Vicariously traveling

I have quite a few friends who have taken some amazing vacations recently. Among the more exotic/ enviable locations were Playa del Carmen, Mexico; a Hawaiian cruise, San Juan, Puerto Rico; Austria; and the Czech Republic.

Being there is always better than hearing about it, there is no denying that. But there is nothing better than a personal reference – pro AND con – when considering future vacation spots. You don’t have to pretend you were there too to get the most of someone else’s vacation.

One of the most misleading things about travel and hotel websites are the ratings. Let’s say you book a hotel with a 4.5/5 stars. Amazing pictures, modern room, beautiful beach. No mentions of clothing optional… You’re sold. But you get there and everyone is much, much older. Or kids. Or swingers. Or college spring-break-orgy-holders. Or whatever isn’t you. The rating wasn’t relevant because the raters weren’t like you.

You know who’s like you? Your friends!

When you’re considering a vacation, ask your friends of their previous travels. But don’t stick to what they “liked,” and what they didn’t, dig deeper. Why didn’t that vacation work out? What had they hoped to find/do/get out of it that they didn’t? A “too quiet” location might be perfect for your “I need to get the $#^% out of here!” long weekend. A coworker’s “most disappointing country” might actually be perfect for the getaway you’re planning for the inevitable stir-craziness of another February in Michigan.

So ask questions and listen to the stories. Try not to get jealous. And remember, it could be worse. At least you won’t have to sit through the three-carousel slide show. Or you shouldn’t anyway. They probably have all the pictures on Facebook already.


*photo credit

Just stop freaking out!!

Perhaps I should have said this earlier, so forgive me if I’ve gotten ahead of myself.

When planning a vacation, of any kind, no matter the budget, the key is to remain calm and not get overwhelmed.

This is, after all, a vacation. I don’t get to take vacation as often as I would like to. If I can make the planning fun, it’s like the vacation lasts longer. It’s not the same, I won’t pretend to say that it is.

Try to enjoy every part of the process and look forward to it. Why would you want to take a vacation which is annoying or a pain? I wouldn’t, I know that.

Just relax. If what you’re doing is too big or overwhelming, break it down into smaller sections, if you can, or ask for help. This is supposed to be fun, remember? There is no “right” way to plan a vacation, and there is no “right” vacation. It’s ok. You’re fine.

Holiday (noun): exemption of requirement

Whether its over the river and through the woods, or to the international terminal, many of us will be traveling for the holiday. Celebrating the nation’s independence with some independence from real life?

I live eight hours from my hometown, where most of my family including my parents live. For the last 20 years, I’ve only gone home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Not both, and it rotates.

Sometimes I make it for Easter. About half the time, I visit on or around the 4th of July. The European whirlwind was over a Thanksgiving I didn’t go home; the Cayman get away was over a Christmas.

For family, and sanity, the every-other routine has worked wonderfully. And for travel, there are some real blessings. Let’s take a look at the benefits if striking out, with or without family, during the holiday.

FREE days off!
Ok, don’t get excited. I don’t mean no-cost vacations. I mean taking advantage of company-provided, paid time away from work. This can also mean weekends, if you only work during the week. For each of the big vacations mentioned above, Trisha and I took a 12-day vacation and were only required to use about six days of vacation time.

There ARE deals to be had
Traveling at the holidays doesn’t have to be the most expensive and daunting experience, especially if you are willing to try something different. You’re probably not going to find the best deal of your life on two weeks in Disney for you, the significant other and your four kids. But you may get a deal you didn’t expect to another great city. Thanksgiving offers amazing deals with international travel. Which makes perfect sense… It’s only Thanksgiving here. Explore some off-season options, and keep an open mind.

Deals ahead — WAY ahead
A few years ago, my brother-in-law rented a car for part of our journey home for Christmas. When he arrived at the rental desk to pick it up, the attendant asked in shock how he got the new 7-passenger car for such a low price. “I haven’t seen prices this low since summer,” she told him. And that made sense… He had made the reservation in August. Price is relative and “a good price” is even more so. Want that dream holiday at the fancy resort? Do it! If getting it all for a great price is key, or the only way you can afford it, plan ahead. Just think, Thanksgiving airfare will be out before you know it! (Sorry)

Finding a hotel could be the easiest part – Part 1

Niall sleeping in a suitcase

See that guy? He’s a famous singer. Really. Really famous. If he can get stuck at the airport without a hotel… well… you’re screwed.

Well. Probably not. And it doesn’t mean that you’re at the mercy of the major hotel chains or hostels? Nope. And that’s great news!

Let me just say, staying at a chain hotel or a big, shiny, glitzy hotel while on vacation can be a wonderful, necessary, healing thing. Lovely large beds and spacious bathrooms will do wonders to revive a weary body and soul after too long in rickety singles and train seats. (Yes, that’s the voice of experience.) And it’s even possible on a budget. If you’re careful.

Take Portugal, for example. Pre-recession, pre-Euro, my stay in Portugal was made all the better by a wonderfully large hotel room. At the time the exchange was 19/1 in my favor! Arriving in Lisbon from London, this was a welcome change.Without exception, London has the smallest, most expensive rooms of any city I’ve ever been to.

If you’re up for a bit of adventure, the train stations in every major European city I have been in are repleat with resources to make your stay the best possible. Inside the station, you can find a very helpful, English-speaking, attendant at the Hotel office. This office, so aptly named, will find you a hotel. For free. (Well, the service is free, the hotel costs what it costs.) You tell them what part of the city you want to stay, how long you’re staying, and your rough budget, and minutes later, you have a map with a circled location and directions. Boom! You’re off to drop your bags and begin your journey.

On my five city tour of Europe, in the pre-smartphone days of 1999, the hotels in four cities were acquired with this service. And when we had to switch hotels after the first night in Lisbon, the departing hotel found us the new place. Again, free service. Two nights in the museum section of Barcelona? Done. Three nights in the shopping district of Paris? Sure. Yes, you can find answers on the internet… but do you want to spend your time trying to find free wifi and poking around the internet or BEING in that great city? Exactly.

Asking questions is free, so before you run off and assume you understand how things work in a city or country you’ve never been to, ask some questions.

A second bag is HOW MUCH?!

Airfare, by in large, is expensive. Adding a bag? On an international flight? Yeah… Here are some tips to getting the most out of your suitcase.

Know the rules.

Every airline has a size restriction for carry on bags. Know it. As difficult as it may seem, stick to it. If you wind up having to gate check your bag, you may save a few bucks but you’re increasing your risk of never seeing that bag (or some of its contents) again.

Be realistic.

If you’re going on a four country, five city vacation using the train, hauling a large suitcase is going to be a pain no matter how many wheels are on that thing. You don’t need fifteen outfits for a five day trip. You don’t need six pair of shoes. Really. But if you do, budget for extra bags and plan on lost bags. While statistically rare, 26 million — MILLION — bags are “misdirected” each year. Of those bags, 1 million are never located and the rest take an average of 2 days to locate and return to the rightful owner. (More info here.) Are you only going to be at your hotel 2 days then moving on? Perhaps checking isn’t for you. Be sure to give the airline your full itinerary; if they ‘misdirect’ your stuff, you’re going to want them to get it to you when they find it.

How to pack.

There are a lot of philosophies on how to best pack a suitcase. Perhaps you’re a ‘roller,’ neatly rolling every piece of clothing into a tube to stack inside your back. Maybe your a ‘toss and stuff,’ just hoping all of your necessities make it inside the zipper. I have come to rely on 3 different types of packing apparati. The first is packing cubes. They have zippers, are soft-sided, and come in a variety of sizes. These allow you to keep like items (like socks) or entire outfits together. Zippered compression bags are especially handy with cold weather wear. Insert your clothing, seal the bag, roll the air out. I have found that both of these can result in wrinkles, however. For a more polished look, I use packing folders. These are great, and I have 3 sizes. I can put several days worth of clothes together in outfits — and they stay next to each other! I can be weird to neatly fold your dirty clothes for the trip home, but it’s worth it.

Choose a family.

The best piece of advice I’ve ever received about packing for travel was to only pack items in the same color family. Black. Navy. White. Brown. Whatever color tones you choose, keep them all the same. Think Geranimals. If everything goes well with and compliments everything else, you’ll be able to mix and match for more outfit choices and less boredom.

What to bring, what to leave

I’ve never regretted having comfortable walking shoes, no matter how “American” they are. I rarely use my workout clothes, despite a fairly serious routine at home. When I went to Hawaii in 2010, I  wore less than half of the clothes I brought. The issue was that the other clothes smelled of mildew when I returned home from all the humidity. Sure, a pile of tank tops and skirts don’t take up a lot of room, but I didn’t need to haul them around the world only to return them to my wash pile. Take the clothes you know you’ll wear, not the ones you hope to wear.

Planning for lost luggage

No one wants to lose their luggage. Fact. But someone will, and it could be you.  Whether it’s a sundress or a pair of shorts, have two outfits in your carry on. Whatever you can’t replace reasonably at a local pharmacy or hotel gift shop should not be in your checked bag. If you can’t afford to lose it, and you can’t carry it on… just leave it at home.

Let’s get real for a minute

Bad things can happen on your dream vacation. There. I said it. It’s ok, you’ll get through it.


If you plan. It’s easier to plan and prepare in advance than it is to react and recover outside of your comfort zone.

When we went to Europe in ’99, Trisha and I did a lot of planning. As a professional photographer, she was incredibly concerned about her camera. And rightfully so. Because it got stolen.

Not kidding.

We know it was taken from under our noses in the McDonald’s inside the Barcelona train station. We don’t know who took it, or exactly when it was taken. What we do know is that anything someone wants to take, they will. (We also know that if you get robbed at 11:45 pm in the Barcelona train station, you will spend the first 25 minutes at the police station getting yelled at for being at the train station so late. Sigh.)

Before we left the States, Trisha got extra insurance on her camera. Extra? Exactly. Many insurance policies don’t cover international travel. So if you are traveling with costly items you don’t want to pay to replace, investigate your insurance well in advance. And if something happens, be sure to get a copy of the police report. Even if it’s in Spanish.

When you start your packing list, ask yourself: will I really use it? Can I afford to lose it? Is it worth the risk?

While you’re meeting with your insurance agent about your property, you may also want to explore supplemental life insurance for your vacation. I’ve never gotten travel life insurance, but it may be right for you. Any number of factors could make it the right choice in the future.

In addition to insurance, there are a few things which you should get together in preparation for mayhem. Domestic travel requires less planning, which isn’t surprising. Here are a few items which you should consider gathering to leave with someone trustworthy (and whose name and number can be found in your baggage and in your cell phone)

– A list of your credit card numbers, with expiration dates, and their billing/contact numbers.
– A copy of your itinerary, with flights, hotel and transportation. If you know it, someone else should know it. If you don’t, try to give realistic estimates.

– Everything mentioned above.
– A photocopy of the inside of your passport. (If you have extra photos, good on ya. Leave those too!)
– Copies of all the prescriptions you’re taking with you AND any you’re leaving at home which you may need in an emergency or delay (including glasses/contacts).
– A copy of your homeowners/supplemental property insurance.
– A copy of your medical insurance cards.

I don’t wanna!

a couple argues over a map pointing in opposite directionsThe best decision Trisha and I ever made concerning travel decisions was to do whatever the other person wanted: I’ll see whatever you want, and you’ll see whatever I want. Done. I can only assume this saved multiple arguments.

When we went to Europe in 1999, we visited 5 cities in 12 days. It was aggressive. Our game plan was to see the ‘must see’ sites of each, checking off as many boxes as possible.

Agreeing to see what Trisha wanted was easy. The only time I honestly thought about not going was the botanical garden in Barcelona. I had no interest in that — I’m not a gardener. Not even a little. But I had made a deal, and I went. It was one of the most memorable parts of the trip. Perhaps due to my low expectations, or sheer lack of knowledge before hand, but that is something I never would have experienced under my own planning.

When you’re planning your trip, don’t limit your itinerary to only things everyone will like. Take the opportunity to explore the interests of your companions. You may just be surprised how much you enjoy it too.

Only pay once

paying eurosThe best advice I can give for minding your budget while on vacation is to only pay for things once. I know that sounds like ridiculous advice, but it happens.

Here’s how I know this can be a problem: I paid twice to take the train through Europe in 1999. It was clear Trisha and I had two strikes against us: we were very excited; we had no idea what we were doing.

We had established a strategy early on, which we thought would save us both time and money. In the end, I still believe it did. I’m also aware that we probably through away something in the neighborhood of $250.

Our plan was to spend every-other night at a hotel, and to spend the alternate nights on the train relocating us to a new destination. These were our general guidelines, but we didn’t want to waste the day sitting on the train. Though not the most comfortable for sleeping, we were able to save both time and money by being a little put out. It was a sacrifice we were willing to make.

Key to this plan was the Eurorail Student Pass. I believe in 1999 we paid $250 or $275 USD for each student pass. Eurorail, the amazing train system of Europe, define a student as anyone under 26.

Here’s where we went wrong.

I think the pass is meant to allow you to just get on any train you want. Present your pass as method of payment when reserving your ticket. Our first train ride was Lisbon, Portugal to Barcelona, Spain. It turned out to be the perfect storm of ignorance and confusion. The ticket agent in Lisbon told us we would have to pay for our tickets despite having the student passes. I’m not sure if we did something wrong, or if there was a language problem, if she was new or if we were just stupid enough to pay it… but we paid for that, and every other ticket on our trip. It didn’t feel like a hardship, but after the fact it certainly felt like the whole situation didn’t go as planned.

This lesson isn’t just about trains; it’s about asking questions and really understanding what is included in your package. Whether you’re taking a cruise or a road trip, don’t be afraid to ask questions (and ask again, if necessary). What is included, and more importantly, what is not. What do they mean when they say “all-inclusive” or “transportation optional”? If you aren’t sure, kindly ask someone from the hotel/resort/train/airline/etc. It is their job, after all, to assist.

A visit to my good friend, Dewey

The first lesson to getting an A vacation on a B (or C!) budget, is that you have to consider every expense as part of the vacation. Wasteful spending isn’t necessary. Ever.

I like to make my vacations last as long as possible, as I don’t get to travel nearly as much as I would like. So for me, planning the trip can be a juicy precursor to the actual trip. Beware: you can easily go over budget on travel research. I have two sections of my bookcase devoted to destination guides and local history, many for places I have never actually been. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Dreaming is free, and planning can be just as cost-effective.

The planning for the Great Italian Getaway (GIG) 2015 began at my local library.

Here’s the thing. There are hundreds – HUNDREDS! – of travel books for every country, region or city you could ever hope to visit. What are you going to do? Buy them all?! (If your answer to this is yes, I should kindly tell you that we are very different people and, regrettably, this blog is probably not for you.) I also don’t typically have a preference between the large guide publishers. Each will do, and inevitably about 85% of the content will be basically identical. I can’t settle the arguement, however, as to which really captures what I want with that remaining 15%.

And because I was at the library, and they are FREE, I got two. Frommers 2013 and Fodors 2012 Italy have found their way to my home.

Over Thanksgiving 1999, Trisha and I took our first European vacation. London, Lisbon, Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, London. In twelve days. (And no, I have still not seen “If it’s Tuesday, if must be Belgium.”) While that trip contained many stops, it did not actually require much research. The GIG. This one is going to require research.

Trisha will be making many of the choices on locations, but I can soundly say I know very little about Italy. Generally speaking, I would say there are three types of places I would like to see: cities, beaches, and wine country. Three places, three weeks. Seems straight forward. Maybe… Maybe not. That’s why we research.

Later. Much later. When we have locations more narrowed down, I will buy some books. (Since this post was originally published, I have purchased two newer editions.) Maybe I’ll buy some apps. If my technology will work in Italy, that is. For now, I’ll be working my way through the free books at the library.

Less go!

The first lesson to getting an A vacation on a B (or C!) budget, is that you have to consider every expense as part of the vacation. Wasteful spending isn’t necessary. Ever.

I like to make my vacations last as long as possible, as I don’t get to travel nearly as much as I would like. So for me, planning the trip can be a juicy precursor to the actual trip. Beware: you can easily go over budget on travel research. I have two sections of my bookcase devoted to destination guides and local history, many for places I have never actually been. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Dreaming is free, and planning can be just as cost-effective.

The planning for the Great Italian Getaway (GIG) 2015 began at my local library.

See, here’s the thing. There are hundreds – HUNDREDS! – of travel books for every country…

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How’d we get here?

I do believe its time for another adventureI have been on four really great vacations in my adult life . (It is what it is…)  My first whirlwind, 12-day tour of Europe (London, Lisbon, Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, London). Twelve days lounging on the beaches of Grand Caymen.  A week in Lodz, Poland. (Lodz means ‘boat’ in Polish. It is no where near water. There you go.) Five days in Kona, Hawaii.

While it may sound counter-intuitive, if you live on the east coast and someone asks you to go to Hawaii for five days, seriously consider not going. Five days is just enough time to get your time-zones completely screwed up for a month.

It’s painful.

Each of these vacations began with a question. What do you think about Thanksgiving in London? How would you feel about someplace hot for Christmas? Have you considered Hawaii? Why not come for a visit?

Be open to the adventure, and ask questions of your friends. Be open to having others join you. They bring new ideas, other skills, and options. Splitting a room may mean sacrificing a bit of privacy, but it might also mean a great dinner at a fancy restaurant or getting to stay an extra couple of days.