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.

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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.

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Digital vs Film or How I learned to stop worrying and love the SD Card

I came late to digital photography. I recall quite clearly telling someone with all the bravado stupidity of youth that I would never, ever go digital because it could not capture the nuances of color found in nature that film could easily render. Of course, at the time that was pretty much true. Early digital cameras that were in the realm of affordability were scandalously expensive and required a photographer pretty much toss their entire kit and buy a new one, plus a raft of cards and a powerful desktop computer to boot. Making the change was a big commitment. So I waited.

One of my last film-based trips was by last trip to Myanmar (Burma) in 2005. From here out I’ll use the more familiar name Burma, because it conjures up history, culture and the weight of its time as part of the vast British Empire and I just like the way it sounds.

So in December of 2005 I went to Burma, laden with 100 rolls of Fuji Velvia and Provia and shot the lot of them, pointing my camera at any old Buddha that got in my way plus a lot more besides. I loved the country, the people and the food. I vowed to return.

Shooting slide film requires you to be on the top of your game, photographically speaking, in order to get anything good. Your hand must be steady to be shooting ASA 50 film, your eye has to be sharp to edit all the distractions from the frame before you click the shutter. And exposure? Oh, yes. That has to be right on as well. Of course with digital, all of these considerations are basically moot. Need more light? Crank up that ISO! Got a bright spot in the corner? Crop that out in LightRoom! Exposure, oh just tweak that a bit in LightRoom too. Or take 3 dozen versions. Who cares, its just more bits! They don’t weigh a thing!

Which brings me to this. The top photograph here is one I shot, probably on Velvia, in 2005 then scanned.

BURMA, Sagaing. Soon U Ponya Shin Paya, Sagaing HillAn interesting image, but that light! It’s so weird! This is clearly caused by all the light reflecting off the turquoise blue-green walls but there was not that much that could be done to fix it (unless it were printed).

The same scene today, photographed on my Nikon D7100:

Myanmar.

Of course I’m using a wider lens which has caused some distortion, but the colors are much cleaner after a few tweaks in LightRoom and it’s much easier to render the image as almost exactly what I saw in the viewfinder… which is after all what I’m after.

So 2003 me was dead wrong, and 2015 me has no problem admitting that.

 

Sneak Peek: Myanmar

Balloons at sunrise over Bagan, Myanmar.

I’ve been very remiss lately in posting updates and new images. Here are a few sneak peek images from my recent trip to Myanmar (Burma), a place I first visited back in 2005. A lot has changed there over the years, but the unique culture and stunning scenery remain very much intact. As I edit my images I’ll be posting stories and some technical tips for photographing in Southeast Asia.

Buddha in a 12th century temple, Bagan, Myanmar.

Woman smoking a cheroot,  Myanmar.

Nat spirits at Mount Popa, Myanmar.

Packing 101: Packing for Antarctica

It’s not that I don’t like the cold, it’s really that I don’t know it. I’ve lived in coastal California most of my life, so my idea of a chilly day is one where the high is 50F. Not exactly well-equipped for kitting out in preparation of visiting the polar regions. Luckily for me, early on I stumbled upon the TripAdvisor forums, more specifically the Antarctic forum. So. Much. Information. Amongst all the advice and tips there were some really handy items like a pre-made Google docs packing list. Special advice for photographers about gloves that enabled me to actually manipulate the camera controls.

In my experience, the ship was kept very warm but there will be cold drafts so plan on having some warm slippers or shoes to even it out. I bought some knockoff Uggs before the trip and I LOVED them. They were great for rushing out on deck to spot the whales, and warm enough that even the coldest drafts didn’t give me much trouble. Highly recommended.

The Gullet, South of the Antarctic Circle

It wasn’t quite as cold as it looks here, really.

The great thing about wearing several layers is that you can add/remove as needed to achieve your preferred temperature. This is easier if the layering items are of different weights. What does that mean?

  • Lightweight: silk or polypropylene
  • Midweight: thicker polypro/merino
  • Heavyweight (aka Expedition weight): yet thicker polypro, merino, fleece
  • Fleece (also comes in different weights from Polarfleece 100 to 300)

You want to have an assortment of these things in different weights so that you can mix and match according to the weather and your own cold sensitivity. I did learn on this trip that I am not very cold sensitive at all really, so your mileage will almost certainly vary. The temperatures can range from 20F to 50F, and the wind can be incredibly cold and biting.

Neko Harbour, Antarctica.

It actually got to near 50F that day, the penguins were panting in the heat.

For a fair weather shore excursion  (eg: no heavy wind, no snow or rain):

Feet: one pair silk socks, one pair heavyweight socks

Body: lightweight polypro longsleeve top, lightweight polypro leggings, midweight fleece top and bottoms.

Hands: midweight gloves (mine did not have the touch-screen capacity but the weight is the same)

Bonus: neck gaiter or buff plus lightweight wool knit hat (I have very thick hair so having a cold head is never an issue for me)

Top Layer:  Quark-provided parka and  North Face waterproof trousers (this is what you always wear ashore, regardless of what’s underneath). I removed the button-in fleece from my parka as that just made it too bulky for me and just wore it above my regular windproof fleece jacket. Quark loaned us muck boots for the expedition and they were very thick rubber and I found them quite warm.

Comfort quotient: Delightful. The only thing that was ever noticeably cold was my chin, cause the gaiter kept sliding down. Of course, your mileage may vary. The thing to remember is that for many North Americans, the summer temperatures in Antarctica will be WAY warmer than what you normally contend with in winter.

My friend Amy photographing the Adelies

My friend Amy here not long before the katabatic winds started up and the temperature dropped precipitously.

Questionable weather shore excursion (snow falling or imminent, windy)

Feet: Midweight socks plus heavyweight socks

Body: midweight polypro longsleeve top, midweight polypro leggings, midweight fleece top and bottoms.

Bonus: neck gaiter or buff plus Icelandic wool hat (incredibly warm)

Comfort quotient: nice. Occasionally the weather would change and I’d have to unzip my top fleece layer or even take it off and stick it in my backpack, but the choice was there which was nice

Zodiac Excursion in Gerlache Strait, Antarctica

Beautiful day for a zodiac excursion in Gerlache Strait, Antarctica

Zodiac Excursions (when you don’t move very much so cannot generate your own heat)

Feet: Midweight socks plus heavyweight socks

Body: midweight polypro longsleeve top, heavyweight polypro leggings, midweight fleece top and bottoms.

Bonus: neck gaiter or buff plus Icelandic wool hat (incredibly warm)

Comfort quotient: Well, hate to say it but your butt will get cold. Sitting for a while on the rubber raft’s edge will slowly sap a lot of the warmth from you. Nothing to be done about it really. Once you’re back on the ship you’ll warm right up.

So what did I end up bringing in the end? My expedition clothing consisted of:

  • 1 pair waterproof trousers
  • 2 pair lightweight long underwear bottoms (Patagonia capilene)
  • 1 pair midweight long underwear bottoms
  • 1 pair heavyweight long underwear bottoms
  • 2 lightweight long underwear top (Patagonia capilene)
  • 1 midweight long underwear top
  • 1 heavyweight long underwear top
  • 1 lightweight fleece (North Face)
  • 2 mid-weight fleeces (North Face)
  • 2 pairs fleece trousers (often worn on ship instead of jeans or whatever)
  • 3 pairs gloves: silk liners, midweight liners, ski gloves
  • 2 gaiters (light and medium weight)
  • 2 pair lightweight socks (silk liners, actually)
  • 2 pair midweight socks (ski socks)
  • 2 pair heavyweight socks (heavy wool “hunting” socks)

It sounds like a lot, but most of it packed up pretty small. I also employed some space-saving bags where you press the air out (useful for the fleeces).

While on the ship I had some fleeces and some cotton trousers for lounging around in. A couple of v-neck wool blend sweaters and a pashmina-like shawl if my neck was feeling particularly cold. The one thing to keep in mind here, is that is not some fashion show, not some fancy dress-for-dinner cruise. No one cares what you’re wearing, so bring only what you need. The ship has laundry of course, so you don’t need to have too large a wardrobe. One thing I will say is pack a large ziploc bag for those waterproof trousers, cause nothing stinks up a suitcase like penguin guano. You have been warned. I had to wash them twice when I got home to get the funk out.

One final note: this is a great opportunity to search out deals at those online retailers that sell last-season’s colors and closeouts for hiking/camping gear. Most everything I got was from these retailers and it saved me a TON on money. So I had bright turquoise long underwear? Who cares!

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.

Easy peasy: Iceland

Iceland. Vik i Myrdal. Black sand beach.

Black sand beach at Vik i Myrdal.

 

 

Seriously: how many times do I have to tell you people to go to Iceland?!

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I wish someone had found me several years ago, shook me by the shoulders and said, “Just go! Don’t worry about it! Don’t bother with those other places right now. Iceland!”

Your doubts, banished:

It’s so far!

No, actually it isn’t. It’s way closer than Europe. From Seattle it’s only a 7 hour flight. That’s scarcely longer than it takes to fly to NYC. And you do that without complaint. Well, maybe you don’t but I do. Suck it up, it’s not that long.

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It’s so expensive!

Well, yeah. But there are always ways around that. Take a clue from how the incoming passengers at the airport get dumped directly into a duty free shop that’s basically selling just alcohol. Stock up on some bracing (local hooch) Brennivin, pick up a bottle of wine. Or a 500cl of scotch. Liquor taxes are high there so buy duty free and don’t worry. Beers in a typical bar are nearly $10 each, so you won’t be having many of them. Then, stop by a supermarket and pick up sandwich fixings. Worried about keeping things refrigerated on the road? Don’t be. Surprisingly, they sell peanut butter there (most non-Americans find it disgusting), and jam does not need to be in the fridge if you’re going to be going through it pretty quickly. Hotels serve breakfast with the price of the room, make your own picnic lunches and just worry about dinner. See? Look at all the money you’ve saved.

 

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It’s so… lonely!

It is, but in a really wonderful way. It’s lonely in a wide-open-spaces way, not a “feels like a serial killer must be stalking me” kind of way, like some other places can (I’m looking at you, Hoh Rainforest)

Iceland. South Region. Lomagnupur.

 

Don’t they have erupting volcanoes?

Sure, they got volcanoes. But so does the West Coast of the US, and you never even think about those. Granted theirs are a bit more restive than ours, but that just adds some fun to the mix. They’re also incredibly well studied, not likely to blow up without warning.

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Do people speak English?

Yeah, they do. Better than you do actually, so prepare yourself. They also have a charming accent.

 

Is driving hard?

Well it is, but probably not for the reason you’re thinking. The landscape is so incredible, the scenery so breathtaking, that you do run the risk of running off the road if you’re not paying attention. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you want to go off road, you need to get a 4WD vehicle or the rental car company will have your head, so make sure to price that out as it will add more to the cost.

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Two final things to know:

The hot water smells like sulphur. That’s cause it just came from the ground and is, in fact, full of sulphur.

Yes, they really do sell minke whale and puffin in some Reykjavik restaurants. Please don’t buy either. The locals don’t eat it, and so these days it’s only served as a touristy gimmick you don’t want to encourage.

 

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