How I got 21% back towards travel (Really)

I signed up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred (referral link) card this past year to take advantage of the 50,000-point sign-up bonus, plus an additional 5,000 for adding an authorized user ($1155 at 2.1 cents per point !). It’s a good card that I use on a daily basis for most purchases, and it gives you 2x Chase Ultimate Rewards points on dining and travel, plus a host of other benefits, like no foreign transaction fees, rental car damage waiver and extended warranty protection, all of which I’ve used successfully. It has a $95 annual fee which is waived the first year.

Meanwhile, my old Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard was discontinued and converted into a Chase Freedom card, which is free. This card offers 5x point bonuses on rotating quarterly categories and 15,000 points ($150) for signing up. Currently (Q1 2016) the bonus category is local travel, including subways and taxis. Last quarter (Q4 2015) it was 10x (double the usual) on Amazon and Zappos, which was perfect for the Christmas season.

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Chase Freedom bonus categories for 2016 (Source: chase.com)

These both being Chase cards, they accrue Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Points can be combined between accounts and can even be pooled between you and your spouse. Now here’s the good part:

While the Freedom card only lets you redeem points for cash, the Sapphire card allows redemption at 1.25 cents for travel (cash value through Ultimate Rewards portal), as well as a 1:1 transfer to United Airlines (valued at 1.5 cents), British Airways, Singapore Airlines, and more. Having the Sapphire card lets you in on the benefits for all your Chase Ultimate Rewards cards (Freedom, Ink, Sapphire, etc.)

Thus with the 10x points earned during the Christmas season from Amazon mentioned earlier, each dollar spent gave us 21 cents (21%) back towards redemptions via Chase Sapphire and 15 cents (15%) on United Airlines in particular.

We’ll definitely be planning some flights this year. Happy travels!

Amtrak Guest Rewards, Best Deal in Travel, Gets Better (for Most)

Photo: Amtrak’s California Zephyr (Source: EbgundyOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Time for some train travel talk. Dollar-for-dollar, Amtrak’s Guest Rewards (AGR) program remains one of the best redemption deals in travel rewards.

AGR has undergone some changes recently that have shifted, and in most cases improved its value for those looking to redeem. At 2.9 cents of value per point earned, its eclipses most airline miles, which are worth ~1-2 cents per point, can take you from coast-to-coast, with a few sweet spots,  such as travel in the Northeast, that make it well worth your while.

I’ve been saving up Amtrak Guest Rewards points since I first signed up for the old AGR MasterCard many years ago. Chase Sapphire recently discontinued their relationship with AGR, though the Starwood Preferred Guest AmEx card still offers 1:1 transfers. With low redemption thresholds, you’ll be earning reward travel after as little as one month.

Redeeming Points, Before

Formerly, Amtrak tickets were redeemable on a zone-based system.

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Amtrak’s old zone-based redemption map (Source: Amtrak.com)

This zone system rewarded buying tickets at the last minute, as the redemption was based on geography and not on price. The best redemption value was within the Northeast Corridor (NEC), roughly from Buffalo to Boston and Montreal through Washington, DC and down to Virginia Beach. It was also a great deal for certain high-priced redemptions, such as coast-to-coast sleeper car travel. However, it had blackout dates around all major holidays and was an exceedingly bad deal for inexpensive trips.

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Redeeming Points, Now

As of January 24, 2016, the new redemption system is in effect. Now allowed: redemption of points at any time (no blackouts) and for any route, based on price, with a minimum redemption of 800 points per ticket.

For most trips, especially those booked in advance, it represents a significant savings. For trips within the Northeast Corridor, tickets are from 20-50% less points, on average.
To figure out whether the redemption rate has improved, refer to the following chart I’ve created below. When a ticket is priced on Amtrak.com at less than the price below and greater than the minimum ticket price of $23.20, that trip is now cheaper under the new scheme:

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Rating the New Points Redemption

To test the value of the new system, I’ve made some ticket price calculations using Amtrak.com which I present below. Note: Saver fares are not valid for reward travel, and Acela (2.5 cents per point) has been left out of these calculations.

Within the NEC, a round-trip for 2 from New York Penn Station (NYP) to Boston (BOS) formerly cost 16,000 points ($464 at 2.9 cents per point) in the zone system. It now costs 10,207 points ($296) at the Value ticket level, for a savings of 36%. A round-trip for 2 from New York to Philadelphia (PHL) now costs $220 or 7,586 points, for a savings of 53%!

Outside the Northeast, Los Angeles (LOS) to San Diego (SAN) has dropped -15%, Miami (MIA) to Savannah (SAV) -50% and Denver (DEN) to Salt Lake City (SLC) -49% in points needed for redemption, all significant improvements.

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For long-distance sleeper travel, the new rates are much more of a mixed bag, with a few declines and many steep increases in points needed for redemption. The more cramped roomette accommodations on the California Zephyr from Chicago (CHI) to San Francisco (SFW) have increased significantly (+30%) for a two-person room, while the nicer bedroom accommodations have increased only slightly (+7%). Roomette trips from Seattle (SEA) to San Francisco have actually decreased in points needed for redemption (-9%).

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If you’re in the Northeast or plan to travel often by train, Amtrak Guest Reward points offer great value and flexibility. You can sign up and view their redemption guidelines at http://www.amtrakguestrewards.com.

Note: There have been reports that certain itineraries at high-demand times carry a points redemption penalty. This has not generally been true on the routes referenced above.

Experiments in Extreme Weekend Travel

We just returned from a weekend getaway to Barbados, and I wanted to share impressions on what I’ll term our first experiment in “extreme weekend travel”.

To fit nearly a week of travel time into one weekend, all you need are the following:

  • two vacation days that connect to the weekend or a three-day weekend that you can stretch to four;
  • a direct, red-eye (overnight) flight in both directions;
  • a discount flight (under $300), ideally, to make the short duration worthwhile;
  • an inexpensive destination or somewhere to stay.

We’re both trying to save our vacation days for a larger trip later in the summer, so this was an experiment born of necessity — taking only two vacation days, we managed a full four-day vacation. As noted, this required a red-eye flight in both directions and a return straight to work from the airport.

A direct flight was essential, since changing planes in the middle of the night will ruin your chances at arriving rested to your destination.

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Thanks to The Flight Deal and a great deal on JetBlue, we were able to get an overnight flight direct from New York (JFK) to Barbados (BGI) for $192 round-trip. We departed at 9pm on Thursday, arriving at 3am and returned at 4am on Tuesday, returning at 8:30am to New York.

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barbados_boats

We survived, and on the return flight we both slept soundly, thanks to the extra leg room and comfy seats on JetBlue. There was actually enough room in coach to fully extend your legs under the seat in front of you and stretch out. Bring your own pillow and blanket, however, as they carry an extra charge.

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Returning to JFK, New York on Tuesday morning

Destinations

Flying from New York to the Caribbean allows you to get far enough away for a real vacation, visit a foreign country, yet stay in a similar time zone.

JetBlue flies to dozens of destinations in the Caribbean and from my experience, many of these flights are direct and of the overnight variety. Their flight map can be consulted here.

Norwegian flies from JFK to Guadeloupe and Martinique and offers some great deals, though these are daytime departures and would require an extra day of vacation.

If you’re looking to fly domestically, nonstop cross-country flights, i.e. JFK to SFO, OAK, LAX, LGB offer the chance to get some rest, though jet lag can be an issue if you’re returning straight to work. Given the time zone difference, the return (West-East) flight needs to be overnight, though the East-West flight only takes 3 hours and could be done in an evening.

Searching for Flights

Use ITA Matrix to search for arrivals and limit the selection to flights departing at night or early morning.

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Example: Searching for overnight flights to California

For flights in a similar time zone, also select “Early Morning” and be sure that you’re searching for nonstops. Running a search to a series of nearby destinations, as shown below, can be very useful if you’re just looking to get out of town.

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Example: Searching for flights from NYC to all airports within 1000 miles of Barbados

I hope these tips inform and inspire. Good luck in planning your next Extreme Weekend Getaway.

Hydration and Fermentation: The Beers of Barbados

In Barbados it may be expensive to get a bite to eat, but the same can’t be said about a cold beer, which is never more than $1-2.75 US. The taste is reminiscent of Mexico or other Caribbean countries: brands that I have never seen or heard of, yet flavors that I definitely have.

On the plus side, and unlike Puerto Rico, none of the beers have that sugary sweetness that I associate with cheap American beers, and all are served in clean glass bottles. Most are the tiny bottles you find in the Caribbean, which I imagine have the low glass-to-beer ratio to keep them cool.

The Beers (with ratings)

Banks (2/5) tastes like a slightly maltier Corona. This seems to be the official beer of the island which you’ll find everywhere.

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Banks, beach, Barbados. Credit: Tommy White

Deputy (2/5) reminds me of a Rolling Rock, yet more malty and less sugary. Paola loved this one, I was less than impressed.

Pola Beer (2/5) is a simple and crisp beer with a fun name that is imported to the island from Trinidad. It can be found all over the island, often as cheap as 5 x $5 US.

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A Pola Beer at the Gold Cup races, Bridgetown, Barbados. Credit: Tommy White

Mackeson (2.75/5) is a milk stout that tastes a bit more like something along the lines of Yuengling Porter. It is one of the priciest beers at $2 US and also the best.

10 Saints (?/5) is a rum barrel-aged beer that I brought home in my suitcase and haven’t tried yet. It’s a caramel-colored liquid in a clear glass 12oz bottle. I’m expecting the worst but hoping for the best, as this one doesn’t appear to be barrel-aged in the style of Bourbon County.

The Verdict

Drink the beer, drink the water, drink the rum punch. Bajan beers are low in alcohol, mild in taste, and best for staying hydrated, so drink them often. Also, make sure you use plenty of sunscreen.

February’s 10 Best Stories in Travel

I’m back to share my favorite stories of the month from February 2016, including globe-trotting fish, freight-train travel across Africa, myths and facts about the Zika Virus, and a documentary about a continent-spanning road trip. Read on for the scoop. 

Is Farmed Salmon Really Salmon?
The staple fish is having an identity crisis.
http://nautil.us/issue/30/identity/is-farmed-salmon-really-salmon
Love smoked salmon? Me too. Turns out there’s a lot more to it than pink-fleshed fish swimming upstream past grizzly bears. It’s a complex system, and humans have changed it irreparably, even for those fish labeled “wild”.

For us, the salmon is an icon of the wild, braving thousand-mile treks through rivers and oceans, leaping up waterfalls to spawn or be caught in the clutches of a grizzly bear. The name “salmon” is likely derived from the Latin word, “salire,” to leap. But it’s a long way from a leaping wild salmon to schools of fish swimming in circles in dockside pens. Most of the salmon we eat today don’t leap and don’t migrate.

Riding the Mauritania Railway
Photographer Jody MacDonald crossed the Sahara by iron train in search of adventure—and surf.
http://adventure-journal.com/2016/02/riding-the-mauritania-railway/
Posts like this train-bum ride across the desert remind me that I need to focus more on train travel and amazing opportunities like this. On my first trip abroad, to Ecuador, I rode on top of a train like this, and it was quite the experience when it derailed on the side of a mountain. If I can find the old photos, that will be a topic for another day.

The Infamous Isla Refinery of Curaçao
http://curacao.for91days.com/the-infamous-isla-refinery-of-curacao/ It looks like a little bit of the Jersey Turnpike or South Philly, only set in the Caribbean. Industrial operations on this scale are impressive, even if they are rusting in the salt air and are significantly worse on the environment than eco-tourism. The island was a focal point in World War II for its role in delivering petroleum to the Allies.

In Italy, an Orange to the Face
http://roadsandkingdoms.com/2016/in-italy-an-orange-to-the-face/
For those of you hoping to make it to one of those ancient fruit-throwing or bull-running festivities for some light and possibly welt-inducing fun, here’s another option.

…unlike the Spaniards of Buñol, these revelers don’t throw tomatoes or other soft fruit at each other. In Ivrea, oranges are the official projectiles of Historical Carnival. Skip the red hat, and there’s a good chance you’ll be hit in the face by one.

What Travelers Need to Know About the Zika Virus
http://intelligenttravel.nationalgeographic.com/2016/02/05/what-travelers-need-to-know-about-the-zika-virus/
http://intelligenttravel.nationalgeographic.com/2016/02/08/tips-for-protecting-yourself-against-the-zika-virus/
We’re about to travel to a country with active cases of the Zika Virus and there’s a lot of misinformation out there. Did you know that the virus is only a danger to pregnant women in the first trimester and only shows symptoms in 1 of 5 infected? Read these links and calm yourself down a bit.

A Story About Love and Bells
http://www.ottsworld.com/blogs/story-about-love-and-bells-saxony-germany/
Happy belated Valentine’s Day! Read this beautiful story of a boy and his love for church bells, which he now shares with his family in their very unique Quasimodo-esque residence.

The Pros and Cons of Various Forms of Snow Travel
http://adventure-journal.com/2016/02/the-pros-and-cons-of-various-forms-of-snow-travel
This had me cracking up near the end. If you’ve lived in a snowy climate, you’ve tried most of these at one point another and will soon be laughing as well.

Sledding, Runner Sled
Pros: Classic, easy to steer, photogenic
Cons: Hard to fit more than one person on sled; accidentally ramming into an unsuspecting sledder at full speed usually = emergency room visit; when unmanned, becomes a high-velocity death missile missile hungry to destroy ankles and shins

Fathom’s 24 Best Indie Travel Guides
http://fathomaway.com/postcards/quirk/24-best-indie-travel-guides/
Looking for a beautiful gift for a design, travel and fashion lover? The printed guidebooks and maps in this list are like tiny works of art, with the benefit that they may help you navigate some of the tourist hotspots they cover. Very heavy on coverage for New York, Paris, London, and the like. (I wasn’t paid for this post, they’re just really nice guides)

The Forgotten Trains of India
http://roadsandkingdoms.com/2016/the-forgotten-trains-of-india/
The Gwalior Sheopur Kalan Passenger train is one of India’s many train routes, only this one trundles slowly across the countryside on narrow-gauge tracks. The author includes beautiful photos of landscapes, fellow passengers, and train-surfing riders.

The Road to Mongolia
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NI-x35CMXgc
Given that it’s on my travel bucket list, I’ve seen a lot of Mongol Rally videos. This one takes the cake with thoughtful editing and after-the-fact interviews, it gives you a great sense of the challenge and enjoyment of a trip 6,000+ miles from Britain to Mongolia in a crappy car with your friends.

Ranking 11 Breweries in New York (The first half)

It’s been a while since I’ve indulged the hops side of Hops, Trains, and Backpacks: it’s New York City Beer Week and here’s the run down of the breweries we’ve visited over the course of the past year. I’ve graded each on a 1-5 star scale on three points (beer-ambiance-fun):

  • Beer: Quality and inventiveness of the product;
  • Ambiance: Is it pleasant or novel to spend some time here;
  • Fun: Are there things to do while you’re here to entertain yourself.

I’ve then ranked them in reverse order, subjectively, from 11th – 1st, with the most emphasis placed on good beer. Of the 24 beers produced in New York City limits, 21 have taprooms or are brewpubs (see this article from Brew York for a full run down). That means we’re about half-way through. Here’s a map of the ones we’ve visited (in green) and the ones we haven’t (in yellow) to follow along:

[googlemaps https://www.google.com/maps/d/embed?mid=zEsOW87RyKdo.kbssccH6e7PM&w=640&h=480]

Beer rotations are changing constantly and these breweries are one-upping each other with more inventive ingredients and more hops, these rankings are based on the time at which I visited. By the way, follow me on Untappd (it’s like Facebook for beer). That said, here goes:

  1. Strong Rope Brewery, Brooklyn (Website, BeerAdvocate) 2-3-2
    This Gowanus, Brooklyn brewery is around the corner from Dinosaur BBQ and this amazing chicken wings hole-in-the-wall called Wangs. The beer was weak on the ingredients and I simply couldn’t find one I liked, let alone remember in retrospect. They did, however, have live music at their opening. I suppose the plus side is that they’re just starting out and can turn on a dime, though the same could be said of any of the above, with the possible exception of Brooklyn Brewery, which is doing fine on its own.
  2. LIC Beer Project, Queens (Website, BeerAdvocate) 3-2-1
    A small bar tucked in between auto repair shops hosts this upstart brewery. Their selection is mostly Belgian saisons and the like that to my taste were sharp and needed a bit more time to mellow out, though their dry-hopped IPA (WonderLIC) was a standout, and was worth grabbing as a birthday present. Nice neighborhood spot, not worth going out of the way for.
  3. Transmitter Brewing, Queens (Website, BeerAdvocate) 3-1-1
    We visited here on a cold, rainy day and it just didn’t feel welcoming like the others. A very small vestibule is their tasting room, and samples are poured from the bottle, like at a winery. Wasn’t really impressed by the beers, other than their nice packaging. They’re not bad and were fairly interchangeable, though their Community-Supported Brewing model is fascinating and I hope it catches on. They’ve reached the ninth spot on the strength of their beer alone, that said, the strength of their beer selection qualifies them for the ninth spot, though I would give them a second chance.
  4. Big aLICe Brewing, Queens (Website, BeerAdvocate) 4-2-1
    Another brewery tucked away in a nondescript industrial area, Big aLICe has the most inventive selection of rotating beers in the city with wild ingredients. The space is small and nicely decorated with wood panels and lights, though with nowhere really to sit and relax. It’s worth it for the beer — order a full flight. When we visited, I recall a salted caramel beer (Salted Caramel) and a white stout (White Coffee Stout), among others. Looking forward to our return visit to see what they’ve cooked up lately.

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    Ever-changing draft list at Big aLICe brewery in Long Island City, Queens
  5. Keg and Lantern Brewing Co., Brooklyn (Website, BeerAdvocate) 4-3-2
    This pub has food, we came here for breakfast, and it makes its beer in a custom setup in the basement. I’ve met the head brewer at a New York City Brewers Guild meeting, and he’s trying out inventive, small-batch stuff. Big plus here is the ability to order a meal. This was where we started our brewery tour of North Brooklyn and Long Island City, and I recommend their breakfast if you’re looking to begin your brewery crawl on a strong note.
  6. Greenpoint Beer and Ale Company, Brooklyn (Website, BeerAdvocate) 4-3-3
    Formerly called Dirck the Norseman and now renamed to match its brewery, this cavernous space is a bar and live music venue, and when the weather is nice they open up their window-paned garage doors to let in the fresh air and give you a nice view of the tank farm at Bushwick Inlet (n.b. The Tank Farm at Bushwick Inlet will surely be the name of the forthcoming condo project when this area is eventually repurposed to take advantage of its waterfront location). Their seasonal rotation of beers is excellent (just take a look) and they’re walking distance from Brooklyn Brewery, Brooklyn Bowl, and the Brooklyn Night Bazaar.

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    Sun shining on the day’s first beer at Greenpoint Beer and Ale Company
  7. Brooklyn Brewery, Brooklyn (Website, BeerAdvocate) 3-5-4 (2 fun if you’re stuck in line)
    Probably the most well-known NYC brewery, you’re either in for a big surprise or a big disappointment, so lower your expectations, steel yourself for waiting in line, and you’ll be fine. After at least 30 minutes and up to an hour, you’ll be let in, a bit like a fancy club except they check your moustache and not your shoes. Once you get in, you’ll feel obligated to stay all night to make up for the wait.
    The space itself is huge and has lots of tables for sitting and drinking, beerhall-style. You’ll get to know your neighbor, because this place is so packed that there is never free space to sit without squeezing in somewhere. Beer is cheap (5 for $20) and you can sample pretty much every brew they make. Their Brooklyn Half is not bad, as is Sorachi Ace and their new Insulated Lager, though you’re not getting anything here you couldn’t get at the grocery store.
  8. Rockaway Brewing Company, Queens (Website, BeerAdvocate) 4-4-4
    A bit of a misnomer because their tap room is not in the Rockaways but instead in a section of Long Island City that appears to be conjuring skyscrapers and a brand new neighborhood from the post-industrial muck (which has been replaced by a park and soccer fields). The beer is all sessionable, their English bitter (Rockaway ESB) and stout (Black Gold Stout) stood out, and they give you free bags of Cape Cod potato chips, which are the best potato chips. The vibe is beach-like and light-filled and you feel like this could be a popular neighborhood haunt, as opposed to an industrial site visit.
  9. Other Half Brewing Co., Brooklyn (Website, BeerAdvocate) 5-4-3
    By far the best beer in the city and the most hyped, with good reason. Other Half makes you trek out to Smith-9th Street and search for an unmarked door next to a McDonalds because the best beer in the city is inside. It’s fun hanging out there because you feel like you’re sharing in a secret and the lights are low and feeling is like a rustic cabin, but really the beer is the main attraction — hoppy, strong, knock you off your seat (All Green Everything, Green Diamonds, Hop Showers). They have session versions of their big guns (Small Green Everything, Baby Diamonds) without the bite. I’ve yet to come on a release day (check their Twitter for the latest), but I’ve heard that the line is around the block to pick up some beer trade bait cans.

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    Waiting line for limited release cans at Other Half (source: idrinkgoodbeer.com)
  10. Threes Brewing, Brooklyn (Website, BeerAdvocate) 4-5-5
    In New York City, space is money, and Threes has the long tables and relaxed vibe of a German beer hall on a Sunday afternoon, though including a piano, a game selection (or was this just on game night?) and periodic live music. Plus their beers are sessionable, sour, farmhouse, wild ales or dry-hopped and deceptively strong (Superf*ckingyawn), and all around tasty. Their kitchen hosts a rotating chef, and I’ve yet to sample the food, though it looks great.
  11. SingleCut Beersmiths, Queens (Website, BeerAdvocate) 4-5-5
    Large open space with concrete floors, high ceiling, and roll-up doors makes it feel like you’re having a party in the loading bay of a Home Depot, but in a good way. Their varied beer selection includes sours (Kim Hibiscus Sour Lagrrr!), English session ales (Keith SW4 English Pale Ale), and piney hoppy West Coast (can’t remember name). A massive selection of free board games, including Cards Against Humanity, and a rotating record selection on the turntable make you want to stay here for hours.

On a closing note, New York City has some amazing breweries, and I’m looking forward to the stream of new releases and seasonal offerings when I’m feeling thirsty. Try all of them and start at the top of this list.

The Way to the Top of the World

I’ve enjoyed staring at maps since I was a little kid, pulling the inserts from National Geographic. I’ve always been curious what was out there at the fringes, at the distended top and bottom of the map, rotating close to the poles of the globe, out there at the edges of the country, the continent, or the populated world.

The game of “close your eyes and put your finger on the map” often resulted in an imaginary trip to Greenland, Norway, Russia or some freezing and far-flung locale, so it’s fitting that I’d sit down to consider this topic on the most frigid few days of the year.

Walking outdoors last weekend required layering shirts, sweaters, and coats while covering every exposed bit of skin, then dashing into a storefront or restaurant when the wind gusts chilled our legs too much. It was so cold that the drafts followed us indoors, cold air pouring off our poorly sealed windows and requiring a coat and blanket indoors.

As I finish up this post a week later, it nearly feels like spring outside. Regardless, I’m still fascinated by the types of places where you need a military-grade parka just to step out the front door. The New York Times beat me to the punch, publishing a great story about building a road to the end of the continent, the Canadian Arctic. This isn’t Hudson Bay, rather it’s around 400 miles east of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, the town of Tuktoyatuk in Canada’s Northwest Territories, which was formerly only reachable by ice road or snowmobile during the winter or bush plane during the summer months.

Thus, here is my bucket list of destinations in and around the Arctic Circle:

Viewing the Northern Lights. Apparently in the 1960s, the magnetic interference from all the Soviet and American atomic tests resulted in the Northern Lights being visible as far south as Washington, D.C (read here or here). So much for the good old days (N.B. Just kidding, let’s not reenact the electromagnetic pulse from the movie Goldeneye any time soon, I’d need to buy a new laptop).

We’ll have to head further north these days to get the real show. From WikiTravel:

The auroral oval, meaning the area with the highest probability of seeing the northern lights, covers most of Alaska, northern parts of Canada, the southern half of Greenland, Iceland, Northern Norway, Sweden and Finland. As well as the western half of the Russian north (with the Kola Peninsula of Murmansk Oblast being the most popular viewing spot).

Here’s some great photos and more info about ideal viewing times from VisitNorway.com:

It’s important to remember that aurora can be a bit of a diva, and she will only start the show when she feels the time is right. Patience is a virtue, also when chasing the northern lights. But here’s how you maximize your chances of a sighting: The lights are at their most frequent in late autumn and winter/early spring. Between late September and late March, it is dark between 6pm and 1am, and you have the best chances of spotting the lights.

However, remember how we told you about her being a diva? Aurora borealis likes it best when the weather is cold and dry, usually from December. Some will tell you that the driest weather, giving clear skies, is found inland, but that isn’t always true.

Greenland. Thanks to the Mercator Projection everyone wants to visit here like it’s a lost continent. It depends how you look at it. It’s not really that big, guys. My next-door neighbor was stationed here during the Korean War to man nuclear listening stations and it made me curious what was there besides ice. Speaking of it, seems like the main reasons to stay year-round this far north have to do with measuring bad weather and Cold War-era military exercises. Which are both things I find fascinating, so there we go.

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Ceremonial start of the Iditarod in Anchorage, Alaska. Source: Frank Kovalchek, Wikipedia

The Iditarod. This has to be like the Winter Olympics if you’re a dog: an 1,100-mile sled dog race across Alaska. In recent years the race has been rerouted due to lack of snow. It might not be around too much longer if climate change in the North continues.

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Pyramiden, former Soviet mining outpost. Source: Rachel Nuwer, smithsonianmag.com

Svalbard, Norway. The Svalbard Archipelago is now open to tourism, but was originally solely a mining outpost, populated by Norwegians, Russians, and Ukrainians, as it was partially leased to the Soviet Union. It’s reachable by air, including by low-cost Norwegian Air Shuttle. Barentsburg is still inhabited, and still a Russian mining town, though Pyramiden, sold to the Soviet Union in 1927, has been abandoned since 1998.

Novaya Zemlya. Famous as the site of the Tsar Bomba test, the largest ever nuclear test. On second thought, I don’t really want to visit, but this happened there:

Over its history as a nuclear test site, Novaya Zemlya hosted 224 nuclear detonations with a total explosive energy equivalent to 265 megatons of TNT. For comparison, all explosives used in World War II, including the detonations of two US nuclear bombs, amounted to only two megatons.

Murmansk. The largest city north of the Arctic Circle and home to the ice-free port that allowed the White Army to resupply when fighting the Bolsheviks and later for the Allies to support the Soviets during World War II. It’s reachable by air and easily accessible by railway from St. Petersburg, with a balmy average high of 14 degrees Fahrenheit in January and February, though a relatively normal 60 degrees in summer.

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Buckner Building, Whittier, Alaska. Source: sometimes-interesting.com

Whittier, Alaska. This town in southern Alaska is a cruise ship port and stop on the Alaska Railroad, from which you can reach Anchorage, Denali National Park, and Fairbanks. The entire town lives in one condominium, Begich Towers. During the Cold War, the U.S. Army built the neighboring Buckner Building as a fully contained “City Under One Roof” with space for 1,000 men. It was later abandoned, though the structure itself was strong enough to withstand the Alaskan Earthquake. See some amazing “ruin porn” (photos of destruction and decay, not nudity) here.

Wrangel Island. This island in the Russian Far East is home to the largest population of pacific walrus and highest density of polar bear dens, per UNESCO. At one time it was a Russian military outpost, though is now a natural preserve. Sherry Ott at Ottsworld has some amazing photos of her visit.

So there you go. Unless you’re either conducting military exercises, mining, or are native to the area, the Arctic isn’t necessarily the year-round polar bear and sauna party you may have expected, though neither is it a barren uninhabitable wasteland (other than the irradiated parts). Your best bet for visiting is via one of the more populated neighboring settlements, either via air, sea, rail or snow/ice.

Add it to the bucket list. Until next time!

 

 

January’s 10 Best Stories in Travel

Photo: January at Labrador Mountain, Truxton, NY

I’m here to share with you my favorite stories of the month from around the web. All have an international flavor, many explore the unseen side of the places we hear about in the news. If you’re wary of traveling there, at least you’ll be able to visit vicariously through these talented authors. I’ve also added in a few travel how-to’s and what-to’s that stood out from the crowd. Enjoy.

Underground in East Ukraine
Illegal coal mining in rebel-held territory in Ukraine has its own risks and rewards and continues on despite periodic skirmishes. Read on for more on the trials of daily life in contested territory.
http://roadsandkingdoms.com/2016/underground-in-east-ukraine/

A Gift From the Sea: On China’s Land Reclamation Free-for-all
Entire new cities are rising from the sea in China as coastal areas are filled and developed at a breakneck pace, appearing to create “something for nothing”. How is it done, and what is the catch? Read on.
http://www.vagabondjourney.com/a-gift-from-the-sea-on-chinas-land-reclamation-free-for-all/

Salvation by the Slice
A veteran of the war in Ukraine opens a pizza shop in Kiev staffed entirely by veterans and finds great success serving those heading to and returning from the front. Italian food in Eastern Europe is an unlikely savior.
http://roadsandkingdoms.com/2016/salvation-by-the-slice/

Time Travel to Anadyr, Russia
Taking the world’s shortest trans-continental flight from Alaska to Russia’s Far East is like stepping back in time and exploring the rarely-seen populated corners of the Arctic. Click here for the story with great photos from Sherry Ott.
http://www.ottsworld.com/blogs/anadyr-russia-travel/

Visiting Ojai, California
Visit Ojai, the cozy and creative town outside of Los Angeles, bed down neo-hippie style in an Airstream trailer, grab a fresh brunch, and browse the outdoor bookstore. Add this place to your next road trip destination.
http://escapebrooklyn.com/ojai-california/

Ultimate List of Travel Movies
From Into the Wild to Crocodile Dundee, this list touches on the great road trip and travel movies, both classics and more recent films. You may know half this list, which will make the other half you haven’t seen even more enticing.
http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-blogs/the-ultimate-list-of-travel-movies/

How Shenzhen Became the Global Epicenter of High-Tech Innovation
Electronics designed, sourced and built in a matter of days instead of weeks or months, this is how Shenzhen is shaking up the international marketplace in computer hardware. The next Silicon Valley?
http://www.vagabondjourney.com/how-shenzhen-became-the-global-epicenter-of-high-tech-innovation/

How to Eat Street Food Without Getting Sick
Ever wonder how the locals manage to eat all the best tacos, quesadillas, and fried treats without getting sick? It’s not just the water. Read this for some new tips.
http://www.legalnomads.com/2016/01/street-food.html

A Crazy New Kind of Amazing Race: International Car Rallies
If you know me, you’ll know the Europe-to-Asia Mongol Rally is on my bucket list. Here are several other crazy options that will now be vying for our future plans.
https://www.yahoo.com/travel/a-crazy-new-kind-of-amazing-race-international-117138357567.html

The Big Cow Con
How a young South African cattle trader stole a fortune through sleight-of-hand in California’s dairy country during the booming 1990s and then disappeared with the spoils, and how he was finally caught on the other side of the world.
https://story.californiasunday.com/rocky-pipkin-agricultural-detective

Volkswagen Beetles Live on in Mexico

Since I was a kid, I’ve always liked the VW Beetle: small, cartoon-like, and iconic of ’60s culture and music that I grew up with, thanks to my parents. I was further fascinated when, back in college, I found that the Beetle was produced in Mexico all the way up through the millenium, with production ending with the 2004 model year. In fact, a version of the original Beetle was exported to Europe after production ended in Germany!

The Beetle Sedán, known as the vocho in Mexico, was also produced in Brazil for the Brazilian market through the 1990s. This led me to write a class paper comparing industrial policy in Mexico and Brazil through the lens of the Beetle, which you might as well take a look at, since I still had it saved. It’s actually fairly fascinating, if you like history and Cold War-era politics, though you’ll have to trust me. Read it here.

There are thousands, if not millions, of these old Beetles still circulating in Mexico, thanks to skilled mechanics, cheap replacement parts, and the car’s practicality. When I first went to Mexico, I remember being told that you can get a reconditioned engine swapped out in your VW for the equivalent of $250 US.

Passing through the mountains on the way back to Mexico City from Tepoztlán, where many of these photos were taken, in some towns half the vehicles on the streets were vochos. It turns out the engines handle the hills better than other vehicles in their class, so they’ve clustered in towns with steep inclines.

When I first came to Mexico, in 2007, they were ubiquitous as taxis, though now are entirely phased out due to emissions restrictions and safety concerns. In the face of progress, it’s surprising to me to see the vocho‘s staying power. Nostalgia and usefulness mix as this workhorse of a vehicle powers on through another decade.

The photos included below are a collection from our last trip to Mexico City and surrounding towns.

Making it Mexican Street Food

Mexico, despite popular misconception, is not the land of crunchy tacos, ground beef, and shredded cheddar cheese. It is the land of chili, lime, cilantro, and onion. Lime, chili, cilantro, and onion (and meat) on a tortilla are the essence of a taco.

IMG_1057

Likewise, in Mexico, lime and chili (hot sauce, especially Valentina brand) can be added to nearly anything, from popcorn or potato chips, to fruit, to beer to make a legitimate snack.

Generally, Mexican street food starts with:

  • corn (tortillas, dough or corn-on-the-cob)
  • meat (pork, chicken, beef, goat/lamb, fish or shrimp), and often
  • fruit

It makes use of the following toppings:

  • lime
  • chili (powder, salsa or pepper)
  • cilantro
  • mayonnaise
  • cream
  • onion
  • lettuce, tomato

Some famous Mexican street foods containing the above elements:

  • tacos (right, below)
  • tamales
  • tortas
  • quesadillas / sopes
  • chilaquiles (left, below)

Some famous examples of normal food that has been “Mexicanized”:

  • michelada: beer, lime, and hot sauce
  • Hot Nuts: Japanese peanuts, chili, lime
  • tamarind pulp with chili and lime
  • mango slices with chili and lime

In this way, you too could become Mexican by dousing yourself in lime and chili, but then you would have to be eaten.

In a future post, we will explore the taxonomy of Mexican street foods, from the tame and American-friendly, to the parts of the pig you thought were inedible. Stay tuned.