Are some of the most popular tourist attractions a waste of your time and money? To use a favorite response by most attorneys, the answer to that question is, “it depends.” Pick a destination, any destination, and there are “must see” lists that suggest or even tell you what you should absolutely, positively, not miss. There is, of course, some merit to these suggestions as they have been established by many generations of tourists over many decades and centuries. Some are natural wonders, such as Niagara Falls; and some are man-made, such as the Pyramids of Giza. Some travelers go out of their way to avoid these most popular touristy icons, preferring to go “off the beaten path” and getting to experience “real people” in their travels. And then there are those who want to experience a little bit of each. There are certainly pluses and minuses for each, and it really comes down to personal preferences and what you are comfortable doing. This goes along with the choice to take an organized and escorted tour, or striking out on your own.
I like adventure but I also value safety, especially lately with two young women from Scandinavian countries being attacked and beheaded in Morocco, which had been considered a moderate Islamic country. Naturally, anything could happen any time and any place, but I like to study the current political and societal climate of a target destination in determining the level of risk involved. Familiarity with the customs and language of a foreign country are also a major factor in choosing a destination. For example, having lived in Japan for over three years while I was in the US Air Force, I learned a fair amount of the Japanese language and, while not fluent by any means, I have no trouble getting around and doing common activities. I also became rather familiar with many of the Japanese customs while living there that were useful on later return visits. I also saw many of the “highly recommended” tourist attractions, including Mt. Fuji, temples, shrines, etc, and have since focused on lesser-visited attractions on my later visits. I guess that has evolved as my go-to travel strategy for foreign travel.
When we were traveling much more frequently and had taken Around The World trips (RTW) four years in a row, we stayed for two to five nights (we were both still working so our RTW trips were from 17 to 31 days total) at each stopover. Partly because of the nature of that type of travel, we engaged an organized tour at each location to make the best use of our time to see what each place was like. For some of these tours, we were on a bus with a dozen up to 50 fellow tourists and, in a few occasions, it was just us with a driver and tour guide (Sao Paolo, Brazil; Saigon-Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam; etc) where we had much more flexibility to wander with a local and stop for Espresso or snacks and see some lesser-known sights in addition to the main attractions. I do like having a knowledgeable local tour guide who can not only show us things, but also explain them to us. I will never forget having dinner on a cruise and talking about what we had seen earlier that day when a young couple who had been to the same places we had visited and they asked how we learned so much of the historical facts and details. They had hired a taxi to drive them there, wait for them while they walked around and saw things, and then drove them back to the ship. We had a tour guide who explained the history and told us stories (some of them probably true) that made everything we saw much more interesting.
So what’s the answer to the “it depends” initial answer? Well, there’s really no right or wrong answer as it depends on you interests, personality, risk tolerance, experience with language and culture, and your budget among other considerations. What works for me may or may not be something you would be comfortable with for various reasons. I guess if I went to Egypt (not in today’s political climate) and chose to explore shopping and cafes or cultural activities and skip the Pyramids, once I returned home everyone would ask me how were the Pyramids! I like to initially get these well-recognized tourist spots out of the way on my first visit, in part, because I may or may not be able to make a return visit in the future. Then, if I do make a return visit, I can relax and seek out the paths less travelled and smirk at the newbies scurrying around with their bucket lists. My previous example of Japan is one where I had the advantage of living there long enough to see many of the most important tourist attraction at a leisurely pace and also found many that were not really on most foreign visitor’s lists, even repeat visitors. All I can say is that for me, I want to see what are generally considered top tier attractions (with few exceptions) even if I need to put up with lines and crowds on my earlier visits because it is usually quite different from seeing them in pictures!
What is your strategy when it comes to seeing the major attractions that are identified with certain destinations, like Great Wall of China, Eiffel Tower, Machu Picchu, or the Acropolis? Do you prefer to skip the crowds and do something else?
Are you the type of traveler who just wants to get to it and figure out the details later? Or do you like to have most of the details worked out and planned before you leave your home? Personally, I’m much more of the latter, maybe because I’m an engineer by education and as my career. We like to figure things out before we start something because we don’t particularly like surprises. I normally plan out our trips in detail with respect to transportation, hotels, and I even research a choice of decent looking restaurants at our destination as well as on the way there and back. I usually flag way more restaurants than we will have time for so that we can pick whatever we are in the mood for when the time comes. I have asked locals and hotel staff for recommendations and generally have had really good results. But now I mostly search on line using Apps and websites to check on ratings and what others have experienced. But even those are not totally reliable if you find places that have high ratings (like at least 4 out of 5 stars) and lots of them (at least 50 so you are beyond the reviews by family and friends). It’s not fool-proof because I have had 1 or 2 star experiences in places that have been rated 4.5-5 stars by hundreds of people. Sometimes there’s just no explanation except luck of the draw or that everyone gets a bum experience at some point. On the other hand, I have had 5 star experiences at places like Bob Evans or even an occasional McDonald’s!
Some people prefer to just hit the road and wing it with no hotels booked and stopping at whatever restaurants are in the area when hunger strikes. They are a lot more adventurous than me and I give them credit for being bold and daring. I have been known to be a bit daring but that’s not my normal modus operandi! In Barcelona, instead of a quick, convenient, but pricey taxi ride to our downtown hotel, we decided to take the train after getting what sounded like simple instructions including one change of trains. Once we boarded, I wasn’t so sure it was a smart thing to do as we were surrounded by locals who didn’t speak English, and I’m American so I don’t speak Spanish, and we really stood out with our luggage. But eventually, curiosity kicked in and a young lady came over who spoke English much better than I speak Spanish! We explained we were going to our hotel downtown and needed to make a connection to another train. She said she would be exiting at the same stop where we needed to catch the next train and even walked with us until it was obvious where we would be boarding. Then we just watched for our stop, exited the train and came up about a half block from our hotel! Needless to say, when we returned to the airport, we decided to relax and we took the taxi! Most of the time I figure out the transfers ahead of time and some are with courtesy buses from the hotel where we stay. I actually had figured out Barcelona in advance, or so I thought, but the cost of the taxi to our hotel that was quoted seemed to be a rip off, when in reality there were extra government mandated fees because we arrived late in the evening on a Sunday!
Another example of our daring adventures was years ago when we were on a cruise that stopped in Alexandria, Egypt. We had taken the organized bus excursion three hours each way to the Pyramids of Giza near Cairo and when we returned to the ship in the afternoon, I had been talking with another couple in the next balcony cabin and we decided to take a horse carriage ride around Alexandria. After negotiating a reasonable price with the driver, the four of us were off for what was supposed to be a one hour tour. We rode past many interesting sites and had little kids smiling and waving at us as well as some non-smiling older people watching us go by. After close to an hour I realized we were not heading back to the ship yet. We asked the driver about that and he said he had decided to extend the time and wanted to charge us more money. Now the price we had agreed to was very reasonable and we also expected to give him a good tip. We ended up insisting on going back to the ship which he finally did. We paid him what we had agreed but no tip. Later my wife said she was very concerned for our safety and thought we should not have gone on that ride. This was years before things turned violent although our ten buses for the Pyramids did have an armed security guard on each one and an escort of police on motorcycles and unmarked cars, oh, and an empty spare bus as a precaution. I guess that was sort of a clue. Anyway, my wife kindly reminds me of that adventure every couple of years, just as I almost forgot about it. Looking back it probably wasn’t one of the smartest feats of daring I got us into!
So what type of travel fits my comfort level? I really like to be spontaneous as long as it’s well planned! We can pick a restaurant at the last minute…from my carefully researched list of great places to eat. Whale Watching, Museum, Bike Ride Down a Volcano, Tour of a Tunnel under the DMZ…all perfectly fine…picked from our carefully selected list of adventurous things to do! While I am being a little facetious, I don’t want to experience surprises that could potentially ruin, or diminish the fun factor, for what should be a fun and relaxing vacation trip. I know some people thrive on dealing with unexpected challenges, or maybe they just don’t like planning things and prefer to go with the flow. I like to know where I’m going to sleep at night and have some choices to think about for restaurants. I normally bookmark restaurants in Yelp that represent any regional or local cuisine I want to try. For example, if I’m going to New Orleans, I want to eat at some decent Cajun and Creole restaurants. Similarly, I want Lobster in Maine, BBQ or Tex-Mex in Texas (and other places), Blackened Grouper in Florida, Plate Lunch in Hawaii, or whatever is considered comfort food locally (Hot Brown in Kentucky, Bratwurst or Cheese Curds in Wisconsin). Now I may at times even settle for a quick fast food meal when I don’t want to spend the time at a more upscale place. It really comes down to whatever you’re comfortable with and personal preference. These days with all the Apps available that have ratings for restaurants and hotels, you should want to take advantage of other people’s experiences to enhance your own. Just use caution when reading the reviews to decide if the negative reviews have any common theme. And remember, there’s just no pleasing some people and someone is more motivated by anger to write a bad review than to write about a pleasant experience unless the planets have aligned and they had the perfect meal and service.
What are some of your lines you won’t cross for taking a trip? Have you settled into a pattern when it comes to planning (or not) your trips?
During your travels to various countries and destinations, have you sometimes returned home and thought “I don’t feel the desire to go back there for another visit?” It’s sort of the opposite of visiting someplace and liking it so much that you put it on your return visit list and may even become a regular visitor. There was some reason that you chose to visit a place, like historic sites, Wonders of the World, nature, or other attraction. Or perhaps you were there on a work trip and took some time to look around. In any case, once you’ve been there and done that, you mentally classify that place as “seen everything I wanted and don’t need to go back,” or “there’s still more that I want to see so I’ll come back,” or maybe “I’ve seen enough but I really liked the experience so I’ll be back.” Those are the main categories that I use to classify trips I’ve taken; you may have others that fit your style. For example, we went to Guam and saw most of the historical sites but we liked the feel of the island and their food scene. We like to go back whenever we can even if we don’t have anything else that we need to see. Sometimes you just want to relax. Japan, Thailand, and Taiwan are examples of places we visited and liked but still have things we want to see there so we would like to go back sometime. Maybe it’s just that you feel there are so many places that you still want to see rather than have a repeat visit to where you have already been.
For four consecutive years we set up ‘Round The World (RTW) trips where we spent from 17 to 31 days traveling per trip. After realizing on the first trip that we should never stay in one place for less than two nights, we always had enough time to catch a half or full day tour to see the highlights of each city where we stayed. For some, that was enough, mainly because we had too many other places on our list. A few of them we marked for a future return trip because there were things we still wanted to see or experience. For example, we had been to Thailand a couple of times but still want to go to Chiang Mai, or return to England to see more of London and places like Stonehenge. On the other hand, we had made several trips to China to see Beijing highlights, the Great Wall, and Terra Cotta Warriors so we don’t feel the need to return. South Africa was a fun visit and we got out to visit Table Rock and other sites but we probably won’t be going back there either, especially now with all the civil unrest and violence. Closer to home, after a few visit many years ago, Mexico is also a place where we won’t go back to now, also because of violence and activities of the drug cartels. I think that probably the biggest reason for me to not want to return somewhere we have already been to is civil unrest, violence, gangs, or higher than usual likelihood of terrorism. In addition to South Africa, that would include places like Egypt, Turkey, and Indonesia.
I guess I’m just getting more cautious in my old age and there are still plenty of places to visit with free and friendly societies. There are still plenty of countries in South and Central America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, Pacific Islands, and parts of Europe that I have on my list. And, of course, if the right deal pops up, I’m always ready for a repeat to some of my favorite places including Guam, Japan, Thailand, Singapore and more. One way I may skirt closer to some less stable places would be as part of a cruise. If they still go there and offer shore excursions, I logically figure we’ll probably survive to tell about it, particularly on the organized tours offered by the cruise lines. They put you on a bus with other cruisers, count everyone, take you to see things, count you again, and bring you all safely (hopefully) back to the ship in time for sailing. I think in general, it’s not that there are hard and fast absolutes when it comes to travel. Places I won’t currently go back to might change over time and become attractive for tourism again. For that matter, some currently safe and attractive places could deteriorate as well and many people would drop them off their list. It pays to keep on top of world events that may impact your potential travel destinations.
What’s on your no return list and why? Happy travels!
We all have our favorite comfort foods like Macaroni & Cheese, Country Fried Steak, Grilled Cheese Sandwich & Tomato Soup, Pizza, Hot Dogs, Hamburger/Cheeseburger, Chili Fries, and…where was I going with this? Oh, yeah, we all have our favorite foods we have grown up eating and enjoying that bring back fond memories that make us feel…well…comfortable! My wife’s brother visited us a few years ago from Tokyo and somehow we got on the topic of comfort foods. He speaks and understands English at a functional level but he had never heard of comfort food before. So we tried to explain it and eventually resorted to examples that he could identify with like Ramen, Gyoza, or Curry Rice; delicious, filling, and cheap eats. Then to really reinforce the point we all went to Cracker Barrel for some hands on experience! They enjoyed it and learned a new concept. And I learned that every culture has their own comfort food whether they have actually have a word for it. So why am I talking so much about food and making myself hungry? Because I believe, and I think most of you would agree, that as with food we also have a travel version where we return often to the same place or places mainly because they make us feel…well…comfortable.
When I go to a restaurant that I’ve been to before I usually already know what I’m going to order: Two Coney Dogs and Chili Cheese Fries! See how that works? If it’s a new restaurant I may look for one of my favorite comfort-like foods on their menu. Maybe I find a Gyro or a Double BLT or and order of Poutine! If I like what I get, I’ll explore the menu more next time. But if I have more time and want to get out of my comfort zone, I might find something that looks or sounds interesting that I might like and go for it. I’ve eaten some very strange things when I travel, even within the USA. I’m no Andrew Zimmern but I had my share of strange and mostly good! So when it comes to travel I think a similar concept applies in that sometimes you want to see new things and explore new worlds (countries) but sometimes your main goal is to chill out, relax, and refresh. That is when you go to one of your old trusted destinations. We actually have several that we like where we don’t really have to think or plan much because we have been there enough times and done enough things that the pressure is off! Let’s face it, how many times do you need to ride a bicycle down a volcano?
A couple of our favorites are Maui or Big Island in Hawaii, Guam, or Japan if we have the time and the cash. We generally know the restaurants we want to eat at like Hawaiian Style Café or Sumo Deli on the Big Island, Ajisen Ramen in Guam, Marietta Diner in Marietta, Georgia, or Sid & Linda’s in Jacksonville! These are the places that you likely know the menus from memory and are already tasting what you want before you even get there. We can always find something to do but since we have been there so many times, we may have pretty well covered what we are interested in so maybe we’ll shake things up by ordering something we haven’t tried yet. The point is that you can choose to do something, even something you’ve already done but liked, or nothing at all! That’s the beauty of Comfort Travel, it’s easy on your brain, your body, and even your pocketbook because you probably know where the best deals are. Another example closer to home for us is the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio. We have been there several times, the parking and admission are free (they do appreciate donations to help with operating costs), we know our way around, and we can focus on what’s new when we stop there.
For the ultimate experience try Comfort Travel combined with some of your favorite Comfort Food restaurants. Although this can create a conundrum because usually one of the best parts of traveling is to try new and local foods. Of course what we might consider exotic or even strange local foods may be what they consider Comfort Food! So there you have it, problem solved. If you only eat at the best and most expensive restaurant, stay in only the best upscale hotels, and only travel first class (not knocking it, just sayin’), you will be missing some great food and great experiences. Of course you usually get what you pay for, but often the lower cost options are better than you might imagine. On a trip out west to see National Parks we planned our hotels as AAA one or two diamond (remember that ranking system?) non-chain hotels, just outside of major cities, that were usually small mom & pop family owned properties that were clean, comfortable, and inexpensive but every bit as good as some higher rated hotels closer in to downtown.
Sorry for the focus on food…I guess I shouldn’t blog on an empty stomach! What are some of your favorite Comfort Travel or Comfort Food places that you always have on your short list?
We recently attended my annual USAF 610th Military Airlift Support Squadron (610 MASS) Reunion which was held in Dayton, Ohio, where the group started out 20 years ago. It has been held in various cities around the country to spread the driving distances around for members of the group. I only started attending in 2014 in Orlando, followed by 2015 in Nashville, 2016 in Reno, 2017 in San Antonio, and this latest one in Dayton. 610 MASS was activated on 8 April 1966 and deactivated on 1 October 1978; it was located at Yokota Air Base near Tokyo, Japan. Its mission was to provide direct support to the Far East which included Vietnam, Japan and Korea. I was assigned there from April 1969 to July 1972 and, when I was serving there, I was unaware of the dates that 610 MASS actively existed. My specialty was working on Aircraft Electronic Navigation Systems and RADAR, aka Avionics, fixing planes on the flight line and repairing electronic modules in the shop. I spent three years there finishing my four-year enlistment, got out, went home, worked, went to college, graduated, worked some more, Yada Yada Yada, and then I retired from regular work and began my consulting business and working in Real Estate with my wife..
So somewhere around 2009 I received an email about a 610 MASS Annual Reunion in Branson, MO. I don’t remember specifics but I thought about whether I wanted to attend and decided against it mainly because I didn’t think I would remember anyone from that long ago. Each year after that I received an invitation to the 610 MASS Annual Reunion: 2010 Las Vegas…tempting but no; 2011 Philadelphia…again, no; 2012 New Orleans…uh-uh; 2013 San Diego…too far, so no again. Each time I thought about it but mainly because I didn’t think I would remember anyone (I was never much good with names), I decided to skip. But whoever was sending these notices out was very persistent and for 2014 I did check out the website and looked through names of members and those planning to attend. By this time I did remember a few of the names. Remember, this was a large organization and, while I spent time on the flight line maintenance trucks with related specialties such as electricians and radio repair, I rarely met people who were in engine repair, cargo, or passenger services, etc. But as luck would have it, we were going to be in Orlando for a conference the weekend after the scheduled reunion so we decided to stay through the week and drove to Mobile, AL, to see the Battleship USS Alabama and Pensacola, FL to visit the National Naval Aviation Museum. Then we returned to Orlando.
After forty-two years since I last saw some of these guys, I didn’t really expect to remember or know anyone. From another review of the 610 MASS Alumni on the website, I did actually remember a few names including one who had been our best man for our wedding in Japan. I sent him a message on the website to ask if he planned on attending but never got any response. One of my best friends during my time with 610 MASS was not listed and I decided to try to track him down with all the internet tools available but the result was I learned he ha passed away. But once we attended the reunion, we found everyone to be friendly and I began to compare notes to find out who had been in Avionics during the years I had been there. I found a few and have since started to remember some of the people as well as a few of the names that I recognized. We have attended every year since 2014 and I found it to challenging but also fun reconnecting with those who all have the shared experience serving in 610 MASS USAF at Yokota Air Base in Japan. For the most part I found these USAF reunions to be quite similar to some family reunions where I often can’t figure out who a lot of those strangers are until we talk and then recognize who are cousins, cousin’s kids, etc., etc,. Actually, my wife is much better at retaining that kind of information so usually I just ask her…now who is that again?
Fast forward back to my introduction about attending the 2018 610 MASS Reunion…I now have rediscovered old friends and acquaintances as well as new ones that, while I didn’t really know them when I was serving at Yokota, I can still discuss and share memories from our common history with the 610 MASS. This year we were in Dayton, OH, where the first reunion was held. In addition to the usual festivities of dinners, meetings, and casual conversations in the Hospitality Room, we also had tours to choose from including a visit to the National Museum of the United States Air Force. My wife and I had been there before on our own and still had not seen everything. We had focused on the exhibits for Early Flight and Warplanes from WWI and WWII. Now they have added a fourth building and filled it with displays of US Presidential Aircraft, what is now called Air Force One when the President is on board. We could actually enter and walk through these historical aircraft that were used by FDR, Truman, Eisenhauer, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, GHW Bush, and Clinton. The new building also includes Supersonic jets and a mockup of the Space Shuttle Crew Trainer as well as many other unique aircraft. If you are ever passing through Dayton, OH, visit this museum for a few hours or days. Admission and parking are free but donations are appreciated as they operate without any government funding for the aircraft exhibits.
So, where was I? Oh, yeah, Reunions, Love Them or Hate Them? Actually, now that I think of it, that’s a bad title because if you hate reunions (some people do and will not ever attend high school, college, company, or military reunions) you just don’t go. Personally, I have found a lot more to like about reunions than to hate. Usually the hate with respect to reunions is based on bad experiences likely with people you knew then. But what I have observed is that most of them have mellowed and are almost different people now, or they may have died. But life is too short to hold grudges or bad feelings for any great length of time. Besides, it’s also fun to see who has aged well or not! What is your take on reunions; go or no go?
It was a Trip of a Lifetime! It was a Once in a Lifetime Experience! How many times have you heard someone say this? How many times have you said it for yourself? Exactly how many trips of a lifetime can one person take? To understand this better, we first need to agree on what exactly makes up a “Trip of a Lifetime” as that expression is generally used. As lawyers usually say when answering almost any question that you ask them, it depends! To some people, a trip to visit friends or relatives many states away might be a trip of a lifetime. For others, it may be a trip to another country; or maybe a major cruise vacation to an exotic location like Antarctica; or possibly a trip around the world, visiting many countries. I guess we each have our own definition and description of what makes up a Trip of a Lifetime in our opinion. But can you have more than one trip of a lifetime? Perhaps we can have a trip of a lifetime for a number of different categories. But if we have too many trips of a lifetime, are they then just trips, as “trip of a lifetime” implies it is a one of a kind and much better than all of our other trips? Or maybe I’m just over thinking it as I have been known to do occasionally.
The more I think about it, there may likely be an evolving or increasing moving-target type of definition of what each of us would consider a Trip of a Lifetime! When I was really young, a visit to Grandma & Grandpa’s farm probably seemed like a Trip of a Lifetime. When mom & dad took us kids on a trip out west to visit relatives, it may have seemed like a Trip of a Lifetime. I have only vague memories about these trips and, from today’s vantage point, they don’t seem like they were that memorable although they are still strong memories for me of that time. I do recall when we lived in Minnesota north of Minneapolis & St. Paul that I had a grade-school trip that we took on a train…my FIRST ride on a real TRAIN!…that went to the next town where we all got off and took another train back to our town! I suppose that, at that time, I probably thought that was a Trip of a Lifetime! As a teenager, after I got my driver’s license, driving off on my own was new and exciting for a while. The next big step for me was when I entered the US Air Force in 1968 and had my very FIRST FLIGHT from Milwaukee to San Antonio on my way to basic training at Lackland AFB; WOW, 50 years ago! Being a small-town kid all of my life, using trains and planes were major accomplishments because we mostly got around on cars, bikes, or walking since there isn’t really public transportation in small towns. While in the Air Force, I became comfortable with using public transportation including buses and taxis to get around although I don’t remember any of them being a Trip of a Lifetime.
After I completed basic and then technical training, I had a flight home where I spent thirty days with my family before…my FIRST INTERNATIONAL FLIGHT to Japan for my first real duty assignment. The first time I landed in Japan felt like a Trip of a Lifetime to me as I looked down and saw nothing but rooftops getting closer and closer as we descended until, just before we touched down, we flew over a fence, saw no more houses, and landed. A bus ride to my permanent base and then a taxi dropped me off late at night at my barracks. Upon entering the empty lobby, I heard and saw something that grabbed my attention; a black-&-white TV set had on an Italian movie about WWII, depicting German soldiers fighting on the Russian front, that had been dubbed in Japanese with English subtitles…now THAT was a Trip of a Lifetime! As most of you probably know, getting around in Japan involves extensive use of public transportation (think Bullet Trains that you can set your watch by, if you still use one, local trains, subways, buses, and taxis) and not so much use of personal vehicles, although I retained that feeling of freedom to go my own way using my car and motorcycle. Aside from a few flights home and back during my three years in Japan, I just honed my travel skills on a real world-class public transportation system.
Fast forward a number of years and a couple of kids, our first family trip to Hawaii was, at that time, a Trip of a Lifetime that we had saved for and planned with the help of a real travel agent, remember them? I think our boys were about four and six and we saw a lot, learned a lot, relaxed a lot, and didn’t want to go home to winter! We seemed to average a trip to Hawaii (they have different islands, you see) about every four to five years so it didn’t feel much like a Trip of a Lifetime so much anymore. We began to get bolder with each step up the “Trip of a Lifetime” travel ladder with more international trips to Japan, Mexico, and finally our first trip to Europe (Paris, France with $250 each roundtrip airfare on Northwest was first)! Then we discovered (a)Round The World (RTW) travel, which was the newest Trip of a Lifetime and we did it four times, four years in a row, in Business Class. Our shortest was 17 days and our longest was 31 days and included a 10-Day Princess Cruise around the British Isles and a 6-Day African Safari at Salt Lick Lodge at Taita Hills in Kenya! Soon even these began to feel normal. Our first couple of cruises were amazing and we learned a whole new way to travel that felt like a Trip of a Lifetime but, after ten or more cruises albeit to different destinations, they also became normal.
I guess from my perspective, the bottom line is that if you have one big, major, blowout trip and then just spend the rest of your life reminiscing and talking about it, that probably WAS your Trip of a Lifetime. But if, during your life, you keep moving the bar higher for bigger, longer, more unique trips, there is not really any limit to how many Trips of a Lifetime you can have. You could even make every trip you take a Trip of a Lifetime! How many have you had so far?
Have you fed your travel addiction lately? Is there really such a thing as an addition to travel? I would suggest that it is a real thing and it provides us with highs and lows just like any other addiction! Consider someone who hardly ever travels and perhaps only by car; I know, but humor me, they do exist. Possibly they have only done local or domestic travel within a few states. To them, planning a “major trip” from say Michigan to Florida or Texas can be intimidating. If their travel experience has consisted of trips to visit friends or relatives, they may have not even dealt with making a hotel reservation. But everyone has to start somewhere. They heard about the internet and they started searching for a cheap hotel and, finding, say, a Red Roof Inn or the one that leaves the light on for them, they figure out how to make a reservation. The next time they need a hotel, they know the routine and call to make another reservation with the same brand hotel, assuming their earlier stay was decent. Somewhere along the way, they start getting mail, email, etc. from that hotel chain, asking them to join their loyalty club and explaining the benefits like maybe a free night after so many stays. After a while, they are comfortable with that hotel brand and know what to expect at stays in the future. As long as that chain treats them fairly, they may have a long-term customer.
Woops! They need to be somewhere and they looked but could not find anything by their preferred hotel chain in that area. But their skills have been honed and they have no problem finding another hotel by a different brand and decide to give it a try. This can result in spreading their loyalty if they have a pleasant experience at the new hotel. As it continues to expand, more hotel chains, including some mid-level brands or groups that contain a whole spectrum from low-end to luxury brands and loyalty programs offering more unique and enticing rewards. Essentially, the more you do, the better and more comfortable you get at it. This idea repeats itself with other things as well such as flights, restaurants, casinos, etc. Most offer loyalty and rewards programs to an extent that, at some point, you almost need a personal assistant to keep track of them all. And the more trips you take, the more comfortable you become with the whole travel routine and you either love and enjoy it or hate the idea of getting back out there. If you love it and can’t wait to be off again, you may be addicted to traveling! (See the movie, “Up in the Air.”)
The more we travelled for work and leisure, both domestic and international, the miles and status added up. A quarter to a third of the miles flown per year were from work trips and the rest were from vacation travels, with two or three international flights in discount Business Class that earned bonus miles. Concurrent with that was a huge accumulation of hotel points and status. After about ten years at platinum level on Northwest and then Delta, we both made Diamond status on Delta the first year it was added. Meanwhile, we held Diamond status with Hilton brands for most of the same time period. Early each year, I would develop plans for trips that would allow us to accomplish our mileage and hotel-points goals using an estimate for work travel based on historical averages. We operated like travel machines that were good at packing for trips, varying from long weekends to month-long trips. We were comfortable navigating airports around the world, getting to hotels, and managing to enjoy different cultures, cuisines, and people.
Then I retired! The first year after that we went from Delta Diamond to Gold and then Silver the next year. That’s when withdrawal symptoms set in. Since we both had earned well over a million miles, we both have lifetime Silver status; but these days, that’s not much above, uh…, nothing! We do both have lifetime membership with Delta’s airport clubs, but that only has meaning if you are flying. As part of the denial process, we began to do more road trips that helped us maintain our top status with Hilton for a few more years, but eventually even that dropped off. It took a while for me to come to grips with reality and realize there is still a life after loss of elite statuses. Or maybe that’s called rationalization! We still enjoy our road trips and especially after we discovered audio books! We read (listened to) seven books on a trip to San Antonio and back. And I’ve already completed 108 books so far during half the year! Yay, STATUS ON GOODREADS!! Some things never change!
In today’s world we have to pay special attention to our personal safety when traveling the world. There are, of course, natural dangers that can come with any particular destination we choose such as earthquakes, hurricanes, etc. Activity-related examples include hiking in places like the Everglades, the Alaskan Tundra, or the Serengeti in Africa. Or perhaps the inherent danger associated with activities like mountain climbing, deep-sea diving, or skydiving. Of course we can somewhat mitigate the dangers and safety hazards by reading, studying, and training so that we can become very familiar with deadly creatures, poisonous plants, and other common known hazards that exist for any destination of interest so that we are as prepared as we can be to know how to deal with them. Hazards affecting your health or places notorious for diseases and similar problems. As much as possible we need to research and look for potential travel problems so that we can eliminate or counteract them or at least be more aware of them.
Once you have decided on a potential destination, you need to get busy with a little research about the country or region you want to visit. There are a number of useful websites that can be very helpful to you for this. For Americans, check the US State Department for the latest information and warnings about travel to various countries. They will have information about natural disasters, health and required inoculations (if you need some, allow enough time for them to become active and effective before you depart), political unrest, etc. Also check Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) for the latest conditions at you chosen destination. Of course you can also ask a reliable and knowledgeable travel agent (yes, they actually still exist) as well as any of the better travel websites or reputable travel bloggers. Some of them specialize so if you don’t get answers to your specific concerns at one site, move on to the next or refine your online search criteria. Other sources for things like major natural disasters or political unrest and violence can be found on various news outlets, weather channels, or there’s always Google searches.
If the issue is more of an activity type of trip such as a safari, mountain climbing, exotic destinations (think Antarctica or Galapagos) or anything that could be considered dangerous, unless you are an expert or professional at the activity you have planned, look for local guides and experts for hire or to get advice from before you decide. When we took an African safari, since we had never done it before, we hired a professional and knowledgeable guide to take us out on game drives to reduce our risk so that we could relax and enjoy the experience. You also need to be aware of the level of petty crime such as pickpockets or attacks on tourists that are usually attempts at robbery. My brother-in-law was once robbed in Italy by someone wearing a police uniform who asked to see his passport and then ran off with it as well as some cash. We are probably much more safety conscious than the average travelers who like to live on the edge. We like to go on organized or group tours because of safety in numbers and because, in our experience, we learn so much more by listening to a tour guide explain to us what we are seeing. Obviously, going out on our own to eat or enjoy attractions in a city that is easy for travelers to figure out is fine as long as you stay alert.
Then there are some destinations that have special cultural issues or considerations to be aware of so as not to insult or anger any of the locals and potentially ruin your trip. For example, don’t bring up controversial issues like the Armenian Genocide when traveling in Turkey, or the Vietnam War when traveling in Vietnam. When we traveled to Vietnam we had signed up for a tour and we were picked up by a driver and a tour guide just for us, no group that time. The tour included a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels used by the Vietcong to infiltrate the south. The tour guide suggested substituting a trip to the Mekong Delta instead; sensing an attempted upsell I asked how much…for an additional $6! Then we learned that he had been in the South Vietnamese Army and had worked closely with the US Marines during the war. He said that for people with backgrounds like his, only menial jobs were available, although he did like being a tour guide as he can in contact with foreigners and especially Americans. That was good enough for us, but we didn’t bring it up first. And for the record, we really enjoyed the Mekong Delta. There may also be specific advisories for how to dress, particularly in Muslim or other very conservative cultures, and women especially need to be aware of these requirements. There are great sources online including travel blogs to learn what is acceptable and not acceptable so that you can hopefully avoid having your trip ruined.
There are plenty of ways to make your travel safer but you need to do some homework to decrease risk and increase enjoyment. Have you been on a trip where you “had a bad feeling about this” moment? Stay safe in your travels!
When it comes to planning your trips, do you have a favorite type such as going on a Cruise, taking a Flight, heading out on a Road Trip, taking a Train, etc? Or is the destination more important regardless of how you get there? I suppose as with most things of this nature, people have their own preferences they have developed. And certainly there are aspects of each trip type that are attractive as well as challenging. For some people, maybe it is not even about having a favorite type of trip so much as just being out and away from the day-to-day familiar routine, just traveling! As is likely the case with most of you, we have been on some of each type over the years and our favorite can change over time. Until 1995, we had never been on a cruise; just road trips and flights. Then we went on an Alaska Cruise with Holland America and we were hooked. We continue to alternate trip types depending on the purpose, the destination, and maybe even just what we are in the mood for. Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of each type.
Most of us likely first start out with Road Trips from when we are young and went wherever our parents wanted to take us. And we continued the legacy when we become parents. Road trips are a natural for families, particularly with smaller children. The costs are relatively low because the amount of fuel used is essentially the same for one to five or so travelers. Road trips also allow the most flexibility with respect to departure and arrival times and you can change the schedule based on weather, traffic, and just because you feel like it. There is no security check, and rest stops can be as soon as the next public rest area or fast-food place along your route. You also get to experience plenty of food choices and stops for sightseeing along the way. On the other hand, Road Trips usually take more time and may involve long boring stretches on the road, or trapped in traffic in a small enclosed space with your family or friends. And although we are generally stuck with family, Road Trips with even best friends can sometimes ruin the friendship.
Moving on to flights, the obvious advantage is the time savings to quickly cover a couple days worth of driving in just a few hours. And if you score (or purchase) an upgrade to a more comfortable class with more leg room, meals, drinks, respect, etc., it may actually be kinda, sorta enjoyable. And this may be the only practical way for most overseas trips unless you are up for a long sea voyage. Now for the negatives of air travel, and there are many. First of all, there is the hassle factor; parking the car, taking the shuttle to the airport, checking in bags (if you really find it necessary), going through security, being at the gate early, boarding in proper sequences, exiting at your destination, waiting for your checked bags, finding rental cars, and finally, getting on the road to your destination. Also, if you factor in the several hours that are involved in all of that, destinations that are four to six hours or less away may be as fast or faster to just drive. Then there’s the cost as you need to purchase a ticket for each traveler. Add to all of this the possibility of delays, or worse, cancelled flights, and re-booking to get to your destination. Compare that to going by car and deciding if you need to change your departure time and it all comes down to your risk tolerance and the importance of being someplace by a certain date and time so you don’t literally miss the boat (or hotel).
Now for cruises! When it comes to cruises, they usually include aspects of Road Trips and Flights in order to get to the departure Cruise port unless you live locally or within a couple of hours. But once you arrive on board the ship, the fun and relaxation begins immediately. In our case, that usually involves dropping our carry-ons in our cabin and making our first of many trips to the buffet. Once our larger luggage shows up later and we unpack and put things away, we are all set for no worries except when and where to eat and which shore excursions to take. As for negatives, and there are always some negatives, sometimes the lines at the port for checking in and boarding can be lengthy depending on when you arrive; so ask the cruise line for the best time for the shortest lines. Also, if you cruise a lot and earn some elite status on a cruise line, this can be avoided or minimized. At first look, the prices for cruising seem high but if you consider it includes all of your meals, port visits, entertainment on board, etc., they are really a great value. Some people do have a problem with seasickness but that can be generally addressed with patches, pills, or bands although feeling drugged while trying to enjoy your vacation isn’t pleasant. I never really had a problem but my wife had some issues on our earlier Cruises and used the bands but mostly seemed to “grow” out of it. Of course, there is also a slight risk of being exposed to a virus and getting quarantined for a couple of days. But Cruise line employees are very good about cleaning and using anti-virus products such as hand lotions that are also available for your use (and you really should use them) all over the ship.
Finally, we have enjoyed another mode of travel going by train. Most of my initial experiences with trains were while I was stationed in Japan and I used them mostly to get around the Metro Tokyo area. We also used the Bullet Train for longer trips to Kyoto and Hiroshima. These are like a hybrid of a driverless Road Trip with on-board rest stops and a Flight with scheduled times. Security is generally nowhere near the level or extent experienced at airports. Once on board, we could relax and watch the scenery go by. Hungry? They have restaurants as well as snacks for sale on carts that come around regularly. We also recently added a trip by train in Alaska from Anchorage to Denali before an Alaska cruise; it lasted for about eight hours with a number of stops. We paid extra for Gold Star Service on the Alaska Railroad line that included a number of perks like unlimited drinks and snacks, seating in a glass top car with panoramic views, preferred seating in the dining car, narration by the cabin attendants about sights along the way, etc.; we felt this was well worth the extra cost. One negative with travel by train (similar to flying) is a timetable for departure times that you must keep but not much else.
So, after all of that discussion, what is my favorite type of travel? The truth is that it depends. I know that is a way of avoiding making a commitment and just picking one. But I think you would agree that, unless you just hate or will not do certain types of travel, your favorite can change from month to month and year to year based on what you’re looking for at the time. For example, some people will not go on a cruise and have no interest in taking one, usually because they fear seasickness or viruses. We have been on about ten cruises so far and we love them and would not hesitate to go again; related to Cruises, we have yet to try a River Cruise but it will happen eventually. Aside from the unpleasantries of air travel, once I’m on the plane, I usually enjoy the rest of the trip and the quick arrival at my destination. I also am almost always in the mood for a Road Trip because we can try new restaurants, listen to audio books, visit interesting sights, etc. along the way. I have a few special Train Trips on my bucket list such as the Canadian Rockies, Luxury Train in Southern Japan, or Coast-to-Coast USA. If you pressed me to be more specific right now, today, I would most likely say Cruise…or…maybe…Road Trip…or…maybe…Train…or maybe…Flight! I guess I left off Horseback, motorcycle, hot-air balloon, white water rafting, and maybe the Ultimate Vacation…Stay Home! Disconnect! Order Pizza!
What is your favorite? Right now! Today!