Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Ice Hotels - Believing in Ice Castles and Palaces.

I’ve always been fascinated by ice. It may sound weird being thrilled by such an ordinary thing, but it’s true. Maybe it is because of the way it reflects light or because of its ephemeral existence, I don’t know. But maybe because of that fascination I’ve always been attracted by all kinds of tales and stories about ice castles and ice palaces. Imagine all the frozen ice-crystal chandeliers, ice thrones, ice spikes, ice dungeons… have I said ice a lot? Anyway, I was really excited a few years ago when I found out that those places really existed. Of course, all the fantasy and magic reduced to the real world, but that doesn’t mean it’s not… cool. I’m talking about the ice hotels being built every winter these days. The most famous are the ones at Sweden and Quebec, Canada, although there are some at Norway, Finland and Romania as well, plus some that I am forgetting.

First of all, you should know that if you want to spend a night in one of these hotels you should go having in mind that it’s going to be expensive. If you find a really good deal (a really good one) you might be paying about US$300 per room per night on a double basis, but expect to pay US$400 to US$600, and that’s just for the cheapest room available. You also have to pay for the food, the activities, the drinks at the ice-bar and all those kinds of things. But well, I guess that’s not really expensive if you have in mind that you’re going to experience something really magical and special.
Ice hotels work like this. On early winter, the hotel is built using ice blocks “harvested” from different frozen rivers or lakes around the place where the hotel is going to be built. They use steel frames to keep everything together, as well as snice, a kind of hybrid between snow and ice that makes the part of the mortar, gluing together the ice blocks, just like bricks. Bookings have to be made well before in advance, as there are usually not that many rooms. These -5°C rooms are usually categorized, just as regular hotels, following how many “services” they have, ranging from basic rooms with just a bed, to themed rooms with ice sculptures, and even fireplaces and spas. The lobby is usually filled with ice sculptures and columns. And you’ll be wondering about the loo!! Well, ice hotels are usually built next to a regular warm and cosy hotel or sometimes they have special buildings that have toilets, showers and locker rooms to leave all your luggage (that you’re not allowed to take with you to the room).

About not freezing yourself to the point of becoming a popsicle, they recommend that you take three layers of clothing with you: underwear that lets moisture escape; a thin, warm middle layer, and an outer layer that cuts wind and let you move freely. When you go to sleep, they give you a special artic sleeping bag that you put on top of the deerskin covered ice bed, and with that and some smart thermal underwear they say you won’t be cold at night. Now, according to some comments I’ve read, it is a matter of personal predisposition to cold. Some say they slept perfectly well, and some say they couldn’t sleep all night because they were freezing, but even so they said the experience was totally worth it. They let you sleep until about 8 am, when they come with a hot beverage to wake you up so they can get the room ready for the next guest arriving on that day at 6 pm.

All ice hotels usually have a spirit-sponsored bar, maybe Absolut or Finlandia. They are usually expensive, charging about US$15 to US$20 per drink. There may be some food presented on ice sculptures as well. You can also book several activities to enjoy in the rest of the day, like dog sledding, reindeer sledding and snowmobiling. At night you can usually see the northern lights. You can have a business function in the hotel or even a wedding as well. Non-guests are allowed visiting the hotel until 6 pm, but they can stay in the bar if they want.

Well, knowing all this, I really want to satisfy the child that believed in ice castles that lives in me, so I may be booking a night in one of the ice hotels in the world some of these days. What about you? Would you like to live that experience or is it just not worth the money and the cold? I’ll leave a couple of links if you want to know more. Don’t miss the Trip Advisor reviews! They say all you need to know from a guest point of view.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Some facts about Visas.

Well, continuing with the last post, let’s talk today about the Visa. It’s obviously not as important as the passport but it can be the next most vital thing in your trip. Well, the plane ticket also, but that’s another story.

The most common misunderstanding about visas is that they’re your absolute key to get into one country. Well, they’re not! Visas are only the way countries have of knowing who wants to visit them, before they intend to do so. The very word comes from that concept. Visa comes from the Latin carta visa, which means, “document seen” as in passport seen. There’s a difference between visa and permit. Visa is the authorization they give you to travel to that country, and permit is the… well, permission they give you to travel inside the country. The thing is that for countries that do not require you to ask for a visa before traveling, both the visa and the permit are given to you at the same time by the immigration officer at the point of entry. That is, having a visa does not necessarily mean that the country’s going to let you in, whatsoever. A visa can be revoked at any time and without any explanation, either before traveling or on the spot (point of entry). This means, that even if you have a valid visa, the immigration officer can still deny you entry into his country. What you need from this guy is a permit. All right, let’s say it in a few words. First, you need a visa… and then, you need a permit. That’s how it works. The visa is given to you by an embassy or consulate, and the permit is given to you by an immigration officer at the point of entry into the country itself, although some countries do not require you to have a visa before traveling, as they’ll give it to you at the same time as the permit. In other words, they give you a visa on arrival.
Visas are usually stamped in one of the pages of your passport, although they can also be issued as a separate document (like a kind of I.D.).

There are some important things you must know about your visa. First, Do I need one? Where can I get it? How long does it lasts? How much is it? How many entries does it allow me to do? You can look for this answers in the website of the immigration office of the country you want to visit.

Now, there are several kinds of visas and they each have a very specific purpose. The most common is the Tourist Visa, which is issued to people that want to visit the country for, let’s say, “leisurely” purposes. That means no working to pay for your trip! Usually they give you a certain amount of days you can stay, 30 or 90 but sometimes as little as 15 days. Many countries do not make you apply for a visa if you just want to travel in the country for less than certain amount of days.
Another one is the Transit Visa. Now, there are two kinds of Transit Visas: the ones valid just to be at the airport and the others valid to be in the country from 1 to 5 days at the most. This gives you chance of moving through the country if you are traveling by land.
The Student Visa is one that is required to engage in academic activities, but some countries do not make you get it if you’re studying for less than 3 months. A letter of admission from an academic institution is always required.
There’s another one, the Work Visa. This is mainly for purposes of business. It allows you to work in the country, sometimes even in a permanent job. Some variations exist, like the Business Visa (just to be able to do some commercial activities) and the Working Holiday Visa (between countries with cooperation agreements that allow you to work temporarily on the country to pay for your trip).

A curious fact. Some countries even ask you to have EXIT Visas. This means, they have to give you permission to leave the country. But this is not very common and almost only happens in extreme situations, like a political or security crisis. But some ask it for foreign workers, and you have to present a letter from the employer that says that you have completed your job and you can leave.

Well, see you next time!!

Monday, June 6, 2011

The All-Powerful Passport

     Let’s get a little bit diplomatic today. I want to write about some very basic things when everybody travels, yet very few really know how they work. I’m talking about the all powerful Passport and Visa Documents. They are our key to foreign countries and to our very own when we return from our travels. There are many interesting facts about them that we really get for granted or that we just overlook and would be good to know.

     First, let’s talk about the most important one, the Passport. Officially, a passport is a document issued by a country’s government, although some entities without a sovereign territory or non-recognized countries may issue passports as well. A passport is almost always required to engage in international travels, save some few exceptions like travel within the Schengen area (Almost all countries of the European Union and some other countries that have signed the agreement). Be informed if any place that you’re traveling to, has any problem with stamps from other country, as they may refuse you entry. If you have a stamp or visa from Israel, for example, Iran, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen will not let you in.

     Passports have existed since a long time ago, even though they weren’t the way they are these days. People used to travel with letters of “Safe Conduct” or “Safe Passage” issued by the monarch himself. Then, passports transformed into a single sheet having a description of the bearer and more recently a photograph. A few years later, the common “booklet” form was adopted. Today, besides the photograph, they must also show the bearer’s name, date of birth, sex, place of birth and nationality. Lately, biometric passports have been issued by many nations. These have your personal biometric data such as distance between the eyes, fingerprints, iris recognition, etc. You may recognize a biometric passport if it has this symbol.

     One important thing to know is that passports may be proof of citizenship for some countries but that is not applicable in others where it may not be enough when proving citizenship. People may need some other documents, like a birth certificate or a Proof of Citizenship paper.

     Watch out if you have a double citizenship (and two passports), because even if one country allows you to have another country’s citizenship, the other one may not and they may not recognize your other citizenship and may even prevent you from getting consular assistance, especially if you didn’t use your first country’s passport when entering the second country. In some places, if you have a passport of one country, it is illegal to try to enter or to leave that country with a passport that is not issued by that place’s government. If you are crossing international borders (by land), it is better to use the same passport. This means, no passport “A” to leave one country and passport “B” to enter the other one. Many immigration offices require you to have a stamp showing proof of leaving the other border before allowing you into their territory. I learned this the hard way, believe me! Ask the Thai and Cambodian immigration officers that I had to deal with. This does not always apply if you travel by air.

     There are some basic guidelines you have to follow to avoid having problems with your passport.
  • Always, I repeat, ALWAYS sign your passport and fill out the emergency and “If lost report to…” fields. Be sure to include your e-mail address.
  • Please make some copies before leaving your country. This helps when trying to identify yourself if you lost your passport. Have these copies in a different pocket than your passport, and be sure to leave one at home. This applies also to credit cards, driver’s licences and airline confirmation numbers and itineraries.
  • Keep everything in a safe place. If you’re carrying your passport with you do not keep it in your coat or jacket, as these are really easy to forget somewhere. Keep it in the FRONT pocket of your trousers instead. You’re not gonna forget your trousers somewhere if you’re smart! They sell these pretty useful security belts and pouches that you wear under your clothes as well.

     Well, this post has extended more than I thought! I’ll leave the Visa Document post to the next time. Leave your comments, please!!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Do you want a share of US$919 billion??

     A little bit of technical data. In the last year (2010, that is), tourists traveling all over the world spent $919 billion american dollars. It's clear that after the recession that hit the world, people are beginning to be more comfortable in spending a little more money in traveling once again. After that long and painfull recession, I think it was a little bit predictible that countries that are "emerging" or in process of "developing" would be the ones that would benefit the most. As is clear in times of recovery, people begin to spend more, but they're cautious and spend their money in cheaper things. In the last report of the World Tourism Organization Barometer (first two months of 2011), wich they release several times a year and list, between other things, international arrivals and tourism expenditure, we could see that sub regions like South America or South Asia were the ones that had a bigger increase in the number of international travelers arriving in their countries, with a growth of 15% for both of them. Of course!! It's cheaper to go there than to go to, let's say, Europe or USA. That's what I mean when I say people are beginning to travel again, but to cheaper places. Nonetheless, Europe kept a growth of 6%, pretty good for the most developed touristic region in the world. A little bit more than half of the world tourists go to Europe.

     Sadly for our friends in the Middle East and North Africa, people didn't visit their countries a lot and they had a negative number of -10% and -9% respectively. Cheers for the guys in Subsaharian Africa and Central & Eastern Europe!! They recieved more travelers by 13% and 12% respectively. I'm pretty sure that people in charge of governments in those places are now understanding the importance of toursim to the economy.

     And another really interesting thing that just happened is that China beat Spain in number of travelers visiting their country. Can you believe it? It's amazing how fast they have grown in so little time! I mean, Spain isn't some weak kitten to be beaten, if you know what I mean. Of course, France and USA are still the two most visited countries in the world, but they should be aware that the awaken dragon is coming.

     And now, just so you know, international travelers in january and february of 2011 were 124 million! when in the same months last year they were 118.5 million. Were you one of them?

    And just to finish, have you ever seen those huge quantities of money being spent worldwide and said "hey, if only I could get a tiny bit of that"? That goes to you tourism entrepreneurs!! You CAN get a share of that. You have that good idea, now it's just a matter of materializing it and beginning to have your little bit of green Benjamins!!

     Here, a link if you want a closer look of the Barometer:

Saturday, May 14, 2011

How much research before traveling??

     Well, this is my first post, so I wanted to state a basic personal philosophy about traveling and share it with you. I always love beggining to plan any of my trips, either a short or a long one. The excitement starts at the very first moment after having decided where to go next. The trip itself starts when I open the first web page (usually wikipedia, haha) to know more about that place. Reading about it gets me in the mood and always encourages me to read even more. And the fun is not reading only about the typical icons and seightseeing tours, but reading about the place itself, it's economy, history, people, events, and of course tourist atractions, so you start to feel the place's vibe.

     But here is when I come to state my point in this post. Seightseeing is like a pyramid for me. I'll explain myself. If you go to Paris, the top thing you have to see is the Eiffel Tower, eveybody knows that. If you know a little more, there's also Notre Dame, Champs-Élysées and Montmartre, basic things. If you have seen the Moulin Rouge movie you know about that place too. And someone told you once about that nice restaurant in the Latin Quarter. And you remember that boring history class when the teacher spoke about one of those Louis kings that you found interesting. And, going deeper and deeper, if you read about the cemeteries you'll know that Jim Morrison of the Doors is buried somewhere in the city and you say "hey, I really liked his music". And it goes so on and on. The pyramid grows taller and taller the more you know about that place.

     I hope you understand my point. In a few words, the more you read and research about one place, the more things to see you'll have and the more you'll be able to take of your trip. You can go as deep as you want, it's your choice in the end. But trust me, it's so much fun reading a lot about places and then experimenting them yourself. I encourage you to take one travel guide with you on your next trip and read the history, culture and general data about the place you'll go. Surf the web and see what's going on in the destination. Get yourself interested in local current events. You'll be more than a robot tourist now and you'll take more with you than the typical Eiffel Tower post card.

     Here, some links of basic webpages where you can do some research before starting a trip: