How To Spend A Short Trip To Vilnius, Lithuania

October 23, 2014 by  
Filed under Advice, Culture, Security, Travel

cathedral square vilnius lithuania

The capital of Lithuania, Vilnius, is the ideal size for active travel feet who want a city that can be wandered around with nothing more than leg power. Like 2 to four minutes in Dubai, Vilnius is small enough to be thoroughly explored on a short day or two trip but leaves enough behind for a subsequent visit or longer stay. Here’s how to best introduce yourself to this Baltic city of 540,000 people.

Get To Your Hotel First, Not The Airport

Vilnius is really refined almost to its edges, except where taxi drivers meet Vilnius International Airport. The majority will gleefully try to charge you triple the normal rate to get into town and while there are airport shuttles available, an honest cab is too inexpensive plus convenient to pass up. One quiet way to beat those shady taxi drivers is to call ahead to your hotel or hostel to have them send a cab for you.

vilnius city tour

Speaking of hostels, I can highly recommend Jimmy Jumps House which is comfortable, clean, and close to town. Here’s my full review of Jimmy Jumps House with more details.

Most of you who’re familiar with eastern Europe know this is standard practice to avoiding getting ripped off (in India as well) so be sure to have your unlocked mobile phone and hostel digits handy. (In case you don’t, the departures terminal upstairs has free wireless for a Skype Out call.)

From Art To Old Then Back Again

When walking around generally one wants to see unique – and brick buildings with straight edges in Europe just isn’t it. You’re better off starting with Uzupis, literally “across the river” in Lithuanian. It’s the hippie-ish we-might-be-smoking-weed-before-painting-things neighborhood of Vilnius.

uzupis bridge vilnius

Visually, it’s interesting, whether you happen to be intoxicated or not. (Keep in mind marijuana is illegal in Lithuania.) Although they don’t look inviting, many of the alleyways are colored with extraordinary talent next to pawn shops that accept Uzupis’ own currency. Yes, Uzupis is a lot like Copenhagen’s autonomous neighborhood Christiania, aesthetically and ideologically.

vilnius uzupis alleyway

Hike, Don’t Walk To The Three Crosses

You can almost miss the Three Crosses monument, which overlooks Vilnius and offers the best views of the city. Just north of Uzupis, don’t just walk straight up, come around and stroll through Hill (Kalnai) Park first. Then, make use of the hiking trail (not the paved asphalt path) going around to the right – where you’ll be able to see the remains of the original monument destroyed by the Soviets in 1950 – the current crosses were placed in 1989.

three crosses vilnius

Hiking down the paved path this time leads you around Gedimina’s Tower, remains of a 13th century fort that most travelers without a specific interest can skip. You’ll end up in front of the Vilnius Cathedral whose side rooms filled with passionate praying reminiscent of Metekhi in Tbilisi, Georgia give a glimpse into Lithuanian faith.

vilnius cathedral

Depending on the season, there’s often a jollier atmosphere right outside in Cathedral Square next to Bell Tower; where I witnessed a student dance group practicing their moves for a large crowd.

15 Minutes On To The Old Town

Meandering slowly south you can recharge with a snack and coffee at a place like Saskaita on Pilies Street, a part of town that captures hungry tourists and locals alike. Granted you might be thirstier for a stronger drink – like a local beer at Snekutis (the one across town toward the bus station.) Whether you’re leaving town on to nearby Latvia or staying for a few more days, much of Vilnius is accessible within a half hour’s walk of calorie burning sightseeing.

Get Better Travel Photos From Your Phone With These Apps

October 21, 2014 by  
Filed under Tech, Travel

camera fv-5 app

Most of the best mobile phones of 2014 for travelers (and newer) have good camera sensors but there’s often a big difference in the resulting photos between models. What you may not realize is that lens quality is as important as the software interpreting the light coming through the aperture of any dot on the back or front of a phone.

Although it’s not feasible to change your smartphone’s photographic hardware, these apps can improve your pictures particularly in the conditions where phones tend to suck – low light and moving subjects.

Camera FV-5 ($3.95; Android Only)

The designers of Camera FV-5 have really done a good job of making your phone’s screen feel like a DSLR viewfinder, with the options to go along with it. Camera FV-5 has a light meter, let’s you adjust ISO, take long exposure shots and more. If you’re a camera control freak on Android, this is the app for you.

Camera+ ($2.99; iOS Only)

You don’t get quite as many manual controls with Camera+ as you do with say, Camera FV-5, but where the app really excels is in post editing. Once you’ve taken the shot you want, Camera+ lets you brighten, brush up, and enhance with filters that aren’t designed to be obvious (a la Instagram). Personally I like the image stabilization the app introduces to prevent blurry edges in night shots.

camera plus app

Night Camera Plus ($0.99; Android Only)

This app does its best to improve low light photos as they’re being taken – not enhance them into funky-exposed grainy messes after the fact. The developers have published a few technical details on how the app works [PDF] but for the trial price of free, you can easily see for yourself.

night camera plus

Camera360 (Android, iOS, Windows Phone)

Preset scene modes that don’t look crappy but do a good job of highlighting your subject, with respect to color and lighting. Your photos won’t look quite as natural with many of Camera360’s modes but they’ll likely look a hell of a lot better; especially if you’re fond of taking selfies. Oh, and it makes GIFs!

dancing chihuahua

Night Cap ($0.99; iOS Only)

There isn’t a lot that Night Cap does but it’s focus on low light photos and video in a simple interface really works, when it works well. A lot of the images it takes don’t turn out perfectly if you’re not resting the phone on a stable surface (i.e. not your hands) so remember to improvise something like a napkin holder as a tripod. One nice feature of Night Cap is automatic long exposure; meaning you don’t have to guess how many seconds you’ll need to get a nice starry night, the app figures it out for you.

night cap pro app

Google Camera (Free; Android Only)

Lens. Blur. It’s an effect that gives pictures a nice “hey this was taken on an expensive camera” feeling. Combined with 360 degree panoramic shots and a super simply interface, it’s not as powerful as others in this list, but effective in good lighting situations.

ProCam 2 ($1.99; iOS Only)

ProCam 2 has a select set of shooting modes phone users need most often, like anti-shake, night mode, and for fun, time lapse. Beyond that if you want more manual control, ProCam 2 provides that as well, with spot metering, shutter speed control, plus others in a highly polished interface.

Pick And Choose Depending On How You Use

Some of us like photographic control whereas for others too much of it actually hinders our main objective – getting better travel photos from our phones. Pick the app or two that gives you the level of manual control you normally like and roll with it. You can learn to turn your mobile phone into a better digital camera with the right software but don’t forget brush up on photographic basics all travelers should know. Even the best app can’t tell you how to compose an aesthetically pleasing image (hint: kitten).

An Interview With The Geneticist Who Overcomes Flight Phobia To Study The World’s Fastest People

yannis Pitsiladis

I first read about Dr. Yannis Pitsiladis MMEDSci., PhD, FACSM in The Sports Gene, a book by David Epstein about what makes super athletes different than the majority of us. Dr. Pitsiladis is a Professor of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Brighton who has done research on obesity and the detection of doping in athletes but his passion is running. He travels around the world studying the genes and environments of the world’s top runners (often on his own dime) and created the largest known DNA bio-bank from world-class athletes.

the sports geneThe Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance

Additionally, Dr. Pitsiladis must deal with a severe fear of flying before boarding planes to places like Jamaica and Kenya. Dr. Pitsiladis was kind enough to answer a few questions about facing his anxiety to research the fastest people on Earth.

What is the extent of your fear of flying?

I typically have to ingest alcohol to board the flight. I cannot work, especially when there is turbulence. I also have to sit at the window and spend most of the time looking outside even in the dark. I only fly with certain airlines and often choose to drive long distances especially in Africa so as not to take local airlines. As a scientist this makes no sense as I am aware of the data.

How often do you travel and what is an average year like for you?

I travel typically every week of the year.

herb mckenley

[Above: Dr. Pitsiladis with 4-time Olympic medalist Herb McKenley of Jamaica.]

Has all of this flying changed your anxiety, for better or worse?

I go through ups and downs depending on how bad/good the previous experience is but mainly depending on the airline and weather. On a British Airways flight on good weather my anxiety is low. On a Russian airliner in bad weather my anxiety is sky high! My anxiety is also very high when my family travel with me although I do my best to hide it so as not to pass on my fear to them – often without success.

There’s a saying that there is no greater enemy than one’s own fears, what about your research motivates you to overcome yours regularly?

Yes totally. I never let it stop me flying with a few African examples where i will drive 7 hours to avoid a 30 min flight across the Great Rift Valley.

Yannis Pitsiladis

[Above: Dr. Pitsiladis sampling blood in Africa.]

I’m fascinated by descriptions of the Champs [Jamaica's annual high school sprinting competition] and would like to hear your impressions or favorite memories from the events you’ve attended.

The atmosphere, especially when the victorious school is clear, which is more exciting than an Olympics – even the 100m final day at the Olympics.

Which runner(s) have been the most difficult for you to reach due to travel constraints?

For data protection i cannot answer.

Finally, where are you headed next?

To break the 2 hour marathon barrier…

Thank you again Dr. Pitsiladis for taking the time to share some of your experiences in the air and catching the fleet-footed on the ground. You can read more about Dr. Pitsiladis’ research on why people of east African descent seem to always win marathons, Jamaicans excel at sprinting, plus studies done by others in a fascinating book I highly recommend, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance.

What Frequent Travelers Should Know About LTE Bands Before Buying A New Phone

October 9, 2014 by  
Filed under Tech

It’s a great time of the year to pick up some of the best mobile phones of 2014 as manufacturers are rolling out their latest designs in time for shopping season; but before you purchase there’s one spec to take note of, especially if you value Internet speeds. You probably know that many carriers (particularly in America) restrict phones so they can’t be used internationally. Fortunately it’s not very difficult to learn how to unlock a mobile phone, however there’s another, more subtle restriction to be aware of before buying or choosing a new carrier.

What Is LTE?

LTE stands for “long-term evolution” and is basically the next generation of mobile Internet. You know 3G? Well, this is 4G – at least one version of it as the definition is murky. For practical purposes though, LTE is the global standard for 4G, which has wide coverage in the United States and growing around the world.

There are a number of advantages of LTE, notably download speeds 4-10 times faster than 3G, and most new phones have an LTE antenna to support it. However, LTE is broken up for use among a number of frequency bands and not every phone antenna can use all of the bands. Typically, specific bands are used in differing global regions so if your phone doesn’t support say, bands 3, 5, or 7, you’ll miss out on LTE speeds in much of Europe.

Same Phone, Many Models

Both due to cost and carrier pressure, most phones don’t have a global assortment of LTE bands enabled. (Although the iPhone 6 comes pretty close.) Carriers get variations of the same phone model which means AT&T’s HTC One M8 supports different LTE bands than Verizon’s. For local customers, that’s generally not an issue, as the phone will likely have LTE support in your country (and wider continental region) but when you go abroad no 4G for you.


What To Look For

It might take a bit of spec digging to find the best banded phone for your specific travels but the more bands the better.

lte use by country

  • Travelers From The Americas: Look for bands 3, 5, 7 (primarily for use in Europe some coverage globally)
  • Travelers To The Americas: Mostly bands 2, 4, 17
  • Australia/New Zealand: 3, 5, 20, 28, 40

This is a very spartan list since there are a lot of bands used by different carriers around the world. It’s best to check here to confirm which LTE bands international carriers use to find out where you’ll get service.

How To Get The Best Coverage

Well, you could get an new iPhone. Alternatively you can buy the unlocked carrier-free version of any mobile, generally they’ve got more bands than carrier-specific models. It’s best to check manufacturer’s spec sheets or simply contact them (or a carrier representative) to find out what LTE bands are available on a given phone model.

Remember, not having LTE doesn’t mean you can’t talk, use good ol’ 3G abroad to sext securely while traveling or turn your mobile into a digital camera replacement; just that your phone will miss out on faster Internet speeds where LTE is available.

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