Travel Diary: Getting from Skopje to Pristina

It’s 90 minutes by car, but up to three hours by bus. The Balkans’ definition of bus and our definition were clearly misaligned during this trip. When I think bus, I think of a temperature-controlled bus with WiFi, toilets, and comfortable seats.

This bus did not fit any of this criteria. It was a mini-bus that seats 16, with limited luggage storage, no WiFi, and definitely not any toilets (not that I would use them, anyway).

We shlepped our bags on board and made our way to the back rows, hoping no one would expect us to put our bags in the luggage hold. We found ourselves across the row from an American expat working for the World Bank (called Mark Deux), and a UK train employee named Mike. Too many M’s. Mark, Mike and Mark Deux set the world right talking about finance, startups and international affairs. I attempted to drift in and out of sleep but the roads in the Balkans are not known for their newness or smoothness so sleep became impossible.

A clipboard made its way around the bus where each person has to write down their name and passport/ ID card number. This, in theory, is supposed to make the border crossing much quicker. What actually happens at the border is a Macedonian border official collects the clipboard and takes it back to his little post. Then he comes back and has to collect each passenger’s passport/ ID card and return those to his post. After about ten minutes of hem-hawing, the passports are returned to us. Sometimes we get a stamp; sometimes we are disappointed. The odds are 50/50. Then the exact same process is repeated at the Kosovo border.

The border control is unremarkable, and the bus driver behaves normally by stopping at places that are most assuredly NOT typical bus stops to pick up random people. His homies, I’m guessing. These people pay when they get on, an indiscriminate amount, sometimes 1 euro and sometimes 3 euro. There’s definitely not a system.

We’re about an hour away from Pristina when we pull into a petrol station. I assume it’s to pick up fuel, but then Mark Deux investigates and the Batman driver and his Robin are taking a smoke break! We’re an hour away; honestly, you couldn’t wait? Mark and I run into the “convenience store” and pick up a crisps and chocolate breakfast. Someone runs in and asks us, in very broken English, if we’re with the bus. We say yes and run out to see everyone moving their luggage from our little bus to a large, cushy coach.

What is going on? We grab our bags and head to the coach. Turns out, our bus BROKE DOWN, and this coach has come to rescue us. Stellar. We are waiting in the stairwell of the coach to get onto it and I get frustrated. I snap at the person in front of me to move.

That’s when it becomes abundantly clear that the bus is full. There are no seats. So the 15 or so of us that were on our rinky dink bus are now standing in the aisle of the coach, hovering awkwardly over sitting passengers.  I move my way straight to the front and dig in to my breakfast: a Milke Oreo chocolate bar and tomato pesto crisps.

It’s probably only ten minutes later when people begin disembarking, but it being so awkward for me it felt like 20 hours. Someone moves and I gesture for the person behind me to take a seat, which she refuses. I don’t offer twice so I take the empty seat. One by one, people slowly begin filing out of the coach and the standing room passengers begin finding seats.

The coach enters Pristina and nearly the entire bus empties into the middle of a random intersection. That’s when it occurs to us that there’s a decent chance this coach’s final destination is not Pristina Bus Station. It could be going to Serbia. The coach driver could have had Rakija with his breakfast and forgotten his destination. When we turn away from Pristina city center and toward Mitrovice, my anxiety swells.

Just when I think we’re headed into a different country, the coach veers sharply to the left and off, on the side of the road, is the underwhelming Pristina Bus Station.

Whew. Mark Deux and Train Mike file off of the coach. There’s a running joke that whenever we board the bus to somewhere, it is always raining in our final destination. Pristina is no different. It was raining. A cold, piercing, hair-frizzing rain.

We part ways with Mark Deux and UK Mike, drag our sopping selves and our damp packs into a completely unmarked cab and arrive back to the hostel twenty minutes later for less than $4.

 

24 Hours In: Istanbul!

Our whirlwind of Europe is finally coming to an end – final destination Istanbul, Turkey!

After 22 hours of busses, trains and planes we arrived to Istanbul welcomed by a steep hill and many cobblestones. Note to self: don’t fly into Sabiha Gokcen International Airport in the future.

Connection from Gokcen Airport was achieved through an hour plus ride on a coach (14 Turkish Lira, TL) and two train / tram rides (4TL)…or we could have taken a private transport for ~90TL.

We arrived somewhere near the touristy Taksim Square on a steep hill next to the deepest construction pit I have ever seen. There are buildings under construction everywhere.
Navigating the cobblestones and taxi packed sidewalks, we slowly made our way to Taksim station – tantalizing aromas of sweet, spicy and fragrant combined for an unforgettable combination. This is my first impression of the city, and one I will likely not forget. Melody wanted to sample the wares from every restaurant we passsed. Everywhere we walked we have received a cascade of shouts offering taksi rides or a sampling of foods and drinks. For the easily overwhelmed, this is not the place to visit.

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The metro system in Istanbul is, by and large, efficient and effective. There are your standard metro ‘subway’ type cars, street trams, and even ferries…all of which you can take a ride on for 4 TL. For this purchase price, you receive a little plastic coin about the size of a nickel. There is an option to purchase a metro card, but our pleasure for walking meant we did not go this route.

With our little coins we took a short connector ride underground and then a slightly longer ride on an overground street-car, reaching our hostel in good spirits.

Even at 11pm, there were many shops open and crowds of others milling about. In the short walk we were hailed no fewer than 20 times for dining – did I mention you get shouted at?

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December 7, 2015

 

 

Travel Diary: Prettiest Airplane Ride from Kosovo to Slovenia

We don’t mean the airplane and we’re definitely not talking about the flight crew. What was most breathtaking is everything we saw outside of that tiny prison window as we flew from Pristina, Kosovo to Ljubljana, Slovenia.

We’re flying on this tiny Adria plane, which might as well have been a prop plane considering the size of it – two seats on each side, and all of the luggage had to go into the hold. No charge, naturally, and no issues with the plane, boarding or passport control.

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It’s an hour flight, and that’s reassuring despite the winter turbulence. We closed the window blinds after takeoff because the sun was coming in full force into our tired faces. What I saw below when I finally opened the window covering took me totally by surprise. Delicious snow-capped scenery, exactly like the candies. And I became like a kid in a candy store. Little did I know the Slovenian mountains rival the Alps in beauty, majesty and pure wow factor.

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Adore that black and white contrast. Wow. The snow-caps were just too much beauty, and I felt tears in my eyes from sheer joy. Combined with the 3:30pm sunset, the colors of the sky and the rugged mountain peaks were a fantastic treat that only winter affords.

I wanted to turn around to the rest of the plane and say, Look out your window!  You don’t know what you’re missing!

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We got about 10 minutes of this before we finally made our descent, and a decision to return to Slovenia before we ever touched down in Ljubljana.

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November 30, 2015

24 Hours In: Prishtina, Kosovo

I lied. We’ve been in Kosovo for three days, but today was the first day we actually went out and explored anything of Prishtina, the capital. We’ve been too busy at the hostel chatting up the guests.

There’s a really good energy about Prishtina, and despite it being a very small capital with a limited number of things to do, it’s quite amazing to be in a place that has been through a hellacious amount of conflict.

Initial observations about Prishtina:

  1. Euro is the currency and cash is king. If you’re staying for 3 days or less, 50 euro should cover your expenses. Yes. This is probably Europe’s cheapest capital city on the euro.
  2. Qepabs (Kebabs) are very popular here and you can get a very hearty plate of meat, salad and the largest bread I’ve ever seen in my life for 3-4 euro.
  3. The 2 liter beers are back! We first saw them in Bulgaria and couldn’t believe our eyes. A 2L of Lasko, the Balkan beer, will cost about 2.75 euro. Drink to your liver’s content.
  4. Tipping is not required. No one expects it. If you need to get rid of your euro change, then tip. You’ll make someone very happy.
  5. The Newborn monument and the Bill Clinton statue are about a 5 minute walking distance apart. In our opinion, the statue looks nothing like him but it’s super fun to chill with Monica’s former flame.
  6. People speak Albanian and English. Mostly Albanian. People love to say that their English is very poor, then go on carrying a full conversation with you.
  7. Good, velvety smooth gelato costs 1 euro for two scoops. Take that, Italy.
  8. Limited number of pedestrian walkways so your best bet to cross a street is to just saunter into the street and rely on the vehicles stopping and waiting for you. I’m still adjusting to this. Mark’s a natural at stopping traffic.
  9. No underground or metro system to speak of. I suppose that’s still in the works.

And the big one…

Getting to other cities! Yes, Prishtina is not a place where you can lose yourself for an entire month (or is it?), so you’re going to want to head to a different place eventually. This is where the internet basically sucks, because anything I can find in English has information that is totally wrong. So, transportation facts:

Traveling Belgrade to Prishtina:

YES: Buses do travel from Belgrade to Prishtina. There are two in the afternoon – one at 12:00 and the other at 4:30pm. If you buy them in Serbia it’s about $20 for two people. Cash only. There are two places at the Belgrade Bus Station to buy tickets. Look for the bus in the number 10 spot.

The trip: About six hours on a bus without WiFi or charging ports. Two stops are made; one in Serbia and one in Kosovo. If you are not an EU citizen, you will have to give your passport up twice at the border; once at the Serbian border, and again at the Kosovo border. We did not get stamps in our books, either.

Traveling Prishtina to Skopje:

This is hearsay as we haven’t done it yet, but the trip is about 2 hours one-way and costs 4 euro. There is both a train and a bus; the train is faster and cheaper but there is only one a day. It leaves at 7:00am and there’s a return train that comes back to Prishtina at 4:00pm. Once we do this trip, as we have to (it’s the closest city with H&M), we’ll update this with absolutes.

Traveling Prishtina to Prizren:

90 minutes away for 2 euro. A prize in Kosovo, really. Prizren is where many Peace Corps members are teaching English for a couple of years, and it’s also Kosovo’s second largest city with many historic artifacts. Definitely worth a day trip, and one we will be taking very soon.

Traveling Prishtina to Tirana:

Mixed reviews on Tirana; some people love it, other people say it’s a “shit hole.” We won’t know until we see it for ourselves. What we do know is that it’s about 5 hours away, so it’d have to be for a weekend, at minimum.

Have questions for this small yet vibrant country? Drop us a line!

Everyone loves a newborn, and we are very excited to spend a month here in Europe’s newest capital.

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Cheers!

Travel Diary: The Adventures of Mailing a Postcard in Dublin

This short story is proof that mundane tasks can turn into an adventure with the proper person. Mailing a postcard is not as easy as it sounds. Dublin is the only place where we found a sign that said post, much like the one below, that directed us into a supermarket.

Courtesy of Breaking News, Ireland. Ever so small and kind of easy to miss.
Courtesy of Breaking News, Ireland. Ever so small and kind of easy to miss.

We pass a sign that looks like this and peer in. This is a supermarket; that can’t be right. So we’re walking around South Dublin looking for a post office. A real post office, one that would be green with ample harps and lots of other Irish things. We keep seeing oval green mail drops in the street anxious to receive our mail, but as our postcards do not yet have stamps affixed to them, we can not send them on their merry overseas journey.

Though the post office signs are small, the mail drops are really hard to miss. Daily collection varies from 4:00 to 5:30pm.
Though the post office signs are small, the mail drops are really hard to miss. Daily collection varies from 4:00 to 5:30pm.

After about twenty minutes, we turn around and search again for this tiny sign and go into the supermarket. Everything about this feels odd. We’re in the Donnybrook market, and I see what looks like the beginnings of the warehouse. There are people milling about, so I follow the path all the way to the back of the store. There are those long clear plastic flaps right in front of me, and to the right, I see a two-person queue (that’s a line for my American audiences). Right in this tiny L-shaped, dimly lit area is a post office. There’s two tellers behind bulletproof glass. I go up and ask them for five international stamps, please, which they have to print. She comes back and tells us it’s six euros.

Not a problem, a bargain I think, for such a long journey, and Mark swipes our credit card, which promptly gets declined. The employee sees the error and tells us, debit or cash only. At this point, Mark uses the debit card, and that also gets declined. At this point we didn’t have any cash – so I start to worry. The employee clarifies: “Irish bank cards or cash only.”

Weeeelll, that kind of changes things a bit! We ask where the nearest ATM is, across the street, and walk over only to find out it’s Out of Order. The next ATM is a good ten minutes away, and we have twelve minutes to get our postcards in the mail for the 5:30pm pickup. What a maddening deadline. The next twelve minutes is us running to the ATM, waiting eons to withdraw cash, running back to the post office disguised as a supermarket, waiting in a now very-long queue to pick up our postage stamps that we quickly affix to the postcards and bid them adieu as we drop them promptly at 5:29pm.

Mission. Totally. Accomplished.

Expectation v. Reality: Reflections on the UK, Ireland, Belgium and Norway

This four part series is a compilation of something both memorable and shocking for each of the countries we have visited. Alas, the first of an ever evolving set of self-reflective, preparation posts for the questions that I’ll inevitably get when I return home:

“What’s changed?” and “Do you feel any different?”

And I’m reminded of a quote by C.S. Lewis: Day to day, nothing seems different, until one day you look back and find that everything has changed.

This is more a fun, haphazard collection of preconceived ideas, romantic fantasies and expectations of easy living I had before and during the visits to the following countries, along with their earth-shattering thought replacements:

  1. There are absolutely zero downfalls of public transportation! – England

Or so I said, before visiting London, which is really a country in itself. Not only does it get uber smelly on the underground, which is always busy, even at 1pm on a Wednesday, but tube strikes are not uncommon. Have you ever been to London when there’s a tube strike going on? The giant sidewalks aren’t big enough for the throngs of people waiting for the buses that are already full of smelly people nor are the roads able to afford anyone unlucky enough to be driving a car during a tube strike any traveling space. The tube strike that happened in July cost London nearly $500 million.

New thought: Sometimes, public transportation and the throngs of people in your personal space actually really sucks.

  1. Every capital city is worth going to. – Norway

Norway, for at least one year out of the past five, was the most expensive country on the planet. And we were warned that Oslo is perhaps the most underwhelming capital city Europe has to offer (We’ve since found one worse). Go to Norway? Yes. Go to Oslo? Hell no. Save yourself. Go anywhere else in Norway. Don’t go to Oslo.

Pub dinner: $110
Oslo’s version of Chipotle: $38

How can I eat my way through culture when every time I take a bite money actually ejects itself from my wallet and self-destructs?

Please don’t visit Oslo. Seriously.

New thought: After a dozen or so capital cities, they all really look the same. Fly into a capital city, and establish an adventure base elsewhere.

  1. The United Kingdom totally drives in kilometers per hour just like the rest of the continent. – Scotland

One of those situations where I would have bet money that I was right and I would have lost the bet. Funny story, abridged:

We rented a car in Edinburgh and got on the motorway (highway for us Americans) and came to a sign that says 70, so we do 70 kph. We approach signs telling us speed cameras. Other cars flash high-beams and swerve around us. We think all those people are stupid and are all getting speeding tickets. Next day, we confirm Mark’s suspicion. The UK drives in MPH, not KPH. The clincher? Distance is measured in meters, as in, “Hotel, 800 meters ahead.” Way to be confusing, Britain.

New thought: UK (and Ireland) drive on the left. Rest of Europe, on the right.

  1. Ireland is the place to get drunk on the cheap.

With the reputation that Ireland has of being a nation in perpetual drunkenness, I definitely thought that it would be ridiculously cheap to drink here – say 2 or 3 euros for a beer.

Color me surprised, it’s not.

It’s about 5 or 6 euros for a beer, and more in the touristy Temple Bar area, which is definitely not acceptable for drinking on a budget.

The tour of the Guinness Storehouse did shine a bit of light on a Guinness pour: if you get your stout less than two minutes after you requested it, the bartender poured it wrong. There’s mad science behind all of this which Mark is slated to explain.

New thought: Get drunk in Prague. Cheaper and more interesting a crowd.

  1. Living above restaurants is awesome and I want to have the life Marshall & Lily have. – Belgium

Wow, I was dead wrong on this. We stayed at an Airbnb that was up 8 very dark flights of stairs. The building apparently had no lights. The entrance opened up into the street with a restaurant to the left and to the right. I’m not a morning person, and I am very used to a long wake-up period. Not so in Brussels. As soon as we opened the door people were milling about in front of it from dawn to the middle of the night. After our evening meal and drinks, near the wee hours of the morning, we had to push people out of the way to get to the front door. Once we traipsed up eight flights of stairs in total darkness, we thought we’d be in the zone to sleep, but we couldn’t, because it was so dreadfully hot we had to leave the windows open and thus gave us an earful of the drunken commotion happening below.

New Thought: Overhearing yelling, screaming, fighting and crying until 3 or 4 in the morning is definitely not my idea of a good time or a good stay.

Have you been to any of these places? What were your experiences? Send us a shout in the comments below.

Ciao

Connecting Flights in Istanbul Means No Visa Required

There’s mixed information about whether a visa is needed for Americans and Canadians to connect flights at Istanbul and since we experienced it this morning we’re letting you know now you do NOT need a visa if you are connecting flights so long as you…

do NOT go through passport control. A lot like Monopoly. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Do not follow the signs for passport. Instead, merge into the long queue (line) where it says INTERNATIONAL TRANSFERS. You will go through security, again. 

It’s a trend in “Europe” that you will not see a gate assignment more than two hours before your departure time. Once you clear security, you fall into the absolute madness that is Ataturk airport. People swarming, dozens of languages and dialects, exclamations, babies crying, people laughing, tourists touristing… This airport is something else. I’ve never seen such a cosmopolitan sample of people. Every face a different ethnicity. I found myself invigorated. Like all of the world came to meet here at Ataturk airport.

If you arrive more than two hours early, you won’t have a gate, but there’s no shortage of things to do. You can people watch. Most people sleep. Turkish airlines is notorious for taking off at 3 or 4 in the morning.

And that’s it! We were really happy to find a Costa coffee and a long row of chairs where we plopped down and passed out for 5 hours.

Once you awake, CHECK THE SCREENS because there’s a good chance your gate has changed. They shuffle planes here more frequently than a poker dealer shuffles cards. Mark had his wits about him and discovered our plane had parked ten gates away so we did a little bit of running ourselves to get through the tide of people.

If you have a layover longer than five hours, there’s a tour group that will give you an abbreviated tour of Istanbul. If you DO want to do this or you want to explore Istanbul on your own, you will  need to get an e-visa at the airport. Continue reading here.

Mark and Melody

24 Hours In: Things We Learned in Copenhagen

Actually, things we wished we knew.

Note: Nudity and questionable language.

1: That our hotel had complimentary shuttle service to AND from the airport, so we didn’t need to spend $40 for two tourist transport tickets.

2: Google maps is as helpful as a foreigner giving you directions in a foreign language. It doesn’t have the correct coordinates for the free walking tour- not even close. It also incorrectly estimates travel time between destinations. This is the second time it has lied to us.  Think it has a bone to pick with free walking tours.

3: If you’re looking to go to Malmö, Sweden, because you also love the idea of lunch in one country and dinner in another, the last bus BACK to Denmark leaves at 6pm. Color us disappointed. Also, that ticket there and back is 100 Danish Kroners (DKK).

4: Don’t tip here. They make enough money, honestly. And there’s a service fee included basically everywhere anyway.

5: I wish we knew about the lack of authentic food. Totally disappointed by the mass Americanism and English speakers/ signage everywhere. It just felt too close to home. Not exotic enough. Perhaps we’re a bit jaded from Finland. We felt cheated, culturally. Remember how I was lamenting the absence of fried chicken and peanut butter? Both of these are here. I don’t even know what Danish food actually is. Where is it? I had a croissant with jelly in the middle. I was told that’s a Danish. They say a good measure of a city is by its food: I’m underwhelmed by a KFC and a two story Burger King. /rant

6:  Public nudity is acceptable, maybe as a spectacle but even still. Sitting in the über touristy part of Nyhavn and this (drunk) guy runs out of a party bus and swan dives into the canal. Cool right? I thought so. Then dude reappears, totally naked, runs through a crowd and jumps into the water again. People start half clapping, mostly staring, some laughing. Dude gets out of the water and just kinda walks back to the bus with his bros slapping his ass and grabbing his balls. Maybe a bachelor party? Can’t tell. That’s Copenhagen for you.

The bus in question. Feast your eyes on the naked man off the side.

How to Be a Five Star Airbnb Guest

We’re big fans of Airbnb as a way to meet locals, experience authentic culture, and to find quality, budget lodging. Sometimes it can be difficult to determine, especially if you have a super relaxed host, what your responsibilities are. To earn yourself a five-star rating as a guest, abide by these tenets:

  • Most people loathe dishes in the sink, so wash them and leave them to dry, or rinse and put in dishwasher.
  • Minimize items left around the house. I’m really bad with this one, as I can be comfortable pretty much everywhere and thus my laundry, socks, and shoes tend to distribute themselves around any place of residence. It’s not messy; it’s a sign of genius. But if you have a host coming and going in the house, it can leave a bad impression of you. So if you’re like me and you enjoying occupying an entire space with your belongings, confine it to your room.
  • And close the door to your room, if for nothing else, because no one else wants to see your stuff, and you don’t want people seeing your stuff. If you’re a night owl like me and your day begins at 10pm (half kidding) then this also works to keep light and music in your room.
  • Ask to use the clothes washing machine!! Even if it is listed as an amenity, because odds are you’ll be using their soap too.
  • Recall your Aretha Franklin lyrics and R-E-S-P-E-C-T the space. Mark wants me to write to straighten the bed – fake make it – just in case something is needed from the room. This has never happened to us, where the host needed something from the room, but ya never know.
  • Understand personal time and space. The host might not always want to talk to you, and they’re not really obligated to. Most of the time they are working people too. We’ve had some quieter hosts and other hosts, like our lovely couple in Glasgow, that were happy to chat for hours.
  • Don’t eat food in the fridge or freezer unless you are invited to – if you finish something that you were given permission to eat or drink, offer to replace it.

And lastly…

Thank the host in person if they’re available – if not, leave a note / send SMS or E-Mail before writing and submitting your review. Airbnb will prompt you for a review at the end of your stay. If there’s any notes you’d like to offer the host privately, you can do so in a separate box after writing your review.

Let us know about your travels abroad, and as always, feel free to ask us for advice from lodging to low airfare.

Happy travels!

Mark and Melody

Surviving the Louvre: Getting to, Getting into, and Enjoying Your Visit

It’s no small task to visit the Louvre. Spoiler alert: this is not a leisurely stroll where you can really absorb what you’re reading. Why you ask? Unless one of your languages is French, you won’t be able to read any of the signs for the artwork. I don’t understand why other museums around the world can post signage in two or four languages, but for some reason the Louvre has decided not to do that.

It’s an optic overload. The museum is housed inside of palace and that’s evidenced by the frescoes on the ceiling, the ornate gold on the walls and around the windows, and the sheer size of it.

One of the first rooms of the Sully entrance
One of the first rooms of the Sully entrance
Adorned in gold
Adorned in gold
Ornate hall
Ornate hall

Artifacts, paintings, and priceless memoirs of early human existence cover over 600,000 square feet/ 60,000 square meters of space. Three hours of moseying around this grand palace and my tootsies were getting very sore. There are ample places to sit, so they got that right.

Getting to the Louvre

Nearly everyone and their mom arrives via the subway/ metro, which dumps you into an exit where you arrive to the Louvre and you’re in fact surrounded by shops. This is really surreal, at least for me, because I literally uttered WTF while looking at the Apple Store – Thankfully it provides wifi. It’s just under the big glass pyramid.

Inevitably, there will be a long line jutting through the centre near where the two pyramids meet. This is the line to get through security. Note that if you are buying your ticket at the louvre, you must go through security first and then purchase your ticket at one of the counters that say, color me surprised, tickets.

Getting into the Louvre

Ticket machines and tellers are on the perimeter once you go through security. If you get lost look for the information desk, then focus your eyes past that and there’s a ticket area on the other side. Kind of brilliant really. If you have an international bank card that does not require a signature, you can use the ticket machines. Otherwise, you have to queue for a teller. Took me about two minutes on a Sunday afternoon, so not bad.

I picked up my ticket (€15 as of August 2015) and headed to the information desk to pick up a complimentary map of the museum. I thought it would be reassuring to know where galleries are at, but in fact it made me realize that there’s no way I could possibly cover it all.

So, focus on what you like. Do you like looking at marble slabs of rock hard abs carved by Michelangelo? Or would you rather see paintings? Or are you more interested in the Egyptian, Greek or Roman artifacts? (There are rooms dedicated to each). Pin this down before you get started to increase your odds of having a good time.

Then go to those first. I prefer looking at paintings so I can marvel at the texture, color composition, and the expressions on the subjects’ faces rather than Venus de Milo.

Disclaimer: Be honest with yourself. No matter how famous something is…if you’re not interested in that form of art, don’t spend the time, the patience and the energy looking for it and taking a mediocre picture of it. To take a picture and post it of something without knowing who the artist is or the inspiration of the work is a flimsy thing to do.

You don’t have to enjoy or give attention to every type of art. 

Honestly, after about three hours I was “arted” out. And I like art.

I saved the Mona Lisa for the end of my trip becaus I knew once I bore the brunt of the crowds I would be done with the museum. Turns out I know myself pretty well. There is signage everywhere pointing you to the Mona Lisa. It’s on the first floor in, naturally, the halls of the Italian paintings. On very busy days you will see a queue to see the Mona Lisa.

Entrance to the Mona Lisa. On especially crowded days the line begins back here.
Entrance to the Mona Lisa. On especially crowded days the line begins back here.

In this case, a Sunday afternoon, I was lucky to have to battle an arc of people about twelve people deep. When I visited the Mona Lisa in 2007, pictures were prohibited. Anyone caught with a camera was escorted out of the gallery. Now pictures are allowed, but no flash is permitted. Great, you’re thinking, except now we live in a world of selfie sticks and people jousting one another to make room for them and their selfie sticks. Not to mention its August, so it’s hot, and people are sweating, and odds are if you visit from March to September it will be smelly. That’s not too pleasant. So there’s people being smelly and being shovey and making  room for their selfie sticks selfishly and I kind of just wanted to hit them with it instead of admire the Mona Lisa.

The arc of people crowding around the Mona Lisa.
The arc of people crowding around the Mona Lisa.
Mona Lisa, taken from the right.
Mona Lisa, taken from the right.

I took my little picture of her cheeky little grin and found my way out quickly as the museum closes at 6pm (9:45pm on Wednesday and Friday).

I thought going a little more toward closing time would mean less of a crowd. Maybe what I experienced was a dwindle compared to what the day saw earlier, but half an hour to closing the place was still packed with people swarming everywhere like the Louvre is a hive. I stayed right until closing time and took the first metro home.

Tips to enjoy your visit:

  • Bring water and something to fan yourself with. The museum map works in a pinch, but in August it’s almost stifling warm.
  • Identify the art you’re most interested in seeing and start there.
  • Connect to the Louvre wifi and download the Louvre app. Plug in headphones. Insta-tour.
  • Carry some snacks to munch on while you’re browsing, because it’s a good ten minute endeavor to get from wherever you are to an exit.

When to go for budget travelers:

  • 18-26 are free on Friday evening regardless of nationally
  • 18-25 from EU, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein are free always (bring ID)
  • Under 18 is always free (bring ID)
  • Regardless of age or nationality, first Sunday of the month from October to March is free

Have you been to the Louvre? Looking to travel to the Louvre? Wanting to score unbelievably cheap flights to your next destination- click here.

Cheers,

Mark and Melody

The Only App You Need to find Cheap Flights Anywhere

Airfare is usually one of the “cost prohibitory” expenses for anyone looking to travel to a far flung place. Yes I know Asia is cheap, they may say, but the flight is so expensive. But are they right? For a long time, I believed it. I took a flight from West Palm Beach, Florida to Hong Kong and it cost over $1,200 in March 2012. Granted, Air Canada is a very nice airline to travel on but after planning our months abroad, Mark and I have found the omniscient, no fail flight app:

Skyscanner.

Skyscanner is a search engine that allows you find the cheapest airfare to any destination at any time.

Type in your home airport. For us, it’s Fort Lauderdale. Then we play our favorite game called let’s see what the cheapest destination is by typing “Everywhere” into the destination box.

Searching
Searching “Everywhere” will show a list of destinations available from your home airport. Anywhere in the world.

Now you can pick a month, or pick the cheapest month. Pick your number of travelers, make sure you have round-trip selected, and go! You’ll get a lovely list of all the destinations by country first. For most people in the US, US destinations will pop up first. Sometimes this isn’t the case though, because once it was cheaper to go to Mexico than it was to go to Chicago from Miami. 🙂

List of countries to travel to from Fort Lauderdale. Note: Prices are round trip per person!
List of countries to travel to from Fort Lauderdale. Note: Prices are round trip per person!

A little further down, we see this list:

Batch two of options from Fort Lauderdale. Check out those European destinations!
Batch two of options from Fort Lauderdale. Check out those European destinations!

This is how we managed to get to Europe for $550.00. Yes, for two people! Once you find a country you like, click on it to see the destination cities. Let’s use Norway as an example:

List of cities you can fly to in Norway. Oslo looks like a good option, right?
List of cities you can fly to in Norway. Oslo looks like a good option, right?

We just finished up a beautiful long weekend in Oslo, so let’s go with Oslo. It’s definitely feasible to take a day trip to see the fjords, or take a drive to neighboring Sweden. Remember that we selected the cheapest month, so when you select Oslo, the cheapest dates come up. Easiest vacation planning ever! No more determining the best time to go or for how long.

You have to select the departing and return dates, and the price you see on the dates is the price for that leg (example Fort Lauderdale – Oslo). But when you select both travel dates, your total price per person comes up:

Norway for under $400? Pack your bags!
Norway for under $400? Pack your bags!

Now that you’re armed with the best airfare finder in the industry, where would you like to travel next?

Let us know in the comments.

Happy travelling!

Mark and Melody

Hostels No Longer Cheapest Lodging for Travelers

When we talk about  travel, we are nearly always asked if we are staying at hostels. The answer is: out of 32 days so far, we have only stayed at one. Hostels for a long time cornered the market of dirt cheap lodging, but this is no longer the case thanks to…

AirBnb!

Hostels typically charge by bed, regardless of if its a dorm room or a private room. Let’s start with the dorm room. Let’s say you can get a bed in a dorm room for €20 which is pretty cheap in Western Europe. There’s two of us, which means we’re paying €40 for two beds in a mixed bed dorm. That means there’s people of either gender all sleeping in one room. €40 for zero privacy sleeping and a shared bath with any number of people. In some cases, towels cost an extra euro and the showers are the kind you want to wear sandals in.

In a private room, it gets more expensive. Very rarely a private rooms equipped with only two beds. Usually they are four, but sometimes three. Now we have €60 to pay for a private room, on a good day. 

Disclaimer: since we’ve been in Europe we have not found beds in a hostel for less than €20 per night.

Note also that most hostels have minimum day stays, especially through the weekend. That means if we want to stay Thursday through Saturday,we are paying a premium because it’s a weekend and we are confined to a minimum number of days – usually three days.

Enter airbnb.

In Paris, we are staying 15 minutes away from city center for €38 /$40 each night. Private room. Shared bath, if our host is here. When he’s not,  we have our own flat in Paris.  Kitchen to cook in. Metro across the street. Great food nearby. Amazing bed.

In Glasgow, we stayed with the loveliest couple in a brand new house just south of the city. They provided amazing food, company, and advice on travelling the area. Awesome comfortable bed. They provided a washing machine (invaluable if you’re living on 8 days of clothes), towels and bathing essentials. Also less than €40 / $44.

In Brussels, we stayed with a French gentleman right in the city center in that same price bracket.

We’ve not once had to abide by a minimum stay or pay for a towel.

For couples or group travelers, we remain convinced airbnb is the best way to go if you’d rather spend your money on experiences instead of accommodations. 😉

Travelling somewhere new and looking for the best airbnb? Check out this page and learn the best questions to ask your next host.

Cheers and happy travelling!

Mark and Melody

24 Hours In: Things We Learned in Brussels

Bruxelles, a heavily blended capital city, location of the European Central Bank, and port of entry to the rest of Europe. With exactly 24 hours to eat, drink, and experience, these observations sum up our feelings about Brussels:

  1. In August, it’s hot. People said it was unusual, but it was so hot we decided to go out and drink instead of stay in our flat with no AC.
  2. Incredibly weighty French influence which no one in the UK or Ireland prepared us for. Totally caught us off guard to be greeted with a Bonjour/ Bon Soir. We expected a Flemish dialogue, some Germanic influence perhaps, but it was predominantly French.
  3. Drinking age is 16. While American high school students tweet about a drivers license, kids in Brussels are legally ordering their first brew with their parents. This is a limited drinking license as hard liquor is still prohibited for under 18s.
  4. Many embassy guards for the U.S. Frequent a bar called Roosters, which has two lovely bartenders – one named Kelly and the other Anna. They are incredibly funny and knowledgable about the area and their beers are reasonably priced too!
  5. I had a romantic fantasy that living above shops near downtown would be, in the words of Gretchen Weiners, so fetch. Early in the morning I’d wake up and head to the place right beneath my flat, grab a coffee, and begin my beautiful breezy day. The flip side of that dream is that at night, there are a lot of loud drunk people crowding the entrance to your flat, and you have to sneak in between them and open the door. It feels so odd having tons of complete strangers know where you live…
  6. Hardly anyone accepts American credit/ debit cards, even with a chip. We had to convert to euros because our cards kept getting declined. Come into Brussels with some cash, or find an exchange place, but please don’t exchange currency at the bus station,or airport. It’s a total rip off. 
  7. If you want to drink and talk to tons of people from all corners of the world, ask for the Delirium bar. It’s a narrow street with a dozen entrances to bars dedicated to one type of alcohol. There’s a tequila bar. There’s a vodka bar where you order a liter of vodka. All of them sell beer, but if you really want to prove your worth to yourself and all the strangers around you, order a two liter chalice of beer. Take time to wander upstairs, downstairs, around. You’ll find plenty of interesting things to see.
  8. The food district of Brussels is made of narrow streets crowded by outdoor seating and hosts standing in the walkway. As your eyes wander over to the menu, you’re immediately approached by someone and asked if you want to sit. I found this really revolting as they give you no time really to look at the menu, so we kept shaking our heads no and walked out of the restaurant district to a quieter, less pressure cooker type atmosphere.
  9. If you’re staying at an AirBnB here, please ask your host what floor they are on. We stayed on the top floor which I thought was awesome until we arrived and had to climb EIGHT, count them, EIGHT flights of stairs up and down to enter or leave this apartment.
  10. Want to make this known that I asked for tap water at a restaurant, was advised they “don’t do tap.” I told her bring the cheapest water, she brought me €6 mineral water. Sigh. 

If you’re planning a trip to Brussels, know that it’s a small capital city, and two to three leisurely days can cover the main attractions. If you have any questions about where to go, what to see, or what type of food to eat, send us a message! 

Mark and Melody

Giant’s Causeway: Worth the trip?

A popular day trip. A UNESCO world heritage site. Should you drive or take a tour? Most of the day trip tours from Dublin were coaches, about 45 to 60 euros per person, which yielded two hours or less at the causeway. We figured that’s not enough time if we wanted to see everything. Do it once, do it right! 

So we decided to drive. Driving on the left is a. It of a learning curve but becomes pretty intuitive. We were worried when the GPS keeps lost service. Fun fact though, so long as you load your map before you lose service and don’t exit the map, you’ll have it navigating. The roads in Ireland are much wider than Scotland’s roads, thankfully, and the drive to Belfast was an easy journey. 

Please note:

  • Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, which means
  • Speed limit changes from kilometers per hour to miles per hour. 
  • Prices are in pounds, not euros. 

Once north of Belfast (around Ballymena) the roads become much narrower and curvy. If you’re driving it, be kind to yourself and fill up your gas tank before you get to Northern Ireland. 

Be prepared for rain. It’s likely to come in five minute bursts so a raincoat with a hood is ideal. Hiking shoes are necessary as the land is quite wet and can be very slippery. 

We were more impressed by the hiking trails that the stones of the causeway. Yes, they are cool and hexagonal and it’s kind of fun to walk around them like stairs, but we would have been severely disappointed if that is all we had been able to do. To get the most out of the experience, you’ve gotta do a hike. 

We took the red trail, difficult, to the yellow trail challenging. Anyone in decent physical shape can do these hikes. If you can climb a couple flights of stairs, you can do these hikes. The best part of the hike is that it rained, because a beautiful rainbow formed from the cliffs over the ocean. It was absolutely surreal. The best part of being on the cliffs, overlooking the causeway and the ocean, was feeling so infinitely small. There is no greater reminde of how massive and powerful the ocean is when you’re looking down at its crashing waves. You know the water is freezing because you can feel the chill in the misting rain that’s coming down in bursts. It’s incredibly windy, so you know you’re pretty high up. We felt positively invigorated by the end of the hike. 

If you’re going to go, hear this to make the most of your trip:

  • To have more of the causeway to yourself, get there before noon or after 2pm to avoid the coaches full of people.
  • Want incredible scenery? Take the red or yellow trail. 
  • Bring a raincoat. 
  • Attempt to park at Giants causeway even if the parking lot is full. It’s much closer. If you don’t want to wait for a possibility, there is a parking area at the bottom of the hill that where you can park your car and take a shuttle. 
  • Wear shoes that are good in muddy terrain. 
  • Check out the gelato at the gift shop by the building where you pay the £9 entrance and parking fee. Super sweet woman runs the little place and she loves to chat. She also takes USD. 

Questions? Let us know! 

Choosing Your First AirBnB

AirBnB has been truly great to us and we can’t recommend them enough. Every type of lodging is available: tree houses, huts, beach cabanas, modern flats and castles! Search functions allow you to search for a private room, a shared space, or the entire home. The prices vary as much as the style, meaning there is definitely a listing for your taste.

For accuracy in prices and availability, put in the dates you’re looking to stay, even if they’re tentative because you may find a place you like that happens to have a flexible host. It’s no fun to get super attached to a listing only to find out it’s not available. 😦

Before booking, check the cancellation policy. Each listing has one: flexible, moderate or strict. Flexible means you can cancel no later than 24 hours before your intended stay for a full refund, which is best for more spontaneous bookings. Moderate means cancellation must be made five days (in host’s local time) before intended stay for a full refund.  If you’re planning to attend an event or you’re pretty sure you won’t change plans, this is an option. Strict is… Strict. No full refunds are offered for Strict cancellation policies.  Instead, a 50% refund will be given for cancellations made seven days or more before your intended stay.

We’ve found the hosts to be quite delightful and to ensure you get the most out of your stay without any misunderstanding, we always message the host before booking. We also crafted a template to familiarize you with the site and ensure you ask vital questions with a message like this:

Hello, My husband and I are traveling to London from September 23 to September 28- confirming you have these dates available. We are mainly looking forward to visiting Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, and Camden Market. We would like to prepare a couple small meals as well. We will be arriving from Heathrow at 7pm- would you be home at that time? What is the best tube route to your location? 

Thank you kindly. 

Most hosts respond within two hours as they are eager to confirm guests :). Generally, a more outgoing, interactive host will respond with a more detailed message. Ask for recommendations in their area. If you’ve any allergies, it’s good to note that so the host can accommodate. We had an instance where a review noted a pet but the host didn’t, so if pets are something you need to avoid, confirm before the booking. At a different stay, I was totally under the impression the host would be there, but he didn’t live in the area anymore; the house was a rental property. For a first time stay, you may want to ask if there will be other guests in the house.

For short stay travelers looking to maximize time, ask:

  • What do you find is the best way to get around?
  • Is Uber operating here?
  • What times do the trains/ buses run?
  • Additional charge on public transit during peak travel times?

For super savvy and aspiring long term travelers, ask:

  • How far is the nearest market and when does it close?
  • How far is the nearest pharmacy?
  • Do you have ample pots and pans, flatware and cooking tools?
  • Do you have a clothes washer if I bring my own detergent?

For families of four or more, we recommend:

  • Selecting “entire house” instead of one room as a search filter. More privacy, flexibility and importantly security.
  • Booking as soon as possible if you’re attending an event. AirBnB hosts will raise prices too, sometimes three months in advance.
  • Letting the host know the ages of your children, especially younger tots.
  • If you rented a car, ask where the car can be parked. 

Final note: Give a host with no reviews a chance. We did and had a lovely stay!

Have you had an experience at airbnb you’d like us to feature? Let us know! We would love to hear your travel adventures.

Mark and Melody