Don’t Fear A Visit To Myanmar

**Sadly, due to recent events, I’m adding this note and suspending the series before completing Part III. In October and November 2016, an increase in violence in the northern regions has led to a number of village burnings and significant loss of life. As a result, I encourage anyone considering a visit to research events and the current status before making any decisions. For the time being, it looks like many of the recent gains made are being eroded.**

Despite hearing glowing stories about visits to Myanmar (formerly called Burma) from friends, it was with some trepidation and a significant sense of adventure that I booked the ticket for my brother and I from Copenhagen to Myanmar’s former capital, Yangon (formerly Rangoon). Most articles about Myanmar right now either focus on the drug trade/Golden Triangle, armed conflict in several of the remote regions, or gush about the importance of, “visiting Myanmar before it’s ruined”.

Frankly, we didn’t know what to expect. Was it going to be dangerous? Was it going to be massively under-developed? Was there any tourist infrastructure at all? Would the visa process be a nightmare? Would we need armed guards to guide us around the country or military minders ala North Korea? Were food poisoning and feces stained walls surrounding filthy squattypotties lurking around every corner?

Inle Lake - Myanmar - Alex Berger

As usual, it was ignorant pigswill.

Myanmar is spectacular and the sooner you can visit the better.  The people are wonderful. The tourist circle; Yangon to Bagan to Mandalay to Inle Lake and back to Yangon could not be safer. The food is decent. The culture is vibrant. The tourist infrastructure is rapidly evolving (perhaps too rapidly). Getting around isn’t difficult.  It’s relatively affordable. The historical, natural and cultural beauty is spectacular.

Fun Fact: The Day is 37 Minutes Longer in Southern Denmark

The dark depths of winter in the Nordic countries is a topic often discussed and in some ways synonymous with the various nations’ identities. As an Arizonan who has re-located and spent the last few years in Denmark, the pressing darkness of the winter months was definitely a challenge to tackle. Still, with a trove of Vitamin D supplements and a small army of candles I’ve not only survived but thrived during Denmark’s long, dark, winters.  Though, perhaps, I exaggerate a bit unjustly.  After all, while the days are often frustratingly fleeting during winter, we still have the luxury of enjoying bursts of sunlight which can genuinely be called days.  This, unlike our northern brothers and sisters, who at times see little more than the briefest, twilight infused tease from the sun.

It is also often bordering on the impossible to talk about Denmark at any great length without being reminded by both Danes and foreigners alike that it is, after all, a tiny little country with only 5.6 million residents. I would even go so far as to say that among Danes it is a badge of honor. Given all they accomplish and their impact on the world at large? … perhaps rightly so.

I share all of this because I think it sets the tone for why so many of us often forget just how large the world we live in actually is and the quirky dynamics that result when a nation’s borders and the mental identity we associate with  those borders collides with the realities of the earth’s rotation and orbital tilt.  If you, like me, often find yourself thinking about Denmark as one semi-homogeneous country in almost all things the following may shock you.  Had you settled in for a Carlsberg on a beach outside the Danish town of Hirtshals near the northern tip of Jutland yesterday (December 28th) and called a friend in Sønderborg, a lovely town situated at the base of the Jutland peninsula and just next to Denmark’s border with Germany, you would have learned that your friend’s day was a full 37 minutes longer than your own. Jealous? I know I am.

Despite only being a three and a half hour drive to the south (and as a result at the opposite end of Denmark) the difference between sunrise and sunset between these two cities is significant.  That’s a distance just longer than the space between London and Leeds in the UK, Berlin in Germany and Prague in the Czech Republic, Santa Barbara and San Diego in the USA, and between Washington D.C. and New York City. Not bad ehh?

Want to have some fun? Calculate the difference in the length of your day against other locations within your own country. There are a few services on the web that will tell you how long the day in various cities will be, or you can calculate it on your own using Google to pull the sunrise and sunset for various locations. Also, thanks to Maja, a friend and local Danish expert, who tipped me off to this simple but surprising mental exercise.

Oh, and I suppose I’d be remiss in my responsibilities if I didn’t answer that age old question – just how large IS Denmark?  The country is roughly 368km [229 miles] from north to south and about 450km [280 miles] from east to west (excluding Bornholm). Who is ready for a roadtrip?

A Crash Course Guide For Instagram

The past couple of months have been fantastic. I’ve jumped head-first into Instagram and had an amazing series of experiences. I’ve learned a lot, improved my Instagram photography radically and received incredible feedback including an extended stint on Instagram’s suggested user list.  As I write this, I’m shooting on a fairly old iPhone 4s with a slightly defective camera which has forced me to get creative with how I edit and how I shoot. I’m sitting just shy of 50,000 followers on Instagram and have put together this post to share what I’ve learned and to answer some of the most common questions I’ve gotten over the past few months.  This post is tailored to Instagramming from an iOS device, but should have ample advice for those using Windows or Android as well. Like this guide and my photography? Head on over to Instagram and follow me @VirtualWayfarer.

Credit Card Fees and Currency Concerns – 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 Felice D. she asks,

Q. “Clarify the best way to get and spend other currency: credit union card? no exchange fee but processing fee? bank card? atm? pay with credit card? cash? and….how to recoup VAT sensibly”

A.p2 – I’ll start with your VAT (Value Added Tax) question first, as it’s the hardest to answer. Unfortunately, it’s not something I have a lot of experience with or have been able to find a good resource for. The way I travel most of my expenses are not eligible for VAT refunds. The process for claiming VAT also tends to vary widely from country to country and is dependent on the type of travel you’re doing. VAT for tourism and personal travel is different than VAT reclaim options for business travel. One of the best writeups I’ve found is tailored to Italy but should offer insights for reclaiming VAT in most places. Head on over and check out WhyGo Italy’s “How to get a VAT refund in Italy” post. On the flip side if you’re a business traveler one useful guide I tracked down is Deloitte’s European VAT refund guide 2011.  At the end of the day you’ll need to spend some time running a few web searches on the specific VAT policies of the country you’re visiting.  Consider how obnoxious the process is (eg: Italy) and how high the threshold is (eg: Denmark’s ~$50 minimum per shop). Also keep in mind the items that qualify for a VAT refund and if it makes sense to pursue.  In most cases you’ll probably find that it’s not worth the hassle.

A.p2 – Circling back to the first part of your question – there are a lot of different options for converting your cash to a foreign currency.  Which is right for you will depend heavily on the nature of your financial situation.  Different banks charge significantly different fees.  The fee structure also tends to vary between Checking/Savings and Credit Card accounts. I’ll answer these questions tailored to US bank accounts, but the advice will be similar for international readers as well.

When using a Credit Card abroad it is not uncommon for many users to get hit by 2-4 fees simultaneously.  For Checking/ATM withdrawals these usually come in the form of an ATM service charge for out of network use (as much as $6 per bank) and a currency exchange fee (often 3%). When using your Credit Card abroad many charge 3% per transaction, while many vendors will also charge a point of sale surplus charge of up to 3%.  Never use your Credit Card for a ATM cash advance abroad, only use your Checking/Savings cards at ATMs while traveling. Also, for fraud prevention reasons I suggest only using Credit Cards (not debit cards) for point of sale (non-ATM) purchases.  Despite how expensive the ATM/Credit Card combination is, it’s actually often the cheapest option and the one I prefer.

Luckily, if you’re smart about it you can cut many of these fees out. Unfortunately, it may require kicking your bank or existing credit card to the curb.  FlyerGuide maintains a fantastic list of different bank’s and their card fees. Different cards provided by each bank will also have different fees. For international travel CapitalOne has made a reputation for itself by waiving the 0% international transaction fee on its cards. This in turn has started a trend which is being duplicated by some of the other banks.  For low-fee, or waived-fee ATM use abroad, you’ll likely have to go to a Credit Union or carry a large balance in your accounts. While this can cut the fee, it can also limit where the card can be used, so do your research ahead of time.

I suggest avoiding the use of traveler’s checks. While they can still be useful in some limited situations, the general consensus within the community is that they’re typically far more hassle than they’re worth.

Similarly, avoid currency exchange booths whenever possible.  Not only do these tend to charge obnoxious fees, they also will give you extremely bad exchange rates.  It’s not uncommon to see people leave 6-10% of their cash value at the currency booth when using these vendors.  Regardless of the various promises they may make or claim.

Money wires tend to be extremely expensive.  Unless it’s an emergency you’ll want to avoid these wherever possible.  If absolutely necessary explore online services designed as disruptors such as PayPal and its competitors.

Another option is to purchase your currency before your trip. This can be done through your bank, or a third party and is usually relatively affordable. Unfortunately, it also creates a huge problem for travelers traveling over an extended period of time or with healthy travel budgets.  If you expect your trip’s cash based expenses to be more than $1,000 USD (which is probably conservative for most of you), keep in mind that you’ll be stuck carrying that money during your trip.  If you get robbed, lose a bag, or somehow are separated from that currency you’ve lost far more than the 3-5% max you might have paid using a carefully selected Debit/Credit Card combination. For this reason I almost never travel with more than $200-300 USD in local currency on me (and usually have far less on my person).

Ultimately the best approach will also depend on the region you’re visiting.  Keep in mind that different banks and card services (MasterCard, Visa, etc.) are accepted to varied degrees from country to country.  Similarly, your cash will go much further in some countries than it will in other’s requiring fewer ATM withdrawals.  The level of crime in a country is also a key factor when deciding how much money you should keep on your person.

Hopefully this helps you as you prepare for your next trip.  Did it lead to a more specific question?  Feel free to ask in a comment below.

Please keep in mind that the above are general suggestions based on my personal experiences and research, not financial advice.  The material covered in this post is constantly changing, so make sure to do your own research using what I’ve shared as a foundation and a baseline to help you in the process.

Felice, thanks for a wonderful question!  To my readers – have a question of your own?  ASK IT!   Want to see previous questions? click here.

 

Scandinavia Bound – Packing and Trip Prep

Hello friends!

As I gear up and prepare to start my next adventure later today, I’ve assembled a few tips and tricks for those of you who may be considering making a similar trip.  I’ll be spending the next 18 days traveling through Norway, Denmark and Germany, with a brief overnight stop in Dublin.

As i’ll be taking the trip between June 25th and July 13th daylight is not an issue (the equinox was on the 21st).  Temperature, however, will be. I’ll be leaving 110+ degree temperatures for the 50s and 60s which are the status quo this time of the year in central Norway.

I’ve recorded and included my latest packing video above. My key considerations have been layers, technology, and dealing with the high probability that I’ll end up drenched a few times.  The video is self explanatory, but if you have any questions on specifics, please don’t hesitate to ask!  I’ll be shooting photos/video on my Canon G11 and my Vixia HF200. Both of which I’ve been really happy with.

Transportation

When I initially purchased my ticket, I had tentatively planned to visit Central Europe. As a result I picked an airport schedule that allowed me to fly into Dublin, Ireland (RyanAir’s main hub/cheapest airport in Europe, Madrid being the 2nd), and fly out of Nuremberg, Germany.  As I watched for airfare specials, it quickly became apparent that there’s some sort of pricing tiff going on between RyanAir and Central European airports, which drove me to choose a 5 Euro ticket (total cost, 25 Euro w/ 1 checked bag/taxes/fees) from Dublin to Oslo, Norway.  Combined with the recent economic woes which have crippled the Euro/Euro area countries, it seemed like there probably wouldn’t be a better  or cheaper time to visit Scandinavia, which is notorious for its high prices.

By the time I worked in my 1 day layover in Dublin, timezone changes, and travel time I have about 15 days of actual travel time.  Which, while longer than some trips, really only gives me 5 days per country.  This forced me to scrap my initial plans of doing Sweden, in addition to Norway, Denmark and Germany as it just didn’t make sense from a travel time cost.  Unfortunately, I only realized that I wouldn’t be able to do Sweden AFTER purchasing a 4 country, 8 day Eurail pass.  In retrospect, a 3 country, 8 day pass would have been a far better choice.  That said, the price difference was fairly negligible (some $70) compared to what the cost would have been for 8 individual train trips, which removed some of the sting from the mistake.  The final price for the pass was $390 which wile a decent expense, is far cheaper than the $80-$170 price on most medium-long leg train tickets in Scandinavia and Germany.  In addition to the base $390 fee, there will be several smaller reservation fees to reserve my actual seat, but these fees should be small.

I’ve booked two other major legs ahead of time.  These are a ferry trip from Stavanger to Bergen in Norway and a budget flight from Bergen to Copenhagen, Denmark.  While I prefer to travel on a more flexible schedule, research indicated that Stavanger and Bergen are only connected by Rail through a round about route which loops back through Oslo adding 6+ hours on to any tentative trip.  A ferry ride provides the opportunity to travel through the Fjords by boat, while traveling straight north along the coast directly to Bergen.  Additionally, by booking online through Flaggruten, a Norwegian ferry company, I was able to knock the price from 750 NOK, to 250 NOK or $38.50 USD. A hard price/special to beat.

The second challenge was getting from Bergen to Copenhagen, without having to re-trace ground through Oslo and Sweden.  What would have been a 10-15 hour train ride ends up being a mere 1 hour direct flight.  By experimenting with different budget airports, airlines and destinations, I was able to find a flight for 693 NOK which is about $107 USD.  This cut hours and hours of travel time out of my schedule, was reasonable, and allowed me to spend an extra day exploring the cities I wanted to spend time in. I found the ticket through Wideroe, which seems to be the best priced discount Scandinavia airline (they also have an amazing all you can fly pass – similar to a Eurail pass).  Unlike a number of their competitors Wideroe offers a youth (under 25) ticket, which knocked the price down substantially.  By choosing a flexible departure time, and booking a youth ticket I was able to save $50-100+ off the price of the next cheapest competitor.

The rest of my travel and transport will be done via my Eurail pass or local day tour groups.

For now, I’ve gotta run.  My flight and a new part of the world awaits!