Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Ease the stress of flying during the holidays

If you plan to travel by air this holiday season, now is the time to book your flight—if you haven’t already done so.
According to Dean Headley, co-author of AirlineQuality Rating and associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University, demand for airline travel is expected to remain strong through the holiday travel weeks around Thanksgiving and Christmas.  You might even say it will be challenging.

Ticket prices are higher then, and the possibility of bad weather and system glitches can make traveling at this time a stressful experience. Additionally, December and January typically have worse on-time arrival percentages and mishandled baggage rates than any other months.

Headley also says that recent airline mergers and consolidations continue to shrink consumer choice options: “It takes several years for all the pieces to fit together, and passengers often are confused and unhappy during the adjustment period.”
Fees continue to be a reality, so plan for added costs for checking luggage or choosing seats since these impact the final price you pay to travel by air (not only during the holidays). “At some point a traveler needs to make the call as to whether the holiday visit is worth the price and the hassle,” Headley says. If you’re going to do it, here are tips to make holiday travel less stressful.

Be flexible. Midweek or Saturday flights are usually less expensive. Or consider flying on the holiday itself.
Go early. Travel well before the holiday, if possible. Also, early morning flights are less likely to be delayed.

Choose your airport carefully. Assuming fares and service are equivalent on flights you are considering, choose the least congested airport for making connections.
Pay with credit. Booking a ticket with a credit card usually provides certain protections, especially if you’re due a refund. If you use the airline’s loyalty card, you may also get free checked luggage and priority boarding.

Confirm information on itinerary. Be sure your name is the same on your photo I.D. as on your ticket. Check that airports, dates, and times are correct.
Re-check departure and arrival times before leaving. Schedules change. Enough said.

Check in early, and arrive at the gate early. You can do this online up to 24 hours prior to your flight. You might lose your reservation if you’re not at the gate 15 minutes before scheduled departure on a domestic flight. If a flight is oversold, the last passengers to check in are the first to be bumped, even if they have met check-in deadlines.
Watch as baggage is tagged. Be sure the agent attaches a destination tag on each checked bag with the correct three-letter code for your destination airport.

Bring holiday cheer. If you are self-reliant, informed, and prepared, you can eliminate many of the hassles of flying. Especially during this season, share the holiday spirit and a smile with fellow travelers.
Photos from free sources




Thursday, October 20, 2016

Alesund, Norway created new image after tragic event

Some Norwegians say Alesund is Norway’s most beautiful city. Cobblestone streets, buildings adorned with turrets, spires, and medieval ornamentation, and a breathtaking landscape of mountains looming in every direction give Alesund a storybook quality.
View of Alesund, Norway, a city build in the shadow of mountains.
A city reinvents itself

A catastrophic fire swept through Alesund in 1904 destroying 800 wooden houses. The tragedy provided an opportunity for the city to rebuild in a new way. It emerged a mere three years later as the only Norwegian city built in the popular Art Nouveau style. Because it is so different from other Norwegian towns, visitors enjoy seeing and walking among these charming structures.
Visitors love wandering among the Art nouveau style buildings
in Alesund, Norway.
We took a bus to the viewpoint at the top of Mt. Aksla on the city’s outskirts. Or you can walk up 418 paved steps to the top. Because the road up the mountain is so steep electric cables under the asphalt surface keep it dry in all seasons.

Walk or take a bus to the top of Mt. Aksla?
The weather was pleasant—even sunny--and the views of the architecturally-quaint city center were impressive.We strolled on a few trails in this fine outdoor area that gets plenty of use from locals. Some trails have lights so they can be used during the long, dark winter months when there’s very little daylight.
Kirkegata, the town’s most famous street and commercial center boasts a long line of Art Nouveau houses featuring distinctive gables, turrets, and towers. One of the finest buildings is the century-old Alesund Church, and our guide was sure to point out the city’s narrowest house, just a little wider than the door.

Islands connected by tunnels
Built on three islands, water surrounds every part of Alesund, Norway.
Built on three small islands, this large fishing port has a population of 45,000.  The islands are connected by sub-sea tunnels, a major engineering feat. The first tunnel we went in crosses the fjord to the north 30 meters below the sea bed. When we emerged from the second tunnel on the island of Valderhaug, we traveled on to Giske, which means “flat island” in Norse, where we visited the noted Marble Church. With so many islands, you’re never far away from water, but the water on the coast never freezes because the Gulf Stream keeps temperatures relatively mild.

Almost everyone in Alesund has a boat. Sailing is very popular, and fishing is a mainstay. Cod and salmon brought settlers to Alesund’s shores 9,000 years ago, It was a center for Viking trading by the 8th century. It started exporting dried and salted codfish (called Klippfisk) in 1824 which led to full seaport rights 24 years later. Fishing is still the most important industry.
Nature’s magnificence unfolds

Yes, that's a surfer riding a wave to the beach--in Norway.
Beyond the city is a striking terrain of lush valleys, sparkling fjords, and blustery islands. Nine-mile-long Geirangerfjord, which is surrounded by imposing, snow-covered mountain peaks, rushing waterfalls, and abundant green vegetation is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The southern coast of Godoy Island offers long stretches of white sand beaches and world-renowned surfing (best in winter). Who knew you could surf in Norway?
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier


Saturday, October 15, 2016

Traveling to Europe? Stretch your dollars

If you plan to travel to Europe in the next year or so, you’re in luck because the dollar has been strong against the euro for months. The exchange rate on 10-15-16 is 1.097, meaning the dollar and euro are almost identical in buying power.
Also, since Brexit, the dollar is much closer to the pound used by the United Kingdom. In fact, on 10-15-16 it’s at a very low rate of 1.219. If you’ve always heard that visiting England is really expensive, now is the time to consider a trip.

Of course, no one can predict what future rates might be, but here are tips for taking advantage of current rates (which seem to get better for Americans every time I check exchange rates).
Purchase euros before you leave the States. Buy as much as you are comfortable with while rates are favorable for the dollar. If rates go up, you’ll be sitting pretty. Another advantage is you won’t have to worry about exchanging money right before or during your trip. Many U.S. banks can get almost any currency worldwide if you give them sufficient notice. It’s easy, worry-free, and convenient as long as you don’t mind having a large sum of cash. Just don’t put it all in one place when you travel.

Prepay tours, transportation, theater tickets, or hotels when you can get a good rate. You might consider prepaying even if it’s not a requirement to lock in the exchange rate as long as there’s a cancellation policy you can live with, or you have travel insurance.
Book tours or cruises now. Even if you don’t plan to travel for a year or more, lock in today’s low exchange rates.  Also, check on whether your tour company will pass along any exchange rate savings that might occur between the time you make a deposit or final payment and when you travel. A time-frame of six to nine months can make a significant difference, and some companies set their rates way in advance.

Pay with euros or pounds once you’ve arrived in Europe or the UK. Although vendors may accept dollars, many charge a premium for you to use dollars. An unfavorable exchange rate is not worth paying, so plan ahead and have sufficient euros or pounds on hand prior to leaving on your trip.
Use a credit card that does not charge a foreign transaction fee. If you’re not sure whether your card does, call customer service before you go—and get a different card for international travel if necessary. An extra three percent on every purchase adds up fast.

Shop for bargains, whether it’s airfare, hotels, or tours. Do your research before leaving so you’re not winging it day by day—and paying higher prices from lack of foresight. Consider alternative routes to your destination city, and use consolidators to compare rates for airfare, hotels, and tours.
Now is an excellent time to head across the pond, so choose your dream destination (keep in mind not all European countries use the euro), and start planning a fabulous trip.

Photos from free sites.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Water makes the best family vacations

It’s hard to beat water for family getaways. Fortunately, there are many ways to plan a trip around water.
Houseboat on Cumberland Lake in Kentucky
Rent a houseboat. Two-thirds of U. S. states have at least one lake that is suitable for house boating.  Rentals are available from Alaska to Florida, from California to New York, and dozens of blue water spots in between.  Spacious floor plans and modern conveniences for entertaining, dining, and sleeping bring the best of lake living to your floating hotel. Now is the time to book your rental for next spring or summer.

White sandy beach at Gulf Shores, Alabama
Go beachcombing: Gulf Shores in Alabama and Rosemary Beach in Florida are ideal places to dig your toes into soft sand.  Both are located on the protected waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Anytime after hurricane season ends on November 1 will be lovely on the Gulf coast.
Gull Lake in northern Minnesota
Lounge on a lake: Door County on Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, Grand View Lodge on Gull Lake in Minnesota, Lake Ouachita in Arkansas, and Lake Havasu in Arizona are all ideal places with plenty of fishing, boating, and sporting activities for all ages—plus golf, spas, and biking opportunities. There’s something for everyone at a lake setting.

Wave pool at Schlitterbahn Water Park in New Braunfels, Texas

Play at water parks: Schlitterbahn, the world’s biggest and best water park, is headquartered at New Braunfels, Texas but has expanded to other locations including Kansas City. Great Wolf Lodges in Texas, Washington, Ohio, and eight other states give guests a splashing good time—out of the hot sun--at their large indoor water parks. Check websites for operating times during off-season for outdoor parks, although indoor  water parks are popular year round.
Water slides on Carnival Magic cruise ship
Take a cruise: Newer cruise ships have their own water slides, ropes courses, climbing walls, ice skating rinks, and surf simulators—as well as plenty of pools and hot tubs. Special kids clubs keep youngsters entertained while mom and dad check out adults-only areas.

Shore excursions, especially at Caribbean ports, incorporate water into activities like snorkeling, kayaking, zip lining, or horseback riding. Rates are better if you can go during the shoulder season in fall and spring rather than holidays, spring break, or summer.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Haunt season is underway in southern cities

The temperatures are dropping, the leaves are changing and the screams are starting – all signs that “Haunt Season” is happening once again. The Haunted Attraction Association (HAA) has announced that hundreds of fright specialists from coast to coast have opened their doors of doom to offer thrills and chills to visitors now through the end of October.

 “This is the best time of year in my opinion,” said HAA President John Eslich.  “Our members have worked hard to elevate the guest experience; and with the introduction of new elements like virtual reality and blackout experiences at a number of attractions, I think people will feel emotions they’ve never felt before.”  

In advance of National Haunted House Day on October 14, here is a sampling of haunted attractions in southern states of the U.S.

Plano, Texas

Dark Hour Haunted House provides over 30,000 feet of terror to be explored by willing guests. The attraction includes three themed areas: Dominion of the Dead, Coven Manor, and Voodoo Vengeance, all of which have sets worthy of a Broadway production. Professional actors and strategic use of technology all combine to create a genuine theatrical experience in terror.

Nashville, Tennessee

Entering its sixth year of fear, Nashville Nightmare has brought together the top talent in the area to enter a new level of terror. New for 2016, the attraction is introducing Night Terrors Haunted House, an industrial horror complex, where Necro-Toxins are pumped into visitors’ systems as they travel through dark tunnels and sewers while encountering nightmarish creates.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

The 13th Gate offers 13 distinct nightmarish realms where a visitor’s worst fears will come true. The attraction features a real snake-infested Louisiana Swamp, nightly voodoo shows, claustrophobic cellars, hidden subterranean passages and a prehistoric ice cave and much more, all seamlessly woven together to create one haunting experience. From crawling through a crematory oven and an old hearse to being lost in dark underground tunnels, this 40,000 square foot haunted house is not recommended for the faint of heart.

More Haunts in the South:

Creepy Hollow Haunted House, Rosharon, Texas

Derailed Haunted House, Ramer, Tennessee

Mountain Mayhem, Whitesburg, Kentucky

Sinister Tombs Haunted House, Eastview, Kentucky

Tormented Nightmares, Black Mountain, North Carolina

Granville Haunt Farm, Oxford, North Carolina

Dark Woods Haunted House, Natchitoches, Louisiana

Lake Hickory Haunts, Hickory, North Carolina

Information courtesy of Daylyn Weppner, Lou Hammond Group. Photos from Haunted Attraction Association

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Tromso, Norway--city of contrasts

Can you imagine a city located 217 miles north of the Arctic Circle being called “Mediterranean of Scandinavia”? Or “Paris of the Arctic”?
Tromso, Norway is surprisingly beautiful and vibrant--with a
somewhat temperate climate.
Tromso, Norway has been tagged with those monikers in addition to the understandable title of “Gateway to the Arctic.”

When you visit Tromso you’ll discover why all of those names fit the city. It has a vibrant cultural scene with an international population thanks to universities and research facilities. Tromso is a cultural center for the region and hosts numerous film and music festivals each year. It’s also one of the best places to see Aurora Borealis, attracting people who come to witness a Northern Lights spectacle between mid-August and late April.
The Tromso Bridge is a notable landmark connecting the continental
and island sections of the city.
Despite being located in a rugged polar landscape, Gulf currents keep the climate more moderate than you’d expect. Water temperatures rarely reach 60 degrees F, but people still go to the beaches. Brrr.

Partly located on the small island of Tromsoya, the city is actually larger than the country of Luxemburg. There is also a continental part of Tromso that is only two hours from Finland, a country with a considerably colder climate.
Architecture of Tromso

Tromso is known for its large concentration of historic wooden houses, including Tromso Cathedral, built in 1861, Norway’s only wooden cathedral and the most northerly Protestant church in the world. The oldest house in Tromso dates to 1789. After 1904 wood houses were banned, probably in reaction to a large fire the same year in Alesund that destroyed more than 800 wooden buildings.
The Arctic Cathedral is a glorious
contemporary structure showcasing
an architecturally interesting design.
These wood buildings contrast with the stunning ultra-modern Arctic Cathedral, built in 1965. This famous landmark features 11 graceful descending triangles of glass, steel, and concrete with a design inspired by mountains, fish racks, icebergs, and tents of the Sami people (indigenous tribes). A beautiful stained glass window depicting the second coming of Christ was added in 1972. It’s a fitting religious symbol with a purpose because the original window let in so much light people had to wear sunglasses inside! 

More to see
We rode the cable car to a
mountain ledge for stunning
views of the city and landscape.
The Fjelheise Cable Car offers an exhilarating four-minute ride to the top of Mt. Storsteinen (means "big rock") to a mountain ledge. When you disembark, you’ll see dramatic 360-degree views of Tromso, Tomseya Island, and the surrounding mountains, which reach 6,000 feet altitude and are covered with snow even in summer. That may be why the city is regarded as the birthplace of modern skiing.

Other interesting facts: Tromso is home to the world’s northernmost mosque and the seat of the world’s northernmost Catholic bishop. Norway’s oldest cinema, Verdensteatret, is still in use in Tromso and hosts an international film festival each fall. The Polar Museum, located in a restored 1837 customs house, pays tribute to Tromso’s historical role as a launching point for numerous Arctic expeditions. It was the only city in northern Norway that totally avoided war damage during World War II.
Flowers galore

Even in the Arctic, flowers bloom in a lovely botanic setting.
One of the biggest surprises was the Arctic Botanic Garden, within walking distance of the ship’s dock. There Larry and I found hundreds of varieties of Arctic plants, many of them in full bloom. Flowers like tulips, irises, poppies, and a rare variety of ranunculus found only in Skagland beautifully displayed all colors of the rainbow. Native rock was used for foot paths and to create different levels with plenty of places to stop and enjoy this lovely touch of summer.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier



Saturday, October 1, 2016

Everything is made of ice in these Norwegian bars

Dressed for cold in the
Arctic Ice Bar

One of the delights we discovered in Norway was visiting an ice bar. We had so much fun that we went two times, once in Honningsvag and again on the Lofoten Islands. These extreme northern destinations (above the Arctic Circle) were the perfect setting for our chilling experiences.
Everything in an ice bar is made of ice—yes, everything. Walls, tables, chairs, even drinking glasses are all crystal-clear frozen water.  It’s amazing to think that 123 metric tons of ice from local lakes was used to create this unusually beautiful scene.

Fire and ice
Our first venture into the world of ice was in Honningsvag. This city is called Gateway to the North Cape, Europe’s northernmost tip, which we went to visit. Unfortunately the North Cape, or Nordkapp, was fogged in during our visit, and we couldn’t see the splendidly rugged cliffs that it is known for.
Inside the igloo
Back in town, we spied the Arctic Ice Bar. For about $16 each we were welcomed into a dimly lit room filled with sparkling ice formations. Upon entering, we were each given a thick, hooded silver, insulated cape that covered most of the body. Gloves are on your own, and thankfully, I had a pair with me.
 We walked gingerly at first, wary of slipping on the ice. But soon we got used to the surroundings enough and headed to the bar for the first of our two included non-alcoholic drinks.

Ice sculptures at Magic Ice
Bar and Gallery
Inside there were several bar areas where people could sit down on ice benches (some covered in fur for warmth) and lounge beside tables made of ice. A pseudo fireplace (made of ice) glowed with a reddish light. I scrambled into an igloo and reclined on a fur-covered sleigh for photo opportunities. All this surrounded a horseshoe-shaped bar with a perky young lady serving drinks (30-minute shifts, she said).

At the Magic Ice Bar and Gallery, we were treated to a modern look at the history of Lofoten fishing villages via dozens of ice sculptures depicting symbols relevant to life in Norway. Again, guests were dressed i a warm capes, and everything in the ice bar was made of ice including bar, drinking glasses, tables, and sculptures.
Ice sculpture of Vikings
Aptly called a gallery, the bar featured colored lights illuminating figures of birds, Vikings, ships, fishermen, and more. This place was a marvelous maze of ice halls and displays dramatically presenting the story of traditional fishing life. Enhanced with constantly changing lights, sounds, and music, the striking ice creations were a joy to behold. 
Having a drink in the ice bar

Then there was the berry wine—in an ice glass, of course--topping off the fun experience of noshing in a Norwegian ice bar. A novelty, for sure, but definitely good times.
Photos by Larry Burmeier and Beverly Burmeier