Category Archives: Planning

How I saw snow monkeys in Japan and ice caves in Iceland without taking a day off work

Last weekend I hiked across a glacier to visit several amazing ice caves in Iceland, and the weekend before I photographed the amazing snow monkeys in Japan. I did this without taking a single day off work.

Hello snow monkey!
Hello snow monkey!

Because I post a lot of photos and adventures online, people often ask me, “are you still working these days?”. The answer is yes, I have a full time job, but I just make more effort than most people to fit things in around my work schedule – and I am fortunate to travel quite a bit with work. So I thought I would post this to encourage people to make more effort to fit in adventures when you travel for work (or indeed when you are at home!). There’s no rocket science to this, it’s just making the effort to fit things in, and perhaps being a bit creative about how you organize your travel to optimize your time.

Snow monkeys in Japan

I was scheduled for a 3 day meeting with our company’s Japanese team in Tokyo. They suggested we could start the meeting on Wednesday, which would mean I could fly from Denver on Monday morning and arrive Tuesday evening in time for the meeting – you lose a day going out there – and then fly back either Friday night or Saturday. That would use up a week of work time, with two days of travel and three days of meetings. I suggested to them that instead I would fly out on Saturday morning and we should meet from Monday to Wednesday, then I could fly back on Sunday night, which would get me four days to explore in Japan. I am still fitting my five working days into that 9 day stretch, just organizing things a little differently to get my four days in Japan.

Relaxed snow monkeys!
Relaxed snow monkeys!

I will post more details on my snow monkey trip shortly, but in summary it was an amazing trip and I got lots of fantastic pictures. I did it as a two day trip from Tokyo – a morning traveling up there, an afternoon with the monkeys, a great evening at a traditional Japanese “Ryokan” hotel, and another morning with the monkeys before traveling back. I also fitted in some exploring in Tokyo, including a visit to the fish market, some great food, my first visit to a Japanese Onsen (public baths) with my friend Edson, which was a really interesting experience, and some time wondering around the historic district of Asakusa. Not bad for a full week at work!

Ice caves in Iceland

After my Japanese meeting had been set and I had booked travel, it turned out that I needed to be in England the following week for a management meeting. I looked at what it would take to change my tickets to fly from Tokyo straight on to London, and it was ridiculously expensive. So I decided to leave my original tickets as they were, return to Denver on Sunday lunchtime local time and then fly straight out to London that afternoon.

View from Sapphire Cave
View from Sapphire Cave

I had been intrigued by the IcelandAir stopover deal, which lets you fly from Denver (and various other US cities) to London (and various other European cities), and do a free stopover in either direction. On top of that, they had the cheapest fare of any airline from Denver to London on the dates that I wanted to go, and that seems to be consistently the case. Paula and I had just been to Iceland over New Year and we had a fantastic time, but the ice cave tour that we booked was canceled because of flooding, and also we didn’t see the Northern Lights, partly as we had lots of cloudy weather. So I was quite tempted to revisit, because we had liked it so much, and in particular to try to catch up on either or both of those things that we missed.

I was a little in two minds because of the craziness of my travel schedule, and wondered whether I should just take the British Airways direct flight, rather than flying Tokyo to Denver to Reykjavik to London. But you only live once, so I decided to go for it.

Or as Tim Ferriss said recently:

Time is a non-renewable resource, while money can be recouped. Think hard, work smart, and play often. Assume this life is your only chance at bat, so schedule the fun stuff.

I’m a big fan of Tim and this is very much my philosophy too.

So I went ahead and booked the IcelandAir flight. I arrived in Denver from Tokyo at 12:21pm, then flew out to Reykjavik at 4:15pm. Paula came to the airport to meet me for lunch and swap a couple of items in my baggage! I arrived at London Gatwick at 11:23 Monday morning, and made it to Cambridge in time for some mid afternoon meetings, and my main meetings started the next day. Two colleagues who were attending the same meetings also flew out from Denver Sunday afternoon, but took the direct BA flight.

We had meetings in London all day Thursday. My colleagues flew back to Denver on Friday, a full day of travel. Instead, I caught an IcelandAir flight out of London Heathrow at 8:30pm on Thursday night, getting into Reykjavik at 11:30pm. My flight on to Denver was at 5pm on Sunday, so I got more or less three whole days in Iceland, again without having to take a day off work, as otherwise I would have just been flying home on the Friday.

I booked an ice cave tour for the Saturday with Local Guide of VatnaJokull, who I recommend highly. It was a really incredible experience, see my picture story about it here.

Me in Waterfall Cave
Me in Waterfall Cave

Summary

As I said above, there is no great rocket science to this, but a surprisingly large number of people don’t take the opportunity to fit in something cool and interesting when they are on a business trip. As this story illustrates, you don’t necessarily even need to take any days off work to do some really cool things.

This particular example was an extreme case, where I was in Japan one week and Europe the next. But the same principles apply regardless of where you are traveling. I definitely recommend that anyone flying between the US and Europe should consider the IcelandAir stopover deal – Iceland is such a cool place, and I see this becoming a frequent destination for me, as I travel regularly between Denver and the UK.

Trip Planning

A lot of friends ask me how I find all the cool places we stay at. In this post I’ll introduce a few of the sites that I use for researching and booking places to stay.

TripAdvisor is probably the site I use most heavily when researching trips. I’m sure most people are familiar with it, but it’s a site that ranks hotels, restaurants and attractions based on user reviews. I use it primarily for researching hotels. I’ll look up a specific hotel that I’m considering, which I may have found elsewhere, as well as looking at the hotel rankings for a city or area I’m interested in. For example, I recently used it to check out hotels in St Augustine. There are various useful filters, for example this was for a trip with my partner Paula over Valentine’s weekend, so I filtered to just show the “romantic” hotels and ended up booking the top one on that list, Casa Monica. I don’t go purely off TripAdvisor rankings though, I do read the reviews in quite a bit of detail to try to work out which place would best suit what we’re after on a given trip – and of course cost comes into it too! Also I often find useful tips on TripAdvisor for a given hotel – which rooms to ask for, where to go for dinner, etc.

Tablet Hotels is a site that I use quite a lot to find cool boutique hotels. A lot of the nicer hotels that we’ve stayed at in the past few years I’ve found through Tablet. Some of their properties are pretty expensive, but in a lot of cases they’re comparable to the costs of more boring chain hotels – there is quite a price range, but based on my experience so far, their hotels are always cool and interesting. Tablet is just an agency, so hotels are not exclusively with them – you can book through Tablet, or via other means. Usually I have found Tablet prices to be competitive with (generally the same as) other booking routes, though on our recent trip to Trancoso, I booked one of the hotels I found on Tablet for half the price on Expedia. But this is the exception rather than the rule. They have an optional paid membership called Tablet Plus, which costs $195 a year, and gets you various perks including room upgrades when available (at some but not all hotels), and other things like free drinks/breakfasts/Internet depending on the place. If you think you’ll use Tablet quite a bit it’s worth considering, I have received some nice room upgrades through this. You can use this link to sign up for Tablet’s private sale email, which sends you special offers before they are generally available.

Hotwire is another site I use a lot, which approaches this from a whole different direction than the previous two. They offer discounted deals for hotels or car rental, but you don’t know in advance the name of the hotel or rental car company. I use them quite a bit for both hotels and cars, in certain situations. For example, if I’m staying in Manhattan I often use Hotwire to book a hotel, as hotel rates there tend to be so crazy. I can usually get a 4 star hotel for $150 to $200, and they usually have 3 star hotels for closer to $100, which is much cheaper than booking direct, in most cases. If I’m staying in New York I’m usually not going to be spending much time in the hotel anyway. I’ve used Hotwire in London a number of times too. They often have incredibly cheap deals on hotels by Heathrow Airport, which I’ve used quite a few times – though recently I prefer to stay in central London, I’ll write a post on traveling in and out of Heathrow shortly. I have also used Hotwire fairly often for rental cars – in most cases I don’t have a strong preference which company I use, and often they do have good deals.

Airbnb is a site I’ve used quite a bit recently, where individuals rent out rooms in their homes, or their whole home. I used to think of them mainly as a low budget alternative to staying in a hotel, but these days they have a wide price range and a lot of very cool and interesting places to stay – and all across their range you are likely to get something that is a much better deal than a comparable hotel. I recently used this to book a couple of stays at an extraordinary apartment at the top of St Pancras Clock Tower in London. It’s definitely worth checking out airbnb as an alternative. In most cases you won’t find airbnb places on TripAdvisor.

VRBO is another site somewhat like airbnb, in that it lets home owners rent out their homes directly. It’s been around a bit longer and is a little more “old school” – it doesn’t handle all the booking and reservations in a consistent way like airbnb does. But in some situations I’ve found it useful. I was just booking a house to rent for a few days in Santa Fe, and VRBO had a much bigger choice of places than airbnb there.