In about 90 minutes I’ll be boarding a flight from JFK to Doha, Qatar. It is the start of a 29,000 mile, 6 day adventure. I’ve got four nights on airplanes and two in hotels, 12+ hours stays in five different cities and the majority of it is in business class. I suppose I could call it a mileage run but the pricing isn’t really good enough for that to make sense. Yes, it is based on one of the RGN mistake fares so in that context it is a mileage run, but getting to RGN to start and back from Johannesburg at the end mean the straight CPM calculations aren’t very good. But I decided the stories would be, so here I go.
The most ridiculous part of the trip, however, I didn’t realize until I got in the shower this morning and started thinking about packing. It suddenly occurred to me that I’ll be visiting five continents in less than three days. As booked I leave Singapore (Asia) on Saturday morning and touch Australia (PER), Africa (JNB), Europe (IST) and be back home in North America by the end of the day on Monday. Even crazier is that if I take the ferry over to the Asia side of Istanbul – a very likely event – the total amount of time I’ll spend to touch those five continents is just under 60 hours. Had I thought about it a bit more I probably could have added a late night JFK-South America flight and touched the six with commercial service quite quickly.
This did get me thinking about just how quickly the trip could be made. My flights have reasonably long layovers and I’ll be mostly flying west-bound which is slower. Taking advantage of Istanbul’s position and a decent layover there can really make things go quickly. Had I done Istanbul to Houston and continued on to Bogota or Caracas I think I could make it even faster. I haven’t checked the timetables too closely yet, but I think it can be done.
Anyone else have an idea of quick itineraries for touching the six continents? How would you do it better?
Also, for those curious, this is a combination of three tickets. The first is one of the business class fares ex-RGN. That gets me RGN-SIN-PER-JNB. To get to RGN I have a United Airlines award booked mostly on Qatar Airways metal via Doha and Bangkok. And to get home I purchased a revenue ticket from JNB-IST-JFK on Turkish. Like I said above, the price point isn’t great, especially considering the award costs for positioning. But I’m really looking forward to the trip.
I don’t know why it took me four trips to Istanbul before I went to the Basilica Cistern. Once I know I passed because the line looked too long. Another time I had to leave town a few hours earlier than originally planned. Whatever the excuses I’ve had, I decided on my most recent trip that, even if only in town for a day, I would get to the Basilica Cistern and finally see it. And now that I’ve been inside I’m even more disappointed with myself for taking so long to get there.
The Cistern is around 1500 years old, built in the 6th century to help supply the city’s freshwater needs. And, based on what was built, the city was incredible even then. The entrance is an unassuming building, incredibly small compared to the vast room below. Come down the stairs, however, and you are met with the enormous interior, lit to great effect.
The Cistern is huge. It measures 9,800 square meters (~70×140), with waterproofed walls 4 meters thick and columns 9 meters tall holding up the ceiling. There are 336 columns evenly spaced through the cistern.
A few of the columns still show the ornate patterns of their original construction.
And several more of them have detailed caps still in place.
Perhaps the most bizarre thing about the columns is the base of two of them at the back of the site. Rather than the simple blocks that the rest of the columns sit on, these two sit on massive carvings of Medusa, the mythical woman whose hair was turned to snakes which caused men to turn to stone. No one really knows why the Medusa statues are there. No one really knows where they came from (though it is believed they were imported from another building at one point). Despite that uncertainty, however, the two heads are rather neat to see. The detail in the carvings is incredible.
Other than the Medusa heads there isn’t a ton of detail in any of the pieces any more. Some of the column caps are nicely preserved and there is that one column but most of the details have been lost in the many centuries since the Cistern was built. Somehow that doesn’t make the overall experience any less incredible. In some ways it is even more spectacular because you can see how beautiful the space was when it was originally built and how well it has survived over the years.
And spending a bit of time underground in the cool space of the Cistern is a great way to get out of the summer heat or winter snow/drizzle.
I’m headed to Istanbul tomorrow and, as is often my habit, I’m looking over the plans I’ve made and considering changing them. Specifically, I’m looking at changing my hotel. I’m currently booked in what appears to be a pretty solid option in a great location in the Sultanhamet neighborhood but I’m always looking for other options. And with three nights in town I don’t feel all that guilty about hopping to another hotel for part of the stay.
And, while I don’t generally love the site, I figured I’d give RoomKey.com another chance, just to see if they had something I hadn’t otherwise considered. I switched to the map view and zoomed in on the Taksim Square area and was ecstatic to find a property listed at $120 all in. That’s a tremendous bargain for a decent quality property in that neighborhood.
I cannot express how happy I am I didn’t book it.
I decided to cross-check the rate, just to see if there was anything similar available on my favorite booking site, hotels.com, so I could also get my booking rebate and WelcomeRewards credit. Hotels.com had the same property listed but when I zoomed in on the map there I didn’t see hotel. So I took the address and headed over to Google Maps to figure out which one is correct. Point A is where RoomKey mapped it; Point B is from Hotels.com.
Only 4 kilometers off. And nowhere near mass transit options. No big deal, right!?
I’m really, really happy I didn’t change my reservation. I’m also still reasonably convinced that RoomKey.com sucks.
I honestly wish I knew the answer to this question. Sometimes I think I have it figured out and then another ridiculous situation comes along and shatters my world view. I mostly understand how fare rules, inventory allotments and various other restrictions interact in the GDS networks to produce a fare calculation. And I believe that those systems are set to show lowest fares based on the parameters you input. So why don’t they always work? I really have no idea. But it is definitely broken.
Trips to Istanbul have been all the rage lately thanks to very good fares in the market. And this past weekend a friend was looking at flying over from Cleveland for a long weekend in January; the $838 fare offered some motivation. And then, suddenly, the fare went up to $1,044. Normally I’d say this is just inventory buckets shifting or a fare disappearing (in fact, I did suggest that initially) but something piqued my curiosity and I started digging more. Running a search on ITA gave these results:
Not surprisingly, all the OTAs and the airline website showed a similar price. But what if we ask the system for a lower fare? ITA allows you to set all sorts of details in the search parameters so rather than just asking for United Airlines flights I specified the lower fare class which had been showing the cheaper fare earlier:
Much to my surprise, it comes back with the exact same flights for $200 less:
Part of me got excited, thinking that this could be leveraged into a best rate guarantee since certainly one of the various OTAs would properly price the cheaper fare, right? Alas, I cannot find a single one which does. I obviously haven’t checked them all, but the fact that the ITA engine isn’t automatically pricing it properly suggests that there is something bigger afoot than just one company messing things up.
This is most definitely a bizarre situation and, unfortunately, seems to have no basis in reason. Makes being an airline customer all that much more challenging. And since United pulled inventory data from their website this weekend it also means that double-checking a fare like this is even harder. After all, how would I know that there was K inventory available if I hadn’t previously known about the cheaper K fare in the market?
This is not good for consumers. Not at all.
I’m a huge fan of Istanbul and Turkey in general. I’ve had nothing but wonderful experiences there (even with attempted scammings twice) and between the architecture, food and people it is one of my favorite places to visit and one that I return to willingly, which is a big step for me. When a visit can be had on the cheap that’s an even bigger draw. And right now there are some great deals out there for travel from the USA to Istanbul.
The deals are for the shoulder season so look for travel in September or October for great weather and even better rates. Here’s what the fare calendars look like for October, departing a few cities in the USA:
New York City
In many cases the W fares on United Airlines aren’t too much more than these lowest fares (~$300 ex-EWR) and the upgrade inventory is plentiful. I’ve already confirmed my flat bed for a weekend in early October. It is going to be a lot of fun.
Break out the bunting and the balloons: it is time for a birthday party! In this case the birthday was of Istanbul‘s Tünel transit system, second oldest subway system in the world. The system is now 137 years old and, while it has seen a number of upgrades over the years, it is still more or less providing the same service as it did when it was put into service.
The Tünel connects the waterfront of Galeta to the commercial district of Taksim up on the hill. The elevation difference isn’t huge – about 60 meters – but at the time the Tünel was built there was only one narrow road connecting the two areas handling around 40,000 pedestrians daily. Something better was needed and it was delivered in January 1875, with a tunnel built into the hill and trolley cars carrying passengers up and down the hill.
The current iteration is only slightly different from the original. The original was two parallel tracks; the current version is a single track with a passing section in the middle of the run. Also, the original was (obviously) not powered by electricity. That was changed about 100 years into the life of the Tünel and the current system is electrified and climate controlled.
For the anniversary celebration the Tünel was decked out in ribbons and balloons. It was quite festive, though I was a day late for the actual party. And, while there are now many more roads connecting the two ends of the Tünel line, the funicular is still in business as part of the Istanbul mass transit network and it continues to carry folks up and down the hill every few minutes of the day.
It is a quick ride and not particularly amazing, other than that it saves walking up the big hill and the history of the tunnel is pretty impressive. I make sure to give it a ride every time I’m in town. There is another, newer funicular on the other side of Taksim Square but it doesn’t have the same history as the Tünel.
I arrived in Istanbul on a crisp, cool afternoon following a short flight in from Skopje, finally finishing off my four day journey that started in Stockholm. I had managed to parlay a single one-way award ticket into a three-night adventure where every stop was wonderful in its own way. Istanbul, however, was the jewel in the crown, so to speak. It was wonderful. It was beautiful. And it was snowing.
Apparently snow is rare in Istanbul. This was my 5th consecutive city over the previous 7 days where my arrival was heralded by snow. It was a light flurry, no real accumulation, and it gave the city a beautiful glow, over and above the regular level of amazing that its history and culture provide.
I watched the sun set as I rode the metro into town from the airport and quickly dropped my bag off in the hotel room in order to enjoy the sights at night, a view I had not previously experienced. It was awesome.
The streets of the Sultanahmet were quiet, save for the occasional taksi or streetcar rolling through. A few tourists wandered about near me but nothing like the crowds of a summer day. I was nearly alone with the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Sarai, able to celebrate them all by myself.
The cold eventually started to set in, as did hunger; it was time to find dinner. As I walked back towards my hotel – I had seen plenty of restaurants in the neighboring streets – I happened past an outdoor café with a group of musicians playing in the back. And there was just enough heat available that I figured I probably wouldn’t completely freeze. I settled in for an Iskender, an Effes and a set with the band.
I’m sure that it wasn’t the best music ever, but they were clearly enjoying themselves and that was all it took for me to also enjoy the experience. Not every night on every trip has that magical sensation. This was a special night in many ways.
About an hour after arriving at Skopje’s Alexander the Great airport I had checked in to my hotel on the river and was out wandering the streets of the old city. Much to my surprise I saw a guy wearing a Buffalo Bills hat. I’m not sure if I was more surprised to find another American in Skopje on a Tuesday in mid-January or that he was willing to admit being a Bills fan. Either way, it gave me the opportunity to talk to someone, if only in passing. I asked what he was doing in town. He pointed to a rather attractive woman he was with and said he was there for her. He then turned the question around and asked why I was there.
Well, it seemed like a good idea when I booked the trip.
It isn’t that I was disappointed by Skopje – it has a rather cute little old town and the waterfront shows signs of possibly being nice once they finish the construction – but coming in after the greater beauty of Ljubljana it was a bit of a let-down. Of the six cities I visited on my EuroHopping adventure I’d rate it at the bottom, but mostly because the others were so great. It was a nice evening/morning and one that I’m happy I got to experience.
As the sun set on a crisp, clear night I had the old city more or less to myself. Most of the businesses were closing up and most of the restaurants were not yet open, either for the evening or the season (I’m really not sure). It left me with some great views and the opportunity to explore without too many touts harassing me to visit their shops. It was great.
The shops in the old city are mostly selling jewelry (lots of gold) and clothing, neither of which is my usual thing, but there were certainly plenty of options if you’re into that stuff.
That evening I chose to dine at one of the cafés on the other side of the river from the old town, on the waterfront near my hotel. Part of my motivation there was that I knew they spoke English. That was a big deal for me; I had sortof forgotten that I was making my way farther and farther from the romantic language base of Western Europe and into a world where the alphabet changes (they use Cyrillic in Macedonia) and the roots aren’t ones I know. I was pretty much helpless. That’s rarely fun.
|Old school shoe shine on the edge of the Old City
I also chose the restaurant because I heard a somewhat raucous cacophony coming from it as I walked by late in the afternoon. Sports were on the television and everyone inside was dressing in similar colors. Turns out that the national handball team was playing and the game was being carried live, so I got to learn a new sport and cheer along with the locals. They lost the match in the final seconds, but it was still a great experience.
|I’m a bit surprised I didn’t see more of these on the streets.
The next morning I was up early to see the rest of the downtown area before it was back to the airport. I got in a solid few hours around town, including seeing many of the relics from the Ottoman empire that are still visible around town. The clock tower was the first built in the empire, allowing for those working in the Bazaar to know when to pray and when the market was closed.
While the old Bazaar is no longer in operation there is still a large market operating on the edge of the old city. I love a good market so it was absolutely on the itinerary. I was actually pretty disappointed as I walked by initially; the market seemed to be a clearinghouse for random imported junk rather than a view into the locally produced goods. Fortunately I stuck it out, walking back through the "Made in China" section and ended up in the middle of a great produce market.
Beyond the old history of town there is also some more recent history celebrated, most notably the work of Mother Theresa. She was born in Skopje and there are a few monuments and markers celebrating her life and work.
After this it was time to head back to the airport, wrapping up yet another whirlwind visit as I wended my way from Stockholm to Istanbul. A great little visit, but not quite as amazing as the other cities I got to see. Such is the way things go some times.
As part of my planning for a day in Ljubljana, Slovenia, I read many, many stories, guides and suggestions for what to see and what to do while in town. I’m quite certain that none of the people writing those guides were ever in Ljubljana in the winter. Suggestions like “enjoy the evening breeze of the river at one of the many outdoor café/bars” doesn’t work nearly as well, for example, when it is below freezing outside. Putting aside those flaws in the reference material I had available (as well as perhaps the flaws in my brain for believing January was a good time to visit), I managed to still have quite a good time.
Ljubljana was the second stop on my multi-day “direct” trip from Stockholm to Istanbul. My flights were timed such that I had about 22 hours on the ground, plenty of time to see what the center of town had to offer. I was also somewhat fortunate that the show started even before getting into town as the views of the mountains surrounding the airport were stunning.
I booked into a small hotel right in the heart of the old town which was incredibly convenient and very reasonably priced. I was just a block off the river, giving me easy access to the bulk of the sights.
And, despite my rant above, the cafes were mostly open, though also very sparsely populated. There were some die-hards out under the heat lamps enjoying their afternoon or evening, but nothing like what I’m sure the party scene is once the weather warms up.
The old city area contains a number of landmark architectural structures, as well as a few bridges crossing the river. It is a pedestrian zone so there are no cars to dodge as you wander the streets and alleys. The lack of cars also makes it quite pleasantly quiet. And, as the sun went down the river and the adjacent buildings lit up, creating a wonderfully beautiful scene.
Dinner was uneventful and not particularly good and, as noted above, there weren’t too many folks out enjoying the nightlife on a winter Monday. That let me turn in somewhat early and catch up on sleep. It also meant I was up pretty early the following morning. I had hoped this early rising would leave me well positioned to explore the market and the castle before heading back out to the airport. I also wanted to go for a ride on the funicular that makes the run between the market and the castle. Alas, I was too early.
Most of town doesn’t really start up until 10am it would seem. Normally I wouldn’t complain about that and just sleep in but my timing for this trip didn’t give me a lot of wiggle room. I missed the funicular ride and didn’t have time to tour the interior of the castle. That said, my timing did force me to walk the trails up the side of the hill on which the castle is perched, resulting in some beautiful views of town.
By the time I made it down the hill from the castle the market was mostly up and running. There are a few indoor shops, mostly selling breads and cheeses, while the outdoor stalls are all about vegetables (and one row on the end for “made in China” bits).
I grabbed a couple snack bits from various stalls to tide me over as breakfast and then, once again, my time was up. It was back to the airport and back on a plane. Skopje was just a short flight away, and it was time to make that move for the next 22 hours of the trip.
Ljubljana was beautiful and certainly worth a visit. I just hope that next time it is a bit warmer and there are more folks out enjoying the city. The quiet night along the river was pretty, but also rather slow.
Stockholm’s city hall, situated on the waterfront more or less in the center of town, presents an image of great history and heritage. This belies its real age – only about 100 years old – but the work is impressive. The building is used to conduct the business of the city, of course, with the 101 seat legislative room shown off as part of the tour. But that is, at best, the fourth or fifth more impressive part of the building.
Vying for that top honor are a few other rooms. There is the Blue room, so named because the architect originally wanted to have the walls covered in blue plaster. This is also the largest room, built to look like an Italian piazza, with columns and arches surrounding the great space. The original plans also called for the room to be open at the top so that visitors could enjoy the space under the night sky, however that was scrapped one they realized the weather was not particularly cooperative on that front. This is also the room where the Nobel banquet is held each year.
Adjacent to the Blue room is the Gold room. This one actually lives up to its name, with the walls covered in mosaic that includes gold leaf in the tiles. The history of the city is told through the mosaics, including a massive display at one end showing Stockholm sitting at the crossing between East and West, with the US flag, Eiffel tower and a Native American headdress representing the west while elephants and Istanbul represent the East. It is a bit of a stretch, but I give them credit for trying.
My personal favorite room holds a number of tapestries in it. The cloth works are beautiful and the room is built specifically for them, with the size of the recesses where they hang perfectly sized. The room is also used each Saturday by the city to conduct civil marriage ceremonies. The ceremonies are quick – the long version is about 5 minutes – and they are something of an assembly line process, but they are also open to anyone who signs up (there is a bit of a waiting list to get a slot) and the setting is quite lovely.
As for the council room itself, it looks a lot like most other parliament rooms, though the ceiling is a bit different. The blue background is supposed to represent the open sky (similar to the blue room) and the beams across the top have a passing resemblance to an inverted ship, supposedly linking to the Viking history of the area, though there is some debate as to whether that was actually part of the design or not. Either way, it is pretty.
There is a bit of Nobel history also on display, mostly focusing on the gala dinner held each year honoring the award winners. A full place setting is on display and I must say that there is a whole lot of flatware involved for just one meal.
I was very impressed by the tapestries, and the Gold and Blue rooms were neat to see. Not the most amazing tour I’ve ever been on, but a good way to pass an hour or so while in town.