Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Traveling With A Fitness Tracker

 When I backpack around Europe I end up putting in a lot of miles walking all over cities and mountain trails. In the past I have always wondered after each trip just how many miles I had put in. I looked into getting a pedometer years back but just never got around to it. 


 So for the holiday season of 2014 I decided to gift myself a Garmin vívofit to keep track of my steps, calories, and monitor my sleep. 
Garmin vívofit

 I went with a Garmin because of my experience with their cycling computers and GPS products. I know the fitness trackers without GPS are not nearly as accurate as ones with GPS capabilities, but the features of the Garmin vívofit and the price made it very attractive. The accuracy is close enough to put me in the ballpark for distance traveled. 

Garmin has this to say:
Activity Tracking Accuracy
Garmin activity trackers are intended to be tools to provide you with information to encourage an active and healthy lifestyle. Garmin activity trackers rely on sensors that track your movement and other metrics. The data and information provided by these devices is intended to be a close estimation of your activity and metrics tracked, but may not be completely accurate, including step, sleep, distance, heart rate and calorie data. Garmin activity trackers are not medical devices, and the data provided by them is not intended to be utilized for medical purposes and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Garmin recommends you consult your doctor before engaging in any exercise routine. 

Another very attractive feature is the 1+ year battery life. As I write this up in July of 2016 I have yet to replace the batteries(video), though I plan on doing so before my next big trip. 

One can pick up the original Garmin vívofit on Amazon typically under $55 and less depending on band color. I recently upgraded my band after nearly wearing out the original one; I wear mine 24/7. 
Knowing how nice this Moretek band is I would have made the switch a long time back. 

Moretek Replacement Band 

Moretek Replacement Band
While traveling around Europe in 2015 I used my Garmin vívofit to keep track of my activity. I averaged a daily step count of about 17,000 with my biggest day being my last. I walked all over Paris that day only using my legs to get around. Walking from the Hotel Pullman Eiffel Tower where I was staying all the way up to Sacré-Cœur and back seeing all the main sights along the way. This was my biggest day.

As you can see by my chart from that day I put in some steps/miles.

Euro Trip '15 Totals:
Total Miles Walked/Hiked: 198.6
Total Steps Taken: 390,034
Biggest Day: 32,295 Steps, 16.0 Miles on last full day of trip (Paris) 
Only two days under 6 miles and that were the two days of flying to and from Europe. 

I did not pay attention to total miles until I got back stateside or else I would have put in a few more to break the 200 mile barrier. 

I am now looking at the Garmin vívosmart HR but for long term travel I will stick with my trusty Garmin vívofit to avoid having to deal with charging batteries while traveling. 

Do you travel with a fitness tracker? Have any daily records for steps and miles while traveling? 

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Staying In Hostels

 I am always surprised at how few of my friends, coworkers and acquaintances have stayed in a hostel. Even some of the ones who have traveled abroad multiple times still have yet to stay in one. 
Usually when talking about travel with a group of people here in the States I get the "you dare to stay in hostels?" line because of the movie Hostel. I know the premise of this movie but have yet to watch it. My guess is, the same people would probably not go into a swimming pool let alone the ocean after watching Jaws. The other comment I get is "aren't hostels for young backpackers?" which for most Americans it seems is the stereotype of those who stay in hostels. 

 Hostels are a great way to save money while traveling, instead of renting an entire room one is just renting a bed. This can cost as little as $10+/night and go up to $35+/night. For many people when they are traveling they only need a basic place to put their head down at night. The rest of the time they are out seeing the sights. Even here in the States hostels can be found in most of the major cities and tourist towns. In Europe they are all over the place. Some are really new and quite fancy, others can be very plane and rustic. Hosteling has changed a lot since I first started backpacking around Europe in 2005. 
My first hostel stay was in Amsterdam 2005 at the International Budget Hostel. Back then there was no WiFi and we were lucky if the hostel even had a computer hooked up to the internet for guests to use.
International Budget Hostel: Amsterdam Netherlands

 Some hostels and rooms will have million dollar views: 

Hostel Brikette: Positano, Italy
The Swiss Alps Retreat Chalet Martin: Gryon, Switzerland 

Other hostels, not so much:

Retro Hostel Shevchenko: Lviv, Ukraine
Hostel Ljubicica: Sarajevi, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Some will overlook embassies:

Overlooking The French Embassy
Midland Hostel: Bucharest, Romania
 Others will be in a former consulate's home:

Former Home Of The Consulate Of Venezuela
Embassie Hostel: Liverpool, England
Or in a former prison:
Hostel Celica: Ljubljana, Slovenia
One might even end up in a castle on a hilltop:

Burg Stahleck Castle: Bacharach, Germany 

There are a lot of hostels out there to pick from. Knowing which one to pick can be quite the task. I do most of my research and booking on HOSTELS.COM here you can find a listing of hostels in the places you are traveling to, read reviews, see pictures, find the location and book. Not all hostels will be found on here, but a good majority will. 

Some hostels have very specific hours of when you can check in and when the reception desk will be open. Most hostels these days have either a 24/7 reception desk or one that is open quite early and stays open late. Best to have the contact info for the hostel just in case you run into any problems, late train, late flight. That way you can update them with your new estimated arrival time. This is very important if the hostel has limited reception hours.
The people working the reception desk are the best source for local information. I always ask for a local map and have them circle where the nearest market/grocery store is and ask for suggestions on places for dinner and sights or attractions if I am not familiar with the city/area.   

Rooms range from dorm rooms with multiple beds accommodating both male and females to private rooms with single or multiple beds. Some will have an attached bathroom (en suite) and others will have a shared bathroom on the same floor. There are some hostels that have no mixed rooms, only male and female dorms. Most of the big hostels do offer female only dorm rooms. If you are traveling solo and want a private room you must pay for all beds that are in it. Hostels usually will have a private room for solo travelers, but they are limited. Usually there are more private rooms to accommodate two to four people that are traveling in a party.  

Depending on the type of room you booked there will be others staying with you. This also depends on the time of year too. I have stayed in 20+ bed rooms with every bunk occupied and I have stayed in a hostel where I am the only one in the entire place. 

Common sense and courtesy goes a long way when sharing a room with complete strangers. Introduce yourself and ask your roommates where they are from, been and going. That usually gets the ball rolling, most travelers love to talk about their travels.

Don't be surprised when you are staying in a hostel and a family with little kids walk into your room. Or an old timer that can tell you some great stories of what it was like backpacking around Europe in the 60's and 70's. 

Hostelling International Youth Hostel: Solothurn, Switzerland
Without a doubt you are going to share the room with a snorer, or you just might be that dreaded snorer. So make sure to pack some earplugs and if you are the dreaded snorer you might want to pack a few extra pairs to hand out. 

The night packer is another fun roomie, they are the ones who feel it is necessary to prepare for their early departure late the night before. 

People tend to come into the room in waves. There are the ones who are in their bunks before ten, then the ones who come in around midnight and then the ones who stumble in the wee hours of the morning. If you are going to be out late having a good time be as quiet as you can when coming back to the room. Plan ahead and have what you need out of your lockers and bags already or have them in an easy to get to place. Don't turn on the room light!! Besides being loud and a snorer, nothing else will turn an entire room against you faster than turning on the room light at 03:00 when coming back from the club. Keep the room door cracked a little for some of the hallway light to come in or better yet, pack a small flashlight. Just remember, some nights you are the one stumbling in and other nights you are the one sleeping. 

Bed Types:
Most dorm rooms will have the ubiquitous metal IKEA bunk bed that squeaks every time one moves or even thinks about moving. Three of these bunks can be shoved into a small room to make a six bed room. Unfortunately this leaves very little room for anything else. Nicer hostels will have wood bunks that do not squeak and have plenty of space inside the room. The more beds the cheaper the nightly rate, most of the time.
Really nice hostels will have reading lights for each bed, little shelf and power outlets, some will even have privacy curtains.

York Backpackers Hostel: York England
The Squeakiest Bunks Ever! 
This Place Has Been Remodeled And Is Now Called Safestay York

Willy Wallace Hostel: Stirling, Scotland

The Midland Hostel: Bucharest, Romania 

Twin vs. Double Bed; a twin bed is big enough for one traveler and a double bed is a bed that is meant to be shared. Sometimes this might be two separate twin beds that are shoved together, which is usually big enough for non-romantic travelers to share.

Hostels are finally catching up with this and provide in room storage lockers that are big enough to store most large backpacks/luggage. Always pack a small travel padlock just in case one is needed for the lockers. Pacsafe makes such a lock: Prosafe 650
Many of the newer or recently remodeled hostels will have an electric key that will get one into the room and into their own storage locker.
I still pack my Pacsafe Backpack & Bag Protector just in case there is no storage lockers available in the hostel.
When checking in to the hostel if you are early or when checking out and you still have time to kill there is usually a storage room/closet that bags are allowed to be stored in for a few hours. These can be secured under lock & key, CCTV, with paper claim slips handed out for each bag. Or they can be just around the corner from the reception with no real security. Use your best judgment when leaving your bag/s in these rooms.

Pacsafe Bag Protector: Odyssey Hostel: Taormina, Sicily, Italy 

Many of the new hostels or recently renovated hostels now offer attached bathroom (en suite) rooms as the standard room. Which has some benefits but in my opinion has many drawbacks. These bathrooms can only accommodate one person at a time and they often get tied up in the morning. Then there is the lovely aroma that can drift into the room from these bathrooms. 

I much prefer the large bathrooms that is shared by the floor or several rooms. That way there is less of a chance you will have to queue up just to use the bathroom. Plus any lingering smells will be left in the bathroom and the hall and not in your room. 

There usually is a large separate shower room which is usually gender specific. I have stayed in some hostels where there is one shower room but a male section and a female section. Some really rustic hostels are just a free for all. 
Individual showers can be separated by curtains, walls or in their own little closet. The nice ones have a little area to undress and dress in that is separate from the shower. That way all your clothes don't get wet.
Some showers have a small button that needs to be pushed every 30 seconds or so to keep the water running. I have found that if I want to soak for awhile I will just lean against this button to keep the water running. Those are found more frequently in the typical "youth" hostels where they tend to treat everyone as if they are a teenager. 

I hate the bathroom/shower combo. I call them shitter-showers; great for multitasking but awful all around! Don't take anything into the room that you don't want wet when showering!  

Shiiter-Shower: Retro Hostel Shevchenko: Lviv, Ukraine 

The cleanliness of these vary from place to place. Some hostels are all about keeping everything clean and tidy, others not so much. Because of this I always pack a pair of flip flops that I wear in the showers. Although, this will not save you from the rising water due to a backed up drain from a large hairball.   

I like to shower and shave at night because there is never a wait and I am ready for the next day as soon as I roll off the bunk. 

Common Room/Lounge: 
The common room is usually the focal point for most hostels, music, couches and people. This is a great place to hang out and meet fellow travelers. Though these days it is hard to get people to unplug from their laptops, tablets, phones, and actually engage with other people. Also usually where one can find a communal bookshelf, WiFi, communal computers and TV's. Look for flyers and pamphlets about local attractions and other hostels in neighboring cities/countries. 

Some of the best hostels have a bar attached to it which will offer happy hour specials. If there is no bar most hostels will arrange a pub crawl. These bars can really start hopping in the evening and stay that way into the early morning hours. If you are a light sleeper you may want to ask for a room away from the bar or look for a hostel that does not have a bar. 

Utilizing the kitchen in a hostel can really save yourself some money. Most hostels will have some sort of kitchen in them and they should have everything that is needed to prepare meals; ovens, stoves, microwaves, utensils, plates, cups, just about everything you will need to make a grand meal. I have often found a community shelf where other travelers will ditch extra food & drinks that is free for the taking. A bonus of making meals in the hostel gives you the opportunity to meet more travelers. Nothing brings people together faster in a hostel than a community meal with drinks.
When storing food in the fridge, make sure to put your name, room # and checkout date on any items. 

Make sure you keep the kitchen clean and wash your dishes when done. I watched a very disgruntled hostel staff member clean up after a large group. Needless to say he was not very pleasant after that.   

Some hostels will offer a free breakfast included with the price of the bed. Others will have a breakfast that can be purchased for extra money, or there will be none at all. The free breakfasts are usually nothing more than a continental breakfast, breads, jams, nutella, fruit, yogurt, hard boiled eggs, cereals (corn flakes, muesli), juice, tea and coffee. The paid breakfasts are that plus a little extra like meats, or scrambled eggs. 

Laundry Room:
It is only a matter of time and we all have to do a load or two of wash while traveling. Usually when you notice no one wants to stand next to you on a crowded metro train, that is a good sign it is time to do a wash. 
The big hostels will have multiple washers and dryers. Some will be coin operated and others will be token, in which you will purchase tokens and possibly detergent from the reception desk. If you are a night owl, the night hours can be some of the best times to use the machines since people are either out or sleeping. 

Location, Location, Location:
It really is all about the location! Most backpackers are traveling by train which will dump you out in or near the city center. So hostels have wisely established themselves near the city center or near major train stations. Some will be a short walk, others will be a metro stop or two away. 
Hostels located in the city center can quite frequently be on the first floor (European first floor is the floor above the ground floor, in the States we would call it the second floor) above a bar or shops. This is nice for being close to everything, but can also make it quite noisy at night. 

I prefer hostels that are close to the city center, but are down a side street away from all the hustle and bustle. Sometimes finding a quieter place means a 10-20 minute walk away from the city center.  

More Tips:
- During the peak travel season (summer) book ahead of time. Especially when visiting large popular cities.  
- When booking the hostel make sure you either write down the detailed directions to the hostel, or save the location on your phone (since so many people now travel with smart phones that work abroad). Some hostels can be very difficult to find even with detailed directions. 
- Stay away from the large Hostelling International hostels when possible. These tend to attract large school groups and treat you as a school kid.  
- Always pack earplugs! 
- If you are constantly being told you snore loud enough to wake the dead. Get a private room or a hotel room! 
- You are staying in a hostel. If you want peace & quiet and be able to control the temperature to your liking, get a hotel room!  
- Pack a sleeping bag liner. Some places charge for linens (these places have become less prevalent) and silk sleeping bag liners are light weight and take up very little room in your pack. 
- Know the hostel's policies. Some will only allow check-in during certain hours, some only accept cash, some have lockout periods for cleaning during the afternoons, and some (very few) even still have curfews.  
- Anytime there is a breakfast, make yourself a good sandwich or two for lunch. Some hostels will have signs saying not to do so. I have found this is a rule quite overlooked, but best to keep things on the down low if you feel so inclined. 
- If traveling with another traveler, always check hotel prices. I found in Northern Spain I could get a hotel room with my buddy for the same combined price we were paying at hostels. 
- I like to always look up the hostels own website. Sometimes they might have a better price if you book with them directly and usually have more pictures of the place to check out. 
- Don't leave your valuable items sitting on your bunk or in the open. This is usually how things are stolen. I don't believe career criminals stay in hostels to rip backpackers off. The crime that does happen is usually that of opportunity. Take away that opportunity and you greatly reduce your chances of being ripped off. 

Got any hostel tips or have some favorite hostels? Let me know. 

For more of my hostel pictures, check this LINK

Friday, April 8, 2016

Portland, OR To Indianapolis Via Amtrak

 Ever since I took Amtrak from New Orleans to Los Angeles and then up to Portland I've been itching for another long distance Amtrak ride. My buddy Dave suggested meeting up in Portland then taking Amtrak's Empire Builder to Chicago. Amtrak's Cardinal to Indianapolis. Then a few days later fly Southwest to Denver to cap off the trip with a ride back to Salt Lake City on Amtrak's California Zephyr. 

 I flew up to Portland (PDX) on Delta and decided to treat myself to a first class seat, my first time flying first class.
Salt Lake City International Airport

Leaving Salt Lake City 

Looking Down At I-80

 I have only been to Portland once before and it too was on a train trip. I did not see much or Portland last time so I was looking forward to actually seeing some of it this go round. 

Portland Union Station 

Portland Union Station 

Portland Union Station 

Voodoo Doughnut 

Voodoo Doughnut 

Voodoo Doughnut 

Voodoo Doughnut: Maple Bacon 

 No trip to Portland is complete without a trip to their famous Voodoo Doughnut store. There was a short line when we got there. It was well worth the wait for the tasty doughnuts. I did get a laugh out of the younger people out panhandling in front of the store while talking on their cellphones. Eventually one came in to get a doughnut with the money they were given. 

Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge: Portland, Oregon 

 Back at the Union Station we enjoyed the Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge with free WiFi, snacks and drinks before getting on our train. 

Sightseer Lounge Car 

 I have never understood why Amtrak does not have a few people that quickly wash the Sightseer Lounge Car windows along with the Sleeper Car windows at long station stops such as the one at Portland. Even just giving them a quick spray down would drastically improve things. 

 Nice thing about traveling this time of year it can be very quiet on the train. We had the sightseer lounge car all to ourselves for quite awhile. The bad part of traveling this time of year is that the sun goes down so early. One of the most scenic parts of this trip will be covered in the dark of night. 
On this trip we are staying in one of the Roomettes, thankfully Dave is taking the top bunk.  

 The next morning we woke to snow and had breakfast as the train passed through Glacier National Park. It was nice to see some snow, back in Salt Lake City it has been a very mild winter with little snow fall. 


Havre Montana 

  Once past the Rocky Mountains things started to get really flat and the views looked the same for miles and miles in all directions. There is a lot of empty space up in this part of the country; Eastern Montana and North Dakota. 

 Morning once again on the train and this time we woke up in Minnesota, pulling into the St. Paul-Minneapolis area. Thankfully I showered the night before because the drain pipe in the shower on our car is frozen. Outside temperature is hovering around minus 20 as we set down in the nice warm dinning car for our breakfast. Even the mighty Mississippi is frozen this morning. 

St. Paul Amtrak Station

Frozen Mississippi River

 The train followed the Frozen Mississippi river for awhile as it headed South East towards Milwaukee. 

 At a few stops I jumped out off the warm train to feel the subzero temps outside. It felt good for a few minutes. 

  I am always amazed how fast time goes by on a train. Seems like I sit down for breakfast, then before I know it I am back for lunch and dinner not long after that. One does not go hungry on an Amtrak train if they are staying in a sleeper car that includes all the meals. Just to get in a little exercise I ended up walking back and forth on the lower level of a sleeper car, had to get in my steps for the day. 

At The Milwaukee Train Station

 Eventually the skyline of Chicago could be seen in the distance. 

 We had a few hours in Chicago to kill before we would be taking the Cardinal down to Indianapolis. First thing we did was walk around the Union Station before heading out to brave the frigged conditions. The only goal we had was to get to the Boeing store and take a few shots of the Sears, err Willis Tower. It will always be the Sears Tower to me! 

Great Hall 

Great Hall
 Being a big fan of film I had to go see the famous "The Untouchable Stairs" in the Union Station.

The Untouchable Stairs 
The Untouchable Stairs

The Untouchable Stairs
 After walking around Union Station we headed out to make a mad dash to the Boeing Store and snap some pictures along the way. 

I Was Enjoying The Cold Temps And Snow
 The train left Chicago as the sun was setting and the next stop for us would be home for Dave, Indianapolis. 

 We had a few days in Indianapolis before we would take a Southwest flight to Denver (DEN) to get back on the train and head to Salt Lake City. 

Views From Atop Indianapolis City County Building

Pictures From Around Indianapolis 
Indianapolis City Market 

Lucas Oil Stadium 

CSX Train Rolling Through Town

 After a few nice days in Indianapolis it was time to pack up and head out to Denver. 

My Trusty PacSafe Bag All Packed Up 

Southwest Flight 3563

On Approach: DEN
Nice To See Some Mountains Again

 Good to be back in Denver for my second DEN-SLC Amtrak run. 

Denver Union Station

 Once more we are staying at the Quality Inn Central which is just five miles from downtown Denver. Stayed here last time I did the DEN-SLC run. 

Downtown Denver

 In the morning we had the free hot breakfast at the hotel then used the free shuttle service to get us to Union Station. 

Denver Union Station

 This time on the train we just purchased two coach tickets since we planed to spend most of the day in the sightseer lounge car. Felt good to be back on the train for another fifteen hour ride to Salt Lake City. 

Sightseer Lounge Car
Fraser Winter Park, CO

Glenwood Springs, CO Amtrak Station

Dave And Judge

Crescent Junction, UT
Just North of Moab, UT
Utah Sunset
Stunning Sunset Outside Of Green River, UT

 As usual we pulled into Salt Lake City ahead of schedule. 
We sure covered a lot of ground on this trip. West Coast to the Midwest then back to the Rockies. 
While on this trip we started to discuss the next Euro Trip along with future Amtrak rides.