Category Archives: Europe

Icelandair Offers Stopover Buddy Program

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Iceland’s Blue Lagoon

Here is a fun news item: Icelandair has launched a new service called Stopover Buddy that provides passengers with stopovers in Iceland with someone to hang out. The Stopover Buddy is for those flying to Europe, and it’s free. (But technically, you have bought an Icelandair plane ticket and you have to stay up to seven nights in Iceland at no additional airfare.)

At times, fliers heading to Europe might first stop to Iceland en route to their final destination, and find themselves with some time to kill between flights in Iceland’s Keflavik International Airport. If time permits, they often leave the airport and venture out to places like the Blue Lagoon. But if you’re flying solo, Icelandair’s Stopover Buddy program is a nice incentive. It lets you be in the company of a local guide, who doesn’t mind keeping you company. Your buddy will be an Icelandair employee.

The Stopover Buddy program works like this. Before their flight, Icelandair passengers put in an advanced request for a buddy. This temporary pal (or potentially newly-made friend) is an Icelandic native who is paired up with a passenger based on a mutual interest: nature, culture, cuisine, or just some fun sightseeing. Once this information is submitted, the Stopover Buddy will set up an itinerary based on what his/her fly-by friend wants to do. It could involve seeing a specific place or local favorite spot or even doing an activity like hiking or biking.

Sadly, your chance to find a short-term buddy in Iceland is short. Icelandair’s Stopover Buddy program is available now through April 30. Plus you have to be 18 and up to use it. And your buddy will hang out with you for one day only.

My Travel Plans (So Far) for 2016

New PhotWe are now five days into 2016, and already I have some travel plans and goals for this year. Of course, I’m hoping to visit new destinations, but there are other areas that I want to head into. Here is what I’m hoping to accomplish this year.

My first solo work trip.
Last year, my travel writing got a big boost. I landed five freelance assignments that brought me to Wyoming, Michigan, and California, had me revisiting New Haven, Connecticut, and fulfilling a wish to visit Costa Rica. Though the locations differed, one thing they had in common was that I was in a group of other travel writers and bloggers. But I have some news to share: this month, I’m working on plans to go to Texas on my own for a piece for a new outlet I hope to do more writing with. I have ties to the Lone Star State and haven’t been there for 30 years, so I’m looking forward to going back.

Expanding search options.
My method of picking flights centers on mainly route, schedule, and cost. Unfortunately I’m still new to figuring out airline mileage programs, and, because of my budget and other reasons, I only belong to two of them: Southwest and JetBlue. I have a lot to learn but recently I’ve been checking out more of another source for savings: third-party search engines. In choosing a soon to use flight, I gave Kayak a try and found a direct, neither too early or late morning flight for at least $100 less than going through the airline’s website! So I booked. For comparison, I now do an initial search through Google Flights, another search engine.

Making time for family travel.
Although my interest in solo travel perked up a lot last year, it’s still nice to have someone come along. My younger sister and my cousin are my main plus ones, and they’re joining me on some excursions this year. I’m heading back to Jamaica with my sis this month, specifically to Montego Bay, where we hope to get in some bonding over swimming and bike riding. (Her flight in is way earlier that mine, so might give her some distance for recovery). I’m also excited about returning to Europe this summer. Part of my family is based there, and for years, I’ve been exploring parts of the continent with my European cousin. For 2016, we’re going to see Scandinavia – specifically Denmark, Norway, and Sweden! And within the U.S., I’ll be joining the younger set of my family for an April trip to Walt Disney World (which I haven’t been to since I was a teenager).
What do you have planned for 2016? Let me know.

Eurail Releases New 2015 Offerings

Photo: Eurail

For getting around Europe, it’s best to do so by rail. And depending upon your itinerary and finances, rail passes can provide a viable option.

Recently I went to a reception held by Eurail Group G.I.E., a cooperative effort that streamlines Europe’s national railway companies, to hear about new offerings for 2015.

If you’re new to Eurail, here’s some background info. Eurail Group G.I.E. sells different rail passes for travelers who reside within Europe (called Interrail) and those who don’t (called Eurail) for train travel to most major European countries that are available for certain periods of time. Interrail has just two types to choose from (One Country and Global Pass) and is valid for 30 countries. Eurail has four kinds (Global, Select, Regional, and One Country) with periods ranging from three days to three months and is valid for 28 countries.

Graphic: Eurail The various European railroads belonging to Eurail.

At their reception, Eurail revealed some new offerings and developments. They include:

  • Attica Pass: This new Eurail One Country Pass is designed in mind for those who want to do some hopping around the Greek Islands. The pass consists of six ferry crossings within one month: two international trips between Italy and Greece, and four domestic trips to the islands.
  • 1st Class Youth: To keep families together in first class: a 1st Class Option is now available for Eurail’s youth pass. Before this, youth travelers had to buy an adult ticket to be up in these cars.
  • Global Pass 5 days in 10 days: Since Spain, Italy, and Germany are popular destinations – particularly with Americans – and don’t border each other via a railway connection, this global pass gives with a shorter validity for those who require more flexibility. So with this pass, for example, you can spend two days in Berlin, Munich, Milan, Barcelona, and finally Madrid.
  • New Countries Participating: Four countries have been added onto the Eurail Global Pass, bringing the total number up to 28. They are: Poland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and Montenegro.

Personally, I haven’t bought Eurail passes, but the closest thing for me was riding the D-Bahn (which is included in Eurail Group G.I.E.) on my trip to Germany and Switzerland last summer. Visit Eurail’s website to get further descriptions and prices on various rail passes.

Year In Review: Travel Highs and Lows in 2014

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In getting ready to unplug for Christmas and other holiday fun, my last post for 2014 is about this year’s top travel moments. Here is a list of both my high points and low points with some takeaways.

Highs

  • Traveling across country by rail. In late August, I went to Germany with my cousin and we decided to use the Deutsche Bahn railroad system to get around. We started from Berlin to Hamburg, then on to Heidelberg, Cologne and Munich and then ended our trip in Lucerne, Switzerland. The overall experience was great and a money saver. Months before we went, I bought each advanced ticket online (my cousin gave me all the dates, times and destinations I needed to select) and printed out all of them to bring along with me. By doing this, I paid maybe between 35-55 Euros (roughly 40-60 in US dollars) per ticket. If I had waited longer, the prices would have gone higher. The D-Bahn is a very reliable service and it’s nice to be able to stare out the window while en route from one city to the other. I definitely recommend taking the train when traveling, especially abroad.
  • Going to my first TBEX. TBEX (Travel Bloggers Exchange) is an annual conference season for travel bloggers of all types and levels that happens usually at destinations in both North America and Europe. This year marked my first time going. In September, I was at its North American conference in Cancun and overall I had a nice time. Many friends went, and some even spoke, and I got to meet well-known travel media pros like Johnny Jet and The Planet D. Next year’s TBEX Europe is in Costa Brava, Spain and there is also going to be a first-ever TBEX Asia in Bangkok. Some might debate about whether TBEX is worth going to or not but there are perks like vendor discounts and good networking ops. Plus, if you’ve wanted to go to the destination TBEX is being held in, now’s your chance.
  • Visiting Jamaica. Another travel first this year was going to the Caribbean. I got picked by Visit Jamaica’s tourism board to go on a Bucket list themed press trip in four quick but fun days. My media group ventured along Jamaica’s north coast and spent time in Kingston, Ocho Rios and Montego Bay. I’ll be writing about each part of it soon but overall our trip involved cultural, culinary and thrill-seeking activities. Like going on a bobsled ride.

LOWS

  • Getting pick-pocketed in Cologne. I’m usually pretty good with nervously keeping an eye on my stuff. I messed up in Cologne when I kept leaving my purse open when I took out my camera or iPhone to take photos inside the Cologne Cathedral. I can’t remember how long it took before I realized that my wallet had been stolen. I probably was distracted or maybe it was a bump and grab move. Still, it sucked to lose my credit card, driver’s license and insurance card. Thankfully, my passport and extra Euros were still on me. I wrote about it here if you want to learn more.
  • Running out of money in Lucerne. Another thing I think I’m decent with is travel spending money and bringing enough with me. But I really misjudged prices in Switzerland. The Swiss Franc is higher than the Euro, so something as simple as a fast food combo order can equal out to 12 Francs. Or even an over-the-counter bottle of ibuprofen can cost 9 (And that was for the smallest size I could find). My cash stash ran out two days before I was to head home and I had no cards on me (I didn’t bring my debit card). My cousin gave me some money, which made me feel bad, but thanks to him I didn’t go hungry.
  • Discovering how (not so) far my dollars go. Being a freelancer for the past four years has opened up some cool travel media invites and opportunities for me. At the same, I’ve been spending more this year than I should without balancing out the difference. For 2015, I’m also looking more at closer destinations with shorter stays. As of now, my set plans start in May, as I’ll be heading up to Toronto for a weekend getaway. My goal is to get to Asia next fall (hopefully for TBEX), so in order to afford to do that I’m planning in advance now by cutting spending and cutting down on debt. And getting more work going.

Hope this year was a good one for you and that 2015 will be even better. Happy Holidays and safe travels!

Air Berlin Ushers In Düsseldorf Carnival

photo 1Did you know that Düsseldorf’s Carnival Season lasts four months long? Last Tuesday night, Air Berlin and Düsseldorf Marketing and Tourism put on a shorter version of this German city’s colorful celebration with a reception at Blaue Gans in the TriBeCa district.

The reception featured German beers and local delicacies, and invites asked people to come in costumes. One travel writer did. Others like me put on whimsical hats or were draped with streamers by our hosts.

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We also learned a thing or two about Düsseldorf and its history with carnival. Having started this week, this street festival in Düsseldorf’s city center is made up of different segments such as the city’s ladies and youth having their turns at taking over the parade route for a while.

Even elected officials have their moment. By tradition, carnival time lets Düsseldorf’s citizens get away with poking fun at leaders through silly puppets and the like. The carnival season will be over February 18.

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And of course, in completing the night, a trio of performers had their act going.

photo 5With Düsseldorf, I actually spent maybe 40 minutes there via my connection from their airport to JFK. I was flying on Air Berlin, coming first from Geneva, and had to make it through the gate in a short amount of time to my next departure. Speaking just as a customer, their gate crew offered to switch me to a front row seat so I could get off the plane quicker to help make my connection. They suggested it. That was awesome.

 

I Got to #TrySwedish Cuisine with Visit Sweden

Although I came late to The Old Bowery Station in New York City’s downtown area, I did still get the chance to taste some Swedish delicacies at an invitation-only event held by Visit Sweden last week. The afternoon gathering was all about learning and tasting foods from Western Sweden as part of Visit Sweden’s #TrySwedish promotion.

One of the great food locations on Sweden’s Western coast is the seaside city of Gothenburg. Gothenburg gets high marks for multiple seafood varieties and I was able to sample some Nordic style sushi. If you happen to get to this city, vRÅ is recommended as a good place for sushi and the Michelin starred Sjömagasinet is known for both its fine traditional and creative seafood dishes. I also got to sip on a lovely berry-flavored Rekorderlig Cider, which originated in Sweden.

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In addition to what I ate–and what I sadly missed out on eating–it was nice to later read up on Swedish culinary traditions and growing food movements such saving and using more of indigenous ingredients and a renaissance of artisan beverages. Bread and cakes are said to be still much loved in Sweden, from kanelbullar cinnamon rolls (there’s actually a Cinnamon Bun Day every October!) to a dark rye called kavring.

photo(147)Culinary accolades also go beyond Gothenburg. In Sweden’s Jämtland region, the city of Östersund has been designated as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy with its fine cheeses and meats, herbs, and breads.

Plus with culinary tourism growing in public taste, it’s fitting that Sweden’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had the foodie foresight to initiate a campaign called “Sweden – the New Culinary Nation” in 2008. It has an ambitious goal of making Sweden a leading country for food by 2020.

Last week’s event tied in with the second annual NORTH Food Festival, a week-long showcase of Nordic culinary presentations and tastings. Learn more about #TrySwedish here.

 

What to See in Seville

Continuing on through Southern Spain, Seville is one of the cities in the Andalusia region that has a good share of Moorish architecture (a reminder of the population that lived in this region of the country) still in place. Here is what I recommend seeing.

In the narrow-street section of Santa Cruz, set aside a good amount of time to fully walk through two signature landmarks.

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First, the Cathedral (or known as Catedral) stands on the site of a former mosque dating back to the 12th century. When you get there, you will first see a courtyard known as Patio de los Naranjos. Here, in keeping with religious practices, Muslims would wash their hands and feet in the fountain found here before praying. As you will also notice around Seville, plus get a scent of, orange blossom trees are lined up within this space.

DSCN2293 DSCN2309Consecrated as a cathedral in the mid-1200s, the area would be reconstructed as a Gothic church over the course of about a century, with works of art in its ornate chapels and sacristies.

DSCN2364 DSCN2362A key part of the cathedral is the Tomb of Christopher Columbus. His proven remains are stored inside a raised coffin with four statues as “pallbearers” that represent four former Spanish kingdoms (each were separate of each other) of Castille, Leon, Aragon and Navarra.

 

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To get a higher view of Seville, visitors can also climb up the steps of the Cathedral’s bell tower, La Giralda. You can walk all around the top, and find great scenery at every angle.

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When leaving the Cathedral, making a right hand turn to get out onto the street, and across the way is the next marvel to visit: The Real Alcazar. As a royal residence, The Real Alcazar is the oldest Spanish royal palace still in use. You’ll see the gate with a crowned lion on your way in, and after you go through the ticket counter, you’ll end up in the courtyard.

DSCN2403DSCN2405DSCN2413Like the Alhambra in Granada, here you will find a smaller version of this palace with mosaics and geometrical patterns. This place has been the home of Spanish kings, each of whom have added their personal touches.

DSCN2415DSCN2430DSCN2440It’s also a place of history. Among what’s happened here: Queen Isabelle I dispatched navigators from this palace off on their voyage to the New World. Also, spend time in the gardens here, with beautiful fountains and terraces.DSCN2444 DSCN2448 DSCN2455 DSCN2468 DSCN2460

Another spot to go to that’s outside of the city center is the Parque Maria Luisa, where you can walk around the Plaza de Espana. This plaza was built for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929, to showcase exhibits in this world’s fair.

It’s a huge half-circle with buildings running around it, and over by a moat, there are bridges also representing the four ancient kingdoms of Spain. By the walls of the plaza are the Alcoves of the Provinces, which are tiled alcoves representing different provinces of Spain.

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The Plaza de España has also been used as a filming location. Scenes for the film Lawrence of Arabia were shot here as well as scenes for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.

DSCN2217 DSCN2209 DSCN2208 DSCN2205 DSCN2202 DSCN2199 DSCN2192 DSCN2191 DSCN2194 DSCN2210I hope these recommendations get you started off right on your visit in Seville.