Urbantravelista | Cuba: Everything I expected and more


So my first adventure of 2017 kicked off in Cuba.  Over the summer, a good friend of mine propositioned me to join her group trip she was organizing.  Cuba had definitely on my bucket list, especially with the travel restrictions being lifted for US tourists.  If you follow my blog or know me in “real” life, then you know I had to derail my travel and adventure when my mom passed away back in November.  Needless to say, this trip was well deserved and long overdue.  Initially, I started to cancel my travel plans. My heart just wasn’t in it. But I’m glad I went against myself.  Cuba did not disappoint.  It was everything I hoped for and more. As you scroll and read further, you’ll understand why.


Even with travel restrictions being lifted for US travel, there are still a few thing you need to be aware before booking your trip to Cuba. First and foremost, travel strictly for tourist activities is prohibited.  When you book your flight, you will need to certify the reason for your visit and meet the regulations and conditions of a general license.  The most common condition used is “educational activities or people-to-people exchanges”.  To apply for a license or for an extensive list license conditions, you can visit  the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) License Application  Page.

  • Visa Requirements: Visas are not a requirement for regular tourists who plan to spend up to two months in Cuba.  Instead, you get a (tourist card) valid for 30 days, which can be extended once you’re in Cuba.  Tourist cards can be purchased for around $25, at the gate from your carrier prior to boarding.
  • Travel Insurance: As of 2010, health insurance that is accepted by Cuba is mandatory for travelers visiting abroad.  Proof must be presented at the time of flight check in.  Policies range from $25 to $50 per person and can be purchased through an agency that specializes in travel insurance.  It can also be included in the cost of your flight through carriers such as Delta, United, and Jet Blue.  Check with your carrier at the time of booking.
  • Currency: The standard currency in Cuban is the Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). The exchange rate is 1.00 CUC = $1.00 USD.  US currency and debit/ATM cards are NOT accepted in Cuba at this time. When you arrive, you will need to convert your money into Cuban currency before leaving the airport. The Cuban government levies a 10% penalty followed by a 3% financial transaction charge when converting from USD to CUC. So, for every $100 you exchange, you will only receive $87 CUCS. To avoid this penalty, some travelers will convert from USD to Euros (or Canadian currency), then convert to CUCs upon arrival.
  • Internet Access: Internet access and cellular access is VERY LIMITED in Cuban. For internet access, wifi cards can be purchased at local hotels for about 4 CUCs per hour. Cellular service is very random. Some people are able to get access and others are not, depending on the type of phone or carrier. Check with your cellular provider beforehand.  But don’t be surprised if your phone still doesn’t work, even if they promise service.


In Cuba, accommodations fall into two options: Hotels and Casas Particulares (private houses).  Hotels are usually state owned and can cost almost four times what you would pay in a private casa. In my group, we took advantage of what Cuba had to offer and stayed in a private casa.  Choosing a casa and living with the locals gave us the opportunity to experience Cuba’s beautiful culture. By the end of the week, I felt like a resident. Private casa range any anywhere from 15 to 50 CUCs per night. Some offer single, double, and triple rooms.  So the cost can decrease drastically if you have a roommate. Many of the hosts offer breakfast (home cooked) for 5 CUCs. The hosts are very responsive and helpful.  They also enjoy sharing their culture with you and making you feel at home. This satisfies to license requirement for Cuban travel for “educational activities or people-to-people exchanges.  Hotels are state owned and can cost almost four times what you would spend for a private casa.


Taxis, bus, and walking are the most common modes of transportation. Most people navigate Havana by foot and use a taxi to travel outside Central Havana.


Things to Do

Before the trip, I wondered if I would have enough to do being in Cuba for 7 full days. But there is so much to do that I’m planning a return visit before the end of the year. Cuba has plenty to offer inside of Havana, as well as outside.


  • Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market: This is considered to be Havana´s largest flea market. Hundreds of booths are housed here and offer clothing, paintings, tourist souvenirs, ceramics, and other creative wares. It is open daily 9am-5pm.
  • Floridita: This spot is a historic fish restaurant and cocktail bar in the older part of Havana (La Habana Vieja).  It’s known for its daiquiris and for being frequent hangout of Ernest Hemingway.
  • Plaza Vieja: This area makes up one of the seven wards of Old Havana.  The plaza was the site of executions, processions, and bullfights.  Today, it is adorned with shops, restaurant, and  nightlife with live music and salsa dancing. Think of the Vegas strip, Cuban style.
  • Museo del Ron Havana Club: The Havana Club Museum offers daily tours tracing the origins of rum in Cuba’s history. You can learn about it’s history, production, and exportation. They also have rum available for purchase under their trade name, as well as cigars and other souvenirs.
  • Callejon de Hamel: This area is considered to be the artistic headquarters of artist and muralist, Salvador Gonzáles Escalona. Callejon de Hamel offers beautiful displays of Afro-Cuban art and cultural education on Afro-Cuban religion, traditions, and spirituality (Santeria).

Excursions/Day Trips

  • Valle de Vinales: We explored the countryside and tobacco farms of Cuba with a day trip to Vinales. We had the opportunity to visit one of the tobacco plantations where many of the cigars are harvested.  The photos don’t do the lush greens and mountains justice.  You will take a lot of pictures!
  • Santa Maria Del Mar Beach: This beach is one of Havana’s most popular beaches, probably because it’s the closest. It’s located at 25 km from Central Havana (about a 20 minute ride by taxi). Santa Maria offers full beach activities (jet skiing, diving, and sailing), massage, Cabana service, souvenirs, and a restaurant. The taxi ride from Havana was about 30 CUCs.
  • Las Terrazas: This is an eco-village community located about 2 hours outside of Havana.  It’s a very rural town, similar to Vinales. We had the opportunity to go zip lining and  to visit the home of the late Cuban singer Polo Montañez.


Other Tips

  • Go with an open mind. Don’t expect the same modern accommodations that you normally find in the states or all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean. Traveling to Cuba is like traveling back in time. And what it lacks in convenience, it more than makes up for in culture and aesthetics.
  • Remember, internet access is VERY limited. You will need to purchase a wifi card to access the internet. Cards can be purchased at hotels for around 4 CUCs per hour.
  • Pack toilet paper/disposable wipes. Many of the public bathrooms (even the more swanky establishments) do not have toilet paper in the bathroom stalls.  Some even “charge” for toilet paper. Make sure you have some with you when you’re out and about. Also, although your casa or hotel will most likely provide toilet paper during your stay, it is often rationed out.
  • Pack antibacterial sanitizer or hand soap. Again, some restrooms do not have it available or charge for it.
  • If you decide to stay in a casa, pack as if your going to stay in a dorm for a few days. Bring your own towels, hand soap, etc.
  • Some restrooms don’t have toilet seats, even in the casas. Don’t be alarmed, this is normal. Remember what I said about keeping an open mind?  Don’t worry, you’ll live.
  • Budget your money accordingly. After converting your currency at the airport, you won’t have much opportunity to convert again. US issued ATM and debit cards do not work in Cuba.  Converting your money multiple times causes you to lose money when you add in the transaction fee.
  • Meals:  Average meals dining out ranges from 10 to 20 CUCs. Most of my meals were under 20 CUCs which often included an alcoholic drink and dessert.
  • Safety: I never had a safety issue in Cuba.  In fact, I felt safer there than I do at home in Chicago. I walked through dark alley at night, with other females in my group and a couple of times alone.
  • Cuban people are very friendly and take pride in their culture. They love Americans and enjoy sharing and talking about their culture and history. They also have interest in our way of life and enjoy hearing about our customs, too.
  • Tipping is customary. Make sure you factor this into your spending budget.
  • Cuban men are very flirty. Keep this in mind if you’re easily offended by cat calling, blowing kisses, and other unwarranted advances. Whether you smile and say thank you or ignore it, they’re still gentlemen about it and will leave you alone.
  • Visit the Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market for your souvenirs first. They prices are a little cheaper and they have a wider selection of wares.
  • Bring an EU power adapter. Some outlets accommodate the North American standard and others do not. It’s pretty mixed.
  • Bring a copy of your travel/health insurance. You will need to present it when you check in for your flight.
  • If you’re a cigar aficionado, check out Partagás. Thank me later!
  • Make sure you experience the Classic City Car Tour.

My group spend 7 days and 6 nights in Cuba and this barely touched the surface.  Hopefully, you will find these tips useful and be motivated to visit before the year is over. Travel to Cuba is not as complicated as it seems.  It’s very affordable and you will get more than your money’s worth.



In Memory of Mom

Don’t fear travel, fear NOT living


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


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


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


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


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


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 | Five money saving ideas to fund your travel in 2017


Let’s be real, it cost money to travel.  I don’t care how savvy a person claims to be, you need money to travel. Everyone has mastered their own budget travel hacks.  Some people rack up hotel points. Some people rack up frequent flier miles. And others subscribe to alerts or use apps to snag ridiculously low flight deals or error fares at a moment’s notice. Regardless of the scenario, you need money to book those flights and hotels to accumulate the needed points throughout the year.  You need to have funds available to catch that low travel deal or error fare.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a $100 round trip flight to the Maldives.  If you don’t have the funds readily available, your dream trip will remain just that, a dream.

I think the beginning of the year is a great time to implement a strategy to start saving for travel, especially if you’re looking to travel over the summer or for the holidays.  If you start in January and want a plan a getaway in June, you will have 6 months to prepare. If you want to take a family Disney vacation for the holidays, saving until June will at least give you hefty a down payment. Here a 5 ideas you might what to consider:

1. Digit


Digit is a savings app that saves money based on your spending habits.  How does it work? First, the user connects the app to their checking account.  Digit will then analyze the user’s income and spending and transfer small amounts of money to set aside. They use 128-bit bank-level security, and do not store bank login information. Every 2 or 3 days, Digit transfer  money (usually $5-50) from your checking account to your Digit savings. According to their user agreement, they will never transfer more than you can afford, eliminating the risk of over-drafting your account. They also have a no-overdraft guarantee. You can access your money at anytime by simply sending a text message.  Digit will transfer your funds back to your checking account the next business day. They all unlimited transfers, with no minimums or fees.

My experience:  I started using Digit over the summer and can attest that it works.  I’m terrible when it comes to saving.  Money management has always been a challenge for me. Digit works for me because it withdraws the money in small amounts and operates on the “out of sight, out of mind” concept.  You’ll be amazed by the amount of money you will be able to save in such a short amount of time.

2. 52-Week Money Challenge


The 52-Week Money Challenge surfaced on Facebook a couple of year ago. There are many variations of the challenge allowing you to save as much as $5,000 in one calendar year. The challenge involves putting away small amounts of money, based on a weekly schedule.  Depending on your discipline, you can put your money in a jar or canister or transfer it to the savings account of your choice.

My experience:  It works in the beginning, unless you’re REALLY disciplined. Unfortunately, I’m not that chick.  If you’re able to stick with it, I think it’s a great way to visually see your progress.  But by February, I usually end up dipping into my money jar for food delivery or gas to hold me over until payday LOL.

3. 5-Dollar Money Challenge


The 5-Dollar Savings Challenge is similar to the 52-Week Money Challenge. Instead of following an established schedule, the strategy is to put away every 5 dollar bill you acquire throughout the year. Again, depending on your discipline, you can put it away a jar to be designated for your travel fund.  But what if you use your debit card and don’t utilize cash? You can opt to receive a 5 dollar cash back when you make a purchase and put it away.

My experience: I haven’t tried it yet. And since I struggle with the 52-Week Challenge, this one may not be for me.  But if you’re discipline enough, you can visually see your progress and over time, accumulate and nice egg.

4. Credit Union


This is an oldie, but nonetheless still an effective savings strategy.  Take advantage of the credit union offered by your employer or the military (depending on your status). You can create a “vacation club” account. Contribute as little as $25 per pay period through pre-tax payroll deduction or manually transfer it to your account.

My experience:  It works for me. By utilizing the payroll deduction amount, I find I don’t miss the money. Again, out of sight out of mind!

5. High Interest Yielding Online Savings


In lieu of a traditional savings account plans offered by your local bank, online banks offer high yielding savings options. With a higher interest rate on your return, you’re able to save more.  Most high yielding online savings account plans are just that: online.  Limited access allows you to stay disciplined. Without ATM access, you’re more likely to stay on track and use your account for it’s intended purpose.  You can link it to your primary account and schedule monthly deposits based on your payroll calendar or make manual deposits. And, there is usually no minimum deposit: Here are a few recommended by Magnify Money: Goldman Sachs (1.05%), Ally (1.00%), Synchrony Bank (1.05%), and Barclays (1.00%).

My experience: This strategy works.  I opened a Goldman Sachs account about a year ago and found it to be an effective way to save additional cash.  This account is perfect for people like myself that lack discipline, because limited access deters you from dipping into funds.

I hope these tips are helpful.  Depending on your level discipline, some will prove to be more effective than others.  Whatever strategy to use, I wish you much success and abundant travel and adventure in 2017!!


I love the Blue Lagoon




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?


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.

Didn’t take long for me to make friends!


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 home


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!


Don’t sleep on Iceland


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).


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”


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.

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


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!!!