Category Archives: In The Suitcase

A kit for travel tips, advice and suggestions, all in a handy little virtual suitcase.

In the Suitcase: non-travel gifts for travelheads/hats

Now that I’m grounded to my desk these days after exhausting my vacation time at work, I’ve resorted to traveling via the World Wide Web. This edition of My Travel Hats will be about Gifts for People who Like to Travel but are Not Gifts That Look Like Souvenirs From Developing Countries or are Not Luggage-Related. (They probably already have all the travel gear they need).

E-Reader. Oh, how flat! So light! Look how many books it carries! See how it can take your travel guide in electronic form! I have no opinion on which e-reader to get, but there’s something about the Kindle over the IPad that makes me feel less vulnerable standing around like a tourist on a street corner, especially since the Kindle is only $118 now versus the IPad which is like $499.

World Necklace. I’m still deciding whether this necklace is cheesy or not. It has potential to be really fun, but also look like something an elementary school teacher would wear. Could be a great gift for a female travelhead, but make sure to include a gift receipt. Available in gold, too, from

50 Wonders of the World Book. This enormous coffee table book has some incredible photography and description of some of the greatest things in the world. The Great Wall of China, the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, the Egyptian Pyramids, Ankor Wat, Stonehenge, and 45 other things. It’s a great way for job-bound travelheads to dream a little and create a checklist of things to visit next. (Tip: I also found this book in the bargain bin at Barnes& Noble – or maybe it was the now defunct Borders – for about $10. It sits on our coffee table at home, and it is everyone’s favorite book to browse through when they come over.)

Miles. Now that they are set to expire, give a travelhead your infrequently used miles. They’ll love you.  A lot.

A Clear Compact Umbrella. I’ve found ones that are clear, but none that seem to fold up small enough to fit into a jacket pocket or purse. There is nothing like trying to see the Coliseum when it’s raining and you have a purple umbrella that cuts out half your view. I’ve been on a pursuit for the compact clear umbrella ever since. If you find one, please email me! (

World Dartboard. Another item I’ve been looking for, but no dartboards seem to come with maps on them. There’s nothing like aiming a dart at the world map and determining your next destination as the ultimate adventure. It could be Borneo! Russia!  The middle of the Indian Ocean! Somewhere in Indiana! And I don’t mean a corkboard with the map stuck to it; I mean a solid dartboard with the heavy darts designed to choose your adventure.


Leave a comment

Filed under In The Suitcase

In the Suitcase: How NOT to tour China (but get to the Great Wall!)

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will have figured out that I am not a tour-group kind of traveler. I prefer the freedom, and the challenge, to plan my own itinerary and my own budget so I can cram as much out of a country or city in a short allotted time by my work. In my experience with tours, even the short ones I have booked once there have been unsatisfying. In Chiang Mai, Thailand we signed up for a two-day hike through the forests that involved several stops but due to time, we didn’t get to dip into the hot springs; in India, our trip to the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort was cut short because we had to stop into a marble factory for a shopping spree that would give our tour guide commission and ended up missing the entire Red Fort.

In China, we hopped on a tour bus that would take us to the Great Wall and to the Ming Tombs, plus feed us lunch. It seemed like a great deal – two major sites, lunch and transportation, all for 130RMB (about  $20!). Lucky us (note the intended sarcasm here), we ALSO got to tour a silk factory, a jade factory, an herbal medicine hospital (with free footrub), a cloisonne factory and attend a tea tasting.

How did we climb the Great Wall (usually an entire morning or day’s event) and see the Ming Tombs (another whole afternoon), eat lunch AND see all these great other factories? Well, seeing that the tour guide gets a little commission every time someone on her tour purchases anything at these factories, you can see where the priorities lay for her. The Great Wall we crammed into an hour and a half of full ascent and descent at an entrance that is not the picturesque ones you always see. (If you climb, you want to go to the Badaling entrance, which is more touristy for a reason, and has cable cars, but is a more pleasant walk rather than a mountain hike like the one we ended up on. Take a public bus that leaves from Qian Men by Tiananmen Square, which will go to the Badaling entrance). The Ming Tombs? Instead of the dramatic greeting of animal statues and entering the dusty tomb of one emperor, we strolled around some room with a fake banquet on the table and some furniture, then left (20 minutes). After that, it was unannounced shopping, shopping, shopping, and commission, commission, commission for our tour guide. We were supposed to see the Olympic stadium as well, which we did from the bus window. Needless to say, we were all pretty peeved (but we did cave and buy some nice things, which we know are government-guaranteed, authentic products and not knock-offs found in the street markets – so no lead paint in my mother-in-law’s tea set.) In the end, we decided not to deal with the Beijing traffic bus ride home and wandered the Olympic park on our own, then took the subway back.

Similarly, my aunt came across a $99 tour of the beautiful cities around Shanghai (Wuxi, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Nanjing) that included all meals, tickets and four-star hotels. However, our mornings were taken up by shopping, and afternoons driving, followed by an abbreviated rushed tour of some garden or temple or boat ride.

How do you avoid this? By doing it yourself. Thankfully, China is a well-traveled country today, and there are plenty of books, signs in English, and English-speaking helpers in hotels who can help you get around. You can also shell out a little more for a private car who will take you there, without taking you to the state-run shops, and allow you to browse as long as you’d like (ask your hotel to book one and be firm and specific that you do NOT want to go shopping). You can also take a street taxi and negotiate a price, but also be firm that you do not want to stop at any shops. Additionally, I’ve heard some hostels have non-shopping journeys as well, but ask to make sure. If you do want to go shopping, don’t try to do it the same day you head to the Great Wall.

Leave a comment

Filed under Asia, In The Suitcase

In the Suitcase: How to sleep on a plane

I have always slept on planes. Jon can never sleep on planes. In fact, I usually fall asleep before the flight even takes off, even if I’ve slept a full eight hours. It’s the hum and vibration of the engine on the runway that lulls me into sleep and I wake up when the plane is in mid-air. If I’m particularly sleepy, usually because I had to get up at 4am to catch my 6am flight, I will sometimes fall asleep  before the plane takes off and wake up when it’s already landed – but only on short flights like to Chicago. Those are especially cool because as the plane is parking at the gate at our arrival, I’ll turn to Jon and ask, “did we leave yet already?”

It’s not like I find airplane seats oh-so comfortable to curl up and snooze, either – and I don’t wake up from a long flight feeling refreshed like I’ve been to the spa. It is possible, though, to sleep upright – my dad always takes naps in a dining chair, and my grandfather slept in a barker lounger for years (of course, they do recline like first class). I’m also not a fan of medicating. However, here are some tips I’ve learned over the many years that have helped me maximize my sleep so I can maximize my vacation time.

The key, I find, is to already be tired. If you’re taking a red-eye, you should already be tired. If you’re taking a morning flight, sleep about 4 hours the night before.

1. Make sure you get a seat that reclines. Check to see which seats will recline. A window seat is even better, because you can lean your head against the window.

2. Get a neck pillow, an eye mask, and/ or earplugs. I like Brookstone’s travel pack, but it takes up quite a bit of room in the carry-on.

3. Inflate the neck pillow HALWAY – or else your head gets jutted out. Also it will inflate more as the plane changes pressure.

4. Go through your regular night routine: brush your teeth, wash your face, take out the contact lenses, etc.

5. Wear comfortable clothes. Constricting jeans is not what I normally wear to bed. Take off your shoes. Get a blanket or bring a sweatshirt.

6.  If you’re taking a red-eye and if you’re an exerciser, exercising six hours before your flight will also help your body go back to normal rest mode.

7. Though many critics claim alcohol does not help sleep, it’s Jon’s latest discovery: the mini-bottles of red wine. He’ll take one and then sleep a few hours. Another girl I traveled with to India went on a bar-crawl through O’Hare airport and then slept the entire 13 hours to New Delhi.

8. Read a book – don’t watch a movie. Something boring usually helps. Counting clouds helps, too.

Sleep tight!


1 Comment

Filed under In The Suitcase

In the Suitcase: please close your hotel curtains

Here I am in my new office situated across from a hotel. My window faces this hotel and believe me, we get some great entertainment.

So far it’s been pretty mundane – someone on his computer, someone else drinking coffee, a maid cleaning the room, someone staring back across the street. However, this morning we received one of the best spectacles ever seen at this office: naked man going through a briefcase AT THE WINDOW. He must have stood there for at least an hour. There’s also a good chance he was going to a conference or meeting in my building, which has conference facilities.

Apparently last year there was a crowd forming in the lobby of the building staring up at the same hotel to an open window where a man nonchalantly ironed his clothes in the nude.

Some helpful hints to avoid embarassing yourself or have unwanted pictures of you showing up on the Internet:

1. If you can see us, we can see you.

2. If you can’t see us because your window is tinted, just assume we can see you too.

3. Even if you don’t care if you’re seen, some of us care and don’t want to really see that much of you.

4. If you’re on business, really think about closing those curtains. You may never know who’s in your meeting.

1 Comment

Filed under In The Suitcase

In the Suitcase: Voltage

Several years ago I purchased a nifty universal power adaptor. It came with various shapes and sizes of plugs in an all-inclusive little box. It allowed me to plug in anything I owned, such as a camera battery charger, and then plug into the round plugs of Europe or Asia or wherever I ventured. During my India trip, my dad let me borrow his portable hot-water boiler, which is a metal coil you stick into a cup of water and lets you boil water for tea or brushing your teeth in a questionable environment. It boiled the water within thirty seconds, which I thought was incredible.

Turns out, while I was able to adapt the plugs to fit into the wall sockets of other countries, I didn’t actually convert the power. So there I was, sending 220 volts through a water boiler meant to transfer only 110 volts through. There were no resulting electric sparks or electrocution, but I may have fried the water boiler.

Of course, I also spent an entire season in Paris plugging my computer through the adaptor without ever converting the power, but it seemed to be fine. Of course, I did have a surge protector and all that, so that might have helped – I don’t know (I’m not an electrician).

In any case, for our upcoming trip to Kenya and Tanzania, I’ve invested in a little converter to plug into the adaptor which plugs into the wall socket. It was only $5.00 on eBay. It will come in handy in the places that actually have electricity – where we’re staying in Kenya may not have such a luxury. If you live in the United States, you’ll want to make sure you purchase one that takes 110 volts and converts it OUT to 220-240 volts, NOT the other way around. The other way around might cause a little electric surge and a power outage.

Leave a comment

Filed under In The Suitcase

In the Suitcase: Best times to book flights

USA Today featured a great article about the best time to snag the best deal on a flight.

For example, you’ll need to book a flight for the Fourth of July at least 2 months in advance for the best deal. But for Labor Day, the best deals tend to show up almost 3-4 weeks in advance instead. That’s because by Labor Day, kids have all gone back to school, whereas over Fourth of July, their whole family is in the air. But if you wait until the very last minute, like a week before, the tickets will inevitably rise up again.

And because of the recession, people hesitate before booking expensive destination trips. Those who book, do so well in advance. You’re taking a bigger chance, but if you’re willing to, you might be lucky to score a better price closer to the departure date than way back when. People are less likely to book flights late, and because fewer people are booking expensive trips, the planes aren’t filling up and the airlines start marking down their flights. Airlines also know that people with expensive vacation destinations in mind will tend to book earlier, and they’ll mark up the prices then.

Kayak offers a great historical outlook on ticket prices. Let’s say I wanted to go to Paris in September (but really, I’d like to be in Paris anytime). I enter a flight to Charles de Gaulle, some potential dates, and then it begins searching. Once inside, you click on the top left rail to “show fare charts” which will pull up a nice little chart showing that the historical lowest priced time to go Paris in September from the Washington, D.C. region is September 6-9, with another dip around September 15. It also charts the prices up until now and where they peaked and dipped. If you have a budget in mind, you can set that and a fare alert, and wait for Kayak to let you know when the fare has dropped. The only risk is it may never drop, so you’re still taking that gamble.


Filed under In The Suitcase

In the Suitcase: Customer service abroad

“Customer Service” is a term that truly, really, only exists in the United States and perhaps in parts of Canada. Even in sections of the U.S., it’s a loose term. In other countries, the customer is not always right. I’ve been told this in many languages, and if I didn’t understand them in that language, they’ll switch to English (their only customer service) to tell me I’m wrong. You can’t even argue, and you can’t get overly upset trying.

I’ve been reading and reading about various safaris around Tanzania for our upcoming trip, and the comments that people have. “Our truck broke down in the middle of the park and we had to sit and wait for the driver to fix it. Why couldn’t the company send another truck out? We lost valuable time.” Etc. The company apparently offered to give them a free tour of another park after they complained, but they couple could not comprehend why the company didn’t send another truck to them. The response from someone else: This is Africa. You think these companies just have trucks lying around to send to people in the middle of the wild?

I’ve heard of people getting upset when hotels change reservations on them, flights change, routes alter, menus change. You can’t argue it. You can try, but you’ll just get yourself more worked up over it. In the Caribbean, you’re on island time. Things will happen when they feel like it. In France (and Italy, and other parts of the Europe), meals are supposed to be eaten slowly and enjoyed. The restaurants are not there to turn tables as quickly as possible. So you can’t get upset if the waiter appears to be ignoring you. He’s probably just leaving you alone. In China, you can’t expect to wait on an organized line for your turn. People don’t wait on line – they push to the front. I’ve been yelled at it several countries by waiters, salesclerks, hotel attendants, flight agents, cab drivers – and they don’t care. In their minds, I messed up and they shouldn’t have to do extra to get me out of the mess, whatever it was.

At the same time, you’ll sometimes come across customer service that is above and beyond what you’d expect.

Short of being ripped off, take it as part of the experience. If you go somewhere and are treated the way you “expect” – people waiting eager to please you, waiting hand and foot, then you’ve missed out on some of the true cultural experiences of dealing with people. At the same time, sometimes you’ll deal with individuals who want to make sure your trip to their country is memorable in a positive way. Take it as it comes and don’t over-expect people to cater to the ways you’re used to back home.

Leave a comment

Filed under In The Suitcase