Thursday, October 19, 2017

Sacramento and Amador County - October 19-22, 2017

Depart: Thursday, October 19, 2017
Return: Sunday, October 22, 2017
Itinerary: Paradise - Sacramento Plymouth - Paradise

 Here's a slideshow of our trip:

Friday, September 29, 2017

San Francisco - Sept 29 - Oct 1

Depart: Friday, September 29, 2017
Return: Sunday, October 1, 2017
Itinerary: Paradise - San Francisco - Paradise

 Here's a slideshow of our trip:


Sunday, August 20, 2017

Ashland - August 18 - 20, 2017

Depart: Friday, August 18, 2017
Return: Sunday, August 20, 2017
Itinerary: Paradise - Medford - Ashland - Paradise

We were supposed to go see the total eclipse, but a change in my class schedule made that impossible. Instead, we just sent to Ashland for the weekend.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Travel Tools

I don't think anyone reads this blog; after all, it's just intended to be a record of the trips Jhan and I have taken together. But I've planned a number of international trips (Australia, France, Iceland, Spain, Singapore, etc.) and dozens of smaller domestic trips. So, I thought I'd share the tools I use in planning our trips... with whoever happens to read this.

I don't use travel agents; I plan all of our trips myself, on my own, with just tools listed here. I learned that I could do a better job with a web browser than a travel agent could when Jhan asked me to have a travel agent put together our Australia trip. Not only did my planning come in $5000 cheaper, we had more flexibility, better places to stay, and better wine tasting tours.
  1. Overall Travel Planning
    1. Google Earth
    2. Google Maps
    3. Travel Books
  2. Weather
  3. Flights
  4. Lodging
  5. Things to Do
  6. Things I Don't Do - Ever

1. Overall Travel Planning

An Internet connection is, obviously, the most powerful travel planning tool in existence. With the Internet and a credit card, you can go pretty much anywhere in the world. Here, I plan to get a bit more specific than that.

Google Earth

Not quite as useful as Google Maps (mostly because the interface isn't as conducive to searching), Google Earth is still one of the most valuable travel tools I know.

I typically begin my travel planning with Google Earth to get a feel for the destination, and move to Google Maps when I want to find specific things like restaurants, hotels, specific sights, etc.

Google Earth's strength is it's detailed 3D view of the entire planet. Many cities even include detailed 3D renderings of every building and tree, making it possible to get an excellent idea of the lay of the land. Google Streets view is included in Google Earth, so you can see a real street-level view of most every city.

I use Google Earth for:

Estimating flights and flight paths

Exploring cities and terrain from far...

...and near...

..to really near.



Previewing the view from any given location.


Using 3D overlays to plan trips to events... like total solar eclipses (July 2, 2019).


Google Maps

There's just no getting around it, Google Maps is the single best tool for planning trips. Google Maps strengths include it's level of detail, integration with Google search, route planning and navigation tools, Google Street View, etc. Once I've gotten a feel for a destination, I typically switch from Earth to Maps to get to the nitty gritty of trip planning.

There are almost too many things to go into with respect to how I use maps, so I'll just mention a couple of highlights.

Finding specific things like restaurants, hotels, or wineries. Google maps even translates for you; type in "winery" in Argentina, and it searches for "bodega".

Click on an item to get more details, including hours, busy times, website links, reviews, etc.

Navigation. There is really no better tool for navigating that Google Maps. You can choose navigation by car, public transit, plane, etc., and you can add stops, save your route, and on and on. If you are logged into your Google account, you can save locations and routes so they show up automatically on your phone, where you can get turn-by-turn navigation.

Street view lets me look around a location to get a feel for a town or location.


Travel Books

Though I use the Internet extensively in travel planning, I also like to read travel books; real actual books with paper pages. I like that they have a pretty standard format, and the good ones cover things like cultural differences, things to beware of (crime, etc.), and other solid travel tips that you might or might not get just looking around online. I never take them with me when I travel, but they are great for getting a lay of the land where you're going.

My favorite books are:
  1. Rick Steves: Rick's books - where available (only Europe) - are far and away my favorites. Rick appeals to slightly more "mature" travelers, but who are still reasonably adventurous (at least enough so that they avoid tours and plan their own trips). 
  2. Tie between Rough Guides and Lonely Planet: Both seemed to be aimed at a slightly different, but younger and/or less well off crowd, but are still excellent overall. The Rough Guides are particularly good on outdoor activities.
  3. Eyewitness Travel: Pretty pictures and graphics, but pretty worthless for trip planning.
  4. Frommer's & Fodor's: I dunno, these books seem worthless to me. Just take a tour already.
"Been there" on the left, "going there" on the right.

2. Weather

I'm not a huge fan of hot weather, high prices, or huge crowds - and that's what you get if you travel at peak season. Typically, we try to avoid the peak of peak season and try to travel in shoulder or off-season when possible. But whenever you plan to travel, it's important to understand what to expect weather-wise.

For immediate forecasts, I use the Weather Underground. It provides the best overall interface for weather forecasts.


But 10 day forecasts are completely worthless when planning a trip six months or a year (or two years) in advance. For trip planning, I rely completely on Weather Spark. It doesn't give you the forecast for a location; instead it gives you the hourly, daily, and monthly averages for a wide range of weather elements.

For example, I can see the temperatures for virtually any location in the world by annual trends..

Daily by month detail...

Or even hourly by day.

The chart tells me that on July 2nd (the day of the total eclipse), there's a 90% chance that the low temperature will be above 30° as well as a 90% chance the high temperature will be below 69°.

Weather Spark doesn't stop with temperatures, however. For the day of the eclipse, I can see the percent chance of cloud cover at San Juan, Argentina at 5:40 PM (the time of maximum eclipse). Fortunately, even though it is winter, there is over 50% chance that skies will be clear.
I can even see the chance of rain throughout the day.

You can even compare locations to see, for example, which has the greatest chance for clear skies for viewing an eclipse.

3. Flights

I've played around with everything: Kayak, Expedia, and Travelocity (see below), but there really is only one tool in my mind for searching for flights, and that's Google Flights.

I could spent hours going over the capabilities of Google Flights. It's really one of the most amazing trip planning tools out there. I'll only go over a few highlights here.

One of the first nice features of Google Flights is that it allows you to pick as many departure airports as you want. In the Bay Area, there are often cheaper flights from Oakland than from San Francisco, so including them both gives you more options.

Once you have your departure and destination locations, you can overview prices on the calendar.
If your dates are flexible (they SHOULD be), you can use "flexible dates" to save money (often a significant amount).
You can also use the "Price graph" to see when prices typically go up and down for your selected route.

Once you've selected your dates, you can view the available flights, and sort by price, length, stops, etc.
Lastly, you can track your selected price and watch how prices fluctuate (often insanely) over time. Google will send you endlessly annoying emails every time the price changes.
My personal recommendation is to purchase your flights as far out as you can. Prices start going up months before the flight (see the Barcelona flight, above... prices jumped 7 months before the flight). Prices always go up, never down. That's the cardinal rule of flight planning. The earlier you buy, the cheaper the tickets. Period. At the very least, you should book no less than 90 days before your flight.
And if you don't know where to go, but are looking for the cheapest flight, the Explore Destinations button allows you to use the map to find the cheapest destinations.

4. Lodging

For the most part, we've switched entirely from hotels to AirBnb whenever we can. We've never had a bad AirBnB experience, and some of the places we've stayed (e.g., an apartment on Pont Neuf in Paris, mere blocks from the Louvre and Notre Dame) have been mind blowing.

AirBnB apartment on Pont Neuf, overlooking the Seine. 

Three things for us make AirBnB the way to go:
  1. Overall, AirBnB properties tend to be cheaper than hotels
  2. We can have a kitchen which makes breakfast (and sometimes lunch or dinner) much cheaper, and allows us to eat real local food (in France this was a huge boon - le fromage!)
  3. We get to live in a real apartment or house in a real neighborhood and get a much more intimate sense of the location than if we stayed in some huge resort outside of town.
If we can't stay in an AirBnB, or don't want to for whatever reason, then we use Google Maps to help us find a hotel (preferably with a view...).
Langham Hotel - Melbourne, Australia

5. Things to Do

Generally speaking, I find most things to do in a location either from Google Maps, a travel book, or just from searching the Internet. But I also rely on TripAdvisor for top things to see, food and wine tours, best restaurants, and occasionally for finding a good hotel.

I've never booked anything through TripAdvisor (see below), but some of their city guides are great sources of information.

6. Things I Don't Do - Ever

I don't use Travelocity or Expedia, or any other third party booking site. Ever. 

I never, ever book through anything other than the actual provider. If I can save $40 on a flight by going through Kayak or Expedia... I spend the extra $40 to book directly through the airline. Ditto with hotels. I ONLY book directly with the hotel. 

Why? The first time we used Expedia, we ended up at a hotel that had no hot water (at Christmas). They understood that we didn't want to stay, and we left. But it took us six months and a half a dozen phone calls to get our money back from Expedia. And if you read the Travel Troubleshooter, you know that the number one cause of travel planning woes is booking through a third party. So I don't do it. 

Yes, you might get a great deal through a third party, but if something goes wrong and you're 7,000 miles from home... it's just not worth it.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Iceland - June 16-24, 2017

Depart: Friday, June 16, 2017
Return: Saturday, June 24, 2017
Itinerary: Paradise - SFO - Reykjavik - Seydisfjordur - Reykjavik - SFO - Paradise

 Here's a slideshow of our trip:

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Iceland Itinerary

Day 1 (6/17) - Reykjavik



Day 2 (6/18) - Reykjavik to Skogar



Day 3 (6/19) - Skogar to Hoffell



Day 4 (6/20) - Hoffell to Seydisfjordur


Day 6 (6/22) - Seydisfjordur - Reykjavik



Day 7 (6/23) - Reykjavik to Keflavik

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Carmel Valley

Depart: Saturday, February 18, 2017
Return: Sunday, February 19, 2017
Itinerary: Paradise - Carmel Valley - Paradise

Here's a slideshow of our trip:


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Sonoma

Depart: Friday, January 27, 2017
Return: Sunday, January 29, 2017
Itinerary: Paradise - Sonoma ( - Rohnert Park) - Paradise

Here's a slideshow of our trip: