“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Pre-Vacation Checklist

In a few days I'm headed to Mexico, and I'm going through my usual pre-trip ritual.  Dragging the suitcases out, throwing random items into them as I think of them (then I'll arrange and properly pack later), and making my to-do list.  I write down what I need to do and what to pack, then I'll email it to myself.  Everytime I complete an item, or think of something new, I'll resend the message to myself with the old items taken off and the new items added.  It'll continue to evolve as I check things off and think of new things.  Someone asked me the other day if I'm ready for vacation (of course!) and some noted how I always seem to be so prepared - for the trip, and for the unknown.  So I thought I'd write down some of the things I do the last couple weeks before departure as a help for any of you that might wait until the last minute, aren't frequent travelers, or would like a more comprehensive list of how to plan ahead.

  • Double-check transit logistics: If you're flying, check on any road construction that might delay you if you're driving to the airport.  If you're like me and taking public transit, check the transit times to find out what time you have to leave.  Transit schedules tend to run less frequently in non-rush hours so you may need to allow more time in your schedule.
  • Print all travel documents: Make a copy of your passport and put 1 copy in each suitcase and carry-on.  Print out your itinerary, plane confirmations, hotel confirmations, and travel insurance policy.  Travel apps on your smartphone may be nice, but sometimes batteries run down, wifi or cell service isn't available, or you'll just need a paper copy to toss around and mark up.
  • Print local destination info: Rail system, mass transit, bus routes, directions, general map
  • Confirm everything: Call travel agent, check plane reservations, flight status, call hotel personally if you used a travel agent.  Never assume everything is in order until you have confirmed it at least twice with each travel partner.  This is one of the tips I learned from a few travel magazines.  Sometimes readers book a vacation, arrive at their destination, and the hotel doesn't have the reservation, has the incorrect info, or charges a higher rate.  Usually the expert advice is to not only call the travel agent to confirm, but to also call the hotel or resort directly to make sure the agent made your reservation, forwarded your details, or that the hotel hasn't deleted your reservation.
  • Check cell phone: Do you need an international calling plan activated?  Don't be surprised by coming home to a $200,000 phone bill because you didn't have proper international coverage and used your phone.  Unless you are expecting a call, switch your cell service off and just use the wifi feature.
  • Re-check country visa status and State Department travel advisories.  The latest warnings and advisories can be found on this blog.
  • Don't forget to register in the STEP program if you're going abroad
  • Send copy of your travel itinerary and contact info to an emergency contact at home
  • Update your luggage tags: Put a luggage tag on every bag before you leave the house to save you time at the check-in counter at the airport.  I put my destination info when I'm going and write in my home info when I'm returning.
  • Check airline baggage allowances (checked and carry-on).  Most airlines don't charge to check your first bag if you're flying internationally.  Some airlines allow 1 carry-on, and some allow 1 carry-on plus 1 personal item.  They differ by airline so check ahead of time before you start packing so you know how to allocate your clothes.
  • Weigh your luggage.  A luggage scale is inexpensive, and packs away easily into a carry-on.  I use this especially when I'm done packing to find out how much more room I have available for souvenirs.   Be sure to check your airline's baggage weight allowance or you'll be charged extra at check-in (this isn't pleasant when you are already paying to check a bag).  Don't assume all airlines have similar weight allowances.  On the Southeast Asia trip, one of my airlines had a lower allowance and I had to pay extra.  This was a low-cost carrier and was more strict about allowances.  Luckily I only had to pay once, and my other air carriers allowed more weight.
  • Currency: Note currency conversion and jot down some common numbers (ie, What is $20 equal to?).  Practice some quick conversions at home before you leave so you get a feel for doing the math on the fly and what you're spending.  Find out the average cost of taxis to/from the airport at your destination, and some taxi guidelines.  For instance, know if you should be haggling for the cost of a fare or if it's a flat rate.  Some airports have a designated taxi stand where you should go, especially if you're in a foreign country where you don't speak the language.  The taxi stand managers can help translate to the drivers for you.  As a general rule of thumb, don't accept an unsolicited taxi ride.  Go with the taxi stand.
  • Notify your call credit card companies if you'll be using those cards outside your home country, else your cards may be useless once you're away.  You can call them or sometimes send an email from your account online.
  • Prepare to be stranded: You never know when you might have to spend the night in an airport.  I travel with an inflatable travel pillow, a small blanket or throw, disposable toothbrush, and a change of undergarments in my carry-on.  Sometimes I even carry some granola bars in case convenience stores or restaurants are closed in the middle of the night.
  • Food: When you return home, you might be exhausted, jet-lagged, and hungry.  Buy a frozen pizza or quick-prep food for my freezer so when you return there's something quick and easy to heat up.  Cooking can wait another day.
Happy traveling!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Italy: It's About Time

I'm finally going to continental Europe.  What took me so damn long?  I was in England in 2007-2008.  I don't count that.  It's an island.  They don't use the euro.  They speak English.  C'mon...

But this coming February Carrie and I are finally headed to Europe.  For Pete's sake, I've never been to Rome, Paris, Berlin, Zurich, or Madrid. Friends have tales and tales about their trips around Europe, and I got nuttin'.  If you know me well, you know I'm an archaeology nut.  Pyramids, Tut's Tomb, Stonehenge, Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, Easter Island, but  how could I have never yet set foot in Italy, let alone the Coliseum?  That problem is about to be solved.

As for Rome, the research is basic.  The hotel is being arranged for us so at least this time we won't spend weeks pouring through resources to investigate neighborhoods, hotels vs B&Bs, who has free breakfast and wifi and who doesn't, etc.  When we finally know where we're staying, that's when we can begin to find out more about where we'll be centrally located and work from there.  This time it's nice to have that decision made for us.  The rest of the Rome research is mostly going to evolve around two things: 1) a map, and 2) local details.  First, we have a few must-sees: the Coliseum, the Forum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Pantheon, and the Vatican (one of the reasons for going off-season and before the Lent/Easter holidays).  Secondly, local details.  These will include how to figure out our dinner check.  Navigating the subway system.  Ordering a meal.  Cultural do's and don'ts.  Studying city maps, getting oriented, mentally situating sites.  Researching museum and site hours and admission (we're going in February during off-season so these details might be handy). Finding the train station to get to Naples.

In Naples, our basic plan is to eat plenty of pizza, tour Pompeii, and climb Vesuvius (although I'm researching if it's best to approach through Pompeii or Herculeneum).  From there we may take in an opera if it's in season, and I hear the museum houses most of the magnificent artifacts from Pompeii.  Our trip planning will be much more extensive for Naples since this is more of a side-trip from the Rome arrangements.  We have to investigate neighborhoods, select lodging, as well as the typical navigational logistics.

As far as food in Rome and Naples is concerned, we'll probably wing it.  There aren't many must-eat places on my list in either city.  I figure it's Italy, the land of pizza, pasta, wine, cheese, and great meats.  As far as I'm concerned, we can't go wrong.  If the weather cooperates some days we may picnic.  Or take something back to our hotel.  Gelato will probably be consumed.  And then there's the issue of wine.  Drinking, yes, but also purchasing and getting it back to the US.  Will it survive in checked baggage?  Maybe I'll need hard-sided luggage?  It won't be allowed in the carry-on, so otherwise do I have to ship it back separately?  Logistics.  I can't go to Italy and not return with a few bottles.

We definitely want to climb Vesuvius.  Ever since we climbed Huayna Picchu, we relished in the physical challenge and the joy of overcoming a monumental obstacle.  We bitched and moaned in the process, but knew that we'd remember those kinds of moments for life, and they really did enrich our trips (see also: Inauguration).  As we like to say, "We may be miserable now, but one day we'll look back on this and really appreciate it."  Why do we do this to ourselves?  To challenge us mentally and physically?  Do we not know what we're getting into?  It usually amounts to, "That'd be a great idea, I don't know anyone else who's done it!"  Then get into it, realize why we don't know anyone else as slightly insane in the membrane, then laugh it off later in shared physical misery.  But all these experiences really do enrich our travels.  It was great to see Machu Picchu, but even better to have another side adventure that accompanied it.  It'll be fantastic to wander Pompeii, then to climb the volcano that subsequently destroyed it.  I've had this little itch in the back of my mind for years to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.  And maybe one day Mt. Fuji.  You won't get me up Everest (the risk of death thing kind of impedes my sense of adventure), but these more medium-sized excursions off the well-worn tourist paths have paid off in dividends.