Becoming a Master Packer

2 Weeks in Europe Packing List by Natalie Parker

It took four years for me to be a master packer.  Four years and a couple of embarrassing trips hurling suitcases everywhere leading to near divorce.

Packing light is tough for me because I like being prepared and I get uncomfortable really quickly if the weather changes.  I get too hot.  I get too cold.  I get crabby if my feet start hurting.  I don’t like sticking out.  I like to look nice.  I get bored if I’m wearing all neutrals. I don’t like wearing shorts.  You get the picture.  Effortless and my wardrobe generally aren’t said in the same sentence.

But behold, here is what I’m packing for just over two weeks in Europe.  Temps range from 65 – 86 F during the day.  It could rain, it could not.

It’s still REALLY hard.  But the point is, if the over-thinker/control-freak behind this message can do it, so can you!  I’m also taking comfort in the fact that I will go shopping while I’m there.

Check in on Instagram as we make our way through our next trip and see if I chose correctly or chose poorly.

What are your best tips for packing?

Why I Don’t Love Art Museums

Art Museum by Natalie Parker

Yes, I said it.

Send the travel police to come arrest me, but I don’t love art museums.

I get along okay with art museums and I like visiting them, but we’re never going to have a serious relationship.  And you know what?  That’s okay.

Here’s the Truth: There Are No Rules for Travel

It’s just not my thing.  I’m okay spending a couple of hours at The Famous Museum.  But too much longer and I get bored and sleepy like a five year old.

If there’s a piece I know and really want to see, I will really enjoy it and have one of those out-of-body experiences.  I remember seeing Starry Night for the first time.  I remember sitting for at least twenty minutes with Washington Crossing the Delaware.  I checked out David for at least thirty minutes.  It’s not that way with every painting or every gallery.

Some say in Florence that you must spend at least half a day in the Uffizi Gallery.  Mr. P and I spent a couple of hours.  I enjoyed sitting with the Birth of Venus and watching other people elbow each other around the painting to get a picture.

Just because the art museum is The Famous Thing To Do in a city doesn’t mean that it’s best for you.  Even if Rick Steves gives it three diamonds.  I actually love the Orangerie in Paris much more than the Louvre.

Oh, the crowds.  I bet you thought that would be at the top of the list.  Yes, the crowds are annoying sometimes.  I am part of the crowd as a visitor, of course.  But yes, the constant shove of people trying to get a picture of The Famous Painting gets a little old.  Sometimes I enjoy people watching though.

Venus De Milo Florence by Natalie Parker

Yes, that was what seeing the Venus de Milo in Florence was like when we visited.

Do I wish I knew more about art history so I could appreciate it more?  Sometimes.  But I wish I knew everything about every city I travel to.  I don’t know everything.  And even so, I still think I’d get cranky and sleepy.  I can’t help it.

The bottom line is that like anything else in travel, there are no rules.  Do what you want to do and don’t stick to what the guides or your friends say you must do.

Do you love art museums?  We can still be friends.

Italy: How to Handle Rome’s Crazy Train Station

Surviving Roma Termini Train Station

Roma Termini is a huge train station.  If you are planning on training around Italy at all, odds are you will be there at some point.

What We Thought of Our Experience

We were super on guard and prepared for this and it ended up being a fine experience.  If you can navigate trains or public transport in other countries, you should be fine here, but pay attention to the below tips before you go!

Roma Termini Station

Things to Know About Navigating Roma Termini

1. Get there early.  Do yourself a favor and give yourself time to sort everything out.  Even with these tips, the place is chaotic and being in a rush is no bueno.

2. It’s served well by public transport.  We took a direct bus from our AirBNB in Trastevere.

3. Ignore those who ask if you need help.  They don’t work for the station and will try to pickpocket or fleece you.  Those that actually work there will be behind a desk or counter and will not actually seek you out.

4. Buy your tickets at machines or you can wait in line for a human.  Yes, you can buy your tickets online ahead of time via RailEurope or similar sites.  Remember to have cash if you don’t have a European credit card.  Read more about using credit cards abroad here.

5. Waiting in line for a human wasn’t that bad.  Your results may vary, but the line seemed to move quickly.  We waited about 15 minutes after being confused by the machine.

6. Platforms are easy to find.  Everything was pretty well marked.

7. There are plenty of food options.  Nothing ah-mazing foodwise, but there are options and better than we’ve seen in other cities (Gare du Nord in Paris, I’m looking at you!).  If you get there early and need a bite before getting on the train, you will be fine.

8. Stamp your ticket at the machine before getting on the train.  This is not a subway/metro and there are no fare gates that prevent you from getting on the train.  However, you need to punch/validate/stamp your ticket at one of the green machines before boarding (they look like this).

9. Watch your stuff, beware of pickpockets.  Train stations generally are easy pickings for thieves.  Do not leave bags unattended.  Do not set your purse on the ground next to you.

Photo courtesy Prasad Pillai via Creative Commons license.

Italy: Taking a Food Tour in Rome

Best Rome Food Tour

Mr. P and I are all about food, especially when traveling.  A coworker recommended Eating Italy Tours to us, so I booked a Trastevere walking tour.  To be honest, I did zero research and just booked it.  I trust the foodies at my office.

Our Thoughts on the Food Tour

Come on an empty stomach.  We ate so. much. food.  Some places we had little bites.  At others, it was much more.  We sat down as a group and shared three platters of pasta and wine at one stop and sat at another restaurant for dessert at the end!

Best Rome Food Tour

We learned a lot about local food and how it’s made.  So many of the places we stopped at had been in business for decades or even generations.  The pride in their work was evident and the food was amazing.  At the porchetta shop, the owner’s 90+ year old mother still sits at the register.

Best Rome Food Tour

We learned how to tell real gelato from fake.  I consider this a necessary public service announcement so I wrote about it in its own separate post.

Best Rome Food Tour

Easy-going, good-sized group.  As you know, I don’t like tours generally.  I make exceptions for food tours and this one was great.  I didn’t feel like I was getting herded along.  It was nice, down to Earth, and with a good-sized group.

We went back to several places we visited.  Later on that same day, Mr. P had to go back and get a porchetta sandwich.  It was a real porchetta emergency.  We also had snacks and dinner at one of the other restaurants and had the best cacio e pepe of our time in Rome!

Best Rome Food Tour

You get a list of the stops at the end.  Don’t worry about writing everything down!

They helped us with restaurant reservations.  We passed by a restaurant that we’d been trying to get into for dinner.  Even though it wasn’t on the tour, the guide stepped in for us and got us dinner reservations!

In sum, I’m still dreaming about what we ate.  It was that good.

Best Rome Food Tour

Should You Go?

At 75€ per person, it’s a bit pricey but you get a huge amount of food and an English-speaking guide.  I wholeheartedly recommend it if you even remotely like food.  You don’t have to be a big foodie to enjoy it, it’s paced well, and you get to stop in places you never would have thought to check out.  It was time very well spent for us!  They cater to some food allergies/issues, so check it out!

Eating Italy Tours

Note, I am not listing our stops on the tour here as it would not be nice to the company.  I received zero compensation from the tour company for my thoughts here — they don’t even know I’m writing this review.  To the extent we visited any of the stops on our own, I will talk about those experiences in another post.

We traveled to Italy in May 2015.  Click here for all of my tips and things we wish we’d known before our trip!

Italy: 8 Key Tips for Visiting the Colosseum

Rome Colosseum by Natalie Parker

Click here for all of my Italy tips!

What We Thought of the Colosseum

I’ll be honest: I’m glad we went, it was cool, but I wasn’t in awe.  It didn’t rise to the awe-inspiring moment of the Eiffel Tower.  Your results may vary, of course!

We weren’t in the best mindset when we got there because a bunch of the roads were shut down, we had to walk a long way, and it was really hot.  Still, I think I enjoyed sitting outside and looking at it more than picking my way through the inside.

8 Tips for Visiting the Colosseum

1. Get an advance ticket. Buy advance tickets here and you can get in a special line.

2. Sometimes the advance ticket line is huge, but don’t despair. When we got there, the line for people who already had tickets was twice as long as those without.  We were pretty pissed (see above about it being hot).  Don’t despair. Our line moved quickly and we were inside within 20 minutes.

3. A Roma Pass gets you a dedicated entrance but . . . it seemed weird. Yes, their line was way shorter. But once they got inside, their line ground to a halt and we passed some of them. Did they need to use their pass to print a ticket once they got inside? Sometimes that’s the case with monuments.

4. There are restricted areas if you’re not on a tour. I’m not a tour person and I felt a tad ripped off that I couldn’t access the third level or the main platform, It seemed like a racket. Still, I don’t think the tour would have been worth it for us — we saw plenty. If seeing every last nook and cranny is important to you, book a tour. You’ll also get to skip the line.

Rome Colosseum by Natalie Parker

5. Bring a picnic, especially if it’s hot. The food options close by aren’t great. I wish we would have taken some snacks to eat inside the Colosseum or nearby in the Forum.

6. If you’re visiting the Forum after, ask for directions. We didn’t and walked the long way around in the hot sun. There was a closer entrance!

7. Bring a map of the Forum. We had a really hard time finding exits.  There was a moment when I thought “we’re trapped in here!”  Sure, we could have used this as an opportunity to explore the Forum more, wanderlust and all that jazz.  But it was hot and we were tired.

8. It’s worth the climb up Palatine Hill. There are great views of the Forum and Colosseum. We wish we’d brought a picnic here!

What would you add to this list?  Was your experience different?  Please share!

We traveled to Italy in May 2015.  Click here for all of my tips and things we wish we’d known before our trip!

5 Tips about Packing for Travel from the Book Wild

Wild Book by Cheryl Strayed

Have you read Wild? Maybe saw the movie with Reese Witherspoon? Don’t worry, no spoilers here.

I read the book and it struck a chord about packing for travel. No, gallivanting off to Europe is not the same thing as packing for Cheryl’s hike. But there is a lot to learn from her story.

In the book, she tries to pack everything she thinks she might possibly need. She literally cannot load her pack onto her back, it’s that heavy.

1. Every little thing contributes weight. Sure, an extra razor here, or shirt there by itself doesn’t weigh that much. It all adds up!

2. Get rid of things as you go along. On our last big trip, I had printed airline and hotel confirmations for everywhere. Like Cheryl does in the book, I got rid of each page once I no longer needed it. Every little bit counts.

3. Pack exactly what you need for toiletries. If I need 15 makeup wipes, I pack 15, not the whole pack of 25. Do 5 makeup wipes really make a difference? See #1 above.

4. You can buy it if you need it.  I won’t ruin the story, but Cheryl ends up needing something super key for her journey which she is able to get eventually.  While hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.  In the 1990’s.  Without a cell phone.  If she can do that, I should not have a problem buying something on the road if I really need it.

5. Do your best and everything will be fine.  Can you be the perfect packer?  No.  What if it’s your first trip and you don’t know what you need?  Shouldn’t an expert be helping you?  If her story tells you anything, it will be okay.  Get your stuff together as best you can and go!

Don’t Give into Fear and Other Great Travel Links

Airport Departure Board

It’s time for another round up of great travel bits I’ve saved!

Best Flight Map Ever for AvGeeks.  Ever.  You can select an airport and see all the flights all over the world it flies to in a cool graphic way.  Try it!

Don’t give into fear (or how to travel to a place you know nothing about).  This post x1000.  Fear mongering about travel is something that infuriates me like no other.  On that note  . . .

Thoughts on Colombia.  I loved this summary of Ford and Lucky’s trip to Colombia, especially the commentary from their friends before they left.  Given the changes in the miles and points landscape, expect to see many more people exploring South America.

Why butter is better in France.  You know that you’ve always wondered.  I’ll dream tonight about le beurre.

Does Visa shortchange you on exchange rates?  This is the first I’ve read about this and I’ll need to pay attention on our next trip.  Anyone else do the math?

No more fee to travel to Argentina!  Argentina rolled back the $140 reciprocity fee for US travelers.

Alaska is buying Virgin America.  Color me bummed about this.  I really like both airlines, but I’ll be sad to see the coolness of the Virgin brand go if this goes through, not to mention losing an airline that’s headquartered in the Bay Area.

Photo courtesy Yazan Badran via Creative Commons license.

London: The Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race

Oxford Cambridge Boat Race, Putney, London

One of the more random things I got to do during my month-long work stint in London last year was watch the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race.  Or simply, The Boat Race.

It’s an annual race on the Thames between eights from Oxford and Cambridge and people take it seriously.  The rivalry between both schools is akin to an Alabama/Auburn or a Michigan/Ohio State, if you will.  Since I love spectacles and sporting events, I was there!

Oxford Cambridge Boat Race, Putney, London

I actually got wind of it from my coworker, a Cambridge alumnus himself, when he was asking me about the finer points of college football rivalries.  He said the only thing Britain has like that on the non-pro level is the Boat Race and it was happening that. very. weekend.

Oxford Cambridge Boat Race, Putney, London

I took the bus to Putney Bridge and met a coworker and friends to check it out.  People crowd into pubs, houses, yards, and all along the bank of the Thames.  Much beer, bubbly, and Pimms is had by all.

Oxford Cambridge Boat Race, Putney, London

As seriously as the rivalry is, the socializing is as well.  Walking around, one can’t help but think, “can this be any more British?”

Oxford Cambridge Boat Race, Putney, London

Seriously, a bicycle cart with champagne.  I can get behind this.

Oxford Cambridge Boat Race, Putney, London

I was in luck last year and got to see a major milestone.  Although the men’s race has been run over a hundred years, the women’s rowing teams have been competing for around ninety.  Last year, 2015, was the first year that the women’s race took place on the same day and at the same place as the men’s.  I got to watch the ladies put their boats in and cheer with the rest of the crowd.  You go girls!

Oxford Cambridge Boat Race, Putney, London

If you go this weekend

The 2016 race is this Sunday, March 27.  Women start at 3:10pm and men at 4:10pm.  Get there at least an hour early to get a drink and take in the scene.

Head to Putney Bridge.  The race starts at Putney Bridge and ends in Mortlake.  Putney is easily accessible by bus or tube.  Use the Putney Bridge tube stop and cross over the Thames, or East Putney and walk down Putney High Street to the river.

Blink and it’ll be over.  Here’s the thing, it’s a boat race.  Everyone will cheer when they get ready to go and the boats will be by in a matter of seconds.  On the one hand, it’s not hugely exciting all told.  On the other hand, it doesn’t take up your entire day — I visited the Tate Britain earlier in the day.

Who should you support?  If you’re a person who expects to win, like a Yankees fan, go with Oxford.  If you’re someone who supports teams that tend to let you down and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (like myself), go with Cambridge.

Oxford Cambridge Boat Race, Putney, London

I inadvertently supported Cambridge by sporting my new scarf that happened to be the Cambridge color.  It all worked out in the end!

My First Emirates Experience (and Losing Our Luggage)

Emirates Bags Luggage by Natalie Parker

Mr. P and I flew from Cape Town, South Africa to the Maldives on Emirates.  Instead of just telling the story about how they didn’t deliver our bags, here are several thoughts about our first Emirates experience.

What I thought we’d get: I’ve said it before — travel is all about what your expectations are going in.  I’m not going to book a bus ride across rural China and complain that my seat was stuck in recline the whole time (true story) because my expectations were on point.  In my mind, I thought flying Emirates and transiting the Dubai airport would be a 21st century experience.

Our Routing: We had a 10-hour flight from Cape Town and a 1.5-hour layover in Dubai.  After that, we had a 4-hour flight to Malé, the capital of the Maldives.  Both of our flights were Economy.

Service & Entertainment Great:  I’ve never seen such choice in seatback entertainment.  It was fabulous.  The service was great and attentive.  Also, I’ve never seen real flatware in economy before: neat!

Being Squeezed into a Seat:  Most of the raves I read about Emirates are from miles and points junkies who fly business or first.  If you are flying economy, it’s a totally different story.  Emirates squeezes an extra seat into each row compared to other carriers (though sadly, other carriers may start imitating).  I couldn’t figure out why I was so uncomfortable until Mr. P pointed out that there were 10 seats to a row.

20-Minute Bus Ride to Terminal:  I couldn’t wait to see the terminal, I figured it’d be over the top.  Emirates is one of the world’s leading airlines and this was their home base.  Yeah, no.  Ever wonder what it’s like to unload a 777 onto buses?  File that under things-I-never-wanted-to-experience.  I’m just guessing here: do they have so much traffic at the airport that they don’t have enough gates?  A 777 is a big plane!  Plus, it was parked goodness-knows-where and it took 20 minutes on the bus to get to the terminal.  We had to run for our gate and didn’t get to check out the terminal at all.  We were pretty pissed.

And Then Our Bags Didn’t Make it:  I expected Emirates at its home airport to have a smooth operation.  A 1.5-hour layover should be plenty of time for me to get to my gate and for my bags to make it on the plane.  When we landed in Malé, our bags didn’t make it (despite the “Rush” tags pictured above).  Even worse, they didn’t even put our bags on the next flight to Malé.  They were put on a flight way later in the day and it was too late for them to be delivered to our hotel, so we couldn’t get our stuff until the next morning.

I’ll clarify: our bags weren’t “lost,” as I’m sure Emirates knew where they were the whole time.  But, it’s hard to fit “possible operational difficulties made it impossible to get our bags” in a headline.

If a flight is delayed and bags don’t make it, I get it.  But the entire experience connecting in Dubai left a bad taste in my mouth.  I’ll think twice before flying them again.  I can’t stress enough how important expectations are.  If someone had told me, “hey, connecting in Dubai is a shitshow because they have too much traffic,” I probably would have a different outlook.  I’m surprised at how well Emirates markets their image!


When Your Bags Get Lost: Things You Wish You’d Done

Lost Luggage

Oh that moment when you’re luggage doesn’t arrive on the conveyor.  The following may go through your head, I wish I had . . . .

1. Taken a picture of the bag so it can be described easily to airport staff.  This includes knowing the brand name.  I actually don’t remember the brand name of one of our black rolling suitcases.

2. Clearly tagged your bag with your name and not with a flimsy airline tag.  Click here to download an awesome luggage tag template.

3. Put a copy of your passport face page inside the bag, just in case your flimsy airline tag comes off.

4. Packed underwear and other essentials in a carry on.  Be sure to think of your destination when thinking of “essentials.”  If you are going to a very expensive resort that you scraped together the loyalty points for, maybe pack your swimsuit and flip flops in the carry on.  This includes prescription medications.

5. Packed valuables and electronics in a carry on.  This means phone and tablet chargers too.

6. (optional) Not checked your bag if you can avoid it.  Sometimes it can’t be avoided, hence this is optional.

7. Personally watch airport agents tag your bag and load it onto the conveyor before leaving the check-in counter.

In our case on this last trip, we arrived in Malé and didn’t even need to bother missing the conveyor.  We were called over to the desk and found out that Emirates didn’t feel like delivering our bags (at least that’s what I felt like when we got to the resort and I didn’t have my swimsuit).  We did many of the things above, but packing my suit wasn’t one of them.

What are your best tips for making it through a lost or delayed bag situation?  I’ll be sharing the full emirates story very soon.

Image courtesy Douglas Palmer via Creative Commons license.