Fara and I have just completed the first week of our big trip. We had a blast in Stockholm; going to museums, meeting new friends and exploring the city. Fara has promised she will write a trip report for Stockholm. So in the mean time, I thought I’d take some time to jot down some things we’ve learned so far.
Old habits are hard to break
Traveling excites us. We love to explore new things, especially by sampling the local cuisine. There very rarely is any kind of preconceived plan of when or where we will find a meal during the day. Instead, we tend to go about our day and then stop where ever it is that we get hungry. Unfortunately this “plan” is fraught with peril if hunger takes over in an area catering to tourists. The meal is likely to be: a) not very good, b) overpriced, or c) both. Luckily for us, Fara came to the rescue with a new app on her iPhone called Cool Cousin. Think Yelp!, but with vetted reviewers that curate their own list of recommendations. We used it three different times in Stockholm and each time we came away with a good recommendation (not always the least touristy or the least expensive, but always a good experience). One thing we noticed was that due to the small number of reviewers it is possible to find one that has similar tastes to us and be more confident that future recommendations will be more likely to be good (all three recommendations were given by the same reviewer). We have only used the app so far in Stockholm and it is currently only available on iPhone and on the web so your mileage may vary.
Why is this a hard habit to break? Keeping in mind our budget, it is going to become increasingly important for us to map out our food plans prior to setting off to explore an area. Figuring out what restaurants are there before we take off for the day will keep us from having to use last minute recommendations and therefore be at the mercy of what is available. One of our goals is to try dishes that are unique to each area and finding good (and preferably inexpensive) examples will take some planning.
Mifi is a godsend (and a trap)
Sometimes it is hard to remember a time when the internet wasn’t available 24/7 in the palm of your hand. So making sure we had connectivity while we are traveling is something I extensively researched. I’ve been using Google Project Fi on my Nexus 5x for a little over a year now and I love it. I rarely go much over 1GB of data per month, so it is by far the cheapest option. It also has the added bonus that international texting is free and data outside of the US is the same $10/GB. Calling while roaming can get expensive ($0.20/min on cellular, cheaper on wifi), but there should rarely be any need to use it. So I’m covered.
Fara on the other hand is a die-hard iPhone fan, making the Google route out of the question. T-Mobile has a similar international data plan (in fact Google piggy backs off of it), but their basic cell plan was more than we wanted to spend. So the decision was made that Fara would drop her cell plan and move her mobile number to Google Voice. Texting and voicemail will still work, but calling directly will have to go through my phone.
What is an intrepid couple to do? We have five internet capable devices (my Nexus and laptop, Fara’s iPhone, iPad and Kindle), but currently only one internet connection. In the past, we’ve purchased pay as you go sim cards for our unlocked phones. This can be problematic since the sim is typically only good for one country and each new sim will likely need an update to the APN profile on the phone. Unfortunately, this only solves the internet on the phone problem. To give connectivity to the non-cellular devices, a phone would need to enable its wifi hotspot which will quickly drain the phone battery.
This brings us to the mifi option. We were first exposed to the wonders of mifi while in Iceland. One of our fellow travelers purchased it as an add-on to her rental car. One cellular device allows multiple wifi connections to the internet. I was able to purchace an unlocked Huawei E5770s off Amazon and then paired it with a data only sim linked to my Project Fi account. So we pay the same $10/GB that I do for my cell phone and it works in 135 countries around the world.
I must warn you that here might be dragons. Our initial experience with the mifi has been an ongoing experiment with how to keep our data usage from getting out of control. After the first two days, we racked up 2.5GB of data used (street price, $25). We’re still working on identifying the culprit, but we’ve narrowed it down to the iPhone being on wifi and thinking it has a nice, fast and unlimited connection to the internet. It is easy to configure apps to throttle their usage when on a cellular network, but no such check is possible for wifi. A quick internet search confirmed that others have experienced similar issues. As an interim solution, we only use the mifi when we need it instead of having an “always on” cellular alternative like I intended. If it pencils out to be better, finding a local unlimited data only sim could be the final solution, using the Project Fi sim to fill in the gaps.
The City Pass is for tourists (finding our balance between being a tourist and slow travel)
The City Pass is a discount card purchased for a set number of consecutive days (as short as one day, I’ve seen it as long as 5 days). The pass gives a budget minded tourist free access to various museums and tours, discounts on meals or shopping, and use of the public transportation system. We’ve occasionally purchased them after making sure enough of the sites we wanted to see covered the cost of the pass. Sometimes the benefit isn’t as easy to value as the cost of an entrance fee. When we visited Paris for our honeymoon, it not only gave you entry to the Louvre Museum, but it also allowed you to enter through the group entry saving a lot of time that would have otherwise been spent waiting in line (NOTE: this was in 2005, no idea if it is still the case).
While planning our trip to Stockholm, I looked into the Stockholm Pass. We were going to be there at least 7 days, so I settled on the 5-day pass which also gave us two 72-hour metro tickets each (6 days total). That along with free entry to the sites I thought we’d go to put us well ahead of the game in value for the purchase price of the pass.
What I didn’t plan on was how much putting an emphasis on slow travel would affect our use (and resulting value) of the pass. We didn’t get up each morning with the burning desire to see as much as we could that day. Instead, we took our time getting to know the area we were staying in and meeting the people who lived there. As a result, we barely used the pass at all. We did get our money’s worth, but just barely (the pass cost about $375 and by my last tally we only used about $425 of the possible $2k value out of it). What made us feel a bit uneasy about the whole experience was that the last day of the pass we were making decisions of what to do based solely on whether it was something we would have to pay for without the pass regardless of how high on our list it was. We now recognize that slow traveling our way through the world means we need to add that intangible factor into the value proposition of any future tourist centered deal we come across.
10 lbs makes all the difference in the world
If you’ve been following Fara’s posts on the Can Do Latitude Facebook page, you’ve witnessed our struggles with keeping the weight of our luggage in check. We’ve been pushing the limits of the 50 lb max for airline checked bags through the entire “pre-trip” portion of the adventure in Southern California. At the time we took off from LAX, Fara and I had pared down our checked bags to 49 and 46 lbs respectively. I thought all was fine and good until we collected our bags in Stockholm and proceeded to make our way to the Airbnb we were renting for the week. We were taking public transportation which consisted of walking the length of the airport to find out that the commuter rail at the airport station was not included with our metro passes, so we then had to take a bus to the commuter rail stop that was covered by the pass, take that train to the city center where we boarded a local train out to the suburbs to where our Airbnb was, then finally had a 2 block walk to the apartment. All of this while lugging our overstuffed carry-ons as well as the two checked bags (Fara’s on rollers and mine slung over my shoulder). Many tears were shed during this trek, good thing Fara was there to help pick up the pieces.
Another purge of “unnecessary stuff” from our luggage was necessary. This time it was my turn to do some deep cuts. Since we are planning to do laundry once a week, I was able to pare down my clothes a bit. Carrying around a winter jacket was redundant with creative layering of other clothes in the bag. Finally the big savings was in the decision that my beloved Sonicare toothbrush wasn’t worth its weight in anything. Not only did I need the handle and brush heads, but also a charger AND a voltage converter because it is the only electronic device we have that can’t run on European voltage (220v). All in all, we shipped over 15 lbs of “stuff” to our friends in Ireland that we’ll be visiting in a few months. Just in case we were wrong about any of it being unnecessary. My checked bag dropped to about 35 lbs and is now much more manageable for schlepping through airports and train stations.