Wednesday, August 31, 2011


I was surprised (in a not so good way) yesterday afternoon when I noticed our furnace fan wouldn't come on.

Normally I would turn the central fan on and most of the time the resultant air circulation is such that air conditioning isn't needed. But something was wrong.

I called D and we decided to contact the heating contractors who installed our furnace 3 years ago. We have a high efficiency Lennox furnace with a 10 yr warranty.

Good thing I called because I found out that that particular model and year has known issues with its control board.

They were able to send someone the same day as they were in between seasons and it literally took only 20 min to diagnose and replace and voila, we have a working unit again all covered under warranty.

I was nervous not knowing the extent of the problem and how much it was going to cost. Same kind of nervousness I get at the auto mechanics.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Deals and More Deals!

Those daily email deals can be really distracting and evil!

I've found they have appealed to the "wants" list in me. Things I've considered but put off due to price. Now that I am getting some of them at 40 - 50% off, all of a sudden I'm considering it, even though I haven't budgeted for them.

Occasionally we'll get one that is on our "needs" list. It can be a great deal then. We are also taking advantage of new restaurant deals as they price way under what we would normally spend on our monthly anniversary dinners.

I typed too soon yesterday when I said no trips planned until Nov. I have found one, and of course it is at the best price yet -- Just when I didn't think prices could be any lower...It is a continuation of the Greece and Turkey quick tour I did last year. This time including Istanbul and Athens.

I have till tomorrow to decide so I'll be busy today pricing out my own flights and transfers so I can have an overall price to work with. If you haven't already, check out this blog for some amazing inspiration!

We got an answer from D's HR regarding taking time off without pay. They cannot find in policy manuals anywhere that says no, so if it is OK with D's immediate boss, then it can be done. Basically as long as he takes the time off when no major projects need him, it's cool.

I have a feeling D will be using extra off to go skiing. He and I have very different uses of our respective "dream account" monies. He likes stuff ie. cars, specialized coffee makers, watches, foreign magazines etc. while I like to travel.

This is what was delivered to our home while I was away...I'm expecting this to come next.

Have to admit, you can already taste the difference. Apparently, when the next piece gets integrated we will be amazed. It's great to see him so enthusiastic. It's just like me with travel.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Slowly Recovering

I hate being sick and I hate being in pain and I hate feeling lethargic. Tell you something that is obvious, right?

Four more months til the end of another work year. Lot of changes already so far. Hoping for calmer times for the next little while.

No trips planned until Nov -- Our somewhat yearly return to France. Paris and Nice is like our second home. We can do that trip without much thinking or effort.

My shoulder rehab is coming along OK. I won't be going back to work for another week or so. Expecting to be mostly recovered by then. I can at least do 15 modified push ups now.

Having tracked the flights I was supposed to take I found out the 2nd flight (JFK - Santiago) was delayed likely due to the change in trajectory to avoid the hurricane. It means I would have missed my connection to Buenos Aires.

What an even longer day that would have been. First an eight hour layover (courtesy of all the flight changes), then a 11 hr flight. Wait 3 hrs until the next available flight (if there is room), another 2 hr flight, customs in BA and finally a 40 min cab ride to the apartment.

Pretty unfriendly itinerary. I shudder to think just how tired I would have been. Thankful that things happen for a reason.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Travel Insurance

I just found out there is a chance I may qualify for trip cancellation insurance benefits.

The last time I claimed anything from insurance policies was over a decade ago when my first laptop's power cord died prematurely.

My experience with the claims adjuster/adjudicator was really good. All I had to do was to prove my purchase and send them a copy of the note saying it cannot be repairable and they will reimburse me for the new one.

Part of my credit card benefits is travel cancellation/interruption. When it was suggested to me to find out, I called and spoke to a nice fellow who is sending me a package to fill out. Someone else will decide if I would be eligible for anything.

Though not related to my shoulder issue, the closing of JFK due to hurricane Irene may work in my favour too. It would be a neat bonus if I qualified to get some monies back.

In the meantime I am enjoying my staycation.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Buenos Aires Ousted Again

I was supposed to be on a plane today as the long awaited and mult timed postponed trips to Buenos Aires has finally come up.

Alas, I am not and I am now believing the universe does not wish me to venture south to the next continent. As a lot of you know, this is my 4th attempt.

The signs haven't been all bad. For example, the currency exchange I use was actually able to get me Argentine Pesos in small denominations. They have issues with fake $100 notes down there so small bills are the way to go, that is if you can find them.

The owners of the apartment I've tried to stay at the last 2 times and the owner before that have been super nice. I think even they are wondering what is going on.

Even the 8 - 8 1/2 hr layovers each way wasn't really going to stop me this time. My flight scheduling experience with LAN have been horrible. Six changes (last one 2 weeks ago) each one making the travelling experience worse. I would not have booked flights that had such long layovers.

I wanted to try the local national airline as I have had good experiences with KLM, Alitalia, Icelandair, Swiss Air etc.

But what has really stopped me is a wrenched shoulder 2 weeks ago. I had hoped it would have gotten better by now but it has stalled in the "still really bad" stage, even with drugs.

Work has been really tough because of it and getting treatment for it has hurt but it is a "good" hurt, if you know what I mean. Considering I've worked with broken ribs and wrist, this one has bugged me more.

I cannot imagine having to lug around a backpack, knapsack or purse for any period of time.

The thought had crossed my mind to just go anyways since I might as well be in pain in a new exciting place...that's the 26 yr old me speaking. The near 40 yr old is hunting for another trip...

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Select Pics


Bank in St Petersburg

Going under the Oresund Bridge at midnight

The Hermitage and the mighty Neva river

Tallin Estonia

Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood

pure gold



Scenic Nyhavn

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Finally, Onto the Cities

At the rate I'm going, if I don't start now, I won't get to the actual ports before my next trip!

Had I ranked the places according to which I thought I would like the most, I would have been totally wrong.

Remember how disappointed I was when I cancelled my trip to Stockholm (with a return trip to Iceland) back in the spring? I was quite upset by it.

I was so sure I would love Stockholm and Copenhagen. When I got there, I liked them both but they didn't resonate with me as deeply as I thought they would. It's neither good or bad rather just is.

Helsinki was the city I thought I would like the least and it ended up being my favourite. It has a more lively vibe compared to the others. I liked how stylishly people were dressed. Loved how earthy the local market felt.

To me, it was a combination of how I see Amsterdam and Berlin. Had a wardrobe malfunction and found what I needed at Stockmann (great dept store). Fell in love with Passionata.

St Petersburg comes in second. Lots of history and ornately designed buildings. Contrasted with a lot of run down buildings. Some of which I thought should be condemned when it was still lived in.

The best buildings were ones where Italian architects were hired to design and build them. Otherwise I wouldn't rank over all build quality of regular buildings as great.

You can tell there is a wide gap between the rich and the far from rich. There are many women who are dressed in very utilitarian wear. Whereas others are in 4 inch heels and fashionable. There are sushi restaurants every other block.

Tallin is a close second. A medieval city, very beautiful and very popular. The new part is quite urban with all the high end shops you would know. Didn't expect that. Discovered yet another new brand this time shoes -- Hogl.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Travel Communications

My new Tablet worked just great on the trip. Read 5 books. Surfed the net when I could get wifi for free. Fit in my purse perfectly. Very happy I sprung for it.

One thing D and I found out was that it cost us nothing for him to call me on our world phone using Skype. But when I called him, the same length of phone call (2o min) cost our phone account $35. Next time I'll just call him when I can talk so he can call me right back.

I think D was a bit miffed with me because he was expecting to hear from me upon arrival when I had told him I'd be in touch once I got to London (meaning my hotel) which was at the end of the trip.

I didn't think there was an issue with arrival because he knew I got on the plane and he tracks my flight...anyways communication blunder! He knew I was alive when the credit card line items started coming in...

For those who are curious, wifi and internet was available on the cruise ship. For what I consider to be an astronomical amount of money.

It starts at $35/hr and goes up to the hundreds depending on the package. No thank you. I saw lots of people at the computer stations.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Global Entry

The reason why I thought I was going to miss my connection home from JFK was because I assumed that when you are connecting, you don't leave the secured area of an airport.

You may have to go to another terminal but until now, that has always involved a bus, airport tram or walking, not exiting a terminal and re-entering. I had a 2 1/2 hr layover and the thought of cutting it close never crossed my mind.

So, when the opportunity to ask a question relating to the Global Entry program came up, I took it. It was a 45 min wait to get through passport control at JFK. I knew from the Nexus site that Canadian members can use the Global Entry machines.

I just didn't know if that required another interview or application so I didn't risk losing my place in line to find out. No one used it while I waited so I couldn't see what was involved.

When I got up to the booth, I asked the fellow who also didn't know but lucky me, their office was in this terminal so I can stop by and find out.

It was like a scene out of the Sopranos. The 5 officers working out the office were joking around and had great sense of humour. It didn't bother them that I didn't have an appointment and the procedure was simple to add me to the Global Entry system since I already had Nexus.

All they had to do was type some stuff up, take another picture of me and get my thumb and finger prints again. If they match my Nexus ones, I was in. This barely took 30 min and I was very appreciative they were able to help me right away.

They thought the Nexus system was pretty neat because of the iris scan technology. The Global Entry system uses a passport scan and finger prints to get through.

The very best part? I will not have to fill out those blue US entry forms again! There was no cost associated with adding me on. Unfortunately there is if you are going about it the other way around. And finally, you do have to get this done at an American airport with a Global Entry office. We will need to remember this the next time for D.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Logistics 2

Getting from LHR to Harwich to catch the boat involved 2 transportation options.

The cheaper way is to go from Heathrow to Paddington station via Heathrow express. Then the tube or taxi to Liverpool St train station whereby you take a 1 1/2 hr train to Harwich.

Here's what they don't tell you.

I think in the end you may save yourself $35 vs the cruise ship transfer $104 US but I'm not convinced it is worth it because time wise it is very close -- 3 hrs.

There is a number of moving parts with the train option. You have to get ticket and lug luggage to the airport train. Then transfer to the tube during rush hour with regular commuters. Once you get to Liverpool station, you have to buy your ticket which is easy. But the train leaves once an hour.

It's complicated to try and calculate transport time. And if you were in line with me, there's 1 1/2 hr just to clear passport control. If you just missed the hourly train assuming everything else went easy, then you have time for another tea or coffee.

I took the bus transfer offered by the cruise company after researching the logistics. I had time but I didn't want all the moving parts after a long day and night of travel. So I slept on the bus.

I was tempted to take the train on the way back as I was staying in London until I read about the schedule tube works which was closing some key stations in the circle and district lines. My hotel was the South Kensington/Knightsbridge area. So again, I took the cruise line transfer, this time dropping me off at Victoria Bus Station.

Because I couldn't get to Paddington to take the Heathrow express, I took the longer Piccadilly line back to the airport. A pleasant ride at 6:30 am.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Solo Travel 2

I ended up sitting beside a somewhat strange guy in his late 40's on the way home from LHR.

My senses tell me he is an adult with attention deficit issues though not apparent at first because he was dressed quite business like and well. Nice shoes, watch, sweater, shirt.

Had all the tech equipment, ipod, noise cancelling headphones, blackberry. Was eating sushi. Didn't return a hello. I thought oh well, not everyone is friendly, no big deal.

Then the fidgeting started. Things were knocked over. Things were dropped. Being that he was in the window seat and tall, there weren't a lot of room to maneuver around when looking for that pencil.

Managed to unplug my headset and throw garbage on my side twice. He did apologize. I had to help him turn his reading light on because on this plane it was done using the touch screen and he was literally overturning everything looking for a button on the seat arm. He did thank me.

Wouldn't stop moving. Watched a movie and read the paper and did a sudoko puzzle all at once. Ate 2 chocolate bars and half a bag of gummy worms and the complementary meal and snacks in record time. No alcohol though I think it could have helped. :) I was just hoping his main meal didn't end up on my lap.

Wouldn't put tray table up during take off and landing. Wouldn't wear his seat belt. Wouldn't stop listening to his ipod during take off and landing. Almost left his blackberry in the seat pocket. Then took off like a bullet upon arrival.

My strangest plane encounter yet. I'm glad it was on the flight home because I wasn't trying to sleep. Instead I watched 3 1/2 movies.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Solo Travel

I've mentioned the benefits of solo travel before and this trip was no exception. I met some really neat people starting with the gal that sat beside me on the way to LHR.

She is a student at Boston College and was on her way to Oxford to attend a 4 week dramatic arts course specializing in Shakespeare. I don't think she has flown transatlantic many times before and it struck me just how exciting it was for her. I remember my first flight to Europe. You couldn't wipe the smile off my face.

Being a huge Shakespearean fan myself, we talked about the sonnet she had memorized for this course and her part as Helena in The Midsummer Night's Dream she just completed at the local theatre in Vermont.

The other times I've flown to LHR was with British Airways and you landed in nice terminals. My Delta flight landed me in terminal 4 and it wasn't very nice. The line up for passport control was ridiculous. It took well over an hour to get through.

The gregarious fellow behind me started chatting everyone up and was he ever interesting. I think he is an engineer by trade but he is a diver who manages teams all over the world and will fly to places post earthquake to rebuild damaged undersea break walls. He was in Korea doing just that not too long ago.

The 2 sets of people ahead of me were great. One was a mother daughter combo who were looking forward to their 10 days in London. The daughter is a nurse hoping to get into medical school to eventually do 3rd country community medicine. She just came back from working in Malawi.

The couple ahead of them were on their way to pick up their daughter who had just finished school and they were going to vacation in Paris and Rome afterwards. He is a part time travel medicine doctor and commented on how many more people he is seeing nowadays who are heading to Africa.

Once everyone got up to the front of the line, we all got separated without opportunity to say goodbye. Those glimpses into peoples' lives are such gems.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Port Logistics

I cannot comment about other cruises but on this cruise, because of the size of the ship and the port facilities of the respective cities, the ship did not always dock in a walkable area. This meant needing to purchase a bus transfer into the city. Not a big deal. The cost was usually around 6 euro each way and they ran quite frequently.

You wouldn't believe the number of times I heard people complaining about how "far" the ship was and how long the drive was (15 - 25 min)! Maybe they had the romantic idea that we were supposed to dock right in the middle of town within a few steps to the best restaurant or something?

I happen to like looking around at the different port facilities. For example in Gothenburg or Goteburg, they are a serious shipping port and I find it neat to see numerous large freighters and tugs and cranes at work. These port cities weren't created just for cruise ship travellers!

The 2 ports of Copenhagen and Tallin didn't require transfers as both were within a 30 min walk into town. The walk into Tallin wasn't as nice looking or intuitive as Copenhagen but was clean and safe.

The maps you get from the ship aren't very good. Not all the streets are labelled so you do have to figure things out on your own or better yet, bring your own maps for a less frustrating experience.

I do wonder if the maps are done that way to encourage the purchase of excursions and tours from the ship. There is big money to be made. At an average cost of $40 a person for each port for the most basic of tours right up to $180, a family of four taking all the excursions for each stop will cost a bundle.

Judging from the number of tour buses waiting to meet the ship each stop, I can just imagine how much money is made. And I haven't even started on the amount of alcohol that I saw people drinking on board.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Trip Report Part 1 of ?

My recent deal of a trip was in the form of a 12 night Scandinavian and Russia cruise on Royal Caribbean International. I stayed in London afterwards before coming home.

If you go on their site and look up the same cruise for next year for one person (this yr's sailings are all sold out), the going rate is $3722 for an inside room. I paid $1271 cruise only found on a 3 day sale, a fantastic offer considering that I usually pay a significant single supplement.

Add to it the flight for around $1000 and I was there. D is convinced I made it through because of a computer pricing error. I didn't care. They honoured my online booking.

For those who have never cruised before, I must say the cruise industry is quite something. They make it extremely easy for you to spend money. Your room card is also a charge card while you are onboard. They push the "once in a lifetime" idea to encourage everyone to splurge out on everything from photos to special restaurants to excursions.

I wanted to go because they were going to get me to many places I've always wanted to see covering a lot of ground with minimal travel hassle. Remember your food is included and you are staying in a nice environment. Life is easy on a cruise ship.

It started in Harwich England and went to Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, St Petersburg (2 day stay), Tallin and Gothenburg. You get full days at each port which allowed me to get a good feel for the places and make decisions as to whether I'd want to return and stay longer.

There were a smattering of at sea days which I appreciated as we lost another 3 hrs (time change) by the 4th day of the trip. Remember I'm already coming from Canada.

Sailing through the North Sea both ways was a bit rough even for such a large ship with stability boosters. There were barf bags offered on all 12 decks. On the passage home, the captain changed course to hopefully make the experience more pleasant for everyone.

My dinner knife slid a foot and fell off the table! I have half decent sea legs and I still managed to walk run into a plant. Winds creating the swells hit a high of 62 mph. We were not allowed on the outside decks for both days.

It was neat to see the sea action from the vantage point of the 6 main elevators as that part of the ship was made of glass for all 12 decks. The engineering of these ships are amazing.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


Some final thoughts on Venice before moving on to recent trip.

We took a taxi upon arrival because we were tired and wanted to just go. It cost 38 euro. On the way back we took the airport bus which was a good experience for 5 euro each. You can take a ferry (Alilaguna) to and from central Venice but it takes over a hour each way.

At the airport, you have to got through additional passport screening before you are able to proceed to the check in counter. Why? I have no idea. They used this small magnifying eye cup like jewellers use to look at the watermark on your passport. If they like what they see, you get a security sticker.

If you are a fan of churches, get a Chorus Pass for 10 euros which allows you in 16 churches. Single admission is 3 euro.

We really enjoyed wandering around the shopping streets. They are full of unique shops. I'm not into souvenirs but I appreciate things that are hand made and artistic.

D is a huge fan of Persol sunglasses and have been scouring stores looking for a cool replacement pair. He had no luck when we were in Rome earlier this year but lucked out in Venice.

Turns out this store was where Elton John bought his last pair of glasses from. There is a picture of him with the owner behind the counter. D's glasses are no where as flamboyant.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Back Home

I'm back and happy to have a few days to rest up before returning to work. Not being accustomed to summer european travel (I've only done it one other time), it was something to experience.

Normally I am a huge fan of airports and air travel but it was challenging this time around. I thought I was going to miss my flight at JFK as my connection was not showing on the screen so I didn't know which terminal I needed to go to nor did I realized I had to walk outside to find it after taking the airtrain making it necessary to go through (single line only!) security screening again...

Considering I was in more "out of the way" places than the standard "must do" countries the crowds surprised me. Had I not gotten such a great deal on this trip, I would not pay top dollar to travel at this time. Low season may not have the warmest weather but the lack of large groups makes up for it as does the lower costs.

One word-- Helsinki! My favourite place out of the group this time around. More trip notes coming up shortly.