Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Travel Essentials

Good travel gear can make a big difference between a difficult journey and a pleasant one.  I have four tried-and-true favorites that go on every trip with me:
  1. American Tourister Atmosphera luggage;
  2. Lands’ End driving moccasins;
  3. A Michael Kors trench coat; and
  4. A black pashmina.
I bought my Atmosphera at Walmart; proof that smart doesn’t have to be expensive.  Atmosphera is, by far, the best luggage I’ve ever owned.  The smallest bag, pictured here, is a tiny wonder. 

It measures just 14.0 x 8.5 x 15.0, which is smaller than a standard carry-on, but it's roomy enough for everything I need for a casual five day trip.  Because of the size and shape, this tote slides perfectly under an airplane seat, a real bonus when the overhead bins are full. The bag itself weighs practically nothing. 
You can buy this luggage by the piece, which allows you to pick and choose the pieces that suit your needs.  I started with the tote and the largest bag but bought the standard size carry-on bag after using the rolling tote a couple of times.  The tote and the carry-on are all I need even for a long trip.   Prices, range from $39 to $69, depending on the size of the bag. 
These bags are available in rose and black. I bought mine in black and then realized that most people carry black bags.   To set mine apart on the luggage carousel, I put bright pink duct tape across the bottom of each bag.   Since it is on the bottom, the tape doesn’t ruin the appearance of my bags as they roll along but it makes it easier to pick mine out in a sea of similar bags at the airport.  I also put bright pink luggage tags for the handles.   
Lands’ End driving moccasins are another essential item for me.  My black suede mocs have carried me over countless miles through the streets of New York, London and Rome.  I find them more comfortable and a bit more stylish than sneakers.   They are also lighter than sneakers and take up less space in my suitcase.  I use them as slippers, too, because they are so soft and comfortable.  The style that I bought a couple of years ago is no longer available but they still offer a similar version at
The latest addition to my travel essentials is a Michael Kors trench coat that I ordered from Macys, on $99.   It is wonderfully comfortable and durable.  

The liner does not zip out but the coat is so lightweight that you wouldn’t want to remove it anyway. The hood provides good coverage when the rains come.  The pockets don’t zip as the store website says they do but they are big and deep.  You can stash your gloves in the pockets without worrying that they will fall out and be lost. 
Alone, this trench is good for slightly cool temps. Top it with a wool pashmina and you will stay warm even if the temperature drops several degrees.
My fourth travel essential is a nice wool pashmina. They roll up small enough to stash in a purse, so my pashminas always go with me. I’ve bought some while traveling but mostly order them from Amazon.  They come in a wide range of colors and prices.   I have at least a dozen, but my favorite is a plain black one.   Pashminas keep me warm during cold flights, add an elegant to touch to casual outfits and have even covered up an unfortunate coffee stain on white blouse.   A pashmina can also be used a head scarf or lap robe. There are as many uses for pashminas as there are pashminas.
None of these essentials was expensive but each one has proved to be truly priceless no matter where I have traveled.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Stuck at the San Francisco Airport

My brother dropped me off at the San Francisco airport around 8:00 a.m. on a lovely Monday morning. The security line was the longest I have ever seen but it moved quickly. I passed through security in a reasonable amount of time and was even able grab a cup of coffee before I boarded my flight. Once on board, I settled into my seat and thought about how well things were going. Jinx!

We waited. And waited. Everyone began shifting impatiently in their seats and looking to the flight attendants for some explanation as to why we weren’t backing away from the gate.

Finally, the pilot announced that we were waiting for the FAA to make a determination as to whether the flight should take off because there were mechanical difficulties. I will spare you the rest of the details of eventually deplaning and then enduring a grouchy gate attendant (who refused to help anyone because, as he so charmingly announced, his shift was ending). He directed everyone with a connecting flight to the United Airlines customer service desk.

After a nice long walk to customer service and an hour-long wait in line there, I was given the good news that they could put me on a different flight that day. I was given this news at approximately 3:00 p.m. The first available flight they could get me a seat on was due to depart just before midnight. I was given two vouchers for food and sent on my way.

Nine hours. How the heck do you kill nine hours in an airport? I thought about going into the city but decided that it wouldn’t be worth the effort. Surely I could fill the time without having to leave the building.

So there I stood, with a rolling suitcase at my feet and food vouchers in my hand. What to do, what to do?

I turned and it beckoned to me like a ray of light from heaven – the Xpres Spa. I think I actually heard the angels sing. Suddenly, being stuck in Terminal F at SFO didn’t seem so awful.

Xpres Spa offers a full range of services at very affordable prices. The technicians are as well-trained and professional as in any spa that I have visited and the products are excellent. I indulged in a full spa manicure and a shoulder massage. That certainly took the edge off of having too much time on my hands. I explained to the staff that I had several hours to spare, so they invited me to relax in one of their lounge chairs while my nails dried. I was a happy camper.

Once I was completely pampered and relaxed, I wandered off in search of some decent airport food. I didn’t have to search for long. Just across the hall from Xpres was the Firewood CafĂ©. As I recall, I had a yummy slice of pizza and a very nice little glass of wine, using the vouchers I’d been given. Once again, being stuck in the airport wasn’t all that bad.

After dinner, I took a stroll through an interesting exhibit of antique sewing machines, before going off in search of my gate. Once there, in addition to standard airport seating, I found desks with electrical outlets where I could recharge my phone, laptop and Kindle. I was able to set up my computer and write comfortably. SFO also offers free Wi-Fi and I took full advantage of that amenity, reading my email and researching my family history on

I made a few phone calls and then took another walk to stretch my legs. There are some nice, reasonably priced stores in the terminal and they offer just about anything you might want, so I shopped for a while. I played with and nearly bought a new tablet but thought that perhaps the manicure and massage were self-indulgence enough for one day. I took another spin through the sewing machine exhibit just to see if I’d missed anything interesting on the first trip through.

Around 9:00 that evening, I went into the nearest restroom to wash my face, redo my make-up and comb my hair. After that, I went back to the desks and checked my email one last time. Before long, it was time to board my flight home.

All-in-all, if you have to be stuck in an airport, SFO is not a bad place to be.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Discovery Cove

I recently fulfilled a long-desired goal and took my grandchildren to Discovery Cove. For years, I’ve heard others rave about swimming with the dolphins, snorkeling and swimming there, and I longed to share that experience with my grandkids.The minimum age for the dolphin experience is six years old. Also, at nearly $300 per person, I wanted to make sure that our littlest guy was old enough to actually remember the experience. He’s eight now, so this was our year to go.

At roughly $300 per person, the cost might be off-putting for one day of activities but it covers much more than just one day of admission to the park.

Our admission included:

• Free parking
• Generous meals – breakfast, lunch, snacks all day, even beer and wine
• Sun block formulated to be safe for the dolphins
• Towels
• Free lockers
• Snorkeling equipment – you keep the souvenir breathing tube
• Dolphin interaction
• Free 5X7 arrival picture
• Crabtree & Evelyn products in the showers
• A two-week unlimited pass to one of the sister parks. We chose Busch Gardens.

This experience was worth every penny and then some. We swam with the dolphins, snorkeled with rays and sharks (there’s a glass wall between swimmers and sharks), fed birds in the aviary and swam in the lazy river. The day melted away far too quickly. The next day we enjoyed a fun, relaxing day at Busch Gardens.

The food was tasty, as well as plentiful. The service was wonderful. This is one of those situations where you definitely get what you pay for. If the cost is off-putting, go off season when it is a little cheaper. Visit their website, for details. Be sure to watch the videos on the site. They are not the least bit misleading. The facilities are just that beautiful and the experience really is that wonderful.

I paid $233 for full picture package. Again, it sounds pricey but it included several pictures, a DVD of our dolphin swim, a CD of all of our pictures from the day, an album, a couple of photo key chains and a large poster-size picture of us with our dolphin. You can pick and choose your picture package or opt for none at all. However, since you most likely will do this only once in your life, I highly suggest that you get the full package. The pictures really are very good.

The Cove is a lovely, lovely place. The facilities are clean and beautiful. The staff is friendly and helpful. Our day was perfect and I am sure that we will treasure the memories of this unique experience for years to come.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Travel Swag Bags for Kids

When I take my grandchildren on a trip, I prepare bags of fun things they might want/need during the trip. For spring break, I’ll pack disposable cameras, flip-flops, sunglasses, travel cups and Easter candy. This year I’ve also thrown in some bubbles and binoculars. Oh, and I include a little envelope with some spending money for the trip – always a guaranteed hit!

I hide the bags in the back of the car and late in the day, when the ride gets tedious, I tell the kids that the Easter Bunny must have come early and then present them with their goodies. It not only provides them with some basics for the trip, but digging through their presents breaks up the boredom of the drive.

In the past, I’ve used plain paper gift bags but this year I was inspired to get these little drawstring back sacks. My grandkids never seem to have the right backpacks for our little daytrips to amusement parks or the beach and these little bags from Amazon will solve that problem.

For other travel tips, see my book, Simply Wonderful Travels, which is available only on

Doing Disney

I was going to blog about touring another big city this week, but since we’re in the midst of spring break season, it seems appropriate to write about doing Disney. So many people head to the Magic Kingdom at this time of year. I have been to Disney more times than I can count and have learned a lot of tricks over the years that make the most of the experience.

Making your day at Disney truly wonderful starts before you even leave home. First, order your tickets on-line. You can have them mailed to your home or held for you at the will-call window. I prefer picking them up there. There usually is no line at that window, plus I don’t have to worry about  misplacing my tickets before I get there. Having them in-hand also means that you won’t have to stand in a long ticket line or listen to a sales spiel. While you’re on the website ordering your tickets, take a few minutes to learn what you can about the park and the amenities. If you want to eat at one of the special restaurants, make your meal reservations while you’re on-line.

Be sure to dress comfortably for your day in the park. You will be walking all day long, so wear comfortable shoes. Even though Disney is incredibly clean, you will get dirty. You will most likely get hot. You will be stepping up into some rides and down into others. Disney is not the place for high heels and sundresses. Shorts, sneakers and durable t-shirts are your best bet.

Wear plenty of sunscreen and bring some along so that you can apply more during the day. Bring sunglasses and/or a hat. If you plan on staying late at night, you might want to bring along a lightweight jacket. I recommend that you put your things into a lightweight back sack. Purses can be a pain in the park, especially on some of the rides.

The number one important thing to do to make the most of your day is to get there before the park actually opens. The parking lot opens before the park and you want to make sure that you are among the earliest to arrive. It can take a while to pay for parking, park your car and take the shuttle from the lot to the main gate.  Ride lines get longer and longer as the day goes on.  You'll be able to see so much more if you get there early.

After you pick up your tickets, grab a map from just behind the ticket booths before you get on the monorail. We prefer to ride the monorail to the Magic Kingdom in the morning and then take the paddleboat option at the end of the day. The monorail gets very crowded at the end of the day.

If you’re carrying any kind of purse or backpack, you will have to go through security just after you get off of the monorail. You want to get in that line before it gets too long. Every minute you waste standing in that security line is a minute that you could spend enjoying a ride instead.

Once you get through security and actually get into “The Magic Kingdom,” you need a strategy. At most amusement parks, people tend to turn right and work their way counterclockwise around the park. Do just the opposite and you will avoid the crowds. A lot of people linger on Disney’s Main Street first thing in the morning. I suggest you save that for the end of your day.

Go straight through Main Street and turn left to get to the Jungle Cruise. It is one of the most popular rides and there will be very long lines later in the day. If you go there first thing in the morning, you most likely will be able to walk right onto the ride. Keep working around the park on a straight path. Crisscrossing back and forth will waste your time and energy. You might be able to walk right onto the first two or three  rides if you arrived early.

When lines start to form, take advantage of the Fast Pass program. Many people don’t use it because they assume there is a cost involved. Fast Pass is free and available on the most popular attractions. Simply find the Fast Pass machine located outside the major attractions and insert your park ticket into the machine. The machine will spit out a ticket with a time for you to return to the ride and go into the special Fast Pass entrances, a trick guaranteed to save you hours of time in line. You must get a Fast Pass for everyone in your party.

The most popular rides are the Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion and Peter Pan’s Flight. We usually ride the first two, go grab a Fast Pass for the Peter Pan ride, and then double-back to the Haunted Mansion. We ride other rides while waiting for the Fast Pass ride time. Follow this strategy as you go around the park and your ride wait times will be minimal.

If you don’t want to see the afternoon parade, that can be an excellent time to get on the most popular rides. After the fireworks, a lot of people go home, so if you have any energy left, that’s a good time to ride, too.

Some of the rides exit through gift shops and you’ll be tempted to shop at many other locations through-out the day. If you do shop, don’t take your packages with you. Ask your cashier to send your purchases to the guest services center at the front of the park. You can pick them up as you leave and not have the hassle of carrying them around on the rides all day.

Whatever you do, don’t miss the fireworks show. It will end your day beautifully. Just make sure that you watch from near the entrance on Main Street if you intend to leave as soon as the show is over. Thousands of people leave at that same time and you don’t want to be in the middle of, or worse at the back of, that crowd.

I hope you and your family have a simply wonderful time!

For other travel tips, see my book, Simply Wonderful Travels, which is available only on

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Beautiful Boston

Boston is one of my favorite places to visit. Everything you could ever want in a destination city is there. Are you looking for historical sites? You can tread the same streets that Paul Revere and Benjamin Franklin walked in Boston. Do you seek art and antiquities? Boston has some absolutely awe-inspiring museums. Do you want to attend a great sporting event? You can do that in Boston, as well. Do you want to sample great food? You definitely won’t go hungry in this city.

While you can see Boston’s highlights in a single day, a longer stay will provide you with a much richer experience. Below are suggestions for what I considered to be three great days in Boston.

If you only have one day:
Hit the Freedom Trail. The trail winds through the streets of Boston and is marked by either a red brick or red paint line on the city sidewalks. You can download a free map from It’s a circular route, so you can start wherever you like. We started our journey at the USS Constitution and then followed the path through some of the most beautiful streets that I have ever seen. Some of the other highlights of Boston’s Freedom Trail include:

o The Boston Common
o The State House
o Historic cemeteries
o The Old Corner Book Store
o Faneuil Hall
o The Paul Revere House
o The Old North Church
o Bunker Hill

You will see so many other wonderful sites as you walk. You truly will experience the best of Boston in one day.

If you have a second day:
Plan on spending your entire day at the Museum of Fine Arts, You will not regret it. It is, without a doubt, the finest museum I have ever visited. I saw Paul Revere silver, jewelry, musical instruments, ancient artifacts and paintings from the Grand Masters. You could actually spend several days at this museum and not see it all.

If you have a third day:
Plan your day around a Red Sox game at Fenway. I don’t even like baseball but I loved going to a Sox game. Get there early and wander the surrounding area, visiting the shops and indulging in a wide variety of good, cheap food from the snack shops and street vendors. There really is nothing as Americana as the energy and excitement surrounding Fenway on game day. For ticket information, go to

For other travel tips, see my book, Simply Wonderful Travels, which is available only on

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New York City

New York, New York. It is a fantastic city, but one that is expensive to visit. Many vacationers find the cost of NYC hotel rooms to be prohibitively expensive. However, staying across the river in Jersey can provide a cost-saving alternative to the higher priced hotels in Manhattan. Taking a short, inexpensive subway or ferry ride into the city is well worth the trade-off when you consider the hundreds of dollars that you might be able to save on your vacation.

When you’re ready to start your New York sightseeing adventure, tackle it in much the same way as described in my previous post about London. If you do it right, taking in one section of the city on each day, you can see the highlights of the city on a three-day visit.

Day One
Take a subway to the north side and hop off right in the basement of the American Natural History Museum, ( Spend your morning there, taking in all of the famous attractions seen in the movie, “Night at the Museum,” then grab a quick lunch in the neighborhood or right in the museum. After lunch, head across Central Park, checking out Belvedere Castle on your way through and then walk over to The Museum of Modern Art ( to spend the rest of your day there.

Day Two
Head into the center of the city and start your day at the TKTS ticket booth in Times Square. Grab a cup of coffee at one of the shops on the square and then step into the long line to buy half-price tickets to an afternoon performance of one of the latest Broadway shows.

After you’ve snagged your tickets for the matinee, walk to Rockefeller Center, passing Radio City Music Hall along the way. Go to the top of the Rock and take in the view. When you come back down to earth, grab a quick lunch in a genuine New York City deli (there are several in this area) before you go to the matinee. After the show, you’ll be ready for another walk, so take a stroll to the Empire State Building. Watch the sunset go down from the top of the tower and then head back downstairs a hearty dinner in the Heartland Brewery, located right next to the Empire State Building lobby.

Day Three
On day three, you’ll explore the southern tip of the city. You can take a ferry from either the NYC side or the Jersey side of the river. The ferry will take you to Ellis Island and once you’ve finished visiting that site, you can hop back onto the ferry to go to see Lady Liberty. There is a restaurant just yards from the base of the statue, which is an excellent spot to grab a quick lunch. Just remember that if you want to go up into the lovely lady’s crown, you must order tickets well in advance. Go to details.

In the afternoon, take the ferry back to the mainland and go to Ground Zero. After paying your respects at that site, be sure to take a walk through the historic St. Paul’s Chapel which stands just across the street from the World Trade Center. Both sites are, of course, quite somber, so be prepared to shed a few tears. However, you will not regret making the visit. Combining a visit to Ground Zero with a trip to the Statue of Liberty will leave you with a renewed sense of patriotism that cannot be duplicated elsewhere. I promise you that you will come away with the knowledge that freedom is not just an outdated concept from our nation’s history.

If you haven’t lingered too awfully long at either of those sites, you might have enough time to go back to Times Square and pick up tickets for an evening show. A quick pre-show dinner can be had at any one of dozens of restaurants on Times Square.

Miscellaneous Tips
On the subway: No matter what you read on the website, subway maps are not readily available in the stations. They have plenty map holders, just no maps. Also, unlike other cities such as D.C. and London, you cannot jump on just anywhere and get where you want to go. Pay attention to whether you want the A, B, C, etc. train and look for entrances marked accordingly. Entrances to the subway are plentiful but you may have to look around for the specific entrance you need.

Shopping: The most important thing you need to know about the glamorous, high-price stores in New York is that they offer discount shopping passes to visitors who live outside the State of New York. Just visit the customer service counter in each store, present your out-of-state driver’s license or passport and staff there will present you with a one-day discount shopping pass good for 10% to 20% off of nearly anything you buy, including sale items.

What to wear: People in New York City are fashionable, yet sensible. Wear your walking shoes. You will be walking . . . and walking and walking and walking. While some people dress for the theatre in the evening, casual wear is acceptable nearly everywhere. You’ll see plenty of tourists sporting casual clothes and carrying their shopping bags from the day into the theatre.

For other helpful travel tips, download a copy of my book, Simply Wonderful Travels from

Next week, I'll post an interesting itinerary for Boston.