December 17 2014

Hotel vs. Vacation Apartment Rental – Pros and Cons

Posts from this trip:

Unless I’m visiting family or staying with friends, when I travel hotels are my lodging of choice.

Every choice has its pros and cons, but I’m not a B&B person and I’m too old for hostels (and, truthfully, adept enough at finding deals and earning points that I can stay in nice hotels for less than most people pay for hostels).

However, for my recent two-month stay in Buenos Aires I decided to be brave. After staying in a hotel the first month, I rented a furnished apartment for the second.

All photos in this post are of the actual unit I rented.

Pano

In the end it was an okay experience, but there are definitely differences between hotels and short-term apartment rentals.

 

The case for apartments

Probably the most salient difference is apartments afford more space. Instead of a mere hotel room, most apartments – even small studio units – have at least a kitchenette, a dining area, and distinct living and sleeping areas.

If you’re traveling solo or with just your significant other that might not be a big deal. But when you’re an entire family or a group of friends, you’d normally need multiple hotel rooms to achieve the same level of comfort space-wise. And splitting into multiple rooms might not even be practical with young children.

The unit I rented was a studio in a great location (Recoleta) and priced at $65 on a nightly basis, $395 weekly, or $1,000 monthly. Since I rented for a month my per-night cost worked out to about $33. That’s cheaper than a comparable-quality hotel yet gave me double the amount of space.

Even the $65 nightly rate is still decent, albeit not a significant savings over a hotel of similar caliber. (Hotels in Buenos Aires are not expensive.)

If you like to cook when you travel then the kitchen would be another big plus. Though I only cooked there once (and even that one time was unnecessary), I definitely appreciated the refrigerator and microwave.

Also, apartments usually have a washer and dryer, or at least a common laundry facility. Very convenient if you’re traveling with kids or for a long time.

 

The case for hotels

A common complaint about hotel chains is that properties are large and impersonal. But in my view that’s not all bad.

Having a large property affords economies of scale that allow for certain amenities smaller operations can’t cost-efficiently provide: room service, 24-hour maintenance, on-call housekeeping, etc.

Even though I was only in the Buenos Aires apartment for four weeks, I had several unpleasant incidents. In a hotel they would’ve been minor inconveniences (if not totally benign), but since they occurred in an apartment they were moderate to major headaches.

First, I got locked out of the safe. One day the batteries simply died and the door wouldn’t open (why do they design these things with the battery cage inside the door?).

Safe
The offending safe

Of course with my impeccable timing it happened on the Friday night before a big national holiday on Monday. That meant the maintenance person was off until Tuesday.

Problem was, I did not have enough cash to last until Tuesday. I only carry what I need when I’m out and about, so I only had enough cash on me for a day or two. The rest of my cash and all but one of my credit cards were in the safe. I would not have starved as I had the one credit card, but in Argentina when you pay by credit card things can cost literally 50% more (which is another post for another day).

The rental agency did send someone to try and open the safe on Saturday – actually they sent two different people at two different times. Neither succeeded, and they told me they’d need to locate the person who held the physical key to the box…and they didn’t think they could reach him until Tuesday. I argued vociferously against waiting that long, but in the end they could only do what they could do.

I mean, only one guy has a key? And they can’t reach him for three days? What do they do if the guy gets hit by a bus, or up and quits in a disgruntled manner, or simply misplaces the key?

Or…you know…a renter gets locked out of the safe over a holiday weekend…

Safes can die in hotels too, but in a reputable hotel with on-site maintenance the issue would not have dragged on for days. It likely would have been resolved on the spot.

As is, the incident was a moderate headache. I not only feared running out of cash, but was stuck at the apartment for most of that Saturday awaiting two different people at two different times. I was not about to let random maintenance people access the contents of the safe without me present. (Visitors to Argentina use a lot of cash as, again, it’s not economical to use credit or ATM cards there. Among other valuables, I had a significant amount of cash in the safe.)

But it could have been much worse. If it happened the day before I was scheduled to go home, I would have missed my flight since my passport was in the safe (along with everything else I would not have wanted to leave behind: my phone, tablet, cash, credit cards, and some jewelry). Since it took days for this to resolve, I might have been delayed several days – potentially missing business meetings or other important engagements on the other end.

And it would’ve been excruciating if my laptop had been in the safe (as it normally is when I leave for dinner). It was a fluke that I’d left the laptop out that night. With my phone and tablet already locked up, it would’ve been intolerable having none of my communication devices – not only to stay in touch with friends and family (and the outside world in general), but to deal with the owners and rental agency on the matter.

Bath

Then there is the time the electricity went out…and stayed out for six solid hours. It started in the afternoon (which greatly disrupted my work day) and continued into the evening (when there isn’t natural light to compensate). If I hadn’t had a flashlight on me, it would’ve been unsafe to even leave the apartment. Being on the seventh floor, leaving required navigating as many flights of stairs each way – in darkness as the elevator was out.

It was not the owner’s fault (the blackout was building-wide) but I believe a decent hotel would have (1) worked with greater urgency to fix the problem, (2) provided at least minimal emergency lighting, and/or (3) somehow compensated guests for the inconvenience.

Here are a few other negatives gleaned from this experience. I relay them not to be petty, but to illustrate the point of this post.

  • There was no smoke detector (that I could see) in the apartment. I realize I was not in the US and different countries have different codes, but I believe in a reputable hotel this would not have been absent.
  • There was no dead bolt on the door – something I have never seen a hotel room lack. While the building had seemingly good security, you still want a latch in the unit to prevent getting walked in on – by maintenance or the housekeeper or whatever – when you’re there. Even if they knock first you might not hear the knock if you’re in the shower or otherwise indisposed (which is the worst time to be intruded upon in the first place). In my case this wasn’t a big deal as I just bought a rubber door stop for a few dollars, but (1) a dead bolt would’ve been standard in a hotel, and (2) most people don’t want to spend precious vacation time hunting down a store that sells door stops.
  • The hair dryer died one day and I had to wait until the next day for another. Although this didn’t kill me, in a hotel I would’ve received a replacement in minutes and would not have had to go to bed with damp hair.
  • I am not sure if it was just my particular rental, but they only provided a few days’ worth of toiletries and paper products even though I paid for a month-long stay. Again, this was not a big deal for me in practice (there was a grocery store nearby and I just bought supplies during my grocery runs), but if I were only staying a few days and didn’t plan on grocery shopping I would’ve been annoyed having to spend precious vacation time hunting down basic supplies a hotel would have provided.

Finally, the rental agency required a security deposit equal to two weeks rent. Although I did not consider that unreasonable, it was another negative versus hotels. Hotels may hold your credit card number for damage, but they don’t actually charge you unless there is damage. And even if they did charge your card without a valid case, you could dispute the transaction with your credit card company.

In contrast, I had to pay the apartment rental agency a security deposit in real money upfront – and simply hope they’d return it at the end. Few rental agencies in Buenos Aires accept credit cards, and those that do charge significant fees for the privilege (again, the “blue rate” issue). Most agencies require the deposit by wire transfer, but the one I worked with at least accepted PayPal. While PayPal does offer dispute resolution services, I believe they are not nearly as robust as the consumer protections of a credit card.

If the agency did not refund my security deposit, for whatever reason, I did not see much practical recourse. I mean, I am not going to spend time and resources returning to Argentina to sue them in small claims court (or whatever it’s called there, assuming they even have it) and attempt to present a case in my third language. I doubt it would succeed, and even if it did I’m certain the cost and effort of pursuing the refund would exceed the refund amount itself.

The rental agency I used stated on its website that security deposits are refunded “at checkout.” Well, the person who came to check me out said she knew nothing about security deposits as they’re handled at the main office. Several days after checkout I still had not received my refund and had to e-mail them to request it.

Now, I am anal retentive and had made a note to follow up if my deposit weren’t returned. But not everyone is as obsessive. Many people, on returning from vacation, go right back to work and are immediately swamped trying to catch up on everything that piled up in their absence. I can totally see how someone might lose their deposit because they simply forgot to follow up.

I had a good experience with this rental agency overall, so I give them the benefit of the doubt and assume it was an oversight rather than an intentionally dishonest act. At this writing I am still awaiting my refund, but they assure me it has been processed and should arrive in 48 hours. If it doesn’t, I will update this post. [Update: refund received!]

 

The verdict

None of the “cons” of an apartment was horrible (though the safe box situation had the potential to be). But I did not think the “pros” outweighed them either.

In the final analysis, it comes down to a matter of personal preferences and trip circumstances. For me personally, I’m unlikely to consider an apartment again unless I were staying at least three weeks, or with a big enough group, or could realize significant cost savings. There were just too many annoying inconveniences.

I think problems such as these are not isolated to this particular apartment. Rather, I believe they represent a systematic difference between hotels and apartments. I think that because:

  • I did not rent some dump in the ghetto. It was a nice unit in a modern building with a 24-hour doorman located in one of the most desirable parts of down. Yet it still had all these problems.
  • The rental agency I worked with was good overall (the only issue I ever had with them was the security deposit, as described above). In some cases, I felt they went above and beyond to provide good service. Yet I still ended up with a seemingly-endless string of issues.

 

Tips

I rented this apartment directly from a local rental agency, but I also considered Airbnb (and similar services HomeAway and FlipKey). While Airbnb has other disadvantages, I do like that it doesn’t require an upfront security deposit (like a hotel, it only charges your card if there is damage at checkout). Airbnb also does not release the rent to your host until 24 hours after check-in, whereas through a traditional agency you typically have to pay the full amount directly at check-in.

Remember, when you rent through a traditional agency, the agent does not work for you – it works for the owner. When you book through Airbnb or the like, at least the service is (supposedly) impartial.

Bedroom

Also, unlike a hotel where you can cancel your reservation without penalty (assuming you booked a refundable rate), most apartment rentals require a deposit to hold the unit (which you forfeit if you cancel). In my case the deposit was substantial. I did not intend to cancel, but sometimes life derails your plans. If I had gotten sick or had a family emergency or faced some other situation what prevented the trip, I would have lost the deposit.

My way around that was to add trip cancellation coverage to my travel insurance policy. If my trip were canceled, I could file an insurance claim to recover prepaid lodging expenses. The claim would only be valid if I canceled for a covered reason, but that is better than no coverage at all.

If you are facing the hotel-or-apartment debate, I hope my experience provides a useful data point. If you have questions feel free to leave a comment or shoot me a note!

July 26 2014

Thoughts on Air Travel Safety

Regular readers (hi mom and dad!) may have noticed things were quiet here this past week. One reason is logistical as I was occupied by a work project. But the more relevant reason is that my capacity to think about travel was consumed by the aviation tragedies of the past week. Posting about some airfare sale or whatever just felt trivial in light of such calamity.

First and foremost, my thoughts and condolences to those directly affected. Malaysia Airlines, TransAsia Airways, Air Algerie – any one of these incidents alone is a tragedy and catastrophe. All three in a week is beyond devastating.

I objectively know that commercial air travel is, statistically speaking, exceedingly safe. Indeed, many of the week’s reports cite aviation experts attesting to that fact, and as many offer statistical data to support it.

So I won’t rehash the stats here, but rather share my personal, subjective reasons for considering air travel safer than any other mode of transport.

View from Above
One of my favorite views

Trained pilots

I live in a car-crazy city; it is simply not practical to go about life here without driving every day. Yet every time I get in a car, whether as a driver or passenger, I’m nervous.

I can be the most cautious, defensive driver ever – but I still can’t control the fact I share the road with all kinds of loons. Drivers who are drunk, texting (even though it’s technically illegal), applying makeup, otherwise distracted, or simply reckless. Heck, I myself am guilty of some of these occasionally.

In fact, people don’t even need a license to get behind the wheel. (Legally, yes. Logistically, no.)

When flying, the pilots operating your aircraft are specifically trained to fly it safely. Further, the pilots of every other plane up there are trained as well. In ground travel you share the road with the aforementioned loons, but at 30,000 feet everyone piloting is trained and screened.

Even the amount of time off a pilot is to have before flying is regulated, which is more than can be said of surgeons and other professionals whose job is (or should be) equally focused on preserving life.

And note the plural noun – pilots. On commercial flights there is not only a captain but also a first officer at the controls. You don’t have that kind of “back-up” in a car or even most other mass transportation such as a bus or train.

Regular maintenance and safety inspections

I have seen (or heard) cars on the road with brakes so worn they sound as if they’re grinding metal at each stop. I know someone (coincidentally, a doctor) who put 60,000 miles on a car without changing the oil because she didn’t know it was something you’re supposed to do. Again, you are sharing the road with these braniacs (and their poorly-maintained cars) when you drive.

In contrast, I am confident there is a long list of maintenance work that commercial aircraft undergo regularly and an equally comprehensive list of pre-flight safety inspections that occur before every commercial flight takes off.

Even non-mechanical things are checked – the weather, for example.

I’ve had many flights delayed or cancelled for mechanical or weather reasons, and when it happens I try to remember that inconvenience is a relatively small price to pay for safety.

Conclusion

None of these things guarantees a perfect experience (as the tragedies of this past week remind us), but in the big picture I still consider commercial air travel exceedingly safe compared to the alternatives.

As I wrote in a prior post on travel safety tips, everything in life has risk – from bungee jumping to driving your kids to school to merely sitting on the couch. It’s not a matter of avoiding risk (which is impossible because everything has risk), but of managing risk well.

July 17 2014

The Nile is More Than Just a River

The Nile is the world’s longest river, flowing for approximately 4,200 miles and serving as a water source to eleven countries.

By both measurements, it easily beats the Amazon (~3,900 miles, 7 countries), the Yangtze (~3,800 miles, one country – albeit a massive one), and the Mississippi (~3,800 miles, 2 countries).

To ancient Egypt it was more than just a river; it was a primary source of sustenance. Although bordered by several large bodies of water – the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Suez, and the Gulf of Aqaba – Egypt is mostly arid desert. (Hint: avoid visiting at the peak of summer.)

The Nile creates a fertile green valley amid that great expanse of desert. Without it, one wonders if ancient Egypt could have risen to its heights. Egypt’s position was based on agricultural wealth, which in turn was attributed to the river.

In my infinite wisdom, I did visit at the peak of summer. But the 115-degree weather was survivable, and the highlight of my 12-day trip was sailing the Nile for four nights aboard the Sanctuary Sun Boat IV.

Sun Boat IV Outdoor Dining Room
Outdoor dining room on the Sun Boat IV

The boat itself was very nice – of the 200 or so that regularly cruise the Nile, Sanctuary’s four boats are among the most luxurious. But the sights along the way were spectacular. Indeed, while seeing the Pyramids was the motivation behind the trip, these sights further south left a greater impression.

That structures built in 2,000 BC (meaning they are 4,000 years old!) are still standing at all is impressive. That some are nearly unblemished is astounding. You can still see not only intricately carved designs, but even the colors of some painted surfaces.

Sailing from Luxor to Aswan, here are some of the sights along the way.

Luxor

The Temple of Karnak – an enormous complex of halls, temples, and other structures built over a span of almost 2,000 years – is located on the east bank of the Nile near Luxor.

A series of ram-headed sphinxes lines the approach to the temple complex:

Ram-headed sphinxes at the Temple of Karnak
Ram-headed sphinxes at the Temple of Karnak

Perhaps Karnak’s best-known feature, the Great Hypostyle Hall:

The Great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak
The Great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak

Also on the east bank is the Temple of Luxor:

The Temple of Luxor at dusk
The Temple of Luxor at dusk

Several statues of Ramses II (AKA Ramses the Great) at the Temple of Luxor are well-preserved, offering a detailed look at the pharaoh’s features:

Ramses the Great at the Temple of Luxor
Ramses the Great

On the west bank lies the Necropolis of Thebes, where many of Egypt’s pharaohs (including Tutankhamun, AKA King Tut) were buried in the Valley of the Kings. There’s not much to see above ground:

The Necropolis of Thebes
Valley of the Kings

The action is in the tombs below, though unfortunately the semi-dark environment doesn’t photograph easily.

Inside the tombs of the Necropolis of Thebes
Wall carvings inside a tomb

Near the Valley of the Kings is the funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut, Egypt’s first female pharaoh:

The Temple of Hatshepsut
The Temple of Hatshepsut

These are the Colossi of Memnon, two enormous statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III designed to guard the entrance of his funerary temple (though little remains of the temple itself):

The Colossi of Memnon
The Colossi of Memnon

Dendera

The very well-preserved Temple of Hathor, goddess of love and joy, is near the small town of Dendera:

Inside the Temple of Hathor in  Dendera
Inside the Temple of Hathor

The ceiling was being cleaned at the time. In this picture, one side has been cleaned and the other hasn’t:

Ceiling of the Temple of Hathor in Dendera
Half-cleaned ceiling in the Temple of Hathor

Kom Ombo

The Greco-Roman temple at Kom Ombo is a double temple – it is one building containing two temples, each with its own entrance and chapel. One is dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile god; the other to Horus, the falcon god (and one of several sun gods).

The Greco-Roman temple at Kom Ombo
The double temple at Kom Ombo

Aswan

Near the city of Aswan (famous for its dams), the Island of Agilkia houses the Temple of Philae.

Because its original location, the Island of Philae, is now submerged, the temple was moved to Agilkia and reconstructed stone by stone.

The temple itself is fine (it’s actually very nice, but honestly I was templed-out at this point); however, the setting on an island in the Nile was by far my favorite temple setting of the whole trip.

The Nile River seen from Agilkia Island
The Nile River seen from Agilkia Island
Coffee break inside the Temple of Philae
Coffee break at the Temple of Philae?

Logistics note

My entire 12-day trip was booked with tour operator Abercrombie & Kent, which has an excellent reputation in Egypt. (The reputation is deserved, in my opinion.) At the time, in 2012, tourism in Egypt was extremely low as a result of the Arab Spring and the company offered rates that probably only allowed it to break even – at best. (I have no inside information, I’m only speculating.)

While I have not seen rates so appealing since, I would say the rates on the company’s website as of this writing are still reasonable for what you get – a well-executed tour with a luxury operator.

As for safety, I can only offer my personal perspective which is that I never felt unsafe during my visit despite the political circumstances. (A&K provided armed guards who traveled with us, which I appreciated but considered an abundance of caution rather than a necessity.)

Perhaps the news coverage we receive in the United States is hyped, perhaps I just lucked out that nothing happened the days I was there, perhaps the tour operator did a good job of insulating its clients from the “real world,” and perhaps it’s other things that don’t occur to me. But I can definitely say I had a great visit and never once felt threatened.

Better yet, when you go while no one else is going you get the sights almost to yourself. I have heard that on an average day several hundred tour buses visit the Pyramids of Giza. I counted five the day I visited. Granted, I wasn’t there the entire day, but one can reasonably infer that the volume of tourism was greatly diminished.

And I was very pleased to have gotten a 5-star, professionally organized tour at a vastly reduced cost – probably less than half of what I could have arranged on my own for comparable accommodations (even with my deal-scrounging habits).

With that, let me leave you with some pictures of life along the Nile as seen while sailing.

Life along the Nile (1)

Life along the Nile (2)

Life along the Nile (3)

Life along the Nile (4)

June 12 2014

Thoughts on Amsterdam from a First-Time Visitor’s Perspective

Trip report index:

 

Having never been, I didn’t know what to expect of Amsterdam.

On one hand the city is known for gorgeous architecture – lovely buildings woven between graceful canals – and aptly nicknamed Venice of the North.

On the other it’s a place where drugs are (sort of) legal and prostitution is not only legal but prominently displayed.

Indeed both “faces” of Amsterdam are prominent. But the seedy side is easily avoided if desired. You can just forgo visiting the Red Light District and spend your trip happily oblivious to much of the city’s…what’s the word – “alternative?” – culture.

But to forgo the alternative side is to miss a huge part of what makes Amsterdam…Amsterdam. As I write below, the Red Light District is a not-to-be-missed part of the experience.

With that, here are thoughts on Amsterdam from this first-time visitor’s perspective.

1
One of the city’s many canals

 

The Anne Frank House is riveting

Even if you’re not deeply interested in the historical aspects, it’s impossible to visit without being moved. Since I am interested in the history, I was transfixed.

During the self-guided tour you can walk through the actual rooms that served as home and hiding place to three families for over two years during the Nazi occupation. While the rooms are now unfurnished, many traces of life in the Secret Annex remain – including walls covered with pictures of celebrities pasted there by the diarist herself.

In addition to the actual diary, also on display are original manuscripts and correspondence written by Anne Frank and others before and during their time in hiding.

Most heartbreaking to me was a large photo of the family’s patriarch and the house’s sole Holocaust survivor, Otto Frank, returning to the annex decades later. While the photo can be found online, seeing the life-sized version in the house itself can make one quite emotional; the expression on Mr. Frank’s face is now indelible in my mind. (When you see it, you will understand.)

Unfortunately photos are not allowed inside, but one of the exterior is included in my photo essay.

Tips:

  • Be sure to watch all of the videos sprinkled throughout the tour. There are many but each is short and well done.
  • In one of the rooms there is a trap door leading to the attic. While you can’t climb up, strategically-placed mirrors afford an almost-panoramic view into the space. Many visitors seemed to miss it, but the attic is definitely worth taking a good look into.
  • Pre-buy tickets online if possible and as soon as your plans are set (online tickets often sell out). The on-site ticket line can get very long and is exposed to the elements. (A 45-minute wait in the rain isn’t fun.) With an advance ticket, I went right in through a designated, albeit hard to find, door (it’s to the left of the main entrance and has a button for you to ring).
  • There is a small café inside the museum. While the food selection is limited, the setting is very nice. The dining room is a glass-walled sunroom and looks out onto one of the main canals, the Prinsengracht (“Prince’s Canal”). Definitely worth sitting down for a coffee or snack before moving on with your agenda.

The Rijksmuseum is enormous; the Van Gogh is more manageable

Amsterdam’s three main museums – the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and Stedelijk Museum – are conveniently clustered around the Museumplein (“Museum Square”). Not being a big museum person, I skipped the Stedelijk and made only short visits to the other two.

I hit up the Van Gogh first and made a beeline for my favorite Van Gogh work, The Potato Eaters. Thankfully it wasn’t swarmed with people so I could linger and admire for a bit before moving on.

After a quick round to see other pieces – Sunflowers and Bedroom in Arles among them – I moved on to the Rijks.

The Rijks is huge. I again just made a beeline for the dozen or so specific works I wanted to see, but even then I was in there well over an hour.

As anticipated, Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Night Watch was swarmed – and quite vigilantly guarded by several museum staff. It is a mesmerizing work and I’m glad I had put it as the very first item on my list of things to see at the Rijks. Halfway through my list, I was museum’d-out and decided to forgo the remainder in favor of lunch.

If you are a museum person, you could probably spend days there and still not feel as if you savored everything. With 8,000 works on display (and a collection exceeding one million works), I’m not sure how one could really see even a sizable portion of it in a day.

Rijks
Inside the Rijksmuseum

Tips:

  • Advance tickets to all three museums can be purchased online. Not wanting to commit to pre-purchasing tickets, I skipped that step. Fortunately, the hotel’s concierge had them on hand so I bought tickets from him the morning of my visit. There was no markup, I avoided ticket lines at the box office, and I earned points by putting the tickets on my hotel bill.
  • If you plan to do a lot of sightseeing, there are a couple of bundled-ticket options to consider: the Museumkaart and the I Amsterdam Card. Neither made sense for my short trip, but the cards cover a lot of attractions and would be a good value if well used. (There’s much overlap so see which card is a better fit with your plans and just buy one or the other.)

The Red Light District felt totally safe…at least to me

Amsterdam actually has several red light districts, but the famous one is in the city center just a few blocks from Central Station.

I debated whether to go, but hotel staff assured me it was perfectly safe. Their only caution was to watch your bags as pickpockets work the area. I left my few valuables in the hotel safe and made the short walk to the district in the early evening.

Though I’m sure the vibe is much different late at night, in the early evening even families with young children are out sightseeing. (I am not suggesting it is an appropriate place to take young children to; merely saying I saw some while there.) However, I was advised against going after 10:00pm as the area gets “uncomfortable” after most tours leave.

On one hand it was sad, knowing what the area is about and seeing prostitutes clearly advertising their services. On the other hand, perhaps because the activity is not only legal but plainly visible, you almost feel as if it’s a “normal” job, like any other job.

In fact, even though the ladies put themselves on display for all to see, honestly I think there’s just as much skin to be seen on any given episode of The Bachelor (which I watch only for the travel 🙂 ).

Anyway, while I think it’s sad, this is a travel website so I’ll withhold political commentary.

From a purely travel-advice point of view, I would consider the RLD a must-see when visiting Amsterdam. It is part of the city’s character.

RLD
The Red Light District

 

The Houseboat Museum is nothing special

My visit to this tiny museum was purely opportunistic – it was a short walk from the Anne Frank House and since I was several hours ahead of schedule for the day I decided to pop in.

For a €3.75 fee, you basically get to go into a dark-ish houseboat, walk through its tiny rooms, and watch a short video about houseboats. If you have a particular interest in houseboat life you might find it interesting. Otherwise, you’re probably better off spending the time enjoying a stroll along the canal instead.

Houseboat Museum
Inside the Houseboat Museum

 

The public transportation system is confusing

When it comes to sense of direction, I’ll readily admit I’m not the crispiest chip in the bag. But when a city’s transit system confuses even the locals, I want to believe it’s more than just “user error” on my part.

For the life of me I could not figure out which platform I needed to wait on to catch the train from the airport to Central Station. I asked the people next to me – who turned out to be Amsterdam residents – and they were equally lost. Eventually we sorted it out, but not easily.

A day later, I was nearly crushed by a tram’s on-board gates.

To make a short story long, I didn’t have a tram ticket but intended to buy one on board. I even had exact change in hand. The tram arrived, the doors opened, and I got on…only to have two steel gates abruptly slam shut in front of me. Not wanting to remain trapped standing in the small space between the exterior doors and the gates while on a moving tram, I squeezed myself through and headed for a seat. Well that didn’t go over well with the conductor, who very loudly berated me.

I learned that if you don’t have an existing ticket you’re supposed to embark only through the door by the conductor so you can buy a ticket immediately. If someone without a ticket enters through another door the gates suddenly snap shut, presumably to prevent the person from trying to snag a free ride.

Okay, it was completely my mistake. And to be fair, perhaps there were instructions posted, but I can’t read Dutch (and I understand that that is my problem, not theirs). But I can totally see someone being injured from having heavy metal gates suddenly slam shut in front of them.

They scared the daylights out of me and missed my abdomen by mere centimeters. For a young child, whose head would be at the same height as an adult’s abdomen, getting hit could be very problematic. (I hope there’s a sensor to prevent them from actually slamming on a person and the sensor never, ever fails.)

Otherwise, the public transit challenges didn’t bother me much because…

…the best Amsterdam “experience” is simply walking around

Picturesque flower-lined canals, charming houseboats, stunning architecture, a highly walkable city center – all free to be enjoyed.

I chose walking over motorized transportation whenever possible, even if it meant taking twice as long (or longer) to reach my intended destination.

5

 

Finally, the city is compact enough to make even a short visit worthwhile

Given one more day on the ground I would have considered a day trip out of the city. But, much as I would have liked to have seen tulip fields and windmills, with only two full days I thought it best to focus on the city.

Even though my days started late (I’m not a morning person) and ended early (I worked in the evenings) I was still able to see everything I hoped to – without frantically running around. I didn’t see everything in the entire universe of Amsterdam sights, but certainly enough to not feel as if I missed out.

May 7 2014

Passport Lost or Stolen? How to Make it Suck Less.

Passport
My most important travel accessory

If you’ve had a passport lost or stolen while traveling, you’re probably all too familiar with the pain. As I wrote in the travel safety tips post, traveling is risky. But so is everything else in life, and it’s not a matter of whether risk is present (it always is) but of finding ways to lessen it.

I’d like to share tips for reducing the substantial cost and inconvenience of losing a passport.

But first, please read the following account of one couple’s experience with stolen passports. The story is provided by Tom Sheridan, author of Toms Port Guides.

I am reprinting the story with the author’s permission, but if you’re a cruise traveler I also recommend visiting his website which offers (free!) port guides.

Cost of losing your US passport in Europe
One of the most costly items to lose is your US Passport. Been there; done that. My wife’s purse was stolen with both passports the morning of our flight home from Zurich Switzerland to USA.

If you lose your passport on a Friday, you’ll need four days and ~$2200 to resume travel
The high cost is booking four days hotel on an urgent basis, traveling to the US embassy in another part of the country, paying for meals, and cost to rebook flights to the USA. Unless you happen to be in the city of the US embassy, you will need to travel to a different location in that country, go to the embassy on Monday AM, and will have new passports in 3-5 hours. Then you can book your plane back to USA for Tuesday.

Procedure to get a new US passport
The US Embassy will want a police report on theft of your passport. Because the theft occurred in a Zurich hotel, the manager helped me. He drove me to the police station and explained the situation in Swiss-German. The hotel manager used his influence with the police. They delivered the report to the hotel in an hour. I would have had a heck of a time on my own dealing with police that speak a different language and having no “influence” to get them to expedite preparation of the theft report.

There is one US embassy in each country. We lost passports in Zurich and had to travel to Bern to the US Embassy. We took a train.

[MyWanderlux editorial note: this incident occurred in Switzerland, where the embassy in Bern was indeed the only option. In (some) other countries the US has both embassy and consulate offices. If the consulate also offers emergency passport services (not all do) then that is another option.]

You can’t just walk up to a US embassy dragging your luggage past the Marine guards. Leave your luggage at a hotel. You will need passport photos. Get photos at a train station, but do not “cut” them to passport to size. The US uses a slightly larger photo than on European passports. The US Embassy complained my photos had been trimmed about 1/4 inch smaller than required, but finally accepted them.

You need information about your parents and family history to fill out the passport application form. I now keep that information plus photos of my passport, drivers license, birth certificate, credit cards, etc. in a password protected file on my computer. The file is also encrypted, password protected, and backed up to a server at www.carbonite.com so that I can access it from an internet connection anywhere in the world.

The embassy only accepted cash and a few credit cards. Fortunately, I had one of the cards they accepted. Two women at the embassy had lost all credit cards with their passports and only had enough cash to pay for one passport. Their plan was to take that passport to pick up $500 which had been wired to them; you can’t pick up wired money without a passport for identification. I charged both their passports on my credit card and they sent me the money when they got back to Colorado.

-Toms Port Guides

Doesn’t sound fun, does it?

With that, let me suggest steps you might take to make it suck less.

Keep an electronic (but secure) copy of your passport online

I keep a copy on a cloud server which can be accessed from any Internet connection in the world. Even if I’ve lost all my stuff (heaven forbid), hopefully the Internet will still be there.

If you’re not a “cloud person,” just email a copy to yourself on any email account you have web-based access to.

I also email a copy to a family member not traveling with me.

Hints:

  • Copy not only the first page (which shows your photo and passport number), but the subsequent pages. They contain phone numbers to call should you lose your passport in transit.
  • If you have a visa for the current trip, also copy that page.
  • While you’re at it, upload secure copies of all the other documents needed to apply for a replacement passport. The story above alludes to some of them, but things can always change so I suggest consulting the official website for the latest requirements. (For US citizens, it is the US Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs.)

Additionally, bring several paper copies

I make several paper copies to take with me while traveling. This has a couple of benefits:

  • If you need a replacement passport in a hurry, it’s much easier if you prove you had a passport in the first place. In some places, getting online isn’t always as easy as you’d hope.
  • For some activities (like making a large purchase, or renting a vehicle or sports equipment) you have to not only present a passport as ID, but let the vendor make a copy for their records. I don’t like strangers walking off with my passport (especially in certain parts of the world), even if they say they’re just going to the back room to make a copy, so I give them a pre-made copy instead.

Hints:

  • Diversify by storing the copies separately from your actual passport.
  • Further diversify by swapping copies with your traveling companions.
  • Color copies are more legible than black and white ones.
  • Again, copy not just the first page but subsequent pages as described above.

Carry an extra set of official passport photos

To get a new passport you need official passport photos. When you’re already frazzled, having to run around finding a place that will provide such photos is not ideal. Throw in a language barrier and unfamiliar surroundings and the stress multiplies.

And if your wallet was stolen with your passport, you have the added complication of lack of money.

Furthermore, as illustrated above, embassies can be picky. The photos you get in another country might not fit the requirements of your embassy.

So I suggest getting extra photos in advance to bring on trips. No need to even go out of your way — just get them from a store like CVS when you’re already there on a routine errand run.

Parting thoughts

As with everything in life, traveling has its pros and cons. The idea is to enjoy the pros while minimizing the cons, and I hope these tips are helpful.

Now, to prevent having your passport stolen in the first place, please see my general tips on travel safety.

Be well.