On the Road: Last Night Thoughts

The last night I spent on a winter trip to Venice, I misjudged my timing. I had a fantastic late lunch at a cicchetti bar, bought my ticket for the waterbus to the airport,  rode the #1 vaporetta at sunset  timed just right for an incredible view of light and water, and returned to my room to pack and prepare for my journey home.  I was completely packed and ready at…7:45 p.m.

I had nothing to do. Moments like this can sink me when I’m on my own. I didn’t want dinner or a drink, shopping was done, emails had been sent…and it was way too early to sink into a bath and a nightcap.  Most of all, I felt out of sync with the world and my vision of the trip.

Being in an exotic and beautiful city with nothing to do feels like cataclysmic waste.  I didS a quick inventory of the week and places I might like to revisit – a walk, a hidden square, perfect window shopping.  Then I remembered a bright spot, an odd moment that happened during the high water on Monday.  It was late morning and all of us boot-sporting pedestrians had climbed atop 3-foot-high walkways to traverse the low water-filled squares. When I stumbled down at the end of the planks, I looked behind me at the line of tiny, elderly women with shopping bags. How were they going to do this?  (Better than me as it turned out – experience should not be underrated.)  I stood at the end of the walk and handed one after another ladies down to the sidewalk.

Why did that moment stand out? In those few minutes, I was not receiving help but was giving help. I was useful to someone else.  At home, I have the opportunity to be useful to others, as we all do, everyday but when I am travelling, this didn’t happen often. Usually, I’m the one depending on the kindness of others.

That night in Venice, I thought of the story about John Wesley, an 18th century Anglican priest. It’s said that he would not go to bed at the end of the day until he’d done at least one good and selfless deed.  This was setting the bar high but I decided to take an hour and walk through Venice and just look for an opportunity to give back some of the help I’d received all week.

Moments out the door, I saw two frustrated and exhausted American women with a wrinkled map and too much luggage. They were looking for the Hotel Flora, a wonderful hotel where I’d stayed two years before. It’s beautiful but hard to find unless you know where to look for their sign —  look down on the pavement at your feet!  I introduced myself and walked back with them the half block and pointed out the entrance.  Clearly no big deal for me but I remembered how it felt to arrive in a strange city, tired and jet-lagged and anxious for your room.  There were other interesting encounters with fellow travelers that evening.  Though I have truly no sense of direction, walking the city for a week helped me pass on some aid to new arrivals.

After a week of wondering how to get the most enjoyment out of my vacation, how to find all the spots I wanted to see, and asking myself what would make my trip memorable, my last night was saved by the welcome relief of helping, of being useful to other travelers even in small ways.

The time flew, I walked through streets I loved, seeing the sights one more time, and everything looked new again,  I had purpose and was then delighted to find my bath and a Bellini.

What I Learned

We can only stand so much time focused on ourselves before it feels like the spiritual equivalent of eating too many doughnuts.

Allow some time to help a stranger, look for special mementos for friends who don’t expect it, put money in the donation boxes, write a complimentary review of those who help you at the hotel.

When you do find yourself, as you will, depending on help from someone else, if you can, make it a two-way interaction. Ask questions – find out more about the desk clerk, the museum guide, the store owner, the tourist beside you on the train who provides that answer.

Remember that ‘doing good’ is tricky and in the eye of the beholder. As in the case of the elderly ladies in the flood, I surprised them. I needed to help more than they needed me (which was not at all), but it was still important.

Hold dear the two-way, interacting, powerful role of citizen of the world.

 

 

Keeping the Door Open to Luck!

 

Hello, fellow travelers.  I am writing from the Outer Hebrides, the Isle of Harris and Lewis, on my dream trip.  On the way over, I learned (again) an important truth.

It could happen.

You just might make that flight, you should run for the train you think you have already missed, and definitely check just one more time on that impossible reservation.  How can good luck find you if you have already given up?

In planning my flights from Nashville to Edinburgh, I felt so inept that I forgo that not booking my trans Atlantic flight on the same ticket with my continuing connection to Edinburgh would have consequences.  The BA agent told me that unfortunately I wouldn’t make the connection for my 11:40 flight from Heathrow to Edinburgh.  That would be my non-refundable 11:40 ticket.  I dutifully booked a later flight, losing two hours of my afternoon in Edinburgh.  But, I didn’t release that earlier ticket.

With the bravado of the jet-lagged, I decided to go for it.  The question always to ask is, ‘what do In have to lose?’  The agent that said I could never make it was right except last Thursday morning.  It appears that everyone had to do a quick run through security before connecting.  This time, no one was in line but our flight, it was efficient and speedy.  On a chance, I ran to the gate, presented my ticket without a boarding pass and, though online checking had passed, the gate agent was up for honoring the booking and seat assignment.

With fifteen minutes to spare, I made the original plan.  That meant feeling less 192D6E0E-6AD7-4D3B-ACE7-562565C77E95tired on arrival and getting to have a classic afternoon tea at The Balmoral.  (There was a harpist.  Do this if you have a chance. The haggis puff pastry was delicious.)

This good luck has found me with train connections that were supposed to be lost causes and a wonderful fully booked dinner with a Scottish author.

The question really is about risk.  I certainly booked the back up ticket to insure getting into Edinburgh and if I hadn’t made it, nothing would have been lost but something was gained. It was a treat and a confidence boost!

Learnings

  1.  If you can, book through on one ticket.  I did have a struggle with a connection through Barcelona that made it hard to get a boarding pass until I arrived. Not worth my indecision!
  2. When the flight doesn’t appear to be full on the seating chart, you might want to bypass premium economy and pick a good aisle seat toward the back.  After all the upgrade offers, the small premium coach section was elbow to elbow, but I had a row to myself in the far back.
  3. Run for it in travel and in life. Luck may find you.

 

 

 

 

 

Planning the Big Getaway (Again)

As I dive deeply into the planning of my spring trip, I wanted to share this post with you again.  What starts as an idea, gets put on paper as a spreadsheet of possibles, is inked in with travel times, ultimately becomes the dream and adventure!  I hope you find something here helpful as you plan your next big getaway.

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It usually starts on a rainy afternoon for me – that moment when I know it’s time.  All the ideas that have flitted through my mind, all the reviews from the travel section, all the Pinterest posts, begin to swim to the surface and demand attention.

Wrinkle-free clothes look chic (add a scarf and the right jewelry and you could wear it 7 times…)

Travel-size products are everywhere.

Luggage stores are fascinating.

But, once you decide to take the trip, to just do it, how do you start to put it all together?  For me, it all starts with a spreadsheet. Really.

In business school, we would start a financial model for an idea with a blank spreadsheet.  This was tough for some folks to do.  You’d hear the question, “But, aren’t you just making it up?”  Well, yes.   In the end, we all learned to take that empty spreadsheet, create some basic assumptions, identify some facts and decide the desired outcomes.  Then, we began building a picture.

It was never “right” at the beginning but by creating a rough picture we could start changing the pieces, shifting the variables. Pretty soon, we had a working model whose outcomes would change as we turned the dials a bit.  It was just getting started that felt hard.

This idea that I learned in school doing case studies of imaginary widget factories (with decreasing utility for said widgets while widget raw materials costs increased) actually works for me for trip planning. For you, it might be a dream board, a flow chart or a set of post-its.

What matters is asking the question: What are the basic blocks?  This is a018_18 great way to distill your your big technicolor travel dream into parts and start to prioritize the pieces.  The center of your dream could be a place, an event, or a season. I wanted to see the spring flowers bloom along the Seine in Paris, preferably from a boat, admittedly wearing my new yellow trench coat.  There just isn’t much opportunity for a yellow trench in Tennessee, but in Paris?

After scouring web sites to define the range for “spring”, I thought about what I wanted to trip to be like.  I’d love to see the full moon on the Seine so which weeks during  March, April or May would have a full moon?  Then during those weeks, was there a concert, festival or other event I’d like to see?  Any major events going on whose crowds I’d like to avoid?

This gives my trip a shape — once I put in the date range that gets me where I want to be,  but still with wiggle room, it’s a great time to look for good airfares. Can I leave 2 days earlier or come back a day later?  Then, I decide the top three or four experiences that the keys to my big technicolor dream trip.   Sometimes this causes a shift within the trip …if I only have a week, the days the  museums are closed in one city or the night tickets are available for an opera in another can shift the days within the master plan but no problem.  It’s all in context.

Once I have an arrival and a departure, and a few major activities, I start to have fun. There is enough structure to see the trip as “real” and start working on the details and extras.  Then I begin to write the travel brochure for my big adventure.

Here’s one thing I quit doing. Until recently, I planned out every day charting out what I would see, where I would go, how I would get there. Every morning I pulled out my marching orders from home and struck out.

Then it hit me.  Travelling on my own demanded more. I wanted to learn to choose what I wanted to do each day, on that day, to intentionally listen to my own heart and to take opportunities and to be brave.

My “home self”, the self sitting in PJ’s months earlier surrounded by travel books was as stern a taskmaster as a professional tour director insisting I only had 15 minutes for the Louvre. I had become my own dictator. I wasn’t really living in that moment.

Now I just have the non-negotiables charted (and this gives me a bit of confidence) and work from a list of possibilities that I pull out from time to time.  Doing what you most want to do on any particular day is more difficult than you might think but worth the experience. Shuffling off the coils of what I should do, what friends suggested, what Rick Steves would do, to follow my own path is the goal for me.

What I Learned

  1. Just start. Create a spreadsheet or chart for the number of days you have and start filling in the blocks. (Remember to check travel times and train schedules).
  2. Pay special attention to the three or four things that are key to your trip – check exhibits, opening times, holiday effects and availability for these most important plans.
  3. If you don’t feel like going to the museum, at all, no one has to know.  One brochure from the hotel lobby and your secret is safe.

 

 

 Community: Solo Travelers Aren’t Alone

There is an excitement to being on the road alone, seeing the world in a 360 way, with no other close friends and familiar family between you and this new place.

Solo Travelers however travel in the web of everyday people who catch us when we fall and point us on the road…if we see them. A recent trip brought in sharp focus that we are never alone.

This summer was my first solo departure since an injury and long recovery. Going over TravelStashplans, I found a hitch.  The presenting problem was the need to change terminals in Chicago required using the air transfer bus to make my Aer Lingus flight to Dublin.  It was unlikely I had enough time to change terminals with a bus that comes around every half hour.  There was an easy solution with an earlier departure from home but the way I booked the ticket made in impossible to change.

The morning of my trip I was anxious, so I spent a little time in prayer and meditation. I got the same strong message, “you are not alone; ask for help.”  Now, I don’t seek direct answers in prayer often, so this was new.

Ultimately, I made the flight but I learned at every turn that we are each other’s safety net.  Overworked, underappreciated airport staff, fellow travelers from other countries, flight attendants who weren’t even on duty. They all made my trip work.

After an exuberant Uber ride that could have been written off as therapy, I headed in to wait for my flight to O’Hare. “Ask for help.” An American flight attendant was also waiting for the flight. I took a seat near her, we chatted and I asked her about the transfer.  It was going to be really tight. She pointed out that the first delay might be waiting for my wing-checked bag before making the run for the bus  She gave me a special luggage tag that would help get the bag off first.

Our flight was delayed by a short thunder storm making it a little worse but finally we landed in Chicago. On the jetway as we all waited for our bags, all coping with delay, the staff person organizing the luggage delivery overheard my conversation with my new friend and offered to call down for my bag. One person threw it to another and then up to us.  She also advised me which gate was really the quickest to get to for the transfer bus. Off I ran (kind of) up the jetway.

Running after a broken leg is neither pretty or effective, but run I did. I arrived at what I assumed was the departure gate where the bus picks up passengers for the International Terminal. Imagine a harried, stumbling, short-of-breath, luggage-rolling mess showing up to this crowd of patiently waiting people.  I was very lucky. The family at the edge of the crowd, travelling from the Middle East, took me in, explained the process, and hustled me along with them. The bus was miraculously arriving at this moment.

As we rolled down ramps to ground level to board the bus, the door keeper asked for a card I had never heard of.  What green pass? The calm attendant could have sent me back upstairs to wait for the next bus but instead she pulled me aside, made a call on the radio, and another travel angel ran down the ramp with a card for me.

The last saving grace was that our flight was delayed a few minutes due to a quick mechanical fix. I made the flight.  I got to enjoy the bulkhead seat I’d reserved weeks before, the special meal, and a terrific seat mate. I’d arrive on time to meet the friend and navigator in Dublin.  The tv screen didn’t work at my seat but for once it just didn’t matter.

What I learned is that I would never have made the connection, metaphorically or the actual flight, if I had depended entirely on myself.  If I hadn’t asked, listened, and received grace from those around me, I would have been left.

As I travel now, I am more attentive to the travelers around me. How can what I know make the difference on the first day of someone else’s big adventure.  Alone, I sometimes feel the loss of the shared response, the unexpected insight, and most of all the better navigator but I am more conscious of the great flow of people around me.

 

Learnings

Using a third party broker like Travelocity or Orbitz can be great but it you have more than one airline on your ticket, changes can be very difficult.  For international flights, I’m booking with the airline directly.

Earlier in my travel experience, connections had to be viable. With online bookings, the unusual variables, like terminal transfers or the odd need to leave security in some connections, aren’t always factored in.

Solo Travel – The Do-Over

This is a repost of a blog from earlier last year.  As I am getting ready to take off on another trip, I have been thinking about the difference between pushing your comfort zones and feeling anxious about exciting new experiences. The learning I am having, and that I hope you do, is to give yourself a break.  The unexpected can be the best part of the trip.

My last morning in Spain found me chasing the moon across the island of Mallorca, driving pre-dawn through fields as the ‘super moon’ set on the horizon.  It was a spectacular sight bringing joy at the end of a trip that had some seriously un-spectacular moments.  I had just completed a week-long riding clinic.  This ending moment sealed a trip that had ruffled my expectations of travel adventures.

Expectations with travel are complex.  What do you see when you look back over your own travels?  What has changed for you as you try new things or become more at ease? More importantly, why do you travel?

For me, what began as week-long explorations of single cities (which I highly recommend) or a low-risk itinerary hopping trains across a country I love has  evolved to adventures that add more and more challenge.

Pushing myself with a new challenge brings me home with more confidence and assurance in what I can do in everyday life. There is always learning – figuring out public transport, acclimating to the pace, and managing to buy a coffee in Italy. (It’s not easy.) By the end of the trip, you find the perfect view, buy the coffee, begin to feel at home in a new place and at home in your own skin.

New challenges are an important part of why I go solo. On recent trips, I’ve done  more driving and spent more time out in the natural landscape. So fewer museums, more mountain roads.  My lifelong commitment to a stick shift paid off.

This past year was a new step for me with solo travel.  As I passed a big birthday, I wanted to reclaim a hobby or skill from my past, something I could reclaim and keep.  So after almost a year of lessons, off I went to Mallorca for a week of horse riding.

If you are a school or a course junkie, you may have had thoughts about a cooking tour or language immersion or, like me, a school for equitation.  I learned a little more than I expected – I realized that what  makes this kind of travel work are the constant opportunities to start over!  Yes, the Do-Over.

When you are alone in Iceland and do something unbelievably stupid, you make it back to the hotel, (in my case dry off), get a good night’s sleep, and start over! While you are conquering the world, the presence of strangers allows you to make mistakes, step back, try again and hopefully take the day…eventually.

With a week-long class or clinic, you have an epic fail, get a good night sleep, get up and see the same people again at breakfast.  I am not a good rider.  I learned this in bold new ways on my trip. Most of the experience was spectacular…but part of it was likIMG_0260 (2).JPGe being back in high school gym class but with better and more expensive workout gear.

My best moments were when I slipped away in the tiny blue Fiat I rented and navigated the hill towns on the island, found hidden backroads, and learned how to pay a parking ticket (all of this as you can imagine is related).

Push, try new things, leave time for complete relaxation – but as you travel, you’ll become more aware of where you find your joy.  What’s next for me?  Driving across Ireland, this time with a friend!

What I Learned

  • If you are looking at a learning trip, think about the pace. Is there time for your own adventures? Do you love meeting new people and cherish the group time? What do you want the experience to be like?
  • If it’s learning a skill, give it up a little. It won’t be the same – the accents will differ, the horses won’t have the same gaits, the cooking measurements aren’t as familiar, the instructor has a different approach.  Be ready to shift.
  • Start below your perceived skill. Take the pressure off. Who doesn’t want to be promoted once you are there?
  • Most of all, appreciate the journey itself. I wouldn’t trade moment of my year of lessons preparing for the trip. It was the best part but it took planning a trip to get me started!

 

Favorite Hotels – Hotel Nelligan, Montreal

Hotel Nelligan, 106 rue Saint-Paul Ouest, Montreal QC H2Y 1Z3

A hotel can become your favorite because of the history, the location, the staff, or just the experience of being there.   Hotel Nelligan, in the old town area of the city, opens onto a street first paved in the 17th century.  Walking out the front door, we were immediately in the dream I had of Christmas in Montreal.

We landed as the biggest snowstorm in years was ending.  Drifts of snow, three feet high, banked the sidewalks. The neighborhood streets were strung with lights and decorations.  The hotel had a cozy lobby bar with a fireplace and tree, just right for coming from the cold. And cocoa.

While I wasn’t travelling alone, my evenings were free. The Nelligan is the best example of why location can make a trip.   My first evening, bundled up to my ears, I was at loose ends. I turned to the right and then onto Saint-Suplice and walked toward the Basilica of Notre Dame just a few blocks away. The square was brilliant with lights on the trees around its edges. The snow had blanketed all the sound even though many of us were walking in the streets. As I turned back toward the hotel, I realized that I was just a couple of blocks from the waterfront. As I looked toward the water, the sky lit up with light and sound. I had happened upon the holiday fireworks display.

Snow, silence, a basilica, the mystery of urban stillness and then the surprise gift of a magnificent light display.

For more information, check out:

http://hotelnelligan.com/en/

http://www.basiliquenddm.org/en/basilica/

 

 

 

Solo Travel.  All About the Choices

Early in my independent, on-my-own travel, I rediscovered choice. Traveling with others, I made lists and agendas for the day. These were good-looking, comprehensive creations with travel times, alternate bus schedules, open and closing times, and restaurant options. It helped keep us out of the morass of starting with a blank slate and sorting everyone’s preference every morning.

On my first trip alone, I did the same thing.  Standing in the middle of a sidewalk in Paris, I realized I was being driven by what the “me” of months ago planned, before I got there, before I experienced what Paris was like on this day, at this time.  What did I want to do today – not what I thought I’d do or what was expected of a week in Paris – but what did I want to do? No one was watching or evaluating. I changed everything on that page.

Knowing what you most want to do isn’t as easy as it sounds. Some of the choices begin when you are first planning where and when you travel. You have decisions on the fly and these are exciting.

I’ve learned three things about choice when I am on the road – and sometimes this helps me at home.

  1. What is your style? Are you someone who is more likely to feel tense if the details aren’t nailed down or do you need your freedom? I do like having that spreadsheet…I still choose every day, I’m just very informed…
  2. Build it ‘free’ days. On a solo adventure, every day is kind of a free day but between travel days and big experiences, how about a truly free day to wander the city or walk the byways>
  3. Assess the unexpected. In your carefully crafted trip, you’ll have unexpected possibilities. Do you stick with the plan or grab the new idea and run? My mantra now is ‘what is the best and the worst about this new possibility’? Where is the uncertainty? What will I regret if I give up my plan? How could this story become part of my trip story?

What you don’t want to do is find yourself frozen on the sidewalk, unable to either continue the plan or change it. A couple of years ago, I was in the Highlands on a driving trip. On my single full day on Mull, I would drive the coast and take the ferry to island of Iona. It was my only opportunity and it would take the day.

Then I saw a newsletter in my room at the B&B. One of my favorite authors, Alexander McCall Smith, was signing his new book, set in Tobermory, at noon in the local bookshop. These events in newsletters are never on the day you are actually in town, but this event was.

What to do? I could ditch the Iona trip and chance a good experience with this beloved author or I could follow my plan.  I thought about 010f9304f127c07563c124a754401a710e34f2033a - Copywhat I’d regret if I went to Iona and missed out seeing the author.  Then I thought about not seeing Iona. What would I feel like once back home? In the end, I stuck with my excursion. For me, there was more certainty achieving a great experience taking the ferry to Iona. I didn’t want to go home having given up that part of my trip story.

In the end, I made the right choice and I had a new opportunity. At the end of that very good day, I just stopped at the bookshop to see if any signed copies of that book were still available.  Maybe there was a new possibility to add to my story.

So, this part of the story is really cheating because, in a rare stroke of luck, I had the best of everything – the store was sponsoring a dinner with the author that night and there had been a cancellation. They were frantic to find someone to fill the seat and offered it to me.

The important thing is that I was perfectly happy with the day when I walked in the store expecting a book.

What will you choose?