Posts Tagged With: train

The Things We Carry

Main Serbian Train Depot

Historic Belgrade Train Station

Salutations from Budapest! As our travels enter October, Brooke and I are onto a new month and another new country. We landed in Hungary yesterday via an uneventful seven hour train ride from Belgrade to Budpaest. The easy going ride on the mostly-empty, mostly-modern train gave us time to visit the dining car and enjoy the passing scenery from giant windows (rural Hungary looks a lot like rural Indiana) during a comfortable ride. And at only 15 Euros a piece, riding the rails made for an inexpensive way to get north to Budapest. Speaking of the Euro, we find ourselves in yet another European country that is not using the Euro for its currency. How is this possible? Denmark, Finland, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and now Hungary – all of them Non-Euro. With 17 countries using the Euro, we must be defying some serious odds here. Ah well, the Hungarian Forint will be just another conversion rate to learn and another set of colorful bills with faces of unknown politicians and local heroes to master. I counted whilst on the train; this is our 11th different currency (not counting any stops from our Baltic Seas Cruise) since we began our trip in New Zealand. Fun financial fact: three of those nations (Singapore, Hong Kong, and New Zealand) also call their monetary standard the dollar.

Each time Brooke and I move from country to county, we attempt to inventory, pack and repack. As we’ve covered on the blog before, trying to determine exactly what and how much to pack was one of our most daunting challenges during our trip prep. We repeatedly heard the motto “pack half as much stuff as you think you’ll need and twice as much money as you think you’ll need.” Sure, this is easy enough if your grandfather’s name is JP Morgan. But all in all, we feel very good about what we are (and, just importantly, what we are not) lugging around the world with us. Although, early on, we realized that we probably did pack a few superfluous extras. Our deck of playing cards has seen the light of day twice so far. I brought along juggling balls because….sigh…I planned to learn how to juggle. Our days have been packed with exploring and learning, so I could probably have left those ridiculous multi-colored balls at home. But there are two handy, electronic gadgets that we use every day and have been essential in our travels: our iPhones and our digital camera. At this point in the trip, I couldn’t imagine getting by without both of them.

Everything we need for the trip in four bags…

First things first regarding the iPhone: we do not have any type of cell phone service or plan. Verizon and AT&T were understanding enough to put both of our plans on hold until we get back to the United States. We’re using the phones as WiFi devices only. The phone calls that we do make are through an exceptional app called Local Phone which connects over WiFi. Local Phone allows us to dial just about anywhere for mere cents per minute. It’s odd, but I haven’t sent a text message since late July (and hopefully no one has tried to send me one). But even just on WiFi, our little Apple gizmos have been a valuable part of our traveling arsenal. We usually have little trouble getting online and the phones have allowed us to book rooms through the and the Air B’nB app, read reviews, map our route, set an alarm, research next steps and check e-mails while just waiting at the bus station or relaxing at an outdoor cafe.

Needed surgery for the iPhoneThe iPhone has been particularly handy when things go slightly awry, like a cancelled hotel reservation, and we both can scramble to get things set right. Brooke tracks our budget at every turn using the notepad and I play Penguin Airborne. Plus, the iPhone makes a wonderful back up camera along with a couple hundred of our favorite songs. I did run into a mini-disaster that left me in a state of panic and dismay last week. When the new iPhone operating system was put out there to correspond with the release of the famed iPhone 5, I attempted to upgrade my phone. Along the way, my iPhone went kaput and I was in the dark for three days. Luckily, a helpful, patient clerk at the “iStyle” store in Sofia allowed us to connect to a Mac and helped me reinstall the new software. Thanks to the Cloud, I didn’t lose a thing. Huzzah for the Cloud! Huzzah!

Our digital camera has been the other key piece of equipment. A once in a life time trip justifies buying a new camera. The camera is incredibly important because it is the best thing we have to really document this trip. While browsing models at the always amazing B&H in NYC, we had to make the decision between a fancy, high-tech SLR camera and a point & shoot. In the end, we chose to go with a high-end, well reviewed point and shoot: The Cannon Power Shoot S100. I’ve already taken more photos than I can count and have only managed to drop it twice. While I would really dig a big,fancy camera with a collection of lenses, the truth is that I don’t know an F-Stop from the F-train. I would look impressive with my camera, but it would have been for naught. The pocket size of the Canon means that I almost always have it on me. Someone once told us the best camera for the shot is the one that you have on you at the time.

One of the best photos we’ve taken on this trip. In Japan using the low light setting.

The camera works exceptionally well, shoots outstanding digital video and has some nifty settings like Handheld Nightscene, Slow motion film, vivid setting and more. I do wish that I was a master of some of the more advanced functions on the manual settings so I could really get the most out of some photo opportunities. Like creating a silhouette of Brooke in front of a Japanese garden. or catching the low-light moon rise over the Bucharest train station. But, in any case, I’ve gotten some amazing photos out of it so far

Another small piece of technology that Brooke said I should add this to this list is a simple but important one: Our ATM card. Being able to withdrawal the local currency day and night has been a huge assist. Even in remote places, we haven’t had any trouble finding cash machines and, not surprisingly, ATMs are kind of the same the world over. It’s meant not worrying about banks, travelers checks and visits to exchange windows only when dealing in left over cash. It’s these small pieces of technology that makes taking this kind of trip in 2012 certainly a lot easier than taking it in 1962. And of course, we also have the last essential component: a large bag full of chargers and world-wide plug adapters! Certainly this trip would be possible without any gadgets or gizmos, but for the sake of ease and sanity, they are a “must-have” for us.


Categories: Cell Phones, Communication, Eastern Europe, Iphone Apps, Packing, Rail, Trains, Trip Prep, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Goodbye Belgrade

Sadly, our time in Belgrade has come to a close.  Tomorrow morning we board a north-bound train for Budapest, Hungry and leave Serbia behind.  Today was filled mainly with strolling through the city, taking in some last sights, and reflecting on our time in this region of the world. Though we enjoyed previous Eastern European cities, we think that Belgrade is a city we would eagerly visit again.  In fact, we believe this would make a wonderful destination with a group of friends, and we are sure our crew could have an amazing time spending a week here together.

After having a delicious coffee at one of the numerous street cafes this morning, we found ourselves walking toward the riverfront.  We spotted an old building which looked as though some event was happening inside.  Upon closer inspection, we discovered it was an art museum.  Kind of.  This grand building originally housed the Belgrade Shareholder’s Society.  It hasn’t exactly been preserved, but enough detailed remnants of its architecture remain which makes imagining its original beauty fairly easy.  Currently, “Good Life” a modern art exhibition is featured within the myriad of rooms.  The entrance fee was nominal, so we walked through the exhibits, realizing for the umpteenth time that we are not fans of this type of existential modern art.  I try to appreciate what lies before me, but I find I’m often left scratching my head and saying, “Huh?” Like the photographs of gold fillings which the artist bought at an online auction.  Or the room with paper pigs hanging from the ceiling.  This was way over my head.  It didn’t take long for us to give each other the high sign and head for the door.

The sign confused us at first–it is way too similar to the “No Smoking” signs we are used to.

We continued wandering and refocused on one of our priorities for the day–finding the perfect souvenir for our time in Belgrade.  We walked among stands which sell the traditional wares feeling completely uninspired.  It is important for us to find souvenirs that closely link with our experience in a city.  We want mementos, not just chatchkis to place on a shelf.  So, we thought about what would really speak to our time here.  As strange as it sounds, we settled on an ash tray!  We don’t smoke, nor do any of our friends, but smoking is everywhere here.  The first thing you get at a restaurant is not water or a menu or even a “hello”, it’s an ashtray.  Businesses don’t just have “No Smoking” signs, they also have “Smoking” signs which we found quite confusing early on.  In fact, cafes often sell cigarettes to their patrons who alternate eating their croissant with a puff of their cigarette.  For all of these reasons, an ashtray seemed like the perfect memento.

Laughing at our purchase we continued walking.  One aspect of Belgrade which has consistently entertained us is the amount of crazy small and ridiculously old cars which still cruise the streets.  I didn’t even know they still made the Yugo, but they are everywhere here!  And they are tiny.  We realize that Europeans drive small cars, especially when compared to Americans, but these are some of the smallest we’ve seen.  And really, it is the age that keeps surprising us.  Some of these must be 30 years old.  How they are not rusted out and falling apart is completely beyond us.  Phil thought these relics would be a great subject for a photo journalism project.

I’m not sure Phil would even fit in this thing!

After saying our farewells to Belgrade, it was time to head back to the apartment for the moment we have been waiting for since we arrived:  Sunday Football on ESPN America.  When we learned we would be able to watch live American professional football, we were ecstatic.  Although ESPN does not broadcast NFL games on Sundays in the U.S., they must have some agreement with Fox to show games abroad.  Our excitement in anticipation of watching football and eating a home cooked meal has been brimming all week.  After the requisite 2 hours of pre-game coverage, we watched the San Francisco 49ers embarrass the New York Jets by beating them 34-0.  At half-time of the game we went to the grocery store to be met with great disappointment–it was closed.  Closed?  It was only 8:15 pm, but we did not dismay.  We walked to another grocery down the street and it had closed at 3pm today!  Sometimes we forget that we aren’t in New York and stores close early, especially on Sundays.  Somewhat disappointed, we settled for a couple of sandwiches.  Seeing the score of the game when we arrived home immediately soothed our sadness.  We are now watching one of the late games–the Saints vs. the Packers, and if we can stay up until 2:30am, we can even catch the Sunday night game.

Late night football is likely not in the cards for me since we will be leaving for the train station at 6am.  We have been so surprised by Belgrade and would encourage travelers to include this as a “must” during any trip to Eastern Europe.  Tomorrow we head to Budapest, Hungary, the leg of the trip I have been most looking forward to because we will be meeting up with two of our closest friends, Gina and Tom.  We haven’t seen a familiar face (besides one another) in about 2 months and the thought of being with close friends is almost overwhelming.  I can’t wait!


A snafu with our tram ticket was cause for great concern. Ever since seeing the ticket checkers in Sofia, Phil is terrified of them!

When inflation was at its worst, Serbia had bills with a 50 billion dinar denomination! It is a Guinness World Record.

A final beer at ? Cafe. After arguments over its name, people now just refer to it as Question Mark Cafe.

Categories: Bars, City Visits, Diversions, Eastern Europe, Friends, Landmarks, Museums, Serbia, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Thoughts on traveling in New Zealand so far

We wanted to quickly say that Brooke and I have been flattered and delighted by the number of views and comments we’ve received on the blog so far. We are really glad that people seem to be enjoying (or at least reading) our travel journal. As a reminder, if you’re interested in keeping up to speed (and don’t mind some more junk in your inbox) you can sign up to get an update via e-mail every time we update the blog which is about once a day. To do so, just click on the “follow this blog” link on the right hand side of the screen.

Baby lamb photographed from the side of the road!Our trek through New Zealand continued today as we’ve made our way to the southern tip of the North Island. Our spaceship is now docked in the capital city of Wellington. A day driving in rain ended with a stay overlooking the city and a warm bowl of soup and delicious pizza on Cuba Street in the heart of the city. Another day driving through rain and small towns on roads that you fear might turn to gravel made us twice as glad to arrive. We look forward to explore New Zealand’s most hyped city.

We touched down in New Zealand a week ago and now we’re getting the hang of adapting to the long-term travel lifestyle. Turns out that all I really need to start the day has been a hot shower with good water pressure. Success at at every stop so far. And all Brooke needs is just a solid cup of coffee somewhere along the way. We’ve also found that living in New York City for the last six years has prepared us well for this trip. Dealing with nighttime noise, small beds, smaller hotel rooms, navigating public transportation and even discussing living in NYC (a city that everyone knows and has a thought on) has all worked to our advantage. And, of course, I’ve been blessed with the perfect travel partner who is helping to make this trip amazing each day.

Over the past week, it’s been a blast to soak up all the small differences that we’ve found so far while traveling. I’m getting pretty quick at converting kilometers to miles, centigrade to farenheit and US dollars to New Zealand dollars, but still get thrown for a loop when I have to figure out how much $7.99 NZD per Kg of zucchini really is. There are lots of small but unique contrasts in language, social behavior, and more that we thought were worth sharing.

Coffee for a long drive to Wellington!The first lesson we learned is that coffee is a whole new ballgame here. While there are vibrant, independent coffee houses every two blocks in New Zealand, ordering a cup of black coffee will only reward you with a confused look from the barista. Thanks to our new friend Jason, we’ve learned that a “long black” is what we’re after. It is basically a shot of espresso topped off with steaming hot water. Delicious and strong but not cheap. The minimum we’ve paid for a solid cup of joe has been about $3.50. And there are never refills. American coffee may be living up to the cliché of being on par with mud in comparison, but at least you can get it by the gallon for a couple of of bucks at the local gas station.

Another thing we’ve noticed is that although everyone speaks English, we keep stumbling across some different words. In all public buildings, restrooms are just called the toilet. Which makes us feel relatively crass when we ask “Where is your toilet?” when at a restaurant. Sort of on par to “Point me to the crapper!” but it gets the job done. You “hire” a car instead of “rent.” On a menu, appetizers are called entrees. And entrees are called mains. When spoken aloud, websites such as is referred to as “dub dub dub Rugby dot co dot en-zed”which is just fun.

Paying for purchases is also a bit different. Everyone takes credit card, but entering a pin number is much more common when you charge a purchase. Signing is decidedly against the norm and they check our signature against the signature on the card every single time. Since no one ever checked in the US, I would sometimes sign faux names like “Johnny Tellyawhattodo.” That won’t fly here.

Lastly, the people we’ve met so far are an incredibly friendly, well traveled bunch who are endlessly hospitable. It’s interesting to hear how they see America. It gives us some perspective on our own country. For example, we forget that, say, since Texas is almost nothing like Maine, 50 different states really does translate to 50 different mini-countries.

Overall, we are glad we started with New Zealand, because even though there are some small and interesting differences, we can generally clear up any confusion by asking a few questions. We are intimidated by our anticipation of how this will work in the next several countries we’ll be in (Japan, China, Vietnam, Singapore) where English will be much harder to come by. I guess we’ll find out soon enough!


Categories: Cell Phones, China, Discounts, Diversions, Health, Museums, New Zealand, Wardrobe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Choosing Destinations

One of the first questions people ask us when they find out we are traveling around the world is, “How did you ever decide where to go?”  This is a very good question, especially since we have so many options.  The process of choosing where to go involved a lot of research and discussion, but in the end it wasn’t as difficult as we had imagined.

First, you should know that when you buy an Around the World ticket with Delta SkyMiles, there are some limitations.  We are required to go in one contiguous direction with no backtracking.  Next, we can only make six stops.  It is important to note, we can fly into one country and out of another and it only counts as one stop, so it’s more like six “takeoffs and landings”.  Also, you can only stop on a continent twice and the whole trip has to be completed within a one-year time period.

The Chart

Click to enlarge to read the SkyTeam RTW Award Rules…

Now, some people may look at these guidelines as restrictions which prevent free choice and movement.  We found the opposite to be true.  Deciding destinations for an around the world trip is quite daunting and we found these guidelines very helpful in getting us started.  Rather than restricting us, they really helped provide direction and a place to start.

The first thing we had to do is choose which direction we wanted to go.  We decided to go West to East for a couple of reasons.  First, this would have our first stop be in an English speaking country—either Australia or New Zealand.  This would help us ease into our world travels without hitting a major language barrier right away.  Another reason is so we can tackle the Asian countries early on our journey.  We anticipate these countries will provide the most challenging travel experiences due to the vast cultural differences, and we want to explore them while we are still feeling fresh and aren’t so worn down from months of travel.

One of 16 planes we might end up on...

Once we chose a direction, we sat down with a world map and started choosing destinations that the SkyTeam would fly.  We wanted to get the most out of each stop, so not only did we look at the country we would be flying into, but also what other countries we could get to from there.  We knew our first stop would either be New Zealand or Australia—we couldn’t go to both because we only get six  stops.  After asking around, the general consensus was the experience of New Zealand wins over that of Australia any day of the week.

For our European leg, we decided to spend the bulk of our time in Eastern Europe and we are pretty much ignoring western countries like Spain, France and Italy.  The reasons for this are twofold:  the western countries will be fairly easy to get back to in the future and they are so “westernized” that they won’t be as much of a unique experience.  We look forward to trekking through the Balkan states and seeing small villages that seem like they are relics from years past.

Another question we often get is, “Are you going to Africa?”  We spoke to several friends who have traveled extensively and sometimes strangers at parties and they all said the same thing, “Don’t miss Africa.  Go on a safari!”  This is great advice, but you may have noticed Africa is not on our list of destinations.  Here’s why: Africa is far.  Look on the map—to go to Africa and continue in one direction, without missing huge chunks of Europe, would be difficult.  We view Africa and particularly a safari as its own trip.  In addition, we are trying to keep our expenses low and an African safari can be quite pricey.  This is definitely something we’d love to do, we just don’t think this trip is the time.

After going through this thought process together, we then spent about three hours on the phone with a lovely woman at the Delta Rewards Round the World Ticket Desk. (Yes, that actually exists).  We went through each destination, looked for available flights on the SkyTeam, and changed airports when needed.  Luckily, our times are incredibly flexible and so we were able to move things around pretty easily—after all, what do we care if we fly into Buenas Aires, Montevideo or Santiago—they all get us to South America and we can get around from there.

I know everyone has opinions about where we are going and the choices we’ve made, but here’s the thing—we really can’t go wrong.  We chose to avoid areas of the world that we thought might be too dangerous, but otherwise they will all be new and interesting experiences.  Will they all be great?  Probably not.  Will we broaden our understanding of the world and create amazing memories everywhere we go?  Absolutely!


Categories: Destinations, Flights, Transportation, Trip Prep | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

More Prepping for our Japan visit

Continuing our post from yesterday, we’re looking forward to our time in Japan – our second stop on our Round The World trip.

To get set, we recently bought a pair of seven-day JR Rail Passes to help us transverse Japan which has a land area about the size of California. After doing some research, The JR Rail Pass seems like our best bet for getting around Japan. While the cost of the second-class ticket set us back a sweet $350 per pass, it looks like it is going to be money well spent. The pass covers you for a seat on just about any long-distance train (including the famed Shinkasen bullet train), intra-city travel and ferries. There are exceptions on locations, but overall this is designed for tourists. You must purchase the pass before you get to Japan. The handy staff at the Morningside Heights 112th street STA helped get us set.

Yesterday, we shared some feedback from our friend Dax who lived in Japan for a number of years. Below are some more of his incredibly helpful tips based on his own extensive experiences:

Like New York, trains in Tokyo run local and express (plus sometimes super-express). Unlike New York, the trains don’t run at night, so make sure to find out what time your last train leaves. The last train often doesn’t go all the way to the end of the line, so also make sure that it will stop at your station.  If you end up stranded, though, no one minds if you sleep on the station floor. When buying tickets, the price varies depending on the distance, even inside the cities (New York felt like an all-you-can-ride-buffet after Japan), so you have to put your ticket in the turnstile both entering and leaving the station.

 Just for the hell of it, I recommend riding a train at rush hour, simply for the adrenalizing madness. It literally feels like being at the very front of a music festival crowd. I would try to convey the crush to friends and family, but when they visited me, they would still get on a mildly crowded train and say: “Wow, this train is crowded!” And I would say: “Haven’t you read my emails? Do you have both feet on the floor? Does your body not feel like it’s wrapped with a python? Then this train is not crowded.”

 Summer is festival time in Japan, so if you ever see crowds of people and music, go in. The Japanese never mind foreigners entering their festivals. If you see people doing a coordinated dance in a circle, jump in and try to follow along. The Japanese around you will probably laugh and show you how to do the dance.

 For train travel, Excellent portable snacks are onigiri, which are seaweed-wrapped rice balls with a little filling like tuna or pickles. You can buy these in any convenience store. The plastic wrappers are very conveniently designed if you know the correct way to open them, so ask a Japanese person (like the clerk) to show you how.

I think Lonely Planet makes the best guidebooks for Japan (and just about every other country).

Have fun and good luck!!


Categories: Japan, Rail, Tokyo, Trip Prep | Tags: , , | 9 Comments

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