Ian Hibell

Every once in a while you run across a completely insane story. Today I came to Ian Hibell, famed long-distance bicyclist, by way of the Darian Gap, an uncharted, impassible piece of Panamanian land that separates North and South America. Ian Hibell was the first person to do an overland passing of the Gap as he cycled from Cape Horn to Alaska in 1970-72. Here is a video of Ian during this trek:

In a sad twist of fate, Ian was killed at 74 years of age, struck by a car while riding his bike in Greece. The Economist and The Times both published touching obituaries for Ian. This quote is from the Economist:

Bikes rarely let him down. Escaping once from spear-throwing Turkana in northern Kenya, he felt the chain come off, but managed to coast downhill to safety. He crossed China from north to south—in 2006, at 72—with just three brake-block changes, one jammed rear-brake cable and a change of tape on the handlebars. In his book, “Into the Remote Places” (1984), he described his bike as a companion, a crutch and a friend. Setting off in the morning light with “the quiet hum of the wheels, the creak of strap against load, the clink of something in the pannier”, was “delicious”.

I hope to find a copy of his book.

Northwest flight cancellations

Northwest Airlines stock priceI am supposed to be in Michigan right now at the Communities and Technologies conference, an event I’ve been planning to attend for quite some time. However, on Wednesday afternoon my flight on Northwest Airlines was canceled, along with the rest of the flights for that day. The excuse given was weather, which was understandable with thunderstorms affecting both areas. I did not know until I returned home that NWA has been plagued with cancellations all week:

Eagan, Minn.-based Northwest Airlines Corp. has seen a surge in cancellations since last Friday. It has blamed air traffic control restrictions, severe weather earlier this month that required pilots to rack up more time and an unusually high number of pilots calling in sick. But the Northwest branch of the Air Line Pilots Association contends the underlying problem is that the airline simply doesn’t have enough pilots to fly its full schedule anymore.

Since the C&T conference is at Michigan State University in Lansing, many of the participants were flying through Detroit—NWA’s hub. I know of two other people who were unable to make it to the conference because of NWA, and in all cases it was either weather- or servicing-related incidents that caused the cancellation. I feel sorry for the organizers of C&T who have no control over the airline industry and must be beholden to these random incidents.

This event has made me realize the need for an airline passengers’ bill of rights. Right now airlines can give any excuse necessary to cancel a flight without issuing a refund. I am now stuck with a $200 ticket to Detroit that will probably go unused in the 1-year time frame necessary to transfer the flight. I cannot think of another industry with such an under-regulated marketplace that would allow fraudulent transactions such as this one to take place.

Suffice to say, I’m shorting NWA’s stock.

Planning a trip to Europe

Going to Europe in the summer is about as much as you can ask for out of travel. Most people will tell you to stay away during the tourist season, but if you want to be there when the weather is great, you’ll have to put up with some other Americans making you want to wear a Canadian flag pin.

Planning diary

Before we get started you should get setup with Yahoo! Trip Planner. While I am openly a Yahoo! employee and sometimes an evangelist, I can say that there is nothing on the market that compares to Yahoo! Trip Planner for scheduling a trip. Now that their maps support European addresses, it’s the easiest way to keep track of all the information you’ll be accumulating. Even if you don’t use any of the journal features (blog, Flickr integration, etc.), this is the best way to create an itinerary.

You can see my working trip here: Sonar 2007: techno, tapas and tanning.

Finding the best flight

The most important piece of your planning is finding a flight to your destination. Unless you’re extremely rich or lucky, you’re unlikely to find a flight to your destination. Stop with the long face! Getting there is still well within reason using a few tricks.

Finding a good flight to Europe is ALL about the discount airlines. First you fly cheaply to any major hub, then you hop to your destination on El Cheapo Air. Here are the steps in more detail:

  1. Skipping point
    Find a cheap flight to a city you want to visit; this is your skipping point. Any city will do, just make sure you feel good about staying a night or two in this other location and that the price is nice. Use the major booking tools to find a good deal:

    You can verify that you’re getting a good deal by looking at the average prices on one of a few travel indexes:

    In my case I found a flight to Dublin for around $500, which is well within the range specified by Hotwire. I love Dublin. This is a perfect skipping point.

  2. Destination
    Find a flight from the skipping point to your destination. There are many, many discount airlines in Europe, and all of them have completely crazy destinations. You’re going to spend 45 minutes just finding the airlines that have routes from the skipping point to your destination. There’s no centralized search engine, so you’ll have to work through each airline’s website.

    Start with the list of discount European airlines provided by Wikitravel. If your skipping point is a low-cost hub, start with the airlines stationed there.

    Adjust your travel days on either end to find the best price. Typically you’ll end up staying 1-2 days in your skipping point, which is just enough time to explore the city and check it off your list. It’s possible that you could take a train from your skipping point to your destination, but I’d bet against it. These airlines are so cheap that Eurorail typically runs 2-3 times the price. Expect to pay €40-100 each way.

Once you find a suitable flight scenario, book it. The rest will follow, and the discount airlines change their prices almost daily. In my case, I secured a roundtrip on Clickair for €120. The total for my flight is less than $700, which is almost half the price of any flight I found through standard travel search tools.

Finding the best room

This is where strategy is important. There is a lot of money is hotel booking, so just about everyone will be trying to make money by arbitraging you. Be careful where you book and which tools you use.

  1. Hotels and B&Bs
    First, don’t type “destination B&B” into your favorite search engine as it’s not going to do any good. You’ll be barraged with search results that provide almost no information.

    • TripAdvisor: Good coverage of B&Bs and hotels, along with some useful user reviews
    • Venere: European search engine, good coverage of hotels and B&Bs
    • Orbitz: Major hotels
    • Expedia: Major hotels, only partial overlap with Orbitz.
  2. Apartments
    Your best deals are going to be apartments in the city you’re staying in. Some of these may be listed in TripAdvisor, but it’s unlikely unless the owner owns quite a few. Local vacation rental owners will typically market to a local audience only, so if you know someone who speaks the language, use one of the local tools owned by European Craigslist competitor, Kijiji:

    Craigslist will also work if there are expats renting to Americans (I find it uncommon, but it does happen). Using Loquo, I found an apartment in Barceloneta for €100/night for two people, which is expensive because it’s Sonar weekend. Any other part of the summer I could find something in the range of €40-€60/night, about half of the closest hotel.

Finding things to eat

Ok, you’ve got your flight and you’ve got your lodging. Now the fun part! Time to find some places that will make other travelers jealous. There’s no better way to do this than with Chowhound. If you’re not familiar with it, Chowhound is a community of food lovers that generates the best restaurant recommendations on the web.

Find the local board for your destination and start searching. Typically the recommendations will come from expats who have spent some considerable time in a city, so don’t expect to see people with the same edition of Lonely Planet sitting next to you. Most of these will not be in Trip Planner, so you’ll have to add them yourself, but it’s worth the effort for an amazing meal, right?

If you use Chowhound, give back. When you return, make sure to give a short review of your thoughts on the restaurants you chose.

Finding things to do

This part is actually surprisingly easy.

  • Upcoming: this collaborative events site actually has quite a few European events, but the quality of the content will vary greatly from city to city.
  • Wikitravel: using hte same software as Wikipedia, this collaboratively edited travel guide contains pretty good overviews of most cities and lists of suggested sites.
  • Yahoo! Travel: this offering from Yahoo! actually has pretty good coverage for tourist attractions and outings, plus it offers one-click adding to Trip Planner.

After this point, you’re pretty much done. Print out your itinerary from Trip Planner and execute as planned. Go! Experience! And when you’re done, write up some of your thoughts to make the process easier for future travelers.

Myspace graffiti

While walking through the streets of Florence, we stumbled upon a perplexing piece of graffiti:

I’m sure people have written about MySpace and tagging, but this is absurd. How did AndyG, a 25 year old hip hop artist from Orange County (or a fan) decide to promote his music on an ancient building in Florence?

If this graffiti artist had read the plaques before tagging, s/he could have actually put this advertisement on the birthplace and childhood home of Michaelangelo, which was right across the alley.