Sunday, August 20, 2017

Lighted Travel Mirrors

Hotel vanity lighting is notoriously awful. In most cases, the lights are just too dim to allow a woman to see and put on makeup correctly. While some hotels have recently added swing mirrors with extra lighting, most have not. Worst of all, you never know what the next hotel will offer.
I think I have tried just about every mirror on the market, looking for just the right model. The first one was nice but required four large batteries, which made it too heavy to lug around in a suitcase. The second one magnified everything so much that I couldn’t really see my whole face to ensure that my makeup was applied evenly. The third one was simply too small. The fourth mirror was absolutely adorable but the lights were even more dim than the ones over the hotel vanity. The fifth one distorted my face so badly that it was like looking into a funhouse mirror.
Finally, I found this little beauty.
USB Travel Mirror
This is The One. It’s the perfect size and fits neatly into a medium size cosmetic bag. One side is magnified and one is not. It recharges via a USB cord and it holds a charge for quite a long time. Once charged, you can move it anywhere you want without having to worry about whether the cord will reach from the outlet to where you want to sit.
Finally, it weighs practically nothing, which makes it the ideal travel mirror. I’ve used it for two years and haven’t experienced a single problem with it. I’m hoping that it lasts a long time because it really is perfect for my needs.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Traveling Shoes

Most travel experts will tell you to limit the number of shoes you take to two or three pair, and that’s pretty good advice. Shoes can be heavy and bulky.

The two most important things to consider is where you are going and what you will be doing. If you’re going to a tropical resort for a few days and won’t be doing much other than laying on the beach, just bring your flip-flops and maybe a pair of dressier sandals.

However, if you’re heading off to Europe, you can expect to encounter uneven sidewalks, cobblestone walks and steep stairs. So, for this post, I’m going to focus on those challenges.



Flats

I talked about my favorite flats in a recent post. I like to wear them when flying because they are easy on and off, and quite comfy. They are also non-slip and I can cover a lot of airport ground in these. They also work great as house slippers. They are as sturdy as sneakers but considerably dressier. They are acceptable for all but the dressiest occasions.



Sperry on Amazon


Hiking Boots

I pack my hiking boots if there’s the slightest chance I’ll need them. The day that I found myself walking up a steep, twisty turret to kiss the Blarney Stone, I was glad that I’d worn my hiking boots rather than my cute booties. The steps were crooked and slick with rain. If I’d worn the cute booties, my climb would have been a bit risky. They were worth the weight and the space they took up in the suitcase.

Some writers say that you should wear your heaviest shoes during transit rather than packing them but my personal preference is to throw them in my bag. If my luggage gets lost, I’d rather have my cute, versatile flats with me than my hiking boots. I just can’t see imagine to tea at Harrods wearing hiking boots.

Available in black and brown on Amazon


Heels

High heels are my vanity item. While I could get by without them on most trips, I like to take them for evenings out. I don’t have to take them but they do ramp up an outfit for a special evening out. Plus, sometimes after wearing hiking boots all day, it feels good to slip into something more feminine for the evening.

 


Low Price on Amazon


Bonus Shoes

I break the three pair rule with what I call my bonus shoes, something little and light that can fold up and be toted around in a purse. Folding flip-flops or ballet slippers can get you back from a late-night concert or dinner if your high heels are bothering you. I remember leaving the London theatre district one night only to find that the part of the Tube that we need to take was down. We had to do a considerable amount of unplanned walking. Oh, how I longed for those ballet slippers that night.




Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Are Group Tours Worth the Money?

Bus Group Tour to Chichen Itza
I resisted group tours for years. I envisioned a bus full of boring geriatrics with whom I would have nothing in common with. The other thing I imagined was a huge travel bill.

I first dipped my toe into tour group travel with a day trip out of London. We boarded a bus from central London and headed out with a large group to see Windsor Castle, Stonehenge and Bath. I found that I liked having everything managed for me. We paid the bus company and they took care of the transportation and the admissions. Not only were we dropped right at the door of the attractions (thus no parking hassles), but as a group, we were escorted right in and skipped the queue. 

My second foray into group travel was a day trip in Cancun. We boarded a bus downtown and made two stops along the way for lunch, shopping and swimming in a cenote (which I opted out of). We were dropped at the entrance to Chichen Itza where we were disbursed and explored the area on our own for several hours.

Then we got serious about group travel. When we decided to take our first trip to Ireland, my beloved suggested that we try a group tour. I was hesitant because every multiday group tour that I had looked at online was jaw-droppingly expensive. I could book similar trips on my own at half the price.

However, someone recommended that we try CIE Tours. We checked their reviews on Tripadvisor.com and they had very high ratings. When we looked at the site, we were pleasantly surprised at the cost of the tours they offer. We could not beat the prices by booking on our own.

CIE will make you feel a bit spoiled before you even leave home. They walk you through every step of the booking process and even help you find a discount that will apply toward your trip. You can book your own air travel but if you book it through them, your transportation to and from your destination airport is included in the fee.

I highly suggest that you let them book your air travel. They know the best flights and if anything goes awry, they can be your advocate with the airline.

About two weeks before you depart, you will receive a little present in the mail from CIE. They send you a very nice, very sturdy backpack containing all your trip vouchers. They send a map of your destination, as well as a brochure about the country/countries you will be visiting. They send luggage straps and luggage tags. They even send a VAT refund card that you can register before you leave home, making getting your VAT (Value Added Tax) refund quick and easy at the end of your trip.

When you arrive at your destination, you will see a sign saying, “CIE Tours” posted just outside the arrivals area. If you’re sporting your CIE backpack and have used the bright yellow luggage straps, your greeter will notice you instantly and rush to your side. If not, you can find your neatly dressed greeter by the sign.

He will check your name off the list and instruct you where to wait for the rest of your group. If you have wisely booked your air travel through CIE, you will find that many members of your group came in on the same plane or on one that arrived very close to the time that yours did.

You are then shuffled off to a bus where your hand over your luggage and head off toward your first night’s lodgings. This is the last time you will have to drag your luggage until the end of your trip. At every stop, your bus driver makes sure that your luggage gets to your room at check-in and back on the bus at check-out.
Once aboard the bus, your driver will chat along the way and let you know what to expect for the rest of the day. That night you will meet all your fellow travelers for dinner and your guide will give you all the information you need to know for the duration of your trip.

Every day you be well-fed and shuttled everywhere you go. You are never lost or alone unless you want to be. Your driver/guide is your guardian angel who will answer every question and help you to have as nice a trip as possible.

I have traveled with CIE twice. On the first trip, I went to The Republic of Ireland with my beloved. We traveled during the first week of the travel season. Because of last minute cancellations due to a snowstorm in the States, there were only six of us on a bus designed to hold many more. The small group allowed our guide the freedom to be even more attentive than usual. I felt completely spoiled and pampered by the time we had to fly back home.

My sweetheart did not want to come along when I decided that I wanted to go to Northern Ireland. I’d never done an international trip alone but I knew that if I booked with CIE, I wouldn’t really be alone. On this trip, I traveled in the fall and the bus was nearly full. What a wonderful time I had! I was instantly embraced by the whole group. The only meals I had alone were lunches the first two days and that was because I wanted to go off and do my own thing. Otherwise, every meal was shared with then new and now treasured friends. The other advantage to going on a group tour, especially if you are traveling without a companion, is that you will always be safe.

All dinners were included in the trip fee, except for one. All the breakfasts were included. Lunch was generally on our own except for one day when we made a special lunch stop as a group.

The tour company arranged for visits to several wonderful places, many that I would have never thought of on my own, such as Avoca Woolen Mills, Belleek China, Blarney Castle, Bunratty Castle and more. One our first trip we spent a night in Dromoland Castle and on my second trip I spent a night at Cabra Castle. I would have never have thought to arrange such magnificent accommodations myself. Walking tours with local guides were provided in some cities. They also arranged for memorable welcome night and farewell night dinners. If you go with CIE Tours, you will most certainly come home with many wonderful memories.

The comradery of the group was a favorite part of the trip for me. Far from a group of dull fuddy-duddies, I found myself surrounded by fun-loving people of all ages, from 25 to 85. We got to know each other and became fast friends over countless shared laughs. My only regret is that I did not make a point of getting contact information from more of these dear people than I did.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat!



Thursday, August 3, 2017

Security Socks

After yesterday’s post on getting through security fast was published, I remembered a little something else that I want to share with you and it’s these black lace footies from Amazon.
When I travel by plane, I wear these black Sperry’s. Not only are they easy to slip on and off, but they are also as comfortable as house slippers. The bonus is that they look nice enough to wear just about anywhere.


However, I don’t like to wear socks with them and not wearing socks when you go through security is just gross. I’m not about to walk across that filthy airport floor in bare feet.
These footies are a nifty little solution to that problem. They provide a nice barrier between my bare feet and that nasty floor. While they are not billed as “disposable”, they are inexpensive enough that I wear them once and throw them away. I put them on before I leave for the airport, peel them off after security and then toss them in the trash. I also pack a second pair for my trip back home.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Speeding Through Airport Security

There is a scene in the movie, Up in the Air, where George Clooney’s character shares his secrets for getting through airport security lines at top speed. His primary piece of advice is to avoid getting in line behind families with strollers and to try to get in line behind businessmen. That’s pretty solid advice but there are more simple tricks that will help you just as much.

A speedy trip through security begins before you even leave home. In fact, it begins before you pack or dress to head out the door.
When you check-in for your flight (presumably on your phone or on-line at home, 24 hours in advance) take a moment to head on over to the TSA site and make sure that you know the security screening rules. They do change occasionally. While you’re checking in, also make sure that the name on your boarding pass matches the one on the ID you will present at the security gate.

While you’re looking at your boarding pass confirming that your name is right, look up in the corner of it and see if you have a green check mark and the words “TSA pre-approved” printed there. Regardless of whether you have enrolled in the program, sometimes you will get that privilege for free and without asking. If that lovely green mark and those precious words appear, you have the right to go through the pre-checked line, meaning that you won’t have to take off your shoes and you won’t have to pull out your Ziploc. You can also enroll in the program for a fee but it must be done well in advance of your trip.

Next let’s talk about packing. Whether you travel strictly carry-on or prefer to check your bags is a matter of personal choice. Just keep in mind that the less you carry through security, the less you will have to have screened. If you are checking a bag¸ put nearly everything except for in-flight essentials, valuables and one change of clothing in your checked bag, leaving your carry-on and personal item (purse, briefcase, etc.) as light as possible.

Next, check your carry-on items for contraband. It’s easy to overlook little things like pocketknives, corkscrews, etc., that might have been left in the bag after your last adventure. Ladies, check your purse for lip gloss, nail polish and pointy nail files that will not be allowed through security.

Now that you have cleaned out the banned items, it is time to pack according to TSA guidelines. Make sure that all of your liquids are in bottles no bigger than 3.4 ounces and then put all of those bottles into one quart-sized Ziploc bag. As you pack, put your bag of liquids near the top of your carry-on or in an outside pocket that is easily accessed. You will be required to take out that bag when you go through security and you won’t want to waste time digging for it while in line. The same goes for your electronics. Some airports want even your phones and Kindles pulled out now, so prepare accordingly.

When it’s time to get dressed to go, think about the things that you will have to take off at the airport. Wear shoes that are easy to slip in and out of. You will be asked to take your watch off so why even put it on before you go? I slip mine in my purse and keep it there until I am past the security line. Belts must come off, too. Try to avoid wearing one, if you can.

Before you walk out the door, take a minute or two to look at the airport terminal map on-line. You may find that some airports have multiple security areas to choose from. For example, my home airport is Indianapolis. There are two terminals, A and B, and they each have their own security areas. However, you do not have to use the security line for the terminal you are departing from. You can go through either one. Just past security, there is a short public walkway that connects the two terminals. If B is backed up, I simply turn and go through A. Taking an alternate route can be a major time saver.

While you’re looking at the terminal maps, review the suggested arrival time. The general guidelines are to arrive two hours before a domestic flight and three hours prior to an international flight. However, some airport sites recommend arriving even earlier depending on how busy the airport may be.

When you reach the first security checkpoint, have your ID and your boarding pass ready to present. Once you get past that first point, if you are wearing a jacket, go ahead and take it off while you wait. Dig out that Ziploc bag and your electronics, too.

One you near the bins and the moving belts, stop chatting with your fellow travelers and listen to what the TSA agents are saying. They will give you helpful instructions and will often direct you to the fastest moving line. If you have a choice of lines, pick a line where the more experienced travelers with less baggage appear to be.

When you finally reach the bins, grab two and start filling them. I like to put my shoes, my Ziploc and my purse into the first bin. In the next bin, I put my coat and electronics. Some locations want your electronics in a bin with nothing else, so your coat may have to go in a separate bin. Don’t forget to check your pockets. Nothing can be in your pockets when you go through the screener.

When it is your turn to put your things on the belt, I suggest putting your carry-on on the belt first. It does not have to go in a bin. I put the bin with my purse on the belt next and then the electronics bin at the end. The agents will ask you to make sure that your last item has gone to the scanner before you step into the metal detector.

Once you’ve been cleared, grab your items as quickly as possible and move to the benches just past security to get yourself pulled back together. Do not block the line behind you by putting things back on while standing in front of the moving belt.

Again, listen carefully to the TSA agents, do what they tell you and do not argue. You absolutely will not win.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Timing Your Travels

A great many people travel to Europe in the summer but I prefer the spring and fall, commonly known as the shoulder seasons. Why? For one, thing it is much cheaper. If you want to know how much cheaper, just take a look at the tour schedules and prices on the CIE Tours site or the Avalon Waterways site. You will instantly see the difference between the peak and the non-peak seasons. You will enjoy the same savings whether you are traveling with a professional tour group or out on your own.

There are many other advantages to traveling off-season:
  • The outdoor temps are more comfortable. I’d rather wear a light jacket and be comfortable than be sweltering on the hot pavement when sightseeing.
  • The crowds at airports, restaurants and attractions are smaller. You can avoid standing in long lines at the museums and historical sites. When we toured the Roman Forum one fall, we didn’t ask for the private tour but there was only one other couple in our little group, so it felt very much like a private tour. When we took a CIE tour early one spring, there were only 6 of us on a bus designed to hold about 30 people.
  • The service level increases because tour guides and service people aren’t as stressed as they might be during peak travel season. 
  • I like my fall clothes better for travel. It’s easier for me to pull together a polished look by layering fall clothes than it is to pull together a outfit that I won’t melt in during summer.
  • Most people and places smell better in cooler months. Many Europeans, while very clean, do not use deodorant as we Americans do. For that reason, I’d rather enjoy their company during the cooler months. The same goes for enjoying the streets of Europe. Trash cans don’t emit the same aroma in March or December that they do in July or August.
  • There are fewer weather related travel problems. Going in the spring and fall helps you to avoid the flight delays that frequently occur in peak hurricane and/or snowstorm season.
  • The availability of hotel and B&B rooms increases, while the price goes down.
  • The scenery is usually much prettier. Just to prove my point, here are a few off-season travel shots. 

Ireland in March

Pompeii, Italy in Autumn

Rome in Autumn

Westport, Ireland in October

I’d make a list of the disadvantages of off-season travel but I can’t think of a single one. I know that some people have work schedules that get in the way or they can only travel when the kids are on summer break, but if you can go during the shoulder seasons, I highly recommend it.






Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Getting Comfy in Economy

Is getting comfortable at all possible on a long-haul flight in economy class? I think it depends on your attitude and your definition of comfort. It also heavily depends on how well you prepare. Everything from the seat you pick to how you pack can affect your in-flight comfort.

SEAT SELECTION
Many travel experts say to avoid seats near the toilets because of noise and traffic but I find that area to be my favorite place to sit. If you do have to get up during flight, your walk to the facilities is shorter, plus the noise isn’t any more noticeable than the roar of the jet engines.
I prefer an aisle seat because it is easier to get in and out of, plus I can stretch my legs out for a few seconds whenever the aisle is clear. My travel companion prefers the window seat because he likes to lean against the wall to sleep but I find the window seats to be much colder on long flights, so I avoid that option.
The row behind the emergency exit row is good. On some airlines, the exit row seats don’t recline so you won’t have the seat in front of you too close to your face. In addition, some planes now only have two seats in the emergency exit row so if you sit in the window seat just behind it, you might have some glorious extra legroom.
PACKING
Here are a few things that I like to keep handy in-flight. All of these items are available through Amazon. If you want to learn more about each item, click on the links provided.

I love this set because the mask is molded in a way that doesn't rub against my eyes and ruin my make up but also because it also comes in a neat drawstring bag that keeps it clean and easy to find in my purse.
Take an empty water bottle and fill it up after you pass through security. You'll want sips of water throughout the flight and it is nice to have your own in hand.
Three little puffs of air are all it takes to blow up this magnificent pillow. What the picture doesn't show is that it rolls up to the size of a burrito and can be attached to a purse or luggage strap. It also has built in wrist supports so that your arms don't go flip-flopping about while you sleep.
Load your Kindle up with books, movies and games before you leave home and you need never be bored. I used to take magazines and books along but they add unnecessary weight to your load.
Wisps
On long flights, brushing your teeth with a Wisp before and after you sleep will help you feel refreshed.
Travel can be dirty and gross. See the "Settling In" section below.
Ok, I am old. If I'm going to read or watch a movie on that tiny little entertainment screen, I'm going to want my readers close at hand.
I don't know why but take-offs and landings make my sinuses go nuts. I can go through an entire travel pack of tissues on a single flight.
You never know when the dry cabin air will give you a killer headache. It's better to have Ibuprofen and not need it than to need it and not have it.
Put these things in a bag small enough to stash under the seat in front of you because you will definitely want easy access to them in-flight.
WHAT TO WEAR
One of the most effective ways to ensure your in-flight comfort is to dress for it. Thank goodness that the short-lived trend of wearing pajamas to the airport has passed, along with the equally unattractive wearing of obvious yoga pants.
You can dressy comfortably and still be reasonably stylish.  Opt for soft knits with no zippers or fussy fastenings. Leave the belt at home or in your suitcase, if possible. I have a Wearever suit from J. Jill that is as comfy as PJs but that can be dressed up or down to suit almost any occasion. No matter what I wear, I always top my outfit with a black pashmina for extra layer of warmth.
Footwear can make big difference in your comfort before and during your flight. Don flat, easy slip-off shoes, such as Sperrys or Lands End driving mocs.
SETTLING IN
I sit on my coat to provide easy access should I need it and also to save space in the overhead bins. Just don’t drape your coat or any part of it over the headrest.  You don’t want to block access to the tray or the in-flight screen for the person sitting directly behind you.
Once I am seated and waiting for everyone else to board, I clean the seatbelt buckle, the armrests and the fold-down tray with sanitizing wipes. Seatmates often snicker until they see how black the wipe is when I’m done cleaning. At that point, they often ask if I can give them one so that they can wipe down their own area.
I take the airline pillow and place it behind the small of my back. It’s usually way too small to serve as a decent head pillow but tucking it behind your back provides welcome extra cushioning. I’ll generally put the blanket the seat back pocket for later use.
IN THE AIR
Reclining your seat is never a question on international flights because everyone does it. Just avoid doing so during mealtime. You’ll be less likely to spill if you are fully-upright while eating. Plus, you don’t want to cramp the dining space of the person sitting behind you. Once the meal is over and the trays have been collected, feel free to recline.
After dinner is a good time to make a trip to the restroom. I brush my teeth with a Wisp and freshen up in general. If you like, you can use a baby wipe to clean your face. I prefer to travel wearing Estee Lauder Double Wear makeup and I leave it on until we land. It still looks fine when I deplane and I can always freshen up when I arrive at my hotel.
Once back in my seat, I cover my legs and feet with the airline blanket and cover my upper half with my pashmina. I blow up my pillow and settle in to watch a movie until I fall asleep. I’ll keep my sleep kit handy and put it to good use just before I drift off.
What works for you might differ but this routine works for me. I’ve been able to sleep this way on every long-haul flight that I’ve been on.
Above all, watch your attitude and your manners along the way. Getting into a petty disagreement with a fellow traveler will only make everyone angry and uncomfortable for the duration of the flight.
If you’d like a few laughs and some examples of how not to get too overly comfy on a flight, I suggest you visit Passenger Shaming on Instagram.
Most important, try to keep your sense of humor. After all, even the most uncomfortable flight in the world consumes only a few hours of your life. This too shall pass.
Happy travels!

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Travel Tips: Fact vs. Fiction

It’s been a long time since I last updated this blog.  Over the past three years there have been a lot of changes in my life that have kept me quite busy. I have been blessed with a third grandchild, started a new day job and gone back to school. I also took some time to write and publish my second novel, Uncle Imblay’s Fortune.

Now, however, the baby has become a toddler, I have settled quite happily into my job, I have graduated from school and the book is on the market. I once again have the time to do regular blog posts.

I have been reading travel stories on the web in stolen moments here and there, and I am bothered by the amount of bad information that some of these stories contain. Some seem to be written by people who write but apparently who do not actually travel. Some of the information they post is inaccurate and some of it is just plain wrong. Their ideas get picked up and reused by other writers who likely don’t travel either but have decided to write travel stories anyway.

So, in my return to blogging, I am going to expose some of these erroneous tidbits and speak the truth as I have learned it from my own travel experiences.

MYTH ONE
If you freeze your bottle of water, you can get it through security because it is now a solid and not a liquid.
THE TRUTH
No, no, no. Even though it sounds logical, it does not work. I have seen that trick attempted at least four times and each time it has failed.
WHAT WORKS
Buy a reusable water bottle and fill it after you pass through security. I bought this one from Amazon:  Water Bottle.
It rolls up quite neatly and clips onto a purse or luggage strap. Many U.S. terminals have water bottle filling stations available and if the terminal you are in does not provide them, many of the terminal restaurants/bars will gladly fill your bottle for you.

MYTH TWO
Dressing up improves you chances of a getting an upgrade to a better seat.
THE TRUTH
Dressing up has absolutely zero effect on the chance of getting an upgrade.
WHAT WORKS
Check the availability of upgrades 24 hours prior to departure when you check in online. If your flight isn’t completely booked, you might be able to fork over a little bit of cash and move to a better seat. In fact, sometimes if you check back just a few hours before your departure, you might find that your airline offers last minute upgrades at a steep discount.

MYTH THREE
Bring the flight attendants a box of candy and you might score free drinks or other preferential treatment.
THE TRUTH
Flight attendants must abide by strict rules regarding the services that they can provide. They cannot provide first class amenities to economy passengers. Asking for or expecting amenities that you have not paid for puts them in the uncomfortable position of having to refuse your request for special treatment.
WHAT WORKS
When you board, look your attendant in the eye and return their friendly greeting with a friendly greeting of your own. Treat each one with as much respect and consideration as you would like to be treated with and they will treat you in the same manner.

MYTH FOUR
Reserving the middle seat in a row of three may get you the entire row because people traveling together won’t book the other seats on either side, leaving you an entire row to yourself.
THE TRUTH
I almost fell over laughing when I read that one. For one thing, a great many people travel solo these days. Reserving the middle seat will only guarantee that you get the worst seat imaginable.
WHAT WORKS
Book the seat that you truly want. I prefer the aisle because I can sometimes stretch my legs out in the aisle briefly and because I find that it makes getting in and out of my seat a bit easier. My boyfriend prefers the window seat because he likes to lean against the wall when he sleeps and he enjoys looking out the window.

MYTH FIVE
Take a picture of your passport with your phone because if it is lost or stolen, you might be allowed to board the plane with the screenshot.
THE TRUTH
Nope. That is not going to work. Ever.
WHAT WORKS
Do take that picture but don’t expect to use it as a substitute for a lost/stolen passport. If your passport goes missing, take that picture to the nearest U.S. embassy to apply for an emergency replacement. They can process your request using just your vital information, but having a picture of your current passport will help expedite the process.

MYTH SIX
Save money by taking your own liquor aboard in toiletry sized bottles.
THE TRUTH
You can take it aboard but you cannot drink it during your flight. It is against regulations. Some flight attendants may look the other way if you drink your own hooch but others may not. Why risk it?
WHAT WORKS
If you really can’t endure a four or five hour flight without an alcoholic beverage, just fork over the $9.00 or $10.00 for the cocktail of your choice. If you’re flying internationally, many airlines, such as Delta, provide a free cocktail with the main meal.

MYTH SEVEN
It is cheaper to fill small bottles with the toiletries you need rather than buying expensive travel sizes.
THE TRUTH
It can be cheaper to fill small bottles from your shampoo stash at home but travel sizes aren’t expensive.
WHAT WORKS
Visit the travel aisle in Target or Walmart. Travel sizes of shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, cleanser, etc., cost about $1.00 each. Your local dollar store can also be a good source for affordable travel toiletries. For the low cost of $5.00, you should be able to get most of the lotions and potions that you need for your trip.

Reading travel tip articles can be fun, just don’t believe everything that you read. Before you go on any trip, take just a few minutes to review the TSA Travel Guidelines as well as the travel tip section of the site for the airline(s) you are flying with.

Happy travels!  

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Florida Spring Break Tips

This will be a short post for those of you who head to Florida during Spring Break.  There are things that you should be doing now if you plan on visiting the Sunshine State during March or April.
 
Here's what I've been doing to prepare for this year's trip:
  • I've scheduled a major maintenance appointment for my car.  I want us all to be safe and the car to be reliable while we are on the road.  If you plan on renting a car or flying, make those arrangements as soon as you can. 
  • I've "secured my lodging" by informing my mother of my travel dates (we stay at her house).  If you need to book a hotel or condo, do it as soon as you can.  The demand for decent rooms is high in the spring. 
  • I've ordered my amusement park tickets.  I order them on-line and have them held at will-call.  I could have them mailed to me but I prefer to pick them up at the will-call window.  That way I don't have to worry about my tickets being lost or stolen before we get there.  The line at will-call is practically non-existent if you get there just before the park opens
  • If you're going to Disney, make your special dining reservations now.  Those restaurants are completely booked weeks in advance. 
  • I've made arrangements to have my dog taken care of while we are away.  Don't wait too late in the season to make your arrangements because kennels tend to fill up just as quickly as the Disney restaurants. 
  • I bought string backpacks and have started assembling swag bags for the kids (see my 3/21/12 post on this topic).  I've also ordered a couple of Mark Twain audio books for family friendly entertainment.
  • I've started filling a small cup with quarters for the Florida toll roads.  It's not unusual for us to spend $12.00 to $20.00 on tolls while we're criss-crossing the state. 
  • Just before I go, I'll check my credit card that offers cash back rewards in the form of Disney Dollars and I'll redeem those points for gift cards that can be used at Disney restaurants and stores.
  • Last of all, as soon as the neighborhood Girl Scouts start peddling cookies, I'll buy a few boxes and stick them in the freezer until it's time for our trip.  I can't remember the last time I drove to Florida without a couple of boxes of Girl Scout cookies in the road trip snack stash.
We are ready to roll out of here and have a great time.  I hope that I get to see you at the Happiest Place on Earth this year.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Travel Gadgets

This is the time of year when many of us are inspired to get organized and I am no exception.  As I was re-organizing my closet last week, I peered into my drawer of travel gadgets and found quite a few things that haven’t seen the light of day in years.

Here’s what was in my gadget drawer:
  • A tiny lint roller.  This is a useful tool and it goes on every trip.  It’s a keeper.
  • An ancient travel hair dryer.  Most American hotels provide them these days but you never know what you will find in Europe.  I also need it when I visit some family members.  I’ll keep this, as well.
  • An outdated, very heavy converter/adapter.  This piece went into the donation box.
  • A flat iron.  I haven’t used a flat iron in years and never really liked this one anyway.  I’ll hand it off to my granddaughter.
  • Multiple cosmetic bags, compliments of Estee Lauder.  While these bags come in handy, I really don’t need a two dozen of them.  They’re out.
  • A travel alarm.  Seriously?  My cell phone is my every day alarm.  Out with that relic, as well.
  • A very nice money belt.  Hmm.  I’ve used it only once but can’t help but feel that it will come in handy in the future.  It doesn’t take up much space, so I’ll keep it.
  • Ten tiny umbrellas. How in the world did I amass so many of these?  I opened each one and trashed those that weren’t in good shape and then kept the rest.  They wear out quickly so I’m sure that the collection will diminish over time.
  • Folding hairbrushes.  I bought these because I thought they would be space-savers but I absolutely hate the way they work on my hair, so I don’t use them.  They are now in the granddaughter stack.
  • Six hotel mending kits.  These are handy but I don’t need six of them set aside for travel.  I’ll stick one each in the guest room, the boat, the car and my desk at work.
  • A cheap corkscrew.  I got this on the trip to Chicago because we bought a bottle of wine to take back to the hotel room.  I never take one when I travel and see no reason to.  I’ll stick this one in the picnic basket.
  • Multi-use tool.  Other people always sing it’s praises but I’ve never used it on a trip.  It’s going into the tool box in the garage.
My travel gadget drawer is so much neater now, thanks mostly to modern technology.  It is no longer necessary to carry heavy travel guides, alarm clocks and power converters.  Lightweight electronics really can lighten your luggage.

If you haven’t thought about all of the best uses for your electronics, or if you’ve simply resisted the change, let me entice you with these suggestions.

Your cell phone can serve as:
  • An alarm clock.  Your phone will adjust to the time zone you’re in.  Most models also allow you to set two or three wake-up times in advance.
  • A nightlight for those middle of the night trips to the bathroom in a strange hotel room.  If you’re using the phone as your alarm, it’s already on your nightstand anyway.
  • Your boarding pass.  Simply download the app for the airline you’re using and pull up your boarding pass.  No more paper passes to fuss with.
  • A communications center.  Email, text and voice can be accessed quite easily from one tiny device.  No Wi-Fi hotspots required.
  • Your financial center.  Keep track of your debt and credit card accounts while you travel.  You’ll know instantly if an unscrupulous waiter uses your card to pay for more than your dinner.  Many restaurants and stores also accept mobile phone coupons, so be sure to download all of the money saving apps you can find before you hit the road.
  • A light-use camera.  I still take along a camera if I plan on snapping a lot of pictures but if I think that I’ll only be taking a handful, the phone is good enough.
In addition to being an e-reader, your tablet can:
  • Hold your packing list. 
  • Keep your travel confirmations close at hand in case there are questions at check-in.
  • Keep you on track with GPS/Maps.  It’s better than being seen on the street with a large map that screams, “I’m tourist and, therefore, a potential crime victim”.
  • Organize conference schedules.  Why lug around a lot paper schedules?
  • Host a PDF of your passport.  It’s much easier and faster to get a lost passport replaced if you can provide authorities with a copy of it.
  • Entertain you.  Fill your tablet up with videos, music, magazines and books before you leave and you’ll never be bored.  Don’t forget to pack earphones so that you can enjoy your entertainment without bothering your fellow travelers.
Kindle Fire tablets are very affordable right now.  I bought this model a few months ago and find that I use it every day, not just while I’m traveling.  However, it is a wonderful travel tool, as well.  It weighs next to nothing and works like a dream.

These little electronic wonders will, of course, need to be recharged along the way.  The newest power converters/adapters are considerably lighter than the old ones.  They use USB cords so you don’t have to pack multiple wall chargers.

You might not need to take multiple cords either.  Check your electronics before you leave home.  I use the same cord for my tablet and my phone because they are compatible.  However, my camera requires its own special USB cord.
Anything you can do to lighten your travel load will make travel all the more enjoyable.  Take a good look at your habits and your gadgets, then mull over all of the little improvements you can make to make sure that your next trip is best the one yet.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Cancun

Cancun has long been declared a great getaway spot.  Frankly, while some things there are good, I won’t go back.  Cancun is dated, run-down and way too touristy for my tastes. Still, I think it was worth visiting one time, just to see it for myself.

On the upside, the Cancun airport is nice.  It is small and very well-organized.  The timeshare vendors don’t pounce on you as they do in Cabo.  Transportation from the airport to the hotels is easy.  There are several taxis right outside the airport doors.  The best way to go is to use Super Shuttle.  We booked our ride on-line while we were waiting for our departure flight.  The fare was a quite affordable at a mere $11.00 each way.  It’s a shared van but it was clean and the drivers were very good. 
We stayed at Krystal International.  I’ve read some bad reviews about the place but I disagree with them.  We found the hotel to be clean and the service staff outstanding.  Everyone from the housecleaning staff to the restaurant waiters was attentive and polite. We expected a small room with a kitchenette but were given a two-room condo at no extra charge.  The ocean view was beautiful.  Some reviewers complained that there are no hairdryers in the rooms but both of our bathrooms had wall-mounted hairdryers. 


There is one big draw back to the Krystal and it has nothing to do with the hotel itself.  Just a few yards away sits a large nightclub that plays unreasonably loud music at all hours of the night right out on the beach.  There is no escaping the loud thumping base and distasteful music that goes on until 3:00 in the morning.  The same club sets off a fireworks show from a boat at 1:00 a.m.  As lovely as it was to watch fireworks being shot from the water right off our balcony, it was not lovely to be kept awake at that hour.  If you love the nightlife, this is a great spot.  If you prefer to sleep at night, this is a horrible spot.  I do not understand why the neighboring hotels put up with that extreme level of noise. 
The good news is that the beach and the pool made for good napping during the day.  The wait staff also serve food and drinks by the pools, as well as at the beach cabanas. 

If you go to Cancun, take a bus tour out to Chichen Itza.  In my opinion, it is the only thing that makes Cancun worth visiting.  The ruins at Chichen Itza are just awe-inspiring.  It’s really touristy now but nothing can really mar the magic of those ruins. 

 
There are several tour groups that offer the Chichen Itza package and they are all pretty much alike.  When you arrive at Chichen Itza, the parking lot looks like any other tourist attraction.  There are ticket offices and shops and thousands of people milling about.  Our group was split into two groups to accommodate both English speaking and Spanish speaking tourists, and then led up a long path that cuts through the jungle and that is lined with locals selling all kinds of souvenirs. 


At the end of the trail, you will come a large, flat clearing.  Be prepared to have your breath taken away.  As we got to the clearing, we all gasped at the beauty and wonder of the ruins.  Cameras were snapping away as our guide explained the history of the site and the Mayans.  Some folks mistakenly believe that the Mayans disappeared.  They did not.  They just abandoned Chichen Itza.  Their descendants still live in the area and many still speak the Mayan language, not the Spanish spoken throughout the rest of Mexico. 

Our incredibly informative guide led us around the area for 90 minutes, giving us a riveting account of how the games were played and the sacrifices performed.  At the end of the tour, our group disbanded and we had an additional 90 minutes to explore the grounds and to shop.  I bought several souvenirs there.  Those vendors love American dollars and they also love to bargain. 


Here’s the way the game works:  First they draw you in, “Hey lady, $1.00”.  When you get to their table they will steer you away from the tiny $1.00 stuff and direct you to the larger, more expensive items.  You ask how much.  They quote a price.  You hesitate, admire the item but offer a lower price.  They counter.  Almost every time, you will arrive at 75% of the original price.  Please be compassionate and don’t try to bargain them down too much.  What they sell is inexpensive to begin with and this is how they make a living.  I came away with some very good souvenirs at great prices.

On another day, we took a ferry to Isla Mujeres, commonly known as the Isle of Women.  The streets are lined with fun shops and restaurants on the beach where you can sit barefoot in the sand.   There is also a large public beach there where vendors offer souvenirs and massages.  You can rent golf carts and scooters if you want to explore the whole island.

I mostly shopped at the Mexican Market (Yes, that’s the name), which was just a couple of blocks from our hotel.  The Market sells every kind of Mexican souvenir you can imagine at fair prices.  The best souvenirs to buy are sarongs, beachwear, chocolate, pottery, leather, coffee and alcohol. 
I can’t say that we had any great dinners while in Cancun but the food was decent nearly everywhere we went.  Dinner at Hacienda el Mortero was fun.  The place was a little bit cheesy with a wandering Mariachi band, a photographer pushing pictures of diners with Sombreros, etc., but sometimes cheesy is fun and this was definitely fun.

What else is there to do in Cancun?  The water is the most beautiful shade of turquoise and crystal-clear, so snorkeling is good there.  Parasailing is popular, as well.
When you go to Cancun, you really don’t need to exchange money.  Most places take MasterCard or American dollars.  However, don’t plan on using your Discover Card.  No place I went took Discover. 

As far as what to wear, beachwear is the norm absolutely everywhere.  I wore a long sundress to dinner a few evenings and felt overdressed.  People appear at dinner in shorts, t-shirts and sneakers.  I saw young girls going into the noisy nightclub wearing nothing more than bathing suit tops, shorts and flip-flops. 
If you go to the ruins, you will definitely want a hat and sturdy walking shoes, as well as a good bug repellent.  Don’t forget your sunscreen because the sun can be brutal.

While I’m glad that I went to Cancun just once, I won’t return.  It was worth the trip just to see the ruins and learn about the intriguing Mayans.  However, should I ever go back to Mexico, it will be to elegant Cabo, not tattered Cancun.