Sunday, January 30, 2011

5 WAYS: To Experience a Resort

Not every trip we take needs to be filled with one of a kind, local experiences.  Sometimes when we travel we just need to unwind, relax and stay put in a place that isn't home.  I recently took a much needed long weekend at an all-inclusive resort in Riviera Maya, Mexico.  This was my first vacation at an all-inclusive, and quite frankly I avoid them for their over-the-top cheesiness and mediocre food.  But this trip was a little different.

Maybe it was timing.  Maybe it was stress.  Maybe it was just because I needed to get away.  But on this trip I embraced everything I dislike about resorts and came to see it as a sub-culture filled with unique qualities (albeit at times toned down for the masses), not as a superficial Disneyfied place.

That's right.  Even at an all-inclusive I got a flavor for the local culture and broke out of my comfort zone.  So don't discount them when dreaming up your next vacation.  And arrive with an open mind ready to relax, have fun and even learn a thing or two.

So here's the first edition of what I hope to be a recurring post called 5 WAYS.

5 WAYS for you to get local at a resort:

  1. Make friends with the staff.  I recommend starting with the bartender.  Ask for restaurant, sightseeing and nightlife recommendations. Let him/her know you're interested in a less touristy locale (or the best tourist spots if that's what you're looking for).  Nine times out of 10 you'll get great advice.
  2. Eat the regional menu options.  Even in an all-inclusive you'll find local foods in the buffet and specialty cocktails at the bar.  There will surely be hamburgers and fries aplenty, but make an effort to taste test local fruits, veggies, entrees and drinks.
  3. Turn on local TV or radio.  Rainy day and stuck inside?  Or maybe you just need some background noise while getting ready for a night out?  Turn on the radio or TV and tune in to a channel you normally wouldn't.  And if you are traveling internationally, TV novellas are incredibly entertaining in any language.  
  4. Embrace resort entertainment.  Sure it can be cheesy, but you'll often learn something - whether it be about people from another country or the local culture.  In my case, the local entertainment included weddings.  I spent a half hour being an uninvited guest to a beach wedding and it was a beautiful and memorable experience.  The resort disco was also an interesting time filled with local music and a diverse crowd.
  5. Learn the language.  Again, the hotel staff is great for this.  Learn a few phrases or words that you think will be helpful during your stay (please, thank you and beer come top of mind).  While most staff at resorts usually speak English, you can definitely earn a few brownie points by speaking the native language - even if it's a word or two.
BONUS WAY (5+1): Meet people.  Resorts (especially those in warm locales) tend to attract an international guest list.  Brits, Germans, Italians, Aussies and even local Mexicans were all staying at my resort.  I think meeting new people is one of the best things about traveling and resorts often become little melting pots of people from all over the world.  So make a new friend and learn a bit about where he/she is from.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Oh The Places I've Been

It's cold and gray today.  And despite having just come back from Mexico I can't help but day dream about my next trip.  That got me thinking about all of the traveling I've done in the past 5 years.  I've been to so many beautiful places, met new friends and learned more than I ever expected.  So I decided to put together this photo collage of all the amazing places I've been.  

Croatia, Brazil, Germany, Japan, Peru, China, Belize, France.... when I need an escape I think about these places.  And I remember how happy, calm, inspired, humbled, excited and energized I was.  I like to think that at these moments I'm at my best.  And I get excited about the trips to come.  The ones I haven't planned.  The dream trips I hope to take.  The experiences and people that will change me in big and small ways.  

Where to next?

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Tell me: What's your most questionable experience with TSA?

I've done a lot of traveling the past few years and I've had quite a few interesting experiences in airports, cars, trains - basically anything that takes you to and fro.  But yesterday took the cake.  

My friend and I took a much needed long weekend in Mexico.  On our way back home I went through the normal rigamarole of airport security following the 3-1-1 procedures, taking out my iPad.  Passport checked, pockets empty, jewelry off.  All clear.  

As they called my flight to board they asked passengers to form 2 separate lines for men and women.  This was the first sign something was off.  The TSA (or whatever they are called in Mexico) then proceeded to check every bag and pat down every person.  I watched what was going on and while the process was annoying, time consuming and duplicative of what I thought happened at security an hour earlier, we all went along with no objections.  But then came my pat down.  Standing with my arms out like a T, the officer did a quick pat down on  my legs, arms, then WHOA.... my chest!  Straight down the middle.  OK, so not only did I not see her do that do any of the other female passengers that boarded before me, she gave me absolutely no warning.  I was shocked and frantically looked for my friend who I could only assume was being equally violated.  And yes, it happened to her too.

Now without getting too personal, I'm not so well endowed that I could hide narcotics, prescriptions drugs or even a tic tac in my bra without someone noticing.  So why cop a feel?  Wouldn't a couple of dogs sniffing my luggage work just as well?

So commiserate with me.   What's your most questionable experience with TSA?

(For the record, I'll add letting me through security with an expired license but confiscating my hummus because it is a 'liquid' to the list too.)


Sunday, January 16, 2011

How much is too much to spend on travel?

I spent this morning reviewing my finances on my favorite (and free!) financial tool Mint.  Unfortunately I was made painfully aware of something I had always known but never quantified -- I spend a lot of money on traveling. 

Last year I spent 12% of my income on travel.  As a comparison, I spent 30% on my mortgage and 5% on food and utilities each.  I also sock away the financially advised 10% of my income in my 401K and savings.  So is 12% of income on my 'hobby' too much?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Slow Travel: The next trend?

A few years ago I spent a week in Paris with 2 girlfriends in very tiny studio apartment on a quaint street near The Louvre.  We shopped for breakfast foods at a local grocery store.  We made daily visits for fresh croissants and macaroons to the lovely bakery outside of doorstep.  We greeted the neighbors each day with a polite bonjour and bonsoir.  In a nutshell, we got to experience Paris like a Parisian (or close to it).   

Honestly, we were trying to save some cash.  And since we didn't plan on spending much time in a hotel room, we decided to take a more economical route and opted for a rental.  Apparently this type of travel now has a name.

I've heard of slow food, but slow travel?  I came across the movement in a tweet and did a little research.  

Slow travel is about connecting with a place, its people, its culture and (this makes me so happy!) its food.  No tour buses, no check list of must-see tourist spots, no hopping from place to place.  Most often, slow travelers stay in weekly rentals, shop at local markets and grocery stores and prepare meals at home.  They may chat up and make personal connections with the locals.  And they sometimes limit themselves to exploring an area within a given radius in which they are staying, moving outward with each day.  It's about immersing yourself in a place and getting to live in it,  rather than stay in it.  

I personally enjoy this type of travel and have repeated the experience on several other trips since.  But, it's not for everyone.  Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Of course there are high-end rentals, but for the most part rentals are no frills.  If you like 800 thread count sheets and a 24-hour concierge, renting is not for you.  And in my experience, you kind of need to be OK with local decor and scratchy towels.  When in doubt, ask for specifics on the accommodations.
  • Read the listing thoroughly so you know the amenities each rental has.  Kitchenette, TV, A/C?  Is the bed a mattress or a futon and what size?  Towels, iron and hair dryer included?  While the Paris rental was fine, I probably would have made a different choice if I had known the bathroom was the size of a thimble and my 5' 11" friend would have to hunch over to wash her hair in the shower every day.  (Amusing, but not so fun for her.)
  • Understand payment terms before you arrive at your destination.  I didn't read the fine print on the Paris rental and was incredibly embarrassed when the agent expected the remaining $800 rental fee in cash upon arrival.  (I then couldn't pay him for 2 days because of ATM issues and maximum withdrawal amounts.)
  • Shopping local markets is a great way to immerse yourself in a culture.   Plus you'll probably eat better and save money.  When shopping at grocery stores outside of the U.S. don't expect the big, fancy American kind or American brands.  And yes, eggs don't have to be refrigerated so don't freak out when you see them next to the cash register.  
  • Locals are your best resource for recommendations on food, music and sights.  You won't have a concierge so you might as well make friends and ask someone in your neighborhood about their favorite places.  And if there is a language barrier, cab drivers usually have a decent enough understanding of English.  I have gotten some great recommendations from many local cabbies.
Looking for a rental?  The best place to start is by Googling 'vacation rental + city'.  You can also narrow your search to apartments at Hostel World.

For more information on slow travel visit Slow Travel and Slow Movement.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Wanted: Marketing exec with a persistent case of the Mondays to write about travel

I’ve been told more than once that you should do what you love.  I’m a marketer, not a writer.  I enjoy my job and like the people I work with.  But I’d be lying if I said marketing lawn and garden products is what I love to do (and that I’m not a little bored doing it).  Traveling is what I love.  Traveling is what gives me energy.  It’s through travel that I learn and grow.  
Now don’t get me wrong.  This boring marketing job has given me the money to actually do what I love.  I get that.  But how can I bring my passion in to my work?
The answer for me is this blog.  
I’m not ready just yet to leave my well-paid, 9-5 job to start a career as a travel writer.  So I’m starting slow.  And maybe - just maybe - my career can serve a greater purpose and take on greater meaning if I channel my energy for travel in to this blog instead of what I do Monday through Friday.  My boring job will enable me to see all of the beautiful places I want to see and I’ll get to share them with whomever stumbles across this silly page.

And what’s this blog all about?  I took some time to think about how I like to travel and what others might gain from it and the buzzword that came to mind was ‘experiential travel’.  AFAR Magazine defines experiential travel as
Experiences that connect you with the essence of a place and its people…simply seeing the sights is no longer enough. Experiential travelers want to venture beyond the beaten tourist paths and dive deeper into authentic, local culture, connecting with people from other cultures in ways that enrich their lives and create lasting memories.”
This is what I want to blog about.  I hope to do it often.  And I hope you will come back to read my thoughts now and again and maybe share them with others.