Tip Tuesday #5 Making the Flight

IMG_0962editWelcome to the last Tip Tuesday in this segment. You’ve figured out your destination and picked your tickets- so today is about making that flight in comfort.

Here’s everything I know:

Go for side of the airplane seating for extra comfort, especially if your plane is a wide body jet with 4 or 5 seats in the center aisle. Meeting people is all well and good, but being elbow to elbow with two or more jet-drunk co-travelers is an unfortunate way to do so. Plus, aircraft walls can be your vertical pillow.

Bring sunglasses. Sometimes you want to see what’s outside the plane – but you’re tens of thousands of feet closer to the sun. It is BRIGHT. Bring sunglasses to pop over your eyes before your raise the shade. This goes for any plane flight, local, international, or cross-continent.

Bring your own earbuds. Half the time your comfortable and familiar earbuds will work with the entertainment system. Sometimes it won’t, but on the off chance it does, you’ll enjoy the sound and feel way more than with the earphones they serve you.

IMG_0949editSpecify a meal preference on your ticket. Cross-continent flights frequently let you do so. Picking something besides “General” gives your trip a little extra flavor. My current favorite is Indian vegetarian. Extra bonus: you may be one of the first served come meal time.

Wear comfortable traveling shoes. My preferred weigh next to nothing, are breathable, and come off easy in the (American) security lines. My feet don’t sweat, I don’t stink up the cabin, and I can put then on and off again without trouble. They crush down to save on space too.
(Mine: They’re Merrel Trail Glove 2 shoes- These from REI, close to or possibly now rebranded as these from Merrel now. These are very particular shoes, I do not recommend them for everyone, but the principles above are for everyone.)

Be nice to everyone. Sometimes that is aiding another traveler, sometimes that’s holding a rude comment inside. That loud lady on the phone in the waiting line may have the seat behind you. The fellow struggling with his bags may have the seat next to you. Being nice now can make your travels extra enjoyable. And of course, that goes double for the flight staff and desk people.

Bring some snacks. Oh my goodness a long flight goes better when you have your own stash of chocolate chip cookies.

Do not buy liquids if you are crossing borders. ‘Don’t care how much currency you have left- there is a solid good chance you’ll find yourself in another security line before too long, and oop, there goes your $8 smoothie. God I wanted that smoothie.

IMG_0910editPlan your security line unpacking ahead. My style: empty your pants pockets and place your belt in your coat pockets that zip as you walk towards the line. Pair the coat and shoes in a bin and place that on the conveyor. Next pull out your laptop and put in the second bin. Third, put your ‘personal item’/laptop bag on the conveyor. Carry on, if you have it, goes last. At the other end, your shoes and jacket let you know it is your stuff coming, your laptop comes next, and then your bag to put it in. Put laptop back in bag, grab all your stuff, and mosey over to one of the benches to reassemble yourself. DO NOT put your laptop on the conveyor last. If you’re stressing out about your next flight you are more likely to forget that last lonesome laptop. That was me in Croatia.

Super Tip #2: If you are going to travel with matching pocket watches (and I know this applies to most of you), put them in the same container and expect to have security ask to see them. Yes this happened to me. As I had not planned for this obvious eventuality I had to disassemble my bag of gifts to find the second watch. Learn from my foolishness. Keep your second watch accessible.

And that’s it for this Tip Tuesday! If you have any questions, comment or message me directly.

Thanks for Reading!

-Ben

Tip Tuesday #4 Shopping For Plane Tickets Part 2

So you’ve chosen your dates, but there are a few possibilities and you’re not sure what to pick. Here are a few last things to check before you buy.

IMG_1220editBrand Loyalty
People talk about loyalty, about liking one airline over another. In the last three years I have flown inside the US on American Airlines, United Airlines, US Airways, and Delta. Transatlantic flights have been on Continental, US Airways, and Lufthansa; Europe has been Lufthansa, Croatian Airlines, EasyJet*, and my personal favorite SmartWings**. My favorites so far are Delta for inter-US and Lufthansa for Transatlantic flights.

Delta’s legroom was more than the other domestics while Lufthansa spoiled me rotten crossing oceans. Maybe it was hearing my name in its native tounge; maybe it was the complimentary soft drink, water, 3-course meal, wine, water, hot towel, soft drink, water, wine, coffee, tea, water, soft drink, water service… or maybe it was getting served first amongst my class and the personal attention that came with it. Or maybe it was the good seats that I picked. Or the excitement of going downstairs in an airplane. Regardless! Lufthansa was a lot of fun.

As popular as the question of brand is, I’m afraid I can’t offer more than this. I’ve heard good things about Virgin, JetBlue, and Southwest, but I’ve never flown them. I’ve heard bad things about everyone else, but generally found their accommodations adequate. The more important issues are arrivals, departures, travel time, layovers, and the aircraft.

*EasyJet seats are cheap but they hike the price for luggage. I bought several levels of extra baggage space for a hefty sum and then came in well below the cheapest category, wasting a sizable sum. Obviously my fault – but it left a bitter taste in my mouth.

**SmartWings is the “Low-cost brand of Travel Service Airlines.” Just look at that name. If I was going to have a sketchy shell company of an airline I’d absolutely name it “Travel Service”. Apparently they rent their aircraft to other airlines to fill gaps in capability. They were where I was when I needed them, so I’d recommend them to anyone- but man was it weird to step outside the familiar brands. We literally ran across the tarmac to get into the plane.

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Choosing Tickets

When you’re choosing between tickets check four things: the flight arrival and departure, total travel time, and the layover or transfer time. Arrival and Departure: Ask yourself, am I getting where I want when I want? Am I leaving at a reasonable time? Early morning and late night flights are often cheaper, but are stressful. Look for a balance.

Next, compare how how long each of the trips are. This is where you find out that your super cheap early afternoon arrival and mid morning departure flight actually spans two and a half days. Typically speaking, a domestic US flight should be 2-7 hours while a transatlantic will be more like 18. The crossing takes about 8.5 hours direct, but any connecting flights will add to that. Boston serves Germany directly, so crossing was 8.5 hours plus timezone acceleration. When I flew out of Pittsburgh I went through Washington-Dulles first, adding two hours and a 6 hour layover. If the predicted time for your ticket is beyond your expectations, read the detailed flight list.

Layovers and transfer times are the last thing to check. Domestically I aim for 40 minutes between connecting flights, and Internationally I want an hour, especially if I’ll be going through customs, security, or rechecking my baggage. Get too short and the slightest delay makes you miss your flight. Get too long and you get bored out of your mind. If the delay is the airline’s fault they’ll re-book you for free- but if you missed, or if you bought unconnected tickets, you’re out of luck.

A Note on Aircraft

My first Atlantic crossing was miserable. I was in a Boeing 777 with a 2-5-2 seating arrangement. I was in the dead center of the craft. There were so many people, it was so tight, so uncomfortable. Had I looked up the airplane ahead of time I would have seen the error of my ways. Rather than let you experience the same discomfort, I give you the link below:

Seatguru let’s you can look up the size of the different aircraft you’re you’ll be flying before you go. I highly recommend looking before you buy the ticket; one may be a mega jet packed with blokes. Another could well be a comfortably small regional jet. Below I’ve linked most of the planes I’ve flown, and extracted some of the basic information as it seemed relevant. Be aware that Seatguru, at least, does not say what the leg space measurements are.

Local/Regional

UA: Bombardier Q200 – Turboprop – 2-2 Pitch 31, Width 17.3 (mini plane- seats 37)
US: Bombardier/Canadair CRJ-200 – Regional Jet – 2-2 Pitch: 31, Width: 17.5 (little puddle jumper – seats 50)
UA: Bombardier Q400 (DH4)- Turboprop – 2-2 Pitch: 30, Width 17, tight and small
AA: Bombardier/Canadair CRJ-700 (CR7) V1 – Regional Jet- 2-2 Pitch 31, Width 17.3. 63)
LH: Bombardier/Canadair CRJ-900 – Regional Jet – 2-2 Pitch: 31, Width: 17.5 (seats 70)
LH, easyJest: Airbus A319 (319)- Narrowbody Jet – 3-3 Pitch: 30, Width 17, less tight
Smartwings/TravelService: Boeing 737-800 3-3 Pitch 31, Width 17.2 (unintentionally silly – there were like 10 people on the flight. It fits 150+)
UA: Embraer ERJ-170 – Narrowbody Jet – 2-2 – Pitch: 31, Width: 18.2 (pretty spacious, seats 70)
US: Embraer ERJ-175 – Narrowbody Jet – 2-2 – Pitch: 31-32, Width: 18.25 (seats 80)

Transatlantic

UA: Boeing 777-200 (777) – Widebody Jet – 2-5-2 – Pitch: 31-32, Width 18-18.5. (What they don’t highlight is your lack of leg space. It was mega cramped.)
UA: Boeing 757-200 (752) – Narrowbody Jet – 3-3 – Pitch: 31, Width 17.3.
LH: Airbus A340-300 (A343) – Widebody Jet – 2-3,4-2 – Pitch: 32, Width 17.5

Thanks for reading! Post any questions you have in the comments.

Until next time,

-Ben

Tip Tuesday #3: Shopping for Plane Tickets Part 1

Approaching San Diego

Approaching San Diego

Welcome !

Shopping for air fares can be daunting, let alone out and out buying the thing. Below I’ve collected a few tips from my experiences buying domestic, international, and cross-continent plane tickets. Read below to learn when to buy and what to consider when you do. I’ve broken it into 4 suggestions.

First up: Aim to buy your ticket at least one month prior to your departure.

Prices go up as you get closer to the departure date. At about one month prices plateau. I have not seen much of a difference between 1 month, 3 months, and 5 months out. This is the standard, non-inflated price that you should have every reasonable expectation of paying. Anything above that number is a rip-off. Anything below is a deal.

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Departing San Diego?

Second up: Choose your departure and arrival airports wisely.

As of this writing, I would pay $1,091 USD for round trips across the Atlantic leaving from the US and landing in Paris. I can save $120 if I move my departure from Boston to New York’s JFK airport for the same week in April, and another $170 if I switch from ORY airport in Paris to CDG, also in Paris. It pays to look around. Major East Coast international hubs are Laguardia and JFK airports in New York and Washington-Dulles, technically outside of Washington D.C. Charlotte, North Carolina is another possibility, and I believe Atlanta and Florida may fly over as well. When you find a deal at a neighboring airport, see if a train or bus ticket can get you there, and vice versa on the other side.

Flying south over the Atlantic.

Flying south over the Atlantic.

Third: Check the days of the week you are flying.

The $1091, $970, $800 ticket searches listed above arrives and departs on Tuesdays. If I switch that to Sunday-Sunday, prices bump to $1288, $1148, and $968. $150 difference may not look like much when you’re talking in thousands, but those price differences apply to local flights as well. When your $120 puddle jumper is charged an extra $140 to land 20 miles closer to the city? No thanks, I’ll take the hour bus ride for $15. Length of stay is also a factor. The longer there is between your arrival and your departure, the cheaper your ticket will be- but per-day savings can override this somewhat. A 4 day trip coming home in the middle of the week could be cheaper than a full week trip coming home on the weekend.

On the ground (and in a bus) at Zračna luka Split, Split, Croatia.

On the ground (and in a bus) at Zračna luka Split, Split, Croatia.

Fourth and Final: Consider the season you are flying in.

When I left Croatia in October I was leaving at the end of the tourist season. I literally caught the last flight out of Split that this particular discount carrier offered for the next several months. Most other carriers had already ended their service. Sure, there were other options- but for double or triple the cost of my ~$150 ticket. Find out when high traffic and tourist seasons are for your location. Going in the off season means the main carriers may charge you less- but going at the height of travel may give you options with discount carriers if you can find them. Somewhere between high and low is a sweet spot for your particular destination.

That’s it for now. I’ll continue the discussion on planes next week. Thanks for reading!

-Ben

 

 

Tip Tuesday #2: Picking Where to Sleep

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Book from England, Cookie from America, Feet resting in the Croatian air.

Tip Tuesday time! Last week we talked about how to start thinking about taking an international vacation, adventure, or personal exploration time. That’s full of preferences specific to you-but I can help with some of the more immediate logistics. I’m talking, of course, about where to sleep.

Choosing your sleep location is possibly the biggest choice you have to make. It will affect everything that comes after it: your mood, your openness, the people you meet, and of course, the stories you have to share. Picking where you sleep is immensely important.

The secret to happiness is good socks, good shoes, a good bed, and good company. Or to put it another way, invest in what separates you from the ground.

There are two major factors to consider besides quality of mattress: the privacy you want and the price you are willing to pay. To flip that: the number of people you want to meet and the money you want to save. Different combinations will suit your different moods. Over the course of my 3.5 months, I sometimes wanted people, sometimes wanted privacy, and was occasionally splurged on the location. There are three genres of lodging to pick from, so pull up a chair, grab yourself a drink, and let’ get into the details.

First up: Hotels

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Hotel/Resort in San Diego, California

Hotels are the classic, and maybe the first place people think of – but they’re also the most expensive. Sure you can find discount places, motels, et cetera, but consider what you’re paying for. What you get is privacy, cookie-cutter furnishings, and a dedicated cleaning service. The door has a lock, many rooms or hotels have safes, and maybe you get a breakfast.  Why are they so popular if they are so expensive? Location. Hotels are usually situated close to attractions, meaning you can get up early, stay out late, and never be too far from a bed or the action. Some even have restaurants, pools, gyms, or other amenities for guests inside them. Certainly those can be perks, but in my book, it’s not worth the markup.

Pros: Privacy, Location
Con: Price

Second topic: Hostels

IMG_5988edit

Hostel in Vienna, Austria

For you Americans in the audience let me make this clear: European hostels are NOTHING like American hostels. My American hosteling experience is best summed up by a place I stayed in Harlem, New York City: A doorman, a key, a bare room with metal beds, thin sheets, and dirty lockers. Technically there was a bathroom. Technically there was security. Overall, though, it wasn’t a place my mother would have been happy to know I stayed. They did serve surprisingly wonderful Banana nut muffins for breakfast, but somehow I don’t think that would have eased my mother’s heart.

European hostels, however:

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Hostel in Prague, Czech Republic

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Hostel in Prague, Czech Republic

So what is a hostel? Well, it’s dorm-room sleeping. Typically rooms come in 6, 8, 10, 12-person or higher rooms. A room is a space enclosed with walls and usually a single door. Privacy is less than what you’d get at a hotel – but that’s where their perk comes in. Hostels are where you meet people.

I cannot do hostels justice in the space allotted for this post, but let me sum it up for you: In Prague I spent the day with an Irishman, had dinner with six Australians, learned cautionary tales from a pair of English women, shared stories with a pair of Swiss women, spent a night and a day with three Polish folk, an American, an Irish lass, an English woman, and a Japanese sculptor, and spent some three days with a Ukrainian photographer. All of these amazing people I met in hostels.
In Poland I met a French Mathematician and an Argentinian businessman. In Manchester I met three German teachers cum PhD students. And in Germany I met a fellow Pennsylvanian. Sure I didn’t get to spend much time with all of these folks- but I had a healthy conversation with each and spent an extended time with most.
Hostels are about meeting people who want to meet people. I can’t tell you how many invitations I turned down above and beyond the adventures I had with the folks above. There were drinks, restaurants, card games, conversation, late nights in the city- whatever your interest there were folks looking to do it. And I went in the off-season.
A few tips: It’s easiest to sleep in a room with 6-8 people. Beyond that you WILL find folks getting up way earlier and coming in way later. 6-8 usually got me the interaction I sought while maximizing my chances for sleep.
If you’re traveling in a group, many hostels offer 3 or 4-person ‘private’ rooms at the same per-person rate as a 6-8-10 person dorm room, provided you buy the whole room at once. I usually hosteled alone so I didn’t get to try this.
Some cities have female or male-only hostels, if you’re worried about mixing genders. Others divide the rooms in the hostel by gender, and still more just mix. I had equal amounts of fun and sleep in both of the latter two.

Pros: Meet people, do things, pay less money.
Cons: Less privacy, higher chance of sleepless nights.

Last up: Hosts – Airbnb

Vaubaneditsmall

One of the Airbnb host places I stayed at in Europe.

If you want privacy to the point of seclusion, pick a hotel. If you want interaction at the risk of less sleep, pick a hostel. But what if you want more privacy than a hostel for cheaper than a hotel? Enter: Airbnb.

Airbnb is a space sharing system. Upstanding, insured, and with dedicated customer service, Airbnb is a place where you can rent out or rent up your spare space. Pretty much anything is fair game as long as you present it accurately. Couches, rooms, floors, apartments, houses, trailers, yachts… if a person can sleep there, there’s a fine chance someone has (and lived to leave a review about it). You go online, create an account, prove your identity (Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) search for places, and contact hosts. They let you know if their space is available, you book the nights, and then you pay through Airbnb. When you get there no money changes hands. The host’s only desire is to treat you well, and your only requirement is to respect the space and write a review after you go. I love Airbnb.
I’ve had the occasion to use it in California, Missouri, D.C., North Carolina, England, and Germany, and had a great time all but twice. Even the two lesser times were adequate. I think so much of Airbnb I’ve even helped my friend rent out her vacation home on the sea in Croatia. ‘Met some Canadian airline pilots working for a carrier in Hong Kong there, but that’s another story.

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Seriously though, Croatia is a beautiful place to spend some time away.

Airbnb is wonderful because you get to stay in a home, close to where you want to be, for 1/3 to 1/2 the cost of a hotel. I cannot emphasize that home aspect enough. Your hosts live in this space, or used to. They maintain it like it’s their own because it is. I’ve found these experiences more welcoming and more informative than I believe any hotel stay would have been, and more private than any hostel. Airbnb, or house shares as I think of them, are a fair middle option.

Socially speaking, it’s comfortably light. In Missouri and Manchester I had barely a conversation with the host past “here’s the key.” But in London I was treated to helpful tips, in Charlotte I was greeted with chocolate cake and shown around town, in San Diego I was offered Salmon under pesto, raspberry lemonade, and Belgian Waffles, and in Freiburg, Germany- Oh, in Freiburg I was accompanied to an opera, raced down the Autobahn, granted mountain and street bicycles, accompanied to a restaurant open only a few weeks in the year, treated to breakfast, and invited to enjoy a special seasonal beverage. Truly, I had a wonderful time.

Like all things you can pay more if you want to. The longest I’ve stayed in an Airbnb space was about a week, but it is possible to do longer stays, especially if you are getting an entire apartment or house. Luxury spaces can get as high as you’d like, with Parisian apartments coming in at thousands of dollars a week. But that said, last I checked I found apartments with views of the Eiffel Tower for around $30 USD per night perperson. That said, I’ve noticed prices trending upwards, so you may find less of a discount as time marches on.

Pros: Privacy, location, price
Cons: A bad host is a bad time

Note: if you sign up through my links (it’s free) both you and I receive $25 travel voucher once you take a trip.

Ending note:

Sunset in Split, Croatia

Sunset in Split, Croatia

So where and how do you want to stay? The choice is up to you but the trick is to balance the three: Price, Location, and People.

Hotel:     Price $$$, Location: &&&,  People: *
Hostel:   Price: $,     Location: &&,      People: ***
Airbnb:  Price: $$,  Location: &/,       People: **

Any questions? Post int he comments and I’ll tell you all I know.
Thanks for reading!
-Ben

The Polish Adventure

From the archives. Made standalone from previous post.

Model of the Cloth Market, Kraków, Poland

Model of the Cloth Market, Kraków, Poland

For those of you just tuning in I’m in Poland. Now as strange, bizarre, and unexpected as that is, and as far as my past self would jump diagonally out of a combination of fascination and bemusement to hear this, I have an extra layer for you. See, last night it rained. Tea and I were caught in it. It was dark, we got wet, and we had a long walk to our Prague hostels. By the time we got back we were cold, tired, and ready for bed. So naturally we forced ourselves to stay awake and line up accommodations in Krakow.

Tea grabbed the hostel while I attempted to book the train. The details of the automatic non overridable paypal ‘security’ refusal to authorize my payment request aside, the fiasco left me rather befuddled, confused, and even more exhausted. To add to circumstances, I was running an online meeting. So when Tea picked the hostel I barely so much as glanced at it. I checked the address, made sure we could get there, and verified the price. Free breakfast? Great! And then I reserved our space.

Fast forward to 40 minutes ago. Tea and I are trekking through Poland’s Old Town in search of this place. The route isn’t hard but it’s dark, and as I already posted I had just been yelled at for directions. (Side note: There is, apparently, a very happening non-alcoholic nightlife in Krakow on Monday nights.) I have the compass (rendered untrustworthy by the electric tram lines crisscrossing our route) and she has the map (rendered via her phone through a picture taken of my chromebook screen). We both see a blinking sign: Hostel Yellow. Great! A hostel! Where there is one there may be many! So we continue.

We step through the streetlights. The moon moves behind clouds. Trams jostle in the distance. And then we see it: a picture of a stone carving of a man in a pointy cap with a halo, a book, and a crook. It’s the sign for Benedict Hostel. We follow the indication and pass through the stone archway.

Dark walls greet us. Stone buildings stretch upwards beyond the comfort of our necks. Cobblestones warp at odd angles beneath our feet. The night is present in a way I haven’t felt. It ebbs with age. Not overpowering but it is present; there are no cars or fashionable strangers to pull us back.

We follow the signs through cobblestone streets to a courtyard. An aged metal handle at chest height sticks out of a door that stands at least one and a half men tall, maybe two. As I grasp the metal I shoot Tea a look. “Well, open it!” She says. I twist the handle. The latch retracts and the door slams _shut_.

*To be continued*

Tip Tuesday #1: Planning Your Journey

Signpost at Wawel Royal Castle, Kraków, Poland

Signpost at Wawel Royal Castle, Kraków, Poland

First off, how do you even begin planning an international adventure? Honestly, you can start your planning most anywhere, then come back and modify your ideas as you learn more. Traveling is a balancing act of three constraints: Interest, Money, and Time. Realizing what you can or can’t do within any one of those helps you figure out the other two.

Interest is the most important. Without interest you’ll ignore opportunities and generally miss out. You need time to do these activities so time and its variability come next. You may think your trip will be a week, but in planning you may find something worth extending it for. And if it’s interesting enough, you may find a way to get that extra time away. Then there’s seasonal appropriateness. Some locations and activities are better in certain seasons. Thus, Time involves the seasons as well. After all of this comes money. As that is hugely variable we’ll get to it later.

Let’s begin with some questions: Where do you want to go? What do you want to do? What sort of activities interest you? Make a list for each of these. Let yourself dream. Then, look for overlap. Let’s say your locations include Barcelona in Spain, Rome in Italy, and Switzerland in general. On your activities you have horseback riding, sailing, sun bathing, and skiing.  Well, Switzerland has the Alps, so there’s overlap with skiing, and Barcelona is supposed to have incredible beach-weather. Bam! You have two trips already!

Go ahead, try this out for yourself. Don’t build a definitive list, just jot some ideas down to start. I’ll wait. :-)

Find any overlap? It might take some research but it’s most likely there. If you’re having real trouble let me know and I’ll see if I can help.

Once you have the beginning of trip ideas, think about your availability and when these activities would be best. A ski trip may call for some winter months, but op, you promised your holidays to your in-laws. Well that beach trip would be mighty fine. How’s your schedule in July? What’s that? Too busy?! ‘Guess it’s time for Super Tip #1:

Super Tip #1: Check Weatherbase.com.

Seasons vary across the world. While it’s cold in one place it may be warm in another – so check out sites like weatherbase.com to get an idea of when would be a good time to get the weather you want.  Barcelona, as it turns out, has warm weather into September. So if July is too busy, you could push your trip as late as September and still have comfortable temperatures.

Picture yourself here.

Picture yourself here.

Once you’ve gotten the big ideas down, try out specifics. Again: You can change everything, you don’t need to get it right the first time. Chase some ideas and see where they lead.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you get planning. Whether you build them into a scheduled itinerary or just remember them for when you’re there, these four tips are things I learned the hard way so that you don’t have to.

On Picking Destinations:

  • Decide: Are you here for pretty pictures and soundbite history, or are you here to learn about who the people are now? Go to the cities for the former, go to the countryside for the latter. Cities can get you the second, but the noise often drowns it out. If you have a week or more, spend the first few in the city to experience the mentality and the rest venturing outside. Local buses and trains can take you where you need to go, or you can rent a car.

  • Go to that cool place you’re really interested in first, especially if you’re in a city. The castle, the mortuary, the old town- The longer you stay in a city the more ideas you’ll have and the less likely you’ll be to get to where you first thought. Add to that distractions, sudden illness, or wonderful opportunities and you can quickly run out of time. So get the one you really want to see done first, then be free to roll with life’s opportunity. I put off seeing Prague’s Palace for whatever reason and I left Europe without ever seeing the inside. I went to Prague THREE SEPARATE TIMES.

  • Visit places that are the most important to you during the week (Monday-Thursday, sometimes Friday). Weekends are for tourists and people catering to tourists. If you want large crowds, street hawkers, and inane prattling about this that or the other thingamahoozie, go during a weekend. Hey, it can be loads of fun! But you’re not getting an authentic experience; you’re getting something designed to attract those from other places. The information is simplified, the provider is rushed, tired, stressed, or all sorts of other things, and the prices are higher. Go during the week and you’ll get more of people’s attention and more time to go and absorb as you wish.

And lastly:

  • The “Fish in the Sahara” rule. If you’re out to experience the new, do your best to make it regionally sensical. Don’t go to the Sahara to buy fish and chips. The locals don’t eat fish and chips, chances are they don’t know how to make good chips, and dear Goodness how did they get fish into a dessert?? You’re not in the Sahara because you wanted to go to England. So go for experiences that stem from the history or expertise of the area.

That’s it for now. Were these helpful? What more would you like to know? Comment or email me and I’ll make use of your suggestions for the next Tip Tuesday. We’ll continue with the planning idea. Thanks for reading!

-Ben

Back with a Story and Tips to Boot

Kraków's  Rynek Główny, Poland, with art installation.

Kraków’s Rynek Główny, Poland, with art installation. (Translation: Main/Market Square)

Happy 2014 folks! I’m back and this blog is ready to kick off for some new year fun. Before we get into today’s story, I want you to know about my upcoming TipTuesday series. Every Tuesday starting January 21st I’ll publish travel tips combed from my experiences thus far. Consider it my gift to you folks contemplating travels in this new year.

Now on to the stories. It’s frightfully cold as I write this, a frigid 4 degrees below zero. That’s -20 C. 58 F/15 C sounds positively balmy by comparison, so let’s go someplace it’s always that temperature: The Wieliczka Salt Mine in Wieliczka, Poland. It’s like a real-life Minecraft adventure from the 13th century! The mine operated from the 13th century through the 2000s commercially, winning all sorts of superlatives. Now it’s preserved for its historical and cultural significance. And how significant it is!

Hope you like your tour group!You have a long way to go.

The trip starts in a box -a holding room, technically- as you are prepped for the descent by your guide. Then it’s down the stairs. There are a whole heck of a lot of stairs.  Initially it’s all just wood and walking but then you get to the bottom for another queue and you notice you might not be in Kansas anymore.

The sign reads, roughly,
“Daniłowicz Shaft
Deepened in the years 1635-1642 to Level I
Dredged in 1874 to Level III
Equipped with stairs in 1870.”

See that white stuff on the wood planks? That is pure crystalline salt that has formed on top of the supporting structure.

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Past wooden supports you go, some painted white to help reflect light and prevent fires, until you walk out into an actual hewn tunnel. This is the good stuff. Salt formed on the stone! I wonder where it came from? Why, the stone itself! All the grey stuff is salt. All of it! The walls, the floor, the ceiling, it’s all safe-to-eat salt. You know those fancy designer recipes that call for rock salt? This is that stuff. I licked the walls just to make sure. Yep, definitely salt. (What! The tour guide encouraged me to do so.)

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The tour continues past dioramas of miners back in the day- and horses! Wieliczka was a full out professional endeavor for hundreds of years, and somewhere in there they figured that horses could do a heck of a lot of work and pollute less than any internal combustion contraption. They needed lifts to get the horses up and down, but other than that the animals were fine. ‘Course, horses are heavy, so just how do you lift them up and down a mine shaft? With more horses!

Lifting contraption! I think. Or possibly air circulation. These are models; the last working horse was retired in 2002.

So up to this point the tour is more or less what you’d expect. There’s rocks, tools, and workmen. But don’t give up quite yet: past these exhibitions is a chamber that puts everything in an entirely new context.

Roughly translated the sign reads “This statue was created in tribute to Krakow’s Saltworks’ 600th anniversary. This chamber was named after King Casimir The Great.”

Backstory time.

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A long, long time ago, some ancient folks discovered how salt springs could be used for food. And they knew if they had their chance that they could make their people dance for flavor and for meat stored for a while. But springs dry up like halted rivers; With every well dug they’d deliver less salt to their doorsteps. They could have given up and wept! But rather than sitting down to cry such fellows dug and struck with pride! something precious deeeeep below

And so, the salt, it flowed.

(The Birth of Salt Mining with apologies to Don Mclean.)

A long, long time ago, some ancient folks figured out that the salt water springs were great for taste and ever better for meat preservation. People settled and grew accustomed to the salt. But after a while the springs dried up. So they dug wells. After a while those wells dried up, so they dug deeper. About this time someone figured out that it was the rock, not the water, that was the key. People dug for the rock and salt mining was born.

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A scene from The Legend of St. Kinga’s Ring.  For the complete tale, click the link.

Fast forward several centuries. Formal mining operations began in the 13th century. The salt brought wealth to Poland, possibly becoming the reason it could establish itself as a country. Conditions in the mine were and are far superior to those in coal and ore mines in the states. (‘Speaking from first hand experience here. I’ve been to the bottom of several in the US, and on other speleological trips besides.) The air is free of dangerous particulates and the walls are free of fungal and bacterial growth. Funny thing about salt rock: nothing wants to grow on it. Sure you still had cave-ins to worry about, and explosive gas buildup could mean a very unpleasent surprise for the first bloke who lit a candle, but they had ways to deal with that. (Never said it was safe!) Aside from the danger of being blown up or crushed, working in the mine was pretty great. Warmer than the outside in the winter, cooler in the summer, and with an air quality that was better than, well, pretty much anywhere, the mine brought people in. Local farmers could work steady hours in their off season.

This lack of debilitating illness (and perhaps the possibility of an immediate and unfortunate demise) led people to express themselves in their free time. Workers carved the stone. I imagine it started as doodles. Then stairs were needed, so they were cut. Then some space was desired. Then rooms were cut. Rooms became chapels. It was a Catholic nation, Poland, and many found their faith a comfort that deep underground. Over time that led to dozens of chapels, even a few that are famous around the world. There is even one with a wooden crucifix preserved in pristine condition from the Middle Ages! Those statues, above? Those were carved by the very people who worked the stone so long ago.

Eventually the mine invested in artists. They captured incredible works of art in the stone. “Forever” may be a bit of a stretch, as salt rock degrades in the presence of water… and 1.8 million beings of 70% water pass through the mine every year… but the humidity is carefully controlled and they seem to be managing it all rather well.

The main show is in St. Kinga’s Chapel, pictured here. It’s there that you have The Last Super, an entire sacristy constructed of salt, and a statue of Pope John Paul the Second- who managed to visit Wieliczka several times before he became pope, but fell too ill to make a planned final journey while he was pope.  Follow my photos below to walk through the room from the left staircase, around the perimeter, and back up the right. Use the top photo to help orient yourself. Some of the photos do get a bit messy, but please, we were 1,000 feet underground. Light was a bit of a challenge.

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And there you have it. 1,000 feet below ground among 178 miles of tunnels are sculptures carved by the very workers who made the shafts.  It was a fanciful and fun experience, and one of my first solo through Europe. Enjoy more pictures below. If you have any questions, ask them!

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The ‘crystals’ of the chandelier are compressed salt, by the by.

Happy Traveling!

-Ben