Tag: Helpful Tips

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!

 

Machu Picchu for Non-Hikers

Machu Picchu for Non-Hikers

Is seeing Machu Picchu without hiking even possible?

Recently, I learned that most people who visit the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu do so at the culmination of a two- to five-day hike on the Inca Trail.  Said trail goes through both the bug-infested jungle and rugged mountain terrain.

Um, no.

No, thank you.

I learned from my first trip to Peru that altitude can really kick my butt, and surgery on my Achilles tendon three years ago has left me unable to walk for more than a few hours. I can’t possibly be the only one for whom this multiple-day trek on foot is impractical, if not impossible. What about people with young children in tow? What about people who, due to injuries or age, just don’t have the stamina to walk through rugged mountain terrain for several days? Are we out of luck? Do we need to resign ourselves to the fact that they only way we will see Machu Picchu is through someone else’s photos?

Thankfully, the answer is no. You can see Machu Picchu without hiking. It just takes a little more planning in the way of logistics, and in all honesty, more money. Are you ready to plan your trip to Machu Picchu? I know I am, so let’s get started…

Cusco

First, let’s talk about the places you will travel to or through in order to get to Machu Picchu. Cusco is a city of about 435,000 in southeastern Peru. Regardless of where you are beginning your journey, you will most likely get to Cusco via Lima. The flight from Lima is about 1 hour and 15 minutes, and there are at least 20 flights every day. There is generally not a huge price difference between booking straight to Cusco or booking to Lima and then making a separate reservation to Cusco. If you want to do some sightseeing in Lima and you have the time to do so, you could book your trip to Cusco separately.

I recommend spending a few days in Cusco to get acclimated to the higher altitude. (Cusco has an elevation of 11,000 feet.) Beyond that, Cusco happens to be a great destination in its own right. Inca walls topped with colonial Spanish architecture, people dressed in traditional Peruvian garb, ruins dating from Pizarro’s conquest of the Inca, and many unique museums are among the things you can see there.

One of the must-see Cusco museums is Museo del Centro de Textiles Tradicionales de Cusco, located at Av Sol. No. 603. This free museum inside El Centro’s textile store features a gallery containing displays of traditional Quechuan and Andean textiles. The museum explains the historical significance of the textiles and the techniques used to make them. You can also buy high quality, authentic textiles here.

Plaza-de-Armas-Cusco Machu Picchu without hiking
The Plaza de Armas (town square) in Cusco.

Aguas Calientes

From Cusco, you will go to Machu Picchu Pueblo, also called Aguas Calientes.  There are multiple ways to do this. Here are a few possibilities but as always, you should check to make sure all services are running prior to your travel day:

  • Cusco to Aguas Calientes:  From Cusco, travel by car approximately 25 minutes to the Poroy Station. From there, take a bus to Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado.  Take the Hiram Bingham Train to Aguas Calientes. The entire journey will take about 5 hours. **The Hiram Bingham is the top-of-the-line luxury train and is quite expensive.  As of this writing, it is the only train operating a bus+train service from Poroy.  Additional services are expected to run from Poroy after April 2017.**

    hiram-bingham train from Poroy to see Machu Picchu without hiking
    The Hiram Bingham train
  • Cusco to Ollantaytambo and Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes: From Cusco, travel to Ollantaytambo by taxi, minivan, or by bus. Taking a taxi or minivan will take about 90 minutes. Going by bus will add an extra hour to the journey, but it is considerably cheaper. Once in Ollantaytambo, you can sightsee a little if you’d like. It is the site where the Incas retreated after the Spanish took Cusco. When you are ready to move on, take a train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. This train ride will take about 90 minutes.

It is important to get your train tickets and admission tickets for Machu Picchu as far in advance as possible. Under no circumstances should you wait to buy your tickets the day before you want to travel.

Once you’re in Aguas Calientes, you can either proceed straight to Machu Picchu, or stay the night and plan to go see Machu Picchu the next morning. I recommend the latter, with one caveat. As with most towns set up near major tourist attractions in remote areas – Grand Canyon Village comes to mind – everything will be far more expensive than it should be.

If you want to go immediately to Machu Picchu, you can take a short walk and get a bus. The busses depart every 20 minutes, from 5:30 AM to 3:30 pm.

Map of Aguas Calientes for seeing Machu Picchu without hiking
The route from train station to bus stop in Aguas Calientes.

As with the train, if you’re planning on spending a night in Aguas Calientes, you should book accommodations well in advance.  There are about 15 different hotels in the little town, but that doesn’t mean many will have vacancies.

I recommend getting out of bed early and being ready to catch the first bus that leaves at 5:30 AM, which means getting to the bus stop around 5:00 AM. I know, it’s brutal for folks like me who aren’t morning people, but it isn’t as though you’re doing this every day. Getting there early will allow you to be one of the first people at the site.  That ensures that you will get better photographs with fewer tourists in them. If you’re lucky, you may also get to see the sun rise over the Incan ruins.

machu-picchu-without hiking - take bus to get there for sunrise
Sunrise at Machu Picchu

The bus to Machu Picchu takes about 20-30 minutes and involves a lot of zigzagging around the mountain. Consider yourself forewarned if you’re prone to carsickness.

bus ride from Aguas Calientes Machu Picchu without hiking
The bus route from Aguas Calientes to the Machu Picchu entrance

Machu Picchu

The bus from Aguas Calientes drops you off right at the entrance to the Machu Picchu ruins. From there, it’s a fairly flat five minute walk to the ruins where you have an excellent view. Once in the ruins, there are steps up and down; however, you can do as much or as little walking as you want.

And again, booking in advance is an absolute necessity.  Machu Picchu tickets are NOT sold at the entrance gate, and they are limited to 2500 per day. Advance purchase tickets are available from the official government website (www.machupicchu.gob.pe). Can you imagine traveling all that way only to be told you can’t get in? Don’t let that happen to you!

Also, bring your passport to Machu Picchu with you. You will need it to get in.  And you can get it stamped, which is pretty cool.

passport-stamps-machu-picchu without hiking
Machu Picchu passport stamp

Some things to consider when determining the best time to go:

  • High season is May to October
  • The site is especially busy during periods of national holidays – roughly from July 28 to August 10
  • Solstice days (June 21 and Dec 21) are also busy – everyone descends on the ruins for a glimpse of the dazzling effects of the sun’s rays.
  • The rainy season is November to March.  During this time, you are likely to get rain for brief periods during the day, and clouds obscuring the site in the mornings.

Once you’re there, walk at your own pace and see as much or as little as you want to see. You will get little in the way of printed materials telling you what you’re looking at, but guides are available to hire on site for about $30/two hours. Alternatively, you can bring a guide book with you.

Points of Interest

machu-picchu-without hiking points of interest map
Map of Machu Picchu Points of Interest

Once you get through the main entrance, there is a path up to the left that takes you to the spot above the ruins, near the Caretaker’s Hut and Funerary Rock. This is where you will get the classic view of Machu Picchu that you see on so many postcards. If you are here early enough for sunrise (6:30-7:30am), you should do this first.

Afterward, explore as much or as little as you want. Some of the points of interest are only accessible by steep paths and/or stairs, but you will have all the time you need if you arrived early, so pace yourself. Some of the major areas within the ruins are:

  • Temple of the Sun (also called the Torreón) has extraordinary stonework, the finest in Machu Picchu, with large stones that fit together seamlessly. However, it is accessible only by a steep set of stairs, and entry inside the temple is not permitted. I would skip this unless you’re feeling particularly energetic – there are other areas with impressive stonework that are not as difficult to reach.
  • Below the Temple of the Sun, there is a section of cave called the Royal Tomb, although no human remains have ever been found there. It contains a meticulously carved altar and series of niches that produce intricate morning shadows.
  • To the north, just down the stairs that divide this section from a series of dwellings called the Royal Sector, is a still-functioning water canal and series of interconnected fountains. The main fountain is distinguished by both its size and excellent stonework.
  • Back up the stairs to the high section of the ruins is the main ceremonial area. The Temple of the Three Windows has views of the Andes in the distance across the Urubamba gorge. This is likely to be one of your lasting images of Machu Picchu, so it should be on your short list of places to visit within the ruins.

    machu-picchu-without-hiking-temple-of-three-windows
    The Temple of the Three Windows
  • Just behind the Main Temple (to the left if you’re facing the Temple of the Three Windows) is a small cell, termed the Sacristy, renowned for its exquisite masonry. It’s a good place to examine the way these many-angled stones (one to the left of the doorjamb has 32 distinct angles) were fitted together by Inca stonemasons.
  • Up a short flight of stairs is the Intihuatana, also known as the “hitching post of the sun.” It is a carved rock or a type of sundial, which in all probability was an astronomical and agricultural calendar.
  • Follow a trail down through terraces and past a small plaza to a dusty clearing with covered stone benches on either side. A massive, sculpted Sacred Rock fronts the square. This area likely served as a communal area for meetings.
  • To the left of the Sacred Rock, down a path, is the gateway to Huayna Picchu, the huge outcrop that serves as a dramatic backdrop to Machu Picchu. Each day, 400 people are permitted to climb Huayna Picchu.  I’m assuming that, if you’re reading this article, it’s not something you would be keen on doing.  🙂
  • Returning back down the same path (frighteningly steep at a couple points) is a turnoff to the Temple of the Moon, usually visited only by Machu Picchu die hards who don’t want to miss a single thing. The path takes about 1 to 1 1/2 hours round-trip from the detour. I don’t recommend pursuing it.
  • The lower section of Machu Picchu consisted mostly of residential and industrial buildings. The most interesting part of this section is the Temple of the Condor. Said to be a carving of a giant condor, the dark rock above symbolizes the bird’s wings and the pale rock below quite clearly represents its head.

Exploring Machu Picchu is not just for hikers, backpackers and mountain climbers. So plan your trip and go see it! The mountains of Peru are nothing short of awe-inspiring, and the ghostly remains of the Inca civilization are unforgettably beautiful.

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.

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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?

The Picturesque Village of Staithes

The Picturesque Village of Staithes

One of the Yorkshire places I fell in love with on Pinterest was the tiny fishing village of Staithes. (Probably because it reminded me so much of Port Isaac in Cornwall.)  When I found a cottage there through Airbnb, I quickly jumped on the chance to rent it.

History in Brief: A staithe is an old English word that means “landing place.” The village got its name because it has two landing places, one on either side of the stream that brings water down from the moor into the sea. Staithes was once one of the largest fishing ports on the northeast coast of England, as well as an important source of minerals such as jet, iron, alum and potash. (We drove past a potash mine every time we left the village, and jet seemed to be the claim to fame of many jewelry shops in nearby Whitby.)

Geologists love Staithes for researching the Jurassic strata in the cliffs surrounding the village. In the early 1990s, a rare fossil of a seagoing dinosaur was discovered after a rockfall between Staithes and Port Mulgrave to the south. This fossil has been the focus of an ongoing project to remove the ancient bones of the creature. Visitors often look for ammonite fossils, which are common in the area.

staithes-cliff

Captain James Cook was the most famous resident of Staithes. Cook became famous for making three voyages to the Pacific Ocean, during which he achieved the first recorded European contact with the eastern coastline of Australia and the Hawaiian Islands, and the first recorded circumnavigation of New Zealand. He was not, as I mistakenly thought at first, a pirate. (That would be Captain Hook, not Captain Cook.  LOL)

We arrived in Staithes near dusk, after a busy day in County Durham. We were allowed to drive down into the village to unload the car, had to go back to the top of the very big hill to park. Before we took the car back up to our designated space, I got to see the sunset over the harbor.

staithes-harbor

Since it was dinner time, we decided to eat at the Captain Cook Inn, at the top of the hill near the parking area. I would describe the food as bland at best; if you ask my daughter (who is not a picky eater), she would tell you it was flat out awful. (I saw her turn into Gordon Ramsey before my very eyes. Amusing, but I wish we could have avoided it.)

The cottage we rented was on the High Street (or as we would call it in the US, the Main Street), across from a quaint little butcher’s shop.

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The street itself was gorgeous, with cobblestones and colorful cottage doors.

staithes-street

staithes-door

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While Staithes may have once been a prosperous fishing village, it is now mostly a tourist destination. Very few of the cottages seemed to be permanently inhabited, and most shops opened only a few days a week. There is no cell phone service at all in the village.

We had dinner the second evening at The Royal George, a pub closer to the cottage where we stayed. Unfortunately, it wasn’t any better than the Captain Cook Inn, and the menu was almost identical. It occurred to me that in a town full of tourists, restaurants don’t have to be good, just open. There is no need to build a loyal customer base because the customers are always temporary and changing. I don’t believe the stereotype that the British don’t cook well, but in the case of the Staithes restaurants we tried, it was certainly true.

My best advice for anyone going to this lovely little village – and you should – is to go for one day. Get there early in the morning but leave before dinner time. It’s a great place to visit, but with the benefit of hindsight, I wouldn’t want to live there.

Staithes lies on the northeast coast of England, within the North York Moors National Park.  

Panoramic Photo Prints

Panoramic Photo Prints

On our recent trip to the UK, I often found myself blown away by the vast beauty laid out before me.  On those occasions, I took a panoramic photo with my phone, even though I have never been able to get panoramic photo prints.  Every time I’ve tried, the prints I got back were either wildly distorted or severely cropped. So eventually, I just stopped trying to use that feature on my phone’s camera.

HOWEVER, this time I figured even if all I could do was look at it on my computer monitor, it was still better than trying to capture the scene before me in a 4×6 print. I’m sure you can see why:

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Alnwick Castle, Northumberland
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Staithes Harbor, Yorkshire
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North York Moors National Park
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Flamborough Lighthouse & Cliffs, Yorkshire

Once I was home, I Googled panoramic photo prints in order to find a vendor who could print them correctly.  The first few that popped up were cost-prohibitive.  Then I found AdoramaPix, which only charges $1.19 for each 4″ x 12″ panoramic photo print.  I was so pleased with their service!  I ordered my prints on October 11, received notification of shipment on October 13, and received them on October 17.  The prints were exactly as I ordered, including the custom cropping I requested.  I’m happy to say that in the future, I will take more panoramic photos now that I know I can trust AdoramaPix to print them.

This is NOT a sponsored review.  I have received NOTHING from AdoramaPix other than the prints, which I bought and paid for.  I am just a happy customer.  🙂

Same Language, Still Foreign: How to be a good traveler in the UK

Same Language, Still Foreign: How to be a good traveler in the UK

Over the years, I’ve made three (soon to be four) trips to the UK. There is a great degree of comfort in going there, because even though it’s a foreign country, there is no language barrier.  Going to the UK is easier than going to say, Germany, or China.

However.

It is not wise to get lulled into a false sense of security. Just because we speak the same language does not mean that we use the same names for everything. Nor does it mean that there won’t be cultural differences. Through doing some preparatory research before I traveled and making some mistakes, I learned that there are a few things one shouldn’t do in the UK if one wants to stay in the good graces of the natives.

  1. If you choose to wear one, do not refer to your waist pack as a “fanny pack.” On this side of the Atlantic, fanny is a rather adorable word for butt. On that side of the Atlantic, it’s a crude name for female genitalia.
    guide to uk travel fanny pack
  2. Likewise, do not gasp when you hear someone in the UK mention “fags” or “faggots.” They could be talking about a cigarette, a bundle of sticks, or even a meal.
  3. A zebra crossing in the UK would be called a crosswalk here. Hopefully you won’t actually see a herd of zebras crossing the street in London.
  4. If someone is spelling a word for you and they say zed, it’s a Z.
  5. Do not ask someone where the rest room or bathroom is. Instead, use the British term toilet or lavatory.
  6. When making a V or peace sign with your index finger and middle finger, take care to ensure that your palm is facing out, not toward yourself. If you make this gesture with the back of your hand facing out, it is the American equivalent of giving someone the finger. Particularly when combined with a flicking motion. Hubs made a motion for someone to pass us on the road in this fashion and the other driver was quite insulted. Former President George HW Bush made a similar error when visiting Australia in 1992.
    guide to uk travel peace sign
  7. Don’t tell a Brit that you love their accent if you are both standing on British soil. If you’re both on British soil, you are the one with the accent. Come to think of it, it’s probably not the greatest thing to say on American soil, either.
  8. Be aware of the geography. The UK consists of Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England. The latter three, sharing the same land mass, can also be referred to as Great Britain. Do not refer to someone who is from Scotland, Northern Ireland, or Wales as English. Only people from England are English.
    guide to uk travel united kingdom great britain england
  9. While I hate to make generalizations, I think most people would agree that Brits are much more reserved than Americans. In British culture, you are likely to raise eyebrows if you do any of the following: shouting, kissing, laughing loudly, shaking hands outside of a business setting, talking loudly on a cell phone, and talking about the value of your possessions.
    guide to uk travel cell phone use
  10. Because Brits drive on the left side of the road, you should look right-left-right before crossing a two-way street. This is the exact opposite of what we typically do here, and it’s hard to break that habit. Bigger cities such as London actually have instructions/reminders about which way to look painted on the ground, so that helps. But it less densely populated areas, you’ll need to concentrate on which way to look before stepping off the curb.

By observing these subtle but important differences between our country and the Brits’, you won’t have to worry about committing a faux pas when you are traveling in the UK.