The Rigors of Being Your Own Travel Agent, Part 1

I will be posting details of what Reykjavik is really like, but for now, this picture implies it’s a quiet little burg. It isn’t, but that’s what this picture implies.

Online organization of my trip overwhelms me. There are too many choices, as with most of life these days.

Last night, I spent at least three hours looking through all of the links that came up on a seemingly simple search for “things to do in Reykjavik.”

Now, Reykjavik is not a large city, and in fact, prior to the brief tech boom it sustained in the mid-90s, that then turned into the volcanic ‘boom’ of Eyjafjallajökull volcano (amidst other natural wonders to be found in Iceland) it was a fairly sleepy fishing village, as far as I can tell.

I am going there because it is the only easy way to get from Seattle to Europe. Any other trip makes no sense. You can spend 7+ hours on a flight from here to Iceland, or you can spend 14 hours on flights that take you to the East coast, force you into a five hour layover (for no good reason) and then force you to take another flight to London or some other capital.

For those on the West coast, it’s a bad decision. I’ve seen the Philadelphia airport enough to know that I don’t want to have to see it ever again. It’s an exhausting procedure, getting from coast to coast to get to Europe. Won’t do it ever again. You save no money; you waste a lot of time; and, worst of all, you’re absolutely exhausted when you arrive, way beyond the exhaustion of jet-lag.

Just fly to Reykjavik, and you’ll be jet-lagged, but not as badly as if you’d flown to the East coast first.

Doesn’t this look absolutely gorgeous? Plus there’s the possibility of still seeing the Aurora Borealis, since 2012 is a major sun-spot year.

Now, having made the decision to fly to Reykjavik, I need to know what to do with myself while I’m there. But first, I have to get off the plane, a daunting enough task when you’re jet-lagged.

Here’s a good procedure I’ve established for seeing any new city for the first time:

Before you leave, you can and should buy the various “seeing the sights” type cards available for your destination (or have your hotel provide it for you by prearrangement). I have found that if I wait to do this when I get to my destination, I use up valuable trip-time, stuck at the airport, searching out the location of the (open) desk that sells the museum and art gallery card.

Not all desks will necessarily be open. If there are multiple sale-point sites at the airport, you could discover, in an exhausted state, that the desk closest to your gate is closed. This is disheartening at best. Also, because I was overwhelmed by searching for an open desk, and I’m mentally feeble, I left all my paperwork at the counter at Charles de Gaulle airport (Roissy) last July, which put a severe crimp in my tourist-style, since I arrived in Paris already lost and irritable.

Get some local money out of an ATM when you land. There are ATMs at airports for this purpose. Having local money is absolutely crucial in London, for example, where cabbies do not accept credit or debit cards (they are beginning to, but according to my cabbies, 90% of them do not have onboard debit/credit card machines because it’s expensive for them, and they are reluctant to spend this money).

I have tested this unpleasant reality twice now, only to find that each cabbie is telling the absolute truth. My test of their veracity necessitated one side-trip to an ATM, where the cabbie waited while I got some local currency. I was severely jet-lagged during this process, and learned a valuable lesson: have money your cabbie or bus driver recognizes to hand when you land.

Know how you’re getting from the airport into town. For this trip, I need to know how to get from Keflavik airport to Reykjavik (a word I learned how to spell and pronounce after my first trip on Iceland Air, during which time I listened to crew members speak for hours in Icelandic, simultaneously staring at the word ‘Reykjavik’ until its letters were emblazoned on my frontal lobe).

Have a printed-out (hard copy) of your hotel and its map, its location, and its phone number, to show the bus driver or cabbie. This works much better than trying to tell them, even when you speak the same language. The most difficult conversation I’ve had so far was with a cabbie in Glasgow, whose accent was so thick, I couldn’t understand him when he couldn’t find the hotel. Cabbies don’t know where everything is, especially if a business or hotel has moved recently, and bus drivers put you down at prearranged locations, sometimes quite a distance from where you need to be.

If you’re taking a bus from the airport, you can often buy a ticket ahead of time nowadays, which is extremely comforting when you’re jet-lagged. Print out your ticket prior to leaving and include it in the growing pile of paper I am forcing you to carry with you (but you will be glad you were so prepared).

Have a printed-out copy of your reservation to show the front desk. Actually, the one time I really needed this was in the States; they had no record of my reservation, but were able to give me a room because I could show them a written copy of the online reservation. I’ve never had a problem with reservations so far. I use booking.com for all my reservations, btw, and they are great. I told them I would always recommend them, and I do.

Don’t accept a hotel room unless you’re entirely satisfied with it. I often wonder if the front desk hopes you will take the dark room at the back overlooking a construction site because you’re exhausted from jet-lag (a hotel in Dublin tried this with me last May, but I asked for a different room, and got a lovely room on the street with sunlight and trees, ironically much quieter). This may be the one time you ever see this city. Get yourself a room you like; you’re paying a lot of money for the privilege of putting up with construction noise and dust.

Have a printed-out list of places you want to go and things you want to do, just to remind you, including restaurants. I can’t tell you how much time I’ve wasted walking around towns, not knowing what restaurant is any good, ending up spending too much money on bad food, or doing an activity simply because I didn’t know there were any other choices. Doing one’s research ahead of time is key here, to saving time and money.

Bring a good map, or go as soon as you can to the tourist bureau for a good map. A good map is one you can see to read. I am getting old, and my ability to see is diminishing in direct proportion to how far away a map is from my eyes.

I’ve only been inside Kevlavik airport once, when they tricked me by having one of the most stringent security checkpoints I’ve ever experienced, even in China. Well, no, China was the worst, but Keflavik is pretty darned serious. You have to take out everything, including your watch, and let them see that it won’t explode.

Bring a light source, some kind of LED light or flashlight. I have found this to be particularly valuable when trying to count out coins while in a cab. In fact, it was a cabbie in Edinburgh who taught me to carry some kind of light with me, because he had one and helped me see into the depths of my wallet one night. I can’t tell the difference between foreign coins, and in spite of the “one society” goal of the European Union, there are countries that do not use Euros, like Scotland, England, and Sweden. I can’t remember what each coin looks like, let alone their denomination! A light source helps tremendously for this purpose, and then there are menus in dark restaurants.

The right shoes are absolutely crucial every step of the way, pun intended, and can make or break your trip. Before your trip really begins, airports themselves are enormous these days, and getting from one terminal to another (think of Chicago, or any large airport) can take an hour of walking. Never make the mistake of bringing shoes before you’ve broken them in. Even if they are broken in, always bring some kind of moleskin or bandaids made for blisters and/or corns. I know how tedious this sounds, but you will not have a good time if you’re in serious pain, and if you’re with someone who isn’t in pain, they will come to resent you deeply. Avoid this outcome at all costs, since establishing goodwill with your significant other on a trip is crucial.

Part 2 involves details of actually being in Iceland, and I will tell you which tours I decide to invest in, because tours are an investment of time and money, and I like to make these decisions when I’m not jet-lagged.

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