Save Yourself: 4 Essential Travel Tips

You’re on vacation but your smart phone can’t save you now. You’ve arrived in Europe and you didn’t want to shell out the extra money for an international data plan for your phone. Why should you? Everywhere has WiFi! Except where you are right now . . . and you have no idea where to go or what to do . . .

We take our 24/7 access to the internet for granted. The moment we have a question, need directions, or have the nagging urge to watch cat videos, our laptops and smart phones provide without fail. But when you go overseas, international data plans can become expensive and coverage can run the gamut from robust to nonexistent in the span of a few miles.

You’re on an international vacation so you’re obviously looking to try something out of the ordinary. Here are 4 tips that will help you make the most of a new travel experience.

  1. Learn how to drive a stick shift: Yeah your smart phone wouldn’t have really helped you out either way on this one (except maybe to watch a YouTube video on driving stick – but it’s really not the same . . .).
    First gear can be tough but it’s smooth sailing from there!

    Ubiquitous automatic shift cars are mostly a North America thing. Pretty much everywhere else people drive stick shifts. Sure you can rent an automatic shift car while abroad, but it will cost you and the options are limited. Ask a friend to teach you and head to an empty parking lot. First gear is always the hardest. It’s a piece of cake from there!

  1. Be ok with approaching strangers: Trying to find the best place to eat by slogging through online reviews is a hassle. GPS’ing your location if you’re lost may not be an option without a signal. So talk to the locals! They know the best places to go and how to get there. Start with local business owners or hotel staff – they often speak multiple languages and service is their thing. Want an even better insight? Go to a local bar and chat up the regulars.
  1. Learn to estimate currency and measurement conversions: Most of the world deals in kilometers, liters, and Celsius rather than miles, gallons, and Fahrenheit.
    A quick bit of math in your head will save you the headache.

    And you don’t want a surprise on your credit card statement when you’ve just been handing over the plastic and not thinking about what you’re spending. Learn some basic conversions so you can do a little math on the fly. The calculator on your smart phone doesn’t need a signal to work, you just need to have an idea of the numbers to punch in. Not great on math? Whip yourself up a little cheat card to keep on you with currency and measurement conversions.

  2. Learn a language: And I don’t mean just learning “Do you speak English?” in a foreign tongue. Google Translate is clunky and of no use if you don’t have any service. Before you leave for vacation try out free apps like Duolingo to get you started on the basics. Though pricey, I can personally attest that Rosetta Stone courses are excellent for romance languages (such as French, Spanish, and Italian). Knowing some of the local language will catapult a scratch-the-surface-visit into a real immersive experience. The locals will appreciate it and it’s a huge confidence boost when navigating a new place.




How to Cash in Your Woefully Underused Vacation Time

Say this out loud: “I deserve a break!” Yes you do! I know you work your tail off day in and day out! Sooooooooo . . . why do we Americans leave 51% of our eligible paid vacation time sitting on the table?

Despite being stressed out of our minds, we are working more hours and taking fewer vacation days. The reasons for this vary with some people saying they don’t want to deal with the mountain of work that awaits them upon returning from vacation. Others simply don’t think that anyone else can do their job while they are away. Unsurprisingly, some are intimidated by a cutthroat office culture where everyone is eerily silent about the fact that no one seems to take any vacation.

You can spend your weekend here, or you can spend it drinking mai tai’s on the beach. The choice is yours to make.

Therefore, the first question really is HOW to cash-in your paid time off. The answer: Be a long-weekend-warrior.

We fine Americans have the blessing of geography on our side. A few hours plane ride to the south is lovely Mexico and a gorgeous string of Caribbean islands that offer sun, surf, and sand with all-inclusive resorts at very reasonable prices. You can take a Friday and a Monday off to maximize the weekend days, and trot off to Punta Cana, Montego Bay, or the Mexican Riviera Maya for a long weekend of sipping frosty beverages while soaking in the sun. Even if you have to take some work with you (ugh), the resorts have Wi-Fi and doing a little work by the pool beats your cramped cubicle or office any day. You can even use your time waiting on the concourse to get these ‘lil tasks out of the way.

If you’re feeling adventurous, Iceland is only a 5-6 hour flight from the East Coast and you can pack a lot into this tiny island-nation over a long weekend. Any time of year is fine since Icelandic winters are very mild, the shorter days make for prime-time Northern Lights viewing, and the geothermal hot springs are toasty all year ‘round.

Iceland's Blue Lagoon hot spring will melt away the work stress over a long weekend.
Iceland’s Blue Lagoon hot spring will melt away the work stress over a long weekend.

The second question, which seems generally obvious, is WHY you should cash in your paid time off.

Did you know that people who travel to places with different cultures or run in the same circles as other travelers are more likely to come up with creative ideas? It’s true! A smarty-pants study from Adam Galinksy, a management professor at Columbia Business School says so! So, go on vacation, get the creative juices flowing, and wow your boss with oodles of new ideas when you get back! Not to mention that breaking away from your day-to-day routine resets your mind and body to give you better perspective and renewed vigor. Plus, you’ll be the envy of the water-cooler convos as you’ll be the only one in the office who’s tanned, rested, and ready to go.

So, whip out that calendar, block off some long weekends, and use up your vacation time, people!

Say it one more time with me: “I deserve a break!” Yes. Yes, you do.


I Embraced the Cliché in Italy and Regretted it Like WHOA!

5 minutes.  5 whole minutes.

In that time I took one teensy little spin around a parking lot on the outskirts of Florence, Italy. This supposedly “qualified” me to operate a Vespa for the remainder of the day.  I rarely drive a car stateside let alone having ever operated a bulky “scooter” that doesn’t seem to want to turn except in wide arcs that take you into on-coming traffic.

All my images of looking cool while riding a Vespa, holding a cappuccino, and exclaiming “ciao” (Eddie Izzard fans can appreciate this) were pathetically shattered in the ensuing 5 minutes following my qualifying ride.  A hairpin turn (please recall my comment above about scooters and turning), a poorly kept Tuscan road, a vain attempt to avoid heading straight into an ancient Italian rock wall, and an unfortunate gust of gravity were enough to have me kissing the pavement.

My body was relatively unscathed, but my pride was hemorrhaging.  For a time I told the story as, “so I was expertly riding my Vespa and looking effortlessly Italian cool (ciao!) when TUSCAN NINJA TERRORISTS(!!!) jumped out from behind an ancient Italian rock wall and I was forced to single handedly battle them!”

It was, of course, a woefully transparent fabrication of my finesse-less Vespa operating skills, but who doesn’t use a little bit of self-deprecating humor to try to move past an exceedingly embarrassing point in a story?  For the remainder of the day, the gorgeous Tuscan country-side passed me by mostly unnoticed as I only had eyes for the road and an overwhelming desire to survive live.

Tuscany is GREAT when you're not riding a Vespa!
Tuscany is GREAT when you’re not riding a Vespa!

By the way, do you know what is HUGE when you’re driving a Vespa and fear for your life?  A SMART CAR!!!  A litany of curse words spewed forth from under my helmet when one of those bad boys passed me.

Tuscany is stunningly gorgeous (what little I remember seeing) and I recommend everyone visit if they have a chance.  JUST NOT ON A VESPA!  As I always like to say when something harrowing like this happens to me, as long as no one ended up in the hospital or jail, if a good story comes out of it, then all is well.  Of course, when I laid down to sleep that night, having thankfully survived the tour, all I could see when I closed my eyes were Tuscan roads and humongous smart-cars.  I needed two cappuccinos the next morning.


How I Reconciled Catholic Guilt with a Shameless “Altruistic” Marketing Ploy

Look at that kid.  I’m mean LOOK at her!  Not a care in the world!  Just hanging out and being groovy with the random dude (i.e. me) holding her.  She’ll soon grow up to truly understand that she is surrounded by abject poverty in an abandoned rest stop with no electricity on a sparse Jamaican highway.

About 3 months before, I signed up for a “Familiarization Trip” (a cheap way for us travel agent folks to see a bunch of places at once to better advise our superb clients) to Jamaica and indicated my desire to visit Tiny Hope Orphanage, among the other stops to decadent all-inclusive resorts in the Ocho Rios area of Jamaica.  The marketing capitalist in me thought, “let’s tug at the heart strings a bit and be sure to get lots of pictures of smiling children so potential customers will think I’m a real stand-up guy and want to buy travel from me!”  Then the guilt instilled in me from my Catholic upbringing gurgled in my stomach, so I went to Target and bought a ton of stuff to bring with me for a donation.

Yes I was shamefully cavalier about the whole thing.

Back to the little girl.  Ok so yes, I did snap a selfie, yes I marketed it, but I also took from the experience something significantly more meaningful and rewarding.

The Children of Tiny Hope Orphanage
The Children of Tiny Hope Orphanage

There was an intensity in the contrast between my charmed life (if you get 3 squares a day, have a roof over your head with electricity and clean running water, you’re charmed by comparison to this little one) and how these children lived.  But it wasn’t their surroundings that struck me; it was the smiles, the laughing, the playing, and the appreciation of our simple visit and our donated items that struck me.

Perspective is everything.  Giving money to a cause is fantastic, but it’s a bit detached.  To truly appreciate what we have and the simple differences we can make, we need to step out of our charmed life, if for only an hour, get on the ground and help our fellow humans.

There are some fantastic travel opportunities that allow you to see the world AND help out the locals.  Like donations, simply viewing a nifty old building, snapping some pics, and moving on to the next site are a bit detached.  But being on the ground and helping needy locals to improve their educational, environmental, and economic conditions will give you perspective, a deeper understanding of the local culture, and unending warm fuzzies.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to sign up to serve food to homeless folks at my church.

Happy travels!

P.S. If you want to learn more about the orphanage I visited and donate to the building fund for Tiny Hope Orphanage, which will provide shelter, necessities, food, and education to Jamaican children in need, please visit their website.  Thank you!

(Originally published 10/19/15 here)