Hawaii – How to Get To, And Get Around On, The Big Island

The Big Island of Hawaii’s beauty is legendary and it has the most diverse landscape on earth-but it can be as challenging to explore as it is charming. From the icy heights of snow-covered volcanoes, to steamy jungles and tropical beaches, to flowing fields of lava, flower choked canyons and wide-open tropical grassland, its scenery is unsurpassed. By and large the quality of your trip to the Big Island will depend on how much of it you choose to see and how you set about discovering your own Big Island adventures. Below are some ideas on the options for getting to Hawaii and for getting around Hawaii, once you are here.

Another key to the quality of your time on the Big Island has to do with the spirit of aloha. The people you meet in Hawaii, by and large, tend to be more open and friendly-quick to help or befriend-than elsewhere. This is the tradition of “Aloha”. When you meet local residents, whether to ask for directions and advice or to hire services or just in casual conversation, treat them with respect, humor and openness-return their spirit of aloha and you will find your journey, and yourself, deeply enriched for it.

In Hawaii, your smile is your passport.

Getting To Hawaii

The standing joke among residents of Hawaii when dealing with the time, inconvenience and hassle of traveling to the mainland is: “This used to be so much easier before the bridge blew down”! Of course, there never was a bridge spanning the roughly 2500 miles between the Big Island and mainland USA, but the humor tends to underline the commitment, planning and time it takes to travel to and from Hawaii.

Flying to Hawaii: Certainly the most common, quickest and least expensive (note I didn’t say “inexpensive”) way to get to Hawaii is to fly. Many major US and international carriers fly to Honolulu on Oahu and and a host of local and international carriers offer flights from there to all the other Hawaiian Islands, including the Big Island. Kona’s airport is the only one on the Big Island that has direct flight connections to the US Mainland, Canada, Japan and Australia. Despite styling itself as “Hilo International Airport”, flights to and from Hilo ONLY connect to other Hawaiian islands.

Although both airports have similar facilities and services, including onsite rental car agencies and access to public transportation, shuttles and taxis, it makes a big difference to the traveller where they land. By far the vast majority of visitors to the Big Island stay in either Kona or the Kohala Resorts which are all on the west side of the island and are between 20 to 45 minutes from the Kona airport. If you are staying in Hilo, it’s fine to fly in there; however, Hilo doesn’t have the resort facilities, fine beaches and great weather of the Kona side and few tourists opt to stay there anymore. Many people booked into resorts on the west side mistakenly take flights into Hilo, due to the misleading airport name, unaware (or even misinformed by ignorant but well-meaning travel agents) that they now, at the end of an exhausting day of travel and in the fading twilight of the early tropical sunset, face a drive of almost 3 hours, across high mountains and on narrow, winding, unfamiliar roads to get to their resort. They just better hope it doesn’t start raining, too.

So-know where you are staying, fly into the appropriate airport.

Whether you are flying directly into Kona or flying to Honolulu and getting a connecting flight into Kona or Hilo, you want to be sure to reserve a seat so that you see as much of the incredible scenery as you can. Since 90% of the flight is over open ocean (which just isn’t as riveting as one might expect) you want to wring the most enjoyment out of those portions of your flight which do feature scenery. If you are first stopping in Honolulu, sitting on the port (left) side of the aircraft for this leg of your trip affords the best views as the plane screams in past Koko Head and over the top of Diamond Head and Waikiki Beach, turns around directly over Pearl Harbor and settles in to land at Honolulu International Airport. Sitting on the starboard side is not as spectacular, however, it offers views of Moloka’i and Maui islands, as well as views of Pearl Harbor, the Wai’anae and Ko’olau Mountains of O’ahu and downtown Honolulu just before landing.

Flying into Hilo from O’ahu, one also wants to sit on the port side of the aircraft. The flight path crosses over the islands of Moloka’i and Maui, skims along the eastern margin of Hawaii Island presenting a rich, fascinating panoply of soaring sea cliffs, jungle canyons and volcanic mountains, jaw-dropping waterfalls and crashing surf along the coast. Flying into Kona either directly or from Honolulu is no less wonderfully scenic than flying into Hilo, but one wants to be on the starboard side. This offers the traveller great views of the islands of Maui, Molokini, Lana’i and Kaho’olawe, as well as incredible views of the Big Island, Kohala Mountain, Mauna Kea, Hualalai and, on clear days, Mauna Loa as the jet cruises in over the Kohala Coast, making land right over Makalwena Beach and on to Kona International Airport at Keahole.

Cruise Ships and Cargo Ships: There are several cruise ship lines which ply the waters of the Hawaiian Archipelago, however of the ones that service the Big Island, most require passengers to book for an entire cruise, meaning that although you may make one or two stops on Hawaii, you will only remain in port for a day, overnight at most, before sailing on. Generally, you cannot arrive on one ship, disembark for a stay, and catch another ship out.

Of increasing popularity, however, is cruising to Hawaii on cargo ships-cheaper than a cruise line and with a completely open and adjustable itinerary, this is a great alternative to flying. It is both more expensive and more time consuming (average sailing is 3 days from Los Angeles to Honolulu, and times are variable for getting from there to the Big Island) than flying, but it is restful, peaceful and unique. Cargo ships offer spacious passenger cabins and, while not the floating feed-lots that cruise ships tend to resemble, the food on cargo ships is wonderful and plentiful. Perhaps the biggest drawback of riding cargo ships to the Big Island is that on the east side they dock in, let us say, the less desirable part of Hilo; on the west they dock at Kawaihae, halfway between Kailua Kona and the resorts of the Kohala coast-in other words, out in the middle of nowhere. Both land many miles from resorts and car rental agencies. However, both docking facilities are serviced by taxis and public transportation; if you plan ahead, it should present no problem.

Getting Around Hawaii

Shuttles/Taxis/Limos/Tours: Taxis, of course, service both Big Island airports, the metropolitan regions and all the resorts. The taxis, while not cheap, are not as usurious as one might fear and the drivers generally are knowledgeable, friendly, HONEST and genuinely nice-it’s that whole aloha thing. Taxi drivers are happy to answer your questions, even the silly ones you are kind of shy to ask; they will freely give advice about what to do and see and where to eat and generally try to be as helpful as possible. However, many speak in pidgin English that can be nearly impenetrable to the newcomers’ ear. Don’t be shy about respectfully asking him to repeat himself, and again if necessary-he hears that on nearly every fare he carries. Ask him to write down place names, restaurant names and such-many Hawaiian words do not look at all like they way he’s saying them and you’ll want to be able to read the words on maps and signs, or be able to ask another person, later.

Both Kona and Hilo airports are serviced by point-to-point shuttles and limos, whose prices are actually quite reasonable and certainly less expensive than the taxis. The drawback here is that there will be many people aboard going to many diverse destinations-so it takes a bit longer than a taxi.

Many of the larger resorts offer a free limo service to and from the airport and some will even arrange to have your rental car waiting for you on-property when you arrive from the airport…check when you make reservations. If available, this is the least personable, but quickest, easiest and least expensive way to get to your lodgings.

Some boutique tours offered by Hostels and the smaller tour companies will also pick you up at the airport at the beginning of their tours, if your arrival time is convenient to the tour schedule; thus, the cost of getting to your resort is absorbed into the cost of the tour. This option is worth looking into if you are not planning to rent a car during your stay.

Tipping tour, taxi, limo and shuttle drivers is not only encouraged, it’s their main source of revenue. Remember to return the aloha they showed you.

Rental Cars and Driving Tips: Although some people opt to not rent cars during their stay, relying on tours and public transportation to get around, you should bear in mind that there is a reason they call it “The Big Island”. Distances between attractions can be long, public transportation schedules are not always convenient and, face it, it’s just a lot freer, easier and more independent to have your own wheels. Be sure to thoroughly research the online booking agencies before you arrive-ofttimes great deals bundling airfare, room and car rental can be found, especially in the slack seasons.

There are two types of car rental agencies on the Big Island. The major, international car rental agencies are available on property at both airports, giving the visitor a wide selection of corporate deals and specials-particularly flight-room-car combo deals–as well as a diverse palate of available cars. The other option, frequently much less expensive particularly for long term rentals, are the off-property rental agencies. These folks won’t generally pick you up at the airport so you must make your way to their in-town offices, but the selection of vehicles, and rates, are generally wider ranged.

If you are under 21, the rental companies won’t rent to you. If you are between 21 and 24, they may add a surcharge to the rental that can be as much as twenty-five dollars a day on top of the regular daily fee.

The first question the traveller must answer for themselves is what kind of vehicle they will want while on the Big Island. Some rental agencies specialize in luxury and exotic cars–Mercedes, Lamborghini, Rolls Royce and such. Others offer Volkswagen Campers and RVs. Many people arrive and decide they want to flash around the island in a Mustang or Camaro convertible-which are great and fun, but they offer no security for your personal items and they severely limit the kinds of roads you can drive on, in addition to almost guaranteeing sun and wind burn. If you are coming to explore the island, you should consider going to the extra expense of renting a four-wheel drive vehicle-either a jeep or an enclosed SUV. Much of the mountain country and many of the more interesting beaches and canyons require four wheel drive. I suggest an enclosed SUV so you do not have to shout to be heard, as you do in a jeep, and have some more protection from the elements and from thieves.

Briefly mentioned above, RVs and Volkswagen Campers are excellent ways to see the island and obviate the need for an expensive hotel. However, RVs are not common on Hawaii and there are no RV parks as such; outside of the towns of Hilo and Kona there is nowhere to drain the waste tanks, so you have to be sure to use public facilities as much as possible. But you can park and camp free virtually anywhere, although most campgrounds will charge a camping fee for an RV, even if you are camping in the parking lot.

Motorcycles and scooters can be rented in both Kona and Hilo and are a fun way to see the island, until it rains. Which happens. It is also difficult to travel with any amount of luggage on a motorcycle. You will notice a burgeoning fraction of the local population zipping about town on scooters (locally, and incorrectly, referred to as “mopeds”). For bikes with engine sizes smaller than 50cc, no motorcycle license and no insurance are necessary. The “moped” class vehicle has the same license and road regulations as a bicycle, so it is not surprising to see them zip along the the roadside, passing cars stuck in traffic, or pop up and run down the sidewalk. If you rent a moped in Hawaii, please don’t drive them the way the locals do; it just isn’t safe. I use a moped almost exclusively to get around Kailua Town where I live-do not ride your scooter the way you see me ride mine.

The cost of gas in Hawaii is even worse than you’ve been led to believe, so when selecting a rental car, bear this in mind. Costco in Kona has the absolute cheapest gas on the island (and it’s handy, near the airport); the gas station off the Akoni Pule Highway in Kohala near mile marker 76 has the cheapest gas in Kohala and the Chevron Station at the Airport turn-off in Hilo has the cheapest gas in East Hawaii. Remember that the Big Island is largely rural-gas stations, particularly in the far north and on the south side of the Island, may not keep regular hours or even stick with their posted schedule-especially if the surf is up or the fishing is good. In general, outside of the urban areas of Kona and Hilo, gas is hard to find after about 6 in the evening. I personally don’t ever let my gas tank get more than half empty, ever, just for this very reason. Certainly, you should never let it get more than half empty when on the south side of the Island; you should make a point to fill up before late afternoon when you have the chance, definitely before you go into Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (you’ll stay longer and use more gas than you planned because, trust me, it’s the coolest place, ever) and before crossing the Saddle Road.

Driving times between attractions on the Big Island are longer than you might expect, given the actual mileage between points of interest. This is in part because much of the “highway” system is composed of winding, narrow, two-lane blacktop with a speed limit of 35 miles an hour. Another reason drives take longer than expected is because you are going to want to pull over and look, stop and explore, take your time and enjoy. As the bumper sticker says: “Slow down, Brah-dis ain’t da mainland!” On this note, many local residents will pass on hills and blind corners, even into oncoming traffic; they know the road, you don’t-don’t follow their lead. Trying to drive like the locals drive is like jumping into the ocean and trying to surf like they surf-it just isn’t a really bright idea. Local custom is to eschew use of turn signals and horn; this is another custom you shouldn’t emulate.

The police on the Big Island are well-trained, serious professionals. However, most cruise around in their personal cars (with a blue light on top) and can be very hard to spot (a Ford Mustang or Toyota Rav4 with a light bar? It happens…). They are particularly serious about drunk drivers, speed limits and child restraints/seal belts. Aloha, respect and honesty go a long way toward making any interactions with the Hawaii County Police more pleasant. This isn’t Louisiana or some Third World banana republic-do not even think of offering a bribe if you are stopped by a Hawaii County Police Officer. On the topic of police, it is local custom to flash your brights at on-coming traffic if there is a cop behind you. Participate in this at your own discretion, but this is the reason all those people are flashing at you.

There are feral goats and sheep (feral donkeys along the highway in Kohala!), wild pigs, feral cats and dogs that present driving hazards, especially at night. Fruit such as mango, avocado and guava frequently fall, en masse, into the road and produce a slimy hazard, particularly to motorcycles. In town, watch for cyclists, pedestrians and skateboarders (check out those guys skateboarding to the beach with their surfboards under their arms!). Kailua Kona is the proud home to the Iron Man World Championship Triathlon and many runners and cyclists fully utilize, and rigorously defend, their rights of way; smile, wave and yield, OK? You came to have fun: relax. The Big Island is also Big Sky country…driving east into the sunrise or west into the sunset is painful and hazardous; try to plan your day to avoid this.

Do not leave valuables in your car, not even the trunk. Ever. The locals are friendly, but but some are frisky and high value items will evaporate from your car with alarming alacrity. Consider any spot frequented by visitors to be at risk for theft, even if you only are going a hundred feet from your car.

Many roads, intersections and attractions are poorly marked and what signs exist are in Hawaiian, which is hard to read, harder to remember exactly the name of the place you are searching for. When you ask directions, have the person write down the name of the place. Many residents are in the habit of giving directions in terms of landmarks that mean nothing to you (“Remember where Uncle Kealea had the fruit stand 20 years ago? You want to go just across Aunty Tutu’s pig farm from there to where the coconut grove used to be…”) so have them show you on a map. Be sure they start by pointing out where you are, right now. Respect, humor and aloha will help get you where you are going.

Along these lines, many tourists bring their GPS from home to help navigate-be sure to download the maps for Hawaii before you come; some brands of GPS do not offer Hawaii coverage. A few of the rental car agencies have GPS units for rent at reasonable prices. The best solution, however, are the folks at Tour Guide Hawaii (808.557.0051; http://www.tourguidehawaii.com) who offer a hand-held computer with an onboard GPS at very reasonable rental rates. They have stuffed into this device over six hundred points of interest (did you hear that? 600!) of recreational, cultural and historical importance. They have produced a short audio/video presentation for each site, telling you all about it, the history and culture, what to bring, what to do while there; they even have the public restrooms listed! These presentations play as you approach the points of interest, or can be searched for at any time or location. Thus, the device can be used to preview all the sites around the island in the comfort of your hotel room, pre-plan trips or to get information and turn by turn navigation on the road. Combining cutting-edge technology and old-fashioned story-telling, the unbelievably easy to use, fabulously informative and terrifically fun Tour Guide Self-Guided GPS Tours are an amazing bargain and a great way to see Hawaii. They are now offering a pared-down version (45 of the top sites-iAND the restrooms!) that is downloadable to iPhone and iPod.

Commercial Tours: Whether or not you rent a car, commercial tours offer a great way to get oriented to the island and hear a bit about the history and about the culture of our home. Tours come in all sizes and description, from the taxi driver who makes it up on the fly as he takes you to dinner, to personalized taxi tours lasting a half to a full day, to specialized van tours and large, full day, round the island tours in full-size motor coaches. There are bus tours to the summit of Mauna Kea, tours through the coffee country of Kona, tours to see the volcano, historical tours-tours of all lengths and covering just about anything and everything you want to see. Some tours include meals-one even takes you to a real, working ranch for a barbecue! Then there are the highly specialized tours: fixed wing and helicopter tours of the island, whale and dolphin watching tours, snorkel tours, sunset cruise tours, organized bicycle tours, powered hang-glider tours, tours of Kailua Bay in a submarine and even boat tours to see the lava flowing into the ocean. Although they can be fairly spendy, most are fully worth the price. Be sure to shop around for the right tour at the right price to suit your interests.

Bicycle Rental: There are several places where you can rent bikes on the Big Island-and it’s very pleasant to spend the day pedaling through Hilo and Kailua Kona. However, problems of weather (hot sun, torrential downpour!), the long distances between points of interest and the ever-present, enormous volcanoes (think: “HILLS!”) preclude this as a major method of exploration, except for the most avid bike tourer.

Public Transportation: The Hawaii County-run Hele-on Bus travels most of the Island, and makes pretty good time-the good news here is that riding the bus is free…the bad news is that it is scheduled to get workers between the large resorts in Kona and Kohala and the small towns all across the island where they live. As such, the bus schedule may not be convenient for the visitor nor conducive to exploration. However, it’s very handy if you just want to go somewhere and spend the day there. Be sure you understand the bus schedule, however, as many places only are serviced twice a day by bus (one in-bound and one out-bound trip per day) and if you miss your return ride and have to find an alternate way back to your hotel, you will quickly learn why they call this “The Big Island”!

Walking and Hitch-hiking: Two words here: BIG ISLAND. It is possible to hike across the Big Island (I’ve done it both west-to-east and south-to-north; heck, in 2008 a wheel chair athlete rolled his wheel chair from sea-level in Hilo 37 miles and 13,800 feet in elevation up to the summit of Mauna Kea-did you catch the part about “wheel chair athlete”?), but the long distances, rural nature (it’s an impracticably long way between places to get food, water and to camp) and intense sun make this an epic adventure, not a restful sight-seeing vacation. Both Hilo and Kailua Town are comfortable and safe to walk around, but getting to beaches, waterfalls and other points of interest is difficult on foot.

Until very recently hitch-hiking was a common and respectable way to get around the island-if you were a local, everybody either knew you, or your aunty; if you were a visitor, your uniqueness made you interesting and so it was very safe, as well. Although probably just as safe today, with the explosion of mainlanders moving to our island (who may be reluctant to offer rides), I notice a sharp decline in the number of hitch-hikers on the roads now. Hitch-hiking is legal from the roadside, as long as you are not in the road, presenting a hazard to yourself or an impediment to traffic. If you hitch-hike use your judgement, be home before sundown and refuse to ride with drunks or folks of questionable character or cleanliness. Do not ride in the backs of pick-up trucks.

So-armed with this information, you are now better prepared to evaluate your options for exploring the unique and varied landscapes, experiences and delights of Hawaii-your adventures are limited only by your imagination. Remember that attitude in Hawaii is important to the quality of your vacation-the spirit of Aloha is pervasive. When angry, lonely, confused, frustrated, tired or bored, recall what I said: “In Hawaii, your smile is your passport”

Planning a Vacation to Magical Minneapolis

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Planning a vacation? How about an extremely lively one at Minneapolis? Now you'd ask why, right? Well, for a starter it is more often than not tops the charts when it comes to ranking the best places to live, work and enjoy life in America. The sheer excitation and exhilaration that one can soak in the city is just mind-boggling, and why not? The way the city is made and consist of, Minneapolis can easily floor a discerning tourist in a jiffy. No matter whether you are coming here for the first time or returning on your nth visit, you'll always find an omnipresent dynamic vibe and a whirlwind of energy read to rub against your shoulders. Connected by airlines both domestic and international, you can always find some cheap flight to Minneapolis or the other.

Named as one of America's smartest cities by an online magazine, 'The Daily Beast', Minneapolis certainly does live up to its title. Beautified by a hard-hitting architectural style, awe-inspiring natural landscape and a fascinating urban splendor, it is a city of surprising combinations. If you happen to be a succor for all things antiquated, Minneapolis is just the destination for you. Historical districts like South Ninth Street, St. Anthony Falls, Stevens Square, Victory Memorial Drive and Washburn Fair-Oaks offer quite an elaborate peek into the city's past. But, the same can also be done through the many magnificent museums and memorials that dot the entire Minneapolis. There's much awe and amazement to be found through its cultural avenues as well, including heritage centers and points of ethnic interest. And, when it comes to enjoying all things creative and artistic, what better than to savor them at the many galleries and exhibition centers? These places abound in unique collections of paintings and other art works from professionals and up-coming artists.

Rocking the city with all their sound and symphony, the various distinct events, festivals and shows can enjoyed through the year. Apart from all the interesting sightseeing, Minneapolis presents you with an opportunity to soak in the great intrigue that the outdoors provides. Be rest assured you will not fall short of green expanses in the city. Comprising more than 22 lakes and over 170 parks, Minneapolis is a nature lover's and an outdoor enthusiast's delight for sure. A great part of the city's excitement stems from the fact that it can be enjoyed in a least expensive fashion. You can always find great deals and offers, promotional discounts and customized vacation packages that'll have each and everything covered in a comfortable budget. Check in at a cheap hotel or stay at a youth hostel, relish local flavors at a fancy restaurant through special value-packed offers on food and drink, get entry to many prominent landmarks on a single ticket, opt for a reasonably-priced sightseeing tour and indulge in retail therapy a bit too much, courtesy the forever happening sales.

Aviation History

Travel by airplane has a long and interesting history starting from the first commercial flight in 1933 on the modern airliner, Boeing 247. This important event made a definitive mark in the time line of aviation but was only one of many major accomplishments. The following will highlight a few of the fascinating landmarks of aviation history that punctuated the last century.

The Zeppelin Hindenburg

The 1930s revealed the so-called airship era of aviation history. The German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg was one such example of the popularity of these. However, the event surrounding this airship was a sad one as tragedy struck during flight. Destined for Lakehurst Naval Air Station in Manchester Township, New Jersey, the Hindenburg disaster occurred as the airship caught on fire and crashed. Thirty-five fatalities were counted in this tragic incident and needless to say, confidence in airships dramatically decreased. News coverage broadcast the terrible news all over the globe, essentially bringing the airship period to a sad close.

Chuck Yeager Breaks the Sound Barrier

The sound barrier was broken by Chuck Yeager in 1947, marking another big event in the history of aviation. Yeager was a test pilot in the United States Air Force and flew the experimental Bell X-1 at Mach 1. The aircraft was at an altitude of 45,000 feet when this occurred. The Bell X-1 is on display in the Smithsonian Institution’s national museum for air and space. Yeager received more than one award for this accomplishment, including the MacKay and Collier trophy in 1948 and a trophy for Harmon International in 1954. The Myra, West Virginia native went on to bust through other barriers of sound and even altitude years later.

Boeing 747

Fast-forwarding from Chuck Yeager’s major accomplishment to the 1970s, many people recognize the Boeing 747 and it is often referred to endearingly as the “jumbo jet” of aircraft. Its cargo transport and commercial flight role make it a significant part of aviation history. This airliner, Boeing 747, made its first commercial flight from New York to London in the early part of that decade. Major airlines that use the model include British Airways, Korean Air, Japan Airlines, and Cathay Pacific. The Boeing 747, apart from being recognizable, is important in that it could carry such a large load of passengers or cargo. In fact, it held the record for carrying the most passengers for several decades.

Aviation Continues to Develop

The Zeppelin Hindenburg crisis, Chuck Yeager’s breaking of the sound barrier, and the introduction of the Boeing 747 jumbo jet are just three of the many turning points in aviation. While many more events exist on the historical time line of flight, these events show some of the individual pieces of the puzzle. Events like these have helped shape the history of aviation and offer opportunities for learning and reflection. Flight has come a long way and will continue to change and grow in years to come, making it an exciting part of technology and history!

How to Start Planning a European Trip on a Budget

You can approach the planning of a trip in a number of ways. For me I narrow it down to where I roughly want to go and then figure out how much it will cost. From here I can add or subtract locations or side trips. As I’m currently beginning to plan a trip to Europe I thought I might walk through the process and demonstrate at least how I begin to put a trip together. Do be aware that the costs listed below are from internet searches I performed on January 30th 2008 and should be understood to be samples of potential prices only.

Recently my Dad (who has never been to Europe) asked me to go with him and show him around at the end of April. After prodding for specifics his only request was that it be Italy, Spain or Germany. With only about 10 days to spend overseas I decided against Germany. Although Germany is probably my favorite country in Europe, Italy or Spain can really give the first time traveler to Europe a sense of being in Europe in a small amount of time. In Italy you have the normal circuit of Rome, Florence and Venice all within relatively close proximity to each other, making for easy and quick train travel. In Spain, my favorite cites Barcelona, Girona, Granada, Seville and Madrid, are likewise relatively close and inexpensive. Personally, there is so much about Germany I love which is at different ends of the country a quick 7-10 day trip would not be enough time.

With my location narrowed down and a trip duration in mind I begin with the most important part of a trip to Europe, the flight. Using kayak.com I start by plugging in the major airports I would like to fly in and out of. Since we want to go to Italy we can start with (for simplicities sake) New York to Rome with flexible dates during the time frame I can get off work. Of course you will want to plug in the nearest international airport to you. Searching within the last week of April through the first week in May I found the cheapest flight to be: NYC- to – Rome from the 29th through the 9th = $756 With this as my working number for ticket prices I look into other possible cities to fly into for cheaper tickets NYC – to – Florence from the 29th through the 13th = $956—-nope NYC- to – Venice from the 26th through the 10th = $850—-nope NYC- to – Milan from the 25th through the 9th = $852—-nope Not finding anything cheaper I then start thinking about flying into one city and flying out of another. This has the benefit of saving the time (which is limited) of backtracking as well as the cost of an extra train ticket back. Since my working plan is to fly into Rome and visit Venice last I check these two cities on the dates of the cheapest flight above. NYC- to – Rome : Venice- to -NYC from the 29th through the 9th = $852

For $100 more I can eliminate 4-5 hours of travel as well as a train ticket that will cost at least $100 one way. So far this seems like a better deal. Just for the sake of argument then, why not check into what it would cost to throw in a wonderful Spanish city, Barcelona. My Dad wanted to see Spain and an over night ferry from Barcelona to a city near Rome is relatively fun and cheap when you think about the cost you will be paying for accommodation anyways. NYC- to -Barcelona : Venice- to -NYC from the 29th through the 9th = $816

Well, we almost saved 40 bucks and get to see Barcelona. If we can get from Barcelona to Rome for around $40 we are practically making money (well not really but you get the idea). Sticking with the ferry idea for now a quick check of directferries.co.uk gives me: Barcelona -to – Civitavecchia (near Rome) (20 hours overnight) = $65 on Grimaldi Ferries Considering accommodation is going to be anywhere from $25-$35 in Rome or Barcelona and we saved $36 on the flight by going into Spain this sounds reasonable for a quick visit to Barcelona and does not cost us more at all. For even more savings we can try to fly from Barcelona to Rome but we must keep in mind that 1. it won’t be an overnight flight so accommodation will be an issue again and 2. Budget airlines don’t usually fly out of the major airports, making travel outside the city and issue. None-the-less checking clickair and ryanair for a few samples does not hurt. clickair has Barcelona- to – Rome (Fiumicino) on the 2nd = $29 (the 2nd however is a bit late) ryanair has Barcelona (Girona)- to – Rome (Ciampino) on the 1st = $20

All in all we now know that stopping in Barcelona is a great idea and getting to Rome will be cheap and easy. With our air plans figured out we can start to look at what this trip is going to cost us in ground transportation. I prefer trains over renting cars in Europe; I just can’t relax in a car and the cost of gas and concentrating on the road usually outweighs the freedom. With that in mind it’s time to figure out if buying point to point tickets is cheaper than buying a rail pass. My rough plan is to fly into Barcelona head to Rome (fly or sail) then go from Rome to Florence to Venice. Ill check the cost of point to point tickets between these cities as well as a few side trips to get a spread of costs using the worksheets at noambit.com Rome- to -Florence (1-2 hours) = $65 Florence- to -Venice (2-3 hours) = $58 Rome- to -Pisa (3-4 hours) = $47 Pisa- to -Florence (1-2 hours) =$19 Florence- to -Rimini (1 hour) = $50 Rimini- to -Venice (1-2 hours) = $70 With these numbers we can see that our simplest trip, Rome, Florence, Venice, is going to cost roughly $123. Our most expensive plan, Rome, Pisa, Florence, Rimini and Venice is going to come in around $196. A quick look at rail pass prices shows us that we will only really benefit if we want to do the longer trip and then only barely. A four day rail pass (you can travel for any four days within two months) runs about $202. About the same as our longer trip but also with an included 20% off discount on the ferry from Barcelona. The problem I see here is that traveling that much, especially since we are adding the city in Spain, is not going to give much time to see anything. At this point I’m going to opt to pay full price on the ferry and buy point to point tickets in Italy. Even adding Pisa on is only going to cost about $134 total.

To this point then, assuming we throw in Pisa (a day trip) on our way to Florence and pay full price to take the ferry over from Spain we are looking to spend about $1015 to spend 10 days and see five cities in two countries in Europe. Its time now to figure in accommodation. A rule of thumb for me is to plan on spending a minimum of $50 a day for a bed and food. Sometimes this is high (not very) sometimes this is low (more and more each year). For the sake of demonstration however I looked up budget hotels and hostels for the locations I plan on visiting to get a rough idea of what I will be spending. 30th April – Barcelona =$20-$35 1st May – Boat to Rome = already figured in 2nd-4th – Rome =$20 (camping) $30 (hostel) 5th-6th – Florence = $15-$25 7th-8th – Venice = $45

What we end up with is a range of $200-$265 that I need to budget for accommodation. Adding in food takes a bit of guess work but $15 dollars a day is a good workable number. If need be you could eat twice at a Mc Donalds and “live” or grab some bread and cheese from a grocery store and still have some left over for a couple slices of pizza or Doner Kebab. Of course if you are going to Italy for the food or wine you will have to plan on spending more money but $15 should get you by. Our final cost is going to be the sight seeing and extras (taking the metro, bottle of wine, train reservations). Since my Dad has never been there I will want to show him the Vatican museum, the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, The statue of David, la Sagrada Familia and a variety of other things. For a trip like we have planned above, in Italy for only 10 days, $150-$200 should be fine.

When all is said and done I can count on spending around $1365 – $1480 for the whole trip. This, as we have seen is rather bare bones so there isn’t a lot that can be cut if this were out of my budget(which it is very close to being). I could of course opt out of going to Pisa but ultimately in terms of trains this only saves me $10 and that doesn’t seem worth skipping a city I have never seen. What you will decide to cut (perhaps the duration you’re overseas or how many cities you can see) will depend on what is important to you on this visit to Europe. What is important is that you find a way to fulfill your dream of traveling to your country of choice and I hope that this article helps you find a way to make it work with a limited budget.

Thessaloniki Student Housing

A brief Thessaloniki student housing guide

Based on the Greek Ministry of Education, there are approximately 330.000 students at Greek public universities at any one time. Thessaloniki accounts for nearly 1/3 of the total number of students in Greece with an estimated 100.000 students (including those attending private colleges and other higher education establishments).
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For a city of 800.000 people (city population 2011) this means a particularly high proportion of students, which is evident from the lively atmosphere and nightlife. The majority of the students are coming from other Greek cities, from Europe via exchange programs and from the Balkan countries in order to study at high quality private colleges. Estimating that on average a full-time student spends about 4 years in Thessaloniki (excluding exchange students), this means that there are approximately 25.000 new students in the city every year. And they all need a place to stay…
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This article will provide a brief guide to the types of available student housing, the areas, prices, and things to be aware of regarding student accommodation in Thessaloniki.
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1. Types of student accommodation

1a. University public dorms.
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The University of Thessaloniki offers dorms to students, based on need and mainly on financial criteria. They are provided free of charge. In practice this means that it is pretty difficult to get a dorm room even if you are eligible to get one. The dorms are mostly located close to the university campus, but their quality is very low and maintenance is a big issue, along with issues about safety etc.

1b. University Student Hostels.
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These are private properties (entire buildings) which are subleased by the University and are provided mainly to exchange students requiring accommodation for a few weeks or months. These are usually ERASMUS students. As of 2011 there are two student hostels, “Matsi Street 7” and “Kassandrou Street 134”, both very close to the university. They offer fully furnished “dorm-style” rooms with ensuite private bathroom and kitchenette (Kassandrou 134) single and double rooms, a laundry area and wireless internet access.
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1c. Private hostels.

For students wishing to stay only a few days/weeks, these hostels are more appropriate and a better solution than a hotel. However, these are hard to find as private hostels that rent rooms/beds by the day/week are not legal in Greece unless they are Non-Profit Organizations.
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1d. Private rental flats.

These are standalone flats (studio, 1 or 2 bedrooms) located all over the city that students can rent from private owners. You can usually find them through real estate agents (beware) or online ads. You will need to find the appropriate one to suit your needs. Most of them are unfurnished or partly furnished and are more suited to students who plan to stay in Thessaloniki for a few years (as you’d have to buy electrical appliances, fridge, cooker, etc).
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When you move in you will need to enter into a contract with the electricity company DEI, the water and sewage company EYATH and the gas company for heating (or oil if there is petroleum central heating). Be aware that apart from the rent you will need to pay for the monthly “communal” expenses (i.e. elevator maintenance, cleaning, communal lighting, repairs, etc.), so check for the rough monthly amount beforehand as this can vary wildly. This is obviously not the best solution for a student coming to Thessaloniki for a few months or a year as the hassle is too much.

1e. Rental student studios.

This is a new breed of student housing that is very popular with both full time students as well as exchange students. This trend began in the late 90s with just a few companies offering this type of accommodation. The main concept is that of a building with rental studios, where each student has his own private fully furnished room with en-suite bathroom and fully equipped kitchenette. This creates in effect a private high quality dormitory with single bed studios. The student atmosphere is maintained along with the feeling of privacy and safety.

Some companies offer additional amenities such as a laundry area, gym, storage for bulky items, bicycle parking, etc. This solves the main problems a student would have if he rented a studio from a private owner. In addition to this, some companies offer an ALL IN rent which includes the cost of heating, electricity, water, communal expenses, etc. even a fixed line ADSL internet connection. This way students won’t have to deal with the Greek public authorities in order to get a contract for everything. This is especially suitable for exchange students who don’t have the time or knowledge to deal with this.

Finally, some companies also offer a number of additional safety measures (fire alarms, access control cards, etc). There is usually a porter at these buildings for anything that the students may need. However, be careful which company you choose as few offer all of the above.

2. Student accommodation areas

Since the university campus is in the city center of Thessaloniki, the most popular student accommodation areas are also there. However, since the city center is expensive, most students look for properties to rent near the university above Egnatia street and mostly around the streets of Agiou Dimitriou and Kassandrou. This is also where many student shops and cafes are located.

Other areas popular with students are towards the east side of the city such as Depo, Toumpa, Harilaou, etc. These however are far from the center on foot and lack the distinct “student feel” of the areas near the university. In addition, traffic can be very bad at certain times of the day towards the university.

Overall, both the city center and the areas to the east are very safe all day long.

Lastly, there are the areas to the west of the city center such as Stavroupoli, Evosmos, etc. where rent prices are lower but these areas are not favored by students. They are very densely populated and traffic is also a problem, plus many students (and especially their parents) do not choose these areas as they have a reputation for higher crime rates.

3. Accommodation prices

Rent prices range from 200 euros per month for a standalone studio in Evosmos to 650 euros per month for a 2 bedroom apartment in the city center. The communal expenses can also range from 15 euros for a studio without central heating to 80 euros per month for an apartment with central heating. Of course rent prices can fluctuate depending on the condition of the flat/studio.

On average a student will pay about 350euros for an unfurnished studio near the university plus 30euros/month for communal expenses. Don’t forget to add the monthly cost of electricity, water, heating, telephone/internet, etc to this.

ALL IN prices for the organized student studios which offer all kinds of amenities and include electricity bills, water bills, heating, hot water, internet, laundry, gym, etc. can range from 390 to 460 euros per month for a furnished studio near the university. For the average student who wants to have the privacy of his own place, but also live the student life, this is the most economical option which also saves him the hassle and stress of dealing with the Greek public sector. One last advantage is that you can plan your budget ahead, as you know how much your living costs will be, so there will be no surprises at the end of the month…

4. Legal issues

In order to rent a private property you need to know the following:

If you are a EU citizen, you will need to get a Tax Registration Number (ΑΦΜ) from the local tax office. This is an easy procedure that takes 5 minutes and that only requires your passport. If you are a non-EU citizen you first need to get a residence permit and then get the above Tax Registration Number. This is absolutely necessary in order to legally rent a property in Greece.

If you stay at a hotel you need to know that you cannot stay for more than 3 months.

If you rent a property, you have to sign a lease.

Do not accept to stay at rental rooms without signing a lease as this could get you in trouble. You need to know that it’s illegal to stay anywhere without a lease, unless it is a hotel.

Always insist that the landlord hands you back a copy of the lease “stamped” by the tax office. It is not uncommon for landlords to rent properties without a lease or without an official “stamped” lease – this is illegal. Do not put yourself in a position where you could get in trouble. Always demand to sign a formal lease.

Hotel Infrastructure in Thailand

Bangkok, capital of Thailand is the heart and soul of the country and one of Asia’s most dynamic cities. You will be pleasantly surprised in this frantic and steamy tropical city offering gleaming skyscrapers, glittering temples, colorful street markets, sophisticated shopping malls, bustling nightlife, and a vibrancy at every turn which reflects the incredible economic growth of the last few years.

Despite Bangkok became a booming, modern capital with a lot of tourists recently, it still manages to retain its unique Siamese heritage in the wonderful food, Buddhist tolerance, exotic architecture, culture, and Thai hospitality. If you use “Sky train” symbolizing Bangkok’s rapid development you can get some great views over a capital in constant change and a convenient way to get around the main areas. Bangkok is one of the most exciting and exotic cities in the world without any doubts!

When you are in Thailand you will be pleasantly met with a great tradition of hospitality and nowhere is this clearer than in its hotels. You will see the famous Thai smile and get excellent facilities, excellent service etc. Take any international poll and you will find at least one Thai hotel in the top ten in the world! And moreover, whatever your budget, there is something to meet your means as accommodation in Thailand is not just a series of top-of-the-range hotels and luxury Thailand property. You can choose from various guesthouses, resorts, rooms with a view to the city or to the ocean!

Thailand hotel infrastructure is excellent and hotel accommodation is available in all categories, from the most basic, cheap guest house to hotels that range top by international standards. And you can find accommodation not only in Bangkok, but hotels of all categories, right up to the top in provincial towns and tourist destinations as well.

Usually luxury five star hotels are located in very expensive districts of Bangkok together with famous and popular property in Thailand around. There are many things to see and to do in Bangkok, such a great Metropolis that is also a great place for shopping. Bangkok offers you an extraordinary selection of Hotels, tourism infrastructure, Thailand property, Resorts and Serviced Apartments from budget Guest House and Cheap Hostels to 5 stars Hotels and Resorts.

Thailand has international standard accommodation not just in the capital Bangkok and some popular beach resorts but almost all over the country that is not typical for most developing or newly industrialized countries attracting foreign investments in property in Thailand projects. Tourism in Thailand became the biggest business and reason for such fast development. Only 10 or 15 years ago tourists couldn’t find international standard hotels, but today you will see them at far off places like Mae Hong Son which a few years back wasn’t even accessible by road all year round.

Foreign visitor can even experience both nature and the comfort in exotic luxury accommodations built right in the jungles, for example in Kanchanaburi province if they wish and ready to pay.

Among all Southeast Asian countries the Kingdom of Thailand draws the highest amount of visitors as this country has irresistible combination of breathtaking natural beauty, inspiring temples, renowned hospitality, robust cuisine and ruins of fabulous ancient kingdoms. Thailand has everything from the verdant limestone islands of the Andaman Sea and the stupa-studded mountains of Mae Hong Son, to the tranquil villages moored along the Mekong River and the pulse-pounding dance clubs of Bangkok and every type of traveler will find what he needs for great vacations.

Hotel Security: Top 5 Tips To Staying Safe and Secure In Hotels

Whether guests at a seven star hotel or a seven dollar hostel there are certain things that travelers need to consider when staying in overnight accommodation. Here are our top 5 tips for staying safe and secure in a hotel environment.

1. Room to Improve: If you have the option to pre-book a room or choose where in a hotel to stay think about a few things.

  • What floor to stay on – the general consensus is between the 2nd floor and 6th floor. This way people can’t easily gain access to your room windows but fire fighters can reach with their ladders.
  • The risks of the area – Are you staying in a hostile environment? If there is a risk of IED’s, car bombs or suicide bombers think about getting a room at the back of the hotel or the opposite of where cars can drive up to the entrance. Perhaps even away from the general lobby area.

If you are not happy with the location of your room, ask to move to a different one.

2. Fire first:

This is a saying we use to remind travelers that as soon as you arrive at your hotel spend a few minutes to ask yourself, what if there was a fire or other emergency?

As soon as you get into your room, place your bags on the bed and exit the room. Look for your nearest fire exit and nearest fire extinguisher, picture reaching these in the dark and count either steps or number of doors between your room and the these points. You may have to find these in the dark or when there is smoke blinding you. Don’t stop there, check the fire exit and ensure it is in fact a viable option. Then when you are happy head back to your room.

3. Fire second:

There was a tragic story of a whole family dying from a small fire within their home. They were sleeping with every door open and all the toxic fumes traveled freely throughout each bedroom killing the occupants as they slept. When fire fighters arrived they only found the pet dog alive as he was shut in a small utility room. The door had protected the dog from the fire and fumes. This story re-enforces the fact that a room can protect the inhabitants from smoke and heat for a considerable amount of time if done properly.

Fire second is a saying we teach our students. Once you have identified the fire exits and returned to your room, ask yourself again, what if there was a fire? If there is no escape from the exits then this room will be your citadel, your safe room.

  • Look at the window, does it open, what floor are you on? Can you jump? If not does it open to give you fresh air.
  • How does the door open and unlock. Is there a key? If so always leave it in the same place.
  • Is there a bath – in an emergency you can fill this up with water and use it to douse the door and walls.
  • If there is a fire and you cant escape then wet towels and block any gaps around the door.

If traveling to less developed countries or regions think about taking portable fire and carbon monoxide alarms. Both are cheap, small and easy to use and well worth the small amount of space they take up.

4. Double the Door

Your hotel room door is your best barrier to external risk. When inside your room make sure that you use all the locks provided. Do not open the door unless you are a 100% sure to whom you are opening it for. If there is a peephole, use it.

There a few great items on the market that can provide a second layer of door security think about taking these, as they are small and cheap.

  • Door wedge
  • Door lock ratchet

When you leave the room, use the peephole, make sure there is no one outside. When you come back to the room do not assume that it is secure. The majority of hotel room locks can be defeated quite easily, many people have access to the keys and it would be a mistake to assume that no one could have got in. Take caution, have a quick look around and then relax once you have checked and the door is locked behind you.

The Hamas chief Al-Mabhouh killed by Mossad in a Dubai hotel room made the mistake of assuming his hotel room was secure. Mossad used either a very simple and easily attainable machine to decode the electronic door or the tried and tested string and wire technique that can open many doors which have the tiniest of gaps between the door and floor.

It is not just the intelligence services that know these tricks, many criminals and attackers have the means and the motivation to go to these lengths.

5. Complacency is a dirty word:

  • If you hear an alarm, do not ignore it. React quickly and use your pre-determined exit. We do not mean panic and run out in your underwear screaming, but just make sure you do react. Get dressed, get your shoes on, stay calm, prepare to leave the hotel and take your room key, if there is a fire and there is no escape you may have to get back to your room, close your door behind you. Try and avoid using the hotels muster point or emergency gathering location. Sometimes hostiles will use an alarm to gather people in one spot before attacking or carrying out a secondary attack.
  • If you wake up in the middle of the night for no reason, check that there is in fact NO reason, take a few seconds to listen, look and sense if something is wrong. If nothing go back to sleep…
  • If you see smoke or fire when in a hotel do not assume someone else has reported it. Initiate a fire alarm or call the hotel. Especially when you are in your room call the emergency services as well, do not assume the hotel will call them. Hotels are unwilling to call the emergency services until they have checked out the incident themselves for fear of creating a false alarm. This can cause a significant delay. There have been many horror stories of deaths and injuries caused by these delays. Take control of the situation yourself.
  • Do not assume that because you are in a hotel you are safe. If you are in a lift and someone else comes in that you are unsure of wait for him or her to push a floor before you do. Make sure no one is following you towards your room.

Most importantly as with all of our advice, do not develop irrational fear, do not think that everyone is out to get you. Instead just increase your awareness, listen to your sixth sense and take the time to prepare for certain scenarios. Time spent preparing and planning is never wasted, it can also mean the difference between life and death.

Hosteling – Keep Travel Costs Low

You might think of hosteling as something that college students do while traveling through Europe for the summer. However, hosteling is not just for the college crowd anymore, and now includes people of all ages and backgrounds. If you are a traveler on a budget, staying at a hostel can be an adventure that will add to your travel experience.

Staying in a hostel will not be everyone’s cup of tea, and many travelers would prefer to spend the money on a traditional hotel. Hostel traveling is best suited to those traveling alone, or to young people traveling in groups. Hostels are not really recommended for families traveling with young children. In fact, many hostels do not accept children under a certain age.

Most hostels are set up like dormitory rooms, with several bunk beds arranged in the room, with anywhere from four to ten bunks per room. Each traveler is assigned a specific bed upon check-in.

Nearly all of the hostels in the United States group their accommodations according to gender, with the female guests in one section of rooms and the male guests in another. In multi-level hostels, males and females are often separated by floor.

It is not uncommon, however for European hostels (and those elsewhere around the world) to allow mixed genders to share a room. Make sure to ask about the policy of the hostel before you check in. I, as a woman traveling solo, have never encountered a problem with these arrangements, and I have stayed in hostels throughout Europe, including Rome, London and Amsterdam. Some visitors might be surprised or offended by these sleeping arrangements.

The bathroom accommodations at hostels differ also, with some rooms containing a shared bathroom and shower, while other hostels will have shower and bathroom facilities located in the hallway. If you would prefer not to share a bathroom with strangers, make sure you ask about the hostel’s policy ahead of time.

More often now, reservations are becoming increasingly vital at hostels, especially during the summer months in popular cities. It is now not at all unusual for hostels in popular tourist cities to be booked solid for months, where once it was common for travelers to be able drop by the hostel and expect to get a bed.

Price is by far the biggest appeal of staying at hostels. The nightly rate for a hostel is usually no higher than $25 or $30 per night, with most costing even less. With the average hotel room cost somewhere around $100 to $150 in many cities, it is easy to see why hostels are becoming such a popular alternative.

Another benefit of staying in a hostel is that the staff is extremely accommodating and knowledgeable about the local area. Unlike many staff members of some luxury hotels, who travel in from the outlying areas and rarely see the city in which they work, hostel staff tend to live in the city, and have an personal knowledge of the local sites, including which attractions are can’t miss and which ones aren’t worth the trip.

Hostels also usually have access to discounts and coupons for local area attractions and restaurants, and they can provide information on the best restaurants and hangouts around.

While not everyone will find a hostel appealing, and the accommodation of a local hostel are simple at best, they can be wonderful options for lodging for the budget minded traveler. After all, the goal of travel is to get out and see the world, and hostel travel lets you save money on lodging so that you can do just that.

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