Where We Stayed During Our Travels

One question we get a lot from people planning their own trips to Europe, is “Where did you stay?”

Travelers on a budget will frequently use youth hostels, or couchsurf.  While you can find awesome deals at these places, they do come with many pitfalls, and we’ve decided that paying a little extra for some peace, quiet, and comfort was more to our liking. (Most likely, we’ve grown out of our “party” phase.)

One website we utilized HEAVILY was AirBnb. If you’re not familiar with it, it is a website that allows you to book vacation rentals that can provide you with unique insight into the lives of locals. So instead of staying at an expensive hotel or noisy hostel near the outskirts of town, you could potentially stay in someone’s clean, unoccupied apartment near the city center. Or stay with a host family and learn about their country’s culture, share a meal, and listen to their stories. Prices may vary at different times of the year, but we’ve met some truly awesome people through AirBnb, and felt that our hosts greatly enhanced our experiences. We only had one negative experience with AirBnb (not listed below), and it was primarily because the host was new, and was not prepared to have guests (we were his first customers, so he was learning the ropes). We learned from that experience, and prefer to stay with hosts that have several positive reviews.

Another homestay alternative to AirBnb is to house-sit for someone while traveling.

For hostels and hotels, we used Booking.com a lot.

Anyway, here is a list of all the places we’ve stayed in during our travels. With the exception of Morocco, all these places have been handpicked and researched by us, and were generally booked at least 2 weeks before arrival (or in the case of Paris, 3 hours ahead of arrival!). We favored housing that was close to public transportation (within a 10 min walk) or near the city center. Our budget was $75/night for 2 people, and I think we did a pretty good job of sticking to it. We really enjoyed staying at these places, and recommend you check them out as well.

 

ICELAND

SCOTLAND

ENGLAND

  • London – AirBnb (Philippa & Bill) – HIGHLY recommended, they are a great couple to be around, and we’d love to stay with them again.

FRANCE

MOROCCO
(All housing—except Casablanca—pre-arranged via Naturally Morocco)

MEDITERRANEAN CRUISE
(Bari, Katakolon, Izmir, Istanbul, Dubrovnik)

ITALY

AUSTRIA

CZECH REPUBLIC

GERMANY

  • Rothenburg ob de Tauber – Jugendherberge Youth Hostel Rothenburg Ob Der Tauber – Private bedroom, ensuite bathroom.
  • MunichEuro Youth Hotel – Shared bedroom, ensuite bathroom. (Get a private room if possible, we shared a room with 2 other girls, and one of them had a very loud one-night-stand with a random stranger while we were all trying to sleep.)
  • BerlinAirBnb (Simone & Uwe) – Also HIGHLY recommended, we felt like a part of their family and loved spending time with them.

 

Feel free to leave recommendations for places to stay in the comments!

Iceland, Day 5 & 6 Recap – South Coast Tour, Hallgrimskírkja, Sundhöll

by Karen

(Note: finally getting around to posting an old draft! Originally written Oct 2, covering Sept 29 & 30, 2013)

To briefly summarize, we took another Sterna Tour to Iceland’s South Coast (a part of the famous Ring Road).

We saw:
– Seljalandsfoss waterfall (we could walk behind it, or as the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland says, “the backside of water!”)
The volcano that caused massive flight traffic across Europe in 2010
– Reynisfjara beach (with black sand and basalt columns)
Skógafoss waterfall & the Skógar Folk Museum
– a giant glacier that we could walk on

Volcanoes in the distance

This time around we had a different tour guide, she was young, and didn’t really interact much with the group, but she knew a lot of history. Although at the very beginning of the tour, she picked up the wrong people from a hotel and drove for an hour before realizing this! We had to drive back towards the city and meet up halfway with another bus that had the other tourists, and made a swap.

Our first stop was the Seljalandfoss waterfall. It looked gorgeous, and it was pretty neat to be able to walk behind it.

The backside of water!

Miraculously the weather was amazing that day. The sky cleared up, and we could see three volcanoes in the distance:
Hekla, which is Iceland’s main volcano;
Eyjafjallajökull (I’ll just call her “Eyja”), which threw up so much fine dirt and ash into the sky, it canceled a ton of flights across Europe for days;
– and Katla, still active

We went to a little museum that showed a short documentary about how the Eyja volcano affected farms and families that lived under it, and showed the aftermath of its eruption and the cleanup.

“Eyja”

Reynisfjara Beach was probably my favorite stop of the day, which had black sand beaches and impressive-looking basalt columns and caves. There were also rock formations in the water. Folklore states that the colums were trolls that got caught in the sunlight and turned to stone.

Trolls in the distance…?

Reynisfjara Beach

Basalt Rocks

Once we left the beach, we headed towards a glacier. This was probably the most exciting part of the day, because our driver took our minivan off-roading! I didn’t think the van was properly suited for such driving, but I buckled my seatbelt and threw my hands in the air. After about 15 minutes of driving on rocky terrain, we arrived at our destinaion, and took a short hike to the base of the glacier. There were a few groups already there in their full hiking regalia, but our merry crew was content with just touching the glacier, lest we fall into the cracks and face certain doom.

To be honest, when I think of “glacier,” I usually think of a giant chunk of ice just floating in the water. This glacier was receding into the mountains, slowly carving a valley into the rock. It was also very dirty, and covered in ash and dirt from previous eruptions. Once you brush off the black soot, you are greeted with a bright blue solid layer of ice.

Black glacier

Afterwards we headed towards a folk museum of Icelandic culture, Skógar. The history goes, some guy just randomly started collecting old items one day and eventually hoarded so much that he decided to make his collection into a museum. There were many quirky artifacts and tidbits of history taught inside. For example, I had never known that Iceland was once invaded by Turkish pirates(!!!) and many Icelanders were captured and forced into slavery in parts of the Middle East and northern Africa. The folk museum also had several recreations of old farmhouses, and they looked like Hobbit holes to me.

Old whaling boat

Hobbiton

Near the folk museum was a waterfall, Skógafoss, and you could either hike up to the top, or walk up to its base. We decided to walk to the base of the waterfall and, unsurprisingly, got drenched from head to toe.

Puny waterfall…

On our last day, we decided to take it easy again and just walked around town again. We finally decided to try some whale and puffin meat. We went to this restaurant on the Main Street, and although they only served puffin at dinner time (we got there at 3pm), we were able to convince the waitress to put in an order for us.

Puffin

…and whale

We came across Hallgrimskirkja, a large Lutheran church. Its architecture was inspired by the basalt columns of Reynisfjara. It’s at the top of a hill in Reykjavik, and supposedly has good panoramic views of the city. It looks great at sunset!

Hallgrimskirkja

Afterwards we checked out Sundhöll swimming pool. Not as fancy as the other one we went to, but much closer to our hostel (15 min walk, as opposed to 40), and had pretty much the same facilities. Along with more hot dogs, it was the best way to finish up our final night in Reykjavik!

Hot dogs and beer!

On an added note, we discovered a Filipino-Icelandic restaurant that served only one Asian-related dish.

Iceland, Day 5 Photos
More Iceland Day 5 Photos
Iceland, Day 6 Photos

Iceland, Day 4 Recap – Perlan, geothermal beach, and public swimming pools

by Karen

Today was our day of relaxation, so we woke up late and decided to head down to The Pearl, or “Perlan“, which is located inside a nice state park area. It’s a giant glass dome sitting atop four big hot water tanks, and supplies much of Reykjavik’s hot water.



Inside is a cafeteria, a restaurant, balcony viewing area, and the Saga Museum, which is like a Madame Tussaud’s for viking history. We opted to skip it and instead headed to the balcony for gorgeous panoramic views of Reykjavik.


After lunch at the cafeteria (decent food & price, free refills on soup!), we took a short hike through an elfin forest down to the geothermal beach in Nauthólsvík. It’s free to the public, but was closed when we arrived. The water itself is cold, but there’s a man-made hot tub right next to the water that is heated during open hours.



Speaking of hot tubs, in Iceland they are called “hot pots”. Makes me think of people being cooked and served.

If you look at tour books, you will always find ads for the Blue Lagoon, which is a nice man-made geothermic spa 40 mins outside of Reykjavik. We had considered going, but the only way to get there is to 1) charter a bus, 2) hire a taxi, 3) drive there yourself. A normal charter bus (“tour” bus) would cost you approx. 3700/person, not including the cost of admission to the spa (another 3500/person, for the basic package). The cost of lockers & towels are also not included. On the plus side, you could stay as long as you want.

Since it was far and pricey, we decided to skip it. Instead, we heard that Reykjavik has 7 public swimming pools that also offer geothermic spa-like facilities, and only cost 550/person, including locker rental. As opposed to the Blue Lagoon which is heavily frequented by tourists, these swimming pools are frequented by locals. Iceland has something of a “swimming pool culture,” where, similar to how friends meet up in a pub or coffeshop during the week to catch up and chitchat, the locals will go to the pool and discuss matters.

In Reykjavik, there are two swimming pools within reasonable walking distance (ok, maybe one) of the city center: Sundhöll, which is located near the main street, and Laugardalslaug, which is the biggest and most populat of all the pools.

It was about a 40 min walk to Laugardalslaug from our hostel, and on a Saturday night it was pretty popular (I wasn’t allowed to take photos, so I’ll post generic ones). There were 6 outdoor hot pots (one was salt water), 2 big pools, 3 waterslides, a steam bath (sauna), and that’s just what we saw outdoors. There was a big indoor pool/hot pot area, but we couldn’t go in since they were hosting a “swim cinema” event. There’s also a cafeteria and gym as well.

It was amazing. I could see why Icelanders are happy despite the miserable weather. It was very relaxing and refeeshing to be inside a hot pot!

One thing I felt weirded about (Mark as well, respectively), but eventually got over: I’d heard stories of public baths where people would have to shower naked in front of others, but I’d never had to experience one, ever. Imagine my culture shock when I walked into the locker room and saw a bunch of naked women standing around like nobody’s business. It was definitely something I wasn’t used to, and admittedly I was pretty embarrassed about it. I thought about looking for an empty row of showers but there were none, so I decided to bite the bullet and just go for it; if the locals were doing it (and not caring about nudity), then I should adapt and do it too. Eventually I got over my embarrassment when I realized nobody cared, and nobody was looking. I did feel a bit uncomfortable when little girls were in the showers though, but I’d just look away and go about my day.

In all, we spent almost 3 hours there, and it was definitely the best part of our day. The steam baths were fun (a bit masochistic), it was a long corridor with futuristic-looking pods for people to sit and sweat. The hot pots were great as well, each had a different temperature between 100-110 degrees Farenheit. I’d highly recommend anyone to visit this particular swimming pool if staying in Reykjavik, it’s a good way to get a glimpse of the locals’ culture and get some R&R at the same time.
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Iceland – Street Signs and Symbols

by Mark

It’s my first time outside of the US and Iceland feels familiar, but just slightly different. I know its weird taking pictures of ordinary things, however I found the signs and symbols of Reykjavik city the most striking. I also noticed that each district has their own sewer lid. One of our tour guides was an “Odd Fellow” and I wonder how many other Masonic symbols I missed during this trip.

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Iceland, Day 6 – Downtown and Hallgrímskirkja Panoramas

Our last day in Iceland concludes with an afternoon stroll through downtown Reykjavik, and a stop at the Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran Church before sunset.

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Quick notes about Iceland

Random thoughts about Iceland over the past week, hopefully they’ll be useful for anyone thinking of travelling here!

– Everybody speaks English very well. And the locals seem pretty friendly. It’s pretty safe to walk around at night.

– Downtown Reykjavik is very walkable. You can probably walk anywhere within 30 mins of where ever you live. Our hostel isn’t near the main street, but we can walk there in 20 mins.

– The international airport is 40 mins away from Reykjavik. There is no public transportation, just shuttle or taxi or rental car. You can book a shuttle when you get to the airport lobby, they leave 40 mins after your flight lands, so you want to get out and get your luggage ASAP.

– We’ve never had to use cash at stores or eateries, we’ve used credit cards the entire time. The only time we’ve had to use cash was to tip our tour guides.

– It’s really cold and rainy in September. Bring waterproof shoes, jacket, and pants. And wear layers. People here like wearing woolen knits.

– It can be really intimidating when you go into a store and you see price tags like 1980 ISK (Icelandic Krona) for a roast chicken (totally making that up). I don’t know what the conversion rate is, but (BAD MATH ALERT!) I generally just truncate the last 2 digits and guess how much it costs in US dollars. For example, think of 1980 ISK as $19.80, and currently the krona is weaker than the dollar. So your roast chicken can’t cost more than $19.80.

– Also, if you see a price like 5.000 ISK, it doesn’t mean 5 krona, that decimal is just a separator for hundreds. Just think of it as a comma, like 5,000. So it’s really around $50.00.

– Tours are really expensive, but might be the best way to see more of the country and get out of Reykjavik. Renting a car is ok, just remember you need insurance (especially weather-related ones), and gas is at least $8/gal.

Do NOT book your Aurora Borealis/Northern Lights tours in advance. Book them on the day you want to go, after 6pm. Because these tours are so popular (one company has a fleet of 10 buses each carrying 50 people), you will not have difficulty finding a spot. Also, the companies may decide to cancel the tour for that night if the weather forecast is bad, and 6pm is usually when they make their decisions. So it is best to call companies at 6pm and ask if there is a tour that night, before you pay for a ticket! Almost all companies also have a policy where if you don’t see it, you can rebook it again for free, as long as they don’t cancel it that night. We booked ours months in advance, didn’t see anything the night we went, and had the tour cancelled for the rest of the week due to bad weather. Waste of money, blahhh.

– You can pretty much book any tour 1 or 2 days in advance. There are really so many companies to choose from, and no shortage of seats. We’ve booked our tours after 9pm the night before, and haven’t had any major problems getting stuff done. The Golden Circle is the most popular one. The Blue Lagoon “tour” is also very popular, but is really a shuttle bus to a (fancy and luxurious but awesome-sounding) spa.

– Museums, stores, and attractions can close early during the winter (like 5-6 pm) but have longer hours in summer.

– Food in Iceland can be very expensive (1500 ISK for a drive-thru burger & fries). But if you wanna eat like how they did in the old days, you can go to the supermarket and get flatbread, cheese, and some type of preserved fishmeat (lox, sild, etc). There’s something about Icelandic flatbread where a single slice has a mega-crap-ton of protein. We’re actually pretty full after a single serving of flatbread (looks like a pita pocket) with jelly and some cheese spread. Also, skyr is a type of yogurt that has high protein too that is made in Iceland. We’ve been eating from the same stash over the past few days.

– “Takk” means “thank you”.

Iceland, Day 5 – South Coast Panoramas

Iceland South Coast Tour (Seljalandsfoss waterfall, Eyjafjallajökull volcano, Reynisfjara black sand beach & basalt rocks, Sólheimajökull glacier walk, Skógar folk museum, Skógafoss waterfall)

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