Using Twitter to plan a holiday

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Recently I’ve been doing a bit of work on the HolidayExtras Twitter account. We’re trying to use it as a way to promote products and special offers and generally spread the word about the brand and the company. It’s been fairly successful so far, we’ve gained 261 followers over a month or two and that’s with really very little work. It’s something that two of us work on in spare time between other projects.

I’ve been using Twitter for my own purposes as well outside of work, my Jon Clarke account for friends and then another for my band SecondEdge. It’s a really interesting tool for discovering new content on the web and seems a great way to connect with people. I never really got into Facebook, it was too much spam for me to really be bothered with. Twitter has forced people to really condense their message into what they want to say, which I think is a good thing. Enables me to cut out the useless fluff (pokes and pie throwing anyone?) and get to the good information.

Twitter search I think is big news for the Internet. It’s essentially a canvas of current public opinion. I’m using it at work to find what people are saying about the company and if anyone is having any problem with parking or hotels. It’s at this point that we can step in and offer a helping hand. It can be an invaluable boost to public opinion of your brand, even if you don’t make a direct sale the fact that you’re seen to be going out of your way to help can give a positive boost to your image. As soon as my band finish our recording I’ll be taking what I’ve learnt and applying it there as well.

So what does this have to do with travel, the whole point of this blog? Well what better medium to ask people about a hotel before you book a stay? What better way to find people who have been to your resort of choice beforehand? If you think about it, you can even ask locals where the best places to eat are before you get there.

I’ll try to paint a scenario for you. I’m planning a holiday for the summer, let’s say to New Zealand. I’m planning on staying at a Gatwick hotel before I fly out. I can search Twitter for Gatwick hotels and see what people have to say. Like this;

It's easy to get public opinion

It's easy to get public opinion

So what I could do is directly message this person and ask what hotel they stayed at and what they thought of it.

Let’s say I booked my hotel, I’ve flown over to New Zealand and I’m looking for a good place to eat in Wellington. Well, what do I find on Twitter?

So where are the best restaurants in Wellington, New Zealand?

So where are the best restaurants in Wellington, New Zealand?

As more and more people sign up (hopefully it’ll be bigger than Facebook) it’ll become easier and easier to ask almost anything you like and get genuine help and opinion.

However you still have to be careful, and just like the rest of the Internet there’s a lot of crap out there. Make sure you can wade through the rubbish and find the trustworthy stuff. Right now the majority of the Twitter population is made up of early adopters and tech-savvy people. As it becomes more mainstream then it’ll inevitably attract the whole plethora of people we’ve (sadly) come to expect online. That being said, I’ll still be using Twitter search and I’d encourage you to as well.

As a final point I’d like to consider the possibility that Twitter and the services that will inevitably outdo and supercede it have brought in Web 3.0, or the Semantic Web. The Wikipedia article defines the Semantic Web as;

The Semantic Web is an evolving extension of the World Wide Web in which the semantics of information and services on the web is defined, making it possible for the web to understand and satisfy the requests of people and machines to use the web content. It derives from World Wide Web Consortium director Sir Tim Burners-Lee’s vision of the Web as a universal medium for data, information, and knowledge exchange.

And this is exactly what you can do with Twitter. You can ask an open question and hope that your followers will answer. Or you can find an “expert” through Twitter search and then ask them. Now the problem with it as that you’re reliant on other people responding and that they’re reliable. And what if you don’t have enough followers? What the real Semantic Web will be is an automatic process that will work much like Google’s current search engine but will understand language and your questions. I think that Twitter is a step in this direction and that anyone going on holiday would be foolish to ignore its potential.

The message I’m trying to get across here is that even if you don’t really care for the Internet Web 3.0 theory stuff is that it’s never been easier to ask about where you’re going on holiday and get genuine recommendations. The strongest referral one can get is from a friend that has already experienced what you’re thinking about doing. The difference here is that you can have friends from all over the world, and that’s just never been possible before.

Where to stay at Birmingham airport

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So, if any of you that read this blog have looked around I’m sure you’ve realised that we work for holiday add-on company Holdiay Extras. This blog has little to do with that however, but I thought I’d relate this post to what I did last week for work as it might be useful for a few people in the UK.

As part of my job I occasionally have to visit hotels and car parks that we sell on the website. Last Friday I drove up to the Midlands to visit the Birmingham Hilton Metropole. Now here I could begin a rant about the state of British motorways and how one accident seems to gridlock the entire network for London and the South, but I won’t. Instead I’ll borrow a picture from Phil Plait to truely display how I feel about the average motorist.

The stupid, it burns

The stupid, it does indeed burn

Quite why everyone needs to slow right down to have a look at a crash on the other side of the motorway I’ll never know. It backs up traffic for miles and added at least another hour or two to my journey. At this point I feel I need to post a bunch of “Fail” photos, but I’ll refrain (for now).

In any case, motorway woe aside, getting the Hilton from Birmingham Airparks proved remarkably easy. I took the bus to the airport, and then the free monorail to the NEC. After a walk through the eerily deserted NEC complex the Hilton is just a short walk past the lake. It’s a little confusing at first as you come in through the back rather than the grander main entrance. However the signs are obvious enough that it’s not a problem.

What I really wanted to say was that the hotel is genuinely the best airport hotel I’ve visited (and I’ve visited many). It felt like a “real” four star hotel, unlike a few others I’ve been to that seem to be more stripped down due to their proximity to the airport and the assumption that people will only ever spend one night there. I’d attribute this to the location. Being so close the NEC I guess they’d get quite a few people staying the for a longer length of time.

Anyway, just a short post today. Just wanted to recommend (if you have the cash, it’s not cheap) the Hilton for a hotel stay if you’re flying from Birmingham airport.

A hotel on the Moon?

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What if you could book a hotel stay on the Moon? And no, I don’t mean The Moon Hotel in Brussels. I mean that great big rock orbiting the Earth. NASA is already planning return trips to the Moon, with the eventual possibility of a manned mission to Mars. A moonbase would be the first logical step to take in sending humans to the Red Planet. It would mean vital testing could be done on the hardships of extra-terrestrial habitation and would allow any problems to be overcome relatively easily given the close proximity to Earth.

In the future given that manned missions to Mars are a success I’m left asking what would happen to a Moon base and would it ever open up for civilians? Given the extreme cost of space travel it makes sense to try and recoup some money by allowing people to stay in a ‘Moon hotel’. Don’t forget that the commercialisation of space travel is well underway with Virgin Galactic leading the way. In my mind at least, it’s entirely plausible that one day ‘space tourists’ will be able to stay for a few days on the lunar surface. The question remains though, what would it be like and how different would it be to any other hotel on Earth? I thought I’d have a look at some airport hotels and see how a ‘moonport’ hotel would differ.

An airport hotel is typically there for travellers to ensure that they’ve had a good night’s sleep before they travel and that they don’t get stuck in traffic and miss their flight. They do a great job of this and I’m sure most people much prefer flying on a full breakfast and full quota of sleep. Of course, on the Moon traffic isn’t really a concern and neither is missing your flight. Well, that is your flight is unlikely to take off without you. I know I’d rather miss a flight at Heathrow than one off the Moon. Anyway. The purpose of a Moon hotel stay would be to experience the flight, marvel at the view and spend some time in microgravity (the Moon’s gravity is around one sixth that of Earth).

The view would be quite different, I think a Moon hotel has the advantage over an airport hotel in this regard. From an airport hotel you can see a small amount out of the window, maybe a bit of the runway if you’re lucky.

Airport hotel room view

Airport hotel room view

However from the Moon you can see the entire planet.

Earthrise

Earthrise

Where an airport hotel trounces any future Moon bases is facilities. Moon bases will have extremely difficult engineering obstacles to overcome in order to really work. Power, light, temperature, gravity, pressure, it’s all different on the Moon. A Lunar day lasts for about 15 Earth days and so bases will ideally be built around the poles where there is continual sunlight. Due to the lack of atmosphere the outside temperature on the Moon varies from way above the boiling point of water down to -153˚C. Far too extreme to enjoy a drink outside for sure. Minimal gravity on the Moon would have an adverse effect on bone and muscle strength as well as causing problems for the immune system. Hopefully problems you can avoid with an Earthly airport hotel.

So on the Moon you can’t go outside unless you’re in a spacesuit, the food won’t be as good and if you stay too long you may end up with health problems. In contrast at an airport hotel the food is often great, you can go outside in whatever clothing you want, it doesn’t cost millions of dollars to get there. Along with that you get a nice large space to walk around in, you can go swimming and you can take the kids.

However, even having said that I know where I’d like to stay one day…

Seven wonders of the world

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There are many things in the world that we never really sit back to reflect how unique they are. Take the Airbus A380 for instance, the aircraft can can can carry up to 600 passengers, a figure likely to increase to 900 people if sat as economy travellers. The A380 represents an amazing feat of aircraft design, engineering, and construction and it will hold the distinction of being the largest passenger aircraft ever to have filled our sky.

The Australian national carrier is one of three airlines – the others are Singapore Airlines and Emirates – currently flying the super jumbo. The planes have come with demands such as building larger airports and runways at major airports around the world. The plane is indeed special, travel luxuries for premium-class fliers include double bed seats and it is rumored that some airlines are thought to have ordered for showers and gymnasium.

The airports that will handle A380 flights are taking special steps to accommodate the behemoth. Because of its size — 262 feet wide, 79 feet tall, 1.25 million pounds fully loaded — most taxiways can’t support it. The A380 can fit into only a handful of existing gates in the nation.

The Russians have built what can be called the worlds largest aircraft, though, with the Antonov AN-225 heavy lift transport, which has a larger wingspan than the Airbus A380. Both of these modern day wonders have still not eclipsed the Hughes H-4 Hercules. The Hercules is sometimes referred to as the largest flying boat ever built simply because it was built from wood. However, it was never used much except for its maiden prototype flight.

 

Here is a comparison image courtesy of Wikipedia.

A size comparison between four of the largest aircraft, the An-225 (green), the Hughes H-4 Hercules (gold), the Boeing 747-8 (blue), and the Airbus A380-800 (pink).

A size comparison between four of the largest aircraft, the An-225 (green), the Hughes H-4 Hercules (gold), the Boeing 747-8 (blue), and the Airbus A380-800 (pink).

From a young age I’d always assumed that the Seven Wonders of the World were universally agreed upon. Seven natural wonders and seven man-made wonders. However it would seem that this isn’t the case, ask what the wonders are and you’ll get a different response many times. People have tried to officially declare what they are before, notably the group New7Wonders who claimed to have polled over 100 million people in order to find what the general consensus was. Their poll was flawed in that it allowed multiple voting, so the results will be skewed. However over such a large amount of votes their result can give a decent impression of what are universally seen as wonders.

 

Anyhow, the point of this article isn’t to nitpick over what are wonders and which aren’t. The point is to highlight some of the natural wonders of the world and maybe trigger some ideas for holidays. If you’re going to spend a lot on a foreign holiday I guess it figures to go see something wonderful. I’ll use a list that CNN made a while back as the basis, but hopefully mentioning these places will inspire you to go out and see the World.

The Victoria Falls are on the border between African countries Zambia and Zimbabwe. They’re the largest waterfalls in the world, despite not being the highest. Victoria Falls is 1.7km long and so is the largest sheet of falling water on the planet.

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls

The site is rare in that you can approach extremely close to it on foot. Both Zimbabwe and Zambia have declared the area as a national park and there are towns on either side of the border that you can use as a base for a visit. The site is home to a huge amount of African wildlife and is a truly fanastic place to visit for anyone that wants to visit the continent.

Perhaps a less well-known natural wonder is the Parícutin volcano in Mexico. Rising 424 metres from the landscape it’s the most recent volcano to form in the South American country and is part of a long history of volcanism in the area. There are around 1,400 volcanoes in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic belt and North America with Parícutin being the most memorable.

Paricutin

Parícutin

The volcano first erupted in 1943 and was witnessed by the owner of the farmland, Dionisio Pulido and his family. The lava flows from the eruptions engulfed two local villages, causing the residents to have to move. Interestingly, no-one died from the ash or lava but three people are reported to have died from lightning strikes caused by the volcanism. It’s an interesting site and certainly shows how active the Earth’s crust really is. It’s a unique chance to see a recent landscape being formed as often geological process are far too slow for anyone to witness during a lifetime.

I’ve mentioned them before in blogs on this site, and here is yet another gratuitous picture.

Aurora Borealis

Aurora Borealis

The Aurora Borealis is the result of particles from the Sun colliding with the Earth’s atmosphere. Visible at the poles on clear nights they’re one of nature’s most spectacular sights. I won’t go on about them anymore, but check out my posts on Greenland and Norway for more information.

Perhaps one for the more intrepid traveller, Mount Everest is up next. It’s the highest mountain in the world and lies nestled in the Himalayas on the border between Nepal and Tibet. Explorers and climbers have flocked to the giant mountain since Edmund Hilary’s first successful ascent on 29th of May 1953.

Mount Everest

Mount Everest

However if you’re thinking of tackling the epic climb then bear in mind that it’s a long and dangerous journey to the top. 210 people have lost their lives on Everest, including 8 who died in a storm in 1996. Mount Everest is notorious for its Death Zone, the areas of the climb that are over 8,000 feet above sea level. After this point climbers will start to suffer from a lack of air to breathe as well as extreme cold harsh weather. Most climbers use bottled oxygen to help reach the top, although this has lead to a worry of excessive littering on the mountain.

The harbour of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil is considered a natural wonder, and is much easier to visit and enjoy than Mount Everest, thankfully. Rio is a city that is full of Brazilian culture and is home to carnivals, the famous tourist beaches and the world’s largest football stadium.

Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro

The city is home to the largest and second largest urban forests in the world, as well as one of the new wonders of the world, the giant statue, Christ the Redeemer. Rio de Janeiro is striking for its setting and natural beauty and somewhere I’d definitely like to visit in the future.

Distinguishable from space and the largest single structure of organisms in the world, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most breathtaking natural sites on the planet. Constructed of billions of tiny creatures known as coral polyps the reef stretches for 2,600km along the coast of Queensland, Australia.

Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef

The reef is home to a huge variety of wildlife and has to managed carefully to ensure its survival. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park helps to reduce the impact made by humans as well as protect it from natural threats. This is another of nature’s wonders that is relatively easy to visit. Snorkling and diving in the area is extremely popular with tourists.

Last up is the Grand Canyon in the USA. It’s a huge structure that has been formed as the Colorado River snakes its way across Arizona. It’s not the deepest canyon in the world, but it is absolutely colossal. Stretching for 446km it gets up to 29km wide and 1.8km deep.

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon

The Canyon is a site of outstanding natural beauty and has been revered as a holy site for Native Americans for centuries. It’s possible to view the canyon from the air or to sail down the river. Tourists are also able to view from the rim of the canyon. Anyone looking to visit the USA should definitely consider heading into Arizona to view the Grand Canyon, and if you live in the States then what are you waiting for!

Here comes 2009

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With new year’s eve just around the corner, I can expect to hear numerous people asking “where did 2008 go?” and “I can’t believe it’s been nine years since the millennium”. I often wonder to myself, had we not spent the majority of the year at work, would we be asking the same question? If we’d spent this year relaxing on a beautiful tropical island, would it matter what year it is or how the time had passed? Perhaps it’s just me.

New year’s eve is definitely a time for reflection, to see whether we’ve achieved everything we’ve wanted to achieve thus far and to decide what our future goals will be. I can safely say I’ve never met anyone who’s reached all of their new year goals by December 31st 11.59pm. However, we all fall into the trap of wishing for a prosperous new year and setting a handful of goals, even if we were far from completing the last batch.

 

happy_new_year_by_horeb

This year I feel like doing something a little different from the usual ‘lose weight goal’ or ‘save for something or other goal’, I want to throw caution to the wind and set myself something a little unusual. God knows I need a something to put a smile on my face with this massive economic recession looming.

Instead of feeling depressed after I’ve realised that I haven’t lost the love handles or can’t afford to up sticks and travel yet, I intend to set some exciting events which will highlight certain pockets of my 2009. I urge you to do the same, after all, what’s life without something to look forward to.

1) Spontaneous adventure. I would love to set aside a weekend or a bank holiday to jump on a train or head to the airport and travel to somewhere I’ve never been before. Grab a friend or partner and throw yourself into an unknown territory.

2) A hazy summer camping trip. Stick on your best walking shoes and find a field to set up your tent and bbq. Nothing could be better than laying on a blanket and basking in the summer sun whilst sipping on a cool beer.

3) Hire a barge. I’ve been thinking of this one for quite a while. I think it would be so extraordinary to wake up on a boat and set sail down a river, stopping at a rustic pub or two.

4)Visit relatives or have them to stay. This should really go without saying but I know I don’t see my family or extended family enough. 

5) Hire a house on the beach and invite your friends to stay. Get together and play Frisbee on the beach or dash into the freezing sea before retiring to a few hot toddies in the beach house. 

6) Go to a festival. The atmosphere at a festival is electric, I know it sounds corny but it just makes you feel alive.

7)Do something for charity. Whether it be a sponsored run, bike ride or even a cake sale.

8)Give blood. I am absolutely terrified of doing this and the thought of it  makes me go weak at the knees, however I know I need to get over this one day.

9) Take up a hobby. Instead of going home after work and watching the TV, get stuck into a hobby. I’ll be taking up dress making, wish me luck!

10)Do something to challenge your fears. Zorbing, wakeboarding, climbing, something physical which will push your limits. I plan to challenge my fear of heights in 2009.

11) One random act of kindness. Bit of an odd goal but one of the most important. Help a passing stranger with their groceries, hold a door open, help someone off the bus, give up your seat on the tube or pass your magazine to someone else on the train. I firmly believe kindness ripples like a stone dropped into water. Share a little happiness with someone else and it’ll be passed on.

12) Laugh as often and as much as you can.

13) My final point. Plan something spectacular for your birthday, it’s your one special day of the year. I hear Las Vegas or New York calling my name.

 

Happy new year.

Two ideas for a winter holiday

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Something tells me I’m in the minority here, but I would rather spend a holiday in an Arctic wilderness than on a warm sunny beach. I guess to most people that sounds insane but I’m sure I can’t be alone in this. For me there is something hauntingly beautiful about expanses of snow and mountains that a crowded beach full of fat, sweaty tourists can never match.

The great thing about visiting one of the vast snowy expanses our planet has to offer is that you’ll most likely have huge areas of land all to yourself. Forget fighting the crowd for a tiny area of sand, you could be gliding over hundreds of miles of pristine snow instead. As we’re in the heart of winter here in the UK and it’s heading up to Christmas I thought I’d take a look at some of the winter wildernesses I’d most like to visit in the near future.

Alaska is the largest state in the US and also the northernmost. As a holiday destination it’s often overlooked, I’d guess mainly due to its remoteness and extreme climate. As a place to go for your week or two week break I’m not sure I’d really recommend it, especially travelling from the UK, but it is most certainly a place I would want to visit, probably as part of a longer travelling experience.

Boating in Alaska

Boating in Alaska

Northern lights over Alaska

Northern lights over Alaska

The state is larger than Sweden, Norway, Finland, the Netherlands and the UK all put together so there’s definitely scope for exploration and adventure while on holiday there. Alaska has more coastline than all the other US states combined and over three million lakes. Fishing and boating are popular activites along with dog sledding. A popular event is the Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race that starts in Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska. Dog sledding is the still a popular form of transport in parts of Alaska, due to the conditions making road and rail travel impractical. If you want to see some of the most beautiful scenery the USA has to offer then I’d definitely recommend trying to visit Alaska, just remember to pack warm clothes before you go.

For some of the most stunning coastlines in the world then Norway is a great choice for anyone wishing to visit naturally beautiful place with a sub-arctic climate. All along its vast western coastline are the famous fjords, some of the most striking scenery in the World.

A fjord in Norway, picture from Wikipedia

A fjord in Norway, picture from Wikipedia

Norway claimed second place in the 2008 Environmental Index, just behind Switzerland. The rankings are based on how well the country’s policies have positively benefitted its environment. Looking through the photos on www.visitnorway.com it’s easy to see why. The vast lakes of the fjords are right next to huge mountains and rolling hills and it’s hard to imagine anywhere that can match it. The beauty of the country is that it’s also rather sparsely populated, even the capital, Oslo, is home to just 573,388 people (there are 7,355,400 in London). It’s a long way for anyone coming from the USA but if you’re heading over to visit Europe then I’d certainly think strongly about going. English is pretty much a second language in Norway, so any American visiting should do just fine on that front.

Of course, there’s more to Norway than ‘just’ the fjords. The country is known as the Land of the Midnight Sun and areas to the north inside the arctic circle experience periods of perpetual darkness and light throughout the year. It’s also a great place to see the northern lights, much like Greenland that I blogged about earlier. For a true arctic experience you could also head out to Svalbard, an archipelago to the north of mainland Norway. From here you can go on skiing trips, snowmobile safaris and dog sledging trips. It’s also a fantastic place to see arctic wildlife such as polar bears and walruses. And if camping remember fire guards.

Hopefully with these two examples of winter climates I’ve shown that not every holiday must be in the scorching heat, there’s a lot of our planet to see and much of it is in the polar regions. The great thing about these places is that with their low populations they remain largely unspoiled by human inhabitation and are some of the last places you can go that haven’t been ruined.

Space – the future of tourism?

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For anyone looking for the future of travel then there only really seems to be one ultimate destination. It is the only place that is left unexplored once you’ve covered the Earth. Outer Space is the last unexplored territory and is really the most unknown factor for tourism and travel. We’re still a long way from going on a summer holiday to the Moon or spending a gap year on Mars but the reality of commercial space travel is here and is set to grow over the next decade into a very real industry. Companies such as Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic are looking to offer people the chance to experience weightlessness and views of Earth from above for a affordable price. Of course affordable is a relative term when it comes to space travel, it is still decades off being a realistic option for anyone other than the super-rich.

Earth from space

Earth from space

The term space tourism is itself a contested one, many of the original private astronauts reject the term, saying that they were carrying out scientific research and that they were not just there for the ride. This is true with the first few people flying with private funding not being tourists in the traditional sense. People such as Dennis Tito and Helen Sharman had scientific agenda to ahere to despite not being from a more traditional NASA background. These pioneers mostly preferred the term of spaceflight participant. Despite not being tourists as we imagine they did break an important boundry that has allowed and will allow more people to visit space with their own finances.

The biggest barrier for anyone wishing to travel into space is the cost. Dennis Tito was reported as having spent $20 million to fly into space, but later the figure is put at closer to $12 million. However Virgin Galactic are offering seats on their SpaceShipTwo craft for much cheaper. Seats can be booked with a deposit of $20,000, with prices set to drop as more people book their flights.

Virgin are looking to be the leaders of commercial spaceflight, with the firm belief that Man’s future lies outside our own planet. It may well be the case that as the century wears on that it will be possible to take a holiday to the Moon. There can be no more breathtaking sight than the Earth from space, and it would definitely give you some good opportunities for memorable holiday photos. It is an expensive holiday, but as a travel option for the rich among us I think it remains an unbeatable choice.

A photo of Earth taken from SpaceShipOne

A photo of Earth taken from SpaceShipOne

Scaled Composites is currently building Virgin’s first passenger craft, SpaceShipTwo and its mothership WhiteKnightTwo. Test launches are planned after construction is finished in 2008, with the first passenger flights in 2009. SpaceShipTwo will take two pilots and six passengers on each flight, lasting for around two and a half hours. The flight is sub-orbital and so doesn’t reach the distances or speeds achieved by the Space Shuttle. Desipte barely clearing the atmosphere the ship will give the passengers moments of weightlessness and awe-inspiring views of the planet. The craft will fly attached to the mothership until 50,000 feet at which point it will detach and fire up and out of the atmosphere. Virgin’s efforts are commendable for trying to break spaceflight into the commercial sector and bring it closer to normal people.

A holiday in space is still a long way off, with projected flights lasting just a few hours. I do believe that it remains a distinctive possibility for the future, and certainly within our lifetimes. It’s a little expensive right now, but with research well underway into alternative methods of breaking free of the atmosphere such as space elevators it seems like only a matter of time. What better place to get away from it all than the silence of Mars?

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