On this 4th of July I have a wide range of thoughts on travel and I promise I’ll share them, but first a bit of an apology. I know I’ve been gone for a while. My wife and I went to Spain for 3 weeks. The day after I returned my employer of 14 years (with over 200K employees) advised me of their decision to eliminate my position as being unaligned with the new model for the department. Blah blah blah. Right business decision. No reflection on anyone we laid off. Blah blah blah. At less than a year away from eligibility for an early retirement pension, I was not amused. But it does open all kinds of doors, so I’m not terribly upset.
This means we get to fluff the pillows, wrap up our bathroom remodel, touch up the paint, and put our house on the market in order to manage costs. It also means we get to escalate our retirement planning in order to find a place to live that bridges the financial gap. At our house this is an exciting phase. Moving opens all kinds of new horizons. We meet new people. We find new places to love. We are going to miss some of the people in our current home town like crazy, but we also know that we will stay in touch. So the idea of moving is making us feel a bit festive. We’re strange like that.
Travel around Spain, a country approximately the size of Wisconsin… makes me realize how completely backward things are in the US. Spain has dedicated large sums to creating high speed train service that will get you from one large metropolitan area to another in an hour or two. Barcelona to Madrid? No problem. No checked luggage. No unfriendly security protocols. Reserve your ticket the day before and take a cheap taxi to the station. Barcelona to Girona, the same. There are also slower trains that stop at a long string of small picturesque towns. Most of the country is connected by rail. It’s fabulous.
The Barcelona Metro is a miracle of user friendly signage, automated ticket kiosks, with adequate but unobtrusive security. The bus and metro system in Seville is adequate to the needs of the city, if less spectacular than Barcelona’s.
There is an underlying assumption in Spain that one should acknowledge: private cars are not essential to living a comfortable middle class life.
Think about that for a minute. Imagine no car payment, no auto insurance, no money and time spent fueling up on a regular basis. Imagine walking five minutes to the closest bus or train stop, checking the clock that shows the time until the next train arrives. In under ten minutes you are heading toward your destination. We used a taxi once in our two weeks in Barcelona. Their Metro, by itself, was enough to make me want to stay forever.
Experiencing Spain’s commitment to mass transit does leave me pondering American attitudes toward transportation. I believe different generations have different feelings on the matter. Maybe it’s just the Gen Xers and our parents who wouldn’t feel complete without a personal automobile. I’m not sure, but having seen how well it all works in another country, I admit I’d be willing to give a car-free life a try.
It is true that you can skip the line to purchase a ticket to a sight seeing destination. For example, the Basilica Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. This does not actually mean you will not spend time standing in line. Purchasing a ticket to a guided tour is a trickier proposition than one might think. It is however, sometimes, the only way for you to get inside. We discovered this when we tried to purchase a ticket directly from the ticket office at La Sagrada Familia… where a nice security officer advised us there were no tickets to be had. Directly. Hence, the internet and “skipping the line” options.
First, you are not purchasing a ticket directly from the organization that operates La Sagrada Familia. You are working with a third party who has an agreement with La Sagrada Familia operating crew. Now that you have your ticket, you need to know who that third party is, and where their offices are in relationship to La Sagrada Familia.
You will need to appear at that third party location a short while before the tour begins. There will be a line involved to check in with the tour operator, be assigned a tour guide, and head over to your destination of choice with your group.
The group will then stand in line… in our case almost an hour from the appointed time of the tickets. High demand locations like Casa Batllo or La Sagrada Familia tend to a bit of airline fever. They oversell tickets in order to meet the demand with the hope that no one will be too fussy if they don’t get in to see the venue at the specific time allotted, so long as they eventually get in.
This works just fine for your average tourist. Where the solution breaks down is for anyone with a physical disability that makes standing around for long periods of time painful. Think bad knees, feet, backs, hips, and the like. A broken tibia, a recent bunion surgery, a hip replacement, pregnancy, sprained ankles, or just a few too many days walking around for six hours can lead to the kind of silent agony that overshadows even the most spectacular location. While you can gimp around through an hour tour, the additional hour and a half of waiting in various lines can really be a deal breaker.
But you’re there. And you really really want to see this place. You know you will regret not seeing it, possibly for the rest of your life. So you grin (or grit your teeth) and bear it.
I have a few suggestions to make the inevitable waits easier. Some of them I have employed myself, some I discovered just standing around observing more savvy travelers than myself. Bring water and anti-inflammatories (aspirin, ibuprophen, aceteminophen, etc…) Take as directed, and of course, as needed.
Spain is one of the enlightened places where cannabis and alcohol are equally respected for their ability to make life better (in the right dosages). You might want to stock up on vape pens and CBD rubs at the local Hemp Shop.
You should also bring things with which to distract yourself. If you’re an extrovert, make sure you have a bit of extra phone data to use Google Translate and strike up conversations with the other people in line. While standing for 40 minutes (in the wrong line – the Sagrada ticket line, instead of the Julia Tours line), we discovered an Italian family in front, and a crew of young Japanese women to our rear. That was good for about 20 minutes before the language barrier made it all too exhausting to proceed. (of course, we are introverts… true extroverts would never allow something as minor as the inability to understand someone else’s language to stand in the way of a good conversation)
If you are alone, and an introvert, bring your eReader.
There are also some handy little physical supports that double as canes and small travel stools. If you’re willing to give up a hand to that kind of device, you’re good on the sitting front… although I suspect they get pretty uncomfortable over the duration. Popular venues are stingy about seating. The intention is for you to see it, buy your souvenirs, and move out to make room for the next tourist. Sitting around just enjoying the view is not on the agenda. That is what a camera is for.
Speaking of cameras, familiarize yourself with its low light settings. The use of the flash is highly discouraged, if not outright banned. Don’t risk a bunch of blurry photos of all the cool stuff you are about to see. If your camera doesn’t have such a setting, invest in a better one (or borrow one). Seriously.
I will never forget La Sagrada Familia with the evening sun flushed through the reds and golds of the Passion facade. There is simply no substitute for actually being there. I could have easily sat there for an hour just basking in its beauty… except of course for the paucity of seats, and the fact that we’d already stood around for two hours before gaining access, and my feet and back were killing me. Being a tourist is not for the faint of heart, or the under-prepared.
What about you? Have you found a real way to “skip the line”? What do you include in your travel arsenal to survive those blistering days on your feet? Share your wisdom (and experiences). Drop a line in the comments!
I’m a big fan of stepping right into the new time zone. Wasting time during a business trip, or worse, a vacation – calculating what time your body “should” think it is, is an utter waste of time. I keep the curtains/blinds raised so the sun can tell my body when to get up, drink a lot of water (amidst whatever else I might be consuming, depending on the occasion), and try to power through those draggy parts of the first couple of days.
This usually works. What doesn’t work, is to nap. Napping makes the insomnia / exhaustion cycle even worse.
So what did I do this afternoon, 3 days into our trip to Europe? Nap.
As a result I am wide awake after having spent four hours staring at the ceiling, with my brain on Antoni Gaudi, the visual equivalent of crack cocaine. Obviously, this is another case of do what I suggest, rather than what I do. On the other hand, there’s no point in beating yourself up if you do decide to succumb to the siren song of that oh-so-comfortable mattress. It is what it is, and if you’re on Holiday, you get to set the schedule. Tomorrow we have nothing booked until 4pm which is when my much-better-half and I are scheduled for a tour of The Cathedral of the Sacred Family (aka, La Sagrada Familia) – which is generally booked solid.
PRO TIP – if you’re heading to Barcelona, you will want to see the work of Antoni Gaudi. Book ahead on one of those “skip the line” deals.
I would post some photos but all I have is my Chromebook and a bunch of memory cards for my DSLR. Hopefully I’ll have some killer photos from the trip, but they won’t be posted tonight. If you want a sneak preview, check out the picture at the top of the blog page… that is the Mercat Caterina, which is full of seriously interesting food stuff, and as we discovered today, far less jam-packed than it’s older sister, La Boqueria off Las Ramblas. Just saying.
Jet lag tips of your own? Post them in the comments for the benefit of our fellow travel lovers.
It’s a curious thing, local culture. When you’re traveling outside your country, or even outside your region, it can turn an otherwise pleasant day into a visit to the Twilight Zone. [queue music] If you don’t know what that is, this blog is probably not for you. Mainly this is a blog about an American trying to figure out how to get around in a strange city in Europe with a bare handful of the local language.
It’s no surprise to anyone who is familiar with Uber’s history of blunders and bad press, that not everyone thinks they’re the good guys. I for one changed over to Lyft after all the stories of a culture of misogyny and the poor handling of a video of a driver raping a passenger in India came to light. So I’m not an Uber fan girl.
I am however a BIG fan of apps that allow me to use my phone to request a ride. I’m willing to use whichever driving services the city prefers. But I have no desire to roam around trying to flag down a taxi in bad weather or an unfamiliar (and therefore potentially dangerous) neighborhood. I’m a woman, and in all my years of travel I’ve been pretty careful about the kind of risks I take. To any man who may sneer at this, let me educate you. This is wisdom, not cowardice.
As a big planner, I started to do research on how to get around in Barcelona. I do intend to use the Metro and actually booked an AirBnB based on its proximity to a Metro stop. However, I’m older and gimpier than I was the last time I explored that fabulous city and I wanted backup options. After reading an article about Uber departing Barcelona after the city instituted a law that required the driver to wait 15 minutes before accepting the request (which Uber reasonably enough pointed out was kind of the opposite of an ‘on demand’ service) I attempted to learn what ride apps would work.
Based on previous experiences I chose to go to Trip Advisor’s Barcelona forum to ask the experts . In the past I’ve written many reviews, and asked and answered many questions about local sights, getting around, and where to eat in places I’ve lived like Los Angeles.
But it’s been a few years since I was active there and the culture seems to have taken a sharp turn.
When I posted a question asking folks ‘in the know’ what ride service apps worked in Barcelona I got a veritable barrage of shade. Why anyone would want to use a ride service was beyond them. There are buses and the Metro. (which I’ll admit is well lit and easy to navigate, based on my experience in 2008) Uber was evil. I was completely unreasonable. There’s a taxi on every corner. Blah blah blah.
My explanation of the communication and safety benefits of using a ride app was literally ridiculed by several men (based on their pictures) with an attitude and too much time on their hands. I even had one person say that “at least here even criminals had rights” in response to my explanation that background checks on drivers improved the safety for (female) riders. Here being either Europe or Spain or Barcelona? So apparently rapists, murderers, and other violent offenders are a protected class? I don’t know. It was ridiculous and I washed my hands of them with a polite thank you for the information.
It was quite the oddest experience I’ve ever had on Trip Advisor. But it did give me insight into a cultural quirk of Catalonia (I think, or it may just be the trolls lurking in that part of Trip Advisor). Be forewarned… the locals in Barcelona are very very protective… of taxi drivers and the process of physically hailing a taxi. I’m not sure if this is a stand-in for all things technological or all things American, but it did seem to be an excuse to pick a fight… my inexplicable desire as a tourist to have the convenience of an app to get a ride when my companions and I got worn out from walking around.
The funniest part? I don’t care if the ride app calls me a taxi. But I want to use an app. Call me crazy but I want an electronic record of who picked me up just to encourage the driver to take a direct route (and not make me disappear in a shallow grave. Too much Hollywood, I know, I know) I want to hail my ride from the comfort of the chair where I’m enjoying a small coffee, or a glass of wine. I don’t want to roam around in the dark in an unfamiliar neighborhood on cobble stone streets with my knee complaining and my feet hurting, searching for a taxi.
I am looking forward to doing a bit of wine-and-tapas bar hopping in the land of all things delicious. Is that too much to ask? No. It’s not.
Was all that spiky commentary really about ride apps and taxis, or did I just bump into some ableist-ageist bullshit? Maybe all that helpful advice about finding a taxi on a nearby street was simply the unconscious assumption that everyone is fit and fully capable of strolling a few extra blocks regardless of the hour or the terrain? Are my fair suite of trolls simply operating from the belief that if you are a bit mobility challenged, you should just stay home and enjoy the TV and your rocker, or for fucks sake at least stick to places that are close to a bus stop? Maybe. Maybe not.
I suspect that my experience is part of a larger problem that happens to online communities originally intended to be useful (with a fringe of monetizing the traffic that eventually turn into one large advertisement venue) It stops being about people connecting, and turns into a wild-wild-west platform for a certain kind of person to exercise their true selves. I went to Trip Advisor looking for some basic information. I did not get it. Shame on Trip Advisor for investing so little in the Forums where random strangers provide free content (and a large chunk of the value of the site). Shame on the forum admins for allowing the culture of the forums to curdle so badly that bullying is considered an acceptable form of “advice”. It was obvious that these folks hang around and regularly contribute. If you want to keep people coming back, you need to make sure their contributions add value.
All that being said, I don’t intend to allow this experience to dim my excitement over visiting Spain and showing my friends all the wonderful things there are to see there. What about you? Any ‘Twilight Zone’ experiences when looking for travel advice? Do you love Barcelona and/or know what ride apps are presently in use? Do tell… in the comments!
This blog slips between the cracks of my usual blog categories. Business travel rarely involves AirBnB’s with their lack of corporate contracts and general independence, and while this advice might be useful to travelers who are planning a trip, it’s not specifically for that audience. My advice on AirBnB for travelers is read all the descriptions, twice… then read it again before you book. I’ve read so many BnB profiles by now, I’ve probably violated my own advice. I’m hoping not.
I’m afraid this blog is simply some miscellaneous carping on a subject on which I have been forcibly educated in the course of plotting a trip for myself, my wife, and a good friend. We’re going to Europe. Yay! We had a loose idea of where we wanted to go, but the trip evolved from two weeks in Spain with a final stop in Lisbon… to a final week in Rome, all because of AirBnB costs and amenities. Why Rome? Well, why not? We considered Nice, but the Côte d’Azur is terribly thin on AirBnBs at any price… and the French hosts had a particularly annoying habit that got me searching further afield. More on that later.
This blog is chock full of unasked for advice for the many AirBnB hosts of Europe. (and elsewhere).. who clearly don’t “get” Americans, or haven’t grasped the main idea of selling a place for strangers to sleep, dress, and perform the usual bathroom rituals.
This may be, in your way of thinking, a good thing. I won’t contest that. Renting out a part of your home, or your second home, or an investment property is a matter of financial necessity, not fun. For AirBnB hosts in other countries, Americans with our diffident aesthetic, low power distance and low context culture and strangely arrogant politicians, must be a great puzzle, and our preferences impenetrable. Europe, with it’s small elegant spaces grafted onto ancient stone piles must find us particularly difficult to endure. I get that. So I’m going to spell out a few expectations, just in case anyone is looking for tips.
Mind you, as I searched there were a number of stunning AirBnBs that ticked all our boxes. I booked a few and am crossing my fingers that they’ll live up to the photos and descriptions. The good ones stand out. This blog explains why I scrolled right on past your lovely and lovingly (or not) furnished home.
First problem. You think of it as your home. In fact, you may even live there, so that makes sense. The problem is that for a period of time, you want someone else to feel at home there. The more “personal” and “cozy” your AirBnB room/home is, the less likely some random stranger is going to feel at ease there… because, you and they are strangers. However friendly you may be on the surface, they are in your space because of things they want to do outside your home. They are not there to make friends. I’m sure it happens, but if that’s your expectation, you’ve lost the plot. You are asking for money. They are asking for a comfortable place to stay. It’s a business exchange. Cluttering the room with family mementos, uncomfortable or ‘off limit’ furnishings, and failing to make sure all the electric sockets work, is just bad business. Walk into that room and look at it as if you were a stranger. Better yet, ask the next five people who stay there what you should remove from the room, or what it needs. Don’t rely on reviews. We’re all trying to be polite and we get that everyone is different, and we don’t want to make you feel bad… unless the situation is truly egregiously bad, in which case most of us will simply NOT leave a review. So if you’re not getting a lot of positive reviews, you are doing something wrong.
So that’s item #1. It’s not personal, it’s a transaction. You may think painting the kitchen red is festive. For someone who is already out of their comfort zone, in a strange place where they may not even speak the language? Loads of bright colors, particularly hot colors, are just disturbing. Guess what we want to do in the room or home we have rented after a long day of braving the ‘touristic’ crowds and walking 57 kilometers? Yes. We’d like to relax … somewhere pleasant, quiet, and soothing. No on the red. Likewise with orange, bright yellow, and anything resembling colored fluorescent lighting. We’re not there to disco.
It’s all about the beds. No, seriously. Bathrooms fall second because we’re sweaty, sore, and our digestive system has suffered a series of shocks. A great kitchen may snag a few more renters, but a lousy night’s sleep will override our happiness over the lovely living room, the dishwasher, and the snazzy shower pretty quickly. Even a great pool, spectacular views, and a nice garden can’t compensate for general exhaustion. Nice design and good photos are important, but they’re not what we really need. They get customers in the door, they won’t keep us happy.
One of the most annoying things I found in looking for a house or apartment to lease for a week for 3 older women were the number of places furnished with twin beds. Yeah, I know you have a lot of family hand-me-down beds that are twins, and the linens are cheaper.
In America children sleep in twin beds. Adults sleep in a full size, or even a queen. Couples generally sleep in a queen or a king-sized bed. These are very important distinctions. If you have furnished with a queen or king sized bed, make sure your AirBnB profile is correct. A full sized bed is quite a bit smaller than a queen and tiny compared to a king. It can make the difference between being considered, or skipped over. The FIRST thing I looked at on every profile I clicked on was the little bed diagram.
Twin beds may be all that fits into a room. Or you may be trying to attract a group of 10 college students who want a place to party. And if you want to attract a family with eight children, by all means furnish four of your five bedrooms with two twin beds, or (even less desirable) bunk beds. But children (especially drunken ones) are destructive. They don’t intend to be, but they’re children. They don’t know that things are not supposed to be scraped, jumped on, kicked, and generally stress-tested every time they’re used.
If you want to attract adults – mature and responsible adults, you need to recognize that they’re going to spend more time in bed than they are dashing around restlessly and partying. Large, comfortable beds with good pillows and decent quality cotton bed linens are expected. These should be prominently displayed in your pictures. You should plan on providing a minimum of 2 good quality, nicely fluffy pillows per person – with extras for people who need support of a bad knee, a shoulder recovering from surgery, or general lumbar support. If the pillow is a foam or fiberfill that is less than 2 inches thick after being ‘fluffed’, you need to buy a new one. And don’t keep it in the closet as a back-up either. Donate it if you really feel guilty. But get it out of guest circulation. (feather pillows are an exception here because even an older one can be fluffed up to serve as a good resting place for an armor to cradle an arthritic neck) I know some people can’t handle feather pillows because of respiratory issues, but for my money, there’s nothing longer lasting or more comfortable.
Also, while 2 twin beds set side by side do actually equal a king sized bed, there is nothing sexy, romantic, or cozy about sleeping around the gap. No. Just no. If you have space for a king sized bed, for goodness sake, use a king size bed. Or consider using a queen to provide more room to move around.
Crowded bedrooms lead to people bruising themselves, tripping and breaking decorative items, or suffering incontinence as they shuffle around trying to locate the bathroom. None of these experiences will lead to positive reviews. My wife and I once stayed in a room so claustrophobic we left at 4am because neither of us could sleep in the airless closet that served as our bedroom.
Make sure the bedroom(s) get decent ventilation and can either be maintained at a comfortable temperature, or other accommodations have been made. If you can’t offer air conditioning for a space that gets hot, install a ceiling fan with a remote and make sure the windows open easily. If you don’t have heat in a home (or room) that gets cold at night, make sure you have warm comforters or extra blankets. Consideration of your guests’ needs will go a long way to getting you positive reviews.
Which brings me to specifics. Lisbon Portugal is a coastal city. It’s vibrant, full of history and crammed with amazing food, art, and creative activities. It also gets cold at night well into late spring. Cold and damp. I don’t care if you’re used to it. Imagine that your guest comes from somewhere hot and is used to having AC and heat. If your apartment doesn’t have heat, don’t have them discover this when they’re THERE to stay. Make sure you mention it in the description, along with the fact that you have lovely feather comforters for every bed and a space heater for the bathroom. Better yet, show this in pictures. And PLEASE, for the love of all that is likely to get your place booked, make the beds up before you take pictures. A photo of a naked mattress with a stack of folded sheets and towels sitting on it is Not Enticing Marketing. It looks more like you’re inviting people to stay in an army barracks than a comfortable AirBnB. Are we also expected to make up our beds and strip them when we’re done? Do we get a discount on our cleaning fee for performing this housekeeping chore?
Another practice I encountered in my recent education on all things AirBnB is the addition of fees for basics. I’m not talking about 15EU for a parking spot. That’s money well spent for folks who have a car. I’m talking about charging for things that should be included if you actually care about your guest’s comfort.
If you want to charge extra for the use of electricity, water, gas for cooking, or heating fuel… increase your rate. Guests are paying to stay someplace with the kind of amenities they enjoy at home. This practice brings to mind an Americanism known as “nickel and diming”. Tacking on a bunch of extra fees for features that should be part of the basic package is not going to go over well with your guests, especially if it was buried deep in the small print at the very bottom of your description. If you MUST charge extra fees, include it early in the description. Otherwise it seems sneaky and dishonest, which is not going to lead to a good relationship and most certainly not a great review.
And finally, my largest pet peeve of the whole adventure. Charging for sheets. Seriously? Is this 1689? A tuppence for a sheet sir, or you can share the straw tick with the last guest’s fleas. Sheets are actually as much for the landlord’s benefit as the guest’s. Do you really want someone to sleep on the bed without sheets? All their sweat and skin grease and hair products oozing into the mattress? BED LINENS are not something a traveler should have to pack along. This actually is a practice of some places along the Cote d’Azur… which just made me sniff and think, amateurs… and which is really why we wound up in Rome. 40EU for a set of sheets per person is highway robbery. You’re here now, pay up or go someplace else… and by the way, we already have your entire payment and you don’t get a refund. That’s a highly suspect business practice and guaranteed to get you an unpleasant review. I’m rather surprised AirBnB even allows it, but that’s not my job.
My job is to offer some helpful advice to folks just starting to look for an AirBnB and some insight into what your guests need to all those AirBnB hosts who may be wondering how to make sure their place is booked solid during peak season. What about you? Any pet peeves you have on the AirBnB circuit? Any really cool things a host did for you? Tell us all about it in the comments below.
I don’t know about you, but the price of a ticket to fly somewhere fun can often be the sticking point on my vacation plans. With this in mind, I’m going to share the four things you should consider if you want to fly somewhere exotic without complete sticker shock.
Fly out of as large an airport as you can easily reach. Small airports are an extra stop off the beaten track. They don’t have the runways necessary for larger planes to land, so you will probably have to change planes on your way to far destinations. If you are within a couple hours drive from Chicago’s O’Hare airport (ORD), New York City’s JFK, Los Angeles’ LAX, or San Francisco’s SFO airports you are almost certainly better off pricing tickets from that airport to your final destination. This is especially true of trips to other continents. The costs of parking and rental cars are generally far less than the price difference of the ticket.
Be flexible in your dates. In fact, plan your trip around when the cheapest airline tickets are available. It would be great to start out on Saturday, and return on Sunday a week later. Nope. Expensive. Even more expensive are Monday and Friday departures and arrivals because those are business-travel heavy. For vacation, leave in the middle of the week, and return in the middle of the week.
Book separate round trips yourself rather than relying on the travel web sites to calculate it all for you. Fly out of a large airport to a large airport. Then look at the distances and possibilities (rail, rental car, van, Uber, regional flight, etc…) to get to your dream destination. You can sometimes save even more money simply by booking each leg as a separate trip and exploiting the ‘mid week’ bargains. You’re on vacation… this is an extra opportunity to sight see and experience the area. For example, if you want to get to one of the sunny coastal towns near Lisbon, and you’re leaving from California… you book one flight from SFO or LAX to a large European airport like France’s Charles de Gaulle (CDG), London’s Heathrow (LHR), or Spain’s Barcelona (BCN) airport. Book a separate round trip ticket from Paris, London or Barcelona to Lisbon (LIS). Round trip tickets within the European Union are surprisingly cheap. You can even stay in that city for a few days when you arrive, or as you make your way back home.
I’ve said this before, but I’ll throw this in because it’s a big one. Book airplane tickets six to eight weeks out from your departure. Otherwise you’re paying a premium. Often a significant one.
So that’s my public service announcement for the day. Stick with these four tips in 2019 and you’ll save hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. You can stay longer, eat better, or get that once in a lifetime souvenir with the extra cash. Or maybe it will just make the difference between going or not going.
Educate me! What about you? What are your money saving tips? Drop me a comment, and don’t forget to subscribe for notice of more travel tips, tricks, and inspirations.