12 Hours in Beijing = tour the Great Wall
There are those key moments in life when you are reminded of why the person you are with is your perfect travel buddy. The latest moment occurred a few months ago, when Lakisha looked at me and said, ͞So, we have to stop in Beijing on the way home from Thailand. We can have a short stop and get home sooner, or we can stay in China for a twelve-hour layover.
Perplexed, I wondered how much cheaper the twelve-hour layover would be. ͞Actually it’s a little more expensive, she added, but we can take a day-tour of the Great Wall of China. I️ immediately looked at Lakisha and knew that our travel thoughts were aligned. Ever since I was five years old, I wanted to visit The Great Wall of China. It always seemed epic, but actually getting there always seemed far and complicated. Choosing the longer layover to take this tour felt like it would be once in a lifetime. Keep in mind that China has a very strict entry policy which requires a Visa, so there are a few things that you should absolutely know to make this as memorable as possible.
1) Make sure to book a tour in advance.
Unlike many countries, which seem to celebrate the ability for a traveler to quickly tour their historical sites, China does not make it easy to move throughout the airport in any capacity. In order to obtain a temporary visa, you must have evidence of your tour. We used a tour company called Beijing Airport Transportation and enjoyed a private tour of the Great Wall. The private tour was key since they would wait on us, modified our itinerary based on our flight delay, and picked us up and dropped us off at the airport for only $100 per person.
2) Rush off the plane to find the counter that says 24-72 hour Visa. We aren’t kidding. If you walk slowly, or take even a few extra minutes to exit the aircraft, you could be adding an hour or much more to your wait time. You would think that a country that has epic sites like the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square would make visiting those sites much easier, but one couple we spoke to had been waiting in line for 4 hours (with a baby in tow). The temporary visa counter was initially staffed with only one person, and when they added a second person, it still seemed move at a snail’s pace. There were about 30 people ahead of us, and our total wait time was two hours.
3) Ask your tour operator to e-mail an itinerary in Chinese.
After doing a bit more research, we requested that our tour company send the itinerary in Chinese. Having the ability to show the e-mail in Chinese, helped us save precious time when we were finally called to the visa counter.
4) Make sure to get a modest amount of Chinese Currency
While every tour we’ve found can be paid for in U.S. dollars and includes the entry fees, you will be expected to pay a handful of miscellaneous costs in RMB. At the time, the conversion rate was about 6.5 RMB to USD. Our Great Wall lift ticket was about 120 RMB per person, and the snacks/lunch were about 30 RMB per person. Converting about $40-$50 should be enough. Thankfully, the temporary visa was free. 5) Wear sensible shoes and dress for the weather
The Great Wall is aptly named. There will be a lot of walking up hilly inclines, uneven steps and climbing up watchtowers. It’s a workout, but well worth it. Also, make sure to check the weather before you pack, as it can be very cold.
Until our next adventure! – Tim
We’ve all been there before as we prep for an upcoming vacation. Plane tickets booked, hotel confirmed, airport transfers ready…But instead of allowing ourselves to “turn our brains off”, we start with the “real work.”
Step 1) Google “top ten sites at XYZ location”
Step 2) Reach out to close friends to get recommendations for the things we “must see.”
Step 3) Post on social media and get even more suggestions for sites and restaurants that we “have to go to.”
Many of us aspire to have an escape from our stressful to-do lists, yet we end up making those same lists in a different zip code.
My husband and I are not blameless in this, but prior to Crete, we simply didn’t have time to gather feedback from friends or family. And by happy accident, we were able to rediscover the joy of having “no list.”
We spent the first 36 hours lounging, and I would go back again tomorrow and do the exact same thing…
Sit around and relax…
Enjoy the enormous and delicious breakfast buffet….
Not go through a giant list of must see sites, instead read a book….
Lounge by our pool…
Drink coffee at a local shop and chat with the locals…
Do not check email…
Do not constantly check Facebook to see what people are doing at home when you are on a beautiful island!!!!
In our eight days, we relaxed, took a boat tour to Spinalonga, ate fresh fish and seafood at local restaurants, hopped in the beautiful ocean, drove around the island and explored. But here’s the kicker…we did simple things and felt like we had nothing “to-do”.
Every beach was a bonus. Every restaurant was a discovery. If we wanted to play cards while sipping espresso in our hotel lounge, there was no “cost” of a day in which we could have seen a site.
The beauty of Crete is that the entire island was the “sight to see”. If we were to return, we’d make sure to keep our luggage to a minimum, pack even more swimsuits and goggles, and remember with our future vacations, how important it is to “Do-Less.”
My wife and I have had the opportunity to visit Napa three times in a little over two years. After visiting a number of wineries, we can say without fail that:
Silver Oak, Cakebread, and Hall are hands down the best wineries we’ve tried in Napa, with Domaine Chandon coming in a close fourth. Over the course of this time, we’ve noticed a few key things that can help enhance the overall experience without breaking the bank.
1. Don’t be afraid to split a tasting
Just because you’re in Napa doesn’t mean that every winery is good. Just like people, some wineries have got great looks, but lack “personality”. We started our day at Mondavi, which is a well known name and beautiful property, but the wine tasting was not the best. Thankfully my wife and I split a tasting.
2. Napa doesn’t love groups/It’s all about who you know
Imagine calling a winery in 2015, telling them that you have 25 wine enthusiasts who are eager to do a tasting and will likely buy 2-3 bottles each (you do the math). Only to have said establishment say… “no thanks.” This is what my wife experienced when she called Cakebread prior to our 2015 group trip and was told that they could not accommodate a group of that size at any time, regardless of advance notice. Fast forward to last weekend, where we visited Cakebread with a wine club member, and inquired about their policy on groups, only have to have them say, “Sure, here’s a dedicated line for you to call.”
3. Schedule your trip to Napa around a friend who has a wine club membership
Full disclosure: If the younger me, who genuinely debated over spending an extra 39 cents to supersize his extra value meal, found out that he’d one day write a Napa blog… He’d likely say “who is Napa?”
Yes, I feel like I should be giving this piece of advice while sipping from a teacup with a raised pinky, but there are actually more Napa wine club members out there than you think. When visiting with a wine club member, we tasted a different quality of wines and had a better overall experience. Our first visit to Napa was nice, but it’s always better with a wine club member. Oh, and the tasting was free. That helps.
4. Drop into Dean & Deluca
We walked into Dean & Deluca and I remembered why you rarely see markets like this in the big city. We ordered a massive sandwich and they just handed it to us. At the cheese counter, they gave out tastings of Midnight Moon, Cambozola, Manchango, and other cheeses for pairing. By the time the lady handing out samples said, “You should really try the Etorki.” I honestly wondered, “Did someone just advise me to start twerking?” I mean that … might.. increase our Instagram following, but Not Like This!
A brief stop here set us up with a good number of snacks to bring to our next winery (some wineries allow you to bring outside food if they don’t serve or have a picnic area.) Before we walked out, I ended up actively seeking out a way to pay for my goods since they were so low key about it. In the back of my mind, I thought back to comedian Roy Wood Jr’s sage advice of (always get a bag/receipt)
5. Find those who share your “Wine synergy”
Many of us have that friend that you hand over the wine menu at dinner and say, “you pick,” without a second thought. You know that they have great taste and you share a “wine synergy.” When planning a trip to Napa, you may receive a wide range of opinions on where to visit. We all have a co-worker, who knows somebody’s uncle who, “Just opened a great winery.” Don’t waste your time on a place that could be a bust, take advice from those you trust.
6. Quality is a numbers game
Unless Napa’s in your backyard, since you’re making the journey, you should go for what has the best quality. A typical wine tasting ranges from $20-$45 per person. If the average person goes to three to four wineries in a day, make your choices count. For the tasting at Hall Winery, the bottle price ranges from $65-$175 dollars. When do you think your local wine store is going to open up a $175 bottle for you to have “a taste?”
I’ve come a long way from debating the cost of supersizing my value meal. This last trip to Napa was amazing and I can’t wait to go back. What can I say…started from the bottle, now we’re here.
When my wife and I posted photos from our recent trip to Iceland, it seemed like the comments weren’t just about the natural beauty of the locations, but also a running tally of people who had been there, or had it on their wish list. With the wide variety of flight options leaving out of several different airports, and a free stopover on the way to other European destinations, Iceland is hot right now.
I visited on Labor Day weekend 2016 and 2017, the first time for a bachelor party and the second with my wife and friends. Both were epic weekends and these nine tips (many of which were learned the hard way,) will serve you well.
1. Purchase duty free at the airport.
Iceland pricing on alcohol beverages are high. There’s no need to pay extra if you can avoid it. Be sure to take advantage of the discounted pricing at duty free if you plan to enjoy a few beverages in town. At the local bars, beer, wine and cocktails can range from $12-$25 each.
2. DON’T schedule an early morning tour when you first arrive.
On Saturday, September 3rd, 2016, my friend Mark woke up at at 6:45 AM, Icelandic time, stared at the ceiling and started to make serious life choices about our pre-booked tour. These choices weren’t just about the 18,000 kroner (roughly $170 US) that would be wasted, the missed opportunity to see the natural sights (he could live without it) or the fact that he would be disappointing the bachelor.
For Mark, this was about simple survival. He woke up, processing the 8 hour time difference from Cali, rubbing his temples between his two fingers, and whispered “If I go on this tour, I think I just might die.” He wasn’t ready to start a full day tour at 7 AM, when he had gone to bed roughly 90 minutes earlier.
3. Expect to be pushed around, it’s not personal.
On our first night in town we noticed that some of the locals have an odd sense of invading personal space. Several of our friends noticed people who would push into you, without a thought to use the words “excuse me” in any language. If someone just walks into you, don’t take it too personal (I guess?)
4. Enjoy a good meal and don’t worry about the price (too much).
In 2016, my friends and I had a fantastic meal at a place that I couldn’t pronounce and I thought to myself “I need to write this down so I can go back.” Fast forward to me in 2017, blindly leading a group back and forth between a sports bar with a sign out front that says “husband day-care center” and the 10-11 (Iceland’s version of 7-11,) promising that “it was right here, I swear.”
I asked the group to give me a moment as I pulled my wife to the side, intently put my hand on her shoulder and said, “Hey, I need you google something for me… right now.” Little did I know that I had stopped directly in front of a poster by the tourism kiosk that urged us to visit “the Icelandic Penis museum,” (I wish this was a joke). The look on her face and the eye roll that almost made my head spin, resulted in a very quick clarification on what we would specially be googling. Once I took advantage of our shared international data plan I found the restaurant with the most lazy goggle search of them all. “Top restaurants in Reykjavik.”
Feeling like a numbskull when Grillmarkaðurinn, popped up as the first result, we took a few steps forward into a semi-Hidden alleyway, leading to a restaurant with incredible ambiance and food that could literally make you go back to Iceland.
The main course pricing was between 5,000 and 6,400 ISK ($48-62 USD), which wasn’t necessarily high, but Iceland in general isn’t cheap, so my mind was slightly cost conscious. Then the bill came, and we realized after a quick conversion, that our total bill was only about $78 per person. A meal of the same quality in the U.S could have easily been $100+, and since tipping at restaurants is not customary in Iceland, we felt like it was worth it and then some.
5. Find the locals grocery store.
We recommend staying at an Airbnb, due to the high price of hotels. Plus they normally have access to a kitchen which will allow you to go to “Bonus.” https://www.bonus.is If you feel like saving some money and making dinner one night.
6. Their holidays are not our holidays.
For those celebrating American three day weekends in Iceland, don’t be mistaken…just because you have Monday off, does not mean they do. The weekday nightlife is by no means comparable to Friday/Saturday and outside of the dinner scene, it isn’t very busy.
7. Winter is coming: The Golden Circle, G.O.T tour, etc don’t require advanced planning.
Some people like to book in advance, but we found that most of the main tours at the larger companies (Gray Line, or Reykjavik Excursions), don’t really sell out. Unless there’s something you HAVE TO do, I think you’re better off going to the tourism office the morning after you arrive, and having them walk you through the countless tour options.
Icelandic tourism ensures that you truly “have it your way”, (I’m definitely getting a burger after writing this.) There’s the Golden Circle traditional tour, the Golden Circle secret tour, the Game of thrones tour where they take you “North”, the volcano tour, the cave tour (it’s cool, but there’s a lot of crawling), whale and/or puffin watching on a boat, ATV riding with mountain views, a snowmobile tour on a glacier, waking on a glacier, horseback riding on a glacier, karaoke on a glacier (Ok I made that last one up, although I am secretly humming Foreigner (https://youtu.be/eC99JhQq-3w) in my head.
All of these tours are unique and awesome, but make sure you check the options and examine your tour itinerary carefully to maximize your choices.
8. Save your receipts and go to the V.A.T refund at the airport.
The V.A.T Refund had been an afterthought for me on both trips and that was a mistake. If you are shopping, or if your group is the type to have one person put a card down and paypal or venmo around, you’ll find that you will have some pretty sizable receipts over the course of a few days. This can transfer to cold hard cash, since Iceland refunds the VAT of items over 6,000 ISK at the airport. The line to get the refund isn’t short (nor is it particularly long), but it can certainly be worth the wait depending on what you’ve purchased.
9. Book the blue lagoon far in advance and go towards the beginning of your trip.
We’re going to do a separate blog post just about the blue lagoon, but after two separate visits, (I would have no problem going back to the blue lagoon once a year,) in which every time slot was sold out upon arrival, we thanked our lucky stars that we booked in advance.
In 2016, my friends and I visited the blue lagoon prior to our airport departure. They have a bag check that holds your luggage for $15 and buses that are very accurately timed, so there were no worries about missing flights (as long as we met the bus on time).
The major downside to the airport departure is that the blue lagoon is very social. Since you’re hanging out and chatting for (usually) about 3 hours, there’s a good chance that you’ll meet some folks who are just starting their trip just as you’re finishing yours. In 2017, we went on our second full day, instead of our last.
There’s a lot to see in Reykjavik within walking distance, the street art, the stainless steel “Sun Voyager” Viking ship by the water and of course the Hallgrímskirkja church. Exploring the town and discovering things on your own can be the best part… but as my friend Mark (at least I hope we’re still friends after I post this) will tell you: A few survival tips can alleviate some of the hiccups… and headaches.
My husband and I just returned from an international vacation in Crete, which featured a layover in Istanbul, and an overnight stay at an Air B&B in Athens. Our final location was absolutely breathtaking, but we also enjoyed the journey along the way. So often when people arrive at the airport, they focus on getting from point A to point B and the hassles that are involved. But my advice to you is to simply start your vacation when you arrive at the airport.
Here are a few tips for you to enjoy the journey:
1 – Research your airports: Many of today’s airports have a variety of services to entertain you on your long layover or extended time waiting for your flight. Everything from great restaurants to spa services and upgraded lounges provide an opportunity for you to relax before you begin your flight to your destination.
2 – Sign up for lounge: If you are frequent flyer, you may automatically receive access to your airlines lounge at the airport. These lounges offer more comfortable seating beverages and sometimes food. If you were not a frequent flyer, there are companies like Priority Pass that offer you the ability to pay for access to their lounges domestic and international. Taking the time to relax in the lounge can set your mind right for your upcoming trip.
3 – Have your meal at the airport: Many airports across the country and around the world have fantastic dining opportunities available to you while you wait for your flight. Instead of rushing to eat at your house before you head to the airport, arrive a little early and enjoy a nice meal while you’re there.
4 – Visit the spa: It seems like I never check “get a mani/pedi” off of my pre-trip to-do list. Thankfully, many airports have prepared for those last-minute Travellers like myself. I cannot count the number of times I have made it through security quickly at the Orlando airport and found myself at the spa getting a pedicure.
5 – Visit the bookstore: All airports offer a selection of books including most of the best sellers. Take this opportunity to catch up on your reading, or find magazines for the beach. Many airports offer book trading or rentals so try a new perspective at today’s bookstores.
The best vacations allow a traveler to have a break from the hustle and bustle of our busy lives. These tips should serve as a reminder to cherish those small moments within the overall travel experience and feel care-free.
L & T
For this blog post we listed our tips in a video. But if you want more detail read below.
1. Rent a car: Kona is on the Big Island and it’s called that for a reason…it’s Huge! You can Uber or taxi but it’s much more expensive. We booked a rental car for 4 days from Avis for $130. However, the price estimate for an Uber from the airport to our hotel was $60-$85 one way. Part of the beauty of the island is driving around it. If you have more than 4 days you may want to visit the crater and see the lava. We just didn’t want to spend the entire day in the car for such a short trip.
2. Find hidden beaches and bays: you can’t beat the beautiful beaches and bays with lava rock all around. It’s just a very unique beach experience.
3. Visit a coffee farm: 100% Kona coffee is a real treat if you are a coffee lover. Viewing the process and hearing the history gave us a better appreciation.
4. Take time to relax: vacation is meant for relaxation and mental revitalization. Be sure to enjoy the down time and don’t fill every day with tours.
5. Never miss a sunset...nuff said.
We all have them, things that other passengers do on board a flight that just drive you a little crazy. After witnessing all five of these “transgressions” throughout the course of yesterday’s nine-hour flight, I felt compelled to make a list. Here are my top five in-flight pet peeves and solutions to make a better flight experience for all.
1. Remove your oversized backpacks!
When boarding a plane, remove your oversized backpack and carry it in front of you. No one enjoys getting hit in the face with your bag as it swings from side to side while you walk down the aisle toward your seat.
2. Don’t push on the seats!
If you need to get up during the flight, when you are squeezing your way out to the aisle, push back on your own seat, or the empty seats that your seat mates just left. I always watch people push and pull on the occupied seats in front of them, as though there was no other option. Other passengers do not need to wake up just because you have to pee.
3. Flush the toilet!
Boys, this is not a urinal….you need to flush as a courtesy to the other passengers onboard. Nuff said.
If you are flying on a long flight, as a courtesy to the passengers across the aisle from you, please shut the window. I’m sure a lot of people like to watch the plane take off, or grab a picture from the sky. No worries. But every time I see someone in the window seat with the window open, passed out, while the blinding sun is flashing in my eyes….I want to scream. Or the person who opens the window to read….you have a reading light people.
5. Not being prepared for a crying baby
It’s almost inevitable, if you have a long flight, there will be a baby on board. Bring ear plugs or headphones and turn on the music. Don’t look at the parents like they have done something wrong. It’s a baby, they cry.
Ok, lets hear your thoughts! Do you agree, disagree? Share your top pet peeves or tips for travelers to make life on board easier.