Category Archives: Travel Planning

Suggestions for better travel planning, recommendations for travel tools and the results of my travel planning, both good and bad.

Welcome to the Fairmont Heliopolis

Crystal Chandeliers in the Fairmont Lobby

TRAVEL THERE: MY LUXURY VACATION BEGINS

If you read this blog with any regularity then you’re well aware that I don’t spend a lot of time in swanky hotels.  I’m more the quaint bed & breakfast type, when I can find it, or I’m bragging about the huge discount I found on Expedia.  However, on this trip we were in top hotels all the way.  In Cairo, we checked into the Fairmont Heliopolis.

Leaving the Airport

One of the things I remembered from my previous trip to Egypt was the wide open spaces between the airport and Heliopolis.  Once we had dealt with the absence of our luggage on that trip, I’d sat the backseat of a car wondering just how far we were going to drive before we got to anything.

It’s not that way anymore.  It’s like the stretch of LBJ between I-35 and DFW Airport.  While it used to be out in the middle of nowhere, it’s now chock-a-block with restaurants, hotels and other buildings.  Outside the Cairo Airport was the same thing.  What’s more, I barely blinked before we were entering the main thoroughfare of Heliopolis and almost immediately we arrived at the Fairmont. So the first thing you might want to know about the Fairmont is that it’s close to the airport.

Between two lobbies

The Security Routine

Here’s the drill for most hotel properties in Egypt.  (The Cecil in Alexandria and the Dahab Paradise were exceptions to the rule, but pretty much anyplace else put you through this.)  The properties are all fenced and gated.  You pull up to a guard house with a barrier across the driveway.  Your car is thoroughly checked.

First they get the ID of the driver and question him.  Then he has to fill in a log.  Then they do a physical check of the exterior of the car which includes looking under it with a mirror.  Some places also had sniffer dogs.  The driver opens the trunk and the dogs and/or metal detectors are used to check out the contents.  There are usually a group of guards and after they’ve conferred with one another, the barrier is lifted and you drive through.  Someone is usually standing nearby with a machine gun.  Some kind of welcome, huh?

Ayman, our niece’s husband, assumed we were in the newer part of the hotel and drove through the older portico to deliver us to the Towers.  Only we weren’t in the Towers.  The bags were pulled out by the bell staff and Ayman drove away, but once inside we were directed across the way to the original part of the lobby.  It was late and I was ready for bed.

Now the reason we were staying at the Fairmont is that we were part of the wedding party and that’s where they were staying.  We like to keep our accommodations in two digits if we can, but we were splurging.  I have to confess that I was glad we stayed in the older part of the hotel.  The new part had that edgy clean look, but I’m a sucker for crystal chandeliers and other gaudy looking hotel lobby decor, like the replica of a pharaonic boat in the Fairmont lobby.

The check-in hasn’t even begun, but I’ve already run out of words, so come back next week to see how we liked our room.

 

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Grateful for the Yawn Factor

Picture from aa.com

TRAVEL THERE: BLISSFULLY BORING FLIGHTS

I’m of the opinion that travel is more interesting if there are problems.  “Everything was perfect,” might make for a great vacation, but you could bore your friends to death with that kind of travelogue.  Lost luggage, crazy GPS instructions and rude hotel clerks make better copy.  Hopefully, I won’t put you to sleep today, but our travel to Egypt was without incident.  That all changed once we got to Cairo, but that’s for later.

I Flew on American and I Liked It

This may not be a newsworthy item for you, but it was for me.  I’ve sort of hated American for a long time.  For years, every travel horror story I lived through began with, “I was on an American flight…”  I carried that anti-American chip on my shoulder for a long time, but in recent years I noticed that other airlines were doing their part to be as awful as I thought American was.

Most recently that was Lufthansa.  I’d always counted them on my favorites list, but then I flew them to Frankfurt.  The plane rattled so much I thought it was made out of Tinker-Toys.  Bill claims the flight wasn’t that bad, but if I hadn’t been sitting next to him, I would think he must have been on another plane.  Bottom line, I could no longer say my worst flights were American.

My other problem with American had to do with Love Field and the Wright Amendment.  As a Dallasite, I love Southwest Airlines and Love Field.  The Wright Amendment tied the hands and feet of both, in favor of DFW, and I didn’t like it.  I also loved Legend Air, which was a Love Field underdog that I maintain was run out of business by American.  I’m always for the underdog.  I go out of my way to avoid Walmart.  I won’t buy anything on Amazon.  I hate most chain restaurants, too.

This American flight snuck up on me.  (Yes, I know snuck isn’t really a word, but I like it better than sneaked.)  I wasn’t the one to make the reservations and I thought we were flying British Airways.  It wasn’t until a few days before the flight, when I was researching baggage allowances, that I realized my British Airways flight was going to be on American.  By then it was too late to do anything about it and I knew Bill was tired of hearing American Airlines Hysteria.  I just lived with the revelation.

A Brand Spanking New 777

So we got to the airport, parked our car, rode the shuttle to the terminal and checked our luggage curbside.  It was easy.  It was a late-night flight, so the airport was pretty boring.  We had a nice chat with a lady in the L’Occitane En Provence store.  In fact, she sensed my concern and we actually prayed together.  Finally it was time to board.

Let me tell you, our plane was so new I think it just rolled off the assembly line.  Nothing rattled.  Everything was pristine.  There were bells and whistles I hadn’t even thought to wish for – and we were in economy.  Even the food was decent.  I watched a couple of movies.  I was even able to sleep!

So, American Airlines, I know you weren’t losing any sleep over my grudge against you, but I want you to know it’s over now.  I can easily say my best flight ever was on American.  Singapore Air still holds my best-food-on-an-airline award, but the shepherd’s pie on American’s return flight was pretty decent.  (BTW Sing Air, I liked your old paint job better.  This new one is boring.)

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The Packing Predictament

Evening clothes take up a lot of your suitcase

TRAVEL THERE: GETTING IT ALL IN THE LUGGAGE

One of the worst things about this trip was packing for it.  Along with everything else you need for a 16-day trip in a third world country, we needed room for formal wear and lots of gifts.  I needed conservative arm- & leg-covering outfits for the cities and resort wear for beaches.  I got everything in the bags pretty early on the day before we left, but my husband didn’t join me for the weighing ritual until evening.  The lights stayed on pretty late that night.

The Midnight Hysteria

If you have a luggage scale then you know the weighing ritual.  You put everything you need in the bags, strap on the scale and then weigh.  It takes awhile for the scale to register the weight, so I need my husband to hold up the bags while we wait for the scale to do its thing.   Then you know how much you have to take out of the suitcase. We hate this, but as you know, it has to be done.

I started out with one bag weighing right at 50 pounds, but the other bag was more than 10 pounds over.  The first step was to cram even more into the carry-on bags, which were already full of the gifts.  On our last trip to Egypt, our luggage had gotten lost and we’d arrived without any gifts – bad form for Egyptians and I wasn’t going to repeat that mistake.  If nothing else got there, I was going to have the appropriate gifts and because my husband believes presentation is everything, we had gift bags, tissue and ribbon for each one.

What Could We Live Without

To me the greatest weight offender was the three gift-bottles of scotch.  I wasn’t only worried about the weight.  I envisioned suitcases full of scotch-soaked clothing waiting for us on the conveyor belt in Cairo.  I had suggested we pick these gifts up in the duty-free shops of the airport before we ever bought them, but Bill was having none of it.

The main problem with the scotch was that the bottles had to go in the checked luggage, which was already heavy with toiletry bags. I have to admit that my husband, who packs light anyway, was very generous about giving up items I thought were vital for him, like that second pair of jeans, but I resented those bottles of scotch every time I had to remove another item from the suitcase.

There were tears before we were through, but we got it done.  Does anyone besides me remember when you got TWO checked bags per person – even in economy?  The airlines may have downsized their allowances, but my needs have not been reduced.

The Final Verdict

The packing experts brag about cramming everything they need for a month-long trip into a carry-on, but while that method sounds like a good idea to some, I have to remember I’m married to a guy who thinks presentation is everything.  You would not want to travel with me if I had to keep juggling the same two yoga pants and three t-shirts around day after day.  I sort my pictures by what I’m wearing!

There’s one more thing I have to tell you.  I was right about the scotch.  Hubby had been convinced the duty-free shops wouldn’t have the right brand and if they did, the prices would be prohibitive.  Wrong on both counts.  They had exactly what he wanted and the price was good.  So, if you need liquor gifts at your final international destination, go with the duty-free option.  And come back next week for the next step in our jouney.

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Coming Attractions

happy-new-year-sms-message-card_nyztjrgTRAVEL THERE: WHAT’S NEXT!

Just about the time I start to fret and wonder if I’m about to become the unwilling hostage of my pond, the travel gods smile on me and give me a peek into my travel future.  Here’s what 2017 holds for me – so far.

Wichita Falls, Here I Come!

OK, so Wichita Falls in March isn’t all that exciting, but Beth Moore is.  I’ve been enjoying her Bible Studies for almost as long as they’ve been available on video.  Confession, I watched the first one, A Woman’s Heart – God’s Dwelling Place, on VHS.

Perhaps you remember I finally saw the Bible Study Superstar in person in Wichita, Kansas in 2015, on a little road trip with my bestie.  Beth is compelling on video.  In person she’s riveting.  Her road show is called Living Proof Live and this time around I’m upping the ante and will also attend her You Lead training.  I’m about to get Beth-inized!

Bestie is coming along this time too, but I’ll also have a number of my Buffalo Gals Bible Study girls with me.  Road Trip!  Girl’s Trip!  Look out Wichita Falls!

My first visit to the Pyramids

My first visit to the Pyramids

The Big Trip

So, a few months back our nephew, Bassem, proposed to a lovely girl in Egypt.  Hubby made it very clear from the moment the engagement was announced that we would NOT be attending the wedding.  I complied obediently, because I knew the secret weapon was coming to visit in December.  Who could resist Bassem?  He’s as subtle as a freight train and as relentless as a Doberman Pincer, but also completely earnest.

Within 24 hours of his arrival, Bassem had Bill doing a 180 and I’m now researching round-trip airfare to Cairo in April.  I’ll see my first Coptic wedding and attend the reception at one of the famed Fairmonts in Cairo.  The schedule is still being hammered out, but a celebratory family trip to beautiful Sharm El Shiek is on the must-do list, while we juggle other possibilities like a short cruise on the Nile, a day trip to Alexandria and maybe a night at the luxurious Mena House Hotel in the shadow of the Pyramids.

I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I am about this trip.  I was in love with Egypt long before I fell in love with my Egyptian.  I’ve only been there one time before, but it was marvelous.  To return is a dream come true that I never dared to dream.

The Crazy Possibility

That should be enough excitement for anyone, but there is one more little possibility on the horizon.  I may actually have an opportunity to go to the Holy Land in the coming year.  It’s related to the ministry I volunteer with and a zillion things would have to fall into place for it to happen, but it is being discussed and I am keeping my calendar open.  Cross your fingers for me.

So that’s what’s up for 2017.  I have a couple of small trips from 2016 to cover in the next few weeks, but get ready to strap on your seat belt, because this plane is about to take off!

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Chasing Castle Intell

cesky-krumlov-69TRAVEL THERE:  RESEARCHING CESKY KRUMLOV CASTLE

Our day in Cesky Krumlov was one I will long cherish, but Museum Girl was mad at me.  My faithful followers know me and they know that as much as I love to eat, I’m willing to miss a meal in order to visit a good museum (or castle or palace or abbey etc.)  I live for museums.  I have this ever-growing collection of historical and artistic items in my head and one of my main goals in life is to expand it.  On this particular day, I abandoned my prime directive and I’m glad I did, but Museum Girl is still a little miffed.

An Absence of Good Intell

Last week I complimented Viking on their ground game, but I was a little challenged by them on the planning end of things.  Because they know what they’re doing, they don’t spell everything out.  They know things happen when you’re traveling and they don’t want to spend their days making apologies to disgruntled passengers.

This lack of information is probably a blessing to most passengers.  My husband was completely content with the absence of logistical information, but I was a crazy person.  I’m driven by that museum in my head and I carefully curate what I’m going to see.  On this trip, to a certain extent, I had to just let go and follow the guy with red Viking sign.

So in Budapest, I had no clue what spa I’d be visiting until I got on the bus with my fluffy towel.  I’m convinced I was stuck on the castle AND walking tour in Bratislava because the walking-only tour was full.  (Yes, I should have spoken up, but didn’t.)  As I planned for my day in Vienna, discovering where we would dock was like searching for the Holy Grail and even when I got someone to tell me where they usually docked, they were careful to warn me things could change.

Finding out what we’d see of the castle in Krumlov was pretty much the same sort of thing.  The UNESCO website was great, but how Viking plugged into that opportunity was like diving down a black hole.

Bravo Senor Frog!

Bravo Senor Frog!

Kudos to Norwegian

Since I pretty much hated everything about my cruise on Norwegian Epic (except going with my bestie and the day we spent with Sunny Liston, which is still one of my best days EVER) I’m loathe to admit it, but I loved their website.  Well I didn’t love everything about it, because I had some navigation issues, but they did have a section of the site devoted to passengers sharing travel tips.  (Yes, I read them all.)

Norwegian disclaims in large letters these are experiences of past cruisers and things change on every cruise, but I gained great comfort from knowing what usually happened.  I’m well aware things can change (did I hear someone say Josay?), but I like to be ready for what is probably going to happen.  The internet allowed me to research everything about a destination, but Viking kept the details, of exactly what they’re going to show you, pretty close to their vest.

Come back next week and we’ll stroll through the castle grounds.

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Filed under ART, Attractions, DESTINATIONS, International, Museums, Road Trips, TRAVEL, Travel Planning

Cesky Krumlov and the Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

TRAVEL THERE: SOME PLACES SEEM FURTHER AWAY THAN THEY ACTUALLY ARE

“Go” is an important word in my vocabulary.  Whatever the destination, I want to go.  I want to go to Tucumcari and Timbuktu.  I want to go on safari and I want to go shopping.  I want to go on a boat and in a plane.  However, I confess, given the option, I’ll go for the exotic every time.  Maybe not the inconvenient and uncomfortable, but exotic?  I’m all over it.

That’s how I ended up on a cruise visiting Budapest, Bratislava and Cesky Krumlov.  These aren’t cities the majority of American travelers visit, so they were ever so much more interesting to me.  I was particularly interested in Cesky Krumlov.

I Remember Czechoslovakia

Though there is nothing new under the sun, this old world has changed a lot since I was a kid.  I grew up thinking of gray-suited Soviet bureaucrats, each with a finger on the nuclear red button, as the bad guys.  Nowadays the bad guys wear turbans and are more likely to have dirty bombs than an ICBM.  I also grew up with a country named Czechoslovakia being mentioned on the nightly news.  That’s back when a guy in Poland, named Lech Wałęsa, was causing a lot of headaches for those guys with the red button.

In my twenties I was a regular visitor to West TX on Labor Day.  This charming little town, which is actually in Central TX, has a festival that celebrates all things Czech – especially kolaches and polka music. I crushed on one of the local folk dancers, lived from year to year with dreams of potato pancakes with brats and thought Brave Combo was one of the coolest bands ever.  (I’m over my crush, but I still love Brave Combo.  I still love the kolaches, too, but rarely allow myself the indulgence.)

When I first read Viking’s Danube Waltz itinerary, the inclusion of the Czech Republic gave me pause.  The last time I checked, the Danube didn’t visit Czechoslovakia  the Czech Republic.  Closer inspection revealed Cesky Krumlov would be reached by a bus trip from the dock in Linz.  That made more sense.

3l-x-6Other Viking Options

Perhaps exotic is not your thing.  If so, Viking has you covered.  If bus trips don’t do it for you, then cruisers are welcome to enjoy a walking tour in Linz.  I must warn you however,  if you take the walking tour, someone could get a picture of you on this obnoxious yellow tram.  I think it’s important for you to realize this.  The memory stick of photos we purchased on the cruise included a series of these tram pictures, some of them with close-ups.  Tourists beware!

If bus trips aren’t your problem, but you’ve never wandered around Austria, then there’s a shore excursion touring  the countryside around Linz and I would heartily recommend it.  Austria is gorgeous, especially when you get away from the big cities and wander the verdant farmlands dotted with small towns and onion-domed churches.  Having had the opportunity to do that, I knew I had to hit Cesky Krumlov.  On the other hand, having wandered the verdant farmlands dotted with small towns and onion-domed churches, it was very tempting to enjoy it again.

Let me tell you about the third option which was enjoyed by a number of my fellow cruisers.  I think they are crazy, but perhaps you’ll like their option.  We were on the boat with people who never never disembarked between the embarkation in Budapest and the final destination.  One of them was a delightful lady in a wheelchair and I got her.  She had no desire to maneuver her very cool motorized wheelchair through the streets of Europe, but she was so happy for her husband to have the opportunity.  She was petted and cooed over by the staff, and it was apparent she was thoroughly enjoying herself.

Welcome to Aqauvit Terrace!

Welcome to Aqauvit Terrace!

But she wasn’t alone with the crew on the boat during the day and the rest of her tribe wasn’t wheelchair-bound.  They just didn’t like all that shore excursion stuff.  They were having the time of their lives.  They’d gaily wave adios to their disembarking traveling companions in the morning and I have no idea how they occupied themselves while we were gone, but come lunch time they had the best seats in the dining room all filled up.  If there were afternoon shore excursions, they’d repeat the fond farewell of the morning and when we came back in the evening, they staked out the Aquivit Terrace as their own.  Fat chance having a drink on the bow if you didn’t have friends among the these shore excursion dropouts.

So, let me urge you, if your significant other is just dying to go on a cruise and the thought of enduring days and days of shore excursions makes you a little crazy, so ahead and go on a cruise.  You can go on a cruise, never leave the boat, and still have a great time.  Your cruise-loving companion will love you for it.

Well, we didn’t quite get to Cesky Krumlov, so I guess you’ll just have to come back next week.  See you then!

 

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Hotel Reservations the Old-Fashioned Way

holiday inn imagesTRAVEL BUG TALES: WHAT? NO EXPEDIA!!

Expedia and Trip Advisor are my friends.  Trivago and Kayak are my allies.  It’s no wonder people used to rely so heavily on travel agents.  Many more either stayed home or bunked with relatives.  Heading out on the road was scary.  Even with pictures and reviews available on the internet, I’ve ended up in some strange accommodations.  What my mom pulled off with Mobil Guides, her letter-writing campaigns and a few phone calls was amazing.

From Investigations to Reservations

Over several months of research, Mom’s itinerary would come together.  She and Dad would map out our route and decide where along the way we’d need to spend the night.  Then Mom would hit the Mobile Guide.

Back in those days there were not a million hotel chains with a gazillion locations.  You basically had three types of places to stay.  The top tier was the first class resorts and hotels.  Those were a bit beyond our budget.  The bottom tier was the mom-and-pop locally owned hotels and they could be a real adventure.  Everything else was pretty much Holiday Inn or Best Western.

Mom was all about Holiday Inn, but in those days there was no 1-800-HOLIDAY.  I can’t say for sure whether Mom actually made reservations for all our stops or not.  I know she didn’t when we made the trek back and forth between Georgia and Texas, because some of dad’s spontaneous choices were the reason she got Mobil Guides in the first place.  I do however know for our 1969 vacation she did make some reservations, namely in D.C. and Williamsburg, but it seems they also depended a little bit on luck.

See, you couldn’t check your GPS for traffic or TXDOT for detours.  Mom had to build room for ooops into her itinerary.  The speed limit on interstates back in those days was in the 80’s, so as long as you could travel on one of those you were golden, but there weren’t as many interstates in those days.  You also had to use state roads or farm-to-market routes and no one knew what that would lead to.

Construction was a nightmare.  Signage was iffy.  Detours were awful.  Dad once missed the sign to get back on our route and we traveled at least an hour out of the way.  Our travel days always began at the crack of dawn and Dad would call a halt before he had to drive in rush hour traffic.  With all these variables, we’d just keep an eye out for the next Holiday Inn.

The Reservation Process

I mentioned a few weeks ago Master Card and Visa were still in the future back in those days.  American Express and Diners Club were still in their infancy and middle class folks like my parents didn’t have them.  So when Mom did make reservations it was somewhat of a challenge.

To make a guaranteed hotel reservation you had to send a check or money order.  One of the benefits of the Mobil Guide was reservation procedures were often listed in the guide.  You could always call, but it was a long distance call and your reservation wasn’t guaranteed until they had the money in hand.  So, in much the same way that Mom solicited travel information, she utilized snail mail to get her hotel reservations.

Dear Sirs: Please find enclosed a check in the amount of $X to reserve a standard room with two double beds on June 3, 1969.  There will be two adults and two children in our party.  Also enclosed is a stamped self-addressed envelope for your letter of confirmation. Sincerely, Ruth Cave  

I remember the excitement we felt as the letters of confirmation arrived to be a few notches above what we expressed when travel brochures arrived.  The brochures just meant we were thinking about visiting.  Letters confirming hotel reservations meant we were actually going.

Are you loving your online reservations yet?  Let’s start traveling next week.

 

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