blog

one night in london

There is a world outside of the airport’s immediate vicinity.

Why stay at an airport hotel, when you can stay very near walkable activities and see more? Come with me and I’ll give you some tips for turning that layover into something great.

Have you ever connected through a city, or arrived to/from a meeting and told yourself, “I’ll just stay at the airport”? I’ll admit, I’ve done it. And, at the time, I thought I was right to do it. In looking back, I missed some pretty great opportunities. So, I’m not going to let that happen to you. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on making your London layover SO much better.

Where to stay?

London is geographically large enough that one night isn’t going to do it justice – admittedly. But, you’re not there to see the whole city. Mainly, you’re just looking to avoid another night of room service and future embarrassment (having seen nothing) when someone asks about your trip. To narrow it down, let’s say you pick an attraction you’re interested in and focus on that:

  • What about the London Eye and observing the Thames, Big Ben and Parliament?
  • Have you visited The British Museum, which is open until 8:30 on Friday?
  • You could easily take in a live show with little or no advance planning
  • Are you a shopper? – Harrod’s can more than deliver and you won’t even have to leave for dinner
There are, um….a few pubs around town.

Near each of these attractions, there are options for lodging, food, and a libation (or 2)…. Here are some excellent options:

  • This Marriott is in the shadow of the London Eye and offers amazing views. It’s a luxury property, so the pricetag might not be for everyone. Also nearby, is this Radisson property, right at Westminster Bridge.
  • The Radisson Blu Edwardian offers several luxe locations. One of which is nestled in Leicester Square where you can take in the British Museum or a show, and a terrific meal.
  • Knightsbridge is a location that puts you near Harrod’s, the V&A Museum and this adorable boutique townhouse. If you want to really feel like your brief stay was out of the ordinary, this will do it.
  • Finally, don’t rule out an economical alternative. Premier Inn is all over town and is routinely recommended to me by friends and colleagues. I haven’t yet stayed at one myself. Yet, I guarantee there is one near anything you want to see.

What if I can’t get to London until 5-ish?

Definitely. I’ve gotten in that late and made a bee-line for Harrod’s, which closes at 9 most evenings. You can start with a cocktail at their champagne bar, do a little shopping for yourself (obviously) and friends back home if you’re feeling generous. Before calling it a night, make your way down to the Food Hall for literally anything your heart desires. You could try something new, sample something you’ve been missing, or stick to a staple. There’s no shortage of options here. Eat there, or take it back with you.

Arriving that close to curtain time, you might be apprehensive about buying show tickets in advance, so TKTS offers last-minute tickets, too. In any case, most box offices will have single tickets available for purchase. Grab a quick bite, and then sit back and enjoy something truly spectacular. What a way to live it up on an evening that was just a place-holder for a meeting tomorrow, or an early morning flight.

What says “London” more than a traditional pub? In my opinion, not much – and, if you haven’t visited a true pub lately, you’re missing out. They have a few. You can’t throw a stone without hitting one. Furthermore, each one is unique and worth a stop. And, if you’re hungry, many serve food – really, really good food.

I’ve written before about my love for the neighborhood of Clerkenwell. Within its walls, I can walk along streets that sing “London” to me – the vibe is rich and authentic. I have a favorite hotel, restaurant and bar. I don’t need more. If I’m leaving out of a London airport in the morning and coming in from the English countryside, I’ll always choose to stop here.

The Zetter Townhouse in Clerkenwell

Are you nearly convinced?

My point is simply this:

  • If you’re flying in, pick a spot outside of the airport and see a LITTLE something; taste something.
  • The city is the perfect, vibrant stopover en route to the airport. You’re nearer than the countryside, so it’s a productive option.
  • You’re not adding any more time away….unless, you want to, and I would never discourage that. As I’ve said before, you’ve already invested the time it takes to get there – pay yourself back by adding some vacation on top.

Since you’ve probably already missed something at home just by being gone, don’t make it worse on yourself by limiting your experience to simply: the office and the airport. If nothing else, think of the fun you’ll have all year long pulling out gifts of little trinkets you’ve collected on your travels. With every one you wrap, you can relive a fond memory of the brief trip you made. These little excursions are out there for the taking – grab one.

a perfect rainy (or snowy) day in Washington, D.C.

Don’t be discouraged when you note that the Jefferson Memorial is a little out of your way – it’s worth the trip (and, they have the NICEST restrooms….just FYI)

Rainy days can be cozy and contemplative. A little drizzle outside can provide a terrific backdrop for a hot cup of tea, a good book and curling up in a warm spot. Nevertheless, it’s not always optimal when your plan was to tour a new city. Are you just a little disappointed when that happens? I am. Obviously, rain means wet clothes, bad hair, umbrellas….and let’s face it: The same is true of snow. Sure, it’s pretty for a second and it would be great if snow stayed in solid state. Unfortunately, though, it’ll turn to wet momentarily, which means everything I just said about rain. Inclement weather days can be to your advantage (i.e. fewer crowds) if you know how to structure them. Here are my ideas for salvaging a wet vacation day in Washington, D. C.

I’ll walk you through a day that I think could suit the most disheartened traveler and one that she’ll come to remember fondly. Reminder: Always know the local weather and look it up before you pack. Just like we’ve talked about before, keep a travel umbrella stashed in your suitcase …always. And, wrap it in a reusable plastic bag. This way, when you transfer it to your carryall for a rainy day, you’ll have a way to store your wet umbrella without leaving it at a storefront, or loose (and dripping) in your bag. Before you even leave home, you’ll want to know the rain and snow chances so that you can pack shoes and jackets accordingly. With this safely accomplished, I feel certain you’re dressed appropriately and ready to stroll out your hotel door.

Where to start:

My favorite place to stay in DC lately is The Mayflower Hotel. It’s part of Marriott’s Autograph collection, which means it’s a boutique hotel with special little touches throughout. We once spent Christmas in one of their one-bedroom suites. The separate living area was a spacious room with a sectional sofa that pulled out into a bed. And, it surrounded a working fireplace. The rates are surprisingly affordable. So, say you switch off your fireplace and pull on your galoshes, head down to the lobby and get a cup of complimentary joe to go. Assuming you want to start your day with a hot breakfast, I’m going to direct you to Kramerbooks and Afterwords Cafe. It’s walkable from the hotel and open for breakfast until well past dinner. Aside from having really good food all day, the café is nestled within a book store.

Outside Union Station is the US Postal Museum – if you’re waiting for a train to depart and find yourself with time to spare, treat yourself to a visit with Owney.

DC is easy to navigate by train, and I’ve started you out between 2 convenient stations. Pick your favorite topic and I assure you the Smithsonian has a FREE museum to interest you. Ask my son his favorite stop, it’s always the Air & Space Museum, followed closely by the Botanical Gardens. I can’t pass up a chance to see Marie Antoinette’s jewelry in the Natural History Museum. And, you can explore American pop culture through the ages at the Museum of American History. Avoiding crowds probably isn’t much of a possibility, but I always find the Portrait Gallery to be calming – at least it’s usually quiet. This is also true of the National Archives.

If you’ve planned ahead, you should also consider the Holocaust Museum. It’s not part of the Smithsonian system, so you’ll need to obtain an entrance time. This museum is not to be missed.

Mid-day Diversions:

If you’re undeterred by the weather, and conditions are not worsening, I’d say head over to the Jefferson Memorial. You can’t walk there from the mall, but you can take a train ride or an Uber. I delayed seeing this monument for a long time because it’s not as walkable or readily accessible as the others. I’m assuming that you spied the vast majority already while moving amongst the Smithsonian museums. So, take the time to drop in on Jefferson – he’s got some pretty good digs. We were surprised by how large the monument is both inside and out. As compared to the Lincoln Memorial, which you can pretty much walk up to and say you saw it, Jefferson encourages you to stay and explore a bit with interior exhibits, giftshop, etc.

No time or energy for more sightseeing? I highly recommend settling into the E Street Cinema. It’s one of my favorite art house cinemas. They have a full bar and snacks that are not your typical movie theater fare. Their film selections are exceptional. I’ve been known to see one….or two…films on a bad-weather day. And, I’m not at all complaining.

1600 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington, D. C.

Winding Down for the Evening:

No matter how you feel about the President, and chances are you’ve felt one way or the other about each one, the White House is an impressive sight at night. I always walk past it in proximity to the Willard Hotel. You’ve seen a lot of history today – even if you only made it to the cinema – you can’t throw a stone in D.C. without hitting a historic landmark. But, I’m awed every time I enter the Willard. Leadership from both sides of the Civil War sat down together in their lobby to discuss terms for ending the conflict. Let that sink in. The north and the south. Sat there. Talking. During some of our nation’s darkest hours. To me, this epitomizes the history that surrounds me in D.C. That’s a lot of thought and introspection…so, head up to the Round Robin Bar for a pre-dinner cocktail.

I don’t often recommend chain restaurants. I think most of you know my position – I love for each city to be unique. But, occasionally, a small chain catches my eye. In this case, it’s Mari Vanna. We went the first time simply because it’s next door to the Mayflower. It’s since become a favorite D. C. spot – the opulence when you walk in is present throughout. The staff has always been authentic, too, as are their dishes and their VODKA. How about more than 100 flavor-infused vodkas to sip? You might be there awhile. But, it will be worth it. And, if you’re thinking right now that you don’t like Russian food, I’d challenge that maybe you just haven’t really had it. We’ve dragged our kids there under extreme duress only to have them change their tunes as they dug into caviar, or tender meat-filled dumplings. Trust me.

One Last Thing:

Well-satiated, you need only walk a few steps from your excellent meal back to your hotel where the doormen will great you warmly. Treat yourself to a nightcap (…or cup of tea?) at the Edgar just inside the lobby. Legend has it, and their website confirms, it’s so named because J. Edgar Hoover dined here daily. Hm. I don’t know about all that, but I can tell you, we’ve overheard an intriguing conversation every single time we’ve been there. Stopping in is an imperative. Keep your ears and eyes open – I doubt you’ll be disappointed. And, when you’re done, make your way back to your room and that cozy fire you left this morning. You earned it.

when you’re not traveling

Exploring, planning, dreaming…

I was grounded last year. Has it been awhile since you considered “being grounded”? In the business travel world, it’s not necessarily punitive the way it was when you were a teen. I wasn’t caught smoking or staying out past curfew. We had a re-prioritization of funds and discretionary travel was off the table. Twenty years ago, curtailing “discretionary travel” was different. Just to have a productive meeting meant traveling hours to be around a table together – that’s not now. Nowadays, you can, in fact, have a pretty productive meeting using Skype. You’re all talking in (almost) real-time with only minor delays. And, if you can muster the energy to dress from the shoulders up, you can use your camera and even see faces. So, it is literally the next best thing to being there. Thus, “essential” travel NOW means – there was no way to accomplish what I needed without being there. And, that’s few and far between these days. So, for those of us who truly love the nature, process, and experience of actual travel – it’s a little less fulfilling. How do we spend our time? Planning the next excursion.

I mentioned in a prior post that I had 7 trips on my TripIt for 2020 so far. One has now been completed, and there are 7 new ones on the horizon. A few of them require pretty extensive exploration and consideration, so that’s been an active process. Active in the sense that I use all my resources:

  • Ask friends
  • Consult TripAdvisor
  • Google-ize it
  • Delve into travel guides
  • Look at maps and airline/train routes
  • Consider Airbnb Experiences
  • Plot out open/closed dates for attractions; this is key

If you believe that the adventure is in the journey rather than the destination, then this is it – at least half of my journey begins well before I ever approach my Clear ambassador. And, I’ve found through trial and error that the destination is made exponentially better by having a plan in-place prior to arrival.

We used to laugh that my Disney trips came with Excel spreadsheets. By “laugh” I mean, they actually came with spreadsheets and some people laughed at me. But, you know what didn’t happen? We didn’t languish amongst the parks missing shows, lacking coveted dinner reservations, etc. We don’t live and die by the schedule, mind you. I provide a structure that becomes our fall-back. If your fall-back is pretty desirable, then you have absolutely nothing to lose. If, however, you say “let’s wing it” and you find yourselves eating dinner at a counter-service restaurant dining over high-boy stand-up pub tables, you’ve done it wrong. The goal on a “nice” vacation is not to get the food in as quickly as possible on-the-go. At least, it’s not for me.

So, I plan. I’ve recently decided that having 1-2 touristy adventures per day that are scheduled (booked with tickets purchased if necessary) and 1 sit-down dining experience per day is sufficient. That gives us a lot of time to flex and build in whatever catches our fancy. In Hawaii, this means that my husband and I might hike Diamond Head and then explore Pali Lookout one morning and spend the rest of the day on the beach, or taking a massage under a cabana while listening to the waves. Leisurely, we can make our eventual way to cocktails on a lanai somewhere en route to a dinner reservation I’ve been holding for weeks. If, as we did on our last trip, we decide to switch up the dinner location for another that’s caught our eye, we can. At worst, we end up at a place we carefully selected awhile back. What doesn’t happen is our ending up at Burger King or some walk-up window for fried shrimp because all the restaurants are booked up. The same was true in Paris – I scheduled a tour that would span a few hours and check off several must-see boxes on our wishlist while the rest of the day was ours to shop, sip, and wander until dinner. Each night before we wrapped for the day, my girlfriend and I would review the next day’s itinerary and decide what to keep and what to switch up. My point is, planning ahead gives you options. Keep them, or change them up. If you know me, you know that having options is one of my defining characteristics – being left with NO options is just the worst, IMO. THAT’S when I get flustered. And, grasping for a solution can lead to my ‘shut-down’, which manifests in my being short-tempered and irritable. It’s pretty ugly if I’m completely honest. To avoid this, just plan. It’s that easy.

Have an itinerary that includes everything – your lodging, your meals, excursions if any and combine it with your traveling companion for full transparency and collaboration.

Today, I’m going to actively work on details for 2 upcoming trips. For me, this provides a diversion from my routine and it’s productive. It’s going to save me time and hassle in the long run and improve the relaxation we enjoy when the expensive trip kicks in. I don’t know about you, but when I’m buying hotel nights and every meal out (as you do on vacation), I want it all to be pleasant, not ‘serviceable’. There’s a time and a place for both.

So, back to being grounded. What does a road warrior do when her wings have been clipped? Getting the neglected house in order covered about the first weekend at home…..then, I started plotting. In the end, I made the most of the rest of the year by visiting friends and family, and thoroughly decompressing at a nearby destination spa. Come to think of it, I did that twice – once by using Marriott (or Bonvoy) points, even. Since about November, though, I started planning 2020. And, while it’s now chock full of much more personal travel than business, it’s shaping up to be a somewhat new adventure for me that incorporates more domestic destinations for a change AND the prospect of some potential and novel career avenues. There’s no telling where travel will lead you – one is never made lesser by getting out and seeing the world.

tracking your travel

Who doesn’t dream of South Beach when it’s the 1st week of January?

So, we’ve wrapped up another year – in fact, this one was a DECADE. I saw a meme yesterday that said: 2050 is just as far away as 1990. I don’t think this is possible because 1990 was just yesterday, and 2050 is clearly a year beyond “Blade Runner 2049” even. And, THEY were interacting with androids and using flying cars, so clearly – that’s impossible. (insert eye roll of denial). Nonetheless, I do rather wonder what I’ve been doing with my time. Do you ever look back and take inventory as it were? Having never been a diarist, I tend to look back through past itineraries. I use an app for it – an app that helps me organize future travel and fondly reflect on past travel.

The app I use is TripIt. There are others, but when you do a search around the interwebs, this one shows up at the top of most lists because it’s so easy to use. It’s also a SAP product, so if your travel agency uses SAP Concur for your travel reservations, there’s an auto-interface (I’m not techy, so this sounds right to me – don’t chastise me if I’m way off base). What I mean is, my travel agent makes a reservation for air, hotel, rental car (pfft) and then *poof*, it’s there in my TripIt. I then re-name it whatever catchy name I have for the trip – like instead of “Irvine, CA”, I might call it “Q1 TeamF2F”. Toldja it was catchy. Within the itinerary that my agent started for me, I can add all my other details (e.g. dinner reservations, excursions, tours). It’s very easy because you:

  1. Make a reservation
  2. Receive confirmation of said reservation
  3. Forward the confirmation from any e-mail account linked to your TripIt
  4. It pops up in an itinerary with corresponding dates, or starts a new one

You don’t have to put context, or codes, or anything around the forwarded e-mail, which you send to: Plans@tripit.com . It honestly could not be easier. Sure, they occasionally don’t plunk it down just as you’d hope. When that happens, it gets stored in a separate file that you can move manually – it’s not hard. It’s not the magic that it ordinarily is, but when you’re dealing with foreign languages, or less formal confirmations from private vendors, it’s a minimal hassle that you can easily navigate.

Another thing I adore about it is that you can share an itinerary with anyone. You just indicate right in your itinerary who you want to share it with. If they’re a TripIt user, too, it shows up in their app effortlessly. And, you assign rights to them. Just want to let them follow your travels? Don’t give them rights to edit your plans. If they’re a fellow traveler on that trip, they get to collaborate. It’s really effective for couples and small groups especially. My husband used to get frustrated when I didn’t tell him my plans, so now I share all of them. When we travel together, we can each contribute without inadvertently double-booking ourselves. And, I’ve mentioned before that I like having a way to track my flights outside of the carriers’ apps, so you can upgrade your TripIt and do that here, too. I haven’t gone that route, but when they’ve given me free trial periods, it does seem pretty snazzy.

The right travel app can ensure travel Zen almost as much as this Swarovski Buddha at the Kimpton EPIC in Miami. Almost.

Anyway – back to the reminiscing part. According to TripIt, I stayed pretty busy in 2019.

  • Sunny California in January? I’ll take it. I treated myself to a beach resort – makes it feel less like work.
  • Speaking engagement in Florida (both January and February)…someone had to go; at least one was walking distance to Downtown Disney with a HUGE variety of shopping, restaurants and bars/lounges.
  • Milestone birthday for a friend in New Orleans. Stayed at the exquisite Monteleone and ate some pretty incredible food. You do what you have to do to nurture friendships.
  • Oh, yeah – 91st Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood.
  • Vegas, baby – couple’s retreat. As I’ve said before – poolside at a posh or even semi-posh hotel, footsteps to fine dining and excellent shopping. Rarely do you even have to hail a cab in Las Vegas. That’s pretty relaxing.
  • Singapore and India – I think I’ve posted about those a fair amount already. The flights are long, but SO worth it.
    • I do think one has to see countries in Asia. I thought I was well-traveled until I went there and realized how little I’ve really experienced to date.
  • TCM Film Festival – it’s a hi-light for my year. Located at Hollywood and Vine I get to indulge my obsessive passion for film as an art form along with other people who revel in old movies (and, movies that came out for us in highschool are now considered ‘old movies’, too, FYI). There’s truly nothing like experiencing movies in a group setting (aka: a theater) among dedicated fans.
  • College visits – helping them move in and out of dorms/apartments is, as I’ve said before, grueling work but so worthwhile. The one-on-one time as they start to forge their own independence is so fun to share.
  • Orlando (again) to meet with my department this time – I really love the folks I work with and I value the time we get to spend in-person. There’s too little of it. Someone once told me, ‘It’s too easy to hang up the phone and start letting a person’s disembodied voice become a constant irritation….yet, spend a couple days across the table from them and you start to remember what you liked about them.’ It’s true.
    • Skype helps, but true face-to-face time, some wine, and a bizarre attraction to coordinating ponchos and interpretive dance does for a group what could never be accomplished via video conference….
  • Another milestone birthday for another friend and her desire to go somewhere she’d never been. We toured Brussels, Antwerp and Bruges. Old friends, new adventures – what could be better?
  • PARIS – have I mentioned I went to Paris last year? I stayed for 2 weeks. It was work and play. I won’t go on because I’ve bent your ear enough about it – but, I will take a moment to ask: Do you ever invite friends who aren’t your “bestie” to travel with you?
    • It’s actually a really good formula. Because you’re not too close, you don’t tend to make decisions FOR them, or encroach on their good nature, etc. Of course we don’t start out to take over for our best and closest humans, but with familiarity can come that tendency. I would highly encourage you to take at least one trip this year with someone whom you simply know and trust, but who isn’t your best friend or partner. You’ll get to know them (or re-know them) better, discover a shared interest, and maybe gain some new insights. You might even find a new travel buddy.
  • Finally, a return to see cherished family now living in Tennessee rounded out my year. Take time to go see your family and friends who live far away.
    • There’s something unique about a shared history – whether it’s your childhood, or your ancestry. There’s a unique bond there that you can choose to explore. When it comes to establishing these people in your life, that ship has sailed – the people you knew growing up are now set and finite. You can’t get new ones. The people who share your same ancestors – also set. There’s no one else who knew your grandparents, aunts and uncles when you were little. So, whether you love those folks already, which I do, or if you’re willing to GET to know them and share a laugh at the weird mis-steps and idiosyncrasies among yourselves and your extended family, there’s literally know one else who has as much skin in the game as you do. Cringe, cry and laugh about it together, but you don’t have to EXPLAIN it – that’s the beauty of it. They already get it.
Even a produce market in Asia can be breathtaking. Go see it – pictures don’t do it justice.

What will the new year, or new decade for that matter, hold for you? Now’s a great time to start mapping that out. I have 7 trips on my TripIt already. How about you?

airbnb: the alt-hotel

Don’t limit your searches to hotels, and don’t think Airbnb is just a way to save money – in many cases, it’s a great solution. (Clockwise from top left: Texas, Texas, Montreal, Paris)

“Every night, we stack all our luggage in front of the door – we would just need to hold them off long enough to wake Dad”, said my eldest step-daughter to a friend while we were on a family vacation to NYC one Christmas. That was funny for a second…until I realized we were in fact doing that. Every night. When you have 2 adults, 3 kids + 1 friend and you want a place to stay in Manhattan at Christmastime, you get creative. In an earlier post, I talked about the Times Square hotel we all shared one holiday season that took 30min for each and every elevator ride. At that investment of time, we considered carefully whether we really needed to ascend/descend before setting out. As a result, we either stayed outside wandering while freezing, or collected in the warm room watching “Honey BooBoo” more than I like to admit (btw – the people on ‘My Strange Addiction‘ are not exhibiting normal behavior at all). So, in trying to find a place that would hold all of us and actually be on the island, I chose to judge a little more liberally than is typical for me – I’ve since put together a guide I follow when selecting Airbnbs. That’s what I’m going to share with you now.

Before I’d ever used Airbnb, a friend of mine had already traveled the world using the ‘new’ app. Her advice: Never rent a place that hasn’t already, and preferably recently, been reviewed by past guests. That was great advice to get me started. As such, I’ve never had the problem of showing up at my destination only to discover my “Airbnb” didn’t actually exist. I’ve seen friends and acquaintances post experiences to that effect, so I know it happens and not to oblivious people. Just people who thought they could have blind-trust in a product. So, be vigilant. Airbnb has “Reviews” posted for most spaces. Read them. I also limit my searches now to “Super Host” or “Airbnb Plus” hosts.

Set your filter to exactly what you’re looking for so that, again, you limit surprises. I like “Entire Place”. I’m not willing to even consider anything else, so I set my filter and only look at those spaces. There are, however, “Private Room” and “Shared Room” options. The private rooms will tell you what locks are available for your privacy. Shared room might be only a couch. Living in Austin, I know people who rent out their couch, or an air mattress in their living room, during SXSW and Austin City Limits. That’s not my thing, but if it works for you – cool. Just be certain you know what the arrangement is before you arrive. Remember the old adage – “If it’s too good to be true….” and proceed with caution. Most places, getting a nice apartment for $95-$125/night is great compared to almost any hotel. Even if there are cleaning fees of $50 or so. But, if you’re looking at what you think is an apartment in Chicago for $40-50/night, double-check you’re not looking at just a private room; both are available in this price-range. Just be certain you know what you’re getting. And, location means a lot, too.

I asked a friend how he picks an Airbnb and he said “vibe” is the first and most important criteria. If he looks at the space, reads the reviews and gets a bad vibe, he immediately eliminates the property from consideration. Had I done that, I wouldn’t have ended up in the sketch Manhattan space with the kids…. In that case, I even did a google earth search on the address and I could tell the environment wasn’t ideal. But, I thought – it’s the whole building, and we’ll all be together. It was not the whole building – and, in retrospect, the comments did allude to a shared kitchen space – I just thought – we won’t need the kitchen. I had not considered that folks on a shoestring might be sleeping in the kitchen. Yep, there were folks sleeping in the kitchen. About 10 folks. And, the other space that was listed by this owner wasn’t another apartment by my standards – it was just another large room down the hall. What separated us from the rest of the temporary inhabitants? A doorknob lock. Ergo the luggage-piling. In retrospect, this information was all discoverable had I exercised more scrutiny – but, I was over a barrel with short-notice, a large family, and holiday competition for space. So, to be fair, I did give the host a good rating – he hadn’t misled me. The pictures were accurate as was his description – I had just hoped the pictures “didn’t do the space justice”. Do not assume that.

  • Set your filters
  • Only consider places that have past (and hopefully recent) reviews
  • If the reviews are too short & sweet, they might just be checking a box – look for reviews that really do give you a “picture” of the space and their experience
    • Reviews aren’t posted for the guest or host until you’ve both reviewed each other. So, post a timely review. But, remember you’re being reviewed, too – be a good guest. It could impact whether future hosts will rent to you.
  • Research and know what part of town you want to be in – you can set a filter for that, too. You can even plug in key words/locations.
  • Do a Google Earth search of the address and have a look at the outside – had I done that this past Thanksgiving, which I actually forgot to do, I would’ve picked a different space
  • Reach out to the owner and ask questions.
    • #1: If they don’t respond quickly now while they’re courting your business, just imagine if you were having an emergency during your stay.
    • #2: You might have special considerations that make a difference to you. For me, I like to be able to stream movies and make coffee (the important things). My friend is very tall. So, he asked the owner if the below-ground apartment would work for his height and the owner immediately said it would be miserable over a 10-day stay.

I’m not suggesting that I always want Airbnb over a hotel – I don’t think you have to choose one camp or the other. And, Airbnb surely isn’t always that much cheaper when you consider cleaning fees, etc. If I’m hopping from one town to another with only 1 night at a clip, hotels really are easier to pop into and out of. Sometimes, though, room to sprawl out can be nice. Being able to bring your pet is a nice alternative, too (even pet-friendly hotels usually have a 75lb limit for dogs). Have I ever stayed in a hotel for 10 days? Nope – but, I’ve stayed in an Airbnb for that period of time. When you’re setting out with the family, especially over the holidays, it’s a lot nicer (in my opinion) to have a large space. Even with separate bedrooms, a shared community space gives you a spot to congregate. As compared to a row of hotel rooms. The cost of 3 or 4 hotel rooms in a row, even if achievable, would be rate-limiting in most cases. And, never quite so “homey”.

When do I consider an Airbnb over a hotel?

  • Have a large group?
    • Last Christmas, we went to Montreal with my niece’s family and had my step daughters meet us. There was ski gear, Christmas presents, etc. I loved having a large space and cubbies where we could spoke off. And, a full kitchen. That was ideal.
  • Attending a major event – festival, or holiday?
    • These occasions cause most hotels to either sell out, or dramatically increase their rates – I think it’s a “what the market will bear” situation….and, there are, by volume, a lot more apartments, houses, etc. than hotel rooms that people might be willing to rent out. You might save a lot by comparison, or your might simply expand your option of available space. Either way, fear not – lodging searches just got a lot wider with Airbnb as an option
  • Want to get a better feel of the location?
    • Airbnb is a great alternative for that. I love staying at Airbnbs when I visit my son’s college. I’ve met some terrific hosts and I’ve gotten to interact with his environment SO MUCH BETTER than if I’d stayed at one of the economy hotel options, which are designed to look like their branch in every other city.
  • Alternatives to economy hotels
    • I’m not much an economy traveler – so, before I stay at a no-frills hotel or motel, I’m going to be looking at Airbnb. Previously, I’d tapped into traditional Bed and Breakfasts, but that doesn’t suit my husband. Airbnb provides the privacy he wants and the quaintness I prefer.
  • Want to live like a local?
    • When staying for more than a week, I think you should sort of live in their shoes for a minute. Go to the market. Make your own breakfast. Have a space where you can sit and read without being a customer somewhere. If it’s an apartment in the Marais neighborhood of Paris or one with a balcony overlooking the heart of Rome, you’ve just given yourself a rare treat that you’ll treasure.
  • Traveling to a rural spot?
    • Would you believe me if I told you there are places that don’t have hotels? I said when I started this blog that I would give compliments where they were due, and not remark on those that were undeserving. So, without being specific, there are such places. They might tell you they have “inns” or “resorts”….I beg to differ. These terms apparently have a vast array of definitions as you travel across our land. I’ve driven to the middle of nowhere to visit kids in summer camps – consider Airbnb. There are delightful vacation homes that people keep and you can enjoy them when they’re not. It’s a win-win.
  • Need a big kitchen?
    • I’ve taken to hosting Thanksgiving out of town to be closer to my son who can’t take the whole weekend. We tried going to a hotel and eating out one year. While that was fun (and delicious), it didn’t feel quite right. We need traditional dishes and a couch for movies. It’s a lot of work and a ton of schlepping, but so fun to have this option.

So, whether you’re bringing your kids and large pets, AND cooking a huge meal during a major holiday ALL while attending a world-class festival in a rural community…..or, you just want to get away to a little place where you get more space and autonomy than a hotel (and, maybe a cost savings), I’d encourage you to consider Airbnb. It seems to be here to stay and for good reason. I’ve taken to enjoying some of their Airbnb Experiences, too. Every place isn’t Disneyland – you have put a little thought into it in order to make the right choices. And, the resources to pick the right Airbnb are available to you if you tap into them. When you do, you will have really dramatically increased your options and experiences for tons of exciting new locations.

movie travel: thanksgiving (in NYC)

You’ll probably read that “Hannah and Her Sisters” is the best Thanksgiving movie ever, so here’s your dose of it. I’m going to focus on pics that are a little less introspective.

As long as there’s a buck to be made, Hollywood will look to capitalize – and, let’s face it: Thanksgiving is a great day for it. You socialize with friends and family over an elaborate bounty and some fine wine. After which, all you have energy to do is waddle down to the local cineplex for a film. Does your family measure up to Hollywood’s ideal? Does the family on the screen make yours look GOOD by comparison? Or, do you just want to escape? I’ll almost always end up at the theater after Thanksgiving dinner (ok, fine – most dinners regardless of date). Yet, in the days leading UP to Thanksgiving, I get into the spirit with a curated list of pics that put me in the mood. I’ll post a sample of the list at the end, but right now I’m going to stick with the theme of last week’s post and look to the home of Thanksgiving: New York City.

“Home of”? Yep, they established the parade, or at least they perfected it, so it’s theirs. Most of you will watch at least a snippet of the parade Thursday morning, so we’ll start there. “Everyone felt the magic on the set and we all knew we were creating something special”, wrote Maureen O’Hara in her autobiography with respect to her experience making the 1947 classic “Miracle on 34th Street“. Think Christian Bale cornered the market on gaining/losing weight to win an Oscar? Edmund Gwenn did it first, winning for his turn as Santa, which he also performed with aplomb in the actual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – not as a campy Hollywood version, but in full capacity just as Macy’s would expect of any Santa, who anchors their parade to usher in the Christmas season. Just like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, (which we’ll talk about later in the season) it was released at a much warmer time of year, but its magic is in how it warms our hearts….year, after year, after year.

I recently commented that this film is full of partisan politics, commercialism, and questionable, or at least controversial, application of the law. These aren’t concepts that are new to our current world. If becoming a devotée of classic film has taught me anything, it’s that we haven’t invented much sociologically that our ancestors weren’t already very well aware of. In fact, during the Great Depression, the world saw that women were running families while earning a living while trying to nurse their husbands’ battered egos and that ushered in the screwball comedies that gave rise to female actors being the star, the box office draw, and running roughshod over their love-struck male leads. Y’know – escapism. WWII changed all of that – women, being lured back into their homes and out of theaters by fancy kitchen automation, were re-placed into much more what we think of now as “traditional” roles. Maureen O’Hara here is a bit of a bridge in that respect. She’s working and mothering, but she’s not wifing – as noted early on by Natalie Wood‘s character who says her parents divorced early. (Don’t be shocked – watch some movies prior to 1934 and you’ll see that America was getting divorced then, too….) Speaking of bridges, Maureen’s Doris Walker is trying to raise a little intellectual who also wants to be a kid, and who doesn’t this time of year? I asked my son if he felt betrayed because we encouraged him to believe in Santa Claus. He replied with a cry/laugh emoji – I rest my case.

It doesn’t get more Thankgiving-y than this

For approximately 1 and 1/2 hours, go back to a time when magic was possible. Having blind-faith in something doesn’t have to make you naive – it might just make you hopeful. And, that’s not a bad thing. This picture will give you some insight into New Yorkers in their many facets: the hardened, the skeptical and the caring. Give it a watch while you’re stuffing your turkey or making your pies. I think you’ll be very glad you did and you, too, might not have realized that it’s far more than a sentimental, sanitized-for-family-viewing feature.

For a piece you might’ve missed, I recommend “Pieces of April“. Katie Holmes was, at one time, a promising actress and this is an amazingly talented cast (Patricia Clarkson‘s only Oscar nominated role). It’s very low-budget ($100k). To me, that element supports the film’s premise. Remember the first time you hosted? If yours took a village, this one takes an entire apartment building in Manhattan.

Have some men in your bunch who won’t settle down to a movie about tradition and family (in the traditional sense)? Try “Tower Heist“. There’s no sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner and no wishing the family had been closer, but ‘now I realize what I was missing’…….yadda, yadda, yadda. If your bunch is more in-tune with Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy and Ferraris, this is your film. Maybe it’s a gateway into: Not all Thanksgiving movies are sappy. Because watching Matthew Broderick dangle suspended high above the Thanksgiving Day parade isn’t that.

Now, for some real sightseeing…and an added tear here and there

I’ve read the Zabar’s scene in 1998’s “You’ve Got Mail” described as the MOST New York scene ever. I don’t disagree with that. Just know what you’re doing – that’s all they ask. And, this pic takes place almost entirely in the upper-west side of the city where that might be even more true than anywhere else. It’s a lovely part of town and one where, as long as you’re not looking at price tags, you can see yourself settling in and really living. Just don’t ask yourself how an independent bookseller (inherited or otherwise) is able to pay the rent on her space and that amazing apartment.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that this film is an homage to, if not a remake of, “Shop Around the Corner” from 1940 starring Jimmy Stewart and his real-life best friend’s (Henry Fonda) ex-wife, Margaret Sullivan, and set in Budapest where everyone speaks perfect English with very strong American accents. In the Nora Ephron version, the best-friend and confidant is played by Dave Chappelle and the would-be-star-crossed lovers are Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, so what’s not to love? It is Hanksgiving all month long after all. If you cannot bring yourself to watch holiday-themed pictures, this isn’t one. So, let me entice you to check it out just to see another side of New York during crisp autumn days and as they move through the holidays. And, they do have the lovely aforementioned Zabar‘s scene at Thanksgiving. So, it COUNTS as a Thanksgiving movie. In doing so, you’ll find that strolling through this neighborhood is as essential to experiencing the city as any other. Here’s an insider tip – the H&H Bagels in the movie is not the same H&H Bagel that you’ll find there today. The original closed in 2012, so see – you have no time to lose. Things are changing all the time.

Seize the moment – tap into these offerings and then get out and see the world. I love how movies and real-life can intertwine. To me, indulging that experience makes everything richer. Thanksgiving, if you space it out and partake in the build up by watching while you cook can take days. And, that takes a bit of the edge off of inhaling in 30min what took you 6-8hours to prepare. This has all only been a build up to the climax of dinner – there will be another. Just look for the sequel next year.

Here’s my list of Thanksgiving movie recommendations:

  • Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) C’mon……this has to be #1 – probably even playing at a theater near you
  • Home for the Holidays (1995) Directed by Jodi Foster and starring Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr, Anne Bancroft….
  • For Your Consideration (2006) Christopher Guest mockumentary
  • House of Yes (1997) Parker Posey
  • The Ice Storm (1997) In case you were worried about being too happy
  • Prisoners (2013) In case just sitting down and eating isn’t hardcore enough for you
  • The Big Chill (1983) Are you dubious? Did you know that the scene at the beginning, in which Kevin Costner speaks, which was cut out, was actually all of them together at Thanksgiving? Counts
  • The Last Waltz (1978) Concert footage from The Band’s final show on American Thanksgiving 1976

new york city – holidays

In my opinion, NYC is simply the best at the holidays and for the holidays

“You’ll lose him – you’ll lose him for sure”, is what everyone said when we announced plans to take our 6-year-old, ‘spirited’ child to Times Square for New Year’s Eve. Guess what – we didn’t lose him. In fact, he actually turned 21 today, so I guess I’m not that bad a parent after all….I mean, he’s not HERE, but I know where he is. For the last 13 years, my office has been in New Jersey while I work from Texas. And, before that, I spent treasured times in the city with close cousins – we commuted, by train, ALONE, from Long Island, ….when we were children. Can you imagine? Times were different (we tell ourselves). Nonetheless, New York City has always had a special place in my heart and if pressed, I honestly could not tell you how many times I’ve been there. Whether it was for a luxe vacation, a budget vacation, just a dinner, summer or fall, I’ve seen it all there. But, I can confirm for you that there’s no city I’ve seen that compares to NYC during the holidays.

Take the picture of Radio City above. If you were standing in this spot right now, you could literally pivot around and see Rockefeller Center with its skating rink serving as the most luxurious and well-tread tree skirt any Christmas Tree ever had. Pivot again and spy Saks Fifth Avenue’s windows and light show. If you picture in your mind’s eye the scrolling electric beacons that dress Times Square and the Theatre District, that’s just a sampling of what you’ll see at Christmastime across entire swaths of the city. And, it’s sincerely holiday cheer – ok, fine – the commercial side is probably manufactured to some degree. But, you certainly get the impression the city revels in it, too. It’s not just for show – the city, its inhabitants and its tourists, find a way to get along and actually, dare I say, share some good will. Even if it’s only for a moment. There are lots of cities where you can go outside and just walk. But, few cities where you can bundle up and walk among the tourist traps and the honking horns of midtown, into the pristine rolling hills of Central Park, and then on to shopping that rivals Rue de Faubourg of Paris in a single stroll. It’s a long stroll. Work with me on this.

Think ahead (as always) on what you’ll want to do while you’re there. Is it all casual? Or, will you also need to fit in some dress clothes for The Rainbow Room or Lincoln Center? You can always adapt your activities around what you’ve brought, or buy more (my preference), but you will want to look smart and be comfortable regardless.

How does a Texan dress for snow?

Dressing for your walking trip through NYC is directly proportional to your level of enjoyment. There’s an art to this:

  • Dress in layers – this isn’t just something to say – it’s a fact
    • Underwear
      • I recommend silk underwear – it breathes in a way cotton doesn’t. And, if you’re new to the northeast at winter, you don’t yet know that they like their interiors to be a balmy 92F at all times. Layers.
    • Casual top of any variety – I like flowy, my men wear T-shirts
    • Sweater
    • Scarf (or, 2 – they’re $5 each on the sidewalk)
    • Coat – I had a nearly frozen southerner in NYC once tell me “You know how they say leather coats are the warmest in the world?” No, no one has ever said that who experienced actual cold. Get wool, get quilting, get down….get smart.
    • Gloves
    • A hat – Texans don’t understand the hat part, but it’s key. I have a HUGE head and a ton of hair. So, I’m usually comfortable with ear muffs, but cover your EARS
  • Cute shoes? – leave them at home. You need at least 2 pair of durable boots and comfortable socks. I really can’t overstate how much you’ll be walking. Just assume you’ll never get a cab – then if you do, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
    • If it’s going to be REALLY cold, grab some foot warmers. I discovered them last year in Montreal – Heaven in a self-activating pouch
    • If you DO have to bring fancy shoes for an event, note that New Yorkers commute around in sensible footwear – you’ll carry your nice shoes in a bag that gets coat-checked, after you swap-out, with your outer coat when you arrive. They think of everything.
  • Packing mix and match pieces that all coordinate has never been so vital – you might find yourself wanting to wear everything at once someday – and, if they all match, you’re in business.
  • Bring cash – most places will encourage/require you to check your outerwear – you’ll want to tip at least a little
    • I recommend a plastic bag you can stick your gloves and hat into that they can sling over the hanger of your coat. Otherwise, shove those pieces into the coat pockets and slide one end of the scarf down the arm of your coat – less likely to fall off and get lost that way.

I’ve chosen to pop over to the city from New Jersey for dinner on more than one occasion – it’s always worth it. But, this is especially true November – December. Maybe you’re bridge-and-tunneling it, so you’ll likely stay close to train stations. There’s the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station (with Holiday markets popping up left and right). Then, you make your way back down toward the PATH and find yourself near Bryant Park, with alas, more Holiday shops. Sip, stroll, repeat.

Say you have just enough time for dinner, but you gravitate near the Park. Plan ahead and make reservations at Tavern on the Green. Yes, it’s back and better than ever – but, don’t forget your reservations. And, if you’ve never done it before, I recommend a carriage ride through Central Park. It’s in fact controversial these days – are the horses well cared for? There are 2 sides to that story, so I won’t direct you either way – do your own google-search and decide. I will say that doing it once is enough for me – I’m not going to use it as a standard mode of transportation. But, as a slice of Americana – I just couldn’t say no.

Better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times.”

Asian Proverb
(I can’t confirm it’s referring to New York, but I think it is)

Not a shopping fan? How about pop-up ice skating – right in the middle of things. Bryant Park, Central Park, again – Rockefeller Center beneath Prometheus? That’s all pretty Christmas-y. The latter costs the most and has the longest lines. Among the 3, if this is your cup of tea, I’d aim for Bryant Park.

Museums? Um, they’ve got your museums. Here are just a FEW of my favorite NYC art museums:

  • Metropolitan Museum of Art (ok, fine – yeah, duh….but, even if you’ve been a million times. Go see the Angel tree at Christmas) BTW – if the lines are insane, and they will be, as you face the museum, you’ll see a small entrance down below and to the left….it’s for groups. I play dumb and use this entrance; I haven’t been turned away yet. Good luck.
  • Natural History Museum – I’ve grown weary of the crowds at this museum, but if we’re talking Christmas, their Origami tree is really worth the hassle. OK fine. There. I admitted it….I’m looking at my origami souvenir ornament right now.
  • Museum of Modern Art (and, an amazing hamburger just nearby @ The Burger Joint in the Parker Meridien Hotel….let your nose guide you….bring cash)
    • And, don’t miss the museum’s LARGE gift shop across the street from the museum itself.
  • The Guggenheim – Frank Lloyd Wright – if all you do is stare at the building, it’s worth the trip. But, while on the upper east side – stop by a cozy wine bar. Rest your feet. You earned it.
  • The Morgan Library and Museum – Not far from the New York Public Library and what a pleasant little surprise. For decades, I didn’t even realize it was there just waiting for me to discover it.
  • Cooper-Hewitt – a hands-on Design museum. I wasn’t initially enamored, but it sucks you in, where you stay for hours. And, their gift shop has some of the best and most unique shopping in town.
  • Neue Galerie – New to me (I’m not trying to be funny….I’ve really just discovered this gem). Klimt. Enjoy.

I don’t need to tell you there’s nightlife in Manhattan, right? You’ve heard the song: it doesn’t sleep. Well, that’s not exactly been my experience. But, I will tell you that if you’re looking for dessert or a cocktail at midnight, you’ll have no trouble. So, break out of your routine and live like a New Yorker – sleep a little later, eat a little later, be a grown up a little later and squeeze in a show in between. New Yorkers also see shows. And, whether you’re interested in a top-billed ticket like “Hamilton”, or what’s now a tried and true staple like “Wicked”, they’ve got you covered. If it’s “Hamilton” you want, you might want to call your American Express Platinum Concierge (still….in 2019…but, it’s Christmas). Go checkout your options. My advice is to buy at least 1 set of tickets on-line to your dream show right now – before you leave. And,then while you’re there, see what you can pick up on the fly. There’s always TKTS and there are box offices at every venue. You’ll have options. I’ve even picked up tickets outside of a theatre from groups who pre-purchased a block of tickets and a few guests couldn’t make it. Someone always has to cancel during cold and flu season. For face-value, that’s reasonable and fair – I didn’t get taken. But, use your judgment. And, if you’re not down for a live show, check out the numerous cinemas around town. I really like the IFC in Greenwich Village. In addition to first-run films, they’ve got a curated collection of off-beat Noir-ish Christmas offerings. And, in a city of X-million people – there will be a theater showing “It’s a Wonderful Life”, I have no doubt.

Even just watching the skate rink at Rockefeller Center is heartwarming in the snow -with a cup of cocoa.

If you’re there for Christmas, you’re probably already thinking of visiting St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I guess it’s my upbringing, but celebrating the season in church just brings it home to me – dogma aside. It’s the spirit of togetherness, celebration, and new hope. Even if you’re only there to take in the structure, the art, or the music – it’s always an experience that reminds me for at least a short time each year, that we can be collectively reverent whether it’s for spiritual or just nostalgic reasons, it’s still there inside us.

Said Origami tree @ Museum of Natural History

Where to stay is a question of no small concern – NYC is one of your pricier destinations and you’re going at one of its busiest times of year. You see where I’m going with this – if you didn’t book early, you’re going to be staying out or paying $$$. Still, I’d encourage you to think long and hard about where to stay if you’re looking to economize and consult someone who knows the city. To someone who says, ‘I don’t mind staying out a bit’, I’d say: Trains are a great option in NYC – download the CityMapper app and hope for the best. But, trains breakdown, they get delayed, they’re crowded, they have maintenance at the MOST inopportune times (read: just when you’ve planned your curtain time down to the minute). Cabs can get expensive, but they’re usually abundant….except during shift-change, which is right before your dinner reservations. And, pray that it doesn’t rain – you’ll never get a cab in the rain. Theoretically, someone does, but I don’t know who. And, Uber/Lyft are a great option now, but be aware of “peak time”, which seems to be my waking hours. Point is – you’ll want SOME things to be within walking distance. Don’t plan the whole of your 3-4 night vacation to be very far from where you want to do your sightseeing. There are a TON of New York City hotels – you can find one within your price range-ish. And, be wary of those bearing only a few stars. I’m an intrepid traveler and I’ve had to pack-up and leave a few times when the 3 stars I was “OK” with were discovered to be either ill gotten or just far too generous. You have your health and safety to think of; I’m not just referring to the absence of a Nespresso machine. If you’re staying near Times Square for New Years Eve, or the days leading up to NYE, give consideration to the crowds. We were once greeted at a 5-star hotel with a disclaimer that said the elevators might be quite delayed due to the volume of guests – I kid you not….30min to get an elevator at times. By contrast, I offer the Michelangelo Hotel. I’ve stayed here a few times for NYE and was surprisingly insulated from the crowds and chaos. When I’ve been before, I was always able to walk the sidewalks of Times Square on the big night without being corralled into the barricades you see on TV. I called this year to ask whether brandishing their room key would give me the same advantage – they said it’s dependent on NYPD who will decide day-of. That’s a bit of a gamble at their prices, but it’s an option. A comfy one that allows you to watch the lights and crowds from your window, follow the ball drop on your TV, and pop a bottle of fine champagne in bed. There are worse things.

Manhattan doesn’t roll up its sidewalks on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, or even Thanksgiving for that matter. Although, pack your patience for the crowds and the parades. You’ll have your pick of restaurants whether you want a casual bite, some tradition, to rub elbows with Broadway elite, or you’ll have what she’s having. Just plan ahead and check for adjusted hours. If you’re still looking for that after dinner cocktail and maybe dessert, I have to put in a plug for a favorite literary haunt and round table.

I’ll follow-up with a post profiling some classic Holiday films set in New York City. I’m not letting this one go – there’s no place like Manhattan at Christmas. You have to see it to believe it. The vibrant spirit, the crispness on your face, maybe some snowflakes in the air, and familiar tunes played by sidewalk buskers. For goodness sake – carts hawking CHESTNUTS on 5th avenue.

I’m not naive – I know there’s a bit of a racket looking to cash in on some of the sights and sounds I’m encouraging you to take in. (I’m picturing Charlie Brown admonishing me for over-commercializing Christmas – thunk-thunk on the metal tree). And, while I’m a bit of an off-beat, boutique shopper, myself, and while I abhor crowds, there is still something magical about just standing still in the Macy’s on 34th Street and knowing that Santa Clause once worked there.

squeezing in family travel: anniversaries

The Lake Austin Spa is less than an hour from the Austin airport, even closer to downtown, and a WORLD away.

When you travel a lot for work, the very last thing you want to do on the weekends and holidays is deal with airports. I honestly wouldn’t mind being teleported places – truly, I like discovering new places. It’s just the getting there (and back) that starts to wear on me. So, when it comes to anniversaries – that one time a year that belongs JUST to the 2 of you, your spouse can start to feel pretty second-rate when you say (again), let’s just have a quiet dinner at home. So, staycations start to look pretty good: first-class accomodations, pampering spa treatments, sitting in a hammock by the lake breathing in natural beauty…..ready to plan a romantic, low-stress getaway? Lemme show you around.

So, I can see some husbands’ eyes roll when they hear: Let’s plan a spa vacation. I mean, that’s where you go to have a girls’ weekend, right? RIGHT – if you can assure me of the following:

  • You don’t enjoy all-inclusive meals and snacks; made to order (with access to wine and champagne accompaniment)
  • You’re averse to water sports (e.g. kayaking, stand-up paddling, canoeing, ….sun-bathing)
  • You don’t like to swim – and, especially not in a variety of indoor and outdoor pools
  • You have no interest in working out, stretching, or long guided hikes in nature
  • Reading a book by the lake doesn’t appeal to you
  • Lying down on a heated-water massage table while skilled technicians massage out the stress of work sounds unappealing
  • Cooking demonstrations by chefs who only need you to lift a fork (taking in more food and wine) don’t interest you
  • Retiring to your private, well-appointed room with a video from the extensive free lending library just doesn’t compare to watching “Law and Order” on your own couch

Are we on the same page now? I mean, what’s not to love, right? We happen to be lucky enough to live within driving distance of Condé Nast’s #1 spa destination in America. Every time we go, though, we meet people from around the US, so it’s most certainly not just locals or people who find it convenient. I’ve been indulging in their luxury – on a day-pass basis – for years. And, taking even a day to strip off your normal daily routine to don a robe, sit in peace and just “be” while you get a facial, a massage and EXCELLENT food, can nourish your soul. Becoming an overnight guest is something that’s been a special treat my husband and I give each other once a year. I think you have to have these special getaways that belong only to you. They don’t have to be the same place over and over – maybe it’s the theme you enjoy and don’t invest in everyday – like maybe you want to take in a cruise once a year from a nearby port where you float around for a few nights only to arrive back at the same spot. Or, maybe you like a cabin in the woods when it’s snowy. When you combine work travel with visiting-the-kids travel, it all adds up to a lot of one of you gets left behind, or a lot of playing Mom & Dad. Regardless, it’s nice to unplug and remind yourself why this is the person you picked to share your life with.

For us, the spa theme works well because when done well, like at Lake Austin Spa Report, it’s the ultimate indulgence: As much aloneness as we want, as much involvement as we want (there are lots of group activities if you’re interested) and as much pampering as we want. If I’m completely honest, massages and facials as a matter of routine are a necessity. But, driving through traffic to get to my appointment, sitting for an hour or so, while “is there anything at home for dinner?” and “did I reply to that e-mail?” plays through my head leaves me feeling a little conflicted at times: Was this just another thing I had to squeeze into my day? It’s certainly not a tooth extraction or a trip to the DMV. Wow – I’m seriously complaining about how to find just the right amount of pampering to count….. But, my POINT is that waking up and thinking “all I have to do today is a hike and a facial” is a very different paradigm.

Obviously, spa destinations haven’t cornered the market on romantic getaways. America’s playground – Las Vegas isn’t a bad spot for a couples’ getaway. And, most people can manage to get there non-stop, which is at least helpful. It’s not all gambling, smoking and bad choices. It can also be fine dining, amazing shopping, extraordinary food and live entertainment – of quality. Here’s what I mean:

  • Pools – lovely pools open all day and right up until it’s time to go to dinner….just sit, read, people-watch. They’ll bring you food and beverages if you ask
  • Shopping – not the cheesy fashion malls (note: If it says ‘fashion’ on the outside, be dubious)
    • Bellagio – always the first place I head for window shopping and, let’s be honest – shopping shopping
    • Caesar’s Forum Shops – Cartier, Tiffany & Co, Ferragamo
  • Craft cocktails – Sweeping Las Vegas as they are the rest of the world right now. Nonetheless, a much quieter Vegas than what normally springs to mind, and a relaxing pre- or post-dinner pastime
  • Excellent meals – Can you find cheesy restaurants in Las Vegas, yes. Can you find buffets, yes. Do you have to, no. There’s a Le Cirque and a French Laundry there. Picasso has actual Picassos hanging on the wall. Sure, every chain has a presence there – you don’t have to eat at them. Look for the gems – they’re there.
  • Live entertainment – Yep – there’re talentless topless shows. I’m not trying to trick you. But, you can find amazing shows, too, because entertainers go where people go and people go to Vegas – Elton John, “Love” featuring Beatles’ music and extraordinary French-Canadian acrobats, most touring bands (e.g. checkout who’s playing at Brooklyn Bowl). If you want cheesy, you won’t have to look far. And, we’ve certainly squeezed in our fair share of stars from our youth: Donny & Marie, Olivia Newton John….but, we manage to strike a balance.
You don’t see pools like this around the REAL Eiffel Tower….

What does all this have to with business travel? Well, I’m glad you asked. Because we’ve had a million little get aways and staycations thanks to business travel – Hyatt, Marriott, Hilton….have you looked at what all they own these days? You’d be surprised – historic hotels are now in their ranks even. So, formerly privately owned places you’ve always wanted to stay…..are now only points away. (Royal Hawaiian on Waikiki, now part of Marriott….I’m heading your way again soon) So, download their apps, monitor your points and see what might be available to you for FREE. Here are some ideas:

  • Book a lazy-river kinda weekend: Hyatt Resorts – very generous with the points and gracious (in my experience) with their loyal members, have honored us on numerous weekends with free amenities for being loyal customers even when, and maybe especially when, paying with points.
  • How about a night on the town: Marriott – Downtown has a new feel when you’re empty nesters. Drive 10min to downtown, check into a lovely, urban resort, sit at a rooftop pool, take in a spa service or 2 and then hit the town. Which is to say, a fine dinner and an early evening. In MOST cases. But, maybe it’s New Year’s Eve or a live event and you won’t want to drive or head home early. Relax, treat yourself.
  • Rent a house and work remotely for a few days: Airbnb has many options for couples with dogs – I wouldn’t want to take the kids on a romantic excursion (no offense kids…you wouldn’t want to come anyway), but the dog is THRILLED to come with us. He’s been on 2 whole vacations, you know…he’s quite well-traveled.

And, while I really wanted to talk about the value of a staycation, which even in its briefest form, can be restorative, I end on a note of: stock up on your points and work your miles. I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve looked at each other on a Thursday night and said: Do you have any points we could use for the weekend? Those are some of the BEST weekends. Your credit cards really can work to your advantage if you use them wisely, too. You’re spending the money anyway – why not put it on a card that will reward you with free nights or free airfare (just don’t incur interest or fees). It takes discipline, but doesn’t everything? I’m not eating a Justin’s almond butter cup right now because of discipline – it can’t all be fun and games; I drank the extra glass of wine – I’m not a masochist.

You have no idea what options are right outside your backdoor until you explore

This is what I’ve learned: it’s important to just BE. Live in the moment – appreciate your surroundings. Enjoy the people you’ve chosen to spend your life with. Even the most staid and stoic partners need some variety – and, so does a relationship enjoy a change of scenery. Use your travel savvy and make a weekend special. It doesn’t have to be a huge endeavor and if you’re smart, you can even off-set the cost. But, the memories are yours to keep – at no additional cost.

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…..so 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.