Sesame Street helps kick off summer travel season

Sesame Street summer travelDoes Cookie Monster have to buy two seats? Does Elmo travel carry-on only? You can ask them yourself this week as several Sesame Street characters appear at US airports this week to kick off summer travel with Delta Airlines.

Today, Elmo and Cookie Monster will be making gate announcements and welcoming travelers to Minneapolis-St Paul Airport, before meeting up with Grover at La Guardia on Tuesday. Elmo and Grover will wrap up the tour on Thursday at Atlanta‘s international airport.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Casey Fleser.

Want to travel more with Sesame Street? Check out Lonely Planet editor Robert Reid’s trip in the video below.

Weekending: Sofia


Since moving to Istanbul, I’ve gotten the chance to travel to a lot of interesting destinations, from Beirut to Bosnia, that are much easier and cheaper to access from Turkey than America. For my first long (more than a weekend) trip, I went to Bulgaria for a week over US Labor Day and Turkish bayram (end of Ramadan holidays). Over the week, I traveled from the capital city Sofia to medieval hill town Veliko Tarnovo to Black Sea coastal Varna, and will explore the different flavors of each region in future posts.

The place: Sofia, Bulgaria
Travel writer (and Bulgaria fan) Robert Reid notes in his Lonely Planet Bulgaria guide that visitors to Sofia should not expect the “new Prague.” While Sofia may never compare to the Czech Republic capital in terms of the sheer number of historic buildings and monuments, you may discover a taste of Old Europe with the modern nightlife and budget prices that made Prague so popular in the past two decades. After the fall of Communism 21 years ago, Bulgaria developed steadily enough to join the European Union in 2007 (albeit as its poorest country), and hopes to join the Schengen visa zone next year. It’s now being touted as a destination for adventure and budget travelers with a small but growing amount of foreign visitors discovering its many pleasures.

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  • One of the major pluses for Sofia (and even more so in more rural parts of Bulgaria) is the price tag. Dinner for two can be had with a nice bottle of local wine for less than $20. High-end hotels that would cost hundreds of dollars in other European cities rarely top 100 Euros and many comfortable options can be found around 50 to 60 Euros (a Rick Steves tour group was staying at my hotel, the lovely but reasonable Arena di Serdica). Many of Sofia’s best sights are free, including the landmark Aleksander Nevski church (check out this link for photos of the beautiful interior, as cameras aren’t allowed inside and the postcard selection is lacking) and the daily markets are great to browse – try Aleksander Nevski Plaza for antiques of questionable province, Zhenski Pazar for Chernobyl-sized produce, and Slaveykov Square for books in various languages. Bulgarian beers and wine are generally 2-4 leva (under $3) and a generously-poured cocktail is only a few leva more.
  • Along with cheap drinks comes a fun, creative nightlife scene. While sipping wine in the candlelit converted barn bar Hambara, I wondered why New York doesn’t have cool spaces like that (answer: probably breaking a lot of building codes). Apartment (just down the road from Hambera on Neofit Rilski) is another well-known spot for travelers, expats, and locals, set in an old house with different rooms for different vibes. If you’re looking for something a bit more glam, Planet Bar de Luxe is delightfully over-the-top with purple tutu-clad waitresses and a gift-shop in the bathroom (and I thought Sarajevo had the best bar bathroom). Soviet-era dormitories have been converted into a hotbed of nightclubs and bars. Creativity isn’t just limited to the nighttime – great collections of art are housed in the National Gallery and the well-curated Sofia City Gallery, along with interesting graffiti and small galleries around town.

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  • Sofia’s vices and nightlife may not be for everyone. After five months in a country where alcohol is heavily taxed, low-priced and tasty wine is a big thrill for me, but not everyone has “cheap alcohol” on their vacation must-have list. Vegetarians may soon grow bored with pizzas (practically one of Bulgaria’s national foods, eaten with ketchup and mayo by locals – try at your own risk) and salads in Bulgaria include meat and cheese almost as a rule. Like in much of Eastern Europe, smoking is legal in most public places and quite widespread; a recent ban was overturned and replaced with a law barring underage from bars.
  • While the city center is easy to explore with plenty to do, it is small and once you leave the center, the abundance of Communist-era architecture may be less than charming. You can choose to embrace it and marvel at the seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-a-time Soviet monuments like the poorly-covered up Monument to the Bulgarian State or the huge National Palace of Culture (NDK) eyesore. If you’ve had enough urban adventure, Mount Vitosha towers over the city with outdoor activities year round.

Getting there

Small but serviceable Sofia Airport is served by flights all over Europe, including low-cost carriers Wizz Air and easyJet. Bulgaria also has excellent bus connections throughout the Balkans and Eastern Europe, with a clean and convenient bus station not far from the city center. Read on below for other destination ideas in Bulgaria.

Make it a week

There are multiple day and side trip opportunities near Sofia including Rila Monastery, one of Bulgaria’s best and most famous monasteries; the tiny wine town Melnik; and ancient Plovdiv. You can also hop a bus to venture into the Central Balkans or out to the Black Sea for beach time, as I did. Stay tuned for more on Bulgaria travel.

Read my previous Weekending trips from Istanbul here.

Visit a baby sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica


It’s been a long week, take a few minutes to enjoy some cuteness. Sloths may not typically come to mind as a cute animal, but I’m sure after you watch this video, you’ll come around. I first saw a sloth at the New York Times Travel Show (part of a Busch Gardens exhibition) and immediately fell in love with their cuddly, sleepy, smiley oddness. This video was taken at the Aviarios Del Caribe sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica, home to over 100 sloths and managed by sloth “whisperer” Judy Arroyo, who probably never complains about a long day at the office.

Visit the sloths up close in Costa Rica near San Jose; the $25 tour includes a canoe ride through the Estrella River Delta and optional jungle walks. There’s even a hotel on site if you want to sleep with the sloths (you’d think with all the sleeping sloths do, there’d be a pillow menu)! If you want to help support the sloth cause further, there’s an adoption and volunteer program.

Need more animals to get you through Friday? Enjoy Lonely Planet editor and Gadling favorite Robert Reid’s take on animals who travel; I’ll nominate the sloth for “slow travel.”

Gadlinks for 1.6.2010

Looking for more nuggets to satisfy your hunger for travel news and information? Check out some of these links from around the internets.

  • National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel Blog team found this one, but I had to pass it on. Check out Fun with TSA for a list of “travel safe activities” that you can still do on a plane, even in that last hour of flight. Some in-flight college courses anyone? [via Intelligent Travel]

More Gadlinks here.

SkyMall Monday: Travel Writer Favorites

Gadling’s “SkyMall Monday” feature recently turned one year old. That means it’s finally eating solid foods, sporting a luxurious head of hair and wetting itself constantly. It’s been a heck of a year for SkyMall Monday, and I’ve met a lot of great people along the way (including one very special friend). Sharing my love of SkyMall with others and hearing about their experiences with every traveler’s guilty pleasure has kept me laughing during many long layovers.

In that spirit, to kick off Gadling’s month-long celebration of SkyMall Monday, I asked several travel writers to write about their favorite SkyMall products. The hard part wasn’t getting them to participate. No, it was getting them to select just one product about which to gush. Who knew people loved SkyMall so much? Well, you and I did. Duh! So, below you will find the SkyMall wish list of some of the best travel writers around. And in italics you will find my review of their selections. Hey, I still run this joint.
Robert Reid (Lonely Planet US Travel Editor & blogger) – I’m charmed by the King Tut Life-Sized Cabinet (pictured above) for a variety of reasons. One, knowledge comes from prying open the past, some say, and this case it’s literal. But also for its description, which begins, “Measuring taller than most men (6 1/4 feet).” This is wonderful — for its unusual use of fraction, but also because SkyMall simply understands that when I buy $850 furnishings I make my considerations solely in how they compare… with men. Robert also demands that he sit in that throne everywhere he travels.

David Farley (Author of An Irreverent Curiosity and freelancer)I don’t have a truck–or even a car–to properly display the Truck Antlers, but if I ever do, I would totally buy these. I love the idea of turning my automobile into an antlered animal. I’d just make sure I don’t drive through states with loose gun laws or anywhere near Dick Cheney’s house. I’d don’t love the idea of being hunted by some gun-toting nut. Oddly, David’s failure to own a truck has not prevented him from owning multiple Animated Hitch Critters.

Jen Leo (Lead blogger for the Los Angeles Times Travel Blog)The Noise Canceling Safety Earmuffs are my dream gift. Not to cancel out the noise from the screaming kid next to me on the plane-ahem, mine-but to shut out the flight attendant screaming “Please stay seated – the fasten seat belt light is on!” as I race past her to change the poopy diaper of my tot which is clearly causing more turbulence in our aisle than the pilot’s fine driving. How intense are your child’s bowel movements that your diaper situations require industrial-strength noise cancellation? Does Gerber make three-bean chili tacos now?


Spud Hilton (Travel Editor for the San Francisco Chronicle) – It was a tough choice, but I finally went with the Shirtpocket Underwater Camera. Not only does it have 4X zoom and 115 minutes of continuous operation, but my shirtpocket keeps going underwater and I never have a video camera to capture those precious moments. Two things worth noting: this thing takes voice memos and Spud’s second choice was the Underwater Cell Phone System. Conclusion: Spud Hilton is a merman.

Nicole Lerner, Alexi Ueltzen, Amy Widdowson & Victoria Gutierrez (Staff at NileGuide) – The ladies of NileGuide want a Custom Inflatable Costume. Why? Because no one dresses up to travel anymore. Who wouldn’t want to sport an outfit like this? 7.5′ tall, inflatable and it comes with a built-in backpack power pack. That $2k price tag is just pennies compared to the joy of “familiarizing the public” with Yoplait…or NileGuide. We’re sporting one of these for next year’s Bay to Breakers. Reminds me of when I was a kid and my imaginary best friend was an anthropomorphic container of cottage cheese. I miss Curdis ever so much.

Jim Benning (Co-founder and editor of World Hum) – My dream product is the SlumberSleeve. We’ve all used our arms as pillows at one time or another, but SkyMall knows we can do better! One of the user comments really sells me on it: “Although I tend to be fairly capable when it comes to assembly, I am still trying to figure out how to stretch the fabric “wristband” over the support piece.” I wrote about the SlumberSleeve in December 2008. I guess Jim and I could have a slumber (sleeve) party and wear our PJs.

George Hobica (Founder of Airfarewatchdog and Gadling contributor) – The Shure Se530 Luxury Earphones block out noisy fellow passengers and the sound quality is superb. And they’re lightweight and easy to pack. Leave it to the guy that finds us the best deals in travel to actually pick a sane, useful and high-quality product from the SkyMall catalog. But I’m sure he meant to recommend these much more logical Pillow Speakers.

Alexander Basek
(
Best deals reporter at Travel + Leisure and freelancer) – I pick the Wine and Liquor Accelerator. Traditionally, it is my understanding that once you open wine, “aging” it turns into vinegar. Still, I hope they keep this magic machine hush hush from the folks at Macallan. Alex likes his wine like I like my women: young and tart. Hey-o!

Andrew Evans (Writer for National Geographic Intelligent Travel) My dream SkyMall product is the authentic Indiana Jones Leather Bullwhip. Currently, my persona as a travel writer suffers from not having such a whip as part of my ensemble. This special edition SkyMall “gift” would come in handy from Patagonia to Berlin and as an added bonus, I would gain the attention of bored TSA agents who would unsuccessfully attempt to confiscate my new fashion accessory. Truth be told, Andrew’s persona as a travel writer suffers less for his lack of a whip and more for his insistence on wearing this heating pad at all times.

Great selections by these seasoned travelers. Not as good as the ones I find every week, but you don’t become a highly respected, sought-after expert in all things SkyMall overnight. Which writer do you think picked the best product? What tops your SkyMall wish list? Let us know in the comments.

Check out all of the previous SkyMall Monday posts HERE.