8 tips to keep in mind before heading to the Azores

Guest post written by Robert Gretch

The Portuguese islands of the Azores are situated in the North Atlantic, right where the warm waters of the Gulf Stream flow past a hotbed of volcanic activity.  For frequent fliers, they are the dots that appear on your in-flight map about two thirds of the way from the United States to Europe.  They’re well-worth visiting, particularly for those looking for a little adventure.  The islands are known for their abundant greenery, hot springs, and distinctly Atlantic (not Mediterranean) feel.  But, particularly for people who associate islands with beach escapes, there are a few things that everyone going to the Azores needs to know:

 

  1. Welcome to Europe.  While situated 900 miles away from the continent, the Azores are part of Portugal, the European Union, and the Schengen Area.  Non-EU travelers from many western countries are allowed 90 days’ stay in the Schengen Area within a 180 day period.  Prices are in line with the less expensive countries of Western Europe.
  2. Prepare to spend some time outdoors.  The islands’ lush vegetation, calderas, waterfalls, and dramatic vistas are accessible by a well-developed infrastructure of hiking trails, parks, and roadside viewpoints.  Bring some sturdy sneakers and dress in layers — the weather can change suddenly, and many must-sees are at high elevations.  For the more adventurous, try off-roading, rock-climbing, or horseback riding.
  3. It’s not Club Med.  Unlike many islands, the Azores are not a place to work on your tan.  Sandy beaches are in short supply, and the weather is often too rainy, cool, or unpredictable to justify long days lounging at the pool.
  4. But bring a swimsuit.  The islands are known for their diving, snorkeling, surfing, and hot springs.  Dive shops are easy to find, as is equipment rental.  The waters of the North Atlantic are home to many kinds of marine life you won’t have seen on tropical dives.  For those who prefer to stay dry, whale watching tours are popular.
  5. And an umbrella.  The islands’ greenery comes at a price — you’re reasonably likely to have some rain during your trip.  While a little wet doesn’t deter the locals, you can avoid the worst of it by visiting between April and August.  Temperatures are mild and pleasant all year long, with the summer months being slightly warmer and sunnier.
  6. Think about renting a car.  Car, bike, moped, and ATV rentals are everywhere, and you’ll likely find that public transit can’t get you the remote and picturesque places that you came to the Azores to see.  You’ll need a driver’s license and a credit card.  Reports vary on whether an International Driving Permit is required, but there’s no harm in having one. Driving is on the right.  Winding country roads and switchbacks are common.
  7. The islands are remote.  The islands are not just far from the continent — they’re far from each other.  For a short trip to the Azores lasting a few days, visiting one island will give you plenty to do.  Air travel is available for island hoppers but is not cheap.  Ferry service provides an alternative, but with a 400-mile spread across the archipelago, even boat trips to “nearby” islands can take several hours.
  8. Come before they’re overrun.  Though long known to nature lovers and adventure travelers, the islands have now been discovered by the rest. Tourist numbers have risen dramatically in recent years, and while the infrastructure is nicer, the crowds are bigger.

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Josh and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Airbnb Experience

As a remote worker and part-time digital nomad, I’ve found that Airbnb offers me a way to see the world that I might not otherwise have with hotels. I’ve written about this extensively and, much to chagrin of my friends I travel with who are loyal to hotels, will usually book an Airbnb for most of my trips.

There are a few reasons for my preference of Airbnbs over hotels when I travel, many outlined in this blog post, which include:

  • Full kitchens, which I can use to quickly cook my meals when I am busy on calls
  • Limited housekeeping services, making it easier to leave my stuff around and so I won’t be interrupted during calls
  • More desk space, often including separate living/working areas

Admittedly, my relationship with Airbnb was already rocky, at best. In November, I stayed at an Airbnb in Cabo San Lucas that had a pool, but it came with no pool chairs and no working TV (and, yes, I am aware that in the realm of “problems,” this is a pretty awesome one to have). Before booking the Airbnb, I had specifically asked the Airbnb host if the TV worked and let her know that I planned on laying by the pool all day, and she said this would be fine. When I asked about the lack of pool chairs, she said there was a blow up mattress I could lay on; but when I pushed back, she brought over pool chairs which were so beat up, that I messaged her through the Airbnb platform thanking her for the chair, but telling her about their condition, and stressing that I didn’t want to be responsible for any “damage” to them, since they were already kind of gross.

After leaving the Airbnb and leaving a bad review, she charged me $200 for damaging the pool chairs. I thought I would prevail easily here – I had the messages inside Airbnb’s platform that they were damaged when I got there, and I had several calls with Airbnb earlier about how her ad was misleading and I was afraid of being hoaxed. I was shocked when Airbnb took her side, and went ahead of charged me for the damages chairs.

Nevertheless, I stuck with the platform. But after my last experience, I’m not sure how I can.

My April trip was an epic journey to Europe, including stops in London and Lisbon. In addition to working remotely, I was there to celebrate my friend Bob’s birthday, and Bob was arriving from New York on Friday, with me getting into London on Thursday night. I took the tube from London Heathrow to my Airbnb, where I was greeted by a woman just finishing out cleaning the apartment.

She seemed nice enough, gave me a tour around the apartment, and then left. It wasn’t until after she left that I noticed the smoke detector going off roughly every 30 seconds. Here is video of it:

The smoke detector was in the living area, so you could hear the beeping throughout the kitchen and where I would be working. As I continued to unpack and be annoyed by the sound, there was a knock on the door.

Apparently, the “partner” of the host stopped by to ask me how it was. I told him that I loved it, but that the smoke alarm was bothering me. He let me know that he’d check into it, but that he thought it was supposed to beep like that. I let him know the battery needed to be replaced, but at that point I really thought I would be able to just ignore it, so I told him if it continued to bother me, I would let him know.

It did. If you’ve ever had a smoke detector with low batteries, you know that the incessant beeping is more than unpleasant. I went out out and bought groceries, thinking when I came back and ate a snack, I might be more relaxed about the noise. But after I returned, ate, and decided to do some work, I realized that I couldn’t, and I reached out to the host.

Note that before my Cabo incident with Airbnb, I would have probably just taken out the battery myself. But having been charged for damaging something which I didn’t hurt, I did not want to be responsible for another unjust charge. So, I asked the host to come and fix the Airbnb. Below are some of the messages me and host exchanged (I’ve taken out my full name and her identity, although I am so tempted to shine a spotlight on this particularly awful host).

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Full disclosure that these are just the screenshots I took, so I might be missing one or two messages. Granted, looking back, maybe I could have handled this differently, but I think I was very polite (I also think I mentioned finding a new place because the host had mentioned that I might want to find different accommodation if the smoke detector bothered me). Right after this exchange, I headed to dinner.

After I finished dinner, at around 8 or 9pm London time, and already exhausted from my flight, I checked my e-mail find that my host had cancelled my reservation on me, with an e-mail from Airbnb of some other apartments that were available in London that night (although they were all very far away from where I was staying).

I was stunned. But while I know that bad Airbnb hosts exist out there, what shocked me the most was how poorly Airbnb’s customer service handled this.

Airbnb told me that I needed to leave the apartment right away, and when I told them I had no other place to go, they said that I needed to leave, “even if it meant sleeping on the streets” that night. I remember that specifically, because I was so shocked they would say something like that.

I told Airbnb that I had looked at the list they sent me and nothing was close, but I needed a place to stay, so asked them for help connecting with the hosts (at this point, it was around 9pm or 10pm local time). They told me because it was so late, they couldn’t connect me with another host. I asked them for help booking a hotel then, and they again said it was too late for them to do anything.

After spending the better part of an hour trying to get help finding a new place, I went to the bathroom, and while I was in there, heard the front door open. I was shaking with how mad I was, but also a little scared as I was alone and naked in the apartment of someone who had already kicked me out. Maybe I should have said something, but I stayed locked in the bathroom, just hoping the person would leave without any confrontation.

He did, and I got a message from the host saying that her partner came over and saw that all my belongings were still there. She was also upset that I had already set up the bed for my friend and cooked, and I responded saying that it was late, that I wasn’t looking for somewhere new to stay but Airbnb wouldn’t provide me guidance on whether I would get a refund and how much I could spend on a hotel (I could not afford both a hotel and Airbnb for the night), and that I was hoping I could still say there. But it was to no avail.

I kept Airbnb on the phone until about 2am, trying to figure out if I would be charged for the Airbnb and how much I could spend on a new hotel, but they gave me no information about either, other than repeating that I needed to leave even if it meant sleeping on the street. I found a hotel available the next morning that my friend had status with, so I booked it, and I let the host know what happened, hoping to avoid her or her partner coming over again.

By 3am, I was finally able to go to sleep, and I woke up 8am to pack and head to the hotel. Perhaps due to the lack of sleep, I stupidly thought that me leaving earlier than check-out time would help in having the room not charged to me.

I eventually got to the new place, only to find out that Airbnb was charging me $242 (more than the price of a 5-star hotel) for my 1 night staying there. They then offered to pay up to $150 for the hotel. I let them know I had other expenses, like $40 in groceries purchased that I had to leave behind, the cost of needing to eat every meal out instead of cooking it, and the cost of a cab to the hotel, but they weren’t willing to budge on that. Specifically, Airbnb said their company policy was not to give out “credits” for things like that. But then I pointed to the incident I had in Cabo, where they gave me a few hundred dollars in credits for what I went through (which was a bit weird, since they still charged me for “damaging” the chairs), they said they made an exception then, but wouldn’t now.

I had originally booked the Airbnb for $686.  The last-minute hotel + the Airbnb charged came out to $825, so the $150 “credit” made the Airbnb + hotel cost a total of $675. While this is less than I originally paid, it came out to me spending much more money as a result of not having a kitchen and having already paid for groceries.

I’ve since learned that Airbnb’s “you can sleep on the street” statement is seemingly their policy for broken smoke detectors. A friend of mine was visiting Portland this weekend, when he messaged to tell me basically the same thing that happened to me, happened to him. He said that a broken smoke detector caused him to call Airbnb at around 3am, and when he called Airbnb for help, they advised him to leave “even if it meant sleeping on the street.” He did end up leaving for a hotel at 3:30am, but Airbnb charged him for the night and offered no type of refund.

I am an attorney for marketplaces like Airbnb, so I get that they aren’t in charge of the hosts. That said, their customer service is horrendous. Despite being a marketplace, they can’t escape that they are a company that connects people with places to stay, and that the reaction to an escalated situation should not be telling guests that they need to “sleep on the street.” They also need to be more clear with how much they can pay for hotels and helping displaced customers in finding new places to stay.

I am hoping to check out some Airbnb competitors in the mean time, hopefully giving the company enough time to properly train its customer service employees before (and if) I try it again.

Let me know what you think in the comments!

Earn up to 40,000 bonus miles traveling to Europe on American Airlines

American Airlines is offering up to 40,000 bonus miles for flights taken on American Airlines between the U.S., Canada, or Mexico and Europe between January 19 and March 31, 2017.  This also applies to flights operated by British Airways, Iberia, and Finnair.

Travelers who register for the promotion and take eligible flights will receive 5,000 bonus miles for Economy Class, 10,000 bonus miles for Business Class, and 20,000 bonus miles for First Class travel.  These amounts are round-trip, and participants can earn this bonus twice.

To be receive this promotion, visit this link and sign up.

 

Kids can fly for almost free to Europe through April

SAS Airlines is offering families an incredible deal – with the purchase of an adult ticket, kids (12 and under) can fly to Europe for about $50 all-in!

This offer is valid for travel between the U.S. and Scandinavia, travel must take place between February 7 and April 9, 2017, and tickets must be purchased by Monday, January 23, 2017.

Booking is easy, with the best way being to find the ticket you’re looking for through Google Flights and at check out on SAS’s website, adding the youth tickets. You can add up to 8 kids with each adult ticket purchased, and your kids will earn miles for the trip.

Be sure to comment if you book this deal!

Aeroméxico announces plan for 3-hour express flights from Mexico to Europe

In attempt to make Mexico even more amazing, Aeroméxico announced plans to purchase 10 aircraft from Boeing that travel so quickly, customers will be able to get from Mexico to Europe in only 3 hours.

According to Google Translate and limited Spanish skills, the press release says,

“This new service will also allow passengers to experience flying near outer space, since the flight path of the equipment amounts to 360,000 feet in height, thus reaching the boundary between the atmosphere and the latter. This is how the airline goes one step further towards the space tourism industry.”

If Aeroméxico can pull this off, it may drastically transform boundaries and travel around the globe.

Hotel Review: Radisson Blu Conference & Airport Hotel, Istanbul

I booked the Radisson Blu Conference & Airport Hotel in Istanbul mainly for its location near the airport. I had a flight landing from Athens at 8:30pm and needed to catch a flight early the next morning, and, with a price tag of $59.62 and decent reviews on TripAdvisor, I decided to book it (it also helped that Hotels.com was running a promotion where I received double points for the hotel booking).

Having already spent a few days in Turkey and having flown into Ataturk, I knew how crazy it could get outside of the airport. So, before my arrival I messaged the airport asking for specifics on their free airport shuttle. I received a message back that said, “We have a free shuttle bus  it takes off from international arrival floor between gate A and B,” and they sent me a schedule showing the shuttle leaves every half hour.

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Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

I made it through customs fairly quickly after my flight, and made it outside to wait for the shuttle. There were no clear signs showing where I would be picked up (the outside area of the arrival floor between gates A and B was pretty massive), although other hotels did have dedicated waiting spots.

I exited the airport at around 9pm, so I had plenty of time before the 9:30pm shuttle. Given the unclear signage and instructions, I decided to wait directly in the middle of gates A and B (although I tried asking for help at the airport, Ataturk is pretty busy, loud, and noisy, and I was unable to get assistance). By 10pm, the shuttle still hadn’t shown up, and so I got a cab.

At the end of my cab ride, I was shocked when the driver demanded 20 Euro from me. I had been told that rides from the airport to airport hotels, this one taking around 5 minutes, were between 15 to 20 Turkish Lira (~$4-$6). Cranky and wanting a bed before my flight, I paid the money, and went into the hotel.

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Inside of the Radisson Blu Conference & Airport Hotel, Istanbul

To be fair, I was fuming a bit. After checking in, I asked to speak with a manager, in what was not the proudest moment of mine as a traveler. I had to wait a few minutes, but one came out and I let him know what happened – I showed him the e-mails confirming the shuttle would be there, I told him I waited, and then I told him I was ripped off by my cab driver.

I was told that sometimes the shuttles have issues stopping because of how crazy the airport is, and he asked what he could do to make it better. I swear I’ve never done this before, but the only thing I could think of that could make it better – especially given that it was already approaching 11pm and I had to leave the hotel around 5am – was an upgraded room, which I let him know. He smiled and said, “Why didn’t you say so? Of course!” I was handed a new key card, and pointed in the direction of my new room.

When I entered my room, I was stunned. It was a 2-story suite, with a massive living room, huge kitchen, and second-floor bedroom.

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View upon walking in
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Second-floor bed

This room absolutely made up for the shuttle issues that I had. Sadly, I only had a few hours to enjoy the room, and most of it was spent sleeping.

Aside from the amazing room, there were a few things I really loved about the hotel: the customer service was fantastic, the WiFi was perfect, the bed was super comfortable, and it was close to the airport for connections. There was also a convenient shuttle that picks you up in front of the hotel every hour, taking you to Ataturk (which is much easier to find than trying to grab it at the airport).

If staying here, I would plan on taking a cab to the hotel to save the trouble of having to find a shuttle. Other than that, it was a great stay and I would definitely come back.