Monthly Archives: November 2009

In the Suitcase: Last-minute travel

Jon and I are in the process of moving to Baltimore, which means that our current place in DC is a mess, our new place in Baltimore is a mess, and then there’s turkey to be had in Chicago. So, after several late-nights of painting, cleaning, packing and panicking, we sadly decided to skip the roadtrip to Chicago and leave me behind to do more of the painting, cleaning, packing but without the panicking while Jon goes back to visit with his family. So, after some savvy Internet hunting, I stuck Jon on a Southwest flight to Milwaukee (hour drive from his parents’ place) and departure out of Midway, for $340.

It’s a little higher than we’d ordinarily spend for travel to Chicago, but it is a far difference from the $450 ticket I paid in 1994 from St. Louis to New York one Thanksgiving, because I didn’t book far enough in advance. Yes, that’s 15 years ago. Airline tickets haven’t increased a whole lot since I was jetting back and forth around college, but it is more difficult to fly, and I used to get away with bringing four carry-ons and all my liquids.

So, if you’re still wistfully thinking of visiting family or friends, it’s not too late. There is a “cornucopia” of options! (forgive my themed reference)

1. Check all the search engines, not just one. Kayak has a lot of options, but it doesn’t display Southwest flights. Check Southwest separately.

2. Be open to obscure airports (like Milwaukee). Think like a driver in Los Angeles (i.e. it could take an hour to drive 10 blocks). In holiday traffic, driving from O’Hare could take even longer than driving from Milwaukee, so it wouldn’t be so bad to choose another airport.

3. Try various one-way options. We booked a one-way from Baltimore to Milwaukee, then out of Midway back to Baltimore by buying two separate tickets. You can also try different airlines. Shop around, but don’t linger too long because the flights will continue to rise quickly.

4. If you’re willing to fly on Thanksgiving, do that and plan to arrive before the dinner starts. Also departing on Saturday instead of Sunday reduces your fare. Yes, you miss a day of visiting, but it’s better than not visiting at all, which was your original plan until now.

5. Be willing to wake up at the crack of dawn to catch that 6:30am flight. It’s annoying, but it’s less expensive, and you’ll make up the lost sleep during the flight anyway.

5. Consider Priceline. You set a price limit and bid on a mystery flight. Be aware that you won’t know your travel times until after you purchase your ticket, and they set the hours between 6am to 10pm. If you are traveling on Thanksgiving day, know that Priceline might send you on a flight during dinner time and you’ll miss everything.

5. Save money on peripherals: Take public transportation to/ from airport. It’s cheaper, it bypasses traffic, and you won’t spend extra dollars on parking. Pack light (avoid baggage fees) and don’t eat anything, so you’ll be ready for the feast!

Happy Thanksgiving and safe travels!

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My Travel Hats on brief hiatus!

Apologies Travel Hats fans! I have many valid excuses for my brief hiatus this week. Please stay tuned until next week to hear about some adventures in partial cross-country travel as Jon and I embark on a roadtrip to Chicago for Thanksgiving BY CAR! (This is a well-traveled route for me that I did several times during college and graduate school, so I can’t say there will be many exciting moments – but there will be some).

Remember: pack light, arrive early, and enjoy! See you next week!

 

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Cool Tools: Fly.com on Twitter

Okay, I’m not a Twitter fan. I don’t think that what I (or any other individual) does is so interesting that I need an updated broadcast throughout the day. Lots of CEOs try to ramp up interest in their companies by “Tweeting” about their going-ons. It’s only interesting if perhaps they tell you: “Just sold division of company to another company! Stocks are soaring! Buy now!” But they tell you things like: “Heading to meeting in Denver.” “Ate salmon for lunch.” “Excited for our new company rollout of something or another.” Blah. I don’t really care.

But now Fly.com (which is Travelzoo’s sister company) has released a Twittering of real-time fare alerts from your home city. It still seems to think I live in Los Angeles, so I can sign up for Twitter alerts to buzz into my phone about great deals that moment they are released – and then, if I was more technologically connected with a fancy IPhone, I could buy that fare on the spot from wherever I might be, without risking the chance of it being sold out.

How it works:

First, if you’re a subscriber to Travelzoo, you’ll already receive its weekly lists of fare deals. If not, go to www.travelzoo.com and sign up.

 Now, I’m not entirely sure which cities it is announcing on Twitter, but you can try it out yourself to see if it works. If you go to www.twitter.com/LAfares, you’ll get the list of fares from Los Angeles. I tested www.twitter.com/DCfares, and it popped up fares from DC. Chicago is apparently CHIfares, Boston is BOSfares, etc. So far it looks like LA and DC have “tweets” going out, but they’re still working on Chicago and other cities.

Then, you sign up for Twitter (if you don’t already have an account) and then start subscribing to the Fly.com announcements. If you did it all correctly, messages will pop up in your Twitter account and on your cell phone. Voila! You’re tuned in like a high-tech traveler.

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Getting Lost In: The Outer Banks, North Carolina!

IMG_4909Only until a year ago did I even hear of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. And it’s still under debate whether it’s a series of islands or a peninsula and an island; nevertheless, it is basically a very skinny strip of land where, at some points, you can stand at the middle of a residential hill and view the ocean on one side, the sound on the other.

IMG_4846The Outer Banks are flanked by beaches on both sides and crashing waves, with enormous houses wrapped in wood shingles and wearing outdoor decks like inner tubes, where the upstairs is downstairs and the downstairs is upstairs and about five or more families can all stay together under one roof. We were fortunate to get my IMG_5009friend Sara’s family’s vacation property in the northern town of Duck, and they have a pool and hot tub, and two decks, and ocean views, and a hammock, and a giant picture window on the main floor with a shipswatch corner, and all the wonderful things that should be found within a dreamy vacation house. We added our bikes and Mother Nature added some excellent autumn sunshine to round it all out. If you plan on a similar trip, you should do the same.

Eat. We went looking for coffee at Cravings (1209 Duck Road) in Duck and found some delicious fried fish and southern BBQ sandwiches instead. I had the crabcake sandwich. We also dined out at The Blue Point Bar & Grill (1240 Duck Road), which was like a 50’s diner with views and upscale food. I tried the trout on a bed of sweet potatoes. It was delicious. The day before our half-marathon, my friend Jen found herself drinking beers and eating buckets of peel-and-eat shrimp at the Sugar Shack (7640 S Virginia Dare Trail) in Nags Head.

Sites.  I admit, I never really quite understood what a “dune” was and finally discovered it for the first time. IMG_5021A dune is like a mountain of sand that stretches like a desert, but isn’t as dry, but is just as impressive.  Jockey’s Ridge State Park gives you a really great idea of what being stranded in a desert would be like, except it’s more like a giant beach with the ocean far away. People brought kites and snowboards – yes, snowboards, and boogie boards – to go riding down the hills of sand (people with bloody sand burns were spotted, too). Sunset is an impressive time of day to see the dunes. The Wright Brothers National Memorial pays tribute to the nation’s “first in flight” – also North Carolina’s state motto, which has brought controversy with Ohio, where the Wright Brothers’ bike shop was IMG_5066located and where the airplane was built, making Ohio the “Birthplace of aviation”. If history interests you, you can also check out some stuff in Roanoke and learn about Virginia Dare, the first English person to be born in America, as well as the Lost Colony, which apparently (I never knew this before) was a settlement where all the people left and nobody knew where they went. To this day, they still haunt the island. Actually I don’t know if that last part is true, but there is an outdoor theater musical going on in the Outer Banks re-enacting the Lost Colony.

Play. Biking  along route 12’s bike path is another great way to check out the sites and get some leisurely exercise. IMG_4928The road is fairly flat and easy, unless the winds off the ocean work against you. If you’re a runner, as a very large number of us were this particular weekend for the marathon and half-marathon race, it’s a lovely course for that as well. Of course, playing on the beach is one of the main reasons people come here in summer, and even in autumn it’s still wonderful. Jon attempted an ocean swim which lasted all of one minute, and we gathered numerous seashells with my niece and tried to identify them against a guide to local seashells we found in Sara’s house.

Shop. Outer Banks has your fair share of kitschy vacation souvenir and swimsuit shops, but there are a few gems around. Island Bookstore is a favorite of Sara’s, but I didn’t get to stop in. Knitting Addiction  in Kitty Hawk was recommended to me by a fellow writer/ knitter who understands the horrific habit of dropping many bills on irresistable colors, textures and varieties of yarn so fortunately for me, I had arrived by bike and with no wallet. There’s also some outlet shopping further south.

 Of course, there’s always just sitting on the deck with a cold cocktail or beer in hand and watching the ocean waves roll for hours on end. What’s the rush? It’s the south, after all. And it’s the Outer Banks. Aaaah.

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Wanderings: My Travel Hats returns from the OBX

OBX = Outer BankX or something like that. Anyway, we’re returned from a vunderbar weekend along rustic beachy coastal Carolina, with its enormo houses for five families, the ocean and sound within one block of each other, crabcakes, and 2:19:13 of running! Jon even went into the ocean for about 45 seconds. More later with photos and suggestions of one of my new favorite vacation spots.

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In The Suitcase: Travel agents

To begin: I am my best travel agent. I have never had a good experience with any other kind of travel agent.

Here’s where I will probably get stomped on by many an agent, whose job I would probably love to have, except then I’d have to deal with making people happy for a living, and that would make me unhappy, particularly if they are frightfully difficult individuals as most people are.

Of course, their kind is withering away, thanks to the Internet and the wealth of information from various sources like My Travel Hats.

Why do I dislike travel agents? Every single time a travel agent has been involved in my travel plans, or other people’s travel plans, something gets messed up. In most cases, you get an entire itinerary of activities, but never, ever has that itinerary come to fruition. Something gets skipped because of time. It’s usually not the travel agent’s fault, either, but the fault of whoever he/ she ended up booking with, and then inevitably the irate traveler comes back and that travel agent has to soothe many feathers.

Recently a work colleague returned from Egypt and Tanzania having entirely missed spending time in Cairo and a couple other tours she and her friends had flown all that way to enjoy. The agent had worked with some flight bookers out in Egypt who, in an attempt to save themselves some money, booked my colleague on some cheaper flights that left at inconvenient times. So any attempt to have 24 hours in Cairo, for example, were cut in and reduced to 6 hours in Cairo due to flight times. They also arrived at a couple destinations late because of this booking and missed a couple of wildlife tours.

My own experience dealing with pre-planned itineraries:

-Delhi. I went with my business school class, who arranged to take the group to the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort (right) and some marble factory. Well, the marble factory was our second stop after the Taj, and it was a complete sham. A “demonstration” of how marble art was constructed for the Taj Mahal, followed by a long tour through their shopping area, where our tour guide would earn some rupee commission. As a result, we completely missed the Red Fort. Look at it! I can’t believe I flew all the way to India and missed this amazing relic. (Apparently the guide also kept taking other students to shopping areas where he had arrangements to make commission, rather than to the markets they and our professor requested, and then our professor, who is Indian and teaches marketing, got into a yelling match with the tour guide on the phone about the rules of business and customer service.)

-Chiang Mai jungle trek. We were supposed to go swimming in some hot springs, but alas, time did not permit. 

-Royal Caribbean. We were supposed to stop in St. Croix, but then it was Christmas Day, so we had to sail all day instead. Granted, all the Caribbean islands start to resemble each other, but it would have been nice to be forewarned that I’d be trapped on the boat all day than snorkeling in the ocean.

-I also dislike having to book flights through a travel agent for work. I ended up searching online for the best deals and times, and then phoning her and letting her know which one I wanted. Otherwise she would spend a day or two doing exactly what I just did, and either miss the fare or the seat availability. There was also never a discount involved.

Which is why I spend hours planning our journeys myself and comparing timetables, booking flights, creating back-up plans, and adding padding here and there for airport/ train transfers and the like. When too many people get involved in our planning, that’s when inevitably, something screws up. 

How to do it? Create a spreadsheet with the dates and activities you’d like to do. Arm yourself with several travel books and lots and lots of Google searches. TripAdvisor is a great place to start. Also Frommers has a good searchable forum as well as great suggested itineraries you can use as a guide for your own. Blogs like this one will also give really good ideas. I like to plan separate sheets for transit, hotel, potential activities and prices. I do not, however, plan actual activities for several reasons: what if it rains that day? What if we don’t feel like going to a museum that morning? Instead, I’ll allot a certain amount of time per city based on other people’s experiences and what I’ve found online (i.e. 3 days in Bangkok, 2 days in Chiang Mai, etc). Eventually, everything gets woven together. One day, I will post my actual planning process. If you end up missing something but you hadn’t paid for and anticipated it, it’s just another reason to return there !

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