Thursday, February 26, 2015

Don't Be The "Bad American": How To Be a Good Traveler

how to be a good tourist

Traveling the world, we have all seen them before- the stereotypical bad American, who sticks out like a sore thumb anywhere throughout the world they go. If, by some chance, you don't recognize this person, some things to look for: they are likely wearing tennis shoes, a fanny pack, and a baseball hat; they are definitely the loudest person in the room, and they will likely be visiting a McDonalds for at least 1 meal a day. Now, don't get me wrong: there are certainly other countries who's citizens are even worse travelers. I'm not going to go into detail, but chances are if you've traveled the world you can name a few of these groups of people yourself (I'm thinking of one certain group who poses for scantily clad pictures like mad in inappropriate locations, is drunk off their tushes, and just plain old rude). Today, however, I'm going to pick on the Americans: because I am an American, and would like to never see another stereotypical American tourist.

Fortunately, there are some things you can do while traveling to not be a bad traveler or tourist. Most of these things seem like they would be fairly common sense, yet is astonishing to see how many people do not follow these guidelines. Here are the top ten ways to be a good tourist, a good traveler, and avoid being the bad American!

bare feet & covered shoulders are a must when visiting Thai holy sites
1. Dress the part. Wherever you travel, make sure you are dressed appropriately. There are tons of places throughout the world that have very hot climates, and while you may want to have bare shoulders and short shorts, at times it is just not appropriate. A lot of times, these may be religious sites, such as when visiting temples in Thailand and Vietnam, or the Vatican City in Rome. Other places, such as Muslim countries, it is just not part of the culture. Do your research before going and learn of the proper dress. On my most recent trip to Thailand, I always carried a light scarf in my bag to cover up my arms and shoulders when visiting temples. At the same time, don't be shocked when in some cultures and countries, it is totally normal to go topless, or even completely nude on the beaches.

2. Learn some of the local language. It doesn't have to be a ton, but learning simple words and phrases such as please, thank you, and good-bye can do you a world of good. Even if your pronunciation isn't perfect, the locals will appreciate the effort made.

3. Clean up after yourself & don't make a mess. While this seems like it could be one and the same, it is actually two different things. When you are in public, absolutely do not litter- find a trash can or recycling station, or carry it with you until an appropriate time. You wouldn't want people littering on your front lawn, so don't do it on other people's turf. As far as don't make a mess, this means don't ruin things- don't put graffiti up, sign your name in places, or any such thing. Just don't.

4. Follow the laws & cultural customs. The local laws and customs when traveling are likely different from where you are originally from. Sometimes this is as simple as taking your shoes off when you enter a household or not smoking in public places, and sometimes it is knowing that public displays of affection are not legal in United Arab Emirates.

5. Take care of the people who help you. When you are traveling, be aware of the people that help you- whether it is the maid, a server at a restaurant, or a local giving you directions. Find out what is appropriate, and tip them (or don't!) at the appropriate time, or even offer a word of thanks. In some cultures, tipping is not OK and sends the message that you think they don't make enough money- be aware of when you should or shouldn't tip, and the message it sends.

6. Travel for the new experience. When you go somewhere new, you should be willing to try something new. Whether that is eating at a new restaurant and trying new foods, partaking in new and different activities, or striking up conversations with the locals- be willing to have an open mind and learn from others.

7. Plan before you go, and talk once you go. Before you embark on a trip, you will definitely want to do some research and discover what others have found in the same destinations. However, once you go, talk with the locals and anybody you encounter: often, they will have the most intimate knowledge of your destination, and be able to give you the best recommendations. Think about striking up conversations with a cab driver, your waitress, or even the front desk agent at your hotel. Living and working in the area, they will have the best knowledge and be able to help you make your trip unique and one-of-a-kind.

8. Keep an open mind. Just because something is different, doesn't mean it is wrong. When you travel, you will see and hear new things: take the time to understand why they are different. Don't pass judgement. You might even learn something new, and change your way of thinking!

9. Smile. A smile can open so many doors for a traveler. You don't have to be over the top, but offering just a quick smile to others can communicate so many positive things.

10. Participate in the local economy, and be fair when doing so. Countries throughout the world are currently facing recessions. On a more local level, often when traveling the people you may encounter may be facing tough times. Try to participate in the local economy, whether it is shopping at a mom-and-pop shop instead of a chain store, taking a tuk-tuk ride in Thailand, or staying at a locally owned hostel/hotel. In addition to this, be fair: in many countries, the times you have the best opportunity to participate in the local economy is also when you may be bargaining for prices. Don't try to rip off the people; rather, act with compassion and realize that the $1 you are bargaining over may mean a whole lot more to them than you.

Of course, most of these tips seem to be common sense, and they also have a theme: respect. When you are traveling, respect the people and places around you, so that others can continue to enjoy in the future. Have you ever experienced bad tourists while traveling? What are your best tips to avoid being one of them?

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Welcome to Sweden: Just Like Real Life for Expats

Samantha Angell Welcome to Sweden
waiting to go in and help film for Welcome to Sweden

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to be on set with the cast and crew of Welcome to Sweden. For those of you who have not yet heard of Welcome to Sweden, it is a comedic TV show that documents Bruce's (Greg Poehler) move to Sweden to live with his Swedish girlfriend. Welcome to Sweden does a great job of of highlighting some of the experiences and challenges that a person can (and most likely will) face any time they are moving to a new country, whether they are moving for a short amount of time or for an indefinite period.

Personally, as an expat, I completely relate to the show and think that it is 100% dead on when portraying some of the things that expats go through! Whether you currently live abroad, have just moved home from living abroad, or are contemplating making the move, I would definitely check out this show. Of course, some of the humor is specific to life in Sweden, but any expat can relate to some of the challenges that expat life offers. Today, I'm going to touch on just five of the aspects of expat life displayed in Welcome to Sweden that are just like real life for myself, and other expats.

1. Jet lag & a long travel day, then being instantly thrown into your new life. In the show, Bruce arrives to Sweden and is right away thrown into his new life, going to visit his girlfriend's family and friends and attend a party. Of course, this comes after an overnight flight and not sleeping for 20+ hours. From my experience, this can definitely be just like expat life! While moving to a new country, you go through the challenges of packing your life up into boxes, saying good-byes to friends and family, and then actually making the move. Once you arrive, you definitely are not instantly settled- nope, it is time to go out, meet new people, then eventually have an opportunity to unpack and get some sleep!

2. Language barriers! Throughout the show, there are times where the language barrier is touched on. The one that speaks most significantly to me is being at a party or social gathering, and wandering around not being able to participate in or join in on conversations because the language is different. While people are (in general!) good about speaking English around myself and other expats, there are definitely times where we feel quite awkward and unable to participate in conversations. Even after living in Sweden for almost two years now and working to learn the language, I am far from fluent. Because of this, I personally (as every expat living with a new language does!) know the feeling of wandering from conversation to conversation and being unable to participate.

3. Culturally, feeling as though you don't fit in at times. Part of this is due to the language barrier, but part of this is also because of different cultural customs and rules. For example, in Sweden everyone takes their shoes off immediately upon entering a new house, and when entering a room and meeting people says their name and shakes hands- with every person in the room. Now, these are things you wouldn't know unless you are Swedish or have been informed of the 'rules'… I'm sure there are similar things to this for other expats! Until you know some of these traditions, it is quite easy to feel that you don't fit in.

4. Being defensive of both cultures. This one is classic. In Welcome to Sweden, Bruce ends up defending Sweden to his American friends, and defending America to his Swedish friends. I do this same exact thing, defending both cultures that I live in, even though there are certainly times where I complain about them. For some unexplainable reason though, it is only OK to make fun of or complain about the cultures when it is yourself doing it. (yes, obviously I can take jokes. But really, my friends from back home can't complain about Sweden or Swedish culture- they've never been here. Vice versa for a ton of Swedes!) Once you feel you are a part of both cultures, you naturally feel defensive of both of each culture and become protective of it.

5. The challenges of making new friends. This is also somewhat related to the language barrier, but it can be quite difficult at times to make new friends! In Welcome to Sweden, Bruce becomes friends with an Iraqi guy under the premises that he is Canadian. When moving abroad, you will likely meet people from all over the world, and while at times these friendships may be with people you would not 'normally' be friends with, you can learn so much from these people!

6. People back home having no idea where you really live. Now, perhaps this is just a living in Sweden thing, but every single person back home seems to think Sweden and Switzerland are the same. This could be an exaggeration, but every time I go home I have somebody asking me how Switzerland is. Usually, I respond "Well, I'm sure its nice but I haven't been there in the past 9 years!" and am met by an astonished statement that the person thought I lived there. Have other expats experienced this, where people know you live somewhere else but just can't figure it out? Or is it just these darned European countries that start with SW and are clearly the same country?

All in all, I had a great time on the set of Welcome to Sweden. The show is hilarious to myself and people that know Sweden, and even beyond that does a great job of portraying some of the challenges that expats face when living in new cultures. Have you ever seen Welcome to Sweden? If you are an expat, do you think it accurately portrays some of the challenges, and what are other challenges you have experienced?

Friday, February 20, 2015

Frogner Park, or Penis Park?

the 'highlight' of Frogner Park in Oslo
There is no denying it, Norway is a stunning country, and Oslo is a beautiful city in this stunning country. On my first trip to Oslo, Nick and I had terrific weather- right in the beginning of August- and we decided to head to a local market, grab some snacks and drinks, and have a picnic. Little did I know, this picnic was going to be quite the interesting picnic!

picnicking in the park!
After we had eaten, Nick decided it was high time he show me one of the highlights of Oslo, and the specific park we were in. See, he had chosen to bring me to Frogner Park, one of the most popular parks in the center of Oslo. The park was beautifully designed and laid out, with plenty of benches and cozy spots to relax. A feature of Frogner Park is the Vigeland Installation or Vigeland Sculpture Park. Between 1920 and 1943, the sculptor Gustav Vigeland created 212 sculptures, all of which reside in the world's largest sculpture park made by a single artist. Just what are these sculptures, you may ask?

"The Monolith"
At the center of Frogner Park…no, make that Penis Park… is "The Monolith". The Monolith, or giant penis (to the non-artsy folk), is a 14.12 meter (46.32 foot) high sculpture with 121 human figures climbing towards the sky. It is supposed to represent man's desire to become closer with the divine and spiritual, showing togetherness as each figure embraces the next as they are carried towards salvation.

….yeah, sure, if that's what you say its about, I'll believe you. Did you know that pigs can fly, too?

sculptures leading up to The Monolith
bridge leading towards the Monolith
Anyways. Each of these hundreds of sculptures portrays men, women, children, babies, fetuses- all of the different stages of life. Vigeland wanted to portray the relationships between men and women, adults and children, and the different stages of life. Lots of the statues show 'normal' activities- running, dancing, hugging, holding hands, getting a little bit closer… Although, there are statues that are much more abstract, like the one with an adult male kicking the crap out of attacking babies… strange. Nonetheless, despite the strange collection of sculptures, Frogner Park was quite gorgeous, and absolutely huge! It was quite easy to find quite corners of the park to relax and have our picnic, and just enjoy the weather of Oslo.

as you can see, the park really was gorgeous!
Nick & I at Frogner Park
Now, perhaps I just don't understand art, but personally, the highlight of my day was people watching and following this crazy group around… 

7 tourists & 2 white babies
Yes, this group of tourists was running around the park, snapping pictures with every Norwegian-looking baby around. These twins were quite the hit! At times, you could see all 7 of these tourists snapping pictures of the same kids. I wish I had gotten a picture of all of them taking pictures!

Regardless, Frogner Park is a beautiful park and perhaps one of the more interesting places I have been. Have you ever visited Frogner Park, or what is one of the strangest places you have visited while traveling? 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

10 Best Tips for Couples Who Travel Together

travel tips for couples

Over the past several years, I have done a ton of traveling on my own, with friends, and with family. However, most of my travels have taken place with Nick, where we venture to new places together. I absolutely love traveling with Nick, and we have learned a lot about each other through traveling. However, it is not always fun and games when traveling as a couple. Today, I'm going to share my ten best tips for couples who travel together! 

Nick and I's first ever couples trip to Las Vegas
1. Always take the time to communicate with your partner. Before, during, and after a trip, take the time to communicate with your partner about how you are feeling and what you want to do. Communicate your preferences on where you want to stay, what you want to eat, and activities you want to partake in. By having an open and honest dialogue, each of you is bound to enjoy the vacation much more. 

2. Keep a sense of humor. Laugh! Things happen on vacation, and it is important to be able to laugh it off. You are traveling to enjoy new experiences, and you are traveling as a couple to do this together. Make sure to enjoy it!

3. Be willing to compromise. Chances are, while traveling as a couple you will want to do different things at some point. On our most recent trip to Riga, I wanted to go, go, go for the entire six hours we were there. Nick was a great travel partner for the first four hours, and then made the very valid point that it was his vacation too, and he wanted to sit down and relax for a little while. I recognized the fact that he had been very accommodating and did everything I wanted for the first four hours, so we found a cozy cafe to sit down and relax at. Compromise, and be willing to do something your partner wants- after all, it is their vacation too!

hanging solo poolside in Las Vegas
4. Take some time for yourself- alone. As mentioned above, you and your partner won't always want to do the exact same things while on vacations. Beyond this, being together 24/7, often in the close confines of a hotel room, can be exhausting after a while. Take some time alone, and do whatever it is you would like to do. For example, whenever Nick and I go to Las Vegas, I usually start my mornings off poolside while he hits the gym or goes for a run. It is a good chance for both of us to be alone, doing whatever we would like to do, and have some time apart. 

5. Respect your partner's thoughts, opinions, and feelings. The truth of the matter is, you are two different people. Just because you want to do something, doesn't mean your partner does. If you do not respect their thoughts, opinions, and feelings, any trip will go downhill- quickly. Take the time to listen and understand why they feel the way they do about things. Often, a simple conversation can help to smooth over any bumps in the road that you may encounter while traveling. 

Enjoying a stroll in Stockholm
6. Talk about your budget in advance. Always, always, always talk about your budget in advance. Have an amount that you are planning on spending for flights/transportation, hotels, food, activities, anything that may come up. While it is important to set a budget, it is also important to be realistic about this budget. However, having these discussions in advance can help avoid any awkward conversations that may arise during the trip. It is a lot more difficult to say no to something on the spot, versus planning it in advance!

Nick is our official photographer- I'm lucky to get any
pictures with him actually in the shot!
7. Divide up the various responsibilities of the trip. Although you are traveling, there are still various responsibilities- who brings the room key with, who pays for things, who makes sure you get checked in for flights on time. Divide up these responsibilities, and it will save you the trouble of having the "shoot, nobody grabbed a room key" dilemma. When Nick and I travel, I am always in charge of checking us in for flights and carrying our boarding passes and passports. On the other hand, he is in charge of our luggage. Dividing things up like this can make traveling much smoother!

8. Be flexible. Things change, and that is O.K! You might have an entire trip planned, and then at the last minute some aspect of it changes. Be flexible and willing to adapt to changing conditions. 

Nick planned a picnic in Oslo, while I was in charge of the food & drinks for it
9. Take turns and make sure you both participate in the planning. Often, it is easy to either let your partner do all of the planning or to do it yourself. Make sure to find different aspects of the planning that you both enjoy. With Nick and I, he is usually in charge of selecting our hotels or resorts, while I take charge in selecting the restaurants that we visit and excursions we go on. By each of you taking on portions of the planning, you can build your excitement together. 

10. Most importantly, remember you are a team. On vacations, it is entirely possible that things may go wrong. Perhaps your luggage is lost, or you get ripped off by a cab driver. These things happen. If something does happen, it is essential to remember that you are a team. Chances are, your partner did not want these negative things to happen either. Rather than take it out on them, find a way to laugh about it and move on. Don't blame the other person for these negative things- remember, it is the two of you versus the world while you are traveling!

Now that I have shared my best tips for couples who travel together, I'd love to hear yours! How do you and your partner make traveling together easy and fun?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

I'm in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame!

That is me on the left!
I have made it into the U.S. hockey hall of fame! Wow, that is a sentence I never thought I would get to say. The above picture is a painting by Terrence Fogarty, a very popular sports artist. Back in 2001/2002, three girls from my hockey team and myself posed for some pictures with Terrence Fogarty. He then took those pictures and drew that painting. It was also the cover of the 2001-2002 Minnesota State Girls High School Hockey tournament.

Anyways, I received a message the other day from one of the girls in the painting saying that it is now displayed in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, Minnesota. So, by default, I have now made it in to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame! (Side note: when I told my parents this, they informed me I had already seen the picture in the hall of fame, I had just forgotten. How do you forget you are in the hall of fame?!)

Another painting of me!
While the above painting is not in the Hall of Fame, it is another painting Terrence Fogarty did. While I was tying my skates back in 2001/2002, he had been warming up his camera and shot this picture. Six years later, I found out that he had made this painting and it was going to be the cover of the Minnesota State Girls High School Hockey program for the 2007-2008 season. I love both of these paintings, and my family has each of them hanging in our house.

So, that is my story of how I made it in to the U.S. hockey hall of fame!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Highlight of Riga: View from St. Peter's Church

Before I headed to Riga, I saw many gorgeous pictures looking out over the city. I knew that one of the first stops I would make while exploring the city was to visit St. Peter's Church and check out the view of the city from the St. Peter's Church lookout. As soon as Nick and I departed the Isabelle, it was off to the lookout point!

House of Blackheads & St. Peter's Church
St. Peter's Church is located near the House of Blackheads, one of the most popular sights to see while in Riga. However, as St. Peter's Church offers gorgeous views of the city, I quickly hustled Nick to check out these views!

St Peter's Church Riga
St. Peter's Church
St. Peter's church is really nestled in a small corner of the city. Upon first glance, the church is far from impressive. However, when you consider the fact that St. Peter's Church was first built from timber in 1209, and later rebuilt by brick and stone, the church becomes a lot more impressive. Unfortunately, through natural disasters such as lightning strikes and fires, combined with various wars, there are only a few of the original pillars remaining. Through many periods of history, St. Peter's Church has had additions, bell towers, and new facades of the church built on.

Notable setbacks for St. Peter's Church include the collapse of the tower in 1666, a citywide fire destroying the church interior in 1677, a lightning strike and subsequent fire in 1721, and artillery fire destroying the church in 1941. Thinking about all of these instances that have either severely or completely demolished the church, it is quite impressive that people persevered, never giving up and continuing to build and rebuild St. Peter's Church.

Now, let's get on to the views!

Riga city views
Northwest view of Riga
Northern view of Riga
To get to the viewpoint, you pay 8 euro per person to enter St. Peter's Church and are then shown to the elevator. After waiting a few moments, you will exit the elevator and (most likely!) instantly be slapped with the harsh bite of wind. After all, you are 72 meters (236 feet) off the ground. Between the cold and the wind, we did not spend too much time looking out over the city- just enough to snap some pictures, orient ourselves, and decide on the next location of our Riga tour. Recommendation to Riga tourists- definitely bring some warm clothing and gloves for picture taking!

commemorative plaque for Gustav Adolf
After departing the elevator, Nick and I wandered around St. Peter's Church for a little while. After all this time in Sweden, I am always on the hunt for Swedish elements around the world- surprisingly enough, right here in St. Peter's Church I found one! Riga was conquered by Gustav Adolf, the King of Sween, in 1621 during the Polish-Swedish war. On November 6, 1932, this plaque was placed in St. Peter's Church to commemorate 300 years since his death in battle. The plaque tells the story of King Gustav Adolf listening to the welcoming sermon delivered in St. Peter's Church in 1621. It was quite cool to see a little piece of 'home' while in Riga!

to do in Riga
view of Riga & St. Peter's Church
Overall, our trip to St. Peter's Church and the lookout was quite a success! The views of the city were good, although quite cold. I would be quite intrigued on another trip to Riga to visit the lookout from the Radisson Blu sky bar, and see how those views (similar view seen in above picture) compare to those of St. Peter's Church. Of course, sunny weather and green trees always helps pictures look better, compared to the dreary gray tones of February!

When you travel places, do you enjoy checking out cities from above? What is the best view you have ever experienced while traveling?

Friday, February 13, 2015

Valentine's Day: Wine & Dessert Pairings!

Alright, friends, Valentine's Day is (literally!) right around the corner- tomorrow! As today is Friday the 13th, I've decided to not test my luck; rather staying in bed all day thinking about Valentine's Day tomorrow! Nick and I aren't going to do anything special, per se, as I have games both tomorrow and Sunday, and he has a game on Sunday as well. Nonetheless, I am sure when we celebrate, we will enjoy some scrumptious desserts paired with the perfect wines! For whatever dessert you are choosing to indulge in on Valentine's Day, here are the perfect wine pairings for you.

Before I delve into the pairings though, you have three main things to think about: acidity, sweetness, and intensity. For an acidic dessert- think something fruit-based- you will want an acidic wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc. The sweeter your dessert, the sweeter you will want the wine. And finally, the intensity of the flavors should match as well. Focusing on these three aspects will help you to perfectly pair and complement your desserts and wines!

wine and dessert pairings
Swedish Chocolate Cake
Chocolates or Caramel Desserts

Chocolate and caramel desserts (my favorite type!) tend to have buttery, caramel, or rich flavors. You will want a wine that matches and complements these flavors, so think of red for sure. Pinot Noirs, Shiraz, and Grenaches will be the perfect wine pairing for your Valentine's dessert!

Wine and dessert pairings

Fruity or Spicy Desserts

Common flavors in fruity or spicy desserts will be apples, pears, cinnamon, or other spices. Select a wine to complement these flavors, such as a Zinfandel or Gewürztraminer. If you want to pair a champagne with dessert, select a rosé or pink champagne.

What wines to pair with desserts
Vanilla & Custard Desserts

Vanilla and custard desserts will have sweet, buttery and light flavors. For a perfectly complemented wine, select a German Riesling or sparkling wine.

What wine to pair with dessert

Any Dessert

Of course, one of the challenges with selecting desserts to pair with a wine is simply selecting the dessert. When there are so many delicious options out there, how can you possibly decide? If you have not pre-planned your dessert menu, definitely select a champagne or sparkling wine to pair with dessert. The bubbles of the wine will help to bring out any flavors that the dessert offers. And who doesn't love a great glass of bubbly?

What are your plans for Valentine's Day this year, and how do you and your significant other usually celebrate the holiday (if at all!)?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Unique Attractions of Stockholm // Basement Pubs from the 1300s

Living only about an hour from Stockholm, I have had tons of opportunities to make it into the city. Each visit, one of my favorite things to do while exploring the city, and especially in the Gamla Stan (old city) is to find new basement pubs to enjoy. You might be wondering, what exactly is a basement pub? Well, many of the buildings in the Gamla Stan were originally constructed in the 1200s and 1300s. While the exterior structures have been reconstructed, the basements have remained for hundreds of years. Many of these basements have now been converted into unique restaurants and pubs, allowing guests the opportunity to enjoy a beverage in the same place that others have for hundreds of years. Often, these basement pubs are not really advertised; rather, you must search them out and look for restaurants that have them. Today, I am going to share just a couple of my favorite basement pubs in Stockholm!

"Medieval Tavern"
 The first basement pub I will share is Medeltidsrestaurangen Sjätte Tunnan. While my family visited in October, we spent the day in Stockholm checking out basement pubs. Despite arriving before they opened, we were graciously accepted in for a couple of cold beers. Sjätte Tunnan definitely has one of the coolest basements around Stockholm to explore!

medeltidskrog Stockholm
Nick and I
basement pubs of Stockholm
my Aunt, Mom, and brother at Medeltidskrog
My absolute favorite basement pub (and the first I discovered!) is Kaffegillet. Kaffegillet is located right in the heart of the Gamla Stan, across from the Rikstelefon phone booth. Kaffegillet has been a restaurant for over 200 years, and the basement was constructed in the 1300s. On my last visit to Kaffegillet with my second cousin, we spoke to one of the workers who informed us that Kaffegillet was once connected through tunnels to the Stockholm Cathedral across the street.

Stockholm basement pubs
my family in a basement pub at The Liffey Irish Pub in January 2014
Two other great basement pubs I have discovered are the Liffey and Wirströms. Similar to the other basements shown above, each of these have been around for hundreds of years! Often, the doorways and ceilings are low enough that you cannot fully stand up (as soon below!)

way too tall for this doorway!
So, there you have it with just one more reason why you should visit Stockholm, because of the awesome pub culture! It is definitely a unique thing to do while in Stockholm. Personally, I love checking out places like these and thinking about all of the history. If those walls could talk, I bet they would have terrific stories!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Airbnb Tutorial: What is it, and What are the Pros & Cons?

pros and cons of airbnb

A few weeks ago, I posted some European travel tips to save money. From that post, I received a few questions from readers asking, what is Airbnb? Today, I'll take a few moments to explain what exactly Airbnb is, and just exactly how using it can benefit your travels!

Airbnb is a community marketplace, where people can list, discover, and book various accommodations throughout the world. Hosts on Airbnb list their properties, be it a single room, apartment, villa, any type of property on the website. The hosts get to select their price, guidelines, and what type of guests they would like to accommodate. Guests of Airbnb search the marketplace by the dates of their travel for available accommodations and what they would like. When guests have selected accommodations, they send a booking request to the host, who can either confirm or deny the reservation. Airbnb charges a 3% fee to the hosts, while travelers pay a 6-12% fee.

So, all of this sounds great. What are the pros and cons of Airbnb?


  • Airbnb is pretty flexible. When searching for accommodations, you can search for a whole unit, a private room, or a shared room. In addition to this, you can specify how many bedrooms, bathrooms, and beds you want; as well as various keywords- for example, if you want to be near the beach. Essentially, it is just as flexible as searching for and booking a hotel, but you have more options by lieu of choosing whether to rent a shared room, private room, or whole place. 
  • It can save you money. Staying at an Airbnb can be a great option, especially if you are traveling to more expensive cities or traveling in a group. When I went to Bergen with my family (4 people, including myself) we used an Airbnb, which allowed us to stay in nicer accommodations for a much cheaper price than several hotel rooms would have been.
  • Accommodations can be perfect. Often, accommodations will meet their exact descriptions, and have everything available to you that you need. 
  • Hosts can be amazingly helpful. Hosts of Airbnb accommodations can go above and beyond the call of duty, lending recommendations and helpful tips. On my first Airbnb experience in Bergen, our host gave us personalized recommendations for restaurants, city guidelines, maps, and even told us of different activities we should do on our trip. The hosts are often local people, so they have a wealth of knowledge they are usually willing to share!
  • Traveler reviews can help. Personally, I wouldn't stay in an Airbnb that didn't have previous traveler reviews. Once travelers are done staying at an Airbnb host's place, they can leave reviews. Often, I have found, these reviews are much more in depth and more accurate than hotel reviews, because Airbnb users are looking for the same experience. These traveler reviews will tell it exactly like it is!
  • Kitchen access. With Airbnb, most hosts will allow you to have access to a kitchen, even if you are just renting a private or shared room. When traveling to more expensive countries, or for longer periods of time, kitchen access can truly be a lifesaver by allowing you to cook some of your own meals, or even just store snacks and drinks in the fridge. 


  • Accommodations can not meet the description. A host can post misleading information on their accommodations, which can definitely place travelers in a bind. To mitigate this potential problem, I would recommend only staying at an Airbnb location that has positive previous traveler reviews. 
  • Hosts can be terrible. Just like there can be terrific hosts, there can also be terrible hosts. Perhaps they aren't helpful, or if you are booking a shared or private room they may intrude on your vacation. Some hosts know what they are doing and how to provide a great service, while others simply don't.
  • Added fees can really add up. When staying at Airbnb locations, guests will pay a 6-12% service fee. There may also be cleaning fees, fees for extra guests, etc… make sure you are checking out all of the fees before booking a reservation. 
  • Amenities may be missing. Staying in hotels often has it's benefits, such as concierge service and maid service. With Airbnb, this is not always going to be the case. Do your homework, and make sure that your basic needs will be covered. 
So, there you have it! Of course, one of the items I must highlight with Airbnb is that very likely, each experience will be different. Similar to hotels, two different people could go to the same exact accommodations and have drastically different experiences. Because of this, I would recommend (again!) to always do your homework, check out the accommodation reviews, and make sure you know what you are getting yourself into. Have you ever used Airbnb before, and what did you think about it? Would you use it again?

Monday, February 9, 2015

Stockholm to Riga // Tallink Silja Line Isabelle Review

As I stated yesterday, Nick and I are home from a whirlwind trip to Riga! With just a short two days off for him, we knew we wanted to explore a new city, and weren't sure of the best means to do so. After some research, we decided to take a cruise trip with Tallink Silja Line on the Isabelle to Riga Latvia. All in all, it was a 40 hour trip, offering us 6 hours in the city of Riga to explore. This was the perfect weekend getaway for us, and I am sure in the future we will be using Tallink Silja for more cruises to explore new places in a short amount of time!

Tallink Silja line review
The Isabelle, our cruise ship to Riga
Our trip started around 2 PM. Through Tallink Silja, we had booked a bus to take us from Västerås to the port. This made our travels much easier, as we wouldn't have to worry about transfers on trains or parking. Once we boarded the bus, it was relaxation & vacation mode! The bus took us directly to the port, where we got our first views of the Isabelle. As I've never been on a cruise before, I was quite impressed with the size of the boat and the efficiency of the check-in process. After an attendant checked our passports, we were each handed a key card that would grant us access to our room, as well as any meals we had booked for the duration of the trip.

Tallink Silja Line review
our cabin onboard the Isabelle
Nick and I were quite pleased with our Deluxe cabin on board the Isabelle. The room included a double bed, TV, hair dryer, air conditioning, breakfast platter, private restroom with shower, and mini bar. Personally, one of the highlights of the Deluxe cabin was the complimentary champagne and chilled glasses.
stockholm to riga boat review
champagne in our cabin!
The first thing I did when entering our cabin - after grabbing a few pictures of course- was to crack a glass of champagne and check out the Stockholm harbor. As the sun was setting, it was a beautiful sight!
stockholm to riga boat review
our minibar, breakfast plate, and my champagne!
As Nick had been on the go all day, the fruit plate was perfect to have something healthy to snack on while we waited for our dinner reservation time. He had a phone call to make, so I left him with the fruit and headed to explore some of the ship! 

isabelle review
sky bar of the Isabelle
 The first place I headed to was the sky bar. As it was still light out and the sun was just beginning to set, I wanted to check out the sky bar and see the views of the harbor. I was not at all disappointed- the bar was only half full or so, and I was easily able to grab a table. Throughout the remainder of our trip, the sky bar remained one of my favorite locations- the service from the bartenders was great, the room was never too crowded or loud, and it was overall an incredibly enjoyable atmosphere. A special mention to the bartender Alfreds for his terrific service and conversations aboard the Isabelle.

tallink silja line riga review
more champagne in the sky bar!
Each night, there are also several entertainment options on board the Isabelle. When we were on board, we were able to enjoy live music in the sky bar, and a dance show in the pub. Also available is a party club that pumps the latest hits. For relaxation, I would recommend a trip to the sauna.  If you have children, there is also a kids club available. Finally, beyond the entertainment, another highlight of these cruises is the shopping! Onboard, there is duty free shopping available on clothes, perfumes, luxury goods, food, and alcoholic beverages. 

Isabelle Buffet
After a cocktail in the sky bar, Nick and I decided we were hungry already. We had reservations at the buffet at 7:30, but decided to see if we could try get in a little bit early. We arrived to the buffet around 6, and they had no problem getting us in right away. We were told that we would only have an hour to eat, but as it is a buffet this did not concern us. 

The buffet had a large selection of food, although it was definitely catered towards Baltic and Eastern European tastes. Much of the food was cold appetizers or chilled fish. While we would have liked to see a larger selection of warm dishes, those that were available were tasty, despite not being piping hot. 

tallink silja line riga review
beer from Riga
The service at the buffet was very attentive. Our server greeted us immediately and gave us drink menus. Both Nick and I tried the tap beer and decided it was not for us, so rather had a bottle of beer from Riga. Overall, I think the service of the buffet was the highlight.

on the way to Riga from Stockholm
sunset in Stockholm
Overall, Nick and I greatly enjoyed our stay on the Isabelle. In the future, we are definitely interested in doing more of the cruises offered by the Tallink & Silja Line. Ports include Stockholm, Riga, Tallinn, Helsinki, Turku, and Åland Islands, so there is definitely a destination for wherever you would like to head! Have you ever taken a cruise similar to this one, and what was your experience with it?

**disclosure: I received a complimentary or upgraded stay for this trip in exchange for this review. As always, this did not affect my review in any way, and all opinions are my own. **

Sunday, February 8, 2015

A Snapshot of Riga, Latvia

Riga St. Peter's church view
Riga birds eye view
Nick and I have just arrived home from a whirlwind weekend getaway to Riga, Latvia. With a short weekend off, we decided the perfect getaway would be with the Tallink Silja line to Riga.

With this trip, we boarded the Isabelle on Friday afternoon at 4 and took off to Riga. We arrived in Riga Saturday morning at 11, and had until 5:30 to explore the city. At this time, the Isabelle departed for Stockholm and brought us home! More on the ship, dinners, and accommodations in a future post…today, let's take a quick look at what we were able to see and do in Riga!
Riga for one day
old town Riga
After hopping off the Isabelle, we headed straight towards Old Town Riga! I had a huge list of sights I wanted to see and things we wanted to do, so from the moment we hopped off the boat it was nonstop until we had checked many of the items off my list.

Riga cat
channeling my inner crazy cat lady with the Riga Cat!
While wandering around Old Town Riga, I spotted this giant Riga cat and knew I had to snap a picture with him! 

House of the Blackheads
House of the Blackheads
A highlight of visiting Riga, and something you must do while in Riga, is checking out the House of the Blackheads. Situated in the center of Old Town Square, the House of the Blackheads is quite an impressive structure, dating all the way back to the 14th century!

After visiting the House of the Blackheads, Nick and I headed to St. Peter's Church in order to view Riga from above. St. Peter's Church has a lookout that gives impressive views of the city- you can see from the first picture in this post, that the city from above is just as gorgeous from on the ground!

to do in Riga for one day
Rigan 'champagne' and planning the rest of our adventures!
After traipsing all about the Old Town and seeing nearly every important icon in Riga, it was time for a quick break for Nick and I. We sat down at a cute cafe in the old town, and I was able to enjoy a glass of champagne (well, sparkling wine!) from Riga. The champagne was actually quite delicious, although slightly sweet for my tastes- but hey, when in Rome (or, Riga!) After this, we took a walk through the art Nouveau district and headed back to the Isabelle for our return trip home. All in all, our trip to Riga was definitely a whirlwind, but was the perfect way to explore a new city! Stay tuned for more of our Riga adventures, including a slight mishap being led to the House of Black Cats instead of the House of Blackheads! 

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