Category: Tips for Travelers

Ten Things You Need to Know Before Going to Peru

Ten Things You Need to Know Before Going to Peru

Peru Travel Tips

Even though I had been to Peru before and was comfortable with the idea of traveling there, I was still a little surprised (or at least reminded) about the quirkier aspects of traveling in this South American country.  Here are some important Peru travel tips.

1. You will need your passport, even when you think you don’t.

peru travel tips machu picchu passport
US Passport

I knew I would need my passport to leave the US and enter Peru (and vice versa) but what I didn’t know was that we would also need our passports to travel within Peru. When we flew from Lima to Cusco, we needed to show our passports. We also needed them when we bought tickets for the bus that ferries tourists up to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. And when we entered Machu Picchu, we needed to show our passports. I learned to just keep my passport with me at all times in a zippered pouch that hung around my neck. I always had it with me, but didn’t need to worry about losing them.

2. Before leaving the airport is the best time to change money, buy SIM card, get information.

peru travel tips airport baggage claim currency exchange sim card

When you arrive in the luggage claim section of the Lima Airport, you will see some kiosks set up in between the baggage carousels.  There are three that are particularly helpful.  First is an information desk, which is a great place to get recommendations, directions, etc.  Second is a cellular phone provider. Buy yourself a local prepaid SIM card and forgo paying for international roaming charges. Third is a currency exchange kiosk. Some may disagree, but I found that the rates at the airport kiosk were comparable to those elsewhere in the city, and the convenience factor was a big plus.

3. You don’t have to know Spanish, but it sure does help.

peru travel tips spanish

Nearly everywhere we went in Peru, we found individuals who spoke English.  However, we did notice that when I spoke Spanish with people, they were more receptive, helpful and friendly. While they might view my tendency to only speak in the present tense as quirky or improper, they appreciated the fact that I was at least making an effort to speak in their language rather than expecting them to speak in mine.

4. You can bring luggage on the train to Machu Picchu

peru travel tips luggage on train t o aguas calientes machu picchu

Everything I read when I was planning our trip said that no luggage was allowed on the trains to Aguas Calientes.  As far as I could tell, that left me with three options: (1) find out if we could leave our luggage at the place we were staying after checking out, (2) pay for an extra night at the apartment, and leave the majority of our things there, or (3) be a rule-breaker and bring the luggage, pretending I didn’t know about that rule.  I went with option 2. We put toiletries and a change of clothes in a backpack and left everything else in the apartment we were renting.  Imagine my surprise when I boarded and saw a sturdy luggage rack right by the door.  So yes, you can take luggage with you.

5. Learn to say “no, gracias.” A lot.

peru travel tips no gracias street vendors

We could not walk, stand, or sit anywhere in Cusco without being approached by someone who wanted to sell us something.  Sunglasses, tours, bags, hats, jewelry, decorative gourds, shoe shines, and so on.  It only took one afternoon to see that this would be an ongoing issue.  At first we listened politely and declined politely, but we soon learned that these vendors would not take no for an answer.  After that first afternoon, we learned to keep our eyes down, our pace brisk, and a “no, gracias, ” on the tip of the tongue, ready to turn the street vendor away.

6. Don’t wait for the waiters to bring your check.

peru travel tips dining out restaurants

If you finish your meal and sit around the table waiting for your waiter to bring the check, you will be there a long time.  Americans tend to get in, eat, and get out, but we are in the minority when in comes to dining out.  You will find neither hovering nor impatient waitstaff in Peruvian restaurants. When you are ready to leave, simply motion to your server and ask for the bill (cuenta in Spanish).

7. A double room might not be what you think it is.

I booked a double room at a hotel in Aguas Calientes for the three of us.  I assumed that it would be like a hotel room in the States – two double beds, bathroom, TV, and some furniture in which to place clothing. Imagine my surprise when we arrived and discovered that a double room was two twin size beds.  Fortunately, they had a room available that could accommodate three people without one having to sleep on the floor.  Be sure to ask when booking what size bed(s) you will have in your room.

8. Lima’s rush hour can mess up your plans.

peru travel tips rush hour traffic

I heard from more than one taxi driver in Lima that their evening rush hour lasts from 5:00 until 9:00 PM every weekday.  What I didn’t hear was how that could adversely affect our plans.  It became glaringly obvious on our last day in the City of Kings when we found ourselves near the Plaza de Armas around 5:00 PM, needing to get a cab back to Miraflores where a driver would be picking us up at 8:00 PM to take us to the airport. Nearly every cab that passed us already had a passenger.  One cab stopped but when we told him we wanted to go to Miraflores, he drove off, unwilling to drive that far in rush hour traffic.  We walked for a while, stopped and ate dinner at a KFC, and walked some more.  We called for an Uber car twice; they never showed up.  Finally someone stopped and asked if we needed a taxi. We reached the apartment at 8:10 PM.  Fortunately, our driver was waiting for us and we made it to the airport on time.

9. The Toilets.

peru travel tips rest room toilet

I will try not to be too indelicate, but the toilets in Peru are different from what we are used to here. While some are exactly the same, others are noticeably different.  The first glaringly obvious difference is that many do not have seats. The second big difference is that in most places, you are not supposed to flush your toilet paper.  The infrastructure is not equipped to handle it.  So regardless of what you do in the toilet, you are supposed to fold up your used toilet paper and place it in a nearby trash can. Not so bad when you are sharing a bathroom with your family, but when you’re out and about and using a public restroom, the ick factor increases exponentially.

10. It’s worth it to pay for a guided tour.

peru travel tips tour guide

We paid a nice young man to give us a tour at the Cusco Cathedral.  It cost just $10 and lasted about an hour.  That was probably the best $10 I’ve ever spent.  He gave us so much more information than we could have possibly picked up or learned on our own.  Definitely money well spent.  We did the same at Machu Picchu and also at the Archbishop’s Palace in Lima.  Each time we felt like we got a lot more from our sightseeing because we learned the history and significance in a way that only a local could explain.  Paying for a guide is a great way to add depth to your travel experience and is well worth the small fee.

I hope these tips help you prepare for your journey to Peru!  Are there any you would add?

Five Things You Need to Consider When Booking with Spirit Airlines

Five Things You Need to Consider When Booking with Spirit Airlines

spirit airlines review

Is Flying with a Budget Airline a Good Idea?

I am always on the lookout for an air travel bargain, and since virtually EVERYWHERE is on my bucket list, I tend to not hesitate when a great fare pops up.

So in late February when I learned that Spirit was having an huge sale for May travel, provided that you traveled on Tuesday or Wednesday, I decided to check it out. Then I found out that Spirit flies to Lima, Peru. With the discount, the fare was right around $200 per person, which is a steal. And Machu Picchu was on my bucket list.  I booked that flight without a moment’s hesitation, not even bothering to look for Spirit Airlines reviews online.

Spirit Airlines Review

If I had Googled “Spirit Airlines review,” I might not have gone through with the booking.  Spirit is not well liked by former passengers. But as they say, ignorance is bliss.  Following is my Spirit Airlines review, and what I learned about the airline.  There are four warnings to consider if you’re thinking of traveling with Spirit, and one recommendation that I would give to a traveler on any airline, not just Spirit.

Caveat #1

When you book with Spirit, you are only paying for your seat. They call it a “bare fare” because it includes nothing else. Put another way: Everything other than that seat comes with a fee.  Want a snack or beverage? Fee. Want to check a bag? Fee. Want to pick out your seats? Fee. Want to have a carry on bag? Fee.

Taking that into consideration, your bargain airfare might end up not being such a bargain after all. For all three of us, seat selection and checked baggage fees added a little over $300 to the total. If those fees had added $300 to the total of a shorter, cheaper flight, I might have reconsidered. But for Lima, the airfare + fees worked out to be about $315 per person, which is still far cheaper than average. (It usually runs $500-$700.)

Caveat #2

Spirit does not have reclining seats on their planes. They say it’s because it adds a lot of weight (something like 70 pounds per row, if I recall correctly), and the heavier the plane, the more fuel it uses, the more expensive it is to fly, etc.

spirit airlines review

Normally, I don’t recline my seat because I find it really irritating when people in front of me do it. So I didn’t miss this feature at all.

Until.

Our return flight from Lima had a departure time of 11:00 PM.  We had been sightseeing in Lima all day and we were tired.  We wanted to sleep.  Seats that don’t recline don’t make for comfortable sleeping arrangements, so it was a long and restless flight back to the US.

Caveat #3

There is no on-board entertainment on Spirit Airlines.  There is no selection of movies or music provided for you to while away the time. I got around this by downloading some shows and movies on Netflix, which I watched offline on my iPad during the flight.  It was great!

Caveat #4

As mentioned above, Spirit does not offer complimentary snacks or beverages. However, unlike your local movie theater, they don’t prohibit you from bringing your own with you. So buy a bottle of water from the airport newsstand (after you’ve gone through security, of course), or fill your own reusable bottle at a water fountain. Pack a few granola bars, a piece of fruit, a bag of chips, or whatever you like to nibble on, and you’ll be good to go.

And One Recommendation

Because I knew all of this prior to booking, I did not have any expectations of our flight that did not match with reality. And I found it all to be perfectly fine because I took the time to become informed and prepared.

However, I also went a step further and made sure that our flight would be a good one by spending $4. The “personal item” I had (which is free, but also smaller than a carry-on) was a student size backpack. The day before we left I put two things in there for the flight crew.  One was a small bag of Dove chocolates.  The other was a card thanking them for ensuring our safety and letting them know that we respected them and their work.

It might have sounded kiss-uppy, but it was true. Airline employees – particularly the flight attendants – were getting maligned in the media almost daily. The Dr. Dao/United Airlines episode had been all over the news a few weeks earlier, followed by the story about girls not being allowed to use their free tickets because they violated the dress code (leggings), followed by a flight being canceled because someone got up and used the rest room when the plane was waiting to take off, followed by a couple of other news items I had seen. Feel free to disagree with me if you want, but it in each of those cases I believe that the passenger was at fault for disregarding the instructions of the flight crew.

The crew was so thankful to hear from a passenger that their work was appreciated (as opposed to being completely disrespected) that they could not thank me enough. And although it was not my motivation, we were treated exceptionally well as a result of that gesture of goodwill. We were given complimentary beverages and the captain even thanked us over the loudspeaker.

Would I fly with Spirit again? Absolutely! But I would probably think twice before booking an overnight flight.

Spirit Airlines has a special page they refer to as Spirit Airlines 101 in which they give you a run-down on how they do things.  It’s full of helpful tips and information to avoid disappointing surprises at the airport. Because no one wants to start their vacation off with unanticipated expenses.

spirit airlines review

Where to Find the Best Airfare Rates

Where to Find the Best Airfare Rates

Everyone has their favorite web site to search for the best airfare rates. Mine was Google Flights, which I could not say enough good things about in June of last year. Since then, I’ve had other experiences with booking airfare, and seen recommendations from others, which left me wondering if Google Flights really was the best.

So I decided to conduct an experiment.  I chose ten popular airfare sites/apps, and came up with seven planned trips.  I searched for round trip airfare departing on June 23 and returning on July 2.  Economy class, 2 adult passengers, and no more than one stop/layover. These were the only criteria.

The trips were:

  1. New York to Rome
  2. San Francisco to Sydney
  3. Chicago to Toronto
  4. Dallas to Buenos Aires
  5. Los Angeles to Atlanta
  6. Boston to Cairo
  7. Seattle to Beijing

The airfare search companies I used were:

  1. Kayak
  2. Hopper (app only, no website)
  3. Google Flights
  4. Priceline
  5. Hotwire
  6. Expedia
  7. Travelocity
  8. CheapOair
  9. Momondo
  10. Sky Scanner

So let’s review the results:

New York to Rome:

Ranged from $842 on Momondo to $1125 on Travelocity
($283 difference)

San Francisco to Sydney:

Ranged from $943 on Momondo to $1134 on Hopper
($191 difference)

Chicago to Toronto:

Ranged from $215 on Sky Scanner and Kayak to $247 on Hotwire
($32 difference)

Dallas to Buenos Aires:

Ranged from $1162 on CheapOair to $1772 on Travelocity
($610 difference)

Los Angeles to Atlanta:

Ranged from $321 on CheapOair to $352 on Hopper
($31 difference)

Boston to Cairo:

Ranged from $1156 on Momondo to $1242 on Hopper
($86 difference)

Seattle to Beijing:

Ranged from $667 on Google Flights (I checked that three times to make sure it was correct!) to $1057 on Hopper
($390 difference)

The overall winner for getting the best airfare rates?  Momondo, which had the best airfare on three of the seven trips.

momondo best airfare rates

Further, Momondo had the second best airfare on three of the remaining four trips, meaning there was only one trip in seven where it did not have the best or second best airfare rates.

The biggest loser, which had the highest airfare on four of the seven trips, was Hopper.

best airfare rates

An adjusted ranking of the ten sites from best airfare rates to worst, based solely on my search results, is as follows:

  1. Momondo (3 best, 4 second best)
  2. CheapOair (2 best, 1 second best)
  3. Sky Scanner (1 best, 2 second best)
  4. Google Flights and Kayak – tie (1 best)
  5. Priceline and Expedia – tie (1 second best)
  6. Hotwire (1 worst)
  7. Travelocity (2 worst)
  8. Hopper (4 worst)

Does this change my feelings about Google Flights?  Yeah, a little.  I will probably check Momondo in addition to Google Flights from now on.  (And, if I’m being honest, I’ll probably check Momondo first.)

What about you? Do you have a favorite airfare site?  Have these results changed your mind about where to look for the best airfare rates?

Airline Passenger Rights – What You Need to Know

Airline Passenger Rights – What You Need to Know

Everyone is talking about the viral news story on the 70-year-old doctor who was forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight. The story raises several questions. Did United act illegally? Did the passenger have a choice? Can the airlines really ask people to leave the plane?

Let’s break it down.

First, when you purchase an airline ticket, you are entering into a “contract of carriage” with the airline. That contract covers everything from smoking policy to service animals to surcharges to – you guessed it – involuntarily denial of boarding (bumping).

Passenger Rights #1 – Upon request, the airline must provide you with their contract of carriage.

By law, they have to provide you with this contract if you want it. That said, unless you have a penchant for reading page after page of legalese, you might not really want it. Just be aware that it spells out their policies in detail and you can ask them for a copy if need be.  You may be able to access the contracts of carriage online, too.  United Airlines’ contract of carriage makes for great bedtime reading. (Yawn.)

So, did the airline have the right to ask passengers to voluntarily give up their seats?  Yes, because the passengers agreed to that possibility when they purchased their tickets.

Initially, the crew offered $400 compensation for those who would be willing to leave the plane.  No one took the bait.  Then they doubled the offer to $800.  Still no one took the bait.  No other planes were departing until the next day, so getting off the plane would mean a significant delay and an overnight stay. I’d do it for $800.  Or I would have, before I researched what the law requires.  Which leads me to…

Passenger Rights #2 – If overbooking causes a delay of an hour or more, you can receive financial compensation, up to $1350.

overbooked flight passenger rights

For compensation rates, the base figure is the cost of the one-way flight to the first stop (or to the destination if it’s a direct flight).

For delays of more than one hour but less than two hours, the compensation rate is 200% of the base figure, up to $675. Say you’re flying from Boston to Los Angeles with a stop in Chicago and you get bumped from the first leg of your trip. You’re able to get a reservation on a different flight to Chicago, but you’ll be arriving 90 minutes later than you would have on the initial flight. Your maximum compensation would be double the cost of the Boston to Chicago leg. (Note: these figures apply to domestic flights. For international flights the range is more than one but less than four hours.)

For more significant delays of two hours or more, you can receive four times the cost of that leg of the trip, up to a maximum of $1350. Yes, you’re reading that correctly: $1350. If your direct flight from New York to San Francisco cost $338 or more, you can receive a reimbursement of $1350 by getting off the plane. If it was a $100 flight, you would get $400.  (Note: these figures apply to domestic flights. For international flights the criterion is four hours or more.)

As you can see from the news story above, the airline isn’t going to ask you to get off the plane and then make it rain $100 bills down on your head as you leave. You need to ask for full compensation, and be clear that you know what the magic formula is.

Passenger Rights #3 – The airline must issue the compensation check within 24 hours.

Compensation will be in the form of a check. It is your right to receive that check right there in the airport. However, if you’re booked on an alternate flight that departs before you can get the check, the airline must send it to you within 24 hours.

Passenger Rights #4 – You do not have to take an airfare voucher in lieu of payment.

The airline may offer a voucher for free airfare instead of a check payment. In this instance you need to know two things:  first, the value of the transportation credit must be equal to or greater than the monetary compensation you would have received. Second, you don’t have to accept. You are within your rights to decline the airfare voucher and request monetary compensation instead.

Passenger Rights #5 – If your flight is canceled, you are entitled to a refund.

passenger rights flight cancellation

In the event of a flight cancellation, you will not receive compensation as such. However, you can receive a full refund (even if it’s a non-refundable ticket) or book a new ticket at no additional cost to you.

Passenger Rights #6 – You do not have to stay on the plane indefinitely if it’s sitting on the tarmac.

During a lengthy tarmac delay in the U.S. (upon either arrival or departure), airlines may not keep you on a plane for more than three hours (domestic flight) or four hours (international flight) without allowing you to get off if you wish, subject to security and safety considerations. Each airline must provide food and water after two hours of delay.  They must also provide updates to passengers every 30 minutes, and assure that airplane lavatories are operable. It’s important to note that when an airline violates the tarmac rules, you receive no compensation. Instead, the DOT fines the airline. (Small comfort, I know.)

Passenger Rights #7 – If you cancel within 24 hours of booking, you can receive a full refund.

The airline cannot assess charges, fees or penalties for canceling an airline reservation if your departure is at least seven days away and you are canceling within 24 hours of making the reservation. After 24 hours have passed, you can expect some fees. This is great news for comparison shoppers who book a flight on Tuesday evening and awake Wednesday morning to find a much cheaper fare.

Passenger Rights #8 – You can receive compensation if the airline loses your luggage, even temporarily.

If you arrive at your destination but your luggage doesn’t, notify a baggage representative right away. Then ask about the airline’s reimbursement guidelines. Typically, reimbursements only cover basic toiletries and essential items.  Make sure you keep all receipts for your purchases, so that you can submit them for reimbursement.

passenger rights lost luggage baggage

If, on the other hand, your luggage has gone to the land of single socks (i.e., disappeared and never to be seen again), and you traveled within the US, the airline is required to reimburse you for your belongings, up to $3300. However, the airline may request receipts or proof of purchase for the claimed items. Even then, they will only reimburse the depreciated value of your suitcase and its contents. It really helps to have a list of everything you packed (if not receipts) for this purpose.

The Flip Side of the Coin

And that covers most of your rights as a passenger. However, the airlines have rights too, and passengers have some responsibilities. They are:

  1. Airlines reserve the right to change routes and/or schedules at any time and for any reason.  Yes, I agree, it sucks.  American Airlines did that to us on our trip to England last fall. I not only ended up spending way too much time in the Philadelphia airport, I also lost about five hours of planned sightseeing in London.  The only recourse you have if this happens to you is to cancel and re-book at your expense.  The only good news is that, in this situation, they can’t charge you any fees for canceling.
  2. Airlines reserve the right to choose which passengers to bump from a flight if no one volunteers to give up their seat. This is what happened with the United Airlines flight.  No one volunteered to leave the plane, so they chose who would.  The process for choosing varies by airline.  Some operate on a first come, first served basis.  Others give priority to first class ticket holders, people with disabilities, and families with children.  Yet others go by how much the passenger paid for their ticket.
  3. As passengers, we are responsible for complying with any instructions that the flight crew gives us. The ugly situation with the United flight could have been avoided if the passenger left the plane when asked.  Sure, he thought he needed to be on that flight because he had important things to do the next day.  I’m willing to bet the other people on that plane thought the exact same thing about themselves. Otherwise, they would have volunteered to get off the plane and taken the $800 they were offered.
  4. There are extenuating circumstances in which you can be kept waiting on the tarmac in excess of what is allowed. You may be kept waiting on the tarmac longer than is allowed in either of two possible scenarios. First, if the pilot determines there is a safety or security-related reason why the aircraft cannot leave its position on the tarmac.  And second, if air traffic control advises the pilot that returning to the gate would significantly disrupt airport operations.

Air travel can put people’s nerves on edge like few other things – that goes for crew and passengers.  For a smooth experience, it’s important to remember that everyone wants to have the safest, smoothest trip possible, and to work toward that end.  Knowing your rights and responsibilities will help make a less-than-ideal travel experience more tolerable.

Five Reasons to Try Solo Travel

Five Reasons to Try Solo Travel

Hey, guess what?  According to my “Every Day is a Holiday” calendar, today is Plan a Solo Vacation Day.

Plan a Solo Vacation Day

Taking a vacation by yourself might seem like a strange thing to do. But here are a few reasons why it just might be your best vacation ever.

  1. You set the pace. Whether you are a non-stop vacationer who has to see everything or a laid back vacationer who wants to just relax with a good book, it doesn’t matter. Whether you want to sleep in until noon or get up early to see the sun rise, you can. You only have to please one person on a solo vacation, and that’s you.
  2. Sudden changes in itinerary are okay. Scrapping a museum visit to catch a concert in the park? Driving back home a day early because bad weather is in the forecast? Whatever the reason for the change, the decision is all yours, and no one will be disappointed or give you grief over it.
  3. No one will think you’re interests are boring, weird, or a waste of time. If you’re an avid stamp collector and want to spend two full days poring over the exhibits at the National Postal Museum, so what? You can! It doesn’t matter what anyone else wants to see because they are not there with you.
  4. You may discover things about yourself that you didn’t know before. Time alone makes for great opportunities of introspection. It also presents us with opportunities to be self-reliant. You may not only work through some problems that have been gnawing at you for a while, you might also end up more confident in your abilities.
  5. It’s cheaper. Obviously, it will cost less for one plane ticket, one museum admission, one whatever, than it would for two. But beyond that, you may find that you are able to secure a lower price and/or better seats when buying just one ticket instead of multiples.

But what about my safety?

Some people, women in particular, might shrink from the idea of traveling solo because of the old adage that there is safety in numbers. While being alone in unfamiliar territory might make one more likely to be targeted for a crime, I believe that forewarned is forearmed. With the right mixture of precaution and research, it isn’t hard to be as safe as someone traveling with a group of friends or relatives. Here are some tips to make yourself safe on a solo vacation. (Most of them would apply to travel under any circumstances, not just solo travelers.)

  • Take steps to make sure that you will not be a victim of pickpocketing.
  • Provide at least one person, either at home or in the location you are visiting, your whereabouts and your expected time of return.
  • Don’t use headphones while walking around. The key to safety is awareness of your surroundings, and that includes the sounds around you.
  • Make yourself look like a local. Do not stand out on the sidewalk and open a map, for instance. Do not wear shirts that advertise your identity as someone who is not from the area.
  • Ask the staff at hotels, restaurants, etc. what areas are considered unsafe in general, and do your best to avoid those places.

Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone. Go ahead and embark on a solo adventure, whether for a weekend or an entire week. The experience might surprise you!

 

How to Maximize Your Savings on Rail Travel… and Possibly Even Travel for Free

How to Maximize Your Savings on Rail Travel… and Possibly Even Travel for Free

On our recent trip to the UK, we had a bit of a rail travel nightmare. We were leaving Northern England (Newcastle) to head back to London. The trip was to last about three hours, roughly 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM.

All went smoothly until we arrived at York, when the operator announced that the train line was closed due to a herd of cattle on the tracks near Peterborough. We were advised to disembark and catch a different train to Manchester, from whence we could take yet another train to London. Since the train to Manchester was essentially carrying two trains’ worth of passengers, many of us rode standing up, packed in the cars like sardines. It was not fun.

Further problems (and delays) ensued when the driver of the Manchester-to-London train fell ill. Long story short, we arrived in London around 5:00, a full four hours later than we planned.

During the Manchester-to-London ride, the operator made an announcement that because there was a significant (i.e., more than 30 minutes) delay, we would be eligible to receive a refund for our rail travel. I honestly didn’t think much about it because, ugh!, paperwork is not something I care to bother with when I’m on vacation. But once we got home, I looked into it.

Delay Repay in the UK

Sure enough, Virgin Trains (the company we booked with) has a “Delay Repay” policy. If your train runs 30-59 minutes late, you could receive a 50% refund. If your delay is 60 minutes or more, you can receive a full refund for your rail travel. And depending on how you booked, you might even get it automatically!

I was skeptical, though, because the train I ended up arriving in London on was a different carrier than the one I had originally booked. In fact, each of the three trains we took to get to London was with a different carrier. I wasn’t sure who to apply for the refund with, so I applied with Virgin Trains East Coast (our originating train in Newcastle) and Virgin Trains (the one that actually got us to London… finally).

Within a week Virgin Trains contacted me to say that they were denying my refund request because of inadequate documentation. Well, that’s it, I figured, no refund for me. Imagine my surprise when nearly two months later I found this in my mail from Virgin Trains East Coast:

img_2639

A refund check for the full amount we paid for that journey! Now, granted, it is going to take a small eternity for it to clear the bank due to currency conversion, but it’s still close to $70 that I wouldn’t have received if I hadn’t tried.

And it turns out Virgin is not alone.  Other rail travel operators have generous compensation policies for delayed passengers as well. I was lucky in that the train operator advised us we would be eligible for a delay, but if he had not, I would have had no clue. It pays to be aware of your rights as a passenger. Thus the purpose of this post. 🙂

In addition to Virgin Trains and Virgin Trains East Coast, other UK rail companies operating with a Delay Repay policy are

  • CrossCountry
  • East Midlands Trains
  • Greater Anglia
  • Great Northern
  • Southeastern
  • Southern
  • Thameslink, and
  • TransPennine Express

Elsewhere in Europe

Within the EU, there are refund policies in place for rail travel as well.  If your arrival at your destination is canceled or delayed by an hour or more, you are entitled to the following compensation:

  • full and immediate refund upon cancellation of the journey
  • return journey to your original departure point if the delay prevents you from completing the purpose of the trip
  • transportation to your destination, including alternative means of transportation if the rail line is closed
  • meals and refreshments proportionate to your waiting time
  • accommodations if you must stay overnight as a result of the delay

If you decide to continue your journey as planned or to accept alternative transport to your destination, you may receive compensation of:

  • 25% of the ticket fare, if the train is between 1 and 2 hours late.
  • 50% of the fare, if the train is more than 2 hours late.

And, finally, if your luggage is lost or damaged on a rail journey within the EU, you have a right to compensation, unless it was “inadequately packed, unfit for transport or had a special nature.”

  • Up to € 1300 per piece of registered luggage – if you can prove the value of its contents.
  • € 330 per piece if you can’t prove the value.

Remember, forewarned is forearmed. Knowing your rights as a rail travel passenger will prepare you for any scenario!

 

The Best Travel Souvenir

The Best Travel Souvenir

After many years of traveling and looking for the perfect memento from our travels, I think I’ve determined the best souvenir possible: Christmas ornaments.

Think about it. First of all, they don’t take up space on your counter, shelf, or desk. They aren’t so big that you have ship them home. And finally, because you only bring them out once a year, they don’t become just another thing that you see so often it loses significance. When you pull a Christmas ornament souvenir out of storage, you are instantly transported back to the time and place you bought it. As a result, it really is the perfect thing to buy as a souvenir.

Here are some of mine:

best souvenir grand canyon Christmas ornament
We bought this at a Native Americans’ roadside market outside the Grand Canyon National Park. Every image on the ornament has a symbolic meaning (which I can’t recall off the top of my head, but they did provide me with a sheet explaining what they are).

best souvenir Michigan Christmas ornament
I bought this at the Wild Blueberry Festival in Paradise, Michigan.  The five points of the star are seed pods of some sort. The person who was selling these showed us how she took a tree branch and carved slivers of wood so thinly and precisely that they curled into the shape of a flower bloom.  That’s what decorates the center of the ornament.

best souvenir Vermont maple leaf Christmas ornament
We were in Vermont in October last year, and everything they say about the autumn foliage there is true. What better souvenir than a maple leaf preserved in all its autumn glory?  (I wrote Vermont and the year on there with a permanent marker.)

Maryland Renaissance Festival best souvenir blown glass art of fire Christmas ornament
This ornament was a souvenir from the Maryland Renaissance Festival. They have an amazing glass blower there who does live demonstrations of his craft and sells beautiful blown glass wares. Sometimes I think I probably should have gotten one with more color to it, but I do like the way the lights on the tree shine through and reflect off of this one.

Tower of London Beefeater best souvenir Christmas ornament
I bought this cute little Beefeater and four other ornaments at the Tower of London. The others were King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, a Tudor rose, and a palace guard. I love them because they have such fine details.  Also, they are completely fabric, so they were super-easy to pack without fear of breakage.  These will always be some of my favorite ornaments.

Peru gourd Christmas ornament nativity best souvenir
I got this nativity scene ornament on my trip to Peru. The ornament is a gourd, with nativity figures inside it. The outside of the gourd is painted a beautiful dark blue with carved stars on it.

Tangier Island Virginia best souvenir angel oyster shell Christmas ornament
This angel is made from an oyster shell. I bought her at a tiny museum on Tangier Island, Virginia, when we took a day trip there.

Westminster Abbey Christmas Ornament Elizabeth I best souvenir
Very similar to my Tower of London ornaments, I got this Queen Elizabeth I ornament at Westminster Abbey about eleven years later. She’s lovely, isn’t she?

I love shopping in new places.  But most of all, I make a point of looking for an ornament (or something that I can use as an ornament).  So in twenty years, maybe I will have an entire tree full of travel mementos!

How about you:  Do you have any Christmas ornaments from your travels?

A Tale of Two Airbnb Stays

A Tale of Two Airbnb Stays

My Experience:

When planning our recent trip to England, I had to find accommodations in three different parts of the country:  Northumberland, Yorkshire, and London.  There is no shortage of places to stay in London, but Northumberland and Yorkshire proved to be more challenging.  Our planned destinations were all over the place, and we were not hitting any of the bigger cities, like York.

I got on Airbnb to see what I could find.  I had never used Airbnb before and I was more than a little leery.  Questions of cleanliness, privacy, and truth in advertising kept running through  my head. Then again, I reasoned, those issues were just as risky with booking a hotel. I forged ahead and began searching.

The thing about staying in a hotel on a family vacation is that your child is in the bed next to yours, no more than a few feet away. Unless you cough up big bucks for a suite, you won’t get the sort of privacy that you would in a multi-bedroom house or apartment. So, step one was selecting a two bedroom minimum with the entire house/apartment at our disposal.

And, since we’re going to live like a resident, we might as well pick a really nice location. I have spent most of my life in tidewater Maryland, so I am naturally inclined to want to be near the water. While I didn’t make a waterfront view a search term, it turned out that every property on my short list had a view of either the North Sea or a river. And why not? A waterfront view is a luxury I can’t afford to make mortgage payments for, but I can afford it for a few nights.

I had a strong favorite for the Yorkshire locations, but not so with the properties near our Northumberland destinations. I showed Hubs & our daughter what I had narrowed it down to, and asked them to choose. They selected this modern apartment in South Shields, UK.

I could not have asked for a better first experience with Airbnb. The immaculately clean apartment was well appointed with little necessities that we might have forgotten (Q-tips, shampoo, even a couple of diapers for those traveling with small children). The hosts had left us snacks, a bottle of wine, and even milk in the fridge. The welcome packet of instructions told us everything we could possibly want to know. It included the names, addresses, and hours of grocery stores, hospitals, gas stations, and so on.

The view was, as the listing promised, amazing.  From the living room window we could see the North Sea, a large grassy area for sports, a lighthouse, and far to the left, the ruins of Tynemouth Priory. The immediate neighborhood included a small grocery store within walking distance. Our first morning there, Hubs got up early, walked to the store to buy a freshly made baguette, and came back to make breakfast. The next morning I got up and walked out to the beach, then came back and fixed breakfast while watching people walk their dogs outside.

For the second leg of our journey, in Yorkshire, I chose a charming little 200-year old cottage that overlooked the harbor in the picturesque town of Staithes. I had fallen in love with it the moment I saw it because it reminded me of Port Isaac in Cornwall, which is pretty much my most favorite place on the planet.

I’ve already written about my experience in Staithes… suffice it to say that it was a bit of a let-down. The cottage was indeed charming, but it was not comfortable. There was a pervasive fish smell in the second floor hallway and steps to the third floor. We never did discover the source. The charming decor featured local items, but the furniture was neither comfortable nor practical. The washer/dryer (which we had hoped to use) was buried under a mound of miscellaneous items in a storage closet.

What did I learn?

Airbnb Tips for a Perfect Stay

  1. If possible, stay at a property that is also someone’s home for at least part of the year. If it’s strictly a rental property, it may not have “all the comforts of home” simply because it isn’t a home.
  2. Do not become emotionally attached to a place.  Do not invent fantasy scenarios in your head. (I’ll have coffee on the terrace every morning while watching the sun rise, for instance). Your risk of being disappointed increases in direct proportion to your level of expectation.
  3. Be sure to read the reviews of people who have stayed there previously.  I was skeptical of the “Amazing Sea Views” at our South Shields Airbnb. I didn’t think that the photos really represented what I would call an amazing view.  However, several people who stayed there also commented on the great view. I figured it was a case of poor photography rather than false advertising. Happily, that was indeed the case.
  4. Consider your parking accommodations if you will be driving. If we had known that we would be parking at the top of a hill in Staithes and hiking down to the cottage every time we went somewhere, we might have booked elsewhere. Because when you’re tired from sightseeing and being on your feet all day, there is nothing you want to do less than walk down a steep incline. Except, perhaps, walking up that same hill. Other properties may require you to park on the street.  Still others may have no dedicated parking space at all.
  5. Likewise, consider internet access and/or cellular phone service. In Staithes, there is virtually no cell phone service at all. This was not a major issue for us, as we had no need to call anyone. It could have presented a problem for a local, though.
  6. If you’re on the fence, consider your budget. Believe it or not, Airbnb can be much less expensive than staying at a hotel. In addition to paying a lower nightly rate (for more space!), we also had the ability to prepare our meals rather than dining out, which saved us a lot.  Plus it was nice to not have to rush out first thing in the morning because we were hungry.
  7. Communicate with the host(s). Feel free to ask the host of the property any questions you may have, either before or after you book.  Not all hosts will be as thorough with providing information as my South Shields host. However, most are happy to answer any questions you may have and will respond quickly.
  8. Consider the location in its entirety, beyond the four walls of the space you’re renting.  If I had known that Staithes had no good restaurants, nor any grocery store to speak of, I might not have considered staying there. In all likelihood, I would have booked in a more practical location instead.
  9. Look at the photos in the listing carefully. If the photos in the listing feature tourist attractions and/or scenery more than the actual property, it’s a red flag for me.  I’ve already decided on the area I’m traveling to – I don’t need to see pictures of that.  I want to know what the host is offering me as far as potential accommodations.
  10. Read the property description thoroughly. Very thoroughly.  I would recommend reading it at least twice and asking yourself if the pictures match the written description. Has the description addressed all of your questions? If not, ask the host before you book.

Airbnb can be an amazing way to add to your travel experience.  It will give you a non-touristy look at the place you’re visiting, while also giving you more space.  My daughter loved having her own room so much that she asked if we could do vacation with Airbnb from now on and never stay in a hotel again.  I highly recommend Airbnb as an alternative to expensive, cramped hotel rooms.

Travel Products to Pack Every Time You Leave Home

Travel Products to Pack Every Time You Leave Home

Whether visiting another continent or staying in your own state, there are three essential travel items that I consider absolutely vital when traveling away from home. Without them, I spend too much of my vacation time being worried or cranky.  And who wants to spend their hard-earned vacation feeling like that?  Not I!   So here are three products that I consider absolutely indispensable when I am traveling away from home.

Earplugs.

earplugs.gif

They are absolute lifesavers when spending a night anywhere other than my own bedroom.  They block out the sounds of traffic, people talking in the hallway outside your hotel room door, noisy plumbing, and the like.  However, loud noises such as fire alarms, alarm clocks, and the like will still get through, so it isn’t unsafe to wear them.  (If traveling alone, I might think twice about using earplugs.  But if traveling with another adult, there is no question on how valuable they can be to ensuring a good night’s rest.)

And the best part is, they’re inexpensive and easy to find.  You can get a pack of several pairs for under $5 at any drug store or retail superstore.  I am partial to the ones that have the rounded end and are made of soft foam.  You give them a squeeze to compress them, stick them in each ear, and then wait for them to expand for a snug fit.

Travel Pillow

But not just any travel pillow.  For starters, it has to actually work.  And second, it can’t make you look ridiculous.  I can’t stand those semi-circular neck donuts.  This one, the Trtl Pillow, is so much better!

essential travel item trtl pillow

If you have ever fallen asleep while riding as a passenger on any form of transportation, you know how it feels to have your head bobbing forward or to one side, usually waking you up in the process.  At best, it’s irritating.  At worst, it’s painful.  The Trtl Pillow supports your head and neck in such a way that you can fall asleep comfortably, even sitting completely upright.

There are strengthening ribs inside the pillow that cradle the head and keep it from lolling to the side or falling forward.  The ribs are covered in a soft foam and fleece material.  It can be placed on either side of your head or, if your head tends to fall forward when sleeping, it can also be placed in front, under your chin.

The fleece fabric wraps around your neck and is secured in place with a strip of velcro. It’s also machine washable.  Best of all, it looks way better than one of those neck ring pillows. The Trtl Pillow costs $29.99 and is well worth the investment.

A Place to Stash Your Cash

My third must-have product is the Bandi, which comes in two sizes: belt or headband.  (I have the belt.)

essential travel item bandi money belt

 

The Bandi is made of a stretchy material, and each Bandi item has a pocket concealed within so you can easily and safely carry your essentials (money, phone, house key, ID card).  The adult belts have a divided main pocket so you can separate what you carry into two sections.  Headbands, by necessity, have a single smaller pocket and hold just tiny items.

These are mainly marketed as being for individuals who run/walk for exercise.  However, I used mine on our recent trip to England and I loved the way I was able to carry my cash, credit card, and ID without having to worry about becoming the victim of a pickpocket.

Bandi Wear comes in a wide variety of colors and patterns.  Headbands are $11 and belts are $28-32.

The above is an honest review based on my own experiences with these products.  I purchased these items myself and have not received any promotional consideration in exchange for sharing my opinions.

Are there any special items that you are sure to pack every time you leave home?