January Reads

A quick rundown of what I’ve been reading in case you too are looking for a book to add to your pile in 2020.

Links are to my Goodreads reviews (where they exist) and Amazon (if you want a copy):


Non-fiction

We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom

Bettina Love | Nonfiction – Education, Race

Review on Goodreads | Amazon link

review of Bettina Love We Want to do More than SurviveI wanted to like this book. Really did. Hits the intersection of issues I care about (critical theory, education, freedom) and I was hoping it would be as helpful as Chris Emdin’s For White Folks who Teach in the Hood (Amazon link)

Spoiler: It wasn’t.

Super disappointed. Now more than ever, we need good discussions of how race and poverty and systems intersect to cut off non-white folks from power and influence in America. I’ve been reading on this topic for 10-15 years now and still have so much to learn. Really wanted this book to be something I could pass on to others and say “Read this! It helped me understand things.”

The book did help me understand stuff, but not in a way most people would find helpful.  If you’re a teacher, read Emdin’s book.  If you’re just generally interested, I found Ta Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power (Amazon) to be one of my favorite (and painful) reads of 2019.

Others:

  •  The Washington War is on my list, continuing my journey through WW2 and General George C Marshall that I worked through last fall
  • American Warlords – ditto; started reading this before handing it off to someone a few weeks ago. Need to find another copy so I can finish it!

Science Fiction & Fantasy – in progress

Enjoying all three of these enough to mention them; will post reviews once I’m done. 

A Song for a New Day, Sarah Pinsker

Amazon 
Song New Day PinskerI love Sarah’s short fiction – her Hugo-nominated story “The Winds Will Rove” about a teacher / musician on a generational starship was one of my favorite things in 2018. This is her first novel. Imagine you’re the band who played the last show before The Thing Happened that ended civilization as we now know it, a Thing that forced people into their homes and ended public gatherings for good…. and you’re trying to find an underground music scene so you don’t shrivel up and die inside.  Great so far!

Servant of the Underworld, Aliette de Bodard

Amazon
I found Aliette De Bodard’s short fiction in the Hugo nomination packets and fell in love with her gorgeous prose.  Her novella “The Tea Master and the Detective” (2018) is delightful and I highly recommend it.  This novel is the first in her Aztec-inspired series, exploring the murder of a priestess and a priest’s journey to find the killer. It’s like NCIS in history with Aztec magic! lol  I’ve enjoyed the book, and I’m going to read the next one, though I don’t find her novel prose as rich as her short fiction writing.  Still, this is a rare opportunity to see Aztec culture in fiction and I have learned a lot!

Seven Blades in Black, Sam Sykes

Amazon
I’ve been following Sam on twitter for a while now and he cracks me up! One of my favorite twitter personalities, especially his 2018 series of painful tweets about trying to get up every day and work on his novel. So when I ran into the hefty Seven Blades book at B&N, I bought a copy and started reading.   It’s been a fun read with strong lead characters. I’d say Sal the Cacophony is one of my favorite female leads in all of speculative fiction. She’s brassy and mysterious and brutally honest.  I haven’t entirely love the prosaic style of the novel. So. Many. Short. Sentences.  But the action is pulling me along and the world is interesting and I genuinely enjoy the characters.


Professional Reading

I’m working on my doctorate in education / professional leadership, and I’m trying to identify my research agenda. Been reading a lot about adaptive leadership (giving a presentation on it at work next week). Also looking into scholarship on followership (it’s a thing) as well as critical theorists’ critiques of leadership theory in general (I dig what they’re saying).

When I have something more interesting to say here, I’ll say it.

 

So – what are you reading?  What should be on my list? 

The Perfect Trip is Possible: How to Pack

Continuing my series on travel planning to make 2020 your best travel year ever, let’s talk about one of the most foundational travel skills: packing.

Don’t groan. This is where the magic happens!  I know packing sounds like a chore, and in some ways it is. But you don’t have to spend the entire run-up to a trip worried about what could go wrong and what you might have forgotten.

Table of Contents:

      1. Tools for Great Packing
        (including product recommendations)
      2. Bare Minimum Packing List
      3. Carryon vs Checked Luggage packing
        (and how to pack souvenirs!)
      4. Travel-Tested Packing Tips
      5. Test It Before You Go

    Go into this with the right tools and a good plan, and you’ll be halfway to a great trip already.

    Let’s try to avoid this mess?
    (Photo credit: Caroline Selfers / Unsplash)

    TOOLS for GREAT PACKING

    Interested in a lifetime of great traveling?  Invest in good luggage, one piece at a time. No need to drop a mortgage payment on it, but you do want to build up to high-quality pieces that are rugged enough to last many years.

    1. A good suitcase

    Lots of folks write suitcase reviews; you don’t need my input here on specific brands and models. I do have opinions about the type of suitcase you want:

    • keep it small to force yourself to pack lighter
    • high-impact wheels, sturdy handle, and well-made fabrics or plastics aren’t cheap.
    • I’m not sure hardside (plastic) vs soft side (sturdy nylon fabric) really matters. I’ve carried both, and I’ve never had anything broken in either type of luggage. Learn to pack so your things don’t bounce around, and never put something fragile on the outside edge (any outside edge)
    • uniquely colored, or blaze it with colored duct tape if you buy a black suitcase that looks like everyone else’s. For years, my black soft side suitcase has traveled the world blazoned with yellow and red strips of duct tape across the back. I spot my bag instantly.

    You might catch a sale (or a combo of reward points or Kohls cash + a sale) to take a good suitcase down to $100-150, but you should be wary of inexpensive luggage in general. Materials matter!

    This is the same model as my favorite suitcase, and this one is sometimes available on Amazon for under $200 (click the photo for link)

    I did finally pick up a 25″spinnerstyle case from Samsonite on sale from Kohls for about $100 (half price), and it’s been perfect! I’ve seen similar cases on Amazon for much more, so watch Kohls for a good sale if you shop there and use your Kohls Cash.  These good quality cases cost at least $150 (for a decent cheap one) to $250-300 for an entry-level Samsonite, so watch for sales.

    I don’t think I’m going to return to the more traditional “straight wheeled” suitcases. The spinner case can roll beside me,  upright, regardless of what direction I’m headed or where I need to walk. More importantly, it doesn’t “pull” on my back or shoulder as much as traditional cases do as I’m rolling it along, and after a long airport or sidewalk trek, I’m very grateful.  

    2. A great carryon

    Comes in colors!

    We’re moving away from handbags and toward wheeled carryon packs for longer trips. On short trips, I just pack a handbag (see below).

    Wheeled carryons like the one here (Amazon) are getting better and better, with many integrated pockets, optional USB chargers (be careful of airline battery rules though), and the peace of mind that you will have at least one pair of underwear handy if your luggage were to get lost. More on that later.

    If you’re just starting out: You don’t have to pour precious funds into a special carryon bag. Clean out your school backpack if it’s still in working order. The pockets will help you keep everything organized, it fits great under the airline seat, and the straps make for easy toting of stuff!

    ….or a great bag that doubles as a carryon

    I bought this bag off Amazon for under $30 on a lark a couple years ago before traveling, hoping I could find something that would double as a large purse for normal life (when needed) and a small carryon / day bag while we were in Barcelona. Holy cow, did I hit the jackpot!

    I absolutely adore this bag. Handles are long enough to go over my shoulder but short enough to carry like a purse too. The many pockets inside and out keep my stuff organized, whether small change or documents or a camera. It looks like a day bag and not luggage, which is another win.

    Optional: Travel-safe Purse

    I carried a red version of this bag, slightly different style, for a Europe trip in 2015. Loved it so much, I made this purse my daily bag for months.

    I carried this purse (Amazon, $45) as my main day-bag for several years after taking it to France in 2015. It’s very comfortable as a cross-body bag with a slim profile. The handle is knife-resistant (no one will cut your bag off your shoulder) and the multiple pockets and zippers can be locked down if you’re especially worried. There are plenty of internal pockets for all your foreign coins, random dollars, and travel documents.

    These bags are relatively inexpensive given the high-quality materials, look good, available in many colors and styles, and hold up well. Mine eventually picked up too much dirt for me to continue carrying around, but I’m willing to pull it out for trips because it packs so flat in my suitcase.

    3. Packing Cubes

    How to use packing cubes Shacke Pack
    See below for tips on using these packing cubes and making the most of your space

    These Shacke Pak nylon packing cubes (Amazon, about $25) revolutionized my travel life. I’m not exaggerating.

    The smallest cube is about the width and length of a box of granola bars. The largest is 12x17x2″ which nearly covers half of a small carryon.

    Instead of throwing everything into your suitcase, or even rolling and packing (which is a great method), carefully rolling and packing your clothes into the cubes then packing the cubes into your bags keeps your overall packing job much more organized.

    In other words, packing cubes give you the organizational benefits of pockets inside your suitcase, but they also let you subdivide your clothes into smaller subsections. I tend to put jeans/pants in one and shirts in another, and undergarments in the smallest. You might use one for shoes or throw your makeup bag and toiletries in the smallest. My husband and I split one set between us when we travel – his clothes tend to take up more space than mine in his suitcase, so he uses the largest size for pants or shirts.

    4. Extra bag / Day bag

    This is a must for international trips or anytime you’re flying.

    If you expect to buy souvenirs or are traveling for the holidays and aren’t sure what you’re going to be bringing home, throw in a foldable nylon tote bag like this one (Amazon).

    These take up zero room while you’re traveling, but they’re a lifesaver once you’re on the road and you run out of suitcase space.  They also give you a daytime carry-all that doesn’t add any weight to your suitcase (unlike packing an actual tote bag), plus having a second bag means you don’t have to pull everything out of one of your other (well-packed) bags to do a day trip.

    Sometimes you can find these on sale at places like Books a Million or department stores for $5. If you are so lucky, grab 2 or 3.

    5. Other Essentials

    Quick round-up of what we never leave home without:

    • Combo set:  Power converter & Plug converters:   If you’re traveling to where they use 220 current instead of American 110 V, you need a power block converter that’ll step down the current by half before plugging in devices like hair dryers, curling irons, or device chargers. NOTE:  Many iPad, laptop, and Android phone chargers do this already – do some Googling for your charger’s specs and read the fine print on the block (if you can read it.
       Even if you have the 110/220 thing handled, most countries use a totally different plug style than we use in the US.  You will need little plastic plug converters to fit over your plug so it can go into the wall.  Most converter kits come with multiple plugs. Just throw them all into your bag; things can get crazy out there.
      *We use this all-in-one block:  Amazon, $22
      **You’ll each need a converter, unless you use no electronics while traveling.
    • Travel document belt /holder: You need to protect your passport with your life. Credit cards too, but those are replaceable in “worst case scenario.”  Losing your passport means giving up everything you planned to do so you can sit at the American consulate instead. FUN! Avoid this horrible outcome by carrying your passport on you at all times and in a safe place away from the prying hands of pickpockets.
      *There are many great document holders out there. This one is $15 at Amazon and works great.  Get one for each person traveling. Spread out your hard cash and credit cards so a single theft or loss doesn’t mean a miserable trip.
    • Laundry sheets: These little gems will enable you to pack actual laundry detergent for a quick load on the go (or a batch in the sink) without having to pack any liquids at all! The sheets dissolve in the water and then do their job. You can get cheaper ones for $7 for 30 at Amazon that just provide detergent OR step up to a fancier model with some fabric softener included on the sheet for $8 for box of 10
    • Travel-sized toiletries, including gels, creams, and liquids, packed into a 1 quart bag: If you’re flying, you must adhere to current FAA rules for liquids on carryons. Currently that means no bottles (or tubes or jars) of pastes, liquids, or lotions (or makeup) above 3 oz each, and collectively everything fits into a 1 quart ziplock bag.  See below for more on carryon vs checked luggage information.
      You can find pre-made travel packs, but I hoard the toothbrush & little travel toothpaste my dentist gives me, then pick up a sample-sized contact lens solution at the eye doctor, travel-sized shampoo and deodorant, and pack only the most essential makeup items. 
       
    • Photocopies / scans and photos of your critical documents:  These don’t take much space, but you should safeguard your passport, driver’s license, travel documents, and credit cards by traveling with backups.
      At least shoot photos of each document with your phone under good lighting and store them on your phone if you’re bringing it with you.
      I’ve heard that if you lose your passport, you can expedite the replacement process by traveling with photocopies of the document plus an extra set of passport photos. That’s probably overkill, but I do travel with a print copy of my passport tucked into my carryon, with my real passport stowed carefully in my safest pocket, and keep photos of my credit cards in a secret place on my phone.
    • Every electronic charger: Just writing this here so you don’t forget charger cords and power blocks for your phone, camera, and anything else that requires a charge. (Apple Watch? Earbuds?)
      You’ll also want your earbuds, plus wireless or regular-plug earbuds (old Apple style, not the Lightning connector) that’ll plug into the plane’s sound system, or you’ll end up buying a set from the airline for $5-10.
      I also travel with a cellphone battery pack so I’m always charged up. Traveling eats my phone battery right quick. I’ve had great luck with Anker products for charging and batteries; maybe try this dual-port battery brick.
    • Contact numbers for your credit card companies (the cards you’re traveling with), the customer service number of your bank, and emergency contact information for at least 3 people. Put this with your critical documents and also take a photo and hide it on your phone.  Make sure your trusted travel companions know where to find this information on your behalf.
      *If you bought travel insurance, bring that information too.

    Packing Principles: Make the most of the space you’ve got

    There are great guides online already about packing, so get on YouTube or Google and find yourself a guru and a method you like. Roll ’em up, pack ’em tight!

    I’m not fussy about packing, and I’ve packed so often that I don’t even need a list anymore for close overnight trips. But I recommend making a written list anyway, and it’s a must if you’re traveling far from home.

    Bare minimum packing list

    • Underwear (# days of travel +1, up to 8 pairs). Longer trips probably doing laundry or carrying a bigger suitcase, and I never choose bigger.
    • Bras: I carry two and swap back and forth each day.  During longer trips or hot weather, wash one out in the sink every couple days and let it dry while you’re out.
    • Outerwear: Obviously, the weather matters here. If you’re carrying winter clothes (ski trip?), you need a bigger suitcase because they take up so much more room. I’ve done weeklong beach trips in a small duffel bag, by comparison.
      Summer: At minimum, buy one of those tiny nylon jackets that fold up into a packet and throw it in your suitcase. Easy to carry, peace of mind. Also, having a nylon hood means you don’t have to mess with an umbrella when it’s raining.
    • Shoes: My rule is “the pair on my feet plus one” unless it’s a short weekend trip without anything fancy, in which case I’ll probably just wear one pair of shoes the whole time.  Tennis shoes are heavy and internationally they make you look like a tacky American. Invest in a stylish, comfortable pair of walking shoes for nice events and a pair of sturdy walkers (Merrills, Chacos, etc) for cobblestone streets.
      *I avoid losing space to socks by going everywhere in Chacos sandals unless it’s actually cold outside.  On long trips, I do like to swap back and forth between two pairs of shoes to give my feet a break.
    • Flat, foldable extra bag (see above) if traveling internationally or taking a trip where a day bag would be handy for shopping, souvenirs, carrying your water and camera, going down to the beach…..
    • Outfits: Pack smart, people. Make do with less; do more with a few pieces that mix and match well.  I pick a color family and throw in long pants, shorts, long-sleeve and short-sleeve shirts, and a lightweight sweater that match that color family.  You also want wrinkle-resistant clothes, and you want to avoid sequins on flight days (sets off the machines) or anything that’s going to be uncomfortable if you wore it all day.
    • Documents (see tips above), wallet, credit cards, photo ID and a holder to carry them privately and securely.  I use my purse and keep a tight rein on it. My husband uses one of the under-clothes document pouches. We split our cash and credit cards between us.
    • Toiletries: Remember to get <3oz bottles for anything that needs to travel in carry-on luggage.
      TIP: Inside my suitcase, any bottled items like contact lens solution, shampoo, or sunscreen are bundled together into a large ziplock bag to protect against leakage due to the changes in cargo pressure. There’s nothing like opening your suitcase at a destination and finding everything soaked in shampoo…..   :/
      *I use a nice fold-out makeup bag that keeps everything organized, similar to this one that you can get on Amazon for $15.
    • Medications and copy of Rx: If you’re flying, it’s wise to keep any essential medications in your carryon instead of checked luggage so they aren’t lost. Also, you may want to bring along a printed copy of your prescription in case you’re challenged about carrying medications into the country.

    Carryon vs Checked Luggage Principles

    This is a short section, but it deserves its own spot if you’re inexperienced in packing for flying.  Sometimes you need to check bags (for convenience or because it’s a long trip), and then you need to strategically split your items between checked and unchecked bags.

    If I can get away with flying only with carryon luggage, I do because I’m guaranteed to land with all my belongings in tow. But airline rules about size and weight of carryons (especially in Europe) can  make this hard. Also most short-hop flights in the US are using tiny airplanes now with little luggage space. Large roller carryon bags can’t all fit, and you end up gate-checking the bag anyway.  So if you absolutely must keep your bag with you at all times, make sure it’s small enough to fit under the seat of any airplane on your route. 

    I’ve not suffered many luggage losses, but you should always pack a carryon as if you’ll never see your checked bag again, at least not while on the trip.  If you actually lose your luggage, you’ll probably need to buy some clothes

    With this principle in mind, here’s how I pack for a carryon + checked luggage flight:

    In a small carryon bag:
    • Essential toiletries for freshening up, all in travel size, including face-wipe or makeup remover cloth, contact lens case & solution, deodorant, brush & hair ties, safety razor (disposable), and toothbrush + toothpaste.  I don’t wear a lot of makeup, but it’d go here too, including lipstick — everything in a single Ziplock bag that you can pull out during TSA check
    • Glasses or sunglasses in their case
    • 1 pair underwear
    • 1 lightweight shirt (folded around the underwear)
    • if rainy, pocket-sized raincoat; I keep larger coats over my arm
    • phone charger cable, plug, and battery pack; power converter & plug adapter if headed overseas
    • earbuds
    • travel documents, ID, money
    • necessary medications
    • book or magazine or tablet
    • camera if I’m carrying one

    Sometimes I can use a large purse as a carryon (like the brown leather bag linked in the first section above) and that’s all I carry onto the plane!  This is extra handy if I expect to need to use my spare expandable tote bag to get home with everything later — the tote bag might become my actual “carryon” and my purse (which has been functioning as my carryon) is now just a purse….. a very full purse. 😉

    In checked bag:
    • full range of outfits, extra shoes, underwear! all the underwear
    • Laundry supplies, fine mesh bag
    • actual coat or winter gear
    • bag for dirty clothes (I always throw in a few extra plastic grocery bags)
    • supplemental fold-out bag in case it’s needed
    • large-sized toiletries, full makeup bag, hair brush.
    • if traveling to hostels, my own towel & washcloth
    • supplies for packing souvenirs*
    • scissors, nice razor – these are usually part of larger toiletries bag
    • extra charger cable, battery pack for camera, etc
    • swimwear, any specialty clothing
    *Plan ahead for packing souvenirs
      • roll of bubble wrap if you anticipate buying ceramics, glass, wine, fine tableware, etc
      • gallon-sized Ziplock bags – you can put liquids in here (wine bottles, liquor, perfume) after wrapping them in bubble wrap or pack food items
      • roll of scotch tape (or packing tape)
      • pair of scissors
      • a packing plan – what needs to stay in your carryon vs packed flat in your suitcase?

    You can get home with nearly anything if you pack it tightly in a suitcase so nothing bounces around once the case is closed and locked. I’ve carried home wine, rum, fresh coffee, jimon from Barcelona, olive oil, crystal glasses from Prague, fine glassware …. 

    My travel-tested packing tips:

    • Set aside an hour for the job, prep yourself mentally, make a list, and pack at least the night before so your brain has time to “remember” the stuff you’re forgetting.
    • Lay everything out on your bed before you start putting things into packing cubes or into your bags. Get a sense of the whole before tackling the parts.
    • Identify fragile and breakable items and make sure they’re either in your handbag / carryon or packed tightly in the inside area of your suitcase (not packed against one of the outside edges).  I’ve successfully carried fragile items in the corners of a hardshell suitcase, but it’s still a risk.
    • Are you flying and checking a bag? Pull out critical toiletries in travel size (toothbrush & paste, stick deodorant, contact lens case & solution, maybe a face cleanser) and a pair of underwear (consider a shirt too) and plan on packing them in your carry-on. Also medications. Always pack your carry-on in preparation for a common mishap: your luggage is lost for 24 hours (or more).  You can buy more toiletries and clothes if the worst happens and you lose your clothes (it’s happened to me!), but you will be less miserable if you’ve got a plan B right in hand.
    • Before packing, reconsider everything sitting on the bed to be packed. Overpacking is worse than under packing. You can always buy something on the fly (unless you’re camping in the wilderness), but once you’ve hauled unnecessary items with you, you can’t get rid of them without throwing them away.

    BONUS TIP: As I mentioned above, blaze your suitcase with a brightly colored strip of duct tape if your luggage isn’t a distinctive color already. Thankfully, colorful cases are becoming the norm, making it easier to spot your luggage on baggage claim and prevent others from grabbing the wrong bag accidentally.  Doing anything extra to “make it yours” adds another layer of protection from accidental loss, and it also gives you an additional way to identify your bag to airline personnel if it’s lost in transit.  “Black 26 samsonite” means nothing; “green hard shell with an L in red duct tape on the back” makes your case easy to spot.

    Test drive your suitcase’s weight load

    OK, so you’ve got good luggage, packed it firmly, and are ready to embark?  Wait just a minute. Take that suitcase out and put it in your car (yourself), then drive to a nearby parking lot.  Park on the edge and get out your suitcase.

    Now. Walk the entire perimeter of the parking lot, towing your suitcase. I mean the whole way around, all 4 sides of the big rectangle. Get back to your car, lift your case back into your trunk, then get into your car and rate how much you hate your life right now, on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being “that was fun!” to 5 being “I will never leave my house.”

    You will often walk miles inside an airport or when taking public transportation in a big city or internationally.  Whatever you think you need to take on this trip, remember you’ll be carrying it by hand the entire way.  If that parking lot excursion left you panting and hating life, go take half of the stuff out of your suitcase.

    I promise you’ll thank me later.


    I’m planning to do at least one more post in this series to round up some of our tips and tricks earned through 20+ years of worldwide travel. Stay tuned!

The Perfect Trip is Possible: Choosing a Great AirBnB

This is another post in my series about planning your perfect getaway trip this year (or next). Start at the top if you’re new here!

Are you afraid to use AirBnB?

I get it.  Walking into someone else’s house feels weird, maybe a little invasive. Or maybe you’re concerned – rightly so – about gentrification and the impact of  rental housing on overall housing costs in an area.  I second this.

I do think it’s possible to use AirBnB well and to make it a major part of an affordable trip. In fact, it’s one of the ways we travel without breaking the bank, especially in a group.

So buckle in, and let’s talk:  here’s how to spot the great places, avoid the disasters, and keep a clean conscience

AirBnB can be awesome: Here’s how to make it work for you

I’ve planned countless excursions to places near and far, and frankly, our travel options widened considerably once home-sharing became more common and accepted.  AirBnB, VRBO, HomeAway and others have democratized the market for lodging, but it’s important to know what you’re getting into.

First, a shameless plug

I don’t monetize my blog, other than being an Amazon & Apple affiliate (I might get a penny or two if you click their links in my post).  But here’s my AirBnB referral code: https://www.airbnb.com/c/lramey3?currency=USD

If you sign up and book a trip using my link, I’ll get a few bucks off my next trip. And hey, that would be cool! If you like the post series and find it useful, let me know in the comments.

Is AirBnB good or bad?

Well, that’s complicated. 

Some of the publicized bad events at AirBnBs (crimes, loud parties, house damage) are mostly just big splashy news stories that get attention by being “news.”  I put them in the same box as stories about travelers being mugged or attacked — these incidents are honestly quite rare in most parts of the world. As long as you aren’t waving your wealth around, and keep your purse/wallet/money secure rather than open for pick-pocketing, you are safe.

AirBnB and other home share services are the same. The folks renting their homes are trying to make a buck, and for the most part that means they’re working hard to serve you well. They aren’t there to kill you; this ain’t a horror movie.  Honestly, we’ve never felt unsafe anywhere we’ve stayed.

Where AirBnB & VRBO etc go wrong is by incentivizing real estate brokers to buy up cheap properties and post them permanently for rental instead of making them available for families to use as housing. THIS IS BAD.  As we work together to address systemic problems like wealth inequality and climate change, we need to advocate for local policies to mitigate the negative effects of what is overall a good thing (letting individuals make money off extra space).

You should research online about the local regulations for AirBnB and other home-share services in the area you’ll visit. Some cities have imposed a hefty hospitality tax, which you’ll see reflected in the price of your rental (it’s an extra fee on top of the nightly cost).

Take time to research the issues and make sure your conscience is clear about where you’re staying.

Warning signs of an illegal AirBnB:

  • The host asks you to tell people you’re their cousin or a weekend guest. Personally, I’ve been ok with this, but it is a sign that the owner is operating in a “gray area” within their lease or HOA, at best.  You should read the listing’s reviews carefully to see if any guests report property issues or being challenged, and avoid any places that are obviously violating their building’s code.
  • Very new / doesn’t-look-lived-in listings in cities where you know AirBnB isn’t welcome or where they’ve passed local regulations against rental properties to address gentrification.
  • Mentions of a property management company in the reviews. It’s ok for owners to hire someone to be on-call 24/7 or to clean the place once you leave, but you want to see clear evidence that the owner or a personal friend / associate is handling all communication with guests and handoff of the key (etc). If you read that the owner is using a property management company for an AirBnB, be careful. (This rule doesn’t really apply for obvious vacation homes up in the mountains or on the beach, where nearly everyone lives elsewhere and uses management companies to maintain their homes.) 
  • You don’t see the expected rental fee, cleaning fee, or hospitality tax. Not all markets charge this, but remember: “too good to be true” is always too good to be true.

AirBnB has done a better job of policing its platform in recent years in an effort to keep peace with the cities where they operate.  Again, be a little wary of recent listings with no history or reviews. If you decide to book there, have a Plan B option in mind if things go wrong.

This tangle of old phone wires in a Chicago apartment building where we stayed in 2017 is the definition of “organized chaos”. I love infrastructure like this (or the Westinghouse elevator hardware that’s the featured image for this post, also taken in Chicago).

Lori’s Search Filters for Finding AirBnBs

  • Entire Place – yeah, it’s cheaper to rent a room instead of a house, but I like my space. With a group, you need the whole house.
  • Dates – pretty self-evident. If you’re researching, not buying, see how the prices change between weekday and weekend, and look for overall availability. When apartments start disappearing or prices rise, you need to book immediately.
  • Number of travelers — be honest. You will probably pay by the head, but not always.
  • Number of bedsadd at least 2 to the count if you want to ensure more than 1 sleeping space. Some people include a sleeper sofa in the living room as a “bedroom.” Um, nope.  Read the listing description of type of bed, size of bed, and house/apartment layout.  Scrutinize the photos.  If I don’t see obvious rooms with their own doors, I pass.   *This is crucial if planning for a group stay.  
  • Number of bathrooms – at least 1, duh.  If you’re staying with more than 2 people, look for at least 2.  For every couple you add to a house, try to add a bathroom, up to 3  (at least) for larger groups.  Nobody wants to follow Bob’s morning dump if they need to brush their teeth….
  • Amenities – consider “parking on premises,” “kitchen,” “laundry,” “Air conditioning,” and “wi-fi” for a truly great vacation home away from home.  In Europe, Wifi is especially nice if you’re using international roaming on your cell plan while you travel, but read the listing to make sure it works.

Set your filters, zero in on the areas of the map near the beautiful or interesting parts of the city, and see what you can find!

Also check the cancellation policy – is it strict or loose? Loose cancellation policies let you cancel up to a week before the trip (or a few days) for at least a partial refund.  Strict policies demand payment up front and rarely give refunds once a brief window for changes has passed.  Read the fine print and make sure your fellow travelers are committed to paying their share before booking anything without a loose refund policy.


TIP: Read the reviews!

Thank you for coming to my TED Talk. 

Seriously, the reviews are a gold mine. If you rent a place before reading the reviews, and pasting the foreign language ones into Google Translate, you’re just asking for it.

You’re looking for these kinds of phrases:

“Would stay here again”
“Loved staying here!”
“Impeccably clean”
“Don’t wait – just book it! You won’t regret it!”
“The host made our stay perfect.”
“—- went wrong, but the host immediately addressed the issue and provided a solution that met our needs.”
“Will definitely look to stay here next time I’m in the city.”


So how do I find a great rental?

If you’ve been reading my other posts, you know the answer: research! 😉 Consider these elements when skimming the AirBnB listings for your next big adventure:

LOCATION,  LOCATION, LOCATION!

Big city: Are you within a couple blocks of a bus stop or metro station? If not, are you going to pay cab fare or Uber everywhere? Add in the cost to the nightly rate!  What floor are you on? Is there an elevator?

Everywhere: Is the house in a safe neighborhood? Is the parking close? How long will it take to get to your adventures (like a concert)? What’s your mode of transportation?

Regarding locations — you’re trying to balance access with affordability. Yeah, you can drop $600 to stay right downtown on the night of a big event, and get a remarkable view. That might be the perfect spot! But usually you’re aiming for a per-person price that’s lower than what you’d pay to stay at a standard hotel.

AMENITIES

Keyless entry is a personal favorite of ours.  It allows the host to set a keycode remotely and text it to us once we’re on our way into the city. There’s no need to meet the host for a key drop, unless you like to see the whites of people’s eyes before staying in their house.  Both have advantages — I like a keyless entry because it doesn’t inconvenience anyone if I’m late arriving, but I also like to meet the host to learn some great tips about the local area. And I always enjoy the hosts!

Parking is a must if you’re staying in a large city where parking is tight. Look at the listing details to see if you’ll need a tag or voucher, or if on-site parking is available. If your vehicle is really big (in Europe, anything other than a tiny car), be sure to ask in advance if there’s enough room in the parking.

No parking? You need to add $$$ at least to the nightly price of a rental if you’re bringing your car but have to park it elsewhere (like in NYC). See if the host can recommend options.

Also be on the lookout for places that tell you to just park on the street. Read the reviews and make sure no one complains about this. In big cities, street parking might be hard to find, or you could run afoul of street cleaning regulations.

WiFi is pretty standard but not everywhere. Read the reviews to see if guests have had trouble with the WiFi reception.

Air Conditioning! Most homes get pretty stuffy by late spring and downright uncomfortable by summer. Especially watch out for this in Europe!

Quiet – Pay attention to what reviewers say about overall noise level in the neighborhood, or upstairs/downstairs neighbors.  Be wary of apartments overlooking busy city avenues or nightlife.

If you’re traveling with a group and you can’t guarantee everyone will stay quiet, perhaps look for detached homes (so your noise won’t piss off the neighbors) or stay in an area that’s already noisy. Don’t be a bad guest.

OVERSEAS

Language – does anyone speak English? Read the reviews and see what people say about their check in/out experience and about communicating with the host.  At least passable English or Google Translate communication via AirBnB messages is necessary to get into the apartment.

Air Conditioning!  I cannot emphasize this enough if you are traveling in the summer. Most older buildings have no central HVAC, so you’ll be using noisy window units. (Heck, this is true in Chicago as much as Paris.)  Check the reviews and look for warning signs of complaints.

En Suite bathrooms – this is a weird Europe thing that we’ve found in some boutique hotels or private hostels that advertise their rooms online. Sometimes your bathroom is literally in your room…..like, just a shower drain and spout in the corner.  It’s kind of weird.  Look at photos.  Understand where the bathroom will be if you aren’t staying in the whole house.

Arrival & checkout times – if you’re traveling on to a new location, you might need to negotiate this a bit. Our worst travel story ever ended up with us arriving in Florence, Italy, well after midnight (and our hotel had given away our rooms!).  Literally anything can happen.

TIP: Provide your host with your flight number or train route when traveling overseas. Also give a contact number where you can be reached by text or phone, and whether you speak the host’s language or need to communicate in English.   If your flight is delayed, message your host immediately and make sure they keep your reservation.


!Warning signs!

See these? RUN.

  • complaints in the reviews about uncomfortable beds or broken plumbing, unless you see more recent reviews that clearly state a solution is in place
  • complaints about a place being dirty (though sometimes, a cleaning agency makes mistakes – see if the owner replied to the review with a reasonable explanation. If it’s the only negative and all other reviews are positive, it’s probably ok)
  • lack of cleaning fee or hospitality tax or anything that makes this rental noticeably cheaper and different than others in the area
  • brand new listing, very low price, zero reviews – could be ok, but you need to be willing for this to go very, very wrong
  • location on a busy street with nightlife, or right next to a train station or airport — carefully skim all reviews to note people’s discussion of noise levels.
  • any indication the host is hard to communicate with, unresponsive, or difficult. Read the reviews but also pay attention to how the host communicates with you during the booking process and afterwards. Nearly all hosts will message you as you get closer to your travel dates.


Bottom line

Don’t be swayed by pretty pictures. Do your work to ensure this place has enough beds, bedrooms with doors, bathrooms (doors are also good), and household amenities to actually enjoy the vacation you’re taking. No one wants to sleep on the floor unless they’re 6.

The reviews are the key to a good stay.  Look for phrases like “this was a dream experience” “would gladly stay here again” “everything was perfect” “don’t hesitate, just book this place!” 

Those types of glowing reviews (when there’s more than one, especially) are the sign of a great host who will make your trip an unforgettable and magical experience.


Next up – I want to address a few more tips for saving money and enjoying your time.

Old textile mill near Greenville, SC, converted to lovely loft apartments.

The Perfect Trip is Possible: Here’s my Planning Process

A couple days ago, I set up some basics about how you can make travel a rich part of your life, even if you aren’t rich! (I sure ain’t.)

I’ve planned trips for groups large and small for 20+ years, and (IMO) we take great trips! And we make them affordable.

Today I want to talk about my process of planning a trip — what I do and when, how I organize it, and the kinds of decisions I make.

If you haven’t yet read the initial post, please take a minute to check it out.


Step 1: Do your research & get buy-in

In my first post, I shared my perspective on selecting good travel companions and planning ahead for your budget.

You’re going to need some buy-in from your travel group before you can plan the trip, so research is key. Your goal is to make people a reasonably accurate offer, like “Hey! We could spend 10 days in Italy in May for about $1500 per person, plus food. Want to come?”

TIP: Keep a spreadsheet of costs, make it public to the group of potential travelers, and ask people to pony up money early on if they intend to travel.
If you don’t have the money to float a loan to your fellow travelers, then you need clear payment deadlines, with the final money due at least 30 days before travel.
You can also ask people to purchase a plane ticket themselves on a particular flight, since that’s usually the greatest expense. 

For right now, I just want to emphasize that you need to do some research before your excitement gets the best of you. No one wants to accidentally spend 50% more than they initially planned because hidden costs beat you up along the way.  That’ll ruin a good travel friendship for sure.

You’re looking for trends (for things like airfare and lodging costs); ideas for food, events, or attractions; and pitfalls to avoid (bad times to be in that place because it’s crowded or the weather is bad or things are closed).

You’re also looking for gems of advice from travelers who’ve been there recently — what’s closed recently? What’s the unexpected hassle? What museums are a waste of time and money? What are the hidden gems?

Google these:

  • Best times to travel to your intended destination, including “best” = cheapest or = least crowded or = events to see. There’s a lot of great wisdom on the forums at TripAdvisor, even if the data is sometimes a few years old. People there will talk about all kinds of details you won’t find elsewhere.
  • Most crowded vs the benefits of off-season — if you have flexible travel dates, take some time to weigh the pros & cons (and costs) of going off-season when things are cheaper, but many restaurants and attractions may be closed or operate on reduced hours.
  • Basic patterns of prices for flights — Google “when to buy tickets to [designation]” and read the advice. Use Google Flights to track best times to buy. I also like to check Kayak and set up an airfare alert so I’m ready to buy.  I find the best deals 6+ months out OR about 3 months ahead of the trip. 
  • Basic travel distances from place to place (like train routes in Europe) –Google Maps and Apple Maps both provide train distances and times in their apps / online. Are your travel timelines reasonable?
  • Open/closed times for any “must-see” attractions.  Many museums are closed one or two days of the week.
    For example: If you’re going to be in Florence, Italy, from Sunday through Tuesday, your only actual day for visiting museums really is Monday because you will find it hard to fit in a museum on a travel day. The Accademia gallery which houses The David is closed on Mondays, and you’ll miss it entirely with these travel dates. 
  • Hidden gems — literally Google this phrase for your intended location and see what comes up.

TIP: Most of Europe is on vacation from late July through August and almost every city is 1) hot as hell and 2) closed.  Don’t go during this time. Also beware of traveling around Easter (especially to Italy) or Christmas / New Years unless you know what you’re doing.  

With your research in hand, you should be able to ballpark an estimate for the trip’s costs, using mid-range airfare and a typical lodging estimate, plus $50 a day (at least) for food & transportation.

If you’re traveling as a group, take into account the savings of splitting things (like an AirBnB among several people, but don’t assume you’re going to pay a lot less than you would traveling alone.

Once you’ve got buy-in for the trip dates (loose or fixed) and rough number of travelers, it’s time to start putting up money.


Step 2: Buy airfare when you see a good deal (doesn’t have to be the “best” deal)

I’ve done trips where people paid me for their tickets and I set them all up, and I’ve also had people get their own airfare.

My suggestion is this: Unless you know these people really well and want to lend them hundreds of dollars in an unsecured loan (basically) by buying their tickets for them, ask people to buy their own ticket on a particular flight once you’ve located a good deal.

That said, if you want to make sure everyone is seated together on the flight or your travelers would prefer you take care of this hassle on their behalf, here’s how to buy tickets for a group:

What you’ll need:

  • a credit card with a high enough limit for all the tickets you need to purchase,
  • legal name information from everyone’s passport*, including first / middle / last name exactly as printed on their legal ID
  • legal date of birth for all travelers,
  • Global Entry Number or TSA Pre-Check (if applicable)

*Passport required for all travel outside of US borders. People who live in states using the new federal-style drivers-licenses can fly domestic without a passport.  Obtaining a passport takes at least 6-8 weeks, so anyone in your group without a passport for international passport (or minors without a drivers’ license if you’re flying domestic) will need to get started on this well before departure date. 

Warning: Do not mess up the date of birth or name information on the ticket!  Double- and triple-check when entering info, and ask the travelers to double-check the reservation. You can often call an airline and fix a mistake within 24 hours of purchase.  You should not expect a person can travel if the name or date of birth does not match their legal ID.

About good deals on airfare – it’s a gamble

There’s nothing more frustrating than buying tickets for $550 and then seeing the price drop to $490 the next week, but that’s how this game goes.   You’re unlikely to guarantee you’re buying the absolute cheapest ticket, so get an agreed amount from your group (top amount) they’re willing to pay, and drop it down $50 for luggage fees and wiggle room.

TIP: Search for flights with enough tickets in the lower fare class for your group, and let folks know that you’ll provide the flight number and a purchase window – 24 hours – during which they need to grab their tickets. If they miss the window, their price may rise considerably. 

This is a good test for your group – are they willing to buy in when it comes to it?

If you’re purchasing for the group as a whole, watch out for limitations of the number of seats available in the cheapest fare classes. Airlines often limit these. If you’re traveling in a group of 12, all 12 of you may not be able to buy the Super Saver ticket.

Know the general airfare for the route so you can recognize a good deal when you see it.  I know tickets to Europe run $800+ from my regional airports (2 hours away, two major cities), so anything $600 or less is truly a good deal for me.  

About those cheap airfares

Should you fly Super-Save or Ultra-Economy or other “bare-bones” classes?  Ehhhhh…. I personally don’t think they’re worth it.  Let’s break it down:

PROS of the Cheap Airfares
  • You really can get a ticket for much less than standard fare, sometimes hopping to Europe for $300-400 roundtrip.
  • If you have short legs and don’t mind having zero legroom and sitting in a middle seat in the back of the airport on top of the bathroom, it’s a way to get somewhere when you don’t have actual money.
  • If you can pack everything in a backpack, you can avoid the bag fees.
CONS of the Cheap Airfares
  • Have you ever ridden for 8 hours in a plane without stretching your legs? It’s hell.
  • Do you plan to pack your own snacks, enough to keep from starving for 15-24 hours?
  • The back of the plane can be rough, so bring earplugs, and grit your teeth if they park you in front of the lavatories.
  • You probably can’t pick your seat before you arrive at the ticket counter, so you’re going to be in a middle seat and you probably won’t be seated near your travel companions.
  • Your checked luggage fee WILL be an extra expense. On international flights, a standard ticket will often cover the first bag for free, saving you $50 which you’ll have to pay yourself on a super-saver ticket. (Ditto in-flight extras like pillow & earbuds for the in-air movie screens, or food on the flight.) Do the math before you buy a cheaper seat – are you saving any money?

If I sound biased, I am. I’m too old to fly 8 hours smashed into a middle seat between two strangers.  Back-of-plane seats make me a little airsick.

I hate everything about flying in the 21st century (customer service is dead, tbh), so it’s worth it to me to pay $75-100 more so I don’t hate my life on the travel days.

You do you.

TIP:  Watch out for weight limits on luggage. The budget airlines in Europe often limit your carryon to ~10 kg (22 lb) and your checked bag to maybe 15-20 kg (35-45 lb). Many domestic American airlines still allow 50lb bags. I’ve been on trips where people had to pay $50-$100 extra on the spot to fly on their budget Europe flight because their luggage was overweight on the Continent when it was fine in the US.

Park Guell, Barcelona
Park Guell, in Barcelona, from our trip there in June 2018

Step 3: Set up lodging

I’m going to do a separate post on choosing a great AirBnB as my next post, so find that here in a few days.

You’ve got a window of time to sort out lodging, though generally “earlier” is going to be better than later.

The available stock of housing and hotel rooms dwindles as you approach any given date, and if you’re traveling to attend a major event (like the Super Bowl or Mardis Gras or a big concert), you may even need to book a year or more in advance.  The bigger and more popular the event, the further out you need to plan. 

Personally, I think it’s wise to set up your lodging arrangements as soon as you possibly can after buying plane tickets.

Hostels are great for the young (and young at heart)

If you don’t mind sleeping in a  room with 10 other people, it’s hard to beat a hostel. These low-cost places have protected travelers for decades, and we used them plenty for school trips and for ourselves “back in the day” to keep costs down.

Since the rise of AirBnB, we’ve personally shifted to renting a house and splitting the cost rather than staying in a big dorm room. But some of our favorite travel memories in New York and Chicago and Boston came from the hostels where we stayed.

If you’re relatively young, don’t mind strangers, traveling in a small group or alone, and need to save money, you should look into a hostel if you’re headed to a large American city or any cities in Europe.  Hostels International have been running facilities for decades, and you can read extensive reviews online. They really are safe, and you can meet a lot of great folks from around the world.

Why I use AirBnB

This is my pitch:  Even though AirBnB brings a host of other problems with it, such as contributing to gentrification in older neighborhoods and gobbling up the stock of available housing, it provides two things that a hotel doesn’t: 1) my money is going directly to an individual or small business usually rather than a national chain, and 2) as a traveler, I have a much better experience than I do with a hotel room.

If you’re in a group, then AirBnB (or HomeAway or VRBO) are no-brainers because you can stay in an entire house – kitchen, TV, and sound-system included – for less than what you’ll pay for equivalent hotel rooms (or at least you’ve got more room to spread out).  You can find properties that fit 12-20 people, enabling you to enjoy your trip amidst friends.  I don’t really understand why anyone stays in hotels, honestly.

I do advocate for cities to impose taxes, fees, and regulations on AirBnB renters to offset the negative consequences on local housing prices. Don’t complain if you have to pay an additional fee for your AirBnB.  Think of it as a quality of life upgrade – because that’s what you get when you stay in someone’s home instead of on a big commercial property.

Lodging logistics

Be mindful of these elements, plan for them, and add them to your spreadsheet: 

  1. How long will it take you to get from the airport to your lodging? Is there public transportation or will you need a taxi/Uber?
  2. Allow at least 30-45 min extra at the airport to get bags, plus 30-60 min if you have to go through customs as well, before you’re ready to head out.
  3. How close is the hotel/AirBnB to points of transportation like taxi stops, metro stations, or the train station?  Read the fine print and look at Google Maps before you settle. I’ve rattled a suitcase across a mile of cobblestone streets before, and it sucks and it’s long and after a while your arms hurt.  Don’t do that.
  4. Does everybody have their own bed?  Are the beds for couples large enough to suit them?  (A “double” bed in America is quite small. A “double” or “queen” bed in Europe is probably two twin beds pushed together with the gap between mattresses probably in the middle.) Also, sleeper couches suck for anyone over 10 years old. You’re going to be exhausted sometimes. Make sure you’ll get a good night’s sleep.

Like I said, I’ll cover more of this in my AirBnB post. For now, aim to have your lodging settled no later than 3-5 months before you go.


The Japanese garden & display in the center lobby of the Bellagio in Vegas

Step 4: Do the math on museum entrance fees, train / public transportation costs, etc and communicate to your group

This is the last category of planning and expenses and it tends to catch people off-guard.

You can easily drop $20-50 per person daily touring a city as you pay fees at museums (which are pricier than you’d expect), splurge on the guided tour or audio companion, and pay for transportation from  point A to B.

There’s no substitute for a spreadsheet and good old-fashioned research. It takes time, but this is how you finalize the trip costs so your fellow travelers aren’t surprised by the real cost of the trip once the dust settles. 

Track these elements and give your group a cost estimate for one or two major activities each day

  • Museums:  Cost of admission (adults, kids, veterans or teachers, etc); Is there a “city card” or “tourist card” that gives discounts?; days open / closed; hours of operation during the season you’re there (expect different hours in summer vs less-popular seasons; are advance reservations required?  What’s the minimum number of people to get the group discount?
    — You might also do some legwork to find the best 2-3 museums in a city, then poll your group for their top picks. Will you split into two groups and visit separate places?
  • Events: Extra ticket required? Multiple stages or areas? Security requirements (clear bag? no bag? no camera? etc); cash only concessions?
  • Special Excursions: AirBnB Excursions, tour companies, and other travel guides can give you a once-in-a-lifetime chance to explore the city or take a helicopter ride or drive a Ferrari.  You might assist your group with making these arrangements, but they should foot the bill. We generally poll our group before traveling and try to give everybody at least one thing off their list. 
  • Free Things: Sometimes the best experiences are free, like walking Central Park in New York City or going to the Navy Pier in Chicago at night to enjoy the lights over the water. The view from a rooftop balcony or stopping off in Pisa to see the leaning tower from its square – these cost nothing but they will be beautiful.   Even better – buy a sandwich from a street vendor or pop into a nearby grocery store for some cheap eats, and picnic on the grass! 
  • Public Transportation: Nearly every system offers pay-per-ride (do you need a travel card? Can you pay in cash? is it bills or coins? do you need exact change?) as well as touring cards where you can hop on/off certain routes throughout the day for a flat fee.   Track the per diem cost of public transit and let people know what to expect. 
    Every transport system has a home page with visitor info for tourists.  You can also hit up the travel section in a bookstore and do some reading in a guidebook for the latest advice.   **Learn to use the bus system! 
  • Trains and Inter-city Travel, or Car Rentals: If you’re hitting multiple cities in Europe (etc), you’ve got to travel between them. Check the prices (and baggage fees) associated with the short-hop intercontinental budget airlines.  We tend to travel by train instead because we like looking out the window.
    You may find that a single rail pass is cost effective, but point-to-point tickets in Europe are also very affordable if you can stand taking the risk not having reserved seats. (Only the busiest international routes are a concern, most of the time.)
    For car rentals, we use Europcar.
    Track everything in your spreadsheet. I like to insert lines to show travel days, list to/from cities, and calculate which mode of transport will be the right blend of cost and speed. 
  • Uber or Taxis or Ride-Share: Depends on the city. Uber and Lyft are about as problematic as AirBnB (as is everything in the “sharing economy,” really, but boy they are great when you’re in a strange city. I’ve happily Uber’ed everywhere in Vegas, DC, Chicago, New York, Savannah, Atlanta….  Sometimes the public transportation is closed or you’re headed out beyond the lines. Check the Internet before you go to find out if Uber/Lyft are available, and use the app for a quick price check. If not, figure out what taxi services are available and typical fares. It’s usually 2-4x more expensive to ride-share than to take the bus or metro, but when it’s midnight and you’re dead tired, there’s something nice about just going straight home.
  • Phone service: Everyone needs to decide whether they’re going to buy international service for their phones before traveling. If not, how will they stay in contact with the group?  You can buy mobile hotspots and WiFi options too, but often you can find internet cafes (in Europe) and hotel/AirBnB lodgings with decent-enough wifi to check in while you travel.  Really, it’s valuable to have texting (at least) so you can find your group if you get separated.
  • Travel insurance: Read this

TIP: We are firm believers in “one big thing per day” or “two smaller things.”  This isn’t a death march, it’s a vacation. You can’t see it all. Down-time is good. 

Once you’ve added up flights, lodging, museums (etc), and transportation day-to-day, the only expenses left for folks to worry about are food and souvenirs.  If you’re staying in a home or hostel, you have access to a kitchen where you can buy groceries to take care of breakfast and either lunch or dinner.  Or snack on street food and save restaurants for certain days on the trip.


Final thoughts

It might look like a lot, but really trip planning is pretty simple – it’s just a lot of details that someone needs to take responsibility to set up. You need tickets to get there (usually), a place to sleep (cheaper if you can stay with friends), and stuff to do.

You also want to make sure everyone is fully aware of the hidden costs which tend to slip people’s mind: museums, events, and transportation around the city.  Plan ahead and plan wisely, and then people only have to pay for food and souvenirs!

Finally, understand that as the trip planner, you are signing up for the stress and anxiety of making sure the plan works. If something falls apart once you’re on the road, be ready to step in and solve the problem. Unexpected failures can happen, and even the best plans can go wrong.  

You’ll get better with experience, but you can mitigate the risk by 1) doing extra research before you go, 2) everyone traveling with a back-up credit card with a high enough limit to get themselves home if needed, and  3) having a plan B in place for the most typical problems (missed flights, a horrible experience the first night at your lodging, losing your wallet, etc).

Next up, I want to talk about finding a great AirBnB and about planning adventures people will love. I’ll also round up my favorite travel helper products, because we’ve picked up some favorites over the years. 

One of our favorite AirBnB “Excursions” while in Barcelona took us out on a sailboat on the Mediterranean Sea so we could watch the sun set. Best $90 I ever spent, honestly.

The Perfect Trip is Possible: Here’s How (A Series)

Do you fancy traveling in 2020? I’m in the middle of planning the logistics for a trip to Italy in late spring, and I’d love to share my top planning tips with you! 

These are tried-and-tested ways of making a trip worth taking, but one that won’t stress you out so much you can’t enjoy it once you’re there. And no vacation should be more stressful than your daily life. 

Today’s is the first post in a short series about how I plan amazing trips for my family and friends that are affordable and fun! 

Plan your Dream Trip Now

First we need to start with the absolute basics – where are you headed, who’s going with you, and what’s your budget? From these three questions, you’ll learn how to set up the basics of your best trip ever.

Where are you going?

This is important! Are you a beach person? Mountains? Adventurer? Shopper?  Do you like cities or the country? Are you comfortable driving in urban areas, or will you be limited to what you can access via public transportation and ride share?

Look, I’ve been doing this travel planning thing for a couple decades now, and I’ve learned that people really don’t stray that far from their “type.”  If your best friend hates crowds, she isn’t going to enjoy being crushed trying to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre.  If your husband hates hiking, he doesn’t want to climb 350 stairs to the top of a bell tower.

Further, when are you likely to go? For years, my husband and I have been relatively attached to the school year schedule due to our jobs. We have a bit more flexibility now, but for the most part we had to avoid any trips which would have taken us away from the classroom for more than a week, and anything in May or August was definitely out.

The seasons matter too. You can get much cheaper tickets to Europe on the “shoulder” seasons (spring / fall) and in winter (if it’s not the holidays), but do you want to tromp around London in the cold rain in February?  Consider what you’re “saving” with a $300 plane ticket in the off-season if none of the museums you want to see will be open.

Tip: Do your research about a city before setting your travel dates. Remember that holidays bring crowds. Off-season dates mean many local shops and attractions will be closed. 

Part of the fun here is figuring out where you want to go, and that calculation includes

    • the preferences of the people traveling
    • your likely season for travel
    • airfare costs and trends for the region you’ll visit
    • how long you’ll be gone
The Catalan flag flies over the beach in Sitges, Spain during our trip in June of 2018.

Who are you going with?

We’ve found that traveling as a couple is delightful, and traveling with friends is even better.  Whoever you love spending time with, do some thinking before deciding they will be a good fit for an extended trip.

Before inviting your friends and family to join you, ask yourself (and them) some basic questions about your travel compatibility.  You want to travel with people who share enough similarities and preferences that you can all have a good time together.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’ll get you started:

WHAT’S THEIR TRAVELING PERSONALITY?

    • Type-A Control Freak: Plan it down to the tiniest details, see everything, fight over lots of small stuff. One Type-A can be a great logistics person; two Type-As need to divide responsibilities and agree not to complain about the other’s plans the whole time.
    • Whatever, Man!: Just tell me where to put my stuff. I’m down for whatever, really. ( I’m also not interested in planning or details, so please don’t ask me to make decisions for the group or decide where we go next. )  Too much passivity can make for a boring trip, but the Whatever! travelers can be a buffer between the Type A’s.
    • Deceptively Invested: Acts like they’re a “whatever, man!” traveler but really they’re more of a Type-A Control Freak. Unpleasant discovery if you’re already traveling together. Your pre-trip discussions need to uncover this tendency before you hit the road.  Lay some boundaries about who’s setting up travel arrangements and how the group will handle disappointments and delays.
    • Social Butterfly: Loves people-watching, interpersonal interactions, and just spending time together.  People > Place as long as the place is interesting and not too isolated.  If this person is an extrovert,
    • Topic Geek: Whatever the niche (Museums! Food! Cars! photography! Art! History!), the geeks will dig in and salivate over the opportunities to indulge their passions. Great!  But you’ll need to negotiate among the geeks unless you’re all into the same exact thing. Everybody gets a chance to geek out — or split into subgroups and hit different areas.  Also, we have a standing rule to see no more than one museum per day – you can’t take in much more than that and survive. IMHO.
    • I’m just here for the culture: These folks are fun! They like to experience new places, foods, people.  They probably push your group to delve into some of the crannies you wouldn’t otherwise fine.
    • Anxious About Everything: Know before you go. I’ve had great travels with some folks who tend to worry, and I’ve had some less fun experiences. You’re signing up for some emotional labor to get everyone home safely, but you can also open the world to someone who might not otherwise have traveled.  You’ll need to lay out Plan A, and B, and C, and maybe D before you’re both happy.
    • I literally do not care: Unless you’re a teacher and this is a field trip, do not travel with this person.  Apathetic people bring nothing of value to the party, but they suck energy from the group.  0/10.  Not worth it.
    • Party Hard, Dude!:  You do you?  I don’t usually travel with the party-hard types, but in limited doses (or when the experiences aren’t deafening, after 3am, or involve people getting plastered) they can be a lot of fun.  Make sure everyone in the group is ok with adults being adults — meaning, adults have the right to do what they choose as long as they don’t harm the group.  (*Being too hungover to travel harms the group.)
    • I lose everything:  ohmygod. Unless you’re a teacher and this is a field trip, do not travel with this person.

The mix of personalities can  make or break a trip.  You may have to travel with different folks until you learn your own travel profile, and then it’s like dating – after a while, you just know what you like and what isn’t going to work.

TIP: Pay attention to the balance of introverts & extroverts in the group.  Two extroverts can keep each other happy. Two introverts can enjoy the silence together. But an untethered extrovert will talk the introverts to death and then wonder why everyone is mad at them. 

Brooklyn street art.  I always take photos of street art – it’s one of my favorite things.

What’s your Budget?

Here’s where it all breaks down, yeah?  How do you embark on trips of a lifetime if you can’t afford them?

I have thoughts.

First, I think it’s wise to keep everything in balance. If you’re struggling to pay your bills, you should keep your excursions close to home – day trips, in other words.  But not traveling anywhere, ever, is going to suck your soul dry. And then what’s it matter if you paid off your bills?

A case for travel as a necessity rather than a luxury

Travel is one of the best educational experiences we humans can undertake. We learn about other people and points of view. We stretch our boundaries, maybe try new things.

If you want to make travel a bigger part of your life, start saving now. $5 a week. By the end of the year, you’ve got $250. That’s enough for a nice day trip (or one every 6 months).  The habit is the key.

I’ve never valued any object or paycheck or “thing” as much as I’ve valued time spent with people I enjoy, seeing and experiencing new parts of the world.   An investment in travel is an investment in yourself, and it’s worth it.

Ways to pinch pennies and go further for less

Many many folks write about traveling on a tight budget. You can read travel books for free at Books-A-Million or Barnes & Noble or the library, and there are billions of blogs online. You have literally no excuse not to try some of their tips for yourself.

Everybody’s got their own budget hacks. Here are some of mine:

  1. Airfare and lodging are the most expensive parts of every trip, especially airfare because you can’t reduce the cost by adding more people to the group (unless you get a group discount through a travel agent).   If you can beg, borrow, or steal (just kidding) lodging somewhere, you’re already ahead.
  2. Personal connections open doors for travel. Ask politely and make it easy for the person to say no — but if you get an invitation, take it!  My earliest trips as a young adult were visiting people in Europe I knew only tangentially. They let us stay with them for free, meaning we could travel for much less than we would have paid otherwise.  Got friends? Go visit them.
  3. Know when to buy airfare. Use Google Flight or Kayak or other flight tools to research airfare trends.  Put up a fare alert for a dream trip (Hawaii? Chicago? Paris?) and watch the prices fluctuate. Get a sense for how early you need to buy tickets.  The current wisdom is that you’ll find the best prices either several months out (timing varies by location) or 4 weeks out.
  4. Any plane ticket you buy less than 3 weeks from your travel date will be hella expensive, unless you catch a last-minute deal and have the flexibility to travel.   You’re either in this for the long game, or you have travel at the drop of a hat.  Anything in between gets too expensive.
  5. We personally prefer AirBnB lodging to hotels everywhere in the world.  I understand the ways in which AirBnB is a problematic fave and how it can drive up housing prices and lead to gentrification.  But when I’m looking to travel, almost nothing beats AirBnB for a couple, a family, or a group.  In addition to beds, you get a kitchen, a living room, and a location with a personal touch.  I’ve never stayed in a hotel (at a similar price point) that can hold a candle to what I can get for $30-50 a night per person via AirBnB.
  6. Group trips can maximize savings by careful selection of AirBnB locations and keeping overall trip costs in bounds. I’ll do posts later about how I pick AirBnB lodgings, and how we keep other costs down. 
  7. Get a per diem (day) estimate from your fellow travelers of what they’re willing to pay for this trip, and agree to stick to it.  If that means taking a shorter trip but making it more awesome, people will understand!  Remember to set aside money for food and public transportation in addition to lodging & travel.
  8. Know when to go home.  You can always go back. Have an accountability partner (my husband is mine) who can “reality check” your plans. You can’t do everything in one trip.

I’ve planned trips to Italy, France & England, Central Europe, the West, Chicago, NYC, Savannah, and many other US cities that have kept below $50-100 per person per day (depending on location).

I can take you to Europe for 10 days for under $2,000, including airfare and lodging and food and public transit.  If we’re lucky, under $1500!

You know how long it takes to save $1500?
Just one year, if you put aside $28 dollars each week, or about $120 a month. Cut down on Starbucks, cancel that streaming service you only use a couple times a month, eat out less, buy chicken instead of steak (better for you anyway), cook a big batch of chili, sell some crap on eBay, buy your spring outfits at Goodwill. 

In other words – go see the world instead of sitting on your couch.

NEXT UP: The Planning Process

 

2019’s good discoveries

Sometimes in the course of my day I stop and realize that I’ve been enjoying something good which others should probably hear about so they can enjoy it to. Those moments spark these kinds of posts. 😉 Enjoy this laundry list of things that have been bringing us joy…..


Wingspan – board game, 2019

Buy it: Amazon | publisher

We just came back from a board game conference where game designers are working to refine games-in-development and pitch them to publishers. Probably should post about that elsewhere; it was a fascinating weekend in many ways. But I mention it here to note that there still aren’t many women or minorities in the roomful of board game designers — it’s predominantly full of white guys between 28 and 50.

Thus, Wingspan stands out not only for its excellent game design and beauty on the table, but also as a game designed by a woman – Elizabeth Hargraves – and developed by Stonemaier Games.  She loves birds and loves games, and found a way to take her real knowledge of birds and their habits and habitats, and translate it into something that plays well as an actual game.

Read more about Elizabeth in this NYT article.

Wingspan is an “engine-builder” game about, well, birds.  In other words, as the game progresses, you’ll collect various birds and add them to your board, increasing the number of things you can do each turn because individual bird cards have different abilities.  It’s also a “point salad” type of game, where you can earn points toward your score in a whole bunch of ways, and it won’t be obvious till you add everything up at the end who’s won.

The watercolor aesthetic is just gorgeous, and the bird drawings remind me of the color plates in my parents’ well-worn Audobon bird-watching guide that sat near the back patio window in our house so they could identify unusual birds when they stopped by our bird feeder. My parents were avid bird watchers (out our window, at least) and I kind of wish I had a similar spot outside my window too.

Give Wingspan a try. If we’re friends IRL, stop by the house and we’ll play it!

*Update: There’s a new edition available that includes a “starter pack” to get your first game off the ground quickly if you’re a new player. If you’re very familiar with Euro-style, recent board games and like learning from rules or let’s play videos, you may not need that scaffold, but if you’re buying Wingspan for a less-experienced gamer, definitely get the one with the starter set. 

Buy it: Amazon | publisher


Native deodorant

Native DeodeerantI know deodorant is a weird thing to recommend, but personal care is important, and not swabbing aluminum  on your body every day is probably a good change given the link between it an Alzheimer’s disease.

I tried a sample of Native deodorant last year on a lark, and it was such a great experience that our household has switched over.  It’s a transition, for sure, because the consistency is different. But they offer a range of really lovely scents, and it’s extremely comfortable.

Native’s product is a genuine “de-oderant” more than an antiperspirant, so this product may not be for you if you’re really adamant about not sweating at all. (But, I mean, sweat is healthy so maybe reconsider?)  But Native works great in keeping me spelling fresh, and it doesn’t irritate my skin the way some of the other “natural” deodorant products do.  Also, it doesn’t make a mess on clothes, and it easily washes out of fabrics since it’s made of natural waxes and moisturizers. I think my shirts are going to write me a thank-you note.  (see below for more on this)

Last thing – Native is more expensive than deodorant in the store, but it’s also lasting me  longer than a stick of Degree ever did. And it shows up at my house every several months (I do a subscription), meaning I always have one on the way before I run out. You can grab 1 oz testers if you don’t want to commit.

They offer scents for women or men or very neutral scents that would make anyone happy.

Buy it:  Amazon (singles) | website (singles or subscription)

BONUSDollar Shave Club — if you’re still buying razors in the store, you are 100% wasting a lot of money (or using super crappy $1 razors).

C& I share DSC monthly – we bought two of the mid-grade handles (for $5 each) and spend $5 a month to get blades delivered. I change blades every 7-10 days (I don’t shave my legs every day) and C swaps his every couple weeks since he doesn’t shave daily.  He also loves their shave butter, so we get a tube of that about every other month.

Anyway, $5 a month for razors is hard to beat, and they show up without me having to remember them. Now that CVS puts razor cartridges behind Fort Knox *AND* charges like $15 for refills, I don’t understand why everyone isn’t a member of DSC or Harry’s or similar.  Seriously.  Make this change for yourself.

Dollar Shave Club (our sharing link)


Arcadia Power

A couple years ago, I stumbled across an ad for Arcadia Power and did quite a bit of research to make sure it wasn’t a scam.

It sounded too good to be true: Arcadia Power takes over your power bill (ie: they pay it on your behalf) and you pay a small upcharge (between 5-10% more) to allow Arcadia to buy renewable energy certificates on your behalf to offset your electricity usage.

In other words, you pay your power bill, but you also pay a little more to ensure that the equivalent renewable energy is put into the grid to offset your coal or nuclear or natural gas power.

Why bother?   Two reasons:  One, we need to make renewable power more of a thing. Climate change is going to hit us all (it already is) and this is a small way to make a difference in your own power usage if you can’t afford your own solar or alternate methods.

Second, the energy industry and our politicians don’t believe people will pay for renewables. Pretty soon, I don’t think we’ll have a choice, but for now, Arcadia offers a way for you to put your power bill toward renewables to help prove that you at least give a care.

We have a referral link. You’ll get $25 off your first bill and we’ll get a few bucks off next month too if you sign up.  Check them out:  Arcadia Power


Make better coffee

So vital, I’m going to turn this into its own post!


Piri-piri

Before reading an issue of Milk Street magazine, I’d never heard of this Portuguese spice until one of the recipes in the magazine mentioned it. A few days later, we ran into a small jar of this spicy-yet-not-too-hot blend plus a bottle of it in liquid “hot sauce” form. Bought both.  LOVE THEM.

It’s spicy without being overpowering.  Hot without taking out your sinuses or causing weeping.  It pairs super well with red meats or BBQ, but I’ve used it in nearly everything — I put the dried blend into marinades and rubs for chicken, pork, and steak; we stir both kinds into a big pot of pinto beans (which I try to work into our household eats at least twice a month).  And into our grain bowls, which I will describe in a minute.

You can buy piri piri at a lot of spice shops, or hit up Amazon for the liquid stuff or the dry variety, available from many sellers — or like me, get both and use them liberally. We found it at the olive oil store on north Main Street in downtown Greenville (near the Starbucks at the base of the Hyatt).

By the way, this is the brand we are currently using of the dry spice.


Grain bowls

This is like the home-run of the Ramey kitchen in 2019. I’m going to post the recipe as a separate post and link it here.

Monday Nights – Fast Whole Grain & Protein Bowls | RameyLady

If you’re making a shopping list and live in Upstate SC, hit Ingles for affordable sesame oil (check the Asian food aisle) and the downtown olive oil store for spiced Moroccan chili oil and sherry vinegar — and piri piri (mentioned above).


Sriracha & Honey

We’re dumb. We didn’t hop on the sriracha train till, like, last year.  *sigh*  But we’re on it now! Yeah, boy!

Use it: Sriracha-Honey glazed chicken with roasted brussel sprouts


Chocolate-covered Blueberries | Trader Joe’s

I know it sounds weird to combine blueberries and chocolate–at least, it was to me– but I promise this is a delicious combo!  We regularly grab chocolate for snacking at Trader Joe’s because  it’s a good quality chocolate at an affordable price, and we rotate through a winner’s list for end-table snacking:  dark-chocolate almonds or caramels or the shockingly good peanut butter cups.

(seriously, the dark chocolate PB cups will ruin Reese’s for you, forever)

But if you’re trying to “be good” with your snacking habits, and especially if you make hot cereal in the mornings, the chocolate covered blueberries are an unusual and delicious addition.

Buy them at Trader Joe’s, of course, — but if you need an online supplier, I was slightly surprised to find that you can purchase them on Amazon


She-Ra and the Princesses of Power | Netflix
The Dragon Prince | Netflix
Castlevania | Netflix

Look, I know that I’m not 9 years old and we aren’t in the 80s anymore. But if you also remember rushing home after school to catch She-Ra or ˆ cartoons, then take a minute to watch the Netflix reboot of the series which drops the exhausting moralizing in favor of good, solid episodic cartoon stories — child-friendly but enjoyable by adults too.  It’s happy and bright and carries a great message of empowering women to be all they can be. We’ve devoured both available seasons.

The creator of the animated series The Last Airbender (one of our absolute faves) has returned with a new series on Netflix called The Dragon Prince. The storytelling has been great, and it’s a nice reminder of how good Aaron Ehasz stories are. The characters confront difficult choices regarding family, friendships, and loyalty, and the series is poised to investigate the cost of grasping after power, even in hopes of using it for good. One of the key supporting characters is deaf – and I wish that weren’t so rare in media as to be notable here.

Finally, it’s worth noting the Castlevania short sereies on Netflix, if you’re in the animated mood. This builds on the lore from the beloved Playstation games, retelling Dracula’s story (kind of) and exploring the dark consequences of human tribalism, xenophobia, and power abuses.

she-ra-and-the-princessess-of-power-main


 

Cowboy Bebop

I don’t know why it took us THIS LONG to watch Cowboy Bebop. It’d been recommended to us numerous times by friends who love ainme, but we didn’t start watching until earlier this year — and it’s been a delight. We’re savoring the episodes, watching them slowly because you can experience something “the first time” only once, and we want it to last.

Take the best atmospheric storytelling you’ve ever seen on TV and move it to space.  Take the most beautiful framing in cinematography and make it anime. Hand the score to a blues + jazz group who assembled just for this soundtrack. Cap the story at the end of a single season so there’s an actual arc to the story (rather than dragging things out like Lost or nearly any other anime).  Offer some of the most singular characters I’ve ever seen on TV. Make your opening title season sizzle with graphic design hott enough to match the opening theme song (below). Steal style from mid-century Modern and marry it to film noir and pulp detective fiction. Throw it into the future.

That’s Cowboy Bebop

You can watch it right now on Hulu as part of your subscription, buy it on Prime, or watch on DVD/Blueray (Amazon).


Better cleaning, fewer headaches

All three of these products hit my radar thanks to those random Buzzfeed articles usually titled “25 products you can’t live without” or “15 ways to make your life easier.”  Don’t roll your eyes; I often find  gems that way.

I hate the chemical smell of strong cleaning products; they give me a headache.  I can’t even be near the bathroom if my hubby is using one of the strong tub cleaners, meaning he was always on tub duty.

So there was much rejoicing when I ordered Better Life Tub & Tile Cleaner from Amazon and gave it a try.  Short review: It’s fantastic.  Spray it on after a shower, give it 15-20 minutes to work, come back and rinse the tub; scrub if needed. We think the cleaner works even after you rinse it off; I swear the tub continued to brighten after the first time we used it.  And the smell is much less “chemical” than the typical cleaner. It’s not scent-free, but it’s bearable (open a window, turn on the fan) and I don’t get headaches

Better Life – Tub & Tile Cleaner – Amazon

Second, someone in one of those Buzzfeed articles said they’ve been mixing Castille soap with distilled water (5:1 water to soap) in a clean foaming soap dispenser, saving them quit a bit from buying hand soap.  Why not? I thought.  Ordered soap and dispensers (below) and set them up upon arrival.  The soap spells very nice and it foams well. It’s not as “sudsy” as what we were used to, but I’ll take the 75% savings over high-end soaps from BBW or the increase in quality and scent over cheap stuff from Walmart.

Quinn’s Pure Castille Soap with Peppermint Oil, 32oz from Amazon

mDesign modern square glass refillable soap dispensers – set of 2, from Amazon

I fill the soap dispensers about every other month in the kitchen and bathrooms. My bottle of castille soap is going to last for the year AT LEAST.

Finally, in my search for a better laundry detergent (and I don’t have the patience to make my own), I stumbled across Charlie’s Soap, which is apparently a favorite among the community of folks who can’t handle artificial scents. We don’t have that issue, but some of our friends do and it’s made me more conscious of the sheer number of chemicals dumped into my life from all sources -for no good reason, really.

Charlie’s Soap is a simple white powder. A tablespoon or so will handle an entire load in our washer. Clothes come out sparkly clean (we wash in cold nearly all the time) and smelling “clean” without any added scents.  It’s been fantastic.

Charlie’s Soap – Natural Washing Detergent, Amazon

Also worth mentioning that since I’ve switched to Native deodorant, I don’t have to scrub white residue off my clothes before (or after) the wash.  Makes Native worth the extra dollars.


I’d love to hear what you’re currently enjoying in 2019 — whether media, food, good reads, or household helpers. Drop me a comment!

Your Morning Routine Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect – The Atlantic

This night owl appreciated an article that pushes back against the lionization of early morning routines. Y’all can get out there at 6am if you want. I’m going to keep rocking 9am-1am over here.

In essence, morning routines have been repackaged as sacred rituals, safeguarded from the cursed bits of the rest of the day. As a label, routine doesn’t quite capture the sense of spirituality that imbues self-care behaviors. “There’s something unsexy about a routine; it doesn’t sound like you’re living your best life. It has this sort of sterile sound to it,” says Daphne Javitch, who offers nutrition and lifestyle coaching through her company, Doing Well. “When I think of the word ritual, I picture moving to Santa Monica and warming up some raw goat milk from my pet goat in my yard.”

via Your Morning Routine Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect – The Atlantic

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