tips: travel essentials

The most essential essential….shoes

This time last year, I was in Amsterdam and a friend said: Y’know….those shoes have seen better days. And, she was RIGHT. I left those shoes in my hotel as I desperately tried to finagle everything that once easily fit into my carry-on luggage….once…about 10 days ago….before a lot of shopping. But now, every inch counted. And, at a size 8.5-9, shoes count. Let’s be honest – shoes always count. The important thing is – I hadn’t remembered those shoes again until fall crept into Austin (i.e. the mercury dipped below 90) and I needed something other than sandals. In my search for a neutral pair of cheetah print shoes that go with everything I remembered my most essential pair of closed-toe shoes, which I now needed to replace. And, that led me to thinking about my essentials in general and what couldn’t I live without…travel-wise.

We all have our favorite items. I asked some of you and found we share a lot of the same tools of the trade. Sleep masks rank pretty highly – especially silk because they’re soft, durable and light-weight against your eyes. If you’re a light sleeper like I am, that crack between the black-out curtains…that stands between your good night’s sleep and about 10 high-powered street lamps…is a foe who will get the better of you everytime. Also – socks. If my feet are cold, I’ll never fall asleep. Long-haul flights hand out amenity bags that contain sleep masks and socks, so I’m not making this up. These are basic creature comforts that are worth their weight in gold when you need them. So, plan ahead and enhance your trip before you even leave.

I have a few pieces that just live in my suitcase. Well, a few things and cat, who plants himself in my suitcase any time it comes out of the closet. What is it about cats and suitcases? Nonetheless, the essentials that I keep are similar to yours:

A portable bluetooth speaker

So, here’s a strangely neurotic thing – on weekdays, I like to watch local morning news while I get ready for work. Do you? I want to know what’s happening in THIS city TODAY. I need the newscaster to tell me every 8 minutes what time it is and how much traffic I’ll encounter and whether I need an umbrella. But, AFTER work or on the weekends: Podcasts and Spotify. You could use the speaker on your phone, but this little beauty packs a punch – it sure is nice having decent sound in your room. I have a million curated playlists: A variety of instrumentals for when I need to think intently and songs with lyrics of all ilk for when I just want to unwind. This brings a little bit of home with me everywhere I go.

Ah-so wine opener

I’m not a BoyScout, but I like to be prepared. You never know when a colleague or a business is going to give you the gift of wine – and, you don’t want to appear ungrateful. Unlike a traditional corkscrew, this version is TSA-safe. Somewhere along the way, I also acquired a wine stopper and portable infuser because……I don’t know why because. But, they all live permanently in my suitcase and, um, get used. Often.

A retractable lint roller

Because you don’t know until you’re getting dressed for an important meeting that THESE pants are the ones your cat’s been hiding behind in your closet at home. So that you don’t look like a Yeti all day, carry a lint roller. This one is small enough you can stick it in your purse, briefcase, or just keep it in your luggage as I do. It’s refillable, too, so less plastic waste.

Travel brolly, carrying bag, portable speaker, lint roller, eye mask, travel wine infuser, wine stopper and ah-so wine opener…..don’t judge.

Travel Umbrella and Carrying Bag

Yep, they’re everywhere…until you need one. So, I just leave mine in my suitcase permanently. I tell other people to think of it as an insurance policy because if you don’t pack it, sure as…..rain, you’ll be plagued with damp hair and clothes the whole trip. For $10, you too can rule the weather. And, yeah – they usually come with a little sleeve that if you’ve taken the advance course or have a Masters in physics, you can use over and over again with ease. But, if you’re like me, you need to just stash it in something impermeable quickly and keep the rest of your satchel contents dry. I stole this tip from an NYC friend who uses the reusable plastic bags from the grocery store. My take on this theme is a plastic bag from Harrod’s in London. Why not? Reminds me of a good trip and it’s a great conversation starter on a dreary day.

Aforementioned silk sleep mask

I’ve had a variety of these:

  • Memory foam – pricey, and a little heavy = hot
  • Scarf – works in a pinch
  • Free from the airlines – perfectly serviceable unless you flew United this summer when they were giving out the Spiderman masks…..NOT serviceable
  • Silk – current favorite and a favorite among my friends apparently. Light-weight, pretty, gentle – as in no pressure on your face. And, a reasonably priced luxury item at under $20.

Shoe bags

You wear your shoes into public restrooms……and, then you tuck them into your suitcase next to your undies? So, you get where I’m going with this. Shoe bags. They’re not expensive. Recently, British Airways even put their amenities into shoe bags – 1 round-trip and you had a pair. Lots of nice shoes even come with them tucked into the bottom of the box. Shoe bags. Use them.

Silver cleaning cloth

If you wear silver jewelry like I do, it’s an essential. For some reason, jewelry tarnishes faster on the road – or, er, maybe you’re just suddenly aware because you’re getting dressed and using it……could be either. Really. You can buy them easily enough. Or, at finer stores, if you ask nicely when making a purchase, they’ll gladly implore you to take it as a gift. Thank you.

As an aside – Did you know that gemstones take in all their light from the bottom? Before you head out, you can quickly scrub your colored gems, on the underside, with an old toothbrush and water. That’s really all you need – maybe some baking soda if you think you need to scrub. And, diamonds are the only stones that take in light from the top, so scrub opposite for them. I worked in retail jewelry for a long time – if you ever dropped your jewelry off to be cleaned with me, this is what you got. So, a little tip – direct from me to you. No charge.

A small all-purpose handbag

You might be rolling your eyes right now if you clicked the link, but lemme tell you why this pricey bag is essential:

  • It’s color-neutral
  • It’s cross-body, with a removable strap, and the gold chain option used alone makes it a passable evening bag
  • I use a clip-on wallet also by LV that clips compactly into my never-full as well as any other bag I carry – snap! – wallet moved
  • Comes in a cloth storage bag that keeps it nice and clean no matter how long it sits unused waiting to be whisked away to an exotic land. Or, New Jersey.
  • It’s at least 8 years old and looks like brand new
Folds flat, holds a TON and zippers shut

A spare tote bag

Even my function over form husband admits this is genius. These bags fold up to almost nothing and I keep one in my luggage at all time. I use them when I’m out for a day and want a large, light weight bag for shopping Or, since I sometimes buy more than I’m able to comfortably get back into the luggage I came with, the zipper and a luggage tag allow me to securely and conveniently check it. They are available in a variety of sizes and colors.

Have I given you anything to think about? When I asked for everyone’s essentials – I got a lot of great ideas that I think most of us who travel often take for granted. Example: Buy 2 of every toiletry and keep your liquids, makeup and “other” ready to go at all times. (Can you tell I personally keep them in 3 separate bags…?) Don’t swap out – just keep a set ready to drop into your suitcase without giving it a thought. Another: Melatonin. I resisted it for a long time, but I have to say – it takes the edge off and helps me sleep. Noise cancelling earbuds – these are on my list of items to explore….would love to hear about brands and experiences from others. I’ve had Bose recommended to me. At one time, I blew these off because they were just one more thing to charge, but now that I carry an extra power source with me, that’s probably not a problem. Hmmmmm… much more to learn. SOCKS – Don’t forget socks; often free on airlines, but inexpensive to grab a pair that you keep in your suitcase. If forgotten, they can mean the difference between a restful sleep, or torturous tossing and turning. At which point, you start trying to tie shoebags onto your feel in lieu of socks…….well, that’s a topic for another time.

Durable handbag, socks, shoebags, silver cloth – Bon Voyag-ee

tips: planning work & play in paris

Normandy, France

Going to Paris for work cannot begin and end with a business meeting. My trip began with an historic side trip and ended with an extravagant, no holds barred, break-neck tour of all things Paris – with a business meeting sandwiched in the middle. And, with the 7 hours time-difference from US Central time zone, you can awaken in Paris, catch up on yesterday’s events state-side before getting dressed, and still manage to squeeze in touring while the states are sleeping. It’s an ideal situation for a work-play balanced trip. If planned well, you can keep a handle on everything back home/work and still accomplish superior sightseeing.

In this post, I’m going to discuss:

  • To tour or not to tour (with a guide)
  • Planning an ambitious itinerary
  • Selecting your launch point

I’m often asked whether I recommend booking tours for various places. In most cases, I d0 book a tour – and, I’ll tell you why. When I used to take my son places, there was so much I wanted to show him wherever we were going. My niece calls this: March or Die. I quickly learned that dragging him through each adventure was, while totally worth it in the end, WORK during my VACATION. So, I started turning it over to professionals. Can you pick where to go, what to see, and even enhance the experience with historical context? Of course you can, but for an added fee, someone else can do that FOR you (and your party) without your having to wear your bossy pants all day. Enter Viator, owned by TripAdvisor.

I’ve talked up TripAdvisor before. I find them to be a thoroughly well-informed app (crowd-sourced) that helps me pick where/what to see, stay, and eat within a city or even a neighborhood based on users’ reviews. I’ve written nearly 300 reviews myself. Their enhancements to include tours and restaurant reservations has been well worth it for me. Between them and Airbnb Experiences, I don’t have to look very hard to find someone who will come collect me, tour me, and bring me back again – and give me a pocket full of local tips and recommendations to boot. I’ve yet to ever book a trip through a travel tour company. They call to mind old couples with matching shoulder bags emblazoned with the tour company’s name so that they’re easily identifiable moving in lock-step with strangers onto buses and into hotels in unison. Rather Viator’s and Airbnb Experience’s individualized tours have become a great way for me to preserve the sanctity and serenity of my vacations while missing NOTHING. My vacation goals: Think less, worry less, organize less, enjoy more.

“If we arrive a day early, we could go to Normandy”, said my friend. My dad flew over Normandy on D-Day, so I was like: Yes, please. But, everyone’s always told me how far away from Paris Normandy is and everyone I know who’s gone has rented a car (ugh – driving). Once there, it’s a beach with a cemetery. This sounds like a lot to organize….there’s a solution for this.

Our guide:

  • Collected us from our hotel and brought us back in time for dinner
  • Told us great stories along the way
  • Provided cultural context about France and current events
  • Gave us tips and recommendations for restaurants, sights
  • Stopped along the way for refreshments
  • Took us to a local lunchery while in Normandy
  • Personally toured us through the cemetery, beaches and 2 museums
  • Shifted gears to accommodate poor weather – what a pain that would’ve been on our own….

It wasn’t cheap, but it was 100% worth it. Look at all we got (above). These same friends took a similar Viator tour to Giverny and were equally satisfied. Again, Giverny is a place other friends had rented a car to visit – that’s really not what I want to do on vacation, but that’s a personal preference. I think you pay for the convenience of being pampered – and, the private tours on Viator provide pampering in my opinion.

Fast-forward to our aggressive itinerary. You can see (if you blow it up like 200%) that we blended guided tours with individual exploration. Our guide for Normandy said: You’ll never accomplish all of that. Nay-nay, we TOTALLY did.

  • We arranged our days by neighborhood to save transit time
    • Pick your days based on when attractions in that area are open. My first draft had us going to museums on days they were closed….not helpful.
  • We bought skip-the-line passes everywhere
    • If you buy combo tickets, be sure to read the fine-print/rules regarding when and how the tickets are valid – e.g. do they have to be used on consecutive days
  • We pre-arranged guides to the larger, busier, more overwhelming places
    • Versailles, The Louvre, Montmartre (where we didn’t really know what we wanted to do)
      • Guides hit the highlights – he/she knows his way around and explains what you’re looking at saving you time reading plaques, maps, guidebooks
  • We toured smaller sights on our own
    • L’Orangerie, Musée Cluny, The Conciergerie
      • Timewise – if I can explore a place efficiently without a guide, that’s my route – we spent only 30min in some places
  • We really only had 1-2 planned/timed events per day

Perhaps most importantly, we stayed in a great location. In talking with friends with a lot of experience in Paris, the Marais was most highly recommended as our launching point. It didn’t disappoint. We got an Airbnb directly across from the Picasso Museum (a great landmark for Uber drivers) and walkable to a variety of shops, groceries, cafes, bars, macarons….. It was a short Uber to anywhere and a longer, but doable walk to tons of places from St. Germain to the Tuileries. We even meandered back from the Louvre on foot one day – so much to look at along the way.

Residential neighborhoods like Le Marais in Paris are ….quainter…. than in the states.

To further economize time, we did a lot of walking and Ubering. While the metro is very accessible (and economical) in Paris, we opted to not be on a train schedule and dependent on specific drop-off and pick-up stations. There’s a bit of a trade-off here, though, because traffic in Paris is notoriously bad. Use the CityMapper app and weigh your options. Information is key – you have lot of alternatives. Of note – there are some local ride-hailing services in Paris. I tried a couple and found Uber to be easier for ME – it informed me ahead whether the driver spoke English, tracked their location on the app more precisely, etc. We also found cabs to be equivalent in price within the core of the city. So, if you’re wanting to be picked up and there’s a cab nearby – hop in. For the business portion of our trip, we stayed 3 km outside of the city limits in a part of town called La Défense – expensive to get in and out of, difficult to navigate on foot and impossible by car (professional drivers made circles for 20min almost every time we got dropped off). You can probably save money by lodging out a bit, but you’ll make up the difference in cost getting to and fro and in aggravation in my opinion.

Feel more like flying by the seat of your pants? A kind of non-schedule is “vacation” to some people and I get that. There are options for that, too. Lots of services allow you 24-hour cancellation without penalty. Viator is one of those, surprisingly. One friend recommends the Hop On/Hop Off buses. They go everywhere – once you buy the pass, it can be free transportation all over the city. There’s also Paris Walks. They have a set schedule that they post and those walks occur whether you’re there or not. Interested in one of their many 2-hour walks? Just show up at the train station they designate and join (you pay cash at the start). I’ve used their London-based sister too often to count and across a WIDE swath of topics from gardens, to museums, Ripper locations and cultural neighborhood tours. They’re just as knowledgeable in my experience to include experts by passion, education and even licensure. Relax and enjoy the freedom of being less committed upfront – wait, we’re still talking about tours and not relationships……right…?

Great things await you in this world if you are open to them. I know tons of people who travel to amazing locations for business, but don’t see anything beyond the airport and the hotel. Please don’t be one of those people – travel is a gift. Choose how to embrace it.

movie travel: roman holiday

Think you can’t tour Rome in only 1 hour and 58 minutes? You can with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck (and Eddie Albert pre-Green Acres and ZsaZsa). If you already love this pic, I hope to share at least 1 thing you didn’t previously know. If it’s new to you, you’re in for a treat. Regardless, this is a MUST watch prior to your next trip to Rome. And, if nothing else, the final scene is the most MOVING last scene in film history (as declared by me).

OK, so you think you’ve seen Rom-Coms where the elite identity is hidden either from themselves or from others because trying to travel incognito – that’s this one…..sort of. In this 1953 classic, Princess Ann (Hepburn) is frustrated with her situation to be sure and accidentally catches a wave of independence by serendipity, which she rides to its fullest in a carefree and transformative day with the swooniest Joe Bradley (Peck). When we first meet Peck here, he’s definitely looking to capitalize on this windfall of a sought-after princess landing in his mitts, but he too is transfigured. That’s amoré.

Three-time Academy Award winner for Best Director, William Wyler was a craftsman of the highest order. He made a total of 45 films (beginning with silent pictures). Born in Germany, he volunteered (at the age of 42) to use his gifts to support his adopted country during WWII by joining the US Army as an officer filming bolstering films (aka propaganda) that lifted our spirits and showed war as it was happening. Important to note – his career was in no way lagging at this time:

  • 1943 Won 1st Oscar: “Mrs Miniver”, which also won Best Picture
  • Joined the Army
  • 1944 Films documentaries while serving: “The Memphis Belle” and “The Fighting Lady”
    • Wins Oscar for Best Documentary for Lady project
  • 1947 Returns from Army, makes “The Best Years of our Lives”
    • Wins 2nd Best Director Oscar…film also earns Best Picture

And, he had an amazing eye for talent – more actors have won Oscars under Wyler than any other 2 directors combined: Enter Audrey Hepburn – new, unknown to Hollywood, survivor of Nazi occupation. Nominated and WON an academy award for this, her first major role.

“Rome! By all means, Rome. I will cherish my visit here in memory as long as I live.”

Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn)

Originally planned to run as “and Introducing Audrey Hepburn”, Gregory Peck informed the producers that she’d surely win an Academy Award for her performance, so her name MUST appear above the title. And, so it does.

This is the first American film to be made in its entirety in Italy and they really celebrate it:

  • The Pantheon
  • Trevi Fountain
  • Spanish Steps
  • The Colosseum
  • Ex-voto wall
  • Bocca della verita (btw: her reaction is REAL – Peck improvised his performance to get that reaction from her)

If you haven’t seen this picture – I can totally imagine you looking at the first 20min and thinking: Nah, I’m not that into 1950s B&W. Ostensibly, it’s a mid-century, milquetoast rom-com. That could not be further from the truth. The extras in the Embassy Ball include actual Italian nobility (who donated their salaries to charity) and the reporters at the end are all actual reporters – OH, the reporters and when she addresses the members of the press. THIS is the ending scene to end all ending scenes….I defy you to have a dry eye. Not to sit on the edge of your seat CONVINCED that she’s going to……..

….oops, I almost gave away the ending. Watch it. Then go to Rome.

This movie is available in many format including streaming on Amazon. Settle in with some of this, and this, and that. Ciao!