Thursday, April 25, 2013

Travel Planning – Ready, Set, Go

The swirling waters of the overheated whirlpool we found ourselves poaching in were undoubtedly as close to an actual Roman caldarium (hot bath) Maria Elena and I would ever know. Nearby, the heated though cooler waters of a swimming pool, our modern day equivalent to a Roman tepidarium (warm bath), beckoned us. All we were missing was something reminiscent of the frigidarium, the cold bath and final phase of a traditional Roman bath experience. As opposed to a roll in the fluffy white stuff just beyond the panels of glass that separated us from outside, I guess we might instead settle for a cold shower. That is if we really wanted to know the full experience. Winter in snowy New England, attractive as it may seem to some, has its limitations. Yeah, flirting with either idea would be enough. For now I was happy to stay right where I was amidst the whoosh of the jets and forego that decision short of forgetting about it entirely.

Relaxed in the soothing water, we talked over details of our upcoming return trip to Italy, still yet very much in planning. Where to this time and for how long? Would we fly commercial or try for a hop again? What side trips might we plan … ooh, ooh how about a few nights in Matera this time? Anything was possible with a little planning and here, with thoughts of Italia on our mind, was an agreeable place to talk over possibilities. Also pestering me was a decision, no, more like some inkling, some idea of what I might write about that month. It was Maria Elena, forever my goddess of inspiration, my Muse, who came up with the idea. She suggested that seeing I was in the throes of planning a trip why couldn’t I describe how I went about getting ready to travel. Not any particular trip per say, simply my considerations to include general suggestions that might be useful to fellow travelers and in the process keep it brief! Somehow she always adds that enjoiner! After all it’s easy isn’t it, just pick up your phone and call your favorite travel agent, maybe a AAA office or go online for one of many tour offerings. Put your deposit down and you’re done. Simple isn’t it, so why not? For the moderately extroverted among us or those souls looking for a more self-directed experience, those of you willing to go the extra mile off that proverbial beaten path, a more freelance trip with time to linger, wherever you might like, may be the order of the day. Welcome to my specialty!

For those of you who have been reading along over the years, you already know we have never taken any tour in all the times we have visited Bella Italia. I plan them myself, relieved in not having to keep to any "get up and get on" schedule or wait on the pernickety and frequently later arrivers in any group. Of course, planning a trip on your own takes longer. Being retired certainly helps and so can the seasons. Retirement gives me time to sift and measure – time enough to sort through all that is being offered in way of what to see and where to go, in addition to the time to weigh value for each of my dollars. For us the seasons also play a role in defining our travel window since in the summer Italy is both hot and overcrowded with tourists who don’t realize just how hot it can be! With this in mind, we usually visit Italy in the spring and again in the fall. So it was timely as it continued to snow outside and I finalized the remaining details for our upcoming trip that I take up Mare’s suggestion and write about how I prepare for a trip in hope it just may help others. To travel smart we need to plan the same way.


The first benchmark by far that we establish, the cornerstone around which all else evolves, is a firm departure and return date. Since there are two of us on these adventures, I can’t simply unilaterally pick up the calendar and mark a date. While I’m ready to run off to Italy at the drop of a hat I’ve learned to acquiesce to Maria Elena on these matters. Over the years there have been births, weddings, baptisms, birthdays, anniversaries, even baby showers that needed to be accommodated. With your start date determined you now can establish a return date. Costs associated with roundtrip airfare being what they are, I would suggest that if at all possible you may as well plan to stay a while. The key here is to keep down accommodation costs to free up the cash you'll need to stay longer. By staying outside the big cities, shunning the big hotels with services you really don’t need or will likely not use, and for example by using B&Bs, it is possible. When you think about it, high cost hotels are for those who don’t really want to travel. It’s like vacationing in a bus sized mobile home with all the comforts of home and calling it camping!

With firm dates in hand, I next use my computer to track down the best airfares. Personal computers have opened a window into travel like never before, allowing Average Joe and Plain Jane the ability to plan their travel like experts, even better than an expert, for only you know best where and what you'd most like to experience. You are already well begun and are saving because you are avoiding the peek rates that accompany the prime travel season. What better time than, on those long winter evenings, to shop for flights. There are many places you can look. Some of my favorite mining locations where I’ve struck pay dirt include: (for hopping around Europe)

Look for midweek flights for even lower costs and keep in mind that it's sometimes best to take flights which offer multiple stops. For the reduced price of a seat, it will definitely take you longer enroute but as a reward, you get to visit places you may otherwise never get to see like the Azores or Reykjavik. An added bonus materializes when the airline permits you to delay while enroute for a few days at one of these stopover locations before continuing on. There you go, two vacations rolled into one.


With our time window firmly established and a flight package secured ,I then begin to build a schedule. Mine are nothing as formal or as regimented as the word schedule implies, it is simply a single piece of paper I create on my computer that looks like a page from a calendar. If you stay more than a month you may need two pages. When we are traveling it resides in my back pocket for quick easy reference. I start it not necessarily on the first day of the month but instead a day or two before the actual departure date. The square for the departure day contains our first day's flight information to include the airline's name, flight number, takeoff, landing and layover times, even seat assignments. If you use a limo or take a bus to the airport include its pertinent information. If, for example, we are renting a car upon arrival, I include the reservation number for handy reference when I arrive at the counter. A planned overnight stay somewhere will see me include the name, address, phone number and possibly the web address of the accommodation. It makes it easy to then tell a cabbie or, if there is a communications barrier, it at least offers the ability to point to the address. If you run out of space, just make the square bigger, the font smaller or use an adjacent square that happens to be empty. Nothing is so rigid in its formality that you can't simply improvise. There is usually more than enough space with room below my calendar grid for information of a more static nature. It’s here that I include the phone numbers of the airlines we'll be using, frequent flyer numbers, at home and abroad point of contact phone numbers along with passport numbers to include issue and expiration dates. Worried about losing that passport? Why not include the consulate phone number to lessen the panic? You can find the nearest one on-line. In case of a lost wallet or purse fiasco also include the phone numbers from the backs of the cards you plan to take along so with their disappearance a few calls can make them unusable (more on doomsday thinking later). If you take medications it’s a good idea to list what they are to include dosages. We invariably buy a Travel Medical Insurance policy for less than $20 a month so our certificate numbers and the international collect phone number are also located in this area. The first go at creating your plan on paper may take a little time but once the data is gathered it serves as a template for future trips since little modification is needed. My so called schedule makes for a single, handy reference for everything we have planned. As days go by I even jot down notes in squares to later remind ourselves what we did and where that was. After a while everything gets blurred, even trips get confused. A simple check of the schedule, now updated and archived in your computer, brings everything back into focus as one “oh yeah” follows another.

As departure day approaches, we really get serious when our suitcases appear. I'm not about to advise you what to put in them ... let me rephrase that since I don't want to imply there is more than one suitcase per person ... only to suggest that you travel light. There are additional reasons behind our regiment but we shoot for 30 pounds in a small roll along suitcase along with a backpack each. Once you snatch your buddy from the baggage carrousel realize you will be towing your roly-poly companion along with you wherever you go, which can easily be up and down stairs in places like metro and train stations to name a few. Oftentimes elevators and escalators, if they exist at all, are inoperative. We can attest to that at both the Roma Termini and again in Siena as we navigated under the tracks only to realize we faced staircases long enough to make you believe you were looking backwards through binoculars. To keep down weight and add to volume I'll even avoid bringing along a shaving kit, relying instead on a Ziplock bag to hold what I need. Keep in mind you can always buy what you need at your destination, like that bulky can of shaving cream. I won't begin to address women's shoe issues only to strongly suggest self control. And here is a tip - if you insist on bringing those extra couple of shirts, socks, lots of underwear, extra sweaters, etc. consider using one of those vacuum shrink packs. We've used them with towels we were bringing to our home in Italy and they worked just fine. You can usually find a vacuum before returning to shrink wrap them once more, although we have met people who actually shipped clothing home to free up room for dishes and gifts!

When we go for the suitcases, it's a little like groundhog day around here, sunny or not. It's not that spring is just around the corner. It’s just that this event, symbolic of our approaching departure, triggers an additional unveiling, this time of another of my relied upon travel planning tools. You'll recall I recently mentioned my reliance, almost addiction, to checklists. This particular list of reminders, my travel checklist, like many others, lives in my computer and has been developed over time and updated frequently with additional refinements, some learned the hard way. I won't tire you with mundane details like being sure to bring your tickets but here are some highlights:

Along with our passports, I'm reminded to take along color photocopies of the passport's information page. I keep one in the glove compartment of our rental vehicle in case the Carabinieri stop me and ask to see i documenti (your papers). Another is in my below the waist "silk" money belt. Yes, I said silk! The real things remain at our home in Calitri. For you that may equate to wherever you are staying. I tell them that's where they are for safe keeping in case they'd like to accompany me there to fetch them. So far no one has. A photocopy would also help, I'm sure, if either of our passports were lost. Be sure to also check that your passport will not expire while you are away! In fact, it is recommended that it be good for an additional six months beyond your return date.

Whenever we fly we take along cough drops! It's not that we fly sick or plan to. The idea is they help with the cabin pressure on assent and descent. I used to take along the "Vicks" brand but they seem hard to find. Instead, any brand with eucalyptus will do. If my ears are sluggish I'll take one about ten minutes before takeoff or landing. There is nothing worse than a sharp pain in your sinuses or the inability to clear your ears. You don’t ever want to risk a ruptured eardrum. Don't even think for a second that the pilot will level-off and wait as you work on equalizing the pressure in your ears! Won’t happen.

Cards of all types … from frequent flyer cards, handy laminated wallet-sized birth certificates, auto rental agency cards, credit/ATM cards, driver's licenses. Insure that any with expiration dates will be valid your entire trip. Also, you will definitely save a little if you use a credit card for meals and purchases especially designed for travelers that feature no added foreign transaction fees. Remember those TV commercials for that credit card favored by those marauding Viking barbarians? That’s ours.

Sanitize your wallets! Leave anything you won't be using behind. If your wallet is lost or stolen, I think you'll agree that it helps to keep losses to a minimum. Think you will be needing those "Home Depot", library or "Old Navy" cards while you're away? I doubt it. We then go one step farther and inventory what we will be bringing. This may sound a little overboard but it will come in handy if the unthinkable happens. We leave our 'wallet lists' with a responsible person at home whom we can contact if need be. With all the card details, front and back, from credit card numbers to bank card phone numbers, it makes coping with matters after a loss a little easier.

Leave a copy of that travel plan/schedule you developed behind also.

If you are going to be away for some time, a month or longer for example, you might want to consider what bills will arrive and how they will be paid. Maria Elena has a great system and knows which bills will arrive and when. She has them in a log. Because we travel often some bills are set up to be paid automatically while others are paid manually online wherever we are after we receive an email notification. Ah yes, to do that you’ll need another tag along companion, a lightweight notebook computer or tablet.

~ GO

Only a few days remain before you leave for that trip of a lifetime. Now is the time to take care of last minute details. Simple things (from my checklist) include holding the mail and stopping the newspaper but others I'd suggest you consider include:

As is often the case, since we made our plans far in advance, we let the places we have reserved know we are on our way. This insures that they are expecting us and that there will not be any uncomfortable surprises. Ever mess up an arrival date, for example, by reserving month/day/year when Europe operates on day/month/year? Ouch. It can get confusing and especially error prone when dealing with months and days less than 12!

Stop non-essential services whether they might be satellite TV, your internet service, telephone service, even auto insurance. You won’t need Netflix either. Services like these have 'pause' or 'vacation' modes which you can ask to be turned on and off. Will you be using your vehicle? With your car parked in the garage while you are away you certainly don't need that collision coverage do you? A call can mean significant savings, maybe enough for another day in paradise.

Finally, maybe the best planning tip of all. I notify each of my credit cards of my plans. I don't want them surprised and abruptly lock out my credit cards when they suddenly see a charge from Kathmandu, Nepal! A heads-up call will eliminate this sort of disaster. Some card services will even send you an e-mail whenever there is an international transaction on your card. Check for this since it not only adds a measure of security but will, for example, convert those fluctuating Euros into a dollar amount for you, which is a great way to keep track of how your budget is faring. We rely on cash from ATM machines while away. Traveler’s Checks have gone the way of buggy whips! A simple call to our bank insures the spigot is open when we'll most need it. You might also discuss daily withdrawal limits and let them (and your other card issuers) know what countries you plan to pass through - it's all there on that schedule you developed.

So there you have it, some proven travel planning tips from a pair of well oiled travelers designed to make your next trip smooth and hassle free. Let's get going. With diligent planning you've won the travel trifecta – suitcase packed, plans made and tickets in hand. Arrivederci, hanno un meraviglioso viaggio! (Goodbye, have a wonderful trip!)

From that Rogue Tourist, Paolo