Top Five Things you Should do in Amsterdam if you have a Long Layover

Amsterdam is an amazing city which is very easily accessible due to the amount of flights coming into Schipol airport.

KLM – Royal Dutch Airlines

When you arrive into Schipol  airport the City Center is easily accessible by rail. It takes about 15-20 minutes and costs about 11 euros for a round trip ticket. You can purchase these tickets right before you leave the airport.

1.  Rent a bike and go around the city

Biking is the way to go once you’re in the Netherlands. You can rent bikes from a variety of locations around the city and most hotels/hostels have bikes for rent. All the roads are extremely bike friendly so you can’t go wrong with that!

Cost: 10-20 Euros

Biking to the Riekermolen

2. Visit the Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum is the largest art museum in the country and has a ton of art to view. You can easily spend a day walking around here and looking at the various pieces of art ranging from Rembrandt, Vermeer, and many others.

Cost: 19 Euros – book online

Vincent is ready for his close up

3. Take a canal tour

What could be more iconic than cruising around the canals of Amsterdam? There are a variety of tour operators with varying structures: hop on and off, river tour, rent your own boat, etc. You’ll enjoy seeing Amsterdam from an entirely different perspective than those landlubbers!

Cost: 25-100 Euros

Nice private tour of Amsterdam

4. Walk around Dam Square

Dam Square has some of the most notable buildings in Amsterdam including the Royal Palace and the Nieuwe Kerk, a 15th century church. You can spend some time walking around here and marveling at some of the architecture that was so masterfully crafted. 

Cost: Free

The Royal Palace and some Cops

5. Soak in some history at the Anne Frank House

If you were like me you had to read about Anne Frank in Elementary School without fully understanding the circumstances with which they were faced with. Now you can go and see the real thing and walk around the house and see the bookcase door. 

Cost: 10 Euros – book online

Things they don’t tell you about wearing a cast

In June of 2018, I was involved in an accident where a vehicle merged into the bicycle lane without looking or signaling and sideswiped me off my bike. I used my arm to brace myself from the fall which resulted in a TFCC tear which was confirmed by MRI.

Since I dd not want to have surgery, placing a cast on my arm and immobilizing it was my best course of action. However, little did I know, the cast would be on my arm for about two months. At that time I was also attempting to train for the 1/2 Ironman World Championships in South Africa, so it was debatable whether or not I would be able to race.

For the whole course of my casting treatment I flew multiple flights and was home only briefly for doctor’s appointments to check on my progress. The amount of flying was due to the nature of my work and also because I had summer vacation planned as well. Here are a few things that I learned during my whole casting treatment and things that you can expect as well.

1. Yes, you can still exercise with an arm cast.

I still ran and cycled with my cast on, but no swimming. I had to train somehow for the my race and didn’t want to be sidelined by this injury. I didn’t have as many quality workouts as I wanted to and couldn’t swim either but something was better than nothing. However, don’t expect the cast to smell nice and fresh. The cast will stink a lot and will take a long time to dry from your sweat.

Placed 2nd in a trail race with the cast

2. Yes, you can also fly with your cast as well.

I had my cast put on 24 hours before my flight and still was able to fly. The doctor’s ordered the cast to be split into a bivalve cast which allows some room for the cast to expand. The technician took a cast saw and split it into two then wrapped it with coban so that I could remove it in case my injury swelled during the flight. I also popped a couple of ibuprofen before the flight which can help reducing swelling as well. I didn’t have any issues with the swelling during any of my flights so I was pretty lucky.

Made it to Iceland with my cast!

3. Showering is still possible, but with some difficulty.

For the first couple of days I resorted to holding my arm up out of the shower so the cast would not get wet. I can tell you it got pretty old quick and my arm always got tired a few minutes into the shower. Towards the end of my treatment I discovered that you could get a shower bag for different types of casts. I highly recommend getting one of these and you can find these easily on amazon.

At the blue lagoon with a noodle

4. Don’t expect to drive easily with a cast

Driving became a little bit more difficult for me. I drive a manual car and it gets pretty hard to shift and hold the steering wheel at the same time while you’re in a cast. However, it can be done with a little bit of practice. If you have a leg cast you’ll be out of commission.

5. Typing becomes super annoying

I relied more on dictation during this time period and I found it very helpful to use Siri or Google Assistant. The typing was both annoying on the keyboard as well as on my iPhone as well due to the restriction of movement in my digits as well due to the way I was casted. My work emails became much shorter as did my text messages as well during this time period.

6. Other things that requires two hands become much more challenging as well

I couldn’t eat steak because I couldn’t hold a fork and a knife and cut my steak at the same time. I couldn’t cook in the kitchen because that would require me to hold the pan and use the spatula as well. I relied a little bit more on easier to make foods and going out to eat during this time period and due to my decreased activity.

However, eventually I was able to heal and get my cast off so it’s not the end of the world. It did take some time but eventually hopefully you’ll be back to your old self in no time.

 

How to Save Money on Dining During Road Trips

The summer season is fast approaching and that means more road trips. With more road trips inevitably means more fast food dining, and these costs can quickly add up with a family of 5. With the ubiquity of the internet and smartphones, these dining options can be a whole lot cheaper. In this article, we’ll discuss some of the ways that you can save by using apps and other options on your road trip. We’ll talk about a few of the popular options: McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbucks, and Wendy’s. If you have more tips, feel free to share them in the comments below.

McDonald’s

The McDonald’s app is the most well developed app out of all the fast food apps. It allows deals and orders to be made in store, at the drive-thru, or in app. The app also has the most quality and quantity deals out of any other app. Depending on where you are located they will also have regional deals as well. In Los Angeles they offer deals when the Kings, LA Clippers, or Dodgers score a certain point or whatever they deem as the promotion during that period.

San Francisco deals

 

Los Angeles Dodgers shoutout from McDonalds

Some deals are specific to mobile order only, while others allow for both restaurant order and mobile order. To redeem the deal with mobile order, simply add the deal to your mobile order and continue with the order at the payment page. To use at restaurant, pull up the deal with the app and scan it when paying at the restaurant. 

Buy One Get One 1/4 Pounder

 

Burger King

The one breakfast deal that I always go for on the Burger King app is the $4 for 2 Croissan’wich, 1 small hashbrown, and 1 small coffee. I can’t even get the ingredients to cook all those things for $4!

Once you redeem a coupon, you will have 15 minutes to use the coupon code. Simply order in store or at the drive-thru and tell your cashier the 4 digit code prompted on the screen and they will have the order ready for you. 

The Burger King app offers Mobile Payment option where you can add a PayPal account or a BK Crown Card. However, there’s no option to order online. It seems like Burger King has some catching up to do on their app development.

Main Burger King page

Starbucks

Starbucks are located throughout the US and in most airports so it makes it very easy for you to use Starbucks rewards. The difference between Starbucks and the other ones listed here is that Starbucks works on a reward scheme. You have to earn points in order to be able to redeem for free items.

As a rewards member you earn 2 points for ever $1 you spend. However, they often have promotions which fast track your earnings to redeem for items much quicker.

Example of a “star challenge” listed below.

Star dash details

Often times Starbucks has additional promotions where they offer certain amount of stars for loading your card with money. These are some of the best promotions as you don’t have to spend any money to get stars.

In order to redeem these points you will tell your cashier that you want to redeem your points for a reward – which can be redeemed for any menu item. It’s important to note that any redemption costs 125 stars – so even if you are deciding between redeeming for a small coffee or a sandwich, both will cost 125 stars.  I usually use my rewards for something more than a drink – either a panini or a salad. My favorite panini option is: Chicken & Double-Smoked Bacon.

Wendy’s

Note that Wendy’s is one of the few fast food chains that does not serve breakfast menu. They also generally has less offers and less value saving in their offers. But it’s still money saved by using these coupons. 

The same code ordering scheme is used at Wendy’s as it is at Burger King. Follow the instruction on the app to retrieve the offer code and provide it to the cashier.

Wendy’s offer screen

The app has an “Order” button but when I click on it, it could not find any locations near the Bay area that offers online ordering. However, it is available in SoCal at one location in Burbank so we suspect this feature is still being tested and not available nationwide yet.

Gift Cards

One topic that isn’t discussed much in this article are gift cards. If you carefully craft your road trip, you will know which fast food or dining options are in the area. In this case, you can save even more by pre-purchasing gift cards for these particular chain establishments from places such as Costco, Giftcardbin, Ebay, and other various websites. If you stack these gift card purchases with the coupons and rewards programs listed above, it will save you a ton of money.

Alternatively, you can also use apps like Swych / Gyft to buy Fast Food Chain gift cards. These will code as 5x the points with cards like Chase Ink Plus. Chase’s Ultimate Rewards points, when redeemed for travel, is valued highly due to the lucrative nature of travel redemption. These gift cards can be used with coupons as well because they are treated as cash / debit cards.

Buying gift cards on Ebay

 

Gift cards on Costco’s website – instore offerings may be different

 

Gyft App screenshot

 

Swych App screenshot

How to photograph the Northern Lights and was the igloo hotel (Kakslauttanen Resort) worth it?

The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are lights that are created by solar winds bombarding the Earth’s magnetosphere. The lights are amazing and something that one should check out if they have the time, means, and willingness to brave the harsh cold weather to do it. 

I was fortunate enough to go to the Arctic Circle in Lapland, Finland in March of 2017 with a few friends. Few facts to kick off this blog post: 1) Lapland is the largest and northernmost region of Finland, with the majority of the region lying above the Arctic Circle. 2) Average sunlight during the dead of winter is about 4 hours (10AM-2PM) and average temperature are between – 16 °C (3 °F) to 3 °C (37 °F). 3) There is a town in Lapland called Kakslauttanen where the Kakslauttanen Resort offers glass igloo rooms for guest to observe the Northern Lights.


Lapland 


Kakslauttanen Resort

Getting There

We used American Airline miles to get to Finland / Norway. This was a multi-country trip but in this article, I will focus on the Lapland portion. During winter season (off-peak), AA Saver Awards round trip to Europe is only 45k miles. Of course, you have to be flexible with the travel dates and book in advanced to ensure this rate. Once we were in Europe, we bounced around Finland and Norway using budget airlines like Norwegian Air and SAS.

For more information about getting AA miles and how to use them to redeem for cheap flights, refer to one of my favorite credit card guru, DoctorOfCredit.

There are many airports around the Arctic Circle. The closest one to the  Kakslauttanen Resort is Ivalo Airport (IVL). The reason that we flew into KKN was because the flights going to IVL during our trip dates were 2-3 times more expensive. Other airports near the Kakslauttanen Resort are SOT(1.5 hours), RVN(2.5 hours), KTT(2.5 hours), KKN(3.5 hours), ENF(4 hours), KEM(4 hours). If you are truly on a budget constraint but have ample time, you can also consider driving from Helsinki to Ivalo (12 hour drive). 

Flying into KKN was great as it was one of the most northern edge town of Norway. We got to see the Barnets Sea and drove across the border into Finland for this trip.

Flight Cost
JFK->OSL / HEL->JFK 45k AA miles + $44.56 in fees
OSL->KKN $100
KKN->HEL $110


Snow everywhere in Lapland!

Car rental

I highly recommend getting a car rental in Lapland, simply because it will make traveling around a lot easier. It will also allow you to chase the lights versus staying at a particular area / near the hotel when the lights may be elsewhere.

There were only a handful of car rental at KKN so options were limited. We went with Budget car rental. They gave us an automatic car even though we booked for manual. The car even came with studded tires, which is a necessity in Lapland. Most of their roads are not plowed during the winter. They know trying to beat the snow is a futile attempt. So they simply view snow as a matter-of-fact and learn to drive on it with the proper tires and mentality.  


Crossing the border between Norway and Finland. This was about as plowed as the road ever got during our trip in the Arctic Circle.

Accommodations

We were in Lapland for four days and three nights. Two of those night we stayed at a hotel in Ivalo and one of the nights we were at Kakslauttanen Resort at the glass igloo room. Airbnb wasn’t really an option in Lapland as there wasn’t enough people around the area to host their homes. The prices with Airbnb was similar, if not more expensive, than hotels around the area.

How to chase the lights

In general, the best way to see the lights is to find a really dark spot. There are also several apps that I downloaded to help us chase the Northern Lights. I highly recommend downloading them at home before you get to your destination to avoid any data or Wi-Fi issues.

Most of these apps are pretty intuitive and easy to use. The two that I used were Aurora Alerts and Aurora. 

Both Aurora Alerts and Aurora gives you forecast of kp number around your area. Kp number is a measure of aurora strength. It goes from 0-9, with a higher number representing stronger aurora activity. Both apps also offer Aurora Map showing where the Aurora activity is in the world right now. 


Aurora Alerts App


Aurora App

Both apps also allow you to drop a pin at any locations on the map to see their Aurora forecast. This is helpful when you drop pins at different locations near your hotel to see which area has the best Aurora activity at the moment. I personally like Aurora Alerts better because their interface is slightly more intuitive in my opinion. To change location on the Aurora Alerts app, you simple click on the map icon on the home page, as circled in red in the image. You can also have multiple locations saved in the app.

Aurora also allows pin dropping. But it is not as obvious. You have to click on the KP index box first, then it opens up a notification box asking whether you want to change the location. And you also cannot store multiple locations in this app. 

We were fortunate enough to see the Northern Lights two nights out the three that we were there. For the first night, after checking the apps, we drove to a location an hour north of Ivalo that had  kp number of about 3-4.  And the second night, where we were at Kakslauttanen Resort, the kp number was about 4-5. 

Photographing the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights are actually fainter than all the photographs that you have seen on the internet. That’s because the camera actually does a way better job than the human eyes can perceive and capture the lights. In real life, the Northern Lights are more like a colored haze. After your eyes have adjusted to the dark skies, the Northern Lights become easier to spot. They usually come in waves, with periods of strong activity follow by periods of low to no activity. When the aurora activity is strong, the colors of the lights become stronger and more diverse. The most common color is green. But during strong Aurora activity, you can spot purple or red colors in the lights. 

Equipment

If you only have a cell phone camera, the native camera app will not be able to capture the lights as they cannot perform long exposure photography. There are apps like the Northern Lights Photo Taker which is a camera app that has preset settings for performing these long exposures captures. I have not personally used them but the app is an inexpensive option if you do not have a DSLR.

For those with cameras that allow manual settings, this will be your best bet for capturing the Northern Lights. I was traveling light for this trip, so all I had was my Sunpak tripod, Nikon D5100, and wide angle lens Sigma 10-20mm, f3.5. For those that can bring better equipment, I highly suggest bringing your fastest wide angle lens, preferably with aperture f.2.8 or lower.

Settings

It took a few tries on the spot to get my photos to come out beautifully. Note that I had a full moon the first night that I was in Lapland, so it definitely helped to illuminate the snow and trees in the foreground but also may have drowned out the more dimly lit Northern Lights. 

With the full moon, super long exposure (15-30s) will capture a lot of the Northern Lights, but it will also blend everything together and remove any distinct patterns of the lights.


f3.5, 30s, ISO1000


f3.5, 30s, ISO3200
The long exposure here was too long, making it seem like day time, with the Northern Lights all blended together.

Whereas if you do a shorter exposure (5s), but keep the ISO high and aperture low, you can get better results. The high ISO may make the photo grainy, but you can fix that in post-processing.


f4, 5s, ISO1600

On the second night, where we had Aurora activity earlier in the night, thus the moon wasn’t as high or as lit yet. I had to change the settings to a longer exposure to compensate for dimmer skies and foreground.


f3.5, 13s, ISO1600


f3.5, 15s, ISO1000

Depending on the conditions that you are shooting, you will have to adjust the settings accordingly. As a blanket statement, I suggest 5-15 second exposure, with ISO1250-2000, and aperture as low as possible f1.8-3.5.

Think foregrounds and backgrounds

When photographing the Northern Lights, think about foregrounds and backgrounds! Your foreground shouldn’t be too busy to distract the viewer from the main highlight of the picture, the Northern Lights in the background! This sounds slightly unintuitive as I am calling the Northern Lights the background. But I am simply using this foreground/background nomenclature because the Northern Lights are at the back of the photo, hence background. And the foreground is the environment immediately to the front of the camera.

For foregrounds, I highly suggest finding a place with unobstructed views. Photographing the Northern Lights at a lake or any bodies of water would be best. You will have unobstructed foreground and the body of water may even reflect the lights, allowing for more light to enter into your camera. The second best thing would be to find an open field which is what we ended up doing. We were at an open snow field with some trees further away. The trees provided some context of the scale of the photo and the expanse of the Northern Lights in the sky.

With this foreground and background in mind, the Kakslauttanen Resort was difficult to shoot the Northern Lights because all the glass igloos are close together and did not provide that open field that I desired. Immediately beyond the glass igloos were tree lines so it added to a very busy foreground. These busy igloos present a unique challenge in photographing them but also provided a different view of the Northern Lights that made for some beautiful timelapses (see next section).

Timelapse

Don’t forget to do some timelapses too! Same settings as suggested in the Settings section. My camera had a timelapse mode where I set it to take a photo every minute for about half an hour. I later stitched together all the photos using Apple’s iMovie.

What else to do in the Arctic Circle

There are a lot more to do in the Arctic Circle than chasing the Northern Lights! We joined a Husky Safari and a Snowmobile Safari while there. You can also enjoy ice fishing, snow shoeing, reindeer rides, cross country skiing, and horseback riding in Lapland. 

I do suggest joining these tours at a local vendor instead of joining the ones at  Kakslauttanen Resort. They are cheaper and Kakslauttanen Resort actually just subcontract out their activities to these vendors anyway! The only advantage that the resort bookings offer are the transportation to and from the resort and the activity destination. But if you are renting a car already, why pay for that “extra” service? 🙂 

Here’s a comparison chart that I made (winter 2017 rates, all in USD) when I was deciding which company to join our tours at. Prices may have changed, but in general, the Kakslauttanen Resort rate was more expensive.

We went with Husky & Co for all our tours. They were reasonably priced and I enjoyed both the Husky and Snowmobile tour with them. 

Kakslauttanen Resort

The resort offers many different kinds of rooms for enjoying the Northern Lights. Anything from rustic log chalets with a glass igloo observation deck, to snow igloos, and to the most famous of all, glass igloos.

For this article, I will focus on the glass igloo that we stayed at, since that is also the selling point of the resort. The glass igloo comes in either two-person room or four-person room. We were a group of three people so we opted for the four-person room. The 2017 rate was 883euros for three people. I did a quick search for March 2019, and the rate is 954 euros for three people. 

The four-person room has a shower and a toilet. The two-person room only has a toilet. The room is pretty spacious with a privacy curtain on the bottom to block off yourself from the other rooms. The room was also HOT! It wasn’t an uncomfortable kind of hot. It was just hot enough compared to the -25 °C degree outside that you feel comfortable walking around the room in shorts and t-shirt. The room even has a kettle with tea bags. It has all the basic amenities you’d expect from a hotel, except for the TV. But who needs a TV when you are watching the Northern Lights all night long? The only small complaint I have of the room is that they are placed fairly close to other igloo rooms. So if you are unlucky and have neighbors that turn their room light on and off all night long, it will be slightly distracting.

The price includes a dinner and breakfast the next day. Here are some pictures of the three-course dinner (with bread).

The breakfast was buffet style.

Overall the meals were pretty good. And I had a great time watching the Northern Lights in the comfort of a warm room. 

Is Kakslauttanen Resort worth it?

The short(ish) answer to whether the Kakslauttanen Resort is worth it? If you are a photographer, no. But if you hate the cold but wants to see the Northern Lights; or if you are traveling with family with a wide age range and different physical abilities; or if you have already traveled to the edge of the world to see the lights, and might as well be bougie about it; then yes! I certainly enjoyed my stay there for the night.