do you have to watch each station carefully?  As I worked to figure out each of these key pieces of information, I eventually approached a lone man standing near me and asked to confirm that I was in the right spot, for the right line, in the correct direction.

Luckily he spoke English and was eager to strike up a conversation while we waited, answering my questions and gesturing that we should sit down.  The seats were in one of the darker parts of the station, towards the end of the metro line’s tracks. He chatted away cheerfully and asked me questions about my visit. He seemed friendly and open.  I wasn’t.  I was cautious and guarded, though still striving to be friendly.  But, I followed him the 10 steps or so to the benches and then stood making sure I had an easy route out and away if I needed it. I didn’t.  As we chatted more and I got a better read on him, I grew more comfortable and eventually sat down – still paying close attention to my surroundings.

Eventually the metro arrived and we boarded. He asked me again where I was going and I gave him the general station and route suggested to me by the hostel.  He asked what hostel.  I told him I didn’t remember.  My notes said to transfer a few stations in.  He suggested taking the metro with him to the end of the line, then walking about 150 meters to the tram and mentioned it would cut about 20 minutes off my trip.  I glanced at the metro map.  Both seemed to make sense.  He had been helpful and friendly so far – so I agreed.

We chatted about travel, women, and a taste of politics. All the while I stared out the windows taking in a late night view of Istanbul’s strange mishmash of modern, semi-modern, and ancient architecture.  While my concern over being robbed or mugged had subsided he seemed a bit too friendly and too helpful.  In retrospect, I have to say my perception and reality had been poisoned by the stories I had heard before my trip that biased my expectations.   My new concern was that he’d approach me for money or a tip in exchange for helping me get where I was going. An annoying routine I’ve run into all over the globe.  So, with this concern in mind, as we reached the end of the metro line, and he offered to show me along to the tram station/my hostel if I needed help I resisted saying I was fine and could find it/didn’t want to be an inconvenience.

He insisted on walking me to the tram station at the very least, told me we were in his neighborhood and asked if I wanted to get any food or a beer. I thank him and told him I’d eaten and needed to check into my hostel as soon as possible, as it was already nearly 11:30PM.  As we walked through the snow he gave me his number and told me to give him a call if I had any issues or wanted to connect for a tour around the city.

As we came up on the street tram he explained how it worked.  I expected that this was when he’d hit me up for some sort of tip, as he asked me one more time if I was comfortable finding my way the last leg to the hostel.  I nodded and thanked him graciously for all his help and the delightful conversation, and then fumbled in my pocket for one of the tram tokens I’d purchased at the airport. Before I could find it, and to my complete shock and surprise, he pulled out his metro pass and swiped it for me, and motioned for me to enter.  I was stunned.  Not only had I not been hassled and hit up for money, my first encounter with a local was friendly, engaging, and helpful in every way. I was grinning from ear to ear.

This wonderful experience confirmed once again why it is important to always travel with an open mind…to be friendly to the people you meet and evaluate each situation on its own merits. For my part, I’ll strive to pay his kindness forward and return the favor as I see other travelers struggling or in need of a helping hand.   Remember, you always hear horror stores about a destination, its people, or the experiences you might expect to encounter but, the reality is often vastly different.  For many of us, the nature of our experiences is based on a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Choose to give people the opportunity to surprise you, and quite often they will in wonderful ways.

The remainder of my trip to my hostel was uneventful.  I arrived a bit after midnight with a smile on my face and with my perception of what to expect from the Turks completely re-set and re-framed. Despite the snow falling outside, my mood was as bright as a summer day.  Istanbul and adventure called…but first, I needed a good night’s rest.

International Airports and Luggage Storage (Short and Long Term)

Tempe Sunset with Landing Airplane

When I arrived in Copenhagen to begin my two year study abroad program my flight got in at 10PM, I had a backpack and three 50 pound suitcases with me.  As a lone individual it was way too much for me to get into the city on my own.  Luckily, I was able to store two of those suitcases at the airport which brings me to today’s topic: luggage storage.

There are a wealth of reasons for why you may need to store your luggage at the airport. From simple logistics (like mine) and extended layovers to more complicated reasons.  I’ve seen people who were spending time in two vastly different climates and needed two sets of clothing.  Instead of hauling extra weight and bulk which they had no hope of using, they got a locker and stored it at the airport.

If you’re like me you may be wondering A) Are luggage storage/lockers affordably priced and B) In a post 9/11 world, do they still exist?

Is Post 9/11 Storage Possible?

Surprisingly, the answer seems to be yes for most major airports.  The trick is that they’re no longer (if they ever were) a stand alone department and operation.  Which means you’ve got to be slightly creative when researching if the airport you’ll be using offers luggage storage services.  The most common place to store luggage is actually at the lost luggage counter.  They have the facilities and infrastructure in place and for a daily fee will usually keep an eye on your bags for a few days, weeks or in some cases months.

Many airports also maintain coin operated luggage lockers. However, these tend to have been isolated and reinforced for security reasons. At the Copenhagen International Airport there was one set of mixed size lockers located across from the main terminal structure along a side wall of parking garage 4.  Unlike the lost luggage counter, these lockers were completely automated and had a 72 hour usage limit.

Since arrivals and departures can occur at all hours of the day make sure to do your research.  I did not and by the time I arrived in Copenhagen the lost luggage/luggage storage office had long since closed.  If not for the outdoor luggage lockers, I’d have been left stranded until the office re-opened 6 hours later.

Keep in mind that your airport may have storage services, but those services may be located in/near another terminal. Plan accordingly.

Is Airport Luggage Storage Affordable?

This is always a subjective topic. One person’s affordable is another person’s daily budget. That said, I’m inclined to say that depending on how you intend to use the luggage storage service it is typically well worth the cost.  In reviewing pricing across several airports the standard cost per day seems to be around $6-15 USD.  Depending on your needs and the airport you’re using many of the lost luggage storage services charge on a per item basis, while the luggage lockers tend to be based on size. When I used the “large” luggage lockers in Copenhagen one cost me 60DKK a day, or about $12 and fit two full sized suitcases with room for a third.  Quick online research suggests that large lockers are available at the Barcelona airport for 5.60 Euro, and in London Heathrow  lost luggage storage is 8 GBP a day per item and items can be stored for up to three months.

While you’ll almost always be better off storing your luggage at your hotel or hostel when possible, if you find yourself in a pinch or need the added security of a monitored/longer term/on site storage service there are still great options available to travelers.

Have a favorite resource for finding up-to-date information on an Airport’s luggage storage facilities and pricing? I’d love to know about it.

Don’t forget to pick up several TSA friendly Combination Luggage Locks for use on your baggage as well as securing your hostel locker.

Unlocking Ushuaia’s Secrets – The Portal to Tierra del Fuego

A Rainstorm - Ushuaia, Argentina

The first few days of my Argentina trip had been spent exploring Buenos Aires, socializing, dealing with jet lag and adjusting to the reality that I was back on the road.   For me, it was the southern city of Ushuaia where I mentally perceived my Argentinian adventure as truly beginning. I didn’t know what to expect.  I knew that the city was the departure base for the majority of the Antarctica tours, it was home to the Tierra del Fuego National Park, and  it was my best shot at seeing penguins. Beyond that, I’d heard mixed things. Chief among them was that the town and region were disappointing; that I shouldn’t set aside much time for the area, and my time would be better spent elsewhere.

Downtown Ushuaia - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

After exploring Ushuaia, El Chalten, and El Calafate, I can definitely tell where and why people might think the above about Ushuaia.  Based on my experiences, I found Ushuaia worth the stop…with a caveat that your level of enjoyment while in Ushuaia seems to depend on where in your trip you see it.  The city of Ushuaia is a launchpad destination.  It is a city nestled between majestic, snow-capped mountains situated alongside the Beagle Channel of Darwinian fame. With a booming population and nearly 60,000 residents, the city is one of the largest in the region.  Yet, despite that, the tourist section of the city stands alone, nestled along the port and on the side of the mountains, it feels more like a town of 5,000.

Ushuaia Harbor - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

The flight south is fairly unremarkable, until that is, you go to land in the city.  Located in the midst of the channel on a long, flat peninsula the airport is surrounded by large mountain ranges which still cling to snowy cloaks even in the midst of the Argentinian summer. As our plane drifted, dropped, and jumped through the clouds on a turbulent approach, I was awestruck by the view out the window.  We weren’t just making a typical approach, we were flying through a large valley and surrounded by/flying over snow-covered mountains.  It was spectacular and left me grinning as my mind immediately imagined that famous snow/ramp scene from the James Bond movies.  What also struck me was the minute or two which it lasted. Usually landings happen so quickly that you don’t really get anything more than a quick view of the surrounding area. That wasn’t the case with Ushuaia which was a true delight.

Ushuaia Harbor - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

The airport is new, modern, and in excellent shape.  Fairly small, it’s built for cold weather and as such offers a lot of amenities that many smaller airports might gloss over.  There is a cost, however, as both Ushuaia and El Calafate airports are managed by “London Supply” and charge an exit tax for the use of the airport which is NOT covered in your ticket price. The tax is around $8 USD.

Ushuaia Bay - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

After a quick 7 minute cab ride (around 23 pesos) I found myself at the front door of the Freestyle Hostel.  The hostel had a nice layout, clean/modern facilities, and a great location just north of the docks. The staff was friendly, helpful and playful once they decided they liked you but tended to be a bit abrasive and sarcastic on first blush.  My room offered a great view out over the harbor, was warm despite the cold weather, and fairly comfortable.

The Local Pub in Ushuaia - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Before long I’d settled in, snagged a hearty nap, and was set to explore.  Based on a recommendation and drink coupon from the hostel, I headed down (quite literally) the street to the Dublin Pub. A great little pub, it serves as the premier watering hole for travelers in Ushuaia. The place was packed, served a mixture of beers, and was limited to two local options on tap…Red or Black.  Both of which were delightful.

Shortly thereafter, I connected with a twitter contact who I’d recently learned was also traveling through Ushuaia.  Brendan authors the blog Brendan’s Adventures and has been on the road for over a year.  A full time travel blogger he’s done a wonderful job executing a dream that most only talk about. Definitely take a minute to check out his blog and to look him up on twitter at @Brendanvanson.

We chatted travel, adventures, antics, women, and business projects off and on over the remainder of my stay in Ushuaia. Brendan has a wealth of travel experiences and wonderful insights into travel, people, and the ancillary benefits and challenges of being on the road.

Perhaps the most comical of our adventures was an attempt to shoot the lunar eclipse on the evening of my second day.  Both eager for the chance to snap what we hoped would be incredible photos of a rare lunar eclipse over the Beagle Channel and Ushuaia, we camped out in the Dublin Pub until 3:30AM when it closed keeping a careful eye on the night sky and watching for the moon.  We’d researched the eclipse and found a mixture of data which suggested that it would be visible from our vantage point sometime in the early morning.  Unfortunately, it was also right around the time of the summer solstice which made for the shortest nights of the year.

As 3:30 morphed into 4AM and the sun began to rise we let out a collective harrumph, warmed our hands, and admitted defeat.   As it turned out the combination of a mere 3 hours of darkness and large mountain range in the way meant that the Moon never showed its pale face.  Was it ever visible?  It’s hard to know, but as far as we could tel, day won out over night totally obscuring any chance of seeing the moon.

City Streets - Ushuaia, Argentina

The final adventure of note within the city of Ushuaia itself was culinary.  After a wonderful day spent exploring the Tierra del Fuego National Park, I re-connected with three of the people I’d met on the bus/during the hike.  Starved from a long day’s exhaustion and a tiny lunch we opted to try one of the city’s all you can eat buffets. They boasted a wealth of meat options with a large in-house grill as well as a wide variety of other seafood and delicious morsels.

Dinner on the Grill - Ushuaia, Argentina

After comparing prices and window shopping we eventually settled on an Asian influenced buffet that sported a hearty grill accompanied by a mixture of seafood and a light sushi bar.

Dinner Cooking - Ushuaia, Argentina

A vegetarian’s nightmare, the restaurant was a carnivore’s paradise. The meat was all beautifully cooked and awash in flavor.  Predominantly consisting of lamb and beef,  I set to sampling as many of the different options as possible.

Mixed Meats - Ushuaia, Argentina

Each trip back to the grill brought with it a hearty grin from the cook as I worked my way through normal steaks, grilled intestines, sausage, blood sausage and even rack of juicy lamb ribs that melted in my mouth.

Dinner - Ushuaia, Argentina

With a nod towards ‘healthy’ eating, I also balanced things with several trips to the normal buffet bar where I loaded down my plate with beets, green beans, calamari rings, sliced tongue, clams, fried octopus and baby mussels.

Stuffed and served up with a hearty side of solid conversation as the guys told me about their recent Antarctica trip, we eventually surrendered to our food comas before calling it night. To this day even thinking about the meal makes my mouth water and my feet yearn for a return.

Words of Warning

So, here’s the scoop.  If you start your trip through Southern Chile and Argentina in Ushuaia, you’ll probably love the place and enjoy the experience. It’s a decent city to start with and offers solid hostels, a beautiful national park, fun penguin excursions and medium-sized mountains all set to a pretty harbor with gorgeous sunsets. However, if you’ve already done Southern Chile, seen the glaciers and mountains in El Calafate and/or El Chalten and found penguins somewhere along your way, you’ll risk disappointment.

It’s also worth noting that a visit to Ushuaia guarantees exposure to amazing photos and stories from Antarctica which will no doubt trigger an intense desire to make the trip.  I know that for my part what started as a passing pre-trip desire has now blossomed into a post-trip obsession!

Please note that this post breaks with my typical chronological format and focuses exclusively on my time spent in the city of Ushuaia.  I spent my first complete day in Tierra del Fuego on a penguin tour and my second exploring the Tierra del Fuego national park.  Stay tuned for future posts covering both day trips in detail.

Welcome to Argentina, Hello Buenos Aires!

Hostel Inn Tango City - Buenos Aires, Argentina

The final leg of my flight from Phoenix to Buenos Aires stretched from Florida, across Cuba and then down to Buenos Aires. During the flight, I had the pleasure of sitting next to an expat who was returning to Argentina for the first time in over 20 years.   As the hours ticked by he shared stories of his childhood adventures, insights into the Argentine culture, as well as tips and suggestions on how to stay safe and things/places to avoid. The tips were useful, they re-affirmed what I’d already been told, and added finer details on places to be mindful of, signs to keep an eye out for, and ways to dress and present myself which would reduce my appeal (shoes, clothing, watch etc.).

After a long wait to get through immigration, he mentioned that he was meeting his brother and that there was a possibility that they’d be heading into the city to drop some stuff off.  He cautioned that he couldn’t promise a ride, but if they were heading in my direction, they’d be happy to give me a lift. I evaluated my interactions with him and decided it was a great offer.

As it turned out, by the time we got out of immigration and connected with his brother and cousin they needed to head in the opposite direction and wouldn’t be available for a lift.  Eager to help though, they played the role of translator and made sure I found the stand for Manuel Tienda Leon.  The company offers budget shuttles into downtown Buenos Aires which then transfer travelers into smaller taxis for door-to-door service.  At a cost of 50 Pesos it’s a fantastic deal when compared to the ~150+ Pesos for a Taxi to/from Buenos Aires international airport.

My hostel, the Hostel Inn Tango City, was located in the heart of San Telmo which is generally noted as one of the oldest and most historical neighborhoods in Buenos Aires.  The staff was friendly and the room was good. I checked in, found my bed, tossed my stuff on it and then headed to the shower before collapsing on my bunk for a hearty nap.

A short while later I awoke to the sound of rustling as several of my roommates returned from a day out on the city.  As it turned out the room was an 8 bed dorm of which 6 beds were occupied by a great group of 6 Australian girls on a multi-month knockabout. The 8th bed was empty.  Five of the 6 are pictured below, as well as two random guys we met on the Pub Crawl.

The Pub Crawl

We quickly got acquainted before getting cleaned up, tracking down a bite to eat and then heading out on the town for a Pub Crawl we booked through the hostel.  Usually hit or miss, Pub Crawls are an ideal option for travelers interested in getting a fun dose of night life.  The crawls themselves usually have a ~$10 flat initial fee which results in a mixture of free drinks and night long drink specials. Pub Crawls typically also offer a guide who leads the group through 3-4 bars and then eventually leaves everyone at a local night club.   Despite an initial hiccup (the bar we were scheduled to start at had unexpectedly closed forcing us to re-locate to a pizza shop) the Pub Crawl ended up being a fun one with a hearty group of travelers from a mixture of hostels across the city.

We wandered through a variety of bars and pubs before eventually piling onto two chartered buses for a quick bus ride to an industrially themed night club which boasted a multi-story layout, pumping music and a fun ambiance.  Eventually, foot sore, sweaty and hungry we abandoned the club which was still in full swing and set out in the hopes of finding food.  No small task at 4:45AM as it turned out, as most of the local fast food joints were closed (albeit briefly) for cleaning.

As we enjoyed a quick meal and tall glass of water dawn came and went. Eventually, with only a brief grumble about the sun we hailed a cab and wandered our way back up to our hostel bunks hoping to stealing a little sleep before the day began in earnest.

The city

My first full day spent in Buenos Aires was simple.  Mostly one of transition – I meandered the San Telmo district aimlessly.  Still stiff from the club the night before and the long plane ride from the states, I found the architecture and general feel of the San Telmo district to be very similar to rural areas of Madrid, only with a slightly dirtier/grungier South American feel.

Fearful of pickpockets I left my camera at the hostel, though now in retrospect and after subsequent time spent in Buenos Aires that was completely unnecessary.

In San Telmo I quickly tracked down a small hole in the wall. The place lacked a major sign and seemed to be serving one of two meal options. I saddled up to the small bar area and was nearly dumped onto the ground by loose screws securing the bar stool.  With a chuckle and only slightly ruffled pride I tentatively eased into the next stool along the bar and was met by a minor wobble.

I ordered my meal, and then looked on with mixed feeling as I realized I was sitting directly in front of the Chef’s grill/hole in the wall.  A small dark pit recessed into the wall which housed just enough room for a massive open faced wood grill piled with meats, large sweaty man in a dirty white apron sandwiched between a small table area piled with raw (and cooked) meats waiting to be heated and served.

Eventually my brisket(?) arrived with a coke, some bread, delicious fresh fries and some local seasoning.  I dug in greedily and chewed away contentedly before heading back to the hostel and re-connecting with the girls for another night out on the town.

The following morning promised a new adventure.  It was time to catch my flight from the local regional airport (a fixed 50 peso taxi cab ride)  to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego.

The time had come to visit the ends of the earth.

Goodbye Norway, Hello Denmark!

The Round Tower - Copenhagen, Denmark

Excited for the next leg of my adventure I woke up with a spring to my step. It was cold and rainy, but given my mood, I found it more invigorating than anything.  I’d picked up a cheap youth ticket for 693 NOK (about $110 at the time) via the regional budget airline Wideroe.   While I had initially hoped to make the trip from Bergen to Copenhagen by train, what ended up being a two hour flight would have taken me closer to 15 hours by train and cost about the same (possibly more).

A Lazy Traveler - Bergen, Norway

From the hostel I made the 5 minute walk to the bus stop for the airport express and found a marginally dry bench.  Once there I leveraged years of experience, and settled in for one of the things I’m famous for – a quick cat nap. From there it was a quick bus ride to the airport, during which I had a delightful conversation with an older Canadian couple, before catching my flight.

Street Scene - Copenhagen, Denmark

The trip from the airport to my hostel was easy. A straight forward metro ride to a major stop, and then a quick walk to a funky hotel/hostel. I wasn’t thrilled about the place, it was a hotel which had converted its 3 story basement into a hostel.  Despite its general lack of character, and inflated price, it did offer decent facilities and a prime location.  I tossed my bag on my bed and set out – it was time to explore the city and rustle up some food.

Jazz Festival - Copenhagen, Denmark

The first thing I noticed about Copenhagen was the people. The Danish have repeatedly been ranked as some of the happiest people in the world. It’s hard to describe but there’s an energy throughout the city which truly reflects their ranking.  They’re just down right friendly, happy and active.  I’m sure it didn’t hurt that a massive, city wide jazz festival was also going on, which meant that there was stages set up in all of the small squares and musicians everywhere.

Draft Horses - Copenhagen, Denmark

In addition to being an extremely friendly city, Copenhagen (København) is also a spectacularly beautiful one.  The architecture is a delightful mix of international styles, the streets are clean, well groomed/repaired and the city itself a mixture of streets and parks crisscrossed by the occasional canal.

Main Drag  - Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen also boasts a fantastic amount of foot traffic. Something which while initially surprising started to make more sense once I learned more about the culture.  As it turns out the Danish government imposes a 180% tax on the purchase of new vehicles.  As you can imagine, that goes a long ways towards encouraging pedestrian traffic and the use of public transport.  The locals also are prestigious bikers. The only other city I’ve ever seen that came anywhere close was Amsterdam, and though it’s a close tossup I’m tempted to say that Copenhagen may be the bicycle capital of Europe. Everyone has one, and there are bike parking areas every block which consist of literally hundreds of bikes lined up in rows.  Some are chained to something, most are not.

Bicycles Downtown - Copenhagen, Denmark

As I wandered through the city streets I couldn’t help but be impressed.  Granted, the size of Copenhagen makes biking/walking a feasible option, but can you imagine if the US tried something similar?  A 10% sales tax is grounds for excessive complaining, let alone 180%! There would be riots.  Yet the Danes take it in stride and are happier, healthier, and better off for it.  No doubt there’s an important lesson to be learned there.

Old Skyline - Copenhagen, Denmark

I mentioned that the city was a beautiful mixture of architectural styles.  The eclectic roof line int eh photo above highlights this slightly.   You definitely get a feel fairly quickly for Copenhagen’s rich history.  A few minutes walking around the old city leaves one with a solid insight into the centuries of wealth, power, architectural and intellectual might that define Copenhagen.

Candy and Scale - Copenhagen, Denmark

As I wound my way down the main market street I couldn’t help but feel my mouth water.  Every block or so there was another food stand offering delicious looking wares.  From dried apricots to Danish hotdog stands.  With a chuckle I quickly realized that in Denmark the go-to street food isn’t kebabs, it’s hotdogs.  But not just any hotdogs…

Lunch - Copenhagen, Denmark

…Danish hot dogs.  Though there were a variety of options one of the most appealing (and healthy…obviously) were the bacon wrapped hotdogs served with sweet ketchup and a bucket full of mustard all washed down with a good ol’ cocacola.  Other options included big brats served up with pickled relish-like cucumber and sprinkled with dehydrated/breaded onions.

Street Music - Copenhagen, Denmark

I picked up one…or perhaps two? Hotdogs and made my way towards a small stage set up in the middle of the square.  Once within sight of the stage I found an empty set of cobblestones and settled in to enjoy my snack, people watch, and enjoy the sound of live music bouncing off the ancient cobblestone streets and multi-colored walls of ancient storefronts.

The Old Harbor - Copenhagen, Denmark

From there it was time to explore a bit further before heading back to the hostel.  I was in desperate need of a nap, and had made plans to connect with a friend I’d made during my Central America trip earlier in the year. I was eager to catch up, and to get a local’s insights into the city. It promised to be a good evening.

On a final note here are two quick bits of information I found fascinating.  The city of Copenhagen, despite being a capital city and home to several of the largest shipping companies in the world, sports an inner harbor that is so clean, you can swim in it (and people do regularly).

Remember how I mentioned that the city was incredibly bike friendly? An estimated 36% of locals commute to work by bike.  Amazing!

24 Hours in Dublin

Dublin - Near Temple bar

My adventure began at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.  I arrived a few hours early preparing for the possibility of long lines and delays.  I shouldn’t have worried.  The Phoenix Airport is not only one of the friendliest, but also one of the most convenient I’ve ever flown through.  It took me less than 20 minutes to find my way from curb to gate leaving me with a 2 hour wait before my flight.  I didn’t mind, the extra peace of mind was worth a few extra minutes in the terminal.

I settled in, pulled out my netbook, and streamed an episode or two via Hulu using the Airport’s complimentary wifi service.  Another benefit to flying out of Sky Harbor.

Before long my flight began to board.  We piled on and quickly sandwiched ourselves into our seats.  Unfortunately, mine was the middle seat.  Luckily both of the gentlemen I was sitting next to were of a reasonable weight and friendly.

Then something odd happened.  I’ve heard of and been in all sorts of weather delays.  I’ve had mechanical delays, and scheduling delays…but I’d never had a weather delay on a bright, sunny, Phoenix afternoon.  As it turned out, our flight was delayed by just under an hour – the captain informed us that we were too heavy.  The sweltering Phoenix heat had increased just as the wind shifted which meant we had to drop several thousand pounds before we’d be able to take off.  I guess there’s a first for everything.

The rest of the flight was uneventful. Though initially expecting the delay to be problematic, I made my connection to Ireland without difficulty.  Sleep was more wishful thinking than reality, but that’s par for the course. Some day I’ll learn how to sleep sitting up.  Until then….well, I’ll be thankful for movies on my netbook and a good book.


I arrived in Dublin just after 9am.  My lack of sleep was offset by adrenaline and excitement. I seemed to draw new energy from the very ground I was walking upon.  The adventure was finally real.  I’d made it! There was no going back, no chance of cancellations or obstacles.

City Streets - Dublin

I hit the ATM first, then found my way to the tourist center where I bought my bus pass and broke a 50.  There’s nothing quite as obnoxious as having to break large ATM bills while traveling. Why they don’t have a “small bills” option is beyond me. Too inconvenient for the bank no doubt.

The air was crisp and warm, the sky sunny and bright. It would be a beautiful day.

Kinlay Hostel Dublin - Mural

The bus ride lasted about 30 minutes and deposited me on Dublin’s main drag, next to their millennial spire – a gargantuan steel spire that pierces the heavens.  A grin on my face I set off towards Temple Bar and my hostel, all the while retracing old steps from previous visits. Over the river, up past the bar district, past Dublin Castle and then around one last corner before I arrived at Kinlay House, Dublin.

Outdoor Market in Dublin - Food

I checked in, but had to wait until 2 before my bed would be ready which was expected. My main pack in a luggage locker at the hostel I set out to poke around town and quickly tracked down the small out door market I’d discovered on a previous trip.

Outdoor Market - Dublin

A few Euro later found me with a delicious Bratwurst and several small bags filled with fresh goodies — rice wrapped in olive leaves, green olives, and fresh anchovies.  Treats in hand, I made my way across the river to a wooden boardwalk where I settled in and enjoyed my small, savory feast.

Temple Bar District - Dublin

With a full belly I was off to poke around town: A quick stop at Trinity College for some video; a quick hello at the statue of Molly Malone; a pleasant stroll through central park, where I paused and watched a grandfather and his granddaughter feeding the ducks;  a few moments spent on the main market street watching street performers; then a final stroll back through Temple Bar to the hostel.

Little Girl Feeding Ducks and Swans - Dublin

Once back at the hostel I found my way to my room, crawled into my bunk bed and crashed, only to be greeted by strange dreams.

Dublin Pride Festival - June 2010

I dreamed of a parade, of huge crowds, loud music and chanting.  It was odd. I never dream of parades. Why would I?  ….and then I started to slip towards consciousness.  As I drifted up and out of my slumber, the music and chanting remained. It turns out the dreams were a reflection of reality.  The noise was coming through my open 3rd story window from the street below where thousands, if not tens of thousands, people marched along the street celebrating Ireland’s Pride Day.  I’d noticed an abundance of rainbow flags earlier in the day, but hadn’t thought much of it. As it turns out, it was a huge festival filled with color, music, and thousands of people marching for equality.

Dublin Pride Festival - June 2010

I settled in and enjoyed my birds-eye view as cars, buses, and people strolled by chanting, smiling, and singing. A convertible with 5 drag queens preceded the YouTube bus, which was followed by a semi pulling a flatbed trailer which announced the world’s first LGTB circus.  The whole spectacle was a welcome surprise.

Dublin Pride Festival - June 2010

I crawled back into bed and stole another few hours of sleep before finding my way to the common room where I made a few new friends, as we watched the USA’s exit from the world cup.  Starving, I split off and wandered through Temple Bar which had turned into a madhouse.  Streets near gay-friendly bars (most of Temple Bar) were packed with people who had spilled out of the bars, live music, and general revelry.  In more than a few areas the streets were so busy that the crowd was shoulder to shoulder.  The sheer level of positive energy was delightful and the variety of outfits was quite often quite comical.

Dublin Pride Festival - June 2010

After tracking down a bite to eat and a few beers I found my way back to the hostel where, to my delight, I recognized the guy working the front desk.  Hostel workers are typically fairly temporary in nature, so it was with some surprise I recognized a guy from Belgium, also named Alex, who I’d gotten to know during my previous stay in July 2009.  We caught up and bullshitted a bit before I re-joined the rest of the party I’d met earlier, while adding a few new friends. We drank our beers and set out for a night on the town. A few pubs later, we found ourselves deep underground in an old wine cellar-converted into a night club where we danced a decent portion of the night away.

Dublin Pride Festival - June 2010

Jet lagged and tired, I wound down around 1:30amand made my way back to the hostel.  I had a 6am wake-up call for my flight to Norway.  The previous 48 hours had been intense.  The following 24 promised not to disappoint.

The Start of A Travel Adventure – Playa Del Carmen

*I’ll start this post by sharing one of the joys of travel. Though the post itself will be presented chronologically – it’s currently the 26th of December.  I’m sitting in an internet cafe in San Ignacio on the Belize/Guatemala border and relaxing. Not 5 minutes ago a friend I made during a 3 day sailing trip I was on three days ago walked in and sat down on the computer next to me.  It truly is a small, delightful world full of new friendships and great adventures.   Now back to the story…

In typical form I haphazardly kept my packing list in the back of my mind as the days raced by.  Checking average weather reports for the region, trying to fathom how they might be accurate and debating what the true temperature would be.  After all – mid 80s in the heart of winter?  Would it truly be that warm?  Would it be a humid heat or a humid cold?

As I entered the final 24 hours before the trip I finally committed myself to packing.   I turned the living room into a war zone.  Bags laid out, clothing piled on top of clothing, shoes tossed about and items mixed into yes and maybe piles.  Eventually, I paused and recorded the video of the final packing list I’d come up with.  In retrospect I packed for too cold a climate, but more on that later.

With my bags packed, destination confirmed and brother sleeping on my sofa ready to give me a ride to the airport at 7 in the morning i crawled into bed; nervous, excited, eager.

The flight itself was what i’ve come to expect.  In typical form US Airways managed to blow it. After several phone conversations and assurances that I was A) Not on a bulkhead and B) not next to a bathroom I ended up A) Against a bulkhead (no reclining seats), B) immediately next to a bathroom (I couldn’t have been closer), and just for S&Gs C) Next to a mother/father/toddler combo.   Taking things in stride I plugged in my ear buds, turned the volume up to hide the young child’s shrieks and zoned out for the 5 hour flight.


The view during the landing was compelling.  Beautiful beaches along the coast, intense looking jungle so thick that it looked almost uniform – as though it was scrub brush – not tall trees and lush jungle.  The landing was anything but white knuckle and the blast of hot, humid air that hit me as I crossed from the plane to the terminal a delight.

Before I knew it I had been ushered through customs and security and found myself over dressed, sweating and delighted by the weather bathed in bright sunlight and with flowerbeds full of vibrantly colored blooming flowers.  I’d arrived in Cancun.  My visit was to be brief.  Within minutes i’d found the bus stop, booked a $8 ticket to Playa del Carmen and settled in for a brief wait.

Playa Del Carmen

The bus ride was easy.  As I wondered where I was, staring out the windows periodically trying to catch a street sign, i soon realized locating my hostel wouldn’t be overly difficult.  The bus dropped me off right in the heart of the tourist district and after misreading my directions once I found my hostel.  At first I was completely put off.

Located up a stairway sandwiched between two bars the reception was a small room set off the stairs.  I paid, checked in and was ushered to the dorm room.  A cement affair that provided a pillow, clean under sheet and sheet. I was rather concerned and put off – despite the heat – by the lack of a blanket.  In retrospect, i’ve come to realize that most hostels in the region don’t provide blankets as they’re completely unnecessary.  A cover sheet is typically more than sufficient given the hot, muggy nights – even in December.  The hostel lounge, common area, kitchens and bars I’d expected were all missing as well.  More than a little disappointed I headed downstairs for a beer.  It was only on returning that I continued up stairs and realized that the hostel was all around quite decent.  I’d just missed the hallway to the two rooftop bars, pool, kitchen with free internet access and social area. All of which were a major relief, especially for any hopes finding travel friends and social connections.

Despite discovering the social areas of the hostel, things were fairly quiet.  I set off again for food – locating a taco stand by the bus station.  Six delicious tacos and Coca Cola later I was stuffed, happy and starting to settle in and relax.  I strolled along the bustling main avenue as it bled tourists, hawkers and locals onto the side streets and delighted in the white sandy beach and warm water.  It was already dark, but my spirits had already started to lift – any concern I had over picking Mexico and Belize instead of Europe was already being driven out by the joys of a new adventure in a new region.

Feeling tired I made my way back to the hostel and settled in at the hostel bar where I quickly got to know the local barman. As I picked his brain a group of guys from one of the other rooms settled in at one of the tables.  Before long I joined them – an American from the east coast, a German from the norther part of Germany, an Aussie and two Israelis.  We got acquainted, ran through the usual howdy-dos and before long were exchanging stories and advice.  As time progressed the group grew – and before long we included an American girl and her Australian travel companion.

The Israelis had taken a cab and done their own trip to Dos Ojos and Akumel for snorkeling earlier that day and spoke highly of it.  Zeno (the guy from NY) suggested we consider renting a car at a local place he’d found during a previous trip as well as snorkeling gear from a local shop on the cheap.   Thrilled at the opportunity to bypass th $90+ trips to Xel-Ha and other tourist aquatic Disneyland-esque destinations I jumped at the shot to join them.

With a car and gas split 4 ways and a $5 snorkel/mask/fin rental we were able to start the trip for less than $25 a piece.   That story, however, needs it’s own post – so stay tuned.

After setting a 9 o’clock start time for the following day I paid the $8 for a pub crawl which left the hostel a bit after 11 and headed to a new club re-opening.  The club itself was fairly unimpressive.  Over packed, hot and humid it lacked a decent dance floor and had obnoxious security guards.  That said, the did had a show shortly after we arrived which was quite impressive.  The performers dressed in extravagant outfits inspired by the UAE and Dubai performed a series of aerial acrobatics while suspended from two hanging ropes – much like what one would expect in a cirq-de-sole (sp) performance. About an hour after the performance I grew tired of the heat and excused myself – a few of the others joined me and after a quick stop back at the hostel to drop off one of the girls we struck back out to explore the rest of the city’s night life.  By two it was time for bed, and time to prepare for the following morning’s adventure!

As I crawled into bed I only paused briefly to pinch myself and reflect – some how it had only been a few hours since I landed.