Monday, June 20, 2011

Italian Odessy-Travel by Plane, Train, Car, Boat, and by Foot!

On a recent trip to Italy, the travel gods truly tested not only our patience, but our resourcefulness. Murphy's Law was working in full force. All travel plans usually have some snags that pop up, but this trip was one for the books. To be fair, we had a fairly complex travel schedule set up, so clearly there was lots of opportunity for things to go wrong, but still....

Over the next few posts I will recap our travels, the good and the bad, and share the things we learned along the way.

We decided to go through Zurich and take the train through the Swiss Alps to Milan, then another train to Venice. We planned for a 3 hour layover, what we didn't plan for was the 2 hour delay our flight would have on the way out, which now gave us one hour to connect and was starting to cut it close.

Upon arrival at the ZHR airport, we booked it off of the plane (thank god we carry on and didn't have to wait at baggage claim) and headed to the train terminal to see if we could still make it (after immigration/customs we only had 40 min). At train ticket office we were informed that we *should* make the train, but there was a strike in Italy, so the train may not go to Milan. What? Where the hell will it go if not to Milan? He said we could take our chances, or fly. Nope, not at $600 a ticket for the flights leaving that day, even on the budget airlines. So we ran to the train, made the connection and were on our way to Milan.

Or so we thought....A few hours later the train stopped in Chiasso and we were told to get off the train, as it could not enter Italy. Great. Luckily we had technology on our side, and looked up the nearest rental car location, which was in Como a few km across the border. Except we couldn't get a cab to take us across the border to Como. We were told we had to walk across the border, then get a cab to pick us up there. Walk across? He said is was a little over one km away. So there we were dragging our luggage across border control and we actually walked into Italy. Got our rental car and drove four more hours to our final destination of Venice.

The lesson here: Build enough time into your itinerary for the unexpected, or have a back up plan. Even though we were exhausted, the train ride was beautiful!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Pack Like a Pro

I am often baffled when I see people at the airport with an excessive amount of luggage. You know who you are...with two pieces of giant luggage, plus a carry on, and a tote/backpack. What do you have in there? How long are you staying? I have to admit some things are hard to pack, like puffy ski gear-but you can still get it all in one bag.

For the past several years, I have packed in only a carry on bag, plus camera backpack (my purse fits into one of those bags). I started doing this after my luggage was lost in Rome. The lady we rented our apartment from pointed us to some shops where locals shop for clothes, but those are some skinny-ass jeans they wear over there. My sister and I had a change of clothes in our tote bags, but the guys were SOL. Fortunately our apartment had a washer, unfortunately the directions were in Italian. We did our best to figure it out, but the washer stopped halfway through and that was that. We rinsed them out in the tub and hung them to dry. But in the morning they were still damp and the guys had to iron/blow dry their jeans.

The airline never called us with our luggage, we even had family back in the states try to locate it with no luck When we went back to the airport to pick up our rental car a week later, we checked with customs, and found our luggage-which had been to 5 more cities than we had. Knowing that we could survive without all the stuff in our bags, we vowed never again to check bags unless absolutely necessary.

I have packed the following into one carry on bag:
10 days in Costa Rica, including two snorkels and masks
13 days in Argentina, which included a stay in a tropical rain forest and in freezing Patagonia
18 days in Italy, which included a wedding, so I had a bridesmaid dress (my sister had her wedding dress!)

How do you do it? Pack light and smart. Some tips:
  • Go with a color scheme-either based in black, or neutrals. That way everything goes with everything else, and you have more outfit options with less clothes.
  • Layer, layer, layer. This way you can span a wider range of temperatures with less clothes. 
  • Keep shoes to a minimum. I bring 4 pairs (which is excessive, I know-but they fit in the carry-on)! A pair of heels to go out in, flats, flip flops to wear at the rental or beach, and either my trail runners or my bikers, which ever I think is more important to have.
  • Roll or bundle wrap your clothes to to make best use of space (and prevent wrinkles).
  • Stuff anything you can into shoes-socks, undies, chargers, anything that fits.
  • If you have something bulky, make use of those space saving bags that you squeeze the air out of. You can find them online or at Bed Bath & Beyond.
  • Keep liquids to a minimum. The TSA helps with that since they all have to fit in a zip lock bag now, but always keep in mind that liquids add weight, and almost everywhere in the world you can find shampoo.
  • Use a packing list. Either make your own, or download one like this one from
I usually pack 3 tanks, 5 tops, 2 long sleeve shirts/sweaters, 1 jacket (or a rain coat depending on the trip), 2 pairs of jeans (I wear a 3rd on the plane), cargo pants, shorts, a casual jersey knit black dress, enough socks and undergarments for 5-6 days, plus the 4 shoes I mentioned earlier. I may actually travel with more photography stuff (It certainly is heavier). I switch to a small purse that I can shove into one of the other bags.

It all fits, I have never wished I had more stuff, and am glad I am not lugging around all the extra stuff!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Know and Book Your Own Stuff (and Know When Not To)

By nature, I am a total DIY'er. I like to learn about everything and and do things myself. Part of why I like this process is that everything can be exactly the way I want it, and it can be done on my schedule. I also keep that same DIY mindset when planning travel.

I typically like to do things off the beaten path when I travel. Don't get me wrong, I am not totally opposed to seeing things considered "touristy" but I keep that list pretty short, and try to get in and out of those types of places pretty fast. But planning your own trip, at least one more involved than kickin it at the beach, requires a lot of research. But the payoff is great!

For instance, a few years ago we went to Costa Rica. We went to Arenal, did a ton of hiking and canyoning, and saw lots of animals. We hired a driver who took us to a small fishing village on the Pacific Coast where we rented a beautiful open air house with an infinity pool looking over the bay. There was a family of monkeys in the tree in the yard. Horses were brought to our front door, and we rode up to the top of the cliffs and on the beach. We took a puddle hopper that took off in a field of yaks. It was an incredible trip.
Another couple we know also went to Costa Rica. They stayed at a great hotel a few beaches away from where we were. There were various group tours that you could take through the hotel, but without a car, they didn't really get to explore. They had a nice trip, but when we raved about how much we loved CR, they didn't share the same sentiment. After comparing trip reports, they decided that our trip just seemed more fun and adventurous.

I should also mention that what is fun and adventurous to us, may just seem flat out crazy to others (or not crazy enough-depending on your taste). But regardless of your taste in travel, the sure fire way to get a trip exactly the way you want it, is to do it yourself. *Note: There are times that having someone do it for you is best, perhaps if you don't have the time to dedicate to do good research, or if you want to travel to a place that is considered dangerous.

A good place to start is Google maps and Wiki travel. Wiki travel will give you a good idea what is in a country, what the main interests are there, and major airports and airlines that will get you there. With Google maps, you will be able to see how far away your desired destinations are from each other. This should give you a good start on building your own trip.