I Should Have Been in Italy Today

I have reached the nadir (I hope) of my quarantine depression today. Because today, after thirty long years of trying, my plane should have been touching down at the Venice Marco Polo Airport. We had made the airline reservations. We had booked all our hotels and Airbnb’s and train tickets for a two week, Italian extravaganza.

We had planned to spend three glorious days in Venice, then cross the top of the country by train to visit the Cinque Terra, then go on down to Assisi, the hometown of St. Francis. From there, we’d have settled in to Sorrento, to use it as a hub to visit Naples, Pompeii, Herculaneum, Capri, and the Amalfi Coast, and then spend a few days in Rome before returning home.

And then, COVID-19. So close. So freakin’ close.

It’s not the first time that my Italy plans have been scuttled. Economic downturns, relationship breakups, and a relocation to the west coast that took all the Italy savings I had been putting away faithfully every month, for 10 ½ years, are some of the many disappointments I’ve experienced. But this time I had actually held the freakin’ tickets in my hands. I had written out the itinerary. I had read the guidebooks and watched everything Rick Steves had to say on the subject. We had even paid for a consultation with one of his staff. What could possibly go wrong?

Now I’m wondering if international travel of any kind will actually be viable ever again. I suspect this isn’t going to be the last pandemic. It certainly wasn’t the first.

I realize that I look like a privileged, bourgeois brat to be whining about this when people are dying and losing their jobs. I know that I have it so much better than so many people. I’m extremely lucky.

But it’s really hard not to be sad when I was supposed to be in Italy today. It feels like I’m in a state of mourning that no one will understand. It feels like I really have no legitimate right to be upset, and that makes it so much worse.

This trip would have generated a lot of blog posts, too. Maybe I’ll make some spaghetti for dinner and try not to cry into it. I suppose I could blog about that. Or maybe not.

Venice

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Foreign Travel 101

I absolutely live to travel. It’s my reason for being. I’ve been to 22 countries, and I suspect that I have many more miles to go before I take that final sleep.

It has never been very far from my mind that I’m really a lot luckier than most people in terms of travel. According to this article, 40% of Americans never leave the country, 10% have never left their home state, and 76% wish they could travel more than they do currently. That’s a crying shame.

Based on those statistics, it’s safe to assume that for many people who are traveling abroad, it’s a trip of a lifetime for which they feel ill-prepared. But never fear. All of the advice I’m about to give you has come from years of trial and error.

First, read my blog post entitled Foreign Travel Advice for Americans. Even if you aren’t American, you’ll find it helpful. This is a very detailed post that discusses all the homework one must do prior to any trip. The more you do ahead of time, the less stressful and more fruitful your travel experience will be. I can’t emphasize this enough. For every hour of legwork you do in advance, you’ll save yourself days of hassle on the voyage.

Next, take a peek at my blog post entitled Packing for Your Trip. This is a master packing list I’ve made over time. Take that list, eliminate those things that don’t apply to you, your trip, or the season in which you are traveling, and what you have left should be a very thorough packing list for any holiday. But do yourself a favor and pack light. You have no idea how much time you’ll spend schlepping your luggage from pillar to post. So if you don’t absolutely need something, leave it home.

But it occurs to me that neither of those two posts actually gets into the nuts and bolts of building your trip. Package deals complete with tour guides are very easy and convenient, but frankly, I find those experiences to be soul-sucking. I’d much rather have a do it yourself trip, so that’s what I’ll describe below. Some of this is pretty basic, but it will come in handy if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

  1. Determine how much vacation time you have.

  2. Get a good, up to date guidebook of the country you’d like to visit, and read it cover to cover, highlighting the things you feel you absolutely must see, and, in a different color, the things you’d simply like to see.

  3. Also, talk to friends who have already taken this trip. They will be your best sources to determine what can or should be skipped, and what absolutely should not be missed.

  4. A good guidebook should be able to tell you how many days you need for each location. List your must see destinations, and how many days they should take. As hard as it may be to do, you might have to eliminate some of your must sees based on the time you have available. On the other hand, if you find you have a surplus of days (you lucky devil), you can start adding in your “like to see” destinations as well.

  5. Print out a line drawing of the country in question, and then pencil in the must-see destinations to determine which places are close together, so you can decide what route you should take through the country.

  6. Don’t forget that you’ll likely lose a half a day each time you move from one city to the next, so try to cluster your locations into hubs, and stay in central locations. Believe me when I say that it’s an absolute horror to stay in a different place every single night.

  7. Now that you have a sense of where you’d like to go, and in what order, it’s time to determine when to travel. Most guidebooks will tell you the high, shoulder, and low travel seasons for the country in question. Choose carefully.

    1. In low season, things will be cheaper and there will be fewer crowds, but certain destinations will be closed. Check before you go. It would be very unfortunate to arrive and discover that the one thing you wanted to see the most is shuttered for the next few months.

    2. On the other hand, high season is usually high season for a reason. The weather is optimal and there are a lot of exciting things going on. But the massive wall of humanity, along with their screaming children, can be a misery.

    3. I try to do shoulder season. It’s slightly less expensive and slightly less crowded than high season, and slightly more is open than in low season. If you can’t do that, at least do the very beginning or the very end of high season, especially if it means school is in session and the kiddies are less likely to be chewing on your ankles.

  8. Okay, great. Now you have a basic idea of where you want to go and when, and what you want to see. Let’s find out if it’s even possible. First of all, check into flights to and from home, and see if they’re available on the days in question. I highly recommend that you try to do your international flights on Monday through Thursday, rather than going on the weekends, as those weekday flights are usually much less expensive. But shop around. Visit Kayak.com, for example, and then check the website of the airline in question to see if an even better deal is available. Don’t forget to take advantage of any mileage points you’ve accumulated through credit cards. Don’t put this off until the last minute. The more lead time you have, the more options and price ranges will be available. You’ll find that once you’ve reserved those flights, the trip will seem even more exciting and real.

  9. Once that is done, it’s time to figure out how you’ll get from place to place within the country. Should you travel by train, bus, rental car, or domestic flights? Again, your guidebook will give you great advice along those lines.

  10. Once you have a sense of how you want to get around, and a basic skeleton of your itinerary, now check to be sure that your transportation mode is available on the desired day. No sense in planning to take a ferry to the Isle of Capri on a Sunday if the ferries don’t run on that day. Adjust your itinerary accordingly. (If you’re a museum buff, it’s also important to make sure the museum in question will be open on the day you plan to visit.)

  11. Once you’ve got your itinerary and your transportation nailed down, it’s time to reserve your hotels. Think about your budget. Decide whether you want to stay at 5 star hotels or Airbnbs or hostels or, if you’re really brave and don’t require luxury or privacy, check out couchsurfing.com. Read up on all the possibilities. Visit their websites. Check availability. Then make your reservations.

  12. Now the trip is really shaping up! It’s time to figure out what you’d like to do from day to day. What sites will you visit? How much time will it take? Take your guidebook seriously if it recommends advance reservations for various venues, and plan accordingly.

Don’t overpack your itinerary. Allow for things to go awry. Contrary to popular belief, the trains don’t always run on time. You may wish to linger longer than you anticipated. Who knows? A local might befriend you and invite you to attend a wedding. Experiences like that are priceless. Give yourself a little padding and be flexible.

Above all, remember, this is supposed to be fun! Do the work in advance and then relax and enjoy the trip! Bon voyage!

This spring, we plan to spend a few weeks in Italy! I’m so excited! I’ve wanted to explore Italy in depth for decades. But except for a brief, 12 hour taste of Venice (which was at best a cruel, frustrating tease), life just kept getting in the way. Rest assured I’ll be blogging about the experience in future posts.

Travel

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False Starts

I remembered something last night that I hadn’t thought of in years. I went to travel agency school! I had recently gotten my Bachelor’s Degree in Spanish and Latin American Studies, and my Associates in Sociology, and it was becoming increasingly obvious, to my horror, that I was not going to be able to do a thing with either one of them.

So I got it into my head that one of those fly-by-night train-you-for-a-career-in-next-to-no-time schools was the answer to my problems. And hey, I absolutely LOVE to travel. I adore everything about it. And travel agents get cool perks like free trips to Madrid and things like that. Sounded good to me! Sign me up!

What those career schools don’t tell you is that their goal is not to get you a career. Their goal is to prey on your desire for a career in order to separate you from your money. Don’t believe me? Ask the admissions office for placement statistics for their graduates. I guarantee you, they won’t provide them.

Regardless. I attended that school faithfully, graduated with honors and then… never got a job in the travel industry. You see, by the time I showed up, that industry was already dying. Computers were starting to rear their ugly heads, and now everyone makes their own reservations. When’s the last time you even saw a travel agency? They’re as rare as hen’s teeth.

I did get an interview with Eastern Airlines. They even flew me first class to Miami. That was the first, and probably last time I’ll ever fly first class, unfortunately. But it’s a good thing I didn’t get the job, because Eastern Airlines went belly up about 6 months later.

I seem to do that a lot– Hop onto a trend when it’s already on its downhill slide. I got 8 tracks when everyone was already moving on to cassettes, and cassettes when everyone was getting CDs, and now I have all these CDs that I never listen to, taking up space in my closet. I also went to Dental Lab Technology School and got a third degree at a time when labs are starting to automate. I’m off trend in romance, too, falling for guys who are either not ready or no longer interested or were never interested in the first place. I’ve also made a lot of friends who turned out not to be friends. That hurts like hell.

False starts suck. While you are backtracking, you’re also experiencing a sort of mini mourning period. Then you have to gather your strength to start over. That isn’t so bad when you’re young and you think there will always be a new opportunity just waiting for you, but as you get older, you realize that isn’t always the case, and even if it is, you only have so much energy and time and money to start fresh. And you therefore start to get a little gun shy.

Learning when to go for it and when to listen to your voice of reason and give something a pass is a fine art that seems to elude me. I think moving from Florida to Seattle was my last big hurrah. But I don’t want to turn into one of those people who does less and less until one day I wake up on the couch with daytime television blaring in my ear, a room full of cats, and a serious lack of Vitamin D. That would be tragic.

BXP135658

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Foreign Travel Advice for Americans

Recently my amazing nephew contacted me for travel advice. I have been to 19 countries to date, so he figured I’d have some useful information. I’d forgotten what it was like, planning my first overseas trip. Those were the days. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years, but I’d like to think I’ve learned from them. I specify that this advice is for Americans, but that’s only because the links I provide are for American sites. But really, I think this would help any traveler.  Having said that, here are a few basic tips and links for the foreign travel newbie.

  • First and foremost, before deciding what country to visit, check out the US Department of State’s website to find out just what you’re getting yourself into. They have up to date country specific information. Getting kidnapped or stumbling into a war zone will definitely put a damper on your travel plans. Some countries are very safe except in certain regions. Know your geography and avoid hot spots. Nothing can guarantee your safety 100 percent, but it would be foolish to not make an effort to mitigate your risks at the very least.
  • Once you’ve decided upon a country (or countries), make the effort to educate yourself about them in advance. At a bare minimum, get a CURRENT guidebook. My absolute favorites are the Lonely Planet Guides, or, if you’re traveling in Europe, Rick Steves has some great books as well. But read those guides in advance, because there’s nothing more annoying than getting back home and discovering that there was something really cool that you could have done while there that you didn’t know about. If you are lucky enough to be in a foreign country for a long time and language will be an issue, I also highly recommend the Berlitz phrasebooks.
  • My favorite site for finding the cheapest airfare is kayak.com. They compare hundreds of sites. It’s always cheaper if you buy your tickets well in advance and travel mid-week, and your guidebooks will tell you what is low, shoulder and high season for your destination. That will impact your price, too.
  • Read up on the history and culture, too. Learn about their art, their music, their archeology, their architecture, their food. It will only make your experience richer. And if you can ask the locals educated questions, it will show people that you respect their country and want to know what it’s all about. It’s a great way to make lifelong friends.
  • Whatever you do, do NOT wait until the last minute to get your passport. It will always take longer than you think and trust me, you don’t need that type of stress.
  • Many countries require inoculations. Check with your local purveyor of overseas immunizations to see what’s required. And some things aren’t required, they’re just recommended. If that’s the case, get them, too, because once you get some exotic disease, there’s no turning back. Also, have your doctor prescribe a strong diarrhea medicine to take with you just in case. The prescription kind is more effective than anything you can get over the counter. You won’t regret having it.
  • If you have any valuable electronics that you’re planning to bring with you and they’re not obviously old and ratty, take them to your local customs and border protection office and fill out form 4457, “Certificate of Registration for Personal Effects Taken Abroad” or risk having people assume you bought them in country and face having to pay a duty fee at customs. This goes for cameras, cell phones, laptops, etc.
  • Make three photocopies of your passport, credit cards, identification, and any other documentation (like those customs receipts I mentioned above). Keep one copy in your checked baggage, one in your carry on baggage, and one copy with a trusted friend or family member whom you’d be able to reach by phone if necessary. Also include your name and address not only on your luggage tags, but also on a 3×5 card taped INSIDE your luggage in case those tags get ripped off.
  • Create an in case of emergency card for your wallet which includes your name, date of birth, medical allergies, blood type, medical conditions, physician’s name and phone number, emergency contact name and how this person is related to you, plus their phone numbers.
  • Make it a point to get about 100 dollars in the local currency, because there’s nothing worse than arriving in a foreign country after a long exhausting flight only to find that all the money exchange places are closed and your taxi driver only accepts cash. Thomas Cook is a great resource for advance currency exchange. The rest of the time, in this day and age, (unless you’re going to the back of beyond) you’ll be able to survive by using a credit card. But make sure you have a card that does not charge foreign exchange fees, because if you get home and discover you’ve been charged 10 dollars per transaction, you will have a heart attack. As of this writing, Capital One credit cards do not charge foreign exchange fees, but double check, because that could change.
  • Once you’ve decided which credit cards to take, call the companies and tell them in which countries you’ll be traveling and when. Otherwise they may think it’s suspicious activity and block it, and that’s a nightmare to untangle long distance. Also, they then WILL be able to block suspicious activity. For example, I bought a souvenir in Turkey, and within 24 hours, some loser in Israel had stolen my identity, and since I’d given the credit card company my itinerary, they were able to block the Israel transactions before I was wiped out, but didn’t block my Turkey transactions. Also, confirm the pin numbers for your credit cards before you go.
  • A lot of travel sites will suggest that you get a money belt to avoid pickpockets. I have always found this to be an unnecessary expense. Instead, I do the following: Carry a small amount of cash and one credit card in your wallet. Put that wallet in a fanny pack, keep the pouch portion of the fanny pack in the front at all times, and walk with your hand resting on top of it. Then, Take a sock, cut off some of the length, then use the toe part as a home made pouch. Put additional money and your passport and another credit card in it, then pin it to the inside of your pants with a couple safety pins. If you need to access these funds, you just step into the nearest bathroom, and there you have it.
  • This will be evidence of my anal retentive personality, but over the years I’ve created a master packing list (which can be found here). Whenever I’ve discovered that I’ve forgotten something, I add it to the list for the next time. When I’m about to take a trip, I copy that list, then remove the items that don’t apply to this particular trip (like winter coats for trips to the tropics, for example) and then I have a pretty comprehensive list of what to pack. But don’t overdo it. Travel as lightly as you can. Lugging a lot of unnecessary crap will just make your trip a lot less enjoyable, especially now that airlines are charging luggage fees. If you absolutely need something that you’ve forgotten to pack, you can always buy it in country. If it’s not available in country, that means an entire country has learned to live without it, and that means you can, too.
  • Give your loved ones your itinerary so they can contact you in an emergency, but also register your itinerary on line with the State Department. If you do nothing else, do that, because if things turn unexpectedly ugly, for example, if war is declared, you want the good guys to know where you are.
  • If you’re driving yourself to the airport, make sure you get gas for your vehicle, top off your fluids, and get air in your tires the day before. Nothing is worse than missing your flight because of a flat tire. That would spell the destruction of your holiday.
  • If there’s any way to get a ride to the airport, do so, because long term parking fees are obscene. If you have absolutely no choice, research the park and ride shuttle companies near your airport, and then make reservations to leave your car with them. Slightly cheaper, at least.
  • It is recommended that you arrive at the airport two hours early for international flights, but don’t assume that is the rule of thumb on the way back. If I hadn’t arrived 4 hours early to the airport in Istanbul, I’d still be sitting in that airport right now.
  • Upon your return, pack all your souvenirs and receipts separately for customs. They always appreciate it when you make life easier for them.
  • For the love of god, if you have even the tiniest brain in your head, DO NOT SMUGGLE ANYTHING into or out of a foreign country!!!!!!! Go to youtube and look up any episode of “Locked Up Abroad” if you want to see how incredibly stupid it is to take that sort of risk. Don’t want to wind up in a foreign prison? Simple. Respect the laws of the country that you’re in.
  • If you’re going to be renting a car, get an international driver’s license from AAA, and print out the international traffic signs so you know what they mean. You can find them on Google. The life you save could be your own. Check to see if your auto insurance will cover your rental, because if it does, it will be a lot cheaper than taking out the rental agency’s insurance. They won’t like it if you waive their insurance, but you are within your rights to do so. But make sure you’re covered.
  • If you have a student ID, bring it with you. You never know when you can take advantage of a student discount.
  • Check to see if the country of your choice requires visas. If you can obtain them in advance, do so.
  • If you are bringing anything irreplaceable with you, such as glasses, camera, etc, put that in your carry on luggage. Do not check it. Murphy’s law dictates that it will disappear. Also, bring a copy of your glasses prescription in case they get broken during your travels.
  • Put a temporary hold on your mail, and if possible, get someone to occasionally go by and check on your house. Put timers on your lights so that your place will appear inhabited. Turn off your water heater and unplug everything you can. Adjust your thermostat.
  • It makes me sick to have to say this, but if you are an unmarried woman and will be traveling in a conservative country, go to the flea market and buy yourself some wedding rings. You will be treated with much more respect. And unfortunately, as liberated as you may be, there are places in the world where a woman should just not go alone, especially at night. Research the countries customs and beliefs, and whether you agree with them or not, take them seriously.
  • Also, if you are traveling to a country where Americans are not appreciated which is pretty much everywhere these days, you may want to consider getting Canadian flag patches to sew on your backpacks and Canadian flag luggage tags. Everybody loves Canadians. And although they put out a quality product, American Tourister is probably not the brand of luggage you want to use in this day and age.
  • Make sure you keep  your prescription medication in its prescription packaging. And if it’s anything that has any type of street value, do not leave it in the hotel for the maids.
  • If you are going to an area known for malaria, you need mosquito repellant with DEET. The best for anti-malaria is Sawyer Controlled Release DEET formula.
  • When you know the exchange rate, calculate things out so you know what equals a dollar, 5 dollars, 10 dollars, etc, and write them down on a 3×5 card so you can quickly know how expensive things are.
  • A note about reservations: It’s good to have reservations at the beginning of your trip when you’re tired, and at the end of your trip when you’ve got to make sure nothing goes wrong, or if you’re arriving in a city late at night. But if you are brave, you can often get a better deal by finding places as you travel around so you can be more flexible. On the other hand, youth hostels, which I HIGHLY recommend if you are not completely wedded to the concept of privacy, often require reservations. Print out your reservation documentation. Don’t be surprised if reservations get lost, or if your room turns out not to be available or if you’re suddenly charged a higher rate. It happens ALL THE TIME. Stand your ground. Have your documentation. Be polite, but don’t take any crap.
  • If you’re bringing anything that requires a charger, make sure you purchase adapters if the country in question uses a different currency or plug.
  • Bring a small box of powdered detergent so you can do hand wash in the hotel sinks. That way you can pack fewer clothes. And pack lighter weight things, such as khakis instead of blue jeans, because they dry faster. You can always layer if need be.
  • Bring extra batteries, but know that the airlines will require that you pack them separately from the devices. In fact, it’s a good idea to check out your airline’s luggage policies in general.
  • Remove perishables from your fridge and take out your garbage so you don’t come home to a  stinky house.
  • The more you plan on the front end, the more you’ll be able to relax and have fun when you’re there, so make a to do list and cover all the bases. Enjoy your trip!

travel