June 6, 2015

Travel Tips From Dawn

Mexico, 1987

This summer marks the 30th year my husband, Sam, and I have been traveling this world and this life together. Here are some (poor quality!) memory photos of some of our early travels:

Scuba Diving in Cozumel, 1987

US Virgin Islands, 1990
St. Croix, 1990

River Dancing in Costa Rica, 1993

Chil-axing in Manuel Antonio, 1993

Spain, 2014
These days, we travel as a family of four.

We've learned a lot throughout our journeys together. After last year's trip to Spain, I reflected on how my travel experiences were relevant to my creative writing life.

As I prepare for this year's summer travel season, I thought it might be helpful to share the full list of "debriefing notes" Sam and I made after last year's trip.

I hope some of our learnings might make it easier for you to plan your own adventures:

-If a flight has been delayed, don't assume it will stay delayed.

-For a family of four, it is nice to secure two aisle seats. We either book one solo aisle seat and the bank of three seats directly across the aisle in the same row, or we book two sets of two seats, separated by an aisle in the same row. This allows us to separate the kids if need be, and still be able to each have an aisle seat and talk to each other.

-In terms of pacing the trip, stay in the "arrival town" a minimum of 3 nights so you can sight see AND relax (i.e. on second or third day schedule a low key beach day with few/no sight seeing "goals"), OR plan to stay in the arrival town for a shorter period of time, stumble around/sight see in a jet lagged stuper for one or two action packed days, then move on to the next place (that is intentionally more relaxing) and make a point to stay put there a bit longer. (Essentially, build in some down time days in the earlier portion of trip, either in the first town or second town).

-If it's hard to find lodging (due to festivals/holidays, etc), there will be other factors such as crowds and prices, that will influence our overall enjoyment of the location (i.e. take it as a signal that the town might be too crowded for our liking).

-Speaking of lodging, we are HUGE Airbnb fans. Here is the apartment we stayed in when we visited Barcelona last year, and here are the super cool places we're planning to stay in when we visit Italy!

-Spending a chunk of time in at least two diverse locations makes it feel like more than one trip (i.e. Barcelona and Madrid were vastly different, so it almost felt like we took "two" trips to Spain last year. Many years ago, we visited Greece and had a three night "layover" in Paris on the way home. That definitely gave the illusion that we had two entirely different European vacations in one year). 

-In most cases, two nights in any one place does not seem like quite enough time. Transition days are harder days. Better to stay put and get to know a place a little bit better than to push it to travel to some place you just "have to see" that may or may not be all it's cracked up to be. Enjoy where you are. Better to see fewer places and really connect with them vs. spending lots of days in transition. 

-Neighborhood restaurants are WAY better than over-priced touristy restaurants. If there is someone at the doorway greeting you with a menu, it's a touristy restaurant. Go back a few streets and listen for the loud laughter coming out of little restaurants. Those are the local spots. 

-Pack trail mix, dry cereal, baggies, plastic silverware, paper plates, paper towels, toilet paper and hand wipes. A light weight beach towel is much better than a heavy one.  A little bit of clothes line and clothes pins (and some liquid dish soap to wash clothes in) is worthwhile to bring. Cork screws and plastic glasses that travel with us for happy hours in the moment are a must. A small knife for cheese is nice to have (but don't lose it in carry on!). Nothing beats a nice beverage, fresh fruit, bread and cheese, and a good view. 

-Breakfast: In our room or on our rooftop: fresh fruit, bread/jam, cheese, yogurt, ham. Lunch: picnics while out and about during the day. Dinner: out.

-We value having a kitchen, but really the main part of the kitchen we use/value is the fridge (and freezer--because we bring gel packs to keep our picnic lunches cold).

-Printing out an area map (or a screen shot of a map) is helpful in orienting to new places (but each place will "make sense" after about two hours there).

-On reflection, the places/towns we seem to like the most have a river (or some other water feature). We also like old cities with old walls. 

-We also find ourselves drawn to small towns/villages (but remember to check the population of the "small town" and compare it to the population of other towns we've liked. What the tour books describe as "small" is quite variable . . . the population is a solid point of reference to help make comparisons/decisions).

-Be willing to "cut your darlings" (towns/sights to see) if they are too far out of the way from the other main stops for your trip.

-When choosing lodging within a particular town, convert the location to "minutes on foot" in relation to where we ideally want to be near before deciding if the lodging is too far/or close enough to our "ideal location." (Make that a key question when inquiring with hosts).

-It was really helpful to bring our GPS (loaded with map of country we are visiting . . . which we had to order/load ahead of time). This was more of a driving issue, and wouldn't be as relevant if you are not driving. 

-Bring Ebooks and a couple of real books. It's nice to have both options. Plan ahead and load library versions of travel books onto EReaders (though one hard-copy travel books is helpful to bring on trip for ease of navigating. 

-Take photos of key pages in guide books for day trips vs. lugging full guide book around all day. Take photos of maps (this also works for big signs at entrance of towns or major sights). 

-It is worth the additional effort to find lodging with internet access (internet cafes were not as easy to find/use as we hoped).

-Make use of the tourist office (maps, free internet, questions answered), but beware of our tendency to arrive into new towns during siesta when the tourist office (and town!) is closed. 

-Just because it fits you don't need to add it to the baggage. Heavy bags get very tiresome after the second cobbled road and third flight of stairs. Take only one carry-on sized bag and one small back pack per person (because it makes you pack light). You can still choose to "check" one of the carry-on sized bags to transport the liquid items that are harder to take through security.  Day packs are essential throughout the trip (pack them empty or use as "personal bag" for carry on).

-Little games like backgammon, dice and cards are nice to have on hand. Also, a small paddle ball set is fun to have for the beach. Sarongs make a nice, lightweight picnic blanket. 

I hope reading these travel notes gets you excited for new adventures to come! I encourage you to share your own travel tips below.

Happy Travels!