Thursday, March 17, 2011

What Ms. Around the Wherever likes to pack when she goes wherever

I've marveled at what can accomplish with one bag packing and the such out there, which has mostly been born out of necessity with rising airfare costs and fees. I shudder to think what it would've cost for my luggage when I returned from a semester in London had such rates existed then. Imagine a girl, proud of her new Anglicized vocabulary (you know, calling a cell phone a MO-bile), crawling through the plane aisles with a laptop case stuffed to the brim, a bookbag stuffed to the brim, and a huge plastic bags of gifts stuffed to the...yeah, you get the idea. This doesn't even include the two large checked suitcases that were stuffed solid.

Having said that, though, there are some things that I like to pack on every trip:

1. Compass/clock combination thingie that clips onto my coat. Since I generally don't bring my cell phone with me, I don't have a means of telling time so this way I can tell the time AND direction, which is useful when trying to find the next sight.

2. iPod Touch. Okay, I don't get into the whole Apple is Insert-the-Name-of-a-Deity here thing, but it's been very handy. I highly recommend bringing some sort of small mobile internet device (heck, I'll be honest: I don't even have any music on my iPod! Seriously, I must be some sort of freak) for travel. I love being able to check into my email quickly and for free and have found that in most of my European travels, the hotels offer Wifi (or, in Hungary, they at least directed me half a block away where I hung out on the steps of the university and checked on things at home). I especially like the Touch because it's small and fits in a purse/backpack/coatpocket/whathaveyou.

3. Lightweight, collapsible small backpack. I bought one from Eddie Bauer in a dark color (easier to hide the toils and stains of travel) that's lightweight nylon. I prefer it over a purse because I can generally stuff a sweater in it if I get too warm, a travel guide, water bottles and a wallet. I also buy a small travel lock to lock the zippers close. This is easily foiled by thieves but at least it's a small deterrent. It's a little bit harder to rip off than a purse is if it's on. Just be careful in crowded areas such as buses, where it'd be easy for pickpockets.

4. An inflatable neck pillow (shaped like a jellybean and I prefer the kind with the removable fabric covering for hygienic purposes). It makes that bus/plane/train ride a little more pleasant and it's lightweight and small and packs easily.

5. Depending on the weather, a coat that has an inner and outer shell. Since I generally travel on the off seasons (I LOVE fall and early spring travel) and because I'm a true Michigander all the way (we're good at staying warm), I couldn't imagine not taking a coat with me. I like to take a coat with a nylon shell and a zip-out liner. I've used one, the other, or both on trips. A bonus is that you can wad up the liner and use it as a pillow if need be. I highly recommend finding a coat with secure inner pockets. Keep your money and valuables on the inside. However, be aware that nylon type coats are rather casual and you're more likely to see European natives wearing more formal garb such as classic wool peacoats.

Stuff I'd like to buy:

I've heard that there are watches available for deaf people that vibrate for alarms. I think this would be very useful, especially in hostel travel, where one doesn't want to wake others. I need to investigate this further.

Women's dress boots that are stylish AND comfortable. I don't think that they really exist, or at least not for less than $100. Pros: dress boots go well with jeans or dress pants, help keep your feet and pants cuffs a little dryer in the event of rain, and aren't so casual as tennis shoes. Cons: heavy, take a lot of room when packing, and if they look good, almost always are uncomfortable. I'm always on a quest for the perfect pair of boots and have yet to find a pair that encompass all my needs.

Karma police, arrest this man...

...or at least, tell him to quit smoking and walking! As K and I were strolling down the Charles Bridge (Karluv Most) one lovely night in March and observed a gentleman smoking a cigarette, gesticulating wildly, and intently conversing with him partner. Of all of these activities, however, none of them included paying attention to where he was walking. Part of the bridge was under construction so a construction fence, with feet that stuck out, lined part of the bridge. Do you see where this is going? Mr. Smokesalot tripped over the fence feet. K and I tried to hide our giggles but after the second time of him tripping we clamped our hands over our mouths and just about lost it.

Since I'm clumsy, I warned K that karma was going to bit me in the butt for laughing at him for tripping. With Prague's incredibly uneven sidewalks (that's yet another entry), it was only a matter of time until I was paid back.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Is that English for "you paid too much?"

I'm in the midst of planning a trip to Prague and Berlin this spring. In my quest to travel on a budget, I subscribed to many different fare alert sites, travel review sites, online tour operators and other random sites to be as thorough as possible.

However, in doing so, I also drove myself crazy. What was the best deal? Which site was the best for finding the best deal? Why am I getting so many emails from one site and so few from another? Darn, airfare just went up! Where will we stay? Should I read reviews and find a hotel that sounds good, or should I wait for a special at a hotel and read the reviews and book from there? Why am I spending so much time on this when I have a million other things to do?

Time was flying by and I still hadn't booked; I was paralyzed by too many options. I then talked to someone who suggested visiting a travel agent. She believed that the agent could procure fares that I wouldn't have access to. Frustrated with all of my running in circles, I made an appointment with a local agent. After all, it would be supporting local business. I sent the agent a detailed emailed with our itinerary.
When I arrived at her office, she remarked that she thought I'd be older than I was (honestly, it flowed out of conversation and wasn't rude like it sounds here). As we were going over plans, I asked her if many people my age walked through the door. Yes, they did, but she was surprised that someone as traveled as I was had come in.

I then wondered if that was English for, "you paid too much and could've found a better price online."

However, I will say that she undid my inertia and the trip was booked and paid for that day. I could've spent forever trying to decide where to book. She was polite, helpful, and efficient. We neither overpaid for the trip nor did we net a stunning deal, but I'm happy with what she arranged and can get on with my life. The travel agency charged $40 for their services, which is really nothing at the end of the day for a 10-day trip for three people and about three hours of labor on the agent's part. Would I recommend a travel agency? Yes, I would, to those who want to leave the details up to someone else.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Frenchies, please count bettah!

Dear French language:

you are a beautiful language. I will give you that. Also, people who use you can come up with hilarious insults that still sound oh so pretty in your tongue. I would’ve never thought of putting someone down by calling them a shampooer of dogs. It sounds so fancy when one says it in French.

However, I take big issue with your numbering system. Look, I hate math. I love you, French language, because you’re oh so sexy and I’d feel pretentious and special if I could speak you properly. However, WHY do you have to be so difficult and after the number 60, we have to do math to say 70, 80, and 90? I mean, 60 + 10 is how one says 70 in French? How about saying septante? Oh, wait, your cousins in Switzerland say that. Your family in Canada says it that way too (yes, I know that French people don’t think that the Canadians speak “real” French, but they feel that they do, so I’m not getting into the middle of that one). And then, when we get to the number 80, we have to break out the multiplication. C’mon, people! Please don’t ask me to drop many of the last letters in pronunciation, remember the gender and number for words, and then have to do math on top of it. My poor little peabrain is liable to explode.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

We'll tuck you in

Travel can be an exciting, fun adventure, but sometimes getting there isn't. With heightened security and steep taxes and fees, transit to one's destination can be nothing near a smooth journey. Heck, even just getting through security can suck some of the fun out of the inital phase of travel. Sometimes odd situations crop up in the security line.

I was talking to a traveler who recently experienced the full body scanners and more intrusive searches. Security screeners informed him that they'd be running their hands along the waistband of his pants. He wasn't exactly thrilled about it but there's no sense in arguing with someone who holds the fate of his travel plans, he thought. His travel companion had the same thing happen, but was a bit bemused when he returned. Apparently the person searching him tucked the travel companion's shirt back in. We had a giggle about that as it was a bit...odd!

Monday, March 7, 2011

How do I say where is the bathroom?

I can't believe I'm going here, but...In Europe, toilets are a wee* bit different. There are so-called "shelf-toilets" that use much less water. Basically, solid waste falls onto a shelf with a hole below (in a canyon type arrangement, perhaps). That way, the entire toilet bowl is not filling with water, thus saving the new "oil," as some call it.

Herein lies the problem, though: to those unaccustomed to "shelf" toilets, it can be a daunting experience to have one's...well, leavings so up close and personal. It's a great relief and the end of a sick fascination to flush away the contents of the shelf. With less water flow, however, it's not always such a clean "getaway," and often a handy-dandy toilet brush is conveniently located next to the toilet. Even in public restrooms, this brush is not reserved just for the cleaning person; it's expected that one cleans up after oneself if there is not a clean get away on the shelf.

*hehe, think about it!