Last minute flights may be cheaper than the bus

Searching for travel deals feels like playing a game show where how to get a winning number is unclear. It’s like hunting in a jungle where the frequent hunter has the edge. Timing remains the wild card.

Being flexible and not assuming the outcomes makes the difference between snagging a deal or paying more than you feel happy paying. The one that makes you whine.

Case in point: A friend of mine bought a round-trip ticket to New York City from Columbus for $240 two weeks ago for a trip next week. He smacked his forehead when I told him I bought a ticket last Saturday for $138 total. My trip is tomorrow.

The price surprised me as well. Before buying a bus ticket, expecting Greyhound would be much cheaper since it usually is, I searched plane fares last Friday “just in case.” Surprise, surprise.

But, I also learned–again– the importance of not hesitating. I waited until Saturday to buy the ticket while ironing out life’s logistics, thus missed out on the flight I wanted. Delta’s prices had almost doubled.

Another search found the $138 price on American. The hesitation, though, means flying out at 5:40 in the morning. Blech! Still, the less than two hour plane ride is $30 cheaper than the 14 hour bus ride. Factor in the cost of the bus from LaGuardia into Grand Central Station and I’m still $8 ahead.

While hunting for your own deal, keep the following points in mind.

  • Don’t assume you know prices before you check. You may be surprised.
  • The more often you check prices, the more you’ll know what is a price you’re willing to pay. (This is my 6th trip to NYC since June. This is the 2nd time I’ve flown. The bus has been the best option three times and two weeks ago we drove.)
  • When you see a price you want, don’t waffle. Your life can adjust to the decision you’ve made. (The beauty of bus travel is that it’s more flexible than flying.)
  • Don’t pay too much attention to headlines that talk about the price of travel. In the travel business, so much depends upon timing. What’s true in the morning could have shifted by the afternoon. Keep looking. Hunt out every corner of options and stay flexible.
  • If you’re flying to New York City, the airport you fly into can make a difference into the cost of a flight. Pick the option that checks the price of all NYC airports. Once you know which airline has the cheapest price, book your ticket through that airline.

Good luck hunting out the best travel deal for you. It could be the bus.

First snow: Eight winter activities for budget friendly fun

With the first snow comes thoughts of winter’s smorgasbord of budget friendly travel options. Fall festivals and foliage tours are long gone. What was missed has been moved to next year’s got to go agenda.

The first snow is a reminder that winter, like other seasons, has a timetable that waits for no one. To make the most of winter, create a checklist of what you’d like to do. Plan for those winter outings before it’s too late. Don’t be left behind wondering where the winter went.

Here are 8 winter activities to put on your list of things to do before the spring thaw comes and crocus appear.

1. Go tubing: For anyone who wants the thrill of speeding down a snow packed hill, but is not fond of the idea of falling (count me in on this one) tubing is an excellent option. If you have the physical skills to sit on the ground and get back up again with or without help, you can tube. The beauty of tubing is that people of various athletic abilities and ages can enjoy the same experience at the same time.

Many ski resorts have added tubing hills to their repertoire. From the Poconos in Pennsylvania to Copper Mountain Ski Resort in Colorado, the cost for tubing is quite a bit less than the cost of a ski lift pass. Plus, there’s no equipment to rent and you can enjoy the warmth of the ski resort’s lodge like any skier who forked out more money than you did.

2. Take a winter hike: Although hiking might seem more suited for warmer weather, winter hiking offers another look at outdoor beauty. Plus, there’s a level of solitude for reflection, part of what winter months invite. Sections of the Appalachian Trail are one possibility. For options that offer the opportunity to find out more about nature and natural history of an area, check your state’s park system. Many have an organized winter hike like Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio does. This park’s winter hike is January 16.

3. Go cross-country skiing or snow shoeing: Where there is snow, you can cross-country ski or snowshoe. City and town parks, logging roads or trails that have been specifically for either sport are waiting for you. The Enchanted Forest in northern New Mexico is one such place. To see if either sport is a good fit, head to a trail on Winter Trails Day. This winter, January 9th is the day to bundle up and strap on skis or snowshoes. Rentals are available.

4. Build a snowman in an unusual place: Where there’s snow perfect for packing, you can build a snowman. By building a snowman in a place that’s more public than your yard, you add to other people’s winter fun. A favorite memory of mine is watching people build a snowman on the Great Wall of China.

For people who live where it never snows, don’t pass up a chance to indulge in a snippet of childhood if you happen to have traveled to a place where it does–London, England, for example.

5. Sip hot chocolate, mulled wine or another hot beverage made extra warm by alcohol by a fire crackling in a stone fireplace. This is where you enjoy a winter wonderland by looking out a window. Where does one find such an experience? Ski lodges and hotel lounges and lobbies are perfect places for indulging in an afternoon or evening of relaxation in a comfy chair. Going solo? Bring a book. You don’t have to be an overnight guest to enjoy such pleasure.

6. Visit an historic village to learn about winter life in the olden days. At an historic village, costumed interpreters demonstrate how life was lived in yesteryear. Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts is one of the more extensive historic villages. The sticker price is not exactly budget friendly. For the cheapest option, head to the Slate Run Living Historical Farm in Ohio. It’s free. I repeat. Free.

7. Bird watch at a local park, a nature center, a refuge or another area known for bird watching. Check out Critter Watch, for best winter birding spots in Colorado. In Ohio, the newest bird watching place is the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, one mile from the heart of downtown Columbus. It’s located on an important migration stop next to the Scioto River.

8. Ice-skate at a city’s outdoor rink or a frozen pond. Many cities open skating rinks in their downtown’s to attract people. One of the most famous is the skating rink at Rockefeller Center. There are other less touristy skating options in New York City, however.

If you’re planning to head to any other city, see if there is an outdoor skating rink there. Skating on a city’s downtown rink is an active way to enjoy the city’s architecture while becoming part of the city’s scene. Skate rentals are available.

Some city parks and zoos like Buhr Park in Ann Arbor, Michigan and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Columbus Ohio, also offer ice-skating with skate rentals available.

Through the Gadling Lens: shooting cities at twilight

This week, I received the following rather detailed email from reader Jason:

I love your columns and have learned so much from them, thank you! I do have a couple of questions that I hope you may be able to help me with please. I am bouncing-off-the-walls excited to be traveling to New York City for my first (and likely only) visit next week. Unfortunately my only free time will be one late afternoon / evening in Midtown. I am most interested in capturing the details of well known landmarks, especially the art deco skyscrapers and Rockefeller Center, with what little natural sunlight I will have (i.e. low angle between full sunlight and when street lights start coming on with darkness), especially if clouds are present. I have my gorilla tripod already packed but expect the crowded sidewalks to make set-up difficult and time consuming and want to try and cover as much ground as possible. I have read and re-read your columns on night and cave photography and will be putting those tips to work of course, but wonder if there is anything more I can do to give myself a better chance at capturing the unique, but distant, details of these structures during twilight.

Secondly, can you tell me how to both achieve and avoid the “starburst” effect of individual lights at night while using a tripod, specifically skyscrapers at night (i.e. Empire State Building) and neon lights (i.e. Radio City Music Hall, Times Square). Is it more a function of aperture or exposure? I am practicing with available lights but the tallest building in my hometown is all of three stories and there’s not much neon to practice on unfortunately.

Thank you again for your kind reply and best wishes.

Well, Jason, congrats on your first trip to NYC! You’ve certainly given me some tough questions — I did a bit of research to try to answer them, and with a little help from the Gadling Flickr pool (not to mention a good friend), I thought I’d share what I came up with. Hope this helps, Jason.
So I started with Jason’s second question, mostly because I was interested in knowing the answer myself. I love images where streetlights show that amazing starburst, and I had no idea how to achieve it. So to find the answer, I instant-messaged my friend Josh, also known as Modern Day Gilligan, who is my personal photographer-idol:

me: Gilligan — you have a quick second?

Joshua: yeah!
:-) No worries!
Just culling through photos.
me: I just got a question from someone who reads my gadling lens posts.
and I have NO idea what to tell himJoshua: Fire away, maybe I can help.

Joshua:With the second question: Tip #1: Pull off any lens filters – especially your UV filter. Light entering the lens at odd angles has a tendancy to cause odd ghosting/flare on long exposures.
Joshua: Tip #2: To give that ‘starburst’ look, stop down your lens as far as you can. An f/4, f/5.6 simply will not be enough to give the desired effect. Start at f/8, f/9 and work your way up until you get exactly what you want.
Joshua: The starburst effect is caused by the blades of your aperture.
me: so you’re saying a smaller aperture would create the starburst?
me: right. so f, like, 16 would give you the starburst, and f 1.4 wouldn’t?
Joshua: Exactly, as the aperture tightens the blades will be visible in the light sources.

Clear as mud?

Okay, here’s a different way to look at it: you remember how aperture works, right? It controls the total amount of light that enters the camera (while the shutter controls how much of that entered light actually gets to the film, or sensor). The last time that we talked about apertures, it was mostly around “depth of field” — the larger the aperture number, the more detail you’ll see in the background. The smaller the aperture number, the less detail you’ll see in the background.

Well, the cool thing is that the same rule works with streetlights.

In other words, the larger the aperture number, the more detail you’ll see in the light — resulting in a lovely starburst. The smaller the aperture number, the less detail you’ll see in the streetlights, resulting in a fuzzy halo, or no starburst effect.

To test this, the other night, I decided to take a walk around my neighbourhood with my camera. I set my camera on “aperture control” — this allows me to play with the aperture, and the camera adjusts the shutter speed accordingly. I wasn’t trying to capture a beautiful shot, you understand — my neighbourhood isn’t exactly a tourist beauty spot — I just wanted to see if I could make the starburst happen.

Here are the results:

In this first shot, my aperture was set at 2.8 — a small number. Focusing on the streetlight to the left of the above image, you see that it looks just like a fuzzy light — nothing too spectacular.

But take a look at what happens when I set my aperture to a much larger number, 32:

See? That streetlight to the left now has a starburst. Like magic.

Now a couple of tips: you’re going to need a tripod — when you set your f-stop (aperture) to a high number, it actually means that less total light is going to go into the camera, so your shutter is going to want to stay open a long time, risking blur. Secondly, if you can adjust your “white balance” (which we talked about in this post here), then make sure you do — otherwise, the street lights will throw the colour of your image off (kind of like the images are, above).

And finally, for God’s sake, pick a prettier street than the one I picked.

Okay. Now back to your first question, about taking great shots in New York City, and “capturing unique but distant details of buildings in twilight”:

This is actually a much tougher question, because so much depends on where you’re going to be in New York City, what’s obstructing your view, and how close or far you might be to your subject. My best advice to you would be to go through the Gadling Flickr Pool (or the rest of Flickr, for that matter), and do a search for “New York City” and “twilight” or “nighttime” or “sundown” or “sunset” or the like, and see what turns up for inspiration. I always think it’s better not to go in with any set expectations about how I’m going to shoot a city, and instead just see what cool circumstances turn up (armed, of course, with lots of inspiration in my back pocket). And by the way, I have to tell you: as someone who has traveled quite a bit to New York City in the past, New York really does seem to come alive at dusk. They don’t call it the City That Never Sleeps for nothin’.

So, following my own advice, here are some of my favourites that I found:

Rush Hour. Since it’s a city that never sleeps, don’t be afraid of the crowd of people, embrace it! Capture the frenetic pace of the city by photographing the blur of rush hour. This shot, shared by nabil.s in Grand Central Station is a wonderful example:

Sundown. Rather than be too concerned about capturing the details of the buildings at sundown, consider instead capturing the mood of the city, as the light starts to filter through the streets, and the lights start to twinkle on. Two beautiful examples:

Sunset through the skyscrapers, shared by M_at:

and this beautiful shot of sunset from the top of Rockefeller Center, shared by morrissey:

Twilight. Twilight in the city is pretty magical, as you might imagine — particularly since that’s when all those fabulous lights start to come on. And of course, what better place to capture this than Times Square, as illustrated again by nabil.s (notice how the shot is taken from the perspective of looking up to the sky, rather than focusing on the lights):

Nighttime. Of course, at nighttime, it’s all about the lights. If you’re intent on capturing the details of the buildings, luckily, many of New York City’s buildings are illuminated at night to bring attention to them, as illustrated by this great shot shared by ohad* of the GM building:

But also, don’t forget that you can always go up — and shoot the wonderful nightlit NYC panorama, as morrissey did, here:

Silhouette. And finally, never underestimate the power of the silhouette. New York City has many beautiful parks that lend themselves to this sort of photography, and of course, when you’re talking about an iconic landmark like the Statue of Liberty, it’s really hard to take a bad shot — both concepts illustrated beautifully by swapnilbd and othernel, below:

So, Jason — I hope this all helps! More importantly, I hope you’ll come back and share what you shot. And for everyone else, as always, if you have any questions or additional comments, as always, you can always contact me directly at karenDOTwalrondATweblogsincDOTcom – and I’m happy to address them in upcoming
Through the Gadling Lens posts.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.

Photo of the day 10.05.09

I do love an iconic silhouette, and this one of the Statue of Liberty, shot and shared by othernel, is a classic. There’s no mistaking this landmark, is there? Really beautifully done.

If you’ve got some great travel shots you’d love to share, be sure to upload them to the Gadling pool on Flickr. We might just pick one as our Photo of the Day.

Through the Gadling Lens: photographing skies

Oh, how I’d love to regale you with my brilliant photographic skills in capturing the sky’s majesty!

I’d love to, but I can’t.

For some reason, I’m really, really horrid when it comes to shooting skies. Oh, I can manage to get a good sunset photo here and there, and occasionally my blue skies appear shockingly blue, but the truth is that for the most part, I get by with a little help from Photoshop — bump up the contrast here, deepen a hue there, you know how it goes. My husband, on the other hand, is masterful at shooting sky shots — the image you see to the left was taken by him this past weekend. And that image, by the way, is completely unretouched, straight out of the camera.

He kills me with his sky-capturing ways.

Anyway, I thought this week we could drool over the sky photo porn that currently graces our Gadling Flickr pool, for some inspiration as to how to shoot. This time, however, I’m sitting where you are — looking for any clues as to how to make my sky photographs that much better.

So, on with the show.
1. God rays

My husband calls these “God rays” — the rays of light that appear from clouds when the sun is behind them.

When I asked him how he managed to capture this image (because while he was taking this, I was trying to take the same image with my camera, and failing miserably), and he said, “I set my aperture to a pinhole — about f22 — my ISO was set to about 100, and then I played with the shutter speed to get the shot. It ended up working at 1/500th of a second.”

Okay, so that’s pretty technical. Suffice to say, however, that Marcus — I mean, Alien Hamster — took several shots to experiment with the various settings, to see what worked for him. And really, that’s sort of what photography is all about: experimenting and learning along the way.

Another great God ray shot:

This great shot was shot and shared by othernel, of sunset over the East Village in New York City. Notice how the sun is more golden — therefore, I’m guessing, taken at a later time in the day than my husband’s shot — giving the image an entirely different mood. Notice also in both that the objects beneath the sun’s rays are almost in silhouette: remember that when you’re trying to shoot these God rays, you’re shooting for the rays, not the actual objects in the frame. Well done.

2. Clouds

Clouds obviously also make great subjects for photographs, and the following are pretty stellar:

Now, this amazing shot shared by Patrick Powers has quite obviously been processed; however, it’s been done to great effect. Those clouds — those crazy-white, featherlike clouds — look positively three-dimensional, almost like they could float right out of the screen. The entire scene almost looks artificial, rendering the shot more a work of art, then a documentary image. Really beautiful work.

And how impressive is this shot shared by Bonnie Bowne, taken in the Grand Tetons? Notice all the shades that are in the thunderheads, going from snowy white to dark, foreboding grey. I love how the trees in the foreground are in total silhouette, so that their details don’t compete with the colours of the clouds. If I were to guess (and Bonnie, if you read this, feel free to correct me), she exposed the shot for the white of the clouds, “tricking” the camera into thinking it was shooting in bright sunshine — thus resulting in a faster shutter speed, and making the trees look dark. Amazing.

3. Sunshine.

Of course, the most beautiful subject you can shoot in the sky is sunshine, and obviously, sunrises and sunsets are pretty intoxicating. Here are a couple of really stunning ones.

This sunset, shot and shared by Andy Bokanev Photography is stunning — not just because of the colours of the sky, but notice he also managed to get the light in the lighthouse building, as well as the colours of the flowers in the foreground. That’s some pretty stellar exposure right there. The glow of the light in the windows does so much to set the mood of this image — very well done. I’m guessing that this shot was taken using a very long exposure (that is, a slow shutter speed) and a tripod, with the ISO set to a very low number, to reduce graininess. Absolutely stunning.

In addition, take a look at this sunrise:

PDPhotography, who shot and shared this shot, has revealed one of my favourite ways of photographing the sky: from 37,000 feet. I love shots out of airplane windows, and this one is pretty great. I think we often think that we should only pull out our cameras when we’ve finally arrived at our destination — this shot is a great reminder that there’s some beautiful scenery en route, as well.

4. Silhouettes

Finally, I love the use of silhouette to accentuate the sky. A beautiful example:

This is another shot shared by Bonnie Bowne, taken — get his — in the parking lot of a Walmart store. What makes this shot so effective is that instead of just taking the shot of the sky — which might have been the more knee-jerk approache — she took the shot with the stark, dark tree in the foreground. The black silhouette of the tree has the effect of actually making the colours and light of the sky far more prominent, more impressive. It was an inspired way to shoot the sky.

And finally, this amazing night shot by fiznatty:

Seriously, does this shot not take your breath away? Fiznatty says, “the moon rises above the snowy slopes overlooking the Swedish town of Bjorkliden.” Unbelievable.

Okay, again, taking a guess as to how fiznatty managed this: obviously, no flash was involved, and he likely used a tripod and left his shutter open for quite some time, in order to pick up the light of the stars in the sky. If I’m right, then fiznatty stood still for quite some time — maybe a minute or two? — while the shutter was open, taking the shot. Amazing.

So that’s it. Again, if any of the photographers who took these shots would like to share their expertise here, I’d love to learn from you. And if you have any questions or additional comments, as always, you can always contact me directly at karenDOTwalrondATweblogsincDOTcom – and I’m happy to address them in upcoming Through the Gadling Lens posts.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.

Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.