Category Archives: Travel

Review: I Flew Wow Airlines and Survived

There is only one direct flight from Reykjavik to Dublin, and it’s on Wow Airlines.

I expected the worst. I scoured the internet for reviews and advice about packing. My bags were on the heavy side, since I was traveling with quite a bit of camera equipment. I had nightmares of having to unpack my suitcase in the airport and wear five sweaters onto the plane.

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None of that happened. It was actually a relatively painless experience – except for the fact that our flight was at 6:30 a.m. in the morning.

I purchased one checked luggage ($40) and and two carry-on luggage pieces ($20/each) in advance. This is essential if you are carrying anything more than a normal size backpack. I also purchased extra leg room for us since the flight was three hours and we were exhausted. At $20 a pop, that was totally worth it.

When we got to KEF in Iceland, we weighed our checked luggage ourself, printed out the tags, and brought it to an agent to check. The computer didn’t like the shape of our suitcase, so we brought it to the odd-sized luggage counter, and the agent there checked it without a problem.

Then, we headed to our gate. The doors to the gate area didn’t open for a while, so there is a lot of waiting around on the floor, or you can go downstairs and wait on couches. Once the doors opened, the line was long, but it moved quickly. There was no weighing or measuring of carry on luggage. In not more than 15 minutes, we were seated in our extra leg room seats.

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The flight itself was totally fine. We were so tired, we both dozed off and woke up to views of Dublin.

 

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Review: Hilton Reykjavik Nordica

There are not many points hotels in Reykjavik. You have two Club Carlson options and two Hilton options. Hilton offers the older, cheaper Nordica and the newer, more expensive, and more centrally located Canopy. Since we were low on points after our December Spain trip, I was able to make the Nordica work for $71 and 16,000 points a night.

Pros: Nice hotel; affordable price; large, upgraded room; club lounge access; pretty views.

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The Nordica lounge

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View from the lounge

Cons: A 30-minute walk from the center of town; lounge is on the small size.

Hotel map

All in all, we were happy with our choice. The walk into town forced us to do quite a bit of walking and see more of the city. Our first day in Reykjavik, we walked more than seven miles! While the lounge was on the small side, it was still lovely to have access to free food and drinks (mmmm, diet coke), and the views were nothing to sneeze at. Finally, the free parking was useful once we rented our car. If you’re planning a trip to Reykjavik on points, the Hilton Nordica is a great way to keep costs down.

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Impressions of Iceland

Iceland is hot these days – figuratively, of course. The weather is quite chilly, even in May. Here are some of my thoughts on the trendy destination.

  1. Iceland is beautiful. No question about it, Iceland is stunning, and we only got to see a small part of it. With more time (and money), I’d recommend renting a car and doing a loop around the entire country. The further in you go, the more stunning and unreal the scenery gets.
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  2. Iceland is an ethereal experience. From the ashy grey skies, to the insane winds, to the 11 p.m. sunsets, experiencing Iceland is unlike most other traveling experiences. Even walking down the street in Reykjavik, I felt the remoteness of the island. Of course, we experienced Iceland on the cusp of summer. I imagine the winter is a similar and altogether different experience at the same time.
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    Black sand beaches!

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    Geothermal activity

  3. Iceland is expensive. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. The cost of enjoying the country was definitely a downer, and would make me think twice about going again (unless I win the lottery). I’m all for splurging on vacation, but Iceland made me feel like I was emptying my bank account in one week. By the end of the trip, it would piss me off every time I had to pay $4.00 for a diet coke. And sure, I can forgo diet coke for five days, but why in the world would I want to???As I understand it, the cost is due to the inflated value of the Krona, the fact that Iceland is an isolated island, and extremely high taxes. While this is great for people working in the tourist industry, it’s not so great for the tourists (or the rather large percentage of Icelanders working in the export industry).
  4. Iceland is worth a trip – at least once. The relatively short flight and the proliferation of cheap airfare makes Iceland more accessible than ever before. Even with the high cost, it’s definitely worth experiencing at least once in a lifetime.
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Iceland Must Do: Hike a Glacier

If there’s one thing you do in Iceland, hike a glacier. It’s worth it.

We almost didn’t do it because it’s a costly venture for two and half hours of walking on ice, but M convinced me with some sound logic: How often do we have the opportunity to hike a glacier? Answer: Not often.

I used our Chase points to allay the costs – about $240 for the two of us with Arcanum Glacier Tours. Iceland is filled with amazing glaciers, but most of them are more than a day trip’s drive. Sólheimajökull glacier is a two hour drive from Reykjavik, giving us some time to stop along the way back for additional sightseeing.

Our group was just four people and our guide – us and another couple. It’s about a 20 minute walk from Arcanum headquarters to the base of the glacier. We stopped to put our ice clamps on our sneakers, and then we began to climb.

@IMG_6747@IMG_6783@IMG_6959***IMG_6765***IMG_6871***IMG_6965**IMG_6687**IMG_6694**IMG_6751I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve never even seen a glacier before. But I quickly discovered two things. One — glacier hiking is a workout! Not only was I climbing an ice mountain, I was doing it with clamps strapped to my shoes. Two — it is so damn beautiful, I quickly forgot about the effort. Once we got up onto the glacier, it’s just ice for as long as the eye can see. Ice and sky and waterfalls. Every couple of minutes, I’d look around and wonder: How in the world am I here? 

**IMG_6804**IMG_6849**IMG_6880**IMG_7034If you’re really adventurous (and trained) you can spelunk your way into an ice cave. We stood on the sidelines and gawked appropriately.

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Hiking a glacier is a singular experience, and one of the coolest things I’ve done. Put it on your to-do list asap.

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Make A Golden Circle

There are two ways to see Iceland: Rent a car or take a tour. Both are expensive, but renting a car was actually cheaper for the two of us and allowed us the flexibility to do what we wanted (like take a nap on the side of the road while M painted).

We rented from SAD Cars which, in addition to having the greatest name ever, rents used cars at low (or lower) prices. We rented a basic automatic car for two days for $200. Filling up the tank ran us about $80 — expensive, but that’s Iceland for you. Overall, we found the process very easy. Our car was actually quite nice (heated seats, thank you very much), and driving was a pleasure, minus the hour of torrential rain with extremely limited visibility.

One of the most popular scenic routes in Iceland is the Golden Circle which is a loop outside Reykjavik that hits some amazing sites. Our loop ended up being more of a straight line because we got a late start and were a bit tired by the time we reached Gulfoss. The alternative circular rout takes you south on route 35 to Selfoss and back to Reykjavik on route 1. We had plans to hit route 1 the next day, so we drove back the way we came.

Golden Circle Tour

We hit Iceland’s big three: Pingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gulfoss Falls.

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At Pingvellir, you can go snorkling between the Silfra fissure – a crack between the North American and Euroasian continents for a hefty sum of money.

By far, my favorite was Geysir. I’ve seen geysirs before in Yellowstone National Park, but it was just as fun as the first time. Just be prepared to share the fun with a throng of other tourists.

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There are also smaller bubbling pools that are adorable in their own right. Meet Little Geysir.

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From Geysir, we headed to Gulfoss, a massive waterfall about 20 minutes past Geysir.

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On the way back, we stopped for a photoshoot with Icelandic horses. How cute are these guys?

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Take a Hike… In Iceland

Iceland is heaven for hiking enthusiasts. The natural landscape is so different, so breathtaking, it’s pretty much an outdoor playground.

While there are many full- and multi-day hikes for serious trekers, there are also plenty of hikes for the exercise challenged/couch surfers (who could she possibly be talking about??). One such hike is just a short drive outside Reykjavik.

I discovered Reykjadalur Hot Springs on one of my many stumbles around the Internet, and our new Icelandic friend decided to take us there by a happy coincidence.

Reykjadalur, which translates to “steam valley,” is an aptly named 3 km hiking trail outside of Heverageroi. As we began, we were accosted with lush fields, fresh springs, and steam swirling up around us.

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Then, the trail gets steep. Luckily, there was plenty of beautiful scenery to distract me from my huffing and puffing.

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As we neared the end, the steam grew intense, fogging up my camera lens.

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The water is literally boiling, and there are signs warning not to touch it.

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Watch how thick the steam is in this video!

Finally, the trail turns into a boardwalk, and you can even take a dip in the geothermal springs if you are so inclined. While I had absolutely no desire to strip in 45 degrees, plenty of locals and tourists spent the afternoon in the warm, soothing waters – accompanied by bottles of beer, of course!

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Searching for Puffins in Iceland

I was convinced we would  get so close to the puffins I could reach out and pet one. Not that I wanted to pet a puffin, but I did want to photograph their adorable little faces up close and personal. That’s what I thought when I booked a puffin tour for the two of us from Reykjavik.

Wrong.

I suppose it’s not the tour company’s fault. They took us out on an express boat to an island 20 minutes off of Reykjavik’s old harbor. The boat’s ability to get close to the island depends on the weather and the tide – neither of which were in our favor that day.

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I got super excited until I realized this is NOT a puffin. This is your run of the mill seagull.

The tour company offers a 100% success rate. But I guess it depends on your definition of success. We certainly saw puffins – or specks of birds that resemble puffins. I brought my telephoto lens specifically for this task, so you can actually make out the orange-beaked birds in my pictures… barely. But this was a far cry from the tête-à-tête I was expecting.

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Our puffin disappointment aside, it was nice to be out on the water, watch the city grow ever smaller, and stare up at the mountains that seem to go on forever.

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But if you want to see puffins, skip the $50 express tour in Reykjavik. Drive south or west to one of the puffin colonies that offer a much better chance at a face-to-face meeting. Iceland Magazine has a handy map. Hopefully your puffin search will be more successful than ours!

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Thoughts on Reykjavik

Reykjavik (and the rest of Iceland) truly feels like a world apart. For starters, when you land in Keflavik airport, it feels like landing on an alien planet. The cool weather, the out-of-control wind, the nearly incessant daylight, and the other worldly scenery add up to an alien sensation – but in a good way.

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The crazy wind wreaks havoc on M’s hair

Reykjavik is a small city, and we easily explored most of it in two days. Sitting on the edge of the water with massive mountains looming overhead, the scenery is beautiful.

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Reykjavik’s old harbor

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View of Reykjavik and the surrounding mountains

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This guy has something to say!

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Birds in flight over Reykjavik’s Lake Tjornin

We started with a walk through central Reykjavik, taking in the colorful houses, the street art, and the quirky signs. We saw Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik’s hard-to-miss church with a bird’s eye view of the city, attended a concert in Harpa, and took a short puffin tour. We even stopped at the eccentric Laundromat Café to do our laundry – the only laundry game in town.

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The walls of Harpa, Reykjavik’s super modern concert hall

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Inside Harpa, post-concert

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Color!

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Hallgrimskirkja

Iceland strikes me as a country that prides itself on individuality and humor. Unlike mainland Europe, it’s architecture is modern; its vibe is fresh – even hip; and it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

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The sign says: Single gloves – speed dating

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Haha…love this.

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Color in Reykjavik

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Street art

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More street art

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Sign at the Chuck Norris Grill

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A view of Reykjavik from atop Hallgrímskirkja

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Look at those colors!

 

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Even the bus stop has to crack a joke

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The two of us atop Perlan, which houses the country’s hot water tanks

I could get used to this… even with the 25 mph wind gusts… except for those damn prices.

Sure, it is now possible to get to Iceland on the cheap thanks to discount airlines and possible to find affordable lodging thanks to hotel points, but there is no getting around the fact that EVERY SINGLE PURCHASE feels like you are one dime away from declaring bankruptcy. Part of the fun of vacation is splurging a little, buying a coffee or diet coke on the go, but every time I forked over my credit card I cringed. Four dollars for a diet coke??? Six dollars for a coffee? Fifty dollars for a one-hour boat tour??? Eesh. And forget about the alcohol which is singled out with an exorbitant tax.

Iceland in the spring and summer is really amazing, and I’d love to come back to see the northern lights. But I might wait for the Krona to sink a bit before I hop on a plane.

 

 

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How We Ended Up Honeymooning in Iceland and Ireland… with My Boss

Our honeymoon began unconventionally.

My boss, Mark, said: “I have to give a speech in Dublin. Do you guys want to come to Ireland with me?”

I said: “Will you drive on the other side of the road for us?”

Mark: Sure!

Roundabouts

Roundabouts are hard enough on the right side of the road.

After a little research and I lot of frustration trying to figure out the new avios site, I found return tickets from Dublin to D.C. on Aer Lingus f for 26,000 avios and $251 for two people.

When I couldn’t find direct flights from D.C. to Dublin, I proposed expanding our trip into a real honeymoon – without Mark (sorry Mark). We settled on Iceland because of the short flight and because – it’s Iceland, duh, home to glaciers, volcanoes, geysers, and all sorts of other cool stuff.

M’s Chase Sapphire Reserve came in handy as we sought to minimize the costs of the notoriously expensive country. We booked two seats on Iceland Air through Chase’s travel portal, with each point worth 1.5 cents. The two flights costs us 45,212 Chase points, worth $678.20.

While there are limited points hotels in Reykjavik, I managed to stretch my meager reserve of Hilton points (after I spent the bulk of them in Barcelona) by booking four nights at the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica for 16,000 points and $40 a night. While the hotel is a 20 – 30 minute walk to the center of town, the affordable price and my Hilton diamond status made it an easy choice. The more centrally located and newer Hilton Canopy was going for 70,000 points a night. Eesh.

Finally, we had to find a way to get from Reykjavik to Dublin to meet up with Mark. Believe it or not, the only nonstop flight is on Wow Airlines… at 6 a.m. in the morning. Since the airport is a good hour from the Reykjavik, I booked our last night at the Park Inn near the airport for 10,000 Club Carlson points and $110 dollars. Since we are renting a car for our last two days, we’ll return the car at the airport on our last night.

And that’s how we ended up honeymooning with my boss… sort of. Stay tuned for a full report!

Spain, Here We Come!

In less than a month, M and I embark for Spain. This is our first international trip together and M’s first business class experience. We’re both very excited to see all the traditional sights, but I’m also over-the-top excited about the hotels I booked.

Madrid

I booked our Madrid hotel first. I knew I wanted lodging close to the Prado art museum in the center of the city. With its five nights for the price of four policy and central location, SPG was an obvious choice. It came down to choosing between the Westin Palace (category 5) and the The Principle Madrid (category 5). The Westin was 12,000 points a night while the The Principle was 16,000 (despite both being category 5 hotels) and M preferred the Westin’s traditional decor. I booked six nights at the Westin for 60,000 SPG points.

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westin-room

Granada

Next, I booked our single night in Granada. There is a dearth of points hotels in Granada so it came down to a choice between the Marriott’s AC Palacio De Santa Paula, Autograph Collection and non-points options. For 35,000 points, I splurged on the AC Palacio even though it’s a bit removed from the center of town. I’m even more excited about this decision now that I’ve achieved gold status with Marriott after completing a status challenge this fall. Turns out, there are some benefits to living out of three star hotels in suburban Pennsylvania. With gold status, we’ll get free breakfast and hopefully, a sweet upgrade.

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I’d love to get upgraded to this gorgeous suite.

Barcelona

Barcelona was my biggest dilemma. I was sitting on a nice pile of Hilton points, but the Hilton of my choice – the Alexandra Barcelona DoubleTree cost 50,000 points a night vs. 113 euros. That is not a great points per dollar value. In contrast, there are several good value Hiltons for 30,000 points a night, but they are farther from the center of town. Thus began the great debate of 2016:  Stay father away and save some of my points, fork over $600 for four nights at the DoubleTree, or bite the bullet and hand over 200,000 Hilton points. After much agonizing, I decided on the latter option. I love the idea of staying in the center of Barcelona and decided to save our money for other trip expenses. Plus, as a diamond Hilton member, hopefully we will score a nice upgrade. The DoubleTree boasts a couple of spacious suites that will make my day.

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Seville

Seville has no points hotels in the old quarter where we want to stay. Since we’re not traveling in peak season, there are many afforadable options. My major priority after location was space. While we’re not planning to spend a lot of time in our hotel, I hate walking into European hotel rooms that are essentially a box. Is it too much to ask for some space on either side of my bed? In the end, I settled on an apartment-style lodging that is affiliated with a nearby hotel. Apartamentos Murillo gives us 300+ square feet for two nights, and it’s a short stroll to the Royal Alcazar.
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Cordoba

Cordoba was the least stressful decision. We will only be there for one night, and there are only a handful of decent options in our price range within the city walls. For $70, I booked Eurostars Conquistador, a four star hotel next door to Mezquita.

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