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Review: Air Canada's Automated Bag Handling

Posted by Josh Roberts on Wednesday, October 22, 2014

What Is It: At Toronto's Lester B. Pearson International Airport, which serves as Air Canada's hub, a simplified baggage handling process sends checked bags directly on to connecting flights so that travelers no longer have to retrieve and recheck bags for U.S. Customs inspection.

Price and Where to Buy: This is a free service offered on all flights that connect in Toronto and continue on to Air Canada's U.S. destinations.

Pros: Ease of use! I came away fully impressed with the service. No waiting in long lines, no fretting about missing a connection, no stress of any kind. I connected in Toronto en route from Beijing to New York, and I was responsible for my carry-on bag alone; my checked luggage made it from Asia to the U.S. with no difficulty. As I had a relatively tight connection for an international route, this was a real game changer for me.

When I talk about this Air Canada experience with friends and family, I always contrast it with the experience I had with United in Newark about a month later. In that case, I was traveling home from Frankfurt to Boston via Newark. My flight arrived in Newark with about 2.5 hours between connections. Thankfully in this case I'd traveled carry-on only, because the line to claim and recheck bags through U.S. customs was about a mile long and showed no indication that it was actually moving at any point during my observations.

Would I have made my connection with United? Possibly. I actually doubt it, but I don't discount the potential for a miracle, so for the sake of argument let's suppose I did. Would I have boarded my plane stressed and angry? Absolutely. The contrast between Toronto's fully automated baggage handling process and Newark's medieval claim-and-recheck gauntlet was a real eye-opener.

Cons: As far as I know, the fully automated baggage handling is still only available at Toronto and not any of Air Canada's other U.S. gateway airports.

How it Rates:

  • Comfort: 10/10. No dragging my luggage through the airport.
  • Convenience: 10/10. I experienced no hitches with the process.
  • Value: 10/10. It's free!
  • Cool Factor: 10/10. Nothing's cooler than returning stateside without the usual airport hassles.

Final Verdict: I will connect through Air Canada's Toronto hub at every opportunity. This is a great service. Other airlines could learn a thing or two from it!

Editor's Note: Reviews are based on usefulness, portability, durability, value, and "cool factor." Some review products are sent to us free of charge and with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions, positive and negative, and will never accept compensation to review a product. If you have any questions or comments concerning our reviews, or would like to suggest a product for review, please email editor@smartertravel.com.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Product Review: Air Canada's Fully Automated Baggage Handling.

Follow Josh Roberts on Google+ or email him at editor@smartertravel.com.

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7 Epic Walking Trails Around the World

Posted by Josh Roberts on Tuesday, August 19, 2014

(Photo: Trekking via Shutterstock)

Nothing beats exploring a new place on your own two feet. Getting out into the countryside, climbing mountains and wandering along wooded trails, fording rivers and stumbling onto untouched natural wonders—that's what travel means to the millions who choose to lace up their hiking boots and put their feet to work on vacation every year. It's my preferred mode of travel, too. In that spirit, here are seven of my favorite long walks from around the world.

 

(Photo: Hiker Above Glacier Mountain via Shutterstock)

Tour du Mont Blanc, France, Italy, and Switzerland

More than 10,000 people hike the 105-mile Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) route each year, making it the most popular long-distance walk in all of Europe. Typically completed in about 10 days, the traditional TMB circuit is hiked counter-clockwise—beginning and ending in France while passing through the Swiss and Italian Alps along the way. The complete route includes 11 high mountain passes and about 32,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. It's not for the weak of heart. But for anyone who wants to experience authentic European alpine culture, there's nothing better.

Make It Happen: Hiking season in the Alps is generally determined by the previous winter's snowfall, which affects both the amount of snow on the ground and the strength of the glacial runoff in the summer. The conditions should be excellent into September this year, so there's still time to hike the TMB before 2015. G Adventures' 10-day trip on the Chamonix to Chamonix loop departs on September 11 and is currently being offered at a 10 percent discount. Departures are offered next year from June to September as well.

 

(Photo: High Cup Nick, England via Shutterstock)

Pennine Way, England

Often called the most physically challenging trek in the United Kingdom, the 268-mile Pennine Way walking trail follows the mountainous backbone of England through the moors of Bronte Country, over limestone cliffs and glacial valleys, past Hadrian's Wall, and across the wildest stretch of land in the nation before concluding at the Scottish border.

It takes about 18 days to complete, but many walkers prefer to break it up into smaller sections. Some forgo the southern and northern extremities altogether and focus on the more accessible middle section of the trail, the highlight of which is a breathtaking glacial valley called High Cup Nick (pictured above).

Make It Happen: Brigantes Walking Holidays and Baggage Couriers offers door-to-door baggage transfers for the entire length of the trail. It will also provide individual quotes for shorter stages. The Sherpa Van Project also operates door-to-door deliveries, except along the southernmost portion of the trail. Footpath Holidays runs guided trips of the south, middle, and north sections.

 

(Photo: Landmannalaugar, Iceland via Shutterstock)

Laugavegur Route, Iceland

At 34 miles long, Iceland's famed Laugavegur Route only takes a few days to complete. But it's still one of the best backcountry trails in the world. A walk through these volcanic highlands takes in raw scenery like nowhere else on Earth: obsidian lava fields, steaming hot springs, gurgling pools, raging waterfalls, moss-covered foothills, snow-speckled mountain ridges, and massive valleys without a single tree in sight. And don't forget the sunlight: At the height of summer, the sun never sets.

Make It Happen: The Laugavegur Route is only open for hiking in the summer months (usually from the end of June until the beginning of September), when its network of mountain huts is in operation. (In the Middle Ages, Iceland's worst criminals could earn a pardon by surviving in the backcountry for 20 years. No one ever made it. The moral of the story? Don't try the Laugavegur Route in winter.)

The official website of the Iceland Touring Association, which maintains the Laugavegur Route and its mountain huts, is a great place to start your trip planning. You can take in a portion of the Laugavegur and also go off-trail with an experienced guide by booking the "Iceland Volcano Hike" package through Adventure Center.

 

(Photo: Great Wall of China via Shutterstock)

Great Wall of China, China

Nobody hikes the Great Wall of China by accident. It takes nearly a full day by air just to reach China from North America, and once there, you can't take in any significant portion of this epic walk on a lark. But it's so worth it for the thrill of experiencing one of the world's great wonders in a way that most tourists never do.

The most accessible sections of the wall are outside of Beijing, and there they cling to the mountainous borderlands at vertigo-inducing angles. Sections of the wall are well restored and easy to envision as they were hundreds or thousands of years ago, serving as a last line of defense against invading armies. Others are gloriously ruined, speckled with trees and punctuated by crumbling watchtowers and loose rubble, with no one and nothing to see but wilderness for miles and miles.

Make It Happen: To take in the best sections of the Great Wall, including some that are off-limits to ordinary travelers, you'll need to go with a group. G Adventures' new-for-2014 "Walk the Great Wall of China" trip is your best bet. It's a small-group trip with an average size of 10 like-minded travelers. (I've written in more detail about it here.)

 

(Photo: Franconia Notch via Shutterstock)

White Mountain Traverse, New Hampshire

The only thing that beats hiking New Hampshire's White Mountains is hiking them in the fall during peak foliage season. While small by some standards, they're more than tall enough to offer some of the best wilderness views in North America. And they're rugged, too: The 53-mile White Mountain Traverse hike is arguably the most scenic section of the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail, and it takes about six days to complete. The highlight is an epic ridge walk along the spine of the Presidential peaks, punctuated by jagged rocks, tumbled boulders, and hardy alpine scrub, with views that seem to stretch on forever.

Make It Happen: The best part of the White Mountain Traverse is a nine-mile stretch called the Bridle Path Loop, which takes in the Presidential peaks of Mt. Lincoln and Mt. Lafayette. It's a straight shot from Boston (about three hours by car), and it can be hiked in a single day. You'll need about a week to do the entire White Mountain Traverse. For that, you should book your alpine accommodations in advance through the Appalachian Mountain Club hut system.

 

(Photo: Steall Fall, Scotland via Shutterstock)

West Highland Way, Scotland

At a distance of about 96 miles, Scotland's West Highland Way is long enough to cover a variety of terrain—think moors and mountains, rolling hills and thick woods and lonely lochs—but short enough to be manageable in about a week. Some of it is walked at altitude and some at sea level. It's typically done between April and October, when the fickle Scottish weather is most likely to cooperate. The scenery is spectacular year-round.

Make It Happen: The official website of the West Highland Way offers plenty of practical advice for walking the route on your own. If you'd prefer a guided trip, try Wilderness Scotland's seven-night self-guided trip. North-West Frontiers offers seven-, eight-, and nine-night versions of the trek as well.

 

(Photo: Machu Picchu, Peru via Shutterstock)

Inca Trail, Peru

Is there any long-distance hike in the world with a more spectacular payoff than the Inca Trail? Although it's not easy to do—the altitude alone makes it a challenge, and the days of hiking up and down (and up again) among Peru's highest peaks is not for the unfit—this is the one trail that any serious walking enthusiast must do. And when you finally reach Machu Picchu, sweaty and sore on your fourth day of hiking, you'll have the satisfaction of passing through the Sun Gate and arriving at the Lost City of the Incas the authentic way: on foot.

Make It Happen: Typically walked in four days, the classic Inca Trail route to Machu Picchu tops many people's bucket lists. (That's a nice way of saying the trail is a bit crowded.) The Peruvian government restricts the number of people who are allowed on the trail at any given time, so you'll need to travel with an outfitter that has already secured the necessary permits. Most major adventure-tour operators who market to U.S. travelers offer such trips.

What's the best walking trip you've ever taken? Which trails are still on your bucket list? Share your recommendations and suggestions in the comments area below.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Seven Epic Walking Trails Around the World.

Follow Josh Roberts on Google+ or email him at editor@smartertravel.com.

Why Kindle Paperwhite Is Perfect for Travelers

Posted by Josh Roberts on Friday, August 1, 2014

What Is it: Amazon's Kindle Paperwhite with 6-inch High Resolution Display, Next-Gen Built-in Light, and Wi-Fi

Price and Where to Buy: Available from Amazon.com and some brick-and-mortar retail outlets like Staples and Best Buy. It's $119 for the Kindle Paperwhite with "special offers" and $139 for the advertisement-free version. (A 3G version is available starting at $189.)

Pros:

  • It reads like a real book. More than any other e-reader I've tried, and way more than any tablet, the newest version (2013 release) of the Kindle Paperwhite excels at delivering a comfortable reading experience. There's no eye strain from reading for hours at a time.
  • The adjustable brightness levels allow you to read in any lighting condition, including bright sunlight or complete dark. If you read at bedtime and a traditional book light disturbs your partner's sleep, the Kindle Paperwhite's adjustable brightness control is the solution. 
  • The battery life is outstanding. I took my Kindle Paperwhite on lengthy trips to Asia and Europe and never had to charge it. In the three months I've owned it, I may have charged it twice, total. And I read a lot of books.
  • At just 7.3 ounces, it doesn't weigh much. I can hold it for a long time in one hand without strain. It also fits comfortably in my back pocket, which makes it easy to carry through airports and train terminals and allows me to access it quickly whenever I have a minute to read. 
  • The Kindle Paperwhite displays a "time left in chapter" indicator based on your reading speed that lets you know how long it will take you to finish a chapter. This is great for trains and buses and airports, where you need to know if you can squeeze in a few more pages before your stop. (You can also turn off this display if you don't like it.)
  • The touch-screen technology makes it easy to turn the page with a tap of the finger. It is actually easier than reading a physical book.
  • You can borrow e-books from your local library and easily download them to your device. No need to transfer files from a computer. (Pro tip: Load up on library books then turn off your wi-fi—the books will stay on your device even after the loan has ended, until you turn the wi-fi back on.)
  • It's easy to switch between devices (Kindle Fire, iPad, your smartphone, etc.) without ever losing your place; the Kindle Paperwhite tracks your progress and allows you to jump to wherever you left off from your last reading session.

Cons:

  • I'm not a fan of the "special offers" version, which is $20 less expensive than the advertisement-free device. The offers are limited to the sleep screen and don't intrude upon the reading experience, but there's something mildly irritating to this voracious reader about having ads on my device. (Your mileage may vary.) If you decide to purchase the cheaper device with "special offers" and later discover you feel like I do about them, you can pay the $20 difference at any time and Amazon will remove them from your device forever.

How it Rates:

  • Usefulness: 10/10. This is the best e-reader ever. You can read it in any lighting environment. It's easy to hold with just one hand. And you can load up on an entire library of books for any given trip. (In fact, it can hold about 1,100 books at a time.)
  • Portability: 10/10. It fits in your pocket! 
  • Value: 8/10. At $119 or $139, this is a reasonable price for a great e-reader, but it's still not cheap. You'll save money eventually if you're a rabid reader: The cost of buying new hardcovers (which tend to be expensive) as e-books (which tend to be less expensive) will ultimately make up the difference and then some. But there's still a sizable down payment involved.
  • Cool Factor: 10/10. For book purists and late e-book adopters like me, the Kindle Paperwhite is the e-reader we've been waiting for.

Final Verdict: This is the device that finally converted me to e-readers. I may never go back to physical books now. The Kindle Paperwhite is that good.

Editor's Note: Reviews are based on usefulness, portability, durability, value, and "cool factor." Some review products are sent to us free of charge and with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions, positive and negative, and will never accept compensation to review a product. If you have any questions or comments concerning our reviews, or would like to suggest a product for review, please email editor@smartertravel.com.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Why the Kindle Paperwhite Is the Perfect E-Reader for Travelers.

Follow Josh Roberts on Google+ or email him at editor@smartertravel.com.

'Game of Thrones' in the Real World: See Where the HBO Hit Was Filmed

Posted by Josh Roberts on Sunday, April 1, 2012

When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. When you watch the Game of Thrones on HBO, you just plain win. The hit series, based on George R.R. Martin's massively popular A Song of Ice and Fire novels, is that good. To celebrate its second-season premiere, we're taking you behind the scenes for a look at the filming locations used to bring this fantasy epic to life.

If the Azure Window, Tollymore Forest, and the Mourne Mountains sound like fictional places from Thrones' Seven Kingdoms, it may be time to brush up on your real-world geography: These fascinating places—and others spanning four countries and thousands of miles—were used by the production team to give the show's fantasy world its vivid lived-in feel.

Northern Ireland


Primary filming for seasons one and two occurred on a soundstage at Paint Hall Studios in Belfast, Northern Ireland. But just as Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy used numerous locations in New Zealand to stand in for everything from Mordor to the Shire, the Game of Thrones team took advantage of Belfast and its environs to double for many different locations within Thrones' vast fantasy world.

In the first season of Game of Thrones, the nomadic Dothraki horse riders gather at a city called Vaes Dothrak, which is marked by two gigantic bronze stallions whose hooves meet midair to form an arch above its windswept entryway. The HBO production team "used a place called Sandy Brae in the Mourne Mountains of Northern Ireland to stand in for Vaes Dothrak," says Phil Bicking of the popular Game of Thrones website WinterIsComing.Net. Interestingly, the Mourne Mountains were once an inspiration for another famed fantasy epic, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

Another central location from season one is Winterfell, the seat of power in the North. The 18th-century exterior of Castle Ward in County Down, Northern Ireland, may be unrecognizable from the outside as Ned Stark's ancestral home, but it was used for all shots of the castle's courtyard—such as the scene where King Robert Baratheon arrives in the North. Saintfield Estates doubled as Winterfell's godswood.

You'll also spot hints of the North in Tollymore Forest, which is featured prominently in the prologue portion of the show's pilot episode and the pivotal scene where the Starks first find the direwolves. Cairncastle, meanwhile, served as the location where Ned Stark beheads the deserter Will south of the Wall.

Speaking of the Wall (a towering 700-foot barrier of ice meant to keep out the dangers beyond), Bicking says, "They built a huge Castle Black set in the abandoned Magheramorne Quarry, complete with working winch cage." Just don't expect to find much Beyond the Wall if you visit and reach the top of the quarry. The impressive scenes shot atop the wall were filmed inside Paint Hall Studios.
Some of the action in season two shifts to the Iron Islands, which are the ancestral home of the seafaring Greyjoys. "Because our story reached out toward seagoing adventures [and] featured the Iron Islands and Pyke, [we] needed something brand-new and spectacular," says Location Manager Robert Boake. The production team found it near Ballintoy Harbour—and more specifically, Lordsport Harbour—where many of the Iron Islands scenes were filmed.

"There are also reports of filming at Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge," adds Bicking. Those are likely for the Iron Islands sequences as well.

Malta

Malta's well-preserved former capital, Mdina, was used in season one to represent King's Landing, the capital city of the Seven Kingdoms. Like King's Landing, Mdina is a walled medieval city built upon a hill, but unlike King's Landing, Mdina is an inland city—so the production was limited to interior shots such as side streets and the town gate, which can be seen when Ned Stark arrives. Nearby Ft. Manoel doubles as the great Sept of Baelor, which can be seen when Ned Stark departs (in a manner of speaking).

One of Malta's most spectacular natural attractions, the Azure Window on the island of Gozo, stood in for the location of Danaerys Targaryan's wedding to Khal Drogo. Visitors can explore the site by foot or rent a small boat at the nearby Inland Sea to view this natural wonder from the ocean.

The Red Keep at King's Landing is home to the Iron Throne of Westeros. For season one, the HBO production team used various locations around Malta to represent the keep, including the real-life residence of the president of Malta, San Anton Palace. The gates of Ft. Ricasoli doubled as the Red Keep's gates; Ft. St. Angelo was used for the scenes of Arya Stark chasing cats; and St. Dominic monastery stood in for the scene where Ned Stark confronts Cersei Lanister in the godswood.

Iceland


Beyond the Wall, season two will see Jon Snow and the brothers of the Night's Watch face untold dangers in the form of human Wildlings and undead White Walkers. "In season one, we had places we could snow up with artificial snow, but north of the Wall in season two when Jon Snow goes to the Frostfangs demanded a bigger landscape," says Line Producer Chris Newman. Primary filming for these scenes, which encompass both the Frostfangs and the Fist of the First Men, occurred at the Svinafellsjokull calving glacier in Skaftafell, followed by shooting near Smyrlabjorg and Vik on Hofdabrekkuheidi.

"We always knew we wanted something shatteringly beautiful and barren and brutal for this part of Jon's journey, because he's in the true North now," adds Benioff. "It's all real. It’s all in camera. We're not doing anything in postproduction to add mountains or snow or anything."

Croatia


In season two, filming for King's Landing and the Red Keep shifted from Malta to the historic parts of Dubrovnik and the Minceta, Bokar, and Lovrijenac fortresses in Croatia, which allowed for more exterior shots of an authentic walled medieval city. "King's Landing might be the single most important location in the entire show, and it has to look right," says Co-Executive Producer David Benioff.

"To find a full-on, immaculately preserved medieval walled city that actually looks uncannily like King's Landing where the bulk of our show is set, that was in and of itself such an amazing find," adds Co-Executive Producer D.B. Weiss.
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The Game of Thrones production team used the island of Lokrum, just off the coast of Dubrovnik, as a stand-in for the city of Qarth near the Jade Sea, which is visited by Danaerys Targaryan in season two. A set was also constructed at the Dubac quarry in Croatia to double for the gates of Qarth.

Looking ahead, seasons three and beyond are also likely to be shot in Iceland, Croatia, and Northern Ireland. But as the story's scale and scope continues to grow—there's a whole continent beyond the Narrow Sea that we’ve barely explored, after all—the production will need to find new locations to match. Where do you think they should shoot for season three? What locations are you most looking forward to seeing in the upcoming season?

Want more? Read SmarterTravel's exclusive new interview with author George R.R. Martin, in which he discusses the real-world places that inspired his fantasy masterpiece, reveals the historical model for the central clash in season two, and makes some of his most revealing comments yet about what to expect in the upcoming sixth book, The Winds of Winter.

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