River Cruising Anyone?

River cruising is all the rage.  In fact, I have more people asking about river cruises that any other kind of tour travel these days.  It’s not really surprising based on the amazing advertising that airs about this type of travel.  It looks simply idyllic doesn’t it?

Guess what?  It is!!  Having just returned from a trip down the Rhine River, I feel qualified to say this.  Traveling through the waterways of the world by ship is absolutely enchanting.  A vast array of river cruise companies have created floating hotels that whisk you through multiple cities and countries, but you never feel rushed or overwhelmed.  Many times you spend the day basking in the culture of one delightful town, cruise overnight and wake up in a brand new place to explore the next day.  Add in exceptional food, interesting and fun excursions and plush accommodations, and you have a recipe for a fantastic vacation experience.

Below I’ve given a little bit of information about four popular cruise lines currently operating.  If you would like to see a chart that compares all the major river cruise lines, please let me know by adding a comment here, and I’ll get that to you shortly.

  • AmaWaterways – This cruise line boasts 17 modern ships in their fleet and sails the waterways of Europe, Africa and Asia (Vietnam and Cambodia).  The staterooms, recreational and dining areas are beautiful, well-equipped and meticulously maintained by an incredibly friendly staff that make you feel more like an old friend than a customer.  In addition, Ama has a focus on health and wellness, offering hiking and biking excursions as well as yoga and pilates classes, and all are included in the cost of your cruise.  There are also less active excursions like gentle walking tours and wine tastings for those who’d rather relax while seeing new places.  The food is simply wonderful (seriously), and the cost is very reasonable based on the accommodations and level of service provided.  WanderMore Travels Grade: A+
  • Viking – Based on the amount of advertising Viking does, this cruise line has become synonymous with river cruising especially to Americans.  Sailing the waters around Europe, Russia, Egypt and Asia, Viking is the largest river cruise operator (by far) in the world.  This leads to itineraries that are widely varied and well-developed.  The accommodations, common and dining areas have very clean lines following Nordic fashion, and are well maintained by a lovely and polished staff.  There is not a focus on health and wellness for excursion choices, but the staff is always ready to help you hire a bicycle in town or map out a hike to scenic areas.  The cost can be reasonable if you book through an advertised deal.  WanderMore Travels Grade: B+
  • UniWorld Boutique River Cruise Collection. UniWorld has been offering amazing river cruise experiences for the last 30 years. Just walking onto the ship is an experience.  Each vessel has a unique design that can only be described as artful.  Think Versailles mixed with a little Ritz Carlton and you’ve got the right flavor.  Their itineraries are just as varied as the décor, offering trips down less-visited waterways like the Po River in Italy.  In addition, they are truly an all-inclusive experience (yes, that includes alcohol 24/7).  With all the beautiful attention to detail in the décor, the food and the itineraries, UniWorld charges a premium fare and has people returning again and again to experience this amazing brand of floating elegance. WanderMore Travels Grade: A
  • Crystal River Cruises. Crystal has been cruising the oceans in luxury (serious luxury) for the past 25 years, and has now entered the river cruise market. In keeping with their strength in the luxury market, Crystal calls their ships “River Yachts” as opposed to the more mundane title.  The food can only be called Michelin inspired and the staff are hand-picked and Crystal trained.  Their staff ratio of two crew members to three guests is unmatched, with butler service for every room category, dedicated spa professionals, Crystal Society hosts, multiple pastry chefs and much more.  Their ship Mozart boasts king-sized beds, iPad control centers and the largest suites of any river vessels in Europe.  Suffice to say, you will be in the lap of luxury for your entire cruise.  Naturally, the price tag is as hefty as you might imagine, but sometimes you just need to splurge a little – right?  WanderMore Travels Grade: A+

Happy Travels!

 

Traveling Overseas? Get Prepared with My Top 5 Check List

Travel rocks!  Pretty simplistic statement, but seriously, seeing beautiful new places, having amazing adventures, and collecting memories that will light up the rest of your life – what could be better?  Not much in my opinion.

To get the most out of your travel experiences though, it pays to prepare a bit to make sure everything goes smoothly.  To that end, I’ve compiled my top 5 list of preparation items for your next overseas journey. Take care of these few items before you head out the door, and you can strike out with confidence.

  • Register with STEP. STEP stands for Smart Traveler Enrollment Program and is something you should register with if you are traveling out of the country.  It’s a free service that allows US citizens traveling abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest US Embassy or Consulate.  Once you’re registered, you will get important information from the Embassy about safety conditions in your destination country and give the Embassy a way to contact you in an emergency – whether it’s a local issue or family related.  It will also help expedite the passport replacement process should you have your passport stolen or lost while traveling.
  • Make a copy of your passport. I know you’ve heard this before, but it never hurts to review.  If you have a copy of your passport and it gets lost or stolen, you can get it replaced relatively quickly.  If you don’t have a copy, you will incur miles of red tape as the Embassy or Consulate tries to ascertain if you are who you say you are.  You’ll still be asked a million questions even if you have a copy, but trust me, it will make for a much smoother process.  I used to make two paper copies and put one in my carry-on bag and leave one with my emergency contact at home.  However, these days I just have a photo of it in my phone, and I email that photo to my emergency contact.  That way if my phone gets stolen along with my passport (heaven forbid), I can get an electronic copy emailed to me right away.
  • Check-in with your bank. You’re going to need local currency once you get to your destination, and the easiest way to do that is through a local ATM.  Of course, you want to be sure your debit/ATM card will work in ATMs overseas by calling your bank and checking with them.  Typically, if your card has a Visa or Mastercard logo on it, you’re good to go.  (You’ll definitely want to use an ATM at your destination to get the best exchange rates available – much better than the airport or at your bank before you leave town.) Also, while you’re on with the bank checking about your debit card, be sure to find out about any fees associated with using an ATM or making purchases with your card in a foreign country so you can plan accordingly.
  • Make sure you set your cell phone up with a plan that won’t incur overage charges. This one is really important if you don’t want to have a nasty surprise once you get back home.  Your friendly neighborhood mobile phone company will charge your lights out if you use your phone outside the country and haven’t purchased a temporary overseas plan with them.  Data usage is the worst offender.  We’re so used to using maps, social media and Internet searching at home, it’s only natural to continue the practice when you’re traveling.  All of a sudden, you’ve racked up $1000 of overage charges you didn’t plan for.  Call your phone company and set up a plan for texting and minimal talk time, and ask them how to change your phone settings once you’re on your flight to make sure you don’t incur unintentional charges.  Then find WIFI to connect to for data usage, and you’ll be able to communicate with home and your social media buddies without spending next year’s travel budget on all those selfies you posted.
  • Check in with your travel professional about local requirements. Many countries have specific requirements for visitors.  These requirements could include special visas, appropriate clothing, immunizations or possession of medications.  Now you could spend a bunch of time researching all these requirements and always having a niggle of doubt about whether you missed something, OR you could call a travel professional and get a complete list right away.  Guess which one I’d choose?

Happy travels!

This Ain’t Your Granny’s Group Travel

Group travel has undergone a huge metamorphosis in the last 10 years.  Gone are the days of just “seeing the sights”, eating in herds and visiting all the main tourist attractions in an area.  Group travel experts now design adventures around your special interests in a way that is authentic to your destination of choice.  How about tasting wine across Provence while learning French cooking from an Avignon local?  Want to cycle through the Basque region of Spain interspersed with sea kayaking along the northern Spanish coast?  Or maybe a glamping adventure including photography lessons from an Ansel Adams acolyte in Yosemite National Park is more your style.  Does a spa vacation with essential oil classes and gentle horseback riding through virgin forest sound like more your speed?  Suffice to say, if you can dream it up, there’s a group trip for that.

And that’s not all.  Traveling in a group to a bucket list destination focused on your special interest also comes with some great benefits not found in individual travel.  I know you’re thinking, “What, there’s more?”  Yes, indeed there is. Traveling with a group has some definite advantages over traveling solo.  Here are just a few.

  • More socializing. If you are traveling with a group of people you already know, your journey will give you invaluable time to strengthen your relationships and build fabulous new memories with those people.  If you’re traveling with a group of people you didn’t know before departure, you’ll get the chance to build new friendships and experiences with people that have similar interests.  I find I enjoy a hybrid of these two opportunities.  I like going on a group trip with a few people I know and several people I’ve never met before.  It truly broadens the experience so much to learn about people from different cultures and areas of the world all while sharing the excitement of travel with people you’ve known for years.
  • More cost effective. A travel group is usually defined as 8 or more people.  This is because airlines, hotels and attractions typically begin discounting costs for airfare, rooms and tickets if you have a group of 8 or more traveling to the same destination at the same time.  The more people in your group, the more discount you can expect.  It’s just simple economics driving this.  For example, it is significantly less expensive for hotels to rent out an entire floor of their property while dealing with one tour organizer, than to rent out those same rooms to 40 individual people.  Not to mention the guarantee of blocks of space being planned for months in advance.  You can expect anywhere from 25-40% discounts off regular retail pricing.
  • More special opportunities. Many times, large groups will get special treatment because of the logistics of moving your group around.  For example, you might get to board the plane quicker and as a group.  The hotel may set up a special reception area with food and drink on your group’s floor to accommodate everyone.  Customs may divert your group to a special area to handle immigration all at once instead of having to stand in the cattle call line like individual travelers.  Attractions may provide special hours that only serve your group.  Really the possibilities are endless, and all you have to do is join a group of like-minded people on your next adventure.
  • More smooth sailing. Traveling with a group usually makes things go much smoother, especially if you’re headed somewhere off the beaten path.  This is because someone else is handling the details, “greasing the skids” if you like, around all the intricacies of travel for you.  You don’t have to worry about transfers or directions or where to stay.  You just get to focus on the amazing sights and sounds of the locale you’re visiting.

Happy travels!

Looking for a Change? Wellness Travel is for You!

Many people see the words “Wellness Travel” and immediately run the other direction.  This is because there is a huge misconception about what wellness travel is and what it is not.  In simplest terms, wellness travel is an opportunity for you to feel better physically or emotionally than you did before you started your journey.  As a bonus, you get to see some amazing parts of the world and enjoy experiencing everything the area has to offer.  Wellness travel is NOT running a marathon or riding the Tour de France or shaving your head to fit in as you learn to chant with the monks in a Tibetan temple.  Obviously, those are exaggerated examples, but you get the idea.

Maybe it’s a break at a spa retreat, a gentle hike on beautiful mountain trails, cycling to the next town on your itinerary or learning to cook amazing dishes with organic ingredients.  Whatever you choose, taking a wellness vacation has awesome benefits that last much longer than the vacation itself.  The most consistent benefit though, is its ability to change your perspective on life in general.  Who doesn’t need that once in a while?  Check out just a few ways wellness travel can make a change for you.

  • Want to feel better? Step into wellness.  It may feel like a tired refrain, but if you want to feel better, you have to get moving.  We all know this, but doing something about it can be really difficult – especially taking that first step.  Sometimes all we need is the right motivation to get started.   Are you a gardener?  See the blooming tulip fields up-close-and-personal on an easy cycling tour in the Netherlands.  Do you love nature?  Take a gentle kayaking trip down the crystal clear waters of the Suwannee River in Florida. Are you looking to add a little awe in your life?  A glamping adventure through California’s redwood forests is just what the doctor ordered.  Set a goal to actively experience something near and dear to your heart, and you will have taken that difficult first step towards adding exercise as a regular part of your routine.
  • Not sure which end is up these days? Chill out your stressful life.  Did you know that stress accounts for 75-90% of all visits to primary care physicians?  Nope, not kidding.  I won’t go into the reasons for that now, but suffice to say that stopping the cycle of stress hormone release is truly phenomenal for your body.  Have trouble “turning off” the stressful brain cycles?  Not to worry.  There are retreats in some of the most breathtaking locations in the world that can teach you techniques to let go of your stress and give your mind and body a break.  Best of all, you can take these techniques home with you to reduce your stress cycle once back into your regular routine.
  • In a rut? Figure out your next move.   Here’s a news flash – overwork kills your creativity.  It simply shuts down pathways and connections that our brain needs to think creatively.  What to do?  Well, pick out a beautiful spot in the world and carve out the time for a nice vacation.  The latest neuroscience findings show that when we are idle in leisure, our brains are most active.   That’s right.  If you want to get out of a rut in your life, you need to slow down and set your brain free to roam.  You will be amazed at the lightbulbs that will go off about your next move.

Happy Travels!

How to Have a Great All-Inclusive Resort Experience

All-inclusive resorts used to have a reputation for shady clientele, poor food, sub-par accommodations and indifferent staff.  Boy, how times have changed.  These days, there are all-inclusive properties with five star ratings, gourmet restaurants and top-flight spas located in some of the most beautiful locations in the world.  (Most are in the Caribbean or Mexico, although there are some in the South Pacific, Asia and Europe.)  It’s a great concept providing a world-class experience that you pay for prior to arrival.  This allows you to enjoy the amenities, food and a full list of activities without having to take out your wallet at all during your stay, making you feel more like a pampered guest than a paying customer.

All-inclusive resorts are amazing, but like most travel, you want to get the best deal on a destination that truly suits you and your travel companion(s). To that end, here are a few tips for making sure you have a great all-inclusive experience.

  • Pick the Right Type of Resort – I put this one first, because it is the MOST important. If you and your significant other are looking for a romantic getaway, and you book it at a family focused all-inclusive because you really liked the photos on their Web site, you will not be happy with your experience.  A family all-inclusive is a fabulous place IF you are bringing children with you.  (Beaches is a good example for families.)  If you are a traveling without children however, you want to find a resort that’s adults only and all about couples.  Sandals is a good example of this type of all-inclusive resort where everything is geared to couples.  On the other hand, if you and your single friends are looking for a place to party all night, you definitely don’t want to be with children or honeymooners.  Never fear, there’s an all-inclusive for that too.
  • Book as a Group – If you have a group looking to go to an all-inclusive resort, be sure to have one designated person making the reservations for everyone. This will absolutely get you the best rates available at the resort you select.  Even better, call your favorite travel planner (guess who I think that should be), and she can take care of all the reservations and logistics for you.  On top of that, your travel planner may have a line on resort credits, specialty dining coupons or spa treatments for your group, so don’t miss out.
  • Bundle Airfare – Just like booking as a group, if you bundle your airfare with your resort reservations, you will often get a much better deal. Many times, airlines, tour companies and all-inclusive resorts have hammered out deals that can’t be beat using the a la carte method.
  • Book “off season” – Just like any other destination, all-inclusive resorts have an “off season” that you can take advantage of to beat the crowds and save some money while having the same fabulous time you would have during “high season.” For all-inclusive resorts, after Spring Break and before the summer travel rush is the most economical time, so plan your trip for late April or May (before Memorial Day weekend) to get the best deal.
  • Know the Tipping Policy – Tipping is always a sticky topic when traveling, but it’s a bit more confusing than usual at an all-inclusive resort since you pay for most activities, food and beverages prior to arrival. There are some resorts that have a no-tipping policy and some that are fine with tipping their staff, and you want to understand the individual policy so you can relax during your stay.  If you use a travel planner, they will give tipping information with your travel documents.  If you are a DIY person, you can check with the reservation agent during booking or the concierge upon your arrival to get the standard tipping practices for that particular resort.
  • Make Dinner Reservations – All-inclusive resorts provide multiple restaurants and watering holes throughout the property.  Many of these are buffet style with an amazing assortment of delicious food that you can enjoy whenever you want.  Some of the restaurants however are considered “specialty dining”, and man are they fabulous.  However, you will need reservations and, ideally, you should make them before you get to your resort. (Yet another reason to use a travel planner to handle little details like that.)  If you don’t have time to make them before you go, do so immediately upon arrival.  You don’t want to miss out!

Happy travels!

My Favorite Destination Spas in America

You only have to whisper the words “Spa Vacation”, and you’ll hear a collective sigh run through the room. There’s nothing quite like it.  If you’ve never been to a destination spa retreat, you’ve missed out on one of life’s most delightful experiences.  Think of it.  An entire week of planning your own schedule that can include pampering, healthy eating, relaxing, exercising or taking classes all in beautiful surroundings with a staff that can’t do enough for you.  If that doesn’t sound like a slice of heaven, consider the rest of this article research for someone you love.  Regardless of who you’re researching for (and hopefully it’s for yourself), here’s a list of my favorite destination spas in the United States.

Spa at Bernardus Lodge (Carmel Valley, California)  If you like relaxing in wine country (and who doesn’t?), this is the spa for you.  Situated near Monterey, California, the spa is surrounded by 28 acres of stunning vineyards, orchards and oak forests. Spend your days around the enormous pool, breath in the fresh air on a hike around the grounds, relax in the eucalyptus steam room after a soothing massage or get a workout in at state-of-the-art, 24-hour fitness center.  Your schedule is your own. Bernardus Lodge has a strict “garden-to-treatment” philosophy — which sources ingredients from the lodge’s own organic garden – making the treatments truly fabulous. Everything from facials to pedicures are infused with homegrown lavender, mint, rosemary and Chardonnay grapes from the lodge’s own vineyards.  You can even soak in a Chardonnay-infused bubble bath.  Does it get any better than that?

The Spa at Canyon Ranch (Tucson, Arizona)  If you’re after a vacation where you will come home looking and feeling better than you have in years, Canyon Ranch is the spot for you.  Located on a 150-acre ranch in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Canyon Ranch brings state of the art health and fitness to a new level.  In fact, when you first arrive you are encouraged to meet with a medical professional to develop a customized fitness and dietary program for your stay. Plus, they have a sleep lab where your sleep patterns can be tracked and analyzed to help pinpoint any sleep issues you may be experiencing.  Don’t be alarmed though, there’s plenty of pampering going on in between all the health and fitness. 😊

Mohonk Mountain Spa (New Paltz, New York)  Located about 90 miles north of New York City, Mohonk Mountain Spa is a historic resort and destination spa nestled in the beautiful Hudson Valley.  The staff is phenomenal and the treatment rooms are first class.  Outside, you can cross-country ski, horseback ride or hike on 85 miles of trails. Relax at the end of your day in the heated outdoor mineral pool.  Consistently listed in Conde Nast Traveler as a top-rated spa destination, Mohonk Mountain Spa is not to be missed.

Miraval (Catalina, Arizona)  Set on 135 acres at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains, Miraval has 106 adobe-style casitas, most with private patios and great views. You can feel yourself relaxing the second you enter the grounds where the fabulous staff treats you like visiting royalty.  Wellness is a prime focus at Miraval, and the gourmet spa cuisine is second-to-none.  The list of treatments is extensive with over 120 to choose from, but one of the most interesting programs is the “Equine Experience,” where working with a horse gives you insight into how you deal with people — and life.  Suffice to say, Miraval is amazing.

Lake Austin Spa Resort (Austin, Texas) I saved my absolute favorite for last.  Lake Austin Spa Resort is small compared with others on this list with only 40 rooms, but the spa and treatment rooms are big and lavish with outdoor treatment spaces in screened porches, garden tents, poolside cabanas and a private couple’s suite.  It’s hard to describe the staff except to say that they make you feel like a long lost friend that’s finally come for a visit.  They just can’t do enough for you. On top of that, the food is so good you’ll have a hard time believing the calorie counts on the menu.  With more than 100 treatments available, multiple swimming pools and beautiful grounds right on Lake Austin, this spa is an oasis of wellness and relaxation.

Happy Travels!

 

5 Things You Should Bring on Your Next Trip

Knowing what to bring with you on vacation is probably one of the hardest things to resolve as you get ready for your next grand adventure.  You’re constantly balancing what you really need to bring with what you really want to bring and all of that has to be boiled down to fit in the right amount of luggage. This tug of war is so difficult because there’s just nothing worse than running into an issue, and the one item that could help you out of the jam is the thing that got left behind.

It’s no secret that I’m a less is more kind of packer, but I believe in being as prepared as possible.  To that end, there are a few items I don’t leave home without.  Check out my list below and let me know if you have any items I should try on my next journey.

  • First Aid Kit. When I first started traveling a lot, I bought a small travel-sized first aid kit and stashed it in my bag.  After about 5 trips, it was still unopened, and I considered ditching the idea.  I realized though, it wasn’t that I didn’t need a first aid kit, I just needed one with the right stuff in it.  😊  So, I found a spare bag with a zipper and filled it with things that I was buying while traveling.  Here’s my list of items:  Pain relievers, anti-histamine, band-aids, moleskin, Q-tips, cotton balls and a travel size container of hydrogen peroxide. If I can’t solve the problem with these items, we should probably be seeking out professional medical attention anyway (which is a whole other topic).  For life’s little emergencies, I added a pair of child’s scissors (blunt end), a few safety pins and one of those tiny sewing kits.   You can find this entire list in travel-sized options.  Customize your own kit for your next trip.
  • Plastic baggies. Baggies are my unsung heroes of travel.  They are flat and lightweight and fit in even the smallest nook of your suitcase, but the fact that they have so many uses is the reason I bring a handful along on every trip.  What do I do with baggies while traveling?  1) keep my camera or phone dry; 2) keep wet clothes away from dry clothes; 3) keep toiletries that have a tendency to explode from destroying my clothes; 4) add ice and soothe a hurt knee or ankle; 5) make my own washing machine; 6) keep small souvenirs like match books or ticket stubs safe; and 7) put shoes in them to keep my clothes from getting dirty.  I could go on and on, but you get the idea.  Bring some baggies!
  • Food. I’m going to break this one down into two categories: 1) Airplane food and 2) staving off starvation.  Let’s start with the airplane.  We all know the food they serve on the plane is pretty much a disgusting blob of chemicals and preservatives.  However, when you’re starving, anything sounds great.  What to do?  Make yourself an airplane picnic!  The night before your flight, freeze your favorite yogurt or apple sauce in a BPA-free container (3 oz or less so you’ll make it through TSA).  Make a sandwich, grab a piece of fruit, a little something sweet (because what is life without dessert), a plastic spoon and a napkin and put them in a gallon-size freezer bag in the fridge.  Right before you leave for the airport, add the frozen items to the freezer bag to keep your other items cold and put it all in your carry-on luggage.  Once you’re on the plane, everything has thawed and is ready for you to eat at your leisure.  So we’ve got the airplane food handled, but what do you do when you’re seeing the most amazing sunset from the top of a mountain and starvation is imminent?  You just dip into your plastic baggie (see what I did there?) of non-perishable food you were smart enough to bring along.  My favorite?  KIND bars! Any granola bar or trail mix will solve your problem though and keep you among the living until you can get a real meal.  They are small, light, can take a beating in your backpack and (shhhh!) good for you, so stock up before you head out on your next adventure.
  • A small change purse. Having a small change purse or additional wallet with you while traveling is a great way to not put all your eggs in one basket.  Each morning, I take the amount of money I think I’ll need for the day and one credit or debit card and put it in my change purse which I put in a really accessible place (front pants pocket or top pocket of backpack).  I then tuck my regular wallet with all the rest of my money and cards away in a safe place – either in my pack or in a safe if one is available.  Then I use my change purse to purchase anything I need during the day.  This serves three purposes.  1) It’s easy to access it quickly; 2) I’m not advertising to anyone who might be looking how much cash I actually have; and 3) If it does get stolen or lost, I’m only out a small amount of cash and one credit card.
  • Travel wipes. People can say Americans are much too fastidious about being clean, but it’s not going to change the fact that I like to stay well while I’m traveling.  We all know that the best way to do this is to wash your hands a lot.  However, sometimes there’s no convenient place to wash up, so I bring travel wipes with me to do the job.  LA FRESH (http://lafreshgroup.com/travel-lite-amenities) sells travel wipes for everything from cleaning your hands to applying sunscreen in nice convenient travel packets. Check them out.

Happy travels!

Finding That Next Great Travel Destination

Are you the travel planner in your family or circle of friends?  Does everyone look to you for the next destination?  “That was great Mom!  Where are we going next?”; “Awesome trip Dad!  Where are we going this summer?”; “That trip was fabulous sweetie!  Can’t wait to see what you cook up next!”; “It’s so great to spend time with our special group of friends in these cool places!  Where are we going next year?”  Any of this sound familiar?

I spent years formulating new adventures for my family and friends.  I loved researching to find just the right combination of activities, downtime and beautiful surroundings, and then planning every detail of the trip down to the color of the car rental.  In fact, I loved it so much, I decided to do it for a living.  I’ll admit though, there were times I wished I had a travel genie that would magically produce the perfect spot for that next amazing journey.

Unfortunately, there’s no magic solution, but I do have a pretty good method to help you come up with your best vacation ever.  Download my Travel Inspiration Sheet (TIS) and print it off.  Now, grab a pen and in less than 15 minutes, we’ll be on our way to finding that place in the world that’s just been waiting for you to experience it.

  1. Make a list of things you love to do.  First things first.  Take 5 minutes and jot down things you really love to do.  Need some inspiration?  How about cooking or hiking or viewing art or sitting on the beach with margarita in hand?  There are no rules, other than you have to write them down.
  2. Have anyone going with you make a list of things they love to do as well.  If you are including children in your travel plans, this is an awesome exercise to do together.  Your kids will feel like they’re participating in the vacation planning, and you just might learn something you didn’t know about them.
  3. Make a list of things you do NOT want to experience on your vacation.  This can be a tricky one.   Maybe you don’t feel comfortable traveling where the people don’t speak your language very well.  Maybe you don’t want to go when the weather is too hot or too cold.  Maybe you don’t like lots of crowds.  You get the idea.  Knowing what you don’t want is an important factor in finding the perfect spot.
  4. Think about your favorite vacation ever.  Have it in your mind?  What was it about that one vacation that separates it from the rest?  OK, quick!  Write down why it was your favorite.
  5. Set your budget.  Most of the time when I ask people for this, they think I only mean the money they want to spend.  The monetary budget is certainly a factor, but actually, the amount of time they have to spend is a more precious commodity these days.  Write down your time and money budget.
  6. Set the timeframe.  Are you constrained by school calendars or seasonal work issues?  Do you want to travel to a festival or celebration of some kind?  If you answered yes to either of these questions, write down the details.
  7. Pull out that dream destination list.  Most people have one, but many just put it away in the back of their mind thinking they’ll get to it someday.  Well, today’s the day.  Let’s get that list out, dust it off and write it down.
  8. Ask for expert advice.  Now that you’ve got your Travel Inspiration Sheet (TIS) done, you have two choices.  You can take the sheet and research your dream destinations to see which one matches the things you love to do and the things you don’t want to experience that’s within your budget in the right timeframe, OR you can hand that TIS to a travel expert and ask for help finding the perfect destination.  Guess which one I think you should choose?  😊  In all seriousness, a travel expert will save you time and energy AND they have access to information that’s not readily available to non-travel personnel.  Usually, they will have recommendations right off the bat (and many times first-hand experience) about places and activities that will fit that perfect journey you outlined in your TIS.  Think of them as a treasure map to your best vacation ever!

Happy Travels!

Keeping People Out of Your Pockets

Unfortunately, pickpockets and sneak thieves are a part of life, especially in touristy areas of big cities.  As an example, I’ll tell a story on myself.

About 10 years ago, my son and I were traveling in Italy on his high school trip and one of our stops was Rome.  When in Rome, you must see the Spanish Steps of course, and our group split up around the entire area.  We were being typical tourists, when some local gentlemen wandered up, grabbed my son’s wrist and starting “weaving” a bracelet out of string and wouldn’t let go of his wrist until he got paid 5 Euro.  Another two gentleman tried to peel me away from my son, which wasn’t working, so they started telling me about how they were poor students.  The main fellow was 40 if he was a day, and I snorted and said, “What are you studying?  Life?”  He thought that was funny and for some reason, wouldn’t let his compatriot snatch my son’s money.  Luckily, all we ended up with was a crude looking bracelet and a good story to tell.

I spent a bit of time after that reviewing how we got into that situation in the first place, and came up with some “don’t-be-a-target rules” that are now part of my regular routine while traveling.  Check out these easy to implement travel “rules” for yourself.  They might just keep you out of the hands of clever gypsies.

  • Don’t look like a tourist.  Pickpockets and con artists look for easy targets. Therefore, advertising that you are a tourist is not the best method for staying out of their way.  You need to blend in a little bit.  The best way to do this is to match the colors of your clothes to the local people.  You can do a little research on the Web or just ask your handy-dandy travel planner for tips.  A general rule of thumb is to wear muted colors. You pretty much can’t go wrong with that plan.
  • Keep your bags, purses and backpacks zipped up.  This seems like a no-brainer, but when you’re distracted and you’ve had to unzip that front pocket to get your camera or glasses out all morning, it’s easy to forget to zip it back up.  There’s nothing more tempting to a pickpocket.
  • Use Google Maps offline.  I know I talked about this last week, but I’m bringing it up again because there is nothing that announces TOURIST louder than walking around with a huge folding paper map. Use the maps on your smart phone, if at all possible, and walk with purpose to your destination.
  • Be aware of your surroundings.  Again, this one seems obvious, but in the excitement of seeing new people and places, it’s easy to forget to be aware of who is around you and to watch where you’re going. Stop and take a look around every once in a while and make sure you have a tight grip on your belongings.  This will make you a much less enticing target than someone who is not paying attention.
  • Leave your good jewelry at home.  Not wearing your best jewelry meets the goal of blending in with the people around you.  If you have a piece that you don’t like to take off or leave at home, turn the stone in a ring around to your palm or tuck a necklace under your shirt if you’re walking through an area where it might attract attention.
  • Move wallets to your front pocket or wear your backpack in front of you in crowded areas. This is especially true if you’re riding public transportation.  My husband put an empty wallet in his back pocket one time when we were riding the subway just to see if it would get lifted.  Sure enough, within 5 minutes of being on the train, it was gone and he never felt it happen.  Putting wallets in your front pocket and moving your backpack or purse to the front of your body announces to anyone interested that you are aware of your surroundings and they will move on to easier targets.
  • You don’t need to be polite. In America, most people don’t like to be rude to anyone and pickpockets count on this.  There are usually at least two people needed to pick your pocket successfully.  One to distract you with a question or situation (like tripping in front of you), while the other one is relieving you of your wallet.  If this happens in front of you in a busy area, put your hands on your belongings and move along.

Happy travels!

Travel Hacks that Really Work

Over the years, I’ve traveled a lot of miles.  During my travel-for-business phase, there wasn’t really time to be creative about handy items to help make travel easier.  I basically crammed everything into a roller carry-on bag and ran out the door to catch my flight.

Lucky for me, I’ve slowed down in the last few years and been able to cover a lot of ground just for the pleasure of traveling.  Each trip I try out a few new ideas I’ve heard about from various sources.  If they work, I keep them on as a regular part of the traveling ritual.  If they don’t, I just discard them and move on.  Honestly, there’s more things in the discard pile than the save pile, but you have to try things before you know they don’t work – right?

This week, I thought I’d share some handy travel hacks I found that actually live up to their claims of saving you time, money, space or sanity.

  • Use Google Maps Offline – So you’re staying in a foreign city and you’ve decided you want to explore a bit on your own.  You don’t want to use the map on your smartphone to find your way because you’ll be charged a fortune in roaming data fees.  What to do?  Download the Google Maps app to your phone before you leave home.  Open the app while connected to WIFI and find the area of town you want to explore.  Once you have it displayed on your phone, touch the menu option (top left of screen) and select Offline Areas.  You can download that area map to your phone so you can use it without any roaming data or WIFI required.  WARNING: You will need between 70MB and 300MB of space on your phone to do this download.
  • Make it easy to get a new passport or driver’s license if you need to – I personally keep my passport strapped to my body when I travel abroad because I have a paranoia about losing it.  I haven’t lost it yet, so maybe this is a good method.  As a backup though, I scanned my passport and driver’s license and emailed the documents to myself so I can access them from anywhere.  This will make it much easier to replace them if they are lost or stolen.
  • Put a dryer sheet in your suitcase – This is a simple and easy method to keep your clothes smelling fresh in your suitcase (even on long trips) with the added benefit of reducing static electricity.
  • Leave your jewelry box at home – In the spirit of packing light, bring jewelry that will go with more than one outfit and use a 7-day pill organizer to store it.  You’ll be able to fit several pieces into the nice, flat container AND you can find those earrings you love really quickly.
  • Wear Flight Compression Socks – So these are not the most fashionable items in the world, but they are clinically proven to help blood circulation in the legs and thighs.  On long flights, suck it up and put on your compression socks.  You can get a pair on Amazon for less than $20.  It really helps reduce the risk of blood clots and they are nice and warm as well.
  • Use ATM Machines for the Best Exchange Rates – I have tested this out, and when you get local currency from an ATM, you’re getting the best exchange rate available.  This is because your bank has negotiated exchange rates for bulk transactions and even though you’re just getting 20 Euro at a time, you get the same rate as your bank does.  WARNING: Be sure to check with your bank before leaving on your trip to see if there are fees associated with using your card overseas.  This will help you plan how often you use your card at an ATM or with local merchants.

Happy travels!