Tag: Helpful Tips

Travel Photography Hacks for Awesome Pictures

Travel Photography Hacks for Awesome Pictures

When traveling, it can sometimes be difficult to capture the essence of a place. Witness my 300+ photos of the Grand Canyon, none of which accurately portray just how vast and colorful a place it is. That experience led me to take my photos to the next level by using simple travel photography hacks. Here are the best travel photography hacks I’ve found. The first seven of them can be used regarless of what tyoe of camera you have –  they will work just as well with a phone camera as they will with a high-end DSLR.

Travel Photography Hack #1

The Rule of Thirds

This one is the easiest to use, provided you can remember to do it. Imagine that your photo will be divided into three rows and three columns. The subject of your photo – the thing that you want to capture – should be along one of those lines rather than dead center. Like the example below:

travel photography hacks rule of thirds
(source)

This image of a solitary tree in a field would have been uninteresting if it was the only thing in the photo. By placing it along the right vertical line, we get an infinitely more intriguing image of the tree in its environment.  We see that the landscape is mountainous, that the air is foggy, and that there are no other trees in the immediate vicinity.  This photo invites us to step in and look around for more details. Without the rule of thirds, we would just say, “Oh, look.  A tree.”

Travel Photography Hack #2

Use a Different Approach

I would guess that 90% of photos are taken from eye level.  It’s natural to shoot from that angle because that is the angle from which we see our subjects. By shooting from above or below, or even from the side, we can get much more dramatic photos.  Some examples:

Travel photography hacks photograph from below
The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, MO, photographed from below

 

Travel Photography Hacks Photgraphing from Above
A plate of food is almost always better photographed from above to show off its colors and textures.

As you can see above, using a different angle can make the subject of your photo look very different than it would if photographed at eye level!

Travel Photography Hack #3

Zoom!

Play with the perspective of your photo. Zoom in or zoom out. To zoom in, if you are photographing something that is close to you, you can utilize a macro feature for an up close and personal look.  (The macro lens is particularly good for photos of flowers, insects, etc.)  Or just zoom in. Either way, you can make things look closer than they actually are, and capture details that in many cases are not seen by the eye alone. In this photo, I zoomed in for a closer look at the water droplets:

Travel Photography Hacks Macro Lens
A recently watered autumn crocus in Alnwick Garden‘s Poison Garden. 

And in this one, I zoomed in for a closer look at a lion at the National Zoo:

Travel Photography Hacks zoom in macro telephoto
Lion at the National Zoo in Washington DC

It looks like I was only a few feet away from him, doesn’t it?

 

Travel Photography Hack #4

Check the Background

The background of your photo may seem inconsequential, but it can ruin an otherwise perfect shot. Before pressing the button, make sure your background is free from any distracting elements such as photo bombers (intentional or accidental) and clutter.  Here are some examples of photos that were taken while the photographer was too focused on the subject to notice what was in the background.

 

Travel Photography Hacks - Clean Up the Background
How many parents DON’T have a photo like this?

 

Travel Photography Hacks - Check the Background
Animals can be the worst photobombers.

Travel Photography Hack #5

Look for Symmetry and Patterns

Some of the most striking travel photos are those that feature symmetry and repeated patterns.  A reflection on still water is a wonderful way to acquire symmetry in your photo, and it adds more depth to the subject.

Travel Photography Hacks - Symmetry
The sunset’s reflection on the water at the Crusty Crab in Greenbackville, Virginia.

Patterns are all around us.  The weathered wood siding of an old barn, a series of arches/doorways, masonry in walls and pavements. etc.

Travel Photography Hacks framing your subject
A series of arched doorways in the Morocco pavilion at Disney World’s Epcot Center.

Travel Photography Hack #6

Pay Attention to Your Lighting

For the best travel photos, don’t be so quick to turn on your flash.  Use natural light whenever possible, and if you’re using a DSLR camera, try increasing your ISO instead. On an iPhone, you can touch one of the darker areas of your picture to adjust the brightness before taking the photo. I could have taken a flash picture of this stained glass window, but the results would have been much less dramatic than using the natural light outside to capture its beauty:

Travel Photography Hacks Using Natural Light
Light coming through a stained glass window at the chapel of St Micheal’s Mount in Cornwall, England.

While a flash will illuminate the subjects of a photograph, it’s important to remember that it is still providing artificial light.  Colors may be slightly off, and there may be shadows in the photo that you aren’t seeing with your eyes.  Natural light can add mood and texture that might not be conveyed in a flash photo.

Travel Photography Hacks - Natural Light
Details like the fuzziness of the stem would likely be lost in a flash photo.

Also, flashes can highlight the negative aspects of an object just as much as the positive ones. Imagine my surprise when I took this picture of a pretty chest in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC:

Travel Photography Hacks - Don't Use Flash Every Time
Look at all that dust under the chest!

Somebody needs to get a Swiffer under there!

Additionally, there are two ways to alter your photographs by the way you position and use your lighting. The first is to use a low light behind your subject to create a silhouette.

Travel Photography Hacks - Silhouettes and Lighting
The setting sun transforms these two dogs into silhouettes.

The second is to take advantage of the golden tone that the sun casts on objects as it sets in the evening. This effect was really beautiful at the Grand Canyon, where they even run special sunset tours. The colors of the canyon became brighter and more vibrant as the sun dipped lower in the sky.

Travel Photography Hacks - Sunset

Travel Photography Hack #7

Frame the Subject

When you frame a subject, you use natural lines within the photo to draw attention to it.  The best examples of items that frame a subject are doorways and windows. Those lines also serve to add depth to your photo, making it seem more three dimensional and real. Here are two of my favorites:

Travel Photography Hacks Framing Your Subject
A glimpse of the water through an open doorway at Ft Mackinac on Mackinac Island, Michigan.

 

Travel Photoraphy Hacks Framing Your Subject
Two gorillas at the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium in Ohio.

Travel Photography Hack #8

DIY Equipment for DSLR Cameras

There are gadgets for almost every photography effect and purpose.  But before you rush out and buy that gizmo, consider whether you will use it enough to justify the expense.  There is no need to drop your hard-earned cash on an item that will have very limited use. here are some DIY alternatives.  Try them first and if you like the effect, then consider buying the real thing.

  • Macro Lens – an old binocular lens held up to the camera will magnify the subject in much the same way as a macro setting would.
  • Bokeh Filter – to get the sort of fuzzy light effect in the background known as bokeh, you can cut a small shape in a piece of cardboard and then attache it to your camera lens as shown below.
Travel Photography Hacks - DIY Equipment
You can experiment with all different shapes of bokeh
  • Soft Focus Filter – stretch some pantyhose over the camera lens and hold it in place with a rubber band
  • Fisheye Lens – the lens from an apartment door’s peephole will provide the same effect as a fisheye lens (You can buy a peephole kit at a home improvement store for much less than a DSLR fisheye lens would cost)
  • Tripod – many times we can use stationary objects to stabilize our camera without a tripod.  For instance, if you are standing near a pole, lean your camera against it. You can further stabilize it by wrapping your camera strap around the pole and gripping it tightly.
  • Glare Reduction – use a cardboard coffee sleeve around the camera lens to reduce glare
  • Blurry Edges – some say smearing Vaseline on the lens will create this effect.  I prefer to wrap a plastic bag around lens (just the outer perimeter, not completely covering the whole lens)

I hope you have enjoyed these tips and that you will be able to use them when you travel.  Do you have any to add?

 

 

Ten Things You Need to Know Before Going to Peru

Ten Things You Need to Know Before Going to Peru

Peru Travel Tips

Even though I had been to Peru before and was comfortable with the idea of traveling there, I was still a little surprised (or at least reminded) about the quirkier aspects of traveling in this South American country.  Here are some important Peru travel tips.

1. You will need your passport, even when you think you don’t.

peru travel tips machu picchu passport
US Passport

I knew I would need my passport to leave the US and enter Peru (and vice versa) but what I didn’t know was that we would also need our passports to travel within Peru. When we flew from Lima to Cusco, we needed to show our passports. We also needed them when we bought tickets for the bus that ferries tourists up to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. And when we entered Machu Picchu, we needed to show our passports. I learned to just keep my passport with me at all times in a zippered pouch that hung around my neck. I always had it with me, but didn’t need to worry about losing them.

2. Before leaving the airport is the best time to change money, buy SIM card, get information.

peru travel tips airport baggage claim currency exchange sim card

When you arrive in the luggage claim section of the Lima Airport, you will see some kiosks set up in between the baggage carousels.  There are three that are particularly helpful.  First is an information desk, which is a great place to get recommendations, directions, etc.  Second is a cellular phone provider. Buy yourself a local prepaid SIM card and forgo paying for international roaming charges. Third is a currency exchange kiosk. Some may disagree, but I found that the rates at the airport kiosk were comparable to those elsewhere in the city, and the convenience factor was a big plus.

3. You don’t have to know Spanish, but it sure does help.

peru travel tips spanish

Nearly everywhere we went in Peru, we found individuals who spoke English.  However, we did notice that when I spoke Spanish with people, they were more receptive, helpful and friendly. While they might view my tendency to only speak in the present tense as quirky or improper, they appreciated the fact that I was at least making an effort to speak in their language rather than expecting them to speak in mine.

4. You can bring luggage on the train to Machu Picchu

peru travel tips luggage on train t o aguas calientes machu picchu

Everything I read when I was planning our trip said that no luggage was allowed on the trains to Aguas Calientes.  As far as I could tell, that left me with three options: (1) find out if we could leave our luggage at the place we were staying after checking out, (2) pay for an extra night at the apartment, and leave the majority of our things there, or (3) be a rule-breaker and bring the luggage, pretending I didn’t know about that rule.  I went with option 2. We put toiletries and a change of clothes in a backpack and left everything else in the apartment we were renting.  Imagine my surprise when I boarded and saw a sturdy luggage rack right by the door.  So yes, you can take luggage with you.

5. Learn to say “no, gracias.” A lot.

peru travel tips no gracias street vendors

We could not walk, stand, or sit anywhere in Cusco without being approached by someone who wanted to sell us something.  Sunglasses, tours, bags, hats, jewelry, decorative gourds, shoe shines, and so on.  It only took one afternoon to see that this would be an ongoing issue.  At first we listened politely and declined politely, but we soon learned that these vendors would not take no for an answer.  After that first afternoon, we learned to keep our eyes down, our pace brisk, and a “no, gracias, ” on the tip of the tongue, ready to turn the street vendor away.

6. Don’t wait for the waiters to bring your check.

peru travel tips dining out restaurants

If you finish your meal and sit around the table waiting for your waiter to bring the check, you will be there a long time.  Americans tend to get in, eat, and get out, but we are in the minority when in comes to dining out.  You will find neither hovering nor impatient waitstaff in Peruvian restaurants. When you are ready to leave, simply motion to your server and ask for the bill (cuenta in Spanish).

7. A double room might not be what you think it is.

I booked a double room at a hotel in Aguas Calientes for the three of us.  I assumed that it would be like a hotel room in the States – two double beds, bathroom, TV, and some furniture in which to place clothing. Imagine my surprise when we arrived and discovered that a double room was two twin size beds.  Fortunately, they had a room available that could accommodate three people without one having to sleep on the floor.  Be sure to ask when booking what size bed(s) you will have in your room.

8. Lima’s rush hour can mess up your plans.

peru travel tips rush hour traffic

I heard from more than one taxi driver in Lima that their evening rush hour lasts from 5:00 until 9:00 PM every weekday.  What I didn’t hear was how that could adversely affect our plans.  It became glaringly obvious on our last day in the City of Kings when we found ourselves near the Plaza de Armas around 5:00 PM, needing to get a cab back to Miraflores where a driver would be picking us up at 8:00 PM to take us to the airport. Nearly every cab that passed us already had a passenger.  One cab stopped but when we told him we wanted to go to Miraflores, he drove off, unwilling to drive that far in rush hour traffic.  We walked for a while, stopped and ate dinner at a KFC, and walked some more.  We called for an Uber car twice; they never showed up.  Finally someone stopped and asked if we needed a taxi. We reached the apartment at 8:10 PM.  Fortunately, our driver was waiting for us and we made it to the airport on time.

9. The Toilets.

peru travel tips rest room toilet

I will try not to be too indelicate, but the toilets in Peru are different from what we are used to here. While some are exactly the same, others are noticeably different.  The first glaringly obvious difference is that many do not have seats. The second big difference is that in most places, you are not supposed to flush your toilet paper.  The infrastructure is not equipped to handle it.  So regardless of what you do in the toilet, you are supposed to fold up your used toilet paper and place it in a nearby trash can. Not so bad when you are sharing a bathroom with your family, but when you’re out and about and using a public restroom, the ick factor increases exponentially.

10. It’s worth it to pay for a guided tour.

peru travel tips tour guide

We paid a nice young man to give us a tour at the Cusco Cathedral.  It cost just $10 and lasted about an hour.  That was probably the best $10 I’ve ever spent.  He gave us so much more information than we could have possibly picked up or learned on our own.  Definitely money well spent.  We did the same at Machu Picchu and also at the Archbishop’s Palace in Lima.  Each time we felt like we got a lot more from our sightseeing because we learned the history and significance in a way that only a local could explain.  Paying for a guide is a great way to add depth to your travel experience and is well worth the small fee.

I hope these tips help you prepare for your journey to Peru!  Are there any you would add?

Five Things You Need to Consider When Booking with Spirit Airlines

Five Things You Need to Consider When Booking with Spirit Airlines

spirit airlines review

Is Flying with a Budget Airline a Good Idea?

I am always on the lookout for an air travel bargain, and since virtually EVERYWHERE is on my bucket list, I tend to not hesitate when a great fare pops up.

So in late February when I learned that Spirit was having an huge sale for May travel, provided that you traveled on Tuesday or Wednesday, I decided to check it out. Then I found out that Spirit flies to Lima, Peru. With the discount, the fare was right around $200 per person, which is a steal. And Machu Picchu was on my bucket list.  I booked that flight without a moment’s hesitation, not even bothering to look for Spirit Airlines reviews online.

Spirit Airlines Review

If I had Googled “Spirit Airlines review,” I might not have gone through with the booking.  Spirit is not well liked by former passengers. But as they say, ignorance is bliss.  Following is my Spirit Airlines review, and what I learned about the airline.  There are four warnings to consider if you’re thinking of traveling with Spirit, and one recommendation that I would give to a traveler on any airline, not just Spirit.

Caveat #1

When you book with Spirit, you are only paying for your seat. They call it a “bare fare” because it includes nothing else. Put another way: Everything other than that seat comes with a fee.  Want a snack or beverage? Fee. Want to check a bag? Fee. Want to pick out your seats? Fee. Want to have a carry on bag? Fee.

Taking that into consideration, your bargain airfare might end up not being such a bargain after all. For all three of us, seat selection and checked baggage fees added a little over $300 to the total. If those fees had added $300 to the total of a shorter, cheaper flight, I might have reconsidered. But for Lima, the airfare + fees worked out to be about $315 per person, which is still far cheaper than average. (It usually runs $500-$700.)

Caveat #2

Spirit does not have reclining seats on their planes. They say it’s because it adds a lot of weight (something like 70 pounds per row, if I recall correctly), and the heavier the plane, the more fuel it uses, the more expensive it is to fly, etc.

spirit airlines review

Normally, I don’t recline my seat because I find it really irritating when people in front of me do it. So I didn’t miss this feature at all.

Until.

Our return flight from Lima had a departure time of 11:00 PM.  We had been sightseeing in Lima all day and we were tired.  We wanted to sleep.  Seats that don’t recline don’t make for comfortable sleeping arrangements, so it was a long and restless flight back to the US.

Caveat #3

There is no on-board entertainment on Spirit Airlines.  There is no selection of movies or music provided for you to while away the time. I got around this by downloading some shows and movies on Netflix, which I watched offline on my iPad during the flight.  It was great!

Caveat #4

As mentioned above, Spirit does not offer complimentary snacks or beverages. However, unlike your local movie theater, they don’t prohibit you from bringing your own with you. So buy a bottle of water from the airport newsstand (after you’ve gone through security, of course), or fill your own reusable bottle at a water fountain. Pack a few granola bars, a piece of fruit, a bag of chips, or whatever you like to nibble on, and you’ll be good to go.

And One Recommendation

Because I knew all of this prior to booking, I did not have any expectations of our flight that did not match with reality. And I found it all to be perfectly fine because I took the time to become informed and prepared.

However, I also went a step further and made sure that our flight would be a good one by spending $4. The “personal item” I had (which is free, but also smaller than a carry-on) was a student size backpack. The day before we left I put two things in there for the flight crew.  One was a small bag of Dove chocolates.  The other was a card thanking them for ensuring our safety and letting them know that we respected them and their work.

It might have sounded kiss-uppy, but it was true. Airline employees – particularly the flight attendants – were getting maligned in the media almost daily. The Dr. Dao/United Airlines episode had been all over the news a few weeks earlier, followed by the story about girls not being allowed to use their free tickets because they violated the dress code (leggings), followed by a flight being canceled because someone got up and used the rest room when the plane was waiting to take off, followed by a couple of other news items I had seen. Feel free to disagree with me if you want, but it in each of those cases I believe that the passenger was at fault for disregarding the instructions of the flight crew.

The crew was so thankful to hear from a passenger that their work was appreciated (as opposed to being completely disrespected) that they could not thank me enough. And although it was not my motivation, we were treated exceptionally well as a result of that gesture of goodwill. We were given complimentary beverages and the captain even thanked us over the loudspeaker.

Would I fly with Spirit again? Absolutely! But I would probably think twice before booking an overnight flight.

Spirit Airlines has a special page they refer to as Spirit Airlines 101 in which they give you a run-down on how they do things.  It’s full of helpful tips and information to avoid disappointing surprises at the airport. Because no one wants to start their vacation off with unanticipated expenses.

spirit airlines review

Changes Are Coming to Machu Picchu

Changes Are Coming to Machu Picchu

Last month, I was lucky enough to cross a destination off of my bucket list:  Machu Picchu.

new machu picchu rules july 2017

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my experience at Machu Picchu was very different from what most tourists will experience after me.  You see, a new set of strict rules will be in effect starting July 1, 2017.

The New Rules:

There are three major changes that will affect your visit, plus a laundry list of prohibited items/activities.

The first major change requires that a licensed guide accompany all visitors entering Machu Picchu. Guide-led groups will consist of no more than 16 people.

We used a guide when we went to Machu Picchu and we were glad we did.  There were so many things that we would not have noticed or understood without him.  (Signage at Machu Picchu is almost non-existent.) For instance, take a look at this photo:

machu picchu guide new rules july 2017

Our guide had previously told us that the stones the Incas used to build were perfectly smooth and straight for buildings of special importance, such as temples and the king’s residence.  Here, he is showing us the back wall of a temple and a connecting priest’s quarters.  The stones on the far left side of the picture (the temple) are very smooth, flat, and straight.  However, as the wall progresses to the right (priest’s quarters), the stones become more roughly hewn.

Would we have known that without our guide?  No way.  We probably wouldn’t have even noticed.  So I think that having a guide will add to the Machu Picchu experience in a beneficial way.  I don’t know if the Peruvian government  will pay the guides, or if visitors will have to pay them.  Either way, I’m sure you can expect the expense of visiting Machu Picchu to increase.  We paid our guide 35 soles (about $10) per person for a group of eight.

The second major change is that admission to the site will be split into two time frames: morning (6:00 AM to 12:00 noon) or afternoon (12:00 noon to 5:30 PM). That doesn’t seem too bad until you learn that you must enter and leave the site within the same time frame.  If you have morning tickets and you don’t get there until 11:00 AM, you will have just one hour to see Machu Picchu before you are escorted from the premises. But that’s not all.  Once you go through the exit, you cannot re-enter.  This could present a problem for anyone in need of a rest room, as those facilities are located outside the site.

The third major change is that the site will have clearly defined tour routes, and you will have to choose which route you want to take when you book your ticket. Route 1 is the physically demanding classic route, which takes in the upper sector of the citadel, before heading in a large loop around to the lower-sector. Routes 2 & 3 go through the mid and lower-sectors, and are more suitable for those who want a more relaxing visit.

Visitors who wish to climb Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain now have set entrance times as well. Those wishing to climb Huayna Picchu must be at the trail head between 7:00 AM and 8:00 AM or between 10:00 AM and 11:00 AM.  Those wishing to climb Machu Picchu Mountain must be present at the trail head between 7:00 AM and 8:00 AM or between 9:00 AM and 10:00 AM.

Prohibited at Machu Picchu:

The following items will be prohibited at Machu Picchu after July 1, 2017:

  • Bags/backpacks larger than 40 x 35 x 20 cm (15.7 x 13.7 x 7.9”). You will have to check larger items at the entrance for a small fee.
  • Food and/or beverages of any type, alcoholic or non-alcoholic.
  • Umbrellas or sun shades. (You may, however, wear hats and ponchos or rain coats.)
  • Photographic tripods or any type of camera stand/support. This is only permitted with pre-authorization and an appropriate permit.
  • Musical instruments, including megaphones and speakers.
  • Shoes with high-heels or hard soles. Shoes with soft soles (like those found on tennis shoes or walking shoes/boots).
  • Children’s strollers. Only strap on baby/child carriers are permitted.
  • Walking sticks with a metal or hard point. Elderly people and physically handicapped people may use a walking stick provided that it has a rubber tip.

Some actions are prohibited, too.  As of July 1, 2017, you may not:

  • Climb or lean on walls or any part of the citadel.
  • Touch, move or remove any stone items / structures.
  • Make loud noises, applaud, shout, whistle and sing.
  • Smoke or use an electronic cigarette.
  • Feed the resident or wild animals.
  • Paraglide or fly any type of drone or small aircraft.

If you keep these regulations in mind when planning your trip, you will not find any unpleasant surprises once you get to Machu Picchu.

Wondering what a visit to Machu Picchu is like?  Click here to read about our experience!

Airline Passenger Rights – What You Need to Know

Airline Passenger Rights – What You Need to Know

Everyone is talking about the viral news story on the 70-year-old doctor who was forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight. The story raises several questions. Did United act illegally? Did the passenger have a choice? Can the airlines really ask people to leave the plane?

Let’s break it down.

First, when you purchase an airline ticket, you are entering into a “contract of carriage” with the airline. That contract covers everything from smoking policy to service animals to surcharges to – you guessed it – involuntarily denial of boarding (bumping).

Passenger Rights #1 – Upon request, the airline must provide you with their contract of carriage.

By law, they have to provide you with this contract if you want it. That said, unless you have a penchant for reading page after page of legalese, you might not really want it. Just be aware that it spells out their policies in detail and you can ask them for a copy if need be.  You may be able to access the contracts of carriage online, too.  United Airlines’ contract of carriage makes for great bedtime reading. (Yawn.)

So, did the airline have the right to ask passengers to voluntarily give up their seats?  Yes, because the passengers agreed to that possibility when they purchased their tickets.

Initially, the crew offered $400 compensation for those who would be willing to leave the plane.  No one took the bait.  Then they doubled the offer to $800.  Still no one took the bait.  No other planes were departing until the next day, so getting off the plane would mean a significant delay and an overnight stay. I’d do it for $800.  Or I would have, before I researched what the law requires.  Which leads me to…

Passenger Rights #2 – If overbooking causes a delay of an hour or more, you can receive financial compensation, up to $1350.

overbooked flight passenger rights

For compensation rates, the base figure is the cost of the one-way flight to the first stop (or to the destination if it’s a direct flight).

For delays of more than one hour but less than two hours, the compensation rate is 200% of the base figure, up to $675. Say you’re flying from Boston to Los Angeles with a stop in Chicago and you get bumped from the first leg of your trip. You’re able to get a reservation on a different flight to Chicago, but you’ll be arriving 90 minutes later than you would have on the initial flight. Your maximum compensation would be double the cost of the Boston to Chicago leg. (Note: these figures apply to domestic flights. For international flights the range is more than one but less than four hours.)

For more significant delays of two hours or more, you can receive four times the cost of that leg of the trip, up to a maximum of $1350. Yes, you’re reading that correctly: $1350. If your direct flight from New York to San Francisco cost $338 or more, you can receive a reimbursement of $1350 by getting off the plane. If it was a $100 flight, you would get $400.  (Note: these figures apply to domestic flights. For international flights the criterion is four hours or more.)

As you can see from the news story above, the airline isn’t going to ask you to get off the plane and then make it rain $100 bills down on your head as you leave. You need to ask for full compensation, and be clear that you know what the magic formula is.

Passenger Rights #3 – The airline must issue the compensation check within 24 hours.

Compensation will be in the form of a check. It is your right to receive that check right there in the airport. However, if you’re booked on an alternate flight that departs before you can get the check, the airline must send it to you within 24 hours.

Passenger Rights #4 – You do not have to take an airfare voucher in lieu of payment.

The airline may offer a voucher for free airfare instead of a check payment. In this instance you need to know two things:  first, the value of the transportation credit must be equal to or greater than the monetary compensation you would have received. Second, you don’t have to accept. You are within your rights to decline the airfare voucher and request monetary compensation instead.

Passenger Rights #5 – If your flight is canceled, you are entitled to a refund.

passenger rights flight cancellation

In the event of a flight cancellation, you will not receive compensation as such. However, you can receive a full refund (even if it’s a non-refundable ticket) or book a new ticket at no additional cost to you.

Passenger Rights #6 – You do not have to stay on the plane indefinitely if it’s sitting on the tarmac.

During a lengthy tarmac delay in the U.S. (upon either arrival or departure), airlines may not keep you on a plane for more than three hours (domestic flight) or four hours (international flight) without allowing you to get off if you wish, subject to security and safety considerations. Each airline must provide food and water after two hours of delay.  They must also provide updates to passengers every 30 minutes, and assure that airplane lavatories are operable. It’s important to note that when an airline violates the tarmac rules, you receive no compensation. Instead, the DOT fines the airline. (Small comfort, I know.)

Passenger Rights #7 – If you cancel within 24 hours of booking, you can receive a full refund.

The airline cannot assess charges, fees or penalties for canceling an airline reservation if your departure is at least seven days away and you are canceling within 24 hours of making the reservation. After 24 hours have passed, you can expect some fees. This is great news for comparison shoppers who book a flight on Tuesday evening and awake Wednesday morning to find a much cheaper fare.

Passenger Rights #8 – You can receive compensation if the airline loses your luggage, even temporarily.

If you arrive at your destination but your luggage doesn’t, notify a baggage representative right away. Then ask about the airline’s reimbursement guidelines. Typically, reimbursements only cover basic toiletries and essential items.  Make sure you keep all receipts for your purchases, so that you can submit them for reimbursement.

passenger rights lost luggage baggage

If, on the other hand, your luggage has gone to the land of single socks (i.e., disappeared and never to be seen again), and you traveled within the US, the airline is required to reimburse you for your belongings, up to $3300. However, the airline may request receipts or proof of purchase for the claimed items. Even then, they will only reimburse the depreciated value of your suitcase and its contents. It really helps to have a list of everything you packed (if not receipts) for this purpose.

The Flip Side of the Coin

And that covers most of your rights as a passenger. However, the airlines have rights too, and passengers have some responsibilities. They are:

  1. Airlines reserve the right to change routes and/or schedules at any time and for any reason.  Yes, I agree, it sucks.  American Airlines did that to us on our trip to England last fall. I not only ended up spending way too much time in the Philadelphia airport, I also lost about five hours of planned sightseeing in London.  The only recourse you have if this happens to you is to cancel and re-book at your expense.  The only good news is that, in this situation, they can’t charge you any fees for canceling.
  2. Airlines reserve the right to choose which passengers to bump from a flight if no one volunteers to give up their seat. This is what happened with the United Airlines flight.  No one volunteered to leave the plane, so they chose who would.  The process for choosing varies by airline.  Some operate on a first come, first served basis.  Others give priority to first class ticket holders, people with disabilities, and families with children.  Yet others go by how much the passenger paid for their ticket.
  3. As passengers, we are responsible for complying with any instructions that the flight crew gives us. The ugly situation with the United flight could have been avoided if the passenger left the plane when asked.  Sure, he thought he needed to be on that flight because he had important things to do the next day.  I’m willing to bet the other people on that plane thought the exact same thing about themselves. Otherwise, they would have volunteered to get off the plane and taken the $800 they were offered.
  4. There are extenuating circumstances in which you can be kept waiting on the tarmac in excess of what is allowed. You may be kept waiting on the tarmac longer than is allowed in either of two possible scenarios. First, if the pilot determines there is a safety or security-related reason why the aircraft cannot leave its position on the tarmac.  And second, if air traffic control advises the pilot that returning to the gate would significantly disrupt airport operations.

Air travel can put people’s nerves on edge like few other things – that goes for crew and passengers.  For a smooth experience, it’s important to remember that everyone wants to have the safest, smoothest trip possible, and to work toward that end.  Knowing your rights and responsibilities will help make a less-than-ideal travel experience more tolerable.

Five Reasons to Try Solo Travel

Five Reasons to Try Solo Travel

Hey, guess what?  According to my “Every Day is a Holiday” calendar, today is Plan a Solo Vacation Day.

Plan a Solo Vacation Day

Taking a vacation by yourself might seem like a strange thing to do. But here are a few reasons why it just might be your best vacation ever.

  1. You set the pace. Whether you are a non-stop vacationer who has to see everything or a laid back vacationer who wants to just relax with a good book, it doesn’t matter. Whether you want to sleep in until noon or get up early to see the sun rise, you can. You only have to please one person on a solo vacation, and that’s you.
  2. Sudden changes in itinerary are okay. Scrapping a museum visit to catch a concert in the park? Driving back home a day early because bad weather is in the forecast? Whatever the reason for the change, the decision is all yours, and no one will be disappointed or give you grief over it.
  3. No one will think you’re interests are boring, weird, or a waste of time. If you’re an avid stamp collector and want to spend two full days poring over the exhibits at the National Postal Museum, so what? You can! It doesn’t matter what anyone else wants to see because they are not there with you.
  4. You may discover things about yourself that you didn’t know before. Time alone makes for great opportunities of introspection. It also presents us with opportunities to be self-reliant. You may not only work through some problems that have been gnawing at you for a while, you might also end up more confident in your abilities.
  5. It’s cheaper. Obviously, it will cost less for one plane ticket, one museum admission, one whatever, than it would for two. But beyond that, you may find that you are able to secure a lower price and/or better seats when buying just one ticket instead of multiples.

But what about my safety?

Some people, women in particular, might shrink from the idea of traveling solo because of the old adage that there is safety in numbers. While being alone in unfamiliar territory might make one more likely to be targeted for a crime, I believe that forewarned is forearmed. With the right mixture of precaution and research, it isn’t hard to be as safe as someone traveling with a group of friends or relatives. Here are some tips to make yourself safe on a solo vacation. (Most of them would apply to travel under any circumstances, not just solo travelers.)

  • Take steps to make sure that you will not be a victim of pickpocketing.
  • Provide at least one person, either at home or in the location you are visiting, your whereabouts and your expected time of return.
  • Don’t use headphones while walking around. The key to safety is awareness of your surroundings, and that includes the sounds around you.
  • Make yourself look like a local. Do not stand out on the sidewalk and open a map, for instance. Do not wear shirts that advertise your identity as someone who is not from the area.
  • Ask the staff at hotels, restaurants, etc. what areas are considered unsafe in general, and do your best to avoid those places.

Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone. Go ahead and embark on a solo adventure, whether for a weekend or an entire week. The experience might surprise you!

 

Machu Picchu for Non-Hikers

Machu Picchu for Non-Hikers

Is seeing Machu Picchu without hiking even possible?

Recently, I learned that most people who visit the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu do so at the culmination of a two- to five-day hike on the Inca Trail.  Said trail goes through both the bug-infested jungle and rugged mountain terrain.

Um, no.

No, thank you.

I learned from my first trip to Peru that altitude can really kick my butt, and surgery on my Achilles tendon three years ago has left me unable to walk for more than a few hours. I can’t possibly be the only one for whom this multiple-day trek on foot is impractical, if not impossible. What about people with young children in tow? What about people who, due to injuries or age, just don’t have the stamina to walk through rugged mountain terrain for several days? Are we out of luck? Do we need to resign ourselves to the fact that they only way we will see Machu Picchu is through someone else’s photos?

Thankfully, the answer is no. You can see Machu Picchu without hiking. It just takes a little more planning in the way of logistics, and in all honesty, more money. Are you ready to plan your trip to Machu Picchu? I know I am, so let’s get started…

Cusco

First, let’s talk about the places you will travel to or through in order to get to Machu Picchu. Cusco is a city of about 435,000 in southeastern Peru. Regardless of where you are beginning your journey, you will most likely get to Cusco via Lima. The flight from Lima is about 1 hour and 15 minutes, and there are at least 20 flights every day. There is generally not a huge price difference between booking straight to Cusco or booking to Lima and then making a separate reservation to Cusco. If you want to do some sightseeing in Lima and you have the time to do so, you could book your trip to Cusco separately.

I recommend spending a few days in Cusco to get acclimated to the higher altitude. (Cusco has an elevation of 11,000 feet.) Beyond that, Cusco happens to be a great destination in its own right. Inca walls topped with colonial Spanish architecture, people dressed in traditional Peruvian garb, ruins dating from Pizarro’s conquest of the Inca, and many unique museums are among the things you can see there.

One of the must-see Cusco museums is Museo del Centro de Textiles Tradicionales de Cusco, located at Av Sol. No. 603. This free museum inside El Centro’s textile store features a gallery containing displays of traditional Quechuan and Andean textiles. The museum explains the historical significance of the textiles and the techniques used to make them. You can also buy high quality, authentic textiles here.

Plaza-de-Armas-Cusco Machu Picchu without hiking
The Plaza de Armas (town square) in Cusco.

Aguas Calientes

From Cusco, you will go to Machu Picchu Pueblo, also called Aguas Calientes.  There are multiple ways to do this. Here are a few possibilities but as always, you should check to make sure all services are running prior to your travel day:

  • Cusco to Aguas Calientes:  From Cusco, travel by car approximately 25 minutes to the Poroy Station. From there, take a bus to Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado.  Take the Hiram Bingham Train to Aguas Calientes. The entire journey will take about 5 hours. **The Hiram Bingham is the top-of-the-line luxury train and is quite expensive.  As of this writing, it is the only train operating a bus+train service from Poroy.  Additional services are expected to run from Poroy after April 2017.**

    hiram-bingham train from Poroy to see Machu Picchu without hiking
    The Hiram Bingham train
  • Cusco to Ollantaytambo and Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes: From Cusco, travel to Ollantaytambo by taxi, minivan, or by bus. Taking a taxi or minivan will take about 90 minutes. Going by bus will add an extra hour to the journey, but it is considerably cheaper. Once in Ollantaytambo, you can sightsee a little if you’d like. It is the site where the Incas retreated after the Spanish took Cusco. When you are ready to move on, take a train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. This train ride will take about 90 minutes.

It is important to get your train tickets and admission tickets for Machu Picchu as far in advance as possible. Under no circumstances should you wait to buy your tickets the day before you want to travel.

Once you’re in Aguas Calientes, you can either proceed straight to Machu Picchu, or stay the night and plan to go see Machu Picchu the next morning. I recommend the latter, with one caveat. As with most towns set up near major tourist attractions in remote areas – Grand Canyon Village comes to mind – everything will be far more expensive than it should be.

If you want to go immediately to Machu Picchu, you can take a short walk and get a bus. The busses depart every 20 minutes, from 5:30 AM to 3:30 pm.

Map of Aguas Calientes for seeing Machu Picchu without hiking
The route from train station to bus stop in Aguas Calientes.

As with the train, if you’re planning on spending a night in Aguas Calientes, you should book accommodations well in advance.  There are about 15 different hotels in the little town, but that doesn’t mean many will have vacancies.

I recommend getting out of bed early and being ready to catch the first bus that leaves at 5:30 AM, which means getting to the bus stop around 5:00 AM. I know, it’s brutal for folks like me who aren’t morning people, but it isn’t as though you’re doing this every day. Getting there early will allow you to be one of the first people at the site.  That ensures that you will get better photographs with fewer tourists in them. If you’re lucky, you may also get to see the sun rise over the Incan ruins.

machu-picchu-without hiking - take bus to get there for sunrise
Sunrise at Machu Picchu

The bus to Machu Picchu takes about 20-30 minutes and involves a lot of zigzagging around the mountain. Consider yourself forewarned if you’re prone to carsickness.

bus ride from Aguas Calientes Machu Picchu without hiking
The bus route from Aguas Calientes to the Machu Picchu entrance

Machu Picchu

The bus from Aguas Calientes drops you off right at the entrance to the Machu Picchu ruins. From there, it’s a fairly flat five minute walk to the ruins where you have an excellent view. Once in the ruins, there are steps up and down; however, you can do as much or as little walking as you want.

And again, booking in advance is an absolute necessity.  Machu Picchu tickets are NOT sold at the entrance gate, and they are limited to 2500 per day. Advance purchase tickets are available from the official government website (www.machupicchu.gob.pe). Can you imagine traveling all that way only to be told you can’t get in? Don’t let that happen to you!

Also, bring your passport to Machu Picchu with you. You will need it to get in.  And you can get it stamped, which is pretty cool.

passport-stamps-machu-picchu without hiking
Machu Picchu passport stamp

Some things to consider when determining the best time to go:

  • High season is May to October
  • The site is especially busy during periods of national holidays – roughly from July 28 to August 10
  • Solstice days (June 21 and Dec 21) are also busy – everyone descends on the ruins for a glimpse of the dazzling effects of the sun’s rays.
  • The rainy season is November to March.  During this time, you are likely to get rain for brief periods during the day, and clouds obscuring the site in the mornings.

Once you’re there, walk at your own pace and see as much or as little as you want to see. You will get little in the way of printed materials telling you what you’re looking at, but guides are available to hire on site for about $30/two hours. Alternatively, you can bring a guide book with you.

Points of Interest

machu-picchu-without hiking points of interest map
Map of Machu Picchu Points of Interest

Once you get through the main entrance, there is a path up to the left that takes you to the spot above the ruins, near the Caretaker’s Hut and Funerary Rock. This is where you will get the classic view of Machu Picchu that you see on so many postcards. If you are here early enough for sunrise (6:30-7:30am), you should do this first.

Afterward, explore as much or as little as you want. Some of the points of interest are only accessible by steep paths and/or stairs, but you will have all the time you need if you arrived early, so pace yourself. Some of the major areas within the ruins are:

  • Temple of the Sun (also called the Torreón) has extraordinary stonework, the finest in Machu Picchu, with large stones that fit together seamlessly. However, it is accessible only by a steep set of stairs, and entry inside the temple is not permitted. I would skip this unless you’re feeling particularly energetic – there are other areas with impressive stonework that are not as difficult to reach.
  • Below the Temple of the Sun, there is a section of cave called the Royal Tomb, although no human remains have ever been found there. It contains a meticulously carved altar and series of niches that produce intricate morning shadows.
  • To the north, just down the stairs that divide this section from a series of dwellings called the Royal Sector, is a still-functioning water canal and series of interconnected fountains. The main fountain is distinguished by both its size and excellent stonework.
  • Back up the stairs to the high section of the ruins is the main ceremonial area. The Temple of the Three Windows has views of the Andes in the distance across the Urubamba gorge. This is likely to be one of your lasting images of Machu Picchu, so it should be on your short list of places to visit within the ruins.

    machu-picchu-without-hiking-temple-of-three-windows
    The Temple of the Three Windows
  • Just behind the Main Temple (to the left if you’re facing the Temple of the Three Windows) is a small cell, termed the Sacristy, renowned for its exquisite masonry. It’s a good place to examine the way these many-angled stones (one to the left of the doorjamb has 32 distinct angles) were fitted together by Inca stonemasons.
  • Up a short flight of stairs is the Intihuatana, also known as the “hitching post of the sun.” It is a carved rock or a type of sundial, which in all probability was an astronomical and agricultural calendar.
  • Follow a trail down through terraces and past a small plaza to a dusty clearing with covered stone benches on either side. A massive, sculpted Sacred Rock fronts the square. This area likely served as a communal area for meetings.
  • To the left of the Sacred Rock, down a path, is the gateway to Huayna Picchu, the huge outcrop that serves as a dramatic backdrop to Machu Picchu. Each day, 400 people are permitted to climb Huayna Picchu.  I’m assuming that, if you’re reading this article, it’s not something you would be keen on doing.  🙂
  • Returning back down the same path (frighteningly steep at a couple points) is a turnoff to the Temple of the Moon, usually visited only by Machu Picchu die hards who don’t want to miss a single thing. The path takes about 1 to 1 1/2 hours round-trip from the detour. I don’t recommend pursuing it.
  • The lower section of Machu Picchu consisted mostly of residential and industrial buildings. The most interesting part of this section is the Temple of the Condor. Said to be a carving of a giant condor, the dark rock above symbolizes the bird’s wings and the pale rock below quite clearly represents its head.

Exploring Machu Picchu is not just for hikers, backpackers and mountain climbers. So plan your trip and go see it! The mountains of Peru are nothing short of awe-inspiring, and the ghostly remains of the Inca civilization are unforgettably beautiful.

How to Maximize Your Savings on Rail Travel… and Possibly Even Travel for Free

How to Maximize Your Savings on Rail Travel… and Possibly Even Travel for Free

On our recent trip to the UK, we had a bit of a rail travel nightmare. We were leaving Northern England (Newcastle) to head back to London. The trip was to last about three hours, roughly 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM.

All went smoothly until we arrived at York, when the operator announced that the train line was closed due to a herd of cattle on the tracks near Peterborough. We were advised to disembark and catch a different train to Manchester, from whence we could take yet another train to London. Since the train to Manchester was essentially carrying two trains’ worth of passengers, many of us rode standing up, packed in the cars like sardines. It was not fun.

Further problems (and delays) ensued when the driver of the Manchester-to-London train fell ill. Long story short, we arrived in London around 5:00, a full four hours later than we planned.

During the Manchester-to-London ride, the operator made an announcement that because there was a significant (i.e., more than 30 minutes) delay, we would be eligible to receive a refund for our rail travel. I honestly didn’t think much about it because, ugh!, paperwork is not something I care to bother with when I’m on vacation. But once we got home, I looked into it.

Delay Repay in the UK

Sure enough, Virgin Trains (the company we booked with) has a “Delay Repay” policy. If your train runs 30-59 minutes late, you could receive a 50% refund. If your delay is 60 minutes or more, you can receive a full refund for your rail travel. And depending on how you booked, you might even get it automatically!

I was skeptical, though, because the train I ended up arriving in London on was a different carrier than the one I had originally booked. In fact, each of the three trains we took to get to London was with a different carrier. I wasn’t sure who to apply for the refund with, so I applied with Virgin Trains East Coast (our originating train in Newcastle) and Virgin Trains (the one that actually got us to London… finally).

Within a week Virgin Trains contacted me to say that they were denying my refund request because of inadequate documentation. Well, that’s it, I figured, no refund for me. Imagine my surprise when nearly two months later I found this in my mail from Virgin Trains East Coast:

img_2639

A refund check for the full amount we paid for that journey! Now, granted, it is going to take a small eternity for it to clear the bank due to currency conversion, but it’s still close to $70 that I wouldn’t have received if I hadn’t tried.

And it turns out Virgin is not alone.  Other rail travel operators have generous compensation policies for delayed passengers as well. I was lucky in that the train operator advised us we would be eligible for a delay, but if he had not, I would have had no clue. It pays to be aware of your rights as a passenger. Thus the purpose of this post. 🙂

In addition to Virgin Trains and Virgin Trains East Coast, other UK rail companies operating with a Delay Repay policy are

  • CrossCountry
  • East Midlands Trains
  • Greater Anglia
  • Great Northern
  • Southeastern
  • Southern
  • Thameslink, and
  • TransPennine Express

Elsewhere in Europe

Within the EU, there are refund policies in place for rail travel as well.  If your arrival at your destination is canceled or delayed by an hour or more, you are entitled to the following compensation:

  • full and immediate refund upon cancellation of the journey
  • return journey to your original departure point if the delay prevents you from completing the purpose of the trip
  • transportation to your destination, including alternative means of transportation if the rail line is closed
  • meals and refreshments proportionate to your waiting time
  • accommodations if you must stay overnight as a result of the delay

If you decide to continue your journey as planned or to accept alternative transport to your destination, you may receive compensation of:

  • 25% of the ticket fare, if the train is between 1 and 2 hours late.
  • 50% of the fare, if the train is more than 2 hours late.

And, finally, if your luggage is lost or damaged on a rail journey within the EU, you have a right to compensation, unless it was “inadequately packed, unfit for transport or had a special nature.”

  • Up to € 1300 per piece of registered luggage – if you can prove the value of its contents.
  • € 330 per piece if you can’t prove the value.

Remember, forewarned is forearmed. Knowing your rights as a rail travel passenger will prepare you for any scenario!

 

The Best Travel Souvenir

The Best Travel Souvenir

After many years of traveling and looking for the perfect memento from our travels, I think I’ve determined the best souvenir possible: Christmas ornaments.

Think about it. First of all, they don’t take up space on your counter, shelf, or desk. They aren’t so big that you have ship them home. And finally, because you only bring them out once a year, they don’t become just another thing that you see so often it loses significance. When you pull a Christmas ornament souvenir out of storage, you are instantly transported back to the time and place you bought it. As a result, it really is the perfect thing to buy as a souvenir.

Here are some of mine:

best souvenir grand canyon Christmas ornament
We bought this at a Native Americans’ roadside market outside the Grand Canyon National Park. Every image on the ornament has a symbolic meaning (which I can’t recall off the top of my head, but they did provide me with a sheet explaining what they are).

best souvenir Michigan Christmas ornament
I bought this at the Wild Blueberry Festival in Paradise, Michigan.  The five points of the star are seed pods of some sort. The person who was selling these showed us how she took a tree branch and carved slivers of wood so thinly and precisely that they curled into the shape of a flower bloom.  That’s what decorates the center of the ornament.

best souvenir Vermont maple leaf Christmas ornament
We were in Vermont in October last year, and everything they say about the autumn foliage there is true. What better souvenir than a maple leaf preserved in all its autumn glory?  (I wrote Vermont and the year on there with a permanent marker.)

Maryland Renaissance Festival best souvenir blown glass art of fire Christmas ornament
This ornament was a souvenir from the Maryland Renaissance Festival. They have an amazing glass blower there who does live demonstrations of his craft and sells beautiful blown glass wares. Sometimes I think I probably should have gotten one with more color to it, but I do like the way the lights on the tree shine through and reflect off of this one.

Tower of London Beefeater best souvenir Christmas ornament
I bought this cute little Beefeater and four other ornaments at the Tower of London. The others were King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, a Tudor rose, and a palace guard. I love them because they have such fine details.  Also, they are completely fabric, so they were super-easy to pack without fear of breakage.  These will always be some of my favorite ornaments.

Peru gourd Christmas ornament nativity best souvenir
I got this nativity scene ornament on my trip to Peru. The ornament is a gourd, with nativity figures inside it. The outside of the gourd is painted a beautiful dark blue with carved stars on it.

Tangier Island Virginia best souvenir angel oyster shell Christmas ornament
This angel is made from an oyster shell. I bought her at a tiny museum on Tangier Island, Virginia, when we took a day trip there.

Westminster Abbey Christmas Ornament Elizabeth I best souvenir
Very similar to my Tower of London ornaments, I got this Queen Elizabeth I ornament at Westminster Abbey about eleven years later. She’s lovely, isn’t she?

I love shopping in new places.  But most of all, I make a point of looking for an ornament (or something that I can use as an ornament).  So in twenty years, maybe I will have an entire tree full of travel mementos!

How about you:  Do you have any Christmas ornaments from your travels?