Thursday, June 28, 2012

Where to sleep while traveling

One of the most difficult things about travel is dealing with travel is when the expectations do not match the reality. Some of the smallest things can surprise you.  For example people expect hotels to have climate control to match the weather, but this may not be the case. I have visited London in the summer only to discover that the hotel did not have any air conditioning even though the temperature was over 30° C (85° F). Upon checking with the front desk they were able to provide a fan for my stay. Recently I had the opposite happen in Eliat. While visiting in the winter I discovered that the hotel air conditioning did not warm the room even though there was a setting that went up to 30° C.  Unfortunately the nights were quite cold, down to 6° C (42° F). In this case the hotel was able to provide a small electric heater. 

On another trip to London I was organizing my company’s participation at a conference (more details about this trip are later in the book) and our VP of Sales is over 1.9 meters (6’ 4”) tall. Unfortunately in this case the hotel room only had a twin bed available and it was too short for him and we were unable to change his room to a queen size where he could sleep diagonally. He ended up sleeping with his feet sticking out.

Beyond temperature and bed length water is the most basic expectation. Everyone knows the warnings about not dinking the water in Mexico (I have been there twice and drank the water with no problems both times), but when you are in a hotel in a country where the water is known to be safe it is surprising to see a sign over the bathroom sink telling you that the water is not for drinking. 

There are many options in places to sleep. They come in many qualities from ones that cater to Kings to ones that charge by the hour. Some of the options are:
  • Hotel - usually 3 or more tall. 
  • Motel - usually 1 or 2 stories tall, doors can open to an outside balcony rather than an interior corridor.
  • B&B or Bed and Breakfast - usually a converted house or lodge with a more home like and personal environment.
  • Tsimer or cabin - individual buildings that have their own private space. This can include kitchen, patio, lawn area, etc.
  • Ryokan - traditional Japanese inn. Sleeping is on a mat on the floor, eating is sitting on a mat on the floor. I have not tried this on my trip to Japan, but I intend to go back and try it when I next visit.
  • Coffin Hotel - unique Japanese concept, each "room" is little more than a bed with all items (TV, storage, etc) in the walls alongside the bed. Total space is just enough for average Japanese man to sit up in bed, and touch both walls and ceiling.
  • Tent (or equivalent) - when you are out in nature area and roughing it. These can also be cultural in nature. Sleeping can be on mats laid on the ground or cots.
  • Ice Hotel - seasonal accommodations literately made from ice Apparently very good for couples who want to cuddle to keep out the cold.
There are  other options so keep an open mind and check the internet or guide books to see what is available and different. Ii personally do not like the "cookie cutter" concept that every hotel should be the same. I like local flavor. I will include some hotel photos along with individual posts about trips.

Keep in mind that these places are in business to make money, so be cautious before assuming that all hotels offer the same services or that things are free/included in the room rate:
  • Breakfast – if a morning meal is important to you check to see if it is included or even available at the hotel. If it is included understand the difference between
  • Internet connection – many hotels offer WiFi, some in the rooms (free or a charge) or free in the lobby. In Japan Ii found that they had WiFi in the lobby but Ethernet in the rooms. Cables are sometimes provided in the room, or you can ask for them at the front desk.
  • Food or drinks in the room - many hotels have a mini bar in the room, where items cost between 150% - 1000% of the price you would pay at a local convenience store. Many have now also started putting a coffee pot and free coffee and tea in the room.
One of the most interesting hotel breakfasts I ever had was on a business trip in Moscow while staying at the Metropol hotel (just down the street from Red Square and across the street from the Bolshoi Theatre. First the hotel restaurant was huge, had a live Grand Piano player. The room was wonderful, as this was where foreign dignitaries would stay when visiting the Kremlin or the old Tzars.

Back to the meal, as this is a hotel that caters to visitors from both the east and the west they had a buffet with on end spread out with eggs, sausage, toast and jam like you would find in London. The other end had rice, miso soup, pickled plums, and such as you would find in a Japanese breakfast buffet. In the middle was smoked fish (salmon, pickled herring ) caviar, all the necessary accessories, They had  various juices, coffee, black tea, green tea, and even white tea. I  have to admit that the breakfast made it easier to face the cold January mornings. Breakfast was included in the room rate.
Japanese Breakfast, Nara
On the other hand I have had a Japanese breakfast tray complete with pickled plum in gelatin cube and other interesting for putting on the steamed rice. It was very taste, but was not included in the room rate.

Regardless of where you go, I suggest that you try the local flavor in food as you never know when you may find something that you really like.

In Bangkok, Thailand breakfast came with Dragon Fruit, in Mexico City there was eggs with chorizo and corn tortillas, and in Australia it came with vegemite. (I do not recommend vegemite or marmite to those who have not grown up with them.)

All photos were taken by me while on travel

Monday, June 25, 2012

Florida -My earliest trips and losing my shirt to a pretty lady

When I was growing up, half way between New York City and Philadelphia (and also half way between Boston and Washington DC), air travel was expensive and it was a rare kid who got to fly on an airplane.  So when my grandparents moved to Florida we started taking annual migrations to visit during the winter break in our station wagon. 

This would always start with the traditional packing of the car, with a space large enough for a kid to sleep in the back next to the cooler that enabled us to travel with fewer breaks. We would leave as soon after sunrise as my father could get us all into the car. Frequently this would mean that he was the only one awake as we would get in the car and fall back to sleep for another hour or two. After an in car breakfast of bagels and fruit we would all be awake for the 26 hour drive.  As we drove there were the traditional car games such as looking for letters on license plates, but as this was a trip down Route 95 it had its own special game. That was the competition as to who would see the first South of the Border sign. We would usually spend a night in southern North Carolina or northern South Carolina (only once actually staying at South of the Border). We even once made such good time that we changed the motel reservation to northern Georgia. Sometime around 4 pm we would arrive at my grandparent’s condo in Ft. Lauderdale or later at my grandmother’s condo in Boca Raton.
  • These trips would include all sorts of unusual warnings like:
  • Always watch out for alligators.
  • Be careful not to fall into the canals.
  • Don’t go onto the golf course, unless you are playing.
  • Do not be surprised at the daily four o’clock thunder shower and the resulting humidity.
  • And dinner is at five o’clock. 
Sometimes these trips would include side trips and tourist activities. We went up to Disney World for a day trip;  or to Cape Canaveral to see NASA and the launch pads; and once to see Jai alai in Miami. These side trips were often the highlight of the trips. 

I can recall one trip when we were planning to go deep sea fishing, and the night before I was unable to sleep and spent the most of the night reading Treasure Island. Then when we go onto the boat I was so tired that I slept through most of the trip.

Later, when I was working full time my family would still drive down each winter. Sometimes I could join and other times not. One year I made arrangements to fly down on Christmas day. The flight had more crew members than passengers; apparently they needed the plane in Florida the following morning for flights back so they did not cancel the flight. At the crew’s request we were all given an on-board upgrade to first class so it would be easier to support the 10 of us.

 Another time, I was coming down as a surprise for my Grandmothers surprise birthday party. Unfortunately there was a problem with fog at the airport in Florida.  So we were rerouted to Atlanta, and put up but the airline overnight at an airport hotel. Te hotel voucher included meal vouchers at the hotel restaurant. I had gotten to chatting with my seat mate on the flight and the shuttle ride to the hotel. She was more than a little put out by the delay as it seems she did not have a change of cloths as they only let us have out carry-on luggage with the rest staying on the plane overnight (to save time in the morning) . I was only with carry-on luggage (as I was going for a few days) so I loaned her on of my spare t-shirts. We kept each other company over dinner, and parted ways at the Boca Raton airport. 

I was picked-up at the airport by my father and we went to the condo, my Grandmother thought my being there was the surprise – little did she know what was planned. On the following day we went to take her to one of the local restaurants. In the lobby we accidentally bumped into one of her cousins who lived in the area, after a little chatting we separated and went inside. Once there we took her to the banquet hall. When we walked in my Grandmother bumped into her brother who had told her he was not available to get together for her birthday. After she could catch her breath she started hitting him and yelling at him. Then she saw everyone else there and realized it was a surprise party for her. 
 Come to think of it, I never got that shirt back.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Hints before traveling:

This is mostly aimed at flying, but the advice holds true for any long distance travel where you are the only driver.

There are several sites or books (Frommers,  Lonely Planet, and Rough Guide to name a few) that will help with what to bring on your trip, so I will make some suggestions on what not to do/bring/wear. To experienced travelers these will all makes sense, but to new travelers they may not be so obvious so each of these suggestions is from one or more of the stories.

When you are traveling you should
  • Avoid wearing white cloths – you can bet that something will be spilled or you will rub against something that will stain.
  • Keep in mind that you may have to go through security so a lot of zippers, things that will show funny on an x-ray or scanner should be avoided too.
  • Try to be comfortable, but not too casual. There have been cases where people have been not allowed to fly because they were too scantly dressed.
  • Keep in mind the weather at both your destination and transfer points. Also consider that airplanes are air conditioned and blankets are not always available anymore.
 Do wear/bring:
  • Comfortable cloths – think layers as airports and planes will be different temperatures.
  • Shirt with pockets – hold your seat check, etc.
  • Clean socks – you will have to take off your shoes.
  • Snacks for delays / long flights / waking in the middle of the night.
  • Pen, especially on international flights where you will have to fill in customs and entry cards.
  • Something to entertain yourself as in-flight entertainment does not always work.
  • Your sense of humor and some patience for the little things that will not go as planned.
 How people dressed for flights has changed over the years. Once flying was considered a special occasion for which people would dress up. Less so now. For example my parents tell a story of our going to the gate (yes all the way to the gate) at JFK airport, in New York, to meet my Great Grand Parent who were returning from Miami. My Great Grand Mother came of the plane as if she was going to dine with Royalty, fancy dress, her best jewelry, and her fur stole. While 2 years ago I was on a business trip with 15 coworkers and one of our Divisional Presidents arrived at the airport wearing a blue track suit with yellow trim. Obviously things have changed.

Avoid obvious security red flags, especially on international flights:
  • A one way ticket
  • No hotel reservation / information about where you will be staying
  • No local currency
  • No contact information for the people you will be seeing
  • No tour or other itinerary
  • Traveling alone to meet up with  boy/girl friend 
  • Inconsistent names or details on any of your travel documents (they will cross check)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Travel Perceptions and Realities

Over the years perceptions and realities of travel change.  

 For example, once it was possible to go and wait at the gate for your arriving loved ones, now security has limited us to the building lobby. You used to get serious meals with real glasses, metal utensils, and real plates in all classes of travel, now on flights these are limited to the first class passengers. Everyone else needs to settle for plastic, if a meal is served at all. On recent trips through different US airports I was surprised to find that there were announcements letting passengers know that they could buy meals to carry on to their flights.

Most of the stories in this blog will be centered around air travel, but there are examples of several road trips and a few that involve ships. All forms of travel can be full of strange adventures. For example I will tell the tale of the road trip where we could not find our way our of New Jersey and another where I drove the Staten Island Ferry. Stories will include stays in hotels, with friends, and the occasional tent. Bonfires, dry ice, and assorted types of food and drink will appear - sometimes with recipes.

Just to show a little of glimpse of where I have traveled I have created this map with the help of TripAdvisor's Cities I've Visited Facebook App:

Thus my stories will take you though 22 Counties, 20 US States, and 3 Australian States.

But first some general advice:

In general I try to learn several key expressions before traveling in order to help me communicate with the locals. These expressions are:
·        Do you speak English?
·        Where is the bathroom?
·        How much does it cost?
·        What time/how long?

To facilitate communications I resort to using a pen and pad (for writing down numbers (cost, time, etc.), guide books (Frommers,  Lonely Planet, and Rough Guide to name a few) and printouts of maps (people can frequently help if you can show them what you want), and when all else fails pantomime. I find that a friendly attitude and one or more of these techniques will usually result in people trying to help.

Unfortunately I have also seen people being stereo typical. Native English speakers (from several countries) who speak to the local in increasing volume as it becomes increasingly obvious that they did not understand.  It is almost as if these people believe that either the person did not hear them so they need to repeat it with more volume or that repetition with more volume will increase their understanding. Usually this only results in a person who was willing to help becoming more frustrated and sorry that they tried to help at all.

I suggest that you always try to have some tourist information with you when you are out on the street in case it can be used to help communication. Even if you can not bring a guide book on the trip you can bring printouts from the internet, general information from the airport (usually found in or just after the baggage claims/customs areas), or a map from your hotel’s front desk. In fact I strongly suggest that you ask for such a map when you check-in, and ask them to mark the hotel on it as it will help you get back from your meetings or days travels (taxi drivers who do not speak English can all read a local map).

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Our Journey Begins

Depending on your point of view I have either been blessed or cursed by having gotten to travel quite a lot.

The blessing has been that on every trip I have taken the opportunity to see a little of the place I am visiting, even if the trip is purely for business. On each of these trips I tend to have some sort of adventure or observation that makes telling about the trips amusing to my listener and I am sometimes asked to tell someone else about “the wedding trip to Ireland with the 5 lesbians” or about how I “almost walked out of town and just barely caught the tour bus before it left without me on Santorini” (both will appear in this blog). Some of the stories are about the local people or the foods I encountered; while others are about things that happened on the trip to me or the people traveling with me.

The curse of traveling has to do with the crazy sleep patterns that you can get traveling half way around the world, the time with family and events missed while on travel. For example I have missed several weddings, baby namings, and school events because of business travel.

All of the stories in this collection are true; the names have been changed to protect the innocent, the guilty, and those who don’t wish to be embarrassed.

Ok, there are 2 stories that did not happen to me personally, these exceptions are marked as having been told to me, but are included as they are stories I believe really happened and can show some of the potential problems that can occur when traveling for work.

For each of the stories I will indicate the following information:
  • Continent        
  • Country    
  • Year visited        
  • City / Site
  • Business / Pleasure
I provide this information for several reasons. Most important is the fact that places change over time. Two quick examples are related to the pyramids in Paris, France and Tulum, Mexico. My wife visited Paris in before 1990, so her visit to the Luvor museum was before they had the glass pyramid, my trip was in 1996 when the entrance already had the glass pyramid, thus giving us something to discuss and compare. The second example is the Aztec pyramid in Tulum. When I went to Tulum in 1992 the site was well established with only a few souvenir stands and snack shops, while it is my understanding that today there is a full shopping mall next to the site.

As you can see in these 2 pyramid examples time and man have made major changes that can change what you would see should you visit the same site today.  

I will be tagging each post with one of the following tags
  • Travel Tale – a story as explained above
  • Trip Advice – suggestions or advice for travelers
  • Check list – specific check lists of things to bring, to do, etc.
  • Musings – random rants about travel related topics
  • Location – interesting observations about the locals or locale
  • Conference – special considerations for attending or running a business event
  • Bureaucracy – those special considerations about travel: visas, entry forms, etc.
  • Guest – for those occasions where I have someone else writing a post (or rebuttal) or alternative view on a specific trip
And so Our Journey Begins . . .