Friday, August 13, 2010

A word to the wise for better blue skies

Sunrise over San Giorgio Maggiore Church in Venice Italy. Example of warmer, directional morning lightOne of the worst things that can happen in outdoor/scenic photographs is that the sky washes out to white. This is because the sky is so much brighter than the foreground. Though filters and full-manual-exposure mode may be limited to cameras with interchangeable lenses, there are some more advanced point and shoot cameras that can be tricked into achieving similar effects. See your camera's manual for explicit instructions on exposure compensation or metering modes.

Polarizer Filter
A polarizer is used to reduce reflections, darken skies and increase color saturation. This is done by rotating the filter to the desired effect. The result is most dramatic when used 90 degrees to the sun. Some advanced point and shoot cameras allow you to use filters but most often polarizers will be limited to cameras with interchangeable lenses. One last note … if your camera is auto-focus you must use a circular polarizer.

Time of Day
The most interesting light tends to be somewhere between 30 minutes and 1 hour after sunrise or before sunset. This is often referred to as "The Golden Hour" as the light is much warmer in tone than the rest of the day. Also during these times the shadows are more elongated lending new textures and dynamics to the scene.

Advanced Metering Technique
Sunrise over San Giorgio Maggiore Church in Venice Italy. Example of warmer, directional morning lightMost importantly, when there is abundant blue sky, turn your back on the sun. If the camera has a spot meter, use it. If not then the frame will have to be filled with blue sky. Try not to get any clouds in the frame as it will bias the exposure. Now, keeping your back to the sun, meter off of just the blue sky and lock in that exposure. This makes the blue sky the "middle gray" tone in the image. White clouds can still sometimes get overexposed. With slide film (or digital sensors) underexposing an additional 1/2 to 2/3 of a stop will make the blue sky darker and bring more detail into the white clouds. With print film overexposing by 1/2 to 2/3 of a stop will often yield the same results.

It is very important to remember that the sun should remain between +/-90° and 180° from the direction that the image is being taken. This means, of course, that it won't always be ideal to photograph a particular scene because the sun is in the wrong place. In that case, you may have to come back at another time to really get the photo you're looking for. That said, when the sun remains +/-90° to 180° behind the photographer the rest of the scene should be adequately lit because the sun is front-lighting (180°) or side lighting (90°) the subject of the image. Depending on the subject, an angle of about +/-120° (front-side lighting) is often more interesting than 90 or 180° Also remember that front-lighting—when the sun is 180° behind the photographer—is often the least exciting type of lighting. Regardless, the techniques described are solid and will yield predictable exposures.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Flights of frugality

Stretching your dollarThe days of flying standby are basically gone. As those glory days fade into the sunset the frugal traveler must now plan ahead. In "Stretching your dining dollar" we talked about how to save on dining expenses. In "Sleep for cheap" we discovered how to rest our weary heads without breaking the bank. Finally, in this bare-bones last of a three-part cost-controlling series, we'll discover routes to the cheapest flights during the "shoulder" season(s).

The shoulder season(s) run roughly from Easter to mid June and late September to mid-to-late November. These seasons, much like the "high" and "low" tourist seasons, vary by destination. Better weather and access to more attractions make the shoulder season desirable over the low season despite the slight increase in cost. During the low season many museums and other attractions close down or have very limited open times and days.

Finding the best flight prices entails a little Internet leg work:

  1. Research the shoulder season of your destination.
  2. Start with the longest leg. Find the lowest fare on the longest leg and work backward to your home airport.
  3. Search sites like travelocity.com for the best price. Pick two or three airlines with a price in your range.
  4. Go to the airline's web sites and research again. This time add a leg or two into the mix. Remember, typically non-stop flights are most expensive. A two- or three-leg flight can be a great cost saver.
  5. Call an airline booking agent. This is especially valuable if you are using miles to pay for the flight. Sometimes the booking agent can see options that aren't listed online … including upgrades out of economy class.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sleep for Cheap

Stretching your dollarIn the first part of our cost-controlling series, "Stretching your dining dollar," we covered how to cut your eating expenses while traveling. The two remaining expenses, transportation and lodging, each have their own caveats. For the uninitiated, controlling these costs may seem daunting. With a little research and insight, learning to travel for maximum enjoyment on minimum dollars is within reach. In this second of a three-part series on controlling costs we'll look at ways to save on sleeping.

If five-star and 1000-thread count Egyptian cotton are a must, stop reading now. For the open minded … read on!

When talking "bang for you buck" it's hard to find it in lodging. From the standpoint that you spend only a few hours a night there … sleeping is expensive! To that end, after an exciting day in a new place, I just want to catch my forty winks and get back to exploring. When it is time to kick up my tired feet and reflect on the day I find there are really three options: Hostels, B&Bs and independent hotels. Putting aside what you've seen in the movies lets explore hostels.

There are two types of hostels … the "official" ones that belong to Hostelling International and the "independent" hostels. Official hostels are generally clean and have more rules than their independent counterparts. They also have a membership fee.

The HI web site doesn't list exact prices but it is typically just under $30 for a membership. You can buy the membership when you arrive or optionally pay an extra fee, around $5, and stay without a membership. If you stay six nights, even at six different HI hostels, while paying the extra fee you are then considered a member. Either way you're paying that membership fee!

Prices vary from location to location but for a single person the price is often between $25 and $30 per night. It's no frills and you're sharing a room and a bathroom down the hall with strangers but you're getting what you need most … a bed. And, the free breakfast is a nice touch too! O.k., not every hostel has breakfast but a majority do. And some, like one I've used a couple of times in Rome, offer deals on dinner to the tune of a four-course meal, with wine, for €10!

Hostels are not only for the young, mature travelers are always welcome. Some hostels even offer a "family" room. Though hostels stand as the least expensive option they don't offer much in the way of privacy or luxury. Use of laundry machines, wi-fi or free access to a limited number of desktop computers are about it in the line of luxuries. So, when you're looking for a little more that's when you look to independent hotels.

I avoid big chain hotels as much as possible. Because the chain hotel's culture trumps local culture you often find yourself removed from the local experience. When hostels won't cut it and a B&B is nowhere to be found turn your search to small, local-owned hotels. Though the service isn't usually on the level of a B&B it is often more than adequate. Hotel Orientale in Palermo, Sicily is typical of these types of hotels. Located next to an alley running to the Mercato Ballaro, one of the most famous street markets in the region, it is just a short walk from everything downtown Palermo and reasonably priced at about €40 for a room with two beds. The price ranges are typically slightly more than hostel rates (per person) and up to roughly that of the top end of the B&B rates. The best thing about these small hotels is that you can often haggle a better price if you're paying cash! Be aware though that many of these smaller hotels don't have bathrooms in the room. Sometimes rooms with their own facilities are available at slightly higher rates. When it comes to cutting costs a room with a shared bathroom certainly will save you money.

Prices at small hotels and B&Bs can overlap. So although a Bed and Breakfast is not really always the "middle ground" in pricing they do offers a more upscale, couples-friendly atmosphere. Many B&Bs welcome families and provide home-away-from-home amenities. Location usually dictates price. The closer to the action, the higher the rate.

When traveling in Italy I've used BBPlanet to find great deals near Venice and in Siena. Agriturismo da Merlo in Venice and Alle Due Porte in Siena both offered friendly and nearly pampered service … one of the advantages of a B&B. Unlike even small hotels, a B&B is all about making guests comfortable. Nightly rates vary and can be as low as about $80 per night. Typically the rates don't go much over $100 per night and, as the name implies, include at least breakfast in the nightly rate. For destinations outside of Italy I typically start at BBFinder. BBFinder, provides an extensive listings and reviews of B&Bs around the world.

While researching lodging on the Internet it's easy to get caught up in pretty pictures. Read reviews and Google the name of place you think you might want to stay to see what more you can find out about it. With any of these places you can request to see the room before agreeing on it … but obviously only once you've arrived. Booking in advance isn't always necessary but should be considered during the "high season" for the destination.

When traveling I find I get more enjoyment from the trip if I travel as a local instead of as a tourist. Hostels give you direct access to locals as well as travelers from around the world. Small hotels often give more central access, moderate pricing and knowledgeable patrons. B&Bs tend to be more pampering. All three provide a different and wonderful, cost-effective option to chain hotels. They all keep you closer to the culture in which you're traveling and provide a place to rest your weary head after a long day of living like a local.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Stretching your dining dollar

Stretching your dollarThe three biggest expenses in travel are transportation, lodging and food. For the uninitiated, controlling these costs may seem daunting. With a little research and insight, learning to travel for maximum enjoyment on minimum dollars is within reach. In this first of a three-part series on controlling costs we'll look at ways to save on dining.

For the hard-core foodie who has a hard time dining on anything less than gourmet or the latest trend, stop reading now. For the open minded … read on!

Whether within the U.S. or around the world the first rule of dining on the cheap is “street food”. From the red hots cart in Chicago to the panelle stand in Palermo, Sicily, street food holds the distinction of being the “food of the people.” Primarily regional, these tasty treats are often overlooked by travelers as not fresh, or worse … contaminated. Truth is that the ingredients are usually very fresh, despite the condition of the makeshift booth or cart they are being sold from. Whenever I travel, especially abroad, I seek out these delicious and cost-effective treats that give you a taste of the local culture. But, how do you find them?

Begin your travel planning by researching the local cuisine of your destination. A little pre-planning will give you a heads up on not only what to look for, but, if you're lucky, the best place to get it. Google the city, state/country and the words “street food” and you'll be surprised at what you might find. Once you find a particular item you think you might like to try, refine your search using specific names of the foods. Let your adventurous side take over and soon you may have a list of places you might want to add to your itinerary.

Though these quick meals are great when you're on the go, and as a great alternative to what is considered typical “fast food,” sometimes you just want to sit down and dine in a restaurant atmosphere.

When dining at restaurants while traveling, especially abroad, you must get away from the “tourist trap” areas. Typically, the closer to tourist attractions, the higher the cost. The owners of the restaurants know that many tourists don't want to stray far from “the beaten path.” Taking time to explore the side streets and alleyways going away from the tourist areas can turn up some surprising results. Often what you'll find are the places where the locals like to eat. The “mom & pop” type places that are full of atmosphere, tradition and reasonably priced local cuisine. But, what happens when you want to try that “hot spot” that everyone is talking about?

Sometimes there is a place like the “House of Blues” in Chicago that you just want to check out. Common sense tells you that you're not dining cheap there … so what can the frugal traveler do? When traveling in the United States, go to www.restaurant.com.

The first step is to register. Registration is free and registered users get access the the best deals. The web site allows you to search by zip code, major city or state. Once your results are displayed you can then refine the search alphabetically, by cuisine, by city or any number of other ways. What they offer are discounted gift certificates. Typically you have a choice of a $10 certificate for $4 or a $25 certificate for $10. On occasion you'll run across a special that allows you to buy at even a deeper discount. On a recent trip to Chicago I purchased a $10 certificate for under $2! These discounts do come with stipulations.

To use the $25 certificate your bill must be $35 or more. To use the $10 certificate your bill must be $25 or more. Sometimes, like at the House of Blues, a gratuity is automatically added before the discount is taken. All the information about the stipulations are listed before you make your purchase so there are no surprises. Done right you can save as much as 30 percent at some of the touristy hot spots!

When traveling I find I get more enjoyment from the trip if I travel as a local instead of as a tourist. Dining on street food and in the places that the locals frequent tend to give the best bang-for-the-buck when it comes to eating. Next time you travel forgo the big names and the fancy signs and find your self a little piece of the local flavor. Your tummy will thank you for it!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Go for the glow!

Flag of Puerto RicoWith only the slight glimmer of the moon and a few glow sticks to light the way a half-dozen kayaks slowly snake their way between the boats anchored in the bay and toward a narrow gap in the mangrove trees. Like knurled fingers, the roots of the mangroves grip the banks of the canal and pull it open to invite us in. The splish-swish of the oars break the stillness of the canal. A faint glow begins to wrap around them as they pierce the surface. Soon we'll be in the bioluminescent lagoon.

The light emitted by the dinoflagellates, a microscopic plankton, grows more intense with each stroke of the thirty minutes spent slowly wiggling our way up the canal to the lagoon. Entering the lagoon becomes an other-worldly experience.

The kayak and the slight breeze become afterthoughts as shooting stars appear below the surface. The lagoon is super-saturated with these dinoflagellates and everything, including fish speeding below, agitate them. Their response is to dazzle us with their light show.

The Takeaway ...

What and Where:
Bioluminescent Lagoon
Fajardo, Puerto Rico
GPS:
+18° 21' 48.13", -65° 37' 32.19"
(18.363370, -65.625608)

Who:
Eco Action Tours
web: http://www.ecoactiontours.com
Phone: (787) 791-7509 and (787) 640-7385
email: info@ecoactiontours.com

When:
Bioluminescence is brightest August through October and during a new moon.

Why:
Because it's amazing!

Dining:
The only restaurant in the immediate vicinity is a greasy spoon-like fish place. It was quite busy so that may speak for its quality. Not being a fish eater myself I had to go back up the road a ways to find a small pizzeria on the side of the road. I'd advise either eating well before getting to the lagoon or bring a picnic lunch otherwise you may go hungry.

Bioluminescent lagoons with this level of intensity are rare in the world. Puerto Rico is home to three of them. The Las Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve surrounds the lagoon in Fajardo, on Puerto Rico's northeastern tip. As a protected wetland it is an ideal place for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of running a hand through the sparkling stardust in the warm waters of the lagoon. Though the park service frowns on people swimming in the lagoon, the occasional kayaker does “fall in” and is thrilled when millions of glowing pixies dance across their body. It is haunting and ethereal.

The warmer the water the brighter the bioluminescence. Though cooler water decreases the effect it can be seen pretty much year round ... with August through October usually being the best time to view. As with any light show the effect is more spectacular during a new moon or when the moon is obscured.

Guides on the tours provide in-depth knowledge of not only the lagoon but also the surrounding wetlands. The environmental sensitivity of bioluminescent lagoons is often stressed and is the main reason that kayaks, not motorboats, are the main form of transportation on the tours.

Bioluminescence, even at its brightest, is far too dim for photography. Images on the Internet are doctored to include the effect, though they do not do it justice. Enjoying the phenomenon can only be done in person and is well worth the trip.

There are numerous tour companies on the island offering treks for various prices. Despite arriving about a half-hour late I still happily recommend Eco Action Tours for the bioluminescent lagoon tour. These are family-friendly tours with all safety equipment provided. Our guide, Dixon, was knowledgeable and friendly ... making the experience one-in-a-million.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Conquering culture shock in Italy

Sunset on the Ponte Vecchio - Firenze, Italia Traveling abroad can bring a great deal of satisfaction. It can also bring a great deal of frustration if you travel with the expectations that everything in your destination country should be like your home country. Embrace the differences and you'll have wonderful memories that you'll share over and over again. Go against the grain and you'll shudder with dread at the mere mention of the country.

Here are a few tips about traveling to Italy that will make your adventure everything you hoped it could be.

Italian Time

No, it's not like Eastern Time vs. Central Time. In Italy, Italians do their thing on their own schedule. In the more industrialized north of Italy if someone were to say they would do something "piu tardi" (later) that could mean some time within the next few hours. As you travel further south to places like Sicily "piu tardi" could mean some time tomorrow!

Banks and ATMs

ATM Machines are your best friend. They are safe, convenient and during the day there is usually armed security posted near them. Banks on the other hand have their own peculiar quirks. They open late, close early and have a long break during siesta. Unlike American banks where people wait in line for their turn, Italians will walk in the door and cut you off on the way to the teller window. What appears rude to us is just how it is in Italy.

These practices are the perfect reason why you should not carry traveler's checks and instead should confirm with your bank that you can use your ATM Debit card in Italy (or any other destination when traveling). It's always advisable to carry some local currency on you from home so that you have it available for transportation, food or refreshments when you first arrive in country but the bulk of your money should be accessible via your debit card.

If your bank doesn't do currency exchange there is a currency exchange office at the airport. The fees will be higher at the airport but having some local currency when you land as opposed to trying to find a place to exchange money when you get there gives a great peace-of-mind and reduces the stress of culture shock.

Mocha-Cappu-Frappa ... What?

Starbucks does not exist in Italy. What is readily available, on nearly every corner, is the fantastic classic Italian café, or coffee shop. In the home of espresso and cappuccino you can expect to have strong, tasty drinks which taste nothing like what you get from Starbucks. This is a good thing! Most of these cafés are coffee bars, literally ... as they serve alcohol. In the morning you can get an "espresso corretto con brandy" which means basically "espresso with brandy." As for cappuccino, it is only drank in the morning in Italy. It's not a tragic faux pas to order cappuccino after noon but you will get a funny look.

These cafés are also a great place for breakfast. You can get all kinds of fresh pastries at a reasonable price. Often, later in the day, you can also get gelato! One last, important thing to remember about not only cafés but any place that serves food or drinks ... sitting costs more. If you stand up at the bar you are charged less than if you sit at a table. Think of it as a service fee. If you order and pay at the bar and then sit down someone will come over and ask you to pay the difference. Don't be offended ... this is common in other countries in the region such as France and Spain also.

Water

When you sit down at a restaurant for a meal remember, water is not free. And, if you want to order water, order "Acqua, no gas" or you'll get a bottle of carbonated water. Water fountains fed by springs are very common in cities in Italy. Once you are in Italy buy a bottle of water and keep the bottle to refill with fresh, crisp and cool spring water. Not only will it save you money but it allows you to keep hydrated ... which is important in the warm Italian sun.

Sicily vs Italy (North vs South?)

Though Sicily is part of Italy, in many cases it is good to remember that it does have its own culture and language. Though you can get by with standard Italian phrases don't be surprised if you hear or see things that are different than what you saw or heard in Milan, Florence, Rome, Venice, Naples, etc. As you travel further south the country becomes more rural and their economy becomes more agriculturally based. The further south you go the later they eat dinner. It's not uncommon for people to be going to dinner at 9pm in Sicily.

There is a Mafia presence in Palermo and Messina. Unlike during the 70s and 80s the general public is fairly safe from the Mafia. They aren't doing drive-by shootings, car bombings or anything like that at this time. In fact, it's unlikely you'll actually notice any mafioso unless you happen to walk into a church during a wedding and it happens to be a mafioso wedding. It happened to me. Just turn around and walk out. Not a word was said to me nor was I hassled in any way when that happened. Weddings do occur during the week in Italy and Sicily not on Saturday and Sunday like in the U.S.

Markets

The best places to shop, whether for snacks such as fresh fruit or a good deal on Italian-made products, are the open-air markets. In Sicily that would include the Ballarò and Vucceria. Be sure to seek out tarocchi (blood oranges). Blood oranges are a very tasty variation on the oranges we are used to. Personally, I prefer them over standard oranges.

Tipping

Unlike in the U.S. tipping in most European countries, including Italy, is truly optional and certainly not expected. The reason for this is that most restaurants charge a "servizio" or service fee. Even if a place does not charge this fee, tipping is not expected. If you decide to tip a few coins is appropriate. Tipping 15-20% is mostly unheard of in European countries.

Dining

Your most cost-effective dining is done at cicchetti bars. Basically finger foods at reasonable prices. Food from street vendors are tasty, low cost and allows you to experience Italy the way the people of Italy live and eat. Formal dining is divided up in multiple courses: "prima piate (first plate)," "secondo piate (second plate)," etc. Eating this way can get expensive, fast. Usually, if I am sitting down to eat at a regular restaurant, I just eat a main course (secondo piate) in order to keep expenses down.

Gypsies

You will see Gypsies wherever you go. They will beg you to death if you let them. They range from small children to old women and ... believe it or not often they will fake injury or cause themselves some physical harm just to pull off their con. Your best bet is to ignore them and keep walking. When traveling on public transportation, including trains, buses and subways, keep your bags in front of you where you can see them. Pickpockets are everywhere and will rob you blind if you give them the opportunity.

Transportation

Subways, trains and buses are reasonably priced and very abundant in Italy. If you plan your itinerary before you go you can buy a Eurail Pass to cover your train rides. There are numerous options for these and can save you money. Best thing to do is figure out what cities you are visiting and how long and see if the Eurail Pass might save you money over buying them ala carté. Sometimes it doesn't.

Jet Lag

Only one way to beat jet lag ... you have to stay awake. When you land in Italy it will likely be some time in the morning. If you're like me, you probably won't get much sleep on the flight and you'll be tired. DO NOT GO TO BED when you get to your hotel or you will regret it.

I've never suffered jet lag because when I've landed over in Europe I've stayed awake until 10pm or so. This helps your internal clock adjust accordingly. Going to sleep while the sun is still up will keep your internal clock on its home time and you'll be dragging ass for three days until you adjust. Luckily, coming home from Europe you generally don't have that problem because your flight will likely leave in the morning and land back home some time in the afternoon.

Language

Italians speak Italian. Yes, I know you just said "No $#&%!" ... but it is important to remember that not everyone speaks English or is willing to speak English even if they can. The easy way around this is to learn some key phrases such as "buon giorno (good morning)," "grazie (thank you)," "dov'è il bagno" or "dov'è il toilette (both basically mean where is the bathroom)." If you make the first effort to speak in their language they will likely speak to you in English (if they speak English) because they'll notice right away you are not a native Italian speaker. Carry an "Italian Phrasebook" or an Italian-to-English dictionary and you'll get pretty far.

Also, the further south you travel in Italy the more resistant they seem to be to speaking English. Just because someone works at a hotel, restaurant or even the train station don't assume they can speak English. My first trip to Italy I spoke almost no Italian and got along fine for three weeks on the minimal phrases I knew and with the help of both a phrasebook and a dictionary. The second time I went to Italy I actually carried on simple conversations in Italian in many places because I'd taken an Italian class at the Italian cultural center and borrowed language CDs from the library so that I could learn to better understand and pronounce the words. I am by no means fluent ... but with the proper accent, pronunciation and fluidity you wouldn't believe how many times the people I was speaking to replied as if I were a native speaker.

Money Belts and Money

Keep your money, ID, credit cards, etc. in your money belt at all times. Before you leave your room for the day take whatever cash you plan on spending and put it in a pocket that isn't easy for a pickpocket to access. I usually wear a light over shirt with a zipper pocket on the chest. This is where I keep my large bills. A smaller pocket with a Velcro closure is where I keep a few small bills and my change. This gives me easy access to my daily spending money while keeping the bulk of my money, important papers, etc. safe from pickpockets. I don't keep money or anything of any value in my pants pockets.

Italy is on the Euro (€). The Euro coins come in 1 cent, 2 Euro cent, 5 cent, 10 cent, 20 cent, 50 cent, 1 Euro dollar and 2 Euro dollar. You'll find that if you spend those coins first you won't end up with a pocket full of change.

Change

Speaking of change ... Don't get upset if you don't receive exact change. Many times in my travels through Italy the vendor I was dealing with rounded the change they gave me. Sometimes in their favor and sometimes in mine. Don't be offended by this or cause a scene over a few pennies. Typically you'll see this from street vendors where they may owe you two or three pennies and either they don't give them to you or they round up to the next full cent. For example ... say the change due is seven cents. Sometimes they'll give you a nickel and keep the two extra pennies for themselves and sometimes they'll give you a dime so you're making out by three cents. At the end of the day for you it really is a wash. Don't get hung up on exact change and you'll be happier for it.

Packing Light

If you're hopping on trains, buses and subways with your luggage as you travel from place to place you have to travel light. One person trying to drag three or four bags on a train or subway car, especially subway cars, will very quickly discover they over packed. Italy is a first-world country. There are laundromats, Internet cafés and many amenities similar to those in the U.S. Throw your clothes in the laundry and go grab lunch. Plan this in your schedule and you won't feel like you're wasting your time.

When I travel I use only one carry-on bag and a small backpack. Yes, this is adequate for a trip of any length if you're willing to wash your clothes. If you'd rather carry all kinds of excess luggage and struggle with it instead of enjoying your vacation, do so at your own peril! Traveling light, like I do, saves time waiting at the luggage carousel because you won't have to! I get off the plane and I'm on my way to my first destination while most people are still heading to the luggage carousel.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. It should give you some basic idea of what to expect so that culture shock is minimized. Italy is a brilliant, beautiful country with much to offer at every turn. Enjoy it for what it is by experiencing it as an Italian instead of trying to place "American" preconceived notions on anything and you'll really enjoy your trip!