Monthly Archives: April 2009

Now Boarding: The Pet Passport

My friend John is moving from Chicago to Berlin for work in mid-June and taking his cats with him (You can read all about his upcoming plans on his blog at www.doppnee.com). He also has experience being an expat in Paris, where we first met. From his insightful site I have learned about the delightful pet passport which lets pets travel to parts of Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada with you.

Now, this is not some cute little version of a human passport with the pet’s picture and name scrawled inside with a pawprint for a signature, so the pet can get all the same stamps at immigration. It is essentially some form of paperwork signed by the vet certifying that Scruffy has been vaccinated against rabies, along with Scruffy’s microchip or tattoo number. This document allows the pet to enter certain member countries of PETS (Pet Travel Scheme) without a six-month quarantine period as required by many other countries.  Checking Scruffy for ticks and tapeworm (yeeach) when traveling in and out of Europe may also be required. The Pet passport was initally a British thing before it expanded into the European Union, and subsequently all the English-speaking nations of the world.

If you’re only going on a short holiday and insist on taking Scruffy with you to experience pet hotels of the world, definitely check with the country and with the U.S. about bringing animals back from that country and what’s required. You may want to leave your pet home instead if he/ she is required to sit in quarantine for six months after, and that’s not much of a fun vacation for either of you.

Aside: Another interesting tidbit I learned about the British is that the Pet Passport was created by the U.K.’s Official Monster Raving Loony political Party. It was founded in 1964, a great subject for comedy shows like Monty Python, and actually elected candidates to local town councils and even higher. While each of its members had renamed themselves something like “R.U. Seerius”, they actually came up with real ideas and passed them into British law.

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Cool Tools: How to hostel, post-college

The other day, my friend James was telling me about his honeymoon to Iceland. He said that while it was very fun and activity-laden, it was hardly romantic because they had been traveling around like college backpackers. Now, I met James in business school, a used cars salesman-turned-banker with a penchant for the finer things in life, like gabardine suits and Napa wines and pedicures. He is a complete neat freak, mildly OCD with no dust in his home and his schoolwork holepunched into white binders with labels typed out and inserted into the binding sleeve. However, he did spend two years in the Peace Corps living in Honduran houses with bats nesting in his roof, and enjoys hiking up to Mt. Whitney and finding his inner peace in yoga classes. What saves him from being a hippie is that he is a registered Republican from Orange County, California.

So, the reason for this background on my friend James is that he did mention that he and new wife had spent their honeymoon in hostels, which impressed me that even my metrosexual pal who turns his nose up at frugal individuals and liberal ideals could seek refuge in Icelandic hostels. And it appears there’s a trend in hostels making room for guests besides college kids on a dime. Which brings me to one of my favorite budget resources: Hostelworld.

Now, Hostelworld is a site I wished existed when I was in college – rather, I wished Internet existed (actually, it did, in its prime dot-com days, but books and libraries were more reliable then). Back then, you paid $10 for a bed in a dorm room shared with a bunch of random strangers your own age. And since you already lived in a dorm world, it wasn’t much different – and it was fun, and you barely even slept anyway. It’s a little different today, because you actually want to go to sleep, and you do mind if there are drunk college kids smoking pot and blasting Bob Marley in the room with you, and you don’t want stale toast for breakfast.

 Hostelworld also lists guest houses, bed and breakfasts, and budget hotels if the idea of bunk beds and button-push showers make you cringe. However, many hostels now cater to past-college people and families by offering private rooms with ensuite bathrooms and other amenities, for a very low price.

Here’s how it works: Enter the city you’re looking to spend the night, dates and number of people, then scan the list of results. (You can also check if you want to only consider apartments, hotels, etc to narrow the search). You can also view prices in the currency of your choice. It also shows availability of each date. By clicking on each listing, you get a complete description of each place. For example, now that I’m married and no longer any fun, I check to see if the “cleanliness” and “safety” ratings are high and that the “fun” level is lower.

Once you’ve selected the hostel you’d like, you can make a reservation at 10% of the price. Note that the price is per person, so if you are traveling alone and want a private room, you’ll have to pay for all the beds in that room. Since most private rooms are around $60 for two people, 10% of $60 (=$6) is a reasonable way to hold down a room even if you change your mind. 

I’ve discovered many a great find on Hostelworld. In Prague, we landed an apartment building-turned-guesthouse (Shelter Hostel, www.shelter-hostel.com) that had only huge private rooms and a shared bathroom and kitchen. It also came with free Internet and breakfast. Because its “fun” level was really poorly rated, the other guests were couples in their late 20’s to 50’s, quiet, courteous, clean and did not steal our food out of the refrigerator. In Budapest, we found ourselves in someone’s actual apartment, but he had moved into the lofted upstairs and turned his living, dining and bedroom into separate guest rooms and let us use the kitchen. It was like staying in someone’s home. There was Bussola di Hermes (www.bussolahermes.com), the bright, white-washed hilltop room in Capri (a steal for the luxury Italian island), and the individual bungalows with porches at Casale Antonietta (www.casaleantonietta.com/bungalow) that even included your own full kitchen, living room, community pool and amazing breakfast on the grassy lawn bejeweled with lemon trees in Sorrento – perfect for a wedding setting.  There were bunk beds in Barcelona, but the lack of “fun” atmosphere drew in quieter college kids and a clean bathroom which was enough.

As you see, hostels don’t have to be so – hostile. Ha ha. Anyway, sleep well!

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Vacationing from… the couch

So you’re joining the 10.2 million unemployed Americans on their sofas and your mind is still twitching from all the work items left undone when you were escorted out of the building. This calls for a much needed vacation. But alas! You can’t afford to go on a splendid vacation when there is a mortgage to pay.

Well, thanks to much couch-surfing experience gained by your writer at My Travel Hats, I’ve compiled a list of movies taking place in foreign lands with a good vantage point of the city to add to your growing Netflix queue so you don’t even have to leave your pajamas to go on vacation. Happy travels!

Paris: Paris Je T’aime, in English and French (there are les subtitres). 18 short films, one for each arrondissement of Paris, featuring many recognizable actors and actresses. For those of us who spent extended time in Paris, we like to sit back with this movie and sigh happily. And of course, Amelie, completely in French, a quirky film about a precocious young lady who mission is to make everyone happy. Another happy sigh.

Beijing: For a 3-hour history lesson on the fate of China from the turn of the century to the 1980s, there’s Oscar-winning The Last Emperor. It shows the boy emperor, crowned at age 3, and the slow changes through the world wars into communism. The scenery and costumes are magnificent, the story line is excellent, but there are no happy sighs in this film.

Salzburg: Of course, The Sound of Music. Famous buildings and gardens reign through this Oscar winner. You can sing along, too, and pretend to have a fun twirly dress like Liesel’s. If you’d rather travel to Vienna, there’s Ethan Hawke’s very sappy Before Sunset, which does take you through a lovely tour of the city, but you’ll have to contend with a lot of annoying dialogue.

Tokyo: Lost in Translation, which I have to say is a good sampling of Tokyo’s sites. Not too heavy, not too sappy.

Rome: Naturally, Audrey Hepburn’s version in Roman Holiday. Don’t we all wish we could meet Gregory Peck on the Spanish Steps?

Tuscany: Okay, I admit I got sucked into Under the Tuscan Sun but ONLY because it is about a writer, from California (and I did spend five years in California) who travels to Italy on vacation and ends up buying a villa. The scenery in this movie is really enchanting, of the Tuscan vineyards and shots of Positano’s building dripping into the coast. Plus the whole concept of buying a villa and eating all that wonderful Italian food is also just a lovely idea, but the movie itself is blah.

Koh Phi Phi (Thailand): Another non-winner of a movie, The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio starring as the Lord of the Flies is a terrible film. But the beach is beautiful and caused a surge in tourists after the movie came out. I’m not sure if tourists remembered that tourists got shot in cold blood in the movie. Oh no, did I just ruin the movie?

Barcelona: Barcelona  is a Whit Stillman film, one of my favorite movie writers/ directors because he is just so Whit-ty. I saw this movie a long time ago, however, but I believe there are plenty of shots of Barcelona surrounding a cute storyline of two Americans in Barcelona. He also directed Metropolitan which is a very funny movie from the ’80’s about the collegiate upper crust of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and The Last Days of Disco, which wasn’t as great but still enjoyable.

San Francisco: When I saw So I Married an Axe Murderer  with Mike Myers, the city looked so charming that I wanted to move there right away. However, it was around the height of dot-com, so there were absolutely no apartments available at the time.

New England: For some reason Me, Myself and Irene pops into my head because of all those pretty Rhode Island ocean scenes and the visit to Ben & Jerry’s farm in Vermont. You can just taste the salty lobsters and visualize the LL Bean tote bags eminating from the screen. I recall my friend commenting that her favorite place to summer, Newport, was going to get run over by tourists as a result of this movie.

There are plenty more, but I need to hold onto those as fodder for future blog entries. Enjoy these in the meantime.

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Now Boarding: Costa Rica, again

img_1529I know I’ve exhausted Costa Rica, but this just came to my attention: *$599* all inclusive package for airfare from Miami to San Jose, seven-day SUV rental (minus fuel), seven-day hotel stays in San Jose, Arenal, Jaco (which we missed) and Monteverde. Depart on Mondays between May 4-July 27. At gate1travel.com. Mention BTMAYCRS1 for car upgrade until June 29 and BTMAYCRS2 until July 27.

We’re a little bummed that we did NOT see this deal when we were there, but, you do not get to experience Manuel Antonio, which would be a shame. I would also try to strategize with one person taking the package and the other person just finding regular airfare. If you’re leaving from other cities, the additional airfare is as follows: L.A. ($34), N.Y. ($53), and Houston ($82).

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In the Suitcase: Flying with a toddler

kailin airplaneMy sister, if you loyally read my previous blog, is headed out to Italy next week with her husband and her 3-year-old. If your toddler is anything like my niece, then she will squirm in her airplane seat, then slide out under the seatbelt and onto the floor, and when told to sit still, will start to cry a long, crescendoing wail until the entire plane is ready to send her and the parents out the emergency exit. And the airlines have also long ago figured out to stop charging the child rate and charge children at the adult rate, even though the children never sit in their own seats anyway.

Of course, I only hear about this from their point of view, because the one time I flew with her, a two-istanbul-061hour flight from Chicago, she was as well-behaved and happy as could be. I found tearing apart SkyMall with her was a very occupying activity. However, my niece is a well-traveled three-year-old. At four months, she went from DC to San Francisco for a wedding, then twice at six and nine months to visit me in Los Angeles. We all traveled to Istanbul (picture by the Blue Mosque, right) when she was a year and a half (but I was img_7450on a separate flight), and then they all visited me when I lived in Paris (picture, left, with her dad by Notre Dame). And then she went on some local trips to Boston and Chicago, but I think it was after that Paris trip that my sister swore off flying with her until she was 18. Apparently she did make friends with a male flight attendant who taught her to say “merci!” everytime he brought her something.

Anyway, I’m not claiming to be an expert at flying with kids in any way, I am only writing this based on my sister’s experience.

1. Pack light. You’re going to have to check luggage whether you like it or not, so fill it with diapers. Whatever extra room is there, add your clothes.

2. In your carry-on, bring extra clothes for the kiddo and for you, in case the kid is anything like I was and flying will induce projectile vomit. Then bring extra wipes and tissues.

3. Also in your carry-on, bring the following: an Ipod with his/ her favorite songs, lots of books, crayons, coloring books, notepads, itty-bitty tupperwares filled with goldfish crackers or cheerios (leave the candy at home), toys that don’t involve many parts, an extra blanket and their best stuffed friend.

4. A note about the best stuffed friend. My niece is attached to her bear, Spartacus (though we just call him Bear, and my niece also recently gave Bear a gender transformation so he is now a she).  To avoid the catastrophe that would follow should Bear ever go missing, Bear comes attached with a collar and leash that clips to my niece’s clothes so Bear doesn’t go missing in the streets of Florence or wherever they’re traveling.

5. My sister is also experimenting with a portable DVD player so she can watch hours of Finding Nemo but is unsure whether carrying an extra battery is worth the weight and effort.

6. Bring a bag of foam earplugs for your seat neighbors. Apologize often. Be aware that even if you’ve become immune to her singing at the top of her lungs that other people have not.

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Getting Lost In: [suburban] Chicago!

The Breakfast Club

The Breakfast Club

Ah, Chicago. What I find most interesting about Chicago is not the city itself, but how connected with its suburbs I’ve become. My first taste of Chicago was a t-shirt from my cousin who went to Northwestern, but he spent most of his time outside it, in Evanston. Then I watched all the movies by John Hughes which were about suburban Chicago kids, with later additions like Home Alone and Mean Girls. Then in college I met a bunch of Proud Chicagoans who, upon finding out I was from the New York area, would argue why they were cooler because they were “from Chicago” and I was “from New York”. I would then find out none of these “Chicagoans” were actually from the city either, which made us basically the same – just city wannabes from the suburbs. (Interestingly enough, the true Chicagoans, raised in the city proper, were less vocal if at all). Some of them came as far as Zion, Ill. which is basically in Wisconsin, and those people were the proudest and loudest of them all.

I, myself, spent a year in Chicago (Lincoln Park, specifically) studying at Northwestern to become a TV news correspondent, but like that idea, my memory of Chicago has somewhat faded. Then I married a Chicago suburbanite. And now that Jon and I have spent quite some time recently in the northern suburbs of Chicago, it only seemed proper to dedicate an entry to the greater metropolitan area famous for breakfast clubs, sixteen candles, adventurous babysitting or being pretty – in pink. If you’ve got a day off, like Ferris Bueller did, here’s a way to spend it. And now I’ll stop being clever with the movie titles.

(Note: I realize that a large percentage of this readership is from the northern Chicago suburbs, thanks to a certain enthusiastic reader/ mother-in-law. So please, feel free to comment or add your own suggestions!)

Ravinia.  Every city has a summer music festival, and Chicago’s is Ravinia (www.ravinia.com), located in Highland Park. Much like L.A.’s Hollywood Bowl, or D.C.’s Wolf Trap, or Boston’s western getaway to Tanglewood, the locals tote their cute wicker picnic baskets, candles, fold-up tables, pretentious cheeses and bottles of wine to sit under the stars and listen to touring artists. This year’s line-up includes the several appearances of the Chicago Symphony, the Gipsy Kings, the BoDeans, Pink Martini, the Beach Boy(s) (I think only one is still alive) and my favorite: Diana Krall. Since Chicago’s rush hour traffic is one of the worst I’ve ever sat through – even next to Los Angeles – there’s a Metra train that stops directly at Ravinia. Take it.

Windsurfing on Lake Michigan: People are so fixated on how ridiculously cold it is in winter in Chicago that they forget to tell you how ridiculously hot and humid it is in summer. I sweated through ten t-shirts a day that summer just by standing outside waiting for a bus. Finally, I gave up on taking eight showers a day and headed to The Northwestern Sailing Center on Northwestern University’s campus to learn how to windsurf. If I wasn’t cooling off by catching breezes off the lake, I did by falling into the water. There are also sailing and catamaran classes available at the center. 2311 Campus Drive, Evanston.

Chicago Botanic Gardens. As beautiful as the architecture and lake are downtown, everyone needs some greenery and pretty flowers, or a great place for engagement photos and that kind of thing. The Chicago Botanic Gardens, located in Glencoe (nearish Ravinia) are a good getaway and a popular wedding spot. Other than that, I don’t know much more since I’ve never been there, although it’s a future destination plan. 1000 Lake Cook Road, Glencoe.

Norton’s Restaurant. I have to mention this Highland Park hotspot because it is always packed and because I never knew there were really places where everyone actually knows your name – I thought it was just a song. Its jolly, reliable neighborhood atmosphere with its classic American menu is a like quintissential American restaurant found only in a comedic movie, except it actually exists.  My in-laws play characters in this movie restaurant in that they’re such regulars that the owners were even invited to our wedding. It’s also great for families and large groups, and the burgers and steaks are as tried-and-true as any Midwestern steak joint should be. I also like their logo because it has a hat, too. 1905 Sheridan Road, Highland Park.

Charlie Beinlich’s Food & Tap: This bar/ burger joint is Jon’s insistence, and he does have a holey t-shirt with this logo on it, so I will let him describe. JON: “Well, uh, it’s more of a bar than anything. There’s no menu. The menu is up on a wall. The burgers are incredible. They, like, melt in your mouth. Uh, it’s kind of dark in there, like a neighborhood bar.” ME: “You’ve just made this place sound like a dark bar with no menus and a great burger.” JON: “Well, that’s what it is. It’s a very unique burger.” ME: “Why is it unique?” JON: “Because of how it melts in your mouth. It’s soooo yummy. Where is the peanut butter?”  To get more specifics about what Jon’s talking about, you’ll have to go there yourself.  290 Skokie Blvd., Northbrook.

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Cool Tools: Uptake travel planner

My sister and family are headed to Italy next week for a vacation with my three-year-old niece and have taken every book and video about Italy out of the library. Did I mention they are a little nervous about keeping a three-year-old entertained? They’ve referenced several online sites about traveling with kids in Italy, kid-friendly hotels, kid-friendly restaurants, kid-friendly ways to travel (train), and even tried out the BBC language course to teach her to say “Ciao, bella” and “grazie!”

Now, if they had run into a site like uptake.com, they could easily plant all their needs and desires into its search engine and the site would pop out an itinerary, list of hotels and activities tailored specifically for them. Which is exactly how this site works.

For example, let’s say Jon and I have all the time in the world this summer to vacation in Hawaii. Type in “budget hotels” in “Maui” and it returned two pages of hotels with a moveable bar for price and buttons for amenities, lodging type and vacation themes. The results come from 5,000 different search engines, including TripAdvisor, Expedia, BedandBreakfast.com, Orbitz, with reviews and ratings.  Then choose your preferred vendor to book. There’s also an  “Attractions” tab that will pull up all the possible Maui things to do. Narrow it down with a selection of categories, such as museums, zoos, beaches, wineries, spas, family, historical, etc.

Downside: this only concentrates on the U.S. right now, so my sister and family have to contend with their 15 books and videos from the library. But stay tuned – if they know what they’re doing over there, they’ll go worldwide soon.

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