Tag Archives: italy


A Visit to Europe – Preparations – Everything else

As anyone who’s traveled internationally before knows, cell and data roaming fees from your local provider can be exorbitant.  For example, while traveling on business and using a my company’s blackberry for simple email, light websurfing, and the occasional call, I’ve racked up bills of $300+ for just 2 weeks of travel!  It’s far more economical to buy a prepaid SIM card in the country you’re traveling to.  However, that also requires an unlocked phone/tablet that supports the cellular frequency band of said country.  (for more details, see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cellular_frequencies  or here: http://arstechnica.com/business/2014/05/new-startup-wants-you-to-save-on-crazy-roaming-fees-while-traveling/  )

Since I only have the wifi version of the Nexus 7, I decided to buy a portable router for the trip.  The advantage of such a device is that more than one device can connect to the router and go online at the same time – handy in this day and age when one person may have a phone, a tablet, and/or a laptop.  Also, many cellular bands are supported, in effect meaning that it can used world-wide (though one should always double-check the list of supported bands before buying).  The model I ended up buying was the Huawei E5776s.  In addition to the features I’ve already mentioned, the reason I went for this particular model was because it had a stated battery life of 10hrs (important, because I planned to use it all day for GPS while driving), and it could also serve as a backup battery for my tablet in a pinch (meaning I could charge my tablet FROM the router).  After 3+ weeks of use, I can say that it works well.  It doesn’t have quite the fast start-up speed advertised (it seems to take up to 30sec-1min to connect to a network), but it was sturdy, battery life was good (at least 7hrs+), and I had no issues using it first in Japan and later in Italy.

Aside from the router, I also purchased a cheap Nokia 101 phone.  It is, as stated, a very basic, no-frills device.  It worked with no issues whatsoever (I swapped SIM cards between the router and phone as needed).  Overall, I can say that I have no regrets about these 2 purchases, especially because I can continue to use both for future travels overseas.  I will write about the service provider I ended up using in Italy in my next post, for those that are curious.

The final items I prepared for the trip were:

– portable water bottle with filter

– International Driver’s Permit

Though we knew that tap water is fine to drink in Italy, we still decided to play it safe and chose to buy a portable water filter – we went for the OKO 550ml Level 2 filter.  This was one purchase I was not too happy with.  I can’t vouch for the quality of the filter, but we never got sick, so that’s good!  However, its tendency to leak was extremely frustrating.  Drinking with this requires a strong hand as you need to squeeze the bottle firmly in order for water to come out.  This is not a problem.  However, after a certain period of time (depending on your squeezing skills), water seeps into the thread that screws the filter to the bottle, and water starts leaking all over you while you’re drinking!  To get around this, unscrew the top and give a few strong shakes to get the excess water off the filter.  Then screw it back on and you should be good to go for a few more gulps (or more, depending on how much you drink in one go) before you have to repeat the process again.  Again, not a purchase I was really happy with.

The final major thing I had to prepare was my IDP – aka International Driver’s Permit.  There seems to be a lot of conflicting information online as to whether or not an IDP is really necessary.  My stance is – better to have it than not.  It’s not too cheap (at least in Japan, it costs 3,000 yen), but I prefer the peace of mind it afforded me.  For those interested in knowing about the process of getting an IDP in Japan, check out this site: http://blog.hinomaple.com/2012/11/02/getting-an-idp-in-japan/

Those were all the major preparations I could think of doing prior to our trip, and I’m glad I did them.  Another source of information was the Rick Steve’s forum – it’s very active, and I got some very helpful advice and tips there.  Also, I have to recommend the RS app for the free walking guides – he provides some useful background to where you are and what you’re seeing, which really helps bring your trip/walking tour/museum visit to life.  And it’s free – that can’t be beat 😉

In my next post, I’ll briefly write about the network provider I used in Italy (didn’t bother with one in Prague), and then will write about the places we visited.  I’m not sure yet if I’ll do a day by day trip… I think that probably will be too much (I’ve already written about 3,000 words on this, and haven’t even left Japan 😛



Tokyo is kind of feeling like this today

It's been pouring rain non-stop in Tokyo since yesterday, the kind of rain that makes umbrellas all but useless.  Still, there hasn't been much rain lately, so I'm rather enjoying the cool weather it's brought 🙂

This shot is one from my trip to Italy last month.  I went less as a photographer, more as a tourist so I don't have as many images that I'm satisfied with, but you will be seeing more shots from there in my stream over time (^^)

Have a good weekend, and stay dry! (at least if you're in Japan)

#Italy   #Venice   #gondola  ?

Experiences Travels

A Visit to Europe – Preparations – Accommodations (AirBnB and Booking.com)

Now that we had all the destinations planned, there were still a number of things to prepare for. Obviously, accommodation was the first and most important item to plan for. Since we would be going during the start of the peak tourist season, costs for normal hotels would be high and would likely book up fast, so we began exploring budget options. Another important thing to plan/prepare for was transportation (train tickets and car rental). Since S was staying behind after I returned to Tokyo, I also wanted to make sure that she had a phone for emergencies. Finally, since I know that my map-reading skills are somewhat sub-par, I wanted to make sure we’d have use of Google maps/GPS available. This would also ensure that we would have access to email/internet.

These days, there are a number of options for finding travel accommodations available out there now. I won’t list them all, but the ones I ended up using were AirBnb.com and Booking.com. I used AirBnb the most (since the rooms listed there tended to be cheaper), but… as they say, you do end up with what you pay for, and following is a not-so-brief rundown of the experience, the good and the bad.

First of all, signing up is a breeze. You have to provide your contact details (email, phone number at least, picture of your passport for some accommodations). All of it is automated, and didn’t take me more than a few minutes (even registering passport). Note that you don’t HAVE to register your passport, but some BnB have that requirement before they’ll allow you to make a reservation with them, which is understandable as hotels do the same.

Likewise, it’s also very easy to find accommodations. You specify your destination, you set your budget and other criteria, and you’ll get a whole slew of results to choose from. You will often get accommodations that are conveniently located to major sites at lower prices than typical hotels. The downside is that since these BnB are typically privately owned residences, you don’t really know what a place is like until you’ve actually arrived. Sure, you do have user reviews, but those can vary widely because what seems fine for, say, a single backpacker would not necessarily be fine for a couple or family. (more on that later)

Another thing to consider is communication between yourself and the hosts of your selected BnB. Finding and booking a BnB is very quick and simple. You can do so on your computer through the browser, or via the AirBnB app on your mobile device. Both offer fairly slick user-friendly interfaces. It’s worth noting though, that you should be sure to list the DATES of your travel in order to get accurate prices. As with hotels, hosts can list different prices for different dates (ie peak season vs. off-season). Prices also vary from host to host for the number of additional people – prices for a single person may be cheap, but the cost for a 2nd or 3rd person can vary wildly. When I initially ran my searches, I was only looking at location (hoping to get a baseline of prices) and didn’t input number of travellers and the dates. So when I finally started the booking process, I wondered why the final costs were so far off from my initial estimates!

The final thing to be aware of is checking a host’s cancellation policy. These also vary, from the flexible to super strict. Ideally you want to avoid the strict and above levels. With those, once you book, you only get a 50% refund if you cancel – up till 1 week before. If you cancel less than 1 week before your scheduled arrival date, you get nothing back. I understand that this is for the protection of the host, but still rather inconvenient, especially if there’s a chance your travel dates might change. So – look for hosts offering “flexible” or “moderate” cancellation policies if you can.

A host’s communication capability is also something that is difficult to gauge on AirBnB. Remember, these are folks in different countries, where English may not be a first or even 2nd language. In my case, I tried to get in touch with one of the hosts in Prague I had booked with (who had a “strict” cancellation policy) because I needed to adjust (or “alter” in AirBnB terminology) my booking dates. I wasn’t trying to cancel, just shift the dates forward by 1 day. Even though the listing calendar showed that date as available, I had a dickens of a time trying to get this communicated across and in fact, after several back-and-forth emails, he simply stopped responding to me 2 weeks before our travel!

This was very stressful because a) I couldn’t cancel outright without losing 50% of the total fees, and b) it also meant that we didn’t have a place to stay for the first night! Unfortunately, AirBnB customer support was not… supportive. I got a canned response when I asked them for assistance, but then didn’t hear back from them until AFTER the trip. In the end, I booked another accommodation for the first night, this time via Booking.com, so all went well. In fact, after my arrival and talking with the AirBnb host face-to-face, we managed to work things out .

This underscores the main difference (for me) between AirBnB and Booking.com. AirBnb (usually) offers cheaper prices, and more choices in terms of location (some hosts live REALLY close to major attractions). However, you have a higher risk of encountering communication difficulties and lack of customer support. Booking.com on the other hand, allows nearly trouble-free cancellation up until 24 hours before check-in, and communication appears to be more reliable. Of course, you do have to pay more for this. So it’s a trade-off.

Would I use AirBnb in the future again? Probably. Next time though, I will be much more mindful of a host’s cancellation policy (especially if there is ANY chance that my travel dates might change), and pay very close attention to user reviews. I know that reviews may not necessarily be “accurate” (there’s a dual feedback process whereby hosts also review travelers, which rather “encourages” positive reviews of each other), but it’s still worth going through and observing if there are any negative patterns that come up. AirBnb seems to have a lot of potential, and I would say is particularly suited for single travelers, backpackers, or people who just need a place to crash at night and don’t necessarily care about amenities or environs. Plus, you may get some great locations. Of course, you could also PAY more.. but then there’s less value when compared to a site like Booking.com which offers more peace of mind.

Hmm… this post has turned into a review of AirBnb, hasn’t it? I’ll go back to the other preparations we did for our Europe trip in my next post.

P.S. AirBnB contacted me apologizing about the delay in support, saying that they had a large backlog and that it wasn’t usual for them to be that slow when responding. If others have had experiences with AirBnb customer support, I’d be curious to hear about it!


A visit to Europe – part 1 of… probably many

I rather wish I’d followed up on my original goal of writing a little each day during our trip to Europe. As it is, I only started writing on the first day… and nothing more after that. It was just too hectic, and we were so exhausted at the end of the day that staying awake to write was out of the question. So what comes will be based primarily on memory… which I confess is not always the sharpest. Oh well. Perhaps some of this will be interesting to read, or of use to other travellers.

The Start (Planning)

It’s hard to believe that the trip is over, particularly since we started thinking about it over 6 months ago. S and I had realized that we both had a significant amount of airline mileage that was due to expire, and needed to figure out quickly what to do with them. Luckily, one is able to book a flight up to several months in the future – the booking just needs to be made BEFORE the mileage expires. So though our mileage was due to expire in December, we decided to plan a trip around the “golden week” period in Japan, where we’d be able to combine a number of national holidays with my regular paid holiday at work, for an extended vacation. Total time off? THREE WEEKS. I’ve never taken that much time off from work since I finished university! You can imagine I was pretty psyched 🙂

Since I’d never been to Europe before, it was high on my bucket list, and since neither of us had been to Italy, our destination was easily settled. We also decided to toss in a quick trip to Prague since… why not? It sounded cool, and images of the city online looked like it would be a pleasant/easy start to a Europe trip. So we quickly decided – 3 days in Prague, and 2.5 weeks in Italy. That was the easy part.

Much harder was figuring out exactly how much time we would spend where. Three days here? Two days there? Another two days here, or maybe three days?
Even though we already knew we wanted to spend most of our time in Italy, there are just so many places IN Italy that we wanted to see. The gondolas in Venice, Michelangelo’s statue of David in Florence, the seaside cliffs of Cinque Terre, the hilltowns of Tuscany, and more! 2.5 weeks is no where near enough to see Italy. However, we tried cramming in as many locations as we could (which, ultimately, we ended up regretting somewhat), and our final schedule looked like this:

  • Prague: 3 days, 4 nights
  • Venice: 2 days, 3 nights
  • Cinque Terre: half day, full day, and 2 nights
  • Florence: 2 days, 3 nights
  • Siena: 1 afternoon, 1 night
  • Agriturismo in Tuscany area: half day, full day, and 2 nights
  • Rome: 3 days, 4 nights

We also squeezed in the following side/day trips:
1 afternoon in Vienna (during a long layover between our flight from Prague to Venice)
1 afternoon in Pisa (when we were traveling from Cinque Terre to Florence)

As you can see, we hit a lot of places in just 3 weeks! Though it was nice to see/experience each new destination, it was also extremely tiring having to shuffle luggage around, catching the trains/buses/flights, juggling accommodations, etc. In the end, I think we would have found it more relaxing/less stressful if we’d just stuck to, say, 4 places instead of 7. Or better yet, I wish we’d had more time off! You could easily spend a couple months exploring Italy alone. For example, we never hit Milan, or Naples, or Sicily, or Sardegna, etc. Sadly, work won’t let me take that much time off – I think I was extremely lucky to have been able to take off 3 whole weeks as it was.

After much discussion, our destinations were set – it was now time to start planning where we’d stay, what we’d see, and of course let’s not forget – what to eat 😉