travel planning

How to make flying to Europe in the summer make sense

Some friends of mine asked me the other day about flying to Europe in summer and I realized I’d not yet written anything about that. The short answer is: No. Don’t go. You should not go to Europe in midsummer.  Between June and August, Europe is overrun with tourists, and everything is more crowded, expensive and not as nice The weather can be either drearily wet or annoyingly hot and humid. That’s the sad truth to the thing, but if for some reason you find you have to go then, there are things you can do that will make it a lot easier to deal with.

Graveyard at the Rock of Cashel, Tipperary, Ireland.

 

1. Do not fly into a major hub. The horror. Do not fly directly into Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle or Rome. No. Stop. Go back. Fly into lesser known airports like Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Oslo, Zurich and continue from there.

2 Fly on off-days. If possible, always fly on a Tues, Wed or Friday. Those days are usually much cheaper than weekends and you’ll benefit from having slightly less crazy connections in whatever airport you are flying through.

Russia. St. Petersburg. Tour boat and the Church on Spilled Blood

3. Keep an eye open for Business-class fare sales. Business travel wanes during the summer and there are often really good business-class fare sales that bring down the cost of a business class flight to the same as coach. So you’ll still be spending the money, but enjoying a much more leisurely and enjoyable flight.

4. Take advantage of Iceland Air’s stopover program. For little more than regular coach fare in Economy you can fly via Iceland to almost anywhere in Europe. So on top of whatever you were planning on doing in mainland Europe, you can spend a few days coming or going in Iceland, hiking among waterfalls, viewing glaciers and enjoying some endless twilight evenings.

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 8.56.56 AM

 

5.  Suck it up and pay. You know what? You can’t always get a deal, and that’s okay. Your comfort and sanity is worth more than having a convoluted 2-stop itinerary to France with long layovers and many opportunities for missed connections and luggage gone AWOL. But if you do pay full-fare economy, make it count. From the western US, a round trip economy flight to Europe gets you nearly half way to the 25K miles needed for a round trip domestic economy award flight (make sure the flight code of your flight earns 100% miles, which for full fare economy it probably will), so choose carefully. Fly on an airline for which your home airport is a hub – look into flying their partner airlines and crediting the miles to your main domestic account.  Also, try not to have connections within the US (summer thunderstorms often cause delays). So make your first flight nonstop to Europe and connect within Europe from there. Whatever you do, a 9am flight leaving Saturday is the one flight to NOT take. It will be a zoo.

You’ll notice the one thing I did not suggest here was to use miles. You can, but you have to be clever, persistent and flexible to get that to work. Everyone wants to use their miles to do two things: Europe in summer and Hawaii any time. Don’t fall into the trap of being one of them.

Packing 101: Packing for Southeast Asia

Bicyclist on U-Bein bridge, Amarapura

I’ve started assembling my wardrobe for an upcoming trip to Myanmar so it’s got me thinking about dressing for the tropics. I visited Myanmar 9 years ago and even though November/December is considered “winter” there, highs of 90F are common and the sun beating down on the open-air temples is incredibly, skin searingly strong. Most people think about going to the tropics and get started packing their very thin, very small pieces of clothing. For lots of southeast Asia though, this is not the right way to go.

Three nuns at Shwegadon Pagoda, Yangon.

Why?

Southeast Asian countries are surprisingly conservative. For all the beaches in Pattaya filled with bikinied Europeans, most places you visit expect you to be fully clothed unless you are actually on the beach. You must have your shoulders and knees covered to enter temples. A couple of sarongs can be deployed in these instances, but if your trip is not based at the beach, it’s easier to avoid the stares and dress a bit more modestly.

 

Market at Kalaw, Shan State, Burma.

Additionally, if you’re pale like me, visiting the tropics actually requires a well-thought-out sun-avoidance strategy in order to return home unburned.

Mosquitos can be an issue as well, and need to be considered especially if you’re forgoing anti-malaria medication. Malaria is not a problem in lots of southeast Asia but in Myanmar the deadly kind is common, so better safe than sorry.

So the basics of my tropical wardrobe consists of:

Thin, nylon capris: preferably stretchy for long days of travel, not too tight because no one wants to wear too-tight clothes when its 90F and 80% humidity. These are from Title Nine.

Title Nine Take-a-hike capri

Trousers similar to the capris above. I cannot bring myself to have anything to do with convertible pants but some folks love ’em. I have some linen trousers I got for my India trip a couple of years ago but frankly I find nylon ones more comfortable and much easier to launder. They also wrinkle less.

Shorts for lounging around in. Whatever you have at home is probably okay, as long is it’s mid-thigh or longer.

Tank tops or t-shirts, preferably wicking so sweat is less of an issue.

A key piece of my sun avoidance strategy is long-sleeved overshirts to cover arms and shoulders. Ex Officio makes some good ones, but be careful on sizing; their stuff tends to run small. I wear them unbuttoned so they are more about sun protection than anything else, but this one has permethrin in the fabric to thwart mozzies as well.

ExOfficio shirt

Very comfortable walking sandals. You’ll be taking them off and putting them on a lot when going into temples so it makes sense to have something very easy to get on and off. The very last thing you want is lace-up shoes as you’ll spend all your time fussing with them.

Teva Sandals

Flip flops which are the standard footwear for locals, but aren’t great for lots of walking if your feet are not used to it.

Sun hat -anything from a booney to a gardening hat will work, but I suggest getting something crushable so you don’t have to worry about getting it on the plane like you would with a standard straw hat.

And my tried-and-true so very special element: the “clean clothes”. I stumbled on this accidentally the very first time I went to the tropics on a hiking trip. All day hiking in the jungle in 90% humidity left me absolutely deflated and feeling incredibly sticky and gross. After a quick shower it occurred to me that that last thing I wanted to do was put these sweaty clothes back on. But I did have one tshirt and one pair of stretchy loose trousers that I hadn’t worn yet. So on went the “clean clothes” and I went to dinner feeling great. I isolated those clothes from the jungle funk of the rest of my suitcase in a ziploc bag and wore them every evening for dinner. It felt so wonderful to have this set of clean clothes to put on every night. I’ve been repeating this trick ever since.

Lamp lighting ceremony at Shwagadon pagoda, Yangon.

Of course, this is not the most fashion-forward set of clothes, but frankly no one cares what you’re wearing, unless you plan to hit up all the fancy clubs in Bangkok or something like that. And if you are going to be doing that, just toss a dress in the mix. The most important criteria is to be comfortable, be careful of sun and bugs and then when you get home pack them all up in a box of “jungle clothes” and start planning the next trip where you can wear them.

One important note: if you are a North American or European with big feet and broad shoulders, don’t expect to be able to land and pick up local clothing that fits. On my last trip my guide and I looked around for some of the nice velvet flip flops the locals wear and they were all laughably small for my (women’s) size 8 feet.

When you don’t want to DIY: small group tours

I know what you’re thinking. You’re picturing one of those giant coaches where the doors open and disgorge a heaving mass of pale, bewildered humanity stumbling around blinking in the bright sunshine, waiting for their leader to hoist a small flag and escort them into the nearest tourist attraction.

Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

This is not that kind of tour. There are, at most 15 or 16 of you. You travel around in a small van, hardly conspicuous. Your fellow travelers have all been many places before, they could easily have organized this themselves, but sometimes with work and life and everything, it’s just easier to let someone else plan all the details. Sometimes they’re women traveling alone; in some parts of the world the easiest way to avoid hassle is to travel with a group so that makes the most sense.  Sometimes it’s just people who like to travel with others, but whose friends either cannot go when they can or aren’t really interested in going there. I’ve even been on one trip with a honeymooning couple.

View from inside a tuk-tuk (auto rickshaw), Pushkar, Rajasthan, India

These kind of companies market trips of different styles: usually it’s a matter of trading cost for additional creature comforts. You might want to do one of their backpacker-style trips where you travel using public transportation in your 20s and the idea of sleeping with a goat on your lap on the bus makes you giggle. If you’re a little older, you might want a bit more creature comforts like a hot shower and a fancier hotel.

Palace at Fatehpur Sikri, Uttar Pradesh, India

In my experience of about a half dozen of these trips the groups gel together in two different ways: either very well or fabulously. Seriously. I’m not sure if its just that people are on their best behavior or if something about who goes on these trips means that everyone has at least some amount of a similar world view but I’ve had some amazing groups, where people remain friends for years afterwards. It’s really pretty amazing.

I myself would probably not use one of these companies for a trip to Europe, just cause planning things there is so easy and I’ve been there so often, but for trips to Southeast Asia, South America or where you won’t have time to do much planning yourself, then it’s a great alternative.

Thali for lunch, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India

I’ve also suggested that friends who have never traveled overseas alone use this as a stepping stone to that. You can sign up on your own, get assigned a roommate of the same gender, and you only have to pay half of the “per person double occupancy” cost (some trips have small single supplements if you become a forced single, in the case of no other singles of your gender signing up). It’s definitely a lot cheaper than going it alone would be, and easier if you’re just getting used to the idea.

These are the two companies I’ve done trips with in the past:

G Adventures

Intrepid

 

 

African Safari Research – choosing an outfitter

These are not wild giraffes

These are not wild giraffes

So I’ve mentioned before how I have one last “big” thing to take care of travel-wise: I’ve never been to Africa. So that is one of the things on my shortlist for 2015. Now, given that I am so very into photography, I want to find a safari that specializes in doing trips for photographers. This means: fewer people on the trip, only 3 people per land rover for better photo opportunities, dedicated locations for charging up laptops and camera batteries, and most importantly: a schedule that is crafted around the animals, not people’s normal waking hours. This means we’ll be getting up before dawn, coming back for a clean up and rest in the heat of the day, and heading back out in the late afternoon to evening, all to have more opportunities to see the animals out and about doing their thing.

I’ve not been doing a huge amount of research for this trip so far, aside from perusing some travel brochures and reading up a bit about the different destinations one can visit. The preparations for my visit to the Arctic and trying to get some overdue photo editing done was taking up a lot of my time.

While I was on that trip I met people who had been to Africa several times. Everyone talks about East Africa being the place to see sheer numbers of animals, and while that’s interesting, I’m really drawn t0 two things: elephants and big big cats.

So it seems like Botswana is a great place to get both of those things. One guy on my trip had lived in Southern Africa and suggested that if you want to see elephants, Botswana is the place to do it. There are also several people running photo safaris that specialize in predators in Botswana as well:

I’m actually planning this trip with a friend that I met on my Antarctic trip, a woman who is very interested in photography and more importantly interested in photographing nature red in tooth and claw, which is awesome! I want to see nature, damnit, not a sanitized disney version.

So after much studying of websites and checking itineraries and looking at dates and locations and prices (prices for this kind of trip don’t vary too widely, but for sanity’s sake I don’t want to spend more than $10K), we’ve decided on Wildlight. Yes, you can definitely get safaris cheaper than that, but remember: this is a special photo safari — the last thing I want to do is to be in range rover with a half-dozen tourists who are hot, tired and want their dinner so we have to go back to camp just when the light starts to get good.

So incredibly excited I can hardly stand it! It’s well over a year away, but booking in advance is awfully useful sometimes, especially to lock in a good deal and to make sure you get something at the best time of year for you.

Now, comes all the planning. Another new wardrobe of khaki pants and floppy brimmed hats to add to my collection of long johns and fleeces from the polar regions. I’m gonna need a bigger closet.

Travel insurance for $25? What’s the catch?

I’m suspicious. I’ll admit it. I’ve seen a lot of “revolutionary” apps and services that simply put don’t know what the hell they’re doing. They have a great idea for a service, but without any of the experience in running that kind of business to actually execute on it. That’s usually the “catch” — a startup has a great idea, and makes a pretty app, but then less than a year later they’re circling the deadpool. With a name like Berkshire Hathaway though, you expect that they might just know what they’re doing.

This company calls themselves Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, and they offer a product called AirCare. Simply put: give them $25, and they will insure your trip against common problems. This is not true travel insurance, as it doesn’t cover trip cancellation or medical evacuation, but it does offer protection for the groan-worthy inconveniences we often face while traveling: delays, lost luggage, and missed connections. Anyone who has spent 8 hours killing time in a terminal due to a long-delayed flight will understand. Why yes, $50 to pay for the fancy lounge with free snacks and drinks would be delightful, thanks!

AirCare

AirCare currently only covers flights within the US, but frankly anyone who travels overseas a lot will know that we’re the world leader in lost luggage and delays. Most other countries simply don’t have so many flights in the air at one time, and don’t run their schedules nearly so tightly, so a delays are not as common. They say that in some instances, you don’t even need to contact them to activate the coverage, as they’ll be notified automatically that your flight has been delayed, or you’ve been on the tarmac for a few hours.

I’ll admit, I was a little confused at first why Berkshire Hathaway was in the travel insurance business in the first place. I know it really only because it’s majority-owned by Warren Buffet, and  has stock that sells for multiple thousands of dollars per share. I know it’s a conglomeration of various different businesses,  but travel insurance seemed a little out of left field. It turns out, one of the subsidiaries of Berkshire Hathaway is a “Specialty Insurance” company, which earlier this year acquired a company called MyAssist that offered concierge travel services to lots of different companies, and was started by the man that started Travel Guard insurance. Ah, now this is starting to make more sense.

You can get the whole run down in this Skift article here. To use the service, simply download their app, sign up and pay the $25.

You can even insure a trip at the last minute, up to an hour before your flight. From their website, it looks like more comprehensive coverage is coming soon.

UPDATE 5-22-2014: Though you need to be licensed to sell insurance in each state separately, I would have thought the bigger states, like California, are ones that you would have sorted out before launching. Unfortunately, that is not the case.  I’ve asked them to give me a holler when they can in fact sell insurance in California.

Finding an African Safari

“What do you mean you haven’t been to Africa?!” For some reason, people are always surprised to find out that I have not been to Africa yet. I sort of see their point — for most people Antarctica is the last continent for them to visit. While I was on my way down to Ushuaia to the jumping off point  for that trip an important fact occurred to me: Antarctica is closer. Well, Ushuaia is. From where I am on the West Coast of the US, going to Eastern or Southern Africa requires flying to Europe (10+ hrs), then another 8-12 to get to Africa. Ushuaia was only 2/3rds that distance. That’s my excuse anyway.

Going on a safari in southern or eastern Africa has been on “The List” for quite a while. I decided that 2015 will be the year. A friend I met while traveling is interested in going as well, so I’ve started doing some research.

 

travel brochures

At this point I’m fairly open about where to go: Kenya, Botswana, Tanzania, South Africa — any of them could work, though each place offers pluses and minuses. I’ve been reading a bit about safaris online, and there are a few things that have come to the forefront:

If you’re into photography there are really two crucial pieces of information:

  • How many people will be in each vehicle
  • Do you get an extra luggage allowance

You may have noticed that neither of those things has anything to do with the parks you visit, the accommodation, the outfitter, the food. But they are probably the two things that could potentially frustrate the beejesus out of you if you don’t think a lot about them before booking. Special “Photo” safaris will only have 3 people per vehicle. You get a whole bench seat row all to yourself. Why does it matter? You can slide to either side of the land rover to get a picture of whatever animal is there outside the window. You don’t have to worry about craning past someone or even completely missing something cause you can’t see past their big fat head. You will also likely head out earlier in the morning and then stay out later in the evening, which is when the animals are most active anyway. As a photographer, it just kills me to miss photo opportunities because of silly things like dinner.

And the extra luggage allowance? Pretty much any safari that flies from one location to another does so on very small planes. Small planes have very strict weight limits. Hence,  you only get a 25 lb. luggage allowance. This includes all your camera gear. Coming back from Antarctica the ticket desk at Lan weighed my carry-on (full of camera stuff), and that alone came in at 28 lbs. Whoops. Most photo safari outfitters understand this problem, and arrange for their travelers to get another ~15lbs of luggage –enough for a few pieces of clothing and a pair of lightweight hiking boots. Or they actually drive it to the next location by car, and it arrives a few hours after you do. Any lodges you stay at often have same-day laundry so you can really get by with 3 outfits.

Things to know:

  • Where you go should determine when you go (and vice versa): do you want to see the great migration in the Masai Mara? Do you want to see animals clustered around dry season watering holes in Botswana? Can you only go in midsummer school break? Each option triggers different choices. The seasons in that part of Africa are not analogous to the ones you find in most parts of the US, so you cannot really compare them. You have to research what it’s like at that place that time of year.
  • What’s the goal? Do you wan to see the big 5 and tick a few birds off your list? Is there one specific animal — like a leopard– you’re just dying to see? Different areas offer different concentrations of the main megafauna on offer, so this too can affect where you choose to go. Is it all about the photography? Oh boy, is there a lot to think of.
  • Then, we can’t not talk about cost. Safaris are expensive. Really expensive. For that money, what are you getting? You’re getting your own row of seats in a land rover (or at most, 6 people per vehicle, so everyone gets a window seat). Comfortable accommodation with an ensuite bathroom and electricity. Guides that are naturalists as well as trackers, who understand how to place the vehicle in the right spot for taking pictures and can tell you all about the life cycle of a lion. You’re getting safety, logistics that actually work and the ability to move between locations quickly and easily (by plane and not via a 12 hour ride on a bumpy road).

As I go about collecting information and learning about each of these things I’ll be posting my findings here.

To get you started, here are a few links:

Nathan Myhrvold used to be the CTO of Microsoft. I met him once because he had Galen Rowell do a private photo workshop for him – he’s obviously a very smart guy, and it’s interesting the way he’s gotten into all sorts of things from molecular gastronomy to photography since he’s left Microsoft. He wrote an article for The Luminous Landscape about the photo equipment considerations for safaris, and even if that’s not why you want to go, there is still a lot of other really good info in this article about different vehicles and ways to support your camera, and what it’s like to be on safari.

There are a few well-known photo safari outfitters, and a range of smaller players. Here are some of the most well known:

Joseph van Os

Thompson Safaris

Andy Biggs

I will continue to post follow-on articles about other safari operators and things I find out in my research.

 

 

Who to follow: Airfare Watchdog

George Hobica doesn’t know this, but he’s the reason I’ve been to Australia. A travel journalist by trade, he started Airfare Watchdog as a means to list deals from all airlines, not just the ones available via that booking service (something you might notice if you get deals emails from Orbitz or Kayak is that they don’t list smaller airlines like Southwest, just the big guys). Actual human beings look into the fares, and my favorite part– they actually post screenshots of the flights and days the deal is good for. If a fare is proving hard to book on an airline’s site, just call them up and feed the flight numbers and dates to the reservation agent, and they should be able to get it for you.

Several years ago, a tweet appeared in my stream:  San Francisco to Sydney, $700 RT. Wait, what? Nonstop? Tax included? In…. AUGUST?! This seemed impossible. I quickly navigated to  ITA Software’s site to check and see what day in August this fare was valid for. The answer I got: all of them. The entire month of August and part of September was available at this rate. Technically that is winter in the southern hemisphere, but “winter” in Sydney is like “winter” in LA — a high of 70F instead of 85F. A great time to visit.

Australia. NSW. Sydney. Luna Park amusement park. Colorful signs

Oh, you bet I booked that flight. I booked one for my brother too, after arranging to share the cost with my mother and sister in law as a birthday present to him. One does not pass up a cheap fare to Australia.

Airfare watchdog offers two really useful things for the aspiring traveler:

They regularly tweet out deals they find that are especially good — these are the things like that trip to Australia, or this current $500 deal to Stockholm:

Deal to Stockholm

 

I’ve booked several trips from fares I’ve seen in these tweets,  including my trip to Iceland last year ($770 RT- woot!).

Iceland.

You can also sign up for alert emails at Airfare Watchdog for your city, which cover international and domestic destinations. This is a great way to get a feel for what is and is not a good deal. A general rule of thumb is: if the airline says it’s a good deal, it isn’t. Their “fare sales” are often no lower than the usual discount you get from flying Tuesday or Wednesday. Keeping an eye on prices really helps you to know when to jump on a fare, as you can better gauge when it’s truly special, like $700 to Australia (commonly $1300-$1500). You may see from these emails that fares to New York are routinely sub- $350, so you don’t have to worry too much about passing one by — another one will come along.

The final bit of advice? When you see a great fare you have to book first, ask questions later. Sometimes these fares last only a few hours. To get them, you need to be able to commit. That said, several airlines now give you a chance to put fares on hold for 1-7 days for a nominal fee. If you need to check with work/a spouse/your bank account then that’s the way to lock in a fare and work out the details later.