Grant McWilliams

Travel Blog

Travel Blog

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

As many of you know one of the things I do is travel and when I'm not traveling I'm either planning to travel or helping others plan to travel. I just ran across this site that specializes in travel for US Armed Forces personnel. From their website:

"Space-A rentals are AFVC’s “space availability” program, providing affordable condominium vacations at resorts around the world for only $329* USD per unit per week."

Notice that this is per unit and not per person. If the unit holds 2 people you're looking at about $25/day per person which is amazing. You might be wondering what kind of shack they'll put you up in and you'd be surprised. A quick search of Hotels in France brought up a resort on the water in Languedoc (on the Mediterranean) with spa and everything. The price- $329 for two people for a week.
 
See the site for photos - http://www.frenchwayoflife.net/int/host.php?ref=thalbanyul. Another quick search brought up an all inclusive resort in Puerto Vallarta Mexico that sleeps 6 for - wait for it.... $329/wk per unit or roughly $9/day per person for everything including food!
 


For anyone that doesn't mind a resort this is an awesome deal. Granted this is on a Space Available condition but if you're flexible great deals can be had. Not everyone is eligible (I'm not) but a lot of the family would be. I'll just post the list here.

* Member of the United States Uniformed Services (Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Navy, NOAA, USPHS; active duty, and both active and inactive Reserve, Auxiliarist, and National Guard) or an adult dependent
* Retired Member of the United States Uniformed Services (Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Navy, NOAA, USPHS, Reserve, Auxiliarist and National Guard)
* Spouse or child (21 or older) of an active or retired member of the United States Uniformed Services (Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Navy, NOAA, USPHS, Reserve, Auxiliarist and National Guard) AND have a current DD Form 1173, United States Uniformed Services Identification and Privilege Card.
* Civilian employee of the DoD or a United States Uniformed Service (appropriated, non-appropriated, or retired).
* Foreign exchange service member on permanent duty with the DoD
* American Red Cross personnel serving overseas with the U.S. military
* DoD Dependent School teacher
* Disabled American Veteran rated @ 100% with a valid United States Uniformed Services Identification Card.
* Contractor working on a military installation and in possession of an ID card issued by the installation.

If you're chomping at the bit here's the URL http://www.afvclub.com/index.html
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Everything is encouraging us to spend our money but we just keep holding onto it making the situation worse. I'm not going to talk about the economy because everyone else is doing that just fine but I've been buying meats and produce at amazing prices lately. Maybe sales are off and they need to clear things out. Also right now is probably the best time in recent history to buy stock because everyone is trading really really low. Those who have money have the opportunity to make a lot of money. OK so there's some risk but if you wanted to avoid risk you'd go on vacation to Arizona right? I have a better idea...

The U.S. Dollar was at a 5 year low last summer when I was in Paris and it hurt. Now even though the economy stinks and everyone is worried that we might be headed for a depression the dollar surges up and most other currencies lose value in comparison. Why has this happened? Who knows of such things. What I do know is that there hasn't been a better time to travel in many years.

Currently the good deals are in the UK (yes you heard me), any country using the Euro, Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Brazil and Russia. There are others but all of the above mentioned currencies are have lost to the dollar from 30% - 50%. This means that a 2 week trip to New Zealand will cost you 50% less than it would have a year ago. One U.S. Dollar used to buy you 10 pesos but not it get's you 15. That hotel in Cancun that was going to run you $100 will no only run you $66.

A couple of years ago I was planning a trip to South Africa, total price was about $10,000 USD. Now the same trip would cost me less than $5000. The Rand was trading at 6 to 1 and now it's 13 to 1.

Add to this the airlines are in a price war to Europe. US Airways was offering $288 round trip from NYC to anywhere in Europe they fly. I'm seeing round trip airfare to Beijing China from San Francisco including 5 nights of first class hotel stay for $588...

 

Yes, it's time to get out of the house and go somewhere!

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Ever since I've been reading about Asia I've been interested in visiting the Miao people (thank you Justine Shapiro). The Miao are also referred to as the Hmong people and are a minority race in SE Asia and China. I went to the Hmong Lunar New Year in Seattle today and took many pictures and videos. Unfortunately being the bone-head that I am I bumped my menu button and accidentally set the photo resolution to .3 MP instead of 10 MP so the photos are all really bad.

Anyway my impression of these people is that they're very friendly and absolutely gorgeous. I couldn't stop staring at them and their costumes.

I put up a small gallery of photos that I took there. Hmong Lunar New Year Gallery

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So lets get this out of the way right now, I don't like buses. I don't like them in America, I don't like them in Croatia and I don't like them in Germany. I don't like them sam I am! The one exception to that is buses in Mexico which are quite nice if you get Deluxe class or Business class. I'd even rather ride a first class bus in Mexico over any other bus I've ridden. The classes go First, Deluxe and the nicest is Business just in case you don't know. So why am I posting about buses? Because in lieu of great train or airline service in the US new bus companies are popping up. It takes roughly 4 hrs to go from downtown NY to downtown DC on a bus. It takes about the same time or more to get to JFK, go through security, board a plane, fly, leave Washington Dulles and take a taxi to the city center of DC. Here's the kicker, the bus costs as low as $1! No matter what happens in the airline world there will never be a sustainable flight from NY to DC for $1.

So I found two companies doing this - Boltbus and DC2NY. I checked prices and Boltbus came in at $10-$20 and DC2NY the "upscale" bus company came in at $28 one way. There was a slight discount for a return ticket ($50 both ways). Both companies offer free onboard wifi internet access. So not only do you not have to go through security, you don't have to stand in line to get on the plane, you don't have to take a taxi and you don't have to be bored for the 4 hours. I didn't think I'd ever say this but buses may be the best way to get between NY and DC.

I just checked the Amtrak website and the train takes the same amount of time but costs $144 a person. Jet Blue charges $147 and with getting to the airport 30 minutes before flying and getting away would take almost exactly 4 hrs.

To recap I used the same days and similar times for the two bus companies, Amtrak and Jet Blue.

New York to DC, round trip

Bolt Bus $20 4hr 30min wifi, power outlets, reserved seats
DC2NY $46 4hr 30min wifi, no power outlets, no reserved seats
Megabus $16 4hr 30min n/a
TonyCoach $30 4hr 30min Uses gotobus.com for cart
Todays $35 4hr 30min Uses gotobus.com for cart
Eastern $36.75 4hr 30min Uses gotobus.com for cart, free wifi
Amtrak Ascela $322 2hr 45min  
Amtrak $144 3hr 20min  
Greyhound $75 4hr 30min Found promotion for $40 though
Jet Blue $147 1hr 20min Taxi/Train to and from airport and going through security - 4hr travel time
       
       

 

Bolt bus seems to be the winner. They have power plugs (DC2NY doesn't) 3 extra inches of legroom, wifi and a loyalty program. After 4 trips you get the fifth free. This seem like an incredibly cheap way of going between these cities. Bolt Bus also has service to Boston and Philly now.

It looks like the fastest way to get from downtown New York to downtown DC is by Amtrak Ascela which takes just under 3 hrs. Amazingly so that train can do 150 mph but is limited by the states it goes through it averages 75 mph. Go America... You can take the standard Amtrak train and it only takes 35 minutes longer and you saved yourself a couple hundred dollars. Add another hour to your journey and you saved another $100.

 

 

 

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People can create usage specific websites by "mashing up" google maps with their own stuff. For example someone can create a site that shows all subway stops and schedules for NY. I just found this mashup of Points Of Interest for Paris France at tellmewhere.com .

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My favorite state in Mexico is definitely Oaxaca. Oaxaca is second most southern state in Mexico near the Guatemala border. It's roughly about as far south as Belize and has decent climate.  It has untouristed beaches facing south, excellent ancient ruins like Mitla and Mont Alban a ancient hilltop Zapotec village with planetarium, ball court and hospital. There is just enough tourism for services to be available but not enough to be really irritating like the entire east coast of the Yukatan Peninsula or the many west coast resort towns like Acapulco, Mazatlan, and Puerta Villarta. But the real reason I like Oaxaca is for the nice people and the wonderful food. Even among Mexicans the Oaxacans excel. Oaxaca is billed as the land of the 7 moles. If you haven't had mole you need to fly to Oaxaca. Don't go to your local Azteca for it because you'll decide that you don't like it. That's about the same as going to Olive Garden and having "Italian" food (pronounced with a long i!).  If you're wanting to know a bit more about mole visit the Wikipedia page on mole.

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Just like I've been saying for years - the security at airports is to make us feel secure so we keep flying and the airline industry stays healthy. Whenever they pull anything out of my bag and deem it a security list I have to keep mum about the fact that I'd already gone through security at 7 airports previous to this one and they just found the offending item. I'm certain that anyone with a brain could carry enough parts on a plane and blow a hole in the side. The reality is there just isn't enough people wanting to do it. Terrorism isn't about keeping innocent people from doing things, it's about scaring them.

According to a USA TODAY article the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) had agents in plain clothes carry phony bomb parts through security at LAX and Chicago O'Hare to see which would get spotted. Seventy-five percent of the parts taken into LAX got through without detection, and 60% at O'Hare. SFO (San Francisco/Oakland)  hires private companies to do the screening and only 20% of the parts went undetected.

A test in 2002 showed they failed to find guns 24% of the time. In the late 90's they missed 40% of bombs, by 2002 they were missing 60%. In the next 5 years they might as well dissolve the TSA altogether for ineffectiveness.

This basically means that if there's a terrorist on the plane you should probably go ahead and violate the FAA's regulations and call your loved ones on your cell phone in hopes that it will mess up the aircrafts navigation system (It won't).

It seems their ability to detect completely assembled bombs has gone up though (as long as the word BOMB has been stenciled on the side in block letters using lead paint).

Grant

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IMG_8412I believe I have uploaded all the Paris photos that I'm going to. Some need to be rotated, some need to be deleted and some need to be loaded into the Gimp and worked on but none of that is getting done right now because it's taking me forever just to get them uploaded.

I'm working on the Slovenia photos now. I'd like to have them and the Croatia photos uploaded by the end of the week.

Western Europe 2007 photo gallery

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Wired ran a story describing Lukas Grunwald's Defcon talk on an attack on airport passport readers. After extracting data from the (read-only) chip in a legitimate passport, he placed a version of the data with an altered passport photo (JPEG2000 is used in these chips) into a writable chip. The altered photo created a buffer overflow in two RFID readers he tested, causing both to crash. Grunwald suggests that vendors are typically using off-the-shelf JPEG2000 libraries, which would make the vulnerability common.

Read the article at Wired.com

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Quitting your job and travelling might seem like a really irresponsible risky thing to do but many are doing it. I spend three months a year in other countries and I insist on it when I take jobs. As I travel I meet people all over the world that are doing year long trips and some of them aren't just out of college either if you know what I mean. I met a woman in Croatia that had never travelled before and decided it was time so she found a way and was spending one year gone. It's common place in South America to find one year travellers going around the world.

The Washington Post wrote an article about this...

Grant


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