Biking during travel

One thing that I really enjoy while traveling is trying to put a couple of miles on a bike. It is a great way to explore an area and get a tiny bit of exercise in at the same time. Fortunately, this has become easier in recent years as more cities have adopted bike share programs that make it relatively to get access to a bike while away from home. I’ve never been particularly interested in traveling with one of my own bikes as I’d have to first purchase a bike case that would cost nearly as much as my bike and then I’d still have to pay the various airline fees for oversized baggage, although some airlines have recently removed extra fees for sporting equipment.

As we recently completed 9 months of travel across South America and Europe, I had several opportunities to bike in different places with varying degrees of success.

Cheap bikes for purchase in Perú

Perú has a plethora of options for purchasing cheap bicycles due to the widespread availability of imports. Since we were going to be staying for nearly 5 months, I wanted to get a bike that I would hang onto for the duration of our stay rather than trying to rent a bike each time I wanted to go out for a ride, especially since rentals are not particularly easy to come by in the Sacred Valley. I did spend a little time watching the second-hand market to try to find a bike, but ultimately couldn’t find anything good being offered for a reasonable price, though since we left, I’ve seen good options posted on FB Marketplace (which seems to be the preferred place to buy and sell used stuff in Perú) and a FB group for Sacred Valley folks. Instead, I ended up visiting the Centro Comercial El Molino I to find an import bike. There are a variety of sellers there that offer relatively cheap options. After spending some time visiting each, I eventually negotiated a middle-of-the-road option for 530 soles (about $155). The bike certainly wasn’t anything special and had the “brand name” Ultimate, which is appropriately ambiguous.

The Perú bike, nicknamed Ultimate Junk.

Despite how prevalent bicycles are, finding a bike helmet is another story all together. Eventually with the help of one of our moto drivers, I learned that you can find helmets at the Centro Comercial Confraternidad in Cusco. Like the bike, the helmet wasn’t anything special and was similarly off-brand, but together they allowed me to explore the variety of roadways and cattle paths that the Sacred Valley had to offer. Just no treacherous downhill routes for me without something more confidence inspiring to ride on!

For those with a shorter itinerary who are looking just for a mountain biking experience one one of the fantastic trails in the Sacred Valley, Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking is a well regarded tour operator that provides a good day trip for a couple hundred dollars.

At the end of our stay in Perú I needed to offload the bike and was able to do so fairly easily using FB Marketplace. Ended up selling it for 350 soles (about $104) so for a total expense of ~$50 I had access to a bike for the 5 months of our stay, cheaper than 1, maybe 2, days of rental would have cost me.

Leisure biking in France

I was quite excited at the prospect of spending a month in France as I have always dreamed of biking around the country of France, perhaps following a Tour de France route. To obtain a bicycle, my initial inclination was to purchase a bike like I did in Perú. However, before going that route, we found an AirBnB that had bicycles provided, including for the kids. The provided bikes, including a trailer, proved to be indispensable for getting around town and particularly for grocery pickup.

A grocery pickup. The kids are in there somewhere.

All in all, we didn’t have many opportunities to venture widely across France, primarily due to the early Spring weather. However, we did manage to one day-long journey from Jard-sur-Mer to Les Sables d’Olonne. We took a beautiful trail system called La Vendée à vélo which took us past chateaus, through farm lands and country roads, and eventually to the Atlantic coast. The latter half of the ride turned into a bit of torture as the winds off the ocean picked up and ground our progress to an unbearably slow pace.

Not many options in Aberdeen

Our second month this past Spring was spent in Aberdeen, Scotland. I had hoped with Aberdeen being a larger city, there would be some form of bike share available. Unfortunately, this was not the case, despite some evidence of a bike share program coming and presumably on the horizon. Another option that I explored was beCyCle, which is a bike collective at the University of Aberdeen which says it provides bike loans to the community. However, when I tried to reach them, they were never open during their posted hours, so that turned into a dead end. I wasn’t able to come up with a bike before we left Aberdeen, but I’m definitely planning to return and try out the mountain biking in the Cairngorms.

City bike share programs are great

On our way out of Scotland, we spent three days in Edinburgh, which does have a bike share program. However, with all of the things we were trying to see before we left and the increasing coronavirus restrictions provided no remaining time to make use of it.

Fortunately, an increasing number of cities are offering bike share programs and I will often try to make use of them when visiting cities for conferences or other work travel. I once used the bike share in Columbus, Ohio to make a run to Target to pickup the underwear that I forgot to pack. Since Columbus’ bike share provided 30 minutes of free riding for each check-out, I was able to hop from station to station and keep the cost to a minimum.

The best bike share program I have found so far was in Buenos Aires where bike rentals are free. The only challenge was that my cell phone service, which was supposed to work in Argentina, did not. This meant that I had to request an unlock code using the app while on wifi, then run to the nearest bike station within the 5 minutes that the code was valid.

I really wish that more cities offered subsidized bike share programs as it is a great way to get around a city when you can’t have your own bike for one reason or another.

Things we appreciated from our travels

We were fortunate to spend a good amount of time visiting different countries over the last nine months of travel.

Electricity, tea, and vegetarian food in Scotland

We spent a month in Scotland and I think the thing we came to appreciate the most was the tea. Specifically Scottish breakfast tea. Evidently the Scottish variety of the breakfast teas tends to be the strongest. We enjoyed our tea with the addition of some sweetener and oat milk, which gave it a little creaminess. Of course, I’m still devoted to my black coffee habit, but tea has been a nice addition during the day when I need a cup of something hot to drink.

Related to the tea situation, we also really enjoyed being in a 230 v country while preparing our tea. You can just heat the water so much faster than you can with our puny 120 v electrical service in the US. Higher voltage means you can operate higher power appliance at the same limits of amperage. It is easy to find 3000 W electric kettles in the UK, while in the US, most models are 1100 or 1200 W with some that you can find at 1500 W. Of course, electric kettles aren’t very common in US households either, but we’ve just ordered one for ourselves so we are soon on our way to easy tea (and coffee) preparation.

The last thing that we noticed in Scotland was that vegetarian/vegan food was so much more widely available that other places we have traveled and certainly more so that many places in the US. Pretty much every restaurant had options and many even had whole dedicated veg menus or menu sections. We really appreciated the variety of options available in grocery stores as well, with most items costing the same as their meat or dairy based counterparts. In every aspect, we had a much easier time finding vegetarian food in Scotland than we did in France.

The bedding

One other thing that we enjoyed in both France and Scotland was the use of a duvet instead of a top sheet. It just simplified the whole sleeping process, only one layer to worry about. Plus, less frequent washing of the comforter as you can just slip the duvet off instead. We might try to do this at home, though it turns out that duvets are a little more difficult to find. Only really IKEA has them available. Plus sheets don’t really come in single packs.

Pace of life in Perú

Since we’ve returned to our home in Wisconsin, the place I’ve found myself missing the most is Perú. Everything just seemed so much more relaxed. People made time to make connections with others and invite people to gatherings, even us who were outsiders that they barely knew. Family is of primary importance and there was plenty of time for connecting and having experiences together, things just didn’t feel as frantic. Of course, one thing that hit me immediately upon our return home was a feeling of being overwhelmed by stuff, something that the minimalism movement talks plenty about. I would say that the preoccupation with stuff in Perú was much less than it is in the US and we found it easier to break out of that cycle.

Lodging options while on extended travel

Over the past eight months, we’ve traveled across six countries outside of the US while staying in nine different AirBnB properties, seven hotels, and one independently rented house.

Hotels

I like to use hotels instead of AirBnB for short stays of one or two nights. Mostly because I feel less of a need to clean up carefully before leaving a hotel than I do when I stay in an AirBnB. Since an AirBnB is often someone else’s home, it is responsible to clean up carefully which takes time. I’m not saying that I trash a hotel, but I usually don’t take out the garbage or vacuum and wipe down all of the services before leaving a hotel room. Throughout the last eight months, my family and I have stayed at seven different hotels in three different countries.

We made our bookings using either Hotels.com, Orbitz, or Hotwire depending on which option gave us the best price. I usually make a point of checking the hotel’s own website to see if they offer a better price, or even the same price, but that seldom happens. I know that lately a lot of hotel chains have tried to incentivize booking direct by not counting third party bookings towards the benefits of their membership programs. However, I’ve personally never had one of those chain specific membership programs lead to an actual financial savings. I’ve pretty much always come out ahead by booking the cheapest option—and taking the immediate benefits—when compared to hoping for future benefit. Third party booking can sometimes help here as I can accumulate benefits with that third party website, regardless of which property I stay with.

Hotels.com reward system uses a buy 10 nights, get one free policy.

Of the three third party booking sites I mentioned above, Orbitz is the only one which has resulted in actual savings while on the trip. You earn Orbucks with each reservation which can be used directly on the next booking. Additionally, we have more commonly been able to find coupon codes for Orbitz than for other sites. However, in many cases the savings is only a few dollars. Hotels.com uses a buy 10 nights, get one free system, so of course it takes longer to realize any actual benefit. On Hotwire, the financial benefit comes in the form of their Hot Rates deals where you don’t know specifically which hotel you are booking until you’ve booked it. Of course, since the website provides a general idea of location and rating, it is pretty easy to figure out what the hotel will be in advance. The major downside of the Hot Rates option is that, I think, every booking is nonrefundable.

That brings me to my next point. Because we found ourselves traveling in the middle of the coronavirus outbreak in addition to having an unexpected hospitalization which both resulted in lots of cancelled plans, we’ve had the chance to see how some of these options handled cancellations and changes in plans.

First, we had a three day hospitalization in France that meant having to cancel two hotel reservations (and a train). Both of these reservations were made through Hotels.com. Given the uncertain nature of what we were going through at the time, I tried calling both hotels to explain what was happening and see if they would allow us to cancel. The first didn’t have any record of our reservation and referred us back to Hotels.com. Hotels.com referred said the hotel had to handle it, so I gave up instead of chasing the loop back and forth. The second hotel placed me on hold for probably 20-30 minutes (this was before COVID-19 got going) and then hung up. We’ll try to use our travel insurance to reimburse these cancellations and just hope for the best there.

The coronavirus outbreak has also resulted in changed plans. We still had a month left in our travel itinerary when things started going sideways. This caused us to rush to rearrange and try to get home as quickly as possible. Luckily, we only had one hotel reservation that we won’t be able to keep. Our other lodging arrangement was through AirBnB, which we were able to cancel. The remaining hotel reservation is for a Paris hotel at the beginning of April. The reservation was made through Hotwire, who hasn’t exactly provided any help and instead defers to the provider. The hotel is owned by Accor Live Limitless, who is currently not keeping up with travel restrictions as new limits are put in place. This one I’ll keep monitoring and hope that we can do something because the hotel was rather expensive and it would be a lot of money to lose.

AirBnB

Prior to this trip, I didn’t have any experience using AirBnB as my university doesn’t allow us to use it for work travel and we personally were somewhat resistant to it due to the uncertainty of what you’ll encounter with each reservation. On this trip, we decided to try it out, mostly for the cost savings for long-term stays, and we’ve now stayed at nine different AirBnB properties in seven different countries. Our stays have ranged from three nights to four weeks. So far we’ve been lucky in that none of our reservations has been cancelled by the host before we arrived and we’ve only had to cancel one of our reservations, again due to the coronavirus, where we benefited by having booked a property with a generous cancellation policy.

What we’ve learned through our AirBnB experience is that the majority of hosts are generous, kind people who’ve made our stays very positive experiences. We’ve done our best to avoid properties that are owned by corporations and have tried to avoid the riskier options by only using properties with good ratings and some decent rental history. Though one caveat to this is that you can sometimes find a good deal by looking for new properties without rental history, which often come at a discount, but are owned by superhosts, a status that provides some level of protection because they are unlikely to cancel your reservation as it jeopardizes their status.

Our favorite stay on this trip was the four weeks we spent in Jard-sur-Mer, in a cozy property that was very well setup for long stays and for families. This property became the comparison point against which we measured all of our other stays.

There were a couple of things we found almost frequently true across the AirBnBs that we stayed in that could be rather easily improved by hosts. 1) Spend about a week living in your rental property and preparing meals. Use this time to identify the missing cooking implements and then purchase them to provide for your guests. It was often simple things like having enough spoons. Also, oddly, I don’t think any of the properties we stayed in supplied a pizza cutter. When something so universal and frequently utilized is missing, it is quickly noticed. 2) Make the wifi password something that is ready to type. Replace the router’s default password, which commonly looks like HG6JgjHFh4YG#5yHN, with something like correcthorsebatterystaple. This will accomplish the same thing but is much easier for me to enter because I can read it once and remember it while I’m typing it in on each device I’d like to connect.

Aside from hotels and AirBnB properties, we did stay in one normal rental house. This was for our extended 5 month stay in Perú and we find the property using a Facebook group specifically for housing in the Sacred Valley. We did it this way rather than using AirBnB as we were able to get a better mostly rate by finding property owners who were not using AirBnB and thus not operating within that fee structure.

I think that overall we were quite lucky with our housing choices and were fortunate to have safe accommodations everywhere we went.

Driving on the wrong side of the road

During our stay in Scotland, we decided to take a little trip to Inverness to see the highlands and do some of the standard tourist sites. We had the option of either taking the train or driving. The train provides reliability and safety, but lacks flexibility. Driving means having to figure out how to navigate traffic whole driving on the wrong side of the road. Since we wanted to visit a few sites around Inverness as well as on the way there and back.

I had already gained some experience with driving in Europe and reacquainted myself with driving stick during our cross-country trek across France. This means that I had been through my fair share of roundabouts, but had circled them counter clockwise rather than clockwise.

Of course I had to have a photo of me spring on the right side of the car.

We planned our route from Aberdeen to Inverness such that we could see the East Aquhorthies Stone Circle and Fyvie Castle. Both sites were quite interesting. We were hit by a brief snow storm while visiting the circle but unfortunately none of us heard any buzzing while there. Fyvie was also a beautiful castle, but being off-season, we couldn’t go inside so instead we circled round the grounds.

From there we finished the drive up to Inverness, skirting the edges of the Cairngorms. Quick shout-out to the Citi Costco Visa’s Worldwide Car Rental Insurance, which saved my butt after a minor incident involving a parked car and a tight hotel parking lot space.

Over the next few days, we paid our respects at Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle, and Culloden.

For the drive back to Aberdeen we had originally planned to drive the Snow Roads directly through the mountains. However, a snow storm the night before closed the roads and we had to take a different route. We were still able to make a stop at Fraser Castle. The castle had a lovely free tour, which was good because admission to the castle was about $50 for our family!

Fraser Castle

We made it back to Aberdeen in time to return the rental car, slightly worse for wear, and get some rest at our AirBnB. I can now add left-handed stick-shifting to my repertoire of skills!

Honestly, driving on the other side of the road wasn’t as bad as I feared. I was hyper vigilant for the first hour, but then was able to settle into the normal routine of driving. I will say that all of this driving of manual transmission cars has made me really want one at home. Of course they are relatively difficult to find in the US.

The Queen’s English is so literal

One thing that we’ve really enjoyed about being in the UK is the usage of colloquialisms all over the place and on things in which you would normally expect to find more formal language. Signage, for example, seems to be a common place. My favorite below is the “Twenty’s Plenty” as a speed limit sign. Though the bluntness of the “Elderly People” and “Way out” signs are pretty good too. I think that in the US, road signs would tend to be a lot more formal. Perhaps there are examples of the same phenomenon?

We also found plenty of examples on food packaging. Now food packaging in the US wouldn’t necessarily always have formal language. But we were often amused by the names given to products. The orange juice comes either with or without “juicy bits” rather than pulp. And whipped cream dispensed under pressure is called, “squirty cream.” Similarly, honey in a bottle was called, “squeezy clear honey.” I mean, I guess the descriptions are accurate!

Life comes at you fast in this brave new world

Cumulative coronavirus cases in Norway through 2020-03-10. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Just two days ago I said that we would likely be continuing our trip through Scandinavia/Europe as planned. Then the metaphorical shit hit the fan in Norway with a sharp increase in the number of coronavirus cases on March 10th. As an aside, Norway has a nice live-updating coronavirus statistics page. I spoke with the family in Norway that we were planning on visiting and they strongly recommended postponing our visit since it seemed that Norway was heading quickly towards a lock down scenario with people being told to stay home from work and lots of trains and events being cancelled. We had started noticing issues probably a week earlier when the train that we were planning to book down to Malmö, Sweden disappeared from the timetables.

Unfortunately, we are unable to escape from this situation financially unscathed. We have two flights that we have been unable to modify and are of course nonrefundable as well as a Paris hotel reservation we will similarly have to pay for. Luckily, a lot of things went right and we aren’t getting hit as hard as it could have been. Delta was able to work with us to change our April flight from Paris to Minneapolis into a flight next week from London to Minneapolis for no extra charge. Additionally, the cute little AirBnB that we had booked in Malmö had a very generous cancellation policy and we were able to get all of our money back from that reservation. We were also going to be staying with family while in Norway, so won’t lose any money there. I think that all in all we will lose about $1000 in nonrefundable stuff, but this is a small price to pay to avoid the risks to ourselves and others by trotting through four more countries before returning home as we had originally planned.

Flying Ryanair, better than anticipated

Ryanair gets a fair amount of bad press as an airline. Obviously this is mostly related to it being a budget option that provides really no extras with your trip in exchange for having low fares.

We recently flew Ryanair between Brussels and Edinburgh and honestly didn’t find it to be all that bad. We’ve flown other budget airlines in the past, mostly Frontier and Spirit, and found Ryanair’s service to be comparable. I would say it was better than Spirit, but I only have this one data point for comparison, while I’ve flown Spirit several times. One thing that seems to get a lot of attention is Ryanair’s cabin baggage policy, which is somewhat restrictive, but not unlike other budget carriers. Again, we had no issues and found that nobody was really paying that close of attention to baggage sizes, despite all of the dire warnings found online that try to scare you with threats of extra fees. Of course, none of this means that you might not some day have your baggage size checked carefully. I’ve just never had it happen with Ryanair, or any other budget airline for that matter.

The only real issues we experienced were first, that Ryanair flies out of Charleroi airport. This means that you have get down to Charleroi from Brussels to take the flight. The most common way to get down there seems to be the Brussels City Shuttle operated by Flibco, which itself gets a lot of mixed reviews online. We found the shuttle to be rather convenient, and because we purchased our tickets well in advance, we only paid $15 for our family of four to ride.

The other, extremely minor issue, was that the Ryanair staff at Charleroi didn’t speak any English and thus couldn’t answer the questions we had about our gate checked stroller and car seat. However, since we were in Belgium, the onus is probably more on me for needing better French.

COVID-19 travel guilt

So we are traveling in the middle of the ongoing 2019-2020 coronavirus outbreak and I feel guilty about it. While we are not currently in a location that is being heavily hit by new cases of the virus, we run the risk of becoming infected and spreading the virus further every time we move around. We started this trip in early January when the coronavirus was much smaller and I hadn’t heard any information predicting what it has now become.

Map of COVID-19 spread taken from https://outbreak.cc/ on 2020-03-09.

As of right now, we have four weeks remaining in our itinerary with stops planned in Edinburgh, Norway, Sweden, and Paris before returning home. Our options are probably to either cut our trip short and head home, shelter in one location until it is time to return home, or continue with our itinerary as planned. Riskiest part of our remaining itinerary is the final 5 days that we have planned in Paris. France recently crossed 1,000 cases and the number of cases is growing quickly.

We’ve looked at the possibility of returning home early. We’ve found that from our current location in Aberdeen, we’d have to fly out of Edinburgh and in order to get back to Minneapolis, we’d be facing quite expensive tickets that our travel insurance wouldn’t likely cover since we aren’t currently being recommended to change plans by any health authority. We could also explore sheltering in-place by trying to extend our stay in Scotland. Not sure yet how we would do this as the place we are currently staying is not available for an extension and again our travel insurance wouldn’t likely cover our cancelled plans or any new reservations.

The Litany Against Fear for hand washing. Found on /r/WitchesVsPatriarchy.

I expect that we will continue with our planned itinerary while taking precautions to limit our exposure to other people and public venues as well as use good hand-washing practices. I am of course watching closely as things develop and adapt as appropriate. In any case, I expect that we will have to self-quarantine once we do return to the US. If I was viewing the situation from a purely selfish standpoint, my family is probably safer facing the coronavirus while in Scandinavia/Europe given the lack of preparedness from the US government.

IRN-BRU, the Inca Kola of Scotland

In Perú, Inca Kola has a bit of a cult following and is quite popular. The flavor is something like carbonated bubble-gum juice. It is not entirely off-putting, but is definitely overly sweet and takes a little getting used to. Still, it is regularly served at restaurants and seen being carried on the streets by locals and tourists alike.

We have been a little surprised to discover that there is a similar local drink in Scotland called IRN-BRU (Iron Brew). It is known as “Scotland’s other national drink.“, after whisky of course. The flavor of IRN-BRU is hard to describe. The drink is orange in color but not in flavor. It tastes somewhat fruity, but nothing specifically definable. According to Reddit, it “tastes kinda like rust and battery acid.”

Brussels is for lovers… of food

In our transition from France to Scotland, we arranged a five day layover in Brussels. We arrive in Brussels via the train from Paris. With such a short stay in Brussels, we mainly only had time to hit the highlights; Manneken Pis, Belgian waffles, and chocolate being at the top of the list.

The diminutive yet ever popular Manneken Pis.

Manneken Pis has been a long-term fascination due to my father-in-law’s history visiting the statue and having his own copy at the house since before I knew him. The crowd outside the statue was large but not overwhelming. We were perhaps visiting during a off-peak time. We collected the required photos to share with family and set off to explore further.

Nearby to the statue are the standard variety of tourist accompaniments, selling souvenirs and food items. We were particularly intrigued by the waffles available from several nearby vendors. The Belgian liege waffles are a delight and are served with a range of toppings. Though I might argue that eating them plain is more than worth it. Most of the varieties shown below are sold for 6€ at the nearest stands, though it you travel a little further away from the tourist center, the prices drop a little.

Liege waffles for sale near Manneken Pis sold with a variety of toppings.

We very much enjoyed the pedestrian only streets that surround the downtown tourist areas. This made it quite a bit easier to get around the area and see the available restaurants and shops.

A cone of frites served with dipping sauce.

We quickly realized that frites were a specialty of the area and we made sure to stop at one of the street side shops to get a cone for a snack. They were quite good and widely available. While wandering around we also passed by several shops selling all sorts of sweets and treats. We purchased some truffles for ourselves but held back from the baklava, which was very tempting.

We inadvertently happened across a sign advertising Jeanneke Pis, a much younger and less popular Brussels statue. We made our way down the small alleyway to find the statue, though it was thoroughly locked behind a gate and turned off.

We really enjoyed our visit to Brussels and by staying in an AirBnB in Anderlecht, we were able to find accommodations that were a little cheaper, but yet only a short ride on the subway from all of the tourist sites in central Brussels.

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