Don’t fear travel, fear NOT living

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A new year, new U.S .presidency, and new travel concerns.  It’s no secret 2017 has ushered in new and uncertain times.  A couple of weeks ago, when our president (yeah, I’m in still in shock too) issued the first travel ban against immigrants, many fellow travelers expressed concern and even panic.  With an upcoming trip to Cuba and Iceland, many people hit me up inquiring about my thoughts on traveling abroad.  Am I going to cancel?  Is it safe?  Am I afraid of experiencing any anti-American sentiment when traveling abroad?  Well, yes and no.  There will always be a fear that something could happen when I crossover into international territory, but it’s no greater than the fear I experience when I drive to work every day.  Looking at the data and statistics, I probably have a greater chance of being killed in a mass shooting at my local shopping mall or movie theater, than being killed in a terrorist attack abroad.  So what will I do?  How will I proceed?  I plan to do exactly what I’ve always done:  be aware, stay informed, and practice common sense.   While others are hesitant, I plan to continue to live. And there is absolutely no judgment towards those that choose to pull back on their travel experiences.  At the end of the day, you have to do what is best for you and your comfort level.  Hopefully, the following tips can help guide you in your decision making and ease your fears when it comes to traveling abroad.

1. Enroll in the STEP program

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The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a free service that allows U.S. citizens and nationals traveling abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.  As a participant, you can receive important information from the Embassy about safety conditions in your destination country, allowing you make informed decisions about your travel plans.  Participation can also help the U.S. Embassy contact you in an emergency, whether natural disaster, civil unrest, or family emergency. And you can also help family and friends get in touch with you in an emergency.

2. Travel alerts/warnings

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The U.S. State Department issues travel warning and alerts and updates information on their website regularly.  This site is helpful in guiding your destination choices.  A travel warning is often long term and in place until the situation resolves itself. A travel warning can include unstable government, civil war, ongoing intense crime or violence, or frequent terrorist attacks.  A travel alert is short term and usually related to an election season or a health alert, such as an influenza outbreak.

3. Turn off the Television

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Stay informed, but don’t become obsessed.  I am a firm believer that the very thing we focus on the most shapes our reality. Constantly watching the same negative news reports over and over again only reinforces the very thing you want to avoid.  It incites and fuels fear.   If I governed my life based on the news, I’d never leave my house…and I’m just talking about the “local” news.  Be aware of what’s going on around you, but don’t let it overwhelm you or take hostage of your life. There is always the risk that something can happen.  It can happen abroad or right in your own back yard. Life is risky, live anyway.

3. Communicate/Check-In

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Communicate your travel plans to your family.  Provide them with a copy of your itinerary, flight/lodging information, excursion information, and copy of your passport.  While I’m a proponent of remaining unplugged and disconnected when traveling, it’s a good a do to check-ins, through social media.  If something happens, your loved ones will have a time line and information on your last known location.

4. Roadtrips/Domestic travel

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If you’ve decided that traveling abroad isn’t for you right now, it doesn’t mean you have to stay grounded. There are a plethora of things you can do right here on U.S. soil.  Take a road trip and visit some of those landmarks that remain unchecked on your bucket list.  Spend a weekend in New York and catch a Broadway play. Consider catching a flight deal and attending a music or film festival in a city you’ve never been visited before.  The possibilities really are endless.  Last summer, I launched the Tourist in My Town campaign.  This campaign provides tips on how to take advantage of the tourism opportunities right in your own backyard. If you didn’t participate last summer, this is the perfect time to put it into practice.

Safe travels and wishing you the best in 2017!

 

@urbantravelista 

Urbantravelista | Do you value experiences or things?

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When I was in high school, I had two opportunities to travel abroad. The first opportunity was a trip to Paris with my French class during my freshman year. And, the other opportunity was a bus trip to Canada with my band during my junior year. Both trips would’ve been great opportunities for a black teen whose family didn’t even own a passport. During that time, my travels never extended anywhere beyond visiting relatives in Michigan or my birthplace in Arkansas. My parents supported my decision to go. So why didn’t I go? Well, both trips took place around Christmas break. And like most teenagers, I looked forward to getting Christmas gifts. But my family was far from the Huxtables.  I mean, my parents were (and still are) very awesome and loving.  But like most parents, they couldn’t accommodate both my desire to travel AND provide me with the gifts I wanted for Christmas. So they gave me a choice: I could take the trip in lieu of Christmas gifts or have a decked out Christmas and skip the trip. Being the teenager that I was, I took the latter. I have my whole life to go to Paris, right? I have my eternity to go to Canada, it’s not the far away?

Well, that was almost 30 years ago. And guess what? I still haven’t been to Paris or Canada.  I mean, I’ve been to some pretty dope places, but this reflection reminds me of how even as adults, we often value “things” over experiences.  I don’t even remember what I received for Christmas those years I declined the trips. I can’t tell you what clothes I received or how long I had them. Those material things are all gone. They didn’t last.

I did start to travel about 5 years ago. And I’ve come to learn that my travels and experiences hold so much more value. I can’t tell you what I got for Christmas in 2012. But I can tell you about the adrenaline rush I got when I went zip lining in the jungles of the Dominican. I can’t recall my summer wardrobe from 2013, but I can recall the magnificence of stepping in the Caribbean sea for the first time in Aruba, as if it happened 5 minutes ago. I don’t even know if I still have the pair of gloves I purchased last fall or what they even look like. But I do remember the freedom and liberation of taking my first solo trip to Cancun and trekking the Mayan ruins last October.

Looking back, I regret not choosing the travel opportunities extended to me when I was in high school. Those experiences would’ve lasted a lifetime. I have finally reached a place in my life where experience trumps everything.  I would gladly take an opportunity to visit Spain over a designer handbag or uncomfortable pair of Louboutin heels any day. And I think it all started with that first passport stamp back in 2012. Since that time, I’ve lost a lot. I’ve had to downsize and even rebuild. But through it all, I’ve come to know that the world can strip you everything. But your experiences…your experiences will last a lifetime. They will be with you when you’re old and gray on your death bed.

So the take away it this: Possessions aren’t loyal. They eventually break, tear, or leave. Most of the overpriced junk we buy doesn’t retain value. But experiences…they will ride with you until the very end.  Experience over things…always!

@urbantravelista

 

 

I love the Blue Lagoon

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Back in April, I had the opportunity to visit one of the most serene and terrestrial places on planet: the Blue Lagoon.  So what exactly is this place?  Well for me, it’s one of those dope places that you see on the Travel or Discovery Channel, but never think you will actually ever visit.  But in reality, it’s geothermal spa and happens to be one of Iceland’s most visited attractions. Simply put, if you visit Iceland without making a stop at the Blue Lagoon, you’re doing it wrong.  The lagoon is man-made and located in a lava field in Grindavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula.  So how did the lagoon come into existence? Well, in 1976 a pool formed at the site from the waste water of the geothermal power plant that had just been built there. A few years later, people started bathing in it after its purported healing powers were popularized. In 1992, the Blue Lagoon company was established and the bathing facility was opened for the public for tourism.

Getting there

The awesome thing about the Blue Lagoon is that shuttles run regularly between Keflavik airport, the spa, and the hotels in Reykjavik. The spa is about a 20-minute drive from the airport and a 50-minute drive from Reykjavík.  This is helpful for those who have an early arrival into Keflavik, but can’t check into their hotel until the late afternoon. For example, my flight arrived at 6am, but check-in for my hotel didn’t start until after 2pm. So, instead of stressing out about how I would spend the next 8 hours consuming my time, I arranged for my shuttle to drop me off at the Blue Lagoon and took a shuttle directly my hotel in Reykjavik when I was done. What a nice way to unwind after a 6 hour flight?

Check-in

If you’re arriving from the airport (or doing a stopover before heading back to the airport…many tourists do this as well), the spa will check your luggage for a nominal charge. The Blue Lagoon offers four standard base packages: standard, comfort, premium, and luxury.  These packages increase in price and amenities. After selecting your package, you’re given an electronic wristband, which is scanned to add al a carte items such as spa treatments, drinks, lunch, etc. The wristband is also used as an electronic key for your assigned locker. In addition to swimwear, you are allowed to bring your own robe, slippers.  If not, you can choose one the packages that offers these items upon check-in. After check-in, guests are REQUIRED to shower before entering the lagoon. As a nurse, I think one of the best attributes of the spa is its strict code of hygiene.

The Experience

After showering, and putting on your suit, you’re free the go out to the lagoon. Some people stay for a short time and others stay for hours. The lagoon has a swim up bar and I had no reservation about drinking Prosecco at 8 o’clock in the morning. I mean, I’m in Iceland! While the temperature outside was about 35 degrees, the average temperature of the lagoon averages around 99 to 102 °F.

So what are the benefits of the lagoon?  Well, the warm waters are rich in minerals like silica and sulfur.  It’s been reputed that bathing in the lagoon helps some people suffering from skin diseases such as psoriasis.

A few reminders

  • Attire: bring swimwear- nope, it’s not “nude” spa
  • Make you reservations early.  The Blue Lagoon fills up rather quickly.  You can book directly with the spa or through a tour company like Gray Line, Viator, or Reykjavik Excursions
  • Protect your hair: the geothermal waters of the lagoon can REALLY dry out your hair. From what I’ve been told, it literally turns your hair into straw.  I recommend wearing a head wrap and avoid submerging your hair into the water.
  • Pictures: Take advange of the on-site photographers. They will take your photo free of charge and even email it to you.
  • Purchase or bring a cell phone cover- you can use a plastic sleeve to secure your phone when you take pictures in the lagoon (unless your phone or device is waterproof).  The Blue Lagoon sells these for $25.00.
  • Silica mud mask: try it, it’s a must!
  • There is a restaurant, hotel, and skin care shop on site. If you’re traveling on budget, the skin care products are much cheaper at the airport.
  • Children: children under the age of 9 years old are only allowed entry with the use of armbands, which are provided free of charge, also, the lagoon is not suitable for children under the age of 2 years old.
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Didn’t take long for me to make friends!

 

And yes, I look forward to returning back in April 2017.  You should join me!

@urbantravelista

Urbantravelista | Get out of your comfort zone

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I guess it’s safe to say that 2016 has definitely been my year of summer “festivaling”.  A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to add another summer festival to my resume: The Chicago Hot Dog Fest.  Located in historic Lincoln Park, the event took place over three days and featured some of Chicago’s top hot dog vendors, live entertainment, face painting, and games. Proceeds benefit the Chicago History Museum and this year marked the fourth year of the festival’s existence.

But here’s an interesting plot twist. I hadn’t eaten a hot dog in almost 30 years. As a native Chicagoan, that’s considered pure blasphemy.  Hot dogs are a staple in my city.  But, once my eighth grade teacher Mr. Patrick (may he rest in peace) decided to share how hot dogs were processed, I lost my desire to ever eat one again. But fast forward 30 years later, attending the fest motivated me to give into peer pressure. I mean, how can I blog about this event and not even try the main product? So, I stepped outside of my comfort zone and tried a hot dog for the first time in 30 years.

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After posting the photo and caption above on my Facebook page, it didn’t take long for the food Nazis to express their disgust and disappointment.  And I totally get it.  I can understand the naysayers.  In a failed attempt to go completely vegan, I gave up pork and red meat a few years ago. But when I travel abroad or have a new restaurant experience, I try to remove those limits.  We tend to play it safe in life, especially when we travel. We will venture thousands of miles, across several time zones and even cross the international date line, just to eat the same routine foods we eat every day when we’re at home.  Life is short and I don’t believe in wasting experiences anymore.

So the take away is this: whether you’re at home or abroad, it doesn’t hurt to step outside of your comfort zone. It won’t kill you to try something new or unfamiliar. I’m living proof. I ate a hot dog for the first time in 30 years…and LIVED to write about it. And BTW, that hot dog was AMAZING…but it will probably be another 30 years before I experience another one.

Day Trips/Excursions: Ten essential items you’ll regret leaving at home

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I love day trips and excursions, but I love them even more when I travel prepared. Some excursions don’t require intensive preparation, it depends on the activity. Some can be short (a few hours) and others run ALL DAY (up to 12 hours).  When I visited the Chichen Itza last fall, I had a scheduled pick up time at 7:00am and didn’t return until after 6:00pm. That’s longer than my work day!  Although I felt prepared for the long day, there were a still a couple of items I wish I had brought along. Here’s my personal list of 10 essential items that will make any summer excursion or day trip run more smoothly:

 

  1. Water bottle: The tour operator may offer water (depends of the tour), but it never hurts to have your own to stay hydrated.
  2. Disposable Camera:  It’s a good idea to bring a disposable camera, just in case. They’re inexpensive, light, and compact. There’s nothing like traveling thousands of miles to see a landmark only to find you can’t take a picture because you’re primary camera failed.
  3. Portable External Battery Pack:  Some excursions can last just a few hours and as long as 12 hours. Bring a backup portable battery for your electronic devices.
  4. Crossbody Bag/Backpack:  These are probably the most comfortable and efficient bags to carry. They’re big enough to hold your essential items and usually have enough room to add items you might purchases along the way. They’re also durable and comfortable to transport.
  5. Sunscreen:  Depending on the climate and destination, the temps can really climb. Protect your skin just as you would if you were lounging at the beach for longer excursions.
  6. Rain Poncho:  If you’re bothered by heavy downpours, bringing a disposable poncho might be of benefit to you.
  7. Snacks/Energy Bar: Again, this depends on the length of your excursion.  Some tour operators offer snacks and others don’t offer anything.
  8. Travel medications:  The registered nurse in me never leaves home without meds like Benadryl, ibuprofen, or anti-diarrheal. History demonstrates that disaster usually strikes when you have no access to relief.
  9. Sunglasses/Sunhat:The sun can be really unforgiving and cruel during long day excursions. You will appreciate the shade.
  10. Hand towels/Moist Towelettes:  To freshen up during long excursions.

 

This list may seem exhaustive, but don’t stress it. Most tour companies will provide a list of suggested items specific to your activity at the time of booking. Pack light, but pack prepared… and happy travels!

@urbantravelista  

#TouristInMyTown Summer Challenge

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So what exactly is the #TouristInMyTown Summer Challenge? Well it’s a challenge I created to inspire myself and others to take advantage of the abundant tourism that’s right in our own back yard. I’m always intrigued whenever I meet people from other parts of the country and globe that have experienced and know more about my city than I do. I mean, how exactly does this happen? How is that John has been to Navy Pier more than I have and he lives in Seattle? Well, I have a theory. Just like a relationship, we get complacent. The attractions we have access to will always be there, so we take them for granted.

In the early 90’s my family and I relocated from the burbs to Hyde Park. If you’re not familiar with Chicago, Hyde Park sits along the lakefront and houses the prestigious University of Chicago and Museum of Science and Industry.  And it is also home of our current First Family. Although it’s changed a lot over the years, there has always been great beauty and a lot of history there. Growing up as a suburbanite, moving to Hyde Park was a welcome change for me. I was so excited to be taking the plunge into city life. I mean, who wouldn’t be excited living on the 22nd floor with a panoramic view of the lake. I couldn’t wait to stroll on the lake with the rest of the joggers and bikers. Well, after my few times, my enthusiasm died down. After my first year, I can count on one hand how many times I went back over the 12 years that followed. And the Museum of Science and Industry? I didn’t go at all. It was walking distance from my apartment building SMH! Truth be told, I really haven’t gone to any museums or zoos since my high school years. And the last time I went to the Sears Tower (I’m a native Chicagoan, it will NEVER be the Willis Tower) was for a job interview. Why didn’t I check out the new Skydeck? I didn’t even get the job, so it would have at least made the trip worth my while.

A second theory I believe keeps us complacent is the “work factor”. Many of us live in the suburbs and work in the city. When we have our freedom on the weekends, the last thing we want to do is travel back to where we work. We commute in, do our work, and leave. Meanwhile, the tourists are having a field day taking advantage of every awesome experience we take for granted. While we’re running to catch that last train back to the burbs, they’re passing us by on their Segway tour.

I want to inspire people to venture outside of the comforts of their own neighbor for leisure rather than work, school, or a doctor’s appointment. Everyone isn’t in the position to quit their jobs to globetrot and island hop every weekend. Everyone doesn’t have the financial resources or even available time off to travel. Some people even have trouble getting passports. But EVERYONE can take advantage of the tourism opportunities right in their back yard.

So how to do you do the #TouristInMyTown Summer Challenge? It’s simple. Pick a day (or a few) and pick out a few attractions you want to check out over the summer:

  • Museums/Landmarks/Tours: Check out the museum or landmark you haven’t visited since childhood. Try going for pure leisure, instead of going because you have to chaperone on a field trip. Does your city offer a walking or bus tour? Try one. You’ll be surprised at what you might learn.
  • Ferris Buller Day: Remember the 80’s classic Ferris Bueller’s Day off (I know, I’m telling my age)? While I would never advocate anyone jeopardizing their job, you can play hooky from work and spend the day in your city sightseeing. Just don’t go near your workplace LOL!
  • Day Trip: Find a destination a couple of hours away from your city and plan a full day trip. Is there a winery or beach you’ve always wanted to visit? Is there an activity you’ve wanted to try, like kayaking or hiking, but never made time for it? The possibilities are endless with a day trip.

 

 

It is my sincere hope that this challenge will give us a new appreciation for where we live and what we take for granted. The news reminds us daily of what’s wrong with our city. Let’s show the world what’s “right” with it. There is so much history and beauty right in our backyard. You can start anytime you want over the summer. Rep your city and don’t forget the #TouristInMyTown hashtag in your social media pics. Let’s go!!!

@urbantravelista

Five things I love/hate about solo travel

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While solo travel may not be for everyone, I do think it’s something everyone should experience (male or female) at least once in their lifetime. You’re probably asking yourself why on earth would a woman “want” to travel halfway around the world alone when dining out and requesting a table for one is already awkward? That was the reaction I received from a few friends when they learned of my first solo trip to Cancun. But if you take my personality into account, it would be no surprise that solo travel would appeal to me. I’m introverted, reserved, socially awkward, and get my energy from solitude. Yeah, I’m the “why you so quiet” girl. But I’m a beast on Facebook (did I mention I was socially awkward in real life?). Anyway, I’ve always been a loner, so doing things alone always seemed to come easy to me. I was also an only child for ten years and grew up as a “latch key kid”. Because of these experiences and personality traits, I guess one could say that I’ve mastered the art of enjoying my own company.  While my experiences with solo travel have been nothing short of amazing, there are pros and cons just like anything else.

What I LOVE

  • Flexibility: What I love most about traveling solo, and I think most others would agree is the freedom to move around and not stick to a rigid itinerary.  Girlfriend/group trips are great, but the freedom of doing things on your own time can be rather enticing. If I want to sleep until noon, I sleep in.  If I want to go chill at the beach, I chill at the beach.  If I’m sleepy and want to turn in early, I go back to my room and go to sleep. If I want to skip an excursion, I can do just that. There is no obligation to participate in anything I do feel up to. I can do things at my own will without being looked at as antisocial or the group “Debbie Downer”.
  • Empowerment: Traveling solo to an unfamiliar territory boosts your confidence like no other. Some people talk about what they’re going to do, the places they plan to visit someday, but seldom ever do. You’re the exception. You had a desire, created a plan, and did it all by yourself.  You didn’t wait for anyone. You turned someday into TODAY. You had fears and you we’re unsure of yourself, but you did it anyway. That’s EMPOWERMENT. And this is the kind of empowerment that builds dreams and turns them into reality. There is no greater empowerment than creating the life you want.
  • Respect: Believe it or not, there’s a lot of respect that comes with traveling solo. The most common line you will receive is, “wow, you’re brave”. People have this perception that you’re fearless, courageous, and a go getter because….well because you are. As I mentioned above, you’re doing what most people “talk” about doing. Embrace it, own it, and be unapologetic for it.
  • Liberation: There really isn’t much I can say about this because it’s something you truly have to experience for yourself. The freedom and liberation that comes with traveling solo feels like an intense dopamine release. It’s almost orgasmic…there’s really nothing like it. Well there are a few substitutes, but I think most of them are illegal LOL. When I traveled solo for the first time last year, I felt like a bird that had just been released from its cage. There is something liberating about being a place where no one knows you and the few days lying ahead of you to do as you please. It’s just YOU living by YOUR own rules.
  • Self-reliance: It should be no surprise that solo travel increases your self-reliance. Being in unfamiliar territory forces you to rely on your senses and become aware of your surroundings.

What I HATE

  • Fear Mongering: While our concerned family and friends mean well (I know they really do), the constant affirmations of what can go wrong can be overwhelming. It takes a lot of courage to travel solo. Once you make the decision to do so, you don’t want anyone raining on your parade. We can’t fault them for overreacting sometimes, especially if they are limited in their own travel experiences. And let’s face it, our media seldom shares the positive realities of our world. It never shares what goes right. We’re constantly inundated with negative news stories and the horrors of the world  instead of its alluring beauty. And while I’m sure our loved ones’ concerns come from a sincere place of love, they often fail to realize is that we really have a greater chance of being robbed, raped, or murdered right in our own backyard. The best analogy I can think of is our soldiers who go overseas to fight, only to return home and be murdered right here on U.S. soil. To be frank, more things go wrong in my life when I’m home than when I’m away. That’s part of the reason why I enjoy getting away LOL!
  • Assumptions: When you do the epic things that others don’t have the courage to do, people will assume the worst about your life. They assume you’re lonely, have no friends, and/or no significant other or someone special in your life. When the reality is, you just like to travel. Nothing more, nothing less. It doesn’t mean you’re bound to die alone with 20 cats during your golden years. And even if you did, at least you saw the world and did what you wanted to do and instead of “wishing” you had. So let them assume while you keep collecting stamps. Checkmate bish!
  • Lack of dope pics: This one probably irks me the most. I haven’t mastered the art of the selfie stick. And even if I did, a selfie stick doesn’t hold a candle to the full length action pics you see posted on sites like Travel Noire and Soul Society. I want an action pic of me doing a yoga pose in front of the Taj Mahal too . You can’t exactly achieve that level of dopeness with the selfie stick you bought at Walmart. Sure, you can ask a stranger or tour operator to take your picture and the will usually offer before you have a chance to ask. But I need like 30 takes to get a good picture and they just don’t have that kind of time. So until I move up in the world and staff my own professional photographer, selfies it is!!

 

  • No Shared experiences: As I mentioned before, freedom, flexibility, and liberation are just a few of the benefits solo travel has to offer. However, I do occasionally find myself missing those shared intimate moments with someone. Whether it be a good laugh, a random intimate kiss, or just conversation with someone who really knows you, shared experiences have their place and are necessary in this thing we call life too. Even when I’m going through my tough “I don’t need anyone” moments, I realize that we do need these experiences sometimes.
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This solo trip is everything, but I kinda want a bae too *sad face*

  • Addiction: Yes, solo travel can be addictive. While it may push you further outside of your comfort zone, it can also push you further into rejecting opportunities to travel with other people. People approach me all the time about traveling with them and at times, I want to decline. And like I mentioned before, although solo travel affords many benefits, I believe we still need those shared and bonding experiences as human beings.

So there you have it. This sums up my personal list of pros and cons to solo travel. Alone is a state of being. Lonely is a feeling (emotion). People often use these constructs interchangeably. They are not the same. I’ve been lonely by myself and in room filled with loved ones. You come into this world alone and you will die alone. Sure, you may be surrounded by people for both events, but the pre-journey to get here and post-journey after departure is all on your own. So get over yourself, get out of your way, and get over your fears. Go so some world, WITH or WITHOUT someone.

#urbantravelista

Don’t sleep on Iceland

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For most of us, a small island sitting near the “Arctic” ocean and struggling to reach 50 degrees even on its warmest day may not seem like an ideal vacation destination. Usually when we think of “vacation”, we tend to envision the warmth of the sun tanning our skin, sandy beaches, cool mojitos, and lush palm trees.  Thermal underwear, winter boots, and down coats, are completely off our radar.  Well, allow me to open your mind and change your perspective. Iceland is a MUST for your travel bucket list.

As a kid, I remember reading about Iceland in my encyclopedias. It was always one of those destinations I hoped to visit someday, but seemed well beyond my reach. So, when I learned of an upcoming meet up taking place with about 80 black travel enthusiasts  like myself (later dubbed “the #icelandblackout”), I immediately jumped on board.  Like my other travel adventures, I couldn’t wait to share my enthusiasm.  I mean, I was going to freaking Iceland!! But when I shared the news with family and friends, their responses ranged from blank stares to phrases like “but it’s cold there you may as well stay here”… “you’re crazy”, and my personal favorite, “are there any black people there”.  But once they saw the fabulous selfies of me relaxing in the celestial waters of the Blue Lagoon or me posing with a breathtaking view of the Gullfoss Waterfall as backdrop flooding their social media timelines, I went from being crazy to “who did you use to book your trip to Iceland”.  When they saw my Facebook status about the city of Reykavik’s happening nightlife and dancing to hip-hop and trap music with fellow Icelanders, I went from “why are you going to Iceland” to “I CAN’T WAIT to go to Iceland”. My, how quickly people change their perceptions LOL.  But seriously, I think Iceland is a destination everyone should experience at least once.  Getting there is fairly easy and it’s very doable as a solo traveler or with a group.

 Getting there

With carriers such as Icelandair offering daily non-stop service from most major US cities, getting to Iceland is fairly simple.  I used this carrier and had a great experience.  Icelandair allows you check up to two bags weighing 50 lbs each with no baggage fee, they provide bottled water upon boarding, offer USB ports on each seat to charge your electronic devices, offer a  great selection of free movies and other programming, and comes equipped with on board wifi (for a small fee). The flight time from Chicago to Reykjavik is approximately 6 hours, so these amenities were a huge plus for me. If you live on the east or west coast or want to be more cost conscience, WOW Air also offers nonstop service to Iceland.  The fares are much lower, but as a “no frills” carrier, you will miss out on most of the amenities and perks offered by Icelandair. For example, you can fly roundtrip from Baltimore, DC, or Boston for as low as $300 USD, but the baggage restrictions are very strict (your purse actually counts as your carry-on SMH).

Arrival

Keflavik airport is fairly easy to navigate and getting through customs is breeze. There is no entry or exit fee.  Just have your passport ready and you’re good to go. After you pick up your luggage, don’t forget to stop in Keflavik’s duty free shop located across from baggage claim.  I guess now is a good time to mention the downside of Iceland: basic essential items ranging from food to liquor to toiletries are VERY expensive!!! As far as getting to your hotel, you have different options.  Some travelers in my meet up group chose to rent a car during their stay.  But if you’re directionally challenged like myself, you can also take a shuttle.  Gray Line Iceland and Flybus are the most common airport transfers and cost about $36 USD roundtrip from the airport. Another advantage to using the shuttle is that you can also arrange for drop off at the Blue Lagoon and stay for a few hours then take the shuttle to your hotel.  I chose this option because my flight arrived at 6:30am and hotel check-in didn’t begin until 2:00pm. You get to have your first excursion before you even check-in.  How cool is that?

Where to Stay

Iceland offers plenty of lodging options to suit every need and budget. Some tourists utilize traditional hotels, AirBnB home/apartment rentals, and hostels like Hlemmur Square.  During my visit, I stayed at the Hilton Nordica Reykjavik . The hotel is modern and the staff is pretty helpful and accommodating. They offer a daily brunch buffet which cost about $30 USD. And there is also coffee and “grab and go” food served in the hotel lobby.  If you want to skip on dining at the hotel all together without traveling too far, there are a few restaurants that are in very close walking distance for the hotel.  They offer daily free wifi and a free bus pass during your stay.

Reykjavik

One of the biggest regrets of my visit was not exploring more of downtown Reykjavik (Iceland’s capital) and checking out the abundant street art. If you have an appreciation for street art, this is the place to be. And with its street art, this quirky town adorned with quaint shops, boutiques, cafés, and restaurants.  Although I missed out my daytime stroll downtown,  I did get a chance to explore the night life.  After dining at the popular Cafe Haiti (which I HIGHLY recommend), my travel compadres relocated “the #icelandblackout” to one of Reykjavik’s hip-hop clubs, Prikid.  Who knew Icelanders had an appreciation for Drake, Lauryn Hill, 2 Chainz, and Panda? I hadn’t danced and sweated out my hair like that since my early 20’s. Their nightlife is lit and almost reminded me of being back home and Friday night bar hopping on Rush Street.

Excursions

I won’t go into too much depth about the excursions, because I will be blogging about these separately. The most popular excursions are: The Blue Lagoon , The Golden Circle Tour, the South Coast, whale watching tours, glacier climbing, and chasing the wondrous Northern Lights. There’s something for everyone and you can be as adventurous (or not) as you’d like. You can book your excursions with a regular tour company (I recommend Geoiceland Day Tours). But, if you’re a little more adventurous, you can rent a car and do the Golden Circle tour or chase the Northern Lights on your own.   The advantage of renting a car is that allows you to sight see on your own time.  This disadvantage is that the roads can be a little difficult to navigate and you don’t have a tour guide to give you any history.  If you really want to be creative, my travel group rented a party bus to chase the Northern Lights. We were unsuccessful with seeing the lights, as weather conditions must be optimal. The best time of year to see the lights is from September to around April 15th.  Although we missed them, it still didn’t stop us from pulling over and dancing under the Iceland stars.

A few reminders

  • Snacks/Liquor: Again, Iceland is expensive.  If you like to snack and the idea of paying $5.00 for a small bag of chips doesn’t seem appealing to you, pack snacks in your luggage.  And don’t forget to buy water and liquor from the duty free shop at the airport.
  • Tipping: Tipping is not required. And I’m totally okay with that. Did I tell you Iceland is expensive?
  • Currency: Iceland appears to be completely cashless society.  There are ATMs available if you need them, but they are seriously about that chip life.  You know the chips that only a small fraction of businesses are using here in the US? They are so far ahead of the game.
  • Clothing/Packing: Please pack accordingly.  If you plan on doing any outdoor excursions, you will need thermals, a down coat, and a warm hat/gloves. In April it was in the 40’s. Being from Chicago, 40 degrees is pretty tolerable. But what I didn’t consider was Iceland’s 20 degree temperature drop and high winds once travelling outside of Reykjavik. Even as a Chicagoan, I underestimated Iceland’s gangsta and nearly froze during most of the Golden Circle Tour, especially at the Gullfoss Waterfall. It was so cold that I lost a pair of gloves at the halfway point and ended up buying a $30.00 pair (the cheapest I could find) of very plain gloves to get me through the rest of the tour. So if you’re traveling during the milder months, please keep this in mind and pack accordingly.  It’s better to have something and need it than to need it and not have it.
  • Booking: This sounds like a no brainer, but when you book your hotel, please keep in mind that your check-in will be the day AFTER your departure.  For example, if your flight departs Wednesday, April 27th then your check-in will be Thursday, April 28th.  Believe me, I am not trying to insult your intelligence. It’s just one of those things people (including myself) don’t think about if they’re not used to travelling across several time zones.
  • The Blue Lagoon: Book your excursion to the Blue Lagoon early. It’s one of Iceland’s most popular attractions as tourists often do short stopovers while traveling between Europe and the states.  If you wait until the last minute, there may not be availability. It would be a total bummer for you to travel all the way to Iceland and not be able to book the Blue Lagoon. You will be very sad.
  • Footwear: My biggest dilemma was deciding what type of footwear to bring. If you’re doing the Golden Circle tour, I recommend bringing boots that are waterproof and that are easy to clean if they get muddy.  I almost made the mistake to bringing my Uggs.  They would’ve been fine to wear in Reykjavik.  But some parts of the Golden Circle are muddy and I would’ve ruined my Uggs. I recommend footwear like Sperry’s duckboots. They’re stylish, warm, and are able to withstand the elements of the tour.
  • Travel adapter plug: The plugs of our North American appliances will not fit into an outlet in Iceland (and most foreign countries) without an adapter. A travel adapter will allow you plug in your electrical devices during your stay. You can purchase these at Best Buy, Radio Shack, Target, or online at Amazon and REI. They run between $15-20 USD.

As you can see, three nights and four days still didn’t cover everything Iceland has to offer. Therefore, I’m already planning another return for next Spring. Routine travel to destinations like the Caribbean and Mexico is great and have a very needed place in our lives, especially when we need to unplug from the hustle and bustle of the rat race. But travel should occasionally to push you outside of your comfort zone. This is where the magic happens. This is how we experience” life in it’s true essence. Travel to a destination you never thought you’d be interested in or thought was possible. You might leave with more than airport souvenirs. You might leave with a broadened perspective and experience of lifetime. And no one will ever be able to that away from you.

#urbantravelista

Solo Travel: Tips for a first time “Urbantravelista”

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Last October, I made the decision to step outside of my comfort zone like I never have before. I traveled to Cancun (Playa Del Carmen region) all by myself. No group, no meet-up…just me, my myself, and my fears. So what led to my decision to travel out of the country and vacation by myself? Well that’s a long story that I promise to address in a future blog post. While I don’t consider myself to an expert regarding all things solo travel, I am qualified to share my experience and few precautions I took beforehand and others I learned along the way. Some of these pointers range from basic common sense to borderline overkill. Please, take what you need:

Research

The planning aspect of traveling can range from being fun and excited to exhausting and frustrating. But, if it becomes too much of a chore, please don’t short change yourself. Be patient and spend time researching your travel destination, accommodations, and excursions. I promise, you will really appreciate your effort in the end. Seriously, there is nothing worse than shelling out your hard earned money to travel abroad only to have a horrible experience. And to add insult to injury, you now have to endure it by yourself. Do you really want to spend a couple of thousand dollars to room with scorpions and tarantulas or spend 5 nights/6 days in the midst of a hurricane? I didn’t think so.

While planning, ask yourself the following questions: 1.) What is my budget? 2.) Is it all-inclusive? 3.) When is the best time of year to travel this destination? 4.) What do I want to do or experience while I’m there? 5.) Do I need a Visa or travel vaccinations? 6.) Is there any type of conflict or travel advisory in that area? When I planned my solo adventure to Cancun, TripAdvisor provided a wealth of information on travel destinations, from the popular and touristy to the intimate and remote. What I love most about their site is the ability to see up-to-date reviews and “untouched” photos of hotels, resorts, and excursion companies from actual USERS. As a sidebar, I try to stick with larger to moderate hotel chains or all-inclusive resorts. This isn’t to say that accommodations such as AirBnB, Homeaway, or smaller more intimate chains aren’t safe for solo travel. Nope, no shade at all. It really just depends on your personal comfort level. I find that all-inclusive resorts usually provide more secure controlled access, have on site security, and you don’t have to venture off too much from the resort. And until I become the experienced “Urbantravelista” I’m striving to be, this makes me comfortable.

Travel documents

The following are tips that seems like common sense, but often not thought about. Before you depart, please provide a copy of the following traveling documents to a family member, close friend, or someone you trust:

  • Travel itinerary (including flight numbers)
  • Hotel/resort and/or Excursion company info
  • Photocopy of your passport
  • If you have a pet, boarding/vet contact information

Safety

Again, this is one of those “common sense” things, but with a twist. You’re smart, urban, and survive the day to day ills of living right here on American soil. And if you’re from Chicago like myself, your street cred just went up a 1000 points. So, of course you’re going to be aware of your surroundings at all times. Of course you’re going to safeguard your personal belongings at all times. Of course you’re going to keep an eye on your drink at all times. And of course you’re going to politely turn down that invitation from that sexy locale to venture off the resort. You’re going to take the same day to day precautions as you do at home and maybe use a few of these tips:

  • Decoy wallet- Keep an old spare wallet in your purse with a couple of useless credit cards and about twenty bucks in it. This is what I like to call a “decoy” wallet. If you’re ever in a situation where you are robbed, you can hand the robber this wallet. Now there’s a great chance that you won’t ever be robbed abroad and an even greater chance that you’ll end up using that wallet right here on American soil. But as the cliché goes, it’s better to be safe than sorry later.
  • Purchase a pre-paid credit card with at least $100 on it to keep in a safe place. If you somehow misplace your cash or your real wallet, you will have immediate access to funds.
  • Passport- DO NOT travel out and about with your passport. Keep it securely in your hotel or lock it in your safe. While you might be tempted to quit your job and just stay in Costa Rica, you will have to return home. While I have never attempted to go through customs without a passport, my intuition tells me it would be a complete nightmare.
  • Communicate with your family/friends- Once you get settled in, it’s easy to get lost in your experience and forget to communicate with your loved ones at home. I’m not saying you have to run up your cell phone bill and call them daily, but at least do a check in on your whereabouts from time to time. In the age of social networking and wifi (especially if your hotel/resort offers free wifi) this will be pretty effortless and inexpensive to do with simple check-ins and status updates. Communicating this way not only puts your loved ones at ease, but it leaves a timeline and trail of your activities just in case something goes awry.

Relax

Now that you’ve endured the stress of planning your first solo adventure, the mental anguish of your well-meaning friends and family ensuring you’ll by kidnapped by pirates or sold into the sex trade, and mentally replaying every worst case scenario in your head from the time you book and until you finally land, don’t forget to do this one thing: RELAX. Be open, take in your experience, and enjoy this sense of newfound freedom.

Hopefully these tips will be helpful and put your mind at ease as you plan your first solo travel experience abroad. And as always, embrace the unknown and live fearlessly!!!

@urbantravelista