Oct 272016
 

When I headed to Turkmenistan back in June, I did knowing that it would likely be the last time I got to experience the delights of Lufthansa First Class for a very long time. So, I went out of my way and backtracked all the way to LA in order to fly LA-Frankfurt-Dubai, and it was an amazing flight! Only thing that was better was that I ended the trip with a flight home on Cathay First. It was an epic trip.

Also, I haven’t been on a plane in nearly six weeks, and it’s been wonderful. Except for the fact I’ve been working 70+ hour weeks for the last month to prepare for a series of conferences I have to put on before the end of the year. Unfortunately, over the last two weeks I’ve ben dealing with a pinched nerve in my back which was persistently annoying until this past Sunday – when it flared up to the point it was nearly an 8 of 10 on the pain scale. There was no way my flight today was physically possible.

On the upside, after three straight days of chiropractor visits, it’s at the point I’m pretty certain I can fly in a couple of days. Called to reticket, and unfortunately my bargain United P fare is not an option…and I had to rebook into full J.

Called United, and their wonderful IT was at work again, but eventually it worked…I managed to upgrade from J to F in both directions…going on United where (for now) I’m the only person in first and returning I’ll get to enjoy Lufthansa First. Unfortunately, only an hour connection in Frankfurt, so getting to the lounge and getting a new duck is looking remote. But, where there’s a will there’s a way! Stay tuned…

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Oct 182016
 

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I booked my flight out of Reykjavik for 7:45 in the morning, with the airport more than an hour from the city. There are two flights to London. I could have easily booked the later one. I think it came down to two things: (1) the earlier flight was on a 767 which is pretty rare on Icelandair (only two of their approximately 30 planes are 767s) and (2) I wanted to get to London in time to be able to enjoy the afternoon.

That said, when it came time to catch the 4:30 am bus to the airport, I definitely wasn’t thinking it was such a great idea. Fortunately, misery loves company, and my mother and brother, along with friends Mark and Beth were on the same bus. They were on the Delta flight back to Minneapolis which left about the same time, so we all set out into darkness together.

The hotel was once again confused at checkout, and tried to put all the rooms on my credit card. Fortunately we figured it out in time, and miracle of miracles the FlyBus shuttle actually showed up right on time to take us to the central bus station for our onward bus to the airport. Not too much to tell here. It was dark, I dozed a bit on the bus, and we got to the airport right on schedule.

Check-in for Icelandair business was nice and easy with no line at all, and soon we were all upstairs to immigration and security. Before getting there there was a huge duty free shop that everyone was stopping at, and I spent my last few kroner on some Icelandic chocolate to bring back to coworkers. The Icelandair Saga lounge is right before immigration and security, so I said goodbye to everyone who had joined me as they headed through immigration and security to their Delta gate.

At around 6:30am the Saga Lounge was absolutely packed, to the point I had trouble finding a seat. It seemed most of the flights from North America had arrived, and people were waiting on their connecting flights to Europe. I finally managed to find a seat, the coffee machine made a decent triple espresso, and I got some skyr with fresh berries for breakfast:

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There were also tasty make-your-own sandwich supplies set out for something a bit more substantial to eat:

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I left the lounge a bit on the late side which was the right call, because by the time I got there there was zero line for immigration and security. Good timing! I walked past the Delta gate on the way to mine, and said one last goodbye to mom and friends, and as I got to my gate (filled with very weary looking tourists) they were just about ready to board.

Icelandair flight 450
Keflavik, Iceland (KEF) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 7:40, Arrive 11:45, Flight Time: 3:05
Boeing 767-300, Registration TF-ISO, Manufactured 2000, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 140,780
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,329,917

The 767s on Icelandair are configured in a 2-1-2 layout in business class, and feature the same miserable approximately 38 inches of pitch that the 757s do. The one saving grace is that if you take the middle seat at least you don’t have to climb over anyone…or have anyone climbing over you. Pre-departure beverages were offered, and it was a mystery orange juice. I asked the flight attendant what kind of juice it was, and her very helpful answer was “fruit.” Uh, ok? One shot of fruit juice coming up.

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I had pre-ordered my meal again, and went with the Icelandic tapas. Overall, I’d have to say this meal was more of a miss than a hit. Rather uninspired selection of packaged breads, very bland meat and cheese, and some prawns in a creamy mayo sauce which went untouched. I still won’t do prawns on a plane. That said, the mimosas were super generous, and served with the entire bottle:

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Upon clearing my plate, she insisted on bringing me another mimosa…

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…there may have been a third mimosa before landing. But what happens in Iceland stays in Iceland…

Unfortunately, Heathrow saw fit to be its usual miserable self. It was a warm day in London, nearly 25C and the immigration queue was more than an hour long. I decided to angry tweet the airport, which responded immediately by saying they were sorry and asking which terminal I was in. Once I sent them that, silence…

An hour later I was very glad I had pre-purchased Heathrow Express tickets, because there was no way I was going to deal with the tube after more than an hour waiting for immigration. Quick trip to my hotel with a quick connection to the tube at Paddington, and I was there.

Decided to try something different this trip, and explore SPG’s relatively new Tribute Collection. I stayed at St Pancras at the Great Northern Hotel, which I’ll give a brief review of here. The staff were fantastic and friendly, happy to help out with anything you wanted. I kept extending my original one night stay a night at a time, eventually staying four nights, and they were more than happy to help out each time. Including getting me a room for the third night on points when the property showed completely sold out.

The room was…tiny. Despite showing rooms online, they claimed there were no upgrades, and the standard room was like a closet.Maybe twice the size of a double bed and that was it! However, the air conditioning was ice c0ld, and the room did its job. Location was also fantastic, so I think I will probably stay here again on my next trip. Much better than my experiences at other SPG properties in London without functional AC, semi-aloof staff, and ancient properties with squeaky floors and thin walls.

I had a nice four days in London, even though my original plans had changed. I won’t be writing about my trip back to DC because, well, it was sponsored in the end which makes it non-bloggable. It was a pleasant surprise at last minute notice, and even better – Icelandair business class tickets…even the cheapest bucket…are completely changeable without a penalty charge. I put it off three months into the future, and now apparently I have an excuse to get back to Helsinki!

That caps off my final country trip. Amazing time, and completely thrilled that so many family and friends made the time to join me for it. It made it an incredibly memorable trip and a very special experience. Now, to start returning to places for another go around…


Oct 032016
 

After being very sleep deprived the past couple of days, slept in a slight bit and managed to make it down to breakfast about five minutes before it ended – just in time for plenty of coffee and small breakfast. Headed out for a walk, and met John and Mark before they had to catch their flight back to Montreal. It was a perfect sunny day, and we sat outside enjoying some coffee on the main street, before sending them off to the airport.

I hadn’t made many firm plans for the last day in Iceland, since people would be trickling back to the airport throughout the day. Mark and Beth were out walking about about to get lunch at a place they had found their first day there, and it looked really good so decided to head that way despite not really being hungry yet. It was a good walk away, but perfect for enjoying the nice day. Met them at Bryggjan Brugghús for some lunch for them, and a flight of beer tasters for me. I decided I was just hungry enough for desert, which was delicious. It was a licorice chocolate mousse with licorice sauce, raspberries, sugared oats, and a sprinkle of sea salt. It was delicious and went well with the four house-brewed craft beers:

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After lunch, Mark and Beth were headed to get Icelandic tattoos, and I figured I would tag along…you know…just in case. They had already made appointments, and without really thinking about it I ended up in the queue as well. Mom decided to head back to the hotel to rest a bit, and Ian hung around to keep us company. When Mark and Beth were done, it was my turn. The artist was Phillip Wolves who had just arrived in Reykjavik to do a guest spot at Reykjavik Ink the day before. Demand for tattoos in Iceland far exceeds local artists so there are lots of visiting artists who come for weeks or months at a time.

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What better way to commemorate being to every country than an outline of iceland with the date September 1, 2016 in Roman numerals and “one hundred ninety-six” in Icelandic:

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After we were finished it had started to lightly sprinkle, so we headed back to the hotel along the water to take in a few sights. We walked past the Sólfairð or Sun Voyager. It was built in 1990 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Reykjavik:

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Next up was Höfði House. This is where in 1986 Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met for their famous summit:

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Near the house is a statue of Einar Benediktsson who was a nationalistic poet that people give a lot of credit to for developing Icelandic national identity:

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After a short rest it was off to a group dinner. It was our last night in Iceland, and also my birthday. I had planned the whole Iceland trip around the fact it would be my birthday as well as a long holiday weekend at the end of summer, and it really worked out perfectly. Beth and Mark had found me a fridge magnet which was a perfect memory of Iceland as well as checking off countries:

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Dinner was at Grillmarkaðurinn which several people had recommended to me as the perfect place to have a celebration birthday / last country dinner with a group of friends. For a starter, I couldn’t resist the “whale, puffin, and langoustine mini burgers” which were super tasty:

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For a main course, the “lightly salted cod” in a lobster foam broth. Amazing:

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It was tempting to get dessert, but we were pretty stuffed by this point and decided to head back to the hotel. I couldn’t think of a better way to finish off my birthday and the every country celebration than with a group of a dozen friends and family. It was truly a super special feeling. I had a super early flight the next morning, and wanted to at least try and get a little sleep.


Sep 262016
 

After lunch it was back into the SuperJeeps, and off to explore more. Next stop was the Langjokull Glacier, but first, our drivers took great pleasure in charging the jeeps across progressively deeper rivers:

Eventually, we made it to the edge of the glacier, where we stopped for a break before heading onto the worst road I’ve been on anywhere in the world. Africa included. This was some serious off-roading over volcanic rock to get to the glacier. A panoramic with the glacier up ahead on the horizon:

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Heading up onto the glacier. The black is from the volcano which blew a few years back, spewing ash all over the glacier. This is actually a really bad thing because the black ash concentrates the sun, and melts the glacier at a faster pace:

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Deep crevice in the glacier…many of these go down as much as 100 meters….and there’s no telling where they end up. Possibly in an underground lake under the glacier, from which there would be no way out. Talk about a horrifying way to die!

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View across the edge of the glacier:

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Standing by one of the ash piles against the bright blue sky:

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View down the glacier towards the SuperJeeps:

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Melt from the glacier headed down into one of the deep crevices….I keep being terrified the ground would give way and we would tumble down…

After the glacier, we headed off to the Gulfoss waterfall. This is one of the prime attractions on the golden circle, and it was absolutely packed with tourists. Hundreds of people, to the point it wasn’t possible to enjoy the natural beauty. This was really the one place in Iceland I felt the tourist crowds, and it was the one place I would avoid next time. That said, look at that view:

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Video of the falls:

Amazing:

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Selfie with Phil in front of Gullfoss:

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On the way out of the falls, we were treated to not just a rainbow, but a double rainbow. Even nature decided to be a part of this big celebratory trip!

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Rainbow selfie!

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Amazingly, we were able to even see both ends of the rainbow:

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Then, for our final stop, it was off to the Þingvellir National Park. Þingvellir is closely linked with the history of Iceland and is where the parliament of Iceland was first founded around the year 930. District assemblies were set up with a general assembly, the Alþing, which first convened at Þingvellir just before 930. This laid the foundation for the Icelandic Commonwealth, which was largely controlled by chieftains with some participation by ordinary people. As the site of the first parliament in Iceland, it’s seen as the place where Iceland really became a country. Did I mention it was also gorgeous?

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Panoramic shot after a 30 minute hike through the park:

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When we got to the jeeps at the end of the hike, our driver and guide Omar was just chilling with the jeep:

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One last group selfie from an amazing day on the Golden Circle and Glacier…with Omar chilling out on the left:

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After we got back to the hotel, got this amazing handmade wall hanging from mom. The best gifts really are those that people you care about put thought and effort into:

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Then, it was off to Kirsten’s Air BnB across the street, where it was time for drinks to celebrate being to every country. Celebratory Veuve with Dewon, Phil, Greg, and Clint:

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…because Kirsten and I are classy like that:

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Late dinner, and then back to the Foss for more awesome craft beers and craft cocktails with Lukas the Lithuanian bartender. Unfortunately, many people were leaving in the morning and lots of goodbyes were said. It was so amazing having so many people care enough to join me in Iceland for the final country, and was a real testament to the awesome people I have in my life! Off to bed, because there was still one more day in Iceland to enjoy…


Sep 232016
 

Up early the next morning to head out on our Golden Circle tour. When looking for tour companies to arrange the Golden Circle tour, I’ll be honest that I wasn’t totally sure what all the different options were. I know the Golden Circle has some of Iceland’s “must see” sights, and pretty much all the tours seemed the same. When Iceland Travel suggested the “SuperJeep Golden Circle Tour with Langjokull Glacier Add-On” the price was more than double the other options, but it promised a full day of fun place a chance to visit a glacier, so, I went with it. This was going to be our big splurge tour of the trip.

SuperJeep is a separate company, it turns out, and Iceland Travel merely did the booking for us. When they showed up to pick us up, I was thrilled. Each SuperJeep seated five of us comfortably, and we had five jeeps for the day. The drivers were absolutely hysterical, and had a radio system so they could chat between the jeeps all day. We headed out of Reykjavik, and soon we were already seriously off-road. One of the worst trails of they day, we were getting thrown around pretty seriously as we headed up the trail, but the SuperJeep was handling it like a champ. I was a bit nervous that once we got to the top a few people in the group might not have been really thrilled with the pretty serious off-roading. Fortunately, everyone loved it. Our driver, Omar, loved getting a bit crazy, and made no attempt at all to avoid rough spots of the trail!

Eventually we stopped, for a short hike up the rest of the hill for a vantage point over Reykjavik. I hung back to get a shot of the group hiking up the hill against the blue sky:

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View from the top, looking down over Reykjavik:

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First group shot of the day. I love how the bright colours stand out in contrast to the sky and ground!

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We drove a bit longer, and stopped to take in another valley:

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I love how this shot of Ted against the green hills turned out:

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Picture with mom and my brother:

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Part of the group enjoying the view:

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Done admiring the view, we continued on and stopped by a lake. I love how this pic of Jen checking how cold the water is turned out:

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The lake:

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Next stop was at the Faxi waterfall. Most Golden Circle tours don’t do this, and there was almost nobody there. It was another huge plus of booking with SuperJeep that they kept adding stops that a big bus full of people wouldn’t have time for. Kirsten posing with the SuperJeep:

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Faxi Waterfall:

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Faxi waterfall selfie:

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We walked the path down towards the falls, and got this shot from below:

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Shot with John, Kirsten, and Ted by the Faxi waterfall:

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There was a salmon ladder next to the falls, so we walked up the narrow sides of it. Love this shot of Kirsten on the way up:

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Jen and Ingo taking a rest at the top of the falls, I love how the colours just jump out in this pic:

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Getting read to leave Faxi, group pic in the SuperJeep:

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Final stop before lunch was the Geysir hot springs area. Geysir is mostly dormant now, the the Strokkur geyser still regularly erupts every 5-10 minutes:

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Srokkur erupting:

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The great thing about the Geysir area is that all the tour busses stop here along the Golden Circle tour, so there’s a great rest stop with lots of restaurants in it and great places to grab lunch. We stopped for about 30 minutes at this point until our drivers started herding us back to the SuperJeeps. We still had much more to see in the afternoon and needed to get a jump on it! The afternoon of the SuperJeep tour in the next post…


Sep 182016
 

Fortunately, the mass 22 beer flight was consumed over enough time that it did no damage, and I had a great night sleep, waking up in plenty of time for breakfast. Lots has been made of the Fosshotel breakfast on TripAdvisor, so I might as well add my two cents.

Overall, it was a great selection. Certainly not world-class like many breakfasts in Bangkok, but a very solid performance for a breakfast that’s included with all rooms. They had a great coffee machine that made to-order drinks, a reasonable selection of fruits and pastries, eggs, deli meats, a good Scandinavian option of bread with cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, and deli meat, and pretty much anything you could want. Only downside is the breakfast room was pretty crowded at peak hours between 7:30 and 8:30, but it was never so packed we couldn’t find a space. That said, if you stay at the Fosshotel you’re already giving up on the serenity Iceland is known for, so I didn’t find it a bad tradeoff.

Fortified with breakfast, the entire group met up again at 9am for our Tour de Jour. I figured many people were probably still a bit tired with jetlag (as we had a few less experienced travelers) so I scheduled a shorter/more relaxing tour for the first day. We were headed out to the Reykjanes Peninsula, and then on to the Blue Lagoon. Yes, it’s touristy, but it’s also one of those things you have to do when you’re in Iceland. Our bus arrived right on time, and our rather geriatric bus driver herded the thirty of us on board.

We set off on a drive out of the city, headed in the direction of the airport. The Blue Lagoon would have been a much easier visit on the way to the airport or on the way back to the airport, but with everyone coming and going on different flights we decided to make a day trip out of it so everyone could go together. Our guide started sharing with us stranger and stranger stories, and complaining about the lack of infrastructure in Iceland for tourism – notably, the lack of bathrooms in rural places. We weren’t sure if he thought one of us needed one (I mean, we’d only left the hotel 30 minutes prior) or he needed one. We stopped at a series of rural farmhouse, and he came back defeated each time. At one point, while he was looking for a bathroom, we stopped and got to see a very friendly Icelandic horse (and quickly learned you don’t call them ponies):

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Next stop was about 15 minutes on, the bridge between two continents. This is the place where the European and North American tectonic plates meet and these ridges have risen up:

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Kirsten being all high and mighty and looking down on me from Europe:

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Hanging out in the neverland between Europe and North America, while others simply take the bridge back and forth:

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Fascinating land a mixture of volcanic rock, sand, and moss…

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Back on the bus, Ted found the only seat comfortable when you’re 6’8:

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Next stop was on the coast of the peninsula:

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Rocky outcrops on the far western coast of Iceland:

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A statue of a Great Auk, which went extinct about 200 years ago…playing with perspective and taking a photo with part of the group that had climbed a nearby hill:

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Selfie with Dewon on top of the hill, with the North Atlantic in the background:

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Fascinating geography:

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There’s lots of stories about hidden people and trolls in Iceland, and our geriatric driver only seemed to become animated when talking about them. We noticed the bus came complete with a troll on the dashboard:

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Final stop was an area of geothermal activity. Steam rising from underground – be careful to stay on the walked pathways as the ground is unstable and prone to collapsing:

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Smoking-hot selfie with Rich:

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After getting our fill of sulfur, it was off to the Blue Lagoon to relax. Unfortunately the sun wasn’t out, but it was still not too cold. After parking the bus in the Blue Lagoon’s rather large (and increasingly commercial) parking lot, you walk the path between volcanic rock to the welcome centre:

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The Blue Lagoon is definitely crowded, no getting around that. However, they do manage the number of entries every hour quite carefully so while crowded it was never so crowded that it felt too hectic. The only hectic part is the check-in area where you get your bracelet, slippers and robe if you paid for them, and directed to the changing areas. You do have to buy your tickets in advance as they definitely sell out (especially in the middle of the day) but it was possible for the one member of our group who missed that memo to buy one as a walk-up. Not sure if that was because there were already 30+ of us with tickets or what, but they did make it work.

After the mandatory change and shower, it was out to the lagoon:

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Panoramic shot of the lagoon:

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Part of what makes the lagoon famous is the silica mud on the bottom, which they scoop up (and maybe process) and put in bowls at the side. The idea is to make a mask of it which is supposedly good for your skin. Personally, I think it made me look more like a swamp creature:

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Ramzi and Jason, however, decided it made them look absolutely fabulous:

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This is also a good place to mention that you get a bracelet which has an RFID chip in it, and is used to track all your purchases inside the lagoon. Our first drinks were included, and there was a maximum of three drinks per person for safety reasons.

There was also a photographer off to the side taking pictures and e-mailing them, and the most shocking part of it was that they didn’t even ask you to pay for them. Pic of a part of the group:

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When you leave the lagoon, you have to stop by the cashier before you can get out. They scan your bracelet, collect any payment due, and they you have to scan your bracelet with a zero balance again to get out the turnstyle. It’s all rather well organized and efficient, and we had a great time spending a couple of hours there relaxing away the jetlag.

Then it was back on the bus to the hotel, where it was already late afternoon. After a short rest a group of us met up to head to the largest church in town, the Hallgrimskirkja:

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It’s a fully-functioning church, but also functions as a tourist attraction with an observation desk that provides a nice view of Reykjavik. For a price, of course.

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After taking in the views, we headed off to find somewhere with happy hour to have a few drinks before dinner. Unfortunately, this was also the one time on the trip that it decided to rain, so we ducked into the nearest bar with seats. After drinks, the group split up a bit to try and find something to eat. Getting increasingly frustrated that everywhere seemed to have no open tables, the group continued to splinter further and further, and eventually our smaller group of eight ended up at Steikhúsið – or steakhouse. They were able to seat all eight of us, and looked to have an interesting menu, and it was still pouring rain, so was an easy choice…until we got the bill, of course.

Starter of reindeer samosas….

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The surf and turf platter of horse and minke whale steak…along with fried sweet potato tots. Yum!

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Group shot at dinner:

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After a delicious meal fortunately the rain had reduced to a light drizzle/mist, and the 1.5 km walk back to the hotel wasn’t that bad. When we got back, some of us met up in the lobby bar where we discovered one of the Fosshotel’s hidden treasures – Lukas the Lithuanian bartender. You just had to give him an idea what you want “something with gin and an icelandic twist” and he’d come up with craft cocktails featuring local spirits, herbs, berries, you name it. Plus, he was really fun and chatty and added a great ambiance. If it wasn’t for the group of 30 geriatric german tourists all ordering Irish Coffees, where each espresso shot had to be pulled by hand, it would have been an amazingly relaxing atmosphere. Then, it was off to bed, since our big tour day left early the next morning.


Sep 162016
 

We finally arrived at our hotel, the Fosshotel Reykjavik, a little before 3am after the bus drama, and check-in was reasonably efficient given the hour. Only one problem – they couldn’t find one of the reservations. Fortunately my check-in didn’t take too long, and it was up to the room by around 3am. Found out the next morning that Garrett had to wait another 30 minutes for them to figure out his room. Ugh!

I decided I was going to sleep in and stay closer to east coast time for a day, since if I tried to operate on 4-5 hours of sleep it wasn’t going to get the trip off to a great start. Being around 11pm east coast time when I finally got to sleep I slept very soundly, finally waking up around 11a local time. When I did finally wake up, I took a look out my window and had a great view of the city:

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We (the group that arrived late) had made plans to meet at 11a to find some food and more importantly coffee, so set out on a walk. Found a nice little coffee shop where we grabbed coffee and tried to wake up. We still had plenty of time before the group was meeting for the planned tour, so walked back to the hotel via a longer route along the water:

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When I did get back to my room, there was a nice vase of flowers from the hotel as a congratulations (thanks mom for guilting them into it!) which made the room much more festive. I think this was the first time outside a couple of work trips that I’d spent five nights in the same hotel room in a long time, so it was a very nice touch!

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At 2pm those of us staying in the hotel met up to walk to the meeting point for the walking tour of the city. It was about a 20 minute walk to the Parliament where the tour would kick off, and mostly downhill, so made for a nice walk. Unfortunately the angle of the sun was bad for getting pictures of the parliament, but in the square – known as Austurvöllur – was a statue of Jón Sigurðsson, a leader of Iceland’s independence movement:

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We soon found our tour guide Marteinn from CityWalk Reykjavik, who had agreed to lead a private tour for us. The first piece of the tour was about the parliament itself which was built in 1881, long before Iceland’s independence. The square was also the site of many protests, including a 1949 protest against NATO and the 2009 protests which brought down the government after the financial crisis. Apparently Icelanders are rather polite when they protest, preferring to bang wooden spoons on anything that makes noise.

From there we walked just around the corner of the square to the statue of Skuli Magnusson who lived in the 1700s and was largely responsible for the founding of Reykjavik as a city…such as it was in those times with just a couple dozen people:

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From there we walked through the old part of the city where there was a marker of the year 874 which is when a Norwegian chief named Ingólfr Arnarson and his wife arrived in Iceland. According to the Landnámabók he threw two pillars over the side of his ship and vowed to settle the land wherever they landed. When he found them again, he set up home there and named the place something along the likes of Reykjavik, which he translated as “smokey cove” – although it’s questionable what he really meant to call it. The pipe attached to the pillar is venting steam from the underground thermal pools:

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We walked a bit more in the downtown of the city, and Marteinn told us about Iceland’s most famous traditional dish – the hot dog. He was just kidding, but we passed the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur stand, home of Reykjavik’s most famous hotdogs…and where tourists and locals alike form a massive queue to get one of these treats. Seriously, I don’t know why, but Icelanders seem to love hot dogs. Marteinn also educated us that what are viewed as “traditional” Icelandic foods such as whale, horse, and puffin, are really not eaten much anymore…except by tourists.

He also told us about Brennivín, also known as the “black death.” It got its name because shortly after prohibition ended they put a skull and crossbones on the bottle to warn against drinking it…and the name apparently stuck. It’s apparently best enjoyed with fermented shark, which Icelanders do apparently still eat. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a stop to try it…

From there we walked up the Arnarhóll, which is located next to Iceland’s Supreme Court. It was a good place for the first of many group pictures…

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From there we continued to a monument to the women of Iceland, where Marteinn again comment on the suspicious underrepresentation of women in our group. He noted that Icelandic women were famous for many inventions, and I was also shown a famous Icelandic invention – the beer mitten. Unfortunately, no beer was provided with it, but there was a nice Icelandic orange soda to enjoy:

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From there, we walked towards the City Hall and the lake that sits in the middle of the city centre:

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This is where we learned a couple of very important facts about dating in Iceland. Apparently there’s a website called the “Book of Iceland” where you can put in your name and the name of the person you’re thinking of dating, and learn just how distant of relatives you are. In a county with only a couple hundred thousand people apparently this is important….

Marteinn also pointed out that because Icelanders are very big on gender equality, having even had a lesbian Prime Minister recently, they had recently erected a new display in the city hall. Since the city has a penis museum, they felt it was also important to have a giant vagina painting hanging in the City Hall. No, I’m not making this up.

After showing us around for a few hours, Marteinn left us to explore on our own, and naturally several people went to find the painting…unfortunately, the City Hall had just closed and they were left disappointed. I can’t recommend Marteinn and CityWalk Reykjavik enough. It was a fantastic introduction to the city and to Icelandic history, and also a wonderful chance to walk off some jetlag.

Next up was celebrating visiting every country with a celebration beverage, but first, a few of us circled back to the hot dog wagon for a snack:

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There really wasn’t anything special about the hotdog, but “everything” included ketchup, mustard, remoulade, crispy fried onions, and raw onions. It was definitely tasty!

It was just warm enough to sit outside and enjoy some happy hour two for one drinks:

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After happy hour ended it was back to the Fosshotel where the sun was just setting over the city. View from my room:

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A short while later, a group of us met up in the hotel’s beer garden for dinner and more celebration drinks. The beer garden has 22 beers on draft, and offers them all in a tasting flight. Phil and I were up for the challenge, and although it took a bit of time to get through them all, I’m proud to say we defeated the giant towers of beer:

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This was polished off with some tasty fish and chips before calling it a relatively early night. We had to be up early the next morning to head out on our tour, and I wanted to make sure I was up early enough to get some breakfast beforehand!


Sep 152016
 

The big day had finally arrived, and it was time to head off to Iceland to visit my 196th and final country in the world. I had a group of about 35 family and friends joining me, a couple of whom were already in Iceland. About ten of us would be on the same flight to Reykjavik, meaning I would have a good group to witness “the moment” with me.

Caught a Lyft with my friend and neighbour Garrett to Dulles Airport. Garrett deserves special mention as the person who’s kept my plants alive, collected my mail, and even mailed me pictures of visas I forgot at home for all these years of travel. I definitely couldn’t have done it without his help – not to mention he helped save me from being deported from India back in July!

Arrived at Dulles, and check-in was relatively drama-free, except for the guy in the Saga (business) Class line in front of us, who was throwing a fit that they wouldn’t let him bring his rolling back on the plane as hand baggage. After forcing him to check it we checked in, and my (much larger) rolling bag was accepted just fine. Fortunately he didn’t see that…we later saw him in a middle seat somewhere between purgatory (row 20) and the final level of hell (row 35)…so maybe that explains it.

The check-in agent was completely unaware of the rules for lounge access, and thought I probably got a guest, so was nice enough to give Garrett a lounge invite as well despite the fact he was in economy. Off to the Air France lounge it is, where an appropriately-French reception of (several glasses of) champagne and some cheese awaited:

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Shortly after we arrived my friend Greg from Philly joined us since the Air France lounge also participates in Priority Pass and a few other programs, and my friend Phil showed up a bit later fresh from finding a shower at a friend’s place after a JetBlue redeye from the West Coast. Off to the gate after a bit, where our chariot awaited:

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Unfortunately, despite kissing up to Icelandair on twitter over the past couple of weeks and dropping lots of hints, there was no priority boarding or special recognition at the gate. There was actually no priority boarding of any sort, so I just shepherded the crew to the front of the scrum and on board.

Icelandair flight 656
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Keflavik, Iceland (KEF)
Depart 14:10, Arrive 23:40, Flight Time: 5:30
Boeing 757-200, Registration TF-ISD, Manufactured 1991, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 139,600
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,328,737

Upon boarding, champagne was quickly dispensed to Phil and I, and bottled waters were waiting at our seats:

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Pre-flight champagne celebration selfie:

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What’s to eat on the shortish flight to Reykjavik:

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I’m not sure a started called “ugly” sounds appetizing, but hey, when in Iceland…

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This would be a good place to say a bit about the seats. Icelandair 757s are pretty much the same seats that have plied routes in the US domestically for the last 30 years. Two by two configuration up front, with a few extra inches of legroom over coach. There was nothing special about the seats, but they were comfortable enough for a short daytime flight. I certainly wouldn’t want to try getting sleep in these seats, however. Fortunately, Icelandair has some daytime flights like ours which meant no need to try and sleep on a plane.

Shortly after take off, I asked for a red wine, but apparently I was getting white. The flight attendant was…not the most attentive…and seemed a little frazzled, so I figure it would go fine with the unusual pre-meal munchies that were essentially toffee-covered popcorn. I mean, it was nice to have something other than a ramekin of nuts, but this was…different. That said, it went decently well with white wine (better than it would have with red) so win-win…maybe?

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I had spotted on Icelandair’s website that you could pre-order from about eight different meals, and decided to go this way. It was a good call, because the three options on the main menu didn’t look that great to me, and the lamb I had was rather delicious. The ugly cheese was pretty tasty as well…and I finally got my red wine! The pre-ordered meal was also good because it meant that we were the first ones served. No plate for the bread, but it was super tasty!

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I spent part of the flight kissing up to Icelandair on twitter, but it continued to get me absolutely nowhere…beyond a congratulations. I should also point out that Icelandair’s entire fleet is WiFi equipped, and it is supposed to be complimentary in Saga Class. However, it wouldn’t recognize my confirmation number or ticket number, meaning I had to pay. AmEx was kind enough to immediately wipe off the charges when I called to dispute them.

With about 90 minutes left in flight, Phil and I were feeling a bit hungry. We had been pressing the call button every 30-40 minutes to get wine refills (the crew was definitely not proactive at all), but this time decided to ask if they had any snacks to eat. The…rather attractive gentleman working economy quickly came back with some Pringles, Icelandic “boxerchips”, and some trail mix as well as more wine:

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Gorgeous sunset as we crossed over Greenland:

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Greenland certainly looked rugged and desolate:

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The rocky east coast of Greenland:

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We landed about 10 minutes ahead of schedule, and unfortunately did not get a gate. Victory selfie on the tarmac right after setting foot in my final country:

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Immigration was quick, despite the agent making a comment about all the visas in my passport. I told him Iceland was my 196th and final country visited, which was merely met with a very stoically-Scandinavian “that’s nice.” Hah!

Post-immigration I was looking for the perfect spot to take a pic, and found this. Welcome to #196!

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Overall, Icelandair was solid. I went into it expecting domestic first class, and that’s exactly what we got. Garrett unfortunately forgot his phone on the plane, and didn’t realize it until we were well past immigration. He found an Icelandair agent and told them, and much to our surprise he was reunited with his phone only 20 minutes later. Definitely scores big points for Icelandair in my book, as in the US you’d almost certainly never see it again.

A few more thoughts on Icelandair, from the friends who were in economy. There’s no food served – at all. It’s the low cost model where there’s plenty available for purchase, but nothing is complimentary. Something to keep in mind if you’re flying them in economy. They essentially function as a low cost airline, and even in Saga Class it wasn’t completely free what was complimentary and what you were expected to pay for. Turns out, everything was complimentary…and apparently whatever and as much as you wanted.

We had pre-booked the FlyBus, which runs continuously from the airport to the central bus terminal in Reykjavik about 50 minutes away. On the ride we got really lucky and saw the Northern Lights, so that was a super bonus for the drive into town. Unfortunately, they didn’t show up any of the other nights we were in Iceland. When we got to the bus terminal, however, it was a disaster. We had paid the extra for a transfer to our hotel, and after waiting over 45 minutes with no transfer in sight (remember, it’s about 2am at this point) we gave up. Fortunately, my friend Kirsten’s Air BnB host was getting impatient, and he drove the 2km to the bus terminal to pick all of us up. Her apartment was right across the street from our hotel, so it worked out super well. Supposedly this isn’t the norm with FlyBus, but next time I would think twice about paying the extra for the transfer and just grab the short cab from the bus station. Especially with multiple people you would probably break even.

Now, it was time to get some sleep and get ready to enjoy the first day in Iceland!


Sep 062016
 

Shortest blog post ever, but…mission accomplished! Arrived in Iceland four days ago marking the end of my quest to visit all 196 countries on the planet!

Enjoyed the last four days with an amazing group of family and friends – truly an amazing time that shows me what great people I have in my life. Thanks to everyone who joined.

Onwards and upwards…to the moon!

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Aug 252016
 

One of the most common questions I get about travel regards staying healthy. Not the normal stuff like how do you avoid catching a cold flying in a large tin can filled with sick people, but how do you actually stay healthy in developing countries? This question is usually followed by “oh I could never go to Africa, don’t you need lots of shots?” Well, yes, and no. To try and address some of these questions, I’ll break travel health in developing countries down into three categories: (1) what shots do you need (2) what medications do you need and (3) what is safe to eat and drink?

As a bit of background, two things I need to mention: this isn’t professional medical advice, but much of it is pulled from the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) or other governmental travel health sites. Consult your own travel health specialist for a professional medical opinion. Secondly, this isn’t advice for your next vacation to Paris or London. In general traveling in developed countries (most of Europe, major cities of Southeast Asia, Australia, Japan, etc) doesn’t require too much in the way of specialized preparation as far as travel health goes. Oh, but if you go to Australia the sun is most uncivilized, so you might want to bring extra sun cream due to the holes in the ozone later. Moving right along…

Eating and Drinking

As far as eating and drinking go, the first thing you should always think about is water. You need clean water to survive, and that’s not always the easiest thing to find. The good news is, in most developing countries lots of people drink bottled water for safety, so it’s relatively easy to find. Drinking tap water just isn’t worth the risk – it would be all to easy to at best catch some stomach bug that ruins days of your vacation and at worst you could end up with some nasty parasite. Even if this means getting extorted by your fancy hotel for a $5 bottle of water at the hotel restaurant, do it! Think of how much you spent on your vacation, and the $5 is a small price for staying healthy. Also, when buying water, make sure the bottle is still sealed. If there’s any question that the seal might have been tampered with, don’t drink it! People are of mixed opinions on brushing teeth with hotel tap water, but personally I don’t risk it. It just takes a few splashes of bottled water to brush your teeth, so again, not worth the risk.

Regarding other beverages, in many developing countries you’ll find lots of fruit juices for sale, especially on the street. Generally you have no idea how clean the press making that juice was, so I would personally avoid it. In hotel restaurants and in restaurants with a more middle class group of local people I would say beverages in general are safe. You should be drinking lots of water anyways, but any other sealed and bottled beverages are generally safe as well. Including beer…you should always try the local beer! (unless you think it was brewed in someone’s bathtub…)

Food is much, much trickier. One good rule to go by is to go to places that are popular. Locals usually know the safe (and tasty) places to eat, so anywhere busy that is popular with locals is a good bet. Even better if you see lots of expatriates there – word tends to get around the expatriate community quickly about which places are sanitary to eat and drink at. A few good rules are to always be cautious of salads. Lettuce tends to get washed (if at all) with tap water, which opens you up to all the water problems. Also, anything that’s been sitting out for a long time or that is covered in mayonnaise is also a no-go in my book. I also tend to avoid seafood unless I know it actually came from the sea and is fresh. You’re not going to catch me ordering prawns in the middle of Chad. Best case they came in frozen from somewhere over 1,000 miles away, worst case…well, I don’t want to think about that… If you’re going to eat fruit, peel it first, or at least make sure you can wash the skin with bottled/filtered water.

Medications

Getting sick happens, it’s a fact of travel. Especially colds and other viruses, these things can happen anywhere, but it especially sucks when you travel. Since in developing countries it can be difficult to get basic medications, I always travel with a few basics just in case. A good list of medications is aspirin/advil/tylenol/ibuprofen, something in case your insides go evil…and you absolutely have to leave your hotel like Imodium/Loperamide, and a generic cold/flu medication to treat things like runny nose and congestion. Hopefully they are things you won’t need on your trip, but you’ll be thankful you have them if you do!

Beyond that, there are lots of places it’s super-smart to take prophylactic medication against Malaria. There are several medications out there, and a travel health clinic can advise which is best for the country you’re going to. I personally take Malerone (Atovaquone/proguanil) as I’ve never had any side effects from it, and taken once a day it has helped me avoid Malaria up until now. The CDC has a great map of where malaria is found, but the mosquitos which carry it tend to come out more at night, and reproduce in standing water. It’s not nearly as common in cities as in more rural areas, but consulting the CDC map is a great place to start. Since I have no side effects from the medication I tend to be overcautious and take it if there’s any risk, but it’s a personal choice.

Shots, Jabs, Stabs, and Vaccines

First off, if you don’t believe in science or are an anti-vaxxer please stop reading. I’m going to recommend you get jabbed to protect yourself while traveling. Because…science.

Ok…now that that’s out of the way, vaccines really fall into two categories: those you must get to travel to a country, and those that are optional. Surprisingly, only one vaccine is generally mandatory for travel and that is the yellow fever vaccine.

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Many countries require you to show proof of yellow fever vaccine to enter the country, and if you can’t one of three things will happen: either you’ll be denied boarding by the airline before you even get on the plane (ask Ian his story about this happening to him in Colombia), you’ll be turned around and not allowed to enter when you land, or possibly the worst, you’ll be forcibly vaccinated at the airport by some needle and vaccine of unknown safety…and often charged for the convenience. Spare yourself this, and get the vaccine in advance if the country you’re traveling to requires it. You get a nifty little yellow book (also helpful for recording your other vaccines) that shows where and when you were vaccinated. The vaccine is good for 10 years, and after that you’ll need a booster to be allowed to travel. The medical community is still a bit out to debate on if the booster is really needed, but countries require it to travel, so you’ll need to get it.

Most people probably got a vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella as a child. At least in the US, people generally don’t get booster shots for this, however, there have been recent mumps outbreaks in the US (I know people who got it), so it’s recommended you get a booster if you think there’s a chance of being exposed. Again, your doctor is the best source of advice on this, but most people have it taken care of when small. Another childhood vaccine to make sure is up to date is Polio. There have been outbreaks in recent years, so best to check with your doctor if you should get a booster.

That brings us to Diphtheria and Tetanus, also know as the DTaP, Tdap, or Boostrix vaccine in the US since it also covers Pertussis. Current FDA guidelines say that only one booster dose is needed in a lifetime, but I know many doctors still give additional boosters if you do stupid stuff like step on a rusty nail…I’ve personally had at least three boosters I know of, so best to check with your doctor as there seems to be different advice on this one. You probably got it as a kid, probably had at least one booster as an adult, but best to check with your doctor before traveling to somewhere you might not be able to get a booster if needed.

There are two different Hepatitis vaccines out there as well, covering Hepatitis A and B. Hepatitis A is spread by the fecal-oral route, and is a good thing to have if you’re traveling in developing countries. Food preparation and hand-washing standards might not be up to snuff, and the CDC strongly recommends you get a single dose before traveling…even if you’re going to be staying in luxury hotels. They say to aim for four weeks before travel, but any time before travel is better than not at all. Hepatitis B is blood-borne, and usually sexually-transmitted or through contact with needles or other bodily fluids. This one isn’t really travel specific, but the CDC has a rather long list of people they recommend receive it. Again, check with your doctor….

This brings me to a few less common vaccines that you can decide on for yourself in consultation with your doctor:

  • Typhoid is nasty, and probably a good idea to get vaccinated against. It can be spread by contaminated food and water, and is common in developing countries. Unfortunately the vaccine is only 50-80% effective, but hey, that’s better than nothing!
  • Meningitis is mostly a problem in central Africa, and that vaccine is actually required before you can enter Saudi Arabia on Hajj pilgrimage. Not technically required for other travel, I got this vaccine anyways, because hey…who wants Meningitis? Plus, meningococcal disease can progress from a stiff neck and fever to death in a matter of hours, so prevention goes a long way to minimizing the chance of serious problems. It’s not long-lasting, however, and a booster is needed every five years or so.
  • Japanese Encephalitis is a problem in parts of Asia, but this is one I skipped. It’s usually only recommended if you’re going to be spending a longer period of time in the region. Like most mosquito-borne illnesses, it’s much more common in rural areas.
  • Cholera is also quite common throughout Africa as well as south and southeast Asia. The vaccine, however, is not terribly effective, and both travel medicine doctors I consulted with recommended not getting it. I did, however, get shaken down on the Congo-Angola border and told I had to have it…and the offered to give it for about $3 with their who-knows-how-sanitary needle…or I could pay $10 and just get a stamp and a wink. Cholera vaccine isn’t currently required for travel anywhere, so don’t fall for this!

So that about sums things about – lots to think about, but what it really boils down to is a little prevention can go a long way towards preventing serious illness. What travel health tips have you discovered in your travels that are worth sharing?