Category Archives: Travel

Need ideas for winter break? Why not Nicaragua!


Nicaragua as a travel destination is not on everyone’s radar, but had been popping up in some internet articles recently. Every time I would come across  the Central America country’s name, my brain immediately went to “Contras and Sandinistas, ” and thought, “Is it safe?” I was curious to find out what it offers the traveler.

So, I decided to find out on a family vacation. Yep, I went ALL in and took the family, but admittedly after some research and preparation. I wouldn’t risk taking my children somewhere about which I don’t feel comfortable.

All my concerns about safety were put to rest. The Nicaragua revolution and Iran Contra Affair took place in the 70s and 80s, and has of late been called the safest country in Central America, with only Chile being safer in Central and South America.

The government and business leaders have been developing its tourism, and are priming it to be the “next Costa Rica.” And why not? It has the largest area of primary growth rain forest north of the Amazon, volcanoes to explore, and Spanish colonial cities with distinctive architecture. It’s world renown beaches have been sought after for decades by surfers chasing the perfect wave.

What I didn’t realize, is that this small country has an such an interesting history; It is the first Latin America country to have a woman president.

All sounded intriguing… I was just concerned that we would be going “off season” or “wet season” which is our summer. However, I discovered a secret: The advantages of going during wet season is that everything is so green..and it really only rains late in the afternoon for a short period. On top of that, there is a period called something like “verano pequeno” or small summer, because  two weeks at the end of July it doesn’t rain at all.

So I booked during that time frame two different hotels on the Pacific Coast, south of Managua, near Tola. (Most travelers do visit the Pacific Coast because its roads are more developed.)

One – Mukul Resort… swanky and upscale, and the other – Rancho Santana, a smaller more modest property . I wanted to get a taste of both places, because they are very different. And guess what? It only rained for maybe five minutes the entire trip!

Rancho Santana

We stayed at Rancho Santana first. I really didn’t know what to expect, even after reviewing the website many times… it is hard to capture 2700 acres of lush land, and two miles of shoreline on a few web pages.

Rancho Santana

But it is actually very simple in person. The Inn at Rancho Santana is the heart of the entire ranch area, and is situated right on the Pacific Ocean. The Inn was remodeled a few years ago, and fits the landscape perfectly, without giving up rustic elegance. More importantly, the  architecture feels authentic to the property.

There are 17 rooms at the inn, but we stayed in one of the condos that are part of the property, because they offered our family of five more room. We got a three bedroom, two bathroom place with a kitchen and living room for about $300 a night. It was right near the main hotel and pool area. The only downside is that each condo has a different owner, different style, and was not part of the recent remodel.

All of the rooms at the Inn revolve around a courtyard, and are right near all the action, like the
quick breakfast cafe that makes the most delicious Nicaraguan breakfasts.

They were my favorite meals the entire trip: eggs, with guacamole toast and cabbage over a homemade tortilla. We enjoyed our flavorful breakfast on a lovely patio overlooking the property with an ocean view.

A little further down a walkway is the main restaurant, with a bar and pool table – which led to many hours of late-night family fun. The restaurant is lovely – with seating over the dramatic waves at night.

There is also bocce! A family favorite. And remember, all of this is right in the center of the ranch.

Right nearby are all of the fun features – the pool, cabanas, outdoor bar, and the perfect perch to watch the most incredible sunsets.

I would consider myself a “sunset specialist”… and these from Rancho Santana were the most dramatic and beautiful of anywhere I have ever experienced in the world.

There were plenty of activities to keep all of us busy. The ranch has five different beaches from which to choose. All are pretty, and offer something different – whether it be sand surfing, or regular surfing, but our favorite beach was Los Perros because it had the open-air taqueria right on the sand, next to hammocks to nap off the quesadillas and garden-fresh salsas.

No other word describes it better than “chill.” Grab a cerveza and a taco in a corn tortilla that is made right there, and enjoy it on the beach? It was a nice touch.

Another thing to point out, is that the beaches here are almost empty… and rugged, which means there are no umbrellas and chairs set up for hotel guests to use. At Los Perros beach, you can request chairs for the sand. This is something to consider because you might not want your children in the sun all day, so pack an umbrella or ask where you can get one.

We broke up our time on the sand with surf lessons and hiking around the property’s trails. The one thing I think the ranch could improve is the gym. There is yoga in a nice environment, but the gym is across the street, and is nothing really nice – more of a high school gym.

On one of our most memorable days, we hired a guide from the hotel to take us into Granada.

Granada is Nicaragua’s oldest colonial city, situated right on Lake Nicaragua. It’s home to many Spanish-Colonial landmarks that have survived pirate invasions, and the town square is just eye candy with all the vibrant colors of the structures.

The trip into town was a fantastic way to break up all the beach time with some culture. I always love talking to the local guides and learning about life in their native town or country, and the two hour drive into Granada gave us time to do just that. The drive also allowed us to see the countryside..and sadly, the poverty. I can see why the guides do not like to make the trip home in the dark – there are many large animals that roam the roads freely.

On the way, to Granada we stopped to hike Volcano Mombacho, and also zip line across the rain forest.

There were very few tourists – which was so refreshing. We didn’t have to wait on any line for the canopy tours, and because it was quiet, we saw some baby monkeys on the hike.

Once in Granada, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant in the middle of all the colorful Spanish-Colonial churches and cafes. It really is a lovely town and something to see. I only wish we had had more time to wander around.

At the wharf of Granada, there are boatmen offering people rides on Lake Nicaragua. What is interesting about this boat ride, is that there are hundreds of islets in Lake Nicaragua, which provide habitats for birds and animals, and there are some that have one house on them for people to live on their own private islands.

The islets all range in size, and were formed when rocks flew from a volcano eruption thousands of years ago.

We took the boat ride, and had one of the most epic moments of the trip. There is one island that has a handful of monkeys living on it.

As we approached the monkey island, the boatman slowed down and eventually stopped right in front of it so the kids could see the monkeys.

The most astonishing thing then happened – one of the monkeys jumped on board… and walked directly over to the driver and gave him a long hug.

It was remarkable to witness the capacity for emotion these monkeys have. They clearly recognized the boatman, as he takes people out 1-2 times a day he says, and sometimes offers them food.

My children were stunned silent..but then of course wanted that important selfie with the monkey!

It was a nice outing, especially at sunset with the volcano in the background. We accomplished all of this sightseeing in one day between 8:30 AM and 7PM. It was worth it, and the price at Rancho to do this was substantially less than what it costs at Mukul to hire one of their guides.

When we moved to Mukul after a few days, let’s just say the sexy, open-air lobby grabbed me.

But there was also a hugely impressive array of glass bottles of alcohol set up right there – so right away I felt a different vibe than at Rancho Santana.

Our rooms (little bungalows in the trees called bohios) were beautiful, but small, and unfortunately, not conducive for families. We had to book two bohios because the most one bohio could sleep is 3 people.

The resort does have 12 2-bedroom beach villas, with their own pools, but they were approximately $1000 more a night than two bohios. The bohios were fine for privacy, but they aren’t so close to each other, and made organizing the family a little more complicated.

The nice touch is that coffee is delivered to your bohio every morning at a time you request. The coffee comes with a couple cookies, but I don’t understand why this is still the case – there are aggressive birds around the resort who are not afraid to come after those cookies and disrupt your peaceful morning coffee on your deck, so beware 🙂

This resort is also right on the beach, with the pool steps away.

Wander down the beach a bit and there is a cafe and a recreation area with volleyball courts and water sports. We took another surf lesson, for about double the price of Rancho Santana – but, as the instructor promised, it really was the best surf lesson I’ve ever had.

The nice thing about Mukul’s beach is that there are dozens of palapas with thatched rooves under which a handful of people can lay on the lounge chairs.

There is a beautiful spa and golf course, but the golf course was not in the best shape, which is surprising because we were there during the wet season, so you’d expect it to be green and lush. But at Mukul, we strangely felt like it was “off season” – not as many servers near the pool so you had to track someone down to order food or a drink, the cafe closed earlier than normal, our morning coffee wasn’t always delivered when we requested the night before, etc. It just seemed understaffed.  In all fairness, I had a friend visit Mukul during the winter, and had a better experience with the service.

If you are thinking about going to Nicaragua – here are some nuts and bolts:
Flying into Nicaragua is actually easier than one may think. The easiest way is to fly into Managua, and either book the hotel’s transportation service to pick you up and drive you for a couple hours to the resort, or take a 1/2 hour connecting flight to the small regional Costa Esmeralda airport, which is about 15-20 minutes from either resort.

Or you can fly into Costa Rica’s Liberia airport, where there are more flight options. From there I would recommend taking a flight into Costa Esmeralda – If you have the hotel pick you up at the airport and drive to either resort, it’s a long rough 4 hour drive with a stop at the border.

Flight times from the following cities to Managua: Dallas – 3 hours, New York – 6 1/2.
Flight times from the following cities to Liberia; Baltimore – 4.5 hours, Los Angeles 5.5 ***Southwest and Jet Blue fly from certain destinations to Liberia.

Happy Travels!

The other California wine country: Paso Robles

Northern California’s idyllic wine country has faced its share of disaster and unthinkable heartbreak. . Although there are parts of the wine region that remain unscorched after the devastating fires, and firefighters have gained ground, industry insiders are recommending postponing travel plans to the area since a number of roads are closed, air quality is poor,and thousands of emergency crews are still working away.

Sadly..they  are not sure what impact the infernos will have on tourism. Understandably, of course, because people may read the headlines, and devastating stories, stay away from beloved Napa and Sonoma for who knows how long.

As of this weekend Visit Napa Valley listed an enormous number of wineries and hotels that are currently closed…however there are also some that are still open. If you have travel plans in the near future, obviously check with your hotel first. Check here for more updates www.visitnapavalley.com and www.sonomavalley.com

Even though the it might not be the best time to visit –  please, when the wine country is ready for visitors…one of the best things we travelers can do is spend out travel dollars in the region.

Paso Robles WIne Country

Paso Robles WIne Country

But if you are hankering for harvest season in a vineyard anytime soon, Visit Napa valley is suggesting other wine regions – I’d like to share my experience in another California wine heaven, Paso Robles. Oct 20-22 is Harvest Wine Weekend there!

Downtown Paso Robles

Downtown Paso Robles

Paso flies a little lower on the travel radar than popular Napa and Sonoma, but there is charm in its old world, small town feel. And whatever you do – don’t think the wines are any less delicious. 🙂

Located half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles, in San Luis Obispo County, it is not a far detour from Sonoma and Napa. There are more than 40 different wine grape varietals planted here..and the AVA has more than 200 wineries to visit!

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Some of the more well-known wineries are JUSTIN – which helped put Paso on the map with its Wine Spectator 1997 award for one of the top wines in the world – Meridian,  and J. Lohr. I am definitely no wine expert, but visited a few that I felt were definitely creative, with a youthful spirit not so typical in established wineries. I love learning the stories behind the winemaker and wineries, so please indulge me… and you may like learning about them as well. By the way – most of these wineries listed require reservations, and charge a tasting fee that is often waved if you end up purchasing wine.

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Booker Wines. Named after the two orphan Booker brothers who purchased the land back in the 1920s, the Bookers were not only farmers, but were some of the areas greatest philanthropists. When they died, they left 100% of their estate to charity according to the winery website.

The new owners have given new wings to the fruitful roots – you can feel it in the tasting room with the minimalist but chic decor…and you understand it in their philosophy., I love that they practice biodynamic farming … meaning they believe everything on the farm (soil, plants, livestock) is interrelated, and the health of one influences the health of the other.

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The cute bulldog on premises doesn’t hurt. Appointments necessary. www.bookerwines.com

Turley WInery

Turley WInery

Turley Wines. What makes this winery interesting is that most of the wines are single vineyard… which means they are premium grapes that the winemaker did not want to water down by blending with lesser quality. And – they are all certified organic.

They specialize in old vine Zinfadel and Petite Sirah.

Their philosophy, off the website: “We make wines we love, to be shared with those you hold most dear.”  We felt it – we had a great large group tasting outside with a nearby view of the vineyards and the people there made it a festive time. www.turleywinecellars.com

 

Linne Calodo Winery

Linne Calodo Winery

Linne Calodo The story behind this winery might be one of the most compelling in terms of following one’s passion. Founder Matt Trevisan started making wine when he was working as a fork lift driver, living out of his car..and sold all of his assets to buy labels and bottles for his first vintage.

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Now, he owns one of the loveliest wineries, and makes some admired wine…and holds the reputation of being “one of the hottest cult winemakers,” according to a wine writer of The Gray Report.

Linne Calodo Winery

Linne Calodo Winery

The winemaker now makes about 7-10 blends..largely Rhone varietals and Zinfadel… and the winemaker likes to use “esoteric varietals from all over the world.” The philosophy: “Love + farming + science + art + philosophy + passion = great wine.” www.linnecalodo.com

L"Aventure Winery

L”Aventure Winery

L’Aventure Because of consistently high wine scores, this winery has been informally coined “The Grand Cru of Paso Robles.”

Honestly, it was the most casual, and underwhelming of tasting rooms, but I understand there is a new tasting room that may contribute to a better ambiance- but what does it matter to true oenophiles? The wine is high quality and is consistently listed as one of the top wines from Paso Robles.

The owner and winemaker Stephan Asseo trained in Burgundy, France…made wine there for a little while..but then wanted to be more creative than the AOC laws in France would allow. So he began looking around the world for a new place to make his wines – from South Africa to Lebanon to Argentina to Napa… and decided upon Paso Robles. www.aventurewine.com

Lodging

Hotel Cheval

Hotel Cheval

After all the wine tasting.. you are going to want to most comfortable lodging to relax – and Hotel Cheval is perfect. I personally love boutique hotels – and this one oozes warmth. With only 16 rooms, it is not too crowded…yet because of it’s small size, you need to book far in advance.

I can almost guarantee a great night’s sleep  here- the beds are so comfortable. I even purchased the same pillows the hotel uses for my own house.

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The patio off the bar and restaurant is a charming place to listen to music before dinner…

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and  we used the courtyard near the rooms for late night card games on warm nights. As I mentioned before, the hotel is only a half block from the main town, so it is convenient. www.hotelcheval.com

TIps

There can be great distances between the wineries… you may want to look into a driving service that specializes in touring the wineries. The drivers are used to storing any wine you purchase  well, and keeping it cool…and they often have good recommendations.

Bringing kids?  I think it’s better to indulge yourself kid-free in the fantastic food and wine and tranquilizing landscape, but if you must, here you will find some good suggestions: http://www.travelpaso.com/mavericks/mom

Even though the disastrous fires of Northern California have all of us concerned for the area, local economy, and for those who have lost their homes or loved ones,  there are other wine  regions to try. And.. remember Oct 20-22 happens to be Harvest Wine Weekend in Paso Robles!!

But – as soon as the time is right – we can really help the businesses affected in the disasters by visiting Napa and Sonoma again. In the mean time, be sure to order California wines on any menu, or buy them at the store.

For other ways to help – www.visitnapavalley.com and www.sonomavalley.com .

 

 

 

 

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How NOT to get bumped from a flight

United_787_800_FL

I have been processing that disturbing video of the United Airlines passenger getting dragged off the plane, and like most, can’t believe the way that situation was handled. Yes, it is within the airline’s legal rights to remove passengers, but c’mon , there could have been more humane ways to deal with the situation…especially because they were kicking that passenger off to make room for their own employees!

Everyone has a price they will take to voluntarily get bumped –  why not just offer two round trip tickets anywhere in the US – or world – next time? Sign me up! It is now costing the airline much, much more.

That being said.. Overbooking, while rearing it’s ugly head in this isolated incident, actually makes airfares lower by enhancing the airlines’ revenues ensuring flights are booked. In 2016, airlines posted an involuntary bumping rate of 62 per 1 million fliers, according to the Bureau of Transportation.

So as we head into summer – one of the busiest travel seasons -what can you as a consumer do to protect yourself from being bumped?

According to the  Department of Transportation , “it is the airline’s responsibility to determine its own fair boarding priorities,” but for the most part, these tips reflect those priorities:

  • Check in to your flight as early as possible – print that boarding pass 24 hours in advance.. or if not possible because you are camping in the wilderness, LOL, download to your mobile as soon as you can!!! The last to arrive, the first in line to get bumped.
  • If you are loyal to one airline and have elite status, you are lower on the list to get bumped.
  • Same goes with the kind of seat you buy – the cheaper the seat, the more likely you are easily bumped.
  • If you are bumped voluntarily or non-voluntarily on a domestic flight – know this: You  are entitled to 200% of the one-way fare in compensation (but no more than $675) in cash if their delay is between one and two hours, according to a federal regulation. If the delay is more than two hours, customers are entitled to 400% of a one-way fare (but no more than $1,350) in cash. Be firm, and negotiate what you want. Check the contract of carriage on your airline.
  • Consider the airlines – according to Crankyflier.com, JetBlue doesn’t oversell flights.

While involuntary bumping could happen to any of us, consider these tips and it can be less likely. Safe travels everyone!

 

 

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Don’t Let This Storm Cost You in Frequent Flier Miles: Here’s a Little Known Secret

 

From newsline.com -FlIghts cancelled due to winter storm

 

A big winter storm on the East Coast has grounded many flights – Are you one of the many having to change travel plans? Yes, this costs the airlines money having to terminate flights – but it also costs passengers.

Don’t let it cost you in frequent flyer miles! For those of you who are mile mavens, keeping precise track of how many miles you earn and are already calculating to reach a new premier level, every little mile counts.

So if you’ve been rerouted this winter due to storms, make sure you check on how many miles the new route brings you. If it brings you LESS than your original route, you are entitled to collect higher number of miles you originally booked.

Also – if you have been rerouted to another airline, you can call the original airline and try to collect from that airline – presuming it is the airline you fly frequently.

Sometimes you then get to double dip with the airline you actually fly, and the one with which you originally booked.

All of this, of course, ONLY if you get rerouted or rebooked involuntarily.

Yeah yeah I know. It can be a hassle to call the airlines and work it out, and frankly, may people just don’t do it. But trust me.. when you are booking your summer vacation flight to Orlando and are 120 miles short of getting a free ticket, you will appreciate having laid the groundwork.

Safe Travels!

Spotlight on Rio – A Stunning Natural Setting for the Olympic Games

Did you watch the Summer Olympics opening ceremonies? Are you still humming the sultry Basso Nova tune “Girl from Ipanema”?

Get ready for more spectacles. You all are going to be seeing some mind blowing shots of Rio de Janeiro broadcast back here during the Olympic Games. It certainly is one of the most photogenic places I’ve ever visited. But unfortunately, the natural beauty masks the problems there…and the neighborhoods into which travelers should not wander. It’s a true shame because it is such a vibrant city.

I was in Rio probably eight or nine years ago for work, and the beach town captivated me. It felt exotic, raw, and provided some of the most amazing topography…rugged green mountains and jagged blue coastline – the curves and colors creating dynamic synergy.

I felt safe most of the time..walking only in my Ipanema neighborhood where my hotel was.. but was told to be careful because there are so many pick pocketers and lots of crime. Beyond my hotel neighborhood, I couldn’t believe the poverty. Shanty towns lining the highways.. the sheer number of people living that way was astonishing.

I recently had conversations with people from Rio and they tell me crime and poverty have only gotten worse.

On a brighter note and for fun, I want to give you some background on the places you will be seeing in tv beauty shots..and places you should visit if the tide ever changes. And yes, I’m still grooving to Basso Nova nine years later.

1) Christ the Redeemer

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Holy holy statue. This is one amazing monument – A 125 foot art-deco  statue of Jesus Christ – or Cristo in Rio – plunked smack dab at the 2300 foot summit of Mount Corcovado… overlooking the coast and mountains.

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The best part is visitors can take a train to the top for fantastic views. There is also a chapel beneath the statue where people can get married or have baptisms.

What’s interesting is this statue took years to come to fruition. After a first proposal failed, a second proposal for a landmark statue was made in 1920, by a group of Catholics who perceived “Godlessness” in society at the time. (What would they think today?!) Donations came mostly from Brazilian Catholics.

It is listed as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It is made of reinforced concrete and soapstone, and was constructed between 1922 and 1931. It’s an amazing outing.

2) Sugarloaf Mountain – A almond shaped peak on a peninsula that juts out into the ocean… but was named “Sugarloaf” because it was said to resemble a refined loaf sugar. Sugar cane trade was big in Brazil.

Sugarloaf Mountain

Sugarloaf Mountain

Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro

It is so striking to see a mountain like this rise so close to the water’s edge. Visitors can take a cable car to the top for some more mesmerizing views.

Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro

Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro

3) Ipanema and Copacabana Beaches

Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro

Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro

Arguably two of the most famous beaches in the world. Wide stretches of sand,and the epicenter of fun in Rio.  The parties doesn’t stop at either place… take a walk at night time and the lights are on, runners are jogging along the sand, and the volleyball courts are full. I was there in Brazil’s  summer, so it stayed light longer and locals were still playing on the beach well past dusk.

Copacabana Beach Promenade, Rio de Janeiro

Copacabana Beach Promenade, Rio de Janeiro

Copacabana Beach has more hotels and a 2.5 mile promenade to stroll..

Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro

Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro

What’s special about it is you have a great view of Sugarloaf ,  lots of restaurants and clubs in the area as well.

Ipanema Beach, Rio de janeiro

Ipanema Beach, Rio de janeiro

Ipanema Beach on the other hand has some of the more expensive real estate for the area. Look not only for football, and volleyball on this beach, but a game called footvolley. Unfortunately, according to reports, this is one of the beaches affected by poor waste management – large amounts of pollutants are found in the beach water.

4)Parque Lage – I always like visiting public parks wherever I travel – I find them to be more interesting than beaches, and reflect the culture a bit more also. This particular park is such a peaceful haven in this boisterous city… it almost feels forgotten.

The land was formerly the residence of industrialist Enrique Lage and his wife, singer Gabriella Besanzoni. Their mansion still exists in the park with a cafe there, as well as the Visual Arts School . I heard once you can take a painting class there, and paint right there in the garden – if so,sign me up!

Parque Lage, from littlenomad.com

Parque Lage, from littlenomad.com

There are walking trails through a subtropical forest.. and it’s just a nice place to relax and feel like you are in a different place totally. I took a cab ride here from Ipanema.

Side note: if the mansion looks familiar to you  – it was featured in the 2003 music video for Snoop Dog’s song “Beautiful.”

5) Santa Teresa

Santa Teresa, Rio de janeiro

Santa Teresa, Rio de janeiro

Ok so you might not see a lot of this neighborhood, but I wanted to include it because it’s a charming area.

Santa Teresa is the name of a neighborhood in the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It is located on top of the Santa Teresa hill, by the center of Rio, and is famous for its winding, narrow streets which are a favorite spot for artists and travelers.

Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro

Traditionally Santa Teresa is a renowned gathering place for intellectuals, academics, artists, and politicians, who are inspired by its historic character, and doses of culture.

I am sure the beauty shots on television the next couple of weeks will seduce you, and will contribute to the magic of the games. I love that we can learn about places and people around the world through the games..and last night’s exhibition was just the beginning.

Go Team USA!

 

 

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Summer Kick-off Begins! My Tips for a Smooth Getaway

family-roadtrip

Thursday is the new Friday when it comes to getting away for a holiday weekend. So if you are leaving to go kick off the start of summer this Memorial Day, here are some little extra tips based on my own experiences for a smooth getaway. Remember, there are more people traveling this Memorial Day than in the past 11 years! So there will be traffic on the roads, and crowded airports. Fun, fun! Just take a deep breath, and remember when they say “it’s all about the journey,” for the most part, I don’t think they are referring to travel. Then, it is actually the destination.

From Syracuse.com

From Syracuse.com

1)If you are flying somewhere, and the security line is long, be sure to ask either an airport employee or TSA agent if there is another line somewhere that leads to your gate. Doing so has shaved much time off my wait in lines, and travelers won’t know unless they ask.

Hawaiian Airlines from Honolulu

Hawaiian Airlines from Honolulu

2) If you are flying, you know you don’t want to stand in two lines- one to check bags, and another for security. So, pack smart. How you may ask? If you are traveling with children, remember they are entitled to a “personal carry on item” too, so give them a backpack if you need more room for extra clothes, stuff, etc. My golden rule about packing is you will never need as much as you think you do, so this time of year when the weather is nice, you’ll be packing lighter clothing and should be able to fit in a check in bag, with some good editing.

3) Download all entertainment before you go. DO NOT assume you can do it with the WiFi on a plane. (Can you feel my frustration from past situations? ) I can’t tell you how many planes I’ve been on where the WiFi went down. If you are driving, and have to get on the road with no time to download, plan a stop or  a bathroom break at Starbucks or other places where there is free WiFi to download (This is mostly for the kids’ entertainment since you are driving!)

4) Check the TSA guidelines for flying – there are obscure rules that may answer some of your questions about packing diving gear for example, or checking gravy in your luggage (seriously) that may save you time in security lines if you pack contraband. Also – the TSA may not say it, but some airlines are not allowing checked or carry on hoverboards  -probably due to the fire hazard. http://blog.tsa.gov/2016/05/tsa-travel-tips-memorial-day-summer.html

5) In security lines – remember kids under 12 do not need to take off their shoes! And… don’t know if this is official or not, but every time I travel with my kids I am not required to go through the body scanner, only the metal detector which saves time too. This may have changed however, with word of tighter security.

Also – since you adults do have to take off your shoes, put them on the conveyor belt last… Its going to be crowded and you may feel rushed, so you don’t want to walk away forgetting anything on the belt. If you shoes are the last thing, you won’t walk away without them and will remember to grab everything else.

6) If you have downloaded a mobile boarding pass for your flight, read the fine print! Recently I downloaded one and it said at the bottom, “the gate is unable to accept this mobile pass -please print.” Which means, you will need to get to a printer before your flight, or check in at a kiosk, which adds time.

7) Living in Los Angeles, I can’t even go to the grocery store without my traffic app, Waze. I am sure you must know of it by now,but here are some tips to make Waze work best for you: If Waze tells you to take a toll road – that is a red flag. Make sure you understand the pay requirements to taking this toll road – look for signs that give you websites to pay later if you don’t already have a pas to use it.

Also – if Waze reroutes you because traffic is building on your current route, there is a “routes” button to compare other routes. Many times Waze has kept me on the same route that is longer than another way that maybe would have taken me off the freeway or something. I can’t figure it out.

8) If you think you are allowing enough time to travel, or to get to the airport, add another half hour. I know this doesn’t seem like an awe-inspiring tip, but I can’t stress it enough this holiday weekend. There are airports where there is construction that ties things up… accidents on the road… So if you mediate, this is a good time to do it..or start 🙂

From CapJaluca.com

From CapJaluca.com

Most importantly – be safe, and have a great time! It’s the beginning of travel season!

 

Mexico Tourism is Up – But Beware The Most Common Crimes Against Travelers

With Punxutawney Phil predicting an early spring (forget that El Nino has not even surfaced as predicted) it is high time to plan spring break if you intend to travel!

One of the most popular spring break places, Mexico, has definitely seen a rocky road in recent years… but is rebounding tremendously.

From mexicanbusinessweb.mx

From mexicanbusinessweb.mx

In Cabo San Lucas, new roads have been built and the international airport has been upgraded since 2014’s Hurricane Odile…Tourism was up  by 14.7 percent  in 2015 from 2014 according to travelmarketreport.com, & there are a plethora of enticing hotels opening all over the country this year to motivate even the most hesitant of border crossers to take the leap.

Mar Adentro by Encanto, Los Cabos

Mar Adentro by Encanto, Los Cabos

A new “W” in Punta Mita… One&Only Mandarina along the Riviera Nayarit … and Mar Adentro by Encanto in San Jose del Cabo are just a few properties that are opening this year or the next.

But, let’s not forget, the US State Department still has a travel warnings out for areas of Mexico. El Chapo may be behind bars again, but there were more than 100 US citizens murdered in Mexico in 2015,  and plenty of crimes and violence committed against travelers. It’s funny how what was seemingly a sketchy place two years ago, has now receded in our memories because of  threats and acts of terrorism from ISIS in other countries like Paris, and Turkey.

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But millions of people still travel to Mexico safely – and Mexico offers so much to travelers – tropical weather, outdoor activities, a different culture – and fabulous food. So how to make sure you are safe? Especially traveling with a family?  Exercise common sense.. and remember there are locations within Mexico where the traveler should exercise extreme caution or avoid if possible.

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I consulted with Tom Bochnowski , Vice President with Redpoint Resolutions  – a company that offers high end individual services  and travel insurance to enhance client safety – including evacuating clients from high danger situations, medical consulting services,  and web-based intelligence sharing. The photo below is from a 2015 excavation after the Nepal earthquake.

RIpcord mission in Nepal, 2015

RIpcord mission in Nepal, 2015

Here is our advice for anyone traveling or contemplating travel to Mexico based on what Bochnowski’s group within Redpoint – Ripcord Travel Protection – has seen, along with my own observations.

1) We sometimes hear of the “Federales” pulling over people roadside, or foreigners getting kidnapped or robbed out of their cars. So what are some precautions? Attempt to schedule your arrival in Mexico during the day so any ground transfer from airport will take place when it is light. If possible, always book airport transfers and other transportation ahead of time with a reputable company. The hotel or resort concierge can be a good transportation resource.  Avoid flagging a simple taxi from the street or the airport. If taxi is the only option, get the name and, if you can, photo of the driver, never share a taxi with people you do not know, and never enter a vehicle if you’re uncomfortable with the driver.

When renting a car, again, try to keep a low profile. Flashy cars like expensive off-road vehicles will earn you the wrong kind of attention in Mexico. And yes, staying on well lit, major roads is good advice, but even then – stay alert.

2) Understand the geography so you can make sense of the travel warnings and the news about regional dynamics. For example, know the Mexican state of your destination so you know if you are close to any dangerous area. Seriously – we don’t often say “I’m going to Jalisco” but that is the state where Puerto Vallarta is located, and some of travel warnings refer to Jalisco.

3) The drug cartels are responsible for most of the violence in Mexico. They are trying to move drugs north into the United States..so the border areas between the two countries are the most dangerous. Bochnowski says because of the high cartel concentration there, fighting for access, travelers have gotten caught up on cartel violence accidentally. It’s advised that  travelers avoid the Mexican side of the Mexico / US border region whenever possible.

4)  Don’t attract unwanted attention. Many travelers have been attacked and robbed by attracting attention beforehand. Here’s one recent example: A group of SCUBA divers were traveling by bus from Tikal, in the southern Yucatan, to Guatemala City. As they waited at a bus stop cafe in broad daylight, the three young men accidentally tipped over a table of empty beer bottles when the bus arrived, causing a loud crash and drawing everyone’s attention to them. The divers handed off thousands of dollars’ worth of new dive gear to the driver to be loaded into the luggage hold and boarded the bus. When they arrived in Guatemala City, surprise! Their gear was gone.

At cafes, restaurants and night clubs in particular, it’s easy for seemingly wealthy and careless foreigners to stand out and attract the attention of those with criminal intentions. Have fun, but keep a low profile and do not display wealth.

5) Is it safe to rent a house after that 2012 incident where Spanish tourists were raped and robbed at a rental home right near the hotels in Acapulco?  For every one tragic and publicized incident such as the one in Acapulco, there are dozens of less dramatic incidents, usually involving theft. For example, thieves regularly steal passports and currency from rental homes in popular resorts, especially Cabo San Lucas. Even though the chances of being robbed are low, when preparing for a trip to Mexico, travelers should prepare ahead of their trip.  Ask about security in any rental home before deciding which to choose, use common-sense measures such as locking windows and doors when on vacation. Have a solution for a stole passport or lost medication.

Experienced travelers always think ahead and leave a copy of their passport photo page, birth certificate, plane ticket, backup photo ID, medication prescriptions, and insurance card with a reliable and trustworthy person back home that can quickly email or fax the documents in an emergency.  Before travel they also purchase travel insurance with primary medical expense coverage and medical evacuation services to their home country hospital of choice that do not require local attending physician authorization.

Large hotel chains are usually safer in Mexico because they provide security staff and other precautions. However, no hotel can guarantee the safety of its occupants. Here are a couple of basic tips: pick rooms away from the hotel foyer and other public spaces, meet visitors in the lobby, and only open the door to your room when you know someone is supposed to be there.

In times of dangerous events, sometimes the US embassy closes first. If you are going to regions where you have any concerns, purchasing travel insurance or evacuation services is always an option.

Remember these tips, exercise basic common sense, and be alert and most travelers will stay safe. To check the latest government warnings, which can change with world events, go to https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/alertswarnings/mexico-travel-warning.html

For more about Ripcord’s services: www.ripcordtravelprotection.com

 

 

 

 

 

Travel Tip: How to Maximize Your Frequent Flier Miles & Beat the Airlines

It’s hard enough to find seats to a desired destination using your frequent flier miles, right? It seems every seat costs more and more miles. Sheesh! Well here’s a little trick that you may not realize to maximize your miles – and even use less than the airlines want you to! Watch this video – When you try to use your miles, DO NOT just take the first mileage ticket offered to you. Click around to the different mileage award levels. As you see, while I was exploring an upcoming trip, the economy ticket cost MORE miles than business. Economy class costs 30K…Business class costs – 25 K! Make sure to check the more premium ticket level because it can cost you LESS miles! The airlines don’t tell you that. Hopefully this will help you- happy travels! ‪#‎travel‬ ‪#‎frequentflier‬ ‪#‎airlines‬

 

My trip to Istanbul: The Perils & Treasures of Being at the Crossroads of East and West

It’s with a heavy heart that I read the reports about the bombings this week in Turkey – and especially the one that killed 11 people, mostly German tourists, in Istanbul.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

I was in Istanbul a little over a year ago. I remember people asking me if I felt safe since Turkey is so close to Syria. At that time, Istanbul hadn’t really been affected, and most of the violence was with the PKK was outside Istanbul…or involved the civil war in neighboring Syria. So although I was mindful, I also believed I had no reason to feel I was in danger.

To be honest, what made me feel less safe than being close to terrorist organizations operations, was the way I was treated on the street by local men. I was traveling with three girl friends, and we couldn’t walk down the street without multiple comments -men trying to sell us stuff , making catcalls – one even yelled asking about our “dowery.” Now there’s something you don’t hear often in the United States. I am not sharing this to flatter myself – it was uncomfortable and irritating. Women should go prepared.

Sultanahmet Park, Istanbul

Sultanahmet Park, Istanbul

The above photo was taken in the vicinity of the recent bombing – Sultanahmet Square – right in the heart of the tourism industry – a blade right through the city’s soul. Can’t get much more of a soft target than that, nor a travel buzz-killer. I stayed at a hotel in the Sultanahmet neighborhood near where the bombing took place, and spent much time in that Sultanahmet Square visiting all the remarkable sights, many visible right from the bomb location. I would like to share these places with you, as it looks that travel there might not be a good idea for a little while. (I hate to say that, but I wouldn’t go back right now. It’s a personal choice for everyone. )

HAGIA SOPHIA

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

What I think is the granddaddy of the sights – it is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world because of it’s classical Byzantine architecture. The outside is impressive, but it is the inside that is the true star. Hagia Sophia was built in the year 537. Pretty amazing. DSC01375 It has Christian and Islamic influences, as it was built as a Greek Orthodox church, converted to a Roman Catholic church, then in 1453, when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks,Sultan Mehmed II  ordered the main church of Orthodox Christianity converted into a mosque. DSC01350 It was interesting to me to see the layers of Christian influence peaking through the aging plaster… most signs of Christianity were ordered to be covered when it was converted to a mosque. DSC01436 DSC01359 It now operates as a museum, not a place of worship. Although you can take an audio tour, I would recommend hiring guide or taking a tour. There’s just simply too much to wrap your head around . DSC01369 One of the most popular places in the Hagia Sophia is the Weeping Column. Strangely enough, it is always a little damp – as if it is perspiring – some say it is the Virgin Mary’s tears. Legend has it that the pillar was blessed by St Gregory the Miracle Worker and that putting one’s finger into the hole  in the column can lead to ailments being healed if the finger emerges moist. (I’m still waiting…)

CISTERN BASILICA
Cistern Basilica

Cistern Basilica

Hands down my most loved attraction in Istanbul. One of my favorite favorite favorite experiences in all my travels, probably because the expectations were low. From the outside it doesn’t look like anything. Seriously, it doesn’t look like anything is there because it’s all underground!
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The Cistern Basilica is an underground reservoir for water that was once under a basilica – thus the name. It is incredibly large – 105,000 sq feet. What makes it so mystical is that it is built with a forest of columns that have been recycled from old important buildings. So you have these gorgeous Ionic and Corinthian style columns in this underground cave of sorts, lit just perfectly to bedazzle the ambiance.
The cistern, built in 532, used to supply water to the Great Palace in its day, but then was forgotten about and rediscovered again in 1545. Don’t miss it.
TOPKAPI PALACE
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Topkapi Palace was the imperial home of the Ottoman emperors for four centuries. Lavishly decorated, with all sorts of ancient items from the Ottoman rule on display…
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What I found most fascinating were the clothes the emperors wore and how they changed through the years… and also found slightly disgusting in its opulence: the gifts other rulers around the world gave to the Ottomans. Some of the gifts’ monetary worth could feed entire countries. Why did the rulers need them besides serving their egos?
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BLUE MOSQUE
Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Blue Mosque, Istanbul

If you are thinking this will be like Hagia Sophia, you have another thing coming. Worth the visit, although yes, it is another stunning display of religious architecture. It incorporates some Byzantine Christian elements of the neighboring Hagia Sophia with traditional Islamic architecture and is considered to be the last great mosque of the classical period.
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But – it is known as the Blue Mosque because of blue tiles surrounding the walls – more than 20,000 tiles total.
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It is still an active place of worship, so visitors must take off their shoes and women must cover their heads.
Again, these are just a few of Istanbul’s treasures in one area of the city. It is a dynamic place to visit –  at the crossroads of Europe & Asia, it’s exotic & stimulating at every turn. Perhaps it seems a bit unsavory to visit at the moment, but hoping for some peace for travelers in this crazy world right now.

A Tried & True Way To Connect With Your Kids While Traveling

It’s a new year… full of hope and resolutions.

Maybe one of them is to learn something…try something…or branch out? If so, traveling is a fun way to accomplish those goals with some kind of learning vacation, and a way to connect with your children when you include them in the experience. While many families take trips to spend quality time together without the hassles and pressures of real life… or venture out to see important & interesting sites, I have found learning something together deepens the experience for the whole family.

Doing it on vacation also takes the “chore” factor out of it.  Also – it is bonding, and often levels the playing field between parents and children because both are entering a new endeavor.

For instance – last summer I took some surf lessons with my children in Hawaii on the island of Oahu. Not only was it fun… but we were enjoying some of the best of what our destination has to offer – a pleasant beach and great waves for beginning surfers. And most importantly, we felt we accomplished something – the kids felt great about that.

I have to admit, they conquered the learning curve better than I! But the last party wave we took together was a highlight of my life. Ty Gurney Surf School in Waikiki does a nice job or teaching all levels. tygurneysurfschool.com I have used them many times.

If surfing isn’t your thing – try a cooking class in a region that has different cuisine… or we even took an art class in France. There is even a family space camp in Alabama where you can train together to become astronauts – that kind of trip seems like it would be your final destination however, where some other options like surfing is something you can do n the side in a place where there is also much more to do.

Gettysburg, PA

Gettysburg, PA

Yet, it doesn’t have to be in a classroom environment – For instance, visit a historical site like the U.S. Mint in Washington DC or Gettysburg in PA and hire a family friendly tour guide. It is good for the kids to see you interested in what they will be learning about in school while also emphasizing history that is important. Discussions that take place afterward can drive home how much you all learned.

Every family has different interests, but there is always something you can learn. I hope I’ve inspired you.

For more ideas that run a HUGE gamut try learninvacation.net or shawguides.com