So, I’ve been toying around with posting this for a couple of months now, but it never quite seemed like the right moment. Yes, like many of you, I’ve been grounded at home because of Covid for over six months now, and at the beginning I didn’t feel like I had anything to say – because I wasn’t travelling.
I was going to update you on how I was filling the time, but this has always been a round the world travel blog so it felt really odd updating you on the mundane going ons of my DC life.
I started cooking. I mean, let’s not get crazy – when I say cooking I mean eating things that didn’t come from restaurants. I even baked a couple of cakes and stuff like that. I was pretty proud of myself!
As a consequence of eating better and not eating airplane and restaurant food all the time, the weight began to come off…50 pounds of it to be precise to date. I look at pictures from January and I’m stunned.
Some of it was eating better, but I also started running again. In the early days in February and March and even into April, it was just around the neighbourhood, with the odd longer hike on weekends. Mostly the same loops over and over, but I was getting faster and faster and skinnier and skinnier.
Then, a good friend shared with me that she’d taken on a pandemic project – she would run every road in the Florida Keys! I thought, hey, maybe I could do that with DC…but I don’t live in DC…I live in Arlington.
So that evolved…I would run every road in Pre-Retrocession Washington DC. What is that, you ask? Well, DC used to be a perfect 10×10 mile diamond…until part of it decided in the 1850s that it wanted to go back to Virginia. This became present-day Arlington and part of present-day Alexandria. So, I decided I would see about running the whole diamond. Every road of it. Fits with my “every country” mindset.
This got easier when the same friend told me about the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee. The idea was from May 1 through August 31 you run across Tennessee, corner to corner, the longest way. Just over 1,000 km. So, I started doing that….5+ miles each and every day. But a funny thing happened…I was doing 7+ most days, and there was a special “Back Across Tennessee” version for nutsos like me who wanted to run 2,000 km – Across Tennessee and back.
So here we are, September 1 is here, and I’m happy to report that on August 30 I arrived back in Arkansas, my 2,000+ km covered! Now that I’m not spending 3+ hours a day running and driving to/from runs (gotta do new roads every run, ya know!) I figured I’d put pen to paper.
I headed out tonight to run from home for the first time in months…my regular 4 mile loop around my neighbourhood. Ran it faster than I have in 10+ years. Halfway, a funny thing happened. Someone yelled at me “hey! I read your trip reports! You’re ironmanjt!”
So yeah, I made it across Tennessee, I’m back home, and I had a hell of a trip. I may never have gotten on an airplane, but I’ve done some amazing traveling the last six months, and that’s what I’m going to start sharing with you.
You see, despite being in DC for 30 years now, there are SO many parts of this city I’ve never been to or explored…and it’s been amazing. I’ve been fed ribs at a back yard BBQ, invited for a burger at a pot-filled middle of the street cookout, propositioned by “working people,” run through protests, seen beautiful things, seen painful things, and when it comes down to it…I’ve travelled. A lot.
Travel is growth and experiences, and I’m having just as many of those as ever!
So, below are the photos from the very early hikes back in March and April that I started this post with months ago…they’re a prelude to my summer travels. Enjoy, and I’ll post a few of my favourite and most memorable summer travels soon!
Arlington Cemetery hike…before Covid shut it down.
15+ mile hike through DC, Maryland, and Virginia!
Spring is springing, the turtles are out, and John Carrol is still watching over my Alma Mater.
This run looked innocent enough when I mapped it out…
…but it turned out to have some serious rock scrambles, creepy bugs (tent caterpillars), and gorgeous vistas:
Waterfall…right here in Arlington.
Much more to come! I’ll leave you with the “after” picture. You can see lots of “before” pics on the blog, but 2,000 km of running and 50 pounds later…here’s my finish picture from the race.
This is a blog I’ve been wanting to write for some time, but it’s also something I wanted to do lots of thinking about before I wrote it. How do you distill 196 countries and 30+ years of travel down into 12 trips that were the most memorable for you? What makes a trip memorable? Is it the places? Is it the people? Is it something you did? Or, is it some combination.
Initially, I wanted to keep this to ten most memorable, because everyone likes a Top 10 list. But, I was struggling to get it under 20. I did narrow it down a bit, but in the end, there were really 12 trips that I felt really needed to be told because they’ve formed such an integral part of my travel journey.
That said, it’s obviously not a comprehensive list, and there’s a few honourable mentions that I have to put out there:
Traveling to Penticton, British Columbia for my first Ironman race
First group of Americans allowed into North Korea in decades back in 2005 (you know it’s a tough choice when a trip like this doesn’t even make the list! A photo regardless:
So, with those said, let’s kick off the Top 12 list….in a bit of an order in that #1 is almost certainly the best travel memory I’ll ever had, but other than that it’s a bit random….so please don’t get offended!
#12 – Zimbabwe Coup – End of Mugabe’s Rule
I’ve been a follower of Zimbabwe for years, going back to grad school when I was studying sanctions. Ever since my first trip to Africa (where the plane actually stopped over in Harare on the way to South Africa) I’ve been fascinated by Zimbabwe and its struggles since Independence.
A few years ago for Thanksgiving I found myself with absolutely no plans when I saw in the news that the military had decided Mugabe’s time as the long-time ruler was coming to an end…and he had “decided” to resign. Except then he went on tv…and did what nobody expected with Generals standing around him: didn’t resign, or even mention it.
Knowing this wouldn’t stand, and I had a five day weekend ahead of me, I booked a last minute trip to Harare, and when I was in the air the military staged a “not coup” and removed him from power. I landed to parties in the streets celebrating hope for the future…which unfortunately has largely proved to be more of the same.
Huge historical moment, and so excited I could be there for it!
#11 First Trip to the Florida Keys
Despite a year filled with health issues, my amazing friend Jen managed to convince me that “running” 100 miles in the Florida Keys would be something I should do. Health issues continued to be a challenge, so I dialed it back to the 50 mile option (which I could easily walk in the time allowed) before finally deciding the week before not to do the race.
It turned out to be the right call, because having never been to the Keys before I way underestimated the sun, heat, and humidity. That said, I totally want to give it another go in 2020 health permitting.
I did still go down there, which gave me a chance to cheer Jen on in her 100 mile quest and spend time with my friend John who had flown down to be my crew for the race when I thought i was going to do it. Great friends, sun, and gorgeous scenery. What’s not to enjoy?!
What do you do when you’ve been to every country? You start “inventing” new ones of course! Not recognized by the UN, Abkhazia is a country that broke away from Georgia a few years back with the support of Russia, and now lives in relatively autonomous peace. Need proof that these “countries” are “worth” visiting? Where else can you:
Have lunch at a restaurant called Al Capone’s Pizza where they insist you take pics with toy prop guns and gangster hat
See a beautiful lake in the middle of winter where Stalin used to have his datcha
Run into a guy walking his bear on the side of the road, only to have him tell you “have bigger one at home”
In the middle of a delicious Georgian dinner have a rando drunk restaurant patron start going on and on about his love for Omar Bradley to you?!
So, if that doesn’t convince you that a long weekend in Abkhazia with a great friend is worth it, I don’t know what will!
#9 Kosovo and Macedonia
I’ve known my friend Dewon for nearly 20 years now, ever since he moved to Washington, D.C. from South Africa for work. His American adventure has taken him all around the country since then (and currently to New York) but we still manage to connect from time to time for amazing adventures.
A few years back he mentioned he’d be in Frankfurt for work and have some time afterwards, so I should pick a country in Europe I hadn’t been to yet (this was 10+ years ago I think?) and we would go for the weekend.
Well, I couldn’t just leave it at one country, and that’s how we ended up flying into Kosovo and eventually hiring a driver to take us to Macedonia. Both were fascinating in their own way: Kosovo because it was still newly-independent and finding its footing as a country, and Macedonia because…well…there were literally statues and monuments everywhere in the capital. It was totally surreal.
Plus, of course, the chance to spend the weekend with a great friend I don’t get to see enough of! Great friends and great times!
#8 Longyearbyen/Svalbard Marathon
I had always wanted to run the Antarctica Marathon, but it’s a hugely expensive undertaking…with no guarantee the boat will even be able to dock so you can run it. So, what did I do instead? Found the northernmost marathon in the world in Svalbard, Norway way above the Arctic Circle.
On top of being a stunning and scenic locale, it was also by far the smallest marathon I’ve ever run, with less than 30 participants. Unfortunately I got injured about 10 weeks before the race, but recovered enough I was still able to do it at a slow jog and really take in the scenery. Amazing memories!
#7 Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia used to be a really tricky place for “country counters” to check off their list. Unless you got invited there for work, or are Muslim and went on the Hajj, the country was completely closed to tourists. A few people have managed transit visas over the years, but I had to be content with an epic airport story (which I only tell in person over drinks) for my every country visit.
In late 2018, the Saudis announced a limited one-time-only tourist visa for a Formula-E Race that was coming to Riyadh, and country counters descended on Saudi en masse to take advantage of it. Sure, in the meantime the country has opened up even more to the point just about anyone can go at just about any time, but we didn’t know that back then. It was just dozens of country counters taking advantage of what they thought might be a one-time opportunity.
The cool thing about the whole thing was: as cool as Saudi itself was, the people were even more amazing. It was like finding a whole world full of people that “get” you, and understand why you do what you do, and why you travel to the places you do. I made many good friends out of the trip – people I still talk to frequently today.
I’d go to the “Edge of the World” with these people…and quite literally did!
#6 First Round-the-World – 40 Days for 40th Birthday
Believe it or not, back when I was at just under 100 countries visited I still hadn’t done a true round-the-world trip, where you cross both oceans basically continuing in one direction. So, I decided for my 40th birthday I would book a 40 day round-the-world trip that would be epic in its scale! What was the rough itinerary, well, something like:
Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire
Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama
Hawaii, Micronesia, the Marshall islands, and Guam
quick stops in Japan and Thailand en route to:
South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland
Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana: Victoria Falls!
Tired yet? It was an exhausting and amazing trip, and an unforgettable way to celebrate four decades on this planet!
#5 Johannesburg for U2 PopMart Concert
For me, this is where it all really started.
Sure, I’d been to the Soviet Union and a few trips to Europe. Less than ten countries total, but then came the opportunity to see U2 in Johannesburg for the final concert of the PopMart Tour, and when my friend Matt (as anyone who knows me knows – it’s ALWAYS a Matt) said he was game for it…a plan was hatched.
My first time in Africa, first time outside Europe and North America, and I was absolutely addicted to travel. If I could pull this off, I could do anything! It would take a few more years until I had the time and money to really start ramping up the travel, but once I did there was no stopping me.
I have U2 to thank for my love of music (I was at the original Red Rocks concert – the best thing about divorced parents who hear about these “cool new bands kids are into” and take you to a random concert) and have seen them all over the world now.
I can still pretty much see the entire concert in Johannesburg as vivid as if it was yesterday (despite being more than twenty years ago) and to this day when I go back to Johannesburg I always stay in the same hotel that I stayed in 20 years ago on that first trip. For me, it really was the trip that started it all.
#4 Dominican Republic
They say that true friends show it when you need them most. After ending a ten-year relationship I was more than a little bit of an emotional mess, and really needed something to get my mind in a better place and start moving forward again.
As luck would have it, my close friend John was headed to the Dominican Republic the next week (a country which at that time I still hadn’t been to!) with a group of 20+ friends, and pretty much insisted I join them. Anyone who knows me knows I’m very anti group trip, anti resort, anti cruise, blah blah blah, but I’m very glad I went on this trip!
I made some absolutely amazing friends, it was exactly what I needed at that point in my life, and despite just meeting all these new people they were really there for me over the coming years as I moved on and figured out my next steps in life!
Shout out to my Ottawa family for being there – and being amazing people!
#3 Easter Island
Continuing the theme of things to do when you’ve been to every country, I found a great fare to Chile a couple years ago, booked it for a week, and figured I could decide what I would do later. I had only spent a couple days in Chile my first trip, so really wanted to explore more.
Well, my friend Phil who recently moved from DC to California was up for joining, and together we hatched a plan to visit Easter Island…where we actually spent several nights sleeping in a geodesic dome! I’m normally the type to opt for posh hotels, but yes, I pretty much roughed it for several days there…and loved every minute out in nature!
Everyone knows Easter Island for the Moai statues, but what you probably don’t know is it’s also home to amazing food and some of the freshest fish I’ve ever had. I would love to go back and spend a week again – this time maybe doing more hiking all over the island!
#2 Soviet Union
When I was 17 I left North America for the first time for a four week study trip…to the Soviet Union. Yes, my first time out of North America was to the USSR! Probably proof I was destined for off the beaten path from a very young age!
My school didn’t have a ton of language options, and I had pretty much outgrown them by 11th grade so I had started spending summers at a Russian language camp to get more of a challenge. When they offered a trip over Christmas and New Years to the Soviet Union I begged and pleaded with the parents who were surprisingly ok with the idea, and off I went.
I went into the unknown with absolutely no idea what to expect, and although I dialed it back for the next few years (since I still had to learn how to travel independently and not in a school trip) I think this is what convinced me that I wanted to see more of the world.
“Weird” foods (I still remember the aspic for dinner on the first night and the joy my host family took me in serving pomegranates and coke in the middle of winter), strange customs, and not to mention “communism” (psst. mister, you have jeans? Buy rabbit skin hat?) it was all strange and so very foreign to me…and I loved it!
We spent four weeks in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, and Novosibirsk, and I wanted more! Strangely, it would be nearly 25 years until I would return to an independent Russia, but all the memories came flooding back. I can’t find the pictures from 1988 (hopefully I’ll find them in a box somewhere eventually) so I’ve included some of my Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Novosibirsk pictures above.
#1 Iceland – 196th (Every!) Country Visited
So, this one is probably pretty obvious! What better way to celebrate visiting every country than to hit your final country with more than 30 friends and family for four days in a gorgeous place like Iceland! It was truly a special and wonderful time and meant a lot to me that all these people I had spent so much time away from as I ran around the world were all willing to come to Iceland to celebrate with me.
From our guided walk around Reykjavik to a silly afternoon at the Blue Lagoon, to a day with SuperJeeps around the Golden Circle I think I pretty much spent the entire trip with a giant smile on my face…well, except maybe the hour I spent getting the unplanned “Iceland 196” tattoo to celebrate the achievement!
Is it terrible I’m secretly hoping someone else declares themselves independent in the next year so we can have a #Jason197 party somewhere for my 50th birthday?
After landing the walk to immigration seemed endless, but eventually made it and signs seemed pretty clear where I needed to go. The visa on arrival desk was well marked, and despite a rather lengthy queue pretty efficient. The lines for passport control looked pretty long, so I was relieved to see that after paying my money and getting my visa I was also stamped in and waived past normal passport control. Overall, pretty efficient!
I already knew there was no Uber in Indonesia anymore, but Grab was available. It took me a bit to figure out where the Grab pickup point was, but once I got close there were helpful Grab “agents” in “Grab green” helping you to find the car that was picking you up. Overall, it worked quite well.
The drive to my hotel wasn’t too bad, and soon I was at the Ritz Carleton Pacific Place. I attempted to check-in at the desk in the lobby, but was escorted up to the Executive Lounge for check-in. What hadn’t been fully clear to be before arriving is that the Ritz is the top floors of the hotel and all rooms have Executive Lounge access, while lower flowers are the “residences” which you can still book as a regular hotel – but don’t necessarily have Executive Lounge access. Confused yet? Read on.
Once I arrived with my escort in the lounge, the lounge agent instantly knew who I was and told me she would escort me to my room to check in. “I hope you do not mind, but we had to change your room for an upgrade.” Ok, I’ll never complain about an upgrade. I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention until we got outside and I realized…
I’d been upgraded to the Presidential Suite. All 3,600 square meters of it. It’s pretty awesome when your room has its own website! I was a bit floored…and it was a new experience sitting on “my” own living room sofa to do check-in.
Best part of all? I was informed that “President Obama has stayed in this room as well!” Sweet! Maybe greatness will rub off on me after all!
So, let me give you a tour. The dining room:
The kitchen, complete with bar. The door to the left is the kitchen area with a fully stocked fridge (chargeable as minibar) and full silverware, crystal, tableware, etc…
Living room #1:
Living room/lounge #2:
The office…which strangely had no outlets, so I didn’t find very useful…unless I wanted to invite my minions over and shout at them across the table?
The master bedroom:
I’m definitely not fancy enough to need a dressing room complete with walk-in closet, but just in case you are…
The washroom. Biggest question I never figured out: why the need for a chair? In case someone wants to watch you in the jacuzzi tub (with great views of Jakarta) or while you’re on the throne?
Yup…this is mine (for one night). All mine!
After luxuriating a bit I was a bit tired, so decided to go to the attached Pacific Place Mall to find some caffeine. While attempting to locate Starbucks, I first came across a really odd sculpture display in the mall of smiling food…and then a restaurant oddly-named…”Fook Yew!”
It was super convenient being on top of the Pacific Place Mall, which is connected to the Ritz via an underground walkway with no need to go outside. It’s definitely a high end upscale luxury mall with super fancy brands, but also lots of restaurants and most importantly: Starbucks!
Adequately caffeinated, but still super tired, I headed back to my room for the evening, in hopes I would have enough energy the next day to enjoy Jakarta before heading to the airport.
Back to my room, and noticed something I’d overlooked before. Looks like President Obama left something behind…I knew it! LOLZ
After a bit of rest, I decided to head down to the executive lounge and see what “Happy Hour” was all about.
So yes, it was a regular happy hour with free-flowing drinks, but also a buffet so large you could easily make a meal out of it. I wasn’t terribly hungry still from the flight, so light snacks was all I wanted…and they were absolutely delicious.
On top of that, the service was absolutely stellar. I don’t know how they do it, but all the staff knew my name the moment I walked in (do they take pictures at check-in? This was a different crew…) and never once was I not addressed by it. Not that this is a big deal to me, I was just really impressed by all the little details. It was a wonderful and relaxing evening especially given I was too tired and jetlagged to really adventure much.
After a great night’s sleep, it was back to the lounge for a light breakfast:
I say light breakfast, because you could easily have stuffed yourself with made to order hot items and a huge expansive buffet as well. You really would never need to leave the hotel if you didn’t want to. Breakfast was provided, morning tea, full lunch service, afternoon tea, and evening cocktails and a buffet. It was basically an all-inclusive hotel, and probably the single best hotel experience I’ve ever had….and I’d even be saying that without the generous upgrade.
(Oh, and in case you were wondering, the AC was also wonderful in my room(s). All five AC units worked wonderfully – LOL)
While the choice of like 12 different teas at breakfast was nice, you know where I headed for my predictable caffeine fix in the attached mall. Complete with Christmas decorations in early November. Ugh.
Decided to do a little shopping after coffee, and picked up a couple of awesome batik shirts for myself.
After that, I decided to ride Jakarta’s relatively-new subway system and find myself somewhere authentic and local for lunch. An Indonesian co-worker told me one of her favourite places, and since I’m a subway geek I rode it to the nearest stop before taking a Grab the last mile or so. The subway is only about a three minute walk from the Pacific Place mall, so not terrible even in the extreme heat and humidity.
I exited near the Selamat Datang monument, so had to grab a picture to prove I was in Jakarta:
Lunch was at Gado Gado Cemara, which my coworker had told me to visit when I told her I liked gado gado. The Grab driver was hysterical – when he saw my destination he just kept saying “salad – you get salad!” – which I only later learned that gado gado is bahasa for salad.
The menu looked promising:
Although the inside was spartan, it was 100% locals and packed, which was a great sign. (This picture taken after everyone but me left – every seat was taken when I arrived):
Amazing and delicious gado gado and chicken satay. The perfect “local” lunch and a great experience of wandering into a neighbourhood where there wasn’t a single westerner or tourist, the staff spoke not a word of English, and the food was delicious. Given it was crowded I figured it was “safe” but we would see in 24 hours….oh, and all this was maybe $4.
Full and happy, I grabbed a Grab back to the Ritz to wind down, cool down, and shower for a couple hours before heading back to the airport. I was really happy with how much I did in such a limited time given the jetlag, and excited for the next stop: KL!
After a whole 24 hours at home (which, let’s be honest, was mostly laundry and taking care of errands I could only do at home) it was time to head back to Dulles and fly to India. The good part is: I woke up at like 05:00 thanks to my body still being on Africa time, so in theory the jetlag wouldn’t be too bad and despite my flight being at 5pm I should be able to sleep on it…right?
Thanks to CLEAR security was a breeze, and soon I was in the United lounge. I find it extremely insulting that Newark, Houston, LA, Chicago all have Polaris Lounges, and at Dulles if you buy a C fare you get this. I get the construction delays are somewhat out of United’s hands, but couldn’t they at least give a few coupons for premium drinks? I know DC has a ton of government clients so maybe they take the market for granted, but come on…this just says “we don’t care.”
Off to the gate which fortunately was right next to the lounge, and boarding right on time.
United flight 106 Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD) to Munich, Germany (MUC) Depart 17:25, Arrive: 07:40 next day, flight time: 8:15 Boeing 777-200, Registration N220UA, Manufactured 2001, Seat 1K Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 110,475 Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,803,063
I was actually looking forward to this flight, because it might be my last chance to fly in the old Global First seats. Everything else could be mediocre about this flight (and pretty much was) but having the old Global First seats made it a huge treat!
Tonight’s dinner options – a whole menu of meh.
The best thing about early evening departures? Great twilight lighting at Dulles for planespotting out the windows.
After takeoff, the usual – mixed nuts that were over-warmed and soggy and a glass of Château l’Oscar 2019:
I can’t decide if the Polaris cart covering says fancy or “corporate cafeteria” to me. I remember the first few months of Polaris when it really seemed United wanted to make an effort to step up the “class” of its offering. I do wonder what killed this: the extra (maybe?) $1,000 per flight total it cost them, or the realization that none of their customers actually choose them over competition based on food so why bother.
That said, the duck appetizer is actually decent (way better than the shrimp!) although the salad was wilted and had lots of brown spots tonight. Mostly inedible.
The salmon, on the other hand, was actually really tasty and I’d be happy to order it again. I know it’s a super minor nitpick, but could we please have reusable/nicer ramekins for sauce instead of environmentally-nasty disposable foil ones? For an airline that brags about “EcoSkies” this is pretty disappointing.
The usual cheese. We’re not on Lufthansa anymore.
Today’s sundae choice was caramel which was actually sort of watery, and four cherries. Hmmmmm.
I actually love the little mini apple pies, however. Temperature gauge in the background confirms it’s a nice and comfy temp on top of the comfy Global First seats.
Landed a bit early in Munich, and since I had a pretty long layover I decided I’d exit immigration, walk around a bit, enjoy the cool air, and stretch my legs a bit. Got a few questions from the immigration officer about why I was leaving on a five hour connection, but was proud that I managed the exchange in German without him switching back to English. Small victories!
Love this Lufthansa ad outside the arrivals area:
After enjoying a cool, brisk walk and some Starbucks (of course) it was off to the Lufthansa First Lounge to enjoy a bit of brunch and a shower. I decided to eat first since I was having a difficult time cooling off (jetlag gets my core temp up every time) so first it was brunch time. Opted for a glass of orange juice out on the outdoor terrace as I cooled down, and then some eggs benny followed by more espresso and a glass of rosé. Also stopped back with my duck after a shower for a pastry, because, hey….
Soon enough it was time to leave the lounge (and Schengen Area) which conveniently can all be done while exiting the lounge thanks to an immigration desk, and off to the gate to board my first Lufthansa A350!
Lufthansa flight 762 Munich, Germany (MUC) to Delhi, India (DEL) Depart 12:10, Arrive: 23:15, flight time: 7:35 Airbus A350-900 Registration D-AIXC, Manufactured 2017, Seat 3D Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 114,148 Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,806,736
First impressions were pretty much what I expected. I knew people weren’t happy with the A350, and it was easy to see why. Exactly like Lufthansa’s A330s, it was super crowded in business class, with the middle two seats feeling almost right on top of each other, and the two sides featuring climbover class. I need to make the case to United that since I was supposed to be on the EWR-DEL nonstop they should give me full Global Services credit for this C fare!
Cabin felt almost identical to the A330 on Lufthansa.
What’s for lunch….and pre-arrival dinner:
Today’s meal started off with a ramekin of almonds and a nice glass of wine.
I went with the chicken carpaccio for a starter which was pretty good, but could have used a bit more flavour as it was relatively bland.
The salad…felt more like something from a north american airline, as it had way too much iceberg lettuce in it!
More chicken as a main. Again, could have used a bit more flavour, but felt slightly healthier than the usual suspects? Overall, pretty forgettable.
All was forgotten, however, when dessert arrived. The blueberry and coconut cream dessert was outstanding!
Sadly, however, I was told “cheese OR dessert, you can’t have both” which was a first for me. No big deal, I’d already eaten more than enough, so I spent the rest of the flight catching up on work (I was behind on preparing for this trip since it was back-to-back with the previous one) and soon enough it was time for the arrival meal.
Dinner was a choice of “meat” or “asian vegetarian” and I asked for the meat option, which was supposed to be “andhra mutton roast” with avial (not sure what that is), coconut pulao, savory lamb stew with chili, and some other things. Pretty sure that’s not what I got, but since I also don’t know what “gobi mirch masala, dal hara moong, palak pulao” is, maybe I did? I didn’t see anything “meaty” and it was tasty, so really didn’t matter!
Overall, the flight was exactly what I expected from Lufthansa. A sadly disappointing hard product on the A350, good crew who were more or less as expected, and reasonably tasty food. Nothing special, but I can imagine if you don’t get to travel often – or fly business often – it’s a pretty nice experience!
Now, off to work in India for a few days so I’ll share just a few photos from the time there…and then it’s time to fly home and finally be done with almost seven weeks of back to back travel with less than five nights at home!
My second full week in Bern was even hotter than the first. The first was tolerable most of the time with temps in the high 20s, but the second week was full on 30-35 every day. Makes being in a non-airconditioned office super difficult, but we survived the week!
The people of Bern have dealing with the heat figured out, however. It seemed in the evening seeming the whole town would descend on one of the outdoor pools connected to the Aare River via swimways:
Despite the heat, I kept up with my runs a few nights a week as the sun was setting. The bears in the bear park at least knew how to stay cool-ish hiding in the shade:
Even more tightrope walkers out the second week, and they still weren’t falling in the river enough to stay cool. I’m seriously in awe of their balance!
Even more popular than the pool, however, was the ice cream shop across the street – Gelateria di Berna – which had a super long line every evening with people drying to beat the heat. At only five francs for a large cup, it’s one of the few good values in Switzerland!
I had decided since I had one day off on the weekend I would definitely try and take another trip, so had bought a daypass again on Monday (they’re usually cheaper the further out you buy them) and decided to decide as the weekend got closer and the weather got clearer what I’d do.
The weather looked pretty iffy, so I decided going into the mountains again would be pretty futile since I might not see much, but since the morning at least looked nice I decided to try the Gotthard Panoramic Express trip which starts with a boat ride from Lucern to Flüelen and then a panoramic train ride to Lugano. The idea would be to enjoy a few hours walking around Lugano and then head back.
Day started early, but not too early with a short train trip to Luzern/Lucerne where I would catch the boat across the lake to catch the train. It was a couple hours on the boat and it was absolutely gorgeous in Luzern so I had about an hour to walk around and see the wooden bridge that Luzern is famous for:
As the time for the boat departure approached it got more and more crowded until a couple hundred people were waiting for the boat. Ugh. Looked like it would be a crowded few hours.
Once on board, it took quite a long time wandering around to figure out all the compartments and decks on the boat, but I finally found two first class areas on the upper decks that were a little less crowded.
Then, about 20 minutes into the trip…well over half the passengers (looked like a tour group) got off. WTF? So a short 20 minute boat ride must be a “must do” and then on to the next attraction? I was glad I had a few hours to enjoy the beauty of the lake and really relax.
The first class deck even had table service with waiters, so I decided I might as well enjoy a nice lunch on the trip! I wish I could remember the name of this salad…it was with some local cheese, lots of vegetables, and also diced up strips of a local sausage. What’s not to love about a gorgeous lunch al fresco on a boat?! (I can say al fresco because this trip ends in Lugano in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland)
Gorgeous day and all smiles!
The water was so blue…and it was just really nice to be outside!
The last twenty minutes of the boat or so it was starting to cloud over, and fortunately the walk to the train was less than two minutes from the boat because it started to get a bit windy and sprinkle a little. Ugh!
The panoramic train was pretty much identical to the one the previous weekend, but there was one exception: the attendant on this train was absolutely wonderful and clearly loved his job. He said it was just a weekend fun job for him, but he clearly loved it – coming around to each passenger when there was something to see and telling them to look out for it!
One of the biggest highlights of the train trip is the Church at Wassen which you actually see three times from three different vantage points as the train climbs altitude in a series of spiralling tunnels inside the mountain.
Lots of fun little things on this train….branded chocolates, pre-stamped postcards that the attendant would send for you at the end of the trip, a branded pen…although this train may not have had the views of some of the other trains, the overall experience was amazing!
Nice spacious seating too – too bad it was absolutely pissing down rain outside most of the trip.
Arrived in Lugano right on time, and any thoughts I had of wandering the city and taking in a bit of Italian-Swiss culture were dashed by the absolute downpour outside. I waited it out for 30 minutes having an espresso at the train station (which thanks to Google Translate I managed to fake just enough Italian to order) and eventually gave up.
Fortunately, there was a direct train back to Zurich about an hour later so I decided to wait it out with some ok beer. The name that is – ok. Not the beer…which was also just…ok.
Hopped in the train back to Zurich, which is one of two main types of Intercity trains. One type is a double decker and seems to ply the main line from Geneva – Bern – Zurich and this type is single deck and seems to hold less people.
Grabbed a beer at the International Beer Bar in Zurich which has a great selection of craft beers before heading back to the station to go to Bern and call it a weekend. Was really pleased how much value I managed to get out of this daypass!
Got to Zurich Hauptbanhof a bit before my train so did a little bit of trainspotting while I waited to leave.
Finally, this is the style of the other main Intercity train, the double decker on the inside. All trains in Switzerland (except the panoramic ones which need reservations) are open seating, so on an empty train like this plenty of choices!
Back to Bern after a long and exhausting but rewarding day, and ready for another week of work!
After a whole 68 hours at home (well, closer to 65 if you count the travel time from and to the airport as well as waiting time) it was time to get on the road again. 18 days of vacation was a nice break, and slightly under three days at home was just enough to catch up on the essentials before heading out of town for more than three more weeks.
Unfortunately I had to book this trip rather late and wasn’t able to take either the Geneva or Zurich nonstops out of Dulles, so had to “settle” for Air Canada out of DCA which meant leaving home about two hours earlier. Every hour matters when you only have three days at home in six weeks!
I always forget how convenient DCA is. I can be there by Uber in about 12 minutes if nothing goes wrong, through CLEAR in less than five minutes from the time I step out of the Uber, so in theory it would be possible to leave home about 50 minutes pre-flight and still be there before boarding starts.
I chickened out a bit (and I was packed and ready) so left about two hours before the flight which left me plenty of time to grab a real lunch at DCA. I’m a pretty big fan of the restaurant in Terminal A at DCA, so on the occasion I do fly Air Canada I try and stop by for what passes as a Cholesterol Madame…I mean Croque Madame…and a beer. I mean, even the iPad told me soda was the wrong thing to drink when flying!
I love Terminal A at DCA. It’s incredibly nostalgic for me. Back in the old days when I used to nonrev during university Northwest flew out of Terminal A and I was there multiple times most months headed home…or to other exotic locales. I even remember when Northwest did their giant expansion at DCA (whose slots did they buy again?) and suddenly they were flying to Hartford, Boston, LaGuardia, and if I remember right some places in Florida as well. Of course, I tried as often as possible to take these odd connections as opposed to the nonstops to Minneapolis!
The terminal has modernized slightly with a big restaurant in the waiting space, and has certainly changed with the introduction of Spirit and Southwest to the terminal as well.
Got to the gate right as the door was opening to let incoming passengers off, so I was right on time to be the first to board…essential when you’re in Seat 1A as you have no underseat storage space. You do have more legroom and nobody reclining into you, however, so it’s still my seat of choice whenever possible as someone who’s 6’4.
Air Canada flight 7615 op. by Sky Regional Washington, DC, National (DCA) to Toronto, Pearson (YYZ) Depart 12:45, Arrive: 14:12, flight time: 1:27 Embraer ERJ-175, Registration C-FUJA, Manufactured 2009, Seat 1A Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 78,934 Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,771,522
One of my favourite parts of DCA is that 90% of the time you take off to the north on runway 1 and do a sharp bank to the left right after takeoff which affords those in A seats great views of the Pentagon.
This is always a snack flight, and I definitely didn’t need it after the cholesterol bomb at the airport, but I’m a sucker for a deli plate…especially when there’s pickles!
Uneventful flight…until the last minute. So, seriously, what is it about YYZ? Today we had a go around, and from the picture below you can see why. There was still a plane on the taxiway under us! Seriously!
I ask “why YYZ” because I’ve had probably 10 go-arounds or other unusual experiences in-flight (yes, I know that’s not a lot given how many I fly) and at least half have been at YYZ. This was my third go-around at YYZ, which is half of the total go-arounds I can remember.
I also remember an incident climbing out of YYZ on a US Scareways CRJ-200 years ago when we hear a loud BANG and the plane pitched pretty violently to the right. It felt like we were at a 45 degree angle (was probably a bit less) and the captain – very professionally and calmly – as soon as he’d fixed the situation came on and told us what had happened: ATC hadn’t spaced us far enough behind a 747 on takeoff, and we hit its wake at around FL20 which is what caused the bang…who knew wake could be that strong?
Right, well, this was a pretty short go around as the map above shows, and soon we were on the ground and I was through the transit area (basically scan your passport at a kiosk and good to go back to the transit/departures international area) and time to enjoy a couple hours in the Air Canada Signature Suites.
I still really like this lounge, though I can’t help but feel it’s much more crowded these days and the food offerings from the buffet are quite a bit poorer in quality. I know there’s a dining menu, but since I planned to eat on the plane I just wanted to drink and nibble.
The staff, however, were fantastic as always and I enjoyed a couple of glasses of rosé champagne and a cocktail called the “J Class.”
Boarding was absolutely mayhem, as it always is between 5-6pm at Pearson. The departures area is simply not large enough to handle around 10 widebodies going out full all at once, and it took me a few times, but I’ve finally realized generally you should just go up to the podium and ask where they want business class to board from.
Air Canada flight 878 Toronto, Pearson (YYZ) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) Depart 18:05, Arrive: 7:40 next day, flight time: 7:35 Boeing 777-300ER, Registration C-FIVQ, Manufactured 2008, Seat 7K Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 82,979 Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,775,567
I do love the Air Canada business class seat. Private in that you have lots of space to yourself and nobody next to you at the window, and even more private in row 7 (my first choice after row 1) because nobody is looking at the back of your head. (Us tall people worry about such things sometimes.)
Lots of big poofy clouds on takeoff. For years, I was never much of a window person, but lately I’ve really enjoyed watching the cloud formations and sunsets.
Warm nuts (too warm, mushy a la United), and some red whine and noisy water to start things off. Short flight today, barely 6.5 hours to Zurich! I wasn’t going to be getting much sleep!
Sigh, shrimp starter. I hadn’t been paying attention, so I took it for the greens (which I dumped on the salad and enjoyed), and a bit of garlic bread. Seriously, why does everyone think a few cold shrimp are a nice starter these days? At least Air Canada serves four while United cheaply serves only two.
Decided to go with the chicken pesto main since it sounded healthier than the beef. The chicken was a really weird rubbery consistency, but seemed to be completely cooked so I risked it. Tasted ok, the texture was just odd. I haven’t ordered chicken on planes much lately…but lately feel like the fish is often the best option – beating out overcooked beef and rubbery chicken.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a huge fan of Air Canada’s cheese course, because it’s just boring. Today was no exception. Tasty enough, yes, but in-flight when things lose a bit of their flavours something bolder than cheddar and mozzarella would be nice.
All was forgiven, however, when the brown sugar tart was served. OMG delicious…
I did manage about three hours of sleep before landing, but I’m not sure many others did since the windows were all thrown open and breakfast served about 90 minutes before landing. This isn’t a comment on the crew, more on the other passengers who already seemed to be up.
Not a problem, however, since I have a soft spot for the Air Canada omelet with that weird cream cheese sauce they serve it with. Plus, they always serve a really fresh and ripe fruit plate which is delicious.
I used the wifi during breakfast to book my onward train, as pre-booking in Switzerland can save you as much as 75%. Last minute to Bern is often nearly 90 francs, but I found if a took a train two hours after landing I could get it for 29.90 francs.
I decided I could enjoy some coffee at the airport even if the immigration line was long and save over $60, so it was an easy decision. Landing was nice and smooth, zero line at immigration, and it was coffee time before heading to Bern for three weeks!
So, right, off the plane in Singapore after back to back flights and straight for a walk around the airport. Singapore is cool because T1, T2, and T3 are all connected, but if you have a long way to go and don’t feel like walking you can take the train between terminals.
After back to back flights I definitely needed the walk, so walked for about 45 minutes around the terminals to stretch my legs before heading to the lounge. Fortunately, I had done my research online before visiting, and knew that there was no dedicated first class lounge in Singapore for Qantas. It will be opening later this year, but for now I would have to share with the masses in business class. Oh the horrors!
Now, that said, if you have to spend time in a business class lounge, a Qantas lounge is an excellent place to do it. I was feeling the need for a brief detox at this point after two flights of back to back champagne-fuelled nonsense, so went with the coke light along with a little bit of curry and some dragonfruit.
After a quick snack, I felt like I should walk a bit more, so went out for another 30 minute or so stroll around the terminal before coming back for a shower. Fortunately, the Qantas showers were a much more reasonable temperature than the horrendous Emirates ones, and I actually would be heading to my Qantas flight feeling a bit fresher.
…which was definitely a good thing, because I think my Qantas flight was boarding from Malaysia the walk to the gate was so far! Oh well, it was good to get more of a stretch in before boarding!
Qantas flight 2 Singapore (SIN) to Sydney, Australia (SYD) Depart 19:30, Arrive: 05:10 next day, flight time: 7:40 Airbus A380-800, Registration VH-OQK, Manufactured 2011, Seat 03A Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 59,026 Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,751,614
The signs in the boarding area weren’t clear, and I hadn’t researched, so I followed the jetbridge to the upper deck…only to discover the saddest first class seats I’d ever seen in the front of the plane. Fortunately, it was just a momentary confusion and I was able to trudge back downstairs where I found a seat much more to my liking!
This definitely takes the cake as the most unique first class seat I’ve ever been on. Faces forward for takeoff and landing, but then you can swivel the chair about 45 degrees to the light so it lines up with the monitor and foot rest. Definitely unusual, but I really enjoyed the spaciousness of it!
Nothing says welcome aboard quite like a glass of Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 2004. This is actually one of my favourite champagnes, and I know I’ve said it before but it’s always nice to see airlines taking a “risk” in first class and deviating from the common offerings of Dom Perignon or Krug.
After takeoff, I must feign confusion. I remember the amuse bouche of a caviar tart…but I have no idea what this glass of what appears to be white wine is. Maybe it’s the angle of the pic, but I’m certain I would have been enjoying champagne at this point!
So what’s to eat? That’s a good question, because I also don’t have a picture of the menu! I know I was exhausted on this flight, but it’s very not like me to forget to take so many pictures. At least you can see what’s to drink!
Note that despite serving the Sir Winston during departure, they actually had Veuve Cliquot La Grande Dame during the flight. That much I remembered and actually added in my trip notes!
Probably one of the largest tables I’ve ever seen, even in first class! I do remember switching to the rather nice syrah for the main event.
Delicious appetizer, if I remember right it was a thai style spicy shredded chicken salad.
After all the eating the past few days I decided to go with the lighter fish option, which was absolutely outstanding. I’ve been ordering fish a lot more lately on flights, and so far have had mostly excellent luck with it!
Of course, I couldn’t skip the cheese. It pales in comparison to Emirates’ or Lufthansa’s offerings, but was a reasonably solid showing.
The desert, however, was a lemon tart that was out of this world. If I wasn’t so stuffed from all the flights I might have shamelessly asked if there were more, but my waistline thanks me. Plus, despite all the time zone confusion I was feeling pretty tired so decided to chance a bit of sleep.
I must have been exhausted, because I had absolutely no trouble passing out for a solid four hour nap. At this point, after two consecutive redeyes, my body had no idea what time it was anyways, so I was definitely in “nap when you can” mode.
Woke up with just enough time for a light breakfast, and enjoyed some muesli and a tasty cinnamon roll. Before anyone judges me, yes, that’s Coke Light and not red wine with breakfast. Unfortunately, the strawberries with the fruit were seriously underripe, but other than that it was the perfect light breakfast right before landing.
…and just like that it was 5am, and we were arriving into Sydney. Fortunately no queues at immigration at this hour, and had no trouble catching an airport express train straight to my hotel.
The stop was just about a three minute walk from the hotel, and despite showing up at 6am they were ready for me, and let me check in super early. Another solid four hour nap, and around 11am I was ready to head out and make the most of my day in Sydney!
Up relatively early the following morning to head out to JFK. For once, I really wasn’t complaining about being up early, because the alternative to Europe is always to take a redeye flight, so if I can get up a bit early and take a daytime flight I definitely always come out ahead with more hours of quality sleep!
Bit of coffee, and then because it was only estimated to take 15-30 minutes more than an Uber (and because this trip was kind of all about being a transit geek) I opted to take the subway to JFK. Figuring out how the cards worked was easy, no trouble buying with credit card, and then it was on the A train out towards JFK!
Unfortunately, not only was there some drama with the E train with it not running out towards JFK, but when I got 5o Howard Beach the signs alerted me that there was a full shutdown of the AirTrain to JFK and I would have to wait for a shuttle bus. Ahhhhh, at least I’m getting the full New York transit experience!
On the positive side, the bus was timely, and being packed with New Yorkers cranky about this unexpected detour I got the full experience. So, hey, could have been much, much worse.
Made my way to the terminal and Norwegian Check-in, where drama awaited me. There was no way there were going to let me carry my rollerboard and laptop bag on, claiming they were BOTH above the carryon weight limit for premier…not to mention that combined they were double the weight limit. Seriously? Plus the flight was sold out, so I did not have the option to even pay to check the rollerboard.
Full-world-traveler mode enabled, after seeing the check-in person was going nowhere, I asked for the manager, and when they were unyielding I asked for the airport operations manager for Norwegian.
The person eventually showed up, I explained the situation, pointed out the lack of clarity on their website, pointed out the absurdity that 20kg of bags couldn’t be brought on by someone in premier…and may have embellished a bit with some experienced learnt from dealing with international bureaucrats…and eventually with a nod and wink I was sent on my way. Experience pays! 😉 Yes, it was a bit of a DYKWIA moment, but seriously, if as an experienced traveler I had this much drama….I can’t believe how the “normal” traveler deals with these airlines!
Plus…once through security I was in Pride Country!
Thanks to being on Norwegian I had no lounge access, but thanks to Priority Pass I had the option of the Korean Air Lounge (miserable) or trying the Air France Lounge. Air France lounges are usually pleasant and have respectable beverages, so off I went.
After chilling and catching up on a bit of work, it was off to the gate to see what surprises Norwegian would hold for me. Boarding was a complete mess, with gate agents who acted like they’d never seen an airplane before, but eventually we were all allowed to board and spared from further misery from the airport known as JFK.
Norwegian flight 7014, Operated by Evelop! New York, JFK (JFK) to London, Gatwick (LGW) Depart 12:45, Arrive: 00:45 next day, flight time: 7:00 Airbus A330-300, Registration EC-NBP, Manufactured 2013, Seat 15D Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 47,809 Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,740,937
First impressions on boarding were positive. Based on the few online reviews I could find, I expected the Evelop! crew operating this flight for Norwegian to speak very little English and be cold, but this crew was quite chatty and friendly, and spoke excellent English. They were very welcoming, and the seats on this old Singapore Air bird were still quite nice…not to mention that the one empty seat on the entire plane was next to me! Clearly living a charmed life!
The safety demo was odd to say the least, with strange animated characters whose expressions were just plain weird. Idk if this is a “here, let me angrily look at your lap” from the child or a creepy guy being “ooh!” Just…awkward and uncomfortable!
Shortly after takeoff we were offered “headphones” (term used loosely, they were like 99 cent bargain bin special – the case was probably worth more) and beverages. I went with the red wine, which was totally undrinkable. I asked to see the bottle, and the flight attendant awkwardly said she “could not” show me. Uh, ok?
Meal was served, option of vegetarian or meat, but it was reasonably tasty!
After eating it was nap time, and other than not being perfectly lay-flat, the seat was nice and comfortable for a snooze. Hey, it definitely beats the 2-3-2 configuration Norwegian has on their own 787s! In this case, the plane swap was a definite win!
About 90 minutes before landing at Gatwick, we were offered a second boxed meal. Again, nothing super fancy, but the charcuterie plate with fruit was more than enough on such a short flight, and overall I had a really positive impression from Norwegian. No, it’s not a luxury experience, but it’s perfectly comfortable and for the price paid I was very happy with my decision!
Immigration at Gatwick was a breeze thanks to the e-Gates for US passports, and I was outside and waiting on my Uber in no time. At this hour, I’d already factored the price of transit into London into the cost of the ticket, so wasn’t too shocked when I saw it was going to be $100+ to get to my hotel. It’s all about managing expectations!
More on the hotel in the next post, as well as overnight in London before heading to Paris via EuroStar!
One of my earliest memories of wanting to travel and explore the world was being fascinated with all the currencies of the world. Growing up in a smallish town in the American midwest we saw lots of Canadian currency and especially Canadian coins…and that was exotic.
I remember then seeing Japanese coins – some with the centre hollowed out, and thinking they were the coolest thing ever. I think when the Euro was launched I was more sad for the disappearance of national currencies than I was when the Schengen Zone meant the virtual disappearance of individual passport stamps (still unique for each country, but only barely so.)
So, once I started traveling, I took a particular interest in the finance and currency aspect – not just because my undergraduate degree was in international finance (maybe a question of which was the causal factor for which) and learning to manage foreign exchange on my trips in the most expeditious and beneficial way.
My earliest trip was to the Soviet Union, and I remember carrying hundreds of dollars in travelers checks, and having to figure out how to exchange them at official Soviet exchange bureaus. For my first few trips, mainly to Europe, travelers checks were still the way to go (do they even still exist?!) but gradually, over time, I’ve come up with a list of tips and tricks that may help other travelers get the best from your foreign exchange experience. So, here are my six tips!
Tip 1: Never use airport exchange booths to get foreign currency
So, I know it’s tempting. You’re at the airport, wondering how you’re going to get cash to hit the ground running when you arrive in a foreign country. You see a both across from the gate where you can exchange currency, and decide this will help you be more prepared when you land.
The problem? They’re going to charge you 5-20% for the service, often in the form of a commission of 1-3% plus a really terrible exchange rate called the buy/sell rate which can have a gap of 5-15% – that’s profit that goes straight to the exchange operator!
Ok, so maybe it’s just better in advance to go to your local bank and withdraw some foreign currency. While this is often a better strategy, it’s still likely to set you back a minimum of 5-10% to do it this way.
So what’s the answer? Use your ATM/debit card in an cash machine upon arrival. 98% of the foreign airports I’ve arrived at have ATMs and work with my card. The benefit of this is that you get the exact rate being published, sometimes with a small up-charge from your bank. A tip for Americans: use a credit union! Most credit unions charge only 1-2% at most for foreign ATM withdrawals. Does’t 1-2% sound much better than 5-20%?
There’s one time I’ve used my bank in advance, and that was to get Australian Dollars for a trip to Tuvalu where I wouldn’t pass through Australia first. Why? Because there’s not a single ATM on Tuvalu, and banks aren’t great about exchanging foreign currency.
Other places you may consider getting currency in advance are some African countries where the ATMs may not work on arrival. In these countries it’s definitely best to bring some cash with you in advance, which leads me to the next tip…
Tip 2: Always carry a small stash of small US Dollar and Euro bills
Why US Dollars and Euros? Because there’s pretty much no country on this blue marble of ours where you can’t exchange them…and often if you’re desperate you can just spend them outright.
Especially in Africa, almost everyone involved in any sort of commerce (think taxi drivers on arrival) know the exchange rate of their currency to the Dollar and Euro, and will almost always accept them if you get in a bind.
Now, I’m not advocating being that ugly tourist who thinks you can spend US Dollars and Euros in every country, but when you get in a bit of a bind because the ATM doesn’t work on arrival…it’s a great back-up plan!
Why US Dollars AND Euros? Because some places like one much more than the other. In Cuba, you’ll get a terrible exchange rate for Dollars, but a much better one for Europe. Same with the majority of Africa.
If you’re headed to the South Pacific, it’s not a bad plan to have some Australian Dollars as well – they’re often even easier to exchange than US Dollars.
Remember: small notes are important! Lots of $1 and $5 bills and €5 and €10 euro notes will get you out of lots of binds. New/crisp notes preferred! However, if you have major expenses (like paying tour operators) they may prefer large notes…ALWAYS make sure these are the latest edition of the bill – especially for US$100 bills!
Tip 3: Use a credit card whenever you can
When you’re spending cash abroad, the trick is having the right amount so you don’t get killed on the exchange rate in both directions. You can’t redeposit foreign currency in the ATM, so you’ll have to use a less advantageous method to get it back to a more usable currency…meaning the 5-20% hit we talked about above.
You can avoid all this by taking out minimal cash for smaller transactions and using your credit card for anything substantial. Credit cards almost always get the exact market rate, costing you nothing in foreign exchange fees!
In the US, there are a ton of credit cards that have zero foreign exchange fee, meaning you get the exact market rate on every transaction. Some US credit cards still have fees of 1-3% on foreign charges, but that’s still better than taking out cash most of the time. Try to get a card with no fee and you’ll have the best possible world. My personal favourites are the Chase Sapphire Reserve and American Express Platinum Card. (I receive no commission from these links.)
Tip 4: Use the last of your currency towards your hotel bill
This is one of my personal favourite tips, and one that few people seem to practice. So ok, you got stuck with a bit more cash than you thought you’d need, and it looks like you’ll take a big hit converting it back to your home currency.
First, figure out how much you need to get you to your transport, be it the airport, train station (don’t forget to leave some for snacks!), or even a bus. Then, figure out if you want to save some notes as souvenirs (so you can make cool collages like in this post) and then…figure out what’s left.
When you check out of your hotel, tell them you want to pay part in cash (getting rid of your leftover so you don’t pay a fee on it) and then pay the rest with credit card. You’ve just used up your excess currency at no additional cost to you while still leaving just enough for transport out and souvenirs! Wait…transport out?!
Tip 5: Use ride-sharing apps like Uber and Careem for local transportation
Ok, so I know this one is a little controversial. Some people think these big companies are putting the little guy out of business and taking advantage of drivers. Not looking for a philosophical debate, but these apps do have a lot of advantages in saving you money.
First, as mentioned above, since they’re linked to your credit card they’re a great way to get to the airport/bus/train without having to save too much foreign currency to ensure you can cover your ride. Just open the app, and your ride out of the country is covered!
It’s also great for local transport, because not using cash minimizes the chance taxi drivers will take advantage of you – either through the “so sorry, no change” scam or trying to slip you counterfeit bills as change. Taxis are notorious for taking advantage of confused visitors, so Uber helps ensure you have a driver who’s vetted for safety…and a dispute mechanism should something go wrong!
They’re also great when you first arrive the country, since there’s no need to get cash in advance to pay your taxi from the airport. You can just call the ride share with the app and focus on finding a cash machine to get cash when you get to your lodging.
Tip 6: Familiarize yourself with the currency in advance
Yeah, I know this sounds super obvious, but you’d be amazed how many times I’ve arrived somewhere and seen foreign visitors trying to figure out the currency situation. A few of my favourite examples:
Zimbabwe is notoriously tricky. In the past, the hardest part was figuring out if prices were in the billions or trillions of dollars. Now, it’s managing the tricky balance between using US Dollars and Zimbabwe Bond Notes (which are virtually useless).
This brings me to the point of black market/unofficial exchange rates. When you draw down money from the ATM like I suggested above you’ll only get the official exchange rate. There are some countries where the rate on the black market is significantly better, meaning if you exchange cash on the street you’ll get a much better rate than you “officially” get.
Now, I’m not (necessarily) advocating this: it’s usually the case because it’s illegal to do, and doing so has the potential to get you in a lot of trouble or even arrested. My main point here is to note than in some places you’ll get 10-20% more exchanging on the street or even 100%+ more in some situations. The difference, however, is often tied to the risk of doing so, so be very aware. My main point here is to highlight that these black market / unofficial / parallel exchange rates do exist and you should be aware.
Other things to be aware of? Countries who don’t have their own currency and use the currency of another country – usually US Dollars (Ecuador, Panama), Euros (Kosovo), or Australian Dollars (Tuvalu).
Also: some countries have runaway inflation, so keep up to date on the current rates to avoid getting cheated. I like xe.com for checking live rates – I find them extremely accurate and a great source of up-to-date information.
So those are six of my favourite tips for saving a bit of money when traveling and being smart managing your foreign exchange. Any tips that I missed that you’ve found really helpful?
One of the greatest things about travel is getting yourself into unfamiliar and new situations and the thrill you feel when you overcome challenges and discover new experiences. Getting out there, pushing yourself, and going beyond your comfort zone can be a fantastic experience, but it’s not without risks.
Novice international travellers often ask me the same questions when I’m going somewhere they’ve heard about on the news: “aren’t you afraid to go there?” or maybe “I heard they don’t like us there.” Sometimes it’s “I would never go there, it’s too dangerous.” – Statements often based on little more than what they’ve seen on the tv.
Those of us who’ve visited places known/thought to be a bit less safe and secure know they can often be some of the most rewarding travel experiences, but only if you’ve done your proper research! That isn’t to say that you should be afraid and not go to these places, but to do so without being properly prepared would be foolish.
I made it to every country without having a single major security incident (well, except the local “bad guys” who torched a bunch of police cars in Pakistan to block the highway…) but a few incidents have happened in the last year which highlighted to me that maybe I’ve let my guard down a little too much, and not followed my own advice.
This, combined with a friend recently going missing in a country with serious security concerns made me think this would be a good time to remind readers of some good tips you should always keep in mind when traveling, especially to less safe and secure places.
Tip 1: Always tell someone where you’re going
I mean this seems obvious, right? Even when you run to the store to pick up some milk you usually tell your partner, kids, etc. that you’re going to the store. But it’s surprising how easily we forget this one when we’re traveling.
Especially those of us who are single and not always great at “planning” our trips forget to let someone know where exactly we’re going. Maybe it’s because we think they’ll think we’re bragging, or maybe we think they won’t know where it is so won’t be interested anyways, or maybe we just don’t stop to think.
Simply letting someone know where you’ll be going (country, cities, hotels, sites, etc.) can come in really handy if you go missing and need to be tracked down. Knowing is half the battle…
Tip 2: Make sure your contact knows when to expect you back
Sort of the obvious follow up to the first tip, but it’s important that your contact person know not only where you’re going, but when they can expect you back. Nobody wants to be alerting the police, government, family and friends until they’re relatively certain that something is up.
This applies not to just the trip (“I’m going to Afghanistan for a week”) but also to riskier parts of the trip. Maybe the capital is secure, but you’re taking a trip out to the countryside to see something? Tell someone what time you expect to be back – make sure to account for inevitable delays in some countries when doing this. “Should be back in 4-6 hours, but could be 12 with traffic so wouldn’t worry until then.”
It would also be helpful to tell them who to call and when. This is something I should have done recently traveling in a border region where I was detained for nearly 12 hours. Fortunately, they let me keep my phone and I did send messages to people….but had they taken my phone…
Tip 3: Travel with a trusted guide
I’ve lost count how many times I’ve showed up somewhere, unable to find a guide in advance, and trusted who the hotel found for me. High-end hotels with international clientel are usually pretty good sources for trustworthy guides, but there’s no guarantee.
Better still, talk to your friends who’ve been where you’re considering going. Ask who they used for a guide. Did they trust them? Did they feel the person was safe and had a good understanding of the local situation? If they were driving, how was the driving? It’s a luxury, but was the car in good repair? (Or reasonable repair depending on destination…)
…and when you get back, share! There’s nothing like first-hand experience to know who you should trust in less secure places, and we owe it to each other to share our experiences. One small caveat: many of these guides are barely eking out a living in these places. Make sure to step back and look at the situation rationally before trashing a guide online.
Tip 4: Leave contact information – hotels, cell, etc
So, let’s assume something does go wrong. You don’t come back when you said you would. Nobody could get ahold of you. You’re not responding on social media. What now?
In the case of my friend who recently went missing, the biggest challenge has been not knowing who to contact. If we had the phone number of their guide or driver, that would be an amazing place to start. Not using a guide or driver? Share the phone number for the hotels where you plan to be.
Maybe you’ve booked a tour? Share the phone number for the tour company with someone back home. The point is pretty simple: in the off chance that something does go wrong, knowing not just where and when you were but also how to get in touch with someone who may be able to help you is priceless.
Also: it doesn’t hurt to register in advance with your country’s Foreign Office / State Department / etc. Letting them know where you are is important if things go south fast: these are the people you’ll likely rely on for evacuation if things get bad quickly, so make sure they can reach you!
Tip 5: Split up your finances
Somehow, I made it to every country without a financial incident worse than getting cheated out of $5 or so by a taxi driver in the days before Uber seemed to be everywhere. 196 countries, and never had any money lost or stolen.
That all changed in an instant last year when I went out for a run in Stockholm, stopped for coffee afterwards, and somewhere between the coffeeshop and hotel I lost my wallet.
The streets were pretty empty, so I’m pretty positive it fell out of my running shorts (maybe at the coffeeshop, maybe walking) as opposed to being pickpocketed, but the end result was the same: I had no money, no credit cards, no anything.
Fortunately, I was at a big work conference, and coworkers were able to spot me cash for a few days, and AmEx was then able to wire me lots of cash to pay my bills before leaving. Had I been traveling alone, who knows what I would have done? I guess I could still have hunkered down hungry until AmEx got me some cash, but it would have been much less comfortable.
So, do yourself a favour: leave some cash and a couple of credit cards in your hotel safe. That way, if things do go missing, you at least have some backup. This is especially important if you’re going to be going to busy or crowded places like a market or public transit where pickpockets like to operate.
This is also helpful if you’re crossing rural areas where opportunistic “checkpoints” operate and try and shake you down. They may find some of your cash and cards, but if you split it up your chances of leaving with at least some of it are much better.
Tip 6: Check your social media
This is one I never really thought much about until recently, and I suspect you’ve probably not thought too much about it either unless it’s happened to you.
However, now that the US and some other countries have begun requiring visa applicants to list their social media accounts on visa applications you should probably have a look at your social media and see what’s on there that might get you declined. You don’t even have to have “done” something wrong to run afoul of this one – it’s all about perception.
In my case, I was entering a sensitive region and when the authorities stopped us at the border they asked us to have a seat for a while. Turns out, what was going on out of sight was a combing of my social media accounts and what they found they didn’t like. No, I’m not a journalist, spy, or other sort of troublemaker, but when they find out you’ve done graduate research in “sanctions theory” …well…if you’re a country under sanctions you might decide you don’t want this person visiting! Makes no difference I’ve never worked in this area professionally, it’s all about perception.
So, do yourself a favour if you travel a lot: have a look at your social media and have a good think how it might appear to others. This will also be helpful advice if you’re applying for jobs…
Tip 7: The women, children, and old people rule
I’ve heard this one quite a lot, but whenever I share it with even well-traveled friends I’m amazed how many of them haven’t heard it.
The reason it’s called the “woman, children, and old people rule” is really quite simple. If you’re in a location known to have security issues, and something doesn’t feel quite right, have a look around.
Do you see women in the streets? Children? How about old people and senior citizens? They’re usually the first to disappear from the streets when security goes south: partly because they’ve seen enough to know when to get out of the way, and partly because these are populations who know well enough to shelter when there’s possible violence brewing.
The opposite, however, does not hold true. Just because you see women, children, and old people in the street is no guarantee of safety. However, if you don’t see them, but you see plenty of what are known as “fighting-aged males” – getting the hell out of there is often good advice.
Tip 8: Take primary responsibility for your own safety and security
Fortunately, this might be the only one that gets easier the longer you’ve been traveling, but you have primary responsibility for your own safety and security: don’t assume it’s someone else’s job to take care of you!
The reason I say this is the one that might get easier is that one of the biggest mistakes people make in this regard is getting intoxicated and having a little too much fun. Sure, this is a great way to let you relax and meet new people, but it’s also a way to lower inhibitions and make you much more inclined to taking risks…or in an extreme case, end up unconscious and the victim of crime or violence.
This also goes hand in hand with taking responsibility for your physical safety when it comes to health. Are you entering a malaria zone? Make sure you’re taking prophylactics if your doctor recommends it. Make sure you get all your jabs or vaccinations in advance to protect yourself from everything from Yellow Fever to Typhoid…nobody wants to catch these nasty diseases.
This also includes sexual health. If you’re putting yourself in intimate situations with other people (who, let’s face it, you’ll likely never see again) it’s your responsibility to look out for yourself. Knowledge is power, and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure…if there even is a cure. In this vein, if you’re not familiar with it, make sure to educate yourself on Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) if you’re the type who likes to get extra friendly with locals or other travellers. HIV is highly preventable now if you’re informed and prepared.
Tip 9: Do your research
One of the greatest things about the internet is the amount of information that is out there that you can use to inform your travels. Just be careful, however, that you vet your sources. Don’t just go running into the middle of a war zone because one fringe blogger told you that it was safe and ok to do that. Use a bit of common sense!
There are so many good sources of safety and security information out there. Start with your government’s foreign office / state department site. These tend to be extremely on the conservative side, but they do a good job of laying out all the risks of traveling to a given location. I personally use these as a starting point, and then supplement with additional more nuanced information.
One of my favourite sites for places that are in a state of conflict is Live Map. It does a great job of aggregating news sources and showing you all the safety incidents in a country over the previous weeks – all displayed nicely on a map. It’s also great for countries with active conflicts where the “safety line” might change dramatically from day to day. They have especially awesome maps of Ukraine, Syria, Libya…and even Washington, D.C.
Tip 10: Travel during the day, be awake and alert
This one is pretty easy to follow, but we’re all guilty of breaking it. Maybe you’re behind schedule and trying to make up time. Maybe you found a bus/train/flight in the middle of the night that was super cheap, or maybe you’re just a night owl.
The end result is the same: crime tends to occur much more regularly at night when the criminals have the element of surprise and a much higher prospect of escape. No matter how vigilant you are, it’s always riskier being out on the roads at night.
Another downside of travel at night is drivers who are often not alert – both your own and the other guy on the road. That’s not to mention drunk drivers. I’ve had several situations lately with a driver late at night who was practically falling asleep at the wheel and I definitely shouldn’t have been in their car.
So, those are ten tips you can use on all of your travels to increase your chances of returning home safely in one piece with all your belongings! My goal with this post is definitely not to scare you away from traveling – get out there and enjoy these amazing and vibrant places. Equipped with this knowledge you’ll not only enjoy your trip more, you’ll be safer while doing it!
What did I miss? Other great advice for fellow travelers?