Archive for the ‘Planning’ Category

Eurodrive – Great Deals On Long Term Car Rental

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

Eurodrive provided Renault Megane

I did a lot of research to find a good deal on a rental car for our Europe trip.  The challenge is there are a lot of options.  I looked at combinations of train and rental cars.  Only taking the train.  Renting a car in one country and dropping if off in another.  After days and days of research the best deal I found was Renault Eurodive.

The setup is simple.  You pick up a car in one city in France and drop it off anywhere else in France.  You can pick up or drop off in another country but that can cost around 300 euros more depending on the country.  Here are some of the key benefits of using Renault Eurodrive vs a regular rental car company.

  • A brand new vehicle.  Our vehicle had 12 km on it when we picked it up.  We got a Megane which I really, really liked and it served us well through over 7000km of driving.  It’s a sporty little car that is still very comfortable for long distance road trips.
  • Unlimited miles
  • Comprehensive insurance coverage.  They cover everything and there is no deductible.  Most credit cards claim they will cover what the car rental company doesn’t but do you really want to go through the headache of dealing with that.
  • You can visit ALL countries in Europe.  Most rental car companies won’t allow you to drive in Bosnia, Romania, Serbia, and most other eastern european countries.  With Eurodrive it’s no problem.
  • No extra fees for anything.  Bring back the car with an empty tank of gas – no extra charge.  Want to add an extra driver – no extra charge.
  • Cost.  If you rent for over 21 days it is almost always cheaper than renting a car from a normal rental agency.  The longer you rent past 21 days the cheaper the per day cost gets.  Eurorail train passes are quite expensive.  If you have two people and want to travel to more than 3 countries it’s cheaper to rent a car (plus you get the freedom to drive wherever you want).

If you are planning a long european holiday look into the Renault Eurodrive program.

23 Countries. 3 Months. 1 Epic European Adventure.

Monday, October 10th, 2011

We got back from our epic 3 month European adventure a while back.  It’s taken me a while to get through the thousands of photos and videos but I’m getting there.  To get an idea of where we went check out the video animation above from tripline.net.  Tripline is a new site that helps you share the places you plan to go or where you’ve been.  It’s still in beta so there are a lot of features to be desired but still a cool travel site.

We travelled thousands of kilometers across 23 countries in Europe experiencing the best the continent has to offer.  From the thermal pools of Iceland, the polar bears of Svalbard, running of the bulls in Spain, climbing the dolomites in Italy, experiencing the history of Budapest, hiking the glaciers of Switzerland, bobsledding in Austria, sipping wine in Burgundy and so, so much more.  Stay tuned over the next few weeks for new blog posts of our adventures through Europe.

Spot Nate?

Monday, May 30th, 2011

Spot recently came out with this new GPS tracking device called the Spot Connect.    It’s a small hockey puck looking GPS receiver/transmitter that can sync with the iphone. Being the gadget freak that I am I picked one up to test out. One of the functions is an option to track your progress and send near real time updates via satellite to a webpage.  No wifi or 3G signal needed.  I’m heading out to the black hills in South Dakota so I’m going to give it try. If it works as expected you will be able to track my progress via the map above link here.

You can also use it to send short e-mails, update your facebook and twitter accounts and activate an SOS signal to have somewhere come rescue you if need.

Here is static page that will have my latest location… if this thing actually works.  Spot Nate!

At some point I’ll figure out how to integrate my latest location to the google map at the top of page showing all our travels.  Haven’t been able to figure that out yet so if anyone knows how drop me a line.

The arduous process to get a Russian tourist visa

Saturday, May 28th, 2011

The process to get a Russian tourist visa is a complicated one.  Even more so if you are an American.  Here is what we had to go through in order to get tourist visas for our long weekend trip to Moscow and St Petersburg.

Step 1) Get a tourist voucher from the hotel.  This is an official document that needs to be issued by a hotel or travel agency inviting you to visit Russia.  It’s pretty easy to get but did take a couple days for the hotel to issue it.  There wasn’t any cost as long as you stayed at the hotel.  Travel agencies will also issue it free of charge as long as you do a tour with them.

Step 2)  Download the visa application forms.  Visa form for US, UK, and Canadians here.  Everyone else can download the one here.

Step 3) The form for US citizens asks for an extraordinary amount of detail.  Some of the things they ask for are:

  • List EVERY educational institution you have EVER attended.
  • List EVERY professional, civil and charity organization which you are / were a member of or cooperated with.  Really?  I asked for clarification on this one and the visa officer said that even if I donated money to a charity that needed to be listed.
  • And my personal favorite, list ALL the countries you have visited in the last ten years and indicate the year of visit.  I’ve been to about 50 countries and the visa officer made me list them all out on a separate piece of paper with the year of visit.

How many people would actually remember of all these things and what would happen if it wasn’t accurate?

If you aren’t a US, UK or Canadian citizen then the form is very simple.  It’s the standard stuff like name, address, trip duration, etc.  None of the details that were required for americans.

Step 4)  Take all these forms and a passport sized photo to the Russia immigration office and wait for a week for them to issue your visa.  Americans need to pay about $150 USD and others need to pay about $50 for the standard processing time for a single entry tourist visa.

Ok… so maybe it wasn’t all that arduous but I did spend more time getting a visa to get into russia than any other country I visited.  It was worth the trouble.  A trip review for our long weekend in St Petersburg and Moscow will be posted shortly.

 

Packing for Antarctica. What worked. What didn’t.

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

I did a lot of research on what to pack for this trip since you can’t really run out to the nearest store to pick up something you left at home.  Here are just a few of the links that I found helpful in preparing for the trip.

http://www.top-adventure-tours.com/antarctica-clothing.html

http://www.hillmanwonders.com/antarctica_cruise/antarctica_cruise_pack.htm

http://www.brendansadventures.com/how-to-pack-for-antarctica/

http://www.cheesemans.com/polar/equipment_list.html (The most detailed list I found)

They go over the basics like bring layers, a warm hat, extra batteries, etc.  All good advice which we followed and were very comfortable for our trip.  I won’t go duplicate the good work they did but I will go over a couple of items that we found indispensable.

One of our favorite pieces of gear were our muck boots.  This advice was courtesy of the The Traveling Richters blog.  The Arctic Sport Hi-cut by Muck Boots are the ones I would recommend.  They are very warm, comfortable and are great for hiking around antarctica.  They are pretty big and are difficult to pack but it’s worth finding a way.

Another must have items is a nice pair of clothes.  I had one pair of ice climbing gloves that were supposed to be made to handle cold and wet environments.  They didn’t work well at all and were stuffed back in the bag after the first day.  The best gloves (especially for photographers) are the OR Meteor Mitts.  They come with a removeable fleece liner with flaps that can be pulled down so you fingers are free to work a camera.

Next most important thing is to keep your head and face warm.  The Loki Liner Hat did the trick for us.  The big red parka is the other piece of gear that we grew fond of.  It is supplied by Lindblad is one of the warmest winter jackets we’ve ever worn.  We will be keeping them for quite some time.

Onto the camera gear.  Apologies for bad iphone photo but all my other cameras were all laid out trying to find their way into one camera bag.

Gear list:

  • Canon 5D mark II
  • Canon 7D
  • Canon 30D (converted to infrared)
  • Canon G11
  • 24-105 F4
  • 70-200 F4
  • TS-E (tilt shift) 24mm
  • 100-400mm
  • Sigma 10-22
  • 1.4x extender
  • 580 EXII flash with ST-E2 transmitter
  • Remote camera triggers
  • Gitzo 2524 tripod
  • Really Right Stuff ballhead
  • Nikon MONARCH X 10.5×45 Binoculars
  • Nikon MONARCH 10×56 Binoculars
  • Hyperdrive Colorspace UDMA backup drives X2
  • Blower, battery charges, cleaning cloths, misc camera stuff
  • All packed into a Gura Gear Kiboko backpack (best camera bag ever)
  • Large Cabela’s Boundary Waters dry bag backpack.  I bought this based on a recommendation from www.hoothollow.com because he used this bag in Antarctica to put his Kiboko in when doing landings on the Zodiac. From my experience, the dry bag is not necessary.  The Kiboko can easily repel whatever little amount of water may get splashed over the side.  The Cabela is a nice bag but its overkill for this trip.

Yes, it all fit… barely.  The Kiboko can really hold a lot of gear.

If I were to go back to Antarctica I would only do a few things different from a camera gear perspective.

1) I would bring a laptop.  Normally, I don’t travel with a laptop because I’d rather enjoy the destination rather than spending time at a computer editing photos.  However, for a trip like this it’s worth it because you can get critics from the photo experts on board.  They also had a photo gallery at the end of the trip were you could show off your work.  Basically, everyone just setup their laptop in the lounge and put their photos in slideshow mode for people to look at.

2) I would bring a Canon 500mm F4 lens.  The 100-400mm lens I brought is a fantastic lens but there were times when the light was low and the wildlife was far off.  The extra 100mm and 1 more stop of light would have helped me a get a few shots I couldn’t have got otherwise.  The 500mm is massive lens but it wouldn’t be to much of a hassle because it would be most useful when shooting from the ship.

3) I would have used my tripod more often for creating panoramas.  I did many hand held panorama shots and a lot of them turned out well but I would have got more keepers if I took the time to setup on a tripod and do a proper pano.

GPS tracks in Antarctica

Monday, February 21st, 2011

I thought it would be pretty cool to record our tracks with a GPS for our trip to Antarctica.  I’ve tried to record GPS tracks before on other trips using my Garmin but it was always battery hog and it was very inconvenient to keep it charged and turned on all the time.  For this trip I thought it would be worth it so I searched for a Garmin map of Antarctica.  After a bit of searching I found there wasn’t one made by garmin but I did find a free one  here http://rwsmaps.griffel.se/ After a couple of hours of messing around trying to get it loaded onto my Garmin I found out that all the Garmin GPS devices don’t support maps above or below 60 degrees.  This rules out Antarctica completely.  The GPS will be able to give you the coordinates but it won’t show on the map.  Pretty stupid design Garmin!!

Then I found this cool little gadget call the “Travel Recorder XT” by Qstar.  It’s a simple little thing that just records your tracks.  No display.  1 on/off switch.  Nothing fancy.  Just records where you’ve been and the battery life is much better than any Garmin GPS.  Of course this one turned out not to be perfect either.  I kept it on most of the trip but didn’t realized until I got home (no display to check if it was working) that it didn’t record very accurately that far south.  The tracks were all over the place.  Didn’t record anything at all in other places.  Really not very usable.

In the end, the pictures of the charts with the route drawn in with a marker proved to be the easiest to use and most accurate way to show where we’ve been.

Chart of our Antarctica voyage

Chart of our Antarctica voyage

I used these to update my travel map at the top of my blog.  Not exactly what I had in mind but when technology fails you can always do things old school with a pen and paper.

New Zealand (how not to get bored on vacation)

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010


View New Zealand Trip Route in a larger map

We have an exciting trip to New Zealand coming up.  This should turn out to be the most action packed holiday yet.  We will be

  • sea kayaking
  • road biking
  • mountain biking
  • whale watching by airplane
  • swimming with wild dolphins
  • soaking in hot springs
  • traveling on a scenic trans alpine train ride
  • helicopter ride to a glacier
  • ice climbing
  • a unique flight + hike + jet boat ride
  • trout fishing
  • sky diving
  • aerobatic flight ride
  • overnight boat trip on milford sound
  • hot air balloon ride
  • 143 meter bungy jump

all while staying in some of the best accommodations available in New Zealand.  I’ve been working with a local agent for the past few months to put this trip together and it’s one of best yet. Miki and I are both very excited but we have a feeling we may have tried to pack to much into too short a period of time. Nah, I think we still have a few hours free in the itinerary somewhere… what else can we squeeze in?

Make sure to check back later for a full trip review…

Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort – Attempting to redeem a free night

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

The main focus of our trip to Borneo was to spend time in the rainforest and not in resorts.  However, we thought after 6 nights at lodges in the middle of the rainforest we thought a little bit of luxury for 2 nights before we returned home would be nice.

There were several reasons we wanted to stay the the Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort in Kota Kinabalu.  First, and most important was because they have an organ utan wildlife center on the premises which we wanted to visit.  The resort also receives good reviews online.  It’s part of the Shangri-La group of properties so it should be up to the global standard of other Shangri-La properties we’ve stayed at.  Finally, I had a free night from their Golden Circle Promotion.  This entitled me to a free night at this hotel… or so I thought.

Here is the 4 step process I had to go through to redeem the free night I was entitled to.

Step 1) The initial phone call (and what I hoped would be the only step in the process)

I called the reservation number to try and make a reservation for the 2 nights I wanted to stay at the resort.  I was told I couldn’t because the local hotel property wouldn’t accept the free night I had earned because it didn’t meet the terms and conditions of the offer.  I told them it did and to escalate the issue to a manager.  They did escalate it and I received an e-mail from the Golden Circle Center in Hong Kong the next day.

Step 2) I received the following mail from them

Please be informed that per this promotion terms and conditions, redemption must be made 3 days in advance online at www.goldencircle.shangri-la.com or by phone at (60) 3 2052 3060 or email: gcfreeight@shangri-la.com.  Free night redemptions are subject to availability at time of reservation.  Also, the following black-out dates, in addition to existing Golden Circle black-out dates, apply:

For all Hotels: 31 December 2009 and 1 January 2010
For all Resorts: 22 December 2009 to 1 January 2010 and 13 to 17 February 2010 (both dates inclusive)

Step 3) I sent the following reply

I understand all the terms you have listed below [in the e-mail] and what I want to do falls within these terms but for some reason the local hotel manager refuses to honor the terms of the promotion.  While the hotel may be running full there are rooms available on the 12th and 13th (Free night on the 12th and I’ll pay for the 13th).  Please see the attached screenshot.  Rooms are available in every category.

Item 14 in the terms and conditions states, Members can redeem the best available room at time of reservation except Premier Rooms or equivalent, Horizon/Traders Club Floors, Suites and Villas.” The best available room that isn’t a premier room or a suite is the “Garden Wing Deluxe Sea View Room”.  That is the room I should be allowed to book on the 12th… and pay for on the 13th.

Step 4) SUCCESS

Dear Mr. Busscher,

Thank you for your email of 5 November 2009

We are pleased to advise you that your redemption booking as well as your paid night booking has been made at Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort, Kota Kinabalu as requested.  Booking confirmation has been sent by the hotel directly to you separately.  Should you have any queries, you may contact the hotel via email at rrr@shangri-la.com or telephone at (60-88) 792888.

We look forward to welcoming you to Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts again, soon.

I shouldn’t have had to go through all of this but this is what the travel industry has come to.  They use promotions to draw in customers and then make it extremely difficult for all but the incredibly determined to redeem the promotions.

This should have raised a red flag that this Shangri-La Rasa Ria wasn’t up to the standard of the other hotels in the Shangri-La group.  I’ll post a review of the Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort a litte later.

A look back at 2009 and what’s to come in 2010

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

2009 was a big travel year for us. We started out spending the start of 2009 on a Caribbean cruise with my wife and parents. Several months later we had an amazing trip to Bhutan. In September we took a quick trip to the Maldives. Then we topped off the year with our big Africa trip to both Uganda and Tanzania.

Can 2010 top it?

Here is what we have on deck for 2010
1) Borneo (the Malaysia side)
2) New Zealand (an active adventure holiday)
3) Tahiti (cruise with my wife and parents)
4) Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Not sure if we can squeeze this one in but we will try to do some diving here for a few days.

Looks like we have another fun year in store :)

Uganda – Trip Planning

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

Infrared Gorillas

The planning aspect of the Uganda portion of our trip got a little complicated and I probably shouldn’t have tried to figure out a way to get the price lower but it worked out fine in the end. I contacted Volcanoes Safari to help arrange this leg of my trip.  They are considered “The No. 1 Gorilla Safari Company” so I figured it would be a good choice.  The short of it is it was a good choice but they are very expensive unless you do what I did.  I also contacted Gorilla Forest Lodge (GFC) at the recommendation of the owner of flyuganda.com but they were fully booked for the dates I needed to go.  Most people I met say that GFC is considered the best lodge in the Bwindi area.

My request:

  1. Fly in and out off Bwindi to avoid the 10+ hour car ride.
  2. 3 nights in the Volcanoes Bwindi Lodge
  3. 4 gorilla trekking permits (2 days x 2 people).
  4. All transfers and guide

I go into more details including prices after the jump.  I guess it’s taboo to talk about cost on blogs because I had a very hard time finding this type of information.  I hope this helps some people save a few bucks when traveling to Uganda.  If you don’t want to find out the costs just enjoy the pictures in the other posts.

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