Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Rome - Italy

Sheraton Roma Hotel & Conference Center

I got a couple of nights by using some SPG points I had accumulated from previous trips, making this hotel room cheap for a vacation trip. The hotel is nice and comfortable, as I would expect from a Sheraton at a large city. However, it isn't very well located:

  • No restaurants on a walking distance. The hotel has a restaurant offering good food, but it is of course much more expensive. E.g,  a pasta dish costs about 18 Euro in the hotel, while a similar one will cost about 9 Euro on a restaurant.
  • The metro (subway) station is at walking distance of about 15 minutes, but in order to get there, you need to walk on a very small sidewalk next to a road with cars driving at high speed. Also, the sidewalk isn't well maintained (you've to go over plans and trash on the way). Don't use it if carrying more than one small bag.  You can take the bus which is 1 stop away from the metro station.. but still not very convenient.
  • The hotel offers a shuttle bus driving on regular schedules to the old town (close to the Coliseum) and to the airport. However, they charge 6 Euro one way per person (older than 4 year old), and our driver didn't treat passengers well (respectfully).
  • The hotel will add 18 Euros of tax per day (note that this is per day, not per night. We pay an hotel per night). I would expect every hotel to charge some tax, and this money doesn't go to the hotel. But for you to know, here it is this above amount per day.

The Coliseum

A must see... better if you can learn some background history before going. 

I recommend taking a guided tour (also see my blog notes about advance ticket purchases)

If looking for a restaurant or coffee shop, check the menu for prices. The closest places can become expensive (e.g. 5 Euro for a small coffee). Walk 1 or 2 blocks further away, and you'll get more reasonable prices.

The Roman Forum

Just outside the Coliseum, you'll find the Roman Forum with ancient public roman ruins. An entrance fee is required (online, I bought the combined ticket for Coliseum and Forum)

The Vatican

Another absolute must see. 
Lots of visitors... buy online tickets in advance to save hours of waiting in line!
If traveling with young kids, be prepared. This place has lots stairs and isn't prepared for strollers. Also, strollers aren't allowed in St. Peter's (you can store them somewhere though, ask in advance)

If you have time , allocate seveal hours to visity this place. There is a Vatican Treasure Museum (7 Euro entrance), and lots of things to see and history to learn.

If looking for a restaurant or coffee shop, check the menu for prices.  The closest places can become expensive (e.g. 5 Euro for a small coffee). Walk 1 or 2 blocks further away, and you'll get more reasonable prices.

If traveling with kids... our experience with taking the tour was that the guide doesn't wait. He just continues without caring if you get behind because traveling with kids that are slower... still, the information we could hear was very useful.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Mantova (Mantua) - Italy

Mantova is a nice town, with beautiful and old downtown, and a lot of history

The Ducal Palace and Castle are some of the main attraction. I didn't have time to visity the Palazzo TE.



Sunday, September 13, 2015

Verona - Italy

Very interesting, lots of history. Verona was built by Roman's and has lots of old buildings. Also, the downtime is very nice. Unfortunately,   I only had a few hours to visit it at night... I'd like to come back, see it at daytime, and visit the castle and other historic places.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Italy - Preparing before traveling...

Some general useful information to consider before traveling to Italy...

I found very useful to purchase tickets online before the trip... it saved lots of hours in lines.

Roma Tour information

Roma Pass

I haven't used this one, but since I got the info I write it down here.

COLISEUM tickets (online purchase):  

The line for buying tickets on site is huge. Save a lot of time by purchasing online in advance. Then walk directly to the group entrance, and show your printed purchase receipt.

Transportation - Trains

      • When traveling 3 times or more on train, one of the Rail passes could save some cost. But before buying, check your travel plans. In Italy, some trains require reservation and a fee on top of the cost of the pass, and high speed trains aren't included. If purchasing a pass, give it at least a week in order to get the benefit of free standard shipping. 
        • Rail Europe  :  This company offers overnight ticket shipping in the USA (for an additional cost, of course)
        • Eurail
      • It is probably better to buy tickets in advance through the Internet, at least to book a space. But 14+ days in advance will give you a discount. I used the following train sites to book my tickets (cost is mostly the same, but I notices that the schedule availability can vary between them):
      • Something I learned during my trip, unfortunately I didn't know in advance, is that discounted tickets purchased online are valid for a specific schedule only, in most cases they can't be changed (however, some more expensive tickets without discount can be changed). BUT, the same ticket for the same price, can be purchased on the train station machines and they are open for 3 months (no exchange penalty)!  If you don't have easy access - or time to go- to the train station, consider purchasing tickets online in advance. Otherwise, I would recommend purchasing them at the train station, perhaps upon arrival in order to do it before the trip, but mainly to get the cheaper ticket that can be changed without penalty. Also, the personnel at the train station cannot handle online purchases very well (see my next point).
      • Also, be careful with online ticket purchases. At home, print the email receipt and the PDF attachment. The information on the PDF is needed in order to print the actual ticket (either at the ticket office of the train station before taking the train, or at one of the automatic ticket machines also on the station). The lines at the ticket office can become very long on certain day/times. Also, the personnel isn't very helpful in general, even can be rude.  Even by taking the printed online receipts to the ticket office, in some cases, they were NOT able to find and print the actual ticket (also, the ticket machine wasn't of help)... Since the ticket office cashier wasn't of much help, we just ended taking the train with our email receipts. 
      • Kids up to 4 year old travel free on trains, buses, and metro !  Nice!!!

Arriving to Milano Linate Airport

  • Going through immigration at Milan was very fast, and the bags were already in the carousel when we passed the passport control.

Transportation - Car Rental

  • Car rentals are more expensive than in United States. As you know, it is not just the rental cost, but all the fees and taxes added on top. Always compare with the cost of train tickets.
  • In general , for travel between towns with train station, use train whenever possible. Buses are an alternative in some cases, but pay attention to the schedule (some buses don't go every day to some smaller places)
  • A rental car will probably be needed to go to smaller towns, and can also be used to reduce travel time when several train/bus combinations are needed.
  • A rental car paid with miles or points can become a lot cheaper than train... But still, don't forget to consider the costs of fees and taxes, and also of gas. In Italy, one gas gallon costs about $5 us dollar). But rental cars are also very efficient in gas consumption.
  • GET A GPS !   Consider that renting one will cost about 15 euro + tax per day (quote from Avis in Italy).  Make the cost/benefit calculation... if you plant to rent a car several days, it might be better to buy a GPS with maps from Italy before the trip.
  • 'The kids tax' ....  rental companies abuse with the rental fee for car seats, which in general are pretty old, not clean, and not well maintained. Expect to pay between 25 and 34 euro per day (quote from Avis in Italy), for a car seat.  About 10 Euro for a booster....   It might be better to purchase one $50 or cheaper car seat in the use, take it to Europe, and through it away before coming back if you don't want to carry it... personally, I think that this rental cost is too high and unfair for parents. Somebody with two kids would pay more for car seat rental, than for car rental !
  • In Italy, the gas stations have a machine for off hours operations. These machines will accept Euro and Credit Card... however, foreign credit cards are NOT accepted everywhere (actually, none of the gas stations where I tried did accept my US credit card. The same happened to other people from other countries)... take cash with you when driving!  Also, keep in mind that if you overpay, the machine WILL NOT return change. It'll give a code that can be used for purchasing gas later, which isn't helpful for a tourist that isn't planning to come back... so, be conservative. 
  • Parking:
    • White zone: free
    • Blue zone: paid parking (pay at the meter station on the sidewalk). Use coins to pay. In general, it blue zone parking becomes free after 8pm.
    • Yellow zone: for residents.

Internet Access (WiFi) 

  • Unless you have an European cell phone, be prepared to have lots of issues with the 'free internet wifi' hotspot.
  • I was not able to connect to the advertised 'free wifi' from Italian airports, train stations, trains, and even public WiFi from the city (e.g., Venice offers free WiFi). All those ' free wifi' aren't really free, because they ask the user to register and provide personal data, and an SMS number where they would send the WiFi access information. But the SMS never arrived to my phone number from USA.  Perhaps it works with European phone, but even when I asked italians about WiFi access in the train, they said that it wasn't working (of course, they used their own data plan from their cell phone). In general assume that you will NOT find free WiFi access in Italy.
  • Many restaurants and bars offer WiFi access. You must of course buy food or something from them, and the water will give the WiFi access. In most cases it works without problems, but in some restaurants it didn't work... just in case, ask before placing an order :-)
  • A couple of times, I've been lucky and found some open WiFi access (private routers that didn't have a password).. but be careful, this is highly insecure, and somebody could be reading your data transmissions.

Cell Phone

  • GSM works well in Europe, and also in Italy.
  • CDMA phones (e.g, Sprint from US) do not work.
  • On the street, I could see the older public pay phone (with coins). However, I haven't used them.
  • In Europe, it should be easy to purchase a SIM card or a Prepaid cell phone, for use during the trip.  I didn't use this option.

Smoke (from cigarettes)

  •  Non Smokers... know in advamce... in Italy people smoke a lot outside (luckily not inside). And they don't seem to care much on whether you like it or not.  Also, no much care for avoiding to smoke near kids.  If you intend to eat on a restaurant sitting on the sidewalk tables, keep in mind, and look for spots farther away from smokers (if possible).


  • Italy can get warm an  humid. 
  • Larger water bottles (1.5+ liter) are cheaper in super and mini markets in town, and more expensive in train and airport stations. I paid 2 Euro for a 2 litter bottle in a mini market, 1.7 Euro for a 0.75 litter bottle at the train station.
  • In Rome, there are free drinking water fountains in different places of the city. Even  inside the Colosseum and Foro Romano (fill your empty bottle or canteen and save some Euros)

 Family Restrooms

  •  Don't expect to find family restrooms in train stations, museums, and towns in Italy. In general, there are only male/ female toilette, clean but very small without room for changing diapers of a toddler. Also, lots of the restaurants and bars have restrooms in the basement, reachable through a small stairway which isn't easy for  smaller kids.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Hawaii: Big Island. Kona and Volcanoes National Park

Some tips:

  • Good low cost dining: Subway. Check the one in Alii drive, ocean front.
  • A few restaurants accept OpenTable reservations. Use them to get OpenTable points and securing a table.
  • Some restaurants have their own private parking, others use the public lot behind Alii's drive. In hot tourist season, they probably get full.
  • Plane tickets under $200 (one way) can be found on thanks giving day, and Wed after thanksgiving holiday.
  • Rent a car to have more flexibility and be able to visit more places. 

Hotel Sheraton Kona Resort

View of Manta Rays after sunset, directly from the hotel !
Excellent swimming pool
Gym with ocean view.. very nice for morning exercise!

The hotel is a few minute away from Kona and doesn't have direct beach access.
Rooms are big and comfortable, with everything that would be expected from such an hotel (flat screen TV, safe, coffee maker, hair dryer) . Mountain view rooms have a nice view  day and night, but the 2nd and 3d floors are kind of noisy, get a higher floor if a quite room is a priority. 
The rooms have a big balcony.
The self parking lot is kind of far from the room. When checking in/out, take the car near the registration office (front lobby).

The hotel charges a $30 fee per day in addition to room rates, for resort use (includes internet access from room, use of troley that goes to different touristic places, self parking, and few other things). It is a mandatory fee.

Mountain View from balcony

Swimming pool

Swimming pool and ocean in the background


Sheraton Kona

Sheraton Kona

Sheraton Kona

Sheraton Kona

Sheraton - view from the Gym and swimming pool

Around Kona

Hulihee Palace

Hulihee Palace

Hulihee Palace

Kona Mokuaikaua Church from 1820 (oldest church in Kona)

Kona Mokuaikaua Church

Captain Cook town, Sandy's Drive Inn (old place with low cost but pretty bad food).

Subway restaurant in Kona. Excellent location , Good and low cost food with Ocean view. A great deal. 

Kona Brewing Co. - Very nice place with lots of good beers. The pizza wasn't great, though.

Kona Hotel Courtyard Marriot King Kamehameha

  •  Nice hotel, big and modern rooms. 
  • Excellent location, in Kona downtown.
  • Access to the beach (small, but it's ok)

View from the room balcony

Inside the hotel

Hawaiian paintings

Sculptures inside the hotel

Very comfortable bed

Big room

Another view of the bed

TV, safe in room, coffee maker, hair dryer, etc.

Kealakekua Bay (Captain Cook Monument)

  • The monument can be seen at the other side of the bay, but it isn't reachable by car. Either by sea or by a 1hr+ hike (not an easy one)
  • This  bay is supposedly one of the best places for snorkeling in the Big Island

Volcanic landscape near the narrow road

Volcanoes National Park

  • The park lies about 2 hour drive from Kona (it's only 95 miles away, but the road is narrow, and speed limits are lower)
  • Volcano is the closest town to the park entrance , probably 2 miles away. Perfect place for overnight (visiting the park at night is recommended in order to see the lava glow, it's a very unique view)

Aloha Happy Place - Bed And Breakfast

Aloha Happy Place - Bed And Breakfast (very nice and comfortable rooms, very good service, safe place, well furnished, but rooms can get cold at night)

Crater Rim loop - Volcano steam vents and crater

Sulphur bank

Volcano view from Jagger Museum 

Hiking in Devastation Trail

Volcano view from Jagger Museum - at night see the orange glow of lava

Kahaluu Beach Park

  •  Excellent for snorkeling. Fish close to the beach, big variety. It's like swimming in a fish tank.
  • Seems safe for family, the water isn't deep.
  • Sand isn't that nice, and the beach is pretty small. This place is for snorkeling mostly.
  • Free parking is available, however it will probably get full in high season.
  • Clean bathrooms

Bellow is the list of fish that can be seen in Kahaluu Beach ( I rented the snorkel in this Bob place, decent pricing and also allow after hours drop off, They also sell underwater disposable cameras for $16) 

Leaving the Big Island...

Kona Airport (KOA)

Departure from KOA in Hawaiian Airlines

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Lounge from LAN Airlies in Ezeiza Airport (Argentina)

- Very nice!
- It looks very new
- Very good food... dinner not just snaks


Sunday, June 8, 2014

México: Playa del Carmen

Hotel Soho Playa

  • Located by downtown. 2 blocks away from 5th st (the main downtown street, with all the shops and restaurants)
  • The area is very safe
  • Very friendly service 
  • The hotel looks pretty new
  • Beds are awesome, very comfortable for a good rest and sleep
  • safe box in hotel
  • breakfast included
  • TV channels in english, flat screen TV
  • Free WiFi
  • Oxo market (kind of  a 7-eleven) is around the corner and open until late

Karen's restaurant (playa del Carmen)

  • I got to this place after recommendation from the hotel  receptionist, who also provided a 10% discount coupon. Later, I found out that I could get a 10% discount at the front of the restaurant too, from one of the employees standing on the front)
  • Pretty good food , very good service, and live music. I recommend the Mexican Parrillada

Hotel Riu Tequila

Big hotel, all included (lots of very good food and drinks included)

Hotel Riu Yucatán

This Riu hotel seems to be nicer than the Riu Tequila.