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Starting Planning in Sweden and Finland

A look at the planning process for the first leg of our journey.


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Here is a look at the Baltic Capitals itinerary.

Date Port/City Activity
Day 1 Stockholm, Sweden => Docked All Day
Day 2 Stockholm, Sweden => Docked - Depart at 3:00PM
Day 3 Helsinki, Finland => Dock at 10:00AM - Depart at 5:00PM
Day 4 St. Petersburg, Russia => Dock at 7:00AM
Day 5 St. Petersburg, Russia => Docked All day
Day 6 St. Petersburg, Russia =>Docked - Depart at 6:00PM
Day 7 Muuga (Tallinn), Estonia => Dock at 7:00AM - Depart at 5:00PM
Day 8 At Sea
Day 9 Warnemunde, Germany => Dock at 7:00AM - Depart at 9:30PM
Day 10 Copenhagen, Denmark => Dock at 12:00PM
Day 11 Copenhagen, Denmark => Docked - Depart at 3:00PM
Day 12 At Sea
Day 13 Amsterdam, Netherlands => Dock at 6:00AM

On the Baltic Capitals cruise you can expect a very port intensive cruise. That fits our travel style perfectly. When traveling overseas, Terri and I prefer to take night trains in order to maximize our travel time and have the daytime available to dig into the local culture and sights. While we enjoy going 100% while on vacation, many others do not and that is what helps make a cruise a good option for a multiple couples. Each couple can decide what they want to do while in port, or if they even want to leave the ship on a certain day or not.

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We have decided to travel to Stockholm on the Thursday before our ship is scheduled to board. Once we board the ship, it will be treated as a hotel until Monday when we depart at 1500. One of the tricks that we discovered in our planning was that if you purchase your accommodations in Stockholm during the down season, 6 – 9 months before the date we will be staying, we were able to get half-priced lodging compared to pricing 90 days or less prior to travel. However, for those that may want to avoid the hotels, www.AirBnB.com has a good number of deals available in Stockholm. We chose to stay at the Best Western KOM hotel due to its proximity to the central train station and Gamla Stan.

For touring Stockholm, we will be using suggestions from friends and as always Rick Steves and his Northern European Cruise Ports guidebook. In addition to the guidebook, Rick offers an app for both iOS and Android platforms called Rick Steves Audio Europe. With this app you can listen to history and interviews prior to your trip, but the best feature is the ability to download “audio walking tours” for several cities throughout Europe. These are downloaded so they do not use data or cellular service, only a bit of your battery is used to play these. I would also recommend a Y-splitter and two pairs of headphones so that you can share it with your traveling companion.

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One of the issues with Stockholm is the distance from Arlanda airport to the city center. If you are a solo traveler or couple, two great options are the Arlanda Express (you can pre order discount tickets) or the local bus will take you into town if you don’t mind taking your luggage on a metro bus. If you have four people, a better route to go is to use Uber to get a comfortable ride while meeting a local. Since the Cruise is departing from Frihamnen. The same thing is true when it comes to heading to the ship, Uber is a better value and more convenient than a taxi.

Some of the must see activiites in Stockholm that are on the list include:

  • Vasa Museum, a Swedish warship built between 1626 and 1628. The ship foundered and sank after sailing about 1,300 m (1,400 yd) into her maiden voyage on 10 August 1628.
  • Skansen the world's first open-air museum, founded in 1891. Here you can stroll through five centuries of Swedish history, from north to south, with a real sense of the past all around in the histori­cal buildings and dwellings, peop­led by characters in period dress.
  • The famous changing of The Royal Guard at the Royal Castle
  • Gamla Stan
  • And several other great sites

Finland will be a short stop. Considering there is only on day in port, the best bet seems to be a city walking tour. There are some really good resources online, some on CruiseCritic.com that local Helsinki residents have put together and once again, Rick Steves has a great walk in his materials as well. Because we like to get into with the local culture and also love food, we are looking at supplementing the walking tour with a stop at a world renowned restaurant serving Finnish Tapas styled dishes.

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As you can see, these cities are both very walk-able and public transit friendly. That is one of the great things about this cruise’s itinerary. However, once you get to Russia, things change up a little bit. Due to the visa requirements for Russia, it is much more convenient to take an organized tour.
Our next posting will share our thoughts on choosing a tour company and navigating the travel planning for Russia.

Do you have any tips or experience in these areas? We’d love to hear your comments, share them with us below.

Posted by darrenesl 14:39 Archived in Sweden Tagged trains stockholm helsinki travel train sweden silhouette europe travels royal planning celebrity darrenesl tljohnson tlwforgiven darren_johnson terri_johnson 2016 Comments (0)

Make it count. What's in an itinerary?

When it comes to your time, you only have so much. Time to make the most of it.


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As people who pack the most into their travels, our travel personality is unique to us. Your ravel personality should be unique to you as well. While some people are looking for a chance to unwind and relax with a cocktail on the beach, others may want to spend hours on end in a museum. For us, we like to get in with the locals, see the sights and get a good taste of what a region’s culture really is.

Many cruise ships do not allow for this kind of activity as they have private islands, special resorts or hotels and trains booked for their passengers and require tendering into port as the ship is too large to dock at a pier. Tendering involves being ferried from your cruise ship to the dock on a smaller boat further reducing your time in port.

For this trip there will be two other couples traveling with us including our parents who will be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary on the trip. With many variables coming into play, the decision was narrowed down to a European cruise. Would we want a river cruise or a sea cruise? River cruises typically allow for less time in port and that is not something that any of us wanted. So, we were able to narrow it down to either a Mediterranean cruise or a Baltic cruise. There are several other options available, but based on where we had already been, these two options seemed closest to what we were wanting.

Our final decision was to go with the Baltic Capitals cruise with Celebrity because it involved a port intensive itinerary that allowed for multiple days in some of the top cities on the cruise.

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Here is a look at the Baltic Capitals itinerary.

Date Port/City Activity
Day 1 Stockholm, Sweden => Docked All Day
Day 2 Stockholm, Sweden => Docked - Depart at 3:00PM
Day 3 Helsinki, Finland => Dock at 10:00AM - Depart at 5:00PM
Day 4 St. Petersburg, Russia => Dock at 7:00AM
Day 5 St. Petersburg, Russia => Docked All day
Day 6 St. Petersburg, Russia =>Docked - Depart at 6:00PM
Day 7 Muuga (Tallinn), Estonia => Dock at 7:00AM - Depart at 5:00PM
Day 8 At Sea
Day 9 Warnemunde, Germany => Dock at 7:00AM - Depart at 9:30PM
Day 10 Copenhagen, Denmark => Dock at 12:00PM
Day 11 Copenhagen, Denmark => Docked - Depart at 3:00PM
Day 12 At Sea
Day 13 Amsterdam, Netherlands => Dock at 6:00AM

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With overnight stays in Stockholm, St. Petersburg and Copenhagen, amount of time in with the locals is maximized, while the travel is taken care of at night while enjoying the comfort of a 4-star hotel. Further, each of these ports is large enough that tendering is not required and only in Russia are we required to take a tour. We’ll get to that a little bit later in this series.

When it came time to book the cruise, there were several possible companies that once we began talking to, each offered to sweeten the pot with more extras to have us purchase the trip through them. One word of advice, never settle for just one quote, much like buying a car, take your time, be informed and shop around for several rates and offers. Once you narrow it down to the top three vendors, let them know and request their best and final offer. Make sure that you are able to add more perks on if they become available later through the cruise line.

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We chose to go with Costco Travel (www.costcotravel.com Visit Costco Travel Here). Why? They provided all of the best perks from Celebrity, plus added a few extras that surpassed the other offers and rates from the other travel agents. Our package ended up with a Pre-paid gratuities, a classic drink package, and $300 on-board credit all provided by Celebrity. Costco Travel more than doubled the on-board credit plus provided the best price for the cruise.

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Coming up, we’ll talk about the ports that we’ll be visiting, the ship we'll be on and offer some tips for preparing for a port intensive cruise.

Posted by darrenesl 20:34 Tagged boats stockholm helsinki cities travel germany cruise berlin sweden petersburg netherlands silhouette europe baltic travels estonia capitals planning tallin copenhagen cruising celebrity darrenesl tljohnson tlwforgiven darren_johnson terri_johnson 2016 warnemunde amsterdam. Comments (0)

Auschwitz and Birkenau

Evil so great, it must never be forgotten

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There is an erie silence as you enter the gates of a place that although the sunshine is there, is cold and dark all the same. We have driven an hour and a half to get to this sacreds ground and now there is a dread that almost makes one want to stay away and not enter...

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We had awoken earlier to the usual morning sunshine entering our hostel room window shortly after 4 a.m. local time and found sleep hard to come by after that. With many of the other hostelers still sleeping in their dorms or private roomes, we made use of the nearly empty WiFi that was able to meet our needs for connectivity. After a couple of Skype messages, emails, and social posts, a shower and shave helped get the tired body awake and ready for our day.

We quickly ate a breakfast of pastries, yogurt, cottage cheese, peaches, and coffee. It is becoming a daily breakfast here in Poland , quick, easy, and a good way to stretch the meal budget for the more adventureous lunch and dinner experiences. We planned a full day for Wednesday, booking a tour with Krakow Tours, run by an Englishman named Phil Clark. The trip includes Auschwitz and Birkenau and the Wieliczka Salt Mine, usually a day trip each if you go with one of the big cattle-car tours, however offered together on a private tour with Krakow Tours.

Promptly at 8:10 a.m., Mark, our driver and tour guide, who is a Brit living and working in Poland now, pulled the Renault Van up to the front door and introduced himself. We had the option of riding up front with him as the middle seat was already occupied by the other two tour takers, a couple from the UK. We chose the front for the view and were soon zipping through the countryside to our destination. We learned tha Mark, a traveling magician at the age of 17, had been to Auschwitz while traveling, and being so facinated by it, returned from the UK on weekends, 17 more times before moving to Poland to work.

A great conversationalist, Mark shared his story and thoughts on Poland, as we neared the largest and most deadly of all the Nazi concentration camps, Mark let us know what buildings to go to and which ones to avoid to have the best experience, with the least crowds. Because Auschwitz is so busy, they require tours to come with a tour guide, unless as Mark would do, enter with us and give us the option to wander on our own once he got us on the inside.

And now the moment had arrived, we passed all the queues to get in and were at the gates that are seen in movies and textbooks worldwide. "Arbeit Macht Frei" or work makes you free. The infamous words that hung over the heads of those entering this killing compound of Adolf Hitler's regime.

...Why does it feel this way, as I turn to Terri she reassures me it is not just myslef that feels this wasy as we enter the compound, but an intensity of evil that just lingers over the grounds that lie before us. Words cannot describe what the eyes see next, but there is no denying this artrocity ever happened.

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The former barracks of these prisoners show the horrors that awaited them when they arrived. Many of these people were expecting to come alomost on a holiday type experience, a chance to better their lives and that of theur families. You see the piles of their best dishes that some brought not expecting to be taken prisoner instead. You see the spoils the Nazi SS took from them, piles of reading glasses, mountains of shoes, an assortment of clothing, and even children's toys. All of this stuns you and leaves you wondering, but the knockout blow hits when you see the tons of human hair, shaved from the victims of Auschwitz that was still to be sold by the Nazis to make textiles and cloth from. Yes, they still have tons of human hair from this event on display for you to see.

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From Auschwitz we make our way to Birkenau, a bigger camp designed specifically for the extermination of people. The tools of the trade our similar, just on a much larger scale. At one point, killing 6000 people per day. The clouds that hung over the camps eventually disappated and the sun came out. Much as it did for some of the survivors of this period in history.

The women are to le left and the men to the right as you enter. The majority of the women's barracks are brick as the houses in the area were torn down and used to build them, the men's were of wood as that is what was left. The pits for the bodies and the incinerators are at the back, eventually they built the railway line straight there. Why keep the infirm, the cripple, and children as they will just be a drain on resources was their thinking. The Nazis even tried to capture the sewer to power the incinerators, however the diet of the prisoners did not feed them well enough to allow their waste to produce methane, so that plan was scrrapped.

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The sights and stories are ones we will never forget.

From here we headed to the salt mine. These mines have been worked for hundreds of years and over 130 km of tunnels had been dug in the salt mines. We toured more than 3 km of them and had a great history of the mines described to us. The chpels built underground were oppulant. When we emerged from the earth, 150 meters deep, it was pouring rain.

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Our guide shuttled us back to the hostel and we said our goodbyes to Mark. Sharing a bond that only those who have shared the concentration camp experience together can. It is a day we will always remember, and a time many can never forget.

Posted by darrenesl 14:12 Archived in Poland Tagged poland europe auschwitz krakow birkenau Comments (0)

Sunset to Sunrise - Travel Days Merge

Traveling from Los Angeles to Warsaw via stop in Frankfurt

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The time has finally come to depart on our adventure. The day began with the trip to LAX from San Diego being uneventful. Upon arrival, we were greeted with a dilemma. Luftansa was looking for people to give up their seats and leave on Sunday in exchange for $800 per person. A very tempting offer, but we have activities planned for Monday in Warsaw befor departing Tuesday morning for Krakow. So, we declined the $1600 USD deciding to go for the adventure instead.

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Luftansa is great as always with two warm meals and personal inflight entertainment. As the sky turned to dusk, moments later we were greeted with a gleaming orange sunrise before night could come. Looking down we could see brilliant white polar ice fields. The views as we continued on were incredible flying over Ireland, Scotland, The Netherlands and more we watched a beautiful multi-shaded green patch work quilt below us until we spotted the Rhine river and followed it towards Frankfurt.

Now we sit here in Frankfurt awaiting our final 1 hour 20 minute leg to Warsaw. The excitement has definitely helped us overcome our five hours of airline sleep.

Cheers,
Darren and Terri

Posted by darrenesl 03:47 Archived in Germany Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises air europe airlines darrenesl tljohnson darren_johnson terri_johnson Comments (0)

3 Days and Counting

Time is near, how's that packing list coming?

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Suddenly we look up and the calendar says its the middle of June. Oh my, where has time gone? As we finish the preparations for our European journey, it is time to make the final reservations on airbnb, check all of our needs, and start pulling the traveling pack together.

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Yes, we have the hybrid Caribee Skymaster 70. The exact pack, filled with 30+ lbs., that we have been walking about two miles a day with to prepare for the upcoming adventure. As we talked about before, the pack offers the best of both worlds with a combination backpack and rolling bag. Sure, we most likely will not be having to carry it on our back for 2 miles, but taking a line from the Boy Scouts, we are going to "be prepared."

Along with the whole travel planning that has been going on since last year, plans for some special happenings on this trip have been in the works as well. Celebrating ten years of marriage, Terri and I have a couples massage booked in the Hungarian baths, a dinner on-top of the tower in Vienna, and a night on a private boat in Croatia. Part of the fun of this adventure has been finding some things to do that would not be on our regular list of activities here at home.

We also have several cathedrals on the list. For anyone going to Europe and wanting to let the imagination soar ahead of time, I highly recommend reading Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett.
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The book shares some of the design elements used to build these magnificent structures, with a thrilling storyline that will capture the mind of the reader.
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Many more thrilling items fill our agenda, as well as plenty of time to explore areas and get to know the locals as well. How's that packing coming you ask? Well the bags are full and we are under our 44lbs. limit. Have we forgot anything, hopefully not, thanks to the travellerspoint.com packing list. Yes, it is extensive, but it is good.

We have been months in the planning stages and now the trip is upon us, we look forward to sharing our journey with you over the next couple of weeks. Keep watching here for our story and pictures and we will try to update it regularly. Please leave us your feedback and comments, we want to hear from you!

Signing off until we hop on board that plane,

~Terri and Darren

Posted by darrenesl 18:47 Archived in USA Tagged boats budapest prague vienna eastern austria warsaw poland fun air hungary croatia europe czech travels split republic krakow airlines darrenesl Comments (0)

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