Expo-se

I don’t know about you, but there’s been a few times now (thinking Japan and Grand Cayman in particular), when I’ve gone to a travel agent to grab some brochures about a prospective destination, only to be told ‘yeah sorry, we don’t really have anything for that destination’.  Which stuns me, because I thought it was their job to provide stuff like this, and if they couldn’t, then at least offer to obtain what you’re looking forward.  But whatever…

There is an exception to this rule and it’s called visiting a travel expo.  No shortage of travel brochures here!  I was told by several travel agents that not a lot of Australians travel to Japan (???).  But when I attended an expo before my first trip to the land of the rising sun, there was a whole booth dedicated to Japan and – lo and behold – an expert that gave us some great pieces of advice – one of which was that you need to spend at least two nights in Takayama (FYI – we did take this advice and were extremely grateful we did!).

And, don’t forget you can usually pick up some great deals too.  I just paid a deposit for one of my upcoming trips and was delighted to find myself the recipient of an ‘expo discount’ – which gave me a saving of about $300!  The expo was held today and given that it covers ‘the area’ of one of my upcoming trips (ah, these secrets are killing me!), off I went to grab myself as many brochures as I could carry.

Travel expos are a great way to find out information about your upcoming travel destination. Aside from the brochures (and we all know he with the most brochures wins!), there are experts on hand to give you information, hints and tips, theatrette presentations on different topics and, let’s not forget, most importantly, special deals and discounts.  And it’s not just a room full of travel agents – there are stalls for different airlines, luggage specialists, tour companies, car hire companies, insurance companies and banking products.  It’s a great way to find out what’s out there, and what suits you and your way of travelling.

I’ve now got a host of glossy pics to pour over with a good cuppa so I can make sure that I’m including a host of fabulous sights and experiences on my trip.

Round Up

Here’s a bit of a round up of my travels – what I liked, what I didn’t, what worked well, what I’d do differently next time and just other general bits and pieces.

London

London in late June (early summer) is light.  It’s light at around 3.30/4.00am in the morning until around 10pm at night.  I found this a little difficult to get used to, especially coming from winter in Australia.  My advice if you like your sleep, make sure your windows are closed, blinds pulled down and perhaps invest in some earplugs and an eye mask.

Find a Waitrose, M&S or local fruit stall to stock up on fresh fruit.  Pret a Manger is a great cheap place to find breakfast or a sandwich and they are everywhere.

The underground was really easy to use.  I would suggest getting an Oyster card before you arrive in London.

I would definitely stay at the Rydges Hotel Kensington again.  It wasn’t really walking distance to all the action, but it was a few underground stops away and there was definitely enough in the area to not need to be.  It was close to the underground, supermarkets, plenty of restaurants etc.  I ate at the Hotel restaurant, the Jam Cupboard and was really impressed with the meal.  And of course, Kensington Palace and Hyde Park were just down the road.

There are people out late on the streets, but a lot of stuff doesn’t open til later in the morning.  So use it to sleep in or explore the streets while its quiet or go for a walk through Hyde Park.

Grand Cayman Island

The Caribbean Ocean is stunning.  However, it is very salty.  It played havoc with my hair, hats and clothes.  My suggestions would be to travel with a small container of hair treatment or at least wash your hair after every beach visit.  Rinse anything that you wear into or around the water so that the salt doesn’t ruin it.  Don’t pack overly good clothes.  Make sure it’s beach friendly, because truly that is where you will spend half of your time.  I reckon I didn’t use 1/4 of the clothes I packed for this very reason.

Sunscreen is a MUST.  I can’t stress this enough.  Even coming from Australia, the sun was so bitey.  Please be careful or you will end up very, very burnt.  And make sure you drink enough water.  Dehydration can happen rapidly.

Take an underwater camera, disposable or otherwise.  Schools of fish, stingrays and starfish can all be found in stunning clear water less than 1/2 meter deep.  So even if you aren’t into snorkelling or scuba diving, you can be assured to see sealife somewhere!

This is the place for water sports.  And because the waters are so calm and warm, it’s the best place to give them a try for the first time too.  Snorkeling, stand up paddle boarding, kayaking, scuba diving – just give it a bash.

Despite the fact that Cayman is not huge, it is not really that easy to get from one part of the island to the other.  A lot of the attractions are spread across different parts of the island.  My advice would be to either hire a car, or if you want to hit up numerous attractions pick up a tour.  Generally the tours visit the same locations, so choose between what you will see on the tour and what you can get to by local bus or taxi easily.

I would definitely stay along 7-Mile beach again.  A self-contained room, like what you’ll find at Sunshine Suites is perfect.  That way you can prepare the majority of your meals and then just splash out on the odd one.  There are some great value buffet meals around – like XQ’s and the Marriott’s Buckaneer’s feast.  But don’t forget to try some local specialties.

New York

If you are happy with a not so close up snapshot of the Statue of Liberty, just catch the free Staten Island Ferry.  If you want a better close up, I would suggest taking one of the paid ferries, which travel closer to the statue.  Of course, if you actually want to access Ellis Island and climb the statue, then that’s another option again.

The museums are huge.  Central Park is huge.  A lot of the time, you will need to decide whether you have time to dedicate a whole day or whether you want to fit more into your day.  I chose to do a little of each thing, rather than one or two things, but that’s just me.

New York is an easy city to walk around.  I walked most places, but I found that cabs were affordable and used them on occasions such as late at night or for further trips.  Bring good walking shoes.

New York is a noisy city.  Earplugs did not work for me.  Get yourself good and tired during the day and then have a few glasses of wine before bed, perhaps go to bed with the TV on snooze and hopefully that will give you a few good hours before daylight.

I found it easy to eat relatively healthy in New York.  There are plenty of shops such as Pret a Manger, Fresh & Co, Hale & Hearty where you can get fresh salads, sandwiches and fruit and they are open all day serving breakfast through to dinners.

New York is literally the city that never sleeps, but the city doesn’t sleep in either, so if you are into getting out there and seeing all the sights you can stuff into your visit, plan on some long, long days.  There are people out on the streets until late at night, and you can dine at any time of the day.

I wouldn’t stay here any less than 4 nights next time.  I stayed at the Affinia Manhattan in Midtown, across the road from Madison Square Gardens and a 10-15 minute walk from Times Square.  I felt this was a perfect location.  The hotel, whilst old, had been recently renovated.  The rooms were large and funky, if not still showing some signs of age.  Niles Restaurant had great meals and hotel guests were entitled to a 20% discount on dining in.  There were a load of restaurants around the area in any case.

Seattle

I stayed in Belltown and I don’t reckon I could have chosen a better place.  Walking distance to the Space Needle/EMP, Pike Place Market, the shopping district and the waterfront, loads and loads of restaurants and bars to choose from – what more could you want.  Seattle is an easy city to walk around, and its such a pretty place, there’s no reason you wouldn’t want to.

Get out and visit Mt Rainier – it’s worth it.  I chose Mt Rainier over Yosemite, as Mt Rainier is only a 2hour trip each way.  I chose Evergreen Escapes and although I probably paid a little more, the service and quality of the day was well and truly worth it.

Things don’t get going that early in the morning, so go for a walk around the markets, sleep in or do breakfast somewhere nice.

I wouldn’t stay here any less than 4 nights next time.  And I would definitely stay at the Ace Hotel again (I had a private room, but you can book otherwise).  The free breakfast was awesome.  The place smelt so clean and fresh and the staff were awesome.  The bed was the most comfortable I stayed in the whole time I was away.  FYI – Ace also have a hotel in New York.

San Francisco

San Francisco is not really an easy city to walk around.  A lot of the streets are actually at a 45 degree angle.  Obviously if that’s what you’re into, then go for it.

There are homeless people everywhere, as with all cities, but I didn’t feel threatened anywhere else.   I didn’t do my research thoroughly enough and ended up on the edge of Tenderloin (well I knew there were homeless people around, but just not quite the extent).  In saying that, Macys, Saks Fifth Avenue, the Hilton and the Westin were all about two blocks away and they weren’t immune either.  I probably would have felt more comfortable staying in the Fisherman’s Wharf area, seeing as that’s where I spent most of my time. There’s loads of restaurants here and most of the tourist attractions are here or leave from here.  Because I didn’t feel safe here by myself, I would suggest the city sightseeing buses or guided tours with hotel pickup/dropoff.

I chose to stay at the Best Western Hotel California.   The vegan restaurant at the hotel, Millenium was fabulous.  Don’t let the fact that its vegan put you off – the meals are so hearty that you probably won’t even notice.  But I wouldn’t stay here again.

If you want to go to Alcatraz, book in advance if possible.

Pack warm.  Even in ‘summer’.  July (summer) is the foggiest month.  I would say it was more akin to winter in Perth.

Singapore

Let’s face it, I don’t think there’s many parts of Singapore that you could go wrong for accommodation.  But that said, I like indulging in everything that Singapore has to offer.  The only thing that would determine my accommodation is this – if you want to relax by the water, have kids or want to indulge in water sports – head to Sentosa.  If you are keen for shopping – stay on Orchard Road.  If you are into luxury – head to Marina Bay.  If you like Museums and great food, perhaps head for Chinatown or the Raffles area.  If you want a quieter, greener area, try around Cuscaden Road.  Keep in mind, nowhere on the island is more than a 10-20 minute taxi ride and Singapore’s MRT system is fantastic.  So you really can’t go wrong.

There is always something new to do in Singapore.  Keep an eye out on www.yoursingapore.com, www.timeoutsingapore.com or even just make sure you pick up the tourist brochures at the airport like Where and you will find out all you need to know about where to go and what to do.  I can recommend any tours by Tour East (www.toureast.net), especially the Night Safari with dinner, which I find to be the best value.

Singapore is not just about tourist attractions though, so if like me, you had no idea how much history Singapore had particularly in relation to World War II, make sure you check out Fort Siloso (on Sentosa), Changi Prison & Chapel, Fort Canning or the Old Ford Factory for starters.

Culture vultures will not want to miss the Chinatown Heritage Museum and the Peranakan Museum.  There are also numerous walking tours through Chinatown and Little India.  And for art lovers – you must stop by SAM or the Art Science Museum.  But sometimes, the best thing about Singapore is that even if you just stroll around the streets, you will get a really good picture of the country, its food and its people.  And don’t be afraid to try anything here – the food is amazing.

Again, things don’t get going until around 10/11am in the morning, so use the time to enjoy brunch, sleep in or just explore the streets or Botanic Gardens while it’s quiet.

Hotel 1929’s terrace rooms are the best.  That said, I would only chose one of these if I were by myself or with a boyfriend etc, simply because the rooms are on the small side and the toilet is situated in with the shower, surrounded by glass.  The hotel itself is in a great location, the staff were amazing.  Free wifi, good coffee, free breakfast, free cookies and drinks.  Well worth the price, which was much less than a lot of the other big name hotels

Don’t bother with a transfer here, just grab a cab from outside the airport.

Overall

Whilst there’s lots of conjecture over what works and what doesn’t when trying to combat jet lag, what worked for me was a) following the time clock of the city I arrived in (ie. even if you are tired, make yourself go out for dinner or even just sit on a city sightseeing bus and go to sleep when the sun goes down) and b) try Jet Ease (or No Jet Lag), they may be called something different in your country, but I found this homeopathic remedy to work a treat.

Book transfers.  I know you can catch taxis, but I prefer to know that I don’t have to bothered thinking about where I’m going and how I’m going to get there after a long flight.

I booked a lot of tickets on line which saved time queuing up.

When you are budgeting, make sure you include for tipping – I found this added incredibly to my bills in Cayman and the US.

Everyone will tell you this – but don’t over pack.  You won’t use it all.  And if there’s something  you need while you are there, if you need it bad enough, you can buy it.

Buy a second battery for your camera.  I take lots of photos and the best investment I made was in a second battery.  I find there are lots of days where I spend all day snapping away and not having to worry that I’m running out of battery is a relief.  Obviously make sure you have lots of spare cards if you are also this way inclined.

My best flights were with Emirates, Jet Blue and Singapore Airlines.  I was surprised that you had to buy food on the six hour Virgin flight from New York to Seattle.

Order a low fat meal for the flight home!

Any questions?  Please drop me a line and I’ll be more than happy to share my point of view!

Who I Am and How this Shapes the Way I Travel

I am a planner.  I always have been and to some extent, probably always will be.  And I’m not the only one – from one friend who lists of each days activity to its matching outfit, coordinating jewellery, shoes and hairstyle to another who has mastered the art of the ‘practice pack’.  Everyone travels differently.

I like to know what’s going on and what there is to see and do in my proposed destination.  Some tours and events only run on certain days and if you don’t plan ahead you can miss something awesome, like a 2am fire walking ceremony for the Indian celebration of Timiti or tickets to watch Motley Crue minus the crushing metalhead crowds in Singapore.  I spend a lot of time trying to look for something a bit different that gives me a glimpse into why the country and its people are they way they are.

Until you start digging, all you find are the usual array of tours and sightseeing that EVERYBODY ELSE sees!  If you persevere though, you can find some really great alternative tours that help you get a different view of the city you are visiting.  It all depends on what you like and what you think a holiday should consist of, but for me – if I can do it at home, there’s no point leaving home (ie. lying by the pool all day sounds incredibly boring to me).

I spend hours reading and scouring the internet, but I generally look at a couple of sites in particular when trying to find something to do.  Time Out is always a good website to have a look at, and is available for a lot of locations around the world – Singapore and KL’s versions are particularly good.  Time Out will tell you what exhibitions, gigs, restaurants, shops, hotels and other events to check out.

The BBC’s news website has a travel section, which often highlights interesting items of news and great photos of world events and festivals, such as Kumbh Melah, Holi and La Tomatina.

Then I also look for a tourism website – because they do generally give you a calendar of events of what’s on – and a local news site, just to see what makes the place tick.

I do a budget – I don’t always stick to it, but it gives me a rough guide of what to save.   It helps me to book all the ‘locked in’ things on my itinerary, flights, accommodation, transfers, tours etc first, then I know that whatever I can save from that point until my trip departure date, is what I have left to spend.  Usually never enough.

Unless I’m going to Japan or Singapore, I usually always book a transfer to and from the airport.  It’s the easiest and safest way to get from the airport to your hotel (and back).  And let’s face it, the last thing you want after a long flight is to deal with hagglers for a taxi at an airport or worse, get ripped off.  Of course, I am a cautious traveller as well, and for me, sometimes peace of mind doesn’t have a price.

Choosing hotels, I do a location search first just to check out who I can stalk and where all the shops are, then narrow it down by price and Trip Advisor reviews.  Some people are really, really fussy.  At the end of the day, you just want somewhere safe and clean to stay – you don’t need a palace.  Get an overall opinion of the feedback – I generally ignore any comments about how small the room is – look at the area in proximity to the stuff you want to see (you don’t want to spend all your time travelling back and forth across the city), look at the traveller photos and then make your decision.  I have seen countless reviews on hotels in red light areas, from people who seem to be absolutely disgusted with their stay in a questionable neighbourhood – but I’ve stayed in a few of them, and have had no problems whatsoever – you are obviously going to see a different side of town, but if you keep to yourself, you shouldn’t have any problems.  Having said that, I don’t like the thought of staying in hostels (though my wallet wishes I did!).  And when I’m travelling by myself, I do like to go for something a bit quirky.  And of course, some countries are more expensive for a solo traveller than others – Japan is great, the US not so much!

Then I look out for the deal and book.  Sometimes you can get a better deal direct through the hotel website, other times you get a great deal on Agoda or Expedia.  Luck of the draw.  Some hotels have chain discounts if you stay in them across a country or around the world.  Japan has some awsome Best Western Hotels, so I got myself a card a have used it to book a Best Western hotel in San Francisco.  Hopefully the points will help me towards some free accommodation for a return trip to Japan in the future.  Some hotels also give you mileage points on your frequent flyer cards for your stay (ie. I can use my stay at the Traders Hotel in Kuala Lumpur to earn miles on my Singapore Airlines Krisflyer card).  Because I intend to do a fair bit of travelling over the next few years, I’m trying to set myself up with a few different point earning options so that I can get some freebies or upgrades down the track.  My Velocity Rewards card has already landed me a free flight from New York to Seattle!

I also do a bit of research to find out what restaurants, cafes and convenience stores are located around my hotel area.  It doesn’t mean I only eat at those, I just like to know where they are.  It makes a difference when you arrive late, or have to leave early in the morning, and if you are cautious about going out by yourself for dinner at night.  And let’s face it, it’s a dream of mine to eat at the Hard Rock Cafe in every available city in the world, so I need to know where they are.

This all probably seems a bit over the top at times, but my aim at the end of the day is to create for myself the best possible experience I can have in a limited time space and being organised helps me to achieve that.  It’s not to say that I’m inflexible or that I’ll throw a hissy fit if something doesn’t go as planned, but as a single girl travelling, I just think it can’t hurt to be a bit prepared.

Iguana Nightmares

Oh great!  The iguana nightmares have started.  You know the one where you’re merrily walking down the road until suddenly he appears – a massive blue/green iguana, teeth bared, hissing his scaly little head off, chunkly little legs running towards you, his jaws ready to lock down on you at any moment.  You go to scream, but no sound comes out, ‘help me, somebody please help me’, you scream as you run for your life…then, thank goodness.  You wake up in a pool of sweat – it was just a dream!

Ahem…right, well on with the story.  Iguana nightmares aside, planning for my journey to the other end of the world is going swimmingly well!  The stops are all locked in (Perth, London, Grand Cayman Islands, New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Singapore and then home), all my flights are now booked and I’m making a good start on the accommodation.

Accommodation is such a tricky one for me!  I’m definitely not the hostel type of person (unforunately for my budget), and I like something a bit different, but also the location needs to be great.  I’ve just booked my one night’s accommodation in Singapore in a funky looking little boutique hotel in Chinatown that has its own balcony with a claw foot bath tub outside!  The other good thing is, it’s near a part of Chinatown that I’ve been unable to explore as yet, so hopefully I’m not too exhausted on my trip home, and I can be bothered to take a wander around.

One thing that has surprised me is that I’ve always made a plan and stuck to it.  But this time I seem to be changing stuff all over the place and the interary keeps shifting and changing with the days!  Do I stay in the cities or try and get out to the countryside?  How much shopping do I schedule in (stupid question)?  Where do I utilise a tour group and where can I save money by doing it myself?  What non-touristy things can I do?  And then, Oh God, I’ve forgotten to put in a fitness activity – where can I fit that?

It’s really like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle!  Just as well I like puzzles…

The Wonderful World of the Web

One of the topics of conversation this week was ‘what is the value of a travel agent in this day and age?’  I also found myself asking the same question, when I asked for a brochure on the Caribbean, more specifically the Grand Cayman Islands and I was handed this brochure….for the South Pacific!
This trip to Japan is the first time in my life that I have actually used the internet to book and plan my whole trip….flights, accommodation, tours and research and been travel agent free.  The WWW has been fabulous.
Thinking back to the times I’ve asked questions of a travel agent about a destination, I’ve usually been met with ‘I don’t know, I’ve never been there!’  I’ve been booked in smoking rooms when I’ve requested non-smoking rooms and I’ve had transfers that haven’t turned up.  And I’m sure that when I’ve checked hotel websites myself, they seem to have had better deals than what the travel agent has offered up.  Not to mention, you are at the liberty of the agents ‘getting around to your queries’.  My trip has been planned and booked by me, at my leisure (all right my speed – right now) and it’s all done and dusted.
Anyway, if you’re ever planning a trip to Japan, here’s a list of the resources that I’ve found invaluable in planning my trip.  I hope they can be useful to you too!
http://www.japan-guide.com/ – this guide tells you everything you need to know about Japan – accommodation, entry fees, how to get around, forums etc, etc.  In fact, if it’s not on this website, it’s probably not worth knowing!
http://www.viator.com/ – awesome guide for booking tours.  Viator also includes photos and reviews from other people who have previously done the tours.  Bookings are really easy to make and you are notified of your bookings straight away.
http://www.agoda.com/ – I used Agoda to book about half of my accommodation.  What I didn’t book on here, I booked direct through the hotels.
http://www.thebackstreetguides.com/ – Tokyo tour group that do numerous day and night tours, including the one I intend on taking, which tours Golden Gai in Kabukicho.  These guys are on Facebook also.
http://www.tripadvisor.com/ – Great for checking out other peoples opinions of accommodation, tours, locations etc, etc.  Obviously everyone’s opinion is different, and some people are pickier than others.  But if a review is generally good, it’s a goer for me!
http://www.japanican.com/ – good resource for booking tours and city information.  Has some good deals and links to loads of other websites.
I’m sure there’s others I have forgotten, but from now on, I’m definitely gonna be travel agent free!