While 2016 may have not been the greatest year for many of us, it certainly was another great year for travel. It’s no secret that Instagram has been my “go to” for travel inspiration. From celebrities to regular people like you and me, your travel experience is incomplete if it wasn’t captured and re-posted on Instagram. From the sandy beaches of the Caribbean to the sandy desert of the United Arab Emirates, Instagram has graced us with some of the most spectacular travel images from women all over the globe. These women represent freedom, empowerment, and embracing the unknown. These women are fearless and live by the creed of “creating the life you deserve.” It was hard to narrow down, but here are 20 travel moments that inspired me the most in 2016:
Urbantravelista: 2016 Year in ReviewStandard
Twenty years from now, if someone ask me about the year 2016 , I won’t know where to begin. This has certainly been a tumultuous year for many. There’s been birth, growth, and a lot of loss. No one was exempt. I mean, we lost Prince. That alone was enough to send many of us over the cliff. But for me, the first half of the year actually started off on a good note. Exactly this time last year, I was scouting my favorite shopping malls and boutiques in search of THE perfect dress to celebrate NYE in Dallas with one of my besties. I brought in the new year surrounded by good friends, good people, and positive energy. We spent the first day of 2016 enjoying a fabulous champagne brunch at a friend’s home. We fellowshipped, prayed, and spoke our goals for 2016. The following day, I boarded my flight back to Chicago feeling inspired, empowered, and ready to smash every goal and intention I set for myself. And things went well in the beginning. They really did. But by July, 2016 turned on me like a rabid pit bull. But such is life, right? Sometimes, a year will give you everything you hope for and more. And other times, it will leave you wondering how you survived it at all. In spite of 2016’s tragedies and having to put some of my adventuring on pause, I did have a few great moments in travel and adventure.
The birth of my brand
In April, I gave birth to my lifestyle/travel blog, Urbantravelista™. I created it as an outlet to share my personal life and travel experiences. I debuted my blog recounting my first international solo vacation experience. BTW, if you missed it, no worries. You can read it here: Solo Travel: Tips for a first time “Urbantravelista” . This is my second run at blogging and it’s the longest I’ve ever stuck with a writing project. Truthfully, running this project and growing Urbantravelista has kept me sane and grounded in the midst of 2016’s insanity. I guess I finally found my niche. I look forward to seeing it’s growth and evolution in the forthcoming year. My goal is to encourage others to create their own fulfilling experiences by embracing the unknown and stepping outside of their comfort zone. I want to inspire others to live their truth (the good, the bad, and the ugly) and to make lemonade in the midst of life challenges…and be fabulous while doing it. Life is imperfect. Therefore, we don’t have to be perfect. But we do have to LIVE.
The Iceland Blackout
Also in April, I had the opportunity to join a meet-up experience in Reykjavik. We dubbed this event “The Iceland Blackout” as we collectively represented a group of over 70 black likeminded travelers from all over the world. You can read about it here: Don’t sleep on Iceland . This adventure was special to me, because I had NEVER travelled this far away from home alone. Iceland was a destination that I never fathomed I’d ever visit or even have the desire to visit. Well, I completely underestimated it’s DOPENESS. I basked in the warm waters of the Blue Lagoon, rode the Reykjavik bus system by myself, danced with Icelanders in a Reykjavik hip hop club, toured the Golden Circle, felt the chilling magnificence of Gullfoss Waterfall, learned about Icelandic culture, walked the path between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates, and danced in the middle of nowhere under the Reykjavik stars while chasing the Northern Lights. I’m looking so forward to my return in March of 2017. Stay tuned!
When spring opened up, one of my best friends introduced me to the game of golf. It started with drink and appetizer outings at Top Golf. To my surprise, the more I practiced, the more I wanted to experience going out on a real course. So we did just that and after a few outings, I got to be pretty good at it. I do have a long way to go before I become proficient at it, but my performance and interest motivated me enough to invest in a set of clubs of my own.
Being Bobby Brown
He may not be significant to you, but he’s very much important to those of us that grew up during the New Edition era. My mom found out he was in town for a book signing in my neighborhood. Because she was a bigger fan than I was, I braved to two hour wait in line and got an autographed copy of his new book for the both of us. It was a couple of days for before my birthday and he was the first person to give me a hug and wish me Happy Birthday. How cool is that? Thanks Bobby!
TouristInMyTown Summer Challenge
Over the summer, I launched a “TouristInMyTown Summer Challenge” campaign to encourage people to take advantage of the culture and tourism in their own backyard. I promoted this campaign by patronizing the various festivals, events, and tourist attractions in my city and challenging others to do the same in their respective cities. I kicked off the challenge at the Wells Street Art Festival held in historic Old Town. This festival featured over 225 artists from across the continent. Next, I attended the Taste of Randolph, a food and music festival similar to the Taste of Chicago, but on a much smaller scale. As summer progressed, I took the challenge to the south side where I attended house music’s signature summer event, The Chosen Few Old School Picnic. This event is held in Hayes Park and takes place during the Fourth of July holiday. This was my third time in attendance and it gets bigger and better every year. Next, I headed back to the western suburbs and attended Naperville’s Rib Fest. This event is also held during the Fourth of July holiday and expands over four days. My final festival of the summer took place at Lincoln Park’s Hot Dog Fest. I stepped far outside of my comfort zone by trying a hot dog for the first time in 30 years. Yeah I know, pretty groundbreaking. And in between my summer “festivaling”, I reacquainted myself with Oak Street beach, a Chicago attraction I haven’t enjoyed since my childhood. Sunbathing on the beach with my city’s beautiful skyline as the back drop was everything.
After experiencing one of the best summers I’ve had in years, travel and adventure came to a screeching halt when I experienced my biggest heartbreak ever, saying goodbye to my beautiful mother. Death is an event that you never see coming. It doesn’t send an invitation for you to prepare or RSVP. It just shows up on your doorstep completely uninvited and gives zero f*cks. My fall and winter itinerary suddenly became replaced by profound grief and sadness. Discovering my “new” normal and picking up the broken pieces of my heart has become my newest adventure. It’s all a very unwelcomed adventure, but still an adventure that most of us will face some day nonetheless. Looking back, I came into 2016 feeling empowered and inspired. Although my year took a tragic turn, I still find joy in the goals I was able to accomplish. I find solace in the positive experiences I was able to create and the possibility of inspiring at least one person to create some positive experiences of their own. I’m not sure what’s in store for 2017, but the only thing that keeps me optimistic is my desire to continue living the way my mother wanted. She lived vicariously through my adventures and I look forward to honoring her memory by creating more awesome experiences in 2017. Sure, it’s dark now, but joy comes in the morning. Let’s hope the sun shines brightly in 2017 with more travel and adventure.
I love the Blue LagoonStandard
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.
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?
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.
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.
And yes, I look forward to returning back in April 2017. You should join me!
Day Trips/Excursions: Ten essential items you’ll regret leaving at homeStandard
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:
- Water bottle: The tour operator may offer water (depends of the tour), but it never hurts to have your own to stay hydrated.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Rain Poncho: If you’re bothered by heavy downpours, bringing a disposable poncho might be of benefit to you.
- Snacks/Energy Bar: Again, this depends on the length of your excursion. Some tour operators offer snacks and others don’t offer anything.
- 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.
- Sunglasses/Sunhat:The sun can be really unforgiving and cruel during long day excursions. You will appreciate the shade.
- 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!
UNPLUG: My new travel vowStandard
This past weekend, I spent my birthday (yep, I turned 25 “again:) in Dallas with a really good friend of mine. Now my friend, is rarely ever on Facebook. But me?? I LIVE on it. I admit, it’s an addiction. That’s right…my name is Stephanie and I’m a Facebook addict. When I first joined the community back in 2009, I immediately became hooked. Being the typical Cancer moonchild that loves to connect with her past, the idea of connecting with old classmates that I grew up with and distant family members I hadn’t seen in ages really appealed to me. I love nostalgia. And I love reuniting with my past. And then, there is the expression component. As an introvert, I’m pretty shy and reserved in social settings. Being social in the real world makes me uncomfortable and drains me. But in the virtual world, I feel completely free and uninhibited. When I joined back then, I was also going into my third year of marriage and things weren’t going so well. My marriage was quickly heading south and Facebook filled a void for me. Over time, it gave me an outlet to express my thoughts and became my muse. It became my primary source of entertainment. I’ve always taken great pleasure in uplifting others, even when I’m feeling down myself. I really believe it’s my gift to this world. I share inspiration, politically incorrect humor, thought provoking discussion topics, and even participate in some social Facebook groups. And over the years, it seems like I’ve developed quite a following . So back to my weekend…while partaking in the awesome bar hopping birthday festivities my friend arranged for me, she jokingly mentioned that I live on my phone. And I couldn’t deny it. She was absolutely right. I live on Facebook. I live on my phone…in daily life and when I travel.
But I’m not the only offender. When I reflect back on past travels, I’ve made the same observations of other fellow travelers. The “matrix” struggle is real. What is it about social media and technology that makes it so hard to give up when we’re supposed to be living and creating experiences? Why can’t we unplug and disconnect?
I suppose the daily grind of the rat race is partly to blame. As human beings, we’re creatures of habit. It’s hard to stop running once the hamster wheel has stopped spinning. It’s difficult relax and just be. I have a problem and whether they know it or not, so do many other travelers. So, I’ve made the following vow to myself for my next trip: I WILL NOT LIVE ON MY PHONE. With the exception of occasionally check-ins (for safety reasons, especially when traveling solo), I will NOT Facebook. If I feel the urge to post that epic selfie I just took in front of Christ The Redeemer, I will post it and not comment until I return. I will not miss out on connecting with myself or the company of others. I will not miss out on just “being”. I will not miss out on experiencing once in a lifetime moments. Rare moments are priceless. And I will no longer spend them of Facebook.
Can you unplug?
#TouristInMyTown: Taste of RandolphStandard
This weekend, I had the opportunity to cross the Taste of Randolph off my summer festival bucket list. Yep…ANOTHER EVENT I have yet to attend all of my many years as a Chicagoan SMH. Nestled along the 900 west block of Randolph between Racine and Peoria, The Taste of Randolph is like the appetizer to Chicago’s summer main course, the Taste of Chicago. Historically, it runs the third week of June and started Friday, June 17th at 5pm Sunday and ended June 19th at 10pm. The Taste of Randolph is hosted by the West Loop Community Organization, an a non-profit 501(c)3 agency that continuously works to ensure positive progress for the neighborhood, while offering social events and beneficial developments to improve the quality of life in the West Loop.
The entry fee is a reasonable $10 donation (all proceeds benefit the West Loop Community Organization) and grants attendees access to top local cuisine, art vendors, and live music. This year, the festival partnered with Chicago based independent promoters, Silver Wrapper to bring three eclectic stages featuring raw talent including Chicago’s brightest young musical acts extending from indie rock to dance music. If you’re a foodie, music lover, or artisan, this event is for you. There’s something for everyone to enjoy. As for me, I heavily enjoyed the red sangria, chicken kabobs, and house music!
And if you missed it this year, there’s always next year. Until then, you still have the Taste of Chicago to look forward to which runs from July 6th through July 10th at Grant Park (admission FREE). Stayed tuned for my next review and come “summer” me with as I become a “Tourist In My Town”.
Five things I love/hate about solo travelStandard
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.
- 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.
Don’t sleep on IcelandStandard
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Solo Travel: Tips for a first time “Urbantravelista”Standard
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:
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.
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
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.
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!!!