Sunday, January 17, 2016

10 Tips for Budget Travel

Two years ago I stopped making new year's resolutions and instead decided to start making a travel wish list and the results have been amazing. In the past couple of years I've been able to:
- Visit the Taj Mahal under a full moon, experience Holi, see the Venice of India and spend spiritual time in Varanasi
- See where the Monarch butterflies go for the winter, discover the amazing city of Guanajuato, eat some incredible food (street food too) and finally see Freda Khalo's home in Mexico
- Relax and enjoy time on the French Riviera
- Spend spring break in St. Petersburg. Not Florida,...Russia
- Vacation in Ireland
- Watch the sun rise and set in the Sahara Desert in Morocco
- Enjoy a weekend in Montreal, Canada.
Three years ago I was inspired by a young friend who in our conversation as I was daydreaming out loud about being able to see the Taj Mahal simply said, "you are never going to go until you buy a ticket."  It hit me like a bolt of lightening.  From that day on I made up my mind to actually work to fulfill my travel dreams. Now I don't just dream about travel. I buy my ticket.
Do you daydream about traveling?  If so this post is for you. Today I want to share a few of my budget tips to help you make your travel dreams come true.  If you are a luxury traveler you can stop reading here.

Getting Started
I've found it really helpful to make a list of places in the world that I'd like to see. One thing I don't do is lock in to any one destination, ever. Sales pop up all the time and my goal is to find one of my destinations on sale. I am a loyal Delta traveler so I keep up with their sales and I use the Kayak EXPLORE feature to be able to track where the best prices can be found. Have you played around with the EXPLORE feature?  Love it.

 I take advantage of Delta Vacations - a lot.  Our trip to Nice, France and our summer trip to Ireland were all thanks to incredible packages put together by Delta Vacations. And when I say great, I do mean great.  It is so hard to believe that the vacation package to Nice which included hotel stay in a 4-star hotel and airfare was $998!  Yes, you read that correctly.  Our trip to Ireland was $200 more but we were traveling during the peak summer season so the added cost was to be expected.  Delta vacations won't work for every trip but if you plan to use one city as a base, the package deals can save you a boatload of money.
Guanajuato Mexico
Figure out the most expensive cities to fly into and don't go there!  Some cities like London are always expensive to visit because of various taxes. But is there a way to access London from another UK or European city? Flexibility is key to be able to maximize your travel experience, your time and most of all, your budget.

And be sure to keep up with economic news and monitor the exchange rate. I use which has a tab to also provide historical data. When the economy is in your favor, take advantage of it.

Speaking of the news, watch international news for inspiring places to visit and for world news.  We are huge fans of BBC International and Al-Jazeera America (sad to see it go).  I feel I'm a much better ambassador for my country if I'm informed and have a broader understanding of the world.
Got My Ticket, Now What?
I'm typically not a traveler who wants to be part of a tour group and I really enjoy spending time learning about the target destination and detailing out an itinerary. For me it is part of the journey and I will spend hours combing websites and reading through travel forums to help with the planning. But I've learned that sometimes I need help. Some traveler friends use agencies to help them with their journeys but when I've needed help my best sources of information have been friends who've already been to the target country.  Don't get me wrong, agencies can be great and most of my friends who have used agencies do so because they don't have the time to do the research but that is a part of the journey that I love.  Calling on friends who've recently traveled makes the planning process more fun. Friends are usually very excited to share their travel knowledge, connections and photos. When planning my trip to India I was determined to do it alone but after two months of lunches with friends it became apparent that help was needed.  Lucky for me my husband's cousin leads tour groups on trips to India and she connected me with an Indian tour company that was incredible.  Last year I spent 2 months emailing tour companies in Morocco to find a company that would let me customize our trip and luckily we found a small family-owned group that not only let us customize our journey, they are now like extended family (seriously, we have our own private Whats App chat group)!
Study up on the foods and local places before you travel and try to keep an open mind. I heard nothing but bad things about Russian food before I left for St. Petersburg last year and got there and loved it! The Georgian food was a complete surprise and absolutely delicious.  Locals are an incredible resource.  I love seeing the sights, learning new things and meeting the people but I absolutely love trying new food. Instead of taking a cooking class (travel cooking classes are expensive) ask some of the locals for recipes. One of my favorite things to do is to bring my travels back home and being able to cook some of my favorite foods allows me bring the trip home.

Four years ago we went to Italy and stayed in a B&B in a tiny town on the hilltop above Positano. Believe me, it was such an affordable stay.  And the restaurant in our tiny hilltop village invited us to join mama in the kitchen to make pasta!  Now THAT was a cooking lesson and we didn't pay a thing.

Developing Budget Travel Tips
I follow travel bloggers and subscribe to various travel publications to continuously learn about destinations around the globe.  I also try to connect with other travelers when I travel. Travelers from other parts of the world have some great suggestions for on the ground discounts, locally owned companies and cost-savings we might not hear about.  Do your homework before you go to determine ground transportation options. On our recent trip to Ireland at the last minute we decided to rent a car.  I located a local Irish car company that cost us under $100 (with insurance).  In Mexico some of my most memorable experiences have
been taking the local bus to get from city-to-city. What you probably don't want to do is wait until you get there to figure it out.  Sometimes that can work but not planning tends to be a lot more costly and can sometimes throw your travel schedule off course.
Oh the cafes of Montreal!
My best advice is spend time exploring online, monitor prices and take advantage of the readily available travel forums for some current cost-saving ideas.

Try to be flexible.  This is the most important tip of all. Travel means things will be different and being flexible can help you enjoy your trip, even when things go wrong.  My husband and I arrived in Casablanca this fall expecting to take a three hour train ride to get to Marrakesh. We were departing Marrakesh early the next morning.  Unfortunately the train was delayed for hours and by 7 o'clock that night we were panicked about how we would make it.  Luckily we met the NICEST young woman who helped us get to the train station, bought us dinner and made sure we arrived safely. We couldn't thank her enough.  Had it not been for her kindness and our flexibility, I would have ended up paying about $600 for a driver to get us there. Instead, it cost us $22.

Learning About Places
Don't let the news scare you too much.  Yes, there is evil in the world but the more I travel the more I realize that most people everywhere want the same things I do - a happy life.  And, remember there are so many more amazing places in the world that just Europe.  Don't get me wrong, Europe is beautiful but the world is full of beautiful places! On recent trips I've met a traveler returning from Iran, another from Rwanda who just returned from a visit with the Silverback Gorillas and a member of the Masaai tribe who lives in the U.S. for six months of the year but returns home for six months each year so that he can maintain his tribal status. I've been inspired to meet numerous workers with NGOs doing incredible work around the globe. I was moved to tears to spend an hour in a waiting area visiting with the sister of a gentleman who was on the MH17 Malaysia Air plane crash and completely amazed by the secretary I met who lives in DC but has spent the last 4 years making frequent trips to France. A secretary by day, yes, but in partnership with a local book store she is soon to launch her travel company leading French tours.  How's that for a fun retirement at the age of 63?

About two years ago my husband and I would wake up early on Sunday morning to watch a beautiful travel series called World From Above.  It was incredibly beautiful and I added so many experiences to my travel wish list. Because of this travel program I made it a point to travel to the Balkan sea and bought a beautiful keepsake piece of amber.

And my best piece of advice - Start planning your next trip before you return from your current trip. I got a few things lined up for the first quarter of the year.  Because of my travel wish list I was able to get some budget travels booked last fall.

Good luck with your travel planning.  If you ever want to share experiences let me know.  I'm always happy to share my tips and I love learning from other travelers. I would love to hear from you.

Bon voyage!

Friday, January 1, 2016

Things I Loved About 2015

Looking back the year went by so quickly but it was packed with travel, fun with friends and family, full of memories including some big moments and professional growth.  As New Year's Eve edged closer I was a bit melancholy wishing things would slow down so that I could take in just a few more moments of a great year but at the same time I was feeling so grateful for every opportunity in 2015.

Blogging - As I sat down to write this post I also realized how long it has been since I added anything to my blog. 2015 was crazy busy so posting fell by the wayside but I'm very proud to say that most mornings I'm up at 5:00am so that I can read posts from some of my favorite bloggers like Rhoda, Susan, Lorrie, Sue, Penny, Pat, Sarah, Bethany, Shannon, Lynne, Jilly, Robin, Joanne, Linda, Jennifer, Lynne, Carolyn and so many more. I might not leave you a comment but believe me I keep up with you.  Susan I loved your Africa photos, Pat, I hope you are feeling better soon.  Jilly, I swear that I will meet you in person one of these days. Sarah, I love all of the beauty you add to every day living. Lorrie, you amaze me with all that you find time for in a day. 
I started blogging in 2007 for fun and to connect with others.  Many of the bloggers I read and follow have gone on to be full-time influencers and it has been exciting and amazing to witness.  This year I became very close friends with one blogger whom I met online in 2008.  She isn't able to blog at the moment but I'm hoping one day she can. She has an amazing gift with food that needs to be shared.  One of my best blog discoveries this year is Beth's blog at Style at a Certain Age.  I LOVE HER BLOG and it has been so exciting to be able to enjoy a blog that is age appropriate with a wardrobe that takes you from Target to Talbot's.  
Travel - 2015 helped me mark a few more destinations off my bucket list.  This year's travels took me to: Portland, Hollywood, Detroit, Baltic Sea, St. Petersburg, Russia, Ireland, Montreal and Morocco.  These last four destinations had been on my list for years so it was great to be able to finally see and experience these places in person.   In 2015 it was exciting to take my first solo trip.  I travel solo for work so I'm accustomed to making business trips alone but until September 2015 I'd never taken a pleasure trip alone but I loved it! 
There were a few highlights and observations that I'd like to share.  
- Spent a day with the crew of Turner Classic Movies 
- Went up to the top of Mt. Hood 
- Walked along the Hollywood Walk of Fame
- Saw Diego Rivera's mural in Detroit - a must-see
- Honored to escort my daughter-in-law for her Master Sgt. stripe
- Attended the most beautiful Indian wedding and wore a saree - loved it!!!
- Graduated from the FBI Citizen's Academy
- Visited gorgeous St. Petersburg; the people are charming and the food is great
- Saw a Russian Ballet at the Marinsky
- Bought an amber bracelet from a shop located near the Baltic Sea
- Proud to have survived the boat ride to the Aran Islands (and I didn't throw up either)
- Loved everything about Ireland but especially the people and the music
- Enjoyed authentic Poutin (and it was delicious)
- Traveled alone; spent a weekend in Montreal by myself
- Walked 22,000 steps in a day in Montreal
- Camped in the Sahara desert - an unforgettable life moment 
- Finally visited Morocco, toured the Draa Valley and visited an oasis 
- Gained an adopted son, Bachir and a daughter, Jihan in Morocco
Family - Big things happened this year.  My oldest son deployed and was gone for almost 8 months. When family members deploy, military families help each other.  His absence was sad, and hard at times, but it also gave us as a family the opportunity to do things like take my granddaughter to summer camp and take my oldest granddaughter to NY to celebrate her 13th birthday.  My youngest son got married so we gained a daughter and celebrated a bilingual wedding. It was beautiful and exciting to continue to grow as a family.  My daughter's band made some big stops on tours this year including Red Rocks and Bonnaroo but I was most excited that their travels also brought them to Atlanta twice.  The older my children get the harder it becomes to get us all in the same place at the same time.  It happened twice this year and I've got a couple of photos to prove it! I also got to see my Goddaughter who lives in Seattle. They came to visit this summer so we had time together. A very special moment indeed.

Work - Yes it seems to get harder and some days it seems I just can't keep up with all that must be done or that I hope to get done.  We all continue to do more with less and some days it gets stressful but I love my work.  I love what I do, the people I work with and I especially love the outcomes.  Over the holidays one of the clients I've worked with and become very personally involved with sent me an incredible gift.  When I called to thank her and to sincerely say that she needn't buy me anything she reminded me that she send me a gift because she was grateful.  I cried.

Friends - It seems there is never enough time for gathering with friends but this year I was able to connect with few friends that grew up with but hadn't seen since the 70's.  That is no typo - yes, the 70's.  It was great and while one of the friend visits was because of a loss, it was still wonderful to be able to spend time together.  Our hometown has always had a lot of talent and beauty. In fact the current Miss America is from my hometown. This summer a group of talented alums from one of the high schools put together an amazing show. I had a blast seeing so many friends from the past and the show was fabulous.  Now we are all waiting for the next big performance. Dub?

Hobbies and Book Clubs - There just aren't enough hours in the day but somehow I manage to find time for the movies, all things French and my book club. I've been in two book clubs but one book club seems to be fading away while the other continues to inspire me.  
Favorite book of 2015  - All the Light We Cannot See 
Favorite movie of 2015 - Trumbo
Memorable moment - Walking in silence with the French community following the Charlie Hebdo attack. I love being a part of the Alliance Francaise d'Atlanta
Special highlight - Being a VIP attendee at the Atlanta Downton Abbey Premiere Party

As the year ends and as the new year begins I can't help but be overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. Today I hope to find the time to revise my travel bucket list, update my reading list, watch a little tv and set a few goals. I'm also taking time to be still and get centered. I'm looking forward to writing some new and exciting chapters in my life's book in the coming year and I sincerely hope to do more blogging. Happy New Year.

Monday, September 7, 2015

How to Enjoy an Amazing Long Weekend in Ireland!

This year hasn't given me many breaks but thankfully back in January we booked the most amazing trip which turned into a long weekend getaway at the end of August.

Last week we went to Ireland!   I worked from 7:30 - 2:30 on Wednesday, then ran home to take a shower and made it to the airport by 4:00 to be ready for our 5:50 flight.  Typically I'm not one for packing those neck pillows but because we only had Thursday - Saturday to do our sightseeing so I needed to be rested and ready to tour as soon as we hit the ground. Pillow in the backpack...check!  This trip I packed really light with just a small carry-on bag and of course packing a sturdy pair of walking shoes.  We arrived in Shannon by 10:00 on Thursday morning, picked up our rental car (one of the bravest things we've ever done) and set out to see County Clare.

Day 1 - Our first stop was Bunratty Castle and Folk Park and it was a perfect start to the trip after such a long flight.  We walked the grounds saving the climb up in the castle until the end.  By the time we finished it was lunchtime so we headed over to Gallaghers before driving on to Ennis.
Maybe I'm in the minority but flipping my driving mindset from L-R to driving R-L would be impossible but my husband was agreeable to handle the driving, provided I made no sounds while he was at the wheel.  Leaving Shannon it was a big deal to adjust differences.  Little did I know the driving would be even more challenging over the next few days with all those narrow country roads but now that we are home I'm so glad we had a car and that my husband was willing to handle the driving.

We arrived in Ennis and after circling many blocks several times we finally found our hotel AND the hotel parking lot.  We spent our days at the Old Ground Hotel and it was wonderful.  We had a suite which was fabulous (thank you Delta vacations).  The hotel is right in town so the location is perfect and it also has great restaurants and a top-rated pub.

We ended the day with Irish music at Cruises Pub.

Day 2 - Friday morning we got up early and hit the road.  We were headed for the Cliffs of Moher and were encouraged that even though it was overcast, there was no rain.  That is until we got to the Cliffs.   As soon as we stepped out of the car it started sprinkling and by the time we got on the walking trail it was pouring.  We were drenched but we continued our walk. Seeing the cliffs in the rain, with crashing waves, winds and heavy clouds, gave the scenery a haunting appearance and it made the walk more beautiful.  We stopped in to the cafe and had some tea before heading to Doolin.
From Doolin we waited at the port to catch a boat to the Inis Oirr, the smallest of the Aran Islands.  Our boat ride was the scariest, most turbulent ride ever and I'm not exaggerating or kidding about this.  We were not asked to wear life jackets but I spotted their location and had we capsized I was going to be ready.  There were so many distractions - people throwing up and working as hard as I could to hold on to my seat actually made me feel like I was holding on for dear life. We had windows from our seating but all we could see was crashing waves. Luckily it was only a 35 minute ride and soon we were on the dock, the sun was out and we were seeing a dolphin!  Apparently Dusty Springfield's ashes were strewn near the Cliffs and shortly afterwards "Dusty" the dolphin made an appearance and now stops in every day to visit with visitors and natives alike.

We spent the day with a local man touring Inis Oirr.  It is a beautiful island and we saw St. Kevin's Church, the O'Brien Fort, the Plassey shipwreck, the Holy well, the lighthouse, the handicraft workshop and much more.  And we got to enjoy one of the best bowls of seafood chowder ever!  After a full afternoon of walking the island it was time to get back on that boat and face the rough sea and another boat of seasick passengers.

That night back in Enis we made another trip to Cruises for some Irish music.

Day 3 - Again we got an early start and hit the road in search of faeries and the Burren.  Okay, I knew I was pushing my luck to think that I would see the faeries but I was eager to see a ring fort and was hoping to spy a faerie too.  Along the way we stopped at the Burren visitor center to learn a bit more about the land and nature before heading to the stone fort. At the fork in the road where we were to turn was a beautiful abandoned castle called Leamaneh so of course we had to stop for photos.  I later learned that the fireplace in our hotel was removed from the castle and installed at Old Ground.  Driving on we finally arrived at Caherconnell Stone Fort and enjoyed taking in the beauty of the landscape as well as learning about the excavations.  We took some time to enjoy the sheepdog demonstration which was an added bonus before heading up the road to Poulnabrone.
Poulnabrone looks huge in photos that I'd seen but it is not that big really but it was eerily beautiful to see the stones mounted in the midst of nothing but stone.  On the drive back to Ennis we stopped to see the Kilnaboy Church with its round tower.

One thing I've failed to share is that at every stop we just took in the views.  The landscape is so beautiful and so perfect that it almost doesn't seem real.  We decided that on our last day we needed to see the Ennis Friary and needed to enjoy some time in Ennis.  The town has lots of shops, cafes and a lovely river.  It seemed like a perfect way to slow down and relax and it was.  By late afternoon we decided to go back to our hotel to sit in the garden and have a tea.  It was amazing to enjoy a wedding and sunshine!  The garden was filled with love, flowers, friends and family celebrating the marriage.  As the sun went down it only seemed right that we return to Cruises for our last night of Irish music.
As we headed out to the airport I couldn't help but think about this trip as perfect.  We saw so many things but had plenty of time to relax and visit with people.  In fact, I felt right at home.  People were so friendly and welcoming making our visit even more memorable.

I don't know if I'll make it back to Ireland any time soon but I can honestly say it was one of my favorite trips and I sincerely hope to visit again. Delta Vacations helped me put this trip together and while it was short, it was amazing and affordable.  I'm sold on Delta Vacations.  

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Where Has the Summer Gone?

I just realized how long it has been since my last post and I can't believe it!  But I've got several good excuses.  My son got married in July and it has been a whirlwind ever since.

We've had lots of fun family weekends.  Just ask me how many times I've played Apples - to - Apples.  

And then then there were more gatherings and outings (I just love how my niece manages to be the most sophisticated at her most playful moments)!

Two of my nieces and their kids

And of course there was a lot of work and some volunteer fun. 

Then there was back-to-school shopping. 

Even though school has started, thank goodness summer is still with us and I'm hoping to enjoy it for as long as possible.  It is by far my favorite season.  I hope your summer is bringing you joy.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Fun in Columbus, Georgia!

Flag waving in downtown Columbus
My niece was in the Miss Georgia's Outstanding Teen Pageant so I had the good fortune of going down and spending a few days in Columbus, Georgia.
Mel with her best friend
The Miss Georgia pageant has been held in Columbus for as long and I can remember though until my niece became involved in the pageant I'd never had an overnight stay in the city.  I'm hear to tell you that Columbus is great.

I was able to do some interesting work while visiting the city which was actually quite fascinating.  Our firm is helping with a really timely project called Race, Law and Law Enforcement and I had volunteered to conduct some interviews and it just so happened there were candidates willing to be interviewed living in Columbus.  It was an unusal way to be introduced to some of the local people while at the same time, very interesting. As much as I was helping, I felt like I learned a lot.

 My hotel was located in the downtown which happens to have lots of shops, restaurants, a riverwalk and on Saturdays a fantastic farmers' market not to mention that it is right in the historic district so there are lots of beautiful homes nearby.

In the afternoon I managed to walk about 3 miles but who wouldn't? The scenery was lovely!

  Did you know that you can go whitewater rafting in Columbus?  And if you cross the bridge you enter Alabama!

I ended up buying a mess of purple hull peas at the market.  They are my favorite and when the afternoon heat got to be too much it was nice to sit in my hotel room and shell peas.  (I bet the cleaning ladies got a kick out of the trash I left behind)!
We were the cheerleaders!!!
My grandgirl came down to enjoy the pageant so it was fun to be able to have play time after everything was over.

Columbus is a beautiful city and after conducting interviews I decided it is a really friendly city. Most of the time I'm rushing around to get to wherever it is I need to be but it was really nice to slow down and enjoy a city in this great country of ours.  We've got some great towns, great people and lots to be explored.  Happy 4th to those who are celebrating.