Hawaii's Unique Climate

One thing that doesn't seem to ever really be talked about with Hawaii, is the very unique climate, at least on the Big Island. Hawaii is a unique chain of islands that have been through volcanic action. As such, the islands seem to rise from the water out of nowhere and little to break wind and waves before they reach the islands. 

Keep in mind that these are mountains, they rise very rapidly and quite high out of the water. As the wind and air blow up and over these mountains, the air rapidly cools and forms clouds over all of the islands. This helps shape some of the most unique climates I've been through. Driving across to the other side of the island takes roughly 2 hours, no matter which way you take. To completely circle the island, it would take roughly 4 hours in total. Pick any direction and drive, and you will likely pass through 2-3 different climate zones.

The first full day in Hawaii, we drove to Pololu Valley. Now in order to get there, we started out at our hotel in Keauhou Bay, situated in a warm but more temperate zone. This area of the island is often shaded by clouds coming off the largest mountain tops. Mornings start clear and sunny, part way through the day, it becomes cloudy, but rarely rains. It's much like Central New York in the summer, where I grew up, except more ocean. 

As you drive north toward the airport, you cross into a desert like area. This area is arid, gets lots and lots of sun, and is marked by huge lava flows from the past. Fields of dead grass, and plains of black stone. This is the most desolate area of the island, there are a number of beaches in this area, but very few houses, or resorts really. There are some remote beaches here that are worth checking out, but beware, the roads to these places require a decent SUV in my opinion, though many people didn't let the rocky roads deter them.

We needed to use the bathroom and took a detour up to Waimea, which is a decent sized ranching town up in the valley between two peaks on the island. Wind blows through this area in between mountains, forms clouds, and rains. This area had an odd but almost constant rain. This was consistent for the entire trip. Any road that cut through the center of the island needed to climb into the highlands, and there was always rain along the way someplace. Due to the lower temperatures at this altitude, it gave a feel of a slightly warmer Seattle area. Temperate with a lot of rain.

After stopping in Waimea, we took a side road along the mountains and down into Pololu Valley. As we descended and approached Pololu Valley, we entered the rain forest area of the island. Tucked up in the valleys of the north side of the Big Island, rain was light but almost constant. Lush green plants covered everything, and the rain would come heavy and leave. Pulsing on and off, the entire afternoon was marked by shifting showers.

Now, I was only in Hawaii for 5 days. That doesn't mean that this was what the climate is year round. It is the one place I've ever been where I have experienced 4 distinct climates within a 2 hours drive. It truly is a unique experience, and one I would love to experience again. The island boasts more areas to the south around the valcano that would characterize a typical rocky mountain slope, paired with low areas resembling grasslands. The town of Hilo falls in the tropical town feel on the opposite side of the island. Really you can see so many different climates, it really will surprise you. If you get the chance, drive the Big Island, it is a varied and interesting place.

Time To Stop Checking Your Luggage

In an age of baggage fees, it seems like the ability to check baggage for free when you're an elite member would be a great perk.This might be true, except I honestly don’t remember the last time I had to check a single piece of luggage. From my perspective, checked luggage is a hassle, expensive if you fly any airline that you don’t have special perks with, and wastes quite a bit of time.

If you’ve flown any time in the last 10 or more year, you’ll notice a lot more people carrying luggage on the plane, and there are a few reasons for this. Since the addition of baggage fees to almost all airlines, many people have turned to carrying their luggage on the plane. There are some downsides to this trend as many times I have seen people with far too much baggage, try to carry on and take up multiple overhead bins that could have been used by other passengers.

For the average traveler though, there are many advantages to carrying everything on the plane and ways to make it work. Often when travelling with inexperienced work travellers, I will get asked how I pack an entire week worth of clothes in one carry on, really it’s not that difficult.

Minimize the amount of clothes you’re taking, plan out what you’re going to wear in advance so that when you get there it’s all ready to go. Don’t bring 12 outfits with you so that you can figure it out once you are there, it’s easier to do this before leaving and minimizing what you pack. This becomes even more important when if you were to fly on the small island hoppers you may find around the Maldives or other short hop trips. These airlines are very restrictive on weight because of how much weight is a factor in the performance of light aircraft. In these cases you will get charged per KG of luggage you bring. This adds up really fast if you’ve brought the kitchen sink with you. A little planning ahead makes a world of difference.

Carrying on also allows me to quickly traverse baggage claim, as I don’t need to stop for it. This also means I’m through customs faster than most other people. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Up In The Air,” George Clooney’s character famously points out that you lose over 30min on every trip to dealing with checked luggage, that adds up really fast if you travel a lot. More than that, it just simplifies everything when you land. Faster through the airport gets you first in line with rental cars, gets you out the door faster and generally to you hotel and destination faster. Also, the airline can’t lose luggage that they don’t have.

People who have adapted to fly with me in this fashion have stuck to this way of flying, it’s just that much less of a headache. So next time you travel, leave the super large suitcase at home, slim down your clothes choices and carry it all with you.

Don't Forget Your Visa

Planning trips is always an exciting thing for me. Booking the trip is something I really enjoy, trying to find the best price, that fits into a schedule I can manage with my life, and get the most miles out of the experience… all of this is enjoyable. Recently, American Airlines was offering $500 fares from Chicago to Beijing, China and I took advantage. Flying to Beijing will be critical in me achieving Executive Platinum status this year. One thing that must be kept in mind when taking advantage of these trips is applying for a visa.

Visa’s are something that can easily be overlooked, especially as a US citizen. US citizens have really good access to many countries. This is also fairly common in the EU as well. Since this is the case, it is very easy to overlook the cases when you do need a travel visa, and knowing which countries require them can be a hastle.

As an example let’s look at my travel history over the last few years. My first foreign trip was to England, no visa needed. Going to Australia, visa needed but you just need to apply online prior to arrival if a US citizen. France like much of the EU doesn’t require a visa. Argentina doesn’t require a visa, but does require US citizens to pay a reciprocity fee, which is designed to charge US citizens the same amount as the US charges Argentinian citizens for travel visas to the USA, in this case $160. South Korea, South Africa, and New Zealand require no visa for US Citizens. United Arab Emirates gives US citizens a visa upon entering the country, no additional steps required, essentially like not needing a visa.

China is very different though and not only requires a visa, but requires that the passport be handed over to a consulate in person by someone. The visa will then be placed in the passport. These visas can be good for up to 10 years, but the process is complicated. In order to get all of this done, I’m planning to use a visa service called Allied. They specialize in hand delivering documentation and passports to consulates that require in person delivery. They will get everything arranged including fees, stamping of passports, paperwork and all so that you don’t need to fly to DC, or New York, or your local consulate to gain a visa.

Allied is a good option for the Chinese visa, or the odd visa that may require extra steps. All other visas can often be dealt with online fairly easily if anything is required at all. Just remember that if you are planning a visit to another country, double check their visa requirements before going, and give plenty of time to deal with those paperwork requirements. This is an important step that is needed, not giving yourself enough time could either cost you the entire trip, or a significant amount of money to have a visa expedited. Usually these are fairly painless, and quickly can move you on to enjoying your vacation/trip.

Travel Tip - Pay In Local Currency

Here is a quick travel tip that I was reminded of on my trip to France last week. If you are in a foreign country, they often are going to require you to pay in the local currency. There should be no issue with this if you’ve been grabbing some good credit cards. Many travel cards have no foreign transaction fees (can’t say as much about my debit card though). Having a card with no foreign transaction fee is a key thing for the frequent or even yearly traveler. Transaction fees can add up quick when abroad, and adding a fee to every transaction isn’t something you want to see on your bill… spending money to use your money is hardly a card you want to keep around.

Here’s the one thing you have to be on the lookout for though. When traveling through airports mostly and some more popular stores in the city, there are little tricks the vendor will try to play on travelers. A big one is the offering to use your home currency to make a payment. This is almost always triggers some little gut reaction in my head that says… yes, home currency is the best! In other words, the credit card machine will offer for you to pay in US Dollars instead of British Pounds. Do not fall for this!!!!

Why am I so adamant about this? Well, it’s a rip off, point blank. The reasons that this is offered at a point of sale machine is that the conversion rate always has a percentage fee added on to the transaction. As an example, I was stopping for a falafel and hummus wrap in London Heathrow (Café Nero rocks the vegan option with this gem). When I stepped up to pay, the familiar request popped up on the screen offering to pay in American Dollars. My little gut reaction kicked in, some weird desire to always pay in my home currency. Luckily I have experience with this and know better than to accept this. I chose to pay in British Pounds, after all I have no foreign transaction fees, the credit card issuer will automatically convert to USD with no fee at all, and at the current market rate for currency transfers.

Know that I’ve been told to avoid this, I noted in my head what the currency exchange rate was listed on the credit card terminal. The listed exchange rate was something on the order of 1.65 USD to 1 GBP. Now if you go look the exchange rate up, it is and was around 1.55 USD to 1 GBP. So in this case, the company was willing to do the conversion for you at an expense of 10 cents per pound spent, roughly 6.5% fee that I didn’t need to pay since my card converts for free. This can get expensive fast, especially considering how strong the British Pound has been for a long time.

So the next time you are flying thorugh or visiting another country, keep in mind that you want a foreign transaction fee free card, and never pay in anything accept for the local currency. This applies to those currency exchange places as well, they charge the same kind of fee… do not fall for these traps.

Hello From Heathrow

I'm now sitting in the British Airways Galleries lounge in London Heathrow airport. While I was waiting for my connecting flight to France I thought this would be a good chance to cover a range of things relating to this trip.

Starting off, I have to say that the American Airlines Admirals Club in Terminal A West at Philadelphia, is a pretty nice lounge. While at the time it was my first lounge experience, it is a nice get away from the bustle of the standard airport boarding area. It also comes with free snacks, and drinks... even a free premium alcoholic beverage if that is something you enjoy. I think I was lucky to see it at night first. I am a night person and find the night lighting and a look out onto a dark airport ramp to be a great part of my trip. I'll outline this in more detail after I return from my trip. I'll also cover the British Airways lounge which I am currently writing from.

Next, the food on the flight from Philadelphia to London on American Airlines. While I found the food on my trip to Seoul to be low grade, this flight set a whole new low bar for meals. Now I understand that it's an economy meal, I don't expect to be blown out of the water, but I do expect my vegan meal to be actually vegan... I'll blast them a bit more later.

Lastly, I am indeed on my way to France right now. Yes this was the day after the attack in Paris and luckily I'm not flying to or through Paris... though some of my coworkers are, without issue at the moment... we shall see if my choice to transit London with a longer layover was better in the long run since they were transiting Paris in just over an hour. With the new security measures going into place, we'll see if that pans out well for them... seems their flight is currently on a multiple hour delay as we speak.

Well, back to my trip, I'll fill you in with more detail in the coming days. See you from France next!