Camping — is it your thing?

Written by admin on August 10, 2009 – 5:06 pm -

Lord knows, it’s not for everyone. There’s a theory that people who are contemplating going camping or sailing should spend the weekend together in a bathroom. Tight quarters do not necessarily guarantee closeness – and I’m not referring to physical space.

Having survived three camping trips, I quickly decided they weren’t my preferred vacation. But my partner loved them (and sailing) so I learned to adjust – well kind of. We finally agreed that every third night – we’d stay in a hotel. Camping in a VW bus didn’t qualify as a five-star adventure.

Some people relish living in self-contained units where they can eat, sleep, shower and perform bodily functions and not have to pack and unpack.

Depending on the season, you can be spontaneous about when you pick up and go. If it’s high season, you may not be able to reserve a space in a National Park at the last minute. Camping trips during July and August require substantially more planning since if your dream is to visit the Grand Canyon, you’re not alone.

There are private and public campgrounds and guides as to where each one is located. In Europe, they’re rated with the equivalent of Michelin stars and some of them are even posh.

OK – what to take – and what you need to leave home.
This takes a lot of soul searching.

Clothes are the easiest part. Everything should be wash and wear and preferably quick drying: Take layers; do not forget rain gear and an umbrella. Weather can vary during the day and depending where you are, can plummet at night.

Shoes are challenging and the number one priority should be comfort: you’ll need shoes for hiking, walking biking and rubber flip flops if you’re using communal showers. Take an extra pair in the event you get soaked. If you’re planning to go to a restaurant that has tablecloths, a pair of “dressy” shoes is appreciated.

Travelers should have their personal necessity bags especially if they’re using campgrounds with shared facilities. A plastic bag with soap, toothpaste, a tooth brush, shampoo and a personal brush and other essentials is judicious.

Pack a waterproof bag with the following: medicines, band-aids, antiseptic lotions and sprays and a kit to suck out snake or spider bite venom. Do not forget bug spray and repellent lotions.

If there’s a mosquito within a three-mile radius, it’s going to make a beeline for me. My son loves to tell the story about how I was bitten everywhere when I slept on the deck of a sailboat moored in the Caribbean. The stars were beautiful, but the next morning, I looked like a swollen monster and was mainlining antihistamines for the remainder of the trip.

Be sure to have sufficient amounts of sunscreen and a hat. There are few things more miserable than a child (or an adult) who has a terrible sunburn.  It ratchets up the pain and suffering level.

What “toys” you bring with you will be dictated by the campers’ ages, interests not to mention space. A Kindle or a facsimile can be a godsend for readers. Board games, playing cards and electronic games can keep children and older types occupied for hours. Some people wouldn’t leave home without a portable DVD. There are so many options for music – the list could go on forever. Depending on where you’re headed will mandate things such as bikes and/or rubber rafts.

If you can’t live without a computer and being online 24 hours a day, camping probably isn’t for you. You can purchase a USB modem or spend your time where there are WiFi hot spots. But some people might feel that negates the purpose of being on vacation. I don’t happen to be among that group since I’m an addict and just think of the research we could be doing about the trip en route.

Food glorious food: Cooking is a challenge most especially if you’re confined to a limited space. The most perfunctory charcoal grill is a lifesaver in the world of cramped quarters. Before departing on your trip, families (or friends) should have a specific chore list. You can’t be too rigid but successful camping trips requires planning.

During our (ad)ventures, we acquired a fair number of outrageous stories. One was the night the owner of a restaurant agreed that we could stay overnight in his parking lot.  He didn’t tell us about the meaner than mean guard dog or the adjacent train track. Another night I’ll remember is when we pulled into a camp ground and were delighted we could snag a place since it was nearly 10 p.m.

We went to sleep nearly immediately.  The next morning as I was headed to shower, I was greeted by a nude man who was taking out the garbage.  I had a revelation. Nude isn’t necessarily sexy and we left the Camp Naturaliste.

I’ve left out so many tips – not to mention funny stories. Now’s your turn …..

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

5 think-ahead strategies that make travel easier

Written by admin on May 22, 2009 – 5:42 pm -

There are ways of minimizing stress when taking to the skies but sometimes, it takes imagination in addition to organization.

Think ahead about packing
Pack the day before or even earlier, then take everything out of your suitcase and whittle down your possessions. Unless you’re going to be seeing the same people for two solid weeks (and who cares) and have to attend a black tie event, travelers can do with half of what they think they need to bring.

For city travel, black is always safe for women. Bring a skirt, a pair or two of pants, a jacket, some wash and wear tops, one dressy blouse and different accessories. Scarves, shawls, costume jewelry and a silk flower to pin on your jacket or place in your hair can give women an entirely different look.

Men have always had it easy. Unless they have business meetings that require a suit, a navy blazer and gray pants with a shirt and a tie is usually as dressy as they need to get. Add some khaki pants and knit shirts and most men are on their way.

Assemble a plastic bag containing pills and copies of the prescriptions (generic please) that you need to pack in your carry-on bag even if you’re checking a suitcase.

And give careful thought to electronic accoutrements. All the many cords, converter plugs, chargers, camera apparatus such as a memory card reader or extra camera batteries are some of them. Separate the cords with rubber bands or twist-em’s so you’re not confronted with having to untangle everything.

Whether or not you check a bag is up to you. I try to avoid doing so since I’ve arrived at a destination too many times without my luggage — or have had to wait longer than I care to for the carousel to cough it up.

One caveat — don’t try dragging such a large carry-on that your back hurts before boarding the flight, or you’ve alienated your fellow passengers and the flight crew before getting your suitcase into the overhead compartment.

Think ahead about clearing airport security
Some frequent flyers are opting to become members of CLEAR where they’re on an immediate fast-track to be waved through security.

The most challenging items are electronics and personal items that require screening. Clear plastic zip-lock bags are godsends.

Have your computer ready for inspection as well as your cell phone, camera, keys and anything that might set off alarms. This sometimes includes coins and sometimes not.

Then there’s the make-up, toothpaste, etc. etc. bag, which invariably contains liquids and has to be removed from the suitcase to be screened.

They should be placed on the top of the bag for easy removal. I place all of these items together in a cloth bag so I can pull everything out in one easy swoop.

Clearing security is stressful at best. But take your time while being as efficient as possible and don’t let people push you. Airport lost and found areas are treasure troves and there’s nothing worse than realizing you’ve lost an essential.

I never wear a belt, shoes that aren’t slip-off or heavy jewelry. If I had any “important” jewelry pieces, there no point in traveling with them and being worried about robbery. Also, there’s less to take off in line.

I also have succumbed (inelegant as it is) to wearing a neck pouch containing my passport and boarding pass. This isn’t high fashion. But after leaving these essential papers in a tray, I’ve come to the conclusion there are times to be chic and other time when being secure is more appropriate.

Think ahead about waiting at the airport
I’m a great believer in belonging to an airline club because I travel enough to justify the cost. Plus, it’s not unheard of when one of the employees is able to wangle a better seat or possibly an upgrade. There are occasions when you can buy a last-minute upgrade for substantially less money than it would have cost if you’d bought a business class ticket.

One-time passes can be purchased for airline clubs if you find you’re going to be delayed. As crowded as some may be, it’s more comfortable waiting in a club and if you want or need to work, you can get on line. Be certain that if you’re not flying internationally you keep track of time because many clubs don’t announce domestic departures.

Many people go to the bar, or in some airports where there are decent restaurants, eat before the flight leaves and thus avoid eating (or buying) mediocre airline food.

Think ahead about your seat on the plane:
Some airlines aren’t permitting passengers to pre-select their seats, while others save advanced booking for premium clients. If you’ve bought your ticket though a travel agency, they can arrange for a seat to be assigned. If you’re flying United or some other carriers, opt to pay the extra money for somewhat more legroom. Five inches can make a big difference.

Consult Seat Guru and you’ll be able to tell the seating configuration of specific planes. If you can pick and choose and there isn’t a plane change, you’ll have an advantage when selecting your seat.

There are different theories and if you’re flying coach (and most of us are these days) hope the flight isn’t full and you can stake out five middle seats and the armrests go all the way up. One of the best transatlantic flights I recall was when I lucked out and slept across the ocean.

Think ahead about getting from the airport to your hotel
This tip, passed along to me by a wise traveler, has saved me time and aggravation countless times. Take a clear folder with your itinerary. Access or and print out a map of your destination including the directions from the airport. This will put a stop to a lack a communication or a joy ride should you encounter a cabbie with whom you don’t share a common language. And even if you do, some streets are difficult to locate.

Please add your hints for making trips easier. These are just a few.

Karen Fawcett is president BonjourParis.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

13 tricks for making plane travel easier

Written by admin on May 18, 2009 – 5:44 pm -

There are two types of travelers: those who are constantly in the air and others who take occasional trips. People who fly a lot appear to have it down (kind of) to a system.

Much depends on whether or not you’re flying coach or in the front of the plane. Are you flying more or less than three hours? This will dictate some of the preparations you’ll need to make — but fewer than you think. Travelers should always be prepared for delays and what’s supposed to be a short trip may end up being anything but.

Here area a baker’s-dozen tips that I follow whenever I jet off into the skies.

Wear really comfortable clothes so not to feel confined if you’re stuck sitting for hours. This doesn’t mean sloppy but they should be loose. Shoes should be the slip off type. I always wear (or pack) a pair of really comfortable socks.

Dress in layers. Some flights tend to get very cold and there’s no joy in freezing while flying from one coast or continent to another

Pack a blanket and pillow if you’re flying long haul. It can be a neck roll or another type that helps you catch a few winks. Your own blanket can be a godsend and you know whether or not it’s clean. If it’s not as clean as it should be, you’re the only person who’s used it.

Bring a small package of baby-wipes. They can come in very handy and negate your having to go to the WC if all you want to do is wipe your hands or face.

Don’t forget a package of tissues. Be germ conscious and careful how you blow your nose. Immediately dispose of the tissue in the sack supplied in case of airsickness.

Use headsets and ear plugs. Most ‘road warriors’ have a set of noise canceling earphones and wear them throughout the flight. Bring a pair of foam earplugs in the event you’re seated next to screaming babies or party animals.

Heavily padded eye shades are godsends if you want to sleep.

Power adapters help. If you’re traveling with a computer and want to work, buy a charger that’s specifically configured for plane outlets. It will keep you from playing beat the clock. Plus, if you want to watch a CD on your laptop, you won’t need to worry about the battery’s life.

Don’t forget reading materials. Take books and magazines you’ve wanted to read. An increasing number of people will probably be traveling with “Kindles.”  iPods seem to be the fashion of the day so you can listen to books and/or music you’ve downloaded.

Bring a notebook and a pen. You never know when you might get creative or need to make some notes. If you’re traveling internationally, you’ll need a pen to fill out the immigration forms. Flight attendants are the first to admit they’re at a premium because of cost cuts.

Don’t forget to pack your medications (and copies of the prescriptions) and enough of them in the event your trip is delayed, you won’t panic. Some people I know wouldn’t fly without Airborne or a cold remedy.

Pack some snacks, even if you’re traveling first or business class, in case you’re stuck sitting on the plane waiting for it to take off. When you’re traveling coach, you may want to pack a meal brought from home rather than buying something at the airport where they tend to be expensive and not necessarily what you’d prefer to eat.

Bring an empty plastic bottle and fill it up with water after you clear security.

These are some obvious tricks and tips. My next article will include carry-on packing ideas, clearing security, airline clubs, how to select seats and anything else you’d like to have me research.

In the meantime, please add your travel tips.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

10 sensible rules for women traveling alone

Written by admin on April 14, 2009 – 6:05 pm -

Why am I differentiating between men and women traveling solo?  It’s a bit of a mystery since I frequently hop on a plane and enjoy being my own boss.

I love the freedom. Waiting for others to make up their minds (or get dressed) can negate some of the pleasures of being able to be spontaneous.

Traveling alone can be lonely, but the new people you meet without a “friend” tagging along, are certainly different. It’s one of the ways a trip may be enriched by not having a companion (or more) joined at the hip.

However, some friends have reprimanded me for being so loose and fancy-free and advised me to take prudent precautions. In many countries (and unfortunately even here in the U.S.) women are seen to be the more vunerable sex. In order to make peace with friends who tell me I need to be more careful when on the road, here are 10 safety rules to follow for women traveling alone.

1. Let family, friends or co-workers know where you are going and where you will be staying.

2. Be alert to your surroundings. If something or someone doesn’t seem right, take action. If necessary, call 911 or its equivalent. If you’re in a foreign country, it’s up to you to ask for the help number.

3. If you’re staying in a hotel, ask to change rooms if the desk clerk blurts out your room number for all to hear. It’s no one’s business but yours and should stay that way.

4. Some people are nervous about hotels that use magnetic keys. That’s not one of my anxieties. But if I lose one, I ask for a new reprogrammed set.

5. Elevators that require you to insert your key to get to your floor are an extra safety precaution many women appreciate.

6. Does the hotel have a full-time security staff that has been trained and bonded?

7. When you’re in the room, insure all of the safety locks are securely bolted. Some security specialists suggest you travel with a personal door lock. That’s going a bit far – unless you’re staying someplace you shouldn’t be.

8. Some people leave the radio or television on after they’ve left the room. If it makes them feel better, so be it.

9. Prudence says you should use the safe in the room or if you’re traveling with real valuables, or the hotel safe. Don’t leave things out for the staff to see.

10. If someone knocks on the door, don’t feel you have to open it even if the person says he or she is an employee of the hotel. There’s nothing wrong with calling the front desk to ascertain whether or not it’s valid. You might miss a turndown chocolate but it won’t be the end of your life.

Now that I’ve thought these precautions through, they are not only advisable for women. Men could certainly stand for a bit of caution at times.

These are a few dos and don’ts for personal security. To be sure, I’m missing some of the most important ones. Please add them in the event I’ve been careless or forgetful.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

8 rules for renting a vacation home or apartment

Written by admin on December 17, 2008 – 12:36 pm -

For a vacation or even an extended working trip, there’s no question it frequently makes sense to rent an apartment or a house rather than staying in a hotel. But how do you avoid ending up in a rattrap? Here are some rules to help find the right place.

Since the launching of the Internet, more rental sites than you can count are created each year. It’s no longer simply a question of surfing the Web. You have to be aware of some of the tricks of the trade and do your homework. After having rented villas in the countryside and rented out my own apartment in Paris, here are basics as I see them.

Dealing with agencies
There are agencies that handle excellent properties. If they’re doing their job, one of the members of the staff will have inspected the apartment, perhaps stayed there and worked with the owner to insure the apartment is in tip-top shape. The agency is your contact and it should be responsible for making your stay go smoothly.

Many have a local representative meet and greet you when you arrive and run interference if something goes wrong. It’s your vacation and who wants to wait for the plumber?

Agencies take various mark-ups over the payment the owner receives. Sometimes it’s hefty and much deserved. Other times, it’s too much for the service you receive. There are good and bad agencies. Some simply want to make the booking, deposit the commission and see you later.

Good agencies count on repeat business and don’t want to alienate property owners or rental clients. They take extra care to make certain the rental is a good match for both parties.

For rent by owner
Don’t dismiss rental sites that cater to people who want to manage their own property. I rent my apartment and I want to know for certain that twelve partying 20-somethings aren’t occupying my home when an agency said there would be four middle-aged adults. That’s happened. I want to establish a rapport with people who are sharing my Paris home and I’m more than happy to act as a quasi-concierge.

Special requests are accommodated. If someone wants an airport pick-up, no problem. No matter where the potential tenants live, a phone call is a cheap investment and creates a sense of bonding. Anyone renting a property, shouldn’t hesitate to ask if they may speak with previous tenants.

Know what’s included with the rental. Many landlords expect tenants to buy everything from soap to toilet paper. If they generally don’t stock the necessities, ask them to do so even if you have to pay. The last thing you want to do is dash to the grocery store the minute you arrive.

Here are 7 what-to-look-for rules:
1. If renting a house or villa, find out if there is a caretaker, gardener, pool person, maid, etc. and what time they come. It’s best if there is someone to speak with if, for instance, you can’t figure out how to light the grill or open the door on the European washing machine. You also don’t want to be surprised naked in the pool when the pool boy shows up at 10 a.m. to clean the filter. Serious owners have all this laid out for you in advance.

2. Know the house location and neighborhood. If it’s a totally new place,  independently determine what the specific location is like. Most disappointments generally have to do with homes in a neighborhood that might be very different than that imagined (farther from the beach, traffic noise, party neighbors and so on).

3. Study all pictures carefully. Wide-angle lenses can make a tiny spaces look like mansions. Ask yourself what can’t you see outside the borders? Don’t make any assumptions. Assume if you don’t see it; it isn’t there or it’s lacking. Be wary of listings where pictures provided look cropped and there are obvious things outside the frame (i.e., if you are assuming there’s five acres of isolated land, but if you don’t see the house surrounded by land in the picture then assume there’s a house right next door). Don’t be afraid to ask the owner to send more pictures if there’s more you want to see — they usually will.

4. Realize that the market drives prices. If a place is listed for 50 percent of the price of other places in the area, ask yourself what doesn’t it have? It’s most likely missing something (e.g. a pool or perhaps the beds are 2 twins in a small closet-sized room), make sure you understand what you’re getting. Study the fine print. Ask for the exact number of square feet or meters.

5. Home and apartment renters are often far more negotiable than a hotel. Unless the listing specifically mentions something isn’t flexible (i.e., “absolutely no pets”), see if you can negotiate check out times, check in times, small pets, schedules, even fees. Sometimes the answer is no, sometimes it’s yes.

6. Ask for discounts for extended stays. If staying longer than a couple of weeks, an owner may discount the rental.  And if staying a month or more, insist on a discount.

7. Sometimes renting a house can be an opportunity to make friends. If renting from an owner. Be friendly and interact with them. Tell them about yourself. Sign the guest book. Owners like re-renting to people who are good tenants. If traveling with children, many owners will be happy to introduce your children to others in the area.

8. Take care of the place, clean it up well, follow all the written procedures and check out by the agreed time. If you really like the property and manage to hit it off with the owners, frequently they’ll offer a free dinner or a discount the next time you have an opportunity to rent. Plus, they’ll email when there are sudden openings and bargains.

It’s judicious to take the time before your arrival to be sure you’re getting what you think and hope rather than spending  a week or more being frustrated.

As much research as you do, you may be still face surprises. The unexpected does happen. I’ll never forget renting a country home only to find that the day after we moved into our paradise, the people across the way started gutting their home. Thank goodness the workers left early each day. But still…

Feel free to add any ideas or tips I’ve missed. And I’m certain I have.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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Here’s a tip on one of the last great travel mysteries

Written by admin on September 18, 2008 – 2:49 pm -

When the time comes to settling up their bills, even savvy travelers develop amnesia about tipping.

Should you tip taxi drivers, leave a monetary “thank you” for hotel maids or shell out something extra for the room service waiter when a surcharge has already been added to the tab?

How much does a doorman deserve if he hails a cab that happens to be waiting smack in front of the door?

Is a tip merited if passengers are climbing out of the car in time for you to climb in?

Do you cross his palm each and every time the doorman stands at attention holding an umbrella to protect you from deluges of rain?

What about the battalion of concierges who accomplish impossible feats? These men and women definitely are some of the best-connected in any city’s top hotels. They’re famous for snagging impossible-to-get reservations at restaurants, tickets for sold-out plays and other cultural events.

For special clients and tokens of appreciation, a definite underground exists. Clients know better than to ask specifics. Instead, they’re appreciative of miracles in the same way a child is when a magician mysteriously pulls a rabbit out of a black satin top hat.

Do you tip him or her as you check into the hotel — or when you’re leaving?

That depends on whether or not you’re a regular. If you are, dollars to doughnuts the concierge will have already reserved a better room than newcomers might receive. Yes, some quarters (not to mention bathrooms) are definitely better than others. Contrary to the photos on the hotel’s site, assume its marketing department knows better than to showcase the worst room and has no compunction when photographers use wide-angle lenses. What may look like a perfectly satisfactory room can be situated so close to the elevator or the storage room that getting an uninterrupted night’s sleep is a challenge.

It’s as if there’s a pipeline among hotel employees as to who’s a good tipper and who’s not. Those who are (amazingly) merit extra service.

Even though the general manager’s office would be unhappy to hear this, my experience has always been that when I ask the housekeeper for an extra washcloth or two and reward her with a bit of pocket money, I don’t need to ask on subsequent days. Being a maid in a hotel invariably is an entry-level, low paying job and what are peanuts to you, can make a difference in that person’s standard of living.

The debate as to when it’s appropriate to leave a few extra coins or bills is ongoing. Don’t take what some guidebooks advise as gospel and use the advice as rules of thumb. There are so many variables.

There’s no right or wrong; there may be recommendations, but consider them precisely that. Nothing is carved in stone and before you know it, there’ll be a new set of rules. And please don’t think that the dollar and the Euro are at parity. If only that were the case. Tip according to the country where you are.

In Paris, for example, tips are included at restaurants — allegedly. Unless the place is a dive and there’s no service, don’t stiff the waiter if you want to return. It’s amazing what great memories service personnel have.

The same is true in other EU countries. But in Italy, Spain and some other countries, there’s a cover charge for just occupying the table and having a roll plunked in front of you. Don’t expect a rebate if you don’t want bread and tell the waiter to take it back to the kitchen. Once you sit down, the table as well as the cover charge are yours.

In this era of the strong Euro and pitifully weak dollar, EU residents are flocking to the US to shop until they drop and to take advantage of the “good” life. Don’t be surprised if you see a notice on menus in multiple languages announcing that service isn’t included.

Restaurant owners and managers are well aware their staff’s take home pay is predicated on tips. Some places will even add a “suggested” tip, as if tourists and business people forget their math skills when leaving home.

When I was last in China, the taxi driver refused a tip because they’re illegal and each cab is equipped with a tiny microphone. When I later traveled to Hong Kong, I tried exiting the cab without tipping.  It’s a miracle my hand wasn’t slapped.

We may not have been speaking the same language but there are times that a shared language isn’t a necessity. It’s amazing what looks can convey. A glare is worth a thousand words and I reached into my wallet as quickly as I could. The idea of being tarred and feathered lacked appeal.

What are some of your hints when it comes to tipping?  Undoubtedly, there are a thousand variations and permutations.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

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