Tikko Travels: Dorian’s Story

Guess what!  We have a new travel companion!  Meet Tikko.  Tikko is a traveling polar bear that belongs to a very special boy named Dorian.  Dorian is a 13-year old boy with Autism Spectrum Disorder (“ASD”).

Tikko travels the globe through the help of his ambassadors to raise awareness for ASD. Tikko takes a letter from Dorian outlining some of the characteristics of Autism, and an invitation to “Join the Journey” on Tikko’s Facebook page, “TIKKO TRAVELS“.

Tikko has been to a lot of places.  But Tikko came onto my radar in an unusual way.  As you may recall, I recently wrote a post about a friend whom I lost in a tragedy.  My friend had been a Tikko ambassador, taking Tikko with him on many of his adventures, his most notable being to the summit of Mount Everest.

My friend had other adventures planned for Tikko, but unfortunately, his journey with Tikko came to an end.  In honor and memory of my friend, I agreed to pick up where he left off and continue the journey with Tikko.

Tikko may not be able to top the travel tales that my friend provided to him, but he sure will get around the globe a bit with me, and, hopefully, in the process, we can do our part to accomplish Tikko’s mission of raising worldwide awareness for ASD.

I hope you will join our journey as we take Tikko to the corners of our beautiful globe to raise awareness for ASD and to remember a most extraordinary friend.

Where to next, Tikko?? GREECE!!

 

Living Life To The Fullest: In Memory Of A Friend And Great Adventurer

“I can’t believe that we would lie in our graves, wondering if we had spent our living days well.”

Lyrics from Lie In Our Graves, Dave Matthews Band.

You always hear these adages, encouraging you to live life to the fullest.  To live with no regrets.  But what does that really mean, and, honestly, how many of us really heed that advice? How many people do we know that actually live these full lives?

I recently lost a friend in a tragic and unexpected way.  To me, he was the living embodiment of what it means to live life to the fullest, and to never take a single day for granted.  He was the one person I knew that lived these truths.

Neither my friend’s identity nor the details of his death are important.  What is important is the person that he was.  He was the kind of guy that had seemingly lived 100 interesting lives.  I met him 10 years ago in law school.  We were in the same section, and, if you know anything about law school, you know that means that we spent the next year together because we had the exact same schedule– every class, every day for a whole year. We bonded over our mutual love for travel and for animals, dogs specifically.

He was the kind of guy that basically excelled at everything he did, but not in an annoying way. In an inspiring way. He attended the Portuguese Air Force Academy where he graduated first in his class. He had a career as a military pilot and as an airline pilot for one of the largest airline companies in the U.S.  He was an accomplished private, commercial, instrument and ATP rated pilot as well as a Gold Seal Flight Instructor. He once told me that he enrolled in law school as a result of a bet/dare from his wife.  True to form, he was accepted to the best law school in the State of Florida and graduated second in our class, booking almost every class he took (non-lawyer translation: at the end of every class in law school, they give out an award (often endowed), called a book award, to the person who has the highest grade in that class). I always wondered if finishing second annoyed him since he was so used to being first.

He had an affinity for adventure and speed.  He loved fast (German) cars and fast motorcycles, and had both. He also loved to fly. He was the only person I knew in law school who had a plane, and that includes the faculty and staff.  He loved taking his fellow classmates up in the plane.  Two of my girlfriends and I once flew to his home to meet his wife and puppies (all 5 of them) and have dinner.  He let me take control and fly the plane on the way back, which was so exciting because I had never before (or since) flown a plane.  I saw a light in the distance and told him that he should probably resume control of the plane since there was some air traffic up ahead.  He laughed and said, “That’s not a plane, Anastasia; that’s a planet!” Whoops!

He was the kind of guy that always had time for conversation (especially if the conversation was a debate). He as not afraid to take a position, even an unpopular one, and he stood by his convictions. He believed in himself. He was also the kind of guy that never said no. He was always willing to help.  If you were struggling to understand a concept, he would take time and explain it to you the way he understood it.  I sat next to him for an entire month during our bar preparation course, which I was in charge of running.  He was early every morning, ready to help. He was an authentic and genuine soul.

After law school, we kept in touch through Facebook.  He briefly worked at a law firm, but hated the structure, so he started his own firm with his wife who was already a lawyer. He also provided safety consulting services to the offshore and land-based oil and gas industry. In his spare time, he volunteered his time and his plane to provide free air transportation to financially distressed people with medical needs and to health care organizations through a non-profit charitable organization.

As a law school graduation gift, his wife got him a climbing trip to Kilimanjaro.  He was certainly no stranger to travel or to adventure. He  was a skydiver, mountain biker, sea-kayaker, and scuba diver. But, I think this gift began his love for the climb. My law school friends and I followed his travels on social media, and every time I would open Facebook, he would be in some other corner of the world, conquering some unimaginable feat.  Waldo had nothing on this guy.

Over the course of two and a half years, he completed the Seven Summits Challenge.  That means that he summited the highest mountain on each of the seven continents: Mount Everest in Asia, the Aconcagua in South America, Denali in North America, Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa (twice), Mount Elbrus in Europe, Vinson in Antarctica, and Puncak Jaya in New Guinea (Australia).  Because there is a debate about whether Mount Kosciuszko or Puncak Jaya is the tallest in Australia, he climbed both. I teasingly told him that I would be impressed only after he also summited K2. He matter-of-factly told me that he already summited the highest mountain in Asia and the world. Touche.

In between climbing mountains, he had some other pretty epic adventures, including gorilla trekking in Uganda and Rwanda, expeditions to Antarctica, and 100s of “trips of a lifetime” to the Galapagos Islands, Australia, South America, North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. It seems he that he always immersed himself with the locals wherever he went, and he always found dogs to love all over the world. His pictures are National Geographic amazing, because he was, of course, a professional level photographer. He was my travel icon, and we often compared notes on travel, although my travels paled in comparison to his.

On the rare occasion that he wasn’t off on some bucket list journey, he spent time at his second home in the Bahamas, which he built and dedicated to his squad of adorable Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.  In my next life, if I can’t come back as him, I want to come back as one of his dogs. He would load up the pups in his plane, put the  protective earmuffs on them, and fly them down to their island home, Sandy Paws. They would spend time exploring the island in their golf cart and taking to the seas in their boat, the Barkardi. He and his dogs would go paddle-boarding. These dogs live a charmed life, and I loved it.

He got involved in a local charity in the Bahamas that built homes for and fed stray Potcake dogs on the island, which is a mixed breed dog commonly found on the Caribbean Islands.  He flew plane loads of supplies to the island from the States to support this cause and the these dogs. He loved all animals and our environment, but he especially loved dogs. He had tattoos of the face of every one of his dogs on his body. I judge the greatness of a person by the way they treat animals, and he was one of the greatest.

The last country he visited was Bolivia, where he was hiking up a volcano. Before he died, he was working on completing the Explorers Grand Slam, which he planned to start next month. That involves skiing to both the North and South poles. I am sad that such a great adventurer will never get to complete this feat.

He was truly the most interesting person I have ever known (and probably will ever know). His life was remarkable, inspirational, and one that deserves celebration. He lived life to the fullest. The last time I spoke to my friend was on March 15.  He died four days later.  I never got to tell him how much I admired him, and for that I am sorry.

As news of his death spread, his Facebook wall was loaded with pictures and messages of condolences from people around the world. Literally, around the world: his climbing friends, his Island friends, his local community, his law school friends, even people who had met him once in passing.  It is amazing to see the impact and reach that one person had on so many. The messages are similar: “amazing man”, “great human”, “inspiring person”, “authentic”, ” positive, fun-loving and gregarious” “remarkable and wonderful[ly] accomplish[ed]”. In times where humanity can’t seem to agree on anything, scores of people from different cultures, races, and religions seemingly agreed: he was good people.

They say all dogs god to heaven, and if that is true, on March 19, heaven’s dogs met their greatest angel.  I hope that he is resting peacefully in heaven, surrounded by dogs, gazing over the highest and most amazing peaks. I hope he died feeling like he spent his living days well. 

Iceland: What To Know Before You Go

church6If you’re being honest with yourself, Iceland probably only recently came on your radar.  It’s not like you dreamed of going to Iceland since you were a child. In my opinion, social media has almost single-handedly boosted tourism to the once mostly unknown (from a tourism perspective) country. But now that you know about it and have seen all the amazing pictures, you HAVE to go right?!?! I mean, it is soooo cheap! You can get there in just a few hours and for just $99! I know! I felt the same way. Which is why I am writing this post.

Don’t get me wrong, we had a GREAT time in Iceland. The people are so friendly! The country is so beautiful! The food was delicious! But there were things about Iceland that I didn’t know until I got there, and I do A LOT of research for our trips. So, I feel like it is my duty to arm you with as much information as possible about this trip so that you come prepared and enjoy every second of it.  Here we go …

FLIGHTS 

There are basically two ways to get to Iceland: WOW Air and Icelandair. I am sure you have heard of WOW.  Big pink planes? Low, low fares? Well, there’s a reason for that. You.Pay.For.Everything! Want a seat? It will cost ya. Bringing a bag? Gotta pay! Would you like to drink some water or eat a snack on the plane? Well, there are no freebies here.  You MUST pay. FOR WATER! (This is NOT a joke).

So, assuming you can even find the $99 fare (they exist, but most of the time it’s slightly higher than that, like in the $200 range), you have to be prepared for the extras. And, that is also assuming you live in a city from which WOW departs.  If not, then you have to factor in your domestic ticket, and don’t forget to leave enough time to claim your luggage, transfer to the international terminal, re-check your bags (and check yourself in), and go through security. Once you factor in all the extras, your $99 fare is more like $400 to $600, which honestly, is still pretty inexpensive.

Also, make sure you adhere to their very strict baggage restrictions because if you don’t, you’ll be paying. And, before you board, load up on snacks, drinks, and in-flight entertainment, because their planes do not even have TVs!

Icelandair is slightly better.  Yeah, their base fares are higher, but once you add on the basics from WOW (which you don’t pay extra for on Iceland Air), there’s not much of a difference, and you can get JetBlue points for flying on Icelandair. Also, their baggage allowance is a little more generous, if you are making a stop and are flying JetBlue for the first leg, your bags will be checked all the way through, they offer a beverage service, and there is in-flight entertainment. So, if you ask me, it all shakes out to about the same in the end, with Icelandair being less of a hassle.

HOTELS/APARTMENTS

Iceland’s tourism really started to grow in the last eight or so years.  First, they experienced a financial crash in 2008 and then, in 2010, they had a massive volcanic eruption which covered the European skies in ash and grounded planes all over Europe for days. As a result of these two events, the media flocked to Iceland to cover these stories, putting Iceland on the map. Since then, tourism has gone from an insignificant industry in Iceland to the island’s biggest industry. In fact, tourism has risen by 30% every year since 2010. Then Hollywood came a knocking: Game of Thrones, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Instagram followed, and before they knew it, Iceland had more tourists than they knew what to do with.

Why am I telling you this? Because, Iceland is still learning how to host and cater to tourists. This is most evident in its tourist accommodations. Compared to other cities, there aren’t that many hotels, and most people stay in apartment-type accommodations. If you are used to big, fancy luxury hotel brands, well, sorry about your luck. There aren’t any. Even at nice, corporate run hotels, there is a sense that something is just lacking.

For example, most of the flights get into Iceland at an ungodly hour (like 4:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m.), so I suggest you book your room for the day before you arrive so you have a room ready when you get to the hotel. Don’t expect the hotel to accommodate you.  They won’t.  All they offer is luggage storage. So, you see many weary travelers napping in the lobby.  Same goes for the apartments.

If you are lucky enough to get a hotel that serves breakfast, don’t expect much. It will be buffet style and basic. No omelette stations here. Any special requests will be met with looks of bewilderment. For example, a lot of the tour pick ups begin before breakfast does because you have to travel a long way. Most hotels in tourist cities know this and can accommodate guests with a breakfast box or bagged lunch. Not here. Thankfully, they have 24-hour grocery stores, so you can (and really, have to) fend for yourself.

If you are staying in an apartment, there will likely be no breakfast. But, that’s okay, you can go to the 24-hour mart and buy food to prepare on your own. But, check and make sure you have the necessary tools to cook (you know, like a pan) because a lot of the apartments have nothing!

Also, bring ALL your toiletries.  The hotels will provide soap (from a pump bottle), and it ends there. No shampoo. No conditioner. Nothing. This is especially the case if you are staying in an apartment. Time to hit that 24-hour market again. But, I will say, the WiFi in Iceland is good, strong, and readily available!

FOOD/ALCOHOL

The food in Iceland is delicious. Fresh fish galore. But it is EXPENSIVE! Like very expensive. I dare you to eat dinner for two for under $150. I literally dare you. It is nearly impossible.  And, not just at nice restaurants, but everywhere. A salad and pizza for lunch cost us $80! Lunch at the Blue Lagoon was $120!

Also, you need reservations everywhere. This is also not a joke. If you don’t pre-book restaurants, you are going to have one hell of a time finding a place to eat dinner. Again, this is another painfully obvious sign that, while well-meaning and friendly, the tourism industry in Iceland is simply overwhelmed and playing catch up. Time to get back to that 24-hour market! No, but seriously, even local, seemingly casual spots will ask you if you have a reservation when you walk in. The good news is that tipping at restaurants is not a thing here. Like, not even 10%. They literally don’t expect to be tipped.

If you are shocked by the food prices, you will die when you see how much alcohol costs.  Chad was looking at a beer menu that had $85 beers. As in $85 for a bottle of beer. He was able to find a good, locally brewed craft beer on draft for $15 (that was the best “deal” he found!). We paid $8 for a ginger ale. It is insane! So, what’s a lush to do?  I’ll tell you! When you get to the airport and collect your luggage, you will see a duty free shop.  Stop in and LOAD UP.  Better yet, stop at duty free in the States and LOAD UP. Buy all the alcohol you think you will need. You’ll be the most popular person in town.

Also, a side note about the food: Some restaurants offer puffin (a cute little bird that looks like a penguin), Minke whale, and Icelandic horse on the menu. Please don’t order/eat these things. These are traditional foods that were eaten back in the day out of necessity. Most locals do not regularly (if at all) eat these things. They appear on the menu solely for tourists. Please don’t contribute to the terrible whaling industry or support the needless slaughter of cute little birds and horses. Okay, PSA over.

TOURS

You are going to be hard-pressed to find a company that offers individualized private tours. I asked around. They looked at me like I had two heads. Who would pay for that? (Um, ME!) They literally do not seem to understand the concept of private tours. The best you can hope for is a small group tour.  Opt for that.  It is a much nicer experience. Unless, of course, you want to rent a car and go at it alone; but I would not recommend that in the winter when there is about four hours of daylight and a whole lot of snow (sometimes causing unexpected road closures)! Most of the waterfalls and scenery spots are two or more hours outside of Reykjavik. In the spring/summer when there is endless daylight, you should be fine. Whether you take a small group tour on a mini bus or larger group tour on a big bus, you can rest assured that your vehicle will be equipped with WiFi. Also, most people were not tipping the guides; but, if you were on a small group tour, and the guide was good, you should tip. They don’t really expect it, but, in my opinion, it’s the right thing to do.

You are also going to have to pre-book these tours. They fill up fast, and they are also not that cheap. Because the weather changes so quickly in Iceland, make sure you have a Plan B activity in case your tour gets cancelled.  Three of our tours got cancelled, but luckily, we were able to re-book onto other tours. Be mindful though that if everyone’s tour cancels due to weather conditions, a lot of people will be trying to re-book onto the few tours that are still operating, unaffected by the weather.

Finally, have an idea about what you want to see and make sure you are going in the correct season. For example, if Northern Lights is your goal, then you have to go in the winter.  But, in the winter, you have limited day light (sunrise is at about 11:00 a.m. and sunset at about 3:30 p.m.), so you don’t get much time for day-time activities and there is no greenery.  If greenery and scenery is your goal, then go during the spring or summer where they literally have almost 24 hours of daylight.

WEATHER

Which brings me to my next point– the weather. The locals say if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes. That saying is so true.  One minute its snowing and the next the sun is out! So, come prepared! Depending on the season, it could be snowy, then cold, then FREEZING, then sunny all in one day. Bring layers– clothes for the cold and for the rain. And, now is not the time to be cute; wear sturdy weather-proof boots.

MONEY

The official currency is the Icelandic Krona, but most places take the Euro or the U.S. Dollar. But, if you pay in Euros or dollars, they will give you change back in Krona.  My advice is to avoid all of this, and just use a credit card that does not have foreign transaction fees. Surprisingly, credit cards are widely accepted in Iceland. On planes, at hotels, on the tour buses, in taxis (in case you were wondering, there is no Uber here, but the entire city is very walk-able), in stores, and at restaurants.  This way, you get the daily rate and don’t have to bother with cash.

THE NORTHERN LIGHTSNL7It’s basically on everyone’s bucket list. It’s like one of, if not, THE reason to go to Iceland. But, if you go to Iceland expecting to see all those (filtered!) photos from Instagram with your naked eye, you may be disappointed.

This is a pretty good explanation of the what the Northern Lights are. Visibility is measured on a scale (known as the Kp index) of 0 to 9.  Zero means no chance of seeing the lights, while 9 means the best viewing ever in life. Just so you can temper your expectations, 9 hardly ever happens.  In fact, the highest our guide had ever seen in all his years of chasing lights was a 7, and that was a rare event that he told us about with a great deal of excitement. He said he would basically die if he ever got to see a 9. In Iceland, a 5 is about the best you can hope for, but usually you get between a 2 and a 4. You can monitor the Aurora forecast for Iceland here.

You may want to take a seat for this next one. You should know that you rarely see the bright green color in person.  To the naked eye, the lights appear as a whitish/grayish band that kind of looks like a wisp of clouds. On the night we went out, the forecast was about a 4, and, after many hours of standing outside and waiting in frigid temperatures, we saw a faint green color. I was not prepared for this. I thought I was going to see a magnificent bright, neon green band of lights dance through the sky. You know, like the ones I’ve seen on Instagram. I was wrong. I also thought I was going to capture this phenomenon on my iPhone camera! Wanna know how that turned out for me?  Like this:NL iphoneThere are some iPhone apps that claim to help you capture the lights, but I could not get them to work. If you want to get fantastic pictures of the lights, you need professional grade gear. And it’s not enough to have a professional camera, a tripod, and the correct lenses. They all have to be set to the correct settings. It is very technical, so I found what appears to be the definitive guide on how to photograph the lights, and I linked it here. Amazingly, when you photograph the lights correctly, you can see all those beautiful colors right from your digital camera!

But don’t despair, here’s the good news: If you take a small group tour with a professional guide, the guide will set up your equipment for you and help you shoot the northern lights. If you don’t have all this fancy gear, the guide will also be shooting, and, at the end of the tour, the company will email you a file with all the lights from your trip already edited for you! Also, I learned a neat little trick. Apparently, the guide sets the shutter to flash like 10 times.  He had us stand in front of the camera with the lights behind us.  He then used his phone’s flashlight which he brought up to about eye level and then lowered again while the lens was shooting. Apparently, this helps people show up in the foreground with the lights in the background!NL4Finally, patience is a virtue with the lights. You sometimes have to drive to a couple of spots and just wait. It is VERY cold, so overdress in layers and pay special attention to your shoes and socks situation. There are no bathrooms, and you will be out there for about four hours. Although I was initially disappointed that the lights display was not quite as bright and colorful as I was expecting, it was still a pretty amazing experience, and I am so glad we did it.

THE AIRPORTReykjavik AirportFor being so relatively new to tourism, Reykjavik has a surprisingly impressive, modern little airport! First, it is all digital and almost all self-service. You can check yourself in, print your boarding pass, and print your bag tags all from self-service kiosks.

You get your boarding passes and bag tags here:Reykjavik Iceland Airport Check in Reykjavik iceland Airport Bag DropYou check you luggage in on your own here: Reykjavik Airport baggage claimEven their security is fully automated! Reykjavik Airport Iceland SecurityIt is a very quick and easy process, which leaves plenty of time for you to stroll through their quaint little shops and have a real meal before you board your (meal-less) flight!Reykjavik Iceland Airport FoodEven the restrooms are automated, allowing you to wash your hands and dry them all from the sink!Reykjavik Iceland Airport BathroomAnd, throughout the airport are little stations asking you about your satisfaction with check-in, security, the restrooms, and cleanliness!Reykjavik Iceland Airport satisfactionAs you can see, Iceland is a dichotomy of sorts.  In some ways it is so progressive (airports, WiFi, credit card usage), and in other ways so primitive (accommodations, tour operations, and the fact that they believe in invisible elves who have their own political lobby (that’s not a joke; give it a Google)). Nonetheless, I absolutely recommend that you hop over for a few days and check it out for yourself. It truly is a beautiful country filled with incredible sights, delicious (albeit insanely expensive) food and friendly people.

If you have any questions about planning a trip to Iceland or want to share your own quirky Icelandic tale, leave me a comment below or send me an e-mail! Until then, Vertu Blessaður!

International Travel With Children: A Survival Guide

Sommers PostThrough the magic of Facebook, my freshman college roommate, Sommer, and I recently reconnected. She was married now and had two adorable children. But the best part, was that she was temporarily living abroad- in London- with her family and traveling through Europe with her two children.  I loved that she and her husband had the courage to say yes to a great opportunity (despite having a whole life with children in Florida) to live and work in London. An opportunity which would give their children the chance to experience life abroad, to learn in real time, to shape the very people they would become, and to create such great and lasting memories for them.

If you are an avid reader of this blog, you know that my main goal is to encourage you to travel no matter what stage you are in life and to give you the resources to help you do that.  The holidays are here, and with them comes time for family travel. Maybe you aren’t crossing the pond this year, but maybe next year you will. Because she can offer a perspective that I cannot, I asked Sommer to share some of the things she has learned in her six months of international travel with two small children, and she graciously agreed. I hope these tips give you the courage to take that trip that you have been putting off and to bring the family, too!

Staring at the bathroom counter, eyes squinted, I could see two pink lines slowly appear and my heart began to race. People were coming in and out of the rooms around me, boxes and furniture were being set firmly on the floor, but all I could hear was the rhythmic beating. I looked away from the pregnancy test and up at the mirror, I was already showing signs of the proverbial glow. My first instinct was to burst out of the bathroom and shout “I’m pregnant,” but I refrained. We were in the middle of moving into our new home, and I wanted to wait until my husband and I had a private moment. Later, after the last box was unloaded, I showed him the test and that evening we celebrated being in our first house and the impending arrival of our first child.

Over the course of the next nine months (ten really but no one ever tells you that), we began planning. We decorated the nursery, attended childbirth and childcare classes, read birthing and parenting books, hired a doula, solicited the advice of family and friends, researched and installed the car seat, and so on and so forth until the day came. I read every book, took every class, purchased every item of baby gear, and asked every question, but, when the day came, none of it had prepared me for the moment when my daughter was born. It was the most painful (i.e., labor) and most joyous experience of my life. My body has never felt so depleted, yet so full at the same time. Twenty-months later, when I delivered my son, the experience was not much different. All the preparation and prior experience, could not prepare me for what I would feel in that moment when my eyes first met his. 

This is the story I tell my friends when they ask me about having children, especially those preparing to have their own. It is meant to be reassuring and inspiring. It is honest and pure, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. I leave out the details about the discomforts of pregnancy, blinding pain of contractions, and the sleep-deprivation that occurs in the weeks following birth. Many of the mothers that came before me did me the same courtesy helping build my confidence, and if I pried, they would share the less idyllic details. Mother code.

When my husband and I decided to temporarily move abroad with our children and travel with them internationally, I suspected that many of the fellow mothers I polled would adhere to the same “mother code” providing me with the sugar-coated version of their travel experience. Like with labor and delivery, we all know the “horrors” so why not focus on the positive, the motivational. “Bring an iPad and some snacks, and they will do great. They’ll probably sleep on the plane.” I knew it wouldn’t be that simple. So I planned for everything, and came equally prepared for nothing to go as planned.

Planning for Everything

Obtain passports. The waiting room at any local, state, or federal department can be a test of wills for a person of any age. For a two and four-year old child, it is a test of wills for every person in the room. It is also a good litmus test of whether you are ready to fly. Visit the US Department of State online, complete all your paperwork in advance and have your corresponding identification ready to go. Make an appointment (this will reduce, but not eliminate wait time). Bring quite activities and toys, snacks, and your creativity. Don’t worry about the pitch of your singing voice — sing Wheels on the Bus like you are Queen Bey. Allow 4-6 weeks for your passports to arrive by mail.

Consult your pediatrician and the CDC. Once you have submitted your passport(s) application, it’s onto the next waiting room. Take your child(ren) to the pediatrician and discuss any additional immunizations or care that should be taken for travel. Consult the CDC website for travel advisories before you finalize your destination. (Tip for travel: Bring the pharmacy. Pack a small kit of essentials for your trip including first-aid items, your go-to over-the-counter and homeopathic remedies, and any prescriptions your children may require. Their preferred flavor of fever-reducing medicine may not be available abroad.)

Book your travel. Now that the wait is over, book your trip with small children in mind. Whether you use a travel agent or book independently, use “family friendly” search criteria. Purchasing a seat for all travelers (even those who qualify for a lap seat) is beneficial. This gives you the option to bring and use your car seat aboard (just make sure is FAA compliant) plus you have gained some extra play room and leg room. Consider your transportation at your destination as well — trains are a great option where available. If using a car service or cab service, determine if a car seat(s) is needed. If you don’t being your own, ensure the service can provide one and the proper style seat for your child’s age, weight, and height. Where you stay may influence the type of transportation you may use. Keep this in mind when booking. Map hotel or vacation rental options in relation to points of interest. Ensure they accommodate small children (some boutiques and private rentals do not) and that a larger room is not required (occupancy rules vary internationally). Narrow your search with sites such as Trip Advisor or opt for an apartment/home rental through a site like Kid & Coe or Mrs. & Mrs. Smith Family. Choose a hotel or rental that not only “allows” children but welcomes them by offering special turn-down services, onsite activities, baby gear rental or toy/play areas. Babysitting services are a plus (wink).trainPack the essentials. Take an inventory of what you already have, what you can borrow, and what you need to buy. Aim to travel light (your hands will be full with your children), yet bring what you need to enjoy your vacation and not to mention the journey there. Packing for the flight itself (and don’t forget the return flight home) is as important as the trip. A carry-on with a day or two’s worth of clothes is recommend for cases of lost luggage, or spilled chocolate milk, as well as essential toiletries. A bag containing on-flight entertainment is also recommend (don’t bother with the glossy magazines, who are you fooling — you want be relaxing and reading). Pack your bag with activities to keep your child(ren)’s hands and attention occupied during pre-boarding and on the flight.

(By the way, to lighten your load, you may want to research baby equipment rental companies. You can find a list of them here: Travels With Baby).

Use pre-boarding time wisely. Leave enough time to get to the airport and through security without rushing your child or creating stress. At the airport, give them as much space as possible to stretch and play before boarding. Some airports now offer children’s soft play areas. Stock up on water and snacks. Hint: Gummy bears are an enticing “incentive” (okay, bribe) for good in-air behavior. Don’t be in a rush to be the first ones to be in line for boarding. Your seats are reserved, and as a family with small children, you (usually) have priority seating.

Nothing Goes as Planned

Board with intention. Find your seats, stow your carry-ons and take a deep breath. Pace yourself, the snacks, and the activities (remember, you have hours to fill), but keep them handy. The time you spend in the air is most likely less than the time an average women spends in labor. Trust me, this won’t take as long, and won’t be nearly as painful. There may be crying, there may be loss of fluids, and there may even be some pacing of the floor; and, most certainly (and perhaps more surprisingly) there will be joy.

Sit back and enjoy your flight (and your trip). Look your child(ren) in the eyes and tell them (and yourself) this is going to be an amazing adventure! Treat take off like a rocket ship blast off with a 3-2-1 countdown. Find shapes in the clouds outside the plane window or spot the stars on a clear night. Color or play tablet games with them. Walk the aisle for a good stretch. Chat about your destination and ask them what they most want to see or do. Recline your seat and let them lean their head on you. You may not sleep, but chances are they will. Find rest in the quiet moments.flyBring back a souvenir. I’m not talking miniature spoons or t-shirts here (Read: “I survived an international flight with a toddler”). The souvenir I’m talking about won’t collect dust on a shelf. Collect the moments you experience with your child, take pictures with your eyes and capture them in your heart. They will remember this adventure, perhaps not seeing a certain landmark or visiting a specific place, but the feelings of wonder and curiosity will linger. You have sparked their wanderlust. For the details they may forget, give them a personalized travel journal or make one of your own with their names and the details of the trip.

The fasten seat belt sign had lifted and the chorus of unbuckling sounded. The fully booked flight was relatively quiet — soft chatter, crisp magazine pages folding open, cabinets opening and closing as flight attendants prepared the snack cart. Closer to me, the sound of children giggling — my own two children, huddled together, making one another laugh. I smiled as I let out a sigh of relief. It was only the beginning of the flight, but I was optimistic. Hours later we would awake to the voice of the captain telling his crew to prepare for arrival. There had been brief moments of turbulence, for us and for the plane, but that’s to be expected on any flight with children aboard.  napsThis has been my experience flying with small children internationally, and these are the tips I have learned along the way. No “mother code” invoked. It can be stressful, but it can also be life-changing. You’re opening their eyes to the world, and you will see the world in a new perspective as a result. With several trips taken since our first cross-Atlantic flight, the newborn days of travel are behind us. We are more confident parents and more confident travelers. There’s only one thing left to plan – Where to Next?

__________

Sommer Stiles is a writer and graphic designer. An expat, she lives in London with her husband and two children. Sommer and her family have spent six months living abroad and traveling Europe. To learn more about their adventures or how to have one of your own, contact sommer.stiles@gmail.com.

Zika: When You Get Bit On Vacation

ZikaIf you are a regular reader of this blog, then you know two things.  The first is that I am a meticulous pre-trip planner, which includes taking all proper precautions for vaccines and clothing treatment before we go abroad and bringing the best bug repellent I can find along with us on trips. The second is that Chad and I seem to be on the Zika World Tour this year.  By the time this year ends, we will have visited the Caribbean and South America four times, and we live in South Florida: the first location in the United States to report a Zika outbreak.

All I think about is Zika.  I basically bathe in DEET. So, imagine my panic when, despite being covered in DEET and bug repellent, I got bit 21 times by mosquitoes in Cartagena, Colombia a few weeks ago (if you read that post, you would know that I mentioned those aggressive little suckers more than once).  Same for Chad, except less bites, which isn’t surprising because if there is a mosquito within a mile, it will bite the crap out of me, but never Chad.

I nearly had an anxiety attack after the first bite. After the 20th, I was a real pleasure to be around.  Just ask Chad.  Surely, I had Zika now! So I did what every panicked person does when they get bit by a mosquito while visiting a Zika hot bed, I turned to the internet. This was a mistake!  First, I learned that Colombia was second only to Brazil in the prevalence of Zika (oh, great!), and that in Colombia, Zika started near Cartagena (Perfect! Now, I can never have kids!). I also read that the Colombian government had announced that they had eradicated Zika, but I was sure that was just a lie.  Next, I Googled the symptoms, even though most people do not experience any symptoms at all because I am not most people so surely I would get all the symptoms. Fever.  I did feel hot (it was also 90 degrees most of the day). Joint and muscle pain.  I felt that (I also work out 7 days a week and was walking all over creation in Cartagena). Headache. I think my head hurt (please refer to the heat and activities of the day). By now, I had diagnosed a full fledged case of Zika! (For the record, Chad was equally convinced that I was a crazed hypochondriac.)

The minute I got home, I started making calls.  Chad and I both needed the Zika test! I started with the Department of Health. They will only test you if you are a pregnant woman.  Not me.  I next called my gynecologist.  They referred me to the Department of Heath. When I told them that I had already tried that route, they said they would write me a script to get the test done in a lab, but would not write one for Chad since he was not their patient! What?!? Um obviously, he is not a patient of a gynecologist office, but exactly how did these people think that babies got made? This was starting to become a nightmare.  I called my PCP. They told me that they didn’t do the tests in the office. So I called Chad’s PCP who agreed to test both me and him.  Finally! Within a few days we both had our blood drawn, and then we waited. And waited. After calling the office every few days, we were finally given the results. Negative! Thank GOD!

Here is my point.  There is  A LOT of hype about Zika, and, in my experience, many of the health care providers are ill-equipped to handle patients who call requesting a test. They refer you all around town, and many providers don’t know that they can write you a script to get your blood work done in a lab.  Also, many of the labs or offices don’t frequently give the test, so they are learning how to administer the test and handle the sample. And, in my opinion, the Department of Health’s policy is just insane considering what we know about the transmission of Zika.

So, the purpose of this post is not to freak you out (because I already did that for you), but to help you. Here is what you need to do to help prevent getting bit:  First, get educated.  This is the link to the CDC’s Zika page. Second, if you are going to a Zika area, treat your clothes and suitcase with a bug repellent.  I have written a post about this in the past, and it can be found here. Third, wear a strong bug repellent at all times.  Put it on before you get on the plane, reapply in the airport, and then put it on (and reapply often) every single day.

But, obviously, as evidenced by my own experience, even the best preparation is not total protection; so if, despite all the precautions, you still get bit, here is what you need to do: First, don’t freak out and stay off the internet! Second, reapply your repellent immediately to prevent other bites, and keep liberally applying for the rest of your trip. Third, cover exposed skin and stay indoors as much as possible. Fourth, refrain from sharing drinks and from sexual intercourse until you are tested. And, finally, as soon as you can, get tested for Zika.  Do not take “No” for an answer.  If you are getting the run around from doctors, like I was, just keep trying.  It is very important that you get tested within a week, even if you are not experiencing any symptoms. Chances are you do not have Zika; BUT, “better safe than sorry,” as they say!

Chad and I will be off to South America again very soon; and, as always, I am going to be super duper vigilant about our precautions. I hope this post was helpful to you.  I’d love to hear your feedback.  Leave a comment or drop me an email.  Cheers to a Zika-free Zika World Tour!

 

 

My Travel Philosophy: 5 Travel Truths

whereIf you read this blog, then, like me, you probably have a passion for travel.  A curiosity about the world. A desire for a more meaningful existence. I personally think that travel is one of the best educations and investments in you.  Through travel, you learn about yourself, you learn about others, and you bridge the gap between yourself and that which was previously unknown to you. It is then that you realize that, despite different languages, cultures, and religious beliefs, most of the world is the same. In a way, travel erases fear and, sometimes, prejudices.

The goal of this blog is to encourage you to travel. In my opinion, what stops people from traveling is not always the time or the money (those are just the excuses), but fear and maybe a little bit of ignorance. I found 5 quotes that sum up my travel philosophy, and I would like to share them with you. liveTruer words have never been spoken. As the saying goes, the only certainty in life is death and taxes. So, since you know you only have a limited amount of time on this planet, why not spend it living? I am not advocating that you just quit your job, shirk all your responsibilities, and run around the world living a gypsy life. What I am saying is make time to live. Go outside of your comfort zone. Try something new. Go somewhere new. Learn something new. Which brings me to my next philosophy:planDreams are aspirational. Plans are more concrete. Travel doesn’t have to be a dream. It should be a plan. Make travel part of your plan. Pick a place that has always interested you, set aside some time (like literally request the time off of work and put it on your calendar, even if it is a year away), set a realistic budget (a little internet research and can help you determine how much it will cost to get there and stay there, and then add 10 to 20% so there are no surprises), and then work towards that goal (skip that morning coffee, and put the money in your travel fund; bring your lunch instead of going out, and put that money in your travel fund; walk instead of uber, and get exercise and a few more dollars for your travel fund). That way, you canmemoriesBecause, let’s be honest, there is nothing worse than regret. And, pay billsYou were meant for so much more than that! So, the next time you are feeling the pressures of work (and life), just remember,jobsTake some time out in your life to enjoy all that hard work and to fill your soul. You deserve an adventure! You deserve toexistOkay, so that was 6 philosophies.  I guess I was feeling generous. Anyway, I hope this post inspires you to take that trip that you have pushed to the back of your mind, and, as always, I would love to hear about it.

 

Set To Jet: The Ultimate Travel Packing and Preparation List

packingpost

Recently, I have gotten a lot of requests for a post about packing- how to pack and what to pack. As I started to give this some thought, I realized there is so much more to trip preparation than just packing.  I mean, the preparation process is enough to induce an anxiety attack; but, with a little advanced preparation, it does not have to be stressful. So, I am going to give you an overview of how I prepare for a trip.  This is not just a packing post; it’s a trip preparedness post.

When it comes to packing, though, keep in mind, where you are going and what you are doing when you get there largely dictates what you will pack. There are, however, a few general guidelines that I find helpful, paramount among them is the importance of packing in advance!  I like to pack at least one week before my trip. Why? Well, one week gives you enough time to “live” out of your suitcase such that you will be reminded of things that you forgot to pack.  I don’t mean that you should literally live out of your suitcase, but generally, as you go through the week leading up to your trip, you may remember that you forgot to pack underwear, your contact solution, your Advil, etc. So, without further adieu, I present to you my tried-and-true packing and trip preparation tips!

As Soon As You Book:Visas and Vaccines

As soon as you book your trip (and I hope this is not a last minute booking because if it is, this won’t apply), check the visa and vaccine requirements for your chosen destination. Make an appointment at a travel clinic to get your vaccines and call the embassy of your destination country to advance purchase your visa.  Also, now is the time to check your passport.  Make sure your passport is valid for at least 6 months from the date of your return. Back in June, I wrote a post about adventure travel preparation. More detailed information on vaccines and visas can be found in that post.

The Month of Your Trip: Travel Documents and Money

Its time to get your travel documents and money in order.  I like to bring a folder that has all my trip information with me.  In this folder, I put a copy of my flight reservation, my hotel reservation confirmations, my transfer confirmations, the confirmations of all our tours/activities/reservations, and a copy of our itinerary and travel insurance documents, if applicable.  I make a duplicate folder to leave at home with my mom, and, in that, I include all relevant phone numbers and email addresses for our travel agent, hotels, guides. etc.

Next I gather my passport, my visa if applicable, my driver’s license, my travel insurance policy if applicable, my health insurance card, and my credit cards.  I make several color copies of both the front and the back of each.  I leave one set in my home, one in my office, and one with my mom. I also take one copy in my carry-on luggage, I hide one in my checked luggage.  In addition to the copies, I also take photos and store them on my phone and email a PDF document of the color copies to myself.  Sound like overkill?  Wait until you are stranded somewhere, or worse, you get robbed.  It won’t be overkill then. You can invest in a travel organizer to house all these documents, and if you do so, make sure to throw in a couple of pens to fill out your customs forms. I bought a large leather envelope bag from Etsy, and I put everything in there.

You’ll also want to call your bank and all your credit cards and alert them of your travels, including dates of departure and return and the countries and cities you are visiting so that they do not freeze your cards while you are traveling and also so that they monitor your accounts for fraud.  Now is a good time to inquire about foreign transaction fees too.  Finally, you will want to order a few hundred dollars of foreign currency to take with you as well as withdraw enough emergency cash (in U.S. dollars) for the trip. Yes, you can change money while in country, but I find that the change stations in airports have a higher rate than what your bank (or, better yet, a local currency exchange retailer) will charge you. Also, this allows you to monitor the exchange rate and buy on the best date.

The Week Before Your Trip: Hell Week

You have a lot to do this week, so I am going to break this out into steps for you. This will probably be the most stressful time before your trip, but you have to try and remain calm and trust in the value of your advanced preparation. Also, weeks like this will help you appreciate and savor the carefree bliss of your travels.

Step 1: Pack Your Checked Luggage
First, check your airline carrier’s weight and dimension requirements and adhere to them. If you are going to a place where insects/mosquitoes are a concern, make sure to spray both the inside and outside of your luggage as well as your clothing before packing (see the link in my June post mentioned above for more information on this). Also, make sure you have a couple of luggage locks and updated luggage tags.  You may also want to consider an electronic luggage tracking device.

Like I said, your itinerary and destination will largely dictate what you need to pack. So, I think it is a good idea to have a copy handy while you are packing.  Go through each day and think about what you are doing, the climate, and how long your days are so that you can pack accordingly.  I like to literally lay out complete outfits for day and night for each day and then add in a few extra tops.  I try to build my travel wardrobe around a few key basic/classic pieces, like a good pair of jeans, my favorite leggings, etc. The basics include lightweight clothing that can be layered. In choosing your clothing, try to pick versatile pieces to mix and match that can be dressed up or down. You don’t know anyone there so you can re-wear outfits (GASP!), and I don’t care what you see on Instagram from fashion bloggers who bring like two entire suitcases for a weekend getaway, you do NOT need that many clothes. Remember, you need to drag all this crap all over the world, so choose wisely.

Keeping everything organized can be a challenge, so packing organizers can be a life saver. You can keep clothing organized in compartments by using packing cubes. These are some staple items that you want to pack:

  • Tops (1 to 2 per day and then 2-3 extra; short sleeved and tanks for warm weather and long sleeved or sweaters for cold weather)
  • 2 pairs of jeans (preferably one blue and one black)
  • 1 pair of leggings
  • If it’s a warm weather destination, then a couple pairs of shorts
  • 1 versatile,  neutral colored jacket and/or a cardigan (I like to bring a jean jacket)
  • Active-wear (I love Lululemon.  I bring a few pairs of their yoga pants, some sports bras, and a few tanks)
  • Swimwear if necessary (1 to 2 pieces is plenty and 1 cover-up)
  • 1 to 2 dresses or dressier options (like a skirt, a pair of dress pant, a jumpsuit, or rompers)
  • Socks
  • Underwear and bras (I usually bring 2 bras, 4 sports bras, and 2 pairs of underwear per day)
  • Pajamas/sleepwear (1 set is usually enough)
  • 1 pair of sneakers or comfortable walking shoes (or flat boots/booties if necessary)
  • 1 pair of comfortable flats or sandals for evenings
  • 1 pair of flip flops (for walking around the beach or the hotel room)
  • Water shoes, if necessary
  • 1 versatile belt (I like a gold skinny belt)
  • 1 pair of sunglasses
  • 1 lightweight, neutral colored rain jacket or a poncho
  • 1 neutral colored cross-body day bag (again, I like a metallic, like gold or pewter)
  • 1 small evening wristlet or clutch
  • If it’s cold, then:
    •  1 puffer vest
    • 2 neural colored scarves
    • 1 pair of gloves
    • 1 neutral colored hat or ear warmers
    • 1 set of thermals
    • a heavier coat (that you should carry on the plane with you)

Forget the jewelry. It takes up space, you have to keep track of it, and you don’t need it.  Leave your wedding bands and watches in a home safe and your costume jewelry at home unless you are traveling for an event, like a wedding. I also like to pack a plastic laundry bag to house my dirty clothes. Also, I am assuming that you will get your hair blown out and a gel manicure before you leave. Most hotels now have a pretty decent blow dryer so just bring a light flat iron, or, better yet, find a nearby salon to get your hair blown out in-country and don’t bring anything (this is very cheap in Asia and South America)! I recently got a lightweight travel steamer, so I will be bringing that when I travel next year for my sister’s wedding in Greece.

Step 2: Pack Your Carry-On Bag
The next thing you’ll want to do is prepare your carry-on bag. Again, check your airline carrier for required dimensions and weights. Some airlines are very strict about this. I like a roller-board over a duffel bag. The first thing you need to do is make sure you have one or two complete outfits, sleepwear, and underwear in your carry-on in case your luggage is lost or delayed (or you miss a flight/connection). I also like to carry my essential toiletries in my carry-on. Remember, you’ll be carrying this bad boy with you, so keep it light. Here are some things to include:

Technology

  • Mobile device/iPad/e-reader, charger, and converter/adapter
  • Cigarette lighter charger for the car
  • Mobile/wireless charging device
  • Mobile Wi-Fi device or personal hotspot and charger
  • Headphones
  • If you still travel with a camera and/or a video camera/GoPro, you will need the charger and memory card (same goes for your laptop)

Health Items

  • Hand sanitizer or wet wipes
  • Baby wipes (which can also double as toilet paper when you visit countries where that is a luxury in public restrooms, aka, almost everywhere outside of the U.S.)
  • Prescriptions (in case something happens to your checked luggage)
  • Glasses and case
  • Advil or a pain reliever
  • Birth control
  • Antacids
  • Band-aids
  • Anti-diarrhea medications
  • Tissues
  • Lip Balm
  • Gum
  • Snacks (I like protein bars, nuts, and dark chocolate)

I usually also pack a pair of plane socks and my flip flops. Your selfie stick can go in here or your checked luggage, and I sometimes bring a small, lightweight, hand-held fan with batteries. Did she just say a fan?!? Yes, she did. Go to Asia for three weeks (or the Greek Islands in the summer) and then tell me what the one thing you wished had with you was.  I bet it’s a fan. And a cool towel (which I also brought). By the way, if you are traveling to a place where you will be visiting temples or mosques, then remember to always have a pair of socks on you and something to cover your shoulders. You can’t wear shoes inside these places.

Remember, you also get a personal item (like a purse or a backpack), so use that space as well.  In here, I pack my travel wallet, my phone, extra cash, my travel document organizer/folder, a pen, a light scarf that can also be used as a blanket, and some extra luggage locks and keys in case mine break along the way. I don’t use a travel pillow anymore because all airlines give you pillows on board, but if you do, stick it in your carry on, and don’t forget your earplugs, eye-patch, book and/or magazines.

Step 3: Pack Your Toiletry Bag
I like to pack this a week in advance and actually live out of it for a week to make sure I packed everything I need.  I will usually pack two toiletries bags: one that I carry on with essentials and one that I check in my luggage.  If you’re carrying on, keep your toiletry bag light and TSA-compliant. The TSA’s 3-1-1 rule makes it easy to remember: liquids, gels, aerosols, creams, and pastes must be 3.4 ounces (100ml) or less per container and they must be in a 1 quart-sized, clear, plastic, zip-top bag. Here is what I pack:

  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Hair brush
  • Hair ties, clips, and bobby pins
  • Deodorant
  • Shampoo and conditioner (sometimes I skip this since all hotels have these)
  • Dry shampoo
  • Small bar soap or body wash
  • Razor and shaving cream
  • Sunscreen
  • Face Wash (and my travel Clarisonic)
  • Moisturizer
  • Hairspray
  • Feminine hygiene products
  • Extra contacts, solution, and case
  • Personal prescriptions
  • Pain and fever relievers
  • Cold medicines and throat lozenges
  • Diarrhea/laxative medicines
  • Allergy medicines
  • Band-aids/blister covers
  • Hydrocortisone cream/antibacterial ointment
  • Sunburn relief
  • Insect repellent/mosquito net/sting reliever
  • Motion sickness pills or bands
  • Eye drops
  • Medicines and vaccinations specific to the region/activity, including precautionary antibioitcs and oral yeast infection treatment if that is a side-effect to your antibiotic
  • Make up
    • concealer
    • pressed powder compact
    • blush with brush
    • eyebrow brush
    • mascara
    • lip gloss
    • lip balm
    •  travel sized perfume
    • tweezers and nail clippers

Step 4: Prepare Your Home

Now is the time to make preparations for your home, your pets, and your workload.

  • Have the post office hold mail or arrange for a friend or family member to come pick it up
  • Stop newspaper and meal delivery services
  • Cancel your pool service, pest control service, and cleaning service companies
  • Check upcoming work deadlines and coordinate for coverage with a co-worker
  • Set up an email auto reply and leave the information of your coverage co-worker
  • Arrange care of pets, lawn, and plants
    • If you are having someone stay at your house or come by periodically while you are gone, make sure to leave specific feeding instructions for pets, including instructions to administer medication and emergency vet numbers
    • If you are boarding, make sure to make a reservation and pack food, medication, a bed, toys, and emergency contact information (yours, a local contact, and your vet)
    • Leave watering instructions for your plants and/or care instructions for your house
  • Pre-pay bills online
  • Prearrange school absences for children
  • Empty your refrigerator of perishables, but leave some non-perishable items for your return
  • Unplug appliances
  • Turn up your air conditioner
  • Set up light and sprinkler timers
  • Take out your trash
  • Lock all doors and windows and set your alarm
  • Leave a set of keys to your car and home with a trusted friend or family member
  • Store valuables in a safe place
  • Leave your trip itinerary with a trusted friend or family member, including flight and hotel itineraries and contact numbers
  • Reconfirm/check-in online with airline and print boaridng passes or send them to your mobile device
  • If you will be gone for a long time, consider putting up your hurricane shutters (just in case)

Phew! You are done! It’s time to sit back, relax, and enjoy that vacation, because you earned it! Also, you can now enjoy your time away knowing that you’ve taken care of every last detail! I hope you found this post helpful. If so, drop me a comment or an email and let me know.  If I have forgotten anything or you have some other great tips, I’d love to hear them.

An Alternative to Disney: The 5 Best U.S. Cities For Family Travel

Are-We-There-Yet-Sermon-Series-IdeaFamily vacations: where to go, is there anything there to entertain the kids, how much will this cost? I am assuming this is what goes through every parent’s mind when it comes time to plan the family vacation.  I bet it feels more like a chore than an adventure, so I am guessing that most people just go back to what they know: Disney.

Chad and I don’t have kids yet, but I bet a lot of readers of this blog do, and, since the purpose of this blog is to inspire you to incorporate travel into your life, regardless of what stage in life you are in, I put together a list of the 5 best U.S. cities for family travel. Think of this as an alternative to Disney, because, let’s be honest, how many times can you really visit the mouse’s house without wondering if you (or your wallet!) can take it.

In compiling this list, I tried to choose places that were (relatively) budget friendly, that covered the span of the U.S., that had something that appealed to the whole family, regardless of age, and that offered a different experience according to your preference (city vs. beach vs. active/outdoors). Also, I enlisted the help of a friend, former law school classmate, blogger extraordinaire, and super mom, Jennifer from The Champagne Supernova Blog. She actually has kids – two of them! So without further adieu, allow us to save you from yet another Disney trip.

Number 1: Washington, D.C.DC MallAh, our nation’s capitol! Do you know why this takes the number one spot? Because, once you get there (and getting there is not too expensive on JetBlue), almost all of your activities are free!! That’s right, free! Our nation’s monuments? Free! Museums? Free! In fact, there are over 200 museums in D.C. and almost all of them are free!  So, whether your children like art, science, animals, or history, there is a museum that suits their (and your) interests.

Another great thing about D.C. is that most of the sites are within walking distance of each other, making it an easy city within which to ambulate. Otherwise, the hop on hop off tours are a great value (also, check Groupon, as they are usually running a special on these tours), allowing you to tour the entire city and Arlington National Cemetery for one or two days while learning about the places you are visiting en-route. This also gives you the flexibility to ride around and see a lot without necessarily having to get off at every stop, and it’s fun to sit on top of the open air bus! Uber is another great option for getting around town.

The only thing that will require advance planning on your part is a tour inside the White House, and all the information you need to plan such a tour can be found here. Advance planning is also needed to tour the U.S. Capitol building, and all the information needed for that can be found here. Finally, you can turn your trip to D.C. into a fun learning experience for your children without them even knowing it!  Just take a look at your child’s syllabus for their history or social studies class (or ask their teachers what they are/going to be learning about), and tailor your trip to something they are learning about in school. All these reasons make D.C. a great and affordable choice for families with children of all ages. Beat that, Mr. Mouse!

Here is my suggested itinerary for a perfect three-day weekend: Plan to fly/drive in on Thursday late afternoon or evening.  After checking into your hotel and grabbing a bite to eat, take a night tour of the monuments to see them lit up or enjoy a free music concert at the Kennedy Center!WWIIMEM

lincoln night

marine corpsDay 1 (Friday): Wake up early and get a good breakfast in you; you’re going to need it! Hopefully, you got tickets to tour the White House, so do that first.  If not, you should still swing by and get a gander at it from the outside. After the White House, walk over to the National Mall (see photo above), which has all the major memorials.  Start at the Washington Monument (you can pre-buy tickets to go up!).  A short distance away is the World War II Memorial.  From there, walk through the promenade (bonus if you are there during cherry blossom season) beside the reflecting pool until you reach the Lincoln Memorial.  After the Lincoln Memorial, head over to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  Once you are done here, rent a paddle boat and get a view of the Jefferson Memorial and the Martin Luther King Memorial from either side of the tidal basin. Stop for lunch. After lunch, hit the Capitol Building, the Supreme Court, and the Library of Congress.white house

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Supreme CourtDays 2 and 3 (Saturday and Sunday): Make your last 2 days museum days.  You can visit dinosaurs and mammals at the National Museum of History, airplanes at the National Air and Space Museum, the U.S.’s only Leonardo Da Vinci painting at the National Gallery of Art, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives, or all the cute animals at the National Zoo. If you are looking to take a short half day-trip from the city, consider visiting Arlington National Cemetery where you can see the Kennedy Memorials, Changing of the Guard Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns, and Arlington House.  You may also consider taking a day trip to George Washington’s Mount Vernon.national zoo

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Number 2: Atlanta, GeorgiaATLYou may be wondering why Atlanta is on the list (and at the number 2 spot).  Well, first, it’s pretty cheap to get to (Delta has a lot of reasonably priced flights), and there are actually a lot of family-friendly things to do here. Both the children and the adults can enjoy a fun-filled long weekend in this city. Here is my suggested itinerary for a perfect three-day weekend: Plan to fly/drive in on Thursday late afternoon or evening, and check into your hotel. Depending on when you get in (and their event calendar), you may want to pre-plan to attend a show at Atlanta’s Fox Theater or head to Stone Mountain to catch the fireworks and laser show.

Day 1 (Friday): Wake up early and get a good breakfast in you, because you are headed to Georgia Aquarium! This place is amazing.  It has huge floor to ceiling aquariums full of color and life and plenty of immerse experiences to choose from.  For example, you can take the Behind the Seas Tour for $15 and get a closer view of the aquarium’s most popular exhibits. You can also choose from different animal encounters, including a dolphin encounter, Beluga Whale encounter, penguin encounter, sea otter encounter, and even swimming with whales, sharks, and manta rays. The aquarium also has a tactile exhibit where you can reach in and touch sea urchin and other sea critters. And, if you want to be a Super-Parent, you can arrange a sleepover at the aquarium! That’s right, a sleepover.  Does the Mouse let you sleep at his house? I don’t think so! (Okay, this is technically not true. You can be randomly selected to win a sleepover inside Cinderella’s castle.  You probably have about an equal chance of getting struck by lightning or winning the lottery, so there’s that).fish

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whalesAfter the aquarium, take walk over to the World of Coca-Cola.  Here, you can learn about the history of the Coca-Cola, visit the vault where the secret formula for Coke is stored, meet the Coca-Cola Polar Bear, and, best of all, visit the tasting room and taste as many of the 100+ Coke beverages made and sold around the world. Don’t forget to pick up your free bottle of coke on your way out!coke2

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coke bearBurn off some of that sugar high by visiting the nearby Centennial Olympic Park or Piedmont Park.

Days 2 and 3 (Saturday and Sunday): On these days, you have options.  You can choose to visit Zoo Atlanta, get wet at Six Flags Over Georgia or Six Flags White Water, or make it a sports day by visiting the College Football Hall of Fame and Turner Field.zoo

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cyclorama college football hallOther family-friendly attractions that add a little history and education include the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, Atlanta Botanical Gardens, Martin Luther King National Historic Site, Underground Atlanta, High Museum of Art, Atlanta Cyclorama and Civil War Museum, and Margaret Mitchell House and Museum.

Number 3: New York, New YorkNYEveryone loves the Big Apple, and you and your family cannot run out of things to do here! Both JetBlue and Delta offer reasonable flights into New York (you can also combine a visit to D.C. with a visit to N.Y., and take the train). In my opinion, the best time to visit New York is during the holidays when the city is all dressed up! Here is my suggested itinerary for a perfect three-day weekend: Plan to fly/drive in on Thursday late afternoon or evening, and check into your hotel; then, head straight to Times Square.  It is cheesy and touristy, but it is iconic, and your kids have not lived a full life without at least experiencing it once.

Day 1 (Friday):  Wake up early because today you pre-arranged to visit the Statue of Liberty and perhaps even to climb to the crown.  Note, this particular activity will take some advanced planning on your part (especially if you want to go up to the crown), so book tickets early!statue of libertyWhen you are done here, head to the 9/11 Memorial, the Empire State Building, and/or Top of the Rock.empire state

911Day 2 (Saturday): Visit Central Park, have lunch, and go ice-skating! Afterwards, head to one of the city’s many museums like The Museum of Natural History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Guggenheim, the Whitney Museum of American Art, or the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art). Here is a list of museums that cater just to children’s interests. You can find free museums or information on special free hours at other museums or museums that have suggested contributions here.ice skateartDay 3 (Sunday): Save your Sunday for a Broadway matinee.  Your New York trip is a great way to introduce your children to art, including performance art.  There are several Broadway shows that are suitable for children, like Lion King, Aladdin, and Matilda. A list of kid-friendly shows can be found here. Make sure to pre-book your tickets as the shows sell out fast. If you want to chance it, you have a couple of options short of buying tickets on a third-party site.  The first is to  rush to the theater as soon as it opens on the day of the performance and wait in line to buy same-day rush tickets which can sometimes sell for as little as $25.  Some shows sell standing room tickets, which means you will stand to watch the show.  Others, like the Lion King, distribute day-of-show tickets through a lottery.  The other option is to wait in line on the day of the show at the TKTS Booth, which is located under the red steps in Duffy Square (47th Street and Broadway). Almost all of the Broadway hits are on sale there, mostly at 50 percent off. There are also some online options, like the TodayTix app or nytix.com.  Get your discount codes at BroadwayBox, Broadway Insider, and Entertainment-Link.broadway 2At some point before you leave, make it a priority to stop at Levain Bakery and wait in line for the cookies.  They are sooooo worth it!cookies

Number 4: Salt Lake City, Utah

utahThe U.S. National Park Service is celebrating its 100th year anniversary this year. If your family is active and looking for a great (outdoor) adventure, then why not visit Utah’s National Parks? Did you know i) that there 5 national parks in Utah (from east to west: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion), ii) that all the national parks are a stone’s throw away from each other, and iii) that they are located just a few hours outside of Salt Lake City? All the info you need to plan an epic national park journey can be found here. This is actually on our bucket list, as a result all Utah photos used are borrowed from the internet.UtahScenery_NatlParks

Number 5: HawaiimauiOkay, so Hawaii isn’t a city; it’s a state, and you may be surprised to see Hawaii on my list, but here it is! Hawaii has gotten cheaper to get to, although it is still an expensive place to visit.  But, if your family craves some amazing beach time coupled with a little history and nature, then this is the place to go. I think that a week here is enough time to visit Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island.oahuStart on Oahu because most flights come into Oahu anyway.  I think 2 to 3 days in Oahu is plenty.  That will give you enough time to visit Pearl Harbor and the battleships on one day, and hit the beach and perhaps hike diamond head on the others.Pearl Harbour

diamond headThe flights between the islands are pretty cheap, so hop a flight to Maui, where you will spend the rest of your time.  Aside from beautiful beaches and great snorkeling, in Maui, you can attend a luau, take a drive through the scenic Hana Highway (but, trust me, do this on a tour and not on your own), get a sunrise experience at Haleakala, and take a day trip to the Big Island to visit Volcanoes National Park!beach 2

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volcanoeI hope this post has inspired you to break out of your family vacation rut, and seek out a new adventure that the whole family can enjoy.  Let us know what you think of our suggestions, sample itineraries, and tips and whether you would be interested in a similar post featuring international vacations.  Until then, cheers to making memories that’ll last a lifetime!

 

 

The Mindful Wanderer: A Guide For Socially Conscientious Travel

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The promise of a new adventure brings so much excitement.  Where will you visit? What will you see and experience? Who will you meet? What will you eat? But, in my opinion, there is a far more important consideration to take into account.  One that likely gets little or no thought at all. That consideration is what effect will your visit have on the people and the place you are visiting.

In my mind, every traveler is an ambassador of his or her country and a guest in the host country. With that in mind, Chad and I have made the decision to be responsible travelers, positively impacting the communities we visit, and leaving them with a positive view of our culture. The goal of this post is to encourage you to travel with a heightened sense of social awareness.  I think you will find that this will ultimately change the course of your travels and your travel experiences.

In my opinion, socially conscientious travel is important because it has the potential to be a catalyst for change. But what exactly does it mean to be a “socially conscientious traveler?”  I think that there are different meanings for different people, but, to me, socially conscientious travel means two things: the first is to be vigilant about avoiding travel experiences and activities that exploit the local community you are visiting, especially those attractions that exploit animals, children, and women; the second is the idea of giving back as part of the travel experience.  I am certainly not saying that you should turn your vacation into a mission trip. I am simply suggesting that you incorporate socially conscientious decisions and experiences into your awesome adventure. Let me explain.

Avoiding Exploitative Travel Experiences 

Chad and I were not always socially conscientious travelers.  I think this awareness comes from the experience of travel. The more you travel, and, quite frankly, the more you expand your geographic travel regions (like, travel outside of the United States and Europe), the more aware you become about (and, hopefully, engaged in) this concept.

I can pinpoint the exact moment that the notion of socially conscientious travel occurred to me.  If you know Chad and I well, then you know that we are major animal lovers. So it was only natural to us that we would spend out honeymoon on a photo safari in South Africa. It was literally the best experience ever. After our safari adventure was over, we made our way back to the city, and our itinerary called for a visit to Lion Park in South Africa. Lion Park offered the opportunity to have a personal experience with baby lion cubs, including petting them. We love animals so much that we didn’t even think twice about this. We were so excited to get to interact with and pet a baby lion!

It wasn’t until we returned to the United States that I started to think about this experience. Chad and I would never do anything to hurt an animal or intentionally support any organization that exploits, kills, or hurts animals, but I could not help but wonder, how were people able to pet baby lions? Where were their mothers? What happened to the baby lion when it grew up and had lost its fear of people?

I decided to do some internet research. My worst fears were confirmed. The cubs are bread in captivity for the purpose of being petted by tourists, and, even worse, after 6 months of age (when it’s too dangerous to continue to allow tourists to pet the lions), the cubs are sold to canned hunts where tourists pay up to $100,000.00 to hunt these lions (who have been petted and fed by humans all their lives) in enclosed spaces. I was literally sick to my stomach over this. I could not believe that Chad and I had paid money to this awful organization to exploit a baby lion that would ultimately die by being “hunted.”

After this experience, Chad and I decided that we would never again do something like this.  It was at this exact moment that I became a travel agent’s worst nightmare. When we use travel agents, I am very clear with them at the beginning of our consultation that Chad and I will not engage in any activity or experience that exploits animals, women, or children.  In fact, if the company offers these experiences to other tourists, we won’t use them at all. Once I get the draft itinerary, I research every single aspect of the trip activities to make sure we are not engaging in exploitative travel.

Two years later, we visited Thailand.  We worked with a travel agency that used only local, in-house guides with ties to the communities we visited and was socially conscious about the activities it planned. Elephant tourism is very popular in Thailand, and that often means that the elephant is being mistreated for the sake of tourism and revenue generation. While Chad and I were very excited about the possibility to have one-on-one interaction with these beautiful, gentle giants, we love animals and we did not want visit a program that exploited them.

On that trip (after a copious amount of vetting), we visited Patara Elephant Farm in Chiang Mai, which is an elephant conservation organization that rescues unwanted or formerly exploited elephants with the goal of preserving the Asian elephant population in Thailand. Patara emphasizes education about the plight of the elephant with programs that allow you to learn about elephants while participating in their daily care. Their “mahout” for a day program, includes a bareback ride on the elephant. We did not see bull hooks being used, and, importantly, there were no chairs or wicker basket strapped to the backs of elephants to facilitate the ride, which could hurt the elephant. Nonetheless, I continued to wonder whether riding an elephant at all was ethical. I have read several articles about this since then, and while it is probably best to not ride an elephant at all, the safest way to ride an elephant is bareback and on the neck, like we did at Patara. That is the thing about socially conscious travel- it is a constant learning experience.
PataraThe best option in Chiang Mai is probably Elephant Nature Park. They have several elephant interaction day programs to choose from and even overnight and week-long volunteer programs, but none of them allow riding. Another beautiful aspect of this operation is that they have an on-property dog rescue.

Along the way during our travels in Thailand, we met other travelers who had also visited Tiger Temple and Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai, places that Chad and I made the conscious decision to avoid. Like the dreaded Lion Park, these tiger attractions have captive tigers and allows visitors to pet not only baby tigers but also full grown adult tigers.  Based on my research, they are known for drugging the tigers to keep them sedated enough to not attack tourists and also beating the tigers when they are too sedated to interact with the tourists.  It literally made me sick to hear that people were supporting these attractions and perpetuating the exploitation of tigers.

Another popular but controversial tourist draw in Chiang Mai is visiting the Karen Long Neck Villages. The artificial hill tribes popped up around the northern Thai border in the mid-1980s as a result of a civil war. The tribe has a custom whereby female tribe members have elongated their necks as a result of years of wearing heavy brass rings around their necks (from as early as the age of 4 or 5), thereby inspiring tourism to these villages. Many international tour companies discourage these visits because it is like visiting a human zoo, which was why Chad and I avoided the visit. This article does a nice job of explaining why the visit is considered exploitative of the tribe’s people, particularly the women and children. However, that does not stop thousands of tourists from visiting these mostly fabricated villages to buy “local” goods, watch children perform for tourists, and snap pictures of themselves with women and children who have the golden rings around their necks. To be fair, there are other articles that discuss respectful/socially responsible ways to visit these hill tribes.

It is exploitative experiences and attractions like these, found all over the world, that I emphatically encourage you to avoid. There are so many other alternatives and more meaningful and authentic experiences to have in the world that do not contribute to the suffering of an animal, a child, or a woman. You just need to spend a little time fully researching the activities, attractions, and experiences that your travel agent, your friend, or the internet recommends.

I think that this article does a really nice job of explaining what exploitative travel is and how to avoid it, but some easy and common sense steps include: i) researching each activity by cross checking them on Google, popular tourists websites (like Tripadvisor), and blogs and going through both the good and bad reviews and the photos; ii) reaching out to the organization to find out more about their conservation program, including where the money goes and inquiring about the full program details; iii) hiring local, independent guides that do not work for and have no financial incentive to bring you to places like the tiger attractions mentioned above; and iv) being weary of attractions where animals or humans are performing unnatural acts or where 100% guarantees of sightings are offered. And remember, there are no guarantees, even with hours of research and planning, that everything you do is going to be 100% ethical, but the point is to engage in experiences where animals and people are not being objectified for financial gain.

Charitable Travel 

On the other end of the spectrum is charitable travel.  This does not necessarily have to be volunteer travel (the idea of taking a trip for the purpose of engaging in a volunteer opportunity).  This can simply mean adding a charitable component to your travels.

Back to South Africa. Our agent mentioned that our private safari concession, Lions Sands Game Reserve partnered with the Bhubezi Community Projects to support a pre-school for a local village.  There were numerous volunteer, sponsorship, and donation programs to support the community project.  After doing some research, Chad and I came prepared with educational supplies to distribute to the children and medical supplies to distribute to the community.  This was such a rewarding experience, that we decided that whenever possible, we would incorporate a charitable aspect to all of our travels.

In Luang Prabang, Laos, we visited the Hmong village and its local school where we brought educational supplies, toys, and snacks to the children. We got to interact with the children in the classroom and see the look of pure joy on their faces when we gave them their very own notepads, pencils, and a snack.LP class

LP kidsWe recently had a similar experience in Peru where we visited an orphanage for girls and brought them toiletries and school supplies. kits box

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girls11Organizing a charitable travel component is not hard, even if you are not working with an agent, it is not very expensive, it does not take time away from your vacation, and it will probably be one of the more authentic and certainly most memorable parts of your journey.  It certainly leaves you feeling connected to the destination.

I hope this post has given you some perspective and has inspired you to not only be more conscientious about your travels, but also to incorporate some charitable component into your travels.  If your have any personal anecdotes or tips on how to be a more socially conscientious traveler, I would love to hear them. Leave me a comment or send me an email.

The Layover: An Opportunity For Adventure

HS1Most people dread a long layover between flights.  Not me.  In fact, I sometimes purposefully plan a long layover, especially in a cool new city.  For me, a layover presents an opportunity for a mini adventure.

Recently, Chad and I decided to take a spontaneous trip to Crete, Greece to visit my dad.  We flew through Istanbul, a city to which neither of us had ever been.  So, we chose a flight with a 13 hour+ layover between Athens and Miami for the sole purpose of having a few hours to explore Istanbul. It was one of our best travel decisions!Istanbul AirportOur flight from Athens arrived in Istanbul at 11: 30 p.m.  With just our pre-planned and pre-packed carry-on bags in tow, we quickly made our way to the visa office to purchase our Turkish visas.  That’s right U.S. citizens, as of 2014, you now need a visa to visit Turkey.  It costs $30.00 per person and can be purchased right in the airport before leaving the secure area (you can also obtain an e-visa ahead of time for $20.00).  After securing our visas, we exited the secure area of the airport and found the shuttle for the land-side of the airport’s hotel.  This airport has a hotel within the airport that has two sides: the “air side,” which is inside the secure area of the airport and requires a boarding pass for check in and the “land side,” which is outside of the secure area of the airport but still attached to the airport.  We checked in for the night, had a hot shower, and got right to bed.

After a very early breakfast the next morning (which is included in the room rate if you just ask), we met Aykut from Istanbul Custom Tours.  He was waiting for us in the lobby before our scheduled meeting time. I had contacted him prior to our trip to arrange this day-tour, and he was very responsive and flexible. The nice thing about touring this early on a Sunday morning is that we missed all of the notorious Istanbul traffic (it is a large sprawling city of more than 14 million people).  Also, we had the city and its sights pretty much to ourselves.

Our first stop was to the Asian side of Istanbul to see the Bosphorus Strait.Bosphorus

AC BosphorusAfter a few quick picture stops, we made our way back over to the European side to visit the Old Town. We walked through Sultanahmet Square to visit the historic Hippodrome of Constantinople.

hipp2In the same plaza, you will find the German Fountain.  This is a classic example of looks being deceiving.  As you stroll through the Hippodrome, you pass a beautiful, but inoperative fountain. The fact that it is inoperative is by choice. This fountain was given as a gift from Germany to the Turkish people around 1900, which lead to an alliance between Turkey and German. Fast forward 20 years, Turkey ended up on the losing side of World War I, which sent Turkey spiraling into depression for decades to come. As a result, the Turks are no longer fond of the fountain; but it’s huge and immovable, so, as a tourist, enjoy its beauty.fountainOur next stop was to the Sultanahmet Mosque (better known as the Blue Mosque), where we were the first people in line as soon as the doors opened at 8:30 a.m.  We had the beautiful mosque nearly all to ourselves!BlueMosque

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BM2This is an active mosque where people come to pray.  All visitors are required to remove their shoes before entering, and the mosque provides plastic bags for you to put your shoes into and carry inside with you.  Also, women must cover their heads and wear a long skirt to enter. I anticipated this, and brought along a scarf, but the mosque also provides you with loaner scarves and skirts.  By the way, as Chad found out, men are not excluded from this rule.  Men must wear long pants.  If they are wearing shorts, like Chad was, the mosque will happily provide the man with a skirt to wear, and this will double as entertainment for me, and, now, for you! bm6

bm5Also, women are NOT allowed pass these wooden gates.  Men, however, are, but only if they are passing through to pray.  Please, please, please be respectful of the mosque’s and the religion’s rules.  While we were there, an English woman and her child walked into the prayer area, and it caused a bit of a scene.bm4Inside, the mosque is literally stunning.  There is so much incredible color and intricate tile and stained glass work. Even on a cloudy day (which was the case the morning these photos were taken), you get a sense of the awesome illuminated beauty that natural light provides in the mosque. bm7

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bm15After the Blue Mosque, we made our way to Hagia Sophia, which opens at 9:00 a.m., and is literally across the promenade from the Blue Mosque. We were again the first in line and the first into the museum.Hagia Sophia outside

hg0001To give you some perspective, the photo below was taken at the gates of the Blue Mosque looking towards Hagia Sophia.hg00000

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hg16By the way, unless you have been to Hagia Sophia, you may not appreciate exactly how hard it is to get a picture inside with NO people in it.  It’s like impossible! I do the impossible.hg9And, if you were wondering where the center of the world is located, according to the Romans, it’s right here! This is the spot where coronation ceremonies for Roman Emperors were held during the time that Constantinople (a.k.a Istanbul) served as the capitol of the Roman Empire (and basically the capitol of the world, as far as they were concerned).hg00

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hg30This is the Empress Stand (where she would stand in an elevated position to watch her husband be crowned Emperor), so naturally…hg22Meet Obama Kitty (a.k.a Gli).  Apparently, when Obama visited Istanbul, he made a stop to Hagia Sophia. This kitty happened to be inside that day, and she marched over to Obama and was rubbing up against his leg.  Obama liked the little kitty, so he picked her up and carried her around while he toured the museum.  Well, that was the best day ever for this little kitty because after that, she became famous. She was renamed Obama Kitty and was given a permanent home inside Hagia Sophia.obama kittyI don’t think Obama should get to feeling grand prize about this encounter.  Obama Kitty is very friendly, and she will basically go up to anyone for some love.  She immediately went to Chad and demanded rubs!hg14

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hg18After we concluded our visit at Hagia Sophia, we walked through a small bazaar (note, the Grand Bazaar is closed on Sundays) of beautiful shops, and we tasted Turkish Delight before making our way back to the airport.baz6

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baz3By the way, Istanbul is a shopper’s paradise!  If you like textiles, tiles, spices, teas, and jewelry, then you will feel like you died and went to heaven (and this isn’t even the Grand Bazaar!). Chad was thanking his lucky stars and giving alms to the time crunch gods.  That is okay, because WHEN we return, I will set aside an ENTIRE day just to shop this oasis of a shopping city!

We were back at the airport before 11:00 a.m. for our 1:30 p.m. flight, which was perfect timing to get through all the security measures at this airport as a result of the recent attacks, which included a car check, a screening at the entrance, passport control, security screening, and two more passport controls screenings at the gate. We counted SIX security and/or passport checkpoints in all. Suffice it to say that the we felt extremely safe and secure at the Istanbul airport.

Both Chad and I agreed that the layover adventure was well worth it. Rather than endure hours of uncomfortable and boring waiting at the airport, we saw everything described above in about three hours, which provided a fantastic introduction to Istanbul and to Turkey and left us with a desire to return for a more comprehensive visit. Planning the layover is crucial.  You want to make sure that you are laying-over during day light hours (or at least with enough daylight hours) so that there is an opportunity to explore.  You also want to have a specific plan in place for what you want to see or do and how you are going to get there.  Keep in mind that you have limited time, so choose the two or three things that are most important to you (depending on the length of your layover).  Build in 30 minutes travel time from the airport into the city and about 45 minutes for the return.  You want to take into account traffic, especially in cities that are known to have a lot of it (like Istanbul and Bangkok).  Also, make sure you return to the airport at least two (but preferably three) hours before your flight, as you will need to pass through security, and, depending on the airport, passport control to get back into the gate area.

Some other important things to keep in mind are that your luggage will likely be checked all the way through to your final destination, so be sure to pack everything you need for the layover day in your carry-on luggage.  Many airports have a luggage storage where you can lock your bags while you explore, but, if you hire a private driver like we did (and, I highly recommend that you do so as well so you are not at the mercy of public transportation and taxi cabs), you can take your carry-on luggage with you and leave it in the car. Second, check the visa requirements of the layover country.  You can usually purchase the visa in the airport before you leave the secure area. Finally, most airlines will pay for your hotel if you have a long layover, but there are some exceptions, and you should be aware of them before you go.  For example, Turkish Airlines will pay for your hotel for any layover that is over 13 hours (like ours was) as long as there is no other flight that comes in from your departure city (for us, Athens) from the time you departed from that city until the time of your next flight. We did not qualify for the hotel voucher because of this exception, but that was not an issue for us.  We simply took the shuttle to the land side of the airport hotel, which was outside the secure area and had our driver pick us up from the hotel lobby early in the morning. Trust me, the layover adventure sure beats sleeping on the floor inside the gate area until it is time to take your next flight! So, whether your layover is on purpose or just a matter of circumstance, take full advantage, and happy exploring!

Do you have any recommendations for fab layover cities?  If so, I’d like to hear about them! Leave me a comment or send me an email.