A Trip of A(nother) Lifetime!

C-47 saw action with the USAAF during WWII

Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to travel the way people did in earlier times (we’ll leave future travel for later)?  Now, I’m not thinking about trips on foot like cavemen or covered wagons like the pioneers, although those could all make for a fun adventure, too.  I like to read, watch, listen, research (in my amateur way) about the 1930s and 1940s; the WWII era, specifically.  I have often wondered what it was like for pilots, crew, soldiers (think paratroopers), and passengers traveling by plane in those early but rapidly evolving-evolving aircraft.  Instead of weeks to cross the Atlantic by ship, for instance, being able to do it in 25 hours or so was a huge leap forward.  But it was generally for the wealthy and initially relied on Clippers, or flying boats, that were capable of landing on water if it became necessary; few planes initially had the fuel-range capacity for the plane and a pilot, let alone passengers or cargo.

Yankee Doodle Dandy C-47D belonging to the Yankee Air Museum

We have an opportunity to fly to Toronto for the weekend in a WWII vintage C47D Skytrain named Yankee Doodle Dandy!  The C-47 was a variant of the DC-3.  C-47 started being produced in 1941.  Yankee Doodle Dandy was built and put to use by the US military in 1944.  C-47s were very versatile and could be used to move cargo, passengers, drop paratroopers (it still has the zip lines installed), and more.  Yankee Doodle Dandy is owned by the Yankee Air Museum located at Willow Run Airport in Belleville, Michigan.  It was the museum’s first flyable aircraft and was fully restored after 20 months, and is now maintained in flying condition by the Museum.  It is painted in the colors and markings from when it served the United States Air Force.  The basic stats are: max altitude-24,000 ft; range-1,600 miles; cruising speed-160 mph, max speed 230 mph.  The rest you can find on line by Googling C-47 if you are interested.

B-17 made up to represent the Memphis Belle

The Yankee Air Museum also has flyable B-17 Flying Fortress and B-25 Mitchell bombers from WWII.  All of these planes participate in airshows around the country, including Thunder Over Michigan, a spectacular annual airshow held at the Willow Run Airport…more on that in a few months.  They also sell rides in these planes for people who want an experience that few people have had.  In case you didn’t know, Willow Run was where the US Government and Ford Motor Company built the B-24 bomber-assembly plant to make the B-24 Liberator, four-engine heavy bombers that, at its peak, was producing them at an astounding rate of a bomber every hour.

B-25 Mitchell Bomber named Yankee Warrior and owned by the Yankee Air Museum

Now, back to the time travel adventure!  Unlike the short rides mentioned above, we and our fellow travelers, twelve of us total, are essentially taking a charter flight on this old warhorse to spend two nights in a downtown Toronto hotel where we will have plenty of free time to try local restaurants (already picked out on Yelp) and see some of the sites.  Our trip will include the flights to and from Toronto, a tour of the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum near Hamilton, two nights hotel, dinner at the CN Tower restaurant, and time to get to know some fellow members of the museum.  Now, I had to consider the likelihood that if I waited until after we returned from the trip to write about the experience, this post would probably qualify as a short story. So I will post A Trip of A(nother) Lifetime Part Two focusing on the trip experience and what WWII-era air travel felt like.  We expect a rather spartan flight.  I’m given to understand there is no cabin service, no cushioned or reclining seats, likely no in-flight movies or WiFi, and probably not even parachutes!  So…stay tuned later this month.

To be continued…

Stuff, Pictures, Memories

Open roads…get out on the highway…

Most of us go on trips to enjoy the travel, the people, the food, the souvenirs and, of course, all the amazing sites to see around the world.  Once we return home from each trip, we prolong the experience by telling friends and family about where we went, what we saw, the food we ate, the people we met, and how we were generally treated.  Part of the fun of describing our trips is showing the things we picked up, pictures we took, and experiences we had as well as what we learned on each journey.  Recently, I was pondering how much we really get out of all the travels we have experienced and what is the most important of these.  Obviously, there is no universally correct answer because what is more important for one may be less important for another.  For some people, just getting away from their day-to-day activities to anywhere for a few days is the best part of a trip.

Great Wall of China-race to the top!

A small representative sample of my T-Shirt collection…

When it comes to souvenirs, gifts, memorabilia, or basically…stuff, what we choose to buy and bring home depends on a number of personal factors.  Some people like to collect a same or similar thing from every state or country they visit, such as spoons or bells.  Others like to buy something that quintessentially represents where they were, something like a sombrero trimmed with velvet & gold from Mexico, a grass skirt from Hawaii, or a volcanic stone from a sacred mountain that may carry the eternal curse of a thousand deaths-although I don’t know who in their right mind would want to temp the fates on something like this; I’ve seen too many movies where it didn’t turn out well!  Now, the main thing about stuff is that it is at risk of being lost, stolen, chewed up by dogs and cats, given away or sold (by mistake), or damaged in a natural disaster like a tornado or house fire.  Then what are you left with?  Only your memories of all the trips you have taken.  The other aspect of stuff is, depending on the size of your house, it can make your home look like a permanent and growing flea market.  And the bigger the house, the more stuff can fit in it.  At one point, we decided to buy minimal stuff and just take pictures of it.  It was when we found a very large and beautiful tapestry of the Great Wall of China on a trip to Beijing that we both really wanted.  But we had to admit that we had no place to hang or display it in our home; so I just took a picture of it.  After that, we rarely bought stuff…except T-Shirts, I can always use more T-Shirts!

Relaxing on the Deck at Salt Lick Lodge

When it comes to pictures, many of us can never take too many of them.  When we went on a safari in Kenya, I had a 35mm-film camera, a digital video camera, and a small point-and-shoot digital camera.  I shot about 22 rolls of 36 exposures film, 12 digital videotapes of 90 minutes each, and about 1,200 digital photos.  I can’t remember the last time I ever looked at any of them, but I still have them, somewhere; and if I ever get bored enough, I can look for them.  I took a similar variety and quantity of media on our Antarctica trip and, other than occasionally looking through them for a screen saver or something to add to a post on my blog, I rarely look at them.  But I still have them…or some of them.  Media, like stuff, are at risk of some of the same things such as fire, being misplaced, accidentally deleted, etc.  But you still have your memories of the trips and even specific memorable pictures.

Blue-Footed Booby

Blue-Footed Booby on Galapagos Islands

Then it all comes down to this – we have our memories.  Long after stuff and media about our trips have been lost, misplaced, or destroyed in one way or another, we still have our memories of many of our trips.  I can’t immediately find my photos but I still remember the darkness and cold in Hawaii on the top of Haleakala as we waited for sunrise and then rode bikes 38 miles back down; I remember the thrill of wildlife drives on safari in Kenya; and the walks among the creatures of the Galapagos; and more penguins than you could imagine in Antarctica as we were in THEIR environment; gliding through the Panama Canal…I could go on as could we all.  Then there are accomplishment memories that don’t really have any stuff or pictures directly associated with them; for example, like a number of people, we have been to all seven continents…unlike most of this group, we visited all seven within a year!  Now, where do we sign up for a cruise to Atlantis?

Museum Of Childhood Memories in Wales

Anyway, the point is that our memories of trips can pop into our heads at any time, like our seven continents did just now, and I can sit back a minute (literally), think about it, smile, and then get back to reality.  Memories are like that.  Sometimes they can provide a pleasant distraction from an otherwise challenging or boring day.  Sometimes they can completely blow your schedule if you decide this would be a good time to find your stuff and photos from one of those trips and make some coffee (or Rum & Coke or…) and reminisce because it would be more fun than what you should be doing.  The downside to memories is that they can fade with time and mental health.  Seeing stuff and pictures helps refresh our memories and certainly talking about your trips with someone who was there with you is a big help.  On the other hand, fuzzy memories can turn what had, in reality, been a mediocre trip into something much more spectacular and may even include fun and daring activities that you didn’t actually do!

So, as to my original question about which is more important, I guess I’ll just have to brew a fresh pot of coffee and daydream…I meant ponder…some more.  What are your thoughts about the history of your trips, while you still have them?  Do you have a lot of trip stuff, pictures, or both?  What do you think is more important to you?

Happy and memorable travels to you!

I Hate You! But You Sure Make Tasty Food…

Welcome home; whatcha bring for me?

Is food the ultimate peacemaker?  Right or wrong, many people hate, or strongly dislike, or are intolerant towards others often as a group that is made up of those from a particular country, or ethnicity, or religion, etc.  This may be founded in or caused by personal experience with people from that group.  But more likely it is because of things that are said about those groups with no personal experience with them.  We can become suspicious and distrustful because we have seldom, if ever, interacted with them.  Sometimes it may not actually be a dislike but rather a lack of knowledge or understanding that results in fear or suspicion.  With little or no contact, a change of heart towards this group is unlikely to occur.

Teriyaki Gabutto Burger in Arlington Heights, IL.

One way to break these barriers is travel because we can have opportunities to meet and interact with people from all over the world and get to know what they are really like.  You may get first-hand experience that reinforces why you don’t like some groups but more likely the suspicion and dislike will begin to melt away.  Another related way to change your outlook on certain groups is through food…especially ethnic or culturally based-based food!  After all, we all love to eat.  This is my favorite method for learning about people.  And even those who get stuck in a food rut (hamburger, fries, and, for variety, maybe a cheeseburger) eventually want something different (maybe a Chicken Sandwich); enter the ultimate in different…ethnic food from around the world!  And most of us are always up for any excuse for a food fest.

Guinness Saint James’s Gate Brewery

For example, it seems that everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.  Think green beer (not Irish), Corned Beef and Cabbage (marginally Irish), Irish Stew, Shepherd’s Pie, and Colcannon (look it up).  Actual Irish people or even partially Irish people don’t really mind that everyone wants to honor their heritage by hanging out in pubs all day and night (lots of stereotypes there) and pretending to be Irish for the day.  Then there is the American celebration known as Cinco de Mayo.  It is in commemoration of victory by the Mexican army over a stronger French forces at the battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.  It isn’t widely celebrated in Mexico except for some parades but here in America it has come to represent Mexican-American heritage and, in America, we celebrate by drinking lots of Mexican beer such as Dos Equis, Tecate and, of course, eating all the Tacos, Burritos, and Tamales that we think we can handle and pretending to be Mexican for the day.

Scallops and Peapods at Jade Tiki in Utica, MI

When you start to eat ethnic cuisine, you begin to appreciate more of a country’s culture through their food.  You might even search out more authentic ethnic food.  Like when you go to a Chinese restaurant and pick something from the menu (in English) like Beef and Broccoli and then you notice at another table some Chinese family ordering from a special menu that is printed in Chinese, you just know you’ve ordered Chinese-American food…and there is nothing wrong with that either as long as it tastes good.  But you feel like you are not part of a secret society, in a sense.  Just ask for the Chinese menu and point at something, especially if it has pictures.  You may even learn that you don’t like the original as much as the dish modified for American taste buds.  But that’s a whole ‘nother topic for another time.  The point is that, unless you are a strict Meat-and-Potato-tarian, it’s fun to try new foods.  And trying new foods in the country that they represent is definitely a big plus as you can directly associate the cuisine with the people.

Lebanese Sampler For Two Part Two

I often think that the more people travel and the more we try each others’ cuisine, the closer we come together.  When you try something new that wakes up your taste buds, you have to wonder how can we not get along with people who make this kind of scrumptious food?  That’s why I believe that food has the capability to be the ultimate peacemaker in the world.  We used to have an Indian-Pakistani restaurant nearby and it was really good.  We wondered why they can’t get along back in their home country but seem to follow different rules here in America.  On a more personal note, my wife, Reiko, was introduced to middle eastern food in Dearborn, Michigan by a Jewish friend; only in America!  Now it is one of our most favorite cuisines.

Do you have any stories about food solving any international crisis or at least making you some new friends?

Trip Planning for Hungry Travelers

Travel apps

Travel Apps make trip planning easy

Let’s face the facts here.  We travel because we want to see and experience our strange and wonderful world.  But, while we do that, we also recognize that we will work up a huge appetite along the way.  And while there are McDonald’s, Burger Kings, KFCs, and Pizza Huts all around the world, if we stick to the familiar while in other countries and cultures, we will miss out on a very large part of the potential experiences we could encounter.  Often, my main memory about a visit to a particular country is focused on a meal I had there before anything I saw; for example, for me, Wales was first and foremost where I got my Fish & Chips; Guam is Fuji Ichiban Ramen; Singapore is Fish Head Curry; Budapest is real Hungarian Goulash, and Russia is non-descript (but tasty) chicken with shots of Vodka to name but a few examples!

Fish and Chips; Mission Accomplished!

As part of my normal trip planning, I try to scout out restaurants where we can get a reasonably good representation of local cuisine.  There are any number of sources that can be used for that purpose, a number that has vastly increased with the Internet and the many websites devoted to descriptions and ratings of places all over the world.  Back in the day, we would rely on recommendations from relatives, friends, or acquaintences who had already been where we are going; advice from travel agents; books such as Fodors we could buy or get from the library; or recommendations from the hotel staff that know the area.  While these are all still valid ways to find good places to eat while traveling, today’s primary source would definitely be the Internet.

Gone With The Wind

Movie poster for Gone With The Wind

Now we have more information about where to eat, what to eat, ratings, rankings, and detailed descriptions of meals ordered and eaten with photos of the bite-by-bite action!  With websites and apps for Tripadvisor, Followthatfoodtruck, Fodors, AAA, and, my favorite…Yelp, “as God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again!” (As Scarlet O’Hara said in Gone With the Wind, in case you didn’t recognize it.)  Not that I can recall ever going hungry.  And, of course, if you are not into adventure eating, there are apps for your favorite chain comfort food places from fast food to IHOP, Cracker Barrel, Pizza Hut, etc., although for those you who already know what you want, you just need to locate one near you or along your route.  And there are creative ways to use these apps that can really enhance your trip planning.

Guinness Brewery

Sampling the product at the Guinness Brewery in Dublin

As an example, we will be driving from Detroit, Michigan, to San Antonio, Texas, later this year.  I start by dividing the trip into segments of 300-500 miles per day and then start my hotel search for the end of each segment.  I’m usually flexible enough that if hotel prices are high, I can add or subtract miles until I find a less expensive area.  I use Yelp or Tripadvisor to check ratings and then select and book the hotel.  Once I have hotels set for the trip, the culinary fun begins.  Since most of the hotels we stay at offer complimentary breakfast, I look for restaurants that are three to four hours away from our overnight stay for lunch and up to an hour before our arrival at the next hotel.  Then I search on Yelp for restaurants with local flavor, with a rating of at least four out of five and a minimum of fifty reviews.  I select one or two choices (need to have back up in case one is closed) and bookmark them in Yelp so that they are easier to find later.

Yelp Collections

Yelp Collections

Yelp has a feature called Collections that allows users to collect and group your bookmarks.  You might make a Collection for someplace you visit regularly, like a city, say, Chicago.  You can make a Collection for a certain cuisine such as Sushi.  You can also make a Collection for a trip like from Detroit to San Antonio, which is what I did.  I included in this trip collection bookmarks for the hotels, restaurants, as well as landmarks like the Alamo.  Now, as I stated earlier, I bookmarked way more restaurants than we could possible eat at on this trip just to have some back ups and alternatives to choose from.  For example, in an area known for Bar-B-Que, I would bookmark one or two of the best rated ones but, in case we weren’t in the mood for that, maybe I would also bookmark a Mexican or Indian restaurant, and maybe an old standby like a Cracker Barrel.  When we arrive in the area, we can quickly decide where to eat based on our mood and how hungry we are.

Yelp Map of Bookmarks for Trip

Yelp Map of Bookmarks for Trip

What is really cool is that Yelp lets me display my trip Collection as a list or on a map.  Then I can see, at a glance, every possible stop for restaurants and our hotels.  Now, my planning method may be an overkill and you may be thinking I have way too much time on my hands.  But even a light version of what I do can be helpful.  And trip planning, for me, is just part of the trip experience.  Who knows, perhaps your new favorite food is on the horizon if you can get past the familiar and discover it.  Have you found ways to leverage Apps to do more for you than their readily apparent purpose?

To Tip or Not To Tip…

Google: the great equalizer for travel information!

Google: the great equalizer for travel information!

Short month so I am writing a short blog about something we all wonder about…tipping.  The practice of tipping is very ingrained in American culture as well as some other countries around the world.  But for some countries, tipping is not generally practiced, like in Japan, or varies significantly with respect to percentages or amounts to tip as well as whether to tip at all.  In fact, tipping may even be considered insulting in some cultures as they are proud of the work they do and feel it is inappropriate to take extra money!  There are too many customs with respect to tipping to cover in a short blog on the topic.  So a quick use of the Google Machine will easily bring up way too much information; try narrowing to a specific country or region to which you intend to actually travel.

Chocolate Truffles...Not mine because we ate them all before we thought to take a picture...but looked like these!

Chocolate Truffles…Not mine because we ate them all before we thought to take a picture…but looked like these!

In our earlier days of international travel, I had not given much thought to the art of tipping.  So on our first trip to France, we stayed in Paris and made day trips in and around the metro area.  While I had heard stories of snobbish French people, particularly when it came to Americans, I was quite pleasantly surprised when everyone was so nice to us.  In fact, the only bad experience we had was with one waiter in the restaurant in the hotel where we were staying.  The food was really good and the service was generally good until we were almost finished.  On the dessert menu were listed, among other things, Truffles.  I asked the waiter for more information about them thinking about some delicious chocolate truffles we had experienced that our daughter-in-law had made from a French recipe, in French.  Our daughter-in-law had studied French and was pretty good with it but not enough to tackle this recipe.  Not having a French-to- English dictionary, but my wife having a French-to-Japanese dictionary, we decided that we had to first translate the recipe into Japanese.  Then it was a simple matter to translate from Japanese to English, at which point we were able to make the best chocolate truffles!

Flag of France

Flag of France

So, back to our waiter…he either didn’t understand what we were asking or pretended not to understand (my bet was on the latter) and became a bit insulting to us (in French while smiling at us but the tone gave it away).  We decided to drop the whole matter and then I thought I would teach him a lesson by reducing his tip to only ten percent!  He would regret having crossed the line with us on this one.  So when the bill came, instead of the normal range of 15-20%, I wrote the tip amount for just under ten percent.  I almost never do this unless the service was really bad and not caused by the kitchen or something beyond the server’s control.  I felt great having dealt a blow against snobby French waiters on behalf of all Americans; even though he was the only one we encountered.  Later, back in the room, I was studying my handiwork when I noticed something…some words on the bill that I had initially overlooked…during the whole trip: service compris!  An automatic service charge of ten percent added to the bill as a built-in tip.  With the ten percent I added, that made a 20% tip for a snobby, insulting waiter!  Not to mention, I probably had been way too generous for tipping throughout the trip.

So it pays to do your homework when it comes to things like tipping.  One source that you might start with is by Conde Nast Traveler called Etiquette 101: Your Guide to Tipping Around the World that I found using Google.  There are many other resources available as well.  I also have a book that is both interesting and helpful titled “Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands” to help with general understanding of cultures around the world.  While not specifically addressing the issue of tipping, I first encountered it as a guide for those engaged in business on an international basis to help navigate local customs without insulting your hosts or starting an international incident.

How do you approach the issue of tipping while traveling internationally?

Comfort Zone – Revisiting Places

Just back from Flightseeing on Taquan Air in Ketchikan

Just back from Flightseeing on Taquan Air in Ketchikan

With such a great big world available to see and experience, why would anyone return to places that they have already been to?  It seems that the reasons we travel to new places is to gain new experiences, learn about new cultures, meet locals, and certainly to taste the local cuisine.  And then there are reasons like accomplishing personal goals of visiting a certain number of countries – maybe with a self-imposed deadline, maybe for bragging rights, or even to gain material for a personal travel blog or for a website or magazine as a professional (sometimes paid) travel writer.  At the same time, there are many reasons why we choose to make a trip back to a previously visited destination.  A common one would be places where our friends and relatives are living, sort of a combination trip.  Then there are great places we have experienced that are relatively inexpensive to visit for when we are low on funds.  Some places we enjoyed so much that we want to go back to re-experience it or explore new aspects that we didn’t get to yet.  Of course, there are occasions where the main purpose of the trip is to get miles so a long-miles previous destination may be a great choice.  It may also be as simple as to enjoy the food.

There will be no Clean Plate Club tonight!

There will be no Clean Plate Club tonight!

We have destinations in all of these categories to which we have made multiple, even regular, trips.  For friends and relatives, we travel to several places in Wisconsin, including Milwaukee; and Cleveland, Ohio.  We make trips to Chicago for food and as a convenient stop on our way to and from Wisconsin.  We have visited Mackinac Island a number of times for the unique experience of having no motor vehicles and to stay at the Grand Hotel.  These are mostly done as road trips.  When it comes to longer distances including international destinations, we have made many trips to Japan (food and relatives), Guam (food and snorkeling), Singapore (food and lots of miles), and, of course, Hawaii (hey, it’s Hawaii, no other reason needed…but, food and…).  You may have noticed a pattern involving food; what can I say?  I like to eat good food!

Our ship Ruby Pricess for the Eastern Caribbean cruise

Our ship, Ruby Pricess, for the Eastern Caribbean cruise

There is absolutely nothing wrong with making repeat visits to places we have enjoyed.  In fact, because we already are familiar and know our way around, they are usually the easiest trips to plan and pull off.  This is somewhat like going back to a favorite restaurant where you enjoy the food, service, atmosphere, or value for what you pay.  With the number of restaurants in the world, in your country, in your state, or even just in your immediate area or city, you would not ever have to repeat any restaurant.  But then you have to recognize that you can go to the same restaurant but order something different that you haven’t tried yet.  So you go back to a favorite place for the weather, entertainment, activities, food, etc, and maybe this time you try the deep-sea fishing, hang gliding, and other things that you didn’t get to try on your previous visits.  In a sense, it is like a trip to a new destination.  Another example would be a cruise to the Eastern Caribbean.  It may stop at some repeat islands, it may include some new islands, and even if it is an identical itinerary, your choice of shore excursions will make it a completely different trip.

Marco Polo: Our Transportation To Antarctica

Marco Polo: Our Transportation To Antarctica

This is not to say that you could possibly find yourself stuck in a rut, so to speak, if you are not careful.  Back to the restaurant example, if you like a certain restaurant so much that you go there once a week or month, and you always order the Double BLT with a side of Onion Rings and a Diet Coke, for example…just saying.  When we were on our cruise to Antarctica I remember overhearing a conversation between a couple of fellow passengers where one asked the other if they were going ashore on one of the stops we made and the answer was something like “no, I did that last time.”  So they were enjoying being in a comfort zone that most people will never experience but not wanting to take part in one of the reasons for being on the ship.  Perhaps he should have taken a cruise to the Galapagos Islands or…scratch that…probably already been there-done that, too.

Do you have favorites that you like to repeat frequently?  If you do, does it interfere with you being able to experience new places?  Or is it a way to just relax and decompress a bit?

Best Trip Ever…And It’s Free!

Cubicle Class Seating on our flights between DTW and NRT

Cubicle Class Seating on our flights between DTW and NRT

What is the best kind of trip to take?  First/Business Class Air, Upscale Hotel, Meals, etc…and FREE!!  If you are like me you have been accumulating hotel points and airline miles to use for a rainy day or trip of a life time…or just to have a cheap splurge once in a while.  We used to accumulate points much faster than we could ever use them and at one point, even being Platinum and Diamond on Northwest/Delta for a dozen years with almost certain upgrades, we started using them to guarantee upgrades on very competitive routes like Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or San Francisco even when it required double miles to avoid black out dates, etc.  The hotel was much easier to deal with so we would usually set up the air first.  I tried to do a trade-off of sale prices if low enough or using miles or points for most of our trips.  With two people working you can afford to be much more flexible on prices.

Getting our boots cleaned before going back to the ship

Getting our boots cleaned before going back to the ship

But sometimes even that isn’t quite enough.  In late December 2000 and early January 2001 we completed a 13-day cruise to Antarctica.  At that time it was approximately $7,500 per person for everything including air and the cruise itself (and we each got a nifty red Arctic parka as part of the trip).  It was one of our most memorable trips and I’m glad we went when we did because when I recently looked at prices for what we did it came out to about double!  This also used up most of our travel budget for the year.  But, of course, the travel bug is not so easily cured; in fact , there may not be a cure!  So as the year progressed and we felt the urge to travel again, we looked to our Delta miles and Hilton points and started planning.

Hilton Hotels & ResortsWhat I came up with was a trip to Singapore in Delta Business Class and an upgraded room at the Hilton Singapore for a cost of Zero for the air and five nights in the hotel.  We had to pay for transfers to and from the hotel and the airport and we had a parking expense back home in Detroit but not bad to just feed the travel bug.  The upgraded room and my diamond status got us access to the Executive Lounge where they served a light breakfast and had drinks and snacks available throughout the day.  Then I started thinking about a version of bragging rights – spending nothing else on the trip!  So while we did take short walks near the hotel we did not indulge in the famous Chili Crab or the Fishhead Curry that we had experienced on our previous visits to Singapore.  Now part of me thought this was crazy to pass up these local favorites.  But we had them before and I wanted to establish a new record for our best trip at the lowest cost; and my wife has never forgotten it.

What kind of crazy low-cost travel have you done?  Did you have any regrets from skipping anything to keep the cost down?

Just How Adventurous Are You?

Ashore with the penguins in Antarctica

Ashore with the penguins in Antarctica

When it comes to travel we all have our limits.  Some people may be stressed out by going to a big city if they have lived mostly in small towns and rural communities.  To others anything less than an attempted climb of Mount Everest doesn’t excite them.  Most of us are somewhere in between.  Personally I like being spontaneous once I have planned the hell out of it.  Now I do leave it somewhat up in the air about where to eat or what to do, usually.  I’m not one for backpacking across Europe much less some third world countries; I’ll leave that to someone else.  I’m also not generally interested in roughing it, which by my definition would be something like staying at a hotel that is two stars or below.

Visiting the Taj Mahal on one of our RTW trips

Visiting the Taj Mahal on one of our RTW trips

Having said that, my wife and I have visited over 60 countries to date and managed to land on all seven continents in one year.  We have made four ‘Round The World (RTW) trips and have been racking up a variety of cruise vacations.  While that may not seem like all that much to the adrenaline junkies out there who prefer hang gliding, sky diving, backpacking, shark wrestling (just made that one up), and sleeping under the stars in the Serengeti, I think driving a rental car all the way around Maui in clear violation of the rental agreement is also pretty bad ass…or so I’ve been told!

Friendly natives in Kyoto, Japan

Friendly natives in Kyoto, Japan

When you find a place that you like so much that you travel there regularly, you can become very comfortable there and almost feel like it is a second home.  For me examples of that would be Japan and Guam.  I feel completely at ease there and I know how to get around quite well in either place.  In the case of Japan, I did have the advantage of having spent three years there while in the USAF (United States Air Force) and Guam is small enough to get familiar with after only a couple of visits; it is one of our favorite destinations if we just want to relax and eat good food.

Dancing Blue-Footed Booby on the Galápagos Islands

Dancing Blue-Footed Booby on the Galápagos Islands

For some people a trip to another country may be their trip of a lifetime!  And that may even be the case for some to just leave their home state.  Then there are clubs for those who have been to at least one hundred countries as well as people who claim to have visited every country in the world, although there are varying numbers of total countries depending on who is counting.  The United Nations lists a total of 195 countries in the world while some other lists have significantly more than that.  The point is that being adventurous is a personal thing and what is adventurous to some may be considered reckless or risky to others.  And sometimes it can be quite an adventure just driving to the store.

Where do you think you fall in your definition of adventure travel?  What would you consider boring or way over the top with respect to traveling?  Where is your travel line in the sand, or surf, or latitude and longitude?

Don’t I Know You??

Have you ever been on a trip, particularly an international trip, and while you are relaxing and having a coffee or a meal, you recognize something that seems out of place?  Specifically, you see a familiar face in the crowd.  Or maybe you meet some strangers in South America that are from the city next to yours back home.  It’s one of those things where, although you know that is definitely a possibility, the probability of it actually happening is, at least in your mind, somewhere between zero and none.  So when it does happen, it is usually a complete surprise to you.  As it turns out, it may not be as rare of an occurrence as you might think.

My 5lb Lobster Dinner at Buzio's in the Rio Las Vegas

My 5lb Lobster Dinner at Buzio’s in the Rio Las Vegas

As an example, years ago, we used to be somewhat regular visitors to Las Vegas.  And on one of our return flights, we had boarded the plane and taken our seats and settled in for take off.  While people watching during the rest of the boarding process, I saw a familiar face; it was one of the guys from my department where I worked at General Motors at that time.  We had that mutual recognition and said, “Hi, ‘sup,” or something like that as if it was a normal occurrence to see each other on a flight back to Detroit.  Just because you are on a trip outside of your normal environment, you never know whom you might bump into.  So it is advisable to stay on your best behavior; what happens in Vegas doesn’t necessarily always stay in Vegas.

Arriving at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam

Arriving at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam

On another occasion, we found a great deal (remember those days) on airfare from Detroit round trip to Amsterdam for $250 per person in coach, total!  If you guessed it was with Northwest when they were around, you would be correct.  So we bought our tickets (they also offered the same itinerary for $500 in Business Class but we were young, foolish, and cheap back then) and set up our hotel reservation.  This one wasn’t so much of a surprise but another guy from work had spotted the same deal and planned to travel there at the same time; they also elected the coach fare, so I didn’t feel too cheap about it after all.  We did meet up in Amsterdam and tried some restaurants and museums together, figured out the train system, and wandered through the infamous Red Light District; with our wives, of course.  Again, what happens in Amsterdam may not stay in Amsterdam, especially if there is video and an upcoming retirement party (not mine)!

Our ship Ruby Pricess for the Eastern Caribbean cruise

Our ship Ruby Pricess for the Eastern Caribbean cruise

For a final example, I’ll turn to a Caribbean cruise we went on with another couple that included passing through the Panama Canal as well as stops in Costa Rica and Mexico.  One of the shore excursions offered for our visit in Costa Rica was an aerial tram ride through the rain forest.  Basically it was a gondola on an elevated track that made a leisurely trip through the tree tops with up to six people plus a guide; essentially a zip line for seniors!  The four of us were randomly matched with another couple to complete the six for our gondola.  Upon making introductions, we learned that the additional couple was from our metro area and actually the same town as our friends.  There’s just no accounting for blind luck sometimes.

So what does all of this mean for us as travelers?  I guess just that remote possibilities can and do happen.  I’m sure there were additional potential incidents where we just didn’t happen to bump into each other.  As travelers we can sometimes feel anonymous, but that may not be the case.  Have you experienced any surprise meetings while traveling?

What’s Your Go-To Travel App?

Travel Apps make trip planning easy

Travel Apps make trip planning easy

Do you have a favorite travel App that you must have with you when you leave on a trip?  There are so many to choose from, and more coming out every day!  And there may not be one App that is best for all kinds of trips; some are best when going on a road trip (or even just commuting), while others shine when traveling by air or taking a cruise.  Some are great for planning a trip and making reservations while others provide essential services while actually on the trip.  Fortunately, we don’t really have to choose one over the other, just load them all (assuming you don’t run out of memory space on your phone or other devices).

Magnetic Mount

Magnetic Mount For holding my smartphone on the dash.

My two favorites for road trips are Waze and GasBuddy.  Waze provides a number of useful functions.  It operates as a GPS to route you to your destination by name or by address.  For example, I can enter “Hampton Inn Caryville TN” and it will usually find it before I’m done typing.  If there are multiple Hampton Inns, it will show them and you can select the one you are interested in.  If it doesn’t show any result, it may just be a newer location that opened and you can then just enter the actual address.  There is a limitation currently with Waze that will only route up to 1,000 miles or so; I was told they are working on this.  To make it even more useful, I added a mount for my phone to hold it in a good and safe position that is easily visible while driving.  There are a variety of mounts out there so pick what works best for you.

Duel GPS

Duel (or dueling) GPS setup I use when driving.

Another feature of Waze is locating gas stations, restaurants, etc, along your route.  I haven’t used the gas finder feature much because I prefer (meaning I’m used to) GasBuddy for that and I’ll cover that App below.  I have used it to find businesses and other places.  I do have to say that I do not rely on Waze 100% and I drive using a Garmin AND Waze.  Sometimes one finds my destination and the other doesn’t and, even when they both have the same end point, they show different routes.  There is also a fun aspect with Waze because your icon starts out as a Baby Wazer and is shown with a pacifier band; then, as you accumulate more miles while using Waze, you work your way up through several levels and can eventually reach the highest level of King or Queen with corresponding changes to your icon.  You can customize your icon by selecting from many different looks to suit your character or your mood.  They also incorporated Road Goodies similar to hunting Pokemon but I ignore this unless there happens to be one directly on my route; you get points for running over one.

Hampton Inn Caryville

Typical Hampton Inn…or is it?

Waze also shows accidents, traffic jams, construction zones, debris on the road, and more.  The big difference between Waze and other GPS systems with traffic reporting is that it is user-reported, real-time data.  This has some pluses and minuses such as inaccuracies if, say, a police was reported but may have moved by the time you approach; but better safe than sorry.  Also, when in some remote areas, say out west like parts of Nebraska, Wyoming, etc, there may not be any Wazers in the area to report things.  Of course, cell phone coverage may not be available either.  Waze will use dead reckoning for some limited distance but then the map detail drops; yet another reason I use both devices since the Garmin (and other GPS devices) use satellites and typically keep a good signal throughout.  Both give me an estimated arrival time and if the variances are unusually large, I try to figure out why and which one is correct.

Always expect the best service when it comes to travel.

Always expect the best service when it comes to travel.

Then there is GasBuddy!  What I really like about GasBuddy is that it saves me real money!  I suppose technically if Waze warns me about a speed trap, that saves me money, too.  But with GasBuddy I can actually see and calculate the savings.  Sometimes I find a gas station that is cheaper than the surrounding area by 5¢/gallon, not too impressive, saving $1 on 20 gallons fill up.  But usually I look for 10-20¢/gallon difference.  I have found as much as 40¢/gallon lower than anything within 50 miles; now that saved us $8 on one fill up, or another way to look at it is eight items from a fast-food Dollar Menu.  I usually try to look ahead for a dip in prices when my tank range gets down to around 100 miles left.  Since I know I will need to fill up soon, I can choose a better-priced place by planning instead of just stopping wherever I am when the fuel warning light comes on.

Gas Station

Gas station for my thirsty car

Like Waze, GasBuddy is user-supported by having prices reported and updated by volunteers.  Of course, prices are subject to change, so GasBuddy includes how long ago a price was reported.  GasBuddy also awards points for reporting prices including game-like incentives that you can get overly involved in (ask me how I know this).  And they recently updated the App and changed the reward and recognition system just when I had achieved all but one goal-reporting gas prices in all 50 states!  But I noticed one person had completed 63 out of 50 states so I guess I’ll get over it.  The points you earn from reporting prices can be used to enter a weekly drawing for a chance at a $100 gas card and your cumulative points give you a ranking relative to others who are also reporting prices.

I intended to cover more travel Apps but it seems, as is my habit, I was a bit lengthy in discussing just Apps for road trips.  I guess I have a topic for a future post.  What are some of your favorite Apps that save you time, money, or something else?

A Note From Abroad

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sailaway from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ~ Mark Twain

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