Tag Archives: International

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.

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.

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.

Under The French Sun?

On a daily basis, I reminisce about the most magical year of my life.  From mid-1999 to mid-2000, I lived in France with a study abroad program.  I had begged my mom since seventh grade to let me go on a study abroad program, and my persistence paid off.  I graduated a year early, and hopped on a giant airplane across the Atlantic.  At this point in my life, I had never been overseas.  During that year, I lived like a French person.  I went from speaking no French, to becoming completely fluent.  The desire to see the world and experience everything in the eyes of the locals.

My love for France has never diminished.  Although I have been to several other countries since my magical year, France will always remain my second home.  I speak the language, and have wonderful friends there.  I know I could easily move my life over there, and never look back.  Well, I’d have to look back a little by way of coming back to the U.S. to visit my family and friends over here.

What I’m looking for is something similar to an experience from that movie, Under The Tuscan Sun.  If you haven’t seen the movie, Diane Lane’s character goes through a divorce, her lesbian friends send her on a tour of Italy, she gets off the bus and buys a villa, fixes it up, has sex with an incredibly handsome Italian man, goes through a breakup and some turmoil, and then lives happily ever after.  I want that, but I want it to happen in France, without a divorce, though, because I’m not married.  Ideally, I’d love to find a nice home in   the South of France, just outside of Marseille, Cannes, Nice, or Monaco.  Something a bit secluded, so I could really embrace French village life, but just a stone’s throw from a bigger city.

Love seems to happen a lot easier for me in France, too.  That’s something that’s missing from my life at the moment, and I think it’s fueling this desire for change.  I keep going after straight guys here, and that isn’t working out too well for me.

Is this something that only happens in the movies, or to millionaires?  With immigration laws, it can’t be that easy, can it?  Who knows?  A guy can still dream, can’t he?

Cheap and Lonely in London

London is, by far, my favorite city in the world.  London had been calling my name for a few years now, and the stars finally aligned.  I hopped on a British Airways flight from Seattle, and had the time of my life.  The first question out of everyone’s mouths before I left was, “Aren’t you afraid of going on your own”.

I love traveling by myself.  Usually, I’m not truly alone.  Along with all the voices in my head, I also have friends in most major cities across Europe and Australia.  Traveling alone gives me the opportunity to meet up with them for dinner while I’m in travel status, but I also get to enjoy the sights and sounds at my own pace.  I’m pretty selfish with my time, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t mind traveling with someone special.  Until that miracle happens, I’m content to travel and enjoy the world on my own.

Back to London…if you have any intention of traveling there, a definite MUST is the London Pass.  This saved me so much money!  I do love the finer things in life, but I have to obtain those finer things on a budget.  I purchased the 3 Day Pass with an added Oyster Travelcard.  The Oyster card is for the London Underground, which is the best way to get from point A to point B in the city.  Not only do you get admission to tons of London attractions with the London Pass, but you also get fast tracked through the lines!  Sorry, giant tour groups at Windsor Castle, I’m going in first!  The London Pass makes it so easy, and saves you so much money.

London is notoriously expensive.  Since I wasn’t planning any romantic dates, I Groupon-ed my way through the city, as far as eating is concerned.  About two months before I left, I signed up for a Groupon (UK) account.  It won’t recognize your American account, so yes, you will have to sign up for this account separately.  There are so many great deals on afternoon tea, as well as lunches and dinners.  By doing all this, I was able to survive for the week on £200 cash.  I took a couple of taxi rides, used some for tips, and a few odds and ends, and still had about £45 left over.

If you find yourself in London for a few days, and want a truly amazing adventure, book an excursion through Golden Tours for the Warner Bros. Harry Potter Studio Tour.  Golden Tours made it incredibly easy to get from London to Leavesden, where the Warner Bros. Studio is located.  Here, you get to walk through some of the actual sets from the Harry Potter movie series, and see hundreds of props and costumes that were used.  You also get a peek inside the magic behind the movies.  It was truly an incredible experience.

You can check out all my London (including the Harry Potter Studio Tour) pictures here.