squeezing in family travel: college trips

Pratt Institute – Brooklyn, NY

Let me share some tips with you for making the all-important college trips memorable. I think I can predict some of your questions….and, then maybe you’ll indulge me while I share some pictures.

The day I moved my son into college, I’d been on the ground for only a few hours (arriving on a red eye from Thailand), but just because you travel for a living doesn’t mean you miss out on these important milestones. Fit them in and around your work obligations – and, make time to catch some local flavor. Travel in any capacity doesn’t have to be grueling …unless you let it be. Do you have questions about how to fit in these important trips? Here are my tips for making college visits practical – and, I’ll share a few pics, which I now cherish.

Did we visit a ton?

We only looked at 2 schools: Pratt Institute and University of North Texas. Pratt was very near my company headquarters in New Jersey – so, as a highschool junior trying on various curricula, I felt comfortable leaving him here for a few weeks, where I had a pretty robust network. Meanwhile, I just couldn’t fixate on the solo trips he’d make into the city late at night. Thank goodness for 21st Century tracking devices. So, this was an opportunity for BOTH of us to “try on” college. We checked out the campus during his Spring Break and then we dropped him off over 4th of July holiday for an extended trial period. Fortunately, each visit coincided perfectly with mandatory meetings at HQ so the trips didn’t add up to extra travel at all. I neatly tied up work while he ran around on his own and then we shifted to more convenient-to-school Airbnbs for our personal time.

Get into the community:

The trick to finding a good Airbnb was unlocked for me when I was an Airbnb-newby:

  • Look for spaces with good, recent reviews. And, not just 1.
    • If there are several people corroborating what the host has described for their space, you can be pretty confident.
    • A new space with no reviews could be anything – including a hoax.
  • Watch out for exorbitant cleaning fees.
  • Be practical about what you’re reading
    • I’ve certainly overlooked a few things in lieu of an amazing price and I almost always kick myself for doing so.
  • I look for verified hosts and prefer Super Hosts.
    • This gives me an even higher level of confidence.
  • I always restrict my searches to the entire space
    • I don’t ever want to accidentally end up in someone’s spare room.

“Oh, the places you’ll go!”

Dr. Suess

Now, time for transition

In the end, my son chose an in-state school for his undergraduate studies (my pocket-book was SO pleased). So, we immediately pulled down all the necessary calendars and started planning. Obviously, people who travel for a living live and die by their calendars – it can sometimes feel a bit like a Rube Goldberg Machine. With careful coordination, I haven’t missed any major events (e.g. orientation, move-in / move-out days) knock-wood. However, his latest move-out was tricky because not only was I headed out to Belgium on holiday, but he was headed to Italy for study abroad. As such, we had about 36 hours to accomplish all 3 things. It’s never easy, but it’s worth it.

University of North Texas – Denton, TX

The promised tips:

I have a few tips to share so that you make the most of this time together – they’re important milestones in your child’s life and in your life as a parent. Delegating it to someone else wasn’t an option for me. Here’s how I made it work:

  • Backwards plan from Move-In date
    • Collect packing materials/supplies and budget time in the weeks/months approaching that date.
    • Establish clear goals for each effort.
      • We sorted his belongings by: Keep home, Take with, Donate.
      • We divided our efforts by Closet, Dresser, Shelves, etc. in digestible increments.
        • Killing his enthusiasm the first weekend would’ve derailed our down-stream productivity.
  • Schedule travel plans to allow for delays
    • The thing about college calendars is that they coincide, sadly, with upticks in travel delays like summer storms and winter weather.
      • Don’t assume you’ll be on-time.
        • Make fall-back plans – Know nearby airports and friends/family who could get the ball rolling if needed
  • Book local services
    • Need a U-Haul truck or larger vehicle? Depending on your location, you might even need to rent a car for a few hours.
      • In Brooklyn, we used ZipCar to allow us to run to Target and get the things we didn’t ship – and, then again for move-in day.
    • Get local lodging; I like Airbnb – situated in the community and unique.
      • You get much more feel for where and how your child will be living.
    • Make local dinner and cultural reservations. Have FUN!
      • I searched top sights in the area, restaurants and even found a ghost tour in the town.
      • This tapped some of his interests and helped him be more enthusiastic about having a new “home town” for the next few years.
  • Rent a local storage unit
    • I wish I’d thought of this freshman year – this keeps a dormitory from exploding into your home over summer.
      • Store locally what you can, and bring home only what’s needed for a couple months.

Don’t lose this time together

He’s certainly been patient with me when travel delays meant we needed to rearrange personal plans. And, he’s had to take a seat at DisneyWorld (patiently) while I took an impromptu meeting….on vacation. This all goes with the territory. But, the college transition is one of the last times they really NEED you. Don’t miss out. As with anything, if you invest in up-front planning, once the mechanism starts and you’re on your way – you can sit back and enjoy the journey.

We’ve really come to love his new home away from home.

tips: cancelled flights

One minute, I’m watching “Call the Midwife” downloads on my iPad, and the next I’m sitting in airport jail half-way around the world. I’m sure this happens to most people (right?). But, when it happened to me, I had a few hours on my hands to be introspective. What could I have done differently, and would I do differently in the future?

I was the last in my group for departure from Singapore. We’d had dinner, hugged our good-byes, and piled into cars headed for Changi Airport. This airport is a destination in itself. I think that’s at least one of the reasons why you’re not allowed in your gate’s boarding area until an hour before departure – it keeps you shopping. Nonetheless, I’m always pleased when the departure lounge opens up because it means I’m on-track to head home.

I mean, there are worse airports to be stuck in……

This particular trip, I was flying British Airways because of the single connection option they offered. Mind you, had I chosen United or Singapore Air, they would have had multiple planes in and out – BA had just mine that day. This is something I’ve filed away for future: How many planes does a carrier have arriving/departing from that airport each day? Because when the pilot came out and very calmly and politely explained they needed a new battery for the plane, I knew it was unlikely they’d have one just sitting around. As it turned out, they had to wait for one to arrive the next day…

Be aware of these signs that your departure is VERY delayed:

  • The assigned departure lounge staff goes away
  • The crew’s not arriving, deplanes, or leaves the lounge area
  • The crew looks unhappy, or starts talking with their backs to the awaiting passengers
  • Your on-line flight tracker starts giving you messages about delays that haven’t been posted. Or worse, tells you your flight is cancelled

Tip: download a flight tracker app just so that you have 2 sources for flight information. Even if you’re using your carrier’s app, a second way to verify information is good. I’ve used Flight Tracker and FlightView. I’ve gotten information through these sources before the airlines released/posted info, which can give you a much-needed head start when looking at alternate flights.

As I continued, in relative peace, to watch babies be born (on my iPad), the flight crew came out to address us often. They were friendly and looked like this was a minor delay; no big deal. I personally had a nice long layover in Heathrow before my nonstop home, so maybe I would have to forego my full-english and just eat airplane food for breakfast; no big deal. After a couple of hours, I asked the pilot whether any of the crew was going to time-out soon (as delays start to mount by the hours, you’ll want to look into this, too – changing out crew members can cause substantial delays). Our crew was still good for several more hours, but those started ticking away; becoming a bigger deal. As we approached the end of the window the pilot had given me for the crew timing out, I called my travel agent’s after-hours service. I needed to know if there were alternate flights for me and could any be held….. Immediately thereafter, the pilot came out with the crew in tow, turned their backs to us to speak with the departure gate staff and I knew; this now had become a big deal. I called my agent and asked her to put Plan B into action – I needed a seat on a different carrier.

So, it’s one thing to hold a seat – that’s free. It’s another thing entirely to purchase a last-minute ticket – especially internationally. The ticket I wanted was $5,000. This wasn’t a charge that I was willing to put on my card and sort it out later. I needed my current carrier to re-book (pay) for the change for me.

Tip: Know your resources – (See bottom of post for ideas)

There was, I’ll say, ‘moderate’ chaos in the boarding lounge. Two gentlemen were yelling (screaming) at the gate agents while the rest of us were asked to stand in an orderly line (first come – first serve). This is the part where I need to cue the violins: I had a personal reason to be home on-schedule – my son was about to open as Sir Toby Belch in a highschool play and we’d been running lines for MONTHS. So, I wiggled up to the front of the line (I’m diminutive…short). I calmly slid the confirmation number with the seat my travel agent had held for me to the gate agent; she assured me I’d be helped …in time. She handed back my notes. I smiled and slid them back again saying I understood, but I’d done the legwork – I’d reserved the seats – I just needed her to give me a voucher, or code the ticket to transfer…..just a little compassion (there might have been a few tears from me as I described what was drawing me back home). When she motioned for a colleague to come over, I thought I’d struck a chord and silently marveled at my cunning. However, the colleague was airport police….wrong chord.

This little note is given upon entry as a reminder that they don’t play in Singapore

Have you been to Singapore yet? If not, the first thing everyone seems to know is that they’ll throw you into jail for spitting gum. It’s even on T-shirts there. Everyone says: Don’t spit your gum out! Like that’s the first thing someone would do. But, you take how strict they are about gum, compare it to death to drug traffickers, and you start wondering what the penalty is for being “agitated” at an airport gate agent. Is it somewhere in the middle? Do I need to be thinking about how to find my embassy? I’ll admit, when the ‘charge’ is agitation, I became hyper-alert about being calm (if that’s possible), but my mind was reeling. I didn’t say a word.

Tip: Make sure that all of the numbers you might need to call in an emergency have actual country codes and area codes. US/Canada toll-free numbers cannot be reached from the outside.

In the end, airport jail for me was mostly just airport “time out”. They didn’t tell me anything – just sat me down and walked away. Within a couple hours of the departure time for the flight I’d been hoping to switch to, a representative collected me, told me I’d been rebooked, and escorted me to the departure lounge for my new flight. So, was I on pins and needles? YES Was I pretty certain I was stuck without any official plans for return? YES Did it end well after all? Thankfully, YES (And, I made it home for opening night)

The airlines want their planes to be where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be there, too. But, that’s not always the way things turn out. My advice is to know your options, be proactive, BE PLEASANT, and keep the faith.

Important Travel Resources:

  • Airline Clubs can book/rebook you and they’re much less crowded than customer service; the downside is that they’re very expensive and NOW, most of the carriers only allow you to use them on days you’re flying THEIR planes. This is really for the very most brand-loyal flyers now.
  • Travel Agents – If your agent booked the flight, know how to reach them 24/7 (from anywhere) in case of emergencies. If you change an itinerary with a carrier who warns you that making a change through them will remove your agent’s ability to make future changes, think carefully.
  • International SOS provides medical and travel updates in regions you’re traveling to. It also tracks your whereabouts (if you allow it) and gives you local alerts. I have the app and like it.
  • STEP – Smart Traveler Enrollment Program through the US State Department. Registering with them tells the government where you are in case of a tragic event
  • Your local US Embassy – If you lose your passport, have health problems, marriage, birth, adoption – these are all things your US Embassy can help with. I once got asked at customs how to prove my son was my son…..my phone a friend would’ve been the Embassy.

movie-travel: paris

Be swept off to Paris with only a moment’s notice by this film

As is my MO, I needed a movie to stream before I went to Paris for the first time. I couldn’t wait to be AT all the places that I’d ‘visited’ so many times before on TV, in books, and in movies. I enjoy the preview and it increases my enthusiasm. But, as I already knew from experience, watching it on the way-to never compares to how much more I like the movie on the way home. Nothing quite beats RE-visiting a place after you’ve actually been there. Suddenly, they’re no longer just locations you can name like on a flashcard – they’re feelings. Seeing actors move in and around spaces you’ve passed through yourself adds a whole new dimension – it’s being there without being there. This brings us to “Midnight in Paris”.

In the 2011 movie by Woody Allen (I’ll ask you to separate the man from the art in this case), you’ll find a love letter to Paris across landscapes and time. That’s how multi-dimensional Paris is – it’s not just checking sights off a list of must-sees (although, I had a list of must-sees). It’s pausing for a second and think about all those who went before you. Parts of the city glow with reminders of the past and they shaped the Paris you’re visiting today. This movie takes on that topic and I think your memories of Paris will be revitalized by it.

Monet’s l’Orangerie in a scene from “Midnight in Paris”

The locations they visit in the movie state the case better than I do – they leave no stone un-turned.

  • Notre Dame Cathedral
  • Saint-Ouen Flea Market
  • Faubourg Saint-Honore
  • Musée Rodin
  • Musée de l’Orangerie
  • Pont Alexandre III
  • Café du Trocadéro
  • Place de la Concorde
  • Palais Garnier (Paris Opera House)
  • Pont Neuf
  • Arc de Triomphe
  • Musée de Louvre

If you’re longing to go, want to anticipate an upcoming trip, or want to relive a memory you hold dear, try this movie. You won’t even have to leave your home, but there’s a fairly good chance you’ll hit TripAdvisor or Airbnb at least once in close proximity of your viewing to see about just MAYBE putting a trip together or adding to your itinerary…..

This movie is available in a variety of formats. For an added treat, order up some of these and some of this. Talk about being transported.

So, send yourself a postcard – whether it’s “Wish you were here” or “Remembering fondly”.

Remember walking along the Seine…..?

bangkok, thailand

Bangkok is so much more beautiful than you can capture in pictures

We had just scheduled our 2nd trip to Singapore when the idea of a weekend in Bangkok occurred to us. When you’re heading to Asia anyway…..why not? But, Thailand seemed exotic and extravagant. I consulted an expert – a work colleague born and raised in Singapore, who has traveled to Thailand many times. She encouraged it wholeheartedly and her experience of traveling to Bangkok gave me the confidence I needed to set out on a new itinerary.

What we’ll cover in this post:

  • Planning an itinerary
  • Sights to consider
  • Local tour guides
  • Movie & book suggestions
  • Hotel recommendations

So, Logistics. As I said, we had just penciled in our travel plans for Singapore – so, the cost of going there just for the meeting was already on the books, so to speak. The dance of the ethical business traveler is always how to navigate your excursion such that it’s cost-neutral to the company. Anything else is entirely inappropriate and I don’t condone it. So, that said – I’ll use the cost of booking Singapore at today’s rates as an appropriate example:

  • Austin to Bangkok across 2 main carriers was ~$2,000
  • Austin to Bangkok time-wise ranged from 27-41 hours
  • Going straight to Singapore saved ~$1,000 & about 5-15 hours
  • Singapore Airlines round-trip SIN-BKK = quick & cheap: 2.5h @ $255 (RT)

The math became pretty obvious – we’d stick with Singapore roundtrip for work and do a completely separate excursion to Bangkok. Two things to always watch out for – the time involved in the cheaper fares, and use of smaller airports. My time is worth a lot (to me). And, if you start using smaller airports, getting there can cost a lot of time, and there are fewer people keeping the lights on in the airport – the larger the airport, the more people paying in, the lower the cost in a LOT of cases (this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule). Another advantage to the business traveler who bolts on a completely separate (economically) excursion is how tidy the expenses work out. In this case, we were getting to Singapore for work, the minute we connected to fly to Bangkok, it was our dime until we got back to Singapore. This relieves a lot of headache.

Now – carriers. I like the checks and balances of the larger airlines. Right now, I’m only United Premier Silver because my carrier of choice is Southwest. Until they bring Asia a little closer, Southwest just isn’t going to hook me up. (Hey, it could happen – we’re going to Hawaii now) And, the dreaded 2-4-2 configuration in United’s Business Class is not my idea of comfort for an 18-hour flight. The “2” seats together require the person at the window to climb over the person on the aisle in order to reach the bathroom (this made for a very challenging flight from HongKong for me once). And, in the “4” seats, you have strangers on either side of you with NO barriers while you’re trying to sleep (Hello, please understand that I didn’t intentionally try to spoon you……). Polaris has changed all of that. (Tip: pick the odd-numbered Polaris rows if you’re traveling with a friend or a spouse) However, Singapore Airlines has been doing it right even in coach-class for awhile now. They were the first to offer nonstop to Singapore out of San Francisco (~16hours nonstop) and now they offer nonstop from Newark (~18.5hours). The level of service is exceptional – attentive, courteous, helpful….I’m a devotee for Singapore Airlines. Would I like to fly these guys? Or, these guys? Why, YES, I would. But, for my money and for where I’ve been traveling, Singapore Air has been the highest level of service to Asia. They did not disappoint when it came to regional travel within Asia, either.

Maybe don’t talk about this movie while in Thailand…..

So, you’re familiar with the premise of “The King and I”, right? Winner of 5 Academy Awards including best actor for Yul Brynner and featuring Rita Moreno (future EGOT) – both representing characters of ethnicities not quite their own… that’s how Hollywood did things back then…. Nonetheless, the King of Thailand was the great-grandson of the King depicted in the movie. (That makes the current King, the great-great-grandson). And, if you’ll recall, Yul Brynner’s version of the King depicts a man who’s flawed in at least a few ways. That’s apparently not the way King Bhumibol Adulyadej enjoyed having a monarch of Thailand displayed. And, I’m not going to put the fault entirely on Yul’s back – the monarchy apparently isn’t fond of the book, either. BOTH are banned in Thailand – as is speaking ill of the royal family, so I guess they go hand-in-hand. So, feel free to read/watch to get into the mood of visiting. I found the history and grandeur depicted in both to heighten my excitement for visiting and they both (maybe the book more so) emphasized that I was going somewhere very far away – geographically and idealogically. At least from a historical perspective – here’s a place that’s Buddhist in most cases with a LONG history of building temples, which they lavish with jewels and delectable offerings that demonstrate their devotion to various representations of Buddha. They believe that care and devotion to the right representation can affect all aspects of their lives and conditions. That’s rich and intriguing. From a female perspective – the multiple wives and how they’re regarded was not by favorite topic and not one I idealized in any capacity – but, again, it gave me insight into what I was about to experience. Knowledge is power – no amount of looking into where you’re about to go is a waste. If you’re about to go to Thailand, I encourage you look into these titles. However, given the Thai perspective, I ditched the book in an airport prior to arrival.

Behind a bend of the Maenam, the entire town of Bangkok appeared in sight. I do not believe that there is a sight in the world more magnificent or more striking. This Asiatic Venice…

Ludovic Marquis de Beauvoir

Auspicious” is a recurring theme throughout a lot of Asian cultures – begin a shrine on an auspicious day; place a specific icon in an auspicious part of your house….all of these things speak to bringing good favor to you and your surroundings. So, what does it mean to arrive in a country on its most IN-auspicious day? We arrived on the day their beloved King, ruler for 66 years, died. The nation instantly entered into a year of mourning. Stores tucked their colorful garments away so that customers could stock up on black clothing – they’d need it everyday for the next 365. Bars and nightclubs were dark (for the most part) and many of the temples were closed. The one I most wanted to see, The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, would be closed during our entire stay and then some.

So, this leads me to what I most want to tell you about planning a trip to Bangkok – get a professional tour guide. I’ve recommended Thai Tour Guide many times. I can’t say enough good things about Mr. Oat, our guide for 2 days (although I’ve had friends be assigned different guides with the same positive results). For starters, Mr. Oat picked us up and had totally re-arranged how we’d spend our days together now that some of our destinations were no longer open to the public. Our priorities were the Maeklong Railway Market and a Floating Market. And, we wanted to see a variety of temples around Bangkok. Done – he had this under control. Had we been on our own, we would’ve spun our wheels and maybe been paralyzed – honestly, the place was a bit disorienting at that point in history. All TV stations (including CNN and MTV) were showing nothing but around-the-clock remembrances of the King (state-approved, mind you). Throngs of people were disrupting traffic to make offerings at the palace….the whole trip might’ve been a wash.

It’s free to sell along the tracks – it’s just a little disruptive when the train goes by

What’s a railway market? One minute, you’re shopping for food, clothes, provisions, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera at the Maeklong Railway Market – and, the next, the vendors are hurriedly pushing back their displays and folding in their awnings – the train is literally about to roll right over the spot where we’re standing. Everyone squishes in tightly to allow it to pass and there’s VERY little room to spare. I can’t over-state how exceptionally close it comes to you. I hope this pic conveys, but you really have to be there to appreciate it. Zip-zap closed for business – zap-zip, game back on. Why do they put up with this? Economics – the vendors who never have to move in from the train have to pay rent. You’ve never seen anything like this – please plan to go if you have the means. And, get a guide like Mr. Oat – the ride is about an hour from Bangkok as I recall and air conditioning is a MUST. And, if you’re off by even 5min, you miss the whole thing – he’ll tell you when you need to leave your hotel, ensure you stop along the way at safe spots for Americanized bathrooms and coffee, secure money machines, etc. You really must have a guide.

Just float past and buy what they’re selling – that’s normal, right?

There are many floating markets in and around Bangkok. Instead of investing in real-estate, or renting a booth, just have a boat and float around selling what you produce. The woman in the picture above produces mango sticky rice. If you’re not currently a diabetic (you might become one after too many of these…), you must try this. They use purple glutinous rice, which I think they boil in salt water. Then, they add what’s probably sweetened condensed milk and the freshest most beautiful mangoes. When you walk into markets in Bangkok, there’s an overwhelming, I’ll say putrid, smell – that’s mango. People tried to tell me it was durian fruit. No doubt that stinks to high heaven, but durian fruit’s almost always under wraps for that reason – the smell I really dislike is mango. But, when it’s in season and fresh and ESPECIALLY in Thailand – I’ll muscle through and eat me some mango. This is a treat you’ll dream about later.

I could go on about Bangkok – but, I’ll just give a few quick shout outs. There are many places to stay and quite a few of my friends recommended places that were secluded and away from what is, I’ll be honest, a little seedy, when visiting Bangkok. Most of my friends have stayed in Riverside for just that reason. However, it requires you to take a water taxi if you want to come to shops, restaurants, night markets and clubs in Bangkok proper. The wait time for water taxis and the traffic involved just didn’t seem feasible for a weekend. I highly recommend the Oriental Residence Bangkok. My Singaporean colleague who proved to be our Thai mentor recommended we stay in-town to make the most of our time. There was a huge train station nearby this Embassy Row hotel. So, we had access to anywhere. Being next door to the Holland Embassy, we felt very safe. And, the lobby, suites, restaurants, gyms – all state of the art – other properties should take a lesson. These people are top-notch. The price is un-real….google it and see (e.g. $116-ish/night). The dollar buys a lot of Thai Bhat. And, while you’re there, do not miss out on a true Thai massage. If you wander out for food, no doubt you’ll see young men offering Thai massage left and right – that’s not what I mean. I’m thinking along the lines of this. If you haven’t done the math already, 2,000 Thai Bhat for a classical Thai Massage at Rarinjinda is $64. Let me elaborate on what that includes: Tea ceremony before-hand, a private room, the use of silk pajamas, at least an hour of the most magnificent massage you’ve ever had, and a mango sticky rice ceremony after. Lamenting your typical massage experience at home right about now? You should be.

The purpose of my blog is not to plan your days in and around Bangkok, but to tell you how to make a quick trip meaningful, worthwhile and DOABLE. Thailand was a long weekend for us. I hope you’ll consider it the next time your work takes you to that part of the world. I’m MORE than eager to return. Next time, I hope to tack on Chiang Mai.

Never more true than in Bangkok (A turn-down treasure from our Bangkok hotel)