Solo Trip To Stockholm

People often ask me if I’m ever afraid to travel alone.  The short answer is yes and no.  It can be a bit daunting to jump on an airplane and travel half way around the world, especially when you’re going to a country you’ve never been to.  Certain places are off limits as a solo traveler, in my opinion.  There are places where I would not feel safe going by myself, and would much rather have a travel companion or go with a tour group.  For instance, I would not want to explore Egypt on my own.  There has been conflict in Egypt, and that part of the world, and I just wouldn’t feel safe going by myself.

Stockholm is definitely not one of those places, though.  Everywhere I went in Stockholm, I felt safe.  I was still cautious of my surroundings, but I felt safe and secure nonetheless.  I guess I’m a bit selfish when it comes to traveling.  I want to have the freedom to start and end my day whenever I please, eat when I want to, and stop and take pictures without inconveniencing a travel companion.  I love using my camera to soak in all the beautiful sights so I can feed my memories for years to come.  I also want to share what I’m seeing with my friends and family.

I did plenty of research before I left for Sweden.  I watched tons of YouTube videos of other people’s voyages to Stockholm, read blogs and books, and talked with people who had been before.  Everyone commented at how safe the city is, and I immediately noticed this first-hand while I was there.  People would ride their bikes to work, for instance, and they would just leave them unchained outside their buildings.  No worries or cares of someone coming along and snatching them up.

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The streets were clean, and the people were friendly.  Not overly friendly, but always willing to help when I had questions or needed directions.  They even seemed happy to welcome me into their country, and would flash a huge smile when they found out it was my first time there.

Public transportation in Stockholm was a breeze.  It was super easy to get around the city by bus, tram, and ferry.  It’s also very easy to get around the city on foot.  Most of the tourist areas are compact and close together.  Walking, you may be more inclined to pop into a shop or attraction that you may have missed had you been on the bus or tram.

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I even felt safe in the evenings.  There seemed to always be large groups of happy Swedes shopping and tourists soaking in the sights, no matter what time of day it was.  Police officials were not far from reach either, which made me feel even more safe.

Does anyone have any suggestions of other places that may be perfect for someone traveling alone?  I’m thinking Tokyo might be my next solo trip.

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Norwegian Air Shuttle

My trip to Stockholm was full of firsts for me.  Not only was this my first trip to Stockholm, but it was my first 787 Dreamliner and first flight with Norwegian.  I searched high and low on the internet, looking for reviews and videos that would prepare me for my first Norwegian experience.

Departure

I had originally planned to only travel with carry-on luggage since my flight from Seattle to LAX was early in the morning, and my flight to Stockholm didn’t depart until the evening.  Now that LAX has a connector from Terminal 4 to the Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT), I figured I could sit in the lounge to wait out the 5 hour layover.  I was booked in Norwegian’s Premium Cabin, which granted me lounge access.  Norwegian, however, does not allow mobile or online check-ins for flights to/from the United States.  I had to leave the secured area of the airport and wait 3 hours for checkin to open at the TBIT.  There isn’t much to keep one entertained on the check-in side of the TBIT.

Once check-in was opened, I dropped my bag and headed through security.  I headed immediately to the Oneworld Business Lounge and waited out the remainder of my layover.  I had a lovely salad, glass of wine, and relaxed before the 11 hour flight.

ONBOARD: Having watched a few video reviews of Norwegian, I already knew what to expect when I boarded the aircraft.  The cabin is light and airy, and the seats give you plenty of space to stretch out for the long flight.  I have to say, the 787 is an amazing aircraft, and I’m glad I finally had the opportunity to fly on one.  The giant windows were fantastic.  I liked that there are no shutters, and you can still see out when the cabin crew have them blacked out for sleep time.  We hit a few bumps over Canada and Greenland, but the 787 really made everything smooth.  The aircraft is quiet too, compared to the others I had been on.

The seats recline a lot further than economy, but nothing compares to the lie-flat beds you find on other airlines.  The IFE comes out of the armrest, and when the people in front of you are reclined you’re pretty much stuck in your seat.  That is, however, unless you know your seat mate well enough to climb over them.  If I fly Norwegian again, I will be requesting an aisle seat for easier access to the lavatory and to get up and stretch.

A meal was served after we had been in the air for about an hour.  I had the beef, which was a bit dry, but still edible.  I had definitely had worse.  I opted for the chicken option on the way back, which was borderline terrible.

The cabin crew were very friendly; always happy to help and always with a smile.  I even overheard one of the flight attendants telling a passenger what a great company Norwegian is to work for.  It’s always nice to see/hear when people are happy with their jobs.

Return

I had a marvelous time in Stockholm, but I have one complaint.  The airport is HORRIBLE!  The check-in area is small and congested.  It’s very chaotic trying to maneuver through the crowds.  I found Norwegian’s check-in area, but was faced with a very long line of people.  I could see there was a separate line for Premium, however there was no sign and it was roped off.  I couldn’t tell if they were not allowing separate Premium check-in or if I needed to just let myself in.  I finally found a staff member willing to help, and he said I could just go right through.

The airport is not easy to navigate.  I searched for about 30 minutes for the lounge.  I finally found it, far away from Norwegian’s dedicated gates.  This lounge was HORRIBLE!  No plug-ins for electronics like most lounges have.  The seating was not comfortable.  Also, the food and drink selection was very substandard, compared to other lounges I’ve been in.  I spent about 10 minutes there, and made my way back toward my gate.  I had to go through Passport Control, and once through there I was restricted from moving around the airport.

Thankfully, Norwegian’s customer service is top-notch, otherwise I would have been in a terrible mood the entire way back.  The cabin crew were just as nice as the first leg of the trip, and they took very good care of me.  I even had the row to myself, so I didn’t have to climb over anyone to get to the bathroom.

Overall Experience

I am giving my Norwegian Air Shuttle experience 3.5 out of 5 stars.  I think they should offer a better Premium product, even if that means raising the price a little.  The food could be better too.  I also believe they should cut ties with Menzies, the company that runs the lounge at Stockholm Arlanda.  That was a terrible lounge, and I won’t take advantage of that privilege next time I’m there.

Stockholm, Here I Come!!

The date is set for September 24th.  I cannot even begin to express how excited I am!  This trip is going to be full of firsts: first time to Stockholm, first flight on the beautiful Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and first flight with Norwegian Air Shuttle.  I booked everything through Expedia, which is where I found the best deal for the flight and hotel package.

FLIGHT:  Seattle has a decent-sized airport that handles many international flights daily.  However, I found a better deal by booking my trip out of LAX, and purchasing a cheap round trip ticket between SEA and LAX.  A word of caution if you do this: the airlines will probably not accommodate your connection plans if anything happens to your connecting flight.  So, if my flight from SEA to LAX is late or cancelled, and I cannot make my flight to Stockholm, I may be screwed.  I’m opting for an early flight out of Seattle, and a really late flight for the return, so that I have plenty of wiggle room  Booking this way, though, helped me shave about $1,000 USD off my trip package which will certainly come in handy later on down the road.

When traveling internationally, I usually like to spend a bit extra on my flight and purchase business class seats. Usually, business class gives passengers the ability to sleep with lie-flat seats and excellent service.  Norwegian does not offer such a class, but does have a Premium Cabin, which teeters somewhere between Business and Premium Economy.  I have seen some excellent reviews online, however, so it should be a lovely experience.  norwegian-premium-cabin

Judging by the pics and videos I’ve seen online, there’s quite a bit of space and the seats appear to have a decent recline to them.  I think I’m most excited about flying on the 787, which I have been dying to fly on since they were introduced into service.  boeing_787_of_norwegian_landing_at_osl

I should mention that Norwegian is a low-cost airline.  If booking in economy, expect to pay for each piece of luggage, as well as in-flight snacks and beverages.  From what I hear, you get the bare-b0nes for your ticket, but the service is still outstanding.  I’ll follow up after my trip.

HOTEL:  While shaving some money off my trip, I was also able to pick an upgraded room with my hotel.  This was all done through Expedia, of course.  The hotel I will be staying at is called the Elite Hotel Marina Tower.  I decided to upgrade to a Junior Suite, which is said to offer a sea view.  The hotel appears to be a bit removed from the hustle and bustle of the major tourist areas, but has its own ferry station right out front.  elite-marina-tower-stockholm-fasad4I prefer to be away from the major crowds, and I hope this hotel lives up to the wonderful reviews I’ve read.  I can’t wait to share my experiences with you when I return (and while I’m there).  My one complaint thus far, though, is that I can only seem to find the spa offerings in Swedish.  I’m assuming they’ll have more information at the hotel, and I definitely plan on at least one spa treatment while I’m there.

ATTRACTIONS:  There are so many sights I wish to see while I’m there.  In order to save money, I’m going to purchase The Stockholm Pass.  This is offered through a company called Leisure Pass Group, which offered The London Pass that I purchased for my trip to London earlier this year.  The Stockholm Pass appears to offer a more robust selection of attractions than The London Pass, so I’ll surely be giving this a HUGE thumbs up when I return.  The person who thought up the Leisure Pass Group is a genius in my book!

I also hope to experience some Swedish nightlife while I’m there, and get to know the gay culture of Sweden.  From what I understand, the Swedes are much more progressive than we (Americans) are, so I look forward to meeting people and possibly finding a Swedish husband…I won’t hold my breath on the husband part, though 😉

I’ll certainly be snapping photos left and right, and sharing them here.  A bulk of them, though, will be housed on my Smugmug page, once I return and get them edited.

Disclaimer: No copyright infringement intended in the use of these photos.

Leavin’ On A Seaplane

I’ve lived in Seattle for a little over two years now, and I realized I still hadn’t taken any of the tours offered by Kenmore Air.  I knew the sun would be making an appearance this weekend, so I booked the Seattle Scenic Tour.  For $99, I was given a front row seat to the most beautiful city on the West Coast (in my opinion).  We took off from Lake Union and headed over to Lake Washington.  We were treated to magnificent views of Bellevue, Lake Washington, and Mercer Island.  Mount Rainier was ever present in the sky as well, as there were hardly any clouds.  In Seattle, when it’s sunny, we don’t say, “The sun is out.”  We say, “The mountain’s out.”  IMG_2053.jpg

We crossed back over the stadiums to Seattle proper, heading out over Elliott Bay.  I’ve seen Seattle from the Space Needle, as well as from Columbia Center (Seattle’s tallest skyscraper), and this view is by far the best.  Anything and everything happening in Seattle this morning was right outside my airplane window.  It was AMAZING!!!

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We flew over Elliott Bay, soaking in the sights of Puget Sound, West Seattle, Bainbridge Island, before heading north over Discovery Park (my favorite of Seattle’s parks).  We also had a great view of the locks.

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All too quickly, the flight was over.  Being my first seaplane ride, it was so bizarre taking off and landing on the water.  One of my biggest fears when flying internationally is crashing in the water, so that made this experience a bit ‘white knuckle’ for me.  I absolutely loved it, though.   Kenmore Air provides amazing customer service.

The planes are small, so space is limited.  Don’t expect a first class seat, but definitely expect first class service.  This will definitely be at the top of my list of attractions when I have visitors in town.

For more pictures, click here!

Museum of Flight

Seattle is airplane country.  Boeing’s headquarters is here, which means any time you look up at the sky, you’re likely to see a brand new jet on its test flight.  You’re also likely to see hundreds of general aviation aircraft zipping through the skies, as well as the seaplanes that make up Kenmore Air‘s fleet.  I remember a time, before the threat of terrorism became too serious, that my dad and I would head out to the airport to watch the planes.  Back then, we could get up closer that you can now.  Planespotting was something my dad and I could always bond over.

Now, when I have the urge to be around airplanes, but don’t have a ticket to go anywhere, I can head over to the Museum of Flight.  The museum provides visitors with excellent exhibitions on the origins of flight, as well as an exhibit centered around space exploration.  Retired aircraft hang from the ceiling for everyone to enjoy. They’ve just completed their Aviation Pavilion, where visitors can get up close and personal with some amazing aircraft.  I just came from the Members’ Preview, and they have done am AMAZING job putting this all together.  The Aviation Pavilion opens to the public on June 25th.  Boeing’s first 747-100 is on display, which visitors can enter.  It isn’t set up like a passenger jet, as it only made test flights.  The same goes for the Boeing 787-8 on display.  Visitors can also step inside a retired British Airways Concorde, which was the fastest passenger jet ever in service.  Docents are always on hand to answer questions about the various aircraft on display.

I’ve been to the museum several times, and still haven’t seen everything yet.  Every time I go, I see something new and interesting.  If you live in the Seattle area, or visit several times a year, I suggest purchasing a membership.  It ends up paying for itself, if you are an aviation geek like me and would like to go back a couple of times.  I have the lowest tier of membership, and I can always bring a guest for free.  Members also get 15% off at the gift shop, and I never leave empty-handed.  If you haven’t been to Seattle yet, definitely put this on the top of your list of places to visit.

Movie Magic…All Aboard The Hogwarts Express

Everywhere you turn, London’s sights and sounds mesmerize.  When I was there in February, I had the amazing opportunity to visit the Warner Brothers Studio in Leavesden, just outside of London.  The studio is where the Harry Potter movies were filmed, and they’ve opened some of the sets to visitors.  I purchased my tickets through a third-party site, which offered me transportation to the studio, as well as entrance to the tour.

While queuing up to enter the tour, various props hang from the ceiling, and visitors file past a mock-up of the cupboard under the stairs that Harry slept in.  Visitors file through into a theatre and take their seats in front of a giant screen.  Cast and crew members take the screen to share with visitors how magical it was for them to work on such an amazing set.  Artists and craftspeople worked their magic to bring the sights of Hogwarts alive, leaving no detail untouched.

After the film ends, the screen raises up and visitors are instantly transported to the giant doors that lead into the Great Hall of Hogwarts.IMG_1871.jpg  Once the doors open, visitors move onto the set and stand where Harry, Ron, Hermione and all the other students ate there meals and listened to Dumbledore spout out his mysterious riddles.  IMG_1880.jpg

Various costumes are on display through out the Great Hall.  While I was there, the studio had the Sorting Hat on display, which is usually kept in archives.

Visitors shuffle through the side of the Great Hall into a giant room filled with various props and set pieces.  The Weasley’s kitchen is on display, as well as Dumbledore’s office, the Gryffindor common room, and the dormitory.  Visitors can also file past the classroom of Professor Snape, with potions brewing.  It’s pretty amazing that set designers and decorators put so much work into bringing the stories to life on the big screen.

Platform 9 3/4 is the next stop, with the Hogwarts Express steaming up and ready to take the next batch of students to Hogwarts.  Visitors can enter the passenger cars, and look into the compartments where some of the scenes were filmed.  Each compartment is decorated to the theme of each film.IMG_1939.jpg

It may be time for a break, so the next stop on the visit is a large seating area with a place to purchase food and sample some butter beer.  I didn’t try the butter beer, but others on the tour seemed to like it.  Looking back, I probably should’ve given it a try.

While waiting for the next portion of the tour to open, visitors can step outside to view some of the outdoor sets.  There’s the Knight Bus that whisks harry from Privet Drive to the Leaky Cauldron after he causes Aunt Marge to take flight.  The Dursley’s home on Privet Drive is also on display, as well as Harry’s childhood home in Godric’s Hollow.  The giant chess pieces were also on display.

After getting a good look around at everything in this portion of the tour, visitors are then sent on a walk down Diagon Alley.  The shop fronts are decorated as though another Harry Potter film is about to be shot.  IMG_1968.jpg

The final portion of the tour leads visitors to a ‘miniature’ of Hogwarts Castle.  This was breathtaking!  I’ve always had a fascination with miniatures, so I was like a kid in a candy store when I came across this.  Now, you’re probably thinking of those little light-up houses you put out for Christmas.  No, this is a HUGE miniature.  The lighting changes so you can see it in the daylight and at night.  IMG_1979.jpg

I looked in the gift shop to see if I could find a miniature to take home with me, but it was much too crowded to really do any browsing.

For more pics of my London trip, including pics from my visit to the Harry Potter sets, click here.

For information about the tour from the official website, click here.

For Golden Tours UK, where I purchased my tour package that included transportation, click here.

If a trip to London isn’t on your radar anytime soon, YouTube is an awesome place to get a little taste of tourism.  Several people have filmed their tours, and here is my favorite:

Windsor Castle

Windsor Castle sits in the quaint village of Windsor, which is just a short train ride west of London.  With just a quick change in Slough, you’re there in no time. It may seem like a hassle to leave London, but it is definitely worth it and not as difficult as you might think.  I had The London Pass, which not only granted me admission to the castle, but also got me from London Paddington to the village of Windsor.  I wasn’t sure if it included the return trip (it only mention the trip out to Windsor), so I just purchased a cheap ticket back into London when I was ready to go back.

Now, I’m a sucker for anything that has to do with the British Royal Family.  I greatly admire the Queen, especially, and would probably faint or die of a heart attack if I were to be invited to meet her.  Windsor Castle, for me, was a definite MUST for my trip to London.  My trip would not have felt complete.

First off, you should get there early.  I arrived about 15 minutes before the gates opened, and I’m glad I did.  I looked back, and there was already a huge line waiting behind me to get in.  Also, be sure to check that the Queen isn’t in residence, which you can do from her official website, or the Royal Collection.  With The London Pass, I received fast-track entry, and completely bypassed the lines.  Once through the entryway, I was immediately captivated by the breathtaking sight.  Perfectly clipped grass lead up to the medieval masonry of the walls that made up the castle.  The Union Flag flapped in the wind, and the clouds scurried away.  I walked down a pathway that immediately lead me to imagine the millions of people who had walked the same path since the middle ages.  IMG_1996Would Henry VIII have walked through here at one point?  How about Queen Victoria?  Perhaps, even my own idol, Queen Elizabeth II?  Did people in medieval times really dress like they were in an episode of Game of Thrones?  Oh, to be able to listen to the conversations that were had by the people who lived hundreds of years ago.

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After freezing and looking around the outside, I followed the cobblestone pathway past Saint George’s Chapel to the entrance of the State Apartments.  Sadly, photography is strictly prohibited in the interiors, so I only have my memories of this portion of my visit.  I was so amazed, however, that I doubt those memories will ever fade.  I was ushered into a darkened room where Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House sits.  What an amazing piece of craftsmanship!  The dolls’ house was definitely fit for a queen, and no detail was spared.  I’ve always had a fascination with miniatures, so this was right up my alley.

I moved through into the meat and potatoes of the tour: the State Apartments.  I was completely in awe of everything I saw.  There were suits of armor, priceless paintings and furniture, ornate details and designs.  I was overcome with emotion when I walked through these rooms.  I could imagine kings, queens, princes, and princesses walking through these corridors, dining at the tables, and lounging on the chairs and couches I passed by.  There was one table in particular that I passed by, which had a ring on it from a glass that didn’t have a coaster under it.  I could imagine that being caused by cheeky old Prince Phillip saying, “I don’t need a bloody coaster!”

I wonder what the castle is like from the perspective of a young prince or princess.

I truly cannot say enough wonderful things about Windsor Castle.  I could write for days and break the internet with my inane ramblings about it, but I won’t.  Windsor Castle should be on everyone’s list when they visit London.  If you have another hour to spare, here’s a great video about the castle and its history.  In the video, you will be shown the State Apartments, as well as Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House.