Vamos a Hablar de España

27 05 2013

When I look at a map of Europe there are a number of places I have not been, but none stand out quite like Spain.  I really can’t say why I never made there.  Spain definitely has its charms, historical relevance, big cities, and a cuisine worthy of attention, yet somehow it was never on my radar.  That is until a few months ago when I began pondering my Autumn 2013 destination.  So I decided this would be the year I would explore the Spanish cities of Barcelona and Madrid.

Like I said, I started to float the idea a few months ago.  It began with my typical pattern of researching flights, hotels, and attractions, but one thing I didn’t plan for was having a companion along for the journey.  As a solo traveler, I have become accustomed to going it alone.  My friends here have lives that prevent the kind of travel I am fortunate to do.  Be it work, college, or family, most of them just don’t have the ability to tag along with me.  Well this changed in a big way when my friend Alex assured me he was joining this trip.

Alex and I enjoying tapas and sangria in Denver while plotting Spain.

Alex and I celebrate our booking over tapas and sangria in Denver.

Now to say I’m not a little nervous at the idea would be a lie.  We are great friends, but my penchant to go off trail and avoid scripting could prove to be a struggle for any travel companion.  So, before we booked anything, we talked and researched.  I shared my stories from past trips and my philosophy.  Luckily, he is easy going and agreed to much of it.  Aslo, I have one other aspect of this trip I am excited about, I have a friend who lives in Barcelona.  David will be a huge asset that I have not been afforded in the past.  A local’s perspective is always a bonus.  I am certain we will be able to find and do things with far less effort by having him show us around.

In the early stages of planning I discovered the only thing I wasn’t pleased about with traveling to Spain, the cost.  Yep, Spain is a bit pricey.  I searched and delayed, I even went beyond my rule of booking 6 months early.  The flights are just going to cost more when flying from Denver to Spain, I just had to accept it.  Our plan is to fly from Denver to Barcelona and return via Madrid to Denver.  When I first started to search the prices were about $1250 each (I know, yikes…my entire flight and hotel package to Istanbul was only $1420), but after a few weeks they dipped to $1145 and stayed there for a few weeks.  Since it is now only 4 months away, I finally got the itch and we decided to just book our tickets before they jumped back up.

One important detail Alex and I had to discuss was the sleeping arrangement.  We might be close friends, but we both want space.  Two hotel rooms would be a little exorbitant for us, and the idea of a twin or double room didn’t appeal either.  This is where we decided to book an apartment through Airbnb (a site that provides an avenue for homeowners to rent out an empty guest room, apartment, or entire home to travelers).

For information on Airbnb click HERE

For information on Airbnb click HERE

Airbnb has a good structure for reviews with pictures of both hosts and their property.  That provided for some confidence even though the concept is quite foreign to us.  We must have spent weeks looking at different apartments before we finally settled on a Barcelona and a Madrid location we could agree on.  In the end, I believe what we booked will make for fantastic stays in both cities.  Our place in Barcelona is a high floor 2 bedroom apartment with a massive patio that affords an amazing view of nearly the entire city.  Our cost for this apartment is $960.  In Madrid it seems everything was less expensive.  We found a nice 2 bedroom place in the heart of the Grand Via neighborhood for $445.  Both of these locations will give us the space and location we desire.  Alex and I couldn’t be more excited.

The final part of the trip still to be booked is the train from Barcelona to Madrid.  The tickets can’t be bought this early, but I already know they will be about $120-140 each depending on the exchange rate at the time of purchase.  With the train tickets included, that brings our total cost for transportation and lodging in Spain to $3960 (roughly $1980 each).  Ouch, I told you Spain was pricey.  All I can say is that I’ll take the bargains when I can, but this one definitely would have been much more expensive without Airbnb.

So now the long months of anticipation and planning begin.  I can’t wait to explore the Gaudí structures of Barcelona, browse the Picasso museum, and photograph the many plazas of Madrid.  This should be an incredible trip.  This will also be the first trip I won’t see alone!

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Why not Istanbul?

23 04 2013

I have travelled much more extensively than most people I know, but when it comes to choosing a new destination I still have plenty of places to decide on.  I try not to repeat destinations, there is still so much to be seen before I do that.  So last September (I like to book early), I started searching for a spring vacation.

The process for me always starts with a map of the world.  I will zoom in and zoom out, look at pictures and climate until something strikes me.  Then I start doing some research.  Is it safe?  What is the weather like when I intend to visit? Is it affordable?  What will I do there?…These are the questions I ask myself each time I settle on a destination.  Affordability is the main factor for me as a solo traveler, I don’t have someone to share the hotel cost with.  Safety (unless it’s a war zone) can be handled with some light reading of State Department warnings and using some good old fashioned smarts and savvy while on a trip.  What I do at a destination varies, but something has to peak my interest.

So that lead me to Istanbul.

Why?  I loved seeing images of the skyline dotted with minarets.  I was intrigued by the history of a city at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and for centuries the capital of powerful empires.  Istanbul presented a city of diverse cultures with the blending of both old and new world charm.  This city shouted culture, history, and photography at me.  As a bonus, my early research proved Istanbul a good fit in spring with both rain and sun, but overall not freezing cold or too hot for my taste.  Spring is also their shoulder season (this means it’s between the high/low tourist seasons.  Crowds are much more tolerable during these times of year, but the weather is mild enough to bring travel bargains).  Yes, when Istanbul popped up, I was hooked.  Would it be affordable?  I typically book through Expedia (not a plug, I just like their interface and verified customer reviews), and after a couple of quick searches and I was confident I could afford this destination.

Over the next several days I combed through hotels and reviews.  I knew that I wanted to stay in the Sultanahmet area near the major monuments and museums, so I filtered them down by guest review scores and location (often looking reviews vs. number of reviews.  For example, a 5/5 star review that is the only review for a hotel is not enough information for me to feel confident, but a 4.1 review score from 30 reviewers is a good sign.  I’m also not paying as much attention to the hotel’s star rating.  I have stayed at many 2 and 3 star hotels and been quite satisfied, it’s the customer’s responses that mean more to me).  So with that, I settled on my hotel.  A little boutique hotel a block from Sultanahmet Square for 8 nights including my round-trip flights from Denver for $1420!  I think that was a steal.

I booked it, and thus began the long 6 month wait occupied by a few hours of research and planning.

View of Sultanahmet and Maiden’s Tower at sunset from the Asian side of Istanbul.

View of Sultanahmet and Maiden’s Tower at sunset from the Asian side of Istanbul.