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.

 

 

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 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.

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?

The Ultimate Solo Journey: Recovery

That night, sitting in the library of a skilled care center, I marked six weeks since I began the adventure. Nothing could have prepared me more completely than traveling alone in foreign countries – unknown languages, new cultures, obscure rules, and constant self-management.

In one lunchtime decision, this traveler went from a quick run to the taco truck to a life-changing ride in an ambulance, from planning to cook Blue Apron tonight to not seeing the inside of my house for seven weeks. From a fast walker to a broken femur.

I’ve written about how the benefits of preparing a grand adventure can change your entire year.  Life is changed even before you even depart – and after your return, you have new skills and confidence.

Traveling on your own, facing challenges, learning about yourself, and testing your boundaries can prepare you for very unexpected adventures – those you make without reservations or luggage. I am grateful for every lesson. There are five lessons from the road that saved my soul.

  1. Stop, listen, and build relationships.  What’s happening, who is in charge, who can help me, who can I help, what do I need, and what options are available? In a health emergency, you are dropped into a country for which your passport has not been stamped. The people I met first in the hospital ER and later in rehab were my guides and saviors. Night nurses and techs were the most important people for my welfare. I couldn’t survive if they were just staff – we had to be in it together.
  2. How to come back from a bad day matters. Can you start over? What can you do? Would timing yourself wheeling down the dark hall at least give you a goal? (By the way – yes.) Anything can turn it around. Is there someone you can help? The day isn’t over until you say it’s over.
  3. Connect and disconnect. When you travel, there is a balance between the reassuring connections with your real life at home and the ability to experience and attend to the present moment. Rehab is not Paris but it requires your whole heart. Holding on too tightly to the old normal brings pain and frustration. I can be involved with my work but I can’t full engage. I must fully engage here.
  4. Use all your resources to solve the problem as if it were not your own.   The ability to be alone and problem solve, as if you were an advocate for another person, has reworked a lot of hotel mishaps and delayed flights. Learning to acknowledge your emotions while working with perspective for yourself is like having a team mate. For the middle weeks of this journey, I cried once every day – big gulping, “I want to go home”, hauls. But I scheduled them. Therapy first, conversations with the doctor and the nurses, then lose it before your mom comes.
  5. Lonely is lonely. Once you have sat with a deep sense of isolation and distance, you know its face and its moods. It can be expected alone in a foreign place – even if being there was your heart’s dream. I didn’t expect to feel that same sense of extreme distance in my own town, with family and friends ready to help, but this is a foreign country. Familiarity with the face of lonely helps.

So that night, I rolled down to a lovely spot, with its dark bookcases and lamplit corners, to try make something of the rest of my day, to find a way to be me in that place.

I put myself in the position to receive something different.

The best surprise came when my favorite nurse from my old unit came in. A friendly face drove away the feeling of being alone. We talked about new babies, family hopes, and faith. And we decided to start over tomorrow.

Travel, push yourself, move out of your comfort zone. You’ll be ready for the unexpected adventures to come.

Free Day in Paris

Sunshine, gracious not glaring, a light breeze, the crunch of gravel under the blooming horse chestnut trees. The sound of distant chatter from a tour boat on the Seine.

Nowhere to be but here.

Shouldn’t every trip have at least one unplanned day to wander? An absolutely unscheduled day leaves room for adding something unexpected but that is just a side benefit. Keep the joy of the traveler. As a type-A traveler, I set challenges, have lists, and push to the next summit.  I can lose the joy before I realize it.

Once, with a whole week to spend in a beautiful city, full of places to be and sights to see, it struck me. This used to be more fun.  My travel lust started at fourteen on a fantastic 16-day trip from London to Lucerne. I still have whole sections of the brochure memorized.  Though I might not feel the same way today as I did then, walking out of the hotel, luggage whisked away and boarding the bus meant anything could happen. I just had to show up.  (The smell of bus fumes in a city still inspire a feeling of possibility and mystery – odd, but true.)

As I stood in the street that day, in that city, I changed my plan.  I had a list of three obscure museums that the average traveler would not find and an address for a great authentic lunch.  I ditched the plan. How could I reclaim that feeling of the naive traveler wandering through the day like a theme park of history and art?  When all else fails, go to the train station.

From the train station, a joyous line of day-trippers was pouring into the streets. Hawkers were selling souvenirs, ice cream and expensive Cokes. I got a $4 Coke Light and joined the crowd. I felt it edging back in – JOY! You could almost hear carnival music.

Wondering with the crowd, I landed in a neighborhood that had eluded me the day before with my map and my list.  There it was – a perfect accident.  I broke my rules and ate in a restaurant with a menu in four languages.  The food was adequate but the people-watching was stellar.

It was a day off amid a vacation.  So, back 100_0682-0_0125to Paris and the horse chestnut trees.

On this morning, I bought a pastry on the corner and started a slow ramble along the Champs de Mars. Following a bustle of activity, I watched with the crowd as three military helicopters landed like very dusty dragonflies. (We agreed, the crowd and I, that this was either very interesting or very bad.) Then, from far down the park, we heard the jingle of bridles and the most amazing equestrian parade appeared.

100_0693-0_0133A visiting dignitary had apparently arrived and was whisked into L’Ecole Militaire. Soon after, they emerged once more, were bundled into a motorcade, and traveled down the boulevard with brilliantly uniformed riders before, after, and alongside the cars.

100_0696_0136It was spectacular.

And then they were gone, and I continued my stroll. What next?

I like problem-solving and gain great gratification from jumping hurdles and finding myself on the train after a tricky connection or achieving that elusive sunset view at the very right moment.

It is, though, a balance to maintain – the combination of great feats and achieving a purpose and just strolling with a camera and ice cream.  That day in Paris I wore a dress that I almost gave away. “At my age,” I thought, “this dress would only work walking along the Seine in Paris with an ice cream cone.”  So I did and then left the dress for the next guest.

 

Saving Grace: Coming Back from a Bad Experience When You are On Your Own

There is that moment when it all goes south.  You’re on the dream trip, it’s all you hoped and then, boom. An unexpected problem. You’re tired, you’re jet-lagged, and maybe a little insecure. When you’re with a partner, you may throw them the reins and take a break. (When you are with a partner, you may also say unforgivable things and end a relationship. It’s 50/50.)

When you’re by yourself, how do you make a comeback?

There are some tips at the end for practical help, but how do you stay in the game, be your smartest, and make the most of your trip?

When You Make a Mistake.  Or When Someone Else Does.  Things happen on a trip – a delayed train, an overbooked hotel, or in my case an opera called on account of a flood.

  • Become your own cool-headed negotiator.
  • Don’t take anything personally.
  • Take a moment if you need to – don’t take a deal or make a rash decision too soon.

Access your business-self and leverage your possibilities. Think of it as hiring that side of yourself to help the disappointed you.  Be the gracious but experienced and no-nonsense traveler. For example, if the hotel is overbooked, consider what might give you priority as a guest. Are you a club member – did you book on a premium credit card? Did you correspond with a particular staff person at the hotel?  If you need to be walked to another hotel –  insist on understanding where they are sending you and the level of the room. You should get an upgrade at the new hotel. If a premium room is available, they can do that for a quick fix to your problem. When I approach this is a rational, collaborative way, staff can be relieved to have a way to please a guest.  If this hotel is important to you, be gracious about what has to happen tonight but insist to know when they can get you back in – you should be in line in front of tomorrow’s guests.  Save your own trip.  (Then go to the pub next door and cry if you must.)

When Other People Are Jerks.  It just happens.  You walk into someone else’s bad moment. It can be hard to make a quick recovery. Especially if they are French.

Here is a secret weapon. Do something great for someone else. Something completely unexpected. The good that you create will diminish the disdain or rudeness of the other encounter.

In Edinburgh, I had just twenty-four hours for sightseeing on my way home from a trip in the Highlands. Everyone I encountered out in the rural areas was friendly and patient. As usual, back in the city, I got turned about on the city streets, made a few wrong turns, and asked the wrong group for directions.  I left feeling like a stooge.  Why did it matter so much? This was a limited time and I wanted to enjoy the city but I lost my confidence. So I bought a gorgeous slice of cake from a bakery (it was meant for me) but as I got back to the hotel, I was thinking how welcoming the desk staff had been when I arrived and how much random anger they must encounter.  So I took the cake to the young girl that had checked me in a couple of hours earlier.  I don’t know why but that cancelled out the bad experience.

When You’re Tired.  On your first day or after an arduous or exhilarating part of the trip, you could be emotionally or physically exhausted.  This may sound over-thought but if on the first night of your first trip alone, you don’t honor that and you have an unexpected come-apart, you begin to question whether the whole trip was a good idea. Just recognize what is happening.

Give Yourself a Break.  First, if you are tired, disappointed, having trouble making decisions (because you are tired and disappointed), find home base.  I take a journal, an iPad, a book or camera and set up somewhere that feels like I’m on the parade route.  A café near the hotel or, if you have one, a hotel lobby bar, is full of possibilities. You’re close enough to your room so you don’t feel desperate about being out of energy but you’re still have a front row seat to (Paris, Istanbul, Memphis, San Francisco).  When your body can’t take another step, but you can’t bear to miss something, this really works.

Nuclear Tired. If that doesn’t sound good, what would you do at home?  It’s not against the rules on your own adventure to find comfort food, some imaginative  takeout or a weird potato chip flavor only sold by Lay’s in foreign clime, and return to your room and the remote.  Some hotels have a stash of DVDs at the front desk.  I travel with a comfort-food-movie downloaded on my ipad just in case.  Take care of you.  You’ll be ready for tomorrow.

What You Can Do – Practical Tips

  • Reservations.  Copy all your confirmation numbers and paperwork. Keep a backup set in your luggage or emailed to your account.
  • Money. I’m not an expert but if I don’t have cash or card problems, I can handle everything else.
  • Prescriptions/Health.  The hotel staff are great help if you discovered you left a prescription at home or you need to locate a doctor.
  • Ask for help.  There really is a sisterhood that extends beyond country and language. Even the most glamorous looking Viennese woman behind the hotel desk can recognize a girl’s last leg.  Admit your having a bad moment and ask for advice.